sometimes solutions aren't so simple
sometimes goodbye's the only way
- linkin park
"They almost killed her."
"She'll be fine."
"Stop worrying," and there's more bite to her voice than Arnold has ever heard.
Something glints in Phoebe's gaze but she doesn't say anything else, dark eyes focused carefully on the dirty tile floor in front of them as Arnold glares at her, unable to control himself any longer.
A half-hour to find a 24-hour vet, another forty plus minutes until he'd carried Betsy (and later he'll realize how… embarrassed the dog had somehow looked over him carrying her around like an overgrown baby) into the vet's office. Phoebe assures him that there's a handful police officer going through the house ("they won't need to go through her things," she'd added unconvincingly when she'd caught the uneasy expression on his face) and that Gerald is coming (and those words make him twitchy, restless, slivers of betrayal he doesn't understand slip-sliding inside him) and that she's sure it had just been some idiot kid.
And there's a dark awful something in the back of her gaze as she sits with her arms wrapped around herself in the uncomfortable chair beside him, her refusal to meet his eyes scraping his nerves.
"Gerald was supposed to be here a half-hour ago."
"He'll be done when he's done," is all she says, and will not meet his eyes.
Rhonda's always been a fan of sunglasses.
Dark enough to hide her eyes, big enough to make a statement, expensive enough to make it stick.
She wears them more than usual these days but not too much more, since the glasses have become an increasingly close friend of hers and even Helga had given up on getting them off her outside of home.
"You know I wear my sunglasses at night."
Harold squints at her, apparently completely sure that she's insane.
When her only answer is to peer at him fearlessly (as fearlessly as one could hiding behind sunglasses), the sigh he gives is as impressive as any of Helga's old melodramatics as he drops down onto the little public-funded bench beside her. "I could get fired if anybody finds out about this."
"You're going to compare getting fired to this?"
"Says the rich girl."
Says the achingly poor uniform cop just trying to keep his sick mother alive for a couple more years.
If Rhonda feels a pang for her old friend, she tempers it viciously with the stark memory of Lila's muffled crying just down the hall, of Lila's restless pacing in the nights when she's so sure that Rhonda must be asleep. Because Rhonda's not the nicest person, never has been, but Helga had never been perfect either, and god knows Lila has always loved them both.
"I don't even know what's in them," Harold is telling her now, and he's just getting off his shift, is still wearing his black uniform and clearly resisting the urge to grab a cup of coffee from across the street because he needs to get home and sleep even if the bags under his eyes promise that he doesn't sleep much lately. "The only reason I managed to grab it is because Johanssen was out the last few hours—" He catches Rhonda's unhappy grimace, glances at her as she's a beast. "He isn't letting anybody else see any of this, Rhonda, you know how close they were before—" Harold stops, looks down at the envelope in his lap. "You know... before."
Before Helga had left work (even though she never left work early) and crashed on the way home, been killed and left them all... dazed by the sudden absence of her constant movement, her frenzied and so-carefully controlled chaos had left behind for those that loved her.
Rhonda snatches the folder in a moment of emotion, fingers the edges nervously, feeling like an idiot.
"There's a reason Gerald had the car hauled off, Rhonda, you don't want to..."
See what had happened to Helga, the mess that had been left of her car... the mess they had found her in.
None of them want to see it, and Gerald wants none of them to see it and—
And there is something fluttering uneasily in Rhonda, and she knows Lila, she knows her, and even if that fact terrifies Rhonda because she's never been good at the whole... feelings thing...
She trusts Lila, she'd trusted Helga...
"I want to see her," Rhonda remembers Lila mumbling into her neck in the waiting room when Gerald had come out to all of them with red-rimmed eyes and a ragged voice the night they'd lost her. "I want to see her, I want to see her," and Gerald had shaken his head, refused even Arnold's frenetic demands to let them give her a last goodbye, to see the—
Lila had smelled like the lotion she always smoothed into her hands six times a day, had cried so hard she'd soaked through Rhonda's jacket down to Rhonda's skin beneath— and she had just kept crying until Rhonda had finally half-carried her back to their place and rolled her up in her blankets, sat with her while she slept fitfully into the morning.
