THE PHOTO TRAVELER

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CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER THREE

My adrenaline is pumping, bubbling. The lack of sleep hasn’t had any effect on me. Yet.

I leave a note for Dina on the kitchen counter telling her I’m going to visit some friends and to check out possible colleges. I figure she’s going to be so caught up in the ordeal with Jet that she probably won’t even notice, much less care, that I’ve left. By the time she pulls herself together, I’ll be eighteen and long gone. Out of their hair for good. I think it’s a win-win for all of us. 

I call a local taxi company to meet me at the coffee shop down the street. I trudge the three blocks with all of my stuff in tow. When I arrive, there’s no cab in sight. It’s already six-thirty, which gives me one hour to get to Carson City.

I wait twenty more minutes. Still no cab. At this point I’m pacing back and forth along the sidewalk thinking that my big plan is going to be a big bust. As I’m pulling out my phone to call a third time, a lime green cab pulls up and honks. I race over, dragging my duffle bag along the pavement.

“Can you open the trunk?” I ask.

The driver opens his door and eases himself out at a glacial pace. He scratches at his dreads and gives me a suspicious look. I’m worried that he’ll ask me for my age, or for proof that my parents are allowing me to leave. I imagine I fit the profile of the ideal runaway, with all the bruising and bags.

He just arches one pierced eyebrow. “Your folks know you’re traveling?” he asks in a deep, gravelly voice.

“I don’t have parents,” I mutter, and point at my bruised lip.

  “Where ya need to go?”

  “Carson City. The Super Target parking lot. The bus leaves at seven-thirty.” 

  “How old are you?”

  “Old enough, I promise. Look, you don’t understand—I can’t miss this bus.”

  “You got cash, kid?” 

  “Yes.” I pull the wad of bills out of my camera bag. “Here—look. I’ll pay whatever. Please?”

He shakes his head and shrugs before hitting a button on his driver’s side that unlocks all the doors.

We pull into the Target lot with five minutes to spare. The last person in line is just boarding the two-level silver bus. I shove the cab fare into the cabbie’s hand and rush to the bus like a crazed maniac. 

When I reach the door, out of breath, I thrust my printed reservation to a guy outside holding a roster sheet. After I pay in cash, he checks me off. I peek inside and realize the bus is kinda empty. I heave a sigh of relief and walk toward the back. I’ll be able to spread myself across two seats and just listen to my music. I’d typically take pictures, but I can’t because my lens is trashed. I brought all the pieces with me anyway. It didn’t feel right leaving them behind.

The bus driver is a plump, dark-skinned, middle-aged woman named Meesha who’s constantly twirling away at her coarse gray pigtails. She has this goofy grin and puffy lips that make me feel safe. Maybe because she reminds me of my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Henny, who to this day has always been my favorite teacher. She knew Leyla and always treated me so nicely. She’d even walk me to the car when class was over. Always asked me how I was doing. It’s been years since I’ve seen her but I always think about how she’s doing. I hope she’s doing okay. I think that I miss her way more than I would ever Mel or Dina.

As I cozy into the purple-and-navy fabric seats, the bus engine roars and we start to roll forward in preparation to take off. I take a deep breath, allowing the peace to wash through my body. But before I can exhale fully, a series of loud honks erupts outside. The bus stops abruptly. Meesha pokes her head out the window.

“Hey! Move your car!” she shouts at someone. “Whatcha think you’re doin’?!” She opens the door and charges down the steps.

I stand up to see what’s going on. Immediately I wish I hadn’t. Dina’s battered white Toyota Corolla is blocking the bus. She jumps out and runs toward Meesha yelling like a lunatic and running her fingers through her stringy black hair.

I run up the aisle and leap down onto the pavement from the top step. “What’re you doing here?” I yell at Dina.

She sneaks past Meesha and sprints toward me. “What d’you think you’re doing? Where are you going?”

“How’d you find me?”

  “I heard the door close and came downstairs. I couldn’t sleep. I was scared that they’d let Jet out. Then I saw your note and checked your room. All your stuff was gone. I found an extra printed reservation for the bus fare tossed in your trash bin. You can’t leave! I won’t let you. You’re still a minor.”

Meesha walks over and plants herself directly between us. “You know this lady?”

I roll my eyes. “Uh huh. Please give me two minutes. Just two. I’ll be right on. Promise.”

“You’re not going anywhere!” Dina shouts.

Meesha eyes the two of us, then turns to me. “Babydoll, you got two minutes to sort all this out. Or I leave without you. You hear me?” She wheels around and struts back to the bus twirling her left pigtail. 

“Gavin! Get in the car! Now.”

