A/N: This plot came to me in a dream and I woke up and immediately wrote like 3,000 words so that was SICK. I love The Good Place so much and all characters, so I hope I did it and them justice!
Shawn was lucky. He was one of those eternal beings who absolutely loved his career. Lots of his peers and subordinates found their careers in human torture repetitive or tedious; he had even found humans' Earthly jobs to be a useful tool in invoking pain. But Shawn couldn't imagine dreading his daily grinding humans. He had a passion for inducing eternal suffering, and that was precisely why he was able to rise through the ranks so quickly in just a few thousand years.
Shawn didn't just enjoy his job; he could also do it damn well. When Shawn entered a room, humans scrambled away desperately: hurt and tired and broken, unadulterated fear seared into their sweat-slicked faces. When Shawn smiled that minute fraction of a grin he kept contained to the far corner of his mouth, humans panicked.
He had an unequivocal gift for torture, a passion for turning people inside-out, for crushing them, suffocating them, drowning, dropping, squeezing, imploding, and infesting them.
He wasn't like Michael. He had been doing this since the dawn of mankind, for nearly six million years, and he would gladly do it for six million more.
Except that Michael was trying to plead some groundbreaking case, trying to convince the Judge that tearing humans limb from limb and then doing it again and again for eternity was "wrong" and that most people "didn't deserve" to be turned into human shish kabobs on the regular. All because four of the most insufferable humans on earth had won him over.
Michael was a liar and a traitor. He had double-crossed his own kind just to spare "Team Cockroach", as they once dubbed themselves; they were humans so stupid that they had the gall to stay jubilant and goofy in the face of literal hell.
Michael had played dirty when he joined their side. It was only fair that Shawn get to use one of the many tricks up his sleeve, too. He had gotten his underlings to collect the humans from right under Michael's nose, and now they were all at Shawn's mercy, or lack thereof.
Shawn leaned back in his desk chair, gave the humans that had just appeared in front of him a once-over, sizing them up.
They certainly weren't much.
There was Eleanor Shellstrop, who had inexplicably become the leader of their pathetic team. She was blonde and short and, like her three friends, thoroughly jarred by being instantly transported to face Shawn. There was nothing remarkable about her, not in the least. She was selfish, everyone knew that, but could also pretend like she wasn't when it suited her. She was rude and brash and teeming with unearned confidence, unaware, or possibly uncaring, that her destiny was to suffer. She was not a formidable enemy. The sole reason she was still standing at all was because she had somehow befriended Michael. Charm was her only weapon, one that Shawn happened to be immune to.
Chidi Anagonye was on her right, one hand draped gingerly across Eleanor's waist. He was undeniably smart, surprisingly attractive, and even more surprisingly invested in Eleanor and his other two 'friends'. Unfortunately for him, he had no idea how to use the brains he'd been graced with. He tried to dissect morality and philosophy as though it were a tangible, exact science, tried to apply laws to life choices as Newton had to physics. Chidi must have known his efforts were futile, his philosophies a lost cause—he'd painstakingly written over 3,000 pages about moral philosophy, agony in every indecisive word, and gotten nowhere—but he kept trying nonetheless. Michael might've called that admirable, but Shawn knew it was just monumentally stupid. In fact, the first draft of Chidi's circular manuscript, fittingly titled Who We Are and Who We Are Not: Practical Ethics and Their Application in the Modern World, was, at that very moment, being used to torture the very moral philosophers whose works had inspired it.
On Eleanor's other side was Tahani Al-Jamil, eyes wide, clothes bright and flowery as usual. She didn't have much going for her, except her wealth and her looks, with only the latter following her to the afterlife. Shawn couldn't tell if she knew exactly how worthless she was or not. She certainly acted like she was God's gift to humanity in public, but Shawn had seen her façade falter briefly but frequently during her life, granted him hints of her true self. When he eventually got her to the Bad Place for some classic torture, Shawn planned to strip her of her beauty and see if she could find a single other redeeming quality within herself. He figured she would not be able to.
And finally, standing on his toes to see over Tahani and Chidi, was Jason Mendoza. Causing anguish in a way that was both fun and functional was Shawn's greatest gift, but he was slightly worried about torturing Jason. He thought maybe Jason was too dumb to know what pain was; he was the type to lean against the stove, put his hand on the burner and not even realize it was heated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. For him, Shawn would have to use something blunt, obvious.
But Shawn was getting ahead of himself. First, he had to prove to Judge Gen that the humans were scum, parasites. Then he'd have his fun.
