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THE PHOTO TRAVELER

By Arthur Gonzalez All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

It’s Yogi, the girl I met outside Bud and Estelle’s house on the day I arrived in DC.

I wheel around in surprise and quickly sneak Alanna’s photo back into my pocket.

“I can tell by your eyes,” she laughs.

She’s wearing a slightly fitted plain black v-neck t-shirt and khaki cargo pants. Her hair’s shaven in the back and spiked up on top. Her earrings are little green frog faces, and her blue mascara brings out her unexpectedly blue eyes. I guess I hadn’t really been able to make out their color the other night in the park.

I force out a breath and reply with, “I’m sorry?” as if I don’t know what she’s talking about.

“It’s okay, dude,” she says in her funny, animated voice. “I’m one, too.”

What? So why didn’t you say anything to me in the park?”

“Oh my God… like, are you serious? Why didn’t you say anything to me that night? Hello!–it’s not exactly information you offer to strangers unless you know.”

“This is awesome!” I hug her and then step back awkwardly. “Sorry. It’s just that I haven’t met anyone else like us yet. This is awesome.”

“Super cool!” she agrees loudly, and wiggles her tongue from side to side rapidly.

But then Estelle and Bud’s voices ring loudly in my head, reminding me of the Peace Hunters and other Photo Travelers after our vials. Could it be Yogi? No way. She’s just a kid like me. She can’t be a murderer? And she wouldn’t approach me out in the open like this. Maybe she knows something that’ll help me.

We sit down at an empty table. She flashes a comforting smile.

“So what’s your deal?” I ask her. “Where are you from? From what I know, there are only a few of us. And the majority of them are after me and my family.”

She holds up her hand. “Whoa. Slow down, sparky!... I’m on your side. You probably know about the Pashners? That’s my family. I’m the only one left. Everybody else was murdered in a fire, by whoever it is who’s bringing us down one by one to get our vials. All I want is to find out who’s behind it and put an end to it before they take me out, too.”

“That was your family? How do I know you’re telling the truth? I thought that all of the Pashners died.”

“Look, if I was really after you, I’d wait for you after work and slash your throat. I mean, come on! I mean, do you seriously think you’re sitting here having coffee with a murderer?” She flips her hands at me in her quirky way, and my body relaxes. A breath of relief seeps from my mouth and my muscles across my body begin to loosen. Maybe she’s just trying to survive, like I am? But still, how do I know she’s telling the truth?

“Well, hot coffee can be a lethal weapon.” I smirk.

She giggles, and the remaining tension vanishes from my body entirely. I start telling her how I’ve only just found out about traveling.

“I can’t believe it!” she explains, pulling at her spikes of hair with both hands and playfully crossing her eyes. “You are so missing out! It’s the best thing ever. Your life has officially changed forever.”

“Yeah, trust me, I know that much.”

Her quirkiness is so refreshing after all the seriousness of the stuff I’ve been dealing with. And I don’t think it’s a façade. What you see is what you get, and that’s another reason I decide to trust her. She seems…transparent. Something about her feels genuine—and I don’t get that feeling from many people.

“Wait...” I say. “Do you have any idea who’s left from the Hoytts? And what do you know about these Peace Hunters?”

“Nope,” she replies, making a popping noise to emphasize the P. “I don’t know if any of them are still around. And the Peace Hunters... my dad used to talk to me about them when I was a kid. I don’t remember much except that he thought they were like a group of over-the-top nut jobs. He was more obsessed with the idea of whether there were other Photo Travelers still around.” She rolls her eyes.

“Wait… so do you travel often?”

“Yea, you can say that.”

“And the Peace Hunters have never intercepted one of your travels?”

“Never.”

I sink back into my chair. “Why would they only come after me? Why not you?”

She shrugs. “Wish I had an answer for you.”

I tell her my story about Salem, and she laughs at my near-death experience. “I had one of those,” she admits. “But it was during the Nazi era. Can you imagine what they thought seeing me? Dressed like this? It wasn’t pretty!”

Eventually, I ask her when she came back to D.C. As she’s telling me she came down for the weekend on a bus that makes the trip in just a couple of hours, my radio squawks at me and Mitch growls, “Hey, kid. Break time’s over.”

I jump up. “I need to go. It’s like my first day here.”

