Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 14): Twice
My first thought is who's Connor? Alissa is looking directly at Max, so I can only presume she's referring to him, and the stiffening of his shoulders confirms it. In the next second, I wonder what Max has been saying about me to his sister that led her to ask such a personal question.
“We've talked about this, Ali.” I recognize that growly tone; Max is angry.
The siblings have a stare-down. The tension in the hall mounts, and it's clear neither of them intends to lose. Part of me has the urge to protect Alissa from Max; she's so petite, and he towers over her.
I start to say something, but Tek grabs Max's arm. “Hey.”
Max's head snaps around, blue-green pools filled with annoyance fixing on Tek. Max's jaw is tight, and he doesn't say anything, just stares.
Max has said Tek is in love with Alissa, and I imagine the intensity between brother and sister makes Tek uncomfortable.
He releases his hold on Max. “Why don't you show Marie around, man? Get her settled in?”
“Sure. Yeah, that makes sense.” Max rubs his eyes then grasps my hand. I allow him to lead me past his sister.
She touches my shoulder we go by. “I'm so glad you're here.”
Max stops walking, and I narrowly avoid slamming into his back. “Ali, for the love of God.” He still faces forward, speaking without looking her way.
“Excuse my brother's poor manners. He's not done baking.”
An ugly laugh issues from Max, and he shakes his head, pulling me along behind him. We make a few turns and stop in front of a door, which he unlocks.
The room is small and smells like Max—masculine with a chaser of the sea. The walls are white, the area above a scarred old dresser covered by taped-up charcoal drawings. The surface of the dresser is bare with the exception of a haphazard tower of sketchpads.
Max drops our rucksacks in the corner, toes off his boots, and falls back on the queen size bed. Frustration pours off of him, leeching into the air around us, causing an almost static charge.
Silently, I wander the sparse bedroom, drawn to the wall of sketches. He's good. There are landscapes of the cliffs, beach, sea, and woods and numerous portraits of Alissa and Grace. I notice a guitar resting against the side of the dresser.
I point. “Is that . . .?”
“Yeah. Play to your heart’s content down here.”
“Thanks.” I run my finger along the fret board and pluck a string.
“I enjoyed it,” he says.
“Listening to you play and sing. You have a soulful voice.”
My cheeks flush with pleasure. I've always loved singing, but it means more to me now because of the special connection to Katie. We shared similar voices, but Katie's was a touch smokier, allowing for some rich harmonies. The tears surprise me, springing to my eyes and spilling over before I realize they're coming.
I swipe at my cheeks and blink rapidly, continuing to peruse the charcoals.
The bedsprings squeak as Max sits up behind me. “What's wrong?”
“Liar.” His tone is soft and nonjudgmental.
The room is small and close. Max and the bed are between me and the door. Even if I escaped, where would I run? I don't know my way around.
I take a deep breath and wipe more wetness from beneath my eyes. “Memories.”
He simply hums in answer.
We've all experienced loss. None of us came to this new world unscathed. It's clear to me Max has his own demons. I'm about to leave the sketches when one in the center catches my eye. It's me, standing on the dunes down at the beach, the wind whipping the hair about my face.
“This is . . .” I touch the edge of the paper with my index finger and swallow hard, unsure how it makes me feel that Max not only drew me but gave me a place on his wall.
“Come here.” His voice is low and hoarse. When I turn, his sea-glass eyes hold shadows, but his expression is vulnerable.
I go to him.
Max spreads his knees and grasps my hips, pulling me close, then slides his hands around my waist. I balance both palms on his broad shoulders and tilt my head, watching him gaze up at me. There’s something both raw and childlike about him in this moment; it tugs at my heart.
“Your sketches are amazing. You drew me from memory?”
“The likeness is incredible. You must have an eye for detail.”
One side of Max’s mouth pulls up. “I have an eye for you, China.” The way he looks at me sends heat blasting through my body; I feel it rush from deep within to the roots of my hair, and the air seems to thin. A lazy smile spreads across his face. “Is it possible I've left you speechless? You always have so much to say.”
I'm trapped in this little room, in his arms, in his stare. I want to say something about the sketch, maybe ask why he drew it, but the words lodge in my throat.
