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Sticks & Stones: Chapters 42 & 43

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 42: 9:00 PM
He read, he paced, he played solitaire. Prison 101. Same as it ever was.

The best night of his life and he had no one to share it with. I kissed her! He considered hopping back in the truck and driving over to the nursing home. Even though his mom wouldn’t recognize him, it would still feel good to tell her.

He glanced at the clock on the oven. Almost 9:00 p.m. Visiting hours were seven to seven. No way he was driving across town to give Dr. Jennings’ nose-ringed granddaughter the pleasure of barring him entrance.

He could see Brooke’s house from his hallway window. Her bedroom light was on. He wondered if she was thinking of him too. Maybe she was staring through her blinds like he was. He reached out and flicked the light switch twice, hoping that she would respond in kind. Nothing.

Dude, how old are you? Thirteen?

Too jacked to eat, too early to sleep, he did what he always did with pent up energy.

The wind howled as he stepped onto the porch. The radio said it was forty degrees but it felt closer to twenty. Tammy had company. A red BMW was parked in her driveway. He thought of Evan’s size-seven Skecher in his solar plexus and laughed to himself.

The river birch bark flapped in the wind. Dead leaves crackled beneath his boots. He blew in his cupped hands, warming them, before grabbing the bar.

He didn’t bother counting. This was more about exorcising demons than exercising the body. He yanked his chest to the crossbar, paused, then exhaled on the way down. Stars shone through the network of limbs overhead. His muscles warmed as his mind wandered.

The sequence replayed in technicolor detail. Her jogging down the driveway, slipping into the passenger seat, shivering from the cold, the errant strands of hair that came loose when she pulled his sweatshirt over her head. Was she sleeping in it now? Her profile bathed in shadow, the way her mouth constructed words to fill the silence. The way her eyes spoke a softer language, one that transcended words. The shockwaves of that first spontaneous kiss, the urgency and heat of the second, the truck door opening and her running away…

It had been thirty years since he’d kissed a girl. Three drab and barren decades. Tens of thousands of colorless, monotone days, one blending into the next like the relentless procession of towns along some forgotten Midwestern highway. Each identical, each unremarkable.

He remembered his last. Most convicts do. When no new memories are being manufactured, one tends to cling to faded photographs of the mind. Her name was Leeann Lambert. She sat behind him in world history. Tall and shy, with gleaming silver braces, he kissed her at the bowling alley. Three days later, he was in jail for armed robbery.

During his odyssey through the criminal justice system, he often wondered if he had forgotten how to be with a woman. He worried that he would be emotionally incapable of having a relationship. He knew he was developmentally delayed when it came to matters of the heart. While the rest of the world was dating and hooking up and breaking up and making up and learning and growing with each new romance, he was doing push-ups in a cage.

Those fears, while natural, proved to be illusory. And just after sunset, they evaporated into nothing, shattered by a kiss.

Maybe it was naiveté, maybe it was inexperience, maybe it was a consequence of extreme loneliness, but that evening, as he hung from the pull-up bar, with steam coming off his body and cold on his breath, he was thinking beyond the next stolen moment, beyond the next kiss, beyond even the desire to make love to her. He was thinking about having a family. Finally, a place where he belonged. He was thinking of forever.

Chapter 43: Breakfast of Champions
The ivory ringtone of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” tickled the silence. The raven-haired stranger climbed over him and snatched his phone from the nightstand, giggling as she collapsed on the other side of the bed.

He stretched and yawned. “Let me see that.”

“No,” she pouted, rolling over, her curvy silhouette outlined by the white light emanating from the screen. An electronic aura.

“Come on…” He forgot her name. “It’s probably a client.”

“Who is Amos?” She pronounced it Ah-mos. Like some obscure conjugation of the Latin verb amor, to love. “Is she your novia?”

Her accent was South American. Somewhere below the Yucatan. Then he remembered. Claudia. The daughter of a Colombian nightclub owner who was serving forty years for second degree murder and badly in need of a post-conviction attorney. She wandered into his office after five in a leather mini, black lipstick, and a Louis Vuitton bag with a ten thousand dollar cash retainer.

“Amos is a man’s name. He’s my investigator.” He reached over and pried the phone from her hands, his head already pounding from a vicious hangover. “I need to take this.”

She pulled the sheet to her neck and pretended to sulk.

“What?” he growled into the phone as he swung his legs over the side of the bed.

“Morning, Boss. Sounds like you had a rough one.”

He walked to the bathroom and stood in front of the toilet. “Let’s dispense with the pleasantries, Amos. It’s too early.”

“Now that’s no way to talk to a feller that’s bringin’ good news.”

He broke wind as he urinated. “Out with it.”

“Well, ever since we had our little pow-wow, I’ve had my feelers out. It was tough sleddin’ there for a minute. Couldn’t find a shred of a hint of a rumor–”

“What on earth are you babbling about?” He opened his medicine cabinet, shook two Roxycontin 30s from a pill bottle into his palm, then headed for the kitchen.

“I’m talking about your special assignment. The feller I’m supposed to be digging up dirt on.”

He took an energy drink from the fridge and began crushing the Roxys on the glass dining room table. “Right, right. Proceed.”

“Well on Friday afternoon I spoke with a Detective Baxley, Robbery Division. An old friend of mine, Horace Powell, put me in touch with him. I worked narcotics with Horace back in the ’80s.”

Blane carved out two lines of the pharmaceutical grade opium on the dining room table. His blazer was hanging from the back of a chair. He dug in the pocket for his wallet and removed a $100 bill.

“I put a bug in his ear about a certain recently released bad guy that is back among the good citizens of Rosemont.”

Ben Franklin’s face disappeared as he rolled the money into a straw. “Well done, Amos. Just keep me posted, okay?”

“Hold your horses,” said the investigator, “I ain’t done yet. This morning he called me back. Says there was a robbery on the west side last night. The clerk thinks the suspect mighta drove off in a old black pickup but she ain’t sure. Didn’t see a license plate. But Baxley’s got no leads ‘sides our boy and he’d like to close the case if he can. He’s gonna show her a mugshot and see what she says.”

Blane chuckled. “He’s going to show her his mugshot? We call that coercion in a court of law.”

“Yeah? Well downtown we call it a day at the office.”

His naked reflection stared back from a mirror across the room. “This is not just egregiously immoral. It’s illegal.”

“So is armed robbery,” Amos shot back. “But if it offends your sense of justice that much, maybe you could represent him once he’s arrested.”

“Don’t be cute,” he sniffed. “What time will we know something?”

“Are you heading to the office now?”

Claudia strode into the living room, wrapped in his sheet. He paused, admiring her statuesque figure.

“Uh … I’m running a little late. I’ll be there in about an hour.”

“Alrighty. I should be able to tell you something by the time you come in.”

“Good work, Amos.” He set the phone on the table.

“What’s this?” she brushed against him, frowning at the crushed parallel piles of grayish-white powder.

He leaned over and snorted both lines, then stood and downed half the energy drink before smiling and patting her backside.

