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Caged

Chapter Text

New. Everything was new. The motel room you stood in had been worn with time, the hardwood floor damaged and scuffed by flecks of sand and dirt, white paint aging and cracking on the walls. The sheets were clean, a grandiose deep red, but ornate and outdated in a way that reminded you of being wrapped up in the arms of a doting grandmother. The things around you had lived a fuller life than even yourself, seeing more people, holding more secrets, endowed with more stories to tell. Even so, it was all new to you. The window in front of which you stood had a perfect angle of the sun, whose rays flinted over your eyes and warmed your face. You closed your eyes and drummed your fingers against the windowsill to soak in the sensation. It was quiet here. Quieter than city life had ever been.

Several days had passed since your arrival in town, and more days still since the wear and tear of life at home had driven you out. Family and friends had accused you of abandoning them, and abandoning the life you had, like a child running away from home. You saw it differently. You weren’t running away, you just thought some time alone could do everyone some good. Time to let animosities subside, to allow the passage time to heal everyone. You knew you couldn’t heal at home. You knew time needed time to do its healing. And you knew that meant finding someplace safe and far away to lay your head.

You open your eyes again and look out at the land in front of you. Greens and browns saturated the ground, with a stretch of road cutting the landscape in half. The sky was painted blue, with the golden sun perfectly centered where you stood. You sigh and reach in your back pocket for the pen and notepad you’d carried around since you’d left. In it, you’d written down every housing and job opportunity you could find in town. The town was small and quaint, so opportunities were limited; most everyone who lived there had been born and raised and had already found their niche. Regardless, you’d found a handful of people willing to take you in or let you work, and in some cases, both. Today had in store your last place to scout before you decided where your final stop would be.

You let the sun warm you for a little while longer before turning to leave. You pat your front pocket to assure you have your keys and hear their stiff, muffled jingle against your leg. You grab your purse, which was resting on the foot of the bed, and lock your motel room door behind you. Your room was already close to the front desk, with easy access to the innkeeper, with which you’d built a rapport.

“Mrs. Stafford,” you called out, peering forward toward the front desk. “Mrs. Stafford, you there?”

From an office behind the front desk comes Mrs. Beatrice Stafford, the middle aged inkeep you’d been talking to every day since the first. She gave you a bright smile and pushed her tightly coiled black hair from her face before wiping off and putting on her glasses. She walked up to you and rested her crossed arms on the desk between you both.

“You know, I have a bell up here for a reason. It ain’t gonna bite you.”

You laugh lightheartedly through your nose and ring the bell once. And again. And again, five more times, before speaking.

“How was that?”

Beatrice peered over her thick wire framed glasses before smiling and shaking her head. “A little smart alick of you,” she said, pushing her glasses back up with her finger, “but it’ll do. What can I do for you, sweetheart?”

You pull out your notebook and pen, place it on the desk, and flip it open.

“I was wondering if it’d be alright if I talked to you about some of the people I’ve met in town so far,” you started, clicking your pen, “or at least about the place I’m gonna check out today.”

Beatrice nodded and gestured with her hand. “Sure, go right on ahead. As long as you decide to take my offer at the end of it.”

The major stores in town had enough staff as it was, which pigeonholed your search to a few local jobs with modest pay. Housing options didn’t prove much better; you weren’t looking to buy a home, and there were no apartments to speak of. A motel, a hotel, or the rooms of generous renting families were your options; the last of which tended to be the least expensive.

You began to move through your list of options with Bea at the front desk, who happily lent you her point of view.

“There’s the Rowan family, the ones who set up at the farmers’ market. They have a job open to me there, but not a place for me to stay.”

Mrs. Bea paused in thought. “They’re a nice enough family. Church goin’ folks. Probably for the best you don’t stay in their house, though. It’s a big family. Can get like a pig sty in there, I swear.”

As Bea spoke, you wrote her commentary down in your notebook.

“Here, I like this one. There’s a job opening at the bar. No place to stay again, but Ms. Nix seems like my kinda girl.”

Bea peered over her glasses again and sucked her teeth.

“Mm-hmm. That sounds about right. You’re both a couple of young free spirits. She’s the closest thing to city life you’ll find in this town. You’d fit right in, if you’re alright with gettin’ some glares of disapproval from some of the more devout churckfolk ‘round here.”

As you write, you sigh and shake your head.

“That’s the kind of thing I came here to get away from.”

Bea taps your hand and squeezes it in hers momentarily.

“Sweetheart, lemme tell you. There ain’t no place you can go that ain’t nobody gonna judge you. You find people who don’t judge you, not places.”

You scan your eyes downward to the next name on the list.

