Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 40): Exposure
Many confusing bits snap together, illuminating the truth. Gibbs has been allowed to terrorize and intimidate, balking authority and dancing out of punishment's reach because he's related to the vice president. Nepotism at its most horrific and damaging.
I think of Andrea—who refuses to speak of what Gibbs did to her—of myself, and anyone else he hurt along the way. James' frustration and the rivalry between him and Gibbs makes sense now.
“Jesus . . .” I gnaw at my lip, the far-reaching implications of this new information sinking into my gut.
Max lays a hand on my shoulder, massaging it lightly. “Don't worry, China.”
I stare up at him, surprised. “How can you say that? This makes him virtually unstoppable!”
Candlelight plays over Max's relaxed features. He seems outwardly calm, but when our eyes meet, hardness and resolve reside in his. “Nobody's unstoppable. Power is largely perception. Gibbs can only get away with what he's allowed to, and the Alliance has given him free reign. Even his superiors are afraid to intervene, right?” Garth nods in affirmation. Max stops rubbing my shoulder and squeezes it gently, his voice even. “My perception is that Gibbs is a loose end that needs to be tied off. He has no power out here. The fact he's used to getting his way, combined with his huge ego will be his downfall.”
Garth grimaces. “I agree with everything you just said, but Gibbs is a cold son of a bitch. He's well trained and has no compunction about ending lives.”
Max stares back dispassionately. “We're well matched then.”
Garth blanches, his gaze flicking from Max to me, imploring. “I worry about you . . . being out here. Perhaps you should return to the compound, stay with your mom and me. Nina is distraught since receiving the report you and Gibbs went missing.”
Max takes a menacing step toward Garth, but I grab his arm. “Don't.” When I'm sure Max isn't going to yank Garth from the chair, I stand and face my stepfather across the table. “I couldn't care less if Nina is distraught. The compound is the last place I'd ever go!”
Garth swallows, shooting Max a nervous look. “You'd be safe with us. Gibbs is on the outside, and we'd assign guards to you. Celine misses you in the kitchen, and you could—”
I raise a hand, palm out. “Stop . . . just stop! I know you mean well, but you can’t change the fact that Nina is a shit mother! She let Katie die, and I’d rather die than join the Alliance cult.” Ignoring the hurt in his dark eyes, I take a gulping breath and clench both fists at my sides, struggling to lower my voice. “I’m grateful you’re working to find a viable cure, but the fact of the matter is the Alliance is sacrificing healthy citizens to save the ones they deem worthy. I realize most of the people living at the compound have no idea of the atrocities being committed to cure them, but how could you think I’d ever be able to live with myself knowing what I do?”
Garth bows his head. “The offer stands, Marie. Believe it or not, I care what happens to you.” He glances at Max, his distrust plain.
Max lets out an ugly laugh and paces the small space, raking the fingers of both hands through his hair in violent tugs. “Judge me all you want, Doc, but I guarantee you’re responsible for more deaths than I am. I’m just honest with myself about the shit I’ve done.” He halts next to the table, glaring down at Garth. “She’s safe with me. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect her.”
Something shifts in Garth’s expression, a mixture of assurance tinged with fear. “Then what makes you so different from the Alliance?”
For a moment, the world seems to freeze. Once the words are out, it seems as if Garth wishes he could swallow them back. I have to give him credit for being brave—or stupid—enough to question the morals and intentions of the larger-than-life man looming over him.
Max’s body stiffens, his hands clenching and unclenching. He slams a palm down on the table with a solid smack and leans down until he and Garth are nose to nose. To my surprise, his voice is low and even. “The difference is that I’m willing to sacrifice my own life and freedom to protect those I love. The Alliance considers it perfectly acceptable to sacrifice what’s left of the human race to cure the ones they deem elite. I’ll bet the majority of people in your compound never had to choose between their own freedom and someone they love. It’s so much easier to condemn a person to death when they’re seen as a number or concept. The Alliance justifies genocide in the name of saving the world. What makes me so different? If I have to answer that, you’re already fucking lost.” Max stares Garth down for a few seconds longer before standing slowly and reaching for me. “Come on—let’s get the fuck out of here.”
I take his offered hand and rise from my seat.
“Wait!” Garth looks down, tracing the pattern in the wood. “I’d like to speak with Marie . . . alone.”
Max smiles tightly. “That's up to her. I’ll wait outside if she wants me to.”
My gaze bounces between them, wondering what decision to make. In the end, my curiosity wins. “All . . . all right.”
Max cups my face and kisses me. “I’ll be right outside. If you need me—if you even think you need me—call my name.” He backs toward the door, pointing a warning finger at Garth before turning to shut the door behind him.
An awkward silence descends. Garth continues tracing the wood-grain. I watch him closely, golden fingers of candlelight licking at his gaunt face, and wonder what he wants to say to me without Max present.
