Chat Freak – Chapter One

Just what I was looking for!” Morgan cried, digging behind the dried fruit to where she’d hidden her crispy  M&M’s. Clutching the bright blue bag, she smiled at her older sister. “I want these for the chat.”

Morgan’s sister, Maya, rolled her eyes, and then she reached into the fridge for a Diet Coke to have with her mini pretzels. “How do you ever expect to drop that baby fat eating like that?”

Morgan paused from pouring a handful of candy. “Do you really think I look fat?”

“I just think you’d want to look a bit more . . . sleek . . . for New York next week.”

“Why? Who’s going to be watching me?”

Maya looked her over from head to toe. “You’re right. I’m the one looking at fashion design schools while you befriend old sea cows.” She gave a delicate shudder. “Chow down.”

“They’re seals, not sea cows.” Morgan glanced at the clock. “It’s almost eight,” she said, referring to their scheduled chat with their friends. “Can I use your computer for a change? You can use my laptop.” 

“Not a chance.” Maya sipped her soda as she left the room.

Sighing, Morgan unplugged the family’s phone and snapped the line into her laptop. She was sick of Maya always getting her way. That teen line belonged to her too, but Maya hogged it. That left Morgan on the family line, which limited her to only a half-hour chat. She wanted more time than that. 

In less than a minute, she was logged on. The purple icon-Welcome to its magenta background lit up her screen. Amber’s Thought for the Day popped open at the top. 

Keep your eyes focused on what is right. Keep looking straight ahead to what is good. Proverbs 4:25 

Let’s focus on the real meaning of Easter this week–and it’s not chocolate!

Morgan smiled as she clicked into the chat room. Bren and Jamie were already deciding whether one-piece swimming suits looked better on Bren, or whether she looked more stunning when clad in two pieces. One swimsuit for me is enough, Morgan thought. But Maya jumped right in, giving her professional advice. 

“OK, let’s try a new topic,” Morgan said aloud, hesitating a moment before popping a handful of M&M’s into her mouth. The sooner they talked about their spring break plans, the sooner they’d end their chat session-and then she could surf the Web on her own.

jellybean: can U believe spring break is almost here? I’m so excited!

nycbutterfly: it’s about time U wrote something. I thought you’d died. Or R U pouting cuz you’re in the kitchen?

chicChick: bet it’s easy 2 hook into different lines when U have UR own laptop! I wish I had one. then I could shop whenever I wanted!

Hooking up the laptop was a cinch, actually. The lack of time online was the problem. Morgan had people on the Web to talk to . . . and places to be. Let’s keep this moving, she thought. 

jellybean: What about those French boys, Bren? 

chicChick: Mais oui! April in Paris. I’m so psyched!

TX2step: Lucky! You get to leave early and miss more school. I don’t head to TX till the weekend.

faithful1: I need 2 stay home and make $$. Gotta save!

TX2step: We’re gonna spend the week on Padre Island. It’ll be a whole nother thing swimming w/o a timer!

rembrandt: UR making me jealous! My vacation will B working all week w/Amber @ the Gnosh while the owner’s daughters go out on the town! 

nycbutterfly: I only wish! Visiting colleges will be fun, but nothing’s like shoppin downtown NYC. 

jellybean: All right, that covers “Todaysgirls Do Spring Break.” Texas. Paris. NYC. Indiana. We’re still going 2 try 2 meet online @ eight every night, right?

nycbutterfly: What’s your hurry, Morg? It’s only 8:25. I think U can afford 5 more minutes. 

faithful1: Wait! I don’t even know what UR doin’ in NYC!

ellybean: Hangin @ the Aquarium 4 Wildlife Conservation on Coney Island–it’s 4 my Save the Seals project. I’m volunteering 2 afternoons while mom & dad take Maya 2 do her school thing. Then I want 2 start a Save the Seals group here.

nycbutterfly: Because there R so many seals in Indiana to B saved. 🙂 

rembrandt: sounds too educational! 2 much 4 me on spring break.

nycbutterfly: I’m much more excited about seeing the city again. Lights, crowds, taxis, skyscrapers, Fifth Ave! I hope I find the perfect college. It’d be so cool to go to college in NYC!!

