If Mason hadn’t known the old table was hidden back there, he never would have spotted it. The forest had reclaimed the section of the backyard along the back fence and the picnic table was effectively buried under a prickly snarl of vines and a few hardy saplings. Long, leafy creepers tickled the back of his neck as he yanked at branches and vines alike, unearthing what he hoped would be a long-lost treasure. The crawling sensation intensified after he eased himself underneath to free the last grass-choked leg.
This was bullshit.
Natasha’s lawn care company was getting fired. He could do this shitty of a job himself.
Finally freeing the leg from the grass, he grabbed at one last annoying vine tickling the back of his neck, only for his fingers to close around something soft and squishy.
Startling violently, he smashed his head into the rotting wood table top and lurched backwards, almost out from under the table. A massive spider the size of his palm leapt off and scuttled off into the grass.
“Son of bitch!” he cried, backing all the way out and pushing up onto his feet. “Fuck!” He shuddered. “Fuck you, you mutant spider bastard!”
Before he acted on the impulse to get the gas blowtorch from the basement, he gripped the table by the support under the top slats and heaved a shaky breath. Probably more spiders in the basement anyway. After a back-wrenching struggle, he managed to drag the table from the shadow of the trees and into the light. It listed brokenly to one side, but held together.
It was going to start raining in five minutes or less, but that was enough time for a quick bit of sleuthing. The answer had to be there.
Almost every inch of the table was scarred with the names or initials of everyone who’d ever sat at it. It was tradition. Stephen had been disgusted, but since it was the “children’s” table, and he sat at the fancy one more befitting his station, the tradition continued over the years until there wasn’t a square inch unmarked.
All he had to do was find one name.
The first warning drops of rain began to fall as he searched through the scratches and gouges. Many were illegible now from rot and moisture, but memory served well enough to fill in the blanks. Ginny’s friends’ names seemed clustered on one side, while his friends’ rude words and initials defaced the other.
A giant ‘Randy’ took up a good third of one full board. Christ. That obnoxious even when carving his name into wood. There were two Brandons and he’d lost track of both of them, and a Brady he still met up with occasionally for coffee or drinks when he had the time. He even found Wendy and Wendell, the twins from down the block who’d long ago moved to California. And Sean.
God, Sean. They’d shared their first, fumbling, awkward kiss. It has scared the shit out of both of them—what if they got caught!—and they’d never done it again. It had been good though. He remembered it well.
So many memories on that carved up table top, all as vibrant as the faces in that box of photos.
Before the table finished its descent into decay, he had to take some pictures of it. With the good digital camera and not just his phone.
By the time it began to rain in earnest, he’d been over the table, under it and around it. Except for a few of the girl names, he matched a mental image to each name. There was a scrawled letter that could have been a ‘G’ or a “Y” and a clumsily hacked ‘J’ that tickled something at the back of his mind. But nothing definite.
He’d not really been expecting a flashing neon sign, but was it too much to ask for one goddamned name?
Leaving off on putting back the dilapidated table for a drier day without spiders, he turned, then scowled at that huge, obnoxious Randy.
Maybe the shithead could be good for something, for once, and come up with a name for the blond kid with the big toothy smile?
Josh? John? Justin?
By the time he reached the back door, his shirt was soaked. He tripped over the pile of discarded shoes waiting to be boxed up for a trip to the closest thrift store and skinned a knuckle grabbing for the hand rail. Somehow, in the three days since Nat had decamped for Albany with less than half her crap he might add, he’d lost another pound or two. His jeans were sagging so low, he was practically tripping over the ragged hems. Just what he needed. To be skinnier.
The first thing he’d done after seeing Nat off at the curb with an embarrassingly public, wet-eyed display of affection, was hook up his computer in the dusty, disused den. Then he’d had to clean the den to within an inch of its life—no way was he letting his gaming computer suck up all that dust. He’d built it himself and it fucking purred. In a fit of boredom last night, he’d even banged out half an article on the effectiveness of the latest fire retardants before it hit him.
