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Sticks & Stones: Chapters 31 & 32

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 31: Two Man Job
The difference was striking. The obedient little glazed-eyed zombie of the previous week had not merely reverted to his normal self, he surpassed it. The pendulum swung right through energetic and landed on frenetic. He darted around the yard like a prisoner fresh out of confinement.

Mason leaned against the river birch and watched him go. “Where’s your sister?”

“Violin class.” He kicked an ant bed and paused to inspect the ensuing chaos. Then he was off and running again.

Mason shook a few dry noodles into his mouth from an open package of ramen. A bird cheeped from its nest in the drainpipe. He tossed the rest of the bag into the grass below and watched the bird flap down to the ground. Evan exploded from behind the crepe myrtle in a barrage of machine gun fire.

“Brrr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-ow!”

The startled bird disappeared into the overgrown hedges.

“Come here,” said Mason.

He took off into the backyard.

“Evan! I need to talk to you.”

“Is this a snake hole?” the boy shouted.

“Probably. Come here. We need to talk. Man to man.”

Silence.

“Let’s go Commando! Now!”

He slunk around the corner of the house.

Mason sat in one of the wrought iron chairs and motioned toward the other. “Have a seat.”

In a huff, Evan flopped down and immediately began to rock.

Although he had been rehearsing his speech for the past few days, now with the boy fidgeting across from him, words eluded him. “So … are you glad to be off your pills?”

He shrugged. “I guess so.”

“Can you tell the difference?”

He rocked vigorously in the chair.

Mason pressed on. “How did the medicine make you feel?”

He mumbled something unintelligible while looking over his shoulder.

“Sorry,” said Mason, “I didn’t catch that.”

“LIKE BRICKS TIED TO MY FEET!”

“Well, listen.” He leaned back in the chair and stretched out his legs, crossing his boots. “Fran’s been on my tail about fixing this place up and, truth is, she’s got a point. I guess it could stand a few upgrades. But I can’t do it alone. It’s more of a two-man job.”

He stopped rocking. “I’ll help.”

Mason pretended to mull over his offer. “Well I need a workout partner too.”

“I’m already your workout partner!” He leapt from his chair and dropped for a set of push-ups.

“Straighten your back. And slower, concentrate on what you’re doing. There you go. Perfect. Now those are textbook push-ups.”

He went till failure, till his arms trembled, buckled, and he collapsed on his stomach.

Mason spoke to his shoulder blades. “So I ran all this by your mom but I told her your medicine was gonna be a problem. Can’t have you sleepwalking around here with hammers and lawnmowers and hedge trimmers.”

Evan rolled onto his back, his eyes wide behind his bifocals. “I don’t take medicine anymore.”

“I know. We covered that. But in order to stay off it you’re going to need to focus in school, behave at home, and treat Blane with respect.”

“Blane’s an asshole.”

Mason shook his head. “He’s an adult and he’s your mom’s boyfriend. You don’t have to like him but you need to respect him. The same way you need to respect your teacher. If not, your mom’s gonna put you back on medication which means I’ll have to find another helper and workout partner.”

Evan popped off the ground. “I can’t help it because I’m hyper sometimes.”

“Yeah you can,” said Mason. “It’s like push-ups. You just concentrate on what you’re doing. Pay attention to form and when you catch yourself losing focus, you bring yourself back. I’m not saying it’s easy but you can do it. Practice makes perfect.”

The bird returned from the hedges, darting across the yard and landing in the grass. It hop-stepped over to the noodles, selected a decent-sized piece, and flitted back to the drainpipe.

Evan flinched but didn’t shoot. Mason acknowledged this early breakthrough in impulse control with a nod. “So are you ready for our first project?”

“Yeah.”

“Come on over to the truck.”

In the rusty bed of the Silverado was a shovel, a sixty-pound bag of ready-mix cement, and two parallel seven-foot poles welded together by a two-foot iron bar forming the shape of a giant staple.

“Think you can handle that bag of cement?”

Evan nodded. “What are we gonna build?”

Mason picked up the bars and headed for the river birch. “You’ll see.”

He leaned the configuration against the tree and returned for the shovel, passing Evan on the way, straining, red-faced, and zigzagging beneath the heavy weight of the bag. “Sure you got it?”

He grunted and stumbled across the grass.

When Mason returned with the shovel, he handed it to Evan and paced the area beneath the river birch. “What do you think about this spot right here?”

He was still out of breath from lugging the cement. “What for?”

Mason ignored him and went to grab the bars from the tree, talking to himself as he stood them up and looked over his head into the branches. “Nice shady location, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know what we’re making.”

Mason held the bars upright and stared at the boy as if through a doorway. “A man should be able to pull his own weight. That takes strong arms and a strong back. Nothing develops those muscles like a pull-up. And this…” He glanced up at the iron crossbar. “This is a pull-up bar.”

It took less than an hour to install. Evan dug the holes, poured the cement and added the water while Mason supervised and held the bars in place until the ready-mix hardened enough for them to stand on their own.

Fran spotted them from her front porch and charged across the street in her robe and slippers. “What on earth is that monstrosity?”

Evan hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his jeans. “A man should be able to pull his own—”

Mason cut him off. “Me and Evan here are working on a few home improvement projects and we figured we could spruce up the yard with one of these plant hanger deals.”

“Oh,” Fran said, inspecting it. “Like an arbor.”

Mason winked at Evan. “Exactly.”

“How pleasant.”

Chapter 32: The Masseuse
There was power in Blane’s manicured fingertips. He hummed along with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor as he dug them into the small muscles of her back, releasing long-locked tension and working out kinks and knots that had been with her for so many years, she’d accepted them as part of her anatomy.

His leather couch was cool against the side of her face. As he worked his way from her neck to lower lumbar, she closed her eyes, surrendering to bliss.

“Mmm, this is amazing,” she purred.

He used his palms on the small of her back. “Well, I’ve had a lot of practice.”

His words hung in the blind-shuttered darkness of the living room, suspended between the violins and cellos. She opened her eyes. “I bet you have.”

He chuckled. “My older sister has multiple sclerosis. I’ve been giving back massages since I was five years old.”

She melted back into the couch. “I didn’t know you had a sister. MS is such a debilitating disease. Dr. Diaz has a patient who’s been battling it for years. I hope your sister is … coping.”

“Dara is the CEO of a tech company in San Francisco. Next month she’s competing in her fifth triathlon.”

“Wow,” she mumbled. “That’s incredible. Your parents must be—”

“Shhh,” he whispered in her ear, a sudden waterfall of white noise. “I don’t want to talk about my family right now. I want to talk about another family. The family I want to build with you.”

An ember began to glow in her heart. “I’m sure you say that to all the girls.”

“Objection, your honor. There is no evidence to substantiate counsel’s statement.”

She smiled. “Overruled.”

She felt his breath, warm on her shoulder, then his lips. He talked between kisses. “I don’t know why … you see me as some … playboy … I want something long-term … something to come home to … to wake up to.”

She watched him in the dull reflection of the flat screen TV across the room. “My kids would drive you crazy.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” He ran his fingernails up and down the length of her spine. “Evan and I have been getting on quite nicely since he began taking Ritalin.”

The glowing ember in her heart burst into flames of joy. Finally he called him Evan. “Actually, he isn’t taking Ritalin anymore. It was causing him to have these horrible facial tics. Plus it turned him into a zombie. Evan doesn’t need medication. He’s a normal energetic little boy. We just needed to figure out a way to harness and redirect that energy into something productive.”

“Interesting,” he murmured, kissing her neck. “What did you come up with?”

“He’s actually been working with Mason.”

His touch went cold. “I don’t trust that guy. And frankly, I’m surprised that you do.”

“Oh stop. Mason is a big teddy bear. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. And the kids adore him.”

“He’s a dangerous felon and I don’t like him.”

