The Life of Death
She paced back and forth, her shoes echoing against the hardwood. Ava had been in constant motion since we made it to my apartment, her finger twirling a strand of silky brown hair as she pondered my explanation. With her other hand, she continuously adjusted her glasses, the glare from the setting sun reflecting off the lenses.
“So, you’re a death and there are more…more of your kind out there walking among us. You take the souls from us once we die and send them to this place called the Underworld, and it’s there that souls are judged. You look like an ordinary human, but underneath the skin you are not. You are a demon, filled with dark energy, is that it?” For the first time, Ava stopped her pacing. Her eyes spoke with a quiet intensity as if to say ‘you better not be screwing with me.’ Underneath her strong exterior however, I could sense the anxiety welling up within her. She was strong, but not fearless.
“That’s more or less the gist of it. After swallowing a soul it reaches the portal embedded in my gut, the swirling black mass here.” I pointed right above my belly button.
“You can see it can’t you?”
“Yes.” Ava’s reply was firm, not wavered by the gravity of the information I just told her.
“Are you not scared?”
“Not in the least.” She advanced steadily, her eyes never wavering from mine. They were filled with concentration and I felt that at any moment I would be sucked into the blue depths of their abyss.
“Answer me this. Why did a death try to kill me, and why did you step in to save me?” She squatted down to meet me at eye level, her elbows resting on her knees as she supported her head with her hands. I leaned back into my leather couch, the cushions squeaking under my shifting weight as her eyes never broke from mine.
This girl. What does she possess? What is it about her that makes me feel so...outmatched?
“I pulled you out of traffic because we aren’t allowed to directly interfere with a person’s life. Your time is predetermined, we aren’t supposed to ever affect that.”
“But you can kill us can’t you? If you couldn’t, then Chad I think his name was, wouldn’t have been able to push me into traffic to force me to my own death.” Ava stood to her full height, arching her back to stretch.
“Wait, how do you know his name?”
“It’s been a while, but I think I remember him going to Arcaya Academy last year. This is the first I’ve seen of him in a while. Last I heard his family took a trip out of the country.”
“He must be a new death.”
The atmosphere in the apartment changed. I didn’t know him, but Ava did, and that means the Chad she knew was gone. She was aware of this too. It was brief, but there was a hint of sadness on her face. Just as quick as it came, Ava concealed her emotion beneath her mask of fortitude.
“You still didn’t answer my other question. Why did one of you try to kill me?” Again, she burned with a resolve unlike any other. Her forehead creased in frustration. She may be strong and determined, but I knew under it all there was a nest of bundled nerves. She did well to hide them, but small ticks gave her away. From the pacing she resumed after standing, to the bead of sweat that slid down to her jaw. All of them were hints at the small tinge of fear that had to be picking away at her.
“I couldn’t tell you. I’ve been a death for years now and not once have I seen a person killed by the direct actions of one of us.” I knew this wasn’t the answer she’d want, but I had nothing else to offer. It was troubling. These actions could set the whole system off balance. The judges couldn’t judge a life when it was yet to reach fruition, but this wasn’t even the worst of it.
Ava can see my portal, and if she can do that, she can probably see other death’s portals as well. What am I going to do with her? What will she do when she sees another death?
“Well, let’s find out. Chad was in our school’s track uniform, so he’s resuming his position as a student at the academy. If we can find him, I can ask him myself. All I need is for you to be there for protection. Think you can do that?” Ava’s face beamed with ferocity. Her eyes flickered like a flame, a blue flame, one that burns hotter and stronger than the rest. A playful smirk danced across her lips as she leaned her face in closer to mine.
Is she really trying to bait me into helping her? Of course I can protect her from another death, I’m not some weakling!
“Fine. Tomorrow before first period we’ll patrol the school for him.”
“That’s no good. If he sees me with you he’ll bolt, I’m sure of it. We have to force his hand, give him something he can’t resist.”
“And what’s that gonna be?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I’ll act as the bait. You’ll stay out of sight until he tells me what I want to know and then jump in before it gets too dangerous.”
“He could just kill you immediately without even waiting for you to question him. This plan is insane, you’re insane!”
