Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 13): Welcome Home
In the morning, I wake up alone. No Max. No Grace. Part of me wants to luxuriate in memories of making out with Max last night, but the practical side suggests there’s no time and that it might be foolish. Who says Max will want to kiss me again?
I freshen up in the bathroom then pause in front of the photo of The Walking Dead cast, wondering once again if any of them are out there somewhere, surviving. The urge comes over me to keep the photo. Usually, I’d consider it stealing, but whoever lived here is long gone. Separating the frame, I slip the photo out and stow it in a zippered compartment of my rucksack before heading downstairs. This time, I don't bother searching the house; Max seems to gravitate toward the freedom of the outdoors.
As predicted, Max is lying in the grass with one arm resting on his forehead. Grace races around the yard, occasionally leaping over his midsection. The early morning fog hasn’t burned off yet and hovers in ghostly patches, selectively obscuring areas of the large yard and the woods beyond.
Dropping my rucksack on the flagstone patio, I stroll over and flop next to Max in the dew-damp grass. “Morning.” I look up into the grayish-white sky and wonder what he sees in its opaque depths.
“Would you stop calling me that? I think I’ve earned my place.”
Max turns his head and looks at me. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m not a bull in a china shop anymore, am I?” I quirk an eyebrow at him.
Max rolls toward me, tracing an index finger along the shell of my ear. “That’s not the only reason for the nickname.” His lips replace his finger, their gentle warmth tickling and sending a shiver along my spine. He reaches the lobe of my ear and moves on to kiss over my cheek, temple, forehead, eyelids, and nose. “Your skin reminds me of the finest porcelain, like a china doll.” He drops a quick kiss on my mouth.
My eyes flutter open and take in his handsome face, hovering just above mine. “Oh.” I swallow.
“Can I kiss you?”
I nod, and he moves in slowly, pressing our lips together. Max cups the side of my face in one large palm, and I tentatively caress his jaw, the ever-present stubble a pleasant scratch against the pads of my fingers. He slides his tongue along my bottom lip, and I part my lips, allowing our tongues to touch and explore.
Though our bodies are close, a few inches separate the nether regions. I didn't mind Max grinding against me last night, but he seems determined to maintain a respectable distance. This kiss, while less consuming than last night’s, causes a tingling warmth in my chest that spreads lower.
I’m relieved Max didn’t return to his previous mercurial disposition and pretend nothing happened between us. The denial would have stung.
Grace races in circles around us, suddenly veering to leap across our bodies. The two of us laugh, sitting up to watch Grace make another revolution through the vast yard, weaving in and out of trees and around the shed.
Max trails his fingers through the strands of my hair and down my back. “We should head out. We still need to stop at the apothecary, and travel will be slower with full carts.”
I nod, placing a hand on Max’s leg and smiling shyly. “Thanks for not pretending last night didn’t happen.”
“Is that what you think of me?” The warmth in his tone drops several degrees.
“I don’t know what to think of you yet. I’m still getting to know you—and you’re not an easy subject.”
The tension leaves Max's face and he smiles, squinting up at the sky. “You’re right. Sorry if I sounded defensive. Guess I’m used to people judging me.”
I want to ask what this means, but the courage escapes me. I'm still wondering about the rules. Can I kiss him whenever I want? Will we hold hands? Share confidences? There are so many things about Max I still don’t know. Deep inside, I'm sure he's a good man, no matter how much he doubts himself. When we get back to town, he said I could meet his sister. Maybe seeing him interact with others will help me to know him better.
Max opens the double doors of the shed and wheels the shopping carts out. They’re both heaped with canned goods, bottled water, winter clothing, and various other supplies. The green tarps are folded on the bottom racks, held down by more cases of bottled water or canned goods.
“These babies are going to be much harder to navigate on the way back. You’ll get to see those ropes on the front in action.” He checks the carts, tightening things down and shaking them to make sure nothing falls out. “We’ll have to wear our backpacks. Will it take you long to find what you need in the apothecary?”
