Eleanor opens her eyes.
They say the best tortures are the most mundane, but Eleanor doesn’t think she believes that. Okay, maybe a little. Also she doesn’t know who they are. Probably Chidi’s philosophers or Michael’s henchmen or twenty-four hour cable news pundits.
She sighs heavily. Shifts her weight. Meditation’s a forking joke, man.
After that whole trolley faux-mass murder debacle, Chidi said he was giving Michael extra credit which sounded more like detention to Eleanor. “You need to look inward,” Chidi had said. “Center yourself. Find what matters.”
Michael had placed a hand on his chest. “You do realize all that’s in here is unfathomable, unimaginable descending levels upon levels of utter and complete darkness, correct?”
“Yup. Sure. But here’s hoping maybe there’s a teeny, tiny speck of humanity at the bottom of that very, very, very deep well.”
Eleanor had snorted. Chidi grabbed her shoulder and gave it a friendly shake.
“And Eleanor will be joining you. I am sure she could only benefit as well.”
“Oh, you’re sure? You condescending, four-eyed nerd, you — ”
So Chidi had suggested meditation and Tahani had asked them if they had ever tried this truly wonderful spirit-cleansing incense — “it’s extraordinary, luscious notes of rare green frankincense from Oman” — Gwyneth Paltrow had given her as a mansion-warming gift and Jason suggested they smoke oregano because it’s “dope but not dope,” so now the two of them are just sitting quietly and impatiently in a smelly room with a wall of clown paintings staring down at them, their fake cheer masking increasingly obvious disapproval.
“Hey. Hey. Are you centered yet,” she asks him. She glances sidelong at him beside her on the floor and finds he has his eyes screwed up tight. He groans, his posture slumping, hands draped over his crossed legs and he opens his eyes.
“It’s official: I have no center. This is honestly more stressful than my actual stress.”
“Hey!” She shoves at him and he tilts over, then rocks back over towards her. His legs are really too long to be sitting like this. “That sounded super human-y, man. Good job.”
“Oh, yeah. We say that kind of shirt all the time. Said. Is a dead human still a human?”
“For strict classification purposes, yes.”
It’s Michael’s turn to sigh heavily. He disentangles all his limbs and stands up, pacing. Eleanor picks herself up only to drop down onto the couch.
“I bet Tahani and Jason are having way more fun than we are,” she says.
“Doubtful,” Michael says. Tahani and Jason had been sent off to feign cosmic horror at the paddleboat regatta Vicky had organized. Michael stops in front of Eleanor, his arms held open. “They implement such simple tortures. It’s all just, ‘put the thumbscrews to the poor human souls.’ They’re going about it all wrong. There’s no long con in play! No imagination! Vicky truly doesn't know what she’s missing out on, the satisfaction when that other shoe drops.” He laughs, delighted.
“Hey, buddy? This talk right here is totally why I have to waste my free time babysitting you while you’re supposed to dredge your inner chakras or whatever for the smallest glimmer of compassion.”
“Please, Eleanor. I know how you spend your free time.” Off her doubtful glance he quirks an eyebrow. “Masturbation and three-hour naps. I’m not interrupting much.”
“So you say.” He doesn’t say anything out loud in reply but his face twists up as if to say, really?, and he resumes pacing.
“It’s really very taxing, you know,” he says, “trying to figure out what sort of person I want to be, and if that person can be good. Especially, considering, I am very much so not a person.”
“Yeah, man. It’s all the forking worst.” She rolls flat, kicks her legs over the back of the couch. She’s dimly aware that she should probably be at least kinda sorta worried she can see eye-to-eye with an actual demon where humanity and morality are concerned, but. The thought ends there. She has a center, it’s just always been a little off.
“How do actual people do it?” he asks her. She shrugs.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree. Me? I did what I wanted and I hanged the consequences. And now, here I am. With you.”
“No, I get that. What I mean is, how do humans, people, you deal with … this?” He holds his hands wide and empty and she’s not entirely sure what’s meant to live in that implied chasm between, but she assumes it’s some kind of deadly cocktail of self-doubt and self-loathing that goes down like a real bad Jaegermeister shot, which is to say, any Jaegermeister shot. She knows the taste well. She sits up again and tries to offer him her best sympathetic face. It comes out pinched and annoyed.
“I don’t know, man. I guess, maybe, we just … don’t?” He looks at her completely baffled and Eleanor’s not really shrugging so much as her shoulders have bunched up to her ears. She relaxes. “Okay. Distraction, mainly. Stress relief.” And probably Jaegermeister shots.
“I know about stress relief,” he says very knowledgeably.
Michael doesn’t know about stress relief.
Michael’s idea of distracting stress relief still seems to be dominated either by a) human traditions he tells her she had taught him even though she doesn’t remember teaching him anything (i.e., bowling, karaoke, Minions); or, b) customary Bad Place time wasters rarely indulged in (i.e., shin pin skull bowling (which, she learns, is exactly what it sounds like), jam sessions with the Bruce Willis Blues Band cover band, the torturing of actual minions).
He folds his arms and looks down at her like an affronted high school principal ready to lay down the law. “Then you tell me what constitutes Human Stress Relief.” He says it like it deserves an academic journal title.
“Honestly, dude, it was usually binge-eating some convenience store queso, rewatching Die Hard with a Vengeance, and/or my hands down my pants. That was pretty much the trifecta. If you want the upgrade, it was a real ill-advised dude’s hands down my pants.”
“I need to find convenience store queso, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and put either my hands or an ill-advised dude’s hands down my pants.”
“Well, when you phrase it like that, it sounds pretty pathetic.”
“And unhelpful." His face turns thoughtful. "What qualifies one as an ill-advised dude?”
“Usually it was interest in me. Yeah, that was typically the first red flag.”
Michael hums in agreement and then turns from her lost in deeper thought. Eleanor’s more than a little intrigued though. Truth be told, she never really gives The Bad Place and its residents much more thought beyond how she can either pull the wool over their eyes or get out of here, but Michael’s got her curious now.
“So you dudes never just, like, bone one out?”
“‘Bone one out?’” he repeats. He sits down beside her on the couch.“You mean debone a human subject and watch as their arm flops there like a giant slug?”
“Nope. Not that at all. Definitely not that.” She leans forward. “I’m just saying, beyond the aforementioned trio of sad human cures, I solved most of my earthly existential crises, or if not solved, then sufficiently distracted myself from them, with the old Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” All that gets is a blank look from Michael. “Sex, man. I’m talking about sex.”