“Breakfast of champions.”

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

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 40 & 41

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.

Chapter 39: A Soul Feels Its Worth

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGThey moved like thieves in the pre-dawn hours. Silent. Efficient. She helped him lug the enormous boxes from his garage to her living room. He helped her wrap a supply line of unrecognizable twenty-first-century toys and other digitalia.

After the last gift was taped, tagged, and tied with a ribbon, they retired to her couch, sipping coffee that was more cream and sugar than caffeine.

Sunrise came in shafts of iridescence, blending with the Christmas lights, caressing her face. She sat with her knees tucked beneath her.

The work had been a distraction. But now that the presents were stockpiled beneath the tree, yesterday’s revelation emerged from the stillness and settled between them on the couch like an awkward guest. Though uncomfortable and unreciprocated, he did not regret telling her the truth of his feelings for her. If anything, he felt invigorated. Set free. Like he’d just faced down some bully on the yard.

She took a sip from her mug. “Thanks for helping. I should’ve wrapped them weeks ago.”

“Are you kidding? This is the most fun I’ve had in the last thirty years. Except for that blind date with what’s-her-face.”

Her tired eyes sparkled. “Stop.”

He glanced at the staircase. “Do they still believe in Santa Claus?”

She shook her head. “Evan hasn’t since he was eight. Maddy found out last year. Ooh, you wanna talk about one angry little girl? So insulted. I think she felt betrayed for not being in on the secret.”

A Maddy montage paraded across his mind: wiping out on her bicycle, laughing in the back of his truck, practicing cosmetology on his porch, shredding in the music store, scooping the loaded gun, running for her life.

A few short months ago he wondered about adjusting to society after so many years in a cage. How would he fit in? Where did he belong? Sitting next to her on the couch, Christmas morning, he knew the answer.

There was a thump upstairs, followed by muffled voices and the squeaky hinge of a door. Evan yawned on the landing then Maddy appeared next to him. They paused for a moment, soaking it in, then raced down the stairs and collapsed in front of the tree.

Evan picked up a present and read the tag. “This one’s yours, Maddy.”

She tore off the wrapper. It was a telescope. “Mom!” she squealed, her voice hitting an octave of Mariah Carey proportions. “You said I wasn’t old enough!”

Brooke smiled at her daughter.

“Cool!” said Evan upon discovering the Hoverboard. “Thanks, Mom!”

The living room quickly filled with wrapping paper as they ripped into gift after gift. Video games, a mini kitchen, camo pajamas, Hello Kitty pajamas, Legos, roller blades.

“Hey Mason, this one’s for you.”

He opened it carefully, some sort of high-tech coffee maker from Brooke. “Thanks. Now you’ll have to teach me how to use it.”

She smiled without meeting his eyes.

“Whoa,” said Maddy. “What are these big ones?”

Two large boxes were set back from the tree, flush with the wall.

Brooke raised an eyebrow. “I think those are from Mason.”

Evan pushed past his sister.

“Hey, that’s not nice.”

Brooke seconded the motion. “Evan…”

“Sorry,” he said, ripping the paper from the box. Then he gasped. “It’s the same one … from the mall!”

Mason nodded. “We’ll have to assemble it. All the weights are in my garage. I’ll bring them down in the truck later.”

He stared at the picture on the box, a buff military type was pumping iron. Evan looked back at him with a smile that could have shattered his glasses. “Thanks man!”

Maddy’s box was taller than she was. By the time she got it open she was almost hyperventilating. She removed the pink Fender like a holy sacrament. “Mason,” she swallowed. “Is it mine?”

He laughed. “Yeah.”

“But how did you afford it? You’re ‘posed to be poor.”

“Madison…” scolded Brooke.

The little girl came flying across the coffee table and landed in his lap. Her hug was worth a thousand guitars. “This is the best Christmas ever!”

Brooke smiled at him from the other end of the couch.

He patted Maddy’s back. “There’s more presents under the tree.”

She struggled to her feet and rejoined her brother on the living room floor. Evan held up a shrink-wrapped box. “Is this for my drone? Awesome!”

A knock on the front door made them pause.

Brooke stood, smoothing her sweatpants. “I’ll get it.”

He watched her disappear down the hall. Moments later she returned with Blane.

“Well well,” the attorney sneered over a stack of gifts. “Something told me you might be here. Had I known for certain, I would have bought you a gift. Some deodorant perhaps.”

“Likewise,” Mason shot back. “I could have gotten you some teeth whitener.”

“Guys, please,” Brooke urged him with her eyes. “It’s Christmas.”

“Indeed it is,” Blane selected a gift from his stack and passed it to Evan. “So without further ado … young man? I believe this is yours.”

Evan unwrapped the package and held up a Guitar Hero video game.

Blane winked and nudged him. “Huh? Huh?”

Maddy smirked and hugged her Fender. “I got a real guitar.”

“And so you do,” Blane handed her a gift. “But do you have this?”

She tore off the wrapping paper, frowned at the box and cast it aside. “I don’t like dolls.”

With a pinched facial expression he presented Brooke with a flat box in elegantly wrapped paper. She sat on the couch and arranged the gift on her knees.

“Open it,” he urged, his face smug again.

She worked a fingernail beneath the tape and slid the box free. Maddy nuzzled up next to her as she lifted the lid and folded back the tissue paper.

“Ooohh,” said the little girl. “It’s a beautiful robe.”

Blane sat on the armrest. “Actually, it’s a kimono, one hundred percent silk. A partner at the firm traveled to Tokyo last month and I had him pick it up for me.”

Brooke pressed it against her face. “It’s lovely … thank you.”

“I wanna feel,” said Maddy.

“Hey Mom,” Evan called from under the tree. “Here’s another one from Mason.”

“Well open it up.”

“It’s to you.”

He had slipped it in with the children’s presents before dawn. Though it was not his intention for her to open it in front of her boyfriend, there was little he could do about that now. Blane stared infrared lasers at him from the other side of the couch, unhappy that the focus had shifted so quickly.

Brooke wavered before opening it.

Maddy was practically in her lap. “See what it is Mom! Come on!”

She peeled the paper from the black velvet box and glanced over at him. He feigned indifference. She flipped the top. Her breath caught. The gems shone brighter than the Christmas lights.

“It’s diamonds,” said Maddy, her voice hushed and reverent. “Green ones too.”

“Second rate costume jewelry,” Blane sniffed. “I’ve seen better at the flea market.”

Brooke’s smile was nervous, unsure. “It’s still very nice, Mason. Thank you.”

He looked straight at Blane. “It’s real. I would never insult her with anything artificial. She has enough fakes in her life as it is.”

“Yeah? What’d you do? Rob another bank?”

He glanced at Evan, who was watching from a sea of wrapping paper on the living room floor, then at Maddy, still staring transfixed at the jewel-encrusted bracelet. Finally he looked at Brooke who quickly looked away.

