The Life of Death
‘I’ll be around if you change your mind about journeying to the Underworld. Don’t keep me waiting too long.’
Dex’s proposal weighed heavily on my mind as I took the night train to Animus. It was cold in the train car as I sat alone, waiting to hear the brakes screech to announce my arrival. I had a peculiar sense of longing to reach the town. It was the only place I’ve ever been eager to be as far as I could remember.
It was difficult to trust my own feelings and memories when I kept having flashes of moments I didn't recall. The most recent one was a vague remembrance of sitting around a fire in a small cabin talking with Aoki and a girl I didn’t recognize. At least I thought it was a cabin, I never got the chance to see the outside.
NOW ARRIVING IN ANIMUS TOWN.
My shoulders relaxed at the announcement, my body having been tense without my realization. It was the power of the town. Every time I stepped off the train and onto the Animus platform, I was freed of my stresses.
Is this what people feel when they are home?
It wouldn’t be so bad to live here. The surrounding forest was beautiful and the street food, oh the street food. I could grab kebabs with Ava nearly every day.
She would always be close too, that’s important.
My face grew hot from my thoughts of strolling with Ava. We’d eat street food, explore the nature this town had to offer in the mornings, and then venture onto her roof to watch the stars at night. Life would be simple, peaceful even, if I were only alive.
Stop fantasizing. You know that can’t happen. You’ve made your choice.
I hung my head, the weight returning to my shoulders. It was ridiculous to think I could have a life here. There was no place a death could truly call home.
Maneuvering through Animus at this hour was no longer a challenge, even with the limited visibility. I was accustomed to the smells, my nose a reliable guide in directing me to Ava’s house. Her roof had become a suitable bed since I abandoned my old apartment, only returning there to occasionally grab new clothes. It was Ava’s grandmother that made things unpleasant.
I took a deep breath at the door, preparing myself for the scolding I would receive for being late. I missed training, which Logan would pound me for and then skipped out on dinner, which the old hag would chew me out for. Either way I was in for an earful.
I cracked open the unlocked door, no doubt left like that for me. If I moved stealthily enough, I could avoid those two altogether and just go upstairs to see Ava.
“You can come in already, Milo.” Logan’s chilling voice came from inside. I should’ve known I’d never get past his nose.
I crept into the house, Logan and Granny Evie sitting at the kitchen table. Their faces were hard, my entrance interrupting a serious conversation.
“I know, I know. I’m late, but I can ex-”
“Sit.” Logan studied me with cold eyes as I pulled up a seat between them. Granny did the same, wrinkling her nose as if my smell was foul. She still hadn’t warmed up to me being there so often, yet somehow never batted an eye at Logan. Even the first time we all stumbled into her home after battling Aoki she seemed unphased by him.
“Is anyone going to speak?” I said leaning back in my chair. I intertwined my fingers behind my head, challenging both of their stares. If they were going to awkwardly look at me without speaking, I was going to do it right back until one of them broke.
“Ava is having...problems.” Logan was the first to break, sighing as he released the tension in the air.
“Are you going to elaborate?” I asked curtly. Logan had been elusive around me lately and I was fed up with it.
“You are a poor influence on her.” Granny Evie added with her custom snarky tone. She too was starting to get on my last nerve. Multiple times a week I had her wrinkled finger in my face subjecting me to another lecture of being too lax around her granddaughter. They’d both been expecting me to be Ava’s guardian, rather than her friend.
I waited to respond, expecting to receive more information about such an accusation. By their actions, it didn’t seem I was going to get it until I chimed in.
“You’re being ridiculous, she’s fine. How dare you say I’m at fault for anything?”
Keep calm, no need to feed into this.
I took a deep breath to center myself. An outburst would only strengthen their argument of me being a poor influence.
“You can’t ignore it; I know you’ve seen how she’s changed. She’s reckless, even putting herself into dangerous situations to test her new abilities.” Logan said, keeping his voice level to keep our conversation civil.
“But how does that come back to me being a problem?”
