Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Author, Chapter Forty-Nine: The Truth, At Last

August 3

I was just a kid when I first came out here and it was just so easy. My first book, the cancer one, the one you read, that was fuckin' hard, man. It was too much like work. So when I was out here and everything got so easy so quickly, who was I to argue or complain?

And when the book sold so easily, it felt like fate or destiny or any of those other things you believe in when you're still too young to know better. No offense. I was successful because I was good, because I deserved it, whatever, not because there was a vampiric pagan something or another underneath the house, for Christ's sake.

I didn't dream the first year out here. Other than the energy and the book, that first year was kind of its own thing. Maybe it's because I wasn't as alone as I was after that, maybe it was his energy, or maybe it was just the seduction.

The second year, for the second Wilcox book, was a whole different story. Because that year I was completely alone. That was the year it snowed, I told you. And I was able to convince myself that it was a freak weather pattern. In July. Even though it was falling on less than a square acre. And right now I wanna tell you that it was the stupidity of youth, but I think I just believed what I wanted to believe.

Because that whole year was weird and maybe you think that I could have chosen to break away at some point later, but I think that first year I sold myself to this place. To that thing. Wholesale, even.

That was when the dreams started. Almost every night, so vivid and epic that I could have written them down and had a second career as a fantasy author. Dreams where I was a priest of some kind, where I was a warrior, where I was a Victorian writer of some kind. Not Lovecraft, though, I checked some details. Just some hack scribbling away, lost to time. I have no doubt he was a real person.

So here I was, all of 21, already well off, if not rich. I'd troop into town every couple of days, stock up on booze, cigarettes, and food. Sometimes I'd stop by a local bar and people were already whispering about who I was. I was living the dream, man, no one to tell me what to do or what not to do, living how I wanted while I wrote what I already somehow knew would be an even more successful book.

One night, maybe halfway through, I was sitting here, at this table, with my typewriter, in fact, it's this burn scar on the table right here. I...well, I can't say I passed out or that I fell asleep. Neither is accurate. My consciousness slipped, I suppose, would be closest, stepped sideways maybe, and when I woke up I had a crick in my neck like you wouldn't believe, a burn mark on the table, and I had 20 more pages of manuscript.
I didn't accept it, exactly, but I certainly didn't question it like I think you would have. I just rolled with it. I didn't drink as much the next night, so it didn't happen. Didn't happen again for years, in fact. Maybe after that happened I started to subconsciously protect myself a little bit, wall myself up some, just in case.

So that year was rough, because I did some maintenance myself, and mowed the damn lawn, because it was my house now, after all, and all that shit, so the book mostly came pretty slow, just a few hours a day, afternoons or evenings.

It wasn't until 10 years later that I realized that little by little, the house was taking things from me. It didn't give them back when I left, either. I mean, I'll tell you that my wife left me at least partly because she lost patience with me, the way I was out here, the priorities that I made. But that's only because, year by year, I stopped giving a shit. About her, I mean. I realized after what you said that it never even occurred to me that bringing my kids out here was dangerous, but now that I have the thought, it's terrifying. Who can say how much damage might have already been done. At least neither of them is writing yet.

So it started out that I was grateful and excited to have this opportunity, to be this person, and it ended up that, well, I just kept at it. I probably talked around it a bit when I described it before, but my year revolves around being here. As miserable as I might be when I drag myself away from the new book and get the hell out of here, by April I'm excited to come back here again.

So, yes, I'm, for want of a better word, perfectly happy to sit here and let this house suck me dry. Not because I get anything out of it, not really, but just because it's what I do and what I've been doing. Sad, I guess.

But I've known the truth of that for a while. I have the last page of the thing I wrote about the posts. I always had it, but it wouldn't have made much sense until you discovered the post under the house.

Each line of stones reaches a point and these points are the most powerful locations of all. They form the locus of a pattern of stones, a focal point where the power is stored and where it may be used. On these points horrendous battles have been fought, like those at the Alamo and Little Big Horn. The stones clearly thrive on sacrifice of life or life energy. Loss of life seems to be inevitable in their presence.

The base of each of these stones is littered with the bones of sacrifice and death, and the ashes of worship.

They are to be feared. They are to be revered. They may be used, by those who have the understanding, to amplify power, to heal or to hurt, but they are never to be truly understood. They are not sensible. They represent only power, which may be abused, which may be focused, but never controlled, but which must always be feared.

But here's the kicker. I told you that early on I was being used for automatic writing? It started again, a few years ago. Once in a while, I'd come to after being mentally away for an hour or two, and I'd find that I'd been writing the whole time. Believe it or not, by that point, it didn't seem like a big deal. But two years ago, when I was getting to the end of Fear, I went to bed one night and woke up in the morning at the table. I'd gotten up sometime during the night and started up again, while I was asleep.

So last year I brought Xanax. And when I was really involved in the book, but when I needed a break, I'd take one, and that seemed to work. I drifted off at the table and kept writing once, but it didn't seem like a big deal. Then, when I was almost at the end, and it is, if I say so myself, a hell of an ending, the kid who was staying here last summer left. He had a family emergency and I figured, shit, the book's almost done, why not?
It was like the place was waiting for me to be alone. The next day I woke up at the table. So, the next night I took a Xanax and a sleeping pill and I woke up at the table after ten hours, with a crust of drool on my face and a film on my tongue and a neck that was stiff for days.

I tried to slow myself down, I actually put a chair under my doorknob and tied myself to the bed, thinking that, for some reason, I would be dumber when I was asleep. Of course it was simple for me to untie myself and move the chair and I still woke up at the table and by then the book was just about finished.

I manged to finish the book while I was awake and went to bed that night expecting that the automatic writing episodes were over. When I woke up it was almost twenty hours later, I had been sleeping on the couch, and I found that I'd started a new book. A non-Wilcox book, much more blatantly Lovecraftian than anything I'd ever written. It was like now that the post had my silly project out of the way, it was going to say something directly instead of wasting any more time being subtle. It never had a title. And I had something in common with the post, finally. I knew what it was like to hold on to something for years, aching to get it out.

So the pattern started up again and I stopped thinking about it, stopped fighting it. Once I was on board, it seemed like the pace dropped off a bit, and things went back to what passes for normal out here. I started cranking out pages for this new book, and so long as my productivity kept up, there was no more automatic writing.

My kids came out for Labor Day and I still don't know exactly how it happened, but when I took them back to the airport, I got on a plane to New York, with just the clothes on my back, and didn't come back. Some part of me had planned it all along, but most of me had been unaware of the idea. I called someone from the law firm to ship me my laptop and that was all there was to it. As soon as I got it I deleted the partially completed novel.

I spent three days in a hotel room in New York detoxing from the house, keeping myself stoned and doped enough so that I couldn't get back here under my own power. When I came out the other side, I still had the itch to come back here, like I still want to smoke a cigarette sometimes, but the real impulse, the irrational one, was gone. That's the way it usually is at the end of the summer. Sometimes it's worse than others. Last year, that was the hardest it has ever been.

So you, and that suicidal asshole before you, have a more important job than my caretakers usually do. You're here to make sure that doesn't happen again. You're here to keep an eye on me so that it doesn't get worse. You're here to make sure that I finish this book, and then, when it's done, that I get the hell out of here instead of starting another one. Because if that happens again, no exaggeration, I'm pretty sure I'll never leave.
I'm sorry to dump this all on you, kid, I know it's a hell of a burden and definitely not what you signed up for.
But I think that if you leave me here, I'm pretty sure my writer's hell will come true. I'll just sit here and keep typing and when I get tired my body will keep typing while I sleep because that's what...IT...wants. I'll sit here and just write and write until I die. And I don't know what that will take. Because in addition to the books, another thing this place, this thing, has given me is health.

I haven't had a cold or a flu in about as long as I can remember. And while I take care of my health the months that I'm not here, at least partly to make up for the way I abuse myself when I am here, I'm not sure I need to. I have the heart of a teenage distance runner. I have the blood pressure of a happy house cat. I have the lungs of someone who never smoked a day in his life, even though I smoked like a chimney for 20 years. Whatever the plan is, this place has insured that I'll stay healthy until it gets what it wants from me.

Short of a bullet to the brain pan, I'm not sure what would kill me. I fell off the deck once a few years ago and heard a snap when I landed on my wrist. I took some pills and went to bed. The next morning it hurt, but not enough to keep me from typing. I got it x-rayed after that summer and there was a break there, but the doc told me it looked years old.

So know you know. Now you know all my secrets. And now, hopefully, you get it, you understand. Why you're here. Why I need you here. And why I can't let you leave.

Author's Note: Full Circle

The last few chapters have been amazing to write and surprisingly emotional, I think because I finally came full circle, as I'd planned, and the book is now where it began.  Maybe it just feels like a big deal because I feel like it has worked so well.  Tomorrow will be chapter 50, which seems like an accomplishment for some reason.  This isn't the longest thing I've ever written, but it certainly has the most chapters.

For a new project, one unrelated to any I've written before, a stand alone book, I'm very proud, especially to have written it so quickly and so faithfully.  I will tidy up the first few chapters and begin seeking representation as soon as the book is finished, which should be within a week or so.

I don't need feedback if you haven't already had a burning desire to share it.  However, I would like a sound off of those who have actually gotten to this point on the novel.  I know there's more of you out there than the two or three I see in person on a regular basis.  I would find it encouraging to know how many people have made this journey with me.

See you tomorrow!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Author, Chapter Forty-Eight: The Escape

August 3

It took Jeff the better part of an hour to get himself under control. He climbed under the sheets and breathed air that smelled like him instead of air that smelled like...the other thing. Then he went to the bathroom and cleaned his body of the smell and his mouth of the taste of his own vomit and bile.

He stripped the bed, took off his clothes and started a load of laundry. His new clean shirt went into it, as well as the dirty socks and underwear that had been in the corner. Anything that had been exposed to the foul air.
Then, he packed his bag. He took his clean clothes from the dresser, the laptop from its place in the desk and the toiletries he used from the bathroom. He did a quick once over of the room, making sure he was leaving nothing behind. Then he dragged the suitcase up the stairs to the laundry room, went back down the stairs, and closed the door to the basement. He never opened the door again.

