Picture Imperfect

by Susan Thogerson Maas

Twelve-year-old JJ loves three things: her great-grandma, her cat, and photography. But she’s never going to be a real photographer unless she gets better equipment. When her best friend, Kat, discovers a photo contest with the grand prize of a fancy digital camera—the kind JJ’s parents could never afford—she jumps at the chance to win it.

Things start going wrong when ditzy Aunt Lissa moves in under mysterious circumstances and JJ’s forced to share her room. Why did Lissa lose her job anyway? Kat has all sorts of theories—theories that bring more trouble than the girls can imagine.

Gram’s not doing so great, the cat’s always trying to sneak out, and Aunt Lissa’s ruining JJ’s summer. According to Gram, photography is JJ’s God-given talent, but how can that be true when everything keeps going wrong?

Chapter 1

The rental truck rumbled into my driveway.

So soon? I grabbed my camera—the one Gram gave me for my 12th birthday—and ran to the kitchen. I had to get a picture of Aunt Melissa stepping into our house. I would call it The Invasion.

But Mom would not approve. “Lissa” was her baby sister, after all. Though that baby sister was almost thirty years old.

I’d go with The Change.

Mom walked in, followed by Lissa, whose long, golden hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She wore a flowery shirt, tight jeans, and, of all things, high heels.

I pressed the shutter button.

The flash went off and Lissa jumped, tottering for a moment on those narrow heels before regaining her balance. “What was that?” she cried. Then she saw me. “Oh, it’s you. I should have known. Hi, Miss Jada Jane.” She pulled me to her and smothered me in a hug. “Or should I say ‘roomie?’”

I cringed. Calling me by my full name was bad enough but “roomie” was just plain scary. Faking a smile, I snapped another picture. Maybe I would call it The Invasion.

Mom tromped down the hall, yelling, “Brett! Come on out. We need your help.”

My brother emerged from his room in shorts, a rumpled T-shirt, and flip-flops. His dark, curly hair stuck out on the left side and was plastered down on the right, making it easy to tell which side he’d slept on. He rubbed his eyes and grinned.

I snapped his picture.

Brett stuck his tongue out at me. He didn’t really mind his picture being taken, though. After all, that’s something a sports star would have to get used to, and he intended to become one.

“You didn’t just wake up, did you?” Mom asked. “It’s one in the afternoon.”

Brett’s grin got bigger. “Didn’t you read that study about teenagers needing more sleep? I’m a growing boy.” He flexed his biceps. “Let me at that furniture. I’m ready.”

Laughing, Mom shook her head, then her serious look returned.

Time to work. I stuck my camera in a drawer. Couldn’t risk it getting knocked over and broken.

Mom led the way outside to an ugly orange-and-white truck. Dad pulled a cardboard box out of the back and plunked it down next to several others on the cement.

Boxes that would soon invade my room.

Dad grunted and wiped the sweat off his forehead.

The early summer sun glared down, but a gentle breeze whispered through my hair and cooled my face. Not bad at all for June. At least it wasn’t raining. If it weren’t for Aunt Lissa invading our house, it could have been a perfect day.

“Okay,” Dad said, “let’s get organized. Lissa and Carol, you can take boxes to the bedroom. Brett, you help me with the furniture. We’ll put most of it in the basement. JJ, you can take a box, then help Lissa arrange her stuff.”

I nodded.

“I want the bed, chair, desk, and dresser in the room,” Lissa said.

Dad stared at her.

“Please.”

“There’s not much space in my room.” My stomach twisted. “I don’t think they’ll fit.” Why did I have to share my room? It wasn’t fair. Of course, I knew the answer.

She couldn’t very well room with Brett, and we didn’t have an extra bedroom. Still …

“They’ll fit.” Lissa stuck her hands on her hips. “I’m going to make the bed into a bunk bed and put the desk and dresser under it. It will be almost like college again.”

Dad looked at me, eyebrows raised.

I shrugged. Nobody asked my permission before saying she could move in, so why ask now? Besides, Dad wasn’t likely to do anything. It wasn’t his room, so what did he care? Mom had better be right about Lissa only staying for a little while.

