Nostalgia hit hard, and this time, I couldn't sit idly by.
Two Little Words
Helga almost laughed when he jumped. Arnold was up at bat, but he was taking his sweet time about it. Straightening his hat. Scuffing his shoes against the dirt. Adjusting and readjusting his grip on the handle until it was just right. It was times like this when she didn't know if she wanted to deck the runt or kiss him senseless.
She realized then that his confused gaze was fixed on her.
"Do you think you could take a swing while we're all still young?" she blustered. "Pink Boy's got a good four years on us, and I don't think he's gonna make it."
"Hey, shut up, Helga!" came surly and whining over from the pitcher's mound.
"Why don't you come over here and make me?"
Helga rolled her eyes as Harold predictably stayed put and instead started to grumble under his breath.
"Are we playing or not?" she huffed with thinly-veiled annoyance. "I've seen paint dry faster than this inning."
Turning back around in answer, Arnold finally held a stance and Harold, his tongue between his teeth, lobbed the ball. It came whistling towards Arnold, only to be forced back with a resounding crack as it made contact with the bat.
The ball went sailing through the air, clear of Eugene's body sprawled out in left field, over Stinky and Sheena's outstretched mitts, and beyond the sidewalk which marked the official end of Gerald's Field. Helga stood slowly out of her crouch, pulled up her catcher's mask, and tipped her head back to better follow its trajectory.
Which ended by smashing into a third-floor window of the apartment complex across the street with a tell-tale shatter. Arnold dropped the bat like it had burned him.
Through the jagged hole left in the glass appeared a man. Even from this distance, they could tell he was glaring at them as best he could from behind bottle-bottom thick glasses and wrathfully waving his fist.
"Wait'll I get my hands on you lousy kids!"
"Nice going, Arnoldo," Helga said scathingly before cupping her hands around her mouth and bellowing, "RUN!"
No one needed telling twice. The fourth-graders went scattering from the block in all directions, squealing and panicking as they tried to escape.
All except Curly, who was sprinting wide, erratic circles in the middle of the street and screeching with unholy glee, "First blood is ours!"
It might have been the mild concussion talking, but everything since the morning Mr. Simmons announced to the class that Arnold had submitted the winning essay to a contest for a field trip to San Lorenzo seemed blurred and run-together.
All of it—Principal Wartz's endless lectures-bordering-on-gushing about the beauties of Central America, Rhonda's nervous breakdown upon discovering that there was no cellphone reception in the wilderness, tailing Arnold and Gerald to see where they were sneaking off to, La Sombra, nearly dying, being rescued and dragged to the secret hideaway of the Green-Eyed People, finding Stella and Miles—went skittering through Helga's brain until it caught up to the present, where she was currently being frog-marched by Arnold away from their noisy, frenzied group.
The one thing that stood out sharply from the chaotic jumble swimming around her skull was kissing Arnold for what she thought was going to be the last time and how she could have sworn that for a second there, he had kissed her back.
On second thought, it was most definitely the concussion.
When they were out of everyone's line of sight, but still close enough to hear their excited voices punctuating the natural sounds of gurgling river water and chittering monkeys, Arnold stopped. They were in a clearing surrounded on all sides by thick coils of vines that draped down from the trees, riots of color wherever tropical flowers bloomed.
With the welt on his forehead already turning a nasty greenish-purple, Arnold stood there looking at her without a word, and while it was possible he was content to stay that way for some time, she couldn't stand the quiet, had to say something.
"Hey, um, Arnold?"
"About what happened back there." She was fidgeting, first pushing a horribly knotted hank of hair that hung in front of her face back behind her shoulder, then rubbing her arm self-consciously. "It was just, you know...something I did in the heat of the moment," her voice, which had started out feeble, became harsher and more defensive until she was basically snarling at him. "I thought we were going to die, and people do crazy when they're seconds away from barreling over a thousand-foot-high waterfall, so don't get any ideas, all right, Football Head?"
