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Introduction to Federal Investigation

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Q: Please state your name for the record.

A: Abed Nadir.

Q: Mr. Nadir, in your own words—

A: In my own words?

Q: Yes, in your own words, could you—

A: Okay, we can do Rashomon. Personally, I think by the time a storytelling gimmick makes its way to CSI, the shine’s off the chrome, but I guess the FBI isn’t really going to be a bastion of narrative innovation. You’re doing the best you can, I get that.

Q: We’re not with the FBI, Mr. Nadir, we’re with the ATF.

A: Why?

[Here a ten second pause in the interview.]

Q: What do you mean, why?

A: What do you think I mean?

Q: I guess I just kind of fell into it sideways. Everyone in my family has always joined the ATF, I had an ATF baby blanket. It never really felt like there was another option.

A: I understand. My family’s the same way about falafel, except I didn’t have a falafel baby blanket because the merchandising doesn’t really extend that far. But I meant that I don’t really know what the ATF does—you guys don’t have a TV show—so I don’t know why you’re here.

Q: We handle violations related to alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives.

A: Then you should change the name to ATEF. I moved the ‘e’ to give you the vowel there. Then you have the option of just saying it as one word, like NASA.

Q: …Thank you. Mr. Nadir, in your own words, could you please tell me the chain of incidents that led to the explosions on your community college campus?

A: Sure. So, interior: Greendale Community College library, day.

Q: Why are you—

A: Shh.

*

It all started with Troy’s class schedule for fall.

“I didn’t know people still chiseled things in stone,” Pierce said, rapping it with his knuckles. “Good craftsmanship.”

“I don’t like it,” Shirley said. She hugged her purse a little closer. “It feels ungodly.”

Jeff continued sliding the schedule around the table with his pen. He hadn’t directly touched it—“This seems like the kind of thing that’s probably going to be dusted for fingerprints at some point, let’s be honest with ourselves”—but his eyes hadn’t left it since it arrived. “Troy, do you remember when you said you were the Air Conditioning Repair School’s messiah, and we all just shrugged it off because this is Greendale? I’m thinking we might want to revisit that, really go over the fine print this time.”

“It’s like this,” Troy said. “Air conditioning units, they get repaired. But did you ever think about who repairs the guys who repair the air conditioning units?”

“No,” Jeff said. “Because that’s not a joke question like who cuts the barber’s hair or who buries the undertaker.”

Pierce frowned. “Who does cut the barber’s hair?”

“People don’t need repairing,” Annie said.

But Abed knew she knew better than that. Annie might not have lived through the childhood parade of I-promise-this-won’t-hurt needles and I-promise-I-want-what’s-best-for-you reassurances, the ones always delivered in a soothing voice with the worlds overly enunciated, like they thought he’d need to read their lips. And Annie wasn’t in therapy now—or, at least, she had stopped disappearing from the apartment for one hour every Tuesday and coming back with a pocket full of tearstained Kleenex. But Annie had gone through discussions of her feelings in circles and had looked at the potted plant over someone’s shoulder in a little beige office while she’d talked about her parents.

Abed figured there was always a potted plant. Even Britta had one in her apartment, where they met now, sometimes, for him to talk. It was a spider plant. He figured it was dying but also figured mentioning death in a therapy session might be considered a red flag.

The point was: he and Annie both knew sometimes people got called in to fix other people. Or the people even did it themselves, when they wanted to, or when they could.

Of course, the air conditioning units couldn’t. Unless they had their own Skynet. But the repairmen could, and they would want Troy for that.

That didn’t mean they could have him. Especially not when they’d already almost had him once.

The Air Conditioning Repair School was a sarlaac pit that had almost swallowed Troy like Boba Fett, and Boba Fett didn’t get out of the sarlaac pit until the Expanded Universe books, and those weren’t canon in the same way the movies were. He didn’t want to be in a non-canonical version of his own universe. He needed to know that Troy had really made it out.

That was why he had developed what Britta, in their weekly sessions, was calling an eensy-weensy hyper-vigilance problem.

But wherever there was air, the Air Conditioning Repair School had eyes. Abed didn’t think it was paranoia if they’d literally been told that and then it had turned out to be literally true.

“I’m a little jealous, though,” Jeff said. “Eighteen of your twenty-one credit hours are just ‘Enlightenment.’”

Annie frowned. “Not to distract from the central issue here, but I still think our shared class should be something more legitimate than Introduction to Cliché. If we need an English credit, there’s always Transatlantic Poets—”

“Yeah, no,” Britta said. “I like my core curriculum like I like my analogies, in the afternoon and taught by Professor Garrity.”

“Seriously?” Jeff said. “A stone tablet gets put in Troy’s locker and nobody’s concerned?”

“I’m concerned,” Abed said.

“I’m concerned too,” Shirley said. “Troy, you’re only barely hanging on to Christianity by the tips of your fingers and now you’re trying to find enlightenment?” She wrinkled her nose. “It sounds Buddhist.”

Britta rolled her eyes. “Well, God forbid we listen to Buddha.”

“God did forbid it, Britta, in the commandment that we should have no other—”

“Does anyone care if I’m concerned?” Pierce said.

“Actually,” Jeff said, “shockingly, in this one particular matter at this one exact moment, I do.”

Pierce cracked his knuckles—Britta cringed—and stood up, grinning ear-to-ear. “My time has come. Gather round, everyone, and listen to the wisdom accumulated over the course of a lifetime—”

“Pierce,” Annie said, “he’s only asking you because you’re also in a cult.”

“Oh.” Pierce sat down again. “First of all, Buddhism isn’t a cult.”

“You’re not Buddhist,” Britta said.

“And secondly,” Pierce said, “if that’s what you’re after, then yeah, sure, Troy’s Air Conditioning Repair School is about two months away from wearing bracelets made out of their own hair and stockpiling peyote. I lived through the heyday of this kind of thing and my advice, Troy, is enjoy it while it lasts.”

“Don’t take Pierce’s advice,” Jeff said automatically.

“I know,” Troy said. He shrugged. “I know it’s weird. But, okay, hear me out on this: it’s a really easy major.”

“Let him finish!”

“I… am finished?”

“Troy!” Annie smacked him on the arm. “You can’t be in a cult just because they have minimal credit requirements and let you design your own—oh, wait, is Enlightenment with Professor Stuart? She uses undergraduate TAs, right? Could you put my name in?”

“Well, that derailed quickly,” Britta said. “Troy, I think Annie’s point is that you’re getting yourself mixed up in something here that you can’t really understand. I mean, I’ve dabbled in alternative religion. Not so much the religious parts as the group sex and free drugs, but there always comes a point where you look down and realize someone’s drawn a pentagram on your stomach in goat’s blood and there’s an unregistered handgun in your underwear drawer. Oh, and no one’s showered in a week and a half. I don’t want that to happen to you.”

“Amateurs,” Pierce said.

“Wait,” Troy said. “Should I be keeping my underwear in a separate drawer from everything else?”

“Amateurs!”

“Pierce,” Jeff said. “Stop yelling ‘amateurs’ like it’s a bird call.”

“Troy isn’t in a cult,” Pierce said. “Troy’s a cult leader. That’s an entirely different animal. Being in a cult is for mindless sheep—”

“Irony, thy name is Pierce Hawthorne.”

“—but being a cult leader is for real men. Men who want to fleece the gullible and bang the beautiful and enjoy a relationship with the government that’s favorable in its tax-exemption policies. I say we follow Troy around and acquaint ourselves with Honeybee Moonflower or whatever other attractive, reasonably buxom hippie wannabes he’s surrounded himself with.”

“They’re mostly guys named Steve,” Troy said. “A couple Tonys, I guess, and an Abdul.”

“Wait,” Britta said. “Does the Air Conditioning Repair School not have a single female student?”

“Yeah, Britta,” Jeff said. “Because it’s the gender imbalance in Troy’s cult that’s what we really want to focus on here.”

“Whatever, Winger, I can multitask.”

“Abed,” Annie said, “why aren’t you more upset about this? You hate the Air Conditioning Repair School.” She turned to Troy. “While you were gone, he took apart our window unit and buried the parts in different corners of the park.”

“I’m still gathering information,” Abed said, which wasn’t entirely true. “When the time is right, I’m going to strike. And they’ll never see it coming.”

The Dean had been passing by the door to the study room and that seemed to prompt him to poke his head inside: “I think I’d be a little remiss not to mention that that’s the kind of language people tend to find a little concerning, though statistically speaking, the one it would be worst coming from is Jeffrey.”

“Ooh,” Britta said. “Straight white guy burn.”

The Dean nodded. “Think about Mr. Rad.”

“I spend all my time trying not to,” Jeff said.

*

Q: Mr. Nadir, is there a reason you’re relaying this story in line-by-line dialogue?

A: I find it helps in establishing mood, characterization.

Q: We don’t really need that.

A: That’s an interesting perspective. Strip a narrative of character and all that’s left is plot, but plot enacted by whom, and for what purpose? Then you just have the sound and fury of a later-period Michael Bay movie.

Q: This… this isn’t a movie, though. This is a federal investigation.

