All rights to Craig Barlett and Nick.
How to be Dead
Chapter 5 - Miss Misery
With a heavy burden on his shoulders, Arnold shifted his attention from one Pataki daughter to the other. Once again, he looked to the internet to find out information about the older sister, as well as consulting Phoebe. Helpful as ever, she was able to give a detailed history without asking too many questions. She now seemed thankful for Arnold's interest in Helga, but she warned him to be careful in prying in the Pataki's history, particularly relating to Bob Pataki.
While her father expanded his beeper kingdom to an appliance empire, becoming one of the richest men in Hillwood, she became something of a socialite. As disgusted as he was with the idea of people being famous for no reason other than for being someone's daughter (even if it was just Hillwood), he was thankful that it made the process of researching her much easier.
Despite all her beauty and accomplishments, Olga Pataki had never married and settled down nor did she achieve the great success that she seemed to promise. She moved back to Hillwood after college and a (very) brief stint in the Peace Corp. She was now employed by her father as vice president of Big Bob's Appliance Kingdom but also remained on several volunteer and charity committees in the city, obviously trying to keep the Pataki name positive despite her father's crooked dealings.
Despite her gross naivete and narcissism, Arnold had always believed that she was still a decent person at heart, much like her sister. He vaguely remembered one Thanksgiving that he and Helga spent running away from her family. Helga mentioned later that her family had been worried about her, particularly Olga.
That memory confused him. How could a man who worried about his daughter being lost, and, despite his callousness, did care about her, just dump his daughter without a word, and, after years of separation, refuse to see her. Phoebe had failed to give an answer to the question that had perplexed him, and he feared that Olga may be a dead end with regard to Bob's abandonment of Helga. She also may be unable to account for her own desertion of Helga and her mother.
He struggled to decide how to move forward. He had enough information, including an email address and phone number to contact Olga. Helga, however, complicated matters. She was around more often than before, much to his delight and dismay. He enjoyed talking to her about whatever struck her fancy. Since he had finished her journals and only reread them a few times, he didn't fear seeing her, except when he was researching Olga. Helga just assumed he was working on homework, which bored her. ("I hated school when I was there. Why would I care about your stupid work? Except for English...but that's just because I feel sorry for your awful skills.")
"How's your Gatsby paper coming?" she asked one day when he was stalking the internet for information on her sister. She was picking at her nails and sitting on his couch, an odd activity considering she could no longer pick up any dirt.
"Fine," he muttered, quickly pulling up that page. To be honest, he had become so obsessed with Helga's past that his school work was slipping a bit. He was lucky that Helga had become his tutor, otherwise all his previous work would be washed down the drain. He was, however, caring less and less with each passing day.
"I'm bored with you," she declared out of the blue.
"So go haunt someone else," he muttered, trying to sound defiant while he fearing that she actually would.
"I think I'd rather make you more interesting. How about a social make over?"
She ignored his comment. "I mean, you went partying once. Once! Why don't you go more often? All you do is go to school, go to work, and sit cooped up in your stupid room."
"Well, what did you do when you were in South Dakota that is so much more exciting than my life?" he asked, knowing full well her answer.
"Raves. Key parties. General mayhem and debauchery."
He turned to face her. That had never been in the journal. "Seriously?"
"No, you gullible moron. I was in South Dakota, and a small dinky town at that."**
"So what were you doing?" he asked again.
"Why is it irrelevant?"
"Because I'm dead, so my past is worth nothing and unchangeable, whereas your present is able to be changed and spiced up a bit."
He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. He suddenly felt very tired. "Why do you insist on being a mystery, Helga? I thought we were friends. Friends don't hide things from each other."
She met his pleading look with a defiant eye. "Have you told Gerald that see dead people?"
"My point exactly."
"Helga, c'mon. I've told you about me. Why are you hiding things from me?"
