clearly i remember
from the windows they were watching
The journals sit safe in the sanctuary Helga had created for them, and he cannot force himself to dig.
His parents call five, six, seven times throughout the day ("I just wanted to know if you needed anything" now changing into "call us back, son, we just want to make sure you're okay") and he spends most of his time walking and playing with Betsy, and the rest submerged in a life that Helga left behind.
He has already memorized most of the family movies given to him, and keeps a handful of the dozens of pictures they had given him at his side through the day. Helga smiling nervously, hopefully at the camera the day of their graduation, Reba bright and overprotective at her side; a quick shot of Helga walking in the lobby of her store in her manager's uniform, probably only a day or so after finishing her training, her expression warmly sarcastic and the sky outside the window beside her black with night; a small ball of fur held up by Helga in front of a Christmas tree, the blonde woman looking frightened and like she has not the faintest clue of what she's doing as the puppy dangles from her careful grip.
Helga and Lila in front of some restaurant at what he's pretty sure must be Disney World, Lila looking completely out of place in her summer dress and Birkenstocks but the two looking happy together anyway, and too many pictures to count of Helga and Phoebe together, their lives captured and saved through one shot after another, and he has every single picture that Phoebe has of her birthday, and he's found twenty plus birthdays, Helga's life held in his hands as he flips through them restlessly.
Phoebe and Gerald don't seem to have had any pictures with even a glimpse of Olga.
But Olga's pictures are all Helga herself seems to have of her, and he's sure that Helga would have inherited anything she'd left upon her death, and the curiosity is tugging at him again while Arnold watches Betsy attack the food in her dish and dinner defrosts on the counter behind him.
(Helga had become as good a cook as he is the few times he's felt the interest in cooking, and he slowly but surely eats his way through frozen leftovers of casseroles and soup batches, and tries not to wish they could have shared at least one meal together, Betsy curled up at their feet as Helga tells him about work the night before and he— he has nothing to share, has not had anything to share in years.)
His phone trembles on the kitchen table a few feet away, screen lighting up, and he's turned the sound down by now, only needs to read the name (DAD) to dismiss the call (he accepts calls only from Phoebe and Gerald has refused to get into contact with him for the past two days so that's only two people).
Arnold wonders what baby James is eating for lunch, and shifts restlessly on his feet, the urge to search so much more painful and freeing than he can remember it being even as a kid.
Helga had never even told Dr. Bliss of her abject fear of the dark, back when she had been young and soft and before she had learned to get the hell over it.
But even years later they are bitter memories she cannot completely let go of, the terror that had filled her when she had been so little that it had been hard to climb onto the dinner table with her sister and her parents (she had found a way, of course, learned to climb skillfully simply because no one had given her the assistance she had needed). The sun would start to go down outside, the lines on the clock would seem to move faster, and then she was being told to go to bed.
That young, she had still attempted to do what she was told, still vaguely sure it was best.
But she tried to get her mother to stay in the room with her and her mother would make a quiet noise in the back of her throat, twist her fingers out of Helga's grip and walk out; she tried a handful of times with her father and he barked (his laugh sounded like a dog) and told her that she was fine (she could never get her small hands on him) and closed the door behind him, plunging her into the dark.
The one time she tried to Olga (and looking back she can understand that there had already been that first simmering anger inside her focused so completely on her sister) and her sister had laughed like she'd been a little silly but kept the door open when she left.
Useless, though, as her father had shut it only a few moments later when he'd noticed it open.
Now grown and sharing her bed with a loving but overprotective mix, Helga still keeps a nightlight.
Tonight James' new sweater is lying in a pile at her side (Betsy's head rests against her other hip, the dog having drifted off to a light doze once she'd been sure Helga was simply doing her usual nightly ritual of lying in the almost dark torturing herself) and right now she's scrolling through her dimmed phone without much focus, thumbing through contacts and reading old messages without thought.
