Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: Both
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 3)
Through the open back door, I spy Grace lying on her back in the grass, wiggling around and pawing at the air. The pulse in my temples hammers, creating a low roar in my ears.
Did I leave the door open? I didn't clean up the kibble, and unless Grace is a miracle dog, she didn't either.
My sneaker catches on the edge of the door frame, and one knee comes down hard on the planks of the porch. Pain radiates from my bruised kneecap, causing my eyes to water. “Shit, shit, shit, shit!”
Grace trots over and licks my nose. Her breath smells of apples, which makes me laugh through my tears. “You're going to turn into a McIntosh, you silly dog.”
I stand on wobbly legs and notice the sky. The sun is hiding behind bruised-looking, purplish-gray clouds. The storm is still some distance away, but it's coming.
Turning back to the house, I hesitate in the doorway, realizing there's a deeper issue I need to face. I'm not alone here. Someone doused my campfire, left an apple in my bag, took the guitar, and cleaned up the dog food Grace spilled on the kitchen floor. Not only that, but Grace didn't alert me at any of those times. Either she's a crap guard dog, or something really weird is going on. Maybe a bit of both. The actions of my stalker are an odd mix of benevolent and unkind.
I go inside and look things over with fresh eyes. There's a fine, even layer of dust coating everything except what I've touched. With a sense of trepidation, I climb the creaky, narrow wooden steps to the second floor. The bathroom, both bedrooms, and the closets are unoccupied and dust-covered, much like the first floor. My guess is nobody's been inside this house for weeks.
I poke through the dresser and closet in the master bedroom. It appears clothes and underthings are missing from the drawers, and a bunch of empty hangers line the pole in the closet. The rest of the room is tidy.
My next stop is the bathroom. There are no toothbrushes in the holder. A sweep of the medicine cabinet suggests toiletries are missing, and the garbage can is empty.
I leave the bathroom and sit on the edge of the neatly-made bed to contemplate this new information. The click of Grace's nails clatter against the wooden stairs, and she enters the room a few seconds later. She lays her dark muzzle on my thigh, her tongue sweeping out for one quick lick at my hand.
I pat her head and scratch behind her ears. “What's going on, Grace? It seems as if whoever lived here went on vacation or something. They took clothes and toiletries and left the house neat—even emptied the garbage. Those don't sound like the actions of people fearing for their lives, do they?”
Grace whines softly and lifts her head to look up at me with a slightly troubled look that says she wants to understand me but doesn't. I think she senses my disquiet.
“I think I need to check out a few more houses to see what they look like.” Just saying the words causes my heart to thump against my ribs. Part of me already suspects what I'll find, but I have to know.
Grace remains at my side as I leave the house, never more than a few inches away. She doesn't bound across the yard to grab an apple. As we exit the back gate, she doesn't rush out to explore.
Heading for the sidewalk, I stand there and pan the street. All the lawns appear well manicured. There are no garbage cans set by the curb. The driveways are empty; the few cars visible are parked on the street.
I walk to the end of the block and into the middle of the intersection, turning slowly to observe each of the other streets. They're all the same.
Grace whimpers and hurries to catch up when I start with purposeful strides toward one of the houses. The front door is locked, but on a hunch, I check the back door. It's unlocked. Taking a deep breath, I go inside.
The interior is completely different from the little blue house. The décor is an Asian-inspired mix of crimson, black, and cream with lovely paintings gracing the walls of every room. A ceramic tea service rests on the kitchen counter, reminding me of the delicious tea I used to drink at Ming Ha's. The owner used to giggle behind her hand when she saw me coming and would say to the wait staff, “She drink lot of tea for little girl.”
What this house has in common with the other is tidiness, a light coating of dust, and—when I finally find the courage to check the bedrooms—missing clothes and toiletries. There's plenty of food in the cabinets here, too. No garden or apple tree.
The next house and the one after that are much the same. Grace trots along beside me as I go from place to place, moving faster each time. My heart pounds until I fear it might explode.
What is this? It's like the vanishing Mayan civilization, except these people knew they were leaving. Some houses are naturally neater than others, but that has more to do with the people who lived there and the life they lived BV—Before Virus as I've labeled the line of demarcation between the old world and the new.
I stalk back up Fortune Street—some kind of cosmic joke?—a slightly hysterical laugh bubbling up from inside. Grace yips and spins in a circle, still remaining close, and I pat her head, unsure which of us I'm trying to reassure.
