The Reality of Fantasy
It turned out that the difficult part of getting to Leonard's apartment wasn't finding the building again, but finding a place to park. The streets were packed. If a car could fit in a space, then the space was already taken. Hell, there were cars parked where legally speaking, there was no space – in red zones on the corners, blocked driveways, on lawns, in the tiny triangular motorcycle only spots – anywhere a car could fit, exhausted drivers were fitting them. Jim circled the block three times before expanding the radius of his search to a second block in all directions – an amazing feat, given the number of one way streets surrounding Leonard's apartment. After half an hour of searching, Jim saw headlights power up on a car parked half a block behind him.
Without hesitation, he slammed the Escalade into reverse, and hit the gas. He managed to back up without slamming into anything, though he was covering three lanes (one of which was for opposing traffic) when he stopped. He casually positioned himself to take the space when the parked car's occupants finished screaming in terror long enough to drive away, and then practically rammed the nose of the SUV into the spot, lest someone else come along to try to stake a claim.
To his credit, it only took ten minutes of pulling in and out, a la Austin Powers, before he finally was satisfied that he wasn't sticking out in the street. Exhausted, Jim creaked open the door and slid to the ground, just in time to nearly slammed to the pavement by a speeding car. He flattened himself against the side of the SUV and inched his way to the back of it, where he could get himself on the sidewalk and get his bearings. He was parked in front of a liquor store, a couple blocks away from where Jim thought the apartment must be. A sea breeze cut the night air, and sent an unseasonal chill straight through Jim's core. He turned up the corners of his collar, and hoofed it towards what he hoped was Leonard's home.
Just a little over a block and a half later, and Jim came across the skyblue quadplex, with a pair of little striped faces peering out at him through the large right hand window. Bingo. The larger of the two cried out silently, and stood up, rubbing herself against the glass. She must have remembered Jim.
He took the steps two at a time, and hesitated in front of the door. His brain unhelpfully supplied him with all the times he'd been reminded what a burden he was to keep around, how irresponsible he was, how someone should have intervened before Winona got involved with her first real boyfriend – these were blood relatives, people who were supposed to give a damn about him. Why would Leonard, a coworker, want to take Jim in now?
The curtain that shielded the tiny window built into the top of the door moved a bit. Deadbolts turned, and the door creaked open. Leonard stood there, in nothing but boxers and a pair of socks, holding a half finished bottle of Newcastle Ale in one hand. "Jim?"
"Hey." When Leonard didn't slam the door in his face, Jim brightened up. "I, uh, was in the neighborhood."
One of Leonard's eyebrows crooked up. "That seems unlikely."
Jim snorted. It was unlikely, and yet, here he was. "I know. It's a long, strange story, one that involves old friends and weird favors and shots of rum and it ends with me begging a newer friend for another weird favor."
Before Jim could screw up the courage to ask anything, Leonard nudged the screen door open with his foot. "I have work in the morning," Leonard said, "so I hope you can figure out how to get home on your own."
"Uh, I have transportation." Jim jumped a little as the big cat stretched up the length of his leg and swatted at his fingers with her paw, as if to say 'come pet me, you negligent idiot!' He chuckled and scratched her nose with a fingertip. "Looks like she missed me, huh?"
"She's not the only one," Leonard mumbled. A couple of beer bottles were swept off the couch, and the same blanket Jim had left folded on the back of the couch the week before was wafting through the air, to lay perfectly straightened on the couch. "There you go."
As touched as Jim had been by the idea that his old buddies had been rooting for him in absentia, nothing could prepare Jim for the onslaught of emotion at the simple display of a bed, ready and waiting, just for him. A sob broke loose before Jim could clamp down on it, followed by another, and another.
"Hey, hey, what?" Leonard came and wrapped an arm around Jim's shaking shoulders, and guided him to the couch. "Did something happen?"
"Everybody's being so nice to me!"
"Aaaand... this is a bad thing?"
Jim wiped furiously at his tears, angry with himself for showing so much blatant weakness. "I was just... surprised. I'm fine. Shut up."
"I wasn't gonna say anything, Jim." Leonard gave Jim's shoulders a final squeeze before slowly releasing him. "You're always welcome here."
Jim sighed. "Even when I chew you out on the desk in front of everyone?"
Leonard stood and collected a couple more empty bottles. "I figured I had that coming. My wife used to say that I never gave a damn about anybody's problems but my own." Leonard laughed, but it was a bitter sound. "I called myself working on that with you, but I guess that I shouldn't assume people are telling me the truth when they say they're fine." Leonard paused. "Shit. That didn't come out right."
"I assumed as much." Jim patted the cushion next to himself. "Come, sit. Try again."
Leonard hesitated, but he dragged himself back to the couch and flopped down on it. He took a long pull of his drink, before settling it on the table. "I... I just wish people would..." Leonard snatched the bottle up again and guzzled the rest down. "Why the fuck don't people trust me?" He ground his teeth together, and Jim could tell that it was taking all Leonard's strength not to cry. "I'm not a bad person," he was saying. "I... I like people. I love them! I want them to feel loved – but you can't feel love when all you feel is mistrust. What am I doing wrong?"
Jim sank back in his seat, and saw his own bad behavior through new eyes. "You're not doing anything wrong. You just... you don't hold your tongue."
"Well maybe I should," Leonard said miserably.
"No, don't. And don't assume that you're the problem. Some... people... just don't trust anyone at first. And when those people start to trust a friend, they might seem like they aren't open, or like they aren't sharing, but those people are being as open as they can. Okay?"
Leonard shook his head. "Jocelyn ain't been hurt by no damn body."
"I wasn't talking about your ex-wife," Jim said softly.
Now it was Leonard's turn to look at Jim through new eyes. Jim could see the understanding dawning on his face. "Oh. Okay. Okay." Leonard pressed himself against Jim's side, and brushed at the side of his face, a sad parody of the last time they'd sat together on Leonard's couch.
Jim found himself leaning into the touch, and pulled away abruptly. Leonard snarled low in his throat, and stood up, to stalk away towards the back of the apartment. "Wait!" Jim followed Leonard through the den and the kitchen, into the tiny bedroom, where there was just enough room to fit a bed and a dresser within. "Leonard, wait."
"What? What do you want from me?!"
Jim paused. For the time being, he had what he wanted, which was permission to stay the night. "I... I don't want anything from –"
"Then get the hell out of my room! Better yet, get a cab, and go the fuck home!"
"Don't you think you're overreacting a little bit," Jim asked slowly.
"You come in here smelling like a whorehouse, begging for a room like I'm a goddamn Motel 6, lecturing me about being unable to trust folks, but I can't fucking touch you? My cat can touch you, but not me? NO, I don't think I'm overreacting a little bit! Get out!"
Jim's jaw dropped open. "Please don't make me go." Was that his voice? It sounded so small...
"Then quit fuckin' with my emotions!"
"I'm not trying to!" Ah, Jim's voice was small no more. "I don't know what the fuck you want from me! What the fuck do you want from me? And why is what I give you not good enough? Why am I always the one that isn't ever fucking good enough?!"
They stood there, staring at each other, breathing hard. Finally, Leonard broke the silence. "I want you."
"You want me."
"You," Leonard growled. "Mind, body and soul, you. I want you."
Jim shook his head, confused. "Want me... what, you want to fuck me...?"
"No, I don't want to fuck you, Jim, I want you. What the fuck is so hard to understand about this concept?"
Jim threw his hands in the air. "Apparently, everything!"
"Then how about I clear this shit up for you?!" Leonard lunged for Jim and pulled him close, wrapping the startled man in his arms. Jim wheezed at the powerful embrace and tried to push Leonard away, but Leonard just squeezed harder, and crushed their mouths together.
