Disclaimer: Marc Brown owns the Arthur characters and has more lawyers than I do. Beat, Van, Odette, Mrs. Stiles, Pickles the Pomeranian, etc. are original characters and I don't have a copyright, so be gentle with them.
It was Monday morning, and the first day of fourth grade for Arthur and the gang. Arthur, Buster, Francine, Muffy, Brain, and Binky were gathered in front of the school bulletin board, bracing themselves for the tidings which the recently posted class rosters would bring.
"So, who volunteers?" asked Arthur. Everyone was silent. "Come on," he goaded them, "whoever we get can't possibly be worse than Mr. Ratburn."
"In retrospect, Mr. Ratburn wasn't all that bad," Brain reflected.
"Are you kidding?" retorted Binky. "He was a monster! I never learned so much in my whole life!"
"Whoever I get," said Brain worriedly, "I just hope it isn't...Rodentia!"
Begin Brain fantasy sequence.
Brain wandered down a darkened hallway, stopped at room number 22, and stood motionless before the door, hesitating to open it. Suddenly the door opened from the inside, and Rodentia appeared in the doorway with a guitar strapped over her shoulder and a sock puppet on her hand. "Room for one more, honey!" gushed the rat woman, and the sock puppet spoke along with her. Horrified, Brain screamed and ran away.
End Brain fantasy sequence.
"Okay, okay, make the injured woman do all the work," grumbled Francine, whose right arm was in a cast. Looking over the rosters, she announced, "I've got Mrs. Stiles."
"Stiles?" mused Muffy. "Haven't heard of her. She must be new. Sounds very fashionable, though."
"We all have Mrs. Stiles," said Francine. "Fern and Sue Ellen have her too."
"What a relief," said Brain.
"What about George?" asked Arthur.
"He's in a special class because of his dyslexia," Francine reminded him. Then she gasped. "Omigosh, Jenna's in Rodentia's class!"
"The poor girl," said Brain, lowering his head.
"She's got it easy," Buster remarked.
"Who else is in our class?" asked Arthur.
"Let me see," said Francine. "Van Cooper. Isn't he the kid in the wheelchair?"
"I know him," said Buster. "He's really friendly."
"And here's another," said Francine. "Beatrice Simon. I don't know her."
"I know her," said Sue Ellen, who had justed walked up to the group. "We met in England. She's really cool."
"Room 18," Francine reported. "We'd better get going."
In classroom number 18, teacher Mrs. Jean Stiles was setting up papers on her desk. She was a polar bear woman with shaggy white hair down to her shoulders. In the front of the room Van Cooper, a duck boy with blond hair, sat in a motorized wheelchair and chatted with Fern, who was seated in the next desk over. Also in the front sat Beatrice "Beat" Simon, a brown-haired girl who had ears like a rabbit's and a nose like an aardvark's, due to her mixed-species heritage.
The door opened and Arthur, Buster, Francine, Muffy, Brain, Binky, and Sue Ellen filed in. Beat jumped out of her desk and happily greeted Sue Ellen in a refined British accent.
"Is it really you, Sue Ellen?" she gushed.
"Such a long time, Beat," said the cat girl wistfully.
"I'm so grateful for everything your father did for us," Beat told her.
"Don't mention it."
"Too late, I already did!" The two girls giggled.
As the kids selected their desks, Mrs. Stiles counted them off and checked her roster. Seeing that all ten were present, she started to write her name, "Mrs. Stiles", on the chalkboard. "How are you all doing today?" she asked the class.
"Fine," mumbled the kids.
"I'd like to welcome you all to your first day of fourth grade. As you can see, my name is Mrs. Stiles, and you can call me that or call me 'ma'am', whichever you prefer. I'll be your teacher for the remainder of the school year, God willing. I understand that most of you spent third grade under the tutelage of Nigel Ratburn, who is notorious for giving out large amounts of homework. You'll feel right at home here."
The kids groaned at the news.
"We'll start every day with a roll call." Mrs. Stiles glanced at her roster. "Susan Ellen Armstrong."
"Clark Philip Barnes."
"Uh...that's me," said Binky.
"Buster Cletis Baxter."
"Van Wilson Cooper."
"Here," said the duck boy in the wheelchair.
"Mary Alice Crosswire."
"Right here," said Muffy.
"Francine Alice Frensky."
"Alan Wayne Powers."
"Here," said The Brain.
"Arthur Timothy Read."
"Beatrice Margaret Simon."
"Present," said the rabbit-aardvark girl.
"Fern May Walters."
"Last, as usual." Fern's gloomy comment caused the other kids to chuckle.
"All present and accounted for," said the new teacher. "Before we get into the educational part of today's session, I would like each of you to stand before the class and tell us what you did over your summer vacation. You don't have to give a speech, just summarize. We'll do this in reverse alphabetical order, so, Fern, you get to be first this time. Also, when you go up, tell the class if you have a nickname or any name that you prefer to be called by."
Fern was the first to stand before the class. "My name's Fern. This summer I went on a family vacation to California. I got to go to Sea World and see some cool sharks and killer whales. Also, I read five Sherlock Holmes books and the complete poems of Emily Dickinson, and I wrote a lot of poems myself. And I acted in a community theatre play. Thank you."
