"There's a machine inside that only sells little bags of peanuts." Abed stands in front of Jeff, holding out a handful. "I bought some. Why would you need a machine that only sells peanuts?"
"I don't know," Jeff says, leaning against the gas pump, filling Pierce's mini-van and scrolling through e-mails on his iPhone with his sunglasses low on his nose. "People really like peanuts."
"Dry-roasted with honey," Abed says, picking one up and looking at it curiously. "If you buy peanuts wouldn't you just want peanut flavored peanuts?"
"Sure," Jeff says.
"They had barbecue which sounds like a good idea but how do you put them on a barbecue, is there some kind of tray?"
"Probably," Jeff replies.
Abed bites a peanut in half. "Tastes like peanut. What does dry-roasted honey taste like?"
"You're definitely right," Jeff replies.
"Peanuts taste fine on their own don't they?"
"Tell me more," Jeff says.
Abed looks down at his fistful of peanuts and looks back up at Jeff. "But what are you thinking about, Jeff?"
Jeff looks up from his phone. "Seriously, why would Pierce – knowing full well we have a contrived cross-country trip to take in a comically short amount of time – not fill his van with gas before we left? I mean, we're still on campus. What college campus has a gas station? What am I even doing here?"
Abed blinks at him. "Want a peanut?"
"Good to hear," Jeff says, looking back down at his phone.
"This is going to be a long trip, isn't it?" Abed says, popping another peanut in his mouth.
Jeff groans. "Long enough to be a feature film." The pump clicks and jerks and Jeff pulls it out, slamming the fuel cap closed. "No, let me say that again, that probably sounds like something you'd like. It's going to be long enough to make me regret every decision I've made that brought me to this moment in time."
Troy barrels in, skidding to a stop between Abed and Jeff because, damn. Damn. He's breathless and grinning and skidding up a cloud of gravel and dust, all sneakers and a good time. They've only been on the road for half of a Simon and Garfunkel song Annie put on their roadtrip mix but the sun is high and the sky is cloudless and the world is singing a song, just for him. Troy puts hand on Abed's shoulder and takes a chance to breathe because this is something that they need to hear: "Get this. They've got a machine that only gives you peanuts. A whole machine." It's like the whole world has gone Muppet Babies. "For peanuts."
"Of course they do," Jeff says, pushing his sunglasses up his nose. "Of course they do."
"Best trip ever?" Troy asks, turning to Abed with a waiting high-five.
"Best trip ever," Abed agrees, slapping Troy's offered hand. "Cue soundtrack."
The morning is hot and yellow, the sun a raw egg sliding over the buttered sky. It turns the road into mirrors and lakes that disappear when they get too close, makes the hills too green and makes the mountains stick out like teeth in the horizon. It also makes Troy too hot and his jeans a little too uncomfortable, jammed as he is in the back against Annie's side.
Troy grins and can't stop grinning, really, won't stop grinning until one of them – probably Pierce – ruins it, and when that happens he's going to stick his head out the window like a dog. There's got to be a reason dogs do that, and now that he doesn't have a mom to tell him to get his head in the car or it'll fly off, Troy can really check out what that's all about. But right now he just feels good.
"Okay, let's figure this all out," Annie says, pulling her Blackberry out of her bag.
"Did you make a schedule?" Britta says, turning around to raise an eyebrow.
"Yeah," Annie says, blinking with eyes like Pixar animation. "I planned the whole thing out in hours. I've got a music rotation and a driver rotation and a rotation for the front seat. I made a – spreadsheet. It just seemed like a good idea considering how Jeff can be –"
"Hey, how I can be?" Jeff says. "If you planned the whole thing, who decided that all seven of us should be in one car? Who decided that all seven of us should be in one car owned by Pierce?"
Abed raises a finger. "Road trip."
"Of course," Jeff says, dropping his head. "You know I – appreciate you guys. You're my favourite people I'm forced to spend mandatory amounts of time with, but it is the hottest day of spring on record and I'm sharing the same breathing space with a man old enough to have originally done this trip with Jack Kerouac."
"Little punk," Pierce says under his breath. "Who needs California."
"Exactly," Jeff says. "We're only thirty minutes out of town. We can still go back and get a second car, one with air conditioning, one without a – weird meat smell coming from the trunk we weren't allowed to open –"
"We can't," Annie says, scrolling through her schedule. "It takes thirty hours to drive to Cape Canaveral and the space shuttle launch is tomorrow and we're only just on schedule. If we turn around now, we won't make it in time and we'll fail the homework assignment."