"You won't get caught," Rhonda half-states, and almost feels panicked by the thinness in her own voice.
"I only printed out what I could find when the station was empty, and it's his own fault he keeps forgetting to change his passwords when we're all supposed to, so..." There's more than a little bit of guilt in his voice, and he studies her now with something suspiciously close to care in his gaze. "We're all worried about her, you know that, right?"
Rhonda says nothing, they sit awkwardly together—
Then Harold says, "I'm still here if you need me" and Rhonda might shake a little, just for a moment.
Because hilariously enough, Harold knows what she's going through better than anyone else (she can't let anyone else know what she's going through, she really can't, and for reasons that are all her own) and Helga had known, of course she'd known, and she'd also known to keep her damn mouth shut and not pull any of that supporting character nonsense from bad romantic movies.
And now she's sitting here in a damn park in the middle of the night like a damn drug dealer trying to get information she's not supposed to have from her on-again-off-again ex-boyfriend because the closest thing she has to a best friend is now dead and Lila is barely coping and nothing about said best friend's death makes any sense—
That's why Rhonda sniffles a little when Harold touches her hand, sighs and pulls her closer to him.
He smells like police station coffee and convenience store food and for a moment Rhonda takes the comfort she's offered, tilts her head and relaxes against his side and if she sniffles a couple more times, unable to control herself, she almost doesn't care.
"Just don't start sobbing, you know I could never handle that."
Rhonda laughs, chokes on an almost-sob, and Harold pets her like he's not completely sure how to but means it all the same.
It reminds her of Helga's brash and fearless comfort when the two of them would go out to the bar for a night when Lila was too busy planning kindergarten field trips to join them and Rhonda would have too much wine and start feeling... not good.
"Lila is right, you know, to be so..." His whole body rumbles when he talks, big bear of a guy he is these days, and she remembers Lila's skittery nervousness after Olga's death and before Helga had let go of her obsession, her certainty.
… or at least told them she had.
There's an odd tension under his skin and the sun has long since come up.
Startlingly awake and strung tight with nerves, Gerald oversees the quick investigation of his old friend's house— not just the blood left smeared but the footsteps under the window outside and the interviews with the half-dozen neighbors all wanting to know what the hell happened at dead Helga Pataki's house where the strange blonde man now seems to be living.
But of course... nobody had seen anything beyond the dark shape throwing itself out of the window to escape the dog.
Gerald can't help but wish, for too many reasons, that Betsy had managed to actually keep the bastard down.
But at least whoever it was hadn't managed to get very deep into Helga's bedroom, and Gerald is eternally grateful for that fact as he eyes the carefully protected room that Helga had lived in for years. None of it is foreign (he's been in here enough times since she'd bought the little house years before) and even now that she's been gone for so many weeks, the feel of her remains.
It's a testament to the endurance of her presence that it remains so when she had worked so hard to keep the house impersonal.
No pictures on walls or sticky notes on the fridge, anything personal... tucked away, hidden, protected.
Brave as she had become, she had developed a resistance to the idea of sharing herself in any solid ways.
Gerald knows the reasons for it and still hates it, wishes she'd allowed more pictures to be taken without having to practically force her into the camera's view, wishes she'd... been able to grow even more than she had.
And if that doesn't prove him as an awful person, he knows what else does.
"You're not gonna find anything else."
Gina, behind him, wide awake as only the night owls can be and clearly tired of him keeping them there when there's nothing else they can do. Gerald knows better than to even broach the subject of Arnold leaving the damn house, has already made the calls to keep an officer in a car a few houses down the street for a few days, and wishes that none of this had ever happened.
Not Olga, weak-willed Olga that he cannot help but hate when she's cost them so much, and Miriam and Bob, especially Bob, goddamn Bob with his self-obsessed bullshit and refusal to take care of his own mistakes—
"There's no way you can get this guy to stay in a hotel for a couple days?"
"Nah," he says roughly, and stares at the Ziploc bag with the circular needles and the just-started green afghan that still sits by her bed.
