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.”
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?”
“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.
“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.