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Sticks & Stones: Chapters 18 & 19

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 18: The Negotiator
She checked the kitchen window for his car. Not yet. She went to the stove to taste the cream of corn, stirring it and adjusting the temp, before opening the oven to check on the turkey. Maddy was right under her every step of the way.

“Madison, please!”

“I’m just helping, Mom.”

“Go set the table,” she said. “Evan! Turn your game off and come down here.”

“He’s not eating,” said Maddy.

“The hell he isn’t.”

“Mom, you said hell. That’s not nice.”

“Sorry,” she said. “Evan! Now!”

“He said he doesn’t want to meet Blane.”

“Maddy, you need to call him Mr. Barrington, okay?”

“Why? Mason’s a grownup and I call him Mason.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Can we please not talk about Mason tonight?”

Evan appeared in the doorway. “What about Mason?”

She looked up at the ceiling, willing her anxiety away.

“Are you finally gonna let me play with him?”

“No!”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s a convicted felon and you’re eleven,” she said. “Listen guys, I need you to be on your best behavior tonight. This means a lot to Mommy.”

Evan smirked. “So you can impress Blane?”

“Evan, please. It’s Mr. Barrington, okay?”

He crossed his arms. “I’ll be on my best behavior if you let me do push-ups with Mason.”

“This is not a negotiation,” she said, removing the cranberry sauce from the refrigerator and slamming it on the counter. “I’m the parent. You’re the child. You do what I say!”

The doorbell rang. Evan ran down the hall and flung open the door. The sound of his invisible machine gun filled the house.

“Br-r-r-r-r-r-ow!”

Blane threw up his hands. One held a bottle of wine, the other a bouquet of flowers. His smile was uncertain. “You must be Ethan.”

“His name’s Evan,” said Maddy, ever the little hostess. “Mine’s Madison. Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. Barrington.”

“Yeah, Blane, happy Thanksgiving,” said Evan. “Is that your car? I like trucks. How many push-ups can you do?”

“Well, at the club we generally use the Nautilus—”

“I can do forty,” Evan shouted, dropping to the floor for a set.

Brooke stepped across her grunting son and kissed Blane on the cheek. “Hi.”

He frowned at Evan as he presented her with the flowers. “Certainly a rambunctious little chap, isn’t he?”

She fought to maintain her smile. “He is. Can you excuse us for a sec?” She reached down and seized Evan’s wrist, pulling him across the foyer tiles to the downstairs bathroom. “Madison,” she called over her shoulder, “will you put those flowers in the kitchen for Mommy?”

She slammed the door. “Evan, you know how much this means to me. Why are you doing this?”

“Because I don’t like him! He’ll never take Dad’s place!”

“Shhh. Hold your voice down. You’re humiliating me.”

“You said you valued my opinion.”

“And you agreed to give him a chance.”

“I did. He sucks.”

She grasped him by the shoulders. Her husband stared back at her through his eyes. He was such a miniature David. From the slope of his forehead to the length of his lashes to the flare of his nostrils.

“Evan, can we just get through tonight? Please. For me. Blane is a lawyer. You’re my evidence. Evidence that I’m a good mom.”

“Will you let me do push-ups with Mason?”

She exhaled. “One hour. That’s it.”

“Two.”

She rolled her eyes. “You know what? Fine. But I’m putting you on medication.”

Chapter 19: Sticks and Stones
Laughter. He looked up from under the hood and saw his neighbor, Tammy, holding hands with a tall stranger in tight yellow jeans.

He shook his head. Tight yellow jeans. Times had changed.

The old fuel pump was attached to the engine block by two parallel bolts and thirty years of inactivity. He loosened it with a 9/16 socket wrench and set it on the radiator. He was about to install the new one when another wave of laughter hooked his attention, this time closer and more childlike.

Two eyes popped over the right front quarter panel, then two more.

“No way,” he said. “This isn’t the hangout, guys. You know your mother doesn’t want you down here.”

“Evan talked her into it,” the little girl explained.

He glanced over his shoulder. Down the street he could see the blonde sitting on her porch, arms crossed, watching.

“But we’re not allowed to go in your house.” She held up a cell phone. “And we have to call 911 if you act weird … and run.”

