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.
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?”
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.”
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.