Beat was next. "I'm Beatrice Simon. You can call me Beat. I just moved here from London, England, and I didn't really have a summer vacation to speak of. My father got a situation as a professor at the university."
Buster raised his hand. "Situation?" he puzzled.
"Job," Beat explained. "And my mum writes fantasy books. And none of us would be here if not for Sue Ellen's dad. Thank you."
Arthur stood before the class. "I'm Arthur Read. You can call me Arthur. This summer I got to go to the beach and to Washington, D.C. And I read 'Henry Skreever and the Cabbage of Mayhem" five times. And I broke my glasses and had to get new ones. And I played the piano and argued with my sister D.W. a lot. That's about it. Thank you."
Brain followed. "My name's Alan Powers, but all my friends call me The Brain."
Beat giggled. "What?" said Brain peevishly.
"And you let them?" said the British girl.
"Let them what?"
"Call you The Brain. I wouldn't."
The new girl's remark annoyed Brain, but he continued. "This summer I built my own telescope, grew some quartz crystals, read some Stephen Ducking books, volunteered at the science museum, and managed to wade into the shallow end of the pool without freaking out. Thank you."
Francine stood up next. "I'm Francine Frensky. As you can see, this summer I broke my arm. I was riding at the saddle club and the saddle wasn't fastened right, so I slipped and fell off the horse. That was the most exciting thing that happened to me this summer. As soon as this heals, I'm back on that horse. There's still a little room left on my cast if you want to sign it. Thank you."
Muffy followed her. "This summer my dad opened a new location at 5th and Lopez. I bought a new wardrobe. My mom had a baby. His name's Tyson. And if you didn't catch the first part, the new location is at 5th and Lopez. You may want to write that down."
Van piloted his wheelchair to the front of the room and faced the class. "I'm Van Cooper. Some people call me 'Moving Van', but Van is shorter. I didn't really go anywhere this summer, but I read a lot of books and practice the violin a lot. Thanks."
Buster was next. "My name's Buster. This summer I went to New Mexico with my dad. I got to visit Mr. Morris, who used to be the custodian. I also got to go to Roswell, but it wasn't tourist season, so there weren't any aliens. My mom is getting married again, so I'll have a new dad. Thank you."
Binky stood before the class. "My name's Binky Barnes. This summer I spent two months in a juvenile detention center for breaking and entering. It wasn't really my fault, but I learned some important lessons while I was in juvie. Thank you."
Sue Ellen stood up next. "My name's Sue Ellen. This summer I went to India with my parents. We spent most of our time in New Delhi, but we got to travel around and see some cool things, like palaces and elephants. I also picked up some souvenirs, which I'll bring to show-and-tell. My parents are in Indonesia now, so I have a nanny, Carla. Thank you."
"Thank you all for sharing your summer vacation experiences," said Mrs. Stiles. "Now the first class of the day is history, and this semester we're going to cover the Civil War. Who can tell me anything about the Civil War?" Beat raised her hand. "Yes, Beatrice?"
"The Southern states seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861 in the following chronological order: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina. The war officially began when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861."
The other kids were astounded at Beat's display of intelligence, except for Sue Ellen, who gave Beat a high-five. Brain peered at her through the corner of his eye, wondering how it was possible that a mere girl could have so much knowledge. Mrs. Stiles counted on her fingers for a few seconds. "Yes, that's correct," she acknowledged. "Very impressive for someone who's new to this country."
"It's nothing, really," said Beat modestly. "History just happens to be one of my strongest subjects." Brain let out a relieved sigh. "Along with science and maths." Brain swallowed anxiously.
"Wonderful," said the teacher. "Now, who can tell me what the reasons were behind the secession of the Southern states?"
Brain looked over at Beat, who smiled at him but didn't raise her hand. Since no one else answered, Brain responded. "The Southern states seceded to protect their right to keep slaves, which made up the economic base of the cotton plantations."
"Very good, Alan. Now, the first battle of the Civil War was the Battle of Bull Run. Can anyone tell me the details of that battle?"
This time Beat raised her hand without hesitation. "In the Battle of Bull Run, known to Southerners as the Battle of Manassas, the Confederate general "Stonewall" Jackson and his brigade resisted an attack by the Union Army under General Irvin McDowell, forcing them to fall back to Washington."
The kids sitting next to Brain were starting to notice his uneasiness.
"Excellent, Beatrice," said Mrs. Stiles.
When first period ended, Beat caught up with Brain as the kids filed out of the classroom. "Not bad, Alan," she commended him. "You really know your history."
"My friends call me Brain," he reminded the girl.
"Then they're not really your friends, are they?"
Beat strolled away with Sue Ellen, leaving Brain mystified by her statement.
"Your parents are in Indonesia?" Beat marveled as she caught up with the events of Sue Ellen's life. "What a shame. I had hoped to see them again. Why didn't they take you along?"
"They thought it would be better for me to stay here," Sue Ellen answered. "I'm not sure why. It was so hard. I really wanted to go."
"Maybe it's for the best," Beat remarked.
