Pam stopped just inside the office doors and stifled a yawn. Roy had been up all night coughing, and she’d finally gotten him quiet after coaxing him to take a large dose of nighttime cold medicine. He was such a baby when he was sick, didn’t want to take medicine or go to the doctor, didn’t want his temperature taken, yet he would lay in bed and groan dramatically, calling on her to wait on him hand and foot. She’d almost stayed home with him, but Michael had called her at home and said he too was sick to come in too, and she felt obligated to at least come in to the office for a while, open things up, make a call to Corporate for him.
Roy had tested positive for the flu the day before, when she’d insisted he go to the doctor since he felt so awful and his forehead was burning up, and she’d encouraged Michael to go to the doctor as well. When she asked Michael if he needed someone to go with him, he’d said his mom was coming by, and maybe Jan, he’d said hopefully. Pam secretly doubted the latter.
“Guess our road trip is cancelled,” he’d said over a coughing fit.
“Yeah,” she replied, sharing his disappointment.
She and Michael had been scheduled to tour the branches of Dunder Mifflin and give them training Michael had learned from a recent seminar in Atlanta. Pam would act as his assistant. The training was for a new sales method that was guaranteed to increase sales by up to ten percent, and Corporate had spent a lot of money for their top sales people in the company to attend, then spread their knowledge to the other branches. Given Scranton was the company’s top branch for sales, Michael, Dwight and Jim had been sent to the seminar and put up in a posh hotel for three days. Two weeks later, and she was still being regaled (mainly by Michael) with stories from their fun times in The Old South, as Michael called it. Of course, every story was exaggerated and told with a southern drawl she was pretty sure sounded more like Texas than Georgia. Jim had assured her that the so-called fun times had been drinks in the hotel bar and the fancy buffet each day at lunch, and maybe a swim in the hotel’s heated pool.
In the breakroom right after the trip, Michael had also hinted to everyone how he’d hooked up with a hot hotel receptionist, and Dwight had only grinned secretly when Michael nudged him to tell about his own sexual exploits. She didn’t miss how Angela had frowned, confirming to Pam that there might be trouble in paradise for the secret lovers. Jim, of course, had claimed he’d stayed in his room every evening watching basketball games on TV. Pam believed him. She suspected he hadn’t dated since breaking up with Katie on the booze cruise a couple months before, and she supposed he must be nursing a broken heart (though personally, she’d never really seen much chemistry between them).
At any rate, Pam was genuinely disappointed that she and Michael wouldn’t be going on the training tour now. She would have been paid overtime (which she could really use for her upcoming wedding), and plus, it would be nice to get out of the office and see some new places, since she and Roy didn’t travel much. The fact that she’d be in a car three days with Michael certainly had its drawbacks, but she had become an expert at handling him over the past few years. She knew how to placate him with food, or talk him down from whatever anxiety attack he was having, or boost his ego when he was feeling depressed. It would have been worth it to get a sort of mini vacation for a few days. Too bad, she thought morosely.
She’d just turned on her computer when the phone rang. It was Dwight, who sounded decidedly stuffy, nose-wise.
“Tell Michael I won’t be in today. Something’s come up on the farm—I uh, have a cow that’s about to calf.” She heard a muffled cough, and her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Are you sick, Dwight? The flu is going around, you know. Michael and Roy are both out, and one other guy from the Warehouse.”
“Of course not. I have the immunity system of ten ordinary men. The flu has no chance against—cough cough--Schrute white blood cells.”
She rolled her eyes heavenward. “Okay…but if there is a chance you have it, go to a doctor and get some anti-viral meds. Don’t come in until you’re fever free for at least twenty-four hours. We don’t want an epidemic here.”
“Whatever, Doctor Pam,” he said sarcastically, and hung up.
By now, more employees were coming in, including Jim, who greeted her with his usual affectionate eyes and deep-voiced good-morning, that always made her heart flutter, a fact which she always tried dutifully to ignore. But ever since she’d learned he’d had a crush on her, every little thing he did seemed to affect her senses more, seemed to make them more…amplified. Jim hung up his coat and took his messenger bag to his desk, turning on his computer like he did every other day, and she tried not to admire how nice he looked in a suit, how good he always smelled.
“Hey. You’re not feeling sick, are you?” she asked.
“Nope. I got my flu shot, remember? Same day you did when the mobile health van parked outside back in November.”
She nodded. “Yeah, that’s right. Michael’s afraid of needles, so he didn’t get one, and Dwight refused because he’s suspicious of public health care, and besides, Schrutes apparently never get sick. Roy is sick too now. I begged him to take the time to get a shot, but he didn’t.”
