Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 11): Fever
As my grief runs its course, awareness of Max’s proximity takes over—the hardness of his chest pressed to my back, his strong arms surrounding me, the warm breath ghosting over my tear-streaked cheek.
I blink the moisture away and glance up Main Street. Long shadows reach over the pavement like dark fingers of despair while the setting sun halos the tops of the buildings, creating a feeling of being trapped in a deep pit with the tease of freedom just out of reach.
Max releases his hold and crouch-walks around me, cupping my cheek. “It’s going to be all right.” His handsome face blots out the creepy view.
Exhaustion threatens to pull me under, and I don’t think it’s possible to stand. “I—I just . . . I’m so weak, and it’s getting dark. S-sorry if I wasted precious time with my blubbering.”
“No, hey . . . it’s okay. We should get to shelter, though.”
“You don’t have to.” Max scoops me in his arms and stands, walking along the street. I tuck my head against his chest, eyes shut, and feel the hesitation and sway when he has to sidestep debris. Grace’s nails tick along on the pavement as she trots beside us.
Max’s strides even out, lulling me to a state of near-sleep. Despite the rapidly cooling dusk air, my skin feels hot and tight.
A door creaks open, and we enter a hushed space. The air smells clean here. No death or decay. Floorboards creak beneath Max’s boots as he moves easily through the rooms and up a stairway, knowing his way perfectly in the dark.
We tilt, and my back comes to rest against softness. I protest the loss of Max’s touch, but he sits beside me, brushing the hair off my forehead. “Shh . . . it’s safe here. This is my place when I come to town.” A match flares nearby, and shadows dance beyond my closed lids. “Listen, Marie. I need to check my traps around town, see if anyone’s been here.”
My lids fly open, and I grasp his arm. “No! Don’t leave me alone here.” I vibrate with fear, my nerves rubbed raw from the recent outpouring of emotion. Even though we're in a house that Max claims is safe, I don't want to be left alone here in this strange town.
“I promise to be back soon. You'll have Grace with you.” He doesn't make a move to get up yet, for which I'm grateful.
I glance around the room. From the scant candlelight available, the bedroom looks large and luxurious. The blinds drawn over the picture window are accented by curtains that match the folded-back comforter on the bed.
I scoot to a sitting position. “Where are we?”
“A house just outside of town. There were never any bodies, so this is my base camp when I come here. You'll be safe while I'm gone, but just in case . . .” Max presses something cold into my hand.
The small handgun fits comfortably into my palm. I'm no stranger to guns, so I immediately disengage the safety, eject the cartridge to make sure it's loaded, slam it home, and aim at a picture on the wall to check the site.
“Whoa. You've done this before?”
“My daddy taught me.”
We stare at one another for a long moment. I wonder if he's going to ask questions about my experience or why my father thought I needed to know how to shoot. Now that the world is different, it doesn't matter that my dad used to be a cop, but I've always hesitated to talk about it because of the reactions I received.
“Any questions about this baby?”
“And if I gave you something bigger . . . say a rifle?”
“Okay, then. Good to know.” Max pats my thigh and rises. He bends over to ruffle Grace's fur. “Take care of your mama, girl.”
I engage the safety and place the gun next to me on the bed. “How long will you be gone?”
“An hour, no more than two.”
“You mentioned traps?”
“I set some trip-wires around town and spilled sand in strategic places. The trip-wires are easier to fool because they can be reset, but who looks for scuffs in sand?”
“Nice.” I nod my approval. “Has there been any evidence?”
“Once, on the far side of town. Nothing in over a month, though.” Max looks me over. “We okay?”
I listen to Max's footsteps fade as he moves through the house, and then the door closes gently behind him. Grace sniffs at the gun, chuffs once, then flops down next to me.
Now that I'm alone and fairly comfortable, the tears I shed earlier seem to bear down on me like a lead weight. I fall asleep with one hand in Grace's fur and the other resting on top of the gun.
I drift in and out, alternating between shivering chills and roasting heat.
Sand squishes between my toes, and a frigid breeze blows the hair out of my eyes. In front of me is the beach Max took me to a while back. Katie strolls along the shore, avoiding the surging surf—a game she played since we were old enough to walk. She used to say, “If the water touches you, then you'll turn into a sea hag!”
She turns her head my way and winks, expertly traversing the edge of the water without looking down.
I run toward her, but the beach seems to go on forever, never bringing me closer.
She turns her back to me and deliberately walks into the ocean. Though I'm still some distance away, her voice whispers beside my ear. “At least one of us should be a mermaid instead of a hag. Guess it has to be you, Ro.”
