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The Jimmy trapped behind the grimy mirror stares out at him with turned-down eyes. He needs a haircut. His shoulders are stooped and heavy looking, and a light flickers and spits above him. It’s the only one working in the cramped gas station bathroom; the other bulbs are dead.
And Jimmy exhales. The shoulders of his reflection drop even lower. He lifts his toothbrush back to his mouth and scrubs and then spits into the rust-edged sink. The toothpaste is white and foamy on the dark metal. He rinses and spits again, and the bleary-eyed Jimmy in the mirror copies him. Copies him, still, as he splashes water on his cheeks, as he presses a damp hand to the back of his neck.
His palm is cool, and shivers spread out from the point of contact. Jimmy tugs a few paper towels from the dispenser and runs them under the faucet and then holds the cold ball of them to the same spot, right above the knot in his spine. Water leaches from the paper and runs beneath his collar.
The bathroom smells of industrial cleaner and piss, and the struggling bulb hisses in its tube. Jimmy rolls his head on his neck and then tosses the wad of wet paper towels into the garbage. He’s still tired, still stiff.
He grabs his back collar and pulls yesterday’s t-shirt up over his head. Stands there half naked in the cold and flickering space, and then he bundles his shirt up, too, moving over to his duffel bag, which rests on the counter beside the sink. He shoves his damp t-shirt inside and rifles through for something clean. A blue polo worms free, and he rescues it from the tangle.
He’s not surprised by them, this time—the law school letters. They emerge from the tangle inevitably.
Jimmy lowers his clean shirt back down, laying gently on the edge of his bag. He picks up the envelopes. One of them is bent in half, another has a dog-eared edge.
He doesn’t bother to smooth the creases. He looks up at himself again. At his face, pale and drawn above slanted, freckled shoulders. At his chest, which still has never seen enough of that New Mexico sun, and that’s even ghostlier under the cheap bathroom fluorescents. About as pale as the envelopes.
Six of them, fanned out like playing cards.
And then his hands snap into movement, his limbs bursting with the wound-up tension of the last three days, a coiled spring snapping. He rips through the first envelope and tugs out the letter through the too-small opening with a crack and tear of paper and reads—
—we regret to inform you that—
—and he scrunches it up again. Closes his fist around the useless paper. His knuckles in the mirror are marbled, blue veins on ivory. He can hear his breath so loudly it’s like it’s being looped right to his ears.
So he gives a longer exhale. Relaxes his hand and watches some color return to his fingers, and then he throws the rejection letter at the garbage can. It skitters off the top flap and rolls over the filthy bathroom floor.
The paper lies there on the tiles, taunting. He can see his name curling around a fold.
Jimmy breathes out again. Bends down to pick up the letter from the floor and then walks right up to the trash can this time. He files the scrunched letter away inside, down with all the wadded-up paper towels.
And he looks over at the other five letters, still on top of all his shirts and jeans. Five of them, a poker hand, the cards face down and blind. Or maybe it’s just a countdown: five, four, three—and he reaches for the next one.
The door rattles.
“I said give me a minute!” Jimmy shouts out again. He glares at the handle until it stops moving, and then he looks back to the mirror. His face warps in the filthy glass. He tries to flatten his hair, the neatly-parted style that’s still a too-long parody of Chuck’s, that still feels like a costume when he looks at it for too long.
And he runs his thumb and forefinger over his bottom lip. Studies the hollow face emerging from the collar of his clean polo, the blue polo he’s noticed Kim glancing down at more often than his others. Maybe only because he realized after buying it that she has a blouse in the exact same color.
And somewhere in between studying the neat polo and the cleanly parted hair, he thinks of his father, and he realizes that if he just added some square wire glasses…
But he looks away from that thought, from that patchwork piece of another person.
The door rattles again.
“Yeah, it’s still locked, asshole!” Jimmy calls hoarsely. He has another go at smoothing his hair without a comb and then gives up, leaving it curling around his forehead. He packs his things back up in his duffel and slings it over his shoulder and then finally unlocks the door and steps out of the bathroom.
There’s a kid waiting, some grimy-nosed and freckled boy with scraggly hair. Maybe twelve or thirteen. He stares up at Jimmy with wide brown eyes.
Jimmy sneers. “All yours, champ,” he says, and he keeps moving.
Kim’s across the gas station, standing in front of a shelf of magazines. She’s changed her clothes, too, her cream-and-purple blouse now a blue-striped t-shirt. Her hair is tied up again, clear of her shoulders. She looks relaxed, easy, as she lifts a magazine from the shelf and flicks through a few pages then replaces it again.
He breathes out and then wanders over, hands in his pockets. Steps up beside Kim, and she feels him there and turns to face him.
“Hey, there,” she says softly. “Feeling better?”
He sticks on a smile and nods. “Much.”
Kim’s eyebrows shift doubtfully.
Jimmy, reaching for a magazine, gives her a little sideways look. “What?”
“Didn’t I just hear you yelling at a kid?”
“Well…” Jimmy says, turning the farming magazine over, pretending to scan the back, and then returning it. He gives another sideways look, with a smile, this time. “Yeah, maybe.”
Kim chuckles quietly and thwacks him on the arm. “You bully.” They move slowly through the shop, past the magazines and a rack of sunglasses and down to a stand of postcards. “I was getting worried you’d fallen asleep in there. Drowned in the sink.”
“Never,” Jimmy says, and he waits a moment then adds, “Not the sink, anyway.” He touches a postcard, one boasting a snow-capped mountain range. He glances to Kim. “I figure if the toilet’s good enough for Elvis…”
She snorts and spins the rack of cards. “And Lenny Bruce.”
Jimmy says, “Aw, him too?”
“It’s a dangerous place, Jimmy,” Kim says dryly. The postcards on this side of the rack are fake 1950s and 60s things, with vintage cars and cheery greetings written in old-fashioned fonts. A couple straight out of I Love Lucy smile from the edge of a canyon.
Jimmy doesn’t even know what state they’re in are right now, and none of the postcards give him any clues. There’s one for Niagara Falls and another for the Grand Canyon. He presses his hand to the back of his neck again and tries to click the little bones in there, but they’re still tight. Unrelenting. He rolls his neck around, squeezing his eyes shut, and he exhales through gritted teeth.
Kim’s watching him softly.
He chuckles. “I’m okay, really.”
“Sorry,” she says, lips pinching. “I should’ve woken you.”
“Seriously, Kim,” Jimmy says. “I needed the sleep.”
Not that it had been a particularly restful sleep for the last hour-or-so of their long drive out of Nebraska that morning, with his neck bent at right angles against the curved edge of the passenger door.
And his neck seems to tighten even further as they move, past the postcards and on to more gifts: birthday cards and hats. There’s a row of little stuffed bears, and Kim picks up one of them. It’s wearing a black graduation cap and gown. She holds it for a moment. It wouldn’t work for her anyway, he thinks. Her regalia was red, not black. She puts the bear down beside the others. Its button eyes are shiny and uneven.
