Skip to content

Chapter 26: Live at Five

Brooke held the glass up to the light, inspecting it for blemishes. Her hands were still shaky from her kids’ near-death experience, but she was slowly returning to normal. She noticed a few gray specks of soap scum below the rim. Blane’s pet peeve. She vigorously erased them with the hem of her shirt.

“Hurry Mom,” Maddy called from the living room. “It’s coming on.”

She dropped six wedges of ice in the glass, filled it with water, and padded back down the hall just as the Eyewitness News music erupted from the television.

“Turn it down a little.”

Evan and Maddy were on the floor in front of the coffee table while Mason sat rigidly in a straight-back dining room chair, palms on knees. She took her place next to Blane on the couch and handed him the ice water. He slid his arm around her.

“An eastside babysitter and two children are heroes after thwarting the robbery of a local convenience store this afternoon. Hailey McGuire has the details.”

From the corner of her eye she saw Blane examine the glass for cleanliness. Satisfied, he took a sip.

On the TV, a college-age brunette stood smiling in front of the Magic Mart awaiting her cue to begin. After an awkward delay, she nodded at someone off camera.

“I’m here at the Magic Mart on Seren Drive in Rosemont where today three ordinary citizens, two of them students at a local elementary school, did something extraordinary.”

The camera angle widened to reveal Mason and the kids.

Brooke burst out laughing.

“What a shmuck,” Blane mumbled.

His hair, still hard from the mousse and styling gel, had come unfixed in the scuffle and was a chaotic hash of swirl and spike. He stared unblinking into the camera, stiff with stage fright. Evan blew a purple bubblegum bubble while Maddy beamed and waved at the viewing audience.

Seeing herself, she whipped her head around, eyes shining, big jack-o-lantern smile. “I look famous, don’t I Mom?”

Brooke nodded, acutely aware of Blane’s arm around her. She braced for Maddy’s reaction but her daughter either didn’t notice or was too caught up in her own celebrity to care.

“Shut up Maddy, I can’t hear,” said Evan.

“Hey, that’s not nice.”

The reporter held her mic up to Mason. The sweat on his muscled forearm made his tattoos appear darker. Johnny Cash flipped off America.

“How long have you been a babysitter?”

“Uh … first day.”

“What made you decide to intervene in the robbery?”

Shrug.

“What were you thinking when the gun went off?”

“Um … loud.”

From his spot on the floor, Evan bent backwards and looked at Mason upside down. “You’re more scared of the camera than you were of the gun!”

“What’s your name?”

“Evan Tyler.”

“What happened in there?”

“That robber pointed his gun at Ms. Dot and then Mason jammed his soups against him. BANG! The gun went off and I thought it killed Mason but it didn’t, just the soup. Then they wrastled on the floor and Mason made him let go of the gun and it slid and the robber tried to get it but I kicked it away and my sister got it and ran away.”

He turned and smiled at Brooke, radiant with boyish pride. Then he noticed Blane’s arm around her and his face fell.

“Here comes my part!” Maddy squealed, almost hyperventilating with excitement.

“What’s your name?”

“Madison Rose Tyler!”

“And you grabbed the gun?”

“Yes, and then I ran to Mason’s truck and locked the doors. He tried to chase me but I’m too fast.”

“Were you scared?”

“Mm hmm, ‘specially when he punched the window but Mason choked him real hard and slinged him across the parking lot.”

“What made you grab the gun?”

“I dunno. I just did.”

“Weren’t you worried it might go off? Did you know not to touch the trigger?”

“I know all about guns. My brother has almost two thousand confirmed kills on Call of Duty. He’s gonna be a YouTube celebrity.”

Brooke glanced at Blane and rolled her eyes. “Maddy I really wish you’d stop talking about confirmed kills. It’s unladylike.”

Her daughter popped off the floor and ran around the coffee table. “But aren’t you proud of my interview, Mom?”

She smiled. Evan wasn’t the only beneficiary of David’s genes. Her husband lived on in Maddy’s furrowed brow and dimpled cheeks, in her stubbornness and confidence and charm.

“Of course, I’m proud. I’m horrified that you held a loaded gun and were chased by that awful man. But, yes, I’m extremely proud of you.”

Maddy squeezed between her and Blane, separating them. “Are you proud of Mason too?”

Brooke glanced at the hulking ex-convict in her living room, uncertain how to answer. Leave it to Maddy to put her on the spot.

On the television, the reporter was wrapping up. “The suspect, Colin Driver of Lancaster, has a lengthy criminal history including charges for burglary and aggravated assault. He was booked into the Lincoln County jail with no bond. Our city streets are safer tonight because these three ordinary people did something extraordinary. From Rosemont, Hailey McGuire, Channel 7 News.”

“Well,” Blane sniffed, “personally I think it was foolhardy and irresponsible.”

Mason stood. “All right, that’s my cue.”

Brooke touched Blane’s knee, hoping to silence him. It didn’t work.

“That’s what we have police for.” He took a sip of water. “You endangered the kids’ lives and the clerk’s life by trying to be Bruce Willis.”

She attempted to smooth things over. “Well, thankfully, everyone’s okay.”

Mason glared at him. “What would you have done?”

Blane inspected his cuticles. “I would have memorized his features, height, weight, face, clothes, while cooperating fully to ensure the safety of the children. Then, when the police arrived, I’d brief them with all the information. Once apprehended, I’d attend every hearing to guarantee that he was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

“Yeah, I’ll remember that the next time someone’s waving a gun around like a maniac.”

Blane smirked. “A situation I’m sure you’re all too familiar with.”

Brooke tried her best to quell the rising tension. “Hey, guys, it’s been a long day. Let’s not—”

“It’s all good,” said Mason. “I’m leaving.”

Evan pulled at his sleeve. “But we haven’t played Call of Duty yet.”

“Another time,” he said, his eyes touching hers.

Brooke noticed their color. Bluish-green, aquamarine, Earth from outer space.

“I’ve been known to dabble in the old Black Ops,” said Blane. “I’ll play with you.”

Evan responded by emptying a clip. “Br-r-r-r-r-r-ow!”

Blane jumped. Then, over the machine gun fire said, “Are we still looking into the Ritalin?”

Evan charged up the stairs.

Maddy pushed off the couch and followed her brother. “Why does Mason have to leave?” she yelled down the staircase. “Mason is a hero! He’s extraordinary! I think BLANE should leave!”

“Madison that is not nice!”

The door slammed.

She smiled at her boyfriend and shrugged, utterly humiliated. “Kids.”

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

Chapter 25: Dorsal Fin Day Care Part Two

He pulled the hundred dollar bill from his pocket. “All right you little heathens, who wants cigarettes and beer?”

Evan raised his hand. “I do.”

“Wrong answer, Commando.” He shook his head. “Testing you again.”

Maddy smiled up at him. “I don’t want any cigarettes and beer.”

“Good girl,” he said. “Cigarettes and beer mean less push-ups. Less push-ups mean less muscle development which means less confidence which means…” He glanced at the boy. “Less chicks.”

“Well how do you know I’m not testing you?” said Evan.

“Testing me for what?”

“To see if you’re a crooked babysitter. The kind who buys kids cigarettes and beer.”

“Nice,” said Mason, holding out his fist. “You’re full of it, but I like the way you think on your feet.”

Evan stood a little straighter and tapped his knuckles. “I don’t care about chicks anyway.”

“No? I thought you had a thing for…” He nodded at his neighbor’s house.

“He wants Ms. Tammy to be his girlfriend,” said Maddy.

“No, I don’t. She’s a whore!”

“That’s not nice.”

“It sure isn’t,” said Mason. “Where’d you learn that word, man?”

