I look around for Jenny but don’t see her.
As we walk to get Sofia a drink, I introduce her each time we’re stopped—which is often. There’s the tan-skinned, blond Mrs. Mosely. I went to school with her girls, but their mother was the one all the boys were interested in. Guys used to fight over who’d offer to mow her lawn first—just for the chance to see her catching the sun in her bikini in the backyard. Then there’s Gabe Swanson, the town historian and bookshop owner—one of the nicest and most fucking boring men I’ve ever known. After I pour Sofia a mint julep at the checkered-cloth-covered drink table, we turn and see the smiling face of Pastor Thompson approach.
“Good to see ya, Stanton.”
“You too, Pastor.” I sip my beer. “It was a fine service today.”
“I thought you might like it.” He taps my arm with a shaky hand. “How long’s it been since you’ve been home?”
I scratch the back of my neck, trying to recall. Until a honey-toned voice I’d know anywhere recalls for me.
“Fourteen months, twelve days.”
I turn to my right, and Jenny’s there, wearing a white eyelet dress now, her hair pulled back with a yellow ribbon, looking like an angel . . . with the body of a devil underneath. My favorite kind.
Ass Face is there too. Unfortunately.
“That can’t be right,” I correct. “I spent Christmas with Presley.”
Jenny’s smile is calmly resentful, an “I told you so” smile.
“’Cause you bought her a plane ticket and she flew out to spend Christmas with you. You said you couldn’t make it home. Again.”
I’m shocked when I realize she’s right—it has been that long. Talking to Jenny practically every day, seeing her when we Skype, the days blended . . . passed . . . and I didn’t notice.
Sofia rests her hand on my arm. “You were working on the Kripley case in December, remember?” Then, almost like she’s defending me, she explains, “It was a big case—armed robbery, with a minimum sentence of twenty years. Mr. Kripley was wrongfully ID’d as the perpetrator. Stanton was able to show the jury how unreliable witness identifications are and he was found not guilty. A few weeks later, the actual robber was apprehended trying to sell the stolen merchandise.”
Sofia looks at me with proud eyes, but when she turns to Jenny, her gaze turns frosty. “He saved a man’s life and still found a way to spend Christmas with his daughter—that’s pretty impressive, don’t you think?”
Jenny’s eyes drop to the cup in her hand. “Of course. We all know how important Stanton’s work is.”
Pastor Thompson raises his glass. “You keep fightin’ the good fight, son.”
“Thank you, sir. I will.”
After the preacher walks off, I see a golden opportunity—Ass Face be damned. “Jenny, there’s some things we need to talk about. Let’s take a walk over . . .”
And my brother pops in between us, shoving a football in my face. “Hey, Bubba—you wanna toss the ball around?”
“Good idea, Marshall.” JD grins. “Mind if I join you?”
“Sure, Coach Dean.”
Coach Dean—what a fucking joke. But if nothing else, it’ll give me a chance to show him up. I pass my beer to Sofia.
“You boys run along and play,” Jenn teases. “Sofia and I will get better acquainted.” Something in her voice makes me pause, and I look to see if Sofia’s okay with that. Her smile tells me she is.
I take the ball from Marshall and launch it at JD’s stomach, just a few feet away. He catches it with a painful “Ooomph.”
Oh yeah—this is gonna be all kinds of fun.
• • •
After a few minutes of throwing the ball, I decide to take advantage of the chance to question JD—maybe get something on him I can use. “So,” I start casually, “you’re coachin’ at the high school. What’s that like after so many years?”
Inappropriate student-teacher relationships are all the rage these days, and I’m kind of hoping JD is a trend follower.
He shrugs self-deprecatingly. “You know what they say—those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t play—coach. I was always good with strategy, makin’ plays—the physical stuff was tougher. I’m not real coordinated.”
As if reinforcing his point, his next throw is about four feet above my head—I have to leap to catch it. But I do.
“Jenny says you used to live in California?”