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just a bit of dust in someone else’s universe

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Your father taught you everything you know about photography. The first thing you learn is that the impact of an image lies not in the camera you have, but in the skill of the person holding it. Other children dream of pets and toys for their seventh birthdays, but not you. He gives you your first camera, a sleek 35 mm much older than you are, and you couldn’t be happier. The photos you take get better and better. One day you hope he’ll put you in charge of taking portraits.

The studio becomes your favorite place, and it’s there that you spend every minute you can spare. You sweep the floors and sort all the incoming rolls of film before polishing all the lenses.There isn’t a wall in the entire building that doesn’t have a cherished framed photo displayed upon it. Your father could never bear to throw out his favorites. That part of your nature must have come from him, that headstrong desire to protect the things that you love.

-

“I don’t wanna be in the photo!”

The little girl wails as she scurries away from the setup where her family sits patiently before your tripod. In her hurry, she nearly takes down the backdrop you spent so long preparing.

You stop her before she can make it out the door.

“There there, it’s okay,” you say as you kneel down to her level. “What’s so scary, huh?”

“I-, I…,” she sniffles, “I’m scared I’m gonna look funny!”

You laugh as you reach for a tissue and hand it to her.

“But of course! Everyone looks a little weird in photos, that's why we’re gonna take a picture and remember their funny faces!” You reach for your phone and show her your latest batch of selfies and embarrassing Xiaoshi snaps from those times when you ambushed him. The girl lets out a giggle and toys with the pink bunny ears on your case appreciatively. She cleans her face, and with enough cajoling, you get her to join the rest of the group in front of the camera. You've always had a knack for putting people at ease.

You snap the portraits with practiced ease, pressing the shutter at just the right moment so that no one in the group has time to drop their smile.

“She doesn't look like a witch,” the little girl says on the way out, eyeing you in a not-unfriendly way as she and her family exit through the front door. You let out a sigh as you close it behind them. The rumors are still going around the neighborhood, but at least the kids still like you.

-

“You’re so stubborn Qiao Ling! No matter what people say, you never budge once you’ve made up your mind.”

Shanshan’s words don’t hurt you because they’re true.

For what seems like the twentieth, you’ve gotten an offer to buy up your property. Every shop owner on the block has gotten the same message at some point, but thankfully you’re all in agreement. Though the offer is a decent one, saying goodbye to this place is not an option.

These days, it’s rare for people to come in and let you take their picture, and you feel the loss acutely. As long as you could remember, this had been a place for people who loved your pictures. It didn’t matter if people have started to prefer the cameras in their phones or that they’ve developed a taste for the instant gratification of posting directly to WeChat Moments. The memories you’re in charge of protecting are special. You aren't concerned about being seen as a relic of the past as quaint and outdated as the antique shop next door.

“He’s your responsibility now,” your father had said to you back when Time Photo Studio was still called “Hero.”

Overnight you become a nine-year-old landlady with a tenant who has wounds too raw and a mind too distraught to make friends with your classmates. He cries for his parents when he thinks no one can see, but you hear it loud and clear everytime you pass his room.

You never call him your brother, but everyone around knows that the two of you are to be treated like family. He’s eager to earn his keep, following you like a shadow and doing everything you say. It’s nice for a time, but the pain in his eyes haunts you. You teach him everything you know: how to load a roll of film, the way to make a proper contact sheet, the perfect timings for placing your client’s photos in developer, stop bath, and fixer. When you’re feeling particularly indulgent, you even let him hold your father’s treasured Rolleiflex. He handles it with surprising care. You have to admit he catches on quickly, and soon you find he’s as happy and capable in the darkroom as you were when you were small.

When you find out that Cheng Xiaoshi has powers, it leaves you speechless for the first time in your entire life.

It doesn’t sit well with you at first, the idea of enacting change using something that was meant to be permanent. So many years of your life have been spent studying how to capture people perfectly in a single moment in time. The idea that someone can go back and muddle things in that moment disturbs you.

It takes a week for you to think it over, to decide whether you’re going to help or hinder them. Lu Guang seems trustworthy, but what really seals it is when you see the smile that still lingers on Xiaoshi’s face after one of their alleged “dives.” For once, it’s one that he hasn’t forced at all. You know this because you’re an expert on the subject.

You let them have the room with the skylight, even though it’s your favorite.

They work well as the dynamic duo, but sometimes it’s a struggle to leave them be. You remind yourself that just because you’re not in the frame, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a part of their story.

Over time, you come to rationalize the things the three of you do together. The changes they make seem like tiny fragments in the grand scheme of things, but the ripple effects are all too obvious to you. They’re just tiny, invisible forces, seemingly inconsequential, but just as surely as a speck of dust on a camera lens can ruin a photo, a wrong move in time could do untold amounts of damage. You know from experience that Lu Guang alone is no match for Xiaoshi going off on a reckless streak.

All the more reason why you’re essential.