As math class commenced, Beat and Sue Ellen deliberately took seats on either side of Brain. "How are you at maths, Alan?" Beat asked the boy.
"It's not 'maths'," Brain protested. "It's 'math'."
"In England we say 'maths'," Beat pointed out.
"In England you drive on the wrong side of the street," Brain muttered.
"Sorry?" said Beat.
"Sorry for what?"
"No, I'm not apologizing. When an English person says, 'Sorry?' it means, 'What?'"
"Then why don't you say 'What?' instead?" Brain grumbled.
"Sorry," said Beat apologetically.
"Then why don't you say 'What?' instead?" Brain repeated a little louder.
"Please be quiet, Alan," Mrs. Stiles requested.
"Sorry," said Brain.
"Are you two all finished apologizing?" asked Sue Ellen.
"This test is a review of the mathematical principles you all should have learned in the third grade," said Mrs. Stiles after she had given each pupil a copy. "You have fifteen minutes."
Once the kids had finished their tests, Mrs. Stiles graded them and handed them back. Brain's score came as no great surprise—100. Beat proudly flashed her completed test at him—also a 100 score. Brain wondered why the girl was so eager to show off her intelligence.
"That's all for today," said Mrs. Stiles after the final bell rang. "Remember, tomorrow is show-and-tell day, so I want you all to bring something that's very special to you."
As the kids milled about in the classroom, Francine invited Sue Ellen to join the gang at the Sugar Bowl. "Sorry, I can't," the cat girl replied. "I'm going to Beat's place for tea and crumpets."
So Francine approached Fern. "Sure," said the poodle girl. "But Mrs. Stiles wants me to stay after for a few minutes."
After all the students had left except for Fern, Mrs. Stiles addressed her. "If it's not too much to ask, I'd like to see some samples of the poetry you wrote over the summer."
"Most of my poetry is very personal," said Fern, "but I have a few things here that I can let you see." Reaching into her folder, Fern pulled out a few sheets of paper and handed them to Mrs. Stiles.
"Poetry has always been one of my great loves," said the teacher wistfully. "That, and the stage." She started to recite one of the poems. "Binky the Bully."
"How did that one get in there?" Fern wondered. "I wrote it a year ago."
Mrs. Stiles read the poem out loud, and started to laugh as she read. By the end she was laughing almost uncontrollably.
"Binky is a bully,
A bully through and through.
You can't take a stick to him,
The stick would break in two.
If you throw a rock at him
It bounces off his chest.
The only way to humble him
Is make him take a test."
Fern's embarrassment grew as she witnessed the teacher's reaction. "It's a stupid poem," she lamented.
"No, it's not!" Mrs. Stiles chuckled. "It's so funny! Especially the chest part! Are all your poems as funny as this one?"
"No, some of them are searingly tragic."
"Good," the teacher remarked. "Tragedy is as essential to life as comedy. Do you mind if I hold on to these until tomorrow?
"Are these your only copies?" asked the teacher.
"I copy all my poems on the computer," Fern answered. "That way I don't lose them if there's a fire or something."
"I'll tell you what, Fern," said Mrs. Stiles warmly. "If you let me read your poems, I'll let you read some that I've written."
"I'd love that!"
Mrs. Stiles stood up from her desk. "So you're on your way to the Sugar Bowl. I like that place. Let's go together."
They walked side by side to the classroom door, and then Fern paused. "Chest," she said with a grin. Mrs. Stiles began to laugh again.
In one of the hallways, Arthur and Buster approached the distraught-looking Brain. "Are you okay?" asked Arthur.
"My life is over!" Brain mourned.
"No, it's not," Buster pointed out. "You're only nine."
"Did you see her?" Brain asked him.
"Buster, I think he's talking about thatgirl who's smarter than he is," said Arthur mockingly.
"Oh, that girrrrl who's smarter than he is?" Buster joked.
"Stop it!" Brain groused. "Have pity on my suffering!"
"Sorry, Brain," said Arthur.
"Shut up, Buster."
"Hey, Brain," said Binky as he approached the three boys, "I never thought I'd see agirl who's smarter than you."
"That's enough, Binky," said Arthur. "Brain needs to heal. He's been through a lot."
"Whenever I need to heal, you know where I go?" said Binky. "The Sugar Bowl!"
"How about that, Brain?" Arthur suggested. "You can drown your sorrows in ice cream."
Van rolled up alongside the group of boys as they walked toward the school exit. "What's up, guys?" he said in a friendly voice. "Hey, how about that smart girl? Wasn't she amazing?"
"Hey, Van, wanna come to the Sugar Bowl with us?" Arthur invited him.
"My mom says I can't have sugar," the duck boy replied.
"'Sugar Bowl' is just a name," said Buster. "It's really an ice cream shop."
"Uh, Buster, ice cream has sugar in it," Arthur reminded him.
Muffy and Francine were the first to meet at the Sugar Bowl. "What's your impression of Mrs. Stiles?" Francine asked her friend. "Better than Ratburn? Worse? The same?"
"My impression?" replied Muffy as Fern and the new teacher walked into the shop unnoticed by her. "That woman is crying out for a makeover! Dingy white is sooo last year!"
