Spoilers: Through 3x19 for Community
Word Count: 2,418 (of 18,470)
Disclaimer/Notes: See Prologue for disclaimer and general notes. Let the record reflect that the college in Iowa that shares a name with a university in New York had that name first.
Part III: Camden Point High School
In which Jeff meets a four-year-old
Jeff looked up from the college brochure he was reading and found a very young girl standing next to his table. "Um. Hi."
"What are you doing?"
"I, uh, I'm looking at college brochures," he said, holding up the one in his hand.
"Because I have to decide where I might want to go to college," he said, "so my guidance counselor doesn't yell at me again." Jeff had been called to the office of his guidance counselor earlier that day, where she had confronted him about not taking the college selection process more seriously. He was, according to her, the only Camden Point student not to have started thinking about college. Jeff wasn't even sure he wanted to go to college, and had told her so, but she had brushed that aside, saying that he was too bright and had far too much potential not to continue his education.
He had left the office laden with an enormous stack of college brochures and an order to report back to her office at the end of the week with the names of three to five schools to explore further and consider applying to, and had brought them to the Barnes & Noble at Greendale Town Center, to take advantage of their wide selection of college guides.
"OK!" The little girl clambered onto the seat opposite his. "I'll help," she said, grabbing a brochure from the pile.
"You— wait, what?" Jeff looked around the café, trying to locate the girl's parents. Across the room, he saw a woman looking in his direction and smiling. A seriously cute woman at that, probably no more than ten years older than him, wearing a cardigan and short, flowered dress that showed plenty of leg and quite a lot of cleavage. He decided that maybe it wouldn't hurt to let the little girl stay.
Jeff turned his attention back to the little girl, who was intently studying the brochure in front of her. He wondered if she could actually read it. "Which one is that?" he asked.
"Wyoming," she said, looking up. "That's where Gamma lives. Gamma is my mommy's mommy. She's nice. She lives on a big farm with horses! I have a stuffed horse. His name is Mark. Gamma gave him to me because I like horses. Do you like horses?"
Jeff blinked, a little taken aback by the flood of information. "Uh, yeah, I guess. You know, I actually haven't looked at that one yet."
"You can see it when I'm done."
"Gosh, thanks," Jeff said sarcastically.
Sarcasm was obviously lost on this kid. "Look, how about this plan," he said. He picked up a shopping bag from off the floor next to the table, extracted a pile of brochures from it, and placed them in front of the girl. "These are the ones I've already shot down."
"What's that mean?"
"Sorry, I mean I said no to them. They're from colleges I don't want to go to. But maybe I made a bad decision, right? So you look at those, and if you find one you think I should look at again, I will."
The girl looked skeptical. Getting on her knees to see the top of the stack, she pointed to the brochure on top and said, "So if I say I want you to look at—" She stopped to study the name on the brochure. "—Doo-quess-nee again, you'll do it?"
"Sure, why not? I don't want to make a mistake, right?"
"Sometimes people get mad if you tell them they made a mistake."
"Well, OK, but I won't get mad. I want you to tell me. And by the way," he said, pointing at the top brochure, "that's pronounced 'Doo-kane'."
The girl looked up at him with her lips twisted in amused disbelief. "You're silly."
For the next half-hour or so, the pair sat quietly together, reading from their respective piles. Jeff, at least, was reading; he couldn't tell if the little girl was reading the brochures or just looking at the pictures. She was moving through them pretty quickly, but on occasion she stopped to ask him about a word she didn't know. Was she that fast a reader at her age? It seemed unlikely, but not much more unlikely than that she was there at all.
Every so often, Jeff would look across the café at the woman with the cleavage, who was working her way through a stack of fashion magazines. It occurred to him that perhaps he could benefit from looking through a men's fashion magazine now and then. A guy shouldn't wear tee shirts and jeans all the time.
Tucking that thought away at the back of his head for later, he took the next brochure off the top of his pile and flipped through it. It was pretty much the same as every other one he'd looked at: plenty of pictures of the campus, and of professors teaching classes or working alongside their students in a laboratory, and of wholesome, all-American kids engaging in wholesome, all-American activities, not to mention plenty of glowing testimonials from alumni about how the school had made their lives better. Only the details changed. This one was in New York—wait, no, Iowa. That was pretty clever of them, he thought, giving themselves the same name as an Ivy League school. That probably got them a few extra applications each year, but he wasn't going to fall for it. He closed the brochure and placed it at the bottom of the stack in front of the little girl—she had roundly chastised him earlier for placing his discards on the top of her stack—and picked up the next one from the top of his.
And just as quickly dropped it, and stared at it with deep loathing. University of Denver, William Winger's alma mater, if that was the right term for a school that had expelled him for plagiarizing his senior thesis. That hadn't stopped his father from presenting himself as a DU alumnus, of course, nor from wearing a bright red DU sweatshirt nearly every weekend.
No, not red; crimson. He'd never forget that, not after that day at the zoo. His father had taken him there in one of his periodic half-assed attempts to be a slightly less crappy dad. It had turned out to be even more half-assed than usual; when Jeff had emerged from Jungle Jim's Adventure Time Play Land, his dad was nowhere to be found. Not wanting to get in trouble, Jeff had taken a seat on a bench nearby and waited for his dad to return. Every few minutes, his hopes had risen as he spotted a man in a red sweatshirt, but time and again they had come crashing back down when it turned out to be someone other than his father.
Finally, nearly five hours later, his dad had reappeared with a sheepish grin on his face and reeking of cigarette smoke. As they walked together back toward the parking lot, Jeff had said, "You wouldn't believe how many people here have red sweatshirts."