I reach out. “No! Don't go!”
Katie keeps walking calmly into the waiting sea until it swallows her whole.
“Kiki! I need you!”
I try to run into the water after her, but an invisible barrier stops me. I can't go any further and dissolve into tears, eventually melting into the sand.
An intense heat radiates through me, dry and hot as the desert, cooking me alive. My world is red. I have no arms or legs, but my lips and tongue feel stuck and swollen.
“I thought you were mine.” Mike's voice surrounds me.
I reach out and force my eyes open and see only red.
“You left me. We were supposed to be together forever.”
“But you died!”
“You belong with me. Til death, Marie.” He sounds sad now.
“Yes. She cheated.”
“She cheated.” His voice starts to echo strangely, fading into the blackness that eats away the red.
“No, wait! Who cheated?”
The darkness becomes complete, removing all sound and sensation.
Something wet drips across my temple into my hair. I mumble and swipe at it.
Grace’s cool nose nudges my cheek, and I smile, reaching out to pet her.
When I open my eyes, I see a few things at once: Daylight forces its way in at the edges of the blinds on the picture window; Grace hovers over me with her tongue lolling, and her breath does not smell like apples; and Max is sitting on the floor against the wall, staring over his knees at me.
I push Grace’s snout away. “Eew, your breath would please a sloth.” Not in the least insulted, she licks my hand. I look at Max. “Crap, I overslept. Why didn’t you wake me?”
Max smiles and shakes his head. “You didn’t oversleep.”
“You said you’d be gone an hour or two. What about the supplies?”
“Everything’s loaded and ready.”
“I should have helped! Can’t believe I slept through the night. What time is it?”
“That means we can’t go back until morning! Why didn’t you wake me? And why are you sitting there staring?”
Max rises slowly and perches on the edge of the bed, pressing a hand to my forehead. “Better.”
“Better than what?”
He traces a finger along the side of my face, following it with his eyes. “Marie . . . you’ve been sick.”
“You didn’t sleep through the night—you’ve been out of it for two days.” His lids flutter shut. “I was worried. Your symptoms were similar to when I first found you.”
I stare back at him, frightened, and wonder how I could be out of sorts for a few days without realizing it. Then again, that’s exactly how I ended up on top of the cliff.
Max opens his eyes, weaving our fingers together, and brings our joined hands up to his lips. “When I came back the other night, you were delirious with fever. You went from teeth chattering to dripping with sweat to dry, burning skin.” His lips pucker against the back of my hand and his voice drops to a whisper. “You scared the shit out of me.”
Despite my surprise, and the likelihood I smell like a homeless person after all the sweats and chills, a flare of desire blooms low in my belly at the feel of his lips on my skin and the low rasp of his voice. The obvious concern warms me. What a change from the ornery jerk I met a few weeks ago.
“You talked a lot.” His words yank me back from my musings.
“About what?” I’m horrified, wondering what secrets I might have given away.
“You must have been dreaming. You called the name Kiki a lot, said over and over that you didn’t want to be a mermaid . . . ” Max chuckles, his eyes sparkling with humor. “. . . and kept asking ‛Who cheated?’”
My forehead creases. Vague tendrils of the dreams tease at my mind, but the harder I try to grasp them, the faster they slip out of reach. “I don’t really remember—just kibbles and bits.” I fall into twin-speak, using a phrase that Katie would understand.
“Kibbles and bits?”
“Sorry.” I swallow the lump forming. “Like . . . bits and pieces.”
“Oh, I get it! That’s funny.” Max watches me closely. “You don’t look good. Do you feel sick again?”
I shake my head and look away. “I’m fine.”
Then he asks the question I’m not looking forward to. “Who’s Kiki?”
“Um . . .” Part of me doesn’t want to share my sissy with anyone in this craptacular world. Will I be dissing her memory and what she was—is—to me if I don’t? I take a deep breath. “Kiki, known as Katie to everyone else, was my t-twin.” I try my best to hold the tears back, but the dam bursts wide open.
Max’s lips round into a shocked O. Before my eyes flood, I see sympathy in his, and then he pulls me into his arms, cradling my head against his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Marie. So sorry.” His whispered words bring on another torrent of tears. When my crying subsides, he continues to hold me close, stroking my hair. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I can’t. Not yet.”
“Is there somewhere I can clean up?”
“Sure. Not hot water here, but I can heat some on the camp stove.”
“That would be awesome.”
I cuddle with Grace while waiting for Max to come back with the water. She whimpers and licks my cheek.
