“Suck it down, bitch!”
Jeff was still not able to get used to the sparkly little-girl voice of Vanessa talking like a well-hung porn stud. She was presently kicking her brother's ass at the newest installation of a first-person shooter franchise. She was used to playing with her brother and his friends. She even had her own Xbox Live ID, she had bragged to Jeff, which she used to serve up rocket propelled death to nerds all over the country.
She and Riley were both crouched in front of the television, just a few feet from the screen as Jeff emerged from the basement. He had woken several more times during the night and now he felt like a wrung-out sponge. The last thing he wanted to do was walk into a room with yelling kids.
It was only 9, so of course Stuart was still asleep behind his well-insulated door. Jeff, on the other hand, had been dozing uneasily for almost an hour, until finally giving up and coming upstairs after hearing the hoots and cries of the kids.
Jeff fixed cereal for the three of them and they started a movie soon after, following a science fiction adventure that involved swapping brains, technology theft, and laser guns.
Stuart finally rose at just after noon and took a shower, as he did when the children were around. Jeff himself had long gotten used to the man's scent as he skipped showering for days at a time when it was just the two of them.
“Boat's at three, folks,” Stuart said brightly, exiting the bathroom in a towel.
“Yay!” Vanessa cried. Riley tried to look stoic, but a smile seemed to break through.
The door to Stuart's bedroom closed and a minute later he exited, dressed in jeans and a Nirvana t-shirt.
“What are we gonna do until then?” he asked.
It turned out that the plan was another movie, and eventually Jeff went into the kitchen and packed two coolers, one with food and one with beer and soda. Both Jeff and Vic looked warily at the Victorian that sat next to the beach, but it was quiet. The truck was gone.
They walked down to the beach and, when Vic waved to a large Bayliner off shore, a small speedboat broke away and picked them up.
A half an hour later Raider joined the flotilla off of Alki Beach, dropping anchor and taking place with hundreds of other boats. Many had been there since the morning, and based on the volume level, several boats contained people who had been drinking since then. The fireworks weren't due for hours yet, and Jeff wasn't sure some of them would even manage to stay conscious until then.
The captain was a surprise. Jeff had, of course, expected a crusty old salt, a Quint, and instead the captain was only a few years older than him, dressed in baggy shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. His name was Steve. It was almost disappointing.
Riley and Vanessa sat on the deck under an awning and played games on their Gameboys. Stuart had brought his laptop and was editing below deck. Jeff walked up to the bow of the boat, dangled his legs off the side, and opened a beer. Even with the shouts and laughs from some of the more obnoxious boats, he was relaxed for the first time in what felt like weeks. It wasn't that dramatic, he told himself, but it was nice to catch his breath. For his first real experience on a boat, he would have been hard-pressed to improve on it.
Some time later, the sun was retreating behind the mountains and the random pops and snaps of small fireworks were starting. Jeff could already see the occasional bottle rocket float past in the water. He finished the last of his third beer and went back to check on the kids again. They were still perfectly happy, drinking Coke and eating chips, playing with each other at some game.
Steve was sitting at the captain's chair, his ragged straw hat pulled down over his eyes. He was silent and still. Jeff thought that such peace was admirable when sitting so close to Riley and Vanessa.
He ducked his head as he descended into the cabin which was a bit stuffy, but nice and cool. Stuart sat in a banquette at a very small table. His face glowed in the blue screen of his laptop. He looked awful. As comfortable as it was down here, his face shone with sweat.
An unpleasant thought occurred to Jeff then, which that right then the author looked the way he had when he had woken up after his nightmare. Like someone who had been awakened from the dead. The comparison might be a bit extreme, and it certainly had its roots in reading too much of Stuart's fiction, but the hollowed-out, desperate appearance was concerning.
“You okay?” Jeff asked. He remembered what a poor traveler Stuart had been on the way to the airport and he wondered again if the man was just a lousy traveler.
“Nah, this suck,” he said. “I can't get shit out here. I dunno why.”
“You wanna come up for a while, get some sun?”
Stuart looked up at Jeff then, meeting his gaze for the first time. For just one instant, Jeff thought the writer was going to yell at him. Then he shook his head.
“No. The editing I can force and it's gotta get done.” He looked back down at his computer. “Shit, it's almost six. I'll be up in a bit and we can eat.”
