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Pick a Star, Any Star

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It’s high summer in Riverside, Iowa.

Jim Kirk drives out to a sweet-smelling field with dry grass that crunches under his shoes, and tilts his face to the sun. Deep breaths, in and out. There’s not much to do on a hot summer morning so he sits, sprawls out on his back and closes his eyes.

Blissful silence. Only the sound of the wind rustling the grass, and his own pulse in his ears.

Jim lets the moment linger, savoring it like the last drop of honey on the spoon, before he opens his eyes and brings himself back to reality. He’s supposed to be here to think, to come to terms with something that’s been gnawing at his heart for a while.

Jim is going to waste his life in Riverside.

He can see his future stretched out before him like a marked-up roadmap. It starts with getting into fights, and settling for less, and flinching every time he drives past his stepdad’s house, and it ends with him thirty-five years into a dead end job and backhanding his kids when they try to speak up.

Looking down the barrel of a life like that is paralyzing. He’s not reading the way he used to, voraciously, and late into the night. This is the first crisp, clear morning that he’s savored so far this summer. Most night he goes out to drink and dance and pick fights in bars. Anything to make him feel like he’s living, and not stagnating in the only town he’s ever known.

Mr. Pike would be ashamed of you.

Jim thumps his fist angrily into the soft earth and pushes himself to his feet. What the hell, he’s got a car, hasn’t he? No one’s about to stop him from torturing himself.

So he gets in and turns the key in the ignition- every time the engine starts he gets a thrill, just waiting for the day when it won’t start, and this treacherous bit of freedom will be taken from him- and drives a couple miles to the local high school. He leaves the engine running and just sits, looks at that tired old building. It’s empty for summer vacation, and Jim’s is the only car in the parking lot. Someone’s scrawled GO FEDS on the asphalt in off-white chalk.

It’s funny how Pike had thought the best of him. How he’d remarked on Jim’s exceptional test scores, and even praised his performance in their terrible high school production of Romeo and Juliet. He’d thought- he really, really thought- that Jim was the best of all of them. That he was going to make something of himself.

Shows what he knew.

Jim realizes how tightly he’s been gripping the wheel and eases up on it. Sometimes, when he’s feeling particularly self-flagellating, he’ll drive right past this aging, summer-dead school. Just to remind himself that Pike had thought he was worth something, praised him, pushed him as hard as he could in every class.

Jim’s only seen Pike once since graduation, and that was only a fleeting glimpse at a local convenience store before Jim ducked out the back, terrified that Pike would see his black eye, his busted lip. Jim can deal with being a delinquent. He can deal with having no job, no opportunities, no close friends and no hope for the future. He can handle that.

What he can’t handle is the thought of Pike’s disappointment. Jim can almost hear him now, picking his words as carefully and deliberately as a soldier selecting bullets. You’re wasting yourself, James, he would say, and Jim would nod and promise to do better and then he’d go out and get so blind drunk that he’d never wake up. Sometimes a gentle scolding hurts far worse than a slap and a shout.

Something has to change. If only Jim could get off his ass and change it.

Jim guns the engine and peels away from the school, tires shrieking on the asphalt. It occurs to him, not for the first time, how easy it would be to just drive. To pick a direction and go, with only his shitty red Volkswagen and half a tank of gas. Longing desperately for something undefinable, yet terrified of defining it.

Yeah, thinks Jim, as he hits the brakes and waits for the stoplight to turn green. I could do that.

He doesn’t do it.

At least, not for a couple days.

 

“This is a bad idea,” Jim says to himself, but his hands are shaking with excitement as he spreads an interstate map across the hood of his car. Spontaneity is the thing- spontaneity is what makes road trips memorable- but there’s an undeniable appeal to the thought of a fold-out map and a slightly dry red marker. Pike used to say Jim was a romantic. Well, so what if he is? If he’s going to channel his restlessness into a mission to explore the American frontier, he may as well do it right.

He uncaps the marker with his teeth and leaves a bright red star right over Riverside, Iowa. He draws a second star over San Fransisco. That leaves two thousand miles of open road between them, waiting to be traversed.

Not that Jim expects to make it to San Fransisco. Not that anyone would notice, or care, if he didn’t.

