A/N: I've always wanted to do a Halloween fanfic, and I tried to make this one a little genuinely creepy, though you'll find the requisite romance plot here, too. I wanted to really focus on teenage Arnold's personality, making him seem like a real teenage boy, but keeping him in character (ie, still obsessed with doing what's right and concerned about the welfare of all others, not just his friends). I hope you guys will enjoy this! Happy (early) Halloween!
Arnold was running through the jungle, pushing leaves and branches out of his way and panting with exhaustion. Something was chasing him – he wasn't sure what it was, but he knew it wanted to harm him. He could hear the harsh footsteps behind him as he ran, afraid to turn around. He could feel the breath of the person or thing that was pursuing him through the thick foliage.
Suddenly he came to a muddy clearing. He tripped, and fell into the mud, catching himself, his hands sinking in up to his wrists. Panicked, he yanked his hands out and started to continue running, but when he did he noticed a small, makeshift cottage up ahead in the clearing. He stood staring at it, unable to move. He forgot completely about whatever had been chasing him – he could no longer hear it moving through the leafy jungle behind him. He wiped his muddy hands on his pants, and moved closer to the small cottage.
Just before he reached the door, his breath caught. This couldn't be – could it? Could that madcap run have led him to exactly the place he'd been searching for? He reached into his back pocket, his heart racing at the possibility. He pulled out the worn map that he'd found in his father's diary five years ago, unfolded it, and clutched it hopefully to his chest. He could feel it now – this was the place. The place where he would finally find his parents.
Arnold steeled himself before stepping inside – he wasn't sure why, but he was nervous. He told himself not to be, that when he stepped inside his parents would be overcome with joy at seeing him, and that they would return with him to America, to their home, where they belonged.
He reached forward and pulled back the ratty cloth that covered the door.
As soon as Arnold stepped inside the hut, a terrible stench rose to meet him. Then, when his eyes adjusted to the low light inside, his stomach lurched: sitting on a low bed on the opposite wall were two rotting skeletons.
Before he could scream, throw up, or stagger out of the hut, one of the skeletons jerked its head up and glared at him.
"Arnold," it said in a harsh, angry female voice. "You're late."
Arnold woke up with a sharp gasp, flipping over and nearly falling out of his bed. He rolled onto his back and rubbed at his eyes, as if he could rub the memory of the nightmare away. But he could never forget it – he knew it well enough now. He'd been having the same dream at least once a month for the past two years.
He sat up in bed, feeling ill, and scared. His heart was racing, his forehead was soaked with a thin layer of sweat. Taking a deep breath, he tried to steady himself. It's only a dream, he told himself, throwing off the covers and climbing out of bed.
But it was more than a dream, and he knew it. The nightmare represented all of his insecurities and disappointments about his parents, about that stupid map, about the terrifying and mysterious place they had disappeared to. Five years ago, when he was ten years old, he had found a map in his father's journal – a map that he had assumed would eventually lead to the rediscovery of his lost parents. But instead, when he and his grandfather turned it into the police and had the missing persons file reopened, the map had turned up exactly nothing. Agents went to South America, but claimed the location on the map did not actually exist.
Arnold had never fully believed them. Part of him still childishly thought that if he took the map to South America he would be able to find his parents, though no one else could. He felt that he had let them down, giving the map to the police instead of taking up the challenge of finding them on his own. He felt that he had left them to die.
But what could he have done? He was only a ten year old boy when he found the map, and his grandparents had long ago given up his parents for dead, mourned, and tried to move on. They had dismissed Arnold's hopes that his parents were still alive as a child's naivety, just like everyone else had. Going to the police was the most they had been willing to do, and even if they had wanted to search for the map's location like Arnold had, they didn't have the money to jet off to South America, let alone the physical resources to comb the jungle.
Arnold took his robe and towel and headed down to the bathroom, sighing and still trying to shake off the lingering presence of his recurring nightmare. Every time he had the dream he went through this cycle: the guilt trip, then the reality check. Like everyone else, the rational part of him believed that his parents were gone. But he just couldn't manage to beat back his idealistic hoping – even though he didn't remember them, he couldn't let them go.
He showered, went back to his room and sat down at his computer. He liked to check the weather online before getting dressed – it was the kind of nerdy habit Gerald made fun of him for, but he couldn't help it. He liked being prepared, and it was only practical. The weather website he frequented told him it would be down to sixty five degrees this evening – Arnold glanced at the date on his desk calendar and saw that it was already the end of October, the day before Halloween.
The thought of Halloween perked him up a bit. He'd always loved the holiday, and this year he would be keeping up with his usual traditions: Rhonda Lloyd's costume party, where he planned on dressing as Luke Skywalker this year. Phoebe had helped him make the costume – she would be going as Princess Leia, and Gerald would be Han Solo. The three best friends always did group costumes – last year it had been Mario, Luigi and the Princess. Arnold had been Luigi – he was the third wheel even on Halloween, ever since Gerald and Phoebe had started seriously dating at the end of junior high. He told himself he didn't mind, and he really didn't – he just wished that he had a girlfriend himself.
Arnold thought of Lila as he pulled on a navy blue sweater and a pair of jeans. He had been wanting to go out with her since they met as kids, and she had been persistently denying his attempts from day one. They were still friends, but not as close as they had been when they were younger. Lila dated older guys now – strapping varsity ballplayers with names like 'Kip' and 'Bud.' She was the most beautiful girl in school, of course, and Arnold told himself he was a fool for holding out for her – he had never had a real girlfriend because he was still waiting for her to change her mind, as if she would. He told himself every day to snap out of it, but then she would walk past him in the hall, flash that incredible smile, and he would go to pieces.
