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I. TAHANI

it wasn’t kamilah who saved her. the last thing she saw before her head slammed down on the floor was her sister’s face, the blank look there. tahani all at once lost her rage, and woke up to an empty room, the lights dim.

she didn’t care if i lived or died, tahani thought. she looked around and, seeing no one, laid down on the floor and closed her eyes. she spread her arms and legs wide, releasing all her breath at once. who did she know in cleveland? no one. she scrunched her eyes shut tighter, and breathed in.

no matter what i do i’ll always be second best. poor little tahini. poor dumb bitch, she thought, and giggled helplessly. she stood and dusted off her skirt, called a taxi to her hotel. she packed her bags, and said aloud, “that’s quite enough of that.”

tahani thought about herself, on the train to new york, as she always did. everything she had ever done was utterly without meaning. the desolate american landscape elapsed her like a long and roiling wave. sixty billion for charity but no one would ever love her. she was rich and beautiful and powerful and she’d snogged ryan gosling, but what did she mean?

she googled her own name and sunk deep into her seat. KAMILAH’S SISTER DISRUPTS BENEFIT BALL, the headlines screamed. it was six articles before her name made a headline.

the old woman across from tahani gave her a kind look. “you alright, dearie?” she asked.

tahani smiled back at her, watery. “not really,” she said. she pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.

“do you want to talk about it?” 

“desperately,” tahani said, and told the woman, more or less, her life story. “and kamilah hasn’t texted, or called, or even sent a cordial email! i’m her sister. shouldn’t that mean something?” she sniffled, and looked away, embarrassed.

the old woman looked at her seriously. “this kamilah sounds like a real bitch,” she said, and tahani barked out a startled laugh. 

“i’m so sorry, i never asked your name,” tahani said, and chastised herself internally. 

“janet,” the woman said, holding out her hand. tahani shook it delicately. 

janet eyed her. “that’s a dreadful story,” she said. “i’m very sorry it’s been hard for you.” 

“thank you,” tahani sniffed.

janet looked out the window at the passing cityscape. “it’s difficult, wanting what you know you’ll never have,” she said. “but you can’t care what people think. you just can’t.” she looked sideways at tahani, and tahani shrunk. “i grew up in a little town in montana. nowhere anyone’s ever been. i knew from the start that i was different.” she threaded her fingers together. “i spent a long time trying to figure out how to please everyone. how to be perfect, so they would love me. there was this girl, molly.” she sighed and looked out the window again. “i loved her like i’d never loved anyone. but i knew it wasn’t proper, so i let her go. i married a farmboy. always doing what was proper. but it was empty. my insides were a hollow where my love should have been.” she looked back at tahani, her eyes wry. “i couldn’t take it, after a while. i moved out east. lived the life i wanted to live. and i found my molly again, and kept her.” she shook her head. “but i wasted time, living not for others, but selfishly. for myself, and the hope that i could please people. not everybody gets a second chance.” 

tahani drew in a breath. “i’m glad you found her again.”

“me too,” janet said. “it was a miracle. but i might not have. it’s not worth it to live your life for a vision of yourself you think others want. the bravest and most worthwhile thing you can do is live authentically. if you love yourself and love the world, the rest will follow.”

tahani reached across the table and gripped janet’s hand. “thank you,” she said quietly. 

janet nodded and yawned. “these old bones,” she mumbled, laughing at herself. “will you wake me when we get to boston?”

tahani nodded, and gently shook janet awake when they were three stops away. she helped her with her bags and hugged her, and janet patted her cheek.

“give molly my love,” tahani called, and janet smiled. 

tahani got off the train in new york, checking into the ritz and feeling eyes on her. “you’re kamilah’s sister, right?” the bellhop asked, and tahani looked at him, smiled tiredly.

“she’s my sister,” tahani said. she gave the boy a twenty and changed into her nightgown, staring at the ceiling and willing herself not to care. it took a long time for sleep to claim her, and when she awoke she was shivering.

when she managed to get up she sat at the hotel desk, looked at her little planner, and meticulously sorted it out: events she headed, events she would need to cancel, and ones where no one would care whether she came. whether she lived or died. she called columns one and two, sending her deepest regrets, and then stomped on her planner until the pages were crumpled and unreadable.

authenticity, tahani thought. what do i love? event planning. galas. dinners. she realized, dully, that there was nothing inside her to want. she might as well be filled with nothing, for all that she could do for herself.

what did tahani love? what did she mean, when she was reduced to nothing, when she only had herself for company? she didn’t know. staring down at her ripped planner, she vowed to find it.

 

II. CHIDI 

uzo pushed him out of the way in time. chidi stared down at the ac unit, after, wondering at it all; what were the philosophical implications of near death by sheer universal fuck-you? he’d never been one for signs—things happened, or they didn’t. it was humanity’s job to ascribe meaning to their own actions, not to the universe at large.

uzo, next to him, was shaking. chidi looked at him, long, quiet, and said, “thank you.”

“yeah,” uzo said. he leaned down and gripped his knees. “fuck, man.” 

chidi watched the clenching of his knuckles, the skin stretched over bone. all at once, the fork in his garbage disposal brain stopped grinding, and he took his speeches out of his briefcase and tore them into pieces. “let’s go get you married,” he said. uzo grinned.

he thought about all his speeches when he stood up to speak, but didn’t let himself get lost in them. “plato said humans originally started out as one hermaphroditic being,” chidi began, and saw uzo sink in his seat, heard quiet muttering. “they had four eyes, four arms, four legs, and two hearts. their power was so mighty, their love so strong that they terrified zeus. so he split them in two. his hope was that humans would never feel complete, would always be separate. they would roam the endless earth looking for their other half, their stolen birthright. but humans found a way. their other halves were still out there. and they found them, and loved them, and that light shone through, despite all odds.” he looked around the room, and saw uzo, his smile blinding. “uzo and ellen found each other. in this world, with all its surprises, with all its oddities and its obstacles, they found the other half zeus tried to keep from them.” he raised his glass, and felt like he was falling. “to uzo and ellen. they found their way through the dark.” 

he drank, and the room cheered. chidi sat down hard. more toasts followed, none of them registering, and he sipped his sparkling cider. he stayed in that chair all night, watching nothing, nearly asleep. uzo stopped by briefly, clapping him on the shoulder and shouting over the din. “you did it!”

