Author's Note: I first started this story over a year ago, and it was inspired by several things. It was shortly after I heard of The Pataki's, a proposed spinoff of Hey Arnold that never got off the ground. If you haven't heard about it go look it up. This story is also greatly influenced by Bloochiken's work on Deviantart. Particularly this one. http:/ bloochikin. deviantart. com/art/BEAT-it-Football-Head-130907060 Go look now! Right. Thanks to everyone who read/is reading Chasing Cars. And now for something completely different.
Helga was exhausted. Olga, despite getting a part in a play, was in full Christmas crazy mode and was running Helga ragged with her errands. Today it was groceries for her five-course Christmas Dinner. As she walked the freezing streets of Hillwood with her arms full of food she caught a glimpse of herself in a department store window and stopped. She was still tall for her age and her low blond pigtails were beginning to look childish, considering she would be turning sixteen this March. She didn't care. She was too damn stubborn to give them up as well as a few other childhood things. The pink beanie that sat atop her head matched her overstuffed pink parka perfectly, well almost perfectly. Her coat wasn't nearly as filthy as her hat. She sighed and continued her trek home.
Washing her beanie was always problematic since she refused to let anyone see her without it, even her family. Today would be a good day to do it, if she hurried. Olga only had one line in her off-off-off-off-off Broadway production of A Christmas Carol but tonight was closing night. Even though they had already seen it twice as a family, despite the numerous times Bob had proclaimed that Olga's new "career" was a waste of time and he was not going to support her, Helga knew that her parents would be at the theater for their golden child.
As soon as she got home she put away the groceries and started her laundry. The rest of her evening was spent writing, re-writing, and throwing away letter after letter to Arnold.
"Crimeny!" She shouted. "It shouldn't be this hard!" She glanced into her closet at the bottom shelf of one her bookcases where several pink binders stood in a neat row. Binders full of letters to Arnold, letters she couldn't bring herself to send, letters he would never read.
"I can't even send the guy a decent letter for Christmas!" She crumpled up her latest attempt and threw it in the general direction of her trashcan that was overflowing with similar papers.
"I guess you'll just have to live with the wonderfully poetic card I already sent you football-head. Dear Arnold. Merry Christmas. Love, Helga." She crawled over to her closet and dug out the old shoe box full of cards, notes, and photos Arnold had given her over the years. Just holding it put a smile on her face and brought back memories of his confession.
About halfway through fifth grade Arnold had entered an essay that had won him and their entire class a trip to San Lorenzo. He'd had a hidden agenda that she and Gerald had quickly discovered and the three of them took off to find his parents. While running for their lives from the local fauna she and Arnold had gotten separated from Gerald.
And there in the dark humid jungle, after an extreme mental breakdown from Helga, he said he loved her. Helga sighed at the memory of their first real kiss that was perfect until tall hair boy had so rudely interrupted. Sure, they were all glad to see each other alive and well, but he could have waited a few more seconds.
Everything had worked out in the end. They'd found Arnold's parents and returned home safe and sound. She and Arnold had even gotten together, well as together as a couple of eleven year-olds could be. But between years of parental bonding to catch up on, and Helga's abrasive nature things had been difficult to say the least.
At the end of their eighth grade year he moved. They sent cards on Christmas and birthdays, there was an occasional post card from an exotic location, but he never called and she never wrote. Her thoughts were interrupted when she heard the dryer's buzzer go off. She quickly put away her cards, closed the box, and returned it to its hiding place.
She ran all the way to the laundry room and began digging through the dryer for her hat. She found it and gave it a quick one over. It was pretty beat up; in fact it looked like it might fall apart if she breathed on it too hard. She didn't care. It was the last Christmas present Arnold had given her. After he left it became a permanent part of her ensemble. She wore it all year long, everywhere she went. Except the shower of course, that would just be silly.
Helga shoved her hat on, hauled the rest of her wardrobe upstairs and dropped the basket on the floor. After deciding she was too tired to put it away tonight she checked her clock. It was only nine thirty, but she crawled into bed anyway. She would need all the sleep she could get if this Christmas Eve was going to follow the family tradition.
It would start at seven in the morning with breakfast by Olga followed by dish washing and prep work by Helga. They would stop for a small but overly elaborate lunch by Olga, followed by more dish washing and more prep work by Helga.
Miriam never did well on Christmas, but over the years it had gotten worse. No one ever told Helga why her mother nearly drank herself into a coma every year, but she had her theories.
Bob on the other hand had been making a tradition of staying open late and increasing prices for all the last minute shoppers. By the time dinner was ready it would be past seven, Bob would still be at the store, Miriam would be passed out on the couch and Helga would be locked in her room with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wishing that someday she would get her Christmas miracle and things would be better next year.
"So . . . how long till we get there?" Arnold asked from the backseat of the car.
