Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: Both
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 42): The Beauty of Surrender
Gibbs stands before me, eyes full of wild amusement, face a patchwork of cuts and bruises. His lips curl into a cruel smirk.
The world freezes, my mind scattering in multiple directions: assessing his injuries, afraid of what he's done to Ali, wondering where Max is, calculating my chances of getting away while navigating this treacherous terrain in the dark with a twisted ankle.
Gibbs reaches out and cups the back of my neck, wrenching me closer. With his other hand, he pats me down, confiscating the knife. “I see that moment in your eyes—the one where you realize your options are few and unpalatable.” He laughs, a smoky puff of breath laced with cinnamon assailing me.
I stare up at him, not daring to allow him out of my sight. I can't afford to miss a sign, a weakness, the truth, or a lie. My life, and maybe the lives of my new family, might depend on it.
Gulping a breath, a trace of cinnamon riding the edge of the frosty air, I steady myself and prepare to do whatever can be done. Eric might show up. Max might ride to my rescue. Bottom line? I'm alone with a madman. To my great shame, my eyes sting with the heat of tears. Blinking rapidly, I fight them with everything I have, determined that I will go down strong and fighting, no matter what.
Gibbs tilts his head and ghosts a finger across my bottom lip. “Shh . . . don't fret. It's over. The running, the fighting, the hiding from your fate. There's a beauty to surrender, great courage in acceptance.”
A hot poker of anger flares inside me, eviscerating the tears. I bite at the offending finger, but Gibbs is too quick, snatching his hand back. I glare into his insane gaze. “You are the most despicable excuse for a human being I've ever come across. May the virus mutate and liquefy your insides, you vile scum!”
His eyes widen slightly, but the impassive mask returns a second later. “Tell me how you really feel, why don't you? If I were prone to sensitivity, which I'm not, that might have hurt my feelings.” The hand on the back of my neck tightens painfully, his voice a growl. “What time you have left to live belongs to me, will be decided by me.”
“What have you done to Ali?”
“Oh, now she was a hoot! I would have liked to play with her a bit more, but she was needed elsewhere as bait. Let's return to the underground fortress, shall we?” Gibbs swings us around roughly, marching toward the path hugging the rocky face of the cliffs.
The howling wind slices through my clothing and pushes hard against my body, reminding me why I used the tunnel to get up here. I struggle against his iron grip, planting my feet against the rock-strewn ground and finding no purchase, my boots slipping. “No! I won't go that way!”
Gibbs pushes me against a boulder and presses his forearm against my throat. Released from his iron grip, the back of my neck aches, throbbing in time with my pulse. The icy cold of the stone seeps through my clothing, causing an involuntary shiver. His intense gaze roams my face, inky shadows concealing his expression. “We're going to the plant. I've been out here scrounging to survive while you've been dining like royalty and sleeping in comfort.”
“How would you know what I've been doing?” Though the words are coated with sarcastic derision, my heart knocks against my ribs.
“Remember the key in the bottle?”
Gibbs chuckles. “I admire your fire, but we both know you found that key. I’m going to hazard a guess that you didn't get the message I was trying to convey with said key, my attempt to level the playing field a bit.”
“Still haven't pieced it together? You recently spent some time under the watchful eye of Dr. Kasabian, recuperating from what I suspect was a relapse.”
I involuntarily suck in a breath. Did Garth betray us after all?
“I was watching, here and there. When you were getting ready to leave the house, I contemplated ambushing you, but then I thought why not find out where sweet Marie has been hiding herself?” Gibbs brushes his knuckles across my temple and down the side of my cheek, lowering his voice intimately. “I was so close to you. Dr. K went back to the lab; the disloyal Eric came to meet with your jughead boyfriend, and you were all alone. So I snuck into the house and planted a tracker in your duffel bag. It was exciting, knowing someone might catch me.”
Ice singes my spine. I swallow, pulling air through my nose. “You're lying.”
