Chapter Nine: Fated Meetings
Ruth McDougal sat on a stool in the front of Bigal's Family Restaurant, bored out of her mind. Although she worked as a waitress at the restaurant most of the time, currently she was working as the hostess since the regular hostess was out sick. In Ruth's eyes, the only difference between working as a waitress and a hostess was that, as a waitress, you got to be bored while bringing everyone their orders, while as a hostess, you got to be bored while sitting down. She sighed, looking at her nails since nobody was coming in at the moment. While Ruth thought every day there was slow, today seemed particularly slower than usual. The part time job gave Ruth no enjoyment whatsoever and she often thought about quitting; however, since her parents would not allow her to quit, she simply put far less effort into her work and complained about the job constantly.
As Ruth sighed and thought about all the things she would rather be doing, a man wearing a brown coat and sunglasses walked in. The man walked up to her, but Ruth did not notice. Finally, the man cleared his throat, making Ruth look up.
"Oh, sorry," said Ruth without enthusiasm. "Welcome to Bigal's. Smoking or non-smoking?"
"Non-smoking, please," said the man, in an accent Ruth couldn't recognize.
"Table for one?"
"No no, a table for two, please," said the man. "I'm expecting someone. I'd like the table under the name 'Vigil'"
"'Kay," said Ruth as she wrote down the information. She got up from the stool to show the man to his table when she noticed his coat. "Oh, you can leave your coat on one of the hooks over there, if you want."
"No, thank you, I'm fine," said Mr. Vigil, smiling.
Ruth shrugged and walked Mr. Vigil over to a table with two seats in the far corner of the mostly empty restaurant. The florescent light on the table over the ceiling flickered. Mr. Vigil sat down in one of the chairs.
"Yes, this will do nicely. Thank you," he said.
Ruth gave a slight nod. "A waitress will be with you in a minute." She walked away, back to her stool. She did not wonder why the man insisted on wearing a coat inside when it was not that cold or why he wore sunglasses in a dimly lit restaurant. Ruth was far too busy being bored to care about such matters. She sat back down at the stool and sighed, reluctantly preparing for yet another boring evening.
O what a rogue and peasant slave am I, thought Helga bitterly as she walked down the sidewalk. The sun behind her was beginning to set. On any other day, Helga might have stopped to secretly admire the beauty of it. But today, Helga could see no beauty in anything, least of all herself.
After all the work she had put into the plan to help Arnold, after all of her effort, Helga had managed to destroy it all just because she let her temper get the better of her. In her mind, to say that her plan was a catastrophe was a vast understatement; she had taken failure to such a new level that she could not think of a word that properly conveyed its magnitude.
What am I supposed to do now? thought Helga as her eyes stung with tears. How am I supposed to face Arnold ever again knowing that I had a chance to help him and let it slip through my fingers? I don't deserve to see look into his football-shaped face ever again, let alone deserve any feelings from him. Because of this…because of what I've done…Arnold might never get better. The wounds in his heart are so deep. He might become so depressed and sad that soon he'd become a different person. The Arnold I know might soon be gone forever…and I destroyed my only chance to do anything about it.
As she thought, she recalled the words of the strange man from the bus yesterday. The man had found Mile's journal left on the bus and entrusted it to Helga to return to Helga. The man who had the nerve to say that coming across the journal was her "destiny."
Was this the "destiny" you meant, you bastard? she thought. Was it always my fate to have my hopes, Arnold's hopes, raised so high only to have them crushed? Was it my fate to ruin everything from the start? Was it my destiny to simply watch Arnold waste away and hope against hope that everything will be okay? As she walked, she furiously kicked a small rock. It flew against the wall of an dark alley and disappeared into the shadows. No, it wasn't fate, Helga decided. It was stupidity. Pure, utter stupidity. It's not the world's fault I failed; it's all on me this time.
She continued to walk down the street, too depressed to even hold her own head up. She walked for some time before she heard a familiar voice call out her name behind her. Helga turned around and saw Lila, out of breath.
"For a minute," she said when she found enough breath to speak, "I was oh so certain I wouldn't be able to catch up with you."
"What do you want, Lila?" said Helga in a blank, depressed tone.
"Well…" said Lila meekly, "I have to see your sister. We were going out to dinner, remember?"
Helga had forgotten about that, not that it mattered to her anyway.
"So, I was thinking I could just walk with you to your house, if that's alright with you," said Lila.
Helga shrugged and turned to walk away.
"Whatever," said Helga.
Lila walked next to Helga. Lila looked like she was expecting Helga to say something, but Helga said nothing. Finally, Lila said, "You wanna talk about it?"
"There's nothing to talk about," said Helga.
"It might make you feel better."
Helga looked Lila in the eye and said, "No, Lila, it wouldn't."
"Oh." Lila scratched the back of her neck. "Are you sure?"
Helga sighed and gave Lila a harsh look.
"You're not going to shut up until I talk about this, are you?" she said.
Lila looked down, without saying anything. Helga sighed again. Right now, Lila reminded her of a stray dog; you throw them a bone once and they'll follow you around forever, whether you like it or not.
"You want to know what happened?" said Helga, not bothering to wait for a reply. "I went in, tried to talk some reason in to Rhonda. Then she made me so mad that I smacked her."
Lila looked shocked but didn't say anything.
"Yeah," said Helga. "I smacked Ms. Popular in the face. Fantastic diplomacy on my part. So now, we've got nothing. No Rhonda, no money, no help for Arnold. All because I got pissed off. Now what do you think of that?"
Lila looked like she wanted to say something, but couldn't think of anything to say.
"Yeah, great advice, talking about this," said Helga, sarcastic and bitter. "I feel so much better."
"I…just wanted to help," said Lila sadly. "I mean, you're my friend and-"
"I'm your friend? Since when?"
Lila stopped walking. Helga turned and saw that she had a genuinely hurt expression on her face. Realizing what she said, Helga looked down.
"Look, I'm sorry," said Helga. "I didn't mean that."
"I'm ever so sure you didn't," said Lila, still looking hurt.
"I guess I just can't do anything right today," said Helga quietly.
They continued walking down the sidewalk. The sky was a purplish-red color as the sun was nearly finished setting. They walked in silence until they were nearly in sight of Helga's house.
"Listen," said Lila finally, "this isn't the end, Helga."
"This isn't the end. I know that you've made some…mistakes. We all have. I'm oh too sure that I have. But that doesn't mean we can't help Arnold…that you can't help Arnold."
"There's nothing else I can-"
"Yes, there is," said Lila interrupting. "There's always another way. I'm…not quite sure what you'd be able to do in this case, but I'm sure you'll find a way. I'm ever so certain of it."
They approached Helga's house. Helga looked Lila in the eye, and the look in her eyes showed Helga that she truly believed what she was saying. Helga wasn't sure if she should thank Lila for her optimism or pity her naiveté. As much as Helga wanted to believe what Lila was saying, she just couldn't. When she didn't reply, Lila gave her a reassuring smile.
"You'll find a way," said Lila. "You'll see."
Helga walked up the steps and opened the door. Lila followed her inside.
To Helga's dismay, Olga came out of the living room to greet them.
"Oh Baby Sister, it's so good to see you," said Olga. When she saw Lila was there, she said, "It's good to see you too, Little Sis."
Helga raised an eyebrow. On the surface, Olga acted as annoyingly cheerful as she always did but something about her demeanor seemed…different; however, Helga couldn't figure out what. However, Helga had bigger worries on her mind than Olga.
"Umm…Baby Sister," said Olga. "You have a visitor."
Helga's head snapped up.
"What?" she said.
She felt a tapping on her shoulder. When she turned, she saw Lila, looking pale like she had seen a ghost. She pointed over to the living room. When Helga turned to look, she was surprised to see Arnold standing there.
"Arnold?!" she said, stunned.
"Hi Helga," said Arnold nervously. "Umm…I know this is a bit sudden but…could we, maybe…talk?"
Helga opened her mouth, but no words seem to come out. She stood as still as a statue, unable to say anything. Her mind seemed to go completely numb. She knew that she was being stared at. Lila looked with a worried look on her face; she was probably the only person in the room who truly grasped what Helga was feeling right now. Olga looked at Helga, her look of anticipation slowly degraded into one of confusion. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Big Bob sitting on his big, comfortable chair in the other room, totally oblivious to what was going on near the front door.