Morgan tapped her foot as the chat scrolled down the screen. This was taking forever. At this rate she’d never even get to check her e-mail. Hmm, maybe she could click over and do that now.

jellybean: BRB

She exited and clicked to her personal 

e-mail account. She’d made friends around the world at the site, and sure enough, there were three letters from overseas. The one from the UK was first. She read it eagerly. Then, scanning more quickly, she moved to the second one, then the third . . .

“Morgan!” Mrs. Cross called from the living room. “It’s 8:30. Hint, hint.” 

“OK.” Morgan reentered their private chat room long enough to say good-bye.

TX2step: hey, where’d U go?

jellybean: Sorry. Time 2 sign off. C U all tomorrow.

Morgan logged off and plugged the cord back into her parents’ white phone. As she replaced her M&M’s in their hiding place, the phone rang. Morgan picked up the family line, but heard nothing but a dial tone. It was their see-through blue teen phone ringing instead. And that meant one thing: Maya had logged off of their Web site! 

“Hello,” Morgan said into the receiver. 

“Hey. This is Darryl. Is Maya home?” 

“Oh. Hi, Darryl. Hold on a minute.” 

Morgan could hear Maya talking to their mother in the living room, and she started to get her. Then she stopped. Was she crazy? She’d never get to talk to her GlobalBuddies if Maya gabbed with Darryl. Maya always used their teen line. It was Morgan’s turn. And Darryl would surely call again. Or Maya could call him. Retracing her steps to the phone, Morgan picked up the receiver. “Um, Darryl . . . Maya can’t come to the phone now. I’ll have her call you back.”

After I have some time online first, she added to herself as she hung up. It was only fair, after all. She was supposed to share that line with Maya and their older brother. Jacob rarely used it, Morgan had to fight for it, and Maya acted like she owned it and everyone should get special permission from her to use it. It was time for Morgan to have a turn.

A minute later Maya strolled into the kitchen. “Stay off our phone line,” she ordered, poking her head into the refrigerator. She emerged with another Diet Coke. “I’m going to watch a movie, and somebody might call, so don’t tie it up.”

“I’m just going to my room to do homework,” Morgan said, packing up her laptop. She waited on the stairs until she heard the opening strains of Maya’s favorite movie coming from the den, then she hurried upstairs. She passed her own room and continued down the hall to Maya’s room, where the other teen line was located. Within seconds, she was in the GlobalBuddies chat room. Half an hour later, Maya yelled up the stairs, “You’d better not be tying up the phone line, Morgan!”

Morgan jumped, jerked out of her imaginary world. “I’m not!” she yelled back, holding her breath. I’ll get off in just a minute, she promised herself, but she lost track of time again as she got involved trying to help a girl having trouble with her boyfriend. Morgan liked that people could talk to her about anything. They knew she was a good listener. Glancing at the clock some time later, she realized Maya’s movie had to be almost over. “Back L8R,” she wrote and hit the Exit button.

After shutting down, Morgan took her laptop to her room and climbed into her pajamas. When Maya stopped in her doorway a few minutes later, Morgan was sprawled across her bed among Save the Seals brochures and pamphlets. “Been working hard?” her sister asked.

“Yup,” Morgan lied, the guilt nearly choking her. “Good movie?”

“You know how Ever After ends: together at last.” She clutched her heart with a sigh. Then Maya frowned and pulled on her bottom lip. “Why doesn’t my life go like that? That jerk Darryl didn’t call, did he? Oh, never mind. Who cares?” Without waiting for an answer, she cruised down the hall toward her bedroom.

Morgan waited till her parents came and said “good night,” then she gathered and stacked up her brochures. Finally, the house was quiet. Even her big brother had crashed early. Listening in the hall, Morgan heard nothing. Grabbing her laptop, she snuck back down to the kitchen, where she could reconnect. The green screen made an eerie glow in the kitchen as she joined So cool to be able to find friends any time of the day or night. Two hours later her “battery low” sign blinked, and regretfully she logged off. Stumbling upstairs, she groaned inwardly at how soon her alarm would go off.

