“It’s so good to finally see you again, dear.” Without hesitation, Estelle takes a 4 x 6 photo from a padded album on her lap and slides it across the table to me. “Your mom. She was something, wasn’t she? You have her eyes.”
My pulse quickens as I grab the picture and gaze at it for minutes. After Leyla died, I used to keep a picture under my pillow and talk to them at night. I would fall asleep wondering how my life would be if they were still around. I still wonder what it’d be like if they were here now. Just looking at my mom gives me comfort. Besides the picture in the hallway, I haven’t been able to look at them in years. Not since Jet barged into my room like a drunken mess and tore the picture to shreds, laughing cruelly as he did it. Since then I’ve held on to a fading image that my memory tried so hard to keep current. One of my biggest fears was forgetting their faces.
“When was this taken?” I ask.
“She was pregnant with you there. Just three months along.” She pulls out another photo. “Here’s one with your father. He was such a good man. An even better son.” Before she hands it to me she glides her fingers over it. She watches him, like he’s talking back to her.
I’m afraid to even ask any questions. But I have to.
“Please don’t tell me they’re alive?” I finally ask, swallowing the rock lodged in my throat. It wouldn’t make sense. They died. But then again, I was also told I had no living family, and yet here I am. I don’t think I could handle knowing that my parents too had chosen to give me away.
Bud interjects, “No, no, of course not. But we'll get to that, I promise. And call me Bud. It’s what everyone calls me.”
He chuckles. “I have this habit of calling people ‘Buddy’… in case you haven’t noticed. Always have. One Father’s Day when your dad was young, he gave me one of those Hallmark Father of the Year trophies as a joke. He made a label that read ‘Bud’ and stuck it to the plate. Hasn’t changed since.”
I smile. That’s something I would have done.
“Gavin,” Estelle begins, “There’s a lot you don’t know.” Her eyes flick nervously around the room and then land on her lap. “About who you are.”
“Who I am?” I’m not sure what she means.
“Better yet,” Bud says, “how about we show you?” He pulls out another photo and hands it to me. It’s a 1970s-style diner. Just like the ones in the “Grease” movie or that show “Happy Days.” I used to watch old reruns Saturday nights on Nick at Nite with Leyla. “See this?”
He takes a slip of paper, writes something on it, and gives it to me. It reads:
To this time, allow my travel.
Take me there, let time unravel.
“Just look into the photo and recite the words with us.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Trust us, dear,” Estelle says.
I shrug. “Okay...”
Together the three of us chant the rhyme. A thunderous noise like a storm of lightning erupts through my ears. I feel like I’m falling but also being kept afloat by bursts of cold winds from every direction. My mouth is open, trying to scream. Nothing comes out. Everywhere around me is bright, but I can’t define the color. Then, as quickly as it comes, it ends. Everything suddenly slows, like a speeding carnival ride jolting to a stop.
“What was that?!” I look around. We’re no longer in their dining room. Instead, we’re standing outside the diner, and it looks exactly like the photo.
“What?... How...? That’s the one in the photo—Wait, where’s the photo?” I search my pockets. Scan the ground for it. Nothing.
Bud slings his arm around my shoulders and grins. “Told you we’d show you.”
I scan the scene in front of me. 1970s-style Cadillacs, Camaros, and other colorful cars I’ve never seen before are pulling up as waitresses on roller skates cruise over to take orders. The lyrics ‘Bennie and the jets’ keep blaring from giant speakers mounted on the diner’s roof. All I see are bell-bottoms and disco-inspired haircuts.
“This can’t be real. It can’t be. Right?” I turn to ask them. But I stop talking when I see that their eyes are now glowing a fluorescent purple—part eerie, part enchanting. “What happened to your eyes?”
“It sure is real, sweetie,” Estelle smiles. “We’ll explain the eyes inside.”
“You come from a family of photo travelers.”
“Photo travelers? What do you mean?”
“How about we go inside?” Bud says. “They have the best shakes here. They just don't make them like this anymore. Right, Stelle?”
She giggles and we walk toward the diner. I hold the neon pink-light bordered door open for them. As we walk inside, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window. My eyes are purple, too.
The hostess, in a pink-and-black uniform, smiles at us. “Welcome to Pinky’s. Booth for three? Right this way,” she adds as she pops the bubble of her chewing gum with her furry pink pen.
I’m in the heart of the Seventies. I try my best to soak in the world around me as I distractedly follow the hostess to our pink-and-red iridescent leather booth.
“Your waitress will be with you in a moment. Enjoy your meal.” she mumbles between the giant chomps on her gum.
I grab the menu and examine it. My mind quickly drifts to the thought of selling something like this on eBay and the money I could rack up. This is crazy.
“Try the strawberry shake,” Estelle urges me. “It was your dad’s favorite.”
“Photo travelers?” I ask. “How did we do that? Can I do it on my own? Have I always been able to? And why are our eyes purple?” I have so many questions I can’t even take a breath in between them. The more I ask, the more questions I have. But the more questions I have, the more confused I feel.