A: Well, that explains the lack of popcorn.

Q: Are you deliberately trying to obstruct the progress of this inquiry?

A: Why would I do that?

Q: I don’t know!

A: Would your father have known?

Q: Wait, what?

A: You said everyone in your family had always been in the ATF. And you’re a junior, right? You’re your dad’s legacy, he’s your namesake. Would he have known why I was trying to obstruct your progress? Actually, you know what, never mind, I don’t want to rush things.

Q: My father—

A: I’m not trying to obstruct your investigation. I just think it’s important to have all the details. If you listen, you’re getting the whole story. We were all worried about Troy—well, everyone except Pierce was worried about Troy, although only Shirley cared from a religious perspective. She thought he was imperiling his soul.

Q: This is, for the record, Troy Barnes.

A: The one and only. Were the finger-guns inappropriate given the setting?

Q: They were fine.

A: I’m never sure.

Q: Would you mind—dialing the realism back a notch? More information, fewer distractions?

A: Like a title card.

Q: Yes. Exactly.

*

Greendale Community College had stood for ninety years and might stand for ninety more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Greendale, and whatever walked there… walked alone.

*

Q: That’s the beginning of The Haunting.

A: I just meant as an example. Are you getting a headache? You’re wincing and you keep rubbing your temples. I have aspirin.

Q: Not enough.

A: I think I’m done with the warm-up. I can deliver exposition now.

Q: That would be amazing. Thank you.

*

Abed had the realization when they were tearing down the Dreamatorium wallpaper in what had since become Troy’s bedroom. He had a long strip of paper in his hands and the thin, dizzying, flat smell of wallpaper paste in his nose, and Troy had a little bit of wallpaper stuck to his shoe. And Abed was looking at that—he fixated on small things sometimes, strange things—and he was going to tell Troy about it.

Then he didn’t, because he had a depressingly ordinary epiphany.

He realized he wasn’t going to step forward, stick the toe of his shoe to the strip of wallpaper stuck on the toe of Troy’s, and kiss him. It was the perfect time to do it, and he wasn’t going to do it. It wasn’t like a movie, it was like a snapshot, and he didn’t know what to do with it.

Romance was supposed to look like Jeff and Britta—a little bit of sniping, a little bit of pining, some classic will they or won’t they Moonlighting business. Jeff and Britta’s reluctance to fully, officially cooperate with the plan was just a wrench in the works.

Or romance could look like Shirley and Andre—a little bit of groveling, a second chance. Family Christmases with reindeer sweaters.

Or Jeff and Annie. Innocent, tough as nails ingénue thaws the ice prince. The jerk with the heart of gold learns to step up.

Or Troy and Britta. Girl learns to appreciate niceness. Jock gains sensitivity, becomes true to himself, and attracts the love of an antiauthoritarian girl.

There was no good narrative for him and Troy. It wasn’t that they were both guys, it was more like why he hadn’t wanted them to move in together after their first year at Greendale. The lack of conflict would lead to worse conflict. You couldn’t just get along with someone for years, sharing pillow forts and handshakes, and then slide into something else. That wasn’t a story. That wasn’t an arc. The abrupt transformation of friendship into longing ran the risk of feeling forced, the solution to dramatic and comedic inertia, Joey and Rachel on Friends.

He didn’t have a roadmap, or at least not a good one And that meant he didn’t know how to play it. He was just a boy standing in front of another boy not telling that boy that he loved him, and no one would ever make a movie out of that.

He couldn’t just suddenly announce that he’d figured something out. And he didn’t know what he had figured out that he hadn’t known already. Not that the feeling was there, because he must have at least guessed it. More like he hadn’t realized before that there was any potential problem. He could just fool himself that the two parallel lines would converge at some point in the future.

And now, not.

This was his recurring problem: not realizing flaws in his storytelling until after the filming was over.

Maybe it was the Dreamatorium being taken down that was making him feel this way. Like he’d ripped something else out with it.

He said, “You have paper stuck to your shoe,” and his voice sounded funny, tinny. Off-key.

“Oh, thanks,” Troy said. He bent down and peeled it off and then, walking up to Britta, wrapped it around her sleeve like an armband.

“What’s that for?” she said, smiling down at it a little nervously, her teeth against her lower lip.

Troy shrugged. “For your dreams.”

*

Q: I’m really only here to discuss the explosions on campus, and how they might relate to any weaponry that may have been gathered by Mr. Barnes’s followers—

A: I’m going to get to all that. Do you want a flash-forward?

Q: Oh, God, yes.

A: Okay. Two months after that conversation in the library—

*

“I figured it out,” Troy said, shaking Abed awake. He had a rigid, fixed smile and wide eyes, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining or Pyle in Full Metal Jacket or really almost anybody in any Stanley Kubrick movie. Abed had always liked the Kubrick stare, which took facial expressions to the kind of extreme that even he could easily interpret, but he liked it less in person in the middle of the night. It wasn’t the ideal time to be reminded of The Shining.

“Ahh,” Abed said loudly, not screaming but emphasizing that he thought it might have been a good idea. He trusted Troy to pick up on that.

“Oh, I know, buddy,” Troy said. “But I figured it out.”

Abed sat up and rubbed his eyes. “You figured what out?”

“How to fix it. How to repair everything.”

“Vague, all-inclusive language is exactly the kind of thing Jeff said we should keep an eye on.”

“I know,” Troy said again. If anything, his smile widened. “I can see it all so clearly now.”

“That’s on the list too.”

“It’s all coming together,” Troy said. “Soon, it’ll all be over.”

Abed said, “I’m just going to make a quick couple of phone calls.”

*

Q: So, wait, Troy Barnes was a knowing participant in the cult’s activities during the period leading up to—

A: I didn’t say that.

Q: But you said—

A: No, you’re over-interpreting. It was just a typical flash-forward. A cheap device used by authors who don’t trust their stories to gather narrative momentum on their own. All you know is that two months after Troy got his class schedule, he woke me up in the middle of the night with urgent, unspecified news of some kind of epiphany. It didn’t really give you any useful information, flash-forwards never do. That’s why they’re unrealistic and trite. Who wants to keep checking in on a future where people are never exactly talking about whatever’s just happened?

Q: Then why offer to do it?

A: I’m always vulnerable to formal experimentation. Remind me to tell you about the time I made a film about the life of Jesus.

Q: Yeah, I’m not going to do that.

A: That’s fair. It was crap. But I learned a lot of important lessons about plot on it, namely, that you should have one, because no amount of stylistic pyrotechnics will compensate for an utter lack of substance. Do you think we could have this conversation in front of some sort of bulleting board with suggestive names and photographs? I want to lean into the device.

Q: No.

A: No flexibility on that?

[Here a fifteen second pause in the interview.]

A: All right, I’ll go straightforward. No more gimmicks. Well, minimal gimmicks. If Soderbergh hadn’t had a couple tricks up his sleeve when he made Ocean’s 11, his reputation would have suffered from doing a hackneyed studio remake. I’m Soderbergh. But okay. So Troy was scheduled to take Enlightenment and Introduction to Cliché, the class we were all taking together, and everyone was worried about the air conditioning repairmen. They’d started leaving burned incense in all the cooling units.

Q: And you realized you’d fallen in love with your best friend.

A: No, I realized it was dramatically uninteresting that I’d fallen in love with my best friend and that, consequently, I couldn’t see the plausibility of my own love story.

Q: That… actually sounds awful. I’m sorry.

A: Yeah. Sorry to get all emotional. Okay. Straightforward.

*

Introduction to Cliché was taught by Professor Garrity, who said that for the duration of the semester, he would wear only corduroy jackets with elbow patches and would carry a pipe at all times, though he would leave it unlit to comply with the school’s no smoking policy.

“A toothless gesture of anti-authoritarianism that ultimately risks no real disapproval. A third cliché of academia. I will manifest seven others over the course of our time together, and you will be expected to name them on your final, so please, be attentive. I’ll now sort you into seemingly random groups that will nonetheless perfectly encapsulate some microcosm of society, or at least some microcosm of a John Hughes movie.”

He sorted the study group together.

“You fit the pattern to some extent,” he said, “but also I’ve been warned in advance that generally no other students will work with you.”

The rest of the class looked down at their phones. Jeff was also looking at his phone, but that seemed incidental.

“We’re actually very nice,” Annie said.

Their first assignment was to find the cliché at the heart of each member of their group or, Professor Garrity had amended, looking at Pierce, at least one of the clichés at the heart of each person, if the person were especially prone to a lack of originality.

They weren’t supposed to collaborate, which usually meant that Abed, Shirley, and Annie would still end up sharing some of their work with everyone else and Pierce would draw a penis in a top hat on his paper and then spill Scotch on it.

Abed thought: People are predictable.

It was why he’d wanted to take Introduction to Cliché, because clichés were clichés for a reason, and exploring them was like popping the hood off a car and seeing how the engine worked. He assumed. He wasn’t actually good with cars.

