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