Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 41): What’s Luck Got to do with it?
In a panic, Max slaps Tek's cheek sharply. “Wake the fuck up, man! Where are they?”
Tek's head lolls to the side. He's out.
A burning fear squeezes my chest and spreads, stealing breath and radiating a numbing tingle through my limbs. I gulp at the icy air, but precious little actually reaches my lungs.
Max stands and walks away slowly, muttering to himself. “Think. Think!” He bangs a fist against his forehead.
Eric grabs Max and shakes him. “Hey! Get it together!” He waits for Max's crazed, pain-filled eyes to meet his. “We need to regroup.”
Max pulls away and roars, “I need to find my sister!” His fear is raw and terrible.
“Yes, you do! But not like this—out of your mind with no clues to follow.” Eric points above the scarred metal door. “This camera works, right?”
“Let's get Tek inside and see if we can make heads or tails of his control room. We should gather weapons, too.”
My heart aches for Max, and I understand the need for immediate action, but what Eric said makes sense. I snag the sleeve of Max's jacket. “He's right.”
Max startles as if taking note of my presence for the first time, his eyes slowly clearing. He nods, looking shell-shocked, and tucks me under one muscled arm. “It's a good plan. Yes.”
Eric reaches out. “The keys?”
Max digs around in his jacket and hands them over. “The silver one with the green cover.” He lets out a choked laugh. “Ali insisted because we might have an emergency. Fuck!”
Before Eric can insert the key, the door opens. Andrea's pale face peeks out, and then she rushes into Eric's arms, pressing her face into his jacket. “Oh God, oh God, oh God. That sick bastard!” She lifts her head, fingers turning to claws that grip the lapels of Eric's jacket. “Tell me she'll be all right—that you'll find her! The things he'll do . . .” Andrea's words end in a plaintive moan, and she presses a hand over her mouth, the fire in her eyes turning to sorrow once her gaze falls upon Max's anguished face.
Max lunges toward Andrea, and I step between them, pressing both hands to his heaving chest. He reaches around me, holding his arms out to her. I struggle to hold Max back while Eric pushes Andrea behind his considerable bulk. Andrea is still fragile and learning to trust us after her ordeal with the Alliance.
“Andrea . . . what did you see? What do you know?” Max's voice rumbles beneath my palms. He's no longer pushing, but the tension thrumming inside him seems to writhe with a life of its own.
“I—I don't remember the words—I'm s-sorry! You should see it, the video. I know how to show you.” Andrea peers around Eric's shoulder, her tearful gaze falling to Tek's prone form. “He lets me hang around the control room. Being able to s-see the screens makes me feel safer.”
“Let's get him and go, then!”
“No.” Eric steps in front of Max and bends, lifting Tek carefully. “You guys go ahead with Andrea. I'm a trained medic. I'll assess Tek's injuries and get him settled somewhere comfortable.”
Max holds the door for Eric and waits for me and Andrea to enter before closing and locking it. The rush of the wind is replaced by the distant hum of the power plant as we hurry through the halls. When the elevator doors close on Eric and Tek, the rest of us head for the control room.
Andrea bends over the console, pressing buttons and cursing her shaky fingers.
Max stares at the monitors, waiting for the footage that might help him find Ali. I grasp his closed fist, and dilated sea-glass eyes dart to our joined hands. He tries to pull away, but I don't let him.
“Show me,” I say as gently as I can.
Max's expression wars between permission and denial, but after a brief hesitation, his fist opens, depositing something soft and warm into my palm.
A purple rabbit's foot.
I cradle the downy good luck charm. The ability to speak escapes me. The rabbit's foot is old, the fur bare in spots, but clearly, it's been well-cared for. My mouth opens and closes. I wouldn't know what to say even if I could find words right now.
