Winston followed his mother to the reception counter, behind which sat an old man, leaning way back in a reclining office chair. He wore a red baseball cap and a red vest over a plaid flannel shirt. A copy of Guns & Ammo magazine consumed the man’s attention.
“Hello?” she called, peering over the chipped laminate counter top.
The attendant squinted up at her, apparently liked what he saw, and smiled. A tongue swirled behind the gaps between his mossy teeth.
“Well, hello there,” he said.
“We need a room for the night,” she said. “Two beds. Nothing fancy.”
She made the remark with a straight face, and it took Winston a second to get the barb.
The attendant eyed her for a moment. “I guess we’ll skip the President’s Suite, then.”
A Denny’s dinner of burgers and fries still sat heavy in Winston’s stomach, and he was content to let his mom take care of business. The two adults chatted for a bit, and when his mom pulled several ten- and twenty-dollar bills from her purse and traded them for a room key, Winston wondered about how the attendant was studying him, his hair in particular. He probably should have left his hat on.
They took room 218, located up the flight of stairs at the corner of the building. The sun hung low over southeast Portland. Outside their room, Winston paused at the walkway railing, shielded his eyes, and watched traffic go by. Hundreds of people flitted along, going about their regular evenings, probably bored by their routines like he had been only twenty-four hours ago.
What a difference a day can make, he thought.
Only four cars dotted the parking lot below, which lay separated from the main road by a row of skinny arbor vitae trees. From above, their Toyota Van looked like a small tank pulled straight from the 1980s.
Inside, Winston found his mom closing the blinds.
“Just like home,” he said, tossing his backpack onto the available bed.
His mom had already claimed the bed closest to the tiny bathroom. She had several neatly folded clothing items set out along the foot of the bed, ready to wear for tomorrow. The room couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet square, and only white sheets and tan blankets covered the beds. No artwork. No color. Only four white walls with cobwebs in the corners and a square table near the bathroom door no bigger than a pizza box. Apparently, anyone wanting to sit at the table could use the edge of the bed as a chair. The only lighting was a two-bulb wall lamp mounted between the beds.
Once his mom double-checked the door lock and the blinds, she rubbed her hands together nervously and looked at Winston. “Let’s see what you got from the bank.”
Winston sat beside his backpack and had just started extracting his new acquisitions when his phone vibrated. The opening bars of the Mythbusters theme song rang from his pocket.
“Shade,” he said.
She raised a hand in warning. “Winston…”
“I know, I know.”
He swiped to take the call.
Shade’s normally high voice rose further with concern. “Where are you? I’m standing outside your house and nobody’s here.”
“We, uh, went out for dinner.” That much was true.
“Wait. You get suspended, and your mom, who hardly ever takes you anywhere, rewards you with dinner out?”
In the small room’s quiet, his mother could make out every word. Her nostrils flared and some of the color drained from her cheeks as she glared at the phone in Winston’s hand.
“It’s one of those things,” said Winston. “Big lecture. Life lesson. Parents think a good meal will make it all better.”
“So where’d you go?”
Shade burst out laughing. “I thought you said a good meal!”
The rest of the color vanished from his mom’s face. Winston watched it fade with growing concern and said nothing.
“She can hear me, can’t she?” Shade asked, much quieter now.
Winston’s mom pointed at the phone. “I’m going to have a little talk with your mother about gratitude and manners, Shade!” she called.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Chase!” Shade’s panic was plainly audible over the tiny speaker.
“Anyway,” Winston cut in. “What’s up?”
“Homework — duh! When are you getting home?”
His mom shook her head in warning.
“I don’t know. We were thinking about staying out for a while.”
“On a weeknight? Don’t you have a ton to do?”
“It can wait.”
“And what about your blue butt?” he added in a hushed tone. “Dude, we need to talk!”
“It can wait,” Winston said again, more firmly this time.
“Oh, really?” Shade sounded defensive if not a little offended. “Well, how about your Skype date with Alyssa? Can that wait, too?”
