Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 31): Family
We stare until the planes are well out of sight and the rumble of their engines can barely be heard. The jet trails are already beginning to fade; soon any evidence they passed by will be erased.
My heart continues to beat fast. The president is going to visit the alliance.
“What the hell was all that?” Max asks.
I glance at his confused expression and realize he doesn’t know. “We never did have the chance to talk about this. Brace yourself. The President of the former United States is on that plane.”
He laughs. “Ri-ight.”
“Seriously. He is.”
“Want to tell me why you sound so sure?”
“Sit with me.”
We settle on top of the boulder that just provided cover and look out over the valley below. Grace wanders around, rooting through the leaves with her snout.
The rocky hill, dotted with trees and bushes, slopes down to meet brilliant green grass edging a serene pond. I’m struck once again by how beautiful the world is and how nature continues on, oblivious to our pain. Everything and everyone will eventually be reclaimed by the earth. The thought leaves me feeling so vulnerable and inconsequential.
Max waves a hand in front of me. “Still with me?”
“Yeah, sorry.” I wrap my arms around my knees and rest my chin on them. “Just realizing how little we mean in the big scheme of things.”
“Now that’s something I learned the hard way—over and over.” He shrugs. “Guess it doesn’t faze me anymore.”
I digest that for a moment, feeling sad for Max and Ali both. Despite being abandoned by my mother, I had a pretty good life before the virus. “When I was staying at the main compound, we watched a live presidential speech in the cafeteria.” I retell as many details as I can remember.
“Shit. That’s just . . . wow.” Max shakes his head. “Do you think he knows everything?”
“I'm not sure. I’ve wondered that myself.”
“The prime minister, too. And, boy, they don’t play around, huh? Preserve what they consider the 'core of humanity' and fuck the rest of us.”
“Seems that way.”
Angry, he slips off the boulder and paces. Grace stops what she’s doing and watches.
“We’re glorified lab rats. Meanwhile, the crisis has barely touched the elite. They have food, electricity . . . order. Let’s not forget a supply of immune to experiment on. Maybe God should do the world a favor and let their luck run out so—” Max halts mid-stride and mid-sentence, swinging toward me with an apology in his eyes. “China, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s okay. I know what you meant.”
He comes to stand in front of me and takes my hands. “I’d love to see them burn, but I’m also invested in their success because of you. Damn it—I’m so conflicted!”
“Me, too.” I swallow hard, afraid if I try to say more, I’ll start crying.
Throughout the rest of our journey, I fill Max in on the alliance: their hydroponic gardens, societal structure, the clueless and trusting nature of the average citizen. I gloss over the part about the treatments, simply telling him an individualized compound is created for each person. I don't want to think about the sacrifices being made or my refusal to partake.
We’ve just come climbed the treacherous path up the side of the cliff and traversed the scarily deep crevasse, when Max decides to blindside me. The steep stone path lies before us, the smooth stone walls away on each side. Every sound echoes, yet the atmosphere is also hushed, cutting off the whipping wind from the sea.
Max stops walking and faces me, pressing in close. “When were you going to tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“That you refused treatment.”
My breath catches. I can’t see more than a glint of his eyes in the dimness. “I don’t know.” Guilt compresses my chest.
“Were you ever going to?”
“Of course!” I reach up with both hands, cupping his face. “I just didn’t know how. Part of me was hoping I’d never have to if they found another way. Who told you?”
“Eric let it slip in his innocent, bumbling way.” He grasps my wrist and pulls it away from his cheek, turning his head so he can plant a kiss on the tender underside. “Damn it, China . . .”
Max buries his head in my neck, his breath hot. “What for?”
I stroke his hair, scratching my nails lightly at his nape. “I love you, Max. I love my new family and the promise of surviving together.” Tears well up, and I blink in an effort to stave them. “I don't want . . . to leave you.”
Though I'm sandwiched between cool stone and Max's warmth, it feels as if I'm walking a tightrope with no safety net.
Max groans, wrapping his arms around my waist. He shifts his weight so his back rests against the opposite wall and pulls me with him. “We'll find a way because the alternative is unthinkable.” He nudges his nose alongside mine and kisses me, slow and deep, melting my insides.
I’ve missed this so much, missed him.
When our lips part, he rests our foreheads together and runs a finger across my neck where James’ collar used to lie. “No fucking way I’m letting you go again.” His voice is rough with emotion. “I’ll shake the heavens or go to hell and battle the devil himself if I have to.”
My throat aches. I know he means every word and worry what will happen to him if he can’t defy fate after all. He’s so hard on himself. My death would be a heavy blow.
