THE PHOTO TRAVELER

By Arthur Gonzalez All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER TWELVE

I have a notepad with me, ready to take notes on any exhibits I may want to… revisit. I had hoped to get to the Smithsonian before Mario, but when I arrive he’s already lounging on the steps with his oversized, metallic red headphones around his head, drumming at his legs to some melody. I jog casually up the steps, greet him and then we make our way into the wildly massive museum building.

“Close your eyes. I want to catch your reaction when I show you something,” he says.

I obey and he leads me into what I can immediately sense is a huge, open space.

“All right. Open.”

When I open my eyes, a twelve-ton elephant is staring right back at me. It gives me the creeps.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Mario grins. “When I first saw it, I thought it was awesome.”

Hell, yeah, it’s awesome. That thing’s enormous.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought. So what do you think about starting in the geology, gems, and minerals galleries—get some great shots and put them together to resemble a giant necklace, like they would be in an exhibit. Something like that.”

“Sure. Sounds like an easy A to me.”

We climb the stairs to the second level and take shots of the most amazing crystals, gems, and jewels I’ve ever seen. Colors I never knew diamonds even came in. Rings so large I imagine it would take four fingers to hold them up.

When we get to the Harry Winston Gallery, the Hope Diamond blows me away—the way it does everybody, I guess. The brilliant deep-blue diamond in its new Harry Winston–designed setting is surreal. The smaller diamonds on the necklace sparkle under the exhibit lights, creating a solar system of radiance around the Hope. I’ve read the legends about its supposed “curse” before and its travels through historic family wealth and royalty. I’d give anything to see the things it has seen.

Mario pulls me out of my daze by nudging me and gesturing at the line of people waiting behind us. I don’t want to step aside, even though I know we have to. Reluctantly, I back away still staring at the diamond, but as I turn I bump into someone behind me and end up stepping on his foot.

A man in his early-forties moans in pain, drops one of his crutches, bends over and grabs the scrub-green cast hugging his foot.

“I’m sorry!”

“Damn it!” he shouts. “I just had surgery on that foot!” He yanks me by the collar of my t-shirt.

“It was an accident man!” I fling his hand away from me. “Get your hands off me!”

He grabs at my shirt again. “You punk!” he says, repeatedly stabbing my chest with end of his other crutch. “Are you going to pay for my next doctor’s visit? Huh?”

“I said let go of me!”

Something inside me snaps. My vision goes dark and the sounds around me fade into silence. Then the image of Jet’s angry face flashes in the darkness. I ram my knee into the guy’s gut and he collapses to the floor, coughing over his crutches.

Mario grabs me from behind and locks his arms around my chest and drags me away from the guy. “Hey! Hey, man, snap out of it!”

The guy scrambles to his feet and staggers toward me. “Bastard! I’m going to have you arrested!”

“Don’t touch me! Ever!” I shout.

I hear shouting and running footsteps behind us, and someone in a navy-blue museum uniform barrels into him and knocks him down again.

“Let’s not get crazy, now. You better stay right there if you know what’s good for ya, sugah.”

Then I spot the signature gray pigtails. Meesha!

She wheels around and stops still when she sees me. “You again! What’s going on here?”

I’m trembling. “I bumped into him by mistake. Then he attacked me.”

“Trouble follows you, don’t it, sweet thang?”

“No–it was an accident! I swear.”

She sighs. “I’ll take care of this. Go on, get!”

My mind’s buzzing with a mixture of rage, shame, embarrassment, relief. I turn and run out of the exhibit, past the birthstones and celebrity jewels exhibits, past the moon and space displays.

Mario’s running after me. “Gavin! Stop!” He pants. I couldn’t care less. I don’t stop. I spot a restroom and dash into it. He follows me in and pushes me against the cold tile wall. “Dude!” He plants his arms on either side of me. “Chill!”

“It wasn’t my fault! He touched me first!” I’m having trouble breathing. I haven’t had an asthma attack in years, but I feel like I’m on the verge of one now.

“Nobody said it was your fault. The guy overreacted.” He shakes my shoulders. “Hey, man. Breathe!”

I manage to catch my breath, but I’m feeling really shaky. The center of my chest is throbbing from all of the guy’s crutch prodding. “I shouldn’t have touched him.”

“No. You shouldn’t have. But you didn’t think twice about it. I don’t think I would have either. The guy was taking out all his anger on you.”

I hesitate, then admit, “I blacked out. I‘ve never done that before. I’m sorry...”

“You don’t need to explain, bro.”

I let my back slide down the wall until I’m sitting on the floor. “My adoptive father used to call me crap all the time. And he used to…I just snapped.”

Mario shakes his head. “Hey... it’s cool. Really.” He sits down next to me. We go silent and just sit for several minutes. I feel my breathing settle down.

“Listen,” he finally says. “It’s six thirty. I need to get home. Family’s leaving on a business trip.”

“Okay.”

“You sure you’ll be cool now if I take off?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

“Okay then.” He gets to his feet and pulls me up.

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” I tell him. “And go over the shots we were able to take!”

“We got some good ones. How about you come over to my place tomorrow and we can choose the best ones? But you’ve gotta promise not to attack our housekeeper.” He laughs. “Kidding.”

I manage to laugh back. “Yea. Yea. Sounds good.”

