1.7.10: repost of old chapter...a little revised.
"What is life, but excuse for death, or death but an escape from life."
How to be Dead
Chapter 1 – Something Old, Something New
"Fall on your knees. Oh hear the angel's voices. Oh night, divine. Oh night, when Christ was born."
"I hate Christmas music," Gerald said, shifting department bags from his right hand to his left. "Seriously, when is this going to be over?"
Arnold narrowly avoided running into a rather large woman who was moving surprisingly quick despite her girth. He steadied himself before quickly jogging to catch up with Gerald. "I'm going to take a stab in the dark and say Christmas. That's when they'll stop playing Christmas music," he finished sarcastically.
Gerald flashed him a nasty look. "Geez, that never would have occurred to me." He staggered as a man chatting on his cell phone bumped into his shoulder. "Hey! Watch it!" he shouted, but the man continued without breaking his gait. "I hate people who are always on their damn phones."
Arnold rolled his eyes. They had been shopping for over three hours now, and both boys were tired of running into people, waiting in long lines, and fighting over toys with over-zealous soccer moms with bad haircuts. Gerald had a small cut on his forehand, a battle scar from their trip to Toys R Us for a gift for his niece. His mother gave him the task of getting the most sought after toy in the city, some stupid updated version of Tickle-Me-Elmo, which Arnold thought was just as creepy as the original. Both boys, who detested shopping anyways, were beyond their limits of patience, even with each other. "Where to next?" the football headed boy asked as they found a small empty space away from the crowds to regroup.
Gerald stopped to look at his list, and a pretty girl slammed into him from behind, knocking him face-first on the dirty mall floor. The contents of his bags were sent flying. "Aw, damn," he muttered as he picked himself. "You better hope that nothing's broken!" he shouted. Arnold raised an eyebrow. Gerald clearly hadn't seen the assailant, a curvy, raven-eyed girl who was wearing a rather skimpy outfit considering it was the middle of December. "I mean—" he stopped as he turned to stare at her, his mouth hanging open.
She looked genuinely concerned. "I'm so sorry! I was talking to my niece on my phone! I didn't see you!" She slammed the phone closed and flashed him a bright smile. She was clearly as impressed with him as he was with her. "Here, let me help you." She bent down and began to pick up his things.
"'S okay," he slurred. He tilted his head and smiled at his view of her cleavage as she bent down to pick up his things. "OH MY GOD!" she suddenly shouted.
Gerald quickly jumped back. "I wasn't—"
She stood up, holding the ugly red doll. "Where did you get this? I've been looking EVERYWHERE for this!"
He smirked. "I have my ways. It's for my niece."
"You've got a niece too? Awe, and you're getting her a Christmas present! That's too sweet!" She handed the toy to him, smiling slyly. "Care to share your ways with me?"
"I think I can let you in on the secret," he said huskily. She smiled back, her eyes twinkling.
"Uh, Gerald?" Arnold asked.
The two turned and stared at him, surprised to see another person. "Excuse me, uh, --" Gerald asked as he started to introduce her to the football headed boy who was standing by them.
"Mikalia," she answered, smiling widely.
"Gerald?" Arnold asked. He was sick of watching this scene of teenage lovestruckness.
"And you're Gerald," she flashed a dirty look at Arnold. Gerald kept his eyes on her, and as her eyes moved to Arnold and back, his moved from her face to her breasts and back. "I like it," she said as she shook his hand.
"Not as much as I like yours. It's very unique."
"My mom wanted to name me Kaila, but my dad wanted to name me Michelle, so they combined it. But then the nurse misspelled in on my birth certificate, so thus Mikalia."
"Awesome story." Gerald's eyes were glazed over, and a high-pitched giggle escaped the girl's pretty, full mouth.
"GERALD!" Arnold shouted.
"Excuse me," Gerald said to Mikalia. She waved suggestively at him although he was only moving about three feet away from her. Arnold felt nauseous. "Arnold, I'm working here," he whispered harshly as he motioned with his head back towards Mikalia.
"Yeah, I see that," Arnold muttered dryly. "You seriously aren't bailing on me, are you?"