“Well, get your ass back to work, son. Make that money.” she says in one of her jokey voices. “But make sure you save my phone number. Call me whenever you want… but don’t stalk me. Because I will block you!”

I smile at her awkwardness as I take out my phone to program her number.

“Just one more thing,” she says as I’m about to leave. “I’m sure they’ve mentioned this to you enough… but do not try to change the past. Have fun with it, but be careful. If you do change the past, you will die.” She stares at me sternly without blinking until she cracks up and gives me an evil “B-w-a-a-a-ha!” laugh. “No, I’m totally kidding. You won’t die. But as one traveler to another, I gotta let you know that I have your back. Got it?”

“Got it, and gotta go. We’ll talk soon.”

She shakes her head and crosses her eyes again. “Who would of ever thought I’d meet another PT, and just out of nowhere?... But, if you don’t mind, don’t say anything about me to anyone. We don’t know how dangerous things really are, or who to trust. Okay?” With one final wave, I walk out of the café.

The shop is so quiet that I let myself drift to Yogi. I really like her, and I can see her as a friend, but for some reason I’m reluctant to tell Estelle and Bud about her. Until I get to know her better. They’re already freaking out on me as it is. This would be a total flat-liner. Anyway, I’m old enough to take care of myself.

By the time the end of my first official shift on my first official job rolls around, I’m pleased with how well I did and glad that I don‘t have to start again until 2:30 on Sunday. I consider calling Mario to see if he’s doing anything, but all I really want to do is see Alanna.

I only have two pictures left, so naturally I’m worried about whether to use another one up so soon. There must be some way I can get back into her room to get some more, but I’ll worry about that later.

One of the remaining selfie photos is of Alanna puckering her luscious heart-shaped mouth. I can’t tell where the photo was taken because the background is out of focus, but I’m pretty sure it’s a house. What’s more, I realize that I have no idea how much time has passed between the New Year vacation photo and this one. I know from my quick peeks at the other albums in her room that it has to have been within the first few months after the New Year, but still there’s no way to be certain.

I slide my fingers gently over her face and her scent of her neck fills my nostrils, the velvety texture of her skin is at my fingertips. “To this time, allow my travel. Take me there, let time unravel.”

Milliseconds after the wind and thunderous noise flood my ears, I’m in the living room of Mario’s house, but 10 years in the past.

“Gavin!” She jumps up from the couch—a different one—and into my arms.

I shower her with kisses over her neck, lips, cheeks, and in between our attempts for breath, tell each other how much we’ve missed one another.

“So how long has it been?” I ask her. “I can’t tell.”

“Since New Years? About a month and a half.”

“This is so crazy. It’s only been like a day for me.”

“Who cares? You’re here now. And I’ve missed those eyes so much. My parents are away on business, but Delva, our housekeeper, will be back from the market any minute. We’ll be safer in my room. Come.”

I agree immediately when I hear Delva’s name. She grabs my hand and pulls me upstairs. The room is exactly as I remember it—the furniture, her posters, her Coke collection, even her vanilla-and-strawberry scent.

She locks the door, then runs to the window. “Good. Delva’s not back yet. I’m so happy you’re here. I started thinking that that those people had gotten to you. I’ve been going crazy. Are you okay? Have they showed up again?”

“No, they haven’t. I don’t understand it. But I know it’s a matter of time before they find me. It’s pretty inevitable.”

“What are you going to do? You gotta be careful.”

“I know. My grandparents want to run, but it’s pointless. They’ll only find us again. And my grandparents are too old for that.”

“So, what then? You’re just going to wait around for them to find you? Then what?”

“I don’t know.” I say, slightly angrier than I’d meant to. “I’ll figure something out. Sorry…I didn’t mean to snap. It’s just kinda overwhelming and I don’t want to waste our time together thinking about this. It’s not fair.”

She crosses her arms. “Fine,” she says grudgingly. She sits on her bed and I fill the spot next to her.

“Don’t be mad.” I say.

“I’m not mad. I’m worried. I’m scared you’ll just stop showing up because they’ve done something to you.”

I grab her hand. “I’ll never stop coming to you. I promise you that.” I lean in and kiss the skin of her wrist. “Now tell me what’s happened since the last time I saw you. Mine is pretty basic. I slept and woke up.” I let out a laugh.

