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The Valentine Mystery
If there was one holiday Jo Polniaczek despised, it was Valentine's Day. Early memories of her Uncle Sal telling her about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre probably hadn't helped. Some relative of his had bought it that day. Sal liked reenacting the whole thing as a bedtime story for his six year old niece and Jo could vividly recall his rendition of the rat-a-tat of the machine gun fire. Her mother had been horrified at Sal's babysitting choices, but Jo had been fascinated and asked her uncle to repeat the story for years thereafter.
Now, as she lugged the mail from the Eastland post office back to her shared room over the cafeteria, Jo decided that being lined up against the wall of a Chicago garage and shot was preferable to rooming with Blair Warner during the Valentine season.
Jo walked in the door and observed her roommates sprawled on their beds in the post-shift haze. "Mail call," she announced, dumping the large pile of envelopes in the middle of the floor.
"Jo!" Blair cried. "What do you think you're doing? These are private missives, billets-doux, if you will, to be treated with respect."
"Yeah, Jo, we wouldn't want any of Blair's 1,438 Valentines Day cards to get crinkled," Natalie interjected.
"I appreciate that Natalie," Blair replied. "If you won't take your duties seriously," she directed to Jo, "in violation of postal regulations, I might add, I will sort the mail myself." The blonde gathered the pile from the floor, perched on the foot of her bed, and started flipping through the envelopes.
"If you get another Valentine from Monaco, can I have the stamp?" Tootie inquired.
"Of course," Blair responded. "That Albert, he's such a hoot."
Jo made a gagging motion to Natalie as Blair started to call out the return addresses. "Bradley Jenkins, Jeffrey Duke, Peter Carlson, nothing unexpected there. Hello, what do we have here? Scott Nederland. Oh, that is a coup. I thought he was still dating Louise Emerson. Well Louise notwithstanding, apparently he wants me to be his Valentine. Smart boy."
Jo pantomimed an intense convulsion of nausea. "I thought they were private missives, Blair," she pointed out waspishly. "The rest of us don't really need to hear the roll call of pathetic dweebs you conned into wasting a stamp."
"Fine," Blair sniffed.
"No, I want to hear. It's so romantic. All these admirers," Tootie gushed.
Blair smiled at her young friend. "I'm glad that at least some people can appreciate the spirit of the holiday, Tootie. Anyway, they aren't all for me. Here's one for you, Natalie."
"Really? A Valentine for Nat?" Tootie exclaimed. "Who's it from?" she asked excitedly.
"Don't get your hopes up, Tootie, it's from my grandmother. Blair gets Albert of Monaco; I get Mona of Boca Raton. Sort of sums it all up, doesn't it?" Natalie commented, as she opened the ornate envelope.
"Oh. Well it's still a nice card," Tootie said.
"Yeah and there's a check included, so I really can't complain," Natalie admitted.
"Oh my lord!" Blair gasped, staring at the paper in her hands.
"What? Who? JFK Junior?" Tootie exclaimed.
"No, no," Blair replied. "Although that is a goal," she added. "No, astounding as it seems, this one's for Jo."
"What?" Jo snapped.
"It must be from Eddie," Tootie cooed.
"No, there's no postage. So it's someone local, with access to the campus. I've got it; it's from your lover boy, Roy, the bread delivery man," Blair smirked.
"Give me that," Jo snarled, snatching the envelope from Blair's hands. "It had better not be from Roy," she muttered. "I warned him that if he did something like this, I'd run his forearms through the meat grinder."
"And they say romance is dead," Natalie remarked.
Jo opened the envelope, as the others clustered around. "Would you mind," she complained.
"Oh come, Jo. Let us see if Roy braved permanent disfigurement to express his love," Blair smirked.
"Oh all right." The four roommates all looked at the card, a drawing of a heart in a cage with the inscription, 'Jo, you've captured my heart. LO.'
"A prison theme, how appropriate," Blair remarked. "Shows that he knows his audience. So who's LO?"
"I have no idea," Jo replied, perplexed.
"LO, LO, it doesn't ring a bell," Natalie mused. "No Bates boys have those initials."
"How do you know that?" Jo inquired.
"Nat's committed the Bates directory to memory," Tootie reported. "Trust me, she knows. But maybe it's not LO. Maybe he meant to write l-o-v-e."
"And he forgot how to spell in the middle of the word?" Blair wondered. "Illiteracy or attention deficit disorder. This guy sounds more and more perfect for you, Jo."
"Very funny," Jo growled. It was odd though. Who the hell was LO?
The mystery only deepened the next day, when Jo found a single rose taped to her gym locker, with a note that simply said, "From LO."
