Ayla peered through the small crack between the door and the cold concrete floor, watching for the man with the gun. She panted and waited, sweat dripping down her forehead. Lying beside her, Derek looked back and held a finger to his lips. The man jogged in their direction, and Ayla held her breath.
He strode down the empty sidewalk, looking through the sight on his gun. Ayla squinted and tried to distinguish between the man’s blurry outline and the dark, shadowy buildings. As she squirmed to get a better view, the rough concrete rubbed against her exposed skin. She inched her hand toward her backpack and reached for her camera. Derek turned, wide-eyed, and shook his head, emphasizing the finger against his lips.
Ayla ignored her boyfriend’s concerns, and with one hand, she swung her camera around and pointed the lens through the sliver of an opening—just enough for part of her lens to focus on the man. She adjusted a few settings and pushed the shutter button. The camera clicked, and the sound echoed off the walls of the empty building. The man continued walking straight ahead, unfazed by the faint noise.
It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. She looked at the screen and studied the blurry picture of their hostile follower, then returned her attention to real life and watched the man draw closer to their building. His clothes were gray, with a small splash of green near his shoulder, and he wore a utility belt around his waist.
She held her breath again as he approached.
His boots crunched the gravel an arm’s length away from the metal door.
Ayla closed her eyes, knowing it wouldn’t make her invisible but hoping anyway. She pictured grain fields and tall oak trees in hopes of taking the focus away from the grit pressing against her skin, the stinging sweat in her eyes, and the tickle starting to form in the back of her throat.
The man stepped closer and stopped with his back to her. Barely visible from the cracked door, he shifted his boots in the gravel, sending a few rocks flying.
Ayla turned to Derek. His jaw was clenched, and a vein protruded from his neck. His face grew even redder, and his sweat dripped onto the concrete, adding to the stagnant pools of water in the . His eyes never once left the man just on the other side of the cracked-open door.
The gravel beneath the man’s boots crunched again, and he took off running in another direction. Ayla watched from under the door. The man’s shadowy presence diminished in the distance until it eventually blended in with the city’s surroundings.
She sighed. “Do you think we lost him?”
“Shh.” Derek slammed his finger into his lips again, face redder than before, vein still popping out of his neck.
Ayla sighed at her boyfriend’s ultra-conservative cautiousness, but she trusted his military training more than her instincts. After a few more minutes and a few more itches going unscratched, she couldn’t stay silent any longer.
“Who do you think he was?” After reaching down to scratch her legs, she used her elbow to prop herself up. She punched a few buttons to make her camera screen come to life and flipped through pictures.
“Ex-military. A little odd to see him protecting abandoned buildings though.” Derek stayed on his stomach, peering under the door. Ayla stared at her recent photographs and Derek’s words turned into mumbles. She was lost in thought and didn’t see Derek stand up until he spoke again. “Was it worth it?”
“These are great,” she replied, standing up and following Derek.
“Better be.” He walked around the perimeter of the building. “I can protect you from stray cats and homeless people, but once you throw in armed guards, we have a problem.”
“You could just bring your gun.” Ayla pointed the camera at him and made a pistol sound effect.
“Funny.” He covered the lens with his hand.
“I’m just saying . . .” She panned her camera around. “This building might be better than any of the others we were in tonight, anyway.” Light from the full moon streamed in from two stories above, through the expansive windows, and lit up the inside of the long-forgotten building, which was mostly empty other than remnants of machines and workbenches spread throughout the large space. Ayla meandered, stepping over pieces of garbage and chunks of crumbled brick and concrete. Every now and then, a mouse scurried across the floor. The stacks of old wooden crates piled five high inspired her to snap her camera and send more flashes of light into the dark corners of the building.
“Hey.” Derek strode toward her. “What are you doing?”
“Taking pictures,” she said.
“Turn off the flash,” he told her. “And let’s try not to stay too long.” Derek walked past the bolted and chained front door and eyed another door on the side of the building. It was boarded up and blocked off by split and cracked two-by-fours.
“Uh-huh.” Ayla’s focus shifted to the ceiling and the large windows encircling the upper floor. Some of the glass was cracked or had imperfect holes from rocks smashing through, and others were empty panes where glass used to be.
She snapped more pictures, following the rule of thirds, and focused on the beams of moonlight. She followed the light down the brick walls and moved her camera closer to the ground to take in the shadows scattered across the floor and bouncing through and around the slots of the wooden crates.
“Hey, come here,” Ayla called out, focused on the floor but no longer looking through her lens.
“What?” Derek jogged her way.
“What’s that?” Embedded in the concrete was a circular brass disc about the size of a CD. Derek stepped forward and dragged his foot across the floor, clearing off debris and rubble and revealing more of the worn marker. The piece of brass was stuck less than an inch into the concrete and had a design on top.
“Probably an old capped water pipe or survey marker or something,” Derek said. He and Ayla leaned in closer. There were three rings inside the round marker, each ring smaller than the last, like a bullseye target. Inside the smallest circle was a stylized five-point star.
Ayla zoomed in with her camera. “Aura,” she said.
“Aura. It says ‘Aura.’”
“A-U-R-A. Aura. All uppercase. Right in the middle.” Ayla adjusted her settings again and zoomed in further.
“That’s it?” Derek asked.
“Oh.” Ayla’s voice squeaked. “There’s also a small number three.’”
“Three?” Derek asked.
“Just a three. Three . . . circles? I don’t know.” She took another picture.
Derek paced and watched the doors. “How about just three more minutes.”
“Hold on,” Ayla said. “I think there’s more.” She reached down and poked around the marker with her finger. “Look.”
Derek looked where she indicated. Ayla’s fingernails were just long enough to slip beneath the outer ring. She squiggled her pointer finger underneath and pulled. The rings were all connected to each other and peeled away from the marker.
“Wait, wait, wait.” Derek lunged and grabbed Ayla’s hand. “We have no idea what this is.” He stood up, bringing Ayla with him.
“Don’t you want to find out?”
“I don’t want to break anything.”
“But look . . .” Ayla trailed off and pointed at the ground. Four thin lines had now appeared, forming a two-foot square around the marker. She dragged her feet over the lines and took a few more pictures. The concrete seemed to have split apart and separated from the ground. “Get out of the shot,” she directed Derek, who was standing inside the newly uncovered square.
He stepped back. “I’m not sure about this.”
“All right, just a second.” Ayla knelt, continuing her photoshoot. “It looks like a trapdoor or something.” Her voice bounced around inside the empty building.
A scratching came from the opposite corner, near the boarded-up door. Ayla stopped shooting and looked up.
“It’s not safe,” Derek said, grabbing her arm. “We need to leave.”
“Just a sec.” Ayla fired off a few more pictures. “Now we can go.”
She whipped her camera over her shoulder and jogged with Derek back to the entrance. They both rolled underneath the door they had been hiding behind, the crack just barely large enough to accommodate them, and out into the cold autumn air. As they jogged back to their apartment, through back alleyways and piles of brightly colored leaves, Ayla’s mind wandered, and she got dizzy imagining the different explanations for what they had come across.