Set Me Free

Author's Note: Hi, everyone! I'm back after three years of not updating Set Me Free. I apologize, but I've gone through some life-changing events that forced me to keep my writing at a minimum. Hope you enjoy this chapter. I worked very hard at it. Keep on reviewing!

Arnold: Step Right In

He's a pro

'Cause you'll find he'll go harder

And so hard he'll step right in…

Dishwalla, "Gone Upside Down"

June 2001

It was clear Grandpa was none too pleased at Aunt Mitzi showing up out of nowhere.

"Arnold, why the Helen of Troy did you let her in?" he snapped as I ambled into the kitchen with Aunt Mitzi and Arnie in tow. "I'm having enough trouble with the broken down air conditioner to add her to my problems."

To be honest, I didn't share Grandpa's petulance with Aunt Mitzi. She was a lot of fun to be around. It was Arnie I had the problem with. Why did he have to show up now? I wondered in dismay. Luckily, Lila was out of town at the moment. Even more of a fortunate development was the fact that Helga had left as well. The embarrassment Helga might've been subjected to from Arnie's advances nearly equaled the mortification I would've had to endure at Lila mooning over Arnie.

"Phil, is that any way to treat your favorite sister? Come here!" Mitzi cried, embracing her brother. She cackled when Grandpa stiffened at her display of affection.

"Mitzi, how can you be my favorite sister? You're the only sister I have!"

"Arnold, perhaps you have better manners than your grandfather?"

"Sure thing, Aunt Mitzi." Smiling, I hugged her briefly.

"Thank you, Arnold. I knew it was a good idea to at least come visit you. I do apologize for not being able to attend your graduation, but Arnie's was the same night as yours, and since Arnie is my grandson…"

"No problem. I completely understand. Arnie, how was your graduation?" I asked more out of obligation to be polite than a curiosity to actually know what it was like.

Naturally, Arnie's reaction was one of bored neutrality. "It was okay." He shifted the weight of the suitcases he carried from his left hip to his right hip. "Can I put these somewhere?"

I glanced expectantly at Grandpa, and he shrugged indifferently. "If you want to put up with no air for a couple of days, be my guest."

A mischievous gleam entered Aunt Mitzi's eyes. "Oh, Phil, we'll be just fine. After all, we're staying for the entire summer!"

"This is wonderful! The visiting team is back!" Grandma exclaimed, appearing in the doorway. She was dressed in her blue-and-yellow cheerleader's outfit, shaking her white pom-poms.

The expression on Grandpa's face was priceless. "The whole summer! How am I going to win against these odds?"

"Don't worry, Phil, you'll have plenty of chances of compete against me," Aunt Mitzi reassured him, laughing heartily. "First, though, I think some relaxing is in order. Arnold, please lead the way."

Already weary of the sibling rivalry between Grandpa and his sister, I gratefully departed from the kitchen with Arnie and Aunt Mitzi to show our guests to their rooms. As we did so, Grandpa just had to have the last word by yelling, "Mitzi, you may have won this battle, but you haven't won the war!"

& & &

Not long after the visitors had settled in, I executed my escape out of the boarding house to go to work. Okay, I really had about an hour before I had to report to Mrs. Vitello's shop. However, being by myself sounded preferable to spending that extra time with the company we'd suddenly accumulated. While Aunt Mitzi laid down for her daily afternoon nap, Arnie chose this opportunity to approach me.

"Hey, Arnold, what are you doing today?" he inquired, opening the door and sticking his head into my bedroom.

He wants to spend time with me? I guessed in horror, looking up from my book. Lucky I already had a good excuse in the form of work. I glanced at my alarm clock. Unfortunately, it was only noon, but what he didn't know certainly wouldn't hurt him.

"Uh…I have work today. Now, as a matter of fact."

Arnie's face actually exhibited disappointment. "That's too bad. I'd thought we'd play Chinese checkers," he explained, fully entering my bedroom and brandishing the long cardboard box in his hands.

