Jessie Angel’s hand balled up in a fist beneath the bedclothes. Her heart thumped. Her mouth was so dry it hurt to lick her lips. She drew the blanket up to her face until only her eyes peeked over the pink, satin-bound edge. She stared at her phone, unable to look away.
She should be stronger than this. She should be able to put the damn thing away, forget about it, even for just a night. But she couldn’t. It drew her like an addict drawn to the next fix. She hated herself for her weakness, but there was nothing she could do about it.
Taking comfort from the blackness of the night that surrounded her, she scrolled through the countless nasty Instagram messages posted by kids from school. There were so many, she’d be up half the night reading them. She should just switch her phone off and go to sleep, forget about the maliciousness that waited for her on her screen. That would be the sensible thing to do.
Yeah, right. As if I can do that.
It was something her dad would urge her to do or even her therapist, Holly. Jessie had been having regular sessions with her child psychologist for six months now, almost from the day her father became aware of the trouble she was having at school. And then there was the other stuff with her mom…
Most of the time, Jessie was glad she’d hinted to her dad about the bullying. It made it easier to bear knowing that an adult knew some of what was going on. She’d done her best to downplay the worst messages—the vicious taunts about everything from her weight to her gender. It was not only hurtful, but embarrassing. Too embarrassing to share the worst with anyone she cared about. With people she wanted to like her. To say those terrible things about herself out loud might nudge them to think about her that way too… So she shared the minimum. This evening, three girls had found it fun to post messages wondering if someone who went by the name of “Jessie” was even a girl.
Veronica slyly posted:
Do we even know 4 sure if she’s a girl? I mean just b cause she has long hair doesn’t mean anything. She could b one of those things that aren’t one or the other? *
Some other girl responded:
Yes! I thought that 2.
Veronica’s best friend, Lucy Jones, hastily joined the discussion:
I’ve heard about people like that. They’re not a girl or a boy. Something in between. Do u think she has a dick or a vagina? Maybe both!
The comments on the Instagram post continued. There were also copious emoji symbols showing the girls falling over with laugher. Even some of the boys joined in. It was such a joke to them. A big fat joke. Jessie’s face burned with humiliation and she groaned in anguish at the thought of what they’d say and do to her at school the next day. They didn’t care that their words and actions tore her insides to shreds, like a hollow-nosed bullet piercing her heart and blowing it to pieces. They didn’t care that she was weighed down by so much blackness she didn’t know if she’d ever see the light of day again. Sometimes she researched “ways out” that tantalized her and offered a kind of relief she only dreamed of… Not that she’d ever do it. Her dad would be devastated. She loved him so much. She couldn’t do that to him. Still, the thought of escaping the daily agony was so tempting sometimes…
She squeezed her eyes shut tightly against the hot tears that slid slowly down her cheeks. She didn’t want to think like that, like how it would feel to do something to ease the pain inside so she could simply drift away…
Holly had talked to her about feeling like this and what to do when it struck. Jessie was to close her eyes and pretend she was in a place where she felt safe and happy. She was to cling to that feeling and remember there had once been a time when life had been fun and joyful and that good times like those would come again. But with vicious attacks coming at her from all sides, almost every hour of the day, it was hard to believe anything good would come her way. Ever…
With tears still sliding silently down her face, she read through the last of the messages. More of the same. More hate. More disgust. More blame. It was her fault she was the way she was – skinny, ugly, weird. Everyone said so.
With a heavy sigh, she wearily switched off her home screen and placed her phone in the charger on her nightstand. Her belly felt hollow. Her heart ached. Reaching into the shoebox she kept under her bed, she felt around for her diary and a pen. Flicking on the switch of her bedside lamp, she sat up and opened the diary to a fresh, clean page and stared down at it.
Fresh tears filled her eyes and overflowed. She swiped at them, angry at herself. I’m such a crybaby. Why do I let them get to me? Fury coursed through her. With a death grip on her pen, she filled the pages with her anguish until at last, she collapsed, exhausted, against the pillows.
She shouldn’t have looked at the messages; she should have remained oblivious to the hate. Her father and Holly were right: She should simply ignore the bullies; ignore their snide and pointed remarks; ignore their maliciousness; ignore the feeling of blackness inside… And focus on the positive.
