The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts
All on a summer's day


Food and talk always go together. It was noon hour at P.S. 118, the last day of school, and the lunch room hummed with conversation. Students chatting, arguing, fighting, joking. And complaining. Helga opened her lunch box and groaned. A can of cheesie spray and a moldy apple. Not even crackers for the cheese.

"Something wrong, Helga?" She jumped in her chair. Arnold! He had been passing by, in search of a seat.

"Looks like Miriam has outdone herself again." Helga bristled. Bad enough her mother was letting her go hungry. Helga was used to Miriam coming up short in the motherhood department. Worse was getting shown up in front of Arnold.

"I have an extra sandwich, and an orange. Grandma always gives me too much anyway. It's no problem to share."

For a moment, Helga was tempted. She was hungry. A cherished memory flashed through her mind, back through the years to the play school where she had first met her beloved. She had lost her lunch box, and he had shared his biscuits with her. For just a second she felt the temptation to ask Arnold to sit down and have lunch with her. Just the two of them together, lost in their own little world. Helga began to dream.

A soft summer night, the moonlight shining down on the terrace of a penthouse overlooking Central Park. Soft music wafting from a stereo from inside the apartment. The darkness lit only by a single candle on a small table, set for two with the finest china and most expensive crystal. Helga sits at the table, her hair piled high in an elegant coiffure, dressed in a long, silken evening gown that rustles softly with her slightest movement. Her arms are covered by long white gloves that play with the diamond necklace at her throat, shimmering in the reflected light of the flame. A handsome young man with swept back hair, the thinnest of mustaches, and a rakish air appears at her side. It is Arnold. He wears a white coat and chef's hat. He pushes a restaurant cart loaded with bottles, bowls, and a large cooking pan warming over a bright, blue flame from a small gas stove.

"Is Madame ready for her first course?," he says, in a low, husky French accent.

"Qui, qui, chef de ma couer," Helga simpers. "I love the music you selected. Opera?"

"But of course! What else would suffice for a romantic rendez-vous? As the poet says, if music is the food of love, play on!"

"A poet, as well as a gourmet!"

"But of course. Music is but the sauce that I pour over the feelings that I have for you. My love for you started at a low simmer, then was brought to a full boil, and now burns at a white heat! And so, we begin!"

Arnold lays some vegetables and meat on the table. Two sharp, silvery knives flash through the air, slicing and dicing. With a shout of triumph he handles the knives like a samurai warrior wielding his sword.

"Oh, be careful, you'll hurt yourself," smirks Helga.

"Too late, mon petite choufleur. Your love has already cut me like a knife."

Helga coyly giggles and plays with one of her golden locks.

"And now, my signature dish, crepes a la Helga." As a slab of butter melts in the pan, Arnold deftly tosses eggs, slices of orange, and squeezes a lemon over all. Quickly, he takes a bottle and splashes some liquid. The pan erupts in flames.

"Oh la, la," thrills Helga. "It burns so fiercely!" Arnold gives her a long, dark smouldering look. "Not so fierce as my burning ardor for you! Let us skip the appetizers and move directly to the main course."

"The main course?"

"A feast of passion that will consume us both! Ah, Helga, my heart has been basted and cooked until well done, then served on a platter and set before you, with a side order of fries. I have been burnt to a crisp on the burning fire of my undying love for you."

"Wow, if this is the main course, I can't wait for dessert!"

Arnold seizes her hand and begins to kiss his way up her arm. Helga melts. "How very continental! Oh, Arnold! Arnold! Arnold...."

"Oh, Helga! Helga! Helga!"

"Helga? Helga? Helga!"

Helga woke up from her reverie. She was back in lunchroom of P.S. 118. Arnold was holding her by the arm, concern written all over his face.

"Helga, are you all right? You were calling my name, and I was standing right here beside you the whole time. Are you okay? Can I do anything for you?"

Helga looked down. Arnold was touching her arm! How should she react? Ask him to sit with her? Or shove him away, as she always did? It would be safer. But it was so tempting. For just once, she could give in to her desire, and ask Arnold to sit with her, and just talk. And eat that lovely sandwich he had offered. She was so hungry. Did she dare?

Harold's harsh shout broke the tension. "Hey look everyone, Stinky's squirting milk outa his nose!" The cafeteria rocked with laughter. Someone was always doing something crazy during lunch. There was always someone to laugh at. Helga shook herself. Sitting with Arnold? Eating with him? In front of everyone? Why not just wear a neon sign saying, "I love Arnold."

"Geez, can't I have some private time to myself, even for a minute? And who said you could touch me, weird hair boy! Do that again and you'll lose that arm for sure!"

Arnold took his hand away from her. He looked startled, puzzled, and a little hurt.

"And take your sandwich and shove it in your pie hole." Helga went into her practiced routine of abuse with nary a pause. She had a million insults ready for instant use. "I don't need anyone's charity. And if I did, you'd be the last person on earth I'd ever take anything from, you little footballheaded geek!"

Arnold was confused. For just a moment he thought he had seen a softer, gentler look on Helga's face, as if she were thinking of something nice. He had hoped sharing his lunch would make Helga like him just a little. But some things never change. He turned away with a sigh. "Anything you say, Helga."

Helga watched Arnold walk away to sit with Gerald at another table. "Why, why why? Why do I reject Arnold's kindness? Why do I insult the master chef of my desire? Who else fillets the tender parts of my heart and serves it up garnished with adoration and spiced with devotion? Why must I deny myself the pleasure of feasting on his gaze, and drinking deep from the liquid pools of his eyes? Why must I starve myself of his adoration, while others stuff themselves with passion? Why must my feelings remain on a slim-fast plan, while others grow bloated with love? Oh Arnold, will we ever shake and bake as a couple?" Helga suddenly realized a silence had fallen on the lunch room. People were looking at her oddly.

Desperate measures were called for. She took up the moldy apple.

"Hey geekbait! Eat this!" The apple bounced off the back of Arnold's head. The annoyed look on his face was quickly lost to Helga's view as general mayhem broke out. All the students joined in. "Food Fight! Food fight! Food fight!"

That afternoon, still dripping various foodstuffs and condiments, Arnold's misery continued. Without a proper lunch, Helga felt especially hungry and mean-tempered. A host of spit balls flew through the air of the classroom to hit the back of Arnold's head. Whenever he looked back, Helga would glare at him, and snarl, "What?" Arnold groaned. How long would this go on? He was getting so tired of Helga. Arnold bore it all with his usual fortitude. He could never get mad enough at Helga to really fight back. But it was with weary gratitude that he finally made his way home to supper at the boarding house.


Food and talk always go together. The dining room at the boarding house hummed with conversation as Arnold and his extended family dug into their evening meal. Talk about work. Something funny that happened on Vine Street during the day. Arguments about baseball players. And the usual squabbling.

"Pass the buttered parsnips," said Oskar.

"Hey, that's your third helping, you chiseler," grumbled Grandpa.

"Heh, heh, heh, there's lots of parsnips left. Why let them go to waste," whined Oskar.

"Anyone else want parsnips?" The rooming house dinner table fell silent. The parsnips had not been one of Grandma's better experiments.

"Great! More parsnips for me." With laughing glee, Oskar emptied the bowel and dug in.

Grandpa grumbled and decided to switch the subject. He turned to Arnold.

"Hey Shortman, how was school today?"

"School was kinda okay."

"What you mean kinda? You don't sound so sure. Oh, I sense another one of Arnold's youthful conundrums that bewilder and baffle the brain and pose all sorts of moral and ethical challenges confusing and confounding a nine-year old boy while leaving his elders puzzled and paralyzed."

With all of the boarders now looking at him, Arnold felt he had no choice but to tell all. He began reluctantly.

"Well, school itself was okay. But there's this girl. She's always teasing me. Her name is Helga and she was really bad today. She never let up with all the spitballs, and name calling, and squirting me in the face at the water fountain. And I can't even begin to tell you what she did at lunch time. Usually I just try to avoid her, but she wouldn't let up and she really bugged me today. She just won't leave me alone."

"Who's this Helga?" asked Suzie.

"That's Arnold's school chum," chuckled Grandpa. "She's the little blond girl with the pink dress and the two pigtails and the one eyebrow who's always scowling and hanging around across the street. Like she was waiting for someone to come out of the boarding house."

Oskar chimed in. "Ah, I know the one you mean. The really ugly, scrawny one that acts crazy all the time?"

"She's not crazy, Mr. Kokoshka. She's just teases me a lot. It's no big deal." Arnold couldn't believe he was actually defending Helga, of all people.

Ernie grinned, "You know what? When a girl pays that much attention to a guy, it can only mean one thing. Sounds like our Arnold here has got himself a girlfriend." Stifled laughter ran around the dinner table. Arnold rolled his eyes.

"Ernie's got a point there, Shortman. When a girl pays that much attention to a fellow, it could mean she really likes him."

Arnold blushed. "No, Mr. Potts, she's just a girl in my class. It's how she is. I don't know why she acts the way she does. I think maybe she's unhappy, and she takes it out on everyone. Well, she does pick on me more than most. But I try to ignore her. Deep down inside I think she's actually a nice person, but for some reason she's afraid to show her good side. I'm just hoping she turns into a better person one day." Arnold sighed. "But sometimes it's seems like a very long wait."

"That's very gallant of you," said Suzie. "I think it's very gentlemanly not to get mad at this girl, even though she bothers you. You keep being nice to her Arnold. Even if she doesn't treat you better, all the other girls will notice that you're kind to her, and they'll all like you for it. Girls notice when a boy acts like a gentleman." Suzie looked sideways at Oskar, who had just polished off the last of the parsnips with a giant belch. "Well, most of us notice. Sometimes we don't discover the truth about a man until it's too late."

"What are you talking about," said Oskar. "I showed you my police record before we got married! Twenty-three charges, no convictions! It was all just a misunderstanding! How was I to know the money in those parking meters belonged to the city? I had only just arrived in this country, and they leave money lying around the street. What's a person to think?"

Suzie turned from her husband with annoyance. "Arnold, you keep being nice to that girl. She's just going through a bad time. A few years from now, when she's older, she'll remember you were decent to her, and I bet she'll be one of your best friends. And you'll be popular with all the other girls because they'll remember what a nice guy you are."

"Don't worry about Arnold here," added Ernie. "When he's a little older, he's going to be a regular ladies man. You'll have lots of girls after you, won't you Arnold." Mr. Potts elbowed Arnold gently in the ribs.

Arnold blushed again. This sort of talk was really embarrassing. "I just don't think too much about such things, Mr. Potts. After all, I'm only nine. Girls don't like me very much." He sighed. " I guess I'll just wait and worry about all that stuff in the future."

"Hey Arnold," butted in Oskar. "This girl, the one that acts all crazy. Is she rich? Does she have a lot of money?"

"Well, no, Mr. Kokoshka. I don't think Helga is rich."

"What are you talking about, Shortman?" interrupted Grandpa. "She's Big Bob Pataki's daughter. One day she'll inherit the Big Bob Beeper empire. She'll be rolling in dough."

Oskar gasped. "What? The same Big Bob that's on the TV in those crazy commercials? You've got to be rich to be on television! Arnold! Listen to your Uncle Oskar." He shook his finger at Arnold for emphasis.

"You marry that girl! She's got money! Who cares how ugly she is, or if she acts crazy. One eyebrow? Forget it! Think of the dollars! You'll be set for life! Let her pick up the check, and you'll have nothing to do but play the ponies all day. Just make sure you call your Uncle Oskar, and I'll give you all the advice you need to pick a winner down at the track. Trust me. When you see a girl like that, you grab her as fast as you can." Oskar turned and grinned at his wife. "I speak from experience."

Suzie glowered at her husband.

Mr. Hynuh broke in. "Arnold, don't listen to Oskar. That very bad advice. You marry girl you like. Marry nice girl. Pretty girl. No ugly girl. No crazy girl. You marry for money, that big, big mistake. It don't matter how much money she has! Do like me. Marry for love. You never regret it."

Ernie Potts broke in. "Don't youse worry about Arnold. He's too smart to be snagged by just any la-de-da skirt that comes along. He's going to be one smooth operator, I betcha! A good looking guy like him will have a little black book stuffed with names and numbers. A different date for every night of the month! He'll play the field and be a regular heart breaker, just wait and see. Ain't no broad smart enough to trap our Arnold into marching down the aisle with him!"

"Arnold, marry the money!"

"No Arnold, marry for love! Marry nice girl!"

"Play it smart Arnold. Play the field."

"Hold on you characters," said Grandpa. "Arnold will make up his own mind and in his own good time. It will be up to him to choose what path through life he'll follow."

Arnold said nothing. He knew the boarders were just using him as an excuse for their endless squabbling. If they didn't have him to argue over, they would start a fight over the food, or sports, or a TV show. He felt a little embarrassed, but he was used to it.

Suzie addressed Arnold in a kind voice. "Arnold, just go on being the nice boy you already are. There's someone for everyone. And one day some wonderful girl will appreciate you for who you are, and she'll be your 'certain special someone'. And you'll be so glad you waited for her."

Suzie turned to Oskar. "Trust me Arnold, sometimes, it's better to wait!"

Oskar tittered nervously."Heh, heh, heh!"

"Wait for her Arnold, she'll be worth it. And who knows, it may just turn out to be your little friend."

Arnold started in desbelief. Marry Helga? No way!

"Now, now," chortled Grandpa. "Arnold's got a lot of growing up to do before he has to worry about who he'll marry." He turned to his grandson with a twinkle in his eye.

Arnold sighed to himself. He knew he what was coming. Lots of Grandpa's teasing.

"But you know Arnold, you could do worse than marry that Pataki girl. She sounds like a feisty one. There's something to be said for marrying a girl with lots of spirit."

"Why, thank you Phil," said Grandma as she entered the room, carrying a bowl. "Have some more parsnips," as she ladled a big helping onto his plate.

