THE PHOTO TRAVELER

By Arthur Gonzalez All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER TWENTY

The next afternoon the sun hovers in the sapphire sky like a peering orange eye. The door opens to Mario’s house and a tiny middle-aged woman wearing washed-out jeans, an oversized white t-shirt, and yellow rubber gloves appears. She throws me a half-smile, pushes her tousled hair off her face and shouts back into the house, “Mario! Es para ti!” She gestures me inside and adds in a more normal, but still dismissing, tone of voice, “Shoes off. I just clean the floor.”

For somebody so small, she sure is assertive. I tug off my sneakers and place them next to a glass-blown vase just inside the front door.

I smile at her. “Hi, I’m Gavin. A friend of Mario’s. Nice to meet you.”

She eyes me like a hunting dog sniffing out its prey, then gives me a slightly bigger smile. “I am Delva. The housekeeper. I clean this house very well. Keep it that way and you and me will be okay.”

She slips the rubber gloves back on and motions for me to follow her into the kitchen. “Mario!” she yells again. “Tienes alguien aqui!

Mario’s head pops out over the railing at the top of the staircase. “Hey, what’s up, Gav? Come on up. I just laid out all the photos again.”

I look over at Delva for the okay to go up. She makes a shooing motion with her hands and jerks her chin up at the stairs. I guess that means it’s okay for me to go up. I sprint up the staircase, making sure not to leave any print smudges because I’m sure she’s just cleaned them.

“Don’t mind her,” Mario explains as we head to his room. “She’s been around forever. Pretty much family.”

“Dude, she’s kind of scary. I can’t even lie,” I say, but I have to laugh at the fact that I’m afraid of a woman that’s 5-feet-tall.

We dive into our project and narrow down our selection of photos to ten. We agree on nine but have different opinions on the final one. He uses an app on his phone that tosses a virtual coin and my choice wins.

“Mario!” Delva shouts again from downstairs. “Basura!”

He rolls his eyes. “I’ll be right back. She wants me to throw out the garbage.”

As he heads out the door, I realize that this may be my only chance to get into Alanna’s room. I tiptoe down the hall and edge the door open. A typical teen girl’s room, as far as I can tell. Beige rug, black wrought-iron furniture. Framed posters of Ricky Martin, J-Lo, Mariah Carey, and Lauryn Hill still hang from her walls.

From what I can see, she was quite the Coke fanatic. Her desk and bookshelves are crammed with original glass bottles dating back decades, a vintage alarm clock with the famous Polar Bear lounging on a beach chair sipping on a Coke, a large plastic Coke-bottle-shaped coin bank, and dozens of other novelties that’d probably sell for thousands of eBay.

Her bookshelves are lined with mystery novels and a bunch of how-to books on hairdressing and fashion design. The room’s in pristine condition. Not a speck of dust in sight, probably thanks to Delva. Alanna’s senior year photo hangs above her bed, and other photos of her sit on her desk, nightstand, and bookshelves.

I spot a stack of photo albums on a side table and riffle through them as fast as I can, hoping that Mario won’t come clattering back up the stairs. I pull four photos of Alanna from a Mickey Mouse album and stuff them in my back pocket. My heart’s in my throat. What if Mario or Delva catches me? But for some reason I can’t bring myself to put the albums down. My hands keep flipping the pages as if out of a conscious desire to keep showing me more. I can’t stop looking at her.

Delva’s voice drifting up from downstairs snaps me out of my trance. I toss the album on top of the stack, scurry to the door—and barge right into Mario. “Argh! Dammit! You scared me.”

“Dude, what’re are you doing in here?” He looks upset, almost annoyed. “My aunt and uncle don’t like anyone in this room.”

“I’m sorry!” I start stumbling through an apology. “I didn’t mean to snoop. I just... I guess I was just curious to see what the room looked like. Since you said they hadn’t ever changed anything...” I stare down at the rug like a puppy who knows it has screwed up and cowers with its tail between its legs. He probably thinks I’m the world’s biggest creep.

“It’s not that big of a deal. My aunt and uncle aren’t here anyways. I’m just giving you the heads up. This room’s off-limits. They’re really overprotective about it. So’s Delva.” He shuts the door behind us and change the subject as if nothing happened, as simple as flipping a page to a magazine. “Hungry?”

We work for a few more hours, have another one of Shelly’s pizzas, and finally complete the project. We each hold an end of the necklace of images and stretch it out so that the jewels hang like paper lanterns.

“Now all we’ve gotta do is come up with a sweet explanation of what it symbolizes... blah… blah… blah. This was cake. Easy A, don’tcha think? Senior year is awesome.” He smiles goofily.