Max crushes me in his arms, his ragged breathing hot against my cheek. “I gave that to Ali before we were sent to separate foster homes, told her hope lived inside it. She took it so seriously and has never been without it since.” He cups the back of my head and presses his lips close to my ear, his voice a hoarse whisper. “Ali doesn't believe she's coming back. That's the only reason she'd leave it for me—to say goodbye.”
“No, maybe so you would know to find her. Ali left us her hope, and we won't let her down. Do you hear me?”
Andrea's soft voice breaks in. “Um, video is cued.”
Max anchors an arm around my shoulders and walks us over to the screen. “Go ahead.”
The video is a greenish hue with grainy shadows. A variable whooshing comes through the speakers.
“Why does it look like that?” I ask.
“Shit quality infrared camera. Guess whoever installed it cheaped out.”
On the screen, Tek and Ali exit the power plant, the low murmur of their voices canceled out by the wind. They both wear matching fur-lined parkas with the hoods up, but the height difference makes it clear who's who. He has an arm slung casually across her shoulders, head bent close to hers. Ali's tinkling laughter rings out during a brief lull in the distortion.
Ali twists to peer up at Tek, the whipping wind stealing some of her words. “ . . . think there's . . . see on the cameras?”
Tek's response is unintelligible, but Ali nods in response and they start for the narrow path that curves along the outside of the outcropping. A tall figure morphs from the inky mouth of the tunnel, appearing like an apparition at their backs, and follows.
I have the ridiculous urge to call out to them, warning of the danger even though there's nothing that can change what's already come to pass.
Max stiffens, his fingers digging painfully into my shoulder. “No, no, no! Look behind you!”
Andrea looks away. “There's a gap of about five minutes before . . . before they come back on camera. Should I skip ahead?”
The way she says it causes my stomach to twist.
I gaze up at Max. His face has become stone, wiped of emotion.
Andrea advances the video, stopping it and pointing to the place all three figures disappeared.
A fast-moving blur emerges from the path, hurtling into view—two figures locked in battle. Even though Tek wears a bulky parka and Gibbs a thin, streamlined jacket, it's obvious Gibbs has fifty pounds on Tek, all of it muscle.
Grunts and curses pepper the air as they parry. Tek is fighting with all he has. Gibbs slams a fist into Tek's jaw, snapping it back. Tek seems to have forgotten his training and leaves himself unprotected, but instead of moving in for another shot, Gibbs steps back a little and dances around him.
“Come on . . . you can . . . better than that! All the practice on the beach?” Gibbs taunts, shoving Tek in the back of the shoulder. He gazes up at the camera, gray eyes glowing eerie and alien-like, a condescending smirk twisting his features grotesquely.
Andrea gasps. I instinctively press against Max, repelled by the sight.
Gibbs knew he was on camera. He knew we trained on the beach. What else does he know about us?
Tek yells out and rushes Gibbs, head-butting him from the side and knocking him off balance. The two of them hit the gravel hard, and Tek starts whaling on Gibbs with gusto. His blows aren't well placed, most of them body shots that don't have much effect, but one punch hits its mark, the crack audible even over the howl of the wind.
Blood spurts from Gibbs' nose, appearing like a geyser of slick oil under the infrared light. He screams—not a lament of pain but a war cry. Beating his chest, Gibbs slams a knee into Tek's hip, tumbling him to the ground.
Gibbs whoops, shaking his head. “Fuck, what a rush! You know, I was gonna leave you alive so you could tell him all about me, but I think I'll leave you as a message . . .” Grabbing Tek by the hair, Gibbs punctuates his words with jabbing punches. “Not . . . to . . . fuck . . . with . . . me!” He keeps punching long after Tek goes limp.
A screaming projectile flies through the air, knocking Gibbs off Tek. Ali kicks Gibbs in the gut with her steel-toed boot, eliciting a true cry of pain. He curls into a ball, protecting his torso and head, and stops moving.
After witnessing what he just did to Tek, I know he's playing possum. So do Max and Andrea. The three of us yell at the screen, warning Ali to run.
