Spirit of Steel 1


She’d been sitting out there in the backyard for hours, dying as her patience was being tested, but hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him.  She normally wasn’t one to sit out in the sunny, but muggy weather of Millington, TN, but her mother seemed to believe the idea that she thought she needed some sun.  Her real intention, other than to get out of the house a little, was to see if she could spot him.  His grandmother had said that he’d be coming home due to a broken foot.  She wouldn’t normally mention injuries to the Litton's, but the fact that Carolina had just had surgery on her own ankle had somehow brought his grandmother down from the far side of his mother and step-father's house, from her own home to knock on the door to say hello.

 Now it was all up to her.  She’d declined the introduction that his mother Lynn had promised the morning before when she’d caught sight of her bringing the trash out to the side of the house next door, in favor of a more “natural” meeting.  True, stalking him from her backyard through the small line of trees probably wasn’t “natural”, but it was more comfortable at least on her part than being shoved in his face as if he needed a playmate while he recovered.

 The sound of the hinges of the back porch opening next door pierced the air then a bang or two on the metal bottom half of the door  came from beyond the trees before she finally saw him.  Wearing ratty jean cut-offs and a wife beater and baseball hat, he looked nothing like what she’d expected.  She'd pictured him as this smooth man in designer clothes and there he was over there one beer away from being a redneck.

 The crutches, removable cast and all and his not so gracefully exit out the door didn’t help the overall look of him.  If a tabloid had caught sight of him at the moment the headline would read something about drug addiction and an anger management problem, instead of the real reason for his frustration...his broken ankle.

 “Fucking hell these stupid ass crutches.”  He threw them to the ground and breathing hard started to stomp his foot angrily – his injured foot.

 “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she called across the fifty or so feet between the houses.

 He stopped what he was doing and moved a little to see passed the trees.  She wished that she could hide, but the wooden deck left no hole for her to crawl into.  "Are you fucking kidding me?  I'm being spied on in my own damn yard."

 She took a breath when she realized what she’d done and wanted to cover her mouth.  The only thing that stopped her now was the fact that he was staring at her angrily.  “Stomp on it and it’ll only make it worse.”  She sighed.  She knew that one from experience.

 

“And what the hell do you know about it?”  He bobbed a little on his good foot then leaned down to grab up his crutches.

 

“I know from experience,” she said not moving from her seat.  She watched him struggle to lean over and grab up the crutches for a moment before she pushed her legs over the side of her seat and walked down off the back deck, across the lawn, through the trees and into his backyard.  “Subtalar fracture with a little fifth metarsal fracture put in there for good measure.”

 

He almost fell over, but finally got one of the crutches up so he could lean on it.  She was secretly glad that he'd gotten himself upright or he would have probably tumbled them both to the ground. “What?”

 

Ignoring the freckles on his shoulders and the deep black of the tattoo on his arm, she focused on his shaded eyes for a moment and tried to read him.  She normally wasn't that great at figuring out a person in one glance, but his anger showed through so clearly that there was only one answer for her unasked question.  He was angry at the world right now and the frustration he was feeling wasn't at all foreign to her.  “Basically my leg and my foot decided to go different ways when I stepped down and then while my ankle was dislocated, one of my toes got broken,” She said, “What about you?”

 

He looked at his foot and brooded.  “I turned my ankle two days ago and they found out that I fractured off a piece of bone from mine.”

 

“That’s kindergarten stuff compared to mine,” she explained, “I had ligament damage and a plate put in my ankle.”

 

His face scrunched up, “Ok. Ok.  I’m in enough pain as it is.”

 

“Sorry about that,” she said grabbing up the other crutch for him.  She held it out to him.  “Hope you feel better,” she said and started to turn back towards her house.

 

“I didn’t mean to be pissy at you,” he said in a soft voice.

 

She turned back around to him and watched his eyes for a moment.  “First break?” she asked.

 

“Yeah,” he said, “Normally I’m not that damn clumsy and all those stupid doctors want me to do is sit on my ass for the next three weeks right when I’m in the middle of planning--”  He lifted his foot again.  "I can't even fucking golf because I can't stand on one foot and swing a club."

 

“Want some advice?” she asked.