The panic and terror had been too much for Jeff to stay pissed at Stuart again, particularly without the evidence of Mac's body. He'd been convinced, as soon as that scent had struck him, that he knew what had happened. It hadn't been far from the truth, but Stuart hadn't fed Mac to the post. The post was apparently doing a fine job of feeding itself. Jeff shuddered. Where Stuart fit into this, he wasn't sure. Intellectuals were cowards, he'd read that somewhere once, and he supposed it must be true, to one degree or another. Certainly, he could see Stuart on trail as a Nazi war criminal, swearing he was just taking orders, he'd done what was necessary to survive, he'd meant no harm. But how much harm would such a person really cause?

The suitcase thumped on the floor of the kitchen as he yanked it over the threshold. Stuart didn't notice. He left it by the back door and then crossed the kitchen to get his new bottle of rum from the freezer. His first pull from the bottle cleared the neck, and the liquor was so cold he felt the thick line of it sear its way down his throat and into his stomach, where it started to thaw.

He decided one uncivilized drink was enough, even in the face of a night like this one, so he poured himself a full glass of the stuff, and then ate two cookies over the sink, just so something would be in his stomach. As he walked to Stuart's table, where the man sat, eyes intent on his computer, Jeff wished he had a cigarette. No, a whole pack of them. He felt like he could chain them end to end and just never stop.

Jeff sat across from the writer, who didn't blink.

“Vic,” Jeff said, hating how familiar the name sounded when talking about the deceptive, unknowable figure across the table. “Stuart,” he said louder, angrier, liking the sound of it much better. The writer still didn't notice him.

Jeff reached out and started to push the laptop closed. At first, Stuart simply shrank from his shoulders, keeping his eye on the screen as long as he could. When the line of sight was broke, he lifted his head up and looked at Jeff. Stuart was there, he could see him, but on top of him was something that looked more like an animal. More than rage bore out of his eyes, it was pure and simple hate. If there had been a weapon nearby then Jeff was certain, in his gut, that—

“What's up?” Stuart asked, casual as ever. The animal mask was gone, it was the same man he'd spent two months with.

Jeff had too many things to say, so he started with the easiest one. “I'm leaving. I have some clothes in the wash, but I don't give a shit about them.”


“It would be decent if you could take me somewhere, but if you don't, I'll call a friend or a cab.”

Stuart's reply was immediate and cold. “If you bring someone else out here you'll be no better than me. You'll put them at risk, just like I put you at risk. Maybe at the top of the driveway they'll decide it's a good idea to just put the pedal down and try to see if they can reach the water. Or they'll leave their seatbelt off and ram the house.”

“Fuck you!”

Stuart nodded. “I know, Jeff. I keep saying it, I guess, but I'm sorry.”

“Then I'll walk. I'll haul my bag up that hill just like I rolled it down when I got here.”

“You think this place will let you?”

Jeff realized he hadn't touched his rum since he'd sat down. He chugged some of it, coughed, and then stood. “I'm leaving.” He started toward his bag.

“It can get worse, Jeff. A lot worse. I'm willing to bet the last few times you've gone into town you've felt it, headaches maybe, in your gut, in your teeth, your ears, it could be anything, but that's this place, Jeff, calling you back. Reminding you where your home is.”

Jeff whirled. “This is not my home.”

“I know that.” The man was being impossibly calm. “I can't help that.”

“I have to get out of here.”

“I know it feels that way, but you can make it. We can make it. The book is almost done, I'm sure of it, and when it's finished, the grip is less, and we can get out of here. You'll still be miserable for a couple of days after, I can promise you that, but we can get out of here It will be okay, I swear. Now, come back over here, sit down, finish your drink, and tell me what set you off.”

Jeff did so, taking another heavy pull of the rum and staring at the writer. As volatile as he'd seen the man be, he couldn't believe how calm he seemed. Part of his mind whispered that it was because the sad bastard had already given up.

“Do you know what's under the house?”

“Of course.”

“Have you seen it?”

“Not in person.”

“Just in dreams?” Jeff asked.

“Something like that. I'm very aware of the fact that the post is beneath me, I can tell you that, and I know that it has...needs. But most of the time it's out of sight, out of mind, I suppose.”

“You got used to it. Like the fucking smell.” Just the thought of it almost made Jeff retch.

“Just like that.”

“There's a panel behind the closet. When I opened it and I,” Jeff realized he'd been about to say 'when he saw the smell,' “When I smelled what was down there, I was sure it was Mac.”

Stuart laughed softly. “Again with the murder angle. Well, after all this, I suppose I can't blame you for hanging onto that.”

“I mean, maybe you didn't even kill him, you know? Maybe part of the story was true, but when you found him, instead of doing something else it was...” Jeff swallowed.

“Feeding time?”


“I've never fed it. I really never have been down there. The knowledge and the faint traces of the smell are enough for me. I don't know how it works, but I know that I've never let my kids bring a critter out here, not even a hamster.”

“Why doesn't it eat you?” The words sounded strange, but there didn't seem to be any other way to put it.

“I don't know,” Stuart said. “Honestly, I could give you plenty of guesses, but the truth is, I have no fucking clue. Maybe it likes puppets better when it finds someone...compatible. Because that's what we are. Maybe it's because we're insane or maybe it's because we're uncensored or better than other people or worse or whatever. But there's something about us that connects with it and maybe that's so rare that it tries to take advantage of us. And, to be honest, it's not like it isn't eating me, you know. It really is, you know. It's just taking a lot longer to go about it.”

Jeff clearly hadn't thought about that, Stuart realized, as he sat there stunned. Stuart got up to get a bowl of ice and a fresh bottle of Woodford. His present bottle was almost empty.

“I guess I'll start at the beginning,” Stuart said.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Author, Chapter Forty-Seven: The Bodies

August 2

Jeff staggered back from the closet. He then charged back into the fray of the rotting fragrance and slammed both doors shut. He ran into the bathroom and hid behind that door as well. He tried to breathe easily, to take in the uninfected air from this room, but he could smell, and even feel, that appalling scent all over him.

His first instinct was to go upstairs, get Stuart, bring him down here and shove his nose in his mess like a bad dog. But he remembered how that had gone the first time, and if he really had evidence of Stuart as a murderer, especially if the man had a gun, he would have to be as insane as the writer to just confront him with it.

No, God help him, he'd have to do this himself. And he'd have to be careful, too. Although the writer wasn't easily distracted while he was writing, it wouldn't do to make a racket underneath the house. Especially if Stuart thought someone was on to his secrets. The thought that passed through his mind, but that he did not want to acknowledge, because it was preposterous, was that he would have to be careful or the house itself would warn the writer.

There was a flashlight on a shelf in the laundry room, Jeff knew. He'd seen it every day since he moved in. He couldn't remember if he'd closed the door to the laundry room or not, sealing the writer upstairs and the smell down here, but that would be best.

He forced himself to tromp to the top of the stairs as if nothing was wrong and he saw that he'd left the door open. He'd need to go into the kitchen to get something, he realized, or else it would seem like he had come upstairs just to close the door, which was weird. This was all supposing Stuart even gave a damn, but he couldn't take the risk.

Jeff crossed the kitchen and got himself a beer. The sight of the food in the fridge, even the thought of the beer turned his stomach, but he turned, away from Stuart so he wouldn't have to look at him, and moved back to the stairs.

“Hey, kid,” Stuart called out to him.

Christ he knows, he knows, he knows, a high pitched voice chanted in Jeff's head.


“Can you bring me a beer, too?”

“One of yours?” Jeff asked automatically, blessing himself for being so natural. Stuart occasionally liked to break things up by having a Coor's.

“Nah, I'll have one of yours.”

“'Kay.” Jeff got the beer from the fridge and walked it to the writer, who didn't look up when the can was placed on the table.

“Thanks,” was all he said.

He doesn't know! Jeff reassured himself as we walked back to the stairs again. But he knew he could not be sure. Stuart was too unstable to judge by any normal standards.

Jeff closed the laundry room door behind him, grabbed the flashlight and walked slowly down the stairs. The light was the kind that used a box-shaped battery, and the weight was reassuring in his hand.

The smell was worse now, of course. Not nearly as bad as it was when he'd opened the closet, of course, but it was enough to turn his stomach and make him dread what would come next.

He knew from books, Stuart's among them, that crime scene techs and coroners and the like used tools like mint-scented face masks, or a dab of VapoRub beneath the nostrils to combat the stench of death. Jeff had nothing like it in his toiletries. He settled for a liberal application of mouthwash on his upper lip. The then tied a t-shirt over his nose and mouth, figuring it couldn't hurt.

A massive impulse, for preservation of life, health, and sanity, forbade him to return to the closet, but he did. With his mask the smell in the room was not noticeable, and with the closet open, it was still much better. It was, however, bad enough that he could remember what it was really like, which was almost as bad.

He gave the second door a light shove and it popped open again. As he climbed into the closet he was again reminded of the idea of passing into another world. “I suppose I am,” he muttered to himself, “Into the fucking looking glass,” and he was surprised and even impressed by the hard resolve that he heard beneath the fear in his voice.

There was no instant of stench as he passed into the crawlspace as there had been when he'd opened the closet. Instead, the ruthless smell just kept coming, seeping through his mask and beginning to overpower the mint scent beneath his nose. There was no escape from the overwhelming, nauseating stink. There was, he could see, raw, gray soil beneath his hands and feet.

Until now he'd been using the ambient light from his bedroom, but now he turned on the flashlight. And, of course, there it was.

Just as he hadn't been surprised by the snow, he was not surprised by this, but the sight of the stone post, reaching almost to the floor joists above it, fired an icy dart of fear into his guts. It didn't hit his heart, it hit lower, his diaphragm maybe, and he began to shake. He shuffled back against the stationary part of the closet panel, placing his free hand against it, needing to feel something more stable and solid that he felt.

He had no thoughts now, simply a survival impulse that told him to run, as fast and as far away as he could. There was something else, though, of course there was, with this bastard post and the bastard upstairs, the goddamn thing wanted him to come closer, and Jeff knew that he was going to.

