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.