She gave him a smile that was both sad and sarcastic. "Maybe because I'd rather you think of a mystery as to how I got here. It's like Gatsby. Once you ask questions the veneer cracks and you can see things for the gilded crap it is. Much more interesting to live in the moment or look to the future rather than ask questions about that past."
"All Gatsby did as chase the past and hope for a future that was idealized and unreachable."
"And so in the past is where I remain, and I survive by thinking of my own green light, guiding me along the abyss of the afterlife and giving me enough sustenance to continue on."
"And what is your green light?"
"Irrelevant," came the short reply.
"So you want me to just imagine your life?"
He sighed, understanding that he could never fulfill her request. He quickly realized that had he not known about her past, he wouldn't want to follow it anyways, since her request was bullshit. He let it pass, knowing that he would soon know the secrets surrounding her mysterious past, and that would be more help to her than simply listening to problems that she could no longer fix.
"Anyways," she said loudly, interrupting his musings. "Back to making you less boring and more entertaining to me. I'm thinking...maybe some drugs. Or sex. How open are you to starting a band to get both of those?"
"Helga, even if I wanted that, which I don't, I can't play an instruments well enough to be in a band."
"Football Head, have you listened to music lately? You don't need to be good at anything. Just have a pretty face, and you'll be fine."
He watched her slyly. She had resumed picking at her nails. "You think I have a pretty face?"
She stopped. "Comparatively," she said in a strange tone, like a child trying to lie after getting caught for wrongdoing.
"Compared to what?" he asked as a familiar tingling sensation moved down his back and through his chest.
"Sid, Stinky, and Harold."
He laughed in spite of himself. His chest felt hollow. "Thanks, Helga."
She shrugged. "So...back to making you more interesting. Is there a girl you like that I can make fun of you when you go out with her?"
He paused. He had liked a few girls before Helga came along, but they were just casual attractions, not full blown crushes or interests. Since then, he only thought of one girl.... "No."
"You're lying. I can tell."
"No, seriously, no one."
Her face contorted, and she gave a sardonic smile. "'I thought we were friends. Friends don't hide things from each other'."
His words sounded awful pronounced in her cruel, mocking accent. "You keep secrets from me."
"My past is hardly worth knowing. So who is she?"
He stared at her. Her eyes, still a deep violet-blue despite her otherwise pale color, widened as she seemed to be unable to hide her interest in his answer, which he could not provide fast enough for her taste. Her simple actions, her naivete, both amused and touched him.
Her loneliness seemed to mirror his own. She had been so misunderstood to him...until now. She seemed at ease around him, and he never felt more comfortable than when he was talking to her...that she truly excepted him for being himself. She challenged him, aggravated him, excited him...
He pushed the thoughts aside. He had a job to do.
"There isn't a girl alive I like right now," he said, choosing his words very carefully. She watched him closely, clearly catching that he was hiding something in his words, but she was unable to pinpoint exactly what he was hiding. She dropped the subject and resumed her previous activity, pronouncing him a lost cause to coolness. He had long agreed with her, but that was the farthest thing from his mind.
Her question startled him, and his answer shook him. He cared about Helga; he wanted the best for her. His feelings made his actions all the more important. He needed to find out what happened to her. It was his obsession. She was his obsession. And the idea of living without her...he pushed that thought aside, knowing full well that he had to find out what happened to her so that he could set her free. He would cross that bridge later.
He looked over his shoulder. Helga was now reading a book that was open on his couch. He quickly turned back to his computer and composed a hasty email to Olga Pataki, asking to meet with her to discuss Helga. She answered a few hours later, telling him to come over to her house the next day.
His heart beat with excitement as he waited for the time to come. Unfortunately, Helga had been hanging around him all day at school and after school, so he forced himself to go to the library and study to calm himself down and bore her. She helped him a bit more with his paper before fading into the night. Breathing slowly, he headed to find the answers to the questions that had been plaguing him for days.