She has work tomorrow (and a half-dozen meetings with higher managers that like her so much that they hate her) and it's Lila's birthday this weekend (she needs to get the stuff she's going to need to make the cake since Lila always bitches when the cake's not a "Helga cake") and she cannot sleep.
Not that this is any different than usual.
Betsy stirs and then settles back down only a moment later, and Helga sets her phone aside and lifts her crochet work from its pile, works a good three rounds before going back to her phone.
The little nightlight sheds its glow from its own corner, and Helga stares silently at Bob's last three messages, each one more demanding and angry and incoherent than before.
("She's going to destroy you, Helga, she's going to bring you down with her, she's just like her—")
His blood pressure's only gotten worse the last few years, still-thick head of hair long since gone white despite too many attempted dye jobs for even him to deny, and she knows only half of his medication these days is doctor prescribed and right now he's mad at her.
Not any different than usual— he's been mad at her since he ran out of other things to be mad at, and she can't really remember when the hell that had been if she's honest.
Helga hasn't seen him since before Miriam's funeral, since after she hadn't fought him on his refusal to let her enter the hospital room the last time, and now he's ranting to her about Olga.
She sets the phone aside again, stares vaguely in the direction of the nightlight in the corner.
And he's not completely wrong, and she has work tomorrow, and she needs to go shopping—
Betsy twitches, and Helga grabs the phone and erases the three messages before she can rethink.
There is an air of loss in the newly renovated store where Helga had spent almost a decade and a half of her life working, and if there's a chance that Arnold is making that up, the boss's reaction upon spotting him promises it's not all just in his head.
"You're, her—" he starts, and then hesitates, and Arnold stares back, quite unable to think of a word to offer up as an explanation for what he was to the dead woman he had spent his early life with. "Ah," the older man finishes uselessly, and Arnold shrugs lightly, just as uselessly.
Because by definition he had been nothing, and still is now.
He had never shared a love confession and had never allowed her to have another one, and all of the small moments in school together still mean nothing after his own weakness. He's the husband that isn't, the boyfriend that never got close, and had never allowed even a friendship to grow, not really.
"We were all crazy about her," the man begins as he comes out from behind the counter and guides Arnold without touch toward the lobby. "Maybe the best employee I've had the pleasure of working with." A hint of anger, a spark of muted grief, and Arnold nods carefully, working to stay calm.
A beat as the man blinks, chuckles tiredly: "The scariest, too, but we need that sometimes."
A five year old starts banging her doll against the counter as she demands apple juice instead of orange juice, and Arnold knows innately how simple this kind of stress must have been for Helga.
"—know that she was with us right before her crash."
If the man notices Arnold's startled expression as he shifts straws in the condiment stand and fiddles with the cup lids, he must not understand what it might mean. "She actually left a little into her shift that night, and we got the call an hour or two later that she was in the hospital."
"She was working that night?"
"She was my main closing manager." A grimace as he seems to force his attention away from his vague organizing, swings his gaze to study Arnold with something like suspicion. "You seem confused."
And Helga's boss looks… suspicious, maybe a hint angry.
The restless something that's becoming more insistent skitters inside him, nervousness dancing under his skin as he shakes his head easily, tries to brush off the sudden awkwardness between them.
"Do you know where she was heading?"
"Are you family?"
The kindness has left the man's eyes, been replaced with something hard and unforgiving, and the question is ridiculous, the man knows he's not.
"We were… close," he starts, and doesn't get any farther.
"That's not what she told me… Arnold, right?"
Movement out of the corner of his eye and he glances to see a young woman stocking the already stocked condiment stand, attention ridiculously focused on her work. There are a handful of bright purple streaks in her hair, a glint of metal in her nose, and now she's fiddling with the lids.
"Is there anything in particular you wanted to ask me about?"
And there's no reason for Helga's boss to be so suddenly hostile to him, and the girl isn't actually doing anything as she stands too close to the conversation, and she's a terrible eavesdrop.
