"Be still my…aaah," I gulped, the paper hard to read as I held it in my shaking hands. My sweaty palms were sticking to the paper, making it extremely uncomfortable. I gave a nervous chuckle, rubbing one of my palms on my jeans. The silence of the room wasn't really, well, silent. I could hear every cough, mutter, pitying giggle, as well as every breath that was being taken. Silence really was deafening.
I could hear the papers being shuffled in the back by Mr. Simmons. Why did he have to expand his degree on a whim last year? Why did he apply for this creative literature class? Why did I decide to sign up for this? Let's be honest here, I suck at using writing as a creative outlet. I don't do well expressing myself emotionally on paper. Words and I don't get along well when I'm telling my feelings. I can rouse a crowd with motivating pep talk, I can stir an unmotivated peer into action with a few kind words, and I can dissect and analyze someone else's work all day long. But ask how I feel on an emotional level about something is like asking me how does a fish know it's wet. I frankly have no words for that. I might as well be telling you about the emotions of a piece of whole grain toast. Bland and no one really cares about it.
So this unit was not going well for me at all. We were going over "Romeo and Juliet" (Mr. Simmons has a thing for that play), when Mr. Simmons has the bright idea to have us write a bit of prose, or whatever you want to call it, about our feelings to someone we love. And not just a few words, we had to make this into a modern balcony scene. And I was sitting at home trying to think of something to write, and all I could think of was how Lila's hair looks like carrots and how I was so not expecting to read this out loud in class and oh my God she's looking at me and I am so screwed.
Mr. Simmons gave a gentle cough, and I quickly muttered "Sorry" before giving a weak cough over the giggles that smattered around the room.
"Be still my heart-" I began again, my voice wavering. Thankfully, I was saved by the bell at that moment. I heaved a sigh of relief, quickly marching back to my seat, covering my face with the darned paper.
"That bad, huh?" Gerald questioned from behind me, giving me a sympathetic pat on the back.
"You have no idea," I grumbled weakly, stuffing my books down into my bag.
"Now remember, if you didn't get to read your paper aloud today, there's no reason to be upset. Turn your papers in at the desk, and you'll get your turn to show your special creative side after lunch, alright?" Mr. Simmons called over our chatting, making his way back to his desk.
Gerald gave me a pitying look as I groaned. I thought I might have lunch to rework my paper. Namely, to rework it without obvious references to Lila in it. Honestly, I figured I'd be over Lila by now. I mean, I blame the brief stint we sort of dated last semester. I had just got my car, after saving for what seemed like ages. Most people got there's at sixteen, but I'd had to wait an extra year. Money was hard to come by. But she'd soon broken things off with me. I was not as expressive emotionally as she felt I should be. I groaned. "I'll just stay and talk to him about it," I explained to Gerald, waving after him. He gave me an encouraging thumbs up as he slung his bag over his shoulder, heading off down the hallway.
I sighed as I made my way up to the desk, rubbing my arm nervously. "Um, Mr. Simmons?"
"Oh Arnold, yes? Is there something I can help you with?" he asked, shuffling through the papers on his desk.
"It's about my, um, paper," I explained, practically sanding my arm off with my hand. Mr. Simmons gave me a look, smiling.
"I'm especially glad to hear some of your work, Arnold. You do so well with your analysis papers and speeches. I'm looking forward to seeing this new creative side of you, seeing a bit of your individuality!"
"About that," I chuckled, closing my eyes as I sighed. "I…I wasn't aware these were going to be read aloud in class. I…well, I sort of wrote mine about someone in the class."
The look on his face was not something I expected. His eyes lit up and a large smile curled on his lips. "Well Arnold, this is exactly what the assignment was for! To express feeling over someone we have great feeling for!"
"You don't understand!" I protested, a knot forming in my stomach. "She'll know it's about her!" I hadn't known I was leaning on the desk until I felt my fingers trying to dig into the wood. I quickly pulled my hands back, shoving them in my pockets.
I sighed gratefully as he nodded in understanding. "Alright, I understand. I'll read over your work while you all are at lunch, and I'll grade yours then. I know how private such things can be high schoolers." He patted my arm soothingly. "Just remember that part of these assignments is to get you in touch with your inner self, and it's therapeutic."
I nodded. Honestly, it didn't feel therapeutic, it felt embarrassing. I just wanted to skim over my pathetic mooning over Lila and get on with my life. I groaned.
"Hey, Simms, about my sonnet. I assume we still have our agreement on- football head, what're you doing here?"