"Try Grandpa," I suggested. "He's a pro at Chinese checkers."

Sorry, Grandpa, I apologized. Although I didn't feel very good about myself for lying, desperate times called for desperate measures. At any rate, Chinese checkers was more my grandfather's hobby than mine. In his day, he was the one who had competed in lots of tournaments undefeated. At least until a rival player named Robby Fisher bested him, resulting in Grandpa retiring from the Chinese checkers business in shame. Forty years later, Grandpa regained his honor when he beat Robby Fisher in a rematch.

Abandoning Grandpa to his possible fate with Arnie, I headed toward the nearest bus stop outside the boarding house. Along the way, someone called out my name. I halted, startled at Phoebe's unexpected presence yet glad nonetheless to behold a familiar face.

"Hi, Phoebe," I greeted her, smiling warmly. "What's up?"

"Arnold, you're just the person I was looking for."


I was curious about Phoebe's uncharacteristic directness. Was she going to ask another favor of me? If so, I couldn't imagine what. Helga was already on her way to Alaska.

Phoebe was silent for a moment before she adjusted the glasses perched on the bridge of her nose and inquired, "Did you see Helga this weekend?"

Without warning, my face heated up fiercely. How could I be reacting like this? I wondered in amazement as Phoebe studied me closely. It was a simple get-together. I had nothing to hide, least of all from Helga's best friend.

"Yes, on Sunday," I affirmed, trying to seem nonchalant about the matter. "We first went to the boardwalk to eat corn dogs and play whack-a-mole, then we visited with Agatha Caulfield for the purpose of Helga getting writing tips to help with her short story contest."

"That was very nice of you," Phoebe remarked thoughtfully, and I instantly became suspicious.

"Wait a minute," I abruptly started. "How would you know whether or not I was with Helga anywhere this weekend?"

At that query, Phoebe's eyes slid downward, her own features coloring somewhat. This conversation is way too embarrassing for the both of us, I thought ruefully. I was still confused as to why she'd broached the Helga topic with me.

"When I bade Helga goodbye this morning," Phoebe clarified, "Mr. Pataki wasn't exactly the most pleasant person to be around."

Needless to say, that was the understatement of the century.

"Of course, Helga tried to resist her father's attempts to hurry us up since he was so impatient about setting off to Seattle for the first leg of their trip. The weird thing is Helga obeyed Mr. Pataki as soon as he asked if you would come by again to see her off, too." Phoebe shrugged. "I'm not surprised Helga refused to give me any details behind what Mr. Pataki implied."

"A true Good Samaritan doesn't seek praise for his deeds," I joked, feeling uneasy.

"All the same, I still want to thank you. You've been a great friend to her."

How could I respond to such a statement? The furious blush on my countenance, even brighter than the first one, spoke volumes. Phoebe's lips curled back mischievously.

A bus, whose route included a stop a block away from Mrs. Vitello's shop, pulled up at the corner. As the door whooshed open, I could've kissed the male driver from relief. Phoebe's behavior unnerved me more than I liked.

"Well, here's my ride. I'll catch you later."

"Later, Arnold," Phoebe echoed back, wearing an expression of indecision that I chose to ignore.

This resolve reached me while I sank into a seat: I had focused on Helga Pataki long enough; it was more than time to remove her from the forefront of my life for now.

& & &

Almost two weeks passed away much in the same manner as I had willed it on the bus. No thoughts of Helga passed unbidden into my consciousness, for there was plenty of Grandpa and Aunt Mitzi's feuding to occupy my time. Surprisingly, when Grandpa wasn't busy with attempting to make his sister's life miserable, he took it upon himself to teach Arnie his expert Chinese checkers tricks. The goal? To get Arnie to compete in weekly Chinese checkers tournaments in Tina Park. Personally, I didn't care, because Arnie left me alone in blissful peace.

