The Gardener(6)

    I’d wanted a secret past. Maybe I’d really found one.

    At the final stop sign before the nursing home, I called Jack. “Can you get me into the Haven?”

    “I thought I was coming to get you at nine?”

    I gripped the steering wheel with my free hand, squeezing out my frustration. “Yeah, you were. But I’ve gotta get in to see my mom.”

    “Hmmm.” I heard him moving around. “Okay. Do you have your mom’s key card to get in the parking lot?”

    I flipped down the visor, and a card fell into my lap. “Yup.”

    “Okay, use that to get into the parking lot and drive to the far end.”

    Keeping the phone at my ear, I followed his instructions. The card machine beeped as a red light on the security camera overhead blinked. After parking, I turned off the car. “Now what?”

    “See the hedge along the wall?” Jack was breathing hard.

    “Yeah. What are you doing?”

    “Helping Mrs. O’Connell get into bed.” His voice became a whisper. “And she’s no small girl.”

    A ten-foot-tall concrete wall surrounded the parking lot on all sides, with a continuous hedge broken in one spot for a sidewalk. “Do I follow that sidewalk?”

    “Yeah, it leads to a side door. Meet you there in two minutes.”

    Trying not to look suspicious, I slung my backpack over my shoulder and kept my strides normal as I headed for the door. Jack’s two minutes stretched into eight, but finally he met me there with a huge, white orderly jumpsuit, which I quickly threw on over my clothes. He handed me a name badge.

    I glanced at the name. “Steve?”

    Jack grinned. “Steve had the night off, until now.” He pointed me up the stairs. “Sixth floor.”

    I waited for him to lead the way, but he started to turn.

    I asked, “You’re not coming?”

    “I’m only allowed on the first floor,” said Jack. He glanced at his watch. “It’s almost eight thirty, so I’ll meet you in the parking lot in about thirty minutes. Just wait at that far end. Oh, and, Mace?”


    He pointed at my name tag. “Steve isn’t allowed on other floors either. So don’t get caught.”


    THE DOOR TO THE STAIRS CREAKED OPEN WHEN I PULLED, then closed with a whoosh behind me as I started climbing. After six flights I stepped into a large carpeted room painted green.

    Mom was there at the counter in the middle, and her eyes widened when she saw me. “You can’t be here. Where did you get that uniform?”

    I walked right over and shoved a finger toward her. “You are such a hypocrite.”

    Her mouth opened, like she was going to say something, then it popped shut again.

    My words came out in a loud rush. “I know you worked for TroDyn. I found your ID, your diploma from Duke. A master’s degree, Mom? What else haven’t you told me?”

    Her eyes narrowed. “You broke into my files?”

    “Yes, I did.” I held up my hands. “I’m sorry. But is it worse than you lying to me all this time?”

    “I didn’t lie.” Her shoulders sagged. “I just omitted a few things.”

    “Keeping things from me is just as bad as lying.”

    She shook her head, a small smile on her face. “Oh no, itisn’t.”

    Like every time she got drunk or made some stupid decision, I remembered she was my mother, and the only family I had. The realization always made me soften. No matter how I tried to stay firm, that made it hard for me to stay angry at her. “So what else, Mom? What else don’t Iknow?”

    Lowering her voice, she leaned over the counter toward me. “Mason, this is not the right time or place for this conversation.”

    I looked around the room. There were a few patients sitting in front of a big-screen television set, so I lowered my voice a bit. “You’re right.” I crossed my arms. “The right time would have been years ago. I’m not leaving here until you tell me why I just found a TroDyn badge in your room.”

    Letting out a big sigh, she took a swig of coffee from a blue cup on the counter, then set it down. “You know the first part. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, not much money, and I wanted to go to college. Halfway through my undergrad in biology, a TroDyn rep came on campus and offered me a deal. They’d pay for my master’s degree if I worked for them afterward.”

    Where was the mystery in that? I didn’t get it. “And what was so bad?”

    With a finger, she traced through the wet ring the coffee cup left on the counter, smearing the moisture. “It wasn’t what I expected. A lot of pressure and deadlines. I just wasn’t cut out for the research, I guess.”

    I rolled my eyes. “But you’re cut out for the nursing home.”

    She looked at me, then away.

    A master’s degree, a promising career, and she threw it away. “But why did you stay here? Why didn’t you leave?”

    She shrugged. “I had you, but I didn’t have a lot of resources. It was easy to stay. Harder to start over somewhere.”

    I slammed a fist on the counter. “That’s it? That’s all?” Where did my father figure into it? Was he the reason she had no money? Why she had to start over? There had to be more. “You throw away your life and that’s it? End of story?”

    “I had a baby to think about!” She pounded her fist down next to mine and I jumped. “So yes! End of story!” She jabbed a finger in the air toward me. “I have my issues, I admit that. But you are my son and I have always done what was needed to put a roof over your head. And you will go to college. I told you there’s a—” She stopped.

    I glanced over toward the patients, but they seemed to be ignoring us. Besides, I didn’t really care who heard.

    I groaned. Did she still think this was about the summer program? That I was selfish? God, I was thinking about her, about how our lives would be so different if she were pulling in a salary at TroDyn. I wanted to ask her about the statement I found, but just then a timer went off.

    “We can finish this later.” Mom sighed. “I need to take their vitals.”

    While she gathered what she needed, I looked around at floor six, which seemed to be just the one big room, as far as I could tell. Nearly one entire wall was a fish tank, and looking closer, I saw saltwater species. Not cheap by any means. A big-screen television was mounted on the opposite wall, surrounded by several couches, on one of which sat four people. Reruns of Gilligan’s Island played, but they just sat there, facing the television, shoulder to shoulder, not moving or laughing.

    I moved around to see their faces.

    My jaw dropped as I saw they were young, all of them. I thought the Haven had only old people. But the two boys and two girls sitting there were my age or even younger, and dressed alike in long-sleeved white T-shirts and red sweatpants with white stripes. I needn’t have worried about the argument bothering them. They weren’t reacting to the television at all. In fact, they seemed catatonic.

    I waved my hand in front of the boy nearest to me and he didn’t even flinch. Then my eyes rested on the girl next to him and I froze. Her hair was platinum blond, cut short, so short as to seem almost a mistake. Huge brown eyes filled her face and were such a contrast to the lightness of her hair that she appeared almost unreal, like she was simply someone’s portrait. Her skin nearly glowed. I started to feel light-headed and realized I’d been holding my breath. I let it out in a rush as I continued to stare at the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Some of my friends were girls, but other than a forced pairing with Lucy Pierson when we got voted freshman reps for the homecoming court, I hadn’t dated much. Meaning not at all.

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