He didn’t need a new article for the website.
He didn’t work there anymore.
They hadn’t fired him, they had eliminated his position. Had handed him the barest minimum of a severance check they could get away with, and shown him the door. Apparently they didn’t need a chemical engineer anymore. They already owned the rights to all his formulae. Sorry, they said, but he’d become redundant. Both in the company and in Dick’s life.
He could probably get a new job in five minutes.
When he felt like it.
When he could take a breath without it hurting.
While it finished raining, he scanned the photo of the smiling blond kid to his drive and copied it to his phone. Then because the heavens decided they meant business and weren’t going to piss around with just a wimpy rainstorm and offered up a deluge instead, he scanned most of the images from Nat’s plastic tub until the skies finally quit trying to recreate the biblical flood.
He even scanned all the family ones with daddy-dearest and his fake smile.
Except…they weren’t all fake. His lovey-dovey eyes had looked almost genuine in that one wedding photo—possibly two of them. Or that one where he was holding yours truly for the first time. His father looked kind of proud and scared and…damned fucking young.
He didn’t look like such an asshole in those early years either, the days before money and power and prestige had gotten in the way of what mattered in life. Mason’s gaze lingered over one image of his father as a young man, his face in profile while he read some legal article or other. He ran his finger along the surface of the photo before returning it to the box, feeling suddenly, uncomfortably conflicted.
While Mason mostly favored his mother in looks and coloring, and had identical blue eyes and the same, thick dark brown hair, he’d somehow ended up with his father’s jawline and sharp cheekbones. Goddamn. Why did he have to notice that now?
Closing the scanner with a scowl, he shoved his phone in his pocket, shrugged into the ugly jacket Dick wouldn’t be seen with him in, and stepped outside. Sunshine ricocheted off the wet walkway like a laser beam and blinded him. What was with this summer, anyway? Rain one minute and sunshine the next. His timing for a walk couldn’t have been better, though.
His feet easily remembered the quickest route to Randy’s house, as if he’d last walked it a week ago instead of years.
Three blocks down, and one over, then cut through that Rhododendron filled lane.
If the Jr. Mr. Porterhouse wasn’t home, he’d grab the truck and drive over to Target. The mystery over the identity of the blond kid wouldn’t leave him alone, a mental niggle he couldn’t escape. He had to know, and didn’t have anything else to do anyway. Well, that didn’t involve repacking, unpacking or cleaning.
No matter how hard he worked, the mystery wouldn’t let him go. Him and blond kid, they’d been friends once, good friends, during those too few days of that long ago summer. Best friends even. He was certain of it.
Maybe they could be again?
A lot of Mason’s supposed friends had defected to the Dick camp after the split up and he had a sudden, aching need for a friend who was all his, and nobody else’s. One he’d earned all by himself, because he was who he was, they were who they were, and not because he was Dickhead’s plus one.
Fortunately—or maybe that was unfortunately—Randy was home, thus sparing him and his utter lack of willpower a guilty slink down Target’s well-stocked ice cream aisle on his way out the door.
How could a grown man half way through his thirties, still live with his old man?
Oh, yeah. He was a fine one to talk. He lived with his mommy now, right? Well, in her house. Same difference.
Spotting him, Randy stepped out of the open garage door with a massive wrench in one hand and a heavy, neon blue cast on the other. He looked about as happy to see Mason as Mason was to see him. “Come to say goodbye?” Randy offered, breaking the awkward silence. His voice sounded rusty, as if he hadn’t talked to anybody yet that day. Or did he smoke?
Goodbye? Right. “No. I’m not going anywhere.”
Randy set the tool down on the front end of the muscle car he’d been working on. “Aren’t you guys moving or something? I saw the sold sign.”
“Nat was—I mean my mom moved, but I’m staying.”