"Tragic, I'm sure," Jeff says. "Just a thought, but can we not just turn around, YouTube the shuttle launch, and pretend like we spent three days making our relationships suitably uncomfortable for an assignment Duncan came up with on the spot?"
"Nope," Abed says again, looking at Troy for confirmation. "Road trip."
"Road trip," Troy says. They have to lean over Annie to high five but Abed made it clear, when you're on a road trip you need to high five every time you mention it. It's just one of those rules Troy has to learn. "Never been on a road trip, man. Let's do it."
"I've always wanted to go on a road trip," Shirley says, purse settled on her lap, grinning into the rear view mirror. "It feels very – collegey," she says with a bright bubble of laughter. "Plus, my kids are with my sister for four days and I refuse to look a gift horse in the mouth."
"That's because you have the front seat," Jeff says. "I can't believe I actually have to say this out loud but this is a very bad idea. Intentionally or not, we are a group rife with sexual tension and half-started relationships. Imagine what will happen when we spend three days locked in a van driving to Florida to see a space shuttle launch for no reason I can actually determine has to do with Anthropology." He looks around, first to Britta, back to Annie and Troy, finally to Shirley. "Guys, this is a terrible idea. Just one of the worst ideas. Terrible. Awful. I keep talking and yet no one is agreeing with me."
"I don't know, Jeff," Annie says. "It seems like fun. I've never even been out of the state before –"
"Don't look at me," Britta says. "I haven't been on a road trip since I followed Pavement around the west coast."
Troy can hear Jeff rolls his eyes from the back seat. Troy's smile is faltering slightly. He just pictured this going differently, like he's heard Abed talk about for two days, all that open road and wind in your hair and burgers and funky little farmers playing banjos on their front porch. It sounded awesome, but now the yelling has started. He wonders if anyone will notice if he put his head on the window a little bit.
Jeff groans. "Pavement? West coast? You know sometimes I think I'm exaggerating when I call you a hipster, but Britta, you make it so easy –"
"Road trip," Abed says, nodding approvingly. (High five.) "One car. Seven people. A country's worth of dramatic situations ripe for both comedy and tragedy."
"This isn't a movie, Abed –" Jeff says, holding his hand up.
"Easy Rider," Abed says.
"They die in that."
"Thelma and Louise."
"Lesbians, and they die in that too."
There's a communal groan from the car, but it seems to shut everyone up. Troy takes the moment to relax into his seat and just soak it in, the smell of raw dust and the cracked can of sugarless Red Bull Jeff is drinking and the flowery fruity smell of Annie's hair curled over her ear. This is more like it.
No one said road trip, but Troy leans over and slaps hands with Abed anyway. Annie looks between them, perking up in her seat and smiling, gingerly offering her palm like maybe she's not allowed to. Troy slaps it and Abed's too, spirit of the road trip and all those little rules Troy is just starting to learn. Mix CDs and warm cans of soda and a comfortable kind of bored. Wide open American countryside and everything in front of them. Ribbons of road and Abed bobbing his head out of time to Pierce's country music, Annie jotting down essay ideas with a spare pencil tucked behind one ear. Just everyone getting along just fine, just once, just now. It makes it all kind of perfect, at least for a single moment.
"Stop touching my knee," Shirley growls, glaring at Pierce.
"I'm not! I'm changing gears, I have to put my hand there," Pierce shouts, the car swerving slightly on the road, Britta smacking the back of Pierce's chair angrily.
"It's an automatic!" Shirley yells. "You don't have gears!"
That's it. He can't take it anymore. Troy sticks his head out the window. So that's why dogs do it, he thinks. Cause it's awesome.
They stop just outside St. Louis, Missouri. Jeff and Britta have to fight for twelve minutes about who was the best jazz artist to come out of St. Louis, but eventually they settle on a two-thousand plus city with a nice motel and a couple of bars with no important alumni or minor music star that could come up in conversation. Britta thinks she knows a Seattle indie band whose drummer is from here, but she can't come up with a name.
It's the most neutral of towns, one where no one has to pretend about anything, where they're just seven people with greasy hair living on past sunset and starving and regretting going on a road trip in the first place. The sun sets gold and brown over the horizon and Troy breathes out for the first time, yawning and stretching against the side of Pierce's van.
