“Now that I think about it,” Jeff said once he’d worked the duct tape off his mouth, “I have kind of a history of poor life decisions.”
Troy stopped playing with the grappling hook long enough to say, “That’s what we’re talking about!”
“Auditioning for The Real World. Trying to grow a faux-hawk in the nineties. Faking my bachelor’s degree, watching Cop Rock, rewatching Cop Rock thinking it would be better the second time around, and, the cherry on top of the sundae, being friends with a group of people who think that chloroform and an RV are an acceptable response to anything.”
“Chloroform is nature’s way of telling you to reevaluate your choices,” Annie said.
“We’re trying to get her to stop,” Abed said. “She uses it to win arguments over who has to unload the dishwasher. It’s getting a little dangerous.”
“The three of you living together has been a really stabilizing influence for all of you. Stop the van, let me out, and I promise I won’t have you arrested for kidnapping.”
Troy balanced the spice mixes again and brought them up to delicious. The broken simulator didn’t do anything now except occasionally fritz in Colonel Sanders’s voice to congratulate them on their decision to enjoy Kentucky Fried Adventure and ferry Greendale students to and from regionals of various stripes—and apparently act as a getaway vehicle for the commission of crimes—but Troy seemed to like fiddling with the knobs all the same. There was a joke to be made there, but Jeff was keeping his mouth shut so he didn’t get duct-taped again.
Just as Sanders blinked into life and said, “The—mashed potatoes—are—the black hole—of the biscuits—”, Troy said, “If we let you out, you’re going to do something stupid.”
“Yeah, call a cab. The prices are murder.”
“No,” Troy said, like Jeff genuinely didn’t know what he was talking about, like he was just trying to bluff his way out of the situation, “go see your dad.”
“You’re right, Troy. Seeing my father would be more stupid than riding around in a failed chicken-themed space simulator with three chloroform-wielding nutcases. And why do you have a grappling hook?”
“We have a caper kit,” Abed said. “For capers.”
The saddest thing about Jeff’s life wasn’t his childhood formatively shaped by the absence of his drunken, verbally abusive conman of a father; the saddest thing about his life was that he actually nodded at that for a second, because obviously a grappling hook would be an essential component to a caper kit, and it would be ridiculous to expend the time and energy of sorting through the kit pre-caper to eliminate unnecessary items. Greendale had laid eggs in his brain and now they were hatching into thoughts that only Scotch could drown out.
He said, “Seeing my father isn’t stupid.”
“Fact,” Annie said.
“Don’t preface statements with ‘fact,’” Jeff said. “It’s like saying, ‘I’m about to pull this completely out of my ass, but my clever opening will keep you from realizing it!’”
Annie shook the chloroform bottle in his direction. He shut up.
“Fact,” she said emphatically, “trying to reconnect with your parents when they should be trying to reconnect with you is a waste of time and a recipe for unhappiness.”
“That makes me hungry,” Troy said. “What does unhappiness taste like?”
“Dark chocolate mostly,” Abed said.
Jeff put his head down in his hands and tried to breathe normally. He was still a little dizzy from the chloroform and Troy’s driving. “Does the rest of the group know about this?” If Shirley didn’t know, and he had a chance to get to his cell, she would come and rescue him. Shirley was big on nuclear families and Hallmark Channel-type reunions.
“Everyone but Britta.” Annie shrugged. “We thought she’d try out psychoanalysis on you again, and even we thought that was a little extreme.”
Jeff glanced at the snarl of duct tape he’d pulled off his mouth, thought about it, and agreed. The last time Britta had insisted on using him for practice, she’d made him cry—not from any deep psychological revelation or anything, but just because she somehow hit him in the shin with a golf club. The Wonder Trio was safer.
“Anyway, we’re not interested in therapy,” Abed said. He spun his chair around and looked at Jeff in that lidless, dramatic way he had when he wasn’t stealing something from a movie. “We’ve established already that behind your cool exterior, you’re actually a Pandora’s box of body image issues and low self-esteem. We’re not interested right now in plunging the depths of that well, we’re interested in practicality. Putting it simply, we don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Yeah, we care about you,” Troy said. He’d found the KFC takeout box—they weren’t exactly running on full originality here—and gave Jeff a chicken leg.
Jeff peeled the skin off, put it in a napkin, and started eating. He couldn’t really think of anything to say.