"Hello, girls!" Mrs. Stiles greeted them.
"Er, ah, hello," said the embarrassed Muffy. "We were justnot talking about you."
"Fern was telling me all about the play she was in," said the teacher as she sat down with the girls.
"Oh, you mean 'Peter Pan'," said Muffy. "Yeah, she was really good."
"You da Pan, Fern! You da Pan!" added Francine.
"Yeah, playing a boy was easy," Fern reflected. "Take off the hair ribbon, put on some tights...who can tell?"
"Francine, do you mind if I sign your cast?" asked Mrs. Stiles.
"Go right ahead on."
"You won't believe this," said Mrs. Stiles as she signed Francine's cast, "but I used to be an actress myself."
"I don't believe it," said Muffy.
"My dad was a Texas cattle rancher. I grew up on the ranch. I should have done something practical, like marry a farm boy, but no, the call of Hollywood was too strong. So off I went, and I auditioned, and auditioned, and auditioned, and finally won a few roles."
"You were in movies?" Francine marveled.
"Yes, I was. But you've probably never seen them."
"Ever hear of 'Chicken Fried Love'?"
"'Death Wore a Derby'?"
"Wait, I've heard of that one," Muffy chimed in. "I think."
"How about 'Terror of the Zombie Menace II'?"
"Haven't seen it," said Francine.
"That one went direct to video," Mrs. Stiles recounted. "But you've probably guessed by now that my movie career didn't go far. It was a long and bumpy road that got me from there to where I am now. But through it all, there was one thing that kept me from falling apart-the stage! I was Blanche in 'Streetcar', I was Rosalind in 'As You Like It', I was Anna Christie..."
"I haven't seen any of those either," said Francine.
"Those are stage plays, not movies."
As Mrs. Stiles related her experiences, five boys filed into the Sugar Bowl—Arthur, Buster, Binky, Brain, and the wheelchair-bound duck boy, Van. "Can I sign your cast, Francine?" he asked once he had pulled alongside the girls' table.
"Van, I heard you say that you play the violin," said Muffy. "Are you good?"
"I think I'm pretty good," said Van modestly.
"I play the violin too." Muffy's tone became haughty. "I'm good at it, but some people don't appreciate beautiful music."
"I'm gonna play tomorrow for show-and-tell," said Van.
"Great! I look forward to it."
"I wish I could ride a horse," Van told Francine.
"I wish I could ride a horse too," Francine lamented. "And play soccer. And baseball. But no...I have to wait another two months."
"I have to wait longer," said Van darkly. "As in, the rest of my life. And who knows how long that will be."
"I'm sure you'll have a long, happy life like the rest of us," said Mrs. Stiles encouragingly. "Maybe even longer and happier."
"Optimism," said Van. "I like that."
At Beat's apartment, her parents—Roger Simon, a rabbit man, and Penny, an aardvark woman—were busily engaged. Roger was reading the newspaper, while Penny was typing on a computer. The tables were littered with all manner of papers. The doorbell rang and Mrs. Simon answered it, greeting Beat, Sue Ellen, and Carla.
"Look who's here, Roger," she said warmly. "It's little Susy Ellen."
"Why, hello!" Mr. Simon welcomed the cat girl. "Look how you've grown!"
"This is Carla Fuente, my nanny," Sue Ellen introduced the Costa Rican woman.
"A pleasure," said Carla.
"Won't you sit down?" Mrs. Simon encouraged them. "We have hot tea and crumpets."
"We always have hot tea and crumpets," said Beat as she sat down. "We're English."
"I hope you don't mind the mess," said Mrs. Simon. "With all the writing we do, the paper has to go somewhere."
"Sue Ellen tells me that you're a university professor," Carla said to Mr. Simon.
"Indeed I am," affirmed the rabbit man. "Her father used his connections at the university to get me a situation in the political science department. And for that, we're eternally grateful."
"I met him in San Jose, Costa Rica," Carla related. "After that I moved to the United States and lived in Crown City. Then he hired me as a nanny, and I moved here."
"Crown City, eh?" Mr. Simon mused. "That's where we're going this weekend."
"I couldn't get out of there fast enough," Carla reflected. "It should be called Crime City."
"Trust me," said Mr. Simon, "you don't know how good you have it until you've been to London."
"Beat, how was your first day of school?" the girl's mother asked her.
"Most spendid, Mum. Sue Ellen has some great friends. One in particular, a very smart boy named Alan."
"As smart as you?"
"Yes, I think he is."
Mrs. Simon smirked. "Then don't let him get away."
"I assuredly won't, Mum," said Beat, giggling. "Although I think I annoy him, being English and mixed-species and all, but he'll get used to me."
The next day was Tuesday, and the kids gathered in the classroom, preparing for the start of school. Once again, Brain, Beat, and Sue Ellen were seated together, and Beat had a stack of sheets in front of her. "I made a time-lapse drawing of a hydrogen fusion reaction," she announced proudly. "What did you bring, Alan?"
"I made a drawing of the lattice structure of carbon atoms in a diamond," the boy replied flatly.
"Diamonds!" Beat gushed. "You really do love me!" Brain groaned. "Only joking, Alan."
