The girl took the dog by the scruff of his neck and sent him trotting down the road, kicking up dust in the noontime sun. She came down off the porch and made to follow him before she turned and said, “I ain’t the only one that knows you’re here, Jacob. Let that be known to you.”
He kept his hands on his hips and stretched his toes over the side of the step he was on and didn’t answer her. He watched her walk away. She still hadn’t put on her shoes, but her dress had dried to the point that it came away from her hips and almost covered her cracking ankles. Her hair flailed at wide angles like she’d just come away from a solid night of sleeping on her back. When she went around the bend a hundred or so yards down the way and he was satisfied she wasn’t going to change her mind and come back up, he coughed and spit in the yard and turned back into the house.
He’d been afraid for two days to come near enough to the overgrown fish tank against the back wall of the living room to see into it more clearly. It dispensed an odor of ammonia against the paneling and out into the room, and the sides were caked so darkly with mildew that all he could make out inside were the edges of sticks jagging and scratching at the smothering shit that blacked out the interior. He found a reasonably clean dishrag underneath the sink and tore it into a pair of strips, tied them together at the ends and wrapped the whole thing around his mouth and nostrils and stuck his tongue between two layers to prove to himself that he could breathe from his mouth if he had to. Then he propped the front door open with a screwdriver, crouched to wrap his arms around the tank, and wedged his way outside. He threw the whole apparatus out onto the lawn. The glass shattered and its dust wound up from the grass like smoke.
He saw the bones of a snake cocked oddly, like a snapped cable, before he got to the bulk of the mess, where the bones of a half dozen more wrapped around each other, the mottled leftovers of the harem of the devil. He picked one up by the head and knew then that they were all the remains of copperheads, common around here, but deadly, loathed. He pitched it back to the ground and its fangs caught in the leaves of a sapling tree and swayed there like a hanged man in a decent wind. There were no plastic caves to decorate the tank, no fake trees or lava rocks. Just the sticks and the bones, the filthy, stinking bones.
The rest of the afternoon he fortified the trailer as best he could by setting bottles behind the doors and wedging sticks into the window frames. He moved the mattress back to the bedroom, where he’d found it, away from the kitchen and the direct line of fire between its side wall and the living room floor. It was wetter and darker in the bedroom, but it could possibly be more defensible – when he went to sleep at night he’d shove the chest of drawers in front of the door and tuck the pistol under his pillow. When he went back to the kitchen he kicked the buckshot into a corner and for the first time he was nervous enough to think about leaving, but he knew he couldn’t.
He had trouble sleeping. He thought about the girl, Sadler, her wet hair and her dress with the sunflowers on its neck, her mountain accent and her sharp, hawkish eyes. He thought about his dead wife, about her arms crossed around her own chest and her thin eyelids covering her dead white eyes. If only those eyelids would flutter, he thought, and we could go back to the days and weeks before. At the burial the priest had said “If God is for us, who is against us?” Romans chapter eight, verse thirty-one. For the first couple hours of darkness, he sat cross-legged, leaning against the wall, holding the barrel of the revolver with the fingertips of one hand and the handle with the palm of the other.
That night the forest exploded with gunfire and Jacob woke with his pillow covering his head and the muzzle of the .44 aimed at the bridge of his nose. He rose to his knees and grabbed it and cocked it in one motion. Another shot, and what sounded like aluminum cans rattling in the kitchen. He pulled the stick out of the window frame, figuring the shooting was coming from the opposite side of the trailer, and opened the window a couple of inches. Another shot. He tried to swallow enough spit to wet his throat to the point where he could yell out. When he did, all he could think to say was, “Stop, goddammit, stop!”
He sunk to his tailbone and tried to pull his head back away from the window, the pistol shaking and drawn up beside his ear. The woods paused a beat, were still, and the voice of a boy called out, “Who’s in there?”
“Just stop shooting,” Jacob called back. His voices came back a dozen at a time from down the river valley. “Don’t fucking kill me.” He realized he was crying, weeping, and his whole body was pulling in on itself like an explosion desperate for oxygen.
“I ain’t shooting no more. What’re you doing up in there?”
Jacob licked tears off his top lip and chuckled, nervous to the point of falling apart. “Trying to get some sleep,” he said.
The boy in the woods stopped talking for a bit, but Jacob could hear kindling snapping under his footsteps as he came up the footpath from the road and across the face of the trailer. Quietly, quickly, Jacob planted the heels of his hands and vaulted himself across the mattress and opened the door and crouched in the hall. From there he saw the double barrels of a shotgun, the oily blue steel glinting in the moonlight, as the boy slid them between the bedroom window’s sill and the bottom of the sash. Jacob came down the hall in his boxer shorts and turned toward the entryway. He felt himself drawing in air and felt it disperse across his chest and he sucked snot back into his nose and swung the door open and stepped out onto the cold white stoop and aimed the gun directly at the young boy’s head. They were close enough to each other that a shot from either of their weapons would knock both of them from their feet.
The boy turned and looked at Jacob in his underwear, took both of his hands from the shotgun and it dangled there until it came loose from its wedge and slid to the ground, resting for a second on the butt of its stock before it fell over into the leaves. “You’re trespassing,” he said. He looked so young, so young. When Jacob didn’t speak, when he didn’t move, the boy sucked in a breath and cried, “My name’s Lee, and this is my goddamn house.”