Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 43): Mercy
The first thing I notice is the patter and trickle of rain nearby. The sound reminds me of cozy moments, burrowed beneath the comforter on a soggy Saturday morning. With a secret smile, I'd wiggle around, worming my way deeper under the covers..
Katie would always curse and complain about the lack of sun, how icky it was that everything—including her freakin' undies—would be damp for hours if she ventured out of the house. I'd hum, noncommittal, privately reveling in the down time, a chance to sleep longer, an excuse to lounge in my jammies and spend hours reading.
I drift, enveloped by fond memories until the hot poker of pain breaks through. My body aches and throbs in so many places, I'm not sure what to wonder about first. Something thick is wrapped around me, constricting movement and keeping me warm. By contrast, my cheeks are exposed to swirls of frigid air in which minuscule ice chips seem to be suspended. A burning ache sears my throat, and I'm certain my spine is shattered. The thought sets loose waves of adrenaline through my system, causing me to panic and thrash wildly. My efforts fail due to the bindings, causing the fear to ratchet higher still.
“My back . . .” The words are a rusty rasp, lost to the wind.
“China?” Supple leather caresses my face, Max’s gloved hands. “Baby, open your eyes for me.”
“Max?” Hearing his voice, saying his name, brings back a flood of memories . “Gibbs said you were . . . dead.”
“That joker couldn’t get rid of me.”
I force my lids open, and his face is a pale blur hovering above me. I blink, trying to bring him into focus, but my vision isn’t cooperating. I give up and shut my eyes again; just knowing he’s here and alive is enough.
“She’s awake?” Relief is apparent in Eric’s voice. “Maybe we can get her back to the plant now.”
“Where’s Ali?” I ask.
“At the base of the tunnel. She won’t go inside while you guys are still out here.”
“Stubborn little . . .” Max mutters. “China, can you tell me where you’re injured? What did that fuck do to you?”
He means Gibbs.
“Thank God . . . he’s finally . . . gone.”
I recall hearing the rapid-fire sizzling snaps of a taser just before I was flung against the stone, and Gibbs toppled into the crevasse amid screams and the cracking of bones.
Gibbs is finally gone. I’ve never wished anyone dead before, but in my mind, this death is just and deserved.
“Where are you hurt? I have you strapped to a board to carry you down, but I don’t want to hurt you unnecessarily.”
I open my eyes again, fighting to focus, and manage a clear view of Max’s beautiful eyes. “Sea glass . . .”
Max strokes my cheek tenderly, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “What are you saying?”
Instead of answering the question, I say, “Everything hurts. Twisted my ankle. Gibbs g-grabbed me by the neck and pressed his arm against my throat a-and slapped me.”
Max makes an ugly sound, his face contorting with anger. “Son of a bitch!”
I open my mouth to tell him it’s okay but swallow the words as a moan rises from the fissure, echoing around us.
“He’s still alive?”
Eric swears. “I was hoping the girls wouldn’t have to hear him.”
I try to sit up but of course can’t. “He’s not dead?”
“Not yet, princess.” Gibbs’ voice, weakened as it is, still sends a ripple of fear through me.
Max leans toward the drop off. “Shut the fuck up!”
“You can’t leave me down here!” Though Gibbs tries to hide it, panic seeps into his words.
Bitter anger blooms inside me. “Sure we can, psycho.”
Eric hovers behind Max, wringing his hands. “What should we do? He could hang on for days.”
Max sits up, pulling the gun from his pocket. He removes all but one bullet from the chamber, engages the safety, and tosses the weapon over the edge. It hits the side once before landing with a clack at the bottom. “Here. Don’t say I never did anything for you.”
“What the hell . . .” Gibbs drifts off as he realizes what Max threw down.
“Your choice—quick or slow—but nobody’s getting you out of there.”
“Murderers! Get me the fuck out of here! You have no idea who I am.” There’s a hysterical, pleading edge to his voice.
“We know your uncle is vice president. It doesn’t mean shit to us, and the Alliance will never know what happened. You’re AWOL as far as they’re concerned.” Max looks back at me, a complex mix of emotions shading his eyes. “I’m giving you the chance to die like a man. It’s the best offer you’re going to get and much more than you deserve.”
“Fuck! Don’t do this!” Gibbs’ voice dissolves into a pain-filled grunt.
I turn my head toward the crevasse, forcing steadiness into my voice, and parrot Gibbs’ own words back to him. “There’s a beauty to surrender, great courage in acceptance.”
A volley of expletive-laden threats issues from the abyss, which only brings a grim smile to my face. If I had any saliva, I’d spit.
When his tirade is over, I can’t stop myself from adding one final comment. “By the way, you’re not forgiven for the sick things you’ve done. Enjoy hell.” The tears that spill down my face aren’t for Gibbs; they’re for his victims, me included. “Get me out of here, please.”
Max gazes at me with surprise and a touch of admiration in his expression. “You never cease to amaze me.” He nods to Eric. “Let’s go home.”
Max positions himself at my head. Eric dons night-vision goggles and lifts my feet. They step carefully over Gibbs’ yawning grave. It’s slow going as they make their way along the steep path while trying to hold me steady. I grit my teeth several times, fighting not to cry out from the pain.
