Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 22): Welcome to My Parlor
There aren't always sixty seconds in a minute or sixty minutes in an hour. Sometimes we slip time, its fluidity gushing between our fingers like water. Sometimes time binds us, wrapping tight like a boa constrictor until we're ready to scream for mercy, to beg it to begin flowing again.
My timeline is fucked.
I've lost count of the days. Days I've been holed up in this tiny white room, staring at the ceiling. It feels like forever. There is no day or night underground. The fluorescent light I hate so much is my constant companion.
My voice probably doesn't work. I wouldn't know because I refuse to speak. Meals delivered thrice daily go back barely touched. I'm not trying to die; I eat only what I need, nothing more.
I exercise. Push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks. If there's a chance of escape, I have to keep in shape.
My mother hasn't stopped by in a few days. She's easily discouraged by my continual rejections. Eric came by once, but another soldier hung around outside the doorway. Eric's blue eyes held such compassion—along with a warning I haven't been able to decipher. I’ve driven myself to the brink of madness wondering what he was trying to convey. Did the alliance catch Max or Grace? Was he encouraging me to cooperate?
The loud honk of a horn sounds—my warning to stay back from the door when someone enters. Crowding them will earn me a shot with the taser. Once was enough with that thing—it hurts like a bitch. No matter; I'm too interested in staring at the stain patterns in the ceiling tiles. I'd point out how unhealthy those dust-infested, porous squares probably are, but I'm not talking. I never realized how hard it would be to go dark until I made the decision, but I won't go back on it now. I am my father's daughter.
My muscles clench reflexively. I'm expecting another nervous lab technician in a white coat to approach, flanked by two burly guards. They'll hold me down while the tech draws blood or shove a mouth guard between my lips so the tech can swab the inside of my cheek.
I close my eyes, feigning asleep. Let them wonder.
Boots scuff along the floor, the slow, condescending gait of an asshole. General James Smith, I presume. An anxious, queasy feeling works its way through me, and I fight not to react.
The footsteps halt at the foot of the bed, and silence descends. A waiting game.
The temptation to open my eyes is great, but I resist as the quiet stretches on. It's so silent, I'd swear there was nobody else in the room if I didn't know better.
“Good afternoon, Marie.” General Smith’s tone is soothing and gentle, a voice made for talking people down or gaining the trust of wild animals.
I open my eyes and shift to a seated position only because I’d rather keep this man in sight. It doesn’t matter how soft-spoken he is, the fine hairs rising on the back of my neck—one of many instincts Daddy taught me to mind—give him away. He’s a bad man.
General Smith stands at attention by the foot of my bed, arms clasped behind his back, chest puffed out. His strange blue eyes rove, taking in and cataloging everything. His gaze hovers a bit too long on my chest before moving up to my face and lingering there.
“You’re lovely, even with no makeup.” Smith tilts his head. “A strong man needs a beautiful woman with some brains to come home to. One that is loyal and feisty . . . and enjoys being touched.” His eyes rake over me slowly and leave me feeling stripped naked despite the clothing I wear and the sheets that cover my lower half.
I bend my knees, wrapping my arms around them, and curl into a ball, my eyes never straying from his thoughtful expression.
“They tell me you’re not speaking or eating.” His gaze flicks to my lunch tray and back to me, the slight smile he’s worn since walking in growing. “You’re clever, aren’t you? Eating just enough to get by, but not enough to satisfy the evil alliance.”
My heart stutters as General Smith strolls around the edge of the bed and perches on the side, resting a hand on my raised knee. He’s too close, his eyes probing mine so deeply I worry all my secrets will simply tumble from my lips.
An involuntary shudder trembles through me, and he raises a hand to caress my hair. “Shh . . . Don’t be afraid. I can protect you, sweet Marie. Make sure you’re one of the first to receive treatments and assure you have access to the best of everything—medicine, health care, food, clothing . . . valuables—though you don’t strike me as a greedy, high maintenance type, which I greatly appreciate.” He smiles, stroking the pads of his fingers through the loose strands, stopping to cup my chin. The urge to lean away from his touch is great, but I manage not to. “You don’t have to talk to your mother or Garth or any of these other people, but I won’t tolerate your silence.” The gentle touch turns into a vice grip. Not enough to be painful but fair warning he could break my jaw or snap my neck without much effort.
The pulse pounds in my temples, and I jerk back, smacking my head on the wall behind the bed. General Smith’s grip never wavers, and he moves with me, leaning closer until I’m trapped.
