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‘Decide what to be and go be it’

I recently read that the hands of a human embryo begin as webbed, spade-like flippers until cell death sculpts individual little fingers.

Nature is a master sculptor.

Another master sculptor, Michelangelo, was once asked how he had created his masterpiece, David. His answer: “I looked at the stone and removed all that was not David.”

Writers do this, too. We pull details from the infinite and organize them in linear form to tell a story. Even the world’s oldest bestseller gives a nod to the creative process when, in chapter one, the Divine Architect fashions earth from the “formless and void.”

There is a powerful lyric from the Avett Brothers “Head full of doubt/Road full of promise,” a song introduced to me by my friend Sheena when I was still struggling to transcend the straitjacket of my criminal past and evolve into something more. It’s this: “Decide what to be and go be it.”

Simple yet powerful. That’s what’s up. As much as we try to convince ourselves that we are fixed and stagnant, that this is just the way we are, the way we’re wired; the truth is we are really the waveform in particle physics existing in a state of pure potential, primordial sludge, unwritten music, blank sheets of paper, unchiseled stone, works-in-progress tricked into believing we are finished products. It is our mission — and our inheritance as offspring of the Original Creator — to go forward and create our best selves.

In the timeless words of James Allen, “The oak sleeps in the acorn.”

A spectacular life

I have never watched Parts Unknown, never eaten at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, never read Kitchen Confidential, yet I’m a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain. I first heard of him on NPR’s Fresh Air. When Terry Gross introduced him as a chef, I reached for my radio to change the station.

“Anthony Bourdain, welcome to Fresh Air…”

I know the foodie movement is a thing out there in the real world, but here in the land of starch-grenades and watered-down pudding, the culinary craze never caught fire. I had better things to do than waste Duracell juice on some Yankee pontificating on the subtle art of five-star cuisine.

Then he began to speak … and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.

Dude was a natural-born storyteller. For the length of the interview, I was transported from my tiny prison cell in the Florida Panhandle to a bustling New York City kitchen, to a raft in the Mekong Delta, through jungles, across deserts, over mountains and beyond. To some of the most remote locations on the globe. To parts unknown.

Despite the diametrically polar trajectories of our lives, it became clear as I listened that Mr. Bourdain was a kindred spirit. This seems strange to say about a guy who’s eaten lamb nuts, wart hog rectum, and raw seal eyeball (especially considering that my soft ass won’t even eat an onion). Maybe it was his early struggles with hard drugs. Or the fact that he made more than his share of horrible choices as a younger man. If nothing else, we most definitely shared in the transformative power of the written word. For him, it meant a springboard to fortune and fame; for me, an identity other than career criminal. By the end of the interview, I was a fan.

When I saw his picture for the first time earlier this year in a Men’s Health magazine, he looked exactly as I’d imagined — tall (six-foot-four), tattoos, head full of gray hair, and a craggy, lined, lived-in face. The article was about him taking up Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Check out this quote: “Look, I’m 61 years old. I have limited expectations of how I’ll do, but every once in a while, I get to feel the will to live drain out of a 22-year-old wrestler.”

Hell yeah.

Back to Fresh Air. I’ve listened to well over a thousand Terry Gross interviews during this prison bid. Musicians, rappers, actors, writers, athletes, activists, comedians, politicians, news correspondents, and other interesting people from all walks of life. Strange that my all-time favorite would be a celebrity chef. But it is. So I was pumped when NPR rebroadcast it a few weeks ago. I settled back on my bunk with a cup of coffee, ready to spend an hour with old friends… until they cut to break and Dave Davies explained that they were re-airing the interview because Anthony Bourdain had been found unresponsive in a Paris hotel room that morning, his death ruled a suicide. Just as I had been introduced to his life via Fresh Air, I was now being informed of his departure through the same program. Talk about full circle.

Mr. Bourdain was obviously a seeker, same as all of us. He overturned stones through art, food, travel, chemicals, relationships, and even jiu-jitsu along the journey. But what exactly was he seeking? What are any of us seeking? Meaning. Gratification. Connectivity. Belonging. That unnamed and ever-beckoning “it.”

I know many will judge him strictly on the nature of his passing. But the span of a human life is much too complex to be defined by a single instance. Though his suicide was heartbreaking, it was still a single instance, the final instance of a pretty spectacular life.

I continue to be inspired by him.

‘An international embarrassment’

In 2012, after serving over 15 years in the dilapidated and thoroughly inhumane state-run institutions of the Florida Department of Corrections, I found myself staring through the mesh-plated windows of a transport bus at the gleaming razor wire that surrounded my next home: Blackwater River Correctional Facility, a private prison in the Panhandle owned by the GEO Group… and I was thrilled.

No more un-air-conditioned, hot-box dormitories, no more meager servings of disgusting food, no more mentally ill cell mates, abusive staff, shabby laundry, inadequate supplies. No more misery. I had arrived in the land of milk and honey. Sweetwater. Arctic-level AC, hot edible food, ESPN, movies on the weekends, rec every day, a roll of soft toilet paper once a week. This was more like it. This was living!

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Four short years later, I was back on the bus. Tears in my eyes, utopia in the rearview, headed back to that from whence I came. Another filthy, sweltering, state-run facility. Word was they were turning the privatized paradise into a psych camp and apparently I wasn’t crazy enough to stay.

Upon my return to the prison system I grew up in, it was evident that much had changed while I was away. New secretary Julie Jones had curtailed most of the staff abuse by installing cameras and audio in confinement units. The food was better, supplies were given out more frequently, motivational slogans were painted on the walls, and the department had changed its name from the Department of Corrections to the Florida Department of Corrections in an effort to distance itself from its own bloody, 150-year history. But even with all these upgrades, the state-run facilities were still ramshackle hovels compared to their outsourced, for-profit counterparts.

So I was blown away when I read a USAToday article in August of 2016, detailing how then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates planned to phase out all private prisons in the Federal system once their contracts expired. She said that companies like GEO “don’t provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources as the Federal Bureau of Prisons…”

Come again?

Was she really saying that my beloved Blackwater, with its edible food and air conditioning and ESPN was not up to Federal standards? And if so, how cushy was Federal prison? But as I read on, I began to understand. The Obama administration, along with the Loretta Lynch DOJ and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle didn’t want to be tethered to those who would seek to profit from the exploitation of human captivity. These are people who lobby to keep archaic mandatory minimums in place, donate millions to candidates who will keep the “war on drugs” going, who need fathers removed from homes so their at-risk sons and daughters will one day fill empty prison bunks, who have a vested interest in high recidivism and overcrowded jails… it’s their bread and butter.

