A Short Story by K. L. Tabor
Written using the suggestion "Bonfire"
Originally featured on 04-09-2009
As part of our series "Where the Wild Words Are (Words Gone Wild!)"

The small school on the edge of town[1], just past Lake Drive, is quiet this morning. Eighteen faces stare up at Miss Worthington, who, dressed in blue, has her back to the class. She selects a piece of chalk — a new piece of chalk, not yet broken, and writes on the board in large cursive letters “Love,” underlines it, and turns to face the class.

“Now, we all know that tomorrow is Lupin Lake’s Valentine’s Day observance, so I thought we would review the very thing it is all about; Love. Who can tell me about love?”

The eighteen kids are visibly anxious and they shift in their seats. Mary Wills, pale faced and small, raises her hand, “Love,” she repeats, “is about finding someone to give your heart to who will give you their heart back in return.”

“That’s right Mary.” Miss Worthington smiles, “That’s right. And does anyone know at what age you should give your heart away?”

A tall, thin boy in the back with eyes that are too big for his head raises his hand, “At sixteen, Ma’am.”

“Yes, John, that’s correct…”

Miss Worthington is interrupted by the bell marking the end of the day. The children fidget but remain seated. Miss Worthington frowns, “I shouldn’t have let reading group go so long. Oh well, none of you are sixteen yet, so no need to worry.” She smiles faintly, as if amused at something and continues, “So never-you-mind children about love, just yet. Now, your homework packets are on the back table with your names on them, please pick yours up before you leave. I hope you all have a lovely, lovely weekend. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

And the class is dismissed. And all eighteen children stand up and quietly shuffle out of the room. Miss Worthington watches them leave with a meditative look on her face, “They all seem very gray today,” she thinks to herself, then turns and erases the board.

June Callie — June Lupa Callie rides her bike as quickly as possible. Don’t be late, June, don’t be late, she mutters in her head. The bike pedals are spinning faster than she can keep up and June clumsily misses her footing and her left foot scrapes against the pedal. The scrape runs up her ankle, and a small bit of blood appears on her skin. June doesn’t notice. She’s in too much of a hurry. John’s house is just at the next corner, above the wood shop where he works. John John John, she hums his name to the whir of her bicycle, faster and faster.

John is tall for his age. At least for the town of Lupin Lake, a historically small town. He’s seventeen, and already 6 feet tall, and everyone says he will still grow. Well, at least Mrs. Brefield says he will grow, and Mrs. Brefield talks for the town.

He swings his hammer steady to the wood. Mindy with the long red hair leans over the fence watching him. “John,” she asks, more to the wind than to him “You’ll give me your heart for Valentine’s Day, won’t you?”

“Mindy,” He replies without ever looking up, “You always have my heart.”

She smiles and rests her chin on the fencing. Just for a second. Then turns and skips back to her house. Light and airy.

June is back on her bike, faster and faster, she rides through the main street past all the closed shops. She peers in a house and sees Mr. Brefield sitting in the window, a bouquet of flowers in his hands. “Just waiting there,” June thinks to herself, as if the thought were strange. She pauses for a second in her rush to get home and watches him. He seems frozen in his green paisley chair, a smile on his face and his hand clutched tight around the roses and lilies. She thinks about waiting on the sidewalk across from his house until Mrs. Brefield gets home, because the second best thing to getting flowers yourself is watching someone else get flowers. June looks next door and sees Mr. Fry on his front step. He’s got a milk jug in his hand filled with water. He swirls it around three times before sprinkling the water on his hanging plants by the door. He touches a leaf, slightly, gingerly, almost lovingly — yes, actually quite lovingly before going back inside.

People can love almost anything, June bounces the words on her tongue, musing about how strange, how strange it is that only one type of love matters. Sad and tense and just for a moment, June wishes that she could love only herself. No one else, and all her love, wrapped up in her own chest tight and warm like a sheet. But just for a moment — just for the moment that she saves for herself before she thinks of John and heart-shaped boxes and she jumps back on her bicycle and speeds home.