I nod, but only because I see him grinning, and nodding is what I do by default when I haven’t really heard what someone’s said to me. All of my thoughts are on Alanna. I could care less about the project right now, or about anything else for that matter. All I’m picturing are her inviting eyes. Her lips. How everything about her is so perfect. The way her pictures speak to me every time I look at them.

“I’m taking Gavin to the Metro!” Mario hollers to Delva as we reach the front door. “I’ll be right back!”

“Bye, Delva!” I chime in as I slip outside. “Nice to meet you!”

When I get home, I’m so impatient to get to my room that I drop my keys as I reach the porch. “Come on!” I mutter as I stoop to pick them up.

But as I rush through the living room, I trip over my feet and slam to the floor. Estelle and Bud are cuddled under a plaid comforter watching TV.

“Whoa!” Estelle says. “Slow down, sweetie. What’s the rush?”

I spring up and sprint past them. “I’m gonna be upstairs. Need to take care of something—”

“Have you even eaten?” she asks.

“Pizza.”

“Pizza’s not real food,” she says.

“This was g-o-o-o-o-d pizza!” I laugh. “But not better than I’m sure yours would be, though. Hey, Bud, how’re you feeling today?”

He moves his hands out from under the comforter and rubs the back of his head. “Better. How was your day, buddy?”

“Great. Wonderful.!” I reply with a giant grin as I charge up the stairs. “I’ll be in my room. Lots of homework!”

I drop my bag to the floor, lock the door, and dig into my back pockets for the photos of Alanna. The first thing I need to figure out is the sequence in which they were taken. Which one was taken first? There’s one group photo and three other self-portraits that look like she took herself. After a short game of detective, I decide that the earliest one is the group one from a Christmas party at what looks like some kind of clubhouse.

Alanna’s in the middle of a dance floor. She’s wearing a tight red minidress, glittering silver heels and her hair is tied up in a ponytail held up by a sequined silver clasp. She’s holding hands and dancing with another girl about her age. Behind them, a half-dozen young children are gawking at a chubby white Christmas tree and the gift boxes piled beneath it.

I feel an odd pressure in my chest, a feeling of air circulating in my lungs and the blood pounding through the chambers of my heart. It doesn’t hurt. It just feels strange. It’s the same feeling I had yesterday, the first time I saw her picture. And again I can’t fight the idea that she’s calling out to me. I don’t even think twice as I say my chant.

The usual rush of wind beats at me, until I’m standing in a corner of the clubhouse watching Alanna and the other girl dancing to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” It’s my favorite Christmas song. No matter what time of the year it is, if I hear that song I can’t help smiling, or even singing along. I know—lame. Everyone is preoccupied by the music and conversations that they don’t notice me appear. I hurry over and crouch down beside one of the empty tables and pretend to tie my shoes.

Partygoers decked out in festive red and green are going back and forth between the buffet and their tables. I look around for the dance floor. There she is. Alanna’s still dancing away. She sways across the floor in perfect time with the music, spins, grabs her friend’s hands, and twirls her around. Smiling and laughing and shouting with joy, she looks like she’s having the best time of her life.

All I want to do is run over to her, shove her friend out of the way, and kiss her. Or something. I’ve found girls attractive before—obviously—but never like this.

I’m following her every move, and maybe she feels me studying her—or stalking her—because a puzzled look comes over her face. She glances around and makes eye contact with me. I freeze. She stops momentarily and frowns as if she’s trying to remember if she knows me. Then she catches herself staring at me, cracks a smile, and turns her back to continue dancing.

My heart’s pounding, begging for oxygen... from her lips. Maybe if I fake-faint she’ll come over and give me CPR—although with my luck it’ll be her friend who saves the day and maybe tries to slip in some tongue action. I’ll pass. I’m feeling a bit lightheaded, but I keep my eyes on her. She’s beautiful... stunning... actually, I’m not sure those words even do her justice.

I edge along the dining tables, with their white and red tablecloths and silver tinsel centerpieces, without losing sight of her. My temples are pounding, the way they sometimes do when I start getting my nervous headaches. A diet soda sometimes does the trick if I catch it early, so I make my way over to the bar and ask for one.

When I look back at the dance floor, Alanna has disappeared. I’ve lost her. I scan the room but don’t see her anywhere. Instead, I notice a hefty young boy with a mushroom haircut whose face is familiar. It’s Mario. He looks about eight, the same age he was in the photo of him with his parents. He’s running across the dance floor in his stocking feet trying to slide from one side to the other. This makes me smile because at his age I probably would have tried the same thing.

He grabs a giant blue candy cane and starts dancing with it in his mouth until a middle-aged woman interrupts him and holds out a damp napkin indicating that she wants him to wipe the blue dye from his lips. When he dodges the napkin, she pulls him off the dance floor and shoves him toward the bathroom.