Kim says, “Ready to face the car again, then?”
And he says, voice quiet, “Oh, born ready.”
As they leave the gas station, he presses his hands deep into his pockets, his duffel bag cutting into his shoulder like a knife.
Kim hangs a new little tree over the rearview mirror. The smell of fake pine fills the car, sharp and earthy, edged with chemicals. She clicks in her seatbelt and glances over to him.
“How about you, feeling better?” Jimmy asks, lingering with his hand on his own seatbelt. “You okay to keep driving?”
Kim just looks at him.
He laughs, short and quiet. “Okay, carry on, then.” He curls against the sheepskin-covered seat, his spine relaxing. Presses a yawn into a curled fist and props his feet on the dashboard.
Kim pulls out of the gas station. Soon, they’re cruising along the interstate again, back with the rush of cars moving swiftly over the sparse land. It’s early afternoon, and the sun’s hitting everything with a bright and clean light that makes Jimmy feel like he can see on forever, out over the cornfields to the clusters of dark trees, out to the red-walled barns and the farmhouses and the water towers, all of them crisp and vibrant against the blue day.
And Jimmy watches each of these passing places, each of these everyday monuments, as they drift slowly near the horizon. Towns with white buildings. A lone silo. A church. He can watch each one for long enough to imagine full lives for the people who live there, who open each of those doors a dozen times every day, in and out, who work the fields or paint the fences or hang up the colorful laundry; and then there’s Jimmy, unseen on the distant interstate, slowly going by.
The radio fuzzes, the music hanging on threadily. Snatches of Neil Young singing about his old man until there’s nothing left.
Kim spins the dial, hunting. It lands on some local news station, where a man is talking in a calm voice about congressional hearings and the tobacco industry. He speaks solemnly and slowly, every sentence taking a long time.
Eventually, the fields grow yellow and vacant, and the corn becomes short-grass prairie, and the interstate empties of cars again. The newsreader continues through it. After a while, Jimmy imagines he’s hearing some emergency broadcast instead, imagines that this low-voiced man who sounds a lot like Orson Welles isn’t talking about the new interest rates, he’s sending out a distress signal, and this is The War of the Worlds .
Jimmy looks to Kim. Around them, the empty landscape rushes by, just the road and telephone lines rising sharp into the wide sky. He says, “What would you do in an apocalypse?”
She flicks a sideways glance at him.
He twists the volume down on the radio. In the quieter car, he repeats, “What’d you do if the world was ending?”
Kim makes a soft noise. She says, “Like, atom bombs?”
“Yeah, atom bombs,” he says, and then he shrugs, shoulders rising and falling loosely. “Or aliens. Zombies. Pod people.” A grin. “Dealer’s choice.”
“Hmm,” Kim says. She bobs her head thoughtfully, her eyebrows scrunching. “Do you think ‘duck and cover’ still works for pod people?”
He laughs. “Well, did it really work for atom bombs?”
And Kim chuckles, too. She’s quiet again for a while, her gaze skimming the land ahead, and then she taps her thumb on the wheel. Glances at him. “If it was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, how would I even know?”
“You mean, before I started pointing at you and screeching?” Jimmy says, and Kim grins. He rubs the base of his palm against his neck, massaging the knot, then lowers his hand and murmurs, “I mean, I’d know it of you.”
She looks sideways again, face still.
“Come on, Kim, it’d be so obvious,” Jimmy says, and then he waves a hand. “Look at that face.” He moves the hand again, up and down, spanning her head. “Too many little expressions in there to replicate. An alien wouldn’t know what to do with itself.”
“Jimmy, this is a blank stare.”
He snorts. “Yeah, well,” he says, “that’s what you think.”
Kim’s lips flicker, and she darts another glance at him then looks back to the road. She’s quiet, and beneath her quietness the low-voiced newsreader speaks on, barely audible. Eventually, she says, “So what would you do at the end of the world, then?”
He shifts in the chair, lowering his head down to the window. The empty fields rush past outside, dark and patchwork. “Start growing potatoes or something, I guess,” he murmurs. “Chuck’s place is pretty big. We could all go there and hide out and grow food in the park.”
In a field beside the interstate now, an old-fashioned plow is frozen at the edge of half-cut furrows. It looks abandoned and ancient.
“Like, potatoes… carrots… corn…” Jimmy continues, and he can see the park opposite Chuck’s place so clearly, the flat green space dotted with sculpted trees.
He imagines it, instead, overrun with rows of vegetables and fences and the heads of corn and other things that might actually grow in New Mexico. Greenery spilling out into the tidy streets, all tangled under the enormous sky.
The vision is so bright and airy he can almost feel it on his skin. Soft.
Something touches his knee, and he opens his eyes and looks sideways to Kim.
She’s staring straight ahead at the road. “Don’t sleep like that again, idiot.”
“I’m awake,” Jimmy grunts. “I’m awake.” He shifts, and his neck twinges. He props his foot on dashboard and then moves again. Rest his head on his palm. Moves his elbow to his knee. Tries to lean his head against his shoulder. Exhales. “I should’ve got a neck pillow from the gas station back there, huh?”
Kim shakes her head. “I checked for you, they didn’t have any.”
“Damn,” he murmurs, his jaw propped on his palm again. “Thanks for trying.”
Kim just shrugs. She fiddles with the radio again, and the station crackles back over to music, quiet and almost tuneless.
Jimmy lowers his foot and leans forward, the seatbelt tight against his shoulder. He rests his elbows on his knees and squeezes his eyes shut, then he twists to look at the back seats. There’s not much over there, just Kim’s shoulder bag, and he huffs and presses his palm into his neck again then says, “Okay, I’m going over the back.”
“Jimmy, wait—’ But he frees himself from his seatbelt and starts moving, and Kim’s chuckling as he clambers through the gap in the front seats. His knee hits the center console and he grunts—and then he’s rolling onto the backseat, lying on his side with the car moving beneath him, shoulder against the rise of the seats. The vibration of the engine rises through his skin.
Kim’s voice comes dryly, “You okay back there?”
“Peachy,” he says.
She laughs at that, soft and musical.
He wipes his hand down over his face then gets comfortable, moving Kim’s bag aside, then leaning right back against the passenger-side door. His windbreaker is down in the footwell, and he grabs it and wads it up and tucks it between his head and the window. Shifts again so he’s curling inward against the rise of the seats, his feet out before him and his knees against the leather, his head safely cocooned in the triangle of space between the door and the headrest. He breathes out slowly.
He can’t tell if the windbreaker smells like Kim or if he just thinks it does. If he just wants it to. He tilts his head so that he can see the back of her and says, “Don’t crash, okay?”
She’s silent, head straight and steady, then she says, “No promises.”
