Part IX: Close To Home

"Life's greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved."

--Victor Huge, Les Miserables

OoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooO

"Aren't you blowing this just a little bit out of proportion?" Phoebe challenges me. Me! Her best friend!

"You've got to be joking! Phoebe, the moment I was gone he was making out with another girl! And not just any girl, oh no, not my Arnoldo! When he screws up, he really goes the extra mile. Lila. Why did it have to be Lila!" How long I've been beseeching the heavens for an answer to that most difficult of questions, only to be me with a stony silence.

"Helga, calm down. Think about what has happened. There's more to it than you're thinking."

"What? Was he kissing someone else, too?"

"Hardly." Phoebe corrects me. Sure, Pheebs. Like you could possibly know this situation better than me. It's only been a nightmare I've been reliving ever since Arnold first developed his stupid crush on Little Miss Perfect. It's been a game of Russian Roulette ever since. And the bullet in the chamber was named Lila Sawyer. "Helga, when Arnold was kissing Lila, the only person he could think about was you. He told me so himself, that very night. Don't you get it? Arnold likes you! He wants to be with you, Helga."

"What are you talking about!" I can feel my rage seething.

"Are you going to shut your eyes and close your ears to everything good in your life, or are you going to take control of your own destiny?"

"Don't talk as if you know me, Phoebe. Not like this. You have no idea what it's like to be me, what I go through every day. The only thing I've ever had go right for me was the fact that you and Arnold are in my life. And now, at long last, I'm losing Arnold. "Don't make this any harder on me."

"That's enough!" Phoebe yells at me. I can't remember the last time she did that. It's pretty rare that Phoebe feels strongly enough about anything to shout. "I don't want to hear anymore, Helga! This is your chance to finally experience what you've always wanted! And as usual, you're only too content to mope around feeling sorry for yourself while claiming that the whole world is against you to whomever will listen! Well straighten up, Pataki! Life is tough all over! Stop writing these ridiculous tragedies and get to the happy ending already!" I have to admit, I'm impressed. It's not like Phoebe to stand up to me. Even rarer that she takes me to task over anything. It just isn't her style.

"Fine." I concede the point to Phoebe, not wanting to be drawn into a losing argument. "Maybe you're right about a few things. But that still doesn't explain what his lips were doing on hers!" Ha, I've got you there, Pheebs. You can be as much of an Arnold apologist as you like, but there's no way you can explain that one away!

"Actually, Helga, upon careful consideration I'm forced to submit that the blame for that falls just as much on you as it does on him."

I blink my eyes tight and start laughing uncontrollably. "Ha! Ha ha ha! Thanks Phoebe, I really needed a laugh. What happened? Did I somehow trip Arnold and Lila's lips somehow broke his fall?"

"Well, in a manner of speaking, yes." You've got to be kidding me, Phoebe. Honestly, this is starting to get ridiculous!

"Okay, time out. I need to lie down." I flop down hard on Phoebe's bed, wincing in pain as the hard floor comes up to me. Stupid Japanese beds. World 357,929; Helga zip. Another great day.

"By your own admission, Helga, you've kept your relationship with Arnold downplayed and low key. You wouldn't even let him tell anyone about it. I know that you've always kept him at arm's length. You shouldn't be so surprised that he would give into the physicality of someone else, Lila in particular, given his past affections for the girl."

"Wait a minute!" I roar in poor Phoebe's direction, causing the petite girl to waver slightly. But it isn't enough to send her flying backwards. I must be losing my touch. "Just what the heck are you trying to imply!"

"Isn't it obvious, Helga?" Phoebe adjusts her glasses. Something about it looks like a sign of defiance. "You're a. . .you're a cold fish!"

"A cold fish?" I blink. "Me!"

"I'm afraid so, Helga."

I sputter at Phoebe's accusations. I can't do more than babble like an idiot, because they're true. Every last one. I am such a fool. Why didn't I know it until now? He even mentioned it himself on Valentine's Day. I have kept him trapped inside a perpetual state of limbo ever since I got out of the hospital all that time ago. And up until now, he had endured it all for me. But even Arnold's patience couldn't wear on forever. I look at Phoebe, whose face is a mixture of sadness and fear. Afraid for what will become of me? Or that my anger will come back to burn her? Perhaps both. "So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth." I quote perfectly, pained at how well those words come to mind.

