The passing scenery was unfamiliar yet beautiful; with long pine trees arching towards the sky and mountains looming across the horizon. She didn’t see much of mountains and trees living in the urban chaos of Lahore, so the change was welcome, if only it had come under better circumstances.
Her eyes flickered to the man sitting in the front street with the driver, her husband. She winced at the thought; a husband wasn't the term she'd use to describe the cold, emotionless bond she shared with him.
But she didn’t know what else to call him.
It had been five days since the wedding. Five days since her world had changed so irrevocably, and yet that morning had been the first time she’d laid eyes on her new husband since their wedding. And they’d had yet to exchange a single syllable with each other.
She’d been woken in the early hours of dawn to be told that they were leaving within the hour for Khanwal; Asfandyar’s ancestral village. Dazed with sleep, she’d packed her meagre belongings in a flurry grateful that she hadn’t unpacked her suitcases just yet.
Downstairs she saw a dozen or so suitcases neatly lined up, waiting to be picked up and loaded into the cars. Laila-or Laila Ammi as she'd been instructed to call her, stood in front of the main door in the foyer giving orders to the staff that flitted about her attentively, proficiently carrying out the tasks assigned to them.
In the days she’d spent in the house Laila had been her sole source of solace and companionship in a house that breathed long draughty silences and where loneliness echoed from every dark corner. The house seemed dead, as if in mourning, or perhaps it had never been alive, to begin with. The meagre staff would drift through corridors and rooms as silently as ghosts, creeping in the shadows, only to be seen when called upon.
It was perhaps of this barrenness, that Laila had taken to her so quickly, taking her under her wing to educate her about the family, Asfandyar, though more often than not the conversation would drift to herself and her son Zaid, who was in London for the summer, partying up the last days of his student-life.
She didn’t mind Laila’s long aimless stories, it seemed to her that she probably didn’t have anyone to talk to in the house, with her husband and son and nephew barely being in the house. So, she let herself be the vessel in which Laila poured in her melancholy.
“Oh, jaani you’re here,” Laila said as she adjusted her large designer sunglasses on her head, “You better hurry, Asfandyar is waiting for you in the car. Don’t worry I’ve already had your bags put in his car. You’d better hurry, he doesn’t like to be kept waiting,” She explained giving her a small smile.
She'd felt apprehensive at being in the car alone with her elusive husband, a man she barely knew. However, she needn't have worried, for she might as well have been non-existent to him, with the way his eyes slipped off her, his face impassive, not bothering to acknowledge her.
She didn’t think it was a very positive start to a marriage. Apparently, he wasn’t all too happy about the arrangement either. She wondered if he was in love with some other girl. It was probable, he had the looks and the lack of personality could easily be overlooked by the size of his bank account.
It wasn’t a farfetched idea. Perhaps, he’d been with that nameless girl these five days.
She didn’t know what she’d do if that turned out to be the case, would she stay in such a loveless marriage? Or it could be him who would eventually initiate a separation? And most importantly what would she do if he did?
Dadi would probably still blame it all on her-ostracizing her from the family. But she didn’t care for that, the only two people she cared about were her siblings, and Tanya and Ammar would never abandon her. The only thing keeping her here was her morality-however twisted it was.
She'd taken this upon herself to absolve her mother's mistakes, and so she'd stay, uphold her end of the bargain until Asfandyar set her free.
Observing him from the back, his black hair that curled at the nape of his neck, the long aristocratic shape of his nose, and neatly trimmed beard, she had a sudden overwhelming urge to hear his voice, the deep gravelly timbre of it. To know that there was a soul beneath the veneer of aloofness and sophistication.
However, he remained silent, as he stared ahead.
Shaking her head, she forced herself to think of other things-more pressing concerns. Such as her insatiable need to tear open her travel bag and dig out the bracelets Laila had given her. It terrified her, her desire for them.
She'd taken them off immediately after the ceremony, however, she couldn't bear to let them out of her sight. That first night she'd slept with them tucked under her pillow until she'd forced herself to lock them in her almirah. However, they were still the first thing she packed, scared of leaving them behind.
She had a niggling suspicion that the strange hallucinations were a product of those bracelets-perhaps they were cursed.
Do you hear yourself, Hooria? The rational part of her brain scoffed at her, yet she couldn’t discard the idea completely. She couldn’t believe that her mind-no matter how stressed, could conjure up such grisly visions. They’d been so petrifyingly real-too real, to be a product of her admittedly vivid imagination and obsession with horror films.
And yet she had no other explanation for them.
It had to be her mind, slowly unraveling after weeks of stress.
But what about Asfandyar? He’d seen something, hadn’t he? He looked horrified. But then again, he could have just been appalled at the shenanigan his new wife had pulled. He must have thought her stir crazy.
Perhaps, that was why he had been away.
She was so caught up in her thoughts that she didn’t realize that the car had stopped. Looking out her window she saw that the sky was now a canvas of night, soft moonlight slinking down over the wide expanse of woods and mountains, casting eerie shadows everywhere.