Really, Troy just needs a Pepsi and a hug and they didn't stop anywhere in Kansas (paranoid fear of tornadoes, Annie says) and Troy is going to die if he doesn't pee somewhere soon.
"A whole new state," Annie says, stepping out the car and stretching. "We're in America."
"This isn't America," Jeff says, holding his phone up and looking for a signal. "This is between Americas. There is no culture and there are no Democrats, no one can possibly live here."
"Exactly," Britta says, holding her phone in the opposite direction. "Where are we?"
Troy seriously has to pee. He runs past them into the gas station, pissing in a men's room that smells like pine trees. When he comes out, no one is arguing, which is new and definitely welcome. Jeff and Britta are listening to a single iPod with one earphone each; Pierce and Shirley are reading the menu stapled on the outside of the gas station restaurant; Annie and Abed are sharing a bag of Sunchips and not talking at all, just watching where the sun was once before. It doesn't take long for Troy to join them.
"You know," Annie says, straightening Abed's collar as he shotguns some chips, pouring them into his mouth. "We're going to have to figure out who sleeps with whom."
Troy looks between Abed and Annie. It feels weird for a moment before he grins, cupping his hands as Abed pours the last of the crumbs into his Troy's palms. "We can't let them be together."
"Who?" Annie asks.
"You, Jeff, and Britta," Abed says quickly. He jams the empty packet into his hip pocket, grabbing a hold of Annie's right shoulder just as Troy does the left. The gas station is like a landing sight, white and bright and shining down on their little convoy as they stagger around too tired, exhausted beyond petty quips and mostly looking for somewhere to stay. "We like you too much to let you get caught up in that –"
"Caught up in what?" Annie's voice goes high on the last word. Abed claps a hand over Annie's mouth, and Troy is just a second too late, his hand over Abed's over Annie's lips, her damp breaths still warm between Troy's fingers.
"We're not here to manufacture drama," Abed says calmly. "You cannot sleep in the same room as Jeff."
Annie squeaks behind their hands.
"No way," Troy says. "You're staying with us, girl." It's a given, it seems so obvious and Abed obviously gets it too, but Annie protests.
With a squeak.
"What did she say?" Troy asks, turning to Abed just as Britta objects to the next song and starts punching Jeff in the shoulders.
"She wants to know why we're getting involved," Abed says, cocking his head to the side like a dog listening to a whistle. "And she wants to know why she can't stay in the same room as Jeff."
"Because he's the devil," Troy says.
"Because you'll be upset," Abed adds.
"Because you'll stab Britta in the neck with a coat hanger," Troy says.
Annie is quiet for a moment. Her next muffled squeak is quiet and calm.
"Because we want a roommate," Abed says quietly.
"Because this whole trip will be more fun if you don't spend it pining after Jeff," Troy adds sincerely.
Twin hands still covering her mouth, Annie looks between Abed and Troy. Her mouth has gone warm and slack behind their hands, her shoulders dropping and the corners of her mouth turning up. Another squeak.
"No problem," Abed says.
"We want you to room with us," Troy says, taking his hand away just as Abed does the same. "We want you with us."
Annie looks at Jeff, then Britta. Her mouth goes tight but she doesn't make a noise. "All right," she says, looking between them. "Shirley can sleep with them."
Troy grins, and just catches Abed's hand in time for a high five. "Yes, she can."
Annie grins a bit wider, her cheeks going pinker. "You really want to?"
Abed nods immediately, and it only takes Troy a moment longer to smile. "Sure."
"Oh, come here," Annie says, grabbing them both in for a hug. Troy can't help bringing his arms around Abed too, leaning into Annie with his best friend pinned beneath him, their shared warmth and Annie's twinned kisses on their cheeks, pulling away on a laugh that makes all three of them sound a bit too girlish.
Jeff orders them all a round of beers, and Troy is clinking glasses with Abed and Annie before any of them really have a chance to protest or make up little stories about why this is important. It's just a moment, a single moment with the seven of them in a strangely perfect harmony, like the planets aligning once every how many years, all of them clashing their glasses of cheap beer over their disappointing dinners and silently toasting a friendship that seems more real than when they don't have to talk about it out right.
Troy's steak is overdone and too hard when he saws through it. He ends up trading meals with Abed halfway through dinner, a couple minutes after Jeff orders a cocktail their waitress hasn't heard of and breaks into argument with Britta about being pretentious in the heartland of America. Troy eats Abed's chicken a la king while Abed saws out geometric shapes in Troy's steak, organizing them like a school project around the edges of his plate. When Abed cuts out a rough-hewn symbol of the Star Wars Rebellion, Troy gives him an under-the-table high five, not minding much when Abed's hand rests finally for a few moments on Troy's thigh.
