Eric’s parents invited Emma and me for Thanksgiving. Because they had such a big family with so many different obligations for the day of, we were going the Saturday after. So on Thanksgiving day, I had decided I wanted everyone to come to my house. My parents had been divorced long enough to be able to get along with each other, so both of them were coming. Jason was of course coming. Anytime there was free food, he was there.
I was sitting at the kitchen table filling out invitations for Emma’s birthday party in a few weeks. Mostly it was family and a few of my friends. I was inviting her classmates too, but with Christmas coming up I wasn’t expecting all of them to come. I sent Bill a text message a few days before to tell him I was planning a party for the Saturday after her birthday. Not too surprisingly, I hadn’t heard back from him yet.
It would have been nice to be able to plan something together, but he never wanted to work with me on it. He’d bitch about everything I suggested, only to ultimately throw his hands up and tell me to do whatever I wanted. I couldn’t even rely on him to pick up the cake. I made that mistake for Emma’s second birthday when he got busted for possession instead of picking up his daughter’s birthday cake.
Despite his threats to pursue 50/50 custody, I had yet to hear anything else about it. It was all talk, as usual.
Emma and Eric were in the living room playing Connect4. So far it sounded like Eric was losing. He was so good with Emma. The two of them had no problem playing games together or making up silly stories. Emma liked having him around the house. He treated her the way I wished Bill would.
All of a sudden Emma let out a loud victory cheer.
“I demand a recount!” Eric huffed dramatically, pretending to be a sore loser.
“One… Two… Three… Four! I win!” Emma laughed.
“Oh yeah? I bet you can’t win a dance contest,” he challenged.
That got my attention. I put my pen down and listened to the exchange.
“No way, José, I’m way better than you at dancing,” Emma replied with confidence.
I covered my mouth to keep from laughing. My daughter’s trash talking game was strong.
“Prove it,” Eric challenged.
“You better bring it on, mister,” she told him.
Those two were too much for me.
One of them turned on the radio. I picked up my phone and as quietly as I could, I backed up from the table to get video of their little dance battle. Emma was taking hip-hop dance class, but she was still learning. That didn’t stop her from shaking her little butt to ‘Uptown Funk’ like she’d been dancing backup for Beyonce since the beginning of time.
Eric spotted me watching the dance off, and gave me a little wink.
“I’ll give you a private dance before bed,” he told me.
Emma was completely undeterred by my presence. Actually, seeing a camera on her made her turn it up a notch. The kid was doing her best to slay it.
My six-foot-five ex-Marine, tough guy boyfriend got stuck with Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ as the follow up song. It was the best four minutes and thirty seconds of my life. Eric wasn’t easily embarrassed. He’d told me some crazy stories about the things that happened in the military, and how the guys passed the time. There were singalongs in their Humvees while they rolled across the desert in the Middle East. It wasn’t all headbanging heavy metal stuff either, which I was surprised by.
“Mommy, who won?” Emma asked me when it was over and I could breathe again.
“That’s a hard choice. You both did a really good job,” I said.
“But I’m cuter so pick me,” Emma said.
“Uhhh, I’m pretty cute too,” Eric scoffed.
“But I’m her baby so she has to pick me.”
“I think you both win.”
Just like that, they both turned on me for taking the easy way out.
While they decided to pick a winner by thumb wrestling, I went to the door when the bell rang. I wasn’t expecting anyone but friends stopped in from time to time without calling if they saw my Jeep outside. What I wasn’t expecting was to see the mailman at the door.
“Hello there, are you Sookie Stackhouse?” he asked.
“Sure am. What can I do for you?”
“I have a certified letter here for you. I just need a signature.”
“No problem.” I took the offered pen and signed the little card attached to the outside of the manila envelope. “Thanks,” I said when he handed me the envelope along with the rest of my mail.
The return address was from a law firm that wasn’t the same one I used.
I closed the front door and went to my bedroom to open the certified letter I’d been sent. Inside the envelope there were court papers. Bill was petitioning for full custody of Emma. I plopped down on the bed in complete shock. He couldn’t be serious.
Bill couldn’t even remember which weekends his parents had his daughter for visitation and he wanted Emma all the time? He must have been high. I felt my cheeks getting hot as my anger rose. Who the hell did he think he was trying to take Emma away from me? He didn’t have a job, a place of his own (he lived in the makeshift apartment over his parents’ garage) and he had a criminal record. He couldn’t seriously think a judge was going to look at the two of us as parents and decide Bill deserved full custody of Emma.
Regardless of how ridiculous it was, angry tears rolled down my cheeks. Emma was having a great time with a guy who she barely knew, but treated her more like a daughter than her own father. Meanwhile the piece of shit who shared her DNA wanted to take her out of the only home she had ever known so he could collect child support from me and continue to live his less than meaningful existence.
To say I was furious would be an understatement.
Eventually there was a knock on the door and I knew it was Eric. Emma wouldn’t have waited for me to tell her to come in.
