A Special Message From The Author

Hey, what's this story doing here? Funny how things work out, isn't it? I sat down to pen one last chapter of Instant Gratification before hanging it up for the holidays, but then I realized I just didn't have it in me. Rather, I felt the urge to get started on my Christmas story. And instead of making everyone wait for three weeks, I decided that now would be a good time to get started. So, unlike my original plan, this story won't quite be a one-shot. It will have a few chapters. Not many, this is no epic. Just enough to tell the story that I want to tell. Anyway, I know that a lot of you have been looking forward to this story, so the wait is over. And as for IG, don't be alarmed. It will return on January 9 with an all new chapter. See? I can please everybody. And I can take a little holiday vacation too. Boy, that will be nice.

Before you read any further, I feel that it's imperative for everyone to know that this story follows the events of The Sweet Hereafter and Say You Will. Ergo, I strongly recommend that you read those stories, in that order, to gain maximum enjoyment from this one. I'm sure that most of you have done that already, but if you're new to my work, I wanted to give you the heads up. Since Say You Will took place around Valentine's Day, this takes place the same year at Christmas. This would put the kids in the early half of the sixth grade. Arnold, Helga, Gerald, Phoebe, and the others are all in the ten and a half to eleven age range. They're still going to P.S. 118. There, I think that covers just about everything. So, without further ado, on with the show! And Merry Christmas!

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Swead Entertainment

Making the illusion reality since 2000.

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Pre-read by Shinji Langley

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Dedicated to Holly, a woman unlike any other, and through whom everything good in me is made possible.

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Ceremony Of Innocence: A Tale Of The Sweet Hereafter

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Part I: Separation Anxiety

"To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead."

--Bertrand Russell, Marriage And Morals

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"Christmas time again. I hate Christmas. Okay. That's not entirely true. I was just trying to get your attention. I like the part about the presents. I like the shopping, and the snowfall. And I like the way that the people in this neighborhood try to spruce it up with decorations. It's the only time of the year that this place doesn't look quite so run down.

It's the family I can't stand. Or rather, having to be so close to them. I've come to discover that I appreciate my family the most when we don't spend much time together. It helps to cut down on my disappointment when things return to our normal routine.

So here I am, three days before Christmas, what should be one of the best holidays in my ten-and-a-half-year-old existence, and last night I am unceremoniously told to pack my bags, we're going to grandma's for Christmas. That's just great. I can't tell you how much I appreciate being taken away from everything I care about at what is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. I don't get to hang out with Phoebe all day on Christmas Eve, drinking eggnog and laughing about whatever comes to mind. I don't even get to see you, Football Head. Instead, I get packed off to the middle of nowhere. Perfect. And just to make sure that my holiday is completely ruined, I have to endure eight hours in a car with Bob and Miriam. Normally, I could survive that with the help of my discman. But with Olga next to me, I'm not certain that we'll both live through the trip. I'm thinking about popping a few sleeping pills in me, having a couple of Miriam's smoothies, and getting some rest. Okay, okay, don't get all worried about me. I may be self-destructive, but I'm not that far gone. Anyway, my point is that I'm going to miss you. Tell Grandpa Phil I'm sorry that I can't make it on Saturday. And thank him for the Christmas bonus he sent. That was really sweet of him. Just make sure you and the rest of your extended family don't make a mess of my floors. I don't want to come home to a load of back breaking labor. And don't do anything I wouldn't do while I'm gone. I've got eyes in the back of my head, and I won't give you my Christmas present if I hear that you've been naughty. Anyway, I'm afraid that I need to get going. The road's calling, according to Bob. Personally, I think it's the burritos that he ate for breakfast. If I don't come back from this trip alive, promise you'll remember me. Seeya around, Arnold."

I shut the micro cassette recorder off, sighing at the injustice of my predicament. I can't believe that Bob is doing this to me. It's like he's trying to ruin my Christmas or something. My bare legs rub against the suitcase held between them, chafing my skin. I stifle a growl as I open the case and pull out the stockings that Olga gave me. Just what I need. But better to put them on than listen to Bob and Miriam drone on about how ungrateful I am.

