Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGThe restroom door opened in a whoosh of passing laughter and Christmas music from the mall beyond. Key-etched graffiti marred the lavender painted stall, a sloppy FTW. He stared at it, half-listening, as water rushed from a sink followed by the roar of the automatic hand dryer followed by the click of loafers on tile and finally the door opening and closing again, leaving him in muffled, tomb-like silence. Then โ€ฆ

โ€œHey Mason.โ€

He flinched.

โ€œAre you almost done?โ€

โ€œAlmost, Evan.โ€

โ€œWhy are you in the handicapped stall?โ€

โ€œI โ€ฆ uh โ€ฆโ€ He hadnโ€™t realized he was in the handicapped stall.

โ€œMom doesnโ€™t let me go number two in public places.โ€

โ€œWell Iโ€™m older than your mom so that rule doesnโ€™t apply to me.โ€

โ€œShe says you can catch crabs that way.โ€

He glanced down, eyes narrowed.

โ€œThe mall is gonna close soon.โ€

โ€œYouโ€™re not helping, Evan,โ€ he barked at the stall door. โ€œNow can you please step outside and watch your sister before she gets kidnapped?โ€

โ€œMaddyโ€™s right here.โ€

โ€œHurry up, Mason!โ€

He pinched the bridge of his nose. โ€œMaddy, this is the menโ€™s room.โ€

She ignored him. โ€œWhy arenโ€™t your pants around your ankles like when normal people go to the potty?โ€

โ€œGuys! Please! Two minutes!โ€

He finished up quickly but couldnโ€™t figure out how to use the sink. Damn it. He stuck his head through the door. They were across the hall, waving at a mannequin in a window display.

โ€œEvan, come here a second.โ€

The boy came running.

โ€œHow do you work this stupid thing?โ€

Evan hesitated as if suspicious, then stuck his hand beneath the nozzle. Water flowed.

Mason mimicked his technique. โ€œAll right, letโ€™s go.โ€

Maddy was waiting outside the door, hands on hips. โ€œI still wanna know why you donโ€™t go to the potty like normal people.โ€

โ€œOld habit,โ€ he mumbled as they joined the throng of shoppers. He did not want to explain to a seven-year-old girl that prison bathrooms are some of the most dangerous places in the world and getting caught with oneโ€™s pants around one’s ankles was a rookie mistake.

They passed a toy store. Two little heads swiveled. Even he could feel its gravitational pull. โ€œNo way, malls are gross, remember?โ€

Evan looked longingly over his shoulder. โ€œMaddy said that. Not me.โ€

โ€œI did not!โ€

Mason smiled. โ€œWe might check it out on the way back. First order of business is a shirt and tie for me.โ€

A father and daughter exited a clothing store, laughing and holding hands as they passed in the other direction.

Maddy slid her hand inside of his. โ€œWhy do you want a tie?โ€

โ€œIโ€™ve got a date.โ€

Evanโ€™s eyes filled his bifocals. โ€œWith a girl?โ€

He nodded.

โ€œI wish you had a date with my mommy,โ€ said Maddy.

Me too, he thought. โ€œWell, your mom likes Blane.โ€

โ€œBlane sucks,โ€ said Evan.

โ€œAw, come on man. Blaneโ€™s all right. Heโ€™s just a little stiff. You gotta loosen him up.โ€

As they passed the music store, Maddy released his hand and made a beeline for the entrance.

โ€œHey,โ€ Mason called after her. โ€œWhere are you going?โ€

She didnโ€™t look back, didnโ€™t even acknowledge his voice. She was caught in the tractor beams, pulled forward, spiral-eyed and hypnotized, by a towering wall of guitars.

He followed her into the store. โ€œMaddy, we donโ€™t have timeโ€”โ€

She pointed at a pink Fender Stratocaster, mouth agape.

A long-striding salesman with David Beckham hair and a music note tie pin hurried toward them. โ€œExcellent choice. Custom pickups, low action, perfect for a beginner. Iโ€™ve actually had my eye on this one for my own daughter.โ€ He removed it from the wall and held it out with a glib smile. โ€œWanna plug her in?โ€

Maddy was hopping up and down at his side. There was no way he could refuse.

The salesman situated her in front of a Marshall amp that was almost twice her height. He ran the guitar through a pedal that said Tube Screamer and handed her a pick. “For those about to rock, we salute you.โ€ He hit the power and cranked the volume.

Maddy strummed. Distorted waves of sound filled the store. Static fuzz, piercing feedback. She looked up at Mason with a thousand-watt smile.

The salesman knelt and taught her a power chord. She chugged away, oblivious to the disapproving glances from the keyboard and percussion sections.

โ€œSheโ€™s a natural,โ€ said the salesman.

A sort of paternal pride welled within him. โ€œShe plays the violin.โ€

She suddenly erupted into a wild solo, all sixty pounds of her contorting and convulsing on the stool in a manic tirade of discordant notes.

The salesman smiled nervously and lowered the volume a tick. โ€œWe have a Christmas sale going on right now. Twenty percent off.โ€

Mason turned to Evan โ€ฆ who was no longer there. He frowned as he surveyed the store.

โ€œIโ€™ll even throw in a gig bag, picks, and an extra set of strings.โ€

An expectant electric hum emanated from the amplifier as Maddy stopped playing and raised her phone for a selfie.

โ€œMaddy,โ€ he said with rising panic. โ€œWhereโ€™s your brother?โ€

The salesman pressed on. โ€œWe accept all major credit cardsโ€”โ€

โ€œWe need to go.โ€ He seized her wrist, almost pulling her off the stool.

