Authors: Grayson Cole
Genesis Press, Inc.
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All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author and all incidents are pure invention.
Copyright Â© 2011 Grayson Cole
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To my Mother. Yes, Ma'am. It all comes back to you.
The beginning of summer, two weeks after graduation from the world's most tedious MBA program, saw Tracey McAlpine moving back home with her parents, whether she wanted to or not.
That Saturday, she ambled toward the main entrance of the Galleria trying to keep up with her mother, who was going on and on about God knows what. A few words registered: “â¦even though the house isn't going anywhere. The more I think about it, the more it sounds like a good idea. Maybe we should get a storage unit near home. That way, if you decide not to come back here, then all the stuff willâ¦ I saw that look. Well, no, I guess we don't need a storage unit. Besides, it's only an hour anyway. We can get it any time. And your dad said he would check on the place on the weekendsâ¦” And so on and so forth, never stopping to realize that Tracey was going to catch fire. And she
going to catch fire. Even filtered by clouds and magnolias, Alabama sun burns.
Besides, everybody knew Southern heat and her condition did not go hand in hand. It was so hot and so sticky, and she was breathing so hard that particular day that catching fire seemed inevitable. Her hands tried to ease the pain in her lower back by pressing her hands there. Sweating like a pig by the time they got inside the mall, she stopped to wipe one hand repeatedly across her brow. Relief from the heat remained elusive even in the cool building. She was definitely going to catch fire. She wondered if that was what made her want to cry. Or was it her mother's incessant chatting? Or was it those new female hormones that had changed her body so much?
Man, she hated him right then.
“Tracey, are you listening to me?”
“Yes, ma'am, I'm listening to you.”
“Then what did I say?”
“So when exactly can Daddy make it?”
“Oh,” her mother breathed, digressing nicely, “he said he'd get out of his meeting late tonight. He'll probably drive up with the truck tomorrow to pick up your things.” Tracey nodded, pleased with her diversion. Her mother was talking again, moving on to the subject of going to church the next morning.
It didn't matter how many times she told her mother that she did not feel like going to church, Mrs. Carolyn McAlpine wasn't having it. Tracey would be in church in the morning regardless of what she said. Her mother could always accomplish this feat by issuing an executive order, but hated doing that. She thought of herself as a benevolent dictatorâ¦ which is why Tracey wasn't surprised when she declared that her daughter wasn't going to be a heathen and they were definitely going to church.
Her mother probably figured she was so far gone, it merited extreme action. There was no distraction that could prevent her from enforcing this decision. As she went on, Tracey paused to catch her breath, another mistake in a string of many.
“Tracey, honey, are you okay?” Her mother wrinkled her honey-colored brow as she spoke.
Tracey's mother was 1940s movie star gorgeous. Like Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge. Classically pretty with big, warm brown eyes, a straight nose, and generous lips, she turned more heads at twice Tracey's age than Tracey did. Her clothes were always perfect, along with her makeup and her hair, too. Though tall like Tracey, she had a slender figure that gave her sort of a sparrow-boned look. “High-school skinny,” Tracey had heard one of her friends call her. She had smooth cafÃ©-au-lait skin that glistened. It was skin without a single mark or scar to prove she had ever been a child. When Tracey was little she'd wanted to be light like her, but was instead dark like her daddy. Tracey loved the way her mother's perpetually straight hair shifted in the wind and then moved softly back into place. It fell heavily between her shoulders like that of her Cherokee grandmother. Tracey had real honest to goodness black hair. Perming barely tamed its autonomy.
On that sweltering day, her mother was wearing a salmon-colored pantsuit and looking the picture of comfort as she swished next to Tracey like royalty. Tracey felt even worse than she normally did walking next to her. She was a big, lumbering, unkempt thing trying to stay cool in a place with too many people and too many scents. On top of that, she was catching fire, burning up, and probably going to be sick.
Her mother repeated her question.
“Yeah, Mama, I'm fine.”
“You probably need to rest for a little while.” She started to press her hand to Tracey's forehead as if her grown daughter were still a child. Tracey couldn't let her. She would be calling an ambulance in a heartbeat. So she stepped back. Her mother scowled at her. “Well, just be a baby, why don't you! Good Lord! Listen, I'm going to run into Barron's to pick up the things we need for the house. You need to sit while I do that and rest. How come you didn't tell me you were feeling bad? Never mind,” she said and began to rifle through her purse. She pulled out a perfectly folded bill. “Here.”
“Mama, I don't need your money,” Tracey responded, keeping to a ritual that had spanned her whole college career. Out of grad school and plunging headfirst into a part of womanhood Tracey wasn't halfway ready for, she was trying desperately to show her independence.
Her mother extended the bill toward her despite Tracey's argument. “Why don't you go to the food court and get yourself something to drink and eat? The liquids will help cool you off, and you know Dr. Singh wants you to eat more regularly. You need to sit down for a minute anyway. I'll meet you in the food court in twenty minutes, tops. Okay?” Tracey nodded, not because she was in agreement but because she was trying to back off from her mother as she pressed her slender fingers to Tracey's forehead again. “You feel warm,” she murmured.