Evan shrugged.

“Why would you call her that?”

“Because … she wears high heels and short skirts and bikinis and makeup.”

“It’s a woman’s nature to want to be beautiful,” said Mason. “How would you feel if someone called your mom that name? Or Maddy?”

“That’s not nice, Evan.”

“Listen, I’ll leave the lectures for your mom and what’s-his-face. I’m the wrong guy to be giving out life tips anyway. But manhood isn’t just about push-ups and soldiers and being tough. It’s about respect and kindness. You have to work those muscles too.”

“I’m good at kindness,” said Maddy.

He flicked her ponytail but continued to look at Evan. “Are you picking up what I’m putting down, Commando?”

Evan kicked a rock down the driveway. “I guess so.”

“Good,” he waggled the C-note. “Now, who wants to go blow Mr. Blane’s hard-earned cash at the Magic Mart? What’s a hundred bucks split three ways?”

“A lot,” said Maddy, hopping up and down. “Are you gonna buy soup?”

“I might.”

“Thirty-three dollars,” said Evan. “Can we ride in the back of your truck?”

He held out his keys. “Why don’t you drive and I’ll ride in the back.”

“He’s testing you again, Evan.”

“I don’t have my license,” said the boy.

Mason jingled the keys. “Neither do I.”

“But you can’t ride in the back,” said Maddy. “You’ll mess up your hair.”

He reached up and touched the rigid mohawk. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’ll drive.”

They raced to the truck and climbed in the back. It cranked on the first attempt. A volcanic cloud of black smoke erupted from the tailpipe. He kept the speedometer at fifteen as they coasted up the street. In his mirror there were gap-toothed smiles and laughter. Skinny arms and small hands hung over the sides of the truck bed, touching the wind like water.

The Magic Mart parking lot was deserted as usual. Dot frowned at him through the window as he pulled between two faded yellow lines and shut off the truck.

“Hey Mason, can I have ice cream?”

“Mm hmm.”

“Candy?”

“You’ve got thirty-three dollars, you can get whatever you want.”

“I want a Smart Ones,” said Maddy.

“What’s that?”

“It’s like a TV dinner, ‘cept it’s for girls. My mommy eats them.”

The door chimed as he held it open.

“Hey Ms. Dot,” Maddy waved. “You look pretty today.”

For the first time since he’d been frequenting the convenience store, Mason noticed the wrinkles and frown lines on Dot’s face pull into a genuine smile.

“That’s quite an interesting hairstyle,” she said.

Maddy bolted down the candy aisle after Evan. Tennis shoes squeaked on tile. “I designed it all by myself!” she yelled over her shoulder.

He picked up a Rolling Stone from the magazine rack and tried on a pair of cheap sunglasses.

“Cool Mason!”

He left them on and swaggered, tag dangling, to the back of the store.

The door chimed. In the security mirror above the dog food, he saw a thin man in a navy blue windbreaker and a baseball cap walk in. He headed straight for the coolers that held the beer.

Mason watched him for a moment but was soon distracted by his own reflection. The dorsal fin was streaked with gray and leaning to the right. The tag on the sunglasses hung in front of his nose and fluttered with his breath. The mirror further exaggerated this caricature of self by expanding his head and extending his legs. He looked like a Blow Pop with a mohawk.

“Hey Mason,” said Evan, “can I have some lottery tickets?”

He picked up a case of picante beef soup and headed for the register. “If you can talk Ms. Dot into selling them to you. But I think she’s a stickler for the rules.”

At the counter he noticed the man’s cap had a silver Nittany Lion on the front. It was pulled low over his eyes. Beard stubble covered the sharp, emaciated angles of his face.

Dot’s hands trembled as she rang up the quart of malt liquor.

“Gimme a carton of Newports too,” he rasped.

She inspected the rack behind her for his brand.

Mason watched in slow motion as the man pulled a 9-millimeter from his waist and leveled it at the back of Dot’s head.

She turned, flinched, and dropped the cigarettes on the floor.

“Pick ’em up,” he ordered. “Slow.”

Mason took a step back just as the pistol swung in his face, inches from his nose. He stared down the barrel, his heart pounding.

“Don’t even think about it, Sid Vicious,” the man snarled. “Whatever you’ve got on your mind is a bad idea.”

The kids stared wide-eyed from the candy aisle. “Is that a real gun?” said Evan.

“Grandma’s about to find out just how real it is if she doesn’t empty the cash register.” He turned the pistol back on Dot. “Now.”

She opened the drawer and began removing the bills. Meager stacks of ones, fives, and tens were arranged on the counter.

Mason looked over at Evan. The boy had a pleading, urgent look in his eyes. He shook his head. Absolutely not.

“Open the safe too,” the man growled.

Dot was shaking violently. “I … I can’t. It’s time-locked.”

Click Clack. He cocked the pistol. “Don’t play with me, you ugly old bag.”

Maddy gasped and covered her mouth. Evan raised an accusatory eyebrow. Both were willing him to act. Do something!

Damn it. He closed his eyes, swallowed hard, and let go. “Hey man.”

The pistol again swiveled in his direction. This time he met it with the shrink-wrapped cardboard case of soup, forcing the man backwards.

The Glock roared. An explosion of noodles blasted through a fist-sized hole in the package, peppering his mohawk. As they tumbled to the floor Mason could hear Dot praying behind the counter.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…”

The robber fought for his freedom with violent desperation. In the barrage of knees and teeth and headbutts, Mason still managed to hold his wrist with both hands, relentlessly slamming it against the tiles until finally his grip loosened and the pistol windmilled across the floor.

The man shook free and lunged for it but Evan kicked it beneath a pallet of Mountain Dew twelve-packs. When it slid out from under the other side, Maddy scooped it up and ran screaming for the door.

The robber went after her.

Mason dove for his ankles and missed. Still, the contact knocked him off balance and slowed his pursuit. He crashed through the double doors, flailing.

As Mason scrambled to his feet he saw Maddy through the glass. She ripped open the truck door, climbed up in the seat, and pulled it shut with both hands, just as the robber arrived.

He reached for the handle, she slammed home the lock. He sprinted around to the driver side, she scooted across the seat and locked that door too. He looked around for something to throw at the window. Finding nothing, he took a vicious swing.

Crack!

The glass held. Maddy screamed.

Mason barreled through the doors and charged.

The robber raised his fists to fight but with his pistol locked in the truck he wasn’t nearly as fearsome. Mason ran through his punches, gripped him by the throat and slammed him on the hood of the truck. “Oomph.” Then he pulled him off and slung him stumbling halfway across the parking lot. He noticed the baseball cap on the ground and flung it toward him like a Frisbee.

“The cops are on their way.” Evan came out and stood next to him, crossing his arms. A unified front.

The robber glared at them for a moment, then darted between the gas pumps. A police cruiser cut him off at the parking lot entrance. Doors flew open, guns were drawn.

“Freeze!”

Slowly, he lifted his hands.

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

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 23 & 24

Chapter 23: The King of the Elephants
Her rock was as shaky as her face was stoic. The chair creaked over the hum of the vaporizer. Her bedspread was adorned with bright yellow sunflowers. He sat on the edge with the book in his lap. Meet Babar and His Family by Laurent de Brunhoff.

He turned to the first page. Random crayon scribblings and a small petrified Dorito thumbprint embellished the existing artwork.

“One morning Babar, the King of the Elephants, opens his window. It’s a sunny day.” He held up the picture so his mom could see.

She glanced at the drawing. “I am fifty-four years old. Don’t insult me with these children’s books.”

He turned the page. The family of elephants was on opposite sides of a lake scattered with ducks, flamingos, and a hippopotamus. “You used to read this to me when I was little.”

