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Created by Templates Zoo

Author Katie Mettner

Butterflies and Hazel Eyes ~ Chapter Seven

*This is unedited*

The glow of the fire made the fear of being alone nonexistent. What lingered or lurked on the outside edges of the fire didn’t matter. What mattered was what lingered on the inside edges. After making sure the boat was anchored, I had to find dry kindling and dead logs to start the fire while he found small rocks to make a fire ring. He had the perfect ring finished by the time I returned from my foray into the woods, and we got a fire going in minutes. There were no hiking trails on this island and since the approach and landing were so poor, few people did more than motor past it on their way to other islands. Knowing that, I didn’t wander too far into the woods to look for kindling. Who knows what I might have encountered in the underbrush.

“How did you know this little strip of sand was here?” I asked as the fire popped and snapped. We were relaxing against a long piece of driftwood I’d found on the edge of the beach. After dragging it over, we buried our butts in the warm sand and stretched our legs out toward the fire. It was actually quite comfortable considering it was ten p.m., dark, and there wasn’t another soul around for miles.

“I’ve been to this island before with my kayak,” he explained. “I’ve paddled around the whole thing and happened to stop in this very place a few years ago. I’ve been trying to do some recon work here, but the foliage is too thick to get through. The island hasn’t seen life for a long time. At least not human life.”

“I had no idea anyone once lived here. It’s a beautiful place, but ridiculously remote. What must it have been like to live here in the middle of a winter storm? It must have been brutal.”

“I can’t even imagine,” he agreed. “I bet you never dreamed you’d end up on a deserted island your first trip out on the lake.” He shook his head while staring up at the stars.

“I’m not on a deserted island, you’re with me,” I said, bumping him in the shoulder.

He laughed at himself. “No one can say I don’t know how to show a woman a good time.”

We sat in companionable silence again listening to the water lap on the shore and the owls hoot from a hidden tree. “How did you have Laverne’s number?”

He laughed and threw the last of the stick he was fiddling with into the fire. “Everyone has Laverne’s cell number. She’s the clerk of courts and the treasurer. In small towns like Plentiful, everyone does more than one job.”

“Ahhh,” I laughed, mostly at myself. “It never crossed my mind she did anything else. That leads me to my next question,” I said, pausing.

“What other things do I do?” he asked and I nodded. “I’m the science curriculum director for the school district.”

My mouth hung open and he closed it with his finger.

“Sounds strange, I know. You could probably say I’m more of a collaborator. I work with them on what the students should be learning, and they take that information and write or buy the curriculum. It’s fun and something different than what I do on a day-to-day basis. I always enjoy being part of the bigger picture of what the next generation is being taught.”

“Which means you can teach them about how we’re destroying our water and food supplies,” I said.

He did the so-so hand. “More like how if we don’t change our ways we will destroy the ecosystem as a whole.”

I tossed up a hand full of sand. “It’s actually neat that they collaborate with boots on the ground rather than only academia. In my world of big cities, that doesn’t happen.”

“What big city are you from?” he asked, his eyebrow raised. “You said you were from Michigan.”

I drew a heart in the sand but immediately ran my hand through it to erase it. “Originally I’m from outside Flint. I lived there for the duration of my childhood until I was fourteen.”

“What happened at fourteen?”

“My dad, who was sixty-four, died of liver failure. They shipped me to live with my mom. The problem was, she lost interest in being a mom when I was five and bailed way back then. I hadn’t seen her since. She was even less interested in being a mom of a fourteen-year-old.”

“Damn, what did you do?” he asked. The way he held my elbows gently, his eyes focused on mine, told me he was truly interested in my story.

I laughed sardonically. “I did what every bitter, self-educated, angry teenager does.”

“Runaway? Get in trouble?”

“Get even,” I answered immediately. “Sometimes the truth hurts when you have to say it out loud.” I wiggled my shoulders in an uncomfortable motion while I worked out what else I wanted to say. He sat patiently waiting, as if he understood this was difficult, at best. “I wanted to be an emancipated minor, but I had no way to support myself, and no education since my dad wasn’t great at getting me to school. He claimed I was being homeschooled, but everyone could see what he was doing, which was absolutely nothing. When I arrived at my mom’s she had a new man and he wanted nothing to do with me. There was no way I was living with her.”

