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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.

Sticks & Stones – Chapters 11 & 12

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 11: The Cowboy and the Gardener
A different lady was working at the desk. She wore a nose ring, a Secret Service ear piece, and smirked at everything Mason said like a prosecutor on cross examination.

“I’m here to see Ava Foster.”

“ID.”

He removed the card from his back pocket and pushed it across the counter, relieved that he thought to bring it.

He might as well have laid a dirty sock in front of her.

“What is this?”

“It’s my prison ID card. I was told it would—”

“I can’t accept this.”

“Why not?”

“Well A it could easily be forged, and B it’s not considered valid identification. I’m sorry.”

“Why would anyone forge a prison ID?”

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, clearly not sorry. She pushed the useless card back toward him with her pen. “You’ll have to vacate the premises.”

Which Mason knew was code for “I’m about to call the cops.” If he were an ordinary citizen, he would have demanded to speak to her supervisor. But he was no ordinary citizen. He was a convicted felon. He nodded politely and left.

The cell phone was heavy in his pocket. His fingers danced over it like a gunfighter ready to draw. Using it was no longer a problem. Still, he hesitated to call Sam. She had already gone above and beyond. Plus, he was a grown man. There was no honor in running to someone else whenever life dealt him a bad break.

Deep in thought, he was kicking rocks down the winding drive when a mud-splattered 4×4 creaked and bounced toward him. As he stepped to the shoulder of the road, he recognized the driver.

Country music twanged as the window descended. “I hope you didn’t walk all the way out here again.”

“I took the bus,” he said. “But I couldn’t get past the desk.”

“Why on earth not?”

When Mason explained the situation, Dr. Jennings drove him back to the front office and had nose-ring run a copy of his invalid prison ID, then tape it to the side of the file cabinet with his mother’s name and the word Admit in red ink.

“You really should consider getting an ID though.”

“I’m working on it.”

His mother was staring out the window when they arrived at her room. The doctor accompanied him this time.

“Good afternoon, Ava.”

She turned slowly, her head nodding almost imperceptibly. She looked the doctor up and down. “Where’s your horse?”

Mason smiled. He wasn’t sure if this was an innocent question born of dementia or a remnant of her trademark wit and sarcasm. The doctor was wearing a cowboy hat and bolo tie.

“My horse? He’s at home in his stable. Why? Would you care to go for a ride sometime?”

She scoffed. “I’m a married woman.”

The doctor joined her at the window. “Beautiful day. Have you been outside lately, Ava? I could arrange—”

“Who are you?” She glared at Mason. “Didn’t I just see you working in the garden?”

His heart twisted in his chest.

The doctor broke the silence. “You don’t recognize him, Ava? This is Mason, your son.”

“Don’t be silly. My son is ten years old.”

Chapter 12: Carbon Copy
He put the truck in neutral and rolled it out onto the driveway. The natural light of the sun put the 60-watt bulb in the garage to shame. It felt good on his skin.

As he popped the hood, he glanced across the street. Was it just his imagination or did the blinds in Fran’s bedroom window twitch? He could feel judgmental eyes on him. Disapproving eyes. Homeowners association eyes. He shook it off. He was a free man on his own property. Deference was one thing but he’d never be a coward.

He replaced the belts first. All of them were dry-rotted. The alternator and AC were fairly easy. The power steering was more difficult to reach and took over an hour.

He was sweating and streaked with grease by the time he finished. He removed his shirt and tossed it in the bed of the truck. Mason was no mechanic, but his 1984 Chevy Silverado was not exactly high tech. There wasn’t even a computer in it. Just a 350 engine and the same simple American-made parts that Detroit had been pumping out since the first rubber hit the first road. Everything he needed to know he learned in Mr. Oliver’s high school auto mechanic’s class.

Next he installed the battery which was easy because the old one had been stolen. Once the wires and plugs were in place, he walked back into the garage to grab the empty paint cans. Since he didn’t have a pan in which to drain the oil, these would have to suffice.

There was something meditative about the simple act of working on his truck, a degree of freedom more profound than merely living outside of the razor wire. It was in this state of Zen that he noticed the girl.

She was riding a pink bicycle, the kind with tassels on the handlebars and Disney characters on the chain guard. Typical little girl bike. But there was nothing typical about the way she rode it. She rocked it side to side, almost touching the asphalt, building up speed, hair flying, knees pumping, as she raced straight towards him, then, skidding sideways in the gravel at the edge of his driveway, she turned and pedaled back up the cul de sac, jumping curbs and no-handing it while he looked on. This alone was impressive, especially for such a small girl, but then she really went Evel Knievel, placing one foot on the seat and one on the handlebars as she coasted down the road. He was about to applaud when she hit a divot and went down hard right by his mailbox.

He dropped the buckets and ran down the driveway. “Are you okay?”

She was grimacing but not crying. Both of her knees were bleeding. Amid these fresh lacerations, he could see other scabs in various states of healing.

“You didn’t hit your head, did you?”

“Uh uh.” Blood was running down her shins.

“I’ll be right back.” He ran to the house and dampened some toilet paper.

She was sitting on the curb when he returned. He dabbed her knees. She winced.

“Sorry,” he said. “I know it hurts. I had a few bad bike wrecks on this same street when I was your age. More than a few. But I was nowhere near as good as you are. That last trick… Fearless.”

“My mom doesn’t like me to do it.”

He looked up and saw the blonde jogging toward them. Her neon Nikes matched the trim on her scrubs. Her face, though heavily made up and twisted with worry, was still admittedly attractive. Probably even beautiful. Not that he cared.

“Madison Rose Tyler, were you standing up on that seat again?”

“Uh uh,” the girl lied. “I just hit something and crashed.”

“Ohh, look at your knees.”

He retrieved her bike from under the mailbox and straightened the crooked handlebars. “Should I take this to your driveway?”

Her glance was frosty.

