The Bad Boy of Butterfly Harbor

By: Anna J. Stewart


  IF THE HEAVY sigh emanating from her eight-year-old son was any indication, Holly Campbell was in for a very long summer.

  “Can’t I please wait for you at home?” Simon’s plea fell on deaf “mom” ears as he turned desperate brown eyes on her. The clasped hands were a nice touch. “I promise I’ll stay off the computer.”

  “Depends if you’re ready to tell me why you hacked into our neighbor’s Wi-Fi and changed all their file names.” Holly cleared the last table from the Butterfly Diner’s breakfast rush, balanced plates and coffee cups like an Olympian and set the dish tray to overflowing. “Are you?”

  “No.” The surly mumble was tinged with a hint of surrender. Simon spun on the cushioned orange stool in front of the steel-and-Formica counter and knocked his colored pencils to the white tile floor.

  “Sorry, kiddo,” Holly said. “Until I feel I can trust you again, you’re stuck with me.” Definitely a long summer.

  “How about I tell you how I did it instead?” Simon offered.

  As tempting as the offer was, she arched him a warning look.

  “It was worth a shot.” Simon’s mischievous expression had its usual effect and pulled free the smile she struggled to hide. Despite Simon’s increasing delinquent tendencies, there were times she loved her kid so much she ached.

  “How about you share that information with your grandpa?” Holly wiped down the table and straightened the condiments before checking that the booths were clean. “It would give him something to think about now that he’s about to retire.”

  Retire. As if her father had been given a choice. Jake Gordon was being forced out of his job as town sheriff—a job he’d held for the past thirty years—adding another burden to Holly’s shoulders.

  The statistics on what early retirement did to some people were staggering, which was why Holly was determined to make her father feel useful. Maybe then she could rid herself of the worry that Jake would slide into old age as effortlessly as falling asleep.

  Her father’s situation was one of the myriad of changes the new mayor of Butterfly Harbor had campaigned on. Aside from the plans to build a new butterfly sanctuary to attract visitors, Holly wasn’t looking forward to most of them being implemented. It was only a matter of time before everyone else knew what she’d learned the hard way: change made everything worse.

  She took a deep breath and tried to loosen the knots in her chest. The last time she felt this uneasy was two years ago, when the California Highway Patrol officer had knocked on her door to tell her Gray had died in a car accident.

  The pang of grief struck first, followed by bittersweet memories of her high-school sweetheart. She missed Gray, the boy she’d loved; the man she’d married. She didn’t miss his drinking. Or the secrets. Or his lies. Her stomach pitched like an abandoned trawler at sea. She especially didn’t miss the lies.

  Was that when her problems had begun to snowball? Until Gray died, she’d been managing to juggle pretty well. She’d had to. Gray had become increasingly unreliable with each passing day. She’d finally stopped depending on him for...well, for anything.

  She continued wiping down the booths; it was never too early to gear up for the coming lunch rush. She’d always been up for a challenge, but finding the means to keep the forty-year-old diner—her grandmother’s legacy—on track within the guidelines of the mayor’s proposed prosperity plan could prove problematic even for someone as self-sufficient as Holly. Sure, the money would help. Paying for Simon’s much-needed private education was like cement frosting on top of a tooth-shattering cake. And, of course, there was her mortgage to keep up with. Oh, and add keeping her troublemaking son out of trouble for... Holly did the brain-numbing math. A long, long summer.

  “Check this out.” Holly rounded the counter and pulled a folded piece of paper out of the pocket of her apron. Simon eyed it as if it was a lit firecracker. “It came from your new school.”

  “What is it?” Simon unfolded the paper in the same careful and deliberate way his father would have. The same way they both unwrapped presents. Such attention to detail had Simon mastering a book of origami animals in a matter of days.

  “Your summer reading list. We can head over to the bookstore as soon as we close up the diner.” She set a fresh batch of coffee to brew and lined up the empty pots.