“Oh, Roy has the flu? So that’s why you didn’t come back yesterday after lunch.”
The phone rang again, and this time is was Meredith. Another addition to the flu brigade, which unfortunately included her children.
“Crap,” Pam murmured.
“What is it?” Jim asked in concern.
“That makes five out with the flu.”
Everyone left in the audience heard her and began discussing whether they’d have to shut down the office.
“What’s the policy on that, Toby?” Oscar asked the Human Resources officer, just as he passed Accounting on his way to the Annex. No surprise everyone was hoping for a day or two off.
“I think we don’t shut down unless fifty percent are out. I’ll double check the manual, maybe call Corporate for instructions.”
Angela took out a can of Lysol and began spraying around her desk, then made a tour of the office, hitting door knobs, the copy machine, and other common areas. “As safety officer,” she announced loudly when she returned to the bullpen, “let me remind you of the proper way to cough.” She demonstrated, coughing into the crook of her elbow. “Also, wash your hands, people, and use that hand sanitizer I issued everyone at the start of flu season. If you feel sick, go to the doctor, and don’t come back till you’re over whatever plague God has cursed you with.”
Jim and Pam’s eyes met, and they grinned in shared amusement.
Pam’s phone rang again, and this time it was David Wallace from Corporate.
“You and Michael all set for the sales training tomorrow?” he asked in his usual pleasant manner.
“Oh, David, I was just about to call you. Michael is out with the flu. I was going to ask if I should start calling the other branches to cancel.”
“Damnit! Seriously? Sorry, Pam; I know it’s not your fault, and I really am sorry Michael is sick, of course. It’s just that we spent a lot of money on this training, and it took some major planning to get all the branches to find time for their salespeople to be available for training at the right time…”
“Oh, I get it, David. The timing is really terrible.”
He was quiet on his end a moment, then: “Hey, Dwight or Jim could handle it, I bet. They both went to Atlanta with Michael.”
“Well, Dwight is sick too, but Jim is here. You want to talk to him?”
“Yeah, transfer me to him if you don’t mind. Thank you, Pam.”
At mention of his name, Jim glanced at Reception, and he sat up in his chair in preparation to talk to the boss.
“Hi, David,” Jim said. Pam watched and listened with interest, her heart rate increasing at the ramifications of their conversation began to occur to her. If Wallace designated Jim to replace Michael on this training tour, that might mean she would be assisting Jim.
A road trip with Jim. For three days. Alone.
Oh, my God.
Her thoughts immediately strayed to Roy. Roy, home fighting the flu, while she went off with her handsome best friend and stayed at hotels with him, ate every meal with him…alone.
Roy had trusted her on the trip with Michael, because he was well, Michael, but she wasn’t so sure what he’d say about Jim. He’d always hinted only half-joking that Jim might be gay or something, and he knew they were close friends. She wasn’t so sure he’d approve under the circumstances. She swallowed, wondering how she was going to handle this quandary. David Wallace was counting on her, she knew, especially now since everything had been turned around. She watched as Jim hung up the phone with a sigh.
“Guess I’ve been drafted,” he said, his expression neutral. He walked over to her desk so they could speak more privately.
“Can you be ready by tomorrow?” she asked.
“I suppose I’ll have to be. I have the same manual Michael has. I’ll just have to brush up on a few things, write out some talking points. I’ve been using those methods we learned at the seminar, and I really have seen an uptick in sales, so…”
“Yeah. Well. Cool.”
They were unusually awkward with each other, avoiding one another’s eyes now, while Jim absently clicked the candy dispenser too gently to actually get a jelly bean.
The phone rang again, startling them both. “Sheesh,” she muttered, “Grand Central Station around here.” Then, when she picked up the phone: “Dunder Mifflin, this is Pam.”
It was Brian, from the documentary crew. Apparently, half the crew was sick, so there wouldn’t be anyone following them around on the tour, or indeed, coming in to film at the office for a few days. Pam’s first thought: she and Jim would be completely alone. When she ventured a shy glance at Jim, she saw the same thought had occurred to him. He swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing nervously, before he cleared his throat and made some excuse about making some calls.
At lunchtime, Pam went home to check on Roy, prepared to stay if he needed her. She was surprised to find his mother there, Roy having called and probably moaning like he’d been abandoned. As she had all his life, Mrs. Anderson was catering to her baby boy’s every need, and the smell of homemade chicken soup fragranced the house.