Jim seized up, completely taken aback. Leonard pulled back, just as abruptly as he'd forced himself on Jim, and released him. "I... I'm sorry, Jim. I..." Leonard put his head in his hands. His shoulders began to shake.
Jim looked away. He didn't want to see this. He didn't want to be responsible for it. He didn't want to know anything about it. But he could hear the sniffling, the little gasps for air, the creak of the bed as it sagged under the terrible weight of Leonard's emotion, and Jim knew that there was no escape from any of it, whatever it was.
Jim reached out and fingered the thick layers of glossy brown hair, sifting his way down to the scalp in small, gentle circles, the way Winona used to do when the nurses gave her the ten minute warning. She used to peel through the fine golden strands, murmuring words of love and reassurance, that one day they'd be together, and no doctor or security gate or social worker would come between them again. Not now, but one day.
"One day what," Leonard croaked through his tears.
Jim's fingertips paused midtwist. "Did... I say that out loud?"
"You said 'not now but one day'. One day what?"
Yeah, one day what? And why not now? Or, rather, why one day if not now? Jim resumed the random fingering in Leonard's hair, wondering what promises he was unconsciously handing over. That he would accept Leonard's kiss? That he would give himself to Leonard? That he would tell Leonard every little thing about himself, and answer all his questions? "I don't know, Leonard."
Leonard jerked his head away from Jim's touch. "Then get the fuck out of my room. Stay out of my room."
Jim stepped back and regarded his friend sadly. "Do you want me to leave tonight?"
Leonard ground his teeth for a while before answering. "I doubt the train is running now. Just..."
"I told you, I have transportation."
Leonard looked up, eyes dark with something unidentifiable, something terrible. "Then get out."
Jim's eyes filled with tears. "Why? Because I couldn't kiss you back? Because I don't know what promises I'm making in the back of my mind?" He turned and started to leave the room, but he couldn't let Leonard's attitudes about trust go without saying something. "You know why I never tell people the truth about myself?"
"I thought I told you to get out."
"Because the minute I start to think that they'll always be there for me, they throw me out of their lives." A tear rolled down Jim's cheek, but he wasn't sad. He was fucking angry – angry at his family, the social workers, his teachers, everyone who'd promised him that they could be trusted. "You think you're the only one who's been hurt."
Leonard got up and pushed Jim further into the kitchen. "You already gave me this fucking speech. We're done."
"No, I didn't. I danced around what I had to say. But I'm going to tell you what I have to say, nice and fucking clear, before I leave here, Leonard McCoy, and you are going to listen to me."
"What the fuck makes you think I'm gonna listen to one goddamn thing you think you have to say to me?"
"Because tonight you made me feel like shit for never telling you my secrets, like I have done you, and this... friendship, a great disservice. Well, guess what? Now I'm gonna reveal all, and you're gonna take it, because it's what you wanted."
"I can't have what I wanted," Leonard growled.
"No, you can't have what you wanted when you wanted it exactly how you wanted it, and that's totally different. You're pissed off because you want people to love you on your oh so fucking particular terms, and your wife wouldn't, and I can't. I'm pissed off because I want people to love me on any fucking terms, and they won't or can't for whatever reason there is, and there's nothing I can say or do about it." Jim grabbed hold of Leonard's shoulders. "You're kicking me out because I had no idea you wanted to be anything other than a friend to me and I don't know how to react. You're pulling your friendship from me because I'm terrified to love another human being, because they all pull their love from me!" Jim yanked his hands away, turned and practically ran from the room.
Jim was already outside, on the sidewalk, half way to the corner when he heard someone call his name. Fuck him. He walked faster, determined to get the hell away from Leonard. At any rate, there was one good thing to come out of this latest confrontation: he felt sober enough to drive himself home.
Footsteps echoed on the pavement, and someone grabbed Jim's arm. Jim spun around, ready to throw a punch, but it was just Leonard. Leonard, in his boxers and a longish windbreaker that he hadn't even bothered to cinch up. He was weeping openly. "Jim..." Leonard closed the space between them, and leaned his forehead to Jim's. "Jim, please."
Jim yanked at his arm, tried to get some space between them. "Let go. You're drunk."
"Probably." Leonard closed the space again, shuffling his feet until they were toe to toe, belly to belly. "Jim..."
Jim's own tears had dried up, and he felt like he could never cry again. "I don't know what the hell you want from me."
"A chance." Leonard kissed him again, softly this time. "Come back. I... I don't want to throw you away." Leonard choked on the last words, and buried his nose in the crook of Jim's neck. "Come back," he cried, words muffled by Jim's shoulder.
"You need to go back inside. You have work in the morning."
Leonard just sobbed into Jim's shoulder. "Please."
"I don't trust you."
Jim expected Leonard to fly off the deep end and scream bloody murder again. Instead, Leonard kissed Jim's neck. "I know that. You think I don't know that?" Leonard finally lifted his head and looked Jim in the eye. "You think I don't know what I've destroyed? I'm not asking you to forget it happened. I'm asking you to let me fix it. Let me fix it, please! Please." Leonard took Jim's hand, and began to walk backward, toward his apartment. Against Jim's better judgment, he allowed himself to be led back inside.
They went silently to Leonard's bedroom, and just as silently shed their clothes, and stood before each other, naked and raw in every way. When Leonard kissed Jim's lips a third time, Jim's resolve crumbled. He was beaten and torn and wanted to believe that this time, this time, he had found a safe haven. And so he returned the kiss, tentatively, fearfully, until he was drawn into the circle of Leonard's arms, into the cocoon of flannel sheets and strong arms, into the damp heat of unleashed passion.
The light was all fucking wrong. Why was the window directly under his head? His bed wasn't that low to the floor! Where the fuck were his pills?! What??
"And here I thought I was gonna have to do the assholish thing and leave you a note," Leonard grumbled. But he was smiling, eyes twinkling in the bright sunlight.
Aaaaand just why the fuck was Leonard standing over his bed, smiling like a psychopath?
"So, you can stay as long as you like. There's some beer in the fridge, and plenty of menus on the corkboard in the dining room – just about everybody and their mama delivers down here. If you leave before I get back, let yourself out of the back door, because you can lock it behind you when you leave." Leonard pointed to a door next to the kitchen doorway, and brushed his hand against Jim's face.
All the words from the night before came flooding back to Jim. The words, the touches... the touches. Jim shivered from the memory, rocked to the core by a phantom touch. He pulled reluctantly from Leonard's tender fingertips. "Leonard, wait. I... we can't..."
The smile froze on Leonard's face. "Oh." He pulled his hand away and stood stiffly, face reddening. "I see. Okay."
Jim sighed and shook his head. "No, you don't see. Let me finish." Jim patted the bed. "Come on. Spock can let the staff in the building this morning. Sit the fuck down and let me explain, goddammit."
Leonard sat just as stiffly on the edge of the bed and refused to look at Jim. "Alright. I'm listening."
Where to start, where to start... "Okay. So. Look. I... I'm not saying I don't love you. I'm saying that... we... can't..."
"I get it, Jim. I do." Leonard smiled sadly and patted his thigh. "Thank you for indulging me last night."
"Get it?" Jim scratched his head. "What the fuck do you think I'm telling you?"
Leonard huffed a little laugh and shook his head. "That we are not... oriented for one another."
Jim shook his head, still confused. "Not oriented..."
"I get it, you're straight, you didn't want to lose our friendship-"
"Oh!" Laughter bubbled out of Jim, filling the room with his own special brand of sparkling hysteria. "I – no! Oh man, if you could see – that's just – Leonard!" Jim fell over in the bed, unable to hold himself upright and laugh at the same time.