"Oh No!"

Grandpa turned to his Arnold with a pained look on his face. "Shortman. Take warning from my experience. Whatever you do. Whoever you marry, promise me one thing."

"Yes Grandpa?"

"Just make sure she's..."

"My certain special someone? My one true love?"

"No! Just make sure she's a great cook! Excuse me, I gotta go to my office. Ohhhhh, parsnips!"


Arnold picked up his plate and carried it to the kitchen sink. He then made his way up to his room, where Abner waited. Arnold scratched his faithful pet behind the ears. Abner grunted with pleasure. Arnold was glad to be alone with his loyal friend. All the teasing had embarrassed him. Especially the talk about Helga. He usually didn't mind being teased at the table. He knew it was all in good fun. Every night there was teasing, or bickering, or squabbling about some little aspect of the day. Everyone took part. It was the routine of life at the boarding house. It kept things lively and interesting. And no one ever took it too seriously. It would all be forgotten by tomorrow.

"Still, it's a good thing Helga never heard all that talk about her. She would have been angry for sure. Really angry. I can't imagine what she would have thought of it all. Especially that marriage stuff. That's the last thing that would be on Helga's mind, I'm certain of that. Helga is about as likely to want to marry me as... well, as I would want to follow Oskar's advice."

Arnold glanced down at the pig, who looked back up at his master with his usual adoration.

"You know Abner, Oskar is about the last person anyone should listen to for advice about anything. Especially something as important as who to marry. If Oskar ever tells you anything, the best thing is to do the exact opposite. Marry Helga? She can't even be nice to me!"

Abner grunted his agreement.

"I like what Mr. Hynuh and Suzie said. When it's time, all I want is someone nice. I don't even know what being a 'ladies man,' means."

Sometimes the grownups assumed Arnold knew more than he really did. He was intelligent, and observant. He kept his mouth shut and his eyes open. He had common sense, solid values and a strong sense of right and wrong. But he didn't know everything.

"A ladies' man? Come on. I can't even get Lila to go out with me. I get along fine with most of the girls in class. That is, until I get a crush on one of them. Then everything turns out wrong. All embarrassment and heart break and humiliation. And loneliness."

Arnold sighed. And as for Helga...

Arnold thought again of Oskar's advice about marrying for money. He knew that was wrong. Helga's family might have more money than his, but she sure wasn't happy. Poor Helga. As he sat at his desk and prepared to start his homework, Arnold thought to himself. "Suzie is probably right. I should just wait until the right girl comes along. She must be out there somewhere. I wonder who my 'certain special someone' will be?"

Arnold daydreamed a little. He had idle thoughts of Lila, but knew there was no hope there. "Lila only likes me, not likes-me-likes-me." He thought of some other girls in his class. "Rhonda is too self-absorbed, always talking about her vacations and her clothes. Phoebe is nice, but she uses long words I don't understand, and she talks about stuff that's really baffling. Nadine's always fooling around with those gross bugs. Kinda neat when you think about it, but she's just as obsessed in her own way as Rhonda. Sheena is quiet and she's nice, in a geeky sort of way, but she's the tallest girl in grade four, and I'm just about the shortest guy." Arnold sighed. "You know Abner, I can't imagine myself married to any of them. And that's the lot. Not a lot of choice really. Not a lot of girls in grade four. Oh, of course, there's one more. If you count her as a proper girl at all." Arnold found himself thinking of Helga again.

"Helga? Let's see." Arnold couldn't help remembering Grandpa's jokes. "One thing for sure, Helga sure is feisty enough. I wonder if she can cook?"

Arnold smiled to himself. "Helga doesn't go in for all that 'girly' stuff. She's just not like the other girls. Ever notice Abner, how girls always have some obsession about something. Like Rhonda worries about her clothes. Or Nadine collects bugs. Or Phoebe wants to get good marks. And Sheena wants to help animals. Helga doesn't have an obsession. I'm sure of that. Come to think of it, I bet she's not much for cooking either. Helga's so skinny, she can't spend much time worrying about food. She sure doesn't look like she eats much."

Arnold looked down at his pet. "Can you keep a secret Abner?" Abner grunted consent. "Even though she is skinny and scrawny and too tall, she's not as ugly as everyone says she is. She's even kind of nice looking, sometimes." Abner squealed, as if shocked at what he had just heard.

Arnold sat back with a start and shook himself. "I can't believe I'm thinking that way about Helga. So what if she's scrawny? What's it to me? And there's homework to do." His sense of responsibility came to the fore, and he thrust his daydreams to the back of his mind. "Where do I get such crazy ideas. It must have been all that silly talk at the dinner table tonight. Really, Helga, of all people!" He opened his book and faced the first math problem. Just before he began he had one final thought about his nemesis.

"Suzie said there's someone for everyone. I wonder who Helga's 'certain special someone' will be?" For a moment he tried to imagine a boyfriend for Helga, but he just couldn't do it. Some things are beyond imagination. But Arnold hoped Helga would find him, whoever he was. Maybe she would be happy for a change. She didn't seem to have much happiness in her life. Poor Helga. Arnold shook his head, and began working.


Food and talk go together. Except in the Pataki household. It was a typical evening at the Pataki dinner table. Lots of food, but very little talk. A great deal of loud chewing but very little conversation. There was little to talk about. Certainly, there would be no compliments about the food. Miriam had started making smoothies early in the afternoon, and dinner was undistinguished, to say the least.

For her part, Helga was busy making up for missing lunch, even if the meal was not great. Great gobs of grease ran down her chin as she shoveled in the food. It wasn't that Helga couldn't be a delicate eater when she wanted to. But when your mother doesn't send you to school with a good breakfast, and bungles your lunch, well, you chow down when you can. Dinner was the main meal of Helga's day, and she made the most of it. "Well, at least just one meal a day helps me keep my girlish figure," she muttered to herself. Helga never thought that her poor diet might also contribute to her constipation and her foul temper.

Big Bob belched. "I'm glad Olga is coming home tomorrow. Maybe we'll have some decent grub when she takes over the kitchen. Olga always cooks up a storm."

Helga bristled. She was angry with her mother for not providing a proper lunch for school that day. The poor dinner was adding insult to injury. But to hear Miriam being insulted by being compared to Olga... Well, it was just too much.

"Come on Dad, Mom's had a rough day. Leave her alone."

"Look little lady, I work hard all day to put food on the table. It's not asking too much to have it taste good."

"If it's so important to you, maybe you should cook it yourself. Olga could teach you to make one of her prize winning recipes," shot back Helga. The sarcasm dripped off the edge of her tongue.

"That's enough out of you little missy. If you can't say anything nice at the table, I can always send you to your room."

Helga glowered, but sat and chewed in silence.

Big Bob ruminated over something as he slogged though the mashed potatoes.

"You know Helga, you might have something there. Maybe it is time we had another pair of hands in the kitchen. It might be time for you to start taking some serious cooking lessons. I'll ask Olga to give you some pointers when she arrives tomorrow. You can help your Mom make supper when she's feeling 'under the weather.'"

"Dad, I'm a kid. I've got to study for school. I've got after-school activities and sports to go too. I can't spend all day slaving in the kitchen over a hot stove. You want a slave, let Mom do it. It's her job."

Hearing her name mentioned, Miriam spoke up. "Now Helga, I have a life too, you know..."

Big Bob broke in on his wife. Miriam retreated into silence.

"Now listen here Helga. You're eight years old now..."

"Nine, Bob, I'm nine years old," said Helga with ice in her voice.

"Whatever. It's your job to be a Pataki and help out the family. And learning how to cook will be good for you. You have to help out around the house. You help your mother when she's not 'feeling well.' You'll help me by having a meal on the table when I come home. Learn some of my favorites, like rack of lamb, dumplings, and chicken. And pot roast. Been ages since I last had a real good pot roast."

"What the heck is a pot roast? Is it some sort of animal that you have to kill first?"

"It will teach you self-discipline and..."

As Big Bob rambled on, Helga felt her teeth set on edge. "You know Dad, these days the modern woman has other things to do. I'm going to have a career, and travel the world, and become president. I'm going to eat at the finest restaurants in the world. I won't have time to waste doing stupid, old-fashioned girly girl stuff."

"...and It will teach you a skill you can use for the rest of your life. One day you'll cook for your own family. Maybe it will even help you find a husband. Look at Olga. She's a great cook and she's got all kinds of guys chasing after her."

The mention of her hated rival made Helga grind her teeth. She knew what was coming. Big Bob's endless praising of his favorite daughter.

"Now Olga has lots of other accomplishments, but knowing how to cook is the icing on the cake. Her husband is going to be one lucky bum. Knowing how to cook is always a plus. And lets face it. When it comes to landing a husband, you're going to need all the help you can get. You're not going to win anyone with that nasty attitude of yours, and scowling all the time. The way to a man's heart is through his stomach. If you catch a guy with good grub, maybe you can get him to the alter before he wakes up."

Helga put her hardest sneer in her voice.

"Good idea. He'll be too fat to run away. I'll grab him as he waddles down the aisle."

Big Bob glared at his daughter. "All I know is, it worked for your Mom. She was a great cook when I first met her." Big Bob shook his head. "I just don't know what happened. Guess she got out of practice."

Miriam chirped in again. "Now hold on you two, I do a lot around here, and I don't see too many full plates after dinner.."

"When you can bother to show up and make dinner," growled Big Bob. "You do okay when you try Miriam, but you've gone down hill since we first got married."

Helga was not so much intrigued, but surprised. Surprised Miriam had been good at anything at anytime in her life. "Were you really a good cook when you met dad?"

"Now, Helga, I did a lot of things before you where born. When I was growing up on the farm, I had to help cook dinner at harvest time. All the hired hands would come in from the fields, and they were big, hungry men, and they needed lots of food. I would cook up fried chicken, and heaps of potatoes, and piles of green beans, and fresh bread and pies and cakes..."

Miriam had a dreamy, far-off look in her eyes, remembering better days, when she had been young, and pretty, and the burly farmers had heaped compliments on her cooking. Before she had met Bob.

"And I was famous for my lemon tarts. Sweet but sour at the same time. Oh, they would just fly off the plates."

Big Bob could sense he was no longer the center of attention.

"Yeah, yeah, that's great Miriam. Look, if you want to take a trip down memory lane, why don't you teach the girl how to make something. Like those lemon tarts you're so proud of."

"Dad!" Helga didn't like lemons. Their shape reminded her of Arnold's football-shaped head. She had once knocked over a fruit stand, scattering lemons all over the sidewalk. She nearly had a nervous breakdown as she fled from what her over-wrought mind imagined as dozens of chattering Arnold's, rolling down the pavement after her. "Come on, Dad, it's the start of summer vacation."

"Best time to start," he said. "You've nothing else to do."

Miriam broke in. She had been overtaken with a sudden fit of enthusiasm. "Oh, come on Helga, it will be fun. Just you and me doing a real mother-daughter thing."

Helga groaned. She could tell this was going to be one of those painfully long, embarrassing, mother-daughter things. "But Mom..." Helga whined, but she knew it was no good.

Big Bob rose from the table. "Well, I'll leave you two at it. I'm off to watch 'The Wheel."

Helga muttered to herself. "Not to worry. No way we have all the ingredients. Miriam will give up and go make a smoothie. She always does."

"Oh, look, Helga. We have everything we need for lemon tarts!"

"It's a miracle," said Helga, dripping sarcasm. She settled in for a long evening.

What followed was several hours of slow torture for Helga. Never very domestic at the best of times, she was forced to follow her mother's instructions as she suffered through a baking lesson. To complete her humiliation, she had to wear an oversized apron that tripped her up everytime she walked. Caught up in the moment, Miriam poked and prodded her reluctant offspring.

"That's it Helga. Now roll out the pastry."

"And now just a pinch of sugar. Not too much, or it will overwhelm that sour lemon taste.

"Mom, it's just lemon pudding filling."

"Not the way I make it. Wait till I show you the secret ingredient. That's it Helga, just sprinkle it with your hand, into the bowel."

"Mom, aren't we supposed to measure it?."

"You can if you want to, Helga. But I learned the old fashioned way. Just follow your instincts. Now, how did that recipe go? Oh yes, the secret ingredient. Just a dash now."

"This should be great," muttered Helga to herself. She braced herself for a disaster.

While the tarts baked, the two cleaned up the kitchen. From the living room they could hear the roar of the crowd on the television. Miriam rambled on about growing up on the farm. Helga listened with only one ear. She was trying hard not to become engaged in this waste of time.

"You know Helga, it won't be long before you start taking Home Economics in school. I'm glad we're giving you a head start. And tomorrow Olga will be home, and she's really good. You'll learn so much from her."

"Mom, there is no way I'm taking some 'girly girl' course like Home Ec. I'm taking shop. I can already spot weld better than Dad, and I'm a wiz with the chain saw..."

Miriam burbled on, apparently not noticing what Helga was saying. "Oh, you're so ambitious, so much my little girl with big girl dreams of growing up already..." Helga grimaced. How much more of this could she endure?

The oven bell rang and Helga took out the tray of tarts. As they cooled on the table, they washed the dishes. Miriam prattled on about her childhood, and what fun harvest time had been. Helga barely paid attention. "What a joke," she muttered to herself.

At last the tarts were cool enough to taste. Helga picked one up and gingerly tried it. She had low expectations.

It was good.

No, it was better than good. It was very good. Surprisingly good. Really, really good. The crust was flaky and melted in your mouth. The lemon filling felt sharp on the tongue, but then turned sweet as you held it in your mouth. After you swallowed it left a pleasant after taste. Made you want to take another bite. Helga was reluctant to admit it, but it was... Okay.

"Humph! Well, what do you know. It's not half bad."

"See, your old mother still knows a thing or two. But you did all the work. They're all yours, Helga. You should be proud of yourself."

