Saturday, January 9, 2010

Chapter Six

The boy’s chest expanded with strength and collapsed back in on itself and his cheeks were damp and shining. He stared back at Jacob, who faced him sideways, whose gun shook in his hand as he brought it back down to his hip.
     “Take a step back from that window,” said Jacob. The boy Lee did as he was told and Jacob licked the sweat from his lip. “Now take another,” he said.
     When the boy took the second step his boot crushed into the pile of serpent bones and glass shards and the skeletons cracking made a sound like tearing denim. He bent and lifted a rack of ribs between two fingers, brought it close to his face and tossed it back down. “This the cage that was inside there?”
     “It is. How do you know this house?”
     The boy's eyes went to his shotgun laying in the brush, then to the pistol in Jacob’s hand, and then up and around the eaves and the spouts that hung from the loose gutters. “Used to spend a lot of time here,” he said. “Lived here once. It’s mine now, and you’re intruding.”
     Jacob could see the woods getting brighter behind the boy and down over the side of the hill. His eyes were adjusting to the soft moonlight, and he saw more of the boy’s features than he could before. His chest looked strong and thick, as did his arms, and though his face looked young under a dirty ball cap, Jacob guessed he was in his middle teens and had probably lived his life running loudly through these trees.
     “You the one that’s been shooting through the wall?”
     “When I saw someone was here I figured the old man had come back and I been trying to kill that feller for years and years. I figured if he’s in there, he’s settin’ right there at that kitchen table, drinking, always like that he was drinking, and I could blow his head off without ever even havin’ to look at him.”

     Jacob came down off the porch and walked partway across the yard in his bare feet. He pointed his gun at the boy again and told him to pick his shotgun up and take out the shells and put them in his pocket. Again the boy did as he was told. He left the barrels broken open and rested the weapon in the bend of his elbow.
     “You haven’t been back here in a while?” Jacob said.
     “No, I don’t come back here unless I have to.”
     “Just the last couple of days?”
     “Like I said already. This used to be my granddaddy’s place. The man was the devil himself. When he run away we figured he died somewhere up in the hills and the buzzards carried off his pickins. When I seen your truck in the road I thought maybe he’s alive after all, come back to get something he forgot.” The boy had a way of leading his eyes around the limbs of the trees, like he was registering the direction of the wind or smelling someone’s wood smoke and trying to figure where it came from. “What business do you have here?”
     “Are you kin to the girl that runs around here with a yellow dog?” asked Jacob. He couldn’t remember her name.
     “That’s my sister, Sadler. And Bluebeard. Her mutt. You meet her?”
     “In a manner of speaking. She came up to me down by the river and let herself in to the house. Said it was her grandparents’ place.”
     The boy considered it. He spit on the ground at his feet. “I’m surprised she wanted in. If Sadler knows a hell, she knows it as this spot right here.”

     Jacob let the boy come into the trailer and stood in the living room, the chill of the autumn night tensing his skin, while the boy looked at the buckshot holes in the wall of the kitchen. The moon came in through them, straw-thin lengths of light that crisscrossed right where a man’s head would have been had he been sitting at the table. “Damn shame you wasn’t him,” said the boy. “Go on and put some clothes on. I ain’t going to shoot you tonight.”
     When Jacob came back down the hall, the boy was crouched in the living room floor, weeping. His shotgun sat beside him. He was sifting through the stack of pictures that Sadler had left on top of the busted television. His jaw clenched and his forehead shook like his mind was moving through time faster than his body was. Jacob stood in the entryway and stayed still.
     “You see this man right here?” the boy said finally. He held a picture up so Jacob could see it and held his finger beside the man in the corner. “This is my father. He grew up here.” The man he was pointing at was the one with the military haircut, the one who clutched the Bible, who Sadler had identified as Thorne. “The son of the devil.”
     Jacob took the picture and looked the man over again. He wore thick black glasses and dark shoes. He was clean shaven. Jacob brought the picture closer to his face and realized the man’s trousers were unbuttoned. “I only intend to stay for a bit,” Jacob said, handing the picture back. The boy arranged the rest and set them back on top of the television and wiped his face off with the sleeve of his shirt. Jacob said, “I have reason to be here. I’d be obliged if you’d take it for what it is.”
     The boy sniffled and stood.
     “There’s a fire tower a half mile from here across the mountain,” said Jacob.
     “I know it. Hunt squirrels from off there.”
     “It’s where I asked my wife to marry me. She died.”
     “I won’t give you any trouble,” the boy said. “But if I was running from grief, this ain’t the spot I’d have come to.”

     The boy walked out into the oncoming morning, the pink and red fire burning somewhere out in the wilderness. His shotgun was tucked in the crook of his elbow. A few hundred feet down the road, he turned to spit and adjusted his cap.
     Jacob went to the cabinet beneath the sink and pulled out the penny sock and counted the change inside. He wondered if it had been the old couple’s savings. He counted fourteen dollars and sixty-six cents.

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