Twelve years ago
"Here." Dakota nodded his dark head and answered from the desk in the row directly next to Justus.
"Justus White?" With her glasses riding so low on her nose that Justus feared they'd fall off, the teacher continued to read off the attendance list.
"Here." Justus held his breath and waited, knowing after hearing this list read in the same order every school day since last September, whose name came right after his.
"And finally, Melody Zane." The teacher glanced up from the paper in her hand.
"Here." Her long, straight brown hair flowing over her shoulders, Melody raised her perfect arm into the air, her voice as sweet and beautiful as her name as she answered.
Mrs. Stowe took off her glasses and put them down on her desk, along with the attendance list.
"All right then, everyone's here. That's wonderful since today, as you know, is Valentine's Day. Did everyone bring in their valentines?" The room full of ten-year- olds nodded. "Good, so here is how it's going to work. When I call your row, everyone seated in that row will get up in an orderly manner and put their valentines into the mailboxes on each student's desk. Okay? We'll start with the front row first."
Of course she started with the front row first. Teachers always started in the front. Justus, having a last name that started with a W, was in the last row, as usual. He leaned back and prepared to wait forever for his turn, like he'd been doing since kindergarten.
Dakota reached across the distance between them and poked Justus in the left elbow. "I bet I get more than you."
Justus scowled. "More what? Valentine's cards? You can't get more than me. The teacher said we have to give one to everybody in the class."
"Yeah, well, maybe I'll get an extra one. A special one." Dakota shot a meaningful glance at Melody, seated to Justus's right. "Maybe from someone who keeps looking at me like she likes me."
"Whatever." As a sense of horror hit him, Justus tried to act like it didn't matter, but it did. He liked Melody. She couldn't like Dakota instead of him. Besides, Melody had been talking an extra lot to Justus lately. She'd even shared her cookies with him just yesterday during snack time.
Justus was barely aware of his own cardboard shoebox made into a mailbox filling up with small colored envelopes covered in scrawling letters that spelled out his name. Only one valentine would matter to him. Hers. Just like only one of the twenty-five he'd written out until his hand had cramped last night really mattered to him. Hers.
"Okay, now students in row number two." From her seat at the big desk in the front of the room, Mrs. Stowe continued to direct the Valentine's Day traffic of children winding their way, row by row, through the classroom.
Justus clutched the envelope meant for Melody in his hand. He'd done the bravest thing ever. He'd signed it "Love, Justus." On all the other cards, he'd just put his name. He could only hope Melody realized that and what it meant.
Once again he cursed the fact that he and Melody both were in the last row. He wanted to deliver his envelope and his declaration of love to her already. Then after he did, by the time he got back to his desk, hers would be in his mailbox. Should he open his valentine from her then and there? Or wait until lunchtime? Nope, no way he could wait. Then he glanced sideways and realized he couldn't open it here either. Not with nosey Dakota sitting just a few feet away.
An idea hit Justus. He'd slip the envelope into his pocket and tell the teacher he had to go to the bathroom. Then he could open it in private. But how would he know which one was hers unless he opened all of them and looked?
He frowned. This love stuff was complicated, but it would be worth it if Melody liked--no, not liked, loved him, too. He'd have to wait and see. Maybe Mrs. Stowe would tell them when they were allowed to open the cards.
After what seemed like a year, Mrs. Stowe finally said, "Okay, the students in the back row may deliver their valentines."
Stifling his whoop of excitement, Justus jumped up, and then remembered he needed to deliver all of his valentines, not just Melody's. He reached beneath the lid of his desk and grabbed the stack, but the first one he delivered was to her, shoving it into the mailbox's top hole, which she had cut out with scissors and decorated with red glitter and crayon hearts. Justus tapped the top of the box just to make sure it stayed in there, nice and safe, so it didn't get lost. Then, with a backward glance at the box on her desk that contained his declaration of love, he moved to the next row and started to distribute the rest.
In record time, Justus was done with the delivery and crawling into his desk chair. Somehow Dakota had beaten him back to his desk. He sat grinning from ear to ear.
Justus frowned. "What are you smiling about?"
"A secret." Dakota's grin widened.
Justus noticed Dakota held a valentine in his hand. It was out of the envelope and open. "Mrs. Stowe didn't say we could open any yet."
Dakota shrugged. "So. She can't see way back here. Why? You gonna tattle on me?"
"No." Justus screwed up his mouth in a pout. Not that he wouldn't love to because he had a very bad suspicion the valentine that had Dakota so happy was from Melody. Now he itched even more to find his from her. But he wasn't the kind of kid who broke the rules, unlike Dakota, obviously.
Practically bouncing in his chair, Justus eyed Mrs. Stowe at her desk. She sat perfectly calmly, thanking each student as they delivered her their cards. Finally everyone had taken his or her seats again and Mrs. Stowe stood. "All right, class. Open your valentines."
Justus tore into his mailbox, sacrificing the red paper he'd wrapped it in when Mrs. Stowe had forced them all to decorate their shoeboxes. His was actually made from a boot box since that's what his mom had at their house. That meant it had even more room for him to paw through looking for the envelope that was most likely to contain Melody's valentine to him.
He shot a look at the torn envelope on Dakota's desk--the one he suspected was from her--and saw it was white with red writing on it. That was a clue. Justus flung any colored envelopes aside and focused on the white ones with red writing. One stood out from the rest. It had a little red heart drawn next to his name. With his own heart pounding, Justus tore into the valentine.
She'd made it by hand by cutting a heart out of red construction paper and gluing gold glitter onto the outside.
With a glance at Dakota to make sure he was busy with his own mailbox, Justus opened the card. Her letters spelled out his name, and under that she'd written, meet me in the woods behind the monkey bars during recess for a kiss.
Wow. Shaking at just the thought of meeting Melody alone, Justus forced himself to remain calm and glanced at Dakota. He sat, still looking smug, but this time Justus wasn't jealous. Dakota may have gotten a valentine from Melody, but Justus was sure it didn't contain that extra special message from her like his did.
Not just any message, but an invitation. An invitation to meet her in the woods for a kiss. His heart pounded harder as he glanced at the clock. There were thirty whole minutes to go before recess. How could he stand to wait? He wanted to go now because today was going to be very, very special. Today, he'd get his very first kiss.