On February 14th, 2023, Ithacans celebrated Valentine’s Day. For many this meant chocolates, roses, kisses and logging romantic movies on Letterboxd. But for others like myself, it meant the culmination of months of investigative journalism on a secretive cult lurking beneath the surface of an unsuspecting city. I would actually venture to say it meant that exclusively for myself. As much as I would have loved to watch When Harry Met Sally and loudly critique the cinematography while my partner pretends it doesn’t irritate them, I have bigger proverbial fish to proverbially fry. Thus is the life of the public servant. To ensure that days like Valentine’s Day can be enjoyed by the masses, I myself can take no days off.
My job is to investigate the uninvestigatable. I bring to light the previously unseen; crime, mischievous behavior, general mal–aligned chicanery and what have you. I am responsible for flipping the beast of this wretched city onto its back and exposing its sweaty, plump, puss-filled underbelly. I am a detective, a purveyor of truth and, as Ted Cruz’s Twitter bio elegantly puts it, a “fighter for liberty.” I showcase my work through my own newspaper company, The Ithacian, which I built from the ground up with nothing more than a good attitude, some elbow grease, and an enormous sum of inherited wealth from my father’s oil business. I was inspired to create the Ithacian when I noticed a vacuum in quality local reporting. For example, The Ithacan rejected my work because, as they wrote, “I’m like forty years old and not a student and my letter was vaguely threatening…” Whatever that means. I in fact used to work for The Ithaca Voice proofreading obituaries but I was fired when I started embellishing them with my own details. (Much needed, may I add. Let’s make it a little more interesting than “peace and love, heaven gained another angel.”) And I would be interested in The Ithaca Times but, come on, nobody reads that shit. Tell me you even knew that it existed. So I was left with no choice but to assemble my own empire, currently reporting record breakevens and boasting an impressive staff composed of myself and my part-time unpaid stenographer and full-time unpaid nephew, Tucker.
This tale all began a few months ago when I received a call through my tip hotline (cellphone) from a concerned citizen (Tucker). He reported that he was going to the store and asked if I wanted anything, but more importantly to this specific context, he relayed information about a strange sign he spotted walking through the commons. It read “Put the Saint back in Valentine’s Day.” I thought it peculiar at the time, but considered it no further and instructed Tucker to purchase talcum powder. However, this sentence kept cropping up everywhere in the following weeks. It hung like a cloud over my head, haunting me like… something that haunts people. I cannot think of a good simile, sue me. It was positively inescapable. Sandwich board signs were placed at street corners, posters appeared stapled onto identical versions of the same posters, the sentence was painted in bold letters onto storefronts, I think I even saw an airplane flying a banner once? It all spoke the same gospel: “Put the Saint back in Valentine’s Day.” I felt as if the gross underbelly of trickery and duplicity and skulduggery had finally surfaced and burst, spewing dubious and devious and unscrupulous puss throughout the city, more than ensuring its descent into absolute chaos. Then, in an instant, it all disappeared. Any evidence of this movement mysteriously vanished like… a rabbit in a hat. (Ay, still got it.) I was confounded, especially because nobody around me seemed to give a rat’s ass. Not even a rat’s cock or balls, either. I figured that if I could somehow figure this all out and publish a story about it, I would become famous. I would be internationally recognized for my heroic journalism and probably be awarded a Nobel prize or at least a Grammy or something, and I would become a household name. People would know me, Robert Octavius Finklemeyer. It would be a wet dream come true. So I quickly got to work trying to get to the bottom of this monkey business.
I began by looking up the sentence “Put the Saint back in Valentine’s Day” on Google Scholar, seeing as I don’t waste my time with the plebeian, uneducated standard Google. This, however, returned no results, so I turned to Bing. I found a website called “Putthesaintbackin.plumbing” (I guess that was the cheapest web domain) which was designed like an early 2000’s music piracy website. Many images didn’t load correctly due to broken html and I kept getting a curious pop-up about cookie settings that said “your cookies are mine now,” which was mildly unnerving.
But I was able to locate the mission statement. It read:
“Friends and enemies, in a few month’s time, you will all be celebrating a holiday misguided. In celebrating it, you too will be misguided. The day bears the name of Valentine, but bears no resemblance to his values. I have found that we are lost, and to find ourselves again, we must remember the past. Join me in carrying out the rituals of Saint Valentine on the 14th of February. Love, The Speaker of Valentine.”
There were two other features on the website: two hyperlinks. The first said “Support the cause.” When selected, it brought me to a GoFundMe page titled: “Help me talk to God” with a fundraising goal of $750,000. One of the promised backer rewards was “enlightenment.” Being the compassionate and caring soul I am, I told Tucker to momentarily stop taking notes on the typewriter I gifted him to record my frequent dramatic monologues and had him donate $15. The second link said “Join the cause.” Hesitantly, I clicked it. I was redirected to a different website called “Thankyou.hotdog” (I suppose the cheapest domain name changed). The site contained only text that read “Thank you” and a GIF of a cat spinning on a skateboard, which I admit was a nice touch. Then, nothing happened… For days. After my exhaustive research, the case went cold. I was heartbroken. Not even Tucker’s little dance I make him do could cheer me up.
