Preview

 

PROLOGUE

 

What do you do when a sudden gust of wind forces your boat totally off course and into the unknown? When from one moment to the next, the life that you thought you’d always be living morphs into one you’d never imagined?

Ever since I could remember, I had believed there had to be something more to life than the one I’d been thrown into as a child. Even though I sometimes told myself I had to be crazy because just the idea seemed so hard to imagine—given how things had gone so far, anyway.

I would ask myself if it was wrong for me to feel this way. If I was being naïve to think there was something greater out there. Something that really belonged to me. But what do you if you feel an unknown force pulsating in your blood, constantly reminding you of it? Are you just supposed to ignore it?

I suppose that most of the time that’s what they teach us to do. You know, “Forget it. Take the easy way out.” Sure. Never the right one.

That’s what they always kept telling me. “You’re kidding yourself if you think you can have a better life. Learn to live with what you’ve got.” Things like that.

Maybe that’s why I started taking photos as soon as I got my hands on my first camera. It was a way I could distance myself from the life I was being forced to live. It let me create images of the world around me, finding life in the most ordinary moments, like when the sun makes a lonely tree sweat and it in turn gives water to a struggling, thirsty grasshopper below. Those things were real. Not the crappy life I’d always been trapped in.

And then, just a few weeks ago, my life took a turn for the unexpected. And now all I have to say to you is—believe in your gut. Intuition is what kept me alive. It’s what made me believe. At the end of the day, it was all I really had that was mine. And you can find what’s really yours, too.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

I can’t ask for a better day to be out shooting. Man, what a view. Something about how the sun’s rays press against the faint distant outline of the mountains. Sick! If it can seem so dominating from all the way over here, I can only imagine what it must feel like up close. I don’t know. It just always kind of does something to me.

I know, I know. Lame, right? But trust me, if you lived in the hellhole I live in, anytime alone is sacred. You start to appreciate all these little not-so-particular things. Yeah—even the outline of the mountains.

Carefully, I focus the lens on my Canon 7D to capture the effect of the clouds drifting across the peaks of Mt. Rose and get my shot. A few seconds later, the sunlight dims. I hadn’t realized it was so late. I glance at my watch, wondering what’s taking Melinda so long. She promised to pick me up by five, even though I knew that would mean five-thirty. It’s five-forty-five.

I call her on my cell. It rings four times, then goes to voicemail. “Come on, Mel!” I mutter. “It’s getting late!”

I’ve had a good day so far, probably because I’ve been alone for most of it, and I really don’t want another confrontation with Jet. I can still taste the faint copper tinge of blood at the corner of my mouth where he split my lip the last time around. Two days ago.

I hit redial. Straight to voicemail. “Dammit, Mel!”

I tell myself to breathe, but my anxiety is really starting to kick in. Sweat is beading on my forehead, and my heart is jolting in my chest. Why does she always have to be so impossible? I don’t get it.

The moment I hear the loud thrum of an engine roaring up the dirt road, I jump up from the boulder I’ve been perching on. It’s about damn time!

She screeches up to me in her new, cherry-red Mini Cooper and slams on the brakes. I dodge around to the passenger side. Grab the door handle. It’s locked.

“Mel!” I shout. “Open up!”

But she’s sitting behind the wheel pretending not to hear me. Eyes glued to her phone, purple nails tapping out a text message. With a tiny smirk on her glossed-up lips.

I hit the window with my fist. “Stop messing around! Jet’s gonna be pissed!”

She finishes her text, sends it . . . and adjusts the rearview mirror so she can check out the jet-black curls at her temples. She still hasn’t given me one look. Is she really serious right now?

I pound at the window again, as hard as I can. “Open up, dammit!” My anxiety is turning into rage. And rage is something Jet’s modeled for me only too well over the years, ever since he and his first wife, Leyla, took me in as a foster kid. Mel was just six at the time, but “my sister,” which she became after they finally adopted me, was a full-fledged brat from Day One, and she’s only gotten worse.

My fist hurts. I’m afraid of what Jet will do when we get back, since he ordered me to be home by six so I can start dinner.

But as far as Mel’s concerned, I might as well not be there. I can’t control it any longer. I take a step back, lift my knee, and kick the passenger door with all my strength. The hollow metal frame vibrates against the sole of my shoe. Mel’s prized car now has a six-inch dent right in the middle of the passenger door.

I guess that got her attention. Her mouth is hanging open. For a moment, she’s so astonished that she can’t speak. She swings her door open and charges around to the passenger side.

“MY CAR!” she screams, staring at the dent. “Are you crazy!”

“Why couldn’t you just open up?” I yell.

“Gavin, you’re an asshole! I was just messing with you! You’re never gonna learn to use your head, are you?”

“Go to hell!”

She goes still, then raises her eyebrows with an “Oh, really?” expression. Then she hauls off and slams her fist into the right side of my face. All I can feel is the large stone of her ring jabbing into my cheek. She stalks back to the driver’s side with a wicked smirk creasing her lips and snaps, “You can walk home!”

She slides behind the wheel, slams the door, and peels off so hard and fast that the car kicks up a stinging cloud of gravel and asphalt dust all over me.

She can’t be serious. But as the Mini disappears around the first bend in the road, I realize that she is.

 

* * *

The walk home is brutal. I was hoping that the sun would have begun its descent by now, but it’s still as blazing hot as ever. I remember them saying on the news that this was going to be one of the hottest summers ever. Although I feel like they’ve been saying that for the past five years. Global warming or something.

I know that nothing good is going to be waiting for me when I do get to the house. For sure, Mel’s already gotten back and is showing Jet what I did to the car and batting her lashes and blaming it all on me. Equipped with her fake tears, she’s probably made up a lie about how I “blew up” on her and refused to go back with her even though she “begged” me to get in.  It wouldn’t be the first time her lies have gotten me into trouble. And no doubt he’s now in a violent rage and shouting about how I’m going to “get my ass kicked” and how “useless” I am.

I trudge along trying to prepare myself for the tempest that’s going to hit me when I finally get back, but I don’t even need to close my eyes to envision the fury in his bloodshot eyes and smell his liquor breath and see his large, flaring nostrils.

If only Leyla were still alive. God, I miss her. Because of her, Jet actually used to be a decent father. He always had a short fuse, but he wasn’t the angry, pathetic drunk he turned into after she died and he got serious about drinking. Looking at him today, with his beer belly lapping over his belt and the patches of thinning hair on his scalp, I find it hard to remember that he actually used to be a handsome, well-groomed guy. And not a bad foster father, either. I remember him getting home early from the construction site with a smile and he’d sometimes even have a toy for me. Things really do change, I guess.

I was four when my real parents died in a house fire while I was at daycare. I ended up in foster care because I had no other relatives to claim me.

I’ve never quite known how Leyla and Jet took me on, but after a year of fostering they legally adopted me. And until I was about eight, I was a generally happy kid even though Mel and I never really got along. I think she always felt threatened by me, and my guess is that she was jealous because Leyla and Jet had brought this random kid into her home and she had to share their attention with me.

I guess it would’ve bothered me, too, if I’d been in her place. But it’s not like it was my fault. I wasn’t intentionally trying to steal them from her or something. I would never do that.

That day, Leyla took me and Mel to the convenience store two blocks from our place. I was whining nonstop because I wanted sour bear gummies, and I wasn’t going to let up until I had them. But while I was happily grabbing my bag of candy, two masked men with guns barged in and ordered the clerk to hand over all the cash in the register.

I had no idea what was happening, but I was so scared that I started crying. One of the guys pointed his gun at me and shouted, “Shut up, kid!” That made me cry even louder and harder.

“I said shut up!” he repeated, and took a step toward me.

“Leave him alone!” Leyla shouted. She grabbed me and put me behind her, shielding me with her body. Mel was crouching in a corner near the Slurpee cooler with tears running down her cheeks.

“Hey!” the guy said. “Whaddya got in that purse?” He made a grab for it. She backed away from him, but he grabbed her and threw her to the filthy, sawdust-covered floor. His buddy ran over, held her down, grabbed her purse, and tore it open.

“You can’t take our money!” I yelled. I ran over and kicked him in the shin to try to get him away from her. He swung the gun around at me and Leyla sprang up from the floor and lunged in front of me as the gun went off.

It hit her in the neck, and seconds later she was gone.

Before I could even process what had happened, the gunmen ran out of the store. I’ll never forget crouching over Leyla’s body and staring at the pool of blood spreading over the floor. Her jungle-green eyes—Mel’s exact eye color—were wide open, but I somehow knew that she couldn’t see me even though her tears never seemed to stop.

MOM!” I screamed. “Mom! Mom! Mom, I’m sorry!”

I kept calling her name over and over and over even though I knew she would never answer me again. Finally I knelt down in all the blood and laid my head on her stomach until Mariela, the Mexican clerk who’d been working at the store ever since I could remember, hurried over and peeled me away from Leyla’s body.

Dios Mio! Mijito!” she sobbed, “Ven conmigo,” and as I started to hear the police sirens in the distance but getting louder every second, she led me into the stockroom so I wouldn’t see any more. Then she went back out to Mel, who was still huddled on the floor rocking back and forth in shock. She didn’t talk for almost a month. I’ve never eaten sour bears again.

Even worse, the next day Jet told us that Leyla was pregnant and that they’d been planning to surprise us with the news that night at dinner. So I’d been the cause of two deaths. A double loss. Go me.

Jet never stopped holding it against me. And Mel’s jealousy turned into outright hatred.

I’m not sure either of them hated me more than I hated myself.

Jet turned to alcohol. He spent his days binge drinking on the couch that he and Leyla had chosen together. He stopped taking construction jobs and finally took a temporary leave of absence that somehow turned into a permanent one. Two years later, he married Dina, who not only puts up with his brutal attacks and constant verbal assaults but for some unknown reason actually defends him.

She’s as pathetic as he is, and that bothers me because she’s actually a sweet woman. It’s like she’s under some kind of spell. What kind of woman puts up with a man who bruises her constantly and hurls hateful remarks? Last night he called her a “filthy pig.” And he’s always calling her a “fat ass,” which I don’t understand because she’s not even pudgy in the least! And trust me—I know chunky. I was a size Hefty for most of my childhood.

In all honesty, I think she feels she has no choice. She doesn’t have enough education to get a good-paying job, so Jet supports her—although I’ve always wondered how, since he hasn’t really worked for years now. I figure that Leyla had some sort of insurance policy.

On top of everything else, Dina was Leyla’s best friend. Maybe she feels guilty about marrying Leyla’s husband and inheriting her family. I don’t know. From my understanding, Jet and Dina became each other’s “support” after Leyla died, and eventually the feelings “just happened.”

I call BS on the whole thing. I think they just found it convenient and used all the other stuff as excuses.

In any case, all three of them hold me accountable. It’s been almost ten years and they’re still holding it against me. They never let it rest. Not a week goes by that Jet doesn’t snarl at me.  Usually while he’s beating me. “Adopting you was my biggest mistake! If it wasn’t for you, she’d still be alive!” The hate in his words when he says it…I know he means it every time.

The worst part is, I accept everything he says because I’m still pretty much blaming myself too. I know that if they hadn’t taken me in, Leyla probably would still be alive. And so would their second kid, the little brother or sister who never got a chance to be born.

That hurts to think about, because Leyla was a great mom. If more people had a mom like her, there’d probably be less crazies in the world. She read to me every morning. Sang to me every night. I can still hear her humming lullabies to me whenever I had nightmares about the fire.  I remember drifting off to sleep with my fingers wrapped around a strand of her curly blonde hair. I loved her curls.

“Mom, they’re just like Slinkies!” I used to tell her. I would tug at them to straighten them out and then let them go to spring back into curls. Slinkies were my favorite childhood toy. Now I can’t stand the sight of them. Especially the neon-green ones, because they remind me of the one she brought me one day as a joke.

At night when I have trouble sleeping I can still hear her sweet voice reaching out to me and crooning, “Let the night take all your fear… Let my voice be all you hear…”

 

 

* * *

By now I’m about a half-mile from home. Saddlehorn. A small town midway between Reno and Carson City. I can already see our development coming into view up ahead. The grid of one-story, single-family houses. I always wondered why you never see any people outside. It just adds to the overall depressing vibe of this place. The doors are always shut. The windows always covered. You’d think the whole place was a ghost town, or some high-crime area. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not the swankiest area in town, but there aren’t any crack dealers or prostitutes living there, either.

I fan the front of my shirt to try to release the sweat from my torso and glance at my watch. Seven-fifteen. And not one single phone call from anyone. That pushes my anxiety into hyperdrive. Usually Jet can’t stop himself from calling me and threatening me. The “Just wait until you get home!” thing. But no calls. No texts. This can’t be good at all.

The moment I open the front door, I see him slouched on the living room couch, his legs spread wide apart and his worn-out brown leather cowboy boots planted on the carpet. The ivory ceramic table lamp on the end table bounces yellow light off his dead expression. I can’t hear a single noise except for the heavy pounding of my heart in this prison that’s my home. But he isn’t looking at me. He’s staring at the wall above the plasma TV. I know what that means. Great.

“You got any idea what time it is, boy?” he snarls, never taking his eyes off the wall. Before I can say anything, he shouts, “And you see the damage you did to that car? I just bought the damn thing for your sister and you gotta go and ruin it already?”

I edge along the wall, past the tacky walnut-framed mirror that he had cobbled together and Dina had stained and decorated with seashells, and toward the stairs. I know I need to stay out of his reach. As I make it to the first step, I say, “Sorry. I’ll find a way to pay for the damage.”

Jet chuckles and nods. He still hasn’t once looked at me. Suddenly he heaves himself off the couch and glares at me. “You gonna ‘pay for’ it? Where you gonna get the money when you ain’t got no job, shithead? You’re livin’ in this house, right? Under my roof, huh? You better get it into your head once and for all that you goddamn better start playing by my damn rules, boy! Whatever I say, you’re gonna do! Better start gettin’ your act together ’cause I will break that pretty little face of yours.”

As I take another step up, he moves toward me with the look of death seeping from his tired brown eyes. I stop still. The hairs on my arms are standing on end, and I wonder for a split second whether this is how the rabbit feels the moment before the wolf attacks.

Then something in me snaps. With every ounce of boldness in me, I spit it out. “I wish you were the one who’d died!”

The fury on Jet’s face is demonic. He grabs my jeans at the ankle and yanks me down. As I tumble down the stairs, my camera bag flies off my shoulder. It crashes onto the floor, and I hear my thousand-dollar lens shatter.

