A/N: Technically, this is a continuation of my story "Something Wicked," though it doesn't have to be read as such. I tried to offer a little bit of background info as to why certain people are in certain relationships, so there is no reason to read the previous story; you'll understand what's going on well enough. But if you want more of a feel for how Arnold and Helga progressed to the stage they're at here, you can check out that story. Either way, enjoy!
You look like a perfect fit
For a girl in need of a tourniquet
But can you save me?
C'mon and save me
If you could save me
From the ranks
Of the freaks
They could never love anyone.
Arnold was sitting in History class and watching the clock. Every now and then he'd turn his attention to the classroom's window, where most of the other students were already staring. Snowflakes were falling lightly outside, brightening the gray afternoon and trumping the importance of the Mexican-American war, as his fellow students clearly found the falling snow more interesting than the teacher's lecture on the subject.
Mostly, though, Arnold was keeping close tabs on the black and white clock that was mounted on the wall just a few feet above his History teacher's head. In ten minutes it would be lunch time, his favorite time of the day. This was nothing new – he'd always looked forward to the break in the day, and any excuse to leave the stifling classroom was cause for joy. But lately he'd been looking forward to lunch with a special anticipation, because the lunch hour was the time he spent everyday with Helga Pataki.
He sighed happily to himself, sinking back into his chair. Just a few months earlier he would have laughed out loud at the notion of his crush on Helga, his childhood tormentor and now the resident high school cynic. But just a little over a month earlier, on Halloween night, he'd developed a crush on the surly girl, and try as he might, he couldn't break himself of it.
Maybe it was the circumstances of that Halloween night, when he'd been intent on protecting her; it was the first time he'd really realized that he'd felt this way about her for most of his life: that she needed his protection. And he had always been eager to attempt to provide it. No matter how badly she had verbally bashed him, he had always silently forgiven her, always given her another chance, always been kind to her. Over the years he'd told himself that this was simply his nature – he did genuinely care about most people, and did always want to give them a second chance, or try to see beyond their exterior flaws. But when he thought about it, he'd never made an exception for someone who had so consistently maligned him. If people treated him badly long enough, he did tend to try to cut them out of his life.
But not Helga. With her he had offered not just second chances, but third on down to thousandth. He'd always felt drawn to the girl, even when he knew he shouldn't be. There was something beneath her taunts and tantrums that he had always wanted to figure out. And the mystery had taken on whole new dimensions when he began noticing how pretty she was, how nice she smelled, how good it felt just to sit beside her and listen to her gripe about her day.
The lunch bell rang, and Arnold bolted from his seat, fighting his way out of the classroom along with all of the other kids. Outside in the hall it was noisy – Christmas vacation was quickly approaching, and kids were already starting to get excited and rowdy. Just ten days to go, Arnold thought, stopping by his locker to grab the sack lunch he'd brought. He couldn't wait for the vacation, himself – school pressures had been weighing heavily on him lately, and he had a huge paper due in English class that he couldn't wait to be finished with. He was finding it hard to concentrate on his schoolwork, though. For the past month he couldn't stop thinking about Helga, and the time they'd been spending together. Even back during his worst bouts of infatuation with Lila he'd never had it this bad.
He walked down the hall, lunch bag in hand, buttoning his grandfather's old bomber jacket around him as he went. It was freezing outside, but that was where he was headed. He and Helga had a special place out in the school's courtyard where they had been eating lunch together for the past month – Arnold hadn't told anyone about it, not even Gerald. In fact, he wasn't telling Gerald much of anything lately. He knew his best friend wasn't crazy about Helga, and remembered how he had thought Arnold was going nuts back in October when he'd admitted he thought she was pretty.
But she was pretty – Arnold couldn't believe no one else saw it. Every day she seemed to grow more stunning to him, whereas earlier in the year he hadn't looked twice at her. He had been stuck in the past, remembering her as the overly tall girl with the unibrow and the permanent scowl. She still had a pretty regular scowl, but there was something so different about it now, and it wasn't just the fact that it was now framed by two eyebrows instead of one. Helga had grown into a beautiful girl, and--
" Hey, Arnold!" someone called, snapping him out of another one of his trances where he mapped out Helga's face and everything he loved about it in his mind. He whirled around to see Curly Gamelthrope waving to him from the middle of the hall, Rhonda Lloyd hanging on his arm and yapping into her cell phone. Arnold grinned and waved back.
Another thing he wouldn't have believed just a month before: Curly and Rhonda were the school's hottest new couple. Ever since Rhonda had come back from their crazy Halloween adventure with an ex-boyfriend who had been sent to juvenile hall for burning down an abandoned building and an unashamed adoration for Curly, the rumors had flown, and things at their high school had been turned on their side.
