The Life of Death
The flames danced as the wood crackled. The fire’s warmth tenderly basked my skin in an orange glow. Plush fabric embedded into the wooden chairs at the dining table allowed me to relax as I awaited Logan’s return from the kitchen. Ava was still in the bathroom washing off after Logan offered us a chance to clean up. She was spending far more time than I did. God knows how much mud she had lathered on herself.
My new clothes weren’t my style, but were comfortable at least. Logan had fished them out of his closet after a considerable amount of rummaging through his clumsily assorted outfits. They were baggy, the shirt two sizes too big, white, and wrinkled. I had on sweats, the gray fabric soft as I nervously rubbed my hands against my thighs. There was a soft screech from the chair next to me as the legs skidded against the hardwood. Ava took her seat, the clothes she received from Logan almost identical to my own.
“Think we’re guests or captives?” Ava whispered. Her voice was steady, her mind refortified after the crypt's death.
“Hard to say, but it’d be weird for him to take this long preparing a meal for captives.” I was staying hopeful. Logan could’ve killed me twice by now, yet he hadn’t. Maybe there was a chance to survive our dinner after all.
Aromas from dinner filtered into the living room, carried by the steady flow of smoke out of the kitchen. The smell of pork was most prudent, followed by hints of onion and egg.
I dapped at my mouth with the cloth napkin on the table, erasing any evidence of saliva on my chin. It would be too embarrassing if Ava saw me with my mouth watering. A soothing hum from Ava directed my attention away from the kitchen. Her eyes were closed, nose angled up to take in all the smells. A thin stream of saliva escaped her lips, running down her chin. She made no effort to wipe it clean, taking no breaks from sniffing the air.
“At least he can cook, guess not all deaths are culinarily inept.” She opened one eye to see my reaction. Hopefully the hue of the fire masked my embarrassment. Ava was getting too talented at calling out my insecurities.
“Maybe he’s a player. Have to be good at cooking to continuously impress.” A small tinge of jealousy tugged at my words. The food smelt heavenly, not a meal I could create. Ava paid little attention to my response, instead wiping her mouth on the sleeve of her shirt.
“So, who’s hungry?” Logan stood at the edge of the table, his candy cane colored apron sporadically splattered with sauce. He expertly carried three bowls and a side plate full of dumplings, setting each one down neatly.
Ramen filled our bowls, the scent of miso floating into my nostrils. Ava wasted no time, diving right in, messily using the chopsticks to stuff noodles in her mouth. I was soon to follow. It was a masterpiece. The noodles were soft, the egg yolk was perfectly cooked and the pork melted in my mouth. The miso broth brought all the flavors, from the hearty meats, to the bitter garnishes and the fermented cucumbers together in a melody that played on my tongue like a violin.
“Safe to say you were hungry.” Logan chuckled to himself, lighting a cigarette on the fire. He watched us as we ate, the faint glint of pride in his eye. He puffed out a few clouds of smoke, careful not to blow it over the food before joining in the feast.
“This is amazing! Where’d you learn to cook this well?” Ava asked through mouthfuls of pork, the juices slowly coating her chin in grease. My chin was no less filthy.
“Forty years of being dead gives a person a lot of time to learn the culinary secrets to the world.” Logan reached for a dumpling, his chopsticks clashing with mine as we went for the same one; the largest one. He glared at me, and I backed off, taking the next biggest one.
“Forty years...I’m surprised you’re still lucid.” I’d only been a death twenty years and the only way I’d managed to keep my sanity was by starving myself of souls. Forty years would feel like an eternity.
Logan sat back in his chair, taking a moment to ponder my response. He scratched at the stubble on his chin. This was the first real good look at him I’d had. His brown curls fell over his face, a lock or two almost reaching his eyes. He was well groomed, his short beard finely trimmed, and his eyes glinted a light chocolate. He was older, but had to have died when still in his mid-twenties.
“It isn’t hard to survive as a death once you learn some tricks. Your way of limiting how many souls you transport to the Underworld is the least effective. Don’t expect to stay in this world much longer if that’s your strategy.” Logan eyed me.
How’d he know I starve myself?
I couldn’t tell if there was concern or pity there, either way I was uneasy. He pointed out what I’d been feeling for some time. I was weakening every day.
