Miles had never failed an assignment and he was not going to start now.
He looked at the construction paper covering his desk, which he had cut into 24 red and pink folding hearts. On the inside of each he had written a short, perfunctory "Happy Valentine's Day from Miles." He had used the correct colors, the right shape, and the obligatory message; he had done everything the teacher had asked, even if he thought the whole activity was childish and silly.
"Now class," he heard her say from the front of the room, "I know you're working hard on your valentines for each other, and you're doing a good job. When you're finished with the ones for the whole class, you can use the rest of the day to make any other valentines that you want. They can be for your mom, or your dad, or your brothers and sisters, or anyone else special to you. I'm making one for my husband now." The girls in the class released a chorus of "Aww!"
"Hey Teach!" Larry leaned back in his chair, rubbing at his nose and spreading glitter all over it. "Can we make, you know, secret valentines? Like secret admirer ones?” He looked over at Cerise, one of the blonde-haired girls, and grinned. She and her friends giggled.
“Hmm, I suppose you’re getting to that age,” the teacher said, thin lips pursed thoughtfully. “All right, you may also make secret admirer valentines too if you want.” Once again the girls grew loud and excited, and the room erupted in a flurry of paper.
Miles collected his valentines and stored them in his bag. He had no desire to make any more silly cards. Once they were distributed tomorrow, the school could go back to being about education and learning and not silly holidays and crafts. He pulled out his new Encyclopedia Brown novel and started the next chapter.
“Hey Miles.” He felt someone poke him in the arm, interrupting his reading. Only two people in the class would ever bother him, and one of them was sneezing glitter all over his desk.
“What is it, Phoenix?”
“Look over there.” He followed where Phoenix was pointing, and saw a group of girls quickly look away and erupt into giggles.
He felt his face heat up. “Why are they laughing at me?”
“I don’t think they’re laughing at you.” Phoenix gave a shaky laugh himself and tugged at his sleeves. “I think they like you, Miles. You’re probably gonna get a lotta secret valentines tomorrow.”
His eyes briefly widened in shock, wondering why on earth he would receive anything so silly.
“Aw, no fair Edgey,” Larry whined once he stopped sneezing. “Why do all the girls like you anyway? You’re boring. I give valentines to all the girls but they don’t like me any better.”
First laughter, now insults. Miles glared at Larry. “I am smart and well-behaved. You are wild and… and uncouth,” he said, proud of remembering such a word. “And besides, don’t you like Cerise? If you give all the girls valentines, then she might not think you like her best.”
Larry frowned, thinking, and then he promptly banged his hands on his desk. “You’re right!” He stood up, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Hey girls! Don’t expect any valentines from me, ‘cause I only got eyes for Cerise!”
The entire class burst out in nervous laughter. The teacher forced Larry to sit down again, and his friend began working on a giant pink monstrosity to give to his crush.
The whole class worked on their new cards except for Miles, who kept reading. He even saw Phoenix making a new card… several, in fact, as he gave up half-way through completion of each one and discarded them, only to start another.
“Who are you making yours for?” he finally asked after Phoenix’s fifth trip to the garbage can.
“Oh!” Phoenix looked startled, like he had been caught sneaking a cookie before dinner. “It’s, um, it’s just one of those extra valentines the teacher said we could do.”
“But who is it for?” Phoenix just fidgeted, and Miles put it together. “It’s a secret admirer valentine, isn’t it?”
Phoenix nodded. “But it’s for someone special, so it has to be perfect.”
He looked around the room, wondering who Phoenix would want to send such a valentine to. “Then try your hardest. As long as you work hard on it, then it’ll be perfect. Don’t keep wasting paper.”
“Okay.” He looked back at Phoenix, who was now smiling at him. “If you say so.” Phoenix grabbed a new sheet of dark red construction paper and pulled out his box of crayons, looking relieved.
