Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 2)
A bird's nest rests on the palm of an outstretched hand. Standing proudly in the center of the colorless, dried-up strands is not a bird but a lemon yellow buttercup. A few fresh, green blades of grass dot the lifeless landscape. A gloved hand reaches over and plucks the buttercup from the nest, pinching it between two fingers. The grass promptly wilts, and the nest crumbles to dust.
“No!” I sit up in the pitch dark, gasping and shivering cold. “The buttercup . . .” Tears fill my eyes as I mourn the loss of my dream flower. It wasn't just any bloom. I know there was something special about it, just not what.
The night is clear with enough stars gleaming in the sky that I can make out the shadow of Grace sitting beside the circle of stones I used as a makeshift fire ring. I glance at my watch—it's just after midnight—and back at the extinguished fire. At the least, there should still be smoke curling into the air. I crawl forward and stare down at the pile of dirt that smothered my fire then look over at Grace. Surely she would have alerted me if a stranger were poking around. Turning quickly, I check through my meager belongings, but everything is intact.
“What happened to the fire, Grace?” I whisper.
Grace licks her chops and lets out a high-pitched whine. She shuffles her feet and fixes two dark, hungry eyes on my rucksack.
“Nice try, girl. We have to conserve our rations—especially now that there are two of us.” I zip my jacket and dig an emergency blanket out, wrapping it around myself.
Grace tilts her head and sniffs at the crackly silver covering. Deciding it's okay, she curls up facing away from me. After a few minutes, I lie down and pull the blanket over my head. Sleeping out in the open doesn't worry me so much tonight because I know Grace will sense danger. It's been a while since I've seen any other survivors anyway.
Earlier, I looked down at the village, wondering if I'd see any sign of life once darkness fell. There wasn't a pinprick of light or a curl of smoke as far as my eyes could discern. I'm somewhat used to the silence now, but the sight of the empty streets causes goosebumps to erupt over my flesh. My instincts scream that something is amiss, but the little voice in my head says I'm paranoid because this is the world I live in now. I reach out and run my fingers through Grace's fur, enjoying the warmth of another living being. If she weren't here, any chance of sleep would be stolen. As it is, I'm exhausted.
While I lie on the cold ground and peek at the stars from underneath the Mylar blanket, waiting for sleep to claim me, I wonder again how I ended up on the top of this cliff. The last thing I recall before waking here is coming down with a high fever, shuddering chills, and all-over body aches. I feared the worst, assuming I wasn't immune to the deadly virus after all. I don't know how long I slept or how many days were spent stumbling around. Thus far, I've kept track of time using tally marks, but I have no idea how much time I lost.
Morning brings rays of sun burning through a thick haze of fog that shrouds the sea and clings to the ground like a smokescreen. I perch on an outcropping with Grace beside me and watch the fog dissipate, leaving behind a grayish sky and churning water. Storm clouds gather in the distance, and the bite of the wind tells me we'll need to seek shelter tonight.
I share Slim-Jims and an apple with Grace. I'm not sure where the apple came from, but its sweet juice dribbling down my chin brings a rare smile to my face. Grace gobbles her portion and licks her lips. She nudges her nose against my leg, hoping for more.
“That's it, girl.” I wipe sticky palms over my jeans before hefting the rucksack on my back. “Time to go spelunking.” I leave the ocean behind, heading toward the other side of the cliff.
The downward slope of the cliff is rocky with intermittent tangles of vegetation. By the number of rocks piled at the bottom, it's obvious how dangerous it would be to attempt going this way. I take a moment to look out over the small villages and towns separated by rolling green fields and trees. It's beautiful down there. No abandoned cars, dead animals, or signs of humans. A strange and unwelcome flutter invades my belly.