He grabs my ankle again, pulls me down onto the grimy living room carpet, and flips me over onto my back. The dust from the grimy fabric settles into my eyes and makes them burn. Then he straddles me and pins me down with his knees over my arms. I kick and struggle to free myself, but he’s six feet of muscle and belly, and there’s no way. He slams my head on the floor, pressing the back of my skull against the rug so hard that it burns. Then he then grabs me around the neck and starts choking me.

He brings his face so close to mine that I can smell the stale beer on his breath. “I’m tired of you thinkin’ you got some worth in this home. You’re a useless piece of shit that nobody’s ever cared about. Not me, not Dina, not Leyla! Not even your goddamn grandparents! We never shoulda taken you in! I shoulda never listened to them! You ain’t never been a real Hillstone, and you ain’t never gonna be!”

My face is turning red. I keep on struggling to break his hold, but the blood is rushing to my head and I can’t breathe. I’m seeing flashing spots in front of my eyes, as if somebody’s taken a photo of us with one of those bright, exaggerated flashes.

“You think that’s an insult?” I manage to gasp, and I grab one deep breath and spit right in his eyes.

He’s so startled that he lets go of my arms and rears back on his heels. “You little fucker!” he shouts. He swabs at his eyes and then lands a direct punch to my face that knocks the breath out of me. I grunt, momentarily paralyzed as the pain explodes all over. He’s knocked the breath out of me. I can’t move, but I manage to grab one short in-breath before he hauls himself to his feet and kicks me in the ribs. The stiff, pointed toe of his cowboy boot stabs me like a knife. The last bit of air whooshes out of my body. He grabs my shirt, drags me to my feet, and throws me against the wall. I’m as limp as a puppet. I can’t say a word. My brain is too busy channeling all the waves of pain flooding through my body.

He pushes his face close to mine. His sweat splashes against my face. He bites down on his lip and snarls, “You just messed things up for yerself real bad!”

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

By now I’m so groggy that the police sirens flooding the air sound like a roaring in my ears. Then I hear banging on the front door and men shouting. For all I know, they could be angels who’ve come to rescue me. As Jet raises his fist to pound at me again, Dina rushes out from the kitchen and sprints to the door like a mouse scurrying to snatch the cheese. As the police break through, she screams, “Help! Please! He’s going to kill him!”

The officers wrestle Jet to the floor. One of them knocks out one of his teeth. I collapse at the foot of the stairs. Searing pain is radiating all through my body. Mel finally comes running from her room crying as the police handcuff Jet and drag him out to one of the patrol cars. They tell us that he’ll be booked and held until he’s arraigned and can make bail.

I see Dina’s shoulders sag in relief, as if a burden’s been suddenly lifted from her. It’s a feeling I can relate well to. If Jet’s out of the house, that’ll give us at least a few days of peace, without the constant reminders of how miserable our lives are. And I’ll have some time to figure out what I’m going to do.

And I’ll have some time to figure out what I’m going to do.

Meanwhile, the paramedics, who charged in right behind the police and rushed to check me out, tell me I should be monitored for a possible concussion.

“No, I’m fine.” I keep insisting. “Just let me go to my room.”

They leave shaking their heads, but I’m stuck downstairs for almost an hour while the police take statements from all three of us. Their report includes a lot of history about the violence in our “home.”

After the police finally leave, Dina comes over and puts her hand on my shoulder. She’s been crying pretty much nonstop, and her eyes are red and swollen. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I should have done this a long time ago… Are you doing okay?”

Every rib on my left side is pulsing with fire, but I tell her, “I’m fine. Thank you.”

I hug her as best I can, but I can’t help grunting from the pain. I look over at Mel, who’s huddled on the couch, and I can read everything she wants to tell me from the expression on her face. I see that she’s really sorry. She gives me a quick glance, then immediately drops her gaze to the floor as if she’s embarrassed. But I have no real idea why she should feel embarrassed when it was Jet who attacked me. Maybe it’s finally dawned on her that her lies fueled the entire thing. Again.

I start to make my way up the stairs to my room, but I have to hold on to the railing instead of bounding up two steps at a time the way I usually do. When I reach the top, I stop and turn back to look down at Dina.

“You should be proud,” I say, followed by a grunt of pain. “You’ve set yourself free.”

 

* * *

I peel off my bloodstained, favorite Coldplay shirt and take a look at myself in the mirror next to my desk. My left side is turning a mottled purple. My right eye is almost swollen shut. As I ease gently place the icepack that the paramedics gave me against my eye, I can’t help but find some humor in it all because I kind of look like a hobbit that’s been trampled over twice.

I ease myself onto my rumpled twin bed. The same bed I’ve had since I was taken in. Even that hurts. I am so tired of all this. No real parents, no family. There’s no reason why I should have to be going through this.

Then I remember Jet shouting at me while he was punching me. “Not even your grandparents!”

Grandparents? Since when did I have grandparents? The only thing Jet and Leyla, and later Dina, have ever told me was that I had no biological family left. And how grateful I should be that they’d taken me in. Right, into this dysfunctional home in this piece-of-crap town. “Home sweet home”… right.

My ribs are still killing me, but I ease myself off my bed and power up my computer. My original last name was Greene, so that’s what I start by searching on. Which is useless because Google spits out more than a thousand pages of Greenes.

The next step, I guess, is to sign up for one of those ancestry websites. I use my Social Security number and start answering the security questions.

 

WHAT WAS THE COLOR OF YOUR FIRST CAR?

 

I answer “invisible” because I’ve never been so lucky as to have a car. I don’t even have my license yet.

The final question asks:

 

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE COLOR?

 

I answer “orange” because it’s always been my favorite color. I searched for months before I found my camera bag in the orange shade I finally bought it in.

While the system’s searching, I wonder what it would mean if I really did have grandparents out there somewhere who were still alive. After all, it’s been about thirteen years since the last time I might have seen them. It’d be as if I’ve never even met them. A whistle chirps and a screen pops up.

 

CONGRATULATIONS! WE’VE CONNECTED YOUR FAMILY TREE!

 

When I click the “GET MY RESULTS!” button, it takes me to a trial membership page where I need to enter my credit card information. Oh, come on! $19.95? Of course it is! It’s also not going to work for me because I don’t have a bank account, much less a credit card. All I have is $350 in cash that I won in an online photography contest last month. That’s how I bought my bag and won the Canon camera and lens.

There’s got to be some way of finding out about these mystery “grandparents.” I run across the hall to the guest room, which doubles as Jet’s office. Well, what used to be his office, anyway. He used to come here and review the blueprints for whatever job he was on. Nowadays, if he’s not splayed out in front of the TV in the living room, he’s holed up here drinking more and browsing porn or something. It reeks of tobacco and beer, like the poolrooms where I know he sometimes hangs out. I even pick up a hint of dead-cigarette funk from the last one he lit up.

His desk is stacked with papers piled every which way, but what I’m looking for wouldn’t be there.

I open the closet door and start riffling through the kind of clutter only a hoarder would keep. A TV set from the ’80s. An old VHS player. Even a set of creepy porcelain clown figurines.

I spot a battered black two-drawer filing cabinet against the back wall. It’s buried under a pile of old suits that I’m sure Jet wore long ago when he actually had a social life. I toss them onto the daybed, then head back and pull on the drawers. Locked. And who knows where the key is, or even if he still has it around.

I run to the utility closet next to the bathroom and grab a hammer and a flat-head screwdriver. I shove the tip of the screwdriver between the face of the lock and the drawer, and hit the handle end with the hammer until the lock falls off. I quickly peek outside just to make sure Dina or Mel haven’t heard all the commotion.

I tug the drawer open. It’s stuffed with yellowing manila folders, envelopes, and documents. The deed to the house. Old mortgage statements from a bank that I don’t even think exists anymore. Tons of other useless material. I pry open the bottom drawer. It’s even more stuffed with paper than the top one. Nothing’s organized at all. I shuffle through the pile. At the very bottom, as if hidden, is a thin legal-size folder.

The label reads “Donald Mathers, Esq.” And it contains… my adoption papers! My heart starts pounding.

I flip through all the yellowing, coffee-stained pages looking for anything with signatures on it and finally find one called a “Transfer of Rights.” It’s a consent form in which the current guardians or parents “permanently and irrevocably” transfer their rights over the adopted child to the adoptive parents. The signatures on the form are Ed Greene, Estelle Greene, Jet Hillstone, and Leyla Hillstone.

Ed Greene and Estelle Greene. My dad’s parents.

Oh, my God! Why would they do this to me? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that I had a grandmother and grandfather, even if they did give me up?

But then it hits me. Maybe I used to have grandparents, but all this happened thirteen years ago. Maybe they’re no longer alive. I need to find out. Now.

The file also contains everyone’s contact information, including an address and phone number for Ed and Estelle. I take the whole file and head back to my room. Just as I close the door, I hear Dina’s footsteps on the stairs. Is she coming up to check on me? I slide over to my door and sneak the lock closed. Jet always forbade me to lock my door, but I don’t want her walking in on me and seeing what I’m up to.

She doesn’t stop at my door but continues down the hall to the master bedroom. I wait until I hear that door close, then punch in the number on my hand-me-down iPhone, the one they “gifted” to me when they bought Mel the latest version. My stomach’s in knots and I can hardly breathe as I wait for the call to go through.

“You have reached a number that’s no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this number in error…”

Wonderful. I slouch on my bed and read their names over and over as if this will magically answer all the questions I have.

I just don’t understand why they would give me up so easily. Was I such a horrible child that they wanted to get rid of me? Maybe they were really old and their health was so bad that they couldn’t go on taking care of me? But then why wouldn’t they at least have kept in touch? Or maybe they gave me up because they blamed me for my real parents’ deaths? And was the fire possibly my fault? It can’t be. I wasn’t even there that day.

All I remember is that they never came to pick me up that day and that eventually some white-haired lady took me to some freezing gray room someplace and told me they were dead. That day, everything I knew as a four-year-old was stripped from me.

I feel like throwing up. My heart’s beating so fast that I can literally see it pounding through my shirt. All I can think about is that I need to find out whether they’re still alive and why they gave me up.

The address on the adoption papers is in Washington, DC. I don’t remember living in DC. I don’t even remember anything about my grandparents. I try my hardest to conjure up some memories of my past life. Nothing comes to mind. Nothing at all.

 

* * *

By three in the morning I’ve decided I can either stay here or ditch this place. I’ve found that I can get a bus from Carson City to DC for $230. It leaves at seven-thirty, so I only have a couple of hours to figure things out.

If I leave here by six, I should be fine in terms of time. I’ll use the rest of my cash from the contest. There’s nothing left for me here, anyway. In three weeks, I’ll turn eighteen, and even if they’re not alive anymore, I can probably start fresh. Maybe get a job. Probably get some photography gigs.

Leaving will spare me the embarrassment of going back to school and having my friends ask me about the bruises. After Jet gave me that last swollen lip, I told Randy, the closest thing to a friend I had at school, that Mel had accidentally hit me with my camera. But since I suck at lying anyway, I was probably as believable as that girl, Cynthia, in our class who constantly shows up with hickies on her neck but keeps swearing she’s still a virgin.

Randy said, “O-kay, dude,” but I know he didn’t believe me because he saw my eyes twitching. They always do that whenever I tell a lie. I can’t help it.

I grab my orange duffle bag from my closet and toss just the essentials into it. Underwear, socks, t-shirts, jeans, toothbrush, deo, some of my favorite photography prints, all of my memory cards. I shove my camera and laptop into my camera bag and set it next to the door.

There’s something about leaving that calms my anxiety. I’ve always dreamed of escaping this place, and the brings me relief. By now it’s five in the morning and I know there’s no hope for sleep. Which is fine, because in just a couple of hours I’ll be boarding the Grandwood bus to DC, and maybe my life will finally change for the better.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

My adrenaline is pumping. The lack of sleep hasn’t had any effect on me. Yet.

I leave a note for Dina on the kitchen counter telling her I’m going to visit some friends and to check out possible colleges. I figure she’s going to be so caught up in the ordeal with Jet that she probably won’t even notice, much less care, that I’ve left. By the time she pulls herself together, I’ll be eighteen and long gone. Out of their hair for good. I think it’s a win-win for all of us.

I call a local taxi company to meet me at the coffee shop down the street. I trudge the three blocks with all of my stuff in tow. When I arrive, there’s no cab in sight. It’s already six-thirty, which gives me one hour to get to Carson City.

I wait twenty more minutes. Still no cab. At this point I’m pacing back and forth along the sidewalk thinking that my big plan is going to be a big bust. As I’m pulling out my phone to call a third time, a green cab pulls up and honks. I race over, dragging my duffel bag along the pavement. I slam on the back of the trunk for the guy to open it.

“Can you open the trunk?” I yell.

The driver opens his door and eases himself out at a glacial pace. He scratches at his dreads and gives me a suspicious look. I’m worried that he’ll ask me for my age, or for proof that my parents are allowing me to leave. I imagine I look exactly like a runaway, with all the bruising and bags.

He just arches one pierced eyebrow. “Your folks know you’re traveling?” he asks in a deep, gravelly voice.

“I don’t have parents,” I mutter, and point at my bruised lip.

“Where ya need to go?”

“Carson City. The Super Target parking lot. Please! The bus leaves at seven-thirty!”

“How old are you?”

“Old enough! Please!”

“You got cash, kid?”

“Yes!” I pull the wad of bills out of my camera bag “Here. Look!”

He shakes his head and shrugs before hitting a button on his driver’s side that unlocks all the doors.

We pull into the Target lot with five minutes to spare. The last person in line is just boarding the two-level silver bus. I shove the cab fare into the cabbie’s hand and rush to the bus like a crazed maniac.

When I reach the door, out of breath, I thrust my printed reservation to a guy outside holding a roster sheet. After I pay in cash, he checks me off. I peek inside and realize the bus is kinda empty. I heave a sigh of relief and walk toward the back. I’ll be able to spread myself across two seats and just listen to my music. I’d typically take pictures, but I can’t because my lens is pretty well trashed. Still, I brought all the pieces with me anyway. It didn’t feel right leaving them behind.

The bus driver is a plump, dark-skinned, middle-aged woman named Meesha who’s constantly twirling away at her coarse gray pigtails. She has this goofy grin and puffy lips that make me feel safe. Maybe because she reminds me of my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Henny, who to this day has always been my favorite teacher. She knew Leyla and always treated me so nice. She’d even walk me to the car when class was over. Always asked me how I was doing. It’s been years since I’ve seen her but I always think about how she’s doing. I hope she’s doing okay. I think that I miss her way more than I would Mel or Dina.