Max sets a basin of water in the master bathroom along with a washcloth and bar of soap, leaving me alone to wash up.
The heated water feels like heaven, cleaning away a few days of sweat and funk. The liquid in the basin appears fairly clear when I’m done, so I kneel beside tub and wash my hair, too.
When I'm done, I wrap myself in a towel and peek into the bedroom. My bag is next to the door, so I pull out a T-shirt, jeans, bra, and pair of underwear. I get dressed and run a comb through my hair.
There’s a soft knock on the bedroom doorframe. “Feeling better?”
“Yes! It feels great to be clean again.”
“Good. Come downstairs when you’re ready. You must be starved.”
“I think my stomach has turned inside out on itself.” I laugh. “Be right there.”
Grace licks her chops in understanding and follows Max from the room.
I place my dirty clothes in a plastic bag and stow it in my rucksack before following. This house is a good deal larger than the one I’ve been staying in, and I stroll through several rooms on the first floor before I realize Max and Grace are out back on a flagstone patio. Sliding the glass door open, I join them.
A delicious scent wafts on a light breeze.
“Oh my God . . . hot food!”
Max waves his arm, indicating dishes of chili on the wooden table. “Dinner is served.” He holds my chair then sits across from me.
I grab my spoon and scoop some still-steaming chili onto it. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to blow on food to cool it off. Even though it’s just from a can, it tastes like gourmet cuisine. “This is sooo good,” I mumble around a mouthful, completely ignoring table manners.
Max grins. “It is, right?”
We don’t talk much during dinner—just shovel food into our mouths. It’s a comfortable silence, the kind you share with someone you know well. I really don’t know anything about Max, but I’m beginning to trust him. I hope that doesn’t make me a big fool.
When we finish, I pat my belly. “That was awesome. Thank you.”
“Would you like some dessert, Mademoiselle?”
“I’d love some.” I close my eyes and smile, thinking it’s just pretend.
“Open your eyes.” His voice is close.
I obey and find a dish of chocolate pudding garnished by a peppermint patty. “Pudding!” I clap my hands. “Wait—how is this still good?”
Max shrugs, throwing me an apologetic smirk. “It’s from a can.”
I throw my head back and laugh, thinking of those little tins with the pull tabs. “I’m really going to enjoy dessert, then. The one time my grandma bought those puddings for us, my father bellowed for fifteen minutes about them being ‛shit in a can.’”
Max’s eyes crinkle at the corners when he laughs. “Your dad was right, but it sure tastes good right now.” He licks pudding off his spoon and groans. “So good.”
I eat mine too fast, scraping the edges of the bowl to get all of it. The peppermint patty is too tempting, and I lick remnants of pudding off it before biting into the soft, minty candy. “Yum. Best dessert ever.”
Grace sits on the patio looking between us and whines her displeasure.
“Dogs can't have chocolate,” I tell her in a serious voice—as if she's going to understand.
“But who says they can't have pudding—right, Nudge?” Max produces a paper bowl with vanilla pudding. “Would I forget you?”
Grace's long tongue swipes across her nose and her front feet shift, but she remains seated like the well-trained dog she is. When Max places the bowl on the patio, Grace looks to him for permission before devouring every last drop.
I pat my tummy, satisfied. “That's the best dinner I've had in a long time, Max. Thank you.”
“There's one more surprise.”
“No way! I'm stuffed.”
“Not to eat—a dessert for the eyes.” Max stands, extending a hand. “Come with me.”
I allow him to help me up, my stomach doing a strange little roll when our fingers touch.
“Oh, it might be a little chilly so . . .” Max lets go of me and grabs matching navy hoodies from a lawn chair. “I tried to find one that would fit you, but I think it's going to be big.”
“That's okay.” I shrug into the oversized hoodie and push the sleeves up.
Max leads me through a gate at the edge of the yard. “Watch your step—it’s a bit steep here.”
We follow a downward path through thick trees and brush, sometimes having to climb over boulders. Loose rocks slide in the dirt, rolling out of sight. Max walks ahead, helping me over the rough spots, and Grace takes up the rear. The chill in the air makes me glad for the sweatshirt.
About ten minutes later, the path levels off at a rocky shelf.
“End of the line. Did we make a wrong turn?” I ask.
“No, this is it.” Max pulls me past the hanging branches. “How's this?”
The ledge juts out over a serene lake. The golden sphere of the sun hovers just above the water, radiating in flaming gradients from lemon to cantaloupe to the deepest tangerine.
“Oh . . .” I cover my mouth. “It's breathtaking.”
