A/N: This is similar to my story A Reunion. It brings the gang back together and Arthur is the main character. Please judge accordingly.
Elementary school was a long time ago. No one remembered elementary school anymore. I did. I always had. Buster hardly remembered going to school with me anymore, and we were best friends back then. But people change. People always change and sometimes the nostalgia was so overwhelming that I could hardly stand it. Who knew that one event would bring "the old gang" back together again? At least, what was left of it.
I was perusing the news when I found a story about a fire at a local elementary school. Then I read the name: Lakewood. My elementary school. Memories flooded back as I remembered the fire at Lakewood when I attended there. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt then. I continued reading the article and discovered that there had been six fatalities and eleven injuries. The picture showed students putting flowers in front of the remains of the school. Someone important must have died. Then a name appeared, seemingly brighter than the rest of the list. Mr. Ratburn.
"No…" I muttered to myself, "It can't be."
But it was. Mr. Ratburn died while trying to save a student. With his help the firefighters had found the student and brought him to the hospital. But Mr. Ratburn had already inhaled too much smoke. He was too old to be the hero and survive. He loved his students nonetheless.
Surprisingly, tears stung my eyes. Our class had all thought Mr. Ratburn was incredibly strict, but he was still better than all the other teachers. I learned a lot in that class, and I retained most of the information too. I can barely remember what I learned in high school. The news article presented a time for a public memorial for the people that died. Something was urging me to go, and I wanted to. But I thought of all the people that I considered my friends in elementary school. It would be weird to see them all again, fifteen years after we graduated. The reunion could be more painful than the funeral itself. Still, though, my gut told me it would be disrespectful not to go, as if it determined whether or not I really cared if my old teacher died.
Friday night rolled around. The memorial service was tomorrow. I was feeling so down about it that I decided to head to a local bar of all things. I had beer in my fridge, but an empty house is terrible company. Being around drunkards is better than nothing.
The bar ended up being pretty busy, considering it was almost the weekend. It was loud enough to give me a migraine. Nothing like a little alcohol to fix a headache, right? After a couple of beers, I started relaxing a little. I rather enjoyed watching the drunks become louder and louder and more dogmatic over issues they hadn't previously been bothered with. In the darkest corner of the bar, where the bar stools were located, I noticed the back of someone's head. It reminded me of Buster's head. There was no way I was going to approach him, partially because I didn't even know if it was him. Then the familiar face turned my way and I abruptly turned the other direction. I didn't even really want to have a reunion in the first place, and I was not about to shoot the breeze with someone at a bar. I paid for my drinks and left briskly.
Home was as empty and lonely as I had left it. The only thing accompanying me was books. Books were everywhere. I enjoyed reading immensely when I went to Lakewood. That hadn't changed. I hadn't changed. Back then I was Average Arthur. I still am. I'm not married or settled in. Even my stupid dog, Pal, died two days before I graduated. I didn't have anything. What would I even talk about tomorrow? When they ask me what I did after graduation, all I had to say was that I lived alone. My dream was to one day own a book store, but I couldn't even manage to do that. I was stuck in retail. My co-workers were mostly high school or college students. I was pathetic. How could I possibly face the ones I grew up with when I barely grew up at all?
My fridge called to me. I had one too many beers and ended up staggering to my couch at two in the morning. How much more pathetic could I get? At least the service wasn't until late afternoon.
It turned out that drinking had made my migraine much worse. I couldn't bear to turn the bathroom light on. Not only would the light blind me, but I no doubt looked terrible. It's better than passing out and not remembering anything from the night before, I suppose. It wasn't the worst hangover I'd experienced.
I hastily grabbed my comb and ran it through my hair. Immediately I hit a knot. The last shower I took was a week ago. There was no reason to look presentable. Retail doesn't have that much of a dress code, and no one complained, so why bother? But I took a shower anyway. Going to a funeral with greasy hair and dirty clothes would not give off the best impression. There's no doubt that everyone was doing better than me, but I still wanted to look my best.