"Greetings, humans," Shawn said evenly, disdain for the four and their stupid species evident in every overenunciated syllable.
"Shawn? What the fork?" Eleanor spoke first, of course, the only one both brave enough and stupid enough to raise her voice at an immortal being.
Shawn drew a breath, annoyed. "We're in the Bad Place, Eleanor. The real Bad Place. You can say 'fuck'."
"Oh, seriously?" Eleanor looked excited, despite everything. "Force of habit I guess. Fuck! Oh yeah, that's the good stuff." She was so grindingly simple. "But seriously, what the fuck, Shawn? Why are we here?"
"You're here because I want you here," Shawn said proudly. "Welcome to my office." He gestured to the achromatic office he'd come to think of as home.
"Does Michael know we're here?" Chidi asked, anxiety wracking his voice, obviously searching for someone to follow, to tell him what to do so he wouldn't have to make any decisions for himself.
"No," Shawn said, savoring the horror on the humans' faces. "He has no idea. You are under my control. While you are here, you are going to do exactly as I say."
"Fat chance," Eleanor growled.
"Well, true. I can't make you do anything." That was beyond his abilities, but Shawn was a master of manipulation. He stood to face Eleanor and her ridiculous posse, eye contact unbreaking. "But the Bad Place spans billions of miles. I could send you there and it would take Michael eons to find you." True, he could steal them away to unimaginable torture, but that wouldn't be a permanent solution. Michael was overambitious and surprisingly powerful; there was no doubt in Shawn's galactic mind that Michael would rip the Bad Place apart searching for the humans, that would find them, that he would eventually tear them from their deserved fate. Shawn needed them eternally damned, the way it was supposed to be.
"I want to play a little game with you," Shawn said cunningly. "I want to test you, to prove to Michael and Gen that you don't belong in the Good Place. Because, make no mistake, you don't belong in the Good Place. You don't care about each other, not really."
"Bullshit," Eleanor spat.
"Prove me wrong, then," Shawn challenged, unable to keep an edge of haughtiness from his voice. "I am going to drop you in a simulation. You will each have an environment catered to yourselves. If you can step inside your assigned rooms, remove the object in the center, and get all four objects back outside, then you will prove yourselves to be not entirely selfish. And I will return you to your beloved Michael to be judged by Gen without ever touching a hair on your fragile little heads, you have my word." He really meant it, too.
"Doors? Objects? What are you talking about?" Eleanor questioned, panicky.
"You will see in a moment," Shawn said. "And if even one of you doesn't come back out of the room, then it will become obvious that you indisputably belong in the Bad Place and will be handled accordingly."
"You clearly underestimate us," Eleanor said smugly. "Any one of us, any day, would walk through fire for the others."
Be that as it may, Eleanor had clearly forgotten how easy it was for Shawn's kind to screw with human memory. Undaunted, Shawn raised a hand. "Then firewalk, humans." He gave a crisp snap and the mortals were gone again.
A nearly imperceptible snap, the transition was so quick, then Team Cockroach was standing in a square white hall, one identical door on each of the four walls. They were standing shoulder to shoulder in a circle, each facing their own blindingly white door, their backs to a small white pedestal.
Jason, Chidi, Tahani, Eleanor. Still together for the time being.
"That was dope!" Jason cheered, twirling around to face his friends, who looked back at him with dread on their faces. He'd seen the world around him altered a dozen times and it was always exciting. The afterlife had been like an endless acid trip: some parts were amazing, dazzling, others straight-up awful, but all of it was unreal and confusing. To Jason, it never got old.
But only for Jason, evidently, because his three friends all looked like they were groaning inwardly.
"So, these are the doors," Eleanor concluded with a sigh, staring at the one in front of her. "Should we go through?"
"Don't see how we have much of a choice," Tahani said, surveying the room.
"Okay, we go in, we get the object in the center, we leave," Eleanor instructed. "Absolutely no pit stops. Don't touch anything unless you're sure it's your object. Don't look at anything else. Don't even think about anything else," Eleanor, Tahani, and Chidi were looking nervously at Jason, though he understood the objective perfectly. "Okay?"
Jason and the others nodded.
"Team Cockroach on three?" Eleanor offered, putting her hand on the pedestal in the center of their little huddle.
Jason, Chidi, and Tahani put their hands in and the four gave one last rallying cheer on Eleanor's count before facing their blank doors once more.
Eleanor disappeared first into her door, then Chidi, then Tahani. All with such grace and bravery. Jason wasn't as eloquent. He had to amp up first, revved himself up after they'd all gone. He jumped up and down, shook out his hands, paced around.
