Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 30): Letters in the Sky
I don’t press Max about what threats were written on the wall. We’ll have to go downstairs eventually, and he can’t stop me from seeing them.
Eric mutters a few more curses as his heavy footsteps sound on the stairs.
Max swings the bathroom door shut and drops to his knees beside the tub, dipping his newly bloodied fist into the water. “Fu-uck.”
“Burns, does it?” My words have sharp edges.
“China . . .” His perfect lips spread into a slow smirk, and he runs a damp finger along the edge of my jaw. “Are you pissed at me?”
I cross my arms. “Maybe.”
Max and I face off. To his credit, he tries to reign in the smirk, but he fails at curbing the glint of amusement in his eyes.
Eric’s loud voice comes from just outside the bathroom door. “Oh, shit! There was a freakin’ massacre in here!” He knocks on the bathroom door. “Yo, you guys okay? Anybody hurt?”
Max stares at me meaningfully. “Just Gibbs—Marie stabbed the bastard. Then I fought with him, and we tumbled down the stairs. Thought he broke his fucking neck, but he got up and walked away. He has life-threatening injuries and won’t last long without medical attention.”
A sequence of uniquely strung together expletives comes from the other side of the door, followed by a wall-shaking slam. “Are you both all right? Did he . . .? I mean . . .” Eric falters.
Max’s expression is thunderous. He opens his mouth and closes it again, eyes trained on me the entire time.
I try to keep my voice strong. “Gibbs tried to coerce me—said if I didn’t sleep with him, he’d kill Grace.”
“Son of a bitch!”
I caress the unbruised side of Max’s face. “Max busted some ribs when they fell down the stairs. Other than that, we’re fine.” I won’t waste time being angry at him for trying to protect me from the messages waiting below.
“Good. What’s the plan, now that it's all gone to hell?”
“Everything else be damned—I’m taking China home.” Max cups the back of my neck and leans in for a kiss.
Nothing has ever sounded better.
* * *
Max fetches my clean clothes and hovers outside the bathroom while I towel off and get dressed. Part of me is annoyed while another part finds it endearing. I brush my damp hair, coaxing the tangles into submission.
Eric bangs around downstairs, making preparations for our departure.
Now that the mist has cleared from the mirror, the bruising and swelling on the side of my face is a startling sight. I prod gently with the pads of my fingers, wincing at the sharpness of the pain. Tears threaten to fall as the memories of Gibbs looming over me, his surprise when I stabbed him, and the molten rage twisting his features before he punched me flash through my mind. Making a strangled sound, I brace my hands on the edge of the sink and close my eyes, fighting back a wave of nausea.
“China?” Max’s voice comes from close to the door, followed by a soft thump—maybe his forehead or hand. He sounds so concerned that I can’t find it in myself to be angry.
“I’ll be okay.”
“I—I’m sorry . . . that I wasn’t here sooner. I never should have made you stay with those genocidal bastards.”
“You didn’t make that decision alone, and it was the right one.” I lower my head, unable to meet my own gaze in the mirror. “I know things now—important stuff. Give me a moment alone, okay? I’ll join you guys in a few.”
“All right.” Max’s boots scrape along the floor, his gait hesitant. He pauses at the top of the stairs for a few seconds before huffing a sigh and descending them quickly.
I draw in a long, slow breath and let it out, avoiding my reflection as I swing the door open and step into the hall. The room where it all happened beckons to me, calling my name in a dry voice that rasps like the whisper of dead leaves. And though I should, I can’t pass by without going in and looking at the macabre scene.
Blood paints the bed, leaving a fuzzy outline of my torso in the center of the stark white sheets. The streaks that seeped into the floorboards are already darkening to a deep maroon, and I doubt anyone will ever sand the wood deep enough to remove the stain. The bloody, balled up towel Gibbs used to stanch the flow from his wound lies next to the dresser, and jagged pieces of the chair he blocked the door with litter the room. The curtain’s ripped, and a large crack spiders across the top of the old window.
The closet door stands open, and I notice my things were removed. Nothing of me remains here—except a piece of my soul that can never be returned.
The back of my throat aches. I wasn’t raped, thank God, but Gibbs violated me just the same. Logically, I comprehend that I'm not at fault, but feelings of guilt still swirl beneath the surface. Now I understand why many victims wonder if there was something they did to cause their assault. I’ve heard the rhetoric about assumption of guilt, largely from my own father, and never thought I’d find myself struggling against it so hard.
You did good, Ro. Didn’t even need your sissy to shank that piece of shit. Leave the guilt in this room. Close the door. Never look back.
Katie’s voice stirs me to action. I turn away from the horrid sight and shut the door behind me. As I make my way down the stairs, I steel myself for Gibbs’ parting threats, written in blood.
The caustic scent of bleach curls up my nose. A large bottle of Clorox rests on the bottom step. The wall has already been scrubbed, down to bare sheet rock in certain places. A pinkish haze is the only evidence left.