A distantly familiar tightness squeezes over my chest, and I lose my breath. I fall to my knees on the front lawn of the blue house as dark panic oozes over me, filling every space, invading every neural pathway.
“Katie,” I squeak out, the burning loss of my twin never as real to me as right now.
Katie. My identical twin. The darker, louder, braver one. The twin that didn't suffer panic attacks.
I topple to my back on the soft blades of grass, staring up at the threatening gray sky.
Ever since the age of ten, when our selfish mother left us with a well-meaning but inept father, Katie was the balm that soothed my panic away. She would swing down from the top bunk, hold my hand, and sandwich me between her body and the wall until I could breathe again. As we got older, Katie was always available by phone, no matter what she was doing. When she was dying from the virus, Katie snatched my cell phone and recorded what she called her Panic Opus—a personal message followed by the song she used to sing to me after mom left.
I've been careful to keep my cell phone charged, alternating batteries and using a solar charger. The thought of losing Katie forever is too much to bear.
My cell phone is inside the house in my rucksack, well out of my reach.
I draw in a whistling breath. In the past thirteen years, I've never had to work through a panic attack alone. I don't know how.
Grace barks sharply. Her wet nose nudges at my jaw.
I reach up and grasp the warm fur on her chest in one fist. I don't know what commands she's familiar with. “Grace . . . down.”
Grace immediately drops to the grass and curls her body against mine, resting her head on my chest. I hug her around the neck and crush her against me. She whines lightly but doesn't struggle or push away.
Grace's warm body and obvious concern for me does the trick. The icy crush of panic ebbs away a little at a time until I can breathe again. The feeling of foreboding still clings to me, a desolate shroud, but my chest fills with air over and over.
When I'm finally able to curl up to a seated position, Grace barks happily and dances around me in circles before darting forward to lick my face from bottom to top.
“Graaace!” I laugh and hold my hands up. She keeps trying to reach my face through my fingers.
On my way back inside, I realize the large propane tank on the side of the house might still power the stove. Excitement at the thought of hot food pushes me to move faster. Twenty minutes later, a saucepan of soup is bubbling away on the stove.
I find a few cloths under the sink, dancing my way around the kitchen and dusting while the soup is heating. I start singing, too. A buoyant joy bubbles over, and though I recognize the signs of my post-panic-attack mania, I ignore it. There's nobody to talk me down or even notice or care, so why should I?
I waltz around the kitchen with a broom and even open a can of beans for Grace. After setting the table with a real ceramic bowl, metal silverware, and a vase with a fake flower, I sit down to my first civilized meal since leaving home. “Grace, dinner!”
The soup is delicious. Curls of chicken-scented vapor awaken my senses, and I close my eyes as I dip my spoon over and over. For a moment, I almost forget.
The lack of canine sounds pulls me from the fantasy. I open my eyes, and the steaming plate of beans sits on the floor untouched.
The back door is open, but I don't see Grace. I get up from the table and lean against the doorframe, which gives me a panoramic view of the backyard, but my furry buddy isn't there. My good mood is forgotten. Grace hasn't been out of my sight since we found one another. The sky is much darker and more threatening now with rumbles of thunder in the distance.
I rush off the porch and run around the side of the house, calling her name with a shrill and hysterical edge to my voice. As I round the corner of the house, something solid knocks the wind out of me, and I land on my backside in the grass. “Ooph!”
Parked in front of me is a pair of grungy, black combat boots. Tucked into the boots, is a pair of rust-hued jeans belted by thick, studded leather, followed by a white ribbed tank. Well-defined, tattooed arms are crossed in front of an impressively broad chest. His strong, scruff-covered jaw twitches, and his mouth presses into a straight line that exudes disapproval as he looks down on me with transparent, blue-green eyes that remind me of sea glass.
My mouth gapes. I fight to draw deep breaths, my gut still smarting along with my butt.
“You have a death wish?” he asks in a growly voice.
I shake my head, never taking my eyes off his.
“I know you're not mute. Shit . . . could hear you singing and screaming for that dog halfway across town!” He shakes his head and glares at me with disgust.
He moves abruptly, bending his tall body to reach for me. I flinch, holding my arms up in front of me.
“Take my hand.” His large hand grips my forearm like a vise, and he hauls me to my feet as if I weigh nothing.
I struggle to pull away, but he stalks toward the backyard, pulling me along with him. “Stupid broad,” he mutters.
“What . . . did you . . . call me?” I ask breathlessly, appalled by his rudeness.