"I don't know, Jo, that's a little creepy," Natalie opined when Jo showed Blair and Natalie the note at lunch. "What guys have access to the girls' gym? "
"The janitor does. Maybe Mr. Zimmer is your secret admirer," Blair said to Jo, referring to Eastland's ancient and perpetually incompetent maintenance man. "But that can't be right. He wouldn't send you a rose; he would present you with a lug wrench. Ah well, we must assume that LO will make himself known Friday night, at the Valentine's Day dance. You might consider reducing the flannel quotient in your eveningwear, just in case."
Jo glared at her roommate. "LO seems to like me as I am, Blair. Anyway, speaking of lugs, what poor sap have you decided to drag along to the dance?"'
"This year, I'm basing my choice purely on merit," Blair announced proudly. "Namely, my suitors' Valentine's Day submissions. The factors are sincerity, creativity, and depth of sentiment. This is the current front-runner." She reached in her notebook and pulled out an 8 by 11 embossed photo, framed in elegant white lace. "It's from Winthrop Gates. It was taken at last fall's Harvest Queen Coronation. Isn't it beautiful?"
The picture was of Blair, receiving her crown and beaming for the camera. Underneath, in elaborate gold lettering were the words 'To Blair, My Queen of Hearts. Happy Valentine's Day, Winthrop.'
"Gag me, gag me, gag me," Jo spat out. "Who are you, Cleopatra? You go out with the person who builds you the fanciest monument to your overweening ego?"
"Oh, turn blue," Blair retorted. "It's a very nice present and Winnie worked hard on it. He said he's had this picture in his room for months."
"Really?" Jo replied. "Did you notice any stains on the back?"
"Stains?" Blair repeated.
"I'm just saying. Seventeen year old boy, alone in his dorm room, with a picture of a girl he thinks is pretty. Old Win might have used this photo for recreational purposes, if you get my drift."
Blair stared at Jo blankly for a second and then a look of horror dawned. "Aggh!" she cried. "You're the most disgusting creature alive! Could your mind get any dirtier? Ick! I refuse to stay in the presence of such slime!" She jumped up from her chair and strode away.
"Hey Queenie, you forgot your picture," Jo called out, as she and Natalie doubled over in laughter.
"Nice job, Jo," Natalie chuckled. "I think you just cost Winnie his front-runner status."
Jo looked around the Eastland gym in puzzlement. The Valentine's Day dance was in full swing but none of the males in attendance had revealed himself as LO. It was actually a relief. The party had followed a familiar pattern and Jo was fine with that. As usual, she spent her time either helping Mrs. Garrett with the refreshments or assisting Nathan, Mr. Parker's geeky nephew, with his DJ duties. Regrettable complexion and stunted personality aside, Nathan had a great record collection and excellent audio visual skills, so Jo never minded hanging out with him. Jo had briefly entertained the thought that Nathan could be LO but dismissed the idea after concluding that nothing could come between the boy and his love for Captain Kirk. LO's identity was still an enigma.
Jo saw Nat and her date Chip Douglas heading towards the dance floor and waved. Chip looked liked he was having a good time. But then Natalie's escorts invariably did. Those Bates boys insightful enough to ignore the gibes of their classmates by asking out the full-figured Nat were always rewarded with an evening of laughter, good conversation and heavier petting action than they normally got.
The brunette then smiled as she spotted Tootie and her eighth grade entourage moving in a giggling pack. She reminded herself to tell Nathan to put on a few Jackson tunes. That would get them going. Tootie was great at these functions, dancing with anyone or anything. Her attempt to teach Mrs. Garrett the moonwalk lived on in Eastland legend.
Finally Jo espied the oldest and most annoying of her roommates, trailed dutifully by her date. As Nat had predicted, Blair had jettisoned the unfortunate Winthrop in favor of Scott Nederland. Not that it made much of a difference; the slavish devotion and panting tongues of Blair's male companions were pretty much interchangeable. Jo caught Blair's eye and gave her a smirk, waggling her fingers in greeting. Blair responded with a glare that could cut through steel. Jo chuckled to herself. There was nothing more fun than getting Princess Warner's goat.
The voice started Jo from her reverie. "Oh sorry, Mrs. G; what did you say?"
"Well, you certainly looked like you were amused by something," Mrs. Garrett replied. "A Valentine's Day admirer perhaps?"
"No, uh. I was just thinking about Blair I mean um well you had to be there," Jo sputtered.
Mrs. Garrett smiled. "No doubt. Listen, could you please get me some more ice for the punch? Take a bucket from the machine in the trainer's office."
"Sure thing." Jo walked to the small room off the entrance to the gym and turned on the light.
