Thursday was deep and hot and when she woke it was with a start and a breath and sticky wet sheets.
Sixteen did not bring with it any revelation, it was as simple as waking up and realizing, suddenly and quietly that she was nothing but a day, a year and a time older than she was only seconds ago.
The poetic part of her, that collided so easily with the cynic, knew that this was as true of yesterday as it was in that moment. sixteen didn't stop the ache or the wonder or the fear that pushed her deeper toward being a menace. She simply woke up. And knew, that preteen and childhood had left her behind for a different category and more trouble.
She felt her hips and pressed her fingers across each curve and valley, hoping that with the new day, she would find a newer self. A better one. That it would be as simple as looking out into the great wide open and knowing what lay in front of her.
She sighed and rolled to her side, breathed harder, Dr. Bliss had told her that change came with both time and effort. The time she had, but the effort was harder to come by. She forced back a scowl, licked her lips and pushed herself out of bed.
The mirror that hung on the yellow wall showed that she looked as much like twelve as she had a few years ago.
Her face was gawky at best and her eyes, blue and old, still held bitterness and the smallest hint of sorrow, she was arms and legs, and babyish curves still lingered like hope on her hips and cheeks. She felt, despite her age, too much like a child.
But her mind didn't feel that young. Wasn't she, she thought, so much older than the rest, with her constant grimace and ongoing pride, and secret thoughts. She shook her head and focused on the day. There was school and Bob and her appointment with Dr. Bliss. There was a dinner with Phoebe to look forward to and maybe, if she were lucky, Arnold would remember.
She didn't sigh at the thought of Arnold's name. Not anymore, there was no waxing on poetically for her anymore, no secret locket kept at her heart, no great volume of work she could carry with her that threatened to spill thoughts kept privately. She simply loved him. Carried only the thought of him, and it was better that way, she told herself. Because loving was enough. Some day, maybe she guessed, it was a Wednesday because they were the hardest earned, in her eleventh year had taught her that.
Just like her twelfth year had taught her that she was who she was. And even if she didn't bully or name call or throw a spitball, she was still a born fighter. She was, as Grandma Gene said, fire and sparks. Nothing could make her nice, and she found she liked that. Nice was to simple, nice was for the boring few who could never learn that niceness was not kindness or compassion, it was a fake smile for formality or a laugh at a rotten joke. Helga G. Pataki, could love and hate and care, but she would never do it nicely.
And she was more the happier for it.
Her room was yellow and the day was bright and she thought that might be enough.
Even if the house outside her room smelled of liquor and fruit.
She didn't bother with a sigh or a thought about how it should be. She left behind her hopes, with the rotted sculptures.
She rolled her eyes and groaned. "Bob."
"Do you know what day it is?"
She bit off the smart remark. He was making an effort, she told herself, and that was something. Fourteen had brought that. Fourteen and Miriam's DUI and the on surge of cell phones. Fourteen had been her worst year yet.
"The first day of the rest of our lives?" She was who she was. But she did smile at him, and for her it was the effort of the day.
"No, Helga, it's your birthday. And the day Pataki Phones opens. It's going to be big, girl. It's going to be perfect."
"My birthday, or Pataki Phones?"
She didn't hide the eye roll. Or the sigh. He looked overexcited. And an overexcited Bob, wasn't one she was to keen on. His efforts of reconnecting and developing a healthy relationship with her, tended to be over the top and not worth the pain.
But he was trying, she repeated.
"What is it you're doing?"
He grinned. "Party."
"No." She turned to flee but his sigh made her turn back. "What kind? And isn't it kind of late to be doing one for today?"
"Friday or Saturday. It's a school night after all. I figured, Miriam and I would do the family thing with you tonight and then you could have all your little friends over, you know, the kid and the little guy and uhh," he bit his lip and she managed to hold back the laugh, he was trying so hard. "Alfred."
"Arnold. Yeah. Him. And of course Phoebe."