Garth sighs and presses both palms against the table as if steeling himself. Then his dark eyes meet mine with a blend of determination, fear, and excitement that frightens me. “There's been a breakthrough in my research. I'm extremely close to a viable cure that can be replicated in volume.”
A feeling of foreboding washes over me. Why would he be sharing this with me and looking like that unless he was about to ask for something I won't give. “This conversation is a bad idea.” I rise from the chair, but Garth covers my hand with his.
I lower myself down and yank my hand from under his. “Don't ask me to betray my new family.”
“Of course not.” Garth shakes his head, but a fever resides in his eyes. “This is so crazy, really. Tell me—who does this virus affect?”
I shrug. “People who aren't immune.”
“Precisely. I kept reaching for this elusive piece of the puzzle, this aberration in the data that made no sense. As it turns out, I was looking in the wrong species!” When I simply stare at him, wondering what he's getting at, he leaps up from the table and starts pacing. “I'm a scientist, for God's sake! I'm supposed to think outside the box. I was missing a crucial detail all this time.” He stops walking and plants both hands on the counter, his head drooping.
“Garth, what the hell are you talking about?”
He whirls to face me. “Canine DNA. The key to curing the dogs is in us, and the key to curing us is in them. This is a cross-species virus, after all. I could go into all sorts of scientific terminology, but let's just say I'm pretty sure the formula for the cure is only days away!”
“That's wonderful.” I say the words but don't feel the joy. “Why couldn't you say this in front of Max?”
“I need your help with the final step.”
“Like . . . you want to test your formula on me?”
“Not exactly. I still need canine DNA to complete testing, and I understand you have a dog. I was hoping—”
I'm up out of my chair and lunging at him before thinking. “Where did you hear such a thing?”
Garth grabs my arms, holding me away from him. “It's a little too late to play coy now, isn't it? James told me.”
“Marie, calm down. Let's talk rationally, okay? I'm letting you go.” He releases my arms, and I breathe in huffs, fighting the urge to claw at his face. “James didn't want to betray your trust—the man is really quite smitten with you—but when I told him about the research, he swore me to secrecy before sharing any information. Nobody else at the Alliance knows about Grace, not even my assistant.”
“Don't you say her name!” Tears sting my eyes, and I swipe the back of my hand across them. The thought of Grace in Alliance hands sends a shot of ice through me. “Forget what James told you. Just get out of here!”
“I'm not talking about taking Gr—her.” Garth leans down and rummages through a leather satchel on the floor, returning with a zip-lock of glass tubes, syringes, and labels. “Get me blood samples. Eric knows how to draw them. I never have to touch her. I don't even know where your group is staying! Please.” He holds the supplies out to me with a beseeching look.
I stare at his offering while I contemplate my options. If I refuse his request, he might become desperate enough to betray us to the Alliance. If I agree to provide the samples, at the least it will buy us time to strategize. “Okay.” I feel dirty accepting the bag, as if I'm selling my soul to the devil.
Relief transforms Garth's face; he even smiles. “Thank you, Marie. This is going to change the course of our destiny! I'll be able to cure you and Nina permanently.” The smile disappears, his brow furrowed. “Everything has taken such a devastating toll. I know you're angry with your mother, but she cries all the time and begs James to find out what happened to you. I hate lying to her. Higher ups are no longer interested—unless, of course, you're found with Gibbs. He's the one they're desperate to find.”
He fishes around in the satchel and hands me a creased photo. “You should have this.”
The photo is of a dark-haired woman from behind, wearing a fancy red and black dress. “It’s Katie! I remember this. We went to a costume party two years ago. But where did you get this?”
“Nina kept tabs on her girls. I know that doesn’t make up for anything, but I’m happy I could give you a picture of Katie—even if it’s only the back of her.”
“Thank you.” I stow the picture into a pocket in the lining of my jacket.
“Marie, how did you know to ask about the vice president before?”
“Gibbs has been using the industrial complex as a home base. Lewald Nielsen paid him a visit, and we caught the meeting on camera. Nielsen has been helping Gibbs, bringing him supplies. He also delivered a mean right hook, compliments of the vice president.” I remember when Eric told us about the generator running at the immediate care clinic. “Maybe they're the ones who were using the medical clinic! To treat Gibbs' wounds!”
Garth swears under his breath. “This isn't good.”
I shoot him a look. “That's overstating the obvious, isn't it? What rock have you been hiding under?”
A sharp rap on the door startles me, and I press a hand to my chest.
“Everything okay in there?” Max sounds tense.
“Yeah, I'll be right out.”
Sweat beads on Garth's forehead, and he looks as if he's going to throw up. “The corruption—it reaches higher than I thought. The vice president is scheduled to visit the lab and review our research in a few days. Clearly, he can't be trusted, but what about the president?”