Up until the knock on the door, he was experiencing what may have been the best day of his life. The quiet conversation in the early morning hours while wrapping the gifts, the accidental brushes and electric touches that sent shock waves throughout his body, the wide-eyed wonder of Evan and Maddy as they stood on the landing and surveyed the vast expanse of presents beneath the tree, their unbridled joy as they waded and ripped into them. For the first time in forty-eight years, he got a taste of what fathers must feel on Christmas morning. Then Blane came over.

He could tolerate the slick mouth and overlook his snobby attitude and even deal with his threats at the restaurant, but he drew the line when it came to diminishing him in front of Evan and Maddy.

He stood and nodded toward the door. “Why don’t we finish this conversation outside.” He didn’t wait for an answer.

As he walked down the hallway, he was aware of the attorney’s footsteps behind him. Maddy’s voice carried from the living room. “Is Blane mad ‘cuz Mason’s present is prettier?” He smiled as he turned the knob.

The air was crisp. He could see his breath. The door slammed behind him.

“I’ll have you know,” said Blane, “I was Greco-Roman wrestling champ at Southhaven. I studied under the tutelage of Zach Glover.”

Mason had to restrain himself from laughing in his face.

Sensing that physical violence was not in the cards, Blane poked out his chest and his voice took on a menacing edge. “I thought I told you to stay away.”

“No, you told me not to snitch about your little fling with your paralegal. And I didn’t. I don’t need to resort to gossip to take Brooke from you. She was taken the moment we met.”

“I doubt that very seriously.”

He took a step closer. “Doubt what you want, do what you want, but I promise you this — if you ever insult me in front of those kids again, I will crush you like a child molester on the yard.”

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

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 37 & 38

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 37: Scumbag
“Mr. Barrington,” the woman pleaded, “my daughter is not a criminal. She’s an addict. She would have never been mixed up with those … those horrible people if it weren’t for the drugs.”

Her breasts were magnificent. They made it difficult to pay attention to anything else, least of all her sob story. “I understand. Unfortunately, there was a loaded weapon and just over twenty-eight grams of heroin in her car—”

“My car,” the husband sniffed, a balding chinless hedge fund type in a turtleneck and cardigan.

Blane barely acknowledged him. “Which elevates the charge to armed trafficking. This carries a minimum mandatory of fifteen years.”

The woman began to cry.

He spoke to her breasts. “And since Caitlin was already on probation—”

“For drugs!” She blew her nose. “She’s a heroin addict.”

He pretended to study his calendar. “Well I’m going to ask the judge for a continuance. There’s a chance that I can work out a plea agreement with the new prosecutor assigned to her case. We went to law school together.”

“Oh, if you could just get her into a long-term rehabilitation center.”

He stood. Don’t count on it. “There’s always a possibility. I’m doing everything I can.”

The husband’s handshake was weak. Like a cold fish. Hers was soft, sensual. Maybe she would come alone next time. Wouldn’t be the first concerned mother he’d “counseled” on the couch.

As soon as the door closed, he buzzed his receptionist. “Laela, get Amos up here.”

“Yes sir.”

Five minutes later a lanky, sandy-haired man in a polyester suit strode into his office, reeking of cigarette smoke. Blane fumbled in his drawer for the air freshener. The man sat on the corner of his desk. Thin lips pulled into a smile, revealing yellow, coffee-stained teeth. “Mornin’ Boss. How may I help you?”

It was easy to dismiss Amos Faircloth as an ignorant bumpkin. Blane made this mistake when he first joined the firm, and his litigation suffered for it. But after what should have been a unanimous verdict ended in a hung jury, a senior partner insisted that he use Amos as his investigator going forward and the victories began to stack up.

Deceptively intelligent with a bare-knuckles, by-any-means-necessary approach, Amos Faircloth had a knack for unearthing buried details. The type of details that cast reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors and sent prosecutors scrambling for last-second plea agreements. He was also a retired homicide detective, a veteran of thirty years with connections throughout the force.

Blane pulled up the department of corrections website on his computer, typed in the name and spun the screen so he could read it.

“Mason Foster?” Amos reached for his notepad and pen. “Is he a witness or a suspect?”

“Neither,” said Blane. “He’s a scumbag.”

“I can see that.”

“I need you to dig up any dirt you can find.”

Amos frowned at the screen. “Armed robbery, ag assault, seems to me there’s enough dirt right here to build a mountain.”

Blane waved him off. “That stuff is old. I’m looking for something new. Something that’ll bury his ass so deep, he’ll never climb out again.”

The investigator twirled his pen between nicotine-stained fingers. “This business or personal?”

“Does it matter?”

“I reckon it doesn’t.”

Blane leaned back in his chair and locked his fingers behind his head. “It’s personal.”

Amos smiled. “I’m on it, Boss.”

Chapter 38: OMG
The sound of banging hammers echoed throughout the neighborhood. She could hear them over her car stereo as she pulled into the driveway.

The trashcan had been moved from the curb to the garage. She smiled. Until recently, Evan had to be harassed into doing his chores. And even then it was hit or miss, depending on his level of immersion in the stupid video game she would regret buying for the rest of her life. But over the last few weeks, there had been a noticeable change in her son.

At the end of the cul de sac, Maddy’s bicycle laid in a tangled pink heap next to Mason’s truck. She checked her hair in the rearview and was reaching for her lipstick when she caught herself. What am I doing? She applied a fresh coat anyway.

The hammers fell silent as she slammed her car door and hurried down the sidewalk. She noticed Fran peering through her curtains in the direction of Mason’s house. She waved but the curtains quickly fluttered back into place.

A Wet Paint sign hung from the mailbox and a pile of rotten wood was stacked on the curb. Evan rounded the corner with a hammer stuck in his belt and a load of boards in his arms.

She stole a kiss while his hands were full. “Look who it is, my little construction worker.”

“Stop, Mom.” He dropped the wood and led her up the driveway. “Me and Mason have been working on projects. I built the porch!”

She looked around, impressed with the progress. The sidewalk was edged, the hedges were trimmed, the grime on the siding had been bleached away. Mason was on his hands and knees painting the bottom porch step. She was halfway across the grass when Maddy called her.

“Mommy!”

She was surprised to see Crystal braiding her daughter’s hair beneath the river birch. The shock hijacked her face, stretching her eyes wide and dropping her jaw, before her brain could process the full implications of what she was seeing.

“Crystal?” She glanced back at Mason once more before walking over. “What are you doing here?”

“She’s braiding my hair, Mom.”

“I see that.” She kissed Maddy on the eye and looked at her coworker. “I’ve been wondering how the date went all day … but apparently it hasn’t ended yet.”

Crystal sucked air between her front teeth. “Oh God, is Dr. Diaz mad at me?”

Brooke realized she was wearing one of Mason’s shirts. “More like concerned. I’ve been texting you. You should’ve at least called in.”

“I know, I know.” She bit her lip as she braided. “I overslept and when I woke up, my phone was dead. Of course Mr. Technology over there doesn’t own a charger. And his own cell has been dead since Thanksgiving, or so he says. Have you ever been in that house? OMG, monasteries have more amenities.”