Jim’s marker hovers over the map, considering. Then he maps his first route, a very nearly straight line west, and drops a third star along Interstate 80, near Ashland, Nebraska. The Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum. According to Winona Kirk- God rest her soul- George Kirk’s first job had been scrubbing toilets in that fine establishment, just to get near the planes. It’s not a bad place to start a road trip, and it’s only a five hour drive away.

Jim folds up the map and hesitates, about to cram it into his back pocket. He ducks back into the car instead and unzips his duffle bag. It’s packed full of as much food as he could cram in there- everything kosher, nothing likely to aggravate his allergies- and a couple of essentials. Books, clothes, a toothbrush, and so on. Jim digs up a black journal and a leaky pen from one of the interior pockets.

It’s a good notebook. It’s got a very particular Fancy Journal shine to it, making it nearly impossible to write in. It had been a gift from Pike shortly after graduation, and Jim had shoved it to the back of his bookshelf, too frustrated by the prospect of filling it with the adventures he wasn’t having.

Well, he’s damn well going to write in it now. Something about this trip seems unerringly final, and Jim wants there to be a record of it. If this Great American Road Trip is going to be his last hurrah before all his youthful potential gets swept out to sea, then he at least wants something to remember it by. Besides, if he’s lucky, maybe something will happen to him between Iowa and California and he’ll finally figure out what his life is supposed to be.

Jim tucks his map into the back of the journal. Then he clicks the pen idly for a moment, trying to come up with something that’s not too Dear Diary.

He flips the journal over, looks at the cover. A stylized white boat, sailing on a black sea. The sky is dotted with white stars of varying sizes. Jim smiles grimly, imagining Pike picking it out at the corner bookstore. Maybe it’s the romantic in him, but it gives Jim an idea. There’s no one around to judge him, so he indulges.

Jim opens it up to the first page, and sets pen to paper.

Captain’s Log.

 

Jim stops at a gas station just outside Riverside.

He fills up the tank, one hand on the nozzle and the other shoved deep into the pocket of his leather jacket. There’s an oddly silent, dreamlike atmosphere this afternoon. Jim can hear the rustling of the corn, but very little else. It’s as though his is the only car in the world, and this road, the only road.

The nozzle shudders in his hand. He takes it out, hangs it back up, and rips the receipt from the pump. Then he slides into the driver’s seat and shuts the door, and it all slams down on him at once, the realization that he’s going, he’s doing this, he’s leaving all of this behind with the promise of nothing in return.

His journal is sitting on the seat next to him, as though daring him to do better.

Jim folds up the gas receipt and tucks it awkwardly between the cover and first page. Then he turns the key in the ignition.

The engine roars to life.

He can feel the floor vibrating beneath his feet.

There are a trio of bizarre brown puffballs dangling from the rearview- Winona’s keychain, repurposed. She had so loved old cars.

Jim pulls out of the parking lot and turns onto the road, windows down, the radio turned on max. It’s high summer in Riverside, Iowa. Friday, June 28th.

This is how it starts.

 

For the first few hours, the drive is easy and uneventful. The sky is a sweet cornflower blue, and with the windows rolled down Jim can smell the dry, dusty breeze at it tugs at his hair. There’s a comforting ease to the rituals of driving. He knows where to put his feet, how to move his hands. It’s not long before he can shut his mind off completely as he drives, just enjoying the summer air and the cornfields flying past as he winds his way west across Iowa. If he misses a couple of turns along the way, well, that’s Jim’s business, and there’s no one around to chastise him.

It’s not until the sun is low in the sky, painting the cornfields salmon pink across the horizon, that Jim starts feeling the itch to get some food.

He’s not hungry, is the thing, and he’s packed enough food to feed himself for a week if he plays his cards right. But the itch is still there, distracting him, a constant irritant. He shouldn’t break into that packed food until it’s absolutely necessary. He should save it, just in case.

Get something now, Jim thinks nervously, tapping the wheel with one finger. What if you get on the interstate and there are no rest stops for miles. What then.

And he had tried so very hard not to think about food. This was his Great American Road Trip after all, and he hadn’t wanted to waste it getting too caught up in his own head about something that came so easily to other people. But by now it’s all he can think about, so Jim grits his teeth and changes lanes at the first rest stop sign he sees.

