Portrait of Lies – Chapter One

 

Jamie!” Bren whined. “We’re missing out! Click out of search! Everybody’s already in our chat room!”

“Uh huh.” Jamie barely listened to her best friend, too caught up in the list of schools scrolling down her computer screen.

“Minnesota School of the Arts.” Jamie read the computer entry aloud. She’d been squinting at the blue screen for so long that her eyes hurt. “I’ve never heard of that one, Bren. Think they’re big enough to have a summer program for young artists?” And to have plenty of scholarships, she wondered. Getting into an exclusive summer art camp would be her first step toward becoming a real artist.

Bren peered over Jamie’s shoulder as pictures of the campus took shape. “Jamie,” Bren said, “why would anyone go to Minnesota on purpose? Dad had a medical convention in Minneapolis once and came home with a million mosquito bites. You know their license plates say, ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes?’ They should say, ‘Land of a Million Mosquitoes.'”

Jamie shook her head and went back to the other art schools.

“Jamie, look!” Bren screamed in Jamie’s ear as the blinking e-mail alert appeared.

YOU’VE GOT MAIL

“Aren’t you going to click it?” asked Bren. “You can’t just leave it there!”

“In a minute, Bren.” Jamie kept scrolling down the long list of art schools. “Oklahoma, nope. Arizona, maybe . . . “

“This is too much!” Bren cried. “It is un-American not to get your e-mail! No kidding, Jamie. Scientists have discovered it’s not healthy to leave your mailbox full. It makes you repressed or depressed or something. And it gives you wrinkles! Do you want wrinkles??”

Jamie let Bren babble. “New Mexico, Montana . . .”

“Jamie Chandler, it is against the law not to check your e-mail! A federal offense-mail tampering. And I’m positive the Supreme Court will back me up on this!”

“Alright. You win.” Jamie clicked yes to read her e-mail. The mailbox came up with one new message, a cyber ad: Special hot deals on flights to Morocco and Madrid!

“Good thing we checked that one out, huh, Bren?” Jamie said, clicking out of e-mail and back to her art school search. “Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas . . . “

“Ew! Kansas!” Bren squealed, pointing to a list at the top of the screen for Kansas State International Art Fest. “They should have license plates that say, ‘We’re flat.’ No, no-I’ve got it. They could say, ‘Toto, we’re not in Indiana anymore.’

“You know my dad drove us to Yellowstone one year, and we had to drive through Kansas, which I thought might be cool, since I love the Wizard of Oz so much, but it turned out to be the longest state in the whole world, with the fewest fast food places!”

Jamie had to grin. Bren Mickler had been her best friend for as long as Jamie could remember, but her friend would never understand. Bren had no idea what it felt like to really want something. As soon as Bren wanted anything, her parents ran out and bought it for her-that day! Bren’s dad was so wealthy he could-and would-send his daughter, his only daughter, to any school in the entire world.

“Look at this one, Bren!” Jamie clicked on Maine Artist’s Colony. “That’s exactly the kind of program I want,” she said, imagining what it would be like to do nothing except draw and paint for a whole month. No school, no little sisters, no waiting tables.

Bren pulled a Milky Way out of her gym bag and broke off a piece. “Maine? Now they’ve got cute little lobsters all over their license plates. You know what they do with their lobsters, don’t you? I say, Maine plates should read: ‘See these animals? We drop them in boiling water while they’re still kicking.’

“I knew this guy from Maine once. Well, I didn’t actually know him. I met him at swim camp. Amber and Maya were there, too. Anyway, he was so stuck up! Maya beat him in the butterfly. And he had this accent-“

“Bren! Could we focus on me for one minute, please?”

Jamie watched Bren’s golden-brown eyes open as wide as quarters. Her hand hung suspended, fingers pinching a piece of chocolate, ready to pop it like popcorn between neatly lipsticked lips.

“I’m sorry, Bren,” Jamie said, leaning back in the kitchen chair she always had to swipe for the computer when Bren came over. At Bren’s house, computers got their own chairs. “It’s just that right now I don’t have one piece of art good enough to put into a portfolio. And I need everything-portraits, stills, watercolors, acrylics, oils, ceramics. And not the stuff we make in Mrs. Woolsey’s class either.”

Bren feigned shock. “What? You mean you can’t use toothpick towers or Popsicle-stick pictures?”

_It’s not funny, Bren,” Jamie griped, nervously circling her worn-out mouse on its pad. “If I don’t have an awesome portfolio to show, I won’t get a scholarship to a good art college.”

“Excuse me?” Bren said. “I must have mistaken you for the Jamie Chandler who’s only a sophomore in high school. I don’t even want to think about college. Dad does enough of that for both of us! All he wants to do is visit this school or that university, as if I didn’t have a life on the weekends. He and Mom argue all the time-ok, not argue, discuss-because Mom wants me to stay in Indiana. I don’t care where I end up, as long as I end up becoming a famous fashion designer.”