Her text speak sounded juvenile and pretentious out loud.

“OMG,” said her seven-year-old parrot. “Monsters are scary.”

She looked toward the porch. Tattooed muscles rippled beneath Mason’s t-shirt. There were paint streaks on his butt. Evan sat cross-legged beside him, brow furrowed behind his glasses.

“I’m confused,” she said. “Do you like Mr. Technology? It kinda sounds like you don’t but … you’re here … and it’s the next day … and I’m pretty sure that’s his shirt.”

Maddy squirmed in her lap to investigate the article of clothing in question.

Crystal was staring at Mason, a faraway look in her eyes. “Oh, I think he’s wonderful.”

In the space of a blink, the image of them making love on his sleeping bag flashed in her mind. She flinched.

“Hailey McGuire thinks he’s extraordinary,” said Maddy.

Crystal resumed braiding. “Who’s Hailey McGuire?”

“The Channel 7 News lady. She’s my friend.”

Brooke caught Mason’s eye. He handed Evan his paintbrush and climbed to his feet, motioning her over with a covert nod.

“Excuse me a second.”

She could feel Crystal’s eyes on her back as she walked over to the porch. When she neared him she spoke low, from the side of her mouth. “Boy, you sure work fast.”

“Well there’s still plenty to do,” he said, oblivious. “And with Fran watching through her window like Dot watching shoplifters at the Magic Mart, it’s been pretty stressful. But the sidewalk is edged, the hedges are trimmed, the slime mold is gone, and this porch is a whole lot sturdier … thanks to my main man, Commando.”

He stuck his hand out, Evan slapped it five.

Her smile felt phony. Tight. “Can I speak to you inside?”

He followed her up the half-painted steps.

“Uh oh,” Evan mumbled.

She was relieved to see a couch, coffee table, and stocked bookshelf in the living room instead of his rumpled sleeping bag. Before she could stop herself, she whirled on him. “I cannot believe you.”

He raised his hands. “What did I do?”

Good question. What did he do? Didn’t matter. “I set you up on a date. In an elegant restaurant. And you … you … turn it into a disgusting Tinder hook up!”

He burst out laughing.

She kicked him in the knee.

“Ow!”

She glared through the blinds at Crystal. “You could’ve at least had the decency to take her home before the kids got out of school. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to explain adult sleepovers to a second-grader? I swear, if you don’t stop laughing I’m going to kick you again. And this time, it won’t be in the knee.”

“Are you jealous?”

She rolled her eyes. “Please.”

“Brooke, we didn’t do anything.”

“Now you’re insulting my intelligence.”

“Seriously, she was sloshed when I got to the restaurant and kept drinking until she passed out. I couldn’t just leave her there, and I don’t know where she lives, so I drove her here.”

“And she just happened to wake up in your clothes.”

He shrugged. “I gave her my bed and slept on the couch. Her snoring still kept me up until dawn. She’s worse than any cellmate I ever had. When I woke up this afternoon she was wearing my shirt and eating my soup. I would’ve taken her home but it was after two and I promised you I’d be here when Evan and Maddy got home from school.”

“Mmm, very convenient,” she said, hating the suspicious pout in her own voice.

He shook his head. “I’m telling you the truth.”

“The whole truth?” She looked hard into his eyes. “Sure you’re not leaving out any important little details?”

He faltered. A hint of doubt swam beneath the surface of his smile.

She crossed her arms.

The moment swelled. The refrigerator hummed. The house creaked. Maddy giggled in the yard. Finally, he spoke. “I went out with her because you asked me to. I took extra care with her because she’s your friend. But I do not find her attractive and even if I did I still wouldn’t touch her.”

“Why? Because she drinks too much and says OMG?”

“No,” he said, “because she’s not you.”

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

Chapter 36: Strangers in the Night

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGHe parked the truck between a Porsche and an Audi, already feeling in over his head. The Windsor-knotted maroon tie felt like a leash around his neck. He resented it on multiple levels. Because it was a tie, because he was being forced to wear it, because he forgot the salesman’s instructions on how to tie it and had to relearn the process from a YouTube tutorial on Evan’s phone. He straightened it as he walked to the entrance of the restaurant, cursing Brooke every step of the way.

Miguel’s was an upscale establishment in the historic district that shared a remodeled waterfront warehouse with an art gallery and a chandelier company. Elegant white lights were placed within the trees along the cobblestone sidewalk. A doorman in a black tux smiled as he approached.

“Evening, sir.”

Mason paused beneath the awning. “Does this tie look like it’s tied the right way?”

“Impeccable, sir.”

He exhaled and stepped inside.

Piano keys, light and atmospheric, mixed with the clink of silver and fine china, providing counterpoint treble to the low hum of intimate conversation. A hostess with pencil-drawn eyebrows awaited him behind a carved wooden dais with a large cursive M on the front.

“Do you have a reservation?”

He was tempted to say “no” and go back to his truck. “It should be under Foster.”

She scanned the ledger with an immaculate red fingernail. “Ah yes. Here we are. Mason Foster, party of two. Your dining partner has already arrived.”

As he followed her between the lacquered booths where the beautiful and the powerful huddled over candlelight, he thought of a book he had read in confinement years before, Prosperity and the Universal Law of Attraction by Sir Everett Rhodes. While the idea of willing wealth into existence still seemed as flimsy and farfetched a concept as it did back then, the truth in the law of attraction was suddenly July-sky clear.

Attractive did not always equal handsome. Being attractive was a drawing force, an energy field. To attract meant to magnetize, to pull toward, and for most of his life he had been doing the opposite. He’d been repelling. What started as a self-defense mechanism for an eighteen-year-old kid surrounded by wolves and sharks was now second nature after thirty years of scowling silence and negative vibration. His energy was not attractive. It was repulsive. Especially in tense situations. He had a feeling this would not translate well to the dating scene.

The hostess led him to a corner booth and made a subtle sweeping motion with her hand. “Here we are.”

A petite and pretty thirty-something with cocaine white highlights and blood red lipstick drained her glass and set it down hard. “Another vodka and cran, Hon.”

The hostess smiled sweetly. “I’ll inform your server.”

He slid across from her. “I’m Mason.”

“Crystal,” she said, extending her hand. “Did she just call the waitress a servant? God, I hate these stuck-up people.”

Her palm was warm. The tops of her breasts spilled over her tight white cocktail dress. He tried not to stare.

“You’re much cuter in real life.” She reached for her empty glass, took a sip of air, then looked around for the server again. “Damn it.”

“Thanks,” he said, not ungrateful for the drunken lilt in her speech. At least it took the edge off.

“What about me?”

“Hmm?” He opened the menu.

She slapped it shut. “Do you think I’m beautiful?”

“Absolutely,” he said, silently cursing Brooke.

He was suddenly aware of her foot sliding up his calf.

She licked her lips. “So I’m thinking yes.”

“Come again?” He yanked on the Windsor knot for an extra half-inch of space, his collar already damp with sweat.

