A murder of crows cackled above.
I plunked down cross-legged on the ground and propped my head up with both hands, surveying the shifting landscape. Mists crawled past, parting to reveal a desert one moment and a lush forest the next. Time meant nothing, so something new, something ancient, or something not yet happened could appear and disappear with as much permanency as marshmallows in hot chocolate (the type you find in instant cocoa that turn into nondescript, very disappointing foam). Nothing about this place stayed the same, which made it like any other place in the world if you think about it, except the Nexus took it to an extreme.
The Nexus was nowhere and everywhere, the hub of the multiverse (yes, there’s more than one universe and you might inhabit a few yourself without knowing it), and this seemed as fine a location as any to give up.
“I can’t do this,” I muttered to myself, and opened my palms to cradle my face. “This is total and complete, utter bullshit.”
“Hey,” said a man’s low, friendly voice. “Why so glum, chum?”
I asked the deejay in my head to stop the music at my personal pity party and glanced up at the gatecrasher.
My breath caught but I regained composure without appearing too much the idiot. He was broad-shouldered with a graying beard that might have been black at one point. Low on his brow, he wore a cardinal-red baseball cap with the insignia of two wings embroidered on the front. Go, team.
The old school curve of his hat’s bill shaded lively, sensitive eyes delighted to see everything. “Hey,” he said again, gentler while he flashed a disarming smile.
“Hey.” I looked away from him and stared at the ground, unwilling to be disarmed. One moment black sand, another moment green grass. I grasped a fistful of leaves and threw them. They didn’t go far and fluttered down like failed paper airplanes. “I don’t want to be rude, but I’m having a private moment here.”
“Sorry”—boyish grin—“but we really should get going.”
“I’m good,” I said. The black sand came back and I sifted it through my fingers, the warmth a contrast to the coolness of the grass blades a second ago. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Ah.” He shuffled the dry dirt beneath his feet, raising wisps of dust and grinding the pebbles and grit softly under the soles of his running shoes. “You must be new here.”
“I am, but that has nothing to do with anything.” I folded my arms across my chest. Business is closed. “I can’t do this. It isn’t right. I get escorting old ladies from their beds to their final reward. I can even stomach scooping up babies who never wake again and delivering them to the sweet hereafter.” I closed my eyes and shook my head, trying not to know what I knew, which was about as successful as trying to unlearn how to ride a bicycle. “But I didn’t sign up for this. They should be brought back. Their end was wrong and unnatural.” I glared at him as he toed the rich topsoil that now appeared under us. “Tell Death to bring them back. All of them.”
He sighed and gazed into the distance. “Death didn’t do this to them, so They can’t bring them back.” He hunched over and whispered in my ear. “Besides, even if I could get an audience, no one tells Death to do anything. They’re Their own boss, as far as I know.” He unfolded to his full height and rocked on his heels. “Come on,” he said, offering me a large hand, “we’d better do what we were created to do.”
I glanced at him. I wanted to grab his hand, to feel his confidence and strength flow into me. It was strange being on the receiving end of our job. Not that I hadn’t experienced it myself before—many times, actually, because I checked my own records—but it was the nature of this process to forget that it happened. We move through existence thinking it’s A to B, and don’t realize that there’s an infinity between every two points. That’s a lot of space to lose yourself.
We were the tour guides of the afterworld. Shuttle drivers for souls that were ready to leave the small here for the great beyond. Accepting his offer to follow him should have been as easy as a kid zeroing in on their favorite candy. I ached to let him lift me up and take me where I needed to go.
But I didn’t want to reach Point B and I didn’t have to while in the Nexus because it contained all destinations and none. I could resist being a part of this heavenly recycling program.
I left him hanging so he stuck his hand in a pocket. “I’ve told you, I can’t,” I said. “And if it’s not Death who’s responsible, then who is?”
“Humans.” He sighed and shoved his other hand into his other pocket, hiking his shoulders to his ears in a big shrug. “As usual.”
My chest knotted. “Can these humans bring them back?”
“No. That’s not within their powers. Not in this case.” He dropped to his haunches and perched on the balls of his feet. His running shoes seemed molded to each long foot and the white wing designs on either side—an echo of what was on his cap—suggested speed the way racing stripes did on a muscle car. “No one can bring them back,” he said, doodling with a finger in the loamy soil between us. “We can bring them forward, though. That’s our job.”
It was a statement, yet his eyes asked me a question I refused to answer. We were in a field of golden wheat and I plucked a few stalks, breaking them into smaller pieces before tossing them in front of me. I inspected, and no pattern emerged to divine the future, no magic arrow formed to aim me in the right direction.
“This is a craptastic job. These people don’t deserve to be treated this way! Herded by us to somewhere they never wanted to go.” Anger shot through me and unpretzeled my legs. I stood up and didn’t know where I could stomp, even though I literally could stomp anywhere. The problem with eternity is what to do with it.
He craned his neck to look past the bill of his cap at me. “That’s not for us to question. People determine for themselves where they want to go. We only lead them there.”