“I'm fine, Mama.”
Her brow remained furrowed.
“I'm sure after I sit down I'll be fine.”
Her mother chewed her lower lip, but in the end accepted Tracey's words. “Here,” she said, attacking her daughter with the money again.
“Fine.” Tracey took the cash because her mother gave her no choice. Usually she would have debated until her mother got disgusted and stalked off, but that day she wasn't up to it.
These days her mother was always looking at her as if she were trying to figure out where she went wrong. Maybe Tracey could have taken it better if her mother were angry with her. Instead, she got a pain in her chest when she could tell her mother was turning her disappointment inward. It was as ifâ¦as if her mother looked devastated and hurt in a way she had never seen. And when she looked that way Tracey could only do whatever it was she wanted and hope the expression went away.
Besides, this gave Tracey a chance to be alone and indulge in her favorite pastime. Feeling sorry for herself had been her signature practice over the past few months. She had become a pro. At home, she would turn off all the lights and let the fan blow instead of the air conditioner, which froze her regularly. Since the fan didn't do much for the already stifling June heat, she wallowed in sticky hotness daily, sitting, as best she could, on the floor in her tiny bathroom. Its window opened beneath the shade of a great big oak that frequently sheltered a soft and fragrant breeze. Tracey would ease down, and because she couldn't sit with her legs drawn up to her chest anymore, she spread them in front of her: one foot next to the shower, the other by the door jamb. She would rest her hands and forearms on her stomach because that was the most comfortable place to put them. Sometimes, she would move her hands down over her belly. Even in the dark she could see its outline plumped up on her thighs.
Too bad it was getting too difficult to get back up. No matter, she was already expanding her morose horizons. She felt sorry for herself whenever she could. Even there in the mall she was perfecting this science.
It doesn't get any worse than this
, she told herself over and over again as she took her mother's advice and went in search of the food court.
As she waddled down the main arcade, she felt alarming discomfort pulling and punching her face into a grimace. Her hands reflexively went down to her stomach as she stood still trying to catch her breath.
Damn, how did she manage to catch the slightest pause even from fifty feet away?
Her mother was next to her before Tracey knew it. “Tracey, are you sure Dr. Singh said it's okay for you to be out? I wish I'd gone to that last appointment with you. I know I shouldn't have listened to you. I know I should have gone. And I have you out here like this. Iâ”
Right then, Tracey's head decided it wanted to spin. She felt tingling beneath her tongue and saliva pooling in her mouth. She needed to swallow, but that hurt. “I would haveâ¦come outâ¦anyway.” She could hear her own voice drifting away. She tried to make the words stream together, the way they did when everything was fine. But she didn't guess everything was fine. No, she was drifting, blissfully drifting, away from the heat, away from her mother.
In a vision, she saw Garrett. She whispered his name. She told him that she still loved him.
Her mother shook her. She put a hand to her head. Flames rippled over her skin like rapids.
“Baby, are you all right?” Her mother's voice was shaky and urgent. She held on to Tracey, trying to anchor her.
“I'm fine,” Tracey answered and, with a herculean effort, smiled. She patted at her face with a napkin she got from God knows where, then shuddered as heat pumped through her again.
“Traceyâ¦ Good Lord, you're burning up!” The sound of her mother's voice barely registered.
And then she saw him again, as if she'd summoned him. He was coming towards her. He was running towards her. She was shaking. Her whole body quivered from the inside out. Hot blood rushed and she imagined she could feel itâactually feel itâsurging from one place to another through her veins. From one place to another. She swallowed, but the lump growing at the back of her throat only got bigger. Her vision blurred.
He had her by the arm. He wasn't saying anything. His eyes were just locked with hers. His breath was coming so fast that hers became more labored. She struggled to let the air in and out deep and steady, but it came out sputtering and erratic. Tears streamed from her eyes, mixing with the burning haze around her. She couldn't focus. His broad hand wrapped all the way around her upper arm and she could feel him squeezing. He squeezed so hard that her arm was throbbing painfully, making her cry even more. He wouldn't release her, not from his grip and not from his eyes. And he still stood there silently. He didn't even know he was hurting her.
Tracey felt her mother wedge her body angrily between the two of them, but it was too late. Fire consumed her. She was about to die. She knew it. Then Tracey was falling, but there were arms catching her. She knew them. She called to him. “Garrett, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry! I'm so sorry.” The ground beneath her was still giving way. Moisture was bending all the images before her eyes; heat was making them swirl. Then pain took her into its heart and everything went black.
Tracey had spent the majority of her day at the Carlisle Center. Volunteering at the community center was typically high-energy, but that day had been particularly busy because it was the first in-service of the school year and every parent on earth had decided to choose that day to work, or go out of town, or do something that meant dropping their kids off there. She'd raced home to change into the worn clothes she chose to wear when she worked there. Days of coming home with either too many questions about the designer clothes she wore
having those outfits covered in finger paint had taught her the importance of dressing down. A half hour after leaving, she slumped exhausted in the first floor hallway of the old law building, praying she would make it through this one more appointment to discuss her thesis. Then she could go home and curl up on the sofa for an hour or two.
