How many Valentine’s Days can you say start with a hot-off-the-presses short story by William C. Morris YA Debut Award-Winner, Blythe Woolston (she won for her first novel, “The Freak Observer” and her latest “Catch and Release” is just as awesome)? I mean, really. And it goes so well with that chocolate in your bag–or, maybe we should say you’re gonna need that chocolate when you finish this doozy of a story. Enjoy!
By Blythe Woolston
I start my day at Zero. This is because they have tacked on an extra period before Homeroom, before First Period: Period Zero.
For me, Period Zero is Algebra II, taught by Ms. Kurt. She calls us by our last names and never grades on the curve. She takes our failures, which is to say any score lower than 80 percent, personally. It reflects badly on her as a teacher.
Her hair is cut off flat on top so it looks like a rank of little steel wires. She used to be a drill sergeant, or so the story goes. It might be true, or it might just be the easiest explanation for her hard-assed ways and barking commands. She is never amused.
Crap is something with which she will not put.
But today is Valentine’s Day, and the flutter and chatter of that is here, in Period Zero. When they got rid of all the rest of the holiday parties in the school district, they kept Valentine’s Day. No more Santas. No bunnies. No eggs. No Halloween, for sure. The whole Pilgrim thing wasn’t working, either. But the school board left us one sugar-fueled, construction-paper craft blow-out: Valentine’s Day. After all, we all had to write the names of everybody on little paper envelopes and sign our own names on a stack of little cards with robots or mermaids on them, so it was a penmanship exercise. So we’d always had Valentine’s Day.
Except now we are in high school and nobody is making sure we treat everyone fairly. Now it’s all about chocolate and hooking up and humiliation.
For sure, Ms. Kurt is not going to put up with that. At least that’s what I expect her to say when she shoots laser beams of disapproval out of her eyes to incinerate all flirters. But she doesn’t say that, she says, “I would think you could show some respect now he’s dead.” She looks at an empty desk and says, “Your classmate, Mr. Burton, died in an accident.” Then she turns and begins to write an equation on the board. The girl who sits beside me and right behind where Burton sat makes a gagging, strangled crying sound and bolts for the door. Ms. Kurt doesn’t acknowledge either of the empty desks, but as she makes her rounds of questions directed at specific students, she skips over those two missing people. Otherwise, everything is normal.
By the time I leave for Homeroom, Burton’s locker is starting to collect memorials. Since it’s Valentine’s Day, the cheer squad is selling red roses and little bags of chocolate kisses outside the main office. People buy the roses and stack them up against the grey metal door of the locker. There are some Beanie Babies and candles too. I don’t know where those came from; maybe people made a special trip to the shopping center down the street. Maybe there are that many people who keep that stuff in their lockers.
By the end of First Period, I know he drowned in the snow. He fell into a tree well while he was snowboarding. It was twilight and the snow was coming down hard. Under the sweeping branches of a fir on the side of Humpback Mountain there is a hole where the snow is loose and deep. He slid into that cold shadowed space and never got out. It must have been like being smothered in a feather pillow, drowning in the snow.
In Second Period there are arguments about if he had gone off groomed trails, if he had worn a helmet, if he was a jerk. His friends called him Chill.
In Third Period someone says that his friends hadn’t reported him missing. When he didn’t show up at the parking lot at the agreed time, they just drove home. None of Chill’s friends are in Third Period Chemistry, I guess, because there are no arguments.
At lunch, a vice principal announces that there will be a short moment of silence. Then it’s over.
When I pass by Chill Burton’s locker on my way to get something to eat, I can smell warm crust and toasted cheese. Someone has gone across the street to the strip mall and brought a pizza back and added it to the pile. I guess Chill liked pizza. Or maybe not. If I assume he liked pizza, then I might as well assume he also liked roses, little plush toys, and scented candles. If true, that seems odd, but I don’t know what he liked. I wasn’t his friend.
There are more public displays of affection in the halls than usual. It is Valentine’s Day. Is the kissing more desperate? Maybe. Girls are clumping together like wadded up tissues. There doesn’t seem to be any stairwell or window alcove that isn’t clogged with soggy girls and streaks of mascara.
The kids who always gather across the street where they can smoke on public property are doing that. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold or warm. They breathe clouds, and the clouds vanish. They did the same thing last Friday and Thursday before that. Today is no different.
My last class of the day is Mr. Gallagher’s Media and Communications. I’m in it because it was an elective and it fit into my schedule. Most of the rest of the class is full of people who are in his AP English class, too. Mr. Gallagher is a teacher with a fan base. The suckupery in Media and Communications is off the charts.
Chill Burton was in Gallagher’s Media and Comm class, too.
