"Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." - Murphy's Law
Chapter One: Cafeteria Confrontation
It was lunch period for the fourth graders at PS 118 and as usual the cafeteria was packed with nine and ten-year-olds. The noise level was at its usual loud decibels as students sat at their regular tables, talking and laughing among their friends as they ate.
Gerald stood in line with his best friend Arnold getting their food. It was a good selection for once: spaghetti with meat sauce and rolls, with a choice of applesauce, or lime gelatin with fruit cocktail inside, Gerald's favorite lunch.
"Man, oh man, Arnold, this is what I'm talking about," Gerald said as the prune-faced cafeteria lady scooped a large helping of spaghetti on his tray. "Sunny skies outside, a whole period of recess to look forward to, and on top of that, half the school day is over and one of my favorite lunches is being served. What could be better than this?"
Arnold thought about it a moment then answered, "Well, how about if today was Friday instead of Thursday?"
Gerald grinned a little, "Good point there."
Still even that small observation didn't spoil Gerald's good mood. He picked up a cup of lime gelatin, then a carton of white milk and set them down on his tray. Arnold opted for chocolate milk instead. He looked back at the line of students behind them and saw Phoebe standing there, holding two trays in both hands and trying hard to balance them. Both trays were full of food and two milks and one had a large double chocolate milkshake with a bendy straw on it. She was doing her best to keep everything balanced while some taller kids just bumped into her without another glance. Her glasses were slightly crooked and she looked a bit nervous.
One of the taller kids near Phoebe accidentally elbowed her and she lost her balance and landed on the floor on her stomach. The contents of her overloaded trays fell on top of her, completely covering her with food as both the trays hit the ground with a pair of loud rattles.
Gerald set his tray down and rushed quickly over to her side. He knelt down beside her. "Phoebe! Are you okay?" Arnold appeared on her other side and both of them helped Phoebe sit up.
"Yeah, I think so," Phoebe said looking a little done in. Chocolate milkshake covered her hair and shoulders. She removed her milkshake covered glasses and tried to clean the lenses.
"Allow me," Gerald said, taking them from her and cleaning them off with a napkin. He handed them back to her.
Phoebe blushed a little underneath her chocolate covered bangs and smiled, "Thank you, Gerald." He grinned at her in a flirty way and winked at her. "Anytime, babe." Gerald offered a hand to Phoebe, who took it helping her stand up, both of them were smiling.
"Criminy! What the heck is going on here?!" A loud, bossy female voice suddenly said behind Gerald. He turned and frowned when he saw Helga G. Pataki headed their way. Arnold looked over as well and blinked. Gerald knew that he was mentally preparing himself for the prospect of dealing with his arch nemesis once again.
Helga stopped in front of them and looked at Phoebe, ignoring both Arnold and Gerald. "What happened to you, Phoebe?" For a moment there, Gerald actually thought he saw a flash of concern for Phoebe cross her face, but he knew that Phoebe's well being was probably not foremost on Helga's mind.
Phoebe answered, "I was trying to get our lunch like you asked, Helga. However everything got mixed up and then someone bumped me and I accidentally fell and dropped all of it."
Helga blinked and her eyes widened. "You dropped my lunch!" Gerald frowned at Helga as she continued. "You spilled my double chocolate milkshake with the bendy-straw! Oh that's just great!" She scowled down at the smaller girl.
Phoebe looked like she was cringing slightly. "I'm sorry, Helga. It's my fault."
"Of course it is doi!" Helga said sarcastically, throwing her arms out in a wide gesture. "Now, thanks to you, I don't have any lunch today!"
"Calm down, Helga," Arnold said just then, trying his best to speak to her in a calm, reasonable way. "It wasn't Phoebe's fault. It was just an accident."
"Oh, butt out, Football-head," Helga said, now turning her full attention onto Arnold, who frowned a little at her usual mocking nickname for him. "Nobody asked you for your opinion!" Then she reached over and pulled an open carton of chocolate milk from a smaller kid's tray and then turned it upside down over Arnold's head, drenching him. All around the cafeteria kids pointed and laughed at Arnold, who stood there, dripping with chocolate milk.
