Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 32): What Dreams May Come
We break apart; Max drops his hands from my face, and I reel back in my chair.
Everything in the kitchen freezes with the exception of Ali. She takes a casual sip of wine and cuts a slice from her steak, popping it into her mouth.
Grace snores softly from her place on the floor, unaffected by the utterance of her name or the sudden change in the surrounding atmosphere. The rest of us stare, wide-eyed.
Ali glances around the table, taking in our reactions, and rolls her eyes. “I've done it again, haven't I?”
A strange feeling simmers inside me. My voice is faint and raspy when I speak. “What did you mean by that?”
Max lays a hand on my shoulder, his gaze shifting between me and Ali. I could be imagining it, but he seems to pale beneath the smattering of scruff roughening his cheeks.
Tek reclines in his chair, taking everything in.
Ali shrugs, slicing another piece of steak, and her brows draw together. “You know, I'm not exactly sure. Some things are real clear to me, others a bit fuzzy. I'm not certain what role Grace will play, just that she's integral to your survival.”
“What the—” Max's grip on my shoulder tightens, and he gets into a staring contest with Ali.
She points her knife at him. “I call it how I see it, Connor. You know this about me.”
“But Marie doesn't! She's not used to your wild mutterings.” Max glares at his sister. He seems shaken, which makes me wonder how much stock he actually puts in Ali's intuition.
I raise my hands. “It's okay. I've never been very metaphysical myself, but Katie believed in the unseen. If there's something you see or feel, I'm open to hearing it.”
Max slips a hand under my hair to caress the back of my neck. “My sister’s not a fortune-teller. I can’t deny her intuitions are often shockingly accurate, but many of them aren’t.”
Ali sighs. “He speaks the truth though I’d say the ones that don’t pan out seem related to misinterpretation.” She offers Tek a coquettish look. “Remember that time in the back of RJ’s truck when I almost—”
“Whoa there!” Tek leans forward and slaps his hand across Ali’s mouth, his cheeks blooming a mottled red. He looks at me with a pleading expression. “Please—just take her word for it.”
Ali’s eyes gleam mischievously over the top of Tek’s hand.
Max shakes his head.
I smile. What else is there to say?
After that colossally awkward dinner, Max leads me back to our room.
I wanted to make more butterbur tea first, but Ali wouldn’t hear of it. For once, Max agreed with his sister, and I didn’t want to interfere with that.
The bedroom door swings shut behind us, blocking all extraneous noise. The settling hush is both welcome and nerve-wracking. I’ve become so used to the flow of adrenaline through my veins, to plotting and planning my escape from the alliance and facing the crumbling remnants of this world, that I’m not sure I remember how to relax.
Max leaves the room to fetch the lamp he gave me. He places it on top of the scarred dresser, plugging it in and turning it on before flicking off the fluorescents. The soft glow emanating through the muted lampshade makes the room feel cozy and less sterile.
Though I appreciate the sentiment, a jittery sensation sends me pacing around the small space.
“Marie.” Max’s boots hit the floor with two solid thumps. He grabs me as I go by, sits me on the edge of the bed, and kneels on the floor to remove my shoes. When he’s done, he remains on his knees, palms sliding along the outsides of my thighs to rest on my hips. “Talk to me. Tell me what’s wrong.”
I shake my head, shrugging helplessly. “Everything. Nothing.”
“You have a lot going on. I'm sorry about my sister.”
“No, it's fine.” I caress his jaw. “What upset me wasn't Ali's predictions but how much I want some of them to come true. I desperately want to live, obviously, but I also love the idea of a world . . . where I'd dare to have children.”
“I want to give you that—more than anything. All of it. I don't know what kind of father I'd be with my upbringing and . . . screwups.” He looks away almost shyly. “You're the first lady in my life I'd ever even consider that with.”
“I'm honored.” I say the words softly with complete sincerity because I realize how difficult it is to capture Max's heart.
Max cups my face in one palm and traces the pads of his fingers lightly over the bruised side. “Does it still hurt?”
“Not much.” I'm lying. It hurts every time the muscles in my face twitch.
Smiling shouldn't hurt. Laughing shouldn't send needles of pain jabbing into my temple. I try not to think about the events leading up to the pain. When I brush my hair or wash my face, I don't look directly at my reflection in the mirror.
Something ugly awakens inside me, twisting and lashing about in an effort to escape. I take a deep breath and swallow, fighting to contain it.
