THE PHOTO TRAVELER

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CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER EIGHT

There’s a crackling buzz and a rushing of light and then I’m back with Bud and Estelle.

Estelle beams at me. “Aren’t they something?”

“Yeah,” I smile. “More than I could ever have imagined. More than what I can remember. My dad said he loves you guys.”

Bud and Estelle grab each other’s hands and smile.

I’ve waited long enough. It’s time to figure this out. “There are so many things I want to know. Why is traveling dangerous? What could be so risky about it to make you guys abandon me? You told me last night that you’d tell me everything today. So come on.”

“You got it, my man,” Bud replies. “We have all the time in the world now. We really do.”

I shake my head. “But I don’t have all the time in the world. I’ve already lost most of my life to this. I don’t want to lose any more.”

The emotional effect of seeing my parents is almost overpowering. The loss of the past thirteen years feels even more painful now that I’ve learned what amazing people they are. I can only imagine what kind of family we could have been if I hadn’t lost them. That thought alone kills me.

Estelle notices that I have yet to peel my eyes from the photo. “It’s yours,” she says. “We have plenty more. And we’ll show you pictures from right after so you can experience the relationship you were never able to have.”

I really can to that. My chest hurts with the sudden excitement.

“Thanks...”

The two of them exchange glances, then Estelle walks over to the media console and pulls out an old book. It’s so mangled and dirty that it looks as if it was dragged out of a garbage bin and then left out in the rain for years.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“In a minute,” she says. “First things first. We’ve told you all the good things about photo traveling. And let me say, there’s more good that comes with it than anything because you’re allowed the gift of seeing the world like no one else can. But we are facing a terrible threat.”

She turns to Bud. “Sweetie, do you want to?”

He sighs. He obviously wishes he didn’t have to tell me this. “We’re facing a dangerous enemy.”

“What kind of enemy?”

Estelle frowns and lets out a long, winded sigh. “Where do I start?”

Oh, come on! Get to the point already. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when people have some big news to tell you but they take half an hour just trying to spit it out. It only makes me more anxious.

He touches her hand, prodding her. “With where it began.”

“Okay,” she says. “First you need to know a little bit about the history of photo traveling. My parents passed down the story to me, which was passed down to them from their parents and back through our family for more than a hundred years.

"About 120 years ago, five treasure hunters who were exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu discovered a small, intricately carved stone box under the Intihuatana, the sacred stone. They believed that the box dated back centuries and that it held the sacred treasure of the Incas’ ancestors.

“When they opened it, they found that it contained five crystal vials. Each one was filled with a strange purple fluid that defied gravity by floating in the middle of the vial. My parents told me that the fluid came from an ancient stream of purple water in a hidden underwater cave deep beneath the ruins that had been specially blessed by the chief of the tribe. Under the vials, the explorers found a secret compartment that held a scroll.

“And after they recited what was written on it, their bodies began to tingle and hum, almost as if splitting apart into individual atoms and rearranging themselves. And after that, they discovered that they were able to travel back and forth in time and space through images. Not just them, but their children too. It was as if whatever was inside the vials had altered their genetic code.” She turns to Bud. “Have I left anything out?”

“Don’t stop now.” he grins.

“Yeah,” I agree.

“Okay, okay. The explorers divided up the vials among themselves. Over time, three of them remained close and the other two went their own separate ways. One of them, Lucas Hoytt, chose to start photo traveling to times and places where he could steal treasures from ancient, wealthy families and dynasties. He also became obsessed with the idea that some of the symbols on the scroll indicated that it was possible to gain an even greater power—that anyone who possessed all five crystal vials would acquire the ultimate power of penetrating all barriers of time and space.”

It’s like a torch in a dark cavern has been lit. “Hold up—you’re saying it would be possible to travel anywhere in the past or future without needing to use an image?”

“Exactly,” Bud says. “So he set out to steal the other four explorers’ vials. He even tried killing two of them, so all four went into hiding. One, Margaret, was my great-great-grandmother. Another one, Harold, was Stelle’s great-great-uncle. And the third was Forge, Amy’s great-great-grandfather. These were the three families that remained close. Our vials were each passed down to us by our parents, along with the promise to never let them out of our hands.”