“I read online that a woman knows within the first minute of meeting a man whether she’ll sleep with him or not.” She burped. “’Scuse me. I’ve made my decision.”

He wondered if this was a test or a practical joke. Her drink arrived. The server looked Eastern European. Her nametag said Natasha.

“About time! What, did you have to go back to Russia to get the vodka?” She rolled her eyes as she lifted her glass and took a healthy swig.

Natasha weathered her rudeness with professional grace. “I apologize for the inconvenience.” She turned to him. “May I get you something to drink, sir?”

“Water, please.”

She hurried away.

“Water? Oh Gawd, please don’t tell me you’re in Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Conversation at the nearby tables fell silent.

He shook his head. “Just never acquired a taste for liquor.”

“I saw you flirting with that waitress.”

He looked around for a clock.

She gulped down the remainder of her drink and grimaced. “Aughk. This is my last one. I’m driving.”

“I’ll drive you home.” Preferably soon.

She gave him a knowing smile. “I bet you will.”

The server returned with his water. “Are you ready to order yet?”

“Auck your veady to vordor vyet?” Crystal mimicked her accent. “I’ll have another vodka and cran.”

Although his experience with alcohol was limited to the homemade wine brewed in prison, he’d had a few alcoholic cellmates over the years. Enough to know there were two types of drunks in the world: happy drunks and mean drunks. His date obviously fell into the second camp.

She reached across the table and clutched his tie, pulling him forward. “So what do you think about our little date so far?”

“I’m definitely feeling the chemistry,” he said, surveying the restaurant for an exit.

“Really? Me too.” She released his tie and groped his biceps. “Such strong arms.”

Across the room, an aquarium was built into the wall. Exotic fish darted behind reefs in flashes of phosphorescence. Radium green, nuclear orange, electric blue. The tank bathed the surrounding booths and tables in soft light.

A couple was making out in the corner, their food untouched next to half-drained glasses of wine. A familiar need bloomed within him as he watched them go at it with roaming hands and ravenous mouths.

His own date’s femininity was suddenly pulsating in his peripheral. He turned back toward her. What the hell. Her fake lashes had come partially unglued and hung diagonally across her eye like some mutant insect.

Maybe not.

He took a sip of water. Over the rim of his glass, he watched the couple in the corner reluctantly shape shift from one back into two. Dark rivers of silken hair cascaded over alabaster skin as the woman smoothed her dress. Shadows concealed her lover’s face … until he leaned forward to reach for his wine and the unmistakable shovel-jawed profile of Blane Barrington was spotlighted in aquatic luminescence.

He slid to his left, using Crystal as a shield.

Her eyelashes fell into the empty glass. “Oops,” she giggled.

He opened the menu and ducked behind it. “I’m starving.”

“Knock, knock,” she rapped a knuckle on the other side of the leather upholstered cardboard.

He pretended to study the entrees. “This whole thing is in French.”

“Ooh, speak it to me.” Her face appeared above him, nose resting on menu, lashless left eye twinkling with seduction. “Peekaboo.”

He stole a glance across the restaurant. Blane was stroking his lover’s face.

Natasha appeared beside the table. “Are you ready to order?”

Although he had no appetite, he knew he couldn’t leave without being spotted, so he ordered the only thing on the menu he recognized. “Filet mignon. That’s a steak, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “How would you like it cooked?”

It had been thirty years since he had eaten a steak. “Uh… moderate?”

“Very good, sir.” She turned to his date, visibly bracing for another barrage of unpleasantness. “Mademoiselle?”

“Vodka and cran.”

Whatever. Maybe she would pass out and he could throw her over his shoulder and use her as cover on the way to the truck.

“You’re so far away,” she pouted as she struggled to her feet and stumbled around to his side of the booth.

He slid over to make room, snuffing the candle for added darkness.

She lunged for him but her arm swung wide and knocked his water into his lap.

He set the glass on the table and massaged his eyelids with thumb and forefinger.

“OMG, I am so sorry.”

Soaked from the tip of his tie to the bottom of his zipper, he picked ice cubes from his crotch. “It’s fine. Just … I need you to slide out so I can go to the bathroom.”

He ducked in front of her and bolted down the aisle, weaving his way between empty tables and crowded dinner parties. He almost ran into Natasha, her arm expertly stacked with dishes. “Where’s the men’s room?”

She glanced at his wet midsection. For a moment, her mask dropped and her eyes shone both sympathy and humor. Then she quickly recovered. “Down that hall.”

He pushed through the door and headed straight for the automatic hand dryer, pulling his shirt free of his khakis on the way.

A part of him wanted to sneak out through a back exit and end this train wreck of a date but he could not, in good conscience, allow Crystal to drive herself home. What he could do was stall in hopes that Blane and his mistress would tire of the constraints of a public setting and leave to get a room. He unbuttoned his pants, waved a hand beneath the dryer and let the roaring hot air work its magic.

The door opened. He glanced over his shoulder.

Blane raised an eyebrow on his way to the urinal. “Well, well, what have we here? Premature ejaculation? Or did you piss your pants?”

The hand dryer shut off as he turned to face the attorney. For a moment he allowed himself the fantasy of slamming his smug face into the drywall. Then he quickly abandoned that line of thinking. This wasn’t a prison bathroom and Blane wasn’t a convict. Grown men, free men, did not resort to violence to settle differences.

His urine trickled against the bowl. “I thought that was you. Who’s the bimbo?”

“A friend.”

Blane zipped up and flushed the toilet. “I’m surprised that you could tear yourself away from Brooke long enough to have a social life.”

“I don’t see Brooke that often,” said Mason, hating the genuflection in his own voice. “I’m actually closer to her kids than I am to her.”

He smirked in the mirror as he washed his hands. “Pathetic.”

Again, Mason fantasized about humbling him. It wouldn’t take much. Trap the limb, hyperextend the joint, snap, pop, fight over … and straight back to prison I’d go. It wasn’t worth it. Nothing was worth his freedom.

He turned from the mirror and leaned against the counter. “That’s my paralegal in there.”

Mason shrugged. “Whatever you say, man. None of my business.”

Blane smiled. “That’s the spirit.”

As he stood there holding the attorney’s gaze, his already wounded pride not allowing him to look away, he wondered how someone as intelligent and beautiful as Brooke Tyler could fall for someone so toxic.

Blane shoved off the counter, pausing inches from his face. “You need to keep it that way. Because if this ever gets back to Brooke, it would hurt her feelings. Neither of us would want that.”

Mason held his inner nose and swallowed a sporkful of crow. “She does think very highly of you.”

“Exactly. She would be destroyed if someone were to run back to her babbling about some harmless little indiscretion.” He reached out and adjusted his water-soaked tie. “And if she gets destroyed… you get destroyed.”

Against his will, he could feel his own face hardening into a scowl.

Blane chuckled. “You want to hit me right now, don’t you? Go for it. I’d love an excuse to kick you back under the rock you crawled out from. I might punch myself in the face and say you did it. I could, you know. It would be your word against mine. Who do you think they’d believe?” He walked to the door and paused. “Come to think of it, who do you think she’d believe?”