Grace trots over to greet me, sneezing a few times when the smell gets in her nose. I pat her head and lead her through the living room into the kitchen. Canned goods and bottled water cover the table, and Eric goes back and forth, filling a wagon outside. He nods at me but keeps working.
Grace wanders into the den. That’s where I find Max, looking out the window through the site of James’ rifle. He ruffles Grace’s fur, nods at me, and lifts the gun again. “This is a nice piece, expensive. Long range scope, lots of ammo. We’re taking it.”
“Don’t ask me what that fuck wrote on the wall right now. Be pissed at me if you need to—I can live with that.”
Max lowers the rifle and whips around. His eyes search mine. “What?”
“I trust you. And I can imagine the kind of shit he wrote. He’s a vile excuse for a human being.” I offer a sad smile. “Why is Eric taking supplies?”
Max rests the rifle against the wall and walks over, cupping the uninjured side of my face in his palm. He runs the other hand down my arm and tangles our fingers. “You are something else. I’m proud of you.” He presses a kiss to my forehead.
I grin. “Why—because you think I let you off the hook?”
“No.” His lips curve into a half-smile. “Because you’re giving me time. You understand I need to channel my energy into planning our getaway and getting us home safely.”
“The supplies?” I arch a brow.
“Gibbs is either on the run, or he’ll go back with a story. We don’t have time to clean the carnage upstairs, but we’re making it look like either Gibbs took you and ran or you gathered supplies and ran. Eric will plant evidence, leading them in the wrong direction.”
“Where is he taking all that stuff?”
“There’s a car behind the barn. We managed to get it running.”
“Wait, wait.” I wave my arms. “It’ll be dark soon! What if James shows up?”
Max grabs my hands and rests them against his chest. “Don’t worry about anything. Tek created a diversion to keep General Smith busy. We’ll be long gone by the time he realizes Gibbs fucked him over.”
“Aren’t we taking a huge risk driving a car around here?”
“We’re going to make it look like you took the car.” Max looks at me with sympathy. “In actuality, we have to hoof it several miles off the beaten path.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
He smooths my hair back and presses a kiss to my temple. “You don’t have to. I'll carry you.”
I laugh sharply. “With possible broken ribs?”
Max doesn't laugh. “Whatever it takes.”
And he's not joking. Two hours later, we’re traveling through dense woods under the scant light of the moon. My meager possessions are strapped to Grace's back. She doesn't seem to mind the special dog carrier bag; in fact, she appears to wear it with pride.
The world is an eerie wash of green through the night-vision goggles Eric snagged for us. Even so, it's tough going. My body aches, and I'm sweaty and exhausted. It feels as if every twig along our path has poked or scraped me, and I've already fallen twice.
Max stops short, and I crash into his back. “Ooph!”
He unslings the rifle from his back and crouches in front of me. “Get on.”
“At the rate we're going, we might make it home by next week. You're hurt and tired.”
“And you’re not? You can't carry me with those ribs!”
Max stands and turns, lifting his shirt. “Eric taped me up. It's a great short-term solution. Now, get on before I toss you over my shoulder.”
My gaze rakes his torso, dipping below the binding to take in his muscled abs and the smattering of downy hair leading beneath the waist of his cargo pants. I reach out and trail my fingers over his warm skin.
Max laughs. “Is this how women feel when they say ‛My eyes are up here'?”
“Maybe.” I suppress a smile. I'm no longer willing to argue about him carrying me. Sweat stings my eyes and soaks through my clothes, not to mention the damp strands of hair clinging limply to my forehead and cheeks. I don’t think I can physically keep going much longer.
This time, when Max crouches down, I climb on his back, wrapping my arms around his neck and legs around his waist. He sucks in a breath when my knee bumps his side but starts off through the woods at a fast clip, using the rifle to push low-hanging limbs aside. Grace walks next to us, looking to Max for cues often. She seems to understand this is serious business and never loses focus or races off to chase rabbits.
Max said we should maintain silence as much as possible. I wonder how much the request has to do with safety and how much it has to do with the difficulty of talking while carrying me and trying to breathe. Part of me feels guilty for allowing him to schlep me all the way home, but it's unlikely I'd make it on my own. My lids grow heavy, and the mostly-rhythmic sway of Max's body as we travel lulls me to sleep.
When I next open my eyes, I'm reclining against a tree with Grace curled at my side. Her saddlebag and my night-vision goggles lie on the ground next to us. Faint bluish light filters through the dense leaves above, highlighting the shadowy forms of nearby trees, bushes, and boulders. I pet Grace, and she lifts her head to lick my face, wagging her tail madly.
I don't see Max. He must be safe because I know well the ruckus Grace would make if there were any danger. I hug her close, feeling an overwhelming sense of gratefulness and affection. If Grace had gotten loose when Gibbs was attacking me, she probably would have torn him apart.
Grace whines and licks my ear, making me giggle. “You don't seem so fierce right now, do you?” I ruffle her fur.