Gerald became really mad just then at the way Helga treated Phoebe and Arnold. Usually whenever Helga pulled one of her mean-spirited pranks on Arnold, he just stood there backing up his best friend, but never really saying anything. He would watch while Arnold endured all of the bully's sarcasm and tongue-lashings, only later speaking to Arnold about it after she'd left.
However today was different. Today she insulted both Arnold and Phoebe, whom he always felt very warm towards.
At first his feelings for the small dark-haired girl were little more than a simple crush, which over time turned into a bit more, even though outwardly they just remained really good friends, despite her association with Helga Pataki. Sometimes Gerald always thought about wanting more. Making their sort-of relationship more an official one. He had no idea if Phoebe wanted the same, despite her own shyness whenever she was around him.
Now, watching Helga berate Phoebe and then humiliate Arnold again, Gerald did something then that he normally didn't do—he stood up against Helga G. Pataki.
"Look here, Helga," he began, actually taking a step toward her and pointing a finger right in Helga's face. She actually blinked looking cross-eyed at it. "Maybe if you didn't treat your best friend like she was your own personal servant and get your own lunch, none of this would have happened! Don't take this out on her, or Arnold!"
Helga was shocked at first that Tall-Hair-Boy would have the guts to talk to her like that. Shocked and slightly anxious too, since he looked mad and was actually just as tall as she was (aside from the hair). She recovered from Gerald's outburst and slapped his hand away from her face angrily. "Mind your own business, Gerald-o!"
Gerald took another step toward her, narrowing the gap and getting into her personal space. He looked her eye to eye. "My friends are my business, Helga!"
"Phoebe is my best friend, Tall-Hair-Boy!" Helga said angrily and a bit on the defensive.
"Then why don't you treat her like it sometime?!" Gerald shot back, actually making Helga take a step back.
Helga realized everyone in the cafeteria was watching and her reputation was at stake if she took another step back. She curled up her fist and said angrily, "You better get outta my face, before you end up wearing my knuckle-prints all over yours!"
Most of Gerald's adrenalin suddenly evaporated when Helga said that. Gerald had no doubts in his mind that she would do exactly as she said. Helga had been known to sock Brainy a lot, as well as bully around kids bigger than her, like Harold and Stinky. Plus, Gerald would never hit a girl, not even a tomboy like Helga.
Helga saw the uncertain look that crossed his face and smirked, knowing she had him. She shoved him hard and pushed him back against the lunch line, where he stumbled, but somehow managed to keep from falling. "Gerald!" Arnold was at his best friend's side a second later.
"Just what I thought," mocked Helga, with her usual nasty chuckle. "All bark and no bite!" Even though she smirked, Helga felt nothing but relief that Gerald backed down, but didn't show it. She covered with her usual mocking laughter.
Gerald frowned at her and his hand slid over to the tray of lime gelatin beside him. He grabbed one and threw it at Helga, hitting her in the chest. She let out a small shriek of surprise and looked down at the green goo and fruit cocktail splattered all over her pink dress.
Now the kids in the cafeteria and the lunch line pointed and laughed at the sight of Helga G. Pataki with green goo dripping from her. Helga let out an angry growl and began to stalk toward Gerald, eyes blazing and fists clenched.
For his part Gerald was starting to wonder if he pushed too far. Helga looked ready to deck him and he knew he'd never hit back.
Phoebe grabbed her left arm and said, "Helga, calm down!" Helga tried to shake her off. At the same time Arnold got between them and faced Helga. "Helga stop, Principal Wartz is coming over!" Helga stopped and looked over seeing the balding school principal coming over, frowning at them.
"What's going on over here?!" The principal demanded, looking at the four of them as if they were all troublemakers.
"Oh, um, there was a little accident in the lunch line," Arnold said, talking fast. "Phoebe fell over and a bunch of food got splattered, don't worry, we'll clean it up." The other three nodded looking the picture of innocence.
Wartz looked at all of them suspiciously, especially Helga (much to her annoyance) and then said, "Very well, you better see to cleaning yourself up as well, and you try and be more careful in the future, Miss Heyerdahl." Phoebe nodded meekly and answered, "Yes sir." He walked away headed toward the back of the cafeteria.