I step in closer to her tired face and sodden eyes. “Dina, let me make this clear to you. You are not my mother. You will never be my mother. You have no legal rights over me. Only Jet does. And guess what? He’s in jail. So you can’t stop me and you won’t. And if you try, I’ll make sure that everyone on this bus thinks you’re one who gave me these bruises. Do you understand me?”

“You wouldn’t dare,” she spits out, her voice shaking.

  “Look, Dina … this has nothing to do with you. I want you to know that. And I really don’t want to involve you, but nothing will stop me from getting on that bus. I’m sorry … but I need to go.”

I turn around to get back onto the bus, but she grabs me by the wrist. I snap around, rage seething inside of me. “I’m not going ba—”

Then I see the glossy film of tears in her charcoal-dark eyes. She looks at me for a moment, then pulls me in softly and whispers, “Please be careful… please. Good luck, Gavin.” 

Something about it feels… real. Authentic. I step back from her gently and look her in the eyes. The sunlight bouncing off of them turns them a shade of green I’d never cared to notice before. I don’t say anything. I just nod at her, telling her I hear her. Letting her know I accept what she’s just said. But also making it clear that I’m still leaving.

Meesha yells out from the driver’s seat. “Sweet thang! You comin’, or what?”

  “Yeah!” I turn back to Dina, a sudden excitement unraveling inside. She’s backing away from me toward her car, smiling wistfully. I crack a partial smile and jog back to the bus, past the annoyed faces staring out the windows.

When I reach Meesha, she gives me a glance. “You sure you’re all right, sugah?”

I nod and make my way back to my seat, my head sunken in embarrassment. I can’t bring myself to make eye contact with any of the other passengers.

When we finally pull away, Meesha announces that it’ll take us about two days to get to D.C. Initially, I think she’s nuts to be driving straight through, but then she adds that after she drives for twelve hours, she’ll switch out with another driver named Pete. He’s a tall, hefty, black man with a curly beard wearing a red University of Nevada hat, sitting in the seat right behind her. Based on their mildly feisty verbal exchanges, I take it that he might be her husband.

Meesha also tells us that we’ll only be stopping a few times, mostly to gas up and buy food and snacks. The bus has a shower and toilet in the back, which is what makes the trip so fast. “We’ll be heading straight across US 50, otherwise known as the ‘Backbone of America’,” she explains.

Pete stands up and adds, “Except that this whole stretch through Nevada’s called the ‘Loneliest Road in America.’ But it’ll be over soon, guys.”

Go figure, I keep thinking to myself. Seems only fitting that I’ve been living in the loneliest stretch of the country, I guess. The signs just keep piling up. This place sucks. And apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way.

 

After about six hours on the road, I decide that this trip looks like it’s not going to be too bad. No kids running up and down the aisle hollering and screaming. No obnoxious music blaring over the speakers.

When we pull into a rest stop halfway through Kansas, I figure I don’t really need anything. I also don’t have that much cash left, so I pass the time by sitting down on the heated gravel with my back propped against the back wall of the building and start listening to my iPod. I dig into my back pocket and grab my remaining money. Just over $100 left. That won’t take me very far. I’m crossing my fingers that I find what I’m looking for and that it leads me to something bigger and better.

I pull out my camera. Since it’s only the lens that got trashed, I can still turn the camera on and view the photos stored on the memory card from the day before. It feels like a long time ago. As always, I get totally absorbed in looking at the images and a calming feeling sweeps over me.

I begin wondering what Ed and Estelle will look like. I have no idea what I’ll say, or if they’ll even recognize me. I start having this cheesy daydream of the door opening before I even reach it, and the two of them running out towards me with inviting arms – all in slow-mo, of course. It wouldn’t have the same affect without it.

I’m caught in a fuzz of fluffed, pretend scenarios mixed with the narcotic-like effects of no sleep when the bus horn blasts and my eyes snap open. The doors are closing. It’s pulling out. Leaving me behind. I struggle to my feet and make a run for it.

“Stop! Stop!” I scream. Pete’s at the wheel. I can tell by his red cap. The bus keeps accelerating but I manage to reach the front door. I slam my palm against it, pounding as hard as I can. “Let me in!”

The bus slows. I almost lose my balance as the doors slide open and I clamber aboard. Pete’s staring at me.

Meesha springs up from her seat. “You hear me when I said ten minutes? I know you got one of them fancy phones with all them gadgets, so I know it tells you the time. Everybody here’s been waiting fifteen minutes for you.”

“Sorry. I think I fell asleep. Why didn’t you call me?”

“That would’ve been nice, if you would’ve given us the right number. You failed to enter that information online. This is my bus, my rules, baby doll. Remember that. Now you go ahead and take your seat.” She turns to Pete. “Drive.”