“i did it,” chidi repeated. he shook himself. “go enjoy yourself. you deserve it.”

the whole night, his mind stayed quiet.

he awoke to a hangover and a panic attack. the wheels of his brain were grinding in overtime, blunt force regret trauma. it took a long time for the panic attack to dull, his mind to slow to its normal daily horrorshow. his stomach ached with a raw hollowness, and he realized in dismay that his bed had a sheer coat of green vomit.

he cleaned up, ate a hard boiled egg, and cancelled the day's classes. he read over the speech from last night, the memory of it fuzzy, and was surprised at how good it was, typos aside. he wondered, vaguely, if he should see a doctor. the panic attack was new. he’d been anxious from birth, but never to the point of outright hyperventilation. well, maybe a few times. well… 

chidi pondered that for most of the afternoon, taking online quizzes and growing more disheartened by the moment. around quiz number eighteen (likelihood of extreme anxiety: severe), he managed to push his computer away and migrated to his armchair, curling up with some peppermint tea and some albert camus, and tried to lose himself.

he felt off balance for weeks afterwards, but then he always felt off balance. he saw a psychiatrist a week after uzo’s wedding, who gave him an impenetrable gaze and prescribed him two milligrams of alprazolam, to be taken at bedtime.

weeks passed, and chidi’s mind was quiet, but he felt lackluster. the things that interested him seemed vague and unimportant. when he saw the psychiatrist again, she tutted and said, “depression can be a side effect of these medications. it’s up to you what’s more important.”

chidi looked past her. “i feel blank,” he said. she nodded and recommended talk therapy, and wrote him a prescription for a low dose, as needed. chidi came out of his fog, gradually, and started seeing a psychologist. it helped—gave him strategies—but that month of darkness loomed over him, and the familiar streets began to feel oppressive. something was missing, he thought, and knew it to be true—but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find its name.

  

III. JASON

so his school at the docks had been good for one thing: jason learned how to hold his breath. he couldn’t read past a third grade level and he didn’t know algebra and he couldn’t tell you who christopher columbus was, but he did know how to hold his breath. 

they’d spent long hours just outside campus grounds, having contests to see who could stay submerged the longest. jason was particularly good at it, and always came in third or fourth at least, long minutes submerged under the murky green jacksonville water, eyes wide open for gators or eels. jason held himself there, in that calm state, until pillboi or donkey doug pulled him up and he vomited swamp water onto the docks. when they pulled him from the safe, his eyes were closed, and he wondered for a long minute when he would vomit up salt water.

dance dance resolution threw a fundraiser to raise bail for him and pillboi. jason tasted the salt-air freedom and was, for a moment, invincible. “i can do anything,” he told pillboi. pillboi nodded, sage, and they used the last forty dollars of the bail fund to set off firecrackers outside stupid nick’s. nick gave them free poppers for a week.

the cops decided to prosecute for attempted robbery; jason decided to represent himself in court. it didn’t go well. when the judge gave him a long hard look and jason grinned his hapless grin, he hoped the invincibility would carry him through; and when she sentenced him to five years, possible parole after two, it took him a minute to understand what she had said, for the words to sink in. it was only after he’d taken his first bite of food, picked out a squirming ant, that he understood. 

jason had never considered prison, not really. sure, half his crew had done time. illest had gotten his three strikes, and gone away for good. but to jason it was an abstraction. sure, he’d visited illest a few times, but it had seemed alright enough. they had ramen noodles and cheetos, so it couldn’t be all bad. 

he learned soon enough that it could, in fact, be all bad. he’d been expecting a cellmate, maybe tattooed, maybe a bortles brother. he hadn’t been expecting a huge, cavernous room, filled to the brim with three-tier bunk beds. he got the middle rung between a slight, withdrawn black man named dayveon and a neo-nazi skinhead who called himself 14.

“don’t ever fuck with me, chink,” 14 said. “don’t talk to me, don’t look at me, don’t ask me for shit, and maybe i won’t kill you.”

“i’m filipino,” jason protested under his breath, and 14 punched him in the gut. jason didn’t talk to him after that. he found his days long and hard, endless hours of telemarketing that left him feeling like all the bones had been sucked from his body. it was evident soon enough that jason couldn’t sell a gator skin to a gator dealer, and he was assigned to the kitchens; and after a huge grease fire and two weeks in shu, he was put in the library. it took him three months to work through the comics, and after reading march, he felt, for the first time in his life, inadequate.

he thought about john lewis a lot after that, and gradually, haltingly, found more. it took him a week to read soul on ice, but after, when he tried to return to the easier and more soothing aquaman, something about it felt hollow. he went back to the 300s after that, read the autobiography of malcolm x, read assata, read blood in my eye. jason began to bring books back to his bunk with him, bell hooks and che guevara and howard zinn. he read whenever he could, and worked his way through the library.

jason started to notice things, after a while. he listened to what people said, understood them, in a way he hadn’t known he was capable of. he asked people for their stories as they passed through the library, and a picture formed in his head, crystalline and absolute.

ripped ricky had been stopped at a streetlight for being black, then arrested for having two grams; he still hadn’t had a trial after a year. juice had owed two hundred dollars in child support, and the number grew and damned him the longer he was in here, making fifty cents a day. thugatron hadn’t realized his gun license had expired, and had it in his car after running a stop sign. 

jason heard these stories, and read and read, and ticked off the days on the bottom of dayveon’s mattress, and told himself that the world was going to change, even if he had to rip it apart single-handedly.

 

IV. TAHANI

after a time, she became anonymous. three months was all it took for even maggie to stop calling. a pit grew in her gut, and she tried to fill it, walking the streets of new york and drinking expensive, shitty american teas in expensive, shitty american cafés. she started a new diary, disturbed when she read over the long-winded, vapid entries.

she came across ryan gosling on a walk on broadway. he stopped her and pulled her into a pizza place, sitting across from her as she picked reluctantly at a greasy calzone.

“are you okay, tahani?” ryan asked, his eyes wide and concerned. “i didn’t see you at the met ball. i heard about cleveland, but…”

“well, you know,” tahani said. “i thought some self reflection might be called for. i’m not sure how much i’ve been able to accomplish. it still feels as though i’m missing some sign or looking past a path i ought to be taking.” 

