The Valentine

by Backwoods Boy

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. A big thank-you to my editor, Michael, who finds the errors I miss, ensures clarity, and keeps me from straying too far from reality. Any remaining errors are my responsibility.

Having deposited his younger brother in the kindergarten classroom, Billy dashed along the North-Seattle grade-school hallway towards the stairs, only to be stopped by his nemesis, Mrs. Groat, one of the two fourth-grade teachers.

"Running in the hallway again, Billy? Do you need another visit to the principal's office?"

That was exactly what Billy didn't need, at least not right then. He was already late to meet his best friend, Chico, at the bottom of the stairway to their third-grade classroom.

"No, Mrs. Groat. It's just that..."

Apparently in a good mood - if witches ever have good moods - Mrs. Groat, though hardened by years of dealing with the Billys of the world, relented. To his surprise, Billy thought he saw a fleeting smile on her lips.

"I know, it's Valentine's Day, and you're in a hurry to get to your party. Now walk, don't run, and if I hear you running up the stairs you'll spend your party time in the detention room. Now, go... slowly."

"Yes, Mrs. Groat. I promise not to run."

Eleanor Groat wasn't quite as hard-nosed as she seemed. Like the rest of the staff, she knew Billy had run four blocks to his home for lunch, in part so he could walk back with his brother for the younger boy's half-day of kindergarten. At the ripe old age of eight, with three younger siblings, Billy had more responsibilities than he should, and he needed the fun and excitement of the party more than a lesson in decorum.

Chico's head tilted slightly to the right, and his face lit up with a cheerful smile as his buddy sedately walked towards him.

"Hey, Billy. Ready for the party?"

Smiling back, Billy took Chico's hand in his.

"Yeah, I can't wait. It's gonna be a lot of fun."

Chico started up the stairs two at a time, but Billy arrested his rapid progress.

"Slow down! Mrs. Groat is watching!"

Chico stopped, and then continued, one step at a time, with Billy at his side.

"I hope we don't get that old bag for a teacher next year."

"Me too."

The blond, blue-eyed boy of Nordic origins and Ballard-commercial-fishing family history, and the dark, Hispanic foster child seemed an unlikely pair, but they'd bonded instantly the first day of school that year. Though the companionship existed only at school, while there they were inseparable. To the school administration, they were William Hansen and Alejandro Gonzales. To their young teacher, Mary Olson, they were Billy and Chico. To their classmates, they were a single entity - sometimes Billy 'n Chico, at other times Chico 'n Billy.

The Valentine's Day party had been in the making for a week. The students were instructed to bring an empty shoebox for a class project. Billy dutifully arrived with his box, and though Chico had not, one mysteriously appeared for him out of the classroom supply closet.

After Miss Nelson cut a six-by-one-inch slit in each of the box tops with her normally-locked-up Exacto knife and taped the tops to the bottoms, the class set about decorating their mailbox for Valentine's Day. Crayons and heart-shaped stickers were the medium for the works of art, and at the end of the school day, twenty-two colorful boxes were lined up in a row on a shelf in the cloakroom.

The second phase involved the valentines themselves. The students were instructed to purchase one cellophane-wrapped package of twenty-five valentines. Billy dutifully arrived with his valentines, and though Chico had not, a package mysteriously appeared for him out of the classroom supply closet.

The educational values that day were penmanship, reading, and organization. The students addressed one valentine to each of their classmates and, when finished, placed the greetings in the respective mailboxes to await the Valentine's Day party.

And finally, it was the day of the party. With the help of two PTA-member mothers, paper plates containing three frosted, heart-shaped cookies were distributed, along with paper cups containing lemonade. The two spills that occurred were quickly cleaned up by the well-prepared chaperones.

Now came the big moment. The class monitors, two students previously selected by their peers, distributed the mailboxes. When each box was on the desk of its creator, it was opened, the cards were inspected, and appropriate thanks were given, at least to the nearby classmates.

