Jim Halpert spent only one day at his new workplace and almost immediately felt that he was trapped.
It wasn't his boss though the guy had a nasty sense of humor. It wasn't his deskmate, who immediately crossed the borders and irritated Jim with his ridiculousness. It wasn't even the dull atmosphere of the office, filled with the buzzing of computers, emotionless speaking, and boredom. No, the thing that trapped Jim was the smile of the receptionist.
Her skin was unhealthy pale; her curly hair hung down flatly. She wore a bleak turtleneck, a long-sleeved cardigan, and a boring skirt. She had bags under her eyes as if she hadn't slept well for a week. But her voice was soft, and her smile was the first genuine and alive thing he saw in this office.
She said her name was Pam, and she would be glad to help him to adapt.
'Well, Jim, what are your first impressions?' she asked when he approached her counter after lunch.
'I don't know what I expected but surely not this,' he said honestly. 'No one before instructed me how to escape a bear attack.'
'You are the third person who applied to this position. And every time it ends up the same…'
'Hey!' Jim interrupted her. 'I'm not giving up so quickly.'
And then she smiled. A big smile lit up her whole face. He noticed that she had nice teeth. He didn't realize before, but she probably was his age. He thought that if she took enough rest, she might be cute — even pretty.
'I think that this brave decision needs encouragement,' she pulled a container filled with colorful jellybeans to him. Jim picked up the green one and chewed it thoughtfully.
'Hmmm, I might get used to it,' he said with a mocking seriousness.
'Good, it means that my cunning plan is working,' she nodded solemnly. Jim returned to his desk, grinning that this silliness made him feel so good.
His second day was pretty much the same. He learned the names of his colleagues and exchanged a few meaningless pleasantries with them. He discovered Dwight's obsession with sci-fi in a way he didn't want to repeat. And he found out what Pam was passionate about.
'What are you doing?' Jim asked, approaching her counter like he did a day before. She slightly jumped at the sound of his voice and tried to hide a piece of paper.
'Nothing!' she said, at last, visually embarrassed.
'Come on, Pam, show me,' he smiled. 'I promise I won't tell anyone.'
She sighed and reluctantly gave him a sheet.
'Just don't laugh, okay,' she whispered. Jim unfolded it and gasped.
'What? What? Is it that bad?' Pam asked anxiously. He shook his head.
'Pam… Pam, this is amazing!'
There was a doodle of two cartoon men. One of them (big glasses, tiny nose, a single beet sticking out of a breast-pocket of his shirt) pointed accusingly at the other (floppy hair, protruding ears, enormous grin). The speech balloon above the first man's head read 'It is not required to demonstrate lunacy to be effective in the assigned position.' The speech balloon near the mouth of the second man was blank.
‘But it helps,’ Jim said, grinning, and touched the empty space. ‘You are really good with pencils and paper.’
‘You think so?’ she blushed. The rosy hue colored her pale cheeks, and Jim thought that she looked lovely.
‘Absolutely,’ he nodded, and her blush became even fiercer. Jim realized he kinda liked to cause such changes.
‘Thanks,’ she whispered, ashamed and flustered, and yet smiling warmly.
‘Hey, could I keep it?’ he said unexpectedly. ‘You know, not every day I receive such a flattering compliment to my best features.’
‘Shut up,’ she snatched the doodle from his hand.
‘So, yes or no?’ Jim tapped his fingers on the counter.
Pam observed him and shrugged, returning the sheet to him.
‘Be my guest.’
Jim folded it carefully and kept this doodle in his wallet.
On his third day, Jim had to admit that he was in trouble. In a big, freakishly huge trouble. That day he was buried under a mountain of papers he had to rewrite, fill with new data, sign, fold, staple, bind, and so one. Dwight, obviously hazing the newbie, brought him more and more as if he collected his documents on purpose. At that moment, Jim thought about quitting for the first time.
‘His bobbleheads. Switch them,’ he heard a whisper. He lifted his head and saw Pam standing near his desk. Jim saw how she hurried to Michael’s cabinet just a few minutes ago, and he was pleased that she decided to linger near him, especially when Dwight took a break and wasn’t around.
‘What?’ he asked incredulously. ‘Why?’
‘Just do it and watch the show. It’ll give you a few minutes to rest.’
And then he saw those sparks in her eyes. He’d never paid attention to other people’s eyes. But her eyes were green and shining, and warm, and beamed with mischievous joy. And he drowned in them, deeply, desperately…
Without words, he leaned over his papers and changed locations of the three of Dwight’s bobbleheads. Pam smiled and returned to her place, leaving Jim to wonder what this girl was up to.
Dwight returned pretty soon and froze as he saw his desk.
‘Who did this?’ he asked angrily. ‘Who touched my stuff?’
‘What’s the matter, Dwight?’ Pam asked, and Jim was amazed by her ability to keep her composure unfazed.
‘My bobbleheads! Someone switched them! Jim, was it you?’
‘Thank you, Dwight,’ Jim said sarcastically. ‘You see, I have the actual work to do. But when I finish, I might pay attention to your…’
‘Don’t you dare to touch my property!’ Dwight retorted immediately. ‘Who else could it have been?’
‘Dwight,’ Pam said carefully, ‘no one touched your desk. Are you sure your dolls were moved? Maybe you just forgot?’
‘Not dolls, bobbleheads,’ he scoffed. ‘I forget nothing. Someone violated the rules of private…’
A saleswoman (Phyllis, Jim remembered) sighed loudly.
‘Nobody cares about your dolls, Dwight’ she said with irritation in her voice. It was the final blow for him.
‘Michael!’ Dwight exclaimed and rushed into the boss’ cabinet. ‘Michael!’
Jim placed a palm to his mouth to hide a grin. Pam bit her lower lip to stifle a giggle. When she met his gaze, she winked.
