Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 15): Echoes
Briny air lashes at my skin and screams in my ears, the roar almost as deafening as the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks below. The day is chilly despite the strong sun, shining from a cloudless cerulean sky, a fact I'm thankful for as sweat drips over my temples, between my boobs, and along the channel of my spine in copious rivulets. I piled my hair into a messy bun more than an hour ago, both to keep cool and because it's impossible to concentrate with hanks of it slapping at my face.
“Try again.” Max stands beside me, hands on hips.
He's utterly distracting in camo pants and a tight black shirt stretched taut across his muscles. He's also unhappy with my progress, which prompts me to stop ogling him and focus.
We're on a smooth, rocky shelf, carved into the front of the cliff facing the ocean. It's a natural formation Max favors because of the location: out in the open, yet private. Unless someone is on a boat in the open sea, we're undetectable.
I close my eyes for a moment, tightening my grip on the blade, then open them, step forward, and bring my arm around, releasing the knife into the air. The blade clanks against stone, missing the target completely.
“Fuck.” I stamp my foot and face the ocean with crossed arms, avoiding Max's intense gaze, my mood choppy and violent like the white-capped waves.
Two warm hands land on my shoulders and squeeze gently. Warm breath caresses the skin beneath my ear. “Relax. Once you get the hang, it becomes second nature. Muscle memory.”
“Max, I can't even manage to hit the target!”
“You will.” He kisses the nape of my bare neck, sending tingles to places that have no business tingling right now. “Do you trust me?”
I manage to nod, not trusting my speech capabilities at the moment.
“Come here.” Max leads me to the throwing line and stands behind me, his large hand covering mine. “Close your eyes.”
“Do it.” His chest grazes my back, his arm extended along my own. “Quiet your mind, and focus on the target. See it in your mind. Step back, then forward, and let go as the handle comes even with the target.”
I'm not sure how he manages to do this since he's so much taller than I am, but I shut my thoughts down and follow his instructions. We move in tandem, our bodies fluid motion as I allow him to direct me. When it feels right, I release the knife and find his fingers opening at the same moment.
There's a solid chunk! as the blade drives home, and my lids fly open in surprise. The knife sticks straight into the upper arm of the crudely drawn human target.
Max strides over and plucks it out, returning with a self-satisfied smirk. “Told you.”
“You were holding my hand.”
“You released it at the right time. I didn't make that happen.” Max gives me the knife. “Do it alone. Eyes closed.”
I give him a look but follow his instructions. The knife ends up at the very edge of the target, but at least I didn't miss entirely. I try with my eyes open and hit the target again.
“Good. Now I want you to relax your body, and keep focus on the place you want the knife to go. Just before you throw, take a breath and hold it. Release it as the knife leaves your hand. I know it's a lot to remember, but this will become automatic.”
I focus where the heart would be on the target and take a few deep breaths, stilling on the third one. I step back and then forward, letting my breath out, and let go of the blade. It rams home with a satisfying whump.
“Sternum. What were you aiming for?”
“Not bad, China.” Max pats me on the shoulder. “Again.”
After another hour, I hurt in places I didn't know existed, but I'm hitting the target consistently, often where I mean to. Max is intense and pushes me hard. I'm about to start whining at him when I notice Alissa and Tek watching from one side of the ledge.
Alissa is bundled in a puffy green coat with a fur-lined hood. Tek hovers at her side with an arm around her shoulders, shifting nervously. I find out why he's nervous when Max spots them.
“Jesus Christ, Ali! What are you doing up here? You should be inside.” Max stalks toward them, raking a hand through his too-short hair.
Alissa lifts her chin, defiance snapping in her eyes. “Get a grip, Connor. You're not my wet-nurse.” She pushes past him, heading for me. “Nice throwing, Marie!”
“Max is a good teacher.”
“I'll bet.” She winks.
Max looms behind Alissa, face still tight with frustration, and I skirt her slight form, placing a hand on his chest. “Can I talk to you?” I keep my voice low.
He stares over my head at his sister, sea-glass eyes exuding annoyance, but when his gaze drops to mine, it softens. “Sure.”
His shirt is too snug to grasp, so I take him by the wrist and lead him to the other side of the ledge. It's not likely we'll be heard over the sound of the biting wind anyway. I gaze up at him and slide my hands into his. “Why are you so upset she's here?”
“I don't want her to catch pneumonia. Stubborn little gnome!”
“Alissa needs some fresh air. It’s not healthy for her to be trapped inside all the time.” I pause then plunge ahead. “What's really bothering you?”
Max's fingers tighten on mine, and I try not to wince. He squints up at the sky and huffs, his strangled words forced through a constricted throat. “She's my sister. I have to protect her.” He swallows hard, eyes still trained above him.