Arnold had worried that Rhonda might be embarrassed to be seen with her new beau in the halls at school, but he had underestimated her role as a trendsetter. Suddenly all of the girls at school were dumping their jockish older boyfriends for sweet and devoted nerds. Arnold chewed his lip to suppress a laugh as he thought about it: Rhonda had transformed Curly and the like into the most fashionable accessory of the season. It was something only Her Supreme Trendiness was capable of. Arnold suspected that Curly might last longer than the little black tote Rhonda had slung over her arm, though – the two had been practically inseparable since they'd started going together.
" Hey, guys," Arnold said, walking over. " What's going on?"
" Oh, we're just about to head off for lunch," Curly said, giving Arnold the infectious grin he'd had plastered on his face ever since Rhonda had started dating him.
" I said red, red!" Rhonda shouted into her phone, giving Arnold a little wave. She covered the speaker of the phone for a moment and rolled her eyes. " So hard to find good customer service these days," she mumbled.
" Rhonda's trying to organize her New Year's Eve party," Curly said as she went back to barking into her phone.
" Am I invited?" Arnold asked with a smile.
" Of course," Curly said, beaming. " It's going to be small, just a few friends and a fancy dinner. You can bring Helga," he added.
" I'll ask her," Arnold answered with a nod, blushing a little.
" Alright, we're off," Curly said, as Rhonda moved toward the front doors of the school. " I'll see you later, Arnold."
" You guys are allowed to leave campus for lunch?" Arnold asked, confused. As far as he knew that was a privilege just for the seniors, and they were only sophomores.
" Um, not really," Curly said with a wicked little grin. Rhonda hung up her phone and reached out for his hand, looking back at Arnold.
" The daily detour to my house," Rhonda explained, pulling lanky Curly to her. " Couldn't live without it," she said, putting her cheek against his chest and winking.
" Don't your parents get mad that you're cutting out of school?" Arnold asked innocently.
" Arnold," Rhonda said, glancing up at Curly and laughing. " My parents are at work all day."
" Oh," Arnold said, turning a brilliant shade of red. " Um, right."
" Heh," Curly said, scratching his head and throwing an arm around Rhonda. " We're, uh, off then."
" Poor Arnold, you look so scandalized," Rhonda said, giggling as she and Curly pushed their way out of the school's front doors. Arnold stood and watched them as they descended the stone steps toward the parking lot, laughing with their arms around each other. Rhonda could always succeed at making him feel childish – at least now he knew why Curly had been bouncing off the walls with glee for the past month.
He looked up at the hall clock, and jumped a little when he realized he was going to be late to meet Helga. He jogged off down the hall, which was mostly emptying out as kids shuffled into classrooms or down toward the cafeteria.
As he headed down the hall he almost crashed right into a girl coming out of the ladies' bathroom.
" Oh!" she exclaimed with surprise, stepping backward and placing a delicate hand to her chest. Arnold stopped in his tracks, and inwardly groaned when he realized who it was: Lila.
" Sorry, Lila!" he said, starting to push around her, but she stopped him by saying:
" Arnold! There you are! You've been ever so hard to find, lately."
Arnold stopped and turned around, forcing a grin. He felt bad for wanting to run away: he liked Lila, he really did. For a long time he had nurtured an enormous crush on her. And it just figured that as soon as he got over her, she had developed a crush on him. For the past month he'd been trying to avoid her, because every time they were together she'd try to saddle up next to him, batting her eyelashes – he hated to flatter himself, but he knew when someone was trying to flirt with him, rare as the occurrence typically was. And he just wasn't interested in her that way anymore.
" I've been really busy with school," he said, glancing at the clock again. " I'm sorry. I'll see you – um – at the holiday party on the fifteenth."
" Oh, I'm helping to decorate!" Lila said cheerfully, smiling. The annual school holiday party was usually pretty lame, held during the last two hours of school on the day before Christmas break. Kids were so wound up by then that they couldn't concentrate anyway, so the teachers had just decided to let them socialize and eat junk food instead of trying to force two more hours of class in on the last day.
" Well, it'll be great, then," Arnold said absently.
" You really think so?" Lila asked, stepping toward him with a grin. Arnold swallowed a lump in his throat. He couldn't deny that she was a gorgeous girl, and her white sweater was awfully low cut, and almost sheer in this light --
" I've got to go," he said hurriedly, spinning around and heading back down the hall. His cheeks were burning again, and he couldn't wait to get outside into the cold, so that his stupid, embarrassed, persistently flushed teenage body could cool off for a little while.
