The Reality of Fantasy
Jim took a long, luxurious drag on his American Spirit and strolled to the staff entrance like he had all the time in the world. The only thing rushing was going to do was make his heart rate climb, and that would flush the last of his (rather sedate, in his opinion) high from his system that much sooner. When the last of the cigarette was burnt to the filter, Jim plucked the butt from his lips and dropped it casually over the loading dock. Only then did he fish keys out of his pocket and ease into the back room without a care in the world.
"Nice to see you decided to join us."
Jim froze in the open doorway. He was expecting Chris to have covered for him on reference, not to see him perched on the edge of Jim's desk, arms folded, eyebrows drawn. Jim set his things down as best he could with Chris' legs dangling off the edge of his desk. "Some kind of traffic jam on Jefferson. Sorry."
Chris flared his nose. "Yeah, you know what? You've been late every morning for the last three months. Not just kinda sorta late, either. You're almost an hour late today, and you didn't even bother to call. It's getting out of hand. I'm gonna have to start writing you up."
Jim stared at Chris blankly. "Okay... and then what happens?"
Chris sighed and dropped the hardass act. "In the short run? Nothing. In the long run, though, it could affect your chances for promotion. You want to be stuck here, at this level forever?"
Jim stared some more. "Uh, this is kinda all I thought there was."
"Don't you want to be in charge of a library one day?"
Jim laughed uproariously at that. "Yeah, I really wanna be responsible for a whole bunch of me. I'm good." Jim sobered slightly at Chris' unenthusiastic lack of response. "But I hear you. I'll pay better attention to the clock, seriously." He held up three fingers. "Scout's honor."
Chris narrowed his eyes at Jim and stalked out to the front. "You might be a lot a lot of things, James Kirk, but a Boy Scout was damned sure never one of them."
Jim chuckled at Chris' grumblings before turning his attention to the stack of new paperbacks piled up on the shelf nearest his desk.
Several hours later, Jim's stomach began to insist that he leave the processing of paperbacks aside for just one damn minute. He looked up in surprise, as if someone else had pressed a button that made his belly rumble and growl.
The only person in the room with Jim was the children's librarian, whose attention appeared to be riveted to an inventory list of some kind. "I presume you intend to take your lunch break at this time?"
Okay, maybe his attention wasn't totally devoted to the inventory. "Geez, Spock, you heard that?"
"I am quite certain that Leonard and Christopher heard it at the reference desk," came the cool reply. "If you intend to take your lunch now, please do so. Otherwise, I shall break for lunch myself."
Jim's stomach declared its intent for him, loudly. "Yeah, okay. Okay. You want me to bring anything back, man?"
"I am fine, man."
Jim sporfled and shook his head. "Dude, who says you don't have a sense of humor?" A quick sigh breathed through flared nostrils was the closest Spock came to acknowledging Jim's amused observation.
Ramen didn't sound appetizing for once, and Leonard was stuck on the reference desk, which left Jim stuck trying to figure out lunch on his own. There were a few joints within walking distance, but they all wanted an arm and a leg for a glass of water and a hunk of stale bread – okay, it wasn't really that bad, but it might have well as been to Jim's mind.
Cheaper eats could be found eastbound, well away from the water. Jim rolled up to one of his favorite hamburger joints, and tucked into the super crowded parking lot behind the rundown building. It was a sticky looking little dive, not far from a junior college, with graffiti all over the stucco walls and potholes in the parking lot and the driveway. Jim hopped out of the car and half skipped across the pockmarked parking lot to the greasy, sticky glass door on the side of the building. There were a ton of kids inside, cackling and carrying on and being a bunch of crazy ass kids. Jim smiled and tolerated them well enough - he'd been a lot more obnoxious at their age, after all.
When it was his turn to order, he hemmed and hawed about taking the food to go, but the kids had already begun to filter out - clearly, classes were still heavily in session - and the restaurant began to look like a nice alternative to sweltering inside Enterprise, or rushing back to the library to eat a cold burger. He had half a thought to take his food to a park, but his stomach growled again, settling things then and there.