Phoebe didn't come around, so I only encountered her when she was with Gerald. We never spoke a word about her best friend. Indeed, it seemed as though a wall had been erected between us. Nevertheless, I knew such a barrier could be easily broken down, for we were merely a little embarrassed about our slightly awkward talk of Helga. On the other hand, how much of a friendship did Phoebe and I enjoy? Our ties were mainly due to Gerald Johanssen. If one extended this bond to Helga Pataki, I supposed we could be labeled comrades, especially with the recent circumstances that propelled me to become intimately involved with Helga and Phoebe's relationship. Strangely, once Helga was removed from the equation, the point of Phoebe and I joining together lost steam.

As for Gerald, his conduct toward me altered somewhat considerably, too. Flying high on the novelty of his recent hook-up with Phoebe, Gerald utilized every opportunity on hand to hang out with her. No, he didn't purposely slight me; he would always honor any quality time commitments if I requested it of him. However, I didn't take advantage of such a system very often since I had no desire to be a possible third wheel should Phoebe be invited along. Instead, I sought out Harold, Stinky, and Sid for companionship.

Gerald's brother Jaime-O arrived home a little later than expected. Excited nonetheless, I took the liberty of calling on Jaime-O myself while my grandparents and Aunt Mitzi went to watch Arnie finally compete in one of those weekly Chinese checkers tournaments in Tina Park. Luckily, Jaime-O had strategically placed himself in the Johannssen's garage to work on his car, sparing me the ordeal of having to face Jaime-O and Gerald's penny-pinching father.

"Jaime-O, guess who," I called, wandering into the open garage.

Jaime-O swung his long, well-toned body out from under the car. "Hey, brat," he addressed me, standing up and wiping his hands on a heavily soiled cloth. "Here to see Gerald? He just left with Phoebe."

What a surprise to hear Gerald's with Phoebe again, I marveled sarcastically and immediately checked myself. How I could express any derision toward my own best friend's happiness? Could it be I was slightly jealous?

"No, actually, I'm here to see you," I explained to Jamie-O, returning to the current task at hand. Hesitating briefly, I tentatively asked, "Jamie-O, can I get personal with you for a moment?"

Shrugging, Jamie-O answered, "If this is about why I came home for the summer, I'm not shocked Gerald told you about it."

"Well, I thought I'd find out how you're doing."

His broad face scrunched into a frown. "Sorry, Arnold, I don't think it's appropriate to be discussing this subject with a kid your age."

"Jamie-O! We need to talk!" Mr. Johannssen yelled from inside the house. "What are all these cell phone charges?"

"Excuse me, will you, Arnold?" Jamie-O bounded up the garage steps and banged open the screen door to let himself in.

Sorely disappointed at my lack of success, I commenced the long walk back to the boarding house. Next time around, I would have to approach Gerald to discover the real source of Jamie-O's burnout. I simply couldn't believe Jamie-O was only worried about his grades.

& & &

As soon as I entered the boarding house, Grandpa exclaimed from the kitchen, "Short man, is that you? Come here!"

When I'd finished following Grandpa's voice to the source like I'd been instructed to do, I gasped, started at the sight before me. Grandpa, along with Aunt Mitzi, was grinning proudly at my cousin. Arnie clutched a first place trophy, presumably from the Chinese checkers tournament. He's actually smiling! I realized in dismay. In a way, it was very creepy to witness Arnie show expression.

"Is it's wonderful, Arnold? Arnie won first place in the Chinese checkers tournament!" Aunt Mitzi needlessly elaborated.

"Yeah, Arnie's a chip off the old block!" Grandpa cackled, slapping Arnie enthusiastically on the back.

Grandma appeared from the pantry wearing a mermaid outfit and shoved a platter of battered fish at my face. "Would you like a fish to celebrate?"

My stomach turned, but the sour sensation wasn't solely from apprehension of my grandmother's cooking. There was no mistaking the emotion this time: I was definitely jealous!