As I cozy into the purple-and-navy fabric seats, the bus engine roars and we start to roll forward in preparation to take off. I take a deep breath, allowing the peace to infiltrate my body. Before I can exhale fully, a series of loud honks invades the silence I was beginning to connect to. The bus stops abruptly. Meesha pokes her head out the window.

“Hey! Move your car!” she screams at someone. “Whaddya think you’re doin’!” She opens the door and charges down the steps.

I stand up to see what’s going on. Dina’s battered white Toyota Corolla is blocking the bus. She jumps out and runs toward Meesha yelling like a lunatic and running her fingers through her stringy black hair. Meesha, who looks none too pleased with Dina’s crazy antics, is hovering over her with her arms crossed.

I run up the aisle and leap down onto the pavement from the top step. “What’re you doing here?” I yell at Dina.

She shoves Meesha aside and sprints toward me. “What d’you think you’re doing? Where are you going?”

“How’d you find me?”

“I heard the door close and came downstairs. I couldn’t sleep. I was scared that they’d let Jet out. Then I saw your note and checked your room. All your stuff was gone. I found an extra printed reservation for the bus fare tossed in your trash bin. You can’t leave! I won’t let you! You’re still a minor!”

Meesha walks over and plants herself directly between us. “You know this lady?”

I roll my eyes. “Uh-huh. Please give me two minutes. I’ll be right on. Promise.”

“You’re not going anywhere!” Dina shouts.

Meesha eyes the two of us, then turns to me. “Okay, babydoll, you got two minutes to sort all this out. Or I leave without you. You hear me?” She wheels around and struts back to the bus twirling her left pigtail.

“Gavin! Get in the car! Now!” Dina shouts.

I step in closer to her tired face. “Dina, let me make this clear to you. You are not my mother. You will never be my mother. You have no legal rights over me. Only Jet does. And guess what? He’s in jail! So you can’t stop me. And if you try, I’ll make sure that everyone on this bus thinks you’re one who gave me these bruises. Do… you… understand… me?”

“You wouldn’t dare!” Her voice is shaking.

“Try me.”

As I turn around to get back onto the bus, she grabs me by the wrist. I snap around. “What did I just tell you—!”

Then I see the glossy film of tears in her charcoal-dark eyes. She looks at me for a moment, then pulls me in softly and whispers, “Please be careful… please. Good luck, Gavin.”

Something about it feels… real. Authentic. I step back from her gently and look her in the eyes. The sunlight reflected in them turns them a shade of green I’d never cared to notice before. I don’t say anything. I just nod at her, telling her I hear her. Telling her I accept what she’s just said.

Meesha yells out from the driver’s seat. “Hey, babydoll! You comin’, or what?”

“Yeah!” I turn back to Dina. She’s backing away from me toward her car, and she’s smiling. I crack a partial smile and jog back to the bus, past the faces staring out the windows.

When I reach Meesha, she gives me a glance. “You sure you’re all right, sugah?”

I nod and make my way back to my seat, my head lowered in embarrassment. I can’t bring myself to make eye contact with any of the other passengers.

When we finally pull away, Meesha announces that it’ll take us about two days to get to DC. Initially, I think she’s nuts to be driving straight through, but then she adds that after she drives for twelve hours, she’ll switch out with another driver named Pete. He’s a tall, hefty, black man with a curly beard and wearing a red University of Nevada hat who’s in the seat right behind her. Based on their mildly sassy verbal exchanges, I take it that he might actually be her husband.

“We’ll be heading straight across US 50, otherwise known as the ‘Backbone of America,’” she explains.

Pete stands up and adds, “Except that this whole stretch through Nevada’s called the ‘Loneliest Road in America.’ But it’ll be over soon, guys.”

Go figure, I keep thinking to myself. Seems only fitting that I’ve been living in the loneliest stretch of the country, I guess. The signs just keep piling up. This place sucks. And apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Meesha also tells us that we’ll only be stopping a few times, mostly to gas up and so we can buy food and snacks. The bus has a shower and toilet in the back, which is what makes the trip so fast.

 

* * *

After about six hours on the road, I decide that this trip looks like it’s not going to be too bad. No kids running up and down the aisle hollering and screaming. No obnoxious music blaring over the speakers. When we pull into a rest stop halfway through Kansas, I figure I don’t really need anything. Also, I don’t have that much cash left, so I sit down on the gravel with my back propped against the wall of the building and start listening to my iPod. I dig into my back pocket and grab my remaining money. Just over $100 left. That won’t take me very far, so I’m crossing my fingers that I find what I’m looking for and that it leads me to something bigger and better.

I pull out my camera. Since it’s only the lens that got trashed, I can still turn the camera itself on and scan the photos stored on the memory card from the day before. It feels like a long time ago. As always, I get totally absorbed in looking at the images and a calming feeling sweeps over me. I’m in pure bliss—until my peace and quiet are broken by the scraping sounds of feet on gravel.

A moment later, the sun is blocked by two silhouettes looming over me. I shield my eyes with my hand and squint up at them. A guy and a girl, but I can’t see their faces clearly against the glare. When the light creeps over their faces, I can tell by their menacing looks that they aren’t exactly here to just say hello.

The girl has honey-colored skin, violet eyes, and a shaved head. Her skin looks soft and has a delicate shine to it, but her eyes are hard and deadly. Her arms, in elbow-length gloves, are crossed over her breasts, and she’s wearing tight white-leather short-shorts, a white tank top, and high-heeled white booties.

The guy looks Asian, tall and lean, with a stenciled black tattoo of what looks like an outline of a bird with an olive branch in its beak on his neck. He too has a shaved head. When he turns to glance over at the girl, I glimpse another tattooed image of some kind on the back of his head, but he turns again before I can get a good look at it. He’s wearing a white leather trench coat with a tight white tank top underneath, and white linen pants.

The girl cocks a dark-blonde eyebrow at me. “You’ve been very difficult to chase.” She has a raspy foreign accent. I’m horrible at pinpointing accents, but it sounds European. British, maybe.

“Look, guys,” I tell them. “I don’t want any trouble. I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”

The guy takes a step toward me. “Give us what we want,” he grunts, “and we’ll be on our way.” He has the same accent.

I hold out the roll of bills. “Here. This is all I have. It’s not much, but take it.” Suddenly I remember the blast of a gun going off and I flash back to the day Leyla was killed.

The girl sneers at me, then raises her right leg and shoves the heel of her boot against my chest, pressing me against the wall. “We don’t want your money! Give us the vials!”

“What vials?”

“The crystal vials!”

“Crystal vials? I don’t know what you’re talking about—”

“Don’t!” she snaps, and digs her heel in deeper. I can’t help gasping from the pain because Jet’s bruises are still killing me, and her heel hurts way more than his boot tip. Her voice goes all soft but menacing. “I really wouldn’t want to hurt you. Those pretty brown eyes… not to mention all the potential that awaits once the naivete has washed away.”

The guy steps forward and grabs my neck in his huge fists. I can’t move. He signals her with an “okay” nod and she kneels down in front of me. She places her hands on the top of my head and closes her eyes. What feels like a small electric shock jumps from her palms to my scalp.

“Ow!” I jerk my head free.

She nods, then peers up at the guy. “He’s telling the truth, Axel.” She gently runs her left index finger against my cheek, and I get a glimpse of her fingers. On the pads of each gloved fingertip, I see what look like three concentric silver rings that are pulsing with a purple light, like bioluminescent fingerprints.

She leans in closer and puts her golden-tinted lips to my right ear. “Just know that this will not be the last time you see us. Send the warnings as you may. Tell them Naima says hello.” She stands up, steps back, and smiles at me.

Axel loosens his grip around my neck. Seizing the chance, I dig into my camera bag, grab the broken lens, and swing it against his square jaw. As he falls to the ground, I kick Naima in the chest. She falls too. I hear the blast of the bus horn and see its doors closing. It’s pulling out. Leaving me behind. I struggle to my feet and make a run for it.

“Stop! Stop!” I scream. Pete’s at the wheel. I can tell by his red cap. The bus keeps accelerating but I manage to reach the front door. I slam my palm against it, pounding as hard as I can. “Let me in!”

The bus slows. I almost lose my balance as the doors slide open and I clamber aboard. Pete’s staring at me.

“Go! Go!” I shout. “Those people just attacked me!” As I tug the doors shut behind me, I see that Axel and Naima are gaining on the bus. Naima has a shiny object in her hand that looks like a giant pistol.

Pete seems too startled to move until Meesha springs up from her seat behind him and slaps him across the back of the head. “You heard the boy!” she yells. “Drive!”

He stamps on the gas pedal so hard that the bus leaps forward and sends me slamming against the windshield. I lose my balance but manage not to fall by grabbing onto a bar above me. Then I swing around to see where Axel and Naima are. Naima is down on one knee with the oversized pistol pressed up against her eye. Axel turns to her and nods. A cloud of smoke erupts from the barrel of the pistol, followed by a cluster of shiny purple pellets that immediately begin expanding in mid-air and take the form of huge, shimmering, deep violet nets.

“Turn! Turn now!” I scream. I pounce on the steering wheel and wrench it to the right with all my strength. The wheels screech and some of the passengers are thrown into the aisles.

“What’re you doing?!” Pete yells, shoving me hard off the wheel. I almost lose my footing, but grab the bar again and wheel around. The nets are gone, as if they’d never appeared. As if they disintegrated after missing their target. Whatever Naima and Axel were shooting at us, they missed.

Meesha grabs my arm. I wince as her jagged fingernails dig into my skin. “What are you thinkin’! Are you crazy, child? Sit your ass down in your seat before I call the cops!”

“But—that guy—and the girl! They almost shot us!” I’m scrambling to get the words out.

“What’re you talkin’ about? There’s nobody out there! Look!” She shoves me up against the nearest window.

I can’t believe my eyes. They’re gone. The road behind is empty except for whorls of dust kicked up by the bus’s tires. Where did they go? How did they manage to disappear so fast?

Meesha’s still eyeing me threateningly. Pete and all the other passengers are staring at me with murderous eyes, too.

You’ve got to be kidding me right now.

I stagger back to my seat and slither into it, burying myself in my hoodie. What “crystal vials”? Why would they think I had anything to do with whatever they were talking about? How did they disappear so fast? Who were they?

I pull my hood over my eyes and curl up on the two seats. Even though I’m exhausted, it takes me a long time to go to sleep. I keep seeing Leyla lying there with her eyes still locked on mine but with no life behind them. Guns always have that effect on me. Even when I see them on TV. That’s why I can’t watch violent films. They never fail to take me back to that awful day.

I toss and turn for the next couple of hours and finally doze off, only to keep waking up from nightmares about Leyla and gunshots going off. And whenever I wake up, it’s to the pain of my seat belt buckle jammed against my aching ribs.

Long after midnight, as we’re driving through the middle of nowhere, I finally sit up and start gazing out the window at the families of stars glowing above me. It’s so calming I forget that the bus is freezing. I start counting the stars and wondering whether someone’s looking back down at me, and by the time I’ve counted up to a hundred and twenty-four glittering balls of flames, my eyes fall shut and I’m out for the first peaceful sleep I’ve had in two days.

 

* * *

When we finally pull into the terminal in DC around seven in the evening two days later, my skin starts to tingle. I realize that I haven’t come close to thinking through what exactly I’m going say when I see my grandparents. They have new lives, no doubt. More strangers than family. What if they don’t even live at this address anymore? I know there’s no going back now, so I just cross my fingers and hail the next taxi in the queue. Before I hop in, I turn back to Meesha, who’s staring at me with a nasty face, like I smell or something. I throw her a huge, exaggerated smile and wave just to bother her.

The taxi driver tells me it’s about a twenty-minute drive to the address I have for “Ed and Estelle Greene.” I guess I should be feeling thrilled, but the realization that in the near, near future I may be meeting my grandparents has me suddenly feeling numb from nerves. I have to stop myself from allowing my anxiety to take over, as it so often does.

What actually gets me to start breathing again is the sight of a majestic, spherical glass building standing tall in a sea of similar-sized ones.  It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The windows align to create this design that twists around the building. God, I wish my camera was working!

I’m captivated by the skyscrapers and architecture. Lots of windows and lights and people. The peak of the Washington Monument standing tall and proud just ahead. Nothing like what I’m used to. The tallest building in Saddlehorn is twelve stories high.  Hundreds of cars zooming by us in a fury, people walking in crowds, laughing and smiling. So many different types of people, too. I’ve never seen so many people who all looked so different all at once. An Indian woman walking hand in hand with her Asian child and Hispanic husband. A group of young kids advocating for human rights on one corner. Another group of people on some tourist vehicle that resembles a giant boat on wheels. It’s amazing. In minutes I already feel more connected to this city than I ever did in fourteen years in Nevada.

Things are so different here. Definitely more interesting for my photography, for sure.

About ten minutes into the drive, I notice a row of museums and ask the driver about them. He tells me it’s the National Mall. I’ve never been to a museum in my life. I promise myself that I’ll definitely make it back there.

 

* * *

After twenty minutes the cab pulls up in front of a short white picket fence in front of a two-story white house with bright-yellow window shutters. I’m feeling short of breath, and ask the driver to give me a few minutes to verify that it’s the right house. It is. I pay him and get out feeling suddenly reluctant to do what I’ve come almost three thousand miles to do. As I make my way up the flagstone walkway to the cherry-colored front door, a light flickers on and showers me with halogen.

“Here goes nothing,” I convince myself. I lift the knocker below the oval frosted-glass window in the door. Let it fall. Lift it again. Let it fall again. And wait.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

I’m about to give it one last try when I spot a fuzzy tall figure approaching the door. The outline gets sharper as the figure nears the glass pane. A chain lock rattles as the door slides open three inches and a man peers through the crack. He’s taller than I am, with silvery hair, but that’s about all I can see.

I’m having trouble breathing again. “Uh… Ed Greene?”

He looks at me questioningly with his tight, yellow eyes. Before he has time to answer, someone does it for him.

“Bud? Who is it?” An old woman’s voice. A second shadow appears in the frosted glass. A small face peers out from under his arm. A tiny old woman pops up beside him, her arm linking around his.

“Bud?” I wonder. That name sounds so familiar somehow, like an old memory, but my heart’s pounding so fast again and my palms are beginning to swell and sweat, and I lose the thread. I look the old woman in the eye and she sends my daunting stare right back at me. For a moment we just look at one another without saying anything. I don’t think we have to.

“Gavin?” Her voice is a whisper. There’s surprise and joy in her question. And… fear.

When she says my name, my throat tightens so much that the only sound I can make is a half-whimper.

