Disclaimer: Arnold and Helga are not mine – they belong to each other. Hey Arnold belongs to the brilliant Craig Bartlett, Nickelodeon, etc, etc, etc…you know the drill. The lyrics at the beginning of the song aren't mine either – they are from Fleetwood Mac's song "Blue Letter", which happened to be the song on repeat when I wrote this.
Feedback: Who doesn't love it? I have a Yahoo account now. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you so desire. :)
Author's Notes: It's just a cuddly story that takes place when Helga and Arnold are 15. There are oodles of (pretty general) references to the Valentine's Day episode in here, so it helps if you are familiar with that very awesome episode.
I just bought those kissing bears from Hallmark. Not that anyone cares, but they're just so cute... Now, on with the show! I've been working on this one for awhile…I hope you like it.
"For every voice you've ever heard, there's a thousand without a word…"
It was tradition; most people don't argue with tradition, so she didn't either.
We all need something we can count on.
She didn't know if this was her favorite or least favorite ritual, but it had been performed every year since she was ten and it wasn't stopping now.
Mid-afternoon on Valentine's Day she went to the grocery store, to the red and pink aisle full of chocolate and signs proclaiming Valentine's Day was February 14, as if anyone could forget. She bought a box of candy hearts, the ones with the little messages on them: "Be mine" and "Call me."
She'd bring the box home and wait until the sun began to sink between the solid, dependable buildings in the city. As the first swirls of pink tinged the sky and couples began to prepare for their romantic dinners out, she'd set off, bundling up against the bitter February air in a mauve coat. The coat wasn't part of the tradition, she just happened to like the color.
But the shoes were. Every year, as the malls filled with women searching for the perfect dress for the perfect date, she fought her way through the crowds and bought a pair of red shoes -- simple pumps, with a tiny heel. There was no shortage of red shoes between the holiday season and Valentine's Day, and she always bought them on sale, just like the first pair.
With her mauve coat and red shoes, she'd head outside and make her way across town, the candies jingling in her pocket. Even though her feet turned to blocks of ice and complained with every step, she always walked.
When she reached her destination she'd stop and stand outside the restaurant, Chez Paris, and watch the sun sink lower and lower until it met the horizon. Were the sunsets in Paris were this beautiful?
Soon, well-dressed, glowing couples began to arrive hand-in-hand; disappearing inside the doors and into a reality she longed to call her own. She couldn't see them inside, but she remembered what it looked like, and the images were sharp and almost painful: a blond girl in red shoes talking to a football-headed boy with a half-lidded grin and stars in his eyes. They stared at each other dreamily, basking in a lie that was actually the closest thing to the truth. She watched them until the last rays of the sun faded away and the city entered the magical, in-between time known as twilight.
She knew he remembered, too – he mentioned it every year.
As darkness fell, she'd duck into the alley that was next to the restaurant, though everyone, whether they lived in the city or not, knew that girls should not be alone in dark, deserted alleys. Part of the tradition, the illusion, was her fearlessness.
Once in the alley, she'd open the box of candy hearts, carefully, so that she wouldn't ruin it. Then she ate the candies, slowly letting each one dissolve in her mouth. The first few were tangy and delicious, the next few were too sweet, and the last few always tasted like chalk. Still, she ate them all, except for the green ones – they tasted awful.
By the time the candies were finished, she was stiff, sore, and frozen, but that was how it was supposed to be. Leaving the green hearts in the darkness of the alley, she'd make her way home. On the way back, she let herself take the bus.
She always kept the empty box of hearts and one of the shoes, but she threw the other one out. Each year she'd place the empty box of hearts inside of the shoe that was missing its mate. The shoe would then be transported to the back of the closet, where it became the latest in a line of very similar red pumps. She'd turn off the light and no one knew the shoes were there except for her. It was a secret tradition.
With the shoe hidden, the rest of the evening was spent in the isolation of her bedroom, reflecting on all she did and didn't, could and couldn't, have, pouring her thoughts into a little pink notebook. Some years there were dozens of poems, some only one.
The year she was fifteen was the sixth of the tradition, and little had changed. The shoes had been on sale, the girl and the boy stared at each other longingly, and she stood in the alley, where time ceased to exist. The candies had just begun to taste sickly sweet when a shadow fell upon her, if shadows exist in the darkness. It stood in front of her, and unlike other shadows, it made her feel warm, tingling as if she had just stepped in front of a roaring fire.
"Helga?" The shadow asked. "What are you doing here?"
"For the last time, do not sneak up on me like that, football head!" She snapped, voice shaking. "And what I do is none of your business."
This was not part of the tradition.
He moved out of the alley and onto the sidewalk, where the streetlights turned him from a shadow to the boy she had loved for 12 years. The yellow light made his unruly blond locks an even richer gold, and reminded her that he still wore that blue cap, still clung to that hope.
Her feet rebelled against tradition and followed him out, candy hearts, red shoes, and all.
