Warnings: Aaaaaaahg, geography! (No warnings, really.)
Word Count: 3,635
Disclaimer: I do not claim Community or the characters of Community. I also do not claim that the places described in this fic are 100% accurate. In fact, I'm pretty sure they're not.
Summary: Annie goes on a road trip to remind herself how big the world is.
A/N: A companion piece to "Ain't No Sunshine (When She's Gone)". I'm not sure how it works alone, so maybe read that one first?
"Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving." – Terry Pratchett
When Annie was five years old her father gave her The Children's Atlas For Young Explorers. She learned how big the world is, how many things were out there for her to see, but she feels like maybe she peaked too soon on that. She feels like the world has been shrinking ever since – from Africa and Europe and Japan, to Harvard and Yale and Princeton, to Greendale, Colorado, to Greendale Community College, to Troy, Abed, Shirley, Britta, Pierce, and Jeff. She's afraid that if she lets it continue, it will be Jeff, and Jeff, and Jeff (isn't that what happened to Britta with Blade? she asks herself, Isn't there that one guy a woman just can't shake? Didn't they tell me I'd understand some day?) and then Annie wouldn't be Annie anymore. She'd have to shrink along with her world, until she would cease to exist completely.
She has to get away.
On the last day of classes, Annie leaves. She's finished telling the group what she's planning on doing for the summer, her bags are packed, and she says that she will keep in touch. Jeff is exempt from that vow, but she doesn't tell them that. She'd said her goodbyes to Jeff earlier that day and she promised herself that it would be their last moment of communication until she returned with some answers.
There is a map folded up in the passenger seat next to her. There are no routes outlined on the map; the only marks on it are in the margins, along the border of white and blank blue, where Annie has written a list of places she wants to go.
The first thing on the list is Mt Rushmore. Annie heads north.
Mt. Rushmore is a mountain with faces carved into it, and Annie finds it to be a sadly underwhelming start to her road trip across the country. Still, she snaps a photo of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln from her phone and sends it to five people on her contacts list, with the message, Some important people say hello!
Annie doesn't mark the route she'd taken from Greendale, Colorado to Mt Rushmore until she's already on her way to Yellowstone National Park.
As she heads west Annie takes a picture of the empty stretch of highway in front of her. The sun is well on its way to setting and the sky is a smear of bright orange and red. The mountains are jagged blue-purple shadows all around and she's never felt more alone.
She attaches the photo to a text message addressed to Jeff and saves it as a draft.
Yellowstone National Park is magnificently large. A picture of Old Faithful is sent to the members of the study group along with a cheerful message about her love of the park and her trip so far. She tells them that Yellowstone is much cooler than Mt. Rushmore.
She's staying at a little inn near the park. It's fashioned like a woodsy hunting cabin and it's rather expensive, but Annie hadn't spent very long in South Dakota and she'd saved a little money by sleeping in her car instead of renting a room. She's glad she decided to stay at the inn, because the view of Wyoming and sky outside her window is nothing like it would've been at some highway motel.
When she takes a picture of that view, the stars aren't quite as clear as they are in person but they are plentiful and breathtaking all the same. She's never seen so much sky, so many little pinpricks of distant light. It makes her smile broadly; it fills her with a sense of joy. She addresses the photo to Jeff.
This, too, is saved but not sent.
Like with her route to Mt. Rushmore, Annie doesn't mark the Yellowstone path until she's ready to leave. This time, she's heading back through Colorado to get to the Grand Canyon. There's something in her that wants to take this route as a temptation, to get close to Greendale and the possibility of stopping this mad trip through the country only to pass it by and keep going, going, going.
Annie includes herself in the photo when she stops just outside the city of Pueblo. Even though a corner of her face is all that's visible, she likes to think that she looks a little triumphant. The message is Pit stop in Pueblo, Colorado. Next stop: The Grand Canyon! Hope you guys enjoy the updates – so much more to come!
The photo that Annie drafts to Jeff is an early-morning shot of the Leaving Colorful Colorado sign on the way into Arizona. A feeling of freedom joins her triumph and Annie dons a pair of sunglasses against the glare of the rising sun.