"Hello Jo." Startled, Jo turned around to see the source of the greeting, a short, slightly overweight, bespectacled girl with mousy brown hair.
"Geez Lila, you scared me. Um hi."
"I scared Jo Polniaczek. No one will believe that."
"It can happen," Jo admitted. "Um, how've you been? I haven't seen you around that much."
"Not since you moved out," Lila replied dryly.
"Uh, yeah." Jo felt a little guilty. She had roomed with Lila for a few weeks during the period when she, Blair, Natalie and Tootie had decided to go their separate ways. Lila had been extremely nice-- constantly deferring to her, letting her leave her greasy tools all over the room, knitting her a cover for her motorcycle helmet. Jo had been bored to tears. Once the Four Musketeers had reunited, she had barely given the girl another thought.
"Well, I'm sorry about that," Jo said. "But we kinda caused some damage that we had to pay for. So I had to move back in over the kitchen."
"Naturally," Lila replied.
"Anyway, it must be nice for you to be in a single again. You know. Have your privacy."
"You think so?" Lila swallowed. "Jo, the weeks that we roomed together were the happiest of my life."
"That's sorta hard to believe, Lila." Jo replied doubtfully. "I'm not the easiest person to live with, as Blair constantly points out. I can be pretty grumpy sometimes."
"I didn't care. I would wake up every morning and think: I can't believe I'm rooming with Jo Polniaczek. Me, Lila Oliver from Scranton, Pennsylvania, rooming with Jo Polniaczek."
"Oh c'mon. It wasn't " Jo stopped. Lila Oliver. Her eyes widened. "Lila, are you did you "
"Yes, Jo. Say hello to LO."
Jo blinked in amazement at the girl standing before her. "I I don't know what to say."
"Don't say anything. I'm sure you think that I'm a freak but I'm used to that. Even weirdos have feelings."
"No, no, I don't think you're a freak, I promise," Jo assured her. "It's just that this is sort of unexpected."
"I'm sure. Who would have thought? But I decided that before I left Eastland, I was going to do something brave," Lila announced.
"Yes. Jo, I'm not like you or your friends. I'm not pretty or talented or athletic or smart. I haven't made much of a mark here. Half the class doesn't even know my name."
"Blair does," Jo blurted out irrelevantly. "She even knows your hometown."
Lila looked at her oddly. "Really. Well, as I was saying, I wanted to take a risk, shake things up, before it was too late. So I asked myself: what would be the most terrifying, bone chilling, blood curdling thing I could do? Sending you a Valentine seemed to be the answer."
Jo wasn't sure whether she should be flattered or insulted. "Um, I really appreciate that Lila. But I just don't know . "
"That you can return my feelings," Lila interrupted. "I didn't expect you to. Frankly, I'm not sure if I would know what to do if you did."
Jo was a little at a loss on how to respond. She sighed. "Listen Lila, I'm sorry I didn't keep in touch more. That was rude. You're a really sweet girl."
"Sweet. The kiss of death," Lila mused. "Oh well. Anyway Jo, don't worry about it. I'll be gone soon."
"Gone?" Jo inquired.
"Yes, gone," Lila intoned somberly.
Jo felt a wave of icy dread. Dark memories of Blair's election opponent Cynthia and her unhappy demise came flooding back.
"Lila," Jo gasped. "You aren't thinking of doing something stupid are you? C'mon, I'm not worth that. Please, promise me that you'll talk to someone about this. I mean it. There's a hotline you can call. I'll get you the number."
Lila stared at her, dumbfounded. "Jo, by gone, I mean leaving school before the end of the term. My father got a job in California and I'm moving to San Francisco. Geez, I like you a lot, but I'm not going to off myself over you."
Jo blushed bright red. "Oh that's good," she muttered, mortified.
Lila shook her head. "Y'know, maybe you and Blair do deserve each other. The egos. Unbelievable."
Jo winced. "Yeah, maybe. Anyway Lila, I hope you like California. San Francisco is supposed to be beautiful."
"And opened minded," Lila added.
Jo grinned and Lila was suddenly reminded why she had done this in the first place. "Yeah. Open minded."
Lila exhaled. "Well there you go, Jo. Now you know. Happy Valentine's Day." She started to walk away.
"Hey Lila," Jo called after her. "That was brave. Braver than me, that's for sure." Lila gave her an enigmatic smile and left the room. Jo turned back to the ice machine to fill her bucket when she heard some familiar mocking tones.
"Well, well, well. So the mystery of LO is solved."
Jo whirled around to confront her roommate. "What are you doing here, Blair, spying? How much did you hear?"
