Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: Both
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 9): Moving On
Long after Max is gone, I sit on the back porch, paralyzed with fear.
The world I’ve known for twenty-three years has ended, leaving this dangerous, broken, lonely one in its place. Nothing makes sense anymore.
I didn’t realize how much background noise filled the air around me until the sounds of people, cars, machinery . . . life was eliminated. Remove carpeting, curtains, and furnishings from a house, and the acoustics morph from muffled to echoing. The slightest sound cuts through the air now, traveling great distances.
The day remains cloudy, reflecting my mood. Hours later, when I stand, my legs are sore and my ass numb. Grace settled at my feet soon after Max left. I’m sure she senses my disquiet.
I haven’t thought much about what to do as morning segues into afternoon, so sure Max would come back and say he made a mistake. Or was that simply wishful thinking because now I have no choice but to move on alone? It’s not that Max is great company—his mood swings rival those of a toddler at times—but as he reminded me ad nauseam, the world has changed.
“Well, Grace, time to man up.” I walk the stiffness from my limbs and allow the feeling to return to my posterior. My stomach grumbles, reminding me I haven’t eaten all day. “Oh, shit . . . sorry I haven’t fed you.” I lean down to pat her head, the guilt eating away at my insides.
I’m not alone. I have Grace counting on me now.
Since there’s no longer garbage service, I realize we need to be cautious about consumables. There’s nothing I can do about the cans from our meals, but I hunt through the kitchen cabinets and decide to wash and reuse some plastic bowls I find. Rather than risk traipsing back and forth between houses, I’ll just use the upstairs bathroom for minor washing and cleaning. Max said the enemy would only check the entire house if they became suspicious, so I’ll split my time between the root cellar and the second floor.
Pushing the edge of the rug on the pantry floor aside, I lift the trap door and descend the stairs. I left a flashlight at the bottom, which I flick on and shine around the cellar.
The once-empty shelves are now stocked with food, water, and whatever medicines and first aid supplies I could find. Folded blankets are stacked on the supported end of the three-legged table.
I peruse the shelves and choose two cans of turkey chili, hesitating at the bottom of the stairs and shining the flashlight around the dank space again. There’s enough room in the center for me to sleep, but I’d have to close the trap door in case anyone came snooping. I click off the flashlight and look up at the rectangle of weak light coming from upstairs. If I pull the trap door shut behind me, there won’t be any light.
Closing my eyes, I breathe in. The smell of damp earth and musty concrete pervades the small space, and it will only be worse with the trap door closed. Panic tightens my chest. I might hide in here if there’s an emergency, but there’s no way I can willingly sleep down here every night. I rush up the creaking steps, anxious to avoid a full-blown panic attack.
Grace and I sit in the yard with our bowls of chili. Hers is gone in thirty seconds.
“We have to figure out what to do with our garbage.”
Grace’s ears perk up, and she look at me attentively as if expecting me to say something profound.
“Do you understand me, girl? Sure seems like you do sometimes. I wish you could talk back. Bet you’d have some really interesting things to say.” I lick my spoon, wishing there was more chili but knowing I need to ration the food. “I guess we should bury our garbage somewhere in the woods. What do you think?”
Grace licks my hand, her long tongue sliding to curl around the spoon. I giggle and pull it away. “Manners!”
I spend some time rummaging through the shed. The Ellers must have enjoyed camping. There’s a tent, sleeping bags, tarps, an air mattress, rope, camp stove, flashlights, a solar-powered lantern, pots and pans, and a fold-up shovel. I take the shovel and some rope with me, careful to close the door when I’m done. For a moment, I contemplate using the air mattress in the cellar but dismiss it quickly when thoughts of dark mustiness and creepy spiders loom.
Late afternoon turns out to be as gray as my state of mind. I’m not in the mood to explore or tromp through the woods to find a place to bury our trash, so I retreat inside and explore the den. Tammy had varied taste in books, ranging from erotica to cozy mysteries to classics. She even has a copy of The Stand, which hits too close to the bone for my liking. I end up choosing Riddle Me Miss, a story about a middle-aged sleuth sucked into a case at one of those murder mystery weekends at a creepy mansion.
I decide to use the master bedroom as my base camp and settle into the comfy chair in the corner to read. Grace is happy enough to lie by my feet, and we pass several hours this way. When I have trouble seeing the words on the page, I close the book and rub my tired eyes, then peer outside. It’ll be dark soon.
Grace and I head downstairs. I let her out to do her business while I open a jumbo can of pork and beans for us to share. We hang out on the back porch to eat. Her meal is gone in under a minute, but I try to savor mine and make it last. Boredom always made me hungry, and without Max around for amusement, conflict, or plain old company, bleakness yawns before me.