The guitar handoff was shaky. The Marshall rumbled and cracked as the salesman floundered, then caught it on the way to the carpet. Shrill feedback pealed in their wake. Other customers looked up in alarm.

Mason paused in the neon archway, looking right and left, frantically searching faces.

โ€œOuch,โ€ said Maddy.

He realized he was squeezing her wrist.

โ€œDonโ€™t worry, Mason. Heโ€™ll come back. He just likes to run away sometimes. Donโ€™t tell Mom, okay? Sheโ€™ll put him back on hyper medicine.โ€

A fresh wave of panic went through him at the mention of Brooke. She would blame him. She would hate him. Rightfully so. Blane would probably convince her that he was part of a human trafficking ring.

He took a deep breath. Be cool Mason. Heโ€™s around here somewhere. Just relax. Youโ€™ll find him.

There was a fountain in front of the music store where the elderly rested and teenagers held hands. โ€œGimme a penny,โ€ said Maddy. โ€œIโ€™ll make a wish that we find him.โ€

He absently reached in his pocket for a coin. โ€œThatโ€™s your plan?โ€

Torn between either scouring the length and breadth of the mall, shouting his name, or staying near the music store in case he returned, Mason ran his fingers through his hair and scanned the immediate area. Tall green plants served as a median for the flow of pedestrian traffic. A stoic Asian grandmother sat motionless at the back of a cart adorned with framed paintings while a bloodshot balding artist worked on her portrait. Further down, Santa Claus posed with a hysterical toddler.

โ€œThere he is!โ€ said Maddy. โ€œWait, whereโ€™d he go? There he is again!โ€

She was pointing in the direction of the sporting goods store on the other side of the fountain.

Mason followed her finger. The windows were covered in brand logos and sale signs. He was squint-searching the faces of passersby when a familiar cowlick and bifocals appeared above a bright red 30% Off! placard, then quickly dropped out of sight again.

โ€œCome on.โ€

He was straining for a final pull-up when they entered the store. A stocky salesman was urging him on. His nametag said Jude.

Maddy aimed her phone for a picture. โ€œYouโ€™re in big trouble Evan.โ€

He released the bar and landed in a squat.

โ€œImpressive,โ€ said Jude, looking at Mason. โ€œYour son?โ€

Before he could respond, Evan darted over to a bench press station, lifted two ten-pound dumbbells and began repping out a set of flyes. โ€œLook what I learned Mason!โ€

He shook his head and smiled. โ€œThe energy of a fifth-grader.โ€

Jude crossed massive, hairless forearms. โ€œIโ€™d take energy over mass any day.โ€

Evan waved goodbye as they rejoined the holiday shoppers. โ€œI like our pull-up bar better. Theirs is too skinny. It hurts my hands.โ€

Mason summoned his most convincing prison yard scowl. โ€œYeah? Well, if you run off again, your hands arenโ€™t the only things that are going to hurt.โ€

Maddyโ€™s eyes widened. โ€œAre you gonna kick him in the balls?โ€

โ€œNot nice, Madison.โ€ He glanced down at the girl. โ€œNot ladylike either.โ€

โ€œI donโ€™t see what the big deal is,โ€ said Evan. โ€œI wasnโ€™t lost. I have my phone. Maddy couldโ€™ve called me.โ€

The simple truth of his observation only served to deepen Masonโ€™s resentment of technology.

Maddy slowed at the display window of a jewelry store. โ€œLook Evan!โ€ Amid the heart lockets, horseshoes and shamrocks was a #1 Mom charm. She looked at Mason in the Iโ€™ll-die-if-I-canโ€™t-have-this way kids have been pulling off convincingly since the dawn of civilization. โ€œCan we please go inside?โ€

As they stepped through the entrance he heard her breath catch. Diamonds blinked and sparkled and threw light. Polished gold shimmered. If there was any trace of armed robber still swimming in his soul after thirty years in prison, this Egyptian tomb of treasure got his attention.

A sharp-dressed man in long sleeves and a tie sprayed Windex behind a glass display case.

Maddy pointed toward the front of the store. โ€œHow much for the number one mom?โ€

He wiped in meticulous circles. โ€œEverything in that window is $39.99.โ€

She tugged on Masonโ€™s shirt. โ€œCan I please borrow $39.99?โ€

โ€œI thought you were an Amazon girl.โ€

โ€œThis oneโ€™s prettier.โ€

He sighed and reached for his wallet.

The man glided across the carpet to retrieve the charm. He looked like a GQ ad, from his beard stubble all the way down to his loafers. Mason laid a fifty on the counter as he returned with a small, elegant box.

โ€œI couldnโ€™t talk you into throwing in your tie, could I?โ€

The man smiled and shook his head. โ€œNo, but I bought it next door at Paisleys. They have hundreds more just like it.โ€

Mason opened his mouth โ€ฆ and froze, immobilized by a stunning piece of jewelry in the display case below. An emerald and diamond platinum tennis bracelet. Even in this shrine to wealth and excess, it stood a cut above its 24-karat brothers and sisters. The price tag said $3699.

โ€œPaisleys,โ€ he mumbled.

The man nodded. โ€œRight next door.โ€

When he tore his eyes away, the luminescent after-image burned bright. He blinked.

โ€œWill they teach me how to tie it?โ€

ยฉ2018 Sticks & Stones by Malcolm Ivey
All rights reserved.