“Let him go! Or I’ll shoot you all dead!” My heart stops. I know that voice.
The crowd is shrieking, no longer in rage but in terror. “It’s the devil himself! Those same eyes! The demons have come to murder us!”
I shake the bag off my head. It is Bud! I can’t believe it! “Bud!” I shout. New tears—of excitement, of desperation—spill from my eyes.
Bud points an automatic rifle straight up in the air and fires three rounds, lowers it and points it at the crowd. “All of you! Back! Now!”
He moves through the crowd aiming in the direction of everyone he passes. They shrink back, obviously too terrified to confront the armed Devil.
“You!” He gestures at the Reaper with the rifle. “Come down here!”
The Reaper hurries down the steps looking as terrified as the rest of the townspeople. Bud climbs the steps and comes over to me but keeps the rifle aimed at the frozen crowd.
“Bud!” I stammer. “I couldn’t remember the chant!”
“You couldn’t have chosen something a little more peaceful? I don’t know… like maybe the ’60s?” he asks sarcastically while he unties my hands.
“We will not allow this abomination!” Magistrate Howland suddenly roars, with a dark, shadowy look of death in his eyes. “The devil shall never hold power over our people!” He raises his arm and points at us. “In the name of Our Lord, attack!”
The crowd stampedes toward us. The men form a circle around the base of the platform pedestal and begin shaking and kicking them. The planks shake and tremor. The piercing screams of the women cheering them on fill my ears with anger, hate, fear. Moments later, the shaking makes me lose my footing. I reach out and grab the dangling rope before I fall over. My grip is slipping and my palms are blistering from how hard I’m trying to hold on. I kick at the air frantically until I somehow manage to wedge one foot into the loop. Then I use my other foot to help me swing my body from side to side like a pendulum until I reach a nearby branch. I wrap my arms around it so tightly that I’m afraid it’ll snap in half.
But where’s Bud? I crane around and see that he’s still firmly on his feet, oscillating his rifle’s aim in every direction to keep the mob intimidated. But he doesn’t shoot.
“Bud!” I shout. “Shoot!”
“I can’t! You know the rules!”
“They’re going to kill us! We’ll die!”
A woman struggles through the front of the crowd, picks up a rock, and aims it at him.
“Watch out!” I scream.
He wheels around just in time but loses his balance and half-falls off the platform.
He’s clutching at the edge of the platform where three men are trying to pull him down.
I let go of the branch and let myself fall to the ground. I land on my back a few feet from the platform.
Bud shouts and I hear a loud thud. I finally jump to my feet. He’s on the ground in the middle of the mob. I can’t see if he’s moving.
“Leave him alone!” But I’m helpless. I’m too far away, and they’re closing in on him like greedy vultures.
Magistrate Howland grabs Bud’s rifle and aims it at me. “To your knees, demon!” he shouts.
My heart stops.
“We’re not demons! Please! Spare us!” I beg, but something slams into the back of my head. Hard. And everything goes black.
When I come to, I’m enveloped in a cloud of smoke that’s growing thicker by the second. The back of my head is throbbing and as I start to choke, I realize that Bud and I are slumped on the platform—tied together back to back with the same rope that would have snapped my neck.
Below us the crowd is still jeering and chanting, “Burn! Burn, demons! Burn!”
They’re burning us alive.
“Bud!” I shout, wriggling around desperately. “Bud!”
But he’s unconscious, a dead weight against my back. I see the flames that have already engulfed the edges of the platform inching closer by the second. The smoke is getting so dense that the crowd is turning into a nightmare of shifting shadows. The fire is sucking away all the air. Breathing is difficult, the sweat dripping in waves. I heave myself over onto my side, bringing Bud’s weight with me. Then again. After a moment, he lets out a grunt of pain.
“Bud! Wake up!”
“What’s… happening?” he mutters, and starts coughing uncontrollably.
“We need to go! Now! They’re burning us alive!”
His eyes shoot open. He stares at the ambitious inferno around us. The dry planks are about to burst into full flame. “Hurry! Repeat after me! ‘Take me home to what is mine. Back to the present, back to my time.’”