The Grand Canyon is impressive. It is so impressive that Annie decides she wants to stay longer at this attraction than previous ones. She doesn't do anything like ride a donkey to the bottom, but there are several points of view available for tourists and Annie spends a several days shuttling to as many of them as she can reasonably pay for. She arrives at each point, she looks, and she is amazed. There is a lovely angle that includes much of the unbelievable vastness and she takes a picture to send to the group back in Greendale. The message she sends with it is How awesome is this! punctuated by a laughing emoticon.
There is something called a Skywalk that she drives ten miles to get to and pays an exorbitant fee to walk across. It is a loop of glass and metal that extends past the rim of the canyon, and when she looks down she's stricken with vertigo at the sight of empty air and shadows so very far below. She isn't allowed to take photos on the Skywalk, but she peeks her phone from her pocket, points it down, and snaps one with the surreptitious mastery of a twenty-something in the Digital Age.
When she returns to her car and is on her way again – and after she marks her path to the Grand Canyon on her road map – Annie checks the photo she'd secretly taken.
It is her sneakered feet, seemingly hovering a thousand meters above the earth. There is no glare of glass or reflection of sky. The angle is absolutely perfect and terrifying.
It gets addressed to Jeff and remains unsent.
Annie cuts a ridiculous path to California. The Golden Gate Bridge is on her list of things to see, but there was a tiny advertisement on a travel magazine at her hotel in Arizona that shows the Redwood National Forest in Northern California and she scribbles the words over top the Golden Gate Bridge.
She still sees the bridge. She takes a picture of it on her way through, but she doesn't stop and she doesn't cross it and she doesn't feel the need to get out and climb it. She thinks that California might have something better inside it than copper-colored steel and wires. She sends the photo to the group and writes, California! followed by a little heart, and she keeps on driving.
The Redwood Forest is magnificent. It's a state park and it reminds her quite a bit of Yellowstone, but she's less concerned with the wildlife and state park-ness of it and more concerned with how fantastically large the trees are. She drives through a tree. Literally through a tree.
There is a place in the forest called the Grove of Titans, where the largest trees grow. Within that grove, the brochure says, is the Lost Monarch, the Del Norte Titan, the Screaming Titans, and the Sacajawea. Annie cannot get to them because their location is secret, but she stands next to some other trees and they will do just fine, thank you very much.
The picture she drafts to Jeff is straight up. In the same way that the picture at the Grand Canyon goes down and down and down, this one goes up and up and up. It is nothing but sky and trees that do not seem to end. They make her feel unbelievably small.
The next stop is Niagara Falls and Annie has been away from Greendale for over a month now. She has slept in her car and showered at truck stops. She has seen faces carved in mountains, a geyser, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and one of the Modern Wonders of the World. She feels like maybe she should be done now, that perhaps she should be heading home with newfound certainty and maturity, but that doesn't gel so much with reality. She feels different, but not completed. She feels changed, but not necessarily more assured.
There are still messages to Jeff Winger saved in her phone that she can neither delete nor send. There is still that ever-present thought of him in the back of her head. There is still that question of whether or not she's in love with him, or the idea of being in love with him, or the idea of being in love with a him that doesn't really exist yet (and maybe never will).
There is still one more thing on her list that she needs to see, and it is so very far away that when she starts her car again she sighs.
So much work and so much expectation, it's quite unlikely that it'll be worth it.
Annie drives east.
Nothing of much interest stands between her and Niagara Falls, her grand finale on this Great American Road Trip. There is a lot of America and a lot of states and a lot of driving and so much thinking that Annie believes she could possibly go insane before she ever gets home. She snaps photos at various opportunities – of the sign for Reno, Nevada, of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, of the World's Largest Jackalope in Douglas, Wyoming, of fields and fields of flat Nebraska, of the distant cityscape of Chicago, and of two of the Great Lakes in two different states.
(Addressed to Jeff are pictures of empty Nevada desert, a sunrise over mountains in Utah, more Wyoming sky, the remnants of a ghost town in Nebraska, the road in front of her on her way through Iowa, the world outside hotel windows and car windows and road signs that seem to direct her to more road signs. She just takes picture after picture after picture, more than she's taken to send to the group, and each one seems more and more meaningless the further she drives. She keeps taking them, though. There is something inside of her that thinks these things are significant, that thinks they are a story of her that Jeff needs to know – even if he might never actually see them.)