“So if I’m looking for a place to stay with no pressure or judgement, I probably shouldn’t take that job at the church with the Dovers. All they’d need me to do is clean and set up for services. And they do have a place for me to stay.”

Mrs. Stafford peeked over the desk at your outfit. When your sneakers, shorts, white tank top, and black leather jacket were all in her sights, you heard her sigh through her nose before settling back behind the counter.

“You don’t strike me as a church goin’ girl, and if I can tell, they can tell. They preach a lot about it not being their place to pass judgement, but by the end of the week, they’d be asking you about getting baptized and taking communion. Hittin’ the bible every night. You’d get miserable. Hell, sometimes, I get miserable. You can name any bible verse in the world and they’ll recite like it’s nothin’.”

Despite the offer of a place to stay, you draw an “X” next to the Dovers on your list. You’d gotten enough of that sickening pressure to be perfect at home. You didn’t need a job to remind you how far below someone’s expectations you were.

You continue through your list with Bea, chatting now about places you could stay. Bea’s motel, another motel in town run by Ms. Nottingham (“She’ll be nice for first impressions, but she ain’t nothin’ but an old witch, God forgive me”), the home of Mr. McBride (“He must be awful lonely, his wife passed, and his only daughter moved away”), the Pattersons (“They’re a nice, quiet bunch. They’d do anything to help someone in need), the Oakes (“You couldn’t even pay me to live with them”). Finally, you got to the last name on your list, who you planned to visit today.

“Okay, just one more. How about Mr. Pritchard? He’s offering a job and a place to stay. I haven’t met him yet, but I saw a sign out front.”

“Oooh, he’s a handsome fellow,” Bea said with a suggestive smile. “Very handsome. I’d stay in his house for many reasons. Whatever he needs.”

“Mrs. Stafford.”

“Alright, okay, Lord forgive me. Jackson’s a very nice man. Raised in the church by his daddy, but he’s not all overbearing about people around him being in the church, as long as they respect what he believes. If you ask me, that’s the way it should be. Really, he ain’t been too overbearing about anything lately. He’s very quiet nowadays, runs his errands, tends to his farm and his animals, pops into town to say hello or attend service sometimes. He lives out of the way of pretty much everyone and everything, but he’s still a sweet man. And still handsome.”

After writing down some of Bea’s words, you laugh and tuck your notepad and pen back into your purse. “No offense to him, but I doubt he’s my type.”

Mrs. Bea raises her eyebrows and again sucks her teeth, drumming her nails on the desk as you walk towards the door.

“Mmm. Alright. We’ll see about that. You come on back here after you’re done, lemme know whatcha think then. Stay safe, darlin’.”

“You too, Mrs. Stafford.”

With that, you head out of the motel and into your car, listening to the hum of the engine after turning your key, and the comfort of cool air against your face as a relief from the hot, stagnant air the car had trapped from sitting in the sun. You faced a thirty-minute drive from here to the other side of town, where you’d first passed by Mr. Pritchard’s home.

As you drove, you began to see the land change like a gradient. The thick green vegetation, the bright pop of fruits and vegetables growing in farmland, animals roaming about their ranches, old but charming houses, buzzing markets and stores, the towering steeple of the town’s primary church; all of these sights gave way to more browns, more tans, more dying vegetation. Nearing the end of your drive, you were hard pressed even to catch a glimpse of a struggling patch of grass growing on either side of the road. Instead, the scenery had become sandy, dusty, rocky, and gasping for life. The paved road had now become more uneven and unforgiving, jostling you and your car back and forth in a dizzying sway, until the gravel disappeared, and gave way to a flat dirt road.

As the road gives way to dirt, you begin to see the land transition back to something livable. Patches of green begin to coalesce into a distant assortment of greens to your right, surrounding a tall, dark, and fenced off house. Driving closer, you can see cropland and animals strolling and grazing in the green towards the back and sides of the home, segmented by a dry, dirt laden expanse facing the road. Also facing the road, you see a picket sign stuck into the ground. Against the white of a slab of stiff cardboard, you read, in bold red lettering, “HELP NEEDED + VACANCY AVAILABLE”. With no discernable driveway, you pull into a patch of dirt, off to the side of what you assume to be the front door. You step out of your car to the sound of a dog barking distantly within the home. Closing your car door and locking it, you look the home up and down. It’s darker than many of the homes closer to the center of town, and a great deal larger, towering at least two stories.

As you walk toward the front door, you catch a jerking movement above you. You sharply look back up toward the second story windows, and can see a curtain swaying back and forth. You pause to stare, trying to catch a set of fingers, a pair of eyes, before shaking off a creeping onset of jitters and stepping up to the front door. After three solid knocks, you hear an increasingly intense cacophony of barks from inside the house, but hear no movement. Several long moments pass, with tapering barks, and with no answer.