She finally flashes her teeth to allow a smile to take over. “Not much. Same old thing,” she shrugs. “Spring term’s started. That’s really about it.”

“I started a new job today. It’s kinda boring, but hey…it’s extra cash. And it’s at the Natural History Museum, so lots of potential travel opps. Dinosaurs too. I thought of you the moment I saw the exhibit.”

“Yummy. A man in uniform. I likey.”

I love how she teases me.

“Oh, I almost forgot.” I dig into my pocket and retrieve a braided silver necklace with an unpolished, round piece of amethyst stone hanging from it. “I thought of you as soon as I saw it. I got it from the shop where I work. Now if I’m away for a long time, you’ll always have something to remind you of me.”

“I love it!” She kisses me and bows her head so I can clasp it around her neck. “But just so you know… I’m always thinking of you. I don’t need any reminders for that.” She plays with the stone as it dangles perfectly at the center of her chest.

“Oh! Guess what? I met another photo traveler. This girl… Yogi. It was so cool. Besides my grandparents, she’s the first other traveler I’ve ever met.”

“Hmm. You better tell her to keep her hands off you.”

I laugh. “Is that jealousy I sense?” I’ve never had anyone jealous for me before. I kinda like it. I really like it, actually.

She cracks a smile. “I was joking.”

“No you’re weren’t.”

“Whatever. Yes I was.”

We stare at each other, holding down our bubbling laughter. I crack first. “I like it when you’re jealous.”

“I wasn’t jealous!”

I playfully tackle her against her mattress, “You are jealous.”

I nuzzle and cuddle with her, just staring at her ceiling. Then she props herself up and says, “So… since you’re from the future, show me something. Anything.”

“I don’t know what to show you... Actually—” I dig into my pocket and pull out my MP3 player.

“Oh, wow!” she snatches it from my fingers. “What is it? How does it work?”

“It plays music.”

Her nose crinkles and she cracks her neck to one side. “But where do the tapes or CDs go? It’s so small.”

I can’t help snickering. “In the future we don’t really use tapes. Barely CDs. Everything’s digital.”

“No tapes? That’s the oddest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Really? That’s the oddest thing?”

She shrugs. “Oh yea. Nope, forget it. Not the oddest thing I’ve heard.”

She adjusts the earbud and goes wide-eyed in wonder when she hears the music blasting from the other side. I have totally scored points with this one.

Then she leans towards me and the charged chemistry between us ignites. Our lips are magnets. I kiss her and run my hands along her back as I pull her shirt up and over her head. She’s wearing a pink polka-dotted bra.

“Nuh-uh. Let’s be fair.” she says, peeling off my shirt in turn. I pull her near, tasting the tiny beads of sweat on her collarbones. Her hair brushes against my face and an explosion of plum scent overwhelms me.

I tug her sweatpants down to her hipbones, lightly pecking her tight stomach and gliding my fingers up and down her navel, which makes her giggle. Then she pulls back a bit and whispers. “Don’t leave.”

“Never. I’m yours.”

“You’re mine.”

“I better be.”

I lie back on the bed and pull her toward me so she falls onto my bare chest. We go on kissing with our bodies rubbing against each other. I edge my fingers around to her back and am just starting to unhook her bra begin when a car door slams outside.

Alanna jumps up and dashes to the window. “It’s Delva!” She adjusts her bra, retrieves her shirt from the floor, and tosses mine to me. “Here!”

I slip it on and get up from the bed. “What should I do?”

She runs to the door to check that it’s locked. “I don’t know! Damn it! That lady has the worst timing!”

Alanna, querida!” Delva shouts from downstairs. “Estas en la casa?”

Alanna unlocks the door. “Yes!” she yells. She shuts and locks it again, then turns to me. “Now what?”

I can’t help laughing at her anxiety. “Hey, it’s okay.” I walk over to her and put my arm around her. “You know I can just disappear in a flash.”

“Right. I forgot.” She manages a grin. “Clearly I don’t have boys over to my house very often.”

“Hmm… good answer,” I grin.

“I’ve definitely never had a boyfriend who can time travel.”

“So I’m your boyfriend?”

“Well…I mean…you know what I mean…”

“You damn right I do.”

We grab each other and kiss, and then again and again—until a loud pounding on the door makes us jump apart again.

Alannita!” Delva bellows. “Abre la puerta!

