The dark sweat of the night came on and Jacob lay bulging in the center of the bed. He heard children scrambling across the floor in the room past the wall, their dry heels scratching across the hardwood and their fingers clawing at the tabletop, and sometime he kicked his legs around and stood and his broken ribs sank down into his abdomen. When he opened the door and came to the center the children - a raw, unwashed boy of eight or nine, and a hairless girl, slightly older - stopped and stared like before them was a dead man, the sliding cheeks and broken blood vessels. He leaned into the jamb and winced.
Jefferson sat a stack of plates in the sink and pulled the children close in to his hips. “Jacob,” he said, “this here is Liam.” He tugged at the boy’s shirt collar and pushed him playfully out of the way. “And this little lamb is Emily Grace.” He ran the palm of his hand over her bald head like it was a natural thing.
“Hello,” Jacob said, bowing his head to one and then the other.
“Jacob’s hurt himself pretty good,” said Jefferson. “Took a good fall out of the… tree. Fell out a tree.” He winked at Jacob.
“No, I didn’t,” said Jacob.
“Uh, Jacob, my friend, what say we, uh, step outside?” Jefferson said. Jacob followed him to the door and they came out onto a porch covered in old furniture, debris, evidence that animals had been around. “My boy Liam. He watched a man die over t' the church this past summer. Real violent, this guy. Scraped up the floor with his fingernails, eyes popping in and out of their sockets. It's been hard on him. Death isn't an easy thing.”
Jacob put his hands in his pockets and suppressed a cough. He looked at Jefferson's eyes and tilted his head. “Did you know him?”
“The guy that died. Got bitten by a snake, did he?” He didn't move his eyes.
“That he did. And yes, we knew him. He was Liam and Emily Grace's grandfather. Well, step-grandfather, anyhow.” He poked the tip of his boot at a bag of garbage, leaned his hands on the rail. “Copperhead bit him in the chin. Hung on for dear life for thirty seconds or so before Liam grabbed him by the tail and chucked him across the room.” He made a swinging motion with his arm to simulate what the boy had done.
“Got what he deserved, you think?”
Jefferson pushed off the rail and stood with his arms folded in front of himself. He looked out at the pink moon and licked his lips. “Jake,” he said, “we've saved your life here, son. That ain't cause of no religion and it ain't cause of no god. It's just what a person does for someone else. I'm aware that you've had some dealing with Sadler, and I know you talked to Lee. Them boys brought you here is good friends with him, and they knew you, too. So you know what we preach here. But you don't know about it. Not a lick. You talk to a beautiful girl and who knows what she tells you. But you don't know a lick. How old are you, anyway?”
“Twenty-six. Well. Dinner's ready, then.”
Suzanne's hair stuck to her forehead by sweat and by time gone unwashed. She had set a worn oak table with bowls of corn, potatoes, braised meat of some sort, butter, fresh rolls. The children lifted heavy clay plates and heaped them tall, passed them around the circle. Their mother was quiet, beautiful, bashful in a way that drew attention to her. She took off her apron before she sat down, smoothed her hair into a long ponytail that came close to sweeping across the floor.
“What were you doing in a tree, Mister Jacob?” said the boy, Liam. He took giant bites of meat and potatoes.
“Do you reckon he's too old to be up in a tree, son?” Jefferson said, turning and winking at Jacob again.
Jefferson started to say something, opened his mouth with a smack, but Jacob intervened. “Trees are great places to sit and think, Liam,” he said. “You have to be careful, though – more careful than I was, you know.” He chuckled.
The boy laughed, too. His mother had washed the mud off his face. “I climb trees like a monkey can.”
“I believe that's true, Liam. When I was your age, I did, too. Now I climb trees like... like an elephant.” Jacob looked toward Suzanne, who smiled into the collar of her dress.
A man who called himself Doctor Wesley came by the house near the end of the evening. He wore a plaid shirt and tan trousers and reeked of cigarettes. A stethoscope hung around his flabby neck. He came into the bedroom where Jacob had returned for an uncomfortable while after dinner and sat beside him on the bed. Jefferson stood in the doorway, arms folded.
The old man stuck his fingers into Jacob's chest and Jacob coughed a raspy, burning cough and crinkled in pain. Wesley touched around Jacob's bare chest with the stethoscope and moved it down onto his belly.
When Wesley spoke, his voice came out like a wind through dead branches. “He can walk. He can eat. He can talk. Don't want him driving. Don't want him running. Don't want him lifting no heavy rocks or nothin' or choppin' wood or nothin' like that.”
Jefferson nodded. “Damn. I got a pile of bricks out back needs sorted.”
Wesley did not have the appearance of a man who'd ever been amused. He looked at Jacob. “Don't.”
Jacob smiled. “You got it, doc.”
Suzanne slid in beside Jefferson on the balls of her stocking feet. She held his arm with both hands and whispered something into his ear. He nodded.
“Excuse me for a minute, there, Doctor Wesley,” he said. “Jacob, you hang tight. Someone's here to see you, I do believe.”
The man's face was covered in the shadow of a cowboy hat when he stepped into the sick room. He wore a plaid shirt with pearl buttons and tight black pants, clean and pressed. His black snakeskin boots were polished to a fine sheen. His belt was fastened with a silver buckle that bore the imprint of a cross. When he took his hat off, his eyes came out like a dragon's. His sharp cheeks stretched upward into a smile and he crossed his hat in front of his belly. He was the monster that Jacob had seen in the picture at the trailer. “Hello, Jacob,” he said. “I'm Pastor Jim Thorne.”