Due to the repulsion I feel for him, I expect sour breath or the unpleasant stench of sweat, but when he shakes his head and huffs a short laugh, cinnamon wafts up my nose along with a clean, masculine scent. Under different circumstances, I might have found General James Smith attractive. I doubt he has any trouble attracting female attention.
His eyes hold a dangerous glint, and I realize this man is in a position of power around here and used to getting his way. “This is a new world, and we’re the top of the food chain. Until now, you’ve been wallowing in here, taking up space and using precious resources. Special consideration was extended because of who your mother is. That ends now. Everyone under the protection of the alliance has responsibilities and must become a contributing member of society.” His gaze lowers at the same moment his fingers loosen and slide under my hair to cup the back of my neck.
I go rigid and shake my head, grabbing at his arm. “No.” My voice is raspy from disuse.
“Ah, she speaks! Thank you, Marie.” He leans in and presses a lingering kiss to my cheek, dangerously close to my mouth. His fingers continue rubbing lightly at my nape. “Don’t be frightened. I’d like permission to court you. We can take our time.”
Court me? My heart plummets and then begins pounding erratically. Pain flares behind my ribs, spreading in a dull ache that leaves me feeling sick to my stomach. The thought of anyone besides Max loving me, putting their hands all over me, is abhorrent. “Please . . . General Smith. Please don’t . . .”
“If we’re going to be friends, you must call me James.” His hand leaves my neck to massage one shoulder. “Relax. Nobody’s going to hurt you, not while you’re under my protection. You’ll be off-limits to the others—Lieutenant Gibbs for instance.”
“Gibbs?” I whisper, my mouth dry. The way Gibbs looked at me in the bed of the truck, hungry for mayhem, causes me to shudder.
“He took a liking to you as well, but I outrank him. If you were mine, your life here would be filled with the best of everything.” James looks around my tiny room with distaste. “We can get you out of this hovel and into accommodations suiting a general’s woman.”
“Your mother told me about your fiancé. Very sorry for your loss.” James takes my hand and brings it to his mouth, pressing a kiss to the back of it. I almost cry out, reminded of Max’s soft lips against my palm, and the ache in my chest expands. “I don't expect you to rush into anything. Give me a chance. Let me show you how good things can be.” He tilts his head, trapping my hand against his cheek.
My thoughts go into overdrive. I hate that James hovers so close, that he’s touching me instead of Max. I want to rake my nails over his face and scream at him to leave me alone, to take his offer and veiled threats and stick them where the sun doesn’t shine. Better yet, I want to make good on my threat to punch him in the junk so hard he gets a dose of his own flavor.
I suck in a deep breath, intending to shun him, but Katie’s voice stops me.
C’mon, Ro! If you reject this guy, he’ll make your life hellish. He’s not asking you to jump on his joystick. Go with the grieving fiancée routine for a while. Remember, he can go anywhere and do anything. Your best chance to escape is by using this jerk.
“Give me a moment . . . James.” His name is like acid on my tongue. I pull away and turn my body, covering my face with my hands. A sob escapes, a plaintive plea from the depths of my despair.
James shifts on the bed, moving toward the foot. “Of course.”
I stuff down the scream of indignation that threatens to rip out of me. I'm scared and lonely without Max and Grace. Just the thought of agreeing to give James a chance to win my heart feels like a betrayal. If I get out of here, will Max understand? Oh dear God . . . will I have to have sex with James? Endure his hands all over me? Deep inside, I fear if I'm reunited with Max after being forced to allow another man to touch me, we might never make it past the stain on my soul.
The tears stream between my fingers, hot and bitter. I wasn't cut out for this.
Damn it, Ro! Pull yourself together! You have to live for both of us now. Strap it on. Find your way back into Max's arms. You do know he won't let them have you, right? No matter what you told Eric, Max is coming. Play things right with James, and you can delay progression of the relationship until your escape.
“I'll try.” The words are meant for Katie, but I speak them aloud. I bite my lip hard enough to draw blood and wish I could yank the words out of the air.
“You'll try?” There's a sense of hope in James' voice, relief. He grasps my upper arms and pulls me toward him, cradling me against his chest. His fingers tangle in my hair, and it's all I can do not to start sobbing again. “This is wonderful news. Your mother and Garth will be so happy for us. I'll get you out of here right away and relocate you to our main facility. You're going to love it there.”
