Gary didn’t know exactly what he was looking for when he walked into the consignment shop, but he needed something attention-getting and cool. Senior year would start on Monday; a final chance to make his mark on Sebastian J. Cabot High. He wasn’t an academic standout, and sports were out of the question. Gary needed a shtick, some gimmick to get people to notice him. He perused the glass cabinet, and his eye landed on a worn, red leather box about the size of a paperback, trimmed in dull silver.
The girl behind the counter caught him staring. “Good eye.” She was about his age but dressed from a lost time. She removed the metal and leather thing from the case and snapped it open to reveal a camera. “Vintage Polaroid,” she said, handing it to him, “totally cool.”
He framed her in the viewfinder. She had red lips and flames for hair. The flash popped, and an undeveloped rectangle of film whirred out. “Fantastic,” Gary said.
She took the film and waved it as the image resolved. “What do you think?” She held the photo next to her face and batted her emerald eyes. “Fifty bucks,” she said. “And I’ll throw in the picture.” Gary would tape it to his locker door, let the guys think she was his girlfriend.
“You really think it’s cool?”
* * *
Gary went straight to the pool to show off. It was ninety-nine degrees; everyone would be there. Jimmy and Pavel played paper football by the snack bar. Margaret and Minnie smoldered in their lounge chairs. If Sebastian J. Cabot High were ancient Greece, Margaret and Minnie were goddesses. Jimmy and Pavel and Gary were the plebes who built their temples.
“Check this out,” Gary looked through the viewfinder: Jimmy’s zinc-oxide stripe in the foreground, Margaret’s yellow bikini in the background.
“Jimmy, Margaret,” Gary said. “Lean in.”
Margaret fluffed her hair. “Come on, Jimmy,” Margaret said. “Afraid I’ll ruin your reputation?”
Gary pressed the button, and the five of them watched the image fade in.
“You two are totally cute,” said Minnie.
The other kids clamored to get in front of Gary’s camera, smiling and laughing over the snapshots. When it was time to leave, he found Jimmy and Margaret on the sundeck, her feet in his lap, his Dodgers cap on her head.
Margaret looked at Gary. “We’ll see you at Bunker’s party, right?”
What was more surprising, that Margaret had invited Gary to the party, or the “we”?
* * *
At school on Monday, kids stopped him in the halls to pose.
“I don’t get it,” Pavel said. “Everyone’s got a camera in their pocket, but they’re falling all over each other to get a poorly-saturated, low-res shot from your technological anachronism.”
“It’s magic,” Gary said.
“Consider this,” Gary said. “A week ago, Margaret Antonelli barely recognizes Jimmy. But one shot from the Polaroid and she can’t keep her hands off him.
“Keep telling yourself that.”
“The evidence is indisputable: pre-polaroid, Margaret’s unattainable; post-picture, she’s putty in his hands.”
“Wake up, Pavel. Nothing this weird has happened since you made Manny Vasquez cry.”
“That was an accident,” Pavel said. “And so is this.”
“This camera is magic.”
“It converts light into images. It’s science.”
“I’ll prove it,” Gary said. “I’ll test it on you.”
“No,” Pavel said.
“With Sophie Callas?”
“I’ve seen you staring.”
“Your camera isn’t magic.”
“Maybe you’ll actually get a date for the fall dance.”
* * *
They found Sophie on the lawn with Leela Greenbaum.
Gary folded open his camera. “Go,” he ordered Pavel. “Talk to her.”
“Anything,” Gary said. “Just go.”
“This is stupid.”
“Hey, Sophie,” Gary called. “Pavel’s got a question for you.”
Gary shoved Pavel. The girls smirked. “So, Sophie,” he said. “What did you think of Bartlett’s quiz?”
“How about a picture,” Gary said, “for my collection.”
“Sure,” Sophie said, pulling Pavel close.
Gary pressed the button and the photo rolled out. They watched Sophie’s and Pavel’s dopy grins emerge.
“Adorable,” Leela’s voice sparkled.
“Can I keep it?” Sophie sounded a thousand miles away.
* * *
Gary posted flyers: “Capture the moment and capture her heart.” A photocopy of the picture of Jimmy and Margaret bore the caption, “It worked for them: make the magic work for you.”
* * *
On his way to his car after school, Gary’s phone buzzed with an unknown number.
“You’re full of shit, you know,” a girl said.
“Who is this?”
“Veronica Kemp. Cabot Clarion. I’m supposed to do a piece on your magical camera.”
Something familiar in her voice. “Want me to take your picture with that special someone?”
“Please,” she said in a way that meant absolutely not. “I’ll ask the questions.”
“Why so aggressive?”
