Chapter 21: Hiccups
The sleeping bag smelled like pine straw and bug repellant. Despite three washes, the persistent odor remained. He kept it near the fireplace, close to the sliding glass doors, so he could see the moon and stars at night and awaken with the sunrise.
He had read only a few pages of the book when his eyes grew heavy. The hypnotic sentences of the author, along with the soft rush of the central air conspired against him. He was out before he could dog-ear the page.
He opened his eyes. She was sticking her head through the front door.
“There you are. Mind if I come in?”
He sat up in the sleeping bag. “Brooke, right?”
“Brooke Tyler,” she said, stepping inside and holding up a Styrofoam tray. “I brought you a peace offering.”
“Would you mind turning around for a minute? I need to get dressed.”
She faced the door. “Where’s your furniture?”
He walked naked across the carpet to where his clothes were drying on the bannister. His exaggerated shadow reflected on the wall.
“Storage,” he said, pulling his pants on. “I’m used to a minimalist lifestyle anyway. Okay, all good.”
She turned and offered the Styrofoam. “It’s a Portobello mushroom with artichoke salad. From Miguel’s. Hope you like vinaigrette.”
He had no idea what she was talking about.
She glanced at his bare chest and hiccupped. “Sorry. I had a little wine with dinner tonight. Blane took me to Miguel’s. Did I say that already?”
He took the food to the kitchen.
“Hey look!” she said, following. “I remember this table. Fran’s yard sale, right?”
He nodded, a little embarrassed.
She pulled out a chair, raked in his last hand of solitaire, and began shuffling the cards. “Oh I miss playing spades. David and I used to play against KC and Lindsey every Friday night when we were living on the base. Do you play?”
“Spades?” he said. “I think every prisoner in America plays spades.”
She hiccupped again. “You’re not a prisoner anymore, Mason.”
He leaned against the refrigerator, trying not to smile. Contrary to previously admitted evidence, there appeared to be a human soul dwelling behind the pissed-off-soccer-mom mask.
“We should get together and play sometime, me and Blane and you and…” she looked up at him. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
He shook his head.
“Oh, I was thinking maybe the woman with the Mercedes.” Another hiccup. “Wait, you’re not … are you gay?”
This time he did smile. “Last time I checked, I wasn’t.”
“You should get on a dating site. That’s how I met Blane. I could even help you with your profile.”
“And say what?” He sat down across from her. “Recently released ex-convict seeking short term relationship with unannoying woman? I doubt I’d have many bites.”
She smiled. “You’d be surprised.”
“No thanks,” he said. “I’m old school when it comes to things like that and, anyway, I’m not in a rush.”
“How old are you?”
What did that mean? “How old are you?”
Hiccup. “That’s a rude question. I thought you said you were old-fashioned.”
He watched her as she shuffled the cards. He guessed she was thirty-one. No older than thirty-five.
“I’m thirty-nine,” she said, her eyes touching his.
He continued to study her after she looked away. Her blond hair was pulled back into a braid, revealing a graceful neck that seemed to melt into the smooth, sun-kissed skin of her delicate shoulders. Her hazel eyes shined like gold in the dining room light. Her pink tongue darted from her mouth glazing her lips with a coat of moisture. It was the most sensual act he had ever witnessed.
“Why are you staring at me?”
The spell shattered. “Oh, I was … ah, just waiting. I mean, I thought … didn’t you say you were here for something?”
She stopped shuffling. “I wanted to apologize.”
“For being so nasty to you.”
He frowned. “You haven’t—”
She silenced him with a hiccup. “Yes, I have. I was just worried about Evan and Maddy. You have to understand, I’m a lioness when it comes to my kids.”
He stifled a rising smile with a grave nod. Although she was no doubt telling the truth, her words were saturated in wine. A lioness!
“But I trust their judgment. I know that sounds reckless coming from a mother, but I do. They’ve just been through so much and they’re both highly intu … intuit … intuicious little human beings. Intuitative?”
“They’re not stupid, just inexperienced, you know? And for some reason they like you. I won’t lie, it’s so good to see Evan do boy things like push-ups and working on your truck. There’s a lot of estrogen in our household.”
He leaned back in his chair. “Boy things? Don’t underestimate your daughter. That’s one tough little seven-year-old girl.”
