For the next installment following 'Miriam Under the Table,' Helga spends her first weekend living with the Shortmans on an unexpected and very unwanted trip to the countryside to visit Stella's sister... the mother of the infamous Arnie.
Cruising towards an open horizon, a green Packard maneuvered through traffic past the city limits as stalks of crops gradually replaced buildings along the country road. The car zoomed past a sign reading 'You are now exiting Hillwood' with the words 'That's on you.' graffitied underneath. Despite the ominous and anonymous warning, this little journey was the willful decision of Miles and Stella Shortman, who had spent more time in the big city in the past year than they had in more than a decade, and that left them feeling eager to get away from it all for a while.
The husband and wife pair sat in the front seat of the family Packard, both smiling and admiring the wide open spaces, as two kids sat quietly behind them.
"Feels nice to escape from the city for a change." Miles said contentedly. "I was starting to feel a little claustrophobic."
Stella sat with her head practically out of the window, enjoying the wind blowing through her hair.
"Agreed. Nothing like a little fresh air." she said, and then inhaled deeply only to be put off by the overpowering smell of cow manure, "And that's nothing like a little fresh air…" she retched in disgust.
"I hope your sister's town doesn't smell so… natural…" Miles said as he rolled up his window. "Still, I guess it's not like the smell of the rain forest, but at least it's different from the city."
"Yeah. It'll be nice to see her after all this time… I don't think I've seen her since… oh, before we were married." she sighed, "We always used to dream of leaving the country and going off to see the world when we were little girls… but I guess she'll always be a country girl at heart."
"Well, I bet she'll be excited to hear about everything you've been up to since then." Miles said.
"Yeah. Thanks for making this happen, it means a lot. And it sure was nice of your dad to let us borrow the Packard for the weekend." Stella said contentedly.
"Yeah…" Miles said peacefully, but then his tone suddenly shifted to concern, "Do you think I should have asked him first?"
Stella gave him a look, but then laughed.
"Ha, good one." she said.
"Yeah…" Miles said with a forced smile, "Good one… because I'm uh, I'm joking… yeah… uh, hey Arnold?" He called back to his son seated in the back. Arnold turned his head away from the window and looked at his father.
"Yeah, dad?" he asked.
"You're awfully quiet." Miles noted, "You excited?"
Arnold shrugged, "Sure, I guess."
"When was the last time you went out to visit Arnie?" Stella asked.
"Uh…" Arnold fumbled, "I uh, almost did once but… it didn't quite work out. I've never actually been out here. He came to visit us once and that was… interesting."
"I bet he's very interesting. I can't wait to meet him." Stella said, then she turned her attention to the girl sitting in the other passenger seat next to Arnold. She was wearing a trench coat pulled up to cover her mouth and nose, with only her eyes visible poking out from under a fedora atop her head. She hadn't said a word since they had left the boarding house, and Stella assumed she must have just been feeling sad as of late. Owing to their crumbling home life, her parents were allowing her to stay with the Shortmans at the boarding house for the time being. That didn't explain her strange choice of clothes however.
"And you're being especially quiet, Helga." Stella noted, "We're glad you could join us this weekend."
Helga didn't respond.
"Helga?" Stella asked again, sounding concerned.
"I know not this Helga of whom you speak," Helga said, speaking in a low gruff voice, and putting on some strange unplaceable accent.
Stella looked at the girl strangely.
"My name is uh… Betsy D. Flotsam. I'm your uh… exchange student here from Baghdakistan." Helga insisted.
Half concerned and half annoyed, Stella looked at Miles and said, "I think she's been spending a little too much time around your mother. She's lost in character…"
Arnold chuckled lightly as Helga just sat fuming.
"Helga and Arnie have a little bit of a…. history." he started to explain.
"No we don't!" Helga snapped back to normal, as her hat flew off and blew out the window, "That was completely one-sided! Hey look! There's a nice motel… how about you guys just leave me here and you can just grab me on the way back?"
Stella glanced over to see a shoddy and very seedy looking motel with neon lights reading, 'Bed and Regret.' She then turned back to Helga and frowned.
"Oh, no need to be shy Helga." she said reassuringly, "I haven't seen my sister in more than ten years, I don't really know what to expect either, but I'm excited."
"Oh I have a pretty good idea of what to expect…" Helga muttered, "And it is the stuff of nightmares, I tell you…"
Arnold nodded quietly. If his own nightmares were any indication Helga wasn't far off the mark.
