Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 19): Yours
We’re a somber group, sitting around the table in the kitchen. Dinner consists of chicken patties, boiled rice, and broccoli. It feels strange to eat a “meal” as opposed to something room-temperature, scraped out of a can.
I’ve seen the full setup of the power plant. There’s a walk-in filled with food, much of it from before the virus, and two stock rooms piled high with canned goods, bottled water, and first aid supplies. Max has been going on supply runs not because they were running low but to stash things away like a squirrel before a long, cold winter. I’m pretty sure there’s enough for us to live on for a few years.
I glance across the table at Ali. She’s still very pale, but what disturbs me is her demeanor. Instead of her usual boisterous, nosy self, she’s been subdued. I often catch her staring at me with this sorrowful look that she tries to mask. She isn’t very good at it.
Eric left yesterday because the alliance was expecting him. It’s clear he’s torn about communing with people who don’t share his moral standards, but after a long, sometimes heated discussion, we all agreed on the importance of keeping an inside man. I also warned that he should keep a close watch on my mother. Her track record with loyalty sucks.
Tek watches Ali, his forehead scrunched with concern. “You need to eat more.” He delivers the words in a gentle manner but seems frustrated.
“I’m trying.” Ali tries to smile, but her lips only curve halfway. Her gaze flicks to me and then away, avoiding Max.
“Well, try harder,” Max says with barely concealed annoyance.
Max’s mood is dark and ominous. His muscles are rigid with tension, and storms rage behind his eyes. He’s been agitated all day, spending most of the afternoon on his own. It’s not that he’s been unkind to me, but something seems to be gnawing away at him, curtailing our newfound openness and affection.
The bite of chicken I just swallowed sits like a lump in my gut. Ali looks at me, then away.
“What’s wrong?” I whisper. In the periphery, Max’s head snaps my way, and he goes still.
Ali shakes her head. “Nothing. Still feeling weak is all.”
“Then why do I get the impression you feel sorry for me?”
The legs of Max’s chair scrape across the floor. He mutters something about a perimeter check and stalks out of the room, calling for Grace.
I point at his retreating back. “What was that?”
Ali shrugs. “He’s just moody. It’ll pass.”
The next bite of rice is akin to a golf ball in my esophagus, but I blink back tears and force myself to finish the food on my plate. No matter how safe we feel in this power plant, something could go wrong at any moment. It would be foolish to miss out on a solid meal.
After dinner, Ali retreats to her room, leaving me with Tek. We end up playing chess in the lounge. Tek is a worthy opponent, keeping me on the run. In a sneaky move, he snares my bishop, leaving my king wide open.
Loud shrieking causes me to drop my rook, scattering several pieces across the board. We stare at each other for a second before leaping up. Once we reach the hallway, I realize the cries are coming from Andrea’s room.
I run ahead of Tek, reaching the door first. Andrea’s voice is hoarse, and her fists beat against the wood. I turn the knob, but it doesn’t budge.
Tek wears a grim expression as he catches up, pulling a key ring from his pocket. Locating the proper one, he inserts it into the lock.
“You locked her in?” I’m incredulous.
“It was Max’s suggestion, but Eric and I agreed.”
Tek’s fingers hesitate mid-turn. “Because we don’t know Andrea, and she didn’t know Eric was bringing her here. We can’t risk exposing ourselves, Marie. There’s nowhere else to go, and the alternative . . .”
I nod. “I get it.”
Tek opens the door, and Andrea curls into a shaking ball on the floor, peering up at us with fear. She raises her hands like a shield, exposing the bruises that mar her pale skin. “Please . . . no more.”
Tek sucks in a breath. “Jesus Christ.”
I’m guessing he hasn’t seen evidence of the alliance’s evildoings before.
I crouch beside her, holding a hand out. “Andrea, we’re friends of Eric’s. He got you out of the compound, and you’re safe. Nobody will hurt you here. I promise.”
“He did?” she whispers, looking around. “Where am I? Who are you?” Her voice breaks, a few tears spilling over.
“I’m Marie, and this is Tek. There are two others here—Max and Ali. The bastards at the alliance think you’re dead. Nobody will be searching for you.”