“Then why don’t you just say that?” He frowns. “Tell me though, how does sex solve a problem?”
“It totally doesn’t. In fact, it often creates new ones. But, hey, buddy, for like a solid fifteen minutes — if you’re lucky — there’s nothing to think about, and that’s pretty awesome.”
His frown deepens. “Yeah, you’re going to have to explain that one further for me.”
Michael and Eleanor have been stuck at Mindy’s house in The Medium Place for eight days. This is only partly Eleanor’s fault: she had asked Michael if there were any in-between places, places neither Good nor Bad, and they wound up here.
The abandonment is all Mindy: she ran off in the middle of the night, catching the midnight train, going anywhere. The train has yet to come back. The rules of its return or its conjuring strike Eleanor as utterly, completely arbitrary, and when she tells Michael this, all he does is shrug and say, "This is The Medium Place." Like that explains anything.
There’s absolutely nothing to do in Mindy’s house. It’s almost enough to make Eleanor miss that janky primary-colored clown shack. The tedium is a new kind of torture compared to the agony of hiding her real identity in The Good Place.
“You know I’m not the real Eleanor, don’t you.” She finally breaks down and says it to Michael at the start of the ninth day they’re in Mindy’s house without Mindy and without a train.
“You’re an Eleanor,” he says, emphasis on the an, like that means anything. Like there’s an army of Eleanors and they’re all interchangeable. He sighs. “What’s it even matter.”
“Huh?” She had assumed, clearly wrongly, that Michael’s increasingly bad mood was a result of the whole stranded in The Medium Place thing. Now, she’s got some doubts.
“The jig is up. They’re going to find me out anyway.”
“What is even happening right now. Are you malfunctioning? Who are they?”
So he explains it to her: this is a timeout. He needed to regroup. “And yes, yes, of course: you’re in The Bad Place. Blah, blah, blah, you’ve bested me again, you old so-and-so.”
“You brought me with you to your timeout? Why — what the fork am I even talking about. I’m in The Bad Place?”
“It’s The Medium Place by way of The Bad Place, if you want to get technical. I thought you knew.”
“Technically, I don’t. Explain yourself.”
He does. Sort of. Architectural Frank Lloyd Wright demons or whatever and this was supposed to be his Fallingwater but she keeps wrecking balling right through it and he’s got a boss breathing down his neck he keeps lying to, and yeah, this is definitely sounding very Bad Place-y to her.
“Yeah, that all sounds like Hell,” she says.
Michael scoffs. “Hell is just bad branding.”
“Now? We wait. We are going to sit here, in the closest thing I know to peace and quiet, and wait until I come up with an idea.”
“Ugh. I hate waiting.”
Michael scoffs again, but now he almost looks fond. “You humans love waiting. You’re not particularly good at it, even though you try. You try so hard. You have entire rooms devoted to waiting. And then you have your rush-hour traffic and your airport lounges and your hotel lobbies.”
“No one’s ever waiting for anything good in a hotel lobby, my friend. And hold up: am I the only one who knows this? Shirt, I gotta tell Chidi. I gotta find a train. How do you find a train? Why would you tell me how to find a train, you want me to suffer, I bet you hate trains.”
“I do not hate trains.”
“And, wait, an idea for what?”
“The task at hand,” he says, exasperated. “My job. Which is, of course, torturing you.”
“Then why did you bring me here with you?” She lowers her voice. “Is that part of the torture?”
The half-smile on Michael’s face is like a light bulb just went off in his head. Like he’s filing something away about her. She doesn’t like that. “You and me, Eleanor? We’re simpatico. We're the same. You figure this out. Maybe not every time, but just about.”
“Every time … ?” This isn’t the first time. The thought makes her fingers curl into fists.
“And I thought if I spent more time with you, I could figure out how to get more than one step ahead of you. But nope, here we are. And we’re stuck talking about my nonexistent dislike of trains. I want you to know, I really do not have a problem with trains.”
“What does every time mean? How many times, dude?”
The half-smile remains but his face has gone dark and shuttered, considering. “That bothers you. Not knowing what all you might have done.”
“I never did make for a good blackout drunk.”
“No one makes for a good blackout drunk. But thank you, Eleanor. Our time spent here together was not in vain.”
“What are — ”
“ — you even talking about?”
“Elise! You know Elise. You don’t know Elise? Come on, Elise? Married to Brendan? He worked for Jill Stein’s campaign? He went to school with Carly, who opened up that blow-dry bar and swears by using snail mucus to keep her skin glowing, which she got, crazy enough, from Jasper who used to vacation with Peter at the house out in Palm Springs and it was Elise who renovated it! Shag carpeting everywhere.” Vicky pauses. “She’s adorkable.”
Eleanor’s fork clatters against her plate of untouched spaghetti squash and her glass of untouched sparkling cider (“We’re a dry household,” Vicky had said, “and please, take your shoes off. White carpets.”). She grabs Michael’s arm.
She hisses. “This is The Bad Place.”
They got into trouble with The Good Judge. That was it, that was her name, and even when Eleanor asked her if maybe her real name was, like, Jenny or Sarah or Nicky, she got all affronted and said, No my name is The Good Judge and Michael is going to spend some time in Purgatory. “You’re taking her with you,” she told Michael pointing at Eleanor, and then she leaned in real close to Michael, which really only put her at eye-level with the buttons on his shirt, and said, “Get your shirt together.”
It turns out Purgatory is a TGIFriday’s, which is fine. Their mozzarella sticks suck and their drinks never have enough booze, but she can hang. She says as much to Michael but all he does is lament the unfairness of the afterlife and intra-office hierarchy and drop his head into his hands, so she orders him the hot wings. Man, Jianyu-slash-Jason would forking love Purgatory.
“Is The Good Judge like your boss?” she asks him. Michael slurps down his entire Raspberry RazzMatazz in one long, noisy go. He snorts.
“No. She most certainly is not.” He shakes his empty glass. “I’m going to need another one of these, please.”
You can get drunk in Purgatory and Purgatory’s TGIFriday’s (unlike the TGIFriday’s in Tempe, which Eleanor was definitely kicked out of definitely more than once), which is pretty super cool. Drunk Eleanor has always had a thing for Springsteen, and Drunk Eleanor in Purgatory is really no different.
“‘Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night,’” she says instead of sings, slumping into the bar. She’s not sure if it’s the bottom shelf booze that’s getting her or if it’s the onset of a diabetic coma thanks to all the sugar in those Dirtbag Seriously-These-Will-Bury-Your-Dead-Body Mudslides.