Get to the center. Get the object. Get out. Don't touch, don't look, don't think, that was what Eleanor had said.
Jason took another breath and turned to face his door. Or what he thought was his door…
He spun around, looked again at the other three doors. They were identical, and Jason had no clue which one he had been facing when they first materialized in the room, no clue which doors Eleanor, Chidi, and Tahani had used.
He shrugged and took a guess, approached a random door, and turned the knob.
Chidi knew not to get distracted by whatever the room had to offer. He expected the room to be enticing, but his room was surprisingly underwhelming.
Chidi's door lead to a library. True, it was massive, shelves and shelves of books, stacks on stacks on stacks of fat leather-bound manuscripts, the spines advertising dozens of Chidi's favorite authors, but it was nothing Chidi couldn't resist, knowing that biding his time could result in eternal damnation. He felt himself to swell with pride at his self-restraint, and despite his cautious nature and Eleanor's warnings, allowed himself to eye manuscripts by every philosopher from Peter Singer to Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, all the way back to Socrates, whose ingenious scribblings were chronicled in thousand-year-old collections.
The first editions were appealing, but the information contained within was nothing he couldn't get from Janet. Perhaps the hardest part of this test was simply finding the center of the room, Chidi mused. If he kept moving, Chidi figured he would be fine.
It took maybe ten minutes, but Chidi eventually found what he was sure was his object: another book. It was leather bound, the spine brown and worn, nearly crumbling, struggling to keep thousands of pages together. The book itself was nothing extraordinary, but its presentation made Chidi sure that this was what he had to retrieve: it was laid on an ivory pedestal, heavenly sunlight streaming down from a stained-glass skylight, great oak shelves spreading out in every other direction.
Chidi hoped his friends were having as easy a time as he was.
He knew that he was Chidi Anagonye. He knew he was at risk of facing time without end in hell. He knew that the fate of himself and his best friends and possibly all human souls was depending on him getting the book back outside. The book was titled, simply, The Answers.
He knew, instinctively, that the title wasn't a lie. He didn't know whether he wanted the answers, considered this as he let his hands hover over the object uncertainly. A thousand questions flooded his mind, as usual, and a stomachache was creeping up on him. Would he somehow fail the test if he opened the book? Would the answers fill him with even more existential dread? Who had written the book in the first place? Would knowing the answers to everything even benefit him at this point?
He did know he had to get the book out. He was going to take it, he was not going to open it, and he was going to get back outside to put it on the pedestal with Eleanor's object and Tahani's and Jason's.
That plan vanished when he lifted the book.
He knew that he was Chidi Anagonye and that he was holding a book.
And he knew, could feel that this book had them: the infallible, black-and-white, concrete answers. No more guessing, panicking, scrambling to make sense of the world, even after death. His memory of the test drained from his mind as the answers seduced him.
Chidi needed the answers. It was like he had been living his whole life without oxygen and this book would be his first breath.
Ravenously, his friends and Michael and the Bad Place and everything at stake wiped from his mind, Chidi thrust open the book.
The pages contained no words, but thoughts; revelational thoughts floated into Chidi's mind when his eyes traced the pages.
This action was right. Purely right. This one wrong. Only wrong.
His whole life played out, up to his death, every action, choice, thought he'd ever encountered, analyzed simply and digestibly, Chidi finally understanding why things were.
He flipped through the empty pages, saw the first and only homework assignment he'd neglected back in elementary school, his panicked banging on that damned air conditioning unit in Australia… Deciding whether to eat pasta or a sandwich, his choice to move, leave his parents across the globe in Senegal…
Right, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, right, right, wrong, right, right…
It was addicting.
Chidi tore his glance from the book to face the unfamiliar voice that had just called his name. In front of him stood a tall, lean Asian man in a football jersey.
"Can I help you?" Chidi asked, confused. He probably could help the other man, knowing the answers to everything and all.
"Is that your thing?" the man asked, reaching for The Answers.
"My thing?" Chidi repeated, protectively moving the book out of the other man's reach. "This is… a very special book. That I need to finish reading. You can read it after me."
"We're not supposed to," the man said simply. "Plus, I don't like reading. I usually ask Janet for an audiobook version of your assignments. Or a movie."
Chidi didn't know who Janet was or why the man insinuated that he had ever assigned the perfect stranger a reading, but he wasn't interested in the ramblings of a stranger when he had the answers to life's greatest questions at his fingertips. "Yes, well," Chidi said, longing for the conversation to end. "I have my reading to do. You dislike reading. Perhaps you should just leave me here to my reading, then?"
