THE PHOTO TRAVELER

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CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

I wake up the next morning feeling more rested and rejuvenated than I have in I don’t even know how long. When I look at myself in the mirror. I’m wearing a wide, foolish smile that I’ve probably had on my face the moment my body collapsed on the mattress.

I start to wonder if there was more to the feelings I felt when I saw Alanna for the first time that urged me to visit her. Or was it just a spark of attraction? Leyla always used to say ‘nothing happens by chance’. I wonder if this was meant to be. Sure hope so.

All I know is, everything about her is perfect. Except for the two minor details—she’s from the past, and she died ten years ago.

My mind slips into a state of anxiety as I strip off my clothes and hop into the shower. I think about how careful I’m going to have to be in what I say to her. She can’t ever find out that she dies so young. I can only imagine how she would react. I can only imagine how I would react.

You’re just going to let her die? My mind reminds me that I’m flirting with disaster. I know I’m not supposed to change the past, and saving her from dying would be just that. But how can I just let her die?

Breakfast is ready as usual, but neither Bud nor Estelle seem like their usual selves. For one thing, they’re both on the couch watching TV instead of at the table.

“Guys?... Everything okay?”

“Sure.” Estelle says. “It was just a long night. Bud couldn’t get to sleep. He’s been coughing all night.”

He shoots her a “Don’t worry the boy” look and tells me, “I’m fine. It’s a cold. That’s it. That’s what happens when you get to my age and forget to take your vitamins.”

But his voice is hoarse and he has to stifle another cough. It’s hard for me to imagine him as being sick because he always seems so strong to me. I tend to think that Estelle’s the frail one because she’s so tiny.

“So,” he says, obviously trying to change the subject. “Looking forward to your first day on the job?”
“Yeah, I am.” I head into the kitchen where I grab a plate of pancakes, come back into the living room, and begin devouring them standing up. “I just hope the uniforms don’t suck. Hey, you think they’ll give me a gun for security purposes?”

“Let’s hope not.” Estelle teases as she tucks the comforter around Bud. “But if they don’t, we’ll run over to the toy store and get you the best water gun there is.”

“Yeah, and some of those plastic cuffs.” Bud puts in. “What do ya say?”

“I say you guys can’t be that tired if you can manage to be this funny. You’re lucky it’s just the gift shop and not the security office.”

I used to wonder how someone knew they were loved. I didn’t understand the concept. Until now.

Estelle leans in close to me. She squints her eyes. “Did you get some sun?” she asks.

“Uh…sorta…. I actually wanted to talk to you guys about something.”

“What is it?” Bud sits up.

The room is suddenly thick with tension.

“I met this girl in a beach photo. It’s my friend’s cousin. Something about her, I’m not sure what… but I had to meet her. But that’s not even the crazy part. The Peace Hunters intercepted my travel.”

Estelle’s jaw drops. “Bud!”

The comforter falls from his body as he shoots up. “What do you mean they intercepted your travel?”

“Yea, like, they just popped in. My dad knew about it. I thought you guys would too.”’

Bud throws Estelle a worried glance. “What we know about Norrek is limited, but that he is dangerous. He would rave about creating more Peace Hunters to grow his cause.”

“My dad…he said that Naima intercepted their travel, saying the Peace Hunters were thriving. Do you think he could succeed in creating others? That’s insane!”

“We need to do something. We have to go.” Estelle says.

“If Norrek is creating other Peace Hunters who can intercept someone’s travel, then we may have nowhere to go.”

“They know you’re around. I knew this would happen.” Bud says. “I knew it was only a matter of time. We should’ve left when you first stepped foot in this house. All of us.”

“I don’t want to leave. You said it yourself. If they have this ability then what’s the point of running? They’re going to just find us at some point anyway. If you guys want to run, fine. Go. But I’m staying. I already told you guys.” I spin around and march towards the stairs. “I’m not afraid of them. I’ve been through worse.”

I get to the museum by 10:30 in the morning. Early on my first day. Oh yeah!

My mood has been flattened by my argument with Bud and Estelle, but I try to push the thoughts away. They can’t just expect me to run away with them, to spend my whole life hiding.

As I pass the gigantic elephant in the Rotunda, I give him a salute and tell him, “You look like a Fred. So that’s what I’m gonna call you, Fred.” I wonder if I’ll ever stop feeling astonished by how huge he is.

