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The Lengthy Dimly Lit Coffee Break of the Psyche

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The clock on the wall of the reception area at Zimmerman, Zimmerman, and Stanley had barely moved in the past hour; Calvin was sure of it. It was a really nice clock, with Roman numerals and brass hands, which fit with the office's black leather and dark wood furnishings, punctuated by discreet potted plants. Tasteful, well-appointed (as his dad might say, with his appreciation of law firm decor), and brain-crushingly, soul-suckingly boring.

Maybe he was trapped in some sort of time vortex, here in the windowless reception area. While he sat manning the phones at the front desk of Zimmerman, Zimmerman, and Stanley, a hundred years had actually gone by outside. Trees and vines had devoured the tall buildings while the giant mutant squirrels took over the parks. Maybe they had gnawed through the phone lines, rendering him obsolete. He could dream.

He glanced at the LCD screen on the phone. It was five minutes since the last time he'd looked at it. No, the clock wasn't broken.

"I'm hungry," Hobbes said, slumped in one of the well-appointed seats. The ginger stripes in his fur stood out more strongly against the black leather. He flipped through a business magazine, the end of his tail draped over his arm. "Do you think there's any tuna in the kitchen?"

"Probably. But you can't go stealing other people's lunch." Calvin gripped the edge of the desk and shoved, spinning his chair. He kept that up until he got dizzy.

He had to wear a tie and jacket for this gig. It was like when his parents came into town to visit and occasionally insisted they all go out to dinner at some fancy place.

"I can't believe I have to wear a tie and a jacket just to answer the stupid phone." Calvin stopped spinning the chair. "The people on the other end can't see me. What does it matter how I'm dressed?"

"Presentation is everything," Hobbes said.

"You sound like Susie." Calvin stared at the phone, willing it to ring. He kept thinking up strange ways to answer it, like "Association of Evil Geniuses Headquarters, how many I direct your call?" or "Alien Abduction Investigations. Please state the nature of your recent experience," although when the phone did ring he always answered with a dutiful, "Zimmerman, Zimmerman, and Stanley, how may I help you?"

"Susie's kind of smart," Hobbes said as he turned another glossy page. "Also, have you noticed she's cute? Rowr."

"She's okay, I guess. She's not as pretty as Christine Caruso."

"Christine Caruso treated you like dirt." Hobbes put down the magazine.

"Our relationship was complicated." Calvin tugged at the tie and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. Another eight minutes had gone by.

His cell vibrated with a short chirp that meant he had a text message. He thumbed the controls to get to the message screen.

ARE YOU AT THE JOB? It was from Susie.

YES. IT SUX, he texted back.

JERK, she replied. I PULLED STRINGS TO GET YOU THIS GIG.

Calvin snapped the phone shut.

 

* * * * *

 

At around four o'clock, he thought he'd fall asleep right at the reception desk if something didn't happen soon.

That was when he realized the copy machine was sitting there a few yards away from him, unused. Just sitting there. For such a posh office, Zimmerman, Zimmerman, and Stanley didn't seem to be very busy.

Calvin swiveled in his chair. "Hey, Hobbes."

Hobbes yawned and stretched where he'd been napping on the couch, claws extended. When he was finished, he turned to see what Calvin was wriggling his eyebrows at him about, and grinned.

 

* * * * *

 

How was he supposed to know the copy machine at Zimmerman, Zimmerman, and Stanley kept track of the number of copies made, and the office manager checked it?

 

* * * * *

 

YOU'RE A CRETIN, Susie texted.

He'd thought about not telling her. Frederick Stanley, Esq., had already been stern enough, with the air of a man who was firing Calvin's ass for his own good, as a growth experience.

But Susie would find out and she'd be even more upset if he didn't tell her. Plus it was true, she had helped him get the temp gig.

Calvin sort of wondered why she put up with him.

I KNOW, Calvin texted back.

 

* * * * *

 

It was early on Saturday morning, and mist rose from the trees.

"Sometimes it feels good to stop and look," Calvin said, his voice sounding too loud. Beyond the park boundaries the city seemed hushed, slowed down.

"Yes, it does." Susie knelt with her dark hair pulled back into a long ponytail. She watched a line of ducks swim across the pond.

"I know what you mean," Hobbes said. He scented the wind, his tail twitching.

Susie finished tightening the laces on her running shoes while a wind creased the water. Calvin held onto all of it for two seconds, three seconds, four seconds, five seconds, before he took off.

"Race you to that tree!" he shouted.

"You cheater!" Susie's feet pounded after him along the path.

Hobbes caught up with him first, but Calvin had already reached the tree.

"Noodle-head. I thought tigers had quick reflexes." He slapped his palms against the bark, then raised his arms in the air and did a victory lap. "Yahoo!"

Bent over as she caught her breath, Susie rolled her eyes. "Oh, that's impressive. Next time try it without a head start." She smacked Calvin on the arm.