The sight seemed something straight out of a horror film, and a part of her felt frightened; she didn't know these people, and while they hadn't done anything to make her fear for her safety, she couldn't forget that they had a decade's old vendetta against her family-the reason behind her marriage.
What if they planned on murdering her here, in the desolate mountains under the cover of night? She shook off the preposterous thought, but her grip still tightened involuntarily on her phone.
“Khanwal, is still a few hours away,” Asfandyar said, his rough voice jolting her out of her fatuitous ruminations, “You can go stretch your legs or freshen up. We’ll stop here for some chai.”
Looking to her left she saw a small rundown Dhaba, with weathered charpoys laid out in front, and bright lights illuminating the board with the name, “Hotel Paradise” written in big obnoxious letters. Nodding, even though he wasn’t looking her way she slipped out of the car, breathing a sigh of relief as she finally stretched her stiff legs. She saw Laila hurrying toward the small ramshackle toilet off in the corner.
Behind her she heard Asfandyar get out of the car, talking to someone on his phone, as he walked away from them.
The air so high up in the mountains held a chill to it, and Hooria felt faint annoyance at Laila for not warning her so that at least she’d have brought some warmer clothes. Walking up the dirt path she felt the back of her neck prickle with awareness, and she turned to see Taimoor-Asfandyar’s uncle watching her with those reptilian-like eyes.
She could feel his gaze slithering over her face and form, scrutinizing her with an unnatural intensity as if she were a rare insect specie and he an ardent collector. In the handful of times she'd been in his company, she'd felt unsettled, uncomfortable with the bluntness of his gaze, which wasn't exactly lecherous but still made her feel vulnerable.
Turning away she quickly made her way to the toilet where Laila had disappeared into, not wanting to remain alone with Taimoor. Her phone vibrated in her hand. It was Tanya.
Did you reach Khanewal yet?
She smiled, grateful for the distraction.
It's Khanwal. And no not yet. It'll take a few more hours. We're at a small Dhaba right now, for some chai.
The door opened and Laila stepped out, her features twisted into a grimace, “Oh, the toilet is absolutely disgusting. If I didn’t have to go so bad, I would have never gone into that,” She turned to the small white sink washing her hands she asked, “Don’t you have to go?”
Hooria shook her head, not mentioning she’d hardly had anything to eat or drink since morning. The last thing she’d eaten was a granola bar while packing.
Laila laughed shaking her head as she dried her hands with tissue paper from her bag, “You, young people and your steely bladders. I swear what I wouldn’t give to be your age again.”
“Chalo, let’s go. I hope they’ve ordered something to eat, I’m absolutely famished.” Laila complained as she trudged forward to where Asfandyar and Taimoor sat on one of the charpoys, with Hooria trailing after her.
“Have you ordered?” Laila asked as sat at the very edge of the charpoy, making sure her designer clothes came into the barest of contact with it.
“We’ll just have chai, right now. Phupho Ja has prepared dinner for us at home. Better keep your appetite,” Taimoor grunted.
“But Taimoor, Hooria hasn’t,” Laila began airily, only to be cut short by her husband.
“I said that Phupho Ja has prepared dinner for us and we’ll eat when we get there.” He barked, as he flicked her a glare.
Laila’s face shut down, her eyes downcast, as she fidgeted with the edge of her beige pashmina shawl. Hooria felt a pang of sympathy for the woman to be rebuked so harshly in front of others by one’s spouse- and that too over such a trivial matter would be embarrassing for anyone.
And the forlorn expression on Laila’s face only made her want to envelope her in a hug and punch her husband right in the gut. However, she couldn’t help but feel a stirring of warmth within her- Laila had known she hadn’t eaten anything, and she’d spoken up for her.
It may not have been much, but it eased her to know that somebody, in this strange household cared for her well-being.
Short of hugging her, Hooria placed a hand on Laila’s giving her a small solemn smile, communicating her gratefulness, when Asfandyar who’d been busy on his phone the entire time, pocketed it and stood up.
“What do you want to have, Laila Ammi?” He asked ignoring the glower Taimoor sent his way.
“Oh, nothing. Taimoor’s right, Phupho Ja put in so much effort for dinner. It’d be unthankful to ruin our appetite and let her effort go to waste, “She mumbled meekly.
“A small snack wouldn’t make any difference, we still have a few hours to go,” He said gently, his eyes soft and tender as he looked at her, “I’ll get those mix pakoras you like so much, okay?”
Laila nodded, smiling.
“And what would you like?” He asked, turning his molten silver gaze toward her. It struck her then. The difference between Taimoor’s eyes and his. They were the same color, and yet they invoked very different feelings, yes, they didn't hold the same warmth that he aimed at Laila, but at least it didn't make her skin crawl; his silvery gaze held the humanness she had been searching for before.