He rubbed my arm, raising goosebumps on my skin. “I’m sorry, Charity. My family is messed up, but at least at our core we love each other.”

I stared into the fire, remembering back to those days when everything was uncertain to a girl who had lived a life hidden away in an apartment with little outside contact. “There was no love between me and either of my parents. I was an inconvenience once they split up. If the neighbors hadn’t taken pity on this tiny thing in 3B I might not have survived my childhood. Since I did, I had to figure out how to make it in a world with the deck stacked against me in multiple different ways.”

“So, you got a degree and took off for parts unknown?” he asked, trying to fill in the blanks.

I giggled with true amusement and leaned back against the log again. “No, I hacked into my step-daddy’s bank account and stole a couple grand. I did the same thing to my mom’s account and several other people she worked with. I got six grand in total, but put it in a new account, so they could have it back. I didn’t actually want the money.”

“What did you want then? And how did you learn how to hack?”

“One question at a time,” I teased.

He opened the cooler and grabbed a beer, handing me one. “We might as well enjoy these, we aren’t going anywhere tonight.”

I cracked mine open and took a long swallow. Considering I was about to purge all my demons to the man I had a crush on, and give him the opportunity to judge me for them, the alcohol would be a welcome addition to the mix. I buried the can in the sand so it didn’t tip over and got back to the matter at hand. It made me wonder what he would think about the story I had to tell him. Would he judge me or would he understand the circumstances behind the desperate plan I’d hatched?

“I wanted out of her house but running away wouldn’t accomplish my goal. They’d just drag me back each time. Getting in trouble with the courts meant I got a new home.”

He lowered his can from his lips. “Yeah, a new home in juvie.”

“Ding ding,” I said, sipping the beer again for liquid courage. “At least in juvie I got three squares, a bed, and a chance at an education.”

His eyes told me the exact second when the lightbulb lit. His lips formed an O before he spoke. “Your basic living needs were finally met. The idea never crossed my mind.”

“Why would it? It doesn’t make sense unless you were in the situation I was in. I’d never had three meals a day and a bed of my own. I’d never been to school or even had decent clothes to wear. I was in heaven, even if I was technically incarcerated. My first day of juvie was on my fifteenth birthday and when I was released I had my GED and was old enough to be on my own. I had honed my hacking skills in a productive way, as my instructor put it. I planned to set out and find a job working for a company and I tried, but it never worked out. I was either not the right fit or the job was only temporary. I was hiking one day in California and discovered Myrtle by a beach. I bought her at first sight and started my business, which was six years ago. I’ve gone from just enough jobs to keep gas in the tank to more jobs than I can accept.”

“I’m impressed, Charity,” he whispered. “Not many people would take what you started with and make it work for them.”

I leaned back against the log and stretched my legs out. “I never wanted to use my hacking skills for evil, Gulliver. I’m not an evil kind of person. I was a desperate kid in a desperate situation.”

He started rubbing my arm again, as if he was comforting both of us with the motion. “I know, don’t misunderstand me. I meant your childhood.”

“Yeah, my childhood consisted of surviving and nothing more. While dad was passed out drunk, I studied videos on YouTube. Tutorials actually, on how to hack other people’s computers. I had dreams of becoming a professional, but first I had to learn how to read. My next-door neighbor taught me how to read and write once she realized my dad wasn’t homeschooling me at all. She wanted to take me to school with her kids, but he wouldn’t allow it. He was afraid social services would take me away and he would lose my benefits.”

“He wasn’t a father,” he said, hugging his knees to his chest. “He wasn’t even a caretaker.”

“How right you are. Like I said, I lucked out with my neighbor. I spent a lot of time there learning how to be a normal kid. She taught me proper hygiene, how to eat without acting like a starved animal, and how to interact with people. If I’d been left with my father I wouldn’t be here. If it weren’t for their family, I’d be dead somewhere, or wish I was.”

He put his arm around me in silent comfort. “I’m sorry. It’s not right for people to have kids and not take care of them. It aggravates me to no end.”

I eyed his legs, noticing they both bowed out, since he didn’t have his heavy shoe on the left one or the brace on the right. I had never seen his bare legs, but in shorts with his legs stretched out and relaxed, you noticed the issues immediately.