My closet hadn't been cleaned in five years, but I managed to find a suit that still fit me (thank God), despite the wrinkles. After looking myself over in the mirror, I concluded that I looked pretty dang good. I picked off the dust from my suit jacket until the phone suddenly rang. I figured my parents must have seen the news article as well.
It was D.W. But she didn't go by that anymore. After she turned thirteen, she wanted to appear older, so she demanded that we all call her Dora from that point forward. Now that she's almost thirty, she couldn't care less.
"Hi Arthur, did you hear Mr. Ratburn died?"
"Yeah, I did. I was going to go to the funeral today."
"What? Why? You haven't done anything with yourself. Wouldn't you be embarrassed?"
D.W. had never been the most encouraging sister, even when we were kids. She was always there to point out my faults. As she grew older, her remarks became more accurate. Now everything she said about me is true, much to my dismay.
"Um...maybe. But I still think I should pay my respects."
"If you say so. I just wanted to make sure you heard the news. Harry and I are going to visit his sister and bring by some flowers." Ms. Ratburn had become a kindergarten teacher in later years. She and D.W. both hit it off. They both had annoying older brothers.
"Oh, that's nice of you. Do Mom and Dad know?"
"Not sure. Probably. But it's not that big of a deal to them most likely. Anyway, we're going to go to the flower shop. We should have dinner sometime, ok? Talk to you later."
"Ok. Bye." Even though she's annoying, D.W. still cared about me. She was constantly asking me to come over, but I always said I was busy. She knew all too well that was a total lie. It was just horrible knowing that she only wanted contact with me because she felt bad. It's always awkward when your own family considers you pathetic, because they're supposed to be the most honest. My family has always been rather normal, and it felt like I was the odd one out. Even little Kate was engaged and dreaming of becoming a teacher. I hadn't done anything with my life.
The clock told me that I had to get going to the place the memorial service was going to be. The entire drive I was wondering how I was going to excuse myself for being such a pathetic waste of flesh. Maybe I could lie to them. But that didn't seem right. We'd all been through so much together. The main thing was to stay positive. That was something I was always good at. When the group was down, someone would always try and make the best of it. Sometimes that person was me. Not always. Then I wondered what impression I had left with all my previous classmates. I certainly had impressions of them, and all those impressions were positive. Mostly.
As soon as I parked, I spotted Buster again. He didn't look too happy. Maybe he was closer to Ratburn than I had originally thought.
The room was large and spacious. I was reminded that this funeral was also for the students who had lost their lives. A terrible feeling swirled in the pit of my stomach. Just thinking about all those innocent students made me sick. And I didn't even like kids all that much. Once I acquired my license, I started dropping D.W. off at school. Every day I did, I always hated the conversations I would hear. It was full of swearing and offensive jokes. And it was loud. Immensely loud. It wasn't even like they were screaming or anything (although some were)it was just the constant chatter of people was overwhelming. I practically pushed D.W. out of the car, and soon she was part of that chatter. That annoying, constant chatter. After that I never ever wanted to be responsible for something so incredibly exasperating. Still, I felt sad that so many parents had to deal with the loss of a child.
As I fully entered the room, I noticed Francine. She looked about seven months pregnant. It seemed at least one member of the gang settled down to raise a family. Of course, I would never ask a woman if she was pregnant. Besides, she was beautiful. I didn't want to be responsible for the lowering of her self-esteem. She didn't deserve that.
I pondered on whether I should say hello to her or not. She started to approach me and waved. I waved back and smiled. She certainly made good use of her life and I was happy for her.
"Hi Arthur! How are you?!" she exclaimed. Well, her loudness hadn't changed, but at least it was used appropriately.
"Um…I'm fine. How are you doing?"
"Excellent! I'd hug you, but I don't know if I'd be able to get my arms around you." She settled her arms on her stomach. "What have you been up to, anyway? Still reading a lot?"
"Yeah, I have been. I'm actually running low on books to read. How about you?"