“What is that? A riddle?” Michael asks. He’s as disheveled as she’s ever seen him: tie askew, glasses slipping down his nose, a stain of what she’s guessing is barbecue sauce or the Jumpin’ & Chokin’ Jalepeño Acid Sauce smeared on his sleeve. He points at her. “Are you a sphinx sent to challenge me?”
“It’s The Boss, man! Forking Springsteen!” Michael looks blankly back at her. And it’s then that it dawns on her, rising up in her like the inevitable heartburn from the Double-Decker Cheesy Tar Pit Nacho Sampler she ate.
“This is The Bad Place!” she shouts, and promptly falls off her barstool.
“Oh, this is The Bad Place!” Eleanor says to the floating hologram of Michael Bolton.
“You’re gosh darn forking right!” he sings.
“Wait, so what you’re telling me is you Bad Place dudes are really just a pack of sad sadistic virgins?”
She smiles innocently in the face of the irritated glare Michael throws her way.
“No, I did not say that. It’s simply, as I did say before, we do not have lives. All we have is work. And as such, sex, in any capacity, has figured in not so much in service of our own libidos, but rather as work.”
“You use sex as torture?” she fake-whispers. “That’s forked-up. That’s taking workaholic to a whole new level. That’s — why am I finding that kinda hot?”
Michael ignores her. He’s pacing again. “There isn’t so much sex in The Bad Place, but, rather … ” [insert a woodcut of Dante’s Inferno] [insert the third panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights] [insert footage from MTV’s Jersey Shore].
“Yeah, that’s all terrible. And hopefully never what I’m talking about here.”
“What about,” [insert a BuzzFeed quiz entitled, Which 19th-Century U.S. Senator Is Your Ideal Sex Partner].
It is a well-known fact, Eleanor now knows, that all BuzzFeed quizzes are written in The Bad Place; “Everyone thinks it’s ghosts, spirits, guardian angels and poltergeists, but, truly, the dimensions are crossed between the living and all of us primarily through the internet,” Michael had told her. “You can thank Al Gore for that one.”
“Definitely not that,” she says.
“Well, there you have it.”
“Differing strokes.” She swears to whatever actual god exists — if there is one; it’d be a pretty huge bummer if it turned out religion was predicated on an exhaustingly bureaucratic afterlife — Michael smirks, filthy, with just a flash of knowing. She narrows her eyes. “And that’s not even taking into account that my true form is incompatible with any human understanding of sexuality.”
“Oh,” is all Eleanor says. “Right. Me, human. You, demon.”
“You and that word.” There’s a quiet amusement to him now though; she thinks he likes little more than explaining to her just how forked she is in just how many dimensions. No wonder he hates Chidi’s class so much beyond the obvious: he likes to be the insufferable all-knowing professor in the room.
“But, okay. So I get you and your friends are basically a pack of nightmares my dreams wouldn’t dare conjure, but what you’re telling me is that you guys never take those human suits out for a test drive?”
“Of course we do. How else would we learn what works?” All Eleanor can think, dumbly, is, The better to eat you with, my dear. She swallows. “The ripping of a hangnail. The popping of a blister. The persistent hiccup. The aptly named funny bone. Prostate exams.”
“Yikes,” she says.
“Some experiences were more, ah, pleasurable than others.”
“Yikes, Part II,” she says.
“So of course we study the equipment,” he continues, ignoring her again, “and we have all your earthly memories and experiences to comb through, but secondhand is never the same as first, and it’s not anything any of us has any desire to do to each other. Frankly, it’s distasteful.”
Eleanor splutters. “That’s what you find distasteful?”
He grimaces. “I find a great many things distasteful. This conversation, knowing you, having had to reboot this entire enterprise eight hundred and two times over.” He counts these things off on his fingers. He stops, and there’s something in that pause that gives Eleanor herself pause, too. She thinks maybe it’s expectation. Whatever it is, it’s probably definitely nothing good. It’s doing nothing good for her already, and she means that in the strictest moral principles way possible, while her imagination is tripping down an increasingly sexual rabbit hole.
“I could fork you.” The words are out before she’s really considered them beyond the concept of really super getting off on being the knowledgeable one between them for once.
He freezes, his face tight and unreadable, and maybe more than a little dangerous. “Did I miss that part of the syllabus?”
“What? No. I’m improvising. Hypotheticals?: failed. Meditation?: failed. This? I got this.” She’s got this. She’s got a line of Todds and Kevins and a Blade that one time who can all attest that Eleanor knows all about forking the wrong dude in a bid for self-actualization. That, she is more than qualified to teach. She’s rationalizing this already. It’s really not all that off-base from what Chidi was talking about earlier. What better way to get in touch with your humanity than by touching another human? She really can’t think of a better example of humanity at its best and its worst than Bad Idea Sex. Maybe Costco. Take that, Chidi. She can be a fount of educational wisdom, too. She’s Judy forking Blume for torture demons who wear bowties.
“And why would you offer me that?” He asks it so formally, but his voice has already dropped down into that pseudo-insidious danger zone timbre and he’s looking at her the same way she used to look at the child-safety lid on a bottle of aspirin.
Eleanor doesn’t answer the question, not directly. She looks him up and down instead. She tells him he’s not bad looking, not really. He’s very tall. And he looks kinda like a metrosexual Colonel Sanders, which she can’t figure out if that should be classified as a positive or a negative.
“A high compliment,” Michael says sagely. A positive then.
She’s pretty sure this isn’t the conclusion they were supposed to reach, but curiosity has dovetailed into something darker in her. Like she's on the edge of a dare and she already knows she isn't going to back down. There's a surge of shaky confidence within her, and she knows and recognizes herself in a way she hasn't since she died.
“Friends help out friends,” she says, inching the implicit challenge that much further into his territory. Michael’s watching her, wary, like they’ve flipped roles and she’s the one tricking him eight hundred plus times over. She wishes. She watches a whole lot of shirt flash across his face before he settles into bemused determination.
“Fine. Friends helping friends. Where do we begin?”
The tension between them is now practically like a third person in the room it’s so real and present. Fork, she’s missed this. And it’s a surprise to her, that what she’s missed isn’t the anticipation of doing something she knows she shouldn’t but rather this: the friction between her and somebody, anybody, else, emotions bright and volatile enough that something can’t not happen now.