"When I said stop asking 'are we there yet' I really meant stop asking." His father responded.
"Oh give him a break Miles. He's just excited to see his grandparents again. About ten more minutes Arnold."
He smiled and settled back into his seat. He hadn't been back to Hillwood in over a year. He was excited to see his grandparents, but they had just barely come to visit on his birthday. He was more excited to see his friends. As he thought back to the emphasis his mother had put on the word grandparents he realized they both already knew that.
He and Gerald had stayed close, Phoebe had written every month updating him on the happenings of Hillwood, but he'd hardly heard from Helga at all, aside from the occasional Christmas or Birthday card.
Granted he never wrote either, he had no idea what to say, and that was more her thing anyway. He wondered if she was mad at him for moving. Or if she'd just forgotten about him and moved on. He wasn't sure what he was going to say, but he was finally going to see her again and that was enough to make him a little stir crazy. It wasn't long before he started pointing out landmarks.
"That's Gerald Field!" He shouted, thrilled that it hadn't changed a bit. "And look there's Mrs. Vitello's flower shop! I told you about when I worked there with Gerald right?" His parents laughed and exchanged a look.
"You've told us son."
"And there's . . . " he trailed off as they drove past the Pataki's. He hoped she still lived there. He shook his head. Phoebe would have told him if Helga had moved away. He hoped she hadn't changed too much. He really hoped she didn't have a boyfriend.
"Phoebe would have told me if Helga had a boyfriend." He thought he heard quiet laughter from the front seat.
"What did you say sweetie?" His mom asked.
"Nothing. Hey look! There's the boarding house!" He was out of the car before it stopped. As he ran up the steps the door swung open.
"KIMBA!" His grandma shouted as he wrapped his arms around her. "Oh my. You get bigger every time I see you."
"It's good to see you too grandma."
"Is that you short man?"
"It's me grandpa." He said as Phil joined the hug.
"I suppose it is. Where are your parents?"
"They're still in the car."
"Well what are you doing up here? You expect us old folks to carry all that heavy luggage?" He took Arnold by the shoulders and held him at arm's length. "Strapping young man like you should have no problem haulin' in those bags."
Arnold rolled his eyes. "I'll go help them Grandpa." He ran back to the car and began carrying bags up the steps as his parents said their hellos. He dropped them at the top of the staircase where his parents room had been while they had lived there. As he grabbed his duffel bag out of the car his grandpa stopped him.
"Kept your room just the way it was. Well as far as I know anyway. It's all yours." He winked and dropped a key into Arnold's hand.
Arnold ran up the stairs, pulled down the latch and unlocked his door. He set his bag down and shut the door behind him. Everything really was exactly how he left it. As far as he knows? He suddenly remembered his parting gift to Helga. He had been way too shy to actually give it to her, but he'd left it assuming it wouldn't take her long to find.
Saying goodbye to her was hard. He'd put it off until the last possible moment and of course by then she'd already heard the news. It didn't help that he and his parents were on their way out of town in a moving van when he'd asked them to stop at the Pataki's. Arnold closed his eyes and the entire scene replayed itself in his mind.
Helga was standing on her stoop with some horrible mixture of grief and relief on her face. He supposed she was sad he'd waited, but relieved that he hadn't left without saying goodbye.
"I heard." She smiled sadly. "That and the van is a dead giveaway." He laughed hollowly.
"Yeah." There was a long pause. "I'm gonna miss you."
"Well, I might miss you a little bit too Arnold." Her voice cracked and his name came out as a whisper. She winced, squeezed her eyes shut, and clenched her fists at her side. After a few deep breaths she looked down at him. The sadness in those pretty blue eyes of hers almost made him change his mind.
"Helga–" She threw her arms around him and pulled him close. He returned the embrace.
"I lied." She whispered.
"I'm gonna miss you more than you'll ever know."
He wasn't sure how long it had been since he said he loved her. Their most recent break up had been a nasty one, and they'd never officially gotten back together. He wasn't sure if reminding her would make it easier or harder to say goodbye.
"Helga, I-" She pushed him off of her.
"Just go already football-head. Your parents are waiting for you."
"Just go! Just–" he leaned forward and kissed her. It was gentle and quick and he hoped it would be enough. But as they drove away and he watched her sit down on the steps, bury her head in her arms, and cry, he knew it wasn't.
He walked over to his closet and slowly opened the door. The only thing inside was a single empty hanger, a hanger that he'd left holding his shirt two summers ago. He smiled. At least she still had a little piece of him.
"Wake up baby sister! We have a lot to do today!" Helga shuffled down the stairs in her pajamas. The outfit had begun as a pink camisole and matching pants but was now worn with one of Arnold's plaid shirts, that she had come across via some rather unorthodox means, and of course her omnipresent hat. Her parents were seated at the table already eating and as she flopped into a chair next to her dad a plate of sausage, bacon, eggs, and french toast was thrust under her nose.