Whoa.

“Maddy, can you push your bicycle home while I talk to Mr.— ”

“Mason.”

“Mr. Mason?” she finished.

“Actually Mason’s my first name. It’s Mason Foster.”

“Mom, he’s got a last name for a first name. Just like me.”

“Very nice,” she said. “Now let Mommy talk to Mr. Foster and then we’ll get some peroxide on those knees.”

“Bye Mason,” the girl waved before tentatively pushing her bicycle down the street.

He waved back with a handful of bloody tissue. “Sweet kid.” Although it was true, his words mostly served to fill the awkward silence.

“Mmm, half girly girl, half tomboy. My little carbon copy.” She watched her for a moment before turning to him. “Fran says you were in prison?”

He glanced across the street. Nosy old… He nodded once, suddenly aware of his bare chest, his tattoos, the grease on his forearms.

“Shouldn’t there be a sign in front of your house or something?” Her stare was direct. Confrontational.

“Only if I was a pedophile or sex predator, which I am not.” He stared back, no longer uncomfortable, just offended.

“Stay away from my kids.”

“Look I was just working on my truck when—”

“Stay away.”

She turned and marched back home. If there was anything feminine in her walk, he didn’t notice. She might have looked like Heidi Klum, but all he saw was Adolf Hitler.

“No problem,” he mumbled.

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

Sticks & Stones – Chapters 9 & 10

Chapter 9: Halloween Visit

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGHe could hear them through the front door.

“Press the doorbell, Maddy.”

“I am.”

“Press it harder.”

“Maybe it’s a haunted house.”

“It’s not a haunted house, Dumbo. Somebody lives in it.”

“Don’t call me that, Evan. It’s not nice.”

He folded back the page of his book, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a throw-in from Fran for dropping three hundred dollars at her yard sale, and climbed out of the sleeping bag.

“Shhh I hear footsteps.”

“What if it’s a ghost?”

He glanced through the peephole. Two kids were standing on his porch. He opened the door.

The little girl screamed and bolted down the steps.

“Trick or treat,” said the boy.

“Thanks,” said Mason.

An awkward silence followed.

“Happy Halloween,” the boy tried again.

Mason noted his military fatigues and dog tags. “Who are you supposed to be?”

“A soldier,” said the boy. “These are real dog tags.”

The little girl peeked around the corner, a stethoscope hung from her neck.

“What are you?”

“I’m a nurse, but I work part time at Hooters.”

Seconds passed. Crickets chirped.

“Do you have any candy?” the little girl asked.

“Gimme a minute,” he said, shutting the door.

He went to the kitchen and turned on the light. A half-loaf of bread was on the counter along with the jar of peanut butter. The licorice was long gone. Finally he grabbed two packages of ramen noodles from the cabinet and walked back to the door.

“Here you go,” he said, handing one to each.

“Thank you,” they replied in unison.

He nodded at the little girl, saluted the boy, and shut the door.

What is it, Evan?”

“I think it’s soup.”

Chapter 10: Acclimation
He staggered wide-eyed down the aisles of Super Walmart, mesmerized by the excess. It made the old Delchamps where his mother used to shop look more like the Magic Mart.

He came looking for Dickies, boxers, and t-shirts, but after hours of exploration his shopping cart was loaded with boots, socks, beef jerky, a boom box, motor oil, a car battery, a fuel pump, and replacement belts for an ’84 Silverado.

He did the math in his head as he went. He guesstimated he’d have about seventy-five dollars to his name, minus a dollar for the city bus home.

The electronics section was a fortress of flat screens silently displaying sitcoms, sporting events, and video game graphics. One even showed Mason pushing his cart. He paused and stared at his digital reflection in the plasma.

“Careful, big guy. Those things break easily.”

A plump teenage girl with a Flock of Seagulls hair style and braces appeared on the screen.

He turned. “Do you work here?”

“That’s what the blue shirt and nametag usually means.”

He fumbled in his pocket for the cell phone. “Can you show me… I can’t figure out how this works.”

She frowned, glancing over her shoulder. “What is this? A practical joke?”

He shook his head. “It’s just my first one.”

“Um… Dude, no offense, but what are you, like, fifty? This is your first phone?”

He shrugged. “I’ve been away.”

“Where? Like in a cave? On a deserted island?”

“Something like that.”

She was still skeptical as she took the phone. “Well, first it would help if you turned it on. You just touch here, then here and look, twelve missed calls. This thing is so basic. Do you wanna upgrade? I can show you some of our—”

“No thanks,” said Mason, plucking it from her hand and looking down at the number. There was a green button on the bottom left of the screen. He pressed it and the phone began to ring.

“You’re welcome,” the girl called behind him as he pushed the cart toward the front of the store.

Click. “Where have you been?” a strong female voice leaped from the phone.

He held it to his mouth. “Mrs. Caldwell?”

“Too formal,” she said. “Sam works fine. I’ve got some paperwork we need to go over. Where are you right now?”

“The Walmart on Aurora and Conway.”

“Wait out front. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

He changed in the restroom, replacing the prison welfare clothes with cotton boxers, Dickies, and a plain white tee. He had already worn holes in the state-issued espadrilles on the ten-mile hike to the nursing home. It felt liberating to chuck them in the trash and slide on the work boots. The man who exited the bathroom looked nothing like the ragged figure who’d entered. Slowly, he was acclimating.

The parking lot was an ant bed of activity. He stacked both box and bag by the entrance and leaned against the wall, watching the carousel of passing cars. Soon he spotted the gleaming grill of a black Mercedes.

“Here, I’ll pop the trunk,” she said as he approached.

After securing his purchases, he jogged around to the passenger side.

“What was all that?”

“A radio, clothes, parts for the truck.”

She nosed the car out into the afternoon traffic of Conway Boulevard and headed in the direction of his neighborhood.

“So why haven’t you been answering the phone?”

