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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.

“Mason?”

The rain picked up. “Yes ma’am. Mason Foster, 751984.”

The door unlocked. He swallowed as he reached for the handle, the voice in his head berating him. Foster, 751984! 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.”

“Of course.”

“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.”

“I am.”

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.”

“Thanks.”

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.”

He nodded.

“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.

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.”

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.”

“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.”

Chapter 6: Ava
There 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.”

Chapter 7: Neurochemicals
Such 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?”

Chapter 8: Neighborhood Crime Watch
The 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?”

Chapter 9: Halloween Visit
He 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.”

Chapter 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.

Chapter 13: Vitamin R
Her 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.”

Chapter 14: UFO
He 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!”

Chapter 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.”

Chapter 17: Adolf the Blonde
He 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.

Chapter 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 chairs beneath the river birch. “Me too.”

Chapter 20: The Face of Technological Advancement
The 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Chapter 27: The Matchmaker
Vital signs. This is what Brooke Tyler’s workday consisted of. One never-ending sequence of vital signs. Blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, “Please make yourself comfortable, the doctor will be with you shortly.” Her plan had always been to become a registered nurse, but then David died and she was suddenly a single mother on her own. Between Evan, Maddy and work there never seemed to be enough hours in the day. The idea of three more years of school seemed less and less possible as time went by.

The familiar faces of her coworkers smiled from doorways and break rooms as she walked back to the front of the office to retrieve the next patient’s chart. Though she knew their names and the names of many of their children and spouses, they were mostly strangers masquerading as acquaintances. Who really knew anyone in this world?

She paused at the end of the hall and gazed out from the fourth-story window. A sea of majestic oaks stretched east toward her home in a canopy of green. High above, clouds like white brush strokes were painted across the stretched canvas of blue sky. Even higher, a lonely jet left twin vapor trails in its wake.

She wondered what Mason was doing. Then she caught herself and wondered why. Strange.

A hand touched her elbow. She turned. “Oh, Dr. Diaz.”

With a full head of black hair, he was in his late sixties without a wrinkle on his ruddy face. “I left Evan’s prescription up front with Crystal. If his symptoms continue or if there are any side effects, be sure to let me know.”

“I will. Thanks. Mrs. Flannigan is waiting in room two. Her chart is on the door.”

He grimaced. “I appreciate the warning.”

According to the checklist, Evan was a classic Combined Type ADHD, displaying the hyperactive/impulsive symptoms, as well as exceeding the inattentive criteria. Still, she had her reservations. The internet wasn’t much help. Ritalin was either a miracle drug, a zombie potion, or a poor man’s cocaine, depending on the reviewer.

It was during times like these that the glaring hole David left in their lives was magnified. He had a knack for always knowing the right thing to do. She ached for his input. At least she had Blane to lean on. She walked back down the hall to the reception area.

Crystal Riley was a year younger than she was and recently divorced after fifteen years as the trophy wife of an abusive evangelical minister. She described her newfound freedom as how Piper Kerman must have felt when she walked out of prison. Her renaissance was gradual. First, black nail polish, then an eyebrow piercing. After four weeks of leave, she shocked the office by returning to work with an impressive new set of boobs. Most of the other women gossiped about Crystal but Brooke admired her independence and her lack of concern for what others were whispering about her.

She stood in the doorway. “Hey, Crystal, do you—”

“Oh God,” she rolled her eyes.

“What?” said Brooke.

“Sorry, hon. It’s not you. It’s just this song.”

The familiar double-claps and keys of Private Eyes filled the room.

“You don’t like Hall and Oates?”

Crystal pretended to gag.

“Why don’t you change the station?”

She shook her head — her once-brown Pentecostal bun now a platinum pixie cut — and pointed to the note taped above the radio.

“Doctor’s orders. 95 Beach FM, only. So I’m stuck with the ‘lite rock hits of the 70s, 80s and today.’” Her chair creaked as she leaned back and stretched. “FML, right?”

Private Eyes segued into Alanis Morrisette’s Ironic.

Brooke swayed a little. “This one isn’t too bad.”

“Compared to what?” Crystal curled her top lip. “A colonoscopy? Gimme Lizzy Hale over this Canadian bubblegum any day.”

Brooke smiled and raised her hands in surrender, marveling at the once docile little preacher’s wife for the thousandth time. “Dr. Diaz said he left a prescription for me.”

She pushed her chair back from her desk and rolled across the office. “I think I put it over here somewhere.”

As Brooke watched her thumb through a stack of papers, she noticed a barcode tattoo on the nape of her neck. “Crystal!” she whispered. “Is that a tattoo?”

The receptionist glanced at her, an almost-smile tugged at the corners of her lips as she reached back and touched her collar. “This? Yeah. I got it on Saturday. I have two more but… I’d have to show you in the bathroom.”

Brooke felt her face redden. “Are you seeing anyone?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Nothing serious. Why? Are you asking me out? I thought you were all hot and bothered over the handsome attorney off eHarmony or whatever.”

“I’m not asking for me, silly. I just know this guy who might be your type.”

“Yeah? How old?”

“Forty-eight, I think.”

She shook her head. “Too old.”

“But you’re almost forty.”

She looked around. “Do not say that again.”

Brooke smiled. “He’s got a lot of tattoos.”