Max's eyes grow stormy with a mushroom cloud of self-hatred. “I fucked up. I should have made sure Gibbs was dead.” He huffs with a sharp shake of his head. “I wanted to get to you. I had no idea what he might have done—and I let that affect my judgment.”
“Don't. Please don't blame yourself. You saved me! If you hadn't shown up when you did . . . I can't even go there.” Images of the triumphant gleam in Gibbs' eyes when I let the towel slip to the floor . . . the way he put his disgusting hands all over my body . . . the moment he poised above me and unbuckled his belt all flash before my eyes, and I bite the inside of my cheek hard enough to draw blood.
“If he's still out there—”
Ice races up my spine, but a hot poker of anger eradicates it in an instant. “If he's still alive, I'm going to kill him.” My voice is surer and colder than I've ever heard it.
“Look at me.” Max waits for my eyes to meet his. They pierce mine, capturing my attention. “You don't want to do that.”
“What? Yeah, I do.”
“Taking a life is something that never leaves you. It will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
“So I should just—” I flounder, waving my arms until Max grabs my wrists and pulls them down.
“Let me do this for you. It's my fault he got away.”
“No! Why should he haunt you?”
Max lets out an ugly laugh and jabs a thumb at his chest. “I live every day with the things I've done and dream of them at night. I don't want that for you. I'm willing to shoulder it—so just let me.”
“I—I don’t even know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. I would gladly do it so you don’t have to.”
“I don’t know . . .” It feels wrong to let Max kill for me. “What if he gets me alone?”
“He won’t.” Warm hands skim along my arms. “You haven’t talked about it.”
“Does everyone know?”
“Yeah. If I didn’t say something, they would’ve asked about your face.”
“I just—I don’t even look in the mirror.” My throat aches, and the words lodge in my throat.
Max gazes up at me, his expression a blend of adoration and concern. His hands move to my waist, fingers slipping beneath the edge of my shirt to knead gently. “It's just you and me in this room. You can say whatever you need to, feel whatever you need to, and I'll hold you while you do it.”
Fat tears tumble from my eyes before I realize what's happening, but Max isn't distressed. It's as if he expected the sudden torrent and the blubbering that follows because he simply folds me in his arms and lays us on the bed, allowing me to expel the poison that's been caged inside. And like a bird raised in captivity, that first flight is exhilarating if not a little frightening.
Life marches on, as it must. Our small group begins preparations for the impending winter.
Tek's main job is to make sure the power plant runs smoothly. He has a stockpile of the most common parts in case something breaks down and spends time each day studying manuals and walking each floor looking for potential issues.
Max is out with Grace, monitoring the perimeter security and setting traps. He's decided to extend the boundaries since we're not sure what will happen with Gibbs and the alliance. Max expects James to mount a search for me, but if our plan worked, he'll be looking in the wrong direction—and so will Gibbs.
Ali, armed with a mug of newly blended butterbur tea, takes me to the food storage area deep within the power plant. She’s already calculated that our current stockpile of food will last approximately three years—even with the addition of Andrea and, eventually, Eric.
I stand in the middle of the non-perishable stock room and turn in a slow circle, taking in shelves packed with canned goods. The overflow is piled in crates and boxes stacked on the floor. “Wow. Max gathered all this?”
“Yup.” Ali nods proudly. “That’s my brother. He knows how to get shit done. The walk-in is packed to the rafters, too.” She rummages through a box, shining a flashlight on the cans as she picks them up.
“This place is ideal. Hope we can stay.” I swallow hard. What I leave unsaid is my hope the alliance never discovers our haven or the fact there are four immune adults and one immune dog living here.
“Mm,” she hums. “Hey, can you start sorting the next box? There's another flashlight on the shelf.”
It doesn’t escape my notice that she neatly changes the subject, but it doesn't seem blatant enough to confront.
“Sure. What are we doing?”
“Organizing by expiration date. I try to keep the oldest stuff in the boxes. Sometimes after Connor makes a food run, I spend hours rearranging. It's nice to have some company this time.”
We work side by side in companionable silence. The mindless work is therapeutic, redirecting my focus from everything that's been bandying around in my head lately to the mundane task at hand. I'm pretty sure this is exactly what Ali had in mind when she asked me to join her.
I never considered how big a job it would be to keep tabs on such a large rotating stockpile. How easy it would be to waste precious food that could extend our lives while we wait for the world to put itself back together or until we start growing and harvesting our own crops.