It just isn’t that easy.
Two weeks later
“Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday, dear Jessie girl! Happy Birthday to you!”
Jessie cringed with embarrassment at her mother’s noisy, off-key rendition of the familiar song, but felt loved all the same. Since her parents’ divorce three years earlier, she didn’t get to spend every birthday with her mom, so being here with her to celebrate turning fourteen was special.
“Happy Birthday, honey,” Belinda Angel whispered, kissing her on the cheek.
Jessie blushed from the physical contact. She was getting too old for kisses from her mom but she didn’t want to hurt her mother’s feelings so she said nothing. Instead, she forced a smile. “Thanks, Mom.”
“Here. I got you something.” Her mother thrust a brightly wrapped package into her hands.
Jessie hid her surprise and plastered a smile on her face. God, please don’t let it be something embarrassing. She couldn’t bear it if her mother had bought her a box of acne cream, or another book on weight loss, like she’d done when Jessie turned twelve. Swallowing a sigh, she took the gift, turned it over, squeezed the box and tried to determine what was inside.
“Just open it, Jessie!” her mom squealed, excitement lighting the depths of her pale blue, red-rimmed eyes.
Jessie forced a grin. “Okay.”
She dug her finger under the wrapping where it lifted just a little bit, and tore the paper. Smoothing it open, she stared down at the present in disbelief.
“Mom, are you kidding! Wireless Beats headphones…? You shouldn’t have spent so much!” Without thinking, she turned and hugged her mother.
Her mother flushed with pleasure. “Of course I should have! It’s not every day my baby turns fourteen!”
In a rush of excitement, Jessie quickly opened the box and pulled out the headphones. The white leather was so soft it felt like goose down. The gold trim was shiny and bright and elegant.
Her mom stared at her with an expression that was filled with uncertainty and anticipation. “Do you like them, baby?”
Jessie’s smile morphed into laughter. “Oh, Mom! Of course I do! I love them!” She couldn’t believe her mom had bought them! Wait until she told the girls at school! They’d be so jealous! They’d all talked about how much they’d like to have a pair, but Jessie was the first to own some.
She drew the headphones up to her face and smelled the soft leather. “How did you find the money to buy them? These cost a bomb.”
Her mother smiled. “Don’t you worry about that, baby. I’ve been saving all year.”
Jessie bit her lip in consternation. “Mom! You shouldn’t have. There are so many other things you could have spent your money on. Things you really need.”
Her mother stepped forward and hugged her close. “I wanted to give you something special, honey. Something you really wanted. It didn’t matter how much they cost.”
Jessie was filled with a rush of warmth. She’d been living with her dad since the custody battle and most of the time she knew it was for the best, but she still missed her mom, even more so since she’d become a teenager. A little awkwardly, she hugged her mom back.
“How did you know I wanted them so much? I never said a thing,” she murmured.
Belinda smiled. She reached out and tucked a strand of Jessie’s long, curly dark brown hair behind her ears.
“I’m your mom, silly! I know everything.”
Jessie’s smile faded. If only her mom did know everything. How much easier life would be if…
Refusing to let the dark thoughts intrude on her birthday, she forced them aside and gave her mom another brief hug. Stepping back, she dropped her arms to her side.
Her mom managed a wobbly smile and brushed tears from her eyes.
“Mom! Why are you crying? I’m turning fourteen, not dying!” Her laughter sounded forced, even to her ears, but her mom didn’t seem to notice.
“I know you aren’t dying,” her mom sniffed. “But you’re getting so big! Where did my baby go? Soon you’ll be an adult and living life on your own terms. Time goes so fast. I wish I got to spend more of it with you.”
Jessie compressed her lips and nodded. “Me, too, Mom. I guess we could always go back to court and see if they’d change the orders. After all, I was barely eleven when they made Dad the custodial parent. I’d get more say about who I want to live with now. Maybe I could ask if I could spend equal amounts of time with you and Dad, instead of only once a month.”