However, at the moment, Helga did not care how Lila, Olga, or Bob were reacting. All that mattered was the football-headed boy with golden hair standing in front of her. Everything else in the room seemed to fade into the background. In Helga's mind, it was just her and Arnold.
He had a weak smile, but he was obviously nervous. Unfortunately, whatever anxiety he felt was nothing compared to what Helga was feeling right now. Any other time, Helga would have enjoyed to be anywhere near Arnold. But now, after her failure, just looking at his face made her feel like she was being punched in her very soul. The timing could not possibly be worse. She was beginning to think that fate was conspiring to make her miserable.
"Helga?" said Arnold, taking a step towards her. "Are you okay?"
He was obviously worried, but Helga couldn't understand why. After what she had done, she didn't deserve Arnold's concern. She found herself becoming angry, not at Arnold, but at herself.
I failed you, my love, she thought. No matter what Lila says, I don't deserve to know you. How can you even stand to look at me?
Helga clenched her fist.
"Why are you here?" she said quietly, her voice quivering.
"What?" said Arnold, confused. He looked like he did not expect this kind of reaction from Helga at all.
"Helga…" whispered Lila. Helga acted as if she did not here her.
"What are you doing here?!" said Helga, raising her voice without meaning to. To her horror, she realized her eyes were becoming watery. She tried to choke back the tears, hoping nobody would notice. However, the pale expression on Arnold's face made it clear that he had noticed. Lila turned away, knowing that Helga would only feel even worse if she knew Lila had seen her. Olga made no effort to conceal what she had seen, opening her mouth in concern and alarm.
"Helga...what's going on?" said Arnold.
Helga tried to say something, but she was terrified opening her mouth would let out a sob. She looked in Arnold's beautiful green eyes, full of concern. She couldn't bear to look at him anymore. Quickly, she turned and ran up the stairs.
Despite herself, she looked backed downstairs. She saw Big Bob lean in for a moment, wanting to see what was going on, but Olga told him everything was fine. Even though he didn't seem to believe her, he went back in the other room. As soon as he left, Olga started running to follow Helga up the stairs. Lila, looking very sad, tried to stop her, but without much luck. She couldn't see Arnold's face from there, which was probably a good thing.
She ran up to her room. She swung the door open and was about to run inside when her sister ran up beside her. She looked very worried.
"Helga, what's wrong?" said Olga. "Why are acting this way?"
"Leave me alone," said Helga. She was very angry. All she wanted to do was to be left alone, where she wouldn't have to face her own failure, yet Olga was keeping from doing that.
Olga grabbed Helga's arm. Helga glared up at her.
"Let go of me," said Helga in a louder voice.
"Please, Baby Sister, talk to me," said Olga. "I just want to help!"
"You want to help?" said Helga jerking her arm from Olga's grip. "Then just go away!"
"Please, I just wanted to help," said Olga, obviously upset. "I thought that maybe…well, since he's your friend, I thought if you talked to him then…"
"You had something to do with Arnold being here?!" said Helga, furious now. She took a step towards Olga, who now seemed on the verge of tears. "Do me a favor, Olga. Next time you want to help me, just don't. I don't want your idea of help. I never have and I never will. The best thing you can do is just…go…away!"
Helga walked into her room and slammed the door. Distantly, Helga heard something else in the house fall to the floor. Helga didn't care.
She walked over to her bed and lied down, She looked on her desk and saw an envelope with her name written on it. She hadn't seen it there this morning, but Helga was too upset and mad to care about a stupid letter. She tried to lie down on her bed, but for some reason she couldn't get comfortable. Enraged, Helga stood up from her bed and walked over to the corner of her room. She felt like punching the wall. Just as she was about to do so, she happened to look to her left and saw herself on the mirror she had on her dresser. She looked at the angry glare in her eyes, the tears still clinging to her eyelashes, the furious expression on her face. Her angry expression soon turned sad. She looked down.
God…look at me…what is wrong with me? thought Helga. She tried to think of an answer, but she did not have one. She leaned against the corner of her room and slid down, sitting down on the floor. Then, without wanting or meaning to, she began to cry silently.
Outside the doorway, unbeknownst to Helga, Olga stood in front of the door. She felt like crying, but she couldn't. She just stood there, staring at the wall. She stood there for a few minutes, trying to think of something to do, before finally walking back downstairs, sullenly.
Gerald looked down into Phoebe's hazel eyes. His hands were upon her shoulders. Under any other circumstances, Gerald would have greatly enjoyed being this close to Phoebe; however, these were not the best circumstances. After all, he had just come upon Phoebe crying after Helga snapped about something (unfortunately, Gerald couldn't clearly make out exactly what Helga was so upset about when he eavesdropped on them). Although Phoebe had stopped crying when he showed up, Gerald knew he couldn't possibly be helping Phoebe right now by asking her about what Helga, Lila, and her were doing there and what it had to do with Arnold, but it was something Gerald just needed to know.
Phoebe looked up at him, shocked. She was silent for a long time. Finally, the only word she could muster was a quiet "What?"
"Listen," said Gerald as gently as he could, "I know what you guys were doing had something to do with Arnold. It was written all over your face when I talked to you earlier."
Phoebe looked down, embarrassed and ashamed at the same time.
"I…I can't tell you," said Phoebe. "I told Helga I-"
"Please, Phoebe," he said, looking her directly in the eye. "I wouldn't ask you something like this if it wasn't really important. He's my best friend, Phoebe. And if anyone has a right to know if he's in trouble or hurting or whatever, it's me."
Phoebe said nothing, but Gerald could tell from the look in her eyes that she really did want to tell him, but wasn't sure if she should.
"Phoebe…" said Gerald. "You can trust me. You know that, don't you?"
Phoebe looked up at him.
"Yes…yes, I know I can," she said. She looked up at him, then at her shoulder. Only then did Gerald realize his hands were still there. His face turned slightly red as he pulled his hands back.
"Oh, um…" he stammered. "Heh, sorry about that."
"It's alright," said Phoebe, giving a weak smile. She turned away from him. Then, after taking a deep breath, she said, "It's his parents."
"What?" said Gerald.
"His parents. Arnold's parents. That's what this is about."
Gerald was taken aback. Gerald was one of the few people who knew that the reason Arnold's parents weren't around was because they flew off on a mission to San Lorenzo when Arnold was a baby. They never came back, and nobody ever found out what happened to them.
"Oh," he said. "Oh god." It started to make sense. Gerald had known Arnold since pre-school, and he was one of the few people who really saw Arnold when he was vulnerable. Normally, Arnold acted normal and positive most of the time, even though he had his ups and downs like any person; however, when the subject of his parents came up, he always became sad and distant, just like he was today. He knew that his friend was in pain, but he didn't know that his problem opened such old wounds.
"Crap," he said, feeling like an idiot. "I should have realized this sooner." He looked over at Phoebe. "What's wrong? Is he gonna be okay?"
"I don't know," she said. "He wanted to go to San Lorenzo to find his parents. He tried to find a way to get there but…I don't know what happened, but apparently it didn't work."
Gerald felt as if he had been kicked in the chest, as if he could literally feel his friend's heartache. He could not even imagine how Arnold was feeling right now. No wonder he seemed so depressed.
Phoebe told him everything else. She told him that Helga had found the journal, how she found out Arnold's problem, and how she thought of a plan to ask Rhonda money to charter a private plane. She told him how Helga asked Phoebe and later Lila for help. And, finally, she told them how they failed.
Gerald listened to her in silence. He felt as if his eyes had been open for the first time. He could not believe all this was going on without him realizing it. However, as Phoebe spoke, je realized there was one very important question Phoebe had not answer, an answer that she was doing her best to avoid.
"I've only got one question," he said when she was nearly finished. "Why? Why would Helga do this? Why would Helga of all people go through all this trouble for Arnold?"
Phoebe said nothing. Gerald thought about asking her again, but he knew that she couldn't betray Helga's trust. It wouldn't be fair of Gerald to demand she answer that. However, Gerald couldn't help but wonder why Helga would do this. He felt a bit frustrated because he felt like the answer was on the tip of his tongue. He felt like it should be obvious, painfully obvious; and yet, for some reason, he just couldn't see the answer…or couldn't allow himself to see the answer.
"Nevermind," he said finally. "It doesn't matter anyway."
