Chapter 1: A crack in the time capsule
Mason Foster could never grasp the fear. Not of freedom. For thirty calendars, he listened to other convicts whine about the big scary step back into society. Afraid of what? Pizza? The beach? Beautiful women? Air conditioning? Please. He’d switch places in a heartbeat. But as he made his way through the crowded bus station, a sort of nervousness began to creep over him. Not exactly naked fear but a definite sense of uneasiness. Butterflies. This was not the world he left in 1988. Same earth, same sky, same sun. But different. Futuristic. A parallel universe.
A kid in bulky goggles laughed and swatted the air in front of him. A tall black man in skinny jeans and headphones floated by on a Hoverboard. A woman with purple hair was engaged in a heated argument with a woman with green hair. Almost to the point of blows. The profanity was impressive, even by prison yard standards. Yet no one paid them any attention except for a wide-eyed Hispanic toddler who watched the back and forth like a tennis match over her mother’s shoulder. The rest of the lobby, entranced by their mobile devices, barely looked up. Mason knifed his way through the sleepwalkers, feeling suddenly claustrophobic as he headed for the glass double doors.
Outside, a homeless man in a dirty red Make America Great Again cap was petting a skeletal dog. “Hey buddy, can you spare a cigarette?”
Mason surveyed the parking lot. “I don’t smoke.”
In his final letter, Sam Caldwell, his mother’s attorney, said he’d be waiting in a black Mercedes. Nothing in his field of vision even came close to fitting that description. A smattering of raindrops began to fall as he shouldered his pillowcase of belongings and started toward the McDonald’s across the street.
The makeshift sack was light for thirty years of accumulated property – a toothbrush, toothpaste, a Bible that doubled as an address book, and a stack of old letters from home. Before he left the wing he’d given his radio to the ancient Cuban lifer in the next cell and left the rest of his things in the foot locker beneath his bunk for the vultures to pick over.
The rain was light and warm on his skin. It smelled like freedom. A patrol car passed as he stood at the intersection awaiting a break in the busy traffic. In the backseat, he could see the slumped figure of a man. His mind instantly flashed to 1988, when a scrawnier, stupider, teenaged version of himself sat handcuffed in the back of a cop car. The first agonizing moments of a three-decade slog. As he watched, the sirens melted into the city. He was suddenly overcome with gratitude to be forty-eight years old and on this end of the journey instead of eighteen and just starting out.
A car horn honked. He turned to see a sleek black luxury sedan pulling to the shoulder of the road, the chrome trisected Benz emblem gleaming above the headlights. Behind the swaying windshield wipers, a woman smiled at him.
He frowned as he approached the car. The nerves from the bus station returned with a vengeance. From butterflies to a swarm of bees. The passenger side window cracked an inch.
The rain picked up. “Yes ma’am. Mason Foster, 41492.”
The door unlocked. He swallowed as he reached for the handle, the voice in his head berating him. Foster, 41492! Spoken like a true institutionalized jackass. Is this how you plan on relating to people out here? Like you’re sounding off to the dorm sergeant at master roster count?
The car smelled of new leather and faint perfume. The dashboard was lit up like the cockpit of a plane.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t pick you up at the prison.” She glanced at the rearview cam on the console as she put the car in reverse. “We had an evidentiary hearing this morning and depositions all afternoon, plus jury deliberations in a capital murder trial. Hopefully the bus ride wasn’t too uncomfortable.”
Uncomfortable? he thought, hyperaware of the black skirt and hose in his periphery. Hell no. The Greyhound was a cake walk compared to this. “I enjoyed the scenery.”
A road map overtook the screen as she pulled back into traffic. For what seemed like the hundredth time during his first day of freedom, he marveled at the technological advancements of the free world, 2018. It wouldn’t have surprised him if the car had lifted off the ground and shot over the dense traffic like something from The Jetsons.
Her diamond and platinum wedding ring sparkled against the polished wooden steering wheel. “Are you Mr. Caldwell’s wife?”
She gave him an odd look. “Yes. Bruce and I have been married for sixteen–”
She was interrupted by the ringing of a phone. The words Incoming call, Natalie flashed across the navigation screen.
