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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“You’ve got thirty-three dollars, you can get whatever you want.”
“I want a Smart Ones,” said Maddy.
“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.
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.
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.
Slowly, he lifted his hands.
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