He was afraid to see Mac's body, but he knew where he'd find it. He kept the light on the post and began to move forward. The stone stood perhaps only 20 feet from the closet, over nothing more than packed dirt. As he crawled, he could see that this post was the most clearly marked of all the ones he'd seen. The sigils and runes carved on the outside of it were fresh, still powerful, as fresh as when (HE) the Shaman had streaked them with blood and he knew that if he looked too closely he would see bloodstains in the cracks and that if he got that close to the goddamn thing he really would go completely and totally insane and then—

The runaway train of Jeff's thoughts was derailed by the feel of his free hand landing on something soft and wet. He made an infant sound and snatched his hand back. The movement upset his balance and he fell onto his side and he felt something splatter his face.

He scrambled, unseeing, panicked as a trapped insect, scraping his exposed skin on the dirt. He shivered in revulsion but he did not hesitate as he used the light to reveal what he'd touched.

There were bodies. Dozens of them. No, there were hundreds, a cold, observant internal voice told him. They started about ten feet out from the post and grew more and more dense, forming a barrier of flesh and blood and bone and hair.

He could see tell tale markers. Here was the black and white striped tail of a raccoon, there was a clump of feathers that looked like it had once been a seagull, and of course there were rats and rabbits and shrews and mice and...and there, shining in the light, was a dog tag.

Jeff looked away and scrabbled at the shirt over his face. He got it away in time to keep from soiling it as bile spewed up out of his mouth. He wheezed and coughed, sobbing in the dark and that was all that kept him from screaming.

Feeding. The thought came without warning to his head and he realized that's what it was doing.

Again, he did not hesitate. The primitive part of his mind knew that if he hesitated, he'd never escape, or at least, not all of him. He had to know.

Because the perimeter of flesh was so close to the post, it did not take long to evaluate it. Even with almost two months to rot away, there would be plenty of evidence of Mac if he were here. Jeff couldn't bring himself to get closer, but he shifted from side to side to see what was behind the post's shadow. He saw something long and brown that could have been a large nutria or a terrier. There was a skunk. Another raccoon. He saw more pets, cats and dogs with metal tags, decorated with the phone numbers of owners who loved them, who missed them, their collars multi-colored reminders in the brutally revealing light from his hand.

In the center, closest to the post, there were no bodies, just a dark, clotting ooze. The post stood in the midst of it, proudly, looking much higher than it possibly could be in the crawlspace. Jeff's imagination played awful records for him, the lapping of waves of gore against the post, or the slurping sound of it consuming all that blood and viscera.

At the far side, there was a carcass that was mostly skeleton and Jeff only focused on it because the size would have been right for a man. But it was not. It was the wrong shape, if nothing else, and dark fur clung to its ribs in places. He began to whimper and he tried to shove the realization down before it ate his mind.
Mac was not here. That was what mattered.

But it wasn't all that mattered. As Jeff scraped his way back to the closet he found that, against all odds, he did notice the smell less. He sent his mind scurrying off in all directions, thinking about Stuart's books, his own book, his mom, the dinner he would have wit her tomorrow, all trying to keep away from the sledgehammer blow of the one thought that followed after him, from the far side of the post.

It was no good. As he stumbled out of the closet and closed it behind him, no longer trying to be quiet, he threw himself on his bed and crammed the comforter in his bed to block his screams, sure that if they started they would never end.

There was no stopping something so powerful, so hungry, so fucking empty that it could summon and then devour...

That it could call and consume a bear.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Author, Chapter Forty-Six: The Closet

August 2

Jeff woke up hungover, as was becoming typical for him. He had stayed up until almost two in the morning, not quite matching the pace of the maniac upstairs, but putting in another good night's work. He felt like another few nights and Danny's Dime would be done, although what he would do after that, he had no idea. Certainly the notion of finishing the rest of Stuart's books wasn't as appealing as it had been a month ago, but who knew what he would resort to when he got bored enough. Perhaps, he thought to himself as he showered, he'd get around to that stupid deck after all.

The day, sadly, was of a kind with the last week: still, stuffy, and too damn hot. Jeff changed into shorts before he left the house, knowing it wouldn't help much, especially once he was out in the sun.
He stopped for lunch at the local Jack in the Box, mostly craving something cooked by someone, anyone, other than him. The meal tasted incredible, the salt and fat sitting well with his hangover, but it turned sour in his stomach as he continued his errands.

First, he went to the grocery store and suffered through Muzak that seemed designed to drill into his ears. He bought the usual supplies, beer for both of them, Stuart's chili and biscuits, frozen pizzas and waffles (which both of the men had developed a taste for after they had been stocked for Vanessa), chips, and bread and turkey breast, with which Jeff always vowed he'd make himself a healthy sandwich, although he rarely got around to it.

Then, to the liquor store. Stuart consumed so much bourbon that he had a standing order for a case of Woodford Reserve every two weeks. The six bottles rarely lasted the whole two weeks, but it was a good cornerstone. To that Jeff now added his standard Bacardi Limon, which he drank with Coke. The last bottle had only lasted him three evenings, so this time he bought two.

Finally, even though he was feeling like ass, he drove past the new restaurant his mother was so excited to eat at. It was just past California on Admiral, a rustic Italian joint called Sonore. It looked like it would be expensive just to prove that it was tasteful and chic.

Once he reached the house, Jeff stood at the sink and drank two glasses of water, hoping it would help his stomach or his head or both. Then he began to unload the Land Rover. Stuart, he noticed, apparently still wasn't awake at past 1 p.m. Shocker.

The food and booze stored away, Jeff fixed himself a drink rum and Coke and sat on the deck in the sun, in defiance of the weather. There was no breeze from the ocean and the heat sat around him like a gravity-defying hot tub. Behind him, he heard the doors open.

“Shit, it's gross out here,” Stuart said. Jeff did not reply.

Instead of sitting across from him, Stuart moved to Jeff's side of the table and sat next to him on the bench. Jeff noticed that he, too, had a drink, but still felt superior because at least he'd been up for a couple of hours. And eaten. And showered.

“Listen, kid,” Stuart started. “Jeff. The book is calling me, but I owe you an apology. I know that. I was thinking about it and I realized that, at least partly, I never expected this to happen to anyone else. Not the way it's happening to you. Other people have reacted badly to the place, but if they didn't like it, they fuckin' left, you know? They didn't goddamn well kill themselves!”

Jeff took a drink and continued to look out in the yard. His focus had drifted into neutral, so he was just looking past the yard at the green of the trees and the iron gray of the water underneath the overcast sky, but when he blinked and refocused, he realized he'd been staring at the post as well. The fucking post, he thought.
Stuart reached out as if to touch Jeff, to put his hand on his shoulder or his knee. Jeff didn't notice. Stuart put his hand back in his lap and took a drink of his own. His jaw worked as he thought a moment longer.

“So, yeah, I fucked up. I swear to you, when he killed himself, it really didn't cross my mind that it was anything to do with here. I figured it was all him. I mean, he'd only been here for ten days!”

Jeff finally turned his head to look at the writer. “And when Thorsen died?”

“Even then, do you think you'd have been able to take it all in if I'd have told you the truth? Hey, Jeff, every summer I come out here and let something control me and pump out a book. Are you having crazy dreams? Imagine more than twenty years of them.”

“You're right, I wouldn't have believed you. But maybe after two months of this shit you'd have been willing to give me that chance.”

Stuart looked down like a chastened child. Jeff wondered how long it had been since anyone had really confronted him, talked back to him.

“I really didn't mean to get you into this,” the older man said contritely.

“No, I get it,” Jeff said. He swallowed and decided to speak his thoughts. “Maybe you got me into this because you stopped thinking about anyone other than yourself in a long time. Out here with your weird shit and your books and your bourbon and your millions of dollars. Feel sorry for me, I'm successful because I sold my fucking soul.”

Jeff stood up without thinking. His drink spilled and he paid it no mind.

“But you know what, stories about people who sell their souls are about them fighting to get it back, you asshole, not spending their life feeling sorry for themselves and saying it was too late to do anything.”

Stuart kept his face down. “Not Dr. Faustus,” he said. Jeff opened his mouth and realized the man was right. “Faust comes out on the stage at the end of the show and warns the audience. He is damned, but we can learn from his example.” He looked up at Jeff and there were tears streaming down his face. His voice cracked as he said, “I did that, at least. It's the most I've ever done for anyone.”

Victor's grief sluiced Jeff's anger away. “You're right,” he said. “I guess you tried, didn't you. Maybe...”

“Yes, Jeff. Maybe I'd have even done more if it weren't for this goddamned house!” The last word was almost a scream and it flew away to the corners of the yard, vanishing into the woods, the grass, the sky. “I wanted to do more,” he said. Then he gave a small, bitter laugh. “But then, I always want to, and I so rarely actually do.”

This time it was Jeff's turn to reach out and almost place a hand on Victor's shoulder. He swallowed his own emotions, instead, picked up his glass and went into the house. Behind him, he heard the sound of Victor actually breaking into sobs. He looked back at the door and saw the man's shoulders heaving. Jeff knew it was at least a summer's worth of tears, but probably a lot more than that.

Jeff took another shower, washing away the sweat that so quickly accumulated, as well as trying to was everything else away. He rested his forehead against the tiles as the water broke over the crown of his skull. “This goddamned house,” he said, repeating Stuart's words. “This goddamned house.”

The tension broken, the men ate dinner together, Stuart eating his lava chili and Jeff eating his plain. Stuart ate his over his biscuits, like gravy, and Jeff using his biscuits like spoons. They spoke little, but the words they exchanged were companionable. Stuart was only snatching a few minutes away from writing (“Getting there,” he'd said) to gobble down some food before he continued, but it was more than they'd given each other in some days.

After cleaning the dishes, Jeff returned to the basement and saw that he had a voice message. He listened to it in where he was, so it was garbled, but it was a reminder from his mother. He sent her a text message letting her know he hadn't forgotten. And he hadn't forgotten about dinner. He had, however, completely blanked on his dress shirt.

It was the same shirt he'd worn when he went to Stuart's law firm on that first fateful day, which didn't seem like it could possibly have been the better part of two months ago. He took it upstairs and hurled it in the washer on a short cycle, watching television while Stuart tapped away. After tossing it in the dryer, he opened a beer and a bag of chips and found a Yankees evening game to watch. It was the first time he could remember every voluntarily turning on a sporting event.