She felt herself becoming defensive and measured her words carefully. “How long have you been an attorney? I’m sure you’ve represented clients who you knew were genuinely good men in spite of their mistakes.”

“Fourteen years,” he said, no longer touching her. “I’ve been practicing law for fourteen years. And to answer your question, no. I’ve never met a genuinely good criminal. Some of them are funny. Lots of them have mothers who love them. Most of them come from difficult backgrounds. But all of them, every single one, is a flawed human being. Your friend is no exception.”

Mason’s image filled her mind. His hulking body paralyzed with stage fright, gelled hair in wild disarray, as he stared unblinking into the news camera with Evan and Maddy fidgeting and beaming at his side.

Blane’s aristocratic voice gained a hard edge. “Do you know how I can tell when a defendant is lying?”

She blinked away Mason’s image and shook her head.

“His lips are moving.”

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

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 29 & 30

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 29: Sick World
The facial tics were disturbing. Both Dr. Diaz and WebMD assured her that the twitching was not uncommon and would soon subside, yet here they were, ten days into his Ritalin prescription and the synaptic spasms persisted. Every time his little body jolted she had to fight back tears.

She watched them from the hallway. Evan picked at his food while Maddy gave a YouTube tutorial with pizza sauce smeared from her mouth to her dimples. “And this is Grumpy Cat.” Mason was wedged between them on the couch, downing slice after slice with a casual voracity that could only be described as Davidesque.

He laughed at something on the tablet and almost lost a mouthful of Meat Lovers with extra cheese.

Maddy smiled at him. “See? Computers are fun. You don’t have to be afraid.”

“Afraid?” He swallowed his food. “You should know by now that I ain’t afraid of nothing. Remember the way I took out that robber?” He acted out a choke slam.

Brooke rolled her eyes in the shadows.

“Hey,” Maddy protested. “Me and Evan helped.”

He reached for another slice of pizza.

“I know somebody you’re afraid of,” said her daughter with a sly smile. “My mommy.”

“Psshh,” he grinned at Evan. “Are you hearing this Commando?”

Brooke walked into the living room and began cleaning up. “All right guys. Bed time. Say good night to Mason.”

A cascade of crumbs fell from Evan’s lap as he stood and slogged toward the staircase.

Maddy pouted, attempting to buy time. “But Mom … I didn’t get to ask him about music class.”

“Ask while you’re walking, Madison.”

“Okay. Do you think I should sign up for tuba or violin?”

He reached for his water as Brooke raked the parmesan cheese packets and used napkins into an empty pizza box. She flinched as the glass passed in front of her face. Soap scum.

He either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “Is this a trick question? Have you ever met a tuba-playing rock star? I vote violin.”

“Me too!” said Maddy, disappearing up the stairs. “Nighty-night, Mason.”

He caught Brooke staring and lowered his voice. “Why are you looking at me like that? Should I have gone with tuba?”

She snapped out of it. “No … no, I was hoping she’d choose the violin.”

He continued to watch her over the rim of his glass. “What about Evan? Is he thinking of picking up an instrument? Seems like he’d be a natural drummer, all that energy.”

Evan. For the thousandth time, she wondered if she was doing the right thing.

“At least he had a lot of energy,” Mason said. “I barely recognized the kid in my truck today. So quiet. It was like he wasn’t even there. Except for that horrible twitching.”

His words hit a nerve. “It’s actually a common side effect of his medication.”

“Which part? The disappearing personality or the twitching?”

Although she agonized over these exact questions, his interrogation was making her defensive. “Look, I happen to work in the medical field. I spend over forty hours a week around doctors. These are not just colleagues, they’re friends. Trust me, my son’s treatment plan is being closely monitored by some of the best health care providers in the state.”

“Treatment plan for what?”

She rolled her eyes. “I doubt you’d be familiar with the diagnosis.”

He didn’t budge. “Try me.”

“Fine,” she sighed. “He’s combined type Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, displaying both inattentive as well as hyperactive and impulsive symptoms. Not that it’s any of your business.”

His smile was infuriating. “So basically a bunch of fancy words for normal, energetic little kid?”

“Well his teacher and his doctor and Blane would tend to disagree. Not to mention millions of families all over the world.”

His face hardened at the mention of Blane. “Sounds like I’m outnumbered and outgunned then. Who am I to argue with teachers and doctors and Blane? But let the record reflect that in the opinion of this lowly convict, eleven-year-old boys shouldn’t be put on dope because they’re too hyper for their teachers or their doctors or their mothers’ boyfriends to handle.” He stood up. “There’s nothing wrong with Evan. It’s the world that’s sick. I’ll let myself out.”

She stormed down the hallway after him. “How dare you insinuate that I’m a bad mother!”

“I didn’t—”

“How convenient for you to stroll in here with your simplistic world view and your cereal box psychology and your … your …” She groped for hurtful words. “Your prison tattoos! You’ve never had to chase him around a department store or punish him for making an F. You’ve never had to physically detach him from his Xbox controller.”

He paused at the door. “You’re right. But aren’t you the one that said your kids aren’t stupid, just inexperienced? How can Evan learn from his experiences when he’s doped into submission? Little boys are naturally hyper. I sure as hell was. But that energy ought to be harnessed and directed, not medicated into oblivion.”

“Is that how you turned out to be such a winner?” she smirked. “Forgive me if I’m not inspired by your example.”

His eyes flashed pain. She regretted her words even as she spoke them. Mason was a good man. It was herself she was grappling with.

“Good night, Brooke.” He opened the door.

Blane was standing on her welcome mat, his gelled hair gleaming in the yellow glow of the porch light. He was holding a single red rose. His sculptured eyebrow ascended like a half moon on the smooth, tanned skin of his forehead.

“Am I interrupting something?”

Chapter 30: The Winner Mows by Night
He mowed with a vengeance, taking his anger out on the overgrown yard. An arcing spray of cut grass rainbowed in his wake, phosphorescent in the moonlight. A rock pinged off his truck. He used his forearm to wipe the dust from his brow and kept pushing, as if the lawnmower blades could lay low his shame, his guilt, his powerlessness, along with the grass.

Across the street, Fran’s bedroom light switched on. He figured he was violating some noise ordinance by mowing after 10:00 p.m., probably a black mark on his neighborhood watch report card. But he was mowing his grass. It seemed like that would merit a gold star in his homeowners association file. Who constituted these shadowy organizations anyway? The only one he ever saw was Fran. Was she both judge and jury? He was beginning to not care. Maybe it was time to sell the house and move away … some place where he could be anonymous … where his criminal history wasn’t common knowledge.

Brooke’s words echoed in his mind. As loud as the lawnmower was, it still couldn’t drown them out. “Is that how you turned out to be such a winner?” He pushed harder. Rounding the river birch and wrought iron chairs, to the hedges and back in long vertical lines, up and down, over and over.

He was near the front porch step when he noticed her. She was standing at the edge of the driveway in sweatpants and a tank top, hair up in a scrunchy, face scrubbed clean of makeup and achingly beautiful.

He ripped the lawnmower in a 180-degree turn and headed back toward the hedges. When he returned she was blocking his path. He tried to go around her but she was too quick.

He killed the engine. “What?”

“Are you crazy?”

He shook his head. “Just a loser.”

She flinched but stayed the course. “It’s too late at night to be mowing your lawn. Someone will call the police.”

He glanced at Fran’s house. “I don’t care.”

“Mason, please … I’m sorry, okay?”

“Apology accepted. Go away.”

He left the lawnmower in the grass and walked over to the porch. She followed.

“Come on.” She sat down next to him, her arm grazing his. “You of all people should believe in second chances. I was wrong tonight. I admit it. I lashed out at you. You didn’t deserve that. I’m just under an unbelievable amount of stress…”

Her words trailed off into the now lawnmowerless night.

“Where’s Blane?”

