Chapter 2 of EXQUISITE CORPSE
Once Tracy had raised Auntie Ashley from the dead, they would, like Sendak’s misanthropic Max, make mischief of one kind and another. Wolves in sheep’s clothing, the men of Waikiki would call them wild things. But the two women would simply say, licking their chops, “We’ll eat you up,” and they’d take those men to bed without eating anything.
They’d leave the eating to the men, Tracy thought, blushing at the bad joke that came unbidden to the tip of her tongue. A bad joke that Ashley would roar at, her laughter a balm for every ailment.
But before all that, Tracy had work to do. And so, she stole across her uncle’s lanai to steal the final ingredient for a potion she’d been brewing for two weeks: ashes from an urn Michael was supposed to cast into the winds of Waimea Canyon some six years ago.
The last remains of Michael’s sister sat between a statue of Haumea, the fertility goddess whose presence here he’d once hoped would help him get his wife pregnant, and the mangy old boot of a nineteenth-century ancestor that was supposed to remind him to be true to himself.
What hopes Michael had for the urn, Tracy scarcely knew. But its magic wasn’t any more potent than the trinkets bookending it. He was the worst at talismans, Michael—the absolute worst. His branch of the family tree was still barren, and he suffered crises of conscience with such regularity that—assuming Shakespeare was right about conscience being “a thousand swords”—Michael could have built an Iron Throne to rival the high seat of Westeros.
And then felt guilty for not making a thousand plowshares instead.
Tracy sat on the edge of the chaise longue and unstoppered the urn, a gentle breeze fluttering the curtains at her back. She stared into the vessel in deep thought, despite the tickle of linen and cooling sweat on her mostly bare back. But then the unravelling wicker of the aging chaise began to chafe against the backs of her thighs. And so, cursing herself for not sitting in one of the better kept seats across the way, she set the urn in her lap to reshuffle herself.
And that’s when it fell. That’s when it fell to the floor and shattered, the breeze scattering the ashes across the lanai and toward the cliff beyond. Beginning the work Michael had long neglected, but with none of the reverence demanded by the enterprise.
Tracy fell to her knees and grabbed for the ashes. From inside the heretofore darkened house came light, then footsteps.
“Shit,” said Tracy, her free hand plumbing the depths of her backpack for a plastic baggie that suddenly didn’t want to be found. By the time she had it, her uncle was there. His jaw fell in disbelief at the sight of her.
“Aren’t you supposed to be—?” he began to ask.
“Yes,” she said, cutting him off. She wrapped one hand around the final fistful of her aunt’s remains while the other fumbled with the ziplock of the baggie.
“What are you doing here?” asked Michael.
The baggie finally open in her lap, Tracy unclenched her fist over its maw. Not all the way open, but enough that the dust fell like sand through an hourglass.
“Tracy,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“I broke out the big house, bro. And orange ain’t the new black, kid,” she said, affecting the Southie accent they used to use when making fun of their relatives back home in Massachusetts. “No matter what they say, guy. Orange don’t blend in at all, dude. Doesn’t go with shit. Clashes with everything. So, y’know, I had to lay low until I could—”
“Lie low,” he interrupted, trying to correct her.
“No,” she said, shaking her head as she zipped up the baggie. “Nope.”
“Agree to disagree?” he said. He smirked, blinking a tear into oblivion. It was lovely, really, to know that he missed her. And she would’ve hugged him, if she could. But she had to get out of here.
Tracy stood and smiled at him. “I agree, Professor, that you’re an idiot.”
He shook his head, laughing briefly at her use of ‘Professor,’ the nickname her mothers had long used to tease him for being an insufferable know-it-all. Then he looked at the floor, and at last remembered what had startled him from his sleep. “What happened?” he asked. But before she could answer, something else seemed to dawn on him. He pointed at the baggie, then stared wide-eyed at Tracy.
The game was afoot.
“Don’t try to stop me,” she told him, backing toward the edge of the porch, ready to make for the woods if he so much as flinched. Ready to jump a cliff or two, if need be.
He shook his head. “Don’t do it again,” he said. “Tracy, that concoction of yours… what it leads to—”
“Bullshit,” she said, taking another step backwards. “And you know it. It got my mother out of her loveless marriage. It set things straight between you and me.”
“And what about what happened to the original enchantress, huh, when she used it on our dear old ancestor?”
Tracy rolled her eyes, the heel of her hiking boot finding the edge of the lanai at last. “I know what I’m doing,” she said, careful not to step too much further back without looking. The house was perched on the edge of a precipice, after all. And an unintended splash into the Pacific was sure to test the water resistance of her dollar-store baggie in ways she was not prepared to risk.
“Tracy,” he said, taking a step forward.
She took a long look at him. He looked tired, more gray in his beard now than brown. And the half-moons of sallow skin beneath each of his bloodshot eyes betrayed the weight of the baggage he’d carried with him for the six years since his sister’s passing.
“I miss her, too,” he said, taking another step toward Tracy. “But she’s in a better—”
Tracy fumed. “Don’t you dare,” she spat. “Don’t you dare finish.”
He took another step, and Tracy wondered why she hadn’t run yet. She loved him, it was true, but he was a weak man. A man whose weaknesses weakened her. And she had no time for that.
But those hazel eyes of his, those eyes boring holes into her this very second. You could find any color in them that you wanted, and any answer. “It’s true,” he was saying when she came back to herself, but she couldn’t remember what was true. Or what truth was, after all. “Tracy,” he said, drawing nearer still, “we both know it’s true.”
It was the “we” that did it, that finally unstuck Tracy from the spot. She turned tail and ran, stumbling over the fallen fruit of their coconut tree, rolling her ankle once and then again. She came up lame, hopping on one foot for a second, grasping at the hurt to try and pull it out of herself. But she couldn’t linger. She could hear him coming. And so, hurt though she was, Tracy ran as hard as she ever had. There would be nothing to stop her this time.
Nothing, and no one.
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