Andrea sniffles and nods, but then she freezes in place, a look of suspicion darkening her pale face. “Then why did you lock me up, j-just like them?” She looks at the fresh needle marks on her arm. “What d-did you do to me?”
Andrea launches herself at me, knocking us both to the floor. Even in her weakened state, she’s rather strong.
Tek leans down and hauls her off me, pinning her against him. “Easy there. We’re trying to help you.”
“Bullshit!” Andrea glares at me from Tek’s arms.
I roll up to my feet. “Let her go.”
Tek’s eyebrows rise. “You think that’s wise?”
“She’s been through enough. Let her go.”
Tek releases Andrea but blocks the exit, crossing his arms.
Andrea sneers at us. “What, are you playing good cop, bad cop? You think I’m going to fall for that shit?”
I meet her gaze openly. “Sit down and let’s talk.”
“Why should I—”
“Sit the fuck down!” I shout, my voice ringing in the small room.
Andrea stumbles back and sits hard on the bed, cringing in fear.
“Nobody wants to harm you. Hell, you’ve been unconscious for a day and a half. If we had wanted to hurt you, who would’ve stopped us? The needle marks on your arm are from a blood transfusion—the only reason you’re still breathing. Eric stuck his neck out big time to sneak you out of the compound and bring you here.”
Andrea stares at her hands and sniffles but doesn’t respond.
“The reason you’re locked up is because we’re taking a great risk having you here.”
“Then why do it?” she whispers, swiping at her nose.
“Because Eric is a friend and because we don’t believe in what the alliance is doing. It’s evil.” My mother’s elegant form comes to mind, and I clench my jaw.
Andrea lifts her chin defiantly, a dangerous glint in her eyes. “Am I free to go?”
“Absolutely, but I’m sure you can understand why we can’t give away our position.”
Andrea squints at the fluorescents along the ceiling. “You have power. How?”
Tek lays a hand on my shoulder and takes over. “Andrea, you’re welcome to live here, to be one of us. If you choose to stay, all your questions will be answered.”
“And if I want to leave?”
“You’ll be blindfolded and set free someplace away from here.”
“You don’t . . . want anything from me?”
“We have a lot more to offer you than you have to give us.” Tek is matter-of-fact.
Andrea looks at me. “What is it you offer?”
I smile. “Safety, food, friends . . . visits with Eric.” Her eyes widen when I mention Eric’s name. “Nobody draining your blood. That’s a plus, right?”
Andrea addresses Tek. “I want to talk to her alone.” She jabs a finger in my direction.
He shakes his head. “No way.”
I nod. “It’s okay. You can stay in the hall. There’s only one way out of here, right?”
“Max won’t like it.”
My lips tighten. “Well, Max isn’t here right now.”
Tek retreats to the hall, clearly unhappy.
I grab a chair off the stack against the wall, place it next to the bed, and sit down. “You have questions?”
Andrea looks me up and down carefully. “Is everything the two of you said true?” she asks in a low voice.
“Who else lives here?”
“Tek’s girlfriend Ali and her brother Max.”
“Where do you fit in?”
“Max found me in a nearby town, delirious with fever, and looked after me. We got to know each other, and he eventually invited me to live here.”
Andrea frowns. “Why did you have a fever?”
I look at the floor, wondering how much to tell this stranger. “I’m not immune. The rest of them are, but I’m not.”
“You’d be dead.”
“Eric brought me some vaccine, but I’m not immune.” Tears well up, threatening to spill over. “My twin sister . . . she didn’t make it.” I’m not willing to share who my mother is yet.
“Shit, I’m sorry. That’s rough.” Andrea eyes me with suspicion. “You’re the only one here who’s not immune?”
“Yeah. And Grace.”
“Thought you said there were only two others. Who’s Grace?”
“There’s a live dog here?” Her brows shoot up. “I haven’t seen any dogs since the virus hit. Those blood-sucking bastards don’t even have a dog! I’d like to meet her.” A genuine smile spreads across her gaunt face.
“She’s very special. Tell me something. Why do they keep taking blood from the immune until they . . .” I swallow hard, unable to finish the sentence. “Why not let the blood replenish before taking more?”
“They don’t have enough of us for that. From the chatter I’ve heard around the compound, the virus keeps mutating. The vaccine won’t work forever. Some of them are already building up a tolerance to it.” She shoots me a sympathetic look.
