The 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 …
“Are you almost done?”
“Why are you in the handicapped stall?”
“I … uh …” He hadn’t realized he was in the handicapped stall.
“Mom doesn’t let me go number two in public places.”
“Well I’m older than your mom so that rule doesn’t apply to me.”
“She says you can catch crabs that way.”
He glanced down, eyes narrowed.
“The mall is gonna close soon.”
“You’re not helping, Evan,” he barked at the stall door. “Now can you please step outside and watch your sister before she gets kidnapped?”
“Maddy’s right here.”
“Hurry up, Mason!”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Maddy, this is the men’s room.”
She ignored him. “Why aren’t your pants around your ankles like when normal people go to the potty?”
“Guys! Please! Two minutes!”
He finished up quickly but couldn’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.
“Evan, come here a second.”
The boy came running.
“How do you work this stupid thing?”
Evan hesitated as if suspicious, then stuck his hand beneath the nozzle. Water flowed.
Mason mimicked his technique. “All right, let’s go.”
Maddy was waiting outside the door, hands on hips. “I still wanna know why you don’t go to the potty like normal people.”
“Old habit,” 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 one’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. “No way, malls are gross, remember?”
Evan looked longingly over his shoulder. “Maddy said that. Not me.”
“I did not!”
Mason smiled. “We might check it out on the way back. First order of business is a shirt and tie for me.”
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. “Why do you want a tie?”
“I’ve got a date.”
Evan’s eyes filled his bifocals. “With a girl?”
“I wish you had a date with my mommy,” said Maddy.
Me too, he thought. “Well, your mom likes Blane.”
“Blane sucks,” said Evan.
“Aw, come on man. Blane’s all right. He’s just a little stiff. You gotta loosen him up.”
As they passed the music store, Maddy released his hand and made a beeline for the entrance.
“Hey,” Mason called after her. “Where are you going?”
She didn’t look back, didn’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. “Maddy, we don’t have time—”
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. “Excellent choice. Custom pickups, low action, perfect for a beginner. I’ve actually had my eye on this one for my own daughter.” He removed it from the wall and held it out with a glib smile. “Wanna plug her in?”
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.” 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.
“She’s a natural,” said the salesman.
A sort of paternal pride welled within him. “She plays the violin.”
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. “We have a Christmas sale going on right now. Twenty percent off.”
Mason turned to Evan … who was no longer there. He frowned as he surveyed the store.
“I’ll even throw in a gig bag, picks, and an extra set of strings.”
An expectant electric hum emanated from the amplifier as Maddy stopped playing and raised her phone for a selfie.
“Maddy,” he said with rising panic. “Where’s your brother?”
The salesman pressed on. “We accept all major credit cards—”
“We need to go.” 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.
“Ouch,” said Maddy.
He realized he was squeezing her wrist.
“Don’t worry, Mason. He’ll come back. He just likes to run away sometimes. Don’t tell Mom, okay? She’ll put him back on hyper medicine.”
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. He’s around here somewhere. Just relax. You’ll find him.
There was a fountain in front of the music store where the elderly rested and teenagers held hands. “Gimme a penny,” said Maddy. “I’ll make a wish that we find him.”
He absently reached in his pocket for a coin. “That’s your plan?”
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.
“There he is!” said Maddy. “Wait, where’d he go? There he is again!”
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.
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. “You’re in big trouble Evan.”
He released the bar and landed in a squat.
“Impressive,” said Jude, looking at Mason. “Your son?”
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. “Look what I learned Mason!”
He shook his head and smiled. “The energy of a fifth-grader.”
Jude crossed massive, hairless forearms. “I’d take energy over mass any day.”
Evan waved goodbye as they rejoined the holiday shoppers. “I like our pull-up bar better. Theirs is too skinny. It hurts my hands.”
Mason summoned his most convincing prison yard scowl. “Yeah? Well, if you run off again, your hands aren’t the only things that are going to hurt.”
Maddy’s eyes widened. “Are you gonna kick him in the balls?”
“Not nice, Madison.” He glanced down at the girl. “Not ladylike either.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” said Evan. “I wasn’t lost. I have my phone. Maddy could’ve called me.”
The simple truth of his observation only served to deepen Mason’s resentment of technology.
Maddy slowed at the display window of a jewelry store. “Look Evan!” Amid the heart lockets, horseshoes and shamrocks was a #1 Mom charm. She looked at Mason in the I’ll-die-if-I-can’t-have-this way kids have been pulling off convincingly since the dawn of civilization. “Can we please go inside?”
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. “How much for the number one mom?”
He wiped in meticulous circles. “Everything in that window is $39.99.”
She tugged on Mason’s shirt. “Can I please borrow $39.99?”
“I thought you were an Amazon girl.”
“This one’s prettier.”
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.
“I couldn’t talk you into throwing in your tie, could I?”
The man smiled and shook his head. “No, but I bought it next door at Paisleys. They have hundreds more just like it.”
Mason opened his mouth … 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.
“Paisleys,” he mumbled.
The man nodded. “Right next door.”
When he tore his eyes away, the luminescent after-image burned bright. He blinked.
“Will they teach me how to tie it?”