Tessa Scroggins tried to slip inconspicuously through the crowded hallway. She had to pass Brenda Jones and the rest of the cheerleading squad congregated at Brenda's locker, laughing and gossiping.
Maybe they won't notice me, Tessa thought hopefully.
"Hey, girls," she heard Brenda shrill. "It's Messy Tessie. Hey, Tessie" she said in a mockingly friendly tone, "what's the rush? Is there a big sale at Goodwill?"
Brenda's crowd laughed; Tessa turned red. Why can't she just leave me alone? she wondered. Or fall off the face of the earth?
Tessa didn't see Danny Baker until she smacked into him. Books and papers flew.
"Hey, Tessa," Danny said. "What's the rush? Let me help you."
"Umm, thanks Danny," she said smiling shyly. Danny was the cutest boy in the seventh grade, and the nicest. He didn't seem to mind going against the popular tide. He was the only kid at Lake Castle Junior High who did.
"No problem. Just watch where you're going," he laughed. "Whoops, almost missed one," he said, handing her a novel. "You reading this?" he asked.
"Sure," she replied. "I read a lot."
"Me too," Danny said. "But this is too dark and heavy for me."
"It is a little dark," she admitted. I relate to dark, she thought.
Tessa made it to homeroom just in time. Brenda glared at her from the back of the room.
Mrs. Anderson announced that the entire seventh grade would have homeroom in the gym to celebrate Valentines Day on Friday. Everyone should bring something from home for the party and students were encouraged to bring Valentines for their classmates.
Great, another chance to be humiliated, Tessa thought.
Tessa lingered after the others left. "Mrs. Anderson," she said, "I may not be able to bring anything Friday. My Mom and I"
"It's okay, Tessa," Mrs. Anderson said kindly. "Just bring yourself."
"Thanks," Tessa said. She hurried to her next class relieved she wouldn't have to ask her mother to spend money.
Tessa got to the bus late that afternoon. Brenda and her entourage occupied the back. No one would let her sit, and the bus driver failed to notice and took off. Tessa went sprawling to the floor. Her glasses snapped. She heard Brenda laugh.
She walked home from her bus stop alone. Sally Thomas lived two houses down, but she was Brenda's friend and wouldn't be caught dead walking with "Messy Tessie."
Tessa sighed. She remembered long afternoons playing with Sally when they were younger. She wished she had at least one friend.
Tessa unlocked her door and was greeted by Bruce, her alley cat. His welcome brought Tessa to tears. She clung to the cat and cried. Bruce struggled free, only to come and rub against her a moment later.
Tessa stroked her kitty and regained her composure. She sat down and deliberately finished her homework. Then she picked up her "dark" novel and read until six. At six, she made Hamburger Helper. Annie Scroggins arrived as it was finished.
"Hi honey," she said. "How was your day?"
Tessa noticed that her mother looked tired. "Okay," she said. I can tell her about the glasses later, she thought.
The next day was just as bad. Tessa overheard Brenda laughing that Messy Tessie needed a Valentine Makeover. At noon, she found a Valentine stuck to her locker door.
"Messy Tessie's clothes are rags. Her hair is greasy. What a hag."
Tessa's eyes filled. She tossed the rhyme in the trash and stormed down the hall. Brenda and her friends laughed.
Danny Baker saw it all.
"Brenda, can I talk to you?" he said.
"Oooh," the cheerleaders gushed insinuatingly.
Danny's face flushed. Brenda walked over with an expectant smile.
"Brenda, that was mean," Danny said. "Why don't you cut Tessa some slack?"
Brenda's smile melted. "Cut Tessa some slack?" she repeated dazedly.
"Yes. You're being mean. Stop."
"You like Tessa," she said accusingly.
"Hey girls, Danny's into Messy Tessie. Can you believe it?"
The other girls giggled, but less enthusiastically than usual. Sally looked guilty.
Danny was angry, but he wisely walked away.
That night he prayed over a decision. It was embarrassing, but it was worth it.
The next day, Tessa found an elaborate homemade Valentine in her locker. It read, "Ignore those girls. You have a real friend. His name is Jesus. He loves you very much. Sincerely, Danny Baker."
Tessa smiled. Jesus, she thought. So that's why he's so different.
Debbie O'Connor lives just north of New Orleans with her husband, Jim, and their two children. Jesus has been her savior for 18 years. Contact Debbie at email@example.com.