“Don’t you worry, Pam; I’ll take care of him. You go on back to work. But here, take some soup with you,” she whispered to Pam in the kitchen. Mrs. Anderson turned to the simmering pot, found a ladle and Roy’s old Thermos. Roy was sleeping on the couch in the living room, ESPN on low on the TV. On the coffee table nearby was a half-eaten piece of toast, orange juice, a box of Kleenex, and a stack of new Sports Illustrated magazines, including the latest swim suit edition.
“Oh, well, thank you,” she said, accepting the warm container. “Look, I don’t know if Roy told you, but I have to go on a business trip for three days, and there’s no way I can get out of it. Any chance you can check on him while I’m gone? I’m sure he’ll start getting better with his meds kicking in.”
The guilty thought occurred to Pam that she probably could have gotten out of it, maybe had Ryan go in her place if Jim really felt he needed an assistant. It wasn’t like she was giving the training. But with Roy’s mother there, she decided that there was no reason not to go. Besides, Pam rarely did anything fun for herself, and she had been looking forward to the trip for weeks. Of course, that had been when it was Michael going with her.
“Of course, I can stay,” Mrs. Anderson said with sincere pleasure. “You go on and do what you have to do. I’ll just stay in the guest room while you’re gone.”
“Okay, that’s great. I’ll be back at about 5:30 then. We leave early tomorrow morning.”
Jim picked her up at seven the next morning, both of them desiring to get on the road, maybe beat the morning traffic. After stowing her small suitcase in the back seat, Pam got into the front of his Toyota, a light, fluttery feeling coursing through her veins. She smiled brightly at Jim, who presented her with a cup from Starbucks, and he smiled back as she gushed her thanks, happier than she’d seen him in a while. There was an energy in the air between them, and Pam chose to write it off as excitement for the trip, for getting out of the office. She didn’t want to admit to herself that it could possibly be for any other reason but that.
She sipped at the caramel latte—her favorite—her smile widening until she felt her cheeks would crack.
“Okay, so shotgun picks the tunes, right?” she proclaimed, reaching for the radio.
He glanced at her, his expressive eyebrows flying up beneath his Bieber inspired hair.
“Who made that decree, Beesly? He who owns the car, makes the rules.”
“Oh, come on. When it’s my turn to drive, we can listen to whatever you want.”
“And who says you’re driving?”
Her head swiveled to look at him, forgetting all about the radio. “What? You don’t trust me with your car?”
His lips quirked. “It’s not that, exactly…”
“Ah,” she said, knowingly, “it’s a man thing. Or should I say, a control thing.”
“No, I prefer to think of it as the gentlemanly thing.”
She snorted. “Yeah, right. Control, like I said.”
He looked genuinely hurt, and she was immediately abashed. “Okay, I’m sorry. I appreciate the thought, really, but it’s only fair that I share the driving, right? It’s going to be a long, tiring trip. And you know I’m not a bad driver. I’ve given you a ride places before in my car. You survived intact.”
What she didn’t mention was that Roy had always done the same thing to her, but it was definitely because of his lack of confidence in women drivers, despite the fact that she’d never even gotten a speeding ticket, let alone been in an accident—unlike Roy, who had done both. Jim acting the same way had really disappointed her. It was hard for Pam to accept that not all men had the same motivations as Roy.
“Okay, you can drive when I get tired, if that makes you feel better,” he said at her silence. She could tell he was trying to sound annoyed, but wasn’t really, and he gave her that familiar, achingly beautiful smile.
She smiled back, feeling the pricking of tears behind her eyes. Roy would never have given in, was never one to compromise. She turned and looked sightlessly out the window, trying to pull herself together.
“Great. Thanks,” she said softly. “Just let me know when.”
But then Jim flipped on the radio, tuning it to a classic rock channel. “But driver still chooses the music,” he quipped, and Pam laughed, conceding the fair trade.
They drove on to their first branch, a two-hour drive to Camden, New Jersey. It was March, early spring, and the fields they passed were beginning to green, the trees and bushes showing signs of new life. The approach of spring always made Pam feel more awake, as if she’d been sleeping for months, and the euphoria at having Jim by her side heightened that emotion. They sang along to the likes of Queen and Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. Neither of them had a great singing voice, but they made up for it in volume and enthusiasm, laughing when one forgot the words, or at the lyrics they made up when they forgot the real ones.
The time flew by, and soon they were pulling up to Dunder Mifflin, Camden. Jim carried in the box containing the training materials Pam had been copying and putting into booklets for the past week, and they were welcomed into the small branch like family.
