There was the tempest. Winds pining and howling. Clouds swirling. Rain lashing. Thunder and lightning. The godlike.
Then there was the aftermath.
And I always thought I was the aftermath. Weather-beaten. Windswept. Reduced to rubble.
Now, however, though I was still the aftermath, I saw no signs of the devastation. My hazel eyes were two bright Venuses. My smile the richest of rainbows. My skin a fabric of lustrous happiness. This was it. This was the moment I had always dreamt of as a little girl. This was the day fairy tales were coming true and no one was going to tell me otherwise.
Humming a sweet melody as I brought my dark waterfall of hair to the crook of my neck, I marveled by the mirror for the thousandth time of my A-line white dress that my soon-to-be husband’s mother helped pick out for me. I touched the neckline of the dress against my chest as I remembered the raunchy remark my fiancé had whispered to me last night about the dress and I couldn’t help the girlish giggle that escaped my throat. I was going to hear Liam Channing’s unfiltered mouth for the rest of my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Nevaeh, you are one dazzling heck of a view!” Liam’s only sister, Ava, barged in with a glamorous entry in her dreamy lavender dress tailored just for the maid of honor and Liam’s mother followed suit with a string of compliments ushered my way. I smiled timidly in response. “You’re through in max twenty minutes. Dad will be here soon.”
Ava got me to sit down by the vanity, prodding at the hair and makeup Liam’s family had paid extravagant bucks for, and her mother recited the last minute to-dos to herself like verses out of the Bible.
When she looked at me again, her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. “I wish your parents had been here to see you like this.”
“You guys are all I need, Grace,” I told her, emotions choking the length of my throat, and she tenderly weaved her fingers through my hair, having nothing else to say.
It was true. Liam’s family was the only family I had ever known and the only people I didn’t feel the need to run away from like I did with my own parents. Truth was that they had abandoned me, too busy with their own thriving lives to actually notice the life they had brought to the world recklessly. Leaving them only felt like a modest way to say that I wasn’t needed.
Grace was more of a mother than my birthmother was, Ava was the only miracle of a friend I had and Liam’s father was giving me away like I was his own daughter. All I’ve ever wanted in my life was to carve a place for myself in a loving family and now the windfall was right at my doorstep, ready to be snatched the second I stand next to the man at the altar I’ll cherish for all the remaining sunsets in my life. The destiny to my name that borne the blessed letters of 'heaven' had finally arrived.
Grace and Ava soon left the room to give me my final minutes’ space as I wore the veil over the crown of my head with its attached tiara in gentle precision. I sat still trying to keep my head up against the intoxication of jitters and ecstasy and waited for Liam’s father and the wedding planner who was yet to come back with the promised bouquet of peonies.
I looked up when I heard the doors exaggeratedly open with a loud bang against the walls and was momentarily surprised to see one of Liam’s little cousin who played the flower girl for the wedding charge to me with a folded note in her hand.
The young girl gave no explanation as she thrust the note into my hands and sprinted right back out the door. Dazed by the unexpected intrusion, I regarded the note with no churned feelings other than the persistent exhilarating wedding buzz.
Every sane breath rushed out of my lungs, leaving me with a stricken fire that began to devour my seventh heaven. I stood up in a haze, suddenly sobered of the rapturous tipsiness. My mind in a whirlpool, I reread the diligently typed letter.
I know what you did last summer and so will he…
…unless you want to get to the place where you buried your secret.
Time is ticking. Run!
Lightning cracked across the clouded sky as I drove in solitude for almost an hour in a white 67 Mustang with a paper stuck on the shield of glass at the back of the car printed ‘Just Married!’ I looked too lavish and glitzy for an overcast, stormy day in the middle of an afternoon’s rush-hour traffic, much less a rendezvous.
I exhaled in despair for the man I left at the altar all on his own. By now Liam should have found the note addressed to him. I was vowing that I wasn’t running away on the day I was supposed to vow to love him through the good and the bad, and through sickness and in health.
The thought of coming back to the disappointment from my almost-family was appalling. It was as close as it could get to visiting hell but truly, hell was where I was heading to now and if I hadn’t left, it would have engulfed every ounce of heaven in my life. I had no plans of letting my locked up demons free itself now and drag me back to where I originally belonged. The addiction for heaven was no compulsion like other. I would do anything to drown in the taste of it and I just hoped Liam and his family would understand for today.
I sighed heavily at the wildly rushing rain past the swishing windshield wipers that no weather forecasts forewarned of until just ten minutes ago from the radio. At least I wasn’t getting married on an inauspicious day like this.
I had been stupid. I shouldn’t have met Aaron Sawyer that day. How could he have found out? I never told him anything and he never asked me why I had showed up at his condo at the wake of dawn looking like a ragged doll. All I knew was that I needed someone by my side that night, be it a stranger or an old high school acquaintance and as the latter, he was considerate enough to take me in. I never went back or thought of him again when I fled after the two nights of pulling myself together at his place. The memories weren’t worth the backpedaling.
What would he want now?
I glanced at the rearview mirror that overlooked the backseat for the umpteenth time to confirm what I brought along with me for the restless journey, and with a reassured but unsteady huff, I drove to the unforgettable, haunting woods.
The shack abided by its same form and identity as it did when I witnessed it last summer. It resided inside the woods five miles past the house where my demons arose and where I was taught to be one. I didn’t know of its uninhabited existence until I went in a desperate search for a place to hide my grave secret. The shack was old, windowless and uninviting. I had only seen it from afar but now the forces pulled me towards it, aware that Aaron was waiting for me by the timbered walls.