"Well, that's really great Mom. But it's getting late and it's time for me to turn in. It's been a real hoot. Have your people call my people. Good night."

"But Helga, I thought we could sit and talk..."

With a wave of relief Helga rushed up the stairs to her room. "With any luck, that's the last cooking lesson I'll ever need," she said as she slammed the door to her room. "There's a reason they invented the drive-through window and home pizza delivery! Me!"

Miriam sighed. For just a moment she felt like she might have been close to a breakthrough with her daughter. Sadly, she put the lemon tarts on a plate, and popped them in the fridge.


Much later, Arnold closed his book with a yawn. He had worked longer than he had intended, but he had really gotten into it, and now he was confident he could pass any math test Mr. Simmons could throw at him. He felt weary but satisfied. It had been a good night's work. He would sleep well.

After a quick wash, he changed into his pajamas and prepared for bed. Just as he was about to turn off the light, there was a knock at the door.

"Come in. "

Grandpa stepped into the room, bearing a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. "Hey there Shortman, thought you might like a bedtime snack."

"Thanks Grandpa, but I'm not really hungry."

"I'll just leave this here for you then, in case you get the munchies during the night." Grandpa turned to start back downstairs.

"Grandpa? Can I ask you something?"

"Anything you want, Shortman."

"How do you know when you've found your 'certain special someone'?"

Grandpa sat down. "Is this about what happened at the dinner table tonight?"

Arnold nodded.

"Now Shortman, don't worry about it. We were just teasing you some. You've got lots of time to figure out all that love stuff."

"But how will I know when the real thing comes along? How did you know it was Grandma who was the love of your life? Did you know it the first time you saw her?"

"Heck no, Arnold. Why, when I first knew your Grandmother, she spent years making my life a misery. She teased me something awful. Just like your ugly little friend with the one eyebrow. It wasn't until much later I fell in love with Grandma."

"But how did you know she was the one?"

"That's hard to explain Shortman. It took some time. One day I couldn't stand her, she was teasing me so bad. Then one day she started being nice to me, and I didn't mind her so much. And from then on, things got better and better between us. It just happened. And one day I woke up and realized I liked her a lot."

"But how will I know it when the right girl comes along?"

"Oh, Arnold, you can't worry about things like that. You can't chose who or when. It just happens. You'll never know until it hits you smack between the eyes. Just do like Suzie said. Be nice to all the girls you meet, cause you'll never know who will be the one. Life has a way of throwing you a curve with these things. Anything could happen. The girl for you could be a complete surprise, and sneak up on you unawares. It could be years before you meet her, or you could find her tomorrow. Why, it could even be your angry little friend with the one eyebrow."

Arnold snorted in surprise. "Helga? Not likely. She really hates me."

"Now don't be so sure Shortman. Maybe that's just a mask for what's underneath. Remember, she's young. She might not know how to tell you how she really feels. It takes time to learn how to handle your feelings. Give her a few years, and she could be a very different person. Just give her a chance. Like I said Shortman, you never know. She could be the one you end up married to."

"That ain't going to happen, Grandpa," said Arnold dryly.

By now, Grandpa had a twinkle in his eye. "Oh, but think how cute the two of you would look going down the aisle, with the big wedding and the flowers, and the reception. And the whole town looking on. Betcha the bride will be radiant."

Arnold groaned and made a face.

"Of course, you'll have to wear shoes with high heels, just to dance with her at the reception; she being so much taller than you."

"Come on Grandpa. Stop teasing. That's not funny."

"Here comes the groom, looking like a prune..."

"Stop it Grandpa..."

"Just remember what I said, Arnold. Make sure she's a good cook!"


By now Grandpa was on a roll, barely able to contain his laughter.

"Oh yeah, make sure she can cook, Arnold. Can she make a good pot roast? That's my favorite. Been years since I had a yummy pot roast..." Grandpa's voice trailed off. The chuckling ceased. Arnold felt something was wrong. Then he noticed Grandpa had a sad look in his eye. Arnold grew concerned.

"What is it Grandpa? Is something wrong?"

Grandpa hesitated a second, then spoke.

"Your mother made the best pot roast I ever tasted."

The words hit Arnold like a ton of bricks. A cold feeling came over his heart. Grandpa went on, with a faraway look in his eyes.

"Boy was it good. Melt in your mouth and everything. Course, you were too young to remember. But it was the best that ever was, Shortman."

For a second Arnold didn't know what to say. He felt a tightness in his throat. Then his natural optimism and good nature came to the rescue. Arnold smiled. "Thanks Grandpa. I didn't know that. That's really good to find out."

Arnold thought for a minute. "So Mom was a really good cook then?"

"Heck no! She was a terrible cook! She spent all her time digging on her archeology projects. She had a big team working for her, so she always hired someone to do the cooking. She only knew how to make that one dish. Learned it from her mother. But she made it real good though. Yum-yum."

Grandpa rubbed his tummy and licked his lips, making Arnold giggle.

"Your dad used to laugh about it. He teased your Mom something awful, saying he would never have married her if he had known how bad a cook she was. He didn't mean it though. It was all in fun. Besides, he liked cooking for your Mom. Now, your dad, he was a good cook."

"Really? Dad?"

"Oh sure, you betcha! Your father spent all that time alone in the jungle doing his medical research. He had to cook for himself. So he got good at it. Just lots of practice. Like when I was in the army during the war. In the front lines, you had to look after yourself. Course, all I had to work with was Cham. Roast Cham. Boiled Cham. Fried Cham. Sliced Cham. Cold Cham." Grandpa shuddered. "Boy, that stuff was terrible. Never could make it taste good. But your Dad, he was great."

"Wow. I never knew that about Mom and Dad. That's really funny."

"I guess it's about time you learned stuff like that." Grandpa had a wistful tone in his voice. "Your growing up, aren't you, Shortman?"

"If growing up means I'll have no more problems with Helga, I can't wait!"

"Oh, sure thing, Shortman! Once you're all grown up, you'll have no more problems with her. She'll never bother you again!" Arnold had to wince at Grandpa's teasing.

"Remember, Arnold. Pot roast! Make sure your little friend can cook pot roast."

Arnold smiled. For just a second, he had a vision of a black and white TV show from the '50's. A smiling Helga in a frilly apron putting a big pot roast on the kitchen table for a hungry family. With himself at the head of the table. He shook the image from his head. It was too far-fetched to even think about. Helga, of all people! Cooking for him! Serving him pot roast! That would never happen. Never in a million years. But he had to chuckle. It was just too weird.

Grandpa smiled when he saw his Grandson brighten up. It was safe to go. Arnold wouldn't have any bad dreams tonight. Grandpa closed the door and went down the stairs chuckling to himself. "Pot roast!"

Arnold turned off the light and settled down to sleep. As he let go of the day, a wave of thoughts and feelings and emotions crissed-crossed Arnold's mind, racing towards the oblivion of night. As the mists of sleep overcame him, just before he slipped into unconsciousness, Grandpa's joke broke into his train of thoughts. "Make sure she's a good cook."

Arnold crossed his hands behind his head and gazed up through his skylight at the moon and the stars. He spoke quietly. Abner wasn't quite sure his master was addressing him. "I don't mind being teased. At least not much. I just wish I understood all these confusing ideas. I don't know anything about love. Or marriage. The folks downstairs can have their fun, and tease me, but they're grownups. They understand these things. Or they're supposed to."

Arnold sighed. He was groping to find something he didn't even understand.

"I wish I could talk to someone. Like Mom and Dad." Arnold felt a pang deep inside. Where were his parents? Why did they have to disappear on that mercy flight and leave him behind? Grandpa and Grandma were great, and they had told him many times how much his father and mother loved him. But sometimes the ache would start inside him and nothing could fill it. He felt so alone.

And it was difficult to talk to Grandpa about his parents. Like tonight. Grandpa and Grandma missed his parents too. He was afraid if he brought it up, it would make them sad. Arnold wished he could talk to someone who would understand about how he felt about his father and mother. Someone who was not a relative. It was a touchy subject. He didn't feel comfortable talking about it even with Gerald, and Gerald was his best friend. But there was no one.

If only he could be sure there was someone special out there waiting for him. Someone to be his special friend. A special someone that he could talk to about anything. Dare he think it. Someone to love. Well, that would be a long time in the future. If it ever came at all. Arnold grew worried.

If only he could have a sign. A little ray of hope that he wasn't meant to be alone forever. That somewhere out there in the wide world was someone who needed him just as much as he needed her. Someone who would understand how he felt, because she shared the same feelings as he did. That was what he wanted. He could wait for all the 'romantic' stuff the grownups talked about. All he needed was just a little hint that he wasn't meant to be alone forever. That would do for now. Just a sign.

He tossed and turned. It would be a restless night. His eyes closed and he drifted off, trying to imagine a certain special someone. Arnold could sense she was out there. But he just couldn't quite see her face. Someone who was kind, and pretty, and sweet, and gentle. And if she happened to be a good cook... Well, he wouldn't object.

It took Arnold a long time to drop off to sleep.


Helga sat on her bed, staring at her locket of Arnold. The anger of the day had long since drained away. She looked sadly at the oblong headed lad. "Why, why, why? Why do I keep hurting the one I adore?"

Helga groaned. "If only there was some hope. Some sign that Arnold might one day even begin to take an interest in me. If only I could attract his attention for something positive I've done. Something that would make him sit up and notice me for the right reasons. If only once I could do something that would make him pay me a compliment. One little thing to make me feel good, and give me hope for the future."

"Hey there Helga, are we ready for bed yet?"

Helga groaned inwardly. It was Miriam, breaking into her reverie. "Yes, mother, I'm ready. You can turn out the light any time."

Miriam seemed to want to talk. "So, Helga, how was school today? I was meaning to ask at dinner."

"About the same. Pretty lame as usual."

"Now Helga, you talk as if you don't like it, but you do so well. You get such good marks on all your tests. I just want you to know how proud I am of you."

"It's just a bunch of stupid tests. They can't be that hard, if Curly and Sid can pass them."

"And how are you're friends Helga? Like, now, what is her name? Oh, right, Phoebe. How's Phoebe?"

"Phoebe's fine Miriam," said Helga, trying to be as curt as brief as possible, so as to discourage conversation.

"And how is your little boy friend, now what's he called? Alfred, Alvin..."

"Arnold?" Helga gasped out. Suddenly she dropped her sullen attitude and was alert and wary. Miriam was treading close to her secret.

"Yes, that's it. Arnold. How is he. You know, he's such a nice little fellow..."

Helga figured the best defense would be to divert suspicion. In her best off-hand voice she began to run him down. "Arnold? Him, that geekbait? He's as stupid as ever. A blank, a zero, a buffoon."

Miriam would not be deterred. "Now, now, methinks the lady does protest too much. Sounds like someone has a little crush."


"Now Helga, it's perfectly natural to have a little puppy love at your age. And you can tell your mother, your secret is safe with me."

"First Miriam, there is nothing, repeat, NOTHING between me and Arnold. And if there were, you would be the last person on earth I would tell! Well, maybe second to last. Dad would be first. And Olga. Olga would be second. You would be third."

"Oh Helga, I'm just teasing. But it's all right to like someone. Especially if he's a nice boy like your little friend Arnold. You can't deny he seems very sweet."

Helga grimaced, but she knew she was trapped.

"Yeah, yeah, he's not the worst guy at school."

Suddenly, Helga's Mom seemed to get very emotional. "Oh, my little baby is growing up." Miriam sniffled. "Soon you'll be going out on dates, and you'll have gentleman callers, just like your big sister Olga. And then one day you'll be married, and you'll be gone." Miriam dabbed at her eyes.

Helga groaned to herself. How long would her mother continue to subject her to this humiliation? It was so unseemly. Helga hunched over, her entire body saying, 'don't bug me.'

Miriam got up to go. She knew her daughter. Miriam had wanted to talk, but it was obvious Helga was in no mood. As usual. "Well, I'll leave you now." Miriam was sad. She had so wanted to talk with someone. Just as she reached the door, she heard a plaintive voice behind her.


"Yes dear."

"Do you think I'll ever get married?"

"Well Helga, most people do at some point in their lives."

"But if I do, I will be happy, won't I?"

Miriam, turned to face her daughter. Helga had a worried, yearning look on her face. Miriam realized that for once, her daughter seemed to need her reassurance. It was unusual, and Miriam wasn't sure she could handle it. She felt a little blurry, as usual. Too many smoothies. But she knew she had to try.

"Now Helga, that's really hard to say. It takes a lot of effort to make a marriage work. A lot of work from both people involved."

"But isn't there an easy way? A short-cut. Like if the girl is super beautiful and smart and clever, won't the guy just adore her and be her slave forever..."

"Now Helga, it's not that easy. You think you marry someone, and its all going to be sugar and spice, and then he starts spending too much time at work, and when he does come home he wants to be waited on hand and foot, and you spend all your time cooking and cleaning and doing the laundry and raising the children, never getting any thanks for it, while he spends all his time watching football and stupid gameshows on television and doesn't pick up after himself, and leaves the dishes on the table, and doesn't wash up, and the only time he talks to you is to shout at you and complain that you spend too much time making smoothies and doing community service, which is all his fault anyway, because..."

Miriam stopped abruptly, as if she had suddenly become aware of where she was, and who she was talking too. Faintly, the sound of a studio audience wafted its way upstairs from the living room.

Miriam looked at her daughter. She spoke slowly, and seriously. "Helga, if you don't want to be a slave yourself, you shouldn't want your partner to be one either. What you want is a nice boy who will pay attention to you. He'll notice when you're feeling down. He'll ask if there's anything wrong. He'll listen to you. He'll want to talk to you. If there is one thing that counts in a relationship, it's talking to each other. Everyone has problems. When you're scared, or troubled or lonely, just talking to someone who cares can really make a difference. Sometimes it can make everything better. It really helps to have someone who will listen and sympathize. But it takes a lot of work."

