HAPPY HEART DAY!!!
If you're still trying to find that perfect gift, may I suggest two great reads, SCARLET, by A.C. Gaughen
and LETHALLY BLONDE by Patrice Lyle. Both of which released today! Happy Book Birthday ladies!!!
And now (as promised) a semi-romantic short story...
by Jennifer Shaw Wolf
“Thanks for your donation to the cheer team.” I flash my nearly-perfect white teeth at the skinny, dark-haired freshman boy. He fumbles in his pocket and keeps his eyes on the floor as he pulls out two crumpled dollar bills. I toss my hair over my shoulder and make sure our hands touch when he gives me the money. “Any girl would be lucky to get a candy-gram from you.” Another smile. “Remember you can always remain anonymous.” He hesitates for another second, which second I use to catch him in my blue eyes. “What’s your name again?”
“Zachary,” he clears his throat and straightens up. “Zachary Gibbons.”
“Zachary Gibbons,” I say it like I’m committing his name to memory, even though I know I’ll forget him as soon as he walks away. “I’ll be watching for that name. Thanks again, Zach.” I put the money in the box and flash him another smile while he backs away, flustered.
“Another victim, Leah?” Anthony Richards materializes from the trophy case and places himself in front of the ‘Buy a Candy-Gram for Your Valentine, Send the Cheerleaders to State’ Sign. “It’s not fair that you get to campaign from the table like that, right at the source.” He takes a big bite out of a chocolate muffin, leaving a trail of crumbs on the pink plastic table cloth in front of me.
I brush the crumbs away in disgust. “Maybe you should just accept defeat right now. The costumes is already in my cheer locker. I can’t wait to see you in pink wings and a diaper.”
“After crushing you freshman and sophomore year? Not a chance. I just have to do some leg work.” He scans the cafeteria in front of us, like he’s looking for his next victim. He doesn’t have to wait long. She crawls right into his web, a tall, long-haired sophomore, cute, but not up to his usual standards. “MJ?” He smiles and puts his hand on her shoulder. “Hey girl, what’s up?”
“I was going to buy a candy-gram for some of my friends.” She sounds nervous, but she’s not moving away from his hand.
“We’re friends, right MJ?” He brushes her hair off her shoulder and then steps back towards the crowd. “I guess I’ll let it be a surprise.” He winks at her, then leans into me. “You might want to lose some weight before baseball season, that hotdog costume is pretty narrow.”
When he walks away I’m fuming so much that Kari, sitting next to me at the table has to take the girl’s money; twelve-dollars worth of candy grams for her friends and another five for a giant chocolate bar for Anthony.
“That’s another one,” Kari points out, “He’s ahead by four points.” Like I haven’ t been keeping track.
I blew out a frustrated breath. I hated every part of him, from his soft brown eyes, to his chiseled chest, from his enormous feet, to the short cropped, jock-hawk on top of his head. It’s hard to believe that in another life, Anthony was my boyfriend. Something about junior high demanded that the prettiest girl in school date the best-looking guy. It took about half of seventh grade for us to figure out that we couldn’t stand each other. We broke up right before Valentines Day, just in time for the middle school’s annual candy-gram fundraiser. I got five more candy-grams that year than he did, and the competition was on.
We’re in our third year of this and after two humiliating defeats, I’m determined to win. The rules have gotten more complicated as the years have gone on. This year it’s a point system; one point for a single lollipop, three for a lollipop bouquet, and five for a giant chocolate bar. We’ve also added a bet. If I beat him, he has to spend Valentines Day delivering the candy-grams dressed like cupid. If he wins I have to dance around in a hotdog costume in front of the concession stand at the first home baseball game. I can’t lose. Mustard yellow is not my color.
“I’m planning on buying you one,” Kari tries to comfort me. “And I know the rest of the girls on the cheer team--”
“--only candy-grams from the opposite sex count.” I say miserably. The bell rings. I only have two more chances to beat Anthony. Tomorrow is Valentines Day, so we’ll sell at lunch and then right after school. We’ll be putting the candy-grams together tonight.
“Maybe you need to change your strategy,” Kari picks up the cash box.
