Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 4)
“So . . . how long do you plan on stalking and sabotaging me? Isn't this town big enough for the both of us?” I face the window, watching rivulets of rain zipping around in random patterns as the wind buffets the house. Perhaps it's not wise to turn my back on Mr. Ripped and Tattooed, but he's had plenty of opportunities to hurt me if he wanted to.
“Stalking and sabotaging? Seriously?” His tone is incredulous.
I grip the edge of the counter and fight against a wave of panic as another blast of thunder rattles the windows. “Are the storms always this bad around here?”
He huffs, a sound that is half laugh, half disgust. “Are you scared?”
I whirl around and glare at his shadowy form in the dim room. “Are you always such a jerk?”
“You deflect when things get sticky.”
It's hard to make out his face in the blue-gray gloom. Soon we'll be in complete darkness. I turn away again and open a cabinet, taking out a jar candle and lighter I noticed earlier. The dusty wick crackles and flares to life, bathing most of the kitchen with a golden glow.
When I turn around, he's gone.
I pan the room, my eyes straining to unscramble objects in the darkness beyond the circle of light thrown by the candle. Grace's nails click on the kitchen floor beside me. She whines softly and nestles her wet nose against my palm. I crouch down and ruffle her fur, which earns me one of her full-face licks. A delighted giggle bubbles up, and I can't hold it back.
“Glad you're having a fan-fucking-tastic time in there, China. Mind pulling the damn shade down and closing the curtains?” His derisive voice drifts in from the living room.
I rise to my feet and yank the shade down, tugging the curtains shut with a vicious snap; then I whirl around and offer my best angry face to the darkness. “Happy? And for the last damn time, my name's not China! It's Marie.”
“Marie.” His voice is soft and close, startling me.
I fight not to react and give him something else to make fun of me for as his form morphs out of the dark. The top of my head only reaches his chest, forcing me to look up at him. Those fascinating eyes of his gleam in the candlelight, but I can't tell what mood he's in this time.
He brushes a strand of hair away from my face, his fingers grazing my cheek. “Marie.” He tilts his head and says my name as if he's tasting it. His gaze roams over my face, considering me, and then he nods. “I can see it.”
A foreign sensation flutters in my chest. He's too near. I haven't felt the touch of another human being since Katie was dying, and with the counter digging into my back, there's nowhere to go. “Um . . .” I push his hand away. “What can you see?”
“The name—it suits you.” His voice is still soft, not the harsh growl from earlier. The way he's looking down at me causes that strange flutter again.
I don't ask why he approves of my name, and I ignore the openly intense gaze roaming my features as if I'm a puzzle he's trying to solve. “Do you have a name . . . or should I just keep calling you jerk?”
A slow smile spreads across his face, amusement glinting in his eyes. “You can call me Max.”
“Max.” I tap an index finger against my lip while looking him up and down. For some reason, I don't believe him. “Doesn't quite fit you.”
“No?” His smile never falters, but there's something disquieting in his eyes.
“No.” I clear my throat, growing uncomfortable with his close proximity. “Um, you're in my personal space . . . Max.”
Max steps back with his hands raised in front of him. “My bad.”
Grace inserts herself in the space between us and presses against my legs. I feel safer with her there.
Max crouches down and rubs Grace's ears. “You're a good girl, Nudge. Don't let your guard down. She's going to need all the help she can get.”
I bristle. “I've survived this long all on my own.”
His hands freeze mid-rub, and he trains those strange eyes on me. It's disconcerting to look down at him and still feel intimidated. I'm grateful Grace provides a buffer when he stands again, wiping his large palms on his jeans.
“Tell me . . . where are you from?” he asks.
“How did you end up here?”
That's a loaded question. I don't know where here is, and how I arrived is a mystery as well. More thunder crashes, and the howling wind beats at the house. I suck in a breath and look around. The curtains are drawn across the living room windows, blocking my view of the storm. The flickering candlelight lends a coziness to the room, and I'm thankful we have shelter from the storm.
“I . . . um . . . don't know.”
“You don't know.”
“Max, I don't even know where we are.” It's hard for me to admit this to a relative stranger, especially one I remain unsure of. He's definitely an enigma, doing things that on the surface seem cruel while claiming they're helpful.
