I. Age 9
I started collecting images at nine years old. Biking to new places, I aimed to fill my visual field to the brim. I took in corners with flower boxes, tidy houses, shops with funny signs. Snap. Mental images, registered. Worms, struggling up from the ground after a rainstorm. The edge of the sidewalk where I skimmed my knee. I put my face right up to it; snap. How very strange, I thought. The edge looked so different, so threatening, from far away. Up close, concrete specks shimmered.
At the big tree, I joined my friends to make magic in exposed roots. I’d shut my eyes to lock in the freshly-gathered images, then toss my bike to the side of the tree and crouch. A little bit of mud, a popped gingko berry, a sacrificed worm. Spit three times. Stir it with a stick. Now you’re ready to cast a spell for the afterlife.
A central concern of the afterlife: boredom. We all agreed, in our conversations at the big tree, that it seemed like the kind of place with a lot of rules; not a lot of fun. You’d have to be good all the time, or else go to the bad place. God was a souped-up teacher, one who was all-knowing, filled with orders for how to behave, and always right about everything. In my daydreams about him, I was terrified.
No, you can’t go to the bathroom now. You have to wait for the pass. Sit down in your desk and work on your cursive. Quietly. There’s a good girl now.
I imagined the afterlife as an eternity of waiting for the bathroom pass.
Back in real life, minutes passed ever so slowly.
Three minutes until I was late for school. Eight minutes to recess. Four minutes to the bell, when I could sprint back for a snack at home and escape the gaze of classmates and teachers. Ten minutes past when my parents usually arrived home, exhausted and impatient from the delayed train, and “how are you doing, how was school, what happened with the test?” It was fine. Everything was fine, bland, easily digestible. I finished my chicken, two minutes to spare before the Simpsons started. Race to do the dishes. And please, please, five more minutes before I have to turn off the light, Mom. I want to read more. No, I’m not ruining my eyes.
My eyes, when open, feasted on words and light. Closed, my collection was ready. Scroll through. Pick a beach, a seashell of pink translucence. Pick a pine comb, a domed cloud or a king crab. The kind face of a driver in the next van over, waving at me like she knew me, though she didn’t. They were all there, even the images I couldn’t quite summon from the edge of memory.
I worried that I was forgetting too quickly. From the vantage point of nine, kindergarten had already faded.
II. Age 11
Not long after we stopped going to the big tree, my youngest brother’s best friend died. That summer, he and my brother were five years old. They swam at the pool together, day after long, humid day, matching in little-boy Speedos. Mikey and his family lived down the street from us, one block from the pool.
There were certain rituals we observed in order to be safe at the pool. Always wear sunscreen. Don’t go near the water for thirty minutes after you’d eaten. Watch for the lifeguard’s whistle and listen to what they say. No running or horsing around. Stay away from the deep end, until you had received the certificate with the gold smiley face, saying you passed all the swim tests.
We took them seriously. If we broke any rules, we’d be sent packing to our boring houses.
There were certain rituals.
When the adult swim ended at 2pm, all the kids would line up at the edge of the water. At the stroke of the hour, the lifeguard got on the speaker to announce “bomb’s away!” and everyone jumped in. My brother, Mikey, and all the other kids would cannonball into the water and continue their splashing and Marco Polo games until late in the afternoon sun.
Except, not that afternoon. When someone said “Where’s Mikey?” a few minutes after the call for bomb’s away, everyone thought he was playing hide-and-go-seek, that he had found a really good spot. Through the pool, the mantra “Where’s Mikey?” spread until panic churned the water.
It didn’t take long to discover Mikey’s hiding spot, at the bottom of the deep end. Within the span of heartbeats, the lifeguard dived down, pulled him up to the safety of oxygen and light. A minute after that, CPR was being administered. The town’s firehouse was six blocks away, and the pool was evacuated. Firefighters were swarming the premises within another ten minutes.
But, firefighters couldn’t battle the water that entered Mikey’s lungs, and they couldn’t battle the lack of oxygen to his brain. His last image he ever saw: Feet kicking above his head, under the water. The kicking feet belonged to the kids who cannonballed and leaped into the water, and accidentally knocked him unconscious.
It was only three minutes between the bomb’s away announcement and the first “Where’s Mikey?” Only another two minutes, maximum, until the lifeguard’s rescue dive.
There wasn’t time.
I stole a look at the deep end, glancing back over my shoulder as I was being evacuated with the others. The deep end shone blue and inviting in the sun, the bottom reflected on the water’s surface like a mirror. One last snap of that moment, taken with my eyes.
I had nightmares after that. But not nightmares about drowning. My nightmare was about being trapped in the afterlife, the only image available that of feet kicking above my head. Over and over again, on repeat, feet kicking, bubbles streaming upwards, and the sun so, so far away. I was worried that Mikey hadn’t saved up enough images. He was only five years old. Maybe he didn’t know yet that images were something to amass and treasure, in order to have companionship in the long spans of eternity that lay ahead.
In the days after Mikey’s death, I biked all around our neighborhood to take photos of my favorite spots. The scenic corners, the flower-boxes, the robins and the worms, all captured on a plastic disposable camera. The thirty-photo limit was soon reached. Quick, I told my mom, let’s get this developed. It’s a project and I need the pictures, I said.
We brought the camera to Walgreens and picked up the pictures the next day.
That day was Mikey’s funeral. I brought the photos in an envelope, writing “For Mikey” on it. I gave the envelope to Mikey’s mom, and told her that it was a gift for him, that he needed this where he was going.
III. Age 11 - Epilogue
There were a few certainties I had, which came to me in dreams. The afterlife would begin after a ceremony at the big tree. We’d all be standing around it, holding hands and looking up towards the sky.
My images would be waiting, fully stocked. Even the ones I’d forgotten, I hoped, were embedded inside the amber of my visual cortex. If God turned out to be a mean old man, at least he’d let me keep my images, I hoped. How could God be anything but a mean old man, since he took away someone as young as Mikey?
I couldn’t be certain about that, or about whether Mikey was really looking down on us all, like my mom said. But as for my images, I was well prepared. The afterlife could come at any time. I would be ready.
About the artist...
Emily Madapusi Pera is a writer based in Providence, RI. She is thrilled to have graced the pages of past issues of Scout & Birdie, and her writing can also be found in Tuck Magazine, Litro, Storgy Magazine, the A3 Review, and in an upcoming collection from the Poetry Box. This story is dedicated to Mikey and his family.