Stealthily, Arnold pushed his way out into the school's courtyard, making sure the teachers who monitored the cafeteria weren't paying attention. As usual, this maneuver wasn't very hard – the teachers who sat in the middle of the lunch room were all busy pouring over magazines or spooning yogurt into their mouths. Arnold shut the door quietly behind him when he was outside, the chill in the air hitting him hard and penetrating through his bomber jacket, sweater and undershirt – he felt goosebumps rising on his skin.
When he was outside he walked quickly through the falling snow, which was still coming down, though very lightly. The snowflakes disappeared like dust against his skin and hair as he walked through them, blinking a few of them away with his eyelashes. He rounded the corner of the gym that jutted out into the courtyard and saw Helga sitting on the ground in their usual spot: a small alleyway between the brick gym and the adjacent storage closet, with just enough room for them to stretch their legs out. Much to Arnold's chagrin, they were the same height – Helga was average for a girl, and so was Arnold. For a boy he was a little on the short side, especially amongst his friends, who were all at least six feet tall.
" Hey," he said quietly when he arrived, sitting down beside Helga. She was sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest, wearing her usual brown plaid coat and a light pink cap that she had pulled down over her pigtails. Arnold smiled at her hairdo as he unpacked his lunch with his freezing hands – he had told her a few weeks ago that he'd always liked her pigtails, and that he missed him. At the time she had groaned and rolled her eyes, but she'd been wearing her shoulder length blonde hair in two loose pigtails since then.
" Sorry I'm late," Arnold said, unwrapping the BLT sandwich he'd packed for himself that morning. He could tell that Helga was pissed that she'd had to wait for him – she was drinking out of a steaming thermos and not looking at him.
" Oh, I hadn't even noticed," she said lightly, shrugging and slurping some more of her soup.
" I just saw Curly and Rhonda," Arnold said, picking up her can of Dr. Pepper and taking a sip. It was something they had started doing lately, the newest development in their slowly progressing relationship – they drank from each other's sodas. It made Arnold dizzy with happiness to do it, and he swirled the fizzy drink around in his mouth before swallowing, trying to taste Helga there. They still hadn't kissed yet. He was taking Helga's tender but standoffish cue and moving at a snail's pace with her. He didn't mind it so much. He knew it would make the moment that much sweeter when that first kiss finally came.
" Curly and Rhonda?" Helga said, giving him a sideways glance. " You mean they actually left Rhonda's bedroom long enough to show their faces at school?"
Arnold grinned against the crust of his sandwich, trying not to laugh since he was in the middle of swallowing.
" You mean . . . they . . . ?" he said after a moment's pause, looking down at the sandwich in his hand.
" Are you kidding?" Helga said with a scoff. " Like it's going out of style."
" Curly tells you all this?" Arnold asked. Curly and Helga had been best friends for years, though they'd been seeing a bit less of each other since Rhonda came into the picture. Arnold knew Helga was upset about the development, but he hoped that he would be a suitable replacement for Curly's company, as a friend and as something more, too.
" Oh, of course not," Helga said, rolling his eyes. " He's little Mr. Discreet, or he thinks he is. But I know him well enough to make inferences, and besides," she added, sipping the soda herself. " Rhonda has a big mouth."
" Wow," Arnold said, grinning and making a face. " That's so – weird."
" Yeah," Helga muttered, obviously growing embarrassed by the conversation.
" Rhonda's invited us to her New Year's Eve party," Arnold said, changing the subject.
" Big whoop," Helga said with a shrug, but Arnold could sense that she was secretly pleased. It wasn't very often that overtly antisocial Helga got invited to parties.
" I thought maybe we could go together," Arnold said, letting out his breath and trying to play it cool, though his heart rate increased as the words left his mouth.
" Yeah, maybe," Helga muttered, looking down at her feet.
" Are you excited about the holidays?" Arnold asked, wishing she wouldn't be so glum – for the past couple of days she'd seemed kind of down. It was typical for Helga to be moody, but he could sense that something was really troubling her.
" Why should I be excited about the holidays?" she asked in a scoff, looking at him like he was nuts. " Olga's coming home from the peace corps, so I'll have to hear my parents fawning over her for two weeks. Bob works like a maniac around Christmas time so we barely see him anyway, and Miriam – well. I'm sure it won't surprise you to hear that she doesn't exactly bake a ham for Christmas dinner. We're lucky if she heats up some microwave TV dinners."
" I'm sure Olga will cook a gourmet meal," Arnold teased, but Helga didn't seem to like the joke. She glared at him.
