Author's Note, November, 2014:
The story you're reading is not ten years old. It is a recent composition, published in place of a fic I started and forgot about years ago. Fortunately, it bares little resemblance to its early form. If you want to learn more about its history, please read the author's notes at the end of this chapter.
Each chapter has a music selection or two, which I very much recommend you listen to as you read. Music is a very important part of this story. Sometimes there's an obvious title drop of the song within the story (Schroeder has fun with that sort of thing), and other times it's just what I was listening to when I wrote.
A disclaimer: I do not have any claim or rights to Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters, nor anyone's interpretation of them since. There's a lot of dark humor in here, some blatantly inaccurate medical references, and irreverent mocking of teenage stereotypes. I don't mean to offend anyone, and I apologize if I do.
1. Scott Joplin's Last Rag
Music Selections: "Prelude in A Major, Op. 28, No. 7." (Chopin), "Magnetic Rag" (Scott Joplin)
Charlie Brown straightened his tie with a fidgety wrist, then shifted his suitcase from one hand to the other. It was beaten to shit, held together with duct tape and luck—which could describe a great many things in his life, he decided. He hoped that his ride would arrive soon. He didn't fancy staying at the train station forever, even if his sister's teasing was all he had to look forward to that afternoon.
He squinted at the afternoon sun and stepped off the sidewalk towards a black car he vaguely remembered as Schroeder's sixteenth birthday present. Knocking on the window, he was sure that he was correct, as the driver was deeply engrossed in the rhythm he was tapping out on the steering wheel.
Thank God for consistency, Charlie thought.
"That's a fine instrument you're playing," he commented once the pianist climbed out of the car to greet him. "What's the piece?"
"Haven't seen you in a while," Schroeder said with a crooked grin, embracing his friend. He hadn't changed much since Charlie had last seen him; he still sported a vaguely rumbled academic look with worn corduroy pants and a striped button down shirt, though his blond hair was a bit neater and better groomed than Charlie remembered. "It's Chopin's Prelude in A Major, Op. 28, No. 7."
Charlie Brown smirked. Schroeder would fit right in with the loud, opinionated post-grads that frequented the bars in the city. "Something fancy with lots of numbers and letters. I'm not surprised." He threw his battered suitcase in the trunk, and they both winced as it landed with a thud. He made a mental note to replace it before or after he got back to the city.
They made quite a pair: Schroeder in his a little-too-purposefully-casual clothing, and Charlie fresh from the office in a suit so stiff it could stand on its own. He noticed Schroeder politely staring at his attire, and he suddenly wished that he'd gone home to change after work. He'd taken a half-day, and went directly to the train station at lunch.
As he scrambled to fit his limbs in the passenger seat, he resolved that the hardest part of the whole trip—making himself actually go—was over. His mind tended to work against him in these situations, generating all sorts of what-ifs and maybes.
Suppose his parents were still angry he didn't come home after graduation? Suppose no one had missed him? Suppose they did?
It was too bad there wasn't a "Sorry I've been over thinking my life" Hallmark card; he could have stocked up before he came home and handed them out as an explanation instead of actually talking to people.
But Charlie couldn't control other people any more than he could control the weather (not just yet, but he was still working on it), so he settled into the car and decided to take the inevitable trials as they came.
He'd had always known that there wasn't anything special about him, and he'd come to terms with that. It had bothered him as a child, when he'd see his peers excel while he struggled to get by.
But inexplicably, adulthood suited him. Charlie Brown's everyman qualities meant that he finally blended in, and his constant worries kept him a step ahead. He did what he was told without fuss. He didn't argue, he didn't talk back, and he didn't give his opinion.
He had adapted well to college's goal-oriented structure, finding it more straightforward than grade school. All the lies building up his anxiety were torn away bit by bit as he realized that his professors cared even less than his classmates. By the time Charlie graduated, his list of references was double-sided, mostly due to a last semester internship in the marketing office of a sports magazine. He'd applied for over fifty internships, but only heard back from a few, and somehow only interviewed at his top choice. They liked him so much that they offered him a job after school, and he'd been there ever since.
The truth was, he lucked out. For the very first time in his life, everything just fell into place. He found an affordable apartment in the city right by the subway stop. It happened to be over a sports bar, which was great because he didn't have a working television (his only functioned with the weight of several books on top, and that was more work than it was worth. He ended up using it as a doorstop).
His parents had never expected their quiet, reserved son to move to the busy city, mostly because they just didn't see the appeal. They eventually got over the shock, or at least stopped calling every other day to make sure he was still alive. And besides a single speedy Christmas visit and an occasional phone call, Charlie hadn't had any communication with home in a few years. He hadn't meant to be cold, exactly, but the independence and anonymity city life had given him was too important to give up even for a weekend.