“’Conductors of the Underworld Railroad,’ I know. I went through orientation, thank you very much.” The crows cawed overhead with mocking laughter and I had the urge to chuck a stone at them to test that famous adage about two birds. Easy, boy. I regretted my tone and reminded myself not to kill the messenger. “What I’m saying is, they’re not supposed to be here in the first place, so taking them somewhere else, even if it’s where they want to go, sounds ass backward to me. They shouldn’t be going anywhere.”
“Everything is going somewhere all the time.” He removed his cap, sniffed it, and examined the lining while raking a hand through his short, salt-and-pepper hair. “Whether they should be in the Nexus or not”—he replaced his cap, adjusting it until it sat perfectly on his head—“where do you think they should go if they were to go anywhere?”
“Are we seriously going to play, ‘what if?’”
“Aren’t you already?”
I stalked away and threw my hands up, letting them slap my thighs on their trajectory down. “Fine. I think they should go home. Back to their lives. Back to dancing. Back to laughing and hugging and making love to each other. Even back to fighting and crying. It would be better than this.” I gestured at the scenery, now an icy mountaintop, everything blanketed in white silence. Sort of tranquil and beautiful, actually—not that I was going to admit that.
The snow crunched and squeaked behind me and then he laid a hand on my shoulder. Heat seeped into my being like the sun on bare skin.
“I want you to know,” he said, “I agree with you, not that I have an opinion.” He pivoted me to face him and then rested both his huge hands on my shoulders and massaged them. I glued my gaze to the redwood duff covering the earth beneath us. “We’re not in this for our opinions,” he said.
“I know, I know. We’re here to do a job.” I chortled at myself and let his strong fingers relax the tension in my muscles. “This is stupid. Can I quit?”
“Nope.” He popped the word, making it two syllables.
I huffed and held his hands still. “Why not?”
“Then who would do your job?”
“Someone else.” I removed his hands from my shoulders and clasped them together in front of my chest. “Wait, why is it my job? Who gave me this job?” The Nexus muddled beginnings and endings, memories and realities.
“Nobody gave it to you. It’s yours. Ours.”
Like family roles we never asked for. “Shouldn’t this be one of Death’s duties? I mean, seriously. It’s redundant having us as intermediaries.”
“Death is in a different department altogether.”
“You see? You see? I don’t want to be a part of this celestial bureaucracy.” I jabbed a finger at his chest. “I want another job. Any job.”
“You’re whining,” he sang.
“Is that an opinion?”
“I believe it’s a fact.” His smile was more amused than smug.
I scoffed and walked away from him to soak in the sublime sight of the enormous glacier nestled in the lonely valley below.
Out of the mist, a pack of small, blue dogs, their large triangle ears pricked and curious, loped toward me in a miniature cobalt stampede. They flowed around me as if I were a stubborn, jutting rock in a river, and just as inconsequential. One of them stopped and licked my palm, panting cheerfully. I scratched under her chin and she squinted at me with her piercing, yellow eyes before trotting off. I strolled after them into a fragrant meadow spotted with brilliant wildflowers.
“Hey,” he called out, “I know you don’t want to do this, but it’s what you have to do. It’s our duty to carry them forward, to their next life.”
I did a slow-mo pirouette and faced him. “They get another life?” I hollered.
“Yes.” Against the protean landscape, his solid form remained unchanging, an anchor in a ceaseless sea.
“What about us?” I asked.
“This is it. We’re outside of the cycle. Otherwise, we’d be swept up in everything that occupies them.”
I spoke quietly on the shore, the roar of the waves soothing. I let the wind bring my voice to him. “Carry them forward, huh?”
“Yep.” He puffed the last consonant, giving the word two syllables.
I ambled over, kicking at bits of driftwood and seaweed, weaving between wet and dry sand, firm and soft textures alternating beneath me.
When I reached him, we stood side by side and scanned the horizon. The dividing line at the edge of our vision gave the illusion that the world was flat and limited; that it ended. He interlaced his fingers with mine and squeezed.
He exuded reassurance and safety the way a kind stranger did when they helped you find your parent. “Bring them into dreams. Welcome them into hearts. Lead them into their afterlife. Some will be reborn as spirits of inspiration. And some—”
“Some will be like us?”
“If they’re ready.” He smiled and winked. “Shall we?”
I followed his lead. “You’re awfully cheery, you know that?”
“Sorry”—he grinned—“not sorry.”
I inhaled deeply but couldn’t inflate my drooping shoulders. “Seriously, though. What if I refuse to do my job?”
He shrugged. “Then they’re required to wait for the next available ride. They could wait a long time.” A host of sparrows swirled in dynamic formation and zipped into the orange cream popsicle sunset. He waved at them and said, “Only so many of us around.”
I raised an eyebrow like a prone question mark trying to get up. “Are you guilt-tripping me?”
“No. Maybe a little.” He held up a hand, his forefinger and thumb measuring a tiny gap. “Hey, we only have one job to do.”
I chewed my cheek and mulled that over. “Carry them forward.”
“Carry each other forward.”
“Yep,” I said, sounding like him and not minding.
He tugged at my hand. “Come on. They’re waiting for us.”
Featured image by Ric Rodrigues