Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 39): Making the Pieces Fit
I haven’t forgotten you—and I can reach out and touch you wherever you are whenever I want.
The words slice into me like sharp blades, dicing my insides and sending ice surging through my veins.
But it doesn't end there. He's not quite finished injecting me with terror. And, quite clearly, he loves every sick moment of it—even if he isn't here to witness the effects of his handiwork.
Gibbs continues in a low, intimate tone, “I bet your heart is beating out of your chest, maybe sweat breaking out over your soft, sweet skin. Mm-mm. I remember the feel of you, all that creamy perfection just waiting to be touched. Your dropping the towel and spreading yourself out on the bed for me . . .” His lids flutter closed. “God . . . I couldn't wait to have you. But then you went and ruined everything.” Blazing gray fills the screen again.
The depth of the craziness in his eyes is terrifying, and I'm amazed by the flood of fear that grips me even though I know I’m safe in the control room. Gibbs isn't here; he can't hurt me.
His pupils dilate, inky circles expanding within the striated gray irises filling the laptop screen. “Forgiveness is key, Sweet Marie. My father taught me that. And I'll give you another chance to please me. Maybe I'll even let you live. That boyfriend of yours—Mr. Tough Guy—he can watch before I slice his throat. Still have that blade you tried to gut me with? Bring it to the party.”
My throat constricts as I fight back tears, indignation, and a fresh flood of fear.
Max's hands clamp down on my shoulders a little too hard, and he curses under his breath. “I won't let that happen.”
Gibbs steps back, offering a chilling view of his shark-like grin. “Right about now, he's probably holding you, making promises to protect you that he can't keep.” He winks. “And now you're wondering how I know that. It's almost like I'm right there with you, isn't it?”
Max groans, loosening his grip to pull me gently against his chest. “Don't let him psych you out—that's what he wants. What guy worth a damn wouldn't offer comfort when some nut-job makes a speech like that?”
Tek pauses the video, raising a hand. “Max is right. This guy is using every trick in his toolkit to freak you out. Gotta say, the man does think fast on his feet.” He shakes his head.
Max's arms come around me, providing a sense of safety. I'm in the middle of the power plant within a maze of massive walls. Gibbs can't touch me here. He can't.
“Finish this shit.” A hint of clamped-down anger wavers underneath Max's words.
Tek unpauses the video.
The smile ebbs from Gibbs' bruised face, the resultant expression grave, tinged with resentment. “I'm in quite a jam because of you—hope you understand why I can't let it go. I'd offer to make things easy on you, but that's no longer in the cards. It appears I have a vengeful streak despite my father preaching forgiveness.” He leans close to the camera again, his voice pitched low and threatening. “You’ll never see me coming.”
The screen goes dark.
“Sure we will, you deviant fuck!” Max slams the laptop closed. A vein pulses on his forehead, a winding river of vexation.
Tek bats Max’s hand away. “Easy with the equipment, eh? They’re not manufacturing this shit anymore, you know!”
Max shoots back, “That you know of.”
I slip away from them and fall into a chair next to the table full of manuals. Grace lays her head on my knees and whines, swiping her tongue out to lick my hand. The familiar tightness starts in my chest, and I lean forward to hug Grace, chanting, “Go away, go away, go away.”
Max moves to my side, crouching beside the chair and reaching for my hand. “Panic attack?”
I nod, focusing on my breathing rather than attempting to speak.
“Shh . . . it’s okay.” He rubs my back in a slow soothing motion. “I’ve got you, China. Always.”
Tek turns back to the monitors, giving us privacy.
Between Grace’s concerned licks and Max’s gentle words, my breathing gradually returns to normal, the constriction in my chest loosening. “I’m okay.”
Max squeezes my hand. “Do you trust me?”
I gaze into earnest sea-glass eyes. “With my life. You know I do.”
“Then believe me when I say Gibbs will never hurt you again. He’s not going to slit my throat or touch you. The only thing he’s going to do is die. Painfully.”
After another bitching and bargaining session between Max and Tek, with some wise input from yours truly, we agree transparency should win out. Max will only acquiesce if the videos are discussed rather than shown. Perfectly acceptable since Tek is able to print a picture of Gibbs to show Ali and Andrea so they’ll be able to recognize him.
