“Maybe you ought to get around to building that fence so he can’t wander off,” Jackson said, nodding toward the pile of lumber lying beside the garage.
“That’s actually a swing set we bought for Luc back in May. My dad planned to build it, but none of the wood came labeled, so he set it aside to puzzle over later.” Gabby shrugged with a pleasant sigh, clearly unperturbed by her father’s failure. “One of these days.”
Luc finally scampered back around the garden and tugged on her sweatshirt, leaving a dirty smudge to go with the jelly stain. “I hungwee, Mama.”
“Okay.” She bent down to kiss his head. “Let’s go make some oatmeal with raisins.” Then she turned to Jackson. “Would you like some, too?”
“No, thanks. Actually, I need to run to an appointment.” He saluted Luc, who’d begun to stack a pile of small stones. “Have a good day, buddy.”
Then he turned and beelined to the garage before he changed his mind. He jogged up the metal stairs, sneaking a final glance at the twosome as they ducked around the back of the tired little farmhouse.
Jackson sighed. It’d been weeks since he’d had a drink, and longer since he’d had sex. Now he knew six weeks here would test a lot more than his ability to control his impulses with alcohol.
By eight-thirty in the morning, Jackson had shifted his position on the doctor’s sofa for the fourth time. Avocado-green carpeting spanned the floor of the tiny office. A wall of bookshelves cluttered with books and knickknacks added to Jackson’s sense of claustrophobia. The old-fashioned clock ticking off each second didn’t help matters. If not for the abundant light streaming through the large plate glass window to Jackson’s left, he might have lost his mind.
Doctor Joseph Millard, or Doc, as he’d asked to be called, sat opposite him in an Eames-style lounge chair, with pen and paper in hand. The man’s salt-and-pepper hair matched his closely cropped beard. His eyes and mouth were bracketed with the deep lines one would expect to see on a person who spent a fair amount of time outdoors in harsh climates. His eyes, green and alert, twinkled with what appeared to be good humor. He wore a long-sleeve Polo pullover, khakis cuffed at the ankle, and Birkenstocks that looked twice as old as the furnishings.
Despite Doc’s friendly and relaxed demeanor, Jackson had been perspiring as if he’d been handcuffed to a chair beneath a single, bright spotlight. Torture. Cruel and unusual punishment. Either term would apply to the experience of being forced to talk about personal things with anyone these days, let alone a stranger.
“I’m not going to shoot you, you know.” Doc chuckled, set aside his notepad, and leaned forward. “I don’t have every answer, but I can tell you this. We could meet every day for the next six weeks, but if you don’t talk, we won’t make much progress.”
Jackson scrubbed his hands over his face. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m just trying to tell you that this is a safe space. Nothing you say goes beyond these walls. No judgment, either.”
“That’s a neat trick.” Jackson slid his hands along his thighs without looking directly at Doc. “Teach me to be nonjudgmental and I’ll be your slave for life.”
“That’s hard for you, then?”
“Me and most of the world.” When Doc watched Jackson without comment, he continued. “We’re raised to know right from wrong, live by the ‘Golden Rule,’ and all that shit. So when people do wrong or screw you over, it’s pretty hard not to judge, isn’t it?”
“What’s the payoff from casting judgment?”
Jackson scowled, crossing his arms. “I feel better.”
“Do you?” As he uttered the words, sunlight split through the prism of the crystal pendant hanging in the office window, scattering tidbits of rainbows across the walls. Like opposing perspectives, the rays of light looked entirely different depending on which side of the prism you stood, or sat.
“Yeah, I do.”
Doc’s skeptical gaze caused Jackson to make yet another judgment. One having to do with his general sense that New Age juju wouldn’t help him find answers. If Doc started chanting, he was outta here.
“Listen, Doc, I’m on a short timeline here, which means it’s probably best if we don’t waste a lot of time with hypotheticals and what ifs. Just tell me, straight up, what I need to do and let’s get it done.”
Doc grinned and slouched back into his seat, crossing one sandal-clad foot over his knee. “Sorry to tell you, it doesn’t work that way. You have to be willing to examine your thoughts and behaviors, to identify your triggers, and then, ultimately, begin to modify the stuff that gets you into trouble.”
Jackson practically flung his head back against the sofa cushions. “Shit.”
“Don’t lose hope. Today wasn’t fruitless. I know your mom’s death was the first major setback in your life. You’ve alluded to some things with your siblings and ex-girlfriend, and I can see you’re a man who prefers action to discussion. We can build on this, as long as you’re willing to challenge yourself. To get real honest and stop pretending that you have no role in your own problems.”
Jackson cracked his knuckles while keeping his gaze on the floor. Doc was no dummy, as evidenced by the way he framed this as a challenge. Apparently he managed to pick up on Jackson’s pride and competitive spirit during this first forty-five-minute appointment. Maybe the guy had something to offer after all.
After another moment, Jackson raised his head and met Doc’s inquiring gaze. “Friday morning, same time?”
Jackson rose and shook the man’s hand before bolting to his car. On the drive back to his apartment, he realized he had an entire day to kill. He’d already exercised and eaten, and he didn’t want to waste time watching TV, especially considering the ancient model in the apartment.
No work. No distractions. No booze.
Scratching his head, he wondered what had convinced him downtime would be a good thing.
He pulled his Jeep up to the garage. None of the Bouchards were in the yard, and Gabby’s truck was gone. He started for the apartment stairwell when he noticed the play set lumber stacked there waiting for someone’s attention.
A project would be a productive use of his time and talent, and it had been a long time since he’d been anyone’s hero. What better than to be one for a little tyke whose dad seemed to be MIA? Besides, few things provided a more satisfying way to release tension than the contents of his tool kit.