The wind is fierce and pushes the ladder over a couple of times before Henry figures out the clawed feet need to be shimmied to sit straight. He uses a couple of pieces of kindling from beside the house, and when he finally has the ladder secure and is six steps up, balanced at the edge of the tin roof, he takes a swing and drops the hammer. Six steps down and six steps back up, he takes a dozen or so more swings until two nails are secure in the corner of the roof. He’s trying to crane his neck to survey the handiwork when the wind repositions the ladder and tosses him onto his right leg, then while his ankle twists, onto his ass and into the mud. The limp back to Wendy’s door is not too painful, but he knows the ankle is going to get worse.
The roof’s nailed down, he says, but I fell off a forty-foot ladder. Got any ice?
Wendy laughs. This is good. She seems to understand his humour. And in that instant it starts to pour rain harder than Henry has ever seen before.
It had not been Henry’s plan to use his mishap as an excuse to stay the night but it’s just as well. By dark the weather has worked into a gale force storm, then next morning the man from Swift Farms comes earlier than expected. Seemingly the man has learned everything he knows about demeanor from boss man’s son, Bob. He’s pissed off the order isn’t ready, and he has no trouble expressing his dissatisfaction. Henry and Wendy scramble to collect the eggs while the man sits in his truck.
While they’re in the barn scooping eggs, Henry asks, Why do you let Swift Farms push you around?
I need the money, plain and simple, she answers.
Henry runs his hand along the back of the roosting bar. When he’s almost finished the last row, his hand hits a warm body. Once his eyes adjust to the gloom of the laying trough, he can see it’s a hen that looks like Pepper.
What are you doing down there, Pepper? he says.
Is there a hen brooding? Wendy asks.
Looks like there might be.
Gotta snap her out of it or she won’t lay for weeks. Need to get my egg count up to keep Swift happy.
After Wendy settles up the egg delivery and grumpy Swift has driven off, Wendy calls to Henry.
Bring that hen here, she says.
Henry holds Pepper out and asks, Where’s she going?
Into the panic room.
Wendy pushes open the door to a room off the side of the barn. The room has been mudded adobe style, but the walls, ceiling, and floor are painted a cerebral blue. Warm air wafts out. Inside there’s an oak table with a wooden box on it. Wendy puts Pepper into the box while Henry sits on a mud slab the size of a bed that juts out from the wall.
A man could sleep in here, he says. It’s beautiful.
Dennis did sleep in here sometimes, she murmurs.
Then wanting to change the subject, Henry asks, Why is Pepper in a box?
New accommodation, away from the eggs and her brooding. She’ll stay here ‘til she’s over her nonsense.
That night Henry sleeps in the mudroom with Pepper. It smells of chicken, but not too bad or maybe he’s just gotten used to it, and he tries not to think why Dennis might have slept there. But his ankle still hurts, and anything would be better than that first night sleeping on the living room floor, with Joey making such a big deal of stepping over him whenever he needed to go to the bathroom—uttering the same Jessuschris sound each time no matter where on the floor Henry had moved to—and come to think of it, going to the bathroom way more times than any normal teenager needs to in one night.
The second night in the mudroom, Henry takes Pepper out of the box and sits with her on his lap. A calm comes over him. After a time he realizes something else is happening, having a chicken in his lap keeps his apparatus warm. He might even start to think about taking it out, and touching it, without freaking that it will go numb or dissolve, though bits of doubt make him wonder whether it’s creepy to be thinking this with a chicken so close—it’s not like he wants to do anything with the chicken—it’s just that it’s warm and it’s better than thinking about, say, his shriveled five-year-old self in the bathtub, his mother kissing his soapy face. After a time he exhausts himself thinking and he just settles into the warmth of it. He is half-asleep when he feels himself lapse into a state one level below the busybody monitoring himself for weirdness, and into a zone of comfort without admonishments about inadequacies. Henry sleeps well in the panic room.
By the third night he’s made the room his own sort of nest bringing in a few different chickens for a visit, comforted by their warmth and chatter, their feathers beginning to form constellations on the heavenly blue walls. But after the fourth night, the Friday night, he thinks he needs to get back to his own place. Who knows what new mess might greet him there, and besides he can’t ask Wendy to wash his only set of clothes again.