“One sec, I have to take this.” Then, speaking to the dash, “Okay, Nat, give me some good news.”
“Sorry, Sam, nothing yet,” a voice lisped through the car’s sound system. “Unless no news is good news. They’re still deliberating. Might end up deadlocked.”
Sam? he thought. She’s Sam Caldwell?
“There are worse things,” said Sam. Manicured nails tapped impatiently on the steering wheel. “Keep me posted.”
“Ciao.” The screen reverted to the road map as she swung the Mercedes onto the interstate ramp.
“I feel stupid,” he admitted. “All this time I thought Sam Caldwell was–”
“Samuel? Nope. Samantha Caldwell at your service. And don’t feel stupid. It’s a common mistake.”
He glanced over at her. She smiled back with impossibly white teeth. He could feel the sweat from his armpits running down his sides. The tattoos that spanned from his right shoulder to wrist, though perfectly drawn and shaded, felt trashy and low class in the presence of such refined beauty and elegance. The stench of prison, of failure, was on his breath, in his hair, in his pores. He sat up straighter, refusing to be intimidated.
“Have you spoken to my mother lately?”
She shook her head. “Not since last Christmas and even then she didn’t recognize me.” Her voice softened. “She probably won’t recognize you either, Mason. She’s pretty far gone. I’m sorry but… you need to be prepared.”
Although the last thirty years had been a descending stairway of low points – his arrest and conviction, denial of his direct appeal, the dissolution of childhood friends, the death of his father – his mother’s degenerative brain disease was the most tragic event of his life.
She surprised him by reaching over to pat his knee. “But the woman she was lives on. I don’t know too many people whose first thought after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is ‘how do I take care of my incarcerated son?’ Our firm has been dedicated to honoring her wishes.”
As they crossed the bay, some of the landmarks were vaguely familiar. A water tower, a hotel sign, the distant lights of the power plant.
“I appreciate it,” he said, meaning it.
“Well it’s been our pleasure but it hasn’t been easy.” She exited the interstate and turned onto a winding two-lane highway. “Oh, the financial aspect was fairly simple, deposit the money from your father’s life insurance policy and her own retirement account into a low risk mutual fund while ensuring that her social security, state pension and health insurance provided quality care at the assisted living facility. It was her house that proved to be a pain in the neck over the years.”
He was looking at her now. So interested in her story, in his family’s story, that all thoughts of shame, awkwardness and inadequacy melted away.
“Keep in mind that estate law and probate law are not really in my wheelhouse. I’m a criminal defense attorney. Did you know that’s how I met your mom? She wanted me to do your post-conviction work but after researching your case, I just couldn’t take her money.”
She turned off the highway into a neighborhood. They passed his elementary school and the park where he played peewee football.
“But that house … way above my pay grade. We’ve had to deal with squatters, busted plumbing and water damage, storm damage to the roof, kids breaking in to make out, thieves breaking in to steal. It got to the point where I had everything packed up and put in storage.”
“What about the truck?”
“I left it in the garage. I’m sure it’s missing some parts, but it was still there the last time I came by.” She nodded toward a bank bag on the console. “Keys are in there and a cell phone with my business card, along with some cash that should hold you until we get the paperwork signed.”
They passed the Magic Mart, turned down a cul de sac, drove by the familiar patio homes that lined the street and glided to a stop in front of his childhood home.
The headlights bathed the front porch steps in white. “I had the utilities turned back on last month.”
“There’s no furniture or food in there. I can take you to a hotel if you’d prefer.”
He shook his head. The driveway was alive with memories and ghosts. He reached for the door.
“Here, don’t forget this,” she said, handing him the bank bag.
“Thanks,” he mumbled.
“Hey,” she called as he stepped out of the car in a daze. “Good luck.”
For the first time in thirty years, Mason Foster was home.
Chapter 2: Notches
The 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.
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.”
Chapter 4: Fingertips of the Infinite
Dawn. 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.”
“I’ll go get him, Mom.”
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.”
“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.