He stomps on the gas pedal so hard the bus leaps forward and sends me flying into the windshield. I lose my balance but manage not to fall by grabbing onto a bar above me.

“Don’t you be breaking no bones on this bus neither.” Meesha demands, still eyeing me threateningly.

I stagger back to my seat and slither into it, burying myself in my hoodie. I look out the window, but already all there is is an empty road, minus the whorls of dust kicked up by the bus’s tires.

I pull the hood over my eyes and curl up on the two seats. Even though I’m exhausted, it takes me a long time to go to sleep. Go figure. Just a minute ago, I almost missed getting back on. That would have changed everything. It’s crazy to think how one simple action could change the sequence of every single thing that follows. I barely have any money left. I’d probably have to hitchhike my way back to Nevada. Everything could have changed. But it didn’t, I remind myself. It didn’t because this is my time. This is meant to happen. Finally.

I toss and turn for the next couple of hours and finally doze off, only to keep waking up from the pain of my seatbelt buckle jammed against my aching ribs. I keep having my typical nightmares about Leyla, mingled in with thoughts of what Jet is going to think when he finds out I’m not coming back. It’s going to take some major practice to get me to shift my way of thinking. He’s no longer going to govern my life. No longer will he be the reason I do or don’t do something.

Long after midnight, as we’re driving through the middle of nowhere, I wake and start gazing out the window at the families of stars glowing above me. It’s so calming. I start counting the stars, wondering how many people in the world are doing the same thing. It’s something I began doing years ago that makes me feel less alone. By the time I’ve counted up to a hundred and twenty-four glittering balls of flames, my eyelids surrender and I’m out for the first peaceful sleep I’ve had in two days.

 

When we finally pull into the terminal at Union Station in D.C. around seven in the evening two days later, my skin starts to tingle. I realize that I haven’t done the best job at thinking through what I’m going say when—or IF—I see my grandparents. They have new lives, no doubt. More strangers than family. Hello!—What if they don’t even live at this address anymore? That voice could’ve been anybody’s. I know there’s no going back now, so I just cross my fingers and hail the next taxi in queue.

The taxi driver tells me it’s about a twenty-minute drive to the address I have for “Ed and Estelle Greene.” I guess I should be feeling thrilled, but the realization that in the near, near future I may be meeting my grandparents has me suddenly feeling numb from nerves. My breaths are fast and the palpitations are not helping. What actually gets me to start breathing normal again is the sight of a tall, pointed monument that looks like a giant, magical sword waiting for some knight to free it from its place. It glows in a golden-silvery light. And from where I’m at, it looks as if it’s peak reaches higher above the moon.

“What is that? I know I’ve seen it before, but I forgot what it is.” I ask the taxi driver, my face plastered to the window.

“Washington Monument. It’s made of marble, granite, and bluestone gneiss. It’s closed now though, due to construction.”

I want to punch myself in the face for being here without my camera working. Photography foul times ten.

The activity and architecture of the city has me captivated. Loads of windows with glowing lights reflecting off them, and people. A lot of people. The peak of the Washington Monument is standing tall, proudly observing all who trek across it’s city. This is nothing like what I’m used to. The tallest building in Saddlehorn is a sorry twelve stories high. Hundreds of cars zoom by us in a fury while people walk in crowds, laughing and smiling and bonding. So many different types of people, too. I’ve never seen so many people who all looked so different all at once. My mind takes mental snapshots. An Indian woman walking hand in hand with her Asian child and Hispanic husband. A youth group advocating international human rights on a corner. Another group of people on a tourist vehicle that resembles a giant boat on wheels. It’s amazing. In minutes I already feel more connected to this city than I ever did in thirteen years in Nevada.

Things are so different here. The smell, the feel, the intangible energy of people who are fighting for grand achievements flows heavily in the air. You can’t help but feel like taking over the world. It’s like being pumped with an IV of adrenaline.

About ten minutes into the drive, I spot a row of museums and ask the driver about them. “The National Mall” he says. I’ve never been to a museum in my life. I promise myself that I’ll definitely make it back there.

 

The cab pulls up in front of a short white picket fence in front of a two-story white house with bright-yellow window shutters. I’m feeling short of breath, and ask the driver to give me a few minutes to verify that it’s the right house. It is. I pay him and get out feeling suddenly reluctant to do what I’ve come almost three thousand miles to do. As I make my way up the flagstone walkway to the cherry-colored front door, a light flickers on and showers me with halogen.

“Here goes nothing.” I lift the knocker below the oval frosted-glass window in the door. Let it fall. Lift it again. Let it fall again. And wait. 

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