“He went home.” She hugged herself and rubbed her arms. “It’s cold out here.”

He envied her hands. “Do you want to come inside?”

She shook her head. “I can only stay a second. Maddy’s still awake. I just wanted to apologize for being so rude and … with all the chaos earlier I forgot to tell you the exciting news.”

He waited in silence, watching her. His eyes were drawn to a lonely freckle suspended on the side of her graceful neck, inches beneath her pierced earlobe.

“I have a friend from work who wants to go out with you.”

He blinked. The spell was broken. “That’s the big news?”

Her eyes sparkled. “Yes!”

“I’ll pass.”

“Come on, Mason. How long has it been since you’ve enjoyed the company of a beautiful woman?”

“I’m doing that right now.”

She swatted his knee. “Stop. I’m being serious.”

He focused on a bright and distant light in the sky. Whether star, planet, or satellite, he couldn’t tell. “I don’t want to go on a date with anyone.”

“But you’d love her. She’s exactly your type.”

“I’m sorry, Brooke. I just don’t think it’d be a good idea.”

“Please,” she pouted. “I already told her you would. She’s so excited. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

He turned to her, searching her eyes. “You really want me to date someone?”

She nodded. “I think you’ll adore her.”

“Okay. One date.”

She clapped her hands.

He continued to stare at her. “Under one condition.”

“What?”

“Take Evan off that zombie medication.”

She blew a loose strand of hair from her face. “Please don’t start this again.”

“He doesn’t need it. He just needs direction. Look, you said yourself there is too much estrogen in your household. Let me work with him.”

“Mason, I know your heart’s in the right place, but—”

“Go ahead and say it. I’m not the stereotypical role model. No argument there. But me and Evan are a lot more alike than you think. I wasn’t much older than he is now when I lost my dad. Over the last thirty years, prison psych doctors have diagnosed me with everything from seasonal depression to borderline personality disorder to PTSD. And if ADHD was popular when I was in elementary school, I’m sure I would’ve been a prime candidate for that too. I can’t even count how many medications I’ve been prescribed and refused.”

She rocked against him with her shoulder. “Thanks, that makes me feel a lot better about everything.”

He smiled. “I’m not knocking medication. I’m sure it saves thousands of lives but, come on, you’re a nurse. Haven’t you ever wondered how much pharmaceutical companies are making off all these prescriptions? Billions, I’m sure, and that’s probably lowballing it.”

She stared into the night.

“Look, when I was thirty I met a doctor named Gavin Ponder. Real laid back dude. He wasn’t pushy at all with the meds. Just the opposite. He showed me this article in a magazine called Nature about the positive effects of exercise on the brain and how the benefits are especially pronounced in people diagnosed with some form of mental illness. That was all I needed to hear.”

She stood up. “So you think exercise will save my son?”

“I think it will make him more disciplined, more confident, and burn off some of that excess energy he has.” He walked her to the driveway. “But I’m not just talking exercise. Fran’s been on my back about making this place presentable. He can help me do work around here too. It’ll be good for him.”

“Hmm,” she said, wheels turning. “Male bonding.”

“If that’s what you want to call it.”

“Let me think about it.”

He touched her wrist. “Come on, Brooke. That poor kid that’s been staggering around here isn’t Evan. I know you want your son back.”

She glanced in the direction of her house. “Maddy says your mom is a sweet woman.”

“She’s late stage Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t know who I am.”

“Mason…” Her eyes widened, then filled with tears. “You’re hurting! I had no idea.”

He fumbled around in his mind for the polite response but all thoughts were swallowed in the groundswell of her embrace. Slowly, carefully, he folded his arms around her.

She looked up at him. Even in the dark, her eyes were sunlight playing on the ocean, drawing him in.

Her lips parted.

He lowered his head.

“Crystal,” she said.

He froze. “Who?”

“Your date. Her name is Crystal.”

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

Christopher vs. Malcolm

Thirteen years ago today a skinny, strung-out, zombified version of me staggered into a Circle K with a stolen pistol demanding Newports, Optimos, and all the cash in the register. An hour later, police K-9s found me hiding in a field off 9 Mile Road. The dog bites were bad enough to require stitches. The next morning, I was released from the hospital and booked into the now-condemned central booking and detention unit of the Escambia County jail. I remember scouring the floor for pieces of crack and scanning the ceilings for a place to hang myself. Good times. And there was reason to believe things weren’t going to get much better.

Friends faded, the Feds indicted me, the state was pushing for life imprisonment. I ended up getting 379 months. I was 31 years old at the time. This sentence meant it would be another 31 years before I breathed free air again. Sorta like a life sentence with a little daylight… if I made it that far. Once in prison, I immediately reverted to my old patterns — getting high, gambling, and living unconsciously.

There is a Bob Seger lyric from Against the Wind that I have always loved. “The years rolled slowly past. I found myself alone. Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends. Found myself further and further from my home…” Soundtrack of my life. Things were getting consistently worse.

Then in 2009, in the midst of a nine-month stint in solitary confinement, it occurred to me what a colossal mess I’d made of my life. And by occurred I mean it fell on me like an imploding building. I was 35 years old with no home, no property, no career, no pension, no children, no freedom, no future, and no legacy except for the lengthy criminal record that dated back to my 13th birthday. I had to do something to turn the momentum. Quitting dope was a good start but it wasn’t enough. I needed to rebuild myself. This is where the books come from. A few years, four novels, and one miraculous Supreme Court ruling later, my entire life has changed. Saved by the craft.

There is a scene in my latest novel, Sticks & Stones, where a skinny, hollow-eyed crackhead walks into a convenience store and pulls a gun on the petrified clerk, a scene very similar to a chapter of my own life. Except in this story, the protagonist — an ex-convict — steps forward to stop the robbery. A monumental struggle ensues. This is bigger than just two men battling it out on the page. This is good versus evil, past versus future, Christopher versus Malcolm.

Spoiler alert: The good guy wins.

Chapter 28: Prodigal Son

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGThe temperature was dropping. The remaining leaves on the river birch quivered in the stiff north wind. The boy was uncharacteristically quiet.

“What’s going on, Commando? Cat got your tongue?”

No answer. He stood motionless by the truck.

“Can we ride in the back?” said Maddy.

“Not this time.”

“But why?”

He opened the passenger door for them. “Um, let’s see, hypothermia, the cops, your mom would kill me.”

“What’s hypothermia?”

He flicked her ponytail. “It’s when you turn into a popsicle.”

She climbed in first, followed by Evan. “Well, my mom says we have to wear seatbelts too and you don’t have enough.”

He closed the door and walked around to the driver side. “Just pull that one around both of you.”

Maddy was scrunching her nose when he climbed in. “It smells bad in here.”

He smiled at the little girl. “Anything else, Madison?”

She surveyed the truck. “You don’t have a radio.”

“Thank you.”

The engine whinnied and rumbled to life. They coasted down the driveway in a cloud of exhaust.

Fran Vickers, Supreme Leader of the homeowners association, was waiting by the mailboxes. She covered her nose and mouth with a handkerchief and waved for them to stop.

“Roll down that window, Evan.”

He didn’t budge.

Fran coughed and tapped her fingernails against the glass, smiling like a rabid jackal.

“I’ll do it,” said Maddy, grunting as she reached across her brother and wrenched the stubborn crank.

“Good afternoon!” Fran trilled. A psychotic geriatric Mary Poppins in leopard-print tights. “The neighborhood is positively abuzz with chatter about the three heroes from Devon Lane.”

Maddy turned to him and beamed, basking in the older woman’s compliments. He envied her naiveté. At seven years old, she took words at face value. The world had not yet taught her to be skeptical.

“Mason, I would offer you a position with our neighborhood crime watch, but,” she smiled sweetly, “well, you understand.”

He accidentally revved the engine. A black plume of exhaust spat from the tailpipe and carried on the wind.

