Jim has always loved driving at night. There is a certain peace to only looking as far ahead as your headlights illuminate. It stills his mind; it is the closest he comes to meditation.
Karen dozes in the passenger seat. Her head leans against the window, exposing the skin from shoulder to ear. Jim glances over at her fondly, looking forward to kissing that along that line in just a little while.
For the first time in a long time, he is happy. He hit it off with his boss’ boss’ boss, got to shoot some hoops, and he and Karen truly had fun for the first time in what felt like months. Contentedness is new to him, but he could get used to it.
The vibration of his phone in the drink holder between them startles him. He grabs it quickly so as not to disturb Karen and glances at the name - Pam. Without giving it another moment’s thought, he sends it to voicemail and slides the phone back. So what if Pam hasn’t called him in over a year, so what if it is after 11? The last thing he needs on such a good night is to get drawn back into that. Plus, though he would never say it out loud, there is something strangely freeing about not being at her whim.
And yet - half a minute later, the phone rings again. Beginning to worry, he answers, trying to keep his voice low. “Hello?”
“Hey.” Her voice is small. “Where are you?”
“Just passed back into Pennsylvania.” He pauses, giving her space to continue. When she doesn’t, he cuts to the chase. “What’s up?”
“You should stay at Karen’s tonight.”
A hundred monkeys with a hundred typewriters for a hundred years could never have predicted that she would say that. It’s just about the strangest sentence she could have said, and something about it pisses him off. “Yeah,” he says with a short laugh. “That’s the plan.”
Another frustratingly long pause, but then again, Pam has never been good at saying what she wants. He’s tired of prompting her, so instead he opts for what he hopes is a bemused “okay.”
She takes the hint. “I uh, I told Roy about what happened last May.”
Jim takes a deep breath, then lets it out through his teeth. He can already feel the beginnings of a headache coming on. “Listen, can we talk about this tomorrow?” Or, you know, never?
“No, I’m really sorry, but we have to talk tonight.”
Without even looking, he can feel Karen start to stir next to him. He starts scanning for a rest stop, an exit, a wide shoulder of road… something. Mercifully, the lights of a McDonald’s are just ahead.
“How’d it go then?” he asks as he moves into the right lane and begins to slow down. Karen is definitely waking now, giving a huge yawn that in any other context would have been cute.
“It didn’t go well at all.”
“You don’t say.” Karen is fully awake now, looking around confusion as they leave the highway. He mouths “bathroom” at her and she nods.
“Get me some fries?” she asks, settling back against the window.
Pam, who Jim couldn’t get to start speaking about thirty seconds ago, doesn’t seem to be able to stop now that he just needs her to hold on til he parks. “We were at Poor Richard’s,” she says in an almost rehearsed way. “He got really angry and wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to explain. He started yelling and then he started throwing glasses at the wall...”
Jim’s so focused on finding a strategically far away parking spot that it takes him a moment to really listen. His annoyance at Pam for calling when she knows he’s with Karen is suddenly overshadowed by a very real fear. “Are you okay?” he interrupts, pulling into a parking spot and practically ripping his seatbelt off. She doesn’t answer right away, and the panic rises. “Pam?” he asks again as he opens the door. It’s a fatal mistake - he can feel Karen’s eyes snap onto him as she realizes who he’s speaking with - but he ignores that and shuts the door behind him, moving into the cover of darkness.
“I’m fine,” she says, still using that small, emotionless voice that he hates. “I got out of there pretty fast. I just wanted to give you a heads up because, well, I don’t think Roy would do anything, but...”
Jim runs his hand through his hair. She doesn’t have to finish the sentence. And whatever Pam has tricked herself into believing, Jim knows that Roy is exactly the type of person who would want to take out his anger on Jim’s face. “Yeah,” he says, feeling the panic that had filled his veins shift into something much… angrier. He was having such a good night. And while he might have deserved a punch from Roy a year ago, it’s just cosmically unfair that it should come when he’s just going his best to stay away. “Jesus Pam, you really know how to pick ‘em.”
For the thousandth time that phone call, she takes a pause. “I didn’t have to call, you know,” she says, and it doesn’t escape Jim’s notice that her voice is much firmer, much louder, than it’s been at any other point this call. “This hasn’t exactly been a fun night for me. I could have just hoped for the best and gone to bed.”
“You also didn’t have to tell him.”
“Has that been your strategy, Jim?” she asks briskly, and some part of his brain recognizes that it’s the first time he’s ever heard her truly angry at him. There’s a time when that would have destroyed his whole week, but right now he can’t bring himself to care. He just wants this moment to end, but she’s still talking, voice rising in volume as she goes. “Do you just pretend it never happened? I’m glad it’s working out for you. It’s not quite as easy for me to move on- ”
Jim doesn’t wait for her to finish. He just snaps his phone shut and resists the urge to throw it. He takes a deep, steadying breath and heads inside to get Karen her fries.
By the time he gets back to the car, his hands have stopped shaking and he’s able to smile as he hands Karen the bag.
“What was that all about?” she asks, and he’s grateful for her directness.
“Apparently Roy got drunk at Poor Richard’s and decided to smash the place up. Pam felt like she needed to report it to someone since it was technically a work event, and Michael was... otherwise occupied.” It’s an easy lie, one that doesn’t even feel wrong in his mouth. Jim knows that Karen knows that she’s missing the key pieces, but he’s given her enough that they can slip back into their game of pretend. She opens the bag and sets in on the fries.
“Jesus,” Karen says, mouth full. “I didn’t think he was the type. I hope she never gave him a key to her place.”
Jim doesn’t bother responding, instead placing his hand on Karen’s knee as he pulls back onto the highway. He takes her home to his place that night, half of him hoping to see Roy’s truck out in his driveway just so he’d have a valid reason to punch something. He’s disappointed to see it empty.