Brain stood up. "Hey, Francine, can I sign your cast again?" he called.
Beat shook her head as she watched Brain move his books to another desk. "No sense of humor."
"Maybe you caught him on a bad day," said Sue Ellen.
Mrs. Stiles called the class to order. "As you know, every Tuesday is show-and-tell day. We'll go alphabetically this time. Sue Ellen, you're first, and Fern, you're last, as usual."
Sue Ellen stood before the class, holding a small figurine in her hand. "This is a statue of Ganesha, a Hindu deity with the head of an elephant."
Binky was next; he held a baseball in one hand. "And then Sammy Salsa came to the plate, and on the first pitch he hit a pop fly, and the ball went up, up, and up, and came down into the stands, and bounced right off my chest."
To his chagrin, Mrs. Stiles started to laugh riotously.
"You don't believe me?"
"I'm sorry, Binky," the teacher chortled.
The bulldog boy sighed and walked back to his desk.
Buster showed the other kids a stuffed green figure. "This is an alien. Okay, it's not a real alien, but I got it at Roswell, and it glows in the dark."
"This is a Hungarian folk dance," said Van as he sat in his chair at the head of the room. He then proceeded to play beautifully on the violin, while the kids tapped their toes.
"I don't have anything to show you today," said Muffy, "but I have something to tell you. On Friday night at 6 pm, you're all invited to my house to see a movie on my spectacular 60-inch high definition TV. The movie will be 'The Fellowship of the Gourd'. Popcorn, snacks, and drinks will be provided, and a good time will be had by all. Also, you'll get to meet my new baby brother. I hope to see you all there."
Arthur spoke to Muffy during the class break. "I love that movie," he enthused. "I've seen it twice. I'll be there on Friday."
Beat approached Muffy after Arthur had gone. "Unfortunately I can't come on Friday. My parents and I are going to Crown City for the weekend."
Binky talked with Francine in the hallway about the teacher's strange reaction. "Why did she start laughing at me? I don't get it."
"Maybe she thinks you have comedy potential," Francine suggested. "She used to be a movie star, you know."
"Really?" Binky marveled.
"In fact, tonight Muffy and I are going to rent all the movies she's been in."
"Hmm," Binky mused. "Maybe if I get really good grades, I can get my own TV show."
Begin Binky fantasy sequence.
A Muppet version of Binky pranced about on a sound stage, mugging for the TV cameras. "Thank you, thank you, and welcome to the Binky Show!" he greeted the audience. "I'm your host, Binky the Dog! Now before we get started..."
As he spoke, a Muppet version of Sue Ellen rushed onto the stage. "Oh, Binky, I've kept the truth from you for too long," she gushed. "I love you!"
"Don't sweat it, Sue Ellen," was Muppet Binky's reply. "You can keep the truth from me for as long as you want."
"Binky, will you marry me?" pleaded Muppet Sue Ellen.
"Marry you? Are you crazy? We'd fight like cats and dogs!" Muppet Binky quipped. "Although it might be worth it, just to fix my mouse problem!"
"I'll fix you!" roared Muppet Sue Ellen, drawing back her fist for a mighty karate chop. "Hiiiii-yaah!"
End Binky fantasy sequence.
"Nah," said Binky, shaking his head. "My grades will never be that good."
After Francine left, he saw Brain walking by and waved. "Hey, Alan."
Brain nodded in reply, marveling that Binky had called him Alan for what must have been the first time. He saw Beat stroll by, with Muffy, Francine, Sue Ellen, and Fern swarming around her, and wondered how the girl had become so popular so soon. Then he noticed his good friend Arthur approaching.
"Hi, Alan," said Arthur with a slight wave.
To his growing alarm, not one of his friends called him by his nickname for the rest of the school day. As he left the building, he saw the rest of the kids in his class gathered at the bottom of the stairway, as Beat regaled them with stories of England. "...and every morning I could hear the chimes of Big Ben wafting over the Thames River..."
The British girl gestured for him to join them as he descended the stairway, but he kept walking, pretending not to notice her.
"Muffy called," said Mrs. Powers when her son arrived at home. "Wanted to know if you're going to the party."
"I'll call her back," said Brain.
"Funny thing," reflected his mother. "She asked for Alan, not Brain."
"You don't know the half of it," Brain grumbled.
"You don't sound very happy," said his concerned mother. "Bad day at school?"
Brain threw up his hands. "Bad? Bad? It couldn't be worse!"
"This sounds serious." Mrs. Powers motioned toward the couch. "Let's sit down."
"Mom," said the boy as he seated himself, "I'm no longer The Brain."
"Didn't we go through this same thing a year ago, when you started third grade?"
"This time it's different. I've been outclassed."
"You mean there's someone smarter?"
"Who is it?"
Brain had to force himself to speak the detested words. "A girl."
Mrs. Powers smiled understandingly. "Are you sure she's smarter than you? Maybe she's just better at some things."
"Mom, she gets questions even I don't get," Brain insisted. "She knows everything about the Civil War, and she's British!"
"British," mused his mother. "I know which girl you're talking about. You know that family that just moved in three blocks from here...the Simons?"
