9 - Undated Photographs

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Liz left to take Liam to his dad's house at six. Natasha imagined him waiting at home, feet up on the coffee table, a cold beer in hand, shirt unbuttoned. Pater familis relaxing after work. 

Maybe that was a luxury he could afford, but she was still sorting through boxes. Her shoulders screaming from the effort of a long day, and her skin crawled with the itch of a thick film of grime. She didn't dare take a shower until she was finished; she knew that once her clothes came off, she'd have no willpower left to come back and wrap this up. And being faced with a stack of papers that needed to be sorted and organized and dealt with first thing in the morning sounded even more unappetizing than pushing through the exhaustion right now. 

Technically, anything left in an abandoned storage unit becomes the property of the facility owners — and, by extension, of the auction winners. Nat and Liz were under no legal obligation to do anything with the personal effects left behind in a unit. But in practice, it was considered good form to at least make an effort to reunite people with the belongings they left behind that held no monetary value. People put all sorts of things into storage, not thinking of where those items might end up, and storage units often came with family photos, tax records, birth certificates, grandma's ashes, amateur sex tapes -- all sorts of things that shouldn't be falling into a stranger's hands.

When they could, the Lomans tried to find an address to ship these records back to. When they couldn't, they were shredded and burned. Either way, the responsibility fell to Nat to dig through boxes of people's belongings like an archaeologist sorting through cultural artifacts, and she would be lying if she said she didn't enjoy the voyeurism just a little bit. 

There were two boxes to sort through. They were packed untidily, a hodgepodge of items and papers crammed inside as if filled in a hurry by someone who had grown tired with packing. Nat sat on the floor, her back against the sitting room couch, with an open box on one side and growing piles of papers on the other. One stack held an assortment of random bits of paper that meant nothing to her: receipts, notebooks filled with grocery and to-do lists, empty envelopes. Another stack held objects that they might still be able to re-sell somewhere, even if they wouldn't fit in the antique store: old paperback novels, their pages dog-eared; small pieces of electronics like earbuds and USB drives; phone chargers; assorted pieces of broken costume jewelry, an earring without its back, a ring missing its gem.

The third pile contained a paper trail of identity: old bills, check stubs, letters, photographs. From these she learned that the unit had, presumably, belonged to a man named Anthony Rivera and a woman — probably his wife — named Suzanne. If Suzanne worked, there was no evidence of it; the utility bills and check stubs were all made in Anthony's name. Her name came up only on jointly addressed envelopes, personal correspondence. A wedding invitation here; a Christmas card there. 

One photograph showed three people, she assumed the Riveras, standing on a beach. She was surprised at how young they looked. Given the number of antiques in the unit, she had expected an elderly couple, but the faces that stared up from the snapshot were young, close to her own age -- they couldn't be much older than 35. The man in the photograph was tall and thin, wearing thick-framed black glasses and a tidy haircut; the woman was shorter, plump but not quite fat. She had a round, happy face and wispy dirty-blond hair that whipped around her shoulders, lifted by wind. Between them, throwing a peace sign and grinning a gap-toothed smile, was a little girl a bit older than Liam; Nat thought she might have been seven or eight. She was wearing one of those one-piece swimsuits with the frills at the bottom, like a skirt, and a pair of sunglasses that were comically huge on her face, balanced precariously on her nose.

They looked so happy.

Nat set the photo aside and continued to dig through the box, finding more pieces of the puzzle of their lives. The little girl sitting on top of a bronze dolphin statue in the middle of a park; the wife standing in the kitchen, hands on her hips, flour dusting her face; a heavily creased elementary school report card.

Nat searched for a date on the back of the photographs, trying to get an idea of how long ago they had been taken. There was no sign; they could have been a week old, or a decade. It was strange, though, this family with its taste in antiques and affection for print-film snapshots. It was endearing, in the post-digital world, to find someone else who lived a similarly analog lifestyle. She felt a sense of camaraderie with them, these people she had never met, whose life was immortalized now in a series of undated photographs. 

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