Jeff dreamed in the small hours of the morning, dreams more violent and unsettling than the esoteric dream of the night before. When he woke, he was aware that his dreams must have been unpleasant, as he came to in a knot of bedsheets, having torn the base sheet loose, his face pressed against the rough mattress.
He showered using shampoo and body wash that was left behind by a nameless caretaker, not Mac.
Upstairs, he found Vic sitting in front of the television with the volume off. Morning talking heads were still yammering, and Jeff saw that it wasn't quite ten. It was much earlier than he had assumed it would be, but then again, he had probably fallen asleep before midnight.
Brian Robeson's journey in The Best Year had left Jeff emotionally wasted, coming to a haunting, final exchange between the young man and one of his teachers. Brian had not been on his death bed, he did not die in the book, but you knew that his death was imminent. In all his years of reading Stuart's books, Jeff had learned to expect the man's talent for being disturbing and disruptive, but he would have never guessed the man had the power to make him weep. Jeff had wept, racking his underground room with sobs by the end of the book, at the pitiless disease that was taking his friend from the world (fiction or not) and at the triumphant way Brian had stood up to the universe and accepted his fate.
I can't say this year changed my life, he'd said, talking to Mr. Grimm, his high school history teacher, as he lay in hospice care, wasting away, My life had been changed for me whether I liked it or not, maybe the first time I got a stomach ache and didn't know what it was from. I just did the best I could with it. I ran with it, I guess you could say. I had a hell of a run, though, didn't I?
And Grimm had taken Brian's hand and they had sat together quietly, knowing that they had reached an end, if not the ultimate one.
Jeff realized that he had cried himself to sleep for the first time since...when? He told himself he didn't remember, but the nagging clerk in the back of his mind that never forgot anything flipped through the catalog of slights that he kept and came up with spring, 2002, 8th grade dance. The clerk licked his pencil and consulted the specifics, ready to rattle off the facts of the entire miserable evening, but Jeff shook himself loose from that.
He wanted breakfast, but he didn't want to wake the writer, especially now that he knew the man wasn't a particularly heavy sleeper. Too bad he didn't sleep the way he wrote.
So Jeff dug in the cupboards until he found a cereal bar and grabbed a can of Sprite. He didn't want to hang around the house actively working to not wake Vic up, so he would check out the beach.
On the way, he passed the large clump of grass that he had noticed in the lawn the day before. He was trying not to think about what a bitch it would be to mow this disaster. He saw that the grass was entwined in a yellow clump, dead and stiff. He assumed what was beneath was a small tree stump or some other plant remnant, but when he pushed at the dead grass with his foot, it fell easily away and revealed a piece of rock.
Jeff made a puzzled face and shoved more of the grass off the rock with his foot. It stood perhaps a foot high and it was rough and old. It was square, about the size of a CD jewel case across the top.
Now that he had started, he felt compelled to finish, so he put his breakfast down in the grass beside him and began to pull the grass away from the piece of rock, the post, as he thought of it. The dead grass came away in easy, thick handfuls; damp and muddy on the underside, dry and hay-like at the top. The first time Jeff touched it, he brushed his knuckle across the surface and then hissed and brought his hand back to his mouth like a child, dropping the fistful of grass.
Now why had he done that? He looked at his knuckle and saw that it was just slightly abraded, but the rock had not been hot or cold, there had been no reason to jerk his hand back. But he had. He wondered why as he reached forward and tentatively touched the rock again. Nothing happened. Well, that wasn't entirely true, a humming in the back of his brain, somewhere between pain and excitement, the kind of sensation one might experience before a challenging test, physical or mental, had started up. Jeff didn't notice it.
Once the grass was all pulled away, he saw that there had once been characters or symbols carved into the rock. He could not make them out, he suspected no one could by now, the weather and time had done too much damage. He wondered how old it was. The material was not concrete, but that didn't mean that it had to be particularly ancient. With weather driving right up off the ocean, he suspected that depending on the kind of rock, something like this could get worn down to a nub in just a few years. But he didn't think that was the case here. Touching it made him feel...reverent somehow, as he had felt when he had entered St. Patrick's Cathedral the one time he had visited New York City. The post and its apparent age made him feel insignificant, small, fragile.
His stomach grumbled and a gull cried and Jeff's reverie was broken. He cleared his throat, picked up his food, and returned to the trail.
The band of trees that surrounded the property was just thick enough to create a sense of privacy and it only took Jeff a few steps to cross it. When he broke out into the sun again, he saw that there was another house on his right, this one much bigger and older than Stuart's. It was more like he'd had in mind when he'd envisioned the house he would be spending the summer in. It was in disrepair, a rowboat rotting away on the lawn, a sagging shed next to the house, but the house itself had clearly once been magnificent, full of Victorian glory, no doubt built for some rich showy twat at the turn of the century.
Jeff walked past it, occasionally sneaking glances at the staring windows of the old house. It looked like it could be abandoned, but there was an old Toyota truck in the driveway.
The tide was in and Jeff sat on a driftwood log, high on the beach, a remnant of a past storm, broken loose from some raft of logs being ferried around Puget Sound, driven up on the beach by wind and water. He cracked his Sprite and sipped at it, appreciating the sweet tang, realizing for the first time that he had woken with a mouth that was both dry and ill-tasting.
He consumed the Honey Nut Cheerios Milk N' Cereal Bar in three quick bites, his stomach roaring its approval and demanding more prey.
For the second time in ten minutes, Jeff was again visited by the notion that he was but a small and fragile part of the world, the universe, but here on the beach it was not a distressing notion. There was a comfort being here, feeling the morning sun, smelling the sea and feeling the breeze from it caress his face. This was a world you wanted to be a part of, even if it was only a tiny part.
Jeff gave a deep, satisfied exhale, chugged the rest of his can of Sprite and then threw the sea a loud, wet burp.
He returned to the trail he had followed, which started as a path of rock and crushed shells, but quickly devolved into a beaten trail through the grass.
There was someone at the Victorian, Jeff saw. He wasn't sure if the man had not been there before or if he had simply missed him. He was leaning on the porch of the house, as if he had been looking out at the sea like Jeff. Perhaps he had been. But now, he was looking at Jeff. His posture made Jeff think that the man was old, certainly older than Vic. He wore clothes that would have looked appropriate on a homeless person or the resident of a senior care facility. He wore a straw Panama hat and huge sunglasses that seemed to cover half of his face.
Jeff nodded at the man, trying to be polite, hoping he hadn't broken any rules by coming down to the beach. Vic had told him that he was allowed to come down here, that it was a private beach. And the guy wasn't telling him to get lost, after all.
Jeff received no indication from old the man at all, so he turned his head away and kept walking. He felt the eyes behind the oversized sunglasses watching him until he passed beyond the side of the Victorian house and out of the man's sight.