Leonard's stiffness returned almost immediately. "I have to get to work, Jim, so if you don't mind," he said tersely.
"Sorry. Sorry. It was just... okay, I'll tell you why that's so hilarious over lunch or something. Dude..."
"Okay!" Composure regained, Jim placed his hand on Leonard's. "So, remember that little girl in the library?"
"Of course I do."
Jim nodded. "Of course you do. Well, you were saying all that stuff about people abandoning children, and how some people really want to be with their kids."
"And then you blew up at me and told me to shut my fucking face. What does that have to do with our future?"
Jim paused. "I like that. Our future."
"I'm so glad you do," Leonard snarled. "Want to finish explaining to me why we don't get to have one?"
"What? No! That's not what I meant either..." Jim tried a different tack. "Leonard – I have a son."
Leonard's mountain climbing eyebrow was the only indication Jim had that he was still being received at all. "And this is relevant because...?"
"I didn't know about him until recently. I... his current caretakers asked me to take him in, and I said no."
Leonard frowned and settled in, no longer so concerned about getting to work right on time. "And then I had my tirade, and you saw yourself in the people I was vilifying."
Jim smiled wanly. "Well, not exactly. I saw my mother in the people you were vilifying – people who leave their children wherever, alone and frightened."
"I'm sorry she did that to you, Jim," Leonard said softly.
Jim sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Leonard. Did anyone tell you that you jump to conclusions a lot?"
Leonard smiled. "All the time. I'm sorry. Tell me more."
Jim drew in on himself, painfully aware that he now had Leonard's undivided attention. He'd never told anyone about his mother before – people either already knew, because once you'd seen her in one of her states, you kinda couldn't not know, or they just assumed that she was like any other mom. He'd certainly never told anyone about The Incident. But it was time for full disclosure. "When I was five, I was made a ward of the state."
Leonard cocked his head. "What happened?"
Jim began to rock back and forth as the pain of that first separation resurfaced. "We were shopping. She was buying me pants. They never covered my ankles. She always had to buy me pants." Something touched Jim's fingers. He gripped the something tightly, and it – they – gripped back, lacing with his fingers, stroking his knuckles. "She was fine – she was feeling fine. And then she saw them. I never knew what they were. I stopped asking a long time ago. Asking her about them brings them back. I never saw them."
Something pressed against Jim's forehead, soft, plush and warm, something that smelled of coffee and Irish cream. "Did something special happen when she saw them, Jim?"
"She took me out of the dressing room. I wasn't dressed. There was no time. She had to get me out of there, away from them, before they got me. She had to protect me. She was just trying to – she didn't know. It wasn't her fault. She hid me in the safest place she could think of – the middle of the mall. Too many people, she said. The things wouldn't be able to find me there. She said she would be back."
Leonard waited, but Jim was all out of words. "Did she come back?"
"I... don't know." Jim clung to Leonard then. "Strange people came and put me in a van. Took me to a house with other children. I stayed there for two days before my grandmother came for me. I didn't see my mother for a month, and when I did, she was in a hospital gown. She was crying. She wasn't trying to leave me alone forever. She was just trying to protect me from the... things." Jim pulled back and looked at Leonard. "That's why I lost it in the library - you don't know what's happening in people's lives just based on what you can see the surface, Leonard. You don't know why that little girl was all alone in our library."
Leonard sighed. "Okay. I don't know what's going on with that little girl. But that doesn't tell me why you and I can't... whatever it is that we can't."
"I know. I'm getting to that." Jim told him of all the homes he was taken around to, all the people he was shunted off on, all the anger and resentment as he was bounced from place to place. "I promised myself I would never be like that. I would never take someone in, someone small and defenseless, and turn him out because he was fucking inconvenient.
"And then I grew up. I made a life for myself. A routine. A routine that I liked. And then, suddenly, there was this kid. And I knew that bringing this kid into my life would be... inconvenient. So I said no. And I thought that was the end of it. I'd had my own share of problems, my car was stolen, I'm still fighting with Kaiser for about my medicine – the whole bit. I didn't need to take care of some kid too."
Leonard stroked Jim's arm soothingly. "And then I said what I said, right when you were dealing with all this stuff all by yourself. Must have felt like the worst timing ever."
Jim leaned into the touch. "It did feel that way, but it really wasn't. It was a wake-up call. Okay, so I decide not take the kid. What the hell kind of message does that send? In the end, I was even worse than the aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents who passed me around. I wouldn't even let him in the goddamn door before rejecting him – and I knew it."
"That's not a nice thing to have to realize about yourself," Leonard said.
"No, it's not. It sucks." Jim pulled fully out of their half-embrace. "And it would suck just as much for me to be exploring a new love affair while I'm trying to get this kid settled. I remember how hard it was to adjust to new rules, new routines, new families. And people were always more interested in whatever it was that they already had going in their own lives than they were in me. I can't do that to him. I need to get him settled first, before I can dive into something with you."
Leonard frowned, but he nodded. "Jim, I'm not sure how true that is – you won't be uninterested in the child, just because you're with me. But I'll never come between a parent and child, so if you think that's how you need to play it for now, then I understand." He smiled, and this time the smile reached his eyes. "I really do." He brushed a stray hair from Jim's forehead. "I've waited this long to make a move – I can wait a little longer, if you want me to."
Jim captured Leonard's hand in his, gave it a squeeze. "I do."
Christine Marcus was standing in the second parking lot on the right, scanning the cars on the street as they went past. Jim pulled into the parking lot, and was nearly on top of her before she realized that he was there. She clamped her mouth shut and pivoted on her heel. "You're late," she called over her shoulder.
"Whatever." He followed her into the park, to a tree with a massive root system. Atop the largest of these exposed roots, lay the curly haired child. The boy was on his belly, peering at who knew what, and he occasionally moved his hand to make a few notes in a notebook. Jim wondered if it was the same notebook that he'd seen at the restaurant, but he kept his mouth shut.
"Here." Christine thrust the same duffel bag they'd had before in Jim's face. "There's instructions inside. Read them. They're important."
Jim bristled. "What the hell, he comes with an instruction manual? He's not a fucking stereo system..."
"He has special needs." She sneered at him, as if Jim couldn't possibly deal with... whatever. "He has multiple food allergies, which are all on the list. There's also some behavioral problems – they've been noted, but they're going to have to be addressed, and not with a belt. There's also some foods that he's absolutely not going to eat, so don't even try it."
Jim rolled his eyes. "That it?"
Christine narrowed her eyes in response. "Everything he owns is either in that bag, or on his back. He has one toy. One. Don't screw up and leave it somewhere."
"Is that it?"
Christine fairly vibrated with fury, but rather than answer him, she went to the tree, got down on her knees, and began to speak softly to David. He didn't seem particularly interested in keeping up his end of the conversation. After a few attempts at a tender, heartfelt goodbye, Christine got to her feet and stalked towards her car. Jim thought he heard her muttering something under her breath about them deserving each other, but he couldn't be sure.
Jim decided to try his hand at talking to the kid. "Hey. David."
"Hey, um, look. It's getting late. We should get going."
The kid drew something in his notebook. It looked like a line of giant ants.
Another ant appeared on the page. Then he started to write something underneath the picture. Jim sighed and sat down in the grass nearby, to wait the boy out.
They were still there at dusk.
Suddenly, the kid rolled to a seated position. "I'm hungry," he announced to the air.
"Hallelujah, it's about fucking time!" Jim got slowly to his feet, and stretched out the various aches and pains of sitting in the same position all damned day.
David gasped and shouted as loudly as he could, "What the fuck are you doing here?"
"What the... you got a mouth on you, don't you?" Jim asked. "I'm gonna take you home."
"Where's Big Chrissy?"