The last time he'd seen her before he'd found her by the wreckage, she'd been knitting it up for Betsy (which usually meant she was actually knitting it for herself but thought the yarn had been too expensive to admit that to anyone) and once he thinks about that—
He weakens in a fragile moment, strides forward and bends to grab it up.
The printed-out lace pattern is folded up inside, Helga's handwritten notes obvious on the margins of the chart.
In the bag with it are another three hanks of yarn, and he knows it's hand-dyed because she'd told them about it during their lunch, Phoebe's warm presence at his side, and she'd done so much work over the years with blues and greens and golds against dark brown. There's splashes of gold in this yarn, he sees now, only now, and he squeezes the bag and stares down at it silently, a little... warily.
Color had become as important to Helga as she had gotten older as words had always been, and without understanding why he thinks about Arnold's painted walls and hallways, the only thing that Arnold had shown even the slightest interest in over the years.
Jungles and rivers that Arnold had lived in for that handful of years, old ruins buried beneath dirt and life and small villages filled with colors and blurry faces— splashes of color Arnold had never had explanations for when Gerald had asked about them.
Plastic crinkles between his fingers and Gerald shudders and breathes and finally nods.
The knitting is sitting in the front seat of his car when they close Helga's door, lock it, and finally start to leave the house.
Betsy wears her cone with as much dignity as possibly.
He's reaching to gather her up out of the backseat, unworried about the weight of her, when he finally realizes that the front door of Helga's house is opened, that there's someone staring at him from her front step that's not an officer.
(The officer is sitting down the street in his patrol car, Arnold can see him some distance away.)
His father, expression worried and unsure, looking impossibly older than he is.
For a frozen moment, Arnold cannot process how much he hates—
He jerks in a breath, lets it out, looks away from his father and mumbles affectionately to the dog as he lifts her carefully and starts moving to the house. The awful anger's gone, smothered in a fit of desperate control, but he still cannot meet his father's eyes as he carries her inside, sets her gently on the couch.
Betsy looks so far beyond humiliated that it pulls a smile from his face, drags a smothered laugh out of his chest.
Savage warrior dog that she is, she is less terrifying than Helga's heart had ever been.
His father momentarily forgotten, he bends to press a kiss to the top of her head, gives her a quick rub behind her ears.
"I thought Gerald was kidding about the love affair." The wariness in his father's voice is impossibly familiar after the last few years, and the guilt it brings up in Arnold only leaves him more frustrated, overwhelmed. "Your mother and I are both worried about you." Quiet movement behind him, his father edging forward. "You could bring her back to the—"
"I'm staying here." Betsy shifts under his hands, bumps her head up comfortingly into his palm. "I've told you—"
Control stretches, begins to fracture, but his father never pushes now, has given up on pressing.
So it's sudden and surprising, the hard words that come next, "Now look, you can't just stay here, it's not healthy—"
"I haven't been healthy in years." The words come out jilted, awkward, the truth unfamiliar but not unwelcome. "I haven't been able to hold a steady job in three years, Gerald could barely even put up with me... some mornings I couldn't even go get the paper off the stoop." He feels a little like he's suffocating even as the fog is lifting, leaving him vulnerable to the pain that had made him need it in the first place. "I'd rather be miserable here than there."
Depressed, alone, too tired when he woke up in the mornings to do much more than poke at old problems in the boarding house like slow-healing old wounds, prod them just enough to keep them raw but never enough to lance them.
His desperate avoidance has done him no favors.
"Someone broke in and almost killed that dog— Gerald's worried that—"
Arnold tries to ignore the immediate notch of fury inside him, Gerald's infuriating avoidance over the last half-day while apparently tattling the entire damn story to his father— yes, fuck it, tattling— "I'm not leaving."
There's a noisy sigh behind him, his father unsure of his standing after so many years, and when Arnold finally allows (forces) himself to glance back, Arnold's eyes drift past his father, skip to the rest of the room.
A fractured image blinks behind his eyes, and though it only lasts a moment, it sears itself deep.