He sighed as his eyes followed mine to his battered legs. “My mom took care of us the best she could. She tried, but she didn’t have a lot of resources. I was loved, but my health condition is a direct result of poverty,” he explained. “I was a normal kid growing up until I was seven and busted my left femur trying to jump over a log. Don’t ask me how it happened, I don’t remember the incident, but I broke the growth plate.”

“Oh boy,” I said as I tossed another log on the fire to keep it going, and ward off visitors from the woods. Sparks flew up into the night and it reminded me of the Fourth of July when the fireworks lit up the sky. “Now I understand why your left leg is shorter than your right.”

He chuckled and leaned toward the fire, grasping his ankles. “It does. It never grew again and while they tried several surgeries to lengthen it,” he explained, holding up his shorts to show me pinhole scars covering the leg. “Nothing worked. I got infections and the infections caused even more damage to the bones. The infections were because we didn’t have indoor plumbing, or much hygiene in our home then. If you could call it a home. My care was free, but after the second infection the doctors deemed it time to stop before I lost the leg, or my life. I was fitted with a shoe lift and they kept increasing the lift as the other leg grew.”

“I hate to say I’m sorry, so I won’t. I will say I wish like hell you didn’t have to go through it then, and now,” I whispered, slipping my hand into his.

“You know as a kid, I didn’t care. When they were doing surgeries and attempting to lengthen the bone I was in constant pain. It was a relief once it healed from the final surgery and infection. It didn’t hurt anymore and for a few years all was well, even wearing the lift. I could run, chase my brother, ride a bike, and be a kid.”

“If it’s okay to ask, what happened to the right leg then? You mentioned rickets to me initially.”

He patted the knee on the right and gave me a grim smile. “Rickets is an easy explanation when I’m trying not to delve into the longer story. Have you ever heard of Blount’s disease?”

I shook my head but held tight to his hand. “Never. Another childhood thing?”

“It can be,” he agreed, finishing his beer and putting the can back in the cooler. “In my case I didn’t get it in infancy, but rather the adolescent form. I was thirteen when the bowing started. It’s always unilateral, so of course it would be the only good, strong leg I had. Even though we were in better living conditions by then, with my history of infections, the doctors decided against surgery for it. They put me in a special brace to put pressure at the femur, knee and ankle in alternating directions. The point was to realign the knee with the other leg.”

I grimaced as I stared at his leg. “It didn’t work.”

He laughed heartily and straightened himself against the log. “It did, actually, at least a little. It used to be more severe than it is now, if you can believe it. The brace realigned the knee a bit, which helped with the pain. I still wear a brace for stability, but it’s never going to correct the issue, that ship sailed.” He laughed loudly and for a long time before he spoke again. “No pun intended.”

I chuckled and gave him an impromptu hug. “I like your sense of humor. You make me laugh, which isn’t an easy thing to do for most people.”

He held onto me for longer than necessary, but I didn’t object. Being in his arms was comforting and right now I would take all the comfort I could get. “You make me forget for a few minutes what my life consists of. Jacked up legs and dealing with complicated situations and feelings no one should have to deal with.”

“I’m glad I’m here, Gulliver,” I whispered, rubbing his back for a moment until he released me. “It’s my belief we’re put in places at specific times for specific reasons. I have no doubt my trip to Plentiful was about more than fixing a server problem. It was about fixing a heart problem.”

A smile snuck across his face as the fire reflected the happiness in his eyes. “I can’t argue with you there. You’ve definitely fixed several of my problems.”

“And I’m not going anywhere,” I assured him, rubbing his knee. He stiffened, but when he didn’t push my hand away I continued with the massage. “You were saying the brace won’t correct it,” I prompted.

“Right. It won’t fix it at this point, but it keeps the pain at bay, so I always wear it. I’ve managed to stave off arthritis in my back because of it, which is a huge accomplishment. Most people with these limb deformities will end up with scoliosis or pain in their back from an uneven gait. While my course wasn’t the easiest, at least my back isn’t screwed up, too.”

“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” I said, shoulder bumping him again. “And you found a way. You’re successful, smart, and have a good life. Not everyone can say the same.”

“I suppose not,” he agreed. “I would probably give it all up for what my brother has, though.”

“You mentioned a brother. Is he older or younger?” I asked, scanning the sand for any interlopers. Since Mojo was still passed out, I had to figure we were safe.

“He’s younger, by one minute,” he answered as he threw another stick on the fire.