“So what happened to Lucas’s family? And what about the fourth explorer that went into hiding?”

“Sarah Pashner,” Estelle picks up. “Well, a few months before your parents’ house burned down, we received a phone call. A woman whose voice we didn’t recognize warned us that every remaining member of the Pashner family died in a massive fire. Even the children. Poor things.

“We hurried to get our things in order to try and flee. Amy and Liam started looking for a new place for us all to move to. A few days before the fire, Bud recommended we take a quick photo traveling trip. Nothing crazy, just something to reduce the tension, like a mini vacation. It’s something that always helped us in the past. Every time there was a death in the family or something stressful occurred, we’d travel. It always worked its magic, easing the numbness from our emotions. But when we returned we found your parents’ house in ashes—”

“Wait... so you think someone tried to kill them? And maybe you guys, too? And maybe me?”

Estelle’s eyes drift from me to the floor.

“The fire was no accident,” Bud says. “We were living just a few blocks from you in Nevada at the time, and when we returned from traveling there was a letter in our mailbox. Whoever it was handwrote ‘You’re next’ on it. That was it. We think that someone from Lucas’s family is out to find all five vials.”

Now I get it. Finally. “And that’s why you gave me up and put me in foster care.”

Bud shakes his head. “You have no idea how difficult it was. How much we loved you...”

Love you!” Estelle puts in. “If someone was in fact trying to murder all of us, we had to protect you. It was the only way—”

I shake my head. I still can’t accept this. “But then why did you let Leyla and Jet actually adopt me? That’s sort of beyond just fostering. Did you guys ever plan of finding me again?”

“Of course we did. When you were assigned to them,” Estelle explains, “we reached out to Leyla and Jet. Once we felt that you were safely hidden with them, we told them that if they agreed to adopt you legally, we would move them to another town and pay them a monthly stipend until you turned eighteen. We had already moved to D.C. at this point.”

So that’s where Jet had gotten the money he’d been living on for all those years.

“Leyla was so sweet,” Estelle continues. “She reminded us of Amy.”

“So much so that we actually ended up telling her our secret,” Bud says, “so she would understand how serious the threat was and would protect you. We felt that the odds of Lucas’s family coming after a four-year-old were pretty small, but we still couldn’t risk it. They could’ve used you as leverage to get our vials from us. But Leyla swore that she’d never tell Jet and that she would do anything to keep you safe.”

I lower my eyes. I can’t look at them because I’m remembering Leyla’s face. She did give her life to save me. So I guess that Jet and Mel were right to blame me for her death.

Estelle reaches over and gently cups my chin in her palm so I have to look at her. “We’re so sorry that you lost her. She loved you like a real mother.”

I answer back without blinking. “She was a real mother.”

Estelle nods and averts her eyes. I don’t feel comfortable talking about her with either of them. That sorrow is mine and no one else’s. I switch subjects.

“Lucas’s family—do you have any idea where they are? What they even look like?”

“No,” Bud replies. “As far as I know, our families haven’t seen each other for decades. But one of them has located us. We’re not sure how, though. And it’s clear that they want the vials. A few weeks ago, we found a photo of two vials on our doorstep. Lucas is long dead, so it would be one of his descendants who killed the Pashners and stole it. For the past thirteen years we thought we had actually found safety here. Living quiet, average lives. But again we’ve been forced to look for places to move to. It looks like it’s time to pack up and start from scratch. It’s not safe anymore. You can imagine the stress it’s caused. This heart’s not getting any younger, I’ll tell you that.”

“But why don’t you just travel to the photo that was left behind? See who it was that left it.”

“We did.” Bud says. “But when we traveled there, we ended up in front of an abandoned condo building in an unknown neighborhood. We’d never been there before. From where we landed, we could see the vials on the footsteps of the building, set up with a cheap looking digital camera.”

“They must’ve used the self-timer.” Estelle adds.

“So why didn’t you take the vials?” I ask.

“Whomever left the photo was probably hoping we’d go back. What if it was a trap? Just bait. We weren’t going to stick around to find out. It wasn’t worth it.”

