Mason Foster could never grasp the fear. Not of freedom. For thirty calendars, he listened to other convicts whine about the big scary step back into society. Afraid of what? Pizza? The beach? Beautiful women? Air conditioning? Please. He’d switch places in a heartbeat. But as he made his way through the crowded bus station, a sort of nervousness began to creep over him. Not exactly naked fear but a definite sense of uneasiness. Butterflies. This was not the world he left in 1988. Same earth, same sky, same sun. But different. Futuristic. A parallel universe.
A kid in bulky goggles laughed and swatted the air in front of him. A tall black man in skinny jeans and headphones floated by on a Hoverboard. A woman with purple hair was engaged in a heated argument with a woman with green hair. Almost to the point of blows. The profanity was impressive, even by prison yard standards. Yet no one paid them any attention except for a wide-eyed Hispanic toddler who watched the back and forth like a tennis match over her mother’s shoulder. The rest of the lobby, entranced by their mobile devices, barely looked up. Mason knifed his way through the sleepwalkers, feeling suddenly claustrophobic as he headed for the glass double doors.
Outside, a homeless man in a dirty red Make America Great Again cap was petting a skeletal dog. “Hey buddy, can you spare a cigarette?”
Mason surveyed the parking lot. “I don’t smoke.”
In his final letter, Sam Caldwell, his mother’s attorney, said he’d be waiting in a black Mercedes. Nothing in his field of vision even came close to fitting that description. A smattering of raindrops began to fall as he shouldered his pillowcase of belongings and started toward the McDonald’s across the street.
The makeshift sack was light for thirty years of accumulated property — a toothbrush, toothpaste, a Bible that doubled as an address book, and a stack of old letters from home. Before he left the wing he’d given his radio to the ancient Cuban lifer in the next cell and left the rest of his things in the foot locker beneath his bunk for the vultures to pick over.
The rain was light and warm on his skin. It smelled like freedom. A patrol car passed as he stood at the intersection awaiting a break in the busy traffic. In the backseat, he could see the slumped figure of a man. His mind instantly flashed to 1988, when a scrawnier, stupider, teenaged version of himself sat handcuffed in the back of a cop car. The first agonizing moments of a three-decade slog. As he watched, the sirens melted into the city. He was suddenly overcome with gratitude to be forty-eight years old and on this end of the journey instead of eighteen and just starting out.
A car horn honked. He turned to see a sleek black luxury sedan pulling to the shoulder of the road, the chrome trisected Benz emblem gleaming above the headlights. Behind the swaying windshield wipers, a woman smiled at him.
He frowned as he approached the car. The nerves from the bus station returned with a vengeance. From butterflies to a swarm of bees. The passenger side window cracked an inch. “Mason?”
The rain picked up. “Yes ma’am. Mason Foster, 41492.”
The door unlocked. He swallowed as he reached for the handle, the voice in his head berating him. Foster, 41492! Spoken like a true institutionalized jackass. Is this how you plan on relating to people out here? Like you’re sounding off to the dorm sergeant at master roster count?
The car smelled of new leather and faint perfume. The dashboard was lit up like the cockpit of a plane.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t pick you up at the prison.” She glanced at the rearview cam on the console as she put the car in reverse. “We had an evidentiary hearing this morning and depositions all afternoon, plus jury deliberations in a capital murder trial. Hopefully the bus ride wasn’t too uncomfortable.”
Uncomfortable? he thought, hyper-aware of the black skirt and hose in his periphery. Hell no. The Greyhound was a cake walk compared to this. “I enjoyed the scenery.”
A road map overtook the screen as she pulled back into traffic. For what seemed like the hundredth time during his first day of freedom, he marveled at the technological advancements of the free world, 2018. It wouldn’t have surprised him if the car had lifted off the ground and shot over the dense traffic like something from The Jetsons.
Her diamond and platinum wedding ring sparkled against the polished wooden steering wheel. “Are you Mr. Caldwell’s wife?”