These things feel really weird. How do other girls stand this! My legs are all slippery, I feel like I'm going to pull a muscle. I need to remember to store these with my high heels when I get back. In the dumpster. I don't suppress this growl as I step outside and leave my suitcase in the pile by the car. I keep an eye on Bob until I see him actually load it. I'm not taking any chances. It's getting cold, but then, the sun is sinking fast. I can see traces of my breath when I exhale.

"Helga!" There's a call from the upper portion of the street. It's Phoebe. Now she's a good friend.

"Hey Pheebs, thanks for coming." I muster a smile for her. She deserves better, but I don't have much to give.

"I wouldn't let you leave without saying goodbye." Phoebe always knows just what to say to me. I'd probably be lost without her. And she knows it all too well. I don't really know how to react to her in these situations, so I do something a little out of character and give her a hug. I've decided that I can let myself be a little sentimental around the holidays. A little. I'm not about to get all touchy-feely.

"Thanks Phoebe." I smile at her, reaching into the pocket of my purple coat and removing the recorder, opening it and passing the tape along to her. "Give this to him when you see him. But tell him not to play it until he gets into bed."

"He'll be here any minute." Phoebe exclaims excitedly. "He just finished the big game."

I always get nervous when I see her so happy for me. I wonder if she has something planned. No sooner had Phoebe finished with her explanation when Arnold comes running around the corner. So, he's decided to show after all. Now if only he didn't have Tall Hair Boy in tow. It's all a conspiracy against me, I swear it. I tap my foot impatiently while waiting for the boys to catch up, knowing that any moment now, Bob can force me to get into the car. "Did we win?" I ask my love, not giving him a chance to greet me.

"Not exactly." Arnold sighs, knowing how disappointed I'll be. Bob wouldn't let me play. He didn't want to take any chances of me holding him up. Don't get me started on that one.

"Criminey, Football Head, couldn't you manage one lousy game without me?" I groan at him. This whole day is turning into an exercise in frustration.

"We only lost by one run." Arnold defended his performance. "We would've won if Gerald here hadn't come up with a triple in the last inning."

"That's right!" Gerald grinned, proud of his accomplishment. Never count me out when I'm in a pinch." It's enough to make me roll my eyes, the way Phoebe is beaming at him. I've never been that obvious. Have I?

"When it warms up, I'll show you a triple that'll knock that hair clean off your head." I smirk, trying to intimidate Gerald a bit. A girl has to keep up the proper image. Especially one like me.

"So what are we doing here?" Gerald asks. "I want to get some of your grandma's hot chocolate." Typical. The way to a man's heart really is through his stomach. I hope that Phoebe is paying attention if she really wants him.

"We will." Arnold smiles. "I just wanted to give Helga the news." Just perfect. He knows that I can't stand an audience. And if he doesn't, well, then he darn well should! Under normal circumstances, the only thing I like to be seen giving Arnold is an insult. But this is anything but normal.

I pass the cassette to Arnold, wincing at my clumsiness. There's no way anyone could have missed it. Great, now I have to endure the questions. "Not until tonight." I whisper as I watch him pocket the message. He nods at me knowingly. Why does it have to be like this? We're not friends, we're not quite involved either. But it's always me who is holding back. I just won't take the plunge. Say what you will. Call it cowardice if you like, and I will not deny it. How can I, when I know it to be true?

"We'll miss you, Helga." Arnold turns his smile on me. "I hope you have a nice holiday." I want to tell him the truth, but considering that I mostly recorded a whining session on that tape for him, I figure it's better that I just let it go. No sense in devaluing my stock any further.

"Thanks, Arnold. I'll, um, stay in touch as we discussed."

"I'm looking forward to it, Helga." Curse that smile of his. Gerald will undoubtedly be asking questions now. Probably stuff Arnold won't be able to deny, either. Just what I need.

