(Trigger Warning: Language and mentions of suicidal ideation)
But now you got to fly
Fly to the angels
Heaven awaits your heart
And flowers bloom in your name
Earbuds blasting, Taz continued prying and singing along. It was an oldie she'd never heard before, but it beat nothing. Anything to soften this hard-labor chore. Anything to get tomorrow here faster.
She backhanded the culprit board with the hammer's side and wiggled a splinter with a tear, until her finger was free of it.
"What a pneumonia hole!"
Her newest description of the old house. It looked like a disease, smelled like death, and felt like hell. And with every whack of the hammer to that rotted staircase, it tasted like prehistoric dust. She stopped to catch her breath. That's when she heard the shriek of the uneven front door digging into the linoleum above the music.
"Looks like we're making progress," her mother commented while tapping by with a load of groceries.
Taz curled her lips, mouthing those words back at her in silence before resuming her attack on the grayed wood. Of course she was making progress! It was either get the staircase down and out of here by midnight or be grounded for another year. With a distorted grunt, she sent the board from the bottom step twirling into the pile across the room.
"Oh, I look hideous!"
She could feel her face turning to mud as dust and perspiration mixed. She stared at the aluminum ladder off to the side, then at the remainder of the staircase, and fumes of disgust vented from her pulsing nostrils. What was the point of all this again? Besides her mother simply taking delight in watching her suffer?
"Oh, yeah: To make room for a new one."
Tomorrow, those carpenter guys would be here to build a safe staircase; one that "the grandkids won't fall through when they come over." Meantime, the ladder would be the only route to and from the one bathroom in the house. Having Taz do all the dirty work would both save money on labor and teach her not to sneak off to parties anymore.
"I don't hear boards cracking!" shot out from somewhere in the house.
The witchy voice of her mother bounced from wall to wall, landing on Taz's stinging eardrums. She rammed the buds further in and jerked the volume up to max. Wishing she had a sledgehammer, she pounded and clawed at one of the staircase's side panels.
"This is messed up!" she tweeted when she realized why this particular part of the stairs was being so cooperative.
A cloud of dust settled to the floor. She held the thin...door in her hands. Her throat and heart twitched.
"Flashlight! Where's a flashlight?"
The metallic cylinder rested lifeless in her hand, and a downpour of horror movie images kept her paralyzed until she could quiet the stomach churns enough to dare. Light washed over the compartment's interior, followed by gazing brown eyes and a swooshing sigh.
Neither dead body, nor hidden stash. Plain boring, really. Taz shook her frizzy-haired head at it. It was unlike any box of chocolates she'd ever seen. She guessed it was probably made of tin. One lone blotch of lipstick-colored paint spelled the curvy word Be; the rest was indecipherable rust.
At the risk of further verbal whip-cracking from her mother, she clenched her teeth from the strain of trying to get the lid off, if only out of curiosity. This heart thing had to be an antique. It would be interesting to see what fifty, sixty - who knows how many years - does to chocolate.
"Makes it lose weight, that's for sure."
Several glittery press-on nails fell off her fingers and the lid clanged against the nearest wall. Her curiosity was satisfied. No chocolate, no nothing except a folded sheet of paper so yellowed with age Taz wondered how it hadn't disintegrated altogether. She swore something was moving within the folds and slammed the paper on the floor, stomping at it.
Curiosity outweighed fear of the unknown, though. Peeling the document open with the care of a bomb squad, she grinned and exhaled when two shining coins at least twice the size of quarters fell out. The paper had handwriting on the inside as well. But that could wait.
"Mom! I found something!"
"Better be something worth this long break you've been taking!" the witchy voice tooted. A handful of speedy tapping steps later, there stood mother.
"Well, what do ya know! That's one of them old-timey Valentine's boxes, like your grandpa used to give my mom every year. And those are Kennedy fifty-cent pieces. Been a while since I seen one of those! What's the letter say?"
"'Will somebody please be...'". Taz had to finish laughing before she could go on. "O! M! F! G!" she hollered, her baby-smooth face contorting to elderly. "Says: 'Will somebody please be my Valentine?'"
Her mother shared the crossed eyes, but not the laughter.
"That's it? Looks like there's more writing than that."
Taz ignored the question; she was too busy entertaining herself with visuals of a pencil-necked guy wearing Coke bottle glasses and checkered pants.
