Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 28): Reunion
James raises the pistol, and I cry out, throwing myself in front of him.
“What the hell are you doing, Marie? Get out of the way!” He grabs for me, but I sidestep him and hold my hands in front of me.
“Put the gun down.”
“Have you lost your mind?”
A low, warning growl fills the air. Wiry hair brushes against my leg as Grace presses forward and insinuates herself between me and James, baring her teeth.
“Grace . . .” I reach out, touching her back. “It's okay, girl.”
“Grace?” James mutters, bringing his arm down so the gun points at the ground. “You know this dog?”
Grace backs up, pressing her haunches against me, causing me to stumble. She no longer bares her teeth, but her chest rumbles continuously, and her gaze is focused on James.
“She's mine. Please, you can't tell anyone!”
He stares at me, confusion marring his expression. “We haven't seen any dogs since the outbreak. How did you find her?”
I crouch beside Grace and loop an arm around her. She whimpers softly and turns her head for one quick moment to lick my face before resuming her previous watchful stance.
“She found me. I was sick—don't even remember traveling to this area. I woke up on the cliffs near town with her watching over me. We've been together ever since.” My fingers are drawn to the cool metal of my collar. “At least until I was taken.” I try to keep my voice even, but a touch of accusation seeps into my tone.
James drops to his knees, flattening a few more stalks, and holds a hand out so Grace can catch his scent. “Hey there.”
Grace stiffens but eventually relaxes enough to sniff his hand. She doesn't lick him but chuffs and eases into a slow sit next to me.
“You’re a beauty, aren’t you?” He ruffles Grace’s fur.
“She must have tracked me.” I lean closer to her warmth, something I’ve missed a great deal. “You won’t tell anyone about her, will you?” I search his face, hoping to find a kernel of sympathy.
James tilts his head, appraising me. “What are you suggesting?”
“Let her go.”
“Won’t she keep searching for you? Someone else might find her, and then there’s nothing I can do.”
We face off among the waving wheat, and I tighten my hold on Grace. I’m not about to tell him there are others out here who are probably searching for Grace at this moment, wondering where she is. Eric could bring her back to the power plant, but I’d need to get a message to him. My options are limited with this damn tracker around my neck.
“Isn’t there somewhere we can stay? I wouldn’t mind being away from the compound myself. After my conversation with Garth today . . . I could really use a break.”
“There is one place that comes to mind. It’s rather remote, and few people know about it.”
James helps me to my feet and leads us through the field to the road where his truck is parked. Grace remains plastered to my side and watches James warily. He lowers the pickup's tailgate, and Grace hops up when I pat my hand on the ridged metal.
We drive for a while before turning onto a narrow, meandering dirt road. He pulls the truck into a hidden driveway and parks in front of a crooked metal gate that blocks further passage.
“We walk from here.”
James comes around to open my door before letting Grace out. She leaps from the truck bed and trots to my side, lifting her nose to sniff the air.
Regal trees line the drive, their colorful, fluttering leaves providing dense cover. We slip around the end of the gate, which is no longer connected on one side, and make our way through the trees until they open onto a field of grass. The driveway continues all the way to a rickety farmhouse. Even from this distance, the weathered, sagging wood is obvious.
I look at James askance. “Looks like it’s about to keel over.”
He smiles. “She’s stronger than she looks, some settling over the years but still good and solid inside.” His gaze pans the property, a touch of pride gleaming in his eyes.
“Did you know this place . . . before?”
“I grew up here. This was my parents’ home. They had me late in life, and both of them died years ago, but I couldn’t let go of the place. When I joined the military, I rented it out to some locals that knew my folks.” James rubs at his forehead with a knuckle. “When I found myself here again—talk about coming full circle—I decided to hold onto the property. It’s somewhere to go when I need a break from—” His words end abruptly, and he shakes his head.
“From the horror?” I finish gently.
“Something like that.” His voice comes in a husky whisper, a mix of nostalgia and resignation. “Nobody will bother you here. There’s food, running water, electricity. I won’t tell anyone about Grace, but if you get caught, I know nothing.”
I'll figure out how to return Grace to the power plant later. Staying here temporarily might give me time to plan my own escape as well.
As we get closer, I notice a screen door propped crookedly over the front entrance. The house was once white, but more than half of the paint has given way to bare, weathered wood.
“Let's go around back. The front door is perfectly solid, but the broken storm door acts as a deterrent and an alarm system of sorts.” When we reach the back, James fishes a set of keys from his pocket, removing one from the ring and handing it to me. “This is the spare. You can use this place whenever. Just keep it to yourself.”