Have I really found my dad’s parents after all? My only relatives?

The woman blinks repeatedly, shaking her head. She looks up at the man. Her look is ambiguous. I can’t decide whether she’s surprised, scared, or what. He says to me, “Just a minute,” and gently moves her back a step from the door. Then he eases it closed. The flashing thought “It isn’t them!” stops my heart.

But the next moment I hear the chain rattle again, then the small thud as it hits the door jamb. And then the door opens wide and the two of them are standing there smiling at me.

He has broad shoulders and a great build for his age. She’s half his size but also in great shape.  He wraps his long arm around her and a raw smile breaks over his thin, cracked lips. He beckons to me. “Come inside.”

My legs are shaking. I secure my camera bag over my shoulder, scoop up my duffle bag, and fumble past them into a baby-blue hallway. There have to be more than thirty photos hanging on the wall. Mostly shots of them in places they’ve apparently visited, which is apparently everywhere in the world.

I freeze in front of one photo that’s centered among the other as if it’s been given the place of honor.  My parents.  My mom’s wearing a narrow band of fabric with tiny intertwined tulips resting on top of her flowing brown hair, and my dad’s wearing a light-gray linen suit. They look so happy. So peaceful. Jet tore up the only picture I had of them during one of his drunken attacks. I haven’t seen a photo of them in forever. But I remember their faces perfectly.

The photo fills me with emotions I thought I might have resolved long ago. But I guess not. I thought that, since I’d been so young when they died, I’d dealt with losing them, that I’d moved past it, but I feel nauseated. Drained. I assume that Ed and Estelle notice this because Estelle murmurs, “This way,” and gently guides me past the photos and into the dining room.

I collapse in the chair across them at the antique white dining table in silence and start picking at my fingernails like I always do when I’m anxious.  I glimpse the other rooms and take in the rainbow array of wall colors—green kitchen, purple living room, orange half-bathroom. Not exactly what I would have gone with. But it’s so different that it actually calms me down a bit.

I don’t even think twice. I just blurt it out. “Why did you leave me?”

It’s the only thing I can think about, the only question I can possibly ask.

Ed’s wrinkled hand glides over Estelle’s. They exchange glances, trying, I assume, to decide who’ll speak first. But I don’t allow them. Seeing them excites me, but it also ignites a real pain within me. A different kind of pain, deeper and more crippling than Jet’s iron fist against my face. The sort of pain that ice packs can’t soothe.

I have to swallow a couple of times before I can get any words out. And then my voice sounds so harsh that I scare myself. “What did I do? Why would you… Why?… ” My voice trails off and I mutter, “Why didn’t you want me?”

Estelle straightens her neck and slowly adjusts the thin strands of snowflake-white hair that she has massed into a loose bun at the back of her head. Her coffee-bean eyes seem to be welling up, but I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just an effect of the light shining down on us from the iron chandelier above the table.

“Gavin… please, let us explain,” she says. “We did it for your protection. It was the only way we could save you. Trust us… you were better off with your new family.”

That stings.

“Better off?” I echo.  I stand up and hurl my camera bag off my shoulder. I lift up my shirt and show them the swollen, purple bruises that are still throbbing from Jet’s brutal kick.

Better? You consider this better! Look at my face! This is the ‘better’ that you left me behind with!”

Estelle buries her face in Ed’s shoulder. He puts his arm around her again. “Gavin, buddy… kiddo… please let us explain—”

No! You do not get to call me that!” My hands are shaking and my toes have turned to grains of sand. A flash of green light flickers in the center of my sight, and I know I’m borderline panic attack.

“I need to get out of here… A moment… to myself…” I grab my camera bag and rush outside, breathing in all the air around me. I squeeze my eyes shut and start counting backward from one hundred, the way Leyla used to teach me as a child whenever I felt I was out of breath. Although that was for my asthma, something makes me feel it’ll work now. Listening to the thundering of my heart pounding in my ears, I launch my eyelids open and glimpse a small park just two houses away.

Without any thought, I dart over to it, stretch out on the soft grass, and nerve myself to face the realization that my first impression probably wasn’t the best. Dammit, Gavin!

How can they blame me? All I want to do is scream, but instead I sit up and pull out my camera. Or at least all the pieces to it. Even the camera’s a disaster now, thanks to Jet and Axel’s face. I wish more than anything that I had my Canon working. It’s the only thing that could calm me down at this moment. It always does.

Still, just holding the pieces in my hands and feeling the texture of the focus ring helps ease the tension in my body. Like helium slowly hissing out of a balloon.

“So, what kind of camera you got there?”

Startled, I whip around and see a short, chubby girl wearing studded yellow shorts standing a few feet away. By now it’s late twilight, but I think her gel-frozen curls are dyed a pale pink.

“Canon. 7D. At least it was.”

“Nice! Good choice! You mind if I ask what the hell happened to it?” she asks in a super-animated voice, then giggles, tugs at the hems of her shorts, and plops herself down next to me.

I’m about to answer, probably in some rude way, until I catch a good glimpse of her camera. My eyes lock on the red body and the giant circular rim that surrounds the flash. “Is that a Kodak Brownie Starflash?”

“Uh-huh. Sure is.” She smiles smugly, but I know she can tell how excited I am to see it and that she’s teasing me.

“How’d you get your hands on one of those? They’re like from the ’50s, early ’60s… my dad used to have one just like that.”

My dad gave it to me as a gift. He got it from an auction or something. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Yeah. Can I see it?”

“My daddy always taught me not to lend my cameras to boys. Especially not strange boys.” She grins wildly.

Her faces make me laugh. “I’m Gavin.”

“And I’m Virge. Most people call me Yogi, though,” she announces loudly, almost singing it.

“‘Yogi’? What kinda nickname is that?”

She squints at me, probably trying to figure out my humor. “Oh, like ‘Gavin’ is s-o-o much better?”

I grin at her. “So, can I see it?”

She hands it to me, and it’s still light enough that I can take a few shots of the park. The plastic body’s practically the size of my whole skull. But I love it. I’m kind of jealous, actually.

Thanks to her, though, the stiffening in my legs has magically disappeared and my heart rate’s no longer borderline heart attack. I swoop in near a family of ducks and grab a few stills of the two chicks running after each other. Priceless.

We talk for a few minutes. I find out that she actually lives in New York, about a five-hour bus ride away. She’s in DC visiting a friend. Probably a boyfriend or something. I never really asked.

“So, you live here? I’ve never seen you before,” she asks.

“That’s to be determined.  My… my grandparents live over in the house with the yellow shutters.”

“Oh!” she squeals. “Bud and Estelle? I don’t know them personally, but I know of them. Heard only good things of them.”

“Bud”? I wonder again, but all I say is, “Yeah. Again, to be determined.”

We sit in a somewhat awkward silence on the grass. Virge, or Yogi, or whatever I’m supposed to call her, actually showed up at the perfect time. The camera talk has calmed my nerves. “So… I’m gonna head back now,” I finally say. “Nice to meet you, though. I guess I’ll see you around.”

She stands up and gives me a look, sort of as if she’s analyzing me somehow. “Sure. I’m sure I’ll see you again. Hope you manage to fix your camera.”

I walk back to the house feeling her eyes following me the entire way, but I have to stop for a few moments before I can go back inside. I have to nerve myself to finally face the truth, whatever it might turn out to be. I have to let them or make them tell me why they left me behind like a stray dog to be plucked from the streets and offered to another home.

I’m still angry enough that when I get to their door, I swing it open without knocking and explode through it. They’re still seated at the dining room table. But I can tell that they’ve moved because in front of them is a photo album and some papers… that I can only assume hold the answers to my exile.

“I want to know everything.” My voice is more demanding than curious.

Ed—or is it Bud?—sets his glasses down on the table, stands up, and makes his way to the chair I’d sat in earlier. He pulls it back. “Have a seat, buddy. We’ve been waiting for this day for a very long time. There’s a lot you need to know. And I think it’s time.”

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

“It’s so good to finally see you again, dear.” Without hesitation, Estelle takes a 4 x 6 photo from a padded album on her lap and slides it across the table to me. “Your mom. She was something, wasn’t she? Has your eyes.”

I grab it and gaze at it for minutes. I can once again feel my heart racing and hear it pounding in my ears. After Leyla died, I used to keep under my pillow and talk to them at night. I would fall asleep wondering how my life would be if they were still around. I still wonder what it’d be like if they were here now. Just looking at my mom’s eyes gives me comfort. Besides the picture in the hallway, I haven’t been able to look at them in years. Not since Jet barged into my room like a drunken mess and tore the picture to shreds, laughing as he did it.  Since then I’ve held on to a fading image that my memory tried so hard to keep current. One of my biggest fears was forgetting their faces.

“When was this taken?” I ask.

“She was pregnant with you there. Just three months along.” She pulls out another photo. “Here’s one with your father. He was such a good man. An even better son.” Before she hands it to me she glides her fingers over it. She watches him, like he’s talking back to her.

I’m afraid to even ask any questions. But I have to.

“Please don’t tell me they’re alive?” I finally ask, swallowing the rock lodged in my throat. It wouldn’t make sense. They died. But then again, I was also told I had no living family, and yet here I am.  I don’t think I could handle knowing that my parents too had chosen to give me away like a useless hand-me-down.

Bud interjects, “No, no, of course not! But we’ll get to that, I promise. And call me Bud. It’s what everyone calls me.”

“Why ‘Bud’?”

He chuckles. “I have this habit of calling people ‘Buddy’… in case you haven’t noticed. Always have. One Father’s Day when your dad was young, he gave me one of those Hallmark Father of the Year trophies as a joke. He printed a label that read ‘Bud’ and stuck it to the plate. Hasn’t changed since.”

I smile. That’s something I would have done.

“Gavin,” Estelle begins, “There’s a lot you don’t know about. About who you are.”

“Who I am?” I’m not sure what she means.

“Better yet,” Bud says, “how about we show you?” He pulls out another photo and hands it to me. It’s a 1970s-style diner. Just like the ones in the “Grease” movie or that show “Happy Days.” I used to watch old reruns Saturday nights on Nick at Nite with Leyla. “See this?”

I nod.

He takes a slip of paper, writes something on it, and gives it to me. It reads:

 

To this time, allow my travel.

Take me there, let time unravel.

 

“Just look into the photo and recite the words with us.”

“I don’t get it. This is—”

“Trust us, dear,” Estelle says.

I shrug. “Whatever.”

Together the three of us chant the rhyme. A thunderous noise like a storm of lightning firing down on a small town erupts through my ears. I feel like I’m falling but also being kept afloat by bursts of cold winds from every direction. My mouth is open. Trying to scream. Nothing comes out. Everywhere around me is bright, but I can’t define the color. Then, as quickly as it comes, it ends. Everything suddenly slows, like a speeding carnival ride coming to an end.

“What was that?!” I scream, fixing my crazy hair. I look around. We’re no longer in their dining room. Instead, we’re standing outside the diner, and it looks exactly like the photo.

“What?… How…? That’s the one in the photo—Wait, where’s the photo?” I search my pockets. Scan the ground for it. Nothing.

Bud slings his arm around my shoulders and grins. “Told you we’d show you!”

I scan the scene in front of me. 1970s-style Cadillacs, Camaros, and other cars I’ve never seen before are pulling up as waitresses on roller skates cruise over to take orders. Some song by Bennie and the Jets blares from speakers mounted on the diner’s roof. All I see are bell-bottoms and disco-inspired haircuts.

“This can’t be real. It can’t be. Right?” I turn to ask them. But I stop talking when I see that their eyes are now glowing a fluorescent purple—part eerie, part enchanting. “What happened to your eyes?!”

“It sure is real, sweetie,” Estelle smiles. “We’ll explain the eyes inside.”

“But…” I am so confused.

“You come from a family of photo travelers.”

“Photo travelers? What do you mean?”

“How about we go inside?” Bud says. “They have the best shakes here. They just don’t make them like this anymore. Right, Stelle?”

She giggles and we walk toward the diner. I hold the door open for them. It’s outlined by a blazing pink neon light. As we walk inside, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window. My eyes are purple, too! What is this?

The hostess, in a pink-and-black uniform, smiles at us. “Welcome to Pinky’s! Booth for three? Right this way,” she adds as she pops the bubble of her chewing gum with her furry pink pen.

I am in the heart of the Seventies! I can’t believe my eyes. My purple eyes, that is. I’m trying my best to soak in the world around me as I distractedly follow the hostess to our pink-and-red iridescent leather booth.

“Your waitress will be with you in a moment. Enjoy your meal!” she mumbles between chomps on her gum.

I grab the menu and examine it. My mind quickly shifts to the thought of selling something like this on eBay and the money I could rack up. I can’t believe it’s authentic. This is crazy.

“Try the strawberry shake,” Estelle urges me. “It was your dad’s favorite.”

“Photo travelers?” I demand. “How did we do that?  Can I do it on my own? Have I always been able to? Why are our eyes purple?”

I have so many questions I can’t even take a breath in between them. The more I ask, the more questions I have. But the more questions I have, the more confused I feel.

The waitress, whose nametag reads “Ritsy,” interrupts us, throwing us weird glances as she takes our order. Our eyes. I keep mine glued to the menu. We order three strawberry shakes and decide to share a large basket of Pinky’s “famous” chili-cheese fries.

Bud waits for her to leave, then says, “Photo travelers are a small group of people who can travel to the past by means of real life images or photos. Your parents were photo travelers. Estelle’s family and mine were photo travelers. Our families have been travelers for more than a hundred years. Actually we met as kids through our families. And the eyes will happen every time you travel. It’s the only thing that gives us away, really.”

“So I can just jump from picture to picture?” I’m starting to feel excited about this. Even though I still really don’t get it at all.

“Pretty much. There are a few rules, of course, but you’ll learn them.”

“And every time I do, my eyes will change color?”

Bud nods. “Yeah. But let me ask you, I bet you’ve always naturally been drawn to photography? I mean, when you look at photos, you feel almost connected to them?”

“Yeah. That’s exactly how I feel. Photography’s everything to me. I just had no idea anything like this was even possible. That I’d be able to pretty much transport myself into it.”

“Sweetie,” Estelle chimes in, “That’s why we had to give you up after the fire. This all may seem fun to you right now, but there are plenty of dangers. On the day of the fire, we were traveling. We didn’t even know about it until we had returned. And by then there was nothing we could do. Their bodies were never found, but even without that we knew they hadn’t been killed. Liam was too clever for that. We think that they were either actually traveling when the fire broke out, or that they traveled through a photo or image to save themselves. But we’ve never seen or heard from them again.” She sighs. “You were at daycare when it happened, so you probably don’t remember much.”

