Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 18): Lifeblood
Max instructs my mother to remain where she is and turns away with me, still held against his hard body. He doesn’t wait for her response, and he sure as hell isn’t concerned about mine as he carries me up the stairs with no apparent effort.
I’m too stunned to struggle, too emotionally weak to fight. I’ve just seen my mom for the first time in months, and she admitted to letting Katie perish. Her own flesh and blood. I can’t excuse her for not trying to save Dad, but I understand it. There are no words she can utter that will ever explain condemning her own child to death.
Max lays me on the bed. He’s speaking to me, but his words sound muffled and distant. Trying to translate what he’s saying makes my head pound, so I close my eyes and drift.
My cheeks sting.
“Baby, can you hear me?” There’s desperation in Max’s voice.
I giggle. “Big, tough Max called me baby.”
“Open your eyes for me.”
When I do, Max’s concerned face is hovering right above mine. His breaths are harsh, those sea-glass eyes so intent on me. A warm, prickly tingle radiates from my cheeks.
“Did you slap me?”
No apology. No regret.
“You're going into shock.” He peels back one of my eyelids. “Stay with me.”
“Where am I gonna go?” My words slur, and I feel floaty. Reaching up, I run my fingers through Max's scruff. “Sexy.”
Max doesn't look amused. Why is he so serious? From a distance, I hear Grace bark and the scrape of chair legs against the kitchen floor. Someone else is here? The effort to think of where I am and who may be here makes my head pound.
Oh, right . . . my uncaring mother who joined the enemy and still gets to wear makeup and designer threads while I have to fight off a virus I was never really immune to. I laugh. This has to be a dream because life just doesn't suck that bad.
I drift off, landing at the bottom of a cavernous space with craggy, purple-hued walls. A bright light shines from above, and I hear Max’s voice echo around me. I can’t make out the words or manage to answer him though I try with all my might. After a while, my surroundings simply fade to black.
I wake up to voices just beyond the bedroom door.
“ . . . want me to do, Max?” Eric.
“I don't give a fuck how, but that vaccine better be delivered by morning.”
“I'll make it happen, my brother.”
“Thank you.” Footsteps scuff along the hallway. “Hey, Eric,” Max calls.
“I'm sorry if I got a little crazy. I have to save her. You understand.”
“I do. Maybe we can set up that transfer when I get the vaccine?”
“Absolutely. Take care, man. Be careful. If the bitch would sacrifice her own kid, who knows how she might betray you?”
Eric's heavy footfalls fade. I know Max is nearby, but I'm afraid to open my eyes. What transfer?
The mattress dips down, and Max's scent wafts over me as he brushes my hair back and places a chaste kiss on my forehead. “I'm going to take care of you, China. I promise.”
I want to open my eyes now and tell Max I'm all right, that I have faith in him, but my lids feel heavy and my lips glued shut. Darkness tugs at me. I let go, unable to hold on to the soft cadence of Max's voice or the pleasantness of his touch. I float away on undulating waves of sleepiness until I give up the fight and slip under.
Before I have visual confirmation, I know we're no longer in the blue house. The semi-pressurized, canned air of the power plant hovers around me. How did Max manage to get me all the way here?
I listen. There are no sounds other than the hiss of air through the vents.
“Good morning, Marie.” Ali's lilting voice comes from across the room somewhere, startling me.
My heart immediately takes off galloping. My eyes fly open, squinting against the fluorescent lights. I sit up fast, bringing on a wave of dizziness, and press a hand to my forehead. “Where's Max?”
“Getting the vaccine.” Her sympathetic expression tells me she knows everything. She’s curled into a ball on the chair in the corner with her dark head resting on her knees. “I’m sorry about your mom. I know what it’s like to have a shitty parent.”
I ignore the part about parents and focus on Max, gripping the blanket tightly in my fists. “Did he go alone?”
“He took Grace with him.”
Ali uncurls from the chair and stretches, slinking across the room with decidedly feline movements. She alights on the end of the bed and places a hand on my shin. “Max and Grace can take care of themselves. He doesn’t want you to worry.”
For some reason, this piques my ire. “Max doesn’t get to decide how I feel. I am worried.”
“Because my mother is involved. She let her own child perish from the virus—you think she wouldn’t pull something?”
Ali smiles, but it’s anything but pleasant. “Wise people don’t cross my brother. You’re part of the family now—he’ll do anything to protect you.”
Rather than comfort me, her words send a chill skittering along my spine. I’d like nothing more than to wrap my arms around Grace’s warmth in this moment and be on the receiving end of a full face-lick. “What’s he done, Ali?” I whisper, both needing and dreading the knowledge.