Winston face-palmed himself and fell back onto the bed. Somehow, he’d completely forgotten about the biggest breakthrough moment of his life in the face of so many other even bigger moments.
“Crap!” he said.
His mother, normally ready to pounce on anything remotely resembling profanity, let this one go. She hadn’t known about Winston’s date, but he’d told her enough about Alyssa over the years for her to appreciate what the opportunity must mean.
“You cannot be serious,” Shade said. “Get. Home. Now.”
Winston grimaced. “I can’t.”
“You can’t? You can’t?”
Winston separated palm from face and smacked his bed several times. “No. I can’t.”
He looked at his mom and found her anger evaporated. I’m sorry, she mouthed.
“Look,” said Winston. “Can you get me her number? I’ll text her and apologize.”
“That’s your plan?” Shade’s voice had grown more distant from switching to speaker mode, and the buzz-buzz-buzz Winston heard told him that his friend was already texting people to get Alyssa’s info.
“That’s all I’ve got.”
“This must be some heavy duty talk. Is it because of the Alyssa date? It’s not the birds and bees thing, is it?”
“Shade!” Winston and his mom said in unison.
“OK, OK! Just tell me when you’re getting home!”
Winston looked at his mom questioningly. She shrugged and raised her hands.
“I don’t know,” Winston said. “We have a lot to cover. I’ll fill you in when I can.”
Shade must have heard something in Winston’s voice, because he let the silence hang a few seconds too long.
“Winston,” he said. “Are you—?”
“Yeah,” Winston replied, and the word sounded fake even to himself. “I’m fine.”
“You know that’s what females say when they’re totally not fine, right? Trust me on this.”
“I gotta go, man.”
Winston’s phone vibrated twice in his hand.
“There’s Alyssa’s number,” said Shade. “Don’t mess up your chance here.”
“I’ll try. Thanks.”
Shade hung up. Winston let the phone slip from his hand. It bounced on the sheets and tumbled back against his ear.
“Aaagghhhh…” Winston groaned, covering his face with his hands. He forced himself through several deep breaths, then asked, “That picture in my locker. You know how often I’ve looked at that?”
She blinked several times as she stared at Winston. Her lips parted, but she remained silent.
“I’ve spent all these years wondering why everybody but me had a dad,” he said. “Why did mine have to walk out and leave when I was little?”
“I’m so sorry, Winston,” she whispered.
“I thought having some answers might help someday. Turns out it doesn’t.”
He could hear how bitter his words sounded, and he knew they must cut her. Even in his anger, Winston felt badly about adding to the pain she must already feel. But this one time, he felt that his pain should come first.
“So how much are you going to tell me?”
His mom paused, considering. Then she bowed her head slowly. “You know who he is. I’ve already told you a lot. When this is over, if you still want to know, I promise to tell you whatever you want. Right now, though, we need to concentrate on the Alpha Machine.”
Winston said nothing.
His mom nodded and looked away. “He left me, too, honey.”
She rolled her shoulders and stretched her neck, trying to relieve some of the tension. When her gaze returned to Winston’s backpack, his mom rummaged through the clothing and gear inside of it and dug out the metal ring. She held it almost at arm’s length, a far-away expression on her face.
“Alpha Machine?” he asked, intentionally changing the subject.
“There are five pieces,” she said. “Two look like stainless steel tori.”
“What’s a tori?”
“Tori. The plural of torus.”
Winston cocked his head in confusion. “Like the car?”
“Like bagels. Two are rings — this one, and one that’s a bit bigger. The last is a crescent, like a big letter C. With all five together, they create a single mechanism, although I think each also has its own function. I’m not sure. I never handled them. But they use some kind of nuclear power that, as far as I know, has never been created here on Earth. And they give off a unique kind of radiation, a sort of long-range alpha particle. So we called it the Alpha Machine.”
Winston sat up and took the ring from her. Instantly, he felt that faint electric tingle in his hands. His vision wavered, then restabilized.