"All right, girl, let's move out!" Bob bellows at me. "Say goodbye to your friends, we're making tracks." Way to interrupt the moment. I should be used to it by now. Nothing ever goes my way. Why do I feel such pain at the way Arnold and I are looking at each other? Oh, right. Because this isn't how it's supposed to be.

"Seeya, Helga." Arnold nods. No mushy stuff here. Not to say that there ever is. And if there is, I'm not telling.

Phoebe sounds off immediately afterwards. "Goodbye, Helga. And have a merry Christmas!" Ah, good ol' Phoebe. I need to do something proper for her when I come back.

"Thanks Pheebs. I'll call you after I come back home." I look in Johannsen's direction, realizing that I have to at least acknowledge his presence. But it's no secret we don't think much of each other. "Geraldo." I incline my head.

"Helga." He responds, in careful imitation of my voice. I take one last look at Arnold before moving towards the car. I don't want Bob yelling at me, my day has been hard enough as it is. I climb inside, fastening my seatbelt and ignoring Olga. As Bob pulls us out, I press my nose against the glass, trying to soak up every last microsecond of his image. I can't explain why, but there's this sinking sensation in my stomach that makes me feel as though I'll never see him again.

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Part II: You Are Cordially Invited. . .

"Beautiful thoughts, and beautiful women never last."

--Charles Bukowski, "Notes Of A Dirty Old Man."

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Arnold sat at his desk, facing his best friend Gerald, who sat on the bed expectantly, waiting for Arnold to open the envelope. Every time the blonde boy seemed about to tear it open, he would instead reach for his hot chocolate. "Man, come on Arnold, are you just going to sit there all day, or are you going to open it?" Gerald howled after the fourth such fake out.

"Sorry." Arnold sighed, turning the letter over again in his hands. He read the return address once again, but it was the name that made all the difference. Arnold mouthed the words, wondering what it was doing in his hands. Rhonda. Wellington. Lloyd. The envelope was legal sized, meaning that whatever she had decided to send him obviously had some significance. This made sense, as Rhonda really wasn't the letter type. After much prodding from Gerald, Arnold decided that he couldn't put it off any longer. He had to find out what it was that Rhonda wanted with him. He held the envelope up to the light, but nothing shown through. The enclosed paper was thick. The return address label was embossed in gold, evidence of royalty. As Arnold very carefully tore the envelope at its end, he half expected rose petals to come falling out. Hesitating for a moment, Arnold widened the opening with his fingers and withdrew the elegant stationary hiding inside. It had been folded neatly three times, and a smell reminiscent of lavender perfume greeted his nostrils as he unfolded the paper, and stared at the regal message before him.

Gerald quickly came up behind his friend, and they read the invitation together, chuckling at the pretentious font Rhonda had chosen. "She's throwing another party?" Gerald asked. "I thought you said her last one was really lame."

"It was." Arnold nodded. "Apparently she's trying not to make the same mistake twice. It says I can bring a guest. What do you think? Do you want to come?"

"When is it?"

"Tomorrow night from five until ten. I'm sure I can get Grandpa to give us a lift."

"Well, I guess I don't have anything else to do." Gerald shrugged. "But it better not be some lame party like you said her exclusive one was."

"If it is, we can just blow it off and go to a movie."

Gerald took the invitation, rereading it himself. He cocked an eyebrow as his eyes came to a list near the bottom. "I don't know about that, man. Something tells me this party is going to be a lot more interesting than I thought."

"What? What makes you say that, Gerald?"

"Check the guest list?"