" Oh, come on," he said, pushing her shoulder a little bit. "You think I have ideal Christmases? We don't exactly have the money for a lot of presents, and half the time my grandmother gets confused and thinks it's St. Patrick's Day. Last year she pinched me for not wearing green so many times that I quit trying to explain that she had the wrong holiday and just put on a green sweater."
Arnold saw Helga try to bite away a smile, but he caught a glimpse of it on the corners of her mouth. He grinned to himself; he always felt like he'd just won a marathon if he managed to make Helga smile, and especially when she was in a sour mood.
" It's so damn cold out here," she muttered, trying to go dark again. Arnold looked around the frozen courtyard: the snow was still coming down lightly, but they were sheltered from the tiny flakes by the roof that overhung the gym.
" It's pretty, though," he mused, looking at the stone benches that were dusted with snow, and the smooth, gray cotton of the cloud-covered afternoon sky. " And quiet," he added, looking to Helga. It was she who had chosen this place for them, and he knew she'd selected it chiefly for the privacy.
" My nose is going numb," she said rubbing it with her hands, which were pink from the cold.
" C'mere," Arnold said, lifting his arm and sliding it around her shaking shoulders. She seemed to be frozen in surprise for a moment, but then gave a little shudder and moved closer to him, pressing her side against his and tucking her hands into her lap. Arnold felt his whole body flush as she leaned into him, and he noticed her own cheeks brightening as she avoided his gaze. Several pieces of her hair stuck out horizontally, grabbing onto his lip with static cling. Arnold brushed them off gently, giggling, and Helga smiled, looking over at him.
" Stupid static," she whispered.
Arnold wanted so badly to kiss her, but she leaned her head down onto his shoulder, making it impossible. He pressed his cheek against the top of her head and looked out at the courtyard, taking a deep breath to still his racing heart. It was these little moments that he had come to live for in the past month – when Helga let her guard down and let him pull her in, hold her, and keep her warm.
The rest of the day passed slowly, with Arnold sitting and daydreaming through his two final classes. He doodled on his notebook as his English teacher wrote lines from Blake's "The Tyger" on the board. He drew a roaring tiger in the margins of his notes and thought of the jungle, his parents. A sad little nostalgia for the days he'd spent trying to recreate the map he'd found in his father's journal popped into his mind. He'd largely given up on the project in the past month. Still, he cursed himself for the thousandth time for turning the map over the police. Even when he was ten years old and had renewed hope that a search party might find his missing parents with this new information, it had felt like the wrong thing to do. As if that search party could only be organized by him, as if no one else would be capable of deciphering his father's map.
After a few minutes he realized he was sketching what he remembered of the map across the bottom of his notebook paper. Embarrassed, he turned to the next page. He didn't really think that his parents were alive: not anymore. But he couldn't help returning to the map, to a kind of childish hope that he didn't really even possess anymore. He had pored over it for two weeks straight before resolving to take it to the police and have his parents' case reopened, and its detailed were burned into this memory, though in the past five years blurry spots and gaps had surfaced between the lakes and mountains.
" Arnold!" his teacher shouted, and his head snapped up, his heart leaping in his chest. She was glaring at him from the front of the room. Most teachers tolerated Arnold's absentminded nature because the work he did was still thoughtful and intelligent. But this teacher – Mrs. Sampson – loathed Arnold. She was in her mid fifties and didn't believe in inspiration through daydreaming.
" I'm sorry," he said instantly, staring back at her. " What was the question?"
" I asked you what your interpretation of the poem was," Mrs. Sampson repeated, her tone snippy and exasperated. Arnold glanced down at the poem and swallowed a lump in his throat. Poetry wasn't really his department, and anyway, everything poetic made him think of Helga these days. That "burning bright." That was her.
" It's like, someone, someone who has this incredible energy," he stuttered, his cheeks turning red as he felt his classmates rolling their eyes. " And it's dangerous and terrifying, but also beautiful."
" Well, obviously," Mrs. Sampson shot back with a little laugh. She moved on to her next victim, leaving Arnold feeling about two feet tall. He turned back to the page where he'd drawn the tiger and the map, and erased them both vigorously, ashamed of himself. Get your head out of the clouds, stupid, he told himself.
When class was over Arnold collected his books and made his way out into the hall, pushing around the other students, who were all exuberant at the day's end. He hurried to his locker, putting away his books and pulling out his jacket. When he turned around, more than ready to get away from school and to meet Helga for their daily walk home, he almost crashed into Gerald, who was standing behind him. He jumped back in surprise and his head smacked against his locker.
" Geez, Arnold!" Gerald said, laughing a little as Arnold rubbed the sore spot on his head. " What are you so wound up about?"
