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Christmas in Brooklyn

Part Three: The Sunset Arms

" I can tell by your eyes that you’ve probably been crying

Forever

And the stars in the sky don’t mean nothin’ to you –

They’re a mirror

I don’t want to talk about it,

How you broke my heart …"

~Indigo Girls

Helga woke up late that Sunday, and at first she didn’t remember where she was. The wallpaper was covered with tiny pink flowers, the sheets were clean, lacy and humble. She remembered slowly as she woke that she was staying with Phoebe’s parents, that Christmas was only days away, and that she was currently a drifter with no job, no house, and no forwarding address for her estranged husband to send the divorce papers to.

She pulled herself out of bed and yawned into the mirror. Already the fine lines around her eyes were softening, and a red blush was returning to her cheeks. I look like a human being again, she observed, instead of a workaholic robot. But how long would this charming appearance last? Soon she would be re-applying for work, house-hunting, and resurrecting her old habits, if she hoped to survive. Olga was the only person she could envision loaning her money, but she could never accept charity from " the blessed daughter". She would sooner starve than admit defeat to Olga, only to have it reported to Miriam and Big Bob. She imagined her family chuckling about it around the dinner table: that washout Helga, she was doing okay for awhile, but we knew it wouldn’t last!

Helga wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. She’d rather move to Arkansas and flip burgers at Popeye’s then borrow money from her sister.

And she certainly couldn’t ask Phoebe’s family for anything more. They were already providing her with a place to rest her head, authentic home-cooked meals (something Helga hadn’t enjoyed since high school, save a few visits to Dirk’s parents house during their courtship), and general hospitality all around. Fresh towels had been laid on a chair near her bed, and she happily collected them and headed for the shower, blasting the warm water past light rays that streamed in through the small window in the bathroom. It was a sunny and yet freezing day in Brooklyn, and Helga leaned back against the shower’s wall and enjoyed the feeling of the hot water. She wondered what she would do today: watch TV with Phoebe’s genial dad, or help her frantic mother cook more food for the upcoming holiday celebrations?

Maybe I’ll walk up to the old elementary school, Helga thought. She sighed with a mix of remorse and bitterness. Phoebe had said that the kids hadn’t excluded her more than anyone else, it was she who choose to be excluded. That doesn’t make any sense, Helga thought, scrubbing her hair with strawberry shampoo, why would I seek out their resentment?

She was no psychologist, but she was sure it didn’t happen that way. The kids in this neighborhood had always rejected her, maybe because she wasn’t the picture of feminism, or because she wasn’t the smartest or most patient customer back then. Either way, they could have shown her a little more compassion, and Helga decided she’d still love to beat the snot out of them, even now.

She thought about Arnold as she rinsed the suds from her hair. Back then she’d been so sure that they’d eventually be together; and then high school hit and her hopes were crushed. The kind of girls he’d dated—Helga scoffed to herself. She couldn’t believe he’d been married. Whichever little British snot he’d walked down the aisle with was surely a total sap, like Lila, or Ansley Peterson in high school. Ansley, that dreaded violinist with the curly hair and perfect skin. The way she held her chin up, the nerve of her excellent posture! Helga had kicked her whenever she got the chance, earning the hatred of Ansley, the administration at the school, and Arnold.

She climbed out of the shower and got dressed, dried her hair. She pulled a warm sweater over her shirt, and grabbed her jacket, gloves and fuzzy ski cap. It was made of real cashmere—Helga had gotten it at a trendy store in Manhattan during a business trip last year. The glamorous part of life is over, she thought, almost sad to see it go, almost relieved.

" Ah, there you are!" Phoebe’s mom greeted Helga without looking at her as she bounded down the stairs. She was struggling with a casserole, one hand covered with a potholder and the other clutching a short glass of amber-colored liquid.

" Sorry I got up so late," Helga said, grabbing a banana for breakfast. She regarded the piece of fruit for a moment and then thought twice: she’d lost so much weight during her stay in the hospital, why not shun the diet and enjoy the privilege of gaining a few pounds? Helga smiled and helped herself to two cinnamon buns, a pecan roll, and a piece of coffee cake.

" This smorgasbord is amazing!" she proclaimed when she was done, gulping down orange juice to finish her feast. " You are some cook, Meiko!"

" Ah, thanks!" Meiko said quickly, yanking a frozen turkey out of the oven to pump brown liquid on it again. " Helga – I don’t suppose you could give me a hand?" she pleaded.

