“Stupid,” Valerie muttered to herself as she slammed the door shut behind her and stomped towards the kitchen. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
She shrugged off her backpack and carelessly tossed it onto the floor just outside the kitchen door. “I can’t believe I could be that stupid!” she exclaimed to the empty room.
Practically ripping off her jacket, she rolled it into a tight ball and threw it at the opposite wall with all of her might. Then she reached out for the nearest chair, pulled it away from the table, and sank into it. Seemingly drained of all her anger, she started to cry. “So stupid,” she whispered.
It was Valentine’s Day and that morning, for the first time in years, Valerie Hart had managed to push aside her disdain for the increasingly Hallmark holiday. This year, she had decided, would be different from all the others. Unfortunately the only difference between this year and the five previous was that she had started the morning with a smile and wound up making an utter fool of herself just three hours later.
Wiping away her tears with the back of her hand, Valerie stared at the glass bowl on the table that was filled with brightly colored candy hearts. Despite her better judgment, she reached out and took one. She turned it over and read the message on the other side.
She let out a derisive snort and muttered, “True love.” Instead of eating it or simply putting it back in the bowl, she tossed the candy heart across the kitchen.
“Hey!” came a voice from the doorway. “No throwing things in this house. You know the rules.”
Valerie sighed. “Sorry, Mother,” she grumbled.
“You watch your tone, young lady,” her mother warned as she walked around the table to see what Valerie had thrown. She bent down and picked up the candy heart, staring at it.
“This is what you decided to throw across the kitchen?” she asked as she turned to look at her daughter, bewildered. “What could have possessed you to do such a thing?”
Valerie looked down at her hands as she nervously picked at her nails. “Sorry,” she mumbled insincerely.
Her mother sighed and sat down across the table from her. “What’s wrong, Valerie? You were so happy just this morning and now you’re acting like a naughty little five-year-old. What on Earth happened?”
She continued to pick at her nails as she looked up at her mother. She hadn’t realized her happy demeanor had been that noticeable. It was true, she had been practically bursting at the seams with excitement a few hours ago, but all that had changed with one stupid mistake.
“Nothing’s wrong, Mom,” she said finally. “I’m just upset because it’s Valentine’s Day. The school is all decorated, everyone’s going on about the dance on Friday…. I hate Valentine’s Day. I hate everything that goes along with it, all the hearts, the candy, the flowers, the teddy bears…. I hate it.”
For the first time, Valerie noticed the small white teddy bear and bouquet of red roses her mother was holding. She grimaced and looked away. “Did Dad have those delivered to you?” she asked in disgust.
Her mother looked down at the roses and beamed as though she had just seen them for the first time that second. “Why, yes, he did,” she replied. “Aren’t they gorgeous?”
“Breathtaking,” Valerie mumbled as she rolled her eyes at her mother’s reaction. “I’m going to go upstairs to do my homework,” she told her, her voice filled with disdain.
“Okay,” her mother said, not noticing Valerie had already left as she put the teddy bear on the table and got up to find a vase for her roses.
Valerie’s cell phone started to vibrate and she reached over to grab it before it could dance off the edge of her nightstand. She lay back down against her pillows and looked at the screen. Upon seeing the name, she sighed. Marc Shelton. Before she could change her mind, she rejected the call and dropped her phone back onto her nightstand. She stared up at the ceiling and waited to see if the phone was going to beep, letting her know Marc had left her a message.
It took a few minutes, but finally the phone beeped and she turned her head to look at her nightstand. She stared at the phone, inwardly debating whether or not she should listen to what Marc had to say. Just as she was about to give in and pick up the phone, her mother knocked on the door and proceeded to walk in the room without waiting for an answer.
“Are you just about ready, Valerie?” she asked.
Valerie looked up at her mother warily. “Ready for what?”
“Ready to go babysit,” her mother clarified.
She stared at her. “Babysit?” she repeated. “It’s Wednesday. Besides, I don’t have to babysit again until Saturday because you wanted me to have Friday night off so that I could go to that stupid dance.”
“It’s Valentine’s Day,” her mother reminded her and she made a face. “You told the Crawfords you would watch Rodney for them while they went out for a romantic evening.”
Valerie groaned and pulled one of her pillows out from behind her head, pressing it over her face. “Can’t you just tell them I’m sick?” she asked, her voice muffled.
Her mother snatched the pillow away from her. “I most certainly will not!” she snapped. “I don’t care what happened today to put you in this foul mood, but you are going to put a smile on your face, get up, and go over to the Crawfords’ house just like you told them you would. You made a promise, young lady, and you are sticking to it!”
She walked out of her daughter’s bedroom with the pillow still in her hand and slammed the door behind her. Valerie, meanwhile, continued to stare at the ceiling for a little while longer, basking in her self-pity.