Acid gnaws at the pit of my stomach. I’m afraid to die. I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife. Part of my fear of the dark has always been the thought that when we die, maybe there’s nothingness forever. Maybe we’ll be trapped inside bodies that no longer work, left to scream with no mouths.
Katie believed we return to spirit, that many come back to earth through reincarnation. I never bought into what our dad used to call her “new age claptrap.” For the first time, I long to believe I won’t spend eternity trapped in a decaying carcass.
Grace’s bark echoes from farther down the tunnel, startling me from the macabre thoughts. Max grabs my hand and leads me the rest of the way to the end. I squint as we emerge into the light. He fishes a set of keys from his pocket and unlocks the heavy metal door. Grace yips happily and races into the dimness, her nails scrabbling against the damp concrete.
Max locks the door behind us. I close my eyes and listen to the rhythmic hum of the power plant as feelings of safety and belonging swell inside me.
“Oh my God . . . I thought I’d never be here again. Thank you for rescuing me and bringing me home.”
“Home. I like the sound of that.” He puts an arm around my shoulders and pulls me close, wincing when my elbow jostles against his sore ribs. “Let’s go home, China.”
When we open the door to our quarters, Grace brushes past us with a joyful bark. Max seems nervous.
Ali’s slight figure appears at the end of the hall. She takes a few halting steps then breaks into a run, launching herself at Max. He catches her mid-flight and expels a grunt of pain but laughs and spins in circles once she grabs onto his neck and clamps her legs around his waist.
Grace races over, jumping on them and barking.
Happy tears blur my vision, and I can't stop smiling. It's so good to witness the love of siblings. My heart catches at the thought, turning the moment bittersweet. I'll never share a moment like that with Katie again, but she'll always be a huge part of me.
Tek hovers at the end of the hall and flips me a wave, obviously enjoying the moment.
Ali continues to screech. I see Max's face over her dark head, his expression a mixture of joy and discomfort. Mostly joy.
“Get off me, Ali-bear. Think I have a . . . collapsed lung!”
“Ali-bear?” I lift a brow.
Ali lets go abruptly, landing on her feet, and looks up at Max. “You haven't called me that since . . . since Mom died.” Her eyes glisten. A slight wheeze sounds with each breath.
I catch Tek's attention and mimic using an inhaler. He nods and disappears toward the bedrooms.
Max clears his throat, looking uncomfortable. “Yeah . . . well. Anyway, you were grinding my fucking ribs together. Got any pain meds in this joint?”
Ali grins. “Step into my office. I'll hook you up.” She winks, and it's clear she's keeping things light for Max's sake. Next, it's my turn for a bone-crushing hug. “Marie! Welcome home. I knew Connor would bring my new sister back safely!”
I hug her back, feeling an overwhelming sense of belonging. Max rolls his eyes and twirls a finger next to his temple, but I'm touched by Ali's acceptance. “Thanks! I'm honored to be part of this family.”
Up close, Ali's wheeze is more pronounced. Tek moves casually along the hall and holds out the inhaler.
The feminine version of sea-glass eyes flash with annoyance. “Why do I feel as if I'm being handled?” Ali accepts the inhaler with a sigh.
“Just looking out for you.” Tek rubs her shoulder while she takes a hit. He glances at me casually. “We could use more of that special brew of yours, medicine woman.”
I just hope it won't require another trip to that creepy town. I'm so ready to spend the next ten years right here.
My stomach still feels queasy, so we agree to meet in the kitchen in a few hours for a communal dinner. Tek leads Ali away, insisting she needs to rest. Grace follows them, tail wagging.
Max takes my hand and leads me directly to his room, closing and locking the door.
In the middle of the dresser, sits a lovely plant on a doily. The spiky flowers stand proudly in hues of the deepest pink. I run my index finger along a velvety petal. “So beautiful.”
“Nap with me?” Max’s voice breaks the spell, bringing our surroundings into sharper focus.
My guitar rests in the corner next to my rucksack, and the charcoal of Grace from my room is pinned above the bed. I wave a finger around. “Why are my things in your room?”
Max grabs my finger and uses it to draw me closer. “Our room.”
“I don’t have a say in that decision?” I arch a brow, hand on hip. A secret surge of pleasure flows through me.
Max offers a slow smile. “Of course you do.” He backs up and sits on the bed, trapping me between his knees. “But if you want to go back to your old room, you’ll have to lug the mattress back in there and use all your best self-defense moves on me.”
“Is that how it is?”
“That’s how it is.” Max scoots back, taking me with him. We face each other on our sides, and he grazes his knuckles across my cheek. “Any objections?”
Max rolls to his back and tucks my head beneath his chin. We fall asleep holding each other tightly, legs tangled, the beat of his heart thrumming in my ear.