Jimmy chuckles. He tucks his head against the seat again, looking over and through the opposite window. Feels himself sinking into his own skin.
He doesn’t sleep, or at least it feels like he doesn’t. The countryside goes past the square of the opposite window in streaks of blue and green; blue and green and yellow and bronze. He watches with unfocused eyes, because he can see the fields and the prairie without really looking, anyway; can see the flash of blurred white as a water tower and the dark green as a copse of trees.
His stomach churns and there’s a tightness in his neck that he knows has nothing to do with the ache from sleeping in the car. He wants to squeeze his eyes shut, but he doesn’t, he just watches the window. Just watches the land, rushing.
He doesn’t sleep, or at least it feels like he doesn’t. He rests there, as comfortable as he can get, his head cocooned in the fruit-scented windbreaker. Blurry shapes rush past and the sky flattens into one long wash of blue and purple, dotted with grey or with the sharp black strokes of power poles that rise from the ground.
Against the faded sky, the power poles flicker. They become things with spindly dark legs, with long antenna. They seem to pick their way through the fields, these distant creatures that rise high above the ground, like aliens on the cover of an unread paperback.
Sometimes, he thinks he sees Kim out in the fields instead. Then, it’s like the square window resolves into one great patch of purple prairie, and she’s amongst it, and she’s alone in the sea of it, and his brain says the word lighthouse, so he knows she’s meant to be a lighthouse. She’s smoking, the burning end of her cigarette a north star.
He doesn’t sleep. Sometimes, outside the window, there’s a town, and every town tells him its name in bright white letters, and every town is filled with people going in and out of doors, and every town is his mother’s town, Richland Center, even though he can’t remember ever going there.
But she’s beside him, taking him there now. She looks to him and it’s like she’s looking to him from the driver’s seat of an old Chevy, and she’s grinning with bright eyes as they wait for the cop to arrive at her window and ask if she knows that she was speeding just now; though this time, when the dark figure reaches the car, his mother’s gone.
He doesn’t sleep. Out the window, the sun is trapped behind the clouds, and the clouds are dark grey, almost purple. Gold lights up the edges of them like a gilded decoration from his grandmother’s house. And around the grey clouds are little dotted clouds and the tip of each cloud catches the sun brightly and they look like embers or ash or flickering coals.
Time passes, slipping silently through the car, until the tall creatures in the fields have beams of light shooting from their eyes. He watches them patrol on their spindly legs, watches them stomp over the ancient plows and furrows. He’s waiting for someone. He knows he’s waiting for someone.
He’s waiting for Chuck, who’s finally stepping through the doorway, except it’s Chuck from a long time ago. Jimmy’s older than his brother now, but he’s still sitting in the same spot as he had been back then, still sitting in the cramped chair beside the counselor’s desk with his ice pack pressed to his nose. The chair is kid-sized and it feels like his knees are up around his ears and the whole place stinks of the lilies that are in a vase next to the telephone.
The first thing Jimmy says is, “Are you going to tell Pop?”
“Jimmy, he’s going to see your broken nose no matter what I say,” Chuck says. He holds out a hand for Jimmy’s backpack, but Jimmy doesn’t react. “Come on.”
Jimmy just presses the ice pack tighter against his face. It’s warm and smells almost fruity. “I really wasn’t cheating, you know,” he murmurs. And he looks up at Chuck. “Do you think Pop will believe me? You believe me, right?”
There’s a long silence. “Jimmy, come on.” And then Chuck opens his mouth again, but the words that come from it are words he said in another cramped room in another time. His voice is lower, too: “You need to be better. Nothing changes unless you change.”
The words echo, and out the schoolhouse window there’s a carrion bird circling above a yellow field, and, in the sky, thin lights twist and ripple like the reflections of a pool along a stucco wall, spidery threads weaving intricate lines.
Something warm is pressing against his knee again.
He opens his eyes. It’s dark, and Kim’s a black shape in the driver’s seat, all bright around the edges with neon lights. She pulls her hand back from his leg, and he shifts, wiping a hand over his face and sitting up. They’re not moving right now but the engine’s still going. He peers out through the rain-flecked windows. Red lights glimmer on shining cement. A drive-thru.
“I wasn’t sure if you were awake,” Kim murmurs. “Sorry.”
He shakes his head. “S’okay.” He’s thirsty and his blood feels sluggish and thick. He wipes the back of his hand on his mouth again. “D’you need me to drive?”
“No, Jimmy,” she says softly. She gives his knee another pat. “I’m good. I’m just stopping to get some food.”
“Oh,” he mutters. He blinks and the neons flare. His mouth is dry. He rubs his eyes, shifting upright, turning to look out through the back window. The night is hazy with the drizzling rain. He shakes his head slowly. “Where are we?”
“Almost at Santa Fe.”
“What?” He twists back to face the front—his neck twinges and he brings a hand up to it, rubbing at the top of his spine. “Jesus, Kim, how long’d you let me sleep?”
“It’s eight-thirty,” she murmurs.
He rubs his neck once more and then checks his watch anyway. It says 9:28, still on Central Time. When the numbers extinguish, he presses the button again, the red lines glowing on the dark face. 9:29 now.
The brake lights on the jeep ahead of them vanish, and it inches forward in the queue. Kim turns back around and shifts the Volvo up a space, too, and then idles again. On the windshield, the flecks of rain glimmer.
Jimmy’s pulse thuds against his forehead, a steady pressure on his skull. He spins his legs down off the seat, slow and grunting. Rubs his hand on his knee, then hunts in the footwell for a packet of water bottles and frees one.
He twists open the cap and drinks about half of it in one go, the bottle crackling. The water is warm on his dry throat, grounding, but he still feels like he’s a visitor in his body, somehow, like he doesn’t belong here in the car right now, like he’s meant to be somewhere different. He wipes at his mouth.
From somewhere distant, he hears Kim order fries. Her black figure twists back to face him, shadowed with the drive-thru lights.
He’s waiting for her to say something else, but she doesn’t. The water bottle is clenched in his fist. He gives a weak laugh. “That all you’re getting? Fries?”
She shrugs and tilts her head. “You want anything?”
He presses the pads of his forefinger and thumb into his eyelids then shakes his head. It feels like his brain is shifting inside his skull, like his brain is still somewhere two hundred miles down the interstate. He sits hunched, elbows on knees.
“Make that two large fries,” Kim’s voice says from far away. The speaker crackles. “Yeah, that’s all. Thanks.”
Jimmy lowers his hand and catches her eye in the rearview mirror as they drive on.
“You’ll just eat mine otherwise,” she says, her smile glimmering.
He chuckles hoarsely. He tips his bottle back again, and this time he finishes it, drinking slower, the plastic crunching in his fist. The lukewarm water spreads out beneath his skin, and the idling car is a steady rumble beneath him.