They were quiet after that. Eventually, Phoenix said, “It must be nice to get a secret admirer valentine. Every class I’ve been in since second grade has let us give those out. I never got one before.” He sounded really… sad.
Miles frowned; even if valentines were not important to him, he could tell they meant something to Phoenix. “Why would you want one anyway?”
Phoenix shrugged. “Just to feel special, I guess.”
As the bell rang to dismiss the school, Miles packed up slowly, thinking over what Phoenix said. A valentine would make Phoenix feel special, which would make his friend feel happy. Shouldn’t he want to make his friend happy? Especially if it was about something important to him. And besides, there were many things he liked about Phoenix, so sending him an admirer valentine would be only natural. When he was the last one in the classroom, he tucked in extra construction paper and art supplies into his bag.
He walked home with Phoenix and Larry, as usual, and when he got to his house he ran up to his bedroom and spilled out his bag. He sat at his desk and stared at the paper, wondering what kind of valentine Phoenix would like. He shuffled the crayons and the glue and the other supplies around his desk, trying to think of the perfect card. He’d never really put so much thought and effort into this task before – to make it really special – and he had no idea what to do.
He was so absorbed in his task that he didn’t hear the soft knock at his bedroom door. “Miles?” He jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder, but to his relief is was only his father, coming to check on him. “What are you working on?”
“It’s a card, a- a special card,” he answered, feeling both happy and a little scared that his father was taking such an interest. He was sure his father could make a perfect card, and he wanted to make him proud in everything he did.
“Is it for Valentine’s Day?” He nodded, and his father frowned thoughtfully. “I thought you didn’t care for the holiday.”
“I don’t! I still think it’s silly. But…” He felt his face turn red. “But it’s for someone who doesn’t think it’s silly.”
His father smiled gently. “Ah, I think I see. Is it for someone special? A special friend?”
Miles nodded again, fidgeting with his crayons.
His father’s smile turned wistful. “It’s times like these I wish your mother were still here. She was always much better with things like this.” The afternoon sun glinted off his glasses, hiding his eyes.
Miles was worried, about to tell his father that everything was all right, but then the hand on his shoulder squeezed tightly and his father gave him a bright grin. “I’m not very good with art, or romance,” he said, as Miles blushed profusely at hearing his father talk about things like romance, “but I’ll help you as best I can.” He ran his hand through his greying black hair, leaning over Miles’s shoulder and looking at the different pieces of construction paper. “The first thing is to decide why you’re sending a valentine.”
Miles shifted in his chair, feeling embarrassed. “Why? Well, he looked sad, and he said he wanted to feel special, and I want him to be happy. So getting a card will make him feel special and happy.”
His father’s brows lifted. “You’re making this for a boy?” Miles just nodded again, feeling like his throat was closing up and stealing his words.
After a moment he felt his father’s hand rubbing across his back, steady and calming. “Well that’s all right. Do I know who he is?”
“It’s for Phoenix,” he said, ducking his head and letting his bangs fall into his eyes.
To his surprise, his father laughed quietly. “Well, that makes sense,” he seemed to say to himself. Miles frowned, wondering what that meant, but then his father pulled over one of the sheets of paper. “He likes blue, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, it’s his favorite color,” Miles said, still feeling embarrassed but grateful for help.
“Then start with this. Try making it into a heart, or some other shape he likes.”
“He probably likes hearts best,” he said, taking the scissors and neatly cutting out a big heart. “What else should I do?”
“Well, it’s a little plain if you just leave it like that. Try decorating the heart. Draw some pictures, or cut out some more hearts to paste onto it.” Miles bit his lip as he concentrated on cutting out smaller hearts from the other colors of paper.
His father pulled out some of the crayons and moved them next to Miles’s pile of hearts. “While you’re doing that, decide what to write on the card.”
Miles stopped mid-cut. “Shouldn’t I just say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’?”
His father shook his head. “That’s what you put on all your other cards, right?”
“Yes,” he said, amazed his father knew what he’d done.