“Hold on!” she yells. “I’m changing!”

She looks at me with the saddest look in her eyes and mouths, “I’m sorry!”

I lean in one more time as Delva knocks again. “I’ll be back.” I whisper. “You know I will.” I give her a playful nibble on the ear, but she pushes me away. I see tears welling up in her eyes.

“Please come back…” she pleads.

“You know my answer to that.” I wink at her and speak my chant.

Back in my room, her photo is staring back at me from the floor. Leaving her again has left me empty. I kneel down and gaze at it for a long time before I hold it to my chest and place it back in my drawer. I can’t stand the idea of having to leave her again and not knowing how long I’ll have with her.

I turn off all the lamps except the night light by my bed. I strip down to my briefs and jump under the covers but all I can do is stare at the ceiling and imagine she’s nuzzled up against my side.

And then I remember that she’s dead.

My stomach twists with nausea. I wonder if she suffered when she died in the accident. I’m falling for a ghost. This is so twisted of me. I can’t shake the thoughts, so I turn off the night light and let the music play off my computer since I gave her my MP3 player. Maybe sleep will find its way to me soon.

I toss and turn most of the night only to be awakened early by Bud knocking on my door. “Rise and shine, buddy. We’ve got a long day ahead of us. Gonna take you for a little drive.”

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

We pass by the kitchen and quickly grab a banana and a cup of coffee for the road. We drive for almost an hour and a half out of D.C. to the rural outskirts of Virginia—long green and brown pastures, small farmhouses miles apart, and cows. Lots and lots of cows.

Eventually, Bud pulls up on the side of an abandoned cottage with a one-lane gravel driveway. The windows are boarded up with wooden planks and scraps of cardboard covered in graffiti. He takes out his inhaler and takes a puff, puts it away, and turns to me. His yellow eyes have turned a musty gray. There’s a sadness deep inside them that I’ve never noticed before.

“Gav,” he sighs. “There are a lot of things going on right now. A lot that’s not in our control. Believe me, buddy, this is not how we ever wanted our reunion to be.” He stares down at the steering wheel. “I hope you know how much I love you, but we don’t know how much longer we’re going to have here, you know? I feel like I’ve missed out on so much with you. And the truth is, we’re older and I don’t know whether we’ve got it in us to stand up to all these forces.”

“Bud, stop! Please. I’ll protect you guys. I promised my mom and dad.”

He blinks, willing back the tears that I know are begging to come out. I might not have been able to save Leyla, but I will save Estelle and Bud. Even if it means I die instead.

He smiles faintly. “Okay, buddy. Okay.”

We sit in silence for a long time until I finally ask, “So, what’re we doing out here?”

He swings the car door open and gets out. “You don’t want to leave. And as much as Estelle and I disagree, we know we can’t force you. So if we are staying, and if you’re going to help protect us, then you need to learn how.”

He opens the trunk to the car and takes out a gun case that contains a 9mm pistol. He doesn’t say anything, only closes the trunk and walks towards the cottage. I follow him to the endless fields behind it. About 100 feet away are four makeshift columns of stacked milk crates, all different sizes high. Draped over each is a long piece of cardboard with a large, typical looking bulls-eye sketched in the center. He hands me the gun. The sight of it alone makes me feel uneasy, guilty even. This is what killed Leyla. Even holding it just feels wrong.

The icy steel grip makes my hand shake. I try my best to focus on the improvised target and control my breathing. I break into a cold sweat as I anticipate the explosion of the bullet leaving the barrel.

Bud shows me how to switch off the safety. I take a deep breath and squeeze my hand around the grip, my arms rigid and tense. I keep my eyes steady on the target. All I hear is the click of the trigger as I pull it back, and the bang! of the bullet as it finds its way free.

I flinch as the casing almost hits me in the face. A thousand images of Leyla flash in my mind, assaulting me with the painful memories. I drop to my knees, palms to the floor, gun at my side. I shudder and open my eyes, quickly relieving the air I’ve been holding in.

“Nice job, bud.”

I squint to see whether I even hit the target. I’m shocked to see that I wasn’t far off at all. In fact, I hit the bull’s-eye. I have to do this, I think. It’s different if it’s for self-defense. It’s not the same as what they did to Leyla.

We spend the next five hours blasting the targets to shreds.

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