Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 21): Let Me Go
The truck moves at a fast clip. I peer over the tailgait, watching the asphalt whiz by, playing out like black ribbon behind us. The houses and woods beyond fade into the distance.
Max and Grace must be distraught. He's probably blaming himself, but it's my fault for not listening to reason. My chest tightens, and bile threatens to come up. I can't stand the thought of my Max back there in the woods with soldiers from the alliance scouring the town searching for him. He must feel helpless—and angry with me for being so stupid.
The men around me huddle together, some talking in low voices. A few of them wear gas masks. For the most part, they ignore me. One guy glances at me a few times, but it’s too dark to discern his expression.
The farther away from Max and Grace I get, the more my heart aches. Wind lashes at my tear-damp face, sending hair flapping around to obscure my vision. I swipe the long strands out of the way as we leave smooth pavement and turn onto a bumpy dirt road.
The decision is sudden. Scrunching my eyes closed, I send a prayer up to God before grabbing hold of the cold metal gate and launching myself into the air.
“Gibbs! Shit, she’s going over!”
“ . . . get herself killed!”
My boot catches on the lip and holds fast, halting all forward motion. My stomach lurches with fear and disorientation as gravity takes effect. I flail my arms and scream as the bumper of the pick-up rises to meet my face.
In what seems like a physics-defying moment, I stop just short of smashing my head. Clouds of dirt kick up, causing me to choke. Someone grips my hoodie and tries to pull me up.
“Help me! Too much of her’s hanging out!”
Another set of hands joins the first, and they haul me up, the three of us sprawling in a tangle on the ridged metal.
A rough shove knocks me aside. “What the fuck’s wrong with you? Should have let your face get rearranged!” One of the solidly built soldiers who pulled me back scowls at me.
“Shut the fuck up, Gibbs!” The other soldier nudges Gibbs. When he looks at me, his jaw clenches, but there’s a touch of sympathy in his eyes.
“Eat me.” Gibbs glowers at me when he says it.
I cringe from the hatred in his icy gaze and chance a look at the other unmasked faces, finding indifference in most of them. The guy who defended me to Gibbs seems the most sympathetic. Maybe an opportunity to exploit that will present itself.
I address my rescuer. “Thank you, uh . . .”
“Timms. You’re welcome, but that was an epically stupid move. Even if you did land safely, you really think you’d have a chance against a group of trained soldiers?”
I shrug my shoulders defensively.
“Where you goin’ to anyways?”
I shrug again.
Gibbs sneers at me. “Out here alone, my left testicle!”
“Ignore him.” Timms offers a half-smile before his expression turns serious. “You’ll want to behave yourself around General Smith unless you want to buy yourself a boatload of trouble.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” My gaze shifts from Timms’ semi-friendly face to Gibbs’ stony one to the darkened rear window, behind which sits my mother and General Smith. The General had to hear, see, or feel the commotion that took place when I attempted to jump out of the truck bed, and yet the pick-up never deviated in any way. He never slowed or swerved. I fear what kind of man he really is.
The truck comes to a stop on a lonely dirt road in the middle of nowhere. The men look around at one another, almost as if they wonder what’s happening but don’t dare ask.
Gibbs pulls dark cloth from somewhere behind him and tosses it at me. “Put this on.”
“Cover that pretty face for me.” His eyes say if we were alone, he might not be so hands-off.
“Why?” I gaze at the men surrounding me, unnerved by the eerie, unemotional façade of the few gas masks. The rest of them avert their eyes.
“Bitch, put the hood on, or so help me, I’ll cold cock you.”
He’d do it, too. It’s there in his frigid gaze. He’d enjoy bashing me in the skull, bodily forcing me into submission, and now I know I must be careful around both Gibbs and Smith.
I fight stinging tears as I take a deep breath and slip the sack over my head. There’s no way I’m going to let my captors see me cry. Someone binds my wrists and pushes me on my side. I curl into a ball and strain my neck in an attempt to keep my head from bouncing against the rusted metal as the truck lurches forward again. The ride seems to go on forever, messing with my sense of time.
When we finally come to a stop, and the engine shuts off, it takes a few seconds for the rumbling to fade. The right side of me is numb from lying in the same position for so long. I’m disoriented, afraid to move. The thump of soldiers’ boots surrounds me as they gather their gear and hop out of the truck, no one speaking. They march away as a unit, their echoing footfalls fading. I think we’re in a garage with a concrete floor.