Of course, Annie could: she had a checklist, a purple gel pen, and a can-do attitude. She slashed through a list-item—probably kneecap Jeff with affection, he wasn’t looking to make sure—and said brightly, “Over the course of the next three days, we will convince you that it is a terrible, irreparably bad idea to meet your father, and that your real home is with us! And Britta, Shirley, Pierce.”
“Less so with Pierce,” Jeff said automatically, before he tuned in all the way and said, “Wait, three days?”
“The chess team needs the simulator back by then to go to the district competition. And we have to pick up our mail, we get a lot of trade magazines from people selling pop culture memorabilia, it really fills up the mailbox. But don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of time! All the intervention websites said three days is an optimum amount of time for breakthroughs!”
“Annie,” he said, “I’m not concerned that I won’t have whatever sparkly, shiny epiphany you want me to have in three days, I’m concerned that I’m going to be in a camper with the three of you for three days straight while you try to convince me that, for some reason, you’re better equipped to make my decisions than I am.”
“We are, though,” Abed said. “Statistically speaking. Your decisions have a habit of backfiring. Case in point, deciding to meet your father and then telling us about it, which led to you getting kidnapped.”
Jeff pointed his chicken leg at Abed. “Not untrue.”
“Three days parked out in Coldwater,” Troy said. “We’re going to look like we’re making meth.”
“When instead you’re just innocent kidnappers.”
“I’m serious. We’re putting ourselves on the line for you.”
“I don’t think that’s a legitimate interpretation of this situation,” Jeff said, “and I repeat, three days? If I fake an epiphany now, can we go home and sleep in our actual beds?”
“Three days,” Annie said, giving him the eyes that usually made him melt. He looked away. “Three days with us, Jeff, and you’ll be seeing your whole life differently.”
“Because I’ll have Stockholm Syndrome.” He sighed. He’d spent a three-day weekend on a retreat with Alan once, and they’d had to play trust games in a circle and chant songs about togetherness. He’d spent more time with worse people. As long as they didn’t chloroform him again, he could put up with their childish, ridiculous obsession with making him better, fake all the right feelings, and then go home and find his father again, the way he’d planned to. There was no reason why these three had to derail him.
He relented: “Please tell me you brought DVDs, and food that isn’t deep-fried.”
Annie beamed, beautiful like sunshine, and Jeff looked away again. “I packed a whole cooler with deli sandwiches, salads, and mineral water.” She handed him a bottle as a reward for going along with everything—blowing it all off—and he took it. She said, “You know we love you, right?” and for once her eyes didn’t flutter when she said it, because how she meant it wasn’t anything she was anxious about. Jeff had enough anxiety about that for all four of them, anyway.
He took a drink of water.
“I know,” he said.
Troy nodded definitively at that, like they’d cleared something up, and took a sandwich out of the cooler. He said, “Shooting stars tonight,” and they all trooped outside, kidnappers and hostage, to watch the stars turn into ribbons across the sky while they ate dinner. Jeff tried to remember why he wanted to see his father so much. He thought it had something to do with—
“Look,” Abed said, and pointed. A comet arched above them.
“Pretty,” Annie said, and she leaned tentatively against Jeff until he put his arm around her. Her hair smelled like strawberry-scented shampoo. She was warm and devious—using the hug to check for a spare cell phone, nice—and he closed his eyes as she patiently frisked him. No point in not enjoying himself as much as circumstances allowed.
Troy said, “You’re supposed to make a wish, dummy.”
“I wish people would stop kidnapping me.”
“Ugh,” Annie said, separating herself from him. “Don’t be such a baby.”
“It’s okay,” Abed said. “I took care of it for all of us.”
When they went back inside, they handcuffed Jeff to one of the space chairs. “No offense,” Annie said, “but we don’t trust you as far as we could throw you.”
“And we couldn’t throw you very far,” Troy said. “It was hard enough dragging you to the RV after the chloroform made you pass out.”
“It’s all muscle,” Jeff said quickly.
Abed said, “We know,” in a way that implied that he actually did, which somehow freed Jeff up to concentrate on other things.
He looked a little anxiously at the fuzzy leopard cushioning on the cuff. “Did you guys get this from Dildopolis?”
Annie squirmed. “They gave me a discount because of all the noise, and a lot of the BDSM gear can double for caper-equipment! I was just trying to be practical.”
“Well, your practicality is kind of gaudy. I mean, leopard print? I hope you at least got a vibrator out of the deal.”
Her face suddenly went opaque, and Jeff couldn’t stop himself from grinning. Troy’s mouth fell open and stayed there. Even Abed looked like his internal record had skipped a groove—not that he was offering that to them as a metaphor, they made him feel old enough already. He tugged the non-Dildopolis blanket they’d given him up over his shoulders—Troy straightened it—and said, “And on that note, sweet dreams to everyone.”
“Good night,” Abed said.
Annie made a squeaking noise and then squared her shoulders. It was what Jeff liked best about her—you could knock her off her feet sometimes, but she would always rally. Princess-wise, she looked like Snow White, but she acted more like Xena. She lifted her chin. “I’d stay away from commentary on my sex life if I were you, Jeff. You don’t know what all we brought. Dildopolis caters to all interests.” She nudged the nearby duffle-bag with her foot.
Jeff swallowed. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Maybe I am, Betty Friedan. Maybe I’m not. You want to find out?”
He really didn’t. (He kind of did.) “No?”
“Good choice,” Annie said, and she patted him on the cheek, unnaturally brisk. What with Troy tucking him in and Abed saying good night, Jeff was starting to feel strangely—cosseted. It was weird. “Go to sleep, Jeff.”
Jeff turned his face into the pillow and closed his eyes. He dreamed about the time his dad forgot him at the zoo when he was eight: he wandered around looking at the zebras in between quivery sobs that made his chest hurt, way more than he’d cried when it had really happened, even pre-Tinkletown, but some of the zebras were neon, too. Then Troy came and gave him a pistachio ice cream cone and Abed said, “It’s like Madagascar,” and Annie took him by the hand and said they would find the way out even if they couldn’t find his dad.
Yeah, whatever. Dreams were stupid anyway.
In the morning, Troy made waffles with a plug-in iron, and everyone discussed how they’d never understood the concept of chicken and waffles. They didn’t come to any new conclusions. By the time Jeff was dabbing syrup off his mouth, Annie said, “Right. Let’s talk about your history with your dad.” She had the checklist out again.
“I thought we weren’t doing deep examinations of my psyche.”
“I voted against it,” Abed said. “Too personal and too messy. But Annie said I was misinterpreting your emotional needs, which is possible. If you want to talk, we’ll listen.”
“I don’t want to talk.”
“That’s exactly what someone who did want to talk would say to deflect,” Annie said.
“That’s true,” Troy said. “Why don’t you trust us with your feelings, Jeff?”
Jeff pointed. “You’ve been hanging out with Shirley too much. You’re starting to sound like somebody’s mom. And you,” he said to Annie, “are starting to sound like somebody’s therapist. And Abed, you’re—actually, you sound pretty normal. Which should tell us something about this conversation’s going.”
“That’s valid,” Abed said.
“It’s not,” Annie said. “He’s trying to redirect his own insecurities onto you to end the conversation. Remember what we talked about?” She leveled a look at Jeff that thudded into him like a hammer. “Jeff loves you, and he wouldn’t deliberately say hurtful things about you unless he was emotionally fragile at the time. Right, Jeff?”
He’d never felt ashamed of himself before Greendale: it turned out it felt a lot like a spider crawling around inside of his heart. Not pleasant. “Right.”
Abed nodded a little bit for a while and then said, “Then you do want to talk.”
“Sure.” He couldn’t shake the feeling that Annie’s defense of Abed had been multitasking a little bit with her own psychoanalysis game, but that didn’t mean he could back out now without looking like an ass. Annie would be wasted in health care management; she was a natural-born lawyer. “My dad drank, forgot me, yelled at me, and left me, not necessarily in that order, although the last part really does come last.”
“If your dad was so awful, why try to find him?” Troy said. “What’s it matter?”
“I don’t track down everyone who ever shoved me in a locker,” Abed said. “Waste of time. If you have other people, which you do.”
“Even if we are kidnappers,” Annie said, all soft smiles and self-deprecating humor now that they were all in the palm of her hand.
“It’s not about having other people or not having them.” Although he would dispute whether he had the group: no emotional connection lasted forever, you couldn’t trust it to. His parents proved that. Right now, these three loved him enough to—well, chloroform and kidnap him for amateur therapy, but they wouldn’t always. People moved on. “It’s about closure. It’s about finding out—being able to know why what happened… happened.”
“It’s not your fault,” Abed said suddenly. “It’s not your fault.”
“Was ‘requisite Good Will Hunting’ moment on the list?”
Annie made a face and then a check-mark. “He insisted.”
“I hope you got that out of your system.”