Helga tried to resist, but her grown-up manners got the best of her, and she shed her coat, gloves and hat to spend most of the day slaving alongside Meiko in the hot kitchen. I owe her this much at least, she kept telling herself, sneaking glances at the clock every now and then. She had something of a plan for today, and she didn’t want to miss out on all of the daylight.

Meiko finally released her around five o’clock, when the sun was going down behind the skyline near the end of the street. Helga quickly dressed again in her winter gear, and declined an invitation from Phoebe’s father to watch a basketball game as she rushed out the door.

I just want to get a quick look at the old school, she thought, her breath showing as it left her mouth in the freezing air. There was a thick snow today, and there were barely any cars on the street. Helga plodded ahead through the snow, past house after house, heading for PS-118.

But before she could get there, something stopped her. It was the Sunset Arms Inn, its rickety old sign blowing in the icy wind, tacky Christmas tinsel clinging to the railings on its stoop. Helga froze, staring straight ahead, but watching Arnold’s grandparent’s old Inn out of the corner of her eye. Warm light from the lobby spilled out onto the darkening street. He can’t still be there, she told herself, surely they sold the place to someone else after his grandparents died.

Helga turned and walked closer, cautiously, to the inn. She peaked inside and saw that the common room looked exactly the way she remembered it -–the old record player, the ratty lounge chair – for a moment she wondered if she was dreaming.

Suddenly someone opened the front door of the building, and Helga jumped back with a small gasp. A little boy shut the door behind him, and trotted down the staircase. Helga watched him, not moving, completely silent. He looked so damn familiar – he looked like … Arnold.

The little boy was carrying a sled, and he had an over-sized, old fashioned cap pulled over his forehead. He caught sight of Helga as he was walking down the street, and stared back at her.

" Hey, you," he said, his voice girlish and small, not at all like Arnold’s prematurely deep Jazz-musician voice. " What’re you doin’?"

" N-nothing," Helga stuttered, crossing her arms defensively over her chest, " What are you doing?" she demanded of the boy.

" Oh," he mused, kicking at snow, " Just getting ready to do some sledding before dinner. I have to be quick, I only have ten minutes." He grinned at her, and with that he was off, dragging his sled behind him, in search of good bunny slopes to slide down. Helga stood frozen near the stoop, watching him go. Whomever he was, he was wearing a cap that looked a lot like the goofy blue one Arnold had worn when they were kids.

Gathering her courage and fearing the worst, Helga slowly climbed the stairs toward the door of the Sunset Arms Inn. So much for visiting PS-118, she thought to herself. She had a feeling she’d known she’d end up here in the back of her mind—a feeling that this was why she was so anxious to get out of Meiko’s kitchen earlier. She couldn’t have expected herself to just walk past Arnold’s old home without a second glance.

Helga reached for the door knob, her hand shaking inside her pink, cotton glove. She turned the knob and carefully pushed the door open, not knowing what to except. The same warm light she’d seen through the window cast its glow on her as soon as she had the door open. A medium sized, slightly sparse but spirited Christmas tree was shining brightly in the lobby, decorated with white lights and paper snowflakes. Soft Christmas tunes were playing on the little record player in the next room. She could smell soup on the stove, hear the sounds of friendly conversation emanating from the kitchen in the back. Strangely, she felt like she was home, at last.

Helga took a few more moments to take in the scene, still shaking despite the comforting atmosphere. She walked to a small podium that was set up near the door. There was a large book of guest names and room numbers on the podium. Helga crept carefully over to have a peek.

" Can I help you, Miss?" came a sudden voice from one side of the room, and Helga looked up with a gulp. The man who watched her quizzically from the doorway of the kitchen was definitely not Arnold—no, this man was tall, with a large nose, and an out of place country accent.

" Stinky??" Helga exclaimed in disbelief.

" Well, I’ll be," the goofy Southerner said with a smile, " If it ain’t Helga G. Patacki! Sixth grade terror and high school hellcat!"

" Eh, in the flesh," Helga muttered, doing something of a little curtsey.

" What in tarnation are ya’ doin here, Helga? We heard from Phoebe that you were a big shot lawyer or somethin’," Stinky said, leaning casually on the podium and taking Helga in. She watched his beady eyes creep from her ankles to her chest with interest. Helga had briefly dated Stinky in some lame attempt to make Arnold jealous, and despite her cruel dismissal of his affections when her plan went awry, he’d always had something of a crush on her. Suddenly she felt a bit cornered.

" Uh, marketing executive, actually," Helga proudly corrected him, not ready to admit to Stinky that her career had gone down the toilet before she’d reached thirty. There was no damage in leading Stinky to believe that she at least still held a job.

