“What the…?” John stared at the small, red, heart-shaped piece of thick paper that was sitting on top of his books in his locker.
Tony glanced across from his own locker, where he had been getting out the books for their next class and grinned. “Someone’s given you a Valentine’s Day card early. Who’s the lucky girl?”
“Let’s find out.” John picked up the card and examined it for a moment. It was clearly handmade, though with a lot of care. He opened it up and scanned the note inside. “There’s no name.”
“Let me have a look.”
John handed it over, a frown on his face. “Who would want me to be her Valentine, but not tell me who she is?”
“A secret admirer!” Tony grinned. “Maybe she wants to see if you can find out who she is? We all know how much you love mysteries. Well, here’s a real-life one for you to solve!”
John smiled at the idea. “You know, that’s not a bad idea. What do we know? She must have slipped the card into my locker between the start of school and now, so she’s obviously a student.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Sherlock Holmes would be amazed at your deductive abilities.”
“Hey, it’s important to spell these things out. Mysteries almost always hang on people making incorrect assumptions.” He frowned. “And I just did the same. The girl is obviously someone here at school, but that doesn’t mean that she’s a student. It could be a visitor, one of the office staff, or even a teacher.”
Tony pretended to gag. “You’d better hope it’s a student.” He grinned. “Or would you like it if Ms. Rosewinkle has a crush on you?”
John shuddered. “Anything but that. Come on, she has to be at least fifty. I’m not into wrinkled old corpses.”
“Okay, Sherlock, what else have you worked out?”
John looked at the computer-printed card again. “It doesn’t say much.”
John, I know I have no chance with you, but I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. I’ve admired you for years from a distance, and while you are always looking at others, it doesn’t stop me from wishing that you could be my Valentine.
“It’s someone who’s been around for a long time, so that crosses off the girls who started this year and probably those who transferred in our junior year, too. It’s also not anyone I’ve dated.”
“Well, that eliminates a lot.” Tony grinned. “Who’s left on your list of prospective conquests?”
John’s brow was wrinkled as he slipped the card into one of his textbooks to make sure it wouldn’t get damaged. “I have to assume that what’s written is the truth. If she’s lying about knowing me for years and that I haven’t been looking at her, then I’m not going to solve this mystery.”
“We need to get going or we’ll be late for our next class. Let me know at lunchtime if you’ve come up with any more ideas.”
John nodded his head absentmindedly. A smile played on his lips as his mind worked. Whoever his secret admirer was, she had caught his attention. He hoped she would leave him more clues, as he wasn’t going to work it out from the little bit of information he had so far.
John was greeted by a broad set of grins as he sat down at the usual table at lunchtime. Football and baseball were the common factors that had initially brought them together, but a friendship that had started from their freshman year kept them together well after that first baseball season was over.
“So…” Eric said, dragging out the word. “Who’s the secret admirer?”
John shrugged. “I don’t know yet, but I’m getting there. It’s someone who knows me well, I’ve figured out that much.”
Andrew frowned. “How did you work that out?”
“Because she knows I love mysteries. She’s baited the hook, and I’ll admit that I’m caught.” John grinned. “I hope it doesn’t turn out to be some ultra-ugly bitch, but she’s got me intrigued. I’m going to figure this out if it’s the last thing I do. I’ve got five days until Valentine’s Day, and I’m going to solve this mystery by then.”
“What leads do you have?” Richard asked.
“Not much, actually. I’m hoping I’ll be given some more clues soon, because so far I’ve only narrowed it down to maybe a hundred girls, with maybe twenty likely and the rest possible.”
Tony chuckled. “You said it’s not someone you’ve dated, so that leaves only ten of the cheerleaders. I take it they’re at the top of your list?”
John shook his head. “Three of those girls only started last year. The impression I had from the card is that this girl has been watching me for longer than that. Also,” he added with a grin, “given how often I go on dates with cheerleaders, they have to believe they’ve got a chance with me, and this one doesn’t think she does. I don’t think it’s a cheerleader, though I’m not discounting the possibility.”
“What will you do when you figure it out?” Eric asked.
“Probably ask her if she would like a date.” John shrugged. “It depends on who it is, of course, but I’m willing to go out of my comfort zone on this one. If she plays this right, her looks won’t be that important.”
“Any leading contenders for John Fitzgerald’s next conquest?” Tony asked.