Helga crossed her arms over her chest, fighting to backpedal her way out of another shotgun confession. Scowl in place, she continued, "And if you even think about telling anyone, I'll pound you so hard that—"
But her inspiringly graphic explanation of exactly how badly said pounding would mangle him was rudely interrupted when Arnold, whose lazy grin had only widened the longer she spoke, leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers.
In that moment, Helga was sure her brain imploded. Or her heart. Quite possibly both. She would have pinched herself to make sure this wasn't just a dream, or even some ridiculously vivid trauma-induced delirium, except for the fact that she couldn't move her limbs. Couldn't even feel them, when it came to it. The only awareness in the whole of her body was focused on Arnold's mouth, gentle and warm on hers.
"Arnold? Your parents are wondering where—"
The reality of their situation, where they were, how their entire fifth-grade class, Arnold's parents—crimeny, Olga—were only separated from the two of them by a measly stretch of trees, suddenly hit Helga with all the subtlety of an eighteen-wheeler. She shoved Arnold away and he went staggering, only just catching his balance to avoid landing flat on his back, but she was too late anyway.
Standing stock-still among the newly-parted curtain of vines, with clothes and hair as dirty and bedraggled as theirs, was Gerald.
Of course it was Gerald. It was always Gerald.
For several solid beats, the three of them just stared at each other, tense silence rendering the soupy tropical air even thicker.
Gerald found his voice first, though it cracked as he asked, "Were you two—?"
"Can you tell them I'll be right there?" Arnold cut across him.
"I'll just be a minute, Gerald."
"Arnold, what in the—!?" he spluttered.
"Go on," Arnold said pointedly. "We'll catch up."
With the expression of someone who had stumbled upon a tiger sitting down to high tea wearing a top hat and monocle, Gerald ducked back out of the clearing, but not before eyeing Helga critically and sending his best friend a look that clearly said he had more than a passing concern for his sanity.
Arnold turned back to Helga once Gerald's footsteps had been swallowed by the jungle. His cheeks were tinged pink, but that was nothing to the tomato-red stain flushing her face all the way to the roots of her hair on top of comically wide eyes and a gaping but soundless mouth.
Looking as if he wasn't sure whether to laugh or run for his life, Arnold stretched out to push up her chin until her mouth closed with an audible click, and meeting her glazed eyes, he began to talk quietly. "I never would have found my parents if it wasn't for you. What you did," he shook his head in disbelief, "I might not even be alive right now if you hadn't come along. Thank you doesn't even begin to cover it, but...thank you, Helga. For everything."
Helga's stomach went plunging to her knees. That was why he had kissed her? To say thank you? She could feel her fingers curl into fists at her sides. How dare he take advantage of her feelings that way?
But just as the urge to reel back and slug the stupid, smug little smirk off of his face blazed to life, Arnold took one of her hands in his, and instead, she had to smother an altogether new impulse: to give a great fluttering sigh and keel over backwards. The poetry was practically writing itself in her head.
He gave her arm a small tug. "Come on. Everyone's probably worried about where we've gone."
When he offered her a hesitant smile and his fingers clutched hers more tightly, Helga decided that maybe that kiss had been something more than gratitude after all.
Helga had never quite been able to kick the habit of using the fire escape to get up to his room. As she pulled herself up onto the boarding house's roof, she spotted him standing on the opposite side of the skylight and staring out at the cityscape silhouetted in the orange glow of sunset.
The dread sticking in her throat rose higher; it had been there ever since Arnold called an hour ago to ask if she could come by because he needed to talk to her.
About something important, he'd said.
There was only a week until they and the rest of their eight grade class graduated from P.S. 118, and Arnold had been behaving more and more preoccupied the closer the day came. She wondered if that had anything to do with this. Swallowing, she went to stand next to him and brought her hand on top of his where it rested on the ledge.
He sounded funny, off somehow. Very un-Arnold.