“Just a few minutes.”
Max whistles for Grace, and we set out for the center of town. The cart is definitely harder to push on the road; I imagine once we’re in the woods, it will be quite a challenge to keep up with Max.
Main Street doesn’t have the same breakdown-inducing impact it did when we arrived, but I shudder at the sight of the destruction after staying at Max’s hideaway. I force my eyes forward, only looking down far enough to navigate the debris without tripping on it.
Max stops his cart in front of the apothecary. “Let’s leave our stuff here. Gather what you need in there. I’m going to make a final pass through the pharmacy.”
The Brew Apothecary’s door is ajar. Max strides in ahead of me, checking out the store and proclaiming it safe for me to enter. I bring a flashlight, and Grace remains at my side, a faithful shadow.
The inside of the store is hardwood and glass with small tables draped in jewel-toned fabrics. Behind the main counter is a wall of labeled drawers. I skip the wall of herbs and use the beam of the flashlight to find my way into the storage room. Although small, it contains shelves of unopened herbs. They happen to be arranged alphabetically, and I grab what I think I’ll need, disappointed there isn’t more butterbur. I rifle through some open boxes in the corner that were never unpacked and luck out, finding two more packages of the plant.
On the way out, I notice a rack of tinctures that claim to help various maladies and grab a handful of those, too. Couldn’t hurt.
Max comes out of the pharmacy as I reach the carts. He makes room for the herbs and tinctures. Then we start on our return trip.
I’m glad when the ravaged town is behind us, but Max wasn’t kidding when he said it would be harder to travel with full carts. Big wheels be damned. I mange to get snagged several times, and thank God for the rope tied to the front. Of course, Max never makes me yank the cart out of the ruts, but I suspect the absence of ropes might add hours to the trip.
For the first while, I’m too out of breath to carry on a conversation. Either Max realizes this or doesn’t feel like talking. He’s certainly not breathing hard. Grace runs ahead and loops back, always staying within earshot.
We reach a shady glade with a few large boulders. Max brings his cart to a stop. “Let’s break here. We can eat and drink, give Grace some water.”
“Sounds good.” I try not to let on how relieved I am. My rubbery legs burn, and sweat runs in rivers down my spine.
“There’s a stream just past those trees. I wouldn’t trust it for drinking, but it’s a great place to cool off.”
He doesn’t have to tell me twice. I make my way to the bubbling creek and squat, cupping my hands to capture the slow-moving water. I splash it liberally over my head, neck, arms, legs, and down my shirt. Max does the same, except he strips his sweat-soaked T-shirt off, swishing it in the water before tossing the dripping garment over one shoulder.
Grace meanders along the bank of the creek then picks her way carefully across the rocks in the shallow water.
I try not to ogle Max’s toned chest, arms, and back. The vine of tattoos doesn’t just decorate his arms but crawls over his shoulders, dipping across his left pec close to his heart and travels along his back below the right scapula. Elegant script follows the curves of the vine in certain spots, but the writing is too small and fancy to read without being obvious.
Max catches me staring, and his brow furrows. He stands and pulls on his wet T-shirt, leaving the bank of the stream to return to the glade. His mood is indecipherable, which is nothing new. I stay by the water a few more minutes before following.
When I return, Max hands me a protein bar and bottle of water then pulls out a portable bowl for Grace and pours some of his water in it. He whistles, and Grace comes running. She stops to shake, misting us with cool droplets of water. I laugh, holding my hands up in self-defense.
“When we get back, I’ll take you to my place if you want.” Max says this casually, reclining on the boulder I’m leaning against.
My head swivels his way. “You trust me to know where you live?”
Max keeps looking up into the trees. “Yeah.”
I’m not sure why I expected him to say something more. “I’d like that.”
He leans over and grabs my hand. “I’m sorry I was such a jerk. You didn’t deserve any of that.”