“Really? What’s he do for a living?”

“He’s … um … he’s unemployed.”

“Great,” said Crystal. “Anything else? Some missing teeth, maybe?”

“He just got out of prison.”

She clapped her hands. “Awesome! Sounds like my soul mate, all right. Nice to know your opinion of me is so high.”

“He’s really cute.” It was only after the words were out that she realized they were true. “And he’s a sweetheart. My kids adore him.”

“Why was he in prison?”

She minimized. “Robbery.”

“Hmm. Dangerous. That might be interesting. Do you have a picture?”

Brooke shook her head, then glanced at the computer. “I don’t know, maybe. Can you pull up the Channel 7 News website?”

She rolled her chair back across the office and tapped on the keyboard. The Eyewitness News logo spun like a coin in the center of the Channel 7 homepage.

Brooke pointed to the tab that said Local. “Click here.” The Magic Mart story was the third from the top. “And right here.”

Mason’s face filled the screen, a deer in headlights.

“Yum,” said Crystal. “Look at those muscles. And that hair.”

Brooke laughed. “My daughter is responsible for that.”

They watched the video clip in silence. When it was over the receptionist reached over and touched her hand. “Those are your kids, aren’t they?”

She nodded.

“Oh my God, you must be so … I don’t know if I should say proud or scared.”

Brooke shrugged. “Both.”

Crystal glanced back at the screen. “Well, I would love to go out with your babysitter. If he’s interested. Show him my Instagram page, okay?”

A grandmother appeared at the window with a girl around Evan’s age. The conversation ended there. Brooke selected a chart from the top of the stack and went to the waiting room to call the next patient. “Malone?”

A thin regal woman with silver hair reached for her purse. On the way to the examination room she heard Crystal call to her from the front office.

“Hey Brooke? Don’t forget Evan’s prescription.”

Chapter 28: Prodigal Son
The temperature was dropping. The remaining leaves on the river birch quivered in the stiff north wind. The boy was uncharacteristically quiet.

“What’s going on, Commando? Cat got your tongue?”

No answer. He stood motionless by the truck.

“Can we ride in the back?” said Maddy.

“Not this time.”

“But why?”

He opened the passenger door for them. “Um, let’s see, hypothermia, the cops, your mom would kill me.”

“What’s hypothermia?”

He flicked her ponytail. “It’s when you turn into a popsicle.”

She climbed in first, followed by Evan. “Well, my mom says we have to wear seatbelts too and you don’t have enough.”

He closed the door and walked around to the driver side. “Just pull that one around both of you.”

Maddy was scrunching her nose when he climbed in. “It smells bad in here.”

He smiled at the little girl. “Anything else, Madison?”

She surveyed the truck. “You don’t have a radio.”

“Thank you.”

The engine whinnied and rumbled to life. They coasted down the driveway in a cloud of exhaust.

Fran Vickers, Supreme Leader of the homeowners association, was waiting by the mailboxes. She covered her nose and mouth with a handkerchief and waved for them to stop.

“Roll down that window, Evan.”

He didn’t budge.

Fran coughed and tapped her fingernails against the glass, smiling like a rabid jackal.

“I’ll do it,” said Maddy, grunting as she reached across her brother and wrenched the stubborn crank.

“Good afternoon!” Fran trilled. A psychotic geriatric Mary Poppins in leopard-print tights. “The neighborhood is positively abuzz with chatter about the three heroes from Devon Lane.”

Maddy turned to him and beamed, basking in the older woman’s compliments. He envied her naiveté. At seven years old, she took words at face value. The world had not yet taught her to be skeptical.

“Mason, I would offer you a position with our neighborhood crime watch, but,” she smiled sweetly, “well, you understand.”

He accidentally revved the engine. A black plume of exhaust spat from the tailpipe and carried on the wind.

“Good heavens!” she cried. “If I was a Democrat, I’d label this truck a climate threat and file a complaint with the EPA.” She paused as if jolted by the tasty possibilities of her own veiled threat. A mental doubletake. “I do think it’s absolutely precious that these dear ones’ mother allows them to gallivant about the neighborhood with the likes of you.”

Maddy turned and smiled at him again, this time with less wattage, unsure. Evan continued his stare-down with the middle distance.

“Well,” said Mason, “we’re kinda in a hurry, so—”

“Really? Where are you off to?”

He ignored her question. “Did you need something? Or were you just stopping us to say hello?”

“Actually, I wanted to congratulate you on your heroic deed—”

“Thanks.” He put the truck in drive.

“And I was wondering if you got a job yet?”

None of your damned business, he thought. “I’m still looking,” he said.

Slowly, he pulled away from the mailboxes. She held onto the window and walked alongside the truck.

“Well seeing that you’re unemployed, it wouldn’t kill you to do a little home improvement on that eyesore of a house. You know what they say about idle hands and, honestly, our property values should not have to suffer because—”

He gave the truck some gas. “Nice talking to you, Fran.”

For a moment he worried that she wouldn’t let go. Surely she couldn’t run. She was at least eighty. He imagined her clinging to the window on the Interstate, billowing in the wind like a poltergeist. Or worse, falling and getting crushed under the tires. He was relieved when he looked in the rearview and saw her standing in the middle of the cul de sac.