"The letter to the angel to the Church in Laodicea." Phoebe knows the passage as well, it seems.

"It's fitting, isn't it?" I ask.

"I'm afraid so, Helga. But this is your chance to change! Become hot! Don't hide from your feelings anymore! Look at what all this secrecy has done to you."

"Don't you think I know that!" A pox on the tears that are welling in my eyes. I should have learned to be stronger by now. But affairs of the heart have always been my weakness. "I can't fight what I am, Phoebe."

"You have to, Helga. Do you honestly believe that you'll be afforded another chance like this one? He kissed a girl he has pined after for a very long time—and he could only think about you. He's into you, Helga. Don't pass this up!"

"Phoebe? I need help. I'm not the kind of person who can just take what she wants, not when it comes to love. This is the one area I'm. . .where I'm a coward. I want to reach out to him, but I don't know how. You know me, Phoebe. I don't have any people skills. I prefer to let Ol' Betsy here do the talking." I raise my fist in a half-hearted gesture of strength.

"There's always a first time for everything." Phoebe shrugs.

"Okay, fine. So I'll try to cut Arnold a little slack. Can I at least take my frustration out on Geraldo?"

"No!" Phoebe vehemently refuses me. "Gerald is my boyfriend! You have to be nice to him!"

"So this is official now? And here I was hoping that my usual intimidation tactics might keep him at bay. I really must be slipping."

"Well, to be fair, you were away, Helga. Gerald merely shared a bit of enthusiastic holiday spirit with me." Phoebe's blush tells me everything I need to know. She's farther along in her relationship than I am in my. . .whatever the heck it is that Arnold and I have been doing. I really need to make an effort to be less pathetic. They say that we all have one of those days from time to time. For me, it's just been one of those lives. I'm forced to wonder about the concept of ordinary happiness, and how it seems to elude me entirely. I supposed that I could call it suffering for my art, but most of that is securely tucked away in my closet. Some of it is even more embarrassing than the various failed stunts I've cobbled together over the years in my dubious attempts at winning Arnold's attentions. Who would've thought that in the end, all it really took was landing myself into some serious trouble. I should've known. Actually, I'd never really thought about it, but it does seem kind of obvious. Arnold is always busying himself with helping other people with their problems. All I needed was a genuine problem of my own. And the whole ordeal did prove one thing to me. Arnold cares. He cared enough to rearrange his entire life for me. Somehow I've lost sight of that.

I look at Phoebe, my anger withering into grief. "I don't know how I managed to become the bad guy here."

"It happens to the best of us." Phoebe consoles me. Good ol' Phoebe. It's a good thing I have her. Breaking in a new best friend sounds like far too much handiwork. "So what do I do now?"

I'll never forget the grin on Phoebe's face as she explained her ingenious plan to me. The respect that I've always had for Phoebe just increased ten fold. This might actually be fun.

OoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooO

Part X: Truth And Consequences

"A woman can forgive a man for the harm he does her...but she can never forgive him for the sacrifices he makes on her account."

--W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon And Sixpence

OoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooO

"Are you ever going to tell me what this is all about?" Gerald asked as he walked down the sidewalk with his best friend. He couldn't help but notice that Arnold's gait seemed a bit hesitant.

"I'm trying to make my life easier." Arnold explained. "I really messed up this project with Helga. But she said that as a Christmas present, I could take her revenge all at once and be done with it instead of getting pricked a thousand times over the next few months."

"Why should you give into her at all?"

"Because it's Helga." Arnold sighed. "She's just going to make me miserable anyway. If I can let her do something big and then get her off my back, so much the better. I mean, she works for my Grandpa. Who knows what horror she could unleash on my room!"

"I guess I never thought of it that way." Gerald nodded. "But I still don't see why you should have to take her abuse. Anyway, where are you meeting her?"

"The school playground." Arnold said as they approached. "I wonder where she—oh." Both Arnold and Gerald turned to look at the schoolyard. Helga had truly outdone herself. A jury of Arnold's peers had been assembled, including Sid, Stinky, Harold, Phoebe, Rhonda, Nadine, Curly, Eugene, Sheena, and even Lila.

"Well, well, well." Helga smiled viciously, baring her teeth at the newcomers. "Look who decided to show up. I hope you don't mind that I decided to invite a few witnesses. I knew you wouldn't want things any other way!" Helga's voice seemed to fill the playground, her mocking disdain carrying like the voice of a ringmaster beneath the big top.