And that was a final blow for Jim. From now on, he was sure that he was not just in love with this plain, bubbling, fantastic, lovely girl but that one day he would marry her.
Patience had never been Jim’s strongest virtue, so on his fourth day, on Thursday, he asked her out, and she agreed. Well, technically he asked her for lunch, but he thought at that time that it was the same. They drove to Cugino’s in his car, and she chose the music; Jim was thrilled that they had similar preferences. At lunch, they ordered practically the same meals but teased each other mercilessly about the terrible taste in food. It felt so good, so right that Jim couldn’t resist saying ‘If we didn’t have to come back to the office, I’d say it was the best date I’ve ever had!’
And as soon as these words left his mouth, her posture stiffed. The smile faded, her eyes cast down — as if her joy was turned off.
‘Um… well… yeah… it’s nice and all… but… but… I kinda have a boyfriend.’
At the sound of her voice, Jim felt as his heart dropped to the ground, and blood rushed to his ears.
‘Boyfriend?’ he repeated.
Pam nodded. She fidgeted with the hem of one of her cardigan’s sleeves; they were so long that the hem almost reached her fingers.
‘That’s probably my fault,’ she said, not meeting his eyes. ‘I should’ve mentioned it earlier.’
‘Hey, Pam, don’t worry, it’s totally cool with me.’ It wasn’t, but if he could save at least something from their connection, he would do it. ‘I’m glad to spend lunchtime with a friend.’
‘Yeah,’ she looked at him and smiled, but it was a shadow of the smiles they’d exchanged before. ‘It’s good to have a friend.’
They drove back in silence and barely said a few words until the final ‘bye.’ Jim knew it was in his own interest to step back and to keep a distance. But he couldn’t help repeating in his mind her every word, glance, smile. He couldn’t help noticing that bringing up her boyfriend made her nervous, even scared. He couldn’t help wondering if he was brave enough to steal another guy's girl.
Jim spent a sleepless night and came at work late, tired from the beginning of the day. She was already there and looked even more pale and haggard than the day they’d met.
He wondered if she also had sorrows about yesterday's lunch. But then he didn’t care about that lunch anymore; his concerns were about how to make her smile again.
His work - a dull, boring, repetitive work - gave him enough excuses to slack, and he used that time to learn as much as possible about Pam. What kind of person (apart from ‘amazing’) was she? What did she like? What was her story? Jim didn't dare to ask his coworkers about her, but using only his observations and brief conversations, he achieved impressive results.
He discovered that Pam is painfully shy with the strangers but giggly and genial with her friends — Jim was pleased to find himself among them. She had a wonderful sense of humor. She was ready to help anytime and anyone.
He discovered that Pam was an artist, but an insecure one; her doodles and watercolors were stunning, yet she took them for granted and blushed every time Jim tried to encourage her talent. She preferred soft and pastel colors, with the notable exception of the combination of Cobalt blue and Indian yellow (those were the colors of 'The Starry Night', and even if she hadn't spent her whole lunch break talking about Van Gogh and the impressionist painters he'd have found that he actually liked it too). She had either beef and spinach salad or mixed berries yogurt for lunch. When one day she forgot her food at home, he made her a grilled cheese sandwich. She said it was the most delicious meal somebody treated her with, and perhaps it was just a polite thing to say, but Jim felt a warmth spreading across his chest nevertheless.
He discovered that Pam became reserved and restrained whenever he asked her about her past. She said that she had a sister and that her parents lived two hours away from Scranton, but every time he tried to elaborate this or that, she shut herself off and turned to work until he changed the subject. If he was suspicious (well, he was), he would suspect that she was in a witness protection program. But then he thought that if she had been, she must have composed a perfect cover-out and shouldn't have had problems with sharing her fake past with others. Whatever it was, it started to worry and even scare Jim.
And then he discovered that there were weird reiterations in her condition. She might be cheerful and lovely one day, and horribly desiccated and lifeless the next. Jim called these days 'pale'; they repeated every five days. Day one — she was exhausted beyond measure; day two, she was still pale, but recovering; days three to five, she was the sweetest girl Jim had ever met. And then that strange cycle repeated again and again. He didn't know how to explain it, and he didn't dare to ask her directly. The thing he found the most inexplicable was that nobody except him noticed the strange changes in the receptionist. Perhaps, the walls of this office themselves killed all the compassion the people locked inside might have had.
It was one of the 'pale days' when she didn't come to work. Jim felt as anxiety rose inside him, and he couldn't play it cool. He reached her workplace and saw a red light of the answering machine. He pressed the button to listen to the voicemails.
Her voice was small and meek, just above a whisper. She said that she wasn't feeling well and that she was very sorry about missing a day. It was so much in her character — to be concerned about the business of the stagnant paper company while being on the edge of fainting.
Jim lingered more near her desk; he didn't know why — being here without her felt wrong on so many levels. But he considered it as a chance to learn more about her. He didn't search her drawers but looked at the trinkets on her desk, the way she organized her space, her photos. One of them made his heart drop.
She didn't mention her boyfriend since that lunch, and he didn't ask. But now Jim was looking at the photo and immediately recognized him. He was tall and beefy, with a friendly smile and dimples on his cheeks. He hugged Pam protectively with one arm; her arms braced on his waist. She wore shorts and a pink tank top, and her hair was pulled up in a little ponytail. She smiled happily to the camera; Jim didn't know what hurt more — the fact that she didn't look that joyful anymore or the fact that the other man and not him had made her feel that way.
The next time she took a day off on her 'pale day' was four weeks after the first one. This time Kelly, from the annex, came to the reception to answer the calls. She would be quite nice if not her awful talkativeness. Jim had spoken to her two or three times before and had learned about her personal life more than about Pam's for all these weeks, and much more than he would ever like to know. Her high pitched voice only highlighted the fact of Pam's absence. For hours he listened to her cheerful chirping about what a pig was her last boyfriend or what Britney had worn, and finally, he snapped. Jim walked to the reception and asked in a low tone:
'Hey, Kelly, do you know when Pam will come back? Did she say anything?'