Max breaks away first, pressing his cheek against my stomach, the warmth branding me. His arms wrap tighter around me. As my body relaxes, I lean into him and allow my palms to glide from his strong shoulders to the short hair at the nape of his neck. It always looks so prickly, like a porcupine’s quills, but it's incredibly soft.
“Mm-mm . . . that feels good.”
Now that we're not eye to eye, I can breathe again, and my bravery returns. “Why did you cut your hair?” I continue massaging my fingers through the downy strands.
“How do you know it wasn't always short?”
“You make this gesture when you're nervous or frustrated . . . like you're scooping hair out of your eyes. I figured you usually wear it longer.”
“Observant.” He's silent for a few seconds before speaking again, a certain hardness entering his tone. “Cutting it was my way of saying goodbye . . . to an old life.” Despite the tension in Max's voice, his fingers rub lightly up and down my side.
“When did you—?”
“Lie with me?” He scoots back, still holding me in his arms.
Max usually has barriers surrounding him, but he seems particularly vulnerable in this moment. I ignore the fact he interrupted my question and allow him to guide me onto the mattress.
Max lies on his back and tucks me under one arm, cradling my head to his chest. I rest my hand over his heart and feel it pounding. He’s as nervous as I am. His fingers fist in the hair along the back of my neck. The hold isn’t tight or painful; I suspect it brings him comfort.
I take a deep breath and then ask him something I’ve wondered since meeting Alissa. “Why did your sister call you Connor?” I scratch lightly over his pec in an attempt to soften the question so he doesn’t think I’m grilling him.
“Connor is my given name. It was also my piece-of-shit father’s name.” His voice drips with contempt. “I hate being tied to that bastard in any way. Obviously, my sister walks to the beat of her own drum—she’s the queen of inappropriate.”
“Where did Max come from?”
“My middle name is Maxwell. It fits. I tend to do things to the max.”
I smile. “What’s your full name?”
“Connor Maxwell Quinn. Yours?”
“Marie Rosa Merlo.”
“Much prettier than mine. Merlo . . . sounds so familiar to me. It’s not that common.”
“It’s not uncommon either.”
“No, but it strikes a chord all the same.”
“None of us were famous.” The only possibility I can fathom is that he's heard of my father. I'm hesitant to mention Dad's illustrious career in the Maine prison system though I can't pinpoint why.
“Whatever. It might come to me later.” Max strokes the pads of his fingers absently along my bare arm, raising goose flesh.
“Do you talk to Alissa about me?”
“I have, yes.”
“Why did she ask me . . .?” My words drift away; I can't bring myself to finish the question.
Max laughs. “When we first met, you frustrated me to no end. It pissed me off that you wouldn’t leave. I’d come home, spouting off about you. Know what Ali said? ‛Kiss her and get it over with.’”
“She said that?”
“My sister knows things sometimes.”
“Is she psychic?”
“Not exactly, but I can’t deny Ali seems to have a sixth sense and is rarely wrong. She’s also missing a verbal filter and has no problem crossing boundaries.”
“I like her. She has fire.”
Max chuckles. “So do you, China. I’m sorry if she made you uncomfortable.”
A companionable silence descends. Max continues skimming his fingers along my arm and keeps a hand tangled in my hair. The slowing of his heart beneath my palm and the warmth of his body against mine lull me, and my lids begin to droop. It’s a testament to how comfortable I’ve become with Max that I can reach such a relaxed state in his presence.
“Were you with someone?” he asks softly. “You know, before all this.”
I keep my lids closed, allowing the heaviness dragging at my limbs to remain. “Yes.”
“Did you love him?” Max stiffens slightly. “Were you married?”
“No—yes.” My heart beats faster. How do I explain Mike to him in light of what I know now? “I mean to say yes, I loved him. No, we weren’t married. Engaged, but . . .” I hesitate.
“But?” The word comes out gruff.
“Mike and I started dating in our senior year of high school. He was on the football team, and Katie was a cheerleader. She brought me to an after-party, introduced me to Mike, and we hit it off. Our colleges were only an hour apart. A few months ago, he asked me to marry him. He, um . . .” Tears prick my eyes. “ . . . died early on.”
