Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 49): Down the Rabbit Hole
The first few days underground go smoothly. We convene in the kitchen for meals and discuss the situation, contingency plans, and probabilities. The consensus is that the Alliance will move on when Gibbs doesn’t turn up; whether this is because we truly believe it or simply because we wish it were so is unclear. We have plenty of food and resources, which would allow us to remain below ground for an extended period of time, but Eric’s untimely capture is a complication nobody accounted for and dulls our collective moods.
The laptop is our constant companion, accompanying us at meals, to the gym (Max insists keeping in shape is imperative), and to the living room where we play cards or watch movies. Primary responsibility of the laptop is assigned in shifts: me and Max, Ali and Andrea, and Tek on his own. Sometimes Max joins in on Tek’s shift. Max has a hard time looking Andrea in the eye, his expression often clouded with guilt.
When I'm alone with Max in our room, the lovemaking is intense, the sensations heightened by our predicament. Max’s hands are always gentle, guiding me over or under him. The only time the guilt vacates his sea-glass eyes is when he’s inside me, confessing his love and devotion. During those moments, a deep and abiding tenderness softens his tone and expression.
Grace becomes restless after a few days, pacing and looking reproachful. We take turns bouncing a tennis ball down the corridor for her to fetch, but she quickly tires of the game and flops down with a soft whine. A few hours later, she’s happy to play again though the duration grows shorter each time.
Alliance soldiers come and go in shifts, but Wesley doesn’t return. When the men do speak, they do so in low tones, the words often lost to the hum of the power plant.
By day five, claustrophobia sets in. Andrea stops eating and hides in her room unless it’s time for her watch. Max becomes downright ornery and sarcastic, reminding me of the tightly strung man who knocked me on my ass as an introduction and deserted me without explanation. By day eight, he’s spending more time in the gym, taking extra shifts with Tek, and avoiding the hurt expression on my face. When I confront him, he tells me I’m being ridiculous and over-sensitive, suggesting I “get over it” before stalking away.
Tears sting my eyes, and I throw my pillow at his retreating back, supremely dissatisfied when the pillow simply slumps to the floor, looking flat and defeated, much like I feel. I swipe the heels of both hands over my eyes, wiping away the moisture gathered there, and catch my reflection in the mirror. “Oh, hell no.”
I know where to find Max. Whenever the world becomes too much, he throws himself into physical activity, burning off excess energy and guilt.
The clank of barbells greets me in the hall outside the gym. I peek around the door to make sure Max is alone before I enter, slamming the door shut behind me. Max doesn’t miss a beat, his powerful arms steadily lifting and lowering the weights. Sweat glistens over his bulging biceps, and he grunts softly each time he presses up.
Instead of confronting him, I don a pair of boxing gloves and take my frustrations out on the punching bag hanging in the corner. I imagine every sarcastic remark Max has made and picture them written in black marker across Wesley’s forehead—then I pummel his face. Sweat drips into my eyes, causing me to blink against the sting, and when I train my gaze on the red leather again, Gibbs’ leering face replaces his uncle’s. I punch harder, crying out each time my fist connects.
“Bring your elbows in tighter.” Max’s voice beside my ear startles me, and I round on him, fists raised in a defensive posture. He holds his hands up and takes a step back, amusement sparking in his eyes. “Down, girl.”
This incites my anger, and I advance on him, peppering his torso with sharp jabs. “Do you think . . . this is . . . funny . . . you ornery . . . bastard?”
“Whoa!” Max grabs my wrists.
I struggle, trying to break free. “You’ve been acting like the secretive jerk I met in town! Pulling away, avoiding me.” My voice wavers, and the weakness provokes my anger all over again. “It hurts, Max, and I don’t deserve it!”
Max lets go of my wrists in favor of my upper arms and backs me into the wall, holding me there. He huffs and stares at the ceiling. “This is why I didn't want to do this. Caring about people creates liabilities and difficult choices.”
“You see me as—as a liability?” My words are saturated with hurt.
When he gazes down at me, a storm is brewing. “Yes . . . no—I just . . .” He makes a frustrated growling sound and cups the side of my neck with one hand, his thumb skimming gently along my jaw. “I love you. I can't change that, nor would I ever want to, but the more people I care about, the tougher the choices. If you weren't waiting at the bottom of that conduit for me, I would've taken out those soldiers to rescue Eric.”
“What about Ali?”
“Tek would take care of her if something happened to me, but who the hell is going to watch out for you?” Max leans his forehead against mine. “Damn it, China. I can't stand the thought of anyone hurting you.”
“You're hurting me. The past few days . . . you've looked right through me. You're sarcastic and gruff, like a different person.”
“I'm sorry.” His lips hover a hair's breadth from mine. “Forgive me.” The whispered plea turns into a tentative kiss, seeking absolution.
Part of me wants to reject him the way he’s rejected me, but I understand how hard it was for him to let me in. The tension eases from my body, and I melt against him, returning and deepening the kiss. He releases my arm and slips his hand behind my shoulder, pulling me closer. I wrap my arms around his waist, my boxing-glove-clad hands dangling uselessly behind him.
Max steps away and grins, giving the red leather coverings a playful squeeze. “Still want to take a shot at me?”
I narrow my eyes. “Maybe.”
Max laughs. “Let’s get these off.” He tugs at the gloves and tosses them aside. His fingers ghost over my hips, catching the hem of my shirt, dragging it up. “I’d never get these sleeves over those.”
Goosebumps skate across my skin, and not just because of the change in temperature.
Max’s shirt joins mine on the floor. We leave a trail of clothing from the punching bag to our favorite weight bench.
The make up sex is amazing.
Three days later, an ill-tempered Wesley shows up at the plant during our shift. “Everybody out! Return to the compound. This assignment is over.” He kicks something into the wall with a loud clatter.
An unfortunate soldier has the gumption to ask if Gibbs has been located and is castigated by some brief but well-placed sharpness from the vice president.
After the soldiers clear out, Wesley paces around Gibbs’ fake base camp, muttering to himself. He finally makes his way over to one of the cameras, his blue eyes arctic. “I’m disappointed, Kyle. We spoke at length about your obsessions, your inability to remain focused on the big picture. I took you under my wing, allowed you to stunt the careers of many good men in your thirst for power. Now you’re fucking with me, causing us to waste vital manpower in the quest to bring you in. The free ride is over.” A slow, shark-like grin splits Wesley's face, and his tone becomes taunting. “I've been reading your journal, Kyle. I know the truth, and you need to be punished. Let the games begin, my boy. When the shit hits the fan, you know where to find me. Go big or go home.”
With those parting words uttered, Wesley squares his shoulders and leaves the plant, taking the remaining soldiers guarding the door with him.
Max doesn't speak. He rests both elbows on the kitchen table and watches the feeds with narrowed eyes for quite a while before glancing at his watch with a muttered oath. “It's almost time to change shifts anyway. Let's bring Tek in on this.”
“Do you think Wesley really left or is he hoping we'll believe he's gone and slip up?”
“Not sure. I want to see what Tek thinks.”
Tek thinks we need to be extremely cautious and wait a few days before venturing above ground. Everyone is on edge due to the extended seclusion, but we grudgingly agree with Tek's plan. We’ve made it this long—what’s a few more days?
On day two, Ali runs down the hall, banging on doors. “Heads up!”
Adrenaline surges through my system, and I'm instantly awake and pulling shoes on before my brain boots up. Max reacts just as quickly. Grace yawns, stretches, and does a full-body shimmy before heading to the door with an expectant look.
When we arrive in the kitchen, a bleary-eyed Tek is going through the feed recordings. Ali massages his shoulders, flashing a hopeful smile when she sees us.
Andrea moves about the room like a caged animal. “Well? Anything?”
Tek glances at her. “Patience.” He returns to watching the feeds closely, the rest of us hovering behind him in silence. “There!” Tek points at the screen.
Max leans closer. “Can you blow it up?”
“I think so.” Tek expands the feed full screen.
A lone soldier with a hood obscuring his face enters the plant, bypassing the fake base camp in favor of the blown keypad. He kicks debris out of the way and slips something thin under the door. When he turns, the hood slips.
My heart races as I recognize the face. “That's James!”
James mutters something on his way out. We have to rewind the recording three times before we catch the words. “Message delivered.”
Max insists on waiting until the next morning to retrieve the message, intent on taking a chance by using the elevator to avoid slithering through the conduits again. I demand to go with him, and after a lot of bickering, he finally gives in.
None of us is willing to attempt sleep. We don't talk much, and nobody suggests playing cards. Every eye in the room is occupied with the feeds, searching for any sign of movement.
There is none.
At the agreed upon time, Max shoves a pistol under the waistband of his pants. He straps a knife to his ankle, and slips another into his pocket. “Arm yourself.” He presses a gun into my hand and confirms that I have my knife. “We probably won't encounter anyone, but we're sure as fuck going to be ready for them.”
Tek checks the feeds a final time before we step into the elevator. Max has an earpiece attached to the walkie-talkie so the others can communicate with us if necessary. “Ready?”
My insides are quaking, but I nod. Max takes my hand and leads me into the elevator. We ascend in silence, our fingers tightly linked.
The doors part smoothly. Max drops low and peeks out, looking right and left. “Come on. Be ready for anything.”
There's no ambush waiting for us, but rather an unmarked, sealed envelope that James must have slipped beneath the door. Max picks it up carefully and inspects it, both by feel and by holding it in front of his flashlight. “Looks like a one page note.” He gives me the flashlight and then slits the envelope, tugging out an unlined piece of paper. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
We bend our heads together and read the note.
If the envelope was sealed and you're reading this, I'm probably still alive. I took a great chance by trusting Smith to deliver this missive, but there was no one else I could trust.
I've been successful! I trust you know of what I speak and the ramifications of such a discovery. Your mother has benefitted greatly, and I hope that in time you will, too. The rest of what I have to say must be said in person. You'll figure out where, and I'm certain your companion will take the necessary steps to ensure your safety. I will wait for three days—all the time I can spare without casting suspicion.
I pray for your safety and hope to speak with you soon.
I grab the paper and read it three times. “The cure—Grace's blood was the key to the cure!” I tap the note with a finger. “He wants to meet at the house where he took care of me.” My heart skips a few beats and takes off running. A sense of elation and disbelief swirl inside, leaving me lightheaded.
Max isn't as enthusiastic. “This could be an elaborate trap. Also, those tubes of Grace's blood can only go so far. What happens when the news gets around, and they run out of this new miracle before everyone is cured?”
“I don't know.”
As we return to the others and make plans to meet Garth, I remain optimistic in spite of the potential obstacles.
“Stay down. We wait it out.” Max shoots me an irritated look for the umpteenth time.
I wriggle around, surreptitiously rubbing at my numb posterior. “It's been hours! You've circled the town, watched the house, skulked through the woods . . .”
Max pans the area with his binoculars. The night vision device rests on top of his backpack, waiting for the dark. “We wait.”
Evening descends slowly. The sun dips below the horizon, allowing the biting chill in the air to deepen. A bluish wash paints the world, highlighting the shadows. My toes prickle with pins and needles, exacerbated by the cold.
Max switches from binoculars to night vision glasses and leaves me sitting on a stump behind a screen of bushes while he makes another revolution of the area. He seems satisfied once he returns. “Okay, time to meet Garth. Be careful. If you sense anything unusual, get out of there.” Max presses a walkie-talkie into my hand. “Call if anything goes wrong, and I'll come running.”
