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Liam’s first bad idea is trying to buck tradition.

It’s five days until Valentine’s Day and the school is in full lovey dovey mode—well, if the line extending from Student Council’s table selling rose telegrams is any indication. Almost 15 people are queuing up to send a rose to another student with a note of their choosing:

You’re the best friend anyone could ask for! 

Will you be my Valentine? 

Roses are red, violets are blue, if you were a flower, I’d pick you! 

It’s all so saccharine, it makes his gut hurt.

He hasn’t been here long enough to know how meaningful the flowers are within Pinchot High School lore. Maybe they’re the pinnacle of showing affection, and in that case, maybe he should be giving one to Maddie.

As they walk towards the cafeteria, he looks over at her, her mouth moving with chatter of their history project. For a few days, he’s been mulling what to get her. It’s not as simple as getting a heart-shaped box of chocolates or stuffed animal you can pick up from the store in a clinch. She deserves more effort, more originality, and the generic school-sourced gifts that Evan Reynolds buys for each girl he flirts with doesn’t fit that bill.

There must be something beyond the cliché roses are red, violets are blue that shows her he likes her enough to celebrate a romantic holiday.

That’s when the imaginary light bulb above his head flicks on at mega-voltage. He’s going to turn the saying on its head. Blue roses, red violets. One-of-a-kind and unexpected, just like her.

In his mind, it’s easy enough. Back in Colorado, he’d done an experiment in science class where they put a few drops of food coloring into a vase, stuck a flower in, and over a few days, watched the petals transform. No reason it shouldn’t work the same way, he figures.

But, the florist only has one white rose left, the rest shades of red and pink. And violets, well, they have one option, and that is violet.  Still, he’s only a bit deterred and buys as many as he can with the $20 in his wallet, brings them home, and begins his science experiment.

Not wanting to deal with questions about who the flowers are for, he sets up plastic cups on the desk in his room —yes, he knows the cups are bad for the environment, but his mom will kill him if he turns her glassware blue. In the first set, he squeezes about 10 drops before arranging the trial of flowers in them. He dumps the remainder in the second cup, draining it until only a few drops remain.

It takes him a few days to realize the floral experiment is a failure.

The first cups don’t add enough color to change the petals more than a shade, and in the second set, while the white rose turns a spectacular blue, the others come out in deadly shades of purple with speckles of their original blue and red showing through like they have some weird pox disease.

Mistakes number two and three: Running so close up against the Valentine’s Day clock, and using up all his money so he can’t fund other options.

Shit, he thinks as he stares at his mutant flower garden. I should’ve just gone with the goddamn rose telegrams. Now, he may as well go with nothing.

The idea of it sits as well with him as going to sleep on a bed of nails. Maddie isn’t just some girl. She’s the first person who made him feel welcome in a world that was completely new, and he wanted no part of. Any happiness he’s found here has its roots in her.

But, the idea of giving her a bouquet of mistakes and failures feels worse.

Embarrassing. They’re trash, and that’s exactly where he puts them. It’s not like she expects anything anyway. It’s not as if they’re dating—even though he’d like them to be.

To drown his sorrows, he hides himself in the basement and tries to wrestle a magic sword from a demented magician with forceful finger punches to his controller. When he returns to his room a couple hours later, though, he’s not able to keep the flowers from his mind. Or his vision.

Somehow, they’ve returned to his desk, back in plastic cups filled with clear water. Beside them, is a note in script he recognizes as his stepdad, Chet’s: Don’t know why I found these in the garbage. They seem pretty cool to me. I’m sure someone would like them.

Even if it’s tiny, Liam smiles. He might want to be pissed off at all his parents for transplanting him here, but he’s finding it hard not to like Chet.

He lifts the once-white rose from the water.

It’s definitely eye-catching. A few of the other roses and violets might be salvageable too. He’s far from thrilled, but maybe it will do.

The next day, he walks down the hall decorated with so many pink streamers it’s basically a tunnel of love. At his locker, pulls his small bouquet of flowers wrapped in newspaper—a nod to her love of publishing—from his backpack, and places them in a big-mouthed water bottle sitting on a shelf in case he decides to hand them over to her.

As he takes out his books, he spots Maddie only a few feet away. Unlike some people who sparkle with red, and have love bug antennae on their heads, her red and black checkered shirt could be a nod to the day or just a piece of clothing she slipped on. He adds it to the ever-growing list of things he likes about her.

“Hey,” he calls with a wave.

“Hey.” She stops beside his locker, and squints downward. “What’s with your hands? You look like you got into a fight with Jackson Pollock mid-splatter paint session.”

He chuckles, but a blush crawls up his neck in patches.

Here’s the thing about food dye: it stains, and his hands are a mix of red and blue from the stems. And a spill he had to clean up.

“Uh,” he starts. There’s not a good excuse for this, not better than the one in his locker. So, he takes a breath. “They got dirty. Making these.” He lifts out the water bottle, and Maddie’s eyes drop to the flowers. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

“You made them for me?” she asks, her voice quiet.

“Yeah. For helping me here. You’re like the most awesome person I could’ve met,” he says as her gaze remains on the mini bouquet. Maybe she doesn’t like them, but is afraid to say. He panics and spurts out words. “I was trying to do something different, so I—”

“Made the violets red and the roses blue. I get it.” Her lips spread into a grin as she takes the bottle from him. “I love them. Thanks, Liam.” With one arm, she pulls him into a hug, and the contact sets him on fire—a blaze not to burn down, but warm and content like a bonfire. When she says, “You’re pretty awesome, too,” it grows.


He can’t say what feelings—if any—she has for him, but no matter what, this feels like a win.

Going non-traditional becomes his very first good choice.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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