“Ali?” Max calls out when we near the end.
“I’m here. I'm fine.”
“I’m so sorry—” Max's voice breaks.
“Shut up, Connor.” There’s a tinge of humor in her voice.
Max mutters something unintelligible under his breath.
When we arrive at the mouth of the tunnel, the first opaque glow of the coming dawn lights the sky between the diminishing storm clouds. A few errant drops of rain drip on my face.
Ali steadies herself on Max’s arm and rises up on tiptoe, placing a quick kiss on his cheek. “My hero, always.” She bends over me, a tired smile playing over her lips. “Thank God that nightmare is over.”
“Ali, can you get the keys out of my jacket?” Eric inclines his head toward the right front pocket.
Ali fishes around in the deep pocket, coming out with the key ring. She unlocks the door with shaky hands. Warm air drifts out along with the familiar and welcome hum of the power plant.
Max and Eric hold the board as steady as possible and carry me over the threshold toward safety.
A single, sharp report ricochets from the darkness of the tunnel just before the door shuts behind us.
The trip through the maze of halls is awkward, but I don't complain when Eric bumps into the wall, sending a wave of agony along my spine. The aches and pains give me hope that I'm not paralyzed, that Max and Eric aren't hiding anything about my condition.
My mind is distracted by the single gunshot, which plays over and over with crystal clarity, so much so that I at first fear the Alliance infiltrated the power plant. The guys assume my whimper is one of pain, and I don't correct the error.
Eric taps the button for the elevator. “Are we gonna fit in there with her like this?”
The two maneuver carefully into the close space, jostling me only once. The elevator jerks slightly as it begins moving.
Ali hasn't said a word since we entered the plant. She leans against the brushed metal railing, chewing her lip and jiggling one leg. Our eyes meet, and I see the worry there.
Eric looks over at me, his face open and friendly. No worry lines crease his broad forehead.
“Is everyone okay?” I ask him.
“Um . . .” His gaze bounces to Ali and back to me. “Relatively speaking, yeah. Andrea's an emotional wreck, but she'll deal. Tek will be all right. I mean, we don't have an x-ray machine lying around, but best I can tell . . . a few broken ribs and lots of bruising—maybe a mild concussion. I'm no doctor, but we need to look out for double vision, vomiting, lethargy—stuff like that.”
A fragment of my conversation with Gibbs comes to mind. “There's a tracking device! We need to find it. Gibbs said he put one in my bag.” Tears spring up, not entirely unexpected, and I drag in a deep breath. “He was right there in the house with me when I was recuperating. He could have . . . done so many things.” My lower lip trembles.
Eric's eyes widen.
Max growls. “Even after death, this guy is the bane of our existence!” The elevator jerks to a stop, and Max backs out slowly, trying to keep the board level. “Shit, do you think anyone else knows our location? Gibbs didn't seem to know where we were. Was he just playing with us?”
“I don't think so.” Ali stands straighter, following us into the hall. “I've picked up a lot of knowledge, being around Tek. I don't think a tracker would work once inside the plant. The signal probably dropped off near the entrance, and Gibbs bumbled around until he came upon us.”
Eric nods. “That makes sense! GPS wouldn't work in here.”
“Now we just have to find the fucking tracker and destroy it.” Max leans over and kisses my nose. “Let's get you to our room and unstrap you.”
When we enter the door to our quarters, there's a lone dog there to greet us. Grace barks, racing up the hall, and stops short next to me. She crouches in a half-sit and tilts her head, emitting a soft whine.
“Hey, girl! I'll be okay.”
Grace looks to Max as if for confirmation.
Max laughs. “Your mama is just fine.”
Maybe she understands English. More likely, Grace is responding to his tone of voice. She yips and trots ahead, leading the way to our room where Max and Eric set me on the bed and unstrap me from the board, unzipping my jacket but leaving it on.
The pain is worse once the protective sheath is removed, and they roll me gently onto the bed, but being released from my confines floods me with relief. Grace hops up, and I try to pet her but find my limbs weakened by pins and needles. She snuggles alongside me with her head on my chest, and I manage to sling an arm around her. She sniffs at my neck with a soft whine and licks at the tender skin as if trying to heal the damage Gibbs did.
Eric hovers by the door, rubbing at the back of his neck. “I'm gonna go check on Tek and Andrea.”
Ali is already gone.
Max closes the door with a sigh, shrugging out of his jacket, and perches on the edge of the bed opposite Grace. Gentle hands ghost over me, pressing here and there. He asks me to flex my hands and feet, to move my arms and legs, which I do without issue.
Max strokes his knuckles back and forth across my forehead. When I start to speak, he shushes me. “Rest now. I don't think anything is broken. We can address the other stuff later.”
I try to say something again, but he presses a finger to my lips with a shake of his head.
The stream of adrenaline has finally slowed, leaving my lids droopy and my body heavy.
I drift, feeling loved and protected.