“Reserved seating.” He indicates a large, flat boulder, which we sit on. His feet touch the ground, but mine swing several inches above it.
We relax in silence for a while, fingers laced together, watching the brilliant sunset. Grace lies at our feet, facing the lake, and I wonder what her colorblind eyes see as the deepening layers of light blend to create a stunning sunset palette. How I wish I had a talent for painting.
“A pudding for your deep ones.” Max's voice startles me.
“Isn't it supposed to be a penny?”
“What's worth more to you these days?”
I smile. “Pudding!”
“So? Your thoughts?”
“This is amazing, Max.” I look away from the dazzling view for a moment and concentrate on my scuffed boots. “The sun and sky don't know our world has ended. They're still strutting their stuff like any other day.”
His fingers squeeze mine reassuringly, but he doesn't immediately speak. When he does, it seems like his mind is far away. “You never know what might have to be done in the name of survival. I mean, how far are we willing to go for those we love?”
“As far as we have to.”
“Really? No limits?”
“Well, there are always limits, but anything within reason.” Tears sting my eyes. “I can't think of anything I wouldn't have done to save my sister.”
Max's head turns sharply, and he pins me with his gaze. “Tell me about her.”
“Were you identical?”
Max's brows rise, and he smirks. “It's one or the other, China.”
I'm flustered because I've never had this conversation with anyone before—everyone who knew Katie and me would understand. “Technically, we were identical.” It hurts to say “were” in relation to my sister. “Katie was vibrant, full of life, more than a little wild. She was the yang to my yin—tough and ballsy and in-your-face.”
Max nods, his eyes intense. I have his full attention.
“Katie was my best friend. She saved me when our mom deserted us and always knew exactly what to do.”
“So Katie was the take-charge type.”
Hearing another person say her name stings.
“Definitely. She didn't take shit from anybody.”
“Maybe you two are more alike than you thought.”
I look away and shake my head. “No. The wrong twin died in the outbreak.”
Max is silent for a moment before tipping my face up to his. “Don't ever say that again.”
Confusion muddles my brain. His sea-glass eyes, sparking with anger, don't help matters. “Wh-what?”
“You are vibrant and full of life. You're tough and ballsy and most definitely in my face.” Max traps my face between his rough palms, our gazes locked. “You’re a take-charge person. God knows you never take any of my shit, China.”
“But compared to Katie, I’m not—”
“Don’t tell me what you’re not. You’re brave and fierce and beautiful. A survivor.”
I stare back wordlessly. Max thinks I’m beautiful? Lots of other things, too, but he said I’m beautiful.
“For the love of God, be quiet . . .” Max’s voice is low and hoarse. He tugs my face closer, those blue-green eyes burning with an unnamed emotion as his gaze roams over my face and settles on my lips.
In contrast to his usual impulsiveness, Max moves in slowly, giving me plenty of time to slap him or say no. My pulse flutters, and I glance at his mouth, wondering what the slightly parted, moist lips will feel like.
I should stop this, push him away so we can pretend it never happened.
I clench my fists and draw a breath.
And then my lids drift closed.
Max’s lips brush mine like the skim of an angel’s wing. They hover there, drifting back and forth, barely touching, igniting a line of tender fire. Haltingly, he moves in closer and parts his lips, ghosting his open mouth against mine.
Unclenching my fists, I snag the edge of his T-shirt in one hand, tentatively sliding the other around his waist to skate over the taut muscles of his back.
He slips his fingers into my hair to cradle the back of my neck and tilts his head, deepening the kiss. Biting my bottom lip softly, he sucks it between his own, causing a liquid heat to flare in my abdomen. A strangled moan escapes, my cheeks flaming with embarrassment, and I start pulling away.
“Don’t,” Max whispers, tracing my cheek gently. The last golden rays of the sun turn his eyes into shining emeralds. Pressing forward again, he captures my lips and flicks the tip of his tongue against mine.
I open for him, the velvet warmth sending delicious shivers of desire through my body. He tastes like chocolate and mint. My fingers slide over one broad shoulder to grasp the short hairs at his nape as I relax against his chest.
He peppers slow, sensual kisses along my jaw, down the side of my neck, and over one clavicle, nuzzling his lips into the hollow of my throat. “So soft,” he murmurs. Gathering me in his arms, he slides me onto his lap and slips one hand under the bottom of my shirt, running a finger along the skin above the waistband of my jeans and lowers his mouth to mine.
We remain there, wrapped in each other, until the crack of gunfire shatters the early evening peace.
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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