He stared at her, her flushed cheeks and hand gripping the box of candies, and she couldn't shake the feeling that he could see right through her. He'd been giving her that intense, piercing stare of his often lately, and she wondered why.
"Can I have one?" He asked, pointing to the box, which she held out and he chose a pink candy. He didn't eat it, though – he stared at it for a moment, with the same intense stare he had given Helga, then slid it into his pocket.
"Don't eat the green ones. They're the worst." She offered, uncertainly.
"They're not that great," he consented, "neither are the blue ones. Pink's the best."
"So, really, Helga, what are you doing out here?"
"I could ask the same of you."
"I asked first."
She rolled her eyes. Nice to see they'd grown up. "What does it look like, football head? I'm taking a walk, eating candy, and trying to forget this stupid holiday. And you?"
"Something like that." He answered.
"What…no hot date?" She fired back.
"Why not? Who rejected you this year?" They both knew that half the girls in school would have given anything to spend the evening with him, and neither was happy about that.
"No one did. I just…didn't ask the girl I wanted to be with."
They fell silent then. More violently than necessary, she munched on a white heart, urging her to "Be true." He looked around, up at the clear night sky, the cars driving by. Chez Paris, her red shoes…the restaurant, her shoes, the restaurant, her shoes, the restaurant, her shoes…
He shut his eyes, shaking his head slightly. He turned away, and, moving slowly, he took a few steps away from her.
He knew. He knew.
She was gripping the cardboard box so hard the bottom burst open and tiny hearts poured onto the sidewalk. Turning around, he walked back to her, to face something he could no longer ignore.
Gently, he pulled the box from her shaking, sweaty hand and stared at it pensively. Taking deep, shuddering breaths, he opened and closed his mouth several times, searching for the right words.
"Someone once told me," he said quietly, turning the box over in one hand, "that the most beautiful gift can come from the plainest box." He dropped the pink heart she had given him earlier in her palm.
It said, "I love you."
"Arn - Arnold. I…I…"
"She had the biggest blue eyes, you know. Cecile, I mean. They were so wide, almost as if she didn't believe what was happening, as if she was afraid…"
"And who the heck is Cecile?" She said the name mockingly, but her voice cracked and her panicked mind swirled painfully. Was this really happening?
"Don't play stupid, Helga. I won't buy it."
Silence, and then:
"I just wanted…for you to see me, who I really was. I wanted to spend time with you, without having to worry…" She confessed in a tiny, broken whisper. His face softened into an expression of forgiveness and concern. Upon seeing this, her lip began to tremble uncontrollably and she thought her heart would jump out of her chest. "You knew it was me all along, didn't you?" she muttered.
"I probably knew it was you from the beginning, or maybe a little while after…"
"When we saved the neighborhood?" She squeaked, barely audible.
"Yeah. I guess I just…didn't want to know."
"I don't blame you – I was a huge pain. You hated me."
"Helga! I never hated you. You annoyed me, you made me mad, you confused me…but I could never stay angry, I never wanted to."
"Why not? I made your life miserable for years." She heard herself say. Her quiet, predictable tradition had turned into a monster that threatened to eat her alive…and perhaps she would let it.
"I don't know," he replied. "Maybe it's because I'm too nice. Maybe I was flattered. Maybe it's because I knew there was another person underneath the scowl, someone I'd really like to know…or maybe it's because, deep down, I…cared…about you all along."
She couldn't meet his eyes, and felt dangerously close to tears. "You care about everyone, Saint Football Head."
"No…it's not like that. Helga, that Valentine's Day was one of the best days I've ever had. I've gone over it in my mind hundreds of times since then – I wanted to live it over and over. I've dreamt of seeing that girl again ever since."
She seemed to have forgotten how to speak, how to think…even how to breathe.
"Haven't you ever felt that way, Helga? I've been thinking, and maybe we should try it again. Dinner, maybe a movie?"
"The restaurants are all booked up."
"Don't…don't mess around with me, football head." She whispered.
"I'm not." His voice was louder now, clearer, and he sounded completely sure of his words. "What I'm trying to say is…Helga, I think I'm in love with you."
She was silent for a moment that lasted an eternity, and he watched her, rubbing his arm nervously.
"Say it again."
"I love you, Helga."
"One more time?"
"I love you."
He stepped forward. Hesitating slightly, he brushed a lock of hair off of her cheek and behind her ear. His touch was soft and gentle, so tender it set her skin on fire. She took a deep breath, ready to let go, to allow herself to have the only thing she'd ever really wanted…
Her grin was slow, but it morphed into the happiest smile she had ever worn. Her eyes shone, even in the darkness. "I love you, Arnold."
Most people don't argue with tradition, and she didn't, either.
But some traditions are made to be broken.
The next year, they went to dinner at Chez Paris. She wore red shoes and he wore a goofy grin. She called him football head; he liked her pink bow. After they finished dinner, they went into the alley and ate candy hearts, but only the pink ones.
And some traditions live forever.