“You are protecting her.”
Max shakes his head, self-hatred evident in his tone. “I haven't always. Shit happened to her, and I wasn't there to stop it.”
“Look at me.” I wait for his shining eyes to lower. “I know you well enough to know you did everything you could for her. Nobody can be everywhere at once.”
Max wraps his arms around my waist, pulling me against his chest, and cradles my head beneath his chin, fingers tangling in my hair. “Thank you—for so many things. I don’t deserve it. I'm such a fuck-up.” He holds me tighter until I can barely draw breath, but I don’t care. This is where I want to be—whatever it means, whatever this is.
My ear rests against the softness of his shirt, and his heart thuds fast and loud. I hold onto his biceps, barely able to get my hands halfway around the hard muscle. There's nothing I can say that won't come across as a platitude because I wasn't there for the events Max is grieving. I reach up to touch his face, brushing my fingertips along his tense jaw, but leave my head tucked under his chin. “Max, I wasn't there and don't want to downplay any of the struggles you went through, but you need to know I'm here for you—if you want to talk or even if you don't.”
He doesn't say anything, just nods and hugs me closer.
When we break apart, I notice Alissa and Tek sitting on a boulder, talking quietly. Max doesn't apologize for his outburst, and neither of them seems to expect it.
“Next we have up-close-and-personal combat.” Max props a stuffed dummy against the rock wall. “If you're too close to throw the knife, you can slash the jugular, slice through tendons, stab in the eye or groin.” He lists these casually as if we’re not talking about maiming another being.
I gape at Max and shake my head when he tries to press the knife into my hand. “I—I can't.”
He squeezes my hand around the weapon. “Eat or be eaten. The rules have changed.”
“Hey, if it helps, we've all been trained,” Tek calls out.
I glance at him and Alissa. Both of them nod.
Max teaches me how to hold the knife and put the most power behind it. Stabbing a dummy is easy after the first time or two, but I wonder how I'd handle a real live human. If it comes down to me or them, I'll choose me.
Max grins as he yanks the knife out of the dummy's eye. “Nice, deep shot there. You developing a taste for this?”
“Ha, no.” I shake my head. “How about the gut? Isn't that a good place to stab someone?”
Max's face freezes, and he looks down sharply, his arm trembling so hard, the knife slips from his grasp and clanks to the stone at our feet. His mouth opens then closes before he simply turns and stumbles away. I watch in shock as Max crouches at the end of the ledge overlooking the ocean, head in his hands.
“Max?” I rush over and touch his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
He shrugs me off with a violent shift of his shoulder. “Get away from me! Just . . . just go!”
I gasp, stumbling back, and land on my ass. The hot sting of tears burns my eyes.
Alissa comes to me and calmly offers her hand. “I'm sorry about this.” Her expression is sorrowful.
“Get her out of here!” Max shouts.
“Jay, bring her inside.”
Tek slings an arm over my shoulders and leads me slowly but firmly away from Max. My last vision before we start down the path is of Alissa curled around Max, whispering to him.
I can't speak due to the lump in my throat and the fear coiling in my chest. I barely notice our surroundings until the power plant door cuts off the chilly air and whoosh of whipping wind. Tek looks sympathetic as he guides me through the maze of my new home.
“Are you all right?”
“No,” I whisper.
“Can I do something?”
“My room?” I can't even remember where my new room is.
Grace appears at the end of the hall, padding silently our way with her head cocked, deep brown eyes trained on me. As I pass her, she does an about-face and falls into step with me, her snout nudging my thigh.
Tek hovers outside my door. “I'm sorry about him. He's got issues.”
I lean on the doorjamb. “What are they?”
“Don't know. He's not a talker, and Ali won't say.” Tek shrugs. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Grace slips inside with me, and I lock the door. My room is next to Max's and situated similarly. The wall above my dresser is bare with the exception of a charcoal drawing of Grace Max gave me. And the guitar now resides with me.
I flick the lights off and throw myself on the bed, shoving my face into the pillow. Grace hops up and lies alongside me. What caused Max to act that way? He seemed fine until I mentioned stabbing someone in the gut. I’ve never seen him so vulnerable or upset. Why did he shut me out?
I root in my rucksack until I find my cell phone. The battery life is at sixty percent. I'll need to recharge it soon. Today, I need my sissy. I play Katie’s Panic Opus on repeat, falling asleep during her fourth time singing “Rosalinda’s Eyes.”
I awake to heat against my back. At first, I think it’s Grace, but the movement is too deliberate and all-encompassing to be a dog. Legs snug along my own, and the soft touch of fingers ghosts along my arm. Max.
I feign sleep because I don’t know how to react. Earlier, he couldn’t get rid of me fast enough, and now he’s slipped into my bed.
