Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 8): A Man with Secrets
He cups my jaw in his palm and brings our faces close together, his eyes the most intense I've seen them yet. "If you never listen to another word I say, hear this: Desperation can make kind people cruel, and the threat of extinction changes the rules of acceptability. This isn't the world you're familiar with. We're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy."
Quaking begins deep inside me. I lean away from Max, my back pressing against the headboard. There's nowhere to escape to, but he releases my chin and drops his hand into his lap.
Lightheadedness overtakes me. My lids flutter closed to fend off the spinning sensation. Grace whimpers nearby, and her long, wet tongue bathes my cheek. I reach out and sling my arm around her warm, furry neck, hugging her so tight I worry it might be uncomfortable. She nudges her cool nose into my neck and licks me again.
“You all right?” Max asks, something akin to regret in his tone.
I nod, hugging Grace even tighter as I fight the sting of tears.
Max's hand lands on my shoulder, his fingers rubbing lightly. “Sorry if I've been harsh with you. The old world and all its rules are gone. The only way to survive now is to understand how things are and stay a step ahead of everyone else.”
I open my eyes, blinking rapidly. Tears cling to my lashes, but none fall. It's a small victory and gives me the courage to press on. Leaning my head against the side of Grace's, I look at Max. He drops his hand from my shoulder and turns so I'm left staring at his profile and bulging right bicep with its vine of tattoos.
“How do we keep ahead of them?” I ask in a low voice.
“Stay hidden. You certainly shouldn't light fires or sing and dance or disturb the coating of dust in the houses.” His tone is laced with the barest hint of amusement, which makes listing my transgressions less accusatory.
“All right, all right—I get it. When I came into town, I did everything wrong.”
Max looks at me and grins. “Like a bull in a china shop.” My face heats, and he ghosts a finger over my cheek. “Right . . . China?”
My mouth drops open quite unattractively, I'm sure. “That's where that annoying nickname came from!”
Max shrugs, his impish grin widening. “If the hoof fits.”
“You really should smile more,” I say before I can clamp my mouth shut. And . . . cue massive blushing.
He frowns. “Why?”
Because you're always handsome, but you're spectacular when the emo tension releases.
I flounder. “Well . . . I've heard people who smile and laugh live longer?” It ends up framed like a question. I'd crawl under the bed, but I'm hemmed in by Max to the right and Grace to the left.
His frown deepens to a scowl. “Who the fuck would want to extend life now?” Max passes a hand over his face as he tends to when confused. “Absurd,” he mutters, rising to pace at the foot of the bed.
There go his hands, clasping the nape of his neck, another tell regarding his state of mind.
Grace adjusts her position to lie next to me with her muzzle resting on her paws and watches him stoically.
I pull my knees in and rest my chin on them. “What else can we do to foil their evil plans?”
Max keeps pacing. He's really agitated for some reason. “Stay away from other survivors—especially noisy ones.” He shoots me a pointed look. “Keep your head down. Learn their patterns and realize they sometimes change—be ready to roll with it.”
Max finally stills. Golden light from the candle flickers along the sharp planes of his face, leaving his eyes in shadow. “Whatever you do . . . don't let them catch you.”
“Have they ever caught you?”
He turns away from me and glances outside through a crack between the curtain and the window. “No.” That one word carries an immense amount of guilt.
He sighs. “They got somebody before I understood how things work here.” One hand balls into a white-knuckled fist, and he exhales sharply. “Gary and I rolled into town about the same time. I knew something wasn't right in this place, but he kept saying I was paranoid and had to trust that we'd found a little slice of heaven.” Max brings his fist to the wall, stopping just short of slamming it.
“What happened?” Part of me doesn't want to know, but anything I learn about this place can only help me survive.
“Grace happened.” Max snickers, shaking his head. “We were grilling some squirrel over a campfire, and this little minx darts out from nowhere and snatches our lunch! I took off running after her. Not sure what we could do with a half-roasted squirrel loaded with dog slobber, but I wasn't feeling reasonable.” He hesitates and walks to the end of the bed, kneeling in front of Grace to ruffle her fur. The expression on his face is a mixture of awe and confusion.
“And then?” I prompt, impatient to know the rest.