" Ya’ don’t say," he mused with a grin, scratching his head. " Well what brings you to the Sunset Arms?" he asked, hopeful, " Ya lookin’ for a place to stay?"

" Not exactly," Helga dashed his hopes quickly, " I’m looking for …" she stopped herself, still reluctant to admit to anyone that Arnold was a thought that played occasionally, if not constantly, on her mind.

She heard footsteps on the stairs behind her, and turned around to break away from Stinky’s libidinous gaze. A man in jeans and socked feet was padding down the stairs, a newspaper in his hand.

" Hey Stinky," Helga froze when she heard him speak. The Jazz Musician, sexy, deep voice … " Have you seen Miles? I told him it was almost dinner –" the man froze when he saw Helga watching him. He stood, halfway down the staircase, his eyes widening as he took in the intruder in the lobby.

" Arnold," Helga’s voice cracked a bit as she spoke his, name, and she cleared her throat to cover her nervousness. " You … you still hanging around this scummy place? Heh …" she scratched her hair, pulled off her other glove, chewed her lip and avoided his stare. He was gorgeous-- not as tall as she would have imagined, but more evenly filled out now that he had grown into a man. He stood around 5"4, stocky, with longish blond hair streaked by sun. He appeared to have given up on shaving for a few days, boyish blond hair lightly covering his chin, upper lip and the bottom half of his cheeks. His eyes were as blue and clear as she remembered. Bluer, even. Clearer. His skin looked rougher, his hands stronger, but all in all, he was the boy she loved. Judging by his looks, anyway. Helga was almost afraid to hear him speak. She wanted to remember him like this, beautiful, silent, and apparently in awe of her as she stood like a phantom in the lobby of his childhood home.

" Its me—" she started to say when he was speechless for a moment too long, but he stopped her.

" I know its you, Helga," he answered quickly, running his tongue over his teeth thoughtfully. " Hello." He watched her, stoic, his poker face revealing nothing about what he might be feeling.

" So," she said, exhaling and, embarrassed, turning back to the scorned Stinky, who would have had to be even dumber than she remembered to not feel the tension between she and Arnold. " So you own this place now, eh?" she asked, venturing a glance at Arnold’s shoes.

" Actually, I do," Stinky drawled. " My parents bought the place when Phil passed, and they left it to me when they moved back to Kansas," he explained.

" Yeah," Arnold piped up, the mere sound of that scratchy, deep inflection of his sending Helga into a private tizzy. " I just live here now," he offered, completing his journey down the stairs. " My son and I live here," he added, walking to her, coming to a stop only a foot or so from her. We’re exactly the same height, Helga realized happily, staring him directly in the eyes. God, she thought, all of her insides doing gymnastics routines, what is he thinking? Why is he looking at me like that?

" Ah, your um, son, huh?" Helga couldn’t believe how wishy-washy she was acting. This is only football head! she told herself. Just a lame-o who got a bad lot in life and ended up back here in this deteriorating neighborhood. So he was a good-looking lame-o, so what?

" My son," Arnold confirmed with a nod, " You might have seen him outside. We can hardly keep him in for a minute now that the snow’s hardened," he raised an eyebrow at her, "Good sledding weather."

" Right," Helga said quietly. She wanted to jump into his arms. Arnold, there before her, in the flesh. She knew later, in bed at Phoebe’s parents house, it would hit her, and she would cry or laugh out loud or somehow react appropriately. But for now all she could do was stare at him, a dull longing for him slowly awakening in her, becoming more intense with each second.

" So Helga," Stinky said, walking over and breaking the connection between them with his fatuous presence. " Ya never did tell us why you’re here?"

" Oh, I, I’m sorry," she said, shaking her head clear, " I’m staying with Phoebe for the holidays," she told them, her eyes shooting up to Arnold’s: "I’m in the middle of a divorce," she spat out quickly.

His eyebrows raised in concern, " I’m sorry," he said, " That must be difficult."

" Well, I don’t know," Helga said, rolling her eyes, " The guy is a total twit, and truthfully I never even knew his middle name." She forced a laugh, and Arnold frowned.

" So why’d you marry him?" he asked, matter-of-factly.

" It was a business merger, really," Helga shot back, her features hardening back into their defensive shell.

" Oh, yeah," Arnold said slowly, " You’re a big shot now, right? Curly found an article about you in Time – he cut it out and showed all of us."

" Curly?" Helga said with a laugh, "That nitwit is still around?"

