Disclaimer: You know the drill - it's been repeated for chapters!
Hey Let's Switch Turns!
It became a gradual, if not almost comfortable, routine for them to fall into. The students at PS 118 noticed it; the neighbors noticed it; even Abner snorted his bewilderment at the pairing.
They all watched curiously as Helga would walk by and wait obediently for Arnold to come traipsing out of his home before they made their trip together. No longer the social creatures they were before (as if Helga were by any stretch of the imagination a social creature), they kept to each other, and if kept apart, to themselves or to a few select chosen ones, such as Phoebe and Gerald. For the past few weeks what was once considered a brief madness had grown into a suspicion that maybe, just maybe... Arnold and Helga liked liked each other and were now an unofficial couple.
For many a recess, the fourth graders in Mr. Simmons' class brooded over the possibility. It wasn't a theory to come to lightly; many other ideas for the unexplained and abrupt pairing included alien abduction or robotic substitutes from the future. But the more time passed, the more it became a grounded possibility that yes, Arnold and Helga were sitting in a tree most likely k-i-s-s-i-n-g.
At least that's what Harold taunted to them before Arnold punched him in the gut and Helga dragged the resisting boy away from the gathering crowd.
Gerald put his finger to his chin. "Somethin' ain't right here."
"Or as Hamlet would say, 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.'" A voice perked up behind him. He turned and saw Phoebe smiling slightly, wiggling her fingers at him.
Gerald arched his brow. "Yeah. Something's up with those two."
"I'm afraid I have the same conclusion. Has Arnold confided in you?"
"Nothin' so much as a peep. Helga?"
"Nothing as of yet. I must say, she has gotten rather cold recently and her behavior is nonplussed."
"None-what?" Gerald pointed to the groggy Harold and to the even further scene of Helga berating an indifferent, if not cool Arnold. "Look, Phoebe, that is my best friend punching Harold and being dragged off by your best friend, who is yelling at him for some reason. Don't you think that's weird?"
"It is rather bizarre. Almost a complete role exchange."
"People are talking like they're a couple now. Arnold won't tell me anything. If anything, it's like he doesn't like me anymore." Gerald sat down and put his head in his hands. "I've never been treated like this before. Not by Arnold."
Phoebe nodded and sat down gracefully by his side. "I understand, Gerald. Helga's the same way. It's like being with each other is completely foreign, as if she's never known me before."
"Talk about Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Never in Gerald's inheritance as the Crypt Keeper of Myths and Legends had he heard anything as weird as what was happening to his friend. Maybe he was going through puberty early.
"How would you feel if we performed... an experiment of sorts?" Gerald looked up from the asphalt ground into Phoebe's framed eyes. She nibbled on her lip and distractedly fumbled with her fingers. "Maybe we can discover what's behind this... change... in both our friends and solve the puzzle." Nervous at the silence, she added, "It beats wild speculation and pouting."
The bell rang for recess' end. Students grumbled, going back into the building. In the distance, Gerald saw Arnold and Helga walk in, together, as always. He looked at Phoebe. "What sort of experiment we talkin' about here?"
Before him was a long horizontal piece of paper with a long line traveling through the middle of it. Phoebe put the marker head back on, placing it in order with her other writing utensils, and paused to look over her masterpiece.
Gerald took this opportunity to take a good look at her room. Zen influence. Nice. Relaxing paint color. Cool. Bonsai plant. Awesome. Somehow her room fit her exactly, but he never could've pictured it was like this.
"This," her voice drew him back to the paper, "is a timeline." She pointed at the big dot in the beginning. "Two weeks ago, Helga and Arnold fainted suspiciously for no apparent reason but 'heat exhaustion' at the same time, in the same place." She pinned the timeline onto her wall, concentrating very hard on it. "Do you remember anything off other than that?"
"Yeah, plenty." Gerald took a cookie off the plate Phoebe's mom left them. "For one thing, that was the first time Arnold started to act differently." He took a bite in it and continued to talk while chewing, "and another thing, Helga ran up to me in the nurse's office and started to harass me. Oh, sorry." He covered his mouth when he realized crumbs were popping out. Phoebe giggled and covered her mouth to hide her smile.
"Do you remember what she was 'harassing' you about?"
He smacked his lips. "I can't say I really remember... it was hard to understand her. Like her mouth was going crazy."
"Sounds like she was hyperventilating, a common trait of an over-anxious state of being."
