Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 10): Road Trip
Grabbing the towel, I wrap it around my body and tuck the end in, leaving me hands-free and safe from prying eyes. Grace shakes off, sending droplets of water into the air, then runs around in circles, barking.
Next to my drying laundry is a pair of blue board shorts, a gray tank, and a pair of worn, black combat boots.
Max hasn't said anything since I got out of the water, so I turn to see what he's up to and almost mash my face into his pecs.
“Whoa!” He laughs and steadies me by the arms, meeting my eyes briefly before his gaze focuses on my chest. “I wasn't done.” He runs a playful finger along the edge of the towel.
“Done with . . . ?” I shoot him a glare, but he doesn't see because his attention is still lost in my cleavage somewhere.
Max tugs on the end of the towel, leaving it to fall and pool at my feet. His roving finger changes direction, sliding along the edge of my halter until it hits the lowest point and follows the other side up to my opposite clavicle.
My breaths are shallow, traitor heart slamming against my ribcage. Adrenaline courses through my bloodstream; for the first time in months, it's not from fear. I can't deny the attention is flattering as hell—especially from a man as handsome as Max.
But he's such an ass! An ass who thought you weren't good enough.
“Stop it!” I slap his hand off and bend to retrieve my towel. “I'm out of here as soon as I gather my shit.” Stalking away, I start grabbing my half-dry clothes and stuffing them in a bag.
Grace lies at the edge of the water, watching stoically. How much of our interaction does she understand?
“Don't go,” Max says softly, almost as if he gives a damn.
When I turn, he gives me a hot rendition of puppy eyes, his lips pouting.
My temper flares, and I drop the bag on the ground and close my eyes, letting out a frustrated sound. I take two deep breaths before stalking up to Max. “Wipe that ridiculous pleading look off your face!”
He salutes, attempting to hold back a grin. “Yes, ma'am!”
“This isn't funny, Max! You can't abandon me then show up and act as if you never left!”
“I didn't abandon you.”
“Uh, yeah, you did.”
His eyes harden subtly. “You seem to be doing okay.”
“No thanks to you!” I throw my hands up in exasperation. “What do you want?”
“It's time for a supply run. Told you I'd see if you wanted to come.” He hesitates then runs the pads of his fingers lightly over my bicep. “Look, I'm sorry.”
The anger starts dissipating, but I try to hold onto it. Max seems torn, and I wonder for the thousandth time what his story is. “Damn it, Max.” I stamp my bare foot in the gritty dirt.
“What?” There's a ghost of a smile on his face, but his eyes are tight.
“You are so frustrating.”
“But I'm cute.” He traces the edge of my jaw with a finger, and my heart beats faster.
“This isn't about cuteness,” I snap. “You left me alone in this fucked up town with no explanation! Those . . . people came around in the middle of the night. I slept on the floor under the window.” Tears sting my eyes.
Max’s brows draw together. “Yeah, I know. They seem agitated lately, unpredictable.” He scratches his jaw. “You, um . . . you’ve done good, Marie.”
“Like I have a choice? And how would you know if I’m doing well, deserter?” I move to turn, but Max grabs my hand.
“I’ve been watching.”
“You’ve been watching me?” My head droops, fatigue sucking the energy out of me.
Max’s fingers still tangle with mine. “There are things you don’t know that I can’t tell you.”
“Why can’t you tell me?” My stomach rolls. “Oh my God! Are you one of them?”
I pull away from his touch and turn my back to him, hugging my body. A shiver runs through me despite the oppressive heat. “Then how do you know so much, and why can’t we stick together?”
Max cups my shoulders with his calloused palms, pressing his face into my hair. “There are some secrets that aren’t mine to tell. I’d be putting you and others at risk.”
“There are others . . . besides them?”
He sighs. “Please don’t ask for answers I can’t give. I’ve already said too much, and you have no reason to protect me if they catch you.”
“You think I’d rat you out?” I can’t keep the hurt from my voice. Then I remember something. “You worried Gary would give you up.”
“He could have, and I wouldn’t blame him—or you.”
Max’s touch is intimate, his breath a gentle breeze in my hair. Conflict arises within. He might be full of shit, but I don’t think so. He’s protecting someone. I fight against the sob bubbling up my throat. God, how I wish I had someone to protect.