“Okay,” he said to Troy, once they were back in the apartment. Troy was in the blanket fort bedroom with him, wearing a pair of the breakaway pants he’d bought for modern dance. He was eating a powdered sugar donut. Abed found the obsessive detail accumulation of being in love to be kind of exhausting. It would be nice to not always be aware of what Troy was doing, and wearing, and eating. So he said, “Okay,” again, like that would fix things.

It didn’t.

“Okay,” Troy agreed.

“So the way I do this,” Abed said, “is I pretend I’m casting a movie, and I need capsule summaries of each character to give out. Pierce is ‘aging Baby Boomer haunted by the specter of his own irrelevance.’ Jeff is ‘charismatic jerk with a secret heart of gold.’”

Troy licked powdered sugar off his fingers. “What am I?”

“I don’t know.” Everything he could think of for Troy seemed to have some overlapping circle with either a contradiction or a refinement that made it not the same thing at all. Sometimes, he knew, subversions to clichés, or complications to clichés, could become clichés on their own, like Jeff or sad clowns or CSI. But Troy wasn’t like that. That was another thing that was worrying.

“According to the Air Conditioning Repair School,” Troy said, “I’m an avatar of kindness and pure vision.”

“That’s not really a cliché, though. That’s just standard deification.”

“Are you really worried about this?” Troy looked disappointed to have finished his donut and kept licking his fingers in between words like he’d find more sugar there eventually. “About the A/C School, I mean?”

Abed shrugged. “I don’t trust them.”

“But Murray’s gone now.”

“I don’t know who Murray is.”

“The one who murdered Vice Dean Laybourne.”

“I only barely know who Vice Dean Laybourne was. I don’t not like the school because it was temporarily run by someone who murdered the person who used to run it, I don’t like it because it won. And then it only lost because of an arcane religion, which no one could have predicted or controlled. It was a total genre-hop.”

“Yeah, I also saw a ghost,” Troy said.

“See? Unpredictable.”

“But I’m basically in charge of the A/C School now,” Troy said. “I mean, they’re back to being under the real dean, but once a week they give me a cashier’s check from all the offerings and write down my dreams in case they’re prophecies. And I don’t have to live there anymore. It didn’t look like your old dorm room, by the way, everything was made out of chrome. The pillows were very uncomfortable.”

“Okay,” Abed said. “Cool. Cool, cool, cool.”

Troy grinned. “I put that on our crest.”

“Really?”

“I was going to wait to show you, but—” Troy hopped down off the bed and went into his room and came back holding a shiny-fronted recruitment A/C school recruitment brochure. The crest was a haloed Troy doing the Fonzie thumbs-up with the words FRIGUS FRIGUS FRIGUS encircling him in icy blue letters.

“That’s an improvement on our actual crest,” Abed said.

“I lobbied for the butt stuff one, but they said it had to be this.”

Abed nodded. Of course it had to be Troy. He’d found himself thinking that a lot lately.

Troy frowned. “Don’t you like it?”

*

Q: Did you?

A: It was the coolest gift anyone had ever given me. And Jeff once gave me a Pulp Fiction birthday party.

Q: So why did Troy think you didn’t?

A: Because all I could think of was that he’d gone somewhere and posed for this and I hadn’t even known about it. Even thinking back, I wasn’t sure when he’d done it. There was a wedge between us—I thought maybe because I was in love and he wasn’t. Or because he was being worshipped as a god and I wasn’t, which is also possible. I thought you only wanted to talk about what was pertinent to your investigation. The explosions.

Q: Right. Of course.

A: Actually, I wouldn’t mind a break, if you had anyone else you needed to interview. My throat’s getting kind of dry.

Q: We can do that. Recharge. Focus.

A: Focus on what?

Q: I was kind of talking to myself.

*

“Thank you, everyone,” Professor Garrity said. “Your responses to the assignment were illuminating and not illuminating, as is true of all good clichés. Britta Perry, however—I’d like to see you after class.”

Everyone ooh-ed, like they were in the fifth grade. Britta put her hands in her jacket pockets and fidgeted, took the wrapper off a stick of gum without looking at it, which she felt, in the moment, someone should have been impressed by, like she’d knotted a cherry stem with her tongue. She shooed the group out—Annie’s curiosity was almost as bad as Shirley’s pity—but then didn’t like that they’d gone so easily. Seriously, the one time they decided to give each other personal space had to be right now?

She stayed in her chair, not willing to enter into the power imbalance of standing while he was sitting, but then he stood up and made her feel short, so then she stood up, and then he leaned against his desk: well-played, Professor Garrity.

“Miss Perry,” he said. “The assignment was to find a cliché that described the other members of your group.”

“I… did that?”

“Yes, you did. You also picked one to describe yourself, which went beyond the parameters. I’m curious as to why.” He gave her the drama teacher look that said he was two minutes away from asking her to put her hands in the air and imagine herself as a tree.

She shrugged, weirdly nervous for some reason. “I just thought you meant all of us, me included.”

“I could ask about the cliché you used to describe yourself,” he said, “but I won’t. You get an A, of course, and your description of Mr. Winger as a ‘classic sexy heap of bad decisions and pretension’ was especially memorable.” He handed her the paper, like she was going to put it on her fridge. Well, maybe she would, given how few A’s she’d gotten even at Greendale.

“Thanks,” she said suspiciously.

“Do you know why I don’t ask students to assign clichés to themselves?”

“You don’t want to read one more line per page?”

“There are nights when that’s true, especially when I’ve been drinking and the existential loneliness of teaching English and the Performing Arts in a hellhole that smells of turpentine and Cheetos begins to sink in. But no. I don’t ask because we all know people aren’t clichés, not really. We know that, but we find it easier to flatten others, make them into objects. Poorly-treated sex partners. Parents not to call. True connection eludes us, chased on by—”

“I have another class at two,” Britta said.

“A monologue for another time, then.” He eased off the edge of his desk.

“Right.” She turned to go and was almost to the door when he said her name again. “What?”

“The secret of great acting,” Professor Garrity said, “is understanding the interiority of your character. The dreams. The ill-fitting underwear. The childhood fear of animal crackers. Understanding that everyone, even the antagonist, thinks they’re the hero of the piece. You should consider that.”

She smiled. She’d noticed over the last year or so that her smile had gotten wobbly somehow, like she was afraid to commit to it. “I thought it was Professor Whitman who did the whole Dead Poets Society inspirational teacher shtick. This is just you trying to fit in another cliché. I’m the troubled student and you’re the charismatic professor who’s going to raise my self-esteem. And by the end of the semester I’ll, what, have a scholarship to transfer to a regular college? And you’ll have died of cancer or something.”

“Not impossible. I have a number of bad lifestyle habits, any one of which could lead to an early death. But the bell rang some time ago, Miss Perry, and unless I’ve somehow ensnared myself with the Dean, I don’t put in that kind of effort outside of class.” He shrugged. “Just try to keep it in mind.”

*

Q: I’m starting to think no one here understands what the word “relevant” means.

A: Hey, this is the most cooperative I’ve ever been with the federal government. I mean, given what’s got to be in my file, you should be shocked.

Q: What file?

A: I don’t have a file?

Q: Have you… been involved in a federal investigation before?

A: Our lives are a federal investigation! An ongoing one, without due process or—

Q: Oh, wait, here you are in our system. Britta Perry. This is very official.

A: You’re just looking at Facebook, aren’t you?

Q: Yes, but we can pretend I’m not.

[Twenty second pause in interview.]

A: I can live with that.

Q: Now that we’ve wrapped that up, can you, again, please give me your own accounting of the events that led up to the explosions?

A: That’s what I was doing. If Professor Garrity hadn’t gotten me to think about this pattern I’d fallen into of self-critical self-limitation—I’m sorry to get technical with you, I’m a psych major—I never would have been able to give Abed any good advice about Troy.

*

Britta said something.

Abed said, “That’s really good advice.”

*

Q: I don’t think you cleared any of that up for me.

A: Well, we had doctor-patient confidentiality.

Q: You’re not a doctor.

A: No, Abed doesn’t like doctors.

Q: You seem to think that was a reasonable response to what I just said, and I promise it wasn’t. –Look, I have to ask, is this all an elaborate practical joke? Did my sister put you up to this? Are there hidden cameras here?

A: Well, only in the air conditioning vents.

Q: What?

A: Do you want to talk about your feelings about your sister?

Q: No!

A: You know what? I don’t like talking about my family either. Look, I’d help you if I could—I mean, I wouldn’t, really, but since I can’t anyway, let’s say that I would—but I can’t. Abed would never trust me again if I talked with someone else about one of his sessions. But… he might have talked about it to Annie. They’re roommates too. And she could interpret him a little for you.

Q: Okay, that’s Annie Edison—wait. I don’t actually need to know what advice you gave to Abed Nadir, I only need to know about the events leading up to the explosions.

A: You can’t understand that without understanding Troy, though. And you can’t understand Troy without understanding Abed. And in this particular case, you can’t understand Abed without talking to Annie.

Q: I need, right now, for you to tell me something useful. I just—really need that. As a person.

A: And then you’ll talk to Annie?

Q: And then I’ll talk to Annie.

*

“I just think you might find some of our recent literature helpful,” Troy said.

