Four weeks later…

The sun was shining especially brightly today. It was late in April and the weather was perfect. Life was once again returning to almost everything around, and the entire mood was one of happiness and relief now that winter was officially over. Birds singing, grass growing, and a nearly cloudless sky all amounted to this beautiful day.

And, not missing a single detail of this, Paul smiled as he walked out of his house. It wasn't anything large or spectacular, but it was still built strongly enough to withstand Mother Nature's worst, and it had all the appliances and furniture in it that he needed. It took a little bit of work, but he finally managed to call that house his own after buying it with the money the secret service bribed him with. (the people back on Hurst helped him to secure all the paperwork he needed for it)

Now, instead of being the quiet and practically emotionless person he was when his mission first started, Paul had noticeably become more cheery and upbeat. He could laugh, he could talk, he could socialize, he could go out, he could do almost anything he wanted. In fact, he was even paying a lot of attention to his school work now. Just about the only thing that hadn't changed about him was the fact that he still had to wear his goggles. But he didn't care about that now. Besides, everyone was so used to seeing him wear the goggles that they couldn't picture him any other way at this point.

He went to school and did his usual routine. And at lunch, the fun times continued.

"Hey, guys," Paul cheerfully said as he sat down at his table with them. Ever since they got back from their one-day adventure four weeks ago, he couldn't stop smiling.

"Hey, Paul!" Kirk warmly greeted. "What's shaking?"

"Oh, same as always," Paul said, hinting that there was nothing wrong with that.

"You ready for the big game today?" Ted asked. "It's against our uptown rivals."

"More ready than you could ever imagine, Ted."

"I hope you guys don't mind that we're gonna have to stop for gas on the way over," Eddie said in a low tone.

"What are you talking about?" Ted demanded with a huge grin. "I'm driving us today!"

"But your car's a piece of…well, you know…"

"I know," Ted agreed.

"Did you get it fixed or something?"

Ted scoffed. "Dude, that thing was beyond repair. I got a whole new freaking car altogether!"

Eddie's eyes widened. "Really?!"

"Yup. Now I got myself a bright red Cadillac!"

Christy almost spat out her milk. "You spent a huge chunk of your money on a car?!"

"Yeah. Now girls are gonna be chasing me!"

"Heh. Too bad we're graduating in a couple weeks," Hailey said, trying to deflate him.

"I'm talking about at college, Hails!"

Before Hailey could say anything, Christy gasped. Everyone turned to her and saw she was looking at the screen of her new Blackberry.

"Veronica! She's…ugh!" Christy snapped as she started furiously pounding away on the tiny silver buttons on her keypad.

Paul laughed slightly at her irritation, but was quickly brought back to what was happening in front of him when Ralph showed up. He was carrying what looked like a canvas that was about a third of his own size. "Hey, guys!" he said.

Hailey groaned. "What'd you draw this time?"

Ralph didn't show his finished product right away. Instead, he started off with, "I told you guys: I didn't have a lot of good art stuff because it's so expensive."

"You spent your money on art supplies?!" Hailey asked.

"You're not in any position to make fun of me," Ralph remarked. "Weren't you the one who bought a life-sized Spongebob doll?"

"Whatever," Christy shrugged.

"You should've been like me and saved it all," Kirk said, smiling to himself a little bit.

"Aw, what's the point of having money if you don't spend it?" Christy asked.

"Hey! You guys want to see my painting or what!" Ralph yelled, bringing them all back to the original discussion.

Ted groaned. "Sure, Ralph. Let's see it, 'cause you're gonna show it to us anyway. Just like you always do."

Still proud of himself for what he did, Ralph turned the canvas over so people could see what he had been devoting himself to in his free time.

When everyone saw his picture, their jaws dropped.

The painting was an almost perfect portrayal of everyone in the group. Eddie and Ted were off to the left side dressed in their baseball jackets, with Eddie holding a bat over his shoulder while Ted was wearing his baseball glove and posed like he was about to catch a ball. Hailey was simply smiling at the camera, Christy was holding a cell phone and looking off to the side. Ralph was grinning at whoever was looking at the painting and had been painted to try to be in a more important and show-offy pose than everyone else, and Kirk was off to the side almost looking unwelcome with everyone else.

In the center of the painting was Paul. He had his hands in his pockets and seemed to be grinning shyly. He was wearing his goggles in the painting, so it was unclear where exactly Ralph meant him to be looking.

"Hey, that's pretty good!" Eddie said, amazed.

"Yeah!" Hailey agreed. "How long did you spend on this?"

"Hours and hours and hours," Ralph said. "But it came out good?"

"It came out awesome!" Christy said as she slowly put her blackberry away. "That looks just like us!"

Ralph looked down at the ground, surprisingly humbled by all the praise he was getting.