Gibbs continues rubbing his knuckles back and forth gently. “You'd like to believe that, wouldn't you? You'd like to believe you outsmarted me, that your sense of safety was real—when your group came out to play on the beach, when you practiced with weapons, the stolen gropes and kisses with what's-his-name—but I was there for it all, learning about all of you, waiting for the perfect moment.” His fingers wrap around my jaw, their grip borderline painful. Since I don’t dare look away for a fraction of a second, frightened of the cues I might miss, I watch him lick his thin lips, his eyes dilating. “How did dear Andrea end up with your ragtag crew, hmm? They told me she was dead. We had a thing before I found you.”
“No, you didn’t, you crazy fuck! You destroyed her!” Angry, I kick him without considering the consequences.
In response, he traps my legs between his boots and presses on my windpipe until pinpricks of darkness dance around the edges of my vision. I choke and claw at his arms, my fingers slipping off the smooth nylon of his jacket. When he finally lets up, flecks of light spark in the darkness as I fight to avoid passing out. My throat burns, and I can only manage dry croaks.
“As I was saying before you so rudely interrupted . . . I had a thing with Andrea. I’d love to see her again, catch up. Who else is at the plant right now? Tek is probably dead or dying and no threat to me. Eric might be a challenge, but I’ve got a few surprises up my sleeve.” Gibbs pulls a set of handcuffs from his pocket. We scuffle for a few seconds, but he wins easily, trapping my hands in front of me and fastening the cuffs around my wrists. “There. Now we can continue. Would you like to know how I discovered your underground kingdom?” He steps away, yanking me forward.
I would like to know how he discovered our location but refuse to give him the satisfaction of knowing that, simply setting my aching jaw mulishly. He shrugs and starts toward the treacherous ledge again, forcing me to protest. “The safer path is that way.” I nudge my chin in the other direction. “There’s an entrance up there to the tunnel leading to the back door of the plant.”
He stares at me for a few long moments, considering. “Okay, but you better not be lying, or you’ll suffer the same fate as your ex.”
Gibbs starts walking again, tugging me along behind him. “Keep up. No falling on that pretty face.” After a few more strides, he slows, glancing back. “Your precious oaf of a boyfriend fell for the tender morsel of bait I laid out—hook, line, and sinker. You should have seen him, rushing onto the cliff ledge with eyes full of fire. When he saw his precious sister trussed up like a turkey, all caution went out the window—and then it was a simple matter of a few well-placed kicks.”
My heart hammers so hard, I can barely speak. “Where are they?”
“Ali is still waiting for someone to untie her. It’s cold up there, poor thing, though I think her attention is focused on the broken body of her brother, bobbing in the surf between the sharp rocks below. If it helps, he's not feeling any pain.”
Please, God, let him be lying.
Grief overtakes me, a gaping hole opening up inside. Even the possibility of never seeing Max again, experiencing the intensity of his sea-glass eyes or the reverence of his touch, draws a pitiful cry from the depths of me. I choose to believe Max is alive, but either way, I'm determined to end Gibbs' toxic existence.
Gibbs continues along the increasingly steep path with me rushing to keep up with his surefooted strides. I never dreamed it would be so difficult to maintain balance with my hands cuffed together and almost plead for him to slow down, but I don't trust myself to speak without cursing or crying or both.
Thunder rumbles over the ocean. Even in the darkness, rolling clouds hang suspended in the air, filled to bursting with unfallen rain. A jagged bolt of lightning splits the sky, illuminating the purplish storm swells. A few seconds later, thunder cracks, shaking the ground and rattling my teeth. A strange tingle spreads across my skin, an acute awareness of the electricity sizzling in the air.
“Looks like your tunnel idea was a good one. I'd hate to come this far only to be struck by lightning.”
Getting crispy fried would be too good for you, I think with a flood of uncharacteristic vitriol.
The sky spits fat staccato drops of rain that pelt our bodies and patter against the rocky trail. More lightning strobes around us in disorienting flickers, thunder crashing seconds later with a resounding boom. I lose my footing, nearly twisting my good ankle.
“Why are you doing this?” I scream. “Why are you so evil?”
Gibbs stops short, and I plow into him. He rounds on me, grabbing for my arms, his fingers biting in painfully. “I'm not evil! Say it again and you won't live to gather the bones of lover boy.”