He nodded. Yeah, like she bought that.
"So what did you want to talk about?"
It took him a minute to tear himself away from the view to face her. Now that she could study more than just his profile, she was still having trouble reading him. What was that look on his face? Determination? Misery? Remorse?
"It's my parents. We've been talking lately, the three of us have. The thing is, they're restless here, and I know they try not to let it show for me, but I can tell. Mom and Dad aren't the type who can be happy to stay put in one place for so long, doing the same thing day after day. They want to explore, discover things, help people, and I want that for them too." Unless she was very much mistaken, there was a faint glossiness to his eyes. "I can't watch them sit around and be unhappy. They're leaving to go back to San Lorenzo the day after graduation and…and…" His voice trailed away and he choked a little.
"Spit it out, Arnold!"
Vaguely distraught, he answered, "I'm going with them."
The world reversing on its axis wouldn't have shocked her as much as those words.
Helga stood mute and motionless while her insides felt as though a cold, invisible hand was squeezing them, but the bubbling hot surge of fury that followed spurred her to action. She didn't trust herself to get on the fire escape again with the way her hands were shaking, so throwing open the skylight's hatch window, she dropped down into his room and onto his bed.
Arnold was fumbling above and behind her on the ladder, shouting, "Helga! Helga, wait!"
Helga went tearing through the boarding house, along the second-floor hallway which echoed with a muffled argument between the Kokoshkas, crossing paths with Mr. Hyunh as he banged irately on the bathroom door behind which some extremely disturbing noises were emanating, past Grandma Gertie dancing the Charleston on the kitchen table with Abner, and bursting out the front door where she broke into a dead run.
She didn't stop until she reached her own room, panting, devastated, but way too angry to cry.
She'd barely been home for two minutes when the telephone started shrieking.
"Olga!" Big Bob hollered up the staircase. "Your little friend Anthony is on the phone."
Seething, Helga flung open her door and screamed back, "You can tell Anthony to hang up and not call back or to dare to show his face here ever again or else the morgue will have fresh meat! You tell him that, Bob!"
She slammed the door so hard that several picture frames on the walls rattled off their hooks.
It was dark outside when Helga felt the burning in her chest utterly give way to wracking sobs that left her gasping into her pillow and her shoulders shuddering. She knew she wasn't being fair. She liked Miles and Stella. They were good people, and for whatever reason, they seemed to like her too. Deep down, far too deep for her to be able to fully acknowledge it right now, she wanted Arnold to go with them to make up for all of the time they'd lost.
That didn't change the fact that she also wanted him stay here with her, or that watching him leave would be the hardest thing she'd ever do.
Phoebe was late.
They had a physics final first thing tomorrow, and Helga needed all the help she could get studying for it; junior year of high school was proving itself to be every inch of the horrific torture she had been promised it would be. It was half an hour after the time they had agreed to start in on a major cram session, and she'd bet a month's worth of crappy pay from her part-time job down at Yarnes & Toble that a certain Tall Hair Boy was entirely to blame for her tutor going AWOL.
She didn't want to punch her best friend's boyfriend, but if she bombed this exam just because he didn't know how to share Phoebe, she didn't really see another alternative. How else was he going to learn?
"Finally," she muttered as the gratingly perky tones of the doorbell sounded.
Jogging down the stairs, she heard her mother calling out to her from the kitchen. "Helga, honey? Could you…could you get that?"
"On it, Miriam," Helga replied flatly, already yanking open the front door.
The 'Pheebs' part of her greeting shriveled up and died on her tongue, and she forgot to breathe for a split second because it sure as hell wasn't Phoebe. But it couldn't be real, him standing there on her doorstep, the same little blue hat perched on top of his head, the same kind green eyes she'd cried herself to sleep thinking about for months and months after he left…
His voice, wonderfully familiar even if it was somewhat deeper than when they last spoke, washed over her and sent with it a tingling warmth that she could feel down to her bare toes.