"So what you're saying is, there's no easy way to have a happy marriage."

"Just keeping a marriage together takes a lot of work. As for happy..." Miriam couldn't complete her sentence. In the sudden silence, the sound of the TV downstairs floated up to Helga's room.

"But if both people work at it, it will turn out all right, won't it."

Miriam paused. "Yes, Helga, if both husband and wife make an effort, it will work. The secret is being able to talk to each other. If you can't talk to your husband..." Miriam faltered. "You have to talk to each other. And be open about your feelings. And tell each other about your problems..."

Helga's head drooped. This wasn't very reassuring.

"But be very careful and make sure the man you marry is really committed to making it work. Make sure he really loves you, and cares about you, and will spend time with you and talk with you, and..." Miriam trailed off.

Faintly, downstairs, the sound of the big screen TV could be heard, rising in volume, threatening to overwhelm their quiet conversation.

Suddenly Miriam sat down on the bed and hugged Helga to her. She sobbed, "Oh Helga, please don't ruin your life. Make sure you marry a nice boy. Don't throw your life away on some heartless man who will neglect you, and will never be there for you, and who won't even know you exist. Some ex-jock who will spend all his free time watching TV or playing poker with the boys. Promise me you'll be careful."

"Mom? Are you okay?" Helga was now a little scared. It was not like Miriam to show such emotion. Usually, she was such a muted, placid, disengaged mother.

"Just promise you'll wait for the right man to come along Helga. I would rather you stayed single than marry someone who treated you poorly, or made you feel bad."

"Don't worry mom. I'll never settle for second best. He'll be nice. He'll be the right fellow. Or no one at all."

"You promise?"

"Yes Mom, I promise."

Miriam calmed down. "I'm sure he will be everything you want him to be. He'll be nice, and decent, and gentle, and kind and sweet. I hope he'll be like your little friend Arnold."

Helga squirmed. She could not believe she was talking about Arnold. With her mother of all people.

"Mom, what is it with you? Why are you always talking about Arnold. I don't even like the guy."

"Oh, he just seems so nice, is all. He looks out for you. I like a boy who shows he cares for others. I've noticed the two of you sometimes play together. And you do make a cute couple."

"Really?" For a second Helga forgot herself. The very idea was just too tempting. For an instant her favorite daydream flashed through her mind. Standing at the alter in a gorgeous lacy white wedding dress, with an adoring Arnold at her side. All in glorious technicolor. She could almost smell the flowers. It would be the most expensive wedding ever. And best of all, Big Bob would have to pay for it! But then her natural caution reasserted itself. She summoned up all her acting skill and said in an offhand manner, "Well, there are worse guys I could be stuck with. But I'm keeping my options open. I want only the best."

"Well, I hope you find him, whoever he is. But remember, make sure he's a good listener. Make sure he's someone you can talk to. Good night dear." With that, Miriam hugged her daughter again and left.

Helga sighed. "What was I thinking of, actually asking Miriam for help? It just goes to show how pathetic I am. How pathetic we both are. I'm really my mother's daughter. A total loser."

Miriam was worried. Helga seemed to be even more distant than ever. Helga had seemed jumpy and edgy. Especially when her little friend was mentioned. It had appeared that just for a moment, Helga had been about to open up to her. Miriam had hoped the baking lesson would bring them a little closer, but that had not worked. She went downstairs. She heard the TV in the living room. She thought briefly of going to talk to Big Bob about their troubled daughter. But only for a moment. Then she went to the kitchen and made herself a smoothie.

Helga quickly went to bed. She was disturbed, and it took her a long time to drop off to sleep. That whole last conversation had troubled her. What if she never found the right fellow? What if, heaven forbid, Arnold wasn't the man for her? What if he never noticed her. What if it all went wrong? What if she ended up like Miriam... ? What if, (and Helga shuddered at the thought), what if Arnold turned out to be like Big Bob. No, no, no. That would never happen. Not Arnold.

Helga pulled the covers up tighter around her. The darkened room seemed empty of hope, full of despair. The very idea! That she would talk about her feelings about Arnold to anyone. And to Miriam of all people. Like she would ever talk to her mother about anything important.

But thinking of Arnold worried her. He was still as distant as ever. She just couldn't understand why he never payed attention her. All she wanted was a sign. A little hope that Arnold noticed her, paid her some attention, liked her for something she had done. She sighed. There seemed little chance of that ever happening. He barely even talked to her at all. Helga remembered what her mother had said about being able to talk to your husband. She and Arnold were not very good at talking to each other. A cold feeling gripped her insides. Helga knew she would never be able to talk to Arnold. Not about feelings and emotions. The idea of sitting down and telling Arnold all her problems was totally absurd. It would never happen. Not in a million years. It seemed the only time she ever talked to Arnold was to bully and insult him. "Perfect," she muttered to herself. "You're off to a great start." She closed her eyes and tried to shut out the empty darkness that surrounded her.

It took Helga a long time to fall asleep.


"Wakey, wakey baby sister."

That voice. It grated on Helga as none other. Olga! Olga was home for the summer break. She groaned and pulled the pillow over her head.

"Up and at them Helga. It's getting late. And you've got a cooking lesson today."

Helga started bolt upright. "What?"

"Daddy said he wanted you to have a few cooking lessons. Come on sleepy head, time's a wasting."

By the time Helga made her way down stairs to the kitchen, Olga was already standing by the stove, stirring a pot.

"I'm not doing a thing till I have breakfast."

"And that will give us the chance for your first lesson. No breakfast unless you cook it yourself."

"All I need is a bowl of cereal."

"No, you're going to prepare a proper breakfast."

"Oh come on. What's with you and Dad? Last night he was going on like I could even get a husband by learning to cook. That's malarkey! I'm just a kid. I've got other things to do!"

Olga looked down on Helga, in that superior way of hers that always drove Helga wild with anger. "Now baby sister, it's never too young to start to learn the domestic arts. And daddy's right. The way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Learning to cook could be very advantageous to you. Frankly, you're not likely to attract many gentleman callers with your looks or your attitude. But out there is a perfectly nice, dull little man who is looking for a good meal. And if you are a good cook, your chances of social success rise considerably."

Big Bob broke in. "Now that's good advice little lady. You're going to need all the help you can get to land some sucker. I mean land a husband. And you might as well learn now."

Helga bristled. "Look, I'm just not interested in all this 'girly' stuff."

"Nonsense" said Olga. "An accomplished young lady is master of the domestic arts. Now come here."

Before she knew what was happening, Helga found herself wearing an apron that was too large for her, and oven mitts.

"Now lets begin," said Olga.

Phoebe's phone rang and she picked it up.


"Phoebe! Thank goodness you're there. It's me, Helga!"

"Helga! Where have you been? It's the first week of summer vacation and you've disappeared! You don't call, you don't come to the movies, you don't turn up for baseball at Gerald's Field. It's like you've disappeared off the face of the earth. I've missed you."

"Phoebe, I'm being held prisoner in my own home. Olga's home from college, and she and Bob took it into their tiny heads to teach me to cook. It's awful. We spend every day in the kitchen and it's driving me crazy. And it's not like I'm learning anything. Oh, Pheebs, it's a disaster!"

"Well, Helga, I'm glad to hear you're all right. I was worried you were sick."

"I wish I was sick. Olga is just lording it over me, ordering me around, and making me do all the work. I make stuff, but we never eat it. Olga takes one look at it, says its not good enough, and throws it out. Then she makes me watch while she makes a perfect six-course meal and serves to the family for dinner. Goulash from Azerbaijan or someplace, or Moroccan couscous, and then I have to listen to Bob and Miriam praise her to the skies! While I wash the dishes. Its torture!"

"But Helga, I would have thought learning how to cook would be an enriching experience. Especially as Olga is so good at it. You must have learned a lot."

"Not a thing. Don't want too. Can't be bothered. And even if by some chance I did make something right, Olga would still throw it out, because she'll always think I can't do anything; because I'm her little baby sister."

"You know Helga, maybe if you relaxed a bit, and tried to enjoy yourself, it might be a more pleasant experience for you. It sounds like a great chance to bond with your sister."

"Maybe if I learned something. Maybe if Olga could let up with her criticism. But no! She's always putting me down. She's throws out everything I've made. I'll never be good enough for her."

"Helga, are you sure you're being fair to your sister? I mean, did you really give it a fair chance?"

"Well, okay, so I don't pay attention and I don't really try, and the microwave blew up and then there was that grease fire, but I can't be watching all those pots and pans all the time."

"Wait a second. Does this have something to do with the fire trucks I saw outside your house yesterday?"

"All right, all right, so I almost burned the house down. Who knew making an omelet was so hard!"

Phoebe stared at her phone for a second.

"Well, Helga, all I can say is, if you can't get out of it, just try to relax and enjoy it. I'm sure your family just want what's best for you. They not trying to make you unhappy. And everyone has to learn to cook sometime. Remember what they say, 'the secret ingredient is love.'"

"If I hear that stupid saying one more time, I'll scream. And 'the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.' Olga drives me mad with those."

Helga's voice softened. "Phoebe? Do you know how to cook?"

"As a matter of fact, Helga, I invited Gerald to dinner tonight. I'm serving him a twelve course meal of my own brand of fusion cuisine; combining the best elements of delicate, traditional Japanese dining with down home, stick-to-your ribs, hearty Kentucky mountain vittles. Gerald's especially fond of my possum belly stuffed with collard greens in teriyaki sauce. It's a special recipe of my own creation!"

Helga bristled. Even her best friend was showing her up. She decided to take a shot at her friend.

"Hey, Pheebs. How come you do all the work, and Gerald does all the eating. Why not let him do the cooking for a change."

"Now Helga, it's no chore to cook for someone you like. I enjoy cooking for Gerald. They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. (Helga winced.) And he's very appreciative. He shows his thanks in, er...other ways."

"Other ways?"

Phoebe giggled. "You could say he cooks up a storm in his own inimitable way."

"Really? Like how?"


Helga had never realized before that you can actually hear someone blush over the phone.

"Oh! I hear my mother calling. Gotta go Helga! Good luck with the cooking lessons!"

Helga hung up more disgusted than ever. Even her best friend was ahead of her. And impressing Gerald no end. Why couldn't she impress Arnold like that?

The phone rang.


"Baby sister! I'm so glad I caught you!"

Olga. Helga sighed.

"Just wanted to let you know there will be no lesson today little sister. I was downtown shopping and meet someone and we started talking, and before I knew it, I was running late..."

Helga jumped for joy. No lesson!

"So instead, I am inviting my gentleman friend home for dinner. And I think you're ready to cook a full meal for five. I recommend the meatloaf and mashed potatoes. That's your strongest dish. It will be a great opportunity to practice what you've learned. See you at seven. I just know you're going to make me proud of you. Good luck!" A click, and Olga was gone.

"Crimeny." Helga slammed the phone down. "The nerve of her! I do all the work, and she gets to entertain one of her stupid, mealy-mouthed boyfriends! I bet he's a real throw-pillow too. There's no way I'm doing this. I don't care what trouble I get in!"

Helga sat and fumed for a few minutes. As she began to calm down, an evil scheme began to form. "What if I sabotage this dinner party of Olga's? I make everything wrong, put the blame on her, and make her look bad in front of her new Romeo. Brilliant!"

Helga rushed to the kitchen. No one else was home. A quick trip to the market, and she was ready. By the time her parents came home, the kitchen was full of warm aromas and tempting smells.

"Now this is more like it," growled Big Bob. "Whatever's cooking sure smells good! When do we chow down? I could eat a horse."

"Darn it," said Helga under her breath. "Why didn't I think of that! Horsemeat would have been the piece d'resistance! But what I've got should do!" She laughed wickedly to herself.

"Hello everybody, I'm home." Olga!

In her best phony-prissy voice Helga called out, "Dinner is served. Take your seats in the dining room everyone."

Olga walked into the dining room. "Hello everybody! I've invited an old acquaintance home for dinner."

Helga grinned to herself. "Walk right in, sucker! Hope you brought a stomach pump!"

Olga prattled on. "Come on in and meet the family. Mommy, Daddy, I want you to meet..."

Helga gasped.



"Hey, Helga. How have you been."

"Arnold. What are you doing here!" The panic was rising in Helga's voice.

Olga broke in. "I was shopping downtown and I ran into one of my former pupils from when I was a student teacher at P.S. 118. I was even a tutor for Arnold. So when I saw him today, I just had to invite him for dinner. Besides, it's a chance for Helga to show off her new skills to one of her school chums."

Arnold looked at Helga with a look or respect. Something she wasn't used to getting from him. "You're cooking the whole meal? Wow, Helga. That's really impressive."

Helga didn't know what to say. She tittered nervously. "Arnold, I wasn't expecting...I mean, you shouldn't..."

Arnold gave Helga an encouraging smile. "Your sister was telling me how hard you've been working all week learning to cook. I think you're very brave to cook a whole meal all by yourself. I'm impressed."

"Umm...it may not be up the best. Maybe we should just order pizza."

"Don't worry Helga. It doesn't have to be perfect. I'm just glad for a change from the boarding house. I'm sure you'll do just fine." Arnold couldn't have been nicer.

Helga felt a cold dread grip her heart. She was trapped.

"Come, Arnold, sit down beside me." Olga!

Helga gritted her teeth. It was almost too much. She could feel her anger rise. It was bad enough that Olga had ambushed her. It was bad enough Olga was showing her up. But to use Arnold! Olga dared to do what Helga could only dream of. To invite Arnold to her house for supper! How many times had she secretly dreamed of sharing an intimate dinner with Arnold. Candles in the dark. Music softly playing. Servants waiting on them hand and foot. Arnold holding her hand while he whispered sweet nothings in her ear. And now this. Olga. To casually ask the boy of her dreams to come over for dinner, where she dare not look at him sideways for fear he might catch her. She would have to sit across the table from him. She would have to pretend to hate and despise him, to cover her fearful secret, all the while Olga would be making time with her beloved!