"Yeah, well, whatever it was, it was crazy talk. The only thing I could make out was..." He thought hard. God, what did Pataki say that day? "...'I switched places with Helga'? No, that can't be right. Pffft. You're right, Phoebe. Maybe I am believing those stories too much." He dunked another cookie into the milk and sighed.
"Have you ever heard the phrase 'a kernel of truth in every great myth'?"
"Well, I think there's a kernel of truth somewhere in this great myth. As scientists, we can't rule out any explanation until further notice. We need to research and diagnose the problem, develop a hypothesis, test it and see what happens. For all we know, maybe what you heard that day was right and Helga and Arnold have indeed traded places."
"Like that movie?"
"Get out of town!"
"No, wait, don't discount the theory yet." Phoebe moved close to him and took a pen and composition book. "In these past few weeks, let's chart out the behavior and incidents that we've seen with our own eyes. How often has Arnold exhibited irregular behavior?"
"All the time now."
"How? Is he... more violent? Temperamental? Does he blank out on obvious details and shies away from conversing with you?"
Gerald mulled over it. As a matter of fact, that described the current Arnold to a T. "That doesn't mean what you're suggesting though," but it did sound awfully convincing, Gerald thought.
Phoebe had to smile. So now the skeptic had to convince the believer. "I've been watching very closely and keeping a journal since the third incident involving Helga and Arnold recently." Third incident? Gerald suddenly realized she meant the day Principal Wartz fainted. "I wrote down the details of the encounter as much as I could dig up, but it's strange the amount of secrecy Helga is harboring against me... well, more than usual I should say. I usually have a small level of confidence in her eyes but it's as if we're no more than casual acquaintances now, not best friends since preschool.
"She tries to hide it though. This new behavior. Which, is even more strange. A complete change in personality is one thing, and it can be explained, no matter how rare a thing does happen to a person... perhaps she hit her head or some other reason. But she's hiding it, trying to puff up her chest and act contrary to her new personality, which in psychological terms is the most mind-boggling thing to think of." Noting Gerald's slightly dry expression, she related in laymen terms, "In other words, the old Helga is gone. This new Helga is trying to act like the old Helga, for reasons I can only venture to guess."
Gerald stirred a cookie distractedly in his milk, nibbling on its soft contents. The more he listened, the more he had to agree that Phoebe really did do her homework on this. "Like what?"
"Like... in this sudden new personality shift, she could be afraid of the public reaction... maybe it would be easier for her to maintain a charade rather than build up another whole reputation. It would require a lot of work, and time -- something any other person might blanche at, but eventually succumb to. That's what makes it so odd: in some ways, she is the old Helga... but the underlying spirit is different. I can't explain it."
Gerald had a grim smile - Phoebe hit the feeling right on the nail. "I know what you mean. I feel the same thing from Arnold. He tries to act like the Arnold I knew, but it's like his heart isn't in it... like it's not really him. But sometimes I'll see it. I'll see that... that flash in him, where I think it's the 'real' Arnold, but then it's gone."
"Now you know my conundrum. I wanted your assistance on this project - so to speak - before this gets more out of hand. I feel something coming, Gerald. I've never beheld this forbearance before, but I think if something's not done soon about our friends, terrible things will happen that will effect all of us."
"Woah, hold on there, Phoebe. All of us? That's kind of hard to swallow."
"I know it feels like an exaggeration," she grabbed him at the arms, "but like I said... I've never felt anything like this before. I've wrestled with my heart and mind, deciding what to do, before finally coming to you. Please Gerald, please. You're my last hope at figuring this out."
Gerald gazed down at her, concerned. He had never heard Phoebe talk this way. It almost scared him how this rational girl had such irrational thoughts bursting in her bosom, anguished with despair of some awful future to come. He softly touched her shoulder with his hand. "Hey. Hey. It'll be all right. I'm in. We'll be an unstoppable team, Pheebs."
Phoebe seemed to shake herself out of her hysterics and grabbed the composition book. "I wrote down everything I can remember about what they did and how they acted. We need more outside of school, we need confirmation, proof, something to explain this! Will you help me, Gerald?"
Gerald looked down at this excited, upset little girl and gave a fateful nod. "Yeah, I will. For you. For Arnold. Even that sourpuss Pataki." The last bit made her smile and he was glad. They sat down to work more, discovering coincidences in their mutual circumstantial evidence and decided the next step would be to investigate thoroughly and discretely just how far these new changes went... and if indeed, their friends were in the worst sort of trouble.
To be continued!
Thanks for sticking around guys. I got laid off like two months ago. Whooo. I'll churn out more chapters before I go to crawl under a rock and die.