He unlocks the door and holds it open for me. Grace trots right in, disappearing into the shadows. Her nails click on the wood floors, and she stops every so often to sniff something before moving on.
James leans in and flicks a switch. Weak yellow light pushes back the darkness in a large farmhouse kitchen. A slight mustiness hovers in the dense air, but it's not entirely unpleasant. The scent reminds me of historic homesteads I've visited on school trips.
The inside of the house is rustic wood and gingham country charm. He forces a window open over the kitchen sink, and dirty white curtains flutter against the dusty sill. He grabs an electric lantern and moves deeper into the house, opening more windows. I follow him into the living room, which is sparsely furnished but homey. Floorboards creak overhead as Grace explores the second floor.
James turns to face me, rubbing his hands on his pants. “There's only one bathroom, which is upstairs. Toilet's a bit temperamental. The place hasn't been updated in decades . . .” He shrugs, looking apologetic.
“No, it's fine. Thank you for sharing your hideaway with me.”
He shows me the rest of the house. The stairs creak but are quite solid beneath us. The second floor consists of the bathroom, three bedrooms, and the entrance to a stairwell leading to the attic. We crack open more windows as we go but pull the shades down in the rooms facing the front.
James brings sheets and a blanket into the bedroom that faces the rear of the house, explaining using this room will keep my presence secret by concealing any light I use at night.
When the full size bed is made, I hover beside it awkwardly. “Will you be staying here with us?”
“No, I have duties to attend to. I'll explain to Garth that you wished to return to the compound. I can buy you a few days before your absence is noticed. How about I send Timms out here to check on you while I'm gone?”
“No!” I grab for his sleeve.
James strokes my arm. “It's okay. Timms is a trusted officer.”
“I know—he's been really nice to me. It's just . . . Gibbs is never far from him.”
He purses his lips. “Hmm . . . you have a point.”
My heart beats fast, and I take a deep breath. Stay calm. “How about that other guard . . . I think his name is Eric. Big, tall guy, broad shoulders.”
“You know Eric?”
“From when I first arrived. He's always been helpful and kind.”
James nods, eyes thoughtful. “Yeah, that could work. How about I gather your things and bring them back later, and I’ll send Eric out here tomorrow night. He’s on duty during the day.”
“Will you be all right alone until then?” He moves in closer and rubs the back of my neck lightly.
The reminder of being on my own sends a frisson of fear skipping up my spine. Grace will be here to protect me, and I have my knife.
“I’ll be fine.” My steady voice conceals any worry.
While James is gone, I explore. The kitchen cabinets hold a variety of canned goods. There’s a root cellar, stocked with more cans, bottled water, paper goods, small propane tanks, various tools, and rope. I find candles and matches in the living room. There’s a charming claw foot tub in the bathroom, no shower.
Grace follows me outside. Darkness is descending, the breeze bringing in an evening chill. Crickets sing, and squirrels dart across the edge of the yard, chasing each other into the trees. If I close my eyes, it’s almost possible to pretend everything’s normal.
We walk the property because it’s wise to know the landscape. Grace hovers close, rubbing her head against my thigh and licking my hand often. Her tongue lolls out the side of her mouth when she glances up at me. Maybe I’m imagining things, but her soft brown eyes seem to convey how much she missed me. I hope she knows how much I missed her, too. I speak softly to her as we go, sharing my burdens.
The yard is edged on all four sides by vegetation. Behind the house, the tree line is overgrown by thick brush and twisted vines one would need to hack their way through. The side perimeters are filling in, but a few passable trails still exist. The only official way in is through the rusted gate out front. There’s a small grain silo and an old wooden barn that lists to one side but seems stable enough.
When it becomes difficult to see, and my nerves get the best of me, I head back to the house. There's no need to call Grace because she hasn't been more than a few feet from me the entire time.
Letting out a long breath, I place a lantern on the coffee table in the living room and collapse on the couch. It's hard and lumpy but comfortable enough. Grace jumps up and curls in a ball next to me with her muzzle resting on my lap. I stroke her head gently and close my eyes, exhausted from the emotional turmoil of the day.
Grace's ears perk up sometime later, and she woofs softly, climbing down from the couch and trotting to the back door. She lowers her head to sniff the crack along the floor then wags her tail slowly. I hover in the kitchen doorway and wait.
A tap sounds on the door. “It's me.” James unlocks and opens it slowly.
