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The Halloween Project 2019 Story 10: Photo Fixer

The vintage photograph album called to Mason although he wished that it hadn't. Slowly meandering through the "Oldest and Largest Antique Exposition, Vault of Curios, and Swap Shop" in New Hampshire he had spent four hours lifting, inspecting, googling provenance, wondering and buying. All would end up in his shop in Burlington, Vermont. He liked to fashion himself an American Picker like the television show. Find items throughout New England, polish and repair, and sell them in his shop for a reasonable markup. The parents of University of Vermont students couldn't get enough of "authentic" items. They oohed and aahed when told that this picture frame was made from barn wood from Maine or that antique corkscrew served to open wine bottles in a 19th century inn in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He tried his best to be honest. Mason ran his finger down the black cardboard spine of the album. Lifting and turning that first heavy page a scent of dust and years wafted up to him. And something else. Something distant, yet untoward, something not right, but fleeting, and it left him. In some ways typical, the album reminded him of hundreds of old, discarded albums that he had perused over the years. Smallish, black and white photos filled the pages. Glued, but now dried, with black corners holding them in place like miniature floating picture frames. He set the era as the 1930's through 1940's. Always he wondered, "How did you come to be here? What happened to your owners and where are your descendants? Is no one left to care for your image? No one to lay a finger down to each musty page saying, 'That is your great-great grandfather' or 'See that tall man in the back not smiling? He died when the brakes failed on his car and it plunged into the Deerfield River.'" But this album was different. Rarely a seller in his shop, old photo albums added charm, atmosphere and even mystique, but not profit. Despite the poor possibility of resale Mason dealt out eight dollars, asked for a receipt and tucked the book into his overflowing carryall. The next week, systematically cataloging and displaying his newly acquired wares, he encountered the photo album once again. He settled down in a comfortable chair next to the wood burning stove that warmed the shop and added ambience. He was wary when children were in the shop. He didn't need a six year old getting burned. He placed the photo album on his lap and began to turn pages. Some pages had the typical missing photo, the black background, darker than the surrounding page that had washed to gray over time. Photos perhaps taken by a relative years ago as mementos or simply lost as they fell away during the decades. An hour later he realized that he had been studying the faces, postures and relationships for much longer than he normally would. Grim was one word that described most of the photos. Resigned. Captured. He arranged the album on a shelf and it passed from his mind. Three weeks later homecoming weekend exploded in Burlington. Restaurants, bars, and thankfully, shops were over-filled with foot traffic and constant purchasing. A one man operation, Mason was kept moving from dawn until well past dusk. He kept the shop open two hours later than normal, until nine, on both Friday and Saturday. Almost closing, the crowd now filtered off to dinners with their undergrads, the shop began to still. The fashionably old-fashioned bell over the door gave a tinny clang as a customer entered. Mason looked up and stopped. Stopped thinking and for a moment stopped breathing. It was a stocky man, average height, perhaps late 40's or early 50's. He wore an unsmiling face etched above a tight mouth. His jet black hair was plastered across his head. He dressed as if he had stepped from a screening of a 1930's gangster film. Pants billowy gray, tie ridiculously short. Gray was the lack of color that dominated his entire frame. He made straight, but slowly, for the counter where Mason stood transfixed. Two feet from Mason the man halted, placed his hands on the desktop and looked through him. Very, very slowly with great effort the man whispered, "You have my likeness." Mason just looked, inspecting with minute detail every aspect of the man's face, his clothes, his hands. Pale beyond the extreme, the man's eyes were the color of a gray tabletop. His skin like washed paper in color and texture. Pants gray, shirt braying. It had not been a question or a request. It was a simple declarative sentence. "Likeness?" Mason finally asked. "Photograph." the whisper this time was drawn out, extended, with great effort. "I...I...I" Mason fumbled, feeling his own confusion and then a shock into memory. He moved to a shelf in an alcove of the store and retrieved the photograph album. The man had not turned his head as if the effort was too exhausting. Mason returned and placed the black, decrepit album facing forward on the counter. The man looked from Mason down to the album then moved a hand in slow motion and began to gently turn pages. A third of the way through he stopped. Mason managed to look down also and saw that the man was focused on a single photograph. Still staring, caught in the images on the page, the man moved again when the clock on the back wall rang the hour nine times. He reached to the book, clasped his fingers at the edges, and snapped the photograph away from its four-cornered enclosure. He brought it to his face, eye level, and looked at it for a long time. The back of the photo, now directly in front of Mason, was written upon. In a fluid hand it read simply "October, 1936". "But that can't be you. You must be a relative, or you're dressing up to look like the person in the picture. That can't be you because..." he paused since the calculation in his head could not make sense, "If you were 50 in 1936, then today you would be..." "133," Mason said. The man removed his eyes from the photo, they passed beyond it, to peer intently at Mason. His flat visage grew one touch more gray, more unhappy. The eyes flattened. The photo turned slowly, the word "October" and the "1936" rotated from view. The man pulled the photo slightly back toward his face. Mason studied, from photo to face, face to photo. Mason held his breath. The man placed the photo in his breast pocket. He turned and slowly walked to the door. The bell clanged a second time. Mason moved to the door, locked it, turned the "Closed - enjoy Burlington!" sign to face outwards. He returned to the desk and hefted the photo album. Without the slightest desire to open it once again he moved to the wood burning stove. Using the poker he opened the door, stirred the embers into a fiery red cauldron and tossed the album within.

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