Neither of the men had risen this early all summer. The author looked truly unhealthy for the first time, slumped in the passenger seat of the Land Rover. They had stopped for coffee and sausage biscuits at McDonalds on the way south, and Stuart had barely touched his food. He was wearing sunglasses to cut against the bright early morning sun. Jeff thought at first that the man was simply hung over, as one would expect, but the further they drove, the more poorly he looked. Jeff concluded that the older man simply wasn't a good passenger and was getting motion sick.
“You okay?” Jeff asked.
Stuart gave a barely perceptible nod and left it at that.
Jeff exited the highway for the airport and a few minutes later the car was stopped and the sunlight was blocked by an overhang.
Stuart looked at the dashboard clock. “Be a few more minutes,” he said. Jeff killed the engine and sipped his coffee. Stuart wrapped his arms around himself as if he were cold and slumped back against his window.
They had gotten up just before 7 a.m. Jeff had gone to sleep just after midnight, after an hour of reading Plague (the seventh Wilcox novel, but Stuart's eighth, he always reminded himself) and two hours of writing on Danny's Dime. It was still coming together and Jeff was amazed, expecting the story to slip away like a squirmy fish every time he sat down to continue working on the book. But it had not yet done so.
Stuart had, of course, stayed up writing, perhaps trying to make up for the fact that he didn't expect to get much work done with his children around. Jeff hadn't asked, but had assumed the man had not gotten much sleep at all. He thought that perhaps it would have been better for the kids if their father didn't look like a walking coma patient, but the further Stuart got into his story, the less inclined he was to take a break from it. It had started going well again.
The clock said 10 minutes had passed since the plane landed, so Jeff called Stuart back from whatever half-conscious state he was in. The writer went to go find his children, leaving Jeff alone, fiddling with the radio.
His fantasy of the children loving him and being an uncle figure to them and all that silliness had evaporated some time before. The reality of his experience at Stuart's house had forced out most of his illusions. He didn't have much of an opinion on kids. He didn't like the small ones that always seemed to be sticky, but he had a high opinion of himself as a twelve-year-old, being well-spoken, a reader, communicative, so it seemed fair to hope that these kids would be in the same vein. One could only hope.
A knock at the back door of the Rover brought him to his senses, so he jumped out to help with the luggage. He lifted the girl's small pink rolling suitcase in first, then the boy's larger, manlier bag. Then there were introductions.
The girl, Vanessa, was young enough to still be at the age of a complete lack of self-consciousness. She brightly greeted Jeff and then went to hop into car. She was wearing shorts, showing off legs that looked too long for her, and her hair was pulled back in a loose braid.
Riley, the fourteen-year-old, was enough of a teenager to be suspicious, but not enough of one to be an outright dick. He was wearing scruffy jeans and an All American Rejects t-shirt. He had shaggy hair that sloped across his forehead which was probably supposed to make him look older, but instead made him look as if he were wearing his older brother's hair. He shoved it out of his eyes and held out his hand like a good little man.
Riley was headed for his seat when Jeff got the author's attention.
“Would you feel better if you drove? You don't look so hot.”
“Nah, I'll be fine. Let's just get home.”
So they drove home, stopping for fish and chips at Salty's on Alki Drive. When they were finished, they crossed to the beach and Vanessa squealed with laughter as she fed leftover bits of french fries to seagulls. Riley threw rocks into the water and kept an eye on two 20-ish girls who were sunbathing. One was face down with her strap undone to avoid tan lines, and Jeff had a good idea that, at fourteen, the idea of such a thing was very distracting to the kid.
The fourth itself was on a Sunday and while it was only Thursday, the beach was already getting crowded. The wait at Salty's had been annoying long, and the small dining area had been packed with too many people.
“Gonna be a fucking zoo out here this weekend, let me tell you,” Stuart said. He was still sipping at his soda and seemed to be feeling a bit better with some food in his stomach.
“It gets pretty bad, huh?”
“Standing room only. Then at night, for the fireworks, you'll barely be able to see the beach for all the people. And the traffic. Jesus Christ.”
That lead to talk of their own plans. Come Sunday evening, they would all troop out to a boat that Stuart had rented for the evening and sit out on Puget Sound to watch the fireworks. Seattle's would be the biggest, but several other community's celebrations would also be visible. “We did it last year and the kids really dug it,” he said. “Should be a good time. You said you've never been out on a boat before, right?”
“Well, canoes and the ferry.”
Stuart nodded and watched his kids. Vanessa had tried to take her flip flops off, realized how hot the sand was, and then put them back on. Riley had surreptitiously moved a bit closer to the sunbathers and Jeff remembered what that was like: Desperately hoping to be noticed, terrified that you would be, not having any idea what you'd do after that.
“Okay!” Stuart yelled, standing up. Vanessa quickly trotted up, but Riley's course brought him on a ragged trajectory, making sure that his father knew that he wasn't going to come right away like some kind of dog.
Once they were in the Land Rover, Stuart turned to check on his kids. “Seat belt, you little punk,” he said to his son with affection, pointing at the kid's lap. “Now!” he said, his voice dominant in the small space of the car. “Boo wants ice cream?”
“Boo!” Vanessa yelled immediately. Jeff watched in the rearview mirror as Stuart turned his attention to his son again.
“Does boo not want ice cream? I think boo does. Does boo? Does boo want ice cream?” Eventually the boy's mien cracked at the author's ridiculous baby talk and he said his own boo very quietly. Stuart turned back in his seat and pointed his arm forward. “Boo!” he cried, and Jeff pulled into traffic to take them to the old-fashioned soda fountain on the top of the hill.
“Boo,” he said to himself.
Stuart still didn't look well, but he looked much better than he had when they'd been at the airport. Jeff wondered if it was just driving on the highway, recalling that he'd been a fine passenger when they'd first met and gone to breakfast. The day the son of a bitch had pointed a gun at him, he recalled.
“What's funny?” Vanessa asked from the back seat and Jeff realized he must have been smiling.
“Your daddy is funny,” Jeff replied. “I was just thinking of something silly he did.”
Vanessa reached over the chair in front of her and ruffled her father's hair. “Silly daddy,” she sang.
“Yup,” Stuart acknowledged. “Very silly.”