“Hey,” Jack said, squelching through the night’s accumulation of snow at the end of the driveway. He ducked under the mailbox ledge, squeezing in next to Beth. “I didn’t know if you were going to be here or not.”
Beth glanced at Jack, holding out a gloved finger to catch one of the fat, slowly-falling snowflakes. “This isn’t nearly enough snow for them to call a snow day,” she said.
“No, I mean yesterday.”
The girl frowned. “What about it?”
“You seemed kind of… upset?”
Beth sat up straighter, the top of her orange-and-green knit hat well clear of the shelf that held the mailboxes overhead.
“I was just… surprised, was all,” she said. She turned, smiling, and if Jack hadn’t known her as well as he did, he almost would have fallen for the facade she was putting up. “Nothing to worry about.”
“See, when you say that? That’s when I start to worry.”
“No, really Jack—”
“If it’s bothering you, you can tell me.”
“I just don’t want you to….” Her voice trailed off, and her shoulders slumped, then shook as she chuckled. She looked over at Jack again, as he began unzipping his backpack.
“Here,” he said, handing her a round hoop of wrapping paper.
“What is it?” she asked, turning it over in her hands.
“A change of subject.”
“Are they always this weirdly wrapped?”
“Only the round ones. Now go on and open it.”
Beth picked at a seam, and began to unravel the green and white wrapping paper. Her eyes widened.
“Newspaper! Nobody’s ever given me a loop of newspaper before!”
“Look, if you’re going to be like that about it….” Jack reached over, and Beth snatched her gift away, hugging it close against her coat.
“This is what you’ve been spending all that time working on, isn’t it?”
“Just open it, already,” Jack urged.
She found a corner of the newspaper, and peeled it away, at first slowly, and then more and more quickly as the item beneath was revealed. She drew a deep breath.
“Daisies and sweet-peas,” she breathed, turning the garland around and around. Flowers and leaves, interwoven, passed between her fingers.
“They don’t grow around here, and besides that, it’s the middle of winter, so I just sort of… made them.” Jack shrugged.
“They almost look real,” the girl said.
“I don’t know about that,” Jack said, glancing away. He felt his cheeks warm. He didn’t think he’d done that good a job with the paints.
“Well, they do,” she insisted. Then she leaned over and kissed Jack’s cheek. “Thank you.”
He felt his cheeks heat a bit more. “I know it’s not heart-shaped or chocolate. But since you can’t have chocolate anyway…” He looked over, as the silence between them seemed to strain. She was staring, her eyes wide and green, the little line appearing on her forehead that she got when she concentrated on a difficult math problem.
Jack waved a gloved hand before her eyes, and she blinked, as if coming back from Mars, or Venus, or wherever her mind had wandered off to.
“You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?” he asked.
“Of course I did! Hearts and chocolate.” The frown crept back.
“Don’t tell me you forgot what day it is today?”
Her frown deepened, but her eyes flashed with annoyance. “Of course I do. It’s Wednesday.”
Jack waited, but Beth simply stared back, matching his expectant posture.
“Wednesday, the..?” he prodded. “Fourteenth,” he finished, when she kept staring.
She nodded, smiling. Then she sat up straighter, staring down at the garland in her hands as if she was seeing it for the first time.
“Oh!” she said. “The three martyrs. Chaucer.” Her cheeks brightened, even as her shoulders sagged. “I didn’t… I’m sorry, Jack. I don’t….” She sighed. “I mean, I’ve never….” She held out the garland to Jack.
He took it, hesitantly. “You don’t have to give it back,” he said.
“Don’t be silly,” Beth said, and pulled off her orange-and-green hat, shaking out her hair. “A gift, once accepted, can’t be returned. It’s bad luck. I read that somewhere.” She lowered her head towards Jack.
He placed the circlet of flowers over her hair. It settled perfectly, right where he’d imagined it should fit. He let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.
“‘For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate,’” Beth quoted. The gold flecks in her eyes sparkled. Twinkled, even. She beamed a smile at Jack, leaned forward, and gave him another kiss. She ducked away, as quickly as she’d leaned in, and skipped out from under the mailboxes.
They clanged as Jack bumped his head, scrambling to his feet as the bus wheezed and rattled towards them.