His dad had stopped dead in his tracks and looked down at Jeff in disbelief. "Jesus, Jeff, it's not red, it's crimson. DU's colors are crimson and gold." Jeff had muttered an apology, and they made the rest of the trip to the car and then home in silence.
Since then, Jeff had harbored a deep, irrational distrust of anyone wearing a DU sweatshirt, especially red ones, so obviously it was the wrong school for him. He picked up the brochure again and slipped it into the little girl's pile. He was reaching for the next one in his stack when she plopped another brochure in front of him. "You should go here," she said. "It has bears."
"Bears?" Jeff looked at the brochure, which was open to a picture of a somewhat anemic-looking bear. "Welcome to Grizzly Territory" was emblazoned across the top of the page. Right, he remembered this one; he had rejected it for being too close to home. Not that he wanted to get too far away—he'd rejected Doo-quess-nee on that score—but this one was so close he could walk there in under an hour. But the little girl was looking up at him with a bright smile on her face and her eyes wide open, and he felt like he had to at least pretend to take the suggestion seriously. He flipped back to the first page and said, "Bears are good?"
"I like bears. I have lots of teddy bears! Auntie Gee gave me a teddy bear, and she said his name was Boo Bear because he has an orange shirt that says 'BOO' on it—"
"—But his secret name is Robert. And I have a teddy bear named Gerry, and he's white except he has pink paws and pink ears, and he used to have a pink ribbon around his neck but it came off and my daddy gave me a black bow tie and I put that around his neck instead. And I have a Pooh Bear, and a Paddington Bear, and I have books about Pooh and Paddington, except not together. And—"
"Wow, you're right, I made a mistake with this one," Jeff said, putting an end to the monologue and leaving the girl looking at him awestruck. "I'll put this in the other pile. Good job." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the woman with the cleavage stand up and sling her bag across her shoulder. "Oh look, your mom's getting ready to leave."
The little girl followed his gaze, and her face crinkled in amusement. "You're silly."
"What do you mean by that?" he asked, though he was already fairly certain of the answer.
"That's not my mommy!" the girl said, giggling. "My mommy doesn't wear dresses that show her—" She looked around before whispering, "boobies." In her normal voice, she added, "She says that's not an appropriate way for a lady to dress."
"What?" Jeff said, momentarily distracted. "There's nothing wrong with the way she's dressed."
"Oh!" she said, sounding surprised. "OK."
"You know, you shouldn't've wandered away," Jeff said. "Your parents are probably really worried about you."
"I didn't wander away, silly man!" the girl said exasperatedly. "Mommy and Auntie Gee are looking for dresses and they said I should stay here and they'd came back and get me when they were done."
"They left you here by yourself!?" Jeff said, appalled.
The girl nodded. "I just would've gotten in the way."
Jeff stood so abruptly that his chair toppled over backward, eliciting a squeak of surprise from the girl. "Come on," he said, holding out his hand to her. "We're going to go find your mom."
"I'm not supposed to leave the store!" she said. "Especially not with a stranger."
"Are you supposed to sit with a stranger and tell him about your bears?"
Blushing, she said, "I don't think Mommy would like—"
"I don't care what she likes!" Jeff said. "I'll be damned if I let her leave a kid all alone at the z— at the mall."
The girl gasped. "You said a bad word!"
"Damn right I did. Come on." The girl squeaked again as he leaned over and lifted her from her chair. "Let's go find the security office."
With the help of a mall employee, they found the security office, and shortly an announcement went out over the mall's public address system about a "lost parent." The little girl had objected strongly to this, insisting that she was breaking the rules by not staying in the bookstore and that it would be better to return there to wait for her mother and aunt. She and Jeff now sat next to each other on a battered sofa, she kneading her hands together worriedly as he tried to explain to her that some rules were worth breaking.
A few minutes later, a pair of stylishly dressed women strode into the security office. The older of the two, a trim brunette wearing a conservative blue dress, spotted the little girl and smiled stiffly. "There you are, dear! Auntie Gee and I were very worried" she said, in a sweetly insincere tone.
The girl looked at her mother, obviously confused. "But you—"
"Go with Auntie Gee," her mother said. "I need to have a word with these men."
The little girl climbed onto Jeff's lap and threw her arms around his neck. "Bye, silly man. Thank you for letting me help you." She jumped down from his lap and left the security office with her aunt.
Once she was gone, the older woman whirled around and glared at Jeff contemptuously. "How dare you!" she said, with such vehemence that he actually flinched. "Do you have any idea how humiliated I was when I heard that announcement?"
"You think I give a crap?" Jeff said, standing from the sofa and looking at the woman with just as much contempt. "What were you thinking, leaving a kid her age alone? Do you have any idea what it's like for a kid to be left behind like that?"
"My daughter knows better than to leave with a stranger."
"I don't care about that!" Catching sight of the surprised look on the security officer's face, he added, "I mean, yes, kidnapping little girls is bad, but my point is that just because she wasn't kidnapped doesn't mean she wasn't hurt. And it's the kind of hurt that sticks with you a hell of a lot longer than a scraped knee or something. And she's going to hold it against you, guaranteed."
The woman sniffed haughtily. "I hardly think I need child-rearing advice from someone like you."
Jeff gave it one more try. "Look, lady, your daughter's a sweet kid. I don't want—"
"I could not possibly care less about what you want," she said icily. "Stay away from my daughter."
"Trust me, as long as she's anywhere near you, you don't have to worry about that."
The woman sneered, and turned and swept from the office. The security officer came over and placed his hand on Jeff's shoulder. "Don't let her get to ya, kid. You did the right thing."
Jeff grunted sullenly. "If that's what you get for doing the right thing," he said as he stalked toward the door, "then forget it."
Prologue | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Epilogue