For the last two weeks Eric had been in the care of Michelle and Corbett Stackhouse. They were kind to him—much kinder than anyone else had ever been in his short life. At eleven-years-old he couldn’t remember a time where he ever felt like he was loved. He’d been bounced from one place to another, going to school only when his father remembered to enroll him. He’d stayed in the first and second grades long enough to learn how to read and do very basic arithmetic, but that was about it.
He was mostly self-taught. He read a lot. He read everything he could get his hands on. He wasn’t good with other kids. He wasn’t used to their playful banter or the teasing. He flinched when the other kids tried to get him to play tag. He shied away whenever anyone asked about his various scars. Years of being mistreated by a “father” who had no business caring for a child had left him damaged in ways he couldn’t begin to explain.
The Stackhouses tried to make him feel like part of the family. They included him in everything. They set rules and expected him to live by them. Nothing they asked him to do was stepping over a line. He complied because he was used to the punishments his father liked to dole out for misbehaving and none of them were as simple as an afternoon without television or not getting to have dessert after dinner. No, Eric’s father’s punishments were painful and took weeks of healing, which usually meant a trip to the hospital and a few weeks out of school.
The fact that he could still use his right arm was amazing, considering the number of times it had been broken. Mr. Ocella, as Eric called his father – never Dad – was a brutal man with no patience for his son. In fact, there wasn’t really any proof Eric was his son, other than the word of a woman who had died long ago. The only reason Mr. Ocella hadn’t turned Eric over to the state was because of the support checks that rolled in every month. It wasn’t really enough for them to survive on so Mr. Ocella worked odd jobs.
It was quite the change for Eric to be in a home with not only two parents, but ones that both worked normal jobs. They didn’t raise their voices unless they were laughing. They didn’t raise their hands or any other objects to him. He was given his own bed, in his own room and his own clothes. It was strange to him to have possessions. He kept things tidy out of fear and for the first two weeks, he didn’t know how to relax. He kept waiting for Mr. Ocella to find him or for the Stackhouses to decide he wasn’t worth keeping.
But they never did a thing to make him think he was unwanted. Jason steered clear of him. In spite of being a year older than Eric, he was smaller. Eric was already well over five feet tall and growing every day. He’d gained weight under Mrs. Stackhouse’s watchful eye. It seemed like every time he turned around she was trying to feed him something. He’d overheard his case worker, a kind woman named Octavia, telling Mrs. Stackhouse that he was malnourished and far too thin for a boy of his size, as if that wasn’t completely obvious.
As if the physical abuse wasn’t enough, he often went unbathed and unfed. Mr. Ocella had his priorities and malt liquor ranked higher than Eric’s growling tummy. It was clearly the opposite with his foster parents. They dropped everything for their kids, Eric included. When he got sick his third week in their house Michelle called in sick to stay home with Eric. Jason had tried to play it up like he’d caught whatever it was Eric had, but Mrs. Stackhouse could spot a faker from a thousand miles away. Her job as a nurse sort of depended on it.
Jason was bitter about being shipped off to school. Since Eric had missed as much school as he had he was placed in the same grade as Sookie. Kids gave him weird looks and figured he must be retarded since he was eleven and only in the fourth grade. Eric didn’t bother to respond to the taunting of the kids who made fun of him. He’d endured much worse than anything they could toss his way. Sookie, on the other hand, was always at the ready to defend him.
She had even kicked one of the boys in the privates after he’d put gum in Eric’s hair. Sookie had gotten herself grounded for two weeks and a week’s worth of detention, but she refused to apologize to the boy. She was fiercely protective of Eric and while he didn’t understand why, he was appreciative of it. He didn’t care if that meant he was weak in the eyes of the other boys. Besides, none of them were going to pick on Sookie because that meant dealing with Jason.
While Sookie and Jason picked on each other mercilessly at home, anyone caught messing with his little sister suffered the consequences. She might be a pain in the ass, but she was his pain in the ass. The only person allowed to torment her in any capacity Jason, and the same went for him. They were thick as thieves where everyone else was concerned. Although the instances of Jason picking on Sookie had home had declined significantly since Eric’s arrival.
He found being with her was easy. She was gentle with him and completely content to sit silently while they watched TV or did their homework. Like him, Sookie read a lot. For someone who hadn’t attended much school, Eric had tested very well in reading. It wasn’t uncommon to catch him and Sookie sitting in the living room at opposite ends of the couch reading their own books. Inevitably, Sookie would stretch out so her feet were near Eric’s lap. She’d pull down one of the blankets her Gran had made and it wouldn’t be long before Eric was stretched out, too.
