Her phone rings around three AM.
She groans and turns over, her hand fumbling for the vibrating source of noise and she cracks open an eye before hitting accept.
“The pillow talk deadline is two AM, you know this,” she answers groggily.
She can instantly tell that something isn’t right on the other end, a loud din in the background but he’s completely silent.
She leans over and turns on the lamp, sitting up. It’s cold in her apartment and she’d worn a tank top to sleep but it doesn’t take long for her to pull the blankets up over her upper body, chills forming on her arms. She’s not entirely sure it’s only the temperature to blame.
She waits, seeing if he’ll speak. It’s at least twenty seconds of background chatter and glass clinking when she speaks up again.
She hears him sniff. She imagines him in the corner of a crowded bar, the wind howling outside but he sits alone, the weight of his world crumbling on his shoulders.
“She’s gone,” he almost whispers into the phone, as if naming it would make it real.
She sighs, rubbing a hand over her face. She wants to apologize, wants to offer her condolences but she knows those words are meaningless in the face of grief. They won’t help Jimmy, won’t fill the hole in his heart so she stays on the phone, silent but there.
“I didn’t,” he trails off. She hears him take a sip of something, the ice clinking in the glass. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
Kim knows Jimmy, knows he’ll be thinking about these moments for the rest of his life because he tries so hard to hide it but sometimes Kim can see the ghosts hanging in his shadow.
“Jimmy, where’s Chuck?”
“He’s uh,” Jimmy lets out a bitter laugh. “He’s back at the house. He won’t talk to me,” another sip. “I don’t know why he’d be mad at me though, at least he got to be with her when she passed.”
“Oh god,” he groans out. “What am I supposed to do now?”
Kim thinks for a second, wonders what she would want in this situation. When her mom died, she’d gone home for the funeral. Not for any grief-related reasons but because she’d felt obligated to. The number of people who approached her either at the wake or just around town afterwards, offering their condolences, going on about what a good woman she was, what a good mom she must’ve been, chipped at Kim. She was not a good woman, she was not a good mom and Kim didn’t deserve to hear about it over and over again. So Kim invested in a good pair of headphones, kept her head down the rest of the trip, and sold the meager belongings her mom had.
But from all that she’d heard, Ruth McGill was a good mom, one who cared so she attempts a different route.
“Tell me about her.”
“Tell me about your mom.”
She hears him take a long inhale, “Okay.”
He talks about when he had gotten chickenpox in middle school and she stayed home to take care of him. She, unfortunately, contracted it from him but they laid in bed together, cooking gloves taped around their hands, and watched old movies. He talks about when Chuck went off to college, how distraught Jimmy was and how his mom would distract him by driving to other small towns in Illinois getting postcards to send to Chuck. And he talks about how his mom was his one phone call after the Chicago sunroof incident, how she never seemed disappointed in him, she always just wanted to help.
And Kim stays awake. At some point, the background chatter stops, and all she can hear are his footsteps and the occasional honk but he doesn’t stop talking so she doesn’t stop listening. She laughs when he tells her about his mom getting them tickets to see Robin Hood but accidentally walking into The Exorcist. She gets a little emotional when he talks about his mom and dad seeing him graduate, the pride in their eyes when he walked across the stage and how they had closed the store early just for the occasion. She’s present and she’s there and she knows she’s the only thing keeping him from snapping the tenuous band that connects him to himself right now.
Suddenly, it’s six AM and her alarm goes off and Jimmy hears it before she can quiet it.
“Ah shit, work. I’m sorry I kept you up all night.”
Kim makes a shrugging noise, “I’m a third-year law student, Jimmy. All-nighters are more natural to me than a full night of sleep so you actually did me a favor, can’t get too comfortable with sleep.”
He lets out a soft chuckle at that and the ache in her chest feels a little lighter. She can still hear him walking though, letting out tiny breaths; she can’t imagine how cold it is in Illinois and how numb Jimmy must feel in the stinging air.
She thinks about the first thing she did when she got off the plane, happy to be back in Albuquerque and finally, finally away from Red Cloud. “Go home, Jimmy. Take a shower, eat some food, get some rest.”
A deep inhale, a shaky exhale.
“But she won’t be there,” a strangled noise cuts through the phone and she winces at the pain of it.
“I know. But you have Chuck,” She pauses knowing that’s little comfort. “And you have me.”
She puts him on speakerphone as she gets ready, making the occasional noise to let him know that she’s still there. She’s unplugging the curling iron when she hears the door close on his end.
“Good night, Jimmy.”
He sighs, sounding so tired it almost wears on Kim states away.
