The 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.”
He opened the passenger door for them. “Um, let’s see, hypothermia, the cops, your mom would kill me.”
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.”
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?”
Her look was skeptical.
He shrugged. “Goggle it.”
“It’s Google, Mason.”
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 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.”