Max grows somber. “I chased her into the woods. Grace was sitting in a clearing with the squirrel in her mouth. When I got there, she dropped it at my feet, never even took a bite. About that time, I heard that awful horn. Then the message started playing.” Max keeps petting Grace, and she leans forward to lick his scruffy chin. “I started to go back, but Grace snagged the leg of my pants in her teeth and wouldn't let go. I heard Gary calling to them. I also heard the loud protests when he realized they weren't really there to give out free clothing and shelter.”
I cover my mouth as a cold wash of fear rushes over me. “Did you ever see him again?”
Max's haunted expression isn’t reassuring. “Wish I hadn't.” He looks into Grace's eyes and scratches her behind the ears. “When I did, it was through barbed wire. He was shuffling around, wearing baggy green surgical scrubs with an IV pole tethered to his arm. He'd lost most of his hair, a shit-ton of weight, and his skin was . . . gray. Gary looked right at me. For a moment, I saw hope flare in his faded eyes, but it died quickly. Some guy came out to get him, said something about recess being over.”
“Did you know Gary before all this happened?”
“And he never called you out?”
Max stares down at the comforter, following the paisley design with a fingertip. “Nope.”
“Don’t you find that a bit strange?”
“What is this, an inquisition?” Max glares at me for a second before standing up. “Since you’re awake, I think we should get back to the other house. Use this one for some of your needs, seeing as it’s already been disturbed. Maybe try to let the dust build up downstairs again. They do checks sometimes, but I doubt they’ll come up here.”
“Sorry if you thought I was questioning you.”
“Weren’t you?” Max busies himself, packing clothes and tidying the room.
“I’m just trying to understand.”
He pauses and glances at me. “Good luck with that.” Then he blows out the candle, plunging the room into darkness.
Before we leave the blue house, Max digs out a Dustbuster and removes the lint filter. Then he taps dust onto the kitchen table and counters. When he finishes, the place appears uninhabited again. I want to ask where the idea came from, but the set of his jaw warns me off. Once, when he doesn’t realize I’m watching, guilt contorts his features and bows his shoulders. I duck through the door and wait on the porch so he won’t see me.
The walk to The Ellers’ house is quiet and awkward. Max walks stiffly beside me, carrying a bag of canned goods.
Grace trots alongside us. Her playfulness from earlier is gone, replaced by caution. Her erect ears twitch every so often, and sometimes she slows to sniff the ground.
The opalescent moon casts ghostly beams that paint the world silvery-blue. A concerto of crickets, the tick of Grace’s nails, and the occasional scuff of our boots on the sidewalk accompany us on the otherwise silent trek.
Max leads us around the block, rather than taking a shortcut and climbing the fence. At least I did something right when moving my supplies the other day.
Once we reach our destination, I exhale, feeling even better when the deadbolt clicks home.
“Don’t lock this one.” Max flips the lock open. “The fronts are all locked, the back ones left open. If one of them comes across a locked back door, you can bet your ass they’ll search the whole house.” He lights a candle and goes about making sure the blinds and curtains seal in any light.
Grace pads past us and jumps on the couch, slipping around on the smooth leather until she finds a comfortable position. She rests her muzzle on both paws, eyebrows raising and lowering as her gaze bounces between Max and me.
Is it bizarre that I have the urge to ask advice from a dog? How I wish Grace could talk.
“Don’t leave things out-of-place outside. Basically, they shouldn’t find any reason to come looking. Grace is a great watchdog—she’ll wake you if there’s something to worry about, and she’s as stealthy as a ninja.”
“That’s good because it’ll be hard for me to sleep with the door unlocked now.” I shoot a worried glance at the unprotected entrance.
“You’ll get used to it. There’s no other choice—unless you take my advice and leave.”
“No.” I shudder at the thought.
Max leans in the archway to the living room with his arms crossed. His jaw is tight, posture stiff, and he’s not making much eye contact. That, coupled with his clipped words, reminds me of the Max who greeted me when I arrived here, not the one who nursed me back to health and made sure I didn’t get captured but the colossal, rude jerk who tried to run me out of town.
“Any other questions, Inspector, or do you think we can get some sleep?” He looks at me now, and his burning gaze is on the hostile side.
“No, let’s get sleep.”
Max is in a foul mood anyway, which doesn’t bode well for information-gathering. Best to wait until tomorrow.