A few uneventful hours later, the Packard at last exited the country road onto a dirt road leading towards an old grey farmhouse, secluded from any other sign of civilization. Only stalks of grain and bales of hay surrounded the bumpy dirt road. Arnold glanced around with an odd look in his eye. He had never actually been out here, but he had once dreamt that he had, or at least what started as a dream and ended nightmarishly. He didn't remember everything in his dream perfectly, but so far the overall impression was eerily similar.
When the car reached the house, the group stepped out and stretched their arms, all tired and stiff from the long drive. Stella took a look at the house and smiled. Before anyone else could say a word, Helga broke the silence.
"Well, see you all later." Helga waved at them as she stomped off in the opposite direction of the farmhouse.
"Helga?" Stella called after her, "Where are you going?"
"Oh there's bound to be some charming country B and B in town that I can go check into." Helga said, "Plenty of local color to soak up around town, I can't just hang around here. Just page me when the vacation's all over and-"
"Oh come on," Stella urged, "This is going to be fun. Trust me, I grew up out here. We'll have a great time here together."
"You know? On principle I tend to do just the opposite whenever someone says 'trust me.'" Helga muttered. Seeing how far they were from any other sign of civilization however, she did seem to realize she was stuck and gave up on trying to slip away. Crossing her arms she just hunched over and adopted a pouty face.
Arnold meanwhile surveyed the scene. A forbidding feeling of familiarity came over him as he approached the rustic farm house. Everything about it looked the same as it appeared in his nightmare, from the porch to the weathervane, and even a small red tractor parked on the dirt road. Next to the porch he could see a patch of sunflowers, and in front of it a small patch of mud. Those things all seemed fairly standard for a farm however, so he didn't feel the need to panic yet.
"At least there's no…" Arnold started to say to himself, but then from around the corner of the house an enormous grey sow waddled into view. The mere sight of the bulbous swine caused Arnold to jump back and gasp in terror. Helga took immediate notice of his reaction.
"You of all people, afraid of pigs?" Helga snickered.
"Just certain ones…" Arnold said.
"I guess this one is a little bigger… and uglier… and smellier than yours." Helga said as she and the pig glared at one another momentarily, "But hey, guess that means fresh farm bacon."
Arnold looked at Helga, and realized she was still wearing her trench coat. He gave her a half smile.
"You're not actually going to keep wearing that, are you?" he asked, as he took off his own jacket and held it under his arm, "It's got to be in the high eighties out here."
"It is a little hot out here, true…" Helga sighed, "Fortunately, I came with a backup disguise, for that exact reason."
She abruptly pulled off her coat to reveal she had adopted a slightly different style of outfit than she typically wore. Rather than her usual pink jumper, she now wore a pink jumpsuit, and a white shirt with a frilly collar. Arnold's eyes widened as this slight change of appearance suddenly reminded him of something else from his nightmare.
"Um… that's…" Arnold tried to speak.
"Yeah, I know." Helga said, "It needs a little something extra… I know. I'll just make a slight adjustment to my hair here…"
Helga pulled off her usual pink bow and pulled from her pocket a pink scrunchy which she used to pull her hair up into a high ponytail. Now Arnold felt fairly alarmed.
"How do I look?" she asked, "Be honest."
"Helga, that's… really creepy…" Arnold said softly.
Helga looked herself over and shrugged, "I didn't think it was that bad… but hey if it turns off the little dweeb than it'll be worth it. And don't call me Helga, refer to me as-"
"I'm not calling you 'Hilda.'" Arnold said firmly as he shook his head.
"Hilda?" Helga asked, "Who mentioned anything about 'Hilda'? I told you before, I'm Betsy D. Flotsam, got it?"
Arnold nodded, "Sure… sorry, it's just that you look a lot like a girl I met here last time…"
"I thought you said you'd never been here before?" Helga asked.
"No I have not…" Arnold said cryptically, "Or at least I hope I haven't…"
"You know, maybe you and Arnie really aren't all that different…" she said quietly, "You little weirdos…"
"Come on kids!" Miles shouted from atop the porch, and Arnold and Helga reluctantly headed towards him and the farmhouse.
Arnold and Helga tiptoed up the porch steps to where Miles and Stella stood, looking quite eager whereas the two kids looked as if they'd rather be anywhere else. Stella found the doorbell, pressed the button, and not a sound followed.
"Maybe it's broken." Miles said.
