6:54 – short story

“It’ll just have to do,” Milo sighed, pressing the buttons on his new, but not very improved camera.
“Better than nothing,” said Monica, grabbing the camera out of his hands and looking at the viewfinder, “It’s not bad at all, really.”

“Nothing like my DSLR,” he said, “wherever the hell it is.” This was the second day of Milo and Monica’s one year anniversary trip to the Grand Canyon, and it had been perfect, except for the airline losing one of Milo’s bags, containing his top-of-the-line, recently purchased Canon camera, complete with all the lenses and gear he’d need to perfectly document their trip in the only way a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer like himself could.

In all honesty, Milo could’ve done without getting another one. His phone would’ve sufficed, but Monica could tell he was bummed about it, so she surprised him that morning with a cheap digital camera from the import shop near their hotel. One of the first things Milo saw when she thrust it into his hands was the poorly translated text all over the packaging. “SUPER PHOTO!” it promised, “HIGEST DEFANITION, ALL-TIME MEGA-PIXELS!”

He begrudgingly took it with them on their day’s nature hike. He would’ve left it in his pocket the whole day, if it weren’t for Monica constantly telling him to “take more pictures! You’re way better at it than me!”

“How can you enjoy this scenery in this crappy resolution?” Milo grumbled. “It looks like I’m taking a different picture than what’s actually out there.”

“Cheer up, hon,” Monica hugged him and kissed his cheek, looking closer at the viewfinder. Even she began to notice a significant delay in what the viewfinder displayed, as some leaves blew across their path. “It’s not supposed to do that, is it?” she said.

“Who knows, probably a bug” Milo chuckled, “or a feature!” The two continued down the path, coming ever closer to the mighty gorge. Off in the distance, they saw a mountain lion on the prowl.

“Get that!” said Monica.

“Not so loud!” said Milo. “You’ll scare it!” He got his camera to the ready position. Not that it matters, he thought looking at the cheap, plastic screen. The beast was tracking some nearby prey, growling, and preparing to lunge towards it. He saw the mountain lion’s tail move, again noting the delay onscreen as his eyes moved to and from it, when it hit him: The tail onscreen wasn’t delayed, in fact, the real-world tail seemed to be following it.
This oddity intrigued Milo to the point where he never hit the shutter button. He just stared, dumbfounded. Finally, the mountain lion on his screen judged lunged and grabbed the prey between its claws. He put the camera down to witness the mountain lion doing the same thing a moment or two later, as if he was watching an instant replay, in reverse.

“What’s going on? Why didn’t you snap that?!” said Monica.

“This viewfinder,” said Milo, “it’s not delayed… it’s ahead!”

“What?” said Monica as Milo looked fervently for another example. He ran ahead, and Monica chased after him. He came near an overlook into the canyon itself, but that gave him little pause as he ran around looking for something else that moved. Monica tried her best to keep up.

He came upon a bald eagle roosting nearby. “Here!” he yelled. Monica caught up, still not sure what he was so excited about. “Look,” he said, putting the camera into Monica’s hands. “Keep an eye on the eagle onscreen, and the one in the nest.”

“I don’t get it,” said Monica, “they’re the same…” then she saw it, too. The eagle was scanning the perimeter, and the one in the viewfinder was just a little bit ahead of the one in the real world. “Oh… my god,” she said. Just then, she saw the onscreen eagle leave the nest, followed shortly after by the real one. Monica dropped her jaw, and the camera as she watched and the eagle take off on a majestic flight over the canyon.

“Noooo!” said Milo, crouching to the ground to see if this suddenly extraordinary camera was ok.

“Oh my god!” Monica said, joining him on the ground. “I’m so sorry! Now no one will believe us when we tell them!” The battery compartment popped open, but otherwise the camera seemed to survive the fall. Milo collected the batteries and put them back inside, after blowing the dust from the cheaply-made housing.
He held the power button down, and to their relief, it booted back up. “Phew!” said Milo, “we’re back in business,” as he skipped through the initial time and setup screens. When the viewfinder window came up again, however, it was totally black. “Or not,” said Milo, jerking the camera around, trying to see if the lens wasn’t totally trashed. He handed the camera to Monica. “Something inside of it must be busted.”