The old woman’s accusation was outlandish. I didn’t endorse any bad behavior in Ava, if anything I was the person she had to lean on as her soul continued to mutate.
“You don’t try to stop her! You came here saying you’d protect her, yet all I see is a kid corrupting her with his childish ideals. Stop acting like you're both normal!”
She had finally snapped the last twig of my patience.
“Stop treating her like she’s no longer your granddaughter! She’s still Ava!” I shouted back, rocketing out of my chair. It fell backwards, clattering onto the hardwood as I shoved it out of my way.
“Milo, enough.” Logan growled. It was a worthless attempt to intimidate me into remaining at the table.
“What are you going to do about it?” I didn’t want to take my rage out on him, but everything they were saying was wrong. Ava was still herself and I didn’t care what they believed.
My fingers itched with excitement, my instincts wanting to lunge forward and swipe at Logan’s face. He rose from his chair, his eyes turning solid black as he enforced his power.
“Don’t challenge me.” He said, hissing as he carved his fingernails into the table.
Fight him. Get a quick taste.
My thoughts snapped me out of my anger. The realization that those were my thoughts and not those of my old reflection startling me.
“I’m done with this.”
I stormed away, climbing the stairs and purposely stomping as hard as possible on each step. I made a beeline for Ava’s room, desperate to speak with her. I needed the reassurance that what they were saying was untrue. They were both wrong, they had to be. I threw open her door without warning, my turmoil erasing all rationality.
It took a full five seconds before I realized what I was looking at. Ava was in the process of changing, my eyes exposed to parts of her I had never seen.
So, girls wear matching bras and underwear.
I can’t explain why - out of all things - this was my first thought. Her crimson bottoms complimented the red and white top that she was already unclipping behind her back perfectly. I was frozen, my feet glued to the floor as we both stood in a silence that made my body feel electric. Considering I had no organs, there was a suspicious amount of pounding going on in my chest that made me ponder if a death could grow a heart.
Ava did not appreciate the length for which I stared. My indiscretion earned a pillow that came at such an intense force I went airborne out of the door frame. I had the foresight to press myself against the wall by Ava’s room before another random object was hauled at my face. With how strong she was becoming I was certain I wouldn’t survive if I took another glimpse of her.
A fair amount of scrabbling and exasperated breaths came from the bedroom before I heard her heavy footsteps come for me. I was in for it, my eyes seeking an exit. There was a window down the hall and I debated the pros and cons of jumping through it to avoid Ava’s wrath. After a quick calculation I settled on the window being the better option.
“You can come in now.” It was more of a command than a statement, her hand grabbing hold of my jacket before I could escape. Give me a hundred crypts to fight, a judge even, anything but the fury of a woman.
“You are going to forget everything you saw. Understood?” Ava growled, her voice sounding like it resonated from the belly of a beast.
“You got it; it’s erased from my mind! I didn’t see you in your bra and panties whatsoever!” My flustered attempt to avoid being in Ava’s doghouse earned me a bitter glare.
She waved her hand, dismissing my groveling as she closed the door behind us. I awkwardly grabbed the chair from her desk, unsure if I’d lost the right to sit on her bed. Her nod of approval told me I made the right choice.
“What kept you out so late?” Ava asked. She removed her glasses to begin the nightly routine of brushing the knots from her hair.
She was still growing accustomed to her increased strength, scowling as she accidentally yanked out a large chunk of hazel strands. Simple tasks required a more delicate touch than she was used to and her aggravation by it had been growing apparent. That was only one side of the coin, however. When showcasing her new talents during Logan’s training sessions, she always bore a larger-than-life smile.
“I…I was feeding and just lost track of time.” Ava was the only one who knew my secret of hunting crypts. She’d been unphased by it, her attitude towards them being simple - good riddance.
“Anything else?” She pried for more, her ability to read me extraordinary. She stopped brushing for a moment to study my face.
“I was confronted by another death afterwards. He wanted to know what I was doing in his territory.” I lied. Ava raised an eyebrow but dropped the discussion. I wasn’t normally withholding around her, and she’d grown to know not to dig too deep with her inquisitions.