Main facility? Where the hell am I right now?
* * *
James returns for me after someone brings me a change of clothes and a bag of toiletries. I'm given the chance to take a shower and freshen up. Though I hate every moment of this, I use everything Katie taught me about hair, makeup, and men to my best advantage.
I brush out my newly washed hair until it falls like strands of silk down my back. Katie always said men are suckers for long hair. I apply makeup with a light hand, making sure I conceal the redness around my eyes. Though I object to dressing nicely during the apocalypse, I make an exception. Allowing James to believe I'm giving him a fair shot is my ticket back to Max.
James knocks and enters. No ugly horn this time. When he sees me, he smiles. Approaching slowly, he takes my hand and kisses it like a gentleman. “Marie, you look beautiful. I think alliance life will suit you.”
“Before we go, I have something for you.” He places small box on the bed and tugs the lid off, pulling out a wide silver choker with a red gem affixed to the front.
I shake my head. “You shouldn’t be bringing me gifts—at least not yet.”
“I insist. Hold your hair up.”
I obey, thankful I had the presence of mind to hide Grace’s dog whistle in my pocket. The alliance might become suspicious and start searching for dogs in the area if they found it. There’s also the knife Max gave me; so far, I’ve managed to do a sleight of hand act to keep it hidden. Even though I’m underground with no obvious means of escape, the small weapon and the knowledge I know how to use it makes me feel safer.
The necklace is cold against my skin, and the clasp snaps audibly when James secures it. I release my hair and face him. He rests his hands on my shoulders and smiles, but there’s something in his expression that worries me. He runs a finger along the gleaming silver and circles the gem. “This assures your safety.”
“This necklace has a tracking device embedded in it.” His finger slides off the gem and ghosts along the front of my neck to tip my chin up. “If you get lost, I’ll be able to find you.”
I claw reflexively at the silver collar. “I—what?”
James grabs my wrist and pulls my arm down gently. “Easy there. You don’t want to damage your pretty neck. One of these is needed to remove it.” He holds up a thin piece of metal that looks like an Allen wrench. I grab for it, but he chuckles and holds it out of reach. “No, no! If you have the key on you, then anyone can remove it.”
“Who or what do you think I need protecting from?”
“As I said, if you should get lost . . . and I don't trust Gibbs around you.” James' jaw tightens. “Possibly others. Better safe than sorry, right?”
I stare at him silently, unsure how to respond. What I want to do is demand he remove this infringement of my personal rights. I don't believe for a second that he's doing this to protect me. He's staking a claim as if I'm his property, a chilling message to me and anyone else who knows what this necklace really is. Being saddled with a tracker will also impede my ability to escape, but I'll have to deal with that issue later. The first order of business is to gain this man's trust, and I won't be doing that by rejecting his overtures.
Putting aside my distaste, I touch his arm. “Thank you, James. That's very thoughtful of you.”
“You don't mind it, then?” Clearly he was expecting an argument.
“No. I'll feel much safer knowing you’ll be aware of my location—especially around that creeper Gibbs.” I swallow the bile rising into my esophagus and try to smile without looking as lost and frightened as I feel. “Can't wait to see my new digs! This place sucks.”
James tilts his head and regards me for a moment, and then his baritone laugh joins my nervous one. He kisses my cheek and whispers, “This place is a hovel compared to where we're going.”
This time, there’s no entourage. James leads me through the maze of halls and we take yet another elevator up to the surface. The same pick-up truck we arrived in is parked beside the sprawling complex. I know we’re on the western side because splashes of the deepest reddish-gold from the setting sun paint the walls.
He zip ties my hands together. “Until I’m sure you can be trusted,” he mutters.
James takes a narrow dirt lane barely wide enough for the truck. Leaves and branches scrape along the sides and roof as we speed along, and cold fear coils in my belly at the thought of another vehicle coming from the opposite direction. It’s much darker under the looming trees, their long shadows stretching and swallowing the waning light, and he flicks on the headlights.
Part of me keeps hoping Max will ambush us or land in the bed of the truck. The bulge under James’ jacket suggests he’s packing, but Max has surprise and skill on his side. The longer we drive, the more my hope fades.
