“Hey”, he sneered my way. “Hey!” a little louder, a little breathier.
I blushed. I always blushed; perpetually, painfully shy, continuously craving invisibility. I stared straight ahead, eyes on the board, palms and pits producing an instant hot sweat.
“You know…you gotta have the ugliest nose I’ve ever seen.” he hissed.
I leaned forward, hands flat on my desk; perspiration mixing with the Comet residue the janitor had left behind, forming a balmy paste over my flattened grip.
It was Valentine’s Day and the Carnations would be delivered soon. You could feel the buzz in the room. I tried to focus on that. Once my flower came, I’d be vindicated. He’d feel so stupid for taunting me. He’d realize I might be popular and that someone out there might think I was pretty.
The Carnations were a big deal at our school; a yearly tradition. They cost three dollars of hard-earned pocket-money so selecting the recipient was taken very seriously. Boys sent them to girls, girls sent them to boys, girls even sent them to each other. Most were fired off anonymously; the only ones signed stemming from legitimate daters and official best friends. No one else dared to be so outwardly presumptuous.
“I bet you think you’re gonna get a flower, don’t you?” he jeered.
I tried to lift my hand discreetly, bringing it up to camouflage my apparently hideous nose and my now stinging eyes. I would not cry in front of him, but the smell of the Comet coming from my grit-covered hand was burning my nostrils and losing me my battle.
“You think you can hide that big banana?” he laughed. “Good luck with that. Good luck with that and that grease-slicked skin of yours.”
I liked to think it was the fumes, but my eyes were brimming regardless of cause and I knew he would be sure he’d gotten under my skin, fumes or not.
“Are you crying?” he mocked. “God, you’re such a baby.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see his knee bouncing up and down. His leg jostled a mile a minute causing the frayed hem of his jeans to swing back and forth.
Although tears were the last thing I wanted him to see, they did make him back off. No one wanted to be responsible for making someone cry in class. It meant a trip to the office and a call home, neither a favorable outcome.
I tilted my head and stared through the window. Outside was bleak. It had been a particularly cold February and the wind was whipping through the trees. I swallowed the lump in my throat and longed to be out there. Being outside in blustering gales coatless would be better than having to sit here, enduring him.
I tried to pay attention to the lesson being taught. I tried not to think of my rumbling belly, my chemically transformed skin, my imminent flower or the jerk next door. I had almost accomplished all of it when there was a knock on the door causing an eruption of excitement amongst the other students.
I simply froze. What if it hadn’t worked? Or worse, what if I had somehow messed it up and it wasn’t anonymous after all? The sweat magnified and became a fast-trickling stream flowing straight down my spine.
“You’re getting greasier by the second, loser.” he said in a snide tone.
My eyes were glued on the flower bearers. They were shouting out name after name and at long last, mine was called.
As hard as it was to have all eyes on me, I lifted my cement-stiff body out of the desk and forced my heavy legs to move towards the front of the room.
As I got closer, confusion set in. Two flowers were being held out.
“Do you want me to pass one to someone?” I whispered, my face flaming with prickly heat.
“Nope, both for you. Lucky,” the girl said enviously. “I didn’t get any.” It shouldn’t have, but it made me tingly inside.
The tingling shrouded the walk back to my desk and shielded me from the stares and snickers. I sat down in a trance-like state, eyes glued to the blossoms laid out in front of me. Their sweet aroma replaced the smelly Comet, their pastel shades swapped for the unicolor scheme outside.
A legit Valentine’s Day Carnation. I did a quick mental check; nope, I’d only sent myself one. I was sure.
“Two?” I heard him exclaim. “I don’t believe it,” he almost sounded wounded. “You sent those to yourself,” he guessed. “You had to!”
My face seared and my throat tightened. He’d managed to break through my bubble and yank me back to miserable reality. Only reality didn’t seem all that miserable anymore. Someone had thought of me, someone liked me.
The bell to end the school day rang and he got up quickly. “See ya later, freak show.”
I waited for everyone to leave, their chatter slowly quieting as they filed out one by one.
I wanted to pack my flowers in my bag without the other kids knocking around. I wanted to make sure they went unharmed.
As I swung my legs, now light, around the side of my seat, something caught my eye; a pink ticket that hadn’t been there before. I recognized it instantly and my heart skipped a beat as I quickly looked around. If anyone had seen it, I’d be the laughing-stock of the school, the butt of every joke, as opposed to now, being the butt of only most.
I reached down to grab the Carnation receipt, my fingers fumbling over the waxy paper. But, as I brought it closer to my face, I realized it didn’t belong to me. My name was boldly printed in the recipient’s box sure enough, but the printing wasn’t mine. It was his…the jerk next door’s.
Okay, we all knew that was coming. Except for…maybe the boys…