“Maybe.” I’m thinking about my strategy as we turn the cash box into the office. Since my tardy is already excused I duck into the bathroom so I can darken my eyeliner and make sure my lip-gloss frames my heart-shaped lips just right. Then I roll the waist-band of my cheer-skirt up an extra notch, because every little bit helps. I toss my head and smile at my reflection, then work on my hip-swinging walk towards the door.
Someone crying from the corner stall stops me. Before I can decide what to do, one of the Special Ed teachers, Ms. Thompson, walks into the bathroom. “Leah, have you seen Wendy Green?” She says to me.
I blink at her, and then shrug. I have no idea who Wendy Green is.
A muffled sob comes from behind the stall door, then a nose blow, then a tear-garbled voice, “I’m in here.”
The counselor leans against the door. “Come out honey. I heard what those boys said, but they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
The handle twists and the door opens. A short, fat, girl with long blonde hair launches herself at the Special Ed teacher. I recognize her as one of two Special Ed kids in my choir class, the ones that always make us sound bad. She buries her face in the Mrs. Thompson’s blouse and starts sobbing; noisy, wet, snotty sobs. I back out the door, disgusted and embarrassed, as the counselor soothes, “You’re a beautiful girl Wendy, you’re not fat.” I shake my head to clear the scene from my mind, compose myself enough to smile at the guy by the drinking fountain, and hip-walk to my next class.
I spend the next three periods talking and flirting with every guy I see. By the time lunch roles around the line to buy candy-grams stretches to the back of the cafeteria. I’m flirting with a geeky-looking senior as he hands over the money for a giant candy bar for me, when a familiar voice interrupts us. “We need to talk.” I put the boy’s money in the cash box before he can change his mind, then I glance up at my boyfriend, Jackson.
“I’m a little busy,” I answer while looking at the boys who are lined up, hoping that Jackson standing here isn’t blowing my chances of getting more candy-grams
“Okay,” he says, “then I’ll just say it here. We’re through.”
Now he has my attention. “What?”
“We. Are. Through.” He clips each word off with anger.
I blink my surprise. “What? Why?”
“I’m tired of watching you flirt with every guy at school,” he says.
I stand up and pull him around the corner, leaving Kari to handle the line, not that anyone is buying anything right now. They’re all too busy trying to see what me and Jackson are doing.
“Look, it’s just because of the stupid competition,” I hiss at him. “I have to beat Anthony, I can’t wear that hotdog costume. If you would just convince all the guys on the basketball team to buy a--”
He holds up his hand so I’ll stop talking. I hate it when he does that, but in the interest of peace I shut up. “I’m done with this, Leah. If your stupid bet with Anthony is more important than me, I’m done.” He walks away. I stand with my mouth open, in complete shock, not sure whether to laugh or cry.
Jackson can’t break up with me, not now, not the day before Valentines Day. I really like him. More maybe than I’ve liked any guy I’ve dated. I even saved up a bunch of money and bought him tickets to a stupid basketball game. He’s supposed to be taking me out to dinner tonight to a nice restaurant. We’re the cutest couple at school. He’s supposed to be taking me to Prom. This isn’t supposed to be happening.
It takes a minute after Jackson stalks off for me to realize I’m not alone. A guy comes up to me, like he was waiting for Jackson to leave. He looks vaguely familiar. Maybe I flirted with him at some point today. “Are you okay?” He asks.
I’m too upset to pretend to be nice. I’m too upset to care whether I blow the competition. “Mind your own business!” I snap at him.
He backs away with his hands up. “Okay. Geez. I was just trying to be nice.”
Instead of hip-walking, I plod from class to class. I don’t flirt anymore, in fact, I don’t talk to anyone. I don’t even respond to Anthony when he presses both hands against the glass of his biology classroom window to show me that he’s up by seven points.
I avoid the crazy, last-minute after school candy-gram sales, but I can’t get out of helping to put them together. The other cheerleaders are already spread out on gym floor with tissue paper, ribbons, and candy scattered all around them when I get there. They have the music up loud and they’re talking louder. I sneak in and slump down beside Kari.