Max emerges from between two trees with a dripping canteen in his hand.
“You're awake.” He crouches beside me, offering the canteen. “Take a drink.”
He tips the container to my lips, and I take a gulp of the delicious, cool water. Until this moment, I didn't realize how thirsty I was. I try to stop him from taking it away, but he shakes his head.
“Go easy. You've had a traumatic day and haven't eaten for hours. If you drink too much too fast, you'll get sick.”
I pull in a few deep breaths and rest my head against the tree trunk. He's right; even though the water tasted wonderful, my stomach curdles at the sudden intrusion. “Oh . . .”
He massages my shoulder. “Deep breaths. Give it a chance to settle.”
“When you're feeling better, I have some protein bars.”
Grace stretches with front paws low and her butt in the air, yawning widely. She stands, wagging her tail, and stares at Max expectantly.
He laughs. “You want your share, girl?” He digs in the saddlebag and pulls out a collapsible bowl, filling it.
Grace laps at the water happily, nudging her snout into Max’s leg when it runs dry. He pours a little more for her then lowers himself to the ground next to me with a grunt of pain.
“How are your ribs?”
“They kill.” Max rubs his jaw. “That fucker had a hell of a right hook, too. And that was with a knife wound! Jesus.”
“It must have been the adrenaline. How else could be live through all that and walk away?”
Max snorts. “He had help.”
“What do you mean?”
“Found another set of boot prints back at the house. Probably would have missed them if he hadn't stepped in the blood. Someone helped Gibbs escape.”
My scalp prickles. “Are you sure?” Even as I ask, I realize how pointless the question is. Max is thorough.
He nods grimly. “Different tread. This suggests possible dissent within the alliance, which could work for or against us.”
The sky seems to be growing lighter, the forest around us more visible.
“How close are we to home?”
“A few hours. I couldn’t keep up that pace and decided to stop and rest before I ran into a tree or fell into a ravine.”
Max dumps the rest of the water over his head, despite the chill in the air. He puts the canteen down and slicks his hair back. A few errant pieces fall over his forehead, a testament to how long his hair has grown since we met. I look him over, deciding I like the boyish look showcased by longer locks, though if I said so, he’d probably shave it all off.
He stills, fingers in mid-motion, and stares back at me. “What?”
“Nothing.” I turn to pet Grace, concealing a smile. “I can’t wait to get home.”
“We’ll leave soon.”
I stand and stretch, not surprised by the aching stiffness. My legs seem steady enough after a few minutes. My boob throbs in time with my pulse, and a dull pain has spread across the cheek Gibbs punched and slapped, but I’m otherwise okay after sleeping on Max’s back for most of the night.
“I can walk the rest of the way.”
Max rises, draping a muscular arm around my shoulders. “You sure? ‛Cause I’ll carry you as far as I have to.”
“I know you would.”
And the realization that the sentiment goes much further than giving me a piggyback ride home makes my heart beat faster.
There’s a narrow, gurgling stream nearby, and Max stops to refill the canteen before we go. He helps me cross the brook. Grace leaps from stone to stone, the saddlebag strapped around her body again.
I munch on a protein bar at Max’s insistence, and it does give me more energy for the trip ahead. Part of me half expects Gibbs to jump out and attack us; every rustling bush or snapping twig sets my pulse racing.
Eventually, filmy beams of sunlight shine through the overhanging leaves. For some reason, I feel safer in the light of day, and my anxiety eases slightly.
A faint buzzing in the distance grows louder, and I realize I’ve been hearing the sound for a while.
Max notices, too. “We need to seek higher ground and a break in the trees, but we don’t want to be spotted.” He changes direction, leading me up a hill. “Stay close.”
The rumbles of multiple engines drone in the sky.
“Airplanes?” I ask.
“Sounds like. Come on!”
Max starts to run, pulling me along by the hand. We reach the top of the summit and hunker behind a huge boulder surrounded with vine-infested vegetation. The sky is a brilliant blue, dotted with shreds of cottony clouds.
We don’t have long to wait. From the west, three fighter planes zoom through the sky. Two more follow behind them. The first three curve into spiraling loops at slightly different times. I wince, afraid they’re going to collide, but the pilots know what they’re doing. They even seem to be having fun. The two in the rear shoot past the three twisting planes and fall into a tandem dive, leveling out and rising together.
Max lifts the riflescope to his eye. “Well, I’ll be . . .”
“The fucking alliance has fighter jets, painted up all pretty.” He shakes his head and hands me the rifle.
It takes me a few seconds, but I locate a plane as it levels out. Sure enough, it’s beige with red accents. I can barely make out the word “Alliance” stenciled along the body before the jet shoots out of sight again.
The surprises aren’t over yet.
“Oh, my God . . .”
“What is it?”
I should let Max look through the scope, but I can’t stop staring. “Look to the left.”
“Holy shit! Is that . . .?”
Slicing through the slowly dissipating exhaust trails hovering in the sky is Air Force One, flanked by another group of fighter planes.
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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