The Heartbreak Next Door
by S.G. Rogers
With her mom’s help, Helena spent the weekend baking and decorating cookies for Valentine’s Day. She’d set aside one special cookie for her next-door neighbor, Erik. It had taken her a half-hour to decorate that particular one. She’d piped white icing around the edges of the large, heart-shaped cookie and then filled the inside with a checkerboard of colored icing. Helena had finished it off by piping XOXO in the center. It was the prettiest cookie Helena had ever made. She could hardly wait to give it to Erik when he got home from school on Valentine’s Day.
Erik happened to be the most gorgeous boy in the seventh grade. He was unusually tall and well muscled for a kid his age, with grey eyes and blonde wavy hair, but that wasn’t important to Helena. She had known Erik since they were both toddlers. They used to run naked through the sprinklers back then, oblivious to the differences between boys and girls. When they got a little older, she and Erik would pitch a tent and camp out in the backyard. It was so much fun to lie there at night, just the two of them. They would tell ghost stories and talk about what they wanted to be when they grew up. When they started school, Helena couldn’t help but notice girls would act goofy whenever Erik was around. They all wanted to marry him for some reason. The boys couldn’t decide whether or not to hang out with Erik or pound him into the ground. Erik’s involvement in sports had the dual benefit of keeping girls at bay and winning him acceptance by his peers.
Although Helena was often pushed aside by girls who wanted to be with Erik, she wasn’t jealous. Helena knew that silly girls would come and go, but best friends were forever. Besides, Erik was frequently embarrassed by all the attention, which made Helena all the more sympathetic and loyal. Eventually, though, the girls learned to cope with Erik’s glamour, and the incidents calmed down.
Until this year.
It wasn’t as if Helena was immune from the effects of the hormones that were unleashing themselves on her body, but there seemed to be a collective insanity running through the seventh grade. A maelstrom of gossip swirled amongst the students…who was interested in whom, which kids were already a couple, who’d split up or who’d gotten back together. Very few kids were actually allowed to date, but facts didn’t seem to get in the way of the rumors. In this atmosphere, Valentine’s Day was shaping up to be the Holy Grail of holidays. Preparations had been underway for weeks as the girls decided what kinds of Valentines they were going to pass out, and to whom. The boys were largely and deliberately oblivious.
On the appointed morning, Helena stood on the sidewalk outside Erik’s house and waited for him to emerge. Walking to school together had become routine. Helena had her backpack slung over one shoulder, and in her hand she held a plastic container of the cookies she’d carefully prepared. To commemorate the occasion, she’d tied a red ribbon on the end of her braid, and worn red socks with her white tennis shoes. Helena had also thrown a red hoodie over her jeans.
Erik bounded out of his house, backpack flying. There was not a shred of anything red on his person, nor was he carrying anything that remotely resembled a Valentine. “Sorry I’m late.” He looked Helena up and down. “What’s with all the red?”
“Duh, it’s Valentine’s Day, don’t you remember?” Helena retorted.
It was as if she’d reminded Erik of an overdue library book. “Oh,” he replied.
They set off down the street. As they turned the corner, Erik noticed the plastic box. “Is that your lunch?” he asked.
“Cookies for homeroom,” she said.
“Too bad I’m not in your homeroom,” he laughed.
“Don’t worry, I saved one for you,” she said. “You can have it later.”
When they arrived at school, it was clear that Valentine’s Day hysteria had infected the female half the student body. Most of them had donned red, white and/or pink attire, decorated with hearts whenever possible. Boys were trudging through the halls in a stoic fashion as they tried to ignore the obvious. Some of the girls had decorated their lockers with lacey doilies, cardboard cherubs, and crepe paper flowers, all in an attempt to win a contest sponsored by the pep squad.
Erik laughed as he passed his friend Gary’s locker. Gary had put a silhouette of a beheaded cupid on the front, complete with spurting blood.
“I’d vote for that one,” he said to Helena.
Erik’s smile faded as he approached his own locker. He was dismayed to see it had been decorated to within an inch of its life. Someone had taken a photo of him and printed it out with a cartoon ‘kiss’ mark on his cheek. The photo was surrounded by a series of heart-shaped construction paper pockets into which foil-embossed Valentines and candy had been stuffed. The word ‘LOVE’ was a repeating theme, particularly in the helium balloon bouquet that floated on top of the locker itself.
Erik stopped dead as he stared at the horror in front of him. His blush extended from his collar to his hairline. Helena winced in sympathy; the decorations really were obnoxious. “Ick,” she said.
“I am going to die,” Erik moaned.
“Do you want me to help you clean it off?” she offered.
The warning bell rang.
“Thanks, but there’s no time,” he replied. “We’ll have to do it after school.”
Helena’s cookies were a big hit in her homeroom and she almost forgot about Erik’s predicament until lunch, when he won the pep squad locker decorating contest. Helena realized the fix was in when each member of the pep squad insisted on giving Erik a kiss on the cheek as a prize.
Helena stopped by Erik’s locker after the final bell rang to help him remove the decorations. When she arrived, though, the locker had already been stripped clean and Erik was nowhere to be found. She knew he didn’t have any sports that day, so she reluctantly concluded he’d left without her.
Helena hurried home. After she’d stowed her backpack in her room, she went to the kitchen to pack Erik’s cookie. She lined a small pink bakery box with a paper doily and cradled the cookie inside. Helena took a moment to admire the presentation before she closed the box up and walked next door. Erik’s mom answered her knock. “Oh, Helena, I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “Erik’s in his room. He had a rough time at school today.”
Erik’s door was open, but the lights were off inside. Helena tapped on the door before she walked inside. “Hey, can I come in?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he replied.
Helen was surprised to find Erik curled up on his beanbag chair, with a bag of ice pressed to his face. “Are you okay?” she asked, taken aback.
Erik raised his head to reveal a black eye, a purple cheekbone and a split lip.
Helena gasped. “What happened to you?”
“I got jumped in the locker room at P.E.,” he mumbled.
Helena laid the cookie box on Erik’s bed and sat on the carpet beside her friend. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I guess that pep squad thing must have made a lot of the guys jealous.”
“I guess so,” he replied. “I hate Valentine’s Day.”
A lock of Erik’s wavy blonde hair had fallen down over his eyes. Even though he was battered and bruised, he was still breathtaking. Helena had to stifle the impulse to move the lock of hair back.
“Let’s make a promise, Helena,” Erik said. “I don’t ever want there to be any gooey love stuff between us, okay? That just ruins everything. I promise I won’t ever fall in love with you and you won’t ever fall in love with me and we’ll always be friends. Deal?”
“Yeah, sure,” Helena said. Her response was automatic, instantaneous…and hollow.
“Cool,” Erik replied, clearly relieved. His attention turned to the bakery box. “What’d you bring me?”
“Oh, uh, it’s a cookie,” Helena said. She got to her feet. “Look, I’ve got homework. I’ll see you later.”
Erik knew he shouldn’t eat anything before dinner, but suddenly he was starving. He pulled open the box and looked inside. There was a beautiful heart-shaped cookie inside, in two pieces. Erik picked up one half and bit into it. The cookie was delicious, but he debated whether or not he should tell Helena it had been broken somehow.
What Erik didn’t realize was that Helena already knew.
* * *
(Photo illustration font credit: Jellyka Nerevan, www.cuttyfrutty.com)