"Well, that's about it then," she said. "Helga just said it was over and left…and I'm not even sure why. Lila went after her. And I…I just don't know what to do now." She shook her head. "I guess…in the end…we couldn't do anything for him."
Gerald looked at her and shook his head. He forced a smile.
"Don't be like that," he said. "I know the man. He may be sad now, but he'll bounce back. He always does."
Phoebe looked up at him.
"Really?" she said.
"Yeah," said Gerald. Although that was true, Gerald knew there was more to it. He thought about keeping it to himself, but he found he couldn't lie to Phoebe's face. He frowned. "But…well, to be honest, Arnold's always been upset about his parents, you know? He'll be back to normal again...but deep down, he'll always think about this. After all, he never was the kind of guy to just let something go." He sighed. "I think that, deep down, he won't rest until he's found out what happened to them. And…well, I'm just not sure what to do."
Phoebe looked down, dejected once again. Gerald felt terrible for raising her hopes only to bring them down again, but he couldn't just lie to her. But it was more than that; these thoughts weighed heavy on Gerald's mind, and it seemed like Phoebe was the only person besides Arnold who he could share these thoughts with. He wished dearly that there was something to do that could help Phoebe and Arnold, but there seemed like there was nothing he could do. He was just a teenager, and he knew nothing about raising so much money.
Gerald felt horrible. He had wanted to help and all he was doing now was making Phoebe feel even more hopeless.
Some friend I am, he thought. I can't even help my two best friends. But it seems like I can't do that unless I trip over a big pile of money in the street or something. I mean, usually I'm good at making my friends feel better, but right now it seems like I completely suck at it.. Hell, I can't even have a positive attitude about this like Arn-
Something dawned on Gerald in that moment.
Like Arnold would, he thought, feeling a smile creep on to his face. How many times had Arnold had helped him with his problems? How many times had he solved seemingly unsolvable problems with nothing more than a sickeningly positive attitude? There were too many to count. This had always amazed Gerald, who was a bit more pessimistic. He had once asked Arnold why he always had to look on the positive side. Arnold had turned to him and said "Because somebody has to."
Gerald couldn't help but laugh. He couldn't help but admire the irony.
"I can't believe it," said Gerald to himself, laughing. "All that grief I gave you about acting like that…and I guess this time it's my turn."
Phoebe looked at him as if he was crazy.
"Are you…okay?" said Phoebe.
"Not really," he said, still laughing. "But I know what I have to do now." He looked at the houses nearby and recognized Rhonda's place. He walked towards the house.
"What are you doing?" asked Phoebe.
"Isn't it obvious?" he said, no longer laughing, but smiling. "I'm going to ask Rhonda for help."
"But…we already tried that."
"Well, I'm going to try again."
"But…" Phoebe was stammering now. "But how can you just do that. What if it doesn't work?"
"Then I'll try something else. And if that doesn't work, then I'll try something after that. Eventually, something will work." He walked up the steps to Rhonda's house. "I'm not sure what I'd do if this doesn't work, but I'd think of something." He turned back to Phoebe. "If you help me, I'm sure we could do it."
Phoebe stood looking up at him. She looked completely astonished and confused.
"I…I don't get it," she said. "A minute ago, you seemed ready to give up. And now you seem so…" She trailed off. "How is it that you can be so optimistic now?"
Gerald looked at her a smiled. He held back the urge to laugh when the answer came to his mind.
"Because…somebody has to." He knocked on the door once. When there was no answer, he opened the door. He looked back at Phoebe, who was looking up at him with a look of- was it a look of admiration or something more? Gerald felt his face become slightly red. "Are you coming?"
Phoebe nodded. As she came up the steps she said, quietly, "Thank you."
"Anytime," he said.
Together, they walked inside.
Big Patty walked out of the kitchen in Bigal's Family Restaurant and was surprised to see there was a new customer there. She had been a waitress there for almost a year now and, in her experience, business was usually very slow on Wednesdays. There were only a handful of other people in the restaurant, all of whom Patty had already waited on. However, now there was a man sitting in a table in the corner, wearing a coat and sunglasses. She felt bad that it had taken her so long to notice the man.
Patty noticed Ruth, sitting on her stool by the front door. As usual, she seemed to be doing nothing, looking bored. Patty walked over to her.
"Hey, Ruth, how long has that guy been there?" said Patty politely, pointing over to the man in the corner.
"What?" said Ruth, looking over to the corner. "Ohh, him. I dunno, a little while I guess."
"Why didn't you come get me or take his order?"
Ruth shrugged. "Not my problem."
Patty rolled her eyes. Patty had a few co-workers in the restaurant. The cook, Harold, had been her boyfriend since fourth grade and helped her get a waitress job at the restaurant. Patty had also gotten to know the other two waiters, Iggy and Lorenzo. However, Ruth was the only co-worker who Patty just could not get along with. Patty tried to be polite to her but, frankly, she thought Ruth had all the personality and intelligence of a jar of old mayonnaise. She spent most of her time at the restaurant avoiding work whenever possible and talking about all the things she would rather be doing. Patty was amazed Bigal even hired her in the first place.
"Whatever," said Patty. "Well, I should go take his order. After all, some of us have work to do."
Ruth glared at her, but said nothing.
Patty walked over to the man's table. The man seemed to be staring at the empty seat across from him, deep in thought. His expression was hard to see with the sunglasses, but he seemed to have a somewhat nervous look on his face.
"Hello, welcome to Bigal's" said Patty.
The man looked up at Patty and his nervous expression changed to a smile. It seemed like he was trying to mask how he was really feeling. Patty wondered what was on the man's mind, but she knew it wasn't polite to ask such questions.
"I'm Patty. I'll be your server today," she said. She thought for a minute and added, "I'm very sorry for the wait."
"No, it's fine," said Mr. Vigil. "I'm in no rush."
"Would you like anything to drink?" asked Patty politely.
Mr. Vigil thought for a minute. "Coffee would be nice," he said.
Patty smiled. "Right away, sir," she said.
Patty quickly went to the kitchen. She got a cup and a pot of coffee that had already been boiling. She returned to the table and poured Mr. Vigil a cup.
"Thank you," said Mr. Vigil smiling. He reached on the side of the table for a packet of sugar.
"Would you like a menu?" asked Patty.
"No," he said, tearing the packet open and pouring it into his cup. "I'm waiting for someone. I'll order when she gets here."
"Ah," said Patty. "Your girlfriend?"
Mr. Vigil laughed. "No, nothing like that," he said, pouring some cream into his coffee and stirring it with a spoon. "No, it's just a…friend, I guess." He stared at the seat across from him, his smile fading. "I'm a bit nervous, actually."
"Why?" said Patty.
"It's…complicated. I have to talk to her about another friend of hers. Really, I should be talking to him myself but…" He stopped and looked up at her. He laughed. "It's quite complicated. Sorry, I didn't mean to bore you with my problems."
Patty gave the man a smile. "It's not a problem at all. Well, I'll be back when your friend gets here and I'll take your order."
Patty was about to turn away, but paused. She looked at the man. There was a question that had been hanging in her mind ever since she had laid eyes on the man.
"Can I ask you something?" said Patty, hesitantly.
"Of course," said Mr. Vigil.
"Umm…" She tried to choose her words carefully, as not to offend the man. "I was just wondering…why are you wearing sunglasses inside?"
Vigil stared at her for a minute. Then he smiled.
"Well, actually, my eyes are very sensitive to the light," he said. "It's something of a rare condition. You could say it runs in my family. I can see well enough without the sunglasses, but it's not exactly what you would call comfortable. Especially in this city. Ever since I came here everything seems so…bright. I mean, this whole country is full of so many bright lights, but something about this city seems a tad brighter." He laughed and shook his head. "It seems that no matter how long I stay here, there are some things you just don't get used to." He paused for a minute, staring into his light brown coffee, as if he was remembering something. Then he looked back up at Patty, smiling. "So you see, I just feel more comfortable with these on."
"Oh…oh I'm so sorry," said Patty, feeling bad for thinking the man was behaving oddly.
"It's okay, really," said Mr. Vigil, smiling. "After all, you're not the first person to ask." He laughed. "Besides, I'm sure I really do look strange with these on all the time."
Patty, still a bit embarrassed by her comment, said "I'll be back to take your order later."
He smiled. "Thank you."
