Milliseconds later we’re back in Bud and Estelle’s dining room, everything unchanged and unaffected. My mind is still stuck in a cloud of uncertainty and confusion. I can’t believe what’s just happened.
Estelle places her hand over mine. “I know it’s a lot to take in. A bit of rest would do you good. Come upstairs and I’ll show you your room.”
She leads me up the stairs and along the mint-green hallway to the second door on the left. When she opens it, I see a full-sized bed against a large bay window that overlooks the park where I met Yogi. An old TV set with a built-in VCR rests on a coral-colored dresser. The walls are decorated with paintings of dolphins.
“This is your room,” she tells me. “It’s always been yours. We sometimes let guests use it, but really, we’ve always intended to one day have you here with us.”
I can’t help it. I have to keep asking, digging. “Then why didn’t you come for me?”
“We wanted to. So much. But it was just too dangerous—”
“You keep saying that, but nothing adds up. What can be so dangerous and worth not coming for your grandson?”
She sighs. “You’ve had a long day. How about we pick things up in the morning?”
I let her off the hook for now and change the subject again. “So what’s up with the dolphins?”
“Sorry.” She’s obviously relieved. “I have a soft spot for dolphins,” she explains with a grin. “They’re just so cute aren’t they? I should let you unpack,” she adds, and leaves.
I have to admit... my grandparents are two of the coolest, kindest, and gentlest people I’ve ever met. Which is why their leaving me behind still doesn’t make sense to me. I’ll keep the dolphins up if they make her happy.
I lock the door, grab my laptop from my duffle bag, turn it on, and slide the memory card from my camera into the card reader. While I’m waiting for the images to load, I pull out the two chants. I’ve forgotten a few of the words, but I repeat them until I’m sure of them. Then I tuck the slips of paper into my black sweatpants.
By now, my memory card has finished loading. Let’s test things out a bit. I’ll play it safe with my first attempt. I mean, hell, the last thing I want is to get stuck in some foreign place. And knowing my luck, that would happen. I start scrolling through the photos I’d taken in the mountains three days ago. I stop when a photo of a tree pops up. I remember this photo. I took it in between my phone calls to Melinda. This is a good one.
“This is crazy.” I nervously say to myself. But here’s to nothing. I take a shaky, deep breath and recite: “To this time, allow my travel. Take me there, let time unravel.”
The same thundering noise rings through my ears as I’m sent spiraling through waves of intense, deafening winds. It stops suddenly. And now I’m watching myself taking the photo of the tree. Oddly enough, I don’t want to be seen by… well, by me. I kneel behind a giant boulder and keep watching. This is awesome!
I mentally scold myself for the crinkling face I make whenever I take a shot, and remind myself that I need a haircut. But the scene is exactly as I remember it. And every part of it is surreal. Completely in awe about the whole situation, I hear the sound of a car and realize that Mel is speeding toward me. Us.
I watch as the scene plays itself out again. I flinch when I see the dent my foot makes in the door. It looks bigger than I remember. Then the punch to my face and she drives off. Yep. Just the way it happened.
After I watch myself start my long walk home, I get up, dust off my knees, and walk over to the edge of the cliff. I take in the scenery on my own time with no one telling me what to do. It seems as if someone’s always telling you what to do. Just a bunch of instructions and demands.
I can breathe in the liberty here. There’s no one to hurry me. Not a soul trying to map out my next move for me. I can actually appreciate the crisp, natural air and watch the sparse clouds coast slowly above the mountains. It’s more beautiful now too for some reason. It makes me wonder if I would appreciate things even more if I could enjoy them on my own terms.
I watch a centipede begin inching its way up my shoelace and desperately want to capture the image of its hairy body traveling over my shoe. I regret not having my camera with me so I could finish the shooting I wasn’t able to when I was here before.
My body is cramping, ribs are aching, and the level of exhaustion is overwhelming. And it’s pretty late. I’ve found the validation I was looking for. Photo traveling is in fact very real.
I pull out the slip of paper and recite, “Take me home to what is mine. Back to the present, back to my time.”
Instantly I’m back in “my” new room. I twist around and soak it all in. This is everything I could’ve asked for. If I had only known it was even possible.
There’s a soft knock on the door. My heart skips a beat and my breathing picks up. I have to calm myself. Jet’s not around anymore. I can lock my door if I want to. I walk over and unlock it. Bud’s leaning against the jamb. “Tired, buddy? Maybe you should get some rest.”
“Yeah, okay. I just told Estelle I was getting ready for bed. I told her we’d talk in the morning. But tomorrow I want to know more. I want to know everything.”
He nods. “Tomorrow we’ll tell you everything. I promise.” He looks me in the eye, which is something that’s always made me uncomfortable, then puts out an arm and pulls me to him for a hug. “You have no idea how glad we are to see you again.”
For a moment, I’m too startled to move. Then, surprisingly, I don’t pull back. His touch is all too familiar, not a stranger’s. I find myself reaching around him and hugging him back. He lets me go, gives me a little wave, and heads toward the stairs.
When I do get to bed, I can’t sleep. My brain’s racing at what feels like the speed of light. I want to know how photo traveling is even possible and how it all began. I can’t shake the feeling that Bud and Estelle are still keeping more from me. Do they know something about my parents that they’re not telling me? I want all the questions to stop. But at the same time I don’t.
Finally I grab my phone and start pressing the images button on my browser. Page upon page of images are listed. I lie back imagining what it would be like to visit each one. A picture of a triceratops—God, I wish I could go back to when dinosaurs existed, but Bud and Estelle said that we can only travel to real moments in time that someone captured. Too bad.
Image after image after image... And before I know it, my eyes surrender to the night. I fall asleep with my face plastered against the cold, hard screen of my phone.
Then I hear Leyla’s voice calling out to me. I turn around and there she is with her arms out, waiting for me in my old room. She’s smiling at me, her blonde curls tied up in a ponytail, a few strands hanging at the sides of her temple. My feet pound against the floor, running toward her as fast as they’ll take me. I don’t move, though. I stay in place. I run faster and faster, but nothing happens.
Leyla’s expression changes. She’s horrified now. She shrieks so loudly that I cover my ears. The window shatters into a million pieces as my room morphs into the convenience store.
“Gavin! Help me!” she begs.
I’m still running. Tears are pouring from my eyes. I scream, “I’m coming! Don’t go!”
The two assailants run in, but this time it’s not the two guys. It’s me. Two of me. One of them forces Leyla against him, grabbing her in a chokehold. She’s trying to fight free, but he’s too strong. Nothing helps. “Gavin! Gavin!” she keeps begging.
The other me walks up to them and turns to me. He whispers, but in my ears I can hear it amplified as if I have headphones on. “This is your fault.”
I try to shout at him. Tell him to leave her alone. My throat hurts from how hard I’m trying, but nothing comes out. One of them turns around, takes his gun from her holster, and jabs it between Leyla’s eyes.
“Gavin… I love you...”
It’s the last thing I hear before the gunshots. Pieces of flesh fly from her body. She falls to the ground. Dead. Blood seeping out from all around her. Exactly the image I remember.
One of the assailants marches toward me, the other right behind him. I’m still running, but it does me no good. He presses the gun to my forehead. “You could have saved her.” He pulls the trigger.
I deserve to die. This is best.