The truck’s doors open and close. Booted feet stroll over to the tailgate and lower it. My mother must be standing by her door because I don’t hear the click of her ridiculous designer boots, and she doesn’t make a sound.
“Marie, Marie.” General Smith’s tone is soft with an underlying flavor of mocking.
I remain silent as he hops into the truck and sits me up, tugging the hood off. My lids blink rapidly as my eyes acclimate. We’re in a hangar-like building that’s empty except for a few vehicles. Emergency lights flicker and buzz, just bright enough to see by. I stare down at my bound hands.
General Smith slides two fingers along my jaw and nudges my chin up. I lift my face, keeping my eyes downcast. He uses his free hand to cover mine. “I’d like to untie you, Marie. This looks uncomfortable.“
“I’m sorry they did this to you.” He takes out a knife and cuts the bindings. “There.” His index finger rubs across the red marks left behind.
Angered, I yank my hands away and meet his icy blue gaze with some ice of my own. “You did this to me.”
“Did I?” He tilts his head, looking amused, and reaches out to stroke my hair.
“Don’t touch me—unless you want me to slam you in the balls so hard you’ll taste them!”
My mother gasps and makes her way over to the tailgate. “James—”
General Smith holds a hand up. “Mrs. K, your daughter didn’t inherit your diplomacy, but I’m sure once you take her under wing, she’ll be a fast learner.” His eyes remain locked on mine, and there’s a storm brewing beneath his benevolent façade.
“Garth is expecting us.” My mother sounds flustered.
I’m the first to look away from the staring contest with General Smith. It’s probably unwise to allow him to realize the extent of my rebellious nature. If I’m going to get away, I have to play it smart.
General Smith leads us across a short expanse of pavement from the hangar to a squat, sprawling building. He unlocks the door and we walk through a network of dimly lit hallways and gates—some he opens with the keys on his ring—until we reach an elevator with no call buttons. He inserts a key and turns it. In the distance, the rumble of machinery hums.
By the length of time it takes the car to arrive, I surmise it moves incredibly slowly, or there are several floors below us. The inside offers no clue; instead of floor numbers, there’s a keypad. General Smith punches in several digits, and the elevator lurches at a moderate pace. My best estimate is four floors.
The doors open.
“This way, ladies.” General Smith steps off the elevator into a clinical looking hallway.
My mother takes my hand, but I snatch it away, glaring at her. So many things are her fault, but this is among the worst betrayals, eclipsed only by letting Katie die.
The halls are deserted. The only people I glimpse are through small windows in thick metal doors. They wear white lab coats and appear to be doing research. I can guess the subject matter. It’s all very calm and sterile, so I’m pretty sure this isn’t where they house or experiment on the immune.
Following several twists and turns that leave me confused, General Smith ushers us through the only open door we’ve encountered. “This is where I bid you goodbye, for now. Marie, I hope to see you in better spirits soon.” He bows slightly, amusement twinkling in his eyes, and then he strides away.
The large room doesn’t match the sterile décor we’ve been exposed to so far. Floor to ceiling mahogany bookcases line the walls, and an ornate mahogany desk takes center stage. Off to one side is a sitting area with sumptuous black leather chairs and a matching couch, grouped around a coffee table. Richly patterned oriental rugs cover the floor, and recessed lighting sets the mood.
“Jesus Christ,” I mutter, my knees going weak. This room is nearly an exact replica of Garth’s office in Florida, right down to the Tiffany desk lamp and his signature Montblanc fountain pen.
“Why don’t we sit?” There’s a tremor in my mother’s voice.
I wheel around, digging my fingers into her upper arms until her eyes meet mine. “What the fuck is this?” She opens her traitorous mouth, and I interrupt. “And don’t tell me it’s Garth’s office. That fact is quite clear since it feels as if I’ve stepped into a time warp!”
Her eyes brim with tears, but I remain unaffected. I know her too well to fall for the simpering crap she uses on the masculine species.
When she doesn’t answer, I can’t stop myself from going on. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out Garth knew this crisis was coming. We’re below ground and have gone through many twists and turns. All of this—” I wave a hand in the air. “—did not come together in a day. I doubt the alliance would go to all this trouble unless Garth was vital to their operation.”