And so Jim plopped himself in one of the slightly less disgusting booths, and proceeded to slowly but thoroughly devour every bite of his meal. Jim dawdled and waited and fooled around and wasted time and on and on, until he had about ten minutes to be back in the building. He snorted. So much for promising to be more punctual. He'd have to fly to get back in ten minutes - and hope there were no speed traps set to snare him. Jim shrugged and tossed the remnants of his lunch before heading to the parking lot in the back of the building.
There were a total of three cars left in the lot. There was a big, shiny, clean gold SUV, an older red sports car with a black hood and a white wheelcover on the front left side, and a black VW mini-bus.
Enterprise was nowhere to be seen.
Jim stood in the parking lot for several seconds, staring at the empty space where he'd parked his car, as if he could will her back into existence. When it became clear that willpower wasn't quite enough to rematerialize the vehicle, Jim turned his attention to his surroundings.
They weren't great. He was in a less than stellar part of town, where most of the boys shaved the hair off their heads to make room for the tattoos that wouldn't fit on their faces, and the girls wore giant gold rings that covered three fingers and had their names scrawled out in some ridiculously fancy script, so that you could read in the mirror exactly who it was that kicked your ass in the back alley after she finished pounding your face in the pavement. Rough wasn't the word.
Fortunately for Jim, this was the kind of neighborhood that still used phone booths. His own phone, a disposable, blocky little affair that he bought in a liquor store on a whim, was sitting in the glove compartment of his disappeared car. So were his ridiculously expensive sunglasses, his employee ID badge, and the last of his fucking pills. His fucking pills. Jim scrubbed at his face and swore loudly before slamming open the door to the restaurant.
Everyone inside jumped at the noise, and glared daggers at him. He glared right back, and one by one, all the diners backed down from his challenging stare. The girl ringing up orders narrowed her eyes at him, as if she dared him to give her trouble. "Do you need something else?"
Jim forced himself to take a couple of calming breaths before opening his mouth. "I need change for the pay-"
"We don't do that."
Jim smiled tightly and tried again. "My car was stolen, and I'm on a lunch break. Can you help me?"
The girl's hard glare melted like ice in the Sahara. "What?! Here, you can call the cops right here. You need to call your work?" She grabbed the cordless phone tucked away near the drink dispenser and passed it over the counter to him.
Jim breathed a sigh of relief at the girl's easy understanding. "Yeah, thanks a lot." He gratefully took the phone from the girl and found a table tucked away from the door and all the ears that seemed to strain towards the sound of his voice. To his surprise, the girl hustled over to his chosen seat, a cloth in one hand, and a drink cup in the other. She wiped down the grease and crumbs, and left him with a full cup of cola and a gentle pat on the shoulder.
It took nearly an hour to sort through the drama and secure a ride back to work. The cops were less than sympathetic – what were you doing here if you work in Manhattan Beach, why are you so jittery, you sure you came here to eat? – but eventually he managed to get the responding officers to help him file a report. Calling a cab was equally dramatic, because the cab company was resistant to making pick-ups in the general area – so much so that Jim actually asked if the officers would give him a ride back to their civic center, where he might have better luck getting a ride.
Eventually, Jim did make it back to work. Chris stormed right up to him, red faced and teeth bared, but Jim just flung his copy of the police report in Chris' face, letting it float to the floor as he shoved past Christopher towards the bathroom.
Jim's nerves were well beyond frayed. They felt like they were hooked up to a transformer grid powerful enough to light NASA from a fucking standstill, and some overactive motherfucker kept grinding on the Panic Button for kicks. It was a feeling he'd become well accustomed to in college, a feeling that pushed him to his breaking point, a feeling that nearly destroyed his hopes for something resembling a normal life. It was a feeling he could have sworn he'd fucking kicked.
It was psychosomatic. It had to be. He knew he wasn't going to be able to get a legal refill for a while, and he knew he wasn't going to be able to afford a less kosher source for several days at least. He was stranded without the pain pills, and he was stressed and there was nothing he could do about it but freak the fuck out.
He yanked open the door to the small unisex bathroom and punched the light on the wall as if it were the culprit responsible for taking his car and all his precious possessions with it, turned on the cold tap to wash down the sudden sweat beading on his forehead, and unexpectedly heaved an gutful of burger and soda into the sink.