Each box also contained a special valentine created by Miss Olson. On a cardboard heart background, Mary Olson had carefully pasted a picture of each student, engaged in a classroom or recess activity. There were two exceptions. Billy and Chico received identical valentines - a picture of two boys on the playground, hands clasped together, smiling at the camera.

That summer was a long one for Billy. Though he played occasionally with the neighborhood children, he spent most of his time at home. With his father away for long hours on the extended-family's fishing boat, and his mother working to supplement their income, Billy and his aging grandmother were tasked with the daily care of his younger siblings.

But what really made summer long was waiting to see Chico again. Miss Nelson's valentine, now lying on his dresser, was a daily reminder of the fun they had together. He could hardly wait to see his friend again.

Fall arrived, and Billy found himself assigned to Mrs. Groat's classroom. He discovered the first day that, in the classroom, she was much less threatening. His only disappointment was that Chico wasn't in the same classroom. He was even more disappointed when he learned, during recess, that Chico wasn't in the other classroom either.

He inquired of Mrs. Groat, but she had no knowledge of Chico's whereabouts. After steeling himself for the encounter, he went to the principal's office to inquire. Miss Jones, the very pleasant young secretary, told him what she knew.

"I'm sorry, Billy, but Chico moved away. We don't know where."

Billy slowly adapted to Chico's absence, but school wasn't the same any more. Though he interacted well with the other students, he now was just Billy - only half of the whole.

But he had the valentine to remember Chico by. Through the rest of his grade-school years, the valentine rested at the bottom of his underwear drawer where he could retrieve it and look at it, which he did regularly. And on Valentine's day, he always displayed it on the top of his dresser - and remembered that day in third grade when he'd received it.

It was at the start of his eighth-grade year, in middle school now, that Billy realized he was different. The other boys began to talk about girls, and their interest in them. At that age, most weren't sure yet what their interest was - they were just interested.

Billy, instead, was interested in his classmate, Roger. Roger was handsome, athletic and popular with both the boys and girls. As with his peers, Billy wasn't sure what his interest was, but when he tried to make friends with Roger and his macho friends, they could tell what he could not - his interest was of a nature that wasn't socially acceptable. He was rebuffed with catcalls.



"Stay away from me, faggot!"

"Go find one of your own kind to bugger."

Over the intervening five years, Billy's mother had produced four more siblings. Now with seven brothers and sisters, a couple of whom were old enough to help with Billy's caretaker role, the older boy was largely left to fend for himself. That, and frequent comments from his piously-religious father about the sins of Sodom , made it clear to Billy that he needed to keep his difference to himself.

It was also the year that he became William. It was already the name his parents and siblings used, and with no close friends, the other students adopted the name by which his teachers impersonally addressed him. And the name was fitting for a boy who, once gregarious and friendly, was now reserved and withdrawn.

The valentine became William's lifeline. When he was feeling particularly low, he'd get it out and talk to Chico as if the boy were really there. He knew his friend would understand what he was going through.

That fall, in an unusual stroke of brilliance but with typical frugality, William's father had produced a free, non-functional TRS-80 computer for him, expecting the thirteen-year-old to simply take it apart to see what was inside. William exposed the inner workings and, in an unusual stroke of independence, visited the local Radio Shack where Charlie, the friendly technician, helped him identify and fix the problem.

Fascinated with computers, William started hanging around Radio Shack, picking up knowledge from both Charlie and the customers. Overwhelmed with repair business, Charlie began paying William under the table to complete some simple problem analyses and repairs. In addition, he helped the boy learn basic programming skills, and by the end of his eighth-grade year, William had created a simple computer game.

When William entered high school that fall, he was ready for the computer age. Now requiring glasses, he became the epitome of the emerging nerd class, complete with pocket protector. Encouraged by his science teachers, he delved further into the emerging field of computer science, learning to program in Basic, C, and Pascal. But his favorite was assembly language, where he could get down to the basics and tell the computer exactly what to do.