When he gets there, it looks like every other rest stop in America. Wide parking lot, scattered benches, dry grass trampled flat by a procession of dogs. The building itself is somehow both too big and too cramped, cold and off-white and bordered by fingerprint-smeared windows. When Jim goes in he finds the building has the unearthly quietness of an early-morning airport. His shoes squeak too loudly on the gritty floor.

There are a number of kiosks standing between him and the foot court, and Jim stops at them one at a time, thumbing idly through the pamphlets. He tries to look busy as he scopes the place out. It’s not as empty as it seems. There are people manning the help desks, and working in the shabby KFC by the far wall, and there’s a single solitary broom-pusher making his way slowly up the thoroughfare.

The food court itself is a little knot of red tables and wobbly plastic chairs, seemingly scattered haphazardly throughout the empty space between Starbucks and KFC. There’s a handful of other people, most of them with kids, all seated far apart and eating with the slow exhaustion of drivers unwilling to return to their cars.

Jim orders a cherry danish and an iced caramel macchiato. He stands by the pickup counter and surveys the tables, lips pursed, deciding where to sit. He’d rather not eat alone if he can help it. Unfortunately, no one here seems particularly open to conversation.

In fact, only one other person seems to be here alone. He’s sitting with his back to the trash cans, working his way through a bucket of crispy chicken like it’s personally wronged him. He’s wearing a cord necklace and a grubby blue flannel open two buttons too deep. He looks tired.

Jim picks up his drink and approaches the stranger from behind. “Y’know,” he says, “if you don’t slow down, you’re gonna choke on a bone.”

The stranger chokes.

Jim plunks himself down opposite him holds out his hand, ignoring the man’s sudden fit of coughing and spluttering. “Kirk, James T.”

The stranger muffles his mouth with one arm until the coughing fit subsides. He gives Jim a quick once-over with bright, suspicious eyes, before letting his arm drop. “I don’t have any cash, kid, so don’t ask.”

“Just thought you looked like someone who could use a friend, that’s all.”

“That’s all?” the man scoffs, returning his attention to his chicken.

“Yeah,” says Jim. “That’s all.”

He unwraps the little brown paper around his cherry danish and eats it in small, measured bites. The stranger watches him for a moment, then shakes his head incredulously. “You shouldn’t talk to strangers, kid. What are you, seventeen?”

“Nineteen.”

“See that’s the kind of shit I’m talkin’ about, don’t just go tellin’ strange men that you’re nineteen.”

Jim smirks. “Maybe I’ve got a good feeling about you. You seem pretty safe.”

“Ain’t nothin’ safe about this, kid,” the man mutters, gesturing vaguely with a drumstick. “You’re in the middle of nowhere. Lemme guess, runaway? Wind in your hair, Nirvana on the radio? You got big dreams and an uncle in LA?”

“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” says Jim, which startles a laugh out of the handsome stranger. And he is handsome, oddly, in a roughed up, I’m-here-to-fix-your-plumbing-ma’am kind of way, but it’s his eyes that catch Jim’s attention. He’s got a closer look at the necklace now; a slender chip of jade on a black cord.

The stranger grimaces, wipes his mouth on his sleeve. “You don’t wanna hear any life’s story of mine, kid.”

“C’mon, I told you my name, didn’t I?”

“That you did. The name’s Leonard McCoy. MD, not that it matters.”

Jim’s grin widens. “You always this friendly, Leonard McCoy, MD?”

“Yeah, I’m a real lick of sunshine. Cure a rainy day, that’s me.”

“The wind in my hair, Nirvana on the radio thing- that’s about right. No uncle in LA though.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I’ve got nothing but a car and a roadmap.”

“See, when you’re nineteen, that sounds pretty damn appealing,” McCoy shakes his head, chases another bite of chicken with a swallow of lukewarm Coca-Cola. “But when you’re washed up at thirty-goddamn-three suddenly I’ve got nothing but a car and a roadmap gets a lot less sexy and a lot more pathetic.”

Jim feels a twinge of sympathy grip his heart, but he also senses an impending sob story, and, against all odds, he finds he desperately wants to hear it.

