Chapter 51


"Ocean Dunes." The voice was male, bored, and with practice had managed to cultivate a tone that actively quashed even the faintest indication the next words Blair might hear would be, "Can I help you?" In the background, noise blared from the tinny speakers of the black and white TV Blair had seen playing game shows when he checked in the day before. The moment of déjà vu was disorienting, the sense of not having moved through time at all making the night feel even more unreal for a moment. "No, WHAT is Mount Olympus!" the voice barked before Blair could say anything, and he grimaced, holding the receiver farther away from his ear, reflexively looking down to see if the racket had disturbed Jim.

Jim slumbered on, though, and when the voice said nothing more, Blair finally ventured, "Hey there, how's it going?" with far more goodwill than he was actually feeling. "I'm in room, uh, 23, and I was wondering if you could help me out."

There was a pause that would have been silent if not for the bouncing music from the TV that wasn't quite loud enough to cover the sound of something liquid being slurped from a cup right next to the phone.

"Yeah," Blair plunged on. "See, I've had kind of a rough night, and on top of that, I left out some stuff when I packed that I really need, so if there's any way I could get some breakfast, and maybe a few things from the drugstore, that would be great."

With reluctant curiosity, the voice asked, "Like what?" and then hastily added, "Not that we have anybody here who could do that. This is just a motel, not the Holiday Inn."

"Oh, hey, yeah, I understand," Blair agreed quickly, trying hard to be conciliatory without sounding condescending. "But I'll be glad to reimburse you for your trouble. All I need is some toothpaste and a toothbrush," he began, trying to think of innocuous items before asking for medical supplies, "Maybe some shaving cream and a razor --" he hesitated, then finished more rapidly, "And some other things. You want to write this down?"

"Write it down?" the voice asked suspiciously. "How much stuff are we talking here? WHAT is Mount Ararat, you moron!"

Blair found himself tightening his hand on Jim's shoulder, as though that could somehow shield his friend from the coarse racket of the ordinary world. "Look, man," he said quietly, "It's not all that much. I'm just asking you to write it down so you don't forget anything, OK?"

"I'm not stupid, and I'm not going. Get it yourself. The drug store is only a block away and the Dew Drop Inn has breakfast all day long, they're right next door."

This was too ridiculous, after the fight back to sanity and life, to be stopped by a surly kid at the front desk. Blair didn't have time for this. Jim certainly didn't. He wasn't going to prolong this until Jim woke up. "How much do you want?" Blair asked.

The blunt question seemed to be all the clerk had been waiting for, and the answer was so brusquely direct it was obviously a frequently practiced quote. "You pay all costs in cash in advance, $10 on top of any food deliveries, $20 for the drug store stop, $10 additional each five items. Alcohol and porn are extra on top of that."

Blair groaned. "Do me a favor. Just tell me you need the money to pay back your medical school loans, all right? 'Cause otherwise this is really gonna depress me."

Dead silence. Something in the background dinged frantically, and the audience cheered.

"Right, forget it. Look, I'll write out the list myself, and you come around and I'll give it to you with the cash, all right? Can you do it right now?"

Another slurp of anonymous liquid, somewhat more hasty than the previous one. "You got the cash, and I'm on it, dude."

"I've got it," Blair said. "Give me five minutes. And don't knock when you come to the door. I'll be watching."

"Whatever." More compliant with the prospect of a cash contract, but no more polite, the clerk hung up in the middle of his own shouted, "Idiot! It's Kilimanj-"

Blair put the receiver down with relief, careful not to let it clatter despite the anger that had his grip so tight it was a conscious effort to let go. Jim hadn't stirred. "Sorry about that, man," he said anyway, as if the yelling and haggling might have reached Jim somehow, even in the depths of sleep. "The things we gotta do, right?" Jim slept on, breathing softly through his open mouth. He was still shivering. Blair bowed his head deeply, touching his forehead to Jim's shoulder. The hardest thing was going to be letting go of Jim and getting up.

"I'm not going far, I promise." His voice was soft, but pitched conversationally, as though Jim were watching him and listening. "I'm just gonna write a grocery list for Alex Trebeck Jr. at the front desk. Get that Neosporin we talked about. You don't want to get an infection or something after all this, right?" He slid his hand down Jim's arm as he slowly sat up again, lifting his touch to avoid the rope burns, and at last pressing his palm to Jim's hand, lying open on the bed. He laced his fingers between Jim's. Jim's fingers twitched against his own, and his hand felt so cold.