-

A little bit of time had elapsed since the beginning of the baseball game that afternoon and, due to the fact the game was against the high school rivals, there was a much larger group of fans watching. While Paul, Ted, Eddie and the other players were working hard on the field, one of their own made room to watch the game: Kirk.

Kirk was sitting near the front of the metal bleachers and was leaning against the front of the seat behind him. He planned on just watching the game, until someone unexpected sat down next to him.

It was Sarah-the girl Paul had a crush on a few weeks earlier. As always, she had her school books and homework with her and seemed set on getting her work done, until Kirk started talking to her.

"Hey, you're the one Paul had the hots for, right?" he asked snidely.

Sarah uncomfortably looked up and stared at him for a few seconds before saying, "...yeah? Why?"

"Ha. You should've given him some time. He's got a lot of money now, you know."

Sarah looked confused. "Did he win a thousand bucks from a scratch ticket or something?"

"Noooooo. He got a million and a half from the government!"

Sarah rolled her eyes. "Yeah. Sure."

"Don't believe me? Remember how Ted had a real crappy car a few months ago?"

"You mean that dump I had to ride in when you guys took me out to dinner a few weeks ago? Yeah, I remember it alright."

"Well, Paul gave him some of that money, and look what he bought!"

Kirk promptly pointed to the shiny red Cadillac that Eddie bought and parked right outside the field. In no time, Sarah's jaw dropped.

"You're kidding! That's Ted's car? For real?!"

"Fo' sho'!" Kirk confidently answered. "He paid for it with some of that cool one-point-five million from Paul. Gee, it's a shame you didn't give him some more time, because if you did you probably would've gotten a cut of that money. Oh, and you would've been his girlfriend! You probably would've gotten a double share! Man, you missed out. How does that make you feel, Sarah? ...Sarah?"

While Kirk was ranting, Sarah had gotten up and quickly walked over to the side of the field, where Paul was standing with his two buddies.

"Hi, Paul," Sarah tried to sweetly say as she walked over to him. She was smiling from excitement, but only because she considered the possibility of getting a significant amount of pocket change.

Paul quickly looked at her. "Hi, Sarah," he awkwardly greeted her. It was clear he was still a little embarrassed for his last impression on her.

"Hi...look, I thought about how I kinda just shrugged you off a few weeks ago, and I've been feeling really bad about it. So...I thought maybe I'd give you another shot."

Paul's eyebrows were raising, which meant his eyes were widening. He was about to say something, until Ted tapped him on the shoulder.

"Paul, you realize she's probably just doing this because she somehow heard about all the money you got, right?" he whispered.

Just like that, any traces of a smile on Paul's face had vanished. But strangely, he was grinning again moments later and whispered back, "No dip, Sherlock."

Sarah looked intently at Paul, hoping he would think she was really willing to give him another try.

"Sure!" Paul exclaimed excitedly. "Yeah, you can be my girlfriend! Hey, I was gonna be spending Friday night watching some old Charlie Brown cartoons with my mom! Wanna come?! Then we can stay up late-like until 10:30 organizing my stamp collection!"

Now Sarah's smile quickly faded. "Well..."

"Oh! And I just remembered! I had a very exciting trip to Lithuania last year! I can tell you allllll about it!"

"Paul, that's nice, but..."

"Don't worry, they'll be lots of making out too!" he enthusiastically replied. (even though any excitement he was expressing was fake) "We can make out in my closet for, like four hours! Just watch out for all the used tissues I've let pile up in there for the last six or seven years."

Now, in addition to looking nervous, Sarah looked like she was about to throw up.

"Oh, why wait!" Paul insisted as he yanked off his goggles and revealed his true face to her for the first time. He widened his yellow eyes as wide as he could for maximum "freak-out" effect.

"Ah!" Sarah gasped as she jumped back when she saw his topaz irises. "But..."

"Let's go!" he aggressively said as he grabbed her shoulders and pulled her closer to him.

She quickly pushed him away and started walking back to her seat as fast as she could. "Um...on second thought, that's alright!" she decided. Sarah looked like she had just narrowly escaped a death situation when she sat back down on the bleachers.

With a satisfied and smug grin, Paul put his goggles back on.

"Paul..." Eddie remarked. "You are the man!"

"That might have been the most awesome thing ever," Ted declared.

Paul didn't have to say anything. His look of confidence said everything he needed to.

-

"Whew, that was some game," Ted exclaimed. He put his new and polished baseball equipment (bought courtesy of Eddie) into the trunk of his new car.

"Yeah. It's too bad we lost in the eleventh," Eddie casually whined as he hopped into the passenger's seat. "Especially to Orerines High of all teams."

"Ah, whatever," Ted said. "I didn't think we were gonna make the playoffs, anyway. Sheesh, I don't know about you guys, but I'm starved. Sitting around an hour and a half longer than normal really works up an appetite."