Big Chrissy? Seriously? "You mean Christine? She had to go home, David."
Jim laughed hesitantly. What, had they not told the kid what was going on? "Well, yeah. You're gonna live with me now."
David looked him up and down. "This is some bullshit."
Jim glared at the kid balefully. "This sure is some bullshit."
It took twenty five minutes to drive from the park to Jim's apartment. The walk from the parking garage, through the courtyard and around the swimming pool, to the bottom of the staircase took about five minutes. Another five minutes to walk up the stairs, across the balcony, unlock the door, usher the kid inside, and get inside himself.
Jim locked the door behind him, toed off his shoes, and unbuttoned his jeans before the kid said it. "I want McDonalds."
Jim looked at the kid. "Now?"
"Sucks to be you right now, then. You should have said something before we got in the house."
"But I'm hungry!"
"Uh-huh, I'll just bet you are." Jim worked his way out of each sock without using his hands. "See that door right there, by the hall? Go in there, and get some blankets from the second shelf from the bottom."
"So you'll have a place to sleep tonight."
David looked positively scandalized. "But I'm hungry!"
"Yeah, I got that memo. Go get the blankets, man. It's gonna be cold without 'em."
"No! I'm hungry! Chicken McNuggets!"
"Oh for fuck's sake." Jim stomped over to the linen closet and grabbed a sheet and a blanket himself. "You act like you can't carry a fucking square of cloth five feet to the couch. Come fix the fucking sofa."
The command was met with silence. Odd – the kid sure was mouthy just a fucking second ago... When Jim poked his head out of the linen closet to see if the kid was doing as he was told, there was no one in the room. "David?" He dropped the blankets on the floor and ran around the bar, into the kitchen. No one there. "The hell...?" There was no way the kid could have gotten past him into the hallway, but Jim checked the bathroom and bedroom anyway. Still nothing.
Jim threw open the front door. "David!" No answer. Jim bolted down the stairs three at a time, still barefoot, looked around the courtyard, but he found nothing. He ran out to the street, up and down both corners, calling the kid's name, but there was still no reply. "Okay, okay. He's just a kid. He's just a fuckin' kid." What would Jim have done?
The last time he'd been forcibly removed from his mother's care, Jim had slipped from his cousin's car at a red light, and run the seven blocks back to the halfway house where Winona was being forced to live at the time.
Jim raced to the parking area, but skidded to a stop when he realized that his keys weren't in his pocket anymore. He ran back up the stairs with a burst of energy he didn't think himself capable of, and scrambled around the telephone stand near the door, searching through old mail and coupons and Penny Savers and shit, until he heard the tell-tale clang of keys hitting the floor. He snatched them up, banged his head on the table, nearly tripped over the threshold of the door (four years in the same apartment, and he'd never done anything so fucking stupid), and raced down the stairs, painfully aware of the minutes ticking by. Through the courtyard, past the pool, into the carport, up in the ginormous truck of doom.
About a hundred million minutes wasted in trying to back the fucker out of the space without hitting anyone else's car.
Jim peeled out of the parking area without bothering to check for oncoming traffic. Tires squealed and a horn blared through the night, but Jim ignored that too. Down the street. Right on Sherbourne. Left on Cadillac. Left on Venice, and settle in for awhile. No sign of the kid.
Not possible. Not possible. There was no way... Jim made a u-turn and sped back up to La Cienega Blvd. Maybe the kid made a wrong turn somewhere, or maybe he didn't turn off on Sherbourne. Or maybe he was just fucking lost forever, and there was no point in looking and Jim should just go back home and call the police.
Jim turned up the street he lived on, horrified at his first night as a responsible guardian. He coasted slowly up the street, back towards his apartment, when he saw a small child, with fluffy yellow curls pounding down the pavement towards La Cienega, and the car.
Holy fuck, praise the lord and everything else! Jim moved as close to the curb as he could and rolled down the window. "David! Get over here!" The boy kept walking – didn't even look in Jim's direction. "David! Hey! Hey! Don't you fucking hear me talking to you?!" Infuriated by the very deliberate lack of response, Jim hooked a wild right into the driveway right in front of the kid. "What the motherfuck do you think you're doing?!"
David stopped abruptly, then back pedaled away from the truck, towards the street. Jim threw the car into reverse and made a tire blistering u-turn, bumping up onto the sidewalk and into someone's perfectly manicured lawn. David froze for just a second before he tried to run off, but the hesitation was just long enough for Jim to reach over the seat and snatch David by the arm. "Are you crazy," the boy cried. "What are you doing?!"
Jim slammed his foot on the gas, jolting them towards the opposite sidewalk. David's feet went flopping as the earth suddenly disappeared beneath them, and Jim managed to get the kid hauled into the car before they rolled into someone's fucking living room. "Shut up!"
"You're fucking crazy!" By this time, David was screaming bloody murder, and windows began to light up all over the normally quiet neighborhood. "You're gonna kill us all!"
"Shut the fuck up, kid!" Panicked, Jim turned the wheel and drove blindly through the side streets of West Los Angeles, veered off onto Pico Boulevard, and made a bid for... anywhere. "What the fuck is your problem, you demented little freak?"
"I told you, I'm fucking hungry!"
Jim pounded his fist on the steering wheel. "What the fuck does that have to do with you running out of the house in a strange neighborhood in the fucking dark all by your fucking self? What, just because there's trees and houses with plastic playsets in them, you think it's safe to do that shit? There's gangs surrounding the whole fucking area, man! There's kid snatchers-"
"No, not like me, you ungrateful little turkey! Like, actual psychopathic motherfuckers that want to steal little fucking retards and do shit to them! Goddammit!"
David huffed in his seat and turned to stare out the window. "It's not like you fucking care! You weren't even gonna feed me!"
"What? What the – yes I was!"
"When? After I die of starvation?
Jim pulled at his hair with both hands. "After you fixed the damn couch so you could take a shower and go the fuck to fucking sleep! I was gonna get you... I dunno, some mac n cheese or some shit from the cabinet. But noooooo, you gotta have McDonalds, and you gotta have it after we get in the fucking house and shit!"
David got up on his knees to shout in Jim's ear. "Liar! You're lying! You made that up, you weren't gonna feed me!"
"Goddammit, sit the fuck down in the fucking seat!" Jim reached over and pushed David down as hard as he could. "Why the fuck aren't you wearing a goddamn seatbelt?!"
A siren blasted nearby, and startled them both. Jim checked his mirror – there were three black and whites on his ass, and they were getting closer. Jim moved into the right lane to let them pass, but they kept barreling down, swerving towards the lane he'd chosen.
"Uh-oh," David said quietly. "Am I in trouble?" His eyes were big and round.
"Yeah, you're in trouble – with me. Hold on." Jim turned off on the first side street he found and turned off the engine. "Fuck. Be cool, David."
Before the boy could answer, the car was surrounded by six cops, with guns drawn. "GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS UP! OUT OF THE CAR! KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM GET OUT OF THE CAR"
Jim's hands shook as the contradictory commands piled up on top of each other, but he managed to get the door open without getting shot. A hand was on him, and suddenly he was face down in the street, with a foot on his back, and his arms were twisted up behind his back so far he though both his shoulders were going to break.
Before long, he could hear David crying in the background, begging the crazed gunmen to let his daddy go. Oh, now I'm daddy? Jim closed his eyes and hoped like hell the officers were moved by the tears of a child, but he had the feeling that he was going to be thrown under the jailhouse before they even bothered to ask Jim for his side of the story.
Sure enough, cold metal clanked around his wrists, and he was hauled to his feet, and dragged to a waiting squad car, where he was bent over and frisked roughly. When the officers were satisfied that he had nothing on him, they shoved him into the back seat and turned their attention to the boy.