"What do you want, Helga?" Gerald asked, respectfully wanting to protect his best friend.

"Take a seat, Geraldo, and you'll soon know." Helga indicated a seat of honor at the top of the monkey bars, which Gerald begrudgingly took. "Now that we're all here, let me present the evidence. Witnesses have repeatedly stated that you, Arnold, were seen kissing Lila Sawyer at Princess Rhonda Lloyd's Christmas party. What do you have to say for yourself, bucko?"

Arnold could feel a tightness in his body taking hold. But he had to remain calm. This was the price to be paid for his arrogance. "It's true."

"Ah, a little holiday romance. How touching. Or is it? Lila?"

"Yes?" The pigtailed brunette asked, feeling timid but not daring to cross the blond prosecutor.

"Tell us what happened next, after the kissy stuff, won't you?"

"Well, I thought that Arnold was going to explain things to me, but instead, he left. I felt ever so bad about what happened." Lila's expression was wilted, like that of a sun-scorched flower.

"Phoebe!" Helga bellowed. "Play back the tape!"

The Asian girl nodded curly, pushing the buttons that would rain down accusation on poor Arnold. Moments later, Lila's voice poured through the large speaker on the portable boom box. "I thought that Arnold was going to explain things to me, but instead, he left. I felt ever so bad."

"Again!" Helga insisted, and the sad account played once more. "I thought that Arnold was going to explain things to me, but instead, he left. I felt ever so bad."

"So," Helga smirked, "here he is, ladies. Portrait of a boy bent on hurting the one he professed strong feelings for. We all know that he's wanted Lila since the fourth grade. So what does he do when she deigns to show him a little favor? He plays with her feelings! How would you like it, Arnold, if someone you really liked taunted you like that? How would it make you feel, hmm?"

Arnold sighed, realizing how blindly he had walked into this trap. Ever since the party, he had been so concerned about Helga that he hadn't even stopped to consider what Lila must be feeling. He felt ashamed of himself. "It's true." Arnold announced, not willing to lie even to save his own hide. His eyes sought out Lila's, needing her to understand so that he might ease her own confusion. "I never meant to hurt you, Lila. It's just that ever since we kissed, I've been thinking about someone else. I'm sorry, Lila. I wasn't trying to play with your feelings. I just think that. . .Lila, after we kissed, I realized that you were right. We weren't meant for each other. I know that now, because you helped me to realize who my oh-so-special someone is."

"Do you mean it, Arnold?" Lila asked, clasping her hands together. "Do you really think that you've found her?"

"I know I have. I'm sorry if I made you feel bad, Lila. I would never intentionally try to hurt you like that."

"Don't be silly Arnold. If you've really found that oh-so-special someone, well, then I completely understand the way you've been acting."

"Then you'll forgive me?"

"Oh of course I do, Arnold. You're ever so forgiven! And I'm happy that you've found that person you really care for."

"Thanks Lila." Arnold smiled, a weight lifting from his shoulders. Knowing that Lila seemed both satisfied and content at the outcome went a long way towards healing the rift.

"Oh, how touching!" Helga interjected, clearly angry at the way that things were progressing. "There you go again, Arnold. Flowers spilling out of your pockets wherever you go! There still must be some kind of justice meted out. Am I right, ladies?" Helga turned to the crowd.

Nadine was the first to speak. "Actually, I think we're done here, Helga."

"Lila's already forgiven him." Sheena nodded.

"Please don't do anything to Arnold. It would be ever so cruel." Lila pleaded.

Even Rhonda rushed to the boy's defense. "As much as I enjoy a good show, there's nothing further to be gained from this. And as we've always known, Arnold is really a very nice boy. This only proves it." She smiled briefly at the defendant, who was quite satisfied to receive support from the school's reigning social queen.

All eyes fell on Phoebe, who gulped once before speaking. "I think this matter is closed, Helga."

"Et tu, Phoebe?" Helga asked sadly ad her plan fell apart. The gods had already taken away her chance at happiness. Would they now deny her vengeance as well? "Isn't there anyone here who thinks that Arnold deserves some kind of punishment?" Helga asked.

Curly jumped into the fray, literally hopping off his perch on the jungle gym. "I say we roll him up in a carpet and throw him off a bridge! And then, to make sure he takes us seriously, we free all the animals in the zoo! Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha! Free the animals!" Curly ran off, waving his arms in the air, clearly fueled by the delusions of grandeur that had once again seized control of his mind.