Leaning there against the wall, she saw a white guy come out of the bathroom down the hall but didn't pay him much mind. That is, until he sauntered up to her and said, “The sink is overflowing in the men's bathroom down the hall. And there aren't any paper towels or anything.”
She studied him closely. For a fraction of a second she had the impulse to touch his face.
, she thoughtâsomething to do with those great yellow hazel eyes, lion eyes.
“I'm sorry?” she asked, ignoring her response to his eyes, genuinely confused. His eyes focused on something behind her right shoulder. Tracey turned and looked. She was leaning next to a door that read CUSTODIAN. Although she
just come from the center, and looked something like a vagrant in her paint-covered old overalls and ratty gray windbreaker, Tracey nevertheless took offense at his assumption. Maybe she didn't look like an MBA student, but she did look like
student. Tracey took a whole lot of offense. She hardly ever stood up for herself in those days. She couldn't get words out fast enough when angry or indignant or upset, but whatever look she gave him was immediately effective.
“Oh,” he sputtered. “My bad.”
Before Tracey could say anything, she saw Dr. Alexander Burke, her Employee Rights professor and a longstanding family friend, a few feet away.
“Mr. Atkins.” Dr. Burke inclined his head. The guy nodded in returned greeting. “I'm sorry, but I need to borrow Miss McAlpine for a moment.” He took her arm and led her towards the conference room door across the hall.
Before either of them could open it, the door swung open and a short, fat, red-cheeked man stood there smiling. “Tracey McAlpine, come on in!” He said it as if she were on a game show with him, the happy host. Tracey brushed past “Mr. Atkins” and walked into the room without looking back and began, “Pardon my appearance, gentlemen. I've been volunteering today.” For the next half-hour, she talked with the short, fat man, Dr. Ericson, Director of Graduate Student Services, and Dr. Burke, Tracey's faculty advisor, about taking courses in the law school despite being in the MBA program.
Dr. Burke was an attractive, young-looking man, probably not even forty yet. Rumor had it he'd graduated at the top of his law class, practiced for some absurdly short period of time, and then turned right around to teach for some exorbitant amount of money. Rumor also had it that the law school was willing to pay anything to get a “non-threatening” black on staff. After seeing his lavish house and the mild-mannered man himself in action, she figured it was altogether likely. Still, the university leaders obviously hadn't known how seriously he was going to take his position. Dr. Burke turned out to be one of the more respected law professors in the college. His ebony complexion, strong physique, and eloquence commanded attention in class and out. Needless to say, he was the man her father secretly wanted her to marry someday. It was true. Probably not Burke specificallyâthe age difference would be an issue for her fatherâbut someone like him. This was a source of contention between her father and her. Tracey respected him, but she wasn't interested in Alexander
anyone like him.
Near the end of the session, Burke decided to tell her how much he expected from her, especially given who her father was. That was something he never should have said in that meeting. Exasperated, Tracey couldn't pay attention to him after that.
This left her plenty of time to think about the little exchange in the hall and to be indignant. Her mother claimed Tracey thrived on being indignant, that Tracey was dramatic. Her mother took too many personality quizzes, the kind that fit a person into some four-letter group of neurotics just like himself or herself. Over the years Tracey had noticed them getting more specific and irritating her, like those people who dedicate their lives to seeing how far out they can calculate pi. Anyway, she had the perfect opportunity to avenge her hurt egoâor to be dramaticâwhen she was released from the meeting and able to step outside. As soon as Tracey looked up, there was Mr. Atkins, standing there in the same spot she had occupied. She thought of asking him if he had settled his plumbing problem. Instead, she continued down the hall. Then she turned back. She couldn't help herself. “Excuse me. There seems to be a plumbing issue in one of the bathrooms down the hall. Could you have someone check it out?”
He leaned away from the wall and started to say something. Tracey attempted to go along her merry way but felt a large hand close around her upper arm. She turned.
“Excuse me, miss.” He let the words slip slowly from his lips as he elongated the “miss” in a way that elevated the word. “I'm sorryâ”
Secretly, Tracey could not get enough of Southern accents. They weren't what one heard on TV. In real life they were beautiful when they were pure. The right ones poured over the listener like warm honey. This guy had one of those, which meant one thing. He was really, really, really white.
“I don't like people getting the wrong impression of me,” he drawled. “I'm sorry. It was an honest mistake. I'm sure I would have said the same to anyone standin' there.”
“I'm not,” she retorted. He rolled his eyes and stuck his hands in his jeans pockets. “Listen,” Tracey said, deciding she truly didn't have the energy to continue this. “I really haven't the time or the energy to spend trying to assuage your great white guilt about something I've already forgotten. Get over it. In fact, get over yourself.” She gave herself an internal pat on the back and walked away.