You step away from the front door and off of the porch to survey the outside of the home for a car, and can see a worn down pickup truck parked near a shed in the back. You look back up towards the window whose off-white curtains had been swaying, and can see them sway with more vigor than they had been before. You quicken your breath and feel your heart pound against the walls of your chest, but step back up to the front door and knock four more times, again summoning an onslaught of barks, this time, paired with the shuffling of footsteps. The steps grow louder and louder towards the door until the door swings open to the sight of a large, brooding man, with his dog standing anxiously by his feet. His short black hair fell in strands on his forehead, and a thick dark beard covered his jaw. His green-brown eyes, hit directly by the sun that sat behind both of you, were partially shrouded with furrowed brows. He wore a dark blue plaid button up with black pants, both of which were somewhat worn and dirty, in a way that mirrored his home and land. But he smiled gently, in a kind, albeit somewhat confused way, with his head cocked to the side.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, miss. What can I do for you?”

You glance toward the picket sign at the front of the home and back at him. He follows your glance and smirks, but stays quiet for you to speak.

“Would you happen to be Mr. Pritchard?”

“Depends. A couple Mr. Pritchards have lived here. You got a first name, too?”

You open and rustle through your purse for your notebook and grab it. As you pull it out, you lose your grip and send your notepad fumbling to the wood of the porch with an embarrassing slap. You can hear a light chuckle from Mr. Pritchard, as you kneel down and grab the notebook, dusting it off, and flipping it open to see what you’d written down from Bea.

“Umm… Jackson. Jackson Pritchard?”

“That’d be me.”

You regain your composure and straighten your back before you continue.

“I saw the sign you had out front for needing help and having a vacancy. I’m new in town, and need a job and a place to stay. I thought I’d ask.”

Jackson scratches his beard beneath his chin, and looks you up and down momentarily before speaking.

“Mmm. I don’t know. Y’don’t plan on droppin’ my belongin’s the way you dropped that notebook of yours, d’you?”

You flash a sheepish smile and laugh, and dust off your notepad some more.

“No, sir, I do not.”

Jackson nods and whistles sharply, pointing towards the inside of his house. His dog, large and pointy eared, shuffles back inside as Jackson steps out and closes the door behind him.

“Alright. I can give you a tour of the place, n’ you can see if you’d like t’stay here n’ work for me, if that sounds like somethin’ you’d be interested in.”

“I’d very much appreciate it.”

Jackson smiles and nods again, his large, solid body descending his porch steps one by one. You follow behind as he walks toward his crops, laying in neat rows to the home’s left. You couldn’t identify much other than tomatoes, whose vines coiled snake-like around their metal cages. The rest of the crops bore their leaves, full and vibrant, erupting from mounds of rich, dark earth.

“I’m surprised anything can grow like this out here,” you remark, eyeing the lush bushes of green, which lay everywhere, patch after patch.

Jackson kneels to the ground and rustles through one of these bushes, picking a couple small fruits.

“You’d be surprised what you c’n get to grow out here,” Jackson says, standing again and walking back towards you. “Give anything enough care an’ attention, an’ it’ll grow how it’s s’pposed to. Open your hand for me, darlin’.”

You hold out your hand as Jackson cups his own hand beneath yours. A chill runs from your fingers, up your hand, and up still toward your arm at his touch, despite the intense warmth of his hands. With a lightly controlled grip on your hand, he brings up his other hand into your own. From it, he drops a strawberry.

“Believe me, it’s hard work gettin’ land like this to give something fruitful,” he says, uncupping your hand and eating a berry that remained in his own hand. He twists the leaves and stem from his mouth and tosses them to the ground, then motions for you to try the ones he’d given to you. You oblige, picking up the berry by its stem, positioning it with your tongue, and sinking your teeth into it. You feel a trickle of juice run down your chin, while the rest explodes and settles in your mouth as you mirror Jackson, twisting out the stem and leaves and tossing them into the dirt. The fruit is sweet, juicy, tart, and satisfying, all at once. Your mouth still full, you nod towards Jackson in approval as he smiles kindly, motioning his head for you to follow him.

“But reaping the harvest is well worth the work.”

Jackson shows you the rest of his farm, from his shed, to his barn, to his animals. His prides and joys were his chickens and cows, which provided him with food and a source of income. Also under his care were several horses and sheep, and all the animals had their own fenced off patches of land away from the crops, on the other side of the house.

“No pigs?” you questioned, as you and Jackson stepped back up onto the porch to head inside. Jackson turned slightly before opening the door to his home.