“You sure about this?” She's not backing down. Eleanor Shellstrop never backs down, even when it’s in her best interest or the world’s to do exactly that. Michael’s mouth curves upward and nervous energy lights her up; he’s not going to back down either.
“You forget. I know exactly what I am literally getting into bed with here. I know everything about you, Eleanor, past dalliances included.”
“Oh boy. Even — ”
“Yes. Even that.”
Eleanor props herself up on one elbow and looks over at Michael. He’s laying beside her in bed, flat on his back, Snow White in the glass coffin-style.
“So what’s the deal here, hombre?”
He turns only his head to look at her. “The deal?”
“Yeah. So, you’re my soulmate, or whatever Hallmark shirt Mayor Vicky said that first day I died and got here, and that’s cool man, that giant platter of jumbo-sized cocktail shrimp you brought me really sealed the deal. And, sure, you’re not exactly what I’d call my type: you’re not a mailman and you look like you’ve got a decent credit score. But you’re growing on me, much like the poisonous flesh-eating hibiscus plants you now have growing all over your bedroom, hence, your need to sleep here. In my bed. With the painted clowns. Y’know, I think they watch me at night? But you wouldn’t know that. Because you’re asleep. Loudly. You sleep so loudly. You snore like an asthmatic humanized chainsaw. So my question to you is what is the deal. When are you, at the very least, going to fork the ever-loving shirt out of me?”
“What?!” Michael shoots up beside her. He never really looks like himself when he’s only wearing an undershirt and boxer shorts. Some men are just designed for a well-tailored suit.
“You heard me, pal. Climb aboard.”
He flops back down. “Ugh. You’re playing me right now, aren’t you.”
Wait, what? “Wait, what?”
“You figured me out.”
“Buddy, I’m just trying to get you to fork me. I’m really very super sexually frustrated right now and, well, you’re here. And you have very long legs. I didn’t know I was into that.”
“Hold on. That’s really all you want? My manhood?”
“Okay, I’m reevaluating that right now. And wait a minute — what would I have figured out?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Let’s return to talk of coitus.”
“Nope. Not so fast, Romeo.” She’s doing some math here: Mayor Vicky’s talent shows featuring a ventriloquist cabaret hour, the candy store that only sells black licorice, the flesh-eating hibiscus plants taking over this tiny shirty house while Michael’s snores threaten to bring down their roof. She gasps. “This is the — ”
“Wait. Rewind. Explain that to me again?”
“It’s like this,” Michael says, leaning across the desk towards her. “You don’t have a soulmate. I could tell you that it was a clerical error, but we both know that would be a lie.”
Eleanor bites the inside of her lip. “I don’t know what you’re talking about?”
He points at her. “That’s a lie, too. I’ve known the truth for some time, Eleanor. You’re not supposed to be here. Ah, don’t look at me like that. I’m on your side here. I am trying to help you.”
“And how’s that exactly?”
“I’m offering to pretend to be your soulmate.” He holds up a hand. “Before you say anything, I know. You’re not supposed to be here,” he says again, “but I like you.” He says that so painfully earnest she mostly believes him, especially when his own face does this flickering surprised thing as he says it, like maybe saying it out loud made it a real thing he has to live with or if not live with then afterlife-live with which is even worse because that’s a literal actual eternity. “I want you to be here, but to do that, you’re going to have to play along.”
Eleanor crosses her arms. “This isn’t some kind of long-con ploy to get me in bed, because, lemme tell you, there are easier ways.”
“What do you mean there’s been a mistake?” She’s using her best I’d Like To Speak To A Manager voice she employed regularly at the T.J. Maxx one town over, namely in service of scamming several seasons- old Michael Kors handbags.
“Keep your voice down,” Michael hisses. He smiles and waves at Tahani and the crowd of partygoers clustered around her. He turns back to Eleanor, deadly serious. She follows him when he steers her by the arm into an empty gilt King Midas rip-off of a powder room. “Like I said, there was a mistake. And it wasn’t, before you start, my fault. Not technically.”
Technically, he tells her, it was the algorithm. Upon her arrival, she had been matched with Jianyu, the silent Taiwanese monk she’s been living with for the last month in their own half-mute approximation of a community theater performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. That, he says, was wrong.
“Then who’s supposed to be my soulmate?”
Michael sighs, scrubs a hand through his hair. “That’s the second error, I’m afraid.”
“Is that even possible?”
“It’s not supposed to be. That’s why I called it a mistake.” She fixes her worst glare at him, the T.J. Maxx glare. He slumps against the pedestal sink. She eyes him up-and-down. He’s all long angles and striped trouser socks and both are kinda appealing to her now in a real weird unexpected way. She shakes her head, trying to clear it. “I don’t even know what the consequences would be,” he’s saying. “I’m an immortal being, the architect of our neighborhood here in The Good Place, and you, despite your good works on Earth,” Eleanor fights not to flinch, “are still you.”
She throws back the dregs from her champagne glass and sets it down noisily on the back of the toilet.
He’s watching her. When she meets his eye, he cocks his head to the side. “We’re going to have to pretend, Eleanor. We’re going to have to lie. You’ll go home to Jianyu and I will continue my work, no one but us the wiser of the truth.”
Motherforker, how many lies is a person supposed to have to tell even after they’re dead.
“You know, for the record, I’d just like to say it really forking blows that even in forking paradise you still have to deal with technology forking everything up, right?” Something fleeting crosses her mind, but then it’s gone. “I don’t get why we have to pretend though. Why can’t I be with you and Jianyu can go be with, I don’t know, Janet?”
“You want to be with me?” he says, amused. Oh, shirt.
“Come on, man, be cool. Anything’s better than silence. Probably.”
The placid smile on Michael’s face doesn’t strike her as entirely natural. She knows that smile. She’s executed it half-a-dozen million times over the course of her misspent life (which he thinks was very well-spent crusading for impoverished orphans who just wanted to tap dance at Disney World, which she’s pretty sure isn’t even a thing), when she was biting down on what was her natural instinct: cynicism, a nasty grin that was all teeth, venom that had curdled inside her at some point after birth into the only thing she knew. Maybe they really are soulmates after all.
“Hold on. Hold the forking phone. This — ”
“ — is The Bad Place!”
Michael rolls his eyes, his arms still crossed over his chest. “Bravo,” he says, flat.
Eleanor frowns, shoves the somewhat balanced checkbook aside. “Wait, don’t I get a prize or something?”
His eyebrows lift. “A prize?”
He sighs and leans over the table towards her. “No, Eleanor. What you get is to start over, fresh, yet again.”