“there’s never gonna be a sign,” ryan told her, earnestly. “you just have to find what you love and do it. i love acting, so i act. what do you love, tahani?”

tahani looked at him, then buried her head in her hands. “i don’t know!” she cried. ryan ushered her out of the parlor and they took his car back to his flat, tahani chastising herself for her lack of composure. she wept on ryan’s shoulder. “i’m afraid there’s nothing inside me at all,” she admitted. he led her up to his flat and brought her a mug of tea, rubbing her shoulder as she cried.

he put on some music and gave her some valium, and after she had calmed ryan said, “everyone’s got something to give.” he kissed her, and they fucked on his silk sheets to some intolerable smooth jazz. he was sloppy, but could tell she hadn’t come, and spent an unskilled hour slobbering around her cunt until she came twice.  tahani wondered, watching drool puddle at the corner of ryan’s sleeping mouth, how she could have a life most would kill for and yet still feel so hollow. 

she let him buy her breakfast the next morning, but remained subdued. ryan gave her a friendly kiss before she left, and she went back to her favorite café. she sat there for hours, making a list of things she’d done for herself, and realized that one way or another, they’d all been for kamilah; to live up to her, to be her. she went to the met and stared at “the dance class” until a wiry old security guard with a gold tooth told her they were closing.

she went back for two weeks afterwards, brought her sketchbook and tried to find what about it drew her, whether that ethereal, soft beauty was something she could ever really touch.

soon enough the familiar, urine-scented, bubblegum-stained streets of new york began to disgust her. she packed her bags and bought the first train ticket out of the city.

tahani made her way across america, taking in its sloping hills, its cavernous valleys, its resplendent grandeur and its poverty. she had been trained from birth to be proper, cordial, welcoming and generous, but she grew to understand that she hadn’t known what those things meant. she felt herself breaking in two, and then breaking again, until she felt like a collection of fragmented selves. the world passed her by, intimating a transcendent beauty beyond her reach.

 

V. CHIDI 

chidi kept trying to find whatever was missing, giving lectures, writing papers, going about his carefully-constructed life. he’d almost managed to shove that feeling deep and ignore it when eleanor shellstrop happened.

“happened” was really the only word for it. she hit him like harmattan winds, barging into his office, bags and all, eyes bright, heart split open. she told him her story, and chidi watched her and wondered at her, how a person could be so much, all at once. “you flew all the way from america because you liked my lecture?” he verified.

she shrugged. “i want to be a better person,” she said. “a good person. i think you can help me figure out how.” she kicked at her chair and shrugged again. “the problem is that being good isn’t. good. it’s hard and it doesn’t get you anything, but your lecture—it made sense. chidi,” she said, and leaned forwards, looking him in the eye, “if there’s reasons to be good that are bigger than me, bigger than rewards, i want to understand them. help me learn why.”

chidi found himself mirroring her, and nodded. “okay,” he said. “yes. i’ll help you.”

she bought him dinner and took notes on books to read, and when he offered to drive her home, she looked at her bags and shrugged. “nearest hotel’s fine,” she said.

“oh,” he said, and his brain ground and his palms sweat, but he said, “why don’t you stay with me?”

as he turned off the lights and put a bookmark in critique of practical reason, chidi wondered what exactly he was getting himself into.

the weeks flew by, with eleanor there. somehow she managed to completely take over his house in a matter of days. she turned order into chaos, sterility into warmth. she moved too fast for his indecision to take hold; if he didn’t tell her off, she’d be halfway into her next mess by the time he’d made up his mind. he found himself frenzied by her, and calmed, and curious.

“i have dinner with my friend uzo tonight,” chidi said one afternoon, a lazy thursday after his last class had gotten out. eleanor was sprawled over the couch, a paperback in hand. she looked up at him. “would you like to come?”

“is he another overbearing nerd?” eleanor teased. “i mean, i can tell kant and rawls apart, but i’m not sure i want to spend a dinner feeling like a dummy.”

“uzo’s laid back,” chidi said. “you’ll get along.”

“well, all right,” eleanor said. “wake me up before we go.” she dog-eared her book, leaned her head back, and fell asleep near-instantaneously. chidi rolled his eyes and covered her with a blanket.

he and eleanor met uzo and ellen at the restaurant at seven, and uzo’s eyebrows raised when he saw eleanor. chidi winced—he’d forgotten to text. eleanor pulled out a chair and nodded at them. “sup.”

chidi introduced them all and reached for his menu. eleanor snatched it from under his hands, swatting him when he tried to grab for it. “no way, josé. i know what you’re like, and you know what you’re like, so you’re getting—” she scanned the menu—“eggplant parm and a house salad. enjoy your lack of decision making power.”

“it doesn’t have—”

“no, weirdo, no walnuts.”

chidi sighed and nodded. he looked up to see uzo and ellen grinning at them like a pair of puppies. he scowled.

predictably, eleanor hit it off with both of them, and left the restaurant gabbing with ellen. uzo pulled chidi aside and crossed his arms, giving him an expectant look. “so?”

“so what?”

“so, when’s the wedding, bro?”

chidi sputtered. “it’s not like that.” 

uzo gave him a knowing look. “okay, if i believed you, you’d better make it like that. put a ring on it, chidi.” chidi tried to interrupt, and uzo cut him off. “no. listen to me. that woman is good for you. i’ve never seen you like this. she ordered your fucking dinner, bro. you need to let go of whatever doubts and issues are stopping you from marrying her and having dozens of ridiculous, beautiful babies and get a fucking move on. she’s not gonna wait forever.” 

“this is—preposterous,” chidi said.

“you know i’m right, dude,” uzo said. “you are mad in love with this girl. marry her.”

chidi shook his head. he spotted eleanor out of the side of his eye and walked over to her. she nudged him. “ready to go?”

“i’m never ready for anything,” chidi said. “you, least of all.”

“that’s the way you like it,” eleanor said, winking, and hugged uzo and ellen before grabbing chidi’s wrist and dragging him to his car. chidi looked up at the spattering of stars in the sky and then closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of eleanor’s hand tethering him to the spinning, vast earth.

 

VI. TAHANI

tahani made her way to utah before she started taking long stops. it was the salt flats that did it for her—the way they seemed to consume all her memories of the vast and verdant earth. she felt, standing there, like she had reached the end of the world and could go no further.

in this liminal apocalyptic space, it came to her, not so much in a flash but in an opening of the closed back of her mind. she’d wanted to show up kamilah, and had never cared what that meant for the people she was “helping”.

so she started getting to know people, everywhere she went. though she’d thought of the middle of america as a vast and empty space before all this, it became clear that the people here were—well, people, as varied and interesting as any she talked to at the met ball or any charity fundraiser. in many ways, they were kinder. they let her into their homes, gave her snippets of their lives, and rarely tried to pry at why she had come untethered, drifting across the american expanse.

tahani became quiet. she realized that though she was a master at conversation, her talent was limited to extraction of information—she rarely, before, had absorbed details of people’s lives. she met mormons and children with heads full of impossible dreams and old women who had lost their sight but kept their stories. she met people who could square dance and ballroom dance and who had fought pointless wars.

as she made her way into the long american west, she found something new inside herself. perhaps to learn who she was, she’d needed to destroy herself first. to replace her hollowed-out heart with little gifted bits of other people’s souls.