She would tease him that his feet stank, while he would tease her for being so short. Then the next thing they knew, they were pressing their feet together, trying to get the other to submit into a ball. In short, they quickly became best friends. They connected to one another in a way neither of them could understand, considering how differently they’d been raised.
Sookie came home from school each day with Eric’s assignments while he was sick, and she gave him the play by play of everything he’d missed in class that day. She didn’t leave out a single detail. Well, she was able to censor out her trips to the bathroom, but everything else was fair game. It was nice to have a friend. It was even better to have a friend like her that he could talk about anything with. Sookie never judged him or made him feel bad for being different from the other boys his own age.
Eric was parked on the couch, propped up on pillows so he could breathe. A bowl of chicken soup sat on the coffee table, still untouched. Michelle had tried to get him to eat but he said it was too hard to eat and breathe at the same time. She’d left it in case Eric changed his mind but that was three hours ago. Sookie came bouncing in the door on Eric’s fourth day of feeling like death warmed over with her backpack stuffed so full it wouldn’t quite close all the way.
After telling Eric everything he missed at school that day, she looked over at the soup sitting on the table. “You should eat that.” She pointed to the bowl.
“Not hungry,” Eric spoke softly.
“You’re going to get all skinny again if you don’t. You look much better when you’re not all skinny. Besides, the broth will feel good on your throat. You want to feel better, don’t you?” She looked at him pointedly.
“Okay. Then I’ll go warm up the soup for you. Then we’ll watch The Goonies and do our homework.”
“The Goonies?” Eric arched an eyebrow.
Sookie gave him a skeptical look. “You’ve never seen The Goonies?” Sookie’s mouth hung open as Eric shook his head back and forth. “Well, we’re going to fix that.”
The silence between them was uncomfortable. It was a problem they were unfamiliar with. It hadn’t been that way since she’d first met Eric as a shy, dirty boy. It was amazing to think how far he’d come since then. He certainly wasn’t a victim anymore and never would be again. He’d done everything right after he was removed from his father’s care. He’d worked hard to get where he was. He set lofty goals for himself and diligently went about pursuing all of them.
She liked that once Eric decided he was going to do something it was only a matter of time before it was done. He didn’t let anything get in his way. It was just one of the many things she admired about him. Her talks with Pam hadn’t yielded her much information on Eric’s current life but what Pam had told her was enough to let her know Eric was doing very well. That’s all Sookie felt she had the right to ask her.
Without even realizing she had done it, her hand went to her neck to finger her chain and she started sliding the pendant back and forth. Eric didn’t seem to be any more at ease than she was which was really the only comfort she got out of the whole situation.
“Why didn’t you come to me when you knew you were in trouble?” Eric asked. It was a very loaded question.
“I didn’t want you to be in any more danger than you already are,” Sookie said easily. “I know a lot of time has gone by and maybe you don’t care about me the way you once did, but I didn’t want to take the chance that you would do something stupid in attempts to protect me. I saw your picture in the paper after you put that arsonist away. I figured if I wanted to be free of Victor this was my best chance to do it. So I contacted Pam, since I saw the two of you on the news together quite a bit after the trial.”
“I wasn’t really talking about that, although I was curious about that, too.” Eric shifted in his seat again.
Sookie sighed and said, “We were young, Eric. We had plans and things we wanted to do. You had already been through so much in your life that I didn’t want to take anything away from you. You worked so hard to get where you were. I didn’t want to ruin it.”
Eric scoffed as anger filled his eyes. “I would have been there, Sookie. Every day.”
“That’s exactly my point.” She gave a faint smile with tears filling her eyes. “You would have given up everything.”
“Do you realize that even with all the things I went through before I met you, that losing you was the hardest thing to deal with?” Eric stared right at her with just as much pain in his eyes as there was in hers.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I thought I was doing the right thing.”
“I’m not saying I’m completely unhappy with the way things have turned out, but I think about the way things might have been. I think about it a lot,” Eric confessed.
“Yeah, so do I,” Sookie agreed.
“Do you ever wish…” he trailed off, standing quickly as his hand ran through his hair again.
“I wish for lots of things.” Sookie stood up as well and got in Eric’s path when his pacing became a bit more frantic. He nearly bulldozed her out of the way. “Mostly, I wish for you to be happy.”
“You’ve got to stop protecting me, Sookie. I’m not fragile,” Eric said in a stern tone.
“I know that.”
“Do you?” His voice was a bit harder.