“I’m so worried she’ll grow up to have daddy issues. Evan’s already acting out in school. You have no idea how difficult it is to be mommy and daddy.” She wiped a tear with her finger. “I’m dreading having to talk with Evan about the birds and the bees.”
He thought of the drone spying on his topless neighbor. “Oh, I wouldn’t be too concerned about that.”
She chewed her lip. “I just wish they liked Blane. Things would be so much easier that way. He’s so kind and patient and worldly and cultured. Have you ever listened to Vivaldi?”
Mason shook his head.
Hiccup. “See what I mean? And tonight he ordered our dinner in French. French!” She fanned herself with her hand. “I’ve dated a few times over the last five years but never anyone like Blane. He’s just so … different.”
“Well, he’s lucky to have you.”
She looked up. “Do you think you could talk to Evan and Maddy the next time you’re working on your truck? They might listen to you. Maybe you could convince them to give Blane a chance.”
He laughed. “I doubt that. I couldn’t even convince them to leave my driveway. They’re pretty stubborn. I wonder where they get that from.”
“Their dad.” She stood. “I need to get home. I told the sitter I’d only be a few minutes.”
He walked her to the door. “Hey do you have any old children’s books? Like the one with the elephant?”
“The one with the elephant… Babar? Sure. But you might lose some cool points if you try to read to my kids. They lost interest in books the moment they logged on to the internet.”
“Oh it’s not for them,” he said. “It’s for me.”
Chapter 22: Photographic Documentation
Imminent rain. The air was thick with the smell of it. Clouds raced across the monochrome sky, bathing the earth in a swarm of shadows.
“The whole can?” said Evan.
“Every last drop. Hey Maddy can we snap a photo of this?”
She aimed the cell phone at her brother. “Another one?”
“Photographic documentation, my friend.” He accepted the depleted gas can from Evan and tossed it in the bed of the truck.
She wrinkled her nose at the unfamiliar words. “I thought you said you hated cell phones and computers and future stuff.”
“I do,” he said. “That’s where you come in.”
She showed him the screen shot of Evan gassing up the truck.
“Brilliant, Maddy. You’re a master at capturing the moment.”
She smiled her incisorless smile, glowing with pride.
“I wanna see,” said Evan. “Hey look at my muscles, Mason.”
He tapped the boy’s skinny bicep. “Very impressive guns.”
“Not that kind of gun.”
Maddy pulled the hem of his shirt. “But why do you want me to take pictures of everything?”
He ran his fingers through his hair and considered the two faces staring up at him awaiting an answer. “Okay, so you guys know that when I was a little bit older than you, I got sent away for being bad.”
“Armed robbery,” said Evan. “I saw it online.”
Maddy shook her head. “Not nice.”
“Damned computers,” he muttered. “You’re right, Maddy, not nice. Not smart, either. It cost me thirty years of my life.” He glanced at Evan. “That’s what guns got me.”
“Was it scary in there?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “But to answer your question about the pictures, the whole time I was in, everyone else had photo albums of family and friends and memories. I didn’t. So I want to make sure that never happens again.”
“But you’re not gonna go back to that place,” said Maddy. “You’re not bad anymore.”
“That’s right, I’m not,” he said. “But just in case.”
Thunder cracked and echoed across the sky.
“You guys need to get home. Your mom will blame me if you get struck by lightning. Her boyfriend could have me prosecuted for negligent culpability and I’d be back in the scary place before we finished taking pictures.”
They stared at him in silence.
“That was a joke.”
“I hate Blane,” said Evan.
“Come on, man, don’t be too hard on the poor guy. He must have a few good points, otherwise, your mom wouldn’t give him the time of day.”
“He’s pretty,” said Maddy.
“See Evan? There you go.”
“And he smells nice.”
“Mmm, nothing like a sweet-smelling man.”
“And he’s rich!”
“Well that about seals it for me. What about you, Evan?”
“Okay, so before you guys go,” he reached in his pocket for the keys. “Evan? Would you do us the honor? It’s been thirty years since I heard that old 350 roar.”
They climbed inside.
Evan glanced at Mason.
He turned the key. The truck coughed, spasmed, and stammered to life in a cloud of exhaust.
“Woohoo!” cried Mason. “Give it some gas!”
Evan found the right pedal. Vrooom.
“Maddy? Are you getting this?”