'Gosh, I don't know. Maybe tomorrow. She said nothing, but it's all about Roy.'
'Who?' he asked, even though he knew the answer.
'Um, Roy, her fiance,' Kelly answered nonchalantly.
'I didn't know she had a fiance,' he tried to keep his tone unfazed, but his guts twisted painfully. Why on Earth had she said 'boyfriend' and not 'fiance' if she committed to that guy? What's going on?
'Oh my gosh, you don't know their story!' Kelly exclaimed, her eyes lit up with anticipation. 'It's soooo romantic and horrible!'
And suddenly her talkativeness wasn't so bad. He leaned on the counter and took a red jellybean.
'Yeah, totally,' Kelly was visibly excited to share the office gossip with a newbie. 'They've been dating since high school — could you believe it? I mean, come on, all school sweethearts break up immediately after graduation! I was dating Paul Mitchell, and we're totally soulmates, but after the prom, he was like 'come on, Kelly, I want to move to Philly,' and I was like 'ugh, you always think only about yourself,' and I dumped his ass…'
'But Pam and that Roy guy worked things out, right?' he interrupted her, trying to put the conversation on the right track.
'Yeah, they're adorable! He worked here in the warehouse, and they ate lunch together, and it was sooo cute! It's like they brought romance at work that didn't look like a fake scene from a TV series. You know, all this 'honey, I'm home' stuff?'
'Well, I guess…' he stammered, but Kelly didn't actually listen to his answer.
'And then they got engaged. I was sooo happy for Pam. She got that ring, and I brought her all the bridal magazines I had, and I hinted to Ben that I also was ready for the big step, but he'd never listened to what I'd been saying…'
'So, where's the horrible part?' Jim asked patiently.
'I'm talking about it! A week after he proposed to her, they were mugged! Pam was okay, because she was with Roy, and he totally saved her, like in those movies where the hero catches the bullet with his body. She didn't say much, but I know that girl who works in 'The Scranton Times-Tribune,' and she told me there was blood everywhere. Everywhere!'
Kelly's voice dropped to a whisper.
'He quitted a few days after that attack, well, Pam quitted for him. She told us that he found another job, a watchman or something, and I know it's because he's totally crippled. He's so devastated, you know, he and Pam were like Gaston and Belle together, he was all muscles and that sexy macho charm, and she was kinda nerdy. And now they're like Belle and the Beast, and that's kinda how it has been in the story, but screw that story, right?'
'Right,' Jim agreed. He'd always hated that film.
‘And now he doesn’t want people to see him, even Darryl, and he was his best buddy. And Pam ditches all fun, going home after work. The whole year without bars and girls’ nights! I told her, ‘Pam, get a life, if he stays home, you shouldn’t do the same. A little fun won’t hurt,’ but did she listen to me? No!’
‘Yeah, that’s sad,’ Jim replied. He said a few more meaningless things to finish the conversation and returned to his desk. His head spun with the new knowledge and not in the right way.
He learned more about Pam’s past, for sure. But it didn’t explain why she called her fiance her boyfriend or her exhaustion on particular days. The one thing was for sure — his chances with Pam officially went up in smoke. He met Pam only three months ago (fifteen weeks and five days ago, to be precise), but knew her well enough to be sure: she would never leave her poor, disabled fiance even if she felt unhappy. And she was too honest and loyal to cheat on him even if she started to like another person.
Jim was probably hallucinating (judging by his coworkers’ behavior, working in Dunder-Mifflin could do nastier things to people), but sometimes he caught her staring at him. He was good enough with reading people, and he saw in her eyes… sadness? regret? Jim was sure that she felt sympathy for him — they’re friends, after all, good friends. But he didn’t dare to interpret those gazes as something more. He was trapped in an eerie limbo between the positive obsession with her, the attempt to keep the boundaries between them and respect her commitment to another man, and the fear for her well-being. Adding the thoughts about might or might not she like him back didn’t help to improve his mental state.
Jim noticed with the rising concern that her condition between 'the pale days' worsened as if she couldn't take rest at all. ‘Screw the boundaries,’ he thought and decided to intervene.
'Hey, Pam, are you okay?' he asked tentatively as they took a coffee break. She sipped from her cup and made a face as she mused over his question.
'Haven't decided yet. What do you think, is there a mug big enough to drown yourself in? My life isn't complete without it,' she said thoughtfully, and Jim couldn't help but smile.
'Seriously, Beesly. You look so pale. Do you sleep enough? Or do you have a secret obsession with video games you didn't care to share with me?'
She giggled, and he was slightly relieved that she didn't tell him to mind his own business.
'No obsession you don't know about, girl scout's honor,' Pam put her cup aside and raised her fingers in scout's salute. 'You'll be first to know if I find one.'
'So, it's the sleep part then,' he continued. She sighed and averted her eyes.
'I'm just a little bit tired,' she said, fumbling with the hem of her sleeve. She did it all the time when she was nervous. 'It's the end of the quarter, the busiest time in the paper saling world. Don't you notice that your phone is constantly hot?'
'Hmmm, that rings a bell,' he said with a mocking recollection, but his tone almost immediately returned to being concerned. 'And yet, I'm worried about you. Maybe, I don't know, take a vacation, or…'
'Jim,' she cut him in the middle, placing her hand on his. His breath hitched with that proximity; her fingers were ice-cold, though just a few moments ago she held a cup of hot coffee. 'I appreciate your concern, but please don't worry. I'll be fine.'
She squeezed his palm lightly and took her hand away. Jim had to muster all the willpower he had to stop himself from grabbing her palm back, holding it in his hands, warming it, just a little. But then she said something about Dwight, effectively changing the topic, and the moment was gone.