“You’re twins?” I asked incredulously.

“We are, identical actually. Well, not identical anymore,” he said, motioning at his legs. “But from the chest up we are.”

“How cool.” My voice was filled with envy and he sensed it. He slipped his hand into mine and patted it in the sand a couple times. “I always wanted a sibling. It would be nice to have someone to talk to sometimes. You said you’d give it all up for what he has. What does he have that you don’t?” I asked, redirecting the conversation.

“A family,” he sighed in response. “He has a woman who loves him and a little boy who adores him. He works his shift and goes home to spend the night with the ones he loves. I work until I’m too tired to do anything but go home and sleep.”

I squeezed his hand again as they rested in the sand. “Your work matters, to all of us, Gulliver.”

He leaned back against the log and sighed. “I know, but I think I can do my work and still have a personal life, right?”

“Absolutely,” I agreed. “What’s stopping you?”

He immediately flopped his legs on the sand. “These.”

It was as if the one word encompassed everything he had to say about the subject, but one word wasn’t enough for me. “I’m not sure I understand. They stop you because you’re afraid to date women?”

“I used to date women easily, until the discussion about my legs came up and then we were instantly good friends,” he explained using air quotes. “There was no faster way to be friend-zoned than to show up on crutches with deformed legs. I don’t even bother dating anymore. It’s not worth the heartache.”

I ran my hand down his shoulder tenderly. “If it matters to you, I never considered friend-zoning you when I met you. I registered the crutches, but I didn’t notice the why.”

“Apparently you’re sorely lacking in observation skills then.”

I waited for him to say more, but he didn’t, so I did. “No, I’m incredibly observant. My job is about being observant. I notice everything. The difference is, I only register the stuff I care about in regard to how it will affect my life. Your legs were never a concern to me. You do you, regardless of them,” I said, pointing to his legs.

He rubbed the knee on the right side and what I used to think was a nervous habit I now realized was because it hurt. “Thank you, but you’re probably used to dealing with discrimination, too.”

I shook my head and tossed my arms out to the side before they fell back to the sand. “No, like I said, my height really hasn’t limited me much as far as my personal relationships go. My childhood did the damage there. I guess I have enough common sense to realize the sum of you doesn’t culminate in your legs. There’s far more to who you are than what you use to get around with. It wouldn’t be any different if you were sitting in a wheelchair.”

“And I might be someday,” he admitted. “There’s a real possibility eventually the legs give out.”

“None of the above factors mean you aren’t worthy of being with, Gulliver. I understand there’s a self-esteem issue there and you’ve come by it rightly so, but I want you to understand I don’t see the crutches or the legs. I just see you.”

He lowered one brow toward his nose. “Sure, whatever you say, Miss Laverne Says to Stay Away from the Island.”

I laughed softly and held up my hands. “I’m guilty there, so let me restate. I see the crutches, but only if I’m worried about your safety. I don’t want you to get hurt, which I think means nothing more than I care about you and how you feel.”

“I care about you and how you feel, too. I wish there wasn’t such an age gap between us.”

“There’s an age gap?” I asked surprised. “How old are you?”

He sighed as he answered. “Thirty-four.”

I snorted like a pig trying to hold in the laughter. “Wow, eight whole years. It’s almost unheard of. Scandalous even. What will my father think if I date a man with so much more worldly knowledge than me?” I asked in a fake southern belle accent.

He grabbed my shoulders and hauled me to his chest, his lips landing on mine in a passionate desperate kiss. He pried my lips open with his tongue and explored my mouth the way I wanted to explore his, but he wouldn’t let my tongue in. He owned the kiss one hundred percent until we broke apart, panting from the power of the emotions running through us.

It took a few moments for us to catch our breath, both of our chests heaving in and out as we gazed at each other in wonder. “Your father’s dead,” he whispered, running this thumb along the ridge of my upper lip, still dewy from the kiss.

“Which gives me permission to do whatever the hell I want to,” I said emphatically. “If I want to date a guy who’s eight years older than me, I will. If I want to date a guy who uses crutches or sits in a wheelchair, I will. I don’t give a damn what other people think. I’m a tiny woman who drives an old motorhome around the country with nothing but a mashed-up mutt as company. That lifestyle alone should tell you I don’t care what anyone thinks about my choices in life. They’re my choices, no one else. Am I tired of that life? Like you don’t know, Gulliver. Like you don’t know,” I whispered.

