Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 16): Chimera
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.
“Mom?” My voice is a mere whisper, an endearment I never expected to speak again, lodging in my throat.
A few things happen simultaneously.
Eric stops talking mid-sentence and spins to face the woman heading our way. Max yanks me by the arm and runs for cover, hunkering behind a bush. Grace shadows us closely. My mouth keeps opening and closing while I point in the direction of my mother. Max is too focused on the fence to notice my panic.
I drag in a few deep breaths, my voice still faint as the first tears start to fall. “My mother. Max, she's my mother!”
I claw at his shirt. “Did you hear me? That's my mom!” I lurch forward, intent on getting back to the fence.
Max loops a muscled arm around my waist and tugs me against his chest, covering my mouth. “Be still. Don't move or speak. If they find us, we're dead.”
Tears stream from my eyes. Inside, I'm conflicted. My mom abandoned us when I was ten. I essentially grew up without a mother figure. Mamie filled in, but she was taciturn and old-fashioned with no understanding of the pressures of being a modern teenage girl. To her, everything was as simple as “grin and bear it” or “bite your tongue.” She loved us but wasn't the typical warm and nurturing grandmother.
On the other side of that fence is the woman who gave birth to me. During our last visit, before the virus broke out, Mom seemed so remorseful. When she found out Katie wasn't coming, she cried. It's the only time I've ever seen her cry. She didn’t even shed tears the day she left us.
Max and Grace are my family now. They've taken me in, cared for me, provided shelter. It wouldn't be fair to risk their lives.
“Can I take my hand away?” Max’s chest heaves against my back. I nod and he does. “You really think she's your mother?” he whispers.
“You didn't know she was alive?”
“Mom lived in Florida. I assumed she perished with everyone else. Why didn't . . .” My throat barely works, aching with more unshed tears. “She never came to look for us, and now she’s here—with them.”
Eric’s voice rings out, confirming what I already know. “What are you doing all the way out here, Mrs. Kasabian?”
“I needed a break.” The soft cadence of her words is harder to hear, but the voice is unmistakably hers.
“Does the doc know where you are?” His tone is mildly chiding.
“How about we keep this our little secret?”
“I really shouldn’t . . . but maybe just this once.”
“Thank you, Eric. I knew I could count on you.”
My mother could charm honey from a bear.
“Is it her?” Max whispers.
I nod my head, a fresh round of tears streaming down my cheeks. “I need to see her.”
“You can’t. Not until we know what the fuck is going on.”
“I just need to see her with my own eyes.”
“All right.” He loosens his hold on me. “Be careful. She can’t know we’re here.”
I inch forward in the soft grass, avoiding any twigs that might snap under my feet. The drone of her conversation with Eric is farther away. I lean forward until I can peer between two bushes.
Eric leads my mom away from the fence, head bent toward hers, his hand grazing her lower back. He says something, and her laughter carries in the still air.
I hold back a sob; I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard my mom laugh so free and easy. How can she laugh when the world has ended? Then again, she’s with the enemy camp. How entrenched is she?
Mom laughs again, and I stand up, clawing my fingers against the fence. Anger burns inside me, and I open my mouth though I’m not sure what to say. How can you be so callous? What the fuck is there to laugh about when people are dying to save the elite?
“Marie, no!” Max whisper-shouts, grabbing for my arm.
When I reach my full height and look through the fence, my mom and Eric are already out of sight.
A jolt of rage explodes inside me, and I shake the fence, the metal links clanking. “You bitch! You stupid, selfish bitch!” Sorrow closes my throat, causing my shouted words to come out as a choked rasp.
“China . . .”
“What kind of mother abandons her children twice? She didn’t even try . . .” My legs give out, and I slide down the fence into a heap on the ground. I finally give in to the sense of despair and rejection that’s been building up since the day Mom left. My hands claw into fists, and I cry out, a plaintive sob that sounds so sad and pathetic even to my own ears.
A strong embrace surrounds me. “You’re not alone anymore. You’ll never be alone or unwanted.” Max scoops me up and starts walking. “Grace, come.”
I loop my arms around Max’s neck and rest my head on his chest, allowing my lids to flutter closed. Our movement through the woods lulls me into a state of sleepy exhaustion. Occasionally, branches slap at my arms, and bugs sting me, but I hardly notice. I no longer have the desire to see what’s ahead, behind, above, or below. Each moment that goes by, every step farther from my mother we get, I sink deeper into a cocoon woven of disappointment and a growing sense of apathy.
Heavy footfalls pound behind us, the branches rustling. My heart speeds until I hear a familiar birdcall. Max answers in kind and slows his pace. He stops moving but holds me closer instead of putting me down.
My lids flutter open just as Eric catches up to us, breathing hard. The tan fabric of his Alliance shirt is darkened with sweat, and he bends, hands resting on his knees. More sweat soaks his cap of dark curls and trickles along his hairline.
“Shit! How can you move so fast . . . carrying her . . . and I can’t . . . breathe?”
Max laughs. “I’m in much better shape than you are.” He doesn’t even seem out of breath.
“What the hell happened back there?”