“Consuming souls, sending them to the Underworld with our portal is how we survive.” Logan continued, taking another bite of ramen. “It’s no different than her need to drink water to live.” He pointed a chopstick at Ava, who only now stopped her eating to listen in on the conversation.
“How do you do it, don’t you struggle with their memories? Every time I eat a soul some of their memories stay with me. I can’t distinguish them from each other, and sometimes they even bleed into my own. Don’t you have that problem?” I picked at my meal, the urge to eat it suddenly gone.
“We all have that issue. You have a bigger problem. You don’t know who you are, do you? Or even who you were when you were alive?”
I sat there quiet, the ticks of the clock on the wall announcing the length of my silence. I had no memory of being alive, no remembrance of what a heart beating in my chest felt like.
“What’s it matter?” I shot back dejectedly, crossing my arms in frustration.
“A soul with no tether will drift away on the wind. You have nothing tying you to this world, leaving your soul no reason to stay. You’d better find what keeps you here soon. From the way you look, I’d say you’re close to fading.” Logan continued eating, as if his words weren’t so heavy. Silence fell over the table, Ava and I blankly staring at our food.
“He’s Milo Lethe. Student at Arcaya Academy, and a death. He’s quiet, but thoughtful, a terrible cook, and deep down he’s nothing more than another kid. He showed me your world, made me into some delicacy that deaths everywhere want and it’s his job to ensure I don’t lose my soul to any of you. That is who he is.” Ava looked up from the table, flashing me a reassuring smile and a dorky thumbs up. She was so weird in her mannerisms, but managed to ease my mind to a degree.
“You really think he can stop a death from taking your soul in his condition? Ha! That’s rich.” Logan laughed mockingly, causing a kindling of rage in my gut to ignite.
“We aren’t supposed to interfere in the lives of humans, but it happens everyday. Plenty of souls are prematurely plucked from the world, unaware they were meant to have more time.” He continued to lecture, keeping a steady eye on me. My anger subsided. The more he spoke, the more it was replaced by grief.
“Humans can’t be exposed to one of us for long. Eventually events will unfold that will lead to your death, Miss Ava. Either he,” Logan pointed a boney finger at me, “or another death will be responsible for your departure from this world. It’s only a matter of time.”
No words were spoken after that, Ava and I sat in an awkward silence. She was dead if I left her, but she was unlikely to survive if I stuck around. Either way, she was destined to die.
“Who are you to say that? What makes you think you know how I’ll die?” Ava retorted, her nose flaring defensively. She looked like she was ready to challenge the world, maybe even death itself.
“So you’d rather fight?” A playful sneer formed on Logan’s face, his eyes brimming with excitement.
“Fight? How do you expect her to do that? She’s human and these crypts that are so attracted to her are too strong for me to even handle!” I exclaimed. I didn’t like Logan planting these impossibilities in Ava’s head. He rose out of his chair and gracefully walked to Ava’s seat. He pressed the palm of his hand to Ava’s chest, causing a blush to quickly rise up in her cheeks.
Hold up there Logan…
There was a faint hue in Ava’s chest, but as soon as it appeared, it was gone. Logan’s face filled with wonder and excitement.
“Astonishing, you actually managed to physically touch her soul while she was still alive. I was hoping for this.”
“And what exactly does that mean?” Ava asked, attempting to slide her body out from under Logan’s palm. He hastily retracted his hand when he noticed he was still touching her chest.
“Your soul has been touched by our darkness. It’s really quite extraordinary. I’m not sure, but maybe there’s a bit of a death’s power in you. Oh! Wouldn’t that be exciting?” He joyfully trotted back to his seat, the smile never leaving his face. I was shocked, I didn’t recall touching Ava’s soul at all.
“The first time you saved me.” Ava said, her voice so soft I barely noticed. “When you pulled me into that darkness. I’ve...I’ve felt different, like there’s this pressure built up in my chest. It was small at first, but it’s started to feel heavier over time.” She rubbed her chest, her face stricken with worry.
“Don’t be scared. It’s only darkness. Be grateful, you’ll need it. I don’t think crypts will be the only ones hunting you.” Logan’s face darkened, the smile vanishing from his face.
“You mean the judges don’t you?” Even as I spoke it out loud, I knew it was true. The room grew heavy, the air becoming dense.
“Who are they?” Ava asked.
