Many Sleepyside residents were initially opposed to the addition of a two-to-four-story mall to the central area of town. Arguments against it cited the accompanying creation of chaos and traffic hazards, and ruination of the bucolic charm of the town and landscape.
Dan had not been one of them. “I really don’t give a damn about who’s building what where unless it infringes upon someone else’s personal liberties,” he’d said. “Besides, the sooner a smoothie shop gets to this place, the better.”
The need for commerce and jobs eventually won out, and the mall was quickly constructed. Once finished, it boasted of forty-eight shops and restaurants in the primary two stories, with one four-story department store at the north end, and another at the south.
Now, fifteen-year-old Mart Belden restlessly paced down the corridor, passing numerous shops on either side. Fifty businesses in the place, not counting the center kiosks or food court, and he still had no idea what sort of Valentine’s Day present to give to Dan.
Wandering into the bookstore, Mart glanced around for gift ideas. One Valentine’s Day display featured trite titles such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Another held a cluster of Laurell K. Hamilton books. Mart snorted. No thanks.
Wandering further into the store, Mart paused at the comic book aisle, where he normally could have spent hours. A comic trade was too obvious of a gift; they talked about comics all the time (Dan’s favorite characters were Thor and Loki).
Moving to another holiday display, Mart scrutinized a text on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Dan was raised Catholic, after all, and those people loved hearing about their saints. But no, a book was too impersonal.
A pair of college-aged women ambled by Mart, one of them relating a tale to another. “--and when she finally showed up, she had her boyfriend in tow! They were doing that oversexed couple thing all throughout the movie, and I felt like a total third wheel, even though I was the one who made plans--”
A movie, maybe? But Mr. Maypenny didn’t keep a TV in his cabin, and besides, Mart had already shared the Belden family Netflix subscription with Dan on his laptop. A movie would be redundant.
Continuing to scan the store, hope briefly surged through Mart when he spotted the collectibles section. They both enjoyed Dr. Who, so maybe some franchise merchandise? No, Dan already owned a Weeping Angel T-shirt (in black, of course), and really, what other Dr. Who merchandise did a person need? Besides, Dan didn’t believe in possessions for the sake of possessions, therefore eliminating any type of pop culture novelty gift. Dan would prefer something he would use regularly.
Clothes? That would be simple, as Dan’s color of choice was black, sometimes with dark blue, gray, red, or green. Very occasionally, he wore another brighter color, but that was usually when he didn’t have the heart or time to dye it black. Yet, clothing seemed too direct when they’d only been dating, and unofficially, at that, for a month.
During a quiet moment alone together at Christmas, Dan had grabbed him and kissed him under the mistletoe.
“You want this?” Mart had asked, surprised. He’d signalled his interest to Dan on several previous occasions, and while Dan reciprocated each time, he’d also always shied away from the idea of a relationship, per usual when anyone expressed a romantic interest in him outside of sex. He’d since assumed Dan preferred one night stands to any actual continued companionship. Love ‘em and leave ‘em, that was Dan, dating no one but warming the bed of anyone who so much as glanced in his direction. Until that someone wanted commitment from him. That’s when Dan took his leave without so much of a backwards glance.
“Yeah.” Dan had smiled then, not the artificial one he wore for the sake of politeness, not the sarcastic one he used for authority figures, but a genuine smile that softened his face and lent him radiant appeal. “I think it’s about time, don’t you?”
Since then, they’d been together without actually naming their relationship. Dan had stopped falling into bed with any girl or adult woman who invited him, and Mart had put a little bit of distance between Diana and himself, just enough to indicate he was now dating someone else. He wanted to make this relationship work, and if Dan, the ultimate cynic and skeptic, was willing to give it a try, Mart thought the two of them could be more than happy together.
While Mart knew Dan was not a person to judge a gift in itself, and rather would simply be grateful for the thought, he wanted to give Dan a present that proved they were good for each other, proved Mart knew him and cared for him deeply. The only problem was that Mart couldn’t determine any gift Dan might actually want.
With a sigh, Mart exited the bookstore, just in time to hear yet another saccharine jewelry commercial gushing over the sentimental significance of diamond rings for Valentine’s Day. As he walked, he saw nothing but ads and store windows hawking their Valentine-themed wares; his mood did briefly lift, though, at the sight of a poster for Victoria’s Secret, depicting scantily clad women with oil-rubbed bodies posing sexily and gazing confidently at the camera.
