The teacher said he had to give a Valentine to everyone but Suzie Jenkins was the prettiest and he had a special present in mind for her. His uncle had raised an eyebrow when he asked him, but he’d explained that it was for a science project. His mom had been suspicious of the large lump of tightly wrapped mystery food in the refrigerator but his desperate dive to cover it from her reach had convinced her that whatever it was it was best left undisturbed. Each day had ticked by slower than the last until finally, wonderfully the day had come.
Young Tim Morris was one of the first out of his chair when they announced that it was time to hand out the valentines. He’d grabbed the first box off the shelf when his mom had taken him to buy them and was now wishing he’d granted them at least a glance as he slid girly Hello Kitty cards into the lunch bags fastened to the front of each desk. Tommy Wikowski was going to make fun of him for months for that. But he didn’t care. He only had eyes for Suzie.
She had the prettiest hair and her pink headband with tiny red hearts only served to accentuate the curls. She had eyes like sapphires- or emeralds. He couldn’t remember which stone was which color. But the blue ones, those were her eyes. They were, like, sparkly. He found himself staring into them as the face around them shifted into a confused expression.
“Tim…?” Suzie asked, a grin developing in the corner of her mouth as she asked.
“Huh?” he asked, still staring.
“Are you ok?” Suzie asked, then chuckled. He heard the high-pitched giggles of her friends and suddenly remembered himself.
“I-uh-“ he hesitated, not sure what to do. All he wanted to do was run from the classroom and not stop until he hit Kolkata which his father had recently shown him on a map and he remembered because he liked the name. But his feet seemed to be glued to floor. “Uh…” his mouth couldn’t seem to form the words and he was struggling to think past the increasing number of embarrassed giggles.
“Is that for me?” Suzie mercifully asked him.
“Oh! Uh- yeah, yeah this is for you!” Tim said, jumping at the memory of the precious cargo he had to deliver. “I got this for you, Suzie,” he said as he gently placed the package on the desk.
“Oh, um… thank you.” she said, though she poked at the wrapping suspiciously with the eraser of her pencil.
“Happy Valentine’s day!” he shouted more than spoke, then ran back to his desk before she could say anything else.
“Ok, children- open your Valentines!” Mrs. Archer announced, waving her hands at the class.
The classroom erupted with noise as everyone grabbed their lunchbags off the front of their desk and began exploring the contents. Some, like Tommy Wikowski, dumped the contents on their desk and searched for the cards with a lollipops or chocolate taped to the front. Others, like Betsy Rosa, sorted through each one in a slow orderly fashion. But all Tim could see was Suzie. She had pushed his gift to the corner of her desk to make room for her Valentines. He looked down at his desk, feeling defeated. He grabbed his own bag off the front of his desk angrily and pushed the cards out onto his desk, uninterested in them until he spotted Suzie’s handwriting.
He grabbed it up in a jolt of excitement- the small heart over the I in his name letting him know it was from her. He tore open the envelope and pulled out the card with his heart beating like a hummingbird’s wings which, he had just learned, beat up to 80 times a second. He looked at the image of a brightly-colored bug with hearts on the ends of its antenna and big cartoony eyes. The scripted letters written on it’s tummy- which bugs so didn’t have- let him know it was a “Love Bug”.
He flipped the car around, praying for there to be a message on the back. All it said was “Tim” with the same heart over the I. He looked over the shoulder of Levi who sat in front of him and saw the same heart over the I at the end of his name. He watched as he pulled an identical card out of his envelope and his heart sank to the pit of his stomach which was impossible, of course. But that’s what it felt like.
He rested his head on his hands and waited for the torturous exercise be over until the loud questions “What is that?” stood out from the general noise.
He looked over and saw Betsy standing in front of Suzie’s desk, her hand pointing at the package. He watched as Suzie reached for it and began undoing the tape that held the plastic on. He thought that maybe he should run over, snatch it up before she could see. But then he sat back and watched, unable to look away.
Suddenly a loud scream erupted and a crowd of children flocked to the desk, blocking his view. He ran over and tried to push his way to the center to see what was happening. Mrs. Archer walked over and pushed the children aside, saying “What’s going on?” as she did.
Tim shoved Ian Lombardi out of the way and finally saw the gift- the cow’s heart he had gotten from his uncle’s butcher shop sat in the mess of plastic and deli paper it’d been wrapped in. The blood had stained the paper black and the heart looked wilted, almost like it’d been left in the sun for too long. The arteries leading out had lost their distinctive shape and the colors had darkened. His uncle had warned him that it wouldn’t stay ‘fresh’ long, but Tim had never expected this.
“Who did this?” Mrs. Archer asked, the thread of anger in her voice letting him know there was magma under the surface.
He retreated a step but bumped into the person behind him. There was no escape.
“I- I did-“ he said, tentatively raising his hand.
Mrs. Archer looked at him, a shocked expression settling onto her features. “Timothy? Why would you do this?”
“It’s a heart!” he blurted out. “I got her a heart for valentine’s day!”
His classmates all laughed like a pack of hyenas while Mrs. Archer frowned at him, that disappointed frown that killed him every time he saw it. “We’ll talk about this after class,” she said, taking the offending display off of Suzie’s desk as she retreated to the head of the classroom. “Back to your seats, everyone.”
Tim hazarded a glance at Suzie and instantly regretted it. She was staring daggers at him and her eyes were definitely not sparkly anymore. He limped back to his desk with his head rapidly shrinking into his shoulders. He wished he could pull it all the way inside like those giant tortoises Mrs. Archer had shown them the video of. Then he could wait it out and emerge when the danger had passed.
There was a tap on his shoulder and he turned in his chair to see Jessie Beeman smiling at him. “I thought it was really cool,” she whispered.
He’d never noticed it before but she had the prettiest eyes behind her big glasses. They were light brown- the color of those giant Sequoia trees he’d seen in those pictures.