“There…” he said. “Did you feel something?”
She looked at him with curiosity and concern. “Only a slight tingle.”
“Yeah. A buzz, like a shock. And something in my head…” He turned the ring around in his hands, running his fingertips over its smooth surface. “So you don’t know what it does?”
“I don’t. We didn’t have much time to investigate, and I haven’t seen this since 1948.”
They heard and felt heavy footsteps outside on the walkway. Both of them stood. His mother looked desperately around the room, probably searching for something they could use as a weapon. Their few knives and a small can of pepper spray waited on the night stand.
“Jeremy!” bellowed a woman’s voice from outside.
Smaller footsteps pattered past their door, and they heard a small child’s laughter. The heavier steps came barreling on in pursuit, rattling their door in its frame. The heavy steps passed by, and seconds later they heard Jeremy squeal a long “nooooo!” in protest.
“Coming out of the time travel thing…can be imprecise,” Winston’s mom said in a near-whisper. “You aim for one thing, but you might get another, I guess. I wasn’t the one doing it. We only wanted to skip forward a few decades, figuring that was safer than risking changing history.”
Winston’s eyebrows arched. “Only a few decades.”
“We landed in 1989 and spent a long time thinking about what to do with the Alpha Machine. Your father—”
“You mean 1998,” Winston interrupted. “I’m fourteen.”
A flicker of remembered pain crossed over his mom’s features. “Well, no. It was November of 1989. Claude picked that path for us while I…I fought with Devlin. He attacked us just as we were leaving. Your father didn’t have time to concentrate, and he was anxious to help me. When we emerged in 1989, we overpowered Devlin, but we didn’t want to kill him.”
“He attacked you? And this is the guy who’s after us now? Maybe you should have killed him.”
Only after the words were out did their meaning jar him.
She shook her head, and her voice was low and tight. “We didn’t want to meet the future with blood on our hands. Besides, it sounds easy, years later. Just…kill him. But it’s not so easy when you’re standing over the person with a rock in your hand.” A small shiver passed through her. She took a deep breath and straightened. “We always worried that he would find us. And he did eventually. That’s why your father decided to leave. It’s also why you’re afraid of water.”
“What? What’s water got to do with this?”
His mom bowed her head and pinched off a stray thread that she found on the hem of her pants. “Devlin waited for us to come home, and he shot your father in the leg when we walked through the door. I think he only wanted to wound him, at least at that moment.” She turned on the bed, looking at an empty space near her. “I screamed, which made you start crying of course, because you were barely one. I remember I tossed you onto the couch, grabbed the ash tray on the coffee table, and rushed him. Your father still had his keys in his hand, and he threw them at Devlin’s face. It gave me that one second of distraction, and I smashed the ash tray on the side of his head. Gave myself a deep gash in the process, but he went down in a pile.”
“Geeze, Mom. World class biologist and a cage fighter. Anything else I don’t know about you?”
“Loads.” She smiled faintly. “Everyone was bleeding. You were still howling, but we knew we had to get out of there. I ripped out the fake wall we’d installed in the bedroom closet and grabbed the Alpha Machine. Claude couldn’t stand, and he was losing a lot of blood. Devlin regained consciousness. When he started crawling toward us, I just grabbed you and Claude, and we…went. I tried to put us on a good path, but your father passed out right in the middle of it. I lost my concentration and panicked. I suppose it could have been worse. I might have dropped us in the middle of the ocean, and we all would have drowned. As it was, we landed about four hundred yards off the shore near this little place in California named Patrick’s Point in the middle of a late autumn storm. The cold water was enough to revive your father, and thank God there was a driftwood log near us. We obviously made it to shore, but you were understandably terrified, and we were all feeling the effects of time jumping. It feels like your insides have been lifted out and put back in backwards, although the ten-year jump wasn’t as bad as the forty-year. We made it, but ever since you’ve been terrified of the water.”