I felt a shiver up my spine as Helga's hissing voice met my ear. I inwardly cringed whenever she said my name in that tone of voice. It was habitual, and I think I'd finally started to grow used to it.
"We were talking about Arnold's assignment," Mr. Simmons offered up casually. Helga simply raised a brow, hands on her hips. She shot me a look before leaning on the desk, ignoring me completely.
"So am I golden, or what?" she inquired with ease. I got the feeling these two had this conversation a lot from the way Mr. Simmons looked at her.
"Well, Arnold came to me first thing time Helga," he said with a bit of an apologetic smile. I watched as the color drained from Helga's face, and I stumbled a few steps back as she turned to glare at me.
"But we have an agreement!" she seethed. "I always get to sit out when we turn in assignments dealing….dealing with emotions," she finished soundly, giving him a pointed look.
I watched as his eyes flickered from Helga to me, then back to Helga. I suddenly felt like an intruder.
"I think I'll just get to lunch," I explained, pointing down the hallway. Gerald was probably waiting on me and I was pretty hungry. Also, I figured if I stayed too much longer, Helga would turn her deadly glare and me and all the skin would melt clear off my face.
"I can't show favoritism," I heard him explaining to Helga as I quickly skirted around her and down the hall. I didn't hear her response clearly, only that it was loud and angry. Typical.
I plodded down the hall, frowning. I had never really made the connection that Helga rarely read her work aloud in class. If anything, she always went last and made a show of wasting time so the bell would always cut her time down to almost nothing. The more I thought about it, the more curious it made me. I wondered what her reason could be.
I shrugged, not bothering to dwell on it as I went quickly through the now empty lunch line. I paid for my food, sliding into my usual table, where Gerald was already polishing off his meal.
"Dude, what took you so long?" he asked, gnawing on a bone from the chicken wing remnants on his plate.
I shrugged, twisting the cap on my soda. "I explained the situation, you know. I didn't want to read it aloud because Lila would obviously-"
I paused my food preparation as Gerald released an exaggerated moan. "Arnold, seriously. Get over it. You guys broke up two months ago. Have some manhood and don't bring her into your school projects."
I frowned, shoveling a spoonful of mashed potatoes in my mouth. "It's not like I do this all the time!" I protested, though it came out more like "Ith noth wike a dothith all thethime."
Gerald raised his eyebrows, simply shaking his head.
I quickly washed down my food with a gulp of yahoo. "Well I don't!"
"Football head, read your crappy sonnet to the class, or so help me I will emasculate you with dull scissors."
I choked on my drink, splutter and coughing over my tray. Helga waited patiently for me to regain my composure before locking her hand over the collar of my shirt and dragging me close to her face. She had pretty eyes, if you stopped to think about it.
"Well? Are you going to read yours?" she demanded angrily. I could feel the tension in her fist.
I sighed prying her fingers from my shirt. "No, Helga. I'd rather not."
"Why?" she barked, grabbing a chair that a freshman was about to sit in, swinging it under her so she could sit right across from me. Our knees were touching she was so close. I flinched as the poor kid hit the floor, though she didn't seem to notice.
"Why won't you read yours?" I countered, turning back to my food.
"Because…because I just can't!" she protested hotly, knocking my fork from my hand. I took a deep breath before turning to her, meeting her eyes.
"Helga, I'm not reading mine, and that's final. Now that I think about it, you sit out reading yours a lot. So maybe you just need to deal with it this time," I explained as calmly as I could. I had nothing against Helga. In fact, since we started High School, we'd only had a few brief encounters. She barely paid me any attention, but when she did, it was usually more than I cared to deal with.
She contorted her face in an expression of seething fury, pushing herself up from the table. For a brief second, I thought I saw fear flash across her eyes as she stormed from the cafeteria. I shrugged as I continued my meal. It wasn't my problem.
I watched as Helga fidgeted in front of the class, almost feeling sorry for her. She looked as uncomfortable as I had felt. I almost wanted to tell her we could switch places. Almost.
After wasting a few moments, she took a deep breath. She began, but her voice was so quiet I could only hear snatches. I found myself actually really wanting to hear what she had to say. Mr. Simmons seemed to have the same idea, so he coughed loudly from the back of the room. Helga shot him a pained looked before shifting her weight and continuing, not bother to start over.
"Can you see how I adore you?
Bliss brings lovelight to my eyes
You speak - I hear a symphony
Flowers dance, the bluebird flies.
When first we met, I just knew
No other soulmate could there be
To settle deep within my heart
And cherish its key eternally."