The question is a tad ambiguous, but she doesn’t pretend to miss my meaning. She lifts her head, meeting my gaze directly. “That’s a question for Connor. I will only say it’s not easy to get into my brother’s heart, but you’ve bypassed his defenses. He doesn’t do halfway.” Ali sighs softly, exuding an age-old sorrow. “I don’t take this lightly. I fear what he might have to do.”
I hug myself, feeling more alone than I have since burying my sister and leaving home. Thoughts flit through my mind of forcing Ali to tell me what Max has done or setting out in search of him and Grace. The latter option would piss Max off and might even endanger him or Grace.
Ali draws in a whistling gasp, pressing a hand over her chest. The bluish tinge to her skin is a clear indicator of an asthma attack. I’ve been through enough of them with Mamie to know Ali needs to remain as calm as possible. For a fleeting moment, I feel guilty that I haven’t had the opportunity to brew her the herbal tea yet but quickly push the thought aside.
“Where’s your inhaler?” I ask with a calm I don’t feel. If something happens to her, it will kill Max.
Ali sits straight and starts pursed lip breathing. After a few moments she whispers, “Dresser. My room.”
Ali pulls a walkie-talkie from her belt and hands it to me.
I press the button and whisper, “Tek?”
His panicked voice comes back a few seconds later. “What is it?”
“Ali’s having an attack. I’m going to get her inhaler. She’s in my room.”
“Be right there!”
I rush into the hall and forget which way to go. Calm down. Ali’s room is around the corner from yours.
I correct my direction and enter her bedroom, going straight for the dresser. The drawer sticks, and I yank hard, wrenching it open.
Some sketches flutter to the floor. I can’t help but glance at them as I dig around in the drawer. One is of a much younger Ali; another depicts a tough-looking Hispanic man.
My fingers close around the inhaler. Grasping it, I shove the drawings back in the drawer and close it, then take off at a run. I trip on the edge of the doorjamb and fall to my knees but manage to push myself up and get back to my room.
Ali’s wheezing is louder, and she’s crumpled on the floor by the foot of the bed. I hold the inhaler to her lips because her hands are shaking too hard. We’re about to do a second hit when Tek skids around the corner of my doorway and falls to his knees.
“Ali . . .” He takes over administering her medication as I move aside to let him in. “I knew this was going to happen, you stubborn little imp.”
Ali’s too busy catching her breath to respond.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“She can tell an attack is imminent. Lately, they’ve been coming more often, and I wonder if it’s something in the power plant. She refused to stay in bed and rest when Max went out this morning.”
“Oh my God—is this my fault?”
“No, Marie! Nobody can tell her what to do. She has a mind of her own, just like her brother.”
Despite Tek’s reassurance, guilt whirls inside me. I have the need to do something helpful and push myself up from the floor. “I’m going to brew some of the herbal tea for her. Will you guys be okay here?”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
I soothe my frayed nerves, preparing the butterbur and brewing it into a tea. Adding a touch of honey, I pour the steeped concoction into a Styrofoam cup and carry it to Ali’s room.
She sits at the head of the bed, leaning against the wall. Tek strokes her pale skin, never taking his tender gaze off her.
I perch on the opposite side of the mattress and hand Ali the cup. “Sip this slowly. Try to breathe in the steam—that’ll help, too.”
“Thank you . . . Marie.” Ali manages a small smile though she’s clearly exhausted from the asthma attack.
Between Tek and me, we manage to talk her into getting some sleep. He sets up a baby monitor, keeping one receiver and giving the other to me. I tilt my head in a questioning manner as we leave, closing the door behind us.
Tek smirks. “This is what we do when she’s bad. Usually, I keep one and Max gets the other. She refuses what she deems ‛babysitting duty.’”
I laugh. “And she allows this?”
“Oh, she doesn’t like it, but you’ve seen Max when he gets riled.”
Understanding dawns and I nod. “I have.”
“Scary bastard,” Tek mutters with a shake of his head. “If you don’t need me for anything, I’m heading back to the control room.”
He saunters away but turns back before he reaches the end of the hall. “Thank you for making the tea. I . . . love her.” He shrugs his shoulders once, and then he’s gone.
I go back to the kitchen and prepare more of the butterbur mixture. There are some teabags in the cabinet. I have an idea, and I carefully empty the tea leaves into a canister to store them. Then I fill the empty tea bags with the butterbur blend. Now it will be easy for Ali or Tek to steep a cup of tea even when I’m not here.
Exhaustion tugs at my limbs, and I decide to take a nap. Sleep is probably the only thing that will keep me from going out to look for Max or pulling my hair out until he returns. It takes almost an hour, but I finally slip into a dreamlike state with the baby monitor on the pillow next to my ear.
A commotion in the hall jolts me awake.
Male voices. The pounding of booted feet. Doggie nails scratching at my door.
I jump up and make a beeline for the hall, ignoring the lightheadedness. I turn the knob, and my door flies open, a furry bullet slamming into me.
