“Valentine’s Day Love Story”

I coughed.
She looked up.
I sat down.
She smiled quizzically.
I placed a rose on the desk before her.
Her eyes widened.
I placed a small bar of chocolate alongside.
Her eyebrows arched.
“Oh for the love of—haven’t you tired of your little ritual yet?!” she cried.
I shrugged and smiled.
She sighed and picked up the rose, tucking it behind my ear. “Now don’t you look precious! What mother-in-law wouldn’t want you?” she teased, smiling indulgently as she picked up the candy and unwrapped it. “I only eat this every year for your sake, you know.” she declared solemnly, waving the bar at me.
“And because you love chocolate.” I teased back gently as I began to stand. I knew what would come next.
She jumped up, drawing herself up to my height.
Well, not quite.
“Quit standing on your toes.”
She lowered her heels back to the floor and began to walk past me towards the door. “I used to be taller than you, when we were little. You used to be such a shrimpy little twerp.” she murmured distractedly.
“Ah, but a handsome one! I had all the babes in the 3rd grade swooning!”
I barely managed to see her laugh before she disappeared out the door. Outside, she was already seated underneath the window arch, watching something below. I leaned at the other side and followed her gaze. The school’s basketball team was practicing in the corner of a field shared with the middle school students, one of whom had wandered onto the court. His face bore the look of a lost lamb, and perhaps that was why he didn’t see the 6’3” bulk of the captain backing towards him.
“He shoots. He scores. He permanently traumatizes confused 11 year old.”
She turned towards me and smiled. “Why, every year? Why the rose and the chocolate?”
“Because the rose was all I could buy with my allowance when I was ten, and the chocolate was the first thing you accepted from me when we met in the 4th grade. But why do I do it? Because I want to.”
In the ground below, a girl flicked her hair; the sunlight caught it in a burst of burnished gold that left the infatuated boy nearby dazzled.
“I give those two a week.” she said, her fingers reaching up and deftly untying her own ponytail.
“A week? Come on, at least give them a month.”
She shook her head gently, the fingers now smoothing with rough strokes the tousled black curls that fell over her shoulders. “A week, because the interschool basketball tournament starts from the 21st. Teams from the entire region. Boys, girls.”
I nodded in silent agreement as I watched her begin to pull her hair into a ponytail again. “Don’t tug so hard, you’ll go bald.”
Her eyes flashed and she smirked.
“Well then, I’ll just have to come to you, won’t I, Mr. Cosmetic Surgeon?” she retorted, as she leaned back against the wall. “Why do you want to become one, though?”
I shrugged. The truth was, I wanted to prove myself to her and this had seemed one of the best ways. The truth was, I wanted to show her people could find motivation because of love and not just in spite of it. The truth was, she made me want to be a better person in every way simply from knowing her. And the truth was, she’d never believe any of it.
“I like art.”
Her high-pitched shriek made a few kids look up in surprise.
“Now that’s a scary thought! What sort of art do you like? Impressionist? Cubist? Abstract?” Laughter made it difficult to talk, but she managed to regain her composure. “I already feel sorry for your future patients. Art is all about ugliness. Since nobody really knows what aesthetics are—and sure isn’t going to let anyone else catch on—it can get away with it. What you see and admire on a canvas is the crude, the odd, the jarring—anything which managed to embed itself in the artist’s mind. But the beauty of it lies in the eye.”
She smiled, perhaps waiting for a response I didn’t have the heart or mind to give. I liked how steadfastly she held to her opinions; her independent mind was one of the things I loved most about her. That did not mean I could always sort out her arguments.
The sound of hissing caught our attention; a group of girls was heading down the corridor. Each seemed to be leaning on the other, casting darting glances towards us every few moments before breaking down into giggles and whispers. They simpered as they sauntered past, slowing down to get a good look. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” they sang out, like a choir of angels, if angels wore plastic bangles and dyed their hair.
I was met in their wake with a stony glare.
“You encourage them, you know. What with your silly Valentine’s ritual and that rose in your hair.” she said, her eyes narrowed.
My eyes popped as my hand flew up to the flower I had forgotten all about. Cheeks flushed, it dawned on me the girls might not have just been staring at a ‘couple.’
“Of course, they’re young. They have a God-given right to be stupid.” She continued, in a stern tone that made her sound older than her years, “But you—you know how much it irritates me and you know nobody can fall in love this young—”
“I disagree.”
“Let me finish. Yet you refuse to give up this nonsense. Mature a little, will you? You know as well as I do love does not exist—”
“No.”
A frown creased her forehead and her foot dangled a few inches of the floor, but she ignored my interruption. “—and what people imagine to be love is actually just biology mixed with social conditioning. Studies have been conducted.”
“Yeah, that was a bad idea. Who let scientists rush in where poets fear to tread?” I looked away. I knew I had managed to annoy her.
“What has love ever given the world, aside from Romeo and Juliet? Or Heer Ranjha? Everyone wants to—is supposed to—believe in the fairytale but surprise! There is no such thing as ‘happily ever after.’ The real world is about compromise and custody battles.”
A glimmer of white caught my eye.
She pushed off the sill and paused beside me.
My gaze followed its drift.
A sigh escaped her lips. “When will you stop? Because you will stop one day.” she murmured as she walked away.
I smiled. The muscles in my arm flexed as I reached out slowly. My hand gently closed around the delicate wisp of dandelion fluff from some flower that had bloomed too early. A childhood memory floated back.
Make a wish.
Eyes closed, I blew softly on the downy sphere.
Someday.

