THE PHOTO TRAVELER

By Arthur Gonzalez All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER TWO

By now I’m so groggy that the police sirens flooding the air sound like a roaring in my ears. Then I hear banging on the front door and men shouting. For all I know, they could be angels who’ve come to rescue me. As Jet raises his fist to pummel me again, Dina rushes out from the kitchen and sprints to the door like a mouse scurrying to snatch her cheese. As the police break through, she screams, “Help! Please! He’s going to kill him!”

The officers wrestle Jet to the floor, knocking out one of his front teeth. I collapse at the foot of the stairs. Searing pain is radiating through my body. Mel finally comes running from her room, sobbing as the police handcuff Jet and drag him out to one of the patrol cars. They tell us that he’ll be booked and held until he’s arraigned and can make bail.

I see Dina’s shoulders sag in relief, as if a burden’s been suddenly lifted from her. It’s a feeling I can relate well to. If Jet’s out of the house, that’ll give us at least a few days of peace, without the constant reminder of how miserable our lives are. And I’ll have some time to figure out what I’m going to do.

Meanwhile, the paramedics, who charged in right behind the police and rushed to check me out, tell me I should be monitored for a possible concussion.

“No, I’m fine,” I keep insisting. I don’t want to go to the hospital.

They leave shaking their heads, but I’m stuck downstairs for almost an hour while the police take statements from all three of us. Their report includes a lot of history about the violence in our “home”.

After the police finally leave, Dina comes over and puts her hand on my shoulder. She’s been crying pretty much nonstop, and her eyes are red and swollen. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I should have done this a long time ago... Are you doing okay? You should go to the hospital.” 

Every rib on my left side is pulsing with fire, but I tell her, “I’m fine. Thank you.”

I hug her as best I can, but I can’t help grunting from the pain. I look over at Mel, who’s huddled on the couch, and I can read everything she wants to tell me from the expression on her face. I see that she’s really sorry, but I know she’ll never say it. She gives me a quick glance, then immediately drops her gaze to the floor as if she’s embarrassed.

I start to make my way up the stairs to my room, but I have to hold on to the railing instead of bouncing up two steps at a time the way I usually do. When I reach the top, I stop and turn back to look down at Dina.

“You should be proud,” I say, followed by a grunt of pain. “You’ve set yourself free.”

 

I peel off my favorite Coldplay shirt, now stained with blood, and take a look at myself in the mirror next to my desk. My left side is turning a mottled purple. My right eye is almost swollen shut. As I ease the icepack that the paramedics gave me against my eye, I can’t help but find some humor in it all because I kind of look like a hobbit that’s been trampled over twice.

I ease myself onto my rumpled twin bed. The same small bed I’ve had since I was taken in. The same one I remember waking up to when I was four. Even that hurts. I am so tired of all of this. No real parents, no family. Not even a real damn bed I can sleep comfortably on. There’s no reason why I should have to be going through this.

Then I remember Jet shouting at me while he was punching me. “Not even your grandparents!”

Grandparents? Whoa, whoa—since when did I have grandparents? The only thing Jet and Leyla, and later Dina, have ever told me was that I had no biological family left. And how grateful I should be that they’d taken me in. Right, into this dysfunctional home in this piece-of-crap town. “Home sweet home”… right.

My ribs are still killing me, but I ease myself off my bed and power up my computer. My original last name was Greene, so that’s what I start my search with. Which is useless because Google spits out more than a thousand pages of Greenes.

The next step, I guess, is to sign up for one of those ancestry websites. I use my Social Security number and start answering the security questions.

WHAT WAS THE COLOR OF YOUR FIRST CAR?

I answer “invisible” because I’ve never been so lucky as to have a car. I don’t even have my license yet.

The final question asks:

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE COLOR?

I answer “orange” because it’s always been my favorite color. I searched for months before I found my camera bag in the orange shade I finally bought it in.

While the system’s searching, I wonder what it would mean if I really did have grandparents out there somewhere who were still alive. After all, it’s been about thirteen years since the last time I might have seen them. It’d be as if I’ve never even met them. A whistle chirps and a screen pops up.

CONGRATULATIONS! WE’VE CONNECTED YOUR FAMILY TREE!

When I click the “GET MY RESULTS!” button, it takes me to a trial membership page where I need to enter my credit card information. Um—$19.95? Of course it is. It’s also not going to work for me because I don’t have a bank account, much less a credit card.

There’s got to be some way of finding out about these mystery “grandparents”. I run across the hall to the guest room, which doubles as Jet’s office. Well, what used to be his office, anyway. He used to come here and review the blueprints for whatever job he was on. Nowadays, if he’s not splayed out in front of the TV in the living room, he’s holed up here drinking and browsing porn or something. It reeks of tobacco and beer, like the poolrooms where I know he sometimes hangs out. I even pick up a hint of dead-cigarette funk from the last one he lit up.

His desk is stacked with papers piled every which way, but what I’m looking for wouldn’t be there.

I open the closet door and start riffling through the kind of clutter only a hoarder would keep. A TV set from the ’80s. An old VHS player. Even a set of creepy porcelain clown figurines.

I spot a battered, black two-drawer filing cabinet against the back wall. It’s buried under a pile of old suits that I’m sure Jet wore long ago when he actually had a social life. I toss them onto the daybed, then pull on the drawers. Locked. And who knows where the key is, or even if he still has it around.

I run to the utility closet next to the bathroom and grab a hammer and a flat-head screwdriver. Shoving the tip of the screwdriver between the face of the lock and the drawer, I hit the handle end with the hammer until the lock falls off. I quickly peek outside just to make sure Dina or Mel haven’t heard all the commotion.