She finished sheepishly, slamming the paper back on Mr. Simmons's desk. There was an appreciative applause from the room, mine included. She really knew how to write, to express herself. That was a side of Helga I hadn't seen before. Nervously she darted back to herself and sunk down into it, hiding behind her book. As I dared a glance back, I could feel an idea forming in my mind.
"Helga, please!" I pleaded, loping in front of her and blocking the door to her locker. I needed to get her attention.
"What? Can't you see I'm busy," she glared, trying to weave around me as I hopped around in front of her. I finally bit the bullet and grabbed her shoulders.
"Sorry," I quickly apologized, "But just hear me out, okay?"
She scowled, pushing past me to head out of the building.
"Oh come on!" I called desperately. "I'll…I'll buy you ice cream."
She whirled around, sizing me up skeptically. "Buy me a burger and I may be willing to listen to what you have to say."
"Great!" I breathed, sighing in relief. "Let me get that," I muttered, holding the door open for her. She simply shrugged, taking the steps two at a time. "Where you want to go?"
She looked around curiously a moment before meeting my eyes. "You mean right now?"
"Uh, yeah?" I thought I had made that rather obvious with my jumping around.
She looked like she wanted to protest, but snapped her mouth shut for a moment before blurting, "Let's go to Jerry's."
I nodded, matching her long strides with ease. I peered over her inconspicuously as we walked the short distance to the burger joint. Helga had gotten really tall in the transition from 8th grade to 9th. She hadn't gotten curvaceous as some of the other girls, but she was still pretty, in her own sort of gruff way. The most feminine thing about her really was her long blond hair, which she kept pulled back in a scruffy ponytail. I noted most of the clothes she wore were baggy and seemed to swallow her lanky frame.
"What?" she barked, breaking my assessment. Her lips were pursed out as she frowned.
"Nothing," I explained quickly, holding open the door for her as we arrived. As we slid into a booth, she called out her order to a guy behind the counter. She obviously came here a lot.
"So what does the saint of Hillwood High need from little ol' me?" she mused, drumming her fingers on the table loudly. She leaned on her hand, waiting for my response.
"Well it's about your sonnet-"
"What about my sonnet?" she yelped, her arm slipping from under her. She peered out me wide eyes, adjusting herself in the seat with a bit of extra fidgeting.
"It was really good?" I continued, wondering about her sudden outburst.
"Yeah. Look, I was just wondering if you'd be willing to help me…uh…get in touch with that…side," I finished lamely, letting my hands fall heavily to my side. I shot her a pleading look. I didn't know where else to turn.
"With that side?" she repeated, nodding at the waiter as he placed a milkshake in front of her. "You mean emotionally, right?"
"Right?" I nodded eagerly.
"What's the reason?"
I fidgeted with my fingers, looking down at my hands. This was certainly the last conversation I ever imaged having with Helga. "I want to…to impress a girl. Okay, maybe impress is the wrong word. I just want to show her that I'm able to express myself like she wanted me to do."
I smiled nervously, looking up to meet her eyes. She was searching my face with narrow eyes, inquisitive. "Why me?"
"Well, you're so gruff and shut up most of the time, but hearing your sonnet in class was like an opening of a window. If you can tap into it, maybe you can help me with mine-" as it slipped out of my mouth, I immediately knew I had said the wrong thing. Oh God, she was never going to help me now. I watched as he face began to flush a dark red, and fist tightening around her cup. "I'm sorry, I just meant-!"
"I know what you meant," she snapped. There was silence as her food was placed on the table. She didn't say anything as she ate, and I tapped my fingers, trying to be patient.
"Okay," she said finally.
"But you'll owe me a favor."
My smile drooped a little, but I nodded. "Okay. Sure. What favor?"
"I have a stupid beeper banquet of my dad's the end of next month. It's black tie, formal. He's been hinting that I need a date, since it makes his image look better to have someone to dump me off on so he doesn't look like a bad father for ignoring me. I usually take Brainy, but he'll be out of town."
"I..uh..oh…okay," I managed, surprised. I certainly hadn't been expecting that.
"No strings attached," she clarified, waving a French fry. "Don't look so horrified. I'll be teaching you my secret ways, and it'll be hard work. I've seen some of your work." I started to protest, but she ignored me. "So, I'll work with you on getting this girl of yours. If you can make progress and wrangle yourself a date by the end of this two months' time, then you're required to go with me." She held out her hand.
I bit my lip, but shook her hand none-the-less. It couldn't be that bad.ere ...