"Your welcome," said Patty as she walked off to the kitchen. When she left, Mr. Vigil stared into his cup of coffee, waiting for his "friend" to finally arrive.
What just happened? thought Arnold, stunned. He wasn't sure how he expected Helga to react when she saw him, but he certainly didn't expect this reaction. When he thought about it, he had hoped that Helga would be happy to see him, so that it would be easier to talk to her. But, judging from her reaction, she must not be very happy to see him at all. Arnold thought she seemed furious or sad or both. He wasn't sure what to think.
He looked up at the stairs, hoping it would be Helga coming back down, but it was Olga. She had a vaguely sad expression on her face. She stared out at nothing, as if she was looking at something very distant. She walked down the stairs and into the dining room without saying anything.
Arnold turned at Lila's voice. To be honest, Arnold had been so caught up in Helga's reaction that he was only vaguely aware Lila was there at all. Just a few years ago, Lila was Arnold's whole world. If she was in the room, she was all he saw. Now, she was just another one of his friends. A close friend, but still just a friend.
Funny how things change, thought Arnold. He wondered if he only considered Helga just a close friend, but before he could think, he realized that Lila was still waiting for him to answer.
"What is it Lila?" said Arnold, embarrassed he had been lost in thought while she was talking to him.
Lila took a step towards him. She looked down at the floor for a minute thinking, then looked back up.
"Are you going to talk to Helga?" asked Lila quietly.
Arnold bit his lip. He didn't know what he should do. He certainly wanted to talk to Helga; not just because of his own problems, but now to see if she was okay. However, it wasn't that simple.
"I'm…not sure what I'm going to do," said Arnold. "I mean, I want to talk to her. That's why I'm here after all. But…well, she didn't exactly seem happy to see me. Maybe I should just go."
Lila shook her head. She had a sad smile on her face.
"Oh Arnold," she said. "I'm ever so certain you don't know what you're talking about."
"What?" said Arnold, raising an eyebrow.
"I'm oh so sure that you're the only person who can talk to Helga right now."
"But…" He looked up the stairs. They seemed to tower ominously over him, and suddenly walking up them to see Helga seemed like an impossible task. He looked back to Lila. "I don't know. I think she's mad at me."
"She isn't," said Lila. Arnold looked in her eyes and could tell that she was telling the truth. "You need to talk to her. After all, it was all for you."
"All for me? What was?"
Lila, realizing what she said, put her hand to her mouth.
"Well…umm…" she said. "Just talk to Helga. I have a feeling she'll tell you." She looked into the dining room. "I'm oh so sure I should talk to Olga. She seemed upset."
"Yeah," said Arnold. He looked up the stairs and sighed. "Wish me luck," he said to Lila as he started walking up the stairs.
Lila smiled sincerely. "Good luck," she said. She walked into the dining room to talk to Olga.
Arnold climbed up the stairs. On the way up, he tried to think of what he could say to Helga. Usually he was good at thinking of the right thing to someone who needed help, but right now, he had nothing. This just wasn't Arnold's day.
I'll just have to improvise and hope she's not too angry, he thought.
He walked down the hall. It had been a long time since he had been in Helga's house, but he still remembered which door was her room. He was about to knock on the door when he heard faint sounds coming from within. He put his ear to the door. It was very faint, but Arnold was sure he heard very quiet sobs.
Damn, thought Arnold. This is worse than angry. A lot worse. He felt like crap. All he wanted was to talk to Helga, to sort out his feelings about his parents…and for her. But now, he had somehow made the only person he seemed to be able to really talk to today cry. Even if it wasn't entirely his fault that she reacted the way she did, he couldn't help but feel responsible.
He tried to gather his courage and, after taking a deep breath, knocked on Helga's door. There was no answer, but he noticed the quiet sounds coming from the room stopped. He knocked again.
"What?" said Helga, her voice almost a whisper.
"Yeah, umm…it's me," he said. "I was wondering if I could come in…if you're alright with that."
She said nothing.
"So…is that okay?" he said.
She still said nothing.
"Okay, I'm coming in," he said. "Is that alright?"
She still remained silent. Arnold sighed.
Well, she didn't say no, thought Arnold. This isn't gonna be easy. Not by a long shot.
He opened the door slowly. He expected to see Helga on the bed or in the chair by her desk, but instead, he found her sitting in the corner of her room. She sat with her knees to her chest. She looked down on the floor. Arnold noticed her eyes were reddened, but she had no tears on her face. She must have wiped them off before he came in.
"Hi," said Arnold. Helga didn't even look up. Arnold put his hand on the back of his neck. Unsure what to do, he walked over to her and looked down at her. Cautiously, he sat down on the floor next to her. "Wanna talk about it?"
Helga looked over to him with a rare look of sadness in her eyes. She sighed.
"I'm a failure," she said. "A failure and a fool."
Arnold looked her in the eyes. He had known Helga for a long time and, over the years, he had thought of her as many different things, positive and negative. But he had never thought of her as a failure or a fool.
"What makes you say that?" said Arnold, still trying not to say anything that would upset her too much.
She looked back down.
"I...can't tell you," she said. "I just…" She sighed again. "I can't."
Arnold looked at her, wishing there was some way he could comfort her the way she had tried to comfort him that morning. As he though about what she had said that morning, he was hit by a sudden insight. Despite himself, he half-smiled.
Helga caught this and glared at him.
"What the hell are you smiling at?" she said in a low, furious voice.
He stood up and looked down into her angry, blue eyes.
"It's ironic," he said. He realized that if he smiled anymore without an explanation, Helga would get even angrier, so he made an effort not to. "I mean, think about it. Doesn't this feel sort of…familiar?" He looked into Helga's eyes and saw that she still didn't get it. "This morning at the pier…"
Helga's scowl faded. It seemed she was beginning to get it.
"I was really, really depressed this morning, and you came to talk to me, even though I didn't really want you to," he said. "And now, here we are again. Except now we're not by the river and I'm in your shoes." He shook his head. "It's almost funny...almost."
"Yeah, funny," said Helga, not laughing or sounding the least bit amused.
"Well," said Arnold softly, "the point is that if you think I won't understand what you're feeling, I think we both know that's not true."
"It's not that," said Helga, standing up. "I know you'd understand. That's not why I don't want to tell you. It's…" She looked away. For a brief moment, Arnold feared her eyes would begin to tear up. "I'm ashamed, alright! I don't want you to know how I failed you."
"Failed me? How could you fail me, Helga? When I needed my dad's journal, you had it. When I needed someone to confide to this morning, you were there. How could you possibly think you failed me?" He took a step towards her. He spoke in a calm, quiet voice. "This morning, I called myself a lot of things you're calling yourself now. And you told me that it wasn't true and that I shouldn't hate myself. Well, that's what I'm saying to you right now."
Helga looked in his eyes. She looked touched, but she was still sad.
"You don't understand," she said.
"Then tell me. Make me understand."
She was silent for a minute. Arnold almost thought she wouldn't say anything at all. After almost a full minute, she finally spoke.
"I…I tried to help you," she said in a whisper. "I…tried to see if I could help you get to San Lorenzo."
Arnold's eyes widened. He wouldn't have expected this in a million years. He wanted to think of something to say, but all that came out of his mouth was a quiet, confused "What?"
"I tried to find enough money to get you the private plane you were talking about," said Helga. "Not just me either. I got Phoebe to help. Lila too. The only idea we had that any chance of succeeding was asking Rhonda for the money and…" Helga was unable to look at Arnold. "Well, imagine the biggest, most violent train wreck ever and you'll almost have an idea of how well it went." She looked down at the floor. "It didn't work. I failed you, when you really needed help most." She struggled with her next words, as if she couldn't bear to say them aloud. "And I was…afraid. Very, very afraid that if I didn't help…well you were so depressed earlier that…I was afraid you might not recover. That…that'd you'd be like forever. That'd you'd become a totally different person." Helga took a deep breath. "Well…now you know…"
Arnold stood and stared at her. This was certainly an unforeseen turn of events. He walked over to Helga's bed and sat down.
"Wow…that's…a lot to take in," he said. "Helga…I mean…you really…I don't really know what to say." He put his hand to his face, trying to collect his thoughts and figure out how to articulate his feelings. "Helga..." he said slowly. "You have no idea…how much this means to me."
Helga looked at Arnold. They stared at each other in silence.