We assemble in the kitchen, the place our group tends to gather most often. Lunch is an unusually somber affair.
Max stares at his plate and shovels food into his mouth. He only speaks if spoken to, giving off a combative vibe. I’d wonder if he were angry with me if not for his thumb rubbing gently across my palm and the way his expression softens when he looks my way.
Tek, on the other hand, barely touches his meal. He smiles a lot and makes inane conversation.
Andrea’s gaze darts around the table, reminiscent of a frightened rabbit. She repetitively places a hand against the base of her throat and fiddles with a delicate gold chain, clasping whatever hangs there as if it’s a talisman.
Ali chatters on like nothing is wrong. She cheerfully fills the gaps in conversation, waiting until everyone has eaten as much as they’re going to before clapping her hands sharply. “Okay! Now that our totally awkward meal is finally over—” she rolls her eyes for dramatic effect “—perhaps we can move on to whatever unpleasant business is at hand?”
Max’s fingers tighten over mine, his posture rigid. He wipes his free hand over his face, sighing heavily. “For fuck’s sake, Ali! If you knew something was brewing, why’d you do all that happy chat and shit?”
She shrugs. “I figured it was what everyone needed.”
Andrea’s fingers worry at her necklace double-time. “What’s going on?” Her voice is reedy with a pre-hysterical waver.
Max touches Andrea’s arm. “I didn’t mean to freak anyone out. There’s just no good way to go about this conversation, and obviously, I suck at breaking news gently.”
Tears spring to her eyes, and she bites her quivering lip. “Do we have to leave?”
“No! Nothing like that.” Max looks up at the ceiling and rakes the fingers of both hands through his hair, leaving it wild and disheveled. “We have a potential issue. Nothing’s certain, and we’re going to do all we can to protect everyone.”
Andrea’s eyes go wide and she starts babbling. “Oh my God! Protect us from what? Do they know I’m alive? That we’re here?”
Ali breaks in, speaking in a soothing tone. “Connor, perhaps you’re not the best one to lead the discussion.”
Max shoots her a dark look. “Stop trying to handle me.”
Tek’s forehead wrinkles. He seems torn between intervening and staying out of the sibling rivalry.
“Maybe I should start things off.” My voice is firm and well modulated despite my rollicking insides.
Four sets of eyes train on me.
“I mean, it’s me he wants, right?”
“Who?” Andrea asks, releasing her necklace. Is it my imagination, or does she seem relieved this isn't about her?
Ali’s lips round into a dramatic “O” of understanding. “This is about the guy who attacked you. What’s his name . . . Gibbins?”
“No, his name is Gibbs,” Andrea answers in an acid tone. “That stupid, egotistical piece of shit attacked you?” Twin patches of red stain her cheeks.
Everyone looks to Andrea, surprised.
“You know Gibbs?” I ask.
“Well, I was the Alliance's lab rat. Who do you think was part of the strike team that captured me and was more than happy to make sure I’d never forget his face or name or the depth of his cruelty?”
“Oh God.” I slap a hand over my mouth, and my imagination runs wild, wondering what that sadistic bastard did to her.
Max pounds a fist on his thigh. “See? That fuck needs to die!”
Tek shakes his head. “Killing isn’t the answer.”
I wince, waiting for Max to go nuclear.
Instead, it’s Andrea who speaks. “Yeah, it is.” Her flushed face and the determination in her expression cause possible objections to die on everyone’s lips. She swallows and clears her throat. “Gibbs gives new meaning to the term sick fuck. I won’t speak of what happened, but trust me when I say as long as he’s alive, no one is safe. No one.”
I reach across the table to hold her hand. “Does Eric know what he did to you?”
“No!” she shouts, coming half out of her chair, jabbing an accusing finger in the air. “And if any of you say anything, he’ll go after Gibbs on his own. I’d never forgive myself if something happened to Eric because of me.”
“Let’s put this to a vote,” Max declares. “All in favor of eliminating Gibbs?”
Four hands fly up without hesitation. Tek eyes each of us in turn and slowly raises his, too.
Max bangs his fist on the table. “Unanimous.”