Dad handed a box to Lissa, then Mom, and then me.

Lissa headed into the house but stopped just inside and propped the door open.

“No,” I called. “You can’t leave the door open. Tasha will get out.”

“Tasha? Who in the world is Tasha?” Lissa gave me a snarky look.

A nasty answer started to bubble up inside me, but I swallowed it back down. I hated this already. “Tasha is my cat. We can’t let her get out.”

“Why not? Cats should be able to go where they want, shouldn’t they?”

“Tasha is an indoor cat.” The box I carried was gaining weight by the moment. What did she have in it, a rock collection? I tried to get a better grip. “Come on. Let’s get going.”

“Move it.” Mom gave Lissa a shove with her box.

Lissa moved on, letting the screen door slam behind her.

“You can’t close only the screen door, Lissa,” I hollered after her. “Tasha can open screen doors.”

Would she remember that important fact when there was nobody else to close the door for her?

I didn’t hear an answer, so I closed it and clomped along after Mom. Panting, I set the box down in what had once been my room.

Dad and Brett carried in the bed, leaving the desk and chair in the hall. Dad put the bunk bed frame together, while Lissa directed him. She didn’t need to worry; I’m sure Dad was better at that than she would ever be. But she still kept careful watch. When that was done, they brought in the desk, chair, and a small dresser.

With furniture and boxes filling up the room, it didn’t feel like mine anymore. Lissa’s bed hid most of my Ansel Adams poster, his famous black-and-white photograph of Yosemite Park with a big full moon shining over it. I could get lost in that picture, imagining myself wandering through such a beautiful place, my camera shutter clicking away. What would it be like to be able to take such wonderful photographs?

My own photos didn’t come close, but I still liked them. I had two of them on the wall. Thank goodness I had moved them to my side of the room, so I could still see Tasha staring at me in one and a peaceful view of the ocean in the other.

And, by the door, hung the picture my great-grandma had painted of a stream flowing through fern-filled woods. Gram had been a painter for over fifty years, and she still painted some in the retirement home. Her paintings felt the way I wanted my photographs to feel, like someone could walk into them and be at peace. She said painting made her feel close to God.

That didn’t make sense to me. How could I be close to some spirit up in the sky somewhere?

But Gram looked so happy when she said it that it made me ache inside.

My parents stood outside the bedroom door, watching as Lissa rearranged boxes and tried to unpack her clothes.

Brett strolled in wearing sweatpants and carrying the long bag with all his baseball gear inside. “Gotta leave for practice. Can I borrow the car?”

Dad dug into his pocket and tossed him the keys. “Bring it back in one piece.”

Brett shrugged. “I’ll do my best,” he said with a wink.

“We need to turn in the rental truck.” Mom pulled at the corner of Lissa’s blouse.  “Come on, sis. You’re the one paying for it.”

Lissa grabbed her purse and followed Mom out the door.

Dad slouched in the doorway for another minute or two. He looked sweaty and tired. Being a factory supervisor didn’t give him much exercise, I guess, but he’d gotten his full share today. He looked at me, then at Lissa’s pile of stuff. “Just what we needed. Another body to take up what little space we have,” he muttered. “I hope she can cook.”

“She won’t be here for long, right? That’s what Mom said.” Frowning, I twisted a strand of my shoulder-length hair around one finger.

“Only until she gets a job.  She promises that won’t take long.” He stretched and pressed a fist into his lower back. “Hope she’s right.” He turned and headed down the hall toward the family room. Soon, baseball game sounds blared from the TV. Dad was back in his own world.

If only he cared a little more about mine.

Tasha stared at me from the photo, those big dark eyes watching me, her black-and-white fur so sleek-looking. In my picture she was resting on top of a pile of clean laundry. She should have looked guilty, but she looked like a queen instead. That’s why I liked it.

I hadn’t seen Tasha since Lissa arrived. She had probably found a quiet place to hide. She wasn’t the friendliest cat that ever lived. In fact, Brett called her a black ball of claws.

But she loved me, and I loved her. That was good enough.

