Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 6): The Rules of Engagement
Terror rages in my veins, a wild tempest of fear fueled by the unknown. Who are these people offering shelter, and what is their ulterior motive? There must be one. Max is a jerk, but he doesn't strike me as a liar. If he's afraid, I'm terrified.
The message begins again.
“Attention, survivors! You don't have to be out on your own anymore. We have food, clothing, supplies, power, and best of all—other survivors. All are welcome.”
It's closer. They're closer.
Grace lies down by the front door with her back to us and growls.
Max's large form is frozen in place, surrounding me like a human cage. His heart thumps against my back, and the stubble on the side of his face pinches mine. This man is a stranger, holding me in an intimate embrace, yet I fear if he lets me go, I'll scream or fall to pieces.
“Shh . . . Marie, it's going to be okay.” Max rocks lightly, taking me with him. “Breathe for me.”
I nod in understanding even as I feel the telltale panic constrict my lungs. It takes great effort to pull air in and out, but I keep doing it. I long for my cell phone, to let Katie's voice talk me down, but my bag is too far away. Besides, Max is here, and I'm not sharing the Panic Opus with him.
Soft mewling sounds escape me when the Welcome Wagon reaches Fortune Street. They're probably visible from the upstairs windows now, but the thought of leaving Max's strong arms or putting a face to the enemy liquefies my insides and turns my legs to rubber.
Max presses his hand over my mouth gently and continues to rock. “They'll be gone soon. I promise.”
Grace gets to her feet, the hackles rising on the back of her neck. She angles her head and sniffs at the crack along the bottom of the door.
Max is right. They don't come any closer, and the recording becomes a garbled drone fading into the distance. Now that I know they aren't friendly, the message is no less creepy even from afar, and my heart still pounds uncomfortably behind my ribs.
At some point, I realize Max's hand is no longer over my mouth but rests on my shoulder, a few fingers curled over my collarbone, rubbing lightly.
“Max?” I whisper. “What the hell was that?”
“That was society's worst nightmare.” His voice is strained and hoarse. “The worst of the worst, doing shit in the name of what's right.”
“You're not making any sense.”
“The world doesn't make sense. If you expect it to, you're going to be sorely disappointed.”
Max shudders around me. I shake.
We remain that way for a long time, me wrapped inside this sometimes gentle, more often gruff man who has become my sudden lifeline.
When Max finally deems it safe to move, my body is stiff and slightly sweaty in the places we were connected. I hobble across the room and turn, watching him unfurl from chocolate leather and stretch his arms, huge biceps bunching and flexing. His size surprises me all over again. The man takes up so much space in the room, and it's not all mass. It's just him.
Cool air hits my right clavicle and shoulder, both arms, back, and the backs of my thighs—all the areas touched by Max—and gooseflesh tingles across my skin, up my spine, and over the back of my neck. I hold my breath for a few beats and let it go slowly. My heart thumps faster.
Max cracks his neck and shakes out his hands. “Shit, that was close.” He gazes down at me, completely unaffected.
Apparently, I'm the only one who reacted to “cocooning.” Then again, maybe Max doesn't have the personal boundaries I do, and he probably doesn't suffer from panic disorder, either. He doesn't have much in the way of social graces, but I doubt it's affected his ability to attract female company.
“Was it?” I ask, raising my eyebrows.
“What?” Max continues stretching, pulling one arm across his broad chest.
“Close. Was it close?”
He raises his own brows now, staring back quizzically. “What do you think, Einstein?”
Anger sears my veins, closing off the last bit of awkwardness I feel. Annoyance is something familiar, especially when it comes to Max. “I don't know what to think.” I eradicate his signature smirk with my next comment. “You're too busy trying to kick me out of town to tell me what the hell is going on! Here's a scenario for you, Max—what if you hadn't been here when they came around?”
Max's mouth drops open.
I ball both fists on my hips, getting into this. “Let me enlighten you. I would have run into the middle of the street waving my arms, you jerk!”
Max's mouth stays open, and his eyes widen. He even looks a bit repentant.
I cross the living room and tap a hand under his jaw as I pass him, smacking his mouth shut. “You're catching flies, Jack.”