When Annie is only a few miles away from Niagara Falls, she is tired and significantly poorer than she'd been when she left Greendale, Colorado. Her phone is holding on to twenty unsent pictures and her head is holding on to more questions than she can hope to answer. She has bags of souvenir junk, bags of unclean clothes, and she's running out of quarters for her laundry. She is sick of sleeping in her car and she is sick of sleeping in motels – they are filthy and unbelievably creepy, and if she lived the rest of her life without stepping foot in another one of them it would be too soon. She probably has enough money to get herself back to Greendale but she calls Pierce and asks him to wire some just-in-case cash to her bank account.
Niagara Falls is loud and wet. It is another example of nature making something grand and impressive, but Annie feels emotionally cold when she stands in front of it. She thinks that maybe this trip has broken her.
She sends a photo of the falls to the group. The last stop! she writes, as chipper as ever in text. She ends it with another smiling emoticon, because that's what she thinks she should do.
There is a little gift shop that's full of stupid, kitschy souvenirs. She buys several things for the group and a handful of random, tiny items for other people she knows. She buys a hat for Shirley, a t-shirt for Pierce, two coffee mugs for Troy and Abed, and a shot glass for Britta. She doesn't know if she should buy anything specific for Jeff. She had set out on this trip to find out what Jeff was supposed to mean to her and she is no closer to the answer now, even though her trip is nearly over. It is hard to buy for someone she can't seem to bring into focus.
There is an old photograph hanging up on the wall next to the t-shirts and shot glasses. According to the plaque next to it, the photo is from 1901 and is of a woman named Annie Edson Taylor. She is standing next to a huge barrel, which she had apparently gone over the falls in. Also according to the plaque, Annie Edson Taylor had survived the fall, but had exited the barrel bleeding.
Annie snaps a photo of the wall on which the other Annie's picture hangs, and saves it in another message to Jeff.
"I think you're pointing that in the wrong direction," a voice says from behind her as Annie finishes saving her photo. Annie turns to face a smiling, older man. He has grey hair and brown eyes and his face is covered in laugh lines. He's wearing a floppy hat and a blue plastic poncho with Niagara Falls scripted across the chest. He points to the door of the shop, in the general direction of the Falls. "The real attraction's out there."
Annie smirks weakly, shoving her phone back into her purse and shrugging.
"I had a moment of cynicism," she says.
The man nods. "Long trip?"
She sighs. "Yes."
Some more nodding. "Maybe it's time for you to go home, then."
There is something about the pleasant-looking man that makes Annie feel open enough to say, "I don't feel like I deserve to go home. I haven't accomplished what I wanted to accomplish."
He chuckles. "Go home," he says. "Then you'll see."
He walks away.
Annie goes home.
Annie fills in her route back home before she sets off from Niagara Falls. Her map is a covered in a series of convoluted black lines, zigging and zagging across the continental United States and looking like a confused and hyperactive six-year-old had drawn them.
Annie drives and drives. She sleeps in her car some more. She takes another shower at a truck stop. When she realizes that she's fairly close to Colorado and far from needing the emergency money from Pierce, Annie treats herself to another stay at another inn with another beautiful view of the night sky and a slice of America. It's relaxing but her spirits are still low and even after a full night's sleep in the most comfortable bed Annie has ever slept in, she still feels exhausted when she hits the road again the next morning.
She texts the group that she's almost home, but doesn't say how close.
She drafts no pictures for Jeff, but she types out the message I wish I knew what to do and saves that instead.
Instead of going home, Annie stays at a hotel to recuperate for a couple nights. Hotels, she finds, are much nicer (though much more expensive) than motels, and their beds are almost as good as the one in the inn outside Colorado. She's almost within Greendale proper, but going home feels like a defeat of sorts and Annie's never been a very good loser.
The sky outside her window is familiar and not worthy of a photograph.
She goes directly to Greendale Community College instead of back to the apartment she shares with Troy and Abed. She takes a picture of the Greendale sign just outside the school and sends the text to the group. Surprise! it says.