Several more officers arrived, and soon the street looked like a carnival, with all the flashing lights and roaming people. Several pedestrians stopped to gawk at the , and in the middle of it all, David was begging the officers to please, please let his daddy go free, because they were just playing a game.
The arresting officers stalk back over to Jim. "You wanna tell us what the hell you were doing, snatching up a kid? And why the hell your pants aren't on?"
Jim frowned. "Pants...?" He'd forgotten that he'd loosened his fly before the kid went batshit and took off for parts unknown. "Oh. No, I'd just gotten home with him, and I was getting comfortable, and trying to get him into bed..." Jim trailed off as he realized what the officers must have been hearing. "No, I mean, I wanted him to make up the couch before I got dinner started, and he took off."
The smaller of the two officers voiced his skepticism first. "And you play this game often?"
Jim thumped his head on the bulletproof cage that separated the front and back seats. "He's... look, I just got him from his grandparents. His mom's father is very sick, and he asked me to take David in for awhile."
"Uh-huh." The cops exchanged a few words to one side before turning back to Jim. "Okay, hang tight." Then they went and joined the cluster of what seemed to be about a thousand officers swarming the corner and being useless. They weaseled their way into the group that was gathered most closely around David, and melted into it, until Jim lost track of them. Jim closed his eyes in despair, and wished he had just caved the first time the kid asked for fucking McDonald's.
Eventually, a different police officer approached the squad car. "Mr. Kirk?" Jim nodded wearily. "Okay, I've been in touch with a David Marcus Sr., and he says that you are the boy's temporary guardian?"
"Uh, yeah, I just got him home tonight."
"Yeah, okay, we're gonna remand the boy into your care tonight. But you need to be careful – there were reports that you were driving with the child hanging out of the door?"
Jim kept his mouth shut on the matter and looked over at where David was standing. "Can go soon? He hasn't had his dinner yet," he asked instead.
The officer narrowed his eyes at Jim but he helped Jim out of the car and removed the handcuffs. "Don't be surprised if CPS develops an interest in you, Mr. Kirk."
Jim nodded halfheartedly. "I'll leave the light on for them."
"You seem to think this is a joke," the officer said sharply.
Jim snorted. "It is. It's a nasty, not funny joke the universe has been playing on me my entire life." He stalked to David and offered his hand. "You ready for those McNuggets?"
"Yeah!" The kid jumped up and ran to the Escalade, bypassing Jim's offered hand altogether.
Jim rolled his eyes and waved at the impromptu Policemen's Ball. "Night, gentlemen."
The irony was, despite there being two McDonald's within a five minute drive from Jim's apartment, they wound up driving all the way to Hollywood to get David's dinner. Every other McDonald's they'd tried had already shut down for the night.
In the twilight between Saturday and Sunday, Jim dreamt of his mother and hospital visits and earthquakes and burning streets. The first two he understood, even in his sleep - these are memories, remnants of reality filtered through time and pain. Jim literally fucks his way through life, and numbs his brain with enough painkillers to kill a horse, to keep the memories at bay in his waking hours. But none of that had ever stopped the bits and pieces that would come to him frequently in his sleep. He hated it, always, but he could understand it.
The shaking and burning, however, were new and confusing, even in the disjointed unreality of his dreamworld. Jim was born and raised in Riverside, California; the farthest he'd ever been from home was a last minute jaunt to Tijuana with Carol and friends. Earthquakes were a simple fact of life, like dense traffic congestion on the I-15, like the never ending statewide water shortage despite the fact that every other house in every neighborhood he'd ever lived in had a year round swimming pool, like the complete meltdown on every freeway from Imperial to Ventura counties whenever a drop of water did drop down from the sky. There was an abstract element of danger, sure, but they never really killed anybody. Earthquakes, to Jim's mind, were random, unavoidable distractions that usually broke a dish or two. And the burning... for all its genuine terror and danger, fire was probably the one disaster that never showed up on Jim's radar. That was something that happened to rich people, people with stability, people who didn't have to move from house to house because there was no one to care for them, people who weren't ripped bodily from their mothers because there were days when she couldn't tell the difference between a dusty wall and a soul sucking monster out to kill everyone in a ten mile radius. Fire? That was a horror reserved for privileged people with otherwise perfect lives.
A sharp, stinging pain across the plane of his right cheek finally broke through the haze of not-quite-nightmare, and Jim gasped sharply. Jim's sleep sticky eyes popped open one at a time, to reveal a ghost white little face with saucer-round blue eyes fixed firmly on his own stinging face. "Get up!" the face was saying, over and over, breathless and high pitched and just the tiniest bit hoarse.
That was when Jim finally smelled the burning.
The smoke detector in his bedroom finally began to shriek, though the one nearest the kitchen never made a sound. Fuck.
Gritting his teeth through the noise, Jim threw the covers off himself and rolled to his feet in one fluid movement, dashing past the kid, down the hallway, to skid to a stop in front of the bar that separated the cooking area from the living room.
The thick terrycloth towel Jim kept handy for dish drying was on the stove, piled on top of one of his better skillets, burning away. He only recognized it because part of it was flopped over onto the bar he was standing in front of, and if he didn't handle that shit right the fuck then and there, the bar would probably light the fuck up too, and then only heaven knew if Jim was going to be able to handle the fire on his own.
Jim skidded around the bar and grabbed the first thing he saw, a wooden spoon, to prod the dial on the old gas stove. The blue flame underneath the skillet shut off, but the bright orange fire on top raged on. Water? Jim ran to the sink and turned on the tap, but the kid started to scream bloody murder then. "No! NO WATER! DON'T!"
Jim froze - okay. What else? Besides, you know, the fire department? He thought of running down the hall for the extinguisher, but the fire was spreading, and shit, how the fuck do you smother a fire like that? He scanned the room for something that would be heavy enough to drop on the flame and not pretty much destroy his chances of getting his deposit back, and settled on the box of baking soda the kid had sitting next to a giant mixing bowl.
Jim dumped the entire contents of the box on the flaming towel, and, to his relief, the fire petered out. The room still stank of burning cloth, but he didn't see any other flames anywhere. He poked at the mess with the spoon handle, just to be sure (though he had no idea what the fucking shit he would do if more fire decided to leap up out of the charred mess at that point). When he was satisfied that the danger was, indeed, passed, he turned to glare at David.
The kid was breathing so hard Jim thought he might pass out from hyperventilation. Though the boy's face was still deathly pale, his cheeks were stained a deep, deep red, and he was visibly grinding his teeth. Jim could almost feel the migraine from the way David was pounding his teeth to powder. It was obvious that David was almost as angry as Jim, if not moreso. Jim forced himself to speak calmly. "Okay. What happened?"
David's answer was shrill, his movements wild. "I was just trying to make breakfast! I know how! I do it every week! I do!"
Jim took several deep breaths through his nose, trying to keep himself on an even keel. He nodded and held his hands out. "Okay, you know how to make breakfast. What happened?"
"It's not my fault!" David's face was no longer pale, but a nasty purple. He was practically foaming at the mouth.
Jim twitched and tucked his hands under his armpits in an effort to keep from reaching out to strangle the kid - who the fuck else's fault could it have been, then? But laying blame wasn't going to get the question answered, and Jim knew it. "Fine. It was an accident," Jim said through gritted teeth. "Just tell me how it happened."
"I just went to heat the pan and the butter got on fire!"
Butter...? Jim frowned at that. "What the hell are you talking about? I haven't been shopping. I don't have any butter."
Tears started to roll down David's face. "It's not my fault!"
Jim held up his hands again. "Okay, okay! But I don't have butter! What did you use?"
David flopped his own hands around and sobbed. "The oleo!"
Jim blinked. "Uh... I'm sorry, I don't speak cranky old lady. The what, now?"
Oh. Well. Shit. At least the kid knew not to throw water on it... "And so you tried to smother it with a towel?"
"Yes," David said with all the drama and gravitas of an elementary school aged monster.
Jim rubbed at his temples, trying to keep the phantom migraine at bay a little longer. "Okay. Okay. Just... try to calm down, okay? Next time you're hungry, you can just come tell me. I can get you some Lucky Charms or something from the liquor store..." David mumbled something, but Jim didn't catch it, and he wasn't in the mood to drag more words from the kid's mouth. Instead he turned his attention to clearing away the mess in the kitchen. "Look, everything's fine. I lost a towel and a skillet. I'll get over it. Just forget about it." He looked up at the blankets bunched up in the middle of the sofa. "Why don't you go ahead and fold the covers up and stick them on the shelf, and then we can figure out what we'll eat, okay?"
David looked back at the sofa, then hung his head like someone had just told him he was going to have to shoot his own puppy. "Can't," he said softly, before mumbling something else.
Jim sighed and went over to where David was standing, twisting his pajama shirt into a knot. "What, now?"
"I can't." The kid began to cry. "I... I can't!"
Jim rolled his eyes and went to the sofa. "Dude, what the hell, it's not something to cry about. You just lay it out and drag the corners together until..." There was a damp stain in the middle of the first blanket he'd fanned out over the back of the sofa. He leaned over and shoved the other blankets, and sure enough, there was a bit of wiped down moisture on the plastic covering the couch cushion. "David." Jim slowly looked up at the kid.
Where before he'd been a little pillar of fury, he now looked like a little ball of quivering fluff. He was shaking terribly, and he couldn't stop clenching his fists. "I was trying to make you breakfast." When Jim didn't answer, David turned his face in shame. "So you wouldn't be mad."
"And... so I'm just supposed to eat breakfast with piss covered blankets in the room? Are you serious?" David's eyes got even bigger, which, honestly, Jim hadn't realized was at all possible. Jim shook his head. "Nevermind. Just... it's fine. Get some more trashbags, and help me stick these in. We'll just wash them, and we'll pretend NONE of this ever happened. Yeah?"
David sniffled and hiccupped, but he nodded. "Yeah."
They bagged up the messes in the kitchen and living room in silence. The damage to the stove was actually not nearly as bad as Jim had feared - the dish towel obviously took the biggest beating, and the skillet was a mangled, blistering mess, but once the ashes and melty bits were cleared away, all Jim really had to do was wipe down the stove, and the assholes in the management office would never know the difference. Hopefully.
The kid had three garbage bags at his feet, each with a single blanket or sheet inside. Jim sighed - there was no reason to use more than one, two bags at most, and he was not bringing pee-bags back into his apartment. Whatever. He dug around in the cupboard under the sink for the laundry detergent and his stash of quarters. "Grab one of those, dude. We're gonna get that cleaned up, and then you can help me put them away."
"I'll wash this one." David picked up the fullest of the three - or, rather, dragged it so it was on the floor behind him instead of in front. Jim blinked and tried to take it from him, but David shrieked. "I can do it, dammit!"
"FINE." Jim gathered up the other two bags and lead the way to the upper level laundry room.
The sight that greeted Jim upon entry into the laundry room was, naturally, complete pandemonium. Jim was usually careful never to enter any of building's three laundry rooms at any time other than after the dinnerbell during the week. Weekends? Only a catastrophe like unexpected kid pee could drive him to set foot inside the laundry room during the weekend. Weekends meant the laundry rooms were full of kids and mommies and KIDS and for fuck's sake, why did he agree to any of this shit?
David chose that moment to bolt into the room with a rebel yell, plopped his load in front of a large front-loader, and declare "This is my washing machiiiiiiiiiiiiine!"
Jim decided at that moment he was no longer on speaking terms with the universe and its horrible sense of humor.
Jim loaded up his own machine, while David ran back and forth, grabbing the detergent and coins and giving out random, meaningless progress reports. When David ran out of breath, Jim took advantage of the lull in activity by going out to the balcony to sit in the sunshine. It wasn't Jim's usual routine, but that had been shot all to fucking hell when his car was stolen. Maybe after David Senior's health improved, the kid could go hang with them on the weekends or something like that, while Jim resettled into something resembling his old routine. Or maybe David would make a friend in the building, and Jim could... He nipped that line of thinking right in the bud. He hated being foisted off onto neighbors when he was a kid, especially if it was just because somebody wanted some fucking alone time. Jim would figure out how to get his grove on again one day, but not like that.
Jim laid himself out on the bench by the balcony railing and tried to work out a new weekend routine that wouldn't rely on foisting kids off on baby sitters, between catnaps in the soft warmth of the early summer sun. The kid liked parks - maybe they could make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hang out in the park for awhile. Or Jim could hang out at the pool and chat up the moms in the building, while the kid splashed in the water. Or maybe he could convince the kid to watch television while he stayed out in the sun until his nose started to peel and he cried like a little bitch about it all week - Jim draped an arm over his face and promised himself he'd get covered properly in just a minute.
He'd never noticed how noisy the laundry room could be before. Maybe it was because the room was filled to capacity, with all the washers in use. Or maybe it was because he usually sat in the room with a book, rather than waiting outside with eyes closed.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry, don't be mad!"
Or, maybe it was because he had agreed to take care of fucking Jerry Lewis. Jim didn't open his eyes. "What. Did you do."
A moment later, the melodious sound of screaming children filled the air. Jim sat straight up, still wired from the disaster in his kitchen. He sagged in dismay at what he saw.
Kids and mommies were running out of the room, with a giant suds monster fast on their heels. The room looked like a department store demonstration of Calgon gone bonkers. Jim turned to a teary-eyed David, ready to cry himself. "What the fuck did you do?" "I just put the stuff in the machine and put the money in and turned it on I swear!"
Just then, one of the so-called on-site managers came running up the stairs, two by two, all afflutter. He skidded to a stop in front of the door, where his pants were soaked in soap bubbles. "What happened? Who did this?"
David looked like he was seriously considering throwing himself over the banister. Jim squeezed his shoulder. "Just stay cool. Go back in the house. Put a game in the Playstation. We'll talk about it later." David looked dubious, but he gulped and walked slowly back to the apartment.
Jim turned back to the mess before him, where everyone was staring at him. Jim stood up and shrugged. "He's new here."
"Who is he? Is he on the rental agreement?"
Jim couldn't hold in the laugh that exploded from his closed lips. "Dude. He's seven. Also, he's technically a guest. I have time before I actually have to report his presence. And when I do, I'll take it up with the actual management office, not you, dude."
"Hey! You still gotta take care of this mess right here! And you can't take this to the office!"
Jim's headache was back, and it brought a burning nausea with it. He pursed his lips. "You know what? That's the stupidest thing you've ever said to me. Jones will clean it up and put an out of order sign on it, I'll talk to the office and work out payment arrangements for damage, and you'll go back downstairs and tug on your Johnson some more."
The manager shook and sputtered and tried to say something that Jim couldn't be bothered to decipher even if he'd wanted to, before storming back down the stairs. Jim thought he caught something about eviction actions, but Jim just shook his head and braved the bubbles to check on the blankets that weren't flooding out the laundry room. On the bright side, he'd decided, he didn't have to shove past a bunch of unruly kids. But, then again, none of them had singlehandedly destroyed half the complex in a half hour combo move. Things even out.
Jim trudged back to his unit in disgust. In the end he'd tossed the blankets in the dumpster, which, honestly, he should have done in the first place – it certainly would have been easier than trying to wash them on a fucking Sunday morning. He waved the manager off when the hyperactive jerk tried to engage Jim a second time, and was grateful everyone else thought to give him a wide berth.