 

VII. CHIDI 

it was very late.

it was very, very late.

it was very, very, very late, and chidi was drunk. somehow eleanor had convinced him, around drink five, to break onto the roof, and chidi had found himself lugging blankets and drink up the stairs, shushing eleanor whenever she broke out into giggles. they were talking about—he had no idea. she swam in his inebriated vision.

eleanor snorted. tequila shot out of her nose. she swore and then laughed, rolling around on the blanket. she sat up, looking at him with drunken intensity, and said, “okay, but according to althusser—” and chidi rocked back. he’d felt this once before, looking down at the ac unit that had nearly killed him. stillness. certainty. chidi felt like the universe had paused around him, and closed his eyes.

“cheedster? you good?” 

he opened his eyes, and there was eleanor; beautiful, impossible. “i love you,” he said.

her eyes widened, and she looked down. “you’re drunk.”

“i love you,” chidi repeated. “all my life, i’ve never been certain of anything. my brain has been an endless loop, every consequence, every action a terror. but i’m sure about this.” 

eleanor reached out and held his face in her hands. “tell me that tomorrow,” she said. they laid down on the blanket, watching the stars, and she curled into his side. they slept.

when chidi awoke, his head hurt and his stomach was queasy. the blinding australia sun beat down on him. he looked down at eleanor, who was watching him through lidded eyes.

“it’s tomorrow,” chidi said. “i love you.”

eleanor smiled so hard it was like her whole face had split in two. “i love you too, dummy,” she said. she kissed him, and they both pulled away, blanching at the taste of bile. eleanor shook her head and groaned. “we are gonna bone later,” she said. “after more sleep. and some food. and showers.” she kissed his cheek. “last one in bed’s a rotten egg!” she yelled, and raced off. chidi wondered if there was anywhere she would go he wouldn’t follow.

chidi proposed the next month. uzo called him, disbelieving, hours after chidi sent out the save the date email. “is this a joke?” he yelled, and chidi laughed. “because i’m not planning an expensive ass bachelor party if this is a joke, bro.”

“who’s that, babe?” eleanor called from the couch, not looking up from her derrida.

“uzo,” chidi told her, and her mouth quirked in a smile.

chidi could practically hear uzo’s jaw drop over the phone. “not a joke, then,” uzo said faintly.

“she’s the one,” chidi said, and eleanor yelled, “nerd!” chidi shook his head and stood, walking out to the balcony.

“i…” uzo said. “i mean…” chidi waited, propping his arms on the fence and pressing his phone between his head and shoulder. “congratulations.”

chidi laughed again, and uzo laughed too. chidi said, “i guess you were right about her. and me.”

“i knew that,” uzo said. “i just never imagined—and so soon! but i’m really happy for you, chidi. honestly. eleanor is great, and you’re great for each other.”

chidi shrugged, and knew uzo was picturing it. “so, you going to be my best man or what?”

their wedding was small. eleanor had only invited three people from the nonprofit, and chidi only had uzo and ellen and a few professors from st. john’s. they rented out a small boat and were married by the captain. chidi had spent hours on 127 iterations of his vows, but the day before had calmly and meticulously shredded them all.

“eleanor,” he said, and took her hands. “you’re the best thing to ever happen to me. i vow to always stay by you, to protect you, to cherish you. thank you for being you.”

eleanor clenched his hands and drew in a deep breath, blinking away tears. “i never wanted to commit to anything,” she said. “my whole life has been spent running away. you’re the first person i ever wanted to run towards. i vow to stay with you and to love you. we’ll keep growing together.”

they kissed, and chidi held their joint hands up high. “alright!” eleanor yelled. “let’s get this party started, bitches!”

 

VIII. JASON 

he was released after two years, on parole. pillboi picked him up at the gates, and jason hugged him, then spun, whooping and pumping his fist in the air. they went to the docks and pillboi got high while jason breathed in the salty air, splashing his feet in the water. he propped his elbows behind him and watched the stars, realizing with a jolt that he could name the constellations. pillboi offered him the joint and jason shook his head. as they talked, jason felt a disconnect, a deep sense of loss. pillboi would always be his bro, but they were different now. he was different. 

the next day, jason signed up for classes at florida state college. the registration clerk was kind to him, and turned out to be a jags fan. she listened to his story and helped him take a long test on school computers, afterwards registering him for comp one, remedial math, and music appreciation. jason worked for stupid nick and kept his textbooks under the counter, once or twice getting help from the fry cook. 

gradually, jason caught up. two years later, he walked across the stage at graduation, tears in his eyes. pillboi and dance dance resolution took up three full rows in the auditorium, screaming so loud when he was called that they drowned out the next name. jason held his diploma like a lifeline, and called his parole officer, who bought him dinner, shaking his head all the while. 

somewhere in his second year of college, jacksonville had seemed to shrink. jason wanted to get out, not just to miami or tampa, but to a new city where no one knew his name. he picked schools at random, one in each city where there was still water, and ended up at uc san diego. 

it was hard, that first semester, but he prevailed, practically living in the tutoring center. it was weeks until he felt stable enough to go to the beach, and he threw himself face forward into the bitter cold california waters, splashing and screaming with glee. he shook himself off on the beach after, spotting a woman in a striped and ruffled one-piece with hair like waves laughing at him from under an umbrella. he grabbed his backpack and headed over to her, and she ducked her head behind her book.

he sat down in the sand next to her, legs crossed, and said, “you liked wolf hall?”  

she lowered her book then, looking at him. “quite,” she said. “you’ve read it?”

jason nodded. “it’s good shit. i’m jason.”

“tahani,” the woman said, stretching out her legs so that her calves and feet touched the sunlight. she held out her hand, her wrist tilted, and jason kissed it, feeling silly. “pleasure.” 