John glanced across the room to where a group of girls were having lunch. “Top of the list would be Maria Stevenson or Lily Walker. I’m getting the impression that this is being done by someone smart.”
“You’d date a nerd?” Richard looked surprised.
John shrugged. “Why not? They’re not ugly—just plain.” He smirked. “And if they want me so badly, then they’ll be a sure thing.”
Eric frowned. “You would use them?”
Andrew scowled. “You’re a bastard if you do that.”
John shrugged again. “It depends on how the date went. If I enjoyed it, I might wait and see. I’m not averse to the idea of a girlfriend who’s smart but not good-looking. If it turns out to be a one-date thing, then, yeah, I’d give her what she wants and move on.”
“Sometimes, John, you come over as callous.” Tony gave him a light punch on the arm. “But as long as you don’t play with her feelings, I say go for it.”
“I’d never do that,” John avowed. “I’m always up front with my dates. They know I’m interested in sex, and it’s up to them to convince me if there’s going to be more to the relationship than that. And if they say no at the end of the night, I accept that. I’ve never forced anyone, and I never will.”
The next morning, John arrived at his locker to find all his friends waiting. “What’s up?”
“We’re here to find out if you’ve been left another card,” Eric said for the group. “You said you hoped there would be another clue, so…”
“Yesterday, she left it between the start of school and the end of the first class.” John crossed his arms and scowled. “By being here, you might be preventing her from leaving me the next clue.”
The guys exchanged glances, and then Andrew shrugged. “Maybe, but maybe we’ll catch her when she does it. That way you’ll know who it is.”
John shook his head. “That’s not the way the game works. I have to solve this—and not by cheating.” He gave them a sheepish grin. “Though, if I haven’t worked it out by Valentine’s Day, I might see if I can install a camera to catch her in the act. That’s assuming she’s going to slip another note into my locker and not contact me some other way.”
Tony waved a hand towards John’s locker. “Well, let’s see.”
After a momentary stare that had the guys shuffling backwards to give him room, John moved up. He started to dial the combination on the lock when he stopped and glared over his shoulder. “Fuck it, guys. You don’t need to be peering over my shoulder. Back off!”
Chuckling, the guys retreated a couple of steps. John opened the locker and frowned when he didn’t immediately see a card. He was about to tell the guys when he caught a flash of color at the side. Another red heart had fallen behind one of his books.
“What does it say?” Richard asked.
“Give me a chance!” John’s tone was a mix of exasperation at his friends and anticipation for what he would find.
Over the years that I’ve known you, you’ve never looked at me with the special smile that you reserve for your girlfriends. It will never happen, but I can’t help wondering what it would be like if, this Valentine’s Day, you gave me that special smile. It would be a moment that I would treasure forever.
John frowned. “Not much in the way of hints, but it reinforces the idea that it’s someone who knows me well. In fact,” he added as he processed the contents, “it’s almost like she’s been stalking me for years. She seems to know a lot about me and my girlfriends.”
Tony snatched the card out of John’s hand.
“Hey!” John made a halfhearted attempt to get the card back before letting Tony and the guys read it for themselves.
“It might be someone close to you,” Richard said as he handed the card to Eric. “That first line seems to imply that you could have given her that special smile of yours to her at any time.” He grinned. “I’ve certainly never seen it—not that I’d want to.”
John flipped his middle finger at Richard. “I wouldn’t want to give it to you, either.” He frowned. “I didn’t know I had a special smile.”
Tony snorted. “It’s that googly-eyed one that you use just before you kiss them. I’ve seen it so many times when we’ve been on double dates that it makes me sick.”
“Fuck you,” John said without rancor. “If it gets me laid, who cares what it looks like?”
“That’s two days in a row that you’ve had a card,” Eric said. “Do you think you’ll get one each day until Valentine’s Day?”
“Possibly.” John shrugged. “I hope so, because I’m not getting a lot of hints from what I have so far. She’s got me hooked, but if she tries to drag this out too much, I’m going to get away.”
John didn’t let his friends know that he was much more intrigued than he made out. Maria had just risen to the top of his candidate list. Tony’s comment about dating was the extra factor he had missed. John knew that Maria worked at the diner where he often took his dates, which meant she would have seen that smile that Tony mentioned.
“What’s John doing?” Eric asked as he stared across the school cafeteria to where John was sitting with Maria Stevenson and a few of her friends.
Tony grinned. “He’s doing his subtle best to find out if she’s the one leaving those love letters in his locker.”