He shook his head. “You have a cell phone? But you’re only what, eight?”

“Seven,” she said. “When I turn ten I’m getting a smart phone like Evan. His can do everything. Mine can still take pictures though. Say cheese.”

He turned his head. Too late. The back of her phone said Maddy in purple bubble letters.

The boy was holding his up too. “Mine records video.”

Mason fitted the new fuel pump on the bolts. “Well listen, I’m honored that your mom let you come down here and…” He glanced up. They were still aiming the phones at him. “…and film me. But I’ve got work to do and honestly, I don’t think it’s a good idea. So you need to leave.”

The boy leaned in over the engine. “What kind of work are you doing?”

He ignored the question, tightening the bolts with the socket wrench.

“Yeah,” said Maddy. “We can help.”

He stopped and glared at her, summoning his most malevolent prison yard stare, one he had practiced and perfected over the years. “This is man’s work. Greasy. Sweaty. Bloody. There’s no room for little girls under the hood of this truck.”

“Yeah,” said Evan. “Man’s work. Go home, Maddy.”

“Little boys either,” he growled, leveling his gaze at her brother.

“That’s not nice,” said the girl, lip quivering, face reddening, eyes filling with tears.

Mason had dealt with a lot of things in his life. Heavy things. Stabbings, riots, solitary confinement, Alzheimer’s. But in that moment, he was totally unprepared for the tears of a seven-year-old girl.

He dropped the wrench on the engine block and hurried around the front of the truck. “Wait a second. Hold up. Where’s the tough little girl who didn’t cry when she skinned her knees out there in front of the mailbox?”

She stared down at her shoes. A tear fell on the driveway between them. “You’re mean.”

“Nah, not really,” he said, “I was just … I was just testing you.”

Her voice was barely audible. “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will break my heart.”

He frowned. “That’s not how I remember that saying.”

Her brother rolled his eyes.

“Come on,” said Mason. “I actually could use some help with something.”

He lifted an eight-foot piece of cut garden hose and three paint buckets from the bed of the truck. “Either of you guys ever siphoned any gas before?”

They shook their heads.

He popped the gas flap and unscrewed the cap. “Take a whiff.”

Maddy wrinkled her nose.

“What is that?” said Evan. “That’s not gas.”

“Not anymore. Turpentine. It’s what happens when gasoline sits for thirty years. So in order to get this old dinosaur running we need to get that stuff out of there and replace it.”

“Why don’t you just buy a new car?” said Maddy.

“Because they don’t make them like this anymore. Plus my mom and dad bought it for me when I was sixteen. It has sentimental value.”

“Sentimental value,” she repeated, testing the words.

He handed her the hose. “So here’s what I need you to do. Can you feed this into the gas tank? All the way down. Just like that … good.”

He turned to Evan. “All right, man. It’s on you. I want you to blow.”

Evan stepped forward, unsure.

“Go ahead, dude, straight into the hose. Perfect. Hear it bubbling?” He took back the hose. “Okay, this is a thirty-gallon tank. The dash says we’re half full. So that’s like, what, twenty gallons?”

“Fifteen,” said Evan.

“Testing you,” Mason smiled. “And those buckets are one gallon each. So what I’m going to do is draw that stuff up into this hose, get it draining good, then as each bucket fills, we’ll dump them in shifts, fifteen trips, like a relay race.” He glanced at the girl. “You take the first one.”

“But where should I dump it?”

He nodded toward the side yard. “Back behind the river birch, in that big box of sand.”

“What’s the river birch?”

“The tree with the cool bark.”

He knelt beside the truck and began to nurse the putrefied petroleum up into the hose, sucking hard enough for extraction but carefully, so as not to get a mouthful of turpentine. Once he felt it surging, he tipped the hose into the first bucket. Glug, glug, glug, it filled quickly.

“Ready Maddy? Take off! Evan, you’re on deck.”

At the midway point of the second bucket, the hose dripped to a stop.

“What happened?” Evan asked.

“Hose probably wasn’t deep enough in the tank.” He withdrew it partially then fed it in again.

Maddy came running back. “The river birch does have cool bark!”

He was about to restart the siphoning process when Evan said, “I wanna try it.”

Mason raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know, man.”

“I can do it.”

