I jolt awake in a pool of sweat. I’ve been having nightmares since I could remember. But since I’ve left Nevada, they’ve grown worse. This one was more vivid than the others. It’s also the first time she’s spoken to me. I touch my cheeks and realize I’ve been crying in my sleep.
While I’m peeling the soggy sheets from my body, my nose catches something that smells amazing. Freshly brewed coffee and waffles, I think. I love coffee. There’s no other way to start my day. And even though it may not be the best thing for my anxiety, I welcome the roasted beans into my mornings. Every morning. And maybe every afternoon.
My stomach growls angrily at me and I realize I haven’t eaten much since I left Saddlehorn. Even at the diner, I barely touched the fries and milkshake.
I can’t help smiling when I see the dining table loaded with coffee, juice, waffles, fruits, and eggs arranged around a beautiful centerpiece of tulips and orchids. Do they eat like this every day, or is this all for me? It seems a little too planned out to be their normal routine. Like they’re preparing to tell me some bad news. Maybe they’ve decided they don’t want me to stay.
Bud waves me over. “We figured that once you caught a whiff of Stelle’s special banana-walnut waffles, there’d be no way you’d oversleep.”
“It smells good.” I walk hesitantly to the same chair I took last night. I guess that if they’d decided to keep me, this would’ve become my spot. It’s only been one day but I already feel like I’ll miss it. I devour everything Estelle puts in front of me. As soon as I finish one plate, she’s already replacing it with another, saying, “I’m glad you like it.”
Finally I can’t take it. What am I doing? I’m acting like nothing’s ever happened. Like nothing’s happening now. I put down my fork and stand up. “You guys don’t have to go to all this trouble. If you’re just going to tell me you want me to leave, I get it. I’ll understand, you know.”
They stare at me as if I’ve just kicked them in the stomach as hard as I kicked Mel’s car.
Estelle’s face stretches in horror. “Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know… I guess… Why would you want me now? After all this time? You guys have been so nice to me. It doesn’t make sense.”
Bud pushes himself up from his chair and walks over to me. He puts his hand on my shoulder and kneels down on one knee beside me. “Gavin... buddy... we’re never letting you out of our sight again. Never.”
“So why’d you do it in the first place? What was the point if you were going to see me after all these years and act like nothing ever happened? You guys don’t know what it’s done to me. I thought my family was dead. Everyone. How would you feel if you knew your grandparents were around and never claimed you? Not even reached out to you.” Fight back the waterworks, Gavin.
“We had to.” Estelle’s lower lip quavers and then she suddenly begins to sob. “They would’ve killed you!”
“Killed me?” Whoa. I was not expecting that. “Who? Why would someone want to kill me?”
She shakes her head and rushes into the kitchen.
“It wasn’t something we were proud to do,” Bud says regretfully before following her to the kitchen. “Just give me a minute with her.”
“Stop going in circles and just let me have it. Please. I deserve that much.”
They don’t answer me, which is blowing my anxiety through the roof. I’m so confused and angry that I can’t bear to look at them. There’s only one thing I can think of to say next. “I want to see my parents. I want to really meet them. I want to visit one of the pictures of them.”
I gaze at them defiantly, demanding my way.
They look surprised. Then Bud smiles at Estelle. “I see no harm in a boy meeting his parents. Do you? As long as he follows the rules.”
She shakes her head and wipes away her tears, then smiles sweetly at me. “They’re going to love you.” She retrieves the photo that they showed me last night, the one of my mom pregnant with me. “They already know they’re photo travelers, so don’t worry. They won’t be surprised when you show up—but just imagine what it’ll be like for them to see the baby they’re expecting all grown up.”
I feel the nerves in my stomach twitching. I hold the old photo in my hand watching my parents for a few moments.
“Don’t worry,” Bud reassures me. “We’ll be here waiting.”
“I’ll be back soon. To this time, allow my travel. Take me now, let time unravel.”
My parents gape at me and move apart from their posed position as I stand before them in their living room. My real mother and father. I have to admit, I’m pretty stunned myself. I have no idea what to say, which works because what I’m feeling right now cannot be translated into words.
I look at my mom, Amy, first. She looks like such a sweet person. I wish so much that I could have grown up with her. Long, dark, wavy hair, soft olive skin, and a small button nose. And my dad, Liam—a younger version of Bud, but an older version of me. I actually look like someone—someone who exudes honesty. Nothing like Jet. It hits me hard at this moment when I realize that I have a family.
“Uh... I’m Gavin.”
They don’t say a word. They just run over to me and wrap me in probably the biggest hug I’ve ever experienced. No, I take it back, it is the biggest hug I’ve ever experienced. It feels so good. So real.
My mom buries her face in my neck. She smells like roses mixed with hints of tangerine. “Oh, sweetie!” she exclaims. “You’re beautiful! Beautiful...” She holds me away from her and looks me in the eyes with a big smile. “You have my eyes. I hoped you would.” She places her hand on her belly and hugs me again.
My dad comes from behind and messes up my hair. My whole body tingles. I want this every day. I want for this moment to never end.
“I wish I could’ve done this before,” I finally say. “I can’t believe I just found this out.”
They exchange puzzled glances.
“You just learned how to travel?” he asks.
“Yeah. Bud and Estelle taught me yesterday. It’s the coolest thing ever.”
My mom grabs his hand and they look at each other. Her mood has changed. “That means we didn’t teach you... so... something must have happened to us. We die... don’t we?”