" Sure am," came another voice from the kitchen, and Helga turned to see Curly standing in the doorway with a grin on his face. She was surprised with his looks – he was barely the scrawny little kid she recalled. He was still thin, but very tall; still had his slick, black hair, but now no glasses. He surprised Helga by walking over to her and wrapping her in a thin-armed hug.

" Curly," she choked happily squeezing his shoulders, " Don’t tell me you live here, too!"

"No," he said, stepping back with a grin, " I just come over on Sundays to play poker and give Miles a hard time. What happened to your arm?" Curly asked, carefully tapping her cast.

" Oh, it’s a long story," Helga muttered, grateful that someone was happy to see her in a merely friendly way.

" Why don’t you have dinner with us, Helga?" Arnold offered, folding his newspaper under his arm, " You’ll have plenty of time to tell us your long story."

" Who says I want to have dinner with you bums?" Helga answered, half-kidding. " Actually, I have to get back and help Phoebe’s mom with some things …" She really wanted nothing more than to stay at the Sunset Arms and slurp down canned soup with Arnold and her old friends, but she was getting so nervous just standing here, and she wasn’t about to tell them about her accident, and the loss of her job. It was bad enough that she’d blurted out the news about Dirk – now Arnold knew she was used goods. Not that he wasn’t. Not that she planned on actually getting together with Arnold! She couldn’t even imagine anything more ludicrous. Arnold is only the stuff of fantasies, she reminded herself, it would never work out between the two of us, we’re too different.

" Suit yourself," Arnold said, still watching her eyes like they were in the middle of a staring contest. " I’m going to go find Miles," he said, finally breaking his intent stare and heading for the door.

" I’m off, then," Helga said quickly, longing for a moment alone with Arnold, hoping to catch him on the way out, " Curly, I’ll come by and see you tomorrow," she promised, squeezing his hand. She was so relieved by Curly’s presence – he had always seemed to share her weirdness, her distaste for people, and had been one of the few boys who were brave enough to hang around her in high school.

" Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve, babe," he reminded her, "I’m heading up to my aunt’s house on Long Island," he told her, " But I’ll stop by Phoebe’s place before I leave, and we can catch up."

Helga smiled warmly at him, surprised herself by encircling him in another hug, and gave Stinky a quick nod before she bolted out the door to catch up with someone herself – Arnold.

__________________

 

Helga stepped out of the Sunset Arms and searched the street in front of her for Arnold, but he was no where to be seen. She smelled cigarette smoke, and turned to see him leaning against the wall near the door behind her, smoking and watching her quietly.

" Hey, Helga," he greeted her again, calmly. He had only a thin jacket on, and Helga wondered if he was cold, but then, she couldn’t imagine Arnold being cold. He seemed to emanate warmth, like a human radiator.

" Hey," Helga answered, walking over cautiously and brushing away the snow on the brick wall of the stoop so that she could sit down. She wondered how many times she’d sat here as a child, sweating in her little pink dress before or after a kick ball game, watching Arnold eat an orange Popsicle, and daydreaming about him. Now she watched him smoke silently, thinking of how she’d once dreamt of tasting second-hand orange Popsicle juice on his lips. Now she longed to take a drag of his cigarette in the same manner: half to taste his lips, half to quench her repressed addition to nicotine.

He offered her the cigarette without a word, and she took it, holding it between her own lips and inhaling, not able to taste much of Arnold, but certainly satisfied in one sense.

" I never would have pegged you as a smoker," she told him, rubbing it in as she handed the cigarette back.

" Things change," Arnold muttered, blowing three perfect smoke rings.

" I guess so," Helga relented, " But I don’t think I’ve changed much."

Arnold scratched his chin thoughtfully, " Well," he said, " You look different, at least."

" Yeah," Helga mumbled, " I always dreamt of looking like Olga – secretly, of course. But now … what good has it done me, you know?" She realized she was sounding a trite pathetic – suddenly Arnold was bringing out the human in her, where he used to bring out the monster. Things change, indeed.

Arnold shrugged and dropped his cigarette onto the stoop, crushing it under his boot, " You looked like Olga in high school," he reminded her,

" I mean, you look different now. More mature."

" Well, obviously," Helga said, insulted, thinking maybe he was just reminding her that she looked older.

" You wore too much makeup in high school," he said.

" So what?" she said, frowning, " You wore a kilt in elementary school. But who’s keeping score?" She rolled her eyes at him.

He smiled, " I meant it as a compliment," he said, " I meant to say that you look better without the makeup."

" Yeah, well," she muttered, kicking snow.

