“Hey, one more thing,” Stuart called out. Jeff stopped and turned in the doorway to see the writer getting up and coming after him. He moved past Jeff and jerked his head to indicate the younger man should follow. “You said you like my books, you should check this out.”
Jeff tailed Stuart to the living room bookshelf. The author sank onto his haunches and examined the bottom left shelf. At the far left side, next to several different editions of Grave, the first Alistar Wilcox novel (Jeff easily identified the original pulp paperback, a copy of which he had bought used when he was 15, the trade paperback reissue and the 10th anniversary hardbound edition) was a sheaf of papers held together with a fat, black clamp.
Stuart pulled it out, letting the other books all tilt to one side without the support. He theatrically pretended to blow dust from it and then handed it to Jeff.
“I can't tell you how many people have read this, kid, not exactly. My ex-wife, my mom, a teacher or two. Not many, I'll tell you that.”
Jeff looked at the thick stack of sheets. The cover sheet read “The Best Year, by Victor L. Stuart”.
“That is the first book I ever wrote. I was 17. Two years later I wrote Grave and my life changed. Read it. Enjoy it. But we probably won't talk about it, okay? I don't think about it much any more. But you claim to be a fan, so I thought you might get a kick out of seeing where I started out.”
“I...Oh, man, I...”
Stuart clapped him on the shoulder and the touch gave Jeff a surge. It was the first time the man had touched him. He was giving him the book he wrote when he was still in high school. A book almost no one had ever read!
“You're welcome to read anything else on the shelf, too, of course. Just be careful with the first editions of my books. Some of them are worth a lot, so don't get salsa on them or nothin'.”
The treasure he held in his hands was blocking out almost everything, but he had noticed several times already the author's lazy speech. For someone who had been called 'erudite and accessible' by the New York Times Book Review (no, not the New York Review of Books, but what can you do?), his spoken communication was awfully sloppy. He certainly didn't talk like he wrote. It's because he's been drinking so much, a small part of him spoke up, and Jeff accepted that as just as likely an explanation as any other.
“Thank you so much,” Jeff said, getting wound up to make a fool of himself.
“It's cool, kid. I'm gonna get to work.”
Jeff stood there a moment longer, staring at the bookshelf as if expecting it to discharge other secret volumes.
When he turned, Stuart was already at the table, his back to the living room, facing out toward the yard, the laptop open. He was either staring outside or staring at the computer. The house was quiet. Outside there was the drone of a distant lawn mower or even more distant airplane. Then, there was the sound of a muted machine gun and Stuart was off. His hands worked in fits and starts, cranking out fistfuls of letters and then pausing for long stretches. The writer continued to stare and if Jeff hadn't known better, he'd have thought the man wasn't look at the screen at all.
Jeff took the book and went downstairs.
He checked the Nextel and saw that no one had called him. The reception bars on both the work phone and his personal cell phone were scraping the bottom of the screen. He reminded himself to take the phones upstairs when he made dinner to check if he had any messages. Then he set the alarm on his personal phone so that he would remember to prepare Stuart's pizza later.
Then, he allowed himself the second greatest regular activity of his life. Third if you counted sex, which wasn't exactly regular. He took The Best Year and went to take a dump.
He sat on the toilet long after he had finished moving his bowels, turning page after page. The manuscript was a clean copy, probably photocopied from an actual typed manuscript. There were no notes and each page was carefully numbered at the bottom, in the center. Slap a cover on it and you wouldn't know that you were reading an unpublished book. For that matter, you would never guess you were reading a book written by a rookie, let alone a minor.
It had all the trademarks that Victor Stuart had become recognized for, deep characters, awkward situations, flowing dialogue, and crystal clear descriptive pose. Other than that, Jeff would have never guessed that Stuart had written it. The Alistar Wilcox novels were all about the unfamiliar, the unknown, the dirty, the mysterious. The Best Year was, Jeff was sure, mined from the details of Stuart's own youth. It was the story of a high school senior who discovered he was dying of cancer. So he robbed and bank and went on to live the life he'd dreamed of for the last months of his life. At least, that's what the book had been about so far.
Jeff would have never dreamed Stuart capable of writing with such...he grasped at words. Emotion seemed like a good one, but all of Stuart's books had emotion, just not the emotions this book had. In the place of fear, terror, and anger there was...sentimentality. That was it. Where the other books were confrontational or abrasive, this book was soft. Even if, in the end, it was about a kid dying, it was a gentle book.
Jeff pulled up his pants, flushed and went to lie down on his bed. He turned on the bedside lamp, propped himself up against the wall with a few pillows, and buried himself further in the world of Brian Robeson, the boy who knew he was dying, and the best year of his life.