THE PHOTO TRAVELER

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CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

The next morning, I’m pulled away from my dreams about Alanna by my cell, which rings, goes silent, and moments later rings again. I give up trying to sleep and reach for it. The first message is a text from Dina:

Happy 18th Bday. I miss u. We all do. Even Jet. I hope you are ok & have a gr8 day.

I roll my eyes and delete it, but the next one catches me by surprise. It’s from Mel:

I know I probably wasn’t the best sister and I’m sorry for that. I hope your life turns out the way it should be. Love ya and miss ya. Xo.

I’m surprised by how much this means to me, and I decide to lock it. I can’t recall her ever having said anything intimate to me.

When I open my blinds, the morning sun warms my face and I smile at the families walking their dogs over in the park. I leave the blinds open to the sun and head down the hall to shower.

When I come back to my room, I find a blue envelope on my bed. It’s a card – of course, with dolphins–from Estelle and Bud, along with a check for $200 and a $50 iTunes gift card. I can’t remember the last time someone gave me a birthday gift. I didn’t even celebrate my last three. What was the point? My last birthday “party” was when I turned 15. Jet and Dina took me to some pizza place. Except that Jet got into a fight with our waiter and we were basically thrown out. Not exactly the best birthday memory.

I tuck the whole envelope in my drawer. I’m not going to deposit the check. I want to keep it—it’s a token of what finally surrounds me. I pull out the photo album Estelle and Bud gave me and flip to the photo of the day I was born. I leave it out to remind me to visit my parents when I get home from school. When I saw them in the Depression, I may have accepted letting them go to choose their futures, but there’s no reason I can’t still share the memories of the past with them.

I skip down the steps and into the living room. “Happy Birthday!” Estelle and Bud applaud from the kitchen.

“Honey,” Estelle says, “you have no idea what it means to us that we’re celebrating your birthday with you.” She has trouble getting the words out because she’s trying to keep from crying.

“We’ve dreamed of this for so many years.” Bud adds. He looks as if he’s fighting tears, too. “We never thought it would happen. I tell you, buddy, if I were to die today, I’d die a happy man. We love you!”

“Don’t say things like that.” I hug them both, trying my hardest to hold back my own waterworks. “I love you too, and I’m exactly where I want to be. For once.”

Bud and I sit down at the table while Estelle brings out breakfast. “Now, we know how much you love your sweets, so I made you something special. Homemade chocolate chip pancakes, cinnamon rolls, and an egg-white spinach and turkey sausage omelet.”

My eyes light up. “Sweet! Oooooh, that looks awesome!” I pluck a cinnamon roll from the plate and stuff my face with it. “Wow… so good.”

Estelle stands next to Bud and prepares his plate as she always does. And as always he protests, “Aw honey, you don’t have to do this. Why don’t you sit down and let me make your plate?” And again as always, she refuses. “No, no—you just eat. I’ll fix mine in a minute...”

I hope that someday I find a love like theirs. It seems so rare these days. My stomach sinks as I think back to Alanna and wonder—if things were different, if she weren’t actually from the past… or dead… would this be the type of love we’d have?

Estelle sets Bud’s plate in front of him and plops another roll on mine. “By the way, sweetheart, we have reservations for tonight at one of our favorite restaurants, The Royal Chophouse. We hope you don’t mind. We made them for seven o’ clock.”

“Really? I thought you guys didn’t want to go out?”

Estelle smiles. “Well, hunny… some occasions are just worth the risk.”

The school day flies by. All of my teachers know it’s my birthday and wish me a great day. Mr. Perry, who’s still my favorite teacher by a long shot, gives me a $25 iTunes gift card. This catches me off guard. No teacher has ever gone out of their way to buy me a gift. Forget comparing my old school with this one because I know how lucky I am to be here.

During class, Mario asks what I have planned for my birthday.

“Nothing much. Dinner with the family. This place, Royal Chophouse.”

“Dude, that place rocks! Hottest waitresses too. You got try the Emperor Strip. It melts right on your tongue. Best piece of steak ever.”

“All right, all right…I’ll try it. Hey, wanna get together tomorrow to finish up the project?”

“Yea, sounds good. But we’re riding out for your birthday this weekend. No ifs or buts about it. You haven’t really gone out since you’ve been here—what better reasons than to celebrate your 18th?”

I give in. “Fine—But no bowling. I hate bowling.”

“Dude,” he laughs. “Who the hell goes bowling anyways?”

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