" Um, nothing," Arnold answered quickly, hoping Gerald would go away. He missed hanging out with his best friend, but he didn't want to spoil his walk home with Helga with Gerald's presence. The two of them couldn't stand each other, and he knew Helga wouldn't walk with him if Gerald was around. Plus, there would be all the questions from Gerald . . .
" Look, we haven't hung out in awhile," Gerald said, walking with Arnold as he made his way to the school's front doors, which were crowded with a stream of exiting students. " You want to do something this weekend?" Gerald asked.
" Oh, I don't know," Arnold said, thinking of his English paper. " Maybe. But I've got a lot to do for school . . .," he pictured Mrs. Sampson's spiteful face lighting with glee as she marked an F on his final paper. He couldn't let that happen – he had to keep a B average to have any chance at scholarships, which he couldn't afford college without.
" Alright, man," Gerald said, looking a little offended.
" Gerald," Arnold said, reaching out and stopping his friend before he could walk away. " I'm sorry. I can make time. I miss hanging out with you, too."
" I thought maybe you were mad at me," Gerald said, attempting to laugh it off. " For spending so much time with Phoebe."
" No, I understand," Arnold said, stopping when he and Gerald had reached the school's snow-covered stone staircase.
" I know you do," Gerald said, grinning. " You're the greatest, Arnold my man."
" Eh heh," Arnold said, glancing to the side. He could see Helga out of the corner of his eye, waiting for him at the bottom of the steps. He prayed Gerald wouldn't notice.
" I gotta go," Gerald said, flicking his head in the other direction. " Phoebe and I are hitting up the aquarium this afternoon. She's doing a research project on jellyfish."
" That's great," Arnold said, inching away. " Have fun."
" You want to come?" Gerald asked, raising an eyebrow. " I get kind of bored, to be honest."
" Um, no thanks," Arnold said. " But we'll do something on Saturday, okay?"
" Okay," Gerald said with a smile, giving Arnold a little wave before jogging off. Arnold let out his breath, relieved that he was walking in the opposite direction. He turned around and smiled down at Helga. She gave him a look as he descended the stone steps to meet her at the bottom.
" Sorry," he said, letting out his breath when he reached her. It left his lips in a freezing little cloud. Helga pulled her wool cap further down over her ears.
" What's going on with that loser?" she asked, meaning Gerald.
" He's not a loser," Arnold said, as they began to walk away from school. " He's just headed off to help Phoebe do some research."
" Ah, she's turned him into her lab assistant?" Helga asked with a snicker.
" No," Arnold said, getting annoyed with attitude as usual. She was always more cynical and testy when they walked home, as opposed to lunch time, when she was still cynical and testy, but in a more tender way, somehow.
" What about you and Phoebe, anyway?" Arnold asked as they walked, snow and salt on the sidewalk crunching under their boots.
" As long as she's with that punk she's no friend of mine," Helga said sternly.
" What did Gerald ever do to you?" Arnold asked.
" Nothing," Helga muttered. " I just don't like him. He used to tease me when we were kids."
" Only in retaliation to your unprovoked teasing," Arnold said quickly, his boyhood infuriation with Helga rising quickly through him. But she just rolled her eyes.
" Can we not talk about the dynamic duo, please?" Helga groaned. " Between those two and Rhonda and Curly I'm seeing a critical overload of PDA daily. Outside of school, I'd like to avoid the subject."
" You don't have to look, you know," Arnold teased, though he was beginning to feel the same way about both couples.
" I'm a writer, it's my job to observe," Helga snapped back, her cheeks turning pink.
" Written anything that I can read yet?" Arnold asked. He'd pestered her about this pretty regularly for the past couple of weeks – he always saw her scribbling in her notebooks, but never got close to getting a peek. She was very protective of her writing, always snapping the notebooks shut as soon as anyone came near.
" No, I haven't written anything very good," she muttered, looking at the ground as they walked. " And anyway, that's personal."
" Don't you want people to read your stuff someday?" Arnold asked.
" Maybe someday, if I'm ever any good," Helga said, her voice getting even quieter. " But not now."
" I'm sure you're already great, Helga," Arnold said, touching her shoulder for a moment, and then taking his hand away when she gave him a look.
He understood her need for secrecy, partly. She had been up in his room on that Halloween when they'd first fallen haphazardly together, and she had seen his attempts at recreating his father's map spread out on his desk. He had been mortified about anyone, even Helga, finding out about his pathetic obsession with that map, and he had quickly put the maps away when he'd realized she'd spied them.