Grace returns to stand in front of me. She doesn't growl, but her tail remains at half-mast.
James places my things on the table and walks over, crouching in front of Grace and gazing up at me. He offers his hand, palm up, for her inspection. “Grace is very protective of you. She's definitely chosen you as her person.” He turns his attention to Grace. “Right, girl? Marie is very lucky to have your loyalty.”
Grace whines and licks his hand tentatively. She shifts her paws but remains in place.
James pats her head then stands. “I think you're in good hands. Just in case of trouble, there's a loaded rifle in the gun cabinet in the den and boxes of ammo in the drawer. I can show you how to shoot.”
“I know how. My father was a cop, and he made sure I knew how to protect myself.”
“Okay, then.” James stares at the ground awkwardly. “I'll see you soon.” He takes me by the shoulders and leans forward, pressing his lips to mine.
I freeze, unsure how to react. He's been wonderful to me, and I am grateful. Though I don't return his feelings, there is a need for caution. He might not react well to my subterfuge.
I soften my lips and allow the kiss to continue. The sensations flowing through me are all wrong. Max told me to do what I had to, but this still feels like a betrayal. I pray James won't try to take things further. We are alone in the middle of the woods, and nobody knows we're here. Maybe this wasn't my brightest move ever.
Grace solves my dilemma by issuing a sharp bark and butting her head into James’ leg.
“Whoa!” He steps back, and Grace latches onto his pants leg, tugging hard. “Guess she doesn't approve.”
James laughs. “No, it's all right. I have to earn her respect—and yours.” He retreats to the door and pauses. “Be sure to lock up after me. Have a good night, Marie.”
“You, too. And thank you—for everything.”
After he's gone, I lug my things up the narrow stairs and put them in the bedroom closet. Best not to make it obvious the house is occupied. Max taught me well.
My eyes water, and I sit on the bed. I wonder what Max is doing at this moment. Is he cramped in the ventilation shaft in my room at the compound? Does he have enough rations? Does he have any idea what I would give to be in his arms right now? Grace places her front paws on my lap and licks my tears away.
I curl into a ball under the covers with Grace's warmth pressed next to me. This would be a great time for a good cry, but I find my eyes dry and stinging from all the blubbering I did earlier. So I lie in bed, listening to the house creak and settle around us, and it's not long before I fall into an exhausted sleep.
The morning dawns, gray and cold. When I step outside with Grace so she can do her business, the air is laden with moisture, the blades of grass bent under the weight of dewdrops. My boots dampen quickly as we wander the yard, and I’m grateful they’re waterproof. Grace takes off after a squirrel, chasing it across the yard and into the bushes. I run after her, laughing when she plants herself at the base of a tree and barks at the squirrel, now safe among the branches.
A prickle climbs the nape of my neck and tingles across my scalp, causing me to look behind us. I pan the area carefully, watching for any movement. I blow a short burst on the dog whistle, which is hanging around my neck again, and Grace abandons her quarry, trotting to my side. I sit on my heels and scratch behind her ears, listening for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing stands out. I walk around the entire perimeter with Grace, but she doesn’t sense anything.
We share a jumbo can of chili. Though the house is drafty, I’m hesitant to light a fire and make do by wearing layers. I nap, read, explore the den and locate the rifle James was referring to, take another walk with Grace, heat some soup for dinner, and read some more. I try to avoid thoughts of my mother and the treatments or how I’m going to escape the alliance.
The gray sky is beginning to darken as the day comes to an end. Grace yips and scratches at the back door.
“You have to go again?”
She bolts out the door the moment it’s open and races around the side of the house. As I turn the corner, I recognize the hulking figure of Eric coming toward us along the drive. He waves and laughs when Grace launches herself at him.
“Hey, Nudge—I mean, Grace. What are you doing all the way over here? People are worried about you. Yes, they are.” Eric rubs his huge hands back and forth over Grace, scratching her back while she keeps trying to lick him. “Hey, Marie. You okay?” His forehead creases with concern.
“Fine, yeah.” I flap a hand. “Come on in. Are you hungry?”
He laughs and pats his stomach. “I can always eat.”
Eric sits at the kitchen table while I fill a pot with soup and place it on the stove.
“Have you spoken to Max?” I twist my hands, my heart speeding while I wait for him to answer.
“Yep. Cramped in that shaft, cranky as hell, but I made him promise to wait until I spoke with you before making any moves.”
I blow out a breath. “Thank God nobody discovered him!”