Well. Not quite everyone. When he got his hand on the the doorknob to his place, he heard someone behind him, whistling softly. He whipped his head around at the sound, hackles up. It was only Barbara, the female half of his favorite ogre whore team. She smiled toothily, hands up, shoulder bag swinging free. She knew she'd startled him. "Heeeeey, Jimbo, long time no see..." She waited for him to speak, but Jim just continued to glare at her. "Uh... so... wanna do something?"
Jim eyed her narrowly. She had really shitty timing. "No, Barbara. Not today."
She put on her best 'come hither' face, which, unfortunately was about as far from 'come hither' you could get and still be considered human. Jim turned fully to face her, and planted both feet shoulder-width apart in front of his very closed door. It looked like she was going to be hard to get rid of, and he didn't want to deal with explaining her skanky ass to David - or explaining David to her. "Barb, seriously, not today."
She tried for coy innocence, breathing out a little airy laugh. "Cheating on us, huh?" She trailed her fingers along his breastbone, tickling him through his thin t-shirt. "Got some company in there you don't want me to tell Norm about?"
Jim rolled his eyes and gently plucked her hand from his chest. "Okay, see, you have to not charge me for each fuck before something like that can be called cheating, Barbara."
She dropped her hand and actually stomped her foot. It would have been cute if she weren't a strung out drug dealing hooker trying to snag some extra cash. "But we haven't seen you in two weeks! Did I do something?" Her eyes went wide, like saucers, as if she hit upon some astounding revelation. "Was it me?"
Jim shook his head impatiently. "No, I just... I can't do it."
"But Jim..." Her phone buzzed. She looked down at it, swore, texted the person back, and turned her attention back to Jim. "Norm says he can find better fishing somewhere else." She pouted.
Jim pulled at his hair with both hands. "Then why are you still here? If you don't need my cash, go. I have shit I have to take care of."
"He's bluffing!" She clapped a hand over her mouth, then shrugged and threw her hands in the air. "He's bluffing, Jim. We owe our dealer and we need some quick cash, and you're always so regular, and..." She twisted her shirt nervously. "Shit. Okay. Okay. I'm gone."
"Oh for fuck's sake. Just wait." Jim slipped inside, leaving her waiting on the balcony. David was sitting in front of the television, game controller in hand, but he wasn't paying any attention to the demo dancing along the screen. Instead, he was watching Jim warily, while his eyes darted from him to the door. Jim shoved past the kid, to his room, where he kept the envelope full of Gary's 'bonus'. He pulled out a few bills, shook his head, and shoved them into a back pocket before stalking back to the front door. He glanced back at David and silently pointed to the bedroom. The kid took the hint and slipped away. Then Jim opened the door, just barely. "Okay. Come in." He watched her squeeze through the door, blocking her way with his body. He pointed to the arm of the sofa that was nearest the door. "Sit. Here."
She wriggled past him and settled down where he indicated before looking at him with a mixture of sleazy invitation and open curiosity. She reached for her phone with a smile, but Jim shook his head. "Don't get excited. I don't have time. I'm in the middle... some shit. But maybe we can do a little short business now, so you can get a little breathing room, huh?"
Barbara sat up straighter and clutched her giant shoulder bag closer to her body. "I don't have anything on me, I gotta get 'em from him."
Jim settled next to her on the back of the sofa, and smiled sweetly. "That so?"
She nodded with a little too much enthusiasm. "It'll just take a second."
"A second to do what, exactly?"
She blinked and shifted uncomfortably. "Uh... get the stuff...?"
Jim reached out and tweaked her nose. "Let's get this straight. This business we're doing here is me doing you a favor, right? I mean, you guys are my favorite hookers and everything, but that's what you are. My hookers. Not my dealers. And, let's face it - I've got two perfectly good hands to handle that kind of shit if I really get that desperate for a good fuck." He waggled his eyebrows. "Not to mention, I'm not exactly chopped liver, right? So." He cupped her chin gently with one hand. "Barbie, honey?" He smiled, showing a mouth full of bright teeth. "You aren't thinking of having Norman do something devious, are you?"
He could see the nervousness in her eyes. She tried to bluff through it anyway. "C'mon, Jim, you know me better than-"
He tightened his grip on her chin suddenly. "Because, see, you always carry that big ass shouder bag, sweetheart. And Norm never carries anything. And when we break out the candy, it always comes out of that bag, right there. The one you've got a death grip on. So, you know, I was just... wondering. What the fuck. Essentially."
She swallowed and shifted nervously, as much as she could with his hand holding tight to her face. "I gotta get a good price for the shit, Jim. We're in it. Deep."
Jim shrugged. "And you want to take that out on me? That's fucked, Barb. Seriously." He let her face go. "The funny thing, Barb, is that I had no intention of taking your shit. I've got my own source. This was just a tip, something to say 'thanks for all the fucks' with."
"Oh." She clutched her bag even closer to herself. "So, you weren't gonna buy?"
"I have a better source, Barb." Jim's smile softened, just a touch. "Look at it this way – more merchandise for you to sell.
"Yeah." Jim pulled the cash from his back pocket and pressed it into her hand. He laughed a little as she looked at the fan of twenties in her hand with wonder. Then he tipped her head up with his fingertip, to be sure she got his message. "I like you. Both of you. But I don't like you hustling me like I haven't been as good to you as you have to me. So, take this with love, and fuck off. I will call you if I have anything for your ass again." A crash came from the bedroom, followed by a child's exuberant whine. "Of course, at this rate, I'll probably never have sex again," he muttered.
Barbara frowned in the direction of his bedroom, but Jim just ushered her out of his apartment, and, to his regret, likely out of his life. Too bad. They knew just what to do with his body.
Jim locked the door behind the departing hooker with a sigh, and walked back the bedroom. David was on his knees, picking up the contents of the drawer from Jim's nightstand to dump on the bed. "I didn't do it."
Jim just rolled his eyes and grabbed the overturned drawer. "Of course not. Some invisible man came into the room and yanked my drawer out of the nightstand, turned it upside down, and poured everything out onto the floor." He swept the items already sitting on the bed into the drawer and then shoved the drawer back into place. "Move," he growled, and went to snatch up everything else still on the floor in his much bigger hands.
David hovered over Jim, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "It wasn't me..."
Jim threw his hairbrush on the floor and turned on David so fast it made Jim dizzy. "There's only one person in this room. If an imaginary friend is in here throwing my shit around, he's a figment of your imaginiation, which means that you get to be responsible for him. Kinda like how you ran out of the house last night, but I'm the one who got his face smashed into asphalt, and got his shoulders almost fucking dislocated? Yeah, like that. You can keep telling me it was someone else all you want, but guess what? You're taking the hit." Jim turned back to the rest of his things and threw them into the drawer with little regard for their potential fragility.
"Are you mad at me?"
"Yes," Jim snapped.
Jim plopped the last of his things in the drawer. "Because you keep repeating that it wasn't you, like if I find out it really was you, some horrific thing is going to happen, and then all our lives will be over. The repetition is fucking irritating, and meanwhile, the mess still has to be cleaned up." Jim shut the drawer and sat heavily on the edge of the bed. "Besides, it's not like you didn't try to burn the place down and drown us out today."
David stamped his foot. "I told you! That wasn't my fault!"
"Oh, but this was the fault of whoever did it?"
David scuffed his shoe against the floor. "Dropping your stupid stuff isn't as bad as making a fire ON ACCIDENT. Or the broke washer. ON ACCIDENT."