Michael starts to pace. One of them should really see if they can find a way to turn off the stereo which, for whatever untold reason, has been stuck on repeat with UB40’s “Red Red Wine” for the last hour. Wow, she really should’ve guessed this scam sooner.
“You figure me out! Every forking time!”
She bites down on the grin she feels trying. She’s only known Michael, like, less than three months, but never once has she heard him try to swear, or use the equivalent of the Non-Good Place Actually Bad Place profanity. It’s a really odd fit, like trying to picture him wearing a velour tracksuit or teaching ballet or what he’s like in bed.
“And what I can’t figure out,” he’s saying, “is the how and the why.”
“Hey! I know this one!” she says. “It’s called mutually-assured destruction.”
Michael scoffs, disgusted. “Ugh, not the Cold War. We’ve got all those old dead Cold Warriors down in what we call the Frozen Foods section.” He shoots her a conspiratorial glance. “We are just waiting for Kissinger to get here.”
She holds her hands open as if to ask, what?, but recognizes the futility of the gesture. “Yeah, that’s all really, really beside the point.”
“The point being?”
“We’re the same, dude! Your plans never work because my mind? Apparently it works along the same track as your forked-up demonic mind. You can’t beat me! I’m always gonna figure it out! But you’re always going to figure me out, too,” she says a little slower, mulling over the whole premise she had been so proud of a second ago, “so we’re stuck, and, oh my god, can somebody, please, turn that forking song off?”
“This is boring,” Michael says. “I’m bored now.”
“Red red wine, you make me feel so fine, you keep me rockin’ all of the ti —”
“Before anything happens, I have to ask: did we ever do this? The other times?”
They’re in the bedroom, the clown door shut. The idea of anyone witnessing this is too embarrassing and too something else for her to imagine.
Michael is seated on the edge of the bed, his posture severe and serious. Jacket off, shirtsleeves rolled, tie undone. She keeps expecting him to hold up a hand and tell her he was kidding. It’s a joke. They aren’t doing this. But that would require at least one of them to be a responsible adult and instead they’re only Michael and Eleanor.
He smiles and it’s the kind of smile that’d be enough to crack a lesser woman like an egg, Eleanor thinks. “We never made it that far,” he says, and what the fork does that even mean. What the fork is she even doing. This is nothing like all the times she’s done this before if only because, well, a) she's dead, and b) Chidi got to her: she’s aware of herself. Painfully. She knows to question her motives. She’s supposed to —
Oh, fork it.
Like anything else Eleanor has ever done, she acts without thought to the potential consequences. She steps to him and she kisses him. Seated on the side of the bed, Michael’s an easy to reach height as she stands over him. She places her hands on either side of his face and she kisses him like they’re in the last act of a Disney cartoon: tepid, tentative and G-rated.
When she pulls back from him, Michael’s eyes are wide open and maybe even suspicious. They stay open, even when she leans back in towards him.
“Shut your eyes, dude, you’re freaking me out.” Her own eyes flutter shut only to open again at the brush of her mouth over his. His lips are kinda dry, but that’s really the worst thing that can be said about the chastest kiss Eleanor Shellstrop has exchanged since the age of eleven or, well, death.
Michael cocks his head to side, eyes still closed. “Is that it?”
Eleanor huffs. Of all the indignities she has suffered, alive or dead, being accused of being a half-hearted, half-assed kisser is one she cannot let stand unchallenged. So she grabs his face tighter and she kisses him, hard. It’s the opposite of dignified, so it’s probably doing nothing for her dignity. She has more or less crawled into his lap, her legs splayed on either side of his hips, and then into his mouth, sloppy and with the precision of a teenage makeout fueled by Mountain Dew and someone’s parents’ stolen schnapps. At least on her side. At least at first.
Michael, sits there, stunned or just immobile (he’s a hard guy to get a read on, she’s learned that much this eight-hundredth-and-second time around — and for the record, and tangentially, there’s a part of her sometimes that wants to tell Michael he’s actually doing a truly wonderful bang-up torture job down here in The Bad Place Incorporated because making people relive the same shirt over and over again with no memory of it and then laughing at them Candid Camera-style when they figure it out, after all the self-flagellating and anxiety-induced dread-flavored nausea and the desperate bids at self-improvement she never in her actual living breathing life would’ve considered a valid way to spend her time, is like some straight-up Nietzsche-level torture business) (she thinks it was Chidi who told her about Nietzsche, and also the Nietzsche Torture Business, but she’d be hard-pressed to tell you when, the memory as hazy and imprecise as a half-remembered, half-forgotten dream). His mouth is what first moves under her, and then his hands, rigid and carefully placed on her hips, until they’re not.
He’s a needy forking kisser, which is sort of unexpected. Kind of hot. She’s got an all-powerful (says he) monster (says she) from the afterlife underworld or what-the-fork-ever panting into her mouth, so that’s got to make her all-powerful, too. That’s, like, physics, or something.
Eleanor is sprawled across his body, which is sprawled across her bed, when she drags a hand along the crotch of his crisp, formerly-pressed, now-wrinkled, trousers. And hey — Michael’s packing. Who knew. (Actually, she totally knew. It’s an art form she perfected in life: sizing up a man and the junk he’s most likely got. She had a roughly 66% success rate).
All of him twitches. And that’s … interesting. The thing Eleanor has always liked best about sex — other than the obvious (the whole orgasm thing) and the whole ill-advised distraction method from the soul-crushing realities of daily human life (as discussed before she put her hand on his dick) — is getting a rise (pun not intended, but appreciated) out of somebody else. They have to pay attention to her; it’s her doing this to them. It’s her making something undeniable and pretty forking awesome happen to them. That’s power, man, and it’s the best.
She does it again, wanting to drag more out of him. She suppresses a small shiver of her own. She’s now, like, hyper aware of his body in comparison to hers. There’s just so much of him versus so little of her. The width of his hand can cover basically the the entire curve of her hip, and if that’s not hot, she doesn’t know what is.
His teeth scrape against her bottom lip as he pulls back from her and she makes a harsh garble of sound, the palm of her hand pressing down firmer against him.
“I should have known that out of all of you, it’d be you to teach me the ways of the flesh.” The quiet, low way he says it, his mouth at the hinge of her jaw, with just a hint of mockery, makes something flip over in her she knows better than to trust.
“Listen,” she says, dropping her hand, “if this is gonna happen, you have got to stop talking like a defrocked priest. Don’t make this weirder than it already is. Now, take off your pants.”
