Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 40: Spotting Commando
The nursing home shrank and faded in the rearview. He braked at Tamarack and fiddled with the heat again.

“It’s broken,” declared Maddy, the drawstring of her hoodie cinched tight around her face.

“Thank you, Diane Sawyer.”

Evan rubbed his hands together on the passenger side. “Why is your mom so mean?”

He gave the truck some gas. “She’s not mean.”

“She ignored us the whole time. She didn’t even open your Christmas present.”

He nodded. “She’s just sick. That’s why she has to be in there. And part of her sickness means that sometimes she gets sad. Or confused. Like that time she thought you were me, remember?”

Maddy giggled. “Oh yeah, that was funny.”

The miles ticked away in sub-arctic silence. When they finally reached the cul de sac, Evan spoke again. “Does it make you sad that your mom has to be in that place?”

He gave a half-hearted wave at Fran’s rustling curtains as they pulled into his driveway. “Sure. But you know what I do when I get sad?”

“What?”

He shut off the truck. “Pull-ups.”

Maddy groaned. “It’s too cold.”

He opened the door. “We’ll warm up with some jumping jacks.”

She climbed out behind him. “I wanna go home.”

He looked down the street and saw Brooke’s SUV in the driveway. Blane’s Lexus was parked at the curb. “Go for it. Just make sure you crank that guitar up really loud.”

“Okay.” She waved from the mailbox.

He kept an eye on her as she hurried down the sidewalk. Evan shivered next to him. He mussed his hair. “What about you Commando? Sure you don’t want to go hang out with Blane?”

He spat on the driveway.

Mason laughed. “Come on. Let’s go take it out on the pull-up bar.”

It took two sets to defrost. By the fourth, the cutting north wind was a non-issue. He jerked his chest to the bar then controlled his weight back down.

Evan leaned against the river birch awaiting his turn. “Why does my mom like Blane?”

“I don’t know,” he grunted. Five. “Because he’s educated.” Six. “Because he wears expensive suits.”  Seven. “Because he’s got a good job.” Eight.

“Why don’t you have a good job?”

He dropped into a crouch and smiled. “Have you been talking to Fran?”

The boy shook his head.

“I’ll probably start looking for one next week.”

“You could be a lawyer.”

Mason stood. “I was thinking of something more along the lines of construction work.”

Evan stared at him. “Do you love my mom?”

He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know. That’s a strong word. I know I love you and Maddy. Now quit stalling and get up on the bar. I’m getting cold again.”

He managed four reps before he needed help. Mason spotted him on the way up and he lowered himself incrementally, nailing the negatives. “Good form, Evan.” When he was finished, he dropped into a crouch.

Mason rolled his neck in slow circles before grasping the bar again.

His neighbor Tammy’s window squeaked open. “Ooohh, yummy. There is nothing in this world I love more than looking out my window and seeing two handsome men build their muscles!”

Evan swallowed hard and looked at him. His eyes bulged behind his bifocals.

Mason hid his smile as he pumped out another ten, sweating despite the cold.

“So strong,” Tammy purred.

Evan almost knocked him down on his way to the bar, attacking it with renewed vigor. His first rep was textbook, the second passable, but by the third his arms were trembling and he struggled to get even his cowlick to the crossbar.

Mason stepped behind him to spot, grabbing his sides.

“No!” Evan insisted. “I’ve got it!”

“Just a little help, man.”

A tennis shoe shot back a mule-kick to his stomach. Tammy’s window closed. He staggered backwards a couple steps. “Have you lost your mind?”

Evan dropped from the bar and whirled on him. “I told you I could do it by myself!”

“What has gotten into you?”

His face was red with effort and wind and anger. “You made me look like an idiot.”

“I was just spotting you. That’s how you get stronger.”

“I don’t need your help. I don’t need you to teach me stuff. You’re not my father. You’re just a dumb jailbird!” He stormed down the driveway without a backward glance.

Mason stood there looking after him until he was safely home, then sighed and walked up the porch steps.

Chapter 41: Waking in the Moment
“I thought you didn’t drink,” said Dot as she rang up the quart of Budweiser.

He forced a smile. “Extenuating circumstances.”

She pushed his change across the counter with a maternal squint. “Stay out of trouble.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The door chimed as he exited. His truck was double-parked out front. It hacked up black exhaust as he cranked the engine.

