[CW: strong language, violence, and death]
He looked happy.
The worst part was it seemed to be genuine. Not that familiar, fake over-the-top happiness you always saw in Hallmark movies. Not that plaster-on-a-smile, surface level, type happiness. No, the man appeared genuinely happy; even doing something as menial as unloading groceries from the trunk of his car.
The very sight of it infuriated Ayla. This man was the cause of her current predicament. You don’t get to blow up my whole existence, and walk away from it happy, she thought.
The anger swirled through Ayla’s body and she snapped a twig in frustration. The loud noise echoed in the quiet alleyway and a passing jogger startled at the sudden noise their eyes bulging with inexplicable terror. This early in the morning, the introduction of a sudden, jarring sound had put the passerby on high alert, their eyes scanning the bushes frantically as they tried to pinpoint the source of the interruption.
Out of habit, Ayla leaned back as far as she could. She hugged her knees tightly to her chest, and tried her best to sit flush against the tree she was leaning on. She could feel the bark digging into her back, creating an uncomfortable pressure. The jogger continued to scan the bushes, and Ayla held still. Such an act of subterfuge was pointless of course, since Ayla knew the possibilities of being found were nonexistent.
The jogger seemed to assure themselves that everything was okay, and Ayla returned to watching the man. This was not Ayla’s most ideal way to be spending a Saturday morning, but a lot of things happened lately that were less than ideal.
He looked so innocent as he focused on his task, each movement having a sense of precision and satisfaction to it. There was a rhythmic thud as each grocery bag hit the concrete driveway. Thunk, thunk. Pause. Thunk, thunk. Ayla became unaware of how much time had passed, mesmerized by the movement and repetition of it all. Thunk, thunk. A flash of a table. Something about the noise stirred something in her memory, and the unpleasant sensation unearthed a new feeling deep in her belly. Thunk, thunk. Hooded figures. A rhythmic noise in the distance. She tried to cling to the amorphous thought as desperately as she could, hoping that it would jog something further in her brain. Something, anything that would help Ayla makes sense of it all. Thunk, thunk. But the memory escaped her just as quickly as it had arrived.
Ayla sighed as she picked at a hole in her sweater. All shards of Ayla's former life had slipped away and now she was reduced to stalker levels, slinking around in the bushes. And this man’s stupid, happy face was the only way to get some answers. Just as Ayla was about to give up for the day, the man lifted the last bag out of his trunk, and she caught sight of a piece of dark fabric wedged in the back of his trunk. It looked familiar.
A voice called to a man in the distance, and he hurriedly shut his trunk.
“I’ll be right there, honey,” he called, as he hefted bags under each arm. And then suddenly he was gone.
Well, that’s a wrap, Ayla thought wryly.
The sun had shifted positions in the sky, and illuminated the now quiet alleyway, it’s brightness mocking her. She used to love the heat of it, but she couldn’t feel it’s nurturing warmth now, she couldn’t feel much of anything really. Ayla stood and dusted some off some stray leaves that were clinging to her.
She forced herself to look back up at the blinding sun. Half past 7. It was about time to go.
- - -
Ayla made it to her next destination with a few minutes to spare. Though she wasn’t really fond of her new existence, at least transportation wasn’t really an issue. Ayla stared up at the towering building. It had probably been here for centuries, she thought, as she looked at the crumbling bricks, and the moss that covered the building like a living canopy. The roof had even caved in slightly. Why hadn't she ever noticed that before? Because you were always too busy coming and going, Ayla thought, kicking the stone steps in anger. She never took a moment to pause. To really take in the place that she had once called home.
Ayla squeezed her eyes shut tightly. Everything felt like it was too much recently, the swirling emotions converged with a prickling heat that made every inch of Ayla pulse with intensity. It felt a bit like she was having a heart attack.
Ayla heard low voices in the distance and unknowingly gravitated closer to them. She had caught a flash of familiar grey framed in the open doorway. The hallway was filled with stacks of teetering boxes and piles of bagged garbage; Ayla weaved through the clutter the best she could trying to get closer to the grey blur and the human attached to it as quickly as possible.
The woman came fully into focus.
It was really hard being back at the apartment. All these reminders of a life once lived. But seeing her. Seeing her was the worst part of it all.
She was no nonsense as usual, her tiny figure lost amongst the stack of boxes, grey hair pulled back in an efficient pleat. Her voice was strong and commanding as she addressed the army of tall, lanky, college boys.
“No, no,” She yelled. “Take the heavy boxes first. It makes no sense to put all the small ones in the back of the truck.”
Strong as ever, ready to take on any task. But Ayla could see the redness in her eyes. The wavering in her voice as she spoke. It looked like she hadn’t slept in days.