“You tell me, Eric! Thought you said the coast was clear.”
“It was! She decided to go against orders and come out there.” His concerned blue eyes shift to me. “You called her mom.”
Max speaks before I have a chance to. “Who is she?”
“Nina Kasabian, wife of our lead scientist—”
“Dr. Garth Kasabian,” I finish, my voice dripping with disgust.
Eric’s face registers surprise. “How’d you know that?”
Garth’s cold face with its crooked nose and vulture-like black eyes floats through my mind. He was tall and thin with dusky skin and cropped black hair and always dressed in the finest fabrics. I can’t recall seeing him in anything other than a dress shirt and slacks even on weekends, and he often worked in his lab late into the night and on days off. He was always serious, rarely smiled, and I could never figure out what my mom saw in him. She mooned over Garth as if he were the Second Coming.
“She’s my mother.” Saying the words hurts in a way private thoughts don’t, and I realize I’m ashamed to claim her as mine. The tears fall again, and I bury my head in Max’s shirt.
“Whoa. How come she’s not immune, then?”
My head snaps up. “What do you mean?”
“Your mother’s getting the vaccine. She’s not immune.”
“Oh.” In a split second, my anger deflates. My mom is still a selfish bitch who abandoned us, but knowing she might die from the virus leaves me feeling empty and sad.
“Marie, do you have any siblings or other immune family?”
“No. I had a twin, n-not living.”
Eric stares at me, a sudden knowledge dawning in his eyes. “You were sick the time I came to find Max. Has it happened before?”
“That was the third time.”
Eric swallows hard. “Max . . .” His usually booming voice is soft and pained.
“No!” Max’s yell reverberates right through me.
“It makes sense.”
“How?” Max’s hold tightens, his breaths heavy now.
“Wait, what are you guys talking about?” I glance at Eric because I can’t easily see Max’s face.
“Marie, what happened to your twin?” Eric asks gently.
“That shouldn’t be possible.”
“But it is, Eric! We’re done here.” Max stalks away.
“I’m sorry, man. Let me know if you need anything.”
Max halts for a moment. “Thanks for your concern. I’ll get back to you about the other thing after I talk to the others.”
And then we’re moving again.
I try to ask Max what Eric was getting at, but he keeps avoiding my questions. My lids grow heavy, and the sway of Max’s footfalls lulls me to sleep.
My dream picks up where my memory left off.
Katie and I jam in the doorway, laughing so hard, our knees go weak. The moist heat of our skin abrades painfully.
“The watermelon pop is mine!” Katie jabs me in the ribs.
A set of battered green suitcases sitting next to the love seat halts my laughter. Katie is still giggling and trying to give me a noogie, but when I don’t scream, she stops.
Muffled voices come from the kitchen, ending abruptly, and Mom walks into the living room. Her hazel eyes widen when she sees us slumped together in the doorway. Something ugly passes across her face, a hatred of unpleasant scenes.
“Mom?” My gaze flits between her and the suitcases. “Are we going somewhere?”
Katie scoffs. “No, stupid. Mom is running away from us.”
“Girls . . .” Mom starts.
“No, it’s true, isn’t it? You don’t want us.” Katie pushes the rest of the way through the door, leaving me to fall on my duff. She kicks one of the suitcases as hard as she can, banging it into the others so they all tip noisily. “You’re a shitty mother!”
Katie kicks Mom in the shin and races up the stairs.
Dad steps through the archway, his eyes bloodshot. “Katie Linda! Don’t talk to your mother that way!”
“What mother?” Katie yells back.
I can’t stop looking at my mom or the way she flinches at Katie’s words.
“Mom? It’s not true, right? You would never leave us!” I’m begging her not to tell me what my heart already knows.
Mom’s face goes blank as she bends down to pick up the suitcases. My father, the most gallant man I know, doesn’t move to help her. He just watches her struggle with a suitcase in each hand and a duffel under one arm. For a moment, I fear she will simply step over me, but she turns and walks through the kitchen.
The gentle closing of the back door shatters my heart.
Almost as if on cue, a luxury car with dark tinted windows pulls up out front. The trunk pops open automatically, and Mom shoves the suitcases in. As she walks around to the passenger side, her face is visible for a horrifying moment.
Her eyes are dry, and I recognize her expression—she can’t get away fast enough.
“Mom, no! Please don’t go!” I scream and cry.
Long after the sleek black car pulls smoothly away from the curb, my mother’s expression haunts me. I know she’s gone, but I keep calling for her. My innocent little heart doesn’t understand.
Dad finally scoops me off the floor and carries me to my bed. He swipes a few tears from his cheeks after he pulls the covers up to my chin. “Sorry, kid. This shouldn’t have happened to you girls.”
Katie leans over the top bunk, long hair swinging. “We don’t need her, Dad. It’s not your fault she’s a crap mother.”
Dad hugs me to his chest and grabs Katie’s hand. This time, he doesn’t correct her language.
The memory fades.
Now I'm alone, lying in a bed of flowers. Plump bees buzz happily along, sipping pollen. A smaller, sleeker bee moves among the blooms with purpose, ignoring their sweet fragrance and coming straight for me. Its stinger sinks deeply into my flesh.