“Ms. Fran is so nice,” said Maddy.

“Right … about as nice as a Komodo dragon.”

“What’s a Komodo dragon?”

“A lizard that eats people.”

“Like a crocodile?”

“Worse.”

Her look was skeptical.

He shrugged. “Goggle it.”

“It’s Google, Mason.”

“Whatever.”

At the light on Conway Boulevard he noticed Evan twitching, some sort of facial tic. “Hey Commando, everything all right over there?”

“Yeah,” barely audible.

The light turned green.

“His new medicine makes him sleepy,” Maddy explained.

“Medicine? Is he sick?”

Maddy shook her head. “Just hyper.”

He turned over her words in his head as he drove across the train tracks and entered the warehouse district, occasionally stealing a glance at the boy who sat automaton-still by the passenger door, his hooded eyes unblinking behind his bifocals. Hyper medicine?

Suddenly a woman’s tinny voice burst into song, the ringtone rupturing the drone of road noise and snatching him from his thoughts.

Maddy pulled her cell phone from her pocket and held it to her ear. “Hey Mom.” She listened for a moment then glanced at Evan. “He’s being good. Just real real quiet.” She listened some more. “Okay, love you. Here’s Mason.”

He ignored the outstretched phone. “Tell her I’m driving.”

“He’s driving, Mom.”

She nodded and touched the screen. Brooke’s voice filled the truck cab. “I just received a disturbing text from a concerned neighbor who wishes to remain anonymous. Says you were driving reckless and endangering my kids.”

He shot Maddy a told you so look. “I don’t know why Fran would say that. I’m right at the speed limit, using my blinkers, and all seatbelts are fastened.”

“Ms. Fran is a dragon lady,” said Maddy.

“That’s not nice, Madison,” she scolded. “Mason, why are you in Westgate?”

“I told you I had some errands to run.” He glanced in the rearview. “How do you know we’re in Westgate?”

“Evan’s smartphone has GPS. You just turned off Conway onto Tamarack. Now you’re headed north.”

He shook his head. “Remind me never to buy one of those things.”

“So what errands are you running in Westgate?”

He turned down the winding driveway of Harmony Meadows. “My mother lives out this way. I usually visit her on Mondays.”

“Really? I didn’t realize, I mean, I just assumed that…” She changed the subject. “Hey, will you eat dinner with us tonight? I have some exciting news I’ve been meaning to tell you.”

“What are you cooking?”

“I don’t know. Does it matter? Something with more nutritious value than instant soup.”

“Will Blane be there?” He glanced at Maddy and curled his top lip in disgust. She responded by miming a vomit-inducing finger down her throat.

“No, he’s working late.”

“Then count me in.”

“You’re terrible,” she laughed. “I need to get back to work. Take care of my babies.”

“See you tonight,” he said.

“I’m not a baby,” said Maddy, but she was already gone.

He found a parking spot near the entrance and shut off the engine. The pines bent and swayed in the wind. He was flanked by polar opposites on the way to the door. One skipped, the other trudged.

“I thought your mom lived in heaven with my dad,” said Maddy.

Evan looked up in groggy anticipation.

“My dad lives in heaven with your dad. My mom lives right over there in that big building behind those log cabins.”

“But how come she doesn’t live at home with you?”

“Because she’s sick and they take good care of her here,” he said. “Way better care than I could give her.”

Through the thick bottle-green glass of the front door, he spotted nose-ring hunched over a stack of paperwork, Secret Service earpiece in place. He squeezed Evan’s shoulder. “All right, Commando. I need you to take out the front desk. Got your machine gun ready?”

His only response was a facial tic. Then two more in rapid succession.

Mason could not resist flashing his driver’s license as they walked past the counter. “It’s official now. I’m a naturalized citizen of the free world.” He nodded toward his photocopied mugshot taped to the file cabinet. “You can throw that thing away if you want. Unless it has sentimental value to you.”

“You still need to sign in, sir.” Her sir sounded a lot like inmate to him.

He scrawled his name in the visitors’ log. “Anything else? Fingerprints? A pat search? A field sobriety test?”

She glanced at Evan and Maddy. “Are they authorized?”

“Come on, lady. They’re eleven and seven years old!”

She returned to her paperwork, unconcerned. “They still require authorization.”

“By who?”

“By the patient.”

He restrained himself from pounding the counter. “The patient is my mom. She has Alzheimer’s.”

“I like that pretty earring in your nose,” said Maddy.

He was contemplating his next move when he heard the muffled sound of a toilet flushing, followed by faint whistling and a running sink. Then the door opened and his patron saint in cowboy boots walked into the lobby.

“Thank God,” said Mason.

“I do, every day.”

“This … woman is making my life miserable again.” He felt like a tattletale but he couldn’t resist. “We’re just here to visit my mom and she’s treating us like … like suicide bombers!”

“Autumn, Autumn, Autumn. Don’t you recognize these folks? They’re local celebrities.”

“Yeah,” said Maddy, hands on hips.

The doctor turned to Mason. “You’ll have to forgive my granddaughter. She doesn’t watch the local news. Got one of them dang Roku internet things. Come on, I’ll take ya’ll back.”