Monica tried a few of the buttons, and moved it around the sky, “Wait a minute,” she said when she noticed the moon showing up in the viewfinder, around where the sun was now. They both looked at the image onscreen. Milo adjusted what he assumed was this camera’s equivalent of an “iris,” and sure enough, a midnight sky came into view. He pointed the camera at the ground, and saw snow at his feet, except his feet weren’t there. He pointed it at Monica, and she wasn’t there. He clicked the shutter just to be sure. The screen went black, and flashed back up with the photo; a perfectly captured, snowy Grand Canyon night.

“Honey,” he said, his voice shaking, “let’s take a… selfie.”

Monica was all the more confused. There were many shots Milo would take, but selfies were rarely one of them. The two turned their backs to the canyon as Milo set the camera at arms length. At this point he didn’t even care if it was aimed properly. He clicked the shutter, and showed her the result: another perfect view of the Grand Canyon at night, and they were nowhere to be found.

“What… the hell?” said Monica. “What’s going on with this thing?” Milo thumbed through the menus. He just had to figure this out. At the bottom of the last menu, he saw the time and date setting. He remembered setting this when they first opened the camera back at the hotel, but now it read, 1/1/2000 at 12:03 a.m.

“Maybe…” said Milo, “the time setting… is literally the time setting!”

“That’s silly,” said Monica, “Wait, what time is it now?” She took out her smartphone, automatically synced to the present time. Milo punched in the time from her phone, and waited for the minute to roll over before confirming the setting so it could be as closely synced as possible. After he did this, he went back to the viewfinder to find that everything was back to normal. Panning around the scenery, he saw the same Grand Canyon summer day that was spread around them.

“Amazing,” said Milo, a grin slowly forming on his face. “Imagine what we can do with this thing!” Monica began to smile, too, as their grinning faces met, they took another selfie with the canyon behind them. And it processed the perfect anniversary photo. They grabbed each other and kissed excitedly.

“Happy anniversary, baby,” Monica smarked, proud of herself for getting the perfect gift. “You owe me, big time!”

“Hang on,” said Milo, “When is the sunset today?”

Monica checked her phone, “about an hour from now.” Milo began to set himself up for the perfect shot, setting the iris, shutter speed. He took his time, knowing that he had all that he needed now. He wanted to get golden placement of the sunlight with the rest of the canyon.

“Monica!” he said, “Get over here!” Milo positioned her in the shot. “1, 2, 3!” He clicked the shutter, the screen went dark, but when it came back up, the captured photo depicted a bloody corpse, mangled and on its way off the cliffside.

Milo almost dropped the camera again. Monica saw the horrible look on his face and came over to look at the camera, and her jaw dropped once again. “Is that… me?” she said.

“It’s… It’s hard to tell,” said Milo, still mentally processing the image. Despite this camera’s uncanny temporal abilities, the screen’s resolution still wasn’t that good, and the horrible gore on the body made it unidentifiable.

“How far ahead was that?” Monica asked.

Milo checked back in the camera’s menu, then felt absolute terror rush through him. “6:54… only 30 minutes from now.”

They looked at each other, their skin somehow growing pale on the hot summer’s day. “Well we can’t stay here!” Monica finally said, and the two ran away from the cliff, taking refuge behind a small rock formation.

They both breathed heavily long after they had hidden as best they could. From what, they didn’t know. “What if,” said Monica between gasps of air, “it is one of us?!”

“As long as we wait here,” said Milo, “it won’t be… I think… If that’s how this works, anyway.”

They both huddled close together as they waited for the time to pass. They heard nothing but the occasional wind whistling through the canyon, and the squawk of a bald eagle. When their breathing finally subsided, they looked at their phones. It was only 6:30. Despite the sun setting, it felt like it was only getting hotter.

