11 Paper Hearts

Chapter 1

It’s the first Friday of February and I know three things.

One, Valentine’s Day decorations are already up all over school. Red and pink streamers are hung from the ceilings every year to make it feel like love really is in the air. But to me, it screams that love can be torn down at any second.

Two, I miss the days when teachers made everyone from the weird kid that picks his nose in the back of the classroom to your first Top-Secret Crush buy you a valentine. Even though their moms would just buy a pack of generic cards from Target and scribble their names at the bottom, it was something. Now that I don’t have a boyfriend, who knows what I’ll be getting.

Three, I know my new animosity for Valentine’s Day really has nothing to do with these things and everything to do with what happened this time last year.

But I brush that thought aside harder than I brushed the knots out of my hair this morning to make it perfectly straight. Today I’m wearing a printed skirt with a cropped sweater and matching tights. I try to look my best even when I’m not feeling it, which is probably why my friends never know when something is bothering me.

We’re huddled together in line for the paper hearts the student government is selling as a fund-raiser for the Valentine’s Day Dance. There’s a table set up outside the gymnasium, which is the perfect spot because it’s where people always hang out before homeroom. A long line has formed from the gym entrance to the boys’ locker room around the corner.

There’s a part of me that’s super proud of the turnout. The paper hearts were my idea in ninth grade when I first joined student government’s planning committee. We were trying to think of something original to sell other than carnations to raise money for the Valentine’s Day Dance. I thought of love letters immediately. There’s something about them that feels so perfectly nostalgic. From there, I thought of selling paper cutouts in the shape of hearts people could write messages on, which would then be passed out around school during the weeks leading up to the dance. You can decorate them and write anything you want to. People mainly send short but sweet ones to their friends. Other times if you’re in a relationship you might send a more thoughtful one to show how much you care. What’s more romantic than telling someone how you feel?

Ever since freshman year I’ve gotten a heart from Pete. He isn’t the sentimental type, but he always took them seriously. Part of me thinks it’s only because it was my idea. But there’s another part of me that feels it was genuine-he knew it made me really happy to open one from him.

There’s something about receiving love letters that feels way better than some text. I saved all of them in the secret hiding spot next to my bed.

Standing in line, I wonder if any of the paper hearts I get this year will be worth keeping.

“We should get ours for free,” Carmen declares as we inch toward the student government table. “Since this was Ella’s idea.”

Jessica and Katie nod. I glance up at the girl passing out the paper hearts. I forget her name somehow, even though she’s the one who always raises her hand in my English class to answer all the questions. I don’t really know her personally, but she doesn’t exactly scream rule breaker.

I shake my head. “Not going to happen. But on the positive side, the money goes toward the dance.”

“Oooh. Do you think there’s going to be a flower wall for pictures again?” Katie asks.

I blink at the word again. I don’t remember the flower wall.

Carmen gives Katie a look before answering. “Doubtful. Ella was the only one in student government who actually did anything cool. At least they’re doing the paper hearts again instead of passing out dinky carnations. I wouldn’t put that past them.”

I force a smile like I do a lot lately. I used to love being on the planning committee, especially when it came to school dances. One of my favorite things has always been bringing friends together. In middle school, I started organizing big sleepovers complete with games, karaoke sing-offs, and Sephora face masks. They got so popular that my mom had to make me put a cap on who could come. By high school, I graduated to bigger events like school dances as the student body’s social chair. But this year I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

“How many hearts do you think I’ll get this time?” Jessica asks. “Last year I only got fourteen.”

Katie rolls her eyes. “Only fourteen? Humble brag a little more, will you.”

“Oh, save it,” Carmen says. “Besides, paper hearts are about quality over quantity,” she says before lightly elbowing me. “Who do you want to get one from?”

I shrug. “I don’t even know who I’m sending one to besides you three and Ashley. But she’s too cool for school these days. I bet she doesn’t even send me one back.”

“Forget your sister. What about Pete?” She winks.

I raise my eyebrow. The last person I expect a heart from is my ex-boyfriend, but no matter how many times I insist we’re over, she brings him up whenever she can.

“Fine,” she says, crossing her arms. “But you better hurry up and think. The line is moving fast.”

There’s a group of girls in front of us who are chatting excitedly and a boy ahead of them with a super-large backpack. He bounces up and down nervously until the girl from my English class gestures for him to come up to the table and he sprints over. It’s endearing and makes me wonder who he’s eager to send a note to. Carmen sees too but laughs.

“I have until third period to think about it, remember?” I say, distracting her. “There’s a bin outside Principal Wheeler’s office for dropping the hearts off.”

Carmen’s eyes light up. It takes me a second before I realize she’s looking over my shoulder. “What about one of them?” she asks, and I turn around to see who she’s looking at.

I automatically sigh. Of course it’s the boys basketball team-the seniors, anyway, and a couple juniors. Pete’s there too.

He always seems to have some sort of radar when I’m nearby, and now is no exception. Pete looks up from a conversation he’s having with a guy from the basketball team and spots me across the gymnasium lobby. I might be embarrassed that we made awkward eye contact if it wasn’t for the fact that he smiles immediately. I feel my cheeks grow warm, like they did the first time we locked eyes after a game.

After the accident Pete told me he wouldn’t get back together with me since I had broken up with him for a legit reason. Apparently, I had done it because my heart wasn’t in it anymore. When Pete told me, he almost started crying like we were breaking up all over again. I realized then how much pain I put him through, even if I couldn’t remember it. I vowed to leave him alone after that.