Two beers later, Pierce and Jeff fight over the check, each complaining about how much money they have and how much they want to buy this meal for them. Troy excuses himself to the bathroom ("I gotta – not be here –") and steps outside, into the sharp chill of early spring and a ground made hard with tire tracks and beaten gravel.
The outskirts of St. Louis are dusty and dry and calm at night. The kind of open air you read about in novels. Deep breaths that calm you, so you can stare up at the sky and lose yourself like a poet or something. The kind of sky that opens up like lyrics. Troy stands out there for a long time, alone, scuffing his running shoes in the dirt and keeping his hands shoved into his jacket pockets, trying to come up with poetry but never getting much further than a half-remembered U2 lyric.
Troy puts his hand around Annie's waist when she comes out to stand beside him. She murmurs a little and draws in tighter, smiling privately and glancing away from Troy as quick as she can, like nothing was there in the first place. Just the sonnet of a night crumbling away.
"The stars look so similar," Troy says, staring into the sky. "They look the same."
"Well, they do everywhere in the Northern hemisphere," Annie says gently. "They only look different when you –"
"But they look the same," Troy says.
"Yeah," Annie says, putting her head on Troy's shoulder. "They do everywhere in the –"
"Exactly the same –"
"We're only, like, five hundred miles from –"
"Totally the same," Troy says, the stars unfolding before him like a worn out map.
"Yeah," Annie agrees finally. "Exactly the same."
Troy nods to himself. "Yeah. Like home."
Annie stutters on it, but settles by Troy's side. She warms his body and doesn't talk about the science of starlight, which is nice. The world is much prettier when Troy doesn't need to look at it like homework.
"So, Britta, Annie, and myself in one room," Jeff says, running through their roomkeys like a deck of cards.
"No," Annie says quickly.
Shirley cocks an eyebrow. "I'm not sleeping with Pierce."
"No," Annie says, grabbing the key cards from Jeff. "You sleep with Jeff and Britta. I'm with Abed and Troy. Pierce – gets his own room." She hands the cards out quickly. "Right?"
They look at each other for a while; grimacing, smiling, curious. Abed raises his eyebrows quickly at Jeff, then frowns, then quirks his lips at Shirley, then grins at Troy. Jeff looks to be thinking for a good reason why this isn't how it should be, but he settles on nothing. Cool and goosebumping in the parking lot, trying to think of a reason why not to do this, they eventually settle on this being the best of possible devils.
"That sounds –"
"Platonic," Jeff says quickly.
"Platonic," Britta repeats.
They each grab their room keys, bags slung over their shoulders and walking to their motel rooms, still wondering the mathematics of the night and if maybe they should have doubted this a bit more.
Opening the door, Abed does a running leap onto the bed closest to the far wall. "Mine," Abed says, flinging his bag onto it and flopping wildly onto the blanket, a sprawl of long limbs and shirt riding up his slim stomach.
Troy tries for half-chivalry, offers Annie the next choice. He eventually settles onto the single bed nearest the door when she makes her choice, her bed separating Abed and Troy, unpacking a few belongings – heavy bathrobe and pink sachet of cosmetics and night time.
"Well," Annie says, flattening down her skirt and looking between Troy and Abed, bathrobe tosses over her arm. "I'll shower first."
"Right," Troy says quickly, turning on her like she'll undress right there and then.
"Okay," Abed says, pulling out big zip-lock bags marked Friday and Saturday and resting them neatly in the drawers at his bedside table.
"I won't be long," Annie says, glancing quickly between them. "This isn't awkward is it?"
"Awkward?" Troy says, sounding a little more falsetto than he would have liked.
"Not awkward," Abed says. "This is perfect dramatic material."
Annie narrows her eyes a little, that flicker of confusion everyone gets when they see Abed in the weird hours, in the late hours, when he becomes a little something more than eccentric. Troy is used to it by now (nothing can't be solved by a high five and a close hug when no one is watching) but Annie seems a little lost, even giving them a little wave when she locks the bathroom door behind her, the shower starting soon after.
Abed laughs and stifles it quickly. "I had a joke about hot water," he says, explaining himself to Troy. "Like we're sharing a house."
"Not now," Troy says, holding up a hand. "Not now, bro."