I step in close and grab the front of Max's jacket, going on tiptoe, and kiss him fiercely. His rigid posture finally softens, and he slips his fingers into my hair, tilting my head to deepen the kiss.
When we part, he sighs deeply and caresses my cheek. “I love you, China. Now go—before I change my mind.”
The walk to Garth's house is eerie. It's been a while since I traveled the streets of this deserted town. The chorus of crickets accompanies me. As I enter the front yard, I have to suppress a shriek when an animal rustles in the upper branches of a tree, sending bits of bare twig and dead leaves falling. Out of habit, I round the side of the house and approach the back door, which is traditionally kept unlocked. The curtains and blinds are tightly drawn, offering no sign of occupancy. I hesitate a moment before rapping lightly.
Garth opens the door a crack and peeks out. “Marie, thank God!” He pulls me inside, shuts and locks the door, and surprises the hell out of me with an uncharacteristic, smothering hug.
When he lets go, I stand in the entryway awkwardly. “What was that?”
“You've never been one to dole out the affection.”
Garth laughs, and his relief is apparent in the exhalation. He takes me by the arm and leads me into the kitchen, which is bathed in candlelight. “Tea? Something to eat?”
He gestures to the table. “Have a seat.”
I sit where I have a clear view of the back door. “You found the cure?”
Garth tilts his head, looking me over with a funny smile. “Max is rubbing off on you.”
“I take that as a compliment.”
“Oh, it is. It definitely is.” He takes the seat across from me and picks up a steaming mug, sipping carefully. New lines seem to have creased his haggard face. His eyes are bloodshot, and they’re surrounded by dark, baggy circles, but hope resides in them as well.
The refrigerator in the corner kicks on; my eyes flick in that direction and return to Garth. “How's Nina?”
“Your mother is doing well. She wasn't, but she is now.”
“You tested the cure on her?” My tone holds accusation.
Garth shrugs, watching me carefully. “Nina relapsed. She was dying. You know I'd never willingly do anything to harm her.”
I consider this a moment, knowing Garth speaks the truth. “Are there others . . . relapsing?”
“Yes.” Garth rubs a hand over his face and looks down at the table. “We lost two so far. They didn't respond to re-treatment. Several have been re-treated successfully, but I question how long it will last. And how long . . .” The words trail off, but I can follow the path for myself.
“Until I get sick again.”
“How sure are you this time?”
My question brings a smile that reaches his dark eyes. “As sure as I can be. Canine DNA was the missing piece.”
“Who else knows that?”
“No one. I've been careful.” Garth glances toward the refrigerator. “I brought a dose with me, specially mixed for you. I'd feel better conducting more tests before you try it, but the choice is yours. What I can't do is allow you to take it with you.”
“If you were discovered with a dose, the Alliance would be tipped off. They might arrest me or, at the very least, put me under close surveillance. I know you can't easily come to me, so I'll leave it here.” Garth opens the refrigerator and shows me a syringe filled with reddish fluid. He instructs me on its use and potential side effects. “If at any time you become symptomatic, get here as soon as possible and give yourself the shot. If you wait until you're delirious with fever, it might be too late.”
We return to the table, and I think this over for a moment. “I'll wait.”
“A wise decision. My research will continue though it's much slower going when I lie to my staff.” Garth smiles wanly.
“Have you heard anything about Eric? The Alliance caught him at the power plant and took him in.”
Garth seems genuinely surprised. “They did?”
“Wesley was looking for Gibbs. Handpicked a trusted team because he's a snake, just like his nephew.”
“I'm afraid I haven't seen Eric. I wondered why he hasn't contacted me. That's the reason I took a chance and used James to deliver my message.”
“Did you tell James I'm staying at the plant?”
“Of course not! I begged him to deliver an envelope. Told him I didn't know if the message would be received, but if it were, it could help save lives. He started to question me and then changed his mind, said he'd rather not know. The envelope was sealed when you found it?”
