Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 33): You Don’t Get to Leave
There’s a moment of disbelief as a split occurs between what my brain registers, what my eyes see, and what my body knows is happening. Adrenaline screams through my veins, catapulting me to a state of hyper awareness.
I’ve heard people say their lives flashed before their eyes during a crisis, but my mouth opens in a silent cry that will never be heard. All I see is brilliant blue, muddy brown, and stormy gray, swirling ever faster as I tumble through the air.
This drop is the most devilish amusement ride to the tenth power.
There’s no praying or making deals with God.
I finally close my eyes, dizzy from trying to discern which way is up, and wait for the shortest and longest seconds of my life to end.
My back hits first, a cold, wet slam that punches the air from my lungs. The yawning arms of the sea welcome me into their foamy depths, pulling at my clothes, flinging my limbs in impossible directions.
Heaviness drags at my sopping clothes, the brackish water pouring between my gaping lips and shooting up my nose in a burning stream. There’s a strange moment when cool seawater trickles down the back of my throat, and the realization I’ve been breached sends me into panic mode.
I open my eyes to stinging darkness and attempt to gain my bearings. Blackness surrounds me. How do I know which way to swim?
Every time I pick a direction, I’m thwarted by choppy water. Waves crash into and around me, sending me tumbling helplessly like a leaf on the wind.
My lungs re-inflate without warning, and I take an involuntary breath, sucking in numbing cold seawater that burns to the core of my being. I cough, and more water rushes up my nose.
I vomit spontaneously, expelling the sea and God knows what else. It spews out my nose and mouth in what feels like a never ending stream before stopping abruptly.
There’s no choice but to breathe in though I know it will kill me. The compulsion is so great I can’t stop it.
Barbed icicles of pain explode inside, shattering whatever is left of me.
My last thought isn’t a plea to a higher power; it’s a cry of rage and regret from the depths of my soul.
I’m sorry, Max.
I am a supernova experiencing its final moment.
The murky depths of the ocean surround me, pressing in from every side, yet I remain still, suspended in place.
Katie emerges from the shadows, hovering beside me. There's a scuba tank tucked beneath her arm. “Breathe.”
Once the words are spoken, the need for air seems urgent, and I gratefully accept the mouthpiece she holds out, sucking greedily at the oxygen.
“Slow down. This has to last.”
Though we're underwater, I no longer feel cold, but I'm not sure if I can speak the way Katie is. I point to my mouth and make talking motions with my hand.
“It's best if you save your strength.” Katie's voice isn't garbled by the water, and her lustrous dark hair sways gently around her head but doesn't appear wet. She smiles, almost as if reading my mind the way she used to.
Warmth radiates against my back, and I turn away from Katie. The tubing attached to the mouthpiece bumps gently against my arm.
“Ro,” Katie calls. “This is your choice.”
A circle of light opens in the distance, drawing steadily closer as the warmth, now radiating in my chest, grows. Images of an infant in the womb fill my mind, and I lean toward the muted orb emerging from the dark. The tubing tethering me to the air tank pulls taut, and fear washes over me.
“Don't let go unless you're sure.” My sister's voice is steady, but I can detect a hint of urgency underneath.
I want to look into Katie's eyes, see how serious the warning is in their keen depths, but the warmth attracts me, gentle and insistent.
A shadow emerges from the center of the light.
He holds a hand out, beckoning me forward. “It's time.”
Cold panic squeezes my heart, and I gasp, thankful for the oxygen that flows down my throat.
“Don't be afraid, my love. I'll be with you the whole time.” Mike smiles, and his tanned face with its peppering of freckles brings on a familiar feeling of safety.
Katie interrupts the moment. “That's the problem, Ro. Safe doesn't always mean happy.”
“You belong with me,” Mike says, ignoring Katie.
I move closer to Mike, and the mouthpiece is nearly yanked from between my lips.
“Air or warmth. Risky or safe. You get to choose, but you can't have both.” Katie's voice is gentle but matter-of-fact.
I turn sideways so I can look back and forth between Katie and Mike. He hovers, bathed in warm, comforting light while she remains suspended in dismal, deep blue shadows.
Mike tilts his head thoughtfully, the way he always used to, and points to the tubing. “You don't need that here. Just let go, and I'll take you home.”
I look to Katie.
“You're stronger than you realize. You always have been.” She glances over her shoulder. “It's time. Choose.”
My arms move easily in the fluid around me, which bears no resemblance to the icy brine that swallowed me whole. There's no need to tread or fight to maintain my position.
The warm light is surely my soul being called back into the fold, but what of the cool darkness? If I choose to remain, will the battle to breathe begin again?
Fear draws me closer to Mike. The mouthpiece slips out, and I hold my breath as I watch the ribbon of tubing float toward Katie. If I kick my feet and reach out, I can be in Mike's arms in seconds.
When I look again, Katie is gone. The scuba tank with the tubing still attached drifts nearby.
“Come.” Mike opens his arms.
My choices now consist of an air tank in the dark unknown or the promise of someone to help me transition. I realize this means choosing death over waiting for it to rip me from this world.