Eleanor arches an eyebrow. “Whoa. They let you choose the size of that thing?”
“Don’t be so gauche, Eleanor. And, yes.”
Eleanor’s mouth pulls in an expression of overdramatic approval. “Nice.”
“Is this some sort of preamble? The complimenting of the genitals?”
She snorts. “Nah. But we are in what one might call virgin territory, so.”
“You think you’re very cute.” There’s an edge to his voice that would be more intimidating if he wasn’t pantless but still wearing a bowtie.
“I know I am,” she says and she gets up too. She yanks her pants and underwear down her legs, graceless, kicks them off, and then just stands there in front of him. Michael’s eyes are on her the whole time.
He’s still watching her, vaguely predatory despite the fact he’s the one sitting and she’s the one approaching, as she crawls back onto the bed. He's watching when she spits in her palm.
She takes him in hand and it’s like any other dude she’s jacked off except for the fact that she’s dead and he’s Michael. He reacts like any other man though: he hisses through his teeth when she’s that much too rough; his hips push forward in aborted, minute thrusts into her grip, like he doesn’t want to give her any more than that, not yet; he breathes faster and noisier. Her own breath has done that, too, and when she looks up, Michael is watching her face instead of her hand. And that’s — she doesn’t know what that is, but she takes his hand and she places it high on her bare thigh.
His mouth slices open. “I’m expected to work in this state?”
“Hey, man. It’s like Ebenezer Scrooge used to say after those ghosts forked his Christmas up: ’tis better to give and receive!” She’s not exactly sure what Ebenezer Scrooge used to say. She only vaguely remembers the Muppet version of the story playing out on VHS, but at the time she had been trying to figure out where any of the presents meant to be under the not-quite tree more-like-a-shrub in the family room were. This is a weird thing to be thinking about while trying to teach a guy who’s not actually a guy but a demon from Not-Hell (“Hell is just bad branding,” Michael had said that, once, at some point, she’s pretty sure) about rounding second base and heading towards third
“I’m not familiar. We do, however, have an Ebenezer in accounts receivable.”
“Shut up,” she says quietly, but his fingers are already between her legs. Her grip slackens as his fingertips push against and then shallowly into her.
He’s a fast learner and a self-starter.
“You’re wet.” She forking hates how he says that: almost smug, like the detective who discovered all his suspicions were true.
“Alright, you don’t have to brag about it.”
He offers a swipe of his thumb in addition to the fingers inside her and she bites down on the inside of her bottom lip. “I did this to you?” It’s the casual, conversational way he says that, and what the fork. There’s a whine building in the back of her throat she is determined to keep captured.
“I said you don’t have to brag,” but there’s no heat to it, but it's full of something awful like want and desperation and this is such a bad, bad, bad idea.
“Take your shirt off,” he says.
“You take your shirt off,” she shoots back immediately, even though she’s already unbuttoning hers, fingers stumbling and impatient.
It figures, she thinks. A guy, who isn’t really a guy, who excels at torture would be super good at foreplay.
“There’s only one way to fix this: we have to humiliate Michael.” Eleanor nods sagely. “I’m going to make him come in his pants.”
“I can fix this. Don’t look at me like that, Chidi. I can fix this!” Eleanor hisses. “I’m going to make Michael have to marry me.”
“I know what I have to do,” Eleanor tells them. “I have to murder Michael.”
“Janet! Make Michael go fork himself!”
Cue Michael with a fork embedded in his gut.
“I see now that there was no way that phrasing was going to end well. Apologies! Nothing to see here, just a man with a fork stuck in him.” Michael tries to jimmy the actual literal ginormous fork out of his side and she gags, and sweet Christmas that’s a lot of bl —
Emptiness. That’s all that’s around her. Indescribable, colorless, boundless emptiness.
“Oh, fork,” she whispers. She claps a hand over her mouth. Okay, that’s super weird and also totally not what she meant to say. Also definitely weird: she’s not alone. There’s an unhappy tall man with white hair and a sloppily tied bowtie standing a few paces away — if distance is measured in any understandable human-way wherever the fork they are — with his arms crossed over his chest.
“Am I dead?” she whispers. Her voice echoes.
The man waves, noncommittal and clearly uninterested. “Yeah,” he says. He sounds kinda hugely depressed.
“Are you God?” she asks, doubtful, or hopefully doubtful because if this disgruntled dapper sad man is God, then those Bible-licking televangelists have a whole lot to answer for, in addition to the usual bullshirt. Still weird.
The man snorts. “No, thank the actual and the fictional Lord.”
“Oh, okay. Cool. So, like, where are we then?”
He sighs. “The Void. Or, well, A Void. Not The Void.” He waves his hand again. “It’s nothing. I mean, yes, it’s literally nothing, but it’s also, colloquially-speaking, nothing. It’s writer’s block, is what it is. Give me a second, and none of this — ”
Eleanor, naked, is straddling his lap. “I know this is The Bad Place, but I don’t have to, you know, worry about anything, right?”
Michael squints. “I don’t follow.”
“Like, I don’t need to go find some condoms to make sure I don’t wind up with demon syphilis or you don’t Rosemary’s Baby me or anything.”
“No,” he says as curtly as a man with a raging boner seconds from getting forked can say it. “Those are not currently options.”
“Just checking,” and she smirks, her fingers curling into his rumpled shirt. He never did take his shirt off; his unknotted bowtie is still hanging limply around his neck, too.
She lowers herself down onto him, somehow both too quickly and not fast enough. It’s been awhile, or she has no idea how long it’s been, all eight hundred and two times before. Her hand winds up braced at the base of his throat and she can feel when he swallows. He’s watching her face, his eyes flicking down where they’re joined between their legs. She pauses, seated with him in her, and his breath is hot at her collarbone. He’s breathing very hard. She moves down onto him, testing, and wow, okay, that feels good. That actually feels better than good, but she’s going to hold onto that information. It's too much to meet his eye, so she doesn’t yet.
“We haven’t done this before,” she repeats, the question implicit, her tone careful. She hates that it suddenly matters very, very much to her what his answer is.
Michael meets her eye. “No,” he says. She’s probably an idiot, but she believes him.
The pace picks up between them, Eleanor rocks down onto him and he rolls his hips up into her in reply. She’s already kinda out of breath and the muscles of her thighs are burning, but it’s all so familiar and human and alive, it’s, well, nice. More than nice.
Michael seems to think so, too. His head is tipped back and his eyes are heavy-lidded. He likes when she makes noises: his hands tighten on her hips, curve lower to grab and squeeze, and the movement of his hips goes that much sharper, impatient and more deliberate.