In the middle of December, they had a Christmas party, and Jim honestly didn’t expect much. He would rather leave earlier and spend some time with his family (or with Pam alone, but that thought was pushed as far as possible) but instead he stood in the conference room with a glass of eggnog and a silly hat, surrounded by people who pretended to have a good time. But there was Pam and his decision to stay at the party totally paid off.
He’d never seen her so excited; the nearest semblance had been captured on that photo he wanted so badly rip in two, burn one half and keep another one near his heart. Her usual dark turtleneck had been changed to a red one; her hair was curled and shining under the neon office lights. Jim wondered if her curls were as soft as they looked like; he would give anything he had for the privilege to touch them. The Christmas music sounded loud; Pam smiled bashfully and blushed when he caught her humming along to the tune.
Jim got Angela for Secret Santa. There were few facts he knew about her. She was working in accounting, was religious, had several cats, and found pleasure in ruining everybody’s good mood with her pursed lips and poisonous remarks. He hadn’t pondered over her gift much — he’d just gone to a thrift store and had bought a porcelain figurine of a cat with a kitten. Jim didn’t even like it, but, to his surprise, Angela’s thin lips composed into a genuine smile. It was indeed a Christmas miracle.
Pam opened her gift and found a pair of pink woolen mittens. She immediately put them on and hugged Phyllis agitatedly. Jim wondered what he would present to Pam. Something lovely, for sure. Something that would say ‘You’re wonderful’ and ‘I love you’ and ‘I want to make you happy’ and…
‘Hey, Jim, why haven’t you opened your present yet?’ Pam asked with those sparkles in her eyes he loved so much.
‘Curious too much, Beesly?’ he answered lightly. ‘You don’t know, maybe I just want to savor the moment of anticipation for as long as I can. What if there is something that Dwight gathered for me?’
‘Dwight got Kelly,’ she giggled. ‘She received a flashlight and a dozen of cans of homemade stew.’
‘No way!’ Jim said, reaching for his gift — a medium-sized rectangular object wrapped into the colorful paper. ‘Damn, she’s lucky. I was thinking about reorganizing the supplies in my shelter, and I would kill for that addition.’
‘I’m sure Kelly would be glad to swap with you,’ Pam said, watching Jim unwrapping his package. There was a book inside, with navy blue cover and golden letters in front. No, not a book — a photo album. He opened it and read the dedication:
‘You can’t hold all the happy memories in one place, but for those that could be captured on the photo, I give you this. Hope you’ll fill it all.’
And below it was a doodle, a picture, a masterpiece. It was Jim himself, wearing something that looked like paper-made armor, and holding an enormous pen in one hand, and a banner with the words ‘Sir James the Brave, the Savior of Sanity’ in the other.
‘You know, I have second thoughts,’ he said at last. ‘Besides, Kelly might decide to dig her own shelter after all.’
Pam beamed but said nothing. And Jim thought that he was going to kiss her, right here, right now. To hell his colleagues, to hell fiances and boundaries and other crap. Christmas was the time to tell people how you felt, right?
And when he started to lean toward her, he heard a loud honk from the parking lot. He threw a gaze out of the window; it was dark outhere, a single streetlight illuminated the cars of his coworkers and an unfamiliar black jeep with the toned glasses. Jim turned to Pam and stepped back, scared by the sudden change in her mood.
She also saw the jeep. Her eyes grew big, and Jim recognized the pure horror they reflected. Her hand flew to cover her mouth to hold a gasp. She didn’t move, just stared at that car. But her frozen state lasted only for a few heartbeats. She blinked, whispered, ‘I should go,’ and practically ran out of the room. Jim was dumbfounded, but he followed her.
He caught up with her at the stairs. She didn’t put her coat on, just held it tight in her arms; she was visually shaking.
‘Pam, wait!’ he cried, and she stopped for a moment. ‘What happened? Why are you leaving so suddenly?’
‘Nothing happened,’ she said tersely, ‘I just have to go.’
‘Pam, please,’ he pleaded, being aware that he sounded absolutely pathetic. ‘Stay, don’t go there.’
She looked at him, her eyes glassy with tears. One moment was gone, two, three, and he thought that maybe she’d listen to him…
‘I can’t,’ her voice hitched, and she turned away. ‘Good night, Jim.’
And Pam ran away before he could do something stupid like making her stay by force. He slowly went back into the office, but without her, the party was shallow and blank. Jim stayed for twenty minutes more and then started to collect his things to go home. He put a post-it note with his ‘thank you’ on Pam’s monitor, put his coat on, took his messenger bag, and headed to the exit.
The black jeep was still in the parking lot. Jim felt as blood rustled in his ears. Something happened to Pam, something terrible and twisted. What if she needed help right now? He walked to the jeep, but as soon as he got a move on, an engine started, and the car drove slowly out of the lot. Jim didn’t expect himself to be able to hate someone he’d never met, but he made an exception for the guy who made Pam feel so terrified.
She missed the next day after the party, and the next day too; for the first time, it happened not in her ‘pale day.’ She left a voicemail, telling that she went to her parents, but her voice was so weak he didn’t believe she was able to leave her home without help. He couldn’t concentrate on work or anything else, all he could think about was what the hell was going on with Pam. He called her about a dozen times and left her even more messages and voicemails. She didn’t pick up her phone and never replied.
This time it was even more dangerous than before. He was seriously worried for her life. She was ill, and her boyfriend (fiance, whatever he was) clearly didn’t help or even made things worse. Pam needed help, even if she refused it. But how on Earth could he have persuaded her to take it?
Jim was pondering on that question while he was shopping on Friday evening after work. He pushed his shopping cart, picking up convenience food and beer and…
‘Pam?’ a small figure before him startled and turned around. ‘I thought you’re at yours.’
‘Oh, hey, Jim,’ the corners of her mouth twitched in an attempt to smile but failed. She was deathly pale; Jim thought that if she wasn’t gripping her cart, she would fall. ‘Yeah, I was, but I returned earlier. Need to take care of the grocery.’