Troy is on the balcony outside their room. Abed joins him soon after, closing the glass door behind them and standing in his flannel pyjamas, bare feet and toes curled against the cold. Troy stares out to the world that's suddenly spilled underneath him, a flat tongue of road and wild earth like a country that suddenly seems bigger than a High School or a community college or a football scholarship once seemed.
Troy shifts against Abed's shoulder, pushing them close. "You ever wonder about –"
"The stars?" Abed interrupts, knowing too well as always.
"How they're the same when everything else is different?"
"How they're beautiful even when you see the same thing every night?" Abed says evenly.
"How they're really special when you take the time to recognize them?"
"Sure," Abed says. "I think about them all the time."
Troy shoves Abed in the shoulder just for a moment, grinning over at him. Troy never needs to say more than nothing at all, his whole heart somehow reflected in Abed's hesitant smile and the way he has of saying the wrong thing at just the right moment. Troy shoves Abed again, arm to arm, and nods because that's all he has to give when the conversation is just shrugs and a shared brain.
Troy clears his throat, puts his hand on Abed's forearm, the soft flannel of his pajamas, the twitch of muscle beneath. "You ever think –"
"We're too close?"
"Yeah," Troy says.
"No," Abed replies smoothly. "We're just – "
"Jedis," Troy says. "But even Jedis –"
"Don't always know what the other is thinking," Abed says.
"Yeah," Troy replies, shrugging down with his elbows on the hard ledge of their balcony, leaning towards the dark city. "That's why they have –"
"Mind tricks," Abed says.
"Yeah," Troy continues. "But we don't have mind tricks."
"These aren't the droids you're looking for," Abed says cleanly, keeping his shoulder carefully close to Troy's, bumping his foot against Troy's own, a deliberate seal of bodies in just the momentary touch of knee and hip and toe.
"You don't need to see his identification," Troy replies instinctively.
If it didn't interrupt the clean rhythm, Troy might not have noticed it at all. Abed leans over quickly and presses two soft kisses, one on Troy's cheek and another to the corner of his lips, no, on his lips, just left of center. Troy half-opens his mouth to continue the familiar conversation ("You can go about your business") but finds the dry and deliberate touch of Abed's lips for a moment before he pulls away.
"I'm showering next," Abed says, stepping away from Troy and quickly back into the motel room.
Troy just stands there, stiff and quiet as can be. Mouth slack and still vibrating like an alcoholic buzz where Abed's lips touched, suddenly there and suddenly gone. Abed has vanished before Troy takes his next breath.
"You can go about your business," Troy says blank and in shock, staring out at a suddenly dark canvas of night. "These aren't the droids you're looking for."
Troy is still touching his lips when Annie steps outside to join him on the balcony. Her hair is wrapped up in a towel, her heavy bathrobe drawn tightly over her body, her toes painted pink and not chipped at all.
Troy hasn't got anything to say. Nothing clicks, nothing turns into sound. He just stares blankly ahead and wonders where he went wrong, or maybe a little where he went right. Mostly he wonders where he went stupid.
"Something wrong?" Annie asks. She takes up Abed's empty spot so easily, so quickly. There's no chance for Troy to get swept up in that vacuum, all of those feelings that should be rushing out into the night air get caught up in orbit around Annie instead.
"You ever," Troy starts, stops, starts again. "You ever wonder if you ever really knew someone?"
"People can surprise you," Annie says, gathering her bathrobe around herself close, smiling slightly at Troy. "Is that what you mean?"
"Yeah, that's pretty much what I mean," Troy says. "I feel so –"
"Special?" Annie says, finishing his sentence.
"No," Troy says. He's had enough of people filling his sentences for one night. "Stupid. You ever feel really stupid?"
"Yes," Annie says, blinking quickly.
"I feel really stupid."
"You're not stupid," Annie says.
"I'm kind of stupid," Troy says, blinking slowly, staring out beyond the world.
"No, you're – "
"Come on, Annie."
Annie smiles and looks at the ground. "Is this about the anthropology quiz? Because I told you I think Duncan made up half of the –"
"No," Troy says sharply. "Not school stupid. Life stupid."
"You're not stupid," Annie says, smiling again at the ground, glancing up at Troy coyly once and again. "Is this about anyone in specific?"
"Yeah," Troy says, blinking quickly.
"About not knowing what your relationship really was?" Annie asks carefully.
"Yes," Troy says.
"Maybe," Annie says quietly. "Maybe you are. A little stupid."
