Auto-Photo Studio Model 20A

(This story takes place in Black Bear Bar, in Williamsburg, BK. The bar has since closed down.) 

Full moon hazy in the clouded summer darkness. All heat and talk and holiday energy in the checkerboard Williamsburg streets. People mill about outside of late-night bodegas and glass-paned storefronts, smoke cigarettes in front of graffitied walls. The gay bar down the street thrum thrums with dance music. A big group of girls wearing bachelorette party sashes and crowns laughs and walks with arms linked. Outside one of the many converted warehouses, models pose for an impromptu fashion shoot. Everyone is young. It’s nearly midnight, the second of July. A couple winds their way down the sidewalk through the Friday night crowd.

They haven’t been together long, not by most standards, only a few months now—but they’re exclusive, newly so. You can see it in their hands: the way he clasps her fingers tight, like he’s thankful still, wary of letting her go too far. She laughs loud, gestures big with her free hand; she’s starting to show herself. Both are blonde, lean. He wears 1950s reporter’s glasses, horn-rimmed, designer, though he doesn’t need them. He has cleaned his black converse. His father’s watch is a shock of silver whenever the mottled light falls just so. She wears her hair in her sister’s bone barrette, pulled up and to the side a little, so the smooth curve of her ear shows, so he’ll see the glint of the one earring she wears, a long copper pin. His eyes are blue. Her eyes are gray, smoked in the same shade of black as the asymmetrical dress she’s wearing.

To each other, they are an entire universe, contained—each notices the other’s small, human smells, the vital sounds of their bodies (her skirt swishing as she walks, the brush of her thighs, skin on skin shushing; his breath as it catches when he looks at her, the push of the veins in his neck against the collar of his buttoned up polo). But to the throng of people that rushes by in groups of two, three, and five, the couple may as well not even exist. The couple ghosts past.

The couple turns off into a bar with the indoor half-pipe and the small neon initials swinging on a sign above the door. They are excited when the bouncer tells them that the metal band they like is playing a free show tonight, as a part of the grand opening of the bar’s newly added back room. How lucky, they think. How awesome. Inside, the girl leans in and kisses her boy on the neck, then breaks away with a murmur and a wink. He watches her glide up to the long, curved bar and order them beers. The only light in the place comes from the back-lit bar shelf, the yellow pinprick flames in the candles on every round hightop. The light makes her golden hair glow against the black of her dress, her pale arms and legs suspended midair, disconnected but animate. He feels her beauty like a growl in his throat. When she comes back to him, she smiles down at the beers in her hands, walks as though she knows she won’t spill a drop. He might even love her.

She gives him his beer and takes a long pull from her own. Her friends don’t know that she’s actually really into this guy. She lets him push open the door to the back room, strides in ahead of him. The band’s thrash metal hits the couple like a wall, and they both smile when the wispy girl singer with the purple hair throws her head back and lets loose a key-perfect howl. The couple, delighted, shares a quick kiss. The band kicks into life and the ragtag audience grows with every new song. The couple drinks—beers, shots, anything—eager to keep the buzz. When the girl singer belts the final phrase of the band’s last song, sliding across the stage on her knees to the sound of the last scream of the guitar, the last pounding drum beats, the boy dips the girl into a long kiss.

Then the crowd is dispersing, and the band is packing up, but the couple is drunk and blissful; they have forgotten the music. They stumble over to a little roundtop in the one empty corner. There is no candle, but the blueish light from a photobooth nearby is enough to see by.

The couple laughs at nothing, at their own fantastic luck. How, in a city so selfish and huge, did they ever find each other? How, after all that they’ve seen go wrong in their lives, can this one thing—the only thing that matters—be actually going right?

And then the girl realizes what it is she’s said, aloud, to this man she’s only known for what? Two, three months? And she falls into her beer again, tips the glass up so the golden liquid fills her mouth, drowns the three words she’s thinking, that she’s learning may be true. And the boy can see her changing now, and panics inside. What if he is wrong about her? What if she can see through his act? He downs his beer as well. And then he sees the photobooth, lit up like a beacon. Its sepia box body plain and undecorated, save for a lone band poster featuring a grinning skull. The dust-colored curtain is half-drawn. He thinks of the old black and white movies his mom likes, his sister’s Molly Ringwald thing; he thinks of romance in daguerreotype and quadrupled. Here is a thing that can save his game.