She takes her attention off Gibbs to look at Tek.
Gibbs moves into action, sweeping his boot across the ground, knocking Ali off her feet. He leaps up and stares down at her, hands on hips. “How did you get loose, you sprightly little bitch?”
“You did a shitty job tying me up, that's how, bozo!”
Gibbs throws his head back and laughs. “Well, aren't you a smart mouth? I might have to keep you.” He slips something metallic from his back pocket—a pair of handcuffs, which he swings around on the end of a finger. “Only the hard stuff for you from now on. Get up like a good girl, and I'll leave the fate of your boyfriend up to God.”
Ali struggles to her feet. “Let me see him first, and I won't give you any more trouble.”
“I doubt that, but whatever. Make it snappy.”
Ali kneels beside Tek, brushing his hair back gently. He moans, and she kisses his temple before placing her lips beside his ear.
Gibbs reaches for Ali's arm, wrenching her to her feet. “No sweet nothings allowed.”
Ali punches him in the stomach. “You wouldn't know a sweet nothing if it jumped up and bit you! Just give me a second, asshole!”
Gibbs laughs again. “Fine. Say bye-bye.”
Ali crouches beside Tek for a few seconds then stands and turns, slipping something into her pocket before holding out her wrists. “Okay, let's go.”
Gibbs snaps the cuffs on. “You're almost making this too easy. What was that you put in your pocket?”
Gibbs grabs her bound wrists and yanks her toward him, simultaneously rooting around in her pocket. Dangling from his finger is the rabbit's foot.
Ali kicks Gibbs in the shin. “Give it back!”
He holds it out of reach. “What the hell is this, and why were you hot to hide it?”
“It was Tek’s childhood good luck charm.”
Gibbs tilts his head. “Maybe Tek—what the fuck kind of name is that anyway?—needs it more than you now.” He pelts the rabbit's foot at Tek. Then he flicks on a flashlight, turns Ali around, and points her toward the rocky path. “Onward and upward, sweetheart.”
Tek reaches a hand out. “No . . .”
“Oh, yes. Close your eyes and dream of me with her.” Gibbs kicks Tek in the face before following Ali.
With a shout of frustration, Max upends the table full of manuals, the heavy volumes thudding to the floor. He picks one up and pitches it against the wall.
“Max!” I yank on the back of his jacket, careful not to get between him and the objects of his destruction.
Max drops to his knees and tears at his hair. “Not my sister. I've given up years of my life to protect her!” He shoots to his feet, rage emanating from stormy eyes. “That deviant fuck isn't getting away with this! Show me the rest.” He points to the screen.
Andrea shrugs. “That's all of it.”
“No, it's not. Skipping over when Eric discovered Tek, how long after Gibbs took Ali did we get there?”
She forwards the video until we appear. “Twenty minutes.”
Something about what happened is nagging at me. “Max, she lied! About the rabbit's foot!”
“So? Why would she tell that bastard the truth?”
“Because she wanted Gibbs to leave it behind! It's a message for you. Ali gave you her hope. I'm sure it means something.”
Max nods. “Yeah. I'm sure she'll find a way to let me know which way they went.” The hot coal of rage still simmers in his gaze, but business-like Max is back. “I need weapons and night vision.” He leaves the room at a run.
I turn to Andrea. “Hold down the fort. Watch the cameras, and call us on the walkie if you see anything!”
“Okay! Good luck!”
I barely dive into the elevator before it slams closed. Max doesn't acknowledge me; he gnaws at his bottom lip, deep in thought. When the doors slide open, he lunges for the weapon cabinet, taking a pistol, taser, and two knives. He loads the gun, shoving extra bullets in his pockets, and tests the taser, blue sparks zinging between the metal prongs.
We return to our quarters. Eric is tending to Tek in the room Andrea stayed in when she arrived. He looks up, grim. “Had to give him some morphine. Definitely broken ribs. Cross your fingers there's no internal bleeding.”
