The road to popularity at Fremont High School is paved with rose petals.
Or, to be exact (and I usually am), petals from three-dollar roses.
This year, I have a three-part plan to conquer those roses:
1. Money (Christmas, babysitting, minimum wage from the Sub Shoppe)
2. Handwriting samples (AP World History projects, chemistry lab, Spanish class)
3. Selection of boys (valedictorian, quarterback, swim team captain)
They’re all going to send me a rose on Valentine’s Day—even if they don’t realize it.
The problem? Girls from the cheerleading squad run the rose booth. I must make sure no one sees me take more than a few notecards. But a sweater with big pockets and a little misdirection work wonders. I slip in before school and give Sienna my biggest smile.
“For my best friend,” I say, a lie, of course.
One, that rose is totally for me. Two? Maybe next year at this time, I’ll have a best friend—or any friends, for that matter. First, I must tread the rose-petal path.
“Aw,” Sienna says. “That’s so sweet. Some girls don’t get any roses.”
Not that Sienna would know. She’s never been one of those girls. The thing is, everybody knows that girls buy for each other. It doesn’t make you popular. It doesn’t make guys think you’re hot. All it does is make you look desperate. I will not be that girl. Not anymore.
That night, I neglect calculus in favor of perfecting Marcus Hanson’s blocky boy letters and Toby Preston’s lazy scrawl. In the end, I spend fifty-four dollars for eighteen roses. I can always stash a few in my locker if lugging around so many roses turns out to be too much. On Valentine’s Day, I choose a pink sweater. When I walk into school and see Sienna wearing a similar style in a similar shade, I know it’s perfect.
This day will be perfect.
All morning, roses flood the classrooms. It’s a record sale, the principal announces over the PA system, with the proceeds going to Operation Smile. We are, she tells us, a most generous group of young people. Some more than others, I think.
More roses arrive, but by the time class ends, not a single one is for me. Next class. I’ll practically drown in all the roses. But by lunch, I trudge to the cafeteria empty-handed. Sienna, at the cheerleading table, has a stack of roses—red and pink and creamy white. She plucks one from the pile and hands it to a freshman girl passing by.
Oh, to be Sienna. To have roses to spare.
During chemistry, the collar of my pink fuzzy sweater chokes me. My armpits produce massive amounts of sweat. I blow an easy pop quiz. Then, I have the best thought.
All my roses will arrive during last class! I’ll stagger to my locker under their weight. When I pass Sienna, she’ll give me a secret smile, the sort only shared by girls who struggle under the burden of so many roses.
When the last bell rings, I stay rooted in my chair, convinced there’s been a mistake. Not a single rose! Mrs. Meyer clears her throat, then asks:
“Are you okay?”
I nod, but I’m not okay. I’m out fifty-four dollars. The path to my locker is strewn with other people’s rose petals. My books make my arms ache. I dial the combination, but don’t lift the handle.
I turn. Toby Preston stands to one side, pink-cheeked and adorable.
“This is crazy,” he says. “But back in sixth grade, I never gave you this.” He pushes an envelope at me. “It was stupid, because we had to give everyone a valentine, but I didn’t want anyone to know I liked you.”
I hold the valentine like it’s made of spun glass. This is better than a rose.
“Would you like to go somewhere?” he asks. “Coffee shop, maybe?”
Oh! Even better. Who needs roses anyway? I nod and open my locker for my coat. Out spills a rose. Then another. They tumble out, cover the linoleum, bury me up to my ankles.
Toby’s cheeks blaze red. His Adam’s apple bobs once, twice, so hard my throat aches in response.
“I guess coffee’s out of the question,” he says. Before I can stop him, he sprints down the hall.
A custodian helps me clear away the roses. She loans me a pair of work gloves, but the thorns find my skin. One pricks my cheek, and I can’t stop the blood tear that rolls down my face.
“Seen this before,” she says after I shove the last rose to the bottom of the dumpster.
“It happens. Every few years or so.”
“What happens?” I want to know why and what it all means.
Her eyes are kind, but she shrugs. “I think that’s up to you.”
I leave school empty-handed.
A block from home, I spot a little girl at a bus stop. In the center of the road sits a smashed shoebox. Red construction paper hearts flutter in the wind. Tires grind Red Hots and conversation hearts into powder. Her sobs fill the air but do nothing to stop the cars from plowing through her valentines.
“They’re all gone,” she says, “I don’t have any left.”
Neither do I. Then I remember Toby’s valentine. I pull it from my backpack. The wind nearly steals it, so I hang on tightly. Then I wonder if I can let it go.
“What’s that?” the little girl asks.
“It’s yours.” I kneel at her side and hand it to her.
“Oh! It even has my name on it! Right here. It says Emily.”
“See? It was meant for you.”
She skips down the sidewalk, clutching Toby Preston’s valentine to her chest. I turn for home. Only when I reach the front porch, do I feel it.
I am one rose lighter.
The Burden of So Many Roses was first published in Kazka Press as part of their monthly contest. The theme was an undelivered Valentine. And it’s one of those Valentine’s Day stories for when you’re not feeling Valentine’s Day.
I was thrilled when Toasted Cake picked it up for the podcast. Tina’s narration is, as always, amazing.
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