I tug the drawer open. It’s stuffed with yellowing manila folders, envelopes, and documents. The deed to the house. Old mortgage statements from a bank that I don’t even think exists anymore. Tons of other useless material. I pry open the bottom drawer. It’s even more stuffed with paper than the top one. Nothing’s organized at all. I shuffle through the pile. At the very bottom, as if hidden, is a thin legal-sized folder.

The label reads “Donald Mathers, Esq.” And it contains... my adoption papers! My heart starts pounding.

I flip through all the yellowing, coffee-stained pages looking for anything with signatures on it and finally find one called a “Transfer of Rights.” It’s a consent form in which the current guardians or parents “permanently and irrevocably” transfer their rights over the adopted child to the adoptive parents. The signatures on the form are Ed Greene, Estelle Greene, Jet Hillstone, and Leyla Hillstone. 

Ed Greene and Estelle Greene. My dad’s parents. 

  Why would they do this to me? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that I had a grandmother and grandfather, even if they did give me up?

But then it hits me. Maybe I used to have grandparents, but all this happened thirteen years ago. Maybe they’re no longer alive. I need to find out. Now.

The file also contains everyone’s contact information, including an address and phone number for Ed and Estelle. I take the whole file and head back to my room. Just as I close the door, I hear Dina’s footsteps on the stairs. Is she coming up to check on me? I slide over to my door and twist the lock. Jet always forbade me to lock my door, but I don’t want her walking in on me and seeing what I’m up to.

She doesn’t stop at my door but continues down the hall to the master bedroom. I wait until I hear that door close, then punch in the number on my hand-me-down iPhone, the one they “gifted” to me when they bought Mel the latest version. My stomach’s in knots and I can hardly breathe as I wait for the call to go through.

“You have reached a number that’s no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this number in error...” 

Wonderful. I try googling them on my phone’s browser, but nothing helpful comes of it. I slouch on my bed and read their names over and over as if this will magically answer all the questions I have.

I just don’t understand why they would give me up so easily. I couldn’t have been that horrible of a child. Maybe they were really old and their health was so bad that they couldn’t go on taking care of me? But then why wouldn’t they at least have kept in touch? Or maybe they gave me up because they blamed me for my real parents’ deaths?

All I remember is that my parents never came to pick me up that day and that eventually some white-haired lady took me to a freezing gray room someplace and told me they were dead. There were a bunch of other meetings with people I didn’t know, but the next thing I really remember is waking up in a stranger’s room, on a foreign bed, tiptoeing through a house that was definitely not mine. That day, everything I knew as a four-year-old was stripped from me, and I’d never be able to reclaim any of it.

I feel like throwing up. My heart’s beating so fast that I can literally see it pounding through my shirt. All I can think about is that I need to find out whether they’re still alive and why they gave me up.

The address on the adoption papers is in Washington, D.C. I don’t remember living in D.C. I don’t remember anything about my grandparents. As it is, I just barely remember my biological parents. And that’s only thanks to a photo I used to have of them. I try my hardest to conjure up some memories of my past life. Nothing comes to mind. Nothing at all.

I continue flipping through the papers. On the last page, there’s a white Post-It with another phone number written in red Sharpie. That’s Leyla’s handwriting. The area code is also the same as the disconnected number. My breathing picks up and without much thought, I dial out.

After a few rings, an automated message picks up. “Hello, the party you are trying to reach is unavailable. Please leave a mes—”

“Hello?” A lady says over the answering machine.

I swear, my heart has stopped beating.

“Hello?” she asks again.

I hold in my breath, listening to her. Her voice is low and sweet, like a gentle breeze. Then I hang up. I don’t know why, but I do. I lie back on my bed, imagining all the things this could possible mean.

Then it really, really hits me—I may very well have living family. I’m torn between what I should be feeling. Excitement, relief, anger, sadness? If it’s possible to feel all of those at once … well, I do.

By three in the morning I’ve decided I can either stay here or ditch this place. That number means something. That voice could be my grandmother. And if it is, I’m not confronting them over the phone. The decision seems pretty clear. Plus, if I know Dina the way I think I do, she’s just going to drop the charges—which means, Jet could be back any day. I’ve found that I can take a bus from Carson City to D.C. for $230. It leaves at seven-thirty A.M., so I only have a couple of hours to figure things out.

If I leave here by six, I should be fine in terms of time. I’ll use the rest of my cash from the photography contest I won a few months back. There’s nothing left for me here, anyway. In three weeks, I’ll turn eighteen, and even if my grandparents aren’t alive anymore, I can probably start fresh. Maybe get a job. Probably get some photography gigs.

Leaving will spare me the embarrassment of going back to school and having the few friends I have ask me about the bruises. After Jet gave me that last swollen lip, I told my friend Randy that Mel had accidentally hit me with my camera. But since I suck at lying, I was probably as believable as that girl, Cynthia, in our class who constantly shows up with hickies on her neck but keeps swearing she’s still a virgin.

Randy said, “O-kay, dude,” but I know he didn’t believe me because he saw my eyes twitching. They always do that whenever I tell a lie. I can’t help it.

I grab my orange duffle bag from my closet and toss just the essentials into it. Underwear, socks, t-shirts, jeans, toothbrush, deo, some of my favorite photography prints, all of my memory cards. I shove my camera and laptop into my camera bag and set it next to the door.

There’s something about leaving that calms my thriving anxiety. I’ve always dreamed of escaping this place, running away and never looking back. The idea envelops me in a soothing comforter relief. It’s now five in the morning and I’ve given up all hope of sleep. Which is fine, because in just a couple of hours I’ll be boarding the Grandwood bus to D.C., and maybe my life will finally change for the better.

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