"Please," he raised his hands in surrender half-jokingly, "don't murder me. I figured that threat had to have expired by now."
The lungful of air she'd unconsciously been holding in this whole time came whooshing out of her all at once as a shaky, unnatural laugh. Steady, old girl.
"What are you doing here, Football Head?"
The old nickname slipped out without her even thinking about it and she flinched.
"I missed that," he chuckled, but it was almost melancholy. "Weird, right?"
She could only blink.
In a softer voice, he said, "I missed you."
More blinking. Blinking, and breathing like a champion, which circumstances being what they were was nothing to sneeze at. If Brainy could see her, he'd be so proud.
"Um, I—we just got in a few hours ago. My parents and I." He seemed thrown off by the fact that she wasn't talking and stumbled over his words with how fast he was trying to say them. "We're back in Hillwood—back at the boarding house, and I wanted to let you know in person. I'm staying."
Staying. He was staying in Hillwood.
"Look I…I know I have no right to ask you this. I mean," he rubbed the back of his neck, "we never, uh, really talked about it, and for all I know you could be seeing someone, but would you maybe like to…to grab dinner or something sometime?" A blush flooded his cheeks as he added quickly, "Just as friends, if you want. Or even coff—mmph!"
Helga dove on him the way she had wanted to these past three years when the occasional letters and emails, the even rarer phone calls, were a pitiable substitute for the original indeed. It was hardly like the romantic kisses written about in books. It was clumsy and not a little awkward, with noses bumping, teeth clashing, and Arnold accidentally biting her tongue at one point in his desperate bid to draw her closer to him as he listed towards the doorjamb.
And it was perfect, the happiest Helga could remember being in a long time.
The second time the doorbell went off, it was Phoebe.
Once the girls were settled in Helga's room and surrounded by flashcards and brick-thick textbooks, the first words out of Phoebe's mouth, her expression deadpan, were, "So. Did you enjoy your ice cream?"
The summer afternoon was gorgeous, with enough cloud cover to keep it from getting too hot and a gentle, sweet-smelling breeze kicking up now and again. It was no wonder the park was packed with kids and adults alike enjoying the weather.
"Hey, Arnold, news flash: Helga G. Pataki doesn't do traditional."
From his place lounging on the bench beside her, Arnold's smile was sly. "You keep saying that for as long as you can because your days with that name are numbered."
Helga sighed, but it was all she could do not to laugh. They had been playfully bickering about this for weeks.
"I don't recall this little number," she lifted her left hand and waggled her fingers so that the solitaire caught and refracted the sunlight, "contractually obligating me to take your last name. Are we in the twenty-first century, or are we not?" Her lips formed a wicked grin. "Come to think of it, you should take mine."
He squinted. "Arnold Pataki? That hardly flows off the tongue."
"And yours does? Until the fifth grade, I didn't even know that your last name was—"
The tinkling ring of her cellphone curbed her retort. She frowned slightly at the caller ID before picking up, but it was the look of mild alarm when she pressed the phone to her ear coupled with the clipped replies she gave that caused Arnold to quirk an eyebrow in silent question.
It wasn't until she hung up that Helga clued him in. "That was Lila. She wanted to congratulate us," her voice adopted a syrupy-sweet tone midstream as she batted her eyelashes dramatically, "'gosh, just ever so much!'"
Arnold snorted and reached between them to thread his fingers with hers. "Be nice, Helga."
"Quit being so bossy, Football Head. Besides, I haven't considered strangling that tooth-rotting little ginger since college. Not seriously, anyway."
"That's very reassuring."
She shrugged. "What can I say? She grew on me." The devilish gleam in Helga's eyes returned with a vengeance. "You, on the other hand…"
End Author's Notes
Bits of this don't quite mesh with the publicly known and scraped-together facts about The Jungle Movie and The Patakis, but I will happily call this mess of words an alternate universe the day either is put into production. It has to happen eventually, right?
…curse you, Nickelodeon.