I gape at him with surprise. His typically crazy gray eyes are tinged with hurt, and he looks away quickly when our gazes meet. I start to wonder if there's a way to reach the good inside him, convince him to let us go.
My hopes are dashed when Gibbs tightens his hold on the cuffs and backhands me, the force of the slam rocking my head back. I bite my lip, the taste of blood seeping onto my tongue.
We near the top of the trail, the entrance to the tunnel looming darker than the night, an inky entrance to hell. With swift clarity I'm certain Gibbs is going to kill us all if given the chance. He might play with me for a time, play with Andrea or Ali, but when he's had his fill, death is on the dessert menu.
In another moment of insight, I decide I'd rather die on my own terms.
We arrive at the summit where the dirt flattens into a natural landing pad. Gibbs lets go of my arms, muttering something about a flashlight. I breathe deeply, extending my fingers until the pads caress the stone where Max kissed me the first time he brought me home to the power plant.
Max jumped out at this very rock, scaring me before taking my breath away with a searing kiss. When I tried to slip from his grasp, he grabbed me around the waist to keep me from plunging into a crevasse.
The very chasm looming two feet behind Gibbs.
The time for thinking has passed. Gibbs roots around in his jacket, searching for a flashlight. Then he's going to shine it into the opening, possibly seeing the yawning abyss lying in wait.
Resting against the stone, I allow my eyes to close for just a moment, imagining the feel of Max’s sensual mouth, the thrill that jolted through me as his lips sampled my skin. I remember how hard it was to get close to Max and the happiness I felt when he finally let me in. I savor the moment.
When I open my eyes, Gibbs is watching me, fascinated. “Where did you go just now?”
“Reliving a memory, an attempt to forget this nightmare.”
Rain drives down harder, saturating the ground and gurgling down the steep path. The natural overhang protects us from the deluge, almost as if we’re inside of pocket of calm.
Gibbs reaches out, tracing my face with his fingers—the gentlest moment I’ve spent in his presence. I flinch, turning away from his touch.
Rage reignites, transforming his face into a mask of hatred. “You’re just another bitch, aren’t you? Tease and tantalize only to snatch it back.” He grabs my face in a vise-grip, leaning in until I’m eye to eye with bloodshot crazy, his voice ragged. “The things I’m going to do to you . . . and Andrea. Oh, the places we’ll go.”
“Look behind you, you crazy fuck!”
“I’m not falling for that one again. Let’s go.”
I plant both feet and bend my knees, balancing the best I can, and press against the tall stone for stability. Clasping my fingers together, I use my cuffed hands as a weapon, coming up fast and slamming Gibbs under the chin.
He stumbles but not far enough.
With a feral scream I ram my knee into his groin and jab my balled fists into his solar plexus.
One foot steps back into nothingness, and he teeters on the edge of the fissure, pinwheeling his arms. He’s looking for purchase, for anything that can save him from falling, and ends up grabbing what’s directly in front of him.
Adrenaline crashes through my system. I bend my knees deeper, leaning toward the stone. I scream incoherent things, pleading with every fiber of my being for this to be over.
The moment seems to go on forever, drawn out in a macabre dance of death as we push and pull and fight not to go over the edge. In the end, I lose. Gibbs isn’t letting go, and he weighs far more that I do.
My last thoughts include an ornery man with sea-glass eyes.
Max, I love you. Catch me, Katie.
A savage shout from my right precedes several sizzling snaps. The only comparison I can make is the igniter on Dad’s grill but much louder.
I’m shoved against the stone, flopping like a rag doll. Strong arms surround me, snatching me from the hands of death.
An inhuman keen fills the air, changing pitch as Gibbs goes over, disappearing from sight. The crunch of bones cracking like twigs is punctuated by horrid screams as Gibbs tumbles to the bottom of the fissure.
Someone is talking, but I can only hear the screams. I shake my head, wishing I could cover my ears.
“Make it . . . stop.”
My head is forced forward, cheeks stinging. I blink until two shards of sea glass come into focus, and then I let go, slipping into quiet oblivion.
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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