“When you were little,” she scoffed. “What on earth are you babbling about?”

“Look.” He held up the book. “It’s Zephir, the monkey.”

She rolled her eyes.

“And here’s the little old lady drinking tea with Cornelius. They never tell you her name. Just ‘the little old lady.’ Remember when I used to think she was Mrs. Zimlich? My kindergarten teacher?”

She frowned as if listening to the faint whisper of some long-forgotten memory. Two sticks of recognition rubbed and sparked in her eyes. Hope flared in his.

“Mom?”

But like a tendril of smoke, the moment faded.

“Stop calling me that!” she snapped.

He turned the page.

“Who in the world drew those awful pictures?”

For a moment he thought she was talking about the book but then realized she was staring at his tattoos. He held out his arm for her to inspect. Again.

She raised her eyebrows at the praying hands with a rosary. “Are you Catholic?”

He smiled. “Don’t you remember my first communion? Second grade. Saint Pius? You were there.”

She wavered before pointing at the flower.

“It’s a hibiscus. Just like the ones you planted in the backyard.”

She glanced through the window at the garden outside. “Did I plant those too? I … I can’t remember.”

“Look at these doves. See, right here? They call this negative shading.”

She ignored the birds and leaned forward to examine the woman on his bicep, naked from the waist up. “Is your wife a showgirl?”

He quickly turned his arm. “This is the ocean over here. Peaceful, right? How long since you’ve been to the beach? I could drive you over once I get some new tires on the truck.”

She instead studied Johnny Cash flipping the bird. “My, what an unpleasant man.”

He smiled. “Nah, Johnny’s all right. He’s actually a Christian. He was probably just having a bad day when his picture was taken.”

“Did you take it?”

He shook his head. “But check this one out. Can you read it? It says Ava.”

With a shaky finger she traced the letters on his wrist before looking up in confusion. “But … my name is Ava.”

He patted her hand. “I know. I got it for you.”

Chapter 24: Dorsal Fin Day Care Part One
The backpack was pink and said Frozen across the top in icy white letters. An animated blue-eyed girl in a sweeping gown was steam-pressed below the zipper. Maddy dumped its contents on the porch. A canister of mousse rolled over to where Mason was sitting on the steps watching Evan do push-ups. He picked it up. “What’s this?”

She was busy gathering various hair spray bottles and styling gels, lining them up along the rail. “It’s for your appointment.”

Beneath the river birch, Evan brushed his hands on his jeans after a set of fifteen. Mason acknowledged his progress with a nod. “I don’t have any appointments, Maddy.”

She rolled her eyes, removed her cell phone from her pocket, and pretended to scroll through a busy schedule. “Oh yes you do. It’s right here. See? Mason, two o’clock, Saturday. Hairstyling.”

“There’s no way I’m letting you cut my hair.”

A scuffed pink tennis shoe with Velcro straps stomped the porch board next to him. “I’m tired of doing push-ups and working on your truck all the time. I wanna do something fun. I’m not going to cut it, Mason. Promise. I just wanna style it.”

He glanced at the array of hair care products. “Where’d you get all this?”

“My mom’s bathroom.”

“Hey Mason!” Evan shouted from under the tree. “Are you counting?”

He held up his thumb to the boy. “All right Maddy, here’s the deal. Style it all you want, but the first hint of a snip and you’re going under the hood of the truck. Got it?”

She nodded, a foamy glob of mousse already in her palm.

Across the yard, Evan climbed to his feet and pulled his shirt off. His concave chest and bony shoulders were red with effort. “Fifteen?” called Mason.

He flexed and shook his head. “Forty!”

Maddy slathered his hair with chemicals. First the mousse, then the styling gel, pulling it back, pushing it forward, kneading the tropical-smelling substances into his scalp. No follicle left behind, she hummed an unrecognizable tune as she brushed, mussed and brushed some more, occasionally coming to stand in front of him to inspect her work.

“I usually charge a lot of money for this,” she said as she pulled all his hair to the center of his head like a mohawk.

“Yeah, how much?”

“Five dollars.”

She checked the symmetry of the spikes that ran from his forehead to his neck, using her palms to sharpen the rogue strands into a narrow ridgeline while tamping down the rest.

“Cool, Mason!” Evan shouted. “You look like a gladiator.”

A few finishing spritzes of Paul Mitchell followed by a roaring cloud of Aquanet and Maddy hopped off the porch to admire her creation, snapping a picture on her cell phone.

“Let me see that.”

She held up the screen with a proud smile but he was distracted by the Lexus pulling into his driveway. He stood and walked down the steps. Through the windshield he could see Brooke in the passenger seat. The driver, he presumed, was her boyfriend Blane.

She was laughing as the window came down. “Mason, what in the world … your hair … It looks like a … a …”

“Dorsal fin,” offered the smug voice in the driver seat.

“Yes, exactly.” More laughter. It rose above the violins, cellos and oboes that wafted from the car’s stereo system.

Maddy ran up beside him. “Mommy, I styled Mason’s hair. Isn’t it pretty?”

Her eyes sparkled. “It sure is. Evan! Put your shirt on before you catch a cold!”

Machine gun fire.

“I could style Blane’s hair too,” said Maddy.

An insincere chuckle. “Oho, I don’t know about that.”

Brooke’s voice turned serious. “Mason, do you think you can watch them for a few hours? The sitter is at a soccer game this afternoon.”

He was already shaking his head. “That’s probably not a good idea.”

“But you’re watching them now.”

“It’s different when you’re right down the street. And anyway, I thought you didn’t trust—”

She glanced at Blane. “Well, I do now, okay? We’ve had this conversation already.”

“It’s just too much responsibility. Too many things could go wrong.”

Nervous smile. “Mason, you’ll be fine. They’ve already eaten lunch. I’ll be back before dinner and my number is in both of their phones in case of emergency.”

He hooked his thumbs over his belt. “How much do you usually pay your babysitter?”

She hesitated. “For a couple of hours? Maybe twenty dollars.”

“I’ll take forty.”

“Mason…”

A manicured hand reached across her, extending a hundred dollar bill toward the open window. A Presidential Rolex peeked from the cuff of his sleeve.

Mason bent to make eye contact.

Blane winked. “We may run a little overtime.” Then his face hardened. “But if anything happens to Ethan or the girl, I will personally make sure that you never see the light of day again.”

“Wow, no pressure,” Mason smirked, marveling at this new variation of good cop, bad cop. Story of my life.

“All right,” said Brooke, “there’s no need to—”

“My brother’s name is Evan!” Maddy shouted. “Evan and Madison! That’s our names!”

As if on cue, Evan took a running start and leaped on the front bumper of the Lexus, simultaneously flexing and firing off rounds from his invisible M-16 a la Schwarzenegger in Commando.

“Evan Aubrey Tyler! Down! Now! Do you want me to spank you in front of Mason?” She turned to Blane. “I’m sorry. He’s not always like this.”

The attorney forced a thin-lipped smile. “Medication is definitely something I’d consider.”

Mason pocketed the money. “Well don’t worry about Pete and Re-Pete here. They’re in good hands.”

Maddy looked up at him. “Who’s Pete and Re-Pete?”

“I’m Pete,” said Evan. “You’re Re-Pete.”

“Hey, that’s not fair. Why do you get to be Pete?”

“Because Pete’s a boy’s name.” Evan flexed his skinny biceps. “Plus I’m the oldest.”

The car began to back out of the driveway. “Call me if you need anything,” said Brooke.

They stood watching as the Lexus accelerated down the street. The dorsal fin, the ponytail and Commando, each lost in thought.

“Asshole,” Evan finally said.