“Nina, darling! You’re back.” Garth Kasabian sweeps through the door, looking essentially the same as the last time I saw him. He leans in to kiss my mother’s cheek, and I smell a faint whiff of cologne as he passes me on the way to his desk. “Marie, it’s good to see you again.” He nods my way and sits, folding his hands on the blotter.
“Is it?” My tone is pure acid.
Instead of being insulted, Garth smiles. “You’ll never be accused of being an ass-kisser. Have a seat.” He gestures to the sitting area.
“I prefer to stand.”
My mother shoots me a look. “You’re being very rude, young lady!”
I cross my arms. “Really? You’re going to talk to me about acceptable behavior?”
Garth raises a hand. “Nina, why don’t you give me some time alone with Marie?”
“Emotions are running high. Please, my sweet.”
Rabbit-like, her gaze hops back and forth between Garth and me. “Well . . .”
“I agree with Garth.” I’m more likely to get straight answers from him when we’re alone than when he’s busy monitoring my fragile mother for her reactions.
“Okay. I’ll just . . .”
Garth presses a button on his phone. “My wife needs an escort.”
She leaves the room, closing the door behind her.
Garth rises from behind the desk and beckons me to the sitting area. “Please, let’s sit and talk.”
He takes one of the chairs, and I acquiesce, sitting on the couch across the coffee table from him. I wrap my arms around myself, once again feeling the loss of Max and Grace.
“Are you cold?” Garth asks.
“I’m fine.” I look down, my gaze tracing the pattern of the oriental rug. This is awkward, and I’ve never been good at reading Garth. He’s probably an excellent Poker player.
“Can I offer you a beverage or something to eat?”
“No, thank you.”
“How did you wind up around here, Marie?” I glance up, and Garth relaxes back in his chair, watching me.
“After my entire family died, I traveled north to the cabin of an eccentric uncle who lived off the grid. It wasn’t . . .” I stop, thinking of the men already occupying Uncle Jack’s cabin when I arrived and the woman they’d killed when she tried to escape.
“Was your uncle alive?”
“No, and the place was picked over.”
“What did you do?”
“I—” I remember running until I came upon the field of regal sunflowers, collapsing amongst the thick stalks, and sobbing for the loss of my family and the world I’d known. That was the first time I got sick. My next memory was of waking up on the cliff top with Grace watching over me. “I kept going, finding food where I could, and came upon a little town with no decaying bodies or signs of societal collapse. It seemed like a good place to hang out.”
“You’ve been alone all this time?”
“Yes.” It’s difficult, but I meet his cool gaze; I don’t want him to suspect my deception.
“You must have heard our people out looking for survivors, then.”
I nod. “As I told General Smith, I don’t trust strangers.”
“You weren’t even tempted?”
“Of course I was. It’s lonely out there, Garth. Do you have any idea how creepy it is to pass by a mostly deserted city, cars left haphazard in the middle of the street, and a bridge piled high with dumpsters to keep people in or out?”
Garth blanches. “No, I don’t. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“Did you know my mother stole vaccine?”
“Of course I did. Nina wouldn’t be human if she didn’t try to save her children.”
Bitterness rises within me. “Then how sorry can you be for what I’ve been through? How could you watch her choose to save one child and let the other die? How could the two of you leave me out there alone?” There’s a hysterical edge to my voice that’s embarrassing.
Garth’s facial expression softens infinitesimally, but the fleeting moment is gone so quickly I wonder if I imagined it. He leans forward, arms resting on his knees. “Marie, when something of this magnitude occurs, there are so many factors in play. I wasn’t even allowed to tell Nina what was happening. She grew suspicious, thought I might be having an affair, and snooped around my office.” He sighs and rubs at his tired-looking eyes. “I knew your mother would try to get her hands on vaccine, so I made it easy for her. It would have complicated things for me if she got caught.”
“How would it have complicated things?”
Garth looks away, seeming uncomfortable for the first time. “The greater good must be considered when the alliance makes decisions, not the individual.”
“Is that how you justify what you do?” My words drip with derision.
His sharp gaze returns to mine. “What is it you think I do?”
“My mother loves to stick her head in the sand. I don’t. She told me the vaccine is no longer as effective and you’re working on a new treatment that’s very promising. Exactly what are you doing to the survivors you pick up? They’re immune. You’re not. I’ve done the math, and I don’t like the answer I keep coming up with.”
