DURING THE DRIVE BETWEEN THE COURTHOUSE AND MAMA’S BOY DINER, David Gibbons barely spoke. Even now, seated at their table near the windows, he remained quiet. Except for reciting his breakfast order, he hadn’t said a word, but Franco knew it was only a matter of time before he let him have it with both barrels, as his grandpa used to say.
Finally, when the waitress was out of earshot, he stared hard at Franco.
A-a-and there it is, he thought, running shaky hands through his hair. “Okay. Look. I know I should have called before all hell broke loose, but . . . but I was testing myself.”
David grabbed the sugar dispenser. “Testing yourself.” He sounded more like a disappointed dad than an AA sponsor.
“I thought maybe I could get through it on my own this time.”
“Bull.” He let the white granules stream into his cup. “You didn’t think. If you had, you would’ve given a thought to what happened last year. And the year before that.”
Franco knew he’d messed up. Again. And that he had nobody to blame but himself. Head pounding, he rubbed his temples as David’s spoon clanked against the sides of the mug. Had he ever met anyone who made more noise stirring coffee? He didn’t think so.
David pointed at Franco’s swollen lips and the bloody butterfly bandage a nurse at the jail had taped over his left eyebrow. “So, who cleaned your clock?”
“Well, there was this pool cue, see . . . ”
“Real funny. I notice you’re favoring your right ankle. I suppose the pool cue did that, too.”
“No. That was the work of the biker, attached to the pool cue.” Franco chuckled, then gripped his aching ribcage.
“Busted ribs too, huh?”
“Probably? You mean they didn’t take you to the ER?”
“They offered. I said no.”
David couldn’t call him anything he hadn’t already called himself.
“You’re gonna have one heckuva scar when you peel that bandage off your forehead. Maybe it’ll serve as a reminder, help you really think next time you decide to, ah, test yourself.”
“You’re all heart, David. All heart.” He smirked. “Except for your mouth, of course. That’s more like another part of your anatomy.”
David waved away the insult. “You know how frustrating it is, watching you get this close to earning your one-year chip,” he said, thumb and forefinger an inch apart, “and then you go and bungle it by pulling another dumb stunt? Every. Single. Year?”
Franco didn’t have a comeback for that one. He’d screwed up. Royally. At least no one got hurt, other than himself. David knew it, too.
The men sat in stony silence as the waitress delivered their food.
David peeled back the top of a tiny jelly container. “When was the last time you went to a meeting?” he asked, smearing its contents on a wedge of toast.
It had been more than a month, but Franco didn’t want to open himself up to another firestorm, so he stuffed his mouth with food and shrugged.
David counted on his fingers: “Pushing your limits. Breaking the rules. Avoiding tough questions.” He salted his eggs. “You remind me so much of my kid, it’s almost scary.” He used his fork as a pointer. “And that shouldn’t come across as a compliment, since he’s ten.”
Touché, Franco thought, gulping his OJ. He winced when it stung the cuts inside his mouth.
“Maybe this community service stuff will finally shake some sense into you.”
He’d been acting like a fool for so long, it had become a habit. And yet he said, “Maybe.”
“How long did the judge give you to choose your community service project?”
“Well, it just so happens I have an idea.”
Franco stopped chewing. “Yeah?”
“There’s a hospice, a half-mile or so from your trailer— which is lucky for you, since you can’t drive—and I happen to know they’re in need of a gardener.”
Before Jill’s death, his landscape business had kept the wolf from the door. In the three years since, the only garden tool he’d touched had been the shovel Clayton kept out back for scooping up his dog’s poop. It might be nice, working hard again. Working so hard that he fell into bed too exhausted to have nightmares about the wreck that took Jill from him.
“You know the old saying, ‘If it seems too good to be true’?” Franco lifted one shoulder in an indifferent shrug. “But you’ve got my attention.”
David explained that his sister-in-law had spent her final days at Savannah Falls. “So I know for a fact that it’s a great place. I can take you over there, make introductions.”
“I dunno, Dave. A hospice center? You know better than anybody that I’m not exactly a people person. Dealing with sick people?” He winced again.
“Oh, quit your bellyaching. You’ll be outside, mowin’ and hoein’, and the patients will be inside—”
“—dying.” Hungry as he was, Franco shoved his plate aside, because it hurt to chew, and the bacon and buttery eggs burned the cut on his lip. “I dunno,” he said again.
“You’ll do fine, if you just do your job and keep your big yap shut. For a change.”
Franco grinned despite himself. Had it been good luck or bad that put him together with a guy who never sugar-coated anything?
David slid his cell phone across the table. “Call your lawyer, find out how we go about informing the judge that you’ve decided to get back into the posie-planting business. Cause last thing you need right now is to violate courthouse protocol.”
Franco slid Carlisle’s card from his pocket, and as he dialed, David said, “When you’re through there, I’ll call Mrs. Kane, the director, arrange a meeting between you two. She’s a good egg, but she doesn’t take any guff, so I’d watch my step if I were you. With any luck, she’ll put you to work tomorrow.”
“I have a job, y’know.” At least he hoped he had a job. Clayton might tell him to take a permanent hike once he heard . . . everything.
It only took a minute to run the hospice idea past the young attorney, and less than that to find out that a phone call from Carlisle would get things straight with Judge Malloy.
He returned David’s phone. “The kid said I should get over to Savannah Falls and sign up ASAP. Said the judge’s office wouldn’t waste any time checking up on me. And that I need to keep track of my hours, so that when the paperwork comes through . . . ”
Phone pressed to his ear, David wasn’t listening, because he’d already connected with Savannah Falls. Franco picked up a slice of cold bacon, and took care not to let it graze his sore lips when he bit off a chunk. He slid the plate close again. Hard to tell when he’d have the time—or the money—for another meal, so he did his best to clean his plate, listening as David explained the situation to the takes-no-guff Mrs. Kane.
“She can meet with you this afternoon,” he said, dropping the phone into his shirt pocket.
It was all happening too fast. Way too fast for Franco’s taste. “But . . . but I need to figure out how to get the Jeep out of the impound lot. And get over to the garage, see if Clayton can find something for me to do that doesn’t involve a driver’s license.”
“I’ll chauffer you around today. But first things first. I’m taking you home so you can clean up your boozy self. You need a shower. A toothbrush. And a change of clothes.” He wrinkled his nose. “You look—and smell—like something my cat puked up.”
“Cat puke, huh?” Franco smirked, even though it hurt to do it. “People can call you a lot of things, Gibbons, but tactful isn’t one of them.”
“Tact!” David got to his feet and tossed a twenty onto the table. “Who has time for tact with you falling off the wagon and going ballistic every couple months?”
Ordinarily, a crack like that would have set Franco off. For some reason, it struck him as weird penance, because he knew he had it coming.