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THE PHOTO TRAVELER

By Arthur Gonzalez All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The next morning, the missed call ringtone on my phone jars me awake before my alarm is supposed to go off. I hate being woken up earlier than I’m supposed to. I’m a pretty heavy sleeper. As it is, I have five alarms set on my phone, each one ten minutes apart. The last one is an app that won’t shut off until I answer a riddle or a short math equation. Usually, that’s the one that does the job.

My head is pounding this morning, too. I fumble for the phone and pick up a voicemail from a local area code: “Hillstone, this is Mitch Davis from the museum gift shop. I’d like you to come in for an interview today. Please call me by eleven a.m. We have an opening and need to fill it as soon as possible. Thanks.”

I shoot up in bed as fast as the dad in that board game “Don’t Wake Daddy.” I flip the phone in the air and catch it jubilantly. “Thank you! Thank you!”

I call back immediately and Mitch answers. He asks me to come in around four forty-five to answer some questions and fill out paperwork. Of course I’ll be there.

Even though it’s still an hour before my alarms will start going off, I’m too excited to go back to bed, so I grab my camera and start scanning the beautiful jewels and specimens from yesterday’s shoot. It’s shaping up to be a pretty good morning after all. Suddenly I don’t mind being woken up early.

After tucking my camera in my bag and gathering my things for school, I head downstairs for breakfast. Breakfast with Bud and Estelle is so simple. So normal. And, so far, the favorite part of my day. I know I’ll never take these for granted. Over eggs and French toast, I tell them about my job interview.

“Oh, honey, I’m so proud of you. I am. But do you think it’s the best time to have a job?” Estelle says.

“I mean, maybe not… but I can’t just stay locked up all day and do nothing. My life can’t stop because of these people.”

“He’ll be fine. He’s a big boy,” Bud adds.

“Yea, listen to him. I’m a big boy.”

“But he barely knows the area. It’s not safe.”

“You can’t get any more heavily guarded than the museums,” Bud says.

“Fine. Fair enough. But don’t expect me to be paying rent anytime soon.” I joke.

“It’s a deal. But this old man’s birthday is not too far off now, so I’m gonna be expecting a pretty substantial birthday present.”

“Are you kidding me? Of course. I’ve already established a nursing home fund in your honor.” I snort. Then I glance over at Estelle and add, “Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you, either. I’ll make sure your room’s decorated with dolphins.”

Bud and Estelle both start laughing and I join in. It feels good to crack jokes, to finally be close enough to other people to feel comfortable enough to do so.

On the Metro ride over to the museum, my nerves are fluttering. I haven’t ever really had a job before. I mean, there was that time I volunteered at the grocery store as a bag boy, but I didn’t even get paid for that. The old people would feel bad and give me some measly tips, but that was it.

When I find my way to the museum shop’s staff door and knock, a female voice welcomes me inside.

I poke my head into the office. “Hi. Is Mitch here? I’m supposed to have an interview with him.”

A petrified-looking man with giant bug eyes and red hair tells me that Mitch is out “handling a situation” at the second floor gift shop. He hands me some paperwork to fill out until he gets back. The first page is decorated with a coffee stain and a glob of powdered sugar. Judging by the thin powdered-sugar mustache around the guy’s mouth, I figure he’s the donut-devouring culprit.

Fifteen minutes later, Mitch trudges into the office. He looks bushed. “Those damn kids. Don’t they know this place is covered with cameras? Is it really worth trying to steal a bag of moon dust? It’s fake, for God’s sake!... Anyways… you done with those papers?”

He flips through them and nods. “You start Saturday at eleven. And try to be early.” The curtness in his voice suggests past problems with tardy employees.

“Wait, that’s it? I mean—yeah! Yes. I’ll be here. Eleven o’clock. Sharp. Thank you!”

He asks for my measurements and informs me that my uniform will be ready when I arrive. I’ve never worn a uniform in my life. As I’m about to leave, he adds, “Just one more thing, Hillstone.”

My heart sinks. I turn around hoping that he isn’t going to deliver some sudden bad news, like that he’s found out that I was the kid who started the fight in the Hope Diamond exhibit.

“Wear khaki pants and black shoes.”

Phew. Khaki pants. Black shoes. I can do that.