"Of course. Bob, look, I applaud the effort. I do. But I'm not a party kind of girl."
"Then go out, on me, and have fun with a group. Do something fun, Helga. Act your age." His hand reached out to her, his hard fingers on her cheek pushing back the rain straight hair.
Who would have thought, that of both her parents Bob, would be the one to care so much.
"No. You don't. You act like an adult. You're so…"
"No. Serious. You take everything to heart so much. You think you have to be so strong."
"I've had to be."
"I know, I'm sorry." She winced.
"Look, Bob. I don't feel like a heart to heart, let's save it for the family counselor, okay. Why pay him to make us talk if we do it ourselves."
For a minute she thought it was over. His hand was hanging silently at his thigh and his large familiar face was stoic. But his eyes were down. She knew the look. It was one she'd seen on her own face, when she decided two years ago, to tell Arnold the truth. To not run from her feelings. It was fear, disappointment and resignation.
She hoped it wasn't going to be the, I hoped to do better for you talk, or the I'm sorry I was a shitty father talk. It was to early and to hot for either.
"Look, Helga. I'm not perfect. And I know I can never take back those years. But I do you know, love you. And I want you to know, that if you need me. If you can't be strong. That I'm here."
She looked up at him, his down turned eyes and his now fidgeting hand and wanted to thank him. It was a sudden feeling, almost silly. But he cared. And she, for the first time, even with his new leaf, believed him.
The crash was loud and Miriam's voice rang out with a shrill slur.
She rolled her eyes and ran for the door.
"Have a good day, Helga."
She thought maybe she would, even if her curves were silly and her hair was to straight. Even if nothing had really changed at all.
She turned sideways at Phoebe. Her shorter friend was rescuing the back rimmed glasses from the precarious edge of her pert nose.
"Happy Birthday." From under the books in her arm was a blue wrapped box.
"You didn't have-"
"Don't open it yet. Save it, Helga. Please."
She smiled and pointed her face toward the sun. "You never have to ask me twice."
"Girls." She stuck out her tongue at Gerald. Some wounds, that did not even seem like wounds, ran deep.
"Sorry. Girl and Monstrosity, would you like a ride to school." Gerald grinned from the driver's side.
Helga laughed and nudged Phoebe with her shoulder, "It's cool. Tall Hair Boy and me we have a understanding."
She couldn't remember exactly when that happened. Probably somewhere between the day Arnold said never and the day Gerlad found her at the docks, her feet dangling in water and he didn't make fun of her.
"It's her birthday. Be nice."
"I'm always nice." He winked at Phoebe and smiled, his white teeth glittering in the sun at her. "Besides." He threw Helga a box from his seat. And she shoved it in her bag. "I never meet a monster empty handed." Gerald gave her a wink and nodded for her to get in.
"Look, Eighty-Eight. I'd like to get to school today, if possible." Helga said as she opened the back door.
"About that," His grin didn't fade, "Why go to school on your sweet sixteen?"
"Because the law requires-"
Gerald rolled his eyes as he interrupted his girlfriend, "I meant that hypothetically, Pheebs." Phoebe was sitting beside him now, her books lying neatly on the floorboard.
"Where else would I go?" Helga was still standing with the back door open, she debated now on getting in, something ached in her chest and she wondered, not for the first time today why everything felt the same and yet so different.
"Hey Helga." She spun quickly and glared.
"Don't sneak up on me, Arnold. I'm liable to have a heart attack."
"What are you 50?" Gerald piped.
She was half around to tell him exactly how old she thought she was, when Arnold's had closed around her arm.
"Wh-" Helga set her glare back onto Arnold. Her mouth becoming a thin line.
"Happy Birthday." Arnold grinned and didn't move his fingers.
"Thanks." And if she were any other type of girl, she might have blushed. His eyes caught hers and they held themselves there for a moment, as if something more was to be said or done and neither of them could remember the next move.