" So what are you going to do this afternoon?" he asked as they approached her brownstone. His walks home with Helga were always far too short – she only lived two blocks from their high school. Lately he'd been trying to prolong them by walking slowly.
" I don't know," Helga said, letting out her breath and coming to a stop in front of her house's stoop. " Probably watch TV until Bob gets home and takes over the living room."
Arnold tried to muster up the courage to ask her to spend the afternoon with him, but he wasn't even really sure what they would do. He didn't have any money to take her out on dates – he was afraid of keeping a part time job during the school year, knowing it would weaken his already purely average academic performance. So he didn't ask, knowing she'd just say no, anyway. Instead he stared up at her as she stepped up onto the first stair of the stoop, looking down at him. It was a sort of awkward routine they had at the end of their walks.
" Well I guess I'll go home and work on schoolwork," Arnold lied, knowing he'd instead go home and perform his usual lazy winter afternoon routine: a long bath, and then a half nap, half daydreaming session in his bed until dinner. If he got some homework done after dinner, he counted himself productive.
" See ya, football head," Helga said, reaching out to mess up his thick hair before turning and heading into her house. Arnold was frozen in place for a few moments after she was gone, grinning foolishly: with the combination of her old nickname for him, which she'd revived recently, and the lingering feeling of her fingers in his hair, he was perfectly thrilled and fully stocked with daydreaming ammo for the afternoon ahead.
Arnold woke up from a thin sleep when his he heard his grandmother calling him for dinner. He blinked, stretched and yawned, rolling over lazily onto his back and staring up at his skylight. It was already pitch dark outside, though it was only a little after six o'clock in the evening. The days were getting so short – Arnold liked the phenomenon, really. It was a cozy kind of winter feeling, and the quickly approaching evening made him feel less guilty about spending his afternoons laying about the house.
He got up out of his bed, feeling sticky from the heat of his blankets and still smelling like soap from his earlier bath. He stood in front of his dresser mirror for a moment and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, yawning again. He couldn't wait for Christmas break, when his relaxation wouldn't be laced with the guilt that came from putting off his homework. I'll do it after dinner, he told himself, leaving his room and padding down to dinner in his sock feet.
" There ya are, short man!" he grandfather said when he entered the kitchen and went for the cabinets and then the fridge, pouring himself a tall glass of milk. " Where've ya been all day?"
" Doing homework," Arnold said, his voice deep and croaky from sleep.
" Yeah, right," Ernie, who was seated at the kitchen table along with Oskar and Suzy, said with a snort. " More like hogging the freaking bathroom for two hours."
" I wasn't in there for two hours," Arnold said, his cheeks heating. He was getting especially tired of living with non-family members like Ernie who complained about his daily routines without, Arnold felt, any warrant. It was one thing if his grandparents wanted to tell him what to do under their roof, but Ernie needed to learn to keep his rather sizable mouth shut.
" Really, Arnold, I had to use the toilet!" Oskar protested, dumping half the contents of the flask he kept in his shirt pocket into the disgusting fruit punch he drank every night. " I had to go down the street to Green's Meats to use the john, and that Green isn't the cleanest man in town."
" Like you are," Suzy muttered from behind her newspaper, which she was reading at the table. " But truly, Arnold," she said, looking up from her paper. " You do take an awfully long time in there."
" Sorry!" Arnold said, trying to keep his tone of voice from betraying how he felt as he piled dinner onto his plate – instant mashed potatoes and canned lima beans. Again. He grumbled to himself as he took his plate into the living room to eat in front of the TV with Mr. Hynh. I can't wait to move out of here, he thought, dragging a sticky TV tray over to the couch and sitting down beside his grandmother, who was busy knitting some sort of odd, eight-fingered glove that might have been a sweater for an octopus, for all Arnold knew. He sighed to himself and dug into the familiar, starchy, fake potatoes.
Someday I'm going to have my own house, he reminded himself, trying to cheer up. And I'll live there with my own family, and no one else. Just me, my wife, and my kids.
His body filled with warmth at the thought of the future, even though the living room was freezing, since the radiator was busted again and his grandparents couldn't fix it until the boarders paid rent at the end of the month, and of course the boarders couldn't pay rent until they collected their paltry paychecks --
Arnold shook his head, retreating again to his thoughts about the future. He would be a college professor, he decided, teaching something like archaeology or history. And he would have a gorgeous, brilliant wife – Helga popped into his mind. Something about marrying Helga seemed so crazy and yet so perfect. She would be a famous poet, and she would teach creative writing at the same college where he worked. Yeah – and they would have three kids - no, four! Arnold wanted a big family. Well, he wanted any family. His grandparents were great, but he wanted people that he felt closer to. He knew most boys his age didn't think about the kids they were going to have, or even getting married, but most boys his age weren't orphans. Arnold couldn't wait to have a family and a real home – he couldn't wait to finally belong somewhere.