"Gerald, I gave up a chance to work a double shift and earn some seriously needed cash so you wouldn't have to be, and I quote, 'a pathetic loser who's Christmas shopping by themselves.'"
Gerald smiled. "But I won't be. I'll be with Mikalia."
"But I will be! You don't bail on friends over girls, Gerald!"
"Arnold," he said, his voice below a whisper. "Do you realize how hot she is?"
Arnold looked around him. Mikalia was standing with her arms crossed, looking very bored and annoyed, though cute. She caught Arnold staring at her, and she shot an icy glare at him. Arnold looked away quickly. "Yeah, so she's got nice breasts. Big deal. You can't seriously be thinking about ditching me."
Gerald laughed. "Arnold, my man, I'm not thinking about ditching you."
Arnold gave a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Gerald."
"Uh, you didn't let me finish. I'm not thinking about it…" he paused. "Because I'm doing it!" he quickly turned and grabbed Mikalia. "Let's go!"
"GERALD!" Arnold shouted, but they were lost in the shuffle of crabby shoppers. "Crud," he muttered aloud. A woman shot him a quick look and began walking faster to get away from him. Sighing, he made his way over to a bench in the middle of the isle, reaching it just before a small child did.
"Excuse me, Mister, but I was going to sit there." The little boy tugged at his pants with sticky little fingers.
Arnold looked down. The kid wasn't very cute, and he sounded like he had a bit of a speech impediment. Pity spread through him, overwhelming all his feelings of exhaustion. He sighed. "Fine," he said as he stood up, but he quickly fell back down due to the weight of his bags. I need to remember not to try and do all my shopping in one day. Apparently, he wasn't moving fast enough for the little kid, who responded to Arnold's sluggishness with a swift kick to his shin. "OW!"
"I WANT TO SIT THERE!"
"You can't wait?" he asked as rubbed his shin, silently cursing the evil child. All his pity for the kid was leaving very fast.
"NO! NOW!" the boy screamed. His face was contorted and slowly turning darker and darker shades of red.
Geez, maybe this kid really is the devil's spawn. "Okay, just wait," Arnold struggled to get a grip on his bags. The child responded with a scream so shrill Arnold was convinced it wasn't human.
Hundreds of eyes turned towards him. Arnold felt his face burn as the child kept screaming. "Uh, please stop," he whispered as he stood up.
A woman who was just as ugly rushed to the boy's side. "What the hell did you do to my child?" she demanded as she smoothed his hair down in attempt to soothe the child. The boy continued screaming like a banshee.
She looked him up and down, clearly not happy by what she saw in front of him. She spent a long time staring at his head, which Arnold felt was rather rude, considering both the mother and the son had slightly piggish features. Her face was plump, and it was a bright shade of pink due to her anger. A picture of Wilber flashed in his head, though Arnold would consider the pig to be much more attractive than this woman, and would probably have a better personality. "You should be ashamed of yourself, making a poor, innocent child cry!" she said in a throaty, frog-like voice.
Her words tore him away from his thoughts, and he stared back at her round face. Innocent my ass. "Ma'am, I'm sorry for upsetting your child—" he said calmly.
"And you should be!" They both looked at the child, who was still screaming. The kid was turning purple. Arnold swore he would have to take a breath sooner or later, but he continued on. Arnold smiled. Now it was becoming slightly impressive.
"Why the hell are you smiling at my son's pain? You are a filthy, evil little boy!"
His eyes flicked down to the boy's candy-covered hands and a stain on the woman's coat that was a similar shade. His temper was waning as more and more people stopped to stare at the three. "I'm sorry, ma'am. But can I ask why your son was left alone in a crowded mall?" he yelled over the screams.
The woman looked at him, shocked. Her small, beady black eyes shifted from Arnold to the kid. "My son? MY SON! How dare you call my daughter that?" She bent down to coddle the girl, who had finally stopped crying.