Max shakes his head, something intense in his eyes. “No, it’s not. I’m not an easy man to deal with, and it probably won't be the last time I hurt your feelings. It's never intentional, but that's a piss-poor excuse—the kind of shit my father would spew. He thought it was okay to abuse us if he said he didn't mean it.”
“I'm sorry he put you through that.”
Max nods and looks away. I wander the glade to give him a few moments alone.
My father was strict when we were growing up, but he never abused us in any way. Katie might have seen it differently when her wild activities were curtailed, but Dad always tried to be fair. Being the daughter of a cop, I heard my share about abuse and the broken system that was supposed to protect those kids. My tenderhearted father considered it a personal failure each time he wasn't able to help.
We return to the trail. I feel refreshed after our break and lighter now that I know Max doesn’t intend to abandon me when we get back. It was lonely being on my own, more than I’d like to admit. Relief fills my chest, replacing the stone of dread I didn’t realize was weighing me down.
Dusk is descending as we arrive at the edge of town. Max leaves me in the woods with the carts while he scouts ahead. Crickets sing, and mosquitoes nibble at my flesh. I smack at my arms, cursing the biting insects. Grace shakes her head, snapping at the air every so often.
Max comes back quickly. “The coast is clear. We need to get these carts across town to store until tomorrow.”
We roll the carts along the empty streets. When I first arrived here, it was disturbing to see a town devoid of destruction; now, it’s sweet relief and almost feels like home.
“You okay, China?”
“Yeah. Never thought I’d be happy to see this place, but I am.”
We reach the side of town near the cliffs and enter an industrial complex. Max leads me to a large shed-like structure and pulls out a key ring. Unlocking the padlock, he rolls the metal door up, and we push the carts inside.
“That’s it. A successful supply run.” Max smiles, and his body seems to relax as he leans against the wall.
“We did it. Thanks for bringing me along—and putting your trust in me.”
Max turns his head my way, but I can't see his eyes in the darkness. “I'm trying, Marie.” His voice is low and rough.
Max pushes away from the wall. “Let's get out of here. “ He relocks the metal door and leads me deeper into the complex.
The putty-hued buildings rise from the pavement, some close enough together to be claustrophobic, others spaced farther apart. We stick to the shadows. Max moves stealthily, making me feel like a bull in a china shop in comparison. Perhaps his nickname wasn't so misguided after all.
The sky is clear, the stars providing just enough light to travel by. Max continuously pans the area, sometimes doubling back around buildings before moving forward again. My heart races, and I want to ask if we're being followed, but I'm too scared the answer will be yes.
After what seems like a long time, we reach the rear of the complex. The tang of the sea is strong here. Max kneels by the high fence running along the perimeter and works to untie a complicated pattern of plastic laces. It's hard to tell in the dark, but I think there are different colors. Once they're undone, he pries the fence apart.
Grace darts through the opening, obviously familiar with the ritual.
Max shoves our rucksacks through then looks to me. “You're next.”
I crouch low and climb through with Max following close behind. The terrain is rocky. Ahead, a steep path climbs up the side of a large hill, disappearing from sight.
I point. “Is that . . . ?”
“The other side of the infamous cliff where I found you. We'll be going that way.” He gestures to the right. The rocks and boulders are much larger in that direction, and the path looks treacherous.
Max kneels, expertly weaving the plastic laces through the fence and retying them.
Curiosity gets the best of me. “What's that for?”
“We tie them in a certain pattern, so it's easy to tell if the fence has been tampered with.”
“Has it ever been messed with?”
“Nope. We can never be too careful, though. The time for measures like this is before a problem crops up.”
“What if you came through here in a rush?”
Max finishes the last knot and stands up, pulling something from his boot. There's a metallic snick as he holds up an open switchblade. “This is great for a multitude of scenarios. I never go anywhere without two. In an emergency, I'd slice through the laces. That's why we use heavy-duty plastic—strong but easy to cut.”
“Do you have a knife?”
“I have one somewhere in my stuff.”
Max flips the blade closed and presses it into my hand. “From now on, carry this everywhere. Know where it is at all times, and practice unsheathing it. Guns are nice, but they make noise and aren't always available or easy to conceal.”