“It was off,” he said, too embarrassed to admit he didn’t know how to turn it on.

“Well everything has been finalized. After taxes and our fee, the balance is $327,000. I gave you the friends and family discount.”

“Thanks,” he said, wishing the money could somehow buy his family back.

“You don’t sound too excited.”

“I visited my mom the other day.”

She didn’t say anything, just reached over and touched his hand. Despite the eons that had passed since his last touch, there were no sparks, at least not of the romantic variety. Still, the human contact was almost overwhelming.

The Magic Mart appeared on the horizon.

“That’s the paperwork on the console.” She turned into the cul de sac. “I opened the account at Peoples Union. There’s a debit card and an ATM card inside—”

She slammed on the brakes. A silver SUV was backing out of a driveway. Inches from a collision, both vehicles froze. Time stopped.

Sam looked over at him with wide eyes. His own heart was pounding. Through the window he could see the blonde from the yard sale and the kids from Halloween. They all stared for a moment, then the little girl waved and time unclenched its fist.

The attorney exhaled. “Do you know them?”

“Not really.”

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

For Jude

This distinguished gentleman is my great-nephew Jude, the only child of my niece, Hannah, and her husband, Sully. Jude is a Rhizo kid which means he was born with a lethal form of skeletal dysplasia known as RCDP (Rhizomelic Chondrodysplasia Punctata).

Since entering the world in 2014, much of his life has been spent under the harsh fluorescent lights of neonatal care units, ever bracing for the next IV, the next seizure, the next operation. At age three, Jude has endured more pain than most of us will experience in a lifetime. His journey has certainly put my own hardships and struggles in perspective.

Because of the rarity of RCDP – fewer than 100 known cases worldwide – Rhizo kids and their families suffer mostly in silence, with astronomical hospital bills and little or no support from charitable organizations, their voices lost in the shuffle of more prevalent diseases such as cancer.

Sticks & Stones is now available on Amazon. If you purchase Sticks & Stones in any format, 100 percent of the profits will go to Jude. To learn more about Rhizo kids, please visit http://www.rhizokids.com.

 

Chapter 8: Neighborhood Crime Watch

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGThe tables were made of particleboard, six feet long with rounded corners and folding legs. Two men lugged them from the garage, one after the other, while an elderly woman in a robe supervised.

Mason watched the operation from his front porch step over his standard breakfast of ramen noodles and black coffee.

Once the tables were arranged on the front lawn in horseshoe formation, three more were situated in the driveway. Then the younger of the two men hefted a set of golf clubs and brought them out of the garage, followed by an acoustic guitar, followed by a sewing machine, followed by a stationary bike.

The elderly woman reappeared, robeless this time in a blue Adidas sweat suit with her platinum hair piled atop her head. Draped over her arm was a stack of dresses. She laid them out at one end of the horseshoe then hurried across the grass to help the older man who was struggling with a cardboard box.

Books, records, CDs, toasters, paintings, Tupperware, clothing, furniture. By the time the first car arrived, the entire front yard was filed with merchandise. But it was the last item — carried out of the garage by the two men and dropped next to a table in the driveway — that brought Mason to his feet: a Craftsman tool set.

As he hurried across the street he noticed other neighbors closing their doors and heading for the yard sale. The older man had retired to a chair on the front porch and was lighting a Sherlock Holmes pipe. Mason made a beeline for him.

“How much for the tools?”

“Good question,” he said in a cloud of smoke. “You’ll have to ask the proprietress.”

Mason wondered what was in the pipe. “Who’s that?”

He nodded toward the older woman. “My wife.”

She was making last-second adjustments behind the horseshoe, straightening stacks of books, arranging Velcro balls on a dartboard, brushing dust from a stereo speaker.

“Excuse me, ma’am, I’d like to buy the tools.”

“One hundred dollars,” she trilled.

He reached in his pocket and pulled out a bill.

“Sold,” she said, sticking it in her bra.

Cars were pulling curbside and people were now wandering between tables.

She sidled up next to him. “You’re Ava Foster’s son, aren’t you?”

He didn’t answer.

“Thought so,” she said. “I wasn’t here when all the trouble happened. I bought this house just after your father died. But I heard the rumors.”

He picked up a camouflage jacket. “How much?”

“Three dollars.”

He tried it on.

“Hey Fran,” said a redhead in tight jeans and sunglasses as she browsed past.

“Good morning, Tammy … so sweet,” then in a low voice to Mason, “and so trashy. You’ll see, she’s your next-door neighbor. It’s hard to keep up with all the different men coming in and out of that house. But all we can do is pray for her.”

Mason handed her three dollars and left the jacket on.

“The man over there talking to my son, Wayne Campbell, he’s the assistant principal at the middle school. He was going to AA meetings but then his wife left him. Poor thing.”

“Is that a sleeping bag?”

“Mm hmmm, eight dollars. I’m Fran, by the way. Fran Vickers, president of the homeowners association and,” big smile, “head of the neighborhood crime watch.”

He glanced down the road toward the Magic Mart. Dot was making her way across the parking lot to the bus stop. The thought of beer was suddenly enticing.

Fran followed his gaze but her eyes settled instead on the family of Muslims in the driveway of the corner house. “Oh don’t you worry about them. I keep the sheriff’s office informed of all their little activities,” she said. “I also put Bible tracts in their mailbox. Hey, you never know.”

Mason nodded, relieved not to be the lone target of suspicion on the street. “Is this table and chairs for sale?”

“Fifty for the set. My son can help you take it across the street.”

Mason was reaching in his pocket for the cash when a halter-topped blonde whisked by in a gust of perfume. “No Maddy, we are not buying any golf clubs.” An indignant little girl struggled to keep up. “You always tell me no.” A thin, bifocaled boy who seemed to double-take at Mason’s new jacket, continued to look back at him as they marched down the sidewalk.