Arnold's eyes widened as he turned back to the child. Greasy brown hair was plastered in a bowl shape on the girl's rather large head. The green sweat pants had a construction worker on the pocket, which was paired with a horrid red sweater with a dog in a Santa hat on the front. Snot glistened as it slowly began to creep out of the piggish nose. The kid still looked like a boy to him. "I'm sorry—"
"What is going on here?" a short, fat man in a suit asked with a voice that reeked of feign authority. The man was slightly out of breath, and his balding head sparkled underneath the Florissant lights with sweat. Arnold looked at his name tag. Ralph, head security guard of Hillwood Mall. Arnold looked back at Ralph with some sympathy. It had to be horrible to be a mall cop around Christmas time. Still, Arnold knew that this was the kind of man who would act like an ass just because he could. He looked back at the woman. And she acted like an ass because she was one. Arnold's eyes narrowed. He liked to think the best of people, but at the moment, he doubted there was a good thing in either person.
"This boy attacked my daughter!" the woman cried.
Arnold sighed. "I'm sorry, and I'm leaving," he snapped.
"Hey! You can't leave!" the man shouted, but like Gerald before, Arnold successfully blended in with the crowd. He ducked into a ritzy department store.
A tall, thin, blond woman in a white lap coat jumped out in front of him, stopping him in our tracks. "Would you like to try our latest product, just out for the holiday season?"
"No," he answered, and he used his soccer skills to quickly maneuver around her. He was, however, in a very crowded cosmetics department which was filled with similar looking women in lab coats. Another quickly cornered him as he was stalled behind a mother and her daughters. "Sir, you look like you still need to find that special something for that special lady," the woman asked as she opened a box of cosmetics under his nose.
Arnold sneezed. "No, thanks, I'm….gay, actually," he lied.
"Oh! Well then, would you like to buy yourself something?" she asked without skipping a beat.
"It's the most wonderful time of the year," a woman sang over the radio.
Arnold grimaced as she sprayed him with an awful brand of cologne that smelled like sweat, leather, and gasoline. He looked at the label. Metro Cowboy. He shot the woman a look that meant, "You've got to be kidding," but she continued to smile at him, her perfectly white teeth blinding him. He glared back at her, and moved on. When is this going to be over?
"Done," Arnold said an hour later, smiling. He started to sigh, but a noise from his stomach beat him. He laughed as a woman walking beside him shot him an odd stare. I think I earned myself a nice, greasy dinner. He checked his watch. It was three, and he supposed that even though it was Christmas time, the food court wouldn't be too crowded. He moved quickly to stare at the mall directory. I'm here, on the first floor, and the food court is on the third. He looked around, and spotted a blond-haired girl going into the elevator. "Hey, hold that please!" He ran over to it, dodging people and ignoring their nasty comments. "Hey!" he shouted. The doors were beginning to close as he ran into the elevator, and he flew into the elevator as he tripped over his own feet. He brought the girl down with him.
"Ow! Watch it!" she yelled in response. Her voice was harsh and edgy, yet it seemed oddly familiar. She stood up as he shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts.
"I'm so sorry. I'm usually not that clumsy." He spotted a pink iPod and picked it up. "I think you dropped this."
Arnold stood up and brushed his clothes off. "I'm sorry," he said pleasantly, smiling. He held out the music player, but he was speechless as he looked up at the girl, positive his look of astonishment matched hers.
He was staring into the wide, blue eyes of Helga G. Pataki. He couldn't be sure; after all, he hadn't seen her in years, but the face looked too similar for it not to be her. She was his height, with bright yellow hair that fell down well past her shoulders. Dark brows that were too close together (though there was a slight space between them) rested atop those amazingly dark blue eyes, and, although she looked amazed, he could tell the face was generally in a frown. Her face had soft, feminine features mixed with a strong, masculine jaw and brow. He looked her up and down, from the oversized boots, black patterned tights, short black shorts, to the white Ramones t-shirt over a black long-sleeve shirt. A silver skull necklace hung around her thin, long neck. It had to be her. "Helga?"
"Arnold," she replied. There was no question in her voice.
"You dropped this," he said, still smiling as he handed the iPod out for her. She didn't take it.
Suddenly the doors opened. "Are you two going somewhere?" a woman snapped as she and three boys climbed into the elevator.
Arnold looked at Helga and waited for her to answer. She continued to stare at him, looking slightly catatonic.