Britta studied the pamphlet he’d given her, which featured a beleaguered mom with an eighties haircut standing in front of a presumably broken air conditioning unit. Sweat was rolling down her face. IS THIS YOUR LIFE? the pamphlet inquired. Not really, she wanted to tell it, because the super was actually pretty good at getting repair guys out quickly, but okay, she’d bite. She opened it up.

A beatific-looking Troy with a wrench in one hand and some sort of swirling blue vortex in the other had appeared in the woman’s living room, and cold air—represented by little snowflakes—was now blowing out all around the room. The woman’s smile extended, slightly disturbingly, past the edges of her face.

FIND PEACE WITH THE TRUEST REPAIRMAN.

“Wow,” Britta said. “You can take the Jehovah’s Witness out of the Watchtower but not the Watchtower out of the Jehovah’s Witness.”

“Laugh all you want, Britta—”

“I didn’t laugh, I just mocked.”

“—but look how happy I made that single mom with those four kids.”

“Yeah, I think the kids you have on the cover are different from the kids you have on the inside of the pamphlet.”

Troy’s smile faded. “Why is everybody giving me such a hard time about this?”

“About founding a cult? Duh-doy, Troy, because cults are bad.”

“I didn’t found it. I just—go along with it.”

“Well, if everybody else in your cult jumped off a bridge, you’re not supposed to want to jump too.”

“I don’t think they’d all jump off a bridge unless I told them to,” Troy said. “Sounds like somebody doesn’t understand how cults work.”

She folded her arms. “Seriously, Troy, what are you getting out of this? You’re like the one of us least likely to get hung up on some kind of power trip. You never had a chicken finger empire or let Pierce drown in the parking lot. Or, like, anything Jeff does. This isn’t like you.”

“What, making people feel better?”

“You can make people feel better without getting a tax-exemption and palling around with Sea Org, and you always did before. I don’t like this side of you, Troy.” She breathed in. She could trust herself. She knew herself better than they knew her, maybe—well enough to know that she wasn’t a cliché, the Britta of Britta-ing everything.

And if there was one thing she knew, it was how easy and tempting it was to become the person other people wanted you to be, especially if they acted, at least at first, like it was something good. Lose your baby fat and wear lip gloss and style your hair, be that boy’s pretty girlfriend and learn what brand of mouthwash does the best job hiding the fact that you smoke, and all that’ll work until he decides you’re too uptight, too high-maintenance, and he wants someone who can relax. Smile when you’re the butt of the joke because it makes you more approachable, takes the sourness out of your mouth, makes it seem less like you care that people aren’t listening to you, or are only remembering the dumb stuff you say, never the crap they actually should listen to you, because, hey, it’s good to be an established commodity, good to be a goofball minus all the severity.

So she lifted her chin. “We’re all worried about you.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to me.”

“We’re worried about the guy you’re turning into. Not what other people are going to do to you—what you’ll end up doing to yourself. Or other people.”

“Wow,” Troy said. “Yeah, Britta, I’m one more sacrificially-smashed furnace away from poisoning everybody’s Kool-Aid.”

“Trust me on this. It’s not actually hard to hurt other people. You don’t have to be a special kind of shitty person. You can just do it. And you’re doing it already, you’re hurting Abed.”

He almost looked stricken—not quite the “accidentally listened to ‘Come Sail Away’” face but pretty close to the “accidentally listened to ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’” face. He said, “I’m not hurting Abed. I’d never hurt Abed. And, you know, everyone’s always trying to protect Abed, but—he’s the one who’s moving away from me. I’m just trying to help people and he’s—a distant satellite of a distant moon.”

That was a quote from Inspector Spacetime, and Britta knew that. But it made her a little teary anyway.

*

Q: Amazingly, I think that was actually helpful. So Troy Barnes, at least at the time you had this conversation, seemed to have no destructive plans.

A: None at all. Troy can barely destroy a blanket fort. You’ll talk to Annie about Abed?

Q: I’ll talk to Annie about Abed, but honestly, I feel like this entire day would go so much faster if just one person would, in a succinct fashion, tell me why one air conditioning repair school blew up another air conditioning repair school and why, for that matter, one of the air conditioning repair schools had a thriving cult.

A: And how, economically, the city employs the graduates of two entirely different air conditioning repair schools?

Q: You know, that one hadn’t occurred to me, but you’re right, that’s strange. You’re an insightful person, Miss Perry, I can see why your friends come to you for advice.

A: …Do you really mean that?

Q: Why wouldn’t I? Oh my God, please don’t cry. What is wrong with this school?

*

“That I look good in purple and should wear it more.”

“That the decline of the women’s picture in Hollywood signaled the beginning of the current backlash against feminism.”

“That fortune cookies are overrated.”

*

Q: None of that is what I’m looking for.

A: You just said, “What did Abed Nadir say Britta Perry said to him that he thought was true?” That could be any number of things. And she’s right, he does look good in purple.

Q: She’s right about the women’s picture, too.

A: But wrong about fortune cookies.

Q: Eh, they’ve gone downhill. But what I meant was what did she say to him about Troy Barnes that somehow relates to things blowing up.

 

A: Oh, that. Well. You should have been more specific.

Q: Miss Edison, at what point did you think I, as an ATF agent, would need to know that Abed Nadir looks good in purple?

A: I don’t know! Abed and Britta both said you were nice, that you really seemed to care about them as people.

Q: I don’t!

A: Sorry, sheesh. Our mistake.

Q: I’m sorry, that came out harsher than I meant it to. You’re all—you’re all very nice.

A: Aww, that’s so sweet! I can see why they liked you.

*

Abed came home in a good mood, a better mood than Annie had seen him in for the last few weeks: he hummed as he gathered up a bowl of Cap’n Crunch and chocolate milk, and that in and of itself was another sign, because he’d been eating nothing but dry Chex-Mix for the last week and a half. Annie had started doing internet research on scurvy. Pure sugar wasn’t much of an improvement, but it at least showed a little spirit, a little can-do attitude, nutritionally.

“How’s it going?” she said experimentally.

Abed tilted his head. “Pretty good. I think I’ve eliminated the need for therapy.”

Unlikely, but she could be optimistic. “Cool. I mean, my old counselor will be bummed, I think she still has some student loans to pay off, but in the grand scheme of humanity—”

“Britta said almost all first dates are dinner and a movie.”

“And… that eliminated the need for therapy?”

Abed nodded and took a crunchy bite of cereal. A little film of chocolate milk stayed on his lips. “Not all at once. But gradually.”

Annie nodded a couple of times, trying to process this, and then gave up. “You’re maybe going to have to give me just a little bit more than that.”

“I can’t be with Troy because I don’t have a cinematic frame of reference for it.”

She gasped. “Abed! You’re interested in Troy?”

“It’s a really popular interest,” Abed said. “You. Me. Britta. Jeff when he’s been drinking.” He was talking in the quick, disinterested way he always did when he was trying to skate over some kind of emotion without falling into it, like the ice wouldn’t crack if he just kept moving. But then he seemed to remember that he had, maybe, some reason to be happy, and his mouth relaxed a little bit into a smile. “When it comes to Troy, I’m—comfortable. And I didn’t really know that I wasn’t comfortable before I knew him, like if you thought your shoes always came with pebbles inside them.”

Annie reflexively curled her own toes inside her shoes, checking for comfort, not knowing if she had that or not. She didn’t know what her feet or her heart were supposed to feel like, really. How was she supposed to?

She shook her head. This was about Abed, and Abed and Troy, and it wasn’t like she had never considered them before, as a couple—everyone who even saw them in a room together for longer than a minute considered them as a couple—but more like what they already had was so complete that she hadn’t realized anything was missing. She said as much.

“Well, there’s sex,” Abed said. “And kissing.”

“I meant more on an emotional level.” Not that she couldn’t see the appeal. Troy’s Modern Dance leotard had been pretty revealing. “So you’re in love? You want to write his name in Puffy Paint on your binder and buy him flowers and hold his hand? I’m just spit-balling relationship stuff here, ignore me. It’s just going to be so great to finally have a relationship in the group that feels semi-functional. I like it. It’s very Greendale 2.0. But you have feelings? Squishy, fluttery feelings?”

“There’s that, too, but I can’t explain it. I want to run a highlighter over him, or at least point out that I already did. Does that make sense?”

“It does,” Annie assured him. “Abed, I’m really happy for you.”

“But nothing’s happened yet. I haven’t told him, and if he feels anything for me, besides friendship, he hasn’t said anything either. But I think I figured out how to have the conversation.”

“Please tell me it’s just you taking Troy out to dinner and telling him you have feelings for him.”

Abed shook his head. “That’s My Dinner with Andre, not a romance. And I did that already, he deserves something exclusive. But I don’t have the time for When Harry Met Sally, and we didn’t have the initial antagonism, not really, so there’s no reason to watch. There’s no arc. That’s what I was telling Britta.”

She was having some trouble keeping up with this. “So she… planned a first date for you?”