My stomach churns when I think about the lonely days ahead. Eventually, I’ll run out of food and have no choice but to forage through other houses in town or venture into other areas, maybe where there are stores that haven’t been completely picked over during the inevitable looting. Max mentioned going for a supply run, so he must know where to get things. I wonder if he'll really come back for me when he goes scavenging.
It’s early summer now, but I fear what winter will bring. Tomorrow, I’ll search the woods for a place to bury garbage, and I might even find a semi-hidden clearing where I can plant a garden. If I’m careful, I can snatch some apples from the local trees and the occasional vegetable from a garden. As long as it appears random, they might think it’s animals.
BV (Before Virus), I always stayed up late. It’s just past nine, and I’d have to risk someone seeing my light if I want to read. It makes more sense to follow the old “early to bed, early to rise” adage now.
I go back to the shed and grab a purple sleeping bag, which I lay out on top of the comforter in the master bedroom. Shimmying inside and zipping myself in, I rest my head on the attached inflatable pillow. There’s a vague woodsmoke scent, and I wonder if the Ellers made s’mores and told ghost stories around the campfire, or maybe after Brittney was asleep in the tent, her parents dragged the sleeping bag outside and made love under the stars.
Loneliness spikes through my chest, burning like a hot poker, and I reach over the side of the bed into my bag for my cell phone. I want to save Katie’s Panic Opus for a night in the near future when it might save me from losing my shit, so I scroll through almost to the end.
“ . . . to sing you our song, Ro.” The image shifts a bit, then steadies on Katie’s pale face. She was still doing her hair and makeup when she recorded this, but her eyes were red-rimmed and glassy.
Her throaty voice comes through the crappy speaker of my phone.
I play nights in the Spanish part of town; I’ve got music in my hands
I close my eyes and pretend Katie’s here, singing me to sleep after our mother dicked out on us. I thought our world was over when she left. Funny how perspectives can change.
When she smiles she gives everything to me; when she's all alone she cries
And I'd do anything to take away her tears because they're Rosalinda's eyes
Mom didn’t know she was having twins until we were born. Katie protected me even in the womb. Mom had a thing for Billy Joel’s song Rosalinda’s Eyes and intended to use Rosalinda as a middle name. When two of us made an appearance, she quickly modified it, naming us Marie Rosa and Katie Linda.
I'll return before the fire dies in Rosalinda's eyes
Our mom didn’t sing lullabies; she sang our theme song. How apropos that the lyrics are saturated with loneliness.
And though I'll never be there, I know what I would see there
I can always find my Cuban skies in Rosalinda's eyes . . .
Listening to Katie sing our song always lifts my spirits despite the sadness permeating the lyrics. It plays three times before my lids finally grow heavy and sleep overtakes me.
It’s five thirty when I wake up. Grace is curled at my feet, snoring lightly. I roll over and burrow into the pillow with the blanket pulled over my head. By six forty-five I’m dressed, face washed, teeth brushed with the sleeping bag rolled and stored under the bed. Grace sits next to the window, her ears alert.
I straighten the comforter and glance around the room. It doesn’t look like anyone slept here recently.
I plug my phone into the solar charger and place it on the windowsill before going downstairs with Grace. We sit on the porch for breakfast. I unwrap a protein bar for me and pop open corned beef hash for Grace. She licks the bowl clean and stares at me, tongue lolling.
“Forget it, Miss Piggy.”
There’s no sun again today. The sky is a bright grayish-white, and there’s a light breeze. I don’t expect rain, but the ground is sure to stay damp for hours. I consider holing up and reading more of Riddle Me Miss until conditions are drier then dismiss the idea because the need to do something burns inside me.
After gathering our garbage in a plastic bag, we set out across the fields toward the woods instead of the beach.
By the time we get to the outer edge of the grass, my pants are damp to the knees. Grace rolled on something halfway through our trek, leaving her fur matted in some places and spiked in others. A pink flower petal sticks to her nose, and she sneezes, using a paw to try to wipe it away.
I bend down and pluck it off. “There. Let’s find out what’s in the woods, girl. Stay close.”
We follow a path that winds away from the ocean. It’s quieter in the forest. A sense of peace still prevails within the canopy of trees, almost as if the world hasn’t crashed around humanity’s ears. I suppose not much has changed in here.