"Did you suspect it?"
"Not at all," Troy replies, his voice getting a little too high for comfort.
"But you do now?"
"I kind of have to," Troy mumbles.
"Oh." Annie draws her bathrobe closer around herself again. She bumps into Troy's side just gently, enough to teeter him a bit. It's a moment longer, her slight smiles and Troy not able to reply, Annie just getting up into his space, nudging him this way and that. Troy turns to tell her, to really just get it all out when she leans forward. Clean kiss, but definitely a kiss, the warm and sweet smell of her lips against his. Troy's eyes are open and he can see that Annie's are closed. She kisses him, tilts just a little before pulling away just as quickly.
"Well!" Annie says, high pitched and pulling away, cold spot where she once was. "Goodnight!"
Troy stares where she was just standing. He stares at that spot for a very long time.
Troy takes a deep breath. "What is even happening right now."
It gets cold but Troy stays out on the balcony, sitting with his legs jammed between the bars of the fence and dangling over the edge. He sits there wondering why he can't feel more right now. It's like he's full, full of thoughts and emotions and things that just happened, stuck in a suitcase buckled to bursting and there's nothing left for him to feel but cold and weirdly hollow.
Troy hears the shift of a sliding door, turns to watch as Britta steps out of her motel room and slides the door closed gently behind her like she doesn't want anyone to hear. She pulls a cigarette from behind her ear and lights it with a kind of relish, first delighted breath in and a soft hush of smoke.
Troy watches her for a while. She obviously hasn't seen him, just stands there in bare feet and blowing blue smoke in twits and ribbons into the night.
"Gotcha," Troy says eventually, quiet but enough to make Britta jump.
"Jesus, Troy," Britta says, cradling her cigarette behind her back like he might not notice.
"Don't worry, Batman," Troy mumbles. "Your secret is safe with me." He kicks his legs fitfully, like a toddler on the edge of a kitchen counter. "You didn't quit."
"I did," Britta says, taking another drag. "I only smoke when I'm really – need to."
"When you're all full with words you don't know how to say?" Troy says limply.
Britta looks at Troy for a while, face lit up a little in orange when she pulls a breath. "Something like that." She takes a moment longer. "You okay, Troy?"
"Too many words," Troy says, waving a loose hand at her uselessly. He's stuck between the poles of the balcony like a rag doll, his muscles going all limp and pointless as he tries to make sense of new shapes and sounds.
"Here," Britta says. There's only a foot between their two balconies, hands her half-smoked cigarette over to Troy. He takes it between forefinger and thumb; there's a little ring of pink lipstick around the filter from Britta's mouth. "It helps when I don't know what to say."
Troy looks at the cigarette for a moment. He feels a reflux of football and coaches telling him they'll punch him in the balls if he ever smoked, so he takes a deep breath of it and coughs out a cloud. "Thanks."
"No problem," Britta says, lighting a new cigarette for herself.
It's a soft breeze and a night spread like sheets over a bed, loose and winding around Troy's legs. He just sits there, and a foot away Britta slips her feet between the bars of her balcony and sits there too. They smoke their cigarettes down to nubs and flick them over the edge like falling sparks.
Britta reaches a hand over and Troy takes it, their clasped hands swinging gently as they hold each other over the gap, too filled with words to say anything at all.
They meet for breakfast just past dawn in the little cafe across from the motel. It takes a couple coffees before anyone speaks, and even then it fizzles out like a wet match. Well, Piece talks about his dream loudly, but no one else seems to be able to muster the energy.
Jeff stares down into his coffee taken black (of course); Shirley looks between them all like she missed something somewhere, shading them all with curiosity and the cocked eyebrow Troy's come to dread. Annie keeps her head down as she checks her Blackberry, hair veiling her face, studiously ignoring her mug of tea and plate of fruit and yogurt. Britta keeps looking over at Troy and giving him sympathetic smiles, smiles that Abed watches with detached curiosity, glancing between Troy and Britta and cocking his head every so often like he's listening to something no one else can hear.
"Okay," Jeff says, finally looking up from his coffee. "Who is being weird and why?"
Everyone looks between each other and no one says a word. Annie catches Troy's eye for a moment before dropping her head again.
Jeff groans, draining the last of his coffee. "Okay, let's move on to this morning's itinerary. I'm going to very gently say I told you so, and then someone is going to tell me what happened." Jeff clears his throat. "I told you so. What happened?"
