Jeff couldn't help but remember when the writer had pulled a gun on him. He wondered if it were nearby, if that would be the next idea Stuart would have if Jeff said no.
“I'll get it,” he said. “But you have to go somewhere else. I won't let you see where I put it. Because you don't know, do you?” Stuart had his own set of Rover keys, so if the post could see the laptop or tell Stuart where it was, this wouldn't be happening. He would simply have woken to the sound of typing and seen Stuart, awake or not, working at the computer.
Stuart's shoulders sagged from where he had bunched them up in aggression. “Where,” he asked, and his voice was once again full of grief. “Where do I go?” Jeff knew he was only partly talking about where he would go at this moment.
“Go back in the bathroom,” Jeff said. “Take a shower,” he added, with sudden inspiration.
“Okay,” Stuart said. He turned to go to the bathroom and then looked back. “I'm sorry,” he said, his voice cracking.
“Was it your idea to keep writing?” Jeff asked.
“Fuck no! I think I'd be happy to never fucking write again.”
“Then you don't have to apologize.”
After Jeff heard the water start running, he returned to the kitchen. It occurred to him that Stuart could be running the water, only to poke his head out to discover Jeff's hiding place. That didn't seem beyond the author's cunning but Jeff didn't think his mind was running in that direction. And if it was, more power to him and he was welcome to his goddamn laptop.
The MacBook was back on the table and plugged in when Stuart emerged from the bathroom with a towel around his waist. He immediately made for the table, a peculiar look on his face.
“Get dressed first,” Jeff said, feeling like a parent.
Stuart stopped and considered, then pivoted and returned to the room. A moment later he emerged, wearing, Jeff was sure, the nearest clothes he could find.
The writer took his place across from Jeff, opened the laptop, and poured himself a bourbon. His hands were already gravitating to the keyboard, but he restrained them a moment longer.
“You ready to keep writing?”
“Sleeping pill didn't work?”
Stuart shook his head and began to futz with his laptop.
“So, I guess we'll sit here and you write until you're ready to collapse and then we'll call it a day.”
Stuart didn't look up. “Can you stay up that long?”
“I'll manage,” Jeff said.
It took more out of him that he imagined. Stuart wrote for five more hours, until almost ten that morning, and considering how tired Jeff had been before his “nap”, he was jittering from too much caffeine by the time Stuart was ready to call it a day.
Jeff drank Coke and watched movies through the early hours. Twice he poured a cold lump of chili over a biscuit for the writer and once he poured a large glass of water and left it within Stuart's reach. He never drank it. Jeff contented himself with a large bowl of cold cereal around six and some pretzels around nine.
He was beginning to nod in front of the some talking heads on a morning news show when the author spoke for the first time since he had started typing.
“Jeff.” The voice was quiet, but Jeff had been listening for it. He hoped that now, even though it was light outside, they could finally get some sleep.
Jeff shoved himself out of the couch and approached the dining room table.
“Are you done?” he asked.
“I'm struggling not to just let it do its thing,” the writer replied. “I need to stop.”
“Well, I'll need you to take the laptop again. I'm so tired now I think I can get a bit of sleep, anyway. I'll take two pills this time.”
“Okay, let's give it a shot.”
Stuart slowly and deliberately took his hands away from the keyboard and moved them down to his sides. It looked as though he were resisting a weight when he did it. He made fists and sat there for a moment.
“I need your help,” he said, finally.
“What is it?” Jeff asked.
“You're going to have to take the laptop.”
“Yeah, that's fine, I'll hide it like I did before.”
“No, I mean if you don't take it away from me, I won't be able to stop. I'm barely able to keep from typing right now.”
Jeff moved around to the head of the table, facing Stuart over the corner. He gently unplugged the computer, holding his breath, waiting for the bolt of lightning. There was nothing.
Stuart nodded encouragingly, his eyes starting to bulge with panic. Jeff pushed the laptop closed. Stuart nodded harder, a muscle beneath his left eye twitching.
Jeff put his hands on both sides of the very thin laptop and then the lightning struck. Stars burst behind his left eye, his left ear rang, and a searing pain tore at his left cheek. His hands fumbled with the laptop and it slid the length of the table, knocking over a glass and clattering to the floor.
Jeff took an instinctive step back and then reached up to touch his face. Stuart was looking at his right hand as if it had been replaced with someone else's.
“It was going to hit you,” he said. “Punch you. I forced the fingers apart, I was going to slap you, but instead...”
Jeff took his fingers away from his cheek and saw that they were bleeding. Stuart's nails, of course woefully under-manicured along with the rest of his lack of hygiene, were long and ragged. He could feel three separate burning marks where the nails had dug into his flesh.
Stuart was staring at him now and Jeff was again struck by the comparison he'd thought of before: Stuart as a Nazi, on trial, saying he was just taking orders, it wasn't his fault. Only now, there was sympathy there as well. Maybe some people really didn't have a choice when it came to taking orders. “Sorry,” the man said in a whisper.
Jeff swallowed. “You fought it.” It was not a question.
Stuart nodded, looking like nothing more than a child in trouble.
“Keep doing that, then, okay?”
“You should put it away,” Stuart said, gesturing to the other end of the table with his head.
“Can you close your eyes?”
Stuart did so and Jeff went to pick up the laptop. Jeff took it into the children's room and had a brain wave. He opened the computer, made a small adjustment, and then slid it between the box spring and the mattress on the pink bed. He returned to the table.
“Okay,” he said and Stuart stood.
“Listen, um,” Stuart still looked the part of the penitent child. “I know I don't really deserve to ask but...could you sleep in front of my door? I don't think it'll stop me from getting up if...it wants me to, but at least it'll wake you up at the same time.”
Jeff felt nothing but pity. The grown man before him was melting away, to be replaced by a sad kid and an old man. “I can do that, yeah.”
Stuart nodded without speaking, blinking back tears. “I'm sorry,” he said again, his voice trembling.
“Yeah?” The man kept looking down.
Jeff put a hand on his shoulder. “We can beat this thing. I know it.”
“I hope so,” Stuart replied, but he didn't sound like he had any hope left.