Chapter 13:

Who's There?

The Life of Death

This shower was longer than usual. It never took me more than five minutes, but this time the comfort of the water kept me under the showerhead. I ignored the water filling the tub around my feet from the chunks of dirt and grass clogging my drain. I had been filthy, throwing my clothes in the trash as soon as we’d returned to my apartment.

My stomach churned with hunger, the battle with Aoki leaving me drained. It took all the strength I had just to scrub the cuts left by her. They had yet to heal, trickles of blood running down my limbs and dripping into the water submerging my ankles. I scrubbed them again, still not ready to leave the shower.

I didn’t want to look at Erik again. His face had looked so blank earlier when he learned about his sister. He’d been mute ever since. It was my fault Amber was taken and there’s no way he hasn’t figured that out by now. To face him again would be too difficult. Only the shower was safe, an oasis in the chaos that was soon to come.

The water was climbing up my leg now, my time running out. I turned the knobs, the once steady stream coming to a halt. I shoved my finger into the drain, stabbing at the clumps of grass and dirt. There was a growl as I liberated the drain, the water forcibly spiraling down.

The bathroom was filled with fog, blurring the mirror. I welcomed the small gift from the steam, my reflection was another thing I didn’t want to have to look at. After quickly drying off I examined my wardrobe. I didn’t have many options and debated how bad it would be to change my look after the whole mess involving Ava was over. If it would ever be resolved. We could be doomed to run from death forever.

“Milo! You coming out of there any time soon?” Ava’s voice came from the other side of the door, followed by a quick thud to the door. It was more of a threat than a question.

“I’ll be out in a second!”

I sat on my bed, preparing myself to leave the sanctuary of my room and dive into the hell that awaited outside. I didn’t long for it, but was drawn to it all the same.

The atmosphere of the living room was bleak. Erik stared at his feet as he slouched into the couch cushions, his hands shoved into his jeans. He had his head sunk into his shirt like a turtle, gently teething on the collar.

Logan was still gone. He left shortly after we made it to the apartment to gain insight into Amber’s whereabouts. Ava shifted her eyes from me to Erik, her hopes for me to get through to him obvious in her glances. I was going to fail miserably trying to comfort him.

“Is there anything I can do to help while we wait?” I used my most soothing tone. I’m sure it sounded as settling as a jackhammer. He didn’t respond. There was hardly even a glance in my direction as I sat down beside him. We stayed in silence, my eyes focusing on the blank television screen in front of us.

“A muffin.” Erik broke the silence, the tension relieved by the mention of a baked good.

“That’s it?” I couldn’t hide the confusion in my response.

“I need comfort food.” His words were lifeless, carried by the flat tone of his voice.

“Well, when Logan gets back, we’ll get a muffin before we save Amber.” Mentioning her name was a mistake. Erik’s face sunk deeper into his shirt, now covering him up to the nose.

“We’re going to get her back. Trust me.” My voice was firm this time. We were going to get Amber back from Aoki and I was going to learn more about why she seemed to know me. Someone as insane as Aoki wouldn’t have faded away in my memories. There had to be more at play.

“I want to trust you, but how can I?” Erik lifted his head out of his shirt, his words clearer this time. “You aren’t the same person I thought I knew. You aren’t even human.”

It stung to hear, but he was right. His image of me was a lie, crafted by my manipulation. I knew our friendship wouldn’t last. None of them ever did. Eventually I always had to leave, relocate to a city where I wouldn’t be recognized. But it’s still real, isn’t it? Just because I know something will end, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, right?

“With that said, I can’t really go saving my sister alone. I wouldn’t even know where to look, so I’m going to have to depend on you.” Erik turned to me, his face hard as stone. His resolve was strong, powerful enough to help him shed away his nerves and uncertainties.

I nodded, determined to gain back his trust and keep my promise. Ava walked over from behind the couch, settling in on the other side of me. It was getting cramped, each of our shoulders closely pressed together as personal space no longer existed on the leather seats. It was the first time the couch didn’t feel so empty.

“So now we wait.” Ava said, her head resting on her hands.

Minutes ticked by, turning to hours. We’d turned on the TV, but nothing held our attention. We could only focus on what was ahead. It was silent as we waited for Logan’s return. I was growing uneasy as more and more time passed.

The scent of a death reached my nose. It was faint, but definitely there. The smell wasn’t foul, so it couldn’t be a crypt. I walked away from the couch, pressing myself close to the door. The smell grew stronger.

“You smell it too? Think it could be Logan? I’m still not good at distinguishing between scents.” Ava was at my side, her eyes fixing on the doorknob. It was still remarkable to me that she could sniff out deaths. It made her more like me. I didn’t know if that was a good thing, but it made me feel less alone.

“I’m not sure. This smells a bit different.”

“I don’t smell anything, not that my input matters.” Erik said from the couch. He’d torn his eyes away from the television to also focus on the door.

It grew stronger, as if the smell was directly on the other side of the door. I gripped the doorknob, my knuckles turning white from the strain. My breath caught in my chest as I heard a raspy exhale from the other side. It was chilling, like ice slowly crystalizing along my spine one vertebrae at a time.

Knock. Knock.

Ava squealed as she jumped in surprise. I was hesitant to open the door, my hand still clasped around the knob. It was ridiculous to think that if a death was here that the weak wood of my door would prevent them from entering. They’d get in regardless, so why not open the door and skip the anticipation?