But breakups in high school are strange-you still run into each other and have to wave hello, even though you already said goodbye. When he waves to me now, I smile like I always do as Carmen raises her eyebrow at me.

“You know there are other people besides basketball players at the school,” I say.

“Like who, Turtleboy?” she retorts, looking at the boy who just paid for his paper hearts and is now strapping his big backpack on again. He does kind of look like a turtle. Jessica and Katie laugh as I give an uneasy smile.

“Wait a second,” Carmen continues. “Is Sarah Chang flirting with Turtleboy?”

I’m not surprised that Carmen’s going to continue picking on this poor boy, but I’m surprised that she knows this girl’s name. She’s not the type to be on Carmen’s radar. Maybe she has a class with her? The girl is handing the boy his paper heart and smiling at him-I’d hardly call that flirting. But Jess proudly shows us her phone. She took a photo of the exchange. From the angle, you can barely see the cutout. It looks like they’re holding hands.

“Aw, a match made in heaven,” Jess says. She even has the perfect rabbit teeth. The tortoise and the hare.”

“Oooh. That’s a good one.” Carmen smiles smugly.

“You guys are terrible,” I say, but with not enough force to actually make a difference. I see Jess typing on her phone. Before I can say anything, she looks up and gives a satisfied smile like she does when she posts something.

“So anyway, where are we getting ready for the game tonight?”

My friends start chatting excitedly again, but all I can do is stare at the one heart dangling from the ceiling. It’s the same as the others but a little ripped at the bottom. I can’t help but feel a little out of place, just like it looks.

Maybe hearts are like paper. Once they are torn, they can never be perfect again.

When I’m up in line, I buy paper hearts for my friends and sister, like I planned, and an extra one for Sarah Chang.

Chapter 2

A lot of people have asked me what it’s like to have amnesia.

You know when your iPhone suddenly dies and you’re nowhere near an outlet? Then you have to go hours feeling excommunicated from the world, wondering who’s trying to talk to you, unable to look up anything.

Or even worse, when your phone breaks. Maybe it got wet somehow or it slips out of your hands and when you pick it up, the front is shattered and you pray that everything is already uploaded to the cloud. But when you go to the Apple store you learn there’s no way to recover your recent photos or texts-nothing. Well, that’s .01% of what it feels like to have amnesia, but that’s the best comparison I have. Suddenly, there’s a chunk of your world missing . . . and there’s no way to get it back.

My phone analogy is ironic because after my accident, I found out my phone was as damaged as my car. The only things that I was able to retrieve were my contacts and some photos I had already uploaded months before. I remember staring at my new, blank phone and feeling like I was starting my life over again in more ways than one.

But even that was put on hold until I could get better. Then, once I did, my priority was catching up during summer school on all the classes I’d missed.

Now it’s the second semester of my senior year, and since my college acceptance emails have already come, focusing is harder than it has ever been. Today, instead of listening, I’m working on my paper hearts.

Being the perfectionist that I am, I type out everything I’m going to say on my iPad before I actually write on the paper so I don’t have any mess-ups. Then I plan on writing them in a script font I’ve gotten really good at with my favorite pen. A lot of the paper hearts I receive remind me of how yearbooks are signed at the end of the year. Hope you have a lovely day. Have the best Valentine’s Day ever! Love, X. But I like to make mine personal. Every year I take the time to write out what I love about the people I’m sending them to.

Jessica can be super mean to other people, like Sarah Chang but it’s so ironic because she’s one of the nicest people in the world if she’s actually friends with you-she always has your back. Jess was the first one to come to my defense when people would ask about the accident. Do you think she wants to talk about that? she’d ask so aggressively it would make the other person turn red. I can’t imagine her ever being disloyal.

Katie can be perceived as a pushover, but really, she just wants everyone in our friend group to be happy. She’s the best person to go to for advice. When I was struggling coming to terms with my breakup with Pete, she told me if we were meant to be, we would find our way back to each other. Just hearing her say that helped me more than she knew. Everyone needs a friend like Katie.

Then there’s Carmen, who gets the longest letter because we’ve been best friends the longest.

I start out reminding her about our best-friend bracelets from middle school. I wore mine until it was practically hanging on by a string. During those days, we were the kind of friends who were perfectly happy just the two of us. We would go to each other’s houses for sleepovers, memorizing song lyrics and trying new lip gloss colors neither of us were actually allowed to wear to school yet. But when we entered eighth grade, Carmen announced that we should branch out. Carmen usually filters what she really wants to say, like she does photos before she posts them. In retrospect, I know that what she meant is that we needed more friends. We found Katie and Jess shortly after. But Carmen’s always like that-when she wants something, she goes out and gets it.

She’s really pretty, but what she doesn’t get told enough is that she’s also really smart. She can memorize a song after listening to it only a couple of times. She barely has to study for tests because she’s so smart she doesn’t need to and still gets As. I think that’s why she can get away with calling other people nerds. She also gets away with a lot because she’s so funny. But those are just a few things about Carmen-there’s more.

Her enthusiasm is contagious and has always been what pushed me out of my comfort zone. First time sitting with seniors at lunch? It was Carmen dragging me along, insisting that nobody cared we were sophomores. My first all-nighter? Entirely Carmen’s idea.

A lot of times I’m envious of how well Carmen handles the tough things in life. She’s learned to be tough, just like her mom-the two of them had to be when Carmen’s dad left them. When I was in the hospital, instead of crying her eyes out, she went into action and started the GoFundMe for my parents. I don’t know what would’ve happened without her.

As I tell her this, I don’t worry about being sappy. My paper hearts normally are.