Max nods. “It makes a strange sort of sense.”
“When I noticed you wandering around the cliffs, you seemed out of it. Nudge planted herself by your side and refused to leave. Then you lit the fire, and I had to come take care of it.”
A sinking feeling twists in my belly. “Is Grace your dog?” I look into his eyes and pray he says no. How would I go on without her?
Max gazes down at Grace, an affectionate smile on his face. “This lovely girl has been with me for a while, but clearly she's made her choice.”
I swallow the sudden lump in my throat. “Thank you. She means a lot to me.”
“I'd love to take credit, but she has a mind of her own. Couldn't force her away from you that first night, and I suspect I couldn't now.” Max lifts the leather cord with the dog whistle over his head and hands it to me. “Take this. You can use it to call her without announcing your presence to everyone for miles.”
I accept the whistle and hang it around my neck. “Thanks.”
Grace, perhaps sensing the change in both of our demeanors, wanders over to the back door and scratches at it, looking up at me expectantly.
“Should I let her out in this?”
“Unless you want a puddle in the kitchen—or something worse.” Max laughs. It's a nice sound, and for the first time, he seems more relaxed. “Don't worry. She won't go far, and she'll come back as soon as she's done.”
When I open the door, Grace darts out into the darkness of the yard. The storm is subsiding, reduced to a strong wind with gentle rain pattering against the grass and leaves. Since it's a covered porch, I step outside to wait for Grace. I'm not comfortable being alone in the house with Max. Maybe he's not the complete jerk I thought he was, but I still question his motives and intentions.
The wind whips my hair around, and I pull the edges of my hoodie together, crossing my arms to hold it in place. The air smells clean and fresh. I've always loved the scent of the outdoors when it rains. It's also been a while since I smelled air untainted by the stench of death and decay. A shiver works its way up my spine, and I hug myself tighter.
How did I end up here? Katie and I were the last ones left of our clan; everyone else had already died, and my dad had gone into the station the week before and had never come home. The day before Katie died, she seemed a bit stronger and asked to go out in the yard. We sat in the grass and blew dandelion fluff together, making wishes that would never come true.
Katie had stared into space for a while, chewing on her bottom lip. The lip chewing was an affectation we had in common, especially when in deep thought. I knew not to disturb her when she was like that, so I waited patiently, shredding the cottony fluff between my fingers.
When she was ready to talk, Katie laid her hand on my arm. I felt the heat radiating off her; in my mind, I pictured ripples of heat hovering over hot pavement.
“I'm not going to make it, Ro.”
“Shut up.” Katie glared at me, her tongue snaking out to play with her lip ring—a habitual, nervous habit. “Everyone else is gone. You don't show any signs of the virus, so I'm going to assume you're one of the cursed.”
Her hand tightened on my arm until it was painful. “Whatever is left . . . out there . . . it'll be ugly. We've watched those zombie shows and end-of-the-world movies. That's the new reality. Maybe there aren't any flesh-eating creatures, but you can bet your ass people will turn mean. The power will go out soon, and there won't be any more food deliveries.” She had a coughing fit and took several gasping breaths before she could continue. “I don't mind dying—really don't want to live in a such a shit world—but what bothers me is leaving you behind.”
Katie started crying then, big, fat tears that kept streaming, something I'd only seen her do a handful of times in twenty-three years.. She didn't try to wipe them away but let them drip down her chin and over her neck, wetting her shirt.
I shook my head. “We're twins—we share the same DNA. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before I get sick.”
Katie rolled her eyes. “You know that's not true. For whatever reason, you've been chosen to survive.” She coughed again, long and hacking, then wiped her dripping nose on her sleeve. “We need to go over some things that might help you live longer. For one, you should head to Uncle Jack's cabin. It's rural up that way, and he's got a huge garden.”
“Don't you think I'd be better off somewhere warmer? How will I make it through the winter?”
“Eventually, but what if Uncle Jack or some of his friends are still alive? He's one of those conspiracy theory nuts, lives off the grid. Maybe we should have listened to him when he spewed wild scenarios.”
I threw a dandelion stem at her. “He's a crazy old coot! He poked, prodded, and looked me over like he was considering purchasing a head of livestock last time we saw him! I'm surprised he didn't force my mouth open to check my teeth.”