“John? Subtle?” Richard grinned. “I don’t think those two words go together.”
Tony shrugged. “He can be subtle at times. He just doesn’t usually bother.”
“What makes him think it’s her?” Andrew asked.
“He thinks it’s someone who’s been around him when he’s gone on dates. Since he often takes his girls to the diner that Maria’s parents own, he thinks she might have been watching him.”
Eric nodded his head slowly. “Plausible. We’ve all been on dates there. It’s the best place in our price range.” He smiled. “And their buy-three-get-one-free specials make double dates even cheaper.”
“True, and the food’s great.” Tony glanced around the table. “Are we going to give John a hard time if he starts dating Maria?”
“Of course!” Richard said with a grin. “He’d know something was up if we didn’t. She’s also very different from any of the other girls he’s dated, so he’s fair game.”
“As long as all the teasing is on him and not her.” Andrew’s expression was firm. “She’s a nice girl, but she doesn’t know you guys. She’s off limits as far as the jokes are concerned, okay?”
The other guys stared at him. Eric was the one who spoke first. “You know her?”
Andrew nodded. “We go to the same church. We might move in different circles here at school, but she’s a decent person.” He glanced across the room. “My only concern is if John’s good enough for her.”
Tony scowled. “What are you saying?”
Andrew looked back. “You know what I’m saying. Maria’s a nice girl who shouldn’t be used. John’s a player, and he could hurt her. I don’t want that to happen.”
“Fuck!” John scowled at the latest card.
Hope springs eternal, as the saying goes, but hope is in short supply for me. While you may be the man I’d love to have in my life, I know it won’t happen. All it would take to make me happy is one smile, one kiss. I might have to disappear afterwards, as seeing you and knowing I can’t have you would be too much for me. But if I could have that one moment, it would be worth it, even if afterwards I had to move to Hawaii.
“What’s wrong?” Tony asked as he closed up his locker.
“It’s not Maria.” John was tempted to crumple up the card but instead made himself hand it over to Tony.
“How do you work that out from what this says?”
“Because that says I wouldn’t go out with her, and I thought I made it clear yesterday that I was willing to do so.”
“Maybe she wrote the card before you had lunch with her?” Tony handed the card back.
John shook his head as he slipped the card in with the others. “Then that makes this card a lie, and I can’t trust anything from her. That’s not the way this works. The cards have to be honest or this isn’t a true mystery. They can be misleading, but they can’t lie.” John pulled the card out and had another read. “Shit!”
Tony stared for a moment and then gave his friend a wry smile. “I think you want it to be Maria. You have the hots for her.”
“I don’t…” John’s shoulders slumped. “Maybe I do.” He took a deep breath and read the card for a third time. “Wait a minute…” He stopped to think. “The first part seems to be talking about long term, but the part about a kiss and smile is a separate sentence. It could still be her. Maybe she thinks she’ll be able to go on a date with me, but I can’t be a long-term partner.”
“Well, she’s got a point there. You haven’t exactly built up a reputation for commitment. How many girls have you dated just this school year? Ten? Twelve?”
John grimaced as he quickly reviewed his dating history. “Thirteen, but only if you count the girl I dated over the summer and dropped on the weekend after school started.”
“Thirteen…” Tony didn’t say anything more. He didn’t have to.
“I don’t see the point in a longer relationship. We’re going to graduate soon, and a lot of us are going to scatter to different colleges.” His eyes narrowed. “I wonder if Maria’s applied to a college in Hawaii? She’s got the smarts to go wherever she wants. Maybe that was a clue?”
Tony smiled. “Are you going to ask her at lunchtime?”
“Do you think I should?”
“This is your mystery to solve. I’ll help, but you have to lead the investigation.”
The next day, Richard glanced at John and then across the cafeteria to where Maria sat. “You’re not going over there?”
John made a face as he put his tray on the table. “I don’t know. I’m all confused. Maybe the Hawaii clue was a red herring, but she’s not going to college there. I was still sure it was her, until…”
“You got another card?” Tony asked. “I’ve already told the guys there wasn’t one this morning.”
“Yeah. There was one waiting when I was there just now.” He pulled it out of his bag and handed it around. He had already memorized it.
Nothing will happen between us, I’ve always known that, but I want you to know that you’ll take a piece of my heart with you when you disappear from my life. We’ll be finishing our high-school years soon. Four years I’ve watched you, never having the courage to step forward and tell you how I feel. It won’t happen, but if you could find it in your heart to be my Valentine this year, it would be magic.