“Nah,” he started, holding the door open for you to enter. “I like t’ raise animals that can give me more th’n just meat. Chickens can give me eggs. Cows can give me milk. Sheep got wool. Pigs don’t offer much else other than meat, eatin’ food, an’ givin’ company. I leave raisin’ pigs t’ other folks.”

With Jackson’s arm outstretched to hold the door open for you, you enter his home. Everything inside was as dark as the outside had been. The walls were dark, the floor was dark, the furniture was dark. As Jackson closed the door behind both of you, the light from the open door that illuminated the darkness before slowly faded until it was no more. You hesitated your first few steps, not simply on account on the dark foreboding color scheme of the home, but because of Jackson’s dog, sitting and staring intently at you as you entered the room. After locking the door, Jackson turned to see your frozen figure, then glanced to see his dog sitting ahead of you.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I never properly introduced y’all. This is Earl. He looks all big an’ bad, but he’s well behaved. He won’t bite.”

Allowing several seconds for Earl to sniff your legs and hands, towards which he simply huffed and walked away, you take a few hasty steps to catch up with Jackson, who had now walked into the living room.

“Mr. Pritchard?”

Jackson turns to face you, his eyebrows raised, with a “Mmm?” raising out of his throat.

“Not to sound rude, but I was wondering what I’d actually be doing here. What the work would be, the pay, where I’d sleep, and all that.”

Jackson glanced at his watch and adjusted it on his wrist, then looked up at you and smirked.

“Very down-to-the-point you are. I see. Alright.”

He cleared his throat.

“I wouldn’t expect you to do much out in the farm, unless you want to, or wanna learn. Most’a the help I need is here, in the house. Cleanin’ up, cookin’, tendin’ to the things I can’t tend to when I’m out in the yard.”

In your notepad, which you’d taken back out now, you wrote as Jackson answered your questions.

“Like a maid?”

You hear Jackson exhale deeply through his nose, looking upward as if to gather his thoughts. He shifts his weight on either leg before looking back downward, his eyes now transfixed on you.

“If you’d like to put it that way.”

“And pay?”

“I can do around fifteen hundred a month.”

You stopped your pen mid ink stroke and look up at Jackson, who has his arms crossed and his brows furrowed, but not in the same way he’d greeted you. His demeanor felt more serious now to a degree you weren’t expecting in that moment.

“Fifteen hundred? One thousand, five hundred a month?”

“That low for you, city girl? I can go up to two thousand.”

“No. No, not at all it’s uh… It’s the highest offer I’ve heard in town so far. Not including rent, anyway.”

You watch as Jackson slowly dusts off his hands before folding his arms, using one hand to stroke at his beard.

“Mmm. Figures you’d be keepin’ track of pay. You wouldn’t owe me any rent. As long as you were working here, your work would be your rent.”

You catch yourself in an excited but bewildered confusion as you write in your notebook. You didn’t want to be so bold as to ask how he has that kind of money, or why he’d decided to pay you so generously, for fear of messing up a good thing.

“And where would my room be?”

Jackson’s eyes wandered up toward the staircase behind him as he began to walk.

“Well,” he said, planting his foot firmly on the first step, “I feel like that’s the part you won’t be too keen on. May I be so bold as to as your permission to show you the rest of the house first?”

You click your pen and place it within the spiral rungs of your notepad, following Jackson toward the stairs.

“Lead the way.”

As you walk, you take a final glance at the kitchen and stairs. Above the stove in the kitchen hung a cross, and hung to the living room walls were still several more crosses; one light and wooden, one silver, and another hanging above the television was dark polished wood, on which was a gold figurine of Jesus Christ, his arms outstretched as he was crucified. On the wall adjacent to the staircase was a collage of photographs, some old with dusty, worn, or makeshift frames, some new and glossy; some dull and yellowed, and others in more full, vibrant colors. One photo caught your eye as you walked, of an older man and a young boy, neither of whom you recognized. They seemed to be standing in front of the home you found yourself in now, but before you could examine it any further, you already noticed Jackson halfway up the stairs. You quicken your pace by several steps to catch up, with his booming, heavy steps amplified as the bounce off the walls. Some steps give way to a creek, from both yourself and Jackson, but soon, you meet him at the top of the stairs.

Jackson first showed you the bathroom, which was what one would expect in a home like his own; a tub, a shower head, a toilet and a sink. Not ornate or pristine, but functional.

“This is the one I usually use,” he remarked, closing the bathroom door and heading toward another door nearby, “There’s another restroom downstairs, you cou’d use that one as yours.”