I got off the chic car in my wedding dress, the veil and other accessories on me chucked on to the passenger seat, and opened the back door to the vehicle to hook what I had brought for the journey onto my garter under the dress. The wanton rain washed me down in sharp prickles and the thunder masked the sound of my erratic and deafening heartbeats. My hair matted against the curves of my face as water trickled through the seams of my lips.
Steeling my heart, I trudged through the woods, my dress occasionally grasping on to the branches of the bushes as if it were worryingly preventing me from walking towards the doom.
Then I saw it. My buried secret unburied and out in the open. The wraps on it were still soiled and covered and the rain slapped against it like a punishment. It was no empty threat. Aaron Sawyer meant business. I shivered but it had nothing to do with the cold rain. Memories bolted out the hidden trapdoor in my mind. I steered my eyes from the sack in hesitation and proceeded towards the nearing shack.
He sat by a wooden stool at the end of the room lighted by a couple of randomly placed candles around the space. His eyes lit up at the sight of me by the flimsy entrance door.
Aaron stood up with a sprightly smile. “Nevaeh! Right on time. I was just about ready to text up your fiancé. Don’t you look…” He paused to give me an once-over. “Horrifying,” he completed.
“How did you find out?” I disguised the apprehension I felt from the thought of having Liam find out through my somber voice. No one should ever find out.
“It took me a damn year to figure it all out but everything’s pieced and now it’s show time,” he continued evasively with hype and flair in his tone.
“How did you find out?” I repeated bitingly. I was in no mood for small talk.
“Did you already forget that I work in forensics? How do you expect me to look right through the sight of you at my doorstep covered in grime and reeking of the oh-so staggering smell of metal? I’ve had my fair share of cases, you know.” At the slightest crack of my unruffled demeanor, he carried on with a triumphant grin as he moved closer to me. “At first I was just curious. It was like solving a complex three-dimensional puzzle. I fell in love with the thrill. I just don’t understand one thing – why did you do it? Why did you kill your husband?”
“He’s not my husband!” I screamed, my anxious eyes teeming with tears. “We never registered our marriage. It was a mistake. I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“You right mistakes, Nevaeh, not bury them six feet under the ground in a secluded site.”
“I didn’t want to ruin my life over a megalomaniac man who always beat me to near-death,” I eventually said, digging out the anguish I had interred with the man I used to love. “I stayed by his side for two years, putting up with his temper and his unrealistic expectations, because I loved him. I wouldn’t have-” A choked sob broke through me. “I didn’t mean to hurt him. I panicked when he began to throttle me and before I knew it…” I let the trail off speak for the untold incident. “He was a man better left concealed from the world. He deserved it.”
“Nevaeh, Nevaeh, Nevaeh,” Aaron mumbled as he circled around my rooted figure. “You think you are the redeeming, virtuous heaven but really, when it’s spelled backwards, don’t you think it’s all the opposite? It should be the mystery of the century – did you give him his rightful hell or… is it that you are the hell?” He barked out a laugh at his own sardonic observation.
“Please, Aaron,” I pleaded as he stopped in front of me with his arms crossed over his buff chest. “I have a dreamlike life waiting for me back there. I have never been as happy as I’ve been now and right now, I have jeopardized that happiness to get here. Please don’t ruin this for me. I have to go back and make it right.”
“You can go, Nevaeh. I’m not stopping you. I only want one thing.”
“What is it?”
“I just want in on that happiness you’re speaking of. I found out that your fiancé is loaded. Finance me from time to time whenever I want and we’re good.”
“I’m not marrying him for the money. I don’t even know if he’ll take me back for the stunt I pulled today.”
“I’m sure you’ll find a way out. I believe in you, Nevaeh.”
I stared at him with utter disgust swirling in the pits of my stomach. The rainbows and stars on my sky had splintered and again, I was left with the forlorn reminder of the aftermath I was. “I should have never come to you that day.”
He cocked his head to a side, regarding me in mock dejection. “Hey, don’t be like that. Friends help each other out.” At the glaring silence from my end, he spoke again to neutralize the tension sizzling between us. “You’re not losing out on much. We can bury him again together to prove my sworn allegiance to you if you’d like.”
His enthusiastic, greedy hand leaped forward for an acquiescing handshake. I wondered what rein could ever hold down an undisciplined evilness like this. The thought of touching his vile skin was nauseating.
But it wasn’t the same as those days when a tomorrow was anything but a promise. My childlike expectations were finally something lifelike. Real. Vivid.
When I survived the daily inferno, I awaited nothing, but one breath of the air in the very heaven on earth and I wanted all its accompaniment. It wasn’t a craving I could ever turn away from. I was a slave to the only heaven I knew and I’d do anything to get back to it. Anything.
I slipped my unwilling hand into his expectant one and shuffled nearer to him.
It was still pouring when I walked out the shack. The mournful clouds, sporadic lightning and teardrops-like rain painted the canvas of the towering sky. I distractedly wished I had scampered with some change of clothes so I could simply roll my sleeves up and get to work. I had quite a few things to do and my draggling, ripped dress was making it harder to put my shoulder to the wheel.
My eyes swept around the woods, from the place where I buried my first secret to the place where I was going to bury the next. Then, my eyes halted.
The wind whipped at my skin, whispering the forbidden. It spoke for my hushed mind. It voiced for the here and now.
It told me there was not enough rain to wash the crimson stains off my once snowy dress but there was, however, enough light to bare the sight of Liam standing a couple of yards away from me with a wet, crumpled letter in his hand.
I placed my hand on the side of my thigh to feel the outline of the bloodstained knife I had fastened back to the garter. With a comforted exhale, I lumbered through the muddy ground towards my fiancé.