Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: Two
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 35): Shell Game
“Come out, come out, wherever you are . . .”
Time stops, a pregnant silence filling the house. My heart beats out of control in a staccato rhythm that causes a whooshing in my ears and leaves me lightheaded.
Max scrambles off me and poises carefully on his knees, bringing a finger to his lips. He grabs for some clothes piled at the foot of the bed and tosses them at me.
I grab a shirt and yank it over my head.
Shit. I should have realized someone would know where Garth was staying. We've become too comfortable, too sure of ourselves hiding in plain sight. My eyes water, panic racing through my veins as I pull on a pair of sweats with shaking fingers.
Max stares hard at me, a question in his eyes.
I mouth James to him, and understanding dawns. Max lowers his head, staring at his knees, brow creased in concentration.
If we get off the bed, the floor will creak beneath our weight. If we stay here, we face likely exposure. James cares for me, and I might be able to talk my way out of hiding from everyone—including him—for the past three weeks, but if he discovers Max . . . I shake off the thought and grip Max’s arm.
Pitching my voice low, I lean forward and whisper, “If James comes upstairs, you need to hide. He can’t find you with me.”
Max shakes his head, eyes blazing.
I cup his face. “Trust me.”
Max seems torn. He chews on his bottom lip, his gaze darting around the room.
“Garth?” James calls out again, closer this time, at the base of the steps.
“If he comes up, hide under the bed. I'll deal with him.”
Max's jaw clenches, but he nods sharply, his fingers slipping between mine. We remain motionless, palm to palm, fingers entwined, and wait.
James starts up, the old wood protesting with each footfall.
My mind scatters in a hundred directions, looking for an excuse as to why I haven't contacted James, explaining the bloodbath left in his childhood home, how much to say about Gibbs and what he did to me, and—most concerning of all—coming up with something to say about Max if James should discover him.
The speed with which the human mind can sort through multiple scenarios, dismissing and discarding those that aren't viable, amazes me. I've already run through a number of ideas, and James is only halfway to the second floor.
Running feet pound across the kitchen. “Yo!”
James halts and retreats to the living room.
“Eric? What are you doing here?”
“General! Shit, I wasn't expecting you! Just a sec . . .” Eric pauses, breathing heavy. “Damn. I saw the back door wide open and didn't know what to think.”
James is quiet for a few seconds before answering. “You seem flustered, sergeant. Should I be concerned?”
Max's grip on my hands tightens. I lean into him, the muscles of my thighs fatigued from holding this position for so long. He releases one of my hands to wrap his arm around my back. I'm not sure if he's offering support, trying to comfort me, or both, but I'm grateful. The new position allows some of the tension to release and makes me feel safer.
Eric says, “No, sir. Nothing to worry about now that I know you're the one who left the door open.”
“Where's Dr. Kasabian?”
“He returned to the lab. I just stopped by to see if he needs supplies. The doc tends to forget essentials, like food. Brilliant types, you know.” Eric laughs.
James simply hums in response.
Mentally, I'm begging Eric to shut up. Less is usually more, especially when attempting to bamboozle a superior.
“So what are you doing in town, General?”
“I came to speak with Garth. Perhaps I should make myself comfortable and wait for him.”
Max stiffens. My heart lurches. There's no possibility of remaining still and silent in this room for hours, waiting for an opportunity to sneak away. Besides, if James comes upstairs, he'd have to be blind to miss the IV pole, medical supplies, and women's clothing.
“You'll have a long wait. Don't think he'll be back til tomorrow, maybe the next day. He tends to lose track of time in the lab.”
James laughs, free and easy. “That he does. I'll catch up with him there. Need a ride back?”
“Nah. I'm on leave the next few days. Thought I'd take advantage of the peace and quiet—if that's all right.”
“If Dr. Kasabian doesn't mind, I don't.”
“Already cleared it. I wouldn't dream of taking liberties.”
“Of course not. You're an exemplary soldier, helpful and loyal. The alliance needs more men like you.”