Then the engine rises, and they move forward another car length. There’s a rattle of coins as Kim pays for the food. He hears her talking softly. The car grumbles and they drift forward again.
He shakes his head and drops the empty water bottle, blinking out at the queue. The glowing neons are crystallizing in his vision now, finally coming into clarity, a sharp brightness that illuminates the tired curve of her neck.
Ahead of them, a worker is handing brown bag after brown bag through the window of the jeep, the paper flashing in and out of the overhead lights.
Kim’s thumb taps slowly on the steering wheel. She tilts her head to the left and then to the right, like she’s got a stiff neck now, too. The red brake-lights of the jeep spill over her shoulder, and Jimmy watches her tiny movements, willing her to relax.
The worker in the drive-thru window holds up a hand to someone in the jeep and then vanishes back into the restaurant.
Kim’s thumb taps again.
And Jimmy runs his hand over his face once more, then he gets out of the car. The night is cool and damp and it shocks his skin, but he hurries up to the passenger door. Opens it and slides into the seat. His forearms are flecked with rain, even from the short trip, and he brushes his skin dry. Wipes his hands off on his jeans and exhales.
“Well, hey there,” Kim says eventually, her eyes sparkling.
“Hey,” he croaks. He chuckles softly then says, “May as well keep you company again, huh?”
“May as well,” Kim says, but there’s a smile playing on her face. “Buy a guy dinner and he’ll do anything for you.”
Jimmy laughs, tucking his hand behind his neck. It’s still stiff but much better than earlier, and he leans against the headrest. “Sorry for leaving you alone.”
She shrugs lightly. “You didn’t miss much.”
The jeep moves on, and they’re up at the last window now. Kim takes their bag of food. She hands it over to Jimmy and then shifts gears, pulling away from the drive-thru and back out toward the interstate.
As soon as the smell of fried food and salt hits Jimmy’s nose, he’s ravenous. He tears into the paper bag and shoves about a dozen fries into his mouth at once before doing anything else. His stomach groans and he can hear Kim laughing beside him, but he doesn’t look over. He finishes chewing, and, like the water, he feels his whole body responding, slowly waking up.
“Wow, anything left in there?” Kim says, smiling sideways at him as he eventually gets her cup of fries out and nestles them in the console for her.
“Shut up.” He keeps his own fries in the bag and eats through the rest of them slower than his first handful. Tucks the back of his head against his hand and watches the freeway go past.
It’s dark out but still light enough to see the land that stretches hugely away, see the flat edges of mesas that rise along one side of the interstate, silhouetted through the rain. He hasn’t driven on this stretch of road before, but there’s something achingly familiar about it, something achingly New Mexico. And out in the darkness he can see the lights of restaurants, the lights of houses.
He finishes his fries. The last few are barely warm, and they’re too salty. He scrunches up the paper bag and tucks it away inside the door pocket.
And there are signs for Albuquerque now too, of course there are. A cold, crawling feeling arrives at the back of his neck. Jimmy moves his hand around to cover it, tightening his palm there, like he’s trying to trap the sensation in one place before it can reach the rest of him.
Soon, the rain worsens, drumming above them. Kim turns the wipers up so they’re waving back and forth without a break. The line of cars ahead is red with brake lights as drivers slow down in the storm, and the dark line of the freeway is patchy with mirrored red and gold.
“You going to go into HHM tonight, then?” Jimmy says softly, not looking at her.
Kim is quiet. He hears a rustle of fabric like a shrug, and then she says, “I’ll probably just head home and sleep.”
He nods. His mouth is greasy after the fries and he’s thirsty again. He reaches back for another bottle of water and cracks the top open and guzzles a third of it. Holds it out to Kim and she shakes her head. He nestles it in the cup holder, the thin plastic crinkling.
The slimy feeling at the back of his neck is like water, inching down his spine. He shakes his head and looks out at the darkness.
There’s another damn Albuquerque sign, flashing under the headlights and the speckled raindrops.
The storm is heavy enough now that he can’t see the yellow windows of the houses anymore, or the flashing advertisements for drive-thrus. He stares down at his knees instead, at his jeans. Reaches out and rubs his hands along his thighs just to do something. Glances to the dark shape of Kim again.
He says, “Thanks for driving me.”
She just makes a humming noise in response.
And he nods, slowly. Squeezes his eyes shut and then snaps them open again. He can feel a building pressure, like the wind of the prairie arriving here, in his mother’s car, on the old sheepskin seat covers, with the cartoon pine tree danging from the rearview mirror. He feels that great churning in the air and the land, swirling around them. Can hear the sound of the wind in the driving rain, the rain that feels like it shouldn’t be here, not in New Mexico. The rain is flying at the windshield straight on, now, like Han telling Chewie to punch it to lightspeed.
The Albuquerque signs seem to be coming faster now, too, faster and faster. He breathes through his nose and still the rain’s getting louder, so loud it feels like it’s hitting him right inside his skull, just him and the rain and the darkness going by.
He opens his mouth and tries to think of something else to say to Kim, something that would mean they could stop. Get more food, maybe, or a cold drink, because his mouth is dry and his stomach feels cavernous. It feels like pieces from inside him are slipping out and dropping out to the vanishing interstate; white pieces, maybe, creased white rectangles to dissolve under the fat rain.
His mouth is still hanging open, waiting for words, and he goes to close it but instead he says, “I opened the letters.”
Kim doesn’t respond right away, and then she flicks him a glance. “Hm?”
“I opened my last law school letters,” he says hurriedly. “I still had them in my bag. I opened them without you.” He grimaces and makes a soft hissing noise and then adds, “Sorry.”
She shakes her head slowly.
He says, a bitter echo of her words earlier, “Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.”
Her face flickers. She says, even softer, “When did you open them?”
And Kim murmurs, “This morning, at the gas station?”
He doesn’t ask how she knows that. He just thuds the bottom of his fist into his armrest. “Whatever.”
The rain lessens and then rises again, hard on the windshield. Kim’s silent, and he looks at her hands on the wheel instead of looking at her, and they’re perfectly at ten and two, her fingers curling around the leather cover. They flash with the streetlamps and the beams of oncoming headlights.
As if she can feel his gaze on them, her hands tense and she shifts them slightly. He looks away.
The creeping feeling on his neck grows, and he thwacks the armrest again, and this time louder: “Damn it, Kim! I did really well, you know? On the LSAT. Didn’t I?”
There’s a horrible silence and then: “You did.”
He presses his nails into his palm. “God, and I know my GPA wasn’t super great but what does that matter? Why should that—” And it feels, he thinks, as if he’s fraying and unspooling like thread. Like a rope in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, until with a twang the anvil drops. He can actually hear it thudding to the road.
There’s a ticking sound. Kim’s got her turn signal on, and suddenly they’re taking the next exit off the freeway.