He couldn’t speak. He just stood there in the perfume and wine-drenched wake of Blane’s breath with clenched fists trembling and adrenaline pumping.

Light ricocheted from his pinky ring as he stroked his chin. “Look, you seem to be a fairly reasonable chap, despite your … failings. I’m sure we can agree that it’s in the best interest of all parties if we just forget tonight ever happened, hmm? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have business to attend to.”

He exited with a wink. The soft clamor of the restaurant flooded in before the door hissed shut.

Mason stared after him like a dazed fighter in the fuzzy wake of a knockout. Echoes of threats spiraled through his mind and throbbed in his nerve endings. He exhaled. And with his next breath came a dawning sense of deja vu. There was something in Blane’s casual dismissal of him as a man that reminded him of strip searches, pepper spray, solitary confinement.

He looked down at his pants. The water stain ran from pocket to pocket and halfway up his shirt. He returned to the hand dryer to finish them off, then headed back to his table.

Blane and his paralegal were gone. His own hot date was snoring peacefully next to an empty glass. A bite was missing from his steak.

Natasha the server was cleaning the adjacent booth. Her eyes flicked to his formerly wet crotch and, finding it dry, she nodded. “Can I get you anything else? Perhaps I could warm your food.”

He shook his head. “I just need the check.”

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

Chapter 35: Mall Rats

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 …

“Hey Mason.”

He flinched.

“Are you almost done?”

“Almost, Evan.”

“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?”

He nodded.

“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.

“Come on.”

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?”

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

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 33 & 34

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 33: Hidden Treasures
Uncle Ron’s Storage was a gated maze of L-shaped one-story buildings with stenciled black numbers on color coded garage doors. He drove slowly up and down the identical rows of the green sector looking for Unit 108.

Maddy broke the silence. “Do you have a credit card?”

He glanced down at the girl. “Do you?”

“I asked you first.”

Evan pointed at a green sign in the shape of an arrow with 85 – 135 painted on it. “Make a right.”

Mason didn’t bother using his blinker. “They make it confusing, don’t they?”

Maddy persisted. “I’m too young to have a credit card.”

“But not too young for a cell phone?”

“That’s different.”

“There it is,” Evan announced. “On your left, 108.”

He passed the unit, braked, and put the truck in reverse, backing toward the garage door.

“You still didn’t answer me,” said Maddy.

He shut off the engine. “Is there some reason you’re inquiring into my credit or are you just being a nosy little hairstylist?”

Evan answered for her. “We wanted to buy Christmas presents for Mom.”

Mason raised an eyebrow. “With my credit card? How nice of you.”

“We have our own money,” said Maddy. “We just need your credit card to order on Amazon.”

He opened the door. “I don’t believe in Amazon. I’ll take you to the mall.”

“Gross,” said the little girl.

He shrugged. “Take it or leave it.”

He could hear her feet crunching gravel behind him as he approached the keypad. “That’s not nice Mason!”

“Awww, can I borrow your violin?” He chuckled at his own wittiness as he swiped the card and typed the code.

Nothing.

He tried again.

Same result.

He glanced over his shoulder. Hands on hips, tight-lipped and eyes asquint, Maddy glared back malevolently.

“Can you, um, help me with this?”

She didn’t budge. “They don’t sell what I want at the mall, Mason, and even if they did, it would cost too much.”

The standoff lasted barely thirty seconds. “Okay, you know what? Fine. I’ll give you my credit card number. Nothing irresponsible about that, right? I’m sure adults the world over give out sensitive financial information to seven-year-olds.”

Evan laughed from the bed of the truck. “Sucker!”

“Get down here and help me get this door open, Commando.”

Maddy stepped forward and held out her hand. “I can do it.” She swiped the card and a moment later, a small green light glowed above the keypad. “What’s your number?”

“1970.” To avoid confusion, Sam Caldwell had set all his pins and passcodes to the year of his birth.

There was a snap from inside the unit, followed by an electric hum. Slowly, the garage door creaked open. The couch appeared first, bathed in a halo of daylight and dust. He remembered watching football on it with his father, finding treasures lodged in its sides, bouncing on its cushions as a small boy. It now sagged in the middle and yellow foam sprouted from a rip on its arm. An overwhelming sense of shame washed over him as he stared at the embattled old couch. It was suddenly more family member than furniture piece. He felt responsible for its current state of neglect and disrepair.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

Maddy squeezed his hand. “It’s okay, Mason, I wasn’t really mad.”

The unit was stuffed with memories: book shelves, end tables, lamps, the grandfather clock, his old bed, Nana’s rocking chair, the china cabinet, the dining room table, and stacks of boxes bulging with artifacts from another era.

Evan bounded over the couch, leaped onto the end table, then crawled between the rocking chair legs. “Are we gonna move all this stuff?”

“Nah,” said Mason. “Just a couple trips’ worth of whatever we can fit in the truck. Come help me with this couch.”

He disappeared behind the grandfather clock, resurfaced beneath the dining room table, then hop-scotched across a smattering of boxes to the other end of the couch.

Mason smiled and shook his head. “How’s that hyperactivity thing coming along?”

Evan lifted his side with a grunt. “I’m controlling it.”

He studied the boy as they lugged the couch to the truck. Bifocals steamed with breath, small muscles tense and engaged, even his cowlick trembled with effort. There was an underlying sadness to Evan, a silent companion he never seemed to outrun, outplay, or outlaugh. It didn’t take a board certified psychologist to recognize that he was still grappling with his father’s death.

“Almost there,” said Mason.

Maddy appeared alongside the couch, walking backward with her phone raised in the air.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking a selfie. You said you wanted photoliptical documation. Just in case. Remember?”

He set the couch by the truck. “Did I say that? I don’t even know what it means. What I really need is somebody to look through some of those boxes and see if there’s anything cool in them.”

This earned him an exasperated eye roll followed by a hair flip. “Make up your mind, Mason.”

He watched her march back into the storage unit.

Evan lowered his voice. “She got in trouble in school. Her teacher sent an email to Mom and said she talks too much. I think it hurt her feelings.”

Mason lifted his end of the couch, setting the legs on the lowered gate of the truck bed. Then he walked around to Evan’s end. “Help me get this up.”

Wood rubbed metal. Together they pushed it flush against the cab. Evan clapped his hands. “What’s next?”

“I guess I need the bed.”

Side by side, they walked back up the driveway to the open garage door; the ebb and thrum of traffic from the nearby interstate like waves pounding the shoreline.

“Were there a lot of people at your prison for killing people?”

He glanced down at the boy. “Some.”

“Why do people kill people?”

Mason shoved his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know. Anger, fear, greed.”

“War,” said the boy, his voice continents away.

He nodded. “And war.”

Inside the storage unit they found Maddy sitting, legs crossed, in front of an open box. “I picked this one ‘cuz it said Mason on it.”

He could see his name scrawled in his mother’s familiar handwriting across the cardboard.