I wandered through the house, checking all of Tasha’s favorite places—behind the couch, under the beds, in the laundry basket … I stopped for a moment in the living room and looked at the family portrait on the wall. Gram sat in a big chair in the middle, and Dad, Mom, Brett, and I were gathered all around her. I was reaching down to hold her hand. That picture said a lot about our family.

Now Aunt Lissa was shoving her way in. What changes would that bring?

I sighed and moved on. “Tasha!” I called. “Here, kitty, kitty!”

No sign of her.

When I reached the kitchen, I looked under the kitchen table, then turned.

Somebody—most likely somebody named Lissa—had left the door open. And the screen door was slightly ajar.

Oh no.

Chapter 2

I pushed the screen door open, pulling the other door closed behind me, in case Tasha was still inside.

Fat chance of that. She was always trying to escape to the outdoors to munch on green grass, sniff the flowers, and explore new places.

If I saw her slip out, I could usually catch her easily. She would run down the two stairs and stop at the first patch of grass to take a bite. All I had to do was grab her, along with a few blades of grass to keep her happy.

The problem was I didn’t know how long she’d been gone. Had Lissa left the door open now, or had it been open for the last twenty minutes as Dad put the bed together? How far could a cat get in twenty minutes, and which direction would she have gone?

I glanced around.

No sign of a cat.

Why did Lissa have to move in, anyway? Why couldn’t she stay in California? She might have thought it was a wonderful idea to come back to Oregon and move in with her sister while she looked for work, but it seemed like a really crummy idea to me.

I scoured the backyard, inspecting every bush and looking behind everything from the barbecue to the garbage can.

Still no sign of Tasha.

I called her name over and over.

She never had been good about answering to her name. She was one-hundred-percent cat—doing what she wanted when she wanted, and fully expecting me to feed her on time.

“Tasha!” I trotted into the front yard. There weren’t many places to hide in the front.

A dog barked down the street.

I headed toward the sound. Would I find my cat up some tree, too terrified to come down?

“Tasha?”

“Hey, JJ, looking for something?”

I wheeled around, and a big smile came over my face and moved on to fill me up.

There were my two best friends—Katelyn, known as Kat, holding a cat known as Tasha.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I ran down the sidewalk to meet them.

My cat’s eyes were wide, and her ears laid back. When Kat handed her to me, Tasha tried to burrow into my arms.

I cuddled her and talked gently. “It’s okay, sweetie. You’re safe now. No cars or big, bad dogs to bother you.”

“She didn’t get far,” Kat said. “I saw her out my window. I didn’t know it was her at first, but I came out to check, and sure enough … She was one scared kitty. She tried to scratch me, but I got ahold of her before she could.”

“I’m so glad you saw her.” I rubbed my nose against Tasha’s soft fur. “Lissa left the door open.” I glared down the street. “Just wait until she gets back.”

“Your aunt’s here now?” Kat twisted her mouth into an exaggerated frown. “Fun and games! Lightning and thunder!”

“Yeah,” I said as we walked back to my house. “Lightning and thunder is more likely than fun and games. Things aren’t starting off so great.”

Kat bent her fingers into claws, fingernails shiny with black nail polish which matched her black hair and her black T-shirt.

Yep, she kinda liked black.

“Think of it.” She raised her eyebrows and lowered her voice. “If it gets too bad, you could always do science experiments on her. Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde, maybe. Or you could drop Tasha on her in the middle of the night. That would be a shock.”

Laughing, we walked in the back door and I closed it carefully behind me. I got out a can of Tasha’s favorite cat food—tuna, of course. She deserved a treat after her little ordeal.

“I’m bored. Wanna go over to the school and swing or something?” Kat jumped up on the counter and kicked her legs back and forth. “Or we could walk up to the store and get an ice cream bar.”

“Maybe. But I have to wait until Mom and Lissa get back. I’m afraid she’ll leave the door open again.” I pulled my camera out of the drawer and crouched down near Tasha, bringing her into focus. When she looked over at me and licked her face, I snapped the picture. The Queen Enjoying Her Feast.

She took a few more bites, then stalked haughtily down the hall, probably to take a nap and recover.