Though I suppose I belong here, Arnold thought, shoveling lima beans into his mouth and looking around the living room at the boarders, who were moaning in disappointment as they watched the lottery numbers being read on the evening news. I belong with these people, lazy and naïve as they are, he thought, watching Oskar tear up his ticket in frustration, and knowing that he would buy another one tomorrow, and again expect – or at least hope – to get rich quick. Arnold prayed he wouldn't turn out like the boarders, or even like his hard working grandparents, who barely scraped by every month making ends meet. He wanted to be truly successful, to allow his grandparents to retire in style, and to never make his own kids suffer through instant mashed potatoes.
Lost in his own designs for the future, Arnold almost missed the news report. But then he saw a picture flash onto the screen of a smiling teenage girl in braces, and he started listening to the report the newscaster was reading.
" Fourteen year old Amber Burns, of Hillwood High School, was reported missing yesterday morning, and police have been searching the city for the girl," he said, his words giving Arnold a sinking feeling in his gut. He didn't recognize the girl, but that was his high school, and it made the news story hit far too close to home.
" This is the second disappearance of the winter, and police fear there may be more before the snow melts in spring, should they fail again this year to catch the infamous Snowman killer," the newscaster said gravely.
Arnold shuddered. Every year he forgot about the Snowman, and every year the gruesome news reports would remind him. Last year four girls had disappeared, and all had eventually been found, dead, when the snow melted. It had happened the year before, too – the girls always appeared untouched when they found them, preserved by the freezing snow. No one had been able to figure out how the Snowman was killing them – there were no signs of violence on the bodies, no poison in their systems. It was as if he just snatched their souls clean away. There was a rumor that they were always found with their eyes wide open, as if they had been scared to death.
" Terrible," Arnold's grandmother muttered, shaking her head at the news story.
" Police found eighteen year old Dora Spiers just two weeks ago, after the first snow of the winter melted due to a warm front," the newscaster said. " She had been missing for three days, and is believed to have been the Snowman's' first victim of the winter."
Now the Snowman mania is going to start again, Arnold thought. Every year the girls at the high school experienced an understandable hysteria when news about the Snowman started going around. They all buddied up in groups when they walked to and from school, which was usually when his victims disappeared. Arnold and Gerald had walked home with Phoebe every day last year, one of them on each side of her. Arnold hadn't even considered his walks home with Helga as useful in this sense, but it made him feel good, in retrospect, that he'd been inadvertently watching out for her.
He got up from the couch and went into the kitchen, dumping his plate and glass into the sink and heading back upstairs. He had a sudden urge to make sure Helga was okay – what if she had walked up to the library after school, as she sometimes did to escape her family drama? His heart rate increased a little as he picked up the phone in his bedroom and dialed her number. He realized as the phone rang on her end that he had never called her before. But checking on her for his peace of mind and her own safety seemed far more important than his awkwardness and embarrassment at the moment.
" Hello?" a gruff voice answered after four rings. Arnold recognized Big Bob Pataki – he always sounded like he wanted to clobber someone when he spoke.
" Is Helga there please?" Arnold asked politely.
" Who?" Bob barked.
" Um --"
" Oh, Helga," Bob muttered after a few seconds. " I don't know, hang on." Arnold heard the phone clatter on what sounded like a wooden table, and then he heard Big Bob's voice in the background, calling for Helga.
After a few minutes of Bob's screaming, Arnold heard a thundering sound like someone jogging down a flight of stairs, and then Helga picked up the phone.
" Hello?" she said, sounding suspicious and surprised: Arnold got the impression she didn't get too many social calls. He sighed with relief at the sound of her voice.
" Hey, Helga," he said, " I was just calling to – well . . . ," he trailed off, not knowing how to explain his odd moment of panic.
" To what?" Helga asked, sounding annoyed.
" I just saw this news story on TV," Arnold explained, embarrassed. " About the Snowman."
" He's back?" Helga said, and he could hear a little shudder of fear in her voice.
" They think so, yeah," Arnold said. " Another girl is missing."
" Oh, great," Helga said in a moan. " Just what I need – could this crappy month get any worse?!"
" Don't worry," Arnold said, lying back on his pillows and looking up through his skylight at the pure blackness outside. " I won't let anything happen to you," he told Helga, thinking about the space between his house and hers, and wishing he could make it disappear. The long, cold streets – the distance seemed so sad, and he wished she was there with him, lying safe in his arms.