Telling himself, as usual, to get his mind off of Lila, Arnold grabbed his schoolbooks and headed downstairs. He took a Pop Tart from the cupboard and said goodbye to his grandparents, heading off to school.
It was a bright, crisp fall morning, and the cool air felt good on his cheeks. He pushed away his thoughts about his parents and his miserable failure in the girl department, and tried to focus on the geography exam he'd be taking when he got to school. He had studied all last night with Phoebe and Gerald, and he felt prepared, thanks to Phoebe's well crafted flashcards.
Arnold saw someone walking up ahead, and his steps slowed. It was Helga Pataki. This was always an awkward part of his morning walk – Helga lived up the street from him, halfway between the high school and the Sunset Arms. He usually crossed her path in the morning – she was always walking slow, kicking garbage into the street as she went, clearly dreading her destination. Arnold could never decide whether to say hello or to just walk past and pretend he didn't notice her. Sometimes if he spoke to her she was at least reasonably decent, muttering responses to his conversation, but other times she flat out glared at him and stomped away. Though he knew it shouldn't, her moody reactions always hurt his feelings – what the hell was he doing wrong? Helga had grown to be pretty civil, although intentionally distant, with the rest of the old neighborhood gang over the years. But she still treated Arnold like a parasite she wanted to pick off and toss away.
"Hey, Helga," Arnold called, knowing that it was probably fruitless, but giving it a try anyway.
I should really learn to just give up on people, he thought, when Helga turned around and rolled her eyes at him. Helga and Lila are never going to change, he told himself, looking at the ground.
"Hey, loser, what's happening?" Helga muttered as Arnold started to walk around her. He stopped and looked back, falling into step with her. He couldn't tell if she was being friendly or spiteful – maybe with Helga there was no difference.
"Nothing much," he answered in a mutter, resenting the fact that he let her call him a loser. With anyone else he would get angry and storm away, but with Helga – well, for some reason he'd always let her get away with treating him like crap.
"Did you study for the geography test?" he asked, remembering that she was in his class.
"No, Dad," Helga grumbled sarcastically, rolling her eyes again. "I'm not a perfect little scholar like you, I'm afraid."
"That's not what I meant," Arnold insisted, his cheeks burning pink with frustration and, though it was unfounded, genuine embarrassment. Did he really sound like that – like he was lecturing her?
"Curly and I went to the haunted house in Watkinsville last night," Helga said smartly, her tone suggesting that she thought her time had been spent much more wisely. "It was totally lame, of course," she added.
"Of course," Arnold muttered, wondering if there was anything Helga didn't find totally lame. He glanced at the books she was carrying and saw two volumes of poetry – Alan Ginsburg and Gregory Corso. He opened his mouth to ask her about her fondness for the Beat writers, but instead something unintentional wormed its way out:
"So are you and Curly going out?" he asked, feeling incredibly stupid the moment he heard himself say it. He wasn't even sure why he asked – Curly and Helga did spend a lot of time together, always sitting at their so-called Rejects Table in the cafeteria, sometimes joined by Brainy and Eugene, whom they ignored or picked on, respectively. But even if they were going out, what did he care?
"No!" Helga spat instantly, forcing a bemused laugh. "Hell no! I mean – Curly's alright and everything – but going out? Ew! He's like – my brother or something. And besides," she added, "He's in love with Rhonda Lloyd, the idiot."
"Still?" Arnold asked in disbelief.
"Don't tell him I said that," Helga said quickly, stopping in her tracks. Arnold stopped, too, standing and looking at her – they were almost the same height, much to his displeasure. Helga's height was average for a girl – around five feet six inches – and Arnold's was average, too – for a girl. All of the other boys in his classes had shot up to almost six feet over the summer, even Eugene. But Arnold seemed destined to be a 'short man,' like his grandfather's old nickname for him.
"He's totally obsessed with her," Helga gushed, seeming like she needed to get this off her chest. "It's so damn annoying. I mean, what's the point? Like Rhonda would even deign to look in his direction."
Arnold smiled at her use of the word 'deign.' He'd always loved listening to Helga talk, even as she was degrading him with her words. She had a writer's vocabulary, while most of the other kids could barely get beyond the words 'sucks' and 'like' and 'cool.'
"You don't admire the impossible romantic dream?" Arnold asked, thinking of his own pathetic obsession with Lila. Helga shrunk a little.
"I didn't say that," she said, looking away from him, down the street. Their high school was just about fifty feet away, and there were kids crowded around the front steps in their usual groups, hanging out and talking before the bell for first period rang.
"Aren't you ruining your reputation?" Helga asked sharply, looking up at Arnold with a challenging glare.
"What?" Arnold asked.
"Talking to me," Helga said with a scoff. "You, Mr. Popular, loved by all, talking to a freak."
"You're not a freak," Arnold said sternly, surprised with her. To him it had always seemed like Helga thought it was all the other kids at school who were freaks – she sure seemed to avoid everyone but Curly like the plague, even her former best friend, Phoebe.
"You know I don't care about any of that stuff," Arnold said quietly, looking down at the top of her head as she stared at her shoes.
"I know," Helga muttered under her breath.
She walked off toward the school then, her pace quick, her hands in the pockets of her long, ratty purple sweater. Arnold watched her go, then heard the warning bell for first period – it dawned on him that he was about to be late for his geography test, and he took off running toward his classroom.
Later that afternoon, Arnold was carrying his lunch tray out into the school's courtyard, where the sophomore and junior students ate lunch. It had been one of the nicer perks of moving up to the tenth grade, since last year he'd been confined to the dingy cafeteria with the rest of the freshmen. He watched the seniors walk past the chain link fence that enclosed the courtyard – they were allowed to leave campus for lunch. He noticed Ruth McDougall among them, laughing with a tall boy in glasses who had his arm slung around her shoulders. Arnold remembered his childhood crush on Ruth and smiled to himself. He turned toward his usual lunch table and saw Lila, his current crush, standing right beside the stone bench where he usually sat. He swallowed a happy and nervous lump in his throat and walked over toward her.
