These characters are from the sweat-beetled brow of Craig Bartlett... lucky stiff.
Rated PG-13 cause I felt like it, and some characters might end up nude later. We'll see...
As Helga Pataki frantically plowed through the knee deep snow, she began to understand the meaning of the phrase 'bitter cold'. This weather did indeed have an emotional edge to it; bitter, hateful, resentful of all living warmth and determined to right that wrong. Her breathing was labored and painful, each breath like inhaling sand, but she had to continued. Almost there, she could just make out the snow frosted shape of the boarding house, no longer a hostel but still Arnold's home. The power was out on several city blocks, this one amongst them, and the half darkness adds to her feelings of dread.
She'd returned from living with her grandmother feeling a renewed energy and was ready to get her life going again. Miriam was the picture of health, exactly as Helga had expected, as the running of the beeper business was her passion and the greatest love in her life. Pataki Wireless Telecom was THE premiere consumer electronics retail business in Hillwood, and Helga quietly mused that it's success was the most fitting tribute to the memory of Big Bob. While her mother had reverted to her maiden name, Pataki was the only name she thought fitting of that business, and as far as she was concerned, it would always wear it proudly.
Reaching the stoop of the boarding house, Helga searched for any sign of life with. The snow had piled chest deep against the door and had obviously iced shut. No light shown through any of the windows. Not helping the situation was the eerie dead silence that comes with steady snowfall, giving the entire area a ghastly dead pallor. She glanced at her watch as she whipped out her cell phone; 8:21 PM, not too late to expect that he'd awake.
"Hello, Phoebe?" she wheezed.
"Helga? Are you all right? You sound..."
"I'm outside the boarding house. I need you to call Arnold and see if he's in here. I can't see any signs of life... um, I mean, I can't see any lights inside."
"But Helga, you know he said..." said Phoebe in a panic.
"I know, I know. I'll take the heat for this if he's mad, but I'm still worried. I just want you to give him a call. Tell him you just wanted to see how he's doing. The power seems to be out on this block, so you sorta have an excuse. Just say you were calling to check on him or to see if he needed anything, or something like that. Please Phebes..." Helga's voice was heavy with concern.
Sighing, Phoebe said, "Okay Helga... I'll call you right back.
Helga's time away had been what she had needed. Her mother's relatives were a stark contrast to her own home life, as she was awash in love and encouragement. Awkward at first, she gradually accepted and thrived from the attention and grew into a proud, confident young lady, in school and her very busy social life. Editor of the school paper two years running, vice president of the yearbook committee, she moved easily in the upper realms of her peers. While not a social animal, she was gregarious and enjoyed the attentions of a string of potential suitors, whom she encouraged, but only to a point. Some things in her life refused to change and her feelings for Arnold being chief among them.
As she edged her way to the side alley of the boarding house, her phone chirped joyously.
"Helga, he's not answering. I tried both numbers, and his cell twice. Do you think he's all right?"
"I'm trying not to think about that. Okay, I'm going in..." she said looking up to the fire escape ladder.
"HELGA, NO! Arnold asked you not to..."
"Call me back in a few minutes. Thanks Phebes." and she put the phone away and leapt to grab to first wrung of the fire escape ladder.
At her father's funeral on that humid July morning, Arnold was the very model of compassion. Almost in a daze, she was having trouble reconciling her feelings. Her relationship with Big Bob had always been dicey (to put it mildly), but he was still her father and all she could remember were the good times. All too intimate with parental loss, Arnold spent days at her side, consoling her and doing what he could to keep her spirits high. While she still couldn't bring herself to confess her true feelings for him, the ice had been broken and a deep, caring friendship had been formed. It was decided that it would be better for Helga if she were to live with Miriam's larger extended family for a time, as Hillwood would be no place to get over her loss. Numbed by her father's memory, she quietly agreed, and both Arnold and Phoebe swore to keep in touch. To her eternal joy, they were both as good as their word.
The arduous climb up the icy fire escape was every bit as unpleasant as she had imagined it would be. A constant struggle for balance and progress, she was almost to the point of exhaustion as she reached the top railing. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to warm her pain wracked lungs by breathing through her fists. No time for this, she thought. Peering through the side window of Arnold's room, she fought for clear line of sight through the frosty gloom. She couldn't be sure if Arnold was in there, but hoped for the best. Struggling up the last lengths of the ladder she tottered unsteadily across the roof towards the skylight. In times past she'd stalked this very route to steal a glimpse of him, or on occasion invade the sanctity of his room to protect her own secrets. Looking over the snow covered roof, she finally found the pane that opened into his room.
Their letters were a lifeline, a connection to all the things in her past worth holding onto, and they became her most cherished possessions. Between Arnold and Phoebe, she never lost a moment of the life she might have lived in Hillwood, as they regaled her with tales of her former classmate's doings. Kept up to date on events, it was like living two lives at once, a heady vice and her only real addiction... other than Arnold. Through his letters she saw peeks and hints of his feelings, tantalizing, flirtatious, ribald and cunning, his words would often give subtle promises of what that 'other life' may truly have held. Phoebe likewise told tales of the romantic intrigues of her prodigal pals, while perhaps ever so slightly embellished, served to informed as well as entertain.