At times, the path seems to disappear, narrowing to the point we have to squeeze between bushes, but then it widens again. Off to the right, I find a thicket, dense with trees and bushes. I push my way inside and find the perfect spot to bury our trash. I dig into the soft earth with the shovel until there’s a rectangular trench a few feet deep. Once it’s full, I’ll shovel dirt back over it; for now, I cover the area with leafy branches and chunks of bush. It’s unlikely anyone walking through the woods will come upon it by accident.
I decide to follow the path a while longer to find out what else might be out here. After another ten minutes, I hear running water and search for another path. There’s one heading in the general direction, so I pull a piece of chalk from my bag and mark the nearest tree. Grace runs ahead, sniffing at the ground every so often. It makes me slightly nervous when she leaves my sight, and I rest my hand over the comforting bulge of the dog whistle beneath my shirt.
The path widens abruptly, opening out to scrubby ground leading to a double pond or some type of reservoir. One body of water is slightly higher than the other, and the overflow runs down a small incline into the smaller pool, creating a tiny waterfall.
Grace splashes at the edge of the smaller pond, lowering her nose and lifting her head high, sending water into the air. I tilt my head and watch thoughtfully. She really could use a bath.
I pull my boots off and roll the legs of my pants, swishing along the shallow edges of the water. “Come on, girl!” Taking a chance, I crouch and slap my thighs, praying she doesn’t knock me down the way she did Max.
Grace doesn’t need much coaxing; she runs straight for me and veers at the last second, wading deeper into the rippling pond. Soon, she’s paddling around. This dog really seems to enjoy the water.
While she’s playing, I’m getting ideas. Even though the houses have running water now, that doesn’t mean it won’t be shut off at some point. I can refill bottles here, purify the water, and store it in the root cellar. Carrying the bottles might be a challenge, but I can figure something out. The lower pond also gets me thinking. Since the larger pond runs off into the smaller one, there won’t be any cross-contamination. This might be a great place to wash my clothes or swim on a hot day.
BV, I’d be thinking this is way too far to trek for a swimming hole, washtub, or to find drinking water. Now? I feel like dancing.
Two weeks go by.
Grace and I fall into a routine together: up by six, breakfast, reading time for me, romping time for Grace, hike to High-Low Pond (as I’ve coined it) so Grace can swim while I wash clothes or dip my feet, more reading, dinner, bed by nine. I try not to think about Max. Most nights, I don't dream.
There have been a few hot days, but I haven’t mustered the nerve to swim yet.
Sometimes the hairs on the back of my neck prickle, and I wonder if someone is out there watching. Grace hasn’t reacted, so maybe I’m just paranoid.
I’m on my third book. This time I chose Witness, one of those courtroom dramas full of adrenaline-inducing moments. The Stand taunts me from its place on the bookshelf. I avoid Tammy’s collection of Robin Cook novels, too.
Today dawns hot and muggy, the air still and thick. I break down and rifle through Tammy's dresser, looking for a bathing suit. She has several micro bikinis. The teeny triangles with their spaghetti-thin ties will never cover my boobs, let alone support them. Katie would have rocked these bikinis proudly, but even though nobody's going to see me besides Grace, I push them aside. There's a black one-piece at the very bottom of the pile with a plunging neckline and cut-out strips running up the sides. The halter-style top should cover the girls well enough.
For the first time, I join Grace in the water. She seems delighted to have me there and keeps paddling circles around me.
The water is clear and cool. The soft bubbling of the mini waterfall lulls me into a relaxed state, and I float on my back with my eyes closed. I try to pretend my world hasn't flatlined, that I'm just at an awesome swimming hole for a picnic with my dog.
This works until I no longer hear the sound of Grace nearby. Opening my eyes and blinking against the bright sun, I stand in the neck-deep water and look around.
Grace has almost reached the other shore of High-Low Pond. Before I get my bearings, a squirrel stops short a few feet from Grace, unsure which way to go. The squirrel hisses and chitters, baring its teeth before taking off. With a low bark, Grace shoots out of the water and races down a trail in pursuit.
“Damn it, Grace!” I swim the rest of the way across and stumble out of the water. Too late, I remember the dog whistle is on the opposite side with my clothes. “Shit.”
I follow the path, walking gingerly around rocks and sharp sticks. The only sound is the twitter of birds in the trees. No squirrel. No Grace.
“Grace!” I stage-whisper in case there's anyone out here.
There's a rustling somewhere ahead, and Grace barks. I follow the sound, moving faster now. My foot comes down on a smooth stone, causing my ankle to twist slightly. I stop a moment and shake it out before continuing.
The path lets out into a clearing, and Grace is sitting in the center of it.
