After a while, he went inside and clicked on the battery-powered lantern and set it on the railing of the stoop so its thick white light spilled over the better part of the front yard and died, floating, when it reached the heat of the fire. The girl talked about growing up in the hills, being home-schooled by a member of her father’s congregation, a thick old man called Lenny Burr, who had lost sight in one of his eyes when he drank methanol from a hard-up lady’s still, and of her brother’s struggle for an independent way of thinking.
“Independent from our daddy,” she said. She’d struggled on the word independent, had started it as better and gone back. “They don’t get along so well. You know, he still lives down the house and still comes to church and they still hunt together here and there, but it ain’t rare for one or the both of them to come back black and blue.”
When Jacob sat back down it started raining. Thick, tumbling drops of rain. The fire tipped and hissed like a man in chains, and Sadler stood up and jerked her hood over her head and took off running toward the house.
“The truck,” Jacob called after her. “Go for the truck. There’s no place to be in there.” Her sweatshirt pulled up her back and he watched a thin trail of rainwater slide down a line of hairs on her spine and into the waist of her jeans. She scratched at the handle of the truck and jerked it open and dove inside head-first. He jogged up after her, not in any kind of hurry. It had been years since he’d been rained on. He got in and tried to wick the water from his hair.
“Has Lee ever been down off this hill?” he asked her. He dug in the cup holder and found his keys, turned them in the ignition until a cloud of chilly air hit them both in the neck.
“Yeah, of course. He went to junior high school for a couple of years.” She fumbled with the heater knobs, cranked them both to max.
“No way a school bus came out this far.”
She laughed. “No, I don’t think one ever will. He stayed with the Butlers during the week. They live down Renick. Old folks lost their only son in Iraq. The first Iraq. But no, he turned sixteen, dropped right back out. Says growing up with Daddy means you’ve got the genes in you to always know better’n everybody else.” She looked out the window. The rain came and pelted the muddy road, puddles filling and dispatching into the grass. “I reckon he does, too, most times.”
There was a bruise on the back of her neck that he only saw when she turned on the dome light and opened the mirror on the shade and wiped her damp hair back from her forehead. He wanted to ask her about her father and if she ever fought with him too, but he thought better. Could have come from anywhere. Could have fallen off a rock. It wasn’t his business. He didn’t even know her. He didn’t know anything.
The way she moved reminded him of Casey Sheets, a girl he knew in high school, the first one he’d ever tested the L-word out on. Her motions had been graced, but forceful, like she’d been rehearsing everything she ever said and did for years and years just for when the right time came to use them. Her jaw flexed and jerked when she talked. When the heater started working, pearls of sweat sank onto Sadler’s lip as she melted through stories about how she found Bluebeard in a pile of snow after he bounced off the back of a four-wheeler, about how she jogged after the hunter, holding the scruff of the dying dog’s neck in her fingers, about how nobody ever came back looking for him and it’d been six years and they still hadn’t, about Lee being so good a swimmer that he could grab her ankles in knee-deep water and she wouldn’t see him either coming or going, about the time her father had asked her to cut his hair and she’d cut a notch in the top of his ear with a pair of pinking shears.
“What’s it like?” he said.
She stopped talking, took the interruption like its answer had been the next thing on her mind. “What’s what like?”
“Your church. Growing up with a pastor for a daddy. Growing up with, I don’t know, Davy Crockett for a brother?”
She rubbed her forearm furiously on the leg of her jeans. “Poison ivy,” she said. “All day, every day. What’s it like. Well, it’s a lot of singing and dancing. A lot of praising Jesus. Awful lot of that. Daddy’s like any other person’s daddy, I guess. And Lee – well, I’ve got a soft spot in me for a man who can dress a deer right there on the spot where he shot him.”
“Don’t you touch snakes?” he said. It was all he knew about Pentecostals, that it wasn’t all of them but that some of them drank poison and danced with snakes in their arms.
She turned her head to him and looked at him like she did the first time she saw him, down by the river, a hawk who’d finally found its prey but didn’t remember what to do with its instincts. “I have to go now,” she said. “Daddy’ll be getting out of church.”
He turned the engine over. She didn’t deny the ride, but she didn’t say anything else. The rain came like it would come for another forty days.
She lived in a part of the hollow that couldn’t sustain a typical type of road, not even a gravel one. They left the path he’d come in on and turned down toward the river and rolled through cracks in the earth that a man could lay down in. The skinny, naked branches of blackberry bushes scraped down the doors and down the sides of the bed.
“Jesus Christ,” he whispered.
“You got that right,” she whispered back. It was the first thing she’d said in a long while. When she needed him to turn, she’d stretched her bony index finger towards where.
Her house was brown and damp and shoved up against a piece of earth so ugly that not even the clamor of the rainstorm could camouflage its waste. Mining spill. An abandoned excavation. The grayest skies hung over this angle in the mountains. A great wall of orange clay rose up behind it and came over it like a dam that held back the unrelenting forest as best it could.
“Come in easy,” she said. “Daddy and his yard, you know.”
He leaned in and rested his chin on the top of the steering wheel. “Huh. Yeah. I see that.” A brownish light came on and lit the pillars on the porch. “Listen, I’m, uh, I didn’t mean to seem, you know—"
“Don’t be so serious,” she said, unlatching the door and swinging her foot down into the mud. “We’re friends. Friends fuck with each other.”