Jim swiped a sleeve over his mouth in surprised disgust, and rinsed his mouth before looking at his reflection. He looked terrible. His eyes were bloodshot and his face was mottled red and white and awful. His skin was dry and breaking out, his lips were cracking and the skin around his nostrils was flaking. His hair was dull and colorless, a bland flat sawdust, not the usual sparkling, golden wheat. Purple circles were forming under his eyes.
"Everything okay in there?" Jim jumped at the deep voice coming from the other side of the bathroom door, and peeked out. Leonard and Chris were both standing there, frowning deeply. It was Chris' voice Jim had heard, but Leonard was the one holding onto the police report. Jim nodded mutely. "You sure? Jim, maybe you should take the rest of-"
Jim cut Chris off with a wave of his hand. "If I leave now, all I'm gonna do is stare at the walls and get into all kinds of shit I have no business doing. Besides, I spent all my cash on the cab here. I need to find a ride. I'll probably have better luck of doing so if I at least stay until someone else is ready to go home for the day."
"Well, I can take you home tonight," Leonard said softly. "But if you want to go home, I have some cash, I'm sure it's enough to get you to a bank, if it's not enough to get you home..."
Jim shook his head and gently plucked the police report from Leonard's hands. "If you don't mind, I'd rather have a ride. Don't really have funds left in the bank, actually." He pretended not to see the glance Christopher and Leonard exchanged, and turned to shuffle towards his desk. "So, yeah, if you could take me home, that would be really nice."
Chris sighed and paused at Jim's desk on his way out to the floor again. "Fine, but stay back here today – don't bother with reference. I don't think you're up to dealing with the public right now."
"Yeah, sure," Jim said absently.
Less than an hour later found Jim seriously regretting the offer of cash for a ride home. Time seemed to slow to molasses, and each tick of the second hand thumped loudly in Jim's ear drums, pushing him a little closer to the brink of sanity. It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop, like waiting for the monsters to come out of the shadows on the walls, waiting for the numbers to finally tick down on the bomb.
Jim clamped down on that line of thought more times than he could count, while he waited for quitting time to roll around. When he was in high school, he tortured himself nightly, just waiting for the glass to shatter, and for the doctors and padded rooms and hypodermic needles full of sleeping potions to come pouring into his life, to sweep him away as surely as it had swept his mother downriver a million times. The only way to get to sleep on those nights was to dose himself with whatever he could get his hands on, and hope for his mother's sake that he'd have the strength to rouse himself in the morning. But he had nothing to calm his nerves with today, nothing to soothe himself to sleep with. He'd have to suck it up and quit thinking like that.
He must have looked a fright, hunched over his desk, rocking hard and short and fast, eyes riveted to some unseen point on his desk, because everyone who passed him picked up the pace, just enough for Jim to notice out of the corner of his eye. It wasn't doing much for his paranoia, to know that he was scaring his coworkers so, but he didn't care. It was either rock and tell himself to stop it, or give in to despair and sink well past anything anyone working at a damn library would care to deal with.
A hand settled on Jim's shoulder, and he jumped out of his chair, ready to wallop whatever the fuck had the nerve to grow fingers and fucking touch him.
Leonard skittered back a bit, hands tucked close to himself, eyes wide. He Jim looked up and down as if he'd lost his mind – no, don't go there. "What the hell's the matter with you?"
"Don't sneak up on me, man!" Yeah, the paranoia was definitely out of control. Whatever.
Leonard's eyes slid from side to side, as if he were frozen from head to toe, and couldn't move a thing but those eyes. "Uh, I didn't. I called your name and everything."
Jim hadn't heard his name – lies! "What the fuck do you want?!"
Leonard snorted. "To go home...? It's already ten after six, Jim. I, uh, thought you needed a ride?"
Oh. Jim swallowed down another growl. "Sorry."
"It's alright." The look on Leonard's face suggested he might be lying, but the hand was back on Jim's shoulder, ever so briefly. They walked out of the back of the library together, shoulder to shoulder.
Leonard's giant Buick Riviera was parked in the back of the lot, where the trunk stuck out of the space like a sore thumb. It was probably twice the length of Enterprise, and maybe a whole foot wider. Jim sighed at the thought of his poor little car, defenseless and alone out there in the great big world. He also sighed at the thought of his remaining pills being gulped down all at once by some braindead thug, and couldn't quite stop himself from hoping that the imaginary fucker's heart gave out.