“Good heavens!” she cried. “If I was a Democrat, I’d label this truck a climate threat and file a complaint with the EPA.” She paused as if jolted by the tasty possibilities of her own veiled threat. A mental doubletake. “I do think it’s absolutely precious that these dear ones’ mother allows them to gallivant about the neighborhood with the likes of you.”

Maddy turned and smiled at him again, this time with less wattage, unsure. Evan continued his stare-down with the middle distance.

“Well,” said Mason, “we’re kinda in a hurry, so—”

“Really? Where are you off to?”

He ignored her question. “Did you need something? Or were you just stopping us to say hello?”

“Actually, I wanted to congratulate you on your heroic deed—”

“Thanks.” He put the truck in drive.

“And I was wondering if you got a job yet?”

None of your damned business, he thought. “I’m still looking,” he said.

Slowly, he pulled away from the mailboxes. She held onto the window and walked alongside the truck.

“Well seeing that you’re unemployed, it wouldn’t kill you to do a little home improvement on that eyesore of a house. You know what they say about idle hands and, honestly, our property values should not have to suffer because—”

He gave the truck some gas. “Nice talking to you, Fran.”

For a moment he worried that she wouldn’t let go. Surely she couldn’t run. She was at least eighty. He imagined her clinging to the window on the Interstate, billowing in the wind like a poltergeist. Or worse, falling and getting crushed under the tires. He was relieved when he looked in the rearview and saw her standing in the middle of the cul de sac.

“Ms. Fran is so nice,” said Maddy.

“Right … about as nice as a Komodo dragon.”

“What’s a Komodo dragon?”

“A lizard that eats people.”

“Like a crocodile?”

“Worse.”

Her look was skeptical.

He shrugged. “Goggle it.”

“It’s Google, Mason.”

“Whatever.”

At the light on Conway Boulevard he noticed Evan twitching, some sort of facial tic. “Hey Commando, everything all right over there?”

“Yeah,” barely audible.

The light turned green.

“His new medicine makes him sleepy,” Maddy explained.

“Medicine? Is he sick?”

Maddy shook her head. “Just hyper.”

He turned over her words in his head as he drove across the train tracks and entered the warehouse district, occasionally stealing a glance at the boy who sat automaton-still by the passenger door, his hooded eyes unblinking behind his bifocals. Hyper medicine?

Suddenly a woman’s tinny voice burst into song, the ringtone rupturing the drone of road noise and snatching him from his thoughts.

Maddy pulled her cell phone from her pocket and held it to her ear. “Hey Mom.” She listened for a moment then glanced at Evan. “He’s being good. Just real real quiet.” She listened some more. “Okay, love you. Here’s Mason.”

He ignored the outstretched phone. “Tell her I’m driving.”

“He’s driving, Mom.”

She nodded and touched the screen. Brooke’s voice filled the truck cab. “I just received a disturbing text from a concerned neighbor who wishes to remain anonymous. Says you were driving reckless and endangering my kids.”

He shot Maddy a told you so look. “I don’t know why Fran would say that. I’m right at the speed limit, using my blinkers, and all seatbelts are fastened.”

“Ms. Fran is a dragon lady,” said Maddy.

“That’s not nice, Madison,” she scolded. “Mason, why are you in Westgate?”

“I told you I had some errands to run.” He glanced in the rearview. “How do you know we’re in Westgate?”

“Evan’s smartphone has GPS. You just turned off Conway onto Tamarack. Now you’re headed north.”

He shook his head. “Remind me never to buy one of those things.”

“So what errands are you running in Westgate?”

He turned down the winding driveway of Harmony Meadows. “My mother lives out this way. I usually visit her on Mondays.”

“Really? I didn’t realize, I mean, I just assumed that…” She changed the subject. “Hey, will you eat dinner with us tonight? I have some exciting news I’ve been meaning to tell you.”

“What are you cooking?”

“I don’t know. Does it matter? Something with more nutritious value than instant soup.”

“Will Blane be there?” He glanced at Maddy and curled his top lip in disgust. She responded by miming a vomit-inducing finger down her throat.

“No, he’s working late.”

“Then count me in.”

“You’re terrible,” she laughed. “I need to get back to work. Take care of my babies.”

“See you tonight,” he said.

“I’m not a baby,” said Maddy, but she was already gone.

He found a parking spot near the entrance and shut off the engine. The pines bent and swayed in the wind. He was flanked by polar opposites on the way to the door. One skipped, the other trudged.

“I thought your mom lived in heaven with my dad,” said Maddy.

Evan looked up in groggy anticipation.

“My dad lives in heaven with your dad. My mom lives right over there in that big building behind those log cabins.”

“But how come she doesn’t live at home with you?”

“Because she’s sick and they take good care of her here,” he said. “Way better care than I could give her.”

Through the thick bottle-green glass of the front door, he spotted nose-ring hunched over a stack of paperwork, Secret Service earpiece in place. He squeezed Evan’s shoulder. “All right, Commando. I need you to take out the front desk. Got your machine gun ready?”

His only response was a facial tic. Then two more in rapid succession.

Mason could not resist flashing his driver’s license as they walked past the counter. “It’s official now. I’m a naturalized citizen of the free world.” He nodded toward his photocopied mugshot taped to the file cabinet. “You can throw that thing away if you want. Unless it has sentimental value to you.”

“You still need to sign in, sir.” Her sir sounded a lot like inmate to him.

He scrawled his name in the visitors’ log. “Anything else? Fingerprints? A pat search? A field sobriety test?”

She glanced at Evan and Maddy. “Are they authorized?”

“Come on, lady. They’re eleven and seven years old!”

She returned to her paperwork, unconcerned. “They still require authorization.”

“By who?”

“By the patient.”

He restrained himself from pounding the counter. “The patient is my mom. She has Alzheimer’s.”

“I like that pretty earring in your nose,” said Maddy.

He was contemplating his next move when he heard the muffled sound of a toilet flushing, followed by faint whistling and a running sink. Then the door opened and his patron saint in cowboy boots walked into the lobby.

“Thank God,” said Mason.

“I do, every day.”

“This … woman is making my life miserable again.” He felt like a tattletale but he couldn’t resist. “We’re just here to visit my mom and she’s treating us like … like suicide bombers!”

“Autumn, Autumn, Autumn. Don’t you recognize these folks? They’re local celebrities.”

“Yeah,” said Maddy, hands on hips.

The doctor turned to Mason. “You’ll have to forgive my granddaughter. She doesn’t watch the local news. Got one of them dang Roku internet things. Come on, I’ll take ya’ll back.”

Granddaughter? thought Mason, suddenly relieved that he had bitten his tongue. Maddy held his hand and Evan floated along beside him as they walked down hedge-lined sidewalks, antiseptic hallways, and through increasingly secured plexiglass doors. The doctor pointed out people, places, and machines along the way.

“Thanks for saving us,” said Maddy.

The doctor nodded at Mason. “It’s that Johnny Cash tattoo. Gets me every time.”

“My mom is a nurse. Her real name is Brooke. Have you ever heard of her?”

“Hmm, Brooke,” said the doctor with a straight face. “Sounds familiar.”

When they arrived at Ava’s room she was leaning against the dresser, squinting at her reflection in the mirror. A pink terrycloth robe was cinched around her tiny waist and tremors racked her body.

“Ava,” said the doctor, “you have visitors.”

Mason stepped forward with the kids. “Mom, these are my friends, Evan and Maddy.”

She examined them in the mirror, her face a crinkled roadmap of lost highways and tributaries. Then her eyes widened, the trembling halted, and thirty years fell away.

She turned, swallowed, and reached out to touch Evan’s face. He didn’t move.

“Mason? Oh my goodness, Mason!” She wrapped her frail arms around the boy. Tears streamed down her face as she kissed his hair. “Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick about you!”

Maddy gasped and looked up at him. “She called him Mason!”