Olga's humble home happened to be a luxury townhouse located in the posh district of Hillwood, surrounded by expensive shops, restaurants, and museums. It was immaculately, if not slight tackily, decorated. He had never been in a home like this. The rush of amazement left quickly, replaced by a realization that this was the life Helga should have inherited, a life of at least material comforts. He wondered which fate would have been worse for her.
Olga opened the door after the third ring. "Arnold Shortman, dear baby sister's good friend." She hugged him, taking him quite off guard. "Come into my humble home, please. Sit, sit." She motioned him to sit on an antique and uncomfortable couch. She sat across from him on a chair that looked just as painful. "So, dear Arnold, what brings you here?"
He frowned. "I wanted to talk to you about Helga."
"Dear baby sister!" she cried, dramatically covering her face with a well-manicured hand. "Oh, I can barely bare to hear the name!"
He paused, trying to find a way to be productive without being callous. "I'm sorry for your loss."
She sniffed loudly. Her mascara had begun to run as well, leaving Arnold to wonder briefly why someone so dramatic would not invested in waterproof make-up. "Yes, it is such a tragedy, isn't it? Oh, how I have suffered these long, weary days."
Arnold eyed her carefully, trying to discern her sincerity. He was beginning to doubt it a bit as she failed to carry her grief with a silent and strong dignity, although that could be because she was not a silent and strong woman but an emotional girl-child.
She sniffed. "I will never forget that day."
"And what day is that?" he asked anxiously.
"The day she died!" she sobbed.
Arnold felt exasperated. All he wanted was a damn date, cause, anything. Olga was utterly helpless and evasive. "Her friends have suffered as well. Phoebe, and myself, have struggled to understand her death."
She nodded. "It is so difficult to understand. My grief almost consumes me some days. So difficult, so tragic."
"Yes. But our grief.... We cannot grieve because we don't understand. We don't have any details on how Helga lost her life."
She shook her head. "No, dear, dear Arnold. You don't want to know the details. Oh, the details! Baby sister! The tragedy! The horror! The horror!"
"Please, Olga. We cannot move on without knowing!"
"You are better off not knowing! Oh, if only I didn't know! I would be able to sleep at night, without this guilt...baby sister! Forgive me!"
Her words sent a jolt through his body."Guilty? Why would you feel guilty?"
"Why wouldn't I feel guilty? Dear Arnold! Dear baby sister!"
"Olga, please! I'll listen, I'll be your confidant. Why do you feel guilty? What happened to her?"
"Dear Arnold, I cannot tell you. Oh, how I wish I could! But I cannot speak it. I cannot!"
He felt his blood boil. What had they done to her? Was he sitting here with Helga's coldblooded killer? Or, as he feared, her executioner's accomplice? "Why can't you speak of it?"
She looked at him carefully as if seeing him for the first time. She wiped her eyes and composed herself. "Arnold, don't you think that is a little rude? I am grieving over the loss of my sister."
And she is not important to anyone else other than her blood? Where was her family when she needed them? Snuffing out her life, it seems. Arnold swallowed his disgust. He had to keep her talking. He had to get more clues other than her confessions of guilty feelings. He needed hard evidence, more information. "I'm sorry, Olga," he said in more subdued tones. "I just miss her too."
Her eyes softened. "Then I am also sorry for your loss." She stood up.
That seemed to be the end of it. Olga had gotten through her fit, and now she was practically kicking him out of the house. He rose as well. "Well, I suppose I'll go. Thank you for your time, and again, I'm sorry for your loss."
The phone suddenly rang. "Excuse me, dear Arnold. Please wait here for just a moment."
"That's fine. Do you mind if I use the bathroom?"
Arnold waited until he was sure Olga was deep in her conversation. He took the liberty of quickly searching the house, going from room to room to find any clues while simultaneously listening for Olga. He finally reached a guest bedroom on the second floor. His gut told him that this had been Helga's room.