She held up a block covered in small squares of various colors. “What’s this?”

“Are you kidding me? Come on, you know what that is. A Rubik’s Cube.”

“It’s pretty.”

Evan squeezed between the rocking chair and end table, almost tripping as he scrambled to join her at the box.

She held up a cylinder of silver wire that accordioned from her right hand to her left.

“That’s a Slinky.”

Evan removed a Magic 8 Ball and stared transfixed at its watery message.

“It tells your fortune,” Mason explained.

Piece by piece, they examined his childhood toys like exhibits in a roadside museum. Etch A Sketch, Simon, paddle ball, Speak & Spell.

“Is this an Atari?”

Mason nodded.

“Cool!”

Garbage Pail Kids cards, Remo Williams action figures, Operation, Chinese Checkers, Hungry Hungry Hippo, his Pop Warner football jersey, his old catcher’s mitt, a noseless Mr. Potato Head, a Michael Jackson Thriller jacket.

“What’s this?” said Maddy.

He squinted at the Coke bottle in her hand, a first grade art project covered in now-chalky dried yellow paint with the word Mom etched into its side. A sheet of paper extended from the mouth of the bottle, rolled into a scroll and tied off with a piece of purple yarn.

He put a boot on the end table and leaped over a lamp shade. “Let me see that.”

She passed it back without looking.

Evan had found his old Red Rider BB gun and was pointing it at Maddy. “Say hello to my little friend.”

“Evan, that’s scary. Mason, tell him to stop.”

“Cut it out,” he mumbled, still staring at the paper.

Three words were written down the side in twenty-five-year-old ink. His brain transcribed them in the voice of his mother.

To my son.

Chapter 34: Relic
My Dear Mason,

Welcome Home! I wish your father and I could be there with you. Although none of this will be news to you in the future, I’m writing this letter on the day of my appointment with Dr. Callahan. He confirmed that the spot on my brain is Alzheimer’s. No shock there. I’ve known that something is wrong for quite some time. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to get my house in order since conditions could deteriorate quickly. I’m already taking steps to ensure that you are taken care of. Are you blaming yourself? Stop that! You are no more responsible for my diseased brain than you were for your father’s congestive heart failure. Death is an unavoidable part of life … but that’s what makes life so precious, its fleeting nature. I hope this letter finds you living yours to the fullest. I have loved you since my first pregnancy test, since that first kick, since the doctor said, “It’s a boy,” and put your tiny body on the scale (where you promptly pee’d straight up in the air like a little fountain statue.) Like it or not, you will always be my baby and the thought of you in a cage breaks my heart. Speaking of which, I recently found an attorney who is willing to look at your appeal! I guess only the “future you” reading this letter knows how it all turned out. (Fingers crossed.) No matter what happens, as I enter this next phase of my life — let’s call it an adventure — I do so knowing that I raised a kind, strong, intelligent man for my son. No court ruling will ever make me think differently. While it appears to be destiny that my memories fade, I pray that those of you linger the longest. You have brought me so much happiness. I could not be more proud. Rest assured I’ll be seeing you again Mason. In this life or the next.

With all my heart,
Love,
Mom

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

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 31 & 32

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 31: Two Man Job
The difference was striking. The obedient little glazed-eyed zombie of the previous week had not merely reverted to his normal self, he surpassed it. The pendulum swung right through energetic and landed on frenetic. He darted around the yard like a prisoner fresh out of confinement.

Mason leaned against the river birch and watched him go. “Where’s your sister?”

“Violin class.” He kicked an ant bed and paused to inspect the ensuing chaos. Then he was off and running again.

Mason shook a few dry noodles into his mouth from an open package of ramen. A bird cheeped from its nest in the drainpipe. He tossed the rest of the bag into the grass below and watched the bird flap down to the ground. Evan exploded from behind the crepe myrtle in a barrage of machine gun fire.

“Brrr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-ow!”

The startled bird disappeared into the overgrown hedges.

“Come here,” said Mason.

He took off into the backyard.

“Evan! I need to talk to you.”

“Is this a snake hole?” the boy shouted.

“Probably. Come here. We need to talk. Man to man.”

Silence.

“Let’s go Commando! Now!”

He slunk around the corner of the house.

Mason sat in one of the wrought iron chairs and motioned toward the other. “Have a seat.”

In a huff, Evan flopped down and immediately began to rock.

Although he had been rehearsing his speech for the past few days, now with the boy fidgeting across from him, words eluded him. “So … are you glad to be off your pills?”

He shrugged. “I guess so.”

“Can you tell the difference?”

He rocked vigorously in the chair.

Mason pressed on. “How did the medicine make you feel?”

He mumbled something unintelligible while looking over his shoulder.

“Sorry,” said Mason, “I didn’t catch that.”

“LIKE BRICKS TIED TO MY FEET!”

“Well, listen.” He leaned back in the chair and stretched out his legs, crossing his boots. “Fran’s been on my tail about fixing this place up and, truth is, she’s got a point. I guess it could stand a few upgrades. But I can’t do it alone. It’s more of a two-man job.”

He stopped rocking. “I’ll help.”

Mason pretended to mull over his offer. “Well I need a workout partner too.”

“I’m already your workout partner!” He leapt from his chair and dropped for a set of push-ups.

“Straighten your back. And slower, concentrate on what you’re doing. There you go. Perfect. Now those are textbook push-ups.”

He went till failure, till his arms trembled, buckled, and he collapsed on his stomach.

Mason spoke to his shoulder blades. “So I ran all this by your mom but I told her your medicine was gonna be a problem. Can’t have you sleepwalking around here with hammers and lawnmowers and hedge trimmers.”

Evan rolled onto his back, his eyes wide behind his bifocals. “I don’t take medicine anymore.”

“I know. We covered that. But in order to stay off it you’re going to need to focus in school, behave at home, and treat Blane with respect.”

“Blane’s an asshole.”

Mason shook his head. “He’s an adult and he’s your mom’s boyfriend. You don’t have to like him but you need to respect him. The same way you need to respect your teacher. If not, your mom’s gonna put you back on medication which means I’ll have to find another helper and workout partner.”

Evan popped off the ground. “I can’t help it because I’m hyper sometimes.”

“Yeah you can,” said Mason. “It’s like push-ups. You just concentrate on what you’re doing. Pay attention to form and when you catch yourself losing focus, you bring yourself back. I’m not saying it’s easy but you can do it. Practice makes perfect.”

The bird returned from the hedges, darting across the yard and landing in the grass. It hop-stepped over to the noodles, selected a decent-sized piece, and flitted back to the drainpipe.

Evan flinched but didn’t shoot. Mason acknowledged this early breakthrough in impulse control with a nod. “So are you ready for our first project?”

“Yeah.”

“Come on over to the truck.”

In the rusty bed of the Silverado was a shovel, a sixty-pound bag of ready-mix cement, and two parallel seven-foot poles welded together by a two-foot iron bar forming the shape of a giant staple.

“Think you can handle that bag of cement?”

Evan nodded. “What are we gonna build?”