"That's her," Brain affirmed. "Beatrice. And as if it's not bad enough that she's smarter than me, she has to rub it in every chance she gets. She's always showing off. 'Look, Alan, I drew a picture of a fusion reaction! Look, Alan, I got a perfect score!'"
"Maybe she's just proud of her accomplishments."
"No, Mom." Brain lowered his eyes in shame. "She doesn't show off to everyone else, just to me. She's better than me, and she won't let me forget it."
"It's probably nothing personal."
"It's everything personal, Mom!"
"I wouldn't worry about it," said Mrs. Powers dismissively. "Whatever happens, we still love you. Now go and call Muffy back."
A moment later, Brain speed-dialed Muffy's cell phone number and waited for an answer. "Hi, Muffy, it's Brain."
"Oh, hi, Alan," came Muffy's voice. "Is it fast? I'm missing a great story."
"About the party on Friday," Brain inquired. "Who's going to it?"
"Beat and Van aren't coming," Muffy told him. "Everyone else is. What about you?"
"Great! Talk to you later, Alan." And then Muffy hung up.
Later that day, Francine and Muffy went to Lackluster Video in search of Mrs. Stiles' movies. As they browsed the Horror section, Muffy asked, "What was the name of that third one again?"
"'Terror of the Zombies'," answered Francine uncertainly, "or 'Menace of the Zombies', or something like that."
"Let's see." Muffy scanned the titles. "'Zombies From the Deep', 'Zombies From Mars',
'Zombie Disco Fever', 'Walk Like a Zombie'...'Undead Poets Society'? Fern might like that one. 'They Walk by Night'. 'Terror of the Zombie Menace'."
"That's the one," said Francine.
"There are five," Muffy observed. "What's the sequel number?"
"I don't remember."
"Then I'll rent all of them." Muffy pulled five videos from the shelf and dropped them in her shopping bag, which already contained several videos.
"That's everything," said Francine after a final check of the bag, and then the girls started towards the service desk.
"Remember, Francine," said Muffy, "this has to be our little secret. I don't want anyone else to know that I'm renting cheesy horror flicks." No sooner had she spoken those words than she almost collided with Sue Ellen. "D'oh!"
"Hey, girls." Sue Ellen had entered the video store along with Beat and Carla. "We just finished our yoga class and we were on our way to the grocery store when I saw you in here."
"Uh, yeah," said Muffy evasively. "We were just leaving."
Sue Ellen tried to peek into Muffy's bag. "You got 'Fellowship of the Gourd'?"
"No," said Muffy, trying to close up the bag so no one could see inside. "I already own Fellowship. These are, um, the new Princess Peach videos."
"I wish I could go to your party, Muffy," said Beat. "Honestly I do."
"Think nothing of it," said Muffy. "I have parties all the time."
When they arrived at the service desk, the clerk ran the videos from Muffy's bag through the scanner. He placed the five zombie sequels in a separate stack, and handed the three remaining videos to Muffy. "There you go, ma'am. If you want to rent the others, you'll have to come back with your parents. We don't rent R-rated movies to children."
Muffy gasped. She had been so close to getting away...
"R-rated? Let me see those." Carla picked through the stack of zombie sequels. "Oh, Muffy. You can't watch these. You'll have nightmares."
"B-b-but Mrs. Stiles is in them!" Muffy protested. "She was a movie star!"
"I don't believe you," said Beat smugly. "A woman like her would never appear in an exploitation movie."
"But it's true!" Muffy insisted. "She told me so herself! Right, Francine?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Francine, folding her arms.
"Some friend," Muffy grumbled.
Thoroughly embarrassed, she departed the video store zombie-free. Carla and the other girls accompanied her in the direction of the grocery store.
"Since when are you into yoga, Sue Ellen?" she asked her friend.
"Since Carla started taking me to lessons. It's very relaxing."
"I think it's boring," said Beat.
"You girls can stay out here and chat," said Carla when they had reached the store. "I'll do the shopping."
Seated at a round table in front of the store, Muffy, Francine, Sue Ellen, and Beat began to converse about a subject near and dear to the hearts of all girls—boys.
"I want to ask for your help with something," said Beat seriously.
"Tell me your problems," said Muffy. "I'm listening."
Beat spoke hesitantly. "How can I get Alan to like me?"
The other girls fell silent.
"I said, how can I..."
"I heard you," said Muffy. "I'm just a little surprised. I pictured you with Buster."
"I'm not in love with him," said Beat.
"Good," said Muffy. "I charge by the minute for romantic advice."
"Why do you want Alan to like you?" Francine wondered.
"Do you know how long it's been since I met a boy as smart as myself?"
"Neither do I. I don't think I ever have."
"Alan isn't as smart as you," Francine opinionated. "You're smarter."
"No, I think we're about even."
"I don't think so," Francine insisted. "As far as I'm concerned, you're the new Brain."
"Long live The Brain!" exclaimed Muffy.
"You haven't answered Beat's question," Sue Ellen chimed in.
"What's your opinion?" Beat asked her.
Sue Ellen thought for a moment. "Well, I can tell you what girls in Nigeria do to get boys to like them, but I don't know if it would work here."