"…what?!" shouted Helga, finally. Her shout was not of anger, but of complete, utter surprise. "But you…you're not…aren't you disappointed?"
"In what?" said Arnold, standing up. He was feeling a lot of confusing things, but disappointment in Helga was not one of them. He began to pace about the room. "Disappointed that you actually really cared about what I was feeling? That you went to such lengths to try and help me? That you knew that what you were doing was almost impossible, but tried anyway?" He walked in front of Helga and looked her in her eyes. "Helga…I have absolutely nothing to be disappointed in."
Helga's eyes were wide. She stared at Arnold for so long that he almost thought she became incapable of blinking.
"But…you were so depressed before, Arnold," she said. "Aren't you sad you can't get to San Lorenzo? Aren't you sad you might not have a chance to find your parents?"
Arnold frowned. He turned and walked over to her desk. He leaned on it.
"Of course I am, Helga," said Arnold. He felt a deep pain in his heart as he said it. "I…I've been wanting to go there for so long. I've always hoped that one day I could find my parents. I've wanted it so long that it's become a part of me. And…well, I guess what happened yesterday made me…lose it a bit. I thought all hope was gone and I just…" He turned back to her, giving her a sad smile. "Well, you saw how I acted. I was really depressed and…well, I'm sorry I made you worry so much."
Before Helga could say anything, he turned back around. "But, even though I didn't want to see it before, you were right what you said before," he said. "I shouldn't hate myself because of this. They…my parents…wouldn't want that. Even though I know that, deep down, it's still hard. It's hard, really hard, to have so many feelings in your heart going against each other." He took his hands of the desk and walked back over to Helga. "I think you know how that feels." And as he said it, he knew it was true.
"I'm really sorry about what I put you through, Helga," he said. "But…if you were worried about me becoming a different person just because you didn't get some money, you're crazy." He put his hand to his chest. "I'm me. I've always been and I always will. I'm not sure how to be anyone else and I don't really want to try."
Helga looked at him, considering what he had said. She took a step towards him. They were less than a foot away. They looked each other in the eyes.
"Arnold…" said Helga, quietly. "That is...without a doubt…the corniest thing you have ever said."
"That's not funny," said Arnold, but he was already laughing. Helga smiled in that sly way she always seemed to smile. For the first time since Arnold had come in, Helga looked like she was acting normally.
"But it was good," she said. "Corny. But good. I appreciate it." Her smile faltered a bit. "I still feel bad…I mean, for a while, just for a while, I thought I could really pull it off."
Arnold stopped laughing. He wasn't sure what he could say to that.
"Well…I don't know what to do," said Arnold. "About my parents, I mean. I honestly don't know. But maybe…maybe this isn't the end."
Helga laughed at that. "Guess Lila was right after all," she muttered.
"What?" said Arnold.
Arnold paused for a second.
"You know," he said hesitantly, "ever since this morning, I've been thinking about you a lot." Helga looked at him, her expression unchanged. "I mean…a lot. I even had a dream about you."
Helga raised an eyebrow and a shadow of a smile crept on her face.
"What…kind of dream, exactly?" she said, grinning deviously.
"What do you…" He saw the grin on Helga's face and understood what she was insinuating. "Oh. Oh! N-no, no it wasn't like that! I mean, that's…no. No, I mean…" He felt the heat on his face and knew that he was blushing. "Jeez, Helga, don't be so immature."
Helga laughed gleefully.
"I swear, even after all these years, it never gets old teasing you, Football Head" she said. Usually Arnold would have been annoyed by this nickname, but oddly enough, he was almost happy to hear it again. Maybe it had something to do with how serious today had been or how much he had worried about Helga. Arnold wasn't sure, but either way, it felt comforting to hear.
Once Helga stopped laughing, she said, "Thanks, Arnold. You really helped me feel better…even though I should really be the one helping you."
"Trust me, you have," said Arnold, smiling.
"Yeah…but it feels like I should be able to do more, since I…" Helga trailed off, not wishing to finish the sentence.
Without thinking, Arnold finished her sentence by saying "Since you're in love with me?"
Arnold gasped after realizing what he said. Helga snapped her neck up with an astonished expression on her face.
Oh God, please tell me I didn't just say that, he thought. Helga had told him how she felt a long time ago, but ever since then, they never addressed her feelings for him again. Mentioning it became an unspoken taboo between the two. He knew how she felt, and she knew that he knew, and yet they never spoke about it. Now, for the first time since fourth grade, it was out in the open.
"Well…you are," said Arnold, quietly and bashfully.
Helga blushed and looked away. She didn't say anything.
"I…sorry," he said. Then, without thinking again, "But…you know…that's…" He put his hand behind his neck, not even sure what he was saying. "That's not exactly…a bad thing."
She looked back up at him, still blushing. Arnold was almost certain he was blushing too. They moved a bit closer to each other. He looked into her blue eyes and knew, in that instant, the answer to the question he had been wondering about all day.
Why did he tell Helga about his parents? Why did he tell her and not his best friend? The answer was simple. He knew how Helga felt. He might not fully grasp how deeply she loved him, but he had a good idea. No matter how much he tried to deny it, he always knew that she cared about him more than anyone else he had known.
And, as Arnold realized in that instant, part of him (how large or small, Arnold himself wasn't even sure) liked it that way. He liked that Helga cared about him, even loved him.
Their faces moved closer together. Her eyes closed. His heart pounded like a hammer in his chest. He knew what was about to happen, yet he did nothing to stop it. He wasn't sure if he wanted to.
How do I feel? He thought. What do I want? What do I-
Their lips met. It lasted only a moment. Suddenly, Arnold pulled back. He and Helga stared at each other, both of them blushing and looking embarrassed. Neither of them seemed to believe what had just happened. They turned away from each other, moving to opposite sides of the room.
Arnold tried to say something, but couldn't. He was speechless. After all, what could he say after something like…that happened?
"Well," he said finally, in an awkward voice. He coughed. "Umm…I…yeah…er…I um…I think my grandma and grandpa are expecting me home for dinner, so maybe I should just…I mean, if that's okay with-"
"Yeah, that's…that's alright," said Helga, her voice shaking a bit. She seemed to feel just as awkward as he did. "I um…probably should talk to…umm…Olga, that's right. I might have upset her so…"
"Yeah, yeah," said Arnold. "Well…er…thanks again. Really. I'll um…I'll talk to you later."
"Later then," she said, still not facing him. "Goodbye."
Arnold stood there a moment, almost forgetting how his legs worked. Finally, he briskly walked to the door, opened it, and stepped outside. He came close to running down the stairs and out the front door. He kept walking quickly down the sidewalk for several blocks before he stopped, unable to run any longer. Now he was forced to really think about what had just happened.
He looked back down the street in the direction of Helga's house. He thought about what they had done and was not even completely sure how he felt about the act itself. But as he thought about how he had behaved after, much to his regret, he felt like a coward.
Well now, that was…unexpected, thought Helga. Her heart was still racing after the kiss. When they were kids, there were several times when she kissed him, but he had never kissed her before.
She paced around her room.
I mean…wow, that was...that was something else, she thought. She felt like a little girl who had gotten the present she always wanted Christmas morning. I mean, what does this mean? He kissed me. Arnold actually kissed me. Does that mean he has feelings for me? Does he even understand why he did it? I mean, he seemed confused, so I dunno. But he seemed happy before so…oh God, I think I have to lie down.
She flopped down on her bed, a thousand thoughts rushing through her head. Helga had to admire the irony that, after years and years of writing carefully refined, meaningful poetry all about her love for Arnold, when her desires actually came to reality, her thoughts sounded less like those of an emotional poet and more like those of an overexcited little girl in kindergarten.
She tossed and turned on the bed, thinking only of Arnold, when she suddenly remembered what he had said to Arnold as he left. Specifically, what she said about talking to her sister. She remembered how she had lashed out at Olga before and, even though Helga did not have much sympathy for her sister, she realized that she hadn't deserved that.
Wow, I was a real bitch to her, wasn't I? thought Helga, regretting what she said. Maybe I really should go talk to-
Helga stopped and sat up from her bed. Her eyes had caught sight of the envelope on her desk. She had noticed it there when she entered her room, but ignored it. Now that Helga's worries were lifted, she was curious about what this letter was doing in her room.
She got up from her bed and walked over to her desk. Printed neatly on the envelope was the word "Helga." There was no stamp or return address, so it obviously couldn't have come in the mail.