His hand grasped my chin and drew me toward him. “Why do it then?” he whisper asked. “Find a job and stay in one place.”

I nodded, my head bobbing in his hand. “I’ve had plenty of offers, but I’ve never wanted to stay in one place, until now.”

“What’s changed now?” His eyes bore into my soul as he waited for an answer.

“You,” I whispered. “The town, this lake, the people, but above all, you. It’s been a week and suddenly the morning doesn’t hold excitement about the next destination. Suddenly the morning holds excitement about seeing you again.”

“You’re not alone,” he promised, kissing my plump lips much gentler this time. “I lay awake at night thinking about you and wake up thinking about you. You’re the first woman to understand me and my work. Most women were gone as soon as I mentioned bugs, and those who stayed, were gone once I stood up. You don’t have the same disconnect. It’s like you’re all in for the good and the bad.”

I caressed his face softly, his five o’clock shadow rough on my palm. “I am, Gulliver. Judging someone on one aspect of their being isn’t fair. I wouldn’t want anyone to do it to me.”

“You’re an unusual woman, Charity Puck,” he whispered, “in an excellent way. I’ve found myself smiling and laughing more in the last week than I have in the last year.”

My lips wore a frown at the idea he was so alone in the world. “It saddens me to think you’ve spent years being lonely, but I’m content to know you’ve found a little happiness here. Well, other than this,” I said, motioning around the darkened beach.

He dropped my chin and wrapped me in his arms, resting my head on his shoulder. “I don’t know, this isn’t so bad. If we’d gone back to shore I would have told you goodnight and gone home to an empty apartment. Out here I have a fire, a beautiful woman in my arms, and the stars to watch. I’m not at all unhappy with how this night ended. I’m sure Laverne will be when she has to fix the motor, but a forced night away from reality isn’t always a bad thing.”

I patted his chest absently as I considered his words. “I didn’t think of it in those terms, but since you mentioned it, I’m all about this.”

He chuckled and the sound made his chest rattle under my cheek. It was comforting and the heat of his chest made me sleepy. I yawned as he rubbed my arm. “It’s late. Why don’t you snooze for a bit? I have to stay awake and watch the boat anyway.”

I gazed up at him. “Where is it going to go?”

He winked one of those beautiful hazel eyes. “Nowhere, hopefully. But I have to be sure it doesn’t get dragged out into open water while we sleep.”

I sat up and forced my backbone straight. “I’ll stay awake, too. You’ll need company.”

He pointed up at the sky. “I have the stars to count, a fire to keep going, and a book to read. I’ll be fine.”

I yawned again, covering my mouth with my hand. “You carry a book around with you?”

He grabbed the sleeping bag from the sand and spread it out in front of the fire. “No, I found it on the boat while I was grabbing the supplies out of the back. It was once waterlogged, but it dried out and I think it’s still readable.”

He motioned me into the sleeping bag and I reluctantly laid down, Mojo lumbering up to get closer to me like he always does. “What book is it?”

“Gulliver’s Travels,” he said, laughing at the irony of it.

“Seriously?” I asked, laughing with him. He held it up and indeed it was Gulliver’s Travels. “And here we are, stranded on a deserted island. I’ve never read it. Would you read it to me? No one has ever read to me before.” I snuggled deeper into the bag surprised by how chilled I had become in the night air.

“No one? Ever?” he asked, a brow dipped down in question.

“Not unless it was when I was a baby. My parents weren’t exactly about the bedtime stories.”

He zipped the bag a little bit and patted my hip where I snuggled near the fire. “Okay, but only if you stay in the bag and snooze,” he ordered. I promised with a head nod and a yawn, so he cracked the book open and aimed a penlight at the page. “Part one, a voyage to Lilliput,” he began.

His voice filled the night with an air of comfort and normalcy as he read the words. Listening to him read helped me relax. It also made me wonder if that was how a child felt when snuggled warmly in bed with someone who loves them reading aloud. I mean not that he loves me, but it’s the idea of being cared about. It’s not about the story, but about someone being there to spend time with you. My eyes were heavy as he flipped the page and I forced my ears to listen for several more paragraphs, but I never did find out if Gulliver got free of his bindings before I dropped off to sleep.

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