Jeff looked at Stuart. The man seemed to have aged as he told his story, gradually shifting from a man who only partially looked like his author photo to a man who seemed a hollow shell of himself. The bourbon that Stuart had poured him at some point was now a watery mess. He sipped at it and then sighed.
“So now what?” Jeff asked.
Stuart shook his head. “Beats the shit out of me, kid.”
“How much is really left?”
“Of Tomb? Well, I'm pretty confident there isn't going to be a false ending and I'm coming up on the showdown between Wilcox and the spirits in the tomb itself so. After that, there's a brief wrap up and denouement.” Stuart pronounced the French word with a surprisingly cultured accent. “I couldn't guess pages numbers, you know I don't really think that way, but...” he looked up, thinking. “I can give up editing it, just focus on getting the book out and, figure three full days. Minimum.”
“If you write full days, will that be enough?”
“For the...” Stuart avoided saying anything about where the book came from, “process?”
“Will it be enough for the process?”
“I don't know. This fucker is kicking and screaming to come out like an angry baby. It might not be.”
“Well, what if you let that happen? Won't you be done in, what, 24 hours?”
“Maybe, but I won't do that. One, every time it happens, and it's happened at least once since you've been here, too, by the way, I slipped away and came back and I'd just kept at it, I feel like another part of myself is stolen. I won't do that voluntarily. But the other danger is that if I go under, I'll just keep at it and start on the next one, and that's something I really want to avoid. Both because I need to break away and because I do not want to keep writing that thing.” He almost spat this last word. “To say nothing of the fact that by the time I finished, my hands would be ready to fall off.”
“What's it like when you can't stop?” Jeff asked.
“It's miserable. You know what melatonin is?”
“It's supposed to be the chemical that regulates your sleeping cycle. You can buy it at drug stores and some people take it instead of a sleeping pill. Natural, and all that shit. I tried it once, years ago, my wife suggested it. It put me into a half-sleep, I was lying in bed, I couldn't move, but I was conscious. It was awful. Most of the time when I sit here and write, it's my idea, you know? I mean, I'm sure as hell being encouraged, but it is voluntary. Then sometimes, it's like I'm done, but the book isn't done with me. So I have an experience like on that pill, I'm only partly there. I guess that state is halfway between me writing and the book writing itself. Sometimes I can break out of it, sometimes it's just one more chapter before I go to bed. It's like a petulant kid at bedtime. I'm finished, it wants just a little bit more.”
“What if what?”
“What if you let the battery run out?” I mean, you can't keep writing if the computer is dead. A few hours before quitting time, you unplug the thing and then you're done whether you like it or not. Or whether it likes it or not.”
“I tried it. The battery never goes beneath half power.”
“Impossible? Crazy? Yeah, it is. It's still the truth.”
They both sat in silence for a minute, thinking.
“Well, let's start with something easy. What's a schedule you can maintain. You said full days writing, what does that mean? Eight hours? Twelve?”
“Okay. Well what's a regular pace. Noon to midnight? Can you do that?”
Stuart considered. “I think so. How would you keep me on it, though?”
“One question at a time.”
“Yes, twelve hours of writing would exhaust me. Not enough to make me go to sleep, maybe, but damn well enough to make me sick of writing for the day.”
“What time is it now?”
Stuart touched the pad on his computer and woke it up. “It's almost three.”
“Are you done for the day?”
Stuart's hands twitched. My body says no, but I'm about ready to call it a night. What about you?”
“I'm fuckin' exhausted.”
“Right. Of course you are. Well let's try to get some sleep for now and see what tomorrow looks like, okay? I'm going to get up and go to the bathroom. I'll be a couple of minutes. When I'm gone, make sure I can't see this,” he said, nodding at the laptop. “Hide it from me. Maybe that'll help me sleep. Sure can't hurt.”
“I can do that.”
Stuart got up and went to the master bath between the bedrooms. As soon as the door closed, Jeff got up, slapped the thin Air laptop shut and unplugged it. He couldn't think of anywhere in the house that had a lock on the door, certainly not one that wouldn't lock him in with the laptop. “The further away the better,” he muttered to himself, thinking that the more distance he could get between the laptop and the thing in the crawlspace beneath him that the less power it would have. He had a mad flash of the post with a giant orange cat eye atop it, vision courtesy of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, naturally, casting about the house like an obscene radar, trying to find the computer.
Before he ran out of time, he ran into the kitchen, grabbed his keys from their hook, and took the laptop outside. He locked it in the trunk of the Land Rover, using his key to avoid the alarm beep sounding. It wasn't the best hiding place, he was sure, but getting it out of the house seemed like a good start.
He was safely back at the table when Stuart came out of the bathroom. The author never looked at him, but moved to the door to his room. He stood there for almost a full minute and Jeff could see the muscles bunching and releasing beneath his thin and dirty t-shirt. He was fighting the urge to return to the table.
Stuart willed himself to stop trembling. Fuck this house, he thought to himself. No more. This gets done and I'm out of here, do you hear me? He took deep breaths, inhaling, counting to five, exhaling. Gradually the muscles that strained at the sides of his face chose to release and his teeth stopped grinding.
“Good night,” he said, without look at the kid or the living room. “I took a sleeping pill. Hopefully it'll help.”
“Good night,” he heard the young man call after him.
Jeff set himself up on the couch, feeling uncomfortable with the idea of sleeping in the kids' room. Shit, just about everything in the place made him uncomfortable, he realized. It shouldn't matter, if Stuart was as good as his word, his children would never see the house, let alone the room again, but it was their space, not his. Just as the basement wasn't his space either, and never had been. He didn't have a space, he realized.
The couch would have to do, it was comfortable and there were blankets and he was, at least, willing to steal a pillow from the children's room. He opted for the royal blue one rather than the one with prancing unicorns on it.
Even though his body was exhausted the revelations and ideas of the day still had him wired. He wondered if he'd be able to sleep and had a vision of himself sitting up and typing all night instead of the author, his insomnia keeping him going until the house took over and then—
He shook his head. He vowed then and there not to type another word until he left this place. If he were a good writer, he could finish Danny's Dime on his own. He'd written another book before he came here, just like Stuart had, and he'd be damned if he sold himself as cheaply as the famous man had. He wouldn't let things slip away like that. He would keep Stuart's warnings in mind and he would not sell himself cheaply, not to agents and publishers, and certainly not to this fucking place.
Sleep came for him aggressively, even though he left the light in the living room on. He could see the bulbs making globes or light reflected in the black screen of the television and he was thinking of how he could creatively describe them and then he was asleep.
Less than two hours had passed when he woke up. He could see Stuart standing over him, his face shining with moisture, tears or sweat, and his eyes blaring in the leftover light.
Jeff twitched in surprise, pulling his blankets closer and struggling to sit up. “Jesus, what—“
“Where is it, Jeff?” Stuart asked. Jeff could tell from his voice that the wetness on his face was from tears, not exertion. “You know I need it. Give it back to me, please.”
Jeff said nothing, shocked, still fuzzy from sleep.
Stuart's face twisted, and he saw the animal in there once again, the thing behind the man. “Give it to me,” he said, and this time his voice was in his throat, no longer teary, but angry and feral. “Give me my fucking computer.”