"Well?" the woman snapped. One of her kids was looking hopefully at the buttons, waiting for someone to tell him what to push.
"Third floor, please," he replied.
The small ding of the elevator brought Helga out of her trance. "Wha?"
Arnold's smile widened. "You dropped this. And I'm sorry I ran into you."
She took the device from him. "It's ok," she said gently. She quickly looked away from him, looking at her shoes.
He raised an eyebrow. This wasn't like Helga. Was she acting…shy? "Listen, I was about to go get something to eat. Want to join me?"
She stared back at him, her mouth slightly open. Her only movement was blinking.
"I mean, to catch up and everything. It's been years..."
She continued to stare blankly at him.
"Helga?" He was getting worried. He hoped he didn't give her a concussion. He stepped towards her. "Helga, are you alright?" He reached out to touch her.
"I'm fine, Football Head," she snapped back as she waved his hand away. Her eyes widened, and Arnold smiled at her normal response. "Would you like to join me?" he asked again.
She nodded slowly. When they reached the food court, they each went and got their own food. Arnold returned to the table with a tray full of greasy fast food. He was surprised when he saw Helga only had a bottled water. "Did you already eat?" he asked as he sat down.
"No," she replied, looking down at her lap.
Arnold frowned. "Aren't you hungry? Do you need to borrow some money? I have a bit left, or we can just share my food if you want."
She shook her head. "I'm not hungry, honest." She finally looked up, giving him a small smile.
He eyed her before ripping open a ketchup packet. He'd never seen Helga like this, though he hadn't seen her for years. Was it possible that Helga somehow turned into a very polite and reserved girl? He chuckled to himself. He doubted it. Still, why would she be acting so strange? He cleared his throat and attempted a conversation. "So, how have you been?" he asked as he removed the top bun of his cheeseburger. "God, how long has it been since you left? Four years?"
"Oh." He took a bite of his food. Helga was sitting with her head resting softly in her right hand. The sleeve of her shirt, which he realized was rather large on her small frame, had fallen slightly, revealing a very tiny wrist and forearm. He chocked slightly as he spotted a thin, pink scar running across her thin arm. He could see the beginning of another running in the opposite direction. He looked at her more carefully. Although she had grown considerably in height, Helga looked like she was about the same size as she was when she was in grade school. He knew plenty of tiny girls at his school, and Helga had been thin in grade school, but she looked ridiculous. "Are you sure you don't want anything to eat?"
"Yes." There was a slight edge to her tone, which made him feel better. "So, how's….uh.... Sorry, where are you living?" he asked, attempting once again to have a conversation.
"South Dakota," she said dully.
"Right. So how's South Dakota?"
"And your mom? You're living with her, right?"
"Yeah, and my aunt. They're both fine."
"How's your sister?"
"Fine. She's living in Hillwood again. She moved here after she graduated."
"Oh." Arnold chewed his food in silence. He couldn't tell if he was treading into rough territory. Helga's expression remained unchanged, and her voice was flat. He didn't pay too much attention to the Pataki's affairs, and Helga certainly never talked to him about it, but from what he could remember, the Patakis' divorce was an especially ugly one. "So who are you staying with here? Phoebe, or your sister?"
"Oh." Pause. "Have you talked to Phoebe?"
"Not yet. I wanted to get my shopping done."
He smiled. "Did you get everything you needed?"
She shrugged. "I guess."
"Do you always come out here for Christmas? I've never seen you, and Phoebe's never said anything about you being in town."
"This is the first time I've been back."
Arnold choked slightly on his fries. "Oh. So does your dad visit you in South Dakota often?"
She drummed her fingers softly on the table. "No. This is the first time I've seen him, too."
He paused. "I'm sorry for asking, Helga. It's none of my business."
Something flickered in her eyes. "Why are you sorry? I'm the one with the depressing life," she snapped as she folded her arms across her chest.
At least she's sorta here. "I just—Helga, are you alright?"
"I'm fine," she snapped.
"I know, it's just…you seem so, different."
"You haven't seen me in five years. Things are bound to change, including people."
"But…" his voice failed.
