THE PHOTO TRAVELER

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CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

The one-week anniversary of Bud’s passing tears through us like a record-breaking tornado. Even after all of my alarms go off, I’m useless in bed. I lie there just staring at one of the dolphin portraits and I sink myself deeply into my comforter.

“One week today, Bud,” I whisper to him. “I miss you so much. Nothing is the same.” A small jolt runs through my body and I shiver. I know it’s probably just my body waking up, but I can’t help wondering whether it might be a sign from him telling me he’s watching over me. Over us.

After I shower, I head downstairs expecting another lonely breakfast. But I’m surprised to hear a rattling noise coming from the kitchen. When I see Estelle at the oven whisking eggs in a bowl the way she always used to, I stop dead in my tracks. She turns and gives me a smile and announces, “Well? These eggs weren’t going to cook themselves, were they? You mind getting out the milk for me?”

My pale cheeks fill with color. I’m so relieved I don’t know what to do except go over to her and wrap my arms around her and say, “I love you!” She puts down her spatula and turns around in my arms to look up at me.

“We’re going to be okay, Gavin. I had a dream about Buddy last night. It gave me some peace. I know everything will be okay... But it’s just you and me now, so you have to promise me that you’ll take care of yourself. Okay?”

“Yeah. Of course. But you have to also. I promised him I’d take care of you, and I will. So from now on, all of your doctor’s appointments—everything—I want to know.”

She smiles faintly and turns back to the eggs. “I can’t imagine what I would’ve done if you hadn’t been here with me through this. Do you know how lucky I feel to have you?”

And although I fake a smile at her comment, I can’t help but wonder if she–they– would have been better off without me.

Over breakfast, we have our first real conversation in a week. I’m relieved to see that she’s finally eating again—and startled when she takes the chair that had always been Bud’s. This time I serve her, telling her, “Now it’s my turn to help you.” Surprisingly, she doesn’t object to it.

It’s time to tell her about Mel so she can keep her guard up. “My foster sister showed up today…”

She slowly puts down her fork. “Oh…she did? And what did she say?”

“The Peace Hunters ransacked their house. They were looking for me. Somehow they’ve discovered where I used to live. They threatened her. And she gave them this address. That means it’s only a matter of time before they show up.”

Her eyes wander into space. “She gave you up. These are the people I left you with.”

“It wasn’t—you were trying to protect me. You couldn’t have known that Leyla would die and that they’d turn their back on me.”

She pats the chair next to me. “Sit with me.”

I walk over and take a seat. She rests her head on my shoulder and we sit for several minutes in a peaceful silence. Why can’t things just be like this forever?

“Estelle, listen,” I say, “I want you to keep staying inside the house until we know we’re safe. We’re both better off in here than out there. And I promise I’ll only leave for school and work. Okay?”

She ponders this for a moment and nods. “It’s not like I’ve seen the light of day since Bud left us anyway.”

“And I want you to keep Bud’s gun with you at all times. Do you know where he kept it? He was right—we need to make sure we’re protected. I know the idea sucks, but there’s no way around it. Okay?”

She grimaces at the thought, but finally answers, “Okay.”

“We’re gonna be fine, you know? He’ll make sure we’re safe.”

“Sweetheart…I hope nothing more than for you to be right.”

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