Jim stood aside as Leonard came to the passenger side to unlock the door for him. "Be careful," Leonard said. "The door's heavy and kinda evil. I've had more people slam fingers and ankles in that door." Jim shuddered and ducked into the car, which tried to swallow him whole, and nearly fell out trying to close the damn door. "Told you," Leonard sing songed as he opened his own door. "Kinda evil."
"Gee, thanks," Jim muttered.
It wasn't until they were both settled in the car, and Leonard had maneuvered onto the street, that a certain important detail occurred to either of them. "Jim. I have no idea where the hell you live."
Jim snorted. "You can go this way. It's a giant mint and cotton candy pink conglomeration just north of Culver City. It's actually not too far, as long as you stay off the major boulevards."
A flash of dismay flitted over Leonard's face, but he smoothed it over in a blink. "Culver... that's... wow. That's kinda out of my way. We're going to have to work that out for next week, I think."
"Is it gonna be a problem? If you could just take me part of the way-"
"No, no, it's fine, it's fine." Leonard smiled broadly. "I just didn't know you lived so far north. You seem like such a beach bum sometimes."
Jim snorted. "It's not that far north at all, man. I used to live in Reseda for a while, when I was a kid. And I spent a summer in Palmdale – now that's north."
"Moved around a lot, huh?"
"Yeah." Jim picked imaginary lint off his jeans and tried to think of something, anything else to say. "You, uh, seen any good movies lately?"
Leonard chuckled. "No, but I get it. Quit picking at your past." He waggled a finger at Jim. "One of these days, Jim, I swear I'm gonna find that skeleton in your closet, drag it out in front of you, and give it a good shake, just so you can see it ain't nothing but a bunch of rattlin old bones!"
"I'll rattle your bones. What the fuck does that even mean? Is that like slap my face and call me a biscuit or whatever?"
"Slap me with butter and call me a biscuit," Leonard said – or tried to, anyway, through all his laughter.
Leonard didn't stay long. The drive had been long and... interesting was the word he'd used. "Well, Jim. That was ...interesting. I don't think I've ever seen that many cars lined up for one off-ramp." The freeway had been Leonard's idea, and it was an idea they had both regretted, especially once they were stuck on the barely moving off-ramp. While waiting through eleven million red lights, they decided to try establishing a routine they could both stick to. By the time they'd turned onto the side street where Jim lived, they'd agreed to pick up and drop off times, skirted around the issue of off-days that didn't quite sync up, and resolved to reevaluate the arrangement over the weekend. "I'll call you in the morning when I'm close." He didn't walk Jim to his door. He did stay long enough for Jim to get in the (unlocked) security gate.
Jim didn't blame him. He was thoroughly exhausted from the drive home, as always, and he hadn't even been the driver this time. He dragged himself past the pool, still full of goofy, wild children, even as the sun disappeared over the murky Los Angeles skyline, and up the stairs to the second floor. His feet dragged across the balcony, softly scuffing the rubber soles on his favorite canvas shoes. He'd be pissed about it in the morning, but he was too fucking tired to give a damn just then. He patted himself down for keys, finally finding them just as he got to his front door.
The door was ajar.
Jim's heart thumped in his chest as he poked his head in. "Hello?"
"Hello, friend!" came the cheerful reply. Jim shoved the door open to see a roly-poly man on his back near the kitchen bar, with wires and tools and things strewn all about. He was shining a penlight straight up, under the lip of the bar. "This took much longer than I'd expected! Now I'll just be another moment, Friend Kirk!"
Jim sighed as loudly as he could and threw his shit onto the mail table by the door. He'd forgotten that the maintenance man would be through his apartment this week. Several people had been complaining to management about the random rolling brown-outs in the building - using a microwave for more than thirty seconds was next to impossible, and no one dared turn on their window-mounted air conditioners, for fear of plunging themselves - and an odd number of non-adjacent units in the complex - into the dark ages. So Mr. Jones, a bumbling handy-man who probably wasn't even licensed to drive, much less handle live electricity, was going around from unit to unit, to... remove the protective plastic plates on people's electrical outlets.