How did this get here? she thought. And who would want to give me a letter anyway?
She sat down in her chair. She tore the envelope open, trying to be just careful enough not to rip the letter. She took out the piece of paper that was inside and read it. She glanced at the name at the bottom and was shocked. As she went back to read the contents of the letter, she was even more shocked:
Dear Ms. Pataki,
I hope you're doing well. I'm sure you're wondering who I am. I'm the man who spoke to you on the bus the other day and gave you the journal. I'm sure you have many questions, and I intend to answer them. But before that, there is something I must say.
I must apologize for my conduct the other day. Even though there may have been truth to my words, I must confess I had my own interests at heart. And by giving you that journal, I fear I may have passed my burden onto you and caused you a lot of pain. If that's true, I am truly sorry, and I want to make it right.
There's so much I feel that you deserve to know, too much to write here. So I wish to tell you in person. At six o' clock, I shall wait for you at Bigal's Family Restaurant. I'll have a table under the name "Vigil." It's a pleasant place where we can talk at length about these matters.
I'm sure you don't trust me, and I can't exactly blame you, which is why I chose a public place to meet where nothing bad could happen to you. If you are still hesitant about meeting me, I urge you too. There are things I think you need to know about Arnold and other things.
Take care. I'll be waiting for you.
"It's that guy!" she said to herself. In all the excitement over Arnold, Helga had nearly forgotten about that mysterious man.
She sat the letter down on her lap. For a moment, she considered doing nothing. This man seemed like a creep after all. What reason would she have to go see him? However, as she thought about it, there were still too many unanswered questions about him. Why did he know her name before? Why was he following Arnold that morning? And if he was following Arnold, was it really just a coincidence that he found Miles's journal? What was his reason for doing all of this? And now, looking at the letter, Helga saw something new that distressed her. The man signed the letter "L. Vigil."
Vigil… thought Helga. She had heard that name not too long ago. In that myth Phoebe was reading to her and Lila, the first man was named Vigil. Of course, it was likely just a coincidence. After all, Vigil was probably a very common name. Helga had never heard of anyone else called Vigil herself, but she was sure it wasn't that unusual. It was just a coincidence. After all, what else could she believe? That this person really was that Vigil? That the first man on Earth really was named Vigil? That Vigil's ghost was reaching out to her for whatever reason?
Helga forced a laugh. Yeah, right, she thought, ignoring the faint, creepy chill she had down her spine. Even if it was a coincidence (and it was just a coincidence, thought Helga), it was still a very unsettling one.
Helga looked at the letter again, then looked at her watch. It was almost seven o' clock, meaning he would already be at the restaurant. She also knew that Bigal's was not that far from here. It was a public place; like the letter said, she would be fine.
Realizing what she had to do, she hurried to the door.
I have to know, she thought. If he's following Arnold, I have to know why.
With that, Helga hurried down the stairs and out the door.
Lila was very worried.
She sat down next to Olga alone in the dining room. She had a very sad expression on her face. Even though Lila had tried to comfort her "Big Sis," she seemed inconsolable.
When Lila had first come to see her in the dining room, Olga looked like she was about to cry. Once Lila sat near her and asked what was wrong, Olga explained what Helga had said to her upstairs.
"And now," Olga had said sadly, "I think Baby Sister really does hate me."
When Lila heard the story, she felt torn. Helga had said some very horrible, hurtful things; but Lila also knew that Helga was under pressure. And really, after what had happened, Lila could understand how Helga could overreact. The truly heart wrenching thing was that Lila couldn't tell any of this to Olga. Helga had trusted her, so she couldn't in good conscience reveal what they had done. Helga might get even more upset and that would only lead to more problems.
Lila tried to think of something to say, anything. She thought for a long time. Distantly, she heard the front door open and slam twice; however, she was so deep in thought that she barely noticed. If Olga noticed, she didn't show it; she still had that unchanging sad expression.
"Olga," said Lila, choosing her words carefully. "You shouldn't feel so bad. I'm oh so certain that Helga was just…upset."
"Because of me."
"Not because of you, Big Sis," she sighed. "She's been a bit under…pressure that's all. And well…I ever so sure she just overreacted because of…something."
Olga covered her face with her hand.
"But it really is my fault, Little Sis," she said. "I mean, Arnold wouldn't have even been here if I asked him to stay."
Lila cringed. She hadn't expected Olga to figure out that Arnold was the direct cause of Helga's outburst.
Then again, she thought, it was oh so obvious, considering how Helga reacting. It probably doesn't mean anything. It's not like there's a reason for her to suspect Helga's feelings for-
"I've…I've done something very bad, Little Sis," said Olga. "Something very, very bad. I think…" Olga turned and looked Lila in the eye. She was obviously very serious. "You won't tell anyone about this will you?"
"Of course not, Olga," said Lila, not sure where this was going. "My lips are sealed."
Olga looked down in her lap. She placed her hands together.
"I…well, this whole thing is really my fault," said Olga. "I didn't ask Arnold to stay for no reason. Well…I thought…well, I know that Baby Sister sorta…likes that Arnold boy. A lot."
"What?! You know?" blurted Lila. Olga looked up at her. Realizing what she had done, Lila clasped her hand over her mouth.
"You mean you know?" said Olga.
Stupid Lila, stupid Lila, thought Lila to herself.
"Well I…she told me not to tell anyone," whispered Lila.
Olga stared at her for a second. She seemed to understand, but she also seemed sad.
"I see…" said Olga. "So…she told you herself?" She looked over and Lila nodded. Olga looked back down. "I…I only found out after I looked in one of her poetry books. Accidentally." She glanced up at Lila, then glanced back down. "Well…maybe not completely accidentally." She sighed. "It was very wrong of me to do, but I just wanted to understand my Baby Sister so much. She doesn't talk to me. She…she doesn't even like me. I…I didn't know what to do."
Olga really looked like she was about to cry. Trying to reassure her, Lila put her hand on her shoulder.
"Well…" said Lila. "If it makes you feel any better…she wasn't mad at Arnold. That wasn't why she was mad. So it wasn't your fault."
Olga looked up, a bit less sad.
"It…it wasn't?" she said.
"But…what was Baby Sister so upset about that?" said Olga, trying to think. "I mean, she seemed so upset. I was so worried but…she wouldn't tell me what was wrong."
"It's umm…" Lila thought for a second. "It's complicated."
Olga looked Lila in the eyes again. Olga was very worried, and Lila knew that nothing except the truth would stop her from worrying. Also, in all honestly, having to conceal the truth from Olga hurt Lila's heart. Olga was one of the few people Lila had to confide in. To Lila, it was like lying to her best friend.
"Please, Little Sis," said Olga, her voice quivering. "You can trust me. I won't tell anyone. I just…I just want to know what's wrong. I want to know if my Baby Sister will be okay."
Lila looked her in the eyes. All she wanted was to know what was wrong. Would it really hurt that much to tell her? It's not like she had any reason to tell anyone else. Besides, Olga had always said Lila could trust her with anything.
Lila bit her lip. No matter what she decided to do, she would still feel guilty. She looked away, then looked back in Olga's worried eyes. Lila suddenly felt very weak.
Sadly, she sighed.
"Alright," said Lila. "But please…please, promise not to tell anyone…
Gerald and Phoebe stood in front of the door to Rhonda's room. Gerald looked over at Phoebe, who was biting her bottom lip so hard that it was starting to bleed. He couldn't blame her, since he was quite nervous as hell; the only difference was that he was better at hiding it. Hoping to reassure her, he put his hand on her shoulder. She turned to him and smiled as she gently wiped a small droplet of blood from her lip.
Phoebe took a deep breath than gently knocked on the door. There was no answer. She knocked gently again, but there was still no answer. She looked at Gerald, obviously confused. They had not seen Rhonda leave the house from outside and Rhonda's mother had said she had not left her room, so she must be inside. She tried the door, but it was locked. Phoebe hesitated for a minute then knocked on the door louder.
"What?" said Rhonda loudly from inside. Phoebe flinched. Gerald raised an eyebrow.
That can't be good, thought Gerald. Rhonda didn't sound angry exactly, but she did seem agitated or stressed out. He was still worried, but he had already come this far. He leaned his face closer to the door.
"Hi Rhonda, its Gerald," he said. "Phoebe's with me too. Can we come in?"