He put the dry, fresh shirt on a hanger and examined it. He had snatched it fresh and hot from the machine, and even though it had been a wrinkled mess when it emerged from his suitcase, he deemed it good enough to wear without ironing. He laid it carefully on his bed before going to open the closet.

He realized now, standing in front of the closet, that he'd never opened it. He had a brief flash of an imaginary world behind it, straight out of a children's book. He would open the door and find himself...where. The first world that leaped, unwelcome, into his mind, was not Narnia, but the drab, ugly world of his nightmares. The ones in which he—

Jeff shook his head. “Just a goddamn closet,” he said. He opened the door.

His first realization was that the smell, which he had become complete numb to, was much stronger here. His second realization was that there was a seam running down the back of the closet, splitting the back panel completely in half. He swallowed against the smell, which was not just stronger here, but...thicker, almost, more substantive.

He placed his hand against the right side of the panel and gave a small shove. Nothing happened. “Right,” he told himself. “Because you thought it would be a secret fucking panel. I guess Vic must be right, you really are a writer, son.”

Then, for the sake of his curiosity, he placed his left hand on the left panel and shoved. It immediately popped in and out, and a small part of Jeff's mind realized that it must be a magnetic catch.

The rest of his mind was screaming in horror at the smell that slapped him in the face. The small gap that opened in the back of the closet had released a stench that was like a wretched, furious, living thing. It clung to Jeff's face like a barber's towel soaked in excrement and intestinal fluid.

His stomach turned on him, violated by the smell, and he puked his dinner into the bottom of the closet. The small part of him that had made the realization about the magnetic catch was also glad that he hadn't brought his nice clean shirt with him to be vomited on.

The rest of Jeff's mind was sure that, finally, he knew where Mac had really gone.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Author, Chapter Forty-Five: The Quiet Week

August 1

Jeff did his job for the next week, but little else as far as Stuart was concerned. He mowed the lawn, did the laundry, bought the groceries, and cooked the food. Him sanding and refinishing the deck hadn't come up since he'd moved in, and he'd be damned if he'd mention it, especially with things as they were now.

He had been at Stuart's for almost two months now and he would stick it out, regardless of how lousy things were ending up. At the rate he was writing, it seemed like Stuart would be finished within two weeks at the outside anyway. He could stand to live with someone he was largely ignoring for another few weeks, especially if it was for another thousand dollars.

He stopped being pissed after the first night. He wasn't going to be enough of a child to stomp around upstairs wearing an “I'm mad” face. Mostly he was...shit he didn't know what he was. Hurt, confused, scared even. It was like the fallout from a breakup, without many of the better benefits.

Mostly he was let down by the fact that A: His hero was a liar. He should have known better, he supposed, than to trust a guy who pulled a fucking gun on him the day they met, let a lone someone who told lies for a living. But so much of the conversations they'd had, it seemed to Jeff, had been based on self-disclosure and true insights. Somewhere there was a line in Stuart's mind between what he would disclose and what he would not, and Jeff, of course, had no way of knowing which was which.

In terms of issues, B: Stuart had put him in harm's way. Either intentionally or by neglect, Jeff had been brought to an environment that seemed to be responsible for two suicides in as many months. Even though sometimes he felt shitty and he was having weird dreams, he didn't feel at risk on that front at least. But it was the principle of the thing. Of course, Stuart wouldn't be able to present something so preposterous to his law firm (Help wanted for famous writer, exorcism and sense of humor required), but Christ, the man had brought his kids out here! What kind of an asshole took a chance like that with his own children. Then that led Jeff down the rabbit trail of how much the bastard's wife knew, which couldn't be much or she'd never let them come here at all. And the kids were supposed to come out here again in August and for Labor Day if Stuart was still here. Jeff fervently hoped that they would not be, but he would not fold. He would add one more item to the list of ways he was better than Mac.

So he drank too much and mostly stayed in the basement, and slogged through Danny's Dime. It was a fast first draft, he knew, there would be plenty more details to come later on, but for now he was on a drive to the ending, when all the plots and machinations of the thieves would add up to nothing.

*     *     *

Stuart was ashamed, but he didn't know what else to do. His writing shifts were stretching into 10 hour slogs, editing be damned, with the hope of finishing the novel sooner and getting away from the house before things got really bad. The snow had been a bad sign.

Today, he had skipped baseball in favor of doing some editing so he wouldn't get too far behind. He felt like the pages he wrote were piling up behind him and he could see the chapters and pages ahead of him in his mind that he still had to write. He was excited to get to them, but some part of him, as was typical by this point, dreaded the ending of the book. Because then he'd have to stop writing, make the conscious decision to move out of the house before he got caught up again.

Yes, there had been more things he could have told the kid and yes, and there were things he still hadn't told him. There was a lot of information that he'd never had to pass on before. He didn't know what it was about Jeff that made him so much more open to the house's mojo. People like Roger, two years ago, simply slogged through the summer with near-constant headaches. People like Mac couldn't hack it, for whatever reason, but they usually just left instead of...taking such dramatic action.

There'd never been someone like Jeff, that was the problem. Someone that was attuned to the same thing that he was. That could harness it the way that he had. Stuart realized, now, that it had never occurred to him that he'd find someone else who could tap into the same thing.

The kid was pissed and had every right to be. But there's no good way to sit someone down and explain what was going on here, was there?

In his pocket was a scrap of paper, the second sheet of the passage about the posts. If and when Jeff talked to him again, he would tell him the rest. It was unfair to get the kid out here on what, he supposed now that he really thought about it, were false pretenses. It was even more unfair to expect him to stay here now that he knew, even if he didn't know all of it.

*     *     *

Jeff's phone, his personal phone, rang. He couldn't think of the last time he used it, and when he saw it was his mother, he rolled his eyes. He answered it and said, “I'll call you right back, Ma,” he said, and hung up.
He walked upstairs, not looking at Stuart. He got a beer in the kitchen, even though his head was already swimming, and he went outside.

He punched the speed dial and she picked up immediately. Jeff sighed. “Hey, Ma.”

He was silent while she berated him, knowing that he probably deserved it after only speaking to her once that he could recall in the last month.

“I dunno, Ma, that's only, what, two days from now? Okay, three. But—“

His shoulders sagged. It wasn't that he didn't want to see his mother, not exactly, it was more that he didn't want to see anyone. That, as shitty as he felt here sometimes, he didn't want to leave the house.

“Well it was very nice of Aunt Marie to give you a gift certificate. Yes, I understand it's in West Seattle, you're right, that makes it very easy for me.”

He nodded, even though no one could see him.

“Okay, Ma. I'll see you there on Wednesday, okay? Yes, I'll wear a nice shirt, I promise. Yes, Ma, I love you, too. You're right, it will be nice to catch up.”

*     *     *

Jeff came in from the porch, got himself another beer (Stuart heard the fridge door open and the thunk of a can against other cans) and went into the basement. Stuart almost got up and followed him. If he told the kid everything, then what would happen? They'd take him away? Jeff would run? Jeff would try to fix things? Instead, he stayed in his chair and followed Wilcox on his quest to find the stone key that would open the last door to the ancient tomb.

Stuart hadn't lied when he told the younger man that it was too late. Perhaps it had been too late the first time he'd sat down at a typewriter at this house. He could think about it, but he'd never know. He shook his head, took a drink, and got back to work.

The Author, Chapter Forty-Four: The Page

July 25

“What? Bullshit!” Stuart threw a piece of popcorn at the television.

“He looked out to me,” Jeff said, without thinking.

Stuart looked at him with a smirk. “And you're the fuckin' expert now, are you?”

The television showed a replay and the red-socked and cleated foot of the St. Louis Cardinal clearly did not manage to reach second base on time.

Neither man said anything about it.

Then Stuart spoke. “Shut up,” he said, belligerently, although he grinned afterwards.

Jeff went into the kitchen for refills. He looked out the window over the sink with the same caution he had for the past two days. They hadn't spoken about the snow. Jeff had come upstairs in the evening, treading lightly on the stairs as if nature might hear him coming, and there was still snow on the ground and on the porch, but it was melting away. Even that had been something of a comfort.

He chalked it up to something like Thorsen, or Stuart's admission that he thought about suicide. Just another elephant in a room that was gradually becoming quite crowded with pachyderms.

But, to be fair, they hadn't spoken much since it had snowed at all. Stuart had kept drinking bourbon and eating chili, and Jeff had kept cooking, reading and writing. And now they were watching baseball.

“Oh my God! Fuck you!” he heard Stuart yell from the other room. “Get in here, you gotta see this!”

Eventually pizza was ordered and consumed and Stuart got a bit more obnoxious as he began to feel the beer he had been drinking since before noon. When the game drew to an end, the doomed Cardinals finally succumbing and letting the Astros put them out of their misery.

Stuart got up and took a very loud piss in the small bathroom. He tended to leave the door slightly ajar when he did this, with his typical carelessness, but Jeff had long since stopped noticing.

“You gonna write tonight?” he asked, coming out of the bathroom.

Jeff arched his head over the back of the couch to look back at the writer. “Yeah, I was planning on it.”

“You wanna just bring your laptop up here, work at the table with me?”

Jeff would have swore that if such a circumstance ever came up, he would have taken it without question. But now that the opportunity was here, that wasn't true. The idea made him nervous, just like sharing the book did, and he realized it was part of the same pattern of superstition that had made Stuart twitchy about doing something as insignificant as using a computer instead of a keyboard. He didn't want to fall prey to such an idea, an idea that was, really small and petty and frightened.

“Hell, yeah,” Jeff heard himself say, before he could reconsider. “Thank you.”

So, an hour later, the two men were hunched over the relative laptops. Jeff writing in long, slow slogs, Stuart writing with his trademark rapidfire bursts wrapped around thoughtful pauses.

Jeff had thought it might be different, but he wasn't sure why. The new location became something he didn't think about at all, once he focused on his own book, and he was listening to music, as he usually did, so the stop and start of Stuart's typing was a distant sound, like city construction several blocks away. If were honest, with all the other ridiculous shit that had been going on, he had assumed that the power of the two of them writing together in the same small space would have caused the table to float into the air or something. It was not a truth he was keen to admit, but it was there, he realized.