“This tea is a life saver.” Ali's voice startles me.
I look away from the cans I'm sorting and realize her small frame is now perched atop a closed crate. Painted on the wall behind her is a mural of a downtown street. Part of me wishes I could escape into that painting.
Ali cradles the insulated mug of tea in her lap, and I have the unsettling feeling she's been watching me for a while.
I stand and stretch my back. “I'm so glad it's helping.”
Intense, sea-glass eyes scrutinize me thoroughly. Ali stares so long without speaking, I grow uncomfortable and start shifting my feet. I want to say something or ask a question, but no words come. Her eyes glaze over, unfocused, and the mug nearly slips from her grasp.
“Ali?” My boot scuffs against the concrete floor as I step forward, startling her.
She seems to reanimate rather suddenly, gripping the mug and bringing it to her lips for a drink.
“Are you all right?”
“You were trancing.”
“Was I?” Ali blinks a few times. A dreamy smile settles across her lips. “Not everyone is what he seems. When things are dire, someone you don't trust will help you.”
Her face slackens, and her eyes look through me. “The man with many sides.”
Every time I ask for clarification, Ali simply offers an enigmatic smile. I file her comments away for future reference; they probably don't mean anything.
As the afternoon wears on, a headache starts pounding behind my eyes, but I'm determined to finish the job. I don't want to leave Ali down here alone in case she has an asthma attack.
Almost as if she read my mind, Ali closes the flaps of the box she's been working on and wipes dusty hands on her pants. “Let's call it a day.”
With uncanny timing, we arrive in the kitchen just as Max and Grace come in from their patrol. A prickling chill races up both my arms.
Grace barks and races over, jumping on me and slathering my face with doggy kisses. I sink my fingers into her dark fur, feeling a wave of love and pleasure. “Hey, girl! Did you help Max make things safer, huh?”
“Wish you'd rub me down like that.”
I look up and meet Max's amused gaze. He leans against the counter, arms and ankles crossed, his posture relaxed.
“That could be arranged.” I wink.
He laughs, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and points his index finger at me. “I'm gonna hold you to that. For now, how about a kiss?”
I tell Grace to get down and then snuggle into Max’s waiting arms. He holds me tight enough to make breathing difficult, but I don't mind. We've been through so much lately.
Ali says, “I'm a little tired. I'll take my snack back to my room.”
Max regards her over the top of my head, still mashing my face into his broad chest. “You okay?”
“I'm great! See you lovebirds later.” She touches my shoulder on her way past. “Oh, and Andrea is up on the cliff. You could probably do with a little fresh air.”
I smile into Max's shirt. “Thanks.”
After Ali leaves the room, Max tips my chin up. “What was that about?” Our eyes meet, and before I can answer, he shakes his head. “Never mind.” Strong arms band around me, pulling us closer, and he kisses me with cautious hunger.
Max's lips are soft and questing, exploring with barely restrained desperation. He cradles the back of my head in one large palm, and the warmth of his tongue flicks between my parted lips to mingle with mine.
My arms slip around his waist and under the edge of his shirt to explore his muscular back.
Max mumbles against my lips. “Damn, your hands are hot. You okay?”
“You're just cold from being outside.”
“Whatever . . .” He kisses me again, so long and so deep I start to forget the headache pounding away at my temples.
Max's shirt rides up as my hands roam greedily over his skin. He seems frustrated he can't get to more of me in this position and ends up lifting me by the thighs and setting me on the kitchen counter.
The height is just right, and I wrap my legs around his hips, tugging him closer to where I want him.
Max groans, breaking away from the kiss to bury his face against the side of my neck. “Shit. Is this okay? I just—I wasn't thinking.”
“Mm . . . about what?” My fingers are busy in the back of his hair, and he shivers.
“What you just went through. I mean—are you all right with me touching you?”
Shreds of memory tease at the periphery of my thoughts, a conglomeration of the blubbering breakdown I had in Max’s arms and visions of Gibbs terrorizing me in that room. The memories are terrible, but I never even considered Max’s touch to be a trigger—and it isn’t. When I think of Max, I remember him coming to my rescue; I remember what he spared me from.
“I don’t associate any of that pain with you. Gibbs was about to—” The words stick in my throat. “And then you were there. If you didn’t come—I just don’t know.”