"I just wanted to see where she worked."
Not a lie, and now the girl's wiping down the already spotless ketchup dispenser, increasingly tense.
"Is there anything else you were curious about?"
Arnold only says, "no," and the man is already brushing past him (the condiment stand is forgotten as the girl quickly falls into step just behind him) to disappear behind the counter with one last nod.
A few feet away the little girl's mashing bits of her food into her doll's face as her father spits increasingly frustrated words into his cell phone and her mother fiddles with her own, and even from this angle Arnold can see the glint of bright colors that promises the woman is playing a game.
The little girl has long since been forgotten, but at least she has her apple juice.
Gerald doesn't drink often, especially not when he feels like shit (his job is too stressful for him to be so stupid with his own mental health) but he's not working and Phoebe's running errands today and James is with Grandma Reba (and her voice is still breaking almost a month later on Helga's name).
So he's left staring down at the half-full glass of Jack Daniel's gripped loosely in one hand and the basic gold band sitting directly in front of him, and glances warily between the two.
Chest tight with emotion, exhausted despite his best attempts at and his desperate need for sleep, he's been sitting here doing the same thing for an hour now and doesn't have any interest in stopping.
He misses his brother, and he misses his best friend and he misses his other best friend, and Phoebe is still crying herself to sleep most nights, only her impossible durability keeping her going.
Helga's ringtone has been silent for almost a month, and there's a neat indent in his ring finger going on almost ten years, and he doesn't see any reason to process too much of what he's feeling now.
A sensation at his belt, the short vibration of his phone as someone pushes for his attention and it's only because of his wife that he puts down the alcohol to check the screen for Phoebe's name.
Not Phoebe, and he blinks and is uneasy at Arnold's name lit up in blue.
The phone is dropped unceremoniously onto the table, goes quiet after a moment.
His wedding band sits silently in front of him, and his therapist isn't good enough to know when he's lying and it's coming up on his ten year wedding anniversary, and Helga—
A second phone call, Arnold's name and number lit up brilliantly, insistently—
Her eyes keep losing focus.
The hospital bathroom's startlingly quiet just before dawn, and her fingers brush the wet sink in front of her carefully, feeling smooth marble as she focuses on the air moving in and out of her lungs.
She's never been a big crier ("you were a big crier when you were a baby but only then," she remembers Olga's careless confession years before, unaware of the way the words had rattled Helga) and she can't remember crying very much when Miriam died— and Helga drifts between the two thoughts—
It's a weak shelter, the feeling she can recognize as shock after so much therapy, but she clings to it.
Glances at her reflection warily, and is unspeakably exhausted and burning with energy all at once.
("I know what it's like," skitters through her mind again, the words sounding all too knowing as Gerald looks so quietly, desperately devastated for her, "and we're all here for you, all of us, you've got your family right here, I promise.")
And Phoebe is on her way home from her trip to her parents (and she knows with an odd certainty that makes her feel vulnerable that they're coming to visit without question) and Rhonda's running around the hospital throwing money at people (in her strappy heels and business clothes from the night before) and Gerald— Gerald is filling out his paperwork and talking to Olga's neighbors— and her fingers hurt, her knuckles white when she blinks down at her hands on the sink, lost and confused—
A murmur of noise, and she lifts her gaze (she cannot help the old flinch in her moment of devastation, the sharp fears never spoken that she had nonetheless banished) to find Lila peering at her worriedly, the woman holding a cup of coffee before her like a silent offering.
She'd apparently thought nothing of rushing out in one of her ridiculous gingham nightgowns, had showed up in the waiting room with her purse and a warm-looking cardigan as if anybody ever felt cold anymore.