“Oh, believe me,” I reply. Their abandoning me still hurts. I can’t help it. “I remember never being picked up by my parents and never seeing them again. I remember a lot of things. What I don’t understand is how I don’t remember you guys.” They look so uncomfortable that I feel bad about it. I don’t want to hurt them, so I change the subject. “So you haven’t seen them for years either? But I don’t get it. Why couldn’t they just come back through another photo or something?”

The waitress arrives with our orders. My foot jiggles impatiently as she sets out our food, then asks, “Anything else…?”

“We’re fine. Thanks!” I spit. She rolls her eyes and walks off.

“Here’s the thing,” Bud continues. “We can only transport through photos—or other images, actually. But if the host photo or image we use gets damaged or destroyed, we’re trapped in wherever we traveled to. And that’s what we think happened to your mom and dad—the photo they traveled to was destroyed in the fire.”

Estelle adds, “And we have nothing to tell us what photo they used, or what time they may be trapped in.”

I stop sipping on my shake and look blankly down at the table. My mind is trying to catch up. I finally get it. “You’re saying they might still be alive?”

Bud nods. “But there’s no telling where or when. Trust me. We’ve tried the best we can.”

They start explaining the rules. We can travel though photos and images that depict moments that actually occurred in real life. So I’d be able to travel to an image of an old scene, like of Abraham Lincoln speaking. But it has to be something that someone was physically able to capture with a camera, or by painting or drawing it, or by making some other kind of image.

Another rule, more of a rule of thumb, is that we should travel to images of a group of people or to a busy scene, not to just two people or to an image where our sudden appearance would be obvious.

“We transport right into that very moment, so we try and be as inconspicuous as possible,” Estelle explains.

The big no-no turns out to be that we can’t try to change an event that’s already happened. This rule turns the conversation more serious. For the first time since I’ve met them, Bud looks stern, rigid. “This is absolutely forbidden. If you change an event, you change time, and you have no idea what the ripple effect will be you’ll have no idea what you may have affected.”

“What do you mean? Like trying to bring someone back from the dead?” I joke.

He doesn’t laugh. “You’ve heard about the ‘butterfly effect’? That the smallest changes we make in the past can affect the future in unimaginable ways. Everything we do in the past has a consequence to our future. We are not gods, and it’ll do you good to remember that. This gift is supposed to allow us to be visitors or passengers. That’s it. Nothing more. Do I make that clear?”

“Yeah. I get it. No changing the past.  You guys can relax.  It’s not like I’m planning on leading some zombie apocalypse.”

He pulls out another scrap of paper and scribbles on it. “When you want to return, you just repeat these words out loud, and you’ll be right back where you left from. He hands it to me but grins, “But you better wait till we pay our tab!”

While he calls the waitress over and pays her—with old dollar bills, not the new ones—I read:

Take me home to what is mine.

Back to the present, back to my time.

 

He gives us a nod. We say the chant—

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Milliseconds later we’re back in their dining room, everything unchanged and unaffected. My mind is still stuck in a cloud of uncertainty and confusion. I can’t believe what’s just happened.

Estelle places her hand over mine. “I know it’s a lot to take in. Come upstairs and I’ll show you your room.” My room?

She leads me up the stairs and along the mint-green hallway to the second door on the left. When she opens it, I see a full-sized bed against a large bay window that overlooks the park where I met Yogi. An old TV set with a built-in VCR rests on a coral-colored dresser. The walls are decorated with paintings of dolphins.

“This is your room,” she tells me. “It’s always been yours. We sometimes let guests use it, but really, we’ve always intended to one day have you here with us.”

I can’t help it. I have to keep asking, digging. “Then why didn’t you come for me?”

“We wanted to. So much! But it was just too dangerous—“

“You keep saying that! What’s going on? What can be so dangerous and worth not coming for your grandson?”

She sighs. “You’ve had a long day. How about we pick things up in the morning after you get some rest?”

I let her off the hook for now and change the subject again. “So what’s up with the dolphins?”

“Sorry.” She’s obviously relieved. “I have a soft spot for dolphins,” she explains with a smirk. “I should let you unpack,” she adds, and leaves.

I have to admit… they’re two of the coolest and kindest people I’ve ever met. Which is why their leaving me behind still doesn’t make sense to me. I’ll keep the dolphins up if they make her happy.

I lock the door, grab my laptop from my duffle bag, turn it on, and slide the memory card from my camera into the card reader. While I’m waiting for the images to load, I pull out the two chants. I’ve forgotten a few of the words, but I repeat them until I’m sure of them. Then I tuck the slips of paper into my black sweatpants.

By now, my memory card has finished loading. Let’s test things out a bit. I’ll play it safe with my first attempt. I mean, hell, the last thing I want is to get stuck in some foreign place. I start scrolling through the photos I had taken in the mountains three days ago. I stop when a photo of a tree pops up. I remember this photo. I took it in between my phone calls to Melinda. This is a good one.

I have to admit, I’m kind of nervous. But here’s to nothing. I take a shaky, deep breath and recite: “To this time, allow my travel. Take me there, let time unravel.”

The same thundering noise rings through my ears as I’m sent spiraling through waves of intense, deafening winds. It stops suddenly. And now I’m watching myself taking the photo of the tree. Oddly enough, I don’t want to be seen by… well, by me. I kneel behind a giant boulder and keep watching. This is too rad!

The scene is exactly as I remember it. Completely in awe about the whole situation, I hear the sound of a car and realize that Mel is speeding toward me. Us.

I watch as the scene plays itself out again. I flinch when I see the dent my foot makes in the door. It looks bigger than I remember. Then the punch to my face and she drives off. Yep. Just as I remember.

After I watch myself start my long walk home, I get up, dust off my knees, and walk over to the edge of the cliff. I take in the scenery on my own time with no one telling me what to do. It seems as if someone’s always telling you what to do. Just a bunch of instructions and demands, constantly telling you to “Do this” or “Don’t do that.”

The liberty. The freedom. I can stand in this very moment forever. There’s no one to hurry me. Not a soul trying to map out my next move for me. I can actually appreciate the crisp, natural air and watch the sparse clouds coast slowly above the mountains. It’s more beautiful now too for some reason. It makes me wonder if I would appreciate things even more if I could enjoy them on my own terms.

I watch a centipede begin inching its way up my shoelace and desperately want to capture the image of its lime body traveling over my shoe. I regret not having my camera with me so I could finish the shooting I wasn’t able to when I was here before. But it’s late. My level of exhaustion is overwhelming. I decide to return since I’ve found the validation I was looking for. Photo traveling is in fact very real.

Even though I don’t want to, I pull out the slip of paper and recite: “Take me home to what is mine. Back to the present, back to my time.”

Instantly I’m back in “my” new room. This is… this is everything I could’ve asked for. If I had only known it was even possible.

There’s a soft knock on the door. My heart skips a beat and my breathing picks up. I have to calm myself. Jet’s not around anymore. I can lock my door if I want to. I walk over and unlock it. Bud’s leaning against the jamb. “Tired, buddy? Maybe you should get some rest.”

“Yeah, I just told Estelle I was getting ready for bed. I told her we’d talk in the morning. Tomorrow I want to know more. I want to know everything.”

He nods. “Tomorrow we’ll tell you everything. I promise.” He looks me in the eye, which is something that’s always made me uncomfortable with people, then puts out an arm and pulls me to him for a hug. “You have no idea how glad we are to see you again.”

For a moment, I’m too startled to move. Then, surprisingly, I don’t pull back. I want to keep hugging him. His touch is all too familiar, not a stranger’s. I find myself reaching around him and hugging him back. He lets me go, gives me a little wave, and heads toward the stairs.

But I’m even more confused. Ever since I got here, they’ve shown no sign of ever not wanting me. It’s been the complete opposite—so what could have been so dangerous that they let me go?

When I do get to bed, I can’t sleep. Who could, with what I’ve just learned? My mind’s racing at what feels like the speed of light. How is photo traveling even possible? How did it begin? What are Bud and Estelle keeping from me? I want all the questions to stop. But at the same time I don’t.

Finally I grab my phone and start pressing the images button on my browser. Page upon page of images are listed. I lie back imagining what it would be like to visit each one. A picture of a triceratops—God, I wish I could go back to when dinosaurs existed, but Bud and Estelle said that we can only travel to real moments in time that someone captured. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any photos or images of dinosaurs lying around. Otherwise we wouldn’t have to rely on fossils and archaeologists’ reconstructions based on guesswork.

Image after image after image… And before I know it, my eyes surrender to the night. I fall asleep with my face plastered against the cold, hard screen of my phone.

Then I hear her voice calling out to me. I turn around and there she is with her arms out, waiting for me in my old room. She’s smiling at me, her blonde curls tied up in a ponytail, a few strands hanging at the sides of her temple. My feet pound against the floor, running toward her as fast as they’ll take me. I don’t move though. I stay in place. I run faster and faster, but nothing happens.

Leyla’s expression changes. She’s horrified now. She shrieks so loudly that I cover my ears. The window shatters into a million pieces as my room morphs into the convenience store.

“Gavin! Help me!” she begs.

I’m still running.  Tears are pouring from my eyes. I scream, “I’m coming! Don’t go!”

The two assailants run in, but this time it’s not the two guys. It’s Naima and Axel, dressed in their same white getups. Axel forces Leyla against him, grabbing her in a chokehold. She’s trying to fight free, but he’s too strong.  Nothing helps. “Gavin! Gavin!” she keeps begging.

Naima walks up to them and turns to me. She whispers, but in my ears I can hear it amplified as if I have headphones on. “I want the crystal vials.”

I try to shout at her. Tell her to leave her alone. My throat hurts from how hard I’m trying, but nothing comes out. Naima turns around, takes her gun from her holster, and jabs it between Leyla’s eyes.

“Gavin… I love you…”

It’s the last thing I hear before I close my eyes and hear the gunshot.  The first one, then gunshot after gunshot after gunshot. I can’t help it.  My eyes tear open.  Pieces of flesh thrown from her body.  Axel tosses her body to the ground. She’s dead. Blood seeping out from all around her. Exactly the image I remember

Naima marches toward me, Axel right behind her. I’m still running, but it does me no good. She presses the gun to my forehead. “You could have saved her.” An evil smirk distorts her gold-tinted mouth. She pulls the trigger.

I deserve to die. This is best.

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

I jolt awake in a pool of sweat. I’ve been having nightmares since I’ve left Nevada, but usually they involve Jet hitting Leyla. Which is weird because I don’t remember him ever touching her. This one was more vivid than the others. It’s also the first time she’s spoken to me. I touch my cheeks and realize I’ve been crying in my sleep.

While I’m peeling the soggy sheets from my body, my nose catches something that smells amazing. Freshly brewed coffee and waffles, I think. I love coffee. There’s no other way to start my day. And even though it may not be the best thing for my anxiety, I welcome the roasted beans into my mornings. Every morning.

My stomach growls angrily at me.  I haven’t eaten much since I left Saddlehorn. Even at the diner I barely touched the fries and milkshake.

I can’t help smiling when I see the dining table loaded with coffee, juice, waffles, fruits, and eggs arranged around a beautiful centerpiece of tulips and orchids. Do they eat like this every day, or is this all for me? It seems a little too planned out for me. Like they’re preparing to tell me some bad news. Maybe they’ve decided they don’t want me to stay. Yeah, I bet that’s it. They’ve been too nice. I should’ve known it was all too good to be true.

Bud waves me over. “We figured that once you caught a whiff of Stelle’s special banana-walnut waffles, there’d be no way you’d oversleep.”

“It smells good.” I walk hesitantly to the same chair I took last night. I guess that if they’d decided to keep me, this would’ve become my spot. It’s only been one day but I already feel like I’ll miss it. I devour everything Estelle puts in front of me. As soon as I finish one plate, she’s already replacing it with another, saying, “I’m glad you like it.”

Finally I can’t take it. What am I doing? I’m acting like nothing’s ever happened. Like nothing’s happening now. I put down my fork and stand up. “You guys don’t have to go to all this trouble. If you’re just going to tell me you want me to leave, I get it. I don’t need the pity. I’ve been through a lot worse, you know.”

They stare at me as if I’ve just kicked them in the stomach as hard as I kicked Mel’s car.

Estelle bursts into tears. “Why would you think that?”

“Why would I think that? Why would you want me now after all this time? You guys have been so nice to me. It doesn’t make sense.”

Bud pushes himself up from his chair and walks over to me. He puts his hand on my shoulder and kneels down on one knee beside me. “Gavin… buddy… we’re never letting you out of our sight again. Never.”

I shove his hand away. “So why’d you leave me do it in the first place? What was the point if you were going to see me after all these years and act like nothing ever happened. It’s bullshit!”

“We had to!” Estelle sobs. “They would’ve killed you!”

“Killed me?” Whoa. I was not expecting that. “Who?”

She shakes her head and rushes into the kitchen.

“It wasn’t something we were proud to do.” He says angrily before walking over to her in the kitchen. Sort out the visuals of the action here)

I throw my plate to the floor. “That’s still not an answer!”

He doesn’t respond.

I’m so confused and angry that I can’t bear to look at them. I stare down at my shattered plate. There’s only one thing I can think of to say next. “I want to see my parents. Now.  I want to really meet them.”

I gaze at them defiantly, demanding my way. They look shocked. Then Bud smiles at Estelle. “I see no harm in a boy meeting his parents. Do you?”

She shakes her head and wipes away her tears, then smiles sweetly at me. “They’re going to love you!” She takes out the photo that they showed me last night, the one of my mom pregnant with me. “They already know they’re photo travelers, so don’t worry. They won’t be surprised when you show up—but just imagine what it’ll be like for them to see the baby they’re expecting all grown up!”

I feel the nerves in my stomach twitching. I hold the old photo in my hand watching my parents for a few moments. I can’t ignore how pretty my mom was.

“Don’t worry,” Bud reassures me. “We’ll be here waiting.”

“I’ll be back soon. To this time, allow my travel. Take me now, let time unravel.

 

* * *

And here I am, right in front of them. My real mother and father. They gape at me and move apart from their posed position as I stand before them in their living room. I have to admit, I’m pretty stunned myself. I have no idea what to say, which works because what I’m feeling right now cannot be translated into words.

I look at my mother first. I really do have her eyes. She looks like such a sweet person. I wish so much that I could have grown up with her. Long, dark, wavy hair, soft olive skin, and a small button nose. And my dad—a younger version of Bud, but an older version of me. I actually look like someone—someone who exudes honesty. Nothing like Jet. It hits me hard at this moment when I realize that I have a family.