"Eat up Helga," her sister sang, "you'll need your strength today." She began shoveling food into her mouth. Despite Olga's ability to drive her insane by merely opening her mouth, Helga could not deny that fact that the woman knew how to cook. She shot Miriam a glance out of the corner of her eye. Her mother was twelve stepping and this was supposed to be her first alcohol free Christmas. Judging by the look in her eyes Helga didn't think she was going to make it.
"Hey Helga," her dad called, "I've got a proposition for you." She swallowed and was about to retort with her usual response of 'It's Helga, Dad!' when she realized he had called her by name.
"Um . . . o . . . kay?"
"Ricky's got the flu so I'm short staffed and I was wondering if you'd come help me out." She suddenly got a mental picture of herself in a Santa suit holding a sign and ringing bells.
"I could really use ya kiddo. I'm gonna need all the help I can get so I can close up early tonight." Even though she wasn't chewing on anything she started choking. Bob slapped her on the back a few times.
"Helga, sweetie, slow down." Her mother called slowly.
"Early?" She asked when she could breathe again.
"Well yeah. I'm hoping to be home by six." Helga glanced over at Olga as she debated what would be worse.
"Don't worry baby sister. Mummy and I can take care of the cooking. Besides you're so good with all that business stuff. Isn't that right Daddy?"
"She's right. I think you've got what it takes to be a salesman little lady. Tell ya what. I'll even pay you commissions on everything you sell."
Calling her by name and a compliment in the same day? Helga's mind was reeling. Then something Bob said finally registered.
"Wait. Did you say you'd pay me?"
"Yeah, what's the matter with you? You got something in your ears?" Getting paid to spend a day with last minute shoppers was a million times better than hours of servitude to Olga.
"Well hurry up and eat then. I'm leaving in ten minutes."
"I can't believe it man! It feels like it's been ages since I've seen you!"
"I know Gerald, it's just too bad that you have to work tonight."
"Unlike you some of us have bills to pay." They both laughed.
"Hey, at least you get paid. I'm just a volunteer at my mom's clinic."
"How's business going for her? You guys get enough funds for another trip yet?"
"Things are good. We're planning a trip to Africa this summer. We have to wait because I have to get all these vaccines that may or may not make me deathly ill, and my parents don't want me missing school."
"I know whatcha mean man. My parents have been crazy about school this year. Telling me that this is when it really counts, and I better work hard if I – Timberly what are . . . no you can't! Hold on man." There was a good two minutes of shouting followed by a slam. "I gotta go. Timberly drama. I swear that girl gets more annoying every year."
"I'll talk to you later Gerald. Tell Phoebe I said hi. You'll see her before I do."
"Can do Arnold. Later." Arnold hung up the phone and strolled into the living room.
"So you three got any plans for tonight?" Phil asked.
"Well Stella and I don't, but I think Arnold might be visiting some friends."
"Actually I'm not." Eight sets of eyebrows shot up at his response. "What?"
"Not even that mean little girl with the one eyebrow?"
"I thought for sure you'd be at her house the minute you finished unpacking short man." Arnold struggled to fight of the blush that was threatening to ravage his face.
"I'm not visiting anyone today Grandpa. It's Christmas Eve and everyone is with their families. And that's where I should be too." He walked over to the love seat where his parents were and sat on the floor between their legs.
"Tell us what's been going on around here since we left Phil." His mother said as she rested her hand on Arnold's shoulder. He smiled and wondered if she realized she was doing it. He had done it a lot too when he was first reunited with them. He'd just reach out touch them every once in a while to remind himself that he wasn't dreaming. He leaned back against the couch and listened as his grandpa filled him in on all the adventures he'd missed.
The store was closed at five and they were out the door by five thirty. Helga had walked away with over a hundred dollars in commissions and was quite proud of her self.
"I always knew you had it in ya girl." Bob said as they got in the car. "You ever give any thought to taking over the family business someday?"
"Yeah. You think I'm talking to myself?"
"But, what about Olga. She's your golden child."
"Oh she's amazing alright, don't get me wrong, but I don't think she's got what it takes to make it in sales." Helga snorted.
"Yeah, she's too soft. She'd want to donate all the profits to needy children in San Lorenzo or something." He grunted in response.
"Well you should at least think about it. I know it's a long way off. You're what? Twelve?"
"I'm turning sixteen in three months Bob."
"Sixteen!" He shouted causing the car to swerve. "Holy jeez I'm getting old!" After a few minutes of silence Bob started up again.
"So you're in high school then?"
"Yeah, Bob I am."
"Well . . . how are you doing in your classes?"
"I do all right I guess. Mostly A's. I've got a B in science. But since I really don't want to make a career of dissecting frogs I really don't care."