"Oh I've been doing great. As you can see, Pete and I are expecting a baby. We're having a little boy. We're naming him Bartholomew. Did you know Pete? He went to high school with us. That's where we met. He's so great. We've been married for three years. This is our first baby. Petey runs his own business…"
I zoned her out after that. I smiled and nodded accordingly, but I didn't really want to hear her life story. The background stories in the books I read are much more interesting and articulate. Actually, everything in the books I read were more interesting than anything one person can say. Authors are amazing people. They have a story to tell, but they want to avoid face-to-face interaction. When I'd met some of these authors, they're generally reclusive and quiet. They finally have to face something they worked so hard to avoid.
Francine was done talking, so I said the generally accepted conclusion of "it was good to see you" and moved on. Really, I wanted to see how Buster was doing, since he looked so sad earlier. But I ended up meeting Binky, of all people. He was swinging a small child around, which I presumed to be his daughter. Did everyone have kids?
"How's it going, Arthur?" he asked as I tried to pass him without making eye contact. People always notice me when I don't want to be seen. Then when I feel particularly chatty, I only manage to converse with a cashier at Top Foods. I suppose that's to be expected when you spend the majority of your time reading and avoiding people.
I had almost gotten too lost in my thoughts to answer. "What? Oh, I'm doing well. How are you?" I noticed his young daughter was wearing a butterfly shirt. She must have inherited that from her father.
"I'm good. I'm married and have a gorgeous little girl. We're thinking of having another one already. Hey, did you ever open that book store?"
Binky just had to go and pour salt on the only open wound of my heart. My major failure in life. The only dream I had and kept. Gone. I suppressed the urge to punch Binky in the gut and simply said, "No. Never happened."
"Oh that's too bad. What are you doing now?"
Oh nothing. Only the second biggest failure in my life. Coming to this thing was a horrible idea. "I'm working in a store in the Elwood Mall."
Binky's face dropped. "I see. Well, I'll talk to you later. I think I see Buster over there. God knows I haven't seen him in over a decade."
I appreciated that Binky didn't go into the details of his job. It was probably better than mine. Actually, there's no doubt it was. Everything is better than retail. I turned around when I heard him say Buster.
There he was. My best friend. Or…my ex-best friend. Do friends turn into exes? He looked horrible, like he was the most depressed person in the room. Just as I was about to approach him, the service started.
Even though I truly felt bad for all the broken families, I couldn't help but yawn. Funerals have never been interesting. I even yawned at Grandpa Dave's funeral, only to be glared at by the rest of the family. It's not like I was bored, just uninterested. It lasted well over an hour. Everyone wanted the victims to get the same amount of remembrance. I tuned in when I heard them say "Nigel Ratburn."
It was terrible. All the speaker did was label Mr. Ratburn as some "hero" and moved on. Really? His whole teaching career went out the window? No one is going to talk about that at all? Mr. Strict-teacher saves the kids and now everything's fine and dandy. That's it. No mention of his previous students. No mention of his reputation. The majority of the audience were there to hear about the five kids that died, not the one teacher. My dislike of children increased. Instead of talking about the adult who had enough time to die with honor, the speaker babbled on about the kids who "didn't have a chance to have a life." Who cares? Perhaps I'd feel differently if I'd bothered to have kids, but I was glad I didn't. I may have also overlooked the part dedicated to the best teacher in the world.
After the service, I walked around looking for Buster. I didn't get a chance to find out where he sat. I saw Francine again, who eagerly approached me. I presumed she was going to talk about the children.
"Wasn't that awful? I can't believe they did that!" She was infuriated.
"Can't believe who did what?"
"They totally overlooked Mr. Ratburn. I mean, seriously! He saved the kids, which is great, but he also had a teaching career! They analyze the kids' favorite foods and barely mention Mr. Ratburn's teaching! So ridiculous." She threw up her arms, exasperated. I was glad. Someone shared my viewpoint who was expecting a child. But it also could be she was so irritated because she was expecting a child. I remembered that I had to be extra careful around Mom when she was pregnant.
Binky heard her. Apparently, he had differing opinions on the matter. "What are you talking about?! The kids are the most important part. Mr. Ratburn was a great teacher, but five children also died! Did you forget that?!"