“Better.” He smiled the Don Draper smile. Annie’s collar started to feel too tight around her throat. “She told me the order it goes in. First you do the movie, so even if everything goes badly, you’ll have something to talk about during dinner. And when it comes to romance, to a relationship, you need both. The thing you experience together and then the way you deal with it together. And Troy and I are just watching a movie without a romance in it, that’s what our friendship has been so far.”

“Okay,” she said slowly.

“So maybe it’s time for the movie to be over, and for me to say, okay, let’s talk about what we’ve seen, and whether or not it could have been improved with what Pauline Kael called ‘kiss kiss bang bang.’ The bangs are supposed to be gunshots, I’m not jumping to conclusions on what will happen after the kissing.”

She tried to keep her voice gentle. “Or even if there will be any kissing? Do you know if Troy likes guys?”

“He likes Clive Owen.”

She seesawed her hand. “Well, I don’t know that that counts, everybody likes Clive Owen. My zayde likes Clive Owen, he always says, ‘Now there’s a handsome man.’ It could just be an exception.”

“I don’t think a lack of bisexuality was keeping me and Troy from dating,” Abed said. “I think I was.”

“And the cult.”

“And the cult. I really feel in retrospect that we shouldn’t have taken a class on clichés right as Troy became the leader of a cult. I saw two A/C school students wearing orange robes yesterday, I’m worried it’s going to catch on. But maybe that’s another sign that Britta’s right. The recent ramping up in clichés is another sign that we’re in a bad, poorly thought-out movie that just needs its credits to roll already.”

*

Q: Why did you stop?

A: That’s it. Well, then he just started talking about whether or not we had enough pasta left to make buttered noodles.

Q: He’d just gotten advice that would stop his heart from being broken and he was… hungry?

A: I mean, there are some things you just don’t want to tackle on an empty stomach. But he had to anyway, we actually were out of pasta.

Q: I think it’s time I talk to Troy Barnes.

A: You have all the intel you need now?

Q: Not remotely, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that I’m never going to get to it. And you’re going to tell me to, what, talk to Jeff Winger and Shirley Bennett? To Pierce Hawthorne?

A: Oh, I’d never tell anyone that they had to talk to Pierce.

Q: Let me just ask you one more question. Why did Troy tell Britta that Abed was moving away from him?

A: You think that’s related to the explosions?

Q: Not remotely.

Q: Then why…

A: Because apparently this is just what I do now, with my life.

Q: See, now you really should talk to Jeff, because he has this whole theory that Greendale is an elaborate psychological study designed to break people down into a state of acceptance. He said he’d write a paper on it if he were ever going to willingly write a paper on anything.

A: Miss Edison, please.

Q: It’s because Abed was moving away from him. He took bad advice.

A: Who gave him bad advice?

*

“Look,” Jeff said, “I want to give you some really good advice.”

Abed tilted his head. “People always want to do that. Nine times out of ten, it isn’t really that helpful.”

“But in this case it will be, because it’s from personal experience.”

“That’s not a good argument. If you knew how to live your life the way you wanted it, you wouldn’t be here.”

“Okay, the fact that you’re going to this much trouble to not be given advice makes me think that you know you really need advice. Am I right?”

Abed shrugged. He had always been skinny, a collection of joints and sharp edges with an enviably low percentage of body fat, but it was only in the last few weeks that he’d somehow turned “skinny” into “gaunt.” It wasn’t so much like he’d lost weight as like he was casting different and less flattering shadows on himself, hollowing his cheeks and socking in bruises underneath his eyes, trading freakish fluidity of movement for jerky puppeteering. Jeff knew Abed—maybe knew Abed better than he knew anyone else—and he knew how Abed was feeling. (Take that, psychopath checklist. Tell him he didn’t have empathy.)

“You’re not doing great right now, right?”

“I’m on cloud nine, Jeff. I’m tap-dancing on the ceiling and the inside of my head is a musical.”

“Wait,” Jeff said, because this seemed important to clarify, “literally? Like Christmas?”

“Not literally. I don’t have the mental vivacity right now to do music and lyrics.”

He’d gotten to a point in his life where that made perfect sense to him. He traced a gouge in the study room table with his thumb, trying to remember which one of them had put it there. “I hallucinated a musical once too, for what it’s worth. Or daydreamed one, I guess.”

A tiny flicker of interest. “What was it about?”

“Happy normalcy and no Pierce.” He hesitated. “I thought if I could fix one thing—the fact that we have a friend who is a racist, sexist, homophobic, insert offensive characteristic of your choice jackass—then everything would be better. Or if I could sleep with the right person. Or, I guess, if we had the right dance number.”

“What changed?”

“I hemorrhaged my bank account for a ton of therapy.”

Abed nodded. “I’m in therapy already.”

“You’re in therapy with Britta. Which isn’t therapy, it’s sitting in a room and talking to Britta.”

“I gotta say, you coming to me and saying I should maybe consider seeing a specialist isn’t exactly new advice that nobody’s ever given me before. Allow me to introduce you to my entire childhood. I’ll give you my dad’s phone number, he’ll name the doctors for you.”

“That you should get therapy wasn’t my point,” Jeff said. Although, yeah, he had to think it wouldn’t hurt. They could even all go with him, which at least would give them a halfway decent shot at telling whether or not the doctor was legit or another Chang-sourced scam to convince them Greendale was a collective delusion. “My point is—we’ll never be normal. No matter what we do, or who we date, or whether or not Pierce is alive. I had to stop trying.”

“Trying isn’t really your thing.”

“True, but in this case, I was only trying because I wanted something so much.”

“For us to be normal?”

“For us to be happy. And I had to say—maybe, in the end, there’s no magic bullet. There’s nothing that’s going to give me what I want, and if I had what I wanted, I’d probably just start wanting something else. So maybe it was better—for me and for you guys both—to just… stop wanting.”

Abed was looking at him with a kind of flat curiosity, which at least was better than nothing. “You must have had kind of a nihilistic therapist.”

“Yeah, she was really into disconnecting from life. I eventually worked out that she was in Pierce’s cult.”

“Cults are really in right now,” Abed said.

That was as close as he came to saying what Jeff already knew. Hell, what he guessed all of them had known since freshman year, one way or another, even Shirley, who hadn’t wanted to. They had trusted that things would go a certain way, that things would eventually happen by themselves, that the dumb predictability of Abed and Troy eventually mashing their mouths together, probably at the end of some kind of weird rom-com homage, was not just dumb and predictable but inevitable. They’d been coasting. Like Greendale would be normal in this one little way, would just let two plus two equal four. And instead they had Abed pining and curling up on himself like a dying armadillo and Troy just—bright and glittering. Cult leader had to be the Greendale equivalent of jock, right? They’d gone backwards. Not nerd loves nerd but nerd loves campus hero: adios to inevitability.

“They really are,” Jeff said. “I could never have seen that coming.”

“No. Me neither. Kind of out of left field.”

“Sometimes you just have to say—this place doesn’t make any sense, people don’t make any sense. Things don’t happen the way you want them to.”

Abed tilted his head again. “So stop caring?”

*

Q: That is genuinely terrible advice.

A: I was trying to help!

Q: Why not just tell him to talk to Troy about his feelings?

 

A: Yeah, I know you’re new here, but “open and direct communication” isn’t really in our emotional wheelhouse. Abed and I were both raised by TV, we know the benefits of turning the set off every once in a while. And it worked for me.

Q: You don’t exactly seem like the pinnacle of psychological health.

A: Look, I love Abed. I’d do anything for him. If I thought I knew a better way of stopping him from getting hurt, I’d do that. Things weren’t happening the way they were supposed to! Bailing was the only sensible solution!

Q: But you’re still here! You didn’t stop caring about anything! You just literally said that you wanted your friend to be happy! You’re not a charismatic jerk with a heart of gold, you’re a… good-looking weirdo and compulsive fixer with a heart of squishy over-attachment and poor self-knowledge. Which isn’t even a cliché, so I guess your professor was right.

A: Well, thanks for saying I’m good-looking, anyway.

Q: It was terrible advice. It made Troy think Abed didn’t like him anymore.

A: Okay, that is kind of rough. In retrospect, keeping Abed from being me by giving him the same advice I gave myself was maybe not the most coherent plan.

Q: Keeping him from being you?

[Five second pause.]

A: Keeping him from being lonely.

[Ten second pause.]

Q: I’m sorry.

A: It’s fine. [strange barking noise, distorted: laughter? crying?] I hit one of these little speed-bumps right on schedule every year. Abed says we’re in a sweeps episode. That makes sense, with you being here and everything. Anyway, in the end, none of it mattered. Britta, as much as it pains me to admit this, fixed things.

Q: So Abed and Troy are together now?

A: Like peanut butter and chocolate. Wait, wow, I’m sorry. That sounds really racist given the, you know, the whole—I mean, yeah, they’re together. Dating. Whatever.

Q: So now you’re the only one who’s like you.

[Five second pause.]

A: Probably for the best. [strange barking sound] Anyway, you should talk to Shirley.

Q: Of course I should.

A: Hey, you’re the one who wants to get to the bottom of the explosions. In a way, they’re all Shirley’s fault.

*

“I don’t think I ask for a lot in terms of respect for my religion,” Shirley said primly.