After he finished a particularly involved conversation, and reached almost 120 pages, he saw proudly, Jeff noticed that Stuart was standing over him. He pulled out his earbuds.


“I'm getting a drink, you need one?”

Jeff's mouth was dry and when he looked at the clock on his computer he realized that he had been sitting here, focused, for more than an hour.

“Some water would be great, thanks.” He couldn't remember the last time the author had served him. “What's this,” he asked, noticing a piece of paper next to his laptop.

“Something you should read. Something I meant to show you a while ago.”

“Is it yours?”

“As much as anything I write here is mine, I suppose,” Stuart said, returning and placing Jeff's water on the table. “But yes, I wrote it.”

The paper was yellowed with age and crinkled as if someone had thought about destroying it or balling it up, or as if it had been lost in the back of a drawer for years.

These stones are more than ten thousand years old. Their origins have been lost to history. Those who know of them, and there are not many, argue they were placed by aliens or lost civilizations, the lost tribes of Israel, druids, forgotten First Peoples. Perhaps the Earth herself grew them, as an expression, as a weapon, as a defense. Regardless, these stones, older than memory, older than recorded time, still remain and still have memories of their own. Curiously, although perfectly visible, they remain largely unnoticed in the modern world.

Each stone has a name, a personality, a value, and each feeds into the stones near it.

The natural world understands and fears this power. Simpler beings such as animals and plants fear them or revere them, moving away or moving toward.

Humans also feel the power of the stones in different ways. Some draw from them, others run from them, shunning them or condemning them.

Perhaps they are the American equivalent of ley lines, which form conduits of power throughout the European continent, forming the basis of main roads and the axis upon which important buildings, such as churches and houses of government, are placed. Sometimes these decisions, a road here, a cathedral here, are conscious, but most often these decisions are only obvious to those who understand and observe the power of the ley lines.

They were used for worship once, yes, and human sacrifice, although this is more because their powers are unknown than because they require blood shed.

It is recorded that in their presence headaches and toothaches may be generated or cured. Cancers form or fall.

These stones, like those at Stonehenge and on Easter Island reflect pagan beliefs, faiths that go...

Jeff looked up. “Is that it?”

Stuart nodded. “It's all I found.”

Jeff looked from the document back to the writer. “What the hell, Vic?”

“I wrote it a long time ago. I don't remember when, one of my first summers out here. It came out as a chapter of...Ash or Watching, I don't know. Obviously it didn't fit, didn't make any sense for the book, but it was pretty obvious that I was writing about the posts in my goddamn yard. The ones on the beach, too.” Stuart sat down across from Jeff with a sigh. “Keep something in mind for me, though, okay kid? I write fiction. The shit that comes through me onto paper at this place is all lies. Its lies with a ring of truth, or else people wouldn't care about it, but it's still bullshit. It's made up.”

“You can't really believe that. What about that H.P. Lovecraft crap?”

“I said we were subject to the same insanity, that we were tapped into the same thing, not that we were fucking prophets, Jeff. Two men telling similar lies just means they have similar stories to tell, not that they are tapped into some kind of intergalactic truth. Don't be foolish.”

“Foolish?” Jeff said, his voice getting louder and higher. He slapped his hand down on the table, held up the old piece of paper. “Are you really going to try to tell me you don't think there's any truth in here at all? That it might not explain the shit that goes on here?”

Stuart was looking at his hands. “No, Jeff, it really might. But so what? Does your laptop work better when you know what a megawatt or a kilobyte is?”

Jeff opened and closed his mouth several times, ready to start talking and then abandoning the idea. “Where the rest of it?”

“I don't know.”

“I don't believe you.”

Stuart looked up at Jeff. “I don't blame you. I don't know why you would.”

“All the shit I've seen out here and accepted because that's just the way it is, because it's the way you do it. But someone died out here, Vic, and I can't believe you don't have the same thoughts that I do, that Thorsen offed himself, that fucking Mac did the same thing, because of these goddamn posts.”

“Of course they did.”

“So you deliberately bring someone out here every summer and put them in harm's way, just so you can write your precious fucking novels.”

“No, Jeff. It's only the truly gifted people that are really affected by this place. That's why Mac got the job. He wasn't gifted. But clearly he had some buried talent somewhere, and the posts devoured it and gave him back bile. And Thorsen? Well it was his time anyway. Maybe it wasn't his idea to kill himself, but did you see him? Have you read what he wrote recently? He didn't have anything left and he fucking knew it. So yes, he acted on something that was already there with a little help and then it snowed which means shit is going to keep ramping up until this is finished.”

“What, it dies down when it's finished?”

“Unless I start another one, yes, it'll start to ebb.”

Jeff stood up, unplugging his laptop to take it with him.

“You told me you felt trapped here sometimes, like you want to come back here and you're afraid to do it at the same time. And you're such a bastard about it that every year you bring some poor sap like me out here and throw him under the fucking train while you're at it.” He held up the paper in the other hand. “But this? You could use this. Maybe you could find out a way to free yourself, so that if you wanted you could stop being all talk about how I shouldn't sell myself up the river and how I should retire when I want to and how you're stuck in the same old patterns, you could sit down and try to write this again, write the rest of it, and maybe figure out a way to set yourself free.”

“I'm not so far gone that I didn't think of that as well, Jeff,” Stuart said, looking up at the younger man, his eyes glistening in the light over head. “But it's too late for that. I know that, don't ask me why, I just do. It could be that when I wrote that, if I'd have realized what was going on instead of just being so insanely grateful to be rich and successful, maybe back then I could have escaped. Maybe. But now? Now I'm stuck. They're thousands of years old, Jeff, and they'll be here long after I am. And there's nothing you can do about that, I'm afraid.”

“Good night,” Jeff said coldly, and went down the stairs to his room. He wouldn't be able to write anymore tonight, and he sure as hell didn't feel like reading one of his books now. He opted to watch a movie, which turned into two and a half, before he was able to fall asleep.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Author, Chapter Forty-Three: The Weather

July 23

Jeff woke up late, at almost 11. His mouth tasted like an old sock and he groaned when he tried to sit up, remembering that after he'd finished his twelve pack of Coors he'd actually drank some of Stuart's Woodford Reserve with some Coke.

He was drinking a lot more since Thorsen's death. Strangely, he was also writing a lot more, even though he certainly didn't feel like the drinking was helping his process, as it did for the man upstairs.
Still, he had blown past 100 pages of Danny's Dime last night and that was probably worth a hangover.

He didn't bother showering, just went straight upstairs and poured himself some OJ. He chugged the first glass without stopping, then poured himself a second. Already he felt better. His stomach rumbled and he realized it had been almost 18 hours since dinner last night. Cereal wasn't going to cut it, but he had bought a big bag of pre-baked biscuits the last time he'd been at the grocery store.

As Jeff had started to drink more, so Stuart had devolved into the eating patterns of his 21-year-old self. He had eaten chili twice in the last three days and showed no signs of stopping. Jeff had learned, to his regret, that he could not digest the chili he made for Stuart, which called for hot sauce, Tobasco, and jalapeno peppers. His time on the toilet two mornings ago had been miserable, so he ate his right out of the can without Stuart's accouterments.

To accompany his two biscuits, Jeff found some sausage gravy in the back of the fridge. It was at least a week old, but when he snapped open the Ziploc container, his stomach sat up and begged like a hungry dog.
“Done,” he said, and microwaved his breakfast.

He took his breakfast and a third glass of OJ into the living room, as there was a cigar butt in an ashtray on the dining room table, looking like an abandoned turd and he didn't want to smell it or be near it when he ate. The air, he finally noticed, was scented with the smell of the cigar smoke, not unpleasant, and he realized there was a thin blue haze around the light fixtures.

When he was done eating, he got a plastic grocery bag from under the sink, where he had started to keep them, and disposed of the ash and the cigar butt. He tied up the bag and put it in the trash.

With that done, a clearing head, and a full stomach, he decided to keep cleaning. He put on the rubber gloves and gave the half-bathroom off the living room a once over. Then he rotated the laundry, remembering that he'd given up asking and just changed Stuart's sheets for maybe the third time that summer. It had gotten to the point that when he walked by the room with the door open, he could smell them, musty and dark. It was just one of the many things that Stuart let go unnoticed when he was hard at work.

And, like Jeff, he was very hard at work. He had told Jeff that this was going to be one of his long ones, possibly as long as 600 pages. Although his books nudged into the fantasy genre, they were typically more of a length that fit the mysteries that they actually were, around 400 pages. Stuart was approaching that mark and, “I know the end, now, he said, but I'm not there yet.”

Stuart had shared another chapter of Tomb with him after the Thorsen mess, and it had been riveting. Jeff didn't even really know what was going on but the chapter smoked with action, much more so than a regular Alistar Wilcox novel. Vic had even hinted that he might let Stuart read the thing at the end of the summer, if he'd decided it was good enough before he started editing it full-time.

The cigar smoke was still noticeable when Jeff finished with the laundry and cleaning the kitchen, so he opened the dining room doors.

He was not exactly surprised. The sight was shocking, of course, dramatically, almost obscenely, out of place, but Jeff remembered most of his dreams now. He froze and stared and heard the blood rushing and pulsing in his ears.

“Oh, God,” he said, as if someone had just told him about a disaster. There was pity and sorrow in his voice.
It was snowing. He had been looking out the kitchen window moments ago, and there was nothing but now, there were already flakes starting to build up on the table and the railings. The flurry was thick and dense, the flakes were not drifting but pelting down as if they had something to prove.

Jeff took a step forward and hissed at the cold of the snow beneath his feet. The cloud cover had lowered to the tops of the trees that surrounded the house, so even though he was now outside, it felt like he had simply entered a larger, brighter room with a fuzzy gray ceiling.

A small part of him wanted to go out into the snow, he'd always enjoyed the peace and quiet of the snow, the way it seemed to suck the sound out of the world, creating a white cocoon of world for you to enjoy by yourself. But the snow was unnatural. Most of him was reviled by just the idea of it, false, improper, out of place...

The word evil occurred to him as well, but he quickly tried to quash that thought. Snow didn't have consciousness. The snow wasn't malicious, it was just in the wrong place. Or the wrong time.