He shrugged and passed him the hose. “Okay. Just remember, when you get it coming up, back off and stick it in the bucket.”

Evan put it to his mouth, puffed and breathed, cheeks hollow, eyes wide behind his bifocals, until the brown fermented gas was spilling down his chin. He coughed, spat, heaved. “Ughck!”

Maddy giggled and snapped a picture. “Wash it out Evan! Hurry!”

“Come on, man. The faucet’s over here.”

While he was supervising the rinsing, a hand tugged his shirt. He looked down at the girl. “Yeah?”

“What’s that tree behind the river birch?”

“Crepe myrtle,” he said without looking.

“What about the one by the fence?”

“The stuff growing on the fence is Confederate jasmine. The big tree is a Cleveland pear.”

Evan removed his glasses and cleaned them on his sleeve.

“Did you already pick all the pears?”

He shook his head. “It doesn’t grow pears.”

“Weird,” she said, snapping a picture with her phone. “How do you know so much about trees?”

“My mom taught me.”

She sighed. “I love your mom.”

He glanced at the empty chair beneath the river birch. “Me too.”

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

Chapter 17: Adolf the Blonde

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGHe played solitaire at the table, munching on dry ramen noodles and humming along with the radio. “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” As he listened, it occurred to him that Nirvana was not even a band yet when he was arrested; now they were playing on the classic rock station. He shook his head.

The practice of measuring time against pop culture was a deeply ingrained pattern for Mason. Over his three decades of incarceration, child stars grew up and flamed out, sex symbols grew old and became activists, world leaders ascended to power and died, empires collapsed and resurrected, compact discs rendered cassette tapes obsolete only to join them in extinction soon thereafter. High school phenoms became college phenoms became first-round draft picks became first ballot Hall of Famers … all while he languished in the time capsule.

He knew that the concept of time was supposed to be illusory. All the great minds from Einstein to the Eastern gurus to David Foster Wallace had said as much. But it sure didn’t feel like an illusion when he was serving it.

Nirvana faded into the Black Crowes. He cycled through a losing hand of solitaire, reshuffled and dealt again. He had just laid his fourth ace when he heard a knock on the front door.

He turned down the radio and with the bag of ramen, walked barefoot across the carpet, shaking noodles into his mouth on the way.

Another knock, louder this time.

He checked the peephole. His heart sank. There beneath the porch light, hands on hips, stood Adolf the blonde, mother of two.

He opened the door. “Yeah?”

“Armed robbery? Aggravated assault? Seriously?”

He stared down at her. “Can I help you with something?”

A crease appeared between her eyebrows. “Yes, you most certainly can,” she sputtered. “You can … put a shirt on!”

He leaned his head back and shook another helping of dry noodles into his mouth, crunching them as he spoke. “Anything else? Something neighborly perhaps? A stick of butter? A cup of milk?”

“How could you?”

“How could I what?”

“How could you rob an innocent person at gunpoint?”

He shook his head. The neighborhood rumor mill was already churning. Might as well get the truth out there before I’m portrayed as some salivating serial murderer.

“I was a senior in high school, fell in with some wannabe thugs. They robbed a check cashing place across town. I drove the getaway car. It cost me thirty years of my life. But I paid my debt, day for day. Now I’m just focused on doing the best I can with the time I have left. Does that answer your question?”

She opened her mouth then closed it.

“Good,” he said. “Thanks for stopping by.”

He moved to shut the door. She stopped it with her high heel, yelping in pain from the impact.

“Are you okay? Those shoes don’t look like they’re made to stick in doors.”

“I’m fine,” she said, grimacing. “Listen, my kids—”

“I understand.”

“No, you don’t. Their father, my husband, is … deceased. There’s a hole in their lives that…” She began to cry. “I can’t fill.”

He didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she sniffed, mascara running. “I’m okay. I just … I saw the way Evan was looking at you the other day. Maddy, too. Look, I’m sure you’re a really good person, but I can’t allow … I just, I can’t.”

“I get it.”

She turned and hurried down the porch steps. Her heel caught in a crack in the concrete, turning her ankle and almost causing her to trip. When she recovered, she glared back at him as if it was his fault, then limped off into the night.

“Nice dress,” he said, watching her go.