“Yeah,” Troy said. “You barely ever mention it at all all the time always. Never.”

“Sure, make fun of me. But I have grown into a tolerant woman.” Last year, she’d even put a COEXIST bumper sticker on her car for a week and a half before she’d taken it off, and even then she hadn’t thrown it away because she’d decided it was a godless message but because she read on the internet that if bumper stickers stayed on too long, they got hard to remove, ripped off the paint when you were trying to sell later, devalued the car. “But I have asked repeatedly for people in this group to stop proclaiming themselves to be Jesus.”

“Come on, that’s only happened twice.”

“Twice is two times too many! And I expect this kind of thing from Abed, but not from you, Troy. Is this about Abed? Are you doing all this to impress Abed?”

Troy frowned. “First of all, Abed’s not impressed by any of this. Abed’s not even impressed by the fact that I got a crest designed for him, okay? And second of all, what? Actually, no, never mind, I’m sick of everyone assuming that everything I do is about Abed. I would stop doing this if it weren’t for Abed!”

“That’s still about Abed,” Shirley said.

“Then… pretend I said something else. Something non-Abed-related.”

He looked about as tired as Shirley had felt after Ben was born, and that was pretty damn tired: Jordan and Elijah still running around all sugar-high from the candy Andre kept giving them as a bribe to forget he’d ever been gone, the baby crying in his crib, Chang still calling once or twice to see if he could qualify as a godfather. It made something melt inside her. She hugged him and he slumped against her shoulder.

“You want to tell me what’s wrong?”

“Why do you think something’s wrong?”

“As low a bar as this is,” Shirley said, “you’re maybe the most level-headed person we have around here, so you’d probably actually be the last one I’d think would end up in the kind of situation you’ve been in this year.”

“They picked my fingernail clippings out of the trash yesterday,” Troy said into her sweater. “They said they were going to put them in reliquary boxes. I don’t even know what a reliquary box is.”

She patted him on the back for a little bit until he finally pulled back from her, sniffling.

“I don’t know. I like helping people, and it was cool to feel important, and I had just solved a murder, so it felt like I deserved it. But then it was just nice to, you know, be wanted. Because Abed was just—nowhere, all of a sudden, like I’d come back from being gone and then he left, but it was worse because he was still there, do you know what I mean?”

She thought of the last few weeks before Andre had left, how it had felt like a wall of eggshell had grown up between them and she’d lost track of him but was afraid to find him again, because it would mean breaking something and risking breaking everything. They’d had conversations full of long silences, places where she wasn’t asking and he wasn’t admitting. That was a marriage, and a good one, one with children, and so more serious than whatever Troy was talking about, this little tiff—but then, no. Maybe not. Not with the way he looked, like he’d gotten hollowed out inside. It wasn’t that she thought she was wrong about anything, more that she thought she could get by for a bit without saying she was right.

“I know,” she said. “I know what you’re feeling. I’ve felt the same way.”

“I can’t make Abed like me,” he said, like there was some possibility Abed didn’t. But Abed had been distant lately, even she’d noticed that, and she didn’t understand him half as well as Troy. “I can’t fix it. So I’m not the True Repairman, and I even told them that, but they won’t believe me. I mean, I do fulfill all the prophecies, dammit, I knew I shouldn’t have been so miraculous.”

There was no way she was going to be engaging both with homosexuality and idol worship, so she picked one: “I know it’s hard, but sometimes, when you’re in a situation like you are with Abed, where you can’t know what the other person’s feeling, you have to—you just have to break in. Just cut it open, get at the heart of things. Like an autopsy.” She’d been watching a lot of CSI reruns lately.

Troy didn’t seem to think it was good advice, and Shirley supposed she wouldn’t have thought it was either, if someone had given it to her way back when. But it was the only way she and Andre had gotten back to making things between them work. Sometimes first you had to cut down to the bone.

Troy said, quietly, “You only do autopsies on dead things.”

She drew herself up and squared her shoulders. Hadn’t he ever listened when people said relationships were hard work? Hell, she would have thought four years with the rest of them would have taught him that much. “Sometimes things have to die before they can come back to life.”

“I think you’re remembering biology class wrong,” Troy said.

*

Q: I don’t see anything in that conversation that indicated you advised Troy Barnes to set off several explosions in the A/C Annex.

A: Of course not! I would never do something like that. And if I had, the whole thing would have gone a lot more smoothly, I’ll tell you that.

Q: Everybody always thinks that.

A: Believe me, I know. Now where did you ever even get the idea that I might have had anything to do with this?

Q: Jeff Winger said that you were at the root of all of this.

A: That’s low. That’s really low, turning on a friend like that, when he knows perfectly well that Troy never would have even thought I’d said anything helpful if he hadn’t gone and talked to Pierce right after that. Pierce has the effect of making anything else anybody says sound insightful. Not that I wasn’t, because I was, but Troy wouldn’t have noticed if it weren’t for Pierce.

Q: Did the seven of you all get together and orchestrate this strained, complex way of handing out information just so I’d be stuck here all day?

A: Abed said you were the one who wanted to do Rashomon.

Q: I never wanted to do Rashomon! And this isn’t even Rashomon, none of you are really disagreeing with each other!

A: Yeah, I don’t think he ever would have seen that one coming, to tell you the truth. We don’t have a history of all seeing eye-to-eye.

Q: And you all agreed to this?

A: Well, I don’t think Pierce knows what we’re doing, if that makes you feel any better.

Q: It makes him my favorite out of all of you.

A: You’re not going think that for long.

Q: --Actually, no. Britta Perry.

A: You want to talk to Britta?

Q: Not in the context of this interview process. I’m just saying she was my favorite.

A: Oh, that’s nice.

*

A: What, I’m supposed to tell my story in some kind of elaborate fancy detail just so A-bed can imagine that we’re going into flashback sequences? That’s a total snoozefest. You and me, we’re men of the world, we know how business is done. You get in, you get out, you go to a bar, you pick up some ladies, you expense it. Right?

Q: Almost none of that was right, but yes, I’d prefer it if we just got in and got out.

A: That’s exactly what I’m saying. See, that’s why it would be good to have another straight man around here now that Abed and Troy are officially tasting the rainbow.

Q: There’s Jeff Winger.

A: Give him time.

Q: I think I’d rather give him the number of a good psychiatrist.

A: Yeah, that guy is really rattling around in the old upstairs, if you ask me.

Q: That’s not exactly what I meant, I just think—

A: Did you really tell Shirley that Britta was your favorite?

Q: You all aren’t supposed to be discussing your interviews with each other.

A: Sha. And I wasn’t supposed to bake a nail-file into the cake I brought for my cousin Oliver after his second embezzlement conviction. Like I said, we’re men of the world. Anyway, Britta? Blonde hair, sour expression?

Q: Can we please just talk about whatever it is that Shirley Bennett thinks that you said to Troy Barnes to make him realize that she had said something that Jeff Winger thought was the key to everything, or at least everything related to the explosions, notwithstanding that all of this ties into the fact that Jeff told Abed Nadir to pull back from Troy to protect himself from heartbreak, causing Troy to pull back from him, a cycle of distancing and misunderstanding only remedied by the fact that Britta Perry told Abed Nadir to imagine that his life wasn’t a movie but the dinner after a movie, which I only know because he told Annie Edison about it? Can we do that? I need a drink of water.

A: Ah, they Rashomon-ed you, huh. I bet they told you I wouldn’t even know we were doing that. They always underestimate me.

Q: I don’t think any of you have ever seen Rashomon.

A: Eh, I watched a lot of Japanese porn during the early 2000s, I assume it’s got something to do with tentacles, like you end up piecing all our stories together into one octopus.

Q: Please just tell me what you told Troy.

A: I told him all about what the experience of losing his virginity would be like, in full-color detail.

Q: Please just paraphrase to me what you told Troy.

A: Well, first—

[audio censored; seven minutes of beeped-through dialogue]

A: --and it would be like an explosion.

Q: Please leave.

A: …I don’t really want to stand up right now. Just give me a minute.

Q: Please leave right now.

A: Hey, you can’t talk to me like that, I lived in New York! No, wait. That was somebody else.

*

Troy had found some glow-in-the-dark stars that Annie had packed but only half-put up on her own ceiling—“I decided I was a little too old for them, but only old enough that I shouldn’t put any more up, not old enough that I should start taking them down”—and sometimes at night, he would take them out of the shoebox beneath his bed and look at them. Handfuls of slightly lime-colored fake starlight. He missed Abed. Something about wishing on stars close enough to touch made him feel like he might make some kind of progress, sometime, towards getting them back to normal. Maybe it was his fault. He’d been the one who had said he should get his own room—

But he hadn’t meant so I don’t have to see you all the time.

He had come back from the A/C School and looked at Abed and Abed had been just—right there. And it had rapidly become apparent that he could be anywhere in the universe and he would still be paying attention to exactly where Abed was and exactly what he was doing.

He maybe wouldn’t have figured out it was love if it hadn’t been for the jerking off thing, which was helpful.