"Hey, man! What do you say?" Gerald's voice broke the moment.
They both spun toward Gerald. "What do you mean?"
Helga sighed and rolled her eyes again "He wants me to skip for my birthday, but as I was pointing out, I don't have anywhere to go. I have no money and well, what would my excuse be?"
"Fake notes, Pataki." Gerald drummed his hands against the steering wheel and seemed unharmed by Helga's best glare.
"What if Bob finds out. He's all up in my life now that he's all about the 'family'." Helga let her finger's make the air quotes.
Arnold laughed. "You make him sound like he's in the mafia."
"Maybe he is." She laughed.
"Whatever you two, we're skipping." Gerald reeved the car.
"Gerald, I really must disagree-" Phoebe bit her lip and Helga noticed she was about to panic.
"And we're kidnapping Phoebe." Gerald slung an arm around her pulled her close.
"Again the money-" Helga still hadn't got in the car, she was going to be the last one in.
"I'll pay. It's your birthday." Arnold's grin stuck in her mind for days afterward.
Slipping into the back seat she stuck her feet out the back window.
"You know how dangerous-" The girl in the front seat started.
"Phoebe, we love you, lighten up. It's her birthday. If she wants to lose both her feet in a tragic and horrible traffic accident. Then let her." Gerald pulled the car into the street and beside her Arnold hummed along with the radio.
She was almost certain, that today was going to be beyond what she expected.
"Where to?" Gerald started.
"What about the museum?" Phoebe suggested.
"Some place fun." Arnold said.
Helga rolled her eyes.
Arnold said leaning to close to her. "You know, if you continue to do that, your eyes could get stuck in the back of your head."
Helga inched away, her face felt warm. She tried to pull herself together when Gerald laughed. "And no one will ever marry you if you're footless and sightless." She kicked Gerald in the back of the head.
She chose to say nothing to Gerald and instead glanced out of the corner of her eye at Arnold. "Thanks, Arnold-O, I'll keep that in mind."
"Just looking out for your eye safety, I'd hate to have to be your seeing eye person again."
She looked at Arnold pointedly and rolled her eyes.
He laughed and she couldn't help but join him.
"Fine since obviously, I have to come up with all the good ideas we're going to the lake. And we're going to do something awesome." Gerald turned onto the highway.
"At the lake?"
Gerald sighed, "It's basically fun math. Anything done in a library is not fun. No matter what you're doing. Everything you do by the water is going to be fun."
"So lake plus a punch in the nose is fun, while library plus punch in the nose is less fun."
"Exactly. One, your at a library. So it's already painful. Two, a punch in the nose is step up from the boredom of library. Where as, even if you get punched in the lake you can be all like, shit that hurts, then you can look around and say, hell at least I'm at the lake."
"Library's are fun." Phoebe said.
Arnold and Helga shared a look and the rest of the car ride was silent.
The lake was empty despite the heat and the clear bright blue sky.
"Points, Gerald. You were right."
"So that's Pataki ten, Gerald 100."
"In your dreams." She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue.
"It's okay, but library's are air conditioned." Phoebe looked at none of them.
"Good point, Pheebs." Arnold says but doesn't move from the towel.
"Of course, baby."
"Helga, want some ice cream?"
"Have I ever turned down ice cream, Arnold?"
"Not that I can remember, but well, it never hurts to ask."
He helps her up and they leave the silent couple behind.
"Never go against Phoebe and her library."
She nods and looks at her feet.
She doesn't bother to look up. "What, what?"
"Why are you being quiet and sullen?"
"I'm not. I don't talk for like what a minute and suddenly I'm sullen?"
"You won't look at me."
She peers at him. "Better."
"Much. I can't go on without you looking at me."
She refuses to roll her eyes.
"What's with you anyway?"
"Besides feeling all deprived because for whatever reason you're not looking at me, unless I force you to."
"You're acting weird. Is it about Connie?"
