Flashback to 10 or 12 years ago
Burke, one of Erica’s childhood friends, stepped down and out from the school bus. It was a long ride to school, which took the driver into Nebraska to pick him up, an arrangement granted by the superintendent, due to Burke's mother being the school district’s autism coordinator. They would move to town in Kansas, where he could walk to school, but for now it was an hour on the bus each way.
Instead of going inside to seventh-grade home room or playing touch football with his friends on the playground, he crossed the street, down to the grocery store, one of two stores in town carrying valentines. Burke received no cash allowance, had come to town on Saturday with his mother, who had some office work to do. Burke took a couple hours walking around town in search of snow-deep walkways to clear and earn enough cash to choose from anything the store carried.
At a glance there were many rows of cards with various red and white and pink envelopes. He had to be in class by 8:30. Looking at his watch, it was 8:09, giving little time to make a selection, sign it with love and deliver it by hand, and not be late to home room. He started looking through cards, taking a moment to look at their covers, opening them and reading the messages, but there was too little difference between them. So the minimum was best, a card in flat pink, ‘Love’ embossed in red and white on the cover, the inside blank, and a red envelope.
At the checkout, the store manager said something that Burke was preoccupied not to hear. He put the card in his pack, hurried over to school, entering through a small crowd of harrying eighth-graders, pacing down to the library, across from the second grade. Taking a piece of scrap paper from the librarian’s desk, he sat at the large, empty table and jotted down ideas for a message, wishing he had done this over the weekend. Filling half the sheet with notes, he settled on, simply, “To Erica, Happy Valentine's Day, From Burke,” and set to work then on his unruly cursive, rewriting the message until his hand could reproduce a pleasant version for the card.
Halfway to class, Burke saw Erica talking to friends, ready for home room. He passed the lobby, paused in the peak of his own confidence though years of schooling there and then to come, paused and looked back into the office at a dozen roses. He’d neglected to get a rose along with the card. Entering the office, he moved near the vase on the high countertop, the secretary in the principal’s office. They were talking and the principal was turned in his chair, facing almost away from the window and Burke, who plucked a rose from the vase and swiftly wrapping it inside his coat, paused for a breath, and a slower breath, turning then and walking out. Looking back, he felt a chill to match the gaze of the principal, still talking to the secretary, but looking directly at him. Hesitating for a moment, Burke then continued up the hall to class with fright in his chest. He quickly enfolded the long stem into the card and, stopping curtly, extended the valentine to Erica. She looked at the rose and then to him, accepting and turning quietly into home room. Burke crumpled the red envelope and the scrap sheet, entered the next door, tossed the scraps in the wastebasket and put the matter out of his thoughts.