Mason picked up the bars and headed for the river birch. “You’ll see.”

He leaned the configuration against the tree and returned for the shovel, passing Evan on the way, straining, red-faced, and zigzagging beneath the heavy weight of the bag. “Sure you got it?”

He grunted and stumbled across the grass.

When Mason returned with the shovel, he handed it to Evan and paced the area beneath the river birch. “What do you think about this spot right here?”

He was still out of breath from lugging the cement. “What for?”

Mason ignored him and went to grab the bars from the tree, talking to himself as he stood them up and looked over his head into the branches. “Nice shady location, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know what we’re making.”

Mason held the bars upright and stared at the boy as if through a doorway. “A man should be able to pull his own weight. That takes strong arms and a strong back. Nothing develops those muscles like a pull-up. And this…” He glanced up at the iron crossbar. “This is a pull-up bar.”

It took less than an hour to install. Evan dug the holes, poured the cement and added the water while Mason supervised and held the bars in place until the ready-mix hardened enough for them to stand on their own.

Fran spotted them from her front porch and charged across the street in her robe and slippers. “What on earth is that monstrosity?”

Evan hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his jeans. “A man should be able to pull his own—”

Mason cut him off. “Me and Evan here are working on a few home improvement projects and we figured we could spruce up the yard with one of these plant hanger deals.”

“Oh,” Fran said, inspecting it. “Like an arbor.”

Mason winked at Evan. “Exactly.”

“How pleasant.”

Chapter 32: The Masseuse
There was power in Blane’s manicured fingertips. He hummed along with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor as he dug them into the small muscles of her back, releasing long-locked tension and working out kinks and knots that had been with her for so many years, she’d accepted them as part of her anatomy.

His leather couch was cool against the side of her face. As he worked his way from her neck to lower lumbar, she closed her eyes, surrendering to bliss.

“Mmm, this is amazing,” she purred.

He used his palms on the small of her back. “Well, I’ve had a lot of practice.”

His words hung in the blind-shuttered darkness of the living room, suspended between the violins and cellos. She opened her eyes. “I bet you have.”

He chuckled. “My older sister has multiple sclerosis. I’ve been giving back massages since I was five years old.”

She melted back into the couch. “I didn’t know you had a sister. MS is such a debilitating disease. Dr. Diaz has a patient who’s been battling it for years. I hope your sister is … coping.”

“Dara is the CEO of a tech company in San Francisco. Next month she’s competing in her fifth triathlon.”

“Wow,” she mumbled. “That’s incredible. Your parents must be—”

“Shhh,” he whispered in her ear, a sudden waterfall of white noise. “I don’t want to talk about my family right now. I want to talk about another family. The family I want to build with you.”

An ember began to glow in her heart. “I’m sure you say that to all the girls.”

“Objection, your honor. There is no evidence to substantiate counsel’s statement.”

She smiled. “Overruled.”

She felt his breath, warm on her shoulder, then his lips. He talked between kisses. “I don’t know why … you see me as some … playboy … I want something long-term … something to come home to … to wake up to.”

She watched him in the dull reflection of the flat screen TV across the room. “My kids would drive you crazy.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” He ran his fingernails up and down the length of her spine. “Evan and I have been getting on quite nicely since he began taking Ritalin.”

The glowing ember in her heart burst into flames of joy. Finally he called him Evan. “Actually, he isn’t taking Ritalin anymore. It was causing him to have these horrible facial tics. Plus it turned him into a zombie. Evan doesn’t need medication. He’s a normal energetic little boy. We just needed to figure out a way to harness and redirect that energy into something productive.”

“Interesting,” he murmured, kissing her neck. “What did you come up with?”

“He’s actually been working with Mason.”

His touch went cold. “I don’t trust that guy. And frankly, I’m surprised that you do.”

“Oh stop. Mason is a big teddy bear. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. And the kids adore him.”

“He’s a dangerous felon and I don’t like him.”

She felt herself becoming defensive and measured her words carefully. “How long have you been an attorney? I’m sure you’ve represented clients who you knew were genuinely good men in spite of their mistakes.”

“Fourteen years,” he said, no longer touching her. “I’ve been practicing law for fourteen years. And to answer your question, no. I’ve never met a genuinely good criminal. Some of them are funny. Lots of them have mothers who love them. Most of them come from difficult backgrounds. But all of them, every single one, is a flawed human being. Your friend is no exception.”

Mason’s image filled her mind. His hulking body paralyzed with stage fright, gelled hair in wild disarray, as he stared unblinking into the news camera with Evan and Maddy fidgeting and beaming at his side.

Blane’s aristocratic voice gained a hard edge. “Do you know how I can tell when a defendant is lying?”

She blinked away Mason’s image and shook her head.

“His lips are moving.”

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

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 29 & 30

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 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!”

“I didn’t—”

“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.

“Where’s Blane?”

“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!”

“I’ll pass.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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.”

©2018 Sticks & Stones by Malcolm Ivey
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Christopher vs. Malcolm

Thirteen years ago today a skinny, strung-out, zombified version of me staggered into a Circle K with a stolen pistol demanding Newports, Optimos, and all the cash in the register. An hour later, police K-9s found me hiding in a field off 9 Mile Road. The dog bites were bad enough to require stitches. The next morning, I was released from the hospital and booked into the now-condemned central booking and detention unit of the Escambia County jail. I remember scouring the floor for pieces of crack and scanning the ceilings for a place to hang myself. Good times. And there was reason to believe things weren’t going to get much better.

Friends faded, the Feds indicted me, the state was pushing for life imprisonment. I ended up getting 379 months. I was 31 years old at the time. This sentence meant it would be another 31 years before I breathed free air again. Sorta like a life sentence with a little daylight… if I made it that far. Once in prison, I immediately reverted to my old patterns — getting high, gambling, and living unconsciously.

There is a Bob Seger lyric from Against the Wind that I have always loved. “The years rolled slowly past. I found myself alone. Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends. Found myself further and further from my home…” Soundtrack of my life. Things were getting consistently worse.

Then in 2009, in the midst of a nine-month stint in solitary confinement, it occurred to me what a colossal mess I’d made of my life. And by occurred I mean it fell on me like an imploding building. I was 35 years old with no home, no property, no career, no pension, no children, no freedom, no future, and no legacy except for the lengthy criminal record that dated back to my 13th birthday. I had to do something to turn the momentum. Quitting dope was a good start but it wasn’t enough. I needed to rebuild myself. This is where the books come from. A few years, four novels, and one miraculous Supreme Court ruling later, my entire life has changed. Saved by the craft.

There is a scene in my latest novel, Sticks & Stones, where a skinny, hollow-eyed crackhead walks into a convenience store and pulls a gun on the petrified clerk, a scene very similar to a chapter of my own life. Except in this story, the protagonist — an ex-convict — steps forward to stop the robbery. A monumental struggle ensues. This is bigger than just two men battling it out on the page. This is good versus evil, past versus future, Christopher versus Malcolm.

Spoiler alert: The good guy wins.