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

Chapters 15 & 16

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 15: Return to Harmony Meadows
The puddle of drool expanded in circumference, creeping across her pillowcase. Her gray eyes were open but unseeing. The only indication that her frail body still contained the spark of life was the ragged sound of her breathing and her toes fidgeting inside the white hospital socks.

“Momma.”

She was staring straight through him.

“Hey.” He waved a hand in front of her face. “I brought you some chocolate.”

Nothing.

“Mom? Can you hear me?”

He stood and walked back into the hallway. The nurse at the desk looked old enough to be a patient.

“Something’s wrong.”

She looked up, alarmed.

“I think my mom may be having a stroke.”

She was up and moving before he could finish his sentence.

“What makes you think that? Facial drooping?”

“No, she’s just—”

“Arm pain?”

“I can’t tell, she’s just—”

“Slurred speech?”

“—unresponsive.”

They entered the room. He lingered inside the doorway, giving her space to work.

“Ava,” she called as she rounded the bed. “Ava? It’s Emma, can you hear me sweetie?”

“See what I mean?” He caught himself gnawing on his thumbnail and dropped his hand. “That’s how I found her.”

The nurse took her pulse. “It’s not a stroke.”

Relief washed over him.

She smoothed her hair back. “Ava? Your son is here.”

Her toes continued to twitch.

The nurse took a Kleenex from the box on the night stand and dabbed the drool from her mouth, gently lifting her head to flip the pillow. “Ava, do you feel like visiting today?”

Nothing.

She signaled him to join her in the hallway.

“What’s wrong with her?”

There was kindness in her smile. “Nothing that hasn’t been wrong. And unfortunately, nothing that we can fix. It’s just one of those not-so-good days. She has them from time to time.”

As she spoke, he stood there ransacking the corners of his mind, groping for someone, anyone, to blame. But he could find only himself. Tears threatened to spill from his eyes. He blinked them back.

She looked away. “I know it hurts, sweetie. But you need to be strong. For her sake. This will probably happen more frequently as she continues to move into the late stage of the disease.”

“What can I do?”

“My nephew used to play my sister’s favorite Everly Brothers songs while they looked at old photographs together. That seemed to bring Hazel some happiness, although by then she had lost the ability to communicate with words and could barely eat or swallow.”

He nodded. The hallway walls were suddenly closer than they were a second before.

“Or you could brush her hair or take her outside.”

The crushing weight of her condition was staggering. He knew loneliness and isolation well, but what his mother was suffering was something altogether different. Her reality made it difficult for him to breathe. “Thanks,” he managed, turning to leave, resisting the impulse to run. “I will.”

Chapter 16: Area of Expertise
They kissed in his Lexus, in a far-flung corner of the parking garage of the hospital where she worked. His fingertips brushed the back of her neck while his beard stubble pressed against her face. He leaned into her, drowning out her guilt, smothering it by the force of his desire.

His hand stroked her cheek then began to meander.

She pushed him away, catching her breath. “Blane…”

“That was nice,” he said, his caramel eyes staring straight into hers. “Very much worth the wait.”

She looked away. “I think so too.”

Classical music erupted from his cell phone. He glanced at the number and silenced it. “I was beginning to think you didn’t like me.”

“Well now, you know that’s not true.”

He reached for her again. “Let me just make absolutely sure.”

The second kiss was even more insistent. She closed her eyes and let go. He was both steel and silk, raw power and gentleness, forcing her against the passenger door yet cradling her head, protecting her. Fragments of some distant memory floated around the galaxy of her mind. As she surrendered to his kiss, she examined each hazy puzzle piece with a nagging sense of forlorn nostalgia, until they pulled into focus and her husband was looking back at her.

Again, she pushed him away.

“You’re killing me,” he said, his voice thick with desire.

She stared down at her hands. Her left ring finger seemed foreign without the gold band that had encompassed it for so long. Naked. Even the old tan line and indentation had faded. Another betrayal.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s … it’s just my son,” she lied.

He glanced at his Rolex. “Ethan?”

“Evan.” The fading afterimage of her husband raised an eyebrow. “He’s been acting out at school. His teacher thinks he may have ADHD.”