There was a long pause. Gerald stared to think she hadn't heard him when she finally replied.
"No, no, I'd rather you didn't," said Rhonda, her voice a bit nervous, but still clearly agitated. "I think I'd rather be alone for a while."
Gerald looked over at Phoebe. Phoebe was now even more nervous; she was probably beginning to fear they might not even get a second chance to talk to Rhonda. Gerald leaned back towards the door.
"Are you sure?" said Gerald to Rhonda. "I promise we won't take up that much of your time."
"Yes, I'm pretty sure," said Rhonda. "I think I've had quite enough visitors today."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, let's see…the first person who showed up to my room asked me for tens of thousands of dollars for a reason they never even fully explained me. Then the second visitor I had basically demanded the money, called me a bitch, and slapped me in the face. And judging by how fantastic my day has been so far, you two are here to hit me with a baseball bat."
Gerald heard Phoebe gasp.
"She…Helga slapped her?" whispered Phoebe to Gerald.
Gerald shrugged. Even though Helga got angry often and he had seen her hit men before, he had never actually seen her hit another woman. He wondered what Rhonda could have said to actually drive Helga to strike her. One look at Phoebe told Gerald that she was wondering the very same thing.
Gerald heard Rhonda sigh from behind the door. "So…you can see why I'm a bit…testy," she said.
Gerald thought for a minute, then said, "Well, let me assure you, we won't hit you with a bat."
He had hoped to get a laugh from Rhonda, but she just sighed again. "What do you want?" she asked. "Money?"
Phoebe was about to say something, but Gerald spoke first.
"We just want to talk," he said. "That's all."
Again, Rhonda was silent for a long time. Finally, Gerald heard a click, followed by the creak of the door opening.
Rhonda stood in the doorway. She looked at Gerald with a tired, slightly suspicious expression; however, Gerald noticed that she did not look at him angrily, so that was a plus. She had a red mark on the left side of her face. Phoebe looked at the mark, but then turned away when she noticed how rude it was to stare at it.
She looked at Gerald, then at Phoebe.
"Well, aren't you going to come in?" she said.
Gerald looked at Phoebe, gave her a small smile, then followed Rhonda inside. Phoebe entered behind him.
Rhonda did not turn back around to face them; instead, she walked over to her desk nearby. A pristine computer was on the desk, as well as some papers, a makeup box and many expensive looking bottles of perfume with French phrases Gerald did not understand printed on them. Rhonda leaned on the desk, staring out the window over it. She didn't say anything, which Gerald thought was odd. After all, Rhonda was usually very sociable. Of course, considering Helga apparently slapped her, she probably wasn't in the best of moods.
What a weird day, Gerald thought. First I see Helga acting nice, and now I see Rhonda acting quiet. It's not just Arnold; everyone seems sort of…off today. Gerald remembered Phoebe's comments on his optimistic attitude earlier. Heh, but I guess I'm acting strange too today, aren't I?
He realized that neither Rhonda nor Phoebe had said anything. He could understand Phoebe being a bit too nervous to say anything, since she was always very timid; the tension in this situation only made that worse. Rhonda just seemed to be staring out the window.
"Umm…you okay, Rhonda?" said Gerald.
Rhonda turned back to him. She gave him a weak smile.
"I'm not quite sure," she said. She looked back to the window for a moment, then looked back at Gerald. "Gerald, can you ask you a question?"
"Umm…sure, I guess?" Gerald had no idea where this was going. He looked over to Phoebe, but she gave him a look that said she was just as perplexed as he was.
Rhonda was silent for a minute, as if she was struggling to find the right words.
"What, exactly, do you think of me?" she asked, slowly.
Gerald was taken off-guard. This was not the sort of question Rhonda usually asked people. Most conversations with Rhonda don't extend beyond gossip, fashion, or regular small talk. He had never heard her ask people what they thought of her; like most popular people, she just seemed to naturally assume everyone liked her.
"Well," said Gerald, "you're very…umm…" Gerald was a bit ashamed; even though he had known Rhonda since grade school, he couldn't think of a nice thing to say about her immediately. Rhonda stared at him, waiting for his answer. "You, er, you're a good…dresser. Oh, and…well, you're very ni- well…you're interesting to talk to. And…yeah."
Smooth move, Gerald, he thought bitterly. Usually he was better at conversation, but the question had really taken him off-guard and, truthfully, it was hard to think of many nice things to say to Rhonda. Even though she seemed like a decent person at heart (well, sometimes thought Gerald), most of the time she came off as very stuck-up and uncaring.
Rhonda looked at him for a moment.
"Anything else?" she asked.
Gerald tried to think of something else to say, but before he could say anything, Rhonda turned to Phoebe.
"Phoebe, what do you think?" asked Rhonda.
Phoebe looked up. She seemed to have been thinking of something to say while Gerald was making a fool of himself.
"To be honest," said Phoebe, "you can act mean sometimes…and sometimes it seems like you don't really care…but, really, I think you're a good person at heart."
Rhonda looked at Phoebe for a minute, then smiled weakly.
"It's nice of you to say that, Phoebe," said Rhonda.
"But, Rhonda," said Gerald hesitantly, "why are you asking this?"
Rhonda turned to him.
"Why?" she said. She looked to Phoebe. "Your friend slapped me in the face. Called me a lot of things."
"I…I'm really sorry," said Phoebe, unable to look Rhonda in the eye. "She's under a lot of stress and-"
Rhonda shook her head. Phoebe stopped talking and Rhonda continued as if she had not said anything.
"Ever since then," she said quietly, "it's been making me think." She looked back to Gerald. "I've known Helga for a long, long time, and she's always seemed like an angry, spiteful, uncaring, crazy little-" She stopped, then looked back at Phoebe, who seemed a bit irritated. "Well, you get the idea. So…well, when the most uncaring person you know calls you uncaring, it's kinda…strange." She turned away from both of them. "I mean, what does that say about me?
"And it's not just that. Before, when Lila showed up, she wanted money too. A lot of money." She looked over at Gerald. "They both wanted it for Arnold, actually. Said he was in some kind of trouble."
Gerald looked away, remembering his friend's sad face when he talked to him earlier and all the things Phoebe had told him about what he had been going through.
"Yeah…yeah, you could say that," he said sadly.
To Gerald's surprise, Rhonda honestly look like she felt bad.
"Well…I thought she was just over reacting and that she needed some rest," said Rhonda, "but she insisted that this was something serious and I…" She looked down. "I guess I didn't take her seriously." She somehow laughed without smiling. "Heh, to be honest, at first I thought Lila and Helga were both completely nuts. I thought there was something in the water or that everyone on Earth had gone crazy except me."
Suddenly, Rhonda seemed to get angry. "I mean, they acted like I was a bad person just because I wouldn't give them that much money. Am I really such a bad person, just because I wouldn't give thousands of dollars to the first person who asked me? Was that enough of a reason to slap me in the face?! Me, of all people!"
She looked at Phoebe and Gerald. Gerald wanted to say something, but he wasn't sure what. Despite her anger, what Rhonda said made sense (after all, nobody hands out money just like that), but he knew his friend needed the money. He simply couldn't think of the right thing to say. Phoebe did not say anything either.
Thankfully, Rhonda seemed like she wasn't expecting an answer. Her angry expression faded back into a frown.
"But then…" she said quietly. "I started thinking that…well, maybe the fact that I said no didn't really have a lot to do with why they were angry. I mean…" Rhonda paused for a minute. She looked like she couldn't believe what she was about to say. Her voice dropped to an even quieter tone. "Maybe if I had had a better attitude, maybe if I had offered to help some other way, maybe if I had just taken them the least bit seriously…maybe…I dunno…" She laughed without smiling again. "Well, maybe I wouldn't have gotten this," she said, pointing to the mark on her cheek. "I don't know. I just don't really know what to think."
Gerald, who had thankfully thought of something good to say, smiled.
"Well, if you're worried that you're a bad person, you're not," he said. Rhonda looked up at him. "After all, if you actually feel bad about that, then it shows you have a heart. It's more than you can say for a lot of people out there." He pointed his thumb over at Phoebe. "It's just like she said. Deep down, you really are a good person. Even though sometimes you act like a snob…" He smiled. "A lot of the time actually…"
Rhonda stared at him. Phoebe looked sideways at Gerald, giving him a look that had "What in God's name are you doing?" written all over it.