It was no surprise to see GEO Group stock plummet 38 percent when Ms. Yates made this announcement. Nor was it much of a shocker when, six months later, the Trump administration immediately rescinded the order upon moving into the White House, causing the stock to soar again. After all, these same prison profiteers donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Make America Great Again war chest, plus a million the same year lobbying Congress, targeting appropriations bills. And it looks like their palm-greasing is already paying huge dividends with this immigration crisis. Nothing spells profit like selling poor refugee detainees international phone cards at gouge-level prices.

Bernie Sanders nailed it: “It is an international embarrassment that we put more people behind bars than any other country on earth. Due in large part to private prisons, incarceration has been a source of major profits to private corporations. We have got to end the private prison racket in America.”

Today, I’m grateful for the gnats dive-bombing my food in the chow hall, for my lumpy, plastic-covered mat, for the lukewarm water fountain, even for the triple-digit July sweat rolling down my back as I pen this essay. I’d rather write about the struggle from here in the trenches than from some plush, privatized luxury box. Especially one that is owned by the very people who are betting that the land of the free will remain the world’s leading incarcerator.

 

Number 5

Working on my fifth book. No title yet, but it’s the story of a hit woman, a musician recently released from prison, and a drug trafficker’s wife.

Prologue
Barefoot, with chubby scraped knees pumping away, Dixie barreled through the tall grass. A monarch butterfly flitted just beyond her reach. Musical laughter unspooled in her wake as thick mud squished between her toes.

Though barely a quarter-acre, the backyard was a sprawling wonderland to her three-year-old eyes; a dense and endless jungle of overgrown weeds, home to grasshoppers, ladybugs, and magic rocks that sparkled when she held them to the sun.

She paused to yank a dandelion from the ground. Without a wish, she blew it bald then continued after the butterfly, chasing it along the fence, little fingers jangling the chain-links as she ran. She followed it round the old yellow truck with its missing hood and corroded engine block that was adorned with beer cans and empty cigarette packs. Majestic wings hovered and flapped against the flattened tires that appeared to be melting into the mud. Then it went up through the windshield, skimming the greenish cubes of shattered glass that spilled across the sun-cracked dash like a cascade of diamonds.

Her outstretched hands opened and closed as she pursued it beneath the rusty chains of the broken swing set, beyond the slumping tin-roofed shed where the black racer snakes lived, and back toward the clapboard house where it fluttered upward on a breeze and disappeared over the roof.

She stood there waiting, hoping it would return but she was soon distracted by the familiar sound of her momma and Chuck wrastling on the couch. They were always wrastling, especially when they gave themselves shots like at the doctor’s office. Once she ran up and tried to push Chuck off, but her momma screamed at her to get the fuck out! That was the last time she tried to help. Maybe her momma liked Chuck but Dixie hated him. He smelled like ashes and socks and he tickled her until she couldn’t breathe.

A paint bucket lay discarded in the weeds. She dragged it over to the house, set it upside down, and climbed atop. Her wobbly legs trembled as she stood on mud-caked tip toes to peek through the open window.

Chuck sniffed the air. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Her momma’s voice drifted toward her, hoarse from a lingering cold.

“Someone’s on the front porch.”

“It’s probably just Dixie,” said her momma. “We’ve been up since Sunday, baby. You know how you get.”

He rose naked from the couch and crept to the front of the house. Scary tattoos of skulls and demons and snarling wolves ripped across his back.

“Here we go again,” her momma mumbled as she sat up and reached for the needle.

A small pile of medicine lay next to a spoon on Dixie’s favorite book, The Little Engine That Could. She hoped her momma wasn’t going to give herself another shot. All medicine made her want to do was wrastle or vacuum or pick at her face until the scabs bled.

Chuck came flying back down the hall. “It’s a raid,” he hissed.

Dixie ducked beneath the ledge, lost her balance, and fell in the grass. The water spigot dripped inches from her face. Popcorn-shaped clouds drifted across the summer sky.

“Chuck,” her momma pleaded, “don’t do this.”

The needle shot from the window over her head like an orange dart, followed by scattershot baggies of medicine and charred glass pipes.

“Get your ass up woman! Move! The front yard is crawling with Feds!”

Airborne paraphernalia continued to fly from the window as Dixie sat up and leaned against the house. She had no idea what a Fed was but she knew that if it scared Chuck, as tall and mean as he was, it had to be pretty scary. He wasn’t even afraid of the monsters that lived under her bed.

“Shit! Is that the muriatic acid from the last batch?”

“Where?”

“On the counter, you stupid bitch! I told you to get rid…” His frantic footsteps faded into the kitchen as a neighbor’s lawnmower sputtered and roared to life.

She strained to hear more but her attention was hooked by the return of the butterfly, hovering near the dripping faucet. Slowly she extended her finger. It seemed to sniff at it for a moment before fluttering off, skirting along the side of the house, brushing the peeling green paint with its wing.

She watched it vanish around the corner and was on the verge of renewing the chase when the men appeared. Three of them. Muscles and veins bulged from tight black shirts. Black boots flattened the grass. Black gloves aimed black guns as they silently approached, their faces grim and terrible.

She scrambled to her feet, burst through the weeds, and darted for the safety of the house.

“Hold your fire!” a voice commanded. “It’s just a kid.”

She was halfway up the steps when the door flew open and Chuck, naked, wild-eyed, pouring sweat, heaved a bucket of chemicals in her face.

It was as if she’d run head first into a swarm of hornets that were then shrink-wrapped to her skin and set on fire, melting it to the bone. She gulped for air and breathed hot nails instead. Her arms flailed as she stumbled backward. A cannonade of shouting voices volleyed over her head but the words didn’t register through the deafening crackle in her ears.

She tried to scream. Only gagged. Then the TV screen of her consciousness dimmed at the corners, rapidly diminishing from a shrinking circle to a single pixel which flickered, glowed, then mercifully zapped off.

 

For Mom

I electrocuted myself when I was a second-grader in Catholic school. I was in the principal’s office for fighting Ryan Balthrop and thought it would be cool to jam a paper clip in an electrical socket while I waited. Something to pass the time. I vaguely remember convulsing against the wall, then being spat across the room, crashing into a nun’s desk like a meteor with my hair standing straight up and every line and seam on my palm burnt to a crisp. When my mom skidded into the Saint Pius parking lot, she was crying harder than I was.

This would become a recurring theme in our lives: me self-destructing and Mom suffering. When I hit 13 and went to juvie for the first time, Momma cried. When I was sentenced to prison at age 18, Momma cried. When I showed up at visitation with black eyes from fighting, or dilated eyes from dope, or sunken eyes from months in solitary confinement, Momma cried. And when I finally came home after ten years, Momma cried.