The next room was study-like, with a tall bookshelf nearly reaching the ceiling, but coming short enough to rest another crucifix on top, this one identical to the brown and gold one in the living room. In the bookshelf itself, you could spot several editions of the bible, and several more books on which you could read the spine. “How God Leads us to Righteousness”, “The Crucifixion of Jesus”, “To Show Others His Salvation”, “Leading the Lost”. A desk sat facing the window, out of which you could see one sheep grazing in the pasture below.

“I don’t use this room for much,” Jackson says, looking around at the bookcase, the desk, and some of the clutter around the room, “’cept reading sometimes, when I have the time. But you’re welcome to read anything you like if you stay. An’ even if you don’t, you c’n come by an’ borrow some. Not sure you’ll fancy the readin’ selection. Lot of it’s religious. But some ain’t.”

As you leave his study, you peek down the hallway into a room with a cracked open door. Four quadrants of light lay on the floor, partially illuminating the foot of a large bed. On the face of the closest bedpost, you can see the etching of a cross. On the walls lay the dark silhouettes of a collage of crosses, crucifixes, and plaques. At their center was a large painting of Christ, looking downward, his arms clasped in prayer.

“Is that your room?”

Jackson, who had turned toward a different door, looks behind himself to see you and follow your gaze. Seeing the room you’re looking into, he walks past you, the air from his movement caressing your cheek, and closes the door, before walking toward where he’d been standing before.

“Nah, that ain’t my room. Judgin’ by your face, I s’pose you’re glad it ain’t yours, either. It’s a room someone stayed in a long time ago. They ain’t here no more.”

You nod with a coy smile as the jingle of Jackson’s keys fills your ears. You feel a faint knot in your stomach, a turning and churning, but ignore it.

Jackson’s wide, full frame and his rugged work-worn hands turn a key and push open the door before him, revealing a separate bedroom, smaller than the one he’d shown you before. A Queen-sized bed was pushed up against the wall shared by the door. The comforter, light blue and white, in stark contrast to the home, draped evenly long all sides of the bed. In the center of the headboard lay a single white pillow.

Religious memorabilia hung most anywhere your eyes could settle. Crosses, crucifixes, plaques with quotes from scripture, were spread sparsely along the expansive walls, aging and whitish, but not as pristine as the sheets on the bed. The figures were not crowded nearly as dense as the bedroom Jackson had hastily closed off. Even so, everywhere your eyes fell, you could see something connected to faith.

The floor was light, faded, and wooden. Across the room was a pair of windows, and between them, a dresser drawer. You walked up toward the leftmost window, draped over with an off-white curtain, and peeked out of it. In perfect view from your vantage point was the front porch.

“I do have to apologize if you like the view in this room,” Jackson said with an air of lightheartedness, “’cause this here’s my room.”

You turned and felt your heart thump against your chest, as Jackson was several steps farther into the room now, standing just in front of you with crossed arms. You gasp sharply and rest your hand on your chest, a sight that delights Jackson as you hear a bellowing laugh from his mouth.

“I’m sorry, miss, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he starts, laughing again as you regain your composure, “but you city folk do scare up real easy.”

You breathe in deeply and sigh, shaking off another onset of jitters before laughing yourself.

“Yeah. I guess so. No, it’s a nice room, I like it. Maybe a little too…”

“Religious?”

You look up at a plaque resting on the wall above Jackson’s bed. Encircled with paintings of vines and apples, it reads,

“Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.

Isaiah 41:10”

You look back at Jackson and cross your arms, stretching your body while teetering on your toes, then resting your feet on the floor again.

“Yeah. Religious. I mean, I don’t have a problem with religion, but I’m just not really-”

Jackson raises his hand for you to stop speaking, and you oblige, your words halting in your throat as you wait for him to speak.

“You don’t have to explain darlin’, I understand. Romans 14:1. Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. You ever heard that one?”

You shake your head, and Jackson sucks his teeth.

“Mmm. Well, just take it as, even if you ain’t religious, it ain’t my place t’ debate it with you. I’ll still let you stay here all the same. All I ask for is your respect.”

Jackson’s eyes scan you momentarily, looking down at your shoes, moving upward to your legs, your thighs, your shorts, your chest, back up to your face. He shakes his head and smirks, again motioning his head for you to follow.

“C’mon. We still got a few rooms to cover.”

With that, Jackson leads you back downstairs, showing you just a few remaining rooms. A downstairs bathroom, a storage room for tools and feed for his animals, another study, and a closer survey of the living room and kitchen. As you walk, you notice Earl watching you, intently, unmoving, standing in front of a heavy latched door in the kitchen. Jackson singles out a key from his key ring and unlocks this very door, motioning his hand for Earl to step aside. Along with the key for the knob is a turning deadbolt and two chain latches, all of which Jackson unlocks in succession.