And then he hangs up and she goes to work where Howard pulls her aside, asking in hushed tones if she’s heard the news. She nods and replies in short, Howard doesn’t need to know the specifics.
“It must be awful for them,” Howard sighs, running a hand over his monotonous six hundred dollar tie. “I know when my own father passed,” and Kim nods, tuning him out. It’s not about him, it’s never been about him as much as Howard would like it to be. It’s about the four AM phone call and the hand clutching the drink and the brother with an alarming lack of compassion.
She nods back into the conversation when she hears Howard mention the funeral.
“Of course, I’d like to go up and pay my respects.”
And she thinks. She marks the days in her schedule, she drafts the emails she’ll send, she notes the books she’ll bring.
“Howard, that sounds like a great idea,” He grins at the appearance of praise.
“I’d like to come too for Jimmy,” she pauses. “And for Chuck, of course.”
And Howard can’t say no, how could he?
When she steps off the plane, she’s immediately hit with the freezing air that she’d spent so long getting away from. The drive to Cicero from Chicago Midway is unnerving, Howard in the passenger seat talking about the time he went to Chicago and met the Bulls or whatever, but she focuses on the shifting landscape in front of her. The towering, shiny buildings slope into crumbling, sparse buildings and boxy identical houses. It reminds her of Red Cloud, of how all small towns are suffocatingly the same.
When she pulls into the McGill driveway, she’s suddenly nervous. She hadn’t told Jimmy she was coming, was sure he’d try to convince her not to but when he comes out, trailing behind Chuck who Howard greets with open arms, and sees her, the relief sagging from his shoulders dashes any nerves and worry quickly takes its place as she takes in the dark circles under his eyes and the crumpled clothing.
He reaches for her first, folding his body into hers. He buries his face into the crook of her neck and she softens, wrapping her arms around him. But she remembers, Howard and Chuck are standing only a few feet away, and it’s less that she’s worried about what they’ll think and more that they don’t deserve to see this part of him, of her.
“Come on, let’s go,” Kim says, firm but kind, leading him into the house to get changed for the afternoon ahead of them.
Ruth McGill was a loved woman, that much is clear.
At her mom’s funeral, it was a sparse attending. There were a lot of shoulder pats, a lot of sympathetic smiles but very few tears. Their situation wasn’t a secret in Red Cloud and because of it, her mom had few friends and those were mostly regulars at the Clover but still, people showed up out of the very same obligation that brought Kim there (Damn Midwesterners, Kim thinks). Kim hadn’t thought much about it, having been alienated from her mom for a while but standing here at Ruth’s funeral, surrounded by people, it hits her deep in a place she’d intentionally tried to forget.
It’s a lot of warmth. It’s a lot of tears and hugging and long speeches about the special corner store. It makes Kim uncomfortable, this blatant display of emotion and connection that she’d never really had and though this is Chuck and Jimmy’s day, their day to yell and scream and mourn, Jimmy chooses to stand next to her.
Kim fidgets through the speeches, her hands tapping a steady beat against her thigh and she’s staring past the person speaking, her eyes trained on the clouds when she feels a hand wrapping around hers. A squeeze.
She looks up at him and he looks back at her, a sad smile painted on his face and his eyes rimmed red from crying and she squeezes back.
She’s here for him but he’s here for her too. It extends past the mailroom, past the rigid walls of HHM, and past Albuquerque.
The wake should be easier for her to swallow, she thinks, less standing around a hole in freezing temperatures having to listen to people eulogize. The chatter and the warmth will distract her from the weird feelings that had bubbled up.
Back at the house, she helps set up, placing hot food trays along a wooden table. She looks closely and notices a JMM messily etched into one of the corners. Walking around the table, finger lingering on the edges, she sees the same etchings but with different initials all around on different sides of the table. She can imagine little Jimmy, marking spots at dinner, etching his family into permanency. It makes her smile.
While her fingers are still tracing the JMM, she feels a presence beside her. She doesn’t have to look up to know it’s Chuck (Howard would’ve already started talking).
“It’s a shame,” Chuck murmurs, seeing her halted finger on the groove.
“It’s a shame this invaluable table, made by my father by the way, got scuffed up like this.”
Kim startles. For someone who never had a consistent dining room table for more than a few months growing up, the tables they ended up having almost always being plastic, it annoys her to see Chuck only find value in the table and not in its meaning.
But she makes a non-committal noise in the back of her throat, “It seems like a nice personal touch.”
He nods, deep in thought, staring at the etchings, “I suppose.”
Kim moves the conversation along not wanting to be trapped here, “Where would you like me to set up the drinks?”
