Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 7): Not in Kansas
The beauty surrounding us is suddenly stripped of all joy, fading to a dim caricature of its previous glory. When I gaze around me, soft ripples of grass, the mighty oak dressed with whispering leaves, and the strong golden rays of the setting sun all appear to be part of a sinister subterfuge. The maintained houses and manicured lawns—a picturesque town by the sea, dissociated from outside death and destruction. It seems obvious now.
I scrunch my eyes, shutting everything out, and rest my butt on my heels with my head bowed. I can't unsee what I've seen or unhear what I've heard.
“Marie?” Max's voice reaches me, deep yet soft.
A number of clues click into place at once. I was so anxious to escape the outside world, I ignored the evidence piled before me.
“Hey.” He's much closer. “You're trembling.” Max's breath ghosts across my cheek, and he steadies me by both arms.
I shake my head slowly, denying. This is a nightmare. I'll open my eyes to pale green walls, pink and purple flowered sheets, and Katie, pressed up against me. She'll ask me about my bad dream and tell me to stop watching zombie shit. My crazy twin will then pop open a can of Red Bull and chug it, knowing how disgusting I find her morning jump-start habit.
I'm almost there with Katie, but Max's grip holds me here in nightmare land. When his touch disappears, I almost smile because now I can sink deeper into my fantasy.
A pop and hiss sounds from the can in Katie's hand, and she holds it out to me. “Come on, wussy. Once you go Red Bull, you'll never wake up on your own again!”
I push her arm away. “That's what I'm afraid of, you addict!”
Katie stares, her kohl-smudged eyes dark and serious. “There are worse things, Ro.”
“Wake the fuck up. Do what you have to do.”
Rough warmth cradles my cheeks, wrenching me away from the image of Katie-but-not-Katie. “You're crying.” Max sweeps his thumbs under my eyes, gathering the tears I didn't know were falling.
My eyes blink open. Max kneels in front of me, cupping my face and peering down with concern. I'm grateful and angry. I want to thank him and slap his scruffy cheek.
“Where were you?” he asks. He's still close, a faint whiff of mint on his breath. Our eyes meet, and I think he senses the dueling emotions flitting under the surface.
“Away from this—this nightmare. I h-hate this new world.” The tremor in my voice makes me feel weak. Katie would be ashamed.
Grace's furry muzzle pops up between us, and she licks my chin.
Max laughs. “That a girl. Show your mama it's not so bad here.”
A breeze kicks up, laying lines of ice over my tear tracks and dog-licked chin. I shiver and notice for the first time how sore my knees are. “Um . . .” I grasp one of Max's wrists and try to pull his hand away.
He resists for a moment, bringing his face closer to look deeply into my eyes. “It's going to be okay.” His voice is soft, almost tender.
We lock gazes, and there's something in those transparent, sea-glass irises begging to be believed. He holds my face between his hands until I nod, then finally lets go.
I don't ask if it will really be okay.
Grace whines and trots to the side of the yard facing the fields. She stands on her hind legs, propping her front paws against the fence, and glances over at us, doing a little spin in place.
Max stands and reaches a hand to me. I gaze up at his vulnerable expression and instinctively know it's hard for him to put himself out for others. I rest my fingers in his, and it feels as if I'm accepting more than help getting my feet under me. It's that way with everything related to Max. Nothing is ever simple or straightforward.
He pulls me up, a slight smile curving his generous lips. “Thought you were going to kick my ass again.”
“I considered it.” I grin, and air glides smoothly in and out of my lungs, replacing the shallow breaths of a few seconds ago.
“Grace wants an adventure.”
“Do you think it's safe?”
“Fairly. They never go by the beach.” Max reaches for me. “Walk with me?”
Tentatively, I accept his hand again, which is calloused and warm and completely swallows mine. He leads me to the side gate, and Grace races through with a joyful yip once he opens it.
We watch her dark form streak through the field for a few minutes. She's fast, and I can tell she's enjoying the freedom. Max steps through the gate, tugging me along with him. Though we're holding hands, it doesn't feel romantic—more like he thinks I need the support. Maybe we both do.