Winston nodded. “Understandably! Holy cow, Mom!”
“So, we put a decade between us and Devlin, and you became a one-year-old in the year 2000. Your father healed up. We made our way north, but we were always nervous about Devlin finding us again. We never stayed too long anywhere. You weren’t going to stay a toddler forever, though. We knew what had to happen, just like we knew what the wrong people could do with the Alpha Machine.”
“Like Devlin Bledsoe.”
“And whomever he found to help him.” She stared at the metal ring on the bed. “I think Devlin went to the government and found whatever was left of Project Majestic. Then, somehow, he found us, despite all the help your father tried to give.”
“Whoa! Whoa!” Winston sat up, hands pressed to his temples. “I need a flowchart or something to get through this. What help?”
“Yes, it’s convoluted,” she said patiently. “Your father decided to go back by himself. He spent years, a lot of years, helping us from afar. He got us money. He found ways to get us official records and new identities.” She ran a finger over her nose and cheeks. “We both got plastic surgery.”
Winston couldn’t help but study her face. “Really?”
“After he left, he only visited once. It was at a…tough time for me. I was so lonely, just being with you all day every day, in a strange town with no friends. So yes, I got to see him once, but in another way it’s like he was always there, dropping me gifts and notes when and where I least expected them. Although I haven’t heard from him in a long time.” She paused in thought, then added. “But he’d told me to always be ready, just in case.”
“In case today happened, you mean. How long have they been watching us?”
His mom shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe years. I did everything I could not to draw any attention to us, but I couldn’t keep you in a cage. I had to let you be a boy. Otherwise, why did we escape? What was living for?”
“But if they knew we were here,” Winston thought, “why not grab us? Why…” Then it hit him. “We were bait. Bledsoe or whoever figured that if they just let us sit here, my dad would come looking someday.”
She nodded and wiped at her eyes.
Winston pushed himself off the bed and began pacing the floor, trying to keep everything straight in his head. “There’s a part I don’t get. If you didn’t trust this Bledsoe guy, or even like him, why’d you bring him on that first jump?”
“We didn’t.” His mom’s hands curled into fists. “There was supposed to be a group of us, before things went wrong. But not Devlin. We didn’t know that he’d also injected himself with QVs. According to Bernie, injection was necessary in order to use the Alpha Machine. Just when we were going through, Devlin ran at us out of nowhere and…I guess you could say he hitched a ride.”
“But this guy had been your friend?”
“Not at the end.” She shook her head mournfully. “He was jealous of your father. And he was…damaged. He lost a lot of his family in the wars. I think it changed him, especially losing his brother, who had been captured and killed. When his work in Area X revealed what might be possible with the alien technologies, Devlin dedicated himself to it completely.”
“He is scary. His ambition is terrible. That’s why your father vanished into the past. He hid the Alpha Machine pieces so that they’d never be found, except by you or me, and only then in case of extreme emergency.”
The story defied imagination. Knowing the truth now, or at least some of it, made Winston regret much of his past anger. “Poor Dad,” he muttered.
How could he have been so selfish? Some evil, time-traveling quack wanted to find his father and presumably do what all bad guys did: kill the good guys and destroy everything. And Winston was worried about keeping his date with--
Winston snagged his phone from the bed, copied out the number Shade had sent him, and started composing a text.
Alyssa. Extremely sorry, but I have to miss…
“Winston, what are you doing?” his mom asked.
“Sending Alyssa an apology. One sec.”
“Oh, it’s fine,” she said, obviously irritated. “Only the fate of the world, but it can wait.”
Winston shot her a Mom, really? look and kept typing.
…have to miss our date…
He deleted that last word.
…our appointment tonight. Family emergency. I really hope you’ll let us reschedule soon.
He read it over for typos or any other embarrassing word choices. Was it too polite? Too well punctuated? Shade always made fun of him for how he composed his messages like a finals essay. Winston hit Send and stared at the phone in his palm, reading the words “Message Sent” over and over until they faded away.