Helga watched him go, and then looked at Phoebe. "Come on, Feebs, let's get outta here and get this crap off of us!" She looked back at Gerald glaring and pointed at his chest. "And you better just stay the heck outta my way, Tall-Hair-Boy, got it?!"
Gerald just frowned at Helga and said, "Whatever, Helga." He turned away totally dismissing her. Helga frowned once more and stomped off grumbling with Phoebe just behind her. Phoebe turned and looked back at Gerald a moment and waved meekly at him. Gerald smiled a little and waved back as the two girls left the cafeteria together.
In the girl's bathroom a few minutes later, Helga grumbled as she took a wet paper towel and did her best to clean off the lime gelatin that covered almost the whole front of her pink dress.
"Stupid Tall-Hair-Boy throwing food at me! Where the heck does he get off doing something like that?!" She frowned as she looked in the mirror and saw the extent of the damage. It would take almost the rest of the school day to dry.
Next to her, Phoebe was drying her hair off with the hot air dryer normally used for drying hands. She'd gotten far worse from when all the food spilled on top of her. Luckily with Helga's help she did manage to get nearly all of it off without too much staining. The worst part had been the chocolate in her hair, which she had to wash out in the sink and dry off with a lot of painful hair squeezing.
Phoebe turned her head to look at her and dry off the other side of her head. "Helga, you didn't have to get into a verbal confrontation with Gerald like that." She refrained from berating Helga about her actions towards Arnold, knowing that Helga's manner of hiding her less than hidden feelings (at least from everyone else) for the football-headed boy were not her business. It was an unspoken rule they both had and Phoebe went along with Helga's usual denial when it came to Arnold.
When it came to Gerald though, Phoebe felt the need to speak up in his defense.
Helga just frowned and said, "Well he shouldn't have gotten in my face like he did. Criminy, why didn't he just stay out of the way like he always does when I mess around with Arnold-o?"
Phoebe suspected that Gerald was just fed up with what he considered Helga's anti-social attitude toward his best friend - and to her. The idea made Phoebe smile briefly as she continued to dry her hair.
Helga sighed and looked at her, momentarily forgetting about her anger at Gerald. In one regard, Tall- Hair-Boy did have a point. "Listen, Feebs," she said, rubbing the back of her neck nervously. "About before, I'm sorry I blew up at you like I did. I just had enough money for that one lunch thanks to Miriam forgetting to make my lunch again, and I guess I just lost it back there."
Phoebe pulled her nearly dry hair out from under the hand dryer and looked at Helga sympathetically. "It's okay Helga, and I'm really sorry about spilling your lunch."
Helga shrugged and said, "Forget about it, I'll survive till I get home, I mean it's not like I'm gonna starve to death." Her stomach growled then. Phoebe looked at Helga, who just grinned sheepishly at her.
Phoebe smiled knowing that Helga was just putting on a brave front for her. It was one of the things that Phoebe both admired and feared about her best friend. She acted so tough and mean to the world, but once you got past Helga's outer exterior and saw the person she was without all of her masks, she was really a good friend deep down.
Phoebe also cared about Gerald a lot and really loved hanging around with him, as friends and lately as slightly more than just friends—at least she hoped that Gerald saw it that way too.
While Phoebe understood that Helga's manner towards Arnold was just her usual way of getting his attention, she could certain understand how Gerald would see it as just bullying from someone that he really had little use for in the first place. She only wished that Gerald could somehow see this side of Helga, the way she was behind all the scowling and taunts.
Unfortunately, it didn't look as if that would happen anytime soon, especially after the verbal and near-physical confrontation that both parties just went through.
Shigata ga nai, Phoebe thought to herself and sighed.
Finally Helga was done getting cleaned up. She turned to her and said, "Come on, Phoebe, let's go the playground before recess is over."
"Coming," Phoebe said cheerfully and followed the scowling pigtailed girl out the door.