James and Eric continue talking, their voices moving away from the stairs toward the kitchen. I let a long breath out, my heart still beating wildly. Max cups my face, pressing his cheek to mine.
“Almost there, China,” he whispers. “Don't lose concentration now.”
I nod and burrow against his neck, feeling guilty for allowing him to absorb more of my weight but afraid of what might happen if I don't. “Sorry.”
“What do you weigh, a buck and a quarter? I can take it.”
We remain in the awkward position while Eric and James chat downstairs. My nose starts to itch, and I rub it across Max's clavicle. I settle my head on his shoulder and pay attention to what's being said below.
“Any word on Marie?” James asks.
“No, sir. You'd be the first to know. Um, can I ask you something?”
“What’s going on with Lieutenant Gibbs?”
There’s a long pause before James answers him. “I’m not exactly sure.”
“Forgive me if I’m overstepping, but some of the guys mentioned Gibbs and Marie went missing around the same time. Do you think there’s anything to that?”
James huffs a sigh, his boots scuffing along the floor as he paces. His footsteps stop abruptly, and I can imagine him scraping a hand over his hair as he tends to do when frustrated. “There is something to it, but I need you to keep this under your hat.”
“You have my word.”
“You know I had Marie staying at my house. Well, something went wrong.” James starts pacing again. “When I returned, it looked as if there’d been a bloodbath. The inside of the door to the den had deep gouges, I'm guessing from Grace’s nails and teeth. She must've tried to claw and chew her way out. There was so much blood . . . I thought for sure I’d find someone dead, but the place was deserted.”
“Holy shit!” Eric manages to sound genuinely shocked.
“I had several samples of the blood run, and most of it belongs to Gibbs. It was all over the bed and floor. Marie’s blood was on the pillow. I think—he might have—Jesus.”
“You think he, uh . . .”
“Raped her. That sick bastard was always taunting her! I thought it was harmless, just Gibbs being the asshole he is. God! Food and supplies are missing from the house. I think he has her. There’s been no sign of them. I—I don’t even know where to start looking or how to explain this to Nina.”
“Fuck. I had no idea. Can I help?”
“I have a handful of my best guys on this, but we can’t spare the numbers with the president in-house. His timing sucks. I don’t want him to think we’re incompetent. If you could keep an eye out, an ear to the ground, look for any clues, that would be great.”
“No problem. There haven’t been any signs of Gibbs? If his blood was all over the place, sounds like he’s hurt pretty bad, maybe holed up somewhere, recuperating.”
“There is one clue—tire tracks leaving my house, headed south. I lost the trail about half a mile down the road, but I’m guessing Gibbs loaded the car with supplies, kidnapped Marie, and took off.”
Even though James' theory is wrong, the thought of being Gibbs' captive elicits a rash of goosebumps across my skin. He's still out there, healing . . . maybe planning. His cold gray eyes filled with awful promise haunt me.
Max senses my burgeoning distress and holds me tighter, kissing my temple. “You're safe.”
You're safe. Two whispered words that shatter my fear because I'm certain Max would give his life to protect mine. Another icy finger of fear climbs my spine, this time for Max and Grace. Gibbs knows about both of them now, and that knowledge gives him power. I shiver involuntarily and hug Max tighter. I have to believe we'll destroy Gibbs before he gets to us. Once we're back at the power plant, we can disappear, wait him out. James has guards looking for him.
“—can't believe this fucking guy!” I catch the tail end of Eric’s words.
James scoffs. “You have no idea. And this is personal.”
“What do you mean?”
“Gibbs has it out for me. He must have friends in high places. Though I outrank him and have informed my superiors that he's a loose cannon that needs to be muzzled, I've been instructed time and again not to interfere. They've tied my hands—and the bastard knows it. He wanted my job, but any chance of that went to shit when he pulled this latest stunt. Nobody can save his ass now.”
“That’s a plus, right?”