“Hey,” she says. “Good news.”
“Good news?” I ask her ironically. There’s no way she could not know that Jackson dumped me.
“Yeah, we made a ton of money, and you got a bunch of candy-grams right after school. I guess there were a lot of guys who felt sorry for you or something. “ She runs the scissors down a piece of ribbon and it springs back in a little pink curl. “Or, maybe they think you’re available now. It was kind of brilliant getting Jackson to pretend to break up with you like that.”
“He wasn’t pretending.” I say through my teeth. “He really broke up with me.”
“Really?” Kari puts her hand over her mouth. “Oh. I’m sorry. Right before Valentines Day? Oh. That sucks.”
“Yeah, it does.” I shake my head. “At least I don’t have to wear the stupid hotdog outfit. “
“Um, actually,” Kari keeps her eyes on the candy bar as she wraps it in white tissue paper. “We sold a lot for you, but um, Anthony still beat you, just barely.”
“Fabulous.” I throw my head back, bumping it on the gym wall. “How much did he beat me by?”
“Two points.” Kari says.
“It might as well be a hundred. Hotdog costume, here I—“ I stop as a conversation across the room catches my attention.
One of the JV cheerleaders is telling a guy standing at the door that it’s too late to buy a candy-gram. I recognize him as the boy who talked to me in the hall after Jackson broke up with me. I stand up and hurry over. Maybe I can still salvage some part of my dignity.
“Hey, Aimee,” I step in front of her, “We have plenty of candy left. Let’s give…?” I pause for him to supply his name.
“Carl,” he says.
“Carl, the chance to buy something for his girlfriend,” I touch his arm.
“Oh,” he looks flustered, he’s actually kind of cute, in a non-descript, wouldn’t stand out in a crowd sort of way. I was too upset before to notice how long his eyelashes were. “It’s not for my girlfriend.”
“O-oh?” I ask, “Who is it for then?”
“I want to buy a couple actually.” He crosses his arms over his chest, not as chiseled as Anthony or Jackson, but not bad. “One for my little sister and one for a girl who had a really crappy day.”
“Oh?” I flash my biggest smile, brush back my hair and lean in towards him. “That’s so sweet!” I touch his arm. “Nothing makes a girl feel better than chocolate.”
He takes a step back, “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. But I want them both to be anonymous.”
“Oh, okay. Thanks so much for supporting the cheerleaders.” I turn back to Aimee, “Could you help my friend, Carl here? Make sure he signs his name to the sheet, even if it’s not on the card.” I walk away quickly, because I don’t want to ruin his surprise.
When everything is wrapped and ready to go, I head back to the table to make the final tally. I push through the basket with my name on it, full to overflowing, and count up all my points, even though I’m sure I’ve won. I still come up one point short. I push through the basket again, this time looking for a card that’s in Aimee’s handwriting. I find it, but instead of the chocolate bar, it’s a a stupid lollipop.
I call Aimee over to verify. “What did that last guy buy?” I ask with my hand on the card.
“A lollipop bouquet for his little sister, a lollipop for you, and a candy bar for some girl named Wendy Green.”
“Wendy Green?” I ask, screwing my face up into a school. “The girl who’s in Special Ed?”
Aimee shrugs, “I don’t know her, but his sister is Kaylee Fox, the freshman who came to cheer camp, but then quit because her family couldn’t afford the uniform.”
I barely here what she's saying. I can't believe Carl gave a candy bar to Wendy Green and just a lollipop to me.
I’m the last cheerleader to leave, partly because I realize too late that Jackson won’t be picking me up and I have to call Mom, and partly because I have to do something that the other cheerleaders might not agree with. I spend a lot of time looking at the one, single candy bar for Wendy Green, and the single lollipop stuck in the middle of my overflowing basket. The one the boy whose name I know now is Carl, left for me.
One point between me and a long baseball game in a hot, itchy hotdog costume. One point between me and public humiliation, and Wendy Green will probably be just as thrilled to get the lollipop as she would a candy bar. She won’t even know the difference. It should be an easy decision. My texts me from the car, "I'm here," and I make up my mind. I switch the Wendy’s chocolate bar to my basket, and leave the lollipop for her.