“It’s okay,” Evan mumbled, his first complete sentence of the afternoon. “I don’t mind.”

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

Synchronicity, King of Coincidence

“Many miles away, something crawls to the surface of a dark Scottish loch.” – Synchronicity, The Police

Sometimes I fall asleep listening to AM radio. Knocks me right out. A few months ago, I awoke sometime after midnight with the cord wrapped twice around my neck and hanging off the side of my bunk. Coast to Coast was on. The guest was psychotherapist and quantum theorist Mel Schwartz. He was talking about synchronicity. Specifically about the tsunami of 2004, the humanitarian calamity it wrought and how, although it claimed roughly 230,000 human lives, there were surprisingly few animal bodies found in the aftermath. He attributed this to a sixth sense long atrophied in human beings due to lack of use. He went on to say that at the exact same time that he was typing an essay about this phenomenon on the other side of the globe, a bird flew into his room and perched on his chair. Synchronicity.

As I staggered to the bathroom, half-listening, half-asleep, an elusive plot point from my latest novel, Sticks & Stones, suddenly clicked into place. (If you’ve read it, it’s the part about the drone.) Now I was wide awake. It dawned on me that had I not fallen asleep with the radio on, I might have never awoken to receive this pivotal building block of my then-novel-in-progress. The fact that this occurred while the dude on the radio was discussing synchronicity really blew me away.

Coincidences … chance happenings or mystical experiences? I once heard someone refer to them as “God winks.” A 2015 Esquire article divides them into four distinct categories:

Synchronicity – Two unrelated events collide in a meaningful way. (See above)
Seriality – A series of seemingly unrelated events lead to a noteworthy event. You usually take the bus to work, but you spilled your morning coffee on your shirt, which made you miss the 7:15. You almost called a cab, but decided to try Uber. The driver is attractive. You ask her out. Two years later, you’re married and expecting.

Simulpathity – The simultaneous experience of another person’s distress. This one usually happens with twins, life-long couples, and parents with their children.

Serendipity – Something unexpected and beneficial arises from being at the right place at the right time. Phizer researchers testing a drug called sildenafil as a treatment for angina notice a curious side effect: erections. Eureka! Viagra.

Which is your favorite?

Chapter 27: The Matchmaker

Vital signs. This is what Brooke Tyler’s workday consisted of. One never-ending sequence of vital signs. Blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, “Please make yourself comfortable, the doctor will be with you shortly.” Her plan had always been to become a registered nurse, but then David died and she was suddenly a single mother on her own. Between Evan, Maddy and work there never seemed to be enough hours in the day. The idea of three more years of school seemed less and less possible as time went by.

The familiar faces of her coworkers smiled from doorways and break rooms as she walked back to the front of the office to retrieve the next patient’s chart. Though she knew their names and the names of many of their children and spouses, they were mostly strangers masquerading as acquaintances. Who really knew anyone in this world?

She paused at the end of the hall and gazed out from the fourth-story window. A sea of majestic oaks stretched east toward her home in a canopy of green. High above, clouds like white brush strokes were painted across the stretched canvas of blue sky. Even higher, a lonely jet left twin vapor trails in its wake.

She wondered what Mason was doing. Then she caught herself and wondered why. Strange.

A hand touched her elbow. She turned. “Oh, Dr. Diaz.”

With a full head of black hair, he was in his late sixties without a wrinkle on his ruddy face. “I left Evan’s prescription up front with Crystal. If his symptoms continue or if there are any side effects, be sure to let me know.”

“I will. Thanks. Mrs. Flannigan is waiting in room two. Her chart is on the door.”

He grimaced. “I appreciate the warning.”

According to the checklist, Evan was a classic Combined Type ADHD, displaying the hyperactive/impulsive symptoms, as well as exceeding the inattentive criteria. Still, she had her reservations. The internet wasn’t much help. Ritalin was either a miracle drug, a zombie potion, or a poor man’s cocaine, depending on the reviewer.

It was during times like these that the glaring hole David left in their lives was magnified. He had a knack for always knowing the right thing to do. She ached for his input. At least she had Blane to lean on. She walked back down the hall to the reception area.

Crystal Riley was a year younger than she was and recently divorced after fifteen years as the trophy wife of an abusive evangelical minister. She described her newfound freedom as how Piper Kerman must have felt when she walked out of prison. Her renaissance was gradual. First, black nail polish, then an eyebrow piercing. After four weeks of leave, she shocked the office by returning to work with an impressive new set of boobs. Most of the other women gossiped about Crystal but Brooke admired her independence and her lack of concern for what others were whispering about her.

She stood in the doorway. “Hey, Crystal, do you—”

“Oh God,” she rolled her eyes.

“What?” said Brooke.

“Sorry, hon. It’s not you. It’s just this song.”

The familiar double-claps and keys of Private Eyes filled the room.

“You don’t like Hall and Oates?”

Crystal pretended to gag.

“Why don’t you change the station?”

She shook her head — her once-brown Pentecostal bun now a platinum pixie cut — and pointed to the note taped above the radio.

“Doctor’s orders. 95 Beach FM, only. So I’m stuck with the ‘lite rock hits of the 70s, 80s and today.’” Her chair creaked as she leaned back and stretched. “FML, right?”

Private Eyes segued into Alanis Morrisette’s Ironic.

Brooke swayed a little. “This one isn’t too bad.”

“Compared to what?” Crystal curled her top lip. “A colonoscopy? Gimme Lizzy Hale over this Canadian bubblegum any day.”

Brooke smiled and raised her hands in surrender, marveling at the once docile little preacher’s wife for the thousandth time. “Dr. Diaz said he left a prescription for me.”

She pushed her chair back from her desk and rolled across the office. “I think I put it over here somewhere.”

As Brooke watched her thumb through a stack of papers, she noticed a barcode tattoo on the nape of her neck. “Crystal!” she whispered. “Is that a tattoo?”

The receptionist glanced at her, an almost-smile tugged at the corners of her lips as she reached back and touched her collar. “This? Yeah. I got it on Saturday. I have two more but… I’d have to show you in the bathroom.”

Brooke felt her face redden. “Are you seeing anyone?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Nothing serious. Why? Are you asking me out? I thought you were all hot and bothered over the handsome attorney off eHarmony or whatever.”

“I’m not asking for me, silly. I just know this guy who might be your type.”

“Yeah? How old?”

“Forty-eight, I think.”

She shook her head. “Too old.”

“But you’re almost forty.”

She looked around. “Do not say that again.”

Brooke smiled. “He’s got a lot of tattoos.”

“Really? What’s he do for a living?”

“He’s … um … he’s unemployed.”

“Great,” said Crystal. “Anything else? Some missing teeth, maybe?”

“He just got out of prison.”

She clapped her hands. “Awesome! Sounds like my soul mate, all right. Nice to know your opinion of me is so high.”

“He’s really cute.” It was only after the words were out that she realized they were true. “And he’s a sweetheart. My kids adore him.”

“Why was he in prison?”

She minimized. “Robbery.”

“Hmm. Dangerous. That might be interesting. Do you have a picture?”

Brooke shook her head, then glanced at the computer. “I don’t know, maybe. Can you pull up the Channel 7 News website?”

She rolled her chair back across the office and tapped on the keyboard. The Eyewitness News logo spun like a coin in the center of the Channel 7 homepage.

Brooke pointed to the tab that said Local. “Click here.” The Magic Mart story was the third from the top. “And right here.”

Mason’s face filled the screen, a deer in headlights.

“Yum,” said Crystal. “Look at those muscles. And that hair.”

Brooke laughed. “My daughter is responsible for that.”

They watched the video clip in silence. When it was over the receptionist reached over and touched her hand. “Those are your kids, aren’t they?”

She nodded.

“Oh my God, you must be so … I don’t know if I should say proud or scared.”

Brooke shrugged. “Both.”

Crystal glanced back at the screen. “Well, I would love to go out with your babysitter. If he’s interested. Show him my Instagram page, okay?”

A grandmother appeared at the window with a girl around Evan’s age. The conversation ended there. Brooke selected a chart from the top of the stack and went to the waiting room to call the next patient. “Malone?”

A thin regal woman with silver hair reached for her purse. On the way to the examination room she heard Crystal call to her from the front office.

“Hey Brooke? Don’t forget Evan’s prescription.”

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

Chapter 26: Live at Five

Brooke held the glass up to the light, inspecting it for blemishes. Her hands were still shaky from her kids’ near-death experience, but she was slowly returning to normal. She noticed a few gray specks of soap scum below the rim. Blane’s pet peeve. She vigorously erased them with the hem of her shirt.

“Hurry Mom,” Maddy called from the living room. “It’s coming on.”

She dropped six wedges of ice in the glass, filled it with water, and padded back down the hall just as the Eyewitness News music erupted from the television.

“Turn it down a little.”

Evan and Maddy were on the floor in front of the coffee table while Mason sat rigidly in a straight-back dining room chair, palms on knees. She took her place next to Blane on the couch and handed him the ice water. He slid his arm around her.

“An eastside babysitter and two children are heroes after thwarting the robbery of a local convenience store this afternoon. Hailey McGuire has the details.”

From the corner of her eye she saw Blane examine the glass for cleanliness. Satisfied, he took a sip.

On the TV, a college-age brunette stood smiling in front of the Magic Mart awaiting her cue to begin. After an awkward delay, she nodded at someone off camera.

“I’m here at the Magic Mart on Seren Drive in Rosemont where today three ordinary citizens, two of them students at a local elementary school, did something extraordinary.”

The camera angle widened to reveal Mason and the kids.

Brooke burst out laughing.

“What a shmuck,” Blane mumbled.

His hair, still hard from the mousse and styling gel, had come unfixed in the scuffle and was a chaotic hash of swirl and spike. He stared unblinking into the camera, stiff with stage fright. Evan blew a purple bubblegum bubble while Maddy beamed and waved at the viewing audience.

Seeing herself, she whipped her head around, eyes shining, big jack-o-lantern smile. “I look famous, don’t I Mom?”

Brooke nodded, acutely aware of Blane’s arm around her. She braced for Maddy’s reaction but her daughter either didn’t notice or was too caught up in her own celebrity to care.

“Shut up Maddy, I can’t hear,” said Evan.

“Hey, that’s not nice.”

The reporter held her mic up to Mason. The sweat on his muscled forearm made his tattoos appear darker. Johnny Cash flipped off America.

“How long have you been a babysitter?”

“Uh … first day.”

“What made you decide to intervene in the robbery?”

Shrug.

“What were you thinking when the gun went off?”

“Um … loud.”

From his spot on the floor, Evan bent backwards and looked at Mason upside down. “You’re more scared of the camera than you were of the gun!”

“What’s your name?”

“Evan Tyler.”

“What happened in there?”

“That robber pointed his gun at Ms. Dot and then Mason jammed his soups against him. BANG! The gun went off and I thought it killed Mason but it didn’t, just the soup. Then they wrastled on the floor and Mason made him let go of the gun and it slid and the robber tried to get it but I kicked it away and my sister got it and ran away.”

He turned and smiled at Brooke, radiant with boyish pride. Then he noticed Blane’s arm around her and his face fell.

“Here comes my part!” Maddy squealed, almost hyperventilating with excitement.

“What’s your name?”

“Madison Rose Tyler!”

“And you grabbed the gun?”

“Yes, and then I ran to Mason’s truck and locked the doors. He tried to chase me but I’m too fast.”

“Were you scared?”

“Mm hmm, ‘specially when he punched the window but Mason choked him real hard and slinged him across the parking lot.”

“What made you grab the gun?”

“I dunno. I just did.”

“Weren’t you worried it might go off? Did you know not to touch the trigger?”

“I know all about guns. My brother has almost two thousand confirmed kills on Call of Duty. He’s gonna be a YouTube celebrity.”

Brooke glanced at Blane and rolled her eyes. “Maddy I really wish you’d stop talking about confirmed kills. It’s unladylike.”

Her daughter popped off the floor and ran around the coffee table. “But aren’t you proud of my interview, Mom?”

She smiled. Evan wasn’t the only beneficiary of David’s genes. Her husband lived on in Maddy’s furrowed brow and dimpled cheeks, in her stubbornness and confidence and charm.

“Of course, I’m proud. I’m horrified that you held a loaded gun and were chased by that awful man. But, yes, I’m extremely proud of you.”

Maddy squeezed between her and Blane, separating them. “Are you proud of Mason too?”

Brooke glanced at the hulking ex-convict in her living room, uncertain how to answer. Leave it to Maddy to put her on the spot.

On the television, the reporter was wrapping up. “The suspect, Colin Driver of Lancaster, has a lengthy criminal history including charges for burglary and aggravated assault. He was booked into the Lincoln County jail with no bond. Our city streets are safer tonight because these three ordinary people did something extraordinary. From Rosemont, Hailey McGuire, Channel 7 News.”

“Well,” Blane sniffed, “personally I think it was foolhardy and irresponsible.”

Mason stood. “All right, that’s my cue.”

Brooke touched Blane’s knee, hoping to silence him. It didn’t work.

“That’s what we have police for.” He took a sip of water. “You endangered the kids’ lives and the clerk’s life by trying to be Bruce Willis.”

She attempted to smooth things over. “Well, thankfully, everyone’s okay.”

Mason glared at him. “What would you have done?”

Blane inspected his cuticles. “I would have memorized his features, height, weight, face, clothes, while cooperating fully to ensure the safety of the children. Then, when the police arrived, I’d brief them with all the information. Once apprehended, I’d attend every hearing to guarantee that he was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

“Yeah, I’ll remember that the next time someone’s waving a gun around like a maniac.”

Blane smirked. “A situation I’m sure you’re all too familiar with.”

Brooke tried her best to quell the rising tension. “Hey, guys, it’s been a long day. Let’s not—”

“It’s all good,” said Mason. “I’m leaving.”

Evan pulled at his sleeve. “But we haven’t played Call of Duty yet.”

“Another time,” he said, his eyes touching hers.

Brooke noticed their color. Bluish-green, aquamarine, Earth from outer space.

“I’ve been known to dabble in the old Black Ops,” said Blane. “I’ll play with you.”

Evan responded by emptying a clip. “Br-r-r-r-r-r-ow!”

Blane jumped. Then, over the machine gun fire said, “Are we still looking into the Ritalin?”

Evan charged up the stairs.

Maddy pushed off the couch and followed her brother. “Why does Mason have to leave?” she yelled down the staircase. “Mason is a hero! He’s extraordinary! I think BLANE should leave!”

“Madison that is not nice!”

The door slammed.

She smiled at her boyfriend and shrugged, utterly humiliated. “Kids.”

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

Chapter 25: Dorsal Fin Day Care Part Two

He pulled the hundred dollar bill from his pocket. “All right you little heathens, who wants cigarettes and beer?”

Evan raised his hand. “I do.”

“Wrong answer, Commando.” He shook his head. “Testing you again.”

Maddy smiled up at him. “I don’t want any cigarettes and beer.”

“Good girl,” he said. “Cigarettes and beer mean less push-ups. Less push-ups mean less muscle development which means less confidence which means…” He glanced at the boy. “Less chicks.”

“Well how do you know I’m not testing you?” said Evan.

“Testing me for what?”

“To see if you’re a crooked babysitter. The kind who buys kids cigarettes and beer.”

“Nice,” said Mason, holding out his fist. “You’re full of it, but I like the way you think on your feet.”

Evan stood a little straighter and tapped his knuckles. “I don’t care about chicks anyway.”