The need to breathe is overwhelming, and I nod, opening my mouth. “Okay.” I kick my feet, moving toward Mike, and hit an invisible wall of ice.
A numbing sensation spreads fast and recedes, leaving agonizing pain in its wake.
“No!” Mike rushes forward, hitting the frozen barrier. He bangs his fists and starts yelling, but his voice seems far away now.
Splinters of agony sunburst from my heart, reaching to the very edges of my being. I open my mouth to scream through the avalanche of pain crushing me, burying me under the weight of a glacier.
A familiar voice cries out, seeming to come from every direction at once. “No, God damn it! You don't get to leave me!”
The glacier shatters into a million shards of sea glass, glinting with tears.
I’m sucked from the sea and thrust into a soaked, wind-filled place that’s blindingly bright. My lids close to slits, and it’s still too much.
My ears pop, and voices surround me, the words overlapping and blending together.
“Got her . . . need to get . . . now!”
“ . . . can do about the location?”
“ . . . figure it out after . . .”
“Fucking go!” Max’s war cry drowns out all others, and I realize it's his voice I heard just before being ripped away from the icy wall keeping me from reaching Mike.
I try to speak, but nothing comes out. My limbs are numb though pain throbs along every nerve ending in pulsing waves. I shiver when a strong breeze blows across my wet body.
Warmth caresses my face. “Stay with me, China.” Max’s hoarse whisper causes my heart to pound erratically.
I’m still alive. Max, I’m here.
“Her lips are moving—thank God. We need to move her. Get some blankets!”
I want to see Max, but the light is too bright. Drowsiness pulls at me, sucking me under. I fight to stay awake, afraid I might slip away. In the end, I can’t fight the downward drag and succumb to a dreamless void.
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’m warm and dry.
Preparing for blinding light, I lift my lids, but the room is dimly lit.
I’m on my back, blankets tucked around me up to my chin.
“Max . . .” No sound comes out, but I’ve drawn attention nonetheless.
“Welcome back to the land of the living.” Garth’s clipped tone greets me. A chair creaks nearby, and his face comes into my line of vision. “Don’t try to speak, my dear. You gave us quite a scare.” He lifts my eyelid and shines a penlight in my eye, releasing it quickly only to do the same on the other side.
I try to cover my face, but my limbs won’t obey. “Arms don’t work . . .” This time, I manage a soft whisper.
“Shh . . . take it easy.”
“Why . . . you? Where . . . am I?”
If Garth answers, the words never reach my ears. The abyss swallows me again . . .
I dream of a black and tan puppy. The little ball of fluff wiggles on my lap, letting out a high-pitched yap before jumping up to lick and nip at my nose. I hug the squirming puppy in my arms and coo to her.
She looks like a miniature version of Grace.
The puppy snuggles against my neck, and I fall asleep, holding her close.
The next time I open my eyes, it’s daytime. A halo of sunlight shines along the edges of the shade, but the room is dim and quiet. This time, Garth isn’t sitting beside me playing with his Montblanc.
I wiggle my fingers and toes, but I still can’t move my arms or legs. A silver pole stands beside the bed, and an orange concoction drips slowly into an IV line. I follow the tubing under the blanket.
Instinct causes me to turn my head, and a scream lodges in my throat. There’s another bed in this room, occupied by a sleeping, shirtless man. Another IV pole with a bag of clear fluid stands next to his bed. His head is turned away, but the vines of roses inked across his skin leave no doubt in my mind who it is.
“No!” I struggle to move, and realization sets in: My arms and legs won’t cooperate because I’ve been restrained. I buck weakly on the bed, arching my back and trying to yell.
Garth strides into the room with a syringe in his hand. “Take it easy.”
“No! Don’t you dare drug me!” My gaze flits between Garth’s looming figure and Max’s reclining form. “What is this?”
He lifts the edge of the blanket and swabs the fold of my arm, tapping with his finger. “This is for your own good. You can thank me later.”
“I’ll kill you! Bastard! How could you do this?” I struggle.
“Shh . . . don’t fight.”
The needle punctures my skin, and a sense of calm washes over me slowly, taking with it the will to resist.
There are no dreams in my drug-induced slumber, but the moment I awaken, the struggle begins again. I pull at my restraints even as I look across the room.
The bed is empty, the IV pole gone. The covers have been straightened and the pillows fluffed.
It's hard to tell the time of day, but it's not dark out. My IV line is still attached, the bag now filled with clear fluid.
“Garth! Get in here, you son of a bitch!” Tears leak from the corners of my eyes, sliding across my temples.
I try to lift my head and take in my surroundings. The walls are robin’s egg blue. Superhero posters are scattered throughout the room. A thick layer of dust coats the oak dresser.
I’m being held captive in one of the houses at the base of the cliff—I’d bet money on it—but why?
My already raspy voice goes hoarse in no time, and my ravaged body is too weak to keep straining. I sink back to the bed, soaked with sweat, and remain semiconscious.
When the door opens again, it feels like hours have passed.
Garth approaches the bed looking haggard and unshaven, his dress shirt half tucked into wrinkled slacks. He swipes a hand through his mussed hair and examines me with bloodshot eyes. I've never seen him so disheveled.