“I’m sorry.” Max is silent for a beat before taking a breath. “The way you recited that . . . lacks something. I don’t mean to suggest—”
“No, it’s okay. I think we fell into a relationship that was nice and familiar but lacked any true passion. The night of my engagement party, Katie took me out back and told me as much. Part of me recognized the truth of what she said, but whenever doubts cropped up, I’d bury them. Then the virus hit, and all the rules flew out the window.”
“Yes, they did.” There’s a strange, contemplative tone to Max’s voice. “So, Katie called you on the relationship, thought you deserved more?”
“Basically, she said the love of my life should take my breath away, that his touch would burn my skin and rational thought desert me whenever we’re together.”
Max’s heart gallops. I feel the thumps beneath my hand, and the thuds echo in the ear I have pressed to his chest. He kisses my temple. “Your sister was a wise woman.”
“How about you?” I ask, though I’m not so sure I want to hear tales of the woman who captured Max’s affections. An irrational stab of jealousy slices through me.
“I’m pretty wise, too.”
I smile and slap his chest. “Max!”
“There was no one. Not for a long time.”
“Really?” I’m ashamed at the relief flooding my body.
“A handsome devil like you?”
“So, you think I’m good-looking?” There’s amusement in his tone. “I’m flattered.”
Surely he’s well aware of the effect he has on women.
“Please. Have you looked in a mirror lately?”
Max turns serious. “I had a fucked-up life. There wasn’t much opportunity to forge lasting relationships. For years I had a chip on my shoulder and pushed everyone away. Ali was the only constant in my life, a reason to go on.” He holds me tighter. “I’ve done things, Marie. Bad things.”
“Don’t, okay?” I raise my head and look into his eyes, running my fingers over his cheek. “The old world is gone. All we have is now. You can be whatever kind of person you want to be. There’s guilt festering inside you somewhere, but whatever you’ve done in the past, I know you’re a good man.”
“Would you bet your life on it? Because that’s pretty much what you’re doing.” Max cups my face, his eyes glinting in the dim light. “I don’t want to let you down.”
I nod, swallowing. I’m betting large on him.
“Will you stay with me tonight?”
I answer w
ithout thought. “Yes.” “We’ll get you settled in your own space tomorrow.” He tugs my face to his and kisses me gently. “Thank you for giving me a chance.” His troubled eyes convey the hope that my trust isn’t misguided, and I pray for the same as sleep takes me.
When I wake up, it’s hard to know what time it is. My watch says twelve something, but is it noon or midnight? The stiffness of my body and the amount of sleep sand in the corners of my eyes say noon.
I flop onto my back. Max sits on a chair in the corner, sketching. Grace lies on the floor beside him, her eyes scrunched closed. One leg twitches every so often, and I wonder if she’s dreaming of chasing rabbits.
Max rubs a finger against the paper then glances at me. “Good morning.”
I sit up, smoothing my hair with both hands, hoping I catch any wild strands. “What are you drawing?”
“Can I see?”
He shakes his head. “Maybe after it’s finished.” He flips the cover of the pad closed and lays it on top of the dresser. “Why don’t you grab some stuff, and I’ll show you where the bathroom is. I suspect you’re going to enjoy our setup.”
Max isn’t kidding. The power plant has hot, running water. There are four private showers, each with its own dressing area. I take him up on his offer to enjoy the facilities as long as I want. When I finish showering, my skin is pruned. There’s even a hairdryer, so I end up looking almost like my old self for the first time in months.
When I emerge from the powder room, Alissa is sitting cross-legged on a bench, reading a book in front of a bank of lockers. Without the blanket as cover, her diminutive size is more obvious. She reaches the end of her page and glances up as she turns it. Once again, I’m surprised to see Max’s eyes looking back at me from her pale, pretty face. A smirk tugs at her lips, and more of Max peeks out.
“Feeling better, Marie?”
“Much. This is fantastic.”
Alissa frowns. “Yes, it is. It pained me when my brother refused to bring you in, and I knew you were out there.” She gestures with one arm, closing her eyes. “I would have come to get you myself, but between my condition and the two stubborn oafs I live with . . .”
“That’s okay. It’s so kind of you to allow me to stay here.”
Alissa’s eyes open wide, and she expels a tinkling laugh. “You belong here, silly!”
“What do you mean?” I put my bag on the floor and sit beside her on the bench.