"God, how lame can you get? This dude must've really been a loser! Why else would he have hid this in here? Probably had a crush on some chick, so he bought her chocolates and then spent Valentine's at home eating them himself 'cause he knew he didn't stand a chance!"
"Taz, that's mean!" her mother grimaced.
"It's not mean! Mother, whoever this guy was, he's probably dead by now!"
"The rest of the letter?" she urged.
Taz coughed and returned the paper to reading distance. Only the words You won't even have to look made it past her lips before her grinning took a sudden turn South.
You won't even have to look at me, because I'll be gone by morning. Here's a dollar. Hopefully it will be enough to buy yourself some chocolates to replace the ones that were in this tin. Gotta fly now. Happy Valentine's to whomever. Love, Charlie.
The next day, Taz spent her first morning of freedom driving around to catch up on the shopping she'd missed. After hitting every store in the mall, she wound up in the old part of town at a store called "We Can Get It!" It was her last resort. She cringed at the musty smell inside; reminded her too much of the new home.
"Mornin'!" a chipper older woman's voice blurted from another room.
"Hi," Taz answered while rummaging through tables of clothing.
The source of the voice appeared, gripping a rackety metal cane as she strolled with a gentle glowing smile.
"Looking for something in particular, sweetie?"
"Um, yeah! Do you carry anything in the Jordache brand? I'm looking for yellow casual slacks, size-28 waist/30 inseam."
"Hmm, let's see...". She hobbled behind the counter and began typing on her computer. "We do carry that brand and that color, but we're out of stock on 28's right now. We can get it though!"
"Hence the name," Taz said restraining herself from rolling her eyes. "Okay."
The woman typed in the order, assuring the girl that the slacks would be in by next Friday. Taz thanked her with a sigh and opened the door to step out. But she couldn't bring herself to leave just yet; instead, she became preoccupied with the color of the wood on the door frame.
"Are you okay, babe?" the woman asked, peeking in her direction from behind the register.
"Ma'am, this is totally off-subject, but have you lived here all your life?"
That question lifted the woman's smile back up.
"Yes. Born right here in this town, matter of fact!"
"Did you ever know a guy named Charlie?" Taz asked, giving her undivided attention to the answer brewing within the woman's throat.
She laughed. "Which Charlie? I've prob'ly known a dozen of 'em in my lifetime, dear!"
"Well this one would've been about your age, and he lived at 109 Locust Lane."
"Yes!" the woman stated as though someone had sneaked up behind and grabbed her. "Charlie was in the same grade as me!"
A dueling stare ensued for a moment.
"Now...you say 'would've been my age,' like you know something," she observed with one pinkish ear turned closer to Taz than the other.
"Um...from what I gathered in the letter, it was basically a suicide note?" Taz mumbled looking away.
The woman ran her fingers through her long, white hair before scratching at her chin.
"Yeah. We moved into that house recently, and while we were working on remodeling I found a letter he'd written stashed in a secret compartment. It was inside one of those heart-shaped Valentine's boxes."
The word heart brought the woman's shaky hand up over her own when Taz related the letter's actual words. She then told the story as she understood it.
"Charlie did try to kill himself once, but thank god it failed. They got to him just in time, and he was sent to an institution for several years; he never tried again, but he was as good as dead from then on. Took to drinking his whole adult life, and last I heard, he's laid up at Sycamore Suites with a failing liver."
She lifted her hand from her heart to her eyes.
"You know: I've always liked Charlie; he had a sweetness about him that just made you feel like the queen of the world when you were around. But he was also the quietest person in school. I always figured it was because he...you know...had his own life and preferred no one be a part of it. If only I'd known what was really going on with him."
Taz stood there with a posture far more mellow than the one with which she'd entered the store.
"Well now you know," she stated in a voice to match. "And as you've informed me, he's still here."
She reached into her pink, leopard-spotted coin purse and pulled out two Kennedy half-dollars.
"This was in the box too, for whoever found it. Valentine's is Monday. Why don't you take these to a dollar store and buy yourself a little box of chocolates, then go visit Charlie and tell him thanks. That you found his letter, and that you would be honored to be his Valentine.
I'm just a goofy Millennial teen, and I'm much too young for him. But you...you have a chance to make a difference in this person's life before it's too late."
The woman pointed her finger at the teen and started wagging it with sparkles in her eyes.
"Let me tell you something, hun: That's exactly what I'm gonna do! And you are not 'goofy' by any means! You're a wise young woman; stick to that path, and you will change the world."