Meanwhile, a similar situation was going on in the boy's bathroom. Arnold was using the sink to wash out the chocolate milk in his hair while Gerald was over by the hand dryers doing his best to dry Arnold's hat off after rinsing it out. It would be awhile before the hat would be dry again, and even then it would probably smell like chocolate milk for awhile or at least till Arnold was able to get it washed better with some good-smelling detergent.
Gerald watched as Arnold rang his blonde hair out over the sink. "I think I got most of it out, Gerald," Arnold told him, walking over to the dryer. He then did his best to dry out his hair some more. "It's going to take all day to dry off."
"Yeah, well, at least you won't be the only one who'll be drying out all day," Gerald said, with a particularly vindictive smirk at the thought of Helga walking around with a lime gelatin stain on her front for the rest of the day.
Arnold looked over at Gerald and said, "You know, Gerald, you didn't have to pick a fight with Helga back there."
Gerald snorted. "Well I had to get back at her for shoving me the way she did. Besides, she didn't have any business picking on you and Phoebe."
Nodding, Arnold replied, "Yeah, something must have been bothering her. Helga was in a really bad mood today."
"Arnold, Helga was born in a bad mood," Gerald said, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms.
"Still, did you have to throw lime gelatin on her like that?" Arnold asked, rubbing out his hair under the hot air. "I mean, you and Helga could have both gotten detention if Principal Wartz had seen you. The best thing you could have done is ignore her, like I do."
"Oh yeah, Arnold, that plan works so well with you," Gerald said rolling his eyes.
Arnold just shrugged and finished drying off his hair. It was still a little wet, but nothing he couldn't deal with. He put his hat back on and looked in the mirror adjusting it. "Well it's better than stooping to her level. Fighting her won't solve anything; it'll just create more trouble."
"Arnold, why do you do that?" Gerald asked, looking at him curiously.
"Do what?" Arnold asked.
"Why do you just put up with Helga's crap like that? I mean, almost every day the girl picks on you, teases you, calls you names like 'Football-head' and 'Hair-boy' and 'Paste-For-Brains' and—"
"Um, Gerald, what's your point?" Arnold said, turning his head and looking at Gerald through an annoyed, half-lidded gaze.
"My point is, why don't you just get back at her, or at least stand up for yourself more often?"
Arnold looked down a moment and said, hesitantly, "I - I have my reasons, okay?"
Gerald could see from where he was standing that something was working behind Arnold's eyes, and not just one of his usual daydreams.
"What's that supposed to mean? What reasons?" Gerald walked over to him, looking at Arnold intently.
"Well, among other things, I don't think that Helga is really that mean deep down," Arnold told him.
Gerald looked at him; disbelief was etched on his dark face. "You're kidding, right?"
Arnold shook his head, "No, Gerald, I'm serious."
"Arnold, this is Helga G. Pataki we're talking about here. The girl picks on you all the time, and pushes you around, and bully's the rest of the class. And you don't think she's all that mean?!" Gerald looked at Arnold incredulously.
Nodding, the football-headed boy said, "That's right."
"Why on earth would you think that?" Gerald asked Arnold, looking at him intently, trying to understand his friend's point of view.
Arnold thought for a moment. He seemed to be choosing his words very carefully. Finally he said, "Because I know that there's more to Helga than just a loud, bossy, scowling bully. That's just one side of her, what she shows on the outside. Helga . . . well, Helga has layers."
"So do ogres," Gerald added, unable to help himself.
"Gerald," Arnold said, though he grinned slightly.
Smiling, Gerald said, "Sorry man, go on."
Arnold continued, "If you look past all the scowling and the bullying, she also has a nice, normal side that isn't so bad. In fact, in many ways, that other side of her is pretty okay." Gerald thought he must have been seeing things, but for a moment there, he thought that he saw Arnold smile slightly.
"I think most of the reason Helga acts the way she does is to hide that other side so people don't notice, or make fun of her for it." Arnold said, finishing his explanation.
Gerald shook his head in disbelief. "Um, um, um. Arnold, you're either crazy, or a hopeless optimist, my friend."
Arnold just smiled at him in a knowing way. "Trust me, Gerald. Helga does have another side, even if she doesn't show it very often."