“That’s Brooke Tyler,” said Fran. “She’s a widow. Her husband was killed in Afghanistan. So sad. I think she has trouble managing her children.”

He passed her the fifty dollars. Her bra was filling up.

“I didn’t catch your name.”

“It’s Mason.”

“Well listen, Mason,” she sneered in the direction of his house. “Are you planning on doing anything with that eyesore over there?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”

“No? Look at those missing shingles and that slime mold on the siding.”

“I kinda think it gives it an old, rustic look.”

She frowned, unimpressed. “It is nowhere near the standards of the homeowners association. Just look at that grass. I bet it hasn’t been mowed in ages. Unacceptable.”

He smiled politely. What was unacceptable was her talking to him like she was a prison guard. But he bit his tongue. No sense pissing off the homeowners association and the neighborhood watch in one conversation.

“How much is that lawn mower over there?”

She waved a hand. “Seventy-five dollars.”

“Does the gas can come with it?”

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

Chapter 7: Neurochemicals

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGSuch a gentleman, thought Brooke as her date strode around the front of his Lexus to open the car door for her.

Dinner had been lovely and the symphony, though not her taste in music, was elegant and classy. Wearing her little black dress was clearly the right decision, the perfect complement to Blane’s tuxedo. Beneath the chandeliers of the concert hall, with his firm and guiding hand on the small of her back, she caught the approving eyes and backwards glances of other couples in attendance. Power couples. It felt nice to be noticed.

The car door opened. He towered over her, his handsome face backlit by the moon.

“Did you have fun?”

“The time of my life,” she smiled. “I wish it didn’t have to end.”

“It doesn’t,” he said, his voice silk. “We could go back to my place.”

She stepped out of the car and brushed past him. “I can’t. The babysitter has school tomorrow and I’m already running late.”

He fell in step beside her. Their hands touched and clasped, his palm cool against her skin. “I understand.”

The television flickered blue against the curtains. Her heels tapped the cobblestone. The moment dilated. A familiar cocktail of excitement and guilt sparkled and sloshed in her heart. The excitement was easy to process, the thought of this handsome, confident man taking her in his arms and kissing her deeply caused her legs to tremble. The guilt was more complex.

In the six years since David’s death, she had dated a total of five men, kissed three, and slept with none. It just felt like such a betrayal.

The porch light was on. They stood on the doormat. He pulled her close. His cologne was subtle and masculine. She breathed it in as she laid her head against his shoulder.

She knew Blane Barrington was her neurochemical match, knew it the first time she saw his profile picture and read his bio – handsome, athletic, witty, the youngest partner in a local law firm. He even liked John Hughes movies.

When he first messaged her, she was surprised that someone so perfect was wasting his time on a dating site. The man belonged on The Bachelor. Now, after only the second date, it was increasingly obvious that he was a different breed than the other men she had seen over the past year. And it wasn’t just his good looks and affluence. There was a stability that was alluring for a single mother of two. If only her husband would stop haunting her.

His body was toned beneath the material of the tuxedo. She could feel the sculpted definition in his back as they embraced. Gently, he tilted her chin with his hand. She closed her eyes. Her lips parted and–

Brrummph!

The flatulent roar of violent gas exploded from the upstairs window followed by the musical giggle of a little girl.

The moment passed.

“Sorry,” she said, giving him a peck on the cheek as she detached herself. “Kids.”

He accepted this with his customary patience and grace. “I’ll call you.”

She unlocked the front door, stepped inside the foyer, and watched through the peephole as he climbed into his Lexus and drove away. Part of her ached with longing and regret, part of her celebrated the narrow escape.

When his taillights disappeared, she kicked off her heels and walked into the living room. Karrie, the babysitter, was watching Netflix on the couch.

“Where are they?” Brooke demanded.

The teenage sitter pointed at the ceiling.

She dropped her purse on the coffee table and bounded up the staircase. Her children’s bedroom door was closed. Urgent whispering hissed from the other side.

She grabbed the knob and ripped it open.

Maddy’s blanket settled and went still. Fake snoring buzzed from Evan’s side of the room. The Xbox was paused on some Middle Eastern war scene.

She leaned against the dresser. “Ahem.”

No one stirred.

“AHEM.”

Nothing.

“So everyone’s asleep, is that it? Because I could’ve sworn I heard a sick tummy up here. No one called for a nurse?”

Crickets.

She pushed off the dresser. “Okay, you know what? Since the patients appear to be non-responsive, it looks like I’ll have to perform a hostile examination!”

She flew to her daughter’s bed and attacked the little form beneath the blanket with tickles.

Maddy giggled, kicked and squirmed. “It wasn’t me Mommy. It was Evan!”

“Snitch,” said Evan as he climbed out of bed and headed for the Xbox.

“Don’t you dare turn that video game on,” she said. “Come over here. I need to talk to you.”

He didn’t move, testing her. Stubborn like his father.

“Come on. Sit down,” she patted Maddy’s bed. “Family meeting.”

Acting as if it was the greatest concession of his young life, Evan finally stomped across the room and sat heavily on the bed.

She put an arm around him. “So what do you guys think? I want your honest opinion.”

“About what?” Evan sulked.

“About Blane,” she said. “Mr. Barrington. My… friend.”

“I think he’s pretty,” said Maddy, “and tall.”

She smoothed Evan’s cowlick. “What about you, kiddo?”

“Does it matter?” he groaned.

“It does to me.”

“Why?”

“Because I value your opinion.”

“Fine,” he said. “I don’t like him.”

Shocker, she thought. “Why not?”

Maddy climbed behind her and rested her chin in the crook of her neck. “Yeah, why not?”

“He’s not a soldier.”

“No, he’s not,” she agreed. “But he’s a fighter.”

Evan looked at her. “He is?”

She nodded. “He’s an attorney. He fights for people in court. People who can’t fight for themselves. Let’s at least give him a chance, okay?”