She would, too. Jamie studied Bren’s perfect look-her earrings (emeralds in top holes, gold studs below), the chain around Bren’s neck that probably cost more than Jamie’s mom made in a month as a paralegal. She wore exactly the right cropped jeans and designer shirt, and she had her thick, brown hair styled in a smooth, straight cut by a hairstylist in the city.

But it was more than that. Bren was magnetic. Without even trying, Bren could look like fashion models on TV, laugh like women in romantic movies, and set half of the trends in school just by wearing or doing what she wanted. Single-handedly, Bren had started a judo fad, ushered in a high-topped sneaker craze, and launched revivals of the tango, head scarves, and even Hula-Hoops.

Jamie, on the other hand, had never followed a fad, much less led one. A full three inches shorter than Bren’s 5’7″, Jamie kept her light-blonde hair a little long-not by design, but because she could brush it back in a ponytail in two seconds flat. That was all the time she had on school mornings with three other females and one bathroom in the house. Sometimes Jamie wondered why Bren was friends with her.

Jamie kept moving through cyberspace, hopping from Web site to Web site. She knew she was lucky they had a computer. It was a miracle her mom, despite loud protests from Jamie’s sisters, had agreed to keep it in Jamie’s room “for the time being.” But she couldn’t help wishing this computer were as fast as Bren’s. She’d have been done by now if they’d been at Bren’s.

Jamie let go of the mouse. Something on the screen jumped out at her, as if all along it had been waiting for her, hoping Jamie Chandler would end up on this page. Bren was chattering on about some guy she was trying to get to notice her, but Jamie shut out everything except the words on the screen, words that could change her whole life.

yhe read the entry out loud. “‘Interlochen Arts Camp-Now seeking aspiring artists from across the U.S. to share the Interlochen experience-Interlochen Center for the Arts, Interlochen, Michigan.'”

“Aspiring artists?” Bren repeated. “Jamie, that’s you! You’re an artist! You’re aspiring! And Michigan, the UP!”

Trancelike, Jamie continued: “‘Selected high school undergraduates spend July 2-30 on the Interlochen campus, under the mentoring of professional artists, as well as university professors. The goal is to help talented students develop a portfolio that will help them get college scholarships.'”

It was as if this Web site had read Jamie’s mind, eavesdropped on her dreams. Jamie knew that an art scholarship was the only way she’d get into a good school. Her mom worked ten hours a day just to keep the three of them fed and in Levi’s.

“It’s perfect, Jamie!” Bren insisted. “Do it! I can’t even think of a bad license plate slogan for Michigan. I knew a guy from Marquette once, and he . . .”

But Jamie wasn’t listening. She read every word on the screen in front of her-all about classes in charcoal sketching, portrait painting, still lifes, ceramics, mixed media. She drank in the descriptions of spacious, private rooms and meals in the prize-

winning cafeteria.

At the very bottom of the screen was a form to fill out. And just above that, in small gray numbers, was a list of fees and expenses. “Two thousand dollars?” Jamie heard her voice come out as a whisper, but inside it was a scream. Two thousand dollars! Her chair tipped over and crashed to the floor. Suddenly realizing she was on her feet, nose practically pressed to the computer screen, Jamie pulled her chair back up and plopped down in it. “Two thousand dollars? It might as well cost two million dollars, Bren.”

“Don’t give up!” Bren scolded, scooting her chair closer to the keyboard. “Maybe they have scholarships or something.” Bren clicked back to the home page, then clicked again and again. “Yes!” she shouted. “Jamie, look at this! They have a contest!”

Jamie sat up fast. “What kind of a contest?”

“It says, ‘Entries must be posted by October 1.'” Bren growled at the computer. “This thing is so slow, Jamie!”

Jamie tried to keep herself from getting too excited. A contest. The idea of competing scared her. And the deadline was just a little over a week away. But if they wanted watercolors, she had one of a field of dandelions that wasn’t all that bad. She’d worked all summer on a couple of pieces of ceramic art. Maybe . . .

“Here it is!” Bren said. “Portrait contest! Scan your best portrait work in any medium and send it to their e-mail address.”

Portrait? Jamie had heard the expression “sinking heart” before, but this was the first time she had experienced it. She felt the disappointment like a lead ball dropping through her chest. “I don’t have anything to send,” she said softly. “I haven’t done a portrait since seventh grade.” She let out a sigh. “Even if I had, it wouldn’t be good enough to win a contest.”

“Don’t say that, Jamie! You’re great! You’re the best!” Bren sounded like she was giving one of her cheerleading cheers. Jamie half-expected her to break out with a chorus of “Give me a J! Give me an A! . . .”

“Just try it, Jamie. Do a portrait! You have a whole week. That’s plenty of time.”

At the word time, Bren’s body stiffened. “Time!” she exclaimed, exiting the art school Web site and typing in TodaysGirls.com. “It’s after five, Jamie! We have to go to the Web site. Bet Amber and Maya are already waiting for us.”