“No, no,” Belinda replied hastily, backing away. “There’s no need to do that. I… I’m between jobs at the moment and I don’t really have anywhere for you to stay. I mean, it’s all right for short overnight visits like this. I know you don’t mind sleeping on the couch. But we couldn’t do that permanently. I’d have to find somewhere else and I just don’t have the money to move…”
Jessie swallowed a sigh of disappointment and ignored the familiar stab of hurt. She knew her mother loved her, it was just… Her mom found it so hard at times. It didn’t help that she drank way more than she should and that she was often laid off work for not showing up… Heaven knows how she’d found the money to buy the headphones. Jessie was flooded with guilt at the thought of the sacrifices her mother made to get them. Still, she couldn’t deny she was quietly thrilled by her gift.
Will it be enough to get the mean girls off my back? Or will it only make things worse?
The thought came from nowhere and dampened her spirits. She sighed heavily. Time would tell.
* * *
Jessie let herself into her house with the spare key they kept hidden in the flowerpot. Her dad was the local police sergeant. He should have come up with something more imaginative than hiding the key in the flowerpot, but so be it. They lived in a small rural town where most people knew each other by name. Until recently, crime had been almost non-existent in Wheeler. It had been a nice place to grow up with mild weather all year round and the town’s pretty streets were lined with jacaranda trees that filled the air with their heavenly scent when they were flowering. As well the beach was only a couple of hours away. It would be ideal if Jessie hadn’t become the brunt of cruel taunts from a group of nasty bullies.
It hadn’t always been this way. In fact, her primary school days had been fun. But then she’d graduated to junior high school and her best friend had moved away. Making new friends in the seventh grade hadn’t been as easy as it had been when she was younger. Many of the girls had groups of friends from before and they weren’t interested in welcoming a newcomer. Now she was in grade eight and it seemed no matter how hard she tried, friends continued to elude her. She spent many lunch hours alone, reading a book or on her phone. She spent more time than she should scrolling through Facebook or tapping on Instagram posts. Occasionally, she pretended to be texting friends who didn’t exist, or if they did, who rarely bothered to reply. The only friend she’d made since she’d been there was Sarah Simmons.
Sarah was the daughter of Jessie’s therapist. They’d met as Jessie walked through Holly’s front gate on her way to an appointment. Sarah’s mother ran her counseling office from the front room of her house. Jessie had nearly died with embarrassment when she spied Sarah lounging on the front porch, sipping lemonade.
“Are you here to see my mother?” Sarah asked.
Averting her gaze and with her cheeks burning, Jessie had barely managed a nod.
“She’s right through there.” The girl pointed to the door behind her. “She still has someone with her. She’s running late.” Sarah rolled her eyes and grinned. “She’s always running late.”
Jessie was immediately taken by the friendliness in the girl’s eyes. Sarah and her mom had moved to Wheeler twelve months ago, but this was Jessie’s first conversation with Holly’s daughter. Until now, her contact with Sarah had been limited to sitting on opposite sides in homeroom.
“I’m Sarah, by the way. Sarah Simmons.”
Jessie smiled shyly. “Jessie Angel.”
Of course Jessie knew Sarah’s mom was a therapist but somehow she’d kept them separate in her mind. After she came across Sarah right outside the room where she spilled her innermost secrets—at least, some of the time—it made things…weird. It was almost as if this girl with the red hair and freckles and the slightly upturned nose had invaded Jessie’s sacred place—the place where she came to talk about her troubles with the hope of finding some relief.
It had been her dad’s idea to see Holly. Her dad had met Holly at work where she was sometimes called in to consult on cases involving juveniles. He’d arrived home all excited that a child psychologist working with Rural and Regional Health had moved to Wheeler and suggested Jessie might like to meet with her.
“A shrink? Why would I want to see a shrink?” Jessie had asked, appalled.
Her dad shrugged. “I’ve never kidded myself into believing the divorce was anything but hell on you, Jess. It’s too easy for the adults involved to forget the kids are suffering, too. I know it’s almost been three years, but it still might help to talk to someone about it. And then there’s that other stuff you told me about. The stuff at school. I want to help you, honey. I want to give you the opportunity to talk to someone other than me.”
“But, Dad!” Jessie had protested. “A shrink? What am I going to say?”