“What—” Jimmy starts, and he twists to look behind them then turns to Kim. “Kim, we’re nearly there.”
“Jimmy,” she says firmly, “I’m not having this conversation with you while I’m driving sixty miles down a freeway.” Her jaw is locked and set, and she’s not even looking at him.
He whacks his fist into the armrest again, weaker this time. The thread inside him is hanging now, drifting in the wind, empty. When he lowers his fist again, it barely makes a sound against the leather. Pathetic.
She slows at the first empty parking lot. The wide space glows beneath a single streetlamp and there’s the distant hum of a green neon sign. The Volvo’s tires splash through deep puddles as Kim turns into the entrance. She slows to a stop beside a worn-down power pole.
And she cuts the engine and pulls on the handbrake and twists to face him. He can see the softness in her eyes clearly even in the darkness, can see the tiny shifts of her expressions.
She says, eventually, “Those were the last letters?”
He closes his eyes briefly and then says, with more daggers than he means, “Yes. I triple checked the list, Kim.”
She’s nodding now. She pats her hand on the wheel then says, “Okay.”
The single word hangs there, miserable and pathetic. He grits his teeth. “I don’t…” he swallows, the words bitter in his mouth. “I mean, I did everything they wanted, you know? And they just—” He waves a hand with his aborted sentence. Something lost to the storm. And the rain is pelting the car, and the bitterness is roiling in his stomach, muddy blue-green waters, seething like a lake churned up by a storm and he says, “I guess they just didn’t want me.”
He hopes that she hasn’t heard it, that it was lost beneath the crashing of the rain. That the words were carried down the road with the flowing water, with the storm. And after a minute he’s sure that she didn’t hear it, because she hasn’t moved. Her neck is stiff, her head still.
But then she lowers her hands from the wheel. He can see, in profile, the fold of her lips. The tension in her brow. Then it all relaxes, vanishing, and she turns to face him. She says, “So what?”
Jimmy starts back. His mouth is open and pained.
But Kim matches his movements, leaning closer. “So what?” she repeats, and her voice is intense and somehow sharp and soft all at once. “So they didn’t want you?” Her eyes darken. “What do they know?”
In the dark of the empty lot, the rain casts glowing shadows into the car, refracted rivulets that glint and glimmer over the shape of Kim. Spiraling trails.
And it’s like the whole car is underwater, somewhere down with these twisting threads of light, somewhere deep and cold. He can feel the water of this dark place on his skin, the pressure of the thousands of tons of it above them, cool and growing colder.
But then Kim’s hand moves through the water slowly, over the console between them. She rests her palm on his thigh. Higher than the spot on his knee where she’s been touching him all day. He looks at her hand there. The shimmering lights flow over it.
And she doesn’t move her hand away this time. Her thumb strokes the denim.
It feels like heat is burning outward from that spot.
She traces a little circle.
And he’s bursting toward her, just another coiled spring inside him snapping, another piece breaking and falling out, but he doesn’t give a shit anymore. He kisses her with an awkward crush of lips and his teeth knock against hers and his nails are digging into the sides of her head, but she’s kissing him back just as desperately, kissing him like she’s breaking up through the surface, kissing him like she’s gasping for air.
He tries to get closer and his elbow whacks into something and it sends bright bolts through his bones. His jaw aches because he must’ve knocked that into Kim’s at some point, too. Her hands are on the front of his shirt, twisting over and over in the blue fabric, swipes of hard pressure on his chest as she tries to grab more and more of it, and it’s all so crushingly familiar and painful.
Her hand moves up to his jaw just like it always does, the pads of her fingers tight on his skin, pressing him to her. She tugs on his shirt with her other hand, and his collar cuts sharply into the back of his neck, and he pushes closer, trying to climb over to her, edging Kim backwards—
The horn honks, and he jolts, knocking his knee into something hard.
And Kim pulls back from him, her eyes wide and shimmering under the rippling light. Her hand on his face softens, and her thumb moves down to his lips. He breathes against the pad it, heavy.
She strokes her thumb over his bottom lip and then drops her hand.
And he looks down to Kim’s other hand tangled in his polo. He wraps his palm around her fingers, keeping them there, pressed to his chest.
She twists her thumb so it locks with his.
“God,” he says, breathing hard. Water shadows flicker over their interlaced thumbs. He hears the rain again, the sound of it rushing back into his ears.
Then Kim’s thumb squeezes his, and he looks up. Her eyes lock to his, matching every slight movement of his head.
“How far do we have left to go?” he asks.
“Not far,” Kim murmurs. “Maybe half an hour.”
He nods. “Want me to drive the last bit, then?”
Kim chuckles huskily and shakes her head. She untangles her hand from his and from his shirt, and turns to look out at the driving rain. At the darkness and the lone streetlamp and the distant buzzing neon sign. “You know,” she says eventually, calm and almost removed, “I actually think I see a motel just down there.”
The neon sign is green and red, hazing. “That’s a laundromat,” Jimmy says, and then he looks back to Kim.
She’s staring at him with dark eyes and parted lips, and she tips her head to the side, just slightly.
He grins. “All right, yeah,” he murmurs, watching her pupils flicker left and right between his. “I think I see a motel down there, too.” He wets his mouth, his gaze skimming down to her lips. “Yeah, the Corrales Motor Court. Yeah, that looks like it.”
Kim’s hand comes up to his cheek. She pulls him in and presses a light kiss to his lips. “Shush,” she says, drawing back, and she turns on the engine, and the headlights flare before them, catching on the pouring rain like thousands of tiny sparks.
There’s no Corrales Motor Court, but after a couple of minutes they see the glowing blue sign of a Days Inn, and Kim pulls into the entrance, splashing through another set of puddles along the curb and then slowing under the covered forecourt.
The lobby is bright and fluorescent, so banal it’s almost made more surreal. A couple of plastic plants watch Jimmy’s approach blandly, his wet sneakers squeaking over the polished floor.
He rings the bell and waits. There’s a television playing in a distant room somewhere. A cheering crowd, a sports game. Monday Night Football.
His polo is loose and stretched around his neck, his left collarbone totally visible. He straightens it and then rubs a hand over his face. Taps his palm on the counter as a grey-faced man shuffles out from the back room.
And soon, he’s sliding back into the car and showing Kim the room key. She parks as close to their door as she can, but they still have to race across to it through the torrential rain, over the curb and a little decorate garden, and he’s wrangling with the key in the lock while Kim’s hands push against his back, and his palm slips on the handle and then the door’s finally open, and Jimmy stumbles through, his sneakers slick over the small patch of linoleum in the entrance.
And he slides off his shoes, laughing and catching his breath as Kim flicks on the light. Yellow spills through the small space. The motel room is plain and as just as banal as the lobby, but it’s warm and glowing against the dark blue storm. There’s a door to a bathroom and a tiny kitchenette and a red-patterned bedspread.
