A light bulb swung from its wire in the center of the room and when he first woke up he stared at it, a dirty orange glow, the filaments like the burning wings of a moth in the center, and he scratched at the edges of the mattress he’d been laid down on. He tried to move his head but it was wedged in place. The room smelled like camp smoke and dust and old bedclothes.
When he pulled in breath his chest burned and made a sound like crinkled newspaper and his nose was full of bits of dried blood that shifted and whistled and he could see the salty crumbles of teardrops at the corners of his eyes. He could move his legs. He could move his arms but it hurt. There was a yellowed picture of Jesus Christ on the wall in front of him, a painting of the thin white man with a rough-shorn beard and bony, brittle fingers. His hands were pressed together and his eyes were on the bed where Jacob lay. He looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. His cheeks were white and sunken in toward his teeth.
People moved on the other side of the wall behind him. Boots scuffling down a hallway, the commotion of grocery day or a father home from work. He heard a man and a woman talking, but their words muddied and died in the space between the walls. He tried to make noise with his mouth and it came out in a raspy spiral and absorbed into the wooden paneling. He was the kind of thirsty that would make water taste like peach juice.
“…just ain’t sure Jim needs to know, is all,” said the man, who opened the door behind the bed and stopped halfway. “Well, good lord God.” He came and stood beside Jacob and slid the contraption that was holding his head still – three boards nailed together in the shape of an unfinished picture frame – away. “You are an ugly creature.” The light above him blacked out his face. “My name’s Jefferson. Sorry about those,” he said, holding up the boards. “Thought your neck might a been broke.”
Jacob licked his lips and groaned. He could taste his breath. He guessed he must have been unconscious for quite some time. “Do you have water?” he said, moving his head from side to side.
“Yeah. I got water. You figure you’d be good to swaller it?”
Jacob nodded his chin. Jefferson left and came back with a pitcher and told Jacob to open up wide. He tipped the spout over Jacob’s head and spilled water down over his face, some of it to his mouth, some of it to his hair. It soaked the bed and filled Jacob’s eyes. He blinked and squeezed it out like medication. He raised his hand to signal enough.
“So,” Jefferson said. His voice was severe, burnt. He set the pitcher on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed beside Jacob’s bare feet. “Them boys said you was practicing a little self-help up the fire tower.” He had a thick beard and hair swiped to the side of his head with a generous combful of pomade. His red cheeks overlapped his eyes when he squinted in a grin. “Something I should know, since you going to be staying here for a bit?”
“Why?” said Jacob. He didn’t have much air to put into his speech.
“Why what? Why you staying or why do I give a good hoot about your broke ribs?”
Jacob turned his head slowly away. “I should be with my wife.” He started to cry, but his body lost interest in it.
“We’d try to get in touch with her, but we ain’t got no idea who you are.”
“Oh.” Jefferson wrapped his stubby, padded fingers around Jacob’s ankle. “Well, that explains a little bit, don’t it.” He told Jacob to stay put and stood up and went back out into the hall.
There was a box fan in the window past the foot of the bed that was blowing chilly evening air into Jacob’s mouth. He took hold of his pant legs and used his arms to pull his feet to the floor and sat on the side of the mattress, rubbing the homemade dressing wrapped around his chest and abdomen. He breathed in strong and it hurt like a shotgun blast. He felt a little death each time he moved. He tried to reach the wooden floor with his toes.
Jefferson came back in with a plate of food and Jacob was facing the wall, staring at the picture of Jesus. He had his hands flat against the paneling and set out a constant growl - low and quiet, like a dog protecting his meat.
“You know him yourself?” said Jefferson. He laid the plate on the bed. “Food.”
“Nobody’s known him for a couple thousand years,” whispered Jacob. He turned and walked toward the plate. Cubes of meat. Potatoes. Carrots, shining with butter and covered in black pepper.
“I see. A non-believer, so to speak. You’re that type. That’s okay. I heard you once. All the same, in these hills it might do you some good to try and pretend he’s the real deal, so to speak.”
Jacob picked up the food with his fingers and chewed on the meat with his mouth open like an animal. It burned when it slid down his throat, felt like knuckles pressing against his lungs.
“There’s a fork there, young man.”
Jacob looked at it, lying on the bed where the plate had been. He used it because he’d been asked, but resented that it took him longer to get the food into his mouth. “Where am I?” he asked finally, swiping at his lips with the back of his wrist.
Jefferson drew a triangle on the bed with his finger and pointed to where the top had been. “Fire tower,” he said. “About a half mile northeast a here.” He pointed to one side. “That trailer you been shacked up in, the Thorne place.” His eyes went to the ceiling, just a second, a glance at the light bulb, but it happened. He pointed at the other side. “Here. A half mile or so from either one. Triangle.” He held his hands up and made a triangle with his fingers. “Like such.”
“This is your second evening here. Them boys drug you by in their truck last night, I’d say four, four thirty. Suzanne had some codeines left in the basket, dentist trip, and we dumped a couple down you with some milk. Didn’t hear nothing from you till just now. Figure you got at least two cracked ribs, some bruises, a real bad one where your belt buckle was. You cain’t see it, but you got a black eye” - he pointed at the right side of Jacob’s face - “from landing on that pistol you had with you. You’re a lucky sonofagun it didn’t blow your head clear off.”