I allow Max to lead me into the overgrown grass. Dew is already gathering and wets the bottom of my jeans. Long shadows make it instantly cooler here. Petals on many of the colorful wildflowers curl inward in preparation for the coming night. A salty draft from the sea mixes with clear woodland air, and I breathe deeply, loving the contrast. When I glance at Max, he's staring at me with open curiosity.
He shakes his head and starts walking again. “You switch gears like a master.”
“Most chicks would be curled in a ball somewhere. You're fierce.”
My cheeks flush. Being called fierce by Max makes me feel good—and pretty fierce.
By the time we reach the seaward edge of the field, dew soaks our pants to the knees. Grace still romps through the grass, far enough away I fear someone might hear if I call out.
Max pauses and runs his fingers along the neckline of my top. I suck in a breath and glance up. His gaze fastens on my chest as he hovers closer.
“Blow long and slow for me.” The rasp of his voice causes my stomach to flip.
He tugs the leather strap from inside my shirt and gives me the dog whistle. “Blow once, long and slow. To call Grace.”
My face flames, and the skin of my neck gets in on the action, too. I take the whistle with a shaking hand and do as he says. Grace halts mid-run and lopes toward us. That was easy.
“Cool.” I nod, trying for casual.
Max snorts out a laugh and squeezes my hand—the one he’s still holding. “Admit it, China—your mind was totally in the gutter.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Max ghosts the fingers that aren’t wrapped around mine across one cheek, down the side of my neck, and along the flushed skin visible above the edge of my top. “I’m sure wrapping your lips around whistles always has this effect.”
An involuntary shiver rolls up my spine, joining the warmth spreading through me.
Grace reaches us, looking up expectantly. Max removes his hand from my chest to pat her on the head and whispers “Go!” in her ear. Grace lopes over the scrubby terrain, disappearing behind a dune. Max follows her, pulling me along behind him.
I’m glad we’re on the move, and I don’t have to answer questions about my embarrassing reactions. My mind definitely took a dirty slant when Max made the whistle comment.
As we pick our way through dry, scrubby plant life, gravelly sand and pebbles cling to our boots and the bottoms of our dampened pants. It doesn’t bother me too much because the briny smell of the ocean draws me forward. As we reach the apex of a dune, the wind picks up considerably, whipping my hair across my eyes. The pungence of the sea hits me full force. I swipe the hair out of my face, securing it with one hand, and take in the expanse of shell-sprinkled beach sloping to meet the crashing waves.
“Beautiful.” A joyful smile spreads across my face.
Max pauses and looks back at me. “Without a doubt.”
We stand frozen, eyeing each other until Grace’s bark interrupts the moment. I glance at the foaming surf and watch Grace splash through it, the surging water skimming the bottom of her belly.
On the beach, there’s still about an hour of daylight before the shadows lengthen and the temperature plummets. Max releases his hold on me and jogs down the sand to meet Grace. He bends into a crouch and slaps his thighs, sending Grace into a frenzy of barks and spins. She runs straight for him and leaps in the air, knocking him off-balance and landing him on his ass in the shallow surf. Water and clumps of wet sand fly up, the droplets and granules decorating Max’s hair and T-shirt. Grace dances around him, dodging in to lick his face.
I cover my mouth, but giggles start deep within and force their way out. By the time I stagger down to where Max and Grace are, I’m laughing so hard it’s difficult to breathe.
Max glances up at me, squinting one eye against the sun. “Are you laughing at me?”
“No.” I attempt a serious face. More giggles burst forth. “Okay, yes.”
Max smiles and shakes his head. “What am I going to do with you?” He lowers his head, still smiling, then suddenly sweeps his arm against the back of my knees, causing a reflexive disaster. I fall over his arm and land in the wet sand just as another wave rushes in.
“Shit!” I cry out as the frigid swell rolls over me and splashes me in the face. Dodging to the side, I push myself to a seated position opposite Max and glare at him. “What the hell?”
Max doesn’t even attempt to hide his amusement. He openly laughs, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “You had that coming, China. And the timing couldn’t have been more perfect!” His laughter progresses to loud guffaws.