Jim snorted. "Oh, I see now. This isn't a big deal, so let's lie about it so it can become a big deal?" David just looked away. "Yeah, I thought so. Here's a thought. Go play with the Playstation I bought you. Go write in your book. Don't you have, like, a toy or something? Go play with that. Just... quit fucking touching shit until you figure out how to a) not destroy everything you touch, and b) stop trying to shift blame. It doesn't work. There's no one to blame but you, so I'm still blaming you."
"It was just a drawer!"
Jim shrugged. "Then you shouldn't have lied about it, because I wasn't mad until you said it wasn't you." Jim got up. "Put some shoes on. We have somewhere to go."
David gasped. "Noooo!"
"Aw, for fuck's sake... What the fuck is the matter with you now, kid?"
"No, please, I'm sorry! I won't touch anything else, I swear!"
"Okay, good, but I still have to take care of some business, and I don't dare leave you in the apartment by yourself. I'll come back to a pile of rubble, and in the middle of it will be a little dead ball of yellow fluff, next to a sign that says 'It wasn't my fault'. Now put your shoes on, and let's go." Jim stalked out to the living room to get his keys. "Hurry up!"
David slowly dragged himself into the living room proper, sniffling and hiccupping. He plopped down on the couch and shoved his feet into his shoes without lacing them, and then went to his duffle bag. He hoisted the strap over his shoulder and, still gripping the strap with both white knuckled hands, began his excruciatingly slow walk towards Jim.
"What... put the bag down!" Jim snatched the strap from the boy and hauled the bag up and back to its apparently official place in front of the coffee table.
"But my stuff-"
"Will be fine until we get back." Jim looked at David's confused little face. "Where do you think we're going?"
David shrugged. "Away?"
Jim shoved away the stirrings of sadness and empathy – nothing to empathize with, nothing sad happening. "I don't... throw people away, David. We're just going to run some errands. Relax."
David remained silent, but when Jim went to open the front door, the boy followed him out calmly.
"Why is every fucking thing all the way down in Long Beach?"
"Disneyland isn't in Long Beach," David supplied helpfully. "Neither is your house. Neither is my mom."
Jim spared at glance from the road to look at David sharply. "Where is your mother?"
David pursed his lips together, and tugged on his seatbelt. "Cops took her."
Jim's eyebrows went up. He forced his attention on the gated driveway in front of them, and eeked his way into the lot. The street accessible portion of the lot was tiny, and housed a tiny, dirty little shack with a pair of windows to talk to people through. Behind the shack was a chainlink fence, and behind that was a vehicular graveyard.
Jim pulled into an open space with surprising ease (probably because he was technically straddling three spots and didn't really give a shit about correcting), and turned off the engine. "She's in jail?" David nodded. "Do you know for how long?" The boy shook his head. "Do you know why?"
David sighed dramatically and opened the car door. "Do I look like a parole officer to you?"
Jim stared at the little motherfucker as he sashayed his special ass to the shack. "You look like a fucking juvenile delinquent extraordinaire," he muttered to the universe at large. Jim hopped out of the car and headed for the shack.
The rotund man at the window tore his attention from the Escalade to look at Jim like he was an invader from another planet. "Can I help you?" It sounded more like a threat than an offer of hospitality.
"Yeah, I was told that you're holding my car?"
The man continued to look at Jim (and the SUV) suspiciously. "You got your license and proof of ownership on you?"
"Right here. I took the liberty of making photocopies, too." Jim fished out his wallet and pulled out his license, pink slip, and a sheet of paper where he'd copied both at work earlier that week. "Okay?"
The man inspected the real documents for a ridiculously long time, before he began comparing them with the copies. Finally, he shook his head and handed the copy back. "It's fine, we'll make our own." He gave Jim the evil eye a little longer, before shuffling off to make copies.
"Whatever..." Jim stuffed his photocopy back in his wallet, and realized that David was no longer wandering around underfoot. "David?" Great. The last place Jim needed to lose track of the fucking kid was in a police impound yard. "Come on man, don't do this to me again."
"Do what to you?" The little fucking monster was on the other fucking side of the fence.
"How... how the fuck did you get over there?"
"Get over where?" The little round man was back in the window. "Sir, who are you talking to?"
Jim's mouth worked, but he couldn't make any intelligible sounds come out. He just waved the guy on and ran over to where David was still standing. "Get. Back. Here."
David giggled. "Your face is purple."
"GET THE FUCK OVER HERE, GODDAMMIT!"
"Okay, okay!" David ran towards the shack, and then slipped through a ridiculously tiny breach in the chainlink, before trotting back to Jim. "You can't hit me, though! We're in public!"
"Is there a problem here?" The round man was no longer inside of the shack, but was shuffling towards them, with a big ass stick. He pointed the stick at Jim, and addressed David. "This man bothering you, son?"
Jim groaned. "Can I just get my car, please? He's my kid, and he's kind of an idiot. Also, your fence is broken."
The man narrowed his eyes at Jim. "I don't like you."
David slipped between the two men and wrapped his arms around Jim's waist as best he could. "I got you into trouble again, huh? I'm sorry."
Jim put his hand to the kid's head. "Do me a favor and wait in the car."
"Awwww, I don't wanna-"
Jim gritted his teeth together and attempted to approximate a smile. "Please." David glowered, but he went to the car quietly. Jim refocused on the little round man. "You. Get my car. Now."
The man just stood there for a moment, but he reached for his walkie-talkie. "Dobbs. Get out here. Take this man to C4."
A moment later, another shuffling man, this one much scrawnier, came out of the shack. "Well c'mon, boy, I ain't got all day."
Jim looked back at the Escalade worriedly, but David was sitting in the driver's seat, bopping his head to music only he could hear. Reluctantly, Jim followed the skinny man around the other side of the shack to the gate's proper opening.
They walked into the deeply packed yard, zigzagging their way through several rows of cars. They rounded a bend made almost entirely of overly shiny giant SUVs that made Jim do a double take – though they were all different makes and models, and came in a variety of colors, they all had an uncanny air about them, the same air his own borrowed Cadillac had. Drug cars. Jim shivered and vowed to get Gary his car back as soon as possible. He cleared the wall of SUVs, and stopped in his tracks.
She sat on cinderblocks, in an open space, as if the bumbling old fools that ran the police tow yard understood how she was inherently different from any car. Her tires were gone, and her poor bare rims looked like they were flailing in the wind. Jim could see through the windshield that seats were missing, and her smiling face was sad and drawn without her rubber black bumper. He approached her slowly, hands out, as he feared spooking her. She didn't blink.
"I'mma need you to go through this checklist," the scrawny man was saying. "These are the things we saw on the car that we thought could have been removed before we found it. We need confirmation on that, plus anything else you note."
Jim barely heard the old man. Instead, Jim opened the door and popped the hood, to see how bad things really were.
Things were really bad.
Jim put his head in his hands and wept. No wonder Enterprise hadn't responded to his moves – there was a gaping hole where her four cylinder engine used to sit, so snugly against the radiator and battery. The heartless thieves had cut out her heart. Now, Jim could see all the way down to the ground. Ten years of blood, sweat and tears – just gone. Bastards.
Jim snatched the paperwork from bony hands and angrily filled in any missing information before thrusting the clipboard back in the man's face. The man took it slowly, and put his hand on Jim's shoulder. "Ain't no such thing as a victimless crime, boy." He shuffled off, deeper into the yard. "Be right back with the flatbed, now," he called.
Jim let go of the sob he'd been trying so very hard to keep inside, and leaned against Enterprise's frame. She rallied, holding him up in the midst of his despair. "Don't worry, baby," he said, though it felt more like she might have been saying that to him. "Everything's gonna get taken care of, and we'll be on the road again in no time." He patted her dust covered roof. Her antenna-ball-less antenna bounced slowly in answer. "Yeah."