"We broke up." This time it's Arnold that's not looking at her.
She winced. "Sorry."
"Don't be. It wasn't meant to last."
"Last week wasn't she like the love of your life?"
He shrugged at opened the door for her.
"What does that mean," she repeats his shrug. "is it code for, I'm a dork who falls in love way way to easily."
"Maybe. But then we can't all be like you and never fall in love with anyone.""I've been in love!"
"Heh, with who, Bobby? You guys fought all the time." He narrows his eyes at her as if he was trying to open her up.
"Fighting doesn't mean we can't love each other."
"One chocolate and one vanilla, double scoops please." He turned back to her. "Whatever, you didn't love him."
"I might have."
"But you didn't."
"Just like you didn't really love, Connie. Or Debra, or Lila. Or any of the other girls your so keen to jump head first into."
He gives her the lighter cone. "I fall in love easy."
"You don't fall in love at all. You want to love someone so badly that whenever you go out with someone you convince yourself that you're in love with them."
"You always pick someone you can't stand so that you have every reason to never fall in love with anyone."
"Whatever." Is the only think she can think to say. There's no point in saying that she's only ever really thought she could love him. She can still remember his thin lips and his wringing hands when he had to tell her that he just couldn't be in love with her. She focuses on her cone.
"Yeah. Me too."
This time it's his eyes that roll. "Why are you sorry?"
"Because I'm picking a fight with you."
"No you're not."
"Yes I am."
"You're just being yourself and telling me what I want to know."
"No I'm not."
"What are you holding back now?"
She heads for the door and stands outside in the sun. Her face feels flushed and her lips are cold from the ice cream.
"I think you fall in love because you want to love so badly. Because your parents married young and they loved each other so quickly and so much. But you're not them. And love doesn't have to come quick to be real or fast to be true. Sometimes it comes when it's suppose to and not a moment sooner or later."
"I think you don't let anyone in because you're afraid we're all going to break your heart."
"All of you?"
She almost wishes he meant himself.
"I mean guys. I'm sorry that I could-"
"I don't need a rejection again. I got you the first time. And we're better friends. Just like you said."
"We're more than friends. We're-"
"Yeah. The best of." She hopes her skin will grow dark and not red.
But she thinks she can already feel the burn.
Later, she's walking the long way home. Her face still warm and her legs aching. She feels tired all over and happy.
Much to happy to be normal.
Dinner had been fun and she'd laughed with Phoebe about nothing and everything and she couldn't remember when she'd felt so at ease.
But the empty pit of her stomach tells her that she shouldn't think that everything's going to be perfect.
"Bob?" The house is to silent, the smell is still lingering in the hall but it's too dark.
"Helga? I'm in the kitchen."
"Happy Birthday!" Bob's holding a cake and candles and she gave him one of her rare smiles.
"Yeah, well, I don't bake so it's store bought. But here."
She leans over and blows out the candles.
She wishes everything would be alright.
"Open your presents."
She doesn't move. "Is she okay?"
"Olga sent you one from Alaska."
"Helga, let's just enjoy you're birthday."
"I will once I know what's going on."
"Sit down. Please."
"Bob, you never say please."
He raise an eyebrow at her. "You know, your Mom has some problems."
"She's a freakin' drunk."
"She has some issues. And she needs help."
"Did you send her to rehab?"
"She wouldn't go." Bob's looking down again. "I asked and she said she didn't see the problem. And that we're all fine. But we're not. I know. I've tried to pretend for so long. But this morning. Last night. Every night."
"So where is she?"
"She went to stay with your Grandma Gene. I told her she need to sober up if she wanted to stay here. To stay married." He sucks off the icing form the candles. But his hands are shaking.
He'd be there for me if I needed him to be strong.
She figures she owes him that much too.
"So she'll get better. She'll learn that she wants us and she get help and it'll be better."
She cuts them a slice of cake but it tastes like salt and bitterness in her mouth.