“Oh yeah?” he says, taking another long sip of his iced caramel macchiato. “What happened?”

And for the next forty-five minutes, Leonard McCoy tells him.

 

The cheating isn’t the worst part. McCoy breezes past that pretty quick, and Jim can’t blame him. After all, what is there to say? The sex was good, and then it wasn’t good, and then it was apparently very good as long as McCoy wasn’t around to hear about it. Some well-endowed asshole named Clay Treadway- a high school hookup name if ever Jim heard one.

(“He was,” McCoy admits, when Jim voices this controversial opinion. “They were real sweethearts back in the day.”

“Shoulda punched him out,” Jim mutters.

“I did,” grins McCoy, and something passes between them then, a quiet agreement, a mutual understanding.)

Giving up his medical practice- not even that is the worst part. Jim pushes him a little on that point, tries to get him to open up, but all he gets is a grimace and a “Don’t push your luck, kid,” so Jim reluctantly lets the subject drop.

No. The worst part is when it ends, and after a moment’s hesitation, like he’s not sure how much more Jim wants to hear, McCoy tells him about losing the custody battle.

Jim nods slowly. Rolls his plastic cup, now empty, back and forth between his hands. “God,” he says, after a while. “I’m sorry.”

McCoy huffs a little exhale that might be a laugh, might be the farthest thing from it. “Not much of life worth livin’ anymore. Not there, not anywhere. So I packed my bags and started drivin’, haven’t really stopped. Figured if I’m gonna be a sorry sack of shit, may as well be a sorry sack of shit on a beach somewhere.”

“You’re from Georgia, aren’t you?” says Jim, gesturing vaguely at his own throat. “Can’t place the accent.”

“Georgia, sure enough.”

“You’ve been driving a while, then.”

“A while,” McCoy says, with a small smile. “Yeah.”

Jim, testing the waters, reaches across the table and steals what’s left of McCoy’s Coca-Cola. He sips up the last of it, the ice rattling around the straw. His new friend doesn’t seem to mind, just shrugs idly, and Jim feels a rush of affection for him.

He sets down McCoy’s cup. “I said I’d tell you mine, if you told me yours.”

“You sure did,” says McCoy with interest, leaning one elbow on the table. “Jim. Can I call you Jim?”

Jim squints at him. “Only if I can call you . . . hmm . . .”

“Don’t,” McCoy grins. “My name is Leonard.”

“Len, then. Till I think of something better.”

“Leonard.”

“Well, Len,” says Jim with a grin, and McCoy laughs, hand on his forehead, eyes shut tight. It feels good to make McCoy laugh. Too good. “Do you want to know my story or not?”

“I do,” McCoy sighs pleasantly, hand over his mouth now. “I do.”

“Well . . . the truth of the matter is, there’s not much to tell with me,” Jim admits, when the levity of the moment has worn off. Now that it’s him being put on the spot, he finds himself feeling unaccountably shy. “Mom passed away last year, and Frank . . . my stepdad . . . he kicked me out pretty quick. I’ve been sleeping on couches, sleeping in cars. Picking up odd jobs around Riverside.”

McCoy gives him an odd look. “Did you graduate?”

“Top of my class,” Jim mutters. It should be a proud admission, but instead it comes heavy with the weight of all the great things Pike had seen in his future.

“Funny,” says McCoy. “You look like the kinda guy who’d go out for sports.”

Jim smiles ruefully. “Nah, no way. Sure I thought about trying out, but . . . I felt more comfortable in the library anyway. The librarians practically raised me. My car,” he adds, jerking his thumb vaguely over his shoulder. “My car back there, one of them actually sold it to me on the cheap.”

“They sound like good people.”

“Yeah, they were,” says Jim. He shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans and tilts his chair back with a sigh. “Anyway, I figure causing trouble on the road to San Fransisco is better than causing trouble in Riverside.”

“Folks have gone road trippin’ for less,” says McCoy with a pleased hum. “What’s your route?”

“There’s a museum in Nebraska I want to go see. My dad loved that place.”

“And after that?”

Jim shrugs lazily and smiles. “I’ll just see where the stars take me, I guess.”

