Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 37): Message in a Bottle
The image of a lone bottle of alcohol abandoned on the railroad tracks causes an unwelcome flutter in my gut. Before the virus, I'd think nothing of this—it probably wasn't all that uncommon—but now, all kinds of sinister scenarios bandy about in my mind. Maybe someone knows we travel past there to gather supplies. Is this a message, a warning—a threat? Gibbs, with his twisted sense of humor and fondness for tormenting others, can't be ruled out.
Max slows his steps, allowing the group to continue without us. He turns me to face him, brushing the back of his knuckles across my cheek and tucking a windblown strand of hair behind my ear. “I'm being open with you, but I don't want you to worry.”
“Are you worried?”
The corner of Max's mouth quirks into a lopsided grin. “I'd be stupid if I wasn't, but it goes with the territory.” He taps the tip of my nose with an index finger. “You're not going to let me shoulder this without an argument, are you?”
I lift a brow, shaking my head. “Not a chance.”
“Well, can we at least keep it between you, me, Eric, and Tek for now? Andrea seems twitchy enough, and I don't want to involve Ali. She's not known for playing it safe or following rules.”
I consider this for a moment before nodding. “But keep me up on what’s happening. No secrets.”
“You drive a hard bargain, cop’s daughter.” Max squints under the glare of the sun, the golden light bathing his tanned skin and setting off burnished highlights in his mussed hair. A mischievous look steals over his handsome face. He barrels forward and tosses me over his shoulder, running along the path past the others and angling across the sand toward the pounding surf.
When I manage to catch a breath, I scream and flail my arms. Max runs fast, and a dizzying mix of colors blur my vision. I finally grab him around the waist and hold on for dear life, determined if I get tossed into the water, he’s going down with me. Grace races alongside us, barking wildly.
Just before we reach the packed wet sand at the edge of the rushing waves, he slows and drops to his knees, setting me on dry sand. He leans back on his heels and smiles down at me.
Grace loses interest and lopes off.
“I can’t . . . believe you!” Crossing my arms, I glare at him.
He shrugs. “Clearly you enjoyed it—you didn’t even bother to threaten my manhood.” He winks. “Tell the truth . . .”
My glare turns into the barest hint of a smile. “Maybe a little, after I got over the initial shock of being flipped upside down.”
“Life with me will always be spontaneous, China, never dull. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not, but this is what you get.” Max spreads his arms wide, defined pecs straining against snug cotton.
The remainder of my pique melts away, and I gaze at him with open affection. “Whatever it means, I’m all in.”
Max swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing slowly. He doesn’t say anything, just takes my hand and holds it against his heart.
The chatter of voices nearby alerts me that the others have caught up. Ali skips over and plops down next to me. “You two are so cute!” She offers a winning smile my lips can’t resist responding to.
Max isn’t so affected and frowns at his sister. “Seriously, Ali?”
Tek saunters over, looking amused.
Eric follows with Andrea still clamped on his back, making a show of being out of breath. “Damn, girl ! Carrying you around is going to kill me.” He deposits Andrea on her feet and turns to offer support while she shakes the pins and needles from her feet and legs.
Andrea side eyes him. “I’m underweight. Doubt two of me would make you break a sweat.”
Eric spans her narrow waist with two meaty hands. “Yeah, baby, why are you so skinny? Need to fatten you up.” He leans in to kiss her neck.
I half expect Andrea to cuff him on the ear, but she looks down shyly, a soft blush rising to her pale cheeks, and swats his arm. “You . . .”
“Time to practice some ass-kickery.” Eric links their fingers and leads her down the beach.
Max stands, pulling me up and wrapping his arms around me. “I love you.” The warmth of his breath against my ear in contrast to the chilly salt air elicits a tingle across my skin.
“Love you, too.”
Ali wiggles around and beams openly at us from her spot in the sand, reminding me of an overexcited puppy.
Tek helps her up, shaking his head. “Why don’t we give your brother a break and work over there?” He points to an area opposite where Eric and Andrea are headed.
“Whatever you say, honey.” Ali goes on tiptoe and turns her face up for a kiss.
Max snorts as they walk away. “Tek might think he has her wrapped, but it’s totally the other way around.”