Jim looked at her purchases. A big bottle of sanitizer, a few packages of liver, spinach, dozens of bottles of pomegranate juice.
‘Is it tasty?’ he pointed at the line of little red bottles. She smirked.
‘Oh yeah,’ she answered. ‘If you have a thing for acid. But it’s good for my health, so…’
‘Right,’ Jim said, momentarily becoming serious. ‘Listen, you didn’t look good. Have you visited a doctor?’
‘Well, not exactly,’ she immediately averted her eyes. ‘But I know what I have to do, so don’t worry, I’ll be fine.’
She smiled wearily and tried to push her cart away, but Jim stopped her, grabbing her hand. Her fingers were as cold as he remembered and so fragile he could unintentionally break them if he used a little more force.
‘You told me that before,’ Jim lowered his tone and didn’t mask his concern behind pleasantries. ‘But it only gets worse. When was the last time you felt full of energy?’
Pam released her hand with a sharp motion.
‘I have everything under control. After the weekend it’ll be better. Why can’t you believe me?’
‘Is it your words or his?’ frustration and anger finally caused Jim to snap. ‘How couldn’t you see that there are people who care about you and that he isn’t one of them?’
Pam recoiled as if he slapped her. Jim immediately felt guilty.
‘You have no idea what you are talking about,’ she said at last. Her eyes were blank and lifeless; her hands gripped the cart. She stepped back, away from him. ‘And please, don’t call me anymore. It makes things worse.’
He stood motionlessly, being thunderstruck with her last words and watching as Pam tottered away, feeling sick. Why was she so stubborn? What had that Roy guy done to her? He had an urge to go after her and kidnap her and lock her until she didn’t sleep for at least a week. Somehow that idea seemed to be proper.
He abandoned his own cart and went after her. She paid for her groceries and strolled her cart out of the store. He followed her, ready to grab her at any moment. And when he saw that black jeep and froze on his steps.
Pam didn’t notice him. She approached the car, opened the trunk, and started to load it with her purchases. It took some time; she was too weak to lift such a weight for once. No one went out of the jeep to help her.
Jim would be the first to call his behavior stalkerish, but he didn’t really care. He went to his car, sat inside, and started the engine. All the time, he watched her. Finally, she returned the cart to the store and went to the passenger seat, climbing inside. The jeep started to drive. Jim counted to ten and followed.
They lived not far from the store. Jim drove for about eight minutes when he noticed that the jeep stopped on a driveway before a small house. Pam got out of the car and opened a garage door. The vehicle drove inside, and she closed it. Jim watched as she stood outside as if braced herself before coming home. Finally, she unlocked the front door and hid inside. Jim waited to see the lights inside, but they didn’t light. Finally, after an hour sitting in his car a few meters from her house, he started the engine and slowly drove away.
He had no idea what on Earth he’d witnessed.
Pam returned to work after the weekend, pale and weary. As soon as she reached the reception, Jim was near, trying to make sure she was alright and apologize for Friday. But she was cold and distant and turned down each one of his attempts to start a conversation. Maybe Jim had pushed her too much, or Roy had set her up against him, but their friendship seemed to be gone.
It hurt Jim so much to see how she avoided his glances and silenced every time he was around. But really, he would be okay with it if she was healthy and happy. The problem was she wasn’t. Her cycle had gone. Nowadays, every one of her days was pale.
It was so bad that even their coworkers started to notice the disturbing changes in Pam. Jim lost a count of how many times they asked her if she was okay, wished her to recover, recommended her to stay at home and didn’t infect anyone else or (in Dwight’s case) offered her to use an all-purpose beet potion he had invented. She answered politely and quietly every time; only when the HR, Toby, came out from the annex and tried to gently persuade her to take a vacation and rest, she was on the edge of tears. Jim thought that he was going to have started crying along with her at that moment.
And the next day she fainted in the middle of the day.
It happened so quickly Jim had no time to react. Michael called her to his cabinet; she stood up, made a few steps, and collapsed on the floor. Jim didn’t even see it — he heard a soft ‘thud’ and noticed Dwight jumping from his desk. Only then he saw her, lying on the dirty carpet, her arms spread awkwardly. Dwight of all people knew what to do. He rolled her face up, tucked his jacket under her head, and rolled her sleeve to check her pulse. Jim was horrified (but, strangely, not surprised) to see that her arm was covered with bruises — purple, green, yellow, teal ones — and band-aids. He saw Angela approaching quickly with a first aid kit, and he just stood frozen in shock, dumbfounded and useless.
His fingers, however, were probably the smartest part of his body. He was snapped into reality when a nine-one-one operator asked for the second time what his emergency was. Jim said everything the operator wanted to know and hung up the phone. The ambulance arrived in fifteen minutes and took her away.
The atmosphere in the office was suffocating, filled with whispers, and glances toward the reception. Jim went to Toby and asked for Pam’s emergency contacts list; it was only one thing he was able to do at this moment. Her mother answered immediately and promised to be there as soon as possible. Roy didn’t pick up his phone.
Jim couldn’t stay in the office any longer. He picked his belongings and rushed to the hospital. He had to be sure that she would be okay. And after… well, it was time to talk to Roy in person.
The hospital was busy and crowded, and Jim had a hard time finding anyone who could help him to see Pam. The perk of that business was that nobody really asked him if he was a member of the family or her emergency contact — a tired-looking nurse just pointed on the curtain where Pam’s bed was. Tentatively he came closer and moved it.
Pam was sleeping, peacefully, serenely; her calmness contrasted creepily with the awful injuries which covered her whole body. Every inch of the skin that was not covered by the hospital gown was marked with bruises, maims, pricks, and even bite marks. Jim practically collapsed on the nearest chair.