  “Cool.” He leaned over the counter, grabbed a pen and hunkered over the list, his tongue caught between pressed lips. Gray had his faults, but the time he’d spent reading to their son had instilled a fierce love of books in Simon. Neither of them could have foreseen their boy’s fascination with testing the boundaries of reality, however. Last year she’d found her son taking a hammer to the back of his closet in an attempt to make his way into Narnia. Wondering how he might try to get to a certain magic school had her keeping a close eye on her car.

  Holly took advantage of Simon’s distraction and stepped outside for some air and a quick window wipe-down. The sea air still carried the late morning scent of brine-caked seaweed wafting its way down the California coastline. Breathing deep, as if she could wrap her arms around this place, she allowed her gaze to drift over the edge of the Pacific on the other side of Butterfly Harbor’s miniature version of Hadrian’s Wall. The waist-high stone cobble wound its way from one end of town to the other, a break of sorts separating the beach from the narrow main street, which was in need of repaving. Waves crashed onto the shoreline, stumbling over rocks and shells. How she wished she could scuttle about and burrow into the protective sand like the countless hermit crabs Simon insisted on bringing home.

  As Holly wiped her rag down the glass on the front door, she caught sight of the crowd headed her way and pushed open the door. “Ursula! The Cocoon Club is here.”

  The aptly named group of seniors who had lived in Butterfly Harbor from the time they could crawl gabbed their way inside the diner for their Saturday midmorning outing. Holly caught smatterings of conversations that included family happenings and the upcoming Pig in a Poke BBQ Festival, one of those “new” events the Cocoon Club had been assigned as a test run for the town’s October Butterfly Festival.

  These new traditions seemed to be, at least to Holly, overshadowing the town’s 125th anniversary celebration next month.

  Holly did a quick wipe of the three hand-carved monarch butterflies fixed atop the frame of the diner door before she followed her customers inside.

  “Myra, your new hairstyle looks beautiful.” Holly didn’t bother to hand menus to the four men and three women taking seats at their usual table in the corner of the diner. “Eloise, are you trying a new nail color?”

  “Tangerine ice.” Eloise waggled her arthritic fingers. “Matches my hair. You like?”

  “Very stylish.” Holly nodded. “Everyone getting their usual?”

  Murmurs of assent echoed and Holly jotted down the seven items as her afternoon server breezed through the door for her shift. “Twyla will bring your coffee and tea. And one Dr Pepper,” Holly said as she smiled at Oscar, affectionately nicknamed The Grouch. Put a pair of tongs and a slab of ribs in the man’s hands, however, and he transformed into the Picasso of Pork.

  “Same order every Saturday for twentysomething years.” Ursula Stevens, the ex-navy short-order cook and diner fixture grumbled from across the order counter as Holly approached. “You’d think they’d stretch their taste-bud boundaries. I’m an artist, you know.” Ursula’s craggy, cranky face wasn’t softened by the hairnet plastered to her skull.

  “As evidenced by your cheeseburger soup.” Holly’s stomach rumbled as if planning its own lunch as she reached for the overstock of napkins for the dispensers before starting on the sugar and sweetener packets. “You make any progress on those new menu ideas? Starting first of the month we’ll be adding those dinner hours.” She understood the need for economic expansion. If the town she loved was going to survive, changes had to be made. But when those changes interrupted her meticulous schedule and eroded the already precious time she had with Simon, she couldn’t help but shift into panic mode. Longer hours meant hiring new staff, staff she couldn’t afford unless they stayed open seven days a week, which cost more money... Holly blew out a frustrated breath. Good thing she didn’t have a life beyond her son and the diner.

  “You best be looking to hire me some help, ’cause I ain’t working no fourteen-hour days.” Somewhere between sixty and infinity, the five-foot-nothing Ursula had started working at the diner after Holly’s grandma Ruby had bought the place in the early seventies.

  “Way ahead of you.” She’d stalled hiring new staff for as long as she could. She’d have to sit down this weekend and crunch the numbers. She didn’t know how she was going to pay for it...yet. “We’ll figure it out.” Holly didn’t know how to fail and she wasn’t about to learn now.

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