Ayla closed her eyes again and let her mother’s voice wash over as she rattled out a long list of instructions. Ayla could hear that voice echo a thousand times over in her memory, bringing a familiar comfort with it. When Ayla was a little girl, that voice would soothe her, as Amma read a story to distract Ayla from the monsters she feared were under her bed. Ayla never listened much to the stories, but instead focused on her mother’s soothing cadence as her voice drifted seamlessly from one sentence to the next.
Ayla couldn’t help herself and she reached toward her mother, longing to have that familiar comfort again. This last week had been absolute shit and Ayla could really use a hug. But Amma shifted abruptly, moving on to another stack of boxes; and Ayla’s hand passed through her with ease and landed abruptly on the wall behind her.
Ayla backed away. She shouldn’t have come here.
Amma and the movers continued to work, unaware that Ayla had even come and gone.
- - -
The man was working in the garden today.
He looked like he had been at it for a while. Mud caked the edges of his jeans as he dug his hands deep into the earth, pulling hard at a stubborn root. He added the weed to a large pile in a nearby wheelbarrow. A large sunken hole laid where his hands just were, the mud so fresh it looked dewy.
With all this labor to occupy him, Ayla wondered how he had found time to embroil himself in a nefarious plot. Even potential murderers had housework to do, Ayla supposed.
Well, Ayla wasn’t exactly sure that the man had killed her. The longer she was near the man, the more the memories returned. The last thing she remembered was being dragged forcibly through a darkened corridor. She didn’t remember where that was or how she had gotten there. She, however, vaguely recalled hearing the sound of chanting reverberating through the empty hallway.
She watched as the man moved on to trimming the hedges that lined his property, and he hummed energetically under his breath. This was just some obnoxious, suburban dad with a bad haircut, Ayla reminded herself. It’s not like he was part of some ritualistic cult or something.
The back door of the pristine home opened, and a slender woman emerged. Her features were sharp and distinct, drawn out more by the elaborate silk wrap that was holding back a sweep of flowing hair.
“I’m going out, Ivan darling.” she drawled.
The man now had a name. Ayla rolled the syllables around on her tongue. Ivan. The word felt familiar.
Ayla was trying to balance a precarious cup of coffee on top of a stack of equally precarious books in one arm, when a voice called out to her.
“Ma’am, you dropped this,”
It was a gentleman barely a decade older than herself. His blue eyes seemed to twinkle as he assessed her. He held a brightly colored wallet in his extended hand.
“Oh my goodness, I am such a space case,” Ayla said. “I didn’t even notice I left it. That would’ve been —”
She stopped suddenly, and tucked the wallet into her canvas pack. “I mean, thank you, um –”
“Ivan,” he replied.
The woman blew Ivan an elaborate kiss as she left. He carefully watched her car pull away as he balanced his full weight on the shovel he was holding. As the car drifted further and further out of sight, Ivan suddenly moved.
He slipped into the garage, his footsteps light yet determined. Ayla followed behind hastily and accidentally knocked herself into the open garage door. Ivan froze midway through digging in the trunk of his car, his hands firmly gripped the piece of dark fabric she had spotted the other day. His eyes widened in alarm as he looked frantically around the empty garage. A beat passed. And then another. Satisfied that he was alone, Ivan pulled his prize out from the trunk.
It was a canvas pack.
Ayla walked with Ivan outside of the cafe, neither of them quite interested in their destination. They chatted easily, moving swiftly from one topic to the next.
They slowed as they reached a juncture and Ivan gestured vaguely to his car tucked around the bend.
“I feel like I’ve known you forever.” Ivan said. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like a ride?”
Ayla found herself nodding as she followed Ivan into the empty parking lot. Something about the man put Ayla at ease.
She slipped her canvas pack off carefully and handed it to Ivan who had propped his trunk open.
Just as their fingers touched for the transfer, Ayla felt a sudden pressure to the side of her head. The world dipped sideways and she idly realized her knees had buckled. She looked up at Ivan perplexedly seeking answers, but he wasn’t alone any more. Ivan stared down at her expressionless as she was suddenly surrounded by a swath of hooded figures. Strange whispers echoed all around her.
Then everything went dark.
Ivan swiftly moved toward the back garden, grabbing hold of a group of potted peonies along the way. He set Ayla’s bag in the unearthed mound from earlier, moving quickly as he piled fresh dirt on top of the bag until it slowly vanished from sight. Ivan reached behind him to grab the potted flowers, tipped them over with ease, and shimmied them out of their container. He laid the peonies over the mound and packed more dirt around them firmly. He leaned back and admired his work as he clapped dirt from his hands. The ivory petals somehow looked strong yet delicate at the same time, swaying slightly in the wind. They looked brilliant there next to the tidy home, no one would know that deep beneath the ground lay the damning evidence of Ayla’s bag, nestled amongst their roots.