"Mrs. Garrett sent me to find out what happened to the ice," Blair replied haughtily. "And I heard enough. 'Jo and Lila sitting in a tree,'" she started to sing-song, "K-I-S-S "
The surge of resentment almost made Jo light-headed. "Stop it!" she yelled, grabbing Blair's shoulders and pushing her against the wall. "I mean it! Just because you've never been rejected or felt what's like to want something you can't have, that doesn't give you the right to be cruel. So just stop it," she repeated, voice cracking a little.
Taken aback at the blaze of anger in Jo's eyes, Blair gulped. "OK. I'll stop." There was silence for a moment. Jo kept her grip on Blair' shoulders but neither girl seemed to notice.
"Jo," Blair said in a calmer tone. "Lighten up. This isn't that big a deal. These crushes are very common. Trust me; having spent most of my life in a girls' school, I've seen them a lot. Lila will get over it."
"She will?" Jo asked.
"Sure. Once she loses a few pounds, gets contacts, and puts some highlights in her hair, the boys will come running. She'll forget you exist."
"Gee thanks," Jo muttered.
"Well, that's what supposed to happen," Blair declared. "She's supposed to grow out of it."
"Is she?" Jo said staring at Blair intently.
"At least that's what they say," Blair replied, a little uncertainly, as her voice softened and her glance shifted to Jo's mouth.
"Do they?" Jo whispered, leaning closer
"Blair, Jo, where is that ice?" Mrs. Garrett's piercing voice rang out from the gym.
Jo flinched. "Coming Mrs. G.," she yelled, quickly dropping her hands from Blair's shoulders and moving away to fill the bucket.
Blair stood still, slightly stunned. What was that? She gave her head a little shake and took a deep breath. Then, looking at her roommate ladling the ice, she grinned. "Jo, you can't ever call me conceited again."
"And why is that?"
"Well, unlike you, when I say I don't want to go out with someone, I don't presume to give them suicide prevention advice. 'There's a hotline you can call; I'll give you the number,'" Blair imitated Jo's deep tones and then burst out laughing.
"Oh, shut up," Jo ordered, lips twitching in an effort not to smile.
"Make me," the blonde replied.
"Don't tempt me, Warner," Jo warned, brandishing the ice bucket.
"You wouldn't," Blair giggled, as she fled the room.
"I would," Jo vowed, chasing after her.
Standing by the punch bowl, Lila watched as Blair ran into the gym, shrieking as she attempted to avoid Jo's effort to put ice down her back. I had no chance, Lila thought. No chance at all.
If there was one holiday Jo Polniaczek loved, it was Valentine's Day. Her steps quickened in anticipation as she headed towards their favorite West Village restaurant to meet Blair for the couple's traditional celebration. After a romantic dinner, complete with champagne and candlelight, they would go to some incredibly violent action film, where Jo would thrill to the sights and sounds of machine gun fire and Blair would press her face into Jo's shoulder, to avoid the carnage on screen. The ritual worked for everybody.
Jo entered the restaurant and was greeted by the hostess, an old friend. She was directed to their usual table where Blair sat, resplendent in a red silk dress.
"Sorry I'm late, babe," Jo said, giving Blair a kiss and then sitting down across from her.
"Tough day?" Blair asked, pouring Jo a glass of champagne from the bottle chilling in the bucket beside her chair.
"Not any more," Jo smiled. "You look well, words fail. Happy Valentine's Day."
"Thank you, Jo, same to you."
"So, a card came from Lila today," Jo reported.
"That Lila, she's a persistent little bugger, isn't she?" Blair replied.
"It was addressed to both of us, Blair. Anyway, she and Beth are moving to Santa Fe to open an art gallery. They invited us to visit."
"Santa Fe. That would be fun. I think Warner Industries owns a ranch somewhere near New Mexico. I forget what it's called."
"The State of Colorado," Jo suggested. "Yeah, let's plan a trip out West. I'd like to see them again. You know, I was thinking. If you hadn't started that paint fight and made us move back in together, Lila and I would have stayed roommates. Who knows what would have happened? Jo and Lila sitting in a tree, K-I-S"
"Hold on there, killer," Blair interrupted. "First of all, if you're going to be smooching with anyone on a tree branch, a risky proposition I might add, it's going to be with me. Secondly, I didn't start the paint fight; you did, in an obvious attempt to force the issue and get back to where you belonged."
"Back to where I belonged?" Jo sputtered. "Trapped in that hellhole of a room with you and the others?"
"Precisely," Blair declared.
"Hmm," Jo paused. "OK, I'm good with that," she said as she opened up the menu. "Now let's order. We don't want to be late for the movie. I hear the first decapitation is early on."
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