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"DO YOU FULLY COMPREHEND WHY YOU FIND YOURSELF standing before me today, Mr. Allessi?"
Franco stared at the toes of his shoes. "Yes, Your Honor, I do."
"And do you also realize that by getting behind the wheel in an inebriated state, you put others — not just yourself — in dire jeopardy?"
Truth be told, he'd put himself in jeopardy long before he got behind the wheel. His whole life these days seemed like a connect-the-dots game, with each dot representing a new risk. Take last night, for example, when instead of ignoring the taunts of "Get a load of this dude's wingtips!" by unruly bikers at the Brew and Cue, he'd started a shoving match, and paid for it with a black eye, a chipped tooth, and bruised ribs.
Leroy Carlisle, his court-appointed attorney, elbowed him back to attention.
"Yes, Your Honor," Franco repeated. He glanced up, but only far enough to read JOHN MALLOY, SR., JUDGE, SUPERIOR COURT on the big wooden nameplate. "You have my word, sir, it won't happen again."
Malloy exhaled a long-suffering sigh. "Oh, if only I had a dollar for every time I've heard that ..." He frowned at Franco's file, open on his bench. "Nevertheless, you scored 0.14 on the breathalyzer. And since this isn't your first offense, I have no choice but to suspend your license ..."
Carlisle warned him this might happen. Thirty days, the bespectacled kid had said, two months at most, providing
Franco looked and sounded — how had he put it? — suitably contrite.
"... for six months."
Six months? Six months! "With all due respect, Your Honor, I drive a tow truck. Can't do my job without a license."
Sarcasm rang out loud in the older man's voice: "With all due respect, Mr. Allessi, you should have considered that possibility before driving under the influence." Malloy sat back and folded liver-spotted hands over his ponderous belly. "Under other circumstances, I might have granted you permission to drive to and from work." He looked at the man at the prosecutor's table. "But Detective Rowe, here, says you were so out of it when he pulled you over that he considered calling an ambulance." His slow Georgia drawl quickened a bit as he added, "I cannot in good conscience risk that next time; you might run some young mama and her carload of little ones off the road."
"You have my word. There won't be a next time."
Carlisle jabbed Franco again, this time squarely on one of his sore ribs. Franco drove a hand through his hair and weighed his options: take his medicine like a good little drunkard, or deck the bony-elbowed smartass to his left.
"I could sentence you to sixty days, but since you seem suitably contrite, I'll lessen it to time served and fifty hours of community service. Your fresh-faced young lawyer here can help you choose an appropriate facility." He raised a bushy eyebrow and aimed his steely gaze at Carlisle. "The name of which I expect to see on my desk by this time tomorrow. Understood, counselor?"
Carlisle nodded as the judge banged his gavel, and the bailiff stepped up to the bench.
"Next case," Malloy bellowed as Carlisle stuffed his pen and yellow legal pad into a floppy black briefcase. He muttered something about signatures and paperwork, then crisscrossed the bag over his shoulder and headed for the door. Franco followed like a well-trained pup, hoping he could arrange a payment schedule, because his checking account was as bare as Mother Hubbard's cupboard.
The detective fell into step beside them. "Malloy was mighty rough on you, Mr. Allessi," Rowe said. "Guess it's your bad luck that what folks say about him is true."
Franco didn't care what folks said about the judge — hadn't cared about much of anything lately — but the cop told him anyway.
"He don't cotton to New Yorkers or eye-talians, 'specially drunk eye-talians, so you're two for two."
Franco could have said, "I'm from New Hampshire, and I'm not a drunk." But why waste his breath? God willing, he'd never see Malloy, Rowe, or Carlisle again.
"Well, good luck to you," Rowe said on his way to the exit. "You're gonna need it."
The big wooden door hissed shut behind him and Carlisle led the way to an ancient wooden bench against the wall. Unzipping the soft-sided briefcase, he produced forms from the clerk's office. His cell phone buzzed as he handed them to Franco. "Read these over and sign them." He slid a ballpoint from his pocket and gave it to Franco before hitting the "accept call" button. He turned slightly and put his back to Franco.
This couldn't wait until he'd arranged a ride home? Franco wondered. What was the guy afraid of? That his flat-broke, eye-talian client would embarrass him by hitching a ride out of town before paying court costs?
Franco grudgingly filled out the documents while Carlisle nodded, listening to some loudmouth on the other end of the phone who accused him of spending way too much time on "that lousy DUI." Franco snorted. Too much time? He'd stood in fast food lines longer than the young lawyer had spent prepping for this case, and that included the hurried, unfocused interview downstairs in the holding cell!
Carlisle was still talking when Franco finished the paperwork, so he tossed the pen onto the open briefcase and picked up the mustard-colored envelope labeled ALLESSI, FRANCO A. Eighty-eight cents in loose change clattered onto the bench, followed by his wallet — which contained forty-three bucks and two nearly maxed-out credit cards — his keys, and a battered, bare-bones gray flip phone that hadn't been charged in days.
The lawyer was about to pocket his cell phone when Franco said, "Mind if I borrow that? My battery's dead and I need to arrange a ride home."