"Well . . . I'm glad you're doing good I guess. How are things going with you and that boyfriend of yours?"
"That kid with the weird head? What's his name Albert, Alfred-"
"Yeah him! I haven't seen him around lately. You two break up or something?" Helga slapped her hand against her forehead.
"He moved away Bob. A year and a half ago! Crimeny!"
"So . . . you guys broke up?"
"Were you even listening?"
"Of course I was listening! Good grief you girls are impossible to understand. I ask a simple yes or no question and you go off on some tangent about who knows what!"
"Look, I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but I'm tired so maybe we can just forget the small talk."
"Fine by me." Helga rode the rest of the way home with her head against the cold window thoroughly enjoying the silence and mentally preparing herself for "dinner".
The minute they were through the door Olga ushered them into the kitchen.
"Have a seat. Supper's almost ready." Helga sank into her chair and quietly watched her family interact. All in all it was a nice dinner. Olga prattled on about her play and some boy in the crew easily filling the silence that would have hung over them if she ever stopped to breathe. There was sparkling cider instead of wine and Miriam was still stone cold sober after dessert.
"Man Olga!" Bob exclaimed leaning back in his chair. "You sure know how to spoil us."
"I couldn't have done it without all of Mummy's help. She's wonderful in the kitchen you know."
"Dinner was . . . it was lovely dear but," Helga was shocked at the tremble in her mother's voice. "I . . . I'm going to turn in early." She abruptly left the table and all but ran up the stairs.
Bob gave Helga a look, that she actually understood, and followed Miriam upstairs. Olga just smiled at her, seemingly oblivious.
"Help me clean up baby sister?"
Helga sighed. "Sure Olga."
Once all the leftovers had been stored, dishes washed, and kitchen cleaned she and her sister settled onto the couch and watched It's a Wonderful Life. Olga was snoring softly on the couch by the time it was over. Helga turned off the TV and pulled a blanket over her sister. It's not a wonderful life, she thought to herself, but some days it's not so bad.
Everyone at the boarding house had a wonderful dinner that was prepared by Stella who insisted that Grandma take a break. It was fantastic with the added bonus of not having to race to the bathroom immediately after. Once he and his dad cleaned up, everyone else had managed to weasel out of dish duty, they settled into the living room to listen while grandpa read The Night Before Christmas. It was even more fun than he remembered with everyone interrupting and asking silly questions.
Once the story was over they all opened one present. Arnold pulled out a cloud and airplane covered shirt and pair of pants. He smiled at his mom who smiled sheepishly back, they both knew he was a little too old for such a childish print but they were all trying to make up for lost time.
"These are great! Thanks Mom!" She waved her hands at him.
"Well, go see if they fit." He ducked into the bathroom and changed as quickly as possible. The pants were a little too long and the sleeves stopped halfway across his hands, but he walked back into the living room proudly.
"They look a little big Stella."
"It's alright Miles, as fast as he's growing they'll be too small before school starts up again." Arnold laughed and sat between his parents on the couch. They finished up the night singing every patriotic song Grandma could play and all went off to bed. Arnold stepped into his old room and closed his door behind him. He walked over to the bookshelf and tilted his head to get a better look at the books he'd left behind. A little pink one caught his eye. He smiled as he pulled it off the shelf.
He took it over to his bed, sat down, and started flipping through the pages. He had figured out it was Helga's after she'd dramatically confessed her undying love on the roof of FTi. At least, when he had time to think things over, he'd figured it out. He set it down on the nightstand, crawled under his covers, and turned off his lights. Staring up at what few stars he could see his mind began to wander.
He wondered if her family was treating her any better. It made him angry that they ignored her, that every conversation she started ended up being about Olga. How she would instantly become abrasive and cruel the minute they stepped through the Pataki's doorway. No, he liked her much more around his family.
They couldn't seem to get enough of her, his mom especially. Any time she came over his mom would sit and talk with her and Helga would become the sweet, kind, creative person she insisted on hiding form everyone else. She and his mom were a lot alike, they both even had a bit of a mean streak, granted Helga's came out a lot more than his mom's did, but they were equally scary when they needed to be.
That was part of the problem with Helga. He had spent their first year together trying to get her to stop bullying him in public. After hearing "old habits die hard" half a million times he'd broken up with her.
Deciding that Jr. High was the perfect place to reinvent herself Helga had started showing her kinder, gentler side. But the old Helga would eventually come out, usually when they disagreed on something. They would have a big fight, go home angry, then meet up the next day and ask the other for forgiveness. One day after a particularly nasty fight she hadn't met up with him, and when she did it was to tell him that it was over. They were through.
The sudden hollow ache in his heart gave him the feeling that this visit might not go over as smoothly as he hoped. After all, no one had even known he was coming. He made a mental note to call her up before stopping by, just in case. With that thought he closed his eyes and went to sleep.