The Life of Death
Car alarms guided my path home, their intensity increasing the further I walked. They did well to overpower the faint whisper of voices in my ear. Headphones would have been nice to wear, but in my neighborhood if you weren’t alert you were robbed.
There wasn’t a direction I could look after crossing the district line that didn’t contain a bag of garbage or a car missing its tires. People slept in the streets, their torn and dirty clothes doing little to defend against the chill of the night. Some had fires burning in barrels, but space around the flame was limited and only the strongest could set up camp by it. At least I didn’t live on the street, though having a roof over my head in the Roku District wasn’t much of an improvement.
The street lights outside my apartment were dingy, casting the building in a musky orange. I was eyed by people as I walked to the door. They kept their distance, my size intimidating them. It was a good thing they didn’t approach me. They would figure out pretty quickly that I’m useless in a fight.
The door to the complex creaked as I pushed it open with tremendous effort. The hinges were rusted over allowing only a small space for me to squeeze through. An out of service sign hung above the elevator. It had been there since I moved in, a few years ago now. I took the stairs, liquid stains blotched most of the steps and the smell confirmed they weren’t from water.
The numbers '202' hung above the door. Black dots covered the door’s corners, the damp hallway being the perfect breeding ground for mold. The door to my apartment opened easier than the one to the lobby, but the same creaking noise struck my eardrum.
“Mom, I’m home.” No reply, just a steady murmur from the kitchen to welcome me home. I closed the door behind me, locking the three deadbolts, each with a satisfying click.
It was a mess. Clothes were hanging in places they didn’t belong and half eaten containers of take-out littered the bleak landscape of the apartment. I did my best to clean up, knowing all too well that the mess would return by tomorrow. I followed the murmuring, curious to see what state my mother was in this time.
“Right where I left you…” I gently pulled up a chair across from my mom. She continued scribbling away on the paper in front of her.
She had a messy stack already completed in the middle of the table. They were the same image over and over, a misshapen woman with multiple faces. Each face clawed at another beside it in a fight for dominance. My mom finished her most recent drawing, tossing it aside before looking for a fresh canvas. I slid one to her, causing her face to light up with joy.
“Oh Reggie, when’d you get back?” She hesitated before beginning a new drawing.
“I just walked in.”
She was already lost in her art, the one form of therapy that seemed to keep her calm. It was an improvement from her clawing at her own face in the hopes to tame the voices.
I wonder if I’ll end up like that in a few years.
I collected my mom’s drawings in a neat stack. The most recent one was unique, with much more detail. A different woman was the centerpiece, her dark bangs covering the top half of her face. She bore a devilish grin, the type of smile you see on every comic book villain. Twisted and distorted, as if relishing in another person’s agony. The golden earrings gave her away. The resemblance was unmistakable to the girl I’d seen on the roof after school.
“Mom...where’d you get the idea to draw this?” I nervously grabbed her drawing hand. She was not keen on being interrupted in the middle of her art. I placed the paper in front of her to observe.
“She was here today. She didn’t talk, just stood in the corner and watched.” She pointed to the back of our apartment, in the corner near the door to my room. She flung the paper out of her way, yanking her hand away from my grasp to continue her drawing.
Was she really here or is it another one of her hallucinations?
The troubling part was I saw the same girl. I stood in the corner, inspecting the walls for a trace of her. Nothing. That’s when I noticed it, the silence. Nothing was the clue. It was the same blissful silence I experienced the moment I saw her.
I moved my investigation into my bedroom. It was cleaner than the rest of the apartment, the only part of it that was ever truly clean. My bed was still made from this morning, my clothes hung neatly in my closet and my books were impeccably stacked by my bed. Everything was perfect, all of it in its proper place. I scanned my desk, eyeing the position of each figurine on display. Naruto looked fine, same with Kaneki. Nami was a little dusty but correctly oriented. It was Charmander that was out of line, his tail pointed in a different direction than usual.
I picked it up, checking it for any marks or scratches. It was my favorite, a gift from Milo. He’d given Erik and I each our own, keeping one for himself. An unusual gesture for him, but it spoke volumes.
“You really are interesting. I’m surprised you noticed the one thing I touched.”
I spun around, turning my attention to the window. There she sat, legs hanging off the windowsill into my room. Her black socks reached all the way to her knees where her legs crossed. She had the same uniform on as earlier, her hair reaching to below her chest. I saw her eyes for the first time as she brushed her bangs away, revealing the green irises underneath. I should’ve been scared, but instead I was mystified, almost lulled into a state of tranquility.
“Who are you?” I managed to get the words out after a considerable amount of gawking.