"Oh well, guess they're not home. Let's go." Helga said as she turned around.
"Oh wait, maybe it's this one…" Miles said, pointing to a large triangle dinner bell hanging on the porch. He grabbed the handle and loudly sounded the bell, which rang out so loudly Arnold and Helga had to cover their ears. Suddenly the large pig began squealing loudly and they could hear other animals in the distance crying out in surprise and alarm.
Suddenly the front door burst open to reveal a woman looking alarmed and disturbed by the ringing bell. When she saw the people standing on the porch she became relieved, but not terribly happy. Her appearance took the group, save for Stella, completely off guard. Had they not known they were visiting the woman's sister, they could have sworn Stella had bleached her hair and was now standing before them. Stella's sister was similarly tall and lean, with a physiognomy uncannily similar to Stella's, and the only real difference being her light blonde hair. At a second glance, they noticed she didn't quite share the soft and kindly expression Stella usually wore, and looked somewhat cold and distant, accentuated by her ice blue eyes. She smiled at them nonetheless, though not in a welcoming way.
"Well, well, well." she said at last, "You know that bell signals an air raid around here, baby sister."
"Oops…" Miles said and grinned sheepishly.
Stella stepped towards her sister with open arms, who in turn just placed her hands on her hips in response.
"More than ten years and not so much as a phone call?" she asked, as she crossed her arms, "What have you been doing, sis?"
"Oh you know." Stella laughed, as she enveloped her in a hug. "Lost in the jungle, as they say. Everyone, this is my sister Luna."
Luna looked at the group with the same icy expression, and made them all feel distinctly unwelcome.
"Hello Luna." Miles said eagerly, "I've heard all about you. Sorry you couldn't make it to our wedding, I'd loved to have met you sooner than now but I-"
"Yes, well most people have the sense to hold their weddings somewhere a little more accessible than… where did you say it was? Santa Barbara?" Luna asked, "Flying out there wasn't exactly in the cards for us."
Stella smiled forcibly as Miles and Arnold looked at one another uncomfortably. Helga all the while had been staring at Luna in bewilderment. She'd sooner have expected the pig rolling in the mud to have been Arnie's mother than this woman. Luna may have seemed to be about as warm and fuzzy as an icicle, but she seemed about as sharp as one too which surprised Helga. How Luna could have produced a kid as uniquely numb as Arnie baffled Helga.
"That's Arnie's mom?" Helga blurted, "Geez, what happened, did you just drop him as a baby? Like five or six time-"
"Helga…" Arnold quietly shushed her.
Not hearing Helga's last comment, Luna turned to her side and gestured as a man came into view.
"This is Myron." Luna introduced her husband who appeared at her side.
Before them now stood a man with a very vacant expression. His face was long and gaunt, roughly the shape of a banana, with a very distinctive jutting chin. His eyes were very close together and despite looking in their direction they may as well have been looking at nothing. He wore a plaid shirt with overalls and a very small trucker hat with tufts of his hair poking out on either side. As he blinked his eyelids closed out of sync, and he gave a sudden phlegmy snort.
"Hey." he said in a dull voice.
"Ah." Helga said quietly, "There we go. That explains things."
"Hi there, Myron." Miles stuck out his hand, "I'm Miles."
"Hey." Myron said in the same monotone voice as he limply shook Miles' hand.
"Good to finally meet the other luckiest guy in the world." he said jovially, "Stella's sister is every bit as lovely as I would've expected." He smiled at Luna who just raised an eyebrow in return.
"Well, you're quite the charmer." she said, clearly unimpressed, then she turned to Stella, "I suppose someone as… unorthodox and unconventional as yourself would have to end up with someone so… similar."
Stella, Miles and the kids all looked at one another in confusion. Luna's attitude made her odd duck of a husband seem soulful and friendly by comparison.
"Hi Aunt Luna." Arnold said with a friendly smile, trying to relieve some of the growing awkward tension.
Luna looked at her nephew with a cold dead eyed and somewhat hostile glare.
"Ah yes, Arnold." Luna said, still not breaking with her icy tone, "I've heard so much about you from Arnie. He says you're… quite the golden boy."
Arnold shrugged uncomfortably, "Well, I don't know about that…"
"And who's the girl?" Luna asked, "You didn't tell me you had a daughter too."
Arnold glanced at Helga and snickered, but stopped when she shot him a dirty look.
"Oh, this is Hel-." Stella started to say by was cut off as Helga loudly cleared her throat.