Max is silent for a while, simply stroking my arm and pressing his body against me. I should be annoyed, but I like the feel of him. I want him here and long to understand him.
Max shifts the hair off my neck and rests his chin on my shoulder with a soft sigh. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. His warm breath sends a shiver down my spine, and I fight to remain still. “You’re so innocent. This shit world doesn’t deserve you. I don’t deserve you.”
He slips his shin between mine, rubbing back and forth lightly, one arm slipping over my hip. Why such an innocent movement sends desire surging through me, I have no idea, but my heart beats faster. Max’s lips nuzzle the side of my neck, planting small kisses every so often.
“I don’t want these feelings, but I can’t stop them. I did things to protect Ali that—fuck. Things that eat away the soul.” Max’s face nudges closer, his scruff pricking my sensitive skin. And then I feel the dampness of his tears.
It’s wrong to pretend I’m asleep while his tears scald my skin, and he confesses his sins. I mumble incoherently and shift my body, giving him a chance to compose himself. A huge part of me prays he doesn’t take off.
The weight of Max’s body still comforts mine, and I turn my head toward him, not that I can see in the darkness. “Max?” I don’t have to fake the sleep-drenched confusion in my voice.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Hey.” Brilliant opener.
“Hey.” Max places a kiss behind my ear, his large hand massaging my hip, and butterflies flutter in my belly. “I’m ashamed of my behavior today.”
“Max . . .”
I twist fully to face him, pressing my palm to his cheek, and search for him in the darkness. “Of course. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” His voice is distressed and insistent. “That’s what bugs me the most—my checkered past rearing its ugly head to hurt you.” He falls silent.
“You can trust me, Max.”
“Then talk to me.”
Max pulls my hand away from his face and places a kiss in the palm. “Some things should never be spoken.” His voice is soft; the tone and sentiment behind his words are not. “Do you want me to go?”
I hesitate. Max isn’t going to explain his violent reaction, so I have to decide if that’s acceptable. My sense is if he’s ever going to completely trust me, I have to put myself out there and be vulnerable. “No. Stay.”
Max wraps himself around me, his relief an almost palpable presence snuggled between us. He sighs contentedly and starts snoring quietly a few minutes later.
I lie awake for a long time, wondering about Max’s demons. Before the virus, I would have pushed him away without a thought. I’ve always been a black and white kind of girl. When I eventually fall asleep, it’s with a smile on my face because today I’m acting more like Katie.
When I wake up, I’m trapped beneath Max’s rock hard body. The room is pitch dark. I’ll have to get used to not having windows. I attempt to slide gracefully out from under Max’s dead weight, but it quickly turns to shoving and grunting. I’m still half-trapped when Max snickers.
“Oh no, you didn’t!” I yell, slapping at him.
He laughs harder, grabbing my wrists so I can’t hit him. “Stop, you little spitfire! It was funny, you wiggling under me for all you were worth.” His palm lands on my boob. “Oops.” He leaves it there.
“I am a red-blooded male. Sue me.”
I suppress a laugh, not wanting to encourage him. “It’s so dark in here—like a sensory deprivation chamber.”
Max finally rolls off me. The bed bounces and squeaks slightly as he gets off, and a few seconds later, the fluorescents hum to life. That’s going to take getting used to. No mood lighting here.
I squint and blink, allowing my eyes to adjust. Max leans against the wall in a black tank and gray sweats. He’s hot no matter what he wears, but the sight of the tatts winding their way down his arms, vines peeking out from under the strap of his tank, causes my heart to beat faster. Maybe someday he’ll tell me what all those roses in various states of bloom mean. Maybe I’ll get close enough to read the words that curve along certain sections.
“See something you like?” Max smirks at me.
I look him directly in the eye. “Absolutely.”
The smirk falters for a second, and then he catches himself. “You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?”
“I could ask you the same.”
“I have a meeting scheduled with Eric this morning. You want in?”
“You might want to clean up a little first—unless you don’t mind going out with that freshly fucked look.” Max rakes his gaze over me slowly. “Personally, I think it suits you.”
“Oh God.” I pat my snarled hair and look down at myself. Sometime during the night, I kicked off my jeans, which are balled at the end of the bed. I’m wearing a loose T-shirt and a pair of undies. Thankfully, the bottom of the shirt skims my upper thigh. “You . . .” I trail off, unsure what to say.
“Don’t worry. I didn’t ogle you in your sleep. Might have slipped my hands up your shirt, but you purred like a kitten, so . . .”
I gasp, my mouth agape. “Pervert!”
Max doubles over with laughter. I jump off the bed and fly across the room, tugging the end of my T-shirt down as I go, and smack his arm.