" We were all really glad for your success, Helga," he said, suddenly sincere, squinting into the distance, " Especially me. I was worried about you in high school – you were always acting out."

" Acting out!" Helga exclaimed, resentment fluttering up in her chest, " Don’t give me that bull, you sound like my freaking psychologist!" she accused. Arnold narrowed his eyes at her.

" You’re going to try to tell me that who you were in high school was a legitimate representation of your true character?" he challenged.

" I was going through some tough times with my family, okay?" she almost shouted, " You wouldn’t understand, Mr. Perfect."

" Oh, I wouldn’t understand?" he asked with gritted teeth, " Sure, Helga, I wouldn’t understand anything about family problems. Not when every family member I’ve ever loved has died. Including my wife. No, you’re right. You’ve had it much worse than I have!"

" But you’ve never failed to try and hold it over everyone’s head!" Helga said, angry and sad at the same time. She didn’t want to be getting into this argument again, but she couldn’t help hating Arnold when he attempted to feel sorry for her. She never asked for his stupid, self-righteous pity! " You always rubbed in my face – that despite all odds, you’d handled everything perfectly and become the picture of compassion and accomplishment!"

" Accomplishment?" Arnold scoffed and laughed darkly, " Obviously you haven’t heard the news. I work at a freaking Laundromat, Helga. I can barely afford to keep my son alive off of Chef Boyardee and Pop Tarts, and he’s had the same pair of shoes since he was four. I think you over-estimate me. But unlike you, I’m willing to admit that my life hasn’t turned out the way I planned, that I failed somewhere along the way to becoming what I wanted to be. Because I’m not self-righteous, and I’m not proud. I’m telling you right now, Helga, you can forget who I was when we were kids, because, right now? I’m barely alive." Arnold’s voice cracked somewhere in the midst of his monologue, and he turned away from her to hide a few renegade tears.

Helga was silenced. She wanted so badly to reach out to him, to hold him and tell him it was okay, that she was sorry. That it was only her jealously of him, her want for him, that kept her at his throat. But she could only stutter and fiddle her thumbs, shocked.

" B-but," she began, " I thought you had scholarships? Research grants?"

" I did," he said. His voice was even again, but he still didn’t turn to face her. " But when Kathryn – my wife – died during one of our expeditions, the foundation blamed me. They cut me off. I haven’t worked in anthropology since."

" What happened?" Helga whispered without meaning to.

Arnold was quiet for a moment, he seemed to be trying to decide whether to answer her.

" We were in South America," he said quietly, " She was on a bridge over a river, it was built by a small tribe that lived on the other shore, and it wasn’t very sturdy. We were … joking about it," his voice quaked a little, and then he continued, " It broke," he said, sighing deep. " I couldn’t reach her. She … drowned." They were both silent for a moment after he finished.

" Well," Helga began softly, " It wasn’t your fault."

" It doesn’t matter," Arnold said, " I get out of bed everyday so that Miles will have a father, so that he won’t be an orphan like I was. He’s all I’m alive for, everything else is null. Kathryn’s death … my work … just thinking about it, its useless. That part of my life is over."

" Arnold," Helga said in a tiny, almost inaudible voice. She reached for him, her arm shaking, and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. He shook it off and turned around. Their eyes met for a second, and Helga could still see, somewhere in the deep, blue ocean of grief that undulated in his eyes, the idealistic little boy she’d lost. Then his eyes snapped away from hers, and she heard footsteps in the snow, nearing them.

" Miles!" Arnold called, making his voice angry, " What did I tell you? Ten minutes! Get in here, you’re late!"

" Yes, Dad," Miles squeaked, looking up at Helga briefly before he trotted inside the Inn.

" Give him a break, Arnold," Helga whispered once Miles was inside. Arnold just shook his head.

" Don’t look so disappointed, Helga," he said, his tone cold, " You shouldn’t have come back if you couldn’t handle the truth." With that, he turned and disappeared back into the Inn.

_________________

Helga couldn’t sleep that night. She couldn’t get the image of Arnold’s face out of her mind: he had looked so dejected, so hopeless. He looked like he had given up, something Helga had thought was impossible for such an optimistic person to do. I guess his wife’s death was the final straw, she thought sadly, I don’t blame him for feeling empty after so much loss.