She leaves the bike in the front yard and runs into the house. Up nine stairs and around the corner. The corner room of a corner house where everything is laid out on the bed in ribbons and bows and boxes of pinks and reds and blues. June picks up a small square box and fills it with pink tissue paper with little red hearts on it. She takes out a small white card and carefully, and in her best handwriting, writes the name “John Marshall.” She writes and she thinks to herself happily. “John, will you be my Valentine?” She asked him, as he swings his hammer out back of his shop.

“Lupa,” he’s the only one who ever calls her Lupa, “You will always be my Valentine.”

She smiles to herself and draws a heart next to his name. She ties the card to a blue ribbon that she will put around the box when it is wrapped. June puts the ribbon and the box on the table by her bed and runs down to the kitchen. She finds a knife on the counter that her mother has set out for her and runs back upstairs. Seated in her room, June carefully pushes her hair behind her shoulder, positions the knife aside her left breast and plunges it in.

Quickly, cleanly, smally, neatly, June cuts her heart out and puts it in the box.

The February wind is cold and the day has grown dark. Quickly, softly dark, and now even darker still as it’s 10:00 in Lupin Lake, Valentine’s Eve, and the townspeople are in a rush to get their hearts in on time

Mindy is running. Her heart had bled through the gift wrapping and stained the white paper an ugly red-brown. She hadn’t noticed it until she was almost to the square and she had to run back home to re-wrap it. Her open chest wound where her heart used to be is cold and uncomfortable in the February wind. She tries to fold a loose flap of skin over the cavity, but it blows back open. She’s only sixteen, and this is the first time her heart has ever been ripped out, and it’s unbecoming on her.

It’s now close to 11:00 and Mindy slips her box to Mr. Claudius, the town mayor. He’s standing in front of the bonfire pit, which in the summer hosts picnics and music every Saturday night, but now it is cold and empty except for the growing number of light-colored boxes stacked up in the middle. Mr. Claudius is collecting them one-by-one, and later he will sort the hearts out and deliver them to their Valentines.

“Mindy, you’re late, you almost didn’t make it!” Mr Claudius smiles softly as he takes the box from the small girl’s hands and then pats her on the head. He’s known the girl since she was born and has always been rather fond of her. So light and airy, Mindy is.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Claudius!” Mindy tilts her head to one side, as is her habit, “but my heart was bleeding and I had to re-wrap it.”

“I understand, I understand — I remember my first time too. Now run along before you get cold. Off you go.” He says in a voice that is almost fatherly. His eyes scan down the street to see if anyone else is coming, he glances down at his watch and inhales a deep breath of cold winter air.

Mindy hasn’t moved. Her head is still tilted. A pause, and, “Mr. Claudius. What do I do now?”

“My girl! What do they teach you at school these days? You must go home and wait for someone’s heart to be delivered to you, my dear. You must go home and wait. I’m surprised at your parents. They should have gone over all of this with you.”

“Mr. Claudius?” Mindy continues, as her parents have never talked to her about love before, “What happens if you don’t get a heart? I mean, what if no one gives you their heart?”

“My dear, the body can only live for a few days without a heart. A few days at the most. I suppose most people only make it about 24 hours, but some people surprise you. But now, who did you give your heart to, my dear?”

“John Marshall,” Mindy offers, quietly, embarrassed, her cheeks reddening.

“A fine boy, Mindy,” He offers as way of reassurance, “now go home and wait.” He watches as she skips back into the night. Light and airy. And brushing past June Lupa on her bike rushing her heart in hand. To go home and wait. To sit in a chair and wait. To eat and to sleep and to dream and wake in a chair and wait.

And they do. They all go home and wait.

[1] Lupin Lake is a small town, a quiet town. No great features mark the main streets and no large buildings pierce the sky. Aside from the lake itself, for which the town is named, there is no point of interest in the tiny town. When asked if they like the smallness, the quietness of their home, the people of Lupin Lake will look at you strangely, for to them there is no question of like or dislike, of good or bad, right or wrong; just small and quiet, they will say and then they will continue on their way; to work, to school; to shop; to eat; to sleep; to make love; to dream; to wake and to start all over again.


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