“Uh… I’m Gavin.”

They don’t say a word. They just run over to me and wrap me in probably the biggest hug I’ve ever experienced. No, I take it back, it is the biggest hug I’ve ever experienced. It feels so good. So real.

My mom buries her face in my neck. She smells like roses mixed with hints of tangerine. “Oh, sweetie!” she exclaims. “You’re beautiful! Beautiful…” She holds me away from her and looks me in the eyes with a big smile. “You have my eyes, just like when you were a baby. I hoped you would!” She places her hand on her belly and hugs me again.

My dad comes from behind and messes up my hair. My whole body tingles. I want this every day. I want for this moment to never end.

“I wish I could’ve done this before,” I finally say. “I can’t believe I just found this out.”

They exchange puzzled glances.

“You just learned how to travel?” he asks.

“Yeah! Bud and Estelle taught me yesterday. It’s the coolest thing ever!”

My mom grabs his hand and they look at each other. Her mood has changed. “That means we didn’t teach you… so… something must have happened to us. We die… don’t we?”

My heart’s slamming in my chest. I just screwed this up! “No! I mean… uh…” I go silent.

“It’s okay,” my dad says. “You don’t have to explain.”

“What gave it away?” I ask, defeated.

“We decided we’d teach you about photo traveling when you got to sixth grade,” he says. “But you’re a lot older than that now, and you don’t know, so…” He lifts his hand to his neck and makes a throat-cutting gesture. Then he smiles and shrugs, trying to make light of it, but I don’t buy it. It’s too forced.

How could I have let that slip? This is terrible.

Mom asks wistfully, “But we do at least get to see you grow up… don’t we?”

“Yeah.” I answer softly, and smile at her. “Yeah, you do.”

But the corner of my right eye starts twitching, and I turn my head to keep them from seeing it. I want nothing more than to tell them the truth. Maybe I can warn them right now about the fire. “But I can tell you how? I can save you guys! We can stop—”

My dad shakes his head. He takes me by the shoulders and brings his face close to mine. “No, no, no! Gavin, it’s crucial that you never try to alter the past. My folks must’ve already told you that. Telling people what’s going to happen in the future… well, you can pretty well bet that they’re going to try to avoid it if it’s not what they want to hear.”

I nod, but I still don’t think it’s fair. I know it’s against the rules, but this is different. These are my parents!

I’m about to change the subject but he beats me to it, and I’m glad he does. “You know,” he grins, “you look just like me when I was your age. Same wavy brown hair. Strong jaw. Small ears. It’s unbelievable! I bet you’re quite the ladies’ man.”

I smile back at him, but I’m still caught up in thoughts about protecting them.

“How are mom and dad?” he asks. “When you go back, tell them I love them. Please.”

“And take care of them,” my mom chimes in. “They’re the most special people you’ll ever meet.”

“I will.” I glance at my mom’s belly. “Do I kick a lot?”

“You’d think I’m giving birth to a soccer player!” she laughs. “Want to touch?”

She grabs my hand and places it over her belly. The feeling is surreal. Not only am I meeting my parents for pretty much the first time, but I’m feeling myself move inside her stomach. This is bizarre.

We laugh and joke and bond effortlessly. It’s as if we’ve met so many times before. Like I’ve actually spent my entire life with them after all. Like no time has passed at all. Everything about it is natural. Nothing like those conversations that feel forced. But suddenly sadness strikes me like a car crash. Nothing adds up. Why was all of this taken from me?

“I think I’m going to head back now,” I tell them.

My dad Liam eyes me so intently that I feel he’s reading my thoughts. “You okay?”

“Yeah. It’s just a lot to handle all at once.”

“Okay. Just promise me you’ll leave things as they are. We’re not gods. And always remember how much we love you. Nothing can change that.” He hugs me. “We’ll see you again soon.”

“I’ll come back. But… I’m confused. Will you guys remember me?”

“If you travel back to this exact moment,” my mom explains, “we’ll relive the experience as if it never happened. It’ll be like seeing you for the first time all over again. But if you ask Bud and Estelle to give you a photo of us after this very moment, we’ll remember this one then, because it will this moment would have already have occurred and already have traveled to us.”

Before I leave, I scan the living room. I don’t remember anything about it. I wish I could so badly. The vanilla scent of the burning candle on the coffee table.  The leather couch, the ivory walls, the burgundy rug. None of it seems familiar. Then I spot my dad’s red Kodak Brownie Starflash camera on the kitchen counter. Its like the same one I mentioned to Yogi.

I walk over to it and pick it up. “Were these popular?”

“The gray and black ones were,” my dad says. “Not so much the red ones.”

“Don’t get me started on that camera!” my mom says,“He put us on a wild hunt to find that thing!”

I laugh and set it down again. “I guess I get it from you, huh?”

He looks confused. “Get what?”

“When you want something. You don’t stop till you find it. I guess I get it from you.”

He smiles. “I hoped so.”

We hug as tightly as we can for a long, long time. I don’t want to let go. I’ve dreamed of seeing them again so many times. I just never thought it would be possible. I don’t want to leave, but I need to go back and find out more. How could photo traveling be dangerous? I want to ask them, but I don’t want to ruin the first time I see them.  I’m sure it’s why they haven’t brought it up themselves.

After one final hug, I reluctantly chant my words.

 

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

And I’m back with Bud and Estelle.

Estelle beams at me. “Aren’t they something?”

“Yeah,” I smile. “More than I could ever have imagined. More than what I can remember. My dad said he loves you guys.”

Bud and Estelle grab each other’s hands and smile.

I’ve waited long enough. It’s time to figure this out. “There are so many things I want to know. Why is traveling dangerous? What could be so dangerous about it to make you guys abandon me? You told me last night that you’d tell me everything today.”

“You got it, my man,” Bud replies. “We have all the time in the world now. We really do.”

I shake my head. “No. I don’t have all the time in the world. I’ve already lost most of my life to this. I don’t want to lose any more.”

The emotional effect of seeing my parents again is almost overpowering. The loss of the past thirteen years feels even more painful now that I’ve learned what amazing people they are. I can only imagine what kind of family we could have been if I hadn’t lost them, and that thought alone kills me.

Estelle notices that I have yet to peel my eyes from the photo. “It’s yours,” she says. “We have plenty more. And we’ll show you pictures from right after so you can experience the relationship you were never able to have.”

Oxygen bubbles in my lungs when I realize I have the opportunity to do just that.

“Yeah! But I’m still waiting for you to tell me the rest.”

The two of them exchange glances, then Estelle walks over to the media console and pulls out an old book. It’s so mangled and dirty that it looks as if it was dragged out of a garbage bin and then left out in the rain for years.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“In a minute,” she says. “First things first. We’ve told you all the good things about photo traveling. And let me say, there’s more good that comes with it than anything because you’re allowed the gift of seeing the world like no one else can. But we are facing a terrible threat.”

I’m listening with my full attention now.

She turns to Bud. “Sweetie, do you want to?”

He sighs. He obviously wishing he didn’t have to tell me this. “We’re facing a deadly enemy.”

“What kind of enemy?” I burst out.

“Stelle, you tell him.”

She frowns. “Well…where do I start?”

Oh, come on! Get to the point already! If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when people have some big news to tell you but they take half an hour just trying to spit it out. It only makes me more anxious.

He touches her hand. “With where it began.”

“Okay. First you need to know a little bit about the history of photo traveling. My parents passed down the story to me, which was passed down to them from their parents and back and back through our family for more than a hundred years.

About 120 years ago, five treasure hunters who were exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu discovered a small, intricately carved stone box under the Intihuatana, the sacred stone. They believed that the box dated back centuries and that it held the sacred treasure of the Incas’ ancestors.

“When they opened it, they found that it contained five crystal vials. Each one was filled with a bioluminescent purple fluid that defied gravity by floating in the middle of the vial without touching its inner surfaces. It was said that the fluid came from an ancient stream of purple water in a hidden underwater cave deep beneath the ruins and had been specially blessed by the chief of the tribe. Under the vials, the explorers found a secret compartment that held a scroll.

“And when they recited what was written on it, their genes mutated and they became able to travel back and forth in time and space through images.” She turns to Bud. “Have I left anything out?”

“Don’t stop now!” he grins.

“Yeah!” I urge her.

“Okay, okay! The explorers divided up the vials among themselves. Over time, three of them remained close and the other two went their own ways. One of them, Lucas Hoytt, chose to start photo traveling to times and places where he could steal treasures from ancient, wealthy families and dynasties. He also became obsessed with the idea that some of the symbols on the scroll indicated that it was possible to gain an even greater power—that anyone who possessed all five crystal vials would acquire the ultimate power of penetrating all barriers of time and space.”

I can’t believe it. “You mean that it would be possible to travel anywhere in the past or future without needing to use an image?”

“Exactly,” Bud says. “So he set out to steal the other four explorers’ vials. He even tried killing two of them, so all four went into hiding. One, Margaret, was my great-great-grandmother. Another one, Harold, was Stelle’s great-great-uncle. And the third was Forge, Amy’s great-great-grandfather. These were the three families that remained close. Our vials were each passed down to us by our parents, along with the promise to never let them out of our hands.”

“So what happened to Lucas’s family? And what about the fourth explorer that went into hiding?”

“Sarah Pashner,” Estelle picks up. “Well, a few months before your parents’ house burned down, we received a phone call. A woman whose voice we didn’t recognize warned us that every remaining member of the Pashner family had died in a massive fire. Even the children.

“We hurried to get our things in order to try and flee.  Amy and Liam started looking for a new place for us all to move to. A few days before the fire, Bud recommended we take a quick trip.  Nothing crazy, just something to reduce the tension.  It’s something that always helped us in the past.  Every time there was a death in the family or something stressful occurred, we’d travel.  It always worked its magic, easing the numbness from our emotions. But when we returned we found your parents’ house in ashes—”

“Wait… so you think someone tried to kill them? And maybe you guys, too? And maybe me?”

Estelle’s eyes drift from me to the floor.

“The fire was no accident,” Bud says. “We were living just a few blocks from you in Nevada at the time, and when we got back from traveling there was a letter in our mailbox. Whoever it was handwrote ‘You’re next on it. That was it. We think that someone from Lucas’s family is out to find all five vials.”

Now I get it. Finally. “And that’s why you gave me up and put me in foster care.”

Bud shakes his head. “You have no idea how difficult it was! How much we loved you…”

Love you!” Estelle puts in. “If someone was in fact trying to murder all of us, we had to protect you! It was the only way—”

I shake my head. I still can’t accept this. “But then why did you let Leyla and Jet actually adopt me? That went way beyond just ‘fostering.’”

“When you were assigned to them,” Estelle explains, “we reached out to Leyla and Jet. Once we felt that you were safely hidden with them, we told them that if they agreed to adopt you legally, we would move them to another town and pay them a monthly stipend until you turned eighteen.”

So that’s where Jet had gotten the money he’d been living on for all those years. Not from insurance.

“Leyla was so sweet,” Estelle continues. “She reminded us of Amy.”

“So much so that we actually ended up telling her our secret,” Bud says, “so she would understand how serious the threat was and would protect you. We felt that the odds of Lucas’s family coming after a four-year-old were pretty small, but we still couldn’t risk it. They could’ve used you as leverage to get our vials from us. But Leyla swore that she’d never tell Jet and that she would do anything to keep you safe.”

I lower my eyes. I can’t look at them because I’m remembering Leyla’s face. She did give her life to save me. So I guess that Jet and Mel were right to blame me for her death. Any way you slice it, I was the reason she died. Protecting me from the robbers, from Lucas’s people… it was all because of me. God, I can’t stand how much I miss her.

Estelle reaches over and gently cups my chin in her palm so I have to look at her. “We’re so sorry that you lost her. She loved you like a real mother.”

I answer back without blinking. “She was a real mother.”

Estelle nods and averts her eyes. I don’t feel comfortable talking about her with either of them. That sorrow is mine and no one else’s. I switch subjects.

“Lucas’s family—do you have any idea where they are? What they even look like?”

“No,” Bud replies. “Our families haven’t seen each other for decades. But they’ve located us. We’re not sure how, though. And it’s clear that they want the vials. A few weeks ago, we found a photo of two vials on our doorstep. Lucas is probably long dead, so it would be one of his descendants who killed the Pashners and stole it. For the past 13 years we thought we had actually found safety here. Living quiet, average lives. But again we’ve been forced to look for places to move to.  It looked like it was time to pack up and start from scratch.  It’s not safe anymore.  You can imagine the stress it’s caused.  This heart’s not getting any younger, I’ll tell you that.”

“And now I’m around, too,” I say. “So, what are we supposed to do?”

Estelle gestures at the book. “We found it in the ashes of your parents’ house. It’s an old American history textbook. The pages are so charred that it’s basically unreadable, and we’ve never been able to find any usable images in it. But it’s the only thing we have to go on.”

“Do you think they used it to travel, to escape from the fire?”

“It’s what we figure, but we’ll never know.” She’s right. The cover is in shreds, and the title page is so blackened that I can’t even make out any of the type.

Bud levers himself up from the table. “And there are a few more things, but I’m going to let Stelle show you. I haven’t been feeling very well. I think I’ll go upstairs and take a nap.”

Estelle gestures to me and I follow her outside and around to a patch of grass at the back of the house. When I take a closer look, I see that it’s synthetic grass.

“Help me pull it aside,” she tells me.

The grass is concealing a padlocked plank door that looks as if it leads to a storm cellar. She unlocks it and gestures for me to follow her down the rickety wooden stairs into a dark, musty-smelling space. She pulls on a string hanging from the ceiling and a single light bulb casts a faint light on the rough brick walls.

“I don’t get it,” I say. “It’s just a regular basement.”

Estelle doesn’t answer. Instead, she walks over to the far end of the room. She shoves a tall mirror and a pile of wooden crates aside, feels around the bricks, and removes one that’s apparently loose.

As she dislodges it, a ray of bright purple light peeks through. She reaches in and retrieves a small gray stone box with complicated carvings all over its top and sides. When she lifts off the top, the beautiful purple rays light up the entire basement.

She holds the box out to me. “This is what they’re looking for.”

It contains three crystal vials, about five inches long, lying in a thick protective layer of white felt.

Wow!

I pick up one of the vials and hold it up for a closer look. Yes, the fluid is actually floating in the middle of the vial, defying the laws of gravity. The purple light reflects off our faces. “That’s the liquid from the stream?”

“So they say.”

“And the color our eyes turn when we travel.”