But then it felt wrong to be in a bunk bed above Abed and thinking about him like that, even if they had Privacy Rules that meant he was never actually doing that with Abed in the room. It felt skeevy and Pierce-like, to see Abed yank off his T-shirt to change into his Farscape pajamas and to see his bare back, the curve of his spine as he bent forward, the widening gap between his shoulder blades as he stretched out his arms.

So he said, awkwardly, “Maybe, you know, since I’ve been gone so long, since it’s not really like it used to be, we should consider taking the Dreamatorium down.”

“The Dreamatorium was always nonnegotiable,” Abed said.

“I know.” Except lately he could not let Abed into his dreams, so the whole thing was a no-go. “But I really think I need my own space.”

Troy knew sometimes people said that Abed was hard to read, that he was robotic, but he could barely remember thinking that—had stopped thinking that within days. Maybe even hours. So he could tell when Abed retreated, when he really did become as featureless as an A/C School chrome pillow.

“Sure. Space is important.”

“I’ll take the blanket fort,” Troy said hastily, since blanket forts had been implicitly his thing ever since the blanket vs. pillow war that they weren’t talking about.

“No, don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m not. It was my idea.”

“And the Dreamatorium was my idea, so it’s my fault you didn’t have a bedroom in the first place.”

“That’s not how that works,” Troy said. And the Dreamatorium had been both their ideas, he was pretty sure, because he always used to want a holodeck so he could go on Sherlock Holmes adventures with LeVar Burton.

But he didn’t really win arguments with Abed, especially not when Abed wouldn’t argue. So they tore down the Dreamatorium wallpaper and it felt like he was giving up on all his dreams.

He tried to figure out what kind of gesture would say what he needed to say. He got the FRIGUS FRIGUS FRIGUS crest made and Abed barely seemed to care.

*

A: Hey, do you mind if we skip ahead? I don’t really want to dwell on this part any longer than I have to.

Q: I have been hoping all day that one of you would skip ahead.

A: I don’t know why you wanted to talk to me last. I could have told you the whole thing right away.

Q: I wanted to get a sense of how everyone perceived the event before I went directly to the central figure, and—

A: See, the fireworks were left over from when Chang tried to burn down the school to destroy the records room.

Q: Wait, who’s Chang?

A: He used to be our Spanish teacher, but he didn’t actually know Spanish, so then he was a student here, and then he became a security guard and took over the school and imprisoned the dean in the basement and hired Moby to replace him.

[twenty second pause]

A: So we still had the fireworks, and everyone knows that the only thing that can kill the True Repairman is fire.

Q: Right. ‘Everyone’ knows that.

A: Because fire destroys cold air, dummy.

*

The last dream Troy told the Air Conditioning Repair School would stay enshrined forever on a paper fan (The ancestor of the air conditioning unit,” Laybourne had told Troy once, in the grand intonation he used for everything, “and always to be treated with respect and, yes, even reverence”).

It read:

I dreamed I was back on my first day at Greendale. Or not my first day, I don’t know, however long it took us to form the study group, that day. I was still in my high school letterman’s jacket and it felt all tight across the shoulders, which it wasn’t, because I know what setting to put the dryer on so stuff doesn’t shrink like that.

But Abed wasn’t there. We were all sitting around the study room table and fighting, and Abed wasn’t there. And I asked where he was, and then somebody—I think it was Annie, but she didn’t look like Annie—said that I didn’t know any Abed.

I said, yeah, Abed, my best friend, and she said I’d never met him. I was here right now not meeting him.

And I said, “But I miss him.”

And then Annie was Abed, I think? And he said, “Life’s like that sometimes.”

And then I woke up.

When they handed him the fan afterwards, he looked at it for a long time, so long that Nicky, the Chief Scribe of the A/C School by virtue of having the most legible handwriting still small enough to fit a whole dream onto one paper fan, asked him if he would need it recopied.

“No, it’s perfect,” Troy said. “It’s just sad.”

“It might not be a prophecy,” Nicky said quietly. His ears had gone bright red at the edges. Apparently they all had some whispered rule to not initiate conversations with him, but Nicky had been writing down his dreams for months by then, and came closer than anyone else in the A/C School to seeing him as human. “Things aren’t more likely to be true just because they’re sad. It doesn’t have to be the future.”

Troy thought about that, and Shirley, and—kind of without wanting to—Pierce’s enthusiastic commentary on what losing his “gay virginity” would be like.

He had flown a fried chicken spaceship into a parking lot and defeated City College at paintball and done modern dance on stage with everybody looking. He could do this.

So he came home and found Abed sitting on the couch eating buttered noodles. He dropped the fork out of his hand when Troy walked in.

“I need to talk to you,” Abed said. “If we were watching a movie—”

“I need to talk to you too,” Troy said, and then he kissed him.

*

Q: You just kissed him?

A: I just kissed him. I was going to say something because I’d worked out this whole speech with a little bit of all his favorite romantic comedies mixed in, but then I figured that what really happened in most of those was just kissing, so I just kissed him.

Q: So his whole speech about how your friendship was like a movie that you’d been watching and the romance was where you were going to discuss how all that had worked… he never even got to say any of it?

A: I mean, he told me later. After everything had calmed down a little.

Q: So it was never important?

A: Um, of course it was important, it was an awesome speech. It really told me how Abed felt about me.

Q: No, it really told you how Britta thought Abed felt about you.

A: Tomato, tomato.

Q: You just said tomato the same way twice.

A: Yeah, there’s no other way to say tomato. It’s like bagel.

Q: Yes, bagel, but that’s not the point—

A: Wait, what did you say?

Q: Bagel.

A: You should really ask Britta out or something.

Q: Just tell me what happened next. In whatever order you want. With whatever relevant details. I’ve given up by now. I’m just going to put my head down, just make sure to talk clearly into the microphone.

*

They ended up lying on the couch, Troy spooned up against Abed because he liked the way the back of Abed’s neck smelled and how silky his hair was there. He kept kissing this one exact spot where the tag of Abed’s shirt had rubbed against Abed’s skin and made it slightly warmer than everywhere else.

“Slightly more irritated,” Abed said. “But you’re making it feel better.”

He felt good against Troy. They shared a couch well—how had he not thought before about how well they shared a couch? His knees fit perfectly with the insides of Abed’s knees and it was like they were perfectly proportioned to fit on the couch even though they’d gotten the couch on sale and none of its measurements really made any sense. (It had eaten three remotes in two months. It was Troy’s theory that they had gone to be with David Bowie in Labyrinth, because who wouldn’t want to be with David Bowie in Labyrinth? In retrospect, the bisexuality was more glaringly obvious.)

“Did you really like the crest?”

“I loved the crest. Sometimes I just pull up the A/C School page and keep it open in a tab so I can flip over and see the crest whenever I want. I wasn’t going to tell you that even if we kissed because I thought it would seem kind of pathetic.”

“It seems awesome,” Troy said sincerely, but then he groaned.

“Did you just think about it and realize it wasn’t awesome?”

“No, I just realized that in ten minutes, someone’s going to bang on our door and ask me to preside over a wedding.”

“You do weddings?”

“They’re only legal in air conditioning circles, but yeah.”

“Frigus,” Abed said. “Frigus, frigus, frigus.”

Troy laughed, but he only meant about seventy-five percent of the laugh. He hated the idea that a quarter of his happiness about having kissed his best friend—about lying up against him, about the uncomfortable but also extremely welcome thought of a surprise boner—was getting dampened by the knowledge that, oh yeah, he had a cult to run. He hadn’t—he’d been trying to explain this to people—meant to have a cult to run, it had just sort of happened. Or actually he guessed he had meant to borrow the cult but then sort of drop it off the corner like one of those couches you probably wouldn’t want to sit on.

Dammit, he knew he shouldn’t have taken any lessons on how to be a good person from Jeff. Not because Jeff sucked but because in this particular case he had done things annoyingly right, had landed himself with a gang of misfits—according to Abed, anyway—and stuck with them. And Troy had thought he would do the same.

In the cold light of day, there was a little bit of a difference between a lovable study group and an air conditioning repair cult. Basically that one was a cult. And a giant time-suck.

“I need to figure out how to get out of all this,” Troy said.

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” Abed said, but in the absent way he said movie quotes when he knew they weren’t really right but he had to say them anyway. One time he’d told Troy that sometimes the quotes were a way to let people know he was there even when he was thinking through something, because people found it disconcerting when he went blank. “It’s like how the computer gives you the hourglass or the pinwheel.”

Troy let him think and ran his hand down Abed’s side, traced down his shoulder and then down his ribs, curved his fingers around Abed’s hip. He’d never thought about the freedom to touch somebody before. Sure, in high school especially, the privilege won in rounding the bases, but not—to just touch without trying for anything, but just be comfortable. It was nice.

“If you think about it,” Abed said, “we wouldn’t be getting together if it weren’t a sweeps episode or a finale.”

“I thought the movie was over,” Troy said, because by now Abed had explained the metaphor.

“Now that I’m with you, I can’t imagine not being with you, so I think I can be flexible.”

Something warm and tingly spread over Troy’s skin. “Cool.”