She wiggles to face me, still in her cross-legged position, and leans forward as if we’re sharing gossip at a slumber party. “When Connor came home caterwauling about some crazy woman with no sense of self-preservation, I knew it was you.”
“You don’t even know me.”
She grabs my hand. “Maybe not you specifically, but I realized my brother found the perfect woman, one that would challenge and frustrate, bring out the best in him, and ignite his tender side—because it does exist, believe it or not. When he continued bitching, it only confirmed my suspicions. Nobody has riled up Connor this way in like . . . ever.”
“Alissa, you’re jumping ahead. Your brother is a great guy, and I’m thankful he let me into the inner circle, but we’re not exactly together.”
She flaps a hand. “Sure you are—you just don’t know it yet. He kissed you already, didn’t he?”
I look away, feeling awkward. “That’s kind of private, don’t you think?”
“All the confirmation I need!” Alissa covers her mouth and giggles. “Don’t worry—I won’t tell him you said anything.”
“But I didn’t!”
“Maybe not with words . . .” She winks.
The direction of the conversation is making me uncomfortable. I think she means well, but I’m not used to having someone I just met so deep in my business. I’m unsure about my feelings for Max or his for me. Besides, this new landscape doesn’t seem conducive to nurturing a budding relationship. Alissa seems to sense my distress and stops talking. She does continue watching me with unabashed scrutiny, though. Max warned me she has no filters.
“Where's Grace?” I've grown accustomed to my furry shadow and feel off-balance when she's not with me.
“Why do you call him Connor?” I ask.
“That’s his name.”
“But you know he doesn’t want to be associated with—” I break off, remembering they share the same father.
“You can say it. He doesn’t want to be associated with our father.” Alissa nods, her thickly lashed, blue-green eyes meeting mine. “Our father was an abusive slime bucket, but denying paternity and choosing a new name is simply a way for Connor to jam his head in the sand. If he can’t own who he is, where he comes from, the urges he needs to resist, then he’ll never be able to heal and move on. He thinks I refuse to call him Max just to give him a hard time. I let him believe what he wants.”
“Why don’t you just tell him what you told me?”
“Have you ever tried telling my brother anything when he believes he’s right?”
A smile spreads across my face. “I admit—he’s difficult.”
Alissa pats my thigh. “You should call him Max, though.”
I gather my things, and Alissa offers to show me their quarters. When I ask where Max is, she tells me he went to unload yesterday’s haul.
The power plant quarters consist of seven bedrooms, the showers, a fully-equipped kitchen with a small walk-in refrigerator/freezer, and a lounge used as a living room. There’s even a washer and dryer in a utility closet next to the freight elevator.
The tour ends in the kitchen where Alissa offers me something to eat. I insist on heating the soup for us, pouring it into a saucepan and using the electric cook top. We eat at one of three round tables in the large kitchen.
“Why is all this here, and how did you guys find it?” I ask after eating half of my soup.
“This was built for employees of the power plant, insulated to keep out the noise and outfitted for longer-term stays during storms or emergencies. Tek’s cousin was the plant manager, which is how we ended up here. When Ken came down with the virus, he made an extra set of keys for all vital areas and hid them in a cave on the cliffs. He sent instructions to everyone in the family because he knew how tough it would be to stay alive—if anyone survived.”
“What about the alliance? Max said this plant is the source of their power.”
“They would only have a reason to come here if things stopped running. Tek makes sure it all runs smoothly. When we’re done eating, I’ll take you to his command center. Anyway, the area the alliance would be interested in is upstairs. They don’t have the key to the freight elevator or the stairwell that reaches this deep. We only had one curious guy, and Tek deterred him quickly.”
We finish our meals, and Alissa dumps the bowls in the sink, proclaiming that it’s Tek’s day to do dishes anyway. She grabs my hand and leads me to the freight elevator, waving at a camera suspended in a corner. We go up one floor, and she pulls me through a series of hallways until we reach an open doorway.
Inside is a wall of monitors and a console covered with buttons and gauges. Tek mans it from a leather captain’s chair.
Tek spins his chair to face us. “Welcome to the control room. This is where it all happens.” He shrugs and smiles shyly. “Sounded good anyway.”
Alissa bounds across the floor, launching herself onto Tek’s lap. He closes his arms around her slight form and plants a kiss on her cherry-stained lips.