By now, the back room is empty, save for the two of them, a barback tidying up across the room, and the photobooth, gleaming. He touches her elbow, points to the booth. It’s a little expensive, but what the hell? She smiles, relieved, so very relieved to be free of having to think about what all of this means.

They pull back the curtain and step into the booth together. They see that it’s a very old model, one of those vintage photobooths from the sixties; a tag on the inside of the booth reads “Auto-Photo Studio Model 20A.” The boy scoffs at the fucking hipsters, and the girl knows to laugh, but really, they are both delighted. Everything about the booth charms. How unlike the others they’ve seen. How fated that they would find this particular booth together.

The booth has a twin lightbulb flash mechanism above a camera box with a jagged crack running right down the center of the glass. Two arrows read LOOK HERE on either side of the box. Behind the spinning plastic seat is no fancy background, no green screen. Just a faded tan curtain stretched across the back of the booth. The couple glances at a thick brownish stain on the curtain, jokes about what it could be, how disgusting the city is. The stain makes them both a little nervous. The boy swipes his card in the payment slot.

There is no signal, no countdown, so the couple stares and smiles at the cracked glass, waiting. The lights flash once, and the boy jumps. The girl catches her breath. They laugh at each other’s fright, but the laughter jars and they do not feel better.

As they wait for the next photo, the next flash from the lights, the girl feels a sharp cold tightening just below her ribcage. She touches the spot on her stomach. The boy moves beneath her in discomfort. A sound like an approaching train fills their ears, and as the lightbulbs warm and brighten above them, the noise becomes a roar. The boy feels like he’s underwater, stuck. The girl feels like she’s been stabbed through the chest. When the lights flash again, the couple screams in pain from inside the booth.

Across the room, the barback looks up. It’s been a long shift, and he fucking hated tonight’s band. He is tired, and tired of drunken idiots hanging around just to make his job harder. He slaps the towel in his hand down on the bartop and comes out from behind the bar.

He hears the lightbulbs inside the photobooth flash once, twice, but no one screams. Something metallic thumps to the floor. He stops halfway to the booth. From where he’s standing, it doesn’t seem like anyone is in the photobooth at all, but the curtain is drawn, and he’s certain that he heard screams, and before that, laughter, some muffled conversation.

He waits a beat, but nothing moves. The room is silent. Goosebumps race along his back and arms. He calls out, but there is no answer. The skull poster on the side of the booth seems to be laughing at him. Then a sound, like paper pushed into a slot, and a strip of film plinks into the tray on the outside of the photo booth.

Hardly breathing, the barback approaches the photobooth. The light pools in a blueish sheen just beneath the curtain. As he comes closer, the barback can see a pair of hipster glasses, a crumpled silver watch next to a bone barrette and one single, thin copper earring. He calls out again, but he doesn’t know why. The booth is clearly empty.

With a shaking hand, the barback reaches for the photos, then backs quickly away from the booth. He looks at the strip of paper for a moment, taking in each of the four frames. Then he curses and drops the photo, runs as fast as he can through the doors that lead the bar’s exit. The bar is still a wreck, and he’s left his phone on the back shelf next to the unfinished after-shift drink he’s poured himself.

The strip of photos lies face up on the floor. In the first frame, the couple poses, their smiles uncertain but their bodies relaxed. They are happy in each other’s arms, new to love.

In the next frame, a scene far different. The couple’s faces are contorted in pain. A third figure, hazy, stands behind them, more burning eyes and fingers wrapped around the couple’s shoulders than anything else. An interesting, if terrifying, special effect.

By the third frame, the couple has disappeared. In their place sits a human-like figure, photo real—its skull has been flayed of skin, its eyeballs wide, white and bulging, only two single black dots for pupils. Its shoulders and chest are also bare of skin; bleeding, ragged muscle stretches tight over bones visible beneath. Its mouth is fanged, its jaws spread wide. It laughs.

The fourth frame is empty, save for the beige backdrop curtain, and that one mysterious dark stain. Something like a cigarette burn hovers just above it, centered in the darkness of the photo.

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