“what else do you like to read?” jason asked, and her eyes sparkled. 

jason managed to get her number, as the sun started to set, and jumped up and down and pumped his fists when he was out of eyeshot. “bortles!” he called to the sky, and nearly skipped home.

he had dinner with her sometimes, after that. tahani was beautiful, nearly inhumanly so, but jason was surprised to realize somewhere around their third dinner that he wasn’t interested in anything with her. he dropped his fork and told her so, and she laughed in his face and took a perfect bite of her salad, telling him it would never have happened. 

he signed up for moral philosophy his senior year. the full title of the class had been long and winding, but referenced kant, who jason had read in prison. dr. anagonye said he was visiting from australia, and jason wondered whether he’d ever wrestled a kangaroo. he went to dr. anagonye’s office hours that thursday, hoping to ask about the florida of the pacific. when he opened the door, a short blonde woman was lounging to the right of the desk, her bare feet propped up on the desk. jason blinked at her. 

“hi,” she said, wiggling her toes. “you looking for chidi?”

jason nodded. “he said he was from australia!” he enthused. “i wanna know everything!”

the woman gestured for him to sit. “i can tell you about it until he gets back.”

jason’s eyes widened. “you’re australian too?”

she laughed. “pure arizona trash, bro. but i’ve lived there for a hot second.” she held out a hand. “eleanor anagonye, at your service.” 

“jason mendoza,” jason said, and sat. she spun tales about lizard monsters the size of cars and kangaroo wrestling rings and man-eating koalas, and jason listened, enraptured. after fifteen minutes, professor anagonye walked through the door toting a takeout bag. he kissed eleanor on the head and waited, glaring, until she sighed dramatically and lowered her feet, then stuck them in professor anagonye’s lap.

“this is jason,” eleanor said pointedly. professor anagonye reached over the desk and shook his hand, and jason smiled at him.

“i’m jason mendoza,” jason said. “i’m in your applied deontological ethics class?”

“what can i do for you?” professor anagonye asked, pulling boxes out of the bag and handing one to eleanor. she opened it and tossed her pickle to jason, who caught it midair. 

“i was gonna ask about australia, but eleanor has been telling me all about it! did you really save a whole town from a mini godzilla?”

professor anagonye sighed and buried his head in his hands. “just a dinner party,” he said, muffled. jason whistled. eleanor winked at him and patted professor anagonye on the shoulder. professor anagonye groaned and looked up. “did you have a philosophy question?”

jason sat back and thought. “so you’re a kantian, right,” he said. “do you just, like, say screw you to consequentialism and structuralism? like, is this a fuck off jeremy bentham situation, or…? because narrative approaches to ethics have been like, hella helpful to me.”

eleanor grinned and pointed at him. “i like this guy, chidi,” she said. “‘fuck off jeremy bentham.’ that’s going on my tombstone.” 

professor anagonye blinked at him. “i’m not really sure how structuralism applies,” he began. 

jason cut him off. “okay, like, i know that structuralism isn’t always used in philosophy? i guess i just mean like… materialism? as in althusser and foucault and all those bros. like how do you justify kant’s categorical imperative if marx was right and everything we do is shaped by the economy or whatever? how can anybody really know whether kant’s categorical duties are true or if they’re just what an enlightenment dude would think was true?” 

eleanor laughed and took a bite out of her sandwich. professor anagonye pursed his lips and thought for a minute. “well, the beauty of kant is that…”

 

IX. TAHANI

her friendship with jason mendoza was odd, but tahani quite liked it. he kept her off balance, one minute monologuing about angela davis and the prison industrial complex, the next listing the relative merits of florida cities based on which had the best underground onion ring shacks. 

jason invited her to dinner at a friend’s house in june, and she accepted after verifying that he would not be going anywhere near a stove. tahani drove to the little house near ucsd, knocking on the door three times. she heard jason yell, “that’s her, y’all!”, and smiled to herself. jason pulled open the door and wandered back to the kitchen. 

she saw a neat row of shoes and toed hers off, feeling off balance three inches from her usual vantage point. the house was small but cheery, the walls lined floor to ceiling with books. they were piled on all available surfaces, and tahani walked curiously to the shelf nearest to her.

jason popped up next to her. “their library is dope, right?” he said. she smiled and nodded, and he grabbed her hand. “come on, come meet everybody!”

tahani followed him to the kitchen, where a man and woman weaved around each other and the stove. the woman spotted jason and ruffled his hair. “i’m eleanor,” she said, waving to tahani, who smiled back tentatively. eleanor elbowed the man, who turned to her and stuck out his hand.

“chidi anagonye,” he said. “it’s nice to meet you.”

“i’m tahani al-jamil,” tahani said, shaking his hand. “thank you for the invitation. you have a lovely home.”

eleanor snorted. “we have a lovely library with a couch, you mean.”

chidi rolled his eyes. “at least a third of these books are yours.”

tahani watched them, the bright light shining from their eyes as they spoke to each other. she tamped down on her envy, smiling back at them.

“dinner’s almost ready,” eleanor said. she spied jason inching towards the pan and swatted at him, jason ducking on reflex. “you get out of my kitchen, bortles-brain. i don’t want you anywhere near an open flame. set the table!” she swatted at him until he grabbed some plates and silverware and left. 

“your kitchen?” chidi sputtered. “when’s the last time you cooked anything?”

“hey, i make a very respectable ramen!” eleanor protested. chidi snorted. eleanor rolled her eyes and grinned at tahani, leading her to the dining room, where the table had been set in apparently random combinations. eleanor took a glass and asked tahani, “drink?” 

“white wine would be lovely, if you have it,” tahani said, sitting down next to jason. eleanor winked and headed back to the kitchen. tahani turned to jason and asked about the latest jaguars game, knowing he would talk until chidi and eleanor returned. 

after about fifteen minutes, chidi and eleanor came out juggling salad, soup and a delicious smelling eggplant dish. “we’re vegan,” eleanor said, somewhat apologetically. tahani smiled and took the salad bowl. 

“how did you two meet?” tahani asked. jason groaned. 

“i had a close call a few years back,” eleanor began. “i wanted to try to become a better person after that, you know? but all the feel-good stuff wasn’t cutting it. i found one of chidi’s lectures on youtube and, well, i knew he could help, you know? so i flew out to australia and was like, teach me ethics, bitch. and he did. and i mean, who would see all of this and not fall in love with me, right? so i was like fine, whatever, i guess i’ll marry you.” 

chidi rolled his eyes. “well, the first part is true.” 

“i guess i love you a little,” eleanor teased. “i mean, you’re alright for a moral philosophy professor, or whatever.” 

jason took a big bite of eggplant and said, mouth full, “they’re disgusting. ow!” 