Abed uncapped his water bottle. “I’m going to do other therapy movies later. Mostly Woody Allen, but I have some other stuff. Otherwise I can’t really participate.”
“As long as everyone’s having a good time,” Jeff said dryly.
They drilled him for half an hour about his dad before everyone except Jeff got bored: he didn’t miss talking about his childhood, but he had missed the flurry of casual misdirection that came with the lawyerly side of himself. He’d missed the spinning plates aspect and the internal tally of how many continuous minutes he’d spent talking without actually giving anything away. It was nice. Unhappiness might have tasted like dark chocolate, but nostalgia for his former mastery of the dark arts tasted like the finest Scotch.
“Fine,” Annie said, throwing her hands up in the air. “You don’t have any childhood trauma. You’re as well-adjusted as a Swiss watch. Maybe it’s the rest of us that have problems. Maybe our mothers told us that we’d never be pretty enough to make up for being so smart. Maybe we had to discover equal rights out of a book in the library. Maybe we started taking pills just so we could be sure to get a scholarship that would let us move out, and then it backfired horribly!”
Abed offered her a chocolate; she swatted it out of his hand.
“Okay,” Jeff said. He was good at dealing with freak-outs. “Sometimes parents are awful, but Annie, you don’t need them anyway. Your mom didn’t love you for who you are? Forget about her. You have us, and we—you little bitch.”
“Oh, come on. You were so close!”
“Wow,” Troy said, looking at her. “You just broke Jeff’s mind.”
“Tricking someone into an epiphany,” Abed said. “That’s clever.”
“It would have been clever if it had worked,” Jeff said. “It didn’t. And now that I know the depths you’re prepared to stoop to, I won’t fall for your little tricks anymore. Conversation over, mouth shut, friendship tainted, we are done.” He folded his arms across his chest. It was day two of three days; they’d have to take him back to town tomorrow whether they wanted to or not.
“Nice job breaking it, hero,” Abed said to Annie.
Jeff was a talker by nature, but he was practiced in silence—if he’d been talking to them, he could have told them that, and he could have explained that it all started on the car trips with his dad, when the car would drift idly into other lanes, and Jeff’s knuckles would turn white as he gripped his knees. His dad would be talking, alternately ranting and wheedling, and Jeff’s job in the whole situation was to keep his mouth shut and his head down.
Jeff didn’t mind being conned as long as he knew the game, but he didn’t like losing his footing. He didn’t like assuming something was love when instead it was just—someone talking. (Especially since he did that himself, sometimes.)
If he’d believed in stuff like that anyway, which he didn’t, but if he did, that would be what he would tell them, if he were talking to them, which he wasn’t.
In the morning, they drove him back to Greendale, and no one was really talking to anyone else. Abed was taking Jeff’s silence as indication that he was broken and so wasn’t talking to Annie, Annie was claiming that Jeff was stubborn and Troy and Abed were unhelpful, and Troy was mad because no one would back him up on how they should totally stop for McGriddles. They pulled up in front of Jeff’s apartment building and let him out, still wearing his wrinkly three-days-gone clothes, still committed to seeing his dad. Annie shook her head sadly (thinking about him), Abed shook his head sadly (also thinking about him), and Troy shook his head sadly (thinking about either him or his longed-for McGriddle).
Jeff said, “Well, it’s been real. Unfortunately.”
Then Troy, apparently not thinking about delicious breakfast sandwiches after all, said, “Don’t be a stranger, man,” which meant exactly nothing to Jeff in this context.
He fell back on a reply he was pretty sure he meant: “Don’t chloroform me again,” he said, and went inside his apartment to shower, shave, and call the number he’d tracked down weeks ago.
Afterwards, he got very drunk, and he called Britta, because she was simultaneously the most and least judgmental person he could think of, and he wanted to be crushed and then forgiven without the weight of all the expectations of a bunch of people who’d never screwed up.
She was at some sort of rally that probably smelled like patchouli and could barely hear him over someone chanting something about how the tiger of peace would purr like a kitten as it devoured the dragon of war, and so even though she kept saying, “What? Your dad?” with the unmistakable Britta sound of having one finger plugged into her ear while she tried to tear herself away from a large group of people she was actually better than, even if she didn’t know it, Jeff still couldn’t get through. He ended up making some sloppy confession of adoration to her continuous what-ing, talking about how she was so much more right so much more often than he gave her credit for being, and people should have invited her for the kidnapping—
And then the phone got disconnected, and he couldn’t really get his thumbs to work for texting, so he just looked a little sadly at the way his phone kept buzzing in with her trying to see if he was okay.