“Would this be my room?”

As he turns the knob, Jackson smiles at you and holds the door open.

“Yeah, it is. I hope all the locks and everything don’t have you too put off. It’s nothin’ weird, I just used to keep some animals in here. Couldn’t have ‘em gettin’ out. But the room’s cleaned up real nice for a guest, now.”

Looking past the door you can see a set of descending stairs, leading to a massive basement underneath. With every step downward, more of the room reveals itself to you. On the far wall, across from the stairs you know stepped down, was a generously sized Queen bed pushed into the corner. The comforter was a plain, deep red, while the sheets were black; the bed frame was a dark polished wood, devoid of any carvings. The walls were plain and concrete gray, while the floor was paved with dark polished wood, similar to that of the bed frame.

The walls held none of the religious trinkets that marked the rest of the house; save for a curious arrangement in the far wall’s second corner.

Stepping from the last step and onto the floor, past a long workbench centered in the room, you see a large cage with chains inside, a padlock holding it’s swinging metal door shut. Walking closer toward it, you see a bible resting on top, closed, with a bookmark peeking from the end. You pick it up, running your hand over the dusty cover, smelling the lightly rusted, metallic sharpness of the cage. The cover is mahogony and leather, unadulterated, and as you examine the book’s back cover, you hear Jackson’s voice reverberate through the room.

“I know you said you ain’t really religious,” he said, stepping up to stand next to you. A waft of the smell of dirt and sweat, rugged and manly but not nauseating, followed him. “But have you ever read the bible?”

You rub your thumb against the embossed gold letters, “KING JAMES”, and trace the bold gold cross on the center of the cover with your fingertips.

“Bits and pieces,” you start, setting the book back down, “but never the whole thing.”

You look again at the cage before you, gripping one of the thick metal bars in your hand.

“What kind of animal did you keep in here anyway?”

Jackson runs his hand long the top of the cage, his fingers drumming along the metal as his hand runs back and forth. “A pig, actually.” he said with an exhale through his nose. “I know I said I don’t keep ‘em, an’ I don’t. But someone had a pig they couldn’t take care of. Causin’ problems, runnin’ amok, so they gave it to me. I took care of ‘im. Mellowed ‘im right out. Didn’t always keep ‘im down here, ‘f course. Only when he was bein’ difficult and needed some time alone.”

You turn toward the large mirror on the wall adjacent the cage and look at yourself, with Jackson standing beside you, his hand resting on the bible you’d held before. Your frame feels swallowed by Jackson’s; as you stood closer to the unlit corner of the cage, Jackson stood farther back, closer to a window that hugged that basement’s ceiling. His body was illuminated, showered in a faint ray of light. He licks his lips and shifts his weight, after which you begin to feel a lump grow in your throat. As you open your mouth to speak, Jackson cuts through the uncomfortable silence.

“You know, since you did go through all the trouble of comin’ out here, might I cook you up somethin’ for your trouble?”

You turn from the mirror to face him, his face still warmed by a ray of light from the window.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that, Mr. Pritchard-”

“No, no, darlin’, it’s alright. It’s the least I can do for makin’ you drive all this way.”

Jackson smiles at you before stepping back toward the staircase. You follow, and sitting at the top of the stairs, can see the silhouette of Earl, backlit by the light filtering in from the kitchen.

You sit down in a kitchen chair, worn and wooden, not unlike the rest of the house. You watch him as he begins to pull ingredients from different nooks in his kitchen. Spices in one cupboard. A sack of rice stored in another. Pots and pans in cabinets beneath the counter. He opens his fridge and pulls out fresh broccoli, vibrant enough to have been picked days, even hours ago. Then comes a container of ice, on top of which sits two wrapped fish, whole and head on.

“You get fish around here?”

Jackson washes his hands, letting the water drop from his fingers before drying them on a nearby towel. He sets up his food on the counter, brandishing a knife from a silverware drawer, you hear a laugh rise from his stomach.

“You’d be surprised. This town don’t even look like it can grow a blade’a grass, let alone have fish. But it finds a way.”

As he speaks, you watch him unwrap the fish from its plastic wrap, scale it, and begin to gut it. His hands and his knife, coated in blood, cut off the head and tail, pull out the innards, and begin the same on the second fish. You watch him intently, his blue sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his shirt untucked, his forearms and hand bulging with several large veins.

“Since this is a job offer and all,” Jackson says, bearing his knife down with a thud to cut off the head of the second fish, “why don’t you see what you can do with that broccoli and rice. Consider this a uh… performance review.”