Mason waited for Maddy’s standard reprimand, “that’s not nice,” but it never came.

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

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 21 & 22

Chapter 21: Hiccups
The sleeping bag smelled like pine straw and bug repellant. Despite three washes, the persistent odor remained. He kept it near the fireplace, close to the sliding glass doors, so he could see the moon and stars at night and awaken with the sunrise.

He had read only a few pages of the book when his eyes grew heavy. The hypnotic sentences of the author, along with the soft rush of the central air conspired against him. He was out before he could dog-ear the page.

“Hello? Mason?”

He opened his eyes. She was sticking her head through the front door.

“There you are. Mind if I come in?”

He sat up in the sleeping bag. “Brooke, right?”

“Brooke Tyler,” she said, stepping inside and holding up a Styrofoam tray. “I brought you a peace offering.”

“Would you mind turning around for a minute? I need to get dressed.”

She faced the door. “Where’s your furniture?”

He walked naked across the carpet to where his clothes were drying on the bannister. His exaggerated shadow reflected on the wall.

“Storage,” he said, pulling his pants on. “I’m used to a minimalist lifestyle anyway. Okay, all good.”

She turned and offered the Styrofoam. “It’s a Portobello mushroom with artichoke salad. From Miguel’s. Hope you like vinaigrette.”

He had no idea what she was talking about.

She glanced at his bare chest and hiccupped. “Sorry. I had a little wine with dinner tonight. Blane took me to Miguel’s. Did I say that already?”

He took the food to the kitchen.

“Hey look!” she said, following. “I remember this table. Fran’s yard sale, right?”

He nodded, a little embarrassed.

She pulled out a chair, raked in his last hand of solitaire, and began shuffling the cards. “Oh I miss playing spades. David and I used to play against KC and Lindsey every Friday night when we were living on the base. Do you play?”

“Spades?” he said. “I think every prisoner in America plays spades.”

She hiccupped again. “You’re not a prisoner anymore, Mason.”

He leaned against the refrigerator, trying not to smile. Contrary to previously admitted evidence, there appeared to be a human soul dwelling behind the pissed-off-soccer-mom mask.

“We should get together and play sometime, me and Blane and you and…” she looked up at him. “Do you have a girlfriend?”

He shook his head.

“Oh, I was thinking maybe the woman with the Mercedes.” Another hiccup. “Wait, you’re not … are you gay?”

This time he did smile. “Last time I checked, I wasn’t.”

“You should get on a dating site. That’s how I met Blane. I could even help you with your profile.”

“And say what?” He sat down across from her. “Recently released ex-convict seeking short term relationship with unannoying woman? I doubt I’d have many bites.”

She smiled. “You’d be surprised.”

“No thanks,” he said. “I’m old school when it comes to things like that and, anyway, I’m not in a rush.”

“How old are you?”

“Forty-eight.”

“Hmmph.”

What did that mean? “How old are you?”

Hiccup. “That’s a rude question. I thought you said you were old-fashioned.”

He watched her as she shuffled the cards. He guessed she was thirty-one. No older than thirty-five.

“I’m thirty-nine,” she said, her eyes touching his.

He continued to study her after she looked away. Her blond hair was pulled back into a braid, revealing a graceful neck that seemed to melt into the smooth, sun-kissed skin of her delicate shoulders. Her hazel eyes shined like gold in the dining room light. Her pink tongue darted from her mouth glazing her lips with a coat of moisture. It was the most sensual act he had ever witnessed.

“Why are you staring at me?”

The spell shattered. “Oh, I was … ah, just waiting. I mean, I thought … didn’t you say you were here for something?”

She stopped shuffling. “I wanted to apologize.”

“For what?”

“For being so nasty to you.”

He frowned. “You haven’t—”

She silenced him with a hiccup. “Yes, I have. I was just worried about Evan and Maddy. You have to understand, I’m a lioness when it comes to my kids.”

He stifled a rising smile with a grave nod. Although she was no doubt telling the truth, her words were saturated in wine. A lioness!

“But I trust their judgment. I know that sounds reckless coming from a mother, but I do. They’ve just been through so much and they’re both highly intu … intuit … intuicious little human beings. Intuitative?”

“Intuitive.”

“They’re not stupid, just inexperienced, you know? And for some reason they like you. I won’t lie, it’s so good to see Evan do boy things like push-ups and working on your truck. There’s a lot of estrogen in our household.”

He leaned back in his chair. “Boy things? Don’t underestimate your daughter. That’s one tough little seven-year-old girl.”

“I’m so worried she’ll grow up to have daddy issues. Evan’s already acting out in school. You have no idea how difficult it is to be mommy and daddy.” She wiped a tear with her finger. “I’m dreading having to talk with Evan about the birds and the bees.”

He thought of the drone spying on his topless neighbor. “Oh, I wouldn’t be too concerned about that.”

She chewed her lip. “I just wish they liked Blane. Things would be so much easier that way. He’s so kind and patient and worldly and cultured. Have you ever listened to Vivaldi?”

Mason shook his head.

Hiccup. “See what I mean? And tonight he ordered our dinner in French. French!” She fanned herself with her hand. “I’ve dated a few times over the last five years but never anyone like Blane. He’s just so … different.”

“Well, he’s lucky to have you.”

She looked up. “Do you think you could talk to Evan and Maddy the next time you’re working on your truck? They might listen to you. Maybe you could convince them to give Blane a chance.”

He laughed. “I doubt that. I couldn’t even convince them to leave my driveway. They’re pretty stubborn. I wonder where they get that from.”

“Their dad.” She stood. “I need to get home. I told the sitter I’d only be a few minutes.”

He walked her to the door. “Hey do you have any old children’s books? Like the one with the elephant?”

“The one with the elephant… Babar? Sure. But you might lose some cool points if you try to read to my kids. They lost interest in books the moment they logged on to the internet.”

“Oh it’s not for them,” he said. “It’s for me.”

Chapter 22: Photographic Documentation
Imminent rain. The air was thick with the smell of it. Clouds raced across the monochrome sky, bathing the earth in a swarm of shadows.

“The whole can?” said Evan.

“Every last drop. Hey Maddy can we snap a photo of this?”

She aimed the cell phone at her brother. “Another one?”

He nodded.

“But why?”

“Photographic documentation, my friend.” He accepted the depleted gas can from Evan and tossed it in the bed of the truck.

She wrinkled her nose at the unfamiliar words. “I thought you said you hated cell phones and computers and future stuff.”

“I do,” he said. “That’s where you come in.”

She showed him the screen shot of Evan gassing up the truck.

“Brilliant, Maddy. You’re a master at capturing the moment.”

She smiled her incisorless smile, glowing with pride.

“I wanna see,” said Evan. “Hey look at my muscles, Mason.”

He tapped the boy’s skinny bicep. “Very impressive guns.”

“Brr-r-r-r-r-ow!”

“Not that kind of gun.”

Maddy pulled the hem of his shirt. “But why do you want me to take pictures of everything?”

He ran his fingers through his hair and considered the two faces staring up at him awaiting an answer. “Okay, so you guys know that when I was a little bit older than you, I got sent away for being bad.”

“Armed robbery,” said Evan. “I saw it online.”

Maddy shook her head. “Not nice.”

“Damned computers,” he muttered. “You’re right, Maddy, not nice. Not smart, either. It cost me thirty years of my life.” He glanced at Evan. “That’s what guns got me.”

“Was it scary in there?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “But to answer your question about the pictures, the whole time I was in, everyone else had photo albums of family and friends and memories. I didn’t. So I want to make sure that never happens again.”

“But you’re not gonna go back to that place,” said Maddy. “You’re not bad anymore.”

“That’s right, I’m not,” he said. “But just in case.”