He presses our foreheads together. His eyes hold so much pain. “I’m glad you think I’m your hero, but I blame myself for the whole thing. If I’d gotten there sooner . . . if I hadn’t made you stay with those bastards.” Max ghosts two fingers over the bruises on my cheek. “I’m so sorry, China.”
Even though it hurts, I lean into his touch and kiss his palm. “I don’t blame you. Please stop torturing yourself.”
His lips tilt into a crooked grin. “I’ll try, but I’ve perfected blaming myself for shit.”
He kisses me again, and there’s a lot of groping. Our hands and lips get busy until we’re both panting. Max strips his shirt off, and I trace his tattoos with my fingers and my mouth.
“You’re killing me.” His voice is breathless and husky.
The kitchen door swings open, and Tek strides in. “Whoa! Sorry.” He turns and walks back out, closing the door behind him.
We look at each other and laugh.
Max wiggles his eyebrows. “Guess we should fool around somewhere less public.”
He picks me up off the counter, and I wrap my arms and legs around him. He walks us into the hall then puts me down. “We should go out to the cliffs before the sun goes down, but we’re going to continue this later.”
Max grabs a couple of hoodies before we head outside. The cliff blocks most of the late afternoon sun. The biting wind makes my eyes tear and whips the hair into my face. I’m thankful for the hood as I pull it up and tuck my hair inside. Next time, I have to remember sunglasses.
Andrea is indeed up on the ledge and doesn’t notice us right away. Eric is training her in hand-to-hand combat. Her grunts and screams can be heard even over the howling wind. Eric dances around her, using a combination of taunts and encouragement to egg her on. He looks our way, taking his eyes off Andrea long enough for her to sweep his feet out from under him.
“Ooph!” Eric lands on his hip, face scrunched in pain. “Aw, fuck!”
“Keep your eye on your opponent at all times. Ha! In your face!” Andrea dances around him until she notices us. Then she seems to wilt, withdrawing into herself.
Eric climbs to his feet, rubbing his hip. “Hey, guys!” He slings an arm around Andrea’s shoulders. “Just showing the little lady some moves. Obviously, I’m a kick-ass teacher.”
Max guffaws. “Whatever you need to tell yourself, man.”
Andrea has changed over the past several weeks. She’s still ghostly pale, but she’s put some weight on, and her hair falls over her shoulders in healthy golden waves. She looks at me then away.
“It’s good to see you, Andrea. Are you settling in all right?” I offer an encouraging smile when she looks up in surprise.
“Um . . . yeah.” Her gaze flicks to Eric then back to me. “I’m starting to really like it here.”
“Eric, can I talk to you?” Max touches my shoulder. “Will you be okay for a few minutes?”
I stumble as I’m walking toward Andrea, and Eric reaches out to steady me. “Whoa! You all right?”
I look down at Eric’s arm before he lets me go. Peeking from beneath the sleeve of his jacket is a Viper tattoo. He winks at me when I look up but doesn’t say anything. Now I understand his loyalty to Max. I wonder if there are any other members of the Vipers around.
The guys huddle at the other end of the rocky ledge, talking.
Andrea looks down shyly. “I owe you an apology.”
“No, you don’t. You didn’t know who we were or what we wanted from you. After what you’d just been through, I’d be surprised if you weren’t suspicious.” I wave a hand. “Water under the bridge, okay?”
She smiles and nods. “Deal. Thanks for being so understanding.”
Andrea is really pretty when she smiles.
“How are you doing?” Andrea indicates my bruised cheek. “Looks painful.”
I nod, rubbing at the bruise. “Yeah, it is. I’ll be okay.”
When I look at Andrea again, there are two of her. I blink, fighting to focus. A wave of nausea twists in my gut. When did my eyeballs start to feel like hot, aching rocks in their sockets?
“Marie?” Though she’s right next to me, her voice seems to echo from a distance.
“I—I . . . what’s happening?” I can’t tell if I’m yelling or whispering over the sudden roaring in my ears. “Max?” I turn my head, but Max and Eric aren’t where they were.
Something touches my arm, and I jerk away, stumbling back. Andrea’s face twists with fear, her mouth open, arms outstretched.
The roaring grows louder, a freight train slamming through my head. “Max? Please, where are you?”
Andrea reaches for me, her fingers catching the sleeve of my hoodie. I trip over something and lose my balance.
And then I’m free falling, clawing at the air, as Andrea’s form shrinks into the distance.
I stare up at the brilliant blue of the sky and wonder if I’ll feel any pain when I land.
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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