He pulled down the visor, examining his face in the mirror, left side then right. “Not the end of the world. A partner at the firm has a grandson who was diagnosed last year. The right medication transformed him from a screaming little tyrant to a quiet, obedient child.”

Across the parking garage she saw the first wave of her coworkers returning from lunch. “I just don’t want some drug to stifle his personality. I’m going to talk to Dr. Diaz about it when he comes in today.”

“Sounds like a plan,” he said, reaching for her again. “I wouldn’t stress it too much.”

She allowed the embrace but turned away from his kiss. “That’s easy for you to say. Raising two kids alone is stressful. And now on top of everything else, there’s some criminal living at the end of the street who they’ve decided they want to be besties with.”

He played with a strand of her hair, twisting it around his finger for a moment before tucking it behind her ear. “How do you know he’s a criminal?”

“A neighbor told me he was just released from prison. I tried to look him up online but I couldn’t find anything.”

He reached for his phone. “Well lucky for you, this is my area of expertise. Have you searched the Department of Corrections website?”

She shook her head. “I just Googled—”

“Name?”

“Mason Foster.”

He tapped, scrolled, frowned, read for a second, then passed her the phone. “This our guy?”

She stared at the mugshot. Although his head was shaved she recognized him immediately. Same defiant blue-green eyes, same cocky dimpled chin, same powerfully built shoulders.

Beneath his picture was the word RELEASED along with a detailed description of his tattoos, scars, height, weight, aliases, priors, and last known address.

“Armed robbery, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and fleeing and eluding,” said Blane, nuzzling her neck. “Not exactly Mister Rogers.”

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

Chapter 14: UFO

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGHe did push-ups in the side yard beneath the river birch. Chest to the ground, feet elevated on the rusty wrought-iron chair, fifteen sets of forty. The same workout he’d been doing for most of his life. With the weather unusually warm for early November, sweat began to pour after two hundred. By the midway point, morphine-like endorphins shot across the gray-matter of his brain like flame-tipped arrows from archers in the hippocampus, nailing bullseye receptors in the cerebrum.

Flooded with dopamine confidence, he leaped in the air to grasp a thick tree limb, easily pulling his two hundred pounds three times, five times, ten times.

He dropped to the ground and took a swig of water from the bottle. That’s when he noticed it. The thing from the other night. The bat. Only it wasn’t a bat. It was some kind of flying robot apparatus, a dull black miniature helicopter with four propellers hovering just over his side of the neighbor’s privacy fence.

He looked around for a decent sized stick, then remembered the paint roller in the garage. It was easily six feet long. When added to his own six feet, plus his arm length, plus however high he could jump, he was certain he could knock it out of the air.

It was still there when he returned. He crept up on it like a hunter. The roller had hardened, stuck in place by dried paint. He held it over his shoulder, poised to strike.

As he drew near he could hear Pat Benatar through the fence. “Hit me with your best shot.” His neighbor was humming along. He glared up at the intruder.

“Fire away!” Ms. Benatar sang. He complied, leaping in the air and swinging the pole like a Samurai.

Whack!

He missed it by a foot, knocking splinters from the privacy fence. The impact reverberated in his hands.

His neighbor screamed.

The mini-chopper disappeared around the front of the house. He dropped the pole and pulled his head over the fence to apologize. She was sunbathing topless.

“Whoa. Sorry,” he said, dropping back down.

“It’s fine.”

He leaned against the boards, attempting to explain. “There was a … UFO up here. I mean … not like a flying saucer but,” he looked around, “it was unidentified and it was flying and … definitely an object.”

“Okay. Well, I’m Tammy.”

“Mason,” he said, glancing through a crack in the fence once more before walking away.

He returned the pole to the garage, the roller now dislodged and spinning freely from the impact. He was trying to decide whether to finish the workout when he saw the boy marching up his driveway.

“You almost broke my drone!”

Aha. “Is that what you call that thing?”

“It’s a DKS Aeroghost 4 with seven axis stabilization, GPS, camera, and real time video.”

“Yeah whatever,” he said, walking back to the river birch to finish his push-ups. “Just keep it off my property.”

The boy followed. “It cost eight hundred dollars and my mom would’ve sued you if you broke it. Her boyfriend is a lawyer.”

“Yeah? Well I wonder what they’d do if they found out you were a peeping tom.”