It’s much easier to discuss Gibbs after the awkwardness of sentencing the pig to die is over. Now it’s simply a matter of logistics, plans, alternate plans, and strategies. We spend a few hours hashing out details and exploring everyone’s suggestions. Pictures of Gibbs are handed out like wanted posters; Andrea refuses her copy, stating that she doesn’t need any reminder of the face that haunts her nightmares.
More cameras will be placed in well-hidden, strategic locations now that Gibbs expects surveillance. Extra precautions will be taken to protect our location from discovery. Traps will be set and monitored more frequently.
Max grasps my hand beneath the table. “One last thing—we institute a buddy system. Nobody goes out alone or unarmed, no exceptions. Agreed?”
This vote is unanimous, too.
A few uneventful days pass by, during which we institute the agreed-upon routines and precautions. Combat training continues, inside instead of out, with a wider focus on weapons and ways to incapacitate an attacker. Max insists on a level of proficiency that goes beyond thought to reflex.
In our first post-vote training, he stared us down one by one and said, “Even a split second of hesitation can be the end of you, especially when dealing with someone who eats, sleeps, and shits violence.”
No one so much as cracked a smile; Max's warning was too accurate to be humorous.
He's turning the group of us into killing machines, and I still wonder if it will be enough.
Words Ali said to me the last time we trained on the beach echo in my mind: 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.
I wonder if victory will simply come down to who has more to lose, who wants to survive the most.
The sudden dizzying slam of my back on the mat snaps me out of my musings and leaves me staring up at the ceiling, gasping for breath.
Ali claps her hands. “Gotcha!”
Max strolls across the gym, arms crossed. Grace is right on his heels, an eager mascot. “Sloppy.” He taps his temple. “Keep your mind in the present. Sharp and clear.”
“Go again.” He moves on to watch Tek and Andrea, calling out pointers. “Crouch. Now come up hard with the heel of your hand . . . Good . . . Maintain your balance . . . That's it.”
We switch partners, and I go at Tek like the machine Max has been coaching me to be. Sweat beads on my forehead and drips into my eyes. I blink through the sting, determined not to be bested again. I point over Tek's shoulder, and though he isn't fooled, he hesitates long enough for me to sweep his feet out from under him. There's a satisfying thud as his ass hits the mat.
“Nice, China.” Max's mouth twitches when Tek groans loudly and curses.
“Is this a private party, or can anyone get in on the fun?” Eric's friendly face peeks around the doorjamb, his eyes lighting up as he drinks in our indoor training ground. Grace barks, racing over to offer a greeting, and he gives her a quick scratch behind the ears.
Andrea bowls Ali over in her excitement, rushing toward Eric with flushed cheeks and an expression that goes from blah to animated.
Ali climbs to her feet, rubbing her hip and points an index finger at Andrea's retreating back. “Now that's the kind of motivation I'm talking about!”
Eric opens his arms wide and grabs Andrea in a bear hug, her feet leaving the floor to anchor around his waist. “How's my girl?” He kisses her thoroughly, one large palm caressing her behind. Grace dances around them in excited circles.
Ali sidles up beside me and openly ogles their PDA. “Nice. She really comes to life when Eric's around.” She inclines her head in Max's direction and lowers her voice. “Kind of the way my brother came to life when he found you.”
“You think so?” I flush with pleasure.
Though I could be referring to Andrea and Eric, Ali instinctively senses I'm talking about Max. “Yes, yes, yes! Connor was an ornery corpse before you woke him up. He's never been good at living for himself.” Her vibrant demeanor softens, the love of a worshipful little sister shining in her eyes. “He's always been my champion, and I love him for that. Somewhere along the way, he forgot to save a piece for himself. The way we grew up . . .” Ali chokes on the words, shaking her head.
Max appears, squeezing between us to put his arms around our shoulders. He kisses my cheek then bends toward Ali. “We've got enough going on without bringing up the past, okay, Squirt?” He releases me and ruffles Ali’s hair.
I expect Ali to protest, but she surprises me by throwing her arms around Max and pressing her face into his shirt. Tears stand in Max's eyes as he holds his beloved sister and rocks with her. Though I've always been aware of their special connection, I'm seeing a side of the devoted siblings I haven't witnessed before.
Eric saunters over with Andrea tucked under one beefy arm. “Yeah, I hate to break up the tender moment, but we need to talk.”