“Then this one won’t be as unique if you write the same thing. If you want Phoenix to be happy about your card, what can you say to make him feel special?”
“I don’t know,” Miles said, feeling lost. This was one reason why he disliked the holiday – what on earth could he say that would be acceptable?
“You could tell him reasons why he’s a good friend, or why you like him. Maybe write a poem? I know Shakespeare won over a lot of ladies, and, er, possibly men, with his poetry,” his father said. Miles stared thoughtfully at the blue heart, wondering what to do.
“I think what Phoenix would most like is if you’re honest, so write from your heart.” His father gently poked him in the chest, causing Miles to squirm and blush. He was then pulled into a big hug, his father holding him tightly. “I’m sure whatever you write will be fine.”
“Thank you, Father,” Miles said, once his father stood up again. He worked diligently on the valentine, grabbing books and looking up poems until dinner, and then carefully placed it in his bag once he was finished.
At school the next day, Miles walked around the room with the rest of the eager students, placing his cards in the boxes at the end of the desks. He made sure no one was watching him when he came to Phoenix’s desk, and quickly slipped inside the special card.
The whole class stayed inside for lunch, combining the break period with a Valentine’s Day party. Everyone was tipping over their boxes and sifting through the valentines. The girls were gathered in groups, letting out little shrieks and giggles as they looked at each other’s cards. Some of the boys were laughing at their cards, while others ignored them and instead got more pink-frosted cupcakes. Larry was sitting next to Cerise, trying to hold her hand after giving her his card personally. The entire class seemed wrapped up in the holiday’s frenzy.
Miles looked through his cards. There were a few poorly made ones, mostly from the boys. Some were more elaborate, with glitter and lace and poorly composed poetry; most of these were secret admirer valentines. While he could appreciate the effort that went into them – and some of them really were quite beautiful – he didn’t care who sent them. He had no interest.
One valentine was stuck at the bottom of his box, caught in the cardboard folds. He dug it out and found a dark red folded heart. Inside were pictures of trees and dogs and his favorite superheroes, drawn and colored quite skillfully. In the middle was a short blurb of words, printed out very carefully:
Happy Valentine’s Day! Here are lots of pictures to make you smile. You are a very good friend and I like you a lot. I’m very happy we’re friends, and I hope we’ll always stay that way. From your best friend and secret admirer.
There was no question who sent this valentine, even though no name was signed. He felt his heart give a strange lurch and he felt very warm and happy inside, and now he understood what Phoenix had meant when he said that getting a secret admirer valentine could make someone feel special.
He thought about it as he traced over each intricate little picture. Phoenix had sent him a secret valentine. Did that mean Phoenix wanted him to feel special, too?
He looked up and caught Phoenix watching him, bright blue eyes roaming over his face. The other boy was biting at his lip. “Do you like it?” he said, cheeks turning pink.
“I do,” he said, and found that he really meant it.
“I was worried it wouldn’t be as good as all the other secret admirer ones you probably got,” Phoenix said.
“I like this one best,” he said, feeling his own cheeks heat up. “Thank you, Phoenix.” He looked at Phoenix’s box and realized his friend hadn’t opened his cards yet. “Why haven’t you opened any of your cards?”
“They’ll all be the same. Just the same stupid cards everyone gives each other. Nothing really special.”
Miles looked away, blushing more. “Maybe you should check anyway, just to be sure.”
Phoenix tilted his head, confused, and turned his attention to his box. Miles, feeling suddenly very nervous and vulnerable, went to the teacher and asked for the restroom pass. He fled down the hallway, afraid of how Phoenix would react to his card. What if it wasn’t good enough? What if Phoenix thought it was just another ‘stupid card’? Or what if Phoenix laughed at it? He was grateful he had left it anonymous.