He closed the doors, banning the alien snow from the house. He crossed to Stuart's bedroom on stiff legs, anxious and pushing down much larger, bolder sensations like panic.

He opened the door without knocking and shook Stuart, who was face down on his pillow. For a heart-stopping moment Jeff was sure he was dead, that the snow had killed him, even though the body was warm and there was a drool stain on the pillowcase. He wasn't snoring. He always snored.

One eye half opened.

“Mmmf tha fuck?” he mumbled.

“Vic, it's fucking snowing. I'm freaking out.”

The eyes opened completely. “Did you say it's snowing?”


Stuart closed his eyes and sighed. Then he opened them again. “It's okay,” he said. “I kinda thought this might happen.”

“It's OKAY? It's July, Vic and...Jesus this has happened before, hasn't it?”

Stuart nodded, his head rotating against the pillow. “Just once. The second year I was out here, the first year I was out here alone.”


“And I freaked out like you were, but nothing happened. It's just snow, man, moisture. It'll go away when it's done.”

“This is not right.”

“All the other weird ass shit you're okay with, but this bothers you? I said it happened before. The world didn't end then, it's not gonna end now.”


Stuart just looked at him.

“Doesn't anyone notice?”

“It stops at the base of the driveway and the edge of the trees. It probably looks like a fog bank from above. Who's gonna notice?”

Jeff opened his mouth to say that he thought the neighbors might damn well notice, but then he realized there were no neighbors. Not any more. The only real neighbor they'd had was dead. A sense of dread melted in his stomach. It was as if the house had been waiting for him to die so it could do its thing. Or as if the house had gotten Thorsen out of the way.

Stuart looked at the clock and grunted. “I only went to sleep at six, kid, so I'm gonna try to get another hour or two, okay? Just ignore it, it'll go away.” He rolled over, dismissively and after a moment, Jeff left him alone, closing the door behind him.

Beer wasn't strong enough. Jeff reminded himself to get a bottle of something stronger the next time he left the house, which sure as hell wouldn't be today. He poured himself another Woodford and Coke, grimacing at the taste and the memory of how it had made him feel when he woke up. He stood at the kitchen sink and stared out at the snow as it fell in a fuzzy-edged box around the carport. He stood and watched it snow for a long time.

Then, he pulled the blind. Following Stuart's example, he went back to his basement and returned to sleep, hoping, praying, craving, that when he woke up the world would be back to normal.

As he lay there, more and more details of his dream, the dream where it had snowed just as it had today, returned to him. Back-spiraling, the word had been and the more he thought about it, the more its meaning became clear to him. Back-spiraling. The unwinding of progress. The unspinning of the world.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Author, Chapter Forty-Two: The Curse

July 23

He crouched in the dirt, makings notes on a flat, bleached piece of bark with a scorched twig. His worst fears had come to pass.

The day after the sacrifice, he and his boy had gone out into the woods with a whetstone and spent an afternoon reshaping the bone blade so that it did not appear to have been broken. Then they had returned to the village and undertaken the challenge of appearing as if nothing was wrong.

In this task, at least, they had succeeded. The People knew that something was wrong by now, of course, but they did not know who to blame. As much as he wished he could lay the blame at someone else, Jeff knew that, as the spiritual leader of the tribe, let alone the individual who broke the knife during the sacrifice, everything that had happened since was his fault.

The deer they had hunted and killed since that time looked healthy, but the meat they provided was tough and unpleasant. Small birds and animals that Jeff cut open to prophesy the next days and weeks were often diseased inside or filled with worms. He had even brought in a soothsayer from a neighboring tribe, who had brought his own duck with him, and the expression on his face when the man cut open the tribe was enough. They were doomed.

It was possible, Jeff reflected, as he sketched on his bark, that a large enough sacrifice could undo the damage. If they had the magic and talents of the People of the coast, perhaps they could sacrifice a whale and redeem themselves. If nothing else came to him, he supposed he would be forced to take a journey to the coast, to see if such a thing was even possible.

He could picture himself standing over a whale on the beach, the People of two tribes standing around him, and in a nightmare vision he saw that the bone knife would not even penetrate the flesh of the whale. The edge he had placed on the knife was false. The entire concept of the holy weapon was now a lie. The People would tear him to pieces.

The shamans had a word for this, and they shuddered between themselves to say it. Things were back-spiraling. It was a difficult concept and one not known to the People, but the energy along the posts moved in one direction, the same direction as the sun and the stars, the earth and the rivers. Now, it turned against that flow and it was destructive, pulling life out of the world where it had once pushed life into it.

This explained the three children that had been stillborn in the month since the failed ceremony. The People were not foolish, they understood something was wrong, but they had not seen the knife. They kept coming to him for an explanation and he kept delaying them, hoping that he would find a solution, even though he knew there was none.

“Master?” the boy called from outside the lean-to.

Jeff grunted and the boy came in, a squirming sack in his arms. He nodded his approval at the boy's burden.
The boy took his place before the door to catch the animal if it ran and Jeff opened the mouth of the sack, and the snapping, whipping tail of the animal emerged. It was thick and heavy, and Jeff used it to pull the young otter out of the bag. The animal arched its body, twisting back on itself, trying to reach Jeff's capturing hand.
Jeff jerked his head at the boy and he approached, holding out his hands. In a quick motion, Jeff pinned the beast's neck to the table with his hand, and the boy trapped the tail and the body in the same way.

“Hold it!” Jeff said and he watched the boy's knuckles turn white.

The more common an animal, the less high it was considered in the eyes of the powers. The same was true with the less life an animal had. The boy had brought him an animal that was rare, difficult to catch, and very young. It was the best they would be able to do.

Jeff closed his eyes, reaching into the otter with his mind, feeling its spirit struggle just as its body was. He spoke soothingly, reassuring the beast, promising him that his death would be quick and that it was, sadly, necessary.

Then he raised his closed eyes to the ceiling, mumbling and calling out. This would not be a sacrifice sufficient to change things, he was sure of that, against the irrational hope that stirred inside of him, but he thought that it might be enough to put him on the right track. He might learn that there was, at least, a solution, in the face of what he felt now.

Without opening his eyes he gave a quick jerk and snapped the neck of the young animal. After a final, spasmodic jerk the animal lay still and Jeff could smell the tang in the air that came from the animal voiding itself. He felt a tear creep from the corner of his right eye. He whispered a final benediction over the generous creature.

He heard an intake of breath from the boy as if he were about to say something, but no words came. This was good. It was not the time for speaking. He looked at the boy, who was holding out the bone knife. Jeff shook his head and nodded to the boy's belt. The boy handed him his own knife, flint with a leather handle, chipped to a perfect edge. It would not do to use the blade that had started all this trouble, not here.

He placed the point of the flint at the throat of the otter and cut down, sharply and quickly. The blade did the job, opening the soft belly of the animal. Blood squirted and oozed from various locations. The blood had to stay in the animal until it was opened so that the signs could be read. You could not slit the throat of an animal when using it for soothsaying. It was messier, of course, but it spoke the truth. Throat-slitting was for animals that you would eat, or for sacrifice.

The blood was still spattering, and Jeff begin to push into the animal's guts with the knife point and his fingers looking for information. The heart had stopped beating, but the innards were still warm, moist and slippery against his skin.

Suddenly, the otter jerked, startling Jeff, causing the knife point to slip. He severed the animal's intestine, and a sharper, riper smell filled the room. Then the otter jerked again, and just as Jeff was about to pull his hand away, its head snapped up, its eyes furious and blazing and it snapped at the hand that held the knife.

Jeff dropped the flint knife into the animal as its needle teeth sank into his hand. He felt, rather than heard or saw, a tendon in his small finger pop, one end of it retreating far into his hand, and in a small corner of his mind he knew the use of that finger would be difficult, if not impossible, for the rest of his life.

The animal was silent, which was somehow much more terrifying than if it had been growling. The boy had frozen, was clearly useless, so Jeff reached into the animal's guts, found the leather handle of the knife, brought it out.

He gritted his teeth in pain as he used the bitten hand to hold the otter's head still. With his other hand, he drove the knife into the beast's head. The glow immediately left the otter's eyes. Jeff was drawing ragged breaths, his chest heaving, when the muscles in the animal's mouth finally unclenched and released his hand. All the movement had made ugly, torn wounds, instead of the neat, tiny holes that the otter's teeth should have punched. He looked down at the animal, its ruined body, torn open, a knife in the head, and he knew, a broken neck. He had done it himself.

There was a cry from outside and the boy's head whirled around, fast enough that it popped. He brushed the curtain door aside and stared out into the clearing. He dropped to his knees in the doorway and began praying, loudly. The curtain fell back, covering the boy and the view, so Jeff left the otter and pulled it open again.

It was snowing. It was the end of the summer season, the days still starting early and lasting late, but it was snowing. This was a rare enough occurrence here in the winter, but now...

The fat, wet flakes drifted slowly back and forth, silently falling out of the air like a drift of death. And death, Jeff knew, was what it would bring. The back-spiraling, the unwinding of the world, was complete or near to it. The world would crumble around the People until they starved or turned on each other. And, as unfair as it was, he knew it was his fault.

He reached down and snatched the bone knife from its place on the boy's belt and began to follow the line of the stone posts. They did not camp at the apex, it was too dangerous, but they were always close.
When Jeff reached the central post, the Mother post, as he sometimes thought of it, he stood looking at it. He wanted to be able to blame it. To say that it decided that the knife would chip during the last sacrifice, and who was to say that it wasn't true? But it would not matter, at all. The responsibility rode with him.

He dug the knife deeply into his left wrist, pressing and pressing with the blade until it broke down into the flesh. He put the knife in his teeth then, tasting his own blood, as he began to take blood from his wrist and dab it into the runes on the stone. Different runes, this time. The right ones, he hoped. This had never been done before. This was, he supposed, something new, in the face of all the old gods. He hoped they would understand. He hoped they would accept a new sacrifice.

Snow struck the pillar and melted into the blood, causing runnels of pink water to streak the sides of the stone. Jeff reached up, stretching, and placed his hand on top of it. He mumbled his last prayer and then he dropped to his knees.