While we waited for Mom and Lissa to return, Kat showed me the new song-and-dance routine she was working on. “I’m going to make it on one of those singing shows eventually. I’ll win first prize and a big, fat recording contract. I merely need to practice.”

The problem was she didn’t look at all like anyone who had ever won—being a bit chubby, with acne, and wearing all that black. Her singing voice was nice, but it might not be good enough to make up for the rest.

Of course, I didn’t tell her that. A girl needs her dreams.

Besides, we’d been friends since second grade, and I liked her just the way she was. She was beautiful inside, so who cared what some stupid TV guy thought?

Midway through her song, the television in the other room got louder.

I leaned forward until Dad came into view.

He looked at me with eyebrows raised.

Apparently he didn’t appreciate Kat’s song.

I smiled at him.

He turned the sound up a bit more.

I chuckled quietly so Kat wouldn’t hear.

Probably no need to worry. She was in her own world as she danced around the kitchen, roaring out her song.

Mom’s car pulled into the driveway.

Arms crossed, I stood there and waited for the guilty party to enter the room.

Mom came in first, saw me, and stopped.

Lissa almost ran into her, then stepped around and looked back and forth from me to Kat.

Mom tilted her head. “What’s the problem?”

“Why don’t you ask Kat what she found down the street?”

Mom turned to Kat. “Okay, what did you find down the street?”

“Tasha.” Kat paused as if to build dramatic effect, eyebrows raised. “And she looked really scared.”

Mom turned back to me, an alarmed look on her face. “Is Tasha all right?”

“Yes. But she shouldn’t have been outside. Somebody left the door open.” I stared pointedly at Lissa.

“How do you know it was me?” Lissa’s voice rose a bit. “It could have been anyone.”

I looked at Mom. “Who was the last one out when you left to take the truck back?”

Mom looked at Lissa.

“That’s what I thought.” I took a deep breath. “Aunt Melissa, I asked you to keep the door shut. If you leave the door open, you need to lock the screen door.”

“Who do you think you are, my mother?” Lissa’s voice grew even louder. “So I forgot. I just got here. I can’t remember everything. It was an accident.” She glared right back at me.

“All right, girls.” Mom lifted a hand. “Let’s take it easy. JJ, I’m sure Lissa didn’t mean to do it.”

I opened my mouth to object, but Mom raised her other hand.

“And Lissa, remember that you are a guest here and need to be considerate of others—particularly your new roommate.” Mom winked at me.

Different expressions rippled across Lissa’s face like waves on the beach, until she settled on a forced smile. “Okay, I’m sorry.” At least she sounded a little sincere. “I’ll be more careful.” She looked questioningly at Mom.

Who looked at me.

“Okay,” I finally said. “I’ll forgive you this time.”

“Great,” the invader said, without much enthusiasm. “Well, I need to go unpack.” She flounced down the hall.

Mom patted my back. “I know it’s hard, JJ, but hang in there. It’s only for a little while.”

“Are you sure?”

A flash of uncertainty crossed her face, but she quickly pasted the smile back on. “Well, mostly sure. Lissa’s a smart lady, and she should find a job soon. I mean, after all, she has a degree from Princeton. Things will work out.”

“That’s what my mom said before Dad left us,” Kat  said.

Mom gave her one of those “please don’t” looks, but Kat smiled, picked up the newspaper from the counter, and faked interest in it.

Mom shook her head and walked into the family room. She and Dad started talking quietly.

Was it about me? Sometimes I felt like more of a problem than an asset to the family. Dad was a supervisor at the factory, Mom was getting her teaching degree, and Brett was a sports star. Even Lissa had graduated from a top college. I got Bs and Cs in school, didn’t play sports, and certainly would never be a teacher. Just an ordinary, nothing-special kid.

“Hey, did you see this?” Kat held up the newspaper.

“What? The story about the crooked politician or the one about cleaning up pollution?”

“No, buried in the metro section. Look.” She handed me the paper, pointing to a little article at the bottom of the second page.

“County Fair to Host Photo Contest,” the small headline read.

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