"No kidding," Paul said. "You wanna get a quick bite to eat at Nellie's?"

"I dunno," Ted sighed. "Ever since Ross left, that place kinda lost its soul."

Indeed, almost immediately after Paul was allowed to live his whole mission on Earth and split some of his earnings with Ross, Ross quickly decided he wasn't working behind the counter at Nellie's anymore. When they went to see Ross a few days later, his boss told them that he just quit and had no idea where he was now or what he was doing.

"Come on!" Paul insisted. "Even if Ross isn't there, I'm still hungry. I could chug down fifty of those iced coffees now."

By now everyone was in the car and buckled in. Ted made a small, defeated sigh before he said, "That cool with you, Eddie?"

"I'm fine with anything," Eddie agreed.

"Alright…off to Nellie's it is."

In a few minutes, Ted had parked his new car in the parking lot and all three friends hopped out of it and headed into the shack.

The man behind the counter was the large sweaty guy who was apparently Ross's boss. Ever since Ross quit his job there, his boss had to spend a lot more time at the counter.

"Hey," Ted said. "Paul and I will have an iced coffee. Eddie, what do you want?"

"Errrr…uh…hmmmmmmmm…"

The large man behind the counter sighed when he saw Eddie was in no hurry to make a decision, but when he took a second look at Paul and noticed his green goggles, he perked up.

"Hey, you guys friends of Ross?" he asked.

"Yeah," Ted answered.

"Here," the boss said as he reached underneath the counter and pulled out an envelope. "He wanted me to give this to you guys. Told me to give it to the guys who were with a kid wearing green goggles."

Is that really the only way someone can recognize me, Paul thought to himself.

"Thanks," Paul somewhat bitterly said as he took the letter.

Ted and Eddie hovered over him as he slowly ripped the top open and took out what was inside: a letter and a picture.

Paul slowly opened up the letter and held it at an angle where all three of them could easily read it.

Hey guys,

You have no idea how happy I am to have met you all. Seeing you guys at the shop every day after practice and shooting the breeze with you was always the highlight of my day.

By now I'm sure you've noticed that I'm not working at Nellie's anymore. Well, after Paul got all that money from the government and was nice enough to share some of it with me, I had enough to do what I've always wanted. So I moved out of Kansas and back to New England. Now I'm enrolled in med school, and I have you guys to thank for it.

I don't think you'll ever be able to know how much you did for me. It's because of you guys that I can finally do what I've always wanted to. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you this in person, but when I graduate and move on, I'll never forget who I have to thank for me being where I am now.

It was tough living out there and spending a lot of my time working, but you guys made it so much better. Again, there's no way you'll ever know how much you've done for me and I don't think you'll ever know how grateful I am for it all.

One of these days I will come back to pay you guys a visit, if you're still around. I promise.

Best wishes.
Ross

As they finished reading the letter, Paul slowly reached into the envelope and pulled out the photo. It was a picture of Ross, and he was dressed like he was on his way to business school. His longer and greasy hair was now cut short and clean, with some gel placed in the front to lift it off his head. And his smile now seemed authentic and full of confidence, rather than reflecting lost dreams like it did when they saw him behind the counter every day after a game.

-

The trees were almost completely back to life as Ross stood in a small cemetery. Under one of the trees was a gray and depressing tombstone that read ALICIA HEINER – 11/29/1989 – 6/5/2008.

Just reading those words brought back horrible memories of that tragic night that changed his life forever. He couldn't believe how it had been over two years since she had been killed; the image of what happened and how he felt about it made it feel as if it had only happened a week before.

Ross slowly bent down and placed a small group of dandelions on her grave. Right next to the tombstone was a picture of him and Alicia on the night of the End-of-the-Year school dance where they had shared their first kiss. None of them would have guessed that in just a few weeks Alicia would be dead. Not Ross, not Alicia herself, or the one who took the picture…

"Hey!" called a voice from behind.

Ross quickly turned around and saw it was someone who was a few inches shorter than he was and had shaggy dirty-blonde hair. He was the only upbeat thing about the whole cemetery.

Ross smiled.

"Long time, no see, buddy," he said as the shorter kid ran up to him.

"What's happening, Ross?" the shorter one asked as the two of them clasped their right hands together like they were starting a secret handshake.

"Nothing much. How about you?"

"Dude, I'm fine. Dude! I thought you said you were in Kansas! I wish you told me you were here when you called and told me to come down here!"

"I didn't wanna spoil the surprise," Ross said while looking away. A sneaky smile was smeared over his face.

He forced a laugh that evidently was filled with shock. "Dude, what are you doing here?!"

"I'm transferring to med school. You still going into business?"

"Yeah, but…I thought you said it was way out of your price range."