"Is that his solution to everything?" Sid wondered.

"Yeah, it's like he's some kind of simpleton or something." Stinky nodded.

Harold's whining voice begged for attention. "Can we go now, Helga. I'm hungry!"

Helga turned towards the growing murmurs. "No, Pink Boy. You can't leave just yet. There is one person here who still thinks Arnold is guilty. Me!"

"Aw, c'mon, Helga!" Gerald refused to hold himself back any longer. "Can't you ever do anything gracefully! You've lost this one! Let him go!"

"It's okay, Gerald." Arnold explained. "If Helga wants to settle things with me, then I'll let her. I owe her that much."

"Man, Arnold! You don't owe her anything!" Gerald yelled. "She's just looking for an excuse to turn your life into a living nightmare!"

"Stay out of this, Gerald!" Arnold began to feel the frustration, regretting that he had raised his voice to someone who was only trying to defend him, especially his best friend. He really wanted to tell Gerald the truth, but he couldn't. He doubted that Helga would ever forgive him for kissing Lila, revealing her secret might destroy what little chance remained of fixing things between them.

Helga smirked, satisfied that Arnold was not resisting. "Let the record show that I'm not without mercy." Helga presented herself. "I was going to push you off of the pier and have Sheena's Uncle Earl rescue you. But instead, I'll show a little leniency." Helga produced an 8 gallon plastic bucket, smiling all the while. "Have a drink on me, Arnoldo!" She hoisted the bucket and emptied the contents over his head. Ice cold water, made less bearable by the already frosty temperature of New Year's Eve. Arnold shivered but held his ground, trying to think warm thoughts. "That was for playing with a girl's feelings, Football Head, intentional or not." Helga then did something she had never done before. For the first time in her life, Helga Pataki struck her love. She slapped his cheek with the palm of her hand, a resounding noise deafening everyone's ears. The force Helga had exhibited was noticeable but not brutal. Arnold would be feeling the sting for some time to come, but she hadn't hit him hard enough to leave a bruise, or worse, scratch him with her nails.

"Helga. . ." Phoebe began, but found no voice to finish her thought.

Gerald stepped between Arnold and Helga, but a fierce look from the friend he was trying to defend sent Gerald packing back to his seat. Arnold desperately wanted to rub his cheek, but he didn't want to show weakness now. He knew he deserved this from Helga.

"And that," Helga struggled to keep the tears out of her eyes, "is for kissing Lila." Her voice nearly broke at the end.

"Helga, that's enough." Phoebe took her best friend's hand.

"No, it isn't." Helga shook her head. She moved back towards Arnold, forcing herself to look him in the eye. She stopped in front of him, several feet taller than his smaller form. She raised a hand as if to shove him, but rested it hesitantly on his right shoulder instead. She tilted his head upward, descending upon his lips with her own in one fluid motion. His lips were cold, like the rest of his body, the consequences of her earlier abuse. Yet somehow, it was the warmest sensation either of them had shared together. Arnold couldn't help but think of a box a chocolates as he tasted her kiss. Helga was bittersweet, like a bar of dark chocolate. Distinct, memorable. "And this," Helga spoke softly as she let the moment pass, "is because in spite of everything, I still love you."

"But Helga, everything will change." Arnold whispered to her, taken quite aback by this latest action.

"It already has." Helga returned in a soft voice, planting a tiny kiss on his lips before turning back to the crowd. "Now," Helga raised her voice again, "does anyone here have a problem with what they just saw?"

"Wait a minute!" Stinky called out. "I'm confused! Does this mean that Miss Helga really likes Arnold? I mean, she likes him likes him or somethin'?"

"Of course!" Rhonda scoffed. "You've got to be joking! She's only wanted him since like the first grade!"

"Ah ha ha ha!" Harold mocked the awkward blondes who were at the center of the stage. "Helga loves Arnold! Now I bet you she's gonna marry him and they'll have a bunch of ugly kids together ha ha ha! His laughter was snapping Helga's remaining nerves at an alarming rate.

"I think it's sweet." Eugene smiled. "C'mon guys. No one wants to be alone in life. We should be happy for her."

"They do make a cute couple." Nadine agreed. "I don't see why we should give them a hard time."

"Now hold on a minute!" Gerald protested. "This doesn't make any sense! Arnold! Are you and Helga. . ?"