Granddaughter? thought Mason, suddenly relieved that he had bitten his tongue. Maddy held his hand and Evan floated along beside him as they walked down hedge-lined sidewalks, antiseptic hallways, and through increasingly secured plexiglass doors. The doctor pointed out people, places, and machines along the way.

“Thanks for saving us,” said Maddy.

The doctor nodded at Mason. “It’s that Johnny Cash tattoo. Gets me every time.”

“My mom is a nurse. Her real name is Brooke. Have you ever heard of her?”

“Hmm, Brooke,” said the doctor with a straight face. “Sounds familiar.”

When they arrived at Ava’s room she was leaning against the dresser, squinting at her reflection in the mirror. A pink terrycloth robe was cinched around her tiny waist and tremors racked her body.

“Ava,” said the doctor, “you have visitors.”

Mason stepped forward with the kids. “Mom, these are my friends, Evan and Maddy.”

She examined them in the mirror, her face a crinkled roadmap of lost highways and tributaries. Then her eyes widened, the trembling halted, and thirty years fell away.

She turned, swallowed, and reached out to touch Evan’s face. He didn’t move.

“Mason? Oh my goodness, Mason!” She wrapped her frail arms around the boy. Tears streamed down her face as she kissed his hair. “Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick about you!”

Maddy gasped and looked up at him. “She called him Mason!”

“It’s okay,” Evan mumbled, his first complete sentence of the afternoon. “I don’t mind.”

Chapter 29: Sick World
The facial tics were disturbing. Both Dr. Diaz and WebMD assured her that the twitching was not uncommon and would soon subside, yet here they were, ten days into his Ritalin prescription and the synaptic spasms persisted. Every time his little body jolted she had to fight back tears.

She watched them from the hallway. Evan picked at his food while Maddy gave a YouTube tutorial with pizza sauce smeared from her mouth to her dimples. “And this is Grumpy Cat.” Mason was wedged between them on the couch, downing slice after slice with a casual voracity that could only be described as Davidesque.

He laughed at something on the tablet and almost lost a mouthful of Meat Lovers with extra cheese.

Maddy smiled at him. “See? Computers are fun. You don’t have to be afraid.”

“Afraid?” He swallowed his food. “You should know by now that I ain’t afraid of nothing. Remember the way I took out that robber?” He acted out a choke slam.

Brooke rolled her eyes in the shadows.

“Hey,” Maddy protested. “Me and Evan helped.”

He reached for another slice of pizza.

“I know somebody you’re afraid of,” said her daughter with a sly smile. “My mommy.”

“Psshh,” he grinned at Evan. “Are you hearing this Commando?”

Brooke walked into the living room and began cleaning up. “All right guys. Bed time. Say good night to Mason.”

A cascade of crumbs fell from Evan’s lap as he stood and slogged toward the staircase.

Maddy pouted, attempting to buy time. “But Mom … I didn’t get to ask him about music class.”

“Ask while you’re walking, Madison.”

“Okay. Do you think I should sign up for tuba or violin?”

He reached for his water as Brooke raked the parmesan cheese packets and used napkins into an empty pizza box. She flinched as the glass passed in front of her face. Soap scum.

He either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “Is this a trick question? Have you ever met a tuba-playing rock star? I vote violin.”

“Me too!” said Maddy, disappearing up the stairs. “Nighty-night, Mason.”

He caught Brooke staring and lowered his voice. “Why are you looking at me like that? Should I have gone with tuba?”

She snapped out of it. “No … no, I was hoping she’d choose the violin.”

He continued to watch her over the rim of his glass. “What about Evan? Is he thinking of picking up an instrument? Seems like he’d be a natural drummer, all that energy.”

Evan. For the thousandth time, she wondered if she was doing the right thing.

“At least he had a lot of energy,” Mason said. “I barely recognized the kid in my truck today. So quiet. It was like he wasn’t even there. Except for that horrible twitching.”

His words hit a nerve. “It’s actually a common side effect of his medication.”

“Which part? The disappearing personality or the twitching?”

Although she agonized over these exact questions, his interrogation was making her defensive. “Look, I happen to work in the medical field. I spend over forty hours a week around doctors. These are not just colleagues, they’re friends. Trust me, my son’s treatment plan is being closely monitored by some of the best health care providers in the state.”

“Treatment plan for what?”

She rolled her eyes. “I doubt you’d be familiar with the diagnosis.”

He didn’t budge. “Try me.”

“Fine,” she sighed. “He’s combined type Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, displaying both inattentive as well as hyperactive and impulsive symptoms. Not that it’s any of your business.”

His smile was infuriating. “So basically a bunch of fancy words for normal, energetic little kid?”

“Well his teacher and his doctor and Blane would tend to disagree. Not to mention millions of families all over the world.”

His face hardened at the mention of Blane. “Sounds like I’m outnumbered and outgunned then. Who am I to argue with teachers and doctors and Blane? But let the record reflect that in the opinion of this lowly convict, eleven-year-old boys shouldn’t be put on dope because they’re too hyper for their teachers or their doctors or their mothers’ boyfriends to handle.” He stood up. “There’s nothing wrong with Evan. It’s the world that’s sick. I’ll let myself out.”

She stormed down the hallway after him. “How dare you insinuate that I’m a bad mother!”