"It was."

"Was?! You mean you can pay for it now?!"

"Yup," Ross said, smiling confidently and looking back towards Alicia's grave. He didn't want to forget the reason he came to the cemetery in the first place.

"How'd you get the money?!"

"Heh, heh… you wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Ross!" he exclaimed, starting to smile. "Did you forget all the adventures we've been on together?! I'll believe anything! Come on! Tell me! How'd you get over a hundred-fifty thousand bucks?!"

Ross closed his mouth but retained his grin. He took one last look at Alicia's grave and said, "Oh…all right."

-

Paul, Ted and Eddie were standing outside of Nellie's. (Eddie eventually decided on a regular soda after three minutes of pondering) They were talking about Ross for a while and how they hoped he was doing alright at med school now.

"I'm sure he's fine," Paul concluded. "He seemed like a smart kid. He's going places."

"Yeah," Ted agreed. "I'm not gonna worry about anything right now. You know, summer's right around the corner."

"I know, dude! Finally!" Eddie said. "I guess it'll be kinda sad to say goodbye to everyone from school, but I'm ready to move off to college."

Ted turned to Paul. "Hey, what are you gonna do?"

"Huh?" Paul asked.

"Eddie and I are both going off to college, but what are you gonna do?"

"Uh…I guess I'll just go to a community college like Ross said he was doing."

"I'm sure you'll find something to do in life, kid," Ted assured. "And hey, you can visit me and Eddie at college any time you want, right, Eddie?"

"Of course," Eddie promised.

"I dunno," Paul said. "I'm still trying to get everything in my life straight now that I'm living here."

"Yeah, but hey. You got summer vacation to do that, right?" Ted asked.

"Actually…when I was training to come down here, they didn't think I'd be here until summer, so they didn't tell me anything about it."

"Really?" Ted asked.

"Don't worry, we'll teach you all about summer vacation," Eddie told him. "First hand. You're gonna love it."

THE END

-Silent Will
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

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There it is, Nice Place to be Lost. I've enjoyed writing it, and now it's time for a little reflection. First of all, I'm kind of surprised about how quickly I was able to finish this, considering I didn't start working on it all that long ago.

Anyhoo, if you've read one of my stories before, you'll know this is where I always explain how I came up with certain concepts.

This story took a lot of concepts I've had for a while and worked them in with a completely new story. But before I start talking about that, I want to go back a few months to May 2008.

At that time, I had just finished writing "Strong to Save II" and I told all my readers that I had an idea for the next story and I knew what it was going to be about. Well, a few weeks after that, I thought about it a little and said to myself, "That idea stinks."

Just like that, I was back to not having a clear idea what the next story I'd be posting would be like. But I had a few ideas going in my head for a few weeks before I got a concrete idea.

There were a lot of ideas going around in my head at this point, with one of the dominant ones concerning the return of Ross. He was the protagonist of his own series of stories I wrote that lasted about six years before everything finally came to an in Everlasting. (feel free to check that out, if you want) I wanted to bring Ross back again, but this was going to be tricky. If he was going to make a return, I committed myself to following two conditions: he would have to have some sort of plot significance-I didn't want to just throw him in there for the sake of making a cameo; the second condition was that he couldn't overshadow Paul or any of the other main characters at all, despite having some importance to the plot. (as a reminder, it was Ross who inadvertently convinced Paul to betray Landen, which led to the huge mess Paul found him in later on)

It was also a little tough coming up with the concept of Paul being the protagonist than it has been for pretty much every other story. Up until now, most of the main characters in my story have been more...normal and two dimensional. I'm not about to say I did an astounding job developing Paul, but I'd definitely think I did better with him than I've done with any main character yet. In fact, out of all the protagonists I've come up with, I'd actually say Polly is my favorite.

I know that in the past most of my protagonists have been fairly dull and lacked a sort of personality, and I knew Paul did as well. The difference here: it was intentional. I was hoping that making Paul seem kind of generic and dull at first would do three things: make people wonder about who he was (the goggles seemed to help), possibly foreshadow why he seems so quiet and flat, and to help highlight some of the quirks of his friends.

Yes, I also think there were more supporting characters in this story than in any other one that I've posted here. Before it was generally the good guy and his helper, then there was the bad guy and his helper. This is also the first time I tried giving any of those supporting characters any personality as well. Like with Paul, I'm not about to say I did a good job (that's for you to decide) but I'd say I did better than in...oh, I dunno...Strong to Save.

Anyhoo, that's as far as I really want to go in talking about some of the stages of writing this. Like last time, I have a good idea for the next story I'm going to be posting on Fictionpress. To those interested, I'm expecting it to go up early in 2009. Hope you guys hold out and read it. And if not, then thanks for seeing Nice Place to be Lost to its completion!