I lean against the bar and laugh at Mario in rare form. What I wouldn’t give to have my camera right now—you know, to inflict future humiliation on him...

“Do I know you?”

I wheel around. Alanna is standing right next to me. Smiling. “You look familiar…but I just can’t place how we know each other.”

We study each other for a moment, then I say, “You know, I thought the same thing. But, unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve met yet. Just here with … the videographer. ” I hold out my hand as I try to figure out where my sudden suaveness came from.

“You know Derek? Love him. He’s so funny.” She bites her bottom lip. “You’re cute...” She breaks into a series of giggles. “I’m sorry, I think I’ve had a little too much eggnog. Happens every year. Bartender is my friend and he always sneaks me some. But don’t tell my parents.” She smiles more broadly and reaches out to clasp my hand.

We stay like that, hands touching, and stare without blinking into each other’s eyes. Her hands feel like silk caressing my skin. I can’t tell if she’s feeling the same connection I do, or if she really has had too much to drink, but this moment feels incredible.

“Your eyes. They’re magical. And my favorite color. They remind me of that stone—”

I forgot about the eyes!

“Amethyst,” I say, still wanting to kiss her. I wonder if she’d slap me. The way she’s grinning at me makes me think I have a shot. “Thanks. I’m glad you like them. They’re… uh… contacts.”

“Hi, you two!” Alanna’s dance buddy is standing right in front of us. “I’m Belinda,” she tells me. “Alanna and I work together at the salon. She gives us a sly glance. “He’s cute! What’s your name?” I knew it. She would’ve totally slipped me the tongue. Phew!

“Yeah,” Alanna says. “What is your name, mystery man?”

I feel my cheeks turning red the way they always do when I’m in the spotlight, which I hate! “Uh... Gavin. And… I take it from your friend here that you’re Alanna? Never met an Alanna before.”

“Good,” she winks. “So I’ll be your first.” I blush. God, I hope so!

Belinda eyes the two of us and shrugs. “Ooo-kay-eeh! I’ll leave you two alone.” She spins around to ask the bartender for a beer before fleeing back to the dance floor.

Alanna and I find an empty table and sit down. I can’t explain why, but I’m not nervous around her in the least. I feel comfortable. Normal, even. We sit there laughing at some of the dancers, especially her dad’s boss, who decides to take over for the DJ and announces himself as “DJ St. Nick!”

“Oh God!” Alanna laughs. “He couldn’t be any more embarrassing, could he?”

“At least he’s not dressed as Santa. Now that would be embarrassing.”

“No, that would be mortifying!”

We finish laughing and our eyes lock again. She half-closes her caramel-colored eyes and tilts her head at me. “You wanna go for a walk?”

“Brrr! I should’ve brought my jacket.” she shivers as we step out into the December cold. “Let’s go in there before my lashes freeze and fall off.” She grabs my hand and leads me toward a blue and white striped garage-sized building draped in Christmas lights.

I want to put my arm around her to keep her warm, but I seem to have lost my swagger. I’m not exactly the most experienced in relationships with girls. I’ve only kissed one chick (I know—lame!). Cynthia, last year. But she pretty much kissed every guy in school at least twice, so that’s not saying much for me.

I open the door for her and we go inside and over to one of the windows, where we stand side by side, rest our elbows on the sill, and look out at the sky.

“This is my favorite time of the year,” she says. “What a perfect night. I love the moon, especially when it’s full like this. Beautiful, isn’t it?”

I turn toward her. “Yeah... beautiful.”

She stares at me, then smiles bashfully as she realizes I’m referring to her.

I’m not even thinking as I gently cup her face in my hands, ease her toward me, and press my lips against hers. I lower my hands until our fingers intertwine like two infinite vines. All I want is the taste of her lips, as soft as clouds. Chills shake my spine. I open my eyes and rub the tip of my nose against her lips.

Her eyes are still closed and her lips are still puckered when I take a step back so I can admire her beauty, which is only more dazzling in the silvery moonlight. I move closer again, nuzzling my nose against her neck, taking in her scent of vanilla and strawberries. I glide my cheek next to her and we rest against each other, breathing in the same hard, deep rhythm.

And then the spell of the moment shatters as I realize I’m going to have to leave her. Forget that—she’s going to die. My chest tightens. My palms begin to sweat. I can tell her truth. But she’d probably freak out on me. How would I explain this? I’m not even really her same age in real time. She’d be like 30 by now. What am I doing? None of this would make sense. It barely makes sense to me. I pull away from her feeling like I’m about to hyperventilate or explode.

“What’s wrong?” she asks. “Did I do something?”

Without thinking, I just blurt it out. I can’t help it. “I need to tell you something.”

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