When Milo had calmed down, he looked at the photo again. It still shocked him, but he pushed himself to zoom in and try to examine every part of it. Monica turned away, not wanting to see the horrible image again. “Honey,” she pleaded, “don’t trouble yourself over it. It will pass… It will pass!”

“I have to know,” said Milo. “What if it is one of us? …Or both of us?”

“You said it yourself,” said Monica, “as long as we stay here…”

“But what if our attacker comes here first?” said Milo, growing hysterical.

“We brought a means to defend ourselves,” said Monica, motioning to the small machete in her backpack, in case a wild animal were to strike.

“What if he comes here, chops one of us up with that knife, and throws us over the cliff? No one’s out here… it would be the perfect crime!”

“Stop it!” Monica slapped him, “You’re not making any sense!”

“This damn camera,” said Milo, “doesn’t make any sense… And yet, it could be making perfect sense.” He got up, and dashed out of their hiding place.

“Come back here!” Monica protested, but Milo was already several yards away. Monica left the heavy backpack behind and chased after him. Milo set the camera’s clock to 6:54, and pointed it back at the cliff ridge where they were standing just minutes before. He watched the viewfinder, but saw nothing unusual taking place.

“MILO!” Monica yelled, her voice growing hoarse. “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!”

“I have to know, Monica!” Milo repeated. “I have to know. I have to know.”

“We need to get away from here!” said Monica. “As far away from here as possible!” She looked at her phone. “Jesus, Milo, we only have 4 minutes!” She grabbed his arm, and tried to pull him back.

“NO!” he yanked his arm out of her grasp, and immediately looked back at the viewfinder. He saw a human’s shadow creep into view.

“Milo,” she said, “Stop looking at that damn thing!” Monica punched it out of his hands, and it flew off the side of the cliff. Milo hands opened up and his arms dropped as he saw if fly over the side. He froze, in total disbelief of the priceless item that had slipped through his fingers.

“You… BITCH!” Using one hand, Milo grabbed Monica by the throat, and crooked his arm around her torso, crushing her body against his. She struggled to reach for the machete in the backpack, but it wasn’t there. She kicked him furiously, trying to break free, but it was no use, as the monster slowly squeezed the life out of her. She could swear she heard him roar as he held her tight.

“Ugh… Milo,” she breathed, as her world began to fade out. She heard another roar, and saw the mountain lion charge into Milo just before she fell free onto the ground, blacking out.

When she regained her bearings, Monica saw the mountain lion standing before her. And at her feet was the horribly mangled body of her husband. He was gasping for air, but could only cough up blood. Monica stood up, walked over to Milo. His eyes shot into hers, silently begging for whatever mercy she might have left. Monica picked him up, and threw him over the side of the cliff.

She sat back down, and stared into the eyes of the mountain lion. After making a soft, low growl, the lioness left her alone. Monica was covered in Milo’s blood, and it wasn’t long before an emergency chopper arrived on the scene, and took Monica into custody while a rescue team began to search for Milo’s remains.

Despite Milo’s earlier claims, a lone hiker had witnessed the whole thing, and while the camera was destroyed in the fall, investigators were able to recover the camera’s memory card, and when the image was enhanced on a proper monitor, they were able to positively identify Monica as the one throwing Milo over the edge.

But Monica could barely speak in her defense. The medical examiner deduced that the prolonged loss of oxygen caused permanent brain damage, and was declared unfit to stand trial. She spent the rest of her life in a mental hospital, spending her days in bed, never saying a word… until 6:54 each evening. Like clockwork, she would stand up and say, “The camera! What the hell are you doing, Milo? The camera! What the hell are you doing?”

“It’s 6:54… what the hell are you doing…?”

Photo credit: Utah.com

Author’s Notes: Another prompt from r/writingprompts. <- My comment there is a rather early version of this piece, which includes a full on character name change! 

This is also my first time writing something chiefly in the suspense genre, so any critique/feedback you have would be apprectiated!

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