“They are charged with deciding the sentence souls receive upon their arrival into the Underworld. They are also in charge of the affairs revolving around us deaths here among the living. Their judgements against us are notoriously unjust and cruel.” Logan explained. He tapped his fingers against the table nervously creating a beat.
“They think they are immortal, gods even. I suppose in a way they are. The lifespan of the average death before becoming a crypt is short. The stronger ones can survive for as long as I have, so about twenty years, maybe a little more.” I added.
“Then why become a death?” Ava interrupted.
“Because of the possible reward. If you live long enough, say sixty or so years, you can retire to Elysium. A paradise of unimaginable fortune and adventure, but only if you can make it that long.” I continued, a small bit of pride in my voice as I informed Ava of my world.
“All judges were once deaths, but not one of them was a death for less than seventy-five years before becoming a judge. Their will is strong, unbroken by the memories and emotions of all the souls they brought to the Underworld.” Logan said, stealing away my spotlight.
“So they’re strong. Any chance we’ll survive them coming for us?” Ava asked. Her voice was layered with confidence. Too bad that didn’t equate to strength.
“It’s one in a million the way you are now. But maybe we can better your odds. First step is to get you to full strength Milo.” Logan rose to his feet, his demeanor telling me he was ready to start this instant.
“Why are you even helping us? Isn’t Ava’s soul something you want too? You wouldn’t stop saying how delicious it smelled earlier.” I huffed, annoyed that I even had to bring that last part up. Every time Logan fawned over her soul it left me feeling bitter.
“Of course, her soul smells amazing! You underestimate me Milo, I can resist the allure of her soul just fine.”
“Still didn’t say why you are willing to help us.” This time it was Ava’s turn to be skeptical. Logan’s unique smile returned, stretching from ear to ear. He looked like a mischievous demon, ready to pull off a difficult stunt.
“You aren’t the only ones the judges would like to get their hands on. What’s the saying again? The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”
A cool breeze nestled my face. It was quiet, the silence bringing me comfort as my headphones blocked out the voices. Their constant muttering had a way of making me anxious, but a tap on the outside of my headphones brought me back to reality. I found the roof to be the best place for solitude within the school. Erik and his sister Amber were the only ones that ever came up here to look for me.
“Hey Reggie, I take it you haven’t heard from Milo today have you? He hasn’t been answering my texts.” Erik asked, his body blocking the sunlight from my eyes. I placed my headphones back in my bag, pushing aside the pieces of crumpled paper and erratically assorted pens. The voices started muttering.
“I haven’t seen him since yesterday. He’s probably just skipping or something.” I stumbled to my feet, my movements uneasy. I’ve never had the most reliable center of gravity, my abnormally long limbs always seeming to get entangled with each other.
“I saw him running home with Ava yesterday!” Amber interjected, her expression visibly irritated.
“Milo with Ava? I doubt that. He’s a loner.” Erik said, shaking his head in disbelief.
“It's what I saw, I swear! Why he’d be hanging around with her I don’t know? She’s not even his type…”
“And you know his type, how?” I quipped, leaving Amber in a fit of exasperation. She stayed silent, her freckles masked by the red spreading across her cheeks.
The voices grew louder, their words incoherent. They always sounded lost and confused as if pleading for my help. Through the years I’ve become accustomed to the noise, the constant murmuring playing in the background like the soundtrack to my life.
“Let’s just head home, I’ll try to get a hold of him later.” Erik said, heading for the stairs going down. Amber followed close behind like his shadow. For an instant the voices stopped, my ears in a state of peace.
That’s weird, I only get this satisfaction when wearing headphones.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a quick glimpse of a girl. Her black hair clung to her shoulders, as her school uniform swayed in the wind. She stood, perfectly balanced on the chain-linked fence that surrounded the rooftop. Bangs hung over her eyes, concealing them from view, her face only showing a smile. She wore large, golden hoop earrings that hung heavily from her ears. She licked her lips hungrily, turning my blood cold.
“Erik!” I shouted, turning to see the back of his head entering the bulkhead covering the stairs.
“She’ll fall! We gotta help!”
“Help who?” Erik questioned, turning to face me, his eyes shifting with confusion.
“Don’t you see her?” I looked back at the spot I’d seen her. She was gone, no evidence of her ever existing. The voices returned, louder than ever…