“I didn’t—”

“How convenient for you to stroll in here with your simplistic world view and your cereal box psychology and your … your …” She groped for hurtful words. “Your prison tattoos! You’ve never had to chase him around a department store or punish him for making an F. You’ve never had to physically detach him from his Xbox controller.”

He paused at the door. “You’re right. But aren’t you the one that said your kids aren’t stupid, just inexperienced? How can Evan learn from his experiences when he’s doped into submission? Little boys are naturally hyper. I sure as hell was. But that energy ought to be harnessed and directed, not medicated into oblivion.”

“Is that how you turned out to be such a winner?” she smirked. “Forgive me if I’m not inspired by your example.”

His eyes flashed pain. She regretted her words even as she spoke them. Mason was a good man. It was herself she was grappling with.

“Good night, Brooke.” He opened the door.

Blane was standing on her welcome mat, his gelled hair gleaming in the yellow glow of the porch light. He was holding a single red rose. His sculptured eyebrow ascended like a half moon on the smooth, tanned skin of his forehead.

“Am I interrupting something?”

Chapter 30: The Winner Mows by Night
He mowed with a vengeance, taking his anger out on the overgrown yard. An arcing spray of cut grass rainbowed in his wake, phosphorescent in the moonlight. A rock pinged off his truck. He used his forearm to wipe the dust from his brow and kept pushing, as if the lawnmower blades could lay low his shame, his guilt, his powerlessness, along with the grass.

Across the street, Fran’s bedroom light switched on. He figured he was violating some noise ordinance by mowing after 10:00 p.m., probably a black mark on his neighborhood watch report card. But he was mowing his grass. It seemed like that would merit a gold star in his homeowners association file. Who constituted these shadowy organizations anyway? The only one he ever saw was Fran. Was she both judge and jury? He was beginning to not care. Maybe it was time to sell the house and move away … some place where he could be anonymous … where his criminal history wasn’t common knowledge.

Brooke’s words echoed in his mind. As loud as the lawnmower was, it still couldn’t drown them out. “Is that how you turned out to be such a winner?” He pushed harder. Rounding the river birch and wrought iron chairs, to the hedges and back in long vertical lines, up and down, over and over.

He was near the front porch step when he noticed her. She was standing at the edge of the driveway in sweatpants and a tank top, hair up in a scrunchy, face scrubbed clean of makeup and achingly beautiful.

He ripped the lawnmower in a 180-degree turn and headed back toward the hedges. When he returned she was blocking his path. He tried to go around her but she was too quick.

He killed the engine. “What?”

“Are you crazy?”

He shook his head. “Just a loser.”

She flinched but stayed the course. “It’s too late at night to be mowing your lawn. Someone will call the police.”

He glanced at Fran’s house. “I don’t care.”

“Mason, please … I’m sorry, okay?”

“Apology accepted. Go away.”

He left the lawnmower in the grass and walked over to the porch. She followed.

“Come on.” She sat down next to him, her arm grazing his. “You of all people should believe in second chances. I was wrong tonight. I admit it. I lashed out at you. You didn’t deserve that. I’m just under an unbelievable amount of stress…”

Her words trailed off into the now lawnmowerless night.

“Where’s Blane?”

“He went home.” She hugged herself and rubbed her arms. “It’s cold out here.”

He envied her hands. “Do you want to come inside?”

She shook her head. “I can only stay a second. Maddy’s still awake. I just wanted to apologize for being so rude and … with all the chaos earlier I forgot to tell you the exciting news.”

He waited in silence, watching her. His eyes were drawn to a lonely freckle suspended on the side of her graceful neck, inches beneath her pierced earlobe.

“I have a friend from work who wants to go out with you.”

He blinked. The spell was broken. “That’s the big news?”

Her eyes sparkled. “Yes!”

“I’ll pass.”

“Come on, Mason. How long has it been since you’ve enjoyed the company of a beautiful woman?”

“I’m doing that right now.”

She swatted his knee. “Stop. I’m being serious.”

He focused on a bright and distant light in the sky. Whether star, planet, or satellite, he couldn’t tell. “I don’t want to go on a date with anyone.”

“But you’d love her. She’s exactly your type.”

“I’m sorry, Brooke. I just don’t think it’d be a good idea.”

“Please,” she pouted. “I already told her you would. She’s so excited. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

He turned to her, searching her eyes. “You really want me to date someone?”

She nodded. “I think you’ll adore her.”

“Okay. One date.”

She clapped her hands.

He continued to stare at her. “Under one condition.”

“What?”

“Take Evan off that zombie medication.”

She blew a loose strand of hair from her face. “Please don’t start this again.”

“He doesn’t need it. He just needs direction. Look, you said yourself there is too much estrogen in your household. Let me work with him.”

“Mason, I know your heart’s in the right place, but—”

“Go ahead and say it. I’m not the stereotypical role model. No argument there. But me and Evan are a lot more alike than you think. I wasn’t much older than he is now when I lost my dad. Over the last thirty years, prison psych doctors have diagnosed me with everything from seasonal depression to borderline personality disorder to PTSD. And if ADHD was popular when I was in elementary school, I’m sure I would’ve been a prime candidate for that too. I can’t even count how many medications I’ve been prescribed and refused.”

She rocked against him with her shoulder. “Thanks, that makes me feel a lot better about everything.”