The waitress, whose nametag reads “Ritsy” interrupts us, throwing us creeped-out glances as she takes our order. Our eyes, I think. I keep mine glued to the menu. We order three strawberry shakes and decide to share a large basket of Pinky’s “famous” chili-cheese fries.
Bud waits for her to leave, then says, “Photo travelers are a small group of people who can travel to the past by means of real life images or photos. Your parents were photo travelers. Estelle’s family and mine were photo travelers. Our families have been travelers for more than a hundred years. Actually, we met as kids through our families. She’s done a good job of keeping me hostage since.” He chuckles. “Now the eyes…that will happen every time you travel. It’s the only thing that gives us away, really. But don’t worry, after a while you forget about them.”
“So I can just jump into any picture?” I’m starting to feel excited about this. Even though I still really don’t get it at all.
“Pretty much. There are a few rules, of course, but you'll learn them.”
“And every time I do, my eyes will change color?”
Bud nods. “Yeap. But let me ask you, I bet you’ve always naturally been drawn to photography? I mean, when you look at photos, you feel almost connected to them?”
“Yeah. That’s exactly how I feel. Photography’s everything to me. I just had no idea anything like this was even possible. That I’d be able to pretty much transport myself into it.”
“Sweetie,” Estelle chimes in, “That’s why we had to give you up after the fire. This all may seem fun to you right now, but there are plenty of dangers. On the day of the fire, we were traveling. We didn’t even know about it until we had returned. And by then there was nothing we could do. Their bodies were never found, but even without that we knew they hadn’t been killed. Your dad was too clever for that. We think that they were either traveling when the fire broke out or that they traveled through some photo or image to save themselves. But we’ve never seen or heard from them again.” She sighs. “You were at daycare when it happened. You probably don't remember much.”
“Oh, believe me,” I say. Their abandoning me still hurts. I can’t help it. “I remember never being picked up by my parents and never seeing them again. I remember a lot of things.” Bud and Estelle look so uncomfortable that I feel bad about it. I don’t want to hurt them, so I change the subject. “Sorry…So you haven't seen them for years either? But I don't get it. Why couldn’t they just come back through another photo or something?”
The waitress arrives with our orders. My foot jiggles impatiently as she sets out our food, then asks, “Anything else...?”
“We’re good. Thanks.” I say. She grins and walks off.
“Here’s the thing,” Bud continues. “We can only transport through photos—or other images, actually. But if the host photo or image we use gets damaged or destroyed, we’re trapped in wherever we traveled to. And that’s what we think happened to your mom and dad—the photo they traveled to was destroyed in the fire.”
Estelle adds, “And we have nothing to tell us what photo they used, or what time they may be trapped in.”
I stop sipping on my shake and look blankly down at the table. My mind is trying to catch up. I finally get it. “You’re saying they might still be alive?”
Bud nods. “But there’s no telling where or when. Trust me. We’ve tried the best we can.”
They start explaining the rules. We can travel though photos and images that depict moments that actually occurred in real life. So I’d be able to travel to an image of an old scene, like of Abraham Lincoln speaking. But it has to be something that someone was physically able to capture with a camera, or by painting or drawing it, or by making some other kind of image.
Another rule, more of a rule of thumb, is that we should travel to images of a group of people or to a busy scene, not to just two people or to an image where our sudden appearance would be obvious.
“We transport right into that very moment, so we try and be as discreet as possible,” Estelle explains.
The big no-no turns out to be that we can’t try to change an event that’s already happened. This rule turns the conversation more serious. For the first time since I’ve met them, Bud looks stern, rigid. “This is absolutely forbidden. If you change an event, you change time, and you have no idea what the ripple effect will be. You’ll have no idea what you may have affected.”
“What do you mean? Like trying to bring someone back from the dead?” I joke.
He doesn’t laugh. “You’ve heard about the ‘butterfly effect’? How the smallest changes we make in the past can affect the future in unimaginable ways. Everything we do in the past has a consequence to our future. We are not gods, and it’ll do you good to remember that. This gift is supposed to allow us to be visitors or passengers. That’s it. Nothing more. Did I make that clear?”
“Yeah. I get it. No changing the past. You guys can relax. It’s not like I’m planning on leading some zombie apocalypse.”
He pulls out another scrap of paper and scribbles on it. “When you want to return, you just repeat these words out loud, and you’ll be right back where you left from. He hands it to me but grins, “But you better wait till we pay our tab.”
While he calls the waitress over and pays her—with old dollar bills, not the new ones—I read:
Take me home to what is mine.
Back to the present, back to my time.
When our tab is paid, we head outside. Bud turns to head for the back of the diner.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“We wouldn’t want to scare the living daylight out of these people. Discretion, remember? He gives us a nod. “You ready?”
“I think so…”
We say the chant.