Helga couldn't believe it. She felt like dying. She would be up and down, serving all night, while Olga would be chatting him up. "What are you doing here, Arnoldo? You have a thing for older women, like Olga."

Arnold looked at Helga with a pained look. "Look Helga, I didn't know you would be doing the cooking. I just assumed Olga would cook because she invited me. I'm sorry if I'm making you feel uncomfortable. I didn't intend to make you feel bad. And you should be proud of your sister. She's really nice. I think you're really lucky to have Olga. I wish I had a big sister like her. She's always been really kind to me. I like her. So why don't we try being nice to each other, just for one evening?"

"I do all the work, while you and Olga sit and goof off? Fat chance I'm going to like you or this evening, footballhead! And by the way, it just so happens I'm a great cook. I'm going to knock your socks off, just you wait and see!"

Arnold sighed wearily. "Anything you say, Helga."

"Come on, Helga. Move your fanny. I'm starving." Big Bob again.

As everyone took their place, Helga served the first course, setting a bowel of soup at each setting. Big Bob didn't wait for anyone. He dived right in.

"Hey, not bad," said Big Bob. "Piping hot. Just the way I likes it."

Helga sat down across from Arnold, and watched him out of the corner of her eye. Arnold took a sip of soup. He made a funny face, as if something didn't taste quite right, but after a moment he resumed eating, and finished the bowl. Big Bob was slurping it up. Miriam had made herself a smoothie, and didn't touch her soup at all. Helga made to take a swallow, but put her spoon down untasted. No one noticed the cook wasn't eating her own dinner. Meanwhile, Olga had been burbling on about her day, and all the wonderful shops she had been to. Oblivious, she took up her spoon and took a sip. Olga almost gagged, and dropped her spoon.

"Helga, what have you done to the soup?"

"I made it exactly the way you showed me, Olga," purred Helga. She sounded especially virtuous, because it was true, up to a point.

"Helga, it's vichyssoise! It's supposed to be served cold!"

"Oh, really? whoops, my mistake," said Helga with an uneasy titter.

Arnold noticed Helga seemed nervous. Her early outburst had made him a little annoyed with her. But then he remembered Suzie and Grandpa. He resolved to try to be nice. It was normal to be nervous in front of an audience. And he knew he made her upset. Things had always been like that between them. He had to try to make her feel better. So he smiled, at gestured at the soup bowl. "That's pretty funny. I thought it tasted a little odd. But it wasn't bad."

"Well, I do my best," said Helga weakly.

Next came a salad. It was a simple affair of mixed lettuce, tomato and cucumber.

"Er, Arnold, you may want to skip the dressing," whispered Helga.

Too late. Arnold had poured a big gob of salad dressing from the server. He took a bite. His eyes bulged and his lips puckered. He dropped his fork and drank down a whole glass of water that Helga had quickly poured for him.

"Helga?" Olga was waving a lady-like hand in front of her face, fanning her breath. "Helga, did you put pepper in the salad dressing?"

"Actually, its curry powder. I thought it needed a little boost," replied an increasingly shifty eyed Helga.

"Helga, I showed you how to make a simple dressing of oil, vinegar and basil. There's no curry powder in it."

"Hey, this is great!" Big Bob interrupted. "Who knew salad could pack a punch like that. I could go for this every night!"

It was now time for the main course. Helga nervously set the plates down. By now, Arnold noted Olga had a suspicious look on her face, Big Bob was oblivious of all about him, and Miriam was getting more and more silent. And Helga seemed to be getting more and more jumpy.

"Helga is so nervous she still hasn't taken a bite," Arnold said to himself. "She must have put a lot of work into this. So no matter what, I can't let her be disappointed."

At the same time Helga thought, "Please, please, please, don't let me poison Arnold!"

"Olga!" Helga hissed at her sister as she went to the kitchen. "How could you invite someone home without telling me? This is someone from my class!"

"Oh, Helga, it's just your little friend..."

"Hey Archie, how's that crazy old coot of a grandfather of yours? Is he still above ground?"

"My name is Arnold, Mr. Pataki. And Grandpa's never been better, thank you for asking."

Helga didn't want to let her father talk too much with Arnold. She knew Big Bob didn't care all that much for Arnold and his family. She rushed to get the next set of dishes.

The main course was meat loaf, mashed potatoes and glazed carrots. Really simple, hearty food.

Arnold picked up his fork. He hesitated a bit, but it looked all right. And Big Bob seemed to like it. He was wolfing it down.

"Helga, this is great. And Miriam, you should try cooking like this sometime. Not that usual sludge you serve."

"Uh, what? Where?" Miriam seemed barely aware of where she was.

Arnold was shocked by the brutal manner Big Bob addressed his wife. It was not what he had expected. One of the reasons he had accepted Olga's invitation was to enjoy a real family meal. He had though it might make a nice change from the boarding house, with all the teasing and squabbling at the dinner table. But the Pataki's were way worse than anything he had seen on Vine Street.

Arnold said nothing. He pretended not to notice what was going on about him. But he couldn't help but notice the contrast with his own boarding house table. Sure, there were arguments and squabbles and disagreements. Grandpa and Oskar and Mr. Hynuh and Ernie Potts always found something to bicker over. But for the most part it was all good natured. The give and take of conversation. Arguments and debates over sports and cars and potholes and the day's events. Were the ball players of the day as good as the ones fifty years ago? Would the city council raise taxes again? Would they fix the potholes on the street? Who had a good day at work? Who had a bad day? Making fun of Oskar's latest impossible money making scheme. Being asked to talk about the day at school. Being teased about the girl who teased you. Full of life and fun and love.

In contrast, the Patakis ate in silence, except to say snarky things about each other. The two sisters bickering back and forth. Big Bob's blow hard pronouncements about his store, his sucker customers, his big screen TV. And Olga was continuing to prattle on about her college, her boyfriends, and all the rich and powerful people she knew. He wasn't sure if anyone was actually listening to her, but that didn't seem to matter to Olga. Mrs. Pataki getting quieter and quieter in the corner, hardly eating at all, but taking bigger and bigger sips out of her glass. Arnold didn't know what a smoothie was, but he noticed that the more Miriam drank, the quieter she became. And the angrier and angrier Helga became.

It seemed so different from dinner around the boarding house table. Sure, his folks squabbled and argued, but it was all in good fun. And at least they listened to each other. No wonder poor Helga seemed so nervous. Arnold forgot how annoyed he had been with her, and decided that no matter what, he wouldn't let her down. He would finish Helga's meal, and tell her how great it was, even if it wasn't all that good. And it sure hadn't been up to now.

"Hey, Alfred, dig in while you can." Big Bob broke in.

"Arnold, sir. My name is Arnold," he replied politely.

"Right, Alvin, right. Well, eat up while you can. You look like you could use some fattening up. A few meals like this will put hair on your chest. I bet it's better than what you get at that ratty old boarding house you live in."

Arnold felt the insult, but kept calm. "I've always found that good food and good friends go together," he said with quiet dignity. "It's not where you eat, but who you eat with."

Big Bob glared at Arnold. He could sense that he had somehow been insulted, though he couldn't put his finger on it. He couldn't see what his daughter saw in that orphan. But that was Olga's business. At least Helga didn't care for the boy. Maybe Helga was smarter than he realized. She was sure turning out a better cook than he could ever have hoped.

Arnold was starting the main course. He first tried the mashed potatoes. They were nice and thick. A little too thick. Arnold suddenly remembered when he had been a very young student in pre-school, and he had once eaten some library paste by accident. Strange. The potatoes had that same, thick, pasty taste to them. He tried the glazed carrots next. The carrots were fine. But that glaze. It was very chewy. And sticky. Almost the consistency of...no, it couldn't be.

Arnold took a fork of meatloaf. But he couldn't put it in his mouth. Something was wrong. He could feel it. He politely put down his fork. "Sorry, I guess I'm not very hungry tonight."

"Don't you like it Arnold," said Olga.

Helga winced.

"Well, it is certainly the most distinctive meatloaf I've ever had," said Arnold diplomatically.

"You got that right Andy," piped in Big Bob. "Let's have another slice, this stuff is great."

Arnold could feel Helga's eyes boring into him. He decided to risk it. He took a bit of the meat loaf. To his relief, it seemed rather bland. Hardly any taste at all. No, wait, that wasn't tomato paste mixed in with the meat. It was...tabasco sauce? Helga certainly seemed to have her own unique style when it came to cooking.

"Arnold, how is it?"

Arnold looked at Helga. She seemed to be terribly distressed, staring at him from across the table. Poor Helga. She must have worked so hard. Arnold swallowed hard and took another forkful.

"It's fine, Helga. Just fine," he croaked.

Arnold thought to himself, "I can't let her down. I've got to finish this. Even if it kills me."

Across the table, a wild-eyed Helga prayed to herself. "Stop eating, Arnold. For goodness sake stop!"

Olga got up. She looked a little unsteady. "Excuse me, I have to..." She couldn't finish. She put a hand over her mouth as her face turned a deadly shade of green. She rushed out of the room towards the nearest bathroom.

"Gee, what's wrong with Olga?," said Big Bob.

Helga could take it no more. "Arnold, don't eat too much. Leave some room for dessert!"

Arnold was grateful for any excuse to put his fork down. "Dessert? Great!" Then a thought hit him. "Er, did you make it yourself, Helga?"

Helga laughed nervously. "Nothing fancy. Just a simple lemon soufflé. Hope you like it nice and big, I put lots of yeast in it." Helga paused. Then she panicked.

"Ohmigosh, the soufflé! It's been in the oven too long!"

Helga jumped up from the table and dashed to the kitchen. Arnold watched her in astonishment. He could hear the oven door being opened and her voice. "Thank goodness, its not too late..."


Arnold jumped as the explosion shook the house. The china rattled, the windows cracked, and distant car alarms began to sound.

Arnold ran to the kitchen Through the smoke he saw a vaguely human figure, with what might be two pigtails sticking out at odd angles, covered head to toe with a goo that might once have been soufflé batter.

"Helga, are you all right?"

Through gritted teeth, Helga said, "This evening is over."

From the dining room Big Bob shouted, "Hey, Helga, get your fanny out here. And bring some more of that meat loaf. Now, that's good eating!"

Helga barely had time to start feeling sorry for herself when Olga returned. She still looked green around the gills, but she had recovered enough to look rather angry.

"Little sister, what exactly have you been up to? We practiced all week. You should have been able to handle a simple meal like tonight's. And we had a guest too. What will Mummy and Daddy think when..." Olga stopped abruptly. She was staring at a mess on the kitchen counter. "What's all this," she gasped in horror. One by one Olga picked up a box of curry power, tabasco sauce, pepper, then a jar of library paste, a bottle of non-toxic children's glue and a open can of..."

Big Bob came into the kitchen. "Helga, making you learn how to cook was a great idea. We should have your meat loaf every week. Its terrific. Real down home, stick-to-your ribs cooking. By the way, what's your secret ingredient?"

"...dog food!" Olga turned green, dropped the can and fled the kitchen at full speed. A loud retching sound could soon be heard from the bathroom.

Helga faced her father and meekly said, "The secret ingredient is...love?" She groaned. "Oh, why do none of my evil schemes ever work!"


Some time later, Helga was alone in the kitchen. She stood at the sink, soap suds up to her elbows, washing dishes. She felt miserable. She heard and soft footfall behind her. She turned her head. "Hi, Helga," said Arnold in a quiet, friendly voice, "need any help drying."

"Arnold, you're a guest."

"It's all right. I get lots of practice drying at home." Without waiting for a response, Arnold took a towel, stood beside her, picked a plate from the stack and started drying.

"Your sister finally finished throwing up, and is lying down now. I think she'll be okay with a good night's rest."

Helga bristled. "It's no better than what she desereved. Olga's been badgering me all week with her stupid cooking lessons. I just wanted to teach her a lesson. If I had known you were coming, I would never have done what I did."

"But why did you do it? Do you hate your sister that much?"

"I don't hate her!" Helga's voice grew angrier. She felt trapped by any kind of questioning about her family life. And she didn't want Arnold, of all people, to know how bad it was. "I just can't stand her lording it over me, telling me everything I do is not good enough for her. Not good enough to be a Pataki. You don't know how insufferable she can be, Arnold. You should be glad you don't have an older sister."

"Helga, no matter how bad things are between you, that's no excuse for what you did. You could have seriously hurt your sister. All of us. Food poisoning is very dangerous."

Helga glowered at him. "You don't know what I went through all last week. She was bugging me every second, all week long."

"Then you should talk to her, and tell her how you feel. You could have worked things out. However bad it was, you shouldn't have tried to hurt her like that." Arnold's voice was soft and low. "I think you're really lucky to have a sister. I wish I had a big brother or sister. Someone who wanted to teach me things, like learning to cook. I'd love to do things like that. I know it can't always be perfect, but if things aren't going well, you could try to work out a solution."

"There's nothing to work out," snarled Helga. "I don't want to learn, and that's it. I don't like it, and I won't learn from Olga. You saw for yourself tonight, I'm no good at it."

"Helga, I think you could be good it you really wanted to. But you're so angry at your sister you're not giving yourself a chance to learn properly. All you can think of is how mad it makes you. Maybe if you stopped thinking about your sister, you'll stop being angry and actually learn something useful. I wish I could cook really well. I'd love to make something for my family at the boarding house. It would be a way to show them I liked them, and cared enough to make something special for them. "

"If you say the special ingredient is love, I'll scream."

Arnold put down his towel, the last of the dishes neatly stacked in a pile before him. He faced Helga and spoke in a low, but determined voice. "If you care about other people, if you really love them, then you take care to do things right. And you don't poison them. I bet you could learn how to be a great cook in no time at all. If you stopped being so selfish and self-centered."