“Oh. Thought it was a family thing.” He ran a greasy, blackened hand through his equally greasy dark blond hair. “Thought you was all finally blowing this Popsicle stand and not even saying goodbye.”
“Ginny’s husband got a good job in Albany so they moved. My mom missed the grandkids and decided to join them.” That sounded like a plausible enough explanation without going into details he didn’t want to share.
“Whaddya want then?”
Ah, Randy. Pleasant as ever. “I’m trying to find a childhood friend.”
“Thought you might know what happened to him.”
Randy looked skeptical already and he hadn’t even shown him the photo. “What’s his name?”
Of course he’d ask that first. “I…uh, can’t remember.”
Randy’s dark brown eyes flashed with contempt. “You can’t remember his name, but you’re all hot to find him after all this time?”
Mason knew this was a bad idea. “Never mind.” He’d just have to figure it out himself.
“Don’t be such a baby.” Randy wiped his hands off on his filthy, stained jeans. “You always take things so personally.”
“Maybe because you’re always such an asshole.”
“Me? You’re always so fucking sensitive. I can’t say nothing and you get all huffy and defensive.”
Christ, why did he always get that thrown at him? Mason shook his head. Coming here was pointless.
“Who we talking about anyway? You came all this way. Might as well ask.”
Four blocks was not all this way. But maybe he meant the socio-economic distance. The neighborhood had really gone downhill. It used to be a lot nicer back when he’d ride his bike around looking for something to do and someone to do it with. Now expecting nothing, he fished his phone from the bottom of his pocket and searched up the photo. Not wanting Randy’s grubby paws on his phone, he stepped abreast of him and his smelly, gasoline infused hoodie, turning so they could both look at the image front and center.
Blond kid really was photogenic, Nat had that right. All American, freckles and all. “Know him?” he asked.
Randy frowned. “Nope.”
Just like he thought. Useless. “Thanks anyway.”
“Sorry.” Randy looked somewhat sincere. “I mean, I know I seen him before, probably at your house, but I don’t think I ever played with him.”
Jesus—three for three. Nat, and now Randy, had both said the same thing, and he himself couldn’t even come up with a name. If he didn’t have that single, heart wrenching picture, he’d be starting to think the kid was just a figment of his imagination.
“Why you trying to find him?”
Mason contemplated not answering. Why did Randy give a fuck? But this was the first conversation they’d had in years that didn’t contain insults or homosexual slurs and he was loathe to ruin it. Mason shrugged one shoulder, kind of perplexed about the reason himself. “I don’t know. It just bugs me that I can’t remember his name, when I remember how much I liked him.” Before Randy got any ridiculous notions, he added, “Liked playing with him. We had a lot of fun that summer.”
Randy’s dark brown eyes indicated he didn’t seem to care much about long ago summers. Or long ago friends. “Maybe he was someone’s cousin or something?” He tucked a lank strand of hair behind his ear. “Just here visiting for the summer holidays?”
Quite possible. In fact, now that Randy mentioned it, it seemed more likely than not. “Probably.”
With an I-could-care-less shrug, Randy effectively ended their conversation.
“Well, anyways…” Mason mumbled, wondering how to make an exit he, strangely, wasn’t quite ready to make. “Thanks.”
“Sure. No problem.”
As Mason moved to leave, Randy plucked a long, skinny screwdriver from his hood and proceeded to shove it up under his cast and roughly stab it back and forth. “Itchy as hell. I hate casts.”
“How’d you break it?”
“This fucking nob at work drove the forklift into a stack of pallets I was unloading. The whole load came down and I couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. I’m lucky the bastard didn’t kill me. But it all had to go and land on my unlucky arm. Again.”
“This is the third fucking time.”
Now that he reminded him, Mason seemed to recall casts making frequent appearances along with what he’d always thought was more than his fair share of bruises. “That sucks.”