“Am not!” said the boy. Then, “What’s a peeping tom?”

“Something you could go to prison for.”

He propped his feet on the chair and hammered out forty push-ups. When he finished, the boy was still standing there.

“You need to go,” said Mason. “Your mom doesn’t want you down here.”

The boy ignored him, headed straight for the chair and attempted a set of his own. His arms trembled and his back sloped as he managed a meager eight.

When he got up he brushed the dirt from his hands and straightened his glasses. “How many did you do?”

“Forty,” said Mason.

“Me too.”

He uncapped the water bottle and took a swig, hiding his smile.

“Are you a soldier?”

Mason shook his head as he dropped for another set. “You need to go.”

Again, the boy ignored him, waiting until he finished before placing his feet on the chair and banging out another eight.

“Why don’t you just go to the gym like my mom?”

He jumped up and grabbed the tree limb, pulling his chest to the branch. “Because gyms are social gatherings,” he said, “and I’m not social.”

“Me neither,” said the boy, watching him.

Mason used his t-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face.

“Why do you do push-ups anyway? Your muscles are big enough already.”

“I don’t work out for big muscles. I work out to keep from becoming a bug.”

The boy laughed. “You’ll turn into a bug if you don’t exercise? What kind? A beetle?”

“Not that kind of bug,” said Mason. “It keeps me from being a psych patient.”

“What’s a psych patient?”

Movement in his peripheral caused him to turn. The blonde was storming up his driveway. “Prime example,” he muttered under his breath.

The little girl came running behind her. “Hi Mason.”

The mother glared at him.

“Mom, this isn’t a social gathering.” The boy darted over to the river birch and assumed the position. “Watch this!”

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

Chapter 13: Vitamin R

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGHer ringtone erupted just as she was pulling into the school parking lot. Evan and Maddy were arguing in the backseat.

“Shush guys. This is an important call.”

They ignored her.

Lacking the necessary energy for convincing threats, she rolled her eyes as she swung into an open space and shut off the engine.

“Hi Blane,” she said into her phone. “As you can hear, things are a little chaotic on this end.”

“Sounds like someone needs a hot bath, some Vivaldi, and a glass of champagne.”

She slammed the door on her bickering children and walked out into the road, her heels already killing her. “I wish. I’m at the school. The kids have open house tonight.”

“What are you doing afterward?”

Besides a cup of milk, a Lunesta, and hopefully six hours of uninterrupted sleep? “I can’t. The sitter has school tomorrow.”

“You know, if I were a less confident man, I’d assume that you were avoiding me.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Isn’t the boy old enough to look after them?”

She frowned at the phone. “Evan is eleven years old.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s right,” he sighed. “Well I could come over.”

“I’m sorry, Blane. The kids just aren’t ready for that yet.” Behind her, their argument spilled into the parking lot. “But I’m looking forward to Friday.”

“Not nearly as much as I am,” he said. “Guess I’ll see you then.”

“Bye.” She slipped the phone in her purse.

“Ooohh, Blane,” Evan taunted, wiggling his butt. Maddy joined forces with her brother, the argument apparently over. “Yeah, Blane, would you be my Mommy’s boyfriend?”

The musical sound of their laughter filled the night as they walked up the steps to the school. Just inside the doorway, a father knelt at eye level before his son in what was clearly a heart-to-heart. Although his words were undecipherable, his tone was firm and masculine. The boy nodded at his counsel.

Brooke noticed her own children watching as they passed. A familiar ache bloomed within her. She squeezed their hands.

Evan’s fifth grade classroom was at the end of the hall. A fortyish woman in a long pleated skirt and her hair in a bun greeted families at the door. “Hello Evan … and you must be Ms. Tyler.” Her voice was so faint it was almost a whisper. “I’m Ella Styles.”

Brooke smiled. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Evan spotted a friend and bolted into the classroom. Maddy ran after him. She was about to follow when the teacher touched her arm.

“May I have a brief word with you?”

“Of course,” said Brooke.

The teacher led her a few steps down the hall. “I don’t mean to pry, but … is everything all right at home?”

An alarm went off in her head. “That’s an odd question.”

“It is. I apologize for being intrusive. I’m just concerned about Evan.”

