THE PHOTO TRAVELER

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CHAPTER 34

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

I rush inside, shouting, “Estelle!”

No answer.

Estelle!

Still no answer. I look at the door for some sign of forced entry, but there’s nothing.

I clatter up the stairs and into her room, sending the door crashing against the wall. Her bed is empty. Her sheets are in disarray. The gun still in her nightstand. The window’s wide open, with the wind billowing the curtains.

My whole body’s shaking and I’m having trouble catching my breath, like my lungs are sucking air through a tiny coffee stirrer.

I call her name over and over. Nothing.

Is this what Naima meant when she said Axel was “around”—that she’d sent him here while she came after me? I search every room looking for signs of a struggle but don’t see anything out of order. The kitchen’s as neat as it was when I left for school this morning.

Then I remember the one place I haven’t checked yet.

I go to the front door and peer out into the dark. I don’t see anyone, but that doesn’t mean anything. Not the way those two seem to be able to appear and disappear whenever they want. I tiptoe down the steps and around to the side of the house. The patch of artificial turf over the stairs that lead down to the basement is out of position. As if someone recently pulled it up and didn’t replace it properly. But who? Axel? I don’t have a plan or a weapon on me, but there’s no time to think. I spot a solid tree branch nearby and pick it up. Better than nothing. I ease the cover aside and pull the cellar flap up.

I see a faint gleam of light at the base of the steps. And someone’s crying. Please let it be her! I creep down the steps and stop in my tracks when I see her—she’s crying, crouched over a pile of cardboard boxes.

“Estelle!” I don’t dare make too much noise. Who knows where they are right now?

She gasps and jumps to her feet. “Gavin!”

“Are you okay? What’re you doing down here?” My heart feels like it’s in an MMA ring, punching violently at my chest.

Her eyes are blood red, and her face is haggard. In the dim light of the single light bulb above her head, her hair looks like it’s turned completely white in the week since Bud died. It’s killing me to see her so fragile. I know she’s strong and I hope she’ll start to come around, but I also know that getting over losing Bud could take many more years than she has left.

I run over and hug her. “I thought they’d gotten to you! Kidnapped you! Don’t ever do that to me again!”

I look over at the cartons and see that they’re filled with countless of photos of her and Bud. I step back and take her hands. “I thought you were doing better?”

Tears flood her eyes again. She’s a morphed version of herself, like a melting ice sculpture. “I’ll never be better. I don’t know how to live without my Buddy.”

“No! Don’t say that! He’d be furious if he heard you!”

She steps out of my arms and drops to her knees. She fumbles in the nearest carton and brings out a large, oddly shaped metallic container. “I was looking for this. We agreed that after we both passed, we wanted our ashes placed in this urn. It’s a double helix. Each part will hold one of us. After I’m gone, I want you to place my ashes in the empty side, and then travel to China and scatter us over the Great Wall. Promise?”

“Okay—but you’re not going anywhere.”

“One day I will, Gavin.”

“Yes! One day, but not now!” I yell. “Not any time soon! So just stop!” I grab the urn and slam it back into the box. “It’s hard for me, too! I don’t want to think about losing you, too!”

She wipes her eyes and throws her arms around my neck. “I’m sorry, dear.”

“You don’t have to be sorry. You can hurt all you want. You deserve to grieve in whatever way you want. Just—you’re all I have now.”

She nods. “You’re right. I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’ve been so caught up in my own suffering that I’ve forgotten about yours.”

I lead her up the steps and turn off the light, and we set the camouflage grass over the hidden door.

“I think you need to get some rest,” I tell her as we head back into the house and I bolt the door behind us. I nudge her toward the stairs. “Go on, get some sleep.”

“I love you.” She kisses me on the cheek

“I know. I love you more.” I watch her mount the stairs and whisper so she can’t hear me. “And we’re gonna be okay. We are going to win. I promise. I will not let them get to you. Ever.”

After I hear her bedroom door close behind her, I collapse on the living room couch and bring Bud’s square plaid TV-watching cushion up to my face. It still smells of him. If he were still here right now, the TV would be on to CNN and Estelle would be only an arm’s reach away. But all that’s left is his smell on his old cushion and the indentation where he always sat.

And silence.

I’ve always wondered how people could talk about a “loud silence,” but now I totally get it.

The air conditioner turns on, freaking me out. Every noise throws me off edge. I force myself off the couch and up to my room. All I want is to see Alanna again. I promised myself I’d put off using my last photo of her for as long as I could, but tonight I can’t fight the urge any longer. I need her to lift my spirits.

I step out of my work uniform and into jeans and a t-shirt. Then I reach into my dresser drawer.

I can’t help smiling. The third photo is another one of her holding the camera in front of her face and taking a self-portrait as she puckers her perfect mouth and arches one of her eyebrows. I’m glad she’s alone in this shot because that’s exactly what I want.

As I say my chant, I realize that since the last time I saw her, my world has come crashing down around me and I’ve forgotten what happiness feels like.

Please remind me.

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