"No!" The man said, his voice loud and whiney. "I need your help getting out of here because there is an insane amount of bookshelves and they all look the exact same and equally boring and I can't remember which one is my door. And you need to get outside anyway, so maybe we could carpool, but on foot?"
"What?" Chidi asked, thoroughly perplexed for a man who was holding the unadulterated gospel truth in his hands.
"Come on," the man snatched the book from Chidi's hand in one swift movement. The moment the leather left Chidi's skin, he felt as though an organ had been torn from his body; Chidi was suddenly frantic for the book back, incomplete without it.
"Give that back!" Chidi pleaded, surprised at the desperation in his voice. He could feel it immediately, all the knowledge and enlightenment he'd gained from eying the book was draining from his mind with every second, Jason's having taken the book leaving a gaping hole in his arsenal of information.
In exchange for godlike enlightenment, Chidi had remembered the simpleton's name. Great.
"Dude, are you okay? You don't look so good." Jason reached out a hand to comfort Chidi as Chidi made a hysterical grab for the book. Jason tossed it over his shoulder like a cartoon character haphazardly disposing of a banana peel.
It tumbled across the ground in a discordant flip.
"What are you doing? That book has all the answers to literally every question in the world, ever!"
That got Jason's attention; his face lit up and held back Chidi as he lunged for the book. "Does it say if the Jags are ever going to win the Super Bowl?"
"What? No! The important questions!" Chidi tried to reason, tried to push past Jason to grab the book, but Jason was restraining him in his quest to learn more about the fate of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"That is an important question! If they are going to win, I am going to make absolute bank on a lot of long-standing bets," Jason rambled. "Killdeer Kravitz said it was never going to happen, he said, 'Fine, let's make a bet', so I gave him three hundred dollars and he said that if they ever won he'd give me back six hundred dollars. Am I going to get my six hundred dollars or not?"
"Not," Chidi said definitively. "Mostly because you're dead but also…"
Jason was dead.
Chidi was, too.
And Tahani and Eleanor… and they were here, too. Reality came rushing back to Chidi with sickening speed. As his role in Shawn's challenge returned to Chidi, he tried to remember a single answer from the book. Everything was muddled, blurry, or else entirely blank; it was like trying to make sense of a dream upon waking.
The book had been empty. And it had put some manipulative spell on Chidi.
"You've been quiet for a long time," Jason pointed out. "Does that mean that the knowledge is settling in that the Jags are going to—"
"No, Jason, the Jacksonville Jaguars are not going to win the Super Bowl," Chidi said, pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation. "I think Shawn is playing games with us and trying to manipulate us."
"That book… That book made me forget everything except what I wanted to see, and I think, probably all the objects are rigged like that. So that Shawn wins." He hesitated. It had no effect on Jason, though, Chidi realized. "Jason, will you pick up the book and take it outside with me?"
"Carpool on foot?" Jason asked hopefully as Chidi smiled at his friend's naiveté.
"Yes, let's get out of here," he said. "And we should probably help the others."
Jason wasn't really listening, though. He was too busy swinging the book back and forth and singing It's the great big book of everything with everything inside. See the world around us, this book's the perfect guide…
Tahani's door lead to a massive sitting room, the most magnificent shades of gold and bronze and white. Art hung on the walls, not classic or renaissance pieces but modern, avant-garde. They stuck out tremendously, clashed with the French-style interior, drew the eye from the finer aspects of the room. Tahani scoffed at the inconsistency, but the art was strikingly unique, pieces to be remembered.
She had a sinking feeling she knew who was responsible but prayed in the back of her mind that she was wrong.
Of course, she wasn't. A family picture on one of the fine flowery tables proved that: Kamilah Al-Jamil and her parents smiled nicely through the frame, a moment frozen in time from back when they were all alive. Tahani wasn't included, which was upsetting but not in the least bit surprising. She wasn't sure she had any pictures with her parents from the years before they passed.
Tahani made her way across the room with a familiar trepidation welling up inside her; she was prepared for this test to make her feel dreadfully inadequate, her fatal flaw on earth.
The object she had to retrieve was sitting atop the low table all the couches were focused at. It was a handheld looking glass of intricate porcelain, white and gold, blankly facing the ceiling.
Tahani reached for the mirror, but didn't even get it off the table before she noticed her reflection.
Tahani was beautiful, yes. She was graceful and elegant, all swooping curves and polish. Conventionally beautiful, the kind of beauty that, while rare, wasn't exactly groundbreaking. The face staring back at her in the mirror was its own kind of beautiful: new and unique, entirely one of a kind.