Kim moves to the bed, picking up a towel from the end and drying her face. The shoulders of her striped t-shirt are just as wet as his own. She stands there with her back to him, and he moves past her to the single window.
With his hands on each of the curtains he pauses. Out in the parking lot, the rain bounces off the puddles in a fine mist, twinkling under the lights of the motel sign. Further out than the parking lot, the world is dark. Invisible.
He draws the curtains closed.
And he turns back. Kim is closer now, looking up at him. He feels a shiver over his skin that he knows has nothing to do with his wet shirt, but he plucks at the shirt anyway, separating the bottom of his polo from his stomach.
“Here,” Kim murmurs. “Here.” She reaches for the hem, brushing his hands aside, and then she pulls it up slowly. He lifts his arms, and his vision goes dark and blue and then the shirt is free, and Kim drops it to the floor. She moves her hands to run over his waist—
He hisses, shrinking back before he can stop himself. He shakes his head and adds, “Cold hands.”
She grimaces. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s okay,” he murmurs.
But Kim cups her hands to her mouth, breathing into her palms. Her eyes flash at him. There are still raindrops caught in her eyebrows. He exhales.
Her gaze darkens, and she lowers her arms again. He lifts his hand up to her face and brushes his thumb over one eyebrow so that the glinting raindrops vanish, and then he breathes out again, shakily, and has to look away. Their shoes are beside each other in the doorway. There are damp footsteps over the carpet, and a crooked trail of drips over to where they stand. The rain pummels the window behind him.
“Jimmy?” Her voice is quiet.
He looks back to her. He says, “You’re not just doing this because I didn’t get into law school, right?”
Her eyes soften. She touches him again, raking her fingernails lightly over his waist in the way she knows he likes, then she stretches up and presses a kiss to the side of his mouth. In the close air between them, she murmurs, “What’s law school?”
He chuckles, she kisses him, deeper, and then she pulls back.
Her hands trail down his waist then drop away again, breaking the connection. “Listen, Jimmy,” she says, and she tilts her head up at him. Exhales. “If you’re going to think up any more reasons to stop this from happening, you better say them soon, because otherwise I—” And she huffs, half laugh, half sigh.
His pulse strums against his jaw, thready, as he stares at her staring at him. He runs a tongue over his lips. His mouth tastes like Kim again. And he doesn’t care anymore, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t— “God, never,” he whispers, shaking his head over and over, “I mean, no more reasons, never any reasons—”
Kim shuts him up again, her mouth coming up to meet his and her hand tangling in his hair. He kisses down to her jaw, and she’s cupping the back of his head as he hunches over her, his back aching. He nuzzles into the warm space at the base of her neck, pressing his lips against every thudding pulse point. Her fingers tighten in his hair.
Distantly, he becomes aware that she’s still got her t-shirt on and that it’s wet against his cheek. He moves back and grabs at it, finding the hem and then pulling it upwards, barely breaking apart as she helps him wrench it over her head. She throws it away.
Her hair’s still tied back, and he tries to free it, and Kim helps him with that, too, tugging her hair loose with more force than him. It spills damp and golden down to her shoulders and he curls his hands into it. Draws her close for a kiss and closes his eyes and anchors himself there.
The rain rises again, loud against the glass, and soon Kim’s pulling him backward to the bed. It’s one of those extra-soft motel beds, and it sinks around his knees as he follows her. She shuffles back on her elbows to lean against the pillows, and he crawls up to her. They fit together in a familiar way, him between her legs.
He grins. “Hey,” he says, hands either side of her head.
Kim smiles back. “Hey, there.” Her fingertips trail over his sides, warm now.
He breathes out, a little almost-laughing thing. “Wanna make out?”
Kim laughs, and he can feel her trembling beneath him. Her hands drift up his chest between them, rising to cup his cheeks. She kisses him softly, then up against his mouth says, “You have no idea.”
He crushes his lips against hers, and her hands are wedged between them, fingernails grabbing at his face and jaw, like she’s trying to drag him inside her. He grinds his hips into hers, denim on denim, and her fingers tighten painfully, scratching around to the back of his neck again, tucking his head down against her jaw, and then he moves lower, and he’s mouthing over her clavicle—
“Get this—off,” he grunts, fingers on her bra, and Kim sits up so he can reach around the back and free the clasp. She slides the straps down her arms and then throws it to the side.
Jimmy leans in again and mouths at the hollow between her breasts. He moves around, biting softly at the warm skin until he reaches her nipple. Kim snakes her fingernails over the top of his shoulders, tracing patterns that ripple outward and make his whole back burn.
And his chest aches with how familiar it all feels, with how they’re both just sliding back into the rhythm, how Kim’s drawing patterns until his skin is so sensitive he can’t take it anymore, how he’s rolling to the side and fighting with the buttons on his jeans and then tugging them off, how Kim’s doing the same. How her hands twitch on his shoulders as he spreads her thighs apart with his palms; how they move to his head when he’s taking too long. How when he turns his head sideways to kiss the inside of her thigh, she’s wet against his cheek, grinding on his cheekbone. How she locks her fingers with his free hand, interlaced, and he knows she’s close when her nails cut into his skin.
Because whenever he’s thought about this happening again, every single time he’s thought about this, he’s assumed it would feel different. But even though they’re in some nowhere motel in Corrales with the rain crashing around them, he thinks they might as well be anywhere; might as well be in his apartment or her apartment or a motel in Alamogordo, because here’s Kim moving back down the bed for his jeans to get his wallet and a condom without saying anything, here she is rolling it on to him and then straddling him and here are his hands flexing on her thighs, like always, as she guides him slowly inside her.
He gasps, squeezing his eyes tightly. Kim pauses for a moment. Strokes his hair. Goosebumps spread out from his scalp, growing in waves until they take over his whole body. He leans in, mouthing at her breasts again, dragging his teeth on her skin, and he knows he’s leaving a patchwork of red marks there. Kim curls her forearms around his head. He presses his face into her skin and Kim’s arms tighten, and they move together steadily.
And even though the storm is too loud, even though it’s drowning out all their tiny noises, as he drifts his hand down between them, as he rubs his thumb in circles over her and Kim’s arms tense and flex around his head, he can hear her soft gasps anyway, can hear his own groans, like it’s all being piped directly to his ears.
When they roll over again, Kim pulls him down so that his weight is on her, like she always does, their chests and stomachs crushing. He moves slowly, and he tucks his head into the space above her shoulder, twisting until he can kiss her collarbone. Her hand is warm on the sensitive skin at the nape of his neck, the other hand is tight on the small of his back, pressing his body to hers.
He breathes warmly into her shoulder, and behind his eyelids blue sparks flash and twist in thin lines. Her hands shift on him, scratching more bright sparks down his back, and she’s pressing for him to go quicker, to move faster, like he needs to shatter through something, and he’s getting closer and closer.