But he still has his little boy! Helga thought, angry with him for denying his son the right to grow up with the real Arnold, the Arnold she remembered, who would have made a great father. She sighed – she was certain he was still probably a better father than most, including and especially Big Bob. Arnold always hated Big Bob, she recalled happily. She remembered the night he’d staged a protest when Big Bob had tried to cut down the tree that housed the city’s old tree fort. Helga had joined him, claiming that she was simply trying to tick her father off (this was partly true) but mostly because she wanted to get behind any cause Arnold would support – he was so unfalteringly good, so destined for happiness.

What then, had happened to him? What cruel fate had allowed Arnold, who had lost everyone he had ever felt close to, to lose his wife?

It was Arnold’s confession to her that his life was in shambles that was making Helga the most uneasy. Why couldn’t he just be proud like her, and pretend for the sake of impressing her that everything was okay? The fact that he had willingly divulged his dreary situation really said something about how bad things had gotten for him. There was only one other time Helga could think of when Arnold had shared the painful secrets of his life with her. And that had been when they were eighteen, on the senior camping trip …

A stupid excursion that Miriam forced her to attend…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Helga pulled her pack up the hill toward camp, following behind Rhonda and her cronies. They were all whining about not being able to plug in their hair-dryers.

" Nobody better take any pictures!" Rhonda warned, " My hair goes absolutely flat in this horrible natural air!"

" Oh, Rhonda, shut up!" Helga growled, pushing her out of the way.

" Nobody’d waste film on you, anyway, bubble-head!" The girls in Rhonda’s gang tsk-tsk’d as always, shooting back insults as Helga tromped away. She wished Curly or Brainy were around to chuckle at her joke, but Curly’s parents couldn’t afford to send him on the senior trip, and Brainy had a science convention this weekend.

Helga set up her sleeping bag near Phoebe and Nadine, the two girls who were still marginally nice to her.

" Hi, Helga," Phoebe said, trying to be cheerful. Nadine looked a little frightened. Ever since she’d seen Helga pound the crap out of Harold in eighth grade for saying she had a unibrow, Nadine had seemed quite terrified of her. (And also since that day, Helga had become an expert at eye-brow plucking).

" Hey, Pheebs," Helga greeted her former best-friend, hoping to keep things light. She didn’t want to be there, but her mother had forced her to go as a last-ditch effort to encourage her daughter to make more friends. Helga had brought her smokes, a copy of Jack Kerovac’s On the Road, and a small flask full of Big Bob’s best whiskey to occupy her during this campfire song fest.

The night went by without incident, with Helga glaring across the campfire over the top of her novel at the terrible twosome: Arnold and Ansley. The "Double A" sat roasting marshmallows and smooching like a couple of batteries from hell. Arnold was a white-bread goody-goody clod that Helga had crushed on when she was younger, and Ansley was the teacher’s pet, who was planning on serenading the class with her ‘expert’ violin playing skills. Helga felt like barfing at the very suggestion, and when everyone (including Phoebe, the traitor), applauded Ansley as she stepped up and placed her delicate, pimple-less chin on her violin, Helga grabbed her book and her whiskey and took off to find a place to be alone: someplace out of earshot of Ansley’s little concert.

She found a brook leading away from camp, and figured it would be pretty easy to find her way back if she just followed the brook in the direction she’d come. So, she walked along until she could no longer hear the sound of music from the campsite, or the happy chattering of her classmates. She found a felled tree that made a nice spot to sit, and she plopped down, attempting to read, but mostly just slugging whiskey and wishing Ansley would get eaten by a bear.

Suddenly she heard footsteps coming toward her and her breath caught: I take it back! She thought quickly, please, no bears!

But instead of a ferocious grizzly, it was Arnold who emerged from the forest, and approached her in the clearing near the brook.

" Hmph," Helga groaned, " What the hell do you want, Football head?"

" Quit calling me that," he said, frowning, " Grow up."
" Look!" Helga shouted, throwing down her book, " I didn’t come out here because I felt like being harassed by a holier-than-thou jerk! I came out here to be alone. So why don’t you go worship your little girlfriend some more, and just leave me out of it."

" Helga," he said, giving her one of his deep in thought-dilemma sighs, " I don’t worship her. And I came out here because I didn’t want you drinking yourself into a stupor and getting lost."

" What do you care, you stick-in-the-mud?" she asked, taking a big swig from her flask to spite him.

" I … don’t know," he said, " Its just the way I was raised. Now get rid of that stuff, willya? Mr. Dean will kill you if he catches you with that."

" Dean already hates me," Helga reminded him with a grin, " He caught me smoking once and I thanked him for dragging me to the principal’s office by putting out my cigarette in his coffee." She snickered. " That’s what I call high school memories."

" Look," he said, " I know your favorite activity is making everybody worry about you, but I don’t want to have it on my conscience that I saw you sneak off with the infamous flask when they find you eaten by wolves."

" Why don’t you just keep your damn eyes off me, kid," Helga suggested with a scoff, secretly flattered that he had been paying attention to her. " And quit pestering me about drinking! Everybody does it. Except maybe you and Princess Ansley."

Arnold sighed, " You’re right, Ansley doesn’t drink," he said, " But Gerald and I have a beer sometimes at parties. Its not just drinking in your case, Helga, I’ve seen you at parties. Everybody drinks, sure, but everybody doesn’t get so smashed that they try to pick fights with Eugene’s car."

Helga laughed out loud, " Unfortunately I can only remember that through stories," she said, " I have no recollection of actually doing it."

" Doesn’t that scare you, Helga?" Arnold asked, walking over and sitting next to her on the log. " Not being able to remember pieces of your life?"

" Nothing scares me," she bluffed, taking another swig. " Here," she offered, testing him, " You haven’t really had a drink until you’ve had whiskey. Beer is for sissies."

Arnold took the flask and eyed it. Helga poked his shoulder and told him to live a little, and he took a sip. He gagged a little bit and stuck out his tongue.

" God, its awful," he said, handing it back to her.

" Taste is not the point," Helga told him, " It does a real number on you, and fast." Arnold shook his head.

" I don’t understand you," he said, looking at her with his intense gaze. Helga snapped her eyes away from his: she still had to admit that he was amazingly attractive, especially those innocent blue eyes.

" What’s there not to understand?" she asked quietly, looking down at the flask in her hand, " Sometimes you just want to stop thinking about things, so you have a drink. And it feels good, so, you have another … " she trailed off. " But you wouldn’t know, would you?" she added quickly, " Your life is perfect."

" Yeah, right," he muttered, " You think I don’t get depressed?"

Helga looked at his shoes, and then up at his eyes. She had to jerk her gaze away from him; she hated the searching way he watched her, as if he wanted to know everything she was secretly feeling.

" I want to get away from myself, sometimes, too," he admitted, making his voice soft, " When I start thinking about my parents … I’ll get all hopeful sometimes, thinking that they’ll be found alive … I know I’m just fooling myself. Its hopeless and …" he paused, and looked at her, embarrassed. Helga handed him the flask again, and this time he drank more, still making a face, but forcing it down.

" Trust me," she whispered, " Parents aren’t that great. I can’t stand mine … and you know why? Because they don’t like me. I mean it. They don’t even like their own daughter. They put up with me, but only because I’m family. The worst part is that I know they’re capable of love – because they love my sister Olga like nobody’s business. But me …" Her bottom lip started to tremble, and she bit it, hard, to stop the coward from showing emotion. " I don’t know what I did wrong," she managed to get out. She took her flask back from Arnold and drank from it deeply.

" But my parents …" Arnold said quietly, looking at the ground.

" I’m sure they were great," Helga said quickly, and he looked up at her. He reached for the flask, and his warm, slightly dirty hand covered hers as he gripped it. Helga moved her hand away and let him take a drink, her cheeks turning red from his touch.

" I guess they were great," he said, holding the flask and watching the moon shining from across the forest, low in the night sky. " I don’t remember them at all. All I have is the stories my grandfather …" he trailed off, " Well," he said with a scoff, " I guess I don’t have those anymore, either." He drank again.

" Hey," Helga said, " Take it easy on that stuff, okay?" she said, reaching for the flask, " Its not good for a first-timer to have too much. You have to get used to it a little at a time."

" What do you care?" Arnold imitated her typical, agitated tone, and pulled back on the flask when she tried to take it from him.

" I don’t," Helga insisted, her eyes locked on his. He blinked a few times, and narrowed his eyes, studying her.

" What’s your problem with Ansley, anyway?" he asked, " Are you just jealous like Rhonda and all those other girls? Because she’s pretty?"

Slightly heartbroken, Helga released the flask and jerked back from him.

" Hell no," she said with a scoff, " I just think she’s a snot and … over-rated."

Arnold laughed to himself, " Good," he said, " Because you’re prettier than her, anyway."

Helga laughed, taken aback. She knew she was pretty, but not prettier than Ansley. " Don’t patronize me," she mumbled.

" I’m not," Arnold said, serious. " Don’t tell Ansley," he added.