He wasn't concerned or surprised the year before when Sally told him that she'd begun to see their old friend Linus Van Pelt. Sally was fresh out of nursing school, and Linus was in graduate school and though they'd known each other since children, their lives had never quite fit together until then.
But Charlie was shocked when Sally called him only a few months later to tell him that she was marrying Linus in August—and that Linus wanted him to be best man.
For the next few days, his mind did somersaults at the thought of his baby sister getting married. Time had passed quicker than he had thought. Sleep was inaccessible, interrupted by long-forgotten images of home, of people and places he'd chosen to stay away from.
Finally, he had to answer a series of he'd avoided for so long: Why was it so hard to go home? Why did he suddenly feel responsible for these events? Could he keep the qualities of the life he had now if he returned?
Days later, he had no answers, but maybe a temporary solution.
So he called Schroeder.
The musician nearly fell off the piano bench in his office at school when he heard Charlie's voice ask him to pick him up at the train station the following weekend.
It would be a nice surprise for Sally, Charlie concluded, and he'd be able to find out some answers—answers he couldn't supply from within— at the engagement party. And it was just a few days. Maybe he could get to the bottom of this, so he could return to life and have one less thing to worry about. In his own passive aggressive style, maybe he wouldn't have to ask any questions at all. Maybe things would be answered for him.
They could have "Maybe" situation Hallmark cards, too, he decided. Just to be prepared. Ones that said "I got you this card because I thought maybe you'd need it, but maybe you don't. It's here anyway, so here you go," or "Good luck with that situation that I hypothetically projected onto you and maybe might not happen."
"It's all rather…fast, don't you think?" he asked Schroeder when they were out on the road. They were listening to one of Schroeder's selections, something whimsical and jolly. A rag, if Charlie's musical knowledge led him to recall correctly. He didn't have a tenth of Schroeder's musical genius, but he liked to think his friendship with the musician had taught him something.
The pianist snorted and adjusted his rearview mirror. "They've known each other their whole lives," he said incredulously, as if Charlie had stepped out of Victorian England instead of the train station. "Did you expect them to be ninety before they made it official?"
"No, I mean the dating-engagement-marriage process," Charlie clarified, forcing a laugh to keep things light.
He was failing, because Schroeder didn't say anything. The music cut through, jauntily speckling the silence with bouncy chords and rhythms.
"I mean, yeah, they've known each other forever," Charlie admitted. His boss once told him that he was a world-class bullshitter, and he wasn't wrong—Charlie liked to fill awkward silences with words, even if it was just mindless filler. "But they only started dating a few months ago, and now they're getting married at the end of the summer? I trust them, but it just doesn't seem in character for either of them…."
Schroeder was still quiet, and he seemed fixated on the road.
"…unless you know something I don't," Charlie finished, searching his friend's face for an answer. If he had decided to be a real asshole or if he'd seen Schroeder even once in the last few years, he would have batted his eyelashes. Instead, he threw the comment at the musician, hoping he'd take the bait and latch on to the humor. It would make things easier.
Schroeder exhaled through his nose. "This explanation is going to involve a detour." He leaned over and abruptly turned off the music. "And it may ruin your surprise."
"That's okay," Charlie answered, not wasting time to weigh the options. Schroeder clearly wasn't playing along with Charlie's game, and it was starting to make him feel uncomfortable.
"You haven't talked to anyone in a long time, have you?" Schroeder asked quietly, biting his lip.
Charlie knew that he probably hadn't meant it to sound as cutting or critical as it did, but it stung a little. "No, I haven't." He hoped that hadn't come out as defensive as it felt.
They were going in a different direction now—the county seat the next town over, not their hometown. Charlie's curiosity and concern took over. Without the music, there was nothing to fill the awkward silence, and he was already wishing that Schroeder hadn't turned it off.
"I guess it all started around Christmas last year," Schroeder started. "And keep in mind that you're only getting what I know of things. Everyone's been kind of hush-hush about everything because that's how she wants it."
Charlie didn't miss the hint of underlying irritation tacked on to the end of his words, an implied eye roll. That didn't sound like Sally at all, he thought. His sister had been one of the few people he'd kept in contact with—surely she hadn't changed that much without him noticing. She was still his talkative, chatterbox little sister. "Go on."
"I was driving home from church—I had been at rehearsal for the Christmas service—when I saw an ambulance outside of the Van Pelts' house."
Charlie frowned. He would have heard if Sally had been sick or injured, wouldn't he? He would have been told. He would know. It wouldn't have been kept from him. All plans of laughing and bullshitting his way though the weekend were decimated with the realization that he couldn't mock a serious situation, especially if it was about his family.
"What was it?"
Schroeder hesitated, but continued. He was growing more serious by the moment, and Charlie concluded that the worry made him look younger. "Linus, Rerun, and Lucy had saved up a bit of money to give their parents a proper twenty-fifth wedding anniversary present. A Caribbean cruise. So they were on their own until New Years."