"Of course not, Binky!" Francine replied while resting her arms on her stomach again, "I'm expecting a baby, I know kids are important. I just didn't appreciate how they overlooked that Mr. Ratburn was a teacher, but focused on minute details about the kids."
"Well, of course they would do that. The kids didn't have a chance to live their life! Every detail counted. Mr. Ratburn was old anyway."
"I can't believe you'd say that about the best teacher you had! Twice!"
I left them there. When I was younger I'd try to break up the arguments my friends had, but that was a long time ago. We were friends then. Besides, their raised voices were giving me another headache, but that might have been remnants of my hangover. I removed my glasses to rub my eyes.
As I was doing so, I ran into Buster, who had been walking with his head down. We both jumped back awkwardly.
"Oops, sorry Arthur," Buster said quietly.
"I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have been walking around with my eyes closed. But I was meaning to talk to you anyway. How have you been? We haven't talked in a long time."
Buster looked at the ceiling for a second before heaving a long sigh. "I'm ok."
I raised an eyebrow. "That doesn't sound too convincing. Come on, Buster, what's wrong? I know we haven't really been friends for a while, but you can trust me. You can tell me what's going on."
He sighed again. "This is just a tough time for me right now."
"Yeah, me too," I agreed.
"No, you don't get it. Your life is livable, I'm sure. Mine isn't. I'm going through a divorce, and my mom hates me for it. She's convinced I'm ruining my life by divorcing this woman I don't love anymore. My dad hasn't talked to me or my mom in years, and stopped paying child support when I turned fourteen. My ex-wife is going to keep the house, so I have no choice but to live with the mother who can't even look me in the eye. It's…it's terrible. I'm so sad all the time. Nothing matters anymore."
Without thinking, I said, "Finally."
Buster snapped his head up and glowered at me. I caught him before he turned and walked away.
"No, wait! I'm sorry. I said that because my life is terrible too. It's…I guess it's just nice to hear from someone who is just as down about life as I am. I mean…am I making any sense?"
"Yeah, I guess so. So what's wrong with you?"
"I'm just a pathetic waste of space right now. I'm stuck in retail of all things, I'm not settled in married or anything. Pal died years ago, so I don't even have him anymore. I've run out of books to read, which I never thought would happen. My dream of running a book store is for naught, because I barely have enough money to pay my bills, let alone start a business. Everyone in my family is doing great, and I'm stuck in a pool of unfulfilled dreams. And I'm really mad that they didn't talk about Mr. Ratburn's teaching career. That was the biggest accomplishment of his life, and they barely mentioned it!"
Buster just looked at me and nodded. "Wow. Who knew we'd turn out so similar after being separated so long? We're both a mess." He smiled a little, and I did too. We both headed to the exit when I spotted Brain, and he waved. Did he still go by The Brain? It seemed like a really stupid nickname now.
"Hi guys. How have you been doing?"
Both of us nodded and said, "Fine." Then I said, "How are you? Do you still go by The Brain?"
He laughed a little. "Hardly. I mostly go by Mr. Powers."
I hated that he was blatantly bragging in front of us, but I decided to humor him. "Really? Are you a teacher, now?"
"Sort of. More like a professor. I teach physics at a nearby college."
"A professor, huh? I thought those guys were usually a lot older than thirty-five."
He nodded smugly. "Yes, usually. They made an exception for me."
"Indeed they have. Well, I'm proud of your accomplishments. But I really should get going." I sort of nudged Buster so he'd start walking.
"Ok. Bye Arthur. Bye Buster!"
Buster didn't bother waving, which I understood. Brain pretty much turned into a jackass who thought he knew everything. I might believe him if he can ever appreciate classic literature, or anything other than physics, really. It's always intrigued me how know-it-alls only know a lot about one subject, yet they still insist they know everything. Usually it's science related. In my opinion, if you knew everything, then you should know when to keep your mouth shut. The most intelligent people I knew were almost always silent.
"Can you believe Brain?" Buster finally said, "He's a total jerk now. I mean, he's always been a little bit of a know-it-all, but it's gotten so much worse."
