Zara biked to school as fast as she could without jostling her backpack, or the card inside it. She’d gotten up at five that morning specifically to add the finishing touch: a series of red and pink hearts bordering Helena’s name in a gradient from lightest to darkest. The glue had seemed dry when she’d packed her bag at seven, but having it out of her hands made her palms sweat, even more than the thought of finally giving it to Helena, of telling her how she felt.
It’s February, it’s cold, it’ll probably dry…
Swerving into the school parking lot, she parked her bike in the rack and darted into the building. Despite the smattering of people in the hallway around Helena’s locker, the girl herself wasn’t there. Brushing off Helena’s lateness, Zara swung her backpack off her shoulders, and pulled it open, freezing at the sight before her.
Inside, a flood of pink and red paper hearts lay scattered across her things. Reaching in, she picked one up, the tacky glue to adhering to her finger. Overhead, the warning bell rang.
Zara cursed. Dropping the heart, she closed her bag, and made her way to class. Dodging jocks and preps, she made her way to the back of the room, trying to come up with a plan. As she neared the teacher’s desk, her eyes roamed the pile of junk there, only to snag on the tape dispenser.
Zara’s heart leaped. Sparing a quick look around the room, and finding the teacher busy elsewhere, she plucked the dispenser from its place, and slid into her chair. With the roll cradled in her lap, one hand ready to cover it if the teacher ever looked over, Zara went to work on the card under her desk. At the end of the period, she stuffed it into her bag with all her other books, and hustled to her next subject.
By the time break rolled around, she’d only fixed two letters in Helena’s name. Part of her wanted to stay through the period, get it finished. The other wanted to see her friend. Holding her breath, she snuck past Helena’s locker, just to see if the girl was there, and waiting.
Just like that morning, the hallway was empty, except for a flood of paper hearts between classrooms, where couples exchanged Valentines with one another. Letting out a long breath, Zara snuck into the nearest one, and pulled as many long strands of tape off the dispenser as she could. Before anyone could ask what she was doing, she snuck back out, and pulled out the card.
She got three more letters done, the hearts haphazardly arranged in a line, before the bell went off. Mumbling to herself, she placed the card in her bag, and hustled off to her next period. She didn’t get as far as taking the card back out again at her desk before she found the tape had already fallen off.
With one eye on the board, she snuck the teacher’s stapler under her desk, taking care to only staple on each heart when everyone was distracted. She got halfway through Helena’s name when a shadow fell over her desk. Glancing up, she found the teacher studying her, black arms crossed over her chest.
For a second, Zara fumbled over what to say. The card lay, clear as glass, on her lap. Piles of sticky, loose, hand-cut hearts stuck out from where she’d tucked them under her notebook. With a shaky smile, she whispered, “Art project?”
Her teacher’s eyebrows shot to her glossy hairline. Zara swallowed hard.
“I swear, I’m almost finished. It’s for this girl—”
The teacher marched all the way back to her desk. Hands shaking, Zara pulled the still-loose hearts together, tucking them into the card, and sliding the card into the back of her notebook. The teacher’s heels clicked back down the aisle. She put a fat roll of wide, clear packing tape on the edge of Zara’s desk.
“It’s quieter,” she whispered, and made her way to the front of the room.
Zara stared at the roll, hardly daring to breathe. When her teacher didn’t come back, she took it as a sign. Snatching up the roll, Zara tore off the exact number of strips she’d need, and hung them on the edge of her desk until she had the rest of the hearts lined up just so. The lunch bell rang just as she placed the last row down.
Breathing deep, her heart filling with pride, and hope, and a little bit of fear at finally showing Helena how she felt, Zara made her way to the cafeteria.
It’ll be perfect, she told herself, marching through the cafeteria doors. Halfway inside, she paused.
Helena, and at least three other people, crowded around their table. Her friend sat in the center of the tiny crowd, scribbling fast in her notebook as they talked at her. The sight of them all, both theatre geeks and student council kids alike, made Zara’s heart drop.
Swallowing hard, she made her way over.
“Okay, yep, new lights for the stage, and an ad for the dance,” Helena said, nodding up at a blonde, preppy girl in neon pink beside her. The girl smiled down at Helena, one hand on her hip, the other playing with Helena’s teased black-brown hair.
Sweat already dripping down her back, Zara cleared her throat, making everyone turn. The blonde’s smile fell away, but Helena’s face lit up gold. “Oh, hey! What’s up?” Helena asked. One of the theatre kids tapped his toe.
The thought of giving her the card now, in front of all these people, made Zara taste ash. Heart falling, she started to shake her head, the words “it can wait,” on the tip of her tongue. Before she could say a thing, though, she spotted a poster for the Valentine’s Dance hanging on one of the walls.
No. This is important.
“Could you—meet me after school?” Zara asked over the cacophony of noise around them. A bead of sweat dripped down the back of her neck, and her tongue tangled around her teeth as she tried to speak.
What the hell’s wrong with me? It’s just Helena!
But one of the other student council kids chose that time to burst a confetti popper over everyone’s heads. The pop made everyone jump, batting at the tiny pink and red hearts that covered everything.
Helena shook her head, putting a hand behind her ear. “Sorry, what?”
“Lockers!” Zara called.
Helena nodded, a vague bob of her head, and then the theatre kids leaned in again.
Clenching her jaw, Zara backed off, choosing another table to eat at, and watching them the whole time. Helena didn’t get a minute of peace before the period ended.
Zara made it through the last of her classes with what she considered to be the patience of a saint. After the final bell, she headed to Helena’s locker, ready to stuff the card in the slots at the top, only to grind to a halt at the mouth of the hallway at what she saw.
Swallowing hard, she walked over until there was no mistaking it:
Someone had taped a rose to the door. Upon closer inspection, she found a photo had been attached to it with a piece of red ribbon: Helena and the blonde, their arms linked, beamed after some sporting event.
I should’ve done something like this.
Heart sinking, Zara resisted the urge to crumpled her card, and turned to go, only for a loud pop to sound behind her. Jumping, she spun around, dozens of paper hearts showering onto her shoulders. On the other side of it all, Helena beamed.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” she said, holding out a large version of the paper hearts. It had Zara’s name in sparkly script across the center. “Is that for me?” Helena asked, nodding at the card in Zara’s hand.
Zara started sweating all over again. She fumbled to hand it over, the edges creased from nerves, and then her mouth went dry as Helena read the note she’d written inside.
“Aw! ‘I love you, beautiful!’” Helena clapped a hand to her chest, and sighed. “You always know the right thing to say,” she said, folding it up again. Her arms wound their way around Zara’s neck, and for a second, Zara’s heart fluttered. “This is why you’re my best friend.”
…what? Friend? That’s—it?
Zara let Helena back away, the word echoing in her head with every beat of her heart. She tried to smile her thanks, felt herself bending to clean up the confetti, but her brain refused to comprehend anything beyond friend. Smiling when Helena smiled, she walked out the door again, got onto her bike, and for the first time since she’d been small, considered riding straight out of town for the rest of the day.
Instead, she raced herself home. When she looked back, she caught a few paper hearts drifting off her on the wind, and felt as if they were taking her own, beating one with them.
Copyright C.L. Mannarino, 2018