He comes with Kim’s hand locked in his hair, holding his face up where she can see it, blue eyes intense on his. He gasps and squeezes his eyes shut against it, blood rushing through his head, mingling with the sound of the rain. And beneath it all there’s him panting, and Kim breathing under him, her body warm and rhythmic. He tries to stay still, tries to cradle this thing in his hands without breaking it.
The pad of her thumb runs over one of his eyelids. He opens his eyes again.
Kim is smiling up at him. She moves her thumb down to run over his cheekbone, then his cheek, then his mouth. Her eyes shimmer, and her hair spills out over the thin motel pillow, gilding it. Pale gold glowing. A veiled sun.
She shifts her head, like she’s trying to find his eye-line again, trying to pull his gaze back to his. When her eyes catch his again, they’re enormous. His breath catches in his throat. Trapped air.
Because after so much that was familiar, she’s never looked up at him quite like this, with her thumb tracing over his face, with her legs locked around him, keeping him inside, and his arms weak, and the rain riddling the silence with holes.
And then something flashes out there: car headlights, or maybe lightning. He waits for the thunder but he doesn’t hear it, doesn’t hear anything else over the pounding of the storm.
And Kim murmurs, “You know, I think this might be your apocalypse, Jimmy.”
He chuckles softly. “Biblical,” he says, and then he lowers his forehead to hers. “I guess I’d better learn how to grow potatoes.”
She laughs beneath him, trembling. Her hand drifts up behind his neck, holding him there, their foreheads together.
It’s warm and damp and dark in the space between them, and into that new warmth he says, “We’ll get to go on the ark, right?”
Her fingers tighten on his head. “Of course, Jimmy,” she says. “It’ll be just us.”
Jimmy steps out of the shower, the steam dense in the motel bathroom. His reflection in the mirror is a beige blur, lost in the fog. He swipes at the mirror’s surface and clears a patch over his face, blue eyes staring out at him.
He smiles, and his eyes crinkle at the edges.
He dries off and wraps a towel around his waist and moves back into the main room. His and Kim’s bags are still out in the car, out through the cold and the rain. Kim’s wrapped in the red blanket, sitting cross-legged on the bed with a bunch of paper menus before her.
She smiles at him. “I ordered us a pizza.”
“Genius,” he says softly, drawing out the word.
“Well, you said it, not me,” she says, chuckling.
He wanders over to the tiny television. A black remote lies on top of the set, and he presses the power button. The first channel is showing a warped episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the characters swimming up and down over the screen.
Jimmy flicks through the other channels, but it’s all lost to the weather, and most of them are just snow. “What do you think?” he says, turning to Kim. “The ghost of Mary Tyler Moore, or”—and he changes the station—“uh, I want to say, Nightline?”
Kim just smiles again, shaking her head.
And he’s grinning too—he can’t stop grinning. There’s a knock at the door, and he flicks the TV off. Tugs on his boxers, then hunts for his wallet on the floor. He gives the soaked-through delivery guy an enormous tip, and then, just like earlier, as soon as the scent of pepperoni hits him, he’s starving.
He opens the box and they sit there, in the comfortable rush of the storm, not talking, just eating their way through slice after slice. Kim’s knee is pressed into his. The pizza is hot and greasy and spicy, and it feels like it it’s returning some of the pieces that fell out of him earlier. That and the warm tether of Kim’s knee on his.
When they’re done, Jimmy tugs the last paper towel free from the roll and wipes his hands clean of grease. Kim pats her mouth with her own piece and tips her head back, and glances sideways at him.
“How’s your neck?” she murmurs.
He rolls his head experimentally. “Better,” he says, even as it twinges a little. He smirks at her. “Must’ve found some magic cure.”
She hits his knee with the back of her hand, and he bops her back with the end of the empty cardboard tube. Kim chuckles warmly, and the silence settles around them again, soft.
He lifts the tube to his mouth. “Kimberly Wexler,” he says lowly, down the length of cardboard.
She turns to him, eyes up.
Jimmy chuckles and lowers the tube. “Did you ever do that as a kid, or is that another one of my tin-cans-on-string and stickball things from the forties?”
“Is what another one of your stickball things from the forties?” she asks warmly.
He gestures with the tube. “I mean, you’re supposed to put paper over the end—y’know, to make it a real invention.” He peers around the room, at the messy bedspread, at the mess of menus, then he grins. He reaches for Kim’s forearm, gripping it lightly.
She doesn’t resist as he unbends her arm so that her hand is closer to him. He slips her blue hair tie down over her wrist.
And he attaches one of the paper menus to the end of the tube with the tie, and then holds it to his mouth again. He says down the tube, “Kimberly Wexler.”
A smile is glimmering on her face. But she says, flatly, “That’s it?”
“Yeah, robot voice tube!” he says. Holds it up to his mouth again. “It’s pretty cool, huh?”
She shakes her head. “You’re just changing your own voice. The tube does nothing.”
And even lower and slower this time, he says, “Kimberly Wexler.”
“Shut up,” she says, whacking his thigh. “You’re changing it.”
“I’m not, it’s all the tube!” he says, grinning widely as he lowers it again. And he leans back against the headrest of the bed, rolling his head to the side to keep looking at her. “Tell you what, I’ll phone you up sometime, in the middle of the night,” he murmurs. “You’ll have no idea.” He lifts the tube to his mouth, pointing it right at Kim. “This is the voice of doom calling.”
The smile’s won on her face, now. “Yeah,” she says, “because a lot of anonymous callers quote Jimmy Stewart movies.”
He laughs quietly, turning his head again, settling back against the pillows. “We’ll see,” he says, and Kim pats his leg. This time she leaves her hand there, her thumb rubbing against his bare skin. He reaches for her hand, and she twists it around, palm to palm. He closes his eyes.
After a while, Kim’s hand slides out of his, and he looks at her again. She’s holding the cardboard tube. “Let me try, then,” she says, and she holds it to her mouth. “Over here, dumbass—Wow, who said that? Rude.”
He chuckles, shaking his head slowly.
“I think there’s something to this invention, actually,” she says, and then she catches his eye. Her gaze softens, her pupils flicking between his own.
He laughs again, but weaker. After a moment, Kim’s hand returns to his thigh, curling over his skin. He watches the small movements of her thumb. Her hand always looks small against him.
A low voice: “Hey, gorgeous.”
He looks up. Kim’s lowering the tube from her mouth again, and she raises her eyebrows seriously.
Her eyes crinkle at the edges. She says, like she’s waiting for his response to a test question, “Well?”
And he smiles again. “Yeah, I’d definitely say that was a robot voice.”
“The magic of science,” Kim says. She trails her hand lightly over his leg, flicking her fingers up over the edge of his boxers, then she shifts backwards, leaning against her pillows. She watches him for another moment and then lifts the tube again. “James McGill, I want you over here right now.”