He laughs abruptly. “For that, you find your voice!”
I realize he's heading for the house to do God-knows-what to me. “Grace! Grace!”
He drags me onto the porch and swings me around, slamming me up against the wall and pressing a hand over my mouth. “Shh!”
I stare up at him with wide eyes and try to fight back tears.
“No more screeching, okay? I'm gonna take my hand away.”
I nod. After all, who's going to hear me?
He pulls his hand off my mouth and kicks the metal milk can off the porch, sending it flying onto the lawn with an echoing clang. His large hands grip his head, scrubbing over buzz-cut hair before he towers over me. “Do you want that dog to die?”
Anger rips through me, and I forget about being scared. I take a step forward and glare up into those sea-glass eyes of his. “Are you threatening to kill my dog?”
His expression morphs to one of confusion and hurt, and for a moment, I see underneath his façade. “Are you crazy?”
“Me? You're the one who attacked me and threatened my dog!” Pieces start clicking into place. “Wait, wait . . . that was you all those times, wasn't it? You put out my fire, stole my guitar, and . . . and cleaned up the dog food on the kitchen floor?” I tilt my head, confused.
“Don't forget the apple I left in your bag, sweetheart.”
“But that was a nice thing to do.”
He laces both hands over the back of his neck and looks up at the sky. “Oh my God. Everything I did for you was nice.”
“Yeah, letting someone freeze to death by putting their fire out—what a gentleman. Oh, and let's not forget the guitar!”
The rest of his words, which I'm sure would burn my ears, are lost by a blinding flash followed by a crack of thunder that shakes the ground. Fat raindrops slash through the air, coming faster and harder by the second. He grabs my arm and tugs me into the house, shutting the door.
“Wait! Grace is still out there!” I yank open the door and stalk onto the porch. When I open my mouth to yell for her again, he slaps a hand over it.
“Don't. There's a better way to call the dog.”
I turn and watch him pull a leather cord out of his tank top. He brings the object dangling on the end to his lips and blows. No sound comes out, and I realize it's a dog whistle. He blows again and looks into the gathering dark and pelting rain expectantly.
More thunder rolls, long and grumbling. A short bark sounds between claps. Grace barrels up the steps to the porch and straight over to the intruder. She doesn't bite him or growl; she stands up on two legs with her paws on his chest and licks his face when he leans his head down. The jerk actually smiles and scratches my dog behind the ears.
“Who's a good girl?” Grace lands back on all-fours and butts her nose into his hip. “You don't miss a trick, Nudge, do ya?” He slides two fingers into his pocket and tugs out a piece of jerky, sinking into a crouch and feeding it to Grace.
I cross my arms and lift a brow. “Nudge?”
Sea-glass eyes gazes up at me with a poorly concealed smirk. “I concede to you, China. Grace is a much better name for her.”
“My name's not China.” I point at the dog. “Her name is Grace. She's mine.”
“Can we talk about this inside maybe?” He stands to his full height, reminding me how much bigger and stronger he is than I am.
I chew my lip, wondering what to do. Grace seems to know and like him; she did come when he blew the dog whistle. I nod my head, deciding to trust Grace's instincts.
As soon as the door is open, Grace bolts for the now-cool bowl of beans and starts chowing down.
Sea-glass eyes saunters into the kitchen and looks around. “You dusted, swept, and used the stove?” He manages to sound outraged by this.
“Yes. Would you like a bowl of chicken noodle?”
He glances over at me sharply. One hand presses against his flat stomach, and he seems undecided, though he's clearly hungry.
“I won't poison you.”
He nods and pulls out a chair, sitting in it and leaning back against the wall. Tilting his head, he watches through narrowed eyes as I ladle up a bowl of soup and place it in front of him then proceeds to spoon it into his mouth faster than I've ever seen anyone eat.
I rest my butt against the sink and watch this stranger with the sea-glass eyes suck down another bowl of soup. My gaze wanders over his pumped up arms and the thick, tattooed vines winding over them. Heart-shaped roses in various stages of bloom and decline, some with plump, ruby drops of blood oozing from their drooping heads, cling to the vines.
“See something you like, China?” He rests his head against the wall, watching me, an inscrutable expression on his ruggedly handsome face.
I turn away, my face burning. Then I do what comes naturally when I'm uncomfortable—I put him on the defensive. “So . . . how long do you plan on stalking and sabotaging me? Isn't this town big enough for the both of us?”
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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