They were quiet for awhile after that. Arnold finished the remains of the whiskey, and Helga pretended to read as her heart beat out of her chest. She couldn’t believe he thought she was pretty – sure, construction workers hooted at her and the boy at the pizza place on the corner of 8th gave her free Mountain Dew and big grins with his jagged hockey-player teeth … but somehow she’d always really doubted that someone of Arnold’s caliber could see her the way other losers like Brainy did.

" W-we should go back to camp," Helga suggested, as a cold breeze blew past them.

" I don’t want to go back to camp," Arnold muttered. " Its peaceful here."

" But I’m cold," Helga said, hugging herself. Arnold looked at her, and placed the empty flask on the ground.

" Here," he said, scooting close to her and putting an arm around her shoulder. Helga let him pull her to him, frozen, shocked, all of the feelings for Arnold that she had hidden away bubbling to the surface. " Better?" he asked. She barely had the nerve to nod. Something about finally being in Arnold’s arms was as terrifying as it was wonderful. She remembered the 5th grade play where they’d played Romeo and Juliet opposite each other: her one, well-earned chance to lock lips with him. It had been okay: certainly not electric, since he had been pretending to play dead at the time, and since the whole thing was somewhat against his will. But now … he had reached for her … on his own accord. Was it only because he was drunk?

" We should go back," Helga said again.

" Why?" he asked, a little offended, " Aren’t you comfortable?"

" I’m too comfortable," she said with a little laugh, " I’ll fall asleep if I stay like this much longer. Then they’ll all think …"

" That we spent the night together on purpose?" Arnold ventured with a grin.

" NO." Helga said, her cheeks blazing red, " That we were eaten by bears."

" They would imagine both scenarios, I’m sure," Arnold said, brushing dirt off his pants, " But which is worse?" he asked her, his eyes twinkling in the light of the moon.

" Quit it," Helga whispered, her face still close to his. He smiled, touched her cheek, then leaned his forehead against hers, letting his lips touch the bridge of her nose. He kissed her there, and Helga shuddered happily, putting her arms around his waist.

" Arnold," she whimpered, her body begging for his, her arms squeezing him tighter around his middle.

" Careful," he warned, sitting back, " I … I don’t feel so good."

" Oh! Sorry—"

" Its—" Arnold started to say something, then his shoulders hunched up and he leaned over to puke behind the log.

" Heh," Helga said, wiping sweat from her forehead, her disappointed heartbeat slowing. " I told you not to drink so much …"

 

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Helga remembered that night with a mixture of nostalgia and heartbreak. After sobering up, Arnold had ambled back into the arms of Ansley, regardless of Helga’s stance as "prettier". She scoffed again at his drunken observation: clearly, the alcohol had a lot to do with their connection that night. Helga had told herself that it was just a fluke, that she needed to get Arnold out of her head once and for all.

But tonight, nearly eight years later, she still couldn’t get her mind off the boy. Finally giving up on any hope of sleep, she climbed out of bed and pulled on jeans, a jacket, and her ski cap. She left her room and crept downstairs, silently slipping out into the cold night.

Helga walked down the street, not fearing muggers or homeless people, because she had lived here when the streets were clean. And on a night like this, fresh snow covering the streets and buildings, it still looked as clean as it ever was. Moonlight sparkled on the frozen landscape, and the only audible noise was the crunching of snow under Helga’s boots as she headed toward the Sunset Arms Inn.

She made her way back toward the alley, a place where she used to stand sometimes and gaze up in awe at the light from Arnold’s bedroom. It used to strike her how it amazing it was just to exist on the same planet with Arnold, that while she was off toiling in her everyday life, he was living and breathing and probably doing something of great importance. He was always saving the world, in those days.

She watched the window for a few moments, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of her coat pocket. I can’t start smoking again, she thought, but she lit one anyway. She had lifted the pack from Meiko’s secret stash, and she felt bad for stealing, and bad for smoking again at all, but she’d pay Meiko back tomorrow after the craving passed, and this was her last one. Really, she told herself, the last one …

Suddenly a shadow fell across the window, and Helga’s breath caught. She dropped the cigarette into the snow and mashed it out so that he wouldn’t see the light. But the face she saw in the window was not Arnold’s, but Stinky’s. He took Arnold's old room, Helga thought, what a jerk. She remembered Arnold bragging about his room in elementary school, and all the neat modifications it had, how he had a great view of the sky. And now that bugger Stinky was living there …

Helga got the creeps as she watched Stinky pear out of his window. She had the weirdest feeling that he was staring right back at her, even though she was sure he couldn’t see her in the shadows of the alley.

Growing uncomfortable, Helga turned and left the alley, heading back through the frozen streets, toward her temporary home.

 

To Be Continued …