" I know you won't," Helga said quietly, surprising him. He had expected her to scoff and tell him she didn't need his help, that she could watch out for herself. But the terrible legacy of the Snowman had a way of humbling people even as proud as Helga.
" Can you save me from my family, too?" she asked with a forced laugh. " They're just as likely to suck out my soul before the holidays are over."
" Don't say that," Arnold said, knowing she needed to make light of the tragedy in order to deal with it, but wishing she wouldn't.
" It's true," Helga insisted in a sigh. " Olga's coming home next week, and my parents are already gushing over her. How they can't wait to see her. Meanwhile, they haven't even asked me what I want for Christmas."
" My grandparents haven't asked me what I want, either, if that makes you feel any better," Arnold said. " I think my grandmother may be knitting me a pair of gloves with a few extra fingers, though."
" What?" Helga asked, giggling.
" Never mind," Arnold said, smiling into the phone. " I know what you mean, though. About your family driving you nuts – or at least, the people you live with, in my case."
" Sometimes I just want to run away," Helga said wistfully.
" Well, don't," Arnold said. " I would miss you."
" Yeah, right," Helga said with a laugh. " You'd revert to Lila worship in ten seconds flat."
" Give me a break, Helga," Arnold said. " I care about you." He wished she would get over her jealousy of Lila – how many times could he tell her that he wasn't interested in her anymore? Helga didn't seem to want to believe him, no matter how hard he tried to convince her.
" Well, at least someone cares about me," Helga said, after a pause, " You may be the first person on the planet who ever has."
" Stop it," Arnold said, " You know your parents care about you."
" Oh, Arnold," Helga said, the ire in her voice rising. " You really don't know anything about the situation, do you?"
" I know they're not the most attentive parents in the world," Arnold said with a sigh. " But they do care."
" Sometimes I doubt it," Helga muttered. " I'd just love to see how they'd react if the Snowman took me – I bet they wouldn't notice for weeks."
" Don't even joke about that," Arnold said, his heart tremoring when he pictured Helga beneath a snow bank, blue and frosty, her eyes wide open against the ice. He shuddered.
" Well, it's true," Helga insisted. " They didn't even notice that night, on Halloween, when I didn't come home. When I slept over at the boarding house."
Arnold rolled over onto his side, the phone pressed between his ear and his pillow. He thought about that night, when he and Helga had fallen asleep together, and wished again that she was tucked in under the blankets next to him.
" Whatever you say, Helga," he said, giving up. " But if anything happened to you – if you were gone even for a few hours, a few minutes, I would notice. I would find you."
" How?" Helga asked, her voice small and uncertain.
" I'd dig up every snow bank in the city," he said, shutting his eyes and trying to envision her lying beside him. Instead he pictured himself on his knees in the icy street, panic-stricken and scraping at the snow with raw hands. He reached across his empty bed and imagined her there, wanting to feel the warmth of her cheek as proof-positive that she was okay.
" You might be too late," Helga said darkly. " The city is full of snow banks."
" No, I would find you," Arnold promised quietly.
" I'd wait for you," Helga mused, her voice low. " I'd try not to freeze."
" Can we stop talking about this?" Arnold asked, feeling cold. " It's not going to happen."
" I know, I'm sorry," Helga mumbled. " Pardon me for entertaining a girlish fantasy of being saved."
" It's okay," Arnold said. He wanted to say something more, but he couldn't figure out how to put it into words. He wanted to try and tell her that he was trying to save her, from her disappointment with her family, her unhappiness, her fear of getting close to anyone. And maybe she could save him from his aimlessness and orphandom. He didn't dare attempt to tell her any of this, though, afraid she'd laugh.
They said goodnight, and Arnold laid in his bed, holding the cordless phone on his stomach and staring up at his skylights. The moon was invisible, covered by thick clouds. He thought about Helga, climbing up the stairs of her brownstone and shutting the door to her bedroom, curling up in her own bed. He wanted her to feel him with her, even though they were apart. Like a princess waiting under a bed of snow, trying to hang onto some warmth while she waited for her savior –
I'm coming, Helga, Arnold thought, shutting his eyes.
A/N: As always, let me know what you think of the characterization. Again I'm focusing on Arnold As Teenager; I tried to make him even more of a typical teenage boy in this story, as he's doing the love swoon thing now. Putting off homework and spending a lot of time daydreaming, resenting his homelife a little bit: I tried to keep him in character, with a grown-up tint. What did you guys think?
Next chapter will definitely come sometime after Dec. 17th, when my finals are done and papers are turned in! This will probably be done in four installments.