“How did you and Nina reunite anyway?” Garth throws this question at me rather suddenly, and I’m not sure how to answer. What has my mother said about how we met?
I decide to stick to the truth as much as possible without giving away anything vital. “I was hiking through the woods and came upon a barbed wire fence. My mother was taking a walk, and I saw her in the distance. We talked a little, and I told her I was staying at a house in town. I was pissed and didn’t give her much of a chance. I’m still pretty fucking steamed. Letting my twin sister die because she didn’t come to visit has that effect—go figure.”
“Then she came to see you in town?”
“Yes, and we talked about the fevers I keep getting. She brought me some vaccine the next day. Yesterday, I went for a walk in the woods, and when I returned, found a note from my mother, asking to meet tonight. We talked, and she begged me to come live here. I declined, and that’s when General Smith and his lackeys kidnapped me.”
Garth scratches the back of his neck. “The term ‛kidnap’ is a bit harsh, isn’t it?”
“General Smith tossed me in the back of a pick-up truck with a bunch of soldiers—this is after they held me a gunpoint. Then Gibbs threw a sack over my head and tied my hands. Sounds like kidnapping to me.”
“I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
“Who tipped them off about the meeting? Was it my mother?”
Moment of truth. Now I’ll know how deep my mother’s loyalty to the alliance goes.
Garth shakes his head. “No. Nina told me, and I asked James to keep an eye on things. I didn’t realize he’d take things so far.”
I’m not sure I believe Garth. “Yeah, well, I’d recommend keeping an eye on James. He’s got his own agenda. I have no wish to live here. Am I free to go?”
“I’m afraid not, Marie. You’ve already lied about being alone. Please don’t make things more difficult.”
My stomach churns, and I fear I might throw up on Garth’s expensive coffee table. “I didn’t lie. You intend to keep my prisoner here?”
“That’s a harsh assessment and an ungrateful one. We’re offering you a place among us and access to a new, innovative treatment that has the potential to cure the virus.” Garth rises and makes his way behind the desk, obviously done with this conversation.
“I didn’t ask for any of this.” My throat aches with unshed tears.
The alliance intends to keep me. Garth can label it however he wants to, but I’m being held against my will.
He pushes a button on his phone. “Please show my wife’s daughter to her quarters.”
I jump up and slam my fists on his desk. “No! You can’t fucking do this! I have rights!”
“Rights change during such dire circumstances. The alliance is sanctioned by the government.”
“So it’s okay to decide who lives and who dies? To play God?”
Eric walks through the door and looks right through me. “You called for an escort, Dr. Kasabian?”
I hide my surprise.
“Yes. Eric, this is my wife’s daughter, Marie. Please escort her to quarters. Priority B.”
“Yes, sir. Marie, it’s a pleasure to meet you. This way, please.” Eric nods my way.
I glare at Garth and then follow Eric. He walks ahead of me, keeping up the pretense that we don’t know one another. The cameras sprinkled throughout the halls might have something to do with his behavior.
We travel through areas I didn’t cover with General Smith and take a different elevator up a few floors. The halls don’t look much different than where we just were. Eric stops in front of a door and fishes his keys out, unlocking it.
“In here, please.”
The room is small and sparse with a simple bed and dresser. It reminds me of the power plant, and tears prick at my eyes.
Eric shuts the door and holds a finger to his lips, cupping his other hand around his ear to let me know the alliance is listening. He slips a pad out of his pocket and starts writing. “This is your room. I’m sure they’ll get you some clothes and toiletries shortly.”
He holds up the pad. Max and Grace are safe. U okay?
I nod. “Thanks. What about toilets and showers?”
“That’s not my department. I’m sure someone will go over everything with you.”
Max going nuts. Said not to worry. He’s coming 4 U.
Fear slices into me, and I shake my head, grabbing for the pad. As I write, the tears finally start to fall. If Max tries to rescue me, he’ll be caught.
NO! Too dangerous!! Tell Max to forget about me.
Eric’s eyes widen as he takes the pad back. U sure?
“Welcome to the alliance, Marie. I’m sure I’ll see you around.” Eric leaves the room, closing the door, and the tumblers snap into place.
I’m locked in.
Though my heart aches, I know I did the right thing telling Max to forget me. I sink to the bed and curl into a ball, allowing my grief to flow free.
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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