The firing of the shotgun was not what awoke Jeff on his second morning at the Stuart house. What woke him was the sound of Stuart's body hitting the floor above him. Jeff's eyes snapped open, his body trying hard to panic, and then he heard Stuart swear, muffled, through the floor. There was another thump and Jeff was out of bed, running up the stairs.
He skidded out of the kitchen, feet sliding on the hardwood floor of the dining room when he first heard the shots. Stuart was still lying on the floor, his chair splayed beside him, and whatever panic Jeff had been fighting took over completely. At the sound of the shots he threw himself onto the floor and began crawling toward the writer.
“Vic! Vic, are you—“
“God dammit!” Vic said, rising up onto hands and knees. “What the fuck time is it?” He looked at a clock on the wall. “Seven-fucking-thirty and he pulls this bullshit? I swear to Christ. We went over this last summer!”
Jeff was speechless as Vic calmly walked to his room and began to rummage through it. He walked out with a cell phone to his ear.
“Yes, police? This is Victor Stuart, I'm at 517 Beechwood Drive. My phone number is 503-621-6169. My neighbor is discharging a shotgun. If it's like last time, he is skeet shooting off his front porch. Yes, that's right. Yes. I believe it is Henry Thorsen, but I do not plan on walking over there to confirm it while the crazy old bastard is armed.”
Jeff pulled his knees up to his chest, conscious for the first time of how little clothing he was wearing. He slept in his boxer shorts and for a brief, sunny moment he was relieved that he had slept in anything at all. It was bad enough to parade around in front of Vic Stuart in his underwear, it would have been a whole different matter to fall on the floor next to him with his cock flopping around like a dying fish.
He started as another volley of shots began. He squeezed his eyes closed, willing the sound away, completely lost.
“C'mon, kid,” Victor said, and when Jeff opened his eyes, the writer was standing over him, hand extended. It reminded him of the day he had met Stuart, and could that have only been 48 hours beforehand? Only this time, someone really was shooting, it wasn't just a terrible joke.
Stuart helped him up and lead him to the living room, where Jeff was deposited on the couch. Vic handed him an afghan that was folded over the back of the couch and Jeff gratefully wrapped up in it. It was a little cool in the room, Victor had left the outside doors open to let the afternoon heat out and probably fallen asleep, but the comfort was largely due to putting something around himself, putting something between his almost naked body and the threatening world.
Jeff was unaware of the passage of time, other than two more shotgun volleys that caused him to close his eyes and grit his teeth. Eventually Vic returned with a tall glass of orange juice for himself and a hot cup of coffee for Jeff. With the first sip Jeff could tell the coffee was fortified with something, probably bourbon. He was grateful.
“I've got some pills around here somewhere,” Vic said, “Maybe some weed, too, if you need something to help calm down.”
Jeff shook his head. He was too confused to make any decisions. Waking up suddenly wasn't his strong suit at the best of times. Having it happen and immediately feeling like he'd woken up to an exciting morning in Baghdad was a completely different thing.
He realized he was shaking like a baby with a fever. “What...the fuck is...going on?”
“It's my neighbor. I told you I have a gun because I'm convinced he's gonna come up here and try to kill me one day.”
“This is insane.”
“Well, he's insane, if we're being honest. A nutball of the highest caliber,” he winced at the inadvertent pun.
Something that had been worming around at the back of Jeff's mind finally caught up with him. “Thorsen?”
Vic took a sip of his OJ and nodded. “Wait, the Henry Thorsen?”
“The one and only. Gun nut, drug addict, hippie baiter.”
“What the hell is this, some kind of retreat for crazy writers?”
“Does that mean you think I'm crazy, too?”
Jeff opened his mouth and realized what he'd just said. His mouth snapped shut with a click. Victor laughed at him.
“Don't sweat it, kid, I know what you meant. I don't take it personally.” He gave that wild man grin of his. “We all go a little mad some times,” he said, widening his eyes and speaking in a passable Norman Bates voice.
“I saw him,” Jeff said.
“Thorsen, yesterday, I went down to the beach. I think part of me recognized him and that stupid hat.”
Victor laughed again. “He loves those hats.”
“I didn't make the connection, I would have never dreamed two famous writers lived right fucking next door to each other.”
“Hold up there, buddy. Let's get something clear. Me,” Victor pointed at himself. “Famous writer. Henry fucking Thorsen?” he pointed to the other house, “Crazy bastard hack. Calling him a writer insults Charles Dickens and John Milton, alright? He rode the bullshit gonzo craze on Hunter Thompson's coat tails and managed to be the only guy, other than H.T., to make a career out of it. Now he lives off residuals and speaking engagements and apparently only exists to be a pain in the ass to his neighbors.”
“He's done this before,” Jeff said, Vic's phone conversation sinking in.
“Not all the time, just often enough to keep things interesting. There was a year or two when he was keeping it quiet, but I think he was on a book tour or some shit. Few years ago he was fishing with dynamite, if you can believe it. Where do you even buy dynamite?”
Jeff shook his head.
“I just hope that one day he'll die from taking too much hillbilly heroin or he'll fall down the steps and crack his fucking head open or he'll finally be committed.”
“Did he live here first?”
“Nope. Total coincidence as far as I can tell, unless he heard I lived here and decided that bugging me would be a good hobby. Can't say we've ever much talked about it though. I first met him when I went over to find out why he was having a weenie roast at two in the morning while blasting Zeppelin loud enough to hear in the city. Stupid thing is, if I'd have been here by myself I never would have noticed. My wife had to get my attention and point out the fact that for the last hour the bass had been rattling shit off the shelves. I was in that deep.
“So I go over there and he's got three half-naked chicks and a couple of scary, hairy bikers. You can barely see through all the smoke, not all of it from the fire, and I'm sure they were all cranked up on something as well. Someone's truck was running the stereo with the doors open, the music so loud you could almost see it when you got that close.
“I asked the first person who noticed me to turn it down and she passed it on to him. He had a fucking La-z-Boy out there on the lawn, sitting in front of this big bonfire, smoking a fucking peace pipe, if you can believe it. The chick speaks to him, he waves a finger, someone turns the music down. He nods at me, like the big leader or some shit, so I turn to walk away. Then the music goes right back up again and I look back and they're all laughing like he just told a goddamn joke. That was the first night I became familiar with the police's non-emergency number. They don't like you calling 911 for noise complaints. They like to keep the lines open for people who are bleeding.”
“I know,” Victor said, nodding sagely, “It's nuts. Listen I'm not much of a cook but I can manage not to fuck up toast and eggs. Lets put something in our bellies and go out in the sun and things will look a lot better in an hour or so, yeah?”
Victor was right. The eggs were overdone and the toast was burnt, but soon Jeff was laughing at the absurdity of it all. The second coffee loaded with bourbon also went a long way to improving his mood.