Institute of Art, Chicago 1995

Shawn clocked out for the last time and waved goodbye to his co-workers before leaving the gift shop. He hurried over to the entrance to the museum proper and held up his ID pass. The guards all knew him on sight and barely looked up. Working here definitely had its perks.

Back home they all thought him silly and rather brainless with no appreciation of culture. Yes, he could quote every John Hughes film and list every song by Depeche Mode either chronologically or alphabetically but that didn't seem to count. Gus had tried to instill a love for classical music and fine art as they were growing up. Even though he wouldn't admit it, Shawn found he liked the Renaissance and the Impressionists best because of the vibrant colors.

He hurried up the Grand Staircase, his footsteps echoing in the open space. When he reached the first level, he made his way to the gallery for Indian, Southeast Asian and Himalayan art. His sneakers squeaked in the highly polished floors as he dodged the other patrons. Why are there so many people here? It's not even the weekend!

He reached the gallery and looked around expecting to see someone. Someone who wasn't there. His joy collapsed like a popped balloon. He plopped down on the bench. He placed his elbows on his knees, and rested his head in his hands. He wasn't sure if he wanted to be angry or upset. They had been friends for weeks and he didn't have the nerve to say goodbye? With a sigh, Shawn sat up and pushed his fabulous Judd Nelson locks away from his eyes and tilted his head back to look at the ceiling. That's when he felt thick paper under his hand. He looked down to see a bulging envelope with his name on it in very familiar handwriting.

Weeks Earlier

When Shawn entered the Monet exhibit and gave a cursory pass through the rooms until he found one that was the least crowded. He walked counter-clockwise around the benches that ran down the center of the room. The brown walls really made the paintings "pop" and seem even brighter. He decided to start with the haystacks and got drawn into the atmospheric paintings with the varying light. As he stepped back to get the full effect, he stepped on something soft and lumpy. He looked down and saw a white Nike sneaker. "Sorry," he apologized to the guy sitting on the bench. He saw a guy around his own age, with black hair and blue eyes, sketching the paintings with a deft hand. He sat down next to him. "Wow, that's amazing."

"You think so? I don't know if I've gotten it right." He held the sketchpad out to Shawn.

Shawn took in the details like it was second nature. It really was an amazing job at capturing such a vibrant painting in a black-and-white sketch. There was something he noticed in the bark of one of the trees and pointed it out. "What's this?"

The guy smiled and it was blinding. He could go far on looks and charm, let alone his artistic talent. "Good eye. No one's ever caught them before. My initials. I put them in every piece." He held out his hand. "I'm Neal."

"Hey, I'm Shawn." He pushed back his hair. "Can I look through this?"

"Sure." Neal stood and stretched. "You work here, hunh? How come I haven't seen you before?"

"I've only been here a little over a month, going between the café and gift shop. I check out a different gallery every day I'm here. When I'm done, I'll move on."

"So, you're not from here?"

"Nope. Took off after graduation to get away from my dad and his plans for me."

Neal gave a wry laugh. "I ran away from my dad, too. In a way." He sat back down, legs tucked back under the bench.

"Mine was a cop and wanted me to be one too."

"My dad was a cop as well. My mom told me he died a hero."

Shawn didn't look up from the sketches. "'s better than having your dad treat you like you're in the academy, training you in observation, deduction and even firearms."

"I just found out he was dirty," Neal said softly. "I took off."

Shawn now felt very small because of his comment. He looked at Neal. "Dude, I thought my reason for leaving was good. That's just harsh." He handed Neal his sketchbook. "I found 'em all," he said to change the subject. "They're just like the NINAs." Neal gave him a blank look. "You know, that guy who did the drawings for the New York Times and hid his daughter's name in the lines."

"Right. Hirshfeld. I'm surprised you know that."

"Dad used it as part of my training when I was a kid." He looked up at the paintings. "You know a lot about this stuff?"

Neal shrugged. "I guess."

"See, I just come and look at them, but I really don't know anything about them. The guides are just so boring."

"Well, we should start in the first room as they have this arranged chronologically so as to understand Monet's progression as an artist." Neal stood and put his sketchbook in a messenger bag he then slipped across his body.

"OK, that, right there? Already started losing me." Shawn yawned.

"Oh, so you want bits of trivia like Claude is actually his middle name?"

Shawn stood, curious. "What was his first name?"

"Oscar. Doesn't have the same ring, does it?"

Shawn walked with Neal and also learned that Monet had the same breakfast every morning and lunch was served promptly at 11:30. Or that he had served in the military in Algiers in 1861. When they came to the painting The Stroll – Camille Monet and Her Son Jean (Woman with Parasol), Neal informed him that her health began to fail after the birth of her second child and the family moved in with friends. After Camille died, Claude started an affair with the wife, Alice. She and her husband never divorced and she moved with Monet to Giverny. They only married after her husband died in 1892. Well, that was something that made the man human.

"Hey, you wanna go get a smoothie or something?" Shawn asked about 90 minutes in.

"Sure. I knew we wouldn't be able to see the whole exhibition in one go. Besides, I've got a taste for pineapple."

Shawn grinned. "A man after my own heart."

The two teens fell into a ritual over the next few weeks. Neal would sketch while Shawn worked and then Shawn would pick the gallery for the afternoon. Neal would continue to tell him all the tidbits that art teachers never mentioned like stories about the models, how the artists made their own paints and even tales about forgers.

Shawn reached for the envelope with shaking hands. Quit being such a girl, Spencer! It's only an envelope! He opened the clasp and reached in to pull out a number of sketchbook papers. The top sheet was a note in Neal's too-neat handwriting.


I'm sorry we couldn't view that last gallery together. Since we'll both be travelling for the foreseeable future, we might meet up again somewhere. It's a big world. Until then, we can use this site to leave messages for Monet and Judd. (easy to remember, eh?) Thanks for being a friend.


Under his signature was a general message board on Usenet. Shawn chuckled. Judd and Monet. Yeah, they would be easy to remember. Then he saw the P.S. which read "I made a few notes for you on the gallery."

With a huge grin, Shawn stood and looked at the paintings, hearing Neal's voice in his head as he read the notes.