One more stroke of red… and done! My cramped fingers reluctantly released the paintbrush. After six hours of non-stop painting, no part of my body wanted to move, but all of it needed to. When in the zone, I never felt the strain of time—only after the project did it catch up to me, the aching muscles and burning pain in my hand, the serious need to pee.
I darted for the bathroom attached to the art studio, but nearly tripped over my still-asleep legs when they failed to move as instructed. With a groan and a very full bladder, I lumbered in and relieved myself, then returned to my easel and stretched all of my angry muscles.
A deep voice startled me out of my back stretch. “Wow, Sam, this has got to be your best work yet.” Mr. Krevner, Mr. K for short, stood in a shadowed corner of the studio and stared at my painting.
I’d never seen him so enraptured by any of my work. I’d never seen him speechless before, either, and that stroked my artistic ego as nothing else could. The 16×24 canvas oil painting that had stolen my social life for the past two months radiated an aliveness and color that I’d never been able to capture before.
My art professor came forward, walking as though in a church and speaking in a hushed voice. “Where did you get the inspiration for this? The layers of texture and use of tone are extraordinary, and the juxtaposition of fluid brush strokes and harsh, jagged lines creates a dynamic movement to the piece, a conflict that has been missing in your other work. Extraordinary. What are you calling it?”
The hitch in my voice betrayed my nerves. “The Color of Thought. It represents how I ‘see’ the world, with the thoughts of everyone swirling around me, and the conflict I feel at having so many minds invade my own. I went with a more abstract style to capture the frenetic energy of my experiences. I know my work is usually more realistic, but….”
Nothing in my art had ever been so personal. Maybe great art had to be ripped from a person’s soul, before it could evoke emotion in others.
“Do you think it’s good enough for the International Art Contest?” I dipped into his thoughts, but he spoke exactly what was on his mind.
His long fingers intertwined, and his thin, penciled-in eyebrows shot up and down in excitement. “Good enough? It’s better than that. It’s incredible! In two weeks, you’ll be the winner of one of the most prestigious art contests in the world. It’ll make your career and get you into Sarah Lawrence.”
I covered my painting with a piece of canvas, careful not to touch the wet paint, scrubbed my hands and brushes in the sink, and grabbed my book bag. “I haven’t even gotten accepted yet.”
He walked me to the door. “You will. Don’t worry about it. Your future is assured.”
I adjusted my backpack onto my shoulders. “I’m going to get something to eat. I’ll come back later to talk about the contest details with you.”
When Mr. K smiled, his hawk nose and skeletal facial features transformed into something less reminiscent of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas—his usual look. He was almost, for just a moment, handsome—though not my type at all. Way too old.
“Enjoy your dinner, Sam.” He walked back into the studio, his long scarecrow body swimming in his khakis and Grateful Dead t-shirt.
The great clock above the Headmaster’s building chimed four times. Where would Lucy and Luke be this fine Saturday? I cocked my head and listened for their mental signatures, but a blast of unwelcome thoughts barraged me.
‘Can’t believe I have to study today…. Where is my sock…? Really need to get this fire under control…. Wish the weekend would last longer….’
Our secret school for kids with para-powers only had about 500 students, grades seven to twelve, but that’s still a lot of minds to wade through. Finally, Lucy’s distinctive mental voice pierced through the rest.
I stood on the southeast end of campus, where a cluster of classrooms made up the fine arts department. Each building on our campus looked like a small mansion that had transported itself from the Tudor period in England. The meticulous landscaping, complete with bushes trimmed into animal shapes, reinforced the illusion of a proper English estate. Only the high voltage fences surrounding the perimeter spoiled the effect.
The winding cobblestone path led me west from the studio toward the phys ed building and training courtyard. Spring hadn’t yet given way to summer, but today felt like a small victory over a long winter. I basked in the warmth of the sun as I looked for my best friends.
I knew what I’d see upon arriving, and wasn’t disappointed.
A small crowd had formed around the outdoor training court, where layers of mats lay on the ground and my two favorite people stood center stage. Lucy had her much bigger and taller twin brother, Luke, in a chokehold, from which he struggled to remove himself. Students passed small wads of cash back and forth, clearly betting on the winner. When Luke flipped Lucy on her back and pinned her petite frame to the mat, those who had bet on Luke started cheering.
They didn’t know Lucy.
And I wished I’d brought some cash.
She scissored her legs around her brother’s neck and flipped herself up so that she straddled his throat. Incredible! With another hip move, she knocked him down and pinned him for the count.
Students cheered and exchanged money as she stood and offered her hand to him. He grudgingly accepted, and they pushed through the crowds, finally spotting me.
Luke draped his long arm over my shoulder. His blue eyes twinkled even as he moaned and groaned in mock abuse. “Did you see what this pint-sized maniac did to me? Appalling.”
I laughed and tugged at Lucy’s dark ponytail. “You sure showed him. Of course, you’ve been showing him up since kindergarten.”
Luke stuck his tongue out at me, and Lucy flashed her 100-watt smile. “Did you finish? Do I finally get to see this super-secret painting that has kept you in hermit mode for months?”
My grin spread into a full-on face-cramping smile. “It’s done! And it’s… I can’t even explain. It’s the best thing I’ve ever painted!”
They both grabbed my arms and pulled me back to the studio. “We want to see it now!” they said in unison.
“But I’m so hungry. I haven’t eaten all day.” They ignored my pleas as we retraced my steps.
