THE PHOTO TRAVELER

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CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The sadness continues to stab its blade into my gut. I wheel around fast, prepared to run as far as I can from this, but I ram into something hard and stumble onto the ground, into a bank of snow.

“Family reunions always bring a tear to my eye.” A female voice cuts through the frigid wind.

I brush the thin veil of snow from my face and arms. As my focus slowly sharpens, I glimpse two silhouettes looming over me, blocking the minimal sun peeking out from behind the dismal clouds. Shielding my eyes with my hand squint up at them, eyes still slightly foggy, mind still reeling uncontrollably. When the light finally creeps over their faces, I can tell by their menacing looks that they aren’t exactly here to say hello. 

The girl has honey-colored skin, violet eyes, and a shaved head. Her skin looks soft and has a delicate shine to it, but her eyes are hard and deadly. The snow nearly sizzles and melts as it touches her. Her arms, in elbow-length gloves, are crossed over her chest, and she’s wearing white leather leggings, a long white trench coat, and high-heeled white booties.

The guy is Asian, tall and lean, with a stenciled black tattoo on his neck of what looks like a bird with an olive branch in its beak. He too has a shaved head. When he turns to glance over at the girl, I spot another tattooed image of some kind on the back of his head, but he turns again before I can get a good look at it. He’s wearing a similar fitted white leather trench coat with a tight white tank top underneath, and loose white pants.

The girl cocks a dark-blonde eyebrow, now sprinkled with white dots, at me. “You’ve been very difficult to chase.”

“You’re them aren’t you? The Peace Hunters? Naima and Axel? Look, I don’t want any trouble. Just tell me what you want.”

The guy takes a step toward me. “Give us what we want,” he grunts in the same accent, “and we’ll be on our way.”

“I don’t have the vials.”

Naima sneers at me, then raises her right leg and shoves the heel of her boot against my chest, pushing me against the wall. “It’s cold and I don’t like the cold. I become very cranky. Give us the vials.”

“I told you I don’t have them!”

  “Liar!” she snaps, and digs her heel in deeper. I can’t help gasping from the pain because Jet’s bruises are still killing me, and her heel hurts way more than his boot tip. Her voice goes all soft but menacing. “I really wouldn’t want to hurt you. Those pretty eyes... not to mention all the potential that awaits once the naivete has washed away.”

Axel grabs my neck in his huge hands. I can’t move. He signals her with an “okay” nod and she kneels down in front of me. She places her hands on the top of my head and closes her eyes. What feels like a small electric shock jumps from her palms to my scalp.

“Ow!” I jerk my head free.

She nods, then peers up at him. “He’s lying. He knows exactly where they are.” She gently runs her left index finger against my cheek, and I get a glimpse of her fingers. On the pads of each gloved fingertip, I see what looks like three concentric silver rings that are pulsing with a purple light, like bioluminescent fingerprints.

She leans in closer and puts her golden-tinted lips to my right ear. “If you think you are protecting someone, you’re not. You’re only making things worse. I don’t know how to make this clear for you. But we will not stop until we have those vials.”

People continue walking by us, eyeing us confusedly as if unsure to call the cops or just mind their own business. I squirm out of her grasp and jump to my feet.

“I won’t let you hurt my family anymore. I don’t know how clear I can make this for you.” I swiftly grab an old metal garbage can smash it against Axel’s chest, causing him to stumble backwards. I sprint forward but I barely make it before two steps before I feel Naima’s warm arms stretch around my neck.

“I don’t think you are hearing us.”

I jab her in the stomach with my elbow, and she reacts immediately, one foot swiping my legs out from under me. I smash to the ground. From the corner of my eye I see my parents exit the restaurant. They hold out a photo and grab each other’s hands. I glimpse their lips moving and shout, “Wait!”

They turn around quickly, but it’s too late. Within seconds, they’ve disappeared into the wind.

Naima cups her hand over my mouth. “Don’t cause us any more trouble than you have.”

Axel swings around and kneels before me. He grabs a chunk of my hair and forces my head up. “I can already tell we’re not going to get along. And that’s all right with me.”

I spit the snow I have in my mouth at his feet. “I’m never going to help you.”

“I think with time you’ll see otherwise.” Naima adds.

“Hey!” a bystander’s voice calls out. “Leave the kid alone!”