She was shorter now, had sharper features, slightly lighter skin, a severe look on her face...
Different? No… No, this was her norm. The image she'd for some reason been expecting—the taller one, the longer-haired one— had been that of Tahani, her inferior sister.
The thought of her sister sent a rush of something between pity and contempt into her chest, but she brushed the woman out of her head. She was Kamilah Al-Jamil and she had more important things to think about than another unextraordinary face. Kamilah was brilliant and insightful and entirely immune to the invisible, omnipresent barriers and containments imposed by societal influence and unimaginative mindsets. People all over the world would kill to get inside her head for just one minute; Kamilah couldn't afford to clog it with such mundane, unremarkable images.
She pulled the mirror closer to her face, pressed and preened the ribbons of hair woven across her forehead like fanciful blood veins, admired her own likeness for a moment. Then she lowered the looking glass, didn't dare to let it go, but turned her focus to the photograph perched on the side table.
She was looking striking as always, posed lordly between her mother and father, who were both smiling nicely, showing understandably more enthusiasm than Kamilah at the events of the night.
This time she remembered when the photograph had been taken; she had just gotten back from her first world tour and Waqas and Manisha had dropped everything to take her out for dinner upon her return.
The night had been uneventful, bordering on tedious for Kamilah. Her parents had spent the whole night picking her brain about every aspect of her life, hanging onto her every word like most people did. Kamilah was sick of having only unenlightened fans for company; she was yet to find anyone who was even close being on her level, artistically or intellectually.
And speaking of inferior beings, two of such creatures swung open the door to the sitting room as Kamilah was setting the photograph back down.
"Wait!" one of them shouted. He was dressed in an immaculate button-up, glasses slightly askew on his sweaty face. He was in stark contrast to the man behind him, who was in a loose-fitting jersey with a carefree, clueless look on his face. "Tahani!" The tenser man called upon seeing her.
Kamilah knitted her brows, offended. "Excuse me?" She hadn't been mistaken for her sister since they were too young to have established their own distinctive styles. Or, in Tahani's case, a distinguishing lack thereof.
"Tahani! Put that mirror down!" the smartly-dressed man commanded, to which Kamilah couldn't help but sneer.
"I don't know who you two gentlemen are but I assure you that I am not Tahani," she said with a haughty laugh.
The first man cocked his head in apparent confusion and Kamilah was immediately distrusting. She edged the mirror away from them as they trod closer to her.
"Dude no way!" the second man said with a dopey grin. "You look just like Tahani!"
"Jason, stop," the smarter man reprimanded.
"Well maybe you can help us find her?" Jason suggested hopefully. "She is five ten, her hair smells like coconuts, she was wearing exactly your outfit when we last saw her, she looks exactly like you in every imaginable way—"
"Jason," the other man scolded again.
"I'm just saying maybe she can help us, Chidi!"
"Buddy, I promise you that is Tahani. The objects we're supposed to collect mess with our heads," Chidi turned back to Kamilah thoughtfully. "It's making her forget who she is."
"It most certainly is not," Kamilah protested fiercely. The possibility appeared in her mind, for a moment, she could picture herself as her substandard sister, but she shut down the thought with such ferocity that her annoyance with the two men grew tenfold.
"It's not?" Chidi took a cautious step forward. "Then may I ask who you think you are?"
"If you even have to ask, then you've evidently been living under a rock for the past five years."
"I mean, something like that," Chidi said vaguely.
Oh. He seriously didn't know who she was. Poor chap. "I am Kamilah Al-Jamil."
Chidi's eyes went wide with surprise horror. He was probably utterly starstruck. "K-Kamilah Al-Jamil?" he parroted.
"Wait, were they twins?" Jason asked, rushing up to rejoin the conversation. "Because I remember seeing Kamilah on TV when we were alive and I think she was maybe a tenth as pretty as Tahani, maximum—"
Kamilah, repulsed, was grateful when Chidi cut him off yet again. "Jason, they're not twins. That is clearly Tahani and she is… she is very confused right now."
Kamilah was above this. Tahani would probably throw some sort of fit at her identity being challenged and slandered so, but she was not Tahani, no matter how vividly Kamilah could picture it. No. Kamilah was above this frivolousness. She simply scoffed and disregarded the men. More important things to think about.