He smiled. “I’m not knocking medication. I’m sure it saves thousands of lives but, come on, you’re a nurse. Haven’t you ever wondered how much pharmaceutical companies are making off all these prescriptions? Billions, I’m sure, and that’s probably lowballing it.”

She stared into the night.

“Look, when I was thirty I met a doctor named Gavin Ponder. Real laid back dude. He wasn’t pushy at all with the meds. Just the opposite. He showed me this article in a magazine called Nature about the positive effects of exercise on the brain and how the benefits are especially pronounced in people diagnosed with some form of mental illness. That was all I needed to hear.”

She stood up. “So you think exercise will save my son?”

“I think it will make him more disciplined, more confident, and burn off some of that excess energy he has.” He walked her to the driveway. “But I’m not just talking exercise. Fran’s been on my back about making this place presentable. He can help me do work around here too. It’ll be good for him.”

“Hmm,” she said, wheels turning. “Male bonding.”

“If that’s what you want to call it.”

“Let me think about it.”

He touched her wrist. “Come on, Brooke. That poor kid that’s been staggering around here isn’t Evan. I know you want your son back.”

She glanced in the direction of her house. “Maddy says your mom is a sweet woman.”

“She’s late stage Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t know who I am.”

“Mason…” Her eyes widened, then filled with tears. “You’re hurting! I had no idea.”

He fumbled around in his mind for the polite response but all thoughts were swallowed in the groundswell of her embrace. Slowly, carefully, he folded his arms around her.

She looked up at him. Even in the dark, her eyes were sunlight playing on the ocean, drawing him in.

Her lips parted.

He lowered his head.

“Crystal,” she said.

He froze. “Who?”

“Your date. Her name is Crystal.”

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

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

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

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

“Brrr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-ow!”

The startled bird disappeared into the overgrown hedges.

“Come here,” said Mason.

He took off into the backyard.

“Evan! I need to talk to you.”

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

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

Silence.

“Let’s go Commando! Now!”

He slunk around the corner of the house.

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

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

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

He shrugged. “I guess so.”

“Can you tell the difference?”

He rocked vigorously in the chair.

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

He mumbled something unintelligible while looking over his shoulder.

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

“LIKE BRICKS TIED TO MY FEET!”

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

He stopped rocking. “I’ll help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blane’s an asshole.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“Come on over to the truck.”

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

“Think you can handle that bag of cement?”

Evan nodded. “What are we gonna build?”

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

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

He grunted and stumbled across the grass.

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

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

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

“I don’t know what we’re making.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mason winked at Evan. “Exactly.”

“How pleasant.”

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

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

“Mmm, this is amazing,” she purred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled. “Overruled.”

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s actually been working with Mason.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His lips are moving.”

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

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

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

“I asked you first.”

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

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

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

“But not too young for a cell phone?”

“That’s different.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gross,” said the little girl.

He shrugged. “Take it or leave it.”

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

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

Nothing.

He tried again.

Same result.

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

“Can you, um, help me with this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Almost there,” said Mason.

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

“What are you doing?”

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

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

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

He watched her march back into the storage unit.

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

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

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

“I guess I need the bed.”

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

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

He glanced down at the boy. “Some.”

“Why do people kill people?”

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

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

He nodded. “And war.”

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

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

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

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

“It’s pretty.”

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

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

“That’s a Slinky.”

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

“It tells your fortune,” Mason explained.

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

“Is this an Atari?”

Mason nodded.

“Cool!”

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

“What’s this?” said Maddy.

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

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

She passed it back without looking.

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

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

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

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

To my son.

Chapter 34: Relic
My Dear Mason,

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

With all my heart,
Love,
Mom

Chapter 35: Mall Rats
The restroom door opened in a whoosh of passing laughter and Christmas music from the mall beyond. Key-etched graffiti marred the lavender painted stall, a sloppy FTW. He stared at it, half-listening, as water rushed from a sink followed by the roar of the automatic hand dryer followed by the click of loafers on tile and finally the door opening and closing again, leaving him in muffled, tomb-like silence. Then …

“Hey Mason.”

He flinched.

“Are you almost done?”

“Almost, Evan.”

“Why are you in the handicapped stall?”

“I … uh …” He hadn’t realized he was in the handicapped stall.

“Mom doesn’t let me go number two in public places.”

“Well I’m older than your mom so that rule doesn’t apply to me.”

“She says you can catch crabs that way.”

He glanced down, eyes narrowed.

“The mall is gonna close soon.”

“You’re not helping, Evan,” he barked at the stall door. “Now can you please step outside and watch your sister before she gets kidnapped?”

“Maddy’s right here.”

“Hurry up, Mason!”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Maddy, this is the men’s room.”

She ignored him. “Why aren’t your pants around your ankles like when normal people go to the potty?”

“Guys! Please! Two minutes!”

He finished up quickly but couldn’t figure out how to use the sink. Damn it. He stuck his head through the door. They were across the hall, waving at a mannequin in a window display.

“Evan, come here a second.”

The boy came running.

“How do you work this stupid thing?”

Evan hesitated as if suspicious, then stuck his hand beneath the nozzle. Water flowed.

Mason mimicked his technique. “All right, let’s go.”