Thunder cracked and echoed across the sky.

“You guys need to get home. Your mom will blame me if you get struck by lightning. Her boyfriend could have me prosecuted for negligent culpability and I’d be back in the scary place before we finished taking pictures.”

They stared at him in silence.

“That was a joke.”

“I hate Blane,” said Evan.

“Come on, man, don’t be too hard on the poor guy. He must have a few good points, otherwise, your mom wouldn’t give him the time of day.”

“He’s pretty,” said Maddy.

“See Evan? There you go.”

“And he smells nice.”

“Mmm, nothing like a sweet-smelling man.”

“And he’s rich!”

“Well that about seals it for me. What about you, Evan?”

“Blane sucks.”

“Okay, so before you guys go,” he reached in his pocket for the keys. “Evan? Would you do us the honor? It’s been thirty years since I heard that old 350 roar.”

They climbed inside.

Evan glanced at Mason.

Mason nodded.

He turned the key. The truck coughed, spasmed, and stammered to life in a cloud of exhaust.

“Woohoo!” cried Mason. “Give it some gas!”

Evan found the right pedal. Vrooom.

Again!”

VROOOM.

“Maddy? Are you getting this?”

Click.

 

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

Chapter 20: The Face of Technological Advancement

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGThe door chimed. A heavyset bald man in shabby clothes was at the counter scratching off lottery tickets as if his mortgage depended on it.

Dot looked up at Mason and eyed him with routine suspicion. He was used to it. In one of her gossipy rants at the mailbox, Fran Vickers of the neighborhood watch had let it slip that Dot’s husband, a bigwig at the power plant, left her for his younger secretary after thirty-five years of marriage. “Poor thing. Wouldn’t even take any alimony. Must be hard starting all over at the age of sixty. Hasn’t been to church in three months.”

Mason smiled at the uptight store clerk. “Hey Dot. How’s it going?”

Her lips twitched, Dot’s version of a smile.

The heavyset man shouldered past him, muttering under his breath as he banged through the doors. Mason watched as he sank into an old station wagon and shrieked out of the parking lot in a blaring cacophony of heavy metal.

“Sore loser?”

Dot shrugged, tidying up her counter.

He walked over to the ATM, already intimidated. It wasn’t just the confusing digital display and touchscreen keypad, even the size of the thing was imposing. Like some robot linebacker.

He rambled to Dot as he tried to make sense of the monstrosity. “So remember a couple of weeks ago? When I almost gave you a heart attack running through the door? Turns out it wasn’t a bat that was chasing me after all.”

He pulled the ATM card from his pocket and stuck it in the slot. It immediately spit it back out. He frowned. “Know what it was? You’re never going to believe this…”

Another try, another rejection.

He glanced at Dot. “It was a drone. Swear to God. I was under the impression that drones were, like, military weapons but apparently not, because an eleven-year-old boy on my street is flying one around like a chopper.”

He slapped the machine.

Dot flinched. “Oh!”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Can you help me out over here? I don’t understand this damned thing.”

There was a heaviness in her steps that Mason knew all too well. Sadness has a walk. Thirty years of living among the broken, of being broken himself, made it easy to recognize.

He handed her his card. “Might be defective. I got it from the same lawyer that gave me those counterfeit bills … kidding.”

She shook her head. The machine accepted the card and the display changed. “Type your pin here.”

“It’s 1970, the year I was—”

“Sshhh!” she hissed. “You don’t tell people your pin. Type it. Right here.”

He touched the numbers on the screen. Four asterisks appeared.

“Are you withdrawing from checking or savings?”

He reached and tapped the box marked Savings.

She nodded. “How much?”

“A hundred dollars,” he said. “I bet you think it’s weird that I can’t operate this thing. Technology isn’t my strong suit.”

She smirked as if to say ATM machines are not exactly the face of technological advancement.

Five crisp twenty dollar bills whisked into the slot. He pocketed them along with the receipt. “Thanks Dot. Next time I should be able to do it on my own.”

Her look said, It ain’t rocket science, but her mouth said, “Here’s your card.”

He lingered a moment. “Dot, there’s something … look, I don’t tell everybody this, but the reason I don’t understand drones and camera phones and ATMs is because I’ve been in prison since I was eighteen, okay? I’d appreciate it if you kept that between us, but if I ever appear a little lost, well, I wanted you to know why.”

Her eyes softened. “I already knew.”

“You did? How?”

She nodded toward the cul de sac. “Fran Vickers.”

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

 

Sticks & Stones: Chapters 18 & 19

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 18: The Negotiator
She checked the kitchen window for his car. Not yet. She went to the stove to taste the cream of corn, stirring it and adjusting the temp, before opening the oven to check on the turkey. Maddy was right under her every step of the way.

“Madison, please!”

“I’m just helping, Mom.”

“Go set the table,” she said. “Evan! Turn your game off and come down here.”

“He’s not eating,” said Maddy.

“The hell he isn’t.”

“Mom, you said hell. That’s not nice.”

“Sorry,” she said. “Evan! Now!”

“He said he doesn’t want to meet Blane.”

“Maddy, you need to call him Mr. Barrington, okay?”

“Why? Mason’s a grownup and I call him Mason.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Can we please not talk about Mason tonight?”

Evan appeared in the doorway. “What about Mason?”

She looked up at the ceiling, willing her anxiety away.

“Are you finally gonna let me play with him?”

“No!”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s a convicted felon and you’re eleven,” she said. “Listen guys, I need you to be on your best behavior tonight. This means a lot to Mommy.”

Evan smirked. “So you can impress Blane?”

“Evan, please. It’s Mr. Barrington, okay?”

He crossed his arms. “I’ll be on my best behavior if you let me do push-ups with Mason.”

“This is not a negotiation,” she said, removing the cranberry sauce from the refrigerator and slamming it on the counter. “I’m the parent. You’re the child. You do what I say!”

The doorbell rang. Evan ran down the hall and flung open the door. The sound of his invisible machine gun filled the house.

“Br-r-r-r-r-r-ow!”

Blane threw up his hands. One held a bottle of wine, the other a bouquet of flowers. His smile was uncertain. “You must be Ethan.”

“His name’s Evan,” said Maddy, ever the little hostess. “Mine’s Madison. Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. Barrington.”

“Yeah, Blane, happy Thanksgiving,” said Evan. “Is that your car? I like trucks. How many push-ups can you do?”

“Well, at the club we generally use the Nautilus—”

“I can do forty,” Evan shouted, dropping to the floor for a set.

Brooke stepped across her grunting son and kissed Blane on the cheek. “Hi.”

He frowned at Evan as he presented her with the flowers. “Certainly a rambunctious little chap, isn’t he?”

She fought to maintain her smile. “He is. Can you excuse us for a sec?” She reached down and seized Evan’s wrist, pulling him across the foyer tiles to the downstairs bathroom. “Madison,” she called over her shoulder, “will you put those flowers in the kitchen for Mommy?”

She slammed the door. “Evan, you know how much this means to me. Why are you doing this?”

“Because I don’t like him! He’ll never take Dad’s place!”

“Shhh. Hold your voice down. You’re humiliating me.”

“You said you valued my opinion.”

“And you agreed to give him a chance.”

“I did. He sucks.”

She grasped him by the shoulders. Her husband stared back at her through his eyes. He was such a miniature David. From the slope of his forehead to the length of his lashes to the flare of his nostrils.

“Evan, can we just get through tonight? Please. For me. Blane is a lawyer. You’re my evidence. Evidence that I’m a good mom.”

“Will you let me do push-ups with Mason?”

She exhaled. “One hour. That’s it.”

“Two.”