‘Oh, Pam,’ he exhaled, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips. She stirred but didn’t open her eyes.
‘Jim?’ she whispered, and his heart almost stopped at the sound of his name. ‘I’m so sorry, Jim…’
She drifted back to sleep, and Jim was sitting there, motionless, waiting.
Her mother arrived in an hour. She was a collected, pleasant woman; Jim noticed the family resemblance in the lines of their noses and the shape of their faces.
‘Roy did that to her, didn’t he?’ she asked without greeting. Jim shrugged vaguely, while she brushed her daughter’s hair lightly and placed a soft kiss on her forehead. ‘And you must be Jim,’ she reached out her hand, and he shook it. ‘I’m so glad Pam has a friend.’
‘Yeah,’ Jim laughed mirthlessly. He wasn’t sure if Pam still considered him as her friend. ‘It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Beesly.’
‘Oh, it’s just Helene,’ she waved him off. ‘So, Jim, could you tell me what had happened to my girl?’
He told her everything he knew, from the day he’d met her and till this morning's events. The only thing he concealed was his trailing after the meeting in the grocery store. This and his feelings for Pam, though he was sure he wore his heart on his sleeve. Helene kept quiet while he was talking and sighed loudly when he finished.
‘I’m going to have a restraining order for Roy,’ she said confidently. ‘We’ve been tolerating his insanities for too long.’
‘After that… accident, my daughter changed so much,’ Helene said with palpable sadness. ‘We always were close, but about a year ago she almost stopped calling us, stopped visiting us. I was in Scranton a few times to meet with Pam, and each time we met somewhere in the city, each time she brought excuses for Roy’s need for quietness. God, I don’t even know where she lives!’
Jim’s mouth was dry. He thought that Roy was just a selfish and jealous boyfriend (fiance, whatever). But if he kept her out of contact with her relatives… he was even worse than Jim suspected.
The rest of the evening went slow and without events. Pam didn’t wake up anymore. Once a nurse came to take some of Pam’s blood for tests. Helene asked Jim about himself, and he answered politely but not elaborating too much; mostly, they kept a comfortable silence.
Finally, Jim yawned, and Helene smiled.
‘You need to take some rest yourself,’ she said. ‘You’ve had a stressful day. You should go home and sleep.’
‘I’d like to stay here, with Pam and you,’ he protested, but Helene shook her head.
‘Jim, you won’t help her if you are sore and tired. Listen to a wise woman. Besides, I may require your help tomorrow. Pam might as well.’
‘Okay,’ he didn’t want to go, but he knew that Helene was able to prohibit him from visiting Pam. He couldn’t allow himself such a risk. ‘But… could you keep me updated? If something changes or if Pam wakes up?’
‘Of course, honey,’ she said with a warm smile. They exchanged phone numbers, and Jim reluctantly went home.
Jim wasn't a violent man. He preferred to deal with problems using words and tricks, not his fists. But for the first time in his life, he wanted to pummel another human being's face. The guy might be disabled, but he deserved to be beaten for what he'd done to Pam.
Jim was calm and sober when he woke up in the morning and decided to deal with Roy. He took a day off (Kelly, on the other side, told him to say 'hi' to Pam for her) and started his preparations. He dressed up, brushed his teeth, and ate a tasteless breakfast. All this time he was composing his further actions. Should he greet Roy or immediately punch him in the face? Should he take Pam's things away? He was sure Mrs. Beesly wouldn't allow her daughter to return to this guy, but Pam was so stubborn. He had to make that bastard to let her go.
The day was sunny, and the fresh snow dazzled the sight. Jim knew that Pam liked spring the most, but he was sure she'd find beauty in this lovely clear day. But instead, she was unconscious, almost dead for the world. He clenched his teeth.
Jim drove to Pam's home and frowned. In the light of the day, the house looked uninhabited. The windows were nailed-up, the front lawn was in bad condition, the mailbox was rusty and rickety. How could Pam live in such a hole? He saw a single line of the trails, leading inside. He was at home. Perfect.
Jim knocked on the door.
He knocked once more, violently.
'I know you're at home, bastard!' he yelled but received only more silence.
It was disturbing, but Jim had no time to stop himself and think. He knew Pam might keep an additional key hidden somewhere. Jim smirked when he found a small silver object under the doormat. He opened the door and stepped inside.
He immediately wanted to leave the house. A heavy stench of decay in the stale air was almost tangible. Jim put his hand over his face, feeling queasiness. But he walked inside nevertheless.
It was dark. Jim searched for the switch, but a single bulb gave just a little light. He stood in the cluttered living room, neglected boxes, pieces of discarded clothes, junk mails were everywhere. The only neat place in that room was near the old couch. It was covered with a floral printed comforter, a pillow placed in the corner. A few books were stacked near. Jim vividly imagined how Pam laid on that couch, reading in the dim light. But why did she sleep on the sofa in the living room?
The next room was the kitchen — as dirty and messy as the living room. But here he saw the attempts to keep the place clean more evidently. Jim smelled sanitizer, the odor strong and unpleasant, but good enough in comparison to the stench in the other room. He checked the kitchen cabinets and the fridge; they were almost empty. Did he famish her? Jim clenched his fists and rushed from the kitchen. In a hurry, he tripped over something on the floor; an empty bottle rolled with a loud clink. He froze, but nobody seemed to hear it. Jim looked down to notice dozens and dozens of bottles from pomegranate juice. Apparently, it didn't help her health.
Finally, Jim reached the last room, the bedroom he supposed. He braced himself and turned the knob. The first thing Jim noticed was that the stench there was almost unbearable. The second — that there was a corpse on the queen-sized bed.
‘Jesus Christ,' Jim muttered aloud and almost jumped when the corpse stirred and made a noise, something between moaning and hissing.
'Fucking shit, what's wrong with you?' Jim yelled, but there was no response. He steadied his breathing, though his heart pounded ruggedly. And then it hit him. The only sound in this room was his own hitched breathing.