He leaves, and I sink back to the tiled floor and bury my face in my hands. What’s wrong with me? I can’t be reacting like that. I’m in a different place now. Both emotionally and physically. I thought I’d left that part of me back in Nevada where it belongs. I refuse to ever be like Jet! But what if that part is so deep inside me already that I won’t ever be able to contain it? That really scares me.

I poke my head around the door and sneak out, taking the opposite direction from the geology, gems, and minerals galleries. I check out some of the other exhibits and take a particular liking to the Egyptian mummies and dinosaurs. I wish there were photos of prehistoric times.

As I’m leaving, I pass the museum shop and get an idea. The girl at the cash register points me to a side door when I ask for a manager. Inside, two uniformed men are staring disinterestedly at a bank of video monitors.

“Can we help you, kid?” asks the bearded, heavier set one. He has one long, glistening nose hair hanging out of his left nostril. Gross.

“Uh, you guys wouldn’t happen to be hiring, would you?”

The other guy twists around in his seat and grunts, “Actually, you showed up just at the right time.” His badge reads Mitch. He hands me a clear plastic clipboard with an application attached to it. “Here, fill this out.”

I smile and fill it out. When I hand it back, he skims it over and jerks his head in a nod. “Okay, Hillstone, we’ll see how our applications are looking and maybe have you come in for an interview.”

Hillstone. The last name makes me cringe. Jet was right about one thing—I’ll never be a “real” Hillstone. And I’m completely okay with that. The only part of “Hillstone” that I’ll let stay with me from here on out is the piece of Leyla that still lives inside me.

I hope they actually call me. The last time I tried to get a job, at the local tech store in Saddlehorn, the crazy lady with the mustache and unibrow told me the same thing. Except she never did call. I just figured she got caught up shaving.

I head back out to the Rotunda and give the elephant one last stare. That thing is huge.

When I walk out of the museum, Meesha’s waiting for me on the steps with her arms crossed. “So, what the hell was that all about, baby doll?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. He wouldn’t let go, and he kept poking me with his crutch. I just… attacked back. I know I shouldn’t have.”

She studies me for a moment, biting the corner of her top lip, and then she cracks a smile. “You’re lucky I was around, hmm? You better add me to that Christmas list of yours, is all I’m sayin’.”

“I’m not in trouble?”

“Not today you ain’t. Was able to get him some complimentary admission passes and he was as good as gold. I tell you, you give away something for free and the world is suddenly a better place. It’s like nothing ever happened.”

I smile back. “Thanks… So…what? Do you work like five jobs or something?”

“Or somethin’ is damn right. A couple of good friends own the bus business, and Petey and I drive it every so often. It’s supposed to be just once a month. That’s a long drive to be doing any more than that. I ain’t got time for that. But… I am a good friend, and we’ve been helping out some more since their granddaughter was born. That’s a time to be with family, you know? On the side we work part-time for the company that supplies security guards here. We got bills to pay.”

“Thanks for believing me back there? Most people usually don’t. I guess I should get home. Thanks again for your help.”

“I’ve got my eye on you, sweet thang. You better belieeeeve it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that I’ma be watchin’ you.” She gives me the suspicious eye again and shakes her head. “Mm-hmm. You take care of yourself now.” She plants a wet kiss from her big lips on my cheek and heads back inside as I hop down the museum steps toward the subway.

My phone rings again as I reach Bud and Estelle’s porch. The number shocks me, but I pick up.

“Hello?”

“Gavin? It’s Dina. Oh, Gavin, it’s good to hear your voice.”

My voice is as dark as night. “Dina? Why are you calling me?”

“Come home, Gavin. Please. We miss you. All of us.”

My hands start shaking. “Don’t call me again. Please…” I press the END button.

I feel a slight pang of guilt about having left them, but I know it was right. I figure “out of sight, out of mind.” What could she possibly have to tell me anyway? That Jet wants me back “home”? That he really does love me? Come on, give me a break.

The phone rings again but I send it right to voicemail. I’m sorry, Dina. I really am. This isn’t about you.

The door creaks open and I see Bud looking out at me. He has an ice pack to his head. “You all right?” he asks. I nod. “Okay… Well, you coming in or are you planning to sleep out here on the porch for the night?”

He steps aside to let me go in. I hear Estelle in the kitchen humming away to some song. The TV is tuned to the news on CNN.

Bud sits down on the couch and I flop down beside him. I hesitate, then say, “I have to tell you again how sorry I am about last night. It was really irresponsible. It won’t happen again. I mean it.”

He mutes the TV and studies my face. I keep my eyes fixed on the floor. It’s hard for me to even look at him. “I’m just glad you’re safe. If you hadn’t left that sticky note on the picture in the book… I don’t even want to imagine what could’ve happened. I know this is all new to you. And how determined you are to find your parents. I can’t say I wouldn’t be either, if I were you. But you’ve just got to be more careful.”

“I will… Does Estelle know?”

“No. And I’d prefer she doesn’t. She thinks your travel was fine. She knows you saw a real trial take place, but she just doesn’t know that trial was yours. I told her I cut my forehead on the shower head.”

“I’m gonna head to my room for a bit.” I stop at the foot of the stairs and turn back to him. “Hey, Bud?”

“Yeah, buddy?” He sounds so tired.

“I just want you to know how much I love you guys. I’ve waited a long time to tell you guys that. And I’ve never felt like more of a family before in my life.”

He smiles. Doesn’t say anything. But he doesn’t have to.

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