Tuesday is police day.
At ten o’clock, I walk Ariel to music camp at the junior high and then cut across the baseball diamonds to a grimy strip mall three blocks over. My cousin Kelly’s shop is in a narrow slot between a coin appraiser and a locksmith.
I step inside to the sound of the bell jangling above me.
“Oh thank God,” Kelly says, turning with the phone caught between her shoulder and her ear. She gestures at Matilda Braun, who is made of painted steel and is the oldest, noisiest optical photo printer in the world. “I changed out the paper and now the advance is stuck and the magazine’s jammed and Brad can’t tell me why—he just keeps saying that she’s old. I know she’s old!”
Kelly is always on the phone with Brad from Services. She never remembers that even though there’s only room for two prints moving side-by-side on the belt, Matilda Braun doesn’t cut the paper in pairs. There’s always a third piece.
I get down on the floor and pry the maintenance door open, reaching into the nest of rollers and belts and gears, past the warning pictures taped to the inside of the door. The illustrations are full of blunt metal slabs and sharp edges. Pinch points like torture devices—hands caught in heavy machinery, crushing all the bones. I look away and snake my hand between the rollers.
The last scrap of paper is lavender from light exposure, and I roll it out carefully so I don’t damage the belt tension. Kelly is good with cameras and with money, but she always handles Matilda Braun too hard.
“That’s it,” Kelly says, hanging up the phone. “I’ll just call you from now on. Brad has no idea what he’s talking about. Here, come over to the backdrop real quick and let me check the settings on the passport camera.”
I stand against the marbled backdrop with my hands flat against the wall.
“Chin up,” she says from behind the round staring eye of the lens. Her voice is soft. In the real world, she’s always going too fast, but behind the camera, she settles down. She slows.
“Good,” she says, from behind the sound of the clicking shutter. “Good.”
Some days, I’m pretty, and some days I’m not, and once, for three hours and forty-five minutes, I was beautiful. But that was a long time ago, at the eighth grade dance and I had a blue dress that I made off a McCall’s pattern after I fixed the serger and Jason Baker really, really liked me. I mean he liked me so much that it wasn’t just hypothetical. I could actually tell.
I let Ariel put my hair up in a fancy braided bun that she’d just invented, and I wore makeup and everyone kept looking at me—looking in this confused, startled way, like they’d never known before that I could surprise them.
And I know it’s what you’re supposed to want, but it scared me.
Lillian laughed, because I was so awkward about it, and because usually she was the one who made people stare. Lillian always knew they were looking because she was too sweet to even believe.
Until she wasn’t anymore and by then, they were staring for other reasons.
Eighth grade was a long time ago, but it’s how I want to remember her.
I was pretty and skinny. Lillian was beautiful.
At noon, we are visited by officers Freeny and Boles, who come every Tuesday at lunchtime. Boles hangs back, looking at the lens-care display, but Freeny comes up to the counter carrying the paper shopping bag that holds all their crime-scene film for the last week.
I take it from him, but let Kelly figure out the various print orders and write down the case numbers.
“You know,” Freeny says, in that way grown-ups do when they have something crucial to say, but they don’t want to scare you by letting you see how important it is. “I’m sure your parents have already told you to be careful about talking to strangers and not to go places alone, right?”
I nod, peeling a stray piece of tape off the counter. The number of times I’ve been told this is beginning to rival the number of days the thermometer at the bank has broken a hundred. Days when the sun sits over the city, blinding, white—baking everything to a hard, brittle crust. Nights when I let Lillian’s ghost in bed with me, because maybe she’s cloud and vapor and not really real, but the dry chill of her next to me is better than the alternative.
Officer Freeny is leaning on the counter and his eyes are full of a deep, troubling concern. It scratches my throat like sand. “Just be careful. There’s someone dangerous out there, and it isn’t smart to go thinking that because you’re young, it’s the same as being immortal.”
It’s too exhausting to think of the dangers out there, when in here, I’m already stuck with Lillian. How she laughed, how she never seemed like she needed a new hairstyle and a blue dress to feel beautiful. But it wasn’t true.
In the weeks before she died, she pretty much stopped leaving her house. And now that she’s dead, she never leaves mine.
I open the junk drawer and look up at Officer Freeny. His face is steady and sad, like he’s seen it before. Like he’s thinking of some other dead girl—one he couldn’t save with his friendly neighborhood warnings. The unsuspecting victim.
Maybe she thought she was immortal, but I don’t.