Ryan Angel merely shrugged again. “I don’t know. I’m sure there are lots of things you want to get off your chest. These past few years haven’t been easy on you and now you’re a teenager… Most girls need their mother more than ever during these years and your mother isn’t exactly a regular visitor in your life. There are a lot of…changes that go on…in your body and other things.” He blushed beet red.
“Dad! I’ve seen the YouTube clips and I’ve listened to the lectures in health. I don’t need to talk to a shrink about being a teenager.”
“Okay, Jess, but there are other things you could discuss. Like I said, you could talk about the difficulties you’ve been having with some of the kids at school. Is that nonsense still going on?”
She hurriedly averted her gaze but gave him a cautious nod.
“See, maybe this woman can help you work through that. When I hear stories of girls being mean I want to go and thrash the lot of them. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to do that. Maybe talking it through with Holly will help.”
Jessie remained silent, unconvinced she needed to talk to anyone. She preferred to deal with it on her own. It was embarrassing to have to talk about it with her dad, let alone a stranger.
In response to her silence, her dad let out a weary sigh. “Look, Jessie. I’m not going to force you to go. I just think it would be good for you to talk about things with a professional. Until now, there hasn’t been the opportunity. The nearest shrink is a two-hour drive away. But now there’s one in town, right here in Wheeler.” He’d shrugged. “What harm could it do?”
With exaggerated reluctance, she’d eventually agreed and her dad made an appointment. It was on her fourth visit that she’d run into Sarah. Now the two of them were good friends. The only problem was, Sarah wasn’t in any of Jessie’s classes. Other than homeroom she only saw her on the breaks.
“How’s my birthday girl?”
Jessie turned around in time to see her father climb out of his patrol car and head toward the front gate. Smiling, she came back down the stairs. She greeted him with a hug.
“It was my birthday yesterday, Dad,” she responded, softening it with a grin.
“You’re right, and I sent you a text, but I didn’t get to see you yesterday, remember?”
Jessie nodded. “It was nice to see Mom.”
Ryan looked at her closely. “How was she?”
Jessie shrugged. “She was fine. We ate pizza and watched old movies. We slept together on the couch.”
Ryan’s face relaxed. “That’s great, honey. I’m glad your mom’s doing well. That last stint in rehab might have done the trick.” He sighed quietly. “We can only hope.”
“She gave me a present,” Jessie added softly.
Ryan looked wary. “She did? What was it?”
“You’re not gonna believe it. She gave me some brand new Beats.”
“Yes! They’re the latest thing! I’ve seen them online and of course, all the coolest celebrities are wearing them. I can’t believe I have a pair of my very own.”
“That’s great, honey. I’m so happy for you.” He leaned down and pecked her on the cheek. He threw his arm around her shoulder and they walked into the house together.
“So, how was your day, Dad?” Jessie asked, tossing her school bag by the door.
“It was all right,” he replied, unstrapping the heavy police belt from around his waist and dropping it on the kitchen table like he usually did.
“No escaped convicts to chase down the street?” She winked at him.
He grinned and pulled his Glock out of its holster along with his spare ammunition clip. He walked over to the safe in the far corner of the room and unlocked it. “No, not this time.” He tossed the words over his shoulder and then finished locking away his weapon and the bullets. “Lucky for me,” he added, coming back to her, “Scott Preston was sent up river to Watervale. He’s now someone else’s problem.” He grimaced at the reference to a local criminal who was renowned for breaching his bail.
Her father moved into the kitchen and pulled open the fridge door. “What would the birthday girl like for dinner?”
Jessie shrugged. “Whatever you like. I’m easy.”
“How about we go out for dinner?”
Jessie brightened. “Chinese?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Yay!” She ran over and gave him a hug and then headed for her room.
“Hang on, aren’t you forgetting something?”
She frowned and came to a halt and turned to face her father. “I don’t know. Am I?’
“Your mother’s not the only one who bought you a birthday present.”
With that, he reached into the cupboard beside the fridge and pulled out a smallish rectangular box. It was wrapped in plain pink paper with a clumsily tied pink bow. She smiled and blinked back tears.
“Did you wrap this, Dad?”
“Of course. Who else was going to do it?” he said gruffly.
She hugged him again and then accepted the present. Eagerly, she loosened the bow. Tearing off the packaging, she gasped.