 

He stopped what he was doing.  “Sure,” he said still slightly angry.  "Since you seem to be an expert.”

 

“Don’t stomp on your foot,” She said and turned away.  She wanted to sit there and talk to him, but at the same time she knew if she walked away now he would probably come after her and being chased is always better than chasing.

 

“Hey wait a minute,” he said behind her.

 

“What?” she turned around when she was still in the lawn between the houses.

 

“That’s it?” he asked.

 

“Yeah,” she said with a shrug, “Did you expect more?”

 

His expression turned into a humbled looking mope, “No…I guess not.”  He seemed confused and a little hurt, but she wasn’t sure if it was because he’d been acting so idiotic about his foot or because he didn’t get the fanfare that he was used to.

 

“Have a good one,” she said, “I’m going inside.  It’s too hot out here.”

 

“Yeah,” he said, “Me too.”

 

*****

 

The knock on the back door the next night startled her.  She’d been sitting with a bag of ice on her foot in the living room while her parents had gone out to eat watching Dawson's Creek when she saw the slight shadow of him outside the screen door.  She took a deep breath and turned down the volume.

 

"Who is it?"

 

"It's Justin," he said, "From next door?"

 

She had to laugh a little at that comment.  She wondered who else would ever have known him as "Justin from next door."  Her hands moved to the remote, her mind conflicted as whether to leave the television on as a purposeful distraction or if she should give the man her full attention.  “Come on in.”

 

A few minutes later after the sound of the screen door opening and closing as he came into the kitchen/living room, she found him standing there leaning against his crutches in sweatpants and a t-shirt with one black sneaker on and his leg brace still on, although this time his foot was in a sock.  “Hey.”

 

“Hey,” she said.

 

“I was wondering something,” he said softly, “And not that you have to feel obligated or anything—but I was wondering if you wanted to hang out with me tonight.”

 

Her eyebrows raised.  She hadn't spoken to him or seen him since the day before in the yard and now he was standing there wanting to be her friend.  Something just didn't add up in her mind.  “Hang out with you?”

 

“Yeah,” he said.  She noticed the way that his hands grabbed his crutches and she wanted to laugh.  He was actually nervous standing there talking to her.  “My parents went to that Church fundraiser thing with my brothers and my grandparents and the house is too quiet.”

 

“Too quiet?” she asked, “You’re in the middle of no where…it’s gonna be quiet no matter where you go.”

 

He sighed, sounding extremely frustrated with things.  “I like that it’s quiet outside.”

 

“Then why don’t you go outside,” she said.

 

Justin’s expression turned towards anger.  “Look, if you have an issue with me, go right on and have it, but you don’t have to be rude about it.”  He turned around and started to hobble away.

 

She had just turned her head back to watch TV when she caught what happened next out of the corner of her eye. First he had to maneuver through the doorway which was tricky in itself, but when he went to balance on his good leg so that he could move the other crutch passed the doorway, his crutch caught on the door jam and then he slipped and he ended up face first on the floor.

 

“Oh my god,” She said immediately pushing away the bag of ice on her foot to go and help him, putting her foot down before she thought about it and crying out in pain when she did it.  She hopped on one foot then moved to get to him, hoping that he hadn’t busted his face open or something during the fall.  “Oh my god.  Are you ok?”

 

She thought that she’d get a rude answer, or a push away from him, but all she got was a deep guttural laugh from him.  “Jesus I’m smooth,” he said.

 

Taking his lead, she went with comedy and laughed with him.  She sat down on the floor across from him and kept her foot out of the way so she didn’t hit it into anything.  “You don’t even know the half of it.  It looked better from the backside.”

 

Justin pushed himself up and brushed himself off a little so that he was sitting on the floor with her.  He leaned back against the cabinet and sighed.  “Really?”

 

“I really thought you hurt yourself there for a second,” she said.

 

"Nope," he said, "Not that I know of."  He surveyed himself and then looked at her.  "You ok?"  His eyes landed on her foot, “Oh my god!”

 

“What?” she said.

 

“Your scar.”  His eyes were wide with fascination and his hand immediately reached for her foot.  The four inch scar was healing nicely thanks to the vitamin rubs she’d been putting on it, but it still looked huge.  “How’d---how’d that happen?”