"Uh, Betsy, nice to met ya." Helga interjected.
"Uh, right, Betsy…" Stella said wryly, "She's a friend of Arnold's. Sorry, didn't I say she was coming with us?"
"Maybe, I don't remember," Luna shrugged, "It's fine, there's room."
Arnold glanced around, then asked, "So, where is Arnie anyway?"
"Here." Arnie's voice suddenly appeared from behind Arnold and Helga, causing Helga to scream and leap into Arnold's arms.
"How long have you been standing there?" she shrieked.
"Three and a half minutes." Arnie said in his eerie monotone voice, which they now knew he got from his father, "I counted." he added.
"Uh, still big into counting, huh?" Arnold said uncomfortably.
"Yeah." Arnie said, and then snorted loudly, as his father and the pig down in the mud pit followed suit.
"I taught him all the numbers he knows." Myron said, before snorting again.
"Blow your nose, for the love of…" Luna groaned, "Well, come on in. We've got the guest room ready… I guess you'll want to be unpacking."
Stella and Miles looked at one another. The look in Stella's eyes cried out 'I want to leave now… but we can't…' while Miles seemed oddly excited to be here now.
"Sure." Miles said, "Just show us the way."
"Arnie, be a dear and give your cousin a little hand." Luna urged.
"Kay." Arnie said, taking Arnold's jacket and leaving him with his suitcase, "Let's go." He gestured for them to follow, as he headed down the porch steps.
"What?" Arnold asked, "Not… inside?"
"We only have one guest room." Luna said, "I had Arnie fix up the guest house for you. Should be all right for the night." She then turned and walked inside with the other adults.
"Guest house?" Helga asked with some surprise enthusiasm, "Nice. We're moving up in the world."
After a short walk past a fenced in cow pasture, when the three kids reached the supposed guest house, Helga's enthusiasm abruptly vanished. She and Arnold surveyed what looked more like a few boards of wood poorly nailed together than a house.
"That's the guest house?" Helga asked, "That's not an outhouse?"
"No. It was a henhouse." Arnie said, "The outhouse is an acre that way." He gestured, "If you ever need it."
"Great…" Helga grumbled.
Arnold looked back and forth between Arnie and Helga, wondering if Helga thought her disguise was fooling him, and similarly if Arnie was in fact fooled. He wasn't notorious for his sharp intellect so it was possible he was fooled, and in retrospect she had once fooled Arnold himself with an almost equally unconvincing disguise on Valentines Day. Arnie didn't seem to be paying Helga any mind which pointed to the answer that her disguise was working.
"Um, Arnie? I suppose you're wondering why my… friend is here with us?" Arnold asked.
"No." Arnie said flatly as he shrugged his shoulders. "I'll let you two get settled. I think I got most of the hens out of there. Let me know if you find more."
And with that Arnie turned and headed back towards the farmhouse, leaving Helga and Arnold blinking in surprise.
"You actually fooled him, I guess." Arnold said.
"I'm a master thespian, as you know." Helga said smugly. "That or he's planning to come back and axe you in your sleep to get to me."
Arnold gulped at the mere thought.
"Kidding, kidding." Helga reassured him, "He's a sad little freak of nature but I don't think he's… say, what's up with your mom and aunt anyway?"
"I don't know…" Arnold shrugged, "Mom said they weren't really much alike as kids, but she made it sound like they were on good terms."
"Guess that was her interpretation." Helga sighed, then asked, "So how is it you've met your cousin… but not your aunt and uncle, anyway?"
Arnold shrugged again, asking, "All the things about my life that don't make sense, and that's what stands out to you?"
"Yep." Helga said, "I find your parents waking up from a decade old magical sleeping illness in the jungle more believable. Come on, let's go tip some cattle or something."
I guess the general fan conjecture is that Arnie comes from Stella's side of the family, since Grandpa Phil doesn't seem to have any sort of affection for the kid and only refers to him as Arnold's cousin, and not his own grandkid. And I guess he looks more like Stella than anyone on Miles' side, and thus have I created her sister and Arnold's aunt Luna. Thank you to HAFanForever for coming up with her name, I was originally going to call her Ella... and then she and Stella would have memories of their father getting their names wrong, but I think Luna was a better idea. So what's her deal? Why is she so passive aggressive and hostile towards Stella? Does Arnie see through Helga's disguise? Find out as the saga unfolds… oh, favorite and review of course.