At swim practice before school Wednesday morning, Morgan yawned while treading water and gulped chlorinated pool water. She coughed until her eyes ran. She wished she could convince their coach, Harrison Short, to let her skip her warmup laps that morning. She needed to save her strength for the big meet right after school that day. Morning light filtered though the dusty windows and reflected off Coach’s glasses, so she couldn’t tell if he was watching her or not. 

Still yawning, Morgan floated on her back over to the fourth lane, right next to Alex. If only she could close her bleary eyes and sink into a deep sleep right there. Morgan saw Alex moving slowly away through the water in a sidestroke. Morgan floated till Alex swam back, reading the large record board that stated all the swim records.

Alex treaded water beside her and asked, “So whadya do last night?”

“I met some of the coolest people online-they’re from all over the world. I mean like Scotland and Zambia and places like that. There was a girl who lives on a farm in Wales and a boy who’s learning to drive in Germany. You wouldn’t even believe the variety of people at GlobalBuddies.” 

Alex raised an eyebrow as Morgan yawned again. “What is wrong with you? Did you talk all night?” 

“Well, not quite,” Morgan said sheepishly. “Time just passes so fast in the chat rooms.”

“OK team,” Coach shouted. “Time for a couple 500-yard warmups. Make ’em easy ones because of tonight’s big meet. Then we’ll do one relay where I time you.” 

They pushed off down the length of the 25-yard pool to do the laps, trying to stay out of each other’s way. For meets, red- and-white lane markers would separate them.

After their laps, they lined up for the relay. Amber, Morgan, Maya, and Alex always did the backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle, in that order. Before meets, electronic touch pads were lowered against the side of the shallow end of the pool to provide accurate swim times. But for now, Coach just set his stopwatch and blew his whistle. 

When Morgan followed Amber, her arms and legs felt so heavy and slow that she might as well have been swimming through pudding. When she dragged herself out of the pool, she could tell by the look on Coach’s face that her time was way off.

“Just what have you been up to, young lady?” 

“Wha-What do you mean?”

“Are you sick?”

Morgan stared at the blue-and-white tile deck. “No, just a little tired.”

“Well, let’s hope you pick up speed by this afternoon,” he snapped. “It won’t matter if your teammates sail along if you’re chugging behind like a tugboat.” He turned to time Maya, then Alex. 

Morgan’s eyes welled up with tears at his sharp tone, and she dived back in the pool to swim more laps. She should have known better than to get back online after everyone went to bed. She always ended up staying and chatting longer than she had intended.

Ten minutes later, Morgan walked past the door to Coach’s office and the small storage area, following her friends into the girls’ locker room. Embarrassed by her time, she kept her eyes carefully fixed on the trail of wet footprints. At the far end of the dressing room, Maya slammed her locker shut while she fumed to Amber. “He as good as stood me up last night. Phone calls count. When guys say they’ll call and don’t, it’s an official stand up.”

“You got stood up? By who?” Alex asked.

Amber grabbed her towel. “By Darryl. If you can count the phone,” explained Amber. “I’m sure he tried, Maya. Maybe he got sick or something.” 

“Fat chance,” Maya snapped. “When they say ‘I’ll call,’ and they don’t, it counts. At least I count it. And I won’t forget it.” 

Something in Morgan’s stomach twisted. She’d had no idea that Maya was actually expecting Darryl’s call. 

“Why make such a big deal about it, Maya?” Alex asked. “You have a hundred guys hangin’ on you all the time. It’s just one stupid phone call.” 

“Hey, it’s Darryl’s loss,” Maya snarled, flouncing off to the showers, but not before Morgan glimpsed her hurt expression. 

Morgan and Alex scooted into their first block biology class twenty minutes later with just seconds to spare.

“Hello, ladies,” Jared called from across the room. “Ready to save the world?” He gestured toward the books, tagboard, and newspapers spread out on the back table for their project.