Ayla stared at the flowers’ deep red core, transfixed. Somehow the color burned deep into her corneas and she felt a sharp pain etched across her abdomen, like her body was being sliced open from side to side. Ayla touched the stinging area on instinct and as she lifted up her fingers, she noticed that they were stained with blood.
- - -
Ayla didn’t know what she expected, really. After her discovery yesterday, she was half expecting a portal to open in the sky and welcome her into the great beyond. She instinctively looked up but nothing but billowy clouds glimmered back at her.
Ayla couldn’t help feeling like a mouse trapped in a maze as she stood staring at Ivan’s house once again. Somehow, she kept getting drawn back here.
Just then Ayla caught a glimpse of Ivan through the window, as he poured over something in the kitchen. You did this, Ayla wanted to scream. As the feeling that accompanied that thought spread, Ivan turned and looked directly at where Ayla was standing, almost as if he felt her anger, and something that looked like fear tinged those infuriating blue eyes. As Ayla looked back, she felt that familiar fury coiled in her body. It felt like every fiber of her was ablaze.
Without much thought, Ayla stalked into the open house and turned straight into the study. She had never been inside Ivan’s house before, but something pulled her into the room. Her eyes settled on an ornate wooden desk.
She dug frantically through Ivan’s desk looking for something to make sense of it all, she knew it was here, she could feel it. Ayla was beyond caring and moved with haste, knocking over books and picture frames as she searched. She heard something crash and shatter behind her, but Ayla felt single-minded in her determination and she ripped open desk drawers in a frenzy. In the third drawer, her hand brushed something cold and small, and suddenly the world silenced around her as she pulled out a leatherbound book. It looked old.
Ayla flipped through the yellowing pages, and carefully pried apart two pages that had gotten stuck together. The only thing on the page was a few sentences of scrawl and some of the ink blurred together, making some of the words hard to read.
With new blood,
The earth will open
And begin anew
She flipped rapidly through the pages and until she noted an entry with a familiar date. December 4th. That was the day Ayla died. Beneath the date was a single address.
466 SW Oak
Ayla ripped the page and hurriedly stuffed it into her pocket. She could hear Ivan behind her who had come to investigate the noise and his body seized in terror as he assessed the chaos before him. Ayla had already moved on. This was never about him, after all.
- - -
The address had led Ayla to a rundown warehouse. It looked like it had been abandoned for decades, dust encased every nearby surface. The warehouse yard was filled with rows and rows of haphazardly stacked pallets that looked like they had been steadily rotting away. A crow landed nearby, cawing loudly.
Ayla moved swiftly, winding through the vast exterior of the warehouse, until she abruptly stopped in front of a brick wall, running her hands over the jagged edges. She paused and pushed on a single brick. The wall moved. As it opened, Ayla peered into a dimly lit hallway that seemed to stretch endlessly, the only lightsource coming from a single lantern blinking erratically on a nearby wall.
Ayla crept forward and suddenly the blinding pain was back. Every inch of her ached and she howled as it encompassed her.
“Why are you doing this,” Ayla screamed. “Please just tell me why.”
The hooded figures stayed silent as they dragged her down the dark hall, a familiar set of blue eyes poked out from underneath one of the hoods.
“Venus will be setting on the southwest horizon soon,” one of them told the other quietly.
Ayla couldn’t keep up with the increased pace; and she slipped and slammed her body into the cement floor. One of the figures huffed and gripped her harder, her bloodied knee staining the floor as she continued to be dragged.
Ayla felt like she was walking through a dream as the scene played out in her mind, and moved intuitively down the hall. A jolt of pressure in her knee stalled her, and she doubled over with the pain of it. Ayla blearily looked forward, she could see two oak doors at the end of the hall, and she forced herself to move. The memories came faster and came faster, surrounding her.
Ayla sobbed as they laid her body on the altar, and forced herself to close her eyes. She took a deep breath to steady herself. She knew this was the end, but she didn’t want to give them the gift of her fear. One figure wielded something sharp and shiny, and Ayla whispered a prayer Amma always sang to her. As the memory of her mother’s voice sat with her, a sudden calm flowed through Ayla.
Ayla was sprinting at this point, her footsteps echoing loudly. She finally reached the double oak doors and heaved them open. The room was extraordinarily bright, sunbeams streamed through the broken warehouse windows in a way that seemed strikingly cheery for the setting. In the center of the room was an altar.
And on top of the altar laid Ayla’s body.
The room seemed to brighten as she moved closer to her body. She looked upon her own hair cascading down the bloodied stone; Ayla’s lifeless eyes were closed and peaceful despite the circumstances.
Ayla gingerly pulled herself onto the altar and positioned herself until she was flush with her body. Everything quieted. As she laid back, Ayla forced herself to look up at the blinding sun, and for a moment she believed she could feel it’s warmth again. As Ayla closed her eyes, the pain drifted away and a new feeling crept in.
It was peace.