"I know," I replied, "I can't believe it either."
Suddenly, we both noticed Muffy, talking rapidly into a cell phone. As we got closer, we could hear her conversation.
"Well I don't care what he said! I'm the boss around here, and you do what I say! Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Just get me what I asked for or I'll find someone else to do it, and you can forget about that bonus I promised…."
We were no longer in earshot.
"Wow, Muffy turned out like her dad," I remarked.
"Yeah, only louder and meaner."
I chuckled slightly. "I wouldn't be surprised if she was talking to her own brother."
"You mean Chip? Whatever happened to him?"
"Uh…I think he joined the army."
We were silent for a while, each of us gnawing at our own stressful thoughts. I was worried about the empty house I had to look forward to.
As we neared the parking lot, I noticed Fern, who was sitting by a tree, writing. "Huh," I said, and gestured toward Fern.
"I guess she hasn't changed all that much," Buster commented.
"It would appear so."
"Did you ever think of doing that, Arthur?"
"Writing. Seeing Fern reminded me of what you said a while ago. About standing in a pool of unfulfilled dreams. That's quite a statement. It's fit to be in a book."
"Nah, I'm no good at writing."
"How can you not be? You're one of the most articulate people I know. You read so much I'm sure you could write a book. Have you ever tried?"
"No. Writing's never interested me. Besides, there's no way I could write as well as Dostoevsky or Twain."
"He…he's an author. And a brilliant one. I can't beat those guys. Besides, I'd lose motivation as soon as I start."
"Arthur, come on. You've got to be more optimistic than that. No one is expecting you to meet those standards. Have you seen some of the books being published nowadays? They're terrible. Have you heard of Stephanie Meyer?"
"Yeah. She's alright."
"Are you kidding? Her books are awful."
"Well, she has to be popular for some reason."
"Whatever. The kids who read those books get so caught up in romance that they can't see past the incompetent writing style."
I shook my head. "Buster, I think you're underestimating the intelligence of teenagers. They can read good books. They can understand symbols and foreshadowing without the help of an English teacher."
Buster smirked at me. "Prove it."
"Fine. I will. I'll write a young adult novel that can be analyzed and I'll show you that…wait! Did you talk about Stephanie Meyer on purpose?"
"Perhaps. I'll never tell."
"Well it won't do you any good. To tell you the truth, I've tried writing a book. Many many times. But I always lose interest."
"Maybe we can keep in contact or something so I can help you stay motivated."
Suddenly, I grabbed Buster's arms. "You can live with me! I know it's crazy, but you don't want to live with your mom, right? You can stay at my house! It'll be good for both of us. It'll give you a place to stay until you can live on your own, and it will give me a reason to keep writing and clean my house once in a while."
Buster looked shocked, but he smiled. "You're crazy, you know that? Ok. I'd be happy to move in with you."
"Come on. You should know that all authors are crazy. Especially fanfiction writers. They come up with the craziest concepts sometimes."
"Tell me about it." He shook my hand and it was settled. A wave of a new feeling washed over me. I felt like I had a purpose, and I had just given someone else a purpose too. This could go somewhere. Really go somewhere. The thousands of stories that circled my head every day would finally have a place to go and stay. This time I was determined to make it stay.
"You know," I remarked, "I know it's terrible to say, but if Ratburn hadn't died, we wouldn't have reunited. You'd have to live with your mom, and I'd…be alone." I almost said I'd be a suicide risk. But that was a little bit of an exaggeration. A little.
"Yeah. Sometimes things happen like that." He laughed a little. Then he told me a joke. I'd missed Buster's jokes. Really really missed them.
Buster ended up buying a bunch of junk food we used to eat when we were younger for old time's sake. While I was finding a place to put it all, he happily discovered I still had some old video games from high school. Still, he looked at me sternly and said we were going to start writing my novel that night.
But we didn't. We ended up eating junk food and playing video games all night. Just like old times.
A/N: So? Better or worse than A Reunion? Let me know. In the meantime, I have a Kasey and Hobbes chapter to finish!