Pam sat and watched in admiration as Jim captured and held the attention of the four salespeople who had gathered in their conference room, his easygoing, funny manner so much different than the theatrical presentation Michael had planned, and again, she found herself grateful things had worked out as they had. Jim used the Power Point presentation she’d made for Michael, ad-libbing personal experiences and amusing stories about his career selling paper. No one was ever bored or uncomfortable as she was used to when Michael conducted a meeting.
The two allotted hours seemed like nothing, and they left the Camden branch with smiling faces and friendly offers for them to come work at their branch. When they sat in the car again, Jim let out a long sigh of relief, running one hand in agitation through his hair.
“Phew. Glad that’s over.”
“What? You were amazing! They were hanging on your every word. You’re totally a natural at this kind of thing.”
She’d made the mistake one time of suggesting he leave Dunder Mifflin for better things, and she didn’t repeat those words now, but God, she thought, he could do so much more than he was doing. He was so wonderful with people, so engaging, so artlessly charming. If he’d wanted to, he could have sold paper to the paper salesmen, he was just that good.
He shook his head wistfully, blushing a little at her compliments. “Thanks, but it takes a lot out of me to get excited about selling paper.”
She laughed. “Well, you should have been an actor then, because I would have thought that new sales technique was your passion in life.”
He looked sideways at her and grinned a little. “I’ve gotten pretty good at hiding how I really feel, I guess.” And her heart skipped a beat because it really seemed like he was talking about something that had nothing to do with paper. She had to fight the urge to reach over and take his hand, but she resisted, glancing at the digital clock to avoid his suddenly intense gaze.
“Uh, it’s after eleven. You think it’s too early for lunch? Do we have time before we head up to Stamford?”
He nodded, accepting her change of topic, much to her relief. “I could eat. What are you hungry for?”
Pam felt like they were sneaking into a club underage, when Jim boldly drove into a Chili’s parking lot just off the interstate.
“You know I can’t go here,” she protested.
“Come on, Beesly, you think there are mugshots hanging by the door? You think you’ll get carded, and then they’ll call the police?” He chuckled.
“They might have my name in their system, and they’ll kick me out when they recognize it.”
“We’re using the company credit card, and I’ll sign for it so no one has to know who you are. Besides, I’m dying for some baby back ribs.” He waggled his eyebrows, and she laughed when he sang the famous jingle.
“All right. But I am not to blame if we get thrown out this time. You’re risking your own Chili’s banishment, Halpert, for aiding and abetting.”
“Come on, scaredy cat,” he said, opening his door. “Live life on the edge for once.”
Pam sat alone in the car a moment, his words echoing in her ears. That advice could apply to more than just sneaking into Chili’s, and he’d said something similar to her before, about her life choices. She looked up to find Jim standing at the front of the car, staring encouragingly at her through the windshield, his long trench coat flapping in the breeze. With an exasperated grin, she shook her head at herself and got out of the car.
“That’s my girl,” he said, and the innocent expression made her blush, especially when accompanied by his putting one of his long arms around her shoulders, drawing her affectionately to his side.
Is this what it would be like if I were his girl?
Naturally, no one even looked at them twice as they entered the restaurant and were seated. Nor did they question her when she ordered soup and salad and Jim a club sandwich, though Jim teased her the entire time that they were on the verge of discovery, that any moment the restaurant police would burst in with an arrest warrant.
Finally, once their food arrived, she was able to relax. She’d always been the good girl, the rule follower, afraid to speak up—except around Jim. Jim gave her a confidence, a strength she wasn’t really sure she had, but that she felt whenever she was with him. It allowed her to help pull crazy pranks on Dwight (who usually deserved everything he got, the ass), and to stand up to Michael when he acted like a jerk. It gave her the courage to take dares, to go on unchaperoned trips with single, attractive men, and, occasionally, to enter restaurants where she’d been banned for life. God, why can’t I be more like this at home, with Roy?
“Is your tortilla soup good?” Jim was asking, gesturing with a French fry.
“Oh. Yeah. Very. I always get this. Uh…used to get this. You know. Before…” She looked around, this time in mock fear.
He chuckled. “And you thought you’d never taste it again, didn’t you Beesly. Stick with me, kid, and we’ll hit every Chili’s on the East coast. We’ll be like the Bonnie and Clyde of restaurant crashers.” He leaned forward conspiratorially, his voice low and menacing. “Sometimes, we won’t even leave a tip. Before you know it, our pictures will be all over the news, and our infamy will spread so wide, there will be crowds surrounding every Chili’s in the country, all of them hoping they’re at the one we’ll choose next.”
She rolled her eyes at how droll he was. “You remembered how it ended for the real Bonnie and Clyde, right?”
He shrugged. “Sometimes that’s the price you pay for a good time, Beesly, but you gotta believe it’s all worth it in the end.”