“Yeah . . . don't think I'd trust him either. Be careful, Garth. I should go.”
“You be careful, too.” He pulls me into an awkward hug. “I do care what happens to you. Be cautious of that young man. He's a hothead.”
I don't address his comment about Max. He wouldn't understand anyway. “Thanks for caring.” I hug him quickly and step back. “Oh, and Garth?”
“You don't have to worry about Max. If you do anything to compromise Grace, I'll kill you myself.”
Garth remains frozen in place as I exit the house.
Max hurries across the grass toward me in several long strides. His rumpled hair sticks up in every direction. I almost laugh until I see his expression. He's worried and reaches for me, yanking me against his broad chest.
“What's wrong?” I rest my cheek against his jacket, my breath puffing in small clouds.
“Garth has a point. You might be safer at the compound, but . . . I don't want you to go. I wouldn't be able to touch you or see your beautiful face next to mine on the pillow.” His hold tightens, and I squeeze back with my free arm. “I will protect you. I'd do anything for you.”
“Max, I'm not going anywhere. There's nothing anyone could say to convince me to desert you. Even if we have to leave this place and try to survive out there, I—”
“Wait, wait.” Max steps back, holding me by the shoulders. “Why would we have to leave?” His keen gaze lands on the plastic bag I'm holding.
Hot tears spill down my face, and I drag in a breath of icy air. “Please, let's go. I don't want to talk here.”
Max leads me out of the yard and into the trees. It's dark in the woods, and after I trip a few times, Max produces a penlight, shining it low. We follow a different path than the one we used to reach town, and neither of us speaks until the rocky slope at the back of the industrial complex is visible.
Max sits on a log, pulling me down with him. “Okay, talk. What the hell did he say to you?”
My lip trembles. “Garth knows about Grace. The missing link to the cure is canine DNA, and he's asking for samples.”
“What the fuck? How did he find out?”
“James told him, but no one else at the Alliance knows. Garth wants samples. He doesn't want to meet Grace or know anything about our location. I agreed, mainly to buy us time. I thought if I refused, he might be desperate enough to betray us.”
Max cups my cheeks, tilting my face until our eyes meet in the gloom. “You did good, China. We'll protect Grace together—whatever happens.” He moves in slowly, pressing tender kisses to my lips. “Love makes us a family, and that includes Grace.”
I lean into his embrace. The world might be in tatters, but we have so much to fight for.
An owl hoots nearby.
“That's Eric,” Max murmurs. He pulls the walkie from his pocket and turns it on, clicking the transmit button a few times. “I turned it off when we went to meet Garth.”
The speaker crackles to life. “Max?”
“Thank God! You have to get to the plant entrance, pronto!” Eric's panicked voice sends my heart into overdrive. His demeanor is usually so unflappable.
“Rear. It's bad, man. Someone was here. Tek's down. I’m closer, so I’m heading back.”
“Be right there. Radio silence.” Max grabs my hand and drags me along behind him. I wrap the baggie around the lab supplies and stuff it in my jacket, fighting to keep up with his long strides.
Biting wind whistles around us. It’s impossible to see where we’re going as we start weaving between the large rocks, so I simply allow Max to lead, trusting I won’t end up with a broken ankle or worse. At the top of the trail, we carefully step into the stone tunnel that lets out at the rear entrance of the power plant, escaping the harsh wind. The closer we get to the end, the harder my heart slams against my ribs. My boot slips on the smooth stone a few times, but Max helps me regain my balance.
Light bobs just ahead. The tunnel emerges onto a gravel landing, and we nearly trip over Eric in the darkness. He’s hunched over someone on the ground. It’s Tek.
Max lets go of me and crouches beside Tek, careful not to shine the penlight in his eyes. “What the fuck happened?”
I gasp, holding my hands over my mouth. Tek’s eyes are swollen shut, his face a rainbow of bloody bruises. “Oh my God!”
Eric points to Tek’s hand, which is fisted around something. “He won’t let go of it. Insisted I get you here.”
“What are his injuries?”
Eric shrugs. “Hard to say, but I think he was just beaten badly. There might be internal bleeding.”
Max grips Tek’s shoulder. “Tek, it’s Max. Can you hear me, buddy?”
There’s a faint moan from Tek.
“I’m here. What happened? What’s that you’re holding?”
Tek moans again and opens his hand. Something tumbles to the ground.
Max cries out, grabbing for it. “No!”
I reach for him. “Max, what is it?”
He palms the item and ignores me, lunging for Tek. “Tek! What the—who did this?” There’s a hysterical edge to his voice that sends a tsunami of fear raging through me.
Tek licks his swollen lips. “Gibbs gave to me . . . before he . . . knocked me out.” With great effort, he raises his head and grabs onto Max’s jacket. “Has her. Ali.”
And then he passes out.
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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