THE PHOTO TRAVELER

By Arthur Gonzalez All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER NINE

Two days later, I enroll in Museum Magnet High. At first Bud and Estelle had a fit about me enrolling in school with all the looming danger, but surprisingly I was the one who wanted it. I didn’t put up with all the torturous years of high school in Saddlehorn to become a dropout now. It isn’t far from the house and I only have a couple of months remaining to graduate. A diploma will always come in handy. And with everything going on, school will be a good distraction. Senior year is like barely going to school anyway.

Naturally, I choose Photography 4 as my elective. The teacher, Mr. Perry, was impressed by my portfolio and 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. MMH is more selective and is geared towards the students’ interests and talents.

Mr. Perry enters the room and drops his bag on this desk. I don’t know what I was expecting, but he’s wicked young. Probably 28 or 30 max.

“Morning class.” He announces with a wide, toothy grin. “We have a new addition today. Gavin Hillstone.”

I slouch in my seat as all eyes fall on me.

“Don’t worry. I’ll save you the embarrassment of having to stand up and tell us three interesting facts about your life. Good to have you in our class. I hope you find it interesting.” Then he dives right into the day’s lesson. “So we are going to be starting the year’s final projects. Mario, I’d like you to partner with Gavin on this. The rest of you can gather into groups of two. Five minutes. Go, go.”

My partner, Mario Perez, is a Cuban American senior. He opens his wide mouth in a yawn and studies me with his hazel eyes, which are so bright they look like they’d glow in the dark. He turns his desk to face mine and whispers, “Sup homie? How’s the first day?” He runs a hand through his short faded hair.

“Not too bad. So far at least…” I say.

“Yea I feel you.” He smiles, and I notice he has one of those butt-chins I usually make fun of, but it actually looks good on him. “You’ll like this class. Mr. Perry rocks. Best teacher by a landslide,” he continues. “The school’s not too bad either. Food kinda sucks, but you can’t win em’ all, you know?”

“Yea, guess not.”

“If you need someone to show you around, let me know. Being the ‘new kid’ can suck. I moved from Miami last year so I know how it feels.”

I grin and feel a wave of relief. “Thanks. I appreciate that, man.”

When everyone has selected a partner, Mr. Perry describes the projects. His enthusiasm is obvious as he announces the outline for it. Like he stayed up all night drafting it.

“Each team will have to select one museum and create an oversized collage of your favorite exhibitions. The sum of the photos will create a larger picture of something that symbolizes the entire museum or something you’ve learned,” he explains. “You will be graded on technique, the individual photos, and overall presentation. So choose wisely.”

The moment he mentions museums, my eyes light up. This’ll be my chance to make it to the museums.

“All right, so time to choose the museum of choice.” Mr. Perry says.

You decide,” I tell Mario. “You’ve been here longer.”

“My favorite’s the Air and Space Museum,” he says, “but Maria and David already called dibs on it. What about the Smithsonian? It’s the Natural History Museum. 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 ‘em 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 Smithsonian.”

He excitedly points his finger at Mario, like a proud parent. “Ah – good choice my boy. Fine museum it is.” He turns and writes it on the dry-erase board.

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. 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. I step out in the long hall and walk at a brisk pace, wandering with peace, examining it all.

The sudden 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? 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 out of his classroom.

“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.

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

“It’s good…so far at least. I’m more excited about your class the most. Photography is sort of my baby.”

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.”

“Really?” I glance 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 glossy, black hair. “I didn’t make you stand up in class today, but I do like to know a little something about my students. 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—but you know that already.” I shrug. “I don’t know. Not really an exciting person.”

He squints, only exposing a sliver of his blue eyes, then cracks another one of his smiles. “I think there’s more to you than you give yourself credit for. I think this is going to be a good place for you. Actually, I know it. This school 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. I mean that.”

I glimpse the red ink of a tattoo peeking out from the sleeve of his polo shirt.

I point. “What’s that of?”

“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 triceps.

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. Mario mentioned in class that it changes every year. The seniors redo it as a parting ritual.

I head toward the exit and spot Mario at the end of the open courtyard. I give him a quick nod, which prompts him to jog 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. 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. You’re right too. Mr. Perry rocks.”

“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.”

“Tomorrow? Oh. Yea, yea. 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 grab a copy of GQ Magazine from the periodicals shelves and start flipping through. 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 scanning 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 yeah. I did. I did. I was hoping you could help me identify this book.”

I hand her the dilapidated history text. 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.

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 hair, fair skin. Pretty. Really pretty. Surprisingly hot, actually. Short, straight, blonde hair to her chin, and black-framed hipster glasses that set off her crystal-green eyes.

Clearly uninterested in helping me out more than she absolutely has to, she points me to 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. And I want to find it within the next fifteen minutes, before this place closes. I refuse to leave here without the book.

I storm up and down the aisles 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. I 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 mouth to her before carefully picking up the book and putting it back.

I have to find an undamaged copy of 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. Is there anyone else that works here, maybe?”

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 leather-bound 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.

The chips of cracked leather prick the bottom of my fingers. “Please lead me to my parents.”

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? They still do library cards? Didn’t know they still did the whole plastic card thing. 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 stand on the front porch for a few moments and remind myself that this really is my new home. As I take in a deep breath, I think about all the change that has occurred around me in such short time. I open the door and 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? No one tried to bully you did they? I’ve seen that on the news lately so much, it breaks my heart.”

“Nope. No bullying. It was actually pretty good.”

“Wait, wait. Not yet,” Bud chimes in. “We want to hear all the details. But first, we got you something. Go check out what’s on your bed.”

“Okay.” I hurry up the stairs and tear through my door. A tacky dolphin gift bag is waiting for me on my bed. It makes 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 ‘welcome 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. No one’s done anything so nice since Leyla. It’s been so long it 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. 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. That way, 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 flip through pages of memories; most of which I can’t remember.

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. It’s not like I’m going to cry or anything, but suddenly my chest hurts too.

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, but before I sit down I say, “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 gratitude. I take “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 away 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 really traveled since.”

“That’s thirteen years ago. Why? I’d be traveling every day of my life. What’s wrong with you guys?”

Bud gives a deep sigh and sinks back into his chair. “The thing is... all this torture and loss, the danger chasing us, it’s all because of photo traveling. Yes, we can still travel, but we don’t anymore. It’s a decision we both made a long time ago. Since the fire actually. The last two times have been the first time in years.”

“We just can’t handle it anymore,” Estelle says. “All it does is remind us of what we’ve lost and what we’ll never have again. It eats away at both of us. We’ve lost so much all at once.”

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, old man. 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 help wash the dishes. While I’m scraping off the remaining food, I raise my voice so my grandparents can hear me over the running water. “I want to travel tonight. I’ve been looking through some books, and there are a few places I really want to see.”

Hearing about their having lost their ability has freaked me out, but 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 something happens to you?”

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

“You guys,” I start. “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 gave up that right thirteen years ago.”

Estelle begins to cry and Bud pulls her into his arms. “That was a low one, Gavin.”

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 the 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. “That was nice, but it doesn’t compare to Ming Dynasty China. Remember?”

“Actually, I have even better news,” I say. “Are you guys ready for this? I found the book from the fire! 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. If they did escape, I want to find them.”

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!”

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