Chuck nods, rapping his knuckle against it one last time, and points to another space in the room, “Over there works fine, Kim.”
With the tables properly set and the portraits of Ruth artfully displayed, Chuck sends Kim upstairs to wake Jimmy up from a nap that was practically forced onto him after the funeral.
(“You look like a mess,” Chuck had said almost sneeringly. Kim pulled him aside, Jimmy slightly swaying on his feet, “We’ll be fine without you. Go take a nap, okay?” and Jimmy reluctantly agreed, trudging up the stairs like a boy told to go to his room.
Kim has to take a second before facing Chuck and Howard again, anger seeping into her blood.)
She knocks on the door tentatively, reluctant to pull him out of the sleep he so deeply needs but she hears a quiet, affirmative groan in response and takes it as permission.
She opens the door and sees him, cocooned in his blanket and laying in the fetus position. She softens, seeing him like this in his childhood bedroom. She doesn’t really think when she gently lifts a blanket corner and slips in right next to him, wrapping her arm around his middle.
“I’m sorry, Jimmy.”
She feels his hand reach up and squeeze hers, resting it there for a moment. They breathe in sync.
It’s only then she notices the decor on the wall, the posters and trinkets taped haphazardly across the room. She sees Indiana Jones and Monty Python collectibles, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Animal House posters, instantly pinging something in her head that matches up with her idea of young, rambunctious Jimmy. The room is messy, things thrown around but there’s a warmth to it that feels well-loved and lived in. On his desk is a little Dumbo figurine and only then does Jimmy’s eyes follow her path.
“I was obsessed with that movie when I was a kid,” he says softly.
He sighs, sitting up and Kim removes her arm, moving to sit next to him.
“It sounds stupid but I cried so hard at the scene where they intertwine their trunks so my mom got me this, to remind me she was always with me even when we were apart.” His voice tapers off at the end, staring at the little figurine. He moves forward so he can grab it and he sits back down, playing with it.
“When I was sitting in jail, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was Mrs. Jumbo and she was Dumbo and how sad she must’ve been, unable to help me,” he stares intently at the figurine while saying this.
“Jimmy, she loved you. That much is clear.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy says. “I know. I’m just worried I’m fucking it all up.”
She reaches up, smoothing back a hair that had fallen out of place, and rests her hand on his cheek for a second before dropping it. She can’t help him with this, this road of grief he’ll have to travel down alone but she can be on the other side, waiting.
“You’re capable, you're passionate and you're one of the smartest people I know. You’re not fucking anything up.”
Jimmy’s eyes move up to meet hers and she can see everything he’s thinking in that moment, his eyes reflective of the pride and gratitude and love he has for her, and then the doorbell rings.
Her hand drops and he closes his eyes, taking a deep breath. He rubs the palm of his hand against his eyes and opens them, flashing Kim a weak smile.
“Here we go.”
The wake begins as well as it can.
Chuck and Jimmy stand side by side, nodding and shaking hands (Chuck) and hugging (Jimmy). Some people aren’t thrilled to see Jimmy but it’s his mother’s wake and now is not the time to nag him about the insurance pay-outs so they offer their polite condolences and move on.
Eyes quickly land on her and Howard, strangers from out of town. Their bright blonde hair seems to draw attention like moths to a flame.
People flock around Howard, the tannest man in the room with the whitest hair (A feat considering the average age of this crowd is sixty). They coo at him and ask questions about New Mexico and his very successful, very large law firm that employs both the charming McGill boys.
Kim, on the other hand, stands in the corner with a glass of whiskey, prompting very little conversation.
That certainly doesn’t stop anyone from approaching her though, smiles plastered on their faces eager for answers. The number one question is who is she? The number two question is how does she know Ruth McGill? The number three question is oh, are she and Jimmy dating?
At first, she firmly shakes her head and replies, “No, we’re just good friends.”
“An awfully nice friend to fly over and take care of our Jimmy,” one woman says, a glint in her eye.
The woman next to her nods, “Ruth has always wanted a nice girl for Jimmy to settle down with.” Kim is taking a sip of her drink when she registers that and she can’t help but laugh-cough at the phrasing.
After the ninth suggestion that she and Jimmy should start dating and after her third glass of whiskey, Kim decides that it’s easier to affirm them rather than answer the same badgering questions over and over again.
She tells the first person they’ve been dating on and off for eight years. “He’s asked me to marry him several times but I’m just not sure,” Kim pouts.
She tells the second person they are married but Jimmy wants to keep it a secret because he doesn’t want the attention on them. “Shhhh,” Kim winks at the man and he nods, delighted to be let in on the secret.