I step inside, gawking at all the gadgets and glowing monitors. “Wow.”
I ignore the console, which I have little chance of understanding, and look at the screens. Many of them show different zones throughout the power plant, including the halls leading to the living quarters. There’s a monitor for each outside entrance of the building, one panning the cliffs, and two I can’t figure out locations for. Movement catches my eye on one screen; Max wheels an empty shopping cart through a doorway and down a hall to an elevator. He appears on the next monitor when he boards the elevator. He offers a salute to the camera.
“This is amazing.” I move closer to the console. “You understand all this stuff?”
“Most of it. There are manuals for almost everything, and I’ve got time to kill.” Tek gestures to a desk against a side wall, piled with books. “I try to keep things humming along so those bastards have no reason to come here.”
“Awesome. So you’d see them coming long before there was any danger of them finding you.”
Alissa curls into a ball in Tek’s lap, her head tucked in the crook of his neck. Her movements remind me of a cat. “Between Tek’s watchful eye and my intuition, we’re in pretty good shape. Then there’s Connor’s man on the inside.”
“Yes, I met him on the supply run.”
“Giant fucker but a great guy.” Alissa giggles, covering her mouth. “Oops! That’s the Quinn in me peeking out.”
Tek smiles, gazing down at her affectionately. “My little truck driver.”
“Hardly. Oh, Marie, my brother tells me you have some kind of natural remedy for my asthma?”
“Yeah. My grandma had asthma and believed in holistic remedies. When we were in town, I picked up some things that might help. Mamie used to brew it into a tea.”
“That’s so thoughtful of you. I feel like we’re sisters already!” Alissa squeals.
Tek offers me an apologetic look, but I think she's sweet and refreshing.
A tingle prickles along the back of my neck just before Max strides in with Grace. Grace lets out a happy bark and nudges my hand with her nose. I crouch down and hug her neck while she tries to get some licks in. “Hey, girl! I missed you.”
Max stands stiffly by the door. “Has my sister filled your head with a bunch of shit while I was gone?”
“Hello to you, too, dear brother.” Alissa glares at Max. “I didn’t say anything that wasn’t absolutely true.”
“So it’s a yes, then.” Max sighs. “Do you mind if I spend some time with Marie?”
“Of course not!” Alissa looks to me with a smile. “We’ll talk more later. I can’t wait to try that tea.”
“You bet. Thanks for the tour. See you later, Tek.”
Tek waves. “It's been a pleasure. Feel free to come here any time, ask questions, whatever.”
Max laces his fingers tightly with mine and practically yanks me off my feet in his rush to get away from the control room. Taking long strides, he leads me in the opposite direction Alissa and I came from earlier, but the halls all look the same to me—concrete floors, grayish walls, pipes running along the ceiling, with the constant hum of distant machinery in the background.
Our fingers are so tightly entwined, I fear my hand will go numb soon. Grace walks a few paces behind us, almost as if she senses Max's distress.
“Where are we going?”
“I want to show you something.”
Max's agitation seeps into me, and the level of my fear rises. “I never went this way. You'll stay with me the whole time, right?” I hate the fright audible in my own voice.
Max stops short and faces me, cupping my cheek with his free hand. “You're scared. Why?”
I shrug, feeling silly. “I don't know exactly. This place creeps me out a little. It's huge, and I don't know what all these sounds are or where to go if we get separated . . .”
“Marie, you're not alone anymore. I did everything to scare you away at first, and I'm sorry for that. I'll take you all around this place until you know it like the back of your hand. Whatever will help.” He kisses me softly, and my fear drains away.
“Come on—what I want to show you is up this hall.” Max starts walking again, slower this time.
We come to a dead end alcove, and he leads me inside. I glance around in confusion. “There's nothing here.”
Max smiles. “Look down.”
I have to step back to see what’s under my feet. As the concrete was drying, someone wrote four words, forever memorialized in the hardened surface: WE ONLY LIVE ONCE
I squat beside the words and run my index finger in the grooves of the letters. “Why are you showing me this?”
“Don’t you get it?” Max crouches next to me and tips my chin up until our eyes meet. “What happened sucks. This new world won’t be easy to navigate—or even survive—but we are members of a special group.”
“We get to live twice.”
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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