Helga and himself at the kitchen table, talking, just talking over Chinese take-out, Betsy shuffling through the room with a squeaky toy dangling from her jaws, and Helga's wearing pajamas and an old tee, is talking to that other Arnold (this man who did not break himself) and then she's laughing, gesturing down at the knitting sitting by the carton of fried rice as if it's insulted her—
His father stares at him, and there's a new expression on his face, some terrible... awareness.
Behind his father the kitchen table is empty, and there is still no Helga.
There is only Betsy tucked miserably into a corner of a couch and his father staring at him brokenheartedly.
Seemingly fully aware of where his thoughts have strayed.
"I want you to—"
"Don't do this to yourself." There's a focus in his father's voice that half-startles Arnold before he forcefully dismisses it, a hardness in his eyes that almost makes Arnold's will begin to bend. "Staying here torturing yourself isn't going to fix this but..." A momentary hesitation, the older man considering his words, deciding them carefully. "You look sane, Arnold, you look sane, you can..." The bitterness that threads through his voice here is easily perceived, his father's failure filling the room with a sudden awful tension. "We can help you get your feet under you now, you can... you can get healthier again... you can get— get better."
We couldn't do it, we couldn't, we've failed, but you can do it now, please do it now, please don't abandon us in another way—
It's an odd feeling, the surge of pity he feels for his parents, and it's fascinating at the same time to consider this man in front of him, to remember all of the... the ideas that Arnold had built around the parents he'd never known. Impossible figures, the ones he'd been left with for the first dozen years of his life, and the distance between them and himself...
He doesn't remember how it happened, cannot think of one particular moment that had cemented his now-familiar bitterness.
Brilliant, his parents, geniuses in their field, and loving parents, they'd always tried, and—
"I'm not going back." He almost doesn't recognize his own voice, catches the flicker behind his father's eyes that promises that he's just as startled by the strength there as Arnold himself is. "Every decision I've made, I've made wrong—" and maybe not every one, not each and every one, but close enough— "and all I have is this house, it's all I have— I can't— I can't be a coward anymore."
"We can help—"
"You really can't." The kitchen table is empty, Helga is gone but she is still in the house, and what is left of him is hers, what is left of her can have whatever is left of him, this is the most he will have and he will not release it now, not when it's all he will ever have.
This promise is the first one he's wanted to keep in too many years to count.
"You really need to go home to Mom." Wariness in his father's face, some heartbreaking hope behind the now-familiar grief that Arnold knows his father is too afraid to let himself feel after the last decade. "I'm staying here."
Something inside him loosens so suddenly that he wonders how he had never felt the knot itself for the last few years, and he's already moving past his father to grab Betsy her dinner, is thinking about which container of casserole he's going to heat up for his own dinner—
"Don't go with her." Arnold pauses, glances back and finds his father gazing at him with tired eyes and a touch of desperation in his features. "Don't follow her, Arnold, get what you can get from here but don't—" A break in his voice, a fracture of emotion, and he is desperately trying to look like he is sure of himself. "The Green Eyes, you remember what they always said, that life always comes from death, they told you more about their... their philosophy than they ever told us—"
As if Arnold had been capable of understanding any of it, as if it means anything to him beyond some of the paintings he had left on the boarding house walls, as if he can understand anything of their attempts to communicate their myths to him even now—
"Just don't... don't go with her, you don't have to, you can... you can start over again... this... is your second chance."
A sudden thought, a flash of awareness in the back of Arnold's mind— that's not what they meant when they said that, that's not what they actually said, the words are different, the meaning is different, you don't understand and he can remember clearly one of the elderly women of the tribe as she smiles at him from across the beaten earth as she worked quick and easy at her back strap loom— but the thought is gone as quickly as it came, has abandoned him so completely that he then can't remember having it at all.
"Go home to Mom," Arnold tells his father, and just like that the conversation is over.
Arnold turns his attention back to the kitchen, back to the small mission at hand— to care for Helga's dog so that he can go through Helga's room himself, so that he can try to understand the vague and uneasy thoughts he can't form. After a moment there's the sound the front door opening, closing; long minutes later, there's the sound of a car starting, finally pulling away from the house.
Phoebe's anger is a quiet and vicious thing, and Gerald barely has a defense against it tonight.