“nothing will ever be as disgusting as your table manners,” eleanor said. “so, what brings you to sunny california, hot stuff?”

tahani shrugged. “i do love the beach,” she said. “and it’s as good a place as any, isn’t it?”

jason gave her a sideways look. he knew the whole story, had pulled it out of her strand by strand. it was an odd talent of his, but one tahani appreciated.

eleanor raised an eyebrow. “i’m sensing there’s more to it,” she said, “but if you don’t want to tell us, you don’t have to. just—it’s a judgement-free zone, here. before my close call i was kind of a fuck. like straight out of the worst reality tv show you can imagine. and chidi here’s neurotic as hell—”

“hey!”

“you are, babe, don’t pretend you aren’t. and jason over here is… well, you know him. just saying.”

tahani felt her face heat. she looked down into her salad. “thank you.” jason’s hand brushed her shoulder. she smiled, embarrassed, and looked back up at everyone. “you’re very kind,” she said.

eleanor shrugged. “we gotta be, right? or why are we here?” she took a bite of eggplant and chewed around it, winking. “anyway, there’s no need to be grim. chidi, why don’t you tell us about your research?”

“no!” jason yelped, and tahani grinned. she didn’t know why, but she felt warm in this space. perhaps it was just the unconditional kindness. she should’ve known jason would know how to find the best people anywhere he went. why else were they there, indeed? 

 

X. JASON 

he graduated from ucsd with a 2.8, and it felt like a 4.0. chidi and eleanor and tahani and even pillboi came to the ceremony, and they went out for wings afterward, and then to the anagonye’s. eleanor smirked mischievously and disappeared into the stacks, emerging triumphantly with a pipe and a baggie of weed. pillboi and jason high fived, sight unseen. 

they migrated out to the porch. eleanor packed a bowl and gave it to jason first, who took a long hit and blew a smoke ring. eleanor clapped. jason passed the bowl around. tahani had a small hit, and chidi declined.

“oh, come on,” eleanor wheedled. “you’ve got to try it at least once. it’s indica, you’ll like it. and if you don’t you can lie down and i won’t make fun of you.” she considered. “until you’re sober.”

chidi bit his lip. “make it my graduation present,” jason suggested. “stoned chidi.”

“you’re all peer pressuring me,” chidi grumbled, and took a hit, coughing violently as soon as he exhaled. pillboi passed him his powerade and chidi drank gratefully.

eleanor, jason, and pillboi smoked until it was cashed. jason looked over at chidi and giggled. chidi was sprawled out on his chair, staring at the clouds. “okay,” he said. “i get it.”

eleanor and jason shared an amused glance. pillboi put on some good ass edm and they sat for a while, silent, watching tendrils of sunset trickle up the horizon. “i’m so proud of you, bro,” pillboi said. “my best homie is a college grad. that’s lit as fuck.” he shot eleanor a questioning look, loading another bowl after she nodded.

“what are you going to do now?” tahani asked him. 

jason thought for a while, and then shrugged. “i don’t know,” he said. “i guess i want to do something to help people from ending up in prison, like i did. or help stop prisons from being such shitholes.” pillboi handed him the pipe, and he took a hit, passing it to tahani, who shrugged and hit it. “i just want to make things better, i guess. i never thought this far.”

eleanor took a hit and then passed it to pillboi. she looked at jason consideringly. “i think the mindy alliance has a criminal reform division. i could talk to some people and see if there’s something you could do.”

jason looked over at her and grinned. “thanks, bro. that’s really awesome.”

eleanor winked at him. “what do you think, chidi?” she asked. chidi didn’t answer. they all looked to him and then at each other. “i think he’s asleep,” eleanor said. “chidi?” 

chidi snored. they all burst out laughing. jason breathed in deep and watched the edge of the sun collapse under the skyline.

the mindy alliance did, in fact, have a place for jason. he got started after a week, looking over appeals for loopholes. they asked what he thought a lot, which surprised him until he realized he was the only ex-con on their payroll. as july rolled into august, they suggested he scare teenagers straight. jason loved the work with a deep ferocity that surprised him.

“i’ve gotta do this my way,” he told his supervisor, april, after looking over their outline. “trust me, rilla. this stuff doesn’t get into it.”

she assented, cautiously, and came along to his first scare. he took a group of lincoln high kids to the beach, watching the waves in oblique silence until their chatter quieted. they all watched him, curious.

“sup, ya’ll, i’m jason mendoza. so, i know you don’t want to be here,” jason said, and a few students laughed and nodded. “i don’t want to be here either, guys. i really don’t. i wish we could all be at home mixing sets and getting high.” the giggles grew, and he saw the kids looking at each other incredulously. “unfortunately for all of us, this is a conversation that has to be had. have any of y’all ever had the scared straight lecture before?”

a few kids nodded. “i can guess what they told you,” jason continued. “crime is bad. if you do crime you’re bad too, and you’ll go to prison and your life will suck forever, and you’ll die alone in a ditch of a drug overdose.” he saw hard looks in the kids’ eyes, and sighed. “you wanna know the truth? prison was the best thing that ever happened to me. before, i didn’t care about anything. all i wanted was to eat jalapeno poppers and dj and get high and wrestle a gator. in prison, i learned how to care about stuff.” jason looked at them and smiled, and got a few tentative smiles in return.

“everything’s more complicated than the man tries to make it out to be,” jason said. “sure, some things are pretty clearly bad. murder, rape, that’s bad shit. it hurts everyone, even the person who does it. but a lot of the time, maybe even most, criminality isn’t about who or what is bad. it’s about what gets criminalized, and what doesn’t. and being poor or brown or other gets criminalized, and it seems like there’s no way to win.” he heard murmurs and bobbed his head up and down.  “yeah. it sucks. they make us poor and keep us down, and then blame us when we do what we have to do to survive, or make a life that means more than survival. what the hell, right?”

he got laughs, then. “i’m not gonna tell you that the state’s law is moral law. i’m not gonna tell you that you’ll die in a ditch if you do some time. but i will tell you this. the cops, the government, the guys who tell you that you’re evil if you make a mistake? they don’t give a fuck about you. they want you where you are, because it makes them richer, keeps them in power. when i did my time, i figured i’d lift some weights, join a gang, maybe get a tattoo. there’s this story they sell you about how prison is about paying a debt to society, learning the error of your ways. it’s bullshit. you wanna know the truth?”

he looked around. he had their attention, twenty rapt faces watching him. they all nodded. “y’all sure?” 

“yeah!” a kid yelled, and they all chorused behind him. 

