TRINITY — In the passenger seat of his mom's SUV, Austin Erickson sits silently, clutching his wallet, watching as his subdivision slides by.
"So Publix?" asks his mom, turning onto the highway. "Target?"
Austin, who is 11, doesn't look at her. "The Hallmark store," he says. "This has to be special."
Normally, Austin hates going to the Hallmark store, waiting for his mom and older sisters to sift through Vera Bradley bags while surrounded by all the candles that are supposed to smell like rain.
Normally, Valentine's Day isn't a big deal to the sixth-grader who loves Star Wars and Batman and Minecraft.
"But now that I'm in a relationship it seems more important," he says Tuesday afternoon.
"I want to impress Sarah."
• • •
Sarah. He says her name like a sigh. Her last name starts with a K. He just can't pronounce it.
She lives six doors down, in a beige house a lot like his. They met the first day of Seven Springs Middle School, at the bus stop.
Their courtship started like so many young couples': "I remember the date, it was Sept. 4th," Austin says. "Her friend came up to me and said, 'If Sarah asked you out, would you go?' "
Austin hesitated. He could tell she's smart. "That's important," he says. And she has a good sense of humor. "When she laughs, everyone around her can't help laughing."
It took a few seconds to decide, he says. "I'm a very busy person: I swim breaststroke, I'm a green belt in karate, I have church and Boy Scouts and I get straight A's and I'm going to go to the University of Florida and be a lawyer." Then he looked at her again. "Yeah, I can probably do this."
So Sarah's friend told Sarah and Sarah started giggling her great laugh and they've been together ever since: six months, which in middle school time equals forever. "I'm her longest relationship," he says. "Max and her only lasted a month. We've been going out all year."
They've never actually gone anywhere, not even to each other's homes. "I'm worried about meeting her dad," Austin says.
Their relationship revolves around the bus: waiting for it, sharing a seat, playing Flappy Bird on her iPod. Sometimes they hold hands. They can't eat lunch together because they have different schedules. "She's an older woman, in seventh grade," he says. "But we're the same height, so it's okay."
After school, they hang out at picnic tables, waiting together for a glorious half-hour, from 2:50 until 3:20 p.m. "Good thing we have the last bus!" They talk about their teachers, other kids, his swim team, her little sister. "Everything, really." She brings him peanut butter crackers.
They never fight. "Why should we?" They have hugged but never kissed. She was the first to say, "I love you."
"We were waiting for the bus and the school resource officer was giving us a ride in his golf cart but there weren't enough seats and I didn't want Sarah to have to stand," he says. "So I held onto the back and she said, 'Austin, I love you, but you're going to die.' She was kidding about me dying. But I'm pretty sure she meant the 'I love you' part."
• • •
He follows his mom through the parking lot at Mitchell Ranch Plaza, into Deb's Hallmark, where stuffed animals grin on tall tables and racks of cards stretch in a red sea of sentiment.
"I want to get something personal," Austin tells his mom. "I mean, I should know her enough to get something she likes."
His mom smiles. "Well, what does Sarah like?"
"She likes me!" says Austin.
He has been saving for months, his Christmas money, wages from walking the neighbor's dog. In his black wallet, he has $100. "You're not going to spend it all on Sarah?" says his mom, half-asking, half-scolding.
"No," says Austin. "But I don't want something that looks like it's been bought on a budget."
Austin and his mom walk past a croaking frog, a barking dog, both holding stuffed hearts. "Oh, look at the pig!" says his mom.
Austin squeezes the pig's hoof and it starts dancing to The Cupid Shuffle. "Now if they have a cow, I might get that," he says. "Sarah has a cow lunchbox. So she must like cows."
He wanders through the card section, past cartoons of old ladies telling fart jokes and photos of weiner dogs making puppy eyes. He shows his mom a card shaped like Darth Vader with the tagline: The force is strong between us. He puts it back. "I know this is about her."
In a section called, "Romantic Love," he finally finds a cow: just its face on the front, black and white, with wide eyes, a pink nose. Inside, it says, "I want to sMOOOch!"
"Oh," he says, closing the card. "It's about kissing."
They don't make Valentines about holding hands.
• • •
He vetoes a sparkly headband, passes on a personalized pen, never even considers a candle. For a while he holds the stuffed "Qupig," but after listening to four verses of The Cupid Shuffle, he sets it back on the shelf, declaring, "I don't want her dad to kill me."
Instead, Austin chooses a box of Whitman's chocolates. "What girl doesn't like chocolate?"
And a card with the winged pig, whose nostrils are shaped like hearts. I hope you have a happy Valentine's Day, says the front. Inside, the pig flaps its hooves, saying, I squeally do!
"That will make her laugh," he says.
Hearing her laugh is worth way more than the two hours of dog-walking wages this will cost him.
"Do you think it's enough?" Austin asks his mom in the car. "Just chocolates and a card? I mean, I know I have to write my own message to her too. That'll be the hard part."
That's always the hard part. Especially when you're 11 and you really like this girl and you don't want anything from her except for her to like you back — not even a kiss, not really, not yet — and you have no idea what to say or how to say it. And the only B you have ever gotten in your whole life was in writing . . .
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.