To celebrate my new job, Bud and Estelle order in Chinese food, which is my favorite.

“How does it feel to be a working man?” Estelle asks playfully.

“Well, I’ll find out soon enough,” I reply, laughing and waving my chopsticks in the air.

After dinner, I flip through pages in the history book. I hear a gentle knock on the door. “Honey, can I come in?” Estelle asks politely.

She sits on the edge of my bed next to me. “I wanted to apologize. I know I’ve been a little edgy with you. I’m just nervous.”

“You’d lock me up in the basement if you could, wouldn’t you?”

“Don’t tempt me.” She nudges me.

“It’s all right. I get it. I’ve been meaning to show you something.”

I grab the charred book she had given me and the newer version from the library. I haven’t shown it to her yet. “So this is the book that was left behind at my parent’s house during the fire. And this one is the exact book… just in readable condition.

“While I was at the Trials, there was a carving on one of the crates that read ‘L + A 96.’ It’s them. I know it. I know it may sound weird, but I think it was a message for me, or even you guys. The girl who was tried for being a witch told me about a lady who looked like me, and that there was a man with her. And they both had the same purple eyes.”

“96?” she murmurs. “The year of the fire. Oh my…” She flips through the pages. “Is that all you found when you were there? You don’t think they can still be there, do you?”

“No. I know they’re not. For one thing, the girl tried for being a witch said she had seen them disappear. The question is, where would they go? And how? Where would they get another picture?”

“I don’t think I even know how to react to this.” Estelle’s eyes begin to water. She turns her face away so to keep me from seeing her wipe them. “I’m going to talk it over with Bud. Have you told him yet?”

I can tell from the edge of hope in her voice that she may be feeling the slightest hint of optimism about finding their son. I can only imagine how she might be feeling. After all, so far I’ve barely met him. Them. I’ve begun only the slightest start to forming a relationship with them. But my dad was her only son.

“Not yet. But I’m going to find them okay?” I kiss the wrinkles on her forehead and suddenly catch a whiff of the fragrance in her hair—a hint of sage and citrus. I freeze. My mind flashes back to a long-forgotten memory of one winter day long ago when Leyla held me on her lap and we looked out the window while it snowed. It was the last family trip we ever had. I think it was to Colorado, and we were drinking homemade hot cocoa and she was singing Christmas carols to me.

The memory is so vivid that I can’t move until Estelle stirs next to me and I realize that she’s eyeing me with a worried look. “Are you okay, honey?”

“Yeah... it’s just that your hair smells like hers. Like Leyla’s.”

She smiles. “Yes. I used to send her perfume every year on her birthday. Sage and citrus blossom.”

I edge away—I’m not sure why—and open my laptop. “I need to finish my homework.” What I’m really thinking is if I’m going to get to the bottom of my parents’ disappearance and what we’re facing, I’ve got to find them again. Not Leyla—my parents. They must know something about who’s after us.

“Do you want to talk about it, dear? It’s okay. I won’t get hurt.”

I can’t look at her, not with Leyla’s scent still lingering in my nostrils. I feel tears welling up, blurring my vision. But I will not cry.

“No. I’m okay. It just reminds me so much of her.”

“I won’t use it anymore, okay? For you.”

I nod rapidly but I can’t talk. She gets up and leaves, closing the door. I get up to lock the door and then lay my back against the wall swallowing hard. Don’t cry, Gavin! Don’t do it! I hunch over with my palms over my face. I rub my shirt against my nostrils so hard that I can feel the skin bleed. Leyla’s scent stabs at my heart. I miss her so much. I want nothing more than to have her here now, when I’m beginning to have all the pieces of a family come together around me. Everyone except her.

My efforts are futile. I can’t hold back my tears. One by one they trickle from my eyes like water from a bottle with a crack in it. The salt burns the raw skin under my nose. I hear someone passing by outside my door and jump to my feet with my shirt covering my mouth and nose. They can’t see me like this. I won’t allow it. I throw myself on the bed.

I can’t take any more. I need to get rid of her smell. Her memory. Now.

I grab my cologne and spray it on my shirt. Press it to my nose, inhaling the musk smell. Twenty seconds pass before I lower my hand. The smell is gone. She’s gone.

It’s time to find my parents.

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