Sticks & Stones: Chapters 31 & 32
Chapter 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.
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.”