Fandom/Pairing: Community; Jeff/Annie
Spoilers: Through 3x14
Word Count: 1,729
Disclaimer: Community and the related characters are © Sony Pictures Television Inc. and and Open 4 Business Productions LLC.
Description: Annie finds one of Jeff's homemade comic books in an unexpected place.
Notes: This is the original prologue of my fic The Education of J*E*F*F W*I*N*G*E*R. I decided to post it now because it's going to be Jossed very soon.
Jeff looked up from his OmniPad to find his son Daniel standing in front of him, bouncing on his toes and holding a yellowing sheaf of papers in his hand. "Hey, kiddo, what's up? Whad'ya got there?"
"Me and mom were upstairs looking through those boxes—" Jeff's lips involuntarily tightened at the mention of the boxes that he had been steadfastly ignoring since they had arrived at the house a week ago. "—and we found this, and she said I should bring it down and show it to you."
Jeff took the papers his son was holding out. "Holy cow," he said, hardly believing his eyes. "This was in one of those boxes?"
It was eight sheets of copy paper stapled together down one side, with a crudely drawn picture of Spider-Man and Darth Vader having a light saber duel atop of skyscraper, with the Millennium Falcon and several X-Wings attacking some TIE Fighters and an Imperial Star Destroyer in the skies above them. He ran his fingers across the logo, the waxy feel of the crayon bringing back vivid memories of spending hours trying to get it took look just right: SPIDER-WARS. And at the bottom of the page, in red letters outlined in blue: "Written and drawn by JEFF W!NGER"
"Did you really make that?" Daniel asked eagerly.
"Yeah…" Jeff said distractedly, flipping through the pages. "When I was about your age, actually. I was kind of a Star Wars nut back then. Return of the Jedi had just come out on videotape…"
Jeff grimaced. "It was a way to watch movies at home before the Omni. My— I got the first three movies for Christmas. The real first three movies, I mean, not—"
Daniel rolled his eyes, having heard variations on that theme his entire life. "I know what you mean."
"And I learned to read on Spider-Man comics, so…" He shrugged. "Seemed like a good idea at the time." He looked at the cover again. "I'd completely forgotten I used to write my name with an exclamation point instead of an 'i,' " he said.
"It's sort of like how Debbie writes her name," Daniel said, provoking another grimace. "She dots her 'i's with hearts."
"Lots of kids do stuff like that," Jeff said, a tad defensively. Being compared to young girls was always a sore spot for him. "And not just kids. Go ask your mom to show you her Spanish notes."
The deflection was successful; Daniel tore off in search of his mother. Jeff flipped idly through the pages of the homemade comic, alternately amused by his youthful enthusiasm and appalled by his youthful lack of talent. It was strange; he'd hadn't thought about the comic in decades, but now that he held it in his hand, he remembered everything about it: poring over old Spider-Man comics, looking for panels he could copy; tracing over his penciled drawings with a ballpoint pen; meticulously coloring it with crayon; placing it in an envelope between two pieces of stiff cardboard, and—
He tossed the comic onto the coffee table in front of him, remembering why he had forgotten it. Important though it had seemed at the time, the memory had eventually been buried beneath a mountain of other disappointments and resentments, and finally he had taken them all and shoved them aside, locking them away in a box in the deepest recesses of his mind. And while many of those boxes had been dusted off, opened, and examined during his many therapy sessions over the years, the comic book had remained hidden until now.
He picked up the comic and headed upstairs to the room where Daniel and his mother Annie were sitting on the floor digging through boxes. Annie gave him a teasing smile as he entered. "Thanks for throwing me under the bus to protect your ego," she said.
Jeff smirked. "Whatever it takes." He held up the comic and added, "And thank you for this." He glanced around the room. "So, uh, is there, you know, a pile of stuff you're keeping?"
Daniel snorted, sounding very much like his mother. "Like she ever lets things pile up."
Annie reached over and ruffled her son's hair. "Quiet, you." Rising from the floor, she added, "There hasn't been much worth saving, honestly, so I've just been putting it away as we go. So you want to keep that?"
"Yeah, put it in the Hall of Shame with the Real World tape and that lopsided pot," Jeff said, handing Annie the comic. "I, uh, I'm gonna go for a run, OK?"
Annie's smile turned sympathetic. "Don't overdo it. It's movie night, and you know how upset Patty was when you fell asleep the last time it was her turn to pick."