Annie drafts nothing for Jeff because she can see him across the campus. He stares at her for several moments before turning around and running away. Suddenly Annie understands.
Annie knows where Jeff is hiding, but in the hallway she's sidetracked from catching up to him by the rest of the group. They flood out at her all at once, all beaming and calling "Annie!" and "Welcome back!" Annie can't hold back a smile of her own and takes five minutes to tell them thank you, and yes, they got some stuff – it's all in the bag she's holding.
"Wait here," she says. "I have to go do something really quick."
In her bag of souvenirs is a keychain from Niagara Falls with a barrel on it. She's reminded of Annie Edson Taylor, who went over the falls and survived but came out bleeding. Annie plucks the keychain from the bag and darts away in the direction she knows Jeff has gone.
Annie hopes that finding Jeff will fix everything. In her head, she hands him the keychain and he takes it and automatically knows everything Annie is trying to tell him (I left because I was worried that I cared too much, because I needed to see that the world was more than just you and what I feel about you. I missed you, I took photos of things that I didn't know the significance of at the time but I didn't send them, and even though I didn't send them I still thought they were a weakness because – if I was still thinking of you, did that mean you were still too important to be healthy? I couldn't get the right perspective on my way, but I see now. I pictured you while I was out there and I saw loneliness and joy and freedom and fear and insignificance and disorientation and defeat. But I see you now with my new eyes and I see a sunset, the stars in the night sky, a way out, a defiance of gravity, an eternity, and survival… You did not become my world, but I see you in it everywhere I look, and I know now that that's okay.)
Things do not go according to plan.
Annie thinks that everything is terrible for several days. Jeff smiles at her and talks to her, but there's something there that's fractured. They are not okay.
It occurs to Annie that, maybe, she's not as good at communicating as her A in Speech class and Debate Championship certificate might imply.
Britta walks up to Annie and asks, "Are you in love with Jeff?" and the first words out of Annie's mouth are, "I'm sorry."
The other woman is rather taken aback by this blurted, circuitous confession, but her shocked expression morphs into something sympathetic and she shakes her head.
Britta smiles. It's broad, though not a grin, and Annie can see that Britta means it – means both the words and the smile, too – but Annie can also see a little bit of sadness there. She doesn't know if anyone else would be able to detect that sadness (she doesn't even know if Britta herself realizes that it's inside of her) but Annie knows you can't share as much with and be as close to a person as Britta was to Jeff, and then break apart, and not lose a little something in the process.
But Britta's strong and she loves her friends, and she tells Annie that a talk with Jeff should be had before everything falls to pieces. Annie sees that Britta really is worried about that – the possibility that the strain between Jeff and Annie might cause the group to implode.
She goes to find Jeff.
Annie tries to be as clear in her explanation as possible, having learned that assuming the other person understands what you mean and the other person actually understanding what you mean are sometimes different, and they sometimes lead to terrible mistakes and convoluted road maps and a ridiculous amount of money spent on gasoline. When she tells Jeff, "You're my friend," she can see that the words don't give him the comfort that they give her. She decides that maybe, in this case, words aren't the way to go.
When she kisses him, she tries to tell him everything.
(You are my friend, and I love you, and I missed you, and I am sorry, and I forgive you.)
Later, when they are sitting at the study table and Annie, exhausted from a journey that had only really, honestly ended a mere hour ago, is leaning against Jeff's shoulder, he queries, "So, how was your trip?"
When Annie looks at him, Jeff shrugs in a slightly bashful way.
"I was out of the loop," he says. "And I want to know."
Annie takes her phone from her purse and opens up her text message application. She selects twenty-one photographs and hits send for each and every one.
Jeff's phone buzzes twenty-one times and he gives her a look that asks, What are you doing? but he's smiling through his bewilderment. He picks up his phone and opens each new message in order. Jeff scrolls through picture after picture, starting with an open road and sky and ending with a photo of a photo of a woman who had been the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
When he is done there is one thing left marked as a draft in Annie's messages folder. It's a text to Jeff that says I wish I knew what to do.
Annie selects it and hits delete.