"Like…a vast majority of the time, really," said Gerald. Rhonda said nothing. Gerald smile faded. "Oh, come on, I'm only kidding."
For a moment, he was afraid that Rhonda would not understand that he was joking. Mercifully, Rhonda let out a quiet chuckle. Gerald let out a sigh of relief.
"You know, I don't get you," said Rhonda, no longer chuckling. "You said that Arnold was really in trouble, and I didn't even take Helga or Lila seriously when they told me he was. He's your best friend. You have more of a reason to be mad at me than them. So why aren't you?"
Gerald thought for a minute and was surprised that he already knew the answer.
"Because I don't think Arnold would be that mad at you either," he said. "I know him. He's understanding, optimistic…he's a bold kid. And if he wouldn't hate you, then why should I?"
"Yeah, I guess you're right," she said. This statement seemed to make feel a little better. "I've don't think I've seen him seriously mad at anyone before…well, except maybe Helga a few times back in grade school." Rhonda thought for a minute. "Speaking of which…why was Helga mad about this in the first place? I mean, she was really mad, and I've never seen her care anything about Arnold before."
Gerald shrugged, thinking how much he wished he could figure out the answer to that same question. He looked over at Phoebe, whose eyes were now drawn to the floor, her face like a white sheet.
"Anyway," said Phoebe, eager to change the subject, "Gerald's right. Arnold wouldn't be mad. He's too…well, nice for that. And besides, I think he'd understand that you wouldn't have that kind of money anyway. It's really your parent's who have everything. We really should have realized that in the first place before we asked you, but…" She stopped and stared at Rhonda's face. Gerald looked at her and realized that Rhonda's eyes were suddenly looking away from the two, as if she couldn't look them in the eye.
"Umm…you okay Rhonda?" asked Gerald.
"Umm…well," said Rhonda, putting her hand behind her head. She had an expression like a prisoner caught in a lie during an interrogation. "Yeah, here's the thing about that." She bit her lip. "Well, about me not having that kind of money, that's…well, it's…not entirely true."
"What?" said Phoebe and Gerald almost at the same time.
Rhonda stood wide eyed for a second, then turned away.
"Nevermind," she said quickly. "I probably shouldn't have said anything," she said.
"No, please tell us, Rhonda!" said Phoebe with a glimmer of hope in her eye.
Gerald could see that Rhonda looked slightly embarrassed (and perhaps shameful). Fearing that the conversation would break down, Gerald tried to ease the tension.
"its okay, Rhonda," said Gerald calmly. "You don't have to tell us anything you don't want to…but we really would like to hear about this if you're willing to talk about it."
Rhonda laughed humorlessly and said "I'm sure it'd just give you more reason to be mad at me." She thought for a minute and her expression softened. "But…maybe it's okay to tell you…"
Gerald looked over at Phoebe, who had a slight smile on her face. Gerald was glad. Not fifteen minutes ago, Phoebe thought all hope to help Arnold was lost and, for a brief period of time, Gerald had the same opinion. Now, all of a sudden, they had created hope where there was none before. All that lied behind them and salvation was Rhonda, a conflicted girl who, although snobbish, was more of a decent person than they once thought. Whether Rhonda would have the means to help them or not remained to be seen. And, even if she could help them, would she?
Gerald didn't know. But he did have hope.
Helga walked through the door of Bigal's Family Restaurant. She looked around the restaurant. Most of the tables were empty, but there were a few people scattered here and there. However, she could not see the man in sunglasses from here.
Dammit, she thought. With my luck, he's probably left already. Suddenly afraid, she tried to remember what he had said in the letter. She did remember he said something about getting a table under the name Vigil.
As she thought of the name, she felt another chill run down your spine.
Stop it, Helga, she thought to herself. The name's just a coincidence. What are you, four years old?
She walked up to where the hostess was seated, still looking around for the strange man.
"Hello, can I help you?" said the hostess in a dull, unenthusiastic voice.
Helga turned and looked at the hostess. She almost gasped when she saw her face. Sitting in front of her, looking bored out of her mind, was Ruth McDougal.
YOU! she thought furiously, thinking back to her days in grade school. Lila may have been the girl Arnold had a crush on for the longest, but she wasn't the first. Ruth McDougal, the dullest, most unappealing girl to ever grace the fifth grade, was the first. And, just like Lila, Helga had hated her with a passion for the longest time, even though she never actually met her or talked to her personally. Arnold was enamored with her for quite a while, until good sense got a hold of him, making him realize how dull she really was. After Arnold stopped caring about her, Helga simply forgot about her. She had certainly not expected to see her again, here of all places.
"Umm…hello?" said Ruth.
Helga shook her head. She realized that she had more important things to worry about than this girl.
"Yes," said Helga, using all of her will to speak in a pleasant tone. "Someone told me to meet them here. He said the table would be under the name Vigil."
Ruth rolled her eyes (Helga noticed this and bit her tongue), and checked the sheet of paper in front of her.
"Vigil…Vigil…" said Ruth to herself. Finally she pointed to something on the piece of paper. "Oh yes, Vigil, table for two." Ruth pointed over to a table in the corner. Helga looked where she pointed and saw the man sitting at the table. His back was to her, but it was clearly him; she instantly recognized his brown coat.
Ruth got up from her stool. Helga at first assumed she was going to led her to the table, but instead she walked towards the bathroom. Helga glared after her, thinking that was quite rude. She also thought how wonderful it was to know that she had been kissed by Arnold and Ruth hadn't. Helga started to walk towards the table, but not before "accidentally" knocking over Ruth's stool with a very faint smile on her face.
She walked towards the table, her mind now focused on the task at hand. She felt her heart beat faster. She was nervous. She had no idea what this man was like or if he should be trusted. For a second, she considered leaving again, but she stopped and thought of Arnold.
Give me strength, my love, she thought, blushing to herself as she unintentionally remembered the kiss. She took a deep breath and, with newfound strength, she walked up to the table.
Mr. Vigil was taking a sip of his coffee when he noticed Helga standing by the table. Just like the last time Helga had seen him, he had his dark sunglasses on. He put his cup down. He smiled.
Well…he doesn't look like a ghost, that's for sure, she thought. Not that I even considered he could be.
"I almost thought you wouldn't show up," said Mr. Vigil. He put his hand to his head. "Oh, how rude of me." He waved his hand to the seat across from him. "Please, sit down, Ms. Pataki."
Helga stared at him for a minute. He sure smiled an awful lot. Helga wasn't certain if that was a good thing or not. Hesitantly, Helga sat down.
Mr. Vigil held up his cup of coffee.
"Coffee?" he said. "I could get the waitress to bring you some."
"No thanks," said Helga. The tone of her voice clearly showed that she was not entirely happy to be there.
Mr. Vigil grimaced a bit, then set down his coffee. He turned his head to the left, looking at nothing in particular. Helga thought he looked nervous to be there.
"Well, I guess we should get right to it then, shouldn't we?" said Mr. Vigil, putting his hands together. "I have a lot to say. And once again, I'd like to say that I'm sorry if I caused you any undue stress."
Helga said nothing.
Mr. Vigil looked around again.
"Well, before I say anything, do you have any questions?"
Helga glared at him. She had many, many questions. It was a stupid question to ask her. Despite this, Helga tried to think of what she wanted to know first.
"Well…first of all…who are you?" said Helga, not making any effort to conceal her frustration at this man. "Who are you really, Vigil or whatever your name is? Is that even your real name or just something you stole from an old Green-Eye story? Or are you going to tell me you're really that Vigil?"
Mr. Vigil leaned back in shock. For the first time, he looked genuinely surprised.
"You…you know of our culture?" he said.
"…our culture?" said Helga. "What do you mean?"
Mr. Vigil stared at her for a second. Then he gave a weak smile.
"Very well, Ms. Pataki," he said. "You asked a fair question. Yes, Vigil is my real name. But I am not 'that Vigil.'" The man reached for his sunglasses. He hesitated for a moment, then pulled them off. Underneath the sunglasses were the two brightest, piercing green eyes Helga had ever seen.
Helga almost thought her jaw would hit the floor.
That's impossible, she thought. This guy…is he really…
The man blinked a few times, as if he had trouble see. After a second, he looked at Helga and smiled warmly.
"My name is Luca Vigil," he said, "and I'm a Green-Eye."