She giggled, slightly covering her bottom lip with her fingers. She beckoned me closer with a wave from her other hand. I’m not sure why I complied. There was something that made me drawn to her, making it impossible to stop my feet as they shuffled forward. I wanted to know more about the girl in my window. Once I was in reaching distance she grabbed my collar, drawing my face in close. She tenderly slid the backside of her hand down my cheek, keeping her eyes locked with mine the whole time.
“Aoki, my darling. Tell me yours.”
“R-R-Reggie...Reggie Sims.” The words stumbled out of my mouth in a clumsy response.
“Good. Glad you found your tongue.” Her breath was warm as it touched my skin.
“Why are you here?”
“There’s someone I’m looking for and you know him...I can smell him on you. He goes by Milo Lethe.” Excitement was in her eyes as she licked her upper lip, our faces so close her tongue nearly touched me.
“Why him?” I was too entranced to pull away. She was alluring, only hearing her voice and no others. The sensation was complete perfection.
“Oh Reggie, that doesn’t matter.” She pulled me closer, pressing her lips to my ear.
“I know about the voices you hear. Wouldn’t you like to know who they are? Or would you rather end up like your poor mother, tormented by what she sees and hears? I’ll show you all of it, I’ll bring you the silence you long for. All I ask is for you to introduce me to Milo Lethe.”
My back stiffened, her whisperings covering my body in goosebumps. She locked eyes with me once more before stepping out onto the fire escape. I couldn’t take my eyes off her for a second.
“You coming?” She outstretched her hand towards me, awaiting my choice. I took a steady breath before grabbing her hand, following the girl in the window out into the night.
I was cloaked in a pale light, the stars shining brightly above. The coarse asphalt of roof shingles scraped against my forearms as I sat up, shaking my head in an effort to relieve myself of its grogginess.
“Finally awake?” Ava’s soft voice came from the window behind me. Her eyes stayed fixed on the sky, a bit of wonder sneaking into her expression.
“What happened?” I massaged the side of my head. It felt as though it were splitting, the sharp pains making me nauseous.
“Logan dropped you off a while ago. He was going on and on about you not even completing one vial. Not entirely sure what he was referring to, but he seemed annoyed.”
“Great.” I didn’t remember much after taking another red vial from Logan, the rest of the night a mere blur.
“Any idea where he went?”
“Nope. He said he’d stay close, but wanted to find his own place to crash.” She continued to fixate on the stars, never glancing in my direction.
I weakly walked to the window, settling down right below it. I stared at the stars with Ava, curious to know if I could look at them with the same amount of excitement as she could. It was pretty seeing them so clearly, but I didn’t experience the same mesmerizing effect Ava did.
“I look out my window almost every night. It helps remind me there’s more to the universe than this town.”
“You mean like other worlds?”
“Not really. It's more like they show me our own world more clearly. The stars, you can really see them all out here, each one with its own story. I will never know them all and I can never hope to. They are all unique. I want to be one of those stars, unique and free to live how I want.” The moonlight draped her in a luminous glow, her skin a tint of blue.
“How would you live?”
“I want to burn brightly, stand out among the rest, y’know?”
“What’s stopping you?”
“Expectations.” Her tone was different, the excitement gone, replaced by a melancholy sadness. I looked up at her. She had her face buried in her arms as she rested them on the windowsill.
“Would it be so bad not to follow those expectations? What if you made your own?”
There was a light sniffle as she took her face out of her arms. Her eyes were slightly red and watery, but nothing leaked out.
“I’m meant to stay here. It’s family tradition.” Even as she said it, I could tell she didn’t believe it. It was an automatic response, as if it had been drilled into her for years.
“I haven’t seen your parents here.”
“That’s because they left.”
“Well, why can’t you?”
“Because they wound up dead from it!” Her face was twisted with frustration, like a bird trapped in an open cage, clipped of its wings. She clenched her fist, the whites of her knuckles clearly visible in the moonlight.
“Want to talk about it?” I kept my gaze focused on her, waiting for her next words. She never answered, instead turning back into the room. I got up to keep her in my sights, wanting to know more about her story. She saw me standing in the window, but made little effort to continue the conversation.
“I’m going to bed. You can sleep on the floor if you’d like.” She said as she fluffed a pillow in preparation.
“I’ll stay out here. I don’t really sleep anyway.”
She shrugged her shoulders and removed her glasses, placing them on the nightstand beside her bed. It wasn’t long before I heard a soft snore coming from her bed. I returned to my spot under the windowsill and looked at the stars.
I wonder if I could ever be free?