“Maybe,” James murmurs in a contemplative tone, letting a few seconds pass before he utters words that make my heart beat faster. “Gibbs has gone rogue. He’s seasoned enough to know what will happen if he’s caught, so he won’t get caught. We’re sitting ducks. He knows how we operate, what moves we’ll make. An animal caught in a trap is always far more dangerous. He has nothing to lose at this point.”
I lift my head and look into Max’s eyes, seeing the truth and resignation of what James just said reflected there. I start to speak, but he lifts a finger to his lips, shaking his head. He mouths, “Wait.”
Eric walks outside with James, their voices fading into the distance.
I open my mouth again, and Max covers it with his hand, bringing his lips to my ear. “Shh. We have to be sure he’s not coming back. When Eric gives the okay, we’re out of here.”
“Tonight?” I ask after he takes his hand away.
“Oh yeah. I’m not taking any more chances. James is right about Gibbs being a problem. If he’s stupid enough to come for us, I’ll solve the fucking problem for everyone.” Max’s voice is cold, hard, and matter-of-fact.
I have no doubt Max intends to, maybe even hopes for the chance to kill Gibbs.
Three hours later, the house has been scrubbed of evidence and the medical equipment stashed in the attic amid the mountain of belongings from the previous occupants. All stiff, cramped muscles have been massaged and stretched. We’re packed and ready for the trek home.
Max insists on carrying me to reduce the number of footprints. Once he’s sure I know how to use the high-powered rifle he found in the den, he has me sling it over my shoulder before hiking me onto his back.
Eric plays both pack mule and scout, his massive frame fitted with a large rucksack as he forges ahead, using bird calls to signal us. Sometimes he circles back to make sure we aren’t followed.
The circuitous path we traverse to the power plant takes three times longer than it should, but it’s imperative that nobody discovers our hideaway.
Despite the darkness and overcast sky, I can tell time has moved on in the weeks I spent unconscious and recuperating. The forest floor is carpeted with fallen leaves, many trees well on the way to being stripped bare. There’s a crisp chill in the air that has a distinct sharpness redolent of late autumn giving way to the start of winter.
Our exhalations are visible, suspended in the stillness. I’m grateful there’s no wind to rustle the leaves or cut through our clothing though the silence also makes it easier for us to be heard as we travel.
Max stops us once, catching up to Eric and telling him to switch to “Route C.” I have no idea what that means, but Eric nods and sprints ahead, hooting like an owl a few minutes later. I don’t speak the entire trip, content to cling to Max’s body as he brings me closer and closer to safety.
We reach the power plant without incident, and after the heavy metal door is shut and bolted, I take my first deep breath since we left Garth's house. Max releases me from his back. The burning numbness of pins and needles vibrates my limbs as I rub my arms and legs to both warm and stimulate feeling in them.
When the door to our quarters finally opens, Grace races down the hall, barking joyfully. She heads straight for me, leaping so hard she nearly knocks me off my feet. I stagger backward into the wall and close my arms around her warm, furry body. She pants hard, and I feel her heart beating wildly.
“I missed you so much, Grace!” An overwhelming swell of love fills me to bursting, and tears of happiness trickle from my eyes.
I dip my head, thrilled to receive one of Grace's full face-licks. There truly is nothing like the love of a dog.
Max crouches beside us to ruffle Grace's fur and accepts a tongue bath, too. She puts both paws on his shoulders, whining softly as she licks his face with great intensity.
Two figures come toward us: Tek and Andrea.
“There's my girl.” Eric drops the rucksack to the floor and hurries up the hall, pulling Andrea into his arms.
I knew there was an attraction between them, but when did it progress into the open? I'm happy for them.
Max stills, gazing at Tek. He pats Grace's head and mutters, “Down, girl,” before rising to his feet. “Where's Ali?”
Tek smiles strangely and inclines his head toward the main area.
Max squeezes my arm before he takes off, pushing past Eric and Andrea. “Tek? She's okay, right?”
“C'mon, Grace.” I follow them around the corner.
Before I reach the living room, a voice rises in song, beautiful and clear. I skid around the edge of the door and peek in.