I wait for another wave and cup my palms, giving him a full-face saltwater treatment while his mouth is wide open. “Shoot the clown in the pie hole! Bulls-eye!” Hysterical laughter weakens my muscles, and Max’s shock is priceless.
He blinks several times and spits out a short stream of salt water. “What the fuck, China?”
“You had that coming.”
“Oh . . . so that’s how you want to play it, huh?” Max nods, a mischievous gleam in his eyes. He hops up and stands, dripping over me. He crouches, leaning in closer.
“You think I’m falling for that, buddy, you’re mistaken.”
“For what?” He feigns innocence so well—except for that evil glint deep in those sea-glass eyes.
“Really, Max? Don’t pretend you’re trying to help me up and then push me back in!” Another wave rushes the shore, wetting my ass and slopping more silt into the top of my jeans. I’ll probably be working sand out of unmentionable places for days.
“Can’t pull one over on you.” Max leans up, then swoops down and grabs me around the waist, lifting and tossing me over one shoulder.
I shriek as the world turns topsy-turvy. Grace races around us in circles, barking happily. Max runs around, dipping me close to the surf, then hauling me up while I scream and cajole before threatening his manhood. I grab a hold of his juicy behind in the midst of scratching up his back. I even have time to note what a nice, firm derrière it is in between threats and screams.
Max’s fun finally comes to an end when he trips over Grace. At least he has the presence of mind to pull me off his shoulder as he falls, landing with me half in his lap. I grab around his neck to keep from falling into the waves again. Grace runs off now that she’s done her part, leaving me in Max’s arms.
He’s laughing, a full-out free one that stops me from seeking revenge—at least temporarily. His eyes dance with amusement. When he notices me watching him quietly, the laughter dies off, and he stares back at me.
I half-expect an apology, but that’s not quite Max’s style. My arms are still around his neck, and I slide them away. This time, I’m proud to say there’s no blushing.
He brings his lips next to my ear, sending a warm tingle through my body. “Never dreamed the first time you grabbed my ass and left nail marks on my back would be quite like this. Joke’s on me, I guess.”
My mouth rounds into a shocked “O.” I struggle to get off his lap, boots sinking into the mire and slipping. Max grabs my hips to steady me, but I fight him off. Now my face is burning—with indignation, not embarrassment. He presses those fascinating lips together, attempting not to laugh while he helps me up. When I’m finally standing, I ball both fists on my hips.
“What?” He sits in the lapping waves, arms wrapped around his knees, as if it’s not soggy and uncomfortable.
“You actually think that would happen?”
“It’s within the realm of possibility.” He climbs to his feet and towers over me, eyes hardening. “Or are you one of them?”
“One of who?” Now I’m confused and on the defensive.
“Forget it. Sorry if I insulted your feminine sensibilities. It’s getting dark—we should head back before the temperature really drops.” Max turns away and starts up the beach, his posture rigid.
“Max, wait! What are you talking about when you say ‛one of them’?” I tug the dog whistle out and call for Grace while trying to keep up with Max’s long strides.
He halts at the bottom of the dune and rubs his neck. “Look, I’m sorry,” he says with his back to me.
Grace and I finally catch up to him. “Max?”
He shakes his head. “I got carried away. Don’t be mad. It’s just—there’s no fun anymore. This world sucks.”
“Can’t argue with you there.” I reach out tentatively and touch his shoulder. “It was kind of fun. Well, before you hung me upside down.”
Max turns. This time he’s the one blushing. He takes my hand and pulls it close to his chest. “I am sorry if I insulted you in any way.”
I shake my head, completely taken by surprise. “It’s all right. We both got carried away.”
“No biggie. Forgiven.”
Max smiles, but his eyes are still watchful and unsure. He keeps possession of my hand and starts climbing the dune. And so we return to the house the way we came to the beach: holding hands.
center>* * *
Hot water feels like heaven sluicing over my skin. Max insisted we go to the blue house and take advantage of the shower. He claimed the enemy didn’t come around at night, but he covered the bathroom window with a board to hide the light of a lantern just in case.