But just because she cried doesn’t mean she’s weak. My mom is a soldier. The strongest lady I know. Imagine witnessing your only son waste away on crack cocaine, finding him on your porch at 3 a.m. emaciated, dirty, begging for money. Only you don’t see the zombie that the world sees. You see the little boy that you rocked and read bedtime stories to and drove to football practice. Imagine arriving at Sacred Heart Hospital after learning he totaled his car and having the ER surgeon explain that if he performs brain surgery now, your child could be deaf or blind or slow, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be dead within hours. Imagine sitting by his bed in ICU, stroking his stapled head. The face you had so much hope for now vacant. Defeated. Swollen and bruised from police flashlights and boots. The same flesh you once bathed and diapered and swaddled in blankets now ripped to ribbons by police dogs. Imagine sitting in the courtroom, helpless, as a federal judge sentences him to 31 years in prison.

This story could have easily ended right there. But Mom wouldn’t let it go. She forced the issue. She continued believing in me, despite my track record of personal failure. She kept willing me forward when I thought the fight was long over, kept driving to every prison in the state to visit me, kept seeing the best in me, kept calling me on my shit when I was slipping, kept loving me for some cosmic maternal spiritual reason that only mothers and God understand.

Then one day in 2010, I asked her if she would type something for me… This became what is now the first chapter of Consider the Dragonfly. Eight years and four novels later, we’re still going strong and my old life seems like someone else’s nightmare.

I believe the stories I tell are relevant. And obviously, I hope they are entertaining. I do my best to illustrate the human condition with heart, humor, and unobtrusive prose. But the real story may be the process. I write the scenes and chapters longhand from my bunk, then six pages at a time I mail them home to Mom who lovingly types every F-bomb, every fight sequence, every overdose, then sends them back to me for revisions, which are made during 15-minute collect calls, all under the jaundiced eye of one of the nation’s more abusive and intolerant prison systems. This is the story behind the stories, the journey of a crash-dummy son and the mother who refused to give up on him.

Poor Momma. As hard as it’s been on her in real life, it’s been even worse on the page. After Consider the Dragonfly, people wondered if she killed herself. Then after On the Shoulders of Giants, many assumed she was a junkie. Now that Sticks & Stones has been out for a few months, people have been discreetly inquiring about her late-stage Alzheimer’s. She’s likely Kenny from South Park — next book she’ll probably get hit by a truck. There’s a reason for this: memorable fiction is not about what goes right, but what goes wrong. And the most catastrophic thing that could happen in my world is something happening to Mom.

People also confuse me with my characters. I guess this is fair since they’re all convicted felons. If I had to select one that I relate to the most, it would be Izzy from On the Shoulders of Giants. Like him, I feel like writing gives me an identity other than failure, loser, career-criminal. But unlike Izzy, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience some positive return on energy. My novels have been mentioned in Writers Digest magazine, my hometown paper ran an article about me, I even received a personal letter from President Obama… but the crowning achievement of my writing life is that the lady I once habitually let down, humiliated, and made cry is now able to slide these books to other county retirees and fellow master gardeners and say with pride, “My son is a writer. This is his latest novel.”

Happy Mother’s Day.

Chapter 44: Muffled

Mason was sitting on the hood of his truck, waiting for the school bus, when the patrol car turned onto the cul de sac. He watched it approach with a sinking feeling, his mind and his gut battling for control of the narrative.

Mind: “It’s just a cop on his beat. Look, his lights aren’t even on. You have nothing to worry about. You haven’t done anything.”

Gut: “They’re coming for you, man. I knew this freedom experiment was too good to be true.”

Mind: “Relax. He’s just going to circle the block.”

Gut: “They’re looking right at you. Run!”

Mind: “You’re fine.”

Gut: “You’re dead.”

The squad car pulled into his driveway and stopped a few feet from his truck. The driver, a crew-cut uniformed cop, said something into the radio that was attached to his shoulder. The passenger — bald, mirrored sunglasses, and a seersucker suit — stared poker-faced through the windshield. Another patrol car sped down the cul de sac. Then a K-9 unit.

Suddenly the doors flew open and they were crouching behind them, guns drawn in deadly synchronicity, aimed straight at his face.

Slowly, Mason raised his hands.

“Brilliant idea,” cracked the uniformed cop. “You must’ve done this before.”

Across the street, he noticed Fran standing on her porch.

“Now I want you to slide off that truck, nice and easy. Turn around and place your hands on the hood.”

He obeyed.

The frisk was meticulous. “Anything on you I should know about? Guns, knives, needles, crack pipes, dope?”

He didn’t bother answering. His wallet was removed from his back pocket and tossed on the hood. The plainclothes detective wandered over and picked it up.

“Velcro. Classy.” He thumbed through the contents and found his ID. “Mason Foster, just the guy I was looking for.”

“Told you so,” said his gut as handcuffs were placed on his wrists.

“This your truck?” The plainclothesman walked to the driver side and peered through the window. “I see a beer on the floorboard. What else am I gonna find when I search it? A gun, perhaps?”

He kept his eyes straight ahead, locked on the river birch. “I’m a convicted felon. It’s against the law for me to possess a firearm.”

The detective circled the truck and came back to where he was standing. “Where were you last night at nine o’clock?”

He glanced at the pull-up bar. “Here.”

The detective smirked. “Of course you were. Can anyone vouch for you?”

He kissed her at sunset, almost four hours before nine. Tammy had company and her blinds were closed. No help there. His only hope was Fran. Maybe she was spying from her window.

“I don’t know.”

Sensing weakness, the detective moved in for the kill, his face inches from Mason’s. “Is there something you need to tell me?”

He nodded.

“Well don’t be shy. Go ahead.”

Mason hesitated. “I’m supposed to be babysitting this afternoon. A seven-year-old and an eleven-year-old. They should be getting off the school bus any minute.”

Gum smacked in his ear, close enough to smell. After a pause, the detective spoke in a gust of cinnamon. “Get him outta here.”

The uniformed cop clamped his arm in an iron grip and roughly directed him to the back of the squad car.

“What am I being arrested for?”

“Armed robbery.”

The door slammed. The outside world was muffled by plexiglass. And just like that, he was back in his natural habitat: confinement.

Neighbors gawked from windows and porches as he was chauffeured down the cul de sac. Humiliation crept between the shock and confusion.

The school bus was just pulling away when he reached the end of the block. Both kids stood watching from the sidewalk in their backpacks. Evan’s face was unreadable, probably still angry over the Tammy incident. Maddy’s mouth was wide open. Slowly, as if in a daze, she lifted her hand to wave goodbye.

It killed him not to respond. He wanted to. But his hands were locked behind his back. He watched through the rear window as they shrunk to specks, then disappeared altogether.

©2018 Sticks & Stones by Malcolm Ivey
All rights reserved.