Ali is singing. Her face is flushed with pleasure, eyes bright. Max drops to his knees in front of her, and she skims her fingers lovingly through his hair. Grace walks over and sits beside them, watching curiously.
Tek, Eric, and Andrea arrive behind me, everyone rapt as Ali's voice rises and falls like an angel's. I'm not sure exactly what's happening but recognize what a powerful moment this is between the siblings.
When the last sweet note rings out and fades, Max pulls Ali close and stands up with her locked in his arms.
Tek leans in the doorway, arms crossed, his eyes shining with unshed tears. The rest of us stand silently, waiting for an explanation.
Max sets Ali down. “You sang to me.”
She nods and claps her hands together.
“It's been so long . . . but I remember the last time—”
Ali shakes her head. “No, Connor. Don't ruin this moment with that.”
“Okay.” Max cups Ali's face, examining her carefully. “How were you able to sing like that? Your asthma . . .”
“I'm much better—thanks to the new treatment.”
Max seems puzzled. “New treatment?”
Eric presses past me and approaches Max, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Yeah, I never had a chance to talk with you about that.”
“You? What do you have to do with this?” Max's tone is sharp.
“I provided the medicine. Well, technically, Garth did.”
“What?” Max pivots and grabs Eric by the front of his shirt, bringing them eye to eye. “Are you fucked in the head?”
Eric stares back at Max calmly. “No. And I didn't compromise your position or tell Garth any details. He knew there were others and asked if anyone had medical problems, anything we needed.” He shrugs, gesturing toward Ali. “How could I not?”
Max's hold on Eric loosens, but he doesn't let go. “And?”
“Before he was assigned to the virus, they were working on some new asthma remedies. This is something completely different that's never been on the market. You take one pill a week, reducing to every other week when you can, and eventually, once a month for maintenance. Garth gave me enough pills for the next few years, man!”
Max digests this information, finally letting go of Eric. “You're sure he doesn't know any details about us?”
“Nothing. Garth didn't want to know—not even the gender of the patient or how many of us there are. Said if he doesn't know, there's no chance of him giving anything away.”
“All right.” Max laces his fingers over the back of his neck and walks slowly back and forth. “Good. This is great. Eric, thank you so much . . .” He halts in front of Eric and pulls him into a man hug, slapping him on the back.
Ali glides over and hugs me fiercely. “Welcome home. We were so worried about you.” Tears shine in her blue-green eyes, so much like Max's.
Another person wiggles in, turning this into a group hug.
She leans her head against mine. “My God, Marie, when I saw you go over the cliff! It was one of the worst moments of my life—I felt so helpless.”
Grace slips between our legs and jumps into the middle of the huddle, taking turns licking our faces.
Even though it's late evening, we gather in the kitchen for a celebration of food and wine. Eric pulls his chair close to Andrea, keeping a possessive arm around her narrow shoulders. Ali sits between Tek and Max, who keeps looking at his sister with wonder. It warms my heart to see him relax and joke around, the corners of his eyes crinkling when he laughs.
Though Max sits physically closer to Ali, he includes me in the conversation and keeps hold of my hand throughout the meal. A few glasses of wine along with Max's presence beside me warm my insides.
The group of us talks and laughs, releasing the tension that's kept us in knots the past several months. We don't talk about dark things, only happy times, sharing jokes and old stories. The horror hasn't gone away, but by unspoken agreement, we've decided to put it on hold for the time being.
My head feels pleasantly fuzzy, well-being flooding my veins. Max inches closer to me over the course of time, his thumb rubbing slow circles over the back of my hand. He's staring at me with a hunger that causes an excited tingle to sweep over me, settling low in my belly. I meet his gaze, my breathing fast and shallow.
Laughter breaks out around us, and Eric makes a comment about us ignoring everyone.
Max answers Eric without taking his eyes off me. “You're right. We're being rude.” He stands, tugging me up with him, his expression intense. “Come with me? We need time alone.”
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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