We leave the cover of the trees and pull into a grassy field bordered by an asphalt drive. We follow the smooth pavement around an outcropping and a small group of trees until it spills out into an old parking lot. James parks in front of the ruins of an old building that isn’t much more than a pile of rubble. The skeleton of a structure is intact, steel rods jutting out where the concrete has broken away, and the bruised purple of the darkening sky is visible in the empty spaces where the walls and ceiling should be. A bush full of beautiful magenta flowers grows in the center of it all, amid haphazardly piled bricks and chunks of debris.
“What is this place?”
Without answering, James comes around to my side and helps me from the truck. He pulls a black hood from his jacket and offers an apologetic look. “Sorry about this.”
“Why didn’t you cover my eyes on the ride here?”
“You’d never remember the route. No one is allowed to know where the secret entrance to our compound is until they prove themselves.”
“Can you at least untie my hands?”
Once James unties me and covers my head, he takes my hand. I quickly lose track of which way he’s leading me. We go up and down a bit, and there’s an occasional brisk wind. After what I estimate to be ten minutes, James unlocks a series of doors. He doesn’t remove the hood until we’re on an elevator, going down.
My new quarters are next to his. For a moment, I feared he’ll expect me to sleep in his bed. He opens the door with a flourish and waits for my reaction.
It’s not a bedroom; it’s a beautifully decorated suite. We enter a sitting room with a cluster of elegant but comfortable-looking beige pieces surrounding a glass and oak table. The adjoining bedroom has a queen bed and a few landscapes adorning the walls. Best of all is my own bathroom with toilet and shower.
James finally follows me into the bedroom. “What do you think?”
“I love it!” It’s not difficult to muster enthusiasm for such beautiful rooms after what I’ve been through, but the pleasure sours under the weight of the knowledge of what these people do in the name of saving humanity.
“There’s a door to my rooms over here . . .” James gestures toward a door in the alcove between the sitting room and bedroom. “ . . . but it locks on both sides. I won’t make any presumptions—you come to me when you’re ready.”
“I appreciate your patience.” I swallow and look down, wringing my hands. “Mike and I were deeply in love. It’s hard for me, James.” In my heart, I replace “Mike” with “Max.”
“I understand. Listen, there’s an important dinner tonight, and we need to be there. Why don’t you pick something pretty from the closet, and I’ll be back to get you in an hour.”
The closet is full of dresses, blouses, slacks, T-shirts, jeans, and shoes—all in my size. My mother must be responsible. I choose a gray sweater dress, casual but elegant, and spend the rest of the hour wiggling a bobby-pin in the mechanism on my collar to no avail.
James knocks on my door at the precise time expected; the expensive clock on the shelf in the sitting room says so. I rub my sweaty hands on the front of my dress and open the door. He’s wearing tobacco pants and a matching military-style jacket with a number of bars and stripes and American-Canadian Alliance embroidered on one side.
The thought strikes me that the alliance seems very organized. Their facilities and the fancy uniforms didn’t happen on the fly. Then again, if my mother had several weeks advance notice of the virus, I’m sure they had a lot more.
“You look radiant, Marie.” James offers an arm, and I loop mine through it.
“And you look very handsome in your uniform.”
“Thank you. I hope you enjoy dinner. You’ll sit with me, of course.”
I’m not expecting the cavernous dining hall. Several rows of tables crisscross the room, and those tables are filled with people. Men, women, children, soldiers. Laughter and lighthearted chatter echo in the huge room, people breaking bread and sharing bits of their day. The scene is so surreal, I start to wonder if I’m dreaming.
James takes my elbow and guides me through the throng to a corner table filled with what are clearly the important people. All the men at the table are in uniform with the exception of Garth, who wears his usual dress clothes. My mother fiddles with the set of pearls around her neck, her gaze flitting around the room and coming back to me several times. The remaining seats are peppered with a few women who appear to be the significant others of some of the soldiers.
Garth rises when he spots us and gestures to the two empty seats next to him. James sits beside Garth. I’m happy not to sit near my mother.
I clasp my hands in my lap and wonder if I’ll be able to eat anything without throwing up. Butterflies ram against my ribs, and I stare at the table, too nervous to look at the people around me.
A whistle blows, and all conversation ceases. I’ve never seen such a large group silenced so quickly.
Someone with a bullhorn begins speaking. “Good evening, and thank you all for joining us. Please turn your attention to the nearest monitor for an important announcement.”
I twist in my seat and focus on the nearest large screen, which flares to life. The feed focuses on a man in a fancy office seated behind a large desk. The camera jiggles slightly before zooming in on the President of the United States.
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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