They finished in silence. Or rather, he finished in silence. Helga never even opened her drink. She just squirmed in her seat, especially whenever he looked at her. He was getting nervous. There was no way Helga G. Pataki could have turned into such a mousy girl. There was little of the Helga that he remembered in the girl who sat across from him. Flashes of it when she snapped at him. Physically he could see her; the face and the ears were too much the same, but she was so quiet and shy. Helga was never shy. And she'd only called him a name once. Something wasn't right. He finished his lunch and began packing everything back into the bag. "Do you want—"
"I should let you get back to your shopping, or your family," she said suddenly. "I don't want to take up any more time."
WHAT?! This from the girl who used to seem to go out of her way to make his life miserable? Now she didn't want to waste his time? "You're not wasting my time. And I'm done shopping." He grinned at her, hoping to melt whatever was leaving her so icy.
Her eyes softened, "I really should get going. I haven't seen Bob yet, and I need to get these things wrapped."
"Oh." His face fell.
"Goodbye, Arnold," she said as stood up.
He watched her back as she began to leave, but something in his chest was telling him to stop her. "Helga! Wait!" he cried as he clumsily leapt up from the table.
She stopped, but didn't turn around. "Yeah?"
He moved in front of her. She seemed startled that he was so close. Arnold blushed, suddenly realizing he was just inches from her face. "I'm really glad I ran into you. It was nice to see you again."
A faint blush spread across her cheeks. Arnold was startled. Her red cheeks made her dark blue eyes sparkle, and her golden hair stand out like a halo around her head. Wow, she looks really pretty. He swallowed hard. Did I just say that Helga G. Pataki looked pretty? He shook his head. But it's not her...not as I remembered. Something's wrong, not just that I think she's pretty...
"Arnold, are you ok?" Her voice sounded like it was passing through a tunnel.
Arnold shook his head and grinned at her. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"It was nice to see you too," she said as she adjusted her purse and her shopping bags.
She gave a very, very small smile, one that for some reason seemed to break his heart. "Merry Christmas, Arnold."
Arnold gulped as his stomach did a summersault as she said his name. She gave him another slight smile before turning and walking away. He thought about running after her, but his brain suddenly woke up. What are you thinking, running after Helga? it said in a voice that sounded oddly similar to Gerald's. It's Helga. Helga G. Pataki, the girl from your nightmares.
He sighed. His brain, or Gerald, or whatever, was right. He needed to be heading home anyways. His grandma was making a traditional African dinner, and she would be upset if "Kimda" wasn't there to help. Still, he watched her leave. Somehow, she seemed to stand out in the crowd. He grinned at her ridiculous outfit, and he noticed that she didn't have a coat, and it was well below freezing outside. He vaguely remembered the newscaster saying something about a blizzard this weekend. He mumbled a prayer for clear skies as he headed to the exit.
"Damn," he muttered as he stepped outside. Outside was nearly all white. The ground was covered in show, and it blew down in heavy, sideways gusts. He picked up his phone to call Gerald, who he had ridden to the mall with. The phone rang several times, and went to voicemail. He ended the call as Gerald began to rap his message. He began to dial the boarding house, but he knew there was no way that the Packard would make it here and back in one piece. He and Grandpa would probably have to push it back home. He slowly counted in his head and realized that he was about thirty blocks from home. He didn't have enough money for a taxi, he knew that, and his bus pass was missing from his wallet. He vaguely remembered tucking it in his pant pocket yesterday instead of putting it back into his wallet. He groaned as he began the long walk home.
"I'm back," Arnold said as he crawled into the house, collapsing onto the floor. He could vaguely hear a man on the radio talking about the blizzard-like conditions outside.
"Short Man, your grandma's been waiting for you," his grandfather said as he climbed down the stairs. "Whoa, what happened to you?"
"Christmas shopping," Arnold responded before sneezing loudly. He sat up and groaned. His bags had tipped over, and he thought he heard something break. Then again, the whole house was beginning to spin.
Phil frowned and put his old hand on his grandson's forehead. "Arnold, I think you better get going upstairs," he said, his voice suddenly serious.
"But…the party…Grandma…" he muttered.
"Go on, Arnold. We'll be alright down here. I'll be up in a bit with some soup."