Arnold pursed his lips, taking the paper back and bringing his eyes down to the list of names. Rhonda, of course, she was the hostess. Nadine, no surprise, Rhonda's best friend. Park, he was pretty cool. Iggy, everyone liked him. Harold, well, he'd show up anywhere that offered free food. Sheena, she probably was working on d├ęcor with Rhonda. Phoebe, this probably pleased Rhonda quite a bit. Rhonda rarely got to spend any time with Phoebe without having to bear the presence of Helga, and there was little love lost between those two. Sid and Stinky, those two would probably be up to something the whole night, but they'd certainly keep the party alive. Lorenzo was finally learning how to have fun, a party would do him a world of good. So far, the only names Arnold could think of that weren't on the list were himself, Gerald, and Curly, and Eugene. Arnold had a pretty good theory behind why Curly wasn't included. He was always coming onto Rhonda, and the boy was something of a loose cannon. He didn't like to see any kids left out, but it might be for the best. And Eugene, well, even Arnold was forced to admit that for reasons unknown, Eugene was something of a jinx. But it wasn't much of a secret that Sheena was a bit sweet on the accident-prone boy, so there was a good chance he'd be there as well. The last name on the list caused Arnold's heart to skip a beat. Lila Sawyer. He blinked, then checked the list again. Lila Sawyer. "Oh, no." He whispered to himself, "Oh no." Arnold struggled to compose himself. He was supposed to be over Lila. He had told Gerald so himself.

"Looks like some party." Arnold nodded.

"It could be you r lucky day, Arnold." Gerald smiled. "Look, you know I'm normally not very supportive of the whole crush thing you have on Lila. But if you ever want to have a shot with her, this is probably it. You're both unattached, and with the whole Christmas thing, she's probably going to be kinda lonely since she hasn't found that 'oh-so-special-someone' you say she's always going on about. Maybe this is your shot to be that guy.

"I don't know Gerald. Maybe I shouldn't go. I have a report to do for school." Arnold lied.

"So?" Gerald challenged. "We've got all break! I know you didn't get anything that big. Man, you know how lazy Mr. Sangster is? The last thing he wants to do is come back from Christmas break to correct a bunch of our stuff."

"Yeah, I know. But this isn't for Mr. Sangster."

"Arnold. Think about it. You're finally getting your shot with Lila. Are you just going to pass it up? Man, she was even talking about you like two weeks ago!"

"She was?" Arnold's eyes widened.

Gerald nodded. "Phoebe said so! She was talking about how it makes her feel weird than you don't try to hit on her anymore. She misses you, buddy!"

This information seemed to be too much for Arnold to take in. It seemed crazy. Was Lila finally beginning to see what he had always seen between them? Could he even dare to hope that-. No, what was he thinking! He was involved with Helga now, even if he had reluctantly agreed not to make the relationship public.

She's not your girlfriend. A voice inside him said.

Arnold mentally scolded himself. "Maybe not, but she's everything else. I'm not going to abandon her."

Why? You don't owe her anything. She won't even let you tell anyone about her. Not that there's much to tell.

"Helga will come around when she's ready."

She treats you like crap all day long at school. She won't even be honest with herself. How long have you given her now? Over a year? Hey, if she loses out because something better comes along, that's her problem.

"But I care about Helga."

You cared about Lila first.

Arnold couldn't fight himself on that one.

"C'mon, Arnold." Gerald insisted. "You know you want to go!"

"Okay, okay, we're going."

"That's more like it. Now, mind telling me why you dragged us six blocks just to watch Helga leave this afternoon? I say good riddance."

"She had something she had to give me." Arnold sighed, not wanting to discuss the matter.

"I noticed. What was it?"

"A tape."

"A tape of what?" Gerald asked.

"Her." Arnold explained.

"Say what?"

"Helga and I are. . .doing a project." Arnold heard himself chicken out. "For Mr. Simmons."

"Arnold, Mr. Simmons hasn't been a teacher for a year and a half."

"I know, but the three of us were involved in something pretty big on Thanksgiving the year we were in his class. Mr. Simmons just wanted us to, well, kind of keep in touch with each other over the holiday. So Helga tapes some of her thoughts. I'm supposed to record some stuff, and then give it to him, and he'll add some and send it back to Helga."

"Is that what Helga meant by keeping in touch?"

"Yeah. He was a good teacher, and this seemed really important to him, so I felt it was the least we could do."

"You're an old softy, Arnold, you know that, right?"

"I know." Arnold chuckled. "You staying for dinner?"

"If you insist, man." Gerald smiled. Both boys went downstairs to make sure that they weren't having watermelon. Again.

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The house was dark and quiet when Arnold climbed into bed, pulling the covers around him. He reached into one of the drawers by his bed and pulled out a micro cassette recorder, placing the tape Helga had made for him inside of it. He rewound it to the beginning and listened to the message, a sadness creeping over him when he realized that Helga continued to have problems with her family. He was hoping that things would've improved for her, but apparently, this was not the case. He wished that there was something he could do for her, but he knew that she wouldn't want him interfering. Even if he did, it was highly unlikely that it would make things any better for her. Was this why she always felt the need to hold her cards so close to her chest, why she guarded her feelings so closely? He felt sorry for her. But what about Lila? She, too, had always been alone, and her home life was very difficult. Her mother had passed away when she was little, and while her father seemed very kind, Arnold knew that the man had to work very hard to provide for his little girl and didn't see her enough. Lila was fairly popular, and she always looked on the bright side, like him, but she deserved better than she had. He had cared about Lila for a long time, only deciding to abandon his feelings when he finally realized that Lila just wouldn't accept him as a suitor. It wasn't long after that he had started his. . .complications with Helga, a relationship Arnold still didn't understand. But now it seemed that Lila might be changing her mind. A second chance at his heart's desire. Now he only had to figure out what he was supposed to do.

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Author's Notes

Not too much to say down here, since I already covered most of the stuff this time out at the beginning. I'm looking forward to continuing this story over the next few weeks. I'll try to have the biggest update come out on Christmas Day, so you'll all have a gift from me. I'm expecting this story to go a total of four or five chapters at the most. You might feel that this chapter is a little short, but really, it's about an average sized chapter of TSH. Remember, COI is not an epic story. It also has far fewer balls up in the air, so I have much less to cover with each chapter. It's also darned convenient, because I've been watching my free time evaporate into almost nothing lately. It will be nice to write a story where I don't have to do such an insane amount of work each week, especially at this time of the year.

This story is designed to tie up some of the holes I left in the previous two stories. I might even address some of the mysteries that have been floating around, who knows! But I do hope that it meets with your approval. I was a little afraid of writing Helga in this style again. Jumping into the first person with her can be a rather trying experience. It's not fun to look at the world through Helga's eyes, but hey, I'm willing to do almost anything if it's for the good of the story. It's been a long held belief of mine that an author has to be willing to do that. And so, here I am, doing my best. Thanks for your support, everyone, it really means a lot to me. This is a new project, so I really hope that you'll tell me what you think! I've never written a holiday story, so I hope that it meets your expectations. The Christmas theme will factor in a bit more as the story progresses, that's for certain. And, I expect, a bit of the new year as well.

Don't worry about your review responses to the latest chapter of Instant Gratification. They should be coming within 24-36 hours. If you left an anonymous review, then I'll leave a response when I release the next chapter of IG. No reader left behind, that is my promise!

I'd also like to extend my thanks for the increased participation in the fanfic awards. Everyone is really doing their part to make them happen, and we're doing much better nominations. An extra special thanks to anyone who has nominated me, or who votes for me. But regardless of what the results come out to be down the road, I think that the real winners in this are the fans, the people like you, who get to read these stories we all work so hard on. It's because of the readers and the writers alike that Arnold continues to have a home on the internet. Please keep nominating your favorites and be sure to vote when the time comes!

So, by this point, you know the drill. Leave reviews, write e-mails, send IMs. I'm lonely! Send your questions, comments, compliments, complaints, love letters, death threats, marriage proposals, and ransom demands to:

Lord Malachite

12/12/05

3:34AM, EST

E-mail: ranger(underscore)writer(at)yahoo(dot)com

AIM: Asukaphile26