When Valentine’s Day arrived, Autumn was sad to see that her father had neglected to bring her a card.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he said. “I guess I forgot.”
But Autumn did not. She handed her father the red heart-shaped Valentine she made for him that morning and quietly walked out the door to the car.
It was Saturday, and they were busy, as usual. First they were off to ballet class, then lunch, then grocery shopping, then to the park to play before dinner, bath and bed.
Autumn loved the park, where she liked to make friends.
“May I play with you?” she said to two girls.
They were digging a hole in the sand. They didn’t bother looking at her.
“No,” one of them said.
They continued digging.
“Okay,” Autumn said.
Her lips quivered a little, and then she moved on.
It didn’t bother Autumn as much as it used to when kids didn’t want to play with her. She learned from her father long ago that people were sometimes so absorbed in their own business that they could be inconsiderate of others.
“May I play with you?” Autumn said to a group of boys.
“Sure,” one of them said, and he tapped her on the shoulder. “You’re it!”
Autumn counted to ten, and then she chased the boys in a game of hide-and-go-seek. Because she was fast, she easily caught a boy, and because she was small, she easily fit into a cranny where no one bothered to look for her.
This gave Autumn time to think.
As she lay hidden, tucked behind a slide, she thought about her father. She was sad because he forgot to give her a Valentine.
The more she thought about it, the sadder she became. It made her want to cry.
Autumn heard a scratchy voice whisper in her ear.
“Don’t worry, my pretty,” the voice said. “Your daddy doesn’t love you as much as I do.”
Autumn felt something in her hand. She peeked.
It was an apple, shiny and red, just like the Valentine from her father should have been.
Autumn wanted to take a bite out of the apple, but she hesitated. She wasn’t sure why.
She ran to her father and showed it to him.
“Wow,” her father said. “Where did you get that?”
“A lady gave it to me,” Autumn said. “Can I eat it?”
Autumn turned toward the playground. She spotted the boys and girls, but not the lady with the scratchy voice who offered her the apple.
“I don’t see her anywhere,” Autumn said.
“Are you sure?”
“That’s strange,” her father said. “Maybe she was a witch — or maybe you just picked the apple off the ground.”
“I didn’t, Daddy!”
“I believe you.”
Autumn’s father opened his hand, and Autumn gave him the apple.
“What do we call people we don’t know?” he said.
“Exactly,” her father said. “And what are we supposed to do if strangers offer us treats?”
“Not eat them.”
Autumn’s father tossed the apple in a trash can.
“But, Daddy, I want a treat!”
“Of course you do.”
Autumn’s father handed her a folded napkin instead.
The napkin had words written on it. Autumn’s father helped her sound out the words:
“I LOVE YOU MORE THAN ANYTHING. YOU WILL ALWAYS BE MY VALENTINE – XO DAD”
“Thank you, Daddy!” Autumn said.
She gave her father a hug.
Autumn was happy, but she wasn’t satisfied. She still craved something sweet.
“Come on,” her father said.
“Where are we going?” Autumn said. “I want to play a little longer.”
“We’re getting ice cream.”
“Yay!” Autumn said, and then she seemed confused. “Why, Daddy?”
Her parents rarely let her have sweets. They said sugar from cupcakes and candy and other stuff like that wasn’t good for her.
“First, because it’s Valentine’s Day, a special occasion,” her father said. “Second, because you didn’t eat the treat a stranger offered you, even a healthy treat.”
As Autumn and her father left the park, she glanced back.
She thought she saw a witch peeking at her from a tree.