Shirley raises her hands. "Not me."
"Something's weird?" Pierce says, pushing his glasses up his nose. "What's weird?"
Britta gives Troy another sympathetic twitch of her lips. "Innocent."
Jeff turns to look at Troy, then Abed, then Annie. "Well?"
Annie mumbles something behind her hair and shrugs tightly.
"Guys, seriously, I am stuck in a car with you for another three days. We get this out now." Jeff looks between the three of them again. "On the count of three. Three, two, one –"
"Britta still smokes," Troy says quickly. His head is thumping like a hangover, his tongue still wrapped up around the thistle and thorn of something that doesn't make sense. Even if he wanted to describe what happened, he wouldn't know how.
"Traitor," Britta says under her breath.
"Okay, we've got the mislead out of the way, now tell me what happened," Jeff says, his put-on peacemaker voice coming strong, a one-man FEMA clearing up after a hurricane. "The three of you are riding on the roof if you don't say anything."
Troy shrugs. "It's nothing, dude."
"I kissed Troy," Abed says, shrugging easily. "Is that what we're talking about?" He looks at Troy, blinking rapidly, then back to Jeff. "Yeah, that's what happened. Why? Is something wrong?"
Too early for crickets, so they're completely silent.
"Well, that's." Jeff blinks rapidly. "That's a thing."
"You kissed him?" Annie says, finally looking up, her hair falling over her face, just two blinking eyes. "I kissed him."
Troy stares forward, completely silent, looking out the big glass window to the world waking up and yawning with dust from passing cars and big fluffy clouds catching all the morning light like fishing nets. Troy keeps his eyes level, ignoring everything around him, packing all the words he could say down his throat and into his chest.
The only noise from the group is Britta taking out her pack of Parliaments and sliding it over the table to Troy, Britta patting his hand. "I think you need these more than I do."
They pass through all of Tennessee and Georgia and only speak seven words.
Pierce clears his throat just as they leave St. Louis: "Wait, I thought Jeff was the homosexual."
Britta punches Pierce's shoulder until he stops talking.
Troy's excitement about the shuttle launch is pretty much dead when they drive through Cape Canaveral. The city seems to buzz with something new, an energy about the night's rocket, a kind of lifted spirit all wild with space and stars and the fourth of July. It doesn't bleed into the car though, and Troy just sits next to Shirley and tries to ignore the way she keeps glancing over at him every three minutes like he's about to burst into flame.
The visitor's area is a big grassy field about a mile from the launch site. It stands out like science fiction against the world, this big metal tower like a movie set, gleaming rocket fat and lit up with flood lights, standing out from the superstructure like carved ivory.
Jeff drove the whole way from St. Louis, and Troy guesses it's half because he hasn't quite thought of a speech to bring them all together and half because he wanted to pick the music. When he pulls up in the visitor's area, he turns off the car and the seven of them sit there, listening to the car tick cool, all of them frozen in their seats.
"Listen," Jeff says.
It's the big speech. As much as Troy sometimes hates these, right now he could use a big rallying cry of friendship. Some kind of Shakespeare soliloquy that will let him swallow down this knot in his throat. In the last ten hours, nothing has gotten better. Every time before Troy has always been able to high five and make up with Abed in less than twenty-two minutes, but after the third hour Troy was beginning to think maybe something major broke here.
Mostly he just feels stupid, though. He should be able to say something about this. Abed kissed him, after all. It wasn't even bad, it wasn't even like Troy hated his guts for doing it, it wasn't like he even disliked being kissed all little and soft and full of good feelings. And then Annie with her sweet smile and her Jim Henson warmth and her lips like Troy tried to stop imagining. It just made Troy freeze up inside, like his brain fizzed and smoked and stopped working. He could see all the thoughts, right there, in his head, but couldn't make them come together in a way that made any sense at all.
"Listen," Jeff says again, fumbling for it this time. "We are. Friends. And friends are awesome. So, uh, let's be friends."
"That's it?" Troy says. "That's what you've got?"
"Yay for friends," Jeff says blankly.
Troy opens the sliding van door and gets out. He doesn't look back, just wanders through the grassy field, past families laying out picnic blankets and news stations setting up their cameras, amateur enthusiasts with clipboards and radios tuned to a live broadcast of the shuttle launch.
He walks for a long time without turning back. He walks until there's no one around him and then he just flops down on the grass, perfectly cross-legged and staring at the beacon of light and the mistake of a road trip (high five? No one to high five.)