“No biggie. I’m on compo. It’s not so bad, except for the boredom. I’m going out of my skull with nothing to do but hang around here all day and it’s only been two weeks. Got plates in both bones this time, and a bunch of screws, so I’m gonna be off the rest of the summer.”
A shudder rolled across Mason’s back. He’d managed to make it thirty-four years without breaking a single bone and intended to keep it that way. “It’s going be okay, though, right? They fixed it?”
Giving up on the under-the-cast assault with a deadly weapon, Randy tucked the tool back into his hood. “I dunno. It was a bad break—compound fracture of both bones—and I probably got tendon damage and shit now. I don’t think it healed right the last time the old man broke it and now it might be fuckered for good. But we’ll see.”
“What?” Mason shuddered anew, imagining bits of bone sticking out everywhere. “Your dad broke your arm?” He vaguely recollected Randy having one of those old-fashioned plaster casts back in junior high. “I thought you said you had an accident. You wiped out on your bike or something like that.”
Randy snorted loudly. “Yeah, right. The only accident I had was being born.”
“Randy, I…” had no idea. “Jesus.”
“Don’t looked so shocked. Christ, Mason. You’re so fucking sensitive, like I said.”
A horrified lump had lodged in his throat and he had to swallow it down. “Why didn’t you ever say anything to us? We could have—my mom would have, in a second—”
“What?” Randy sneered, “Called the cops? My dad is a cop—was a cop. Before he had to retire when he got sick. You think anyone would have done anything? Huh? You aren’t stupid, man. You’re a lot of things, but stupid ain’t one of them, so knock it off. Fuck, no one would have believed me and no one would’ve given a shit anyway.”
“That’s not true! Lots of people would have done something! Your teachers, social services…”
“Oh, come on, Mase. You’re just a naïve little lambkins, aren’t you? That bastard beat the shit out of me all the time. All the fucking time. And everybody just turned a blind eye. My whole life.”
Mason took a deep breath as the world seemed to tilt on its axis. Events and incidents suddenly rearranged themselves in the timeline of his memory. All those bruises. The way Randy always hung out at their house. Why he was always hungry, always dreading eight o’clock when he’d get sent home when it was time for him and Ginny to go inside to get ready for bed. How had he been so blind? He’d never noticed. Not once. He’d been so oblivious. “I wish you would have said something.” Because, truly, he did. “We would have helped. Nat would’ve fixed things.”
Randy shrugged one shoulder. “Was a long time ago.”
Not long enough. Mason had only ever met Randy’s father a few times—two or three—in his entire life. He’d never liked the man. “How come you still live here? With him? How can you stand it?”
Casting a quick glance back at the house. “He needed someone to look after him, so I moved back in.”
“Why would you do that? You don’t have to—”
A cold, nasty smile curved on Randy’s chapped lips. “I don’t have to, no. But I wouldn’t want to miss it.”
“Miss what?” Because Mason wouldn’t stay in that house for five minutes. To hell with the bastard.
“Miss watching him die.”
Randy’s laugh was a cold as his smile. “Karma’s a bitch and she’s paying him back good. He’s overweight, he’s got diabetes and he’s a drunk.”
“Alcohol is basically sugar, as you know better than me. He won’t quit drinking—not even after he lost his foot—and it’s killing him.” The malicious smile flickered back to life. “Slowly.”
“He lost his foot?” What an awful story. Mason was still trying to digest the concept that Randy had been an abused child. And the fact he’d never clued in. He felt like a steaming pile of warm dog shit. “How?”
“It’s kind of funny, actually.”
Not likely, but Mason nodded.
“When you get diabetes bad and you don’t watch your sugars, you get nerve damage. Diabetic neuropathy they call it, and he got it bad in both legs. His feet used to get cold all the time and he started propping them up in front of this big oil heater he bought.” Randy smiled. “He’d sit there all the time, getting shitfaced and watching TV, his feet just inches from that heater cranked on high.”
Mason’s stomach did a slow roll.