For a moment, Jim was going to turn around and run away as far as he could. But then he thought that at that very moment, Pam was lying motionless on the hospital bed, and came closer to the man.
Jim barely recognized him; his whole body was swollen and reeked. But even in the little light of the room, Jim noticed a smile on the full red lips and a ruddiness of his cheeks.
A full leech in a human form.
It was weird, but the first thing Jim realized was the reason why Pam referred to him as her boyfriend, not fiance. She knew she would never marry him. Would never wear the white dress and go down the aisle. Heck, how was she able to do it if her fiance hissed at the sound of Jesus' name?
He tried to understand why Pam did all of this. Why did she return over and over again? After all the things he'd done to her, after all the changes he'd gone through. He tried but felt only disgust and horror. How could she feel otherwise?
Perhaps, that was why she kept that happy photo on her desk. To remind herself about the man she'd loved and distracted herself from the monster he'd turned into.
Perhaps, she felt like she didn’t have a choice. If she’d left him, he’d have found another prey. And that wasn’t that Pam could have let happen. She might have felt obligated, felt guilty that that had happened to him and not to her. Jim wouldn't be surprised if Pam really felt that way.
He stood still, watching Roy's face, and remembered all the scary stories he'd heard in the summer camp about the cruel and bloodthirsty shadows in the night that might be killed with holy water, and wooden stakes, and prayers. And the sunlight.
He stood still and remembered about the silly doodle in his photo album. His paper armor was enough to defeat the office boredom and make her smile. Was he brave enough to defeat the actual monster and set her free?
His hands were shaking when he left the room and went into the garage. It was filled with garbage, but Jim found a crowbar, took it, and returned to the bedroom. The window behind the ceiling-to-floor curtains was nailed-up, and he used the crowbar to tear off the first board. A sunray lit the carpet near the bed. Roy moaned and shifted uncomfortably, but didn't wake up. Then Jim tore off the second one, and the sunlight fell on the body on the bed.
A loud cry full of pain came out from Roy's throat. He sat up abruptly, his skin immediately covered with blisters. He cast a malicious gaze at Jim and tried to crawl out of the sun, to the darkness of other rooms.
'Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,' exclaimed Jim, the phrase his grandfather used so often. Roy howled at the sound of those names and covered his ears; the moment to escape was gone, his skin burned awfully. Jim used that time to remove the last board. Only then the worst part started.
The sun shone brightly, and Roy twirled ferociously on the bed. He howled and hissed, moaned and shouted unintelligible words. His skin burned, Jim actually saw small flames. The smell of burning flesh mixed with the rotten odor and that combination made him feel like he was going to throw up. Jim couldn't make himself look at the dying creature, that being once a significant one of his beloved. He slid down the floor, closed his eyes and ears, praying that this was just over.
The hissing and shouting silenced; they turned into the plaintive moaning, but very soon, it also stopped. Jim opened his eyes and saw no one — just some clothes, dirty with ash. The tiniest pieces of dust danced in the sunrays. Jim stood up and managed to make his way to the tiny bathroom, where he vomited into the sink. He shook violently, his palms were sweaty, and his breath was ragged. He dropped onto the floor, leaned his forehead to the cold tiles, and started to cry.
What had he done?
He didn't know how long he stayed curled in a fetal position on the cold bathroom floor when his phone signaled about a new message. He flipped it open and read:
'Morning, Jim. The results came. Pam is still asleep. Talk to you later.'
Right. That was the reason why he had done it. He wrote an answer:
'Thanks! I'll come as soon as I can.'
He stood up and opened the cold water. He splashed some on his face and cleaned after himself. His thoughts were racing; he felt himself like a criminal, whom he probably was. Nevertheless, Jim knew he had to cover his tracks.
He found nails and a hammer in the garage's trash. He returned to the damned bedroom and started to return the boards to their previous position, avoiding looking at the pile on the bed. He told himself that Roy had probably died a long time ago, protecting his fiancee; that creature had nothing in common with the guy, with whom Pam had been so happy. And nevertheless, Jim felt like a murderer.
He was praying Pam wouldn't notice the nails were fresh. He was praying she'd left his shithole as soon as possible.
Jim walked out of the house and locked the door, hiding the key under the doormat. After the disgust he felt inside, the fresh air was almost intoxicating. The sun was shining bright; in the daylight, all that had happened in the house seemed surreal. If Jim was honest with himself, he wouldn't quite believe that that was for real. But he still felt the smell of the burning corpse in his nostrils, and he yet heard the last whimpering sound Roy had made before dying. He wasn't sure if he would ever be able to forget that scene.
He wanted to drive straight to the hospital, but he stopped at the church instead. He wasn't religious, never had been, but right now, he felt an urge to come inside, to sit a little bit, to purify himself before showing up to Pam and her mother. He came inside and prayed for forgiveness.
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ Helene was tired but smiled warmly to Jim.
‘So am I,’ Jim replied. He knew he needed to act like everything was normal, but with Helene, he didn’t even have to pretend. ‘How is she?’
‘She’s sleeping,’ Helene answered. ‘The doctor said she’s exhausted and has anemia, but nothing irremediable.’
‘Oh, that’s great!’ he smiled. ‘Does she need something right now?’
‘Just to take a rest,’ she shook her head. ‘Later, she’ll need to have a special diet to restore the number of her red blood cells. Red meat, leafy greens, beans, beet leaf extract…’
‘You must be kidding!’ Jim almost choked at the last item on the list.
‘What? What’s wrong?’ Helene exclaimed, alarmed.
‘Oh, no, nothing. Sorry, I interrupted you,’ he apologized, still smiling. She continued.
‘Anyway, Pam would be fine only if Roy stopped hurting her.’
Jim’s guts twisted, as he felt both tension and relief. Pam would definitely be fine, but it was too soon to show his confidence.