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

Chapter 6: Ava

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGThere was a Ten Minute Tire on the corner of Conway Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue, right where the old Blockbuster Video once stood. The service bay was open and he could see a man inside the garage, sitting atop a stack of tires, staring down at something in his lap. Business was apparently slow.

Mason waited for the light to turn red then jogged across the intersection. He’d been wandering aimlessly for an hour. Sightseeing. Delaying. It was time to ask for directions.

He studied the man as he crossed the parking lot. Clean-shaven head with a graying beard and a thick neck. There was something familiar about him but Mason couldn’t quite line up his face with a specific memory. As he drew near he saw that the object in his lap was a phone.

“Excuse me, can I see your Yellow Pages?”

“Yeah, right,” the man smirked, not bothering to look up. “What is this? 1995?”

Mason didn’t move. He just stood there watching him swipe his grease-blackened index finger across the screen. Then it hit him. “What prison were you at?”

That got his attention. “Santa Rosa,” he said, his expression guarded. “You?”

“I’ve been to Santa Rosa,” said Mason, “the main unit. But I served most of my time in the triangle. Union. Columbia, the rock.”

“Rough spots,” said the man. “How long were you in?”

“Thirty.”

“Months?”

Mason shook his head.

The man whistled.

Standing there, he realized it wasn’t the man’s face that was familiar. Just the eyes, maybe the hard set of his jaw. He had a look that was distinctly prison. Mason knew it well.

“When did you get out?” the man asked.

“Yesterday.”

“Wow. Congratulations,” he chuckled. “Look, phone books are pretty much dead out here. Who are you trying to call?”

“Harmony Meadows.”

He was already tapping away on his phone. “Is she local? Sounds like a stripper name. No offense. I’ll check Facebook. But I have to warn you. Things change. I only did five years and my ex old lady was married with a kid when I got out.”

“Harmony Meadows Assisted Living Village,” said Mason. “It’s a nursing home. I just need the address.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Here we go. I got it. 5250 Tamarack. Know where that is?”

Mason shook his head.

He tapped and swiped a few more times and held up a map display. “It’s out by the fairgrounds. See, this line here is Conway Boulevard. That’s the road right there at the light. Go eight miles west then turn right on Tamarack. It’s two miles north of the intersection.”

“Eight miles west on Conway, right on Tamarack, two miles north of the intersection. Thanks.”

“Wait a minute,” the man said. “You’re walking?”

Mason glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah.”

“But it’s ten miles away.”

He paused, balancing on a yellow parking bumper. “You said you were at Santa Rosa, right?”

The man nodded. “Last year.”

“Then you know that two and a half times around the track at the main unit is a mile.”

“I guess so.”

“So what we’re really talking about is twenty-five laps. Not even running. Just a morning walk. I think I can handle it.”

“You sure?” The man called after him. “I could get you an Uber.”

Mason shook his head and waved him off. Uber? He had no idea what he was talking about.

Conway Boulevard, one of the town’s main arteries, was a four-lane thoroughfare that snaked between the hospital and mall, arched high over the train tracks, descended into a long stretch of bars, pawnshops and used car lots, wound its way through the warehouse district, then straightened over the faint rolling hills of Westgate where the sidewalks ended and blue collar homes and small businesses were spaced along the roadside.

The miles evaporated behind him. He walked on auto pilot. In the tall grass of right-of-ways, over limestone driveways, and unmarked orange clay turnoffs. His mind unspooled in every direction, past, future and lateral present.

A caution light blinked up ahead. A horizontal green street sign hung from the cable. Tamarack Road. He was surprised to have covered so much ground so quickly. It wasn’t even noon. He reined in his thoughts as he cut through the parking lot of a hardware store and began the last two miles of his journey.

For Mason Foster, getting out of prison was not the proverbial finish line. Nor was pacing the familiar perimeters of his childhood home. Though these milestones were thrilling and humbling and beautiful, he knew he would not be completely free until he hugged his mother again.

Sam Caldwell had warned him to brace for the dementia. He nodded politely at her words but she was wasting her breath. He’d been bracing since the diagnosis, since her last confused letter. He knew her mind was broken. This fact of life had been absorbed, grieved, and reconciled years ago. But as the Harmony Meadows sign appeared on the horizon, a seedling of hope sprouted in his heart. Maybe the sight of her only son would prove to be galvanic, causing long darkened neuro-tunnels to light up. His pace quickened.

Memories of his mother unlocked and cascaded through his mind in a rush of images and emotion. Her running beside his bicycle when the training wheels came off, taking pictures on the first day of school, birthday parties, nature walks, foot races in parking lots, her face in the audience at school plays, her face in the stands at football games, her face on the front row at every court appearance. Mom.

Maybe there was a chance.

He realized what his mind was doing – this insurrection of hope. He tried to snuff it out before it could gain traction.

Don’t be stupid, Mason. She has an incurable brain disease. There is no chance.

But the mind, emboldened with optimism, would not go quietly.

Don’t underestimate the power of the bond between mother and son. Not just power. Magic. If a mother can summon the strength to lift a two-thousand-pound car to save her child, or fight off lions in the wild, or endure the flames of a house fire … if the connection is so powerful that when the child is shot or stabbed or beaten that, across the country, the mother simultaneously buckles in pain. If all this is possible, then maybe, just maybe…

Harmony Meadows Assisted Living Village was a collection of log cabin style buildings, set back a hundred yards from the road and barely visible through a fortress of pines. A circular driveway looped beneath a canopy at the entrance. On each side of double wooden doors with thick green, diamond-shaped glass inlay, twin potted yews stood sentry.

Above him, a black plastic orb was mounted just below the right angle where wall and roof met. He recognized it instantly. The same cameras were installed at every prison dormitory in the state after a media storm of abuse allegations and murders.