The tone sounds serious for Eric, and my gut tightens in response. What now?
Max squeezes Ali one last time before letting go, deftly passing her into Tek's waiting arms. He looks to Eric warily. “Who do you need?”
“You and Marie. Maybe a recording device from Tek's bag of tricks.”
Max moves into action, herding us out of the gym and leading the way through the maze. We all squeeze into the control room and turn to Eric expectantly. Grace nudges my thigh with her snout, and I pat her head absently. Adrenaline is flowing even though I have no idea what we're meeting about.
Max stands behind me and massages my tense shoulders. “What's goin' on, man?”
Eric rubs his nose and glances down. “Garth wants to talk. He asked me to set up a meet at one of the houses in town.”
Eric shrugs. “He didn't share, but he did stress the importance.”
Max's hands freeze mid-motion, his tone grim. “Yeah, well, you haven't seen—” He hesitates.
Tek stares hard at Max for a moment. “Somebody's been staying at the industrial complex.”
“Outsiders?” Eric asks.
There's a long silence before Max finally answers. “Gibbs.”
“Really? Thought for sure he was either dead in a ditch somewhere or had taken off.”
“He's looking for us.”
“You sure? He's probably fighting just to stay alive.”
Everyone talks at once, their voices overlapping and echoing in the small room until I have the urge to slap both hands over my ears. Andrea's skin is pasty, the fear radiating off her slight form. She opens her mouth and closes it again after sneaking a glance Eric's way. Understanding dawns in Ali's eyes—the realization she hasn't been told the full story.
Max finally bangs the side of his fist against the doorjamb and yells for quiet. “Look, Gibbs was staying in the industrial complex—until he discovered our surveillance equipment. Somehow he sensed Marie was involved and said as much on camera. Gibbs could have taken the camera or smashed it, but he wants us to know he's out there and looking for revenge.”
“Not good. I still don't understand how he survived.”
“Do you know who Lee is?” Max asks.
Eric's eyes widen. “Where'd you hear that name?”
“He paid a visit to one of the buildings Gibbs was holed up in. I'm guessing Gibbs didn't find that camera because I'm pretty sure he wouldn't want any witnesses to their interaction. Lee brought food and supplies. He said whoever sent him was unhappy.” Max pauses, turning to Ali and Andrea. “Why don't you two take Grace and head back to quarters. This might be a lengthy discussion.”
Ali's jaw sets stubbornly, but she doesn't object when she notices how relieved Andrea seems. “Okay. Come on, Grace! Who wants a treat?” She shoots Max a hard look over her shoulder as she follows Andrea into the hall.
Max clenches his fists and waits for the hum of the elevator before inviting Eric to watch the video on the laptop. “Get a load of this.”
Eric watches silently, scrubbing one huge hand over his face when the screen goes dark. “Shit and double shit.” He drums his fingers on the desk for a few seconds. “Lee is Lewald Nielsen.”
Max gestures impatiently. “Should I know what the fuck that means?”
My insides twist. “He's the vice president's personal aide, isn't he?”
Eric points a finger at me. “Bingo! Give the girl a prize. And make that a triple shit. The guy is a former Navy SEAL. Him and the vice go way back.”
Max considers this for a long moment. “So you're saying Vice President Wesley sent his top henchman to deliver a message to Gibbs—a lieutenant in the Alliance army. Why the fuck would he chance exposing himself like that?”
“That's a Jim Dandy of a question, isn't it? Maybe Garth can shed some light.”
“Just what I was thinking. You realize how careful we have to be now, right? Gibbs can't find us, and he certainly can't see you with us.”
Eric claps Max on the back. “Word.”
Night falls as we crouch in a thicket within view of the meeting place—the same house where I convalesced under the watchful eye of Garth. The lacy, pale gray sky deepens to mottled charcoal, the air dense with moisture.
I blow on my hands and rub them together in an attempt to generate warmth. Remaining still in the damp gloom allowed a numbing chill to settle over my face and hands, and my legs no longer have feeling. A twig pokes me in the back as I shift around.
Max and Eric are like twin stone statues—one holding binoculars, the other peering through a night vision scope—and I have the crazy urge to knock them both over.
“Tell me again why the hell we're here over an hour past meeting time?” Exasperation is clear even in my hushed tone.