Morgan shrugged at her stocky friend. “Well, we’ll save the seals, anyway.” 

Alex plopped down at her own desk, baggy jeans dragging, and pulled her wet curly hair back into a ponytail. “You guys are lucky. Our group got the platypus. Talk about ugly. You’d think people would wanna get rid of the homely critters.”

“Where’s Ty?” Morgan asked, referring to the third member of their group. Just then the tardy buzzer sounded. 

“In the library getting some nature magazine. Ms. Duchovny said it had a good seal article.” 

_s. Duchovny waited for quiet, then rattled off the attendance list. She still didn’t know their names, although she’d subbed for Mr. Kistler for a whole week already while he was having knee surgery. As she read, Morgan leaned on one elbow and scrunched her hair, still wet from practice. She’d stayed in the shower longer than necessary, avoiding Maya. 

Morgan sank deeper in guilt as she remembered the hurt look on Maya’s face about the missed phone call. Still, the teen line wasn’t just for Maya’s social life. How else could she get any decent time on the Net? And it wasn’t like she wasted her time there. She was friendly and tried to help people, didn’t she? 

Ms. Duchovny’s voice permeated Morgan’s thoughts, and she glanced up. An aqua ribbon surrounded Ms. D.’s thin brown ponytail, and a peach plastic earring dangled on each side of her triangular face. A turtleneck topped the pale, faded jeans. “If you have any questions about your group projects, get them answered before Friday. I’ll be out of town all next week for spring break, and your projects are due when we come back the day after Easter.” She tossed her head, making her earrings and ponytail jerk. “Let’s get to work.”

Just then Tyler shuffled into the room, clutching the nature magazine he’d rolled into a tube. “Here.” It unfolded on the table, the cover showing several seals tangled in fishing nets. “We can use this.” He flipped it open to the main article.

“Seal Conservation Society Fights Marine Rescue Unit.” Morgan frowned at the title. “I’ll try to find out more about this when I’m in New York, and I’ll e-mail it back to you guys.” She yawned so wide her jaws popped, and she pressed on her throbbing forehead. “Um, you work on the reports and charts while I’m gone, and I’ll write up stuff after volunteering there and see about starting a Save the Seals group here at school.”

Jared rolled his eyes and saluted. “Yes, sir! Morgan, sir!”

Ty rubbed a hand over his pockmarked cheek. “Should we meet before you leave town to divide up the work?” he asked quietly. “Like maybe Friday night?”

“Do homework on Friday night? Are you crazy?”

Ty glanced away. “OK, Thursday night.” 

Jared shrugged his broad shoulders. “Big track meet out of town. I won’t be back till late.” Jared already held a record in the shot put. “How about tonight?” 

“Can’t.” Morgan rubbed the back of her neck. “Blairsburg swim meet.”

Ty rolled back and forth on the balls of his feet, the extra- long tail of his plaid shirt moving with him. “Like I said in the first place, what about Friday night?”

“No choice, I guess.” Morgan stacked their resource books. “What time?”

“Seven o’clock work for you both?” Jared asked. At their nods, he said, “OK, community college library at seven. We can probably use a conference room.”

When the bell rang an hour later, Ty, Jared, and Morgan were still talking as they joined the crowd streaming out the door. However, Morgan stopped in mid-sentence at the sound of a familiar voice near the water fountain.

Maya’s clipped words carried over the noise in the hall. “I said don’t talk to me, Darryl Hume. If it wasn’t important enough for you to call last night, don’t bother talking to me now!” Maya pivoted on her heel and stomped in the direction of the cafeteria. 

“But I did call!” Darryl shouted after her.

Morgan’s throat tightened as she stepped behind Jared before Darryl could see her. 

“Wow.” Jared crossed his arms across his barrel-shaped chest and looked at Darryl’s departing back. “Now you don’t see that every day. One of the popular guys getting leveled down.” 

“Publicly,” added Morgan. “By my sister.” 

She wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear. She’d caused the whole problem between Maya and Darryl. And if the tightness in her throat and stomach meant anything, she was about to be found out for sure. 



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