Grace and I find a narrow road curving along the side of the cliff and make our way down. Even this path is treacherous with sudden dips and loose stones. A small village with quaint clapboard houses is nestled at the bottom. It feels strange to walk through the empty, narrow streets. Grace runs ahead to spend some time in the front yard of a little red house surrounded by a white picket fence, relieving herself and rolling around in the grass. I stand awkwardly in the middle of the street and watch her scuttle from yard to yard.
When she runs behind a blue house with white shutters, I follow. The desire to keep my new friend in sight is a compulsion that won't be ignored. Though I've been on my own for weeks, the thought of being alone here in this place terrifies me.
A lovely garden takes up half of the back yard. Colorful blooms grow along each side of the fence, and the back is taken up by rows of vegetables. There's even an apple tree. Grace races across the grass and snatches an apple off the ground. She parades around with it in her mouth before settling down to eat it. I join her under the tree and polish an apple on my jeans.
I enjoy my second apple of the day until the weird fluttering starts up in my belly again. A strong breeze lifts my hair. The tinkle of wind chimes startles me, and Grace snatches up the other half of my apple when it falls from my hand.
The garden looks too perfect. Everything here looks too perfect. The grass is tall but not overgrown, and weeds haven't overtaken the flowers. The vegetables look well tended. A pair of dirty gardening gloves, a sun hat, and a basket rest on the back porch of the house. I half expect the owner to emerge from the back door, ready to work in her yard.
I climb the porch steps and peer in the window of a mudroom. The back door is unlocked.
Grace bounds over with her tail wagging, happy to have a task. When I open the door, she walks right into the house, taking the time to sniff everything.
The first floor consists of a kitchen, dining room, living room, and den. A narrow stairway leads upstairs. The atmosphere is peaceful and the house as well kept as the yard. There are no disturbances or signs that the previous occupants were ill.
An acoustic guitar resting against the wall in the corner of the den catches my eye. After staring at it for a while, my fingers itch too much to leave it untouched. I carry it into the living room and sit on the blue and cream plaid couch, giving the guitar a few test strums.
Grace pads in from the dining room with her head tilted.
“It's a guitar. I haven't played one in a while. Back home, I have my own.”
Grace sits beside the coffee table and watches me expectantly.
“You like music, girl?”
I play the opening bars of “Hotel California” and close my eyes as the rich sound fills the air. Playing the guitar and singing has always been an escape for me. The lyrics flow from my lips, and for a few minutes, I forget everything as the music winds its way around and inside me. By the end of the song, a pleasant tingle has worked its way up my spine and over my scalp. My fingers buzz with a life of their own.
When I open my eyes, Grace still sits there, watching me intently.
The cabinets in the kitchen have plenty of canned goods. So does the adjoining pantry, including homemade jams and jellies. There's even an airtight container of dry dog food with a scoop in it.
I hunker at the kitchen table with a can of baked beans, and put a paper plate of dog food on the floor. Grace sniffs the kibble and chuffs, scratching at the pieces with her paw until they scatter across the floor. Once that's done, she sits at attention beside my chair with her gaze focused on my can of beans.
“Oh, Grace . . .” I shake my head. Then again, she probably hasn't eaten dog food in a long time. I give in and open a new can of beans.
Part of me feels like I should leave the house, but where do I have to go? With a potential storm rolling in, this would be a great place to hole up.
“What do you say, Grace? Should we stay here tonight?”
I'm talking to an empty room. I go in search of Grace and find her curled up on the couch, sound asleep.
“Guess I have my answer.”
After using some bottled water to brush my teeth, I lay down on the couch beside Grace with my feet tucked under the warmth of her back end. Tonight I have a handmade afghan covering me instead of crackly Mylar. I sigh with contentment and fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The morning is partly sunny with swollen purple clouds in the distance. Grace trots out to the yard to frolic and munch on apples. Everything seems all right until I decide to play the guitar.
I canvass every room on the ground floor, but the guitar is nowhere to be seen. My heart beats wildly, and I rush toward the back door. That's when I notice the dog food I assumed Grace had eaten during the night is neatly piled on the paper plate.
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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook