Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 46): Division
I stand in front of the dresser, facing the mirror. Clicking on the lamp, I blink as soft golden light bathes my naked skin. I tilt my head, examining my torso with a critical eye. I acknowledge Gibbs' handiwork tattooed across my body and look beyond it.
The apocalypse hasn't been kind.
Pressing shaky hands to my sides, I skim them over prominent ribs to jutting hip bones before directing them over my behind and around to my thighs. I've never been heavy, but I'm used to more curves. Tears well, blurring my too-thin form in the mirror.
You are so much more to Max than a body. The wise voice of Katie derails my pity train.
I swipe at my eyes and remind myself about last night. Max's expert touch, his lips sampling me with reverence, the gently intense way he made love. He loves me. He doesn't care if the strain of the new world has ravaged my body.
Max's physique hasn't suffered—at least from what I’ve seen—but he spends a great deal of time in the gym and drinks protein shakes. Maybe once the crisis is over, he'll offer me some advice. I bite my lip, wondering if we'll live long enough for it to matter.
Don't do that, Ro. You're going to survive. I'm counting on you to live the life I'll never have the chance to.
Sucking in a breath, I blink away the tears and meet my gaze in the mirror. Katie's eyes stare back at me, the blessing or curse of twins. In this case, I feel less alone.
“You're always with me, Kiki.” I press a fist to my heart. “I'm going to make it and bring you with me.”
Grace raises her head from the tangled blanket she's snuggled in. I take a deep breath, let it out, and grab the clothes Max left on the end of the bed last night, pulling them on.
Grace yawns, stretching her front paws out in front of her. She pads over to me, wagging her tail slowly. I dig my fingers into her wiry hair and scratch vigorously over her back for a few seconds. When I stop, she nudges my hand with her cool nose, encouraging me to continue.
“Oh, you like that, huh? You want more?” I rub my nails over her back again, and her eyes squint as she lets out a contented sound. “Your world is far simpler than ours, isn't it? You deal with everything as it comes and take time for pleasure wherever you find it.”
Grace and I head to the kitchen. Ali is already there, brewing coffee and laying out bowls of oatmeal. Rosy blooms accentuate her usually pale cheeks, a testament to how well Mamie's butterbur tea is working.
I laugh. “Are you ever not chipper? And do you ever sleep? I always find you in the midst of everything.”
Ali offers a secretive smile. “I can't sleep when there are disturbances in the vicinity. No, I'm not always chipper, but I do love lemonade. I have no use for sour things.”
I pour some kibble in Grace's bowl and refill her water. “Where are Tek and Andrea?”
“Andrea's sleeping, She needs her rest, poor thing. Tek will be in shortly. He's bringing the laptop so we can monitor things from here.” Ali hands me a steaming mug of coffee and settles at the table with a cup of tea. She sprinkles brown sugar on her oatmeal then offers the box to me.
I pour much less than I want to, embarrassed by my sweet tooth, and swirl the spoon through it. After tasting the bland concoction, I remember my prominent ribs and hip bones and add another small mountain of the brown crystals.
Ali seems delighted. “You go, girl!” She grabs the box and dumps an extra heap in her own bowl. “Didn't want to look like a sugar addict, but this stuff is just tasteless glop without it!”
“Can't argue there.”
We start on our improved breakfast. Grace has finished her food and sits next to my chair, eyebrows raising and lowering independently. She's too polite to beg, but I can tell she's hopeful.
Tek strides in, looking harried. A laptop is tucked under his good arm, the cord dangling precariously close to the floor. His hair is mussed, eyes bright. He sits at the table and uses one elbow to nudge his bowl to the side, placing the computer in front of him and opening the lid. “Come on . . . come on.”
Ali stops eating and watches as he brings up a smaller version of the monitors in the control room and chooses which feeds to enlarge.
“Coffee?” Ali asks.
She places the mug to the left of the computer. “Anything yet?”
“No.” Tek holds the mug awkwardly and takes a sip. “Why did I have to bust my right shoulder?”
Ali stands behind Tek and smoothes his hair before massaging his neck. “So much tension. You need to relax, Jay.”
Eyes closed, he tips his head back. “You have magic hands.” He opens one eye to scan the computer screen then closes it again. “In all seriousness, how can you suggest relaxing?”
She kisses the side of his neck. “You'll be able to think more clearly.”
“Not if you keep doing that!” Tek laughs, a flush creeping up his neck.
I spoon more sweetened oatmeal into my mouth and sip more coffee while the two of them banter. Their rapport, mutual respect, and love for one another is obvious. I can't help but wonder what others see when they observe me with Max.
A tingle of anticipation flows through me, and I think of last night—the way Max touched me, the love and desire shining in his eyes. I want nothing more than to spend another night sated and warm, cocooned in Max's arms.
“Here we go.” Tek sits up straighter.
Ali moves to his side. “What is it?”
I'm out of my own chair, flanking him on the other side.
Tek taps the keys rapid-fire, bringing up a collage of feeds that overlap. He chooses one from the rear entrance of the plant.
Max and Eric hustle through the door, bogged down by rucksacks and equipment. They move deeper into the plant—Tek changes camera feeds to follow them—and choose a semi-hidden alcove to set up Gibbs' fake base camp. In a short time, there's a sleeping bag, pile of MREs, bottled water, lantern, rope, box of ammo, and a rucksack bulging with other items.
Max leaves the alcove and uses a broom stick to bust a few light bulbs in the adjacent hall.
“Yo, watch out for the trip wire!” Eric uses his flashlight to illuminate the danger zone.
“Thanks, man.” Max steps over the nearly invisible wire and disappears from view. “Almost done!” he calls out.
Eric goes over their handiwork, taking the time to leave a half-eaten MRE next to the sleeping bag.
The laptop blips, and Tek brings up another feed. “Shit!” He grabs his walkie-talkie and yells, “Incoming! Guys, get outta there!”
My breath catches as a group of soldiers storm out of the tunnel and converge on the back door of the plant. One of them aims a rifle at the camera, just as Max predicted, and shoots out the lens.
The feed goes dark.
Eric hurries out of the alcove, grabbing his walkie-talkie. “How close?”
“Right outside the door. They just shot out the camera! I don't want to activate the other camera yet. If they destroy that one, we'll be running blind at that entrance.”
“Got it. Max, let's hustle!”
A metallic bang rings from the laptop speakers, followed by another and another.
Max's voice comes through the speaker, low and urgent. “They'll breach the door before we get to the elevator! We have to hide.”
My heart thuds. “What's he saying?”
Tek ignores me and responds to Max. “I think you're right. Do you have the earpiece I gave you?”
“Shit, no. Max and I will have to share.” Eric leaps over the trip wire and morphs into the dark to join Max.
Tek curses. “Eric, turn your walkie off. Go silent, other than the earpiece. Make sure you don't have anything on you that might give your position away.”
The lock gives, and Alliance soldiers enter the plant. Tek enlarges the feed so we can watch. Two lead soldiers pan the area through rifle scopes, creeping silently along the corridors. They stop before reaching the alcove and wave more soldiers in.
Tek arranges the videos side by side so we can watch the figures leave one section and enter the next.
Ali's hand claws into a fist, her body rigid. “C'mon, Max.” There's a rasp to her breathless whisper that concerns me.
“Where's your inhaler?”
Ali shakes her head, her gaze fixed on the laptop.
I move to her side, grasping her hand. “I'm worried about your asthma. Where is it?”
She pulls the inhaler from the pocket of her sweater, and finally looks my way. “Knew I was going to need it today.”
My stomach does a sickening roll. “Will they be okay?”
She turns back to the screen. “It doesn't work that way.”
I'm not entirely sure what she means, but I let it go and watch events unfold. All I can do is pray Max and Eric aren't discovered.
Once the first wave of men sweep the area, the imposing figure of the vice president enters, flanked by two heavily armed soldiers—presumably Axle and Pruit. The visual is distorted by shadows, but Wesley seems to be dressed for a fox hunt once again. He tugs off a pair of gloves, folding them neatly before tucking them in the pocket of his coat, and looks around almost casually. I can't see his eyes, but I imagine them as blue lasers taking everything in and stripping away the subterfuge.
My stomach rolls again, and I wonder if Max underestimated Wesley.
The lead man snags the first trip wire, setting off a flash-bang. A sunburst of light blinds the camera, leaving us with audio. Shouts of “Get down!” and “Take cover!” overlap.
In the other window, the vice president maintains his position, unflustered, and nods, muttering something to one of the soldiers who steps away and speaks into his mike.
The other camera refocuses. A smoky haze lingers in the air, and the soldiers closest to the disturbance seem dazed.
