Chapter 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!”
“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.
“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!”
“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.”
“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.”