"Hey, Lila!" he said, grinning at her and putting his tray down on the stone table. Phoebe and Gerald were seated on the bench across from his, Phoebe wrapped up in Gerald's leather jacket, and Gerald biting into a huge Cuban sandwich he'd brought for lunch.
"Hello, Arnold, how are you?" Lila asked, smiling back. Arnold melted for her, his knees wobbling a little. Those deep brown eyes, those adorable freckles, that gorgeous red hair, those – he blushed and forced himself not to let his eyes wander below her neck, where she had been rather blessed as they had gotten older.
"I'm alright," he said. "How about that geography test?"
"It was ever so hard!" Lila exclaimed, her pet expression just as charming as Arnold had always found it. "But I did study last night at the library, so I expect I'll at least pass it."
"I'm sure you'll do better than that, Lila," Arnold said, knowing she was being characteristically humble. Lila almost rivaled Phoebe for the highest grades in their class.
"There were a few unexpected questions," Phoebe said thoughtfully. "But the maps were rather easy."
"Enough about geography, already!" Gerald pleaded, giving Phoebe a squeeze. " My head's gonna burst if I hear another word about that test – I've already been obsessing over it all week. C'mon – it's Friday – tomorrow's Halloween – let's change the subject."
"Are you going to Rhonda's party?" Arnold blurted out, looking back to Lila. He felt his cheeks turning red and hoped she wouldn't notice.
"I am," Lila said, smiling. "James and I are going as Jack and Kate from Titanic. It was James's idea," she added with a dreamy sigh. "Isn't it just the cutest?" "Er – yeah," Gerald said after an awkward pause. Arnold was unable to speak, for fear that he'd be inadvertently honest in his disappointment. He had almost forgotten about Lila's newest boyfriend – James Whitmore, the junior class president.
"Lila!" a boy's voice called across the courtyard, and, sure enough, it was James. He was sitting at the 'popular' table where the poshest juniors and sophomores sat, Rhonda Lloyd and her obnoxious boyfriend Teddy among them. Lila turned and waved back.
"I've got to go," she said, smiling around the table at the three of them. "I'll see you tomorrow at the party!" she added before trotting off.
Arnold sat down heavily and poked at his pizza, suddenly in a bad mood, though this was his favorite lunch and he was pretty sure he'd just aced the geography test. Nothing could bring him down like Lila's good looking older boyfriends.
"Aww, Arnold, come on, man," Gerald moaned. "You're not still moping over 'ole red are you?"
"It does seem rather illogical," Phoebe added sympathetically.
"I know, I know," Arnold groaned, popping open his can of soda. "But I can't help it. She's so – perfect."
"Whatever you say, Arnold," Gerald said, casting a loving look at Phoebe, obviously thinking that she was far more perfect than Lila. They smiled at each other and Arnold tried not to gag. He was glad his two best friends were happy with each other, but he was always uncomfortable when they gave each other the eyes like that – Gerald grinning and raising an eyebrow and Phoebe bashfully batting her eyelashes and smiling. It was cute at first, but now Arnold was downright sick of witnessing it, at least without a girl at his side to turn and look at the same way.
"So, mischief night," Gerald said, clapping his hands together and looking over at Arnold. "And tomorrow's Halloween – should be a good one this year, there's a full moon."
"Have you got your stories ready?" Arnold asked with a grin. He always looked forward to Gerald's creepy urban legends, which he would tell to a small group of old friends who gathered at the Sunset Arms after Rhonda's party to sit in the dark and try to spook each other, munching on candy and guzzling soda, always staying up until at least three AM. Arnold's spirits lifted a little, thinking of their yearly ritual.
"Oh yeah," Gerald said with a nod. "Got some good ones this year."
"You boys aren't planning anything for mischief night, are you?" Phoebe asked. It was a tradition in the neighborhood to play pranks on people on the night before Halloween – last year Arnold and Gerald had helped Stinky apply shaving cream to Rhonda's boyfriend's prized new Mustang convertible. They always tried to do something harmless – but to someone who deserved a little annoyance. And Teddy – who was a notorious, arrogant bully – certainly had.
"Not this year," Arnold said. "I might just go up to the late night matinee – they're showing Frankenstein and Dracula, a double feature for just five bucks."
"Hey, that sounds cool," Gerald said.
"I'd love to go," Phoebe chimed in. Arnold mustered up a smile – another movie date with Gerald and Phoebe. He was always glad to have them along, but he felt a little out of place sitting next to the two of them while they held hands and cuddled.
"Oh, but I just remembered!" Phoebe said, slapping her forehead. "I promised Mom I'd help her decorate the house for Halloween. You know, carve the pumpkins and everything."
"That's okay," Arnold said. "I might not go, anyway. Now that I think about it I should probably help grandma and grandpa hold down the fort at the Sunset Arms, in case any pranksters pay a visit."
"Like your grandma needs help," Gerald said, smirking. "But alright, I guess I'll save my five bucks, too. Speaking of mischief, though, have you heard what the Demented Duo have got planned?"
"Helga and Curly?" Arnold asked, recognizing Gerald's nickname for the two. He turned around and saw them sitting at their usual table, but instead of whispering and snickering together as usual they were sitting back and talking to a small group of kids who had gathered around them.
"Yeah, those two loons," Gerald said, looking over at them.
"Gerald!" Phoebe scolded. Even though Helga had largely ditched her since they started high school, she still defended her old best friend.