Eric slaps his meaty palms against the table top. “Want to tell me what the hell is going on?”
I turn my back to him and stir the soup to give myself a moment to consider how much I want to say. Eric is loyal to Max, and there’s no guarantee he’ll keep anything secret even if I ask him to. I end up telling him about my discovery at the lab, the resultant conversation with Garth about the origin of the virus and treatments, and how Grace showed up when I was in the wheat field with James. I leave out the part about my decision not to receive treatment.
“Wow, so General James went the extra mile. I’m glad he sent me here.”
“He wanted to send Timms, but I got around it by mentioning that Gibbs is never far behind. James can’t stand Gibbs.” I ladle the soup into bowls, place them on the table, and sit across from Eric.
“Good thinking!” He spoons the soup into his mouth so fast, he’s half-finished before I take my second mouthful.
Without asking, I grab the pot and refill his bowl.
“Thanks! This is great.”
I finish my bowl and put one down for Grace. She rushes over and laps at the soup.
Eric wipes his mouth and tilts his chair back with a satisfied sigh. “So, I need to ask—‛cause, you know, Max expects a full report—are you really okay? And, I quote, ‛did that fucker Gibbs put his hands on you?’”
My heart aches. I won’t admit the ugly truth about my refusal to receive treatment, so I grab the dirty dishes and turn toward the sink, afraid the lie might show on my face. “I’m good. James has been a gentleman, and Gibbs hasn’t bothered me.”
“You sure nothing’s wrong?”
I bark out a laugh. “Of course things are wrong! Have you looked around lately?”
“Fair enough.” The chair scrapes against the floor as Eric stands. “I need to go. Oh, Max sent something for you.” He pulls my cell phone from his jacket.
“My phone . . .”
“Fully charged, and here’s a solar charger.” Eric places both items in my hands. “Max said to tell you he made a video for you.” He wiggles his eyebrows.
I smack his arm. “Pervert. I’m sure it’s nothing racy.”
His booming laugh fills the room. “I wouldn’t know. Max threatened to break my face if I nosed around.”
Once Eric leaves, I head upstairs with Grace and sit on the bed. I’m not sure why I’m so nervous, but I push the feeling away and click on the video.
The screen flares to life and Max’s face fills the space. His sea-glass eyes are bloodshot, scruff covers his face again, and he looks so tired. Tears stream from my eyes before he even speaks. I’ve missed him terribly, and seeing him only highlights how much.
“Hey, China. Eric said you’re staying with Grace at a house away from the compound. The little bugger got loose and took off searching for you. Our girl is amazing, isn’t she? We’re making a plan to get you and Grace out of there, so just hold tight.” He moves closer until only his eyes and nose are visible. “I’m going to take you home. We’ll make it through this together—I promise. I love you, China.” Determination and love shine from his eyes, and he leans back, caressing the screen with the tip of one finger before the video goes dark.
I watch it many times, shedding tears of happiness and grief. How do I tell Max if the cure isn’t found soon, the virus will eventually take me from him? When I’m ready to fall asleep, I listen to Katie sing “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” clutching the phone to my chest.
A steady rain falls in the morning, drenching everything. There’s no wind, so the fat drops come straight down, pattering softly on the grass and dripping from the eaves. Grace only goes out long enough to do her business and rushes back inside, shaking droplets of water from her thick fur.
I find some bath salts in the bathroom vanity and pour a generous amount into the stream of hot water as I fill the clawfoot tub. Grace curls up on the braided rug as I strip my clothes off and slip into the bath. The warmth of the water soothes the tension from my muscles, creating a boneless, floaty sensation. Tendrils of fragrant steam fog the mirror and caress my skin. My lids grow heavy, and I stay in far longer than I should.
A growl rumbles in Grace’s chest. Her ears twitch, and she bolts out of the room and down the stairs. My heart speeds, and I lurch from the tub, sloshing water onto the floor. I grab for a towel and start drying myself.
There’s a bark then the soft murmur of a voice—probably James or Eric. I wrap the towel around my body and curse the fact I left my clothes in the bedroom.
A door slams downstairs, and Grace barks ferociously. I hear thumps and the scratch of her nails on wood, and my pulse races. Footsteps creak on the stairs, slow and steady.
I can’t catch my breath.
There’s nowhere to hide.
Grace howls and barks urgently, obviously trapped somewhere below.
I peek around the edge of the bathroom door, intent on crossing to the bedroom, and let out a shriek when a shadowy figure moves away from the wall, laughing softly.
“Hello, sweet Marie.”
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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