Olga had cleaned a bit. There was no sign of clothes or other personal affects that would have belonged to the last occupant of the room. A chill went up his spine. Was this where she died? Where she breathed her last desperate breath? He looked around the room and noticed a set of keys laying on the nightstand. He quickly pocketed them.
He moved over to the desk. Sure enough, in Helga's handwriting, was a to do list, as well as Phoebe's information. There were several books also there, including a worn copy of Hamlet. He smiled to himself. He continued to shuffle through the desk, until he found a small, leather bound book.
It was her last journal.
"Arnold?" Olga called from downstairs. He quickly ran downstairs, mumbling about getting lost then staring at her pictures. He ran home after Olga quickly rushed him out of the house. He couldn't wait to find out Helga's thoughts on the days before her death. Had she known something was going to happen? Were their clues to the identity of her murderer (there was foul play involved; he was sure of it now).
And would she mention their meeting?
He thought about that day. He remembered she looked thin, almost sickly. She didn't act like herself; she was quiet and shy and distracted. At the time he thought she had just changed over the course of their separation, but now he feared that she knew something was going to happen to her. She anticipated it. Why hadn't she confided in him? Why didn't he try harder to find out answers? Would she be here now if he did?
He stopped himself. It would lead to madness to go down that road. He sat down, trying his best to remain calm, and opened the book.
Miriam is getting sicker. The doctors think she doesn't have much time left. She seems to have woken from a dream, realizing the impact of her illness. She realizes that the end is near, and she is interested in reconciling. My heart is not cold enough to begrudge a dying woman's wish. She is, after all, my mother. She once carried me and protected me, gave me life. Shouldn't I be a comfort to her as she prepares for death?
In the dark reaches of my soul I am thankful for the news; not it exactly, but for a distraction. I can stop thinking about him. Is Margaret right? Am I evil? And I cannot help but wonder, if Miriam loses her battle, what will happen to me? I hope she has the will to fight. I will stay with her as long as she is here. I owe her that much, I suppose. I will suffer along side her. My freedom can wait until she is free, one way or another.
My path is clear. I will remain with her, in this hell, until she dies. Will that finally give me absolution? Maybe Margaret is right, and this is my repentance.
It has been nearly six months. Oh Fortuna, why has your eye turned so coldly on me? Why am I cursed to suffer so? My one chance at happiness and love, although a faction of what I am capable of feeling, thwarted by darker forces that only appear in one's mind. The other...the other I was forced to abandon. Oh, the other! "My love, my hope! my life!" My straying was not cheating...though I became attached to other, I still loved thee! But no one, certainly not you, my understanding judge, would begrudge me an attempt to find happiness in this hell. It was all for naught, though, and here I remain, more alone than ever. My one friend, my kindred spirit, gone by his own hand.
Miriam is making plans to release me. She is circling the drain, and wants me to be in a new situation well before she dies. Everyday she grows weaker. My fate is in her hands.
There is hope. The fates have turned their faces to me and smiled. The sun once again has blessed me with warmth. I am being sent home. I will be near him. To just see him...it will fill the cup of my heart full and sustain me for years.
It comes, however, with a price. Margaret has made her decision: she wants to be rid of me. Understandable, I wouldn't want me either. But despite all her "Christian goodness" and devotion to family, when backed against a wall, she is proven false. Pompous fool. I am glad to be rid of her.
So, as a minor, I am forced to be the ward of someone. And my future rests in the hands of the two people I hate more than anyone.
Olga and Big Bob.
But it is worth it. Their involvement in my life, their tyranny, I will bare. I will persevere. I have my love, my passion to keep me afloat. I will see Phoebe. And, fate willing, I will see him.
They do not want me.
Olga says she cannot keep me. She gives a speech, stating how self-sacrificing she is with all the charities and volunteering she does and cannot give up and as a result she cannot give me the proper care. She also said that I should use this as an opportunity to mend bridges with Bob. Simpleton! Does she not remember that it was our father who didn't want me?