"Well, they are crazy!" Gerald said. "They're going to sneak into Clayton tomorrow night and go poking around for ghosts."
"The old mental hospital?" Arnold asked, whirling around to face Gerald. Clayton Hospital was on the outskirts of town, past the old railroad station. It had been abandoned since the early seventies, and though it was marked as private property and blocked off with a chain link fence, kids often still snuck onto the grounds for a thrill during the day, only to get creeped out and dash off. Arnold had never been, but he had heard it was scary.
"Yep," Gerald said. "Couple of loons, no other explanation." He shuddered.
"That's really dangerous," Arnold said, frowning. "I've heard kids have gotten arrested for trespassing there, and that homeless people live inside the old building."
"Plus, the place is condemned," Phoebe said. "The building itself could collapse."
"No way are they going in there," Arnold said, shaking his head.
"What are you going to do, tell them they can't?" Gerald asked with a laugh. "Like they'd care."
"Helga will listen to reason," Arnold said, standing up. Gerald cracked up.
"Arnold, my man, you're crazier than them if you think that's true."
Arnold ignored Gerald and walked across the courtyard toward Helga and Curly's table. He wasn't sure how, but he knew he had to stop them from going through with such a poorly thought out plan. Did they want to get themselves arrested? Hurt – or worse? He stood in front of their table, having pushed through the small crowd of bystanders who were listening to Curly talk.
"Clayton was a lot like the place where they sent me," Curly said with a dark smile, looking around at his audience. "Totally inhumane. Plenty of unexplained deaths."
"Yeah right," one girl who was listening said with a sneer.
"You don't believe me?" Curly asked, looking at her with his usual wild eyed gaze. " Were you there? I roomed with a guy my first week who told me he was afraid the nurses were plotting to kill him. A week later he was gone. The nurses told me he was released but I knew they were lying – this guy wasn't even up for review for months."
Arnold sighed to himself, listening. Curly was talking about his six month stint in a mental hospital uptown. The school had forced him to go there after he got into a fight with an older boy named Alex who had been picking on him all year. Curly finally snapped – as he was prone to doing – and got in a lucky punch, knocking Alex's teeth out. Alex's parents, who were rich neighbors of the Wellington Lloyd's, had threatened to sue the school unless Curly was sent away for 'rehabilitation.' His sentence had been for one year, but Curly's parents had fought to get him out in six months. They claimed past prejudice because of Curly's very – individual – personality had caused a mis-sentencing, whereas he should have simply been suspended for a week or so.
"Why the hell do you want to sneak back into a mental institution, dumbass?" one of the boys who was listening asked, frowning and crossing his arms over his chest. "You like it in there or something?"
"It's not a functioning hospital, you Neanderthals," Helga answered for Curly, snarling at the boy. "We want to get inside to check out the spirit activity."
"I need to make peace with the souls who have been tormented like I was," Curly said with a wicked look around at the group. He always loved performing, Arnold thought glumly, guessing that part of this was just a front Curly was putting on. He knew it must have been hard for him to be locked up with people who had real problems for half a year. Though he could be unpredictable, Arnold believed that Curly was little more than eccentric, and certainly not dangerous.
"God, you are so full of crap," the same boy said, rolling his eyes.
"God, you are so scared out of your pea-sized mind," Curly shot back. "I bet you wouldn't last five seconds inside Clayton."
"Yeah right, I don't believe in ghosts," the boy said with a scoff.
"Then come with us tomorrow night," Curly said. "And prove it. Who else is in?" he asked, looking around at the group.
"No one is in," Arnold said, stepping to the front of the crowd. "You guys can't get near that place – its patrolled by the police and they'll arrest you."
"That's just a rumor," Curly said with a wave of his head. "There are no cops around Clayton, I've checked."
"Well, what if there are vagrants living there?" Arnold countered, "Homeless people and drug dealers?"
"Arnold, you sound like my Mom," he said. Arnold saw Helga smirk, and he remembered her earlier comment, his shoulders slumping.
"It's dangerous," he muttered, feeling like Gerald was right – there was no way they were going to listen to him. He looked at Helga. "You could get hurt," he said. He wasn't sure why, but he'd always felt a need to protect this fiercely independent girl, ever since the first day he met her, when she was walking alone in the rain, without an umbrella.
"Arnold, you didn't hear the whole story," Curly said, standing, as the lunch bell rang and the kids around them dispersed. "If you did, you'd know it's totally worth the risk."
"So tell me," Arnold said, wanting to at least hold their attention for a little longer. He followed Helga and Curly as they walked out of the courtyard.
"Back in the late sixties, there was a rich debutante who lived in this neighborhood," Curly began, as they walked inside and headed through the crowded halls. "She had always been a real straight arrow, but she started getting into the hippie movement, and her parents freaked. They sent her to Clayton, thinking she needed some 'rest.' They really wanted to punish her for thinking for herself," he added darkly, and Arnold glanced at Helga, sensing Curly's own conflict vested in this interest. Helga looked at him quickly and then turned her eyes away.
"Anyway, there was this kid who was in love with her," Curly went on, as they walked past the rows of lockers, past the classrooms that were beginning to fill for next period. "He went to school with her and thought she was beautiful. He couldn't stand the injustice of seeing her locked up like that, so he got a job at Clayton, as a janitor."
"Where are we going?" Arnold asked, as he followed Helga and Curly into the library. He was supposed to be in study hall this period – he heard the late bell ring.
"The newspaper room," Curly said, moving through the mostly empty library, toward the door that led down to the basement, where the old papers were kept on microfilm. "I want to show you that this is for real," he said, turning to Arnold before opening the basement door. Arnold stood at the top of the creaky wooden stairs and watched Helga and Curly descend into the low light of the library's basement.