“Marie?” Max lets go of my shoulders and moves in front of me, bending his knees so we’re at eye level. “Please don’t cry.” He wipes away my tears with the pads of his thumbs.
I suck in a breath and curse my leaking eyes. “I’m s-sorry. You just—what you said caught me off guard. I’ve been so alone . . . I never thought you might be looking out for someone else.”
“Hey . . . Hey.”
I blink rapidly and look into Max’s concerned eyes. “I’ll be okay.”
He smiles crookedly. “I know you will. Listen, now that you know why I’ve been such a jerk, maybe we can come to an agreement.”
I sniffle and wipe my nose. “I’m listening.”
“Sometimes I can hang out with you, keep you company. I’ll even help with stuff—like planting that garden, wherever it is that you’re planning on putting it.” He snags my fingers and tugs me toward the rock where my clothes were drying earlier, and we sit. “How does that sound?”
“How do you know about the garden?” I look for Grace and spot her snuffling around on the other side of the pond.
“I didn’t completely abandon you.” He slings an arm over my shoulders, pulling me close, but I remain stiff. “I saw the seeds you laid out to dry. I’ve seen you eating on the back porch with Grace. I got curious about where you go every afternoon, so I followed you here a few times.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” I try to look into his eyes, but the glare of the sun blinds me.
“I was trying to keep my distance, but . . . I find myself seeking you out more and more.”
My heart speeds. Because Max is drawn to me? Because I’m scared of being alone? Maybe both. I finally relax against his side, craving the contact and terrified of it at the same time. We remain seated that way, silent, until the brilliant red orb of the sun dips behind the trees, and the shadows lengthen.
Max walks me home. We stroll side by side, a comfortable silence and distance between us. Grace runs ahead, sometimes doubling back almost as if to make sure we’re still following. When we reach the back yard, Max leans on the gate.
“I’m leaving at dawn for a supply run. You in, China?”
“We’ll be gone overnight, so bring whatever you need.”
“You want some chow before you go?”
“Nah. You’ll have more of me than you can stand starting tomorrow.” He winks then saunters away, giving me a guilt-free, unobstructed view of his broad-shouldered physique.
He doesn’t look back, just raises a hand in the air.
My gaze roves down his back and over his ass. I'm not seeing the gray T-shirt and board shorts, though—I'm totally picturing him shirtless and tattooed in skintight boxer briefs.
Part of me is tempted to follow him, but beginning our new friendship by breaking Max’s trust doesn’t seem wise.
* * *
A soft murmur jolts me awake. The left side of the bed is cold, which means Grace has been gone for a while. I sit up and strain to hear, but the voice isn’t repeated. Maybe the sound was the remnant of a dream.
I fumble with the dog whistle and call for Grace. She lopes up the steps and into the bedroom, jumping up to lick my face. My heart rate slows. If anything were wrong, she would have alerted me.
I brush my teeth and get dressed. My rucksack is already packed, so I grab it and head downstairs.
Max is sprawled on the back porch, one leg blocking the top stair, eating a protein bar. “Morning, China.”
A stained paper plate rests at the bottom step, and Grace bounds over his leg to finish licking it.
“Hey.” I rub my eyes.
“I would’ve made you breakfast in bed, but I wasn’t sure what you wanted.” He digs in a plastic bag. “Beans, protein bar, or hash?”
“Protein bar works for me.”
“Good choice. Best to eat light before hiking.”
“How far away are we going?”
“And how do we carry the supplies? I’m assuming we can’t take a car—to avoid noise and all.”
“Right you are. I have it down to a science. You’ll see.”
The day is cooler than yesterday but still hot. As Max instructed, I’ve packed long pants and long sleeve shirts in addition to summery clothes because nights can get quite chilly and in case the need arises to enter tick-infested areas of the woods.
Max hefts a huge, navy rucksack over his shoulders, and we enter the woods at the edge of town. We hike a path that runs alongside the road but offers cover. The number of houses thins until there are only fields and the occasional abandoned barn.
“We need to take a short detour,” Max says.