Knock. Knock. Knock.

It was impatient this time, the pounding on my door increasing in aggression. Slowly I turned the knob, the soft click of the bolt releasing the door from the frame. I pulled it inside, the sound of breathing getting louder.

“Milo! Let me in, quick!” Reggie shoved the door, opening it fully. He stumbled into my apartment, abruptly closing the door shut behind him. He was out of breath, his clothes drenched in sweat. The smell of a death disappeared, not a single trace of it even remained.

“Reggie?” Erik stood, getting off the couch for the first time and rushed over to him. He placed a steady hand on Reggie’s shoulder, calming him enough so he could collect his breath.

“I know where she is!” Reggie strangled Erik’s shirt collar, the fabric stretching within his lanky fingers. His eyes were frantic, darting in every direction like he was recording every detail of my apartment.

“You mean Amber? Where? Take me there now!” Erik had more life to him, a vigor returning to his voice. It was a refreshing change from the moping turtle that would barely venture out of its shell.

“Hold on Erik, we should wait for Logan. It’ll be dangerous.” Ava said. Her attempt to reason with Erik failed as he was already accompanying Reggie back towards the door. He gave her no reply.

“Reggie, how exactly do you know where she is?” I stopped their exit, blocking the door. I didn’t imagine the smell of a death, and for Reggie to have been the one on the other side of the door didn’t add up.

“I saw her take Amber. I didn’t get trapped in the dome with the rest of you. I was able to outrun it just barely. So, when I saw her appear outside the dome with Amber, I followed her all the way to the Roku District.” Reggie said.

His explanation was a rambling mess. He spoke so quickly that I had to analyze his words for a second to understand what he meant. It still didn’t seem right. How would he have been able to see the dome? He was human. Not to mention that Aoki was powerful. If she used ‘dark passage’ it would’ve made more sense for her to teleport directly to her destination and not risk the possibility of being seen.

“Who cares how he knows! Let’s go before it’s too late!” Erik pushed past me, opening the door for Reggie to lead the way. They both walked out into the hall, leaving Ava and I alone.

“It feels off to you too, doesn’t it?” Ava said, coming up close beside me. She looked troubled; her forehead creased as she pondered the situation.

“We have to follow them regardless. Keep a close eye on Reggie for me, would you? He’s not acting like himself. And that smell, it left me feeling uneasy about this.”

“I’ve got your back. Let’s go before they get too far ahead.”

They must’ve been booking it because we didn’t catch up with them until we were a few blocks away from the apartment. Reggie was leading us straight to the Roku District. I hadn’t been there myself, but I remembered the smell emanating from it whenever I was close to the district line. It always held the stench of death.

I paid little attention to our surroundings; my eyes fixed on Reggie the whole time. He looked pale, almost sickly like he’d gone without sleep for several days. His eyes never stopped shifting as Erik talked on and on about how grateful he was.

The smell plagued my nose first as I crossed the line into the district. It was revolting. I’d heard stories about it being poor, but nothing could’ve prepared me for this. Even in the middle of the day it was a hard scene to take in. Garbage lined the streets, making the sidewalk impossible to see at times.

I wouldn’t have been able to count the number of people lying in the streets with two hands. All of them looked on the verge of death. Hungry and cold, even in the light of the sun. The atmosphere was miserable. Nothing expressed joy in the deteriorated Roku District.

“I saw her go into that building just ahead.” Reggie pointed to a run-down apartment complex. Yellow stains blotched the white exterior, the building seeming to be held together by an excessive amount of caulk and plaster.

The door to the complex creaked as Reggie pushed on it with great effort. His display of strength only managed a small opening for each of us to squeeze through one after the other. We were met by a long hallway, the overhead lights flickering as they struggled to keep the way lit. A familiar chill ran down my back. Death lingered within these walls.

“We’re not alone. I can smell them.” I said, sniffing at the air.

“Think it's Aoki?” Ava asked, also smelling around the entrance. She moved like a death, using her nose before her other senses. Looking at her caused a tightness in my chest I didn’t recognize. I struggled to connect the sensation with an emotion, but it made it difficult to speak, delaying my response.

“It’s not just that. There’s more than one death in this building.” I gritted my teeth in frustration. This had all the makings of a trap. There was too much to smell. I couldn’t pinpoint a single death among the thick odors.

“Amber!” Erik shouted into the hallway.

“Erik shut up!” I grabbed him by the collar, pushing him against the wall. I kept one hand over his mouth to ensure he complied. He focused on something behind me, his pupils dilating in fear as he tried to wiggle out of my hold.

“Milo…” Ava’s voice fell as I turned to see what Erik was so terrified of.

Ava was close, the back of her shoulders almost touching mine. A small point stuck out of the back of her shirt, close to her lower right side. A small circle of crimson had already started to soak her clothing. She turned her face to the side, her peripherals focusing on my eyes. Her face was anguished, mouth partially agape as she gasped for air. The point left her body, causing her to crumple to the floor. She started violently heaving as she struggled to catch her breath.

“I’m sorry Milo, it was supposed to be you.” Reggie looked at me with a blank stare, his face devoid of all emotion. In his hand he held a dagger, Ava’s blood slowly trickling down the hilt and over Reggie’s fingers. My head spun, the gravity of the situation finally catching up to me. The pain was shearing as I pressed my fingers against my scalp, my vision blurring in and out as anger welled up in my chest.

Remember me? Let’s switch again shall we?