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 42 & 43

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 42: 9:00 PM
He read, he paced, he played solitaire. Prison 101. Same as it ever was.

The best night of his life and he had no one to share it with. I kissed her! He considered hopping back in the truck and driving over to the nursing home. Even though his mom wouldn’t recognize him, it would still feel good to tell her.

He glanced at the clock on the oven. Almost 9:00 p.m. Visiting hours were seven to seven. No way he was driving across town to give Dr. Jennings’ nose-ringed granddaughter the pleasure of barring him entrance.

He could see Brooke’s house from his hallway window. Her bedroom light was on. He wondered if she was thinking of him too. Maybe she was staring through her blinds like he was. He reached out and flicked the light switch twice, hoping that she would respond in kind. Nothing.

Dude, how old are you? Thirteen?

Too jacked to eat, too early to sleep, he did what he always did with pent up energy.

The wind howled as he stepped onto the porch. The radio said it was forty degrees but it felt closer to twenty. Tammy had company. A red BMW was parked in her driveway. He thought of Evan’s size-seven Skecher in his solar plexus and laughed to himself.

The river birch bark flapped in the wind. Dead leaves crackled beneath his boots. He blew in his cupped hands, warming them, before grabbing the bar.

He didn’t bother counting. This was more about exorcising demons than exercising the body. He yanked his chest to the crossbar, paused, then exhaled on the way down. Stars shone through the network of limbs overhead. His muscles warmed as his mind wandered.

The sequence replayed in technicolor detail. Her jogging down the driveway, slipping into the passenger seat, shivering from the cold, the errant strands of hair that came loose when she pulled his sweatshirt over her head. Was she sleeping in it now? Her profile bathed in shadow, the way her mouth constructed words to fill the silence. The way her eyes spoke a softer language, one that transcended words. The shockwaves of that first spontaneous kiss, the urgency and heat of the second, the truck door opening and her running away…

It had been thirty years since he’d kissed a girl. Three drab and barren decades. Tens of thousands of colorless, monotone days, one blending into the next like the relentless procession of towns along some forgotten Midwestern highway. Each identical, each unremarkable.

He remembered his last. Most convicts do. When no new memories are being manufactured, one tends to cling to faded photographs of the mind. Her name was Leeann Lambert. She sat behind him in world history. Tall and shy, with gleaming silver braces, he kissed her at the bowling alley. Three days later, he was in jail for armed robbery.

During his odyssey through the criminal justice system, he often wondered if he had forgotten how to be with a woman. He worried that he would be emotionally incapable of having a relationship. He knew he was developmentally delayed when it came to matters of the heart. While the rest of the world was dating and hooking up and breaking up and making up and learning and growing with each new romance, he was doing push-ups in a cage.

Those fears, while natural, proved to be illusory. And just after sunset, they evaporated into nothing, shattered by a kiss.

Maybe it was naiveté, maybe it was inexperience, maybe it was a consequence of extreme loneliness, but that evening, as he hung from the pull-up bar, with steam coming off his body and cold on his breath, he was thinking beyond the next stolen moment, beyond the next kiss, beyond even the desire to make love to her. He was thinking about having a family. Finally, a place where he belonged. He was thinking of forever.

Chapter 43: Breakfast of Champions
The ivory ringtone of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” tickled the silence. The raven-haired stranger climbed over him and snatched his phone from the nightstand, giggling as she collapsed on the other side of the bed.

He stretched and yawned. “Let me see that.”

“No,” she pouted, rolling over, her curvy silhouette outlined by the white light emanating from the screen. An electronic aura.

“Come on…” He forgot her name. “It’s probably a client.”

“Who is Amos?” She pronounced it Ah-mos. Like some obscure conjugation of the Latin verb amor, to love. “Is she your novia?”

Her accent was South American. Somewhere below the Yucatan. Then he remembered. Claudia. The daughter of a Colombian nightclub owner who was serving forty years for second degree murder and badly in need of a post-conviction attorney. She wandered into his office after five in a leather mini, black lipstick, and a Louis Vuitton bag with a ten thousand dollar cash retainer.

“Amos is a man’s name. He’s my investigator.” He reached over and pried the phone from her hands, his head already pounding from a vicious hangover. “I need to take this.”

She pulled the sheet to her neck and pretended to sulk.

“What?” he growled into the phone as he swung his legs over the side of the bed.

“Morning, Boss. Sounds like you had a rough one.”

He walked to the bathroom and stood in front of the toilet. “Let’s dispense with the pleasantries, Amos. It’s too early.”

“Now that’s no way to talk to a feller that’s bringin’ good news.”

He broke wind as he urinated. “Out with it.”

“Well, ever since we had our little pow-wow, I’ve had my feelers out. It was tough sleddin’ there for a minute. Couldn’t find a shred of a hint of a rumor–”

“What on earth are you babbling about?” He opened his medicine cabinet, shook two Roxycontin 30s from a pill bottle into his palm, then headed for the kitchen.

“I’m talking about your special assignment. The feller I’m supposed to be digging up dirt on.”

He took an energy drink from the fridge and began crushing the Roxys on the glass dining room table. “Right, right. Proceed.”

“Well on Friday afternoon I spoke with a Detective Baxley, Robbery Division. An old friend of mine, Horace Powell, put me in touch with him. I worked narcotics with Horace back in the ’80s.”

Blane carved out two lines of the pharmaceutical grade opium on the dining room table. His blazer was hanging from the back of a chair. He dug in the pocket for his wallet and removed a $100 bill.

“I put a bug in his ear about a certain recently released bad guy that is back among the good citizens of Rosemont.”

Ben Franklin’s face disappeared as he rolled the money into a straw. “Well done, Amos. Just keep me posted, okay?”

“Hold your horses,” said the investigator, “I ain’t done yet. This morning he called me back. Says there was a robbery on the west side last night. The clerk thinks the suspect mighta drove off in a old black pickup but she ain’t sure. Didn’t see a license plate. But Baxley’s got no leads ‘sides our boy and he’d like to close the case if he can. He’s gonna show her a mugshot and see what she says.”

Blane chuckled. “He’s going to show her his mugshot? We call that coercion in a court of law.”

“Yeah? Well downtown we call it a day at the office.”

His naked reflection stared back from a mirror across the room. “This is not just egregiously immoral. It’s illegal.”

“So is armed robbery,” Amos shot back. “But if it offends your sense of justice that much, maybe you could represent him once he’s arrested.”

“Don’t be cute,” he sniffed. “What time will we know something?”

“Are you heading to the office now?”

Claudia strode into the living room, wrapped in his sheet. He paused, admiring her statuesque figure.

“Uh … I’m running a little late. I’ll be there in about an hour.”

“Alrighty. I should be able to tell you something by the time you come in.”