Academically, William became the approachable guru who would help anyone solve their computer problems. Socially, though more friendly than in middle school, he still lived behind a self-imposed, impenetrable mask and wall.

Early in his junior year, his physics teacher and mentor obtained school funding to provide William with one of the newly-developed Commodore 64 computers, with modem. There wasn't much to connect to in those days, but William signed up for additional computer classes at the local community college and did his homework on the mainframe from his computer at home, thus avoiding the inconvenience of the direct-access terminals at the college.

For his senior project, with his now-framed valentine sitting permanently on his desk, William developed a compiler to optimize assembly language for the Commodore 64. It was no surprise to anyone that, when he graduated in the spring of 1984, he was awarded a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The train trip had been both exhilarating and exhausting. Having never been outside of the state of Washington, William was on sensory overload by the time he arrived at the Boston Amtrak South Station. As a gesture of goodwill, his high school principal had arranged with the MIT Dean of Students for someone to meet William. In a similar gesture of goodwill, the Dean assigned a local boy as William's roommate, and asked him to transport the newcomer to the campus.

William exited the train to find a tall, lanky, long-haired boy holding a cardboard placard that said, William Hansen . William breathed a sigh of relief. Although raised in an urban area, he had despaired at the idea of finding his own way to Cambridge. The cheerfully-smiling young man held out his hand.

"I'm Alex, a freshman like yourself. Welcome to Massachusetts."

As he smiled back and shook Alex's hand, William experienced the same feeling as he had about Roger in the eighth grade. That attraction that could never come to fruition.

"I'm William. Thanks for coming to get me."

"No problem, Will. I remember coming here for the first time too, though it's been many years now. I assume you have more luggage than that one suitcase?"

William smiled to himself - first at the assumed or assigned nickname, and second at the assumption, delivered in a jocular manner.

"Quite a bit. I expect to be here for a while."

The boys retrieved William's luggage, which in fact consisted of several cardboard boxes. That he had arrived at a prestigious university with cardboard luggage didn't faze William because it was exactly what a nerd would do. They found a cart to haul it to Alex's car, which was a recent-model Mercedes station wagon. William was surprised, and his face must have shown it. Alex smiled slightly.

"It's my mom's. I thought the wagon might come in handy. I won't have a car at school. I live here in Boston, so I can get to and from home by public transportation."

That produced another surprised look.

"If you live here in Boston, why do you live in a dormitory?"

The dark eyes twinkled with humor.

"Just to be your roommate."

A somewhat literal person, William almost missed the joke. It was a moment before he smiled back.


Alex laughed.

"My parents wanted me to have the full college experience, and I did too."

They got into the car and were silent as Alex drove away from the station towards downtown Boston. Alex resumed the conversation.

"I understand your major is Computer Science."

William turned towards his roommate.

"Yes. And yours?"

"Political Science."

William looked at Alex's tie-dyed t-shirt, faded blue jeans, and well-worn tennis shoes.

"You belong at Berkeley."

Alex laughed out loud.

"You're not the first one to say that, but believe it or not, MIT has a great Poli Sci department." He glanced at William's beige plaid shirt, tie, and pocket protector. "Have you ever seen that old movie, The Odd Couple ?"

William knew where this was going.

"You're going to say that's us. And you're quite right."

As they drove through the downtown area, Alex pointed out the landmarks. Once across the Charles River, he turned west and continued the guided tour. Arriving at the campus, he parked in the dormitory visitor parking so they could unload William's belongings.

It took three trips, but finally William was installed in his assigned room. He paused and looked around. The room was larger than he'd anticipated.

"This is nice."

"Thanks, I picked it myself."

At William's doubtful look, he smiled.

"I'm serious, Will. They gave me a choice of three. This one has a view to the south. Once you've been there, you'll be able to identify where my parents' home is located."

Once you've been there . Whether the task was assigned or assumed, Alex was doing his best to make William comfortable. And he had one more thing to offer.

"I'm meeting some of the guys at the Student Union. Want to join us?"