She gave him an odd look. “Yes. Bruce and I have been married for sixteen—”
She was interrupted by the ringing of a phone. The words Incoming call, Natalie flashed across the navigation screen.
“One sec, I have to take this.” Then, speaking to the dash, “Okay, Nat, give me some good news.”
“Sorry, Sam, nothing yet,” a voice lisped through the car’s sound system. “Unless no news is good news. They’re still deliberating. Might end up deadlocked.”
Sam? he thought. She’s Sam Caldwell?
“There are worse things,” said Sam. Manicured nails tapped impatiently on the steering wheel. “Keep me posted.”
“Ciao.” The screen reverted to the road map as she swung the Mercedes onto the interstate ramp.
“I feel stupid,” he admitted. “All this time I thought Sam Caldwell was—”
“Samuel? Nope. Samantha Caldwell at your service. And don’t feel stupid. It’s a common mistake.”
He glanced over at her. She smiled back with impossibly white teeth. He could feel the sweat from his armpits running down his sides. The tattoos that spanned from his right shoulder to wrist, though perfectly drawn and shaded, felt trashy and low class in the presence of such refined beauty and elegance. The stench of prison, of failure, was on his breath, in his hair, in his pores. He sat up straighter, refusing to be intimidated.
“Have you spoken to my mother lately?”
She shook her head. “Not since last Christmas and even then she didn’t recognize me.” Her voice softened. “She probably won’t recognize you either, Mason. She’s pretty far gone. I’m sorry but… you need to be prepared.”
Although the last thirty years had been a descending stairway of low points — his arrest and conviction, denial of his direct appeal, the dissolution of childhood friends, the death of his father — his mother’s degenerative brain disease was the most tragic event of his life.
She surprised him by reaching over to pat his knee. “But the woman she was lives on. I don’t know too many people whose first thought after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is how do I take care of my incarcerated son? Our firm has been dedicated to honoring her wishes.”
As they crossed the bay, some of the landmarks were vaguely familiar. A water tower, a hotel sign, the distant lights of the power plant.
“I appreciate it,” he said, meaning it.
“Well it’s been our pleasure but it hasn’t been easy.” She exited the interstate and turned onto a winding two-lane highway. “Oh, the financial aspect was fairly simple, deposit the money from your father’s life insurance policy and her own retirement account into a low risk mutual fund while ensuring that her social security, state pension and health insurance provided quality care at the assisted living facility. It was her house that proved to be a pain in the neck over the years.”
He was looking at her now. So interested in her story, in his family’s story, that all thoughts of shame, awkwardness and inadequacy melted away.
“Keep in mind that estate law and probate law are not really in my wheelhouse. I’m a criminal defense attorney. Did you know that’s how I met your mom? She wanted me to do your post-conviction work but after researching your case, I just couldn’t take her money.”
She turned off the highway into a neighborhood. They passed his elementary school and the park where he played peewee football.
“But that house … way above my pay grade. We’ve had to deal with squatters, busted plumbing and water damage, storm damage to the roof, kids breaking in to make out, thieves breaking in to steal. It got to the point where I had everything packed up and put in storage.”
“What about the truck?”
“I left it in the garage. I’m sure it’s missing some parts, but it was still there the last time I came by.” She nodded toward a bank bag on the console. “Keys are in there and a cell phone with my business card, along with some cash that should hold you until we get the paperwork signed.”
They passed the Magic Mart, turned down a cul de sac, drove by the familiar patio homes that lined the street and glided to a stop in front of his childhood home.
The headlights bathed the front porch steps in white. “I had the utilities turned back on last month.”
“There’s no furniture or food in there. I can take you to a hotel if you’d prefer.”
He shook his head. The driveway was alive with memories and ghosts. He reached for the door.
“Here, don’t forget this,” she said, handing him the bank bag.
“Thanks,” he mumbled.
“Hey,” she called as he stepped out of the car in a daze. “Good luck.”
For the first time in thirty years, Mason Foster was home.