"Windshield wipers?" Arnold answered with a chuckle.

"You could have at least told me!" Gerald cried.

"You mean you really didn't know?" Rhonda asked.

"I thought that Helga's feeling were common knowledge." Sheena nodded.

"YOU WHAT!" Helga roared in a voice loud enough to wake the dead. "All right, that's it! Show of hands! How many of you jokers knew that I liked Arnold! Rhonda's hand shot up first, followed by Phoebe, Lila, and Sheena. Nadine's hand was also raised. "Phoebe, I'll cut you some slack. It's pretty hard to be my best friend and not know. But you, Lila! Was it you who betrayed me?"

"No, Helga!" Lila protested. "I never told anyone, like I promised. That would be just ever so mean."

"Well somebody cracked!" Helga spat.

"Oh, please." Rhonda interrupted. "Helga, anyone with half a brain knows that you like Arnold, and no one needed it spilled out for them. Well. . .maybe the boys, but you know how they are. The way you're constantly pestering Arnold, it couldn't be any more obvious! Not that it's any big deal. Was it supposed to be some sort of secret?"

"Actually," Sid chuckled, "I'd always just assumed that she liked him."

"I. . .but. . .you. . .and. . ." Helga stuttered, trying to process things through her tortured brain. Everything was happening very quickly. Recovering slightly, she scowled, wanting to be rid of her now decidedly unwelcome audience. "All right, fine. Now clear off! There's nothing more to see here!" When no one moved to obey, Helga undid her jacket and threw it off, drawing Ol' Betsy into action. "I said scram!" Helga yelled, diving into the crowd and stamping her feet while waving her fist in the air. "Amscray! Criminey, just beat it!"

Harold and the boys were the first to run, with the girls leaving in a bit more dignified manner. Eugene slipped on a patch of ice, reassuring everyone he was okay before resuming his effort to escape the wrath of Helga Pataki.

"I don't believe this." Helga groaned, picking up her jacket and questioning her life.

"I don't believe it either." Gerald said, shaking his head sadly.

"I'm sorry, are you still here?" Helga asked, annoyed at the continued interruption to her privacy.

"You're darn right I'm still here!" Gerald practically yelled. "Arnold is my best friend!"

"So I've noticed." Helga scowled. "That doesn't make this any of your business."

"This is completely my business! What, I'm just supposed to trust someone who seems to focus all her energy on driving my best friend crazy?"

Arnold smiled, pleased to see such a show of loyalty from Gerald. "It's okay, Gerald. I can take care of myself."

"Should I remind you of the fact that we're talking about Helga here, Arnold? Helga G. Pataki? The girl who once-"

"I think I've got it under control, thanks. Look, Gerald. You know how there's some things you just can't talk about. Like, you and Phoebe?"

"I can talk about Phoebe plenty!"

Helga took that moment to interrupt. "Maybe that's your problem, Geraldo. If you would talk. Why don't you try talking to her instead of about her? I can't believe I'm saying this, but for reasons I will never understand, Phoebe thinks the world of you, bucko. Now look, I know you already took her to that stupid party, but why don't you go and take her to a movie or something. Spend a little time just talking, or heck, just being together. Trust me, it helps."

Gerald pursed his lips, unwilling to admit anything to a girl he considered to be a prime nemesis. "Arnold?"

"Yeah, Gerald?" The blonde boy asked.

"Will you two really be. . .you know. . ."

"We'll be fine, Gerald." Arnold smiled.

Gerald shook his head, but acquiesced to the inevitable. "You and I need to have a serious talk later, buddy."

"I know. I'll see you later, Gerald."

Gerald sighed. "All right, all right, I can take a hint. Just be careful, okay?"

"I always am." Arnold watched his best friend walk away slowly, not saying anything. Helga also sensed that she shouldn't break the silence just yet. She waited until Gerald had disappeared around a corner before breaking into a smile. She took her purple jacket and placed it over Arnold's shoulders, beckoning him to put it on.

"Come on, Arnold. We'd better get you out of those wet clothes before you catch a cold. I mean, you'd better change into something more comfortable. I mean, argh! You know what I mean!"

Arnold looked at Helga and couldn't hold back a steady stream of laughter at the girl's attempts to downplay the sudden innuendo. Helga thought he was going to go on for minutes on end until he abruptly sneezed, shivering a bit. "Okay, Helga. Maybe you're right." They walked in silence all the way back to the boarding house.

OooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooO

It was an hour later when Arnold was sufficiently dried and changed into new clothes. Both of them had needed some warming up, Arnold from being both chilled and soaked, and Helga from walking several blocks without her coat. However, being young, they were both resilient. And after a cup of hot chocolate, both had resolved to step out again for a stroll through the park. The boarding house was crowded, with everyone gearing up for the New Year's Eve party to be held that morning. At least, Mr. Hyunh was planning one in his room. Arnold's Grandmother was too busy preparing a Memorial Day picnic, and Arnold knew well enough to stay out of her way.

A stroll through the park seemed like the perfect way to begin this new step in their relationship, an activity that was inherently romantic in nature, but at the same time was rather subdued. There was no conversation, apparently just trying to adjust to the new order of things was enough for both of them to ponder silently. It occurred to Helga that this was the first time they were appearing in public as a couple, and she was surprised when her right hand reached out to take Arnold's left in her own. She could never remember being so bold before.

A slight sound seemed to tickle her earlobes, and it took Helga a moment to realize that it was Arnold humming a tune. She gave him a curious expression, and he shrugged as he began to sing lightly.

"Why do you build me up, Buttercup baby,

Just to let me down, and mess me around

And then worst of all, you never call baby

When you say you will, but I love you still

I need you, more than anyone, darlin'

You know that I have from the start

So build me up, Buttercup, don't break my heart."

The lyrics brought a smile to Helga's lips, and she began to pick up the pace of the walk, losing most of her inhibitions. She joined him in another verse, practically bouncing on her feet as they followed the path.

"I'll be over at ten' you tell me time and again

But you're late, I wait around and then

I went to the door, I can't take any more

It's not you, you let me down again.

Baby, baby, try to find

A little time, and I'll make you mine

I'll be home, I'll be beside the phone, waiting for you. . .

Why do you build me up, Buttercup, baby,

Just to let me down, and mess me around and then worst of all,

You never call baby when you say--"

The moment was completely ruined as they reached the familiar stone tunnel, where two very unpleasant figures were waiting for them. Wolfgang punched his lackey in the shoulder, inclining his head in the direction of the singing, giggling couple in front of them. Both of the older boys moved to block their path, and a scowl developed on Helga's face. She quickly disengaged herself from Arnold, not wanting to appear weak in front of the bully's.

Wolfgang's smug visage leered at them as he crossed his arms over his chest. "I ask you, Edmund, if there is any sight more endearing in this world than a boy taking his dog for a walk?"

Edmund snickered, all too aware of the impact that comment would likely have. They both watched in fascination as any trace of femininity disappeared from Helga. She underwent a rapid transformation into warrior woman status, rolling up the sleeves of her jacket and drawing both of her fists back. She launched a spitwad into the ground as a challenge. "Say that again. Come on, I dare you!" Helga insisted, ready to claw her way through the older boys like so much kindling.

"Well, well, well." Wolfgang chuckled. "I didn't know you'd hired a bodyguard, Football Face. Does she do all your fighting for you? Or is she just on loan from the zoo?"

"Leave her alone, Wolfgang." Arnold frowned, stepping between his girlfriend and her tormentor.

"Oooh, tough guy." Wolfgang laughed. "Hey Edmund, how many times do you think I can sock the runt before his girlfriend cries?"

"None!" Helga roared, springing off her feet and launching herself at the larger boy's chest. Wolfgang fell backwards, his arms making awkward circles in the air as he unsuccessfully tried to keep himself from losing his balance. The wind was knocked out of him as he hit the ground, and Helga used the leverage to give him a crack to his jaw. Helga spit at him again, while Edmund looked on in shock. It was the first time he had ever seen Wolfgang go down in a fight, even when he fought Ludwig.

Helga moved to give Wolfgang a few more licks, but Arnold pulled her away. "That's enough, Helga!"

"Like hell it is!" Helga yelled, lunging for the bully again, but Arnold held strong.

"Helga! Stop it!" Arnold growled pulling on her arm.

"Don't you get it, Arnold? Can't you see? This is how it's always going to be for us! Can't you understand that our kind are not meant to go together. I am not one of the beautiful people! I am not pretty, or popular, or sporty, or even a nerd! I'm just an outcast that nobody wants! And there will never be a shortage of people waiting to make your life miserable just because you choose to let me hang on your arm!"