In the middle of the night, I dream about another girl crying in the bathroom, but this time it’s me. I’m in the fourth grade, and I’m crying because I fell and ripped my pants. All my friends went to lunch without me. All I can think about is how hungry I am, and how mad my mom will be when she sees the ripped jeans. Then the little girl that talked funny came in. She patted my hand and shared a box of raisins with me, and went to get the nurse. The next time I saw her, she tried to say hi to me, but my friends laughed at the way she talked and we all ran away. I don’t remember ever seeing her again.
I wake up from the dream with a lump of guilt working its way down my throat, choking me. I don’t sleep at all after that. I lie in bed thinking. A couple of times I consider getting to the school early and switching the candies back. Instead I spend extra time covering the dark circles under my eyes with make-up and curling my hair until its perfect. I have to look so good that nobody notices I’m spending Valentines Day alone for the first time since Anthony dumped me.
By the time I get to school, Kari has already informed Anthony that he lost the bet. He’s dressed in the cupid costume, armed with a bow (but no arrows, school policy), and a long list of candy-grams. He salutes me and he heads off to make his deliveries. I don’t gloat. Maybe because he’s being a good sport. Maybe because I’m still upset about Jackson. Maybe because the heavy lump of guilt has worked its way into my stomach.
Anthony delivers candy-grams all day. He really gets into the cupid thing, like he was actually enjoying it, but I still feel guilty every time I see him. When he catches me between classes, he winks and says he’s saving something special for my delivery, to show he doesn’t have any hard feelings. I work to avoid Carl, the guy who bought the candy-grams for me. Until yesterday, I didn’t know he existed. Now I see him everywhere, like he’s following me; him and Wendy and Anthony. The lump of guilt in my stomach gets so big, that I skip lunch. If I ate one tiny piece of chocolate, I’d throw up. I no longer want even one candy-gram, much less the basket that’s waiting for me.
I just want the day to be over. Anthony finally shows up during choir, my last class. He has my basket of candy-grams in his arms and about half the baseball team is with him, including Carl, who I didn’t know played baseball. The choir teacher, Ms. Blanchett stands up in front of the class. “These boys have a presentation for a special girl in our class.”
I glance towards the corner where Wendy is standing by herself. She’s rocking back and forth, her eyes half-closed, with her one lollipop stuck in her cheek. She looks happy. In fact, she’s beaming. I knew she’d be fine.
“Leah?” Ms. Blanchett smiles at me.
But I’m not sure I’ll be.
I look back at Wendy, then at Anthony, then at Carl, then down at the ground. I’m positive Carl knows what I did. The look of disappointment in his eyes is too much. Without looking at anyone else, I hurry to the front of the room. I grab Anthony by the hand and push him out the door and shut it behind us so I don’t hear the murmurs from the class that follow us out.
Before Anthony can say anything I take the basket from him, put it on the ground and start digging through it.
"Are you hungry?" He asks.
I ignore him, pull out the card from Carl, the one I switched, and shove it into my pocket.
“What are you doing Leah?” Anthony squats down next to me and I realize he actually looks good in a sash, diaper and pink wings.
“Help me, okay?” I pull out a candy bar and carefully peel the card off of it. “We have to get the cards with my name on them off everything. I need the basket to go to someone else.”
“What are you talking about?” He says.
“I cheated okay?” I take the next card off. “I lost the bet, so I switched a candy bar for someone else with a lollipop for me.”
“You mean you made me wear a diaper for—”
“Get over yourself, you know you enjoyed it. You love being the center of attention.“ I smooth the place where I pulled the card off a candy bar, wishing I had time to re-wrap it and make it look nicer. “I’ll still wear the stupid hotdog costume. I’ll even do it for two games okay?”
“How about the entire state tournament? Our school is hosting it this year.” Anthony grins and reaches into the basket to help me.
I grit my teeth. “Okay whatever, just don’t tell Carl.”
“Don’t tell me what?” Suddenly Carl is standing above me, with his eyebrows raised, watching me tear apart my basket.