“It usually is.” I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing.
For the next hour, we practice moves. Disabling an opponent with weapons, without weapons. How to take down someone bigger, stronger, using every advantage and weak point of the human body available. Escaping the clutches of an opponent. How to find the perfect opportunity.
Grace makes the rounds, attempting to join us in some way. Eventually, she trots along the foamy surf, getting wet up to her belly, but never strays out of sight.
We switch partners several times, weaker against stronger, taller against shorter, ending with well-matched pairs.
Ali is my last partner. After landing on my back in the sand for the umpteenth time, I stay there, staring up at the blemish-free cerulean sky. The warmth of the sun infuses me with a sense of well-being and contentment I haven't felt since long before the virus destroyed my life.
Ali flops next to me, folding dainty hands across her stomach. “Great workout!”
“You’re shorter than me, have asthma, and you kicked my ass.”
“See? Size doesn’t always matter.” She giggles and nudges me in the side with an elbow.
I laugh. “I suppose not.”
Grace wanders over and lays against my side with her head resting on my abdomen. I sift my fingers absently through her wiry fur.
“Sometimes it comes down to who has the most to lose, the strongest desire to win. Mind over matter.”
The wind kicks up, ruffling our clothes and filling my nostrils with a crisp briny scent. It's warm now, but an unmistakable chill rides on the current, promising colder temperatures. A grain of sand irritates my eye, and I rub the lid gently.
“Belief is a double-edged sword,” Ali says.
“What do you mean?”
“I beat you because my belief that I can is stronger than your belief that you can. In a life or death situation, determination often wins over brute strength. It can work the opposite, too. Take Andrea, for example. Surely you’ve noticed she still appears weak and sickly.” She waits for me to nod before going on. “She doesn’t talk much about the past, but it’s obvious something happened that’s holding her back. Guilt—or maybe someone she cared about tromped all over her self-confidence.”
“Has she confided what her circumstances were before the virus?”
“No, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that she's punishing herself. She barely eats or sleeps, does a lot of staring into space. I think Eric is her only reason for pushing on, and even that seems to dredge up conflict. Maybe she doesn't believe she deserves happiness.”
“So you're saying her physical condition isn't the issue? Because she doesn't look much healthier than when we first met.”
“Exactly. Something appears to be consuming her from the inside.”
Max’s familiar baritone chimes in. “I agree. Take it from someone intimately acquainted with soul-eroding guilt.”
Grace lifts her head to look his way but remains next to me.
He stands to Ali’s left, arms crossed, staring over the choppy water. Sympathy rises within me, knowing what he did to protect Ali, what he wants to do to protect me.
I sit up, brushing sand from my hair and clothes. The sun hovers low over the ocean, still round and golden like a sunny-side-up egg. Lengthening shadows creep over the upper part of the deserted beach. “Where is everyone?”
“Andrea was tired. Tek went with them because Eric needs to go back to the compound tonight.” His eyes are tight.
There’s more to it, but I promised not to grill him in front of Ali.
“Hope she’s all right.” I stand and dust my pants off. “We should probably get started on dinner.”
Max helps Ali up. Grace barks and runs circles around us with renewed vigor as we make our way back to the trail.
After dinner, we play poker. The card game elicits a sense of fun and lightheartedness that almost allows me to forget for a time. Tek puts out beer and snacks. Max wears his “lucky” baseball cap and gnaws on a toothpick; I’m fascinated by the way he manipulates it with lips and tongue, never in danger of losing it even when he talks and laughs. Andrea folds after a few hands, claiming fatigue. She’s not a strong player, and it’s clear she feels lost without Eric.
Ali makes a remark about upping the stakes. Max slaps his cards down and leans over the table before she can go on. “Hell to the no. I have no desire to see your unmentionables, and you sure as fuck aren’t seeing mine!”
She shrugs, looking around innocently. “I didn’t mention strip poker specifically, did I?”
“You were headed there.”
Tek smirks, remaining quiet.
We play for a few more hours before falling into bed, exhausted from the day. Grace curls into a ball on an extra comforter Max laid in the corner for her, snoring softly after a few minutes.