Half an hour later, Valerie was standing in the Crawfords’ kitchen, watching Mrs. Crawford put the finishing touches on her outfit. She put on her pearl earrings as she checked her reflection in the mirror and said, “Rodney has already eaten his dinner and he shouldn’t need anything else to eat since his bedtime is at seven thirty on school nights. If he does becomes a problem, however, you can give him one of the bags of snack mix that I’ve measured out and put on the kitchen counter and a glass of milk. If he doesn’t want that, then tell him he gets nothing until morning.”
She turned to look at Valerie, a smile on her face as she readjusted her pearl necklace. “And don’t forget, there’s a special piece of your favorite cheesecake waiting for you in the refrigerator once Rodney’s asleep.”
Valerie gave her a weak smile. “Thanks, Mrs. Crawford.”
“Are you sure you’re okay, Valerie?” Mrs. Crawford asked, concerned.
“I’m fine,” she assured her as Mr. Crawford came bounding down the stairs, finishing up his tie. She quickly broadened her smile and tried to make it seem more genuine. “Don’t worry about me and Rodney, we’ll have fun, as always. You two just enjoy your evening and forget that little boys even exist.”
“Oh, we plan on it,” Mr. Crawford told her. “Isn’t that right, sweetheart?” he asked his wife, kissing her on the cheek.
She laughed and grabbed her purse off the back of her chair. “Okay, Valerie,” she said, “we’re all set, and we’ll see you later tonight around eleven. You know where the list of numbers is if you need to contact us, and just have some fun. I don’t want you to feel like we’re ruining your Valentine’s Day, leaving you alone with our little terror.”
“I am not a little terror!” came a young boy’s voice from the adjoining room.
Mrs. Crawford smiled at Valerie. “No, he’s really a little angel,” she whispered, “but you know that better than most.”
She walked into the living room where Rodney was sitting at a small plastic desk, Valerie behind her. She kissed her son on the top of his head, stroking his hair gently as she whispered something into his ear. She stood back up and told him, “Good night, Rodney. Be good for Valerie, you know she’s got my cell phone number if you’re not.”
“Yes, Mommy,” he nodded.
His mother left but he didn’t say anything to Valerie even after haring the front door close. He was too engrossed in his coloring.
Valerie knelt down next to him, picking one of his favorite toys off the floor and holding it in her lap. She watched silently for a few minutes as Rodney colored, his tongue sticking out of his mouth in concentration. Normally by now he would have put down his crayons and started begging her to put on his favorite movie, but not tonight.
“What are you coloring?” Valerie finally asked, moving forward to take a peek.
“No!” Rodney shouted, holding the drawing to his chest protectively. He blushed and added, “It’s not finished yet.”
She smiled a small but knowing smile. “Ah, I see. Are you working on a new sign for our clubhouse?” she asked, gesturing towards the makeshift tent of pillows and blankets he always had ready when she was babysitting him.
He shook his head. “No, I finished that on Sunday,” he told her.
She nodded and sat back down on her heels. Without looking too closely, she watched as Rodney finally put what he was working on back on his desk. She was surprised by the amount of care and concentration he was putting into it when she heard a crack.
“No!” Rodney wailed, holding up a broken crayon. “Not again!” He pouted and sadly told Valerie, “I’ve been working on this forever, trying to make it just right but the stupid crayons keep breaking. I don’t think they like me.”
She put a comforting hand on his. “Tell you what,” she said, “how about I go get you a small scoop of ice cream if you let me see what it is you’re working on so that maybe I can help you and you promise not to tell your mom that I gave you something other than your trail mix?”
He thought for a minute before finally nodding in agreement. “Okay, but make sure it’s strawberry, I-”
“Don’t like chocolate,” she finished for him. “Coming right up.”
As Valerie went to get him his ice cream, Rodney quickly scribbled over his mistake, hoping it looked okay. He picked it up and held it away from his face. “Perfect,” he said.
He snuck a glance at the kitchen as he put it back down on his desk and carefully folded it. Then he hid it behind his back and waited. His eyes lit up with happiness the moment he saw Valerie carrying a small bowl with three scoops of his favorite strawberry ice cream topped with a layer of sprinkles and a single cherry.
“Don’t tell your mom,” she reminded him as she put it down on his desk along with a couple of napkins and a spoon.
He nodded, but didn’t touch his dessert. Instead, he took the folded construction paper out from behind his back and held it out to her. “Valerie,” he said shyly, “will you be my valentine?”
Valerie stared in surprise at the card he had spent so much time on and word so hard to make perfect. She reached out and carefully took it from him. “You made this? For me?” she asked, kneeling down next to him on the floor again.
He nodded, watching as she opened the card and read what he had asked his mother to show him how to write. Her eyes started to fill with tears and he feared he had done something wrong until she looked back up at him.
It was the first time Valerie had genuinely smiled since that morning. “Yes,” she told him, “I would be honored to be your valentine, Rodney Crawford. Nothing would make me happier. Thank you.”
She leaned forward and gave him a hug, being careful not to crush the card. He grinned into her shoulder and she lightly kissed the top of his head.
© June 2011