“We’re not going home again, are we?” he asked. “Ever.”
A stern edge crept into her voice. “I don’t know, honey. Every day of my life for the last thirteen years, I wondered if this day would come. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I definitely didn’t make plans around visiting with girlfriends. I don’t know how much of our rainy day fund we’ll have to use.”
Winston looked up. “Rainy day fund?”
“I have a little emergency money stored away.”
Winston’s mom gazed out the window. “A couple million,” she said quietly. “Or so. Of course, I had to put it in an offshore account.”
His jaw swung open. “Mom! We’re millionaires? Are you kidding? I thought we were poor!”
“You’d rather we lived high on the hog? Drew a lot of attention? Had people wondering, ‘Gee, I wonder how a diner waitress made all that money?’ Where I came from, there were no credit cards, and people quietly saved their money for rainy days.”
He smirked. “This is pretty rainy.”
Her irritation melted, and she smiled back at him. “We should’ve built an ark.”
They laughed together. Winston’s mom got up from the bed and wrapped her arms around him. They hadn’t had a good hug in a long time. Winston now stood taller than her by three or four inches. He remembered being able to rest his cheek high up on her chest, just under the collar bone. Now he could almost rest his cheek on top of her head. The difference took something away from the closeness. He was no longer a little boy nuzzling inside of his mother’s protection. He’d become something else, changing, growing.
His mother felt it, too. She leaned away from him slightly and looked into his face, her brows wrinkled with concern as the last traces of her smile creased the corners of her mouth.
“My little boy. Not so little now.”
Winston shrugged. “Not much I can do about it.”
“Most things are that way.” She glanced at the contents of his backpack spread out on the bed. “But not everything. Come on.”
She gave his shoulder a pat and backed away from him. Winston realized he didn’t want her to go.
“Let’s see what toys your father left for us.” His mom browsed through the money, then fingered the cash. “Why are these bills new?”
“I had the teller change them out. I figured it would draw less attention.”
She raised an eyebrow at him and ruffled his hair. “Smart kid. Did you show them anything else?”
She peeked inside the drawstring bag containing the blue marbles and drew one out, holding it between her thumb and index finger. Even in the dim lighting, the sphere’s white flecks sparkled brilliantly.
“Why marbles?” Winston asked.
“Because they’re batteries.” She held up the oddly shaped object fashioned from silver tubes. “For things like this.”
“Ummm…OK. What’s it do?”
The shadow of some memory darkened her face. His mom seemed to want to hand the device to Winston, but instead she set it down between them.
“I’m not really sure. I never got to experiment with it. If I recall correctly, the team never settled the debate on whether it conducted electricity or generated plasma. But we had a chimpanzee who accidentally used it to blow a hole through a foot-thick cement wall.”
“Ha!” For a second, Winston thought she was joking. He face said otherwise. “Wait, a chimpanzee?”
“The closest thing to a human on the evolutionary ladder. We saw some success, if you can call it that, injecting them with QVs.”
“And it blew up a wall?” Winston lifted the device, slipping his right hand through the ring to grasp the crosspiece, as he’d done before. It seemed the natural thing to do. “So this is an alien ray gun? Are you freaking kidding me?”
“Winston Franklin! Language.”
“Sorry. It’s just…” He clenched his hand tighter around the silver tube. He felt the beginning of his tinnitus in his left ear. It was only the faintest ringing, barely audible, then it went away as he relaxed his hand. That was no coincidence.
“I have a laser blaster!” he crowed.
Winston’s mom put one hand over his forearm and lowered the device so that it pointed toward the floor. “I don’t know what this is, but I do know that it’s more than that. And this is not a toy. We’re not in some video game.”
“I know, Mom.”
“I’m not sure you do. Honey, people have died over this. And if I’m right about Devlin, and there’s still a Project Majestic, then a lot more people could die. Do you understand?”