A group of men with signs are huddled in a group.

“This just keeps getting better and better don’t it?” Axel says.

“Let him go and there won’t be no problems.” A well-dressed man steps forward.

Naima slowly rises from me, pulling me up with her. “There’s no problem here boys.” She pulls a massive white gun from her coat.

“Hey! Hey! Let’s not be hasty!” another man shouts.

My skin is burning from the cold, my thoughts are frozen. I shove Naima to the ground and kick her in the ribs. I dart for the alley behind the deli. Axel is right behind me.

A dead-end brick wall is a few feet in front of me. I skid on the ice, directly for it, shielding my face from possible impact, shouting, “Take me home to what is mine, Back to the present, back to my time!”

Back in my room, I’m soaked and shivering and still. I start tearing off my remaining clothes but when I turn around to take out my fury by slamming them against the wall, Estelle and Bud are standing at my door watching me.

I can tell from her expression—she looks eager but also apprehensive—what question she’s about to ask.

I nod. “I found them.” My voice is more somber than jubilant, but it doesn’t seem to register on either of them. She throws her arms around Bud, who looks equally happy. “What did they say?” she says. “Tell us everything.”

“You lied to me. You never told me about the Peace Hunters. They just ambushed me. They did that thing where they can intercept our travels and they found me. I need you to tell me everything you know about who’s after us. I’m tired of the lies already. I know that the last time you guys were with me, I was only four years old. Well, I’m not anymore. And if we have any chance of getting through this, I need you to tell me everything you know.”

“Oh my,” Estelle sighs. “They’ve done it. They’re really back. I didn’t think they’d ever amount to anything. Bud—Bud, this is worse than we thought. Norrek’s back at it. What do we do?”

“Stelle, calm down, sweetheart.” He helps her over to my bed. “If Norrek is now involved, then things just got worse for us.” Then he confirms everything my parents told me about Norrek, the Peace Hunters, and President Bower.

“And you guys just went along with it? Like some moral superheroes? I thought we weren’t gods?”

Estelle adds, “At first we thought it was wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something so world-changing? But when Norrek killed Bower, we realized that he would stop at nothing. And although we don’t condone what he did, nor would we ever, he did pretty much save the world from a nuclear catastrophe.

“But who was he to decide who he could murder?”

Bud shakes his head. “We’re not saying that we agree with murder, obviously. But we can’t deny that our world is better because Bower’s policies died with him. The world we were supposed to encounter in 1990 never happened. We lived through it, and you didn’t. It was a pretty frightening time.”

“This is insane. Don’t you think maybe he’s the one who started the fire? I mean, if he’d kill a president, who’s to say he wouldn’t kill anyone else? My dad said he knows it wasn’t the Peace Hunters, but he didn’t tell me why.”

They look uncomfortable. They’re still hiding something from me. I know it. I can smell it. And if they’re not going to tell me, I’ll figure it out on my own.

“I’m sure he just meant there’s always the Hoytts family. There’s no singling them out.” Estelle quickly adds.

I give up. I know they’re not going to tell me anything more, at least not right now. For a few moments, we sit on my bed in silence.

“So,” I finally say. “It looks like we’re all we have left. The only ones who are going to take care of one another.”

They look at each other, then nod.

“Okay, then,” I continue. “No more lies. If anything around us starts feeling off or out of the ordinary, we tell one another right away—because it could be life and death. I don’t know how the Peace Hunters’ abilities work, but since you guys haven’t traveled for a while, then it must’ve been my travels that must’ve sparked something. That means they know I exist. And they’ll be coming after me too. That’s for sure. So now I’m involved. No more holding back.”

“You got it, buddy.”

“Yes sir, sweetheart,” Estelle says with a reluctant smile.

To ease the tension I tell them the remainder of my travel. I tell them everything from meeting Martin to what my parents told me about the fire.

When I tell them about saying goodbye to my mom and dad, Estelle tears up. She nods, but I can tell how much she wants to have been the one to have said goodbye, to have held my dad one last time. I feel guilty. Maybe I should have asked them both to come with me. But who knows what the cold and snow could have done to them. That would have been worse.

The truth is, I know that from here on out, I’m the one who’s going to have to protect them. And I will. If it’s the last thing I do for my parents, I will protect them.

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