I shot to my feet, fist clenched in frustration. She was going to get herself killed and was dragging me along to witness it. We stood face to face, deadlocked in a battle of determination to impose our will on the other. Unfortunately, Ava had already won. She won the moment I pulled her into ‘dark passage.’ She was exposed to this world by me and now I was responsible for her life. Like a guard dog, I was drawn to her side, poised to snap at anyone threatening her life. It was not ideal.
“Alright, you win. Tomorrow you can lure Chad out. We’ll do it once first period starts. That will limit the amount of kids in the halls. We better stay indoors too, going outside will leave you more exposed. If he has such a desire to kill you he’ll track down your scent easily if you’re alone in the halls. Stay close to windows too. I’ll have to keep my distance or he’ll smell me too, so I’ll be watching from the outside. Hopefully his sense of smell isn’t as good as mine or else it won’t matter.” I didn’t like this idea, but if Ava was going to force it out of me, I was making the plan. I too wanted to know more about Chad, a death willing to forsake the most important rule. Do not kill.
“Deal.” Ava sighed in relief, her shoulders noticeably relaxing, the tension in her body subsiding. She took off her glasses to give them a quick wipe. Her eyes sagged with exhaustion, the strain of today crashing into her like a strong punch to the chest.
“One more thing. I hope you know I’m not walking home alone tonight. I will be staying put here in your residence. Sound good?” Ava said, readjusting her glasses with a firm expression on her face.
I hadn’t had a guest over since I was alive, and never had a girl sleepover. I felt my face flush. I wonder if it was bright red or not. Without blood I wasn’t even sure I could blush.
“You can have the couch.”
“There’s no way I’m sleeping on that thing!” She huffed.
“Fine! Take the bed!”
I guided her to my bedroom, shoved her in and slammed the door.
“You don’t need to be such a brute!” Ava yelled from the other side.
“Goodnight!” I stormed off to the couch. At least I had the TV. I could already tell it was going to be a sleepless night.
“Dammit, this is why I wanted her to take the couch. Uncomfy piece of crap.” I collapsed on my bed for the evening. One blanket and one pillow I acquired from my storage closet and the cold leather against my back. I flipped on the TV, but never got around to watching anything. My eyes stayed fixed on the door.
Nothing would be coming through there tonight. I was on duty.
Smoke flooded up my nose, burning my nostrils and leaving me disoriented from the overstimulation of my sense of smell. I swung the pan around, dumping it into the sink, the hot, oily bacon grease still bubbling with a satisfying crackle. Gagging, I returned to the stove. I needed to flip the pancake before it also smoked up the whole kitchen.
“What the hell is going on out here Milo?” Ava drearily shuffled out of the bedroom, waving her hands lazily in front of her face in an attempt to clear the mass of smoke. Her hair was a frizzy mess with strands shooting out in every direction. The clothes she still wore from yesterday were wrinkled and unkept as she cleaned her lenses before situating her glasses on the bridge of her nose.
I stood dumbfounded. I had never seen Ava so disheveled before with her shirt skewed to the left, revealing one of her bra straps. I stared for a brief moment, absorbing the image that stood before me in full detail. It really was an interesting sight.
“Move aside it’s going to burn!” Ava shoved me out of the way, taking her position as captain of the stove. She aggressively flipped the pancake and then directed her attention to the other pan, filled with the scrambled eggs. The folds of her forehead creased again as she concentrated on the food.
“Grab some plates! Ready the pancake batter! Both the pancake and the eggs are just about done!” Ava barked her orders at me and loyally I responded.
I threw open my cabinets in blind haste, procuring our breakfast plates. Ava flipped the flapjack onto one and then divided the eggs as I whisked the pancake batter. Again she took over, seizing the bowl from me and gracefully poured the batter into the pan. After an awkward second of me standing in awe at her culinary talents, I began setting the now prepared food on the bar top. If I was accustomed to guests maybe I would have invested in a table, but for now this would suffice.
“Glad to see you got everything ready,” Ava said as she placed her newly finished pancake on the empty plate. She disposed of the spatula and pan in the sink and drew up the barstool beside me.
“Thanks for taking over. I’m not used to making food.” I trailed off my words, embarrassed. Cooking never really was a talent of mine, even before I died.