“Okay.” I slip the switchblade into the front pocket of my jeans.
“Don't worry—I'll teach you how to use it another time.” With his lips quirked, Max looks at me with a half-smile. “Let's go.”
I hesitate. “Um . . . will I be staying with you tonight?”
“Nah, I was planning to cut you loose up on the cliffs.” Max stares at me, deadpan, for a few long seconds before the smile returns. “You'll be staying where I live. Not sure about with me.”
My face flushes. “I didn't mean—”
“I'm just messing with you, China.”
I glare at him, but I'm secretly relieved. He leads the way, shouldering both of our bags. I follow behind with Grace trotting at my side. I'm sure she'd rather be running ahead, but I'm grateful she's chosen me as her person. I ruffle her fur. “Good girl.” She licks my hand.
The path appears treacherous, and it is, but Max weaves expertly through the boulders and vegetation. The wind picks up significantly, swallowing our sounds. I wouldn't call the way easy, but it's doable.
“Another part of your defense?” I ask.
Max pauses to glance at me and dips his head. “Observant. I spent a lot of time setting this up so there's no obvious path, but we can still get through here without killing ourselves.”
He starts moving again, eventually disappearing behind a tall rock. Panic tightens my chest. “Max?” The wind seems to whip his name away.
I round the curve of the rock cautiously, but it's too dark to see anything. Hands reach out and grab my arms, pushing me against the cool stone surface. I gasp, about to scream, when Max's soft lips come down on mine. He kisses me thoroughly, large hands pinning my shoulders, both thumbs making gentle strokes over my collarbones.
Part of me is outraged he scared me, but I'm enjoying his touch far too much to complain.
His lips break from the kiss, working their way expertly over my jaw and neck. He sucks my earlobe into his mouth, swirling his tongue around it. Heat blooms inside me despite the cool air and rock surrounding us.
He pulls away with a soft chuckle. “I'm sorry. It was childish of me to scare you.”
“I'll let it go this time. If you do it again, I can't guarantee the safety of your man parts.”
“Ouch. Don't even joke about stuff like that!”
“Who says I'm joking?” I go up on tiptoe to kiss him then slip under his arm.
“Whoa! Don't go far.” He loops his arms about my waist and yanks me against his chest. “This is where we need a flashlight if we don't want to get hurt.” Max flicks on his penlight and shines it where I was about to step. The ledge drops off into a crevasse.
“Oh, shit. I almost . . .” My breathing is ragged.
“I'd never let you fall.” Max shines the light on a path of smooth stone. “We go that way.”
“But I could have!” The air jams up in my chest. Hovering over a fissure is not the time for a panic attack.
“Hey, hey.” Max backpedals and turns, sandwiching me between his body and the tall stone. “Take it easy. Think of a pleasant memory.”
I follow his instruction, accessing a childhood memory. I remember my mom once taking Katie and me to a beach with a playground. I think we were eight. There were swings overlooking the ocean. The sun was shining, the sky a brilliant blue. The lashing wind was relentless, chilling us and whipping our long hair into our faces as we swung. As usual, Mom didn’t think of bringing jackets because it was summer, and we ended up cloaking ourselves with blankets and piling our hair up in buns. Later, we sat in our beach chairs, watching the surfers while we ate cold meatball subs. The day was far from perfect, but it’s one of those moments I’ll always remember. It was before Mom deserted her family. Dad still smiled. Katie and I thought we had forever.
“There you go. Breathe for me.” Max’s cajoling tone snaps me back to the present.
“Yeah. Thanks. How did you know to do that?”
“My sister has asthma. I’ve been talking her down since we were kids.”
Grace’s cold nose nudges my palm.
“I’m okay, girl.”
“Grace, go on.” Max points to the path, and Grace follows it, tail wagging. “Now you.” He holds my hand, walking directly behind me, shining the beam of light in front of us.