She made her way to the couch, still guarding the looking glass for reasons she couldn't quite pin down. She wanted to look busy so that the two men would be off, but nothing caught her eye that she could visibly occupy herself with. Kamilah dug around in one of the side tables to find an empty leatherbound notebook and quill. Perfect; jotting down her thoughts was always a valuable and insightful way to spend an evening. And hopefully, the two stooges before her would take the hint.
They did not.
"Okay, um, Kamilah," Chidi started with frustrating persistence. "Can you tell us… about yourself?"
Ordinarily, Kamilah would've been more than happy to answer that question, but Chidi was shooting a strange look at Jason, and both of them were creeping closer to her.
"Are you trying to distract me so that your mate here can steal this?" Kamilah asked, waving the mirror she still couldn't let go of.
"No," Chidi said, strained.
"You weren't? I totally thought that was what that look meant," Jason chimed. Moron.
There was something very strange going on; Kamilah was certain she had to keep the looking glass in her hands, but she had no clue why. If it got the two fools away from her, got her back to her thoughts, maybe it was worth sacrificing?
"Look," she began uncertainly, "if it means that much to you, just… just take the damn thing. And then leave me alone."
"For real?" Chidi reached his hands out to take the mirror.
"Yes, you've pestered it out of me."
"Sweet!" Jason cheered.
Chidi pulled it out of her hands and Kamilah realized immediately that she had made the wrong call.
When it left her, she herself went with it. She felt empty, like a body with no person inside. No name, past, identity, thoughts…
Then it came crashing back with raw brutality. Inadequate, failure, second best, unimportant, selfish, insecure, condescending, narcissistic, jealous—
Tahani made a grab for the mirror again, longing for the person she'd been a split second ago, but Chidi passed the mirror to Jason and grabbed her by the shoulders, held her tightly.
"It's okay, you're fine! You're good, it's okay! This wasn't real, we're here, we've got you, it's okay…"
Chidi. Friend. Jason. Friend.
Tahani took an uneven breath, the good aspects of her life (or afterlife, rather) and identity returning slowly.
She stood, steadied herself, and shakily asked what happened.
"Shawn is messing with us," Chidi said.
"He's cheating by making us forget stuff when we take the things he wants us to bring to him," Jason said, and Tahani turned to Chidi for confirmation that he was correct. Chidi nodded, and Jason kept going. "But I've been thinking that whenever Shawn comes to get the stuff, he's going to forget everything! And that's when we make our move…"
Chidi shook his head. "You're holding the mirror now, buddy. I don't think the objects work on anyone but the person they were designed for. They make us see and think what we want."
"That's sly," Tahani said, cursing Shawn in her head. "And also… also thoroughly embarrassing for me, considering."
Once the mirror was safely placed on the pedestal with The Answers, the four made their way to the next room, looking for Eleanor.
The door they took lead outside and had obviously been designed for Jason.
They were in a football field stadium lights cutting through humid night air, a single football sitting between the golden goalposts.
"Sick!" Jason bounded forward toward the ball. "Go long, guys!"
Tahani and Chidi shouted protests and broke into a run after Jason, desperate to stop him from grabbing the football and likely having a hallucinatory Blake Bortles appear to seduce Jason into spending eternity on the field.
Chidi was surprisingly quick on his feet and reached the football before Jason, who shouted "I'm open!" as Tahani caught up to him.
"Pass me the ball!" Jason urged an unamused Chidi.
"Have you been paying any attention at all?" he called as Tahani gave Jason a consoling pat on the shoulder. "Because it really seemed like you've been paying attention to everything that's been going on right up until now."
Jason still didn't seem to connect the dots.
"We can play American football another time, darling," Tahani promised as the three made their way back inside. "But right now, we really need to find Eleanor."
Eleanor Shellstrop had seen it all. She'd been to Hell and back again, literally, and she was certain that there was nothing she and her friends couldn't tackle.
Absolutely nothing, she told herself as she entered her room.
Her confidence shattered the moment she saw what lay on the other side.
A bright, sunbaked room. Stifling evening light was streaming in through dry, dirty windows and leaping off the once-white walls. The warn furniture, each piece obviously from a different set, was aimed at a well-loved television set.
Home, sweet home.
She'd spent countless hours in front of that television set in her early childhood; it had practically raised her. Something akin to nostalgia trickled into her head. After her parents' ugly divorce and her mother's subsequent attitude, though, Eleanor had spent her teen years either out of the house as much as possible or holed up in her room with the staunchness of a hermit from a horror flick. Her learned pattern was screaming at her to close herself back in her bedroom, but logically, she knew she had to find her object. Shawn would not get the best of her.