“What the hell possessed you to try and whip up a big breakfast like this if you can’t even cook? Do you even eat regular food, being what you are?” Ava barely lifted her face from her plate, stuffing a slightly burned piece of bacon into her mouth. She grimaced, but consumed it anyway.
“You didn’t have dinner last night. It’s a big day, you need food. And yes I still enjoy the taste of real food! Just because of what I am doesn’t mean I don’t have taste buds! I just don’t have a real stomach…”
“Well congrats to you. Us humans have to watch how much we eat. Lucky for you that you can’t pack on weight.”
“Just eat the food.”
After breakfast finished, we gathered our things. Ava adjusted her clothing and situated her backpack. I flung my satchel over my shoulder, dressed in the usual all black attire and red shoes.
After a quietly awkward elevator ride down to the garage, I led Ava to our mode of transportation; an old, but functional bicycle. It was matte black with blue pin stripes down the sides of it. I hadn’t taken it to school in some time, but it was faster than walking and I wanted to meet Chad quickly.
“And where will I sit?” Ava said, perplexedly looking from the bike to me.
"Nope. Get on.”
I straddled the bike and held it steady as Ava positioned herself on the handlebars. Slowly I guided the bike out of the garage, careful to make sure Ava kept her balance.
“Okay you’re going to want to hold on tightly.”
I clasped my forearms against her hips to provide some stability and placed my foot on the pedal. In an instant we were flying down the sidewalk of Lerna Avenue. My legs cycled at an unprecedented speed. Ava’s shriek of terror and excitement blurred with the roar of the wind against my ears as I weaved around the holes and bumps plaguing the shabby sidewalk. In that moment I felt tranquil as the morning sun peeked out of the clouds, its rays casting a heavenly light that reflected off the windows of the skyscrapers. We approached our turn. With a swift yank of my right hand, we turned onto a side street, the small alley that provided me my shortcut to school everyday.
The hairs on the back of my neck shot up, my nose flooded with a familiar scent. I continued to pedal, darting my eyes from left to right, scanning the area for our newcomer. Stronger the scent became.
“What’s that smell? It’s familiar.”
The second I was distracted by Ava’s words, I felt the pain in my right arm and winced. I lost control of the bike as needles sank into my flesh. Through the pain I glanced at the source. Chad’s black eyes glared at me, my forearm firmly ensnared by his jaw. In a violent heap, I was flung from the bike with Chad. We crashed into a pile of trash, the bags doing little to disrupt the fall. Trash exploded from the bags - the forecast - polluted rain. Blindly I swung my left hand, striking Chad in the cheek. My knuckles dug into his face, and I felt relief as his jaw unhinged from my arm. His body crashed into the wall across the alleyway.
“Ava!” I searched for her among the wreckage. She laid by the bike, her arms and legs filled with scrapes. Blood trickled from her knee, staining her white sock in a deep crimson. I managed to make it to her side, the pain in my arm raging. Black, cloudy liquid dripped from the teeth marks, emitting a light steam when oxidized by the air.
“I’m fine,” she groaned, holding the side of her head, “just a little fall is all.”
“Back away from her! She’s mine!” A gurgled voice came from Chad as he rose to his feet. The same black liquid leaked from his mouth, as his bottom jaw hung loosely, held to his face by only his skin. He handled his broken jaw and shoved it upward.
Chad’s jaw was firmly back in place, more of his black blood oozing from his chin.
“Ava it’s me. Don’t you remember me? We used to have so much fun. You’d read while I watched. You always looked so angelic with your nose buried in your book, unaware of me staring at you. Ava my love, don’t you want me to devour you!”
He lunged forward, his tongue draped over the side of his mouth as it licked at the air in excitement. I grabbed Ava around the shoulders and dove out of the way, narrowly escaping his grasp.
Ava yelped, reaching for her shoulder. Fresh blood escaped from the new gash in her arm.
“This taste. Who’s tainted you!”
He readied for another attack.
“Ava, get behind me. I’ve got this.” I rose to my feet, taking a few paces forward to give some distance between Ava and I. Chad was strong, fast too. But none of that would be enough. He was inexperienced, I was not.
“It was you, wasn’t it? You tainted Ava’s soul! I can smell it!” Chad growled, his eyes fixated on me with deep hatred. I stared back, my eyes never blinking, never losing sight of my target.