Despite the warmth and joy her anonymous Christmas present to Arnold had made her feel, Helga refused to admit she'd Learned A Lesson. Not in the slightest. Next Christmas she'd just ask for even more stuff, she'd earned it after she'd given up her best gift to find some stranger for a sad old man.
So naturally, when Arnold brought up the idea of a Christmas charity project for the class, she rolled her eyes. As much as she loved him for his caring soul, she didn't want to spend her Christmas serving slop to homeless people or knocking on doors holding out sacks and coffee cans. Besides, she'd kinda sorta promised Big Bob she'd help with the big Christmas Eve beeper sale. Not that she wanted to do that either, but it was still better than the boring sappy stuff Arnold was suggesting.
"I think you would benefit greatly from helping out at a soup kitchen, Helga," Mr. Simmons said, and signed her up before she could protest or even mention the beeper sale. Great, so now I gotta play waitress to a bunch of slobs!
Then Big Bob showed the beeper costume he wanted his helpers to wear for the sale, and she decided maybe the soup kitchen wasn't such a bad idea. Arnold had picked it; in fact, he was the only other kid in class who was doing it. Everyone else was collecting money or picking up garbage or something. That meant her and Arnold, alone, with no Lila or Brainy or Harold to get in the way.
(Well, maybe they wouldn't be all alone. But still, it was a step up.)
Her first day at the soup kitchen, she put on the stained apron and the hair net the boss gave her, scowling all the while. It's only for the holidays, and it's an excuse to be near Arnold, she reminded herself as the crowds poured in, lining up at the counter for their free grub.
On the fifth day of volunteering, she came home to a package sitting at the front door. It had no return address on it, only her name, and when Helga opened it she had to cover her mouth to stifle a shriek.
It was a pair of brand-new Nancy Spumoni snow boots, just like the ones she'd given up last year. They were just her size, but there was no card or any indicator of who'd given them.
She wore them the next day, and when she arrived at the soup kitchen she saw a woman at the counter talking to Arnold. When they saw Helga, Arnold waved cheerfully while the woman glanced down at Helga's feet...and smiled.
Okay, maybe she had a pair just like them at home. Not surprising, they were still major sellers.
But the woman was also volunteering, and the whole day she kept glancing over at Helga and Arnold. It was...creepy, to say the least. Not that anything seemed off about her, but why did she keep staring? As if the mysterious (but still very appreciated) boots weren't weird enough.
On Christmas Eve, the woman was waiting for Helga outside the kitchen after her shift was over. By now, Helga had had enough.
"Okay, lady, are you a stalker or something? You're seriously starting to creep me out!"
"I apologize, that was not my intent," the woman said. "I was merely observing you. When I asked Arnold how he was able to reunite me with my father, he told me a Christmas angel assisted him." And suddenly it all came back; Arnold's search, the grumpy man, the boots...
"Mai Huynh." She bowed slightly. "And you're exactly who I thought you might be."
She knew. Arnold had never found out what Helga had done, but Mai, somehow, knew.
"Then you're the one..."
"You gave up the one thing you wanted most to help him find me," Mai said.
"But how did you know my size?!"
Helga couldn't quite describe how she felt right now. Happy because she had the boots, freaked out because this stranger could guess her shoe size and knew her secret from last year. Unless...
"Did Arnold...did he say anything about..."
"He told me you put up a tough act, but that you've been faithfully by his side helping him take care of the homeless," Mai said. "That deep down, he knows you're better than you let everyone think you are, and that he's glad you're a part of his life."
It was nothing short of a Christmas Eve miracle that she managed to hold back the tears before they spilled over.
"Thanks. I mean...for the boots," she muttered. "And...I'm glad you found your dad again."
"Merry Christmas, Helga."
She rushed to Arnold's house in the darkness, clutching a hastily-wrapped package. She'd bought it days ago; nothing special, just some baseball cards, but it was something she knew he'd like.
How can I top knowing that in spite of everything, he's still happy to have me in his life? That my cruelty hasn't driven him to loathe me the way I often loathe myself? He's one of the few good things in my life, but I never imagined I'd be even nearly as important to him...
He was waiting for her on the stoop, holding a package.
"Hey, Helga. Listen, this probably isn't as good as those boots, but..." He held it out. "Merry Christmas."
She handed him her own package.
"Merry Christmas, Arnold." They opened them together, Arnold expressing joy and gratitude for the cards (wondering if there was a Mickey Kaline in the package, but not expecting it), and Helga's heart caught at the sight of her gift.
"I know it seems kinda sappy, but you always turn in such good poems for writing class, so..."
Helga clutched the small book to her chest, blinking back tears for the second time that night.
"Hey, listen...I know it's late and you've probably got your family to go home to, but...would you like to come in for a while and have some hot chocolate?" This time it was a squeal of delight she had to fight back.
"Well...sure, why not? My family already did Christmas dinner and presents and everything anyway, since Big Bob's got the sale still going and Olga's meeting some friends of hers."
He took her hand and led her into the house. If her heart had felt any lighter, she would have floated away right then and there.
She went back to the soup kitchen the next day, even though she wasn't scheduled. In fact, she was going to spend the rest of the winter helping out there.