“No? I thought you had a thing for…” He nodded at his neighbor’s house.

“He wants Ms. Tammy to be his girlfriend,” said Maddy.

“No, I don’t. She’s a whore!”

“That’s not nice.”

“It sure isn’t,” said Mason. “Where’d you learn that word, man?”

Evan shrugged.

“Why would you call her that?”

“Because … she wears high heels and short skirts and bikinis and makeup.”

“It’s a woman’s nature to want to be beautiful,” said Mason. “How would you feel if someone called your mom that name? Or Maddy?”

“That’s not nice, Evan.”

“Listen, I’ll leave the lectures for your mom and what’s-his-face. I’m the wrong guy to be giving out life tips anyway. But manhood isn’t just about push-ups and soldiers and being tough. It’s about respect and kindness. You have to work those muscles too.”

“I’m good at kindness,” said Maddy.

He flicked her ponytail but continued to look at Evan. “Are you picking up what I’m putting down, Commando?”

Evan kicked a rock down the driveway. “I guess so.”

“Good,” he waggled the C-note. “Now, who wants to go blow Mr. Blane’s hard-earned cash at the Magic Mart? What’s a hundred bucks split three ways?”

“A lot,” said Maddy, hopping up and down. “Are you gonna buy soup?”

“I might.”

“Thirty-three dollars,” said Evan. “Can we ride in the back of your truck?”

He held out his keys. “Why don’t you drive and I’ll ride in the back.”

“He’s testing you again, Evan.”

“I don’t have my license,” said the boy.

Mason jingled the keys. “Neither do I.”

“But you can’t ride in the back,” said Maddy. “You’ll mess up your hair.”

He reached up and touched the rigid mohawk. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’ll drive.”

They raced to the truck and climbed in the back. It cranked on the first attempt. A volcanic cloud of black smoke erupted from the tailpipe. He kept the speedometer at fifteen as they coasted up the street. In his mirror there were gap-toothed smiles and laughter. Skinny arms and small hands hung over the sides of the truck bed, touching the wind like water.

The Magic Mart parking lot was deserted as usual. Dot frowned at him through the window as he pulled between two faded yellow lines and shut off the truck.

“Hey Mason, can I have ice cream?”

“Mm hmm.”

“Candy?”

“You’ve got thirty-three dollars, you can get whatever you want.”

“I want a Smart Ones,” said Maddy.

“What’s that?”

“It’s like a TV dinner, ‘cept it’s for girls. My mommy eats them.”

The door chimed as he held it open.

“Hey Ms. Dot,” Maddy waved. “You look pretty today.”

For the first time since he’d been frequenting the convenience store, Mason noticed the wrinkles and frown lines on Dot’s face pull into a genuine smile.

“That’s quite an interesting hairstyle,” she said.

Maddy bolted down the candy aisle after Evan. Tennis shoes squeaked on tile. “I designed it all by myself!” she yelled over her shoulder.

He picked up a Rolling Stone from the magazine rack and tried on a pair of cheap sunglasses.

“Cool Mason!”

He left them on and swaggered, tag dangling, to the back of the store.

The door chimed. In the security mirror above the dog food, he saw a thin man in a navy blue windbreaker and a baseball cap walk in. He headed straight for the coolers that held the beer.

Mason watched him for a moment but was soon distracted by his own reflection. The dorsal fin was streaked with gray and leaning to the right. The tag on the sunglasses hung in front of his nose and fluttered with his breath. The mirror further exaggerated this caricature of self by expanding his head and extending his legs. He looked like a Blow Pop with a mohawk.

“Hey Mason,” said Evan, “can I have some lottery tickets?”

He picked up a case of picante beef soup and headed for the register. “If you can talk Ms. Dot into selling them to you. But I think she’s a stickler for the rules.”

At the counter he noticed the man’s cap had a silver Nittany Lion on the front. It was pulled low over his eyes. Beard stubble covered the sharp, emaciated angles of his face.

Dot’s hands trembled as she rang up the quart of malt liquor.

“Gimme a carton of Newports too,” he rasped.

She inspected the rack behind her for his brand.

Mason watched in slow motion as the man pulled a 9-millimeter from his waist and leveled it at the back of Dot’s head.

She turned, flinched, and dropped the cigarettes on the floor.

“Pick ’em up,” he ordered. “Slow.”

Mason took a step back just as the pistol swung in his face, inches from his nose. He stared down the barrel, his heart pounding.

“Don’t even think about it, Sid Vicious,” the man snarled. “Whatever you’ve got on your mind is a bad idea.”

The kids stared wide-eyed from the candy aisle. “Is that a real gun?” said Evan.

“Grandma’s about to find out just how real it is if she doesn’t empty the cash register.” He turned the pistol back on Dot. “Now.”

She opened the drawer and began removing the bills. Meager stacks of ones, fives, and tens were arranged on the counter.

Mason looked over at Evan. The boy had a pleading, urgent look in his eyes. He shook his head. Absolutely not.

“Open the safe too,” the man growled.

Dot was shaking violently. “I … I can’t. It’s time-locked.”

Click Clack. He cocked the pistol. “Don’t play with me, you ugly old bag.”

Maddy gasped and covered her mouth. Evan raised an accusatory eyebrow. Both were willing him to act. Do something!

Damn it. He closed his eyes, swallowed hard, and let go. “Hey man.”

The pistol again swiveled in his direction. This time he met it with the shrink-wrapped cardboard case of soup, forcing the man backwards.

The Glock roared. An explosion of noodles blasted through a fist-sized hole in the package, peppering his mohawk. As they tumbled to the floor Mason could hear Dot praying behind the counter.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…”

The robber fought for his freedom with violent desperation. In the barrage of knees and teeth and headbutts, Mason still managed to hold his wrist with both hands, relentlessly slamming it against the tiles until finally his grip loosened and the pistol windmilled across the floor.

The man shook free and lunged for it but Evan kicked it beneath a pallet of Mountain Dew twelve-packs. When it slid out from under the other side, Maddy scooped it up and ran screaming for the door.

The robber went after her.

Mason dove for his ankles and missed. Still, the contact knocked him off balance and slowed his pursuit. He crashed through the double doors, flailing.

As Mason scrambled to his feet he saw Maddy through the glass. She ripped open the truck door, climbed up in the seat, and pulled it shut with both hands, just as the robber arrived.

He reached for the handle, she slammed home the lock. He sprinted around to the driver side, she scooted across the seat and locked that door too. He looked around for something to throw at the window. Finding nothing, he took a vicious swing.

Crack!

The glass held. Maddy screamed.

Mason barreled through the doors and charged.

The robber raised his fists to fight but with his pistol locked in the truck he wasn’t nearly as fearsome. Mason ran through his punches, gripped him by the throat and slammed him on the hood of the truck. “Oomph.” Then he pulled him off and slung him stumbling halfway across the parking lot. He noticed the baseball cap on the ground and flung it toward him like a Frisbee.

“The cops are on their way.” Evan came out and stood next to him, crossing his arms. A unified front.

The robber glared at them for a moment, then darted between the gas pumps. A police cruiser cut him off at the parking lot entrance. Doors flew open, guns were drawn.

“Freeze!”

Slowly, he lifted his hands.

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

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 23 & 24

Chapter 23: The King of the Elephants
Her rock was as shaky as her face was stoic. The chair creaked over the hum of the vaporizer. Her bedspread was adorned with bright yellow sunflowers. He sat on the edge with the book in his lap. Meet Babar and His Family by Laurent de Brunhoff.

He turned to the first page. Random crayon scribblings and a small petrified Dorito thumbprint embellished the existing artwork.

“One morning Babar, the King of the Elephants, opens his window. It’s a sunny day.” He held up the picture so his mom could see.

She glanced at the drawing. “I am fifty-four years old. Don’t insult me with these children’s books.”