Max doesn't even twitch, continuing his vigil. “We need to be sure Garth hasn't dicked us over or been exposed for his deception. If nobody storms the castle in the next fifteen minutes, we approach.”
“Might take another hour before I can walk,” I mutter under my breath. Discomfort makes me grumpy.
“Keep watch, Eric.” Max stuffs the binoculars in his jacket pocket and looks over at me. Even in near-darkness, there's a twinkle in his eye, and the corner of his mouth turns up. He crab-walks closer to me and brushes his knuckles across my cheek. “Is someone cold and cranky?” Soft lips replace his knuckles, feathering across my skin. “Need me to warm you up?”
I'm amazed that even numb and freezing in the middle of the woods, my stomach flips, and a shot of warmth spreads through my insides. “That might help improve my mood . . .”
Max wraps me in his arms, ghosting his cool nose along the curve of my neck. I forget we're crouched in prickly bushes or that I can't feel anything from the thighs down—because I sure feel a lot of warm tingling in my belly.
Our lips meet softly, his gloved hands slipping inside my jacket to caress my back. The hem of my shirt rides up, allowing a cold draft to pepper the exposed skin with goosebumps. I lose myself in the taste and feel of him.
“Get a room, you two!” Eric chuckles.
Max continues kissing me but releases one of his arms to punch out at Eric.
“Ow!” Eric hits back, nearly sending Max and me tumbling to the damp ground. “Sorry, Marie. By the way, we're ten minutes past the time you decided on for going in.”
For a moment, I wonder if Max heard Eric, but then he nips my bottom lip just hard enough to send a jolt of pleasure right to the center of me before pulling away. He holds me by the hips when I stand and remains hunkered in front of me, using his hands to massage feeling back into my legs.
A familiar rumble reverberates in the distance. I half expect to feel the thrum beneath my feet. The forlorn bleat of a train whistle, so loud and unexpected now, triggers memories of walking home from school with Katie alongside the tracks. When we were older, we used the corridor as a shortcut to make curfew even though Dad warned us to stay away from the deserted railway after dark.
I shake off the wisps of my past. “It's a train!”
Eric lowers the scope. “Must be supplies coming in. I heard they might use trains. The rails tend to be free of debris. A lot of time is wasted clearing roadways.”
Max rises and cocks his head, a contemplative gleam in his eyes. “Interesting.” He nudges Eric with an elbow. “We all clear to approach the house?”
“Take a look with that heat signature gadget Tek gave us. See how many bodies are in or around the area.”
Eric fumbles something that looks like a cell phone out of his pocket and aims it at the house. The screen is grainy with black and gray blotches, but a figure made up of reds and yellows morphs into focus. He pans the area slowly, but the landscape remains dark. “Just one.”
“Excellent.” Max turns to me, brushing an errant strand of hair out of my eyes. “You ready?”
“Be prepared to run or fight if necessary.”
Max bumps fists with Eric. “Stay here and watch for company.”
“Will do. Good luck, guys.”
Once we leave the safety of the thicket, Max doesn't touch me. We walk single file, with him in the lead, sticking to the shadows as we make our way to the house where Garth awaits.
Any possible light is concealed behind tightly closed blinds or curtains. If Eric hadn't verified someone was inside, I never would have chosen this one out of the many darkened homes. As instructed, we approach the back door and enter without knocking.
Garth is sitting at the kitchen table, casually holding a Kindle. A jarred candle flickers in the center of the polished wood, creating a soft halo of light that doesn't extend far beyond the chairs. He appears relaxed, but a subtle stiffness in his posture suggests otherwise. When he glances up, shadows dance over his weathered face, deepening to dark slashes beneath bloodshot eyes. “Good evening.”
“Garth.” I pull out a chair and sit across from him.
Max lays a hand on my shoulder and remains standing. “Tell me about Gibbs and the vice president.” His tone is brusque and businesslike.
Garth's lips stretch into a faint smile. “You don't bother much with niceties, do you?”
“Why would I when cutting to the chase is so much more efficient?”
“All right, then.” Garth places both palms on the table as if bracing himself. “Wes is Gibbs' uncle.”
Like what you just read? Have a question or concern? Leave a note for the author! We appreciate your feedback!
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