At the mention of Linus and Lucy's younger brother, Charlie raised an eyebrow. "How old is Rerun now?" He cut in, embarrassed. His last memories of the youngest Van Pelt were of a skeptical boy trying to grow up faster by proving the existence of logic in all things… and of him constantly trying to acquire a dog.
"He just graduated from high school. So he was on break from school, and Linus and Lucy were staying with him. Well, I turned into their driveway, and... Lucy was being taken to the hospital. She'd passed out in the kitchen while she was making breakfast."
"Lucy?" That wasn't what he'd expected to hear at all. Charlie Brown was relieved that his sister was okay, but didn't find any comfort.
"When I got there, no one knew why she'd fainted. Linus got in the ambulance, and I drove Rerun to the hospital. Rerun said she woke up that morning, took the trash out, started breakfast, and suddenly they heard a crash from the other room. Linus got to her first," Schroeder said sadly.
"Oh, my god. What's wrong?" There was no use pretending that this was an isolated thing, if it was apparently the reason why current events were unfolding the way they were. "Schroeder, what happened?" Charlie insisted.
"It's a bunch of things, but her heart and lungs aren't…" Schroeder paused. "Lucy doesn't…" His breath caught. "They put her on a bunch of medications to regulate things, and it worked for a little bit, but she keeps having problems. They keep adjusting her meds, but the doctors aren't really sure what they can do for her anymore."
Charlie ran a hand over his head. "H-how?" he sputtered, fear gripping his voice for the first time in years. "That can happen? Someone's fine and then they just…"
"It's apparently been there all along, but I guess this type of thing doesn't always show up until later. Rerun thinks that Lucy hadn't been feeling well before, though, and that she just hadn't said anything. You know Lucy."
He did, once.
Schroeder turned the music back on. It was still some kind of ragtime music, but there was less bounce and more wisdom to it than Schroeder's previous selections. It was melancholy and complicated.
Charlie swallowed. Shit. "So that's why the wedding's been…"
"Uh huh," Schroeder confirmed in a clipped tone, not meeting his eyes. "She's been up and down, and they just want to make sure they celebrate on the up."
The music's melody was dramatic and wan all at once, like a quiet resignation. Or maybe an insistent surrender.
"We are going to see her, right?" Charlie inquired, almost insisted. He already knew the answer. The area's hospital was coming up on the road.
"Yeah, we are. She has long spurts at home where she's fine, and then she's back in the hospital for a bit. She's been there a few days now, which really blows because I know she really wanted to go to the engagement party. I don't know who will be with her—someone usually is. Linus and Sally are there a lot."
Charlie was confused. Schroeder was making it sound like Lucy's medical problems were unpredictable, and that Linus and Sally were preemptively making sure she was involved with their wedding just in case things got worse. But the implied just-in-case-things-get-worse urgency was unnerving—just what kind of condition was Lucy in? Was he about to see Lucy on her death bed, or… what? He decided not to bother Schroeder any more with it; the pianist was clearly already troubled over the whole thing.
The music bothered Charlie. He was grateful for its presence, but couldn't stop himself from focusing on it. He resigned himself to its casual gloom.
"What's this song?"
Schroeder offered him a sad sort of half smile. "Scott Joplin's last rag."
Author's Note, continued:
Ten or so years ago, I was in middle school, and I was just starting to watch soap operas and British period dramas. Having just been in a production of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown," I started writing a godawful fanfic called "The Van Pelt Saga," combining the melodramatic knowledge I'd gained by watching a lot of TV and being in middle school with my love of the Peanuts characters. It was to be a very dramatic, shippy story, and I have no idea if there was any actual plot.
Somewhere along the way, I lost interest. Which was definitely for the best.
Since then, a lot has happened.
I've picked up (and often put right back down) twenty-something fanfics and several more original stories, but I never forgot about "The Van Pelt Saga." I have no idea where the hell I was going with it because so much time has gone by.
I was fortunate enough to direct a production of "Dog Sees God" in college, and Charlie Brown and the gang just wouldn't leave me alone. This story is not in the same universe as "Dog Sees God" by any means, but I'd be lying if I said that Mr. Royal's writing isn't a major influence on my interpretation of the characters and my writing style (I'm a huge fangirl). I also adore black comedy in general.
Now I'm in graduate school, if you can believe it, and I feel like I can finally write these characters the way I always wanted to: with some life experience, a little bit of regret, and a whole lot of humor.
If you avoid people, they resent you. If you stay away, you miss things. If you make a mistake, you can still learn from it. You can fail gracefully as long as you make a change. And above all, laugh at yourself.
These are things that Charlie Brown—and I— had to learn to be able to make this story happen.
Please enjoy, and leave a review if you feel so inclined… Even if it's just "Yeah, I read it." And I promise- this story isn't all sad.