You smirk at him, eliciting a smirk back from him. You take the broccoli and a couple cupfulls of rice in a pot with you to the sink. You rinse the broccoli first, watching the dirt fall from the green florets, streams of tainted water falling in trails down your fingers, into your palm, before it is whisked away down the drain. You rinsed the rice, over and over again, the water shifting from a talc laden starchy white, to lighter, lighter, lighter, until the water rippled clear.

Cutting. Chopping. Boiling. As your knife passes through each stalk of broccoli, you feel the anxious weight of eyes tracking your movements. You stretch out your arm to throw trash in a bin. Another arm stretches to reach for a pot. Your arm comes back to place the florets of green in that pot as your body swivels to place the pot on the stove. Every movement felt burdened by Jackson’s watchful eye, made heavier still by the silence of him not moving. With both pots on the stove, rice beginning to simmer and broccoli soon to steam, you turn to meet Jackson’s gaze. When you turn, you see him facing his fish, cut now into four filets, breaded as he reaches for a bottle of oil.

With the sun on the cusp of its journey to set, you eat with Jackson over casual conversation. He asks curiously about your life in the city, and you answer him honestly. You say what you were used to. The young crowd partied, drank, hooked up, broke up; the ebbs and flows of an un-Christian lifestyle were your normal. Jackson listened quietly and ate as you told him about the things you’d seen and done, until you leave him and opening to respond.

“You certainly picked a strange town to come to after livin’ like that.”

“You’d think so. I liked that life. I just needed some time to try something new.”

Jackson twirls his fork in his fingers, chewing and contemplating his response. With a swallow that you could see bulge in his throat, he set his fork down and folded his arms on the table. His eyes stared into yours, his brows furrowed and bushy, as he bit the inside of his cheek.

“May I ask you somethin’?”

You nod.

“I know you said you ain’t really religious, you ain’t really read the bible. But I was wonderin’ if you ever been to church.”

You grab a napkin and wipe your mouth and hands clean before answering.

“I have,” you start, “but not in a long time. That’s not a problem, is it?”

Jack laughs lightly, his cheeks, reddened from is work in the sun, bunching up at the corners of his mouth.

“No, it ain’t a problem,” he said, picking up his fork and beginning to twirl it again, “I was just curious. I gotta say, though, not much else happens in this town other than goin’ to church. I certainly haven’t lived anything close t’ the life you have. My daddy raised me in the church.”

He fell silent momentarily, struggling over the last few words. He closed his eyes and sighed, then opened them, shaking his head.

“Anyway, I’m sure if you’re lookin’ for somethin’ new, ‘r at least somethin’ different, you’ll find it here.”

You finished your meal with Jackson, full now as the sun was setting. The sky had darkened, from a vibrant cloudless blue to a gradient of reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks. You stood on the porch, your purse under your arm, face to face with Jackson. His hands were shoved into his pockets, his sleeves still rolled up. The hairs on his arms glistened in the sunset’s light, as well his face, caressed by a pinkish hue.

“I’m glad you came out to see me. I know it was business, but still. I’d like to thank you for sharin’ a meal with me. Keepin’ me company.”

“I enjoyed your company just as well, Mr. Pritchard.”

Jackson smiled, full with pearly white teeth, before looking down to hide his grin. He kicked away a small rock that was on the porch before speaking again.

“You decided if you might take the job?”

You smiled and turned back toward your car, turning back to Jackson who was now looking up at you expectantly.

“I’ll sleep on it. But I’ll let you know as soon as I can.”

As you turned to leave, you felt a hand caress your elbow to turn you back around. You felt Jackson’s warm hand pull you back with a gentle leading tug, while his other hand cupped your free elbow. He squeezed them both lightly and bit his lip.

“Would you mind terribly if I gave you a parting gift? In case you don’t swing by again. I’d just like to give you somethin’ to show you how much I appreciate you takin’ time out of your day for me.”

You smile up at him, and he kindly smiles back.

“You’re very sweet, Mr. Pritchard. No, I wouldn’t mind.”

With that, you see Jackson recede back into the dark house, leaving you standing on the porch. You look out at the yard, and more distantly into the horizon at the sunset. You followed the view of the road you came in on, until the rest of it was lost in the distance. You felt the sun again on your face, weaker now as it set, but still as warm and comforting as it had been this afternoon.

Soon, you hear the patter of footsteps, increasingly loud, heading back towards the porch. From the shadows of the house came Jackson, holding a case and a small book in his hand. He extends his arm, reaching out for your hand, and you meet him halfway, allowing him to cup his hand underneath yours. His hand lingers, his fingers wrapping around your hand, and his fingertips grazing your wrist. He gives your hand a light squeeze, then places a small box of strawberries in your palm, and on top of that, a pocket-sized edition of the bible.