"We're not supposed to be down there," he said wearily. Helga turned back to him and gave him an annoyed look.
"Stop being such a goody goody and come on," she snapped, turning back around and clomping down the rest of the stairs. Arnold sighed, and stepped down, closing the door behind him.
It was dark down in the newspaper room – there were no overhead lights, only desk lights and a little sunlight from the tiny windows near the ceiling along the far wall. Arnold followed Helga and Curly through the narrow rows of shelves, lined with books full of print newspapers and boxes full of microfilm.
"I've already got it loaded up," Curly said, as they walked back toward the microfilm scanner. "Cause I was showing Helga earlier."
"You're into this stuff, too?" Arnold whispered to Helga as they reached the scanner, Curly sitting down and flipping the screen on.
"Yeah," Helga whispered, half turning. "It's cool. And spooky." She turned back to him. "C'mon, Arnold, it's Halloween," she said.
"Anyway," Curly said, as he paged through the microfilm. "The guy gets a job at Clayton as a janitor, and he's got this plan like he's going to free the girl he loves. He finds a way to communicate with her, and he lets her know that he's going to help her out. They plan to meet one evening, just after dinnertime, and run away together."
"Here it is," he said, stopping on a scan of the front page of an old newspaper. Arnold leaned in closer. The headline read: FIVE DIE AFTER MURDERER ESCAPES CLAYTON.
"What happened?" Arnold asked, straightening up again. When he did he realized he was standing awfully close to Helga in the tiny space the three had squeezed into around the computer. She hadn't seemed to notice, though – she was staring at the computer screen with a sad look on her face, mesmerized.
"He didn't account on the rotating meal schedule," Curly explained. "He'd only been there for one month, and so had she – they didn't realize the male and female wards ate at different times each month. So he happened into the kitchen when some of the male patients were on dish duty. And the rest is history," he said, gesturing to the article.
"Six patients from Clayton Mental Hospital escaped early Friday night," Arnold said, leaning in and reading the article. "A janitorial worker's bungling cost him and four other area residents their lives, as one of the escapees was the infamous Left Hand Killer."
"The Left Hand Killer," Curly said darkly, both Helga and Arnold drawing in closer. Arnold felt goosebumps rise on his skin, and then felt the sleeve of Helga's sweater brush his hand. He glanced at her: she looked scared.
"Who was he?" Arnold asked. He had the odd inclination to throw a reassuring arm around Helga's shoulders, and almost laughed out loud at the idea. At such close range Helga almost seemed like a normal girl, not his lifelong tormentor.
"Left Hand was a psychopath who had murdered his whole family after his father cut off his right hand," Curly said. "They were crazy religious fundies, and when they caught him, er, doing what seventeen year old boys do alone in bed at night, they cut off his hand."
"That sounds familiar," Arnold muttered, remembering one of Gerald's urban legends.
"So Left Hand spent the next two years learning to use his other hand, and plotting revenge," Curly said, "And then, wham. One night he stabs his whole family to death in their sleep – with his left hand."
"So that's how he ended up in Clayton?" Arnold asked.
"He killed two other people on the block before they caught him," Curly continued, obviously relishing the opportunity to tell such a scary story. " Killing his family had made him into a complete raving lunatic, if he hadn't already been one before. He plead insanity during his trial and got sentenced to life in Clayton, in the violently disturbed ward."
"And that janitor let him out," Helga said, hugging herself.
"Left Hand went on another killing spree before the police finally hunted him down and shot him," Curly said, nodding to the article. "And that janitor who was trying to free his girl was the first one he killed."
"That's terrible," Arnold said, not wanting to believe such an awful story, but unable to deny it with the newspaper article right in front of him.
"It gets worse," Curly said, scrolling forward in the paper, to the obituaries. He came to a stop and pointed to one that featured a picture of a smiling teenage girl.
"That's the girl the janitor loved," he said, tapping her pretty face on the screen. Arnold leaned in and read the obituary, noticing that she'd been only eighteen when she died.
"Trudy McCall," Arnold read, "Died peacefully after suffering with illness."
"Yeah right," Curly muttered with a scoff. "After the scandal with the released patients and the Left Hand murders, Clayton was closed down. But while the incident was still being investigated, they didn't tell the remaining patients anything, because they didn't want them to try and escape themselves. So the girl – Trudy -- never knew what happened to the janitor who tried to save her – she thought he abandoned her."
"Poor girl," Arnold said.
"Indeed," Curly said. "What they don't want to admit in this proper little obit is that she hung herself in the closet of her room at Clayton, thinking she had been deserted."
"Kind of depressing, huh?" Helga said with a forced laugh, looking at Arnold.
"Yeah, just a little," Arnold muttered with a sigh. "Anyway, why do you guys want to go there? Why hang around a place with such an evil past?"
"Because Trudy's spirit is still trapped there, thinking that she died unloved," Curly said, his eyes going a little wild. "And the spirit of the janitor, too – he died without understanding why Left Hand was there when Trudy was supposed to be waiting."
"Even if I did believe that," Arnold said, rolling his eyes a little bit. "What do you think you could possibly do for them?"
"Everyone who tries to go into Clayton either gets scared off, or disrespects the place by spraying graffiti or trashing it," Curly said. "We just want to go in and offer its ghosts some solace on All Hallow's Eve. Respectfully explain to them what happened. They were kept in the dark in life – they've got to learn the truth now."
Arnold bit his tongue to keep himself from telling Curly how crazy he sounded. He glanced at Helga, and saw the romantic in her eating up every world Curly was saying.
"This is so dangerous," Arnold said, shaking his head. "You absolutely cannot do this." He stared at Helga as he said this, but she wouldn't look at him.