Eleanor’s head drops forehead and her fingers catch on his collar. A strand of her hair pulls against his wet bottom lip, and it’s the little things like that — the closeness of that mouth to hers, the tiny noises he makes, the solid strength of his thighs under hers — that makes something inside her that she is sure is supposed to be solid feel as if it has come unmoored. She thinks it’s intimacy. She thinks that’s terrible.
She feels the edge of blunt teeth at her shoulder and then the wet of his mouth. Eyes darkened, his mouth tilts up as he pulls away from her skin.
And then he flips them. Eleanor lands with an, “oof,” on her back, and then her brain pretty much short-circuits because holy forking shirt he’s forking her, relentless and rough, and her hands curl into the sheets as she tries to hold on. He takes her right up the brink of coming, where every part of her feels tight and aching, wound so taut she’s about to break, and then he stops. Just like that. She clenches hard around him and he bites off a sharp sound, involuntary, if only based on the comical grimace stretched across his face.
He pushes into her again, as if testing her. Michael groans then, low and fulfilled. “It’s just so,” he gasps, a harder thrust of his hips follows, his pace so slow it’s now basically intermittent, “satisfying.”
Well, hello. That’s a nice shot to the old self-esteem. “Thanks, man, you’re not so bad yourself.” She’s super out of breath and she’s got that Marilyn Monroe forked the President on his birthday voice going.
Michael laughs, stilling inside of her to frown down at her. She frowns back. “Oh, well, yes, you do make for a nice copulation partner. But what I meant,” and he starts up again, both chuckling to himself and moving inside of her, Eleanor’s body bouncing on the mattress not unpleasantly. He moves fast: he’s got her pinned and her leg raised and whatever geometrically impossible angle he’s got going on inside of her is absolutely insane. He’s moving in earnest now, brutal and mean and forking practiced. She babbles something that she thinks is supposed to sound like what the fork are you doing to me which instead just sounds like wharrrrrrf. She thinks she’s coming or she’s not coming but, like, on the astral plane of really intense utterly improbably bonkers I saw the sign and need to testify straight-up good forking. “What I meant is the,” he pauses, lets her catch her breath, or try to, “the trickery of it all.” His laugh has gone low and ominous now. Everything about him is low and ominous. “Your face, you should see your face right now. You thought you were teaching me. You,” he says, emphasizing the word with a deep thrust before going still, “are going to be so much fun.”
“What?” she manages to sputter. She does’t even know where to begin: what he said or the fondness with which he said it. No, she knows where to start: This was a set-up? For his own amusement?
He braces himself over her and there’s nowhere to look but his face.
“I’m an immortal, ageless being. You thought you were going to be the one to teach me this? Eleanor, truly. Your ego — it’s inspiring.”
She arches back away from him, which only presses her chest against his. “Explain yourself,” she says. It’s super crazy hard to sound all authoritative when all she really wants is to come.
“I’m an architect, Eleanor. And, the last eight hundred and two attempts aside, I am really very good.” His voice dips down into a low growl on that last sentence she echoes when he slips a hand down to where they’re joined between her legs. “You seem to be enjoying it, too.” His mouth is at her ear and he bites. She’s furious, but she still moans, thready and stupidly needy, her grip too tight on the back of his neck, fingernails threatening to break skin.
This, she thinks, is a new low. She’s never been so insulted while a guy’s still inside of her. Well, there was that bachelor party she crashed at The Cheesecake Factory and the groom she had forked in the bathroom at said bachelor party at aforementioned Cheesecake Factory and how he had said to her, after lifting her up against the rail in the handicapped stall, that his wife-to-be weighed less than she did, and she had said, “Well, then why don’t you buy your wife a slice of forking cheesecake,” and he had said, “Wife-to-be,” like that even actually mattered.
Her cheeks are flushed — with exertion, and rage, the humiliation that comes with being played at a game you know you’re the best at, and also, like, impossible defcon levels of horniness. And even though she has jelly legs and she feels like she is turning inside-out in the most promising, awesome kind of way, “Fork you, dude,” she says to him.
She watches that quicksilver smile change all his features. If she still questioned whether or not this was actually The Bad Place, that smile right there, that would confirm it. A face like that belonged in only one place, and it totally, definitively wasn’t Good.
That flare of humiliation-based anger has tangled up in something way messier, like liquid heat, pooling in her. She snarls, “You think you know everything — ” but he cuts her off when he kisses her. Unsurprisingly, the kiss is that much better now that it’s gone nasty, retaliatory and mean. She pulls a grunt of actual surprise from him when she bites his bottom lip. A funny not-quite choking noise when she yanks on his loosened bowtie. He jolts when her mouth sucks at his neck, the sound stuck in his throat he is too proud to give her until she makes him. And he’s right: this is good.
“You already knew?” she says, as syrupy mocking as she can manage, stuck here, still, perched just on this side of coming. Her voice drops lower. “Then show me.”
His face darkens but his eyes are bright with understanding. He grabs her hair too tight and pulls, he changes the angle of his hips again and her mouth drops open. Her thigh muscles are doing that crazy quivering jumping thing. All of her is, as if he found some point inside of her and managed to forking electrocute her. But her mind isn’t empty the way she had promised him his could be, that forking fixed things by blanking them out. Instead all she can think is, where does this fit? Where in the scheme of humanity and morality and Chidi’s blackboard do monsters like them go? Is it here? Is it this connection? Well, fork.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it,” he says and he looks so forking pleased. It’s the worst forking thing because, yes, of course, yes — that’s exactly what she wants. She digs her heel into the small of his back and he whines when she bucks up against him, taking him deeper, his face flushed when she looks up at him. He spits out her name, choked, like it’s the worst kind of profanity that not even this place has a better, kinder word for. And she's so close to what she wants, and she thinks maybe he is too, they’re on equally shaky ground — they’re the same, he told her that once, but when she can’t remember — messy and uncoordinated, and Eleanor suspects it’s this, right here — the most human Michael has ever been.
That first night, there’s a party. And Eleanor is drunk drunk drunk, thanks to the maybe literal boatload of red wine she drank.