 

* * * * *

 

Somehow instead of going jogging immediately, they wound up lying side by side on the grass, staring up at the clouds that drifted across the blue sky after the mist burned off and the day grew brighter.

Hobbes lay with his paws curled against his fuzzy stomach. He pointed, a claw extended. "Clipper ship."

Calvin's fingers were almost touching Susie's, both of them stretched out on the ground. "That big one over there kind of looks like Batman."

"Nah, more like an eagle." Susie rolled over on her side, propped herself up on one elbow, and stared at him.

"What?" Calvin said.

"Nothing." She flopped back onto her back, dark hair spreading against the grass. "Hey," she said, and stretched one arm skyward. "That one kind of looks like Hobbes."

"Me?" Hobbes teeth showed in a wide grin.

"Hobbes?" Calvin sat up.

Susie folded her arms across her chest. "Uh...yeah, I mean, you remember Hobbes, don't you? That stuffed tiger you used to drag around everywhere? You were such a freak."

"Oh," Calvin said, and glanced at Hobbes, who shrugged. "Sure. I assume he's in a box in the attic somewhere."

"Mom gave Mister Bun away to the Salvation Army when I was ten." A crease appeared in Susie's forehead. Then she pushed herself up and jumped to her feet. "Let's go, slacker."

 

* * * * *

 

Surely Saturday should be the one day out of the week when he didn't have to feel uncomfortable about his lack of steady employment. Sunday too, maybe, except Sunday was usually a family day, if not in person, then phone calls with Mom and Dad, who had a habit of asking incisive questions (what could he expect, being the spawn of a journalist and a lawyer? They'd always seen through him.)

So he wanted to facepalm as soon as he brought up the j-word himself, without any prompting from Susie.

"What?" She said, as the three of them jogged along the lake, keeping pace with each other.

"Nothing."

"You said something about your resumé," Susie said, a little breathless from running.

He slowed and stopped, then swung his leg up onto a park bench, making himself very busy stretching. Hobbes stopped too, standing near him with his head cocked to the side like he really wanted to hear what Calvin might say now, while Susie jogged in a curve to return to the bench.

"I said I'm thinking of sending it out for this one job..."

"Calvin!" Susie's face lit up. It was embarrassing. She might as well have clapped her hands together with glee.

"It's no big deal! Sheesh, forget I said anything." He began to stretch his other leg.

"But -- what's the job?"

"Graphic design, some advertising company."

"Girls dig that art stuff, don't they?" Hobbes looked thoughtful, stroking a paw along his whiskers.

"You don't sound too excited." Susie frowned.

"I might not even send it after all."

"No way!"

"Why not?" Hobbes asked.

"I might not get it, and--" Calvin stopped stretching. His sneakers didn't need tying, but he put one foot on the bench, then the other, retying the laces tighter. "If I don't, that's like, the only thing I'm good at."

"That's not a reason not to apply!" Susie almost shouted.

"She's right," said Hobbes.

"There will be other jobs if you don't get this one."

Susie always sounded so reasonable when she talked like that.

"Oh, what do you know? You've gotten straight A's your whole life..."

"Because I worked my ass off, Calvin!"

"...and you got into law school and got a job before you even graduated college."

"Again, worked for it, jerk-face."

"You really like to rub it in, don't you? Miss Overachiever."

Susie opened her mouth, then made a small angry noise in her throat. She turned on her heel and jogged off, ponytail bobbing.

Hobbes stared after her. "That wasn't very nice."

"Don't you start!"

She'd only gone a dozen yards or so when she stopped and turned back. "I think you won't apply for the jobs you really want because you're chicken." She made a loud clucking noise. Other joggers stared at her as they went by.

Calvin stuck out his tongue, but Susie'd already turned and kept on running away from him.

 

* * * * *

 

Susie went back to her apartment, after informing Calvin that he had olive loaf for brains. Then his parents called, which involved each of them getting on the phone to say a lot of encouraging things while he went uh-huh a lot. Really, he had pretty decent parents when you got down to it. Lots of kids had terrible ones, and he knew he was lucky, but he wasn't sure how to say that to Mom and Dad. So before they hung up, Calvin offered to go up next weekend and help work on the house. Mom told him that was very thoughtful, and Dad made a joke about how Calvin wasn't allowed to use any of his power tools.

After that he and Hobbes played Rock Band for six hours.

Calvin threw down the mic and went over to the kitchen table.

On his knees with the guitar clutched in his paws, Hobbes stopped head-banging. "What are you doing?"

Calvin sighed as he sat down, turned the laptop on, and opened the browser. He'd bookmarked a bunch of jobs. He didn't answer Hobbes, knew that Hobbes didn't really need a response. As Calvin started typing, he felt Hobbes come over to stand at his shoulder.

"You made a typo." Hobbes pointed at the screen.