She watched him a moment, munching a bite of salad. She was tempted to point out how much better his life could be if he stepped out into a more challenging career, her thoughts going back to how great he’d been at the first training session. But she didn’t want to put a damper on things, on this perfect moment between them.
“Hey,” he said, changing the subject, though she noticed he was a little tense now as he tried to form the right words. “What did Roy say about you coming on this trip with me instead of Michael?”
She averted her eyes, looked down at her salad, speared a cherry tomato with exaggerated care. She popped it into her mouth, bit down, the little tomato bursting sweetly over her tongue. She chewed methodically, stalling.
“I didn’t,” she finally managed, and his eyes widened in surprise.
She felt her cheeks going pink. “Well, he was sick, and I didn’t want to add any more…stress to his recovery.”
Jim’s eyebrow rose skeptically. “And you thought he’d be mad if he knew the truth.”
“Well, not mad exactly. Just…suspicious. I mean, he doesn’t know you like I do. He can be very…protective.”
“You mean jealous.”
She thought back on the times Roy had caught her and Jim standing too close, or even that time when Jim had been innocently holding her hand. She’d been able to calm Roy down, tell him there was nothing between Jim and her but friendship, and she’d allayed his fears later by showing him extra attention in bed, whispering to him that she loved him, that he was the only man for her. But more and more, she had begun to feel like she was lying to Roy, that he wasn’t in fact, the only man for her. As her wedding loomed closer, she’d begun to feel a certain amount of panic, a feeling that she might not be doing the right thing. It was getting harder and harder to push those fears aside, especially on this day, with Jim sitting across from her in this forbidden Chili’s.
She noticed now that Jim’s brows were knit in concern, and she rightly interpreted his thoughts.
“He would never hurt me, Jim,” she said quietly.
“Then why didn’t you tell him?”
She shook her head, then tried lamely to lighten the mood. “For the same reason I was afraid to come into this restaurant, I guess.”
But he didn’t smile at this, and Pam felt her stomach drop with the disappointment that she’d ruined the whole trip now. Would he suggest he take her back to Scranton? She rushed to forestall the possibility.
“Look, I wanted to do something for me, and if I told him Michael wasn’t coming, he would have pressured me not to go. And weren’t you the one just telling me to take more chances? Well, here I am, taking a chance. But I swear, all that will happen if he finds out is probably an argument, and then everything will be fine. I know how to handle Roy. You know the expression about how sometimes it’s easier to apologize later than to ask permission? Well, that’s the way it is with Roy on some things. But I’m used to it. Now, can we not talk about this anymore and just go back to having fun?”
It struck Pam that she sounded like a teenager talking about how to subvert a domineering father, and she was embarrassed by that. Just looking at Jim, she knew he was a better man than Roy, that he would never treat her like Roy did, never keep her from doing the things she wanted to do. She’d seen it first hand, when Jim had been disappointed in her for not following her dreams and taking those design classes Jan had offered to her, because Roy had thought them a waste of time. That had been one of the few times she and Jim had argued, and she’d hated every second of it. Mainly because he was right, and it had really been hard to defend herself, or Roy.
The waitress interrupted with an offer to refill their glasses, and a question about dessert, which they both declined. They finished their meal in silence, each lost in their own troubling thoughts. But when the bill arrived, and Jim signed his name with a flourish, he caught her eye and smiled gently at her. His it’s gonna be all right, Beesly smile that always cheered her up, always gave her that shot of hope she needed to get through whatever tough thing she was going through.
“We got away with it, Beesly,” he said in a dramatic whisper, as they walked to the car. “God, can’t you feel that adrenalin pumping?” he teased.
She laughed, as he’d intended, and she felt their earlier tension draining away. He tossed her the keys, gave an exaggerated yawn.
“I’m feeling so tired after that big meal, and coming down from the adrenalin rush and all. I might just want to take a nap. You drive.”
Her face brightened. “Really?”
They changed directions, Pam heading toward the driver’s side, Jim, the passenger’s.
“Really. I think you’ve more than earned it, Bonnie.”
“Thanks, Clyde,” she quipped back with a grin.
She hit the door unlock button on the key fob and they got in, Pam making a show of pulling up her seat closer to the steering wheel while Jim laughingly slid her former seat all the way back.
“Onward to Stamford,” he proclaimed as she started the car.
Before they’d even left the parking lot, however, she turned the radio to an easy listening station, where Barry Manilow began singing about how he couldn’t smile without the one he loved. Jim might have groaned very loudly, but she caught him singing along as she accelerated back onto the freeway toward Connecticut.