“At my old school I was managing editor. Transfer here and I’m stuck interviewing smartasses.”
“Something tells me this isn’t going to be a very flattering article.”
“The camera doesn’t have special powers.”
“Off the record—”
“Fess up and everything will go just fine.”
“For me or for you?”
“Come clean and maybe you come off as an artist with a clever business plan.”
“At least hear me out.”
“Or we can do it the hard way.”
“I write the truth: you’re a fraud preying on teenage insecurity and hormones.”
“I’m not sure I want to do an interview.”
“I file my story Monday,” she said. “With or without you.”
* * *
Gary tracked down the Clarion’s editor. “Brett, what’s up with your raging reporter?”
“She’s new,” Brett said. “And she’s pissed all the editor spots were filled.”
“She’s out for blood,” Gary said.
“She’s trying to get noticed.”
“She’s trying to make me look like a jerk. Can you kill the story?”
“You know how hard it is to find anything to write about around here?”
“Have you seen that girl on the football team?”
“Leonard nixed it.”
“Please,” Gary asked. “She wants me tarred and feathered.”
“You’re the one with the magical camera; make her fall in love with you.”
“That’s a scary thought.”
“Clearly you haven’t seen her.”
Gary called Veronica. “I’ll do the interview.”
“Coffee shop on Wembly.”
* * *
When Veronica walked in, Gary’s heart gulped in recognition. Those shimmering eyes, that flaming hair.
“Surprise,” she said.
“I knew you sounded familiar.”
“Yep,” she opened her notebook to a clean page.
“You sold me that camera as a set-up?”
“I said it was cool,” she said, not afraid to hold serious eye contact. “You veered into fantasy land all by yourself.”
“Before you judge,” he sat opposite her, “hear me out.”
“Dad gave me that camera when I was twelve. So go ahead and tell me how magic it is.”
“Aren’t journalists supposed to be objective?”
“But not stupid.”
“You’re not even going to hear my side?”
She paused as if considering the idea. “Fine. Take a picture of those two there,” she pointed at the line of customers. “Let’s see if they fall in love.”
“That’s not how it works.”
“You interested in any facts for your story?”
“Blow me away.”
“Consider Jimmy Rooney and Margaret Antonelli. You might not know this, being new, but anyone’ll tell you that Margaret and Jimmy used to live on opposite ends of the popularity spectrum. One shot from the magical camera, though, and they’re joined at the hip.”
“I hope you have more than that.” Veronica checked her watch. The sun glowed auburn through her hair.
“My buddy Pavel,” Gary said, “Never had a date. Now he’s going out with Sophie Callas. And my camera was the catalyst.”
“Minnie Nordstrom and Jed Shackley: not an item. I take their picture: they’re steady dating. Jerome Jefferson and Penelope Weathervane, a happy couple thanks to the magical camera.”
“What about all the other pictures?” She leaned back in her seat, crossed her arms. “The ones that didn’t spark true romance.”
“What about them?”
“If we’re being objective, shouldn’t we examine all the evidence?”
“It’s not a hundred percent … ”
“Which means your story isn’t true.” She sighed, as if victory bored her.
“Or there’s more to it,” Gary said. “Something a real journalist could discover.”
“This is progress,” she closed her notebook. “But I have to get to work.”
“We aren’t done, are we?”
“Come over tomorrow. 4213 Riverside. Bring your pictures.”
* * *
Veronica lived in one of those mind-boggling houses overlooking the river. Gary’s ancient Honda was like a stain in their driveway, but he felt a whole different form of awkward when Veronica answered the door in a tank top and the shortest of shorts.
“Let’s get to work,” she gestured him inside and walked away.
He stood there with his shoebox full of pictures and his fat, useless tongue.
Gary completely missed the view as he followed the imprints of her bare feet on the carpet.
Veronica lead him to a porch, the river spread out in the distance. She gestured to a table with her laptop and a plate of doughnuts. “Those the pictures?” She eyed the shoe box.
“Yeah,” Gary said, relieved to have his voice back. “Where do you want to start?”
“I interviewed a few of the couples you mentioned, and let me tell you,” her chipped, pink nails clattered over her keyboard, “your camera must be magic to make Minnie Nordstrom get with Jed Shackley.”
“So … ” Gary started, “you believe me?”
“She’s in AP calc., but Jed … ” She made an incredulous face. “That dope thinks the article’s about him.” Gary enjoyed hearing her belittle a popular baseball player. “On the other hand, he’s … whoa.” She fanned her face with her hand, and Gary’s heart shrank closed. “Jerome Jefferson and Penelope whats-her-name checked out, too. I didn’t bother with Pavel Cescu or Jimmy Rooney. They’re friends of yours.” She held out her hands for the shoe box.