According to the syllabus, we are supposed to be discussing love as a commodity in advertising. It’s Valentine’s Day. Mr. Gallagher is relevant that way. But we don’t discuss advertising or love; he starts talking about media and reports of tragedy. He looks meaningfully at Chill Burton’s empty desk. He is relevant that way. It is an active student-led discussion, which means I don’t have to say anything. I just sit there and pretend that I’m taking notes. What I’m really writing is things like “When I get home I’m going to make some Ramen.”
The last ten minutes of Gallagher’s class are always devoted to “The Exchange.” It’s a long-term assignment. The first week of class, we all had to bring something “interesting” to share. A picture, a story—even a song. That was the first step in the communication exchange: We find the most interesting thing in the world and shove it in a three-ring binder.
Step two? We reply. We “engage in communication” by writing letters about the stuff in the binder. Every week for seven weeks, we each choose one of the offerings and write a letter to the student who contributed it. We put our letters in envelopes and turn them in to Mr. Gallagher. He checks the work off in the gradebook and then he delivers the mail. We aren’t writing to him; we are writing to each other.
The first day, I opened the notebook seven times at random. That’s how I made my seven choices. Then I went home and did some strategic Googling and a little cut-and-paste, which got me enough blahblahblah to fill up seven envelopes. Boom. I was finished with the long-term experiment in communication in one night. I planned to hand in one envelope a week. The checkmark goes in the grade book and my “active engagement in communication” is complete.
As for my interesting thing, I took a picture of my foot in the snow while I was walking home. I used my phone. I was pretty sure that it wasn’t interesting, which would save me the trouble of actually dealing with any letters. I was also sure it was enough to fulfill the assignment. I mean, how can Mr. Gallagher say it isn’t interesting? That’s all subjective. Except it’s not. Nobody finds it interesting. Nobody has written me a letter yet, anyway.
Until today. Today I get a letter. Mr. Gallagher looks at me in some way that I should find meaningful when he hands it to me. The name scribbled in the return address corner is C. Burton. He thought a blurry foot in the snow was interesting. I put the envelope into my spiral notebook and shove that into my book bag. The assignment doesn’t require that we share the letters.
Walking home, I see someone has stuck the stems of roses into the snow by the steps of the school. It’s like a little kid made a picture with crayons: white page, blobs of red flowers, lines of green stems.
The story about Chill Burton being dead is on the local news. Mom asks if I knew him. I say, “No.” Three hundred and sixty seven people died when a ferry sank in Bangladesh. I didn’t know any of them either.
After dinner, I sit on my bed and do enough homework to keep everybody off my back. The envelope slides out of my notebook. It crosses my mind that it was written by a dead guy, but then I realize that most of the stuff I read was written by dead guys. Shakespeare? Dead guy. Thomas Jefferson? Dead. It’s possible that all the people who wrote my math textbook are dead. Or not. It doesn’t make any difference.
I pick the envelope up and flip it over, but I don’t open it. I remember when I brought my stuff home from the Valentine’s Day parties at grade school. I would go through the pile and sort out all the candy. There were always some heart-shaped erasers or pencils with “loveLOVElove” printed on them. But the Valentines? All those little paper robots and mermaids? Those weren’t interesting at all. I did what I had to do. I wrote my name in the little space after the “from.” I wrote the other names on flimsy little envelopes and scribbled each one off a list the teacher sent home. I scribbled them out, every person in my class, and then I was done with them.
I look at the envelope with C. Burton in the corner and my name on the front. There is no good reason to open it. It’s just another Valentine. He wrote my name on the envelope and his at the end of a “letter” because the teacher said to do it. There is no reason to open it, but I do.
It’s written on lined paper with a pencil.
I almost missed your message. You know how it is flipping through the exchange notebook. Most of the stuff in there is—I don’t know. Noisy? You know. You know the stuff people stuck in there. Dolphins on fire—that’s what I put in there.
I never saw that. I never saw dolphins on fire. I’m kind of glad I didn’t.
But the picture you put in there, it was a pretty quiet message. A foot—that’s probably your foot, right?—in the snow. I guess I flipped by it a bunch of times because it was so familiar. I mean, I have a foot. I’ve seen it in the winter, leaving my tracks in the snow just like that.
So I just want to say, you’re right. It is important. Just having a foot, being a person in the world. That’s important.
I look at my foot.
Outside the window, the snow is falling again. It will be deep by morning if it keeps up. Up on the Humpback Mountain, it is filling in the tracks Chill Burton made. Closer, much closer, it is drifting over the roses in front of the school and erasing the green and the red. All that will be left is the blank page. I will walk past and read what it says on my way to Zero, because I start my day at Zero.
Blythe Woolston is the author of “The Freak Observer” and “Catch And Release,” both published by Carolrhoda Lab. Her third book, “Black Helicopters,” will be coming from Candlewick in 2013. Visit her blog for more information about what she is reading and writing.