"Look, there's no one hanging around there, no police," Curly said. "Left Hand's spirit won't let police get anywhere near the place, since they're the ones who killed him."
"Left Hand's spirit!" Arnold said, getting frustrated. "If you believe that, how do you think you're going to get in there?"
"Left Hand goes to haunt his family's old house on Halloween," Curly said, matter of factly. "Everyone knows that."
"Curly," Arnold said, unable to help himself now. "This is really crazy."
"No, it's not," Curly said, turning off the microfilm scanner. "Look, I'll show you the old place. Have you ever been up to Clayton?"
"No," Arnold said. "But there's no way I'm going at night," he added, feeling a little wimpy but still afraid of getting caught for trespassing, despite Curly's wild theory that the police were blocked from the area by a murderous spirit.
"Then we'll go now," Curly said, starting to walk back toward the stairs. Helga and Arnold followed him.
"Now?" Arnold said, looking at his watch. "I've got two more classes today. I'm already missing study hall."
"God, Arnold," Helga moaned as they came to the stairs. "You're a teenager, for cripes sake. Live a little."
Arnold couldn't believe he was skipping school with the two resident 'loons' to go see the ruins of an abandoned mental hospital. But there he was, sitting on the outbound train across from Helga and Curly, headed out to the edge of town, to where the Clayton Mental Hospital had once operated.
He watched the scenery fly by out the window – they were sailing past seemingly endless factories, and it wasn't much to look at. He turned and looked at Helga, who was sitting across from him, staring out the window. There was no way he was letting her do this, and he didn't want Curly to do it, either. He would never be able to live with himself if he let them go through with this and something awful happened. But how would he stop them?
Helga saw him staring at her and turned, and Arnold quickly looked away. He had just been thinking that she wore too much makeup, unlike Lila, who never wore any. It was one of the things he loved about the redheaded beauty – she was so natural. Helga, on the other hand, wore dark eyeliner and crimson lipstick, coated her face with pale powder and plucked the hell out of her once-thick eyebrows. Arnold wondered what she looked like underneath all of that, these days. Probably not bad, he though, chancing another glance – she was staring out the window again. As they had gotten older Helga had actually become rather pretty, not unlike her older sister. But she tended to hide it under bad makeup, ratty clothes like that old purple sweater, and messy hair that hung in her face.
"Are you guys going to Rhonda's party?" he asked them as they rode, the train passing empty fields now as they headed toward the country.
"We weren't invited," Helga said plainly. Arnold chewed his lip, embarrassed. He thought Rhonda invited the whole school to her huge, posh Halloween party – mostly an exercise in showing off how fabulous she and her family were.
"You're friends with Rhonda?" Curly piped up instantly, clearly excited.
"Not really," Arnold said. "I guess she's nice to me – as nice as Rhonda can be. I usually barely see her when I go to her Halloween party."
"Oh," Curly said, disappointed, his shoulders slumping a bit.
They rode the rest of the way in silence, until the train stopped at the last station on the route: the desolate area where Clayton's remains were located. Arnold climbed off the train with Curly and Helga and watched it make it's way around the station, lumbering away into the distance.
"They'll be another one in thirty minutes," Curly assured him, sensing his nervous feelings. Arnold gave him a half-hearted smile.
They walked past what was left of this part of town: a few ramshackle houses and an old Food Lion grocery store that looked like it needed to be shut down. They came to the end of the main road, which dead ended at a large, iron gate. The gate, which was rusted and locked up in chains, had the word CLAYTON on it, emblazoned in large, iron letters.
"This way," Curly said, walking a little ways down past the main gate. There was a broken section that had been replaced by sagging chain link fence, which Curly pulled back and held open so Helga could climb onto the hospital's property. Curly held the fence open and waited for Arnold to follow her through – Arnold paused for a moment, looking at Helga on the other side of the fence. She looked a little nervous herself, and Arnold hurried through to meet her.
"Are you sure you want to come here at night?" he asked her as Curly climbed through behind them.
"What's Halloween without a little scare?" Helga said, shrugging. "Don't be such a baby," she added coldly, walking ahead.
They walked down a long, weed-ridden and overgrown path that led through a densely wooded area. Arnold heard birds calling and animals scampering through the brush that surrounded them. He crossed his arms over his chest, the hair on the back of his neck standing up. There was definitely some sort of negative presence here – he imagined the patients who had been interned in the asylum taking this final journey through the woods, getting their last look at freedom before being locked inside.
When they came to the end of the path a giant, brick building with Gothic style architecture loomed before them, sitting out in the middle of a damp and weedy field. The asylum looked like a castle, and was just as foreboding. The windows and doors had been covered by boards, but some had been torn away, revealing cracked glass that looked like jutting brows arched over the eyes of the institution that watched them approach.
They got within fifty feet of the building and Arnold stopped walking. Curly and Helga followed suit, the three of them simply staring up at the massive, crumbling structure in awe. Crickets hummed in the tall grass around them, and the afternoon sun that was beating on their backs did little to cheer the place up or make it seem less creepy.
"See," Curly said after awhile. "There's no one around."
"You haven't been inside, though," Arnold said. "Have you?"
"No," Curly said, after a pause. "I admit, I'm trying to spread the word about our little expedition here tomorrow night to get a group to join us. It would be pretty terrifying to be in there if it was just me and Helga."
"But we'll still go, even if no one else shows up," Helga added quickly, crossing her arms and looking at Arnold. Arnold didn't believe for a second that this place didn't scare her as much as it scared him – he wondered, like he always did, why she tried so hard to hide her feelings.
"I need to do this," Curly said quietly, taking Arnold's attention away from Helga. He was looking up at the building with a genuinely saddened expression.