“You take whatever room you want, and I’ll sleep on the couch.” Max grabs a blanket off the ottoman, kicks his boots off, and plops beside Grace, nudging her with an elbow. “Go sleep with your mama, girl.”
I stand awkwardly for a moment while Max completely ignores me, shifting on the plump cushions and covering himself. Straining to see in the semi-darkness, I take note of his closed eyes—clearly a dismissal.
I grab the candle and cup my hand around it as I head for the stairs. “Goodnight, Max.”
Grace follows me upstairs, and we settle in the master bedroom. I sleep in my clothes, and I shiver even though there’s a thick comforter and Grace’s warm body pressed along mine to cover me.
A shaft of light streaming in through the window wakes me from a dreamless sleep. I shift slightly, and Grace’s bushy tail swishes to and fro, tickling my neck, but she doesn’t raise her head.
Katie and I always kept the blinds in our room shut tight because we were both prone to waking with the dawn.
A pang sears through my chest. I miss her so much.
She was more than just my sister. Aside from looking alike, and despite our many differences, we finished each other’s sentences, had an almost telepathic way of communicating, and were best friends. Katie was willing to sacrifice anything for me, and I would have done the same in return.
There was no need to confirm her death when it happened; at the exact moment of her last breath, a stabbing pain, deep and raw ripped at my heart, flaying it to pieces.
Between the two of us, Katie was more. More of everything, and I feel like a dim substitute, a shadow.
We went to a Kings of Leon concert a few months before the world came apart. My sister fit in with everyone, always comfortable in her own skin. I kept tugging on the short skirt Katie made me wear and wiping at my burning eyes, which weren't used to dark slashes of kohl.
Leaning back in Tim’s arms, she side-eyed me with that signature half-smirk tugging at her wine-stained lips. “Relax, Ro.” She reached over and pinched Mike's waist hard enough to make him yelp. “Nature Boy, you need to loosen up your girl.”
Mike gave Katie a dirty look. He hated her nickname for him, and they didn't get along that well in general. “My girl is fine.” He threw an arm over my shoulders and kissed the top of my head. “Right, babe?”
“Yeah, I'm good.”
Katie rolled her eyes.
She was right about me. I felt the music, but Katie let it move through her. When parts affected her, she would step away from Tim and sway her hips with her arms in the air, eyes closed. Though we both had great singing voices, she would belt out her favorite parts while I sang low, almost embarrassed someone might hear.
My twin never said much about Mike. She antagonized him at times but never discouraged the relationship and was first in line to congratulate us when Mike asked me to be his wife.
The night of the engagement party, Katie pulled me aside to sit on the glider in the yard even though it was freezing cold.
“You're happy for us, right?”
Katie linked fingers with me. “Of course I'm happy for you.”
“And?” Call it twin telepathy, but I knew that wasn't all she had to say on the subject.
“The love of your life should take your breath away. Aside from challenging you to grow, his touch should burn your skin. When you're together, there should be no rational thoughts in your mind—” Katie winked salaciously “—other than how he can bring you higher.”
Heat flooded my cheeks. “Does Tim do that for you?”
“Nope, not all of it, but I'm not marrying Tim.” She stared straight ahead for a while, the creaking of the swing filling the silence. Eventually, Katie let go of my hand and patted it. “You see what I'm getting at.”
Katie had a unique way of seeing the world and making statements that others usually posed as questions.
She returned to the house, leaving me to think.
A torrent of tears spill down my cheeks when I realize Katie will never meet the love of her life.
The house is silent around me. I move to the window and peek outside. The day is cloudy, but it doesn't look like rain. I mop my tear-stained face with my sleeve and take a deep breath.
Grace yawns and rolls over, hinting for a belly rub. I scratch her soft pink tummy for a few minutes before pulling my boots on and lacing them.
Certain stairs creak as I descend them, something to keep in mind. In the living room, the afghan is folded neatly on the ottoman, the couch vacant.
My heart trips a little when I open the back door and find Max sitting on the stoop, a bag of cans beside him.
Grace rushes past me, and I join him on the porch. “Hi.”
“Hey.” Max doesn't look my way; he watches Grace run around the yard. There's tension in his jaw, and the vibe he's giving off isn't much better than last night.
I lean against the railing post, hugging my knees, and watch my carefree dog. My dog. Grace is mine. She decided, and Max has said so a number of times.
I don't have to be alone.
