At ten minutes to six, Jeff's cell phone began to bleep out a happy little tune. Jeff was jerked from Brian Robeson's world, where he was in Vienna and the cancer was beginning to catch up with him. He was starting to see the world with a new perspective, through a haze of pain and medication. He was alone again, his most recent travel companion having stayed in France.
Jeff tromped up the stairs, manuscript in hand, and realized that he had been so excited to start the book that he had left both doors open. He stood in the laundry room and listened. There was, again, the pause and insistent rattling of Stuart's writing. Jeff hoped it was going well. Tomb, he'd said the new book was called. The title made him think of a chamber, deep inside an Egyptian pyramid. Or the hole carved in the rock where Jesus had been laid, according to his one summer in Vacation Bible School when he was eight.
Jeff opened the freezer and checked the instructions on the Four Cheese DiGiorno that was on top of the pile. He preheated the oven to 400 degrees.
Vacation Bible School had been during the first summer he spent alone with his mother and she hadn't known what to do with him. So, for four hours at a stretch he had spent his afternoons in a cool church basement, learning songs, coloring, snacking on Hawaiian punch and Nila Wafers, and of course, hearing about Jesus. Jesus had been laid in a tomb and, according to his teacher, whose name escaped him (but whose massive stature and hairy top lip remained permanently carved onto the tablet of his memory), God had raised Jesus after he had been dead for three days. That tied in with heaven and sin and all sorts of other things Jeff couldn't remember. He wondered if that Vacation Bible School was the first time he had ever heard the word tomb.
And then there was Tomb Raider, of course. Couldn't forget the delectable Lara Croft and her outfits that, while pleasing on a surface level, seemed completely impractical for her chosen profession.
He looked out of the kitchen to see Stuart and you could be forgiven for thinking the man had not moved anything but his fingers in the three hours Jeff had been in the basement. The chattering of the keys continued periodically and the man continued to stare. He must have moved, however, as the glass next to the white Macbook was half-full and there were two bourbon bottles on the table, one empty, one on the way.
The oven temperature read 325, so Jeff pulled the pizza from the freezer, peeled it from its plastic sheath, and placed it on the center oven rack. He set the timer and now had twenty minutes to kill, and he didn't want to start back into The Best Year and stop again, and Stuart was clearly not going to be bothered by anything. He walked past the author into the living room and the man didn't seem to even notice him.
He delayed his pleasure for a few moments by exploring the movie collection beneath the television. He mentally set aside the titles he had not seen before to watch later. He was too self-conscious to examine the porn more closely.
Instead of standing up, he crawled over to the bookshelves, sitting before them with his legs crossed, feeling like he could hug the entire assembly and all the rewards that it held. He browsed a copy of the fourth Wilcox book (and one of his least favorites) Ash, written in what Jeff took to be Italian. He wondered what it would be like to teach yourself a language by comparing this version to the English version. How different was the language when you really got down to it, the metaphors, the idioms, the quirks? Stuart would be a more difficult writer to translate than, say, John Grisham, he supposed.
The covers were fascinating. The United States was apparently the only market that employed the iconic black cover and colored title scheme. The U.K. editions all featured an image of the titular object. The covers of Plague and Blood could have been mistaken for medical thrillers. There were several books with titles in Asian lettering that actually depicted Alistar Wilcox himself, in one particularly ridiculous image, which Jeff took to be the cover of Rain or Storm, the man was standing in the rain, pulling his coat back over one hip as if he were about to perform a quick draw.
The oven beeped in the kitchen and Jeff put the books back and stood up. He stretched out his thighs and groaned as he arched his spine. He heard the slap of Stuart's laptop closing.
“That the pizza?” he asked.
“Yup,” Jeff replied, moving to the kitchen.
He found a hot mitt in a drawer next to the oven and moved the pizza to a heavy marble cutting surface on the island in the center of the kitchen.
“That smells great,” Stuart said from the kitchen door. “I'm starving.” He pulled a large carving knife from magnetic bars above the dishwasher and handed it, handle first, to Jeff. He pulled a fistful of paper towels from a roll and then he pulled two plates from a cupboard and held them out as Jeff served the steaming slices.
“Grab me a Coke, yeah?”
Jeff grabbed a cold can for both of them, and Stuart led them to the living room instead of the dining room. He flopped on the couch and put the two pizza plates on the coffee table. Jeff sat down next to him
Jeff was waiting another minute for his pizza to be ready to eat, but Stuart tore into his, hissing at the heat and then chasing it with the Coke to fight it off. The first slice vanished in much the same fashion before Jeff even started his.
“Thanks,” Stuart said, talking around a mouthful.
“You bet. How's it going?”
“Excellent. I don't keep track of pages, but I'm into the second chapter. I'm toying with the idea of trading off chapters between Wilcox and the other side of things.” Jeff nodded. Stuart slugged back some more Coke and burped. Jeff was conscious of the fact that, while he could smell the bourbon and knew that Stuart had drank a substantial amount that evening, the writer seemed quite sober. “At this rate I'll get at least four chapters today, which is great, but not normal. Like I told you, this book has been waiting to come out for a while, so I'm making a big splash at the outset, but it won't continue. Tomorrow, before I write, I'll go back and read what I've already got, refresh my memory and edit it a bit. A good day for me is usually three chapters.” Stuart then inhaled the second slice of pizza and chased it with the remnant of the Coke. “You want any more?” he asked Jeff, who was only halfway through his first piece.
“No, go ahead.”
Stuart went back into the kitchen and Jeff heard the clank of his plate and the hiss and pop of another can of soda opening. By the time Jeff was finished, the writer was back at his table, writing and staring again. There was one slice left on the counter, so Jeff helped himself, eating over the sink.
When he was finished, he put the plates in the dishwasher and the paper towels in the trash. He paused at the kitchen door and looked back out at the writer. Stuart was pouring himself another hefty glass of bourbon.
Jeff returned to his room to finish The Best Year. It would only take another couple of hours. It was already one of those books that he was excited to get to the end of, even though he knew he would be disappointed when there was none left.
He made sure to close the door at the top of the stairs this time. When he reached the bottom, he was struck again by the odd smell in the room, but he knew he would stop noticing it soon enough.