She rolled her eyes. “You know what? Fine. But I’m putting you on medication.”

Chapter 19: Sticks and Stones
Laughter. He looked up from under the hood and saw his neighbor, Tammy, holding hands with a tall stranger in tight yellow jeans.

He shook his head. Tight yellow jeans. Times had changed.

The old fuel pump was attached to the engine block by two parallel bolts and thirty years of inactivity. He loosened it with a 9/16 socket wrench and set it on the radiator. He was about to install the new one when another wave of laughter hooked his attention, this time closer and more childlike.

Two eyes popped over the right front quarter panel, then two more.

“No way,” he said. “This isn’t the hangout, guys. You know your mother doesn’t want you down here.”

“Evan talked her into it,” the little girl explained.

He glanced over his shoulder. Down the street he could see the blonde sitting on her porch, arms crossed, watching.

“But we’re not allowed to go in your house.” She held up a cell phone. “And we have to call 911 if you act weird … and run.”

He shook his head. “You have a cell phone? But you’re only what, eight?”

“Seven,” she said. “When I turn ten I’m getting a smart phone like Evan. His can do everything. Mine can still take pictures though. Say cheese.”

He turned his head. Too late. The back of her phone said Maddy in purple bubble letters.

The boy was holding his up too. “Mine records video.”

Mason fitted the new fuel pump on the bolts. “Well listen, I’m honored that your mom let you come down here and…” He glanced up. They were still aiming the phones at him. “…and film me. But I’ve got work to do and honestly, I don’t think it’s a good idea. So you need to leave.”

The boy leaned in over the engine. “What kind of work are you doing?”

He ignored the question, tightening the bolts with the socket wrench.

“Yeah,” said Maddy. “We can help.”

He stopped and glared at her, summoning his most malevolent prison yard stare, one he had practiced and perfected over the years. “This is man’s work. Greasy. Sweaty. Bloody. There’s no room for little girls under the hood of this truck.”

“Yeah,” said Evan. “Man’s work. Go home, Maddy.”

“Little boys either,” he growled, leveling his gaze at her brother.

“That’s not nice,” said the girl, lip quivering, face reddening, eyes filling with tears.

Mason had dealt with a lot of things in his life. Heavy things. Stabbings, riots, solitary confinement, Alzheimer’s. But in that moment, he was totally unprepared for the tears of a seven-year-old girl.

He dropped the wrench on the engine block and hurried around the front of the truck. “Wait a second. Hold up. Where’s the tough little girl who didn’t cry when she skinned her knees out there in front of the mailbox?”

She stared down at her shoes. A tear fell on the driveway between them. “You’re mean.”

“Nah, not really,” he said, “I was just … I was just testing you.”

Her voice was barely audible. “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will break my heart.”

He frowned. “That’s not how I remember that saying.”

Her brother rolled his eyes.

“Come on,” said Mason. “I actually could use some help with something.”

He lifted an eight-foot piece of cut garden hose and three paint buckets from the bed of the truck. “Either of you guys ever siphoned any gas before?”

They shook their heads.

He popped the gas flap and unscrewed the cap. “Take a whiff.”

Maddy wrinkled her nose.

“What is that?” said Evan. “That’s not gas.”

“Not anymore. Turpentine. It’s what happens when gasoline sits for thirty years. So in order to get this old dinosaur running we need to get that stuff out of there and replace it.”

“Why don’t you just buy a new car?” said Maddy.

“Because they don’t make them like this anymore. Plus my mom and dad bought it for me when I was sixteen. It has sentimental value.”

“Sentimental value,” she repeated, testing the words.

He handed her the hose. “So here’s what I need you to do. Can you feed this into the gas tank? All the way down. Just like that … good.”

He turned to Evan. “All right, man. It’s on you. I want you to blow.”

Evan stepped forward, unsure.

“Go ahead, dude, straight into the hose. Perfect. Hear it bubbling?” He took back the hose. “Okay, this is a thirty-gallon tank. The dash says we’re half full. So that’s like, what, twenty gallons?”

“Fifteen,” said Evan.

“Testing you,” Mason smiled. “And those buckets are one gallon each. So what I’m going to do is draw that stuff up into this hose, get it draining good, then as each bucket fills, we’ll dump them in shifts, fifteen trips, like a relay race.” He glanced at the girl. “You take the first one.”

“But where should I dump it?”

He nodded toward the side yard. “Back behind the river birch, in that big box of sand.”

“What’s the river birch?”

“The tree with the cool bark.”

He knelt beside the truck and began to nurse the putrefied petroleum up into the hose, sucking hard enough for extraction but carefully, so as not to get a mouthful of turpentine. Once he felt it surging, he tipped the hose into the first bucket. Glug, glug, glug, it filled quickly.

“Ready Maddy? Take off! Evan, you’re on deck.”

At the midway point of the second bucket, the hose dripped to a stop.

“What happened?” Evan asked.

“Hose probably wasn’t deep enough in the tank.” He withdrew it partially then fed it in again.

Maddy came running back. “The river birch does have cool bark!”

He was about to restart the siphoning process when Evan said, “I wanna try it.”

Mason raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know, man.”

“I can do it.”

He shrugged and passed him the hose. “Okay. Just remember, when you get it coming up, back off and stick it in the bucket.”

Evan put it to his mouth, puffed and breathed, cheeks hollow, eyes wide behind his bifocals, until the brown fermented gas was spilling down his chin. He coughed, spat, heaved. “Ughck!”

Maddy giggled and snapped a picture. “Wash it out Evan! Hurry!”

“Come on, man. The faucet’s over here.”

While he was supervising the rinsing, a hand tugged his shirt. He looked down at the girl. “Yeah?”

“What’s that tree behind the river birch?”

“Crepe myrtle,” he said without looking.

“What about the one by the fence?”

“The stuff growing on the fence is Confederate jasmine. The big tree is a Cleveland pear.”

Evan removed his glasses and cleaned them on his sleeve.

“Did you already pick all the pears?”

He shook his head. “It doesn’t grow pears.”

“Weird,” she said, snapping a picture with her phone. “How do you know so much about trees?”

“My mom taught me.”

She sighed. “I love your mom.”

He glanced at the empty chair beneath the river birch. “Me too.”

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

Chapter 17: Adolf the Blonde

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGHe played solitaire at the table, munching on dry ramen noodles and humming along with the radio. “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” As he listened, it occurred to him that Nirvana was not even a band yet when he was arrested; now they were playing on the classic rock station. He shook his head.

The practice of measuring time against pop culture was a deeply ingrained pattern for Mason. Over his three decades of incarceration, child stars grew up and flamed out, sex symbols grew old and became activists, world leaders ascended to power and died, empires collapsed and resurrected, compact discs rendered cassette tapes obsolete only to join them in extinction soon thereafter. High school phenoms became college phenoms became first-round draft picks became first ballot Hall of Famers … all while he languished in the time capsule.

He knew that the concept of time was supposed to be illusory. All the great minds from Einstein to the Eastern gurus to David Foster Wallace had said as much. But it sure didn’t feel like an illusion when he was serving it.

Nirvana faded into the Black Crowes. He cycled through a losing hand of solitaire, reshuffled and dealt again. He had just laid his fourth ace when he heard a knock on the front door.

He turned down the radio and with the bag of ramen, walked barefoot across the carpet, shaking noodles into his mouth on the way.

Another knock, louder this time.

He checked the peephole. His heart sank. There beneath the porch light, hands on hips, stood Adolf the blonde, mother of two.

He opened the door. “Yeah?”

“Armed robbery? Aggravated assault? Seriously?”

He stared down at her. “Can I help you with something?”

A crease appeared between her eyebrows. “Yes, you most certainly can,” she sputtered. “You can … put a shirt on!”