N.B. A different version of this story was co-authored for publication in Young World magazine.

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“The Love Bug”

A student-cum-goatherd chanced upon a beautiful pool. He sat down in the shade of the willows that grew by its edge and took out his book to read. Presently, a curious wheezing sound reached his ears.

He looked up.

A Ghastly Apparition appeared to be attempting to drink from the pool, its generous belly preventing it from bending.

The Student/Goatherd could not help but stare.

“Ya mind, ya little footlicker?” the Abominable Thing snapped.

The Student-Goatherd was shocked! Such coarse language, such an appalling manner of speech!

He opened his mouth to speak.

“Ah, don’t get your knickers in a twist.” the Crude Monstrosity grumbled as it struggled to get up, and promptly fell into the pool.

The Student (also a Goatherd) weighed the merits of saving the creature, and was about to return to his book when it crawled back out.

“Don’t be strainin’ yerself fer the likes o’ me. Ya needn’t hafta.” It spluttered.

“If you say so.” The Scholar-cum-Livestock Manager replied with the utmost of feeling.

The creature peered at him through beady little eyes that seemed to pop out of their sockets. “What be yer line o’ work, lad?” it asked.

“I am a Student—and a Goatherd!” the boy declared with much aplomb.

The creature rolled about on the ground with laughter.

How utterly distasteful, the boy thought to himself.

“Student and Goatherd? Looks like some old hack ran out o’ ideas, eh?” the creature cried out between hoots.

He’s right; I read too much.

Determined not to let such thoughts enter his mind, the Academically Aspiring Keeper of Goats turned once again to his awaiting tome.

“Ya gonna rip it inta shreds wi’ yer brain power?” the creature mocked, prompting the boy to sigh as dramatically as he could and say,

“If a love of books is a crime then lock me away, for I am guilty! Guilty! Guilty a thousand times over!”

The creature’s eyes twinkled with mirthful tears, and it snorted as it cackled.

“Kid, you’re just the sort of ragamuffin li’l brat I’m looking for. Any time ya feel like getting’ a life, call me. Here’s m’ card.” It waddled over to where the boy sat and handed him a rather well-designed business card.

Memo to Self: Consider offer carefully.

Shaking himself free of such outrageous ideations, the youth asked, “So what…uh…who are you?”

The creature blinked.

“What, alluva sudden ye can’t read now? I’m The Love Bug. M.A., M.L., F.Sc., L.Sc., L.L.B, and M.B.A. Cronus Academy, graduating class of 5900 B.C. Graduated top o’ me form, don’tcha know.”

The boy gasped and fell backwards in his surprise.

“What now, ya little maggot?” the creature barked impatiently.

“M.B.A?”

“Masters in Bachelor(-hood)  Annihilation. Mastre d’ Amour.  Masters in Love. Legitimate Love Bug course. An’ I studied Love Sciences too. Impressive, eh?”

“F.Sc?” the boy asked with much curiosity.

“Yer too young ta know.”

He thought about this some more before venturing to ask, “If you’re The Love Bug, why are you not amazingly good-looking?”

“Getting’ a little ahead o’ yerself, aren’t ya, ya base-born street urchin?” The Love Bug growled, menacing enough to make the boy flinch.

This made the creature laugh once more and say, “I got a great P.R. guy. Just great. You should meet ‘im. Ya need ‘im more, bein’ the ‘Student and Goatherd’ that ya are.”

Memo to Self: Get the P.R. guy’s number.

“Granted, you are the Love Bug and you may indeed have an excellent publicist. But do you have any cures for the malady that you so happily inflict?” the boy asked.

The Love Bug peered closely at the boy before saying, “Sure I do. But no cure is 100% effective… an’ I ain’t about ta hand any to you if that’s what yer hoping fer, pondscum.”

The Erudite Caretaker of Domesticated Herbivores was crestfallen. His grand dreams of an expensive car…er, carriage, had been cruelly crushed under the feet of reality, as had his fanciful visions of designer suits…uh, garb by the finest dressmakers…and world-renowned supermod—um, the fairest maidens from every land—fawning at his feet.