After the party, she finds herself sitting beside Michael. She twirls her empty glass between her fingers. “I have a confession,” she says, looking straight out onto the football field that’s basically the lawn at Tahani’s house. “I mean, I’m just going to say it, because this is a good place, The Good Place, and that requires honesty because honesty is good! So, alright, this is me. I’m being honest. I don’t belong here.” She glances over at Michael; he’s listening intently. “I don’t belong here, but, man, that’s gotta be pretty forking obvious, right? I’m straight-up garbage! But you, you seem really very nice. You’re a nice guy! And maybe I can be a nice guy, too. Or I can try, and if I’m trying to be good, then doesn’t that make a person good? Sort of?” She pauses, tilts her head towards him. She puts her hand on his thigh. “So you wanna fork around?”
Michael is looking at her funny. Squinting. Son of a bench — does she have red wine mouth?
“What?” she says. His thigh is warm under her hand; he’s solid and real.
“That’s new. You’ve never shown that level of self-awareness before, not this soon. Sometimes not at all.”
“I don’t know what any of those words mean when they’re used together like that.”
She curls her fingers and they brush the inseam of his gabardine trousers. “But you didn’t answer the question: you wanna fork, or what?”
All he gives her is a smile that’s all teeth and maybe probably frightening but also something else that makes Eleanor hope his answer is yes. She’s grateful she’s too drunk to think about what any of that means. What any of that —
“‘Not so soon,’” she repeats, slowly. Her eyes go wide. She feels his thigh twitch under her hand and his smile grows, threatening and bladed and pleased. “Are you the Devil?” she whispers.
“Oh, Eleanor,” he says, softly, and then he snaps his fingers.
“You’re manipulative, you’re mean, you’re a forking ash-hole,” Eleanor takes a deep breath, “and if you wanted to kiss me right now, I’m not saying I’d be opposed.”
“Vicky told me what’s going on. I know. We’re in The Bad Place.” Off Michael’s flummoxed expression, she slouches. “Okay, so she didn’t tell me tell me, but she was talking to the owner of the flan place — ”
“In Flanders Field?”
“Ew, no. Flimflam Flan.”
“Whatever. I heard them. And you? You’re a bad man. You’re a bad, bad, real bad — are you even a man?”
“Just as I thought.”
His face has gone all calculating and frankly kinda scary as he advances towards her. “And what now, Eleanor?”
She crosses her arms over her chest. “Well, I’m not supposed to be here.”
“No?” His mouth is dangerous, or all of him is dangerous and it’s just easiest to focus on his mouth. “And here I thought it was The Good Place where you weren’t supposed to be. Which is it?”
“Maybe I’m not supposed to be dead, huh? How about that, dude?”
“That’s not my jurisdiction. You were already dead when you got here.” He moves closer to her. It’s hard not to cower back from him. “Have you not yet considered that this place, Good or Bad, right here, it’s exactly where you’re supposed to be right now?”
She’s got her hands on his spread thighs and she’s looking up at him as coquettishly as she can — which isn’t very — and he’s got his own wide-eyed guile thing going, and okay, this is the part when she admits, if only to herself, she might just be out of her depth.
It started like this: Eleanor figured out they’re in The Bad Place. “I’m gonna take one for the team,” she said. “You can all thank me later.”
“How are you taking anything for anyone, and speaking of, what team?” Chidi said.
“Okay, we got some real shirt going on here? And I’m going to need you to keep up. And, Michael. Michael is obviously the key to all of this.” All she got off of that was exasperation (Chidi), beautiful confusion (Tahani), and absolute blankness (Jason). “Dudes, if he designed this whole place and this place is actually Bad, not Good, then,” she trailed off, gesturing with her hands.
“Oh,” Jason said. “Michael’s a gargoyle. Or Willy Wonka.” He nodded.
“You know what. Never mind. I got this. And I’ll say it again: thank me later.”
“And what is it exactly that you’re planning to do here?” Tahani asked.
“Uh, duh. I’m gonna seduce Michael.”
It’s not a great plan.
She realizes that now, on her knees in Michael’s office between his, still-clothed, knees. She lets her fingers inch closer and then looks up at him.
Eleanor stills. There it is, a glimmer of recognition shared between the both of them. That’s wrong. People like them — con artists, grifters, bottomlessly hungry selfish monsters — don’t pause in their performance without intent.
She sets her mouth. “You know who I am, don’t you.”
It’s like a shade is lifted over his face. He guides her closer between his legs with a gentle hand at the back of her head and she’s so dumb, she licks her lips even as she yields and resists at the same time — and he notices, of course he notices. His grin is small but his eyes are dark. He drops his hand from her, nods as if to tell her to stand up.
“Of course I know. I know exactly who you are.”
Eleanor backs away from him, but he follows. There’s not much room and she’s trapped agains the edge of his desk easily. It’s like he's the one seducing her now, and oh boy, that’s not good, right? That’s really not good. He backs her up until she’s perched on his desk, legs spread. His hands look crazy big when he gets them on her thighs.
“Whoa, buddy. What are you doing?”
He ignores the question. He has a hand climbing dangerously high up the inside of her thigh.
“What was the plan here, Eleanor?” She swallows. Good forking question.
“To confirm my suspicions.”
“That you know who I am?”
“Yes, and?” he says like some kind of demented improv coach.
“This isn’t The Good Place.”
A flash of teeth. A flash of heat through her. His fingers have finally hit home and that feels way better than it has any right to, even through her jeans. “No,” he says. “It’s definitely not.”
He leans in, close, closer, until his mouth is right there. She can practically taste him. This has gone so forking far off the rails, it’s ridiculous. She is never going to tell Chidi about this. No forking way. “It took you a lot less time, this time,” he says, gentle and intimate. Eleanor goes cold all over. This time, what the fork even.
“How many times?” She can feel something hysterical and wild rising up inside of her, like how those forking Real Housewives get when they throw overpriced wine or prosthetic legs or what-the-fork-ever at each other.
He tucks a piece of her hair behind her ear and his hand remains, all but cupping her face. “You learn, but you don’t, you know.”
She swats his hand away. “That is so not an answer to anything I asked.”
“Eight hundred and one. We’ve done this eight hundred and one times. Not the, you know,” he makes a hand-gesture she thinks is meant to look like banging the shirt out of each other but instead looks kinda sorta like a caveman breaking rocks.
“Eight hundred and one,” she repeats, quietly.
“Next time — we get it right.”
And there it is, that awful grin of his, made all the worse by how totally not impersonal it is. In fact, if she’s not mistaken, there’s more than a little bit of tenderness there. Like he really does know her. Like, maybe, somehow, she knows him, too. Like, what the f —
Eleanor opens her eyes.
Welcome! Everything is fine.
“Eleanor? Come on in.”