She scoured the sitting room but found nothing, then cautiously made her way into the kitchen.
On the kitchen table lay, she was certain, her assigned object: a dog leash, ethereal light emitting from it, whispering to her to grab it.
Suspicion flashed briefly in her mind, too easy, but Eleanor was anxious to get out of that damn house, so she took hold of the worn red thing.
"Eleanor!" A familiar voice made her whirl to face her mother, wearing an uncharacteristically modest ensemble and for once not nursing a trademark glass of booze.
Eleanor started to gasp in surprise, but the past was fading and of course it made sense that her mother would be in her childhood home, which was suddenly clean and pristine.
"Eleanor, sweetheart, would you be a dear and take the dog for a walk with me?" her mother asked kindly.
"Sure," Eleanor replied without thought. She called for the hound, who came racing into the room, the sound of his jangling collar signaling his arrival. She crouched, attached the leash and led the dog outside, her mother close behind. The moment they stepped into the sun, the oppressive Arizona heat beat down on them relentlessly, but Eleanor didn't mind.
"Tell me about your day," Eleanor said brightly, now unaware of exactly how rare smalltalk was in her household.
"Well, work was rough," Eleanor's mother said candidly but calmly. "Carol is giving me all kinds of grief, but I don't really care about that now that I'm home. Work stays at work. How was your day?"
Memories of her day materialized as Eleanor's mother asked the question. "It was good," Eleanor recalled. "We got a group project in English, but I have a pretty good group so I don't think it'll be too bad."
"What's the assignment?"
"It's pretty open-ended and Jessica—she's one of the people in my group—Jessica's dad has a video camera and we're going to make a short video about the book we read."
"I hope so. At very least, not painful." They walked around the block while discussing the highlights and lowlights of their week, the memories coming to Eleanor as they left her mouth. The dog was leading the way, but Eleanor's feet remembered the route without help. She was home, and home was a good place.
With some good-natured prodding, Eleanor got her mother talking about the headaches that Carol was creating at work. Eleanor felt bad that she couldn't do anything to help, but her mother seemed relieved to be letting her complaints off her chest, so Eleanor listened carefully and politely as they made their way back up the driveway.
Night was falling and the heat relented only slightly. Eleanor inwardly cursed Arizona, but the thought of moving away never crossed her mind. Everyone important to her was here.
She entered the front door, unhooked the dog and pocketed the leash without thinking. As the door swung closed, she heard a strange male voice.
"Eleanor?" it called from across the house. "Was that Eleanor?"
Eleanor looked to her mother for an explanation, but she didn't even react; she either didn't hear the voices or had been expecting them.
"Eleanor!" The strange man hurried out of the kitchen to see her. "Eleanor! What do you have?"
"What do I… what?" she asked as two others rushed to the strange man's side, one man in a football jersey and the other a striking woman in a sundress. All of them were considerably older than she, so Eleanor figured they knew her mother, who was settling down on the couch and surfing through channels without even a glance at the three adults. "Mom, who are these people?"
The three strangers exchanged an apprehensive glance, but her mother was entirely unconcerned. "Who, sweetie?"
"These… these three people!" Eleanor gestured at the adults. "Don't you see them?"
"Do you want to watch a movie tonight, darling? I think the Blockbuster is having a two for one special; we could stock up and have a marathon this weekend. Or you could invite some friends—"
"She doesn't look to be holding anything, where is her object?" the woman in the sundress asked. She had a lovely lilting voice with a British accent, but that didn't make her inexplicable presence any less unnerving.
"What are you talking about? Get out of my house," Eleanor sputtered.
"Your father is going to be home late tonight, so I was thinking maybe you and I could go out for dinner. Just us ladies!" Eleanor's mother chirped.
"What? Not now, Mom."
The three exchanged that look again, and then the woman in the sundress said uncomfortably, "Do you want to, perhaps, step into another room and chat?"
"Um, no, I really don't. But I'd love you stepped out of my home. And left. Forever."
"Do you want to invite a friend over tonight, sweetheart?" her mother called out yet again.
"What? No!" Eleanor turned to face her oblivious mother. "Do you seriously not see what's going on? There are strangers—"
"I was thinking that tomorrow you and Dad and I could go—"
Eleanor waved her mother away. Something was wrong and it was because of the three strange adults, so she sighed, frustrated, and lead them into her bedroom.
"Honestly, Eleanor, was this really your bedroom?" the woman in the sundress asked disapprovingly. "It is so small and so cluttered; how did you live like this?" She wasn't wrong, but Eleanor swelled in defensive anger anyway. She wasn't about to take lifestyle criticism from anyone, much less someone who had barged into her home uninvited.