“Prevention?” he asked, still vaguely hopeful.

“Yep. Prevention be the best cure. Can’t tell ya how though. Conflict of interest. ‘Tis a tough business, see?”

Cra-a-ack. The sound of the boy’s heart breaking, as his more modest dreams—of a middle-class suburban house, a sort-of-tolerable wife, a family sedan and maybe even a child or two—went the way of his ill-fated Rolls-Royce.

Memo to Self:  Change career.

The Love Bug began to shuffle away, muttering, “Gotta go. Duty calls, ya know. Two kids, I gotta ruin their lives…they think they’re immune or somethin’.” It chuckled and rubbed its hand gleefully as it mumbled, “I love this job.”

The boy pondered over this last sentence.

“What do I do if I get struck?” he called out, mostly as an afterthought.

The Love Bug paused and turned to say, “Sick little masochistic ragscallion, ain’tcha?”

It sneered with delight.

Memo to Self: Stop making memos to self.

“Well…?” the boy asked once more.

The Love Bug looked at him and slowly answered,

“Don’t fight it.”

And then The Love Bug was gone, just as mysteriously as it had come, leaving the boy aghast as well as upset. Was there no way to defeat this most awful of diseases, that ravaged so completely the entire person of its victim, that toyed with minds and rendered them incapable of sensible thought, that distinguished between neither prince nor pauper? How unjust! How horribly terrible and unjust!

The Herdsman with a Passion for Learning sat back again under the gentle shade of the willows, but this time intent on discovering the cures of The Love Bug. Even if took him a lifetime.

“Love is Blind”

He was in a bad mood, and he made sure the entire world knew it. Sitting there all alone in his study, he spent the time grumbling and wallowing in his misery.

Outside the door, people whispered together.

“Why? What’s happened to him?”

“Well y’know what’s happened to him, Marmie.”

“No…really?”

Inside, he could hear them whispering.

“Shut up out there, the lot of you! Loud enough to wake the dead, you are!”

The whispers stopped.

He returned to his morose thoughts once more. There was a small mirror across the room. He studied his reflection, a task made more difficult by the dim light. Beautiful black hair, grown to a stylish length. Eyes you could lose yourself in. Tawny complexion most young men his age worked so hard to get. And he was brainy, as well as suave!

He smiled.

Amazing; who wouldn’t love me? he thought.

He scowled, and in his great rage, knocked an inkwell off the desk.

“Don’t be a breakin’ anything, lad. Still your father’s house and I don’t care what you’ve been through, I ain’t plannin’ on payin’ a fortune for it.”

He swore loudly. From outside came the yell:

“How’d I get such a wussy lad for a son? You’ve got something to say, come out and say it!”

He glared at the door, but did not move.

Instead, he began thinking.

How could anyone reject him? How? Why?

He got angrier and angrier, till finally, he began to cry. ‘A sign of weakness’, his father would say. But he did not care anymore. Nothing mattered.

He stretched out on the study room floor and stared aimlessly at the ceiling. He was thinking, thinking about all the things he had done wrong. If they’d been done to him, he would have had a proper brawl with that person. He had not been beaten up, but the credit for that went to the other person.

Proud. I’m too proud… he thought.

Who was he fooling by thinking himself to be handsome? Who was he trying to deceive by believing himself to be smart and charming?

He smiled bitterly and closed his eyes.

The door opened.

“Get out! I told you, I want to be alone! Too thick to understand that?” he said loudly in a hollow voice.

“Adam Zachary Ivans! I do not care how mad you are, or how sorry you feel for yourself, I have come to say something and you will listen!”

His eyes popped open.

“I have been going over things carefully, and I have come to the conclusion that you are nothing but a vain, cocky little popinjay and I wish to have nothing to do with you.” she continued.

“Good. Leave me alone then, like I keep telling you.” he said sarcastically.

A pause.

“Yes, Adam, as soon as I finish. As I was saying, you are annoying and you bring out the worst in me. I am better off without you.”

“And I am, without you.” he said. He knew she was getting frustrated.

“Well, Adam Zachary, as much as I hate saying this, there is no doubt in  my mind…or heart…that I love you. You seem perfect to me, even with all your imperfections. Love is blind, I suppose. And stupid, too. I can’t seem to fix this feeling—and I’ve tried—so I’m just going to admit it.

Without doubt, Adam Zachary Ivans, I love you. That does not have any implications on the fact that I hate you.”

He was smiling now.

She waited a few seconds and then began to leave.

“Wait.”

She stopped and looked back at him still sprawled on the floor.

“Close the door on your way out.”

She looked at him for a moment and then went out.

As the door closed behind her, he said dully,

“And wait…I love you too.”

She did not hear, of course.

He smiled and got up.

Then he went out to see what his mother was cooking.