THE PHOTO TRAVELER

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CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

I spin around and catch my mom and dad running toward me. For a second I wonder if I’m suffering from hypothermia and it’s making me hallucinate. No—It’s really them!

I jump into their arms, feeling the most warmth I’ve felt in the last several hours. Knowing I’ve found them and that they’re safe shields me from the reality of the frostbite that’s been taunting my fingers and toes.

“You have no idea how happy I am to see you guys right now!” I exclaim, still shivering with cold. “How long have you guys been here?”

“As long as you have. Even though we traveled here from a different part of time than you did, this photo was still taken at one precise moment.”

“So we both traveled to the same moment, regardless of what time we come from?” I ask.

“Exactly.”

I know now that they’ve just escaped the fire. The soot stains on their chapped cheeks and clothes confirms it.

My mom pulls me toward her, nearly choking me with her hug, and a long-forgotten memory assaults me. She’s wearing a pink sweater that I remember from when I was only four. I used to play with the fuzzy dog sewn on its front. In fact, I think I remember once almost choking on its dangling yarn tail.

My dad notices how underdressed I am. “You’ve got to be freezing, Gav. Are you crazy coming out here like that?”

I shrug. “I wasn’t dressed like this when I got here. I met a kid who lost his parents. He was barely wearing anything, so I gave him a lot of my clothes. I know it’s against the rules, but I couldn’t let him freeze to death. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t.”

They glance at each other and crack the biggest smiles. My mom wipes the cold from her nose. “You couldn’t have turned out any better. But you still have to be careful. Even the smallest changes have drastic outcomes. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”

We hurry into the first diner we see. While we’re sipping on hot cocoa, I begin asking them questions about the fire—what happened, if they saw anyone, if they had left the message on the wooden crate for me.

My mom nods. “We knew you’d catch on. Your dad used one of his keys to carve it. We went there because you had mentioned it years back when you came to visit us, while I was pregnant with you. But once we saw how dangerous it was there, we left Elizabeth the clue about the Great Depression in hopes that you’d make contact with her. We had to go back to the fire if we were going to have any chance of actually surviving it because we had to transport to another, safer photo.

“By the time we got back, the whole house was ablaze and the attic floor was about to cave in, so we were trapped up there. Our only way out was to travel again. We threw ourselves flat on the floor to get as much air as we could and I flipped to the pages on the Depression. I’d had that one photo marked for years because, like your mother said… we never forgot anything you mentioned to us. We just knew we’d meet again one day.”

And I had somehow known what they’d be thinking. I can’t believe how connected we were. “When the floor began to cave in, we hid the book in an old chest.”

“But... who started the fire?” I ask. “Because they may be after us now. Estelle and Bud were sent a photo of the other vials, and they think that somebody’s after ours.”

“They are,” my mom says, but she almost whispers it, and she can’t seem to look me in the eye as she says it. “And they won’t stop until they have them.”

“But who are they, exactly? The Hoytts?”

They exchange horrified looks.

My mom stammers, “So Bud and Estelle have already told you about the Hoytts?”

“Uh, yeah. They had to. They told me how they murdered the other family. The Pashners.

My dad takes my chin in his hand and forces me to look him squarely in the eyes. “We don’t know much about the whereabouts of the Hoytts. But aside from them, there’s a group of other photo travelers that call themselves the Peace Hunters. And they may actually be more dangerous than the Hoytts. We need you to warn Mom and Dad, too, because you’re all in far more danger than we could’ve imagined.”

“The Peace Hunters? Who are they? Bud and Estelle haven’t mentioned them yet. They don’t sound very dangerous.”

“They are. About five years before your mom became pregnant with you, a man from Europe reached out to Bud and Estelle. His name was Norrek, and he was a photo traveler too. He said he wanted to start a group called the Peace Hunters.”

“They never told me anything about that.”

“He proposed that we all join forces to protect the world from evil, to instill peace again. At the time, thanks to President Ernest Bower, the US was preparing for global nuclear war.

Bower? But wasn’t he killed or something?”

“Back in 1969, he fiercely advocated a policy permitting unrestricted experimentation and research on nuclear warfare. Fast forward to 1990, and we were on the verge of a deadly war that would’ve annihilated the entire planet. The policy was supposed to be kept secret but, as always, someone from the House leaked it. People went crazy. Both here and overseas. Thanks to Bower, the streets were pandemonium. It was one of history’s most disturbing times. There were antigovernment demonstrations all over the country—violent riots protesting the policy. It was ugly.”