“This doesn’t say anything that means it couldn’t be her,” Tony said. “It still says you’re not into long-term commitments.”
“But it says I won’t be her Valentine. I’m willing to do that and then see what happens. She knows that; I certainly hinted enough yesterday.”
“Then go over there and ask her!” Richard gave John an encouraging smile. “She’s waiting for you. I caught her watching as you came over here. She’s interested; go for it!”
John glanced around the table. “But what if the next card gives me a stronger clue as to who it is?”
Eric frowned as he stared at the latest card. “Have you got the others with you?”
“Yeah, sure. Why?”
“Can you get them out?”
A minute later Eric had the cards on the table, arranged in the order John received them. “Look at the first letter of each card. I always thought the wording was a little stilted, and now I know why. They spell out the word JOHN. That can’t be a coincidence. With only a couple of days until Valentine’s Day, I can’t think of any more letters that would spell out something meaningful. You might get one more, maybe starting with a heart or something, but these four might be it.”
John stared at the four cards and sighed. “I think you’re right. Which means I probably have all the clues I’m going to get. If it’s not Maria, and I’m not sure it is, then she’s too clever for me. I can’t think of anyone else it could be. And if it is her, she’s telling me that she doesn’t want me long-term.”
Richard shook his head. “No, she’s telling you that she doesn’t think you can be with her long-term. She wants you, but she doesn’t think you can commit. Look at them. They all show the same thing; it’s you that’s the problem, not her.”
Andrew scowled. “But if you’re not going to make an effort, don’t try. She might be too good for you, John, and if you’re just after a fuck, don’t mess her up.” He waved a hand at the cards. “Whoever it is wants you bad. Don’t abuse her by taking advantage and then dumping her.”
John grimaced. “I wouldn’t do that.” When Andrew gave him a hard stare, he cringed. “Okay, maybe I would, but I wouldn’t do it deliberately. I like Maria. She’s so different from all the others. Maybe I can stick with her for longer.”
Tony smiled and gave John a nudge. “Then go over there and ask her to be your Valentine. Even if she’s not the one sending you the cards, she’s someone you’re interested in. Give it a go.”
John sat for a moment and then nodded. He stood up and picked up his tray. “Wish me luck, guys!”
After school, Tony stepped next to Eric, and the two watched as John opened his car door for Maria. The guys knew that Maria had accepted John’s offer for a Valentine’s Day date and that John was also taking her after school that day for a coffee.
“Do you think it’ll work out between those two?” Tony asked.
Eric shrugged. “John doesn’t have a good record when it comes to girls. He seems different with her, but it’ll be a struggle for him to make a go of it, and then comes summer and heading off to college. I think the odds are against them.”
Tony nodded. “But if it works out, I’ll be happy for both of them.”
Tony paused before continuing. “Do you think he’ll ever solve the mystery of who was really sending those cards? It wasn’t Maria.”
Eric frowned at Tony. “Do you know who it was?”
Tony nodded. “I figured it out a few minutes ago. It took me a while, but I did. You gave me the clue. The first letter of each card spells the name JOHN.”
“I had an idea during my last class, so I asked John if he’d let me have the Valentines to study further.” He reached into his bag and pulled out the four cards. “I wondered if there were any other words hidden in the messages.”
Eric turned his attention back to where John was driving out of the school parking lot. “What did you find?”
“That the last letter of each card also spells a name.” Tony draped an arm across Eric’s stiff shoulders. “Your name.”
Eric didn’t respond for a couple of seconds. “What now?”
“Are you willing to let him go? He’s straight, Eric. You can’t have him.”
Eric sighed. “I know, but he’s been my idol since the day I started high school.”
“You’re not the only one who’s been pining after someone they didn’t think they could have.” When Eric’s head snapped around, Tony smiled. “But in my case, I’ve just found out that the guy I’ve been secretly crushing on might be available.”
Eric stared in disbelief. “You mean…”
Tony gave Eric’s shoulders a squeeze. “Will you be my Valentine, Eric?”
Eric’s tentative smile was the only answer Tony needed.
Copyright Notice — Copyright © February 2016 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank C James and MikeL for the advice they gave on early versions, rec and ken84050 for editing this story for me, and a special thank you to ricky for that crucial final review before publication.