She stared out her window, deep in thought as a glazed look conquered her face. It took a slight wave of my hand in front of her eyes to jostle her out of it.
“Do you want to sneak out?” She asked, repositioning her glasses on the bridge of her nose. I had yet to come to a decision on what I liked better, glasses or no glasses.
Both. Don’t be an idiot.
“Logan would hear us before we made it out the door.”
It was true, both of us had become trapped within the house after dark. Granny and Logan strictly enforced keeping us confined here during a death’s prime hunting hours. Their protection of Ava had turned excessive.
“We won’t use the door. We’ll just have to be extra quiet climbing out the window!” She said, placing a finger over her smiling lips. She flashed me a quick wink before slipping on a pair of sandals and opening the window to reveal our path of escape.
“Where are we headed?” I asked, coming up beside her to inspect the area outside.
“Does it matter? You know you’ll come with me either way.” She stepped out onto the roof, turning back to offer me her hand. “You coming?”
There was no need to ask twice, my hand grabbing onto hers as she led me into the night.
Our coordination was rocky, the pitch-black night difficult to navigate. We only had the stars for light once we crossed into the woods, the tree roots adding to our clumsy stumbling.
“A flashlight would’ve been useful right about now.” I grumbled, tripping over another stump of wood. If Ava would only slow down I could master this trek along with her. I didn’t know how, but she was doing considerably better than I was.
“That would take all the fun out of it.” She laughed, pulling me even further through the forest. Logan needed to do a better job of showing her restraint, a couple more pulls like that and I was going to lose my arm.
We broke through the trees, the ground finally void of any roots. It was an easier task to walk through the grass leading to the top of the lone hill. Ava settled down at its crest, forcing me to sit beside her. I didn’t have a choice, what Ava wanted she received. At least that’s how it was now; I never had the desire to tell her no.
It was only a whisper, her voice soft and delicate as she turned her attention to the stars. I followed suit, studying every speck of light in the sky.
“It’s beautiful.” I said it without meaning to, the words instinctively escaping my lips like a reflex.
“My mother used to bring me here. We’d stay for hours, competing on who could find the most constellations. She’d always let me win…” Ava trailed off as a far-away look crept into her expression.
“She sounds incredible. I would’ve loved to meet her.”
Ava didn’t respond. Without fail, every attempt I made to learn about her parents was met with silence.
“I wish I remembered mine.” This was enough to snap her back to the present, her focus shifting to me.
“It’d be tough not remembering your past. Any more hints at who you were?”
Ava had a vague idea of my amnesia, but I was still reluctant to tell her all the details. I especially made a point to leave out the pieces of Aoki and the other girl who often appeared in my flashbacks. When it came to my reflection however, I’d felt an overwhelming urge to tell her everything. I needed someone to know.
“Nothing, I still haven’t heard from the old me in a while.”
“Are you still scared about losing yourself like you said happened on the roof?” It was a nervous question; I could hear it in her voice.
“All the time.” I responded truthfully. I’d come to doubt I knew who I really was, the monster that wanted to consume everything or the boy happy to sit on a hill and admire the night sky.
“If you ever feel you’re losing your way, think back to this night, okay? Even if it’s only a memory, I’ll be able to reel you back in.” She looked at me with her round eyes, the blue in them gleaming like the stars above us.
I couldn’t think of what to do, my mind blank as I desperately tried to rack my brain for a solution to the situation. Unfortunately, having few memories to refer to meant I was out of luck.
Ava adjusted her head, resting it on my shoulder as she scooted closer. She felt warm, like a comforting fire on a winter evening. This is what it felt like to belong and I yearned to lay beside this warmth every night. It hurt to know it couldn’t become a reality.
“It’s funny how the world repeats itself. My mother may be gone, but here I am, back on this hill with the stars above. I’m with someone new, but I think you fit the quota to stargaze with.” She shifted again, pressing even closer against me. Her breath tickled my ear as she whispered a proposal I wanted nothing more than to say yes to. “How about it, Milo, would you want to do this forever?”