But the tagline-- Get your sweetheart something sexy this Valentine’s Day -- brought a scowl to his face. It was as though all of the advertisements were mocking him and his utter cluelessness.
Well, if current commercialism didn’t give Mart any good ideas, maybe past celebrations would.
After dinner that evening, Mart took his turn clearing the table and washing the dishes. As he did, Bobby claimed the kitchen table to make his mailbox for the Valentine’s Day exchange at the elementary school. Their mother joined Bobby, presumably to ascertain he didn’t eat the paste.
Once he was finished with his chores, Mart perused the book shelves of the family room until he found the object of his search: his parents’ wedding album. Hopefully, seeing the wedding presents they received would inspire a deep, meaningful gift he could give to Dan.
Unfortunately for him, there was no list or pictures of wedding gifts. Luckily, Mart had not one, but two other sources to consult on the matter.
A certain page of the album did catch his attention, though. The page contained nothing but a three-inch by three-inch square of nylon, with a large, gaping gash across the fabric. The jagged edges of the tear were lined with some sort of glue to prevent fraying.
Curious, Mart lugged the album into the kitchen, where his mother was just preventing Bobby from upending the entire container of glitter onto the cardboard shoebox, which was now wrapped in red paper.
“What’s the story with this?” He asked his mother, indicating the damaged piece of fabric.
His mother looked at the page and smiled. “Oh, Lord, that’s from before your father and I were married. We met as freshmen in college, and we didn’t date until years later. One night, I had just finished studying and was going to meet my boyfriend-- not your father at that time-- for dinner. But my heel caught on the sidewalk, and I stumbled and fell. There were plenty of people nearby, and I was very embarrassed. Not to mention my stockings were ruined, and with my apartment all the way across campus, I would be late if I went back to change.”
“What happened?” Bobby questioned while placing stickers haphazardly on the box’s outer lid.
“Your father happened to be close by,” Mrs. Belden told them. “He helped me up, and when I mentioned I was going to be late to meet my boyfriend, he immediately volunteered to drive me.” She chuckled. “He must have been going twice the speed limit when he drove me back to my apartment, and three times when he took me to the restaurant later. But it meant a lot to me that he was willing to help me out.”
“So, this is a piece of your old stockings, then?” Mystery solved, Mart closed the album, preparing to replace it on the shelf.
“A few weeks later, my boyfriend proposed to me, but I wasn’t ready to settle down,” Mrs. Belden explained. “We separated amicably, and the next time I saw your father, I asked him to coffee. I remembered how kind he had been to me, even though we weren’t dating and weren't very familiar with each other. Remember that, gentlemen.” She looked meaningfully at Mart and Bobby. “If you want to truly impress someone, you don’t do it through machismo, ego, money, jealousy, or antagonism. You don’t do it by treating that person as less than you. The true way to the heart is generosity and kindness.”
“Why didn’t you sew the stockings back?” Bobby asked, crookedly taping a ribbon along the edge of the box. “You always sew my shirts back.”
“I always intended to repair those stockings, but busy as college is, by the time I got around to it, my roommate’s cat had shredded them beyond repair,” Mrs. Belden admitted. “Ironically, the only section that rascal left intact was the part I’d already ripped, and by then, since I was dating your father, I decided to keep them and see where it went. And as it turned out, I had an interesting keepsake to show off during my wedding speech.”
“Speaking of weddings,” Mart inquired hopefully, “what was your favorite wedding gift?”
“Our washer and dryer,” Mrs. Belden said promptly. “We still have them today. Back when your grandparents lived here, they had their laundry sent out, but it’s much more convenient to simply wash clothes at home.”
“Er, any favorites that weren’t major appliances?” Mart pressed.
“Hmm.” Mrs. Belden thought for a moment. “Thinking about it, your uncle Harold gave us a very nice gift basket. It had all kinds of treats-- jams, wines, artisan crackers, pastries-- all those extras that are fun to have but you don’t want to spend the excess money yourself. It wasn’t an actual wedding gift, but a housewarming present we received after the honeymoon.”
A gift basket. Well, it wasn’t like Mart had any better ideas. “Thanks, Moms,” he said. “That’s an interesting story, too, about how you decided to date Dad.”
“You’re welcome, dear,” Mrs. Belden replied serenely, as she pulled a jar of sequins away from the edge of the table just before Bobby’s elbow could knock it down.