I can't help but glance at the empty bed across the room. “Garth, what have you done?”
Ignoring my question, Garth lifts the blanket and presses his fingers to my pulse, counting off the seconds on his watch. He checks my pupils and listens to my heart. Then he presses a palm gently to my chest, and I cry out from the sudden blinding pain.
“That's going to hurt for a while.” Garth shakes his head. “Moron punched you in the chest.”
When I catch my breath, I glare at him. “What moron? Would you please tell me what the hell is happening?” I dissolve into tears, angry I'm showing weakness in front of him.
“Your boyfriend punched you in the chest. We're lucky he didn't crack your sternum.”
“Boyfriend . . .?” I trail off, unsure how to respond. James is supposed to be my boyfriend, as far as the alliance is concerned, but I'm certain Max was lying in the bed across the room earlier.
“You've caused me a great deal of trouble, young lady. I should have handed you over, but no. I'm lying to everyone, and it's bound to catch up to me.”
Heavy footsteps sound on the stairs, and Max rushes through the door, pushing Garth out of his way. He lands on his knees beside my bed, seeking my hand beneath the covers. “China,” he whispers my nickname like a prayer, and rests his forehead on my arm.
Garth hovers behind him, a glint of amusement sparkling in his tired eyes. “This is the moron I was referring to.”
Confusion whirls inside me. Garth is standing beside Max, who pushed him aside and seems to be free while I'm still tied to the bed.
“Why am I tied down?”
Max's head comes up fast, his eyes blazing with anger—which he directs at Garth. “She's still restrained?”
Garth sighs, running thick fingers through his hair. “Jesus Christ. After the blow to her chest, among other things, the last thing we need is her going off half-cocked. She's already threatened to kill me multiple times.”
Max's jaw flexes. “Well, I'm here now. Get her legs.” Max peels the blanket back and unties the restraints securing my hands one at a time.
Garth goes to work on the lower ones holding my legs down, muttering to himself all the while.
Once I've been released, Max rubs my arms, careful to avoid the entry point of the IV needle. I shift onto my side, wincing at the pain. My chest hurts the worst, but my entire body is sore.
I flex my hands and feet, shaking off a slight pins-and-needle sensation. “What's in the IV?”
“Saline,” Max answers impassively.
“How about when it was orange, and you were lying on the bed over there?”
Max looks up at the ceiling but doesn't answer. Garth smirks.
“I want to know what happened.” My voice is low and dangerous.
Garth lays a hand on Max’s shoulder. “I don’t know if that’s wise.”
Max laughs without humor and rises to his feet, towering over Garth. “Dr. K, pissing me off isn’t wise. Creating a virus that eradicates most of the world’s population and then butchering those immune to it isn’t wise. I’m starting to wonder if you have a shred of common sense, but you will leave this room one way or another.”
Garth holds his hands out in supplication. “Very well.” He leaves, shutting the door behind him.
I try to sit up, but the pain is too much.
“Let me help you.” Max grabs the pillows off the other bed and slides his arm beneath my shoulders, lifting my upper body as gently as possible and propping the pillows behind me. “How’s that?”
Max sits on the edge of the mattress and brushes his knuckles across my cheek. “My God, China . . . I almost lost you. When I saw you falling—I just . . .” He shakes his head, lids slipping closed. “Eric tried to stop me, but I took a running leap after you. It almost took me too long—and when I finally dragged you onto the beach, your heart wasn’t beating.”
“You jumped off the cliff?”
He opens his eyes, pinning me with the intensity of his stare. “Of course. My life went over a cliff—what the hell else could I do? I started CPR, but it wasn’t helping. And there was no time, no defibrillator, so I punched you in the chest.” He takes my hand and brings it to his lips, placing a soft kiss there. “It worked. You came back.”
Tears sting my eyes and cause my throat to ache. “Thank you.” I recall what I experienced, and more pieces fall into place. “It was you! There was a tremendous pain in my chest that spread through my whole body, and you told me not to leave.”
“You heard me?”
Max ghosts a hand over my chest, his eyes filling with sorrow. “I’m so sorry, China. Your chest is going to be sore for a while.”
“Hey, I’m alive, right?”
Instead of answering, he looks at me with a guarded expression. “Other than the pain, how do you feel?”
“Okay I think. Why?”
He brushes my hair back. “Do you have any idea why you fell?”
I shrug. “I tripped over something.”
“Why did you trip?”
I think of the moments before the fall and the way I felt earlier that afternoon. “The virus!” The orange fluid in the IV bag makes more sense now, and I glare at Max. “What did you do?”
Max looks me in the eye, his expression unrepentant. “What I had to. I sent Eric to fetch Garth.”
“Nobody else knows—not even your mother. And you might be cured now.”
Anger blazes through me. “You had no right! You know how I feel about the treatments!” I sit straighter, ignoring the pain, and bang my fists weakly against his chest.
Max grabs my wrists. “Stop. You’ll hurt yourself.”
“How many people had to die to save me?”
Still trapping my hands, Max leans forward to kiss the corner of my mouth before looking earnestly into my eyes. “Nobody died. I donated the blood.”
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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