“it’s about slave labor,” he said, and watched as they blinked and their mouths fell open. “jacksonville state prison is a telemarketing building, and everyone in it is a slave. you can check all the websites. they’ll list an industry. their slave labor speciality. what this means for you kids is that they want you to fail. they want to lock you up and throw away the key so joe at verizon or bill at walmart can get a little bit richer. prisons aren’t about morals. they’re about money.” 

he sat back for a minute, let them take it in. “the world wants to fuck us over,” he said. “it sucks, and it’s changeable, but not following the law because you don’t like it can get you locked up, and then you can’t do anything. it’s not worth it, for you, right now, not if you’re doing dumb shit.” jason looked at the kids and sighed.

“i know you’re kids, though, and you’re people, and you’re gonna keep doing dumb shit. so be careful about it, all right? don’t keep drugs in your car. follow traffic laws. suck up to cops if you have to. call a friend or an uber if you’re too drunk to drive. if you need money, tell the mindy foundation, or me, and we’ll help you.” jason looked all of them over, and nodded to himself. “so i guess what i really want you guys to take away is this. law, criminality, jail, all that stuff is about power. the big wig rich guys, they have it, and they want to take it from you. because you do have power. but to use it, you have to think critically about everything. you have to look at the structures around you and figure out how you’re working within them. you have to learn about the world, one way or another. and if you’re gonna break the law, do it like dr. king. make it mean something. otherwise the man gets everything, and you’re just another slave.” 

he stood and stretched, and the kids all clapped. jason looked at rilla, and she grinned so hard he thought her face must hurt.

“get out your phones and get my number if you want it,” jason said, rattling it off when they all had them out. “alright, go swim if you want. stick around if you have questions.”

four kids remained, huddling around jason eagerly. he smiled at them. “what are y’all’s names?” 

they were lyric, tommye, fat frederico and gloria. “how do you know all this stuff?” lyric asked. 

“i straight up did nothing but read for like, two years,” jason said. “the autobiography of malcolm x is probably a good place to start. there’s all kinds of lists on the internet.”

jason kept doing his talks after that, and found to his surprise that the kids took his words to heart, called him and relied on him and looked up to him. jason, a role model. sometimes it took his breath away.

one kid started a club at her school promoting justice for palestine, and got her whole district to participate in boycott/divest/sanction guidelines. another graduated with honors and went to law school, and jason cried like a baby at her graduation. a fair few joined the mindy foundation after they graduated, and jason began to have places to stay all over the country, then the world. he’d stay with his kids when he went around the country to speak, sometimes bringing them with him as shining examples of possibility.

  

XI. ELEANOR—TEN YEARS LATER

she went back to sting’s desert rosé, the third night she was in phoenix. chidi offered to come with her, but she shook her head. “i have this feeling like i have to go alone,” she said, wandering into the living room to find her green dress.

“don’t leave me for a hot mailman!” chidi called after her.

eleanor pulled on her heels and headed back into the bedroom, and chidi zipped her up. “damn, because, you know, that was definitely what i was planning to do.” 

chidi patted the small of her back and she turned around to see his grin. “i’m just kidding. i know that if you were gonna leave me it would be for tahani.” 

she pointed at him and wagged her finger. “i’m still a hundred percent ready for that threesome to happen whenever. it’d be like a super hot nerd sandwich.”

chidi scowled, and she kissed him soundly and headed out. the rosé was right where it had been, curiously empty. eleanor looked at her phone and realized it was wednesday. she sat down and waited, and a tall man walked behind the bar, rag flung over his shoulder. “sorry about that,” he said.

eleanor smiled. “it’s no problem,” she said. she cocked her head and looked at him. “do i know you from somewhere?” 

“the older you get, the more everyone reminds you of someone you’ve met,” the bartender said vaguely. “it’s mike. what can i get you?”

“martini,” eleanor told him. “it’s eleanor.” 

he smiled and grabbed a glass. “what brings you to phoenix?” 

“my mother died,” she said. she looked at him again, hard, and snapped. “my thirty-fifth birthday!” she exclaimed. “you—oh my god!”

mike squinted at her and then smiled. “oh, right,” he said. he put the martini in front of her and wiped down the counter. “i’m sorry about your mother.”

eleanor shrugged. “i barely knew her, really.” she sipped the martini and looked at him. “you changed my life, you know.”

mike shrugged. “maybe i gave you a push. but you’re responsible for your own actions.”

“but i would never have taken those actions if you hadn’t helped me,” eleanor argued. “i met my husband because of you. i read heidegger because of you. i’ve been all over the world.” 

“husband?” mike repeated, eyebrows raised.

eleanor showed him her ring. “it’s eleanor anagonye now,” she said. “not that you knew my name was shellstrop, but, you know, whatever. thanks.”

“anytime,” mike said. he gave her a crinkly smile. she smiled back, and they fell into silence. eleanor watched him, quiet, and left a twenty on the bar when she finished her drink. he stopped her right before she opened the door and hugged her, and she wondered why he felt so familiar to her, what wisp of memory she couldn’t reach. she patted his back, kissed him on the cheek, and opened the door.

eleanor returned to the house, curling up next to chidi and closing her eyes for a moment. she drifted in between sleep and waking, and managed to pull herself up and grab her phone. “i promised tahani and jason i would call,” she mumbled, and chidi patted her head. she rested her head on his shoulder and hit the facetime icon of tahani, the one bad picture she’d managed to take of her. 

tahani picked up almost instantly, hers and jason’s faces crowded in together on the screen. eleanor tilted her phone up so chidi was in the picture with her.

“how are you doing, sweetie?” tahani asked, concerned.

eleanor managed a small smile. “i’m all right. miss you guys.”

“we miss you too!” jason yelled. “iceland is awesome, though! they have sooo many underground dance clubs. we’ve been getting lit!”

eleanor gave him a thumbs up.

“how’s arizona?” tahani asked.

“hot and empty,” chidi said. “it’s like this pit of despair. it seems like the rest of the world just doesn’t exist at all outside phoenix.”

eleanor nodded. “i’ll be glad to get back to paris. they might be snobs, but at least they’re snobs who get their news from somewhere other than phoenix new times and dance moms. ” 

“we’ll meet up with you in paris, if that’s all right,” tahani said. “just let us know when you’ll be there.” 

“bet,” eleanor mumbled.

tahani cooed at her. “you poor thing. get some sleep, alright? and call us anytime. you’re worth waking up for, you know that?” 

“same here.” eleanor watched them with a small, contented smile. “love you guys.”

