No, no, no. The lighting’s all wrong.
I twist off the lens of my camera and replace it with a bigger one. It’s a bright and beautiful day, the air warm with possibilities and the water glistening like it’s covered with crushed crystals. Yet somehow, I can’t capture the lake through my lens. Every time the camera is in front of my eye, the view I see becomes bleak and somehow grey. But pull the camera away? Bright, beautiful brilliance.
I hold the camera in my lap, flipping through the previous shots I’ve attempted, but the screen stays black. I tilt my head in confusion and turn it off and on. Once again, blackness stares back at me. Shaking my camera slightly, I hear a crack behind me and turn on the rock where I’ve planted myself.
“Now, now Casey; you know that’s not gonna make a difference. That’s just not how things work here.”
I feel my brow furrow and my eyes shrink to slits. There’s a rush of wind and from some priority experience retained in my memory, I know the lake is gone and my surroundings have changed to something abysmal.
Before my eyes now stands a gremlin, a needler, a troublemaker. An overall unhinged spirit. Monico. The name resonates through my mind like an echo, though I don’t recall how I know it.
I groan and turn back to face what was only seconds ago a lake. Instead, I’m now overlooking a desert. What’s even stranger? The fuzzy memory that this has happened before, that I’m used to this.
“Oh, so you’re giving me the cold shoulder? You know that usually happens after I give you the speech, but it’s nice to see some variety for a change.”
I look at the boy over my shoulder. He can’t be more than twenty, there’s no way. And there’s something off about him, whether it’s the way he’s standing or the smirked that’s curling the edge of his mouth I can’t tell. From where he stands only ten feet a way I can tell his eyes are brown, but not that warm chocolate brown you read about in young adult fiction where the boy is just simply misunderstood and wanting to be loved. No, this brown is also black; oblivion: a heartless, mischievous, demonic oblivion. Like he’s enjoying my confusion, like he’s watching the memory unfurl inside my very mind.
“What speech? What are you talking about? Who are you even? Because you’re speaking to me like we’ve met before and I can’t seem to recall—“
“Then allow me to re-introduce myself. I, dear Casey, am Monico de Mort, your guide to the Underworld/Limbo. Perhaps even purgatory if you are that kind of believer.”
“My guide to the—wait, Underworld? Are you saying that I’m—I—“
Monico nods. “Dead, ka-put, finished, six feet under. And I—“
I push myself off from the rock and storm over to stand in front of the giant who has just announced me dead. Giant in irritating personality, physically he’s a foot and half taller than my 5’3” frame. “You’re telling me I’m dead; that I’ve been dead because you apparently have given me this speech before. But how and when and why? Because I can’t be dead; because last I knew I was sitting on that rock over there trying to get the perfect–“
“Shot. And then you fell. Because you were standing, not sitting. And because you weren’t trying to capture a lake, but a valley. The valley, if you will.”
“Oh no, no. You can’t be serious.” There are a few things in life I hated to be considered. Maybe it was a photographer complex, mixed with the slight hipster attitude that comes along with viewing the world behind a lens. Maybe it was my inbred stubbornness, refusing to sit back while this stranger gave a general speech about what had happened to me. But maybe, maybe it was the fact that I couldn’t handle to be the norm while alive, so why did I have to be a cliché in death? “I fell into Death Valley?”
The boy nods and for a second I notice the smirk has slipped off his face. He’s just staring at me, with those dark, dark eyes and I can’t help but to wonder what he is thinking about me, this ferryman of Limbo. “Like a pebble kicked off a mountain. Total accident of course, but placing you here nonetheless.”
I feel as if my knees are about to buckle underneath me because what he’s saying can’t be real. I can’t be dead. I’m, I was too young to die. I had my whole life ahead of me, I had plans. Plans that included getting a scholarship to University of California Berkeley and eventually working my way up the photography food chain; all in pursuit of becoming a National Geographic photographer. I was going to capture the world. I wasn’t supposed to die in the process.
And who was he? What gave him the authority to tell me those plans were now cut short and I was destined to roam this wilderness for all of my eternity?
I mean really, couldn’t Limbo be a little more scenic. At least give me a cactus. A cactus and a camera. Speaking of…
“Why won’t my camera work here?” I ask Nico, looking up at him as he stares off into the distance, rocking on his heels.
He chuckles mirthlessly, more to himself than to me. “Mortals. Or rather once-weres.” He winks at me and I can’t help but scowl back. “What part of “You’re Dead”, don’t you seem to grasp, Casey? I mean, this must be the, what, 60th time, I’ve had to give you this spiel and you still don’t believe me?”
I sputter. “60th?!”
Nico just shrugs. “What can I say, you’re pretty dense.”
“I’m…what?!” But now Nico’s walking; toward where, who knows? All I can see for miles is dirt and dust, but for whatever reason my guide moves with somewhat relaxed purpose.
“Look, Case, we’ve been here before. You sit on that stupid boulder, trying to capture the River Styx, but it’s just a tease. You can never capture death first, it always has the advantage. And each time…” He turns to face me and the saddest expression is on his face and for the first time, I sense that Nico hates his job. I mean it has to be depressing, ushering people to their afterlife and all. But with the façade he was putting on earlier, I never would have pegged him for the sympathetic type. He runs his fingers through his hair and turns away. “Each time, you look more lost than the last. Denying your fate, vowing to return back to life. Saying this is all a dream. But you can’t, Casey.”
He staring at where the river once was, the River Styx that’s supposed to ferry people to the Underworld, the River that’s now dried up, possibly tired of waiting on me. Just like Nico. “I really wish you could, but you can’t.”
“Nico?” My voice sounds tentative, even to my own ears and I wring my hands together. I don’t know what to say. That I’m sorry I can’t move on? That I’m sorry he’s stuck here day after day (at least I think they’re days up or down or wherever here is) trying to get me to the next stage of my afterlife. But somehow those apologies don’t seem good enough.
“Will you try again tomorrow?” I call to him.
And bam, there’s that smirk I’ve grown to admire; the fact that amongst the tragedy of death, Nico’s twisted spirit isn’t entirely encompassed. “That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?”
I smile, locking my hands behind my back as Nico walks toward me. For some reason I feel as if we’ve come to some sort of secret agreement. Not friendship, per se, but an understanding of sorts. “It’s time to go now, Case.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, smiling up at him.
Nico shakes his head, coming close enough to push a piece of my hair back from my face. “There’s a time limit for these sorts of things. Ours is up for today.”
“But I was just beginning to get the hang of it here.”
There’s a pause and I ask the question that’s been sitting on the edge of my tongue since I saw him let his smirk slip. “Nico, how did you die?”
“That’s a story for another time, Case.”
“I’ve got time,” I laugh.
“All the time in the world, apparently,” Nico scoffs.
“Til tomorrow, Case.”
But it fades to black, and the desert’s gone. Nico’s gone. And with them, so is my memory.
I’m sitting on a rock. It’s a bright and beautiful day, the air warm with possibilities and the water glistening like it’s covered with crushed crystals. Bright, beautiful brilliance. I twist off the lens of my camera and replace it with a bigger one. I take a breath and peer through the viewfinder.
No, no, no. The lighting’s all wrong.