He turned the page. The family of elephants was on opposite sides of a lake scattered with ducks, flamingos, and a hippopotamus. “You used to read this to me when I was little.”

“When you were little,” she scoffed. “What on earth are you babbling about?”

“Look.” He held up the book. “It’s Zephir, the monkey.”

She rolled her eyes.

“And here’s the little old lady drinking tea with Cornelius. They never tell you her name. Just ‘the little old lady.’ Remember when I used to think she was Mrs. Zimlich? My kindergarten teacher?”

She frowned as if listening to the faint whisper of some long-forgotten memory. Two sticks of recognition rubbed and sparked in her eyes. Hope flared in his.

“Mom?”

But like a tendril of smoke, the moment faded.

“Stop calling me that!” she snapped.

He turned the page.

“Who in the world drew those awful pictures?”

For a moment he thought she was talking about the book but then realized she was staring at his tattoos. He held out his arm for her to inspect. Again.

She raised her eyebrows at the praying hands with a rosary. “Are you Catholic?”

He smiled. “Don’t you remember my first communion? Second grade. Saint Pius? You were there.”

She wavered before pointing at the flower.

“It’s a hibiscus. Just like the ones you planted in the backyard.”

She glanced through the window at the garden outside. “Did I plant those too? I … I can’t remember.”

“Look at these doves. See, right here? They call this negative shading.”

She ignored the birds and leaned forward to examine the woman on his bicep, naked from the waist up. “Is your wife a showgirl?”

He quickly turned his arm. “This is the ocean over here. Peaceful, right? How long since you’ve been to the beach? I could drive you over once I get some new tires on the truck.”

She instead studied Johnny Cash flipping the bird. “My, what an unpleasant man.”

He smiled. “Nah, Johnny’s all right. He’s actually a Christian. He was probably just having a bad day when his picture was taken.”

“Did you take it?”

He shook his head. “But check this one out. Can you read it? It says Ava.”

With a shaky finger she traced the letters on his wrist before looking up in confusion. “But … my name is Ava.”

He patted her hand. “I know. I got it for you.”

Chapter 24: Dorsal Fin Day Care Part One
The backpack was pink and said Frozen across the top in icy white letters. An animated blue-eyed girl in a sweeping gown was steam-pressed below the zipper. Maddy dumped its contents on the porch. A canister of mousse rolled over to where Mason was sitting on the steps watching Evan do push-ups. He picked it up. “What’s this?”

She was busy gathering various hair spray bottles and styling gels, lining them up along the rail. “It’s for your appointment.”

Beneath the river birch, Evan brushed his hands on his jeans after a set of fifteen. Mason acknowledged his progress with a nod. “I don’t have any appointments, Maddy.”

She rolled her eyes, removed her cell phone from her pocket, and pretended to scroll through a busy schedule. “Oh yes you do. It’s right here. See? Mason, two o’clock, Saturday. Hairstyling.”

“There’s no way I’m letting you cut my hair.”

A scuffed pink tennis shoe with Velcro straps stomped the porch board next to him. “I’m tired of doing push-ups and working on your truck all the time. I wanna do something fun. I’m not going to cut it, Mason. Promise. I just wanna style it.”

He glanced at the array of hair care products. “Where’d you get all this?”

“My mom’s bathroom.”

“Hey Mason!” Evan shouted from under the tree. “Are you counting?”

He held up his thumb to the boy. “All right Maddy, here’s the deal. Style it all you want, but the first hint of a snip and you’re going under the hood of the truck. Got it?”

She nodded, a foamy glob of mousse already in her palm.

Across the yard, Evan climbed to his feet and pulled his shirt off. His concave chest and bony shoulders were red with effort. “Fifteen?” called Mason.

He flexed and shook his head. “Forty!”

Maddy slathered his hair with chemicals. First the mousse, then the styling gel, pulling it back, pushing it forward, kneading the tropical-smelling substances into his scalp. No follicle left behind, she hummed an unrecognizable tune as she brushed, mussed and brushed some more, occasionally coming to stand in front of him to inspect her work.

“I usually charge a lot of money for this,” she said as she pulled all his hair to the center of his head like a mohawk.

“Yeah, how much?”

“Five dollars.”

She checked the symmetry of the spikes that ran from his forehead to his neck, using her palms to sharpen the rogue strands into a narrow ridgeline while tamping down the rest.

“Cool, Mason!” Evan shouted. “You look like a gladiator.”

A few finishing spritzes of Paul Mitchell followed by a roaring cloud of Aquanet and Maddy hopped off the porch to admire her creation, snapping a picture on her cell phone.

“Let me see that.”

She held up the screen with a proud smile but he was distracted by the Lexus pulling into his driveway. He stood and walked down the steps. Through the windshield he could see Brooke in the passenger seat. The driver, he presumed, was her boyfriend Blane.

She was laughing as the window came down. “Mason, what in the world … your hair … It looks like a … a …”

“Dorsal fin,” offered the smug voice in the driver seat.

“Yes, exactly.” More laughter. It rose above the violins, cellos and oboes that wafted from the car’s stereo system.

Maddy ran up beside him. “Mommy, I styled Mason’s hair. Isn’t it pretty?”

Her eyes sparkled. “It sure is. Evan! Put your shirt on before you catch a cold!”

Machine gun fire.

“I could style Blane’s hair too,” said Maddy.

An insincere chuckle. “Oho, I don’t know about that.”

Brooke’s voice turned serious. “Mason, do you think you can watch them for a few hours? The sitter is at a soccer game this afternoon.”

He was already shaking his head. “That’s probably not a good idea.”

“But you’re watching them now.”

“It’s different when you’re right down the street. And anyway, I thought you didn’t trust—”

She glanced at Blane. “Well, I do now, okay? We’ve had this conversation already.”

“It’s just too much responsibility. Too many things could go wrong.”

Nervous smile. “Mason, you’ll be fine. They’ve already eaten lunch. I’ll be back before dinner and my number is in both of their phones in case of emergency.”

He hooked his thumbs over his belt. “How much do you usually pay your babysitter?”

She hesitated. “For a couple of hours? Maybe twenty dollars.”

“I’ll take forty.”

“Mason…”

A manicured hand reached across her, extending a hundred dollar bill toward the open window. A Presidential Rolex peeked from the cuff of his sleeve.

Mason bent to make eye contact.

Blane winked. “We may run a little overtime.” Then his face hardened. “But if anything happens to Ethan or the girl, I will personally make sure that you never see the light of day again.”

“Wow, no pressure,” Mason smirked, marveling at this new variation of good cop, bad cop. Story of my life.

“All right,” said Brooke, “there’s no need to—”

“My brother’s name is Evan!” Maddy shouted. “Evan and Madison! That’s our names!”

As if on cue, Evan took a running start and leaped on the front bumper of the Lexus, simultaneously flexing and firing off rounds from his invisible M-16 a la Schwarzenegger in Commando.

“Evan Aubrey Tyler! Down! Now! Do you want me to spank you in front of Mason?” She turned to Blane. “I’m sorry. He’s not always like this.”

The attorney forced a thin-lipped smile. “Medication is definitely something I’d consider.”

Mason pocketed the money. “Well don’t worry about Pete and Re-Pete here. They’re in good hands.”

Maddy looked up at him. “Who’s Pete and Re-Pete?”

“I’m Pete,” said Evan. “You’re Re-Pete.”

“Hey, that’s not fair. Why do you get to be Pete?”

“Because Pete’s a boy’s name.” Evan flexed his skinny biceps. “Plus I’m the oldest.”

The car began to back out of the driveway. “Call me if you need anything,” said Brooke.

They stood watching as the Lexus accelerated down the street. The dorsal fin, the ponytail and Commando, each lost in thought.

“Asshole,” Evan finally said.

Mason waited for Maddy’s standard reprimand, “that’s not nice,” but it never came.

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