And it's actually the little jacket Helga had made for her a couple of years before (because Rhonda is obsessed with air conditioning and Lila always feels cold in their home), and it's merino wool with those little pearlescent buttons Helga had found cheap on the clearance rack at the craft store, and something about the sight of Lila's devotion to her gift, as always, leaves her too emotional—
And her anger's missing now, left her to the mercy of her heart, and her back is bending because Lila of all people has to strip away the shelter she needs, and she's going blind again—
"Helga— oh Helga!" and Lila rushes at her like the crazed and helpless mother hen that she is, the coffee set aside as she flings her arms about Helga in that frantic way that still leaves Helga feeling restless and unsure. "Oh, Helga, oh no, no, no—"
Her body returns the embrace before Helga can think about the action and Lila is annoyingly, wonderfully real and Helga thinks, with stark clarity, that Lila has only ever truly attacked one person in her life, in over twenty years, and that had been to defend Helga's honor ("of course you have honor!" Helga still remembers the way the badly-beaten girl had ranted back at her from their place in the girl's bathroom, absolutely awful at fighting but not seeming to care at all)—
"You have to help me—"
Her voice sounds tiny and devastated to her own ears, too much like the one she's never let anyone in the world hear, and her fingers dig into Lila's back, eyes closed tightly against the burn—
"Lila," and if her voice fractures here, thins and struggles to return— "Lila, she didn't kill herself—"
It is an awful truth, one she feels deep inside where there are still parts of her that hadn't been so destroyed that she had been forced to rebuild them completely, and Olga—
Lila pulls back after the awful moment that follows, and the redhead is clearly trying her very best to keep the worry (the "please don't do this") from her eyes.
But poor Lila's never gained that kind of spine, as poor Rhonda can testify.
"Helga—" and there is something awful in her voice, in the fear that tightens her face.
"You have to help me," Helga manages through her tears, and Lila cannot summon a refusal.
He can hear her breathing quick and terrified in the almost dark, and there's still a weak strength in the hand locked around his as he tries to move closer to her bed and he can't—
"I don't know where I am," and she is crying in a way she never would have been strong enough to before, the hand grasping so uselessly at his trembling but staying strong.
He cannot reach her, she is next to him and he cannot reach, and she is the weakest she has ever been but she does not let go, short nails catching the skin of his wrist as she cries.
There is a noise somewhere else (he cannot make it out and it does not matter) but he searches the darkness for her and can find her face, and her eyes are wet and sure as she gazes at him from the hospital bed he is standing right next to but cannot reach.
He wants to touch her face like he had when Gerald had snuck him in, climb right into the bed with her until she leaves it, but he has her hand and it is enough to hold onto, and he squeezes tightly and now she is crying again, harder than before—
A growl (he cannot make it out but it does matter)—
She says, "Arnold" and Gerald is grabbing his shoulder, trying to drag him away—
The quiet rumbling that had started low has become suddenly monstrous.
Arnold is awake before his eyes are open, and the heavy shape on his legs suddenly moves, lunging off of the couch and into the darkness of Helga's house. There's a crash, a shout (someone male and unknown, the sound carrying pain and anger and surprise) and Arnold is on his feet lurching after the dog before the noise registers as anything beyond wrong.
He can hear Betsy snarling, her mellow mood turned murderous, and then the sound breaks into a startled yelp, an agonized whine that burns into another stubborn snarl—
Another crash, the sound sudden and impossibly loud—
And he reaches the bedroom, slaps on the light and finds the window shattered, red streaking the sill.
Betsy is half-fighting to jump out of the window after whoever it had been, the dog utterly enraged as she lunges weakly at the wall beneath the window and it takes a moment to understand why she is struggling but only a moment and then he is shaking with his own rage, rushing forward to help her.
The lamp that had been used to beat her lies nearby utterly destroyed.
Outside only Helga's frightened neighbors disturb the night.
an: i can finally haz actual vacation. and writing time. i approve this, especially after the so-called summer i've had so far. so go ahead, keep making guesses, it's delighting me and the ten page outline for this beast sitting open in front of me right now, :-)