Max folds me in his arms and kisses my forehead. We lay quietly for a time, and I enjoy snuggling against his warm body.
I’m just starting to drift off when a wandering hand slips inside my shirt to cup a bare breast. Max hooks a leg over me and shifts around, sighing contentedly.
“Um . . .”
He laughs softly and kisses my temple. “I want to sleep like this, okay?” He gives my boob a gentle squeeze.
“Sure.” I yawn, smiling sleepily.
My slumber is dreamless and peaceful.
It’s late morning before I remember Max’s strained expression yesterday when he mentioned Eric returning to the alliance.
We’re walking the perimeter, checking traps. Max must feel we’re fairly safe if he brought me with him.
He crouches next to the fence bordering the industrial park. “Looks good, no tampering.”
I tug my jacket closed, rubbing gloved hands up and down my arms. The temperature is at least twenty degrees lower than yesterday, the chill compounded by the clouds and fog that rolled in overnight. Beads of mist hover, suspended in the humid air, coating our faces and hair.
Max scoops some wayward strands off his forehead as he rises and starts moving toward the next area. I hurry to keep up with his long strides.
“Max, can I ask you something?”
He slows, allowing me to catch up. “Sure.”
“What’s going on with Eric? I got the feeling, yesterday was about more than a routine return to base.”
Max stops walking and rubs the back of his neck. “You don’t miss much, do you?”
I lean one shoulder against the fence. “I try not to. I didn’t say anything at the beach because Ali was there, and then I forgot later on.”
He sighs, scrubbing a hand across his face. “Okay, but I don’t want you to freak out.”
“Another bottle was left on the tracks.”
My pulse skips. “And?” I croak out.
“Don’t know yet. We thought it best to monitor the area, see if we can figure out who it is, where they might be hiding. They could be watching, hoping to follow us.”
“Yeah. I’m supposed to meet up with Eric in a few hours, but keep that to yourself.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“I don’t know if that’s wise.”
He shakes his head in defeat. “I’m surrounded by stubborn chicks.”
“You love that about me.” I grin.
“The sad thing is, I do. You can come. We’re meeting on the cliff where I first found you. From there, we’ll have a bird’s eye view if anyone tries to sneak up on us.”
Max checks a few more traps, finding them untouched, and nods, satisfied. “Done. Let’s go back to the plant and grab some lunch before we go.”
The rain starts when we’re halfway up the cliff path to meet Eric and progresses quickly from a drizzle to a driving rain. I’m thankful for the hood on my jacket. My boots slip in the mud a few times, and Max helps steady me.
The fog thickens as we climb, the flat top of the cliff almost completely shrouded from view, and we pick our way carefully across the rocky surface.
Eric’s hulking figure morphs out of the fog, huddled next to a boulder, hands deep in his jacket pockets. He starts toward us. “Nice weather we’re having!”
Max’s posture is rigid, and he keeps looking around. “You find out anything?”
Eric glances at me and back to Max. “You’re not going to like what I have to say, man.”
“Spill.” Max swipes moisture from his face, new droplets replacing them quickly. He pulls me close, sharing warmth.
Eric leans in closer, talking over the patter of rain on rocks and in puddles. “I spent a cold fucking night hanging out in trees with night vision goggles. Big fat zero. No movement, no sign anyone’s been in the area. As I was moving around, I heard the hum of machinery. Sound travels out there, you know?”
“Yeah, yeah . . .” Max gestures impatiently.
“Damnedest thing. Turned out to be a generator behind some immediate care clinic. I went in and looked around, but the place was deserted. Creepy as fuck. The emergency lights were on, and shit’s still posted on the bulletin board—as if anyone is going to show up to their flu clinics now!” He lets out a booming laugh and slaps his thigh.
Max isn’t amused. “Did you find anything?”
“Not there. It bears watching, though. Somebody started that gennie.”
I shiver, not sure if it’s from being cold and wet, scared, or both.
“What about the bottle on the tracks? Did you get it?”
Eric hesitates, glancing at me again, and my stomach rolls. “Yeah, man. Sure you want to talk about this now?”
“We don’t have secrets—just say it.”
“There was something in the bottom of the bottle this time. A key.”
“What kind of key?”
“The kind that opens collars.”
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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