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A Warm, Sexy Trumpet Mute

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“Jason,” Janet slurred, “That suit is, like, so hot on you. I never really got the appeal of bad boys, but—”

“Okay, maybe don’t even hold those magnets,” said Michael hurriedly. “There you go, Janet. Welcome back. Or, almost back, I suppose. Let’s get on this train—”

“Ugh,” said Janet, as her image processing and general processing systems rocketed back to functionality to the tune of every sound in the universe. “Oh no. That was embarrassing.”

“It was nice,” said Jason. He wrapped his arms around her, which was always pleasant, but right now also had the advantage of quieting every sound down to a whisper, like a warm, sexy trumpet mute. “You're so nice to me, girl.”

“Not a girl,” said Janet. It was too late to blame her dreamy stare on the magnets, but Jason didn’t seem to mind.

“Right,” said Michael. “Maybe we could save this for after we’ve gotten a move on. Or perhaps after we’ve made it back to the neighborhood, and I’ve gone somewhere else. Maybe I’ll pay a visit to Mindy up in her attic—”

“I wouldn’t advise that,” said Janet. “I’m calculating the chances of you entering Mindy’s domain while she’s masturbating at 90 percent.”

“Ah, yes,” said Michael. “Thank you, Janet. I’ll stick to getting Bad Janet set up in your void.”

“Definitely a better plan,” said Janet. Jason and Michael started up the handcart, and she reached out to destroy the Bad Place train station. “That ought to stop them from following us.”

*

“Are we—” Jason started, before Michael cut him off. Glenn bubbled in time with his frustrated gesture.

“No,” said Michael. “For the umpteenth time, Jason, we are not there yet.”

“Eighth and three quarters,” said Janet cheerfully.

“I’m sorry?” asked Michael, wiping sweat from his brow.

“The sum total of all the times Jason has asked that question, minus the sum total of your interruptions, is eight and three quarters,” said Janet. “Does that help?”

“That does not help,” said Michael, but he couldn’t help smiling. “Thank you, Janet.”

“Janet,” said Jason, “when we get back, can we go on a date together? I was thinking maybe we could have a picnic by the popcorn river, and I could describe all the flavors to you. I mean, I know you made them, but it’s really sad that you can’t eat the jalapeño cheddar. Or the caramel. It’s so good!”

“That is unfortunate, yes,” said Janet, because based on a quick survey of the Earth approval rating of caramel across time, it really was unfortunate. “Thank you, Jason.”

“Hey, I wonder what those would taste like together,” said Jason. “Maybe we could invent a new flavor. We could call it…the carama-peño!”

“Sounds karma-painful,” said Michael, “but first, we’ve got to get the neighborhood back up and running. Eleanor said she would be tasking Derek with keeping the Janet-babies in check, and while I don’t want to cast doubt on his capabilities—”

“Derek?” yelled an unmistakable voice. Unmistakable because she’d made it, albeit under much mistaken circumstances. “Derek!” it affirmed, to the sound of breaking glass. “Hands off, Wanda, that is Daddy Derek’s Scrabbletini!”

“I guess we’re close,” said Michael, waving a resigned hand as a massive Janet-baby-induced headache threatened to envelop Janet’s essence. She winced, but then smiled, because Jason had taken her hand.

“Oh boy,” said Janet. “This is going to be a lot.” She leaned closer to Jason. “Our date might have to wait, but I look forward to our popcorn seminar under the stars.”

“Under the stars?” said Jason, grinning. “Dope!”

*

“Hey, guys?” asked Jason. “Can I ask for your advice?”

“Why, of course, darling,” said Tahani, in her super-smart speech impediment. “I would be simply honored to be of assistance in way you require. How can I help you, Jason?”

“Um,” said Jason, “I was going to ask you about Janet, but I only understood some of those words—”

“Don’t worry about it, buddy,” said Eleanor, around a mouthful of nachos. “Tahani’s going through a thing. What’s up?”

“Well,” said Jason, “I wanna do something nice for Janet, since she was just in the Bad Place being tortured, but I don’t know what to do. I feel like blowing up the house would just upset her more.”

“Yeah, hard pass on that one,” said Eleanor. “Not even gonna ask what brought that on. Did you have any other ideas?”

“Well, I wanted to have a date with her, but she’s still in her void,” said Jason. “She said she doesn’t sleep, but she needed to, like, charge again after fixing all the Janet-babies.”

“Yes, well,” said Tahani, “keeping the neighborhood running is exhausting. I hadn’t quite appreciated how difficult it is until Derek’s spectacular failure.”

“Not a failure,” said Derek, popping into existence with a drink in his hand. “A pre-success.”

“Hey man, how’s the cocktail of shrunken heads?” asked Eleanor.

“I call it a shocktail,” said Derek, taking what Jason supposed was a sip.

“You’ve got a few artificial hairs caught in your teeth there, darling,” said Tahani. She tilted her head away from him, the way judges used to do in Jacksonville.

“Hot Derek,” said Derek. “Bye!”

“Anyway,” said Eleanor, “just be yourself, bud. Let Janet do her not-sleep thing and set up whatever date you had planned. Somebody might as well be happy around here.”

“Oh, Eleanor, I’m sure Chidi will remember you,” said Tahani. “This Simone thing will be nothing more than, as I once said to my good friend Princess Kate during her brief split from Good Will, a blip on the radar.”

“Is it the same thing for Janet being tortured in the Bad Place?” asked Jason. “She just has to sleep it off, like that time Pillboi gave me something that wasn’t Vicodin but wasn’t a laxative either?” He paused, smiling at the memory. “It was weird.”

“It was Clarence’s heart medication,” said Janet, popping in. “Hi, Jason.”

“Janet!” said Jason. “You feeling better, girl?”

“Not a girl,” said Janet. “The Janet-babies are functioning again, and my processing power is as efficient as it can be under the circumstances. Michael and Bad Janet are in my void, which is weird, but not a threat to the integrity of the neighborhood at the moment.” She paused, smiling at Jason. “I feel good, Jason. Thanks for asking.”

“Hey, Tahani, you wanna grab some frozen yogurt?” asked Eleanor. “I’m really in the mood for some Strawberry and Merciful Excuse to Leave an Awkward Situation.”

“Those go great together,” said Janet. “Add some Comfort Netflix sauce and you’ll be golden.”

“Thanks, Janet,” said Eleanor. “You coming, babe?”

“I think I’d better get home and start my skincare regimen,” said Tahani. “But I’ll walk with you to the frozen yogurt place, of course.”

*

“So, Janet,” said Jason, “you wanna sit down and watch a movie or something? You want a foot massage? Or, like, a foot massage for your back?”

“That sounds lovely, Jason,” said Janet. “But I’m really okay. I’m just happy to be here with you.”

“That’s dope,” said Jason, “but I want to help you. I mean, you were tortured, and that must have really sucked.”

“I was more worried about you guys,” said Janet. “I was afraid Bad Janet would undermine the experiment, and humanity would be condemned forever, and you guys would be tortured. And I was also afraid that maybe you’d realize that Bad Janet was your problem, but not that she was a Bad Janet, and you’d blame me. Maybe even fall out of love with me.” She reached over to take Jason’s hand. “That sucked a lot more than Vicky’s acting.”

“Well, you don’t need to worry,” said Jason. “I love you, girl.” He embraced her, and even though Janet knew he couldn’t actually absorb the stress of keeping the neighborhood running, she’d never felt calmer.

“Not a girl,” whispered Janet. “I love you too, Jason.”