“Good work, Amos.” He set the phone on the table.

“What’s this?” she brushed against him, frowning at the crushed parallel piles of grayish-white powder.

He leaned over and snorted both lines, then stood and downed half the energy drink before smiling and patting her backside.

“Breakfast of champions.”

©2018 Sticks & Stones by Malcolm Ivey
All rights reserved.

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 40 & 41

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 40: Spotting Commando
The nursing home shrank and faded in the rearview. He braked at Tamarack and fiddled with the heat again.

“It’s broken,” declared Maddy, the drawstring of her hoodie cinched tight around her face.

“Thank you, Diane Sawyer.”

Evan rubbed his hands together on the passenger side. “Why is your mom so mean?”

He gave the truck some gas. “She’s not mean.”

“She ignored us the whole time. She didn’t even open your Christmas present.”

He nodded. “She’s just sick. That’s why she has to be in there. And part of her sickness means that sometimes she gets sad. Or confused. Like that time she thought you were me, remember?”

Maddy giggled. “Oh yeah, that was funny.”

The miles ticked away in sub-arctic silence. When they finally reached the cul de sac, Evan spoke again. “Does it make you sad that your mom has to be in that place?”

He gave a half-hearted wave at Fran’s rustling curtains as they pulled into his driveway. “Sure. But you know what I do when I get sad?”

“What?”

He shut off the truck. “Pull-ups.”

Maddy groaned. “It’s too cold.”

He opened the door. “We’ll warm up with some jumping jacks.”

She climbed out behind him. “I wanna go home.”

He looked down the street and saw Brooke’s SUV in the driveway. Blane’s Lexus was parked at the curb. “Go for it. Just make sure you crank that guitar up really loud.”

“Okay.” She waved from the mailbox.

He kept an eye on her as she hurried down the sidewalk. Evan shivered next to him. He mussed his hair. “What about you Commando? Sure you don’t want to go hang out with Blane?”

He spat on the driveway.

Mason laughed. “Come on. Let’s go take it out on the pull-up bar.”

It took two sets to defrost. By the fourth, the cutting north wind was a non-issue. He jerked his chest to the bar then controlled his weight back down.

Evan leaned against the river birch awaiting his turn. “Why does my mom like Blane?”

“I don’t know,” he grunted. Five. “Because he’s educated.” Six. “Because he wears expensive suits.”  Seven. “Because he’s got a good job.” Eight.

“Why don’t you have a good job?”

He dropped into a crouch and smiled. “Have you been talking to Fran?”

The boy shook his head.

“I’ll probably start looking for one next week.”

“You could be a lawyer.”

Mason stood. “I was thinking of something more along the lines of construction work.”

Evan stared at him. “Do you love my mom?”

He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know. That’s a strong word. I know I love you and Maddy. Now quit stalling and get up on the bar. I’m getting cold again.”

He managed four reps before he needed help. Mason spotted him on the way up and he lowered himself incrementally, nailing the negatives. “Good form, Evan.” When he was finished, he dropped into a crouch.

Mason rolled his neck in slow circles before grasping the bar again.

His neighbor Tammy’s window squeaked open. “Ooohh, yummy. There is nothing in this world I love more than looking out my window and seeing two handsome men build their muscles!”

Evan swallowed hard and looked at him. His eyes bulged behind his bifocals.

Mason hid his smile as he pumped out another ten, sweating despite the cold.

“So strong,” Tammy purred.

Evan almost knocked him down on his way to the bar, attacking it with renewed vigor. His first rep was textbook, the second passable, but by the third his arms were trembling and he struggled to get even his cowlick to the crossbar.

Mason stepped behind him to spot, grabbing his sides.

“No!” Evan insisted. “I’ve got it!”

“Just a little help, man.”

A tennis shoe shot back a mule-kick to his stomach. Tammy’s window closed. He staggered backwards a couple steps. “Have you lost your mind?”

Evan dropped from the bar and whirled on him. “I told you I could do it by myself!”

“What has gotten into you?”

His face was red with effort and wind and anger. “You made me look like an idiot.”

“I was just spotting you. That’s how you get stronger.”

“I don’t need your help. I don’t need you to teach me stuff. You’re not my father. You’re just a dumb jailbird!” He stormed down the driveway without a backward glance.

Mason stood there looking after him until he was safely home, then sighed and walked up the porch steps.

Chapter 41: Waking in the Moment
“I thought you didn’t drink,” said Dot as she rang up the quart of Budweiser.

He forced a smile. “Extenuating circumstances.”

She pushed his change across the counter with a maternal squint. “Stay out of trouble.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The door chimed as he exited. His truck was double-parked out front. It hacked up black exhaust as he cranked the engine.

The sun slipped over the horizon casting the cul de sac in eerie purple twilight. The quart rolled side to side in the passenger seat. He slowed as he approached her house, relieved that Blane’s Lexus was no longer at the curb.

He was surprised to see her emerge from the shadows, hugging herself in the cold. He hit the brakes. She opened the passenger door.

“Brrr.”

“What are you doing?”

Her teeth chattered. “Waiting for you.”

He pulled into her driveway and killed the lights. “Why?”

She reached behind her back and found the quart. “I thought you didn’t drink.”

“Only on special occasions.” He took the frosty bottle from her quivering hand and planted it between his legs.

“What’s the special occasion?”

“I think your son hates me.”

She glanced up at Evan’s bedroom window. “I’m pretty sure that’s a sentiment he reserves for Blane.”

The mere mention of her boyfriend changed the energy in the truck. “Well, you once told me your kids were intuitive.”

She fumbled with the dash. “This thing is a dinosaur. Please tell me you have heat.”

He took off his sweatshirt and passed it to her. She quickly pulled it over her head, balling her fists in the sleeves for extra warmth.

“So why do you think Evan hates you?”

“I embarrassed him in front of my neighbor.”

She rolled her eyes. “Tammy?”

He nodded. “I forgot he had a thing for her and I was spotting him on pull-ups and… He thinks I was trying to humiliate him.”

Her smile warmed the truck cab. “He’ll get over it.”

“He called me a jailbird.”

“We have a tradition of going for the jugular in our family. He gets it from his father.”

“A wise woman once told me that sticks and stones would break her bones but words would break her heart.”

She wrapped her arms around her knees. “Hmm, that wise woman wouldn’t happen to own an extremely loud pink guitar, would she?”

He smiled. “I think she might.”

“Last summer’s catch phrase. She pulled it on me every time I got onto her. Works like magic with a few crocodile tears sprinkled in.” She shook her head. “They’re growing up so fast.”