Defensiveness rose like bile in her throat. She did her best to swallow it. “Well I assure you that everything at home is perfectly fine. My children are my life.”

The teacher nodded slowly. “I’ve offended you. I hope you know this wasn’t my intention. Your love for Evan is not on trial here. I was just wondering if there’s been some recent upheaval in his world that would explain his behavior.”

“What kind of behavior?”

“Tantrums, hyperactivity, irritability, inability to concentrate.”

Brooke leaned against the wall. Sometimes it was all so overwhelming.

“His grades are suffering,” she continued. “He’s falling behind. I’ve tried to speak to him but he does this fake machine gun thing. He seems obsessed with war and soldiers.”

Brooke wiped a tear with her wrist. “His father was killed in Afghanistan when he was five.”

“I see.”

“Madison was only one. She doesn’t remember. But for him, it hasn’t been easy.”

“Of course it hasn’t.” The teacher touched her arm again. “I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for you either.”

The tears were now falling freely.

“Have you ever considered Ritalin?”

Brooke shook her head.

“Well I’m obviously no doctor, but I’ve had enough students with ADHD over the years to know it when I see it. Ritalin could save his life.”

A fake machine gun erupted from inside the classroom.

“I’ll look into it.”

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

Sticks & Stones – Chapters 11 & 12

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 11: The Cowboy and the Gardener
A different lady was working at the desk. She wore a nose ring, a Secret Service ear piece, and smirked at everything Mason said like a prosecutor on cross examination.

“I’m here to see Ava Foster.”

“ID.”

He removed the card from his back pocket and pushed it across the counter, relieved that he thought to bring it.

He might as well have laid a dirty sock in front of her.

“What is this?”

“It’s my prison ID card. I was told it would—”

“I can’t accept this.”

“Why not?”

“Well A it could easily be forged, and B it’s not considered valid identification. I’m sorry.”

“Why would anyone forge a prison ID?”

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, clearly not sorry. She pushed the useless card back toward him with her pen. “You’ll have to vacate the premises.”

Which Mason knew was code for “I’m about to call the cops.” If he were an ordinary citizen, he would have demanded to speak to her supervisor. But he was no ordinary citizen. He was a convicted felon. He nodded politely and left.

The cell phone was heavy in his pocket. His fingers danced over it like a gunfighter ready to draw. Using it was no longer a problem. Still, he hesitated to call Sam. She had already gone above and beyond. Plus, he was a grown man. There was no honor in running to someone else whenever life dealt him a bad break.

Deep in thought, he was kicking rocks down the winding drive when a mud-splattered 4×4 creaked and bounced toward him. As he stepped to the shoulder of the road, he recognized the driver.

Country music twanged as the window descended. “I hope you didn’t walk all the way out here again.”

“I took the bus,” he said. “But I couldn’t get past the desk.”

“Why on earth not?”

When Mason explained the situation, Dr. Jennings drove him back to the front office and had nose-ring run a copy of his invalid prison ID, then tape it to the side of the file cabinet with his mother’s name and the word Admit in red ink.

“You really should consider getting an ID though.”

“I’m working on it.”

His mother was staring out the window when they arrived at her room. The doctor accompanied him this time.

“Good afternoon, Ava.”

She turned slowly, her head nodding almost imperceptibly. She looked the doctor up and down. “Where’s your horse?”

Mason smiled. He wasn’t sure if this was an innocent question born of dementia or a remnant of her trademark wit and sarcasm. The doctor was wearing a cowboy hat and bolo tie.

“My horse? He’s at home in his stable. Why? Would you care to go for a ride sometime?”

She scoffed. “I’m a married woman.”

The doctor joined her at the window. “Beautiful day. Have you been outside lately, Ava? I could arrange—”

“Who are you?” She glared at Mason. “Didn’t I just see you working in the garden?”

His heart twisted in his chest.

The doctor broke the silence. “You don’t recognize him, Ava? This is Mason, your son.”

“Don’t be silly. My son is ten years old.”

Chapter 12: Carbon Copy
He put the truck in neutral and rolled it out onto the driveway. The natural light of the sun put the 60-watt bulb in the garage to shame. It felt good on his skin.