“Let me try then. Give me the picture and let me try and find out who’s behind it.”

They both grimace and look at me as if I were joking.

“I don’t think so.” Estelle says.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not happening.” Bud says flatly. “I won’t risk something happening to you.”

“So…what then?” I ask. “Now that I’m around, too, what’re we supposed to do?”

“We move. We keep running.” Bud says. “You come with us.”

“But I don’t want to run.”

“It’s not safe sweetheart.” Estelle says. “We’ve spent the last thirteen years concealing your identity. If they have located us and discover you are alive, you’ll immediately be on their radar as well. And you better believe we’ll die before having anything happen to you.”

“If we run, they’ll only find us again.”

“That’s a chance worth risking, buddy.” Bud says.

I glance at the book resting on the table. “What’s the book for?”

“Oh, that’s right.” Estelle opens the cover. “We found it in the ashes of your parents’ house. It’s an old American history textbook. The pages are so charred that it’s basically unreadable, and we’ve never been able to find any usable images in it. But it’s the only thing we have to go on.”

“Do you think they used it to travel, to escape from the fire?”

“It’s what we figure, but we’ll never know.”

She’s right. The cover is in shreds, and the title page is so blackened that I can’t even make out any of the type.

“Honey,” she says to Bud, “you have to take your medicine. I’ll show Gavin the basement in the meantime.”

“Yea, that sounds like a good idea.” He says. “Haven’t been feeling too well. I’ll let Stelle show you the good stuff.”

Estelle watches as Bud makes his way upstairs, then she gestures for me to follow her outside and around to a patch of grass at the back of the house. When I take a closer look, I see that it’s synthetic grass. “Help me pull it aside,” she says.

The grass is concealing a padlocked plank door that looks as if it leads to a storm cellar. She unlocks it and gestures for me to follow her down the rickety wooden stairs into a dark, musty-smelling space. She pulls on a string hanging from the ceiling and a single light bulb casts a faint light on the rough brick walls and additional moving boxes.

“You guys were really planning on moving.” I say. She nods. “I don’t get it. Bud says you had more to show me. It’s just a regular basement.”

Estelle doesn’t answer. She walks over to the far end of the room. She shoves a tall mirror and a pile of wooden crates aside, feels around the bricks, and removes one that’s apparently loose.

As she dislodges it, a ray of bright purple light peeks through. She reaches in and retrieves a small gray stone box with complicated carvings all over its top and sides. When she lifts off the top, the beautiful purple rays light up the entire basement.

She holds the box out to me. “This is what they’re looking for.”

It contains three crystal vials, about five inches long, lying in a thick protective layer of white felt.

I pick up one of the vials and hold it up for a closer look. The fluid is actually floating in the middle of the vial, defying the laws of gravity. The purple light reflects off our faces. “That’s the liquid from the stream?”

“So they say.”

“And the color our eyes turn when we travel.”

“Yes. But no one can find these, Gavin. Ever. There’s no telling what they’ve got planned. There’s no telling what anyone with such potential would do. No one should ever have that amount of power.”

She reaches for the vial. I’m completely fascinated by it and don’t want to give it back, but I have to. She gently places it back into the box, closes it, slides it into its hiding place in the wall, and replaces the brick just as it was before.

“So what do we do?” I finally ask. “I don’t want to move again. Please.”

“Gavin, I know it’s not ideal, but it’s the best for us. For you.”

“I won’t go. I’m sorry. I came here for answers and a different life. I’m not leaving now. You thought shielding me my entire life from this would be the solution, but it ended up being the worst alternative for me. Maybe it’s time to stop the running and face it head on. And no offense, but I don’t think it’s the best option for you guys. I don’t know Bud’s condition, but he doesn’t look like a move would really benefit him. He even said he wasn’t feeling well.”

Her eyes are so small in the dimmed light. They look tired. They must be tired from always running, more tired than I am.

“If we stay,” she finally breaks her silence. “And that’s a big ‘if’, then we look out for each other. We make sure we’re ready when they arrive. Because soon enough, they will.”

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