Grace lays snugged alongside Tek's body, snout resting on her paws. She looks up when we come in, and her tail thumps with enthusiasm, but she remains next to her patient.
Max's expression shows no emotion. “Give me the night vision goggles.”
Eric hesitates, eyeing Max warily. “Okay, man. Over there.” He points to his jacket, which is draped over a stack of chairs. “What the hell was on that video?”
“Long story short—Gibbs has Ali, and I'm going to bring her home.” Max grabs the goggles and a walkie-talkie, pressing the latter into my hand. He grabs my face and kisses me hard before stepping away. “I'll come back.” His words are a banishment as much as a promise.
“No, I'm coming with you!” I lunge for Max, and he sidesteps me.
Eric grasps my shoulder, his touch surprisingly gentle. “Marie, it might be best if you hang out here and watch Tek while we take care of biz.”
Max's icy gaze lands on Eric. “No, you stay here and protect them. We don't know who else is out there and what they know.”
I pull away from Eric and grab Max's hand, tears burning my eyes. “Please don't leave me behind.”
Max's jaw clenches and he refuses to meet my eyes, instead looking somewhere above my head. “This is why I tried not to love you. I can't protect both of you at once. Stay here.”
Max pushes me into Eric's arms, and then he's gone.
At first, I struggle madly, kicking and clawing—even trying to bite Eric's hand—but soon realize I'm no match for his brawn. I breathe in ragged huffs, facing away once he lets me go, blocking the exit.
Grace watches stoically from her place on the bed.
“Look, I can't let you run off half-cocked. You could get yourself or Max or Ali—or any combo of you—killed.”
I gulp stale air and nod, wrapping both arms around myself. “You're right. Sorry.”
“That's all right!” Relief emanates from his laugh. “We good? 'Cause I'd rather work together than play jailer.”
“Yeah, we're good.” I scratch Grace behind the ears, so I don't have to meet Eric's keen gaze. Grace whines softly and licks my hand.
“I'd like to go check on Andrea. Think you can keep an eye on Sleeping Beauty here?”
“Sure.” Guilt swills around in my gut. “Wait. Do you think you could get me some tea before you go? I'm feeling shaky.”
Eric's eyes widen almost comically. “Oh, yeah! Yeah, I'll be right back with that.”
He leaves the room, and I collapse in a chair, head in my hands. “Get it together, Marie. You can do this.”
I count the seconds, each one taking Max farther from me and closer to Gibbs. Less than a minute goes by before Eric pokes his head in, looking apologetic. “Can't find the tea.”
“Oh, shoot!” I make a show of smacking my forehead. “I meant to get more from the supply room. Do you mind getting it?”
“Where would I find it?”
“Third rack, second shelf from the bottom.” The lie slips from my lips with ease.
The moment the elevator hums to life, I shove the walkie talkie in my pocket. I rifle through Eric's jacket, hoping for a gun and finding a knife instead. I take it and continue searching until I find what I'm really hoping for—the night vision device that looks like a cell phone.
The last thing I do before leaving the room is draw close to Tek, who rests peacefully in a morphine-induced slumber, and grasp his limp hand. “Hold on. Ali's coming home and so is Max.”
I open the door slowly and peer down the hall. The task I sent Eric on should occupy him long enough for me to escape. By the time Eric figures out I'm gone, he'll be torn between going after me and following Max's order to stay at the plant. I'm betting his sense of duty won't allow him to abandon Tek and Andrea.
Adrenaline surges, fueling me with energy and the ability to pretend what I'm doing might not be the stupidest decision ever. I take a few wrong turns on the lower level, my heart racing as I expect Eric to catch me at any moment.