The pain jolts me into the memory of waking up from the bee sting dream.
Mom perches on the edge of my bed.
“Mom? What are you doing?”
“Shh . . . sorry I woke you, honey.”
“It’s okay.” I rub my arm. “I dreamed a bee stung me.”
“You did? How strange.” She brushes the hair back from my forehead. “Mind if I lie next to you?”
I scooch over, making room for Mom.
“Why didn’t Katie come with you?” she asks quietly.
“She’s not ready.”
“I’m willing to try.” I rub at my arm again, still feeling an echo of the bee sting from my dream.
“Is there any way you can convince Katie to see me?”
I hesitate, reluctant to burst Mom’s bubble. Even though my mother is the one who’s done all the disappointing, I’ve always felt an irrational guilt about hurting her. “No way. Not right now. Maybe next time I come?” I say this only to soften the blow—I’m pretty sure Katie would rather drink Drano than visit our mom.
For the first time ever, my mother pulls me into her arms and sobs like her heart is breaking.
The scene morphs to a girl underwater who reminds me of Alice in Wonderland. She swims through a golden picture frame, coming out the other side dry. She doesn’t look anything like me, but when she opens her eyes, they’re mine.
My body shudders awake, expecting darkness. Instead, the soft glow of candlelight bathes the vaguely familiar room. Clouds of softness surround me, and a wet nose nudges my chin.
I blink, focusing on the ceiling. This isn’t the power plant.
Max sits on the end of the bed, knees pulled in to his chest, bare back laced with tension. When I shift, his body curls into a tighter ball.
“Hey.” He doesn’t turn around.
Lifting up on my elbows, I glance around. We’re in the master bedroom of the blue house, the place we first met. “What are we doing here?”
“He must be wrong.”
I sit up, reaching out to trace my fingers along each vertebrae of Max’s spine. He shivers. “Max, you’re scaring me.”
“No, no.” He uncoils, facing me as he nudges Grace aside and crawls up the bed, taking me in his arms. “Don’t be scared.”
I am scared, though, because when I look into Max's eyes, barely concealed dread resides in the blue-green pools. His body is rigid, the hold he has on me a little too tight.
Max groans. “I'm scaring you.” He loosens his grip, sliding one hand up my arm to cup my neck, fingers massaging lightly. He rests his head on the pillow beside mine, our noses almost touching. “Everything's going to be okay.”
“Did something happen? Well, other than seeing my mother on the other side of the fence?”
“Tell me what you were dreaming.”
“I—just about the day my mom left us. Katie and I were ten. We rushed home from the park and . . . Mom's suitcases were in the living room.” I choke up telling him about the day Mom walked out on us, but I manage to get the words out.
“Jesus. She didn't have a reason?”
“We found out later she left for some rich scientist so she could lead a luxurious life without the complication of raising kids. I didn't see her often after she left. Katie refused to see her at all. A few weeks before the virus broke out, she begged us to visit her. Katie wouldn't go, so I ended up going alone. I've never seen my mother show much emotion, but when I told her Katie wasn't coming, she was devastated.”
“I'm sorry, China.” Max runs the pads of his fingers over my cheek. “My mother died when I was twelve. My pathetic father was always abusive, but she held him at bay. Once she was gone, it was like open season for the bastard. I ended up in the system at fourteen. Ali was only twelve. She was always so tiny and fragile, afraid to speak up. She wasn't always such an annoying loud mouth.”
“I'm so sorry. Were the two of you placed together?”
Max grins. “Not at first. I kept running away or getting myself kicked out of homes. Finally the social worker asked me what she had to do in order for me to settle down. I told her Ali had to be with me. She managed to find a family to take us both.”
Max's eyes darken thunderously. “They were good people. We had a chance at a decent life until they had a car accident. Lainey was killed, and Jim was left a paraplegic. The social worker couldn't place us together again, but we were only a few blocks apart. It was tolerable until shit got ugly in the house where Ali was staying.” He looks away. “She was all I had left.”
I stroke the side of his face. “You're together now.”
He doesn't answer. “What else did you dream before? You were agitated and kept mumbling.”
“More memories. I dreamed of visiting Mom before the virus and had this dream about a bee stinging me. When I woke up, my mom was in the room. That's when she asked me about Katie and cried when I told her Katie wasn't coming.”
“So these dreams were actually memories? Did they happen the same as in waking life?”
“Yeah. I dreamed about the bee stinging me when I was there. It was like a dream inside a dream. My arm even hurt when I woke up.”
Max stares back at me, and an unsettling feeling coils deep inside. “I'm not going to lie to you. Eric came here while you were asleep.”
“About my mom?”
“No. He said the way the virus works is if one sibling is immune, the others usually will be, too—especially with twins. He also said the immunity would likely be on one side of the family, mother or father.” He strokes my hair, tucking some of it behind one ear. “Nobody else in your family was immune?”
“No.” The pit of my stomach churns, and my heart races. “What are you saying?”
“Eric doesn't believe you're immune.”
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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