“But I don’t remember any of this from my history classes...”

“Wait... Norrek convinced us to go back in time to 1969, and try to persuade Bower to not adopt that policy. On July 4, 1969, before he signed it into law and it took effect, they coordinated a parade where he was going to speak to the American people about the policy and answer any questions publicly. A stupid marketing effort.

“It was the 4th of July federal parade. When we transported, we had only a few minutes to find some way to talk to Bower. Fans and protestors were swarming him like hungry bees. Norrek shoved through the crowds shouting his views. He bombarded the President with pictures of the future and newspaper clippings, but Bower just thought he was crazy. Laughed right in our faces. Norrek was furious. Bower waved us off and was ushered through the crowd to his limousine. He rode in the motorcade to the main stage, where he started giving a speech about how his policy would allow the American people to remain superior, that it would ensure our protection, and that it was in the country’s best interest. We turned to leave, thinking we’d failed. Then Norrek pulled out a gun...”

I feel nauseated. “You’re telling me you guys were behind Bower’s assassination?”

My mom sighs. “Yes and no. Our intentions were peaceful and clearly defined. We didn’t plan to murder him, and we had no idea that Norrek had a totally different agenda planned if our mission with Bower failed.”

I feel dazed. I can’t believe that my parents were a part of this.

“He violated the ultimate rule—not to change history,” my dad continues. “And we parted ways as soon as we transported back to 1990. We told him to forget we’d ever existed. That was not what we’d signed up for.”

“We’re not those people, Gavin!” my mom pleads. But I don’t know what to say.

“We never meant to allow Norrek to murder anyone.” my dad insists. “Ever. Okay?”

I hesitate, then nod, though inside I’m not sure what I believe.

“But the world we traveled back to was different ,” he says. “The streets were peaceful, no war looming over our lives. A new president was in office with polar opposite views on nuclear warfare. It was as if the war we’d been facing just days before never even existed. Like it was just some dream.”

“But still, you can’t go around killing—”

“We know,” my dad says. “A week ago before the fire, two of the Peace Hunters, Naima and Axel, somehow intercepted one of our travels. They said they were Norrek’s recruits. Naima said she wanted us to warn all the other American photo travelers that the Peace Hunters were up and thriving. And that unless we joined forces with them, they would come after us, for the vials. We were able to escape before things escalated. But your grandparents were traveling at that point, so we couldn’t warn them. Then the fire happened, and... well, we never saw them again.” He sighs and studies the table for a few moments, then looks up at me. “You need to be careful. They’re extremists. And though they may have honest intentions, they’re willing to do anything in the name of what they call peace.”

“Anything? You mean, like going back in time murdering people for peace? How does that even make sense?”

He nods. “They genuinely believe they’re justified because there’s a bigger picture that validates it. In fact, we have no way of knowing what they may have changed in the past already. We wouldn’t realize it because the change would occur instantaneously and life would just seem normal to us.”

“So why do they want our vials?”

“Because they’ve figured out that if they can get control of all of them, they’ll gain access to the same infinite power that the Hoytts are after. The Peace Hunters’ abilities are different. They can travel, but their trips tap out after an hour. They don’t have vials like we do. Their ancestors drank from the same source, which altered their genetic makeup, but they don’t have a scroll or a chant they go by. They can look at a picture and transport into it … but again, their travels are limited. Some of them have the ability to sniff out or sense when others are time traveling. But if they gain control of the vials, they’ll be able to carry out any plan they desire. And no one should ever have that much power.”

“Isn’t it possible that they’re the ones who set the fire, then?”

My dad hesitates, then tells my mom, “Hun, you mind asking the waitress for some extra coffee?”

“Ooh, yea I can use some more too.” She gets up to find the waitress.

“I need you to listen to what I’m telling you right now.” My dad says. “There’s more I wish I could tell you, but I can’t.”

“What do you mean, you can’t? What is that supposed to mean?”

“Listen to me. Please. Just listen to me. I know it’s not the Peace Hunters who set fire to our home. I’m sure of it. The reason I’m telling you this is because that means you guys are likely facing multiple threats. You need to be careful.”

“How do you know so much? And why are you whispering?”

“I don’t want your mom to hear me talking about it.”