Awareness seeps into my consciousness slowly. Grace's paw pokes me mid-back. My arms and legs are stiff and sore but no longer numb, and I'm able to shift onto my back without a great deal of difficulty. The corner of my mouth feels crusty, and I swipe at it in the vain hope Max didn't notice the drooling.
I crack my lids. The lamp Max gave me emits a halo of soft golden light. Max sits in a chair tipped against the wall, his feet resting on the battered dresser and a sketchpad propped against his knees. The faint scratch of pencil on paper is soothing.
I watch him for a while. Every so often, he uses his ring finger to smudge something in the drawing and often pauses, biting his lip as he stares at the wall, imagining something only he can see.
“Hey.” My voice is a raspy squeak.
Max gets up, placing the pad and pencil on the dresser, and wipes his smudged hands on his jeans before coming to sit beside me. He's not wearing the same clothes as when I fell asleep and is clean-shaven.
“How do you feel?”
Before answering, I check for drool residue, happy to find there isn't any. “Good, I think. A little stiff and sore.” I snag the edge of his shirt. “You shaved while I was sleeping.”
Max laughs, an amused twinkle in his eyes. “That's not all I did, Sleeping Beauty. I showered, took a hammer to the tracker we found in your bag, set up a meeting with Garth, talked to Tek and Andrea, enjoyed a few hot meals and a beer, and did some sketches—not necessarily in that order.”
I lift up on one elbow, fighting a wave of dizziness before I scoot into a seated position. A multicolored afghan with a random pattern in shades from muted to vibrant covers my legs. “How long was I asleep?”
Grace rolls on her back and stretches out, yawning widely.
“Day and a half.”
“Wow. How's Tek?” I run a hand through my hair, smoothing it back.
“Broken ribs, bruising, sprained shoulder, but otherwise fine. No signs of a concussion. He's back in the control room, running it one-handed. Ali refuses to leave his side.” He shakes his head and links our fingers, smiling sheepishly. “Then again, I've spent most of my time watching you sleep.”
Heat floods my cheeks, and I unconsciously swipe at the corner of my mouth. “You were watching me?”
His thumb rubs lightly against my palm. “Don't be embarrassed. You're really cute when you sleep, so peaceful.” A shadow passes across his face. “I long for that kind of peace. It's been a long time.”
“I'm sorry. How are you doing?”
He shrugs. “I'm fine, why?”
“Gibbs said he pushed you off the cliff. I—I was afraid I'd never see you again.”
Max looks confused. “I never even saw him up there. He left a trail of clues leading to the cliffs, where I found Ali bound and gagged. When I removed the gag, Ali demanded that I leave her there and go find you—she had a feeling Gibbs was after you all along.” He smooths a lock of hair behind my ear. “Turns out she was right. I banked on you remembering the drop off at the top of the tunnel, so I took a chance and came that way. By the time I got up there, the two of you were teetering on the edge, so I zapped him with the taser to force him to let go.”
“I fell right into his trap, so stupid.”
“You never do what you're told.”
“I'm not very good at it, no.”
Max grins. “It's part of what I admire so much about you even though I want to throttle you sometimes.”
My stomach grumbles loudly, protesting the lack of sustenance.
“We should get you something to eat. Think you can get up, or would you rather eat here?”
“I want to see everyone.”
Max helps me off the bed, allowing me to lean on him for support. I make him stop in front of the mirror. My eyes are glassy. I rake shaky fingers through my tangled hair in an attempt to make it more presentable. A faint bruise shadows my cheek where Gibbs slapped me, but the angry bluish-purple marks on my neck are what cause me to gasp.
Max presses his cheek alongside mine, his stormy gaze meeting mine in the mirror. “I wish that fuck could die again. He had it too easy.”
I close my eyes. “I'm just glad it's finally over.”
After making a quick bathroom stop, we make our way to the kitchen where the table is set for six. Tek is already seated, his right arm in a sling. Andrea is next to him, and Eric stands behind the chair, massaging her shoulder.
Ali turns from the counter and shoots a triumphant grin around the room. “I told you Marie would be joining us for dinner.” She winks at me. “We'll start you off with tea, soup, and pain killers.”
Everyone around me chats as I sip tea and spoon chicken noodle into my mouth. It's probably my imagination, but I never remember soup tasting this good. Max keeps one arm around my shoulders the entire time, and Grace wiggles her way under the table and plops herself on top of my feet.
The haunted look I've seen on Andrea's face is gone. She's friendlier and more open with the group, even cracking a few jokes between bashful glances at Eric.
After dinner, we convene in the living room. With our various injuries, we can't seem to find a game all of us can play, so we decide to make use of the dust-covered DVD player and watch a movie. Ali chooses Bruce Almighty, and we joke and laugh and forget for a while.
I fall asleep during the second movie, and Max carries me to our room. I curl against him, content.
I stir in the middle of the night and turn over to find the other side of the bed empty. My heart flutters, and I sit up. Grace slumbers on and doesn't even lift her head.
Maybe Max snuck into the kitchen for a snack.
Yawning, I fight to stay awake until he returns, but sleep claims me—until Grace starts growling and feet pound in the corridor outside our room.
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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