"I'm fine," Arnold said. He started to walk forward, but he staggered, nearly falling on his face. Phil caught him, straightened him up, and led him to the stair railing. "Upstairs," he demanded.
Arnold finally gave up his protest, and he immediately collapsed on the bed when he reached his room. The fever quickly took hold, and he wrapped himself in his blankets, falling asleep almost immediately. A tall, thin girl filled his thoughts, though they were becoming vaguer and vaguer with each passing minute. "Helga," he whispered as he lost consciousness.
Two months later…
Arnold opened his eyes before quickly shutting them. Sunshine poured in through his sunlight, and it hurt his eyes, even through his closed eyelids. Morning already, he thought angrily as he rolled on his side. He looked at the clock. 8:45. He signed and pulled his comforter over his head. Too early to get up on a Saturday. He pushed thoughts of everything he needed to get done – clean the kitchen and the bathroom, study for a history exam, write an essay for English, go to work – from his head and began counting sheep. He gave up once he reached ciento noventa-nueve (he had begun counting in Spanish after he reached 748 in English), realizing that he probably should look over his Spanish too. "Damn it," he muttered as he sat up. He yawned as he stretched, popping his back in several places. "Ow." He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked around his room. "AHHHHHH!!!!!!!"
A few seconds later, an elderly-looking woman opened his door. "You alright, Grasshopper?" His grandmother asked.
Arnold swallowed hard. "Yeah, I just, thought I saw something…"
She shook her head. "You need to eat more fruit. I think you're getting the scurvy. Hurry and get dressed, the colonel and his wife will be here any minute for tea." She shut the door, and Arnold could hear her muttering as she descended.
A harsh laugh filled the room, and Arnold felt himself paling. "Wow, she's as nutty as ever. I see where you get it, Football Head."
He stared at her. Sitting Indian style on his couch was a tall, thin girl with long, blond hair. Her large, blue eyes were hidden behind dark lashes and darker brows. Though she was smirking, her face looked as if it was contorted into a frown most of the time. "Hel-Helga? What are you doing in my room?"
She frowned, looking much more like his memory of her. "I don't know…." She gazed into space.
"What do you mean, you don't know? How'd you get in here?" He asked, throwing his covers off and standing up. He shuddered slightly as his feet hit the cold floor.
She looked back at him, her eyes blazing. "I said I don't know! All the sudden, I was here, and you were snoring very loudly, interrupting my thoughts."
"I don't snore," he defended quickly.
"You do. And what's with the get-up, Hair Boy? Have you had those things since you were eight or something?"
"Wha—" She gestured to his pants, which were about three inches too short, a size too tight, and covered in Superman symbols. He blushed. "No, we've just…what are you doing here? THIS IS MY ROOM!"
"Obviously, Arnold." She stood up and mimicked his stance.
"WHY ARE YOU HERE?" he cried, his temper slipping.
She stood up as well. "I told you, I DON'T KNOW! Stop yelling at me!"
"Well, you have to go. NOW." He walked over to her, grabbed her arm, and began pulling her to the fire escape. "It was—" He stopped and looked at his arm. His hand was cupped as if it was holding something, but nothing was there. He turned back to Helga, bewildered. She was standing in the same place with her arms folded, smirking. Something wasn't right. Arnold looked her up and down. She was wearing black boots, black tights, short black shorts, a white t-shirt with another shirt underneath. "What's with the boots? It's like 75 degrees and sunny outside."
Her smirk fell, and she frowned. He walked over to her. Face to face, she annoyed him further as she stood about two inches taller than he did, though she was wearing boots and he was still barefoot. He examined her face. She was very pale, paler than he remembered. Her skin was an eerie white, almost luminous-like. Her dark blue eyes were flat; no light reflected in them. "Helga, are you alright?"
"I'm fine," she said defiantly.
"I'm fi-ine," she sang, and sat back down.
He reached out to grab her, but his hand went through her arm. His eyes widened. "Why can't I touch you?" he asked slowly.
She sighed. "You honestly haven't figured it out yet, have you?"
He already knew what she was going to say before she said it. "I'm dead, Arnold."
The next thing he knew was darkness.