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Alex sucked in the car’s hot dusty air as her brain spun around like the big wheel on the Price is Right.
Just like the contestants on the iconic game show, she know she’d be as surprised as anyone by where the metaphoric needle would settle. Although she hoped for some winning verbiage, she instantly knew she’d gone over the mark and met the same fate as so many empty-handed hopefuls before her.
Because if truth was the mark, she not only overshot, she hit a whole new low.
“She’s the woman that destroyed my family!” Alex blurted.
Jason’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Is she your… stepmom?”
Alex’s face instantly burned with guilt and embarrassment. She hoped the pre-existing heat was enough to explain the flush she felt creeping across her cheeks. Of course she could not allow Angela to be her stepmom in this little narrative she was creating. She’d already told Jason and his mother that she would be staying with her father and his family on weekends, so what sense would it make for her to be so vehement against seeing her own stepmother?
To make matters more confusing, Alex wasn’t even sure where the words came from. True, Angela was married to her father, but she was in no way responsible for her parents’ divorce, years before Angela and her father had even met. But the words were out there now, hovering almost visibly in the air between her and Jason, and Alex saw no choice but to simply go with what was. Plan B, just like Jason had said yesterday.
“She was the last person I expected to see in there! I had NO IDEA she worked for the Red Cross,” Alex said, sticking to non-incriminating truthful filler until she could invent a brand new character for her increasingly complicated saga.
Jason was quiet for a moment as he listened to Alex. “So, not your stepmom?”
“It was such a shock, I couldn’t deal with it,” Alex continued.
“OK, so definitely not your stepmother. I’m guessing a random woman that your dad met when things were falling apart with him and your mom?”
It was beginning to dawn on Alex that she no longer had to invent a fictional persona for Angela. Jason had done the dirty work for her. And she didn’t even have to directly lie to him.
“Would it be all right if we talked about this another time?” Alex said, her voice snagging on a jagged edge of honest pain.
“Sure,” Jason said, quickly. “It was bad enough that you had to go through something like that once—no sense in reliving it.”
Alex was still reliving the actual version of recent events two hours later as she stood at the threshold of Jason’s darkroom in a little nook past the kitchen. “This used to be the laundry room,” Jason explained, “before my parents added the addition. At that point, we needed a bigger laundry room anyway, with so many of my mom’s students coming over to do laundry.” Jason looked at Alex before turning the knob. “Are you ready?” he asked. “Remember, it is completely dark in there, and I have worked hard to make it that way. “Cell phones stay here,” he said, reaching into his pocket and placing his phone on a sideboard table along the wall.
Alex nodded, even though she wasn’t remotely sure what she was doing. At dinner, Jason had handed her a metal wheel that looked like a miniature version of the large metal reels used in movie theaters. He had supplied Alex with a long strip of old film he’d removed from its roll and sacrificed as a permanent teaching tool, along with instructions on how to thread the film into the reel’s concentric grooves. It sounded easy in theory, but Alex had spent half an hour after the chocolate crème pie plates had been cleared from the table crinkling the strip of film around the wheel in lumpy, uneven formations. And that was in the well-lit dining room. According to Jason, they would be repeating the same process with their film roll of turtle shots in pitch black, along with the added step of removing the film from its sealed metal roll.
Still, Alex welcomed the chance to retreat from the high-energy clamor of Jason’s home and take some time to process it all. The flood of activity and the range of characters were overwhelming, to be sure: easy banter travelling around the large oak table as fast as stoneware dishes filled with homemade food, the eccentric neighbor, Mrs. Pritchard’s continuous clucking and nodding in a stream of continual agreement, Nanook’s noisy enjoyment of her squeaky toys: overwhelming, yes, but in a day-at-Disney kind of way that left Alex with a feeling of wonder.
Jason seemed to read her thoughts. “Welcome to my thinking place,” he said, taking her hand and leading her into the darkness beyond the threshold. “No matter what’s going on in my life, I always find clarity here.”
“Kind of ironic, don’t you think?” Alex laughed.
“In the most awesome way possible,” Jason said, reaching toward what Alex could only assume was a counter. She drew back her hand. “No,” Jason said, pulling her hand back toward his. “Follow my movements,” he said, picking up an object that he placed in Alex’s hand.
“A punch can opener?” she guessed.
“Yep,” he confirmed, popping the top off the film canister faster than Alex could get into a can of soup.
Alex could hear the film unfurl from the tightly wound roll. Jason placed a metal film reel in her hand. “What?”
“Yeah, you’re going to try it,” Jason laughed. “Why do you think I had you practicing all that time?”
“Oh, no, I’ll ruin it, Jason,” Alex protested.
“Here,” Jason said, I’ll help you get started. Alex could feel his fingers as he clipped the end of the film beneath a pin in the center of the reel. He gently guided her hands and helped her slowing guide the trail of film into the invisible groves.
“The thing I love about being in here,” Jason said, “isn’t just the quiet, or the anticipation—both of which I do love—but also the revealing of truth.”
Alex stiffened. Was this a confrontation? Did he lure her into the darkness to force some kind of confession? For a second, she wanted to bolt, but instead asked, “What do you mean?”
“All secrets are revealed in the dark room,” Jason said. “You start in pure darkness with a strip of celluloid and some high hopes, and, if you’re careful, patient, and a little bit lucky, you end up with a miracle—a memory that you’ve captured forever.”
Alex felt sick to her stomach. She’d had high hopes not so long ago herself. She’d been neither careful, patient, nor lucky and was pretty certain that all she’d really remember of the summer was the accumulating ball of guilt tangling her insides into knots.
“And that reminds me,” he said, slowly, “That I still need to explain to you why I am not the goody-two-shoes you seem to think I am.” He guided the last couple inches of film around the metal wheel and then popped the rolled film into a light-tight canister. He flipped on the lights, and sat down on what was, indeed a counter. He patted the spot next to him. “Have a seat,” he said. “It’s time for this particular secret to be revealed.”
“No, wait!” Alex burst out. “Me, first.”