As he popped the hood, he glanced across the street. Was it just his imagination or did the blinds in Fran’s bedroom window twitch? He could feel judgmental eyes on him. Disapproving eyes. Homeowners association eyes. He shook it off. He was a free man on his own property. Deference was one thing but he’d never be a coward.

He replaced the belts first. All of them were dry-rotted. The alternator and AC were fairly easy. The power steering was more difficult to reach and took over an hour.

He was sweating and streaked with grease by the time he finished. He removed his shirt and tossed it in the bed of the truck. Mason was no mechanic, but his 1984 Chevy Silverado was not exactly high tech. There wasn’t even a computer in it. Just a 350 engine and the same simple American-made parts that Detroit had been pumping out since the first rubber hit the first road. Everything he needed to know he learned in Mr. Oliver’s high school auto mechanic’s class.

Next he installed the battery which was easy because the old one had been stolen. Once the wires and plugs were in place, he walked back into the garage to grab the empty paint cans. Since he didn’t have a pan in which to drain the oil, these would have to suffice.

There was something meditative about the simple act of working on his truck, a degree of freedom more profound than merely living outside of the razor wire. It was in this state of Zen that he noticed the girl.

She was riding a pink bicycle, the kind with tassels on the handlebars and Disney characters on the chain guard. Typical little girl bike. But there was nothing typical about the way she rode it. She rocked it side to side, almost touching the asphalt, building up speed, hair flying, knees pumping, as she raced straight towards him, then, skidding sideways in the gravel at the edge of his driveway, she turned and pedaled back up the cul de sac, jumping curbs and no-handing it while he looked on. This alone was impressive, especially for such a small girl, but then she really went Evel Knievel, placing one foot on the seat and one on the handlebars as she coasted down the road. He was about to applaud when she hit a divot and went down hard right by his mailbox.

He dropped the buckets and ran down the driveway. “Are you okay?”

She was grimacing but not crying. Both of her knees were bleeding. Amid these fresh lacerations, he could see other scabs in various states of healing.

“You didn’t hit your head, did you?”

“Uh uh.” Blood was running down her shins.

“I’ll be right back.” He ran to the house and dampened some toilet paper.

She was sitting on the curb when he returned. He dabbed her knees. She winced.

“Sorry,” he said. “I know it hurts. I had a few bad bike wrecks on this same street when I was your age. More than a few. But I was nowhere near as good as you are. That last trick… Fearless.”

“My mom doesn’t like me to do it.”

He looked up and saw the blonde jogging toward them. Her neon Nikes matched the trim on her scrubs. Her face, though heavily made up and twisted with worry, was still admittedly attractive. Probably even beautiful. Not that he cared.

“Madison Rose Tyler, were you standing up on that seat again?”

“Uh uh,” the girl lied. “I just hit something and crashed.”

“Ohh, look at your knees.”

He retrieved her bike from under the mailbox and straightened the crooked handlebars. “Should I take this to your driveway?”

Her glance was frosty.

Whoa.

“Maddy, can you push your bicycle home while I talk to Mr.— ”

“Mason.”

“Mr. Mason?” she finished.

“Actually Mason’s my first name. It’s Mason Foster.”

“Mom, he’s got a last name for a first name. Just like me.”

“Very nice,” she said. “Now let Mommy talk to Mr. Foster and then we’ll get some peroxide on those knees.”

“Bye Mason,” the girl waved before tentatively pushing her bicycle down the street.

He waved back with a handful of bloody tissue. “Sweet kid.” Although it was true, his words mostly served to fill the awkward silence.

“Mmm, half girly girl, half tomboy. My little carbon copy.” She watched her for a moment before turning to him. “Fran says you were in prison?”

He glanced across the street. Nosy old… He nodded once, suddenly aware of his bare chest, his tattoos, the grease on his forearms.

“Shouldn’t there be a sign in front of your house or something?” Her stare was direct. Confrontational.

“Only if I was a pedophile or sex predator, which I am not.” He stared back, no longer uncomfortable, just offended.

“Stay away from my kids.”

“Look I was just working on my truck when—”

“Stay away.”

She turned and marched back home. If there was anything feminine in her walk, he didn’t notice. She might have looked like Heidi Klum, but all he saw was Adolf Hitler.

“No problem,” he mumbled.

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