He nodded. Not wanting to meet her eyes when she was angry, Winston gently took the marble from her hand. He wondered if it might fit in one of the six slender tube openings near the device’s far end, but the marble was obviously too large. He turned his arm over, examining the perfectly smooth tubes at their larger end. There was a small snick sound, and a round, quarter-sized hole opened in the middle of the oval ring’s bulge.
“Cool!” said Winston, and without a second thought he plugged the blue marble into the hole. The hole closed as quickly as it had opened. Winston felt and heard the ball roll around for a moment within the bulge — and then it vanished. No sound, no weight. Somehow, the ball seemed to have evaporated inside the device.
Simultaneously, Winston felt as if someone had flicked on a power switch. The connection between the device and his brain came alive. A tingling similar to what he’d first felt from the metal ring began in his palm, but the sensation went beyond that. If anything, it felt like two attracting magnets snapping together. Some invisible connection formed between these silver tubes and his head, and they belonged together. He’d never felt anything like it.
“What is it?” His mom reaching toward him. “Are you OK?”
Winston turned the device over in his hand, pointing it this way and that. “I think so,” he said.
When he brought the tips of the device close to the metal ring, their one piece of the Alpha Machine, the tube tips moved. They bent and swayed stiffly, like slow tentacles searching for something to grasp.
“Whoa!” Winston cried, instinctively pulling away. The tubes immediately resumed their original tapering shape. He looked at his mother. “Did you see that?”
“Yes,” she said. “I never saw it do that before.”
Winston nodded appreciatively at the device. “Alien blaster, new and improved.”
Slowly, Winston used his free hand to pick up the ring. He meant to bring the two objects together to see if anything would happen, but as soon as his fingers closed around the cool metal, his vision seemed to blur, and then…
Winston gasped. The world around him faded. In computer photo editing, he would have called it desaturating. What little color existed in their room faded into gray and became slightly transparent. Something else materialized all around him, something green and splotchy and shifting chaotically. He blinked, confused, but the changes remained when he opened his eyes.
“Winston?” He heard his mom’s voice distantly, as if half-way into a dream.
He tried to relax and ignore the hotel room, instead focusing on the green. Gradually, the edges of the splotches started to sharpen. He began to see texture within the green and a greater awareness of light streaming through the blots. But it wasn’t the low, orange light of their evening. It was overhead sunlight, which made no sense.
Winston continued to let his eyes adjust. It felt a lot like staring at one of those “magic eye” pictures, where the viewer could see a 3D object pop out of the 2D pattern of shapes if he looked at it just right. Winston did, and he recognized the object before him: a tree. They sat on a bed in their motel room, but they also rested high up in the boughs of a tree, leaves spinning and weaving on some unfelt breeze.
“Oh, wow,” he breathed.
“What is it?” she asked, still strangely far away.
Winston turned his head and realized he could see through the foliage. Between the shifting branches, he could see other trees and below them a two-lane road, right where the four-lane Sandy Boulevard ran outside their motel. Beside the road squatted a rust-spattered gas station with two old fashioned pumps in the covered drive-up before the building. A Shell gas station sign showed prices above the words REGULAR and UNLEADED.
“Mom, when did gas cost 39 cents a gallon?”
“Why?” she asked. “A long time ago. Maybe the early seventies?”
“Why?” she repeated.
“Because I think I’m looking at the spot we’re in now how it used to be…back then. It’s like I’m in a tree looking down at a gas station and a small road.”
“Stop,” she said. He felt her hand over his forearm, tugging at it. “Please stop.”
Winston let her pull his hand away from the metal ring. The instant he lost connection with it, Winston felt a pressure release in his head, like his ears popping when driving down a mountainside. He blinked several times, letting his eyes and mind refocus on the motel room and his mom. She had a hand on his cheek, and she was scanning his eyes and face for any sign of trouble.
“I’m OK,” he said. He took a deep breath and smiled. “It’s energy. I can feel it flowing from me into the Alpha Machine thing and back. It’s sort of like electricity…but different. There’s this pressure, and it’s up to me to decide how to direct it. Like the gates are in my mind. Does that make any sense?”
