The bell rang, and a flood of students poured out of Madison Middle School. Kids laughed and chattered excitedly to each other, racing down the street toward their homes. Hannah Bauer was the only one not engaging in the mad rush for home. Instead, the thirteen-year-old walked slowly, the wind teasing her long, strawberry-blond hair.
It had been one of those days where nothing went right. She had arrived at school fifteen minutes late, forgotten her social studies homework, and somebody had stolen her sweatshirt. Rubbing her bare arms, she wondered if anything else could go wrong. Her answer came almost immediately, as a passing pickup sloshed her with mud from the gutter. Hannah slumped down on a nearby park bench in defeat and covered her face with her hands. She sat there for a long time, then opened her eyes and tried to brush the drying mud off her jeans and Paul Frank T-shirt. It didn’t work.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d guess the bench would collapse next,” she muttered sourly. The painted wood gave an ominous creak, and Hannah bolted upward and sprinted away. She was brought to an abrupt halt when she collided with someone. They both fell to the ground.
Hannah scrambled to her feet with a flustered apology. “Oh golly, I’m so sorry!”
The other person stood up. It was a boy, probably a few years older than Hannah. He was really tall, with wild, curly brown hair and huge green eyes. “It’s all right. I wasn’t watching where I was going anyway.” He brushed off his black T-shirt. Then, looking at her closely, he said, “I’m Tony Moore. Who are you?”
She blushed. “I’m Hannah Bauer.”
“Tough day, huh?” asked Tony, matter-of-factly.
Wordlessly, Hannah nodded, wondering how he knew.
“You’ve just got that look on your face. I’ve seen enough people, so I can tell what you’re feeling. Come,” he added. “I want to show you something. Might cheer you up.”
He started walking, and Hannah followed. She inexplicably trusted Tony, with his straightforward manner and sincere eyes. The boy led her through the park and into the woods on the other side. He went unwaveringly, along a tiny footpath Hannah wouldn’t even have noticed, and she wondered how many times he had come through this forest.
As if sensing her thoughts, Tony said over his shoulder, “I love these woods. If I could, I’d build myself a treehouse like Swiss Family Robinson and live here. I know practically every inch of this place.” He led her a little farther and jumped over a crumbling stone wall. Hannah followed, though she climbed over it. Tony’s legs were much longer than hers.
Tony was waiting for her. “This,” he said emphatically, green eyes shining, “is one of my favorite places.”
Hannah looked around. This was different from the rest of the woods she had seen. Cracked flagstones peeked between the moss, hinting that perhaps this had once been a courtyard. The stone wall ran all the way around the clearing, and in the center was a small pond with a moss-covered fountain in it.
“What is this place?” asked Hannah, gasping in awe.
Tony shrugged his broad shoulders. “Dunno. Maybe a garden, or a temple, or something like that.” He took her by the hand and led her towards the pool. “This is what I wanted to show you,” he explained, motioning for her to step closer.
Hannah peered into the murky water, wondering if he would give her some nutty metaphor about looking closer at her reflection, or if he was going to push her in. He did neither.
“No, over there,” he said, pointing. Hannah looked in the direction his finger was pointing and saw several pinkish white flowers floating on the pool’s surface, nestled among broad, flat leaves. “What are they?” she questioned.
“Water lilies. Lotus. They’re really very lovely,” replied Tony, stroking the pearly petals. “But you wanna hear a secret about them?” His huge emerald eyes sparkled.
Hannah sat on the edge of the low wooden rail that encircled the pond. “Yeah. What is it?”
Tony leaned closer. “These flowers grow from the junkiest mud at the bottom of the pond,” he said softly. “Isn’t that amazing? A gorgeous flower, and it started out in the mud.”
“How?” asked Hannah, intrigued.
“Well, all of that muck is actually full of the stuff that a flower needs to grow. So the mud gives the lotus what it needs, and the flower, searching for the sun, rises above it to the surface.”
Hannah blinked. Tony smiled and continued.
“I think people are like that. The world gives us what we need to rise above our troubles and be as beautiful as these flowers.” He gently touched one of the blossoms, then fixed her with his compelling gaze. “You can be like that, Hannah. Days like this, when the whole world seems against you, just remember that someday you’ll grow above all this muck, searching for the sun.”
Hannah stared at him. She wouldn’t have pegged him for the type to have this kind of insight. “Th-thank you, Tony,” she stammered, finally finding her voice.
Tony smiled. “No prob, Hannah. Glad I could help. I’ll see you around.” With that, he plucked one of the blossoms from the water and handed it to her. He looked into her eyes. “Don’t forget it,” he said with another smile, and slipped away into the woods. Hannah just barely caught a flash of his catlike eyes, and then he was gone.
“Be seeing you around, Tony,” she whispered. She stroked the silky petals of the lotus, and then, tucking the bloom behind her ear, walked away, ready to face the day with renewed strength.