“I know you said you’re not religious, but I don’t have much t’ offer other than bibles and some food. I saw you enjoyed the strawberries, though, so I suggest you don’t eat ‘em all in one sittin’. Next time I might be inclined to charge.”

You look up at him, into his eyes, which reflected the darkening light of sunset. Your face felt hot and flush as he looked back at you, as you felt his hand gripped under yours, with the beating of both of your pulses rising and falling against your skin. You watched Jackson lick his lips as you both looked at each other for what felt like hours. You felt a tingling in your lips; a yearning growing in your stomach as your body leaned forward, slowly, cautiously, toward Jackson. You could feel Jackson’s body beginning to lean forward just as well, his eyes deepening in color as they came closer into view.

Suddenly, Jackson exhaled sharply and took a step back, clearing his throat and looking down at his shoes and giving your hand one last squeeze before putting his hands back in his pockets.

“It was very nice meeting you,” he said with a to-the-point nod and a shy smile. “I hope to have your company again.”

You smile back, beginning to step toward and descend the porch steps.

“You too, Mr. Pritchard.”

Sharing one last gaze, you turn back toward your car, anxious to begin the long drive back to your motel. You set your gifts in your passenger seat and back out back onto the road. Before you turn your car back in the direction from whence you came, you get a final look at Jackson, who stood stoic on the porch, his hands in his pockets, his face no longer hit by the rays of the sun, but instead shadowed by the roof, as Earl, who had now come out of the house, sits next to him. You give him one last wave, and he mirrors you before motioning Earl back into the house, wiping his face with one hand and adjusting his belt against his waist before receding back into his home.

By the time you return to your motel, the gradient light of sunset had depleted into the deep blue onset of night. You push open the motel door and immediately can see Bea, with a full and expectant smile.

“So,” she starts, her arms again crossed on the desk as they had been earlier, “Handsome or what?”

You sigh out a laugh and stand at the desk to respond.

“He is handsome, I’ll give him that. Very sweet too, you were right.”

“He must’ve taken a liking to ya if he’s givin’ ya gifts already.” She pointed toward the box of strawberries and bible you held in your hands.

“You know, if you woulda stayed out any longer, I woulda thought you really went and did something.”

You laugh again, but weakly, remembering the tingle in your lips and heightening of your pulse that Jackson’s touch had left you with.

“Goodnight, Mrs. Bea.”

“Goodnight, darlin’. Don’t let all that charm of his get you sucked in though, now. You still gotta come here and work for me. Not swoon over a farm boy who gave you some fruit.”

“I’m sleeping on it, Mrs. Bea.”

You pull out your room key and finally enter your room, setting your purse on the bed, and the strawberries on your nightstand. The room was almost entirely engulfed by darkness until you turned on your bedside lamp, it’s feeble halo of light giving you just enough illumination to examine the second gift Jackson had given you.

You hold the bible and use your thumb to quickly turn through the chapters. Genesis, Ecclesiastes, Amos, 1st Corinthians; you couldn’t remember the last time you’d seen these chapters, these words, these verses, or held them in your hands long enough to read. As you get to the back cover, you hear a metallic jingle, and see a foreign bulge in the back pocket of the book. Reaching into it, you pull out a chain with a cross charm, all a brilliant untouched gold that sparkled, reflecting the light from your lamp.

Walking into the bathroom, turning on the light there to face yourself in the mirror, you hold the necklace in your palm. You stroke and trace the cross with your fingers before unclasping it, draping it over your chest, and clasping it again behind your neck. The cross fell perfectly over your heart, and you examined it, and yourself, in the mirror. You held the charm again in your palm before letting it drop once more, with a gentle thump against your chest.

You took off your shorts to get comfortable, along with your leather jacket, but left your white tank as you climbed into bed, ready to rest. Turning off your bedside lamp, you reach into your gifted box of strawberries and pull out one. Setting the bible back on top of the box, you began to spread your body across the sheets, you glanced over at the bedside clock, which read exactly 7:00 P.M..

You stretched out your arms, your fingers stretching lazily toward either edge of the bed, over the deep crimson sheets, your feet together, reaching out toward the foot of the bed. You stare up at the ceiling with drooping eyelids, and feel your heart beat against the cross you now wore. You took a bite of the strawberry you held in your hand, and felt its red juices burst in your mouth with one faint trickle down your chin, as had happened this afternoon. With your finger, you traced your wettened lips, reminded of Jackson, with a biting anxiousness in your stomach to see him again.