There was only one item left for them to study. Winston put the two metal devices down and lifted the powder blue photo album onto his lap. It smelled faintly of dust, which seemed odd for something locked away from any dust for the last few decades. On the first page, he again saw the two photos, only now he viewed them with a new perspective. Apparently, his mom felt the same, because she gasped when she saw the first image.
It was a black and white image of a man in a collared shirt and slacks, his fedora hat shadowing most his face. He stood in front of a river and bridge blurred in the background. Winston felt fairly sure that this was the Broadway Bridge downtown because it was made of steel girders in low arches, and the two middle sections were raised to allow a freight ship passage through. It also helped that the man held a street map in one hand with the word “Portland” clearly showing at the top. In his other hand, he held a thick metal ring with a round bulge exposed. With a jolt, he knew this must be the next piece of the Alpha Machine.
That thought brought another realization right on its heels. Even though the man in the photo bore little resemblance to Mr. A, this had to be his father.
They reached for the photo at the same time, touching its edges gently for similar reasons.
“Oh,” she whispered.
“Plastic surgery?” Winston couldn’t get any more words out. His throat constricted as he felt hot tears stinging his eyes. His mom nodded.
Winston looked from the picture to his mom. He had always wished for two parents, the same as every kid who only has one, but he’d never had a face to put with that wish. Suddenly, his long-buried dream flashed back into life. He saw the three of them together, standing there on the edge of the Willamette River, watching ships pass under the bridge. Just another lazy family afternoon. So ordinary. It wasn’t only an idle dream, though. In a second of complete crystallization, the dream consumed him.
Could he make this happen? If he had a time machine, could he somehow create the family he’d always wanted but had always been beyond his reach?
Winston knew in that moment that he would put his life on the line to find out.
“What’s that second picture?” she asked quietly.
Winston swallowed hard and found his hands were sweating. His head lowered and his nostrils flared, as if he were preparing to step into a fight with Brian Steinhoff.
He forced himself to relax and concentrate on the photo album. He flipped ahead, but there were no other images in the book, only empty squares with little holders at their corners for mounting more images on subsequent pages.
He returned to the second photo. At first glance, it only looked like bunch of construction workers in front of a dirt pile. But there had to be more to it. Five men in dirty overalls stood in a crescent behind the dirt, smiling, hands on one another’s shoulders. Three of them smoked cigarettes. Before them, a sixth man wearing a hard hat crouched at the dirt’s edge, leaning forward so that one hand could grip the handle of a shovel thrust into the pile. A piece of paper had been taped to the end of the shovel handle, crayon-colored in red with five gold stars in the corner — the national flag of China. The man’s other hand rested on his knee for balance…but his index finger stuck out, pointing at the shovel. Oddly, the dirt pile wasn’t mounded, as if it had been dumped by a truck. It was flat, and its edges, while wending and bent, appeared to have been purposefully shaped.
Winston found himself wondering what this might have to do with the Alpha Machine when he noticed that the mouth and jawline of the crouching man matched that of his father in the first picture.
“A road crew? I don’t get it,” he said.
“Neither do I,” answered his mother.
Winston rubbed his temples and closed his eyes. “Mom, I do need one thing.”
Still half-lost in her own thoughts, she nodded. “Yes, we need several things, but I think we still have a little time. We’ll buy more gear first thing in the morning.” She looked up at him suddenly. “Or do you mean— Are you OK?”
He laughed. “Yes, I’m fine. Except…chocolate chip mint.”
She seemed unable to make sense of his words. Her head cocked to the side, and she seemed about to ask him what on earth he was saying. Then she got it.
“After all this, you’re worried about ice cream?”
She shook her head, smiling, and slung her purse over her shoulder. “Pack your bag up. We’re not leaving that stuff unattended. But yes, I suppose the fate of the world can wait for a double scoop.”