A mile or so downriver there was a small waterfall that pushed the current around two sides of a diamond-shaped island and on off toward the New at Hinton. Jacob set his pack down at the foot of it and took off his boots and rolled up his jeans and waded in, the cold shock setting his feet quick around the stones at the water’s bottom and drawing his hands in across his crotch, and he tracked the brown leaves hitching lazily down their course to become sediment in some other part of the world.
He threw rocks at floating sticks and pretended they were battleships. Jess had taken fondly to this game. You have to get three direct hits before the ship leaves your sight, or your base will be destroyed. She marveled at his aim. He lost himself trying to throw rocks at things.
When he came back up into the brush and set about walking back toward the trailer, he thought about what kind of people made their homes in woods like this. He’d heard of people who found the hills fertile enough and of sufficient cover to run their drug operations there. Small-timers, by any measure, who sold their weed to teenagers in Lewisburg and Beckley and White Sulphur Springs. They lived in decent log houses with old hot tubs and gardens in the front yards.
All up and down the river, small settlements had emerged where there was land enough between the cliffs and the water to build cottages. Some of the three-room lofts stood on stilts and some of them hung over the current and almost all of them flooded once a year. Their owners came in on one-lane roads and parked and rode their ATVs around in the hills and canoed from one side of the river to the other with their children or their older, less adventurous wives. They called their tiny plots of land “camps” and on Sunday evenings they drove back to Roanoke or Charlottesville.
There was none of that here, though, where the river came so close up on the mountainside that the wake of it would wet the trunks of the trees. Even here was too far out for the pot runners, who wouldn’t be inconvenienced to drive any further than Coleman’s Cliffs or Friars Hill. They knew everyone knew they were out there, they knew everyone knew what they did for a living, but they paid their taxes, and that was saying a lot in Greenbrier County. This place was something totally different. A different sort of hideout. A more desperate kind of fugitive would have taken this land.
The girl showed up again in the evening while Jacob was outside rebuilding his fire. He threw the bits of the aquarium into the makeshift fire ring he’d built from pieces of cinder block and larger rocks that had rolled down against the back of the house. The fire lit her from the knees up, and he could see she was wearing jeans and an old blue sweater. Her blond hair was wrapped around in a bun that set tight at the back of her head. He stopped poking at the fire, threw his stick into it, and slapped his hands together to clear them of soot. She looked clean and rigid. Her cheekbones caught more firelight than the rest of her face.
“Howdy, stranger,” he said.
“Lee told me he almost killed you. I came up to make sure you weren’t bleedin’ out in a corner somewhere.” She smiled and tucked a stray clump of hair behind her ear.
“Where you coming from?”
“Service just ended. Everybody else is still down at the house, but I figured I’d slip a short bath and go for a walk. They’re playing music. Will be all night.”
He asked her what kind of services they held in the Charismatic faith.
She looked away and put her hands on her hips and came back around to him and breathed deeply through the wood smoke and the crisp air. She smiled. “Like nothin’ you ever seen.”
When he looked at her, he saw a communion of different parts from different people he had once known. It was as though her face was continually, but gradually, shifting, that her eyes would be Jessica’s eyes one minute and his mother’s the next, that her long, bony hand brushing her hair away would be his grandfather’s hand, smoothing his mustache across his lip with the back of a wetted thumb. While the fire flicked across her, he saw a thousand vague differences in who this girl was or might have been and she was everyone he’d ever loved and he knew it.
“Pastor Thorne asked about you this evening,” she said.
“Wanted to know who was squatting up here, so I told him.”
“What did he say?”
“Well, I told him that you were a lonely man with a broke heart, and that you needed a little of God’s country to set your mind at ease, and you couldn’t hardly set up a hammock in the middle of October.” She stuck the palms of her hands out over the orange fire, gripped her long fingers into fists and stretched them back out like a magician. “He says as long as you don’t mess around with nothin’ and you keep relatively quiet, you can stay as long as you need.”
She helped him drag the bench seat out of the back of the truck and they set it on the lawn in front of the fire and they put their feet on the cinder block ring and watched the wingtip lights of planes ferrying unknown travelers from one place on this side of the Appalachians to the next place on the other side. He folded his hands on his chest and she kept hers in her lap, fingers intertwined. He asked her how come she’d ended up out here in this mess of ferns and moss and poison oak.
“My daddy moved us out here just after Lee was born. I was seven. We used to live in the town of Jolo, which there ain’t nothing really there except a little post office and a set of railroad tracks they don’t use no more. But I went to regular school for three years, I had enough time to make some friends, go to sleepovers, and I saw a couple of movies in Princeton, which is something my daddy never knew nothing about. We came out here after my momma died of a heart attack. She was forty-six years old.” Her head was nodded down on her chest and her gaze shot out at the tips of the flames. When Jacob looked at her he saw the fire dancing back and forth across her eyes. She looked hypnotized, like a beast in a trance, a pitiful angel who could see through the night and come out in daylight while the world behind her slept.