 

“I told you the other day.”  She wince when his hand curled around her heel.  Her joint was stiff from the ice that she'd had on it.  He didn't seem to notice her wince when he brought her leg to sit across his lap.  “I dislocated my ankle.”

 

“Yeah,” he said, “But I wasn’t expecting--”

 

She didn't like to be reminded of it, she lived with it on a daily basis and having him stare at her like that was really making her nervous.  “Can I have my foot back now?” she asked pushing his hands away from her foot.  Carefully she moved her foot so it sat on the shin of his good leg and moved a little to get comfortable.

 

“Sorry.  I didn’t mean to—“  He looked at her.  “How’d it happen?”

 

She shrugged and tried not to think about the training accident.  That day had been like every other one, but somehow it had ended her career and all that she'd planned for since she was thirteen.  “I was at training camp for fencing.”

 

“Fencing?” he said with a laugh, “You were learning how to steal shit?”

 

“Ha ha,” she said when she saw that he truly understood what she’d meant.

 

“I’ve been on the Olympic track for Fencing since I was thirteen—that’s why we never met when I first moved here.  I went to boarding school in Colorado Springs and my parents lived here when my father got his teaching job at the University of Memphis.”

 

Justin nodded.  "I truly thought your mom was crazy for a while because she had a kid that didn't live here and when she said that you'd be gone to camp we all thought you guys were stuck up Northerners."  He paused for a moment and let his statement sink it.  It wasn't good so he changed the subject.  “He teaches Biology or something right?”

 

“He’s actually the head of the Sports Medicine Department.  He teaches trainers.”

 

“That’s right.”  Justin nodded.  “I remember my mom or grandma or someone wondering if I should talk to him about my ankle.”

 

“He’d probably take a look at it, but your doctor is probably just as good as he is about how to treat it.  Broken ankles aren’t really rocket science and it just seems to take time to heal them.”

 

He nodded.

 

She sighed and looked around the kitchen for a bit as silence fell between them.  “So are you really stuck in Tennessee for the next few weeks?”

 

“Yeah,” he said with a sigh, “Don’t get me wrong…I love being home, but being stuck in the house because of a bum foot is shitty.”  He looked at his leg.  “I can’t even drive down to get a beer or something at the store.”

 

“Can’t drive?” She finally realized that it was his pedal foot that was busted.

 

“Nope,” he said.

 

“I can,” she says and starts to get up, “Actually if I can hobble back over and get my brace on I think we have enough time to get down to the store and get back before your mom or grandma finds out that you’ve been out and about.”

 

“Wha—“

 

She moves herself so she's on her hands and knees then move so that she's leaning against the counters a little before she finally get to her feet.  “Your dad had a cold two weeks ago and I could hear your grandma yelling at him from her house to leave the bush trimmer alone and get back to bed so I figure that the both of them will tie you to the bed if they see you out after dark without a jacket on.”

 

Justin laughed as she started to hop back into the living room where her brace was lying on the floor.  “One thing—“

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Help me up?” he said laughing.  “Quick.”

 

“Let me get my brace back on cuz if I step down on this thing too hard it’s gonna hurt.”

 

“Ok.”  He looked nervous all of a sudden.

 

When she got him back on his feet, which took a little doing considering he was more than a few inches taller than her, they stood there facing each other.  She thought for a moment that he might kiss her because he had that nervous look on his face, but he didn’t.  “Can I ask you a favor?”

 

“Sure?”

 

“Can I use the restroom before we go?” he said, “By the time I three leg it back over to the house—well…”  He looked at the floor.

 

She tried to hide her smile. “Yeah."  She pointed to the door just inside the back entrance of the house.  “It’s in there.”

 

“Thanks,” he said, “Now if you hear any crashing noises it’s probably my crutches or whatever.  I still haven’t gotten used to the idea of peeing while standing on one leg—“  He blushed.  “I know that’s not normally something a guy would say to you, but I don’t want you to come rushing in thinking I’ve fallen again when it’s just me dropping my crutches.”

 

“I’ll remember that,” She said and saluted him playfully.  “I’ll grab the keys and my purse and we’ll head out.”

“Ok,” he called back over his shoulder as he disappeared into the bathroom.


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