My heart’s slamming in my chest. I just screwed this up. “No! I mean... uh…” I go silent.
“It’s okay,” my dad says. “You don’t have to explain.”
“What gave it away?” I ask, defeated.
“We decided we’d teach you about photo traveling when you got to sixth grade,” he says. “But you’re a lot older than that now, and you don’t know, so...” He lifts his hand to his neck and makes a throat-cutting gesture. Then he smiles and shrugs, trying to make light of it, but I don’t buy it. It’s too forced.
How could I have let that slip? This is terrible.
Mom asks wistfully, “But we do at least get to see you grow up... don’t we?”
“Yeah.” I answer softly, and smile at her. “Yeah, you do.”
But the corner of my right eye starts twitching, and I turn my head to keep them from seeing it. I want nothing more than to tell them the truth. Maybe I can warn them right now about the fire. “But I can tell you how. I can save you guys! We can stop—”
My dad shakes his head. He takes me by the shoulders and brings his face close to mine. “No, no, no. Gavin, it’s crucial that you never try to alter the past. My folks must’ve already told you that. Telling people what’s going to happen in the future… well, you can pretty much bet that they’re going to try to avoid it if it’s not what they want to hear.”
I nod, but I still don’t think it’s fair. I know it’s against the rules, but this is different. These are my parents. There has to be some exception for that.
“But I just ruined the future for you guys. I sorta told you what happens…”
“True. But I know better than to try and change fate. It is what it is. That just means we have to make the most of the time we have.”
I’m about to challenge the subject but he beats me to it by changing the subject, and I’m glad he does. “You know,” he grins, “you look just like me when I was your age. Same wavy brown hair. Strong jaw. Small ears. It’s unbelievable. I bet you’re quite the ladies’ man.”
I smile back at him, but I’m still enveloped in thoughts about protecting them.
“How are mom and pops?” he asks. “When you go back, tell them I love them. Please.”
“And take care of them,” my mom chimes in. “They’re the most special people you’ll ever meet.”
“I will.” I glance at my mom’s belly. “Do I kick a lot?”
“You’d think I’m giving birth to a soccer player.” She laughs. “Want to touch?”
She grabs my hand and places it over her belly. I feel a light kick under her skin. Then another. The feeling is surreal. Not only am I meeting my parents for pretty much the first time, but I’m feeling myself move inside her stomach. This is bizarre.
We sit on the couch, laughing and joking about nothing of particular importance. My mom passes her fingers over the back of my neck, while my dad asks me what my favorite sports team is.
“The Miami Heat.” I say.
“The Heat? More of a basketball fan? That’s fine with me, so long as you root for the Packers when it comes down to football season.
“I usually go for the Cowboys.”
“Oh no, now you’ve done it.” My mom says.
“The Cowboys? No you didn’t. My son can’t be a Dallas fan.” He throws his arms around my neck and starts messing up my hair. What’s your favorite team again?”
He playfully rubs his knuckles against my head. “What was that?”
“Okay! Okay! Packers!”
“That’s what I thought I heard.” He lets go and the three of us erupt in laughter.
It’s as if we’ve met so many times before. Like I’ve actually spent my entire life with them after all. Like no time has passed at all. Everything about it is natural. Nothing like those conversations that feel forced. But suddenly sadness strikes me like a car crash. Nothing adds up. Why was all of this taken from me?
“I think I’m going to head back now,” I tell them.
My dad eyes me so intently that I feel he’s reading my thoughts. “You okay?”
“Yeah. It’s just a lot to handle all at once.”
“Okay. Just promise me you’ll leave things as they are. We’re not gods. And always remember how much we love you. Nothing can change that.” He hugs me. “We’ll see you again soon.”
“I’ll come back. But... I’m confused. Will you guys remember this?”
“If you travel back to this exact moment,” my mom explains, “we’ll relive the experience as if it never happened. It’ll be like seeing you for the first time all over again. As if you’ve reset the moment from scratch. But if you ask Bud and Estelle to give you a photo of us after this very moment, then we’ll remember it, because this moment would have occurred and already traveled to us. Does that make sense?”
“Uh, yea, I think so. So basically, find a picture that is after-the-fact.” She nods.
Before I leave, I scan the living room. I don’t remember anything about it. I wish I could so badly. The vanilla scent of the burning candle on the coffee table. The navy leather couch, the ivory walls, the brownish-beige tufted carpet. None of it seems familiar. Then I spot my dad’s red Kodak Brownie Starflash camera on the kitchen counter. It’s like the same one I mentioned to Yogi. It’s funny how I still remember that thing. How the mind chooses the most random of things to store in memory.
I walk over to it and pick it up. “Were these popular?”
“The gray and black ones were,” my dad says. “Not so much the red ones.”
“Don’t get him started on that camera,” my mom says. “He put us on a wild hunt to find that thing.”
I laugh and set it down again. “I guess I get it from you, huh?”
He looks confused. “Get what?”
“When you want something. You don’t stop till you find it. I guess I get it from you.”
He smiles. “I hope so.”
We hug as tightly as we can for a long, long time. I don’t want to let go. I’ve dreamed of seeing them again so many times. I just never thought it would be possible. I don’t want to leave, but I need to go back and find out more. Besides a photo being damaged, how could photo traveling be dangerous? I want to ask my parents, but I don’t want to ruin the first time I see them. I’m sure it’s why they haven’t brought it up themselves.
After one final hug, I reluctantly chant my words.