The sun slipped over the horizon casting the cul de sac in eerie purple twilight. The quart rolled side to side in the passenger seat. He slowed as he approached her house, relieved that Blane’s Lexus was no longer at the curb.

He was surprised to see her emerge from the shadows, hugging herself in the cold. He hit the brakes. She opened the passenger door.

“Brrr.”

“What are you doing?”

Her teeth chattered. “Waiting for you.”

He pulled into her driveway and killed the lights. “Why?”

She reached behind her back and found the quart. “I thought you didn’t drink.”

“Only on special occasions.” He took the frosty bottle from her quivering hand and planted it between his legs.

“What’s the special occasion?”

“I think your son hates me.”

She glanced up at Evan’s bedroom window. “I’m pretty sure that’s a sentiment he reserves for Blane.”

The mere mention of her boyfriend changed the energy in the truck. “Well, you once told me your kids were intuitive.”

She fumbled with the dash. “This thing is a dinosaur. Please tell me you have heat.”

He took off his sweatshirt and passed it to her. She quickly pulled it over her head, balling her fists in the sleeves for extra warmth.

“So why do you think Evan hates you?”

“I embarrassed him in front of my neighbor.”

She rolled her eyes. “Tammy?”

He nodded. “I forgot he had a thing for her and I was spotting him on pull-ups and… He thinks I was trying to humiliate him.”

Her smile warmed the truck cab. “He’ll get over it.”

“He called me a jailbird.”

“We have a tradition of going for the jugular in our family. He gets it from his father.”

“A wise woman once told me that sticks and stones would break her bones but words would break her heart.”

She wrapped her arms around her knees. “Hmm, that wise woman wouldn’t happen to own an extremely loud pink guitar, would she?”

He smiled. “I think she might.”

“Last summer’s catch phrase. She pulled it on me every time I got onto her. Works like magic with a few crocodile tears sprinkled in.” She shook her head. “They’re growing up so fast.”

He studied her profile in the ensuing silence — sharp angles and soft planes, her slender neck, her stubborn chin, the soft curvature of her lips. To be alone with her was a rarity. And even on those precious few occasions, he could get caught up looking forward or thinking back. But once in a while, mid-conversation, he would awaken in the moment, with her just inches away, and it was in these times that the doors and windows of his heart would blow wide open. “Do you love my mom?” Evan had asked. The answer was suddenly as clear as his windshield.

“Well the bracelet is by far the most extravagant gift anyone has ever given me. I debated making you return it—”

“I wouldn’t.”

“—but I just can’t. It’s too beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it.”

“I didn’t get a chance to thank you on Christmas and Blane has been over every day since…” Her words trailed off. “What did you say to him anyway?”

“I just told him the truth.”

“What is the truth?”

He held her gaze. “That I plan on taking his woman from him.”

She opened her mouth to speak. He caught her words with an impulsive kiss, stunning her into silence, then backing away before she could push him away. “He doesn’t deserve you, Brooke.”

Her eyes widened, blinked, then the golden starburst of her irises seemed to melt into deep pools of need that reflected his own. With the soft echo of her lips lingering on his, he leaned in for another taste, sliding his arms around her and losing himself in her warmth.

He brushed his fingertips along the silken nape of her neck where loose wisps of blond hair collected like baby’s breath. Her mouth was exotic citrus, glistening with moisture. Rose petals after a light rain.

The nagging sense of incompleteness that had shadowed him for most of his life, something he long assumed was permanent, began to disassemble like cloud fragments and drift toward the horizon of his heart as hope and wholeness moved in.

From dust devil to whirlwind to tornado, the ache swelled inside him. He pulled her even closer, kissing her deeply, swallowing her in his embrace. She whimpered and finally pushed him away.

Reluctantly, he leaned back in his seat, the abrupt disconnection mourned by every cell in his body. He felt the quart bottle on the floorboard, forgotten in the tempest. He would not be drinking this evening. Fully alive, there was no need to contaminate the magic with a cheap buzz. He reached for her again.

“I need to go.” She fumbled with the door and staggered out into the driveway, his sweatshirt hanging to her knees as she hurried to her front porch without looking back.

He savored the moment as it sifted into memory. The silence was scented with traces of her shampoo, the truck warm with breath and body heat. Long after the door closed, he continued to stare, willing it to reopen.

Minutes passed. Finally, he sighed, backed his truck out of her driveway, put it in gear, and headed down the cul de sac to his empty house.

©2018 Sticks & Stones by Malcolm Ivey
All rights reserved.