Lunch with Bob proved to be worse than my nightmares. He is the same boorish, pig of a man, selfish to his heart's core and blind with ambition. He told me of his life, whilst calling me Olga, and stated that he didn't have time for me. In exasperation and desperation, I reminded him that I was a Pataki, his daughter, his responsibility. His flesh and blood. He coldly responded that I was a disappointment to him, my mother all over again. He stated what I had suspected for years: he never wanted me, and there was no force on earth, including the law, that would make him to accept me into his home. He gave up any form of guardianship for me long ago.
Even if he was forced to take me in, I wouldn't go. I never thought that Bob could be so heartless. I wouldn't go. I would starve, freeze, die before I would remain under his roof. The law couldn't force him to care for me, nor could it force me to be with him. As he has only one daughter, I now have no father. I will never understand him, his hatred for me and Miriam. His contempt for us. He never saw that, while my true nature was all my own, my superficial nature was his, not hers. And I no longer care.
What is to become of me now? I am months away from eighteen. I am forced to return to my exile. My heart cannot take it. To be so close to what I love, what I cherish, what I have worshiped from afar. What I never stopped loving.
Oh, I would rather die than feel this heartbreak!
I have seen him. I have spoken to him. My eyes have once again beheld his face, the complete beauty of his whole self, body, mind, and soul. My ears have been blessed with the caress of his voice. I have experienced his sunshine, his care. He missed me. ME! Will this keep my heart from breaking? To see him one last time? I shall cherish this memory until I die.
I want to see him before I go, before I am once again exiled to some unnamed place. Tell him my feelings. I need to. My heart can survive anything as long as I am able to finally tell him how I feel. After a lifetime of loving him, I want him to understand my coldness, my strong outer shell. It was all an act, as he so often suspected. Love! Life! Hope! Give me strength to bare my soul, put my heart on his alter, sacrifice all just to tell him my feelings.
The gavel has banged, intertwining our fates. Bob will be forced to take me, though he has demanded that I continue to stay with Olga. That is the best of both evils. I fear his wrath. But I will be near my love, my idol. Does he care for me? Can he ever love such a tortured, broken thing? Our meeting has given me reason to hope like I have never hoped before.
The journal left there, just a few days after he saw Helga. He had been in the hospital at this point of the story, fighting for his future just as Helga fought for hers.
Her life had been so bleak. How had she been able to survive for so long? he understood why she looked so terrible that day at the mall. She had gone through so much? Her mother dying...was Miriam still alive? How did she handle her daughter's death? So many questions surrounded one little woman...
Despite himself, he found the most perplexing and irritating question plaguing him to be the one not related to her death. Who was this boy she loved? A searing pain shot through his chest when he read about him. Someone from Hillwood, but what boy had she ever liked? And loved?
It was nighttime. The day faded way, leaving Arnold exhausted both physically and mentally. Any further investigation would have to wait until the morning. Now, all he could do was wait for morning.
"Why are you reading Beyond: A History of Theories on the Afterlife?"
"Huh?" He had been reading in bed, trying to discover any other answers to what was happening to Helga and what would happen to her.
"Why are you reading that book?" She sat down beside his feet. He suddenly felt she was sitting far too close.
"Can't I read what I want?"
"That's not what I'm asking. Why are you reading that book?"
"I'm just curious, that's all. Being around you makes me think of death and other things that go along with it."
He watched her. She was staring back at him, her face hiding any emotion. "So...I've been meaning to ask..."
"Arnold, I have no idea how I died. Stop asking."
"I know. I was just...curious..."
"Well, what happens when you die?"
"Why are you asking me?"
"Because you're dead."
"You're a mammal but I don't ask you about gorillas."
"Fine. Just forget I asked." He returned to his reading.