When they discover the alcove, the message goes over their comm links, and more of them gather around. Someone points toward the broken bulbs on the ceiling.
Wesley smiles grimly and leans out the busted door of the plant to utter commands to someone outside before following Axle and Pruit through the corridor.
Tek reviews other feeds, looking for activity. Then he counts the soldiers and grabs his walkie-talkie, pitching his voice low. “Other than Wesley, there are six soldiers inside, some possibles outside but not sure how many.”
“Copy that.” Max's answering whisper is tense.
“The first flash-bang went off, and Wesley doesn't seem perturbed whatsoever.”
“Cold SOB, just like his nephew.”
“Where are you?”
“Wedged above some pipes that run along the ceiling. It's hot as fuck up here, but we're well past where they can detect us. For the first time, I'm thankful for all the humming.”
“Hold tight. I want to see what Wesley is up to.”
We return our attention to the laptop, and I fight to ignore the pang of worry that burns in my gut. I won't feel safe until Max and Eric are reunited with us, and the vice president and his band of marauders are gone.
Wesley stands at the periphery of the alcove, silently taking in every detail of the base camp.
A soldier explores farther in, triggering the booby-trapped keypad. A small explosion goes off, sending the men into a defensive posture, weapons drawn—except for Wesley, Axle, and Pruit.
“Stand down, soldiers!” Wesley barks.
One foolish soul speaks up. “But, sir—”
Wesley stares the soldier down icily. “Clearly Lieutenant Gibbs is fucking with us. You’d have to be daft not to realize it. Mop the shit from your drawers, and assess the damage. Try not to bumble onto a grenade, but if you do, die quietly and with dignity.”
The men spread out and examine the floors, walls, and ceilings carefully. Someone calls out when a second trip wire is discovered and another finds a door rigged with C4.
Wesley nods, a satisfied smirk playing over his thin lips. “All of you leave, except Axle and Pruit!” He watches the soldiers file out and waits until everyone is outside before cracking his knuckles and stalking into the alcove, methodically rifling through everything while his men stand guard.
Ali is paler than usual and takes a puff off her inhaler.
Tek shakes his head. “This isn’t good. The bastard is sly. His men are easy to fool, but something tells me he’s not giving up easily.” He gets on the walkie talkie and lets Max and Eric know what’s happening.
Max’s tone is grim. “This joker is a thorn in my ass. Not likely we’ll get past him anytime soon. We might need a diversion.”
Tek nods. “I agree.”
“You’re trapped down there, and we’re hugging a hot pipe. Not sure how either of us can get past them without being detected.”
“I may be able to help with that. Give me a little time with the master blueprints.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Tek stands and stretches, kissing Ali on the cheek. “You need to rest, baby. I know you won’t get in bed, but maybe you can monitor the feeds while I’m gone.”
“Okay.” Ali replaces Tek in front of the laptop.
I grab his arm as he turns to leave. “I want to talk to Max.”
Tek nods, his face sympathetic, and hands me his walkie-talkie. “I’ve got another one in the control room.”
I offer it to Ali first, and she smiles gratefully. “Be careful, Connor. I love you.”
“Love you, too, Ali-bear.”
A tear courses down Ali’s cheek, and my vision blurs as she presses the walkie-talkie into my hand. “Max . . .” I choke, unable to get out more than his name.
“I’m okay. It’s going to be okay.” When I don’t immediately answer, he says, “Do you trust me, China?”
“You know I do, jerk.”
Max chuckles. “There’s my girl. Listen to me—everything will be fine. If you feel panicky, think of us at the beach or the first time I kissed you. Remember?”
“Of course I do.”
“Good. I don’t want to wear the battery down on this baby before Tek can guide us out of here, so I’m going to sign off, all right?”
“O-okay,” I whisper.
“I’m here. I love you.”
“I love you, too—so much.” I fight my emotions until I know Max can’t hear me, and then I give in, letting out a sob.
Ali grabs my arm. “Looks like that evil prick is done searching.”
Wesley exits the alcove and stands directly under the camera. His cold blue eyes seem to stare into my soul. “This is far from over, Kyle. We had an understanding, you and I. Tomorrow, 1300 hours, just you and me.” He makes a V with two fingers, pointing first at his own eyes and then jabbing them at the camera. He speaks to his men without looking away. “Station two men in here and one outside. Have them taser anything that moves. No killing, especially if they come across Marie Merlo. She’s mine.”
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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