The two of us surged into peals of laughter. When it dried up, Katie coughed for five minutes straight before she regained control of her breathing.
It was the last laugh we ever shared.
After Katie was gone, and I found the courage to bury her in the backyard, I did take her advice and head for Uncle Jack's cabin. The power was still on then, but I couldn't bear to stay there when everyone I'd ever loved was dead.
A sob wrenches out of me. I look into the darkness, and listen to the light tap of rain. The storm is almost over, but my own inner hurricane is just beginning.
“Hey, you all right?” Max touches my shoulder, and when I glance up at him, he almost seems concerned.
I pray he mistakes my tears for rain. “Yeah, just waiting for Grace to come back.”
He looks at me strangely. “She's been back. Pushed the door open and went inside a while ago.”
I close my eyes and feel my face heat up. “Sorry. Guess I was lost in thought.”
“You coming in? We need to talk before I go.”
Go? Go where? I nod. “Sure. Right behind you.”
The kitchen seems overly bright after being out in the dark. I notice a small puddle with a trail of wetness leading across the floor toward the living room and lean through the archway to confirm that Grace is curled in a ball on the couch, fast asleep. Part of me worries about her getting the couch wet, but I realize how silly that is in this new reality.
Max sits in the same chair he did earlier. This time he's not leaning against the wall and instead rests his muscular forearms on the table. His grim expression sends butterflies somersaulting through my belly.
I take the seat across from him, watching candlelight flicker over the angular planes of his face. He sighs, scrubbing a hand over his mouth and nose, then rakes his fingers back, starting mid-forehead as if he expects there to be hair in his eyes. It would almost be funny if he didn't look so serious.
“Listen, China . . . you need to leave here as soon as possible.”
“What? No!” I expected he might say many things at this strange meeting: Keep out of my way. I'll stay on my side of town, and you stay on yours. Don't make noise. I want my dog back. What I didn't expect was expulsion from what seems like a haven in an otherwise sick, decaying world.
Max slams both palms down on the table. “Yes. This place isn't for you.”
“But it's for you?” I blink against the sting of tears. I will not cry in front of this Neanderthal. How dare he try to dictate where I can live!
Max nods. “At least for the time being. You should supply up, take Grace, and get on the road as soon as possible.” When he mentions Grace—the first time he's called her by the name I gave her—he glances toward her sleeping form, looking almost sad. “She'll be a good early-warning system and will protect you with her life.”
“And if I say no?”
Max stands abruptly, the chair legs scraping loudly against the floor. He glares down at me, a muscle in his jaw twitching beneath the reddish-brown scruff. “Nobody says no to me.” He looks and sounds dangerous, but there's something in his eyes that's raw and determined, almost as if he needs me to leave.
“If you want to talk to me, sit down.”
“What?” he huffs with outraged confusion. “I'm sorry, did you think this was up for discussion?”
I join him in standing, though he still towers over me, and place my hands on my hips. “I'm sorry, I must have missed the part of this one-way conversation where you stated why exactly I should give a shit what you think!” Despite the anger sparking in his eyes, I refuse to be the first to look away.
Max throws his head back and laughs, though this time it's not the pleasant sound from before. “You're a piece of work. You've got balls—have to give you that.” He shakes his head, still laughing. “So, pack it up, and try not to make too much noise while doing it. Get a good night's sleep and head out in the morning.” Max makes his way toward the door, still shaking his head.
What happened to the guy who seemed concerned for me a short while ago and claimed the things he'd done were to help me? The thought of going back into the fray, where the cloying scent of death lingered and bodies clogged up almost every available place of shelter was abhorrent and sent a powerful wave of nausea through me.
“I'm not going anywhere.” My voice is low and firm.
He pauses with his hand on the doorknob, giving me a healthy view of his broad shoulders, lean-muscled back, and tapered waist. My gaze rakes over his tension-filled form, and I realize he's not naturally bulky; it took a lot of work to build up that physique—significantly more time than the world has been in chaos.
Max lowers his head and scoffs. “Yeah, you are. One way or another, you'll be gone by the end of the week.” Then he wrenches the door open and walks out.
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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