He couldn't concentrate. He felt her eyes on him. He sensed her moving closer to him, although only a few inches. She sat Indian style beside his knees. "I'm not sure if can ask this, but are you asking because you want to know about me or about your parents?"
He lifted his eyes. She was looking at him with concern in her wide eyes, her face free of any sarcasm. He couldn't lie or hide anything with her looking at him with such a face. He rarely saw her so open. "Both."
She lifted her chin. "What do you think happens?"
"I don't know...you tell me what happened."
He could tell she was becoming frustrated. "Nothing. I remember nothing."
"So the afterlife is nothingness? Until one comes back as a ghost? Does everyone hate heir own specter?"
She paused for a moment, a familiar smirk clouding her features. "No, I think you are the only one going crazy."
"Thanks. So it's simply nothing. We rot, and that's all."
Her smirk faded, transforming into a sympathetic look. "I've thought about this a lot since I've been here."
"Maybe I heaven't experience anything because I was meant to come back to haunt you."
"What do you mean?"
"It would hardly be fair to tell someone living the secrets of the beyond, or whatever you want to call it. It would be an unfair advantage in life." A pause. "Besides, you would be spard the agony of coming to conclusions as to what will happen."
He sat silently, pondering her words, finally concluding that she had a valid point. His thoughts were replaced by a cloud of worry. "So what do you think will happen to you? I mean, will you be here forever?" He felt a strange feeling soar through his chest.
She, evasively and annoyingly answered his question with a question, again asking for his insight.
"I don't know. I've thought about it a lot, you know, with my parents and all. I don't necessarily believe in a judge and all that stuff, but I believe if you are a good person you will be rewarded and you can look after others -- not as directly as you, of course."
"You think I am looking out for you?"
They awkwardly sat in silence. "Sometimes," he said slowly.
He gave her a sheepish smile but said nothing. Here eyes narrowed, and he feared she would see through him and guess what he was up to.
"So why do you think I am here?" she pressed.
He darted answering her directly, stating that she had come as some sort of academic and life coach, reminding her of her claims on his intelligence and general interestingness. She gave a short snort in response. "I don't know. Does anyone really know?"
"Yes. Sometimes blindly so."
"I guess I'd like to think that the afterlife ends up being whatever you believe it to be."
"That's a lame copout. Then why be a good and moral person?"
"Because that's for the betterment of everyone, including yourself."
"And what happens if you are a bad person? Any hell?"
"I haven't worked that out yet. And stop grilling me. What about you?"
"Nothing. That's my guess. Though maybe I'm in hell right now, having to deal with you."
He ignored her comment. "No heaven or hell at all? No extra existence?"
"Hell is on earth. It's just randomness how you get your lot in life, and you just have to deal with it the best you can. I do believe in some sort of guiding hand. Not a god, per say, but something. But mostly we are alone."
"My head hurts."
She laughed and got down. "Go to sleep. Your little brain has had enough exercise for the day."
He tried to follow her instructions, but sleep would not come. He thought of her words. If her belief in the afterlife was true, she would be gone forever, cursed to nothingness. Perhaps....perhaps if he stopped trying to find the answers, if he followed her desires, she would be able to stay with him. She could avoid a curse, stay with him...forever.
The idea thrilled him, but the guilt that followed hit him like a truck. Could he be so selfish as to keep her here? She admitted it herself: no one could know what would happen. For now, he questioned his abilities to continue, to find the truth, to set her free.
In the morning, he pushed everything aside. He was determined to find justice for Helga. If it meant losing her in the end, so be it. Once again, he dreaded his next step.
Talking to Bob Pataki.
** I have never been to South Dakota, so I apologize to anyone who is offended. I did, however, grow up in rural Indiana, so I understand the boringness of a small town. That is what I base Helga's town on. Besides, South Dakota is supposed to be very scenic, whereas northern Indiana is ugly and as dull as dishwater.
Full author's note on my livejournal page.