Shaking off the last bits of snow onto the carpet, Helga peered around into the inky gloom of Arnold's darkened room. It looked... dead. Not merely empty, but lifeless; a space not having had known the warmth of occupancy in days. Gray and ghastly, it was almost a mockery of the bright space that she'd so often associated with Arnold in memories most cherished. All of his house plants were beyond dead, and a thin patina of dust coated most of the surfaces of the furniture. Giving her eyes a moment more to adjust to the dim light, she tried to quiet her own breathing to hear any movement around her. Worst of all, the room seemed to be only ever so slightly warmer than the air outside... not a good sign when seeking the living.
Her life revitalized, she made the decision to return to Hillwood after graduation, and possibly follow her mother into the family business. She'd never relinquished her dreams of a writing career, but having corresponded with several published authors, they all gave the same advise; write part time until you get established. Don't try to make a living at it right off the bat. And so, taking their words to heart, she wrote constantly, and studied each editor's critique with care. By the time she returned to her childhood stomping grounds, she had an agent and was just beginning to enjoy the first baby steps as a published writer. A few short stories for minor periodicals, and essay or two, and her crowning achievement (so far), a wry history of Wheezin' Ed for FORTEAN TIMES. The last had set a new direction for her as she found that she REALLY enjoyed writing about odd esoteric cultural road marks, and had begun to compile a small notebook of intriguing urban legends around Hillwood to document.
Moving slowly across the room, she took note of the fact that there was very little evidence of any activity in this room for quite a while. The hideaway sofa was down, the stereo front open as if begging for the treat of a CD as reward for good behavior and the potato powered alarm clock had sprouted tendrils which desperately searched around it's base for earth. As she neared the door, her phone chrilled for attention.
"Hello?" she whispered, and thought it better to switch the ringer to the vibrating function.
"Helga? It's Phoebe. I...I managed to get ahold of Arnold..." said the meek voice of Phoebe, almost apologetically.
After a short pause Helga said, "And? Is he all right?"
"He's in there, and he's seemed to be okay... but, um..."
"Jeez Phebes, spit it out. Is he all right or not?"
"He just sounds very depressed. I really am beginning to worry about him too. What are you going to do now?" Helga began to wonder that herself.
Her return couldn't have been timed more poorly. Three days before her train arrived in Hillwood, Arnold's grandfather passed away, oddly fulfilling his family curse, and his grandmother followed a day later, only there was some question as to how much of her passing she'd left up to nature. Arnold was beyond stricken, he was devastated. The boarding house had years before ceased to be a hostel, and instead served as the comfortable home to he and grandparents, but now Arnold found himself truly alone in the world. His sorrows ruled his life, and while he managed to make an appearance on the day of Helga's return, he was a frail husk of the sweet young boy of her youth. After the joyous reveries of welcome home party, Arnold quietly begged Helga and Phoebe's patience with him. He needed some time alone. Reluctantly, they agreed to give him a week of solitude, but demanded access back into his life after that time. Half smiling he agreed and they hugged him for all they were worth. The next morning, the worst blizzard in the history of Hillwood began in earnest...
Helga hesitated as she listened to Phoebe's quiet breathing in the phone.
"Helga? Are you there? Helga?"
"I'm here Phebes... I... I'm going to have to go through with this. I'm exhausted, and I don't think I have the energy to sneak back out of here and all the way home. It'd be kind of ironic for me to buy it while on a rescue mission. I... I think I'm going to have to beg his indulges, even if he plans on tossing me out."
"Helga, where are you? I mean, where in the house are you? Exactly?"
"His bedroom, upstairs. I don't think he's been living up here in a while. It's freezing up here."
"Um... should... should I try calling him again?... Helga?"
"... no... I'm going downstairs" she sighed as she rung off.
Taking a deep breath of the frosty air of Arnold's room, Helga opened the door and proceeded slowly down to the second floor. If anything, it seemed even more desolate the his old room, and she could almost make out the shapes of the doors to the tenant's old rooms. Halfway down the hall, she called out Arnold's name, almost in a half whisper, which seemed to fall straight to the ground in the cold dead air. He's in here somewhere, she thought, but obviously not up here.
As she neared the door to the stairs, she could just make out the soft, slow strains of a cool jazz rift, and for the first time that evening, felt some sense of hope. Just as she was reaching for the door, it swung open to reveal Arnold standing before her. While they had corresponded frequently, she'd never bothered to ask for a recent picture, and now REALLY regretted that decision. He stood easily six two, with a lean muscular build and the arms of a working man. He now wore a small, neatly trimmed goatee, and his abundant straw blonde hair was swept back off his rugged face and at her coming home party, she'd almost not recognized him.
He smiled slightly, "I guess it really was a bit much of me to expect that you'd actually listen to me for a change."
TO BE CONTINUED...