When I finally push open the door to the outside, a cyclone of dust swirls around me, the grit stinging my eyes. The strength of the wind has ratcheted up considerably, creating a low moan. I hurry across the gravel and into the smooth stone tunnel, thinking it might be safer than the precarious outside trail. Darkness, thick and all-encompassing, presses so close I fear I might choke on it. Fumbling the night vision device, I turn it on, holding it out in front of me. The screen flickers to life and illuminates the way ahead. Somewhere nearby, water drips, plinking against stone.
I move faster than I should through the slick, drafty tunnel. Halfway through, I lose my footing and go down on one knee. The night vision screen tumbles from my hand and hits the stone with a crack, skidding into the darkness.
Panic explodes inside me, crushing my lungs in a breathless vise. “Shit!” The curse ricochets off the walls and rings in my head. Blackness swells, a discordant cushion of despair threatening to consume me where I kneel.
You can do this, Ro. Think of Ali, of Max. You found the love I never did. Get off your ass and protect it!
“It's so dark, and I . . . can't breathe!”
Remember the time I dragged you to that abandoned castle? In the middle of the day, you managed to trap yourself in the dark. You mewled like an unhappy kitten until I found you. I helped you then, and I will lead you out now.
Curling into myself, I close my eyes—though there's nothing to see—and remember.
We were driving home from college and were forced to take a detour along a winding road flanked by towering trees and tangled vegetation. The pinkish-gray sky was heavy with the threat of coming snow.
Rather abruptly, the trees thinned and a field opened up to one side, revealing a stone castle set back from the road. Katie slammed on the brakes and skidded into the driveway, a spray of gravel pluming behind us, and accelerated, taking the ribbon of curves at top speed.
I braced my hand against the dashboard. “Are you crazy?”
“I've always wanted to explore a kingdom! Live a little!”
We explored the grounds of the pale stone castle, wandering paths bordered by meticulously manicured grass and pondered why anyone would bother with landscaping when the structure was leaning and crumbling in places. Katie thought she saw someone and took off, running between two of the buildings. By the time I turned the corner, Katie was out of sight. I wandered around until I fell through a grating into a damp basement. The square of daylight overhead was well out of reach, and I sprawled in the darkness, crying out to Katie. When her head appeared above me, she reminded me of the flashlight app on my cell phone, which had landed a few feet away. I felt around on the damp floor until I found my phone, and then it was a simple matter of locating the exit.
That's my girl. Breathe, and find that night vision gizmo.
The drafty air is cool in my expanding lungs. I take a few more breaths, orient myself, and creep slowly along the tunnel until my fingers curl around the device. I press the on button and pray as it flickers to life. A spider web of cracks zigzag across the screen, but it still works.
“Thanks, Kiki,” I whisper.
This time, I move with caution, ecstatic when I reach the top of the trail and step out onto the ledge. The sky is overcast, clouds of fog hovering in the damp air. The wind is biting, whipping hair into my face, but I rejoice leaving the tunnel behind.
Scanning the area with the night vision gadget, I look for movement and find none. I pick my way along the steep path, weaving between rocks and shrubs as I search for signs left by Ali or Max. I pass a few scuffs in the dirt, but the rocky terrain conceals any footprints.
A long strand hanging from the sharp edge of a boulder grabs my attention. When I get closer, I lower the night vision screen to take a look.
It’s Ali’s red scarf.
I grab the soft wool between my fingers and shove it into my pocket. I come around the side of the boulder fast and twist my ankle, catching myself before I fall.
A snap sounds from behind me, and I whirl around, expecting Eric. There’s no one there. Pressing a hand to my chest, I wait a few seconds for my heart to slow, listening to the sounds of the night. The wind whistles, buffeting the rocky hill and bending bushes.
A few yards farther along the path, I find Ali’s glove stuck in a bush and have to bend low to untangle it. Maybe she hid the glove there on purpose, hoping Max would see it. I’m excited now and wonder what clue I’ll find next.
As I stand up and turn around, a pair of glowing eyes fill the screen. Shocked, I jump back and drop the night vision device, screaming when I come face to face with a grinning nightmare.
“Surprise. Miss me?”
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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