I look up at him, wondering how I could have ever missed a guy like that. Not just a guy with pretty eyes and a decent chest. The kind of guy who would give a candy-gram to his little sister, and a Special Ed girl who was having a bad day, and even me, who deserved it less than anyone in the whole school. “I switched the candy-gram you gave me with the one you gave Wendy, I’m sorry.”
He shakes his head, his eyes heavy with disappointment. “Haven’t you got enough--”
“—but I want to make it right.” I finish taking off the cards and hold the basket up to him. “I want to give her these. All of them.” He keeps shaking his head. “And maybe I can get your sister back on the cheer team for the state competition. We had a girl break her ankle, so we really need Kaylee to complete the formation. She was fabulous at camp and she can wear my freshman uniform, and I can work with her after school so she knows the routines. Whatever I can do to help, I’ll do it.”
“What about all the guys who sent you candy-grams?” Carl leans against the wall, a little smile pushing away some of the disappointment in his face.
“I’ll write them all thank you cards.” I say, indicating the pile on the floor next to me, “Just please, stop following me around, making me feel guilty.”
He laughs. “I wasn’t following you. We have three classes together and the same lunch period. We have for this entire semester. You actually borrowed a pen from me in English two weeks ago, before you were trying to win the candy-gram competition.”
“Oh.” Now I feel really stupid; worse than hotdog costume, mustard yellow stupid, and guilty again. “I guess I’ve kind of been wrapped up in--”
“Yourself?” Anthony finishes.
I look down at the floor and think about how terrible I’ve been, to him, to Carl, to Wendy, to Jackson, to pretty much everyone.
“C’mon you two,” Anthony says. “I have one more delivery to make and then I want to get out of this thing, before I get diaper rash.”Carl laughs, and I laugh with relief.
We walk back into the choir room and I whisper my plan to Ms. Blanchett. She nods and calls Wendy to the front of the room. The baseball team sings the first verse of “My Girl,” badly, and Anthony hands her the basket of candy-grams. Wendy gets so excited that she starts shaking and nearly drops the basket. The whole room breaks into applause. Ms. Blanchett wipes her eyes. I realize I’m crying too.
As the bell rings, I try to melt into the crowd so I can fix my mascara, but Carl is there again. I take a deep breath. “Are you busy tonight?” I ask, more nervous than I’ve been for a very long time.
“Don’t you have about a hundred thank you cards to write out?” he says.
“Yeah, but I’d rather start with an ‘I’m sorry.’ How would you like to go to the Pizza Shack with me? I could buy you dinner.”
His face breaks into a grin that reveals a row of braces, on him, very cute. “I think I could handle that. You can just meet me there, I get off at eight.” Carl raises his hand to Anthony and disappears into the crowd.
The room empties and I’m left with Anthony, still shaking his head at me.
“He works at the Pizza Shack, doesn’t he?” I say sheepishly. Anthony’s head shake turns into a nod. “Was I ever rude to him?”
“Most likely, but he’ll get over it.” Anthony takes off his pink wings and tucks them under his arm. “A guy can forgive a lot when you look the way you do. But I suggest you be nice to this one. I don’t want to see you mess things up with only the second decent guy you’ve ever gone out with. ”
I lean into him and put my flirty face back on, thinking about what he said about forgiveness. “You’re not really going to make me wear that hotdog costume for the entire state tournament are you?” Instead of answering, he starts walking away. I gather up my pile of cards and follow him down the hall. “Anthony? C’mon, you actually enjoyed the diaper thing, and you look good in it. It shows off your chest, all the girls said so.” I have to trot to catch up to him. “Maybe I could get the cheer team to cheer for the baesball tournament.” He keeps walking. “Hey, how do you feel about basketball? I have a couple of tickets you could have. Really great seats.” He ignores me and turns toward the locker room, his bow dragging on the ground, his diaper sagging just enough to show off his heart-print underwear.
I stop following him and sigh. The state baseball tournament is months away, maybe the cheerleaders can sell Shamrock-grams or Easter eggs and we could do the competition again. Anthony could be the Easter Bunny or the tallest leprechaun ever, or maybe we I can bet against him getting Prom king. Whatever.