“Oh, wow,” he says, grinning and moving closer, “and it’s some kind of sex robot—”
She throws the tube aside and cuts him off with a kiss.
He wakes much later, in the darkened hotel room, to Kim’s hand in his hair. He’s curled into her side, his head resting on her chest, and her fingernails are stroking lightly over his scalp. He stays there for a moment in the warm space marked by the rise and fall of her breaths. The rain outside is softer now.
But after a while, he twists to look at her in the dimness, trying to find her eyes. “You’re still up?” he murmurs.
“Mm,” she says, and the hand in his hair stills. “I didn’t wake you, did I?”
He shakes his head.
“Good,” she says quietly. Her fingers thread over his scalp, then pause again. “No dreams this time?”
He frowns. Her hand resumes, and he hears the words hanging there. This time. Her touch is warm, and he suddenly remembers the warmth of her hand on his knee waking at the drive-thru, where she’d barely ordered any food. “No,” he says, finally. “Not this time.”
“Good,” she murmurs.
He shifts, so his cheek is pressed against the side of her breast again. Kim’s hand moves down from his hair, massaging the tight spot in his neck. Her thumb presses into his skin, rolling rhythmically over the muscle. He exhales as the tension fades. “I dreamed about Chuck in the car,” he says. “I was a kid and I’d done something wrong.”
Voice gentle, she says, “What had you done?”
He chuckles weakly. “I can’t even remember,” he murmurs into her skin. “But I was so scared of Dad finding out. Of him knowing I was capable of that.” He breathes out. He can feel the claustrophobic counselor’s office, can smell the lilies in the vase. He knows those parts are from a real memory. He murmurs, “And Chuck looked so disappointed in me.”
The storm is like gentle static now, a background hum. Kim’s thumb rolls smoothly over his neck.
It’s suddenly all too much, and he pulls away, turning onto his back. He squeezes his eyes shut for a second and channels his breath out through his pursed lips. The motel ceiling is dark and clean. He can see the shadow of the light fixture. Eventually, he twists his head sideways to study her.
She pulls the covers up higher over her body, then props her head on her hand, a shadowed shape beside him. Her knees curl against his thigh, and he reaches down a hand down to hold them there.
The rain hums. He rubs his thumb into the hollow of her knee.
“Jimmy?” she says, and he makes a soft noise in response.
She’s quiet for a long time, and he waits there, tracing little figure-eights on the skin of her leg, hidden beneath the covers.
Her words finally come, arriving softly in the darkness: “Why do you want to be a lawyer?”
His thumb stills on her knee. He can hear her breathing. It’s a little unsteady. Her breaths are as patternless as the rain.
And here, finally, is the question he’s been seeing everywhere all year, that he’s written on the top of legal pads, that he’s split into quadrants on a page, that he’s scrawled on a transparent sheet in marker. The question that’s broken over his body in projected black letters. Why are you here?
It’s the question that he’s heard from everyone except her, that he’s waited to hear from her the whole time. Has waited to hear in her apartment kitchen one morning, has waited to hear over the clatter of plates in a diner while snow is falling outside. Has waited to hear every single time she looked over his notes or asked him a practice question or went through his textbook with him.
Because he’s known that he’s not going to be able to answer it. It’s always been this thing he doesn’t understand, this thing that’s never felt as pure as it should, that has blackened edges. This thing that still pokes at him and drives him even though he’s never wanted to look at too closely.
He feels it, though, dark in his stomach. He always feels it. He can feel it now.
And in the storm and the night, he says, “Because I want it.”
Kim inhales at that, a rush of breath over the rain.
And he tips his head sideways to see the shape of her better. “I want it, Kim. I want to take it and have it and I want to be that guy for once, to be up there with you and Chuck and the rest of them and finally get to be—” The last word turns into a shaky exhalation, cut off, maybe, though he doesn’t know what else he was going to say.
Her hand lands on his chest, and she curls her palm around the side of his waist. Her thumb strokes along one of his ribs. “Jimmy,” she says, his name heavy in the air. She doesn’t say anything else. Her thumb rubs slowly and assuredly.
He shifts his own hand to meet hers, covering it. Trapping her in place there against him.
And beneath his palm, she keeps moving her thumb, in the same pattern as before. Back and forth, back and forth. Steady.
It feels like she’s stitching herself into his skin.
They leave before dawn has broken. The sky is enormous and faintly blue already, and everything around them is chalky. It feels like the storm has washed the color from the land, from the parking lot. From the motel sign and the brown desert.
Jimmy drives, returning to the interstate, to the last few miles of their journey. Kim is solid and steady in the passenger seat.
The car is quiet, the stereo off. The pale light slowly fills out the surrounding land: the flat orange and green earth that stretches off to the right, and to the left rise the distant Sandias. The mountains catch the sun in pink, and shadows pool down the serpentine folds of the ridges. Along a crest of hill, the tips of trees find the rising sun, too, and they reflect it back, bronze.
“I can make another list,” Kim says, her words calm, punctuating the stillness.
He glances to her.
“A list of other law schools,” she says. She’s staring straight ahead. Her hair is tied back again and she’s dressed for work, in a neat blouse he’s never seen before and a sharp-lined skirt. “Newly accredited. Correspondence schools. Some of them will be correspondence only.” She’s still for a long moment, and then she adds, “People don’t…people aren’t going to like any of them. They’re going to turn you down for jobs as soon as they see the name.”
He swallows. His hands tighten on the leather steering-wheel cover and he watches the freeway.
Kim’s voice still hasn’t changed. It’s like she’s reading something from a neat, yellow page. She says, “It’ll make sitting the bar exam even harder. We’re talking places where half the graduates never get licensed at all.”
Jimmy exhales, and he waits. His heart is trapped in his jaw, fluttering there. After a minute, he says, “But?”
Her words are still solid, decisive: “But one of them will take you.”
He glances to her again. He finds her eyes this time, the warm pools of blue. In that moment, they glimmer with light, with fragments of the sun.
“One of them will take you,” she repeats, her face steady and still and filled with expression. “If you want it.”
And he has to look back to the road again. It stretches out smoothly before him, pale and wide, curving out toward Albuquerque. The tires hum over the surface, and the vibrations run all the way up into his chest. He says, “I want it.”
Kim inhales. Her voice this time is on the edge of breaking: “And maybe sometimes we can take what we want.”
He nods. His heart hammers. He can feel that she’s looking at him, that she’s studying his profile, so he stays still and lets himself be painted with her gaze. He can sense, always, the weight of her beside him, holding him down, just like he can still feel her thumb from last night, stitching a thread of herself to his ribs.
And this last part of the journey seems to take almost as long as the rest of it, as he drives through the chalky light of the dawn toward the pale shapes of the city, with the steady new thread in his chest pulling him on and on; and Kim’s gaze tracing the edges of him, outlining him in gold.
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