“Yes. But no one can find these, Gavin. Ever. There’s no telling what they’ve got planned. There’s no telling what anyone with such potential would do. No one should ever have that amount of power.”

She reaches for the vial. I’m completely infatuated by it and don’t want to give it back, but I have to. She gently places it back into the box, closes it, slides it into its hiding place in the wall, and replaces the brick just as it was before.

“So what do we do?” I finally ask.

“We look out for each other. And we make sure we’re ready when they arrive. Because soon enough, they will.”

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

Two days later, I enroll in Museum Magnet High. It isn’t far from the house and I only have a couple of months remaining to graduate, so I agreed to get it over with. With everything going on, I need something to help distract me.

Naturally, I choose Photography 4 as my elective. The teacher, Mr. Perry, was pretty impressed by my portfolio and was instantly eager to allow me into his classroom. The class is small, with only nine students. It’s not like my old school, where they crammed classrooms meant for 20 students with more than 30. This one is more selective and is geared towards the students’ interests and talents.

Having me show up was a big win for Mr. Perry because the class is about to begin their final projects for the year, and they’re supposed to work in groups of two students each, so my arrival works out ideally.

I’m paired with Mario Perez, a Cuban American senior. He’s tall, with a short faded cut, a wide mouth, and round hazel eyes that almost glow against his olive skin. He has one of those butt-chins I usually make fun of, but it actually suits him well.

Immediately I feel comfortable around him. He can relate to me being the “new kid,” since that was him last year when he moved up to DC from Miami. As I settle in at my desk, right next to his, he leans over and whispers, “Mr. Perry rocks. You’ll like him a lot. The school’s not too bad either. If you need someone to show you around, let me know.”

I grin. “Thanks. I appreciate that, man.”

Mr. Perry’s enthusiasm is obvious as he announces the outline for our final project. Each team has to select one museum and create an oversized collage of our favorite exhibitions. The sum of the photos will have to create a larger picture of something that symbolizes the entire museum or something we’ve learned. He then explains that we’ll be graded on technique, individual photos, and overall presentation. The moment he mentions museums, my eyes light up. It’s my chance to make it to the museums. Just the chance I’ve been waiting for.

When he starts asking the teams to tell him which museums they want to choose, I have no clue. “You decide,” I mutter to Mario. “You’ve been here longer.”

“My favorite’s the Air and Space Museum,” he whispers back, “but Maria and David already called dibs on it. What about the Smithsonian? I think it’s probably the coolest of all of them. You should check that one out anyway if you haven’t seen any of the museums yet.”

“Yeah, honestly I haven’t seen any of them at all. So either sounds good to me.”

Mario raises his hand, “Mr. P, we call the Museum of Natural History.”

When the end-of-school bell rings, I’m surprised to see that the students don’t rush for the exit like they did in my last school. And oddly enough, I don’t want to rush out either. I take my time. I want to wander the halls and pace myself. Take in and examine the school in peace.

By the time I get all my things together and finally make it out of Mr. Perry’s classroom, most of the students have already headed out to the courtyard. The eerie silence in the halls gives me the creeps. The hairs rise on my neck and my stomach feels empty.

What if someone’s watching me? I’ve had so much thrown at me in the last week that I don’t even know what to think. What if there’s one of these other photo travelers around scoping out my every move, just waiting for a perfect opportunity to strike. Or to follow me back just to come after me, and Bud and Estelle?

I’m so wired that when I suddenly hear a door creak open, I gasp and wheel around with my back against the wall—until I see that it’s just Mr. Perry heading to the bathroom.

“Hey, Gavin,” he hollers from a few doors away.

I give him one of those half-smiles you use when you meet someone for the first time. I guess it’s because he’s young. Probably 28 or 30 max.

He stops when he reaches me and gives me a cordial smile. “So what do you think so far?”

“You know… it’s good. I’m mostly excited for your class though. Really.”

He nods and removes his red rectangle-framed glasses. “I have a feeling you’re going to do great. I saw your work, and let me tell you, you’ve got some real talent. I’m looking forward to seeing what you and Mario put together.”

“Thanks.” I smile down at the floor feeling somewhat embarrassed. I don’t even know why. It’s probably because I’m not very used to being recognized for anything.

Mr. Perry runs his fingers through his slicked-back black hair that’s so glossy, it shines from the light. “I usually ask every student to give me a little background on what they like, and just something interesting about them. So what do you have for me?”

What do I have for you? I think. Ha! If only I could really tell you, I’d blow every student you’ve ever had out of the water.

“Uh, I’m a transplant from Nevada. Parents are… not around. I live with my grandparents now. I love photography. And I don’t really have any friends. Not very exciting.”

He squints, only exposing a sliver of his blue eyes, then cracks another one of his smiles. “I think this is going to be a good place for you. Actually, I know it. This place tends to bring out the best in all of us.”

He slings his arm over my shoulder. “If you need anything, my door’s always open. You stop by whenever you need something. I mean that.”

I glimpse the red ink of a tattoo peeking out from the sleeve of his polo shirt. I can’t make out the design.

I point. “What’s that of?”

“A red Bengal tiger. Goes all the way around my shoulder. This part’s the tail.” He raises his elbow and pulls up the sleeve so I can see the art covering his tricep.

O-kay! Mr. Perry’s officially my favorite teacher ever.

He lowers his arm. “See you tomorrow in class. I’m about to piss my pants.” He winks and jogs over to the restroom.

I laugh to myself and keep walking, still scanning the school. Even the building is different from the one back in Nevada. Everything looks freshly painted. The floors are clean. Spotless, actually. You can tell by how the hallways are decorated what sorts of classes are taught in that area. Like, one of the walls in this section is covered in murals painted by past students—all different art styles and techniques. Another wall is plastered with photographs taken by former students.

I hum toward the exit. At the end of the open courtyard, I see Mario grinning from the other side. I give him a quick nod and he jogs over to me.

“So? What d’you think so far?” he asks, shoving me playfully. “Not too bad, right?”… The girls—eh, not so great. But stick with me and I’ll show you all the hot spots.”

“You know, I actually like it. I kinda wish I would’ve done all of high school here. But… oh, well.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I felt the same way when I first got here… so, hey, if you want we can meet tomorrow after class and head over to the museum. We can start brainstorming for our project.”

“Sure. That’d be cool.”

“All right, man. See you tomorrow.” He pats me on the arm and jolts off to meet with a group of other friends.

 

* * *

On my way home, I make a quick stop at the local library. The night before, I tried to google the book Estelle had given me but hadn’t been able to find anything. Not surprising since the cover and title page are destroyed.

I know there’s more to it, though. There has to be. I can feel it.

While I wait for the librarian to get off the phone, I scan a copy of GQ Magazine from off the periodicals shelves. A picture of Beyonce in a CoverGirl ad stops me cold. The next thing I know, I’m imagining myself transporting to the middle of her elaborate photo shoot. I can literally envision her reactions, and her crew’s, as I appear out of thin air. I scoff at myself but continue flipping through the pages and visualizing being in on the tiny moments glamorized in the magazine.

The librarian calls out from behind me, “Sir? Did you need something from me?”  Sir?  Really?  Do I look like I’m balding yet?

“I’m younger than you are.” I snap, cracking a smile.

“Sorry.  Habit, I guess.  So…my help?  You needed it?”

“Oh yea.  I did.  I did.   I was hoping you could help me look for something I needed.”

I hand her the dilapidated book. At first she gives me a dry sigh and a hopeless look, but thankfully she has better luck at making out the ISBN on the back of the unreadable title page. Mostly because I keep persisting, she agrees to give it a try.

Her nametag reads “Dakota,” and she’s younger than most people I’ve seen working in libraries. She can’t be older than twenty. Light, fair skin. Pretty. Really pretty. Surprisingly hot, actually. Short, straight, blonde hair to her chin, and black-framed glasses that set off her crystal-green eyes.

Clearly uninterested in helping me out more than she absolutely has to, she points me over at the American History section and tells me what section to search under. I scan the numbers on the ends of the rows of bookcases until I get to 1600-2000. There have to be hundreds of books here. There’s no way I can get through all of this alone.

But I start scanning along each shelf for anything close to the size and shape of the book.  Nothing. It has to be here, though. I don’t have much time before the library closes. Fifteen minutes left. And I refuse to leave here without the book.

I get so impatient and storm up and down the aisle looking for the book. Then I start shoving the books from side to side, moving anything out of the way that isn’t the book. drop an 800-hundred-page monster on the floor. It lands with a crash, and through the gap on the shelf I see Dakota peering at me. Damn, she’s hot.

“Sorry,” I lip-synch to her before carefully picking up the book and putting it back.

I have to find this book. It might be the key to finding my parents. I go back to Dakota, who’s on the phone again. But she doesn’t seem too keen on helping me. All she does is wave a finger in my face and go on with her call. Probably her boyfriend or something.

I go on waiting. She shoots me an irritated glance. “One second!” she mouths, then turns around and gives me her back.

I hate when people do that.

I can’t take any more. “Hey!” I raise my voice loud enough so her boyfriend can hear it. “This is really important. I’m sure your boyfriend can wait.”

She turns back around to me, covers the phone mouthpiece with her palm, and lowers it to her thigh.

“I don’t know if you heard me,” she snaps, “but I said ‘one second.’”

I lean across her desk. “One second passed already.” If I had the guts, I’d just kiss her.

“Why don’t you go over and clean up your mess in the meantime, kid,” she smirks, and turns back around. I could swear she just read my mind.

“Kid”? Is she serious? O-kay. I’m not going to wait for her. I go back to searching for the book myself. Maybe if I make a big enough mess she’ll be forced to help me.  There’s about 10 minutes left before the library closes.  Doubt she’ll want to stay behind to clean after me.

I’m surprised when five minutes later I feel a tap on my shoulder, and Dakota’s standing there nearly digging her nails through my shirt. She hands me a large brown fabric-covered book.

“Here you go, kid. And for your information, it wasn’t my boyfriend. Somebody shelved it in the world history section. I had them bring it over. That’s who I was on the phone with. Hopefully the book has a nice little chapter on manners.” She’s smiling with only one corner of her mouth and making me feel like an asshole without her having to even say the word.

Wow. Burn! I feel so dumb that I can’t even say thank you when she swings around and walks off.

American History: A World Rediscovered.

Finally. I finally have it! I know there’s more to this book. I just know it.

I head back over to Dakota’s desk. “Sorry for earlier.”

She doesn’t look convinced.

“Cross my heart,” I persist. “I’ll be more polite next time.”

“Oh? Is that a promise? But there won’t be a next time unless you get yourself a library card.”

“Really? Didn’t know they still did the whole plastic card thing. Hm…would you know where I can get one?”

She relents and smiles. “They sure do.  And just so happens I can help you with that. Must be your lucky day.”

“Must be,” I grin back.

She cuts me a temporary card and checks the book out to me. I realize there’s something about her eyes that make me feel I don’t want to stop staring into them. “You have yourself a nice evening, Da-ko-ta.”

I’ve never been the library type, but I’ll definitely be back.

 

* * *

When I get back to Bud and Estelle’s, I have to stand in the foyer for a few moments and remind myself that this really is my new home. As I take in a deep breath and think about all the change that has occurred around me in such short time, I hear them in the kitchen.

“Hey, honey! How was the first day?” Estelle beams at me with enthusiasm as she wipes her hands with a paper towel. “Did you like it? Make any friends?”

“Yeah, tell us how it went,” Bud chimes in. “But first, we got you something. Go check out what’s on your bed.”

“Okay.” When I get up to my room, I see a tacky dolphin gift bag on my bed. It make me laugh, but when I open it, I’m stunned to see a brand-new Canon 7D and a photo album. And a card that reads:

 

Gavin, We couldn’t be more blessed to have you back in our lives. We know your camera was broken and we bought you this one as a welcoming home gift. We hope you love it. The photo album is filled with photos of your mom and dad, starting from the day after the photo you already have. Now you can have the relationship you were never able to have. We love you. 

Bless your soul, Estelle and Bud, XO 

 

They actually went out of their way to do this…for me. That means they consciously considered my feelings. No one’s done that for me since Leyla. It’s been so long the feeling feels foreign, unnatural. It almost feels wrong. Like I don’t deserve it.

I read it over and over and over. “We couldn’t be more blessed… We love you…

I don’t know how to even feel. What do you do when someone tells you they love you? Do you say it back? Is that how it’s supposed to work? How can I feel so good yet so  uncomfortable all at the same time?

I sit on the edge on my bed. This is what I wanted. Family. Acceptance. Being cared for. Considered. To feel genuinely a part of something. And here it is right in front of me. All mine.

I tuck the card under my pillow. I want it close to me when I sleep. So when I have my nightmares, I can dig my hand under and read it, and remember that things got better even when I thought they would only ever get worse. I am loved. I am loved. I have to repeat this a few times before I finally begin to accept and believe it. I am loved.

I open the album. The first slot is empty. I retrieve the photo they gave me from my camera bag and place it under the empty slot. I smile as I flip through pages of memories. I can’t remember the moments.  I wish I could, more than anything.

There are pictures of my birth, my fourth birthday, several Christmases, and countless random outings from ages one to four. Of course, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen these images, and my heart beats harder with every passing page.

I know I’m not going to cry or anything, but I’m having unfamiliar feelings that are making me breathe harder than usual, as if I’m panting. After a few minutes, I close the album abruptly and place it safely in one of the dresser drawers. Then I unpack the camera and set the battery to charge, which calms me. Finally I’m ready to make my way downstairs again.

Bud and Estelle are already sitting side by side at the dining room table eating, but before I take my chair I go over to them and wrap my arms around their necks and I just hug them.

“Thanks. A lot.” It surprises me at how fluidly and naturally the words roll off my tongue.  I’m not great with these situations.  They always make me feel uncomfortable.  But not now.  Now, I feel proud to give them my thanks.  I make my way over to “my” seat and cheer, “Now let’s eat! I’m starving!”

As I lean over to serve myself, Estelle reaches out at the same time.

“I got it!” I tell her, but she slaps my hand playfully. “Oh, no, you don’t! The kitchen and dining room table are my areas!”

“You better learn that quickly,” Bud laughs, pretending to stab a fork into his neck.

While we eat, I ask them more questions. “So where was the last place you guys traveled to?”

“Hm, I think it was Paris,” Estelle reflects. “In the Twenties. Actually, that was right around the…  fire. We haven’t traveled since.”

“That’s thirteen years ago! Why? I’d be traveling every day of my life! Are you guys crazy?”