“we love you too!” jason replied, hugging the phone. when he pulled back, tahani was watching him with a hint of a smile.

chidi watched the screen fondly. “see you soon,” he said, and eleanor took in their faces for another long moment before hanging up. she was struck for a second at the oddity of it; how the four of them had managed to meet, and to love each other. then chidi kissed her forehead and clicked off the light, and she was lost to sleep. she dreamt of a house in a vast and barren plain, and of sunflowers.

 

XII. EVERYONE 

subconsciously, they’d all expected to die together. what they hadn’t expected was to wake up. 

the last thing they remembered was chidi and eleanor’s thirtieth anniversary dinner at a little café in lagos, and getting in the car to drive home. then swathes of freeway; then nothing.

tahani, eleanor, chidi, and jason sat in a row, in some kind of cramped waiting room. eleanor felt chidi take her hand and breathed in and out slowly. a door across from them opened, and two people strode in. eleanor squinted at the man and her jaw dropped. “desert rosé mike?” 

mike looked back at her and gave her a pained smile. “it’s michael, actually.” eleanor shook her head and squeezed chidi’s hand.

the woman next to him never stopped walking, seeming to glide across the floor until she reached jason. jason looked up at her curiously, and she knelt, taking his hands in hers. “you did so well,” the woman said, and rested her head on jason’s knees. 

jason looked at her and pulled her head up, searching her face. “it’s all good, girl.”

the woman shook. “not a girl,” she said. “but yeah. it’s all good.” 

tahani was to eleanor’s left, and leaned her head onto her shoulder. eleanor wrapped her arm around her back. “mikey boy,” she said. “what the hell’s going on here?”

michael leaned against the wall across from them, next to the door he’d entered. “you’re dead.” 

“yeah, we figured that out.” eleanor looked down to jason and the brunette, who were murmuring softly. “don’t tell me the afterlife is just a tacky waiting room.” 

michael laughed. “there’s more to it, but you’re all something of a special case. gen is still deliberating. human souls go to either the good place or the bad place. or at least, they used to.” the lines around his mouth tightened. “the good place has always been for the real cream of the crop, top of the line, million point earners. people who brought goodness to everyone and everything around them, for the sake of humanity.” 

eleanor rubbed tahani’s trembling arm. “that’s not any of us,” she said. “we all did our best, but nobody here’s gandhi or anything.”

“and that’s the problem,” michael said, and tilted his head up to gaze at the ceiling. “what do you do when your best isn’t enough? does everyone but gandhi deserve to be tortured forever? i used to think so.”

“they don’t,” eleanor said firmly. “we don’t.”

michael lunged forwards and paced. “I KNOW THAT!” he yelled. “i know that! but it seems like nobody else does! and i don’t know how to—it’s not like i can force the entire bureaucratic establishment of the afterlife to have existential crises and spend months studying ethics!” 

“worth a try,” eleanor said weakly. michael let out a short, dark laugh and shook his head. eleanor leaned her head back against the wall. “so what now? we wait here?”

“we could all go live in my void,” the brunette suggested. 

michael rolled his eyes. “thanks, janet. that’s helpful. we’ll all get incinerated by the gaping maw of eternity.”

janet smiled. “you wouldn’t get incinerated,” she said. “you’d just have all your matter equally distributed throughout the universe and cease to be able to perform any cognitive function.”

“that’s much better,” michael muttered. chidi looked green.

eleanor tucked their elbows together and watched michael pace. “did any of us—would any of us made it? did anybody here make enough of a difference? or did we all fall short?”

janet twisted around until she was leaning back on jason’s legs, then waved, and a huge screen seemed to appear out of nowhere. “eleanor shellstrop anagonye,” she read. “these are your point totals.” eleanor read the screen, squinting to read the array of red and green. “highest point reduction: dress bitch t-shirt franchise,” janet announced, and eleanor groaned. “highest point addition: began a program with the mindy st. clair foundation to pay for college educations for underprivileged emancipated minors, total students assisted: 6,315.” eleanor nodded at that one, thinking of her kids. “final point total: 212,907.”

the screen dissipated, and chidi’s came up. “chidi anagonye,” janet read. “highest point reduction: missed mother’s back surgery. highest point earner: prevented a mass shooting at university of california, san diego. final point total: 234,645.”

“tahani al-jamil. highest point reduction: sabotaged charity fundraiser for salvadoran orphans. highest point earner: used her fame to help discredit 49 sexual abusers in high ranking positions. final point total: 300,004.” 

“jason mendoza,” and here janet’s voice took on a note of tender pride, “highest point reduction: set fire to tom petty high heartbreaker stadium. highest point earner: scared smart program. final point total: 1,312,630.” they all gaped at jason. “so, just jason,” janet said. “all the rest of you don’t qualify.” 

“why do we matter so much?” chidi asked. “why does it matter whether any of this happened? shouldn’t you just send jason to heaven and the rest of us… elsewhere?” 

“how could it be heaven if he knows you’re all being tortured?” michael demanded.

“this is fucked up,” jason said. “i spent so much time trying to help people understand that it’s systems that make people do bad things, not people, and it’s still the same bullshit when i’m dead. and how do any of those people in heaven deserve to be there if they’re letting everyone else suffer?” 

michael slid back against the wall and crouched. “jason mendoza. jason, jason, jason. you’re something else, you know that?”

“thanks,” jason said. “i think?”

“you’re right that it’s bigger than all of you,” michael admitted. “but it’s also really not. there’s a reason i felt familiar to you before. how do i—here.” he walked over to them and tapped them, one by one, on the forehead.

jason looked at janet for a second, then leaned forwards and kissed her. “hey, baby.”

janet sighed and looked at him with eyes full of stars. “jason.”

eleanor rocked back as memory hit her. when she recovered, she stood briskly and walked over to michael, hugging him fiercely. michael seemed, all at once, to collapse, letting out big ugly sobs. eleanor patted him. she felt another arm around them, then two, then four, and for a shining moment it was just the six of them.

“i love you all so much,” tahani whispered. they all repeated it. “we’ll always find a way to stay together.”

“we’ll tear it all apart if we have to,” eleanor promised. “we’re family.” she pulled back from the huddle, one arm still around tahani, and stroked chidi’s face. he closed his eyes and leaned into her hand. “i love you,” she said. “in every world, i love you. every version of me.” 

“and me,” chidi murmured. tahani kissed the top of eleanor’s head.

“alright!” eleanor yelled to the room. “let’s get this show on the road!”

the door opened.