He took the knife from between his teeth, marveling a little at the fact that the last thing he would ever taste would be his own blood. Then he realized it did not have to be so. He leaned back and opened his mouth. He was transported, for a moment, to a time many years before, an easier time, a time before his responsibility crippled him. A snowflake, damp and heavy, burst on his tongue. He felt its texture, the crystals falling apart on the hot pillow of his tongue, but there was no taste. He still only tasted his own blood, metallic and salty.

He held the knife before him, in both hands, and looked at the post. He began to mutter the sacrificial rites and when he was finished, he would drive the knife into his heart, just as he always did with the sacrifices. Yes, this time the knife was going into him instead of away from him, but how different could it really be?

Jeff knelt in the dirt, with snow building up around him, and continued to pray as the snow flakes spattered on his body and dissolved.

Author's Note: For What It's Worth

For those of you keeping track of such things and who are at all here for the BTS aspect, the chapter I am about to post is NOT the one I had in mind.  The one I had in mind involved Malcolm, Jeff's bestie, visiting the Stuart place.  This has not fallen by the way side but doesn't help my narrative reach its conclusion at this point.  I might find a place for it in the second draft. 

This chapter is another flashback to the ancient or alternative time where the posts are worshiped, etc, that Jeff has experienced in a dream.  I woke up and realized that, based on what I have planned, I needed to add a chapter like this.  So here it is!  I hope it's as fucked up as I think it is.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Author's Note: Progress

Dear Friends,

I have not posted for the last two days, as some of you will have noticed.  This is for several reasons, both personal and practical.

On the practical side, those of you who are paying attention will notice that we are hurtling towards the end of the book.  The prologue, The Beginning of the End, takes place on August 3.  In book time, we have reached the latter part of July, meaning the shit is about to hit the fan and the climax of The Author is right around the corner.  This last week, if you will, of the book, was giving me some trouble.

Thanks to some recent clarity, which I am crediting to a conversation with Miss Willow Bl00, which got me thinking about the book and about other things, I am now on the right track to complete the book.  I know what the next few chapters will be, which will bring us to the conclusion, which I have had in mind, more or less, for quite some time.

A new chapter will go up tomorrow and I should be able to continue with a chapter a day until we reach the end of the book.  I am thrilled to have you all with me, and I hope you enjoy the conclusion as much as I'm sure I'll enjoy writing it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Author, Chapter Forty-One: Wisdom

July 22

Here's the extent of what I have to tell you, Jeff. With the sun down and the cool breeze blowing, the damn heat finally breaking off the place, I'm gonna tell you what I have to tell you, and you can take it or leave it.
Number one: If you're gonna take it seriously, take it seriously. If you were me, you could have made a couple million bucks by the time you were 25 and then gotten out of the business. Trouble is, the people who are really serious about this shit aren't looking to get rich, God help us, we're looking to be writers. So give that some thought. See if you can justify making a big splash and then opting out. Your bankbook might not thank you, but the rest of your life will. The returns on a decent investment of a million bucks will keep you in beer and steak for a good, long while if you're careful.

The second part of that is, don't forget to take it seriously. You've seen me do it. I don't write on the road, I don't write on a laptop wherever I happen to be, you know? But when I write, that's all I do. The shitty thing is, is no one's gonna pay you to write until you break through. It's lame, you know, working a shitty job, scrabbling for rent and grants or whatever, or living with your parents until you're 30, but that's the way it has to be some times.

I realize I'm not the guy to be talking about that, I'm the great white success story, $500,000 advance at 20 years old and I just moved on from success to success. I was declared the North American Publishing Association Young Writer to Watch in 1990. I've had a book at the top of three bestseller lists at the same time.

But it's true. When there's nothing left to be loyal to, you fucking be loyal to you, man. You stick that shit out. Because no one will believe in you as much as you do.

Be careful when you get married. Admittedly, these are the words of a callous guy over 40 who has been divorced, but my words are still valid. I'm not here to tell you to get a pre-nup so she doesn't take you to the cleaners. If you make it you'll have lawyers to tell you that. I'm here to tell you to hitch your wagon to someone who gets it. Who gets that just because you succeeded doesn't mean you're ready to retire. That just because you're rich doesn't mean you've told all the stories you have to tell. That just because you have kids doesn't mean you don't have to be loyal to the angry, hungry, story-writing machine that lives inside you.
But the hardest truth I have to tell you, Jeff, is this. Consider the consequences of your actions. You want to be a man of letters, be a lit teacher. Be a literary agent. Be an editor. If you sign up to be the coal-fed word engine that propels an entire industry, you may not be happy.

Ask yourself if I'm happy, or if you'd be happy sitting where I am. I ask myself that all the time, and I'm still not entirely sure, you know? For that matter, what is happy? Happy was where I could have been fifteen years ago, one kid, another one on the way, millions of dollars in the bank, and that should have been it, right? But it wasn't. I don't know what more I wanted, but I wanted more.

Even if I'd have been strong enough to leave and never come back, if I'd have sold the house and moved away with my family to live off the successes of my youth, it wouldn't have been enough. Whoever bought this house would have woken up one night at two in the morning to find me sitting at this table with a bottle of booze and a laptop. Maybe I'm a cautionary tale or a rare example, Jeff, but I think I'm less rare than you might imagine. Just because I'm lucky enough to be the guy whose books are a compulsion tied to a location doesn't mean that I'm the only one.

The only old man of fiction who quit while he was ahead that I can think of is Tom Clancy. Maybe Rowling will stay silent now that she's as rich as God, but I doubt it. Think about it, how many novelists of 60 are multi-multi-bestsellers and could afford to quit whenever they wanted to. Grisham could have quit after five books and never worked again, but instead he keeps cranking out stuff that makes him happy that people don't even like that much. Critics and fans will have told you that Stephen King could have quit three different times and maybe been liked better than he would be today because he kept writing. There are people who don't forgive the poor bastard for not dying after he got ran over by a car, can you believe that shit? Lawrence Block, Stephen Cannell, Dean Koontz, even someone who only hit the jackpot a few years ago like Janet Evanovich, how much is enough?

And that's what I'm here to tell you, Jeff, as I sit here at my expensive house with my expensive bourbon and expensive cigar, is don't do it. It's not worth it. This job, if you can even call it that, has been an albatross around my neck since the day I signed that contract with Wally, the devil take his soul. Decisions, deadlines, editorial choices, photo shoots, compromises, always the fucking compromises. Maybe you really think it's necessary for your story to accurately and brutally portray a pedophilic relationship, but your editor, your agent and your publisher are all terrified of it. And maybe that will be your one way of trying to say enough is enough, this is my ejection seat, let me out, I don't want to play anymore.

Ah, Jesus, kid, I'm sorry. The job is amazing. Most of the time I love it. But when I'm out here, busting my ass for a public that just expects me to operate like a giant, annual literary jukebox, it gets kind of hard to deal with sometimes. I'm sorry. It's really not all that bad, it really isn't.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Author, Chapter Forty: The Walk

July 20

They didn't speak much for the rest of the day. Stuart decided to throw himself directly into his work, since he was already up, and he did so with gusto, pouring himself a towering glass of bourbon without bothering to put any ice in it.

Jeff tried to find something to do, but nothing stuck. He tried to read and found his mind wandering. He had absolutely no interest in trying to write, either. He tried to watch a movie and then he started doing laundry. He found himself staring into the open washer, half loaded, his thoughts far away.

Eventually he gave up and tried to take a nap, closing the door to his room to shut out the sound of Stuart's typing. He gave up on that idea as soon as he closed his eyes and found that the only thing he could really see was Thorsen's staring, milky eye.

“Fuck it,” he said, and went back upstairs. He poured himself a glass of water and drank it over the sink, then he went into the living room.

He touched Stuart's shoulder to get his attention. The writer looked up impatiently.

“I'm going out for a while,” Jeff said.

“You taking the car?”

“No, I'm gonna walk.”

“Okay.” The writer returned to the laptop.

Jeff took two beers from the fridge and went out the back door. He pounded one of the cans standing under the carport and dumped it in the trash. The other went in his back pocket. He put on his headphones, dialed up Fallout Boy on his iPod, and started to walk.

What he hadn't told Stuart was that he was going to buy cigarettes. The one he had bummed from Mandy had jump started a craving that would not go away. The only two things he could think about were getting cigarettes or Thorsen. He hadn't smoked since he'd come out to Stuart's house until today and it had gotten under his skin more than he would have thought possible. He kept swallowing in anticipation.

He'd felt this before, when he'd tried to quit once in college. Eventually his smoking had petered out when he lived with Malcolm because he couldn't justify buying them himself with how little money he had, and he rationed how many he would cadge from his friend. But he remembered the texture of his mouth and the slight swaying sense of his body that came from the addict's necessity. The shitty thing was, if his behavior followed the pattern, the first cigarette would taste like shit, regardless of how much he wanted it.

The sun wasn't quite at full height yet, but light was direct and strong and the air was hot and getting hotter. Jeff stopped on the side of the quiet, woodsy street, finished the second beer and threw the can in the ditch.
He was punishing himself, he knew. He could have easily driven the damn Land Rover to get his fix, but then he wouldn't have earned it. If he was going to be this weak, so weak as to be a pussy about seeing a dead body and so weak as to need nicotine after being free of it for more than a month, then by God he would walk his ass of for it. It was at least a mile to the nearest convenience store, and in this temperature, he would feel it.

Once he got to the end of the street where he turned left to head towards the main road that would lead him to civilization, he was already feeling the buzz of the beer. It didn't seem to be sitting well with his stomach, however, it was occasionally gurgling and once he burped and could taste bile in it. He just kept swallowing.
He turned right onto California Avenue, and he could see the 7-Eleven sign in the distance. “Almost there,” he said. And then he answered himself, “Yeah, and then you just have to walk back.”

His steps were heavy and he could feel the wetness of his t-shirt as it clung to his back between his shoulder blades before he reached the store. His stomach continued to twist and clench. The sun was on his back, and that meant it would be on his face when he returned, and he was sure, now, that this impulsive decision was a bad one. Not only would he have an unsatisfying cigarette, and then he'd feel compelled to smoke more of them because he'd blown seven dollars on the fucking pack, but then he'd walk back home facing the sun and he'd get a fucking sunburn to show for it as well. “Fuck this for a shitty idea,” Jeff mumbled.