Although Mason distrusted millennial technology, he was relieved to see the camera. He knew from experience that video surveillance was an effective insurance policy against human cruelty. Especially in institutions.

He pulled open the door. The log cabin theme was consistent throughout. Paper pumpkins and ghosts dangled from varnished trusses. A stone hearth and brick chimney disappeared into the apex of the ceiling. Leather couches and tables fanned with magazines and brochures filled the spacious lobby. The scent of Pledge filled his nostrils.

A plump black woman with soft eyes and Don King hair smiled from behind a counter. She wore a maroon polo shirt with Harmony Meadows embroidered over the pocket in gold cursive.

“Whew! Would you just look at all those tattoos!” She shook her head. “Young people today. At least you don’t have any on your face. My grandson put one right under his eye. His eye! Why would such a handsome young man do that to himself?”

Mason shoved his hands in his pockets, not sure how to respond. He was forty-eight years old, certainly no expert on young people. He glanced at the video monitors behind the counter. “I’m here to see Ava Foster. My name is– ”

“I know who you are, baby. Mrs. Caldwell said you’d be along sooner or later.” She pushed a clipboard and pen toward him. “Just sign this.”

Mason scribbled his name, almost adding his DC number before catching himself. Those six digits had been attached to him for so long, they were going to be hard to shake. Muscle memory.

“I’ve already notified the doctor that you’re here,” she said. “He should be along any minute. Meantime, those magazines are all current and there’s a coffee machine in the corner.”

Across the room, a door squeaked and a cigar stub of a man in jeans and cowboy boots strode toward him with a hand extended.

“Well that was fast,” she said.

“Mr. Foster? Myles Jennings. Good to meet you.” His handshake was firm.

“Come on,” he said from under a thick salt and pepper mustache. “Your mother’s in her room. I’ll take you.”

The rear door opened to a sidewalk that led to a much larger building. Beyond that, he could see people playing shuffle board and tennis. A botanical garden with benches and fountains sprawled as far east as he could see.

“We also have an Olympic-sized pool, a driving range, and a bowling alley,” said the doctor. “Many of our clients are in perfect health. They’re just here for the camaraderie and amenities.”

The ominous however was left unsaid.

Two twentyish nurses in scrubs and crocs were exiting the building as they arrived. Mason held the door.

“Ladies,” said the doctor.

They smiled in return.

“So how familiar are you with your mother’s situation?”

Mason shrugged. “I know she has Alzheimer’s.”

The doctor nodded. “Among other things. But yes, Alzheimer’s is the most debilitative, and unfortunately incurable, aspect of her condition. Your mother is somewhat of a statistical anomaly,” he glanced over at Mason, “either that or just one helluva a tough woman because she’s been teetering between the middle and late stages since I’ve been here. Seventeen years, January.”

“And that’s uncommon?”

They stopped at a secure door. The doctor waved up at a camera and it slid open, revealing a long corridor. “The average person with Alzheimer’s has an estimated lifespan of about four to eight years after diagnosis.”

Another secure door, another wave. They were now far from the botanical gardens and tennis courts. This part of the facility was less Club Med and more state penitentiary.

A burly male nurse with a goatee and massive forearms thumbed through charts at the desk. The hallway beyond was lined with staggered doors on either side. Some were wide open. In one room, a pale stooped man in a hospital gown stared listlessly through his window. Across the hall, a tiny woman with a puff of white hair lit up when he made eye contact then melted into suspicion. “Damned Jehovah’s Witnesses … stay off my porch!” Two doors down, a young woman was narrating a photo album to a disinterested grandmother who was busy shredding tissue.

The doctor continued. “I’d like to think that our staff and the quality care here at Harmony Meadows are the reasons your mother is defying the odds. In addition to cutting edge medications for memory loss like Aricept and Exelon, we’ve also explored alternative remedies that can boost brain function like coconut oil and fish oil. Our dietician—”

“Are you saying her memory has improved? Will she … remember?”

The doctor paused in the hallway. “No. I wish I could tell you that. I’m just saying that she has lapped the field a few times when it comes to exceeding expectations. Listen, I’m not going to sugar coat it, her memory is severely impaired, her cognitive function has slowed. Lately she has exhibited signs of confusion, disorientation, depression, even aggression. But she’s been living with a brain disease for over twenty years and can still eat and swallow without assistance, can almost walk without assistance, and can communicate with words. In many ways your mother is a miracle of modern medicine.”

“Okay,” said Mason, more to himself than to Myles Jennings.

The doctor nodded at the closed door on the left. “Knock first, she may be indecent.”

A handmade sign was taped on the door. It said Ava in pink letters with a flower drawn beneath it. He raised his hand and knocked gently.

“Who’s there?” said a woman’s voice.

He stuck his head inside. She was sitting in front of a television. Her gray hair was in a girlish ponytail and a patchwork quilt was draped over her small shoulders. The familiar piano chords of The Young and the Restless played at low volume.

“I hope you’re here to fix this cheap…” she searched for the word, “picture box. The sound has been broken for years and no one cares.”

He stepped into the room, leaving the door open behind him. “Let’s see what we can do here. Flat screen televisions are definitely not my specialty, but maybe…” He found the remote on the dresser and increased the volume. “How’s that?”

She pulled the quilt tighter. There was a tremor in her hands. “What time does this restaurant close?”

He sat on the edge of her bed.

She eyed him suspiciously. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

He glanced out into the hallway for help but Dr. Jennings was gone. “I just came to check on you.”

She glared at him in silence. After a few moments, her eyes dropped to his arm.

He followed her gaze. A bolt of irrational juvenile fear caused him to flinch, some throwback boyhood anxiety about disappointing mom. He resisted the faint compulsion to hide his tattoos, instead scooting closer to give her a better view.

She looked away.

He held out his arm.

She stared at the television.