Maddy was waiting outside the door, hands on hips. “I still wanna know why you don’t go to the potty like normal people.”

“Old habit,” he mumbled as they joined the throng of shoppers. He did not want to explain to a seven-year-old girl that prison bathrooms are some of the most dangerous places in the world and getting caught with one’s pants around one’s ankles was a rookie mistake.

They passed a toy store. Two little heads swiveled. Even he could feel its gravitational pull. “No way, malls are gross, remember?”

Evan looked longingly over his shoulder. “Maddy said that. Not me.”

“I did not!”

Mason smiled. “We might check it out on the way back. First order of business is a shirt and tie for me.”

A father and daughter exited a clothing store, laughing and holding hands as they passed in the other direction.

Maddy slid her hand inside of his. “Why do you want a tie?”

“I’ve got a date.”

Evan’s eyes filled his bifocals. “With a girl?”

He nodded.

“I wish you had a date with my mommy,” said Maddy.

Me too, he thought. “Well, your mom likes Blane.”

“Blane sucks,” said Evan.

“Aw, come on man. Blane’s all right. He’s just a little stiff. You gotta loosen him up.”

As they passed the music store, Maddy released his hand and made a beeline for the entrance.

“Hey,” Mason called after her. “Where are you going?”

She didn’t look back, didn’t even acknowledge his voice. She was caught in the tractor beams, pulled forward, spiral-eyed and hypnotized, by a towering wall of guitars.

He followed her into the store. “Maddy, we don’t have time–”

She pointed at a pink Fender Stratocaster, mouth agape.

A long-striding salesman with David Beckham hair and a music note tie pin hurried toward them. “Excellent choice. Custom pickups, low action, perfect for a beginner. I’ve actually had my eye on this one for my own daughter.” He removed it from the wall and held it out with a glib smile. “Wanna plug her in?”

Maddy was hopping up and down at his side. There was no way he could refuse.

The salesman situated her in front of a Marshall amp that was almost twice her height. He ran the guitar through a pedal that said Tube Screamer and handed her a pick. “For those about to rock, we salute you.” He hit the power and cranked the volume.

Maddy strummed. Distorted waves of sound filled the store. Static fuzz, piercing feedback. She looked up at Mason with a thousand-watt smile.

The salesman knelt and taught her a power chord. She chugged away, oblivious to the disapproving glances from the keyboard and percussion sections.

“She’s a natural,” said the salesman.

A sort of paternal pride welled within him. “She plays the violin.”

She suddenly erupted into a wild solo, all sixty pounds of her contorting and convulsing on the stool in a manic tirade of discordant notes.

The salesman smiled nervously and lowered the volume a tick. “We have a Christmas sale going on right now. Twenty percent off.”

Mason turned to Evan … who was no longer there. He frowned as he surveyed the store.

“I’ll even throw in a gig bag, picks, and an extra set of strings.”

An expectant electric hum emanated from the amplifier as Maddy stopped playing and raised her phone for a selfie.

“Maddy,” he said with rising panic. “Where’s your brother?”

The salesman pressed on. “We accept all major credit cards—”

“We need to go.” He seized her wrist, almost pulling her off the stool.

The guitar handoff was shaky. The Marshall rumbled and cracked as the salesman floundered, then caught it on the way to the carpet. Shrill feedback pealed in their wake. Other customers looked up in alarm.

Mason paused in the neon archway, looking right and left, frantically searching faces.

“Ouch,” said Maddy.

He realized he was squeezing her wrist.

“Don’t worry, Mason. He’ll come back. He just likes to run away sometimes. Don’t tell Mom, okay? She’ll put him back on hyper medicine.”

A fresh wave of panic went through him at the mention of Brooke. She would blame him. She would hate him. Rightfully so. Blane would probably convince her that he was part of a human trafficking ring.

He took a deep breath. Be cool Mason. He’s around here somewhere. Just relax. You’ll find him.

There was a fountain in front of the music store where the elderly rested and teenagers held hands. “Gimme a penny,” said Maddy. “I’ll make a wish that we find him.”

He absently reached in his pocket for a coin. “That’s your plan?”

Torn between either scouring the length and breadth of the mall, shouting his name, or staying near the music store in case he returned, Mason ran his fingers through his hair and scanned the immediate area. Tall green plants served as a median for the flow of pedestrian traffic. A stoic Asian grandmother sat motionless at the back of a cart adorned with framed paintings while a bloodshot balding artist worked on her portrait. Further down, Santa Claus posed with a hysterical toddler.

“There he is!” said Maddy. “Wait, where’d he go? There he is again!”

She was pointing in the direction of the sporting goods store on the other side of the fountain.

Mason followed her finger. The windows were covered in brand logos and sale signs. He was squint-searching the faces of passersby when a familiar cowlick and bifocals appeared above a bright red 30% Off! placard, then quickly dropped out of sight again.

“Come on.”

He was straining for a final pull-up when they entered the store. A stocky salesman was urging him on. His nametag said Jude.

Maddy aimed her phone for a picture. “You’re in big trouble Evan.”

He released the bar and landed in a squat.

“Impressive,” said Jude, looking at Mason. “Your son?”

Before he could respond, Evan darted over to a bench press station, lifted two ten-pound dumbbells and began repping out a set of flyes. “Look what I learned Mason!”