When I awaken, we’re still in the same position, and Max is stroking my hair lazily. The parts of me pressed to him are warm and sweaty, but I’m reluctant to break the spell by moving.
He brings one of my hands to his lips to kiss it. “I’m glad you’re up. We almost missed dinner, and I’m really freakin’ hungry.”
As if on cue, my stomach growls loudly. “Guess I am, too.”
I move to sit up, but he stops me. “China.” He waits for our eyes to meet, looking deeply into mine with heated sincerity. “I love you. It took me a while to say the words out loud, but my heart’s been beating for you a lot longer.”
“Yeah?” My fingers curl over his. “How long?”
“Remember when we took that trip to town and you had that fever?”
“For a few minutes there, I was afraid you were a goner.” Max kisses my temple and presses his face into my hair. “The thought of never seeing the spark in your eyes again or listening to your sassy mouth or watching the sway of your tight, little ass really bothered me.” He laughs a little after the last part, and I smack his chest.
“If I croaked, you’d miss my tight, little ass?”
“God yes, the way it twitches as you walk—especially when you’re pissed. There’s nothing sexier.” The glint of amusement fades, and his expression turns grim. “Seriously, though, the thought of spending the rest of whatever time I have left without you made me sick.”
“I think I fell for you that day by the lake.”
“Really? I acted like such a tool!”
“Sure did. Good thing I have a knack for seeing beneath the surface.”
A sharp rap sounds on the door. “Dinner’s in five, lovebirds!” Ali trills in a sing-song voice. “Don’t forget to put some clothes on.”
Max leans over to grab his boot and throws it at the door. “Enough already!”
We freshen up quickly then join Ali and Tek in the kitchen. Grace lays stretched out on her side, licking her chops.
I bend down to pet her. “Looks like you gorged yourself, girl.”
She lifts her head for a moment to lick my cheek but returns to her well-deserved nap. I head over to the sink to wash my hands before joining the others at the table, which is only set for four.
“Where’s Andrea?” I ask. “She didn’t leave . . .”
“No, no!” Ali waves a pale hand. “She can be a tad antisocial, needs her alone time, but pitches in where she can. I think she felt intimidated tonight.”
I’m surprised. “Me?”
Ali nods. “Andrea’s embarrassed about the way she treated you that first day.”
“That was weeks ago!”
Tek rubs my shoulder. “Yes, and it sure is nice to have you guys back. I think Andrea’s worried you’re upset with her.”
“I’ll talk to her tomorrow.” A mouthwatering scent wafts up my nose, distracting me. “Do I smell steak?”
Ali nods, squirming in her chair like a kid. “Yes! We broke out some of the good stuff for this special occasion.”
Max groans, rubbing a hand over his belly. “It’s been a long time since I had grade A beef.”
“That’s not all.” Tek walks over to the fridge and pulls out a bottle of wine. He pops the cork and fills four glasses. Then he places plates with steak and baked potatoes in front of us.
When we’re all seated and done exclaiming over the food and wine, Ali raises her cup. “A toast. To love and family. May we triumph over every evil.”
The rest of us raise our glasses.
The kitchen is mostly silent as we eat. The food is superb, the best steak I can ever remember. Maybe I appreciate it so much more now that the world is in shambles.
Tek pours another round of wine, and Ali raises her glass again.
“Another toast, to the woman who finally conquered my brother’s bulletproof heart. I can’t wait to meet my future nieces and nephews!”
Max glares at her. “Ali.”
A sick feeling spreads through my chest, and the food I just consumed sits heavy. There’s nothing I want more than to make a life with Max, for the world to once again be a place I’d feel safe having children. Chances are, I’ll be long dead before any of that comes to pass.
“What, Connor?” Ali emphasizes his given name.
He shakes his head. “Just don’t.”
I lay a hand on his arm. “Max, it’s okay.” He stares back at me, his expression pained. I meet Ali’s steady gaze. “The virus keeps mutating, and the vaccine is losing effectiveness. The alliance has a new treatment that’s promising . . . but it’s not something I’d consider.”
“They’re using the blood of the immune.” Ali exchanges a look with Tek as understanding dawns. “That’s why they almost sucked Andrea dry. It’s what they’ll do to us if we’re caught.”
“Yeah, not something I can live with.”
Max cradles my jaw, guiding my face toward his. “You’re going to be fine. I’ll do whatever’s necessary.”
Ali nods sagely. “He’s right. I’ve already dreamed about your children. You guys are going to make some beautiful kids.”
“Ali!” Max protests.
“Oh, and it’s not you who’s going to save her life. It’s Grace.”
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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