He studied her profile in the ensuing silence — sharp angles and soft planes, her slender neck, her stubborn chin, the soft curvature of her lips. To be alone with her was a rarity. And even on those precious few occasions, he could get caught up looking forward or thinking back. But once in a while, mid-conversation, he would awaken in the moment, with her just inches away, and it was in these times that the doors and windows of his heart would blow wide open. “Do you love my mom?” Evan had asked. The answer was suddenly as clear as his windshield.

“Well the bracelet is by far the most extravagant gift anyone has ever given me. I debated making you return it—”

“I wouldn’t.”

“—but I just can’t. It’s too beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it.”

“I didn’t get a chance to thank you on Christmas and Blane has been over every day since…” Her words trailed off. “What did you say to him anyway?”

“I just told him the truth.”

“What is the truth?”

He held her gaze. “That I plan on taking his woman from him.”

She opened her mouth to speak. He caught her words with an impulsive kiss, stunning her into silence, then backing away before she could push him away. “He doesn’t deserve you, Brooke.”

Her eyes widened, blinked, then the golden starburst of her irises seemed to melt into deep pools of need that reflected his own. With the soft echo of her lips lingering on his, he leaned in for another taste, sliding his arms around her and losing himself in her warmth.

He brushed his fingertips along the silken nape of her neck where loose wisps of blond hair collected like baby’s breath. Her mouth was exotic citrus, glistening with moisture. Rose petals after a light rain.

The nagging sense of incompleteness that had shadowed him for most of his life, something he long assumed was permanent, began to disassemble like cloud fragments and drift toward the horizon of his heart as hope and wholeness moved in.

From dust devil to whirlwind to tornado, the ache swelled inside him. He pulled her even closer, kissing her deeply, swallowing her in his embrace. She whimpered and finally pushed him away.

Reluctantly, he leaned back in his seat, the abrupt disconnection mourned by every cell in his body. He felt the quart bottle on the floorboard, forgotten in the tempest. He would not be drinking this evening. Fully alive, there was no need to contaminate the magic with a cheap buzz. He reached for her again.

“I need to go.” She fumbled with the door and staggered out into the driveway, his sweatshirt hanging to her knees as she hurried to her front porch without looking back.

He savored the moment as it sifted into memory. The silence was scented with traces of her shampoo, the truck warm with breath and body heat. Long after the door closed, he continued to stare, willing it to reopen.

Minutes passed. Finally, he sighed, backed his truck out of her driveway, put it in gear, and headed down the cul de sac to his empty house.

©2018 Sticks & Stones by Malcolm Ivey
All rights reserved.

Chapter 39: A Soul Feels Its Worth

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGThey moved like thieves in the pre-dawn hours. Silent. Efficient. She helped him lug the enormous boxes from his garage to her living room. He helped her wrap a supply line of unrecognizable twenty-first-century toys and other digitalia.

After the last gift was taped, tagged, and tied with a ribbon, they retired to her couch, sipping coffee that was more cream and sugar than caffeine.

Sunrise came in shafts of iridescence, blending with the Christmas lights, caressing her face. She sat with her knees tucked beneath her.

The work had been a distraction. But now that the presents were stockpiled beneath the tree, yesterday’s revelation emerged from the stillness and settled between them on the couch like an awkward guest. Though uncomfortable and unreciprocated, he did not regret telling her the truth of his feelings for her. If anything, he felt invigorated. Set free. Like he’d just faced down some bully on the yard.

She took a sip from her mug. “Thanks for helping. I should’ve wrapped them weeks ago.”

“Are you kidding? This is the most fun I’ve had in the last thirty years. Except for that blind date with what’s-her-face.”

Her tired eyes sparkled. “Stop.”

He glanced at the staircase. “Do they still believe in Santa Claus?”

She shook her head. “Evan hasn’t since he was eight. Maddy found out last year. Ooh, you wanna talk about one angry little girl? So insulted. I think she felt betrayed for not being in on the secret.”

A Maddy montage paraded across his mind: wiping out on her bicycle, laughing in the back of his truck, practicing cosmetology on his porch, shredding in the music store, scooping the loaded gun, running for her life.

A few short months ago he wondered about adjusting to society after so many years in a cage. How would he fit in? Where did he belong? Sitting next to her on the couch, Christmas morning, he knew the answer.

There was a thump upstairs, followed by muffled voices and the squeaky hinge of a door. Evan yawned on the landing then Maddy appeared next to him. They paused for a moment, soaking it in, then raced down the stairs and collapsed in front of the tree.

Evan picked up a present and read the tag. “This one’s yours, Maddy.”

She tore off the wrapper. It was a telescope. “Mom!” she squealed, her voice hitting an octave of Mariah Carey proportions. “You said I wasn’t old enough!”

Brooke smiled at her daughter.

“Cool!” said Evan upon discovering the Hoverboard. “Thanks, Mom!”

The living room quickly filled with wrapping paper as they ripped into gift after gift. Video games, a mini kitchen, camo pajamas, Hello Kitty pajamas, Legos, roller blades.

“Hey Mason, this one’s for you.”

He opened it carefully, some sort of high-tech coffee maker from Brooke. “Thanks. Now you’ll have to teach me how to use it.”

She smiled without meeting his eyes.

“Whoa,” said Maddy. “What are these big ones?”

Two large boxes were set back from the tree, flush with the wall.

Brooke raised an eyebrow. “I think those are from Mason.”

Evan pushed past his sister.

“Hey, that’s not nice.”

Brooke seconded the motion. “Evan…”

“Sorry,” he said, ripping the paper from the box. Then he gasped. “It’s the same one … from the mall!”

Mason nodded. “We’ll have to assemble it. All the weights are in my garage. I’ll bring them down in the truck later.”

He stared at the picture on the box, a buff military type was pumping iron. Evan looked back at him with a smile that could have shattered his glasses. “Thanks man!”

Maddy’s box was taller than she was. By the time she got it open she was almost hyperventilating. She removed the pink Fender like a holy sacrament. “Mason,” she swallowed. “Is it mine?”

He laughed. “Yeah.”

“But how did you afford it? You’re ‘posed to be poor.”

“Madison…” scolded Brooke.

The little girl came flying across the coffee table and landed in his lap. Her hug was worth a thousand guitars. “This is the best Christmas ever!”

Brooke smiled at him from the other end of the couch.

He patted Maddy’s back. “There’s more presents under the tree.”

She struggled to her feet and rejoined her brother on the living room floor. Evan held up a shrink-wrapped box. “Is this for my drone? Awesome!”

A knock on the front door made them pause.

Brooke stood, smoothing her sweatpants. “I’ll get it.”

He watched her disappear down the hall. Moments later she returned with Blane.

“Well well,” the attorney sneered over a stack of gifts. “Something told me you might be here. Had I known for certain, I would have bought you a gift. Some deodorant perhaps.”

“Likewise,” Mason shot back. “I could have gotten you some teeth whitener.”