"This isn't the best way to get closure," Arnold said, unable to help himself. Curly shrugged and turned to look at him.
"Maybe I can give someone else closure, then," Curly said, and Arnold started to ask him who he was talking about before he remembered his plan to rescue the ghosts' hurt feelings.
"Do you really believe that there are spirits in the world?" Arnold asked. "Or is this just a Halloween goof?"
"Not a goof, I really believe it," Curly said, his face serious. "Does that make me crazy?"
"No, Curly," Arnold answered honestly. "Lots of people think ghosts exist. They might not be in the majority, but they're not crazy. And neither are you," he added. Curly smiled.
"You're a good guy, Arnold," he said.
"But you still won't take my advice," Arnold said, shaking his head.
"Nope," Curly said, looking back at the asylum. "We'll be back here tomorrow night. Right, Helga?"
"Right," Helga chimed in easily. Arnold glanced at her. He wished that he could talk to her alone, to see if she was just trying to help Curly as a friend or if she really believed everything he was saying about ghosts.
A crow flew over their heads and cawed loudly, causing all three of them to start a little. They looked up and watched the black bird soar over one of the spires on the asylum's roof.
"Let's get out of here," Arnold pleaded, and they all turned and headed back toward the road. As they were walking away Arnold couldn't help but feel like the building – or maybe something within it – was watching them leave. He shuddered a little and quickened his pace, eager to get away.
Later that night, Arnold was lying in bed, staring up at the dark sky through his skylight – his nightly ritual. It was a cloudy night, and he couldn't see any stars. While he usually spent these sky-gazing evenings day dreaming, he couldn't stop thinking about Helga and Curly. Outside mischief night was playing out as usual – he could hear the whoops and hollers of kids and the hiss of silly string containers being emptied. Grandpa was sitting out on the front porch with Mr. Hyunh, both of them holding baseball bats in their laps and looking out threateningly at passers-by. Meanwhile, his grandmother was up on the third floor fire escape throwing water balloons at those same passers-by.
"Pookie, you're getting us wet!" he heard his grandfather shout outside. He heard his grandma giggling in response. He smiled to himself in bed. Suddenly he felt like he should be participating in mischief night – if for no other reason then to get his mind off of Curly's terrible story, and the idea of he and Helga going to Clayton the next night.
He put on his jacket and jogged downstairs, opening the front door and stepping out onto the stoop. Grandpa and Mr. Hyunh turned to look at him.
"I think I'm gonna go to a movie," Arnold told them, walking down past them.
"Alright, short man," Grandpa said. "Be careful – there's all sorts of wackos out tonight." He looked suspiciously up and down the street as he said it. Arnold grinned and waved, promising that he would. As he started to walk off something sailed down and splattered near his feet.
"Grandma!" he said, looking up at her.
"Oh, is that you, Arnold?" she called down innocently from the fire escape. Arnold groaned and walked off toward the old movie theater.
As he made his way down the street, which was littered with silly string and toilet paper, he was overcome by memories of all the Halloweens of his youth. He used to trick or treat every year with Gerald, and they would always get together with the neighborhood kids at the end of the night to compare and trade candy. He kind of missed those days, but he was still looking forward to Rhonda's party and the story telling and junk food munching afterward. He just wished he didn't have to worry about Helga and Curly's safety all night, though he knew he would.
When he reached the old theater he paid five dollars for the Frankenstein and Dracula double feature, and walked inside. He loved this theater – it had been around since the 1930s, and it was practically a historical landmark. The carpet inside was worn and red, and the popcorn was still made from an old fashioned machine. Arnold bought a small bag from the concession stand before walking into the dark screening room, which was huge, the large screen framed by a heavy, moth eaten red curtain.
He walked toward the front as his eyes adjusted to the dark – Frankenstein had already started, but the theater wasn't very crowded. He sat down in the sixth row and began to settle in with his popcorn when he noticed someone sitting alone, two rows in front of him – a girl with choppy blond hair, eating from a box of Milk Duds and staring at the screen.
"Helga," he whispered, drawing a shushing from the theater's other patrons. Helga turned around and saw him, and – before she could stop herself, it seemed – grinned back at him. Arnold took that as a cue that she was in a friendly mood, and he stood up, walked to her row and sat down beside her.
"I'm surprised you're not out making mischief tonight," he teased, leaning close to whisper in her ear. Helga snorted, keeping her eyes on the screen.
"I thought about egging Lila's house," she said with a wicked smirk. "But I didn't want to waste perfectly good eggs."
"Why do you hate Lila?" Arnold asked, frowning.
"What a question," Helga muttered, forcing a laugh.
"I don't understand you," Arnold mumbled, wishing he could stop trying to. It had always been a sort of sadistic hobby of his: trying to figure Helga Pataki out.
"What a tragedy," Helga said with a scoff. Behind them, the other moviegoers shushed them again.
"Where's Curly?" Arnold asked after he had cooled down a little bit. On the screen in front of them, Frankenstein's monster had just broken loose.
"He's at home," Helga answered shortly. "What are you, his nanny? We don't need you to take care of us, Arnold."
"Do you want me to leave?" Arnold asked in a harsh whisper, wishing that he could ask her something without getting a snippy retort in return.
"No," Helga answered, quietly, after a pause. Arnold wasn't sure why, but he felt a little thrill in his chest when she admitted that she didn't want to be left alone. He silently offered her his popcorn, and she took a piece. They watched the rest of the two movies in silence, until halfway through Dracula, when Arnold's eyes started to droop.
"Hey," Helga said, jabbing him with her finger. "Quit drooling on my sweater."