"Make it quick," the kid said, frowning. "Can't be late for my next case."
Right. Wouldn't want you wasting precious time on another drunk. Ignoring the lawyer's dismissive tone, Franco dialed his AA sponsor. Good thing I have a memory for numbers, he thought, counting the rings. With a little luck, David Gibbons would agree to pick him up at the courthouse and drive him to Clayton's Auto Body Shop. With a little more luck, Clayton could scare up a job that didn't involve getting behind the wheel.
When David answered, Franco summarized the situation, starting with a reminder that yesterday had been the third anniversary of his wife's death, which started with a boozy brawl that landed him in jail and ended with the judge's ruling.
"Jeez, Allessi," Gibbons grumbled, "what were you thinking?"
Franco heard a heavy sigh, then, "Give me fifteen minutes. And don't make me come in there looking for you."
"I won't. And thanks," he said, and returned the phone.
Carlisle pocketed it. "Any ideas about where you'll serve your community service?"
Head pounding and stomach churning, he shook his head. "No, not yet."
"Well, you've got my number. Leave me a message if you think of something. Otherwise, I'll hook you up with one of the soup kitchens downtown."
"Uh-huh." The last place he wanted to be; if he kept going the way he had been, that's exactly where he'd end up one day, and not as a volunteer, either.
"You look a little green around the gills. You gonna be okay?"
"Yeah, eventually." He'd gone from owning a landscaping company to driving a tow truck, and had taken one helluva pounding from the brawny bikers at the Brew and Cue. Spent a miserable night in jail. Took a brow-beating from an eye-talian hating judge. The way Franco saw it, he'd pretty much hit rock bottom.
Where was there to go but up?
AUBREY STOOD AT THE MIRROR AND TUGGED AT THE brim of her Washington Nationals baseball cap.
She liked the memories it conjured of happier, healthier times, when her greatest fear was forgetting to turn off the steam iron. Better still, the hat didn't make her head itch, unlike the bulky knit skullcaps her mother dropped off every week. And on a day like this, the cap's bright red brim would shade her eyes from intense sunlight, beaming from the azure Savannah sky.
Draping a sweater over one arm, she grabbed her art kit, her favorite material possession, and left her temporary — and final — home. One door down, she stopped at Dusty Myer's room. He claimed to want nothing to do with anyone or anything at Savannah Falls, but if that were true, why did he always leave his door open?
As usual, she found him slouched in his wheelchair, staring out at the gardens. Could he see the beauty out there through eyes clouded by confusion, pain, and despair?
And, as usual, she entered uninvited. "'Mornin', kiddo," she said, stowing her things on the window-facing loveseat. "Not in the mood for eggs Benedict this morning, huh?" She helped herself to a triangle of cold toast.
Frowning, he glanced at it, then drew quote marks in the air. "Mrs. Brewer, Hospice Genius."
Aubrey flinched slightly at the use of her married name. It still stung, remembering what Michael had said when he delivered the divorce papers: "I just can't bear to watch you suffer." If Guinness had a Stupid Reasons to Separate category, that had to be in the top ten.
"No need to be so formal," she said, winking. "Aubrey will do nicely. Or, if you prefer, just plain Genius."
He didn't return her smile. No surprise there. Anger, resentment, and bitterness had controlled her at first, too, until one of her art students compared her paintings to the later works of Frans Hals, whose subjects' faces reflected a sense of doom and foreboding. She hadn't told anyone at school about the cancer, so the kid had no way of knowing how accurately he'd described her contemptuous reaction to her diagnosis. But that very night, she'd gone through her canvases and, shocked at how many reflected her dismal mood, hid a dozen or more under a tarp in the basement. Just because her oncologist's prognosis had been grim didn't mean the rest of her life had to echo it! One day soon, maybe she'd share that story with Dusty. Whether he chose to learn something from it or continue wallowing in selfpity was entirely up to him.
"I can't decide whether to paint birds and butterflies, or flowers today," she said, effectively changing the subject. "Wait, I know ... flowers!"
He snorted. "Too bad you're dying of a brain tumor —"
The words hit like a slap, but she smiled anyway. "Ah, I see you signed up for Doc Robinson's 'Tact and Kindness' class, didn't you?"
"— because," Dusty finished, "instead of painting sunshine and rainbows, you could write a book."
"Me? A book?" She laughed.
"Yeah. One of those stupid self-help books. Like Die Smiling. Or maybe How to Drive Your Hospice Neighbor Nuts."
Aubrey could have countered with an equally cutting remark. Could have told him that self-pity was an ugly, useless emotion. But she'd seen his family photos — full-color and black-and-white evidence that he hadn't always been an insensitive, angry snot. Robinson, the hospice shrink, had called this behavior the "lashing out" period. She worried that Dusty, who hadn't even graduated high school yet, wasn't mature enough to realize that his attitude would drive loved ones away, and had the power to exacerbate every symptom of the disease that was not-so-slowly killing him.
"What are you staring at?"