“Guys, please,” Brooke urged him with her eyes. “It’s Christmas.”

“Indeed it is,” Blane selected a gift from his stack and passed it to Evan. “So without further ado … young man? I believe this is yours.”

Evan unwrapped the package and held up a Guitar Hero video game.

Blane winked and nudged him. “Huh? Huh?”

Maddy smirked and hugged her Fender. “I got a real guitar.”

“And so you do,” Blane handed her a gift. “But do you have this?”

She tore off the wrapping paper, frowned at the box and cast it aside. “I don’t like dolls.”

With a pinched facial expression he presented Brooke with a flat box in elegantly wrapped paper. She sat on the couch and arranged the gift on her knees.

“Open it,” he urged, his face smug again.

She worked a fingernail beneath the tape and slid the box free. Maddy nuzzled up next to her as she lifted the lid and folded back the tissue paper.

“Ooohh,” said the little girl. “It’s a beautiful robe.”

Blane sat on the armrest. “Actually, it’s a kimono, one hundred percent silk. A partner at the firm traveled to Tokyo last month and I had him pick it up for me.”

Brooke pressed it against her face. “It’s lovely … thank you.”

“I wanna feel,” said Maddy.

“Hey Mom,” Evan called from under the tree. “Here’s another one from Mason.”

“Well open it up.”

“It’s to you.”

He had slipped it in with the children’s presents before dawn. Though it was not his intention for her to open it in front of her boyfriend, there was little he could do about that now. Blane stared infrared lasers at him from the other side of the couch, unhappy that the focus had shifted so quickly.

Brooke wavered before opening it.

Maddy was practically in her lap. “See what it is Mom! Come on!”

She peeled the paper from the black velvet box and glanced over at him. He feigned indifference. She flipped the top. Her breath caught. The gems shone brighter than the Christmas lights.

“It’s diamonds,” said Maddy, her voice hushed and reverent. “Green ones too.”

“Second rate costume jewelry,” Blane sniffed. “I’ve seen better at the flea market.”

Brooke’s smile was nervous, unsure. “It’s still very nice, Mason. Thank you.”

He looked straight at Blane. “It’s real. I would never insult her with anything artificial. She has enough fakes in her life as it is.”

“Yeah? What’d you do? Rob another bank?”

He glanced at Evan, who was watching from a sea of wrapping paper on the living room floor, then at Maddy, still staring transfixed at the jewel-encrusted bracelet. Finally he looked at Brooke who quickly looked away.

Up until the knock on the door, he was experiencing what may have been the best day of his life. The quiet conversation in the early morning hours while wrapping the gifts, the accidental brushes and electric touches that sent shock waves throughout his body, the wide-eyed wonder of Evan and Maddy as they stood on the landing and surveyed the vast expanse of presents beneath the tree, their unbridled joy as they waded and ripped into them. For the first time in forty-eight years, he got a taste of what fathers must feel on Christmas morning. Then Blane came over.

He could tolerate the slick mouth and overlook his snobby attitude and even deal with his threats at the restaurant, but he drew the line when it came to diminishing him in front of Evan and Maddy.

He stood and nodded toward the door. “Why don’t we finish this conversation outside.” He didn’t wait for an answer.

As he walked down the hallway, he was aware of the attorney’s footsteps behind him. Maddy’s voice carried from the living room. “Is Blane mad ‘cuz Mason’s present is prettier?” He smiled as he turned the knob.

The air was crisp. He could see his breath. The door slammed behind him.

“I’ll have you know,” said Blane, “I was Greco-Roman wrestling champ at Southhaven. I studied under the tutelage of Zach Glover.”

Mason had to restrain himself from laughing in his face.

Sensing that physical violence was not in the cards, Blane poked out his chest and his voice took on a menacing edge. “I thought I told you to stay away.”

“No, you told me not to snitch about your little fling with your paralegal. And I didn’t. I don’t need to resort to gossip to take Brooke from you. She was taken the moment we met.”

“I doubt that very seriously.”

He took a step closer. “Doubt what you want, do what you want, but I promise you this — if you ever insult me in front of those kids again, I will crush you like a child molester on the yard.”

©2018 Sticks & Stones by Malcolm Ivey
All rights reserved.

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 37 & 38

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 37: Scumbag
“Mr. Barrington,” the woman pleaded, “my daughter is not a criminal. She’s an addict. She would have never been mixed up with those … those horrible people if it weren’t for the drugs.”

Her breasts were magnificent. They made it difficult to pay attention to anything else, least of all her sob story. “I understand. Unfortunately, there was a loaded weapon and just over twenty-eight grams of heroin in her car—”

“My car,” the husband sniffed, a balding chinless hedge fund type in a turtleneck and cardigan.

Blane barely acknowledged him. “Which elevates the charge to armed trafficking. This carries a minimum mandatory of fifteen years.”

The woman began to cry.

He spoke to her breasts. “And since Caitlin was already on probation—”

“For drugs!” She blew her nose. “She’s a heroin addict.”

He pretended to study his calendar. “Well I’m going to ask the judge for a continuance. There’s a chance that I can work out a plea agreement with the new prosecutor assigned to her case. We went to law school together.”

“Oh, if you could just get her into a long-term rehabilitation center.”

He stood. Don’t count on it. “There’s always a possibility. I’m doing everything I can.”

The husband’s handshake was weak. Like a cold fish. Hers was soft, sensual. Maybe she would come alone next time. Wouldn’t be the first concerned mother he’d “counseled” on the couch.

As soon as the door closed, he buzzed his receptionist. “Laela, get Amos up here.”

“Yes sir.”

Five minutes later a lanky, sandy-haired man in a polyester suit strode into his office, reeking of cigarette smoke. Blane fumbled in his drawer for the air freshener. The man sat on the corner of his desk. Thin lips pulled into a smile, revealing yellow, coffee-stained teeth. “Mornin’ Boss. How may I help you?”

It was easy to dismiss Amos Faircloth as an ignorant bumpkin. Blane made this mistake when he first joined the firm, and his litigation suffered for it. But after what should have been a unanimous verdict ended in a hung jury, a senior partner insisted that he use Amos as his investigator going forward and the victories began to stack up.

Deceptively intelligent with a bare-knuckles, by-any-means-necessary approach, Amos Faircloth had a knack for unearthing buried details. The type of details that cast reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors and sent prosecutors scrambling for last-second plea agreements. He was also a retired homicide detective, a veteran of thirty years with connections throughout the force.

Blane pulled up the department of corrections website on his computer, typed in the name and spun the screen so he could read it.

“Mason Foster?” Amos reached for his notepad and pen. “Is he a witness or a suspect?”

“Neither,” said Blane. “He’s a scumbag.”