Arnold turned away. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go home. To my family. Goodnight, Helga. I hope your sister feels better tomorrow."

And with that, he left the room. Speechless, Helga heard the front door close. He was gone.

The next morning, Helga stayed in her room. She had not had a good night. The morning was little better. Olga came and spent a good long time berating her for her failure at dinner the night before. Only a long planned shopping trip with her parents pulled Olga away. Helga heaved a sigh of relief when her sister finally left.

Helga was alone in the house. Her parents had taken Olga shopping, and for once Helga wasn't jealous. After a few hours of brooding moodily on her bed she grew bored and decided she had to do something. Anything. She wandered down to the kitchen. Olga's cook book still lay open on the counter. No one had thought of putting it away. She turned a few pages idly, until she came on a recipe for oatmeal and raisin cookies.

Helga paused a moment and started reading. "Looks simple enough," she muttered to herself. "Maybe I should have started with something simple, like cookies."

Her curiosity aroused, she poked through the kitchen cabinets, looking for ingredients. For once, everything was there on the selves. Without really considering what she was doing, she put on an apron and took out a large mixing bowel.

Many hours later, a long row of plates, piled with cookies lined the kitchen counter. The first batch had burnt to a crisp. The second was undercooked, gooey and inedible. The third came out as hard as rocks. With the fourth batch, Helga felt ready to take a taste test. She had forgot the sugar. The fifth time she forgot the raisins. Each time she placed the batch in line on the counter. Each batch of cookies jeering at her failure. Each time she started over. Each time, stubborn and angry, she poured over the simple recipe, turning the cook book upside down and sideways, as if she could shake loose the secret of perfection.

And then came the sixth batch. She risked a tiny nibble.

The sixth batch was the worst. The worst batch by far. The worst by any leap of the imagination. The worst beyond any doubt. It was, in fact, a notable achievement. The worst batch of cookies in the whole history of the world. The surface of each cookie was as hard as concrete. The inside of the cookie was a runny, rancid, liquefying glop. The raisins were as shrunken and hard as shotgun pellets. Instead of a sweet and yummy treat for the tastebuds, there was only a bitter and rotten shock to the central nervous system. It was just plain bad. Really bad. Unspeakably bad. So bad, that bad wasn't adequate enough to describe it. A whole new word for bad would have to be invented to describe just how bad it really was. Rat poison would have been tastier. Horse hockey pucks would have been preferable. Drain cleaner would have gone down smoother. Just one little nibble, Helga ran to the bathroom and threw up.

The wave of nausea passed, and her heaving stomach quieted. The green look passed from her face. She washed her mouth out with care, making sure to remove any lingering aftertaste. Who knew cookies could be so tough?

But Helga G. Pataki was no quitter. Her blood was up. The anger and frenzy of the first few skirmishes had faded. This was now a life and death struggle for survival. Beyond angry, she was now entering a state of calm, cold, hate. This was personal. She would have her revenge. "And revenge is a dish best served cold," she muttered to herself. "So be cool, girl, be cool."

Taking her wooden mixing spoon in hand, she faced the mixing bowl. Helga raised the spoon high over her head, like a medieval king rallying his troops to battle with his sword.

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close up these walls with our Pataki dead!" Her eyes blazed. She wanted revenge. She wanted victory. She wanted vindication for herself.

Helga stopped suddenly. She remembered what Arnold had told her the night before. About being selfish and self-centered. Did Arnold really think that of her? What if he was right? Was she letting her personal feelings get in the way of her better judgement? Maybe if she stopped thinking about herself for a change. Just this once, she would bake these cookies as if she were making them for someone else. Someone she cared for. Arnold.

Helga approached the table, warily, but calmly. She looked at the cook book. Then she closed it, and put it on the shelf. If she was going to take a chance, she might as well go all out. Desperate, she would do it the old-fashioned way. She would do it by instinct. The way Miriam had taught her. She cleaned her mixing bowel and her utensils. Adjusted the ingredients. Twiddled the oven settings. And set to work once again.

As the last golden rays of the setting sun slanted through the windows, the fragrant odors of baking cookies filled the house. The kitchen seemed bathed in a heavenly, radiant light. An unnatural hush fell on the room, as if time itself was suspended in suspense. The oven light clicked off. When the bell dinged, it seemed unnaturally loud. Helga startled at the sound. Her mouth felt dry with anxiety. She swallowed hard. Gently, Helga put on the big mittens, opened the oven door and slid out the tray. She placed the tray carefully on the table. She waited for the cookies to cool with growing tension. By the time the cookies were ready for a taste test, the fear and apprehension had formed a knot in her stomach. She picked up one of the cookies. She could feel the warmth through the mitten. She blew gently upon the surface, like an ocean breeze cooling the hot lava of a volcanic eruption. Helga raised the cookie to her lips, and carefully bit into it.

It was perfect.

The oatmeal melted in her mouth. Just sweet enough. The raisins warm and juicy, exploding with flavor when she bit down on them. The oatmeal chewy and flavorful, deliciously rolling over her tongue and teeth, sliding down her throat, leaving a sense of solid satisfaction. You just couldn't eat one.

Helga was in despair.

"Why couldn't it have been like this last night, when Arnold was here?"

She collapsed in a chair. Helga suddenly realized she was exhausted. She had not had anything to eat since breakfast. She had been hard at work all afternoon, and she was tired, hot and sweaty. A fine film of flour lay on her clothes and skin. Her back hurt from bending over and looking in the oven door every five minutes for hours on end. Her knees ached from the constant squatting by the oven door. Her arms throbbed. She had never thought to use a blender. She had used her skinny arm muscles to mix the ingredients herself. If this was victory, it had come at a heavy price.

She put her head down on the table, cradled in her arms. "Now what did all that prove? Okay, I proved I could do it if I want too. But for what purpose? Just pride. My stubborn pride. And Arnold will never know."

Helga looked at the messy table. The kitchen looked just as bad as during the disaster of the night before. The night before? Helga perked up. She suddenly had a brilliant idea. Her oatmeal raisin cookies! Fresh from the oven. Still warm.

"I can take these cookies to Arnold. As a sort of peace offering, making up for last night. He won't suspect a thing. And I can still impress him. I can prove I'm a really good at something. It's perfect!"

Helga dashed upstairs. A quick wash and change of clothes. Then she rushed back downstairs and into the kitchen. She had to hurry. She rooted in a cupboard and found a old, empty cookie tin. She lined it with tinfoil to keep the cookies warm as long as possible. She was running late. In a tizzy, she dashed to the kitchen, grabbed the tin, and scooped the cookies from the counter. The heavenly seventh batch. She snapped on the lid, and a second later she was out the door and on the way to Vine Street.

As she hurried through the gathering dusk, Helga was vaguely aware that it was a shaping up to be a fine, warm night. The heat of the day was giving way to a gentle coolness that felt pleasant on her skin. The last traces of the sun lit up the western horizon in streaks of purple and scarlet and gold. The full moon was just rising in the sky. Grownups were coming out of their houses after supper to sit on their front stoops and talk with each other. Children played in the quiet streets. Songbirds were singing their evening songs. The scent of flowers from window boxes and front lawns and parks wafted through the air. The neighborhood was as peaceful and quiet as it ever could be. But Helga didn't notice. She was going to see Arnold.

Helga arrived outside the boarding house just as the street lamps flickered on. She waited a moment to catch her breath. Then she went up to the front door and rang the bell. She was breathless, and nervous with anticipation. What would he think of her showing up on his doorstep?

The door opened.



"Arnold!," she gasped, "I've brought these cookies just for you!"

"Cookies! Oh Boy! Heh, heh, heh!"

It was Oskar.

"Er, is Arnold home?"

"Hello little girl. I know you! You're Arnold's ugly little friend! Arnold's still in bed. He came home last night not feeling well. The poor boy was in the toilet all night long. Very, very sick. That crazy kid, he probably had too much candy. But that's what crazy kids do. Whoever gave him all that candy should feel very ashamed of themselves. Hurting a nice kid like Arnold! But I'll take those cookies for you. Don't worry, I'll take good care of them."

Before Helga knew what was happening, the tin had been snatched out of her hands, and the door was slammed in her face. Oskar was gone. Through the door all she heard was, "Heh, heh, heh, heh."

Oskar returned to the boarding house kitchen. He still had an hour or two before dinner. He was hungry. Oskar opened the cookie tin.

Helga returned to a still empty house. She closed the front door went into the kitchen. She was worried. What if Arnold didn't get her cookies? Everything would have been all for nothing. A wave of despair settled over Helga. She slumped into her chair. A tray of cookies lay before her. Idly, she stretched out her hand and took a cookie from the tray in front of her. She bit into it. Delicious. "Well, at least I got one thing right today."

"Wait a minute."

Helga suddenly sat up. This cookie tasted...great. It was one of her good ones. From batch number seven. But what was it doing here?

A moment of confusion while Helga searched her memory. She had been in such a rush when she had left. Rushed upstairs to change. Rushed back to the kitchen. Taken the tin down from the cupboard. Swept the cookies from the counter and into the tin...

From the counter.

But the good cookies, the seventh batch, had been on the tray on the table. In fact, it was still there, sitting in front of her. The same tray from which she had just taken a delicious cookie. Which meant...

The tin of cookies she had given Arnold were from the dreaded sixth batch.

Helga groaned. Her one chance to impress Arnold with her cooking. Her one chance to convince him she could do something right. The one chance to make up for what she had done. And she had blown it. Absolutely, completely and totally. She had given him the wrong batch. The batch that was worse than rat poison. The batch that tasted like horse hockey pucks. The batch that made you want to wash your mouth out with soap and water.

"Criminey! What's wrong with me. And I thought I was a loser before. This is even worse! I've poisoned Arnold twice in two days!"

Helga held her head in her hands and sobbed.

Then a new wave of despair washed over her. "Those darned cookies! Oh, it's so maddening, I could die!"

Then a sudden thought crossed Helga's mind. "I could die? Arnold could die! If he eats one of those dreadful cookies... I've got to warn him! I've got to get that tin back!"

Helga shot out her house like a rocket and ran. It was life or death! She raced through the streets, fearing the worst. As she turned the corner on Vine, she felt a cold terror grip her heart.

There was an ambulance in front of the boarding house! It's rear door was open, awaiting a patient. Helga's heart dropped into her shoes.

"Oh no, I've poisoned Arnold! I've killed him. Oh Arnold, Arnold, Arnold..."

The front door of the boarding house opened. Helga scurried out of sight into the nearby alley. Two paramedics bearing a stretcher made their way to the ambulance. Suzie walked along, holding the hand of someone lying on the stretcher.

"Oh, Oh, Oh, I'm going to die. Oh my tummy. Why did I ever eat those cookies."

Helga peeked around the corner. It was Oskar! Oskar was on the stretcher!

Suddenly Arnold came out of the house. He was talking with a paramedic.

"Do you know what Mr. Kokoshka was eating today?"

Arnold sighed. "There was an empty tin on the kitchen table. Mr. Kokoshka said they were full of cookies and he was hungry and he ate them all. He tends to be that way. A little greedy when it comes to free food."

Oskar spoke up. "There was something wrong with those cookies. I've been poisoned I tell you. They were the worst cookies I've ever tasted."

Suzie broke in. "But Oskar, why did you eat them all if they tasted so bad?"

"Because I was really, really hungry. I just gobbled them down. The pain didn't start until I finished the last one."

"Oh, Oskar!"

"Sounds like a classic bellyache to me," said the paramedic. "Don't worry mam'm. We'll pump out his stomach at the hospital. He'll be home in no time."

On the stretcher, Oskar writhed in agony. As he passed by, he saw Arnold and he cried out in anguish.

"Arnold! Listen to your friend Oskar! Whatever you do, don't marry that girl!"

Helga perked up her ears. What was this about Arnold and marriage?

"Mr. Kokoshka, what are you talking about."

"Arnold, listen to me, don't marry that girl. The one who left the cookies. She's the worst cook in the whole world. Don't marry her! Even if she is rich."

"Mr. Kokoshka, who are you talking about?"

"The crazy rich girl who left the cookies. That skinny, scrawny, ugly little friend of yours. She poisoned me! She's the the worst cook in the world. Don't marry her Arnold, no matter how much money she has."

A shock of recognition lit up Arnold's eyes.

"Helga? You mean Helga? Mr. Kokoshka, that was just joking around the dinner table the other night. And I really don't think Helga's rich. She has an big sister. Olga will probably inherit the beeper stores. She's the oldest."

"What! You mean she's not rich? She's crazy, ugly, scrawny, too tall, looks mean, has no money, and she can't cook! Listen to me Arnold, you stay away from that girl. And don't ever, ever marry her. You're one crazy kid if you do."

"But Mr. Kokoshka, I never said..."

Suzie broke in. "Oh be quiet Oskar, and let the paramedics do their job. I'm sorry Arnold, he's just a little goofy from the pain."

"Stay away from her Arnold, if you value your life! Oh, Oh Oh my poor stomach."

Arnold rolled his eyes.

Helga's jaw dropped. She really didn't understand what all that had been about. But it didn't sound good.

Sad and dispirited, she turned homeward.


Helga reached home and walked into the kitchen. It was a mess. There was a note on the kitchen table.

"Dear Helga, Came home while you were out. Dropped off the shopping, and now I am taking Mummy and Daddy out for dinner. Sorry you could not join us. Daddy was really hungry and ate all the cookies you left on the table. He said they were delicious. See you later tonight. Luv, Olga. P.S. Daddy says to clean up the mess."

Helga groaned. All that effort for nothing! Life was so unfair! Why did none of her schemes ever, ever work? She grabbed a broom and started in cleaning.