“I’ll have what you’re all having,” She replied, reeling with strange emotions as their eyes lingered on each other for a beat too long; curious but still bashful, and she could feel a flush crawl up her neck before she looked away, ignoring the warmth unspooling within her.
The pakoras were stale, however, she still had at least five, trying her best to be as well-mannered and ladylike as possible in front of her new family, as she tried not to slurp her chai and gobbled down everything all at once.
As she stood up to wash her hands, Laila passed her a small makeup bag.
"You're a newlywed bride," She smiled explaining, "Phupho Ja is a bit old-fashioned; she'll take offence if you're not all dolled up when coming to meet her for the first time. And there might be some relatives there, eager to see Asfandyar's new Dulhan, so just touch up a bit before you get in the car."
Hooria gaped at her, did Pupho Ja really expect her to travel twelve hours in a car wearing embellished designer clothes and all her jewels? However, she quietly took the makeup bag, figuring Phupho Ja was yet another matriarch like Rehana, someone who stuck to archaic traditions.
Walking to the sink, she savoured the chill in the air, the dark mystique of the forest around her, and the quiet symphony of crickets and other nocturnal creatures as they came alive with the setting sun. The sink had a small cracked mirror above it, with enough light reflecting from the Dhaba, to allow her to see her reflection.
Clamping the bag under one arm she bent down and splashed her face with the chilled water, letting the cold shock of it chase away any sign of fatigue or tiredness. Rising her eyes flickered over her reflection, gasping she stumbled back, a scream bubbling up her throat as she saw a tall apparition covered completely in swathes of dark wispy fabric, standing next to her. The bag fell near her feet, as she swung around to look at the figure.
There was nothing beside her.
Breathing hard she looked about her wildly, her heart pounding in her chest as blood roared through her ears, spiked with a sudden surge of adrenaline.
What was that? A shadow? Or her mind playing tricks on her again?
She waited, looking about her, the urgency and fear fizzling away when nothing came out to attack her, she berated herself for freaking out over nothing.
Laughing shakily to calm her frazzled nerves, she bent down to pick up the makeup bag, when suddenly she felt something hard and sharp whoosh over her head. Startled she shrieked, as a terrifyingly large and ugly crow flew past over her head, flying to sit atop a scraggly branch, watching her intently with its sharp beady eyes.
She glared at the bird, even though the sight of it, staring at her, sent a wave of wariness through her. Rubbing the top of her head she turned back at the sound of frenzied footsteps approaching her.
Asfandyar hurried towards her, his tall form bristling with tension, his breath ragged as he perused her head to toe, “What’s wrong? I heard you scream.”
Hooria felt embarrassment creep up her face, he must think her insane for sure now, getting sacred and screaming at imaginary things.
“Uh, nothing,” She said sheepishly, “A bird flew past me and startled me, that’s all.”
“A bird?” He asked incredulously, wrapping his arms across his chest, “You got scared of a bird?”
“It startled me,” She retorted defensively, folding her arms, mimicking him.
Asfandyar gave a disgruntled shake of his head, “I thought- “He cut himself off.
“Nothing,” He said brusquely, turning away, effectively shutting her off, “Hurry up, we need to leave.”
“I’ll be right there,” She said frowning at his retreating form.
She knew she had been stupid, screaming at such a trivial thing, but she had genuinely been scared, and glimpsing shadows and weird demonic birds at night in the middle of a forest, would scare anyone. He didn’t have to be so insensitive about it.
Shaking her head, she turned back and picked up the bag, hurriedly slathering on some powder, lipstick, and a hint of blush to bring colour to her pallid face.
Hurrying back to the car, she returned Laila’s bag to her.
“Oh, and Hooria wear the bracelets as well. It’ll make Phupho Ja happy,” Laila instructed as she made her way to her own car.
Dread swept through her at the thought of wearing those cursed things again, even though another part of her felt a renewed craving for them, rejoicing at the chance to see them again.
Nodding silently, she went back to Asfandyar’s car, ignoring his impatient glare. The car started moving again, as she took the gold bracelets out of her bag, an intense hunger erupting inside her, as she gazed at them, caressing them almost reverently.
The ache inside her increased, with every passing second until she finally slipped them up her wrists, sighing with relief as the ache subsided.
She waited to see if she felt any irritation-any burning sensation. However, she felt nothing but the cool satisfying weight of them on her skin.
Leaning her head back on the headrest, she wondered at her obsession with them, her yearning for this piece of metal. It frightened her. It wasn't natural, this fascination. However, she couldn't help herself. It seemed as if they contained some form of magic that ensnared her and enthralled her.
The soft moonlight and lolling motion of the car lulled her to sleep, her vision getting bleary.
However, just as she succumbed fully to slumber’s dark embrace, she thought she saw a large dark bird-the same one as before, with the same unsettling eyes watching her, as it flew past her window.
Except now, his dark eyes seemed to burn with the same deep red as the rubies on her bracelets.
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