He waited in the restroom until the lunch break was over and the holiday party was finished. He returned to the classroom in time to see a crowd of students retreat from Phoenix’s desk, shuffling reluctantly back to their seats. On top of the desk was the card he had made: the giant blue heart, with smaller multi-colored hearts dotted around inside. He could almost make out his handwriting inside, the careful, swooshing cursive he had styled after the old book of poetry in his father’s study. He quickly took his seat, not daring to look over at Phoenix.
When the final bell rang, Phoenix was surrounded by a gaggle of girls again.
“Who sent it?”
“Do you know who it’s from?”
“Is she in this class?”
“Can I see it again?
“Let me see it!”
“I wanna see!”
“I wish I’d gotten a card like this!”
“It’s so romantic!”
Phoenix pushed his way out of the girls and hurried over to the door. “Come on Miles, Larry! I wanna go home.”
Larry tore himself away from Cerise, who giggled and waved at him, and joined them outside. “Man, Nick, what was that about?”
Phoenix shrugged. “I dunno. I got a secret admirer valentine. I’ve never gotten one before.” He smiled, face turning red, and handed the valentine to Larry.
Larry whistled as he looked at it. “Wow, it sounds like someone likes you a lot. Maybe one of the fifth-grade girls likes you!” He handed the card back to Phoenix, who put it back in his bag, and flung his arm around his shoulder. “You gotta introduce us to her! Then you can go on a double date with me and Cerise!”
Phoenix frowned. “What’s a double date?”
“It’s where you go out with your date and add more people each time. So the first time it’s you and your date, then you add two more people, and then two more, until you get a big group party. It’ll be fun!”
Phoenix looked puzzled. “I… don’t think I’d really like that, Larry.”
“Suit yourself. I’m going to Cerise’s house!” Larry took off running down the street, leaving Miles alone with Phoenix.
The two of them walked in silence. They passed by the empty playground, and Phoenix suddenly grabbed Miles’s hand and pulled him across the grass.
“Phoenix! What are you doing?” Miles tried not to stumble from the unexpected change in direction.
“Here, come over here,” Phoenix said, ducking beneath the slide and sitting with his back to the wooden wall. He pulled Miles down next to him into the little enclave, hidden from sight. He crossed his legs and settled in, and waited for Miles to do the same.
He pulled out the valentine Miles had sent him and started reading it aloud:
“You are friendly, kind and caring,
Loyal and understanding,
Happy and thoughtful and true,
And always there. That is you.
You are special and wise
With honest blue eyes,
So cheerful and bright
With no hint of spite.
You are warm like summer and precious like gold,
And our friendship won’t tarnish or ever grow old.
You’ll always be there, I know that is true.
And I will always be here for you.”
Miles looked at the ground as Phoenix spoke; out loud, the poem sounded a lot more silly than it had in his head. He was sure Phoenix was going to laugh at him now.
Instead, Phoenix set the valentine in the grass and turned toward him. “Do you really mean all that, Miles?”
He was startled at the soft tone in Phoenix’s voice. “How- Why do you think I wrote it?”
Phoenix gave him a flat, bemused look. “Come on, I know it was you.”
Slowly, eyes still on the ground, he nodded.
Phoenix suddenly wrapped him in a big hug, nearly bowling him over. “Thank you so much Miles! This is the best valentine’s card I’ve ever gotten. I think this is the best Valentine’s Day I’ve ever had.”
“You’re… you’re welcome,” he said, returning the hug. They remained like that a moment, both holding tightly, and then Phoenix pulled back. Before Miles could do anything, Phoenix turned his head to the side and gave Miles a kiss on his cheek.
Miles’s face turned bright red, his heart raced frantically. “Phoenix?”
“That’s what you do, right? You give special people a kiss?” Phoenix looked uncertain, his fingers curling in the grass.
Miles wasn’t sure; he had never been in such a position before. But he was determined to make Phoenix feel happy, and so he leaned forward and pressed his own lips against Phoenix’s cheek, giving him a kiss in return.
Phoenix looked up at him and smiled again. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Miles.”
He flushed and ducked his head, but smiled back. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Phoenix.”