“Grace!” I kneel with my arms around her warm neck and let her lick my face to her heart’s content, giggling all the while. “Who’s a good girl? Where’s Max?”
I glance up, and the doorway is empty. Disappointment diminishes some of my elation.
“ . . . her down here.” Max's voice comes from a distance.
“Sounds good.” Eric's answering semi-breathless baritone follows.
I peek into the hall in time to see Eric turn the corner with a body draped over his brawny shoulder. I follow, not bothering to put shoes on. Grace moves with me, her head even with my thigh.
They pass our living quarters, the kitchen, and storage rooms beyond before Max inserts a key into a lock. “In here.”
Eric grunts. “Shit, man. Good thing she isn’t heavy.”
My heart beats fast. Who is Eric carrying? Did they bring my mother back here? I rush to catch up, entering behind them.
There are storage boxes and a stack of chairs lining one wall. Obviously, this room hasn’t been in use, but there is a bed. Max stands, arms crossed, to one side. Eric is on his knees, hovering over the unconscious woman lying on the mattress.
It's not my mother.
As sickly and pale as the woman is, her beauty shines through. Her skeletal form is draped in a hospital gown. Long, lusterless waves of golden hair splay across the pillow and over her shoulders and chest.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Max and Eric both look over at me.
“China . . .” Max stalks over and pulls me into his arms, cupping the back of my head and planting a kiss in my hair.
Eric waggles his eyebrows. “Good to see you, Marie. This lovely lady is Andrea.” He returns his gaze to the slight form on the bed, brushing his hand across her forehead gently. “She came in on the Welcome Wagon a while ago. They’ve been slowly killing her. I wanted to get her out, so Max and I struck a deal.”
“Yeah. They’re running low on test subjects lately and worry the vaccine will become ineffective before a cure is found. At least that’s the justification they’re hiding behind. A convoy is being sent out in a few days to search for more survivors.”
“That’s sick!” I bury my face in Max’s shirt and wonder what part my own mother has in all this. I’m pretty sure Garth is up to his neck in it.
“Bet your ass it is. Max, I’m going to bring in the rest of the supplies and get the transfusion going.”
“You remember the way?”
“Yeah. I’m sure you two have some talking to do.”
Eric leaves, and Max guides me into the hall. I look back at Andrea for a moment. She seems lost in the folds of the hospital gown, her skin ashen, lips devoid of color. Just before Max shuts the door, I notice bruises and needle marks littering her exposed arm.
I can’t speak.
My mother lives among these monsters. She breaks bread with them. Is she aware of how depraved they truly are? The only thought keeping me from losing my mind is the knowledge Nina Merlo-Kasabian likes to avoid unpleasantness—so much so that she might construct her own version of reality. So much so that he abandoned her children for an easier life and allowed Katie to die because she wasn’t courageous enough to do what needed to be done.
The door clicks shut, and Max pulls me along the halls until we reach my room. Once we’re inside, he pins me against the wall and brings his lips down on mine.
Kissing me hungrily.
Max’s tongue pushes past my lips, joining with mine in deep strokes. The sound he makes reminds me of a thirsty man finding water in the desert. He takes possession of me with his hands, but not in a raunchy way—it’s more like he’s reassuring himself that I’m here and in one piece.
I wrap my arms around Max's neck, my legs snaking around his waist, pressing my body as close to his as possible. He skims my sides with his hands, moving lower to cup my backside. The kissing continues for a long time, generating heat and tingling in numerous areas of my anatomy.
When he finally breaks away, leaving me panting, he trails hot kisses along my jaw and buries his face in my neck. “Are you okay, China?”
“I was so worried about you last night . . . and I couldn't miss the meeting this morning. I'm sorry I couldn't be here when you woke up. Did Ali stay with you?”
“About that . . .”
Max lifts his head, his eyes blazing. “What?”
“Ali was watching over me this morning. She had a pretty bad asthma attack, Max, but she's okay now.”
“Hey.” I touch his cheek. “She's fine. I grabbed her inhaler and called Tek on the walkie. He rushed right down and took over for me while I brewed some butterbur tea. It really seemed to help.”
“Thank you.” Max peppers kisses over my neck and face, ending with my lips. “I have something for you.”
Max backs away from the wall, and I unlock my legs from his waist, allowing my feet to touch the floor. He dips into the pocket of his cargo pants and pulls out a hypodermic needle filled with reddish fluid.
“Is that . . .?”
“Vaccine. And I have two more.”
“Wow.” Part of me is shocked my mother came through. Then again, Max made his position on the matter pretty clear. “Did you see her?”
“No. She snuck the shots to Eric.”
I feel a mix of relief and disappointment. “What's the story with Andrea?”
“Eric is sweet on her. He begged me to take her in.”
“Won't the Alliance be searching for her?”
“Nope. She's listed as deceased, and Eric was given the body for disposal.”
“How'd he arrange that?”
He shrugs. “Someone owed him a favor.”
“I'm a little surprised you agreed.”
Max offers me a lopsided smile. “See what you've done to me? Turned me into a pu—softy.”
“Me? You're trying to blame this on me?” A thrill shoots through me.
“Ready for me to stick you, China?”
My mind doesn't immediately register that he means the vaccination, and my eyes go wide. “What?”
Max holds up the hypodermic. “This. Where did your mind run off to, dirty girl?”
“Oh . . . sure.” I swallow. “I don't like needles much.”
Max kisses me softly, running the tips of his fingers up and down my arms. “Relax, China. It hurts more if you're tense.” He puts the needle on the dresser and returns, moving behind me to massage my shoulders. “Come on . . . relax for me.”
I close my eyes and concentrate on the grip of his powerful hands as he works the tension from my neck and shoulders. I allow the most recent horrors to fade into the background, falling into an altered state of consciousness. When his hands halt their movement, I pull out of it, remaining slightly sleepy.
“There you go.” Max retrieves the hypodermic and pulls the cap off with his teeth, dropping it into the garbage can. Rolling up my sleeve, he holds the needle above the skin of my upper arm. “Take a breath for me.”
I take a breath and try not to look at what he's doing.
“Good. Now let it out slowly.” He hums approval as I do, then says, “Little pinch.”
Max leans in, nipping my lip between his teeth as the needle punctures my flesh. The unexpected act does its job; my attention is drawn to our connected mouths, and I hardly notice the sting of the needle.
“And . . . done.” Max smirks at me.
“Sneaky, but I like it.” I tap a finger against my lips. “My arm hurts . . .”
He moves in with a laugh, taking me in his arms. “You never have to invent a reason to get me to kiss you, China. I'm all over that.” Crushing me against his hard body, he kisses me breathless.
We leave my room a few minutes later, holding hands. Max cracks opens Ali’s door, closing it again once he realizes she's sleeping peacefully, then leads me through the maze of halls to Andrea's room.
Eric sits on a chair by her bedside, watching her sleep while blood drips into her IV line. The bag hanging from a hook on the wall is half empty, and there's another full bag in a cooler on one of the storage boxes.
“Hey, man.” Max announces our presence in a soft voice.
Eric looks up, the haze clearing from his eyes. “Hey, guys. Max, thank you again. I don't know what I would have done . . .”
“Forget it. You help me . . . I help you. It's all good.”
“Why does she need a transfusion?” I ask.
Eric's face twists in a grimace. “These bastards keep taking blood from the immune until there's not enough left to sustain life.” He leans over, head in his hands. “I hate what they're doing! I saved one girl because I have a thing for her, but what about all the others? I can't help them. The guilt . . . it's . . .” He shakes his head.
I pull away from Max and walk over to Eric, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You're doing the best you can.”
“Am I? I could leave.”
“At least with you there, we have some inside information.”
Max nods. “Yeah, man. We need to keep on top of what these fuckers are up to. If an opportunity comes up to mess with their plans, I'm all for it. Have to admit, I have a stake in them finding a cure now, too. “ When Eric and I look up, stunned, Max holds his hands out. “I don't agree with their method of going about it. For your sake, it has to happen, and we need to know when it does.”
Eric nods. “I know you're right—doesn't make it any easier to keep my big mouth shut when I see shit going down. I have nightmares. I've done a lot of shitty things in my life, but I never dreamed about them before.”
“I hear you,” Max answers. It doesn't come across as a platitude—more like Max understands all too well. Based on the comments he and Ali have made about his past, I'm not surprised. Maybe someday he'll feel comfortable enough to share it with me.
“It seems to me why you do something matters,” I say. Both of them look at me. “I mean, if you steal food to feed your starving infant, or you steal jewels because you like expensive things . . . both are technically thefts, but I can't help but condemn one more than the other.”
The room falls silent for a moment, both men staring at me. Then Eric smiles wide. “You've got a smart cookie there, Max. Keep her around.”
“I intend to,” Max answers, a look of wonder on his face.
I blush scarlet and stare at the floor.
Eric laughs. “Such a shy lass, too! How can you resist when she blushes like that?”
Max steps closer to me, running a finger across my flaming cheek. “I can't.” He grabs my hand, tugging me closer. “We'll see you later, Eric. I trust you can handle things here?”
“Got it. I'm not expected back until tomorrow, so maybe I can bunk with you guys tonight?”
“Absolutely. Catch up with you later.”
Eric laughs. “See you, China.
You keep our boy in line, okay?”
I smile up at Max and wink. “He’s got a mind of his own, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
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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 BlogThis!Share to FacebookShare to Pinterest