By the time she’s told the fifth person that they’re engaged and have decided to open a business together (“Just like his parents,” the woman sighs dreamily), the room is in a tizzy over the supposed marital status of James McGill and Kim steps out of the house for a smoke, satisfied with her work.
She maneuvers over to the dark side of the house, leaning against the peeling tile to avoid people leaving. The chill has finally started to set in when she feels a shawl placed over her.
“Thanks,” she murmurs, cigarette in mouth. She takes it out and hands it to him and he makes a grateful noise, putting it in his mouth and taking a long pull.
“So we’re married, huh?” Jimmy grins, passing her the cigarette back.
“Oh yeah. We just put a deposit down on a house,” Kim shrugs. “You know, for the babies.”
Jimmy nods, eyebrows furrowed in mock seriousness. “Of course, the children come first.” He pauses, “Though I’ve gotta say, Kim, I did not imagine our wedding to be in the hot, sandy desert.”
Kim snorts, a hand flying over her mouth. “Sorry, I forgot about that lie. Margaret thought it was really romantic though, something about the dusky horizon.”
He smiles, raising an eyebrow at her. “If you wanted to marry me, all you had to do was ask.”
Kim shoves an elbow into his ribs and the cigarette almost falls out of his mouth as he yelps.
She smiles, grateful to have found some respite from this gloomy day and he smiles back, grateful to have her here.
“How are you feeling?”
Jimmy shrugs, “It’s weird and it’s hard and I still can’t really look at any of the pictures of her but it’s been nice to talk about her with people.” He looks up at the sky, his breath coming out in puffs of smoke. “She was a really good person.”
Kim doesn’t like to think about her mom and how her upbringing affected her but when presented with a man who wants to do so much good raised by a woman who has done so much good, it’s undeniable.
“It shows in you, Jimmy.”
And there’s that look in his eyes again.
“Will you,” he pauses, looking at the cigarette butt she’d thrown on the ground. “Would you wanna sleep over tonight?” He’s flustered and red when he looks up, “The hotels around here have the shittiest mattresses and there was this weird bedbug outbreak years ago and-”
Kim nods, almost imperceptibly but he’s watching her so intensely, he catches it and shuts up. He quirks his lips up, pleased.
Chuck raises an eyebrow when Jimmy announces Kim will be staying over while they’re cleaning up.
Howard had already left, headed back to the hotel because he has an early flight the next day so it’s just the three of them moving in silence.
“She can sleep in the spare room,” Jimmy adds. “I just thought it’d be nice to have an extra pair of hands to clean and pack and stuff.”
Chuck nods, semi-satisfied with the explanation. “Of course we’re grateful for any time you can afford us, Kim. I know you must be busy with work and classes.”
Kim brushes it off, hands full of dirty plates and utensils, “Nothing a few all-nighters can’t fix.” She says jokingly, though it's the truth, and Jimmy’s eyes flash towards her.
When they’ve finished cleaning up the living room, packing up all the food, and putting away all the decorations, Chuck commends Kim on her quick work.
Kim stares down at her hands for a second, hands that have cleaned so many messes, and politely smiles at Chuck.
“Responsibility was big in my household.”
Chuck looks on approvingly, “Sounds like it was a tight ship. Very unlike our house.”
Kim can only clench her jaw and silently nod.
Chuck surveys the clean room and lets out a long sigh, “Well it’s been a day. Jimmy, I’m sure you’ll take care of Ms. Wexler over here.” He turns to Kim, “Thank you again, you’ve been a great help.” And with that, he goes up the stairs and they hear the sound of a door shut shortly after.
Kim notices he didn’t say goodnight or thank you to Jimmy. She’s not sure if he’d noticed.
Later that night, after Jimmy has popped his head in the room for the eighth time asking if she needs anything (‘Blankets? Water? A bedtime story?,’ Kim swatting him away at the last suggestion) and Kim has to assure him again that no, she’s perfectly fine, she sneaks down to the living room with her books, unable to sleep dreaming about her reading piling up and smothering her. She lays it out as usual, consistency being key, highlighters and pens to the upper left and notepad to the middle right.
She takes a deep breath, rolling her neck and cracking her knuckles before flipping open the first book and hunching over, highlighter in hand.
She doesn’t know how much time passes but she feels a hand on her shoulder and she startles, the highlighter immediately jabbed at the intruder and Jimmy lets out a surprised 'oomph'.
She winces and immediately stands, moving her hands to hover over the spot that she hit. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t hear you coming.”
Jimmy shrugs, raising his eyebrows. “I figured. I’ve been calling your name for a few minutes now.”