“And if it’s a sweeps episode,” Abed said, ignoring where Troy’s hand had now drifted, “it’s one where everything has to tie together. It’s a cliché of sweeps weeks.”

So Abed talked about clichés, about Professor Garrity, about cults and leaders, and Troy kept meaning to be really involved in the moment, but he kept focusing on how if he didn’t get the A/C cult off his back soon, he was never going to be able to get laid. By the time he did, maybe he really would explode the way Pierce had been saying he would.

“We should really ask Shirley,” Abed said. “She’s the one who pays the most attention to religion.”

“Abed,” he said urgently. “Abed. You know that part in movies where someone is looking at a board with a bunch of notes and photographs on it and then everything comes together?”

Abed wriggled around, eyes wide. “Do you have something?”

Troy blinked. “No, I’m saying something like that would be really cool right about now. Do we have a bulletin board?”

“No, but we can imagine one in the Dreamatorium.”

“We don’t have the Dreamatorium anymore. I kept imagining you naked in it.”

“Well, I kept it. Part of it, anyway.” And Abed leaned forward that centimeter between them and kissed him. His mouth was warm and tasted sweet, still buttery from the noodles, and Troy thought about how he knew every bit of Abed and how he couldn’t believe Abed had been worried that would make them dramatically impossible, because knowing every bit of Abed hadn’t stopped him from totally missing that Abed liked him back.

Kissing kept them more occupied than imagining a bulletin board in the Dreamatorium would have, and then Annie came home and squealed when she saw them holding hands and hugged them both enthusiastically and said how happy she was for them and pinky-swore not to tell anyone until they told them first, and then they all watched King Arthur. It was, as Abed said, not a great movie, but a great Clive Owen movie, and therefore a great bisexual movie.

Around midnight, Annie tiptoed off to her room, and Troy and Abed fell asleep on the couch.

And then Troy woke up in the middle of the night from a dream that really was a prophecy.

“I figured it out,” he said, shaking Abed awake. He felt like he couldn’t calm down enough to stop smiling.

Abed rubbed his eyes and matter-of-factly screamed in a quiet monotone.

“Oh, I know, buddy,” Troy said. “But I figured it out.”

“You figured what out?”

“How to fix it. How to repair everything.”

“Vague, all-inclusive language is exactly the kind of thing Jeff said we should keep an eye on.”

It felt like forever since they’d worried about him getting carried away with the cult, and he would have been more peeved about it if he hadn’t maybe gotten carried away with the cult a little. But that was only because he was so messed up about being in love with Abed! Happy, well-adjusted people, Troy decided, didn’t really join cults, even cults they were leading.

“I know. I can see it all so clearly now.”

“That’s on the list too.”

“It’s all coming together,” Troy said. “Soon, it’ll all be over.”

Abed said, “I’m just going to make a quick couple of phone calls.”

*

Q: That was Abed’s flash-forward.

A: He did a flash-forward? He hates those.

Q: He mentioned that.

A: I always kind of liked them. It’s exciting, sometimes, you know? To know where things are going to go. Like if I knew things with me and Abed were going to work out. If I could just jump ahead a few years and know that… everything is the way we want it to be. But even if it’s not, I think it was worth it, doing what we did. Killing off the True Repairman.

Q: I really think you and Abed—wait, what?

A: Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you that. It was the only real prophecy, so I wrote it down.

[sound of paper crumpling]

A: I dreamed that Shirley was telling me that sometimes you had to die, and I told her that being the True Repairman wasn’t like being Jesus, and she said she knew that, obviously, but Abed said Christianity had created a lot of storytelling clichés. And then Abed and I made out for a while, but we couldn’t have sex because Pierce was there telling us it was going to be like an explosion. And the A/C School guys were hammering on the door and Abed sat up in bed and said in his plumber’s voice, “Oop-ba-boop, do we have to die to get a little peace around here?” Then Chang came in with firecrackers and said, “Surprise guest star, clowns!” The A/C School guys started crying and said they couldn’t believe I’d died in a meth lab explosion like Starburns—which was weird because in the dream it was fireworks and not a meth lab?—and I said, “I’m not dead,” and Abed said, “No, wait, don’t tell them. Lean into it.”

[more paper crumpling]

A: See? And all of that happened! I mean, not the part with Chang, or the part with any of it, but that was how I knew that we needed to set off Chang’s old fireworks to fake my death so the cult would break apart. Pierce said those kinds of things never outlive the leader—he was really bummed when he found out Buddha was dead so he can’t be a Laser Lotus anymore.

Q: The explosions—were just fireworks? As part of some ridiculous fake death?

A: Um, it wasn’t ridiculous, it was a masterstroke of genius and prophecy fulfillment.

Q: I have to go talk to your boyfriend. Excuse me.

A: Wait!

Q: What?

A: Can you just say that part again? I’m still getting used to hearing Abed get called my boyfriend.

[five second pause]

Q: I have to go talk to your boyfriend.

A: Thanks.

Q: You make a cute couple. I mean, I never want to see either of you again, but you make a cute couple.

[audio distortion; sound of footsteps. Multiple participants in conversation.]

ATF: What the actual hell, Abed?

AN: So you talked to Troy?

ATF: Hours ago, you couldn’t have just said that the two of you decided to fake Troy’s death with fireworks so he could disband a cult and there was no current cult activity and nothing to worry about?

JW: Would that even have made sense hours ago?

ATF: It doesn’t make sense now either!

PH: Ha. Classic City College.

AE: Pierce, we go to Greendale.

PH: I know that! I was just… testing to see if Agent Peterson knew.

SB: Look, I’m sorry, but it was actually part of our final. Once Professor Garrity found out there was going to be a federal investigation of Troy’s blasphemy, he said this would be a great way for us to fulfill the clichés of an investigative storyline.

BP: Your basic stonewalling, needlessly prolonged explanations, overly convoluted storytelling.

JW: If you ask me, he just didn’t want to write a final exam. Which I applaud.

AE: Anyway, we got the clichés from Abed. I mean, everything we told you was true, but we, eh, dragged it out a little for drama. Sorry.

AN: And to be fair, Jeff’s right. We had to lull you into a state of exhausted suggestiveness before you would accept the truth as a plausible explanation. People coming here from the outside tend to just walk in and see wackiness, but we had to make you see the wackiness as a family. Otherwise, you would have thought we were lying.

ATF: But just to be clear, you didn’t lie.

JW: I used to be a lawyer. I would never advise clients to lie to the esteemed agents of whatever law enforcement agency you work for, I wasn’t really paying attention.

ATF: The ATF!

PH: How is that still a thing?

JW: For once I agree with Pierce. Just look into firearms and leave the Scotch and cigars to those of us who know what to do with them. Speaking of which, I’m guessing you could use a drink. Look, we went through a lot this semester, and as hesitant as I am to say this, I think we actually took a couple of steps forward. And the things that looked like they would tear us apart only ended up bringing us closer together.

AE: There was only one thing we thought would tear us apart, and it really only brought Troy and Abed closer together.

BP: Yeah, not your best work, Winger. It’s okay, though, semester’s over, we all passed. We get winter break off from clichés.

SB: That’ll be nice.

PH: Yeah, I know what a cliché is.

AN: So that’s a wrap, we’re done?

ATF: Isn’t the A/C School going to realize that Troy’s not really dead when they, you know, see him around campus and also when he’s not officially dead?

AN: I’d never leave a plot hole like that. They’ll notice him, but they’ll think it’s his identical twin brother, Broy, who’s assumed his identity and covered for his death so those around him won’t have to experience the pain of his loss.

ATF: That makes no sense.

JW: Well, we kind of figured anyone who would be in an air conditioning cult wouldn’t be exactly into things like “sense.”

ATF: …That makes more sense.

[seven second sigh, mild crying, shuddery breath]

ATF: Please never fake anyone’s death again. Or if you do, do it with something that will attract a different federal agency. Like pretend to kill someone with the Navy.

PH: Oh, I love that show.

*

They ended the day standing inside the Dreamatorium, which was so small now that they had to be hugging just to close it around themselves, which Troy didn’t mind at all. It was dark inside now, and he didn’t mind that either. He put his chin on Abed’s shoulder.

“Do you think Britta’s going to date that ATF guy?”

“I don’t know,” Abed said. “He seemed pretty annoyed.”

“They both can’t pronounce the word bagel, though. That has to be some kind of sign.”

“I thought you retired from prophecy.”

“I did,” Troy said, sighing. “Just a lowly mortal now. I hope you can live with that.”

Abed’s breath was warm against his neck. “I think I’ll be okay. I’m sorry the space is so tight.”

“I’m sorry I made you tear down the Dreamatorium just because I was worried I was going to have sex dreams about you and you’d be able to tell.”

“Well,” Abed said. “Then maybe I’m not sorry the space is so tight.”

And thus did Troy Barnes confirm to his own satisfaction that he was no longer the True Repairman, because all that followed in the cramped, dusty Dreamatorium was not cool but in fact very, very hot, and a little awkward for Annie, who could hear most of what was going on even though she put in her earbuds and played The Prince of Egypt soundtrack.

I’m George Takei, and this has been the Last Chronicle of the True Repairman.