“Yes, it was. I should go.” I rise from the table and pace toward the back door.
Garth joins me, undoing the bolt. “I trust Max is waiting to escort you home?”
“Give him my best. Thank him for taking such good care of you.”
“I will. And tell Nina . . . tell her I'm glad she's feeling better.” Garth gives me a look that causes guilt to gnaw at my insides, but I thrust it away. “Thank you for everything, Garth. Be safe.”
The shock of frigid air is a balm to my flaming cheeks. It angers me that I feel even a smidgen of remorse about my mother. She doesn't deserve my forgiveness.
A brisk breeze kicks up, swirling dead leaves and debris around the yard. Nearby wind chimes clang, reminding me of the ones Mamie had in our backyard and the way they would rattle urgently before a storm. I shield my eyes and wait for the wind to die down, the chimes reduced to a pleasant tinkling. I blink, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness before walking around the side of the house.
The wind gusts again. I stop and turn so it buffets my back.
A sudden bump from behind sends me stumbling forward. I land hard on my knees, wondering what I stumbled into. The walkie-talkie flies out of my pocket. “Shit!” I feel around in the high grass, searching for the walkie-talkie, stopping when I encounter the toe of a boot instead.
Before I can raise my head, my world goes dark. Fabric whispers against my skin, blocking the wind. A hood? I try to scream and something warm and dry is crammed so far into my mouth I start gagging.
I can't breathe.
“Shh . . .” I'm hauled to my feet, my arms wrenched behind me and secured. “Shh . . .”
A sharp pinch sears the skin of my arm, and something slightly cold is injected. I struggle harder, pulling free from my assailant, and run in the direction I think will bring me to the front yard and into Max's view—a difficult proposition with a hood and gag.
My legs go rubbery, and I trip over something, falling to the ground. I twist my body as I go down since I can't use my hands for protection. A feeling of numb heaviness spreads through my body. I fight to remain conscious. A spiraling free-fall sensation sends me careening into the abyss, like Alice down the rabbit hole . . .
The first thing I notice is the pounding behind my temples, followed by stiffness in my limbs. There is no gag or hood—my mouth is dry but clear, and a slight breeze tickles my face. I can freely move my arms and legs though they do feel tingly and sore.
Was it a dream? Did I trip over something and knock myself out?
I lie still for a time, straining to hear any sound however small, but the silence is total. I shift, and a mattress creaks beneath me. Not home, not the power plant, but maybe Garth brought me inside his house. Thought processes are sluggish, but the idea finally dawns to open my eyes and see where I am.
Natural light pierces my vision when I lift my lids, and instinct makes me scrunch them to slits. Daytime. That means many hours have passed, possibly days. The bright light comes from an open window across the vast room, a room hewn of stone.
I turn my head, wincing at the dull throb of pain. I’m alone, something I sensed but needed to confirm. Pushing up slowly to a seated position, I pan the room. The stone floors are covered by thick green area rugs. Other than the bed, there’s a roll-top desk, a couch, and two chairs. Heavy drapes the same hue as the carpet ripple in the breeze coming in the open window. The walls are free of decoration.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed and stand, testing my weight. When I feel steady enough, I make my way to the window, feeling like a newborn foal trying to find my footing. I lean my palms on the stone ledge and gaze out the window.
The view is spectacular. A blue-gray sky with misty clouds rides above hills and valleys carpeted with brilliant green grass and adorned by hundreds of trees in various states of undress.
Looking down causes a dizzying sensation that makes my stomach roll. The view is so breathtaking because I’m high above the ground. Rolling green lawn spreads out, punctuated by stone walls, some solid, some partially collapsed. Spying movement, I focus on the outermost left corner. A soldier crouches behind the jagged wall, gun at the ready. There’s another in the right corner. One halfway down the lawn behind a pile of rubble. The longer I search, the more soldiers I see.
This is a fortress, guarded by the Alliance.
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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