The reddish-brown walls go high and line both sides of the narrow path. Thankfully, this way there’s no place to fall. We seem to travel for quite some time, the tunnel letting out onto sandy ground. Before us is the rear of a building with a heavy metal door.
Max unlocks it. I expect the door to screech, but it opens smoothly and silently.
Sitting on the sand behind us are the rucksacks. “Wait—how did those get down here?”
Max laughs. “You probably don’t want to know.” He picks them up and leads me inside then locks the door again, shutting out the sound of the wind.
It’s much warmer inside. Machinery hums in the distance. The scant light reveals damp concrete floors, hulking piles of crates, and open space heading into the dark. Max leads me past a freight elevator and around a few turns until we reach another one. He inserts a key, and the doors trundle open vertically. The floor is metal grating.
Grace walks right in.
“Where are we going?”
The elevator shudders and creaks as we descend. I’m not fond of elevators in the best of circumstances, and this dull silver box scores no points with me.
Max leans against the wall, watching me with crossed arms. “Don’t be scared.”
“I don’t like elevators.”
“You sure that’s all? I’d never do anything to harm you.”
I scoff. “That never even crossed my mind!”
“Good. Just checking.” He smirks but seems relieved under the tough façade.
The elevator comes to a teeth-jarring stop, and Max opens the gate. Here, we don’t need flashlights. Light bars line the ceiling, buzzing softly. Many of them are off, but there’s more than enough light to see by. Myriad pipes in various sizes run along the ceiling as well, and the humming is louder here than it was upstairs.
“What is this place?”
“Natural source that will never run out—unless there’s some other kind of disaster.”
“Water? We’re right by the ocean!”
“Yup. This place powers the alliance.”
“Why are we here?”
“This is where I live.”
“Won’t they find out?”
“This plant is huge. There are so many halls and gates, some of them automated. A person could get lost in here and never find a way out.”
I shudder and hope never to be lost in here without a guide.
Max opens a door marked STAIRWELL, beckoning me to follow. As soon as we step into the dark, lights flicker on. The same happens with the next level and the next.
I keep my thoughts to myself but wonder how he could live in this damp building. It can’t be healthy for his asthmatic sister either. The houses in town are looking better by the minute, even if I do have to be cautious.
We leave the stairwell and walk down a long hall. Max unlocks a door at the end, and it’s like falling into the rabbit hole. The heavy door clicks behind us, shutting out the humming. Before us is a long, carpeted hallway and pale yellow sheet-rocked walls. Grace squeezes by with a joyful bark and scampers away, disappearing around a corner.
Max looks back at me. “Admit it—you were starting to wonder about me.”
Grace barks again, following a tall, lanky guy heading toward us. “Welcome home.”
We meet in front of a closed door, and I notice several other doors along the walls. The men shake hands.
“Marie, I’d like you to meet Tek. He’s the reason we can live here.”
Tek shakes my hand. “Jason Kelly—known around here as Tek. Nice to meet you.”
Tek is a few inches shorter than Max with large, kind brown eyes and shoulder-length waves of blond hair tucked behind his ears. His skin is milky pale and a tad sallow. I wonder if he ever gets outside.
Grace nudges her snout against the side of Tek’s leg, her tail wagging fast.
He laughs and digs in his pocket. “Here you go, Nudge.” Grace gobbles the treat and licks his palm.
“Grace,” Max corrects.
“Huh?” Tek looks puzzled.
“Marie named her Grace.”
“Ah. Fitting name for a beautiful girl.” Tek offers up another treat.
An elfin girl with a blanket wrapped around her narrow shoulders appears at the end of the hall. Her skin is pale, and she has short, almost-black hair. She doesn’t resemble Max, but the sea-glass eyes are a giveaway.
“You must be Alissa.”
A smile spreads across her face, and now I see a touch of Max.
Max turns around. “Ali! What are you doing up?”
Alissa rolls her eyes. “I’m not an invalid, Connor! I wanted to greet our new family member. Welcome home, Marie. Has my brother kissed you yet?”
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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