As much as my rumbling stomach needed food, I was way more excited to share my work with my friends. I hadn’t shown it to anyone while I worked, and being out of the loop never sat well with my feisty friends. Plus, they deserved to be a part of this after encouraging me for years to pursue my art more seriously. Lucy had actually used her very first bonus from an assignment to commission a portrait from me. How could I deny my first paying customer—especially since most of the students at the school now had my art hanging in their rooms, and I had a nice stash of cash in mine, thanks to her and Luke?
The door to the studio hung open just a crack, and angry screams assaulted us as we approached. Luke and Lucy looked to me as if I knew what was going on.
I shrugged my shoulders in the universal I’ve-got-no-freaking-idea way and crept to the door. I could have just slipped into their minds, but listening to people talk both out loud and mentally was hard to track and gave me a pretty big headache. At that moment, what they were saying, or rather screaming, to each other was more interesting.
We didn’t want to budge the door and draw attention to ourselves, so Luke pushed his head through. He bobbed in and out so quickly I almost missed it. Being able to walk through anything was mighty handy at times.
I nudged him. “Well?”
“Higgins and Mr. K. They both look pretty pissed.”
They sounded it too. I’d never heard Headmaster Higgins yell at any of the teachers, or students for that matter. He wasn’t a pushover by any stretch, but he’d always been levelheaded—until today.
Higgins shouted at Mr. K. “How could you enter her without permission from me? Do you realize what you’ve done? This could ruin the school and everything we’re doing here.”
Was Higgins talking about me?
Mr. K replied with the same volume and anger. I could imagine the vein over his left eye bulging. “You have no idea how talented that girl is! She should be at the best art school in the world, not hidden here like a freak of nature. It’s my job to make sure she has a future when she leaves this god-awful place, and I’m not letting you, or the people you work for, stand in my way. Or hers.”
They must have been talking about me, but it made no sense. Why didn’t Higgins want me entering the contest, and why did Mr. K hate this place so much?
“Don’t you mean, the people we work for? They employ us both, and you’d do well to remember that, Mr. Krevner. Their reach extends beyond the gates of this school.”
I couldn’t believe it. Was the headmaster actually threatening my art teacher? What was going on?
“You will pull her from that competition and clean up the mess you’ve made, or your days here are numbered. Am I making myself clear?”
Something crashed into a wall, and my friends and I jumped back in surprise.
“Everything is very clear. You use her and her gifts, rent her and all these kids out to the highest bidder as spies. You make billions on these Rent-A-Kids, as they call themselves. And now you want to snuff her chance to shine doing what she truly loves? No. If you want to destroy her dreams, you can do it yourself. I’ll have no part in it.”
Footsteps approached the door. I tripped back, grabbed Luke and Lucy, and the three of us ducked around the corner of the building. I peeked out just as Mr. K stormed from the studio, his face bright red and contorted in anger. Not his best look.
Headmaster Higgins followed him out moments later. He adjusted his navy blue suit and plastered a calm mask over his face. His midnight black skin did not reveal his recent spike in blood pressure the same way that Mr. K’s pasty complexion had, but the tight way he held his shoulders and the fists he made of his hands spoke to his anger.
Tears stung my eyes, and I swiped at them with the back of a hand still stained with splashes of paint. If they pulled me from the contest, hundreds of hours of hard work would be wasted, and my future would get flushed down the toilet. That couldn’t happen!
When both men were gone, the three of us snuck into the studio and closed the door behind us. My enthusiasm had drained out of me like dirty bath water. I sniffled and wiped my traitorous eyes again.
Lucy put her arm around me. “Cheer up, Chica. We’ll figure this out, I promise. They can’t keep you from this, not after all the hard work you’ve done. And you’ll be leaving for New York soon. Luke and I will join you there, and we’ll make all of our dreams come true, just watch!”
I tried to smile, for her sake, but the smile didn’t reach my eyes.
Luke rubbed my head as if I were his pet dog. “Where’s this painting I’ve been hearing so little about?”
I swatted his hand and couldn’t suppress a small, but genuine, smile. Luke could always cheer me: funny, gorgeous, and so much like a brother it sucked.
“Over here.” The canvas draped over my painting appeared undisturbed. A sigh of relief escaped me. At least nothing had happened to it. “Close your eyes.”
They both groaned but did as told.
Fear and nervousness buzzed through me as I pulled the canvas off. What if they hated it? What if everyone hated it and my dreams of being a real artist died before they could even be born? My lungs clenched with stale breath and I exhaled before I got too dizzy. “Okay, you can look.”
They stood there, jaws dropped, stunned into silence. They either hated it or totally loved it.
“Um, is this a bad or good silence?”
Lucy pulled her mouth closed and swallowed before she spoke. “O.M.G. Sam, this is the most incredible, unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen in my life. You painted this?”
“You like it?”
Her mental voice slammed into me. ‘Would I lie to you? It’s amazing!’
Relief flooded me even as I laughed at her joke. I could read minds, sure, but she was the human lie detector. No one dared lie to her.
Luke hugged me and whispered into my ear, “I’m so proud of you, Sam. This is truly epic!”
We stood there staring for several minutes. This painting represented so much about me, my life, my future… everything. I hated to leave it even for a minute, but my stomach protested its neglect with a loud rumble.
Luke grabbed my hand. “Come on, let’s feed you. My treat.”
With the buzz of success filling me, and Luke’s hand in mine, I entertained a what-if. What if I could get past the whole brother thing with Luke? I took in his tall, well-defined frame, his dark hair and bright blue eyes. Gorgeous inside and out, but… nothing. No spark at all. Such a pity. Of all the guys at school, he was the only one I could even imagine being with, but I couldn’t force the chemistry and neither could he.
We walked to dinner hand in hand, and I consoled myself with the fact that I had the best friends a girl could want. Not a bad consolation prize after all, and worth a hundred boyfriends.
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