He sets down the glass of water he’d been holding in his right hand next to her and takes a sip from the one in his left.
“You couldn’t sleep either?”
Kim lets out a long sigh, gesturing to the pile of books strewn across the table. The open chapter of Economic Structure of Corporate Law is almost fully highlighted, the bottom of Kim’s hand white from the hard indentations.
“Do you want some company?”
And so they sit together, Kim vigorously taking notes and flipping pages and Jimmy, feet up on the dining room table, reading The Count of Monte Cristo. “A classic,” Jimmy says with a toothy grin.
He’ll occasionally read aloud a passage, (“‘The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates,’ Dumas gets it, Kim”) or he’ll make a comment (“Imagine being a count. Count James McGill,” he puffs out his chest and Kim can only snort in return) but he knows when she needs to focus and stays silent most of the time.
At some point, he places a plate of orange slices down next to her and she starts to eat them without thought. As the cold flesh hits her mouth and Jimmy settles back into his seat, Kim registers the action. She bows her head and smiles, thinking about how Jimmy peeled the orange with his hands with only the intention of giving it to her, of sustaining her. She can’t remember the last time someone took care of her with no expectations in return. The tart juice brings her back to reality and she reaches over, one hand still on her book, and gently squeezes his knee.
‘Thank you,’ her squeeze says.
‘Always,’ his nod implies.
And so the night wears on like this, this comfortable silence, and she’s almost done with the penultimate chapter when she hears the guitar strings. Her hand stills, not even knowing Jimmy owned a guitar let alone could play one.
(Kim notes she needs to be better about registering her surroundings because she prides herself on her laser focus but because of that sometimes things really catch her off guard like right now.)
She hears him start to strum and tries to place the song. It isn’t until he starts humming that she realizes it’s A Case of You.
His pitch is no Joni Mitchell’s and he’s a bit off-tune but it’s incredibly endearing, watching this grown man lost in his head singing along to a folk song. Even after seven years, Jimmy can still surprise her and she finds herself in hungry anticipation for these parts of him, the good and the bad.
He catches her watching him, fingers still strumming, and says, “She’s my mom’s favorite. Or, I guess, was her favorite.
With the correction, Jimmy’s face gets more somber, the lines of his face deepening and Kim can feel his focus growing more distant. This is his new reality, adjusting his words and realizing that this person is gone over and over until his mind can finally accept it as normal. But it’s not normal, not yet, so his body tenses and he gets more frustrated as the notes don’t hit quite correctly, his fingers dancing over the strings and his need to course correct getting louder as he manically continues.
He finally hits his breaking point, having tried to play the same line nine times over and failing. He hits his fist against the side of the table and sets the guitar down on the ground.
Kim stays still, watching this all unfold. He’s breathing heavily, his eyes trained somewhere on the ground and his fists red and furled. If she had to guess, this would be him entering the anger stage of grief.
Jimmy has a way of digging a tunnel into his own head and yelling despicable, self-destructive things into the void, unable to hear anything else but the reverberations, she recognizes it in herself, so she knows words won’t be enough to pull him out of this state.
She leans forward and presses her forehead against his. The world has dealt them each a hand that is so incredibly stacked but it feels a little less harrowing when they’re together. They stay in that position for a bit, breathing.
“Let’s go to bed, yeah?” Kim finally says.
He pulls back and looks at her, a broken man trying to fit the pieces back himself, and nods.
There’s no question when she follows him back to his room, quietly closing the door behind him. He crawls in first and she stands for a second, hesitant, which she knows is ridiculous given the display of intimacy moments ago. They’d shared beds before but there’d always been a context to it. They’d been too drunk, too poor, or too tired. But this is a choice Kim is making, a perfectly lofty and open bed just two doors down.
But the hesitation lasts only for a second cause she slips into his bed, enveloped by his familiar smell and he immediately turns over to her, curling into her body. Her fingers float into his hair and gently runs through it, anchoring herself to him. They stay like this for a while, even when she feels her t-shirt growing damp and his body gently shake, she doesn’t stop her fingers.
Eventually, his grip on her waist relaxes and his breathing starts to slow. When she thinks he’s about to fall asleep and to be honest, she’s getting there too, she leans down, just for a second, and kisses the top of his head. She lingers for a second, overwhelmed by how much he means to her. Overwhelmed by the speed in which she had rearranged her life to be here for him and overwhelmed at the fact that there’d never been anyone in her life that she would do that for and she doubts there will be again.
He squeezes her side, ‘Always.’
‘Thank you,’ she rests her hand on his back.