When he reached the store he spent a moment standing in front of the magazines, simply soaking in the wonderful air conditioning. Then he went to the cooler and grabbed a Gatorade and immediately chugged half of it, which made him feel a bit better.

He was on his way to the counter to pay for his drink and buy the cigarettes when he saw the beer cooler. He went over, just to take a look at it.

But why the hell not? He'd already started drinking. It wasn't every day you saw a fucking dead body, was it? Some more beer would be therapeutic. He could raise a can to Thorsen, even though he'd never read anything by the poor bastard, and after the build up Stuart had given him, he imagined he'd never bother.
He was reaching for a simple six pack when he decided it wouldn't be enough. So he grabbed a 40-ounce bottle, of Bud Light, as they didn't have his brand in the ghetto bottles, just in case. His arms were full now, a plastic bottle in one hand, a glass bottle in the other, a six-pack hanging off of one finger.

The man in the turban began to ring up the items and Jeff was sure he could see a look of disapproval. Fuck him. “Pack of Marlboro Lights, too, please,” he said, remembering his manners through the light beer haze in his mind. He grabbed some 7-Eleven branded matches from the counter as well, proud of himself for having remembered. Wouldn't he have felt stupid getting ready to light up and finding nothing to do it with!

With a plastic bag in each hand, he broke back out into the sunshine, squinting. There was a park across the street, but it was too public for him to drink it. He wandered around behind the store and found a pile of milk crates there, with cigarette butts scattered around. The employee break area, apparently.

Just as he went to sit down, there was a sudden, swollen pain in his stomach. He almost doubled over, carefully setting the bags down and holding his gut. He groaned, but the feeling passed quickly. He chugged down the rest of the Gatorade, telling himself it would make him feel better and then threw the bottle in a dumpster.

He started with the 40, drinking the neck dry. Then he packed the cigarettes on the butt of his left hand and lit up. He had been wrong. The smoke hitting his tongue, following the crisp bitter-sweetness of the beer was perfect.

He'd smoked four more cigarettes by the time the bottle was empty and by then he realized he probably should have eaten something. He wobbled as he stood up, ready to return home before the store clerk came out back and found him.

His stomach was not feeling any better, “And of course it isn't,” he told himself, “You're drinking and smoking on an empty stomach.” He walked down the sidewalk, down to one grocery bag, holding his six-pack, his other hand saluting over his forehead to protect him from the sun.

It was a relief to get off California, and once he was a few blocks away, he found a quiet place to step over the ditch and sit in the scrubby grass there. He placed his feet on the road side of the ditch to keep himself from sliding in, and opened another beer. He felt better, sitting in the shade now, although his stomach continued to gurgle.

He stopped several more times along the way, smoking and surreptitiously drinking, even though he grew more and more paranoid about someone seeing him.

He broke the cigarettes into the trash can behind the car port, knowing that if he kept them around he'd just smoke the rest of them. He finished the last can of beer and threw it in after.

Jeff opened the door quietly, not wanting to disturb Stuart. The writer did not look up, but kept staring intently at the laptop. Jeff walked unsteadily to the laundry room and staggered down the stairs. He managed to turn off the light and kick off his shoes before he passed out on the bed.

He woke in time to make dinner around 7:30, and Stuart did not mention his absence. He probably had not noticed at all. Jeff work still craving beer, for some reason, and managed to get drunk again and pass out for the night by 11 p.m.

It never occurred to him that his stomach didn't hurt any more, or that, even though he had drank an entire six-pack of beer on his journey home, his stomach had hurt less and less the closer he had gotten to the house.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Author, Chapter Thirty-Nine: Thorsen's Body

July 20

There was no smell, that was what surprised Jeff the most. Well, to be accurate, there was no smell of dead body, just the typical smells of a bathroom, smells of soap and the faint odor of mildew. When he took a deeper breath, he realized the air was also tinged with the iron tang of blood, but it was not obvious. He had expected the room to smell like bad meat that had been left out too long, or, he realized, like a much stronger version of the very faint smell in his basement.

Stuart was standing in the bathroom, staring at something behind the door. As soon as Jeff saw Vic framed that way and saw what room the body was in, he knew what they would find.

The water was so dark with blood that Jeff couldn't actually see the wounds. The color of the water made it look as though Thorsen had been left to sit in a Jello mold that had yet to solidify.

“Shit,” Stuart said softly, his eyes riveted to the old man's body.

Thorsen's eyes were open, which made Jeff uncomfortable. He saw that one of the man's eyes was white, deformed in some way. He had always assumed that Thorsen's eye patch was either a preposterous affectation or covering up some kind of actual injury, not that it was simple vanity.

The razor sat on the side of the tub, inside a ragged, diluted puddle of blood and water. It was an old fashioned cutthroat razor and Jeff could see small pieces of tissue on the blade from where it had bitten in—
He turned to the sink and wretched into it. His stomach was empty, so nothing came up or out of him except a few strands of that incredibly stretchy saliva that seems to come from down in your throat. He coughed, swallowed, took a drink from the tap. He stayed there, his hands on either side of the sink, not wanting to look at himself (and at that moment he had a flash of the different face he'd seen in the mirror after his dream), not wanting to see anything. His breathing was ragged and he kept shaking his head, as if it would make it all go away.

A moment later, Stuart was there, his hand on the younger man's right shoulder.

“Alright, buddy,” he said. “We'll just go, okay?”

Jeff took another swallow of water and spat it into the sink, then he turned away from the tub and Stuart and left the door without looking again.

They went and got the girl out of the truck. Stuart wanted to wait on the porch, but neither Jeff nor Mandy, as it turned out her name was, wanted to be that close to the house. Reluctantly, Jeff helped Stuart bring a chair and a bench off the porch so they could sit in the yard and wait for the police.

Jeff bummed a cigarette off the girl while she shared her brief life story. She was from South Dakota, she'd finished high school and run off to the West to get away from her parents and small town life. She tried Los Angeles and hated it, and she was on her way back into the Southwest, where a high school friend had settled, when she passed through Las Vegas. She'd never left.

She told them that she met Thorsen on one of his frequent trips to Vegas, where he always stayed at the Riviera, where he had been staying since it was actually a hotel to brag about. She was working as a cashier at the hotel when he had cashed out after a big run at the blackjack table. He'd asked her out.

“And it's not like we're allowed to date the customers, you know? But I knew who he was, so I took the risk and we met across the street at Circus Circus, which is an even bigger dump than the Riv, and when he went home he asked me to come with him. And it's not like I was doing anything in Vegas, and he even gave me a check to cover next month's rent so I could leave me place! That was, I dunno, a couple of weeks ago. Then we had this conference and we came back here and...”

Her voice trailed off and she turned her head to look at the water, checking out of the conversation.

The police arrived soon after and excused the two men after taking their statements and personal information.
“Seems real clear-cut,” Officer Stanley told Jeff at the end of the interview, “But we might call you up for s'more details later.”

The two men left Mandy with the authorities with mixed feelings of relief and guilt and returned home.

“I'm almost proud of the son of a bitch,” Stuart said, as they found the path.

Jeff gave him a sharp look. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“The guy built his life on Hunter Thompson. As soon as you realized she was saying he killed himself, didn't you figure he shot himself, just like ol' Hunter S?”

Jeff blinked at that and realized that yes, that's exactly what he'd thought. It occurred to him that it would also explain why he'd been expecting such a strong smell. He'd been expecting cordite and scorched brains and burnt hair.

“I guess,” he said finally.

“Well, I sure fuckin' did. I'm honestly shocked. I mean, he clearly had all those guns around, right?”

“Oh, wow.”

“What?” Stuart looked at him so quickly he almost lost his footing. “What is it?”

“You don't think...Uh...”

“What!” Stuart almost yelled.

“Shit, this is a bad idea. I mean, if he didn't go out the way you'd figure a guy like that would...maybe she did it.”

Stuart's mouth dropped open. He coughed once, in surprise, and then slapped both hands over his mouth to muffle his laughter. Hysterical hooting noises came from behind the hands as Vic's eyes crinkled and twisted with hilarity.

“Shut up!” Jeff said, embarrassed.

Stuart removed one hand and waved it at Jeff, trying to reassure him. When he finally caught his breath, he reached out to him and pulled him closer.

“Ohmygod,” he panted. “That is brilliant. I don't give a shit if it's true or not, that, my friend, that right there is one of those things that makes you a writer. Who else would be mean enough to go there? But you're fuckin' right, dude. I mean, the guy seems like a sad bastard to us, so we're perfectly willing to accept her explanation, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be bullshit. That doesn't mean there's anything to believe about it at all! God damn. You know, I think if you hadn't have said it, it would have occurred to me at some point.”
“Should we—I dunno, should we tell the cops?”

“Oh, shit no, kid, if there's really something there, they'll catch it. I'm sure it's just overactive imagination, even if it is a hell of a good one. Don't sweat it. Although, come to think of it, would you get tired of that girl in just a couple of weeks?”

“You gotta get tired of everything sometime,” Jeff said.

“Such wisdom you have in you,” Stuart said, in an awful faux Asian accent.

When they reached the house, Jeff went in and fetched some beer and they sat on the deck. Jeff didn't even consider the fact that he was drinking beer before noon. They sat in silence, sipping, Jeff wishing he had another cigarette. He looked down and realized that his hand was shaking. He wondered if he was in shock. He figured he probably was, a little anyway.

“You ever think about it?” Stuart asked him, his words hanging in the air between them.

Jeff knew what he was asking, but played dumb.

“Think about what?”

The look Stuart gave him made it clear that he knew Jeff was being intentionally dense. Jeff caught it out of the corner of his eye and didn't react.

“Taking the easy way out,” Victor said eventually.

Jeff took another swallow of beer. “Not lately,” he said finally.

“Yeah.” Stuart finished his beer and burped. Jeff kept looking out at the trees, keeping his eye off the post and off of the writer. He'd had enough of suicide for one day.

“I think about it every summer,” Stuart said. Jeff heard the clink of his bottle as he put it down on the deck and then the writer stood to go inside.