I follow him down a narrow path that eventually leads to a thicket. He pulls branches away to reveal green tarps covering two green plastic shopping carts.
“So that’s how we carry supplies!”
“Am I a genius or what?” He flashes me a smile.
I laugh. “All this and modest, too!”
“Hey, these aren’t any old carts.” He pulls one out and sets it on the path, walking around it to point out all the features. “Green to blend in, tricked-out wheels—compliments of a few hacked-up wheelbarrows—patch kit in case of a flat, portable air pump, rope, and a tarp in case it rains. These babies are fast and quiet, and they can carry our shit on the way there.”
“Awesome! I love the monster truck wheels.”
“Pop your stuff in there.” Max folds the tarps and stores them inside the carts under our rucksacks.
Grace puts her paws up on one of the carts and looks at Max expectantly. “All right.” He grins at me. “She expects a ride on the way there. I’ve really spoiled her.”
He pushes my bag to the back of the cart and lifts Grace inside. She sits facing forward proudly, like the figurehead of a ship.
We push our carts along a dirt path with Max in the lead. When it’s wide enough, he waves me up to walk next to him.
“What’s the piece of rope on the front of the cart for?”
“In case the cart needs to be pulled out of a hole or up an incline. It happens.”
For the most part, travel is easy going. The big wheels roll over rocks and branches with no problem. The leaves on the trees take the brunt of the sun, allowing the filtered rays to create dappled patterns over the road without intense heat.
“So, who are you?” I ask after an hour or two of occasional small talk.
“Tell me about BV Max.”
“BV?” Max side eyes me and raises a brow.
I grin. “Before Virus.”
“Ah.” He nods his head and swallows, an obvious silence following. Just when I think he’s not going to say anything, he clears his throat. “I wasn’t very interesting.”
I raise a speculative eyebrow.
“I’ve done a lot of jobs: mechanic, carpenter, maintenance man, valet. For a while I worked at a tattoo and piercing joint—got a great discount.” He smirks. “Played baseball and football in high school. Never went to college. And I entered the system at fourteen because my father was an abusive asshole. No mother—she left when I was two.”
“About what? My sucky job prospects due to lack of college degree, no mother, abusive father, or getting lost in the system?” He nudges my shoulder. “At least now, I don’t have to worry about any of that, right? Slate wiped clean.”
“I’m sorry for reminding you of it. I was just looking for a safe topic of conversation.”
Max laughs bitterly. “My life, past and present, is probably off the table as far as safe goes. My favorite job had to be mechanic, though. I love to tinker and have a gift for figuring out how things work.”
“That’s cool. I’ve never been good with mechanical things.” I wrack my brain for a safe subject to bring up in the ensuing silence. “Grace wasn’t your dog BV. How did you train her with the dog whistle?”
“She followed me after they captured Gary, and I figured any dog that had enough sense to save me from those bastards deserved a place by my side. I quickly realized the need to be quiet, so I found a dog whistle and spent a few afternoons training her. She’s a quick study.” He leans over and pats her on the head. “Aren’t you, girl?”
Grace licks his hand, and I glimpse the edge of the tattoo on the underside of his wrist again. We’ve already covered some uncomfortable subjects, so I don’t ask about it even though curiosity burns inside me.
Over the handle of his cart, Max spreads a map with several routes marked in different colors and shows it to me, following the red one with his finger. “We’re going to cross a valley with no real cover from here to here. This shaves a few miles off our trip as opposed to going this way.” His finger switches to the blue route, which skirts around what appears to be a large area avoiding the valley. “I’ve never come across any trouble going this way, but there’s always the potential. We need to move quickly, stay quiet, and be ready to hit the deck. The best we can do is hide under the tarps if we hear someone coming and pray that we blend in.”
Up until now, this trip seemed less dangerous than town. The realization that other dangers—like the guys who took over my uncle’s cabin—exist out here causes a churning in the pit of my stomach. There is no single enemy to combat and overcome.
I realize I stopped walking when Max halts a few feet in front of me and looks back. “You all right?”
“I—yeah. I will be.”
“Let’s take a break. Have some water, maybe a snack?” He waves Grace out of the cart to do her business then digs in his rucksack, coming up with a canteen of water and two protein bars. “Haute cuisine. Get ‛em before they’re gone!”