Arnold's eyes snapped open, and he realized with embarrassment that he had drifted off for a moment, his head landing on Helga's shoulder. He sat up straight, rubbing his eyes, his cheeks burning. When he looked back to Helga he thought he saw her cheeks brighten, too, but it was hard to tell in the dark theater.
"Sorry," he whispered. "I haven't been sleeping well."
"Dreams of Lila keeping you tossing and turning?" Helga teased, raising an eyebrow at him.
"No," Arnold said firmly. "Dreams about my parents."
As soon as he said it he wished he hadn't. He hadn't told anyone about the dreams – not Gerald, not even his grandparents. Why in the hell had he just blurted it out to Helga Pataki, of all people? He half expected her to make fun of his orphandom as her father once had on Parents Day in elementary school, but then realized that even Helga had never been that cruel. In fact, she was looking at him with an expression he could have sworn was full of sympathy.
"Oh," she said quietly.
"I'm gonna go home and go to bed," Arnold said, suddenly uncomfortable. "Want me to walk you home?"
"I suppose you'll insist," Helga said, rolling her eyes and standing. She followed him out of the theater, and when they reached the lobby she tugged on his sleeve and pointed to the women's bathroom.
"It's haunted," she said. "I always hear strange noises when I'm in there alone during a late show."
Arnold almost asked her if she went to see a lot of movies by herself, but then stopped himself. He supposed it wasn't any more pathetic than his habit of joining Gerald an Phoebe on their movie dates.
"You really believe in all that ghost stuff?" he asked as they pushed their way out of the theater, into the chilly night air.
"Not really," Helga said with a shrug, pulling her sweater shut against the cold. For the second time that day Arnold had the startling inclination to put an arm around her, and his cheeks turned pink.
"I just think it's fun," Helga told him. "Getting spooked is a little bit of a thrill, and thrills are hard to come by in this neighborhood."
"You'll get more than a thrill if you go to Clayton with Curly tomorrow night," Arnold said, knowing he was being preachy but unable to help it. " You could get seriously hurt."
"By what?" she asked, "A ghost?" She gave him a sideways grin. "Now who's being crazy?"
"Not by a ghost," Arnold said. "But by a deteriorating building that isn't safe."
"Arnold, Clayton closed in 1970!" Helga said. "It's not like the place is falling apart – it's not that old."
"I just don't think you should go," Arnold said, shaking his head. "I had a bad feeling when we were there today with Curly."
"The bad feeling is what makes it fun," Helga said, as they reached her brownstone.
"You have a weird concept of fun," Arnold said as she stepped up onto her stoop's first stair. Helga slid her hands into the pockets of her sweater and looked down at him.
"What am I supposed to do?" she asked, her voice softer. "Let Curly go alone? He will, you know."
"Why won't he listen to reason?" Arnold asked. "I know he's not really crazy."
"You and I might be the only ones in school who realize that," Helga muttered. "He pretends it doesn't bother him, but – I know a defense mechanism when I see one. And this thing, this obsession with Clayton and the ghosts he thinks are trapped there --"
"It must have been really terrible for him," Arnold said. "Those six months in – that place – where they sent him."
"It was," Helga said curtly. Arnold thought he saw her eyes getting watery, but maybe it was a trick of the moonlight. "He's the bravest person I know for coming back to school and facing everyone," she added, looking up at the sky.
"Why don't you two come to the Sunset Arms tomorrow night instead of going up there?" Arnold asked. "Gerald's going to tell ghost stories and --"
"Oh, Arnold, put a lid on it!" Helga snapped. "Stop trying to tell everyone how to live their lives!"
"Helga, I think you know this is a bad idea," Arnold said, frowning at her, his face heating with frustration. "You're just trying to protect Curly."
"Well, someone has to!" Helga countered, crossing her arms over her chest.
"You're just a kid," Arnold said. "It's not your job to protect him." As soon as he'd said it he realized he was being a giant hypocrite – if that was true then why was he so hell bent on protecting Helga? He told himself to just walk away, go home, go to bed and tell himself that he'd done all he could. But his feet stayed planted at the bottom of Helga's stoop.
"Whatever, Arnold," she muttered, glaring down at him.
"So, will I see you tomorrow?" he asked. The question felt odd, out of place. It was the sort of information he usually begged from Lila, not Helga. But he simply wanted she and Curly to choose his little Halloween get together over going to Clayton. That was all.
"I don't know," Helga said, after a moment of what seemed a bit like stunned silence, as surprised by the question as he was.
"I feel like we've just been on a date," Arnold said, thinking out loud. He almost fainted from embarrassment when he realized those words were coming out of his mouth and not just forming in his mind.
"Well, buddy, you really are sleep deprived, then!" Helga said, with a high pitched laugh. Before Arnold could respond she turned quickly on her heel and opened her front door, disappearing inside.
Arnold walked home, feeling like a bit of an idiot. He hurried through the now mostly empty streets, thinking of Curly's story about Left Hand, and picking up the pace a little, nearly jogging by the time he'd reached the Sunset Arms. When he got inside he let out his breath and locked the front door behind him.
He leaned against the shut door and looked around the dark lobby of the boarding house. He wished he could get Helga Pataki out of his mind. He was tired of her frustrating mood swings, her impossible to decipher personality, and her stupid, dangerous plans. He was also a little annoyed at the fact that he'd noticed she looked kind of pretty tonight, especially beside him in the theater with the lights from the movie screen flashing on her face . . .
He shook his head, pushing the thoughts away. The last thing I need, he thought, as he climbed the stairs to the second floor, is a crush on someone like Helga. Sweet Lila had already put him through the ringer for five years – he could only imagine what someone like Helga would do to his ravaged heart.
(Part Two will follow soon! And yes, I am still working on "Ribbons.")