So Jeff went back up on deck. On an impulse he woke Steve and the two of them convinced the kids to try fishing off the back of the boat. Steve had an assortment of spinning rods, armed with spoons and lures, and Jeff raided the cooler for some bread and bits of meat for baiting hooks.
When Stuart finally emerged from the cabin, looking, if anything, worse, Riley was hauling in his second catch. Neither of them had caught anything impressive, but they were entertained and, although moderately troubled by the adult nature of the thought, Jeff thought that fishing was a better outdoor activity on a holiday than playing video games.
They ate while the kids continued to fish, and as the sky turned dark blue and then purple started to creep up from the horizon, the fireworks from the surrounding ships grew more frequent. Eventually Steve broke out the deck chairs and they sat at the front of the boat, Vanessa with a blanket over her lap, Stuart with a cigar, staring at the sky.
The stars were not quite out yet when the fireworks started, fountains and trees of multiple colors exploding in the air above them. The crowd on the boats began to cheer appreciatively.
Jeff's stomach was upset by the time they headed home, too much beer, not enough food, and the movement of the boat, particularly after all the fireworks had ended and everyone chose to leave at the same time, creating a disastrous wash of wakes that had to be traversed.
Vanessa's head was lolling as they rode toward the house in the smaller boat, Steve driving at the rear, Riley at the front, staring up at the massive blue moon that hung above.
The house on the beach was still gratefully quiet, but there were still pops and bangs up and down the beach as celebrators continued.
Stuart handed Steve an envelope with the rest of his pay after they unloaded the kids and the coolers.
“Just head up with them,” Jeff said, “I'll bring this crap.”
“Yeah?” Stuart said, and Jeff could see that being on land had already helped him.
“I'll be right there.”
So Stuart walked ahead, holding Vanessa's hand on one side and his other arm over his son's shoulders. Jeff realized that while he would not be sad to see them go, he would probably miss them. Especially the lively energy of the little girl. He was also struck that, weird and self-destructive as Stuart's routines were, he would be glad to get back to them. There was peace there, reliability.
He turned and looked out at the water. He could mentally place where the posts were and he realized that part of his mind accepted where they had been in his dream as where they were located in reality. Maybe they weren't there at all. Something like that would be much less sturdy in the water than on land. It was preposterous, actually, especially the idea that they just kept going on and on. There weren't any such things anywhere. If there were, he would have surely heard of them. He liked the mysterious and the unexplained, he had read all the Time-Life Mysteries of the World books, but things like that were a lot more interesting when they were in Egypt or South America than when they were in your back yard.
Jeff picked up the first cooler and then he saw a flare of light. It was a match, or a lighter, it was hard to tell, and it bloomed to life on the deck of Thorsen's house. The old man was standing there, lighting a cigarette. His eyes glared red in the flare of the tiny fire. Jeff stared at him for a moment, startled, afraid. He shivered.
He bent and stacked the second cooler on top of the first. They were mostly empty, so they weren't heavy, but he had to adjust his stance and his stride to get them both up the trail to Stuart's house. He could feel the man's eyes on him the entire time.
Once he broke through the line of trees, he felt safe to leave one cooler there and carry the other to the house. Riley was doing something on his laptop, sharing the table with his father. Vanessa was apparently in bed.
When he returned for the second cooler, he stopped to stare at the post for a moment. He returned to his dream again, the unrelenting line of posts, stretching out as far as he could see from his tied-down position. It hadn't meant anything of course, but the idea that there could be so many of, well, anything, in so specific a pattern spoke to Jeff of power or structure or...he didn't want to think about it.
He dropped the second cooler on the deck with a hollow thunk. His stomach hurt, his nerves were crawling, and all he wanted to do was go to bed, to retrieve some of the sleep that he had lost the night before. One more day without writing, then in the morning he would take the kids to the airport and things would go back to what he already thought of as normal, after less than a month.
“Thanks,” Stuart said, and Jeff was surprised to see that he was aware of his surroundings, not already lost in his book. His appearance had returned to normal. He looked fine, healthy, as he usually did.
He really is a shitty traveler, Jeff thought to himself as he descended his stairs.
It wasn't until he was almost asleep, washing back and forth in the space between conscious thought and whatever the other side is, when it came to him what Stuart's behavior was really like. He wasn't acting like someone who didn't travel well, someone subjected to motion sickness. He was acting like every television and movie cliché of a junkie removed from his source, jonesing, just trying to get by until he could find another fix.