The next day was Wednesday, and the kids were once again assembling in the classroom for the beginning of school. Beat and Sue Ellen sat together again, and Van was listening to more of Beat's stories. "...and in London you can get around in a double-decker bus," she related. "It's like a regular bus, only there are two stories."
"Cool," said the duck boy. "I wish I could go to London."
"It's a great place to visit, but..." Beat stopped when she noticed Brain entering the room and sitting down at a faraway desk. "Excuse me, Van." She stood quickly, pulled a book from her bag, and walked over to Brain's desk, sporting a smile. "Alan, I've been reading Stephen Ducking's new book, 'A Long-Winded History of the Universe'," she informed him. "Have you read it?"
"I don't feel like talking right now," said Brain crabbily.
"Suit yourself." Disappointed, Beat returned to her desk.
"No change?" asked Sue Ellen.
"None," Beat sighed.
"I've been thinking about this," said her friend. "Maybe my advice isn't as good as Muffy's would be, but I have an idea."
"Let's hear it."
"Up to now you and Alan have only seen each other at school. Maybe if you met him at a social situation where everybody's having fun and not thinking about school..."
"Like a party?"
"Yeah, a party."
"I like that idea."
"Too bad you can't go to Muffy's party on Friday," Sue Ellen lamented.
Beat became thoughtful. "Maybe there is a way."
Mrs. Stiles called the class to order. "It's good to see you all here today. Now before we launch into the Civil War again, are there any questions about anything we covered yesterday?" Muffy raised her hand. "Yes, Muffy?"
"Francine and I watched 'Chicken Fried Love' last night," said the monkey girl. "You were really good in it."
Mrs. Stiles blushed.
"And tonight we're gonna watch 'Death Wore a Derby'," Muffy added.
"She can't rent the zombie movies because she's underage," Francine chimed in.
The other kids started to chuckle as Muffy shot Francine an angry look.
"I'd like to talk to the two of you after class," said the still-flustered teacher. "Are there any other questions?"
When the period was over, Arthur approached Beat outside of the classroom door. "Hey, Beat, I'm having trouble with one of these math problems," he told the girl.
"Why don't you ask Alan for help?" said Beat, motioning to one side. "He's right over there."
"But you're smarter than he is," said Arthur. "What if he gets it wrong?"
As Beat was about to examine the page in the math book which Arthur had turned to, she noticed that Brain appeared visibly shaken. Clearly he had overheard Arthur's expression of non-confidence. "Excuse me," she said to the aardvark boy. Walking towards Brain, she attempted to lift his spirits. "Alan, I'm sure he didn't..."
But Brain simply stormed away without a word.
Fern was the next to speak with the dejected-looking Beat. "Did you bring those pictures of Buckingham Palace?" she asked.
Sighing, the rabbit-aardvark girl pulled the pictures from her bag, handed them to Fern, and walked away.
"How was school, Beat?" Mrs. Simon asked her daughter after she had returned home.
"All right, I suppose," the girl muttered.
"You don't sound very sure of yourself," her mother remarked.
"Sounds like boy trouble," said Mr. Simon, lowering his newspaper.
"That sums it up nicely," said Beat somberly.
"Which boy?" asked Mrs. Simon. "That smart boy?"
"He won't even talk to me, Mum," Beat lamented. "All his so-called friends are turning their backs on him, and I think he blames me for it."
"Be patient, dear," said her mother. "American boys can be difficult."
"Dad," Beat addressed her father, "about the Crown City trip this weekend..."
"Hmm?" grunted Mr. Simon, looking up from the paper.
"My schoolmates are having a huge party on Friday night, and I would like it very much if I could go."
"I see," said her father. "You'd rather do that than go to Crown City?"
"I'd like to do both, if possible."
Mr. Simon pondered for a moment. "We'd have to leave very early on Saturday morning, and change our hotel reservation. Plus we'd have to choose between the symphony and the ballet. We wouldn't be able to go to both."
"I like the ballet better," said Beat. "How about it, Dad?"
Friday night arrived. Muffy, Francine, and Buster were gathered in front of the crib where Muffy's baby brother Tyson lay, making cute baby noises. Francine was playing with Tyson with her one good hand. Muffy was dressed in what appears to be an elven robe; Buster was wearing a wizard's robe and holding a staff. The grandfather clock against the wall showed that it was shortly after 6 p.m.
"He looks just like you, Muffy," Francine remarked. "I'll be he even has your fashion sense."
"I'm sure he does," said Muffy. "It's a genetic predisposition." She turned to Buster. "How soon is your mom getting married?"
"In six weeks," the rabbit boy replied.
The doorbell rang. "I'd better get that," said Muffy.
She hurried through the living room, where Binky, Sue Ellen, and Fern were enjoying each other's company.. Binky was wearing a ragged outfit and had smeared makeup on his face. Sue Ellen and Fern were wearing elven dresses and tiaras. Muffy opened the front door and greeted Arthur, who wore a helmet, breastplate, and fake sword.
"The Queen of the Elves welcomes you, Lord Arthur!" Muffy proclaimed pompously.
"Hi, Muffy," said Arthur with a smile.
"Please sign the guest book," she instructed him.