I lay my hand over hers. “I’m glad you’re here, Andrea. Do you think you’ll stay?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Andrea smiles and looks down shyly. “When will Eric be back?”
“He’ll come next time the alliance gives him leave. Eric really cares about you. He was so worried when he brought you here.”
“Why can't he live here?”
“He wants to—believe me. We need someone on the inside so we know what they're planning.”
Andrea tucks a dull lock of golden hair behind her ear. “Can you tell me where we are?”
I hesitate. If I tell her, Max will probably be angry with me, and what if she changes her mind? “As the newest member of the group, I don't feel it's my place. Let me talk with the others.” I stand, returning the chair to the stack, and hover by the door. “Can I get you anything? Tea or soup?”
Andrea's hollow smile says she's used to being in captivity, but a faint spark in her blue eyes speaks of a barely flickering hope. “Tea would be great. I might be able to hold down some broth, if you have any.”
I let myself out. Tek pushes off the wall where he's been leaning and locks the door behind me, tucking the keys back in his pocket. I'm not comfortable keeping Andrea prisoner, but I suppose Max is the one to take that up with. Tek is following orders.
Tek seems to intuit my mood. “I know you don't approve, but the world has changed. If she left and the alliance got their hands on her, she could give us away.”
“I know! It's just . . . she's been tortured enough.”
“And now she has a second chance.”
I pause in the kitchen doorway. “Where's Max?”
“Probably in the weight room. That's where he usually goes when he's agitated.”
“Where is it?”
“To the left of the control room and around the corner.” Tek rests a hand on my shoulder. “Max is a good man. He has his odd moments, but it's hard to come by that brand of loyalty.”
“I know, but thank you for saying so.”
After making a tray for Andrea and being escorted by Tek to deliver it, I go back to my room. I flick the light switch, and instead of the fluorescents along the ceiling, warm light emanates from a lamp on the dresser, bathing my room in a golden glow. Tears spring to my eyes. Max did this because he knows how much I hate those ugly lights.
I'm about to go in search of Max when I remember Eric slipped me a scrap of paper on his way out yesterday. He had leaned in and whispered, “Read this when you're alone.” I stuck it in my pocket and hid it under a pile of clothes at the first opportunity, intending to read it later on.
I open the drawer and dig around until I locate the note and smooth it on top of the dresser. Instead of a foreign hand, I'm greeted by my mother's elegant script.
We need to talk. Please meet me at the blue house tomorrow night. Alone.
A sick feeling coils in my belly. Why does she want to see me alone, and why did Eric agree to give me the note in secret? I imagine finding a way to sneak out of the compound and travel on foot to the blue house under the scant light of the moon. Last night, Max and I spent some alone time on the rocky ledge that overlooks the ocean, gazing at the stars and making out. It was romantic, and I felt it brought us closer—at least until he became agitated and cranky today.
It’s amazing how the same opaque moon and dark night sky can be both romantic and creepy. The thought of going to meet my mother on my own—and lying to my new family to do it—causes my stomach to roll unpleasantly. It could ruin the trust Max and I have built. Am I willing to chance it for the woman who abandoned me and let Katie die?
Stuffing the note in my pocket, I take the elevator by myself for the first time. I step off and walk past the control room, following Tek's directions. Rhythmic grunts from Max, followed by the clank of metal echo in the air.
There's only one doorway casting a pale wash of light into the dim hallway, and I approach with trepidation. Nervousness takes hold. Even though Max declared me as his girl, his moodiness today concerns me. I don’t know him well enough yet. He also has dark secrets that seem to haunt him.
I swallow around the lump in my throat and approach the beam of light, peering around the edge of the doorjamb.
Max is lying on his back, shirtless, lifting a barbell with several weights attached to each end. The metal clanks when he rests the heavy load in the rack above him. I’ve never been one for gyms, but I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to use a spotter.
Max lifts it again, the sculpted muscles of his arms and chest bunching and flexing. Sweat beads on his forehead and creates a sheen over his bare skin, highlighting his tatts. I don’t make a sound, but he senses me anyway, releasing the barbell and looking straight at me.