“I like that,” says McCoy. He taps his empty cup against Jim’s. “Here’s hoping you have better luck on your drive than I did.”

Jim frowns. “How so?”

“My car gave out.”

“Are you serious?”

“Serious as the grave. The engine finally died half a mile back. I walked here.”

Jim stares at him, stymied. “What . . . what are you gonna do now?”

“Been tryin’ not to think about it,” McCoy admits. “I had a vague idea that I’d be more clear-headed after I’d eaten.”

“And are you?”

McCoy gives him a subtle, cynical look through half-closed eyes. “No,” he says. “Not really.”

“Come with me.”

It slips out before Jim can bite it back. Come with me. He sounds pathetic, like a child clinging to a stranger’s skirt in a crowd.

McCoy’s lips part; he looks surprised, but not shocked. “You serious?”

Jim tilts his chin higher and doubles down on the offer. “Come to California with me. I’ve got the space, and you’re easy to talk to. I’d like . . . I want you to come with me.”

McCoy stares at him, bewildered, for several more seconds.

Then he smiles like the moon on a summer night, and Jim is gone.

“Well I’ll be,” McCoy says wryly, putting his elbows on the table. “Why not?”

Jim smiles shakily, licks his lips. It’s only then that he realizes the sun, already low in the sky when he’d arrived, has long since set. The too-bright fluorescent lights indoors make a stark contrast to the blackness of the windows.

Jim hums thoughtfully, lets the front legs of his chair hit the floor with a thunk. “It got late.”

“So it has,” says McCoy, frowning. He arches an eyebrow at Jim. “Were you thinkin’ you were gonna drive through the night?”

Jim shakes his head, realizing as he does so that he’d neglected to plan for sleep. Looking at the man sitting across from him, he realizes he’d neglected to plan for a lot of things. “I was gonna sleep in the parking lot, actually. In the backseat.”

“No way in hell are you doin’ that.”

“Hey,” Jim mutters. “I’ve slept in a lot of backseats. I know how it goes.”

“That shit will ruin your back,” says McCoy matter-of-factly. He gets up- his legs are long enough that he can step over the back of his chair- and flings his jacket on over his shoulders. Jim gets up too, gathering up the trash and depositing it in one of the bins before joining McCoy at a nearby kiosk.

McCoy wordlessly offers him a pamphlet. Jim frowns at it. “Motels in the area?”

“Road trips run on a good night’s sleep,” says McCoy. He leans his elbow on the kiosk and it wobbles dangerously; he hurriedly corrects himself.

“I don’t have the money to splurge on a motel every night.”

“I’ll pay.”

Jim looks up sharply. “I don’t want to be a hard luck case.”

“Jim, if anyone’s the hard luck case here, it’s me,” says McCoy, his expression softening. “Fact is, if I’m coming with you on your lil’ coming-of-age journey, I damn well better pull my weight. Besides. I want the company.”

Jim swallows. He imagines, just for an instant, that he can see McCoy’s eyes follow the movement of his throat.

Then he grins, teasing, deflecting, and bumps his shoulder against McCoy’s as he walks past. “Company, eh?” he says playfully. Behind his smile, Jim waits poised and trembling for the reply.

McCoy scoffs audibly and turns to follow Jim out. “Not that kind of company, dumbass,” he says, but his voice sounds genial enough, and when they step out into the parking lot the cool evening air tastes as sweet as peach pie in Jim’s mouth.

 

They drive for ten, twenty minutes in companionable silence, stopping only once to get McCoy’s suitcase out of the trunk of his broken-down car. Jim’s own bag has been moved to the backseat, with the hope that McCoy would replace it in the shotgun, but after scarcely a minute of Jim’s driving McCoy shoos him out from behind the wheel with a hasty, “Let me, let me,” and now Jim has been relegated to the shotgun of his own car.

I met this man today, Jim thinks, and he’s driving my car. The thought should unnerve him, yet somehow fails to do so.

They pull up to the nearest motel and pay for a room with two beds. McCoy scrubs his clothes in the sink and Jim doesn’t say anything about it. Jim puts in his worn-out retainer and McCoy doesn’t say anything about it.

They sleep as easy as if they’d known each other all their lives.