"Then the heck with them!" Arnold shouted. "Don't you know me at all, Helga? Have you ever known me to care what other people think? This is about you and me, and what makes us happy. I don't have to prove myself to anyone, Helga. Except for you."

"But why, Arnold? Why are you willing to go through all of this just for me? Why should you have to suffer?"

"Because when you have to make sacrifices, that's how you know that something is real. I'm willing to go through whatever it takes, Helga. Because I want to be with you. I like you. Can't you understand that?"

"But. . .Arnold. . ."

"I watched the proverbial sunrise
Coming up over the Pacific and
You might think I'm losing my mind,
But I will shy away from the specifics...

'Cause I don't want you to know where I am
'Cause then you'll see my heart
In the saddest state it's ever been.

This is no place to try and live my life.

Stop right there. That's exactly where I lost it.
See that line? Well I never should have crossed it.
Stop right there. Well I never should have said
That it's the very moment that
I wish that I could take back.

I'm sorry for the person I became.
I'm sorry that it took so long for me to change.
I'm ready to try and never become that way again

'Cause who I am hates who I've been.

Who I am hates who I've been.

"No buts, Helga. I won't have you interfering in my decisions anymore. Now come on, let's get out of here."

"To where?"

"You said it yourself, Helga. There's a big world out there, and it's changing. Let's go explore it."

"Together?"

"Together."

I talk to absolutely no one.
Couldn't keep to myself enough.
And the things bottled inside have finally begun
To create so much pressure that I'll soon blow up.

And I heard the reverberating footsteps
Syncing up to the beating of my heart,
And I was positive that unless I got myself together,
I would watch me fall apart.

And I can't let that happen again
'Cause then you'll see my heart
In the saddest state it's ever been.

This is no place to try and live my life.

OoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooO

The feeling of holding Arnold's hand is indescribably wonderful. This is the way we were always meant to be. It's a pity that I've always been so afraid of experiencing it for myself. If only I had tried harder, I might have been able to get my act together sooner. But things can always be worse. I could have stayed forever a coward.

I still can't believe that he kissed Lila. Lila! I should have known that little manipulator would steal a free sample from me someday. I'm just glad that Arnold was able to resist her. That he's able to recognize real love when he sees it. I may not be much, but everything that I am is his. And apparently, that's good enough for him. Me. Helga G. Pataki. The girl who is less pretty or likely out of all the others, but perhaps ultimately more deserving. Now if only I can convince myself that it's okay to be happy, and to take the good with the bad, maybe I'll finally manage to get my crap together. Yeah, like that will ever happen. But maybe that's okay. Maybe I'm supposed to be a basket case. That's what I have him for. To keep me on track. To fix me when I'm broken. And to pick me up off the ground, if I can swallow my pride and extend my arm so he can pull me up.

You know, it's funny. When I'd first started, I thought that this was the worst Christmas of my entire life. Now, though, I think it's the greatest I've ever had. And I owe it all to him. Even so, things are going to change. So why am I suddenly all willing to go along with it? I don't know, maybe resistance is futile. But a brand new year is upon us. Maybe something in my subconscious has decided that it's time to try something new. A new lease on life, a new chance to make a difference for the better. Maybe I can't just sit around waiting for something good to happen. That's what I've been doing for most of my life. The very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I'm through with that! Well, maybe not on everything. I pride myself on my stubbornness. I'm one of those horrible people that won't take anyone's word for anything. I have to find out everything for myself. It's a crazy, mixed up world that we live in, and I don't pretend to be part of the solution. But perhaps, with a little bit of patience and a lot of love, I'll be okay.

OoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooO

Author's Notes

Wow, I can't believe that I finally managed to finish this thing. I never thought that I would see the day. This chapter was huge, I've been killing myself every day to get this thing done and I'm still working up until practically the last minute. Man, I'm tired. But I just couldn't bring myself to drop anything from this chapter, every part was important, in my book. I knew that this might be my final entry in The Sweet Hereafter series, and I wanted to make sure that I end things on the right note. Consequently, a lot of thought went into each scene, and while I don't consider this to be perfect, I think it's a solid conclusion. I know that some people feel pretty strongly about this series, some even like it better than my epic Instant Gratification, but I think that's okay because they are two very different kinds of stories and I think it depends on the type of drama you prefer.