An hour later, the kitchen was spotless, and Helga collapsed on a chair. She was too fatigued to do more. She was tired, hungry and depressed. What a lousy day! And what exactly had Mr. Kohoshka been talking about back there at the boarding house? What had he meant? More important, what did Arnold think? That is, if he thought about her at all.

"Face facts Helga. Arnold doesn't even know you exist. He ignores you all the time. He's never given the slightest sign of any interest in you. And trying to impress him with your cooking was a total waste of time. I'm no cook. I'm a total idiot. After the past few days, Arnold will never notice me now. It's hopeless. Utterly hopeless."

The door bell rang.

Helga went to the door and opened it.


Helga gasped in surprise. Arnold was standing on her doorstep!

"Hi Helga. I brought back the tin you left at our place."

Before she could think, Helga blurted out, "Won't you come in?"

Arnold was wary. "I don't think so, I don't want to be late for dinner."

But there was something about Helga tonight that made him hesitate. She was standing there, looking terribly sad and forlorn. It looked like Helga was having a really bad day. He knew it was a risk dealing with the unpredictable girl. But there was something about her that touched his heart. She really did look all done in.

"Well, maybe I could stay just a little."

Helga brought Arnold into the hallway. She was now glad she had cleaned up. But she was now secretly fuming. Her fabulous raisin cookies were gone. She had nothing to offer him. She felt bitter.


Bitter! Of course! The lemon tarts!

She led Arnold into the living room and showed him the couch. "Have a seat Arnold, I'll get us some snacks."

Helga went to the fridge and found the plate of lemon tarts sitting in the back. She silently thanked Miriam for forcing her to take that first cooking lesson. She poured two glasses of milk, put them on a tray with the plate of tarts, and brought them to the living room. She set the tray down on the table. Arnold seemed a little surprised by such hospitality, but dutifully took one tart and nibbled on it. Helga looked on anxiously.

Arnold finished his tart and swallowed some milk. He suddenly realized he was more hungry than he had thought. After all, he had not eaten since last night. He took another tart. As he munched, a little dollop of lemon filling squirted out. It clung to the edge of his mouth, without his noticing. Helga couldn't help but stare at it. "These tarts are tasty," he said.

"Do you like them? I made them..." After a moment Helga added, "...with my Mom."

"That sounds like fun. Making something with your Mom."

Helga made a small face.

"And thanks for the cookies."

"Did, did you have a chance to try one," said Helga tentatively.

"Well, actually, to tell the truth, I never got a chance. They kinda disappeared very quickly. They must have been very good, they disappeared so fast."

Helga sighed with relief. Arnold had not been poisoned. No harm done, so there was no need to tell the truth.

"Mr. Kohoshka sure thought they were great. He scoffed down so many, he got a tummy ache. Serves him right for being so greedy."

"This Mr. Kokoshka, he's one of your boarders? He's the one I left the cookies with."

"Then that explains why no one else had a chance. I'm sorry I never got to taste them. I'm sure they were great. You must have been very proud of them if you were giving away free samples."

Arnold continued to nibble away. Helga continued to stare at the lemon filling on the corner of his mouth.

Helga sighed. "I was just showing off. After that awful dinner last night, I just wanted to let you know I could do something right. I had worked so hard at it..."

Helga paused. Arnold was munching away, and looking at her with a serious look on his face. Helga suddenly realized that he was hanging on her every word. She had always wanted to have Arnold's undivided attention. She realized that she had to tell him the truth. "Arnold, the fact is I'm a terrible cook. Just awful. I hate cooking. And I hate my family. Olga was trying to show me up and was making me feel stupid. And I was angry with Dad, and annoyed with my Mom. And that lead to my making mistakes."

"Helga, maybe you're letting your feelings about your family cloud your judgment. Maybe you're better than you think. And maybe your family were just trying to help you. I mean, everyone has to learn how to cook sometime."

Helga grew sarcastic. "Oh hey, like Mr. Perfect Arnold is going to be a master chef when he grows up."

"Well, I don't know about that. There are lots of things I could be when I grow up. But at least I know how to make more than a peanut butter sandwich. Grandma isn't always around to cook for us, so she showed me how to make an omelet, and how to make spaghetti and hamburgers and other simple stuff. And I can microwave a bowl of soup when I have to."

Helga was puzzled. "Don't you think that's kind of like, you know, 'girly stuff.'

"Well, Mr. Hynuh is a professional chef. That's his job. And he's really good at it. He taught me how to make tacos. The secret is first you put in the meat, then the tomato, then the cheese. Then my father had to cook for himself a lot when he was out exploring the jungles for medicines. And Grandpa was an assistant cook when he was in the army. And he was a war hero. You can't be more of a 'tough guy' than that. It's just a skill like any other. Like learning to type or change a flat tire. Anyone can learn. Besides, I kind of like it. One day I'd like to make a really good meal for all my friends and invite them over. You will come of course. I have to invite you, after eating at your place."

Helga softened. If it was all right for her Arnold... "Maybe you're right Arnold. I guess it's how you look at it. Maybe I was just angry because I felt my folks were pushing me into it. Maybe I should give it another go."

Arnold continued to munch away. Helga was getting a little bothered by that smudge of lemon tart on his lips.

"And I know I can do better than last night. I spoiled that meal because I was so angry." Helga thought to herself. "Maybe Olga was right. The secret ingredient is love." She caught herself. She loved Arnold, she had made the raisin cookies for him, but that had been a disaster. No matter what she did, it always turned out wrong. No, she would never win him with food. She had been an idiot to think so.

Arnold saw Helga was turning very quiet. He thought quickly of something to get her talking. He didn't want her to brood. "So Helga, do you have a favorite recipe? I mean, if you could make anything in the world, what would it be."

Helga really couldn't think of anything. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe something my dad would like. Then he would leave me alone. Rack of lamb. Dumplings. Pot roast."

Helga looked up. Arnold had stopped chewing and was staring off into space. She felt a little panic. Had she said something wrong?


He turned and faced her quietly. "What a coincidence. Grandpa told me just the other day that my mother made a great pot roast." Arnold turned and stared off at some point far off in the distance, and for a brief second Helga caught a glimpse of something deep in Arnold's heart. Then she remembered.

"Arnold never, never, never talks about his parents," she thought to herself.

Helga suddenly realized that Arnold had mentioned both his mother and father. To her. For just a second she had glimpsed something deep inside Arnold's heart. Something very personal, and sensitive and guarded. Something he never shared with anyone. And he had shared it with her! She felt humbled. And she realized, perhaps the trite old saying was true after all. "The way to a man's heart..." Just not in the way most people usually thought it meant. All this talk had lead her to Arnold's deepest, most private feelings.

For the first time, Helga realized just how lonely Arnold must get sometimes. She thought, "He must really miss his parents. And not having any brothers or sisters. And here I've been all this time thinking only about myself. Thinking about my own problems, but not about his problems. Thinking about my happiness, but never his. Oh, I'm just self-centered and selfish. And I'm rotten at being sympathetic. I'll never be able to make him happy."

Helga felt badly for a second, but realized there was someone else who was even sadder sitting right next to her. She had to do something. "You know Arnold, you're lucky you have a nice memory of your mother. She sounds like a really great person. You can be very proud of her. I wish I could be proud of my mother like that."

Arnold looked at her sadly.

"I know you don't always get along with your family, Helga. But at least you have a family. You still have a chance to talk to them. You can do things with them, and make things right. Don't waste that chance Helga. Someday, they might not be there any more."

Helga was quiet. She didn't dare speak.

"You know Helga, I always thought having a family was kinda special. I know it can't be perfect every day, but at least if things go wrong, you can talk to your folks and do something about it. I think you're very lucky you can do that. I wish I could talk to my parents when I have a problem. But I can't. They're gone. Grandpa and Grandma are great, but I have to be careful with them. They're old, and I don't want to burden them too much."

"Do you think of your parents a lot?" The question slipped out before Helga realized she had even said it. Helga couldn't believe she was talking with Arnold about something so private and important.

"I keep pretty busy, what with school, and sports, and friends and all. So I don't think about them all the time. But I know they will always be there for me. Sometimes, late at night when I can't sleep, I get sad thinking about them." Arnold looked down. "Then I miss them very much," he said in a soft voice. "Sometimes I feel so lonely it really hurts, and I'm afraid I'll never find out what happened to them. And I'm afraid I'll never find anyone who will love me like they did."

Arnold hung his head, looking sad and mournful. Helga thought he was about to cry. Without thinking, she leaned over and put her arms around him and gave him a hug. Surprised, Arnold turned to face her. For just a second, she hesitated. Then she put her hands on both sides of his face, pulled him to her, and kissed him.

The fleck of lemon tart was still hanging on the corner of Arnold's mouth. Helga's lips smushed it, smearing lemon filling all over his chin. Arnold's eyes bulged in surprise, frozen in total amazement. For just a second, there was a sharp, sour taste. But he did not draw away. The tart sourness made his lips pucker. And then came a surge of sweetness he had never known before. All he could think was, "Wow! She sure tastes lemony."

And for the rest of his life, whenever he tasted, or smelled, or even thought of lemons, Arnold would think of Helga.

Shocked at her own boldness, Helga let go of Arnold and faced forward, her hands clasped around her tightly closed knees, staring straight ahead. She didn't dare look at him.

Arnold looked at her in surprise, his mouth hanging open, his eyes wide. The lemony taste lingered on his lips. Then he smiled. He put his arms around her, and gave her a hug, squeezing as tightly as he could. Helga almost melted with pleasure.

After a few seconds, Arnold finally let her go. Helga, wished it could have gone on forever. But now neither one knew what to say. By some mutual consent they decided it would be just too awkward to mention what had just happened. It was too much, too soon. Feeling embarrassed and blushing bright red, Arnold said the first thing that came into his head.

"You know, Grandpa told me a funny thing about my parents the other night. It turns out my Mom wasn't that good a cook. But my Dad was a great cook. He liked to make dinner for her all the time."

"Really?" Helga perked up her ears. "Your Dad made dinner for your Mom?"

"Yeah, I guess it was a way for him to show how much he cared for her." Arnold smiled. "I think it would be kinda nice to do that for someone you really liked."

"Wow. I guess married people do things like that." Helga gazed at Arnold with a dreamy look. Maybe she would never have to learn how to cook after all. Arnold would do it. "If my husband ever did that for me, I'd think he was the greatest."

Arnold looked at her and smiled. "I'm sure he will someday."

"And maybe someday someone will make pot roast for you," said Helga.

"That would be nice."

"You've never had it?"

"No. Grandma never makes it. Guess it brings back too many memories."

Arnold resumed chewing. He seemed thoughtful. Now it was Helga's turn to distract him. "I hope you get to try it some day, Arnold. If I knew how, I would make it for you. But I'm not the world's greatest cook." Helga sounded a little sad. "Probably never will be any good at it. Guess I'll never learn."

Arnold smiled. "Helga, I think you'll learn when you decide you want to learn. You're not the sort of person who will let others force her to do something. Bit I'm sure you can succeed at anything you put your mind too. You're very smart. And don't forget. No matter how bad you think you are, you're bound to be an improvement over boarding house food. That's what I've had to eat my whole life."

Helga laughed. "You'll be my first dinner guest when I learn how."

"It's only fair. You can laugh at my cooking when I make hot dogs for you next Saturday. You have to come over for supper. We put the grill up on the roof and eat hot dogs and hamburgers right under the stars. You'll like it. You'll come, won't you?"

Helga's heart jumped for joy. "Sure," she burbled.

"I should warn you though, some of the boarders might tease us a little."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, they might say you're my girlfriend, or that you're my sweetheart, or that I really like-you-like-you. Don't pay them any mind. They just like to rib me. It's really embarrassing, but I have to put up with it because, well, they're like my family."

Helga gurgled, uncertain how to respond. Finally, she forced herself to say, in a nervous voice, "Well, I know all about families making things uncomfortable."

"We'll just ignore them."

Helga grew bold. "Wouldn't it be a laugh though if we acted like a couple in love. They would be so surprised at how sophisticated we were."

Arnold looked dubious. "But then they would expect us to hold hands, and sit in the moonlight, and kiss goodnight, and all that yucky romantic stuff. Wouldn't that bother you?"

"Not if we could fool them. It would be a great joke on them."

Arnold looked at Helga, rather bewildered. "You really have a strange sense of humor!"

Helga looked at him with a wicked gleam in her eye, and said in a slow, deliberate voice, "Arnold, you have no idea how far I can go to fool someone."

Arnold smiled. "I guess not. The more I get to know you, the more surprising you are. I bet you still have a few surprises for me."

"Someday soon Arnold, you'll know everything there is to know about me. I promise."

For a short while, the two sat side by side, not saying a word. Helga's promise hung in the air between them. Arnold had a feeling she really would have a surprise or two for him sometime in the future. But he couldn't imagine what it could be.

Arnold brushed some crumbs from his sweater and stood up. "Well, I better get going. It's getting late." He turned to look at her. "It's been nice talking to you," he said with a smile. "Really nice."

Helga realized suddenly that she and Arnold had been talking to each other for a long time. Talking naturally and easily about all sorts of things. About their families, and their troubles, and what had happened to them during the day, and their feelings. Just like Miriam had described. Helga couldn't believe Miriam had been right about something. It was just like they were a... couple. "Oh, if only I could tell him I how really feel," she thought to herself.

It was almost dark out. As Helga walked him to the door, she remembered Oskar's warning to Arnold as he was being carried away on the stretcher. She could sense Arnold was relaxed, and in a thoughtful mood. She decided to take a risk.

"Umh, Arnold. About the boarding house guests. What's Mr. Kokoshka like? I mean, do you listen to him a lot."

Arnold reached the bottom of the steps, turned and looked up at her. He looked serious. "Helga, let me tell you about Oskar. I don't know what he told you when you came to visit, but I've found by experience that if he tells you something about anything, it's best to believe the exact opposite. I really mean that. If Mr. Kokoshka says something is black, I know that it must be white."