"Try never," Gerald said, still unconvinced.
Arnold just shrugged and said, "Maybe someday you'll see what I'm talking about for yourself."
Even as he said those words, Arnold wondered if that would ever happen. Neither Gerald or Helga were ever on more than barely tolerable terms at the best of times. After this confrontation things between the two of them were worse than ever, and unlikely to improve anytime in the near future.
Gerald rolled his eyes. "Whatever you say, Arnold."
Arnold sighed and thought, oh well, what can you do?
As they exited the bathroom, Gerald thought about what Arnold said thinking that his friend really was a hopeless optimist. Helga G. Pataki? Having another softer, kinder side? Yeah right, he thought to himself totally unconvinced. I'll believe it when I see it.
He wasn't going to hold his breath waiting for it to happen.
Outside at the picnic area near the playground, Curly was standing by a couple of garbage cans, admiring the vision of loveliness sitting over at one of the outside tables eating her lunch. "There you are my pretty, pretty pet," Curly chuckled loudly to himself as he gazed at his dark-haired love goddess.
Actually, Rhonda wasn't really eating, but sitting there letting her food get cold while she gossiped to the other forth grade girls sitting with her. Nadine, Sheena, and Lila all listened as Rhonda droned on and on about Big Patty's new look. The larger girl had a serious over-bite and had to go to the dentist to get it corrected. As a result the poor girl was doomed to spend the rest of the school year and possibly the first of the summer months with a mouth full of temporary braces and some head gear to keep her teeth as straight as possible in the meantime. She looked like a villain on one of those spy movies, or even a sci-fi monster.
Of course nobody was about to say so to her face. Anyone who did might find themselves on the receiving end of a serious beating. Big Patty was larger than almost anyone else in the sixth grade, and tougher than most of the boys.
Curly watched her, lost in his own obsessive thoughts about having her as his girlfriend. For real, this time, not like the time he had to blackmail her into being his girlfriend for a week. He just knew that if only he could find some way to get her alone, then he could make her his own.
He sat down against the wall, hiding behind the garbage cans and thinking aloud to himself.
"I must come up with some cleaver scheme to get Rhonda and me alone somehow so she can fall for my charms and good looks." Curly grinned beneath his glasses, and then added, "After all, who in their right mind would turn down all this?"
There were some giggles from nearby and Curly frowned losing his ego-driven vision of himself. He looked over to see who was giggling and saw a pair of sixth grade girls walking by with their trays toward the garbage cans. He slunk down lower as they approached. They were both babbling about something, and Curly could hear them as they got closer.
"So anyhow, what do you think that Tony did?" The first one said, in an overly annoying bubbly voice. "He wrote an anonymous note telling me of his undying love for me and left it in my locker, telling me to meet him in the make-out closet behind the gym for some serious smooching."
The other girl gasped, "Oh-my-gosh, Lisa, you didn't?!" There was a pause and she let out a loud girlish giggle. "You really kissed him?!"
"All through most of the last period," the first girl said, sounding really giggly then. "I just couldn't help it, when he kissed me it was so awesome that I just fell for him right then and there. And now, were officially going out."
"You go girl!" The second one said, just as both girls dumped the contents of their trays in the cans Curly hid behind. They walked off giggling and talking more about the romantic rendezvous.
Curly stood up and he had a huge grin on his face. "That's it! That's how I'll get Rhonda to fall for my charms!" He paced a little as he continued to talk to himself. "I'll write an anonymous love note and slip it into Rhonda's locker telling her to meet me in the make-out closet and then when she shows up, I'll be there waiting to give a great my pretty pet Rhonda a big old smooch on the lips. She'll fall fast for my charms and at last Rhonda Wellington Lloyd will be my girlfriend!"
He threw back his head and laughed a loud, maniacal laugh just then that scared several younger kids nearby and made others look at him strangely before they walked away from the little weirdo.
He stopped himself a moment later and added with a small shrug, "Heck, even if it doesn't work, at the very least I'll get a smooch out of the whole thing." Then he walked off determined, ready to put phase one of "Operation Smooch Rhonda" into motion.