His sea-glass eyes hold deep shadows and tension tightens his jaw. He rolls to a seated position and watches me in silence. I can't outlast him in a staring contest and drop my gaze, watching a rivulet of sweat slide between his chiseled pecs and over his abs dampening the trail of downy hair that disappears into black sweatpants. The outline of his manhood stands out, and I stare a bit too long.
“Dirty girl.” I look up fast, my cheeks burning. A slow, lazy smile spreads across Max's face, and he pats the leather-covered bench between his legs. “Sit. I probably won't bite you.”
As I enter the room, I notice Grace curled in a ball in one corner. She's so deeply asleep, she doesn't even raise her head. I’m amazed she could sleep through the sounds of Max lifting weights.
I straddle the bench, facing Max, and place my hands on the red leather, still warm from his body. Max grabs a rag, mopping his face, neck, and chest with it before tossing it on the floor. I reach out to trace the tattoo over his heart. Half of the rose is in full bloom, the other half blackened and curled in on itself. Droplets of blood drip from each thorn. I want to ask what it means, but the words won’t come.
Max grips my wrist and presses my palm over his heart. “Come closer.”
In order to do as he asks, I scooch forward, lifting my legs to rest them over the tops of his thick-muscled thighs. Using his free arm, he reaches around and supports my back, bringing me in close. Our lips hover close, breaths mingling. When I look up at Max, his gaze is trained on my mouth. He closes the distance, kissing me. His lips are soft and warm and gentle on mine. One large hand splays against my lower back, the other still encasing my wrist.
The gentle kisses cause a thrill to flare in my chest. I feel his heart beating beneath my fingers and melt against him, my arm trapped between us.
Max breaks away from the kiss, his mouth drifting across my jaw to nip at the sensitive skin of my neck. “I'm such a jerk.” Hot breath tickles my ear.
I laugh, taken off guard. “What are you talking about?”
“I haven't been fair to you.” He cradles my head against his shoulder. I'm so close, I can smell the tantalizing scent of his skin and have to fight the urge to lick it. “I get wrapped up inside myself. Ali's used to it, but I'm just . . . I'm sorry, China.”
“What's bothering you?”
“Everything and nothing.” His voice drops to a hoarse whisper. “Mainly, I'm worried.”
“You.” Max draws in a deep breath. “I've only ever cared for Ali, but now . . . I want to protect you both. I'm afraid of letting one of you down. The need for vaccine complicates things a bit, too. Your mother is the dark horse in all this.”
My heart beats faster, and I think of the note in my pocket. “Thank you for caring so much. It means a lot.” I nestle my face into his neck and whisper, “You're important to me, Max. It hurts when you shut me out.”
“That's not the only apology I owe you.”
The breath freezes in my throat. “No?”
Max cups my face, and I look into his repentant eyes. “I wanted you so much, we never stopped to discuss birth control.”
Relief floods through me, and I laugh. “Is that all?”
“It's no joke. Pregnancy wouldn't be safe for you, and the vaccine might not be safe for a baby.”
“I have an IUD. It's probably good for another year or so.”
Max's eyes darken to a delicious shade of turquoise, and he brings our mouths together, kissing me hungrily. His hands skim down my back, seeking the hem of my shirt, lifting it over my head and tossing it to the floor. He urges me toward him, our chests pressing skin on skin, sending a hot shiver through me.
“No bra,” he murmurs against my lips. “Never wear a bra again.” Max moans softly, licking a trail of fire across my bottom lip.
I dig my fingers into the hair at the back of his neck and open to him, allowing his tongue to tease mine. We stay like this for a while, making out, naked from the waist up.
Max changes position, laying me back on the bench and shifting his body above mine. His gaze roams my face as he brushes a few strands of hair out of my eyes. “I—” He falters. “You're my girl. Do you . . . understand what I mean?” His words hold a yearning I've never heard before.
I look back at him, wondering if this is his way of trying to say he loves me. I'm afraid to hope, so I bite my lip and shake my head.
“I'll never be worthy of you, China, but I'm yours. I hope someday I can express it better than this . . .” He sighs harshly and rakes a hand through his hair.
I reach up to caress his strong jaw. “It's okay. I understand.” I take a deep breath, attempting to slow my racing heart. “And . . . I'm yours, Max.”
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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