Helga thought about what Oskar had said about her being skinny, and scrawny and ugly and crazy. "So if he told you that someone, say some girl you knew, was crazy..."

"I would say she was a very sane, intelligent, level-headed person."

"And if he told you she was skinny and scrawny..."

"I would think she was slim and graceful..."

"And if he told you that your friend was ugly..."

"Then I would know, beyond any possible doubt, that my friend must be very beautiful."

Helga thought of Oskar's warning to Arnold. About never marrying the girl who cooked the awful cookies. "And if Mr. Kokoshka gave you a specific piece of advice, and warned you to follow it at all costs..."

Arnold looked a little puzzled. This conversation seemed vaguely familiar to him. He couldn't quite remember where...but he saw that Helga was waiting expectantly for an answer. He noticed she seemed very, very interested. "Well, as a general rule, if Mr. Kokhoshka tells me to do something, then I think it would be best to just do the opposite. I never do what Oskar tells me to do."

Helga thrilled inside.

Arnold noticed Helga waver unsteadily on her feet for a second, grabbing hold of the door frame. Arnold put out his hand, took her by the arm and steadied her. "Helga, are you all right?" Helga could hear the note of concern in his voice. Helga felt like she would melt with happiness. For just a second she wavered, wanting to throw her arms about him and give Arnold the hug of his life. But her reserve and caution rose to the fore. It was too much, too soon. Besides, there was next Saturday.

"I'm okay," she whispered hoarsely. "I'll be fine. Just a little tired." Arnold gently let her go. He noticed that for once, Helga didn't seem to mind his holding her arm. He hesitated a minute, then stepped back. It seemed like he wanted to stay.

"Goodnight Helga. I hope everything works out okay with your family." Arnold hesitated. "See you next Saturday?"

Helga felt a thrill go through her. Arnold wanted to cook for her! Just like his Dad had cooked for his Mother. Just as if they were married! One more thrill like this, and Helga knew she would just faint with happiness. "You're on. Just make sure you have lots of hot mustard!"

Arnold smiled. "Of course, Helga. Hot mustard it is." He turned at the bottom of the steps and looked back at her. "I should of known...", he smiled. "...that you would like it spicy."

Arnold walked down the sidewalk a little way, then turned to wave good-bye. Helga was still standing in the doorway, the street lamps making her look soft and pink and golden in the gathering dusk. She waved to him. "Good night, Arnold. Sweet dreams."

As he walked away Arnold thought to himself, "What a funny thing for Helga to say. She seems happy about something. Very unlike her. And that kiss. What was that about?" For just a moment, Arnold's mind toyed with a very strange idea. "Maybe, just maybe, Helga likes me. Maybe she likes me a lot. Maybe she really, really likes me. Maybe she even 'likes-me-likes-me'." Arnold paused. "No, it can't be. That's too far out. We were talking about our families, and we got all emotional. I guess she just felt sorry for me."

It was funny though. Talking about his parents had made him feel a lot better. And to think he had talked about his parents to Helga, of all people. She had actually listened. She had been sympathetic and kind. Nice even. Hard to believe. And that kiss. Ever since that kiss, he hadn't felt blue at all. Very strange. Arnold started home with a spring in his step.

Helga watched from the front door until Arnold was out of sight. Her heart was soaring. All the cares and despair of the day had drained away. It could not have ended more perfectly. Somehow, her beloved had known just the right things to say to cheer her up. Of course, she had tricked him. Or at least not been entirely honest with him. She had overheard Oskar and Arnold at the ambulance, and Arnold had no suspicion at all. But he had been honest and direct in his replies, as he always was. He had told the truth. And he had hugged her! And that kiss!

Helga sighed deeply. Arnold was the sort of person who would always do and say something nice. He was nice to anyone. Of course he would be nice to her. That didn't mean he loved her. "If only I could be sure of his feelings for me. If only I could have a sign, that deep down he really 'likes-me-likes-me'." She put the dishes on the tray.

"Everything would have been perfect if I had been able to impress Arnold with my cooking. That would have been a knock out blow. He would have seen I was smart and competent. But let's face it. I'm no good at this cooking stuff. I'll have to find some other way to connect to Arnold. Oh, if only that stupid dinner had turned out right. If only he had tasted those divine raisin cookies..." She took the tray into the kitchen.

"If only I could have proved how good I was. I bet I could have swept him off his feet. And I was so close!" Helga sighed sweetly. She felt very, very tired. She put the glasses in the sink.

"And if only Arnold could have shown me somehow that he really liked me. A sign that he thought I was special and great and smart and wonderful. Proof that he really liked me, and thought I was the greatest." She sighed yet again. "Well, I guess you can't have everything." She reached out for the plate, to put it in the sink.

Helga froze.

The plate was clean. Empty. Not even a crumb. All the lemon tarts were gone. Arnold had scoffed the lot!

A few minutes later, Big Bob and Miriam walked into the kitchen. The fragments of a plate lay scattered on the floor. Also on the floor was their daughter. Helga was lying in a dead faint, a huge smile on her face, with just a trace of lemon filling dribbled on her chin.

After a few seconds, Big Bob growled, "I ain't even gonna ask."


A few hours later Miriam was about to make herself a smoothie. She heard a voice behind her.

"Mom, could you teach me how to cook? Properly? I really got to learn."

"What, now? It's rather late you know." Miriam was startled. This was all a little more attention from Helga than she was used to.

"Mom? Even a little bit. Maybe make lemon tarts again?" Helga looked imploringly at her mother.

Miriam softened. She didn't understand Helga's sudden interest in the domestic arts. But it was a chance to spend some time with her daughter. Perhaps she should grab it while she could. "All right, little lady. If that's what you want, that's what you'll get. Lemon tarts it is."

"And tomorrow, could we try something else? Something really good? Something that can't miss? Because I want to invite a friend of mine over for dinner sometime soon, but I don't want him to come over until I can do it right."

Miriam looked at her daughter. "O-kay," she said slowly, in disbelief. "This friend, it wouldn't be your little friend Archie, would it?"

Helga blushed, but for once she wasn't angry. "Yes, Mom. Arnold. And I really, really want to learn. I've decided to set my mind to it."

Miriam smiled. "Well, Helga, I've got a few can't-lose recipes I can pass on to you."

"Great, Mom. Say, were you really that great when you were young."

"You know Helga, when I was growing up on the farm, I had to cook for all the hired help at harvest time. Dozens of big, hungry field hands who spent all day in the field, and when we rang the dinner bell, they had huge appetites. You really had to know what you were doing."

Miriam spoke with growing enthusiasm. She was starting to get excited. She was going to do something with her daughter.

"And you know Helga, I was famous for my rack of lamb. And my baked potatoes. And my apple pies. Oh, and my fried chicken. That was a favorite. I won first prize at the county fair three years in a row. But my absolute favorite recipe was given to me by my grandmother, and you know, maybe it's time to pass it on to you. And it's really easy. You can't miss."

"Really, Mom, what was it!"

"Pot roast."

Helga gasped, stunned. "No way! Mom, that's incredible! Teach me that one first!"

"Well, if you want to. Sure. Let's see. We'll need some pots, and some pans, and something to mix the secret ingredients..."

Miriam's eye fell on the still full blender. She picked it up and poured out the smoothie into the sink.

"This will do for mixing. After we rinse it. You know Helga, it's very important in cooking that everything be absolutely clean. A good cook keeps the kitchen spotless. Oh, and tell me more about your little friend Andrew..."


"Arnold? Can I come in?"

"Hey Grandpa."

Arnold sat up in bed and clasped his hands around his knees. Grandpa sat on the edge of the bed.

"I was wondering why you skipped supper tonight. You're not sick are you?"

Arnold grinned sheepishly. "I wasn't hungry. I guess I spoiled my supper. I was over at Helga's house, and she gave me a whole plate of lemon tarts she had baked. Before I knew it, I ate them all."

"She must be one heck of a good cook! Maybe you should marry her after all," Grandpa teased.

Arnold looked thoughtful. For once, Grandpa noticed Arnold was reacting to his joshing without blushing, or looking embarrassed. "Arnold, you look like a man with something on his mind. What's up?"

"Well, it was really strange. While I was at Helga's, she fed me those tarts she had made herself. Then we talked about a lot of personal stuff. Like the trouble she's having with her family. And how I miss my parents. And how we get to feeling lonely sometimes." Arnold hesitated. Grandpa could sense he was gathering up the nerve to say something else.

"Then she did something really strange. Just as I was starting to feel kind of blue, she kissed me. And she didn't get angry or anything, like she usually does. You know Grandpa, I'm beginning to wonder if Helga really hates me as much as she says she does. She's so hard to understand. Do you think maybe, just maybe, Helga might like me a little?"

Rolling his eyes, Grandpa slapped his forehead. He muttered, "Guess the lad isn't growing up as fast as I thought he was." Then he saw his grandson was still waiting for an answer.

"Well, I don't know, Shortman. Women can be tricky. Lets look at the evidence. First she feeds you a bunch of good stuff to eat, then she tells you all her innermost feelings, then she listens to you talk like an idiot for hours, hanging on your every word, utterly entranced by all your secret thoughts, and then she gives you a big, wet, fat, sloppy kiss! Yep! It's a mystery! No way to figure her out. Oh, if only you had some sort of sign! The smallest of hints. But then she goes and baffles you with lemon tarts and big, slobbering kisses. Yes sir! Can't tell anything about a girl when she keeps kissing you. Cheese and crackers! It's complete and total baffling bewilderment! Absolute confusion! And she won't give you a clue? Which means Arnold, my lad, that you really are clueless!"

Arnold looked confused.

Grandpa chuckled. "Don't worry about it Arnold. You'll figure her out one day." Grandpa got up to go. Just as he went out the door, he turned and looked at Arnold. "Just one thing, Shortman. What did you do when she kissed you?"

Arnold blushed. "Well, I was so surprised, I didn't really do anything."

"What, nothing?" Grandpa seemed surprised. And a little disappointed.

Arnold thought for a second, then slowly added, "Well, actually, I gave her a hug." He grinned sheepisly.

Grandpa chuckled. "Not bad for a start, Shortman. Not bad. You're definitely starting to grow up." As he started to go out the door, Grandpa turned. "But the next time she kisses you, try kissing her back. Then see what happens!" Grandpa closed the door. Arnold could hear him laughing all the way down the stairs.

Arnold turned off his light and settled down. He stared up at the night through his skylight. He felt a host of emotions whirling through his heart.

As Arnold snuggled deeper into his bed, he could still taste the lemon tarts. Lemon. Sharp and sour at first taste. Very crusty. But suddenly the hidden sweetness would explode on your tongue. So very, very sweet and satisfying in the end. Like a certain girl he knew. Very crusty and sour when first encountered. But turning sweet if you gave her enough time.

Arnold yawned. He couldn't quite believe he could think of Helga like that. Better not let her know. She would be so angry. So upset. Arnold sighed. Maybe if he just waited a little, the sweetness in her would come out. Like a lemon tart. Just give her time.

It had been an eventful day. First Oskar, then Helga. All that fuss over Oskar. He smiled. Oskar and his ridiculous advice. No wonder Helga had needed reassurance. He closed his eyes. "Wait a second! How did Helga know about Oskar's advice? She wasn't there!" Arnold sat up and scratched his head. "What was it Oskar said? 'Arnold, whatever you do, don't marry that girl...' What a strange thing to say." Suddenly Arnold sat bolt upright, his eyes bulging in horror. "But I NEVER do what Oskar says! I always do the opposite, which means..." His mind spun around and around. "Me and Helga?"

Arnold thought of Helga. Of how happy she had looked as she said good-bye to him. How nicely they had talked to each other in her kitchen. How they had talked about their families, and the problems they both faced. She seemed to understand about problems. And talking about your problems somehow made them seem smaller, less oppressive. And he thought about the lemon tarts she had given him. The hug. That kiss. He still couldn't quite believe it. He calmed down, and snuggled under the blankets. Somehow, Helga didn't seem as threatening as she used to be.

Arnold lay on his back staring at the starry night through his skylight. He locked his hands behind his head and let his mind wander.

"I can still taste those lemon tarts. Helga must be a really good cook. I would never have guessed that in a million years. Just when you're about to give up on her, she does something that takes you totally by surprise. I bet she's just full of surprises. Likes those tarts. They were the greatest." Arnold paused. "No," he said slowly. "That kiss was the greatest. Now where did that come from?"

Arnold thought some more. Maybe it wasn't the tarts whose taste he remembered. That sour flavor, followed by that explosion of sweetness. Could that have been Helga? He shook his head. Lemon tarts and kisses were all mixed up in his memory.

As he fell asleep, Arnold made a decision. Grandpa's advice sounded pretty good. Try kissing her back. One day, he would find out if Helga's kisses always tasted like lemon.

A few blocks away, Helga wondered if Arnold was thinking about her. She pulled her blankets up to her chin. She was exhausted. But she felt good. She had spent a wonderful evening with her mother. Sunday dinner was all planned out. And it was a dinner for five. Arnold would be coming. She would ask him over when she went to his place for hot dogs. Arnold would be cooking for her. Okay, so he wasn't a French chef. At least not yet. But it was a start. And then he would come to her place. And this time it was going to be perfect. "Maybe I should get one of those funny aprons with a slogan on it. One that says, 'Kiss the Cook.' It could give Arnold ideas!" She chuckled to herself. It was so devious, it might just work.

Helga snuggled down. As tired as she was, it would not be long before she slept. She just knew she would have sweet dreams. Dreams as wholesome as freshly baked oatmeal cookies. Dreams as soft and kind as a mother's hug. Dreams as sweet as hot, tasty raisins, that burst under your tongue when your one true love kisses you.