She thought back over the years since she’d met him. Maybe he was right. She’d never thought of him as weak. She’d always thought of him as a warrior. All the things he’d overcome to get where he was, was proof she was right.
“Is it so wrong to have someone fighting for you in your corner?” Sookie looked up at him.
“It’s not that.” Eric shook his head.
Sookie reached into the neckline of her shirt and produced the pendant she’d been playing with so Eric could see it. “Do you remember when you gave me this?”
Eric’s eyes widened as he stared at the little golden hammer. His eyes darted to Sookie’s, then back to the pendant. “Of course I do; your sixteenth birthday.” He reached out to touch the little piece of metal that was warmed by her body heat.
“You gave it to me because I always said you reminded me of Thor. It’s a symbol of strength. You put it around my neck and for the first time, you kissed me. It changed my life, Eric. Everything was different after that. I haven’t taken this off once since you put it on me. You’ve always been with me.” Sookie smiled up at him as he ran his thumb over the metal.
“I want to show you something.” Eric dropped the hammer and began to untuck his shirt.
Sookie sucked in a breath and watched as Eric unbuttoned his perfectly pressed cobalt blue shirt. He pulled the shirt off and tossed it over to the chair. He kept his eyes on Sookie’s as he pulled off the white undershirt he was wearing. Getting undressed like this hadn’t been part of the plan, but it was something she needed to see.
Sookie swallowed audibly at the sight of Eric’s stomach and chest. The scars that she knew so well were still there. She had to restrain herself from reaching out to touch them. There had been a time when she could run her fingertips over them and ask to hear how they’d gotten there. They were stories Eric had been reluctant to share with her only because he hated to see her cry, which she always did when he talked about it.
He always sounded so distant and removed from the things he’d been through. She liked to think of it as she was crying the tears he wouldn’t. While some people would see those scars as hideous, she thought they were beautiful. They were reminders of what just how amazing he was. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d kissed every single one of them.
It was obvious Eric hadn’t let sitting behind a desk make him soft. His muscles were well defined, giving him the torso of a sculpture. Sookie hardly noticed when he dropped the t-shirt on the floor at her feet. He turned around, and there it was.
Her hand reached up and she fingered the ink on his spine. An exact replica of the hammer hanging around her neck was on his back. Under it was her initials and the date 2/24/90. That was the day they’d met. She traced the date with the tip of her finger, a smile playing on her lips.
“If it weren’t for that day I wouldn’t be here,” Eric said before turning to face her again. “Getting me away from Mr. Ocella was just the first step. If it wasn’t for your family and you specifically, I wouldn’t be where I am. A kiss didn’t change everything, Sookie. You did.”
She debated for exactly two seconds before she pulled his face to hers and kissed him. It was sweet and gentle much like it had been after he put that necklace around her neck. Kissing Eric had always felt like the most natural thing in the world. It also made her lady business do a happy dance like no other. Even before they’d had sex, she’d seen Eric naked once when she walked in on him getting out of the shower. She hadn’t been able to look him in the eyes for days, although Eric had assured her there was nothing to be embarrassed about.
His exact words were, “Show me your boobs, and we’ll be even.” Sookie had slugged him good for it and after they laughed about it, it was better.
The experience had proven to both of them that there was nothing they couldn’t handle. Of course, they were only fifteen and seventeen at the time. What did they know about the real problems of the world? Sookie was aware she’d been pretty sheltered as she grew up, but she appreciated Eric not pulling any punches with her. He’d always been honest and done his best to answer any questions she might have. He never talked down to her like she couldn’t possibly understand where he was coming from.
Before his eyes were even open Eric said, “We can’t do that again.”
“I know.” Sookie nodded although she was fighting the urge to attack him with a kiss that was far more passionate.
“Did they tell you what to expect?” He was referring to her shiny new life as an inmate, of sorts.
“Yeah, Pam and Sophie did a pretty extensive prep job with me.” Sookie nodded. It was killing her that he was standing there shirtless.
“When the trial is over, you’re going to have to disappear,” Eric told her.
“Yeah, that’s what they told me.” Sookie looked to the floor. “I have to walk away from everyone.”
“It’ll keep you alive.” Eric tilted her chin up so they were looking into each other’s eyes again. “That’s why I can’t keep kissing you, Sookie. It’s not because I don’t want to.”
Her breath caught and her hand settled on his wrist. “You’re right. We were never good at stopping at just one.”
“I don’t think I could get over you twice,” he admitted.
“Me either.” She didn’t fail to notice his face was getting closer to hers.
“We shouldn’t do it.”
“No, we shouldn’t.”
But then he was kissing her like he’d never stopped.