Blair closed his eyes, steeling himself, then he let go and swung his legs around gingerly, sitting up on the inside side of the bed. Jim made a quiet noise when he was released, and his shivers seemed to grow more pronounced, but he didn't awaken. Blair felt an icy guilt that made him shiver as well. It was hard not to feel as though he was abandoning Jim while he slept. Watching Jim tremble, fighting the urge to wrap himself around Jim again, he distracted himself by thinking he should have remembered to ask for some more blankets and towels when he'd been on the phone. It was all right, he told himself. It was all right. He would just remember do it when the kid came around to get the money.

He tugged open the nightstand drawer, looking for some stationery, or at least a couple of sheets of notepaper, and found nothing but a Gideon's Bible. He debated tearing out a few pages no one would ever miss -- the map of the Holy Land in back, or maybe a page or two from Deuteronomy -- but with his luck, the kid would probably try to charge him for it. Oh well, he had a notebook in his back pack.

He stood up, surprised by how wobbly his legs felt. Jim breathed out harshly, but his eyes remained closed. Blair made his way around the bed. His discarded jeans lay in a sandy, wet tangle half-way under the sink, near Jim's. Oh, right, Blair remembered then, he needed his wallet too. The kid wanted cash. He knelt and picked his jeans off the floor by the waistband, wincing at the gritty feel of sand against his fingers. His wallet should still be in his back pocket. It better be there at any rate.

It was, the leather wet and sticky with salt, rough with accumulated sand. He opened it, and little crusts of wet sand drizzled out onto the floor. There was more wet sand in the long pocket for bills, where Blair found fourteen dollars. The money smelled like wet cash and sea water. He'd thought he had a little more than that with him, but it didn't matter, because he also had the emergency C-note Jim had given him such a bad time about. Guess it's gonna come in handy now, huh, Jim? Blair thought, vindicated, and then felt so much like crying he had to squeeze his eyes shut hard for a moment, swallowing against the ache in his throat. He would not face that kid from the front desk weeping. He wouldn't.

He could hear Jim on the bed, his breathing beginning to sound labored. Blair opened his eyes, mentally shaking himself, and quickly dug out the hundred dollar bill from its hiding place behind a debit card for the library copier. He used the back of his hand to brush away a few tears that had trickled down his cheeks anyway.

OK, he had the cash, now to scribble out a list of supplies. He upended his backpack of the floor of the closet and snatched up a leaky blue ballpoint pen and the little spiral notebook he used to jot down ideas when he was trapped somewhere without his laptop. Jim's breaths were louder now, every exhalation sounding like a moan. Blair went to the foot of the bed, clutching his money and the little notebook in one hand. He reached out his other hand and laid it on Jim's leg through the blanket. "It's OK," he told Jim. "I'll be back in just a sec."

Jim was still trembling, and it looked to Blair as though his shivers were getting worse. His head turned restlessly on the pillow, a low sound like a sob escaping him, and Blair couldn't stand it. He scooted around the bed and dropped everything on the bedside stand so he could crawl back in beside Jim, shivering a little himself as he slid his legs under the cold sheets. The space where he had lain close to Jim had cooled already, as if the blanket sucked heat away from the bed rather than retaining it.

Settling in with his back against the headboard, he took Jim's arm and pulled it over his own legs, then let his hand rest on Jim's shoulder for a moment. Jim's eyes blinked open, unfocussed and blind. Blair didn't think he even woke up, not really, but he rolled closer to Blair, ending up with his forehead pressed to Blair's thigh. Blair stroked his head gently and said, "Just rest, now. I'm here. Don't worry about anything. I'm taking care of things now." Blair talked on, more softly, because it seemed to comfort Jim, even in sleep. "Just got to figure out what we need here." He leaned over and got the notebook again. "Just some odds and ends from the drugstore. Neosporin, right. And some Bayer." His voice got softer, mumbling as he wrote. "Some bottled water. You always do all right with Evian, right, Jim? Or Laurel Mountain in case they don't have that. A roll of sterile gauze would probably be a good thing, and some tape. If we smear on enough Neosporin first, I don't think the gauze would be too scratchy for you."

Blair dropped his hand and patted Jim's shoulder gently, running his palm and fingertips across muscles that were still knotted with unreleased tension, even in sleep. He wondered if a gentle massage would be any help at all, or if it would be too much sensory input for Jim for a while yet. Maybe he could try later, after dressing Jim's wounds. He added mineral oil to the list. "What am I forgetting here?" he asked Jim quietly. "Breakfast, right. Toast, scrambled eggs maybe? How about cold cereal and milk. Some coffee?" He wrote everything down.

"How about a toothbrush for you, man?" He smiled a little. "And baking soda. Can't see you managing toothpaste right now." Blair wrote those down as well, and then read over his list. It had already come to take on a talismanic importance to him. This was the little list that would make everything All Right again. "I'll go out this afternoon or sometime and do laundry. After you're feeling better, I mean."


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