Blinking, Aubrey glanced away from his angry face, focusing instead on row after row of greeting cards signed with little hearts, Xs and Os. At potted plants adorned with bright satin bows. At cheery get-well balloons that bobbed and danced in the AC's downdraft. Her own room, by contrast, looked bleak and bare, save the lonely philodendron, delivered by the family of a patient she'd befriended ... on the very day he'd died. She had a notion to give Dusty a good talking-to, remind him how blessed he was to be surrounded by so many people — family and friends and compassionate staff — who cared about him. If she did that, though, she'd have to balance the lecture with an ugly fact: only a heartless fool would imply that a kid dying of cancer was blessed or lucky.
Reality hit like a punch to the gut: dozens of friends and relatives would grieve when Dusty was gone. But Aubrey? Aubrey had Agnes, who'd insisted on piano lessons, had pushed her into becoming a cheerleader, and had chosen her college and the courses that led to a career as a high school art history teacher. She'd insisted on chemo and radiation, even though test after test delivered the same prognosis: the glioblastoma brain tumor was inoperable ... and incurable. And when Agnes finally accepted the inevitable, she decided where Aubrey would spend her final days, too.
Aubrey envied Dusty, because, oh, what she'd give to know that when she was gone, people would miss her!
"How 'bout if I turn on your TV before I leave?"
"Why bother. Daytime TV sucks ... unless you're a lazy housewife, or a hundred years old." He grunted. "Or a nosy hospice genius."
An idea formed as she admired his framed family photos, displayed behind the greeting cards.
Aubrey turned on the TV, and while he busied himself cursing and reaching for the remote, she swiped the photo that featured Dusty, healthy and tan and grinning as, arms akimbo, he leaned Jack Dawson-style into the sailboat's gleaming bow rail. She hid it under her art case and hurried to the door, knowing exactly what she'd paint today.
"You're seriously going outside?" Frowning, Dusty clicked through the channels, stopping when a weather map filled the screen. "Channel 12 weather guy says it'll hit 102° today. I take it back. You're not a genius, after all."
"Thanks to the after-effects of chemo, I'm always cold, so predictions of hot and humid is great news to me."
He swiveled his wheelchair to face her. "Question for you, Aubrey. We're in a hospice center, where people come to die. So what's the point of chemo?" "That's for me to know and you to find out."
She hadn't had an infusion in months, and couldn't recall the last time she'd swallowed a bitter-tasting pill. But admitting it might give him an excuse to give up on his own treatments. Almost as bad ... the possibility that he'd let the information slip when Agnes was in earshot.
"See you later," she said over her shoulder.
"Not if I see you first!"
DURING HER MONTH AT SAVANNAH FALLS, AUBREY HAD produced half a dozen paintings, sitting right here on the river bluffs.
In one, she'd concentrated on the Savannah River's shimmering ripples. In another, her focus had been the conical blooms of bottle-brush buckeyes and mottled-green trillium that sprouted beneath them. Today, the vista would form a backdrop for a family portrait. It wouldn't be easy reproducing Dusty's youthful exuberance — especially since she intended to paint it onto his ashy, cancer-abused face, but —
"Aubrey Jane Brewer, what are you doing out here in this miserable heat?"
The voice startled her so badly, she nearly dropped the photo. "Good grief, Mama, you scared me half to death." Aubrey snickered. "Oh, wait. Cancer already took me way past the halfway point, didn't it?"
Agnes pursed her lips. "Honestly, Bree," she said, fanning herself with her envelope-sized purse, "must you always be so crass?"
Her mother's inability to cope with the prognosis was as exasperating as her insistence on calling Aubrey Bree. At first, she'd blamed Agnes's Old South upbringing, but that only worked for a while. The woman craved control the way addicts crave their drug of choice, and there wasn't a blessed thing Aubrey could do about it. So why waste precious time and energy trying?
Agnes helped herself to the photo. "Who are these people?"
It was a good thing she'd already completed the background, because Agnes had the power to snuff Aubrey's muse as surely as water doused a kitchen match.
"That's Dusty Myers," she said, pointing him out. "You know, the boy in the room next to mine. Hard to recognize him, I know, without the scowl, but that's him. Dusty has a lovely family, but he's doing his level best to push them away." She relieved her mother of the picture. "And if he isn't careful, he might just succeed."
Agnes stood, staring and uncharacteristically quiet. Considering the possibility that she might suffer the same fate as Dusty's family? Aubrey wondered.
"How old is he?"
"Just turned sixteen."
"He may just be a boy," Agnes sniffed, "but as you and I learned the hard way, males of our species are born selfish, and think only of themselves. If you ask me, his cancer only heightened an already-irksome condition."
Aubrey could point out that her dad hadn't been the least bit self-centered, but she wasn't in the mood to hear a lecture about all the men who were, starting with Michael, who'd filed for divorce within weeks of the oncologist's diagnosis. Her ex had stayed in touch by phone and text message ... until Agnes shared the doctor's "terminal" prognosis. Aubrey exhaled a disappointed sigh. "The more things change," she muttered, "the more they stay the same."
Excerpted from "50 Hours"
Copyright © 2017 Loree Lough.
Excerpted by permission of Rising Phoenix Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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