"Troy," Annie says gently.
Troy stares ahead. "You fried my brains."
"Oh, Troy –"
"My brains are fried," Troy says.
"I didn't know you two – I thought you were talking about me –"
"You jumped on my face," Troy says blankly. "My face felt weird."
"Did you – did you not like it?" Annie asks quietly.
"You smell like strawberries," Troy murmurs. "I like that."
Abed is with her too, and he starts in quickly: "Was it –"
"Naw," Troy says.
"We were just too –"
"Yeah," Troy says.
"Sorry," Abed finishes.
"I can't deal with this," Troy says, starting to pick at the grass in front of him. There's some movement at the shuttle, things movies, metal arms and claws pulling away from the rocket. He feels stupid just saying it, but he does say it: "I like when things are slow. I like when I know what people are about, y'know? You two just made my face feel weird. Tell my face what you mean, all right?" It's all coming out weird and broken and small, but it's coming out at least. "I wanna know what you mean. I'm not good at figuring that stuff out. I wanna hear you say it."
"We can do that," Annie says gently. They're close to Troy now, he can feel them step a bit closer, spongy grass and hesitant steps. "Troy?"
"Do y'all like me?" Troy asks, his voice just little, finally turning to look back at Annie and Abed, the two of them standing hand in hand behind him, looking down at Troy with eyes just catching the light, the twitch of a half-smile from Abed and Annie's trembling lip.
Annie clears her throat, sitting next to Troy. "It's my shampoo. That smells like strawberries."
"What do I smell like?" Abed adds quickly, sitting on Troy's other side.
"Peanut butter," Troy says automatically, wriggling his hips to dig into his spot a little deeper. "Not crunchy. Smooth peanut butter."
"Cool," Abed says.
Annie puts her hand over Troy's clasped hands, bunched in the cross of his legs. Abed does the same, covering Annie's, covering Troy's. They hold hands for a while, the buzz of the air getting louder, something definitely happening with the rocket. Some vague countdown of louder voices, of the flicker of lights starting to live and crawl along the body of the space shuttle.
"Why now?" Troy asks.
"Road trip," Abed says.
"Road trip," Annie says too.
They let go of each other, just enough to high five each other in little pats. Just the rules of a good road trip, high fiving the words like a prayer.
The countdown has begun by the time of the rest of the group joins up, sitting in a neat line between the three of them, Pierce and Shirley arguing about who is paying more for gas, Jeff and Annie correcting each other as they try to work out the melody for Lost in Space. Abed and Annie's hands are clasped over Troy's again when the rocket takes off, the three of them huddled together cross-legged in the grass as a trail of fire rips through the sky like a fingerpainting in red and orange and yellow. A great blast of noise and that firework flaring through the night, tearing it in half like a ripped edge of black paper.
Troy's head is still filled with that untranslated language of feelings and questions he still has to ask, still has to figure out on the trip home, and the days and weeks after that. The kissing and the loving it and what the hell that even means; the holding two hands in his own and that feeling like it's good and warm and something he wants to become familiar with. Figuring out Abed, where that spiral begins and when Troy was more than okay with knowing how warm Abed's palms are, the little throaty noise he makes when they kiss on the mouth. The feel of Annie's eyelashes when they flutter closed against his cheeks; the way she puts in Carmex with her little finger and it makes her mouth taste like Christmas candy. It's something Troy wants to try again, maybe a little, but only when he's prepared and has a full hour's notice beforehand.
"That's it?" Pierce says, watching as the rocket gets smaller and smaller, the roar fading into seashells and waves.
"How're we supposed to write a three-thousand word essay on that?" Jeff says.
"What does this even have to do with Anthropology?" Britta grunts.
"Coulda watched this on the news," Shirley says.
"Shut up, guys," Abed snaps. "We're having a moment."
They shut up.
Troy watches the rocket rise and rise until it's a twitchy little spot in the sky, a new star thrown up into the night. He stares at it wide-eyed and open-mouthed, just can't stop staring. It's awesome, it's really awesome and he really wants to tell them how awesome it is. Bubbling up in his chest, more words that Troy can't turn into something that makes any sense. Like a flick of magic, a trail of dust and seven astronauts thrown into orbit and he watched it happen. Troy wants to share it, what he's feeling, but he's not Jeff, Troy can't make this into a speech. Instead, he squeeze's Annie's hand, Abed's hand, and they squeeze back. That seems like a good enough start.