He's tired and uneasy, fretful about his oldest friend and increasingly frantic over his closest friend— and the truth is that Helga had become his closest friend, had been his closest friend for years now, and he can't even mark when it actually happened— and the plastic bag that holds Helga's knitting is tucked under the front seat of his patrol car for another day or two.
"What is this?" Phoebe asks him flatly from across the room, and Gerald knows that she's not talking about the take-out he'd brought home to try to keep her from worrying about cooking.
Sitting in his high chair watching them, James' eyes are sharp and careful, less upset than curious about the way his normally-pleasant parents are interacting, have been interacting since Gerald had come home and barely been able to manage a kiss for his wife.
Guilt turns his stomach, and the smell of Thai food is too strong in the small kitchen that's so clearly theirs.
Phoebe's cramped writing and an assortment of family pictures filling the board on the fridge, James' eating utensils drying beside the sink, Gerald's oatmeal sitting out on the counter where he can always grab it for a quick meal before he heads out.
He hasn't seen her since early this morning, since Arnold had called them so late at night and spit out in a startlingly strong (albeit panicked) voice that someone had nearly killed her (and Gerald's heart had kicked in his chest) and that he had to get her to a vet, she was bleeding, and if Gerald is honest, the hint of panicked rage in his old friend's voice had frightened him just slightly.
Because Arnold's never had a temper, certainly never enough of one to be known for it, but when really pushed beyond his limits he'd always possessed an edge of ruthlessness slightly at odds with his general pleasantness— and that hidden quality had withered as much as everything else in him had for the last dozen years. Even anger, the emotion least likely to ever hold Arnold's attention for long, would have been a welcome sight more than once when Gerald had gone to the boarding house to see his old friend.
But it had been there last night and while he'd been braced for Arnold's hysterical grief in the hospital and for the months following– please god, please only last months— in the face of Arnold's anger Gerald feels small... maybe a little... unprepared.
Add to that Phoebe's exhausted rage, and he's completely at odds with the world around him right now.
Phoebe's worried now, and only that breaks through the heavy thoughts, gives him the ability to straighten his back and take a deep breath and focus his eyes to meet his wife's squarely. "I can't," he informs her, and watches her face, watches her fingers flex on the kitchen counter. "I can't tell you anything, the case is—"
"Did they kill her?"
Phoebe spits the words out like they hurt to keep them in— he falters— and she jerks her gaze away immediately.
Stares with a pinched face at the wall behind their son's high chair as if it's going to undo the fact that she just asked the question.
His wife glances him, a sudden slashing look filled with too many emotions to name, and he quiets, tried to stay calm.
James makes a noise, an irritated little sound that warns his parents that he's grown uncomfortable, and Phoebe moves to him immediately, lifts him up and into her arms. "I'm not in the mood for Thai food," she informs him flatly, and he feels that awful jolt inside him, a sudden spark of panic. "I'm going to call my mom and see what she did for dinner—"
"I'm trying to protect you—"
"Because you did so well with Helga," and her voice has already fractured, his desperately grieving wife with the heavy bags under her eyes and the tight movements that he knows are the clearest sign of her exhaustion. "I begged her," as she grabs the diaper bag off the kitchen counter, as she scoops her keys up— "you promised you would get her out of this—"
"You lied," Phoebe cut back and Gerald can feel the movement of the air as she slips past him impossibly fast, disappears down the hallway of their house. "I spent six hours defending you today, six hours, Gerald, and I knew, I'm not stupid, you promised—"
Crying now, stepping into a pair of sandals before she reaches the front door, and then Phoebe is disappearing outside.
All of two minutes, and he knows he won't see her until at least tomorrow afternoon, knows she will refuse any call he might make but that if she stays gone more than a day she'll allow him to visit James without hesitation.
Gerald's hands are shaking, and he cannot completely help but hate Helga, and hate Arnold's refusal to leave the damn house, and the Thai food has long since gone cold by the time Gerald finally manages to force food down his throat.
an: i'm not even going to get into the issues i've been going through. suffice it to say, no, this thing is going to be finished, i swear.