"Well, I see no leaks here," Mr. Jones said cheerfully. "I'll just stick this back on..." Jim covered his face with his hands and tried not to freak out about the bits of plaster and dust falling to the floor while the handy-man reattached the plate to the outlet. "There we are, good as new!" Jim could hear the tools being dropped carelessly into the nearby tool box, and the sounds of his barstools scraping the floor while Mr. Jones got to his feet. "Now, remember, you can call me anytime you need something done, friend! Any time at all!" Jim jumped at the hand clapping forcefully on his arm, and stalked silently after the cheerful butterball, to slam the door with as much force as he could muster.
More than a week til payday. More than a week until he could get a refill.
More than a month until he could get a legal refill - the kind of refill you get in broad daylight, without worrying about maybe having to make a quick getaway from cops or other surprise aggressors.
Jim grabbed a broom and dustpan, and set to cleaning up after the fucking moron sent by the equally moronic apartment management team, and tried not to dwell on the fact that he was really only still living in the apartment because he couldn't afford to gather a deposit to get the hell out.
There were deep scratches in the hardwood parquet where Jones had dragged his toolbox, scratches that were now collecting the plaster dust from Jones' so-called attempts at maintenance.
Jim tossed the dustpan, still full of plaster and dust and shit, across the room, over the bar, where it hit the refrigerator, and sprinkled a trail of evil fairy dust over his entire food prep area.
He dropped the broom with a broken sound that sounded and felt suspiciously like a sob, and went to the bedroom to hide from the universe. He eased himself onto the bed and closed his eyes, waiting for a miracle to take him.
The phone rang.
Jim's eyes snapped open, like there was a psychic wire that extended from the electronic trill of the telephone and ended at his eyelids, yanking on them with each ring. The answering machine picked up, as it was programmed to, on the fourth ring. Heavy breathing, and then the line disconnected.
Jim rolled out of bed stiffly, and grabbed the phone, with the intent to turn the ringer off. But like a naughty magic trick, the phone trilled loudly in his hand. He jumped, and punched the Talk button with more force than was strictly necessary. "Yeah, what?" Cartoon violence could be heard in the background, along with the long, exhausted vowels of a mother whose patience had just run out, demanding that someone 'taaake aaaa baaaaath'. Jim winced.
Then the heavy, wet breathing was in his ear. "Jimmy Kirk?"
Jim shuddered at the wet, droopy way the man said his name. He cast about for a response, uncertain of how to address the caller. Finally, he decided to follow David Marcus' lead, and addressed him as he had in high school. "Mr. Marcus."
The breathing seemed to get heavier, before a slow building cough blossomed over the phone. Jim pulled the phone from his ear, gagging a little, but he forced himself to listen for the man's horrible coughing to subside. "Good," the man finally said, wheezing horribly. "Good. Listen. It's late. And phones are heavy." Jim raised an eyebrow at this, but held his tongue. "I have something that belongs to you, as it were. I want to discuss the legal ramifications of-" Marcus broke off for another coughing fit, before returning to the sentence as if nothing happened. "-making this transfer. Now, I have a lot of appointments, doctor's appointments, that is, but I can probably meet you Sunday morning for brunch. That's in two days." The wheezing deepened, and Marcus paused, but the coughing fit didn't come. Finally, as Jim was about to give up and disconnect, Marcus spoke again. "Are you amenable to this set up?"
"I have no idea. What it is you want to give me?"
There wet breath seemed to thicken, before a molasses slow response was finally offered. "I think it's best discussed face to face."
"Okay, fine," Jim said tightly. "But I can just come to your house and we can-"
"No, no, too much trouble. House isn't fit for visiting. Besides," he said ruefully, "my wife doesn't want you to have the address."
"Well, your wife certainly seems to have my address."
Another pause, this one even longer. "I... apologize for that. But I really think neutral ground is the best place to meet."
Jim forced himself to take a couple of deep breaths through his nose before trying to answer. "I see."
"You don't, but I don't blame you. We'll get this all cleared on Sunday." Marcus' exhaustion was obvious, but he plowed ahead, giving Jim a broad meeting time, and his pick of restaurants. Jim deferred to Marcus' preferences, took down the address on the back of his slip of paper, and tried to hang up. Marcus seemed to sense Jim's urgency to end the call. "I don't have long in this world, Jimmy. Try to remember that." Then the phone was fumbled, dropped, and finally, blessedly, disconnected.