Jamie couldn’t think of anything but the contest. She imagined aspiring artists all over the nation at that very moment

putting the finishing touches on their masterpieces-beautiful portraits they had taken months to create under the admiring eyes of their mentors. How could she compete with that?

Bren was already punching in her password on the girls’ site.

Welcome to TodaysGirls.com

password: Bren004

Forming their own site with a chat room had been Amber’s idea. They’d been squeezing into other chat rooms online, but they usually ended up creating private rooms to avoid freaks who obviously couldn’t get enough attention in the real world. Amber and Maya were juniors and had done most of the work getting the Web site up and running. But Bren and Jamie-and even Maya’s little sister Morgan-did their share in maintaining it. Jamie ran the Artist’s Corner, where any of the girls could post artwork.

The Thought for the Day popped up-Amber’s responsibility:

Depend on the Lord. Trust him, and he will take care of you.-Psalm 37:5. Try it! Having trouble with that English lit paper or that calculus problem? Pray about it-but don’t forget to do your homework!

“I don’t know where Amber comes up with this stuff, do you, Jamie?” Bren asked, clicking on the chat icon.

Jamie reread Amber’s daily thought still showing at the top of the screen. She wished she could trust God to come up with the money she’d need for summer art camp. If she could get the two thousand, maybe she could still get into the Interlochen program. But what if God didn’t want her to go? What if God didn’t even want her to be an artist?

Bren had already jumped into the flow of cyber chat. She typed in the dialog box:

chicChick: nu u’d be here!

faithful1: GDM8s.

“Amber says, ‘Good day, mates,'” Bren said out loud. Bren probably logged in ten times more than Jamie did in the chat room, but then Bren probably spent a hundred times more hours than Jamie chatting in person, on the phone, or in any other conceivable mode of communication. And sometimes Jamie liked to try other chat rooms where no one knew her.

Bren kept up her end of the dialog:

chicChick: GR8 site! it looks so kewl! : )

faithful1: GR8 haven’t been here long. Dad left again. I think he’ll be gone for two weeks. he’ll miss the art show! : (

It was hard for Jamie to feel too sorry for Amber. True, her dad did travel a lot. He owned the trucking company he sometimes drove for. And at least Amber had a father. Jamie could hardly remember what her father looked like. He’d walked out on them when she was five and Mom was still pregnant with Jessica. Not that Jamie cared. They didn’t need him anyway.

She read over Bren’s shoulder as her slender fingers input her next message:

chicChick: rembrandt’s been art school hunting. only has a couple more years of high school, u no?

faithful1: good 4 her! I’ve been checking out creative writing departments at Purdue, FWIW. dad’s checking out law schools. : (

chicChick: i hear that!

Jamie reached over and typed her own message.

rembrandt: i’m just trying to find a great art camp or workshop i can do this summer. No biggie.

Of course, it was a big deal. Jamie just didn’t want everybody feeling sorry for her. Finding a great art camp wasn’t the problem. But finding the money to go to one was.

faithful1: has rembrandt checked out any art contests on the web?

“Tell her I don’t have anything to compete with,” Jamie told Bren. “Never mind. Let me do it.” Jamie reached in front of Bren to type:

rembrandt: me win a contest? LOL! i don’t have anything good enough.

faithful1: rembrandt, u r GR8! u should enter and win!

rembrandt: NW.

Bren elbowed Jamie away from the screen. “Jamie,” she said. “Don’t say ‘no way’! Amber’s right! Maybe we can help.” She waited for her dialog to appear in the box. “Your computer is so slow, Jamie! You ought to get a new one!”

Just like that? Jamie thought. If I were Bren, maybe.

Before Bren could finish typing her message, a new name entered the room:

nycbutterfly: rembrandt, r u still here? thought you would be at the Gnosh.

The Gnosh Pit! “Maya’s right!” Jamie cried, shooting out of her chair. She ran to her bedroom door, remembered her shoes, and scurried back to look for them. “I have to get to work! I want to ask Maya’s dad for an advance and more hours. I can’t be late! And I haven’t even fed Jordan and Jessica yet.”

“You make them sound like dogs instead of sisters,” Bren said, not looking up from the keyboard.

“They might as well be,” Jamie said, hunting for her other tennis shoe. She dropped to her knees to look under the bed. “If I don’t feed my darling little sisters, they’ll bite my head off.”

The missing shoe lay on its side, half-hidden by socks and dust bunnies. She dragged it out by its laces. Something about the room suddenly felt wrong, foreboding, as if they were suspended in the seconds between the flash of lightning and the boom of thunder.

“That smell,” she muttered, focusing on a weird odor coming through the heat vents. “What’s that smell?”

“Mmmm, FO? Foot odor?” Bren offered, without looking away from the screen.

“Not that!” Jamie said. The stench got stronger-a familiar smell that made her feel like her stomach was rebooting.

From way down the hall came a loud, spine-rattling scream. It reached Jamie at the exact second she identified the odor: smoke!

 

Skysa App Bar