The Gardener(4)

    I pulled into the handicapped space by the front door of the Brass Rail, just as the front door was flung open and my mother came out, escorted by a burly man in a red polo. He’d bounced Mom before. I didn’t know his name, but I’m pretty sure something on the order of Bubba would fit.

    Mom wore jeans and a white sweater, which had some kind of reddish stain all down the front. Her dark hair blew in her face as she tried to smile at me. “Mason.”

    Bubba wrenched open the Jeep’s door and practically shoved her up into the seat.

    Despite being pissed at my mom for getting drunk, I wasn’t going to let someone hurt her. I knew it must have been hard for her, raising me on her own, working at a job she didn’t like. Having a few too many drinks once in a while didn’t make her a bad mother. “Hey, take it easy.” Resisting the urge to step out of the car and show Bubba Iwasn’t afraid to take him, I gripped Mom’s arm and helped her in.

    Bubba’s gaze fixed on my scar before going back up to meet my eyes. His voice was low and firm. “Take her home, sober her up. And keep her out of here. Better for her if she keeps her opinions to herself.”

    Inwardly, I groaned. Did it always have to be the same story? It was one thing for Mom to bash TroDyn at home, completely something else to trash them in public while intoxicated. As I leaned over her to fasten her seat belt, her hand on my arm stopped me and I looked into her teary eyes. Among other things, I wanted to chew her out for drinking again. Instead, I asked, “You okay?”

    She nodded. Her eyes wandered to my scar and she reached up with her fingertips, tracing it lightly all the way to my jaw.

    After so long, I’d gotten used to my face. Things might have been better if they could have just sewed it straight up. But a few pieces were missing here and there, making the scar look somewhat like a quilt in places where the doctor had pulled the torn skin together. One end of the scar started at my right eye’s outside corner, making my eye look a little like it sagged. That line of the scar met another at the top of my right cheek, and two parts branched out from there, one ending near my mouth, the other trailing off the side of my chin.

    Jack said it made me look tough, like some of those guys in the movies. That didn’t matter to me, looking tough. It might’ve been nice on the football field except my helmet covered it up anyway. And really, at almost six feet three and two hundred thirty pounds, I didn’t exactly come across as weak. Plus, there was no need to play a tough guy. If things worked out, if I actually did get into college, I planned to spend most of my adult life in a lab somewhere, hence the appeal of TroDyn, where appearances had no bearing on daily lives.

    My classmates had been my classmates since I was in kindergarten. I showed up that week after the attack with a bandage, then the bandage came off, my scar was revealed, and for a few weeks it was big news. Then, as my silence grew, my celebrity and the scar began to fade. I was just Mason, my scar a part of me. And as I grew bigger than everyone in school, most saw me simply as this hulking quiet guy.

    Maybe that was one reason for me to stay in Melby Falls after college, if I managed to go. Me, and my scar, were familiar. Out in the world I might just be the freak with the scar on his face. I liked being more than the sum of my parts. I also liked not having to deal with that shocked look people got upon seeing my face for the first time.

    Mom set her whole hand on the right side of my face. “You’re still my beautiful boy. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

    “For starters, you’d need to call a cab.” I snapped her seat belt and settled back.

    She leaned her head on the window. “Something is wrong. Ever since the money stopped coming. I just feel it.”


    Mom had a funny look on her face, like she was surprised I’d heard her. But instead of answering me, she shook her head and didn’t say another word the entire ride.

    Back home, I made Mom a pot of strong coffee. Caffeine would just make her a wide-awake drunk, rather than truly sober her, but it always helped. With a wince, I remembered my TroDyn application just as she plopped down at the table and picked up the sheaf of papers.


    MY MOTHER WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN ABLE TO MAKE OUT THE small print in her condition, but the large TroDyn insignia on top had to be unmistakable even to someone with blurred vision.

    Slapping the papers down with her hand, she glared at me. “What are you thinking?”

    I sat down opposite her. “It’s the summer program. It’s my best chance to get a scholarship.”

    “No.” She slurped some coffee and repeated the word several times until I finally asked her to stop.

    Trying to keep my voice soft and steady, I said, “Mom, we’ve got to be practical here. I need a college education, and you can’t afford it.”

    She pushed the papers away from her. “There’s a fund.” She was hard to understand.

    “A what?”

    “A fund. A college fund. For you.”

    I rolled my eyes and stifled a laugh. “Yeah, okay, Mom. You barely make enough money to keep the electricity on every month. You sure don’t make enough to have a college fund for me.”

    She was quiet for a moment. “You’re right.” Her eyes met mine. “It’s not my money.”

    “Whose is it, then?”

    For a moment, she didn’t answer, like she was considering not saying anything else.


    She sighed. “Your father. Your father started the fund.”

    I gripped the sides of the chair. “What?” He can’t be my father but he can start a college fund for me? I didn’t believe her. This was just a convenient excuse to get me to not go to TroDyn. And then I wouldn’t go to college, and then …

    I picked up the application.

    She ripped it out of my hand. “You’re not going anywhere near that place.”

    As we glared at each other, the phone rang several times until I finally let out a huge sigh and got up to answer it. Mom’s work. I covered the mouthpiece. “It’s the Haven. They want to confirm you’re working at eight. You’re not, are you?”

    Her forehead wrinkled. “What day is it?”

    I blew out a deep breath. “Are you serious? It’s Friday.”

    “But I don’t work on—” She dropped her head in her hands and groaned. “I forgot! I switched with Burt.”

    Although our little Cape Cod house had pretty low rent, we would be in trouble if she lost her job. All those pesky little things that required money, like lights and water and, oh yeah, food. We’d been lucky so far; the Haven of Peace gave her overtime, health insurance, and retirement. The hours sucked, four nights a week, but then she had three days off. And she managed to save her drinking for those days, which worked fine unless she forgot her schedule.


    She headed for her room. “Tell them I’ll be there.”

    As I threw some leftover curried chicken in the oven fordinner, the shower started, signifying Mom was on her way back to the land of the sober. I set the timer on the oven. I’d been the only kid in the cooking class at the library, but it came in handy on the nights when Mom was in no condition to cook. I mean, 80 percent of the time, she was a fully functioning mom, cleaning the house, cooking, keeping me in line. But the rest of the time, I had to step up.

    In my room, I plopped down on the weight bench in front of my TV and shoved in the DVD of my father. I’d watched the videotape so many times since the day of my accident that it had nearly worn out, so I had it transferred to a DVD. Of which I burned twenty copies. Just in case. Nineteen of them were in a box under my bed. One was in my DVD player.

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