While Arthur did so, Sue Ellen came over to him. "Cool costume, Arthur."
"Thanks. Is Beat coming tonight?"
"No, she's on her way to Crown City for the weekend."
As he entered the living room, Arthur spied on a nearby table a fancy-looking porcelain gourd. "Cool," he marveled. "Where'd you get this, Muffy?"
"One gourd to rule them all," intoned Arthur, lifting the knick-knack into the air.
Then Binky approached him, grabbed the gourd, and tried to wrest it from his grasp. "My precious!" he rasped. "We wants it! Filthy little aardvarkses, you stole it from us!"
"Put that down!" ordered Muffy. "It wasn't cheap!"
The doorbell rang again, and she answered it to find Brain on the doorstep, dressed in street clothes rather than a costume. "The Queen of the Elves welcomes you, Lord Alan! Please sign the guest book." As Brain did so, Francine and Buster returned from playing with Tyson.
"Hey, Alan, how's it going?" Buster welcomed him.
"Fine, fine," said Brain emotionlessly.
"Hey, Sue Ellen, is Beat coming?" asked Buster.
"She's on her way to Crown City," replied the annoyed cat girl. "But if you need help with math, Alan here will be happy to assist you."
"That's okay," said Buster. "I can wait." Brain felt an upsurge of anger when he heard these words, but shrugged it off and went to socialize with his friends.
"Hi, Alan," Francine greeted him. "How does it feel to be an ex-Brain?"
"My joy is inexpressible," said Brain sarcastically.
"Does this mean you'll be bringing back your stand-up comedy routine?" Arthur asked him.
"No, I have other ideas," Brain replied. "I'm thinking of joining AmeriCorps."
The doorbell rang again, and Muffy answered it. To her surprise Beat stood before her, wearing a red dress with the colors of the British flag emblazoned on the front. "Er, the Queen of the Elves welcomes you, Lady Be-a-trice," said Muffy, slightly astonished. "Please sign the guest book."
"I didn't expect to come tonight," said Beat, glancing around the inside of the mansion. "I hope it's all right that I don't have a costume."
"You made it!" exclaimed Sue Ellen in delight when she saw that Beat had arrived.
"Yes, I was able to pull a few strings with my dad," Beat explained. "But I can't stay for the whole movie. I have to wake up early in the morning." Walking over to the startled Brain, she smiled and said, "Hi, Alan."
"Uh, Arthur," said Brain, "I just remembered that I have to finish some homework."
"You?" Arthur peered at him incredulously.
"You never have unfinished homework," Francine remarked. "What did you do, ask Mrs. Stiles for a second helping?"
"I think you're just trying to avoid Beat," Arthur scolded the bear boy.
"So what?" Brain blurted out. "It's a free country. I can leave whenever I want."
Leaving Arthur and Francine shocked by his outburst, Brain turned and started toward the front door. Beat followed after him, pleading, "Alan, please listen to me!"
"I can't hear you," mocked Brain, clutching his ears. "Lalalalala..."
But when he reached the door, he found an unexpected obstacle in his path—an angry-looking Sue Ellen. The girl took a deep breath, and the house seemed to tremble at the sound of her voice.
The room fell silent, everyone wondering what would transpire next. At first Brain felt a twinge of fear, but then his resolve strengthened.
"Beat has something to tell you," said Sue Ellen threateningly. "Turn around and listen to her, or I'll turn you around myself."
Brain didn't move. "You'd better do what she says, Alan," Binky called to him. "She's got fists of death."
Several more stone-silent moments passed, then Brain finally relented and turned around to face Beat.
The rabbit-aardvark opened her mouth to speak. "When I was growing up in London, all the other kids called me The Brain. It wasn't long before I figured out what that means."
"What does it mean?" asked Brain skeptically.
"It means all they want from you is help with their homework. And as soon as someone smarter comes along, they abandon you. That's what's happening here. I'm not trying to take away your friends, Alan."
"Beat's right," Muffy acknowledged.
"You're still our friend, Alan," said Francine, "even if we don't come to you for help with our homework as much as we used to."
"Why do you show off all the time?" Brain demanded. "Why do you have to constantly remind me that you're smarter than I am?"
"I don't consider myself smarter than you," was Beat's reply. "And I don't show off."
"Then what do you call it?"
Beat thought for a second. "All right, I take that back. I do show off. But I don't do it to belittle you, or make myself look superior."
The kids listened breathlessly as Beat formed her response.
"Because I wanted you to like me."
Brain's jaw dropped.
"I figured if you saw how intelligent I am, and how much we have in common, then you would want to talk to me, and be my friend, and...and like me. You're the smartest boy I've ever met, Alan."
"I didn't know you felt that way," said Brain, lowering his eyes. "All along I thought you were trying to rub it in my face that you're smarter than me, and you're a...a..."
Beat shrugged. "We can't all be boys, Alan. I'm sorry."
After Brain and Beat had gazed wordlessly at each other for a few seconds, Sue Ellen stepped between them. "Anything else to say?" she asked Brain.
"Yeah." The boy smiled. "Start the movie!"
As the kids cheered, Beat leaned over and kissed Brain on the cheek.