Max laughs some more and traps my wrists in one hand. “Marie, stop! I was only kidding, though if I knew you looked like this, I might not have been able to help myself.” Callused fingers brush along the back of my thigh, and my breath catches.
“Max . . .” With him holding me captive, I have no way of easily halting his climbing fingers. Part of me doesn’t even want to.
He tugs me closer until my body is pressed against his. “You don’t like what I’m doing?” His fingers skim back and forth, rising to follow the curve of my underwear. Then he palms my ass and squeezes gently. “You can tell me to stop at any time. I never go where I’m not wanted.”
Inside, I’m a quivering mess. Blistering heat, originating in my abdomen, shoots through my limbs. Outside, I try to maintain some poise. “Okay, I’m not going to deny I enjoy your touch, but I think you should stop now.”
“Fair enough.” Max sucks my earlobe between his lips and swirls his tongue around it, sending a bolt of desire to the center of my being then pulls away and lets go of my wrists.
I clench my thighs together and try to compose myself. “There was nothing fair about that,” I mutter.
Max just chuckles as he walks out the door with an extra bit of swagger. When I take a gander in the powder room mirror, I’m horrified. I do indeed have that freshly fucked look. My hair is in a puffed-up, tousled halo surrounding my face. My eyes are bright, and a flush creeps up my neck when I think about the recent exchange with Max.
This time, I take a quick shower, but I still take the time to blow my hair dry, spending a few extra minutes to coax it into a glossy fall. Two can play at this game.
Max does a subtle double take when he sees me, and I give myself a mental high-five.
He coughs. “You, um, look . . . good.”
“Thanks.” I emanate my inner Katie and offer him a saucy wink. Nothing wrong with keeping a man off-balance.
Max shakes his head and whistles for Grace. “We’ll be hiking through some rough terrain.” He slides his fingers through my hair, tucking it behind my ear. “You might want to put that pretty hair in a pony tail.”
Twenty minutes later, I’m not feeling superior or pretty at all. Sweat drenches my entire body, soaking my newly clean hair, and I fear I’ll be picking burrs off my clothes—and out of Grace’s fur—for days. Things I’m afraid to acknowledge have crawled on and stung me. I’ve also screamed and batted my arms several times, much to Max’s amusement.
“Why the hell are we tromping through the jungle?” I complain.
“Safety before beauty, China.”
“Ugh!” I stomp my foot and glare at Max.
“There’s no other way to get near the enemy camp without announcing our arrival. I promise we can take an extra long shower when we get back.”
“We?” I scoff.
“In separate rooms—unless you’re feeling adventurous.” He glances at me, a twinkle of humor and something darker in his expression.
“Ha, ha. Let’s just do this.” Another thought strikes me. “Sweet baby Jesus—we have to go back the same way, don’t we?” I start scratching.
It seems like forever before the woods thin out. Max puts a finger up to his lips, and we hunker behind a thick clump of brush. Beyond where we are is a grassy field with no cover, ending at a tall fence wound with barbed wire.
Max purses his lips and emits an incredibly realistic birdcall. A few seconds later, he does it again. We wait in silence. Even Grace seems to know the routine and sits beside us stoically.
An answering call sounds.
“It’s safe. Let’s go.” Max leads me along the perimeter of the field until we reach the fence.
Eric strolls over and tips his hat. “Max, Marie, Nudge.”
“Hey, Eric.” I wave.
Amused blue eyes take in my disheveled appearance. “Fun hike?”
Max snickers. “Yeah, she hates me right now.”
Eric laughs. “Smart girl.” He pulls a rolled up slip of paper from his pocket and pokes it through the fence. “Here's the new schedule and shit.”
“Thanks, man. You have any other intel for me?” Max asks.
Eric’s expression is strained. “Nothing new, really, but I do need to talk to you about something . . . kind of personal.”
Beyond the fence, scrubby ground butts up against a dilapidated hangar several yards away. The side facing us has no doors or windows. I can't see past the hulking structure and wonder what their facility consists of.
“Well, a situation’s come up . . .”
Eric’s words fade into the background when a lone figure strolls around the corner of the building. The way she holds herself is unmistakable, her silhouette poised and aristocratic, waves of reddish-brown hair twisted into an elegant chignon at her nape.
My fingers curl tightly around the metal links of the fence, and my body goes rigid.
In this moment, the world hasn’t ended, and I’m not standing on the shores of a faceless enemy who would use me as a lab rat if given the chance.
I’m ten years old.
Katie and I are hot and sweaty, racing home from a basketball game at the park, each determined to get the last watermelon ice pop. We reach the front door at the same time and jam in the doorway, laughing so hard we can barely move.
The laughter dies on our lips when we see the suitcases sitting by the love seat.
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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