“I can see that.”

“I need you to dig up any dirt you can find.”

Amos frowned at the screen. “Armed robbery, ag assault, seems to me there’s enough dirt right here to build a mountain.”

Blane waved him off. “That stuff is old. I’m looking for something new. Something that’ll bury his ass so deep, he’ll never climb out again.”

The investigator twirled his pen between nicotine-stained fingers. “This business or personal?”

“Does it matter?”

“I reckon it doesn’t.”

Blane leaned back in his chair and locked his fingers behind his head. “It’s personal.”

Amos smiled. “I’m on it, Boss.”

Chapter 38: OMG
The sound of banging hammers echoed throughout the neighborhood. She could hear them over her car stereo as she pulled into the driveway.

The trashcan had been moved from the curb to the garage. She smiled. Until recently, Evan had to be harassed into doing his chores. And even then it was hit or miss, depending on his level of immersion in the stupid video game she would regret buying for the rest of her life. But over the last few weeks, there had been a noticeable change in her son.

At the end of the cul de sac, Maddy’s bicycle laid in a tangled pink heap next to Mason’s truck. She checked her hair in the rearview and was reaching for her lipstick when she caught herself. What am I doing? She applied a fresh coat anyway.

The hammers fell silent as she slammed her car door and hurried down the sidewalk. She noticed Fran peering through her curtains in the direction of Mason’s house. She waved but the curtains quickly fluttered back into place.

A Wet Paint sign hung from the mailbox and a pile of rotten wood was stacked on the curb. Evan rounded the corner with a hammer stuck in his belt and a load of boards in his arms.

She stole a kiss while his hands were full. “Look who it is, my little construction worker.”

“Stop, Mom.” He dropped the wood and led her up the driveway. “Me and Mason have been working on projects. I built the porch!”

She looked around, impressed with the progress. The sidewalk was edged, the hedges were trimmed, the grime on the siding had been bleached away. Mason was on his hands and knees painting the bottom porch step. She was halfway across the grass when Maddy called her.

“Mommy!”

She was surprised to see Crystal braiding her daughter’s hair beneath the river birch. The shock hijacked her face, stretching her eyes wide and dropping her jaw, before her brain could process the full implications of what she was seeing.

“Crystal?” She glanced back at Mason once more before walking over. “What are you doing here?”

“She’s braiding my hair, Mom.”

“I see that.” She kissed Maddy on the eye and looked at her coworker. “I’ve been wondering how the date went all day … but apparently it hasn’t ended yet.”

Crystal sucked air between her front teeth. “Oh God, is Dr. Diaz mad at me?”

Brooke realized she was wearing one of Mason’s shirts. “More like concerned. I’ve been texting you. You should’ve at least called in.”

“I know, I know.” She bit her lip as she braided. “I overslept and when I woke up, my phone was dead. Of course Mr. Technology over there doesn’t own a charger. And his own cell has been dead since Thanksgiving, or so he says. Have you ever been in that house? OMG, monasteries have more amenities.”

Her text speak sounded juvenile and pretentious out loud.

“OMG,” said her seven-year-old parrot. “Monsters are scary.”

She looked toward the porch. Tattooed muscles rippled beneath Mason’s t-shirt. There were paint streaks on his butt. Evan sat cross-legged beside him, brow furrowed behind his glasses.

“I’m confused,” she said. “Do you like Mr. Technology? It kinda sounds like you don’t but … you’re here … and it’s the next day … and I’m pretty sure that’s his shirt.”

Maddy squirmed in her lap to investigate the article of clothing in question.

Crystal was staring at Mason, a faraway look in her eyes. “Oh, I think he’s wonderful.”

In the space of a blink, the image of them making love on his sleeping bag flashed in her mind. She flinched.

“Hailey McGuire thinks he’s extraordinary,” said Maddy.

Crystal resumed braiding. “Who’s Hailey McGuire?”

“The Channel 7 News lady. She’s my friend.”

Brooke caught Mason’s eye. He handed Evan his paintbrush and climbed to his feet, motioning her over with a covert nod.

“Excuse me a second.”

She could feel Crystal’s eyes on her back as she walked over to the porch. When she neared him she spoke low, from the side of her mouth. “Boy, you sure work fast.”

“Well there’s still plenty to do,” he said, oblivious. “And with Fran watching through her window like Dot watching shoplifters at the Magic Mart, it’s been pretty stressful. But the sidewalk is edged, the hedges are trimmed, the slime mold is gone, and this porch is a whole lot sturdier … thanks to my main man, Commando.”

He stuck his hand out, Evan slapped it five.

Her smile felt phony. Tight. “Can I speak to you inside?”

He followed her up the half-painted steps.

“Uh oh,” Evan mumbled.

She was relieved to see a couch, coffee table, and stocked bookshelf in the living room instead of his rumpled sleeping bag. Before she could stop herself, she whirled on him. “I cannot believe you.”

He raised his hands. “What did I do?”

Good question. What did he do? Didn’t matter. “I set you up on a date. In an elegant restaurant. And you … you … turn it into a disgusting Tinder hook up!”

He burst out laughing.

She kicked him in the knee.

“Ow!”

She glared through the blinds at Crystal. “You could’ve at least had the decency to take her home before the kids got out of school. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to explain adult sleepovers to a second-grader? I swear, if you don’t stop laughing I’m going to kick you again. And this time, it won’t be in the knee.”

“Are you jealous?”

She rolled her eyes. “Please.”

“Brooke, we didn’t do anything.”

“Now you’re insulting my intelligence.”

“Seriously, she was sloshed when I got to the restaurant and kept drinking until she passed out. I couldn’t just leave her there, and I don’t know where she lives, so I drove her here.”

“And she just happened to wake up in your clothes.”

He shrugged. “I gave her my bed and slept on the couch. Her snoring still kept me up until dawn. She’s worse than any cellmate I ever had. When I woke up this afternoon she was wearing my shirt and eating my soup. I would’ve taken her home but it was after two and I promised you I’d be here when Evan and Maddy got home from school.”

“Mmm, very convenient,” she said, hating the suspicious pout in her own voice.

He shook his head. “I’m telling you the truth.”

“The whole truth?” She looked hard into his eyes. “Sure you’re not leaving out any important little details?”

He faltered. A hint of doubt swam beneath the surface of his smile.

She crossed her arms.

The moment swelled. The refrigerator hummed. The house creaked. Maddy giggled in the yard. Finally, he spoke. “I went out with her because you asked me to. I took extra care with her because she’s your friend. But I do not find her attractive and even if I did I still wouldn’t touch her.”

“Why? Because she drinks too much and says OMG?”

“No,” he said, “because she’s not you.”

©2018 Sticks & Stones by Malcolm Ivey
All rights reserved.
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