The grass feels like velvety heaven against my roughed-up feet.
Grace lies down, and I take an opportunity to look around. The clearing is surrounded by woods on all sides and makes an almost perfect circle. It's a two-minute walk to High-Low Pond from here. If I can get some seeds, this would be a great place to plant a garden.
“You're a genius!”
Grace tilts her head and pants.
By the time we get back to the pond, my head is full of plans.
Over the next few days, I pick some peppers and apples from the garden at the blue house and lay the seeds out in the sun to dry. I'll wait a while longer for Max, but if he doesn't show soon, then I'll set out to find a store that has seed packets.
The blue house has lots of gardening tools, so I pick some out and bring them to the clearing, wrapping them in a tarp from the Ellers' shed. I really should stop thinking of this house as theirs, but it doesn't feel like mine, either.
I snuggle into my sleeping bag just after nine and yawn widely. Grace stretches alongside me. We've developed a routine and made some pretty cool discoveries over the past few weeks. Keeping busy is key. My mind's been making plans and working through ideas to the point I've forgotten to be depressed or lonely. I pull out my phone and listen to Katie sing just because I want to.
The blare of that awful horn jolts me out of a deep sleep, and I roll right off the bed onto the floor, banging my elbow hard. Tears spring to my eyes. “Shit!”
Grace is already at the bedroom window, paws on the sill, emitting a continuous low growl.
I glance at my watch. It's two thirty, an odd time to look for survivors.
When they come down Fortune Street, I lay on the floor under the window, shivering. Logically, I know they can't see me across two yards, but I hide anyway. My mouth goes dry. Adrenaline floods my veins. Grace snugs her body against mine, and I wrap my arms around her warmth, digging my fingers into her fur. We stay there long after the enemy is gone, and I wake up in the morning in the same position.
It’s another hot, muggy day. I’m still shaken from last night but decide to keep to our routine rather than cower in this stuffy house.
Before we leave, I check my seeds and flip them over. They’re starting to dry out. Soon, I’ll plant some and store the rest in the cellar, either for next season or to take with me if I leave here.
High-Low Pond feels like cool heaven on my roasting skin. While I’m in the water, I wash some of my clothes, then lay them out on a big, flat rock to dry. Grace alternates between swimming, laying in the sun, and chasing squirrels. Thankfully, she doesn’t leave the area again.
Even though I’m technically out in the open here, this has quickly become my favorite place to relax. I move to the part of the pond shaded by trees and float on my back.
A loud splash disturbs the tranquility.
Grace barks from the other side of the pond. I gasp, pinwheeling my arms as I slip under the water and come up, coughing and sputtering.
Grace paddles past me, heading for a ring of rapidly spreading circles rippling over the surface of the water.
Max emerges from the center of the disturbance, shaking droplets of water from his hair. “Exhilarating, isn’t it?”
His voice sends a tingle along my spine, which annoys me—maybe because I’ve spent the past few weeks having one-sided conversations with a dog.
I stare at his sculpted biceps and shoulders with my mouth half-open.
A kernel of hope tries to blossom inside me, and I squash it. Where’s the anger? Max left me on my own over two weeks ago and never even checked on me! He basically told me I wasn’t good enough to room with even though the pickings in this new world are slim and none.
“A hello would be nice. Grace is happy to see me.” He slings a muscled arm around Grace’s neck, and the traitor licks him like he’s an ice pop.
I offer him a stony look, which I have a hard time maintaining once he starts laughing over Grace’s attention.
“Who’s a good girl? Did you miss me, baby?” He glances at me over Grace’s head, an impish grin tugging one side of his lips.
Turning away, I wade out of the water and head for my towel.
Max whistles. “Shiiit. You’re trying to kill me.”
“What?” I glare at him, my fists balled on my hips.
He lets go of Grace and scrubs a hand on top of his short hair. “You. In that . . . skimpy . . . with the slits and the . . .” Max cups his hands in front of his pecs. “Just . . . damn.”
Comprehension dawns when I glance down at the strategically placed scraps of shiny black fabric and my ample cleavage. I cross my arms in front of my chest.
Max follows Grace toward shore, standing up at the shallow edge. Water sluices over his ripped body and glistens against his tattoos. I rake my gaze down his broad shoulders, pumped up chest, and tapered waist, following a trail of dark hair to black boxer briefs—wet, skintight boxer briefs that don’t leave much to the imagination. I stare at the bulge between his legs for a beat too long. My cheeks flame as I attempt to nonchalantly raise my eyes.
A slow smile spreads across Max’s face as he saunters toward me. “Am I killing you, too, China?”
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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