Jeff nodded curtly. "Yeah. See you in a bit." He left the room, and a few minutes later, Annie and Daniel heard him go downstairs and leave the house, closing the door behind a little more forcefully than usual.
"He's not mad, honey," Annie said. "He's just…" She hesitated, then gestured around the room at the piles of unopened boxes surround them. "It's hard for him, having all this here."
Annie sighed. "It reminds him of things he doesn't like to think about. Or talk about, so unless he brings it up himself…"
Annie knew he meant it. Unlike his older sister, he was rarely one to test his parents' limits. "If you want to help your dad—" Daniel looked up eagerly. "—make sure he stays awake during the movie," she said. "He never takes it easy when he's in a mood."
Some hours later, Jeff came into the master bedroom after putting the two older kids to bed and found Annie already wearing her pajamas and going through her nightly hairbrushing routine. "Patty went down easy, I take it?"
"She fell asleep while I was looking for the book she wanted me to read to her."
"Lucky. She never goes down that easy for me." He took off his shirt and examined his ribs in the mirror. "I think I might get a bruise. Daniel must've poked me in the ribs at least 50 times tonight."
Annie smiled guiltily. "Sorry! I told him he should try to make sure you stayed awake, but I didn't know he'd be so… enthusiastic about it."
"It's OK." He disappeared into the closet for a minute and emerged wearing his customary sleepwear, a ratty 'No. 1 Dad' he'd been given ten years earlier on his first Father's Day and a pair of loose-fitting athletic shorts. "What else've you found in those boxes?" he asked before entering the bathroom and starting to brush his teeth
"Not much," Annie said, raising her voice slightly to be heard over the running water. "Some old unpaid bills, collection notices, a bunch of summonses—"
Jeff spit into the sink. "That's my dad for you," he said before resuming his brushing.
"Some magazines that I wish Daniel hadn't seen, a bunch of books on playing poker and blackjack, a bit of personal correspondence—I set that aside to look at later, there might be someone who we need to get in touch with—"
Jeff spit again. "Ha." He measured out a capful of mouthwash and gargled.
"A hot plate and a toaster, a beat-up old laptop. I think most of what's left is clothes or bedding. The one I opened had three suits in them. Really nice ones, too. As nice as the ones you buy."
Jeff came out of the bathroom. "Yeah? Think they'd fit?"
"The jackets looked too narrow across the shoulders for you," Annie said, "but the pants, maybe."
"Worth checking out, I suppose."
"I don't get why someone living in an SRO hotel would have such nice clothes."
"It's easier to pull in a mark if you don't look like a dirty bum," Jeff said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "And I'm sure he made regular trips to Atlantic City and Foxwoods. He'd want to project the image of a high roller."
"Well, they're in the guest room closet," Annie said, joining him on the bed, "if you want to try them on."
"Yeah, why not," Jeff said with a shrug. "It'd be nice to get something worthwhile from him for a change." He thought for a moment. "You know, I think those Star Wars videotapes may have the only good present I got from him. I thought it meant he'd finally learned how to be a good dad, and that pretty soon he'd come back and everything would be normal." He laughed bitterly. "I should've known better."
Annie rubbed his back sympathetically. "I'm sorry. I know it's hard for you, having to deal with all this."
"Like I said, that's my dad. Making my life hell, even from beyond the grave. I wish—" He hesitated. "I wish I could not care about him as much as he didn't care about me."
"He kept the comic," Annie said.
"Yeah. Maybe…" He sighed, then looked at Annie. "Thanks for finding that, by the way. And for going through the boxes."
"It's been fun!" she said, then slapped Jeff lightly on the shoulder as he rolled his eyes. "It's kind of like being back at Greendale," she added teasingly, "me doing your work for you."
"Maybe you can make a diorama about it when you're done," Jeff said, earning another slap on the shoulder.
They both stood; Annie headed into the bathroom while Jeff started transferring the half-dozen decorative pillows from the bed to the love seat near the window. He was in bed, staring absently at the ceiling with his hands behind his head when Annie emerged from the bathroom and joined him under the covers. "You know, Jeff," she said as she snuggled into his side as she had almost every night for the last 16 years, "I'm glad you can't not care about your dad. I don't think I could've fallen in love with a man like that."
Jeff looked down and locked eyes with Annie's. He leaned down and kissed her, and smiled the smile he reserved for her. "Well, I guess I'm glad of it too, then." He kissed her again. "Good night, milady."
"Good night, milord."