Grace whines uncertainly and follows me out to the back porch. She stands still, sniffing the air for a few seconds, then trots into the yard to do her business. Grace doesn't seem to sense danger, so I lean on the railing and suck in deep breaths. My heart is racing, both from the way I just treated Max and because the reality of what I accused him of is settling deep in my gut. His games could have cost me my life. I'm too angry to cry right now, but I'd love to use his head as target practice.
I watch Grace romp around the yard, rolling on the ground to scratch her back or racing from one end to the other. The danger must be past if she's so carefree. I join her, sitting cross-legged in the whisper-soft blades.
The leaves of a huge oak flutter in the breeze, creating a lacy pattern over the brilliant green grass. Birds sing back and forth between the trees. The orangey orb of the sun hangs low in the sky, emitting a burnished gold wash that amplifies everything in its path. I raise a hand to shade my eyes and squint into the light.
This has always been my favorite time of day. Things seem quieter, more peaceful. The world hasn't succumbed to darkness yet, and a sense of hope and possibility fills the air. My thoughts drift to the sunflower field, where I sat among a thousand fragrant suns. A tiny frog hopping along the ground alights on my finger when I hold it out, and I'm fascinated by the little guy looking back at me.
A scuff on the porch behind me announces Max's presence and disturbs my preoccupation with Kermit. My arm shakes, and the frog takes off, disappearing into the grass. I don't turn Max's way but continue looking into the sun.
He folds himself down beside me. From the corner of my eye, I watch him wrap those muscular, tattooed arms around his folded up knees. “You shouldn't stare into the sun,” he says.
“Why not? I might blind myself and miss out on this crap world?”
Max laughs and nudges his arm into my shoulder. I'm not ready to be pleasant just yet, so I move to stand.
“Hold up.” Max grabs my arm, pulling me off-balance, and I land on my duff.
I glare at the tanned fingers encircling my bicep. “Get your hands off me.”
Max pulls away. “Sorry. I just . . . want to talk.” His voice is low and repentant.
“Now you want to talk?” I glance up at him. The fire of the sun lights his angular face and reflects back at me from his transparent eyes. The gleaming rays deepen his buzz-cut hair and the stubble on his face to a deep, reddish-gold. Stupid, pretty boy.
My traitorous heart beats a bit wildly. Katie's voice fills my head. A fine specimen is a fine specimen is a fine specimen, Ro.
“Listen, I'm sorry.” Max makes that nervous hand motion again, the one that indicates he's used to have longer hair. “I didn't mean any harm. I just wanted you gone.”
I stare at him incredulously. “Why?”
“It's not safe here.”
“It's not safe out there.” I fling my arm in the air.
Grace meanders over and insinuates herself between Max and me, lying down.
“Guess she thinks we need a referee.” He snickers.
“She's not far off.” My tone is acerbic.
I run my fingers absently through Grace's fur and end up bumping into Max's hand doing the same. I pull back awkwardly and look away.
“At least out there, you have a chance to blend in, to hide.”
I turn his way, but Max stares straight ahead now, and I end up looking at his cheek. His jaw is so tight, a muscle twitches.
My stomach churns. “When I left home, I traveled to my Uncle Jack's. He was a conspiracy theorist who lived off the grid and had a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Know what I found there?” I take a deep breath and fight off the guilt. “Two men were shacked up. They were keeping a woman prisoner in the cabin. I . . . wanted to save her, but they came back, and I hid in a tree. The next day, I heard them talking about how the woman drowned in the creek when she tried to escape. If they found me, I knew I would have been her replacement.”
Max stares at the ground, shredding bits of grass between his fingers. “You couldn't save her, Marie. Even if you had time to free her, they would have hunted both of you down.”
“We could have split up and gone our separate ways.”
Max finally looks at me. The molten rays of the sun light his eyes with the warm gold and blue-green of the beach and sea. “First, I don't believe you would leave a possibly injured woman out on her own.” He reaches over Grace and grabs my hand, exerting firm but gentle pressure. “And what if those men had gone searching in your direction?”
I turn away from his earnest expression. Max is an enigma. On the one hand, he's worried about my welfare, and on the other, he wants to toss me into the fray of the unknown.
“It might have made your life easier, huh?”
Max's hand tightens almost painfully over mine. “What? Why would you even say such a thing?” His tone is laced with the utmost disgust. “You're just absurd.”