That said, I just want to take the time once again to thank everyone for their unending love and support during the creative process. It feels good to finally have this one finished. I have a very loyal cadre of reviewers, and I appreciate each and every one of you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

As always, I still dedicate the work to my dearest Holly, whose bubbling personality and constant encouragement make it possible for me to function day in and day out. I'm sometimes forced to wonder how much of my stories are my own attempts to talk to her easier, or to say things in a different way. She's my greatest muse and inspiration, and the most remarkable woman I've ever had the privilege of spending time with. Thank you for being in my life, Holly. And I hope that the new year brings you untold fortunes of health, wealth, and ceaseless joy.

And as everyone should know but which for artistic reasons I didn't put into the story, Build Me Up Buttercup is by The Temptations. I certainly wouldn't want to take a chance of anyone saying I tried to claim their lyrics as my own.

I did spot the review by Laurel—Pretty astute observation about Helga. One of her greatest problems is that she's never been very good at living. She's quite stand-offish from everything. I'm glad to hear that you were able to enjoy the chapter uninhibited, although I personally feel that this final one is the best of the lot. I wrote the others so that I could write this one. Gerald is definitely dense sometimes, but I think it's understandable on this one. Given the nature of Arnold and Helga's relationship, the chances she would ever show up on Gerald's radar as a possible love interest for his best friend is pretty non-existent. In fact, few people have ever found any kind of charm in Helga. Only Brainy and Arnie, and Stinky had a brief crush on her. This does factor into my portrayal of Helga, much moreso in Instant Gratification. Helga always draws the nuts, because she's a bit crazy herself. Of course, one could argue that you'd have to be crazy to like her like her, but hey, I'm here to tell stories, not to be Helga's shrink. She has Dr. Bliss for that. Which leads me to another point about the story. Originally I wanted to put Dr. Bliss in this one, but I fear that this story was getting larger than I wanted to begin with. I also have to grudgingly admit that Helga solving some of her own problems demonstrates growth on her part. She is not a hopeless case. Anyhow, I'm babbling. Back to the review! I'm not normally one for happy endings, but I feel this one was necessary. I've done enough torturing of Helga in my life, particularly in IG, it was about time I threw the poor girl a bone. Er…dog metaphor intended. You know, I've been holding onto that line of Wolfgang's for about 9 months. I've been dying to use it, and I'm glad I finally was able to tell this story just for that. Bah, I'm digressing again. I must be in a good mood! No doubt about it, this concludes Ceremony Of Innocence, and probably the TSH series as a whole, at least for the foreseeable future. I don't really have any ideas for further stories. I did, however, leave this one open-ended enough for more in my traditional fashion.

Okay, I guess that about does it. I can't really think of anything else to say that won't make me start to sound long winded. Thanks for reading, everyone. Look for an update to Instant Gratification next Monday. It's about time, right? Ciao!

OoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooO

"So what do you think, Helga?" Arnold quizzes me.

"I don't know, what do I think, Arnoldo?" Geez, he can be so dense sometimes.

"About the dance. There's a dance at the Community Center on Saturday night."

"Yeah, I know. Phoebe's been all excited about it. What did that best friend of yours do to her at that Christmas party? She's been thrilled ever since. I mean, I've danced with Phoebe myself a few times, but I never knew that she was so into it." Maybe it's time for me to find out.

"Oh, you know how it is." Arnold chuckles. "Dancing tends to bring people together." I can just picture us now. Arnold and I gliding across the floor, his hand on my waist, holding me to him. Ohhhhhhh yes, it's going to be great. No, perfect! "So what do you think?" I think I'll play this one cool.

"I wouldn't know, Arnold." I flash him a grin. "You haven't asked me."

Stop right there. That's exactly where I lost it.
See that line. Well I never should have crossed it.
Stop right there. Well I never should have said
That it's the very moment that
I wish that I could take back.

I'm sorry for the person I became.
I'm sorry that it took so long for me to change.
I'm ready to try and never become that way again

'Cause who I am hates who I've been.

Who I am hates who I've been.

Who I am hates who I've been
And who I am won't take the second chance you gave me.
Who I am hates who I've been
'Cause who I've been only ever made me...

So sorry for the person I became.
So sorry that it took so long for me to change.
I'm ready to try and never become that way again
'Cause who I am hates who I've been.
Who I am hates who I've been.

--Relient K

"Who I Am Hates Who I've Been"