He leaned his head back and shook another helping of dry noodles into his mouth, crunching them as he spoke. “Anything else? Something neighborly perhaps? A stick of butter? A cup of milk?”

“How could you?”

“How could I what?”

“How could you rob an innocent person at gunpoint?”

He shook his head. The neighborhood rumor mill was already churning. Might as well get the truth out there before I’m portrayed as some salivating serial murderer.

“I was a senior in high school, fell in with some wannabe thugs. They robbed a check cashing place across town. I drove the getaway car. It cost me thirty years of my life. But I paid my debt, day for day. Now I’m just focused on doing the best I can with the time I have left. Does that answer your question?”

She opened her mouth then closed it.

“Good,” he said. “Thanks for stopping by.”

He moved to shut the door. She stopped it with her high heel, yelping in pain from the impact.

“Are you okay? Those shoes don’t look like they’re made to stick in doors.”

“I’m fine,” she said, grimacing. “Listen, my kids—”

“I understand.”

“No, you don’t. Their father, my husband, is … deceased. There’s a hole in their lives that…” She began to cry. “I can’t fill.”

He didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she sniffed, mascara running. “I’m okay. I just … I saw the way Evan was looking at you the other day. Maddy, too. Look, I’m sure you’re a really good person, but I can’t allow … I just, I can’t.”

“I get it.”

She turned and hurried down the porch steps. Her heel caught in a crack in the concrete, turning her ankle and almost causing her to trip. When she recovered, she glared back at him as if it was his fault, then limped off into the night.

“Nice dress,” he said, watching her go.

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

Chapters 15 & 16

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 15: Return to Harmony Meadows
The puddle of drool expanded in circumference, creeping across her pillowcase. Her gray eyes were open but unseeing. The only indication that her frail body still contained the spark of life was the ragged sound of her breathing and her toes fidgeting inside the white hospital socks.

“Momma.”

She was staring straight through him.

“Hey.” He waved a hand in front of her face. “I brought you some chocolate.”

Nothing.

“Mom? Can you hear me?”

He stood and walked back into the hallway. The nurse at the desk looked old enough to be a patient.

“Something’s wrong.”

She looked up, alarmed.

“I think my mom may be having a stroke.”

She was up and moving before he could finish his sentence.

“What makes you think that? Facial drooping?”

“No, she’s just—”

“Arm pain?”

“I can’t tell, she’s just—”

“Slurred speech?”

“—unresponsive.”

They entered the room. He lingered inside the doorway, giving her space to work.

“Ava,” she called as she rounded the bed. “Ava? It’s Emma, can you hear me sweetie?”

“See what I mean?” He caught himself gnawing on his thumbnail and dropped his hand. “That’s how I found her.”

The nurse took her pulse. “It’s not a stroke.”

Relief washed over him.

She smoothed her hair back. “Ava? Your son is here.”

Her toes continued to twitch.

The nurse took a Kleenex from the box on the night stand and dabbed the drool from her mouth, gently lifting her head to flip the pillow. “Ava, do you feel like visiting today?”

Nothing.

She signaled him to join her in the hallway.

“What’s wrong with her?”

There was kindness in her smile. “Nothing that hasn’t been wrong. And unfortunately, nothing that we can fix. It’s just one of those not-so-good days. She has them from time to time.”

As she spoke, he stood there ransacking the corners of his mind, groping for someone, anyone, to blame. But he could find only himself. Tears threatened to spill from his eyes. He blinked them back.

She looked away. “I know it hurts, sweetie. But you need to be strong. For her sake. This will probably happen more frequently as she continues to move into the late stage of the disease.”

“What can I do?”

“My nephew used to play my sister’s favorite Everly Brothers songs while they looked at old photographs together. That seemed to bring Hazel some happiness, although by then she had lost the ability to communicate with words and could barely eat or swallow.”

He nodded. The hallway walls were suddenly closer than they were a second before.

“Or you could brush her hair or take her outside.”

The crushing weight of her condition was staggering. He knew loneliness and isolation well, but what his mother was suffering was something altogether different. Her reality made it difficult for him to breathe. “Thanks,” he managed, turning to leave, resisting the impulse to run. “I will.”

Chapter 16: Area of Expertise
They kissed in his Lexus, in a far-flung corner of the parking garage of the hospital where she worked. His fingertips brushed the back of her neck while his beard stubble pressed against her face. He leaned into her, drowning out her guilt, smothering it by the force of his desire.

His hand stroked her cheek then began to meander.

She pushed him away, catching her breath. “Blane…”

“That was nice,” he said, his caramel eyes staring straight into hers. “Very much worth the wait.”

She looked away. “I think so too.”

Classical music erupted from his cell phone. He glanced at the number and silenced it. “I was beginning to think you didn’t like me.”

“Well now, you know that’s not true.”

He reached for her again. “Let me just make absolutely sure.”

The second kiss was even more insistent. She closed her eyes and let go. He was both steel and silk, raw power and gentleness, forcing her against the passenger door yet cradling her head, protecting her. Fragments of some distant memory floated around the galaxy of her mind. As she surrendered to his kiss, she examined each hazy puzzle piece with a nagging sense of forlorn nostalgia, until they pulled into focus and her husband was looking back at her.

Again, she pushed him away.

“You’re killing me,” he said, his voice thick with desire.

She stared down at her hands. Her left ring finger seemed foreign without the gold band that had encompassed it for so long. Naked. Even the old tan line and indentation had faded. Another betrayal.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s … it’s just my son,” she lied.

He glanced at his Rolex. “Ethan?”

“Evan.” The fading afterimage of her husband raised an eyebrow. “He’s been acting out at school. His teacher thinks he may have ADHD.”

He pulled down the visor, examining his face in the mirror, left side then right. “Not the end of the world. A partner at the firm has a grandson who was diagnosed last year. The right medication transformed him from a screaming little tyrant to a quiet, obedient child.”

Across the parking garage she saw the first wave of her coworkers returning from lunch. “I just don’t want some drug to stifle his personality. I’m going to talk to Dr. Diaz about it when he comes in today.”

“Sounds like a plan,” he said, reaching for her again. “I wouldn’t stress it too much.”

She allowed the embrace but turned away from his kiss. “That’s easy for you to say. Raising two kids alone is stressful. And now on top of everything else, there’s some criminal living at the end of the street who they’ve decided they want to be besties with.”

He played with a strand of her hair, twisting it around his finger for a moment before tucking it behind her ear. “How do you know he’s a criminal?”

“A neighbor told me he was just released from prison. I tried to look him up online but I couldn’t find anything.”

He reached for his phone. “Well lucky for you, this is my area of expertise. Have you searched the Department of Corrections website?”

She shook her head. “I just Googled—”

“Name?”

“Mason Foster.”

He tapped, scrolled, frowned, read for a second, then passed her the phone. “This our guy?”

She stared at the mugshot. Although his head was shaved she recognized him immediately. Same defiant blue-green eyes, same cocky dimpled chin, same powerfully built shoulders.

Beneath his picture was the word RELEASED along with a detailed description of his tattoos, scars, height, weight, aliases, priors, and last known address.

“Armed robbery, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and fleeing and eluding,” said Blane, nuzzling her neck. “Not exactly Mister Rogers.”

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

Chapter 14: UFO

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGHe did push-ups in the side yard beneath the river birch. Chest to the ground, feet elevated on the rusty wrought-iron chair, fifteen sets of forty. The same workout he’d been doing for most of his life. With the weather unusually warm for early November, sweat began to pour after two hundred. By the midway point, morphine-like endorphins shot across the gray-matter of his brain like flame-tipped arrows from archers in the hippocampus, nailing bullseye receptors in the cerebrum.