I reach the museum shop and head for the back office. The door’s open and I see Mitch mid-bite in a delicious-looking cinnamon donut.

“I’m early,” I announce, then point down at my shoes. “Black.”

He wipes the glazed crumbs from his chin. “Not bad, Hillstone. I hung your shirt up in the locker room. You can use any empty one for your stuff.” I cringe when he says that name. Someday I’m going to have to tell him he has to stop calling me that.

The navy-blue shirt, which has “Museum Shop” in loopy letters embroidered across the chest, turns out to at least be my actual size and not a large. I feel like they always order the large size just to be safe.

I adjust my belt over my khaki pants, tuck in the shirt, put on the gray cap, also decked out with matching “Museum Shop” stitching on the brim, and then take a look in the mirror. Sigh. Not horrible, but not great either.

I go back out to the office. “Okay. I’m ready. Where do I start?”

He points at a series of monitors. “Watch these for the next hour. Watch out for any little bastards that look suspicious. After that, I’ll need to you to take a letter over to the ground floor gift shop. You can take a radio in case you get lost in this maze. You can reach me on channel two.”

I’m surprised by how much more laid back he seems than when I first met him. Maybe it’s the sugar high from the seven donuts he’s devoured.

Watching the monitors is a drag. Don’t get me wrong, I like people-watching, but this is not what I expected. I hope it’s not going to be how I’ll be spending most of my time. I grab the radio and ask Mitch if I can go deliver the letter and make a quick restroom stop. He’s fine with it.

On the way down, I make a detour so I can see the Hope Diamond. A group of women are crowded around the display case and one is so close that she’s almost touching the glass. I can’t resist—I cross my arms over my chest to cover the wording, pull off my cap and order her, “Ma’am, please step back from the display case. If you read the sign, it says ‘Please do not touch.’ Unless of course you’d like to take it home with you today? It’ll only cost ya about fifty million dollars or so.”

She jumps back, mutters something under her breath, and shoos her friends along. The looks on their faces are priceless. I may as well have a little bit of fun if all I’m going to do here is watch gift shop surveillance monitors. I take a quick turn through the rest of the exhibits to confirm that Mario and I have in fact chosen the best pieces for our project.

“Don’t you be causin’ any trouble in my exhibit now.”

I whip around. “Meesha!” I point at her uniform, “Hey, look at us. We look like twins!”

She looks me up and down. “So who’d ya have to pay off to get yourself a job here?”

“Mitch. As soon as I gave him your name as a reference, he was fine with it. Of course.”

“Mitch is one damn fool.” She curls her lips to form a smile. “You managin’ to stay outta trouble so far?”

“You know it.”

“Mm-hmm. We’ll see how long that lasts.”

“Come on. You know I’m as sweet as pecan pie.”

“Honey, ain’t nothing as sweet as pecan pie, I’ll tell you that much.”

I wink. “I gotta get back. Won’t touch anything. Promise.”

“You do that. And keep your paws to yourself. Remember I got my eyes on you.”

She sashays off. I hurry over to the ground floor shop, and drop off the package with the young girl at the register, and set off for the first-floor cafe. An iced triple shot of espresso sounds good about now.

On my way there, I pass a rack of brochures for the other museums. The art museum is hosting a Vincent van Gogh exhibit, and the brochure has a photo of
“Starry Night” on the front cover. I sneak into the nearest restroom, lock myself in a stall, and chant my words.

The next instant, I’m in the garden of the monastery of Saint-Remy in 1889. The spellbinding, rolling hills, the vibrant moon, the dancing, dazzling stars, the rooftops of the ancient town. I feel connected to van Gogh and understand his fiery desire to capture the majesty of the bright night.

I wish I could stay, but I don’t have much time, so I chant myself back to the Smithsonian and make a mental note to return later. I dash over to the café to grab my much-needed energy boost. While the barista is preparing my drink, I pull out the Christmas photo of Alanna I brought with me. My pulse speeds up, as it always does whenever I think of her. I miss her. It’s agony to not be able to just call her. I lose myself in remembering how she smelled of strawberries and vanilla, how her arms felt around me, how her lips—

A tap on my shoulder jerks me back to reality as a familiar singsong voice chirps, “You’re a photo traveler, aren’t you?”

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