Biting back a smart retort, Calvin made the correction, and kept on working. "Thanks," he said softly, meaning it.

 

* * * * *

 

Spaceman Spiff holds his head high as the hideous bug-eyed alien of planet X-19 rattles the chains that hold our hero captive against rocky wall of the rank-smelling dungeon. The terrorized screams of the other prisoners fill the foul, foggy air.

"You can't make me talk, slime-sucking alien scum," Spiff says defiantly.

"We have your resume," the alien sneers, its stinking breath in Spiff's face. "You must answer our questions."

"Never!" Spaceman Spiff carefully inches his fingers towards the micro blaster concealed in his belt, warily watching his adversary's every minute movement.

"Oh, Calvin." His mother stands a few feet away, wearing a dress with yellow flowers all over it. The steam surrounding her doesn't seem to be frizzing her hair, and she doesn't react at all to the tortured prisoners' cries.

His father pushes his glasses up his nose. The steam doesn't appear to affect him either; his glasses aren't even fogged up. "We're so disappointed in you."

"What?" Calvin says.

The screams and the alien are gone. Suddenly they're not in a dungeon any more, but outside his elementary school, where a Tyrannosaurus Rex munches on a swingset. There are no kids around; the school is silent.

"But...I tried." Calvin realizes he's wearing a suit and tie. The dinosaur vanishes, then his parents, and then the school until he's standing alone in the middle of a field. "I tried!"

Calvin's fingers grip the stick of the spacecraft while flames crawl along the control panel and smoke fills his vision and an alarm beeps over and over...

 

* * * * *

 

*Beep* *Beep* *Beep*

Calvin startled awake and fumbled for the off switch on his digital alarm clock. It was 7:15. He didn't have a temp gig today -- why was he up so early?

Oh, right.

Calvin stumbled into the bathroom to shower. He had his teeth brushed and was in his slacks and shirt, but no socks or shoes, when he heard a familiar voice yelling his name from about three feet away, in what passed for a kitchen.

"Susie?" Hair still damp, he walked out of his room to find her tearing open sugar packets to dump them in two giant cups of coffee.

"Good, you're awake," she said.

Hobbes was already in the kitchen, watching Susie work. "Of course he's awake. I reminded him to set the alarm."

"You're a good friend, Hobbes," Susie said, pushing past him to get to the cabinet. She got out a bowl and a box of cereal. "Calvin would've been doomed a long time ago without you."

Maybe it was because he'd just woken up, but Calvin's head felt really thick and muddled. Hobbes, meanwhile, was stroking his paws along his whiskers, practically preening.

"Wait. What?" Calvin rubbed his hand over his face. He'd had a shower. He shouldn't be this confused.

"Yeah. Um." Susie stopped her bustling around and looked down at her shoes.

She had nice legs, Calvin noted. She was wearing a navy blue business suit and pumps with low heels, her hair loose over her shoulders.

"Did you just talk to Hobbes?"

"I wasn't sure if --" she bit her lip. "I didn't want to say anything."

"You can talk to Hobbes? You can hear him?"

"Always could." Susie went back to making breakfast. "Hi, Hobbes." She wriggled her fingers at him.

"Hi, Susie." Hobbes waved back.

"You knew about this?" Calvin spun around to face Hobbes.

He shrugged. "Sure. I thought you knew."

"I...I didn't...why didn't you tell me sooner, Susie?"

"I thought I was getting pulled into your psychosis, okay? It took me a few years to figure out I wasn't crazy. At least my therapist thinks I'm sane, but then, I never told him I could see my best friend's talking tiger. And then I figured if I wasn't insane, neither were you, and then I didn't say anything because it was really awkward..."

Calvin needed coffee, right now. Susie had only put two packets of sugar into his. He added five more, and stood holding the hot paper cup between his palms. Only then did it occur to him that Susie had called him her best friend, and that he didn't mind. In fact he felt kind of good about it.

"Go put on a tie. And socks," Susie ordered.

"Yes, I know," Calvin said irritably.

"Wear a blue tie," Hobbes said. "Blue is a friendly color."

"Good call, Hobbes," said Susie.

"Thank you." Hobbes beamed at her and she beamed back.

Sheesh. They were sickening.

Sipping his coffee, Calvin headed towards his bedroom.

He stopped and turned back. "Hey, guys? What if I don't get the job?"

Susie and Hobbes exchanged a glance.

"You'll get the next one, then. Or the one after that." Susie rolled her eyes and reached for her coffee. "How many applications did you send out?"

"Twelve."

"There you go."

"But..."

Susie pointed towards the door. "Move it, or you'll be late. C'mon, Hobbes. While Calvin's getting his act together, I'll make you a tuna sandwich." She turned for the fridge.

With Susie's back to them, Hobbes made happy gestures and mouthed marry this girl.

Calvin stuck out his tongue, took another swallow of coffee, and went to go put on his tie. And socks.