Gary pushed it toward her. “So they don’t matter?”
“You said to be objective,” she rewarded him with a smile as she said this. “Is this all of the evidence?” she asked, dumping out the pictures.
“I gave most of them away.” He set his phone on the table. “But I made copies of all of them.”
She divided the stack in two and handed half to him. “Pull all the ones of couples.”
“Remember this?” Gary showed her his first picture: Veronica in the vintage shop, her green eyes flashing, her red hair reflected in the mirror behind her.
She set the picture aside and showed him another. “Who are these lovely people?”
“Heather Blake and Kyle Woodley.”
“Do you have their numbers?”
Heather’s line went to voicemail. Veronica left a message: “This is Veronica Kemp from the Cabot Clarion. I’m doing a story about a potential scam going around school, and I think you may have been targeted.”
“Scam?” Gary said.
“It’s called investigative journalism,” she said, dialing another number.
“Why am I helping you?”
“Kyle Woodley?” she said when Kyle picked up. She started her spiel, and when she got to “potential scam” she winked at Gary. Sweat rolled down his ribcage while Veronica guided Kyle to the conclusion that it was ludicrous to think that him dating Heather had anything to do with the camera.
“So much for objective,” Gary said after she ended the call.
“Just leave the pictures. I’ll be in touch.”
“I want those back when this is over,” Gary said.
“Of course you do,” she said, phone to her ear.
* * *
For the rest of the day, Gary couldn’t help but imagine all the better ways that conversation could’ve gone. He could’ve stood up for himself, for starters. And what was her problem, anyway? If people wanted to believe his camera had powers, where was the harm? They wanted pictures, and they got pictures. If their relationships lasted, great. But who was to blame if they broke up?
His rumination ended with her text: “Heads up” it said, with a link.
He trembled as he read her take-down. She wrote him as a charlatan, cheating starry-eyed teenagers with promises of romance.
“It’s slander,” Gary’s voice cracked with rage as he pleaded with Brett. “You have to kill it.”
“It’s an op-ed,” Brett said. “And you mean libel.”
“It’s a hit job. And after I gave her my pictures, told her who to call.”
“Sounds like you sealed your own fate.”
* * *
When the Clarion came out, Gary opened it with the hope that Brett had at least toned it down. But in black and white, Veronica’s barbs were even sharper.
A text from Veronica: No hard feelings?
He deleted her message and fantasized his revenge.
She called again. He denied it. But she lingered in his head. Every cubic millimeter of gray matter was steeped in Veronica. He would sue, get her kicked off the paper, expelled. She’d beg him for forgiveness. She’d belong to him.
Gary’s plan began with Brett.
“I’m not printing a retraction,” Brett said, “and I’m not kicking her off the staff.”
“I’ll go to Principal Leonard.”
“Leonard approved the piece.”
“She’s a menace to society.”
“She says you won’t take her calls.”
“She twists everything I say.”
“Just let her apologize so she’ll shut up about you.”
“She’s … ” Gary stopped himself. “Wait, what?”
* * *
At lunch with Pavel and Sophie, Gary wondered aloud if he was being a bad sport.
“Take a picture with her,” Sophie said. “If she likes you after that, you win.”
“If she agrees to the picture,” said Pavel, “then she probably likes him already.”
“Oh stop,” Sophie said. “You’re ruining the magic.”
* * *
Gary didn’t know if he was angry because Veronica had publicly humiliated him or because she didn’t believe him. He wasn’t even sure if the feeling he was suffering was anger. When she’d walked into the coffee shop, it wasn’t anger tingling in his palms. Sitting on her balcony, it wasn’t anger churning his stomach. When he found his box of photos on his front porch, tied with a red satin bow, his heart quickened but not from rage. He hadn’t spoken to her in weeks, but she was the focus of all his thoughts. He had to do something, so he texted her: Lunch?
* * *
Gary chose the emptiest table in the cafeteria. At the other end of the table, a scrawny girl dressed in gray stared placidly into the future.
Veronica slid into the seat next to him. “Sorry about the story,” she said.
“Don’t be,” Gary said. His heart raced. “You’re probably right.”
At the other end of the table, the gray girl looked at Veronica, snapped off a bite of carrot, and looked away.
“My objectivity was compromised,” Veronica said.
Gary expected a gloating feeling, but instead felt only relief.
“I have a confession,” she said. “There’s more to the story.”
“Should I be worried?”
She lay a photo on the table before him. His first Polaroid: Veronica in the vintage shop, her mesmerizing smile. Beside her, reflected in the sunburst flash off the mirror, was Gary.
“Do you believe in magic?”