I glance down at the bag of canned goods. “You're leaving.”
“Didn't want you to wake up and wonder, so I waited to tell you.”
“Where will you go?”
Max laughs, but it's not a pleasant sound. “Back to where I was before. Where I live, keep my head down, and try to avoid becoming a shrinking, gray pincushion.”
I gasp. His words burrow into me, bringing some horrible visuals with them. Unexpected tears burn my eyes. “Must you be such a jerk, Max? Is it really necessary?”
And why is it easier for tears to start falling when I've already shed so many?
Max grabs my wrist, squeezing hard enough that I wince. “Must you insist on living in la la land? Wake the fuck up, sweetheart!” He finally turns to look at me, and his stormy eyes widen. “You're crying? Shit.” Dropping my wrist, he shoots to his feet and scrubs both hands over his face.
I pull my arms in, hugging myself. Grace stops what she's doing and perks up with her head tilted but remains where she is.
Crouching in front of me, Max places his hands on my knees. I refuse to look at him, instead staring down at his long fingers. Scars crisscross his knuckles, ones that say he's spent time fighting. The edge of a tattoo is visible on the underside of his wrist. The style doesn’t match his others, but I can’t see what it is without flipping his arm over.
I ignore him.
The elusive tattoo blurs as tears flood my vision. I'm horrified when I blink and a few drops hit the back of his hand. My jaw clenches. I want to yell at him to get away, but if I open my mouth, a dam will burst.
Max hisses and yanks his arms back.
And then the cursing and pacing and can-kicking starts.
Hugging myself tighter, I curl inward, staring at the ground. Every so often, Max's boots flash by or a can flies past my peripheral vision on its way across the yard. Grace appears at my side, whining. Once, when Max gets too close to us, a low, warning growl rumbles in her throat.
Eventually, Max runs out of cans. His swearing dries up, and so do my tears.
With a loud huff, he stands with his back to me, hands on hips, facing the fields we walked through last night.
“Damn it all to hell,” he mutters. “Look, I didn't count on you, okay?”
I sit silently.
“You swept into town, making all kinds of racket. I just wanted to keep you from getting picked up. I doused the fire one night—the next, you're strumming that damn guitar and singing!” He shakes his head and huffs again, his shoulders going rigid. “Helping you could have exposed me and risked—fuck!”
Now he has my attention.
“Nothing. Everything.” Max stalks around the yard, picking up cans and shoving them in the bag.
It reminds me of an Easter egg hunt.
I watch from my perch on the steps. Grace eventually relaxes enough to leave my side and chase him across the yard. He pats her side absently but doesn't interact otherwise.
When Max is finished, he walks over and stands in front of me while I stare down at his boots. They shuffle slightly, reminding me of a kid standing before someone in authority when he knows he's done wrong.
I almost smile, but my stomach is roiling so hard, I'm afraid I'll puke on his boots.
“I'm sorry.” Max's voice is a raspy whisper. When I don't answer, he sighs. “I've been an asshole to you. I want you to know it's not personal. And I know you don't understand a lot of this—me—but you’re a resourceful girl. You'll be okay.”
He's really leaving. The only human I've had any real contact with since this nightmare started. My stomach lurches, and I pray I can wait until he leaves before I throw up.
“I'm not staying that far away. I'll keep an eye out for you when I can. Next time I go for a supply run, I'll stop by and see if you want to come, okay?”
Pressing my lips together, I manage to lift my gaze to the level of his knees and nod my head.
Max stands there, the seconds piling up and heading toward a minute before he puts the bag down and crouches beside Grace. “You be a good girl, Nudge. Take care of Marie, 'kay? I'm counting on you.” Plastic rustles as he wraps the bag around his fist. He clears his throat, and his voice is low and hoarse when he says, “Take care.”
I nod and wave a hand in his direction, refusing to make eye contact.
The gate closes with the faintest of clanks, and I count to twenty before looking in his direction. Max saunters away with a defeated curve to his neck and shoulders. He probably thinks I'm angry. I just didn't want him to see the panic in my eyes.
I move to the corner of the house and watch. When Max reaches the end of the block, he breaks into a jog, the can-laden bag swinging against his hip.
The bile bubbling in my stomach finally subsides as panic gives way to intense curiosity.
Solving mysteries is in my blood, and Max is a man with secrets.
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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