I tilt my head, enjoying the warmth as I cleanse my hair after finally rinsing the sand out of every crevice of my body. Showers were always a necessary start to my day; now I never want to get out. The things we take for granted.
It wouldn’t be fair to use up all the resources, especially since Max is the one who clued me in that the big propane tank outside powers the hot water heater. I never tried the faucets in any of the houses in town, assuming the water was shut off, but nothing of the rest of the world seems to hold true in this strange place.
Warmth blooms between my legs when I think about Max hanging out in the master bedroom while I’m in here naked. The sexual innuendos from earlier in the day float through my mind. There’s no denying Max is attractive. He’s also mercurial and secretive and frustrating. Grace trusts him with her life. Can I?
Turning off the tap, I grab a fluffy towel and dry off. It feels good to pull on clean clothes after being freezing cold and coated with sand.
I enter the master bedroom barefoot, wearing a long-sleeved Henley and a faded pair of jeans. Max reclines against the headboard with Grace snugged against him.
“Hell, yes!” He rushes off the bed and heads for the bathroom. “Hope you left me hot water!” he calls from the bathroom.
I kneel on the queen size bed and crawl up the mattress, taking Max’s place. I run my fingers through Grace’s fur and try not to think about Max, naked under the hot spray.
I jolt awake with a gasp when the bed dips down, opening my eyes to pitch darkness.
“Shh . . . it’s just me. You fell asleep.” Max sweeps aside the tangle of hair covering my eyes.
Though I blink hard and open my eyes as wide as possible, the room remains dark. “I can’t see.”
Max fumbles with something beside the bed, and a match flares to life. He lights a candle, and the room is bathed in a soft glow. We’re still in the master bedroom of the blue house. Grace is fast asleep alongside me, a dead-weight source of warmth.
“What time is it?” I cover a yawn.
“Just after midnight.”
“Sorry I fell asleep on you.”
Max’s lips quirk into a half-smile. “You need it. Go back to sleep.”
“Why aren’t you sleeping?”
“I don’t sleep much. I’ll catch a few z’s later.”
He moves to get up, but I grab his arm and scoot up to a sitting position. “Don’t go. I’m kind of awake now.” He watches me, but it’s hard to make out his expression in the dimness. “Let’s keep this conversation rated PG, okay? I have questions.”
Max holds his hands up. “PG it is. Fire away.”
“Where are we?”
“Canada. Wasn’t expecting that.” Licks of light bounce around the room, reminding me of happier times hanging out with Katie in our room. We both loved lighting candles and whispering secrets in the night.
“You’re from Maine, right?”
“So it’s not such a stretch that you’d work your way to Nova Scotia.”
“I suppose not. Where are you from?”
Max breathes out a short laugh. “All over the place. Before the epidemic, I was in Maine, too.”
I decide to plunge right in with the hard questions. “What is this town? How do you know so much about the Welcome Wagon and what they want?”
Max looks down at his lap, chewing the inside of his lip. “This town is for them. For when they find a cure.”
“Why not live here now?”
Max wraps his fingers in mine and waits for our gazes to lock before he answers. “Most of them aren't immune. They stay sequestered to keep the virus at bay.”
My eyes widen, and I sputter like a fool for a moment. “But . . . how . . . I don't understand. If they're not immune, how did they survive?”
“There is a vaccine, but it's just a stopgap measure. The protection wears off.”
“What? And then?”
“They'll re-vaccinate, but early trials indicate the virus mutates too fast. If they don't come up with another formulation of the vaccine or a cure in time . . .” Max drops my hand and makes a cutting motion under his chin.
“Early trials? This just happened like two months ago!”
He snorts and shakes his head. “Yeah, in our world it happened then. These evil fuckers have known about this a lot longer than that. It's why they're so damn desperate.”
An icy wash of fear curdles my stomach. “H-how do you know all this?”
“A mix of experience and inside information.” He cups my jaw in his palm and brings our faces close together, his eyes the most intense I've seen them yet. “If you never listen to another word I say, hear this: Desperation can make kind people cruel, and the threat of extinction changes the rules of acceptability. This isn't the world you're familiar with. We're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.”
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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