Then, just as fast as the story came and went, it…came again. It came back. One Tuesday afternoon I was marking up The Ithaca Voice obituaries for old times’ sake when I heard a knock at the door. I answered it, revealing quite a strange man peering back at me. He looked strikingly similar to Friar Tuck from Disney’s 1973 “Robin Hood” if he got lost at a middle school dance. He wore a bright pink robe and a cheap, neon yellow glow stick necklace, which in hindsight I think was supposed to be his halo.
“Are you Robert Octavius Finklemeyer?” he asked.
I nodded. The man introduced himself as Brother Luperci and told me to get in his car. Now, I am not stupid. I know the potential dangers of stepping into a stranger’s vehicle. I got the same talk from my mother that you all did. However, the gentleman was so kind, and he seemed to be in quite the hurry, so I obliged and entered the bright red Ford Pinto. My one condition was that Brother Luperci make room in the back seat for Tucker and his typewriter, to which he obliged, moving a rusty crowbar to free up some space. Once we were moving, I noticed strange noises coming from the rear engine, but also several pamphlets for “The Word of Saint Valentine” on the dashboard. It was only then that I realized this man might be connected to my ongoing investigation. How convenient. Brother Luperci drove partially onto the curve at a red light and lit a cigarette.
“You don’t mind, do you?” he asked.
I shook my head. Who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth?
Then, the plot gets viscous. My recollection of the story at this point becomes a bit foggy, most likely due to the blunt force trauma I suffered in my cranium. I remember waking up on the ground of a barn with a throbbing headache. No doubt Brother Luperci had given me a good smack, and how rude that was given my tolerance of his smoking. My vision was blurry and spinning, but I was able to make out that I was wearing a pink robe identical to Brother Luperci’s. Next to me was dearest Tucker, also in a robe, and in front of both of us, the remains of a typewriter most smashéd.
As I was coming to, Tucker turned to me and whimpered, “I want to go home, man. I don’t like this shit anymore. I played along with this whole thing because it seemed like you really needed it but this is getting freaky…”
To this, I seized his shoulders and tried to shake some sense into him.
“You’re a stenographer, Tucker! You have a job to do!”
But he was inconsolable. He squirmed away from my grasp and sprinted out of the barn, rambling about his mother. Typical, I thought, for him to have a meltdown like this. That’s what you get for trying to work with 7th graders.
Suddenly, a woman seemed to appear out of nowhere, and took my hand and led me out of the barn into the blinding sunlight. Once my eyes adjusted to the brightness, I found myself standing in a dense crowd of robed people gathered in a grassy field. Beyond several rows of mostly balding heads was a wooden podium. At it stood a man that looked like Jesus if he both knew what the SAT was and hadn’t showed up to class that day. His outfit was the same as ours but with a purple outline on the collar, and he wore a turquoise cone-like hat, almost like a cone of sorts.
The man spoke: “Friends and enemies, we are gathered here today to celebrate a grand tradition, traditionally. As I understand it, many of us have become disillusioned with the event known as ‘Valentine’s Day.’ with its faux-romanticism and corporate appeal. We want to see change, and change we will, by reverting back to the ways of old.”
I padded my body and realized my robe contained none of my belongings – no phone, no watch, no wallet, and no Costco membership card. How long had I been unconscious? I turned to the woman next to me and asked for the date. She told me it was February 14th. I took a big gulp and tugged at my collar.
The SAT-avoidant Jesus, who I assumed must have been the Speaker of Valentine, continued: “Yes, my beloveds, it is time to begin the ceremony. Admittedly, we sunk a lot of the annual budget into promotion. The airplane and enormous banner, specifically. In any case, we like to think we got our money’s worth. Just look around yourselves at all the lovely new faces. In the future we will expand our digital presence, as I’m sure there are many more Valentinians we can reach that way… Facebook and so forth. But, without further adieu, let it commence.”
An anxious murmur spread through the crowd and an old man made a noise that resembled a conjoined cough and sneeze.
“For centuries we have known the teachings of Saint Valentine. Centuries later, we will experience them together. Saint Valentine, we ask for your strength at this time. As patron saint of epilepsy and beekeepers, we feel your presence now. Quick! Cue the lights! Release the bees!”
In the blink of an eye, the alternative learner Jesus leapt over the podium and into the mass of pink robes, crowd surfing over an army of outstretched hands. A gigantic rectangle of light immediately appeared in the sky and began rapidly flickering on and off. Somehow, in all of the commotion, I had missed the presence of a sizable baseball-stadium light fixture located behind the podium. Then I noticed the bees. People squirmed and shook and wiggled in ecstasy as a dark cloud of humming insects ate the surrounding air. I still to this day have no idea where they came from, The people’s Jesus started screaming “Yeah! Saint Valentine! Yeah!” and it dawned on me that maybe it was time to leave.
I returned to my part-home, part-office, part-print company completely defeated. I did not feel as if the world knew the name Robert Octavius Finklemeyer, and I did not think my work would be worthy of an Emmy. At the end of the day, the company had lost one of its only two employees and had suffered a financial loss – the typewriter was not cheap. And I guess I also got robbed, and I might be seriously concussed. But, at the very least, I purveyed the truth. Even if that truth regarded a bizarre hippie cult. As I write this now, my copy of The Ithaca Voice sits across from me, turned to the obituary pages. A pen rests atop it.
Cormac Abbey is a first-year television and digital media major who knows it goes all the way to the top. You can reach them at [email protected].