I laugh. “Oh, I'm absurd? You've been working so hard to throw me to the wolves, and you won't tell me what the hell is going on around here!” I snatch my hand away. “And don't touch me!”
“You didn't seem to mind it earlier.” His mutter is almost too low to catch.
Anger sizzles, a boiling brew below the surface, and I leap to my feet and stalk to the other side of the yard and rest my arms on the top of the fence. Gently sloping fields carpeted with bright green grass dotted with a rainbow of wildflowers sweep away from the edge of the neighborhood in this direction. Two sides of the fields end with trees, while a third segues into scrubby land that leads to the sea.
What Max said rankles, maybe because it's true. I didn't mind being wrapped in his arms, the arms of a strange man who's demanded I leave here. Determined to get some answers, I push away from the fence and . . . smack directly into Max.
I raise my hands in self-defense, and one ends up planted on his six-pack—no, make that a ten spot—and the other smacks against a hard pec. My cheeks warm when a low chuckle rumbles under my fingertips.
“Can't keep your hands off, can you?”
I glare up at him and hate the amusement on his face. Grabbing both of his arms to steady myself, I haul my booted foot back and pretend the camouflage-covered shin is Max's face.
His arrogant expression contorts into a pain-filled grimace, and I eat up his agony, enjoying it even more when he howls.
“Yep, can't seem to keep my hands to myself.” I smirk, giving his cheeks a double slap before turning back to the view over the fence.
Max moves in close behind me, placing a hand on either side of me, effectively trapping me between the fence and his body.
“I donkey-kick pretty good, too.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Max makes a vise out of his feet, trapping my boots between his.
“That won't save you.”
He barks out a laugh. “I need saving? Seems you're in a bit of a pickle at the moment.”
“My father taught me lots of things, including the many ways to take a man down.”
“Oh, I'll bet you can get down, China.”
Loosening my fingers on the top of the fence, I bend my knees and bring one elbow back at the same time.
I'm able to slip a foot from between his and pivot my body, bringing the palm of my hand up until it's a hair's breadth from his nose. “Another centimeter, and you'd be toast. Or I could have crushed your windpipe.” I slip past a shocked Max and head toward Grace, who watches from her resting place with curiosity.
A black boot hooks my ankle, sending me face first into the grass. Max sits on top of me, pinning my arms at my sides. I turn my face, blowing grass out of my nostrils.
Moist breath ghosts along my cheek. “Lessons of the new world, China. Don't turn your back on the enemy unless you know they're down for the count. Never underestimate the enemy. Most important rule of all—no mercy.” Max kisses my cheek and releases me.
My face burns with indignation, and my insides quiver. I turn over and shoot my dirtiest look his way. “That was a dick move.”
Max rubs a hand over his jaw and offers me a hard look. “No, it wasn't. You may have picked up some tricks along the way, but the rules of engagement have changed. No mercy. No second chances. You put down rabid dogs so they can't bite again.” He takes a few steps closer and holds a hand out. “Come on.”
I reach out and take his hand, but instead of allowing him to pull me up, I yank him off-balance. As he comes toward me, I pull in my knees and use my feet to propel him over my head. Max hits the ground with a solid thump. I hop up and wipe my hands on my pants.
“You just broke your own rules.”
Max groans and rolls to a sitting position, shaking his head. “Damn, girl. I definitely wasn't expecting that.” He rubs his sore shin and smiles up at me, the first genuine smile ever meant for me. The smile lights up his face, and my heart thumps in answer. It slips away almost as quickly, and Max's brows draw down. “I don't think of you as the enemy. I was just trying to save you from . . .”
I fall to my knees in the grass next to him. “What? For fuck's sake, what are you trying to save me from? Who are those people, and why are they worse than what's out there?”
“They're collecting survivors, Marie. They have clothes and food and power, just as promised, but the part they aren't saying is why they'd offer to share with total strangers.”
I stare into Max's eyes, trying to discern if there's any deception in the oceanic depths. There isn't. “Go on.”
“They want to know what many of us do—why did some people survive while most of the world perished? They take in survivors and use them, run tests on them, in an attempt to find a cure.”
“What's wrong with looking for a cure?”
“Nothing. Unless you keep taking blood and running tests until the survivor becomes a casualty.”
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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