“See this one? These praying hands with a rosary? I got it first. And look. Doves! This is a hibiscus flower right here, a pretty lady, the ocean. We’ve got Johnny Cash flippin’ off the camera and check this out,” he said, showing her his wrist. “It’s my favorite.”

Indifferent eyes stared through him.

“Can you read it? It says Ava.”

A spark of recognition flickered and faded.

“Ava.” Her voice was far away. “My name is Ava.”

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

Sticks & Stones – Chapters 4 & 5

Chapter 4: Fingertips of the Infinite

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGDawn. His first as a free man. He stood naked at the sliding glass window watching the bleary yolk of the sun as it cleared the hedges that towered over the privacy fence and climbed the October sky. There was rainwater in the bird bath and a family of robins flitted from nest to branch to mildewed stone and back, splashing the morning with birdsong.

After decades of the relentless noise of cellblocks and warehouse dormitories, of violent arguments and blaring intercoms, piercing whistles and buzzing doors, the roar of exhaust fans, the howling of the mentally ill, and the pounding from the beats of aspiring rappers – fists slamming steel, dull and constant, day and night… After thirty years of this, the quiet solitude of this first sunrise was beyond tranquil. It was spiritual. He could almost feel the fingertips of the Infinite massaging his temples.

Reluctantly, he tore himself from the moment and went to check on the clothes that hung from the banister. They were still damp, but wearable, if a little stiff. He pulled them on and grabbed his money and keys. After inspecting the cell phone like some alien artifact from the future, he decided to take it along since he had no idea how to get where he was going.

He could have called a cab but it was a nice day for a walk and anyway, he needed to collect his thoughts before facing the inevitable. At least that’s how he justified things. But deep down, he could not evade reality. He was delaying only to savor these last few hours of ignorance. When you don’t know the brutal truth, when you haven’t faced it personally, then that truth is only a rumor, a theory, and hope has space to breathe.

He surveyed the living room once more as if there was anything in the empty house to forget. Then he opened the front door and stepped onto the porch. He could still hear the birds chirping in the backyard as he walked down the driveway. His neighbors were backing from their garages and curbs. The work day had begun.

He cracked his neck, swallowed hard, and set off for the Harmony Meadows Assisted Living Village. Although she didn’t know it, his mother had a visitor.

Chapter 5: Call of Duty

“Evan Aubrey Tyler! You’ve got about ten seconds to get your butt down these stairs!”

“He’s going for his two thousandth confirmed kill, Mom,” her seven-year-old daughter explained.

“His what?” She glanced down at Madison before turning back to the staircase. “Evan, if you don’t get down here this instant, I swear to you I will rip that Xbox from the wall and donate it to the Salvation Army on the way to work.”

Madison tugged at her hand. “You can’t do that Mom. He’s gonna be a YouTube celebrity.”

“ONE!” she shouted.

Maddy shouldered her backpack. “Hurry Evan! She’s counting again.”

“TWO!”

“I’ll go get him, Mom.”

“THREE–”

Evan Tyler appeared at the top of the staircase in a Star Wars t-shirt and camo pants. He had a serious case of bed head and as he padded down the steps she could see the dark circles beneath his eyes. His father’s eyes, she thought.

“Where are your glasses?”

With an exaggerated huff, he spun and stomped back up the stairs, reappearing a moment later wearing his bifocals.

“Evan, you look handsome,” said Madison.

“Shut up, Maddy.”

“Mom.”

“Evan don’t talk to your sister like that.”

The little family marched outside and piled into the SUV. She checked her lipstick in the rearview as doors were secured and seatbelts fastened.

“Mom, can I be a Hooters Girl for Halloween?”

She fired up the engine and backed down the driveway. “I don’t think that would be appropriate, Madison.”

“Why not? You were a Hooters Girl.”

She braked and put it in drive. “Well I’m a nurse now. Be a nurse, okay?”

Near the top of the cul de sac, she slowed to pass a man on foot. He wore ill-fitting, high-water khaki pants, muscles rippled beneath his white t-shirt, and his right arm was completely covered in tattoos.

“Hey Mom,” said Evan, “was that a soldier?”

She glanced at the diminishing form in her rearview mirror. He appeared to be searching for something in the trees overhead.

“I doubt it,” she said. “Probably just a landscaper.”

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

Sticks & Stones – Chapters 2 & 3

Chapter 2: Notches

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGThe house was dusty but otherwise clean. It smelled like new paint. He removed his shoes and walked barefoot on the carpet, exploring each room. His shadow loomed large beside him, mimicking his movements as he paced along the baseboards, brushing his fingertips against the drywall.

He flicked on the light in his old bedroom. It seemed smaller. The entire house seemed smaller. An optical illusion of the mind’s eye. Things were always bigger in childhood memories.

The side door to the garage was across the hall. There was a crack in the wood that was patched with silver duct tape. He turned the bronze, paint-flecked knob and it opened with a creak.

He groped along the wall for the light switch, a yellow overhead bulb sputtered to life and there, center stage, among the drop cloths and empty paint buckets sat his sixteenth birthday present: a 1984 Chevrolet Silverado. The tires were low, the antenna was broken, and bunched wires hung from the cavity that once held a radio, but it was still just as beautiful as it was in ’86 when he came home from school to find it parked in the driveway with a gigantic red bow on the hood.

He climbed into the driver seat. Some trespasser had left a few empty beer cans on the floorboard. He swept them out with his foot. He also noticed a cluster of cigarette burns on the passenger seat. Nothing that can’t be fixed. He glanced at the odometer. 37,595 miles. Not much more than when he went away. He imagined how let down his father must have been that day, how crushed his mother was.

He gripped the steering wheel and leaned his head against it. Tears filled his eyes. He let them fall. He wasn’t in prison anymore. He was home. And a man could cry in his own home if he wanted to.