He shook his head and smiled. “The energy of a fifth-grader.”

Jude crossed massive, hairless forearms. “I’d take energy over mass any day.”

Evan waved goodbye as they rejoined the holiday shoppers. “I like our pull-up bar better. Theirs is too skinny. It hurts my hands.”

Mason summoned his most convincing prison yard scowl. “Yeah? Well, if you run off again, your hands aren’t the only things that are going to hurt.”

Maddy’s eyes widened. “Are you gonna kick him in the balls?”

“Not nice, Madison.” He glanced down at the girl. “Not ladylike either.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” said Evan. “I wasn’t lost. I have my phone. Maddy could’ve called me.”

The simple truth of his observation only served to deepen Mason’s resentment of technology.

Maddy slowed at the display window of a jewelry store. “Look Evan!” Amid the heart lockets, horseshoes and shamrocks was a #1 Mom charm. She looked at Mason in the I’ll-die-if-I-can’t-have-this way kids have been pulling off convincingly since the dawn of civilization. “Can we please go inside?”

As they stepped through the entrance he heard her breath catch. Diamonds blinked and sparkled and threw light. Polished gold shimmered. If there was any trace of armed robber still swimming in his soul after thirty years in prison, this Egyptian tomb of treasure got his attention.

A sharp-dressed man in long sleeves and a tie sprayed Windex behind a glass display case.

Maddy pointed toward the front of the store. “How much for the number one mom?”

He wiped in meticulous circles. “Everything in that window is $39.99.”

She tugged on Mason’s shirt. “Can I please borrow $39.99?”

“I thought you were an Amazon girl.”

“This one’s prettier.”

He sighed and reached for his wallet.

The man glided across the carpet to retrieve the charm. He looked like a GQ ad, from his beard stubble all the way down to his loafers. Mason laid a fifty on the counter as he returned with a small, elegant box.

“I couldn’t talk you into throwing in your tie, could I?”

The man smiled and shook his head. “No, but I bought it next door at Paisleys. They have hundreds more just like it.”

Mason opened his mouth … and froze, immobilized by a stunning piece of jewelry in the display case below. An emerald and diamond platinum tennis bracelet. Even in this shrine to wealth and excess, it stood a cut above its 24-karat brothers and sisters. The price tag said $3699.

“Paisleys,” he mumbled.

The man nodded. “Right next door.”

When he tore his eyes away, the luminescent after-image burned bright. He blinked.

“Will they teach me how to tie it?”

Chapter 36: Strangers in the Night
He parked the truck between a Porsche and an Audi, already feeling in over his head. The Windsor-knotted maroon tie felt like a leash around his neck. He resented it on multiple levels. Because it was a tie, because he was being forced to wear it, because he forgot the salesman’s instructions on how to tie it and had to relearn the process from a YouTube tutorial on Evan’s phone. He straightened it as he walked to the entrance of the restaurant, cursing Brooke every step of the way.

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

“Evening, sir.”

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

“Impeccable, sir.”

He exhaled and stepped inside.

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

“Do you have a reservation?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He slid across from her. “I’m Mason.”

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

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

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

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

“What about me?”

“Hmm?” He opened the menu.

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

“Absolutely,” he said, silently cursing Brooke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Water, please.”

She hurried away.

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

Conversation at the nearby tables fell silent.

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

“I saw you flirting with that waitress.”

He looked around for a clock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vodka and cran.”

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

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

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

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

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

“OMG, I am so sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

The door opened. He glanced over his shoulder.

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

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

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

“A friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blane smiled. “That’s the spirit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman began to cry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can see that.”

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

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

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

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

“Does it matter?”

“I reckon it doesn’t.”

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

Amos smiled. “I’m on it, Boss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mommy!”

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

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

“She’s braiding my hair, Mom.”

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

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

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

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

Her text speak sounded juvenile and pretentious out loud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me a second.”

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

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

He stuck his hand out, Evan slapped it five.

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

He followed her up the half-painted steps.

“Uh oh,” Evan mumbled.

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

He raised his hands. “What did I do?”

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

He burst out laughing.

She kicked him in the knee.

“Ow!”

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

“Are you jealous?”

She rolled her eyes. “Please.”

“Brooke, we didn’t do anything.”

“Now you’re insulting my intelligence.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She crossed her arms.

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

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

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

Chapter 39: A Soul Feels Its Worth
They moved like thieves in the pre-dawn hours. Silent. Efficient. She helped him lug the enormous boxes from his garage to her living room. He helped her wrap a supply line of unrecognizable twenty-first-century toys and other digitalia.

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

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

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

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

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

Her tired eyes sparkled. “Stop.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooke smiled at her daughter.

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

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

“Hey Mason, this one’s for you.”

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

She smiled without meeting his eyes.

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

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

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

Evan pushed past his sister.

“Hey, that’s not nice.”

Brooke seconded the motion. “Evan…”

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

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

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

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

He laughed. “Yeah.”

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

“Madison…” scolded Brooke.

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

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

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

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

A knock on the front door made them pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wanna feel,” said Maddy.

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

“Well open it up.”

“It’s to you.”

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

Brooke wavered before opening it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mason had to restrain himself from laughing in his face.

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

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

“I doubt that very seriously.”

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

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

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