"Tahani," the man in glasses said, exasperated.
"Fine, not important," she admitted.
"Who are you people?" Eleanor demanded again.
"Okay," the man in glasses started, "I am Chidi Anagonye, and this is Tahani Al-Jamil and this is Jason Mendoza." He gave a point toward the woman and the other man.
"Well okay, that means nothing to me," Eleanor told him. "I mean, who are you? What do you want?"
"We are your friends and—"
"We're here to say that we can sing and we can dance in a major way!" Jason finished in song, beaming despite the incredulous looks he had earned from everyone in the room. He was cute, yes, and a surprisingly good rapper, but he was old and Eleanor was also in no mood for senselessness.
"We are your friends and none of this is real," Chidi continued. "I mean, some of this is real. You were raised in Arizona. I assume in a house like this with a mother who looked like that but it wasn't…"
It wasn't good. There was something wrong, fake, with everything that had happened that night. Eleanor suddenly stopped protesting and quipping and listened to everything Chidi had to say.
"I think you may have something, an object, that is affecting your memory. Do you have any idea what it could be? Do you have anything unusual on your person?" Chidi asked. Eleanor knew instantaneously that it was the dog leash, which suddenly felt heavy in her pocket, but she didn't tell him.
"I—" Eleanor didn't even know where to start. "What do you mean this is fake?" She was in her home, her mother was downstairs, and her day at school earlier was burned into her mind, clear as day. And yet something—everything: the way her mother had behaved, something about the pristine order of the house, the way she wasn't thinking of anything from the past until prompted—was wrong.
"Honestly?" Chidi started with a sigh. "You didn't have the best childhood. Your parents divorced when you were eight and they… they weren't the best or most attentive people."
"You didn't have any siblings, though, so that's a perk," Tahani added.
"Yeah, and I bet you don't have to worry about alligators coming out of your toilet through the sewers!" Jason said with a grin.
A knot took root in Eleanor's stomach. Fake. She didn't want to surrender her pleasant reality, no matter what the three adults said, but now that they'd given her glimpses into her real life, she saw things differently.
Her walls were stained and chipped from years of neglect and anger, the hallway outside was more scary than inviting, to say nothing of the thought of her mother downstairs in front of the television.
Her mother was a drunk, she remembered suddenly and violently. And her father was in prison. He wouldn't be back for a long, long time.
No, he wouldn't be back at all; he had moved out years ago.
Eleanor fought back tears. With the memories came anger and contempt. The real and true Eleanor, she remembered.
"What's in her pocket?" Tahani asked, cocking her head and eyeing the red tip of the dog leash spilling out of her pocket.
"That's none of your fucking business!" Eleanor growled, raging, trying with everything in her to keep her voice from breaking. "Why would you say that to me? Why come into my home and tear me from—"
"Eleanor, give us what's in your pocket," Chidi urged.
"Just let us see it?" Tahani bargained.
"No, bitch. Get out of my house. Leave me alone!"
"Do you remember us?" Chidi asked, looking nervous. "Because it seems like you're remembering things."
"I know it's unpleasant, but try to remember everything," Tahani said as if she was talking to a child.
Which she was, because Eleanor was still in high school...
No, no she wasn't. They were definitely the same age.
A distant memory flashed of Eleanor and Tahani sharing a drink on some cool night, two friends sharing the evening.
Eleanor couldn't breathe, realized as memories of Tahani and Jason and Chidi rushed back that Jason was pulling the leash from her pocket.
She remembered everything by the time the leash was fully off of her person. She was Eleanor Shellstrop. Chidi Anagonye, Tahani Al-Jamil, and Jason Mendoza were her best friends in the world. And so were Michael and Janet.
And any of them would walk through fire for any of the others.
She didn't grab for the leash or try to plunge herself back into the illusion. She stood stock-still, trying to catch her breath, and let Jason fumble with the leash, her only portal to a better childhood, a better family. She didn't need one anymore.
"A dog leash?" Chidi asked, staring at the object as Tahani wrapped a comforting arm around Eleanor.
"A dog leash?" Jason echoed disappointedly. "Darn it… I thought it was a cherry Nerds Rope."
A/N: Occasionally while writing this, I'd step back and think "Am I making Jason *too* dumb in this?" Then I'd watch an episode & be like, "Nah."
Anyway, thank you so much for reading this, I hope you liked it! Drop a comment if you did. Drop a comment even if you didn't; I live for feedback!