“And one night—it was a Sunday and he’d been watching football—he passed out. Judging by the bottles laying around when I brought him home from the hospital, he’d been slugging back the vodka straight all afternoon and he was so out of it, he didn’t even wake up when his foot started to get all crispy fried.”
Good god. Life had been so much nicer when he’d been hiding in his bubble of happy childhood memories where everything was peachy-keen. “Jesus.”
“Yeah, Jesus. You wouldn’t believe the smell, man. The house stunk for a week after, even when I opened all the windows and it was ten fucking degrees out. Anyway, they had to take off the one foot, ‘cuz it was beyond fixing. The sole was all blackened—I mean like seriously black. He got to keep the other one, but it won’t heal on account of the diabetes and the drinking, and the crap he eats, and it’s kind of just rotting away now.”
It took a supreme effort, but he didn’t gag. Sometimes he had a little too much imagination, especially for someone in the sciences. “Can’t you do anything for him?”
Randy raised his brows. “Why would I do anything?”
Mason opened his mouth, then shut it again. It was still a pretty horrific revenge, though.
“He’s an evil bastard. Don’t you go feeling sorry for him. He deserves to rot. Piece by piece.”
Maybe. Maybe not. “Still sounds like an awful way to go.”
Randy shrugged. “I didn’t deserve what he did to me.”
“Of course not!” As if any child did.
“He was pissed my mom left him and he took it out on me. Hell, he probably didn’t want me to begin with.”
Obviously, Randy had a mother, but Mason had never met her, or ever heard Randy speak of her. “She shouldn’t have left you with him.” How could any mother do that? Did she know?
“Guess she didn’t want me either.”
“Fuck, Randy, that’s not true—”
“Anyway, he’s dying and I get to watch. But I’m not a total dick. I’ll give him his meds like I’m supposed to and help him get around, go to all his doctor appointments, but that’s all he’ll get from me. When he’s gone, I’m gonna sell the house, get myself a nice little place that’s all mine, one with a shop out back and porch out front and nobody will ever get to bug me there. And if they do, I’m gonna shoot them. Or maybe I’ll get a big dog, a pit bull, and train him to be mean and he can chase off anyone I don’t want to see ever again.”
Well. That sounded grim. But at least Randy had a life plan while he was still moving through the days in a big fog and feeling sorry for himself. “I hope you get that house.”
A tinny alarm trilled from the vicinity of Randy’s back pocket. He reached back and tugged a phone from his jeans and checked the screen. “Time for his afternoon meds.” Randy winked. “With a vodka chaser.”
“I’d invite you in, but the smell…”
“No!” Okay, that was a little abrupt. “I mean, thank you, but no, I have to get going. Got things to do.”
“Lucky you,” Randy replied.
“I’m uh, going to go see if anyone, uh, you know, knows who the kid in the photo is.”
“Hope you find him.”
Again, Randy sounded like he meant it. “Me too.”
Randy turned to go, then turned back again. “If you don’t have any luck, I know this guy who might be able to help you.”
Right. Nobody from Target was ever helpful.
His skepticism must have shown on his face because Randy added, “I’m not bullshitting.”
“One of my dad’s old buddies from the station. He used to be a cop until he got shot in the groin the first week after he made detective. Talk about bad fucking luck. He’s got a bum hip now and walks with a limp, but he works as a private investigator part-time. Says it keeps him from going nuts sitting around all day. Mostly he follows cheating husbands and shit like that, but I bet he could help you track down your smiley friend, especially if you ever remember his name.”
“Uh—okay.” Not really. He wasn’t sure he could trust anybody recommended by a man who took joy watching someone’s body parts rot off. “I’ll think about it. Thanks.”
“Catch ya later, then,” Randy said, then disappeared into the dark recesses of the garage.
Mason stared after him, eyes unfocused, and body numb.
Inside his happy bubble growing up, he’d sure been blind.