“It’s not because we don’t want to,” Bud explains. “We wanted to go on traveling. To look for any moments in other history books where your parents might have traveled to. But it just didn’t work anymore.”

“Why, though?”

Bud shifts in his chair uncomfortably. “We don’t know. Maybe it’s just something that happens with old age. But my thought is that is has something to do with all the trauma. Maybe losing them the way we did affected our abilities. We lost so much all at once. And then having to give you up, too, and how scared we were for you… It’s the only factor I can think of that really makes any sense.”

I remain silent. Does this mean that I could lose my ability one day, too? What if it happens when I’m actually already traveling? I notice my breath starting to catch and I change the subject.

“Did you guys know that libraries actually have young people working at them? Like hot ones! There’s this girl at the library—”

“Oh yeah?” Bud laughs. “I thought only old single ladies worked at libraries. Stelle, maybe you should get a job there.”

She shoves his shoulder. “Oh, funny guy! Watch what you wish for, mister. I can make myself single very quickly.”

Bud puts his hands over his heart, gesturing a knife going through it. “Oh honey, but what would I do without you?”

We spend the rest of dinner laughing and joking around. I feel surprised by how naturally the three of us have been able to bond. Our relationship seems simple, like with my parents, as though we’ve never been apart. It’s almost as if we’re all consciously aware of the lost years and are determined to never allow any more time to slip by. And I keep reminding myself that I am loved.

After we finish eating, I offer to at least help wash the dishes. While I’m scraping off the remaining food, I raise my voice so they can hear me over the running water.

“I want to travel tonight. I’ve been looking through some textbooks, and there are a few places I really want to see.”

Hearing about their having lost their ability is creeping me out. Can I just up and lose mine too? What if it happens while I’m already traveling? I shake the fear from me. There’s only one thing I will allow myself to concentrate on. If they stopped being able to search for my parents, then I’m going to have to do it instead.

Estelle comes to the kitchen door. She’s frowning. “I really don’t think that’s safe just yet. You remember what I told you. What if someone follows you?”

“I’ve got to agree with Stelle,” Bud puts in. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. Not yet.”

“You guys!” I say. I already love them, but I’ve lived for more than thirteen years with people telling me what I could and couldn’t do. This is not what I came here for. “Thank you for caring for me and all, but it’s not your decision to make.” I hate to say what I’m going to say next, but I have to. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you guys gave up that right thirteen years ago.”

I feel sort of bad, but it’s true. I don’t really think that they have the authority suddenly to start dictating my actions now.

Estelle begins to cry. “We’ve lived every day knowing we had to give you up when it was the last thing we wanted! I hope you forgive us one day.”

Bud pulls her into his arms. “That was a low one, Gavin. What we did was for you only. For your safety.”

I can’t look at them. I fix my eyes on the floor, biting my lips. I didn’t mean to make Estelle cry. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. This is all still really fresh for me.”

“I know. Come here, buddy,” he says, opening his other arm to me.

I go over and hug them. At first I feel stiff and uncomfortable. But after a few seconds, my body starts to relax and I realize we’ve blended perfectly into a circle of three.

“So where’s your first trip gonna be to?” Bud asks. “You know, if you want any recommendations, I have a photo that to this very day is still my favorite. Ancient Greece. Stunning.”

Estelle wipes her eyes with her thumbs. “Oh, honey, that was nice, but it doesn’t compare to Ming Dynasty China! Remember?”

The moment has come. This is going to knock their socks off.

“Actually, I have even better news,” I say. “Are you guys ready for this? I found the book! The librarian helped me. So now I want to see if there’s anything in it that’ll tell me what happened to my parents. Whether they did escape. I want to find them.”

Silence.

Bud and Estelle exchange apprehensive looks, but after a moment he nods and she says, “Then we encourage you to try.  Because we know you have to. They are your parents after all, and we know you think you have a chance of finding them—but don’t want you to be disappointed if it turns out to be impossible. I mean, there are hundreds of pictures in that book, I’m sure, and—”

“Yeah,” Bud interrupts. “Do you even have any idea where you’d start?”

“Not really,” I say. “But I’m sure I’ll find something… Look, guys, I’ll be fine! I’m a big boy. I think I can handle it. Whatever happens. I’ve lived all these years without them—if I don’t find anything, then nothing will have changed, right? But I’ve got to try.”

I can tell by how they’re looking at each other that they’re still uncomfortable with the idea. I know they don’t want to see me hurt. But even if they say no, I’m going. And they know it too.

Bud breaks the silence. I see a grain of sadness in his eyes. “Promise us you’ll be careful. The moment you sense any danger, you get out of there! I’m serious.”

“Of course, guys! Come on! You’ve spent this long without me in your hair! I’m not about to stop torturing you now!” I wink and give them an obnoxious loud chuckle, then sprint up the stairs, where I can’t resist giving them a final snarky shot. “If I’m not back in a few hours, just call the photo traveler police!”

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

I grab the book and start flipping through the brittle, tightly printed pages hoping that something will grab my attention. For about an hour nothing jumps out at me. Just pages upon pages of hopeless material. Maybe I was wrong to think I actually had a chance. Estelle was right. There are hundreds of images. This is beginning to look impossible.

Then, on page 378, a drawing of the Salem witch trials of 1692 catches my eye. It depicts a real scene of a 1690s’ courtroom taken from behind a pile of wooden crates. There’s a girl crouched over on the floor. A crowd of people that looks scarily angry. And a guy with big hair before the cowering girl, whom I think is the judge.

I reach for my camera lens because I notice a small smudge on a corner of one of the crates. When I use the lens to magnify it, it seems to actually be a couple of carved letters or symbols, like when people carve their initials inside a heart on a tree trunk. It’s probably just a scratch, but it’s the closest thing to a lead that I’ve seen so far after going through about 200 illustrations and images.

Estelle and Bud said I should never travel to a photo where my presence would stand out. From what I remember in class, the witch trials were violent and intense. I should be able to travel there without the chance of being noticed.

I place a sticky note at the top of the page, right over the image, so I’ll be able to find it again later, and sit up straight, breathing in deeply. Then I chant: “To this time, allow my travel. Take me there, let time unravel.

 

 

* * *

I’m in the courtroom. It’s filled with agitated Puritans screaming at a teenage girl who is being held to the floor by two burly men. Standing behind a tall counter across the room is the judge.

Fortunately, I’ve landed behind the crates, which gives me a perfect view of the trial. I probably should have changed clothes to something less… modern. I don’t think they exactly wore jeans in this era.

I’m trying to hear the judge’s words, but it’s difficult because the dozens of townspeople are howling over one another. One woman shrieks, “I’ve seen her wandering the streets in the middle of the night! What decent lady would act so?”

A toothless, disheveled man next to her shouts, “And her husband! He’s disappeared!”

Another man leans forward and spits on the girl. “She’s a daughter of the devil! With my own eyes, I’ve heard her speaking the language of demons!”

The mob starts chanting. “Witch! Witch! Witch!”

This is crazy.

The girl, who I don’t think can be older than sixteen, is slumped over on the floor. Her hands are bound together with thick, coarse brown rope. She looks petrified and is weeping with her face toward the ground.  I can’t hear her saying anything, but she seems to be whispering to herself. Maybe praying. She’s dressed in a long-sleeved black dress with a white collar and cuffs and her hair is hidden in a white bonnet. Like a costume. Like something along the lines to what pilgrims wore.

I can’t believe that the actions playing out in front of me are actually real. But they are.

“Elizabeth Wills!” the judge shouts. The two men holding the girl refer to him as Magistrate John Howlands. “You have been accused of demonic witchcraft. How do you find yourself?”

As she turns her face toward him, the crowd goes silent. She swallows hard and then says softly, “I know of no devil. My faith is in my Lord. I know not of any other way.”

“Blasphemy!” a woman near her shrieks. “She lies!”

“Silence!” the judge thunders. He then orders his assistants, “Take her outside so we may examine the circumstances.”

As the two men drag her outside, the crowd continues shouting. Their fury is terrifying. I feel my heart pounding. I have to shake the numbness from my hands and hold myself back from whimpering. I look around and spot a narrow line of sunlight coming through an unobtrusive pair of swinging doors that lead out of the courtroom. Maybe I can get to her that way.

Before I make a run for the doors, I look for the carving I had seen in the book. I feel around the crate in front of me until I finally find it—the initials “L + A 96” carved into one of the panels. I run my fingers along the marks. Could this be—

I’m brought back to reality by the crash of a distant crate being pushed over. The crowd’s becoming more frenzied. I have to get out before I’m caught. I drop into a crouch and sprint for the swinging doors.

Elizabeth is lying in a courtyard only a few feet from me. Her arms are wrapped around one of the posts that support the overhanging roof, bound by the same rope.  She’s weeping and begging her God to protect her. I can feel my heart breaking. I know she isn’t a witch. But from what I can remember from the pages of the book, she will not survive this. I feel helpless. I know I can’t change the past, but there’s no way I can let her just die.

I edge toward her from behind and stammer, “Miss Wills?”

She keeps her face averted and doesn’t respond.

“I’m not here to hurt you. I promise.”

She still refuses to look at me, but I see tears running down her cheeks. “Please leave me alone! Let me be alone with my God!”

“I don’t know how to say this, but I know you are not a witch.”

“I know nothing of such vile things!” she sobs. “But at this moment I wish it were true, for then the death I am facing would have some justification!” She finally looks up at me and takes a deep, surprised breath when she looks into my eyes. “Your eyes! Where do you come from? Are… are you in fact a witch? Is that how you know who I am when I do not know who you are?”

“No! I come from the future. I know it sounds strange, but—”

“Your eyes are like theirs! 

My heart skips a beat. “‘Theirs’? Whose?

“The lady and the man! You look like them!”

“A lady and man who looked like me?”

“They dressed as you do, and their eyes shimmered like the planets. They were witches, too!”

My hands are shaking. “Where are they now? Please tell me! I need to know!”

She turns her head away from me. “They disappeared into the air. While I was watching them. That is how I know they were witches. They left me to be hanged when it should have been them!”

“Elizabeth, please! Are you sure they disappeared?”

She doesn’t respond. Come on, Elizabeth, answer me. “Please,” I beg. “They’re my parents! Help me find them!”

The word “parents” causes her to look at me again. She shakes her head. “They have fled. The man told the woman ‘great’ something, and ‘Quickly!’ And then I saw them vanish with my own eyes. Now leave me be!”

“I can help you. I can help you escape.”

Her tear-filled blue eyes light up. “Yes. Oh, yes! Please set me free. My Lord has heard my prayers! My Lord has heard my prayers!”

“Please, be silent,” I warn her as I grab a jagged piece of rock from the dirt and begin scraping it against the rope. I’m getting more and more frightened. The waves of noise from inside are growing louder, and terror is catching in my throat.  Just as the rope around her wrists starts to give way, I hear a pistol being cocked and feel the barrel of a gun against my skull. I freeze.

“Step away from the witch and announce your name!” It’s the voice of one of the court officials.

“I come in… peace?” I answer nervously.

“Siblings of the black beast! You have come to protect your witched sister, have you not? Kneel before me!”

He summons the other assistants from inside. They throw me to the ground and tie my hands with the same skin-prickling rope. What have I gotten myself into? This is not good. This is not good at all.

They drag us both inside. The crowd, even more enraged than before, shrieks and jeers, “Hang them both! Hang them both!”

Magistrate Howlands peers down on us. “You both have been found guilty. And will be executed by way of hanging immediately.”

Did he just say… hanging? You’re kidding me! No, no, no! This is not how this is supposed to play out. This is supposed to happen only to her, not me! I begin to sweat profusely and grow more anxious. I try to remember the return chant that will take me back home, but my mind is frozen. This cannot be happening.

Elizabeth stands with her eyes closed, tears rolling down her cheeks. She continues whispering prayers to herself.

The same two brutal assistants grab us both by our bound arms and shove us toward the doors of the courthouse. The crowd screeches with frantic joy, hugging and rejoicing over our imminent execution.

As they pour out of the courthouse behind us, the assistants drag us to a wooden platform, eight feet high, directly under a noose that dangles from a large limb of a leafless, skeletal tree that appears to symbolize death waiting for its next victim. I’m literally about to throw up.

“No Beasts of the Blackness shall reside in our midst!” Magistrate Howlands announces. “Mistress Elizabeth Wills and her unidentified demonic brother will be hanged, never to walk our God-fearing community again!”

I watch in despair as the assistants force Elizabeth up onto the platform where a man in an oversized black cloak who resembles the Reaper places the noose around her neck and tightens it. She continues moving her lips in prayer.

When he steps back from her, she opens her eyes and scans the mob, which suddenly grows silent.

“I pray that—” She stops to catch her breath. “—that your Lord will forgive you for my murder. I shall forever rest in peace, in the name of my God.”

Then she moves her foot over the edge of the pedestal—and allows her body to follow.

I gasp along with the mob, but I have to bury my chin to my chest because my hands are bound and I can’t cover my eyes against the sight of her lifeless body dangling in mid-air.

Come on, Gavin! What are the words? “Back in time… Home I go…?” I’m trying desperately to remember but nothing works. I look up and my eyes meet Elizabeth’s dead gaze. I swear she’s looking right at me. I turn away, holding myself from nearly throwing up again.

The Reaper grabs her body and pulls her in toward him. As he unties the rope from around her broken neck, she collapses against him and he loses his grip. Her body falls eight feet off the platform and onto the hard ground. Her head smashes against a small boulder near me, and when I see her bloody skull and lifeless body lying at my feet, I can no longer hold back my nausea. I turn my head to the side and let it all out.

I’m pushed through the crowd as they hiss at me and throw stones and branches in my way. I drop to my knees and beg for my life, and I don’t even feel the stones cutting into my skin because I’m so terrified. The assistants drag me toward the platform and hand me over to the Reaper, who pulls me up to my doom.

“Please!  Please!  I’ll give anything!”  Sweat is oozing from every crevices of my body.

I can’t believe it’s ending this way. I can barely control my breathing. I’m standing on quivering legs on this platform under the stale wind.

“No!  Please!”  I beg again, but the Reaper just continues adjusting the rope around my neck. The rough strands scratch my throat when I swallow.

Magistrate Howlands throws me a look of disgust and tosses a small woven bag towards the Reaper. “Cover his head! I never want to see those vile and disgraceful eyes again. His final moments should be filled with darkness.”

The Reaper pulls it over my head, stealing my final moments of sight and life from me. The material, which smells of a dead animal, scratches at my face. This is the last thing I will remember.

“On my count of three!” I hear the magistrate proclaim triumphantly. “One!… Two!…”