‘What do you need to request a restraining order?’ he asked. Mrs. Beesly shrugged.
‘I’m not sure. I need to talk to the police officer. She came earlier to record Pam’s injuries.’
‘Right,’ Jim said. ‘Well, I can swap with you, it’s time for you to take a rest. If it’s okay, of course.’
‘More than okay,’ she smiled. ‘Just keep me updated.’
‘Got it,’ Jim nodded, and Mrs. Beesly kissed Pam’s forehead before going away.
Jim sat near Pam’s bed and took her hand. Everything would be okay.
He saw the burning flesh and heard the scream full of anger. Jim twitched and woke up. He must have dozed off, and his memory sneeringly reminded him of the events of today’s morning.
‘Jim?’ Pam’s voice was small. He probably had squeezed her hand too tight and woke her up. ‘Is that you?’
‘Hey, Beesly,’ he greeted her with a gentle smile. ‘You scared the hell out of us all.’
‘Where am I?’ she asked weakly. ‘What happened?’
‘Well, you fainted at the office. And now you are at the hospital.’
She sat on the bed, panicked. At the sudden movement, her head spun, and she fell back on the pillow.
‘I need to go home,’ she said at last.
‘Pam, you can’t be serious,’ Jim replied, astonished. ‘Look at yourself! You can barely move without falling. You need to recover.’
Pam closed her eyes and shook her head, tears ran down her cheeks.
‘You don’t understand, Jim. It’s not… whatever, I just need to be there by night.’
‘You know, your mother went to get the restraining order for Roy,’ he said carefully. Pam smiled bitterly, and Jim’s heart squeezed at the sight of her calm hopelessness.
‘Oh, it probably helps,’ if Jim didn’t know her better, he wouldn’t recognize the sarcasm in her voice. ‘But I really, really need to get home.’
He wanted to tell her right now that Roy wouldn’t touch her anymore, that she did not need to rush in his lair and feed him so he couldn’t harm anyone else. He wanted to tell her all these things, but he couldn’t. She had to see herself that Roy had gone forever. And some part of him was afraid that Pam wouldn’t stay with him if she discovered his intervention.
‘I’ll drive you,’ he said quietly. Pam squeezed his hand briefly and wiped her tears.
They drove in silence. Pam showed him the direction, and he tried not to reveal that he’d known it already. The car stopped near the house, like just a couple of hours ago. Only now, the sun was low, and the shadows were long and dark.
‘Thanks for the ride,’ Pam closed her eyes, and Jim knew now how hard it was for her — to go home.
‘Pam, please. Don’t go. Or, may I come with you?’
She shook her head and opened the door.
‘Good night, Jim.’
And he watched as she walked to the house and disappeared inside. He suppressed the urge to go after her. But he started the ignition and drove away instead.
He passed three or four blocks when his phone rang.
‘Um.. hey, Jim,’ her voice was muted and hiccupy as if she cried or laughed hysterically a lot. ‘Sorry to bother you, but… may I crash on your couch tonight?’
He closed his eyes for a moment and thanked silently whatever numen had helped him.
‘Of course, Beesly,’ he said, turning the steering wheel. ‘Anytime.’
She told everybody that Roy had left her, and it wasn’t even a lie. He had left her, turning into a pile of ash and dirty clothes on her comforter, but only Pam and Jim knew about it. And he prayed she would never find out that he knew it too.
The house belonged to Roy, but even if it were hers, she wouldn't stay there longer than for the time she needed to pack her belongings. Jim helped her to move out. She didn’t invite him to come inside, and he didn’t insist. All the things she was willing to take with her into a new life fit into a backpack.
Her eyes were red and puffy for about a month. Kelly pitied her in her usual style — by telling more and more about what a pig Roy was, that Pam must be totally over him and she should — not must — have started to date some cute boys. Every time Angela heard that she hissed at Kelly and said that Pam had been almost left at the altar and she had to have her time to grieve. This gruff care didn't stop her though about asking what Pam had done to Roy to make a good man do such a horrible and humiliating deed.
No one of them noticed a tangible relief that radiated from her every move, from every weary smile. No one but Jim. He was watching her patiently, as she was healing, slowly, day by day, returning to the version of herself he saw only on the old pictures. His heart skipped a beat when she had her hair up one day; his fingers tingled with the desire to touch the skin of her arms every time she wore short-sleeved blouses. But Jim knew it wasn’t right. Not now, not when she wasn’t ready yet.
One day they stayed late, buried in the paperwork, trying to cover for Michael’s folly. Jim groaned and dropped his head on the pile of paper on his desk. Pam giggled.
‘That bad, huh?’ she said.
‘Believe me, I know so many more exciting ways to spend a Thursday evening,’ he muttered, not lifting his head from the table.
‘Let me guess — this task postponed your thrilling exploration of the NBC content?’
‘Maybe,’ Jim lifted his head and rested his cheek on his open palm. ‘I bet you planned something equally thrilling.’
‘I’m still planning,’ she grinned. ‘I’m going to find the biggest mug of coffee that could be served in this city. When I finished with this, of course.’
She flourished her hand at the piles on her counter.
‘Good luck with it,’ he was about to return to his papers when Pam spoke again.
‘Yeah. Wanna… um... join me?’ her voice had the same cheerfulness, but Jim noticed the blush coloring her cheeks. He was sure that she could have heard the pounding of his own heart.
‘To find the biggest mug of coffee? Hmmm, that might be tricky,’ Jim said with forced nonchalance. ‘I’m in.’
‘Great,’ she smiled the big happy smile.
‘Great,’ his grin was the same.
Sometimes he dreamed of burning flesh and inhuman screams and woke up in cold sweat. But her warm hands held him tight, and her kisses comforted him, and her voice lulled him back into the peaceful sleep.
And he knew he had done the right thing even if it would haunt him till the rest of his days.