We perch on a log and munch on the bars, passing the canteen back and forth. Grace returns, and Max pulls a collapsible dog bowl out of his bag and pours some of the water into it. She laps it up with gusto.
“Thank you.” I place a hand on Max’s knee.
“I started panicking, and you distracted me.” I look down at my lap and tears blur my vision. “This isn’t a bad dream or some temporary situation. Life as we know it is o-over.”
Max’s hand covers mine. “Life’s always been hard on me. Ironically, that fact probably made the transition to this new world easier to accept. See, now I rely on myself. If I fuck things up, it’s all on me.” He cups my jaw, coaxing me to look his way, blue-green eyes earnest. “It will be all right, Marie. I’m not going to let this new world eat you alive.”
I blink away the film of tears and smile bravely. I don’t ask how Max is going to keep the world from eating me alive or how he expects me to place my trust in him after the way he treated me when I first arrived.
* * *
We traverse the valley without incident. On the other end, we pick up a trail that requires single-file travel until it spills out onto train tracks. Max steers us to the left, and the rails eventually cross several roads.
The occasional house and some broken-down cars are visible in the distance.
Max stops and pulls two masks and a tub of Vick’s from his bag. “You might want to use these.”
His expression is grim. “This place isn’t like our town. It reeks of death in places.”
Slathering Vick’s under my nose, I pull on the mask and attempt to quell the panic threatening to consume me. I remember the many times a horrid stench of rot and decay layered over a sickening sweet component left me retching somewhere. When I left the city behind and reached rural areas, it was such a relief to breathe clean air.
“Why didn’t you warn me?” The mask muffles my voice.
“Sorry. I’m used to doing this by myself, and I’ve gotten used to the routine.”
“How do you get used to death and decay?”
Max touches my arm, and I look into his eyes—their haunted intensity highlighted over the top of the white mask. “The routine, not the death. I deal with it because I have no other choice, but I'll never get used to it.”
We continue following the tracks, and a gradual transformation takes place. More houses, a small train station with a ticket booth, abandoned vehicles scattered along the cross streets.
And then we reach a much wider street, lined on both sides by businesses and parked cars. Some of the store windows are shattered, busted doors swinging open, while others appear untouched. Debris litters the sidewalks and the street.
We pass a small post office. There’s still a sign hanging on the door: “Closed. Will reopen at 9 a.m.”
I stand in the middle of the street and turn slowly. Joyce’s Hair and Nail Boutique, The Brew Apothecary, Bee’s Café, Mulgrew Electronics. Most of these businesses have apartments above them. People lived here, shared gossip, and loved and fought and died here. Outside a shop called Sella’s, a tilted metal rack still holds the tattered remains of high-end clothing from a sidewalk sale.
I sink to my knees with a sob. Grace leans in and licks my face. A child’s doll lies on the double yellow line dividing the road. Her blond hair is tangled and dirty, the stained pink pajamas threadbare in spots. A few feet beyond that is a hardcover book, pages swelled, ripped, and moldy from the elements.
A tangle of blankets and sheets lumped into a ball.
An empty and broken laundry basket.
Tools spilling out of a rusted and dented metal box.
Broken TVs and radios that appear to have been tossed out of apartment windows.
I hug Grace around the neck and bury my face in her fur. The mask traps hot, moist breath against my face and absorbs the tears as they fall. I pull it down around my neck so I can drag in more air.
Max crouches on the asphalt and wraps himself around me, chest pressed to my back, arms banding my front, his chin resting on one shoulder. “Breathe, Marie.” He rocks us gently. “You can do this.”
Air whistles as I gasp for breath. I look around wildly, knowing my cell phone is out of reach. My fingers dig into Max’s arm hard enough to draw blood. Grace whimpers and licks the back of my hand.
I let go and do what hasn’t been done since everyone I love in the world was taken from me. Throwing my head back, I bay at the sky, allowing the tears and anger and bitterness to rise to the surface. I’m too pissed-off to be afraid someone will hear me or that Max might judge me.
Through the entire onslaught—the purging of poison from my system, the final realization and acceptance that all I knew and loved is gone forever—Max holds on and rides it out with me.
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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