William hesitated. It had been a long trip, a long day, and it was a new culture. He needed a break.

"Thanks a lot, but I need to stay here and settle in."

Alex smiled. "No problem. I'll be back in time to introduce you to the dining hall. You'll find the food surprisingly good for college fare, at least I think so. I'll see you later."

William took his time putting his things away. Midway in the activity, he took a trip to the restroom down the hall, and met a couple of friendly guys on the way. He was feeling better about this all the time, but deep down there was an ache. He was a stranger in a strange place, and in spite of the friendliness he'd found, there was no getting around that fact.

The last thing William did was remove a ten-year-old valentine from its secure place in the suitcase he'd carried with him on the train. Looking at it with the usual fondness, he set it on his desk. It was his link to the one part of his past he wished to remember. Suddenly, he was no longer homesick.

Alex popped in the door whistling cheerfully.

"Ready to go to dinner, Will?"

Alex's good humor was contagious. William detached his attention from his current task long enough to smile at his roommate.

"Give me a couple of minutes. I'd like to finish setting up the computer. I'm surprised the room has a phone jack. I'll hook up the DSL later, though."

"No hurry. The phone jack with university-supplied service was a feature your department chairman insisted on. The college has given your arrival unusual attention. You must have quite a reputation."

William shrugged his shoulders.

"Not really, so far as I know."

Alex reclined on his bed and watched from behind as William concentrated on the final steps of his computer setup. Suddenly he sat up straight.

"Did you end up with Mrs. Groat for fourth grade?"

"Yeah, she wasn't so bad once you got used to her. In fact..."

William swiveled his chair around to face Alex, and now devoted his full attention to his roommate.

"How did you know about that?"

Alex nodded towards the valentine. His head tilted slightly to the right as he responded with a smile.

"I've got one of those too, you know."

He reached into his desk drawer, pulled out a small picture frame, and handed it to William.

"How about that, Billy?"

Dumbfounded, William looked at the valentine and then up into Alex's tear-filled eyes and whispered softly.


It was a statement of discovery, not a question.

The two old friends stood and melted into each other's arms, and all the years of longing faded away into nothingness.

For the next several hours, they sat side by side on Alex's bed, holding hands and catching up on each other's history. William learned how, shortly after the school year ended, his third-grade friend had traveled to Washington, D.C. with his foster parents. They had been invited by their representative to testify at a congressional hearing concerning the need for adoptive parents for older children.

After their participation at the hearing was completed, a young congressman from Massachusetts invited the family to spend the weekend at his Boston home, where he and his wife immediately bonded with the boy. The adoption was accomplished during the summer, and Alejandro never returned to Seattle.

With his new life came new friends and a more mature nickname. But, like William, he never forgot about Billy 'n Chico.

It was past nine, and William's stomach was complaining. Alex heard it and laughed out loud.

"That's a sound I remember. The dining hall closed long ago, so we're going to a much better place to eat." He stood and pulled William to his feet. "I need to return the car to Mom anyway. And I want her to take a picture of us exactly like the valentine. I know Dad can locate Miss Olson, and I bet the teacher who took the original would love to see the sequel."

William smiled as he stood.

"Miss Olson was a very sharp teacher."

Alex smiled back.

"She knew things then that we had no idea of."

Alex stopped at the common phone in the hallway and called his mother to fill her in on the events of the day. He hung up with a big grin on his face.

"Mom and Dad can't wait to meet you. They've heard quite a bit about you, you know."

With both boys deep in their own thoughts, the drive to Alex's Beacon Hill home was silent. Though previously exhausted, William was now wired with nervous excitement.

As they pulled into the driveway and got out of the car, the front door opened, and Alex's parents stepped onto the porch with welcoming smiles. Although Alex made the formal introductions, they weren't really necessary. Alex's mother, with perception the likes of which William had never seen, looked into his eyes and read the pain of his past and the joy of his future. She smiled as she took both of his hands in hers.

"Welcome home, Billy."

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