“Why not? I don’t get it. Doesn’t she already have an idea that the Hoytts could be after us, too? Hasn’t our family always known that?”

“Yes… and no. We’ve always assumed it, expected it even. But I know it for sure. You need to take extra precautions. You have to promise me that.”

I don’t respond to him. I’m still trying to sort out what it all means.

“Do you trust me?” he asks.

“Yeah. Of course I do, but –”

“Then trust me, buddy. Do that for your old man.” He widens his eyes, looking off someplace behind me. “Your mom’s coming back.”

“Okay, she’ll be around in just a moment.” My mom says.

I keep my eyes on my dad. What are you not telling me? I rub at my cheeks to help them defrost.

My mom grand my hand, squeezes it. “I wish … we could save you from all of this.”

“So come back with me. We can fight them all. Together. We can be a family again if you guys come back with me.” I just want them to say yes, more than anything. I’m desperate for it.

They don’t look at me, don’t respond. I know the answer. My heart urged me to try, but my mind knew better. I know it’s forbidden to try to change the past, even though I think it’s a little bit of a double standard since they were pretty much accomplices in the assassination of a former President and changed everything from that moment forward.

Finally my dad reaches across the table and puts his hand on my shoulder, massaging it lightly. “We can’t, buddy. If we go back after all this time, there’s no telling what we may change. You’re going to have to be careful. You’re going to have to look out for yourself, and for Mom and Dad, too.”

My mom starts crying. “You know it’s all we want. To be with you. You have to know that.”

I knew this was coming, but it’s not fair. Why should we have to be separated again? It takes everything in me to not show my anger.

“I know you can’t,” I finally admit. “I know there are rules, and they’re there for a reason... that’s why I printed these for you before I traveled here.” I reach into my pants and pull out four photographic prints I made before I traveled to the Depression. “A Hawaiian resort, a fiery South African sunrise, a serene farm, and a Greek isle. Take them. Start a new life, wherever you choose. You’ll be miserable if you stay here.”

I’d originally planned on bringing a current photo of Estelle and Bud’s home and actually bringing them to the future. But I couldn’t figure out how I’d be able to really do it, and then I started freaking out about what would happen by bringing them into the future because they’re technically 13 years in the past.

It’s the hardest thing to accept this. To let a real future with them go. But at least I know they’ll be safe. And I know now that they’re alive and didn’t die in the fire. On top of that, I still have my albums so I can go back and sort of have the relationship with them I was never able to have.

My dad takes the photos. “That’s my boy. Always thinking ahead.”

“We can’t … we should go back.” My mom says.

“What do you mean?” I say.

“It’s not right. We’ve broken the rules enough as it is. If we just keep traveling from one time to another, it doesn’t make it okay.”

“Amy … we’re not going back to die.”

“Yea, if you go back, especially with how bad the fire is, then you’re risking your lives. You can’t do that. Please—if you can’t come back with me, fine … but at least risk starting a new life. You can’t just die. I won’t let you!”

“I don’t know…” she says.

“Hun, if we go back, there’s only one way it ends. If we go with Gavin, we could directly alter all of our lives. But if we do choose one of these photos, the change would probably—hopefully—be minimal. And it probably wouldn’t directly affect our lives. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

She glances at the ceiling and then back at me. “Okay … we’ll go.”

“Thank you.” I say.

We all stand up and my mom wraps her arms around me. As she kisses my forehead, I whisper loudly, “I promise I’ll be careful.”

My dad wipes his eyes and grabs my hand. “You should get back. I don’t like the idea of Mom and Dad alone. Tell them I love them. That I miss them so much. That I’ll always miss them.”

I nod, but I’m dreading having to because I know how sad it’ll make Estelle feel, and seeing her sad makes me sad too.

We hug with our fingers dug into one another’s backs for about a minute. But their stubbornness wins. Then I step back. I gaze at them through watered eyed, taking just one final moment to absorb their faces; capture her eyes, his smile. Concentrate as I breathe in both their scents.

“I love you guys. I don’t think I’ve ever really been able to tell you that. At least, I can’t remember. But I do.”

I step backwards, then turn painstakingly slow and head for the exit, feeling heavy and empty all at once.

I plod outside, my feet like lead. I turn the corner until I’m out of their sight, but just enough so that they’re still a splinter in my vision.

I don’t want to go, but I know I have to. Everyone has been forced to run, migrate blindly to new life. But no more. No more running.

Not this time around.

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