Flooded with dopamine confidence, he leaped in the air to grasp a thick tree limb, easily pulling his two hundred pounds three times, five times, ten times.

He dropped to the ground and took a swig of water from the bottle. That’s when he noticed it. The thing from the other night. The bat. Only it wasn’t a bat. It was some kind of flying robot apparatus, a dull black miniature helicopter with four propellers hovering just over his side of the neighbor’s privacy fence.

He looked around for a decent sized stick, then remembered the paint roller in the garage. It was easily six feet long. When added to his own six feet, plus his arm length, plus however high he could jump, he was certain he could knock it out of the air.

It was still there when he returned. He crept up on it like a hunter. The roller had hardened, stuck in place by dried paint. He held it over his shoulder, poised to strike.

As he drew near he could hear Pat Benatar through the fence. “Hit me with your best shot.” His neighbor was humming along. He glared up at the intruder.

“Fire away!” Ms. Benatar sang. He complied, leaping in the air and swinging the pole like a Samurai.

Whack!

He missed it by a foot, knocking splinters from the privacy fence. The impact reverberated in his hands.

His neighbor screamed.

The mini-chopper disappeared around the front of the house. He dropped the pole and pulled his head over the fence to apologize. She was sunbathing topless.

“Whoa. Sorry,” he said, dropping back down.

“It’s fine.”

He leaned against the boards, attempting to explain. “There was a … UFO up here. I mean … not like a flying saucer but,” he looked around, “it was unidentified and it was flying and … definitely an object.”

“Okay. Well, I’m Tammy.”

“Mason,” he said, glancing through a crack in the fence once more before walking away.

He returned the pole to the garage, the roller now dislodged and spinning freely from the impact. He was trying to decide whether to finish the workout when he saw the boy marching up his driveway.

“You almost broke my drone!”

Aha. “Is that what you call that thing?”

“It’s a DKS Aeroghost 4 with seven axis stabilization, GPS, camera, and real time video.”

“Yeah whatever,” he said, walking back to the river birch to finish his push-ups. “Just keep it off my property.”

The boy followed. “It cost eight hundred dollars and my mom would’ve sued you if you broke it. Her boyfriend is a lawyer.”

“Yeah? Well I wonder what they’d do if they found out you were a peeping tom.”

“Am not!” said the boy. Then, “What’s a peeping tom?”

“Something you could go to prison for.”

He propped his feet on the chair and hammered out forty push-ups. When he finished, the boy was still standing there.

“You need to go,” said Mason. “Your mom doesn’t want you down here.”

The boy ignored him, headed straight for the chair and attempted a set of his own. His arms trembled and his back sloped as he managed a meager eight.

When he got up he brushed the dirt from his hands and straightened his glasses. “How many did you do?”

“Forty,” said Mason.

“Me too.”

He uncapped the water bottle and took a swig, hiding his smile.

“Are you a soldier?”

Mason shook his head as he dropped for another set. “You need to go.”

Again, the boy ignored him, waiting until he finished before placing his feet on the chair and banging out another eight.

“Why don’t you just go to the gym like my mom?”

He jumped up and grabbed the tree limb, pulling his chest to the branch. “Because gyms are social gatherings,” he said, “and I’m not social.”

“Me neither,” said the boy, watching him.

Mason used his t-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face.

“Why do you do push-ups anyway? Your muscles are big enough already.”

“I don’t work out for big muscles. I work out to keep from becoming a bug.”

The boy laughed. “You’ll turn into a bug if you don’t exercise? What kind? A beetle?”

“Not that kind of bug,” said Mason. “It keeps me from being a psych patient.”

“What’s a psych patient?”

Movement in his peripheral caused him to turn. The blonde was storming up his driveway. “Prime example,” he muttered under his breath.

The little girl came running behind her. “Hi Mason.”

The mother glared at him.

“Mom, this isn’t a social gathering.” The boy darted over to the river birch and assumed the position. “Watch this!”

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

Chapter 13: Vitamin R

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGHer ringtone erupted just as she was pulling into the school parking lot. Evan and Maddy were arguing in the backseat.

“Shush guys. This is an important call.”

They ignored her.

Lacking the necessary energy for convincing threats, she rolled her eyes as she swung into an open space and shut off the engine.

“Hi Blane,” she said into her phone. “As you can hear, things are a little chaotic on this end.”

“Sounds like someone needs a hot bath, some Vivaldi, and a glass of champagne.”

She slammed the door on her bickering children and walked out into the road, her heels already killing her. “I wish. I’m at the school. The kids have open house tonight.”

“What are you doing afterward?”

Besides a cup of milk, a Lunesta, and hopefully six hours of uninterrupted sleep? “I can’t. The sitter has school tomorrow.”

“You know, if I were a less confident man, I’d assume that you were avoiding me.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Isn’t the boy old enough to look after them?”

She frowned at the phone. “Evan is eleven years old.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s right,” he sighed. “Well I could come over.”

“I’m sorry, Blane. The kids just aren’t ready for that yet.” Behind her, their argument spilled into the parking lot. “But I’m looking forward to Friday.”

“Not nearly as much as I am,” he said. “Guess I’ll see you then.”

“Bye.” She slipped the phone in her purse.

“Ooohh, Blane,” Evan taunted, wiggling his butt. Maddy joined forces with her brother, the argument apparently over. “Yeah, Blane, would you be my Mommy’s boyfriend?”

The musical sound of their laughter filled the night as they walked up the steps to the school. Just inside the doorway, a father knelt at eye level before his son in what was clearly a heart-to-heart. Although his words were undecipherable, his tone was firm and masculine. The boy nodded at his counsel.

Brooke noticed her own children watching as they passed. A familiar ache bloomed within her. She squeezed their hands.

Evan’s fifth grade classroom was at the end of the hall. A fortyish woman in a long pleated skirt and her hair in a bun greeted families at the door. “Hello Evan … and you must be Ms. Tyler.” Her voice was so faint it was almost a whisper. “I’m Ella Styles.”

Brooke smiled. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Evan spotted a friend and bolted into the classroom. Maddy ran after him. She was about to follow when the teacher touched her arm.

“May I have a brief word with you?”

“Of course,” said Brooke.

The teacher led her a few steps down the hall. “I don’t mean to pry, but … is everything all right at home?”

An alarm went off in her head. “That’s an odd question.”

“It is. I apologize for being intrusive. I’m just concerned about Evan.”

Defensiveness rose like bile in her throat. She did her best to swallow it. “Well I assure you that everything at home is perfectly fine. My children are my life.”

The teacher nodded slowly. “I’ve offended you. I hope you know this wasn’t my intention. Your love for Evan is not on trial here. I was just wondering if there’s been some recent upheaval in his world that would explain his behavior.”

“What kind of behavior?”

“Tantrums, hyperactivity, irritability, inability to concentrate.”

Brooke leaned against the wall. Sometimes it was all so overwhelming.

“His grades are suffering,” she continued. “He’s falling behind. I’ve tried to speak to him but he does this fake machine gun thing. He seems obsessed with war and soldiers.”

Brooke wiped a tear with her wrist. “His father was killed in Afghanistan when he was five.”

“I see.”

“Madison was only one. She doesn’t remember. But for him, it hasn’t been easy.”

“Of course it hasn’t.” The teacher touched her arm again. “I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for you either.”

The tears were now falling freely.

“Have you ever considered Ritalin?”

Brooke shook her head.

“Well I’m obviously no doctor, but I’ve had enough students with ADHD over the years to know it when I see it. Ritalin could save his life.”

A fake machine gun erupted from inside the classroom.

“I’ll look into it.”

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