He vanishes and the rope loosens around me. The crowd roars louder. The fire is almost at my feet. I can’t waste another moment. “Take me home to what is mine, Back to the present, back to my time—”
Again, we’re in my room. Just as I had left it. The same dolphin paintings. My God, I never thought I’d be so happy to see them. From now on, they’re priceless as far as I’m concerned.
Bud’s slumped on the floor rubbing the side of his head.
I crouch next to him. “I’m sorry!” I stammer. “I don’t know what happened! I couldn’t remember the words! And I was freaking out! The girl’s body…it was hanging there—and I knew I was next—” I’m mortified. “I messed up so badly—”
He coughs and wipes his mouth with his hand, then rubs the black smoke smudges onto his shirt. “You could’ve gotten yourself killed, Gavin! Killed!”
“I know. I swear it won’t happen again. I promise.”
“Photo traveling isn’t a joke! What did we tell you? You’re lucky your grandmother fell asleep early. You would’ve killed her from how scared she would’ve been for you. Nearly killed me.”
I can’t even look him in the eyes.
He scans me, then pats me on the back. “Get some rest,” he says gently. “You’ve got school in the morning.” He hauls himself to his feet and limps to the door.
“Wait.” I call out.
He turns back to me, but his eyes are droopy and fiery red. It’s not the right time.
“Nothing. I just want to thank you again. I mean it.”
He sighs, and I hear what an effort it is for him to breathe. “I will die before I lose you again, Gavin.” He closes the door behind him.
I stand there all alone staring at my swelled palms. The physical pain is nothing compared to my boiling rage at myself for how reckless I’ve been. I shove my books off the bed and jump under my covers. The hell with showering. I turn on the TV. I’ve got to try to forget what’s actually just happened, that I almost got us both killed. But I can’t stop the moments from replaying in my mind.
My head is burning hot. My eyes are stinging. I can’t tell if it’s mental or just my body reacting to the trauma I’ve just lived through. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to force tears. Maybe they’ll wash away the traces of resins from in the logs.
I fight the exhaustion, sit up, force my eyes open, but my body is beyond my control. But as I start drifting off, I remember... the initials on the wooden crate, and the number 96. The year my parents “died” in the fire! And Elizabeth said she had seen two people with eyes like mine. My parents. It had to be them. They must’ve transported to her trial to escape the fire. So had they left a message for me, or for Bud and Estelle? And the “great” something that my father had mentioned? What was that?
I was so close, but now I seem to be right back where I started. My emotions are in overdrive, running on a fighting mix of adrenaline and restlessness. But they’re no match for my exhaustion. It’s too much to sort this out right now. I’ll figure it all out tomorrow. Maybe a new day will bring me some better surprises. Surprises that won’t risk my life, or Bud’s and Estelle’s. I’ll piece the loose ends together tomorrow. Tomorrow…
The next day I have to fight to keep from dozing off in school.
Someone taps me on the shoulder, waking me up.
“Gavin, you mind sharing your dreams with us? Apparently they’re pretty incredible.” Mr. Perry grins, calling me out in front of class.
I shake my head. “Sorry…”
This is the third time he’s caught me. But I’m drained. I kept waking up all night to images of Elizabeth’s bloodied body and her lifeless eyes gazing at me. And every time she woke me, I would toss and turn and remember that I had almost gotten myself and Bud killed.
After class, Mario and I agree to meet at the museum at five to start our project. Not the day I would have chosen, but I’m going to take advantage of it anyway.
As I’m heading out the door, Mr. Perry calls out to me. He’s sitting on the table with his big arms crossed. “Hey, Gavin, what’s up with you today? I had to wake you up at least four times. You all right there?”
I’m not sure if he’s scolding me or is genuinely concerned, so at first I don’t make eye contact. But when I finally glance up, I’m relieved to see that he’s grinning.
“Yeah,” I tell him. “I’m still adjusting to everything. You know, the time change. New surroundings. Massive headache, too.”
He plunks himself down in Mario’s seat and turns it so he’s facing me. “I know that moving all the way across the country probably isn’t very easy. Especially given your age. But my offer’s always on the table. If there is, in fact, any time you ever need to talk, about whatever… you come to me. Got it?”
I pull my camera bag over my shoulder and stand up. “Got it, Mr. P.” I head for the door but stop before I open it and turn back to him. “I really do appreciate it.”