Then the Wonder Triplets broke into his apartment.
“Credit card,” Abed said in his Batman-voice. He swooshed in. Jeff hadn’t known he could do that when he wasn’t in costume. He touched Jeff’s shoulder very, very briefly, hand there and then gone, and said, “Britta called us. You’re broken again.”
Jeff blinked fuzzily at them. “Did you guys know that the tiger of peace is going to devour the dragon of war?”
“What?” Troy said.
“I know, right? It’s a screenplay.” He watched Troy and Abed do the secret handshake that they’d looped somehow to include Annie, who was still watching him with a somewhat frozen expression on her face, like she was right and didn’t want to say it, and he said, “Do you have any chloroform left?”
“We threw it out. We don’t want to get too reliant on it as a plot device. And you said it gave you a headache.”
Jeff said, “Let’s go to Coldwater. I can’t drive, though, because I’m really drunk.”
“We kind of figured,” Annie said softly.
“I’ll drive,” Troy said. Jeff took Troy’s refusal to miss a chance to drive his Lexus as a sign that Troy was destined for greatness: a sense of the finer things would get him far in life, even without air conditioning superpowers. Not to mention his ability to effortlessly coordinate. He might have actually put Jeff’s jacket on for him, Jeff wasn’t sure.
They drove to Coldwater, and Jeff couldn’t find the stars he remembered from their first night out, however long he looked. He thought the bite in the air was starting to sober him up a little, though. He shoved his hands in his pockets and thought about the tiger of peace, which probably came equipped with chloroform and a borrowed RV and Dildopolis handcuffs, Britta on speed dial and mineral water and a waffle iron.
“You don’t have to talk about it,” Annie said.
“I’m not going to talk about it,” he said. He named stars after them, which he kept to himself. “I’m just going to sit here. In Coldwater. It’s still day three, technically. We’re just—we’re still here.”
“Got it,” Troy said.
Troy’s dad had wanted him to move out of the house so he could spend more time with a girlfriend his son’s age; Annie’s parents had dropped her when she wanted to talk about why she’d turned to pills; Abed’s father had needed an emo documentary to the side of the head before he’d agreed to let Abed do the only thing Abed really loved doing. They weren’t kidnappers so much as battle-scarred veterans of the dad wars, and he’d been the one that was young, for once. They’d thought about it like that, anyway, like not having a dad meant not having a scar, and they’d done what they could think of to keep him safe. His tigers of peace.
He said, “I had a dream you guys were my parents.”
“We’d be awesome at that,” Troy said, without even hesitating. “Stern but loving, and we’d let you have a waterbed.”
“Waterbeds are nice,” Jeff said: one more thought he wouldn’t admit to when he was sober and thought they were only appropriate in eighties porn. “It would be hard to explain on parent-teacher night, though. Not the waterbed, the you being my parents thing.”
“Well, you could be our dad then,” Abed said. “You’d just have to arrange not to have issues that day. Or not many of them. And then it would work.”
Taking turns seemed fair. He said, “When we inevitably tell this story to the rest of the group, can we make me sound more heroic?”
They could make him sound, in other words, like someone who’s own father hadn’t stood him up at Denny’s, leaving him with a watered-down Diet Coke from all the melted ice and a smear of grease glaring up at him from his Grand Slam impulse order. They could make him sound like someone who hadn’t waited two hours for the guy to show up before slowly getting, as the bacon dried up on his plate, that he wasn’t going to, and then tipping his server twenty dollars on autopilot. They could make him sound like someone that wouldn’t happen to. They could make him sound like someone who would know enough about the world to not even go there at all.
“Sure thing, kiddo,” Troy said, as if to all of this, and he mussed Jeff’s hair.
Jeff didn’t get how they could love him without knowing any of it, but maybe that was just the way things worked, sometimes, because he could pick the stars out of the sky that were theirs, too, and he didn’t understand them even a little. They drove him home as it turned into the fourth day. Annie let him sleep on her shoulder and Abed found a radio station that played “older person music.” The closer they got to Greendale, the more he could feel himself growing up, and when they stopped at McDonald’s, he paid.
“They grow up so fast,” Abed said to Annie, and Troy dabbed at his eyes with a napkin, and Jeff thought that he loved them so much it was going to turn his skin inside out or something else grotesque, it was that abnormal to care that much about people, but he just sat there in the car and let it happen anyway, because whatever they were to him, they were there.