After a few minutes, he wiped his eyes and tried the key in the ignition. Nothing. He didn’t expect it to turn over. The battery would be long dead, if not stolen. He’d get under the hood tomorrow. He gave the steering column a loving pat and climbed out of the truck. Exhaustion was beginning to wear on him. Bed or no bed, the idea of sleeping in his own room was suddenly appealing.

He paused at the light switch. Something on the door frame caught his eye. Notches. Twelve of them, ranging from knee to chest high. He remembered the pomp and fanfare of each measurement, the excitement of an inch grown. He reached out and touched the lowest indention as if it held remnants of energy from a happier, more innocent time. On impulse, he turned and got flush with the frame, using his key to make a new notch. Then he stepped back to study his handiwork.

He had grown almost a foot since the last measurement. The boy had returned home a man. Too bad no one was around to appreciate the difference. His father was long dead and it had been almost twenty years since his mother’s last incoherent letter.

He shut off the light and headed to his bedroom to get some sleep.

Chapter 3: Insomnia

He couldn’t sleep. Maybe it was his nerves, maybe it was the ghosts, maybe it was the unforgiving floor, or the ripe stench of his unwashed body or the hunger pangs gnawing a hole in his belly. Whatever it was, after hours of lying flat in the darkness, listening to the voice in his head jog the hamster wheel of expectations, fears, fantasies, memories, failures, injustices and regrets mixed with the other standard mindless chatter, he finally gave up.

There was a thousand dollars in the bank bag, all hundreds. He shoved the bills in one pocket, his keys in another, and slipped on his shoes.

Electronic music pulsed through his next-door neighbor’s window. He heard a woman laughing. Farther off, a dog barked. The rest of the neighborhood slept. A half-moon hovered over the Magic Mart down the street. He set off in that direction.

A motorcycle puttered down the road that separated the cul de sac from the convenience store parking lot. He listened to it fade into the night. What time is it? Gotta be after midnight. He hoped he didn’t cross paths with a patrol car. Although, technically he had served his time and had nothing to fear, a tattooed ex-convict, fresh out of prison, roaming quiet suburban streets after midnight was a definite red flag to any cop worth his badge.

He was halfway to the store when he heard a car approaching. Instinctively, he stepped into the shadows. The car never appeared but the sound persisted. Is that a car? Or… what the hell is that? It wasn’t a roar, more of a whir. A whine. It sounded like it was coming from behind him, above him. He looked over his shoulder. Something moved in the darkness. A bird? A bat?

He walked faster.

It followed.

He took off running.

The Magic Mart cashier was watching through the window as he tore across the parking lot and ripped open the door.

A bell chimed.

She threw up her hands as the door slammed behind him.

He tried to catch his breath and explain simultaneously. “No, no, this isn’t… I’m not…” He pointed outside. “Something was chasing me.”

She squinted through the window at the empty fluorescent-lit parking lot.

He followed her gaze. “I think it was a bat.”

She eyed him skeptically.

He fumbled for words that sounded reasonable, words that sounded sane. “Are there a lot of bats in this area?”

“I just started working here.”

He searched the night for a final time before gathering himself and turning down the first aisle of the store. Mirrors and cameras tracked his progress. He tried to relax but the cashier’s nervous energy was a living thing, feeding his own nervous energy. Back and forth it built and flowed until the entire store crackled with tension. Like a prison yard before a riot.

He picked up an overpriced jar of peanut butter and forced himself to speak. “Do you have any–”

“OH!” she screamed.

He almost dropped the jar. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” she said, touching her gray-streaked hair. “You just startled me.”

“Sorry about that. Do you have any soap? Deodorant? Stuff like that?”

She pointed a trembling finger at the opposite side of the store. “Aisle five. There isn’t much.”

He walked past the freezers, glancing at the different labels. Most he recognized only from magazine ads.

“I can’t sell you any alcohol,” she announced. “It’s ten after two.”

“I don’t drink,” he said. But you might need one, lady.

She continued to watch him suspiciously as he wandered toward the health and hygiene section. A pack of licorice in the candy aisle caught his eye and he bent to check the price. She was immediately on her toes, leaning left then right, trying to see what he was up to.

“Okay, you know what?” He straightened, dug in his pocket, and headed for the twitchy cashier.

She was already reaching for something – a phone? A panic button? A gun? – when he held up the wad of cash.

“Listen…” He glanced at her name tag. “Dot, I’m not a shoplifter. Okay? I’m just living in an empty house and I need to get some things, but I can’t even think of what I need because you’re stressing me out with all this … intense surveillance.”

She stiffened. “I’m doing my job.”

“I know, and I’m probably stressing you out too with the tattoos and the whole bat thing.” He paused and looked out the window again before laying one of the hundred dollar bills on the counter. “So why don’t you hang on to this while I figure out what I need. This way we can both relax.”

He studied her while she studied the bill. Late fifties, early sixties, fingernails gnawed to the quick, frown lines, shaky hands. Life had not been kind to Dot.

“It’s not a counterfeit,” he said. “At least I hope it’s not. An attorney gave it to me.”

She didn’t smile.

He returned the rest of the money to his pocket and walked back down the aisle, this time less tentative. He selected soap, deodorant, detergent. “Hey Dot, you don’t sell towels here do you?” Toilet paper, licorice, a bag of instant coffee, peanut butter, a loaf of bread and two cases of ramen noodle soup.

“You know this would cost a lot less at a grocery store,” she said as she scanned the items.

Mason shrugged. “My truck’s broke down.”

“That’s $63.47.” She held out his change in a trembling hand. “Thanks for shopping at Magic Mart.”

He lifted the bags from the counter and backed through the door. “Well, I live right down the road so you’ll probably be seeing a lot of me.”

She mumbled something as the door was closing. He absently turned it over in his mind as he hurried across the road, scanning trees and rooftops as he went. Halfway home, it came to him. He wasn’t certain but it sounded a lot like “watch out for bats.”

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