“Everything okay?” Eric asked with concern.
“Close the door,” I said quietly. Once he did I handed him the papers. “Bill thinks he should have Emma full-time.”
“What?” Eric looked at the papers and shook his head. “He’s crazy.”
“He’s out of his fucking mind if he thinks he’s getting her full-time. Bill doesn’t know her pediatrician’s name or even where it is. He doesn’t know her teacher’s name or her favorite song.” That last one was a trick question because Emma said every song was her favorite.
“He’s not going to win, babe. Everyone knows he’s not fit. Hell, I bet his parents would be a character witness for you.” Eric put the papers on my dresser before he sat down next to me. He was welcoming when I slid over onto his lap, and he held me tight which was exactly what I needed.
“Thank you,” I whispered a few minutes later.
“I wish I could do more.” He meant it, too.
“You’re doing plenty, I promise.” I tilted my head up to kiss him. The same butterflies I always got fluttered around in my chest and belly.
Eric sweetly wiped off the smudges on my cheeks and said, “I think you’re one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.”
I found that hard to believe since he had been to a war zone. Surely there were stronger and braver people than me. I was just a silly girl who mistook infatuation for love, and got a baby as a parting gift.
“Now you’re pulling my leg,” I smiled.
“I’m not. You’ve had to deal with a lot, Sookie. You take on a lot to protect Emma from the shitty things her dad does. You could be one of those bitter women who turns her kid against its father, but you don’t do that. I’ve never heard you say anything negative about Bill in front of Emma, and that takes a strong person. You’re a great mom, and any judge who sees your case is going to see that,” he told me.
Of course that had me crying all over again. I doubted myself as a mom sometimes. Yeah, I knew on a basic level I was good. My kid was alive, usually clean, and she was hitting all the milestones she should. But there were always going to be the doubts in the back of my mind that it wasn’t enough. Like when I didn’t have time to bake cupcakes for her school bake sale so I sent her with store bought ones instead. Or maybe when she saw little girls with their “real” dad at a father/daughter dance and she wondered why her dad wasn’t there.
Did she blame me? Or worse, did she blame herself?
My worst fear was that Emma would grow up feeling like she wasn’t good enough because Bill couldn’t be bothered to show up.
It never was and never would be her fault.
Through it all, Eric didn’t budge. He didn’t tell me I was overreacting or that I was crazy for being so upset. He was on my side. There was no attempt to defend Bill or play devil’s advocate. Eric was supporting me, and that was what I needed.
“I love you,” I said when it dawned on me that I did. It wasn’t how I imagined saying those words for the first time, but I knew it was true. I loved Eric. It wasn’t stupid teenager love, but the real thing.
He smiled at me and pulled me in for another kiss.
“I love you too,” he said.
The timing might have been off, but somehow it was still the perfect moment.
♥ ♥ ♥
Emma was sound asleep in her bed. Sloth was curled up on the bed with her. Heidi, Eric’s big dog, was asleep in the living room by one of the heat vents. Sloth and Heidi seemed to be getting along okay for the most part. Sloth was fixed and had been since he was a puppy, but he still had a humping issue. Heidi wasn’t afraid to correct him. I think that actually made Sloth like her more.
Eric and I joked about it on a pretty regular basis.
Because I was a goofball, I found him in the kitchen washing dishes, and snuck up on him to do a little humping of my own. It made him laugh.
“Easy girl.” He playfully sprayed me a little with the hose at the sink.
I squealed and ducked out of the way.
“But you’re so humpable.” It was a word. Maybe not Scrabble approved, but it was a word.
I hugged him around his waist. The three of us had made dinner together. Afterward Emma helped me put stamps and stickers on her birthday party invitations, and then we watched a movie together. I helped Emma get ready for bed, and Eric joined us at her request for a bedtime story. I read one book and he read the other.
Moments like that made me sure that we had a real future together.
I never asked Eric to do the things he did with Emma; he just did them. He liked playing games with her. He even let her paint his nails once. I really loved him for that.
“You know, I think you could stay over tonight and it would be okay,” I said.
Eric and I had slept together several times, but he had never spent the night when Emma was home. I wanted to wait until she was comfortable with him being around before that started.
“Are you sure?” Eric pulled the plug on the drain to let the water out.
“I’m sure. I think it’s pretty clear that Emma feels comfortable with you. I think she’d be okay if you were here in the morning.”
We had been seeing each other for almost three months. Emma had been seeing him pretty regularly since the pumpkin patch. She even asked me when he was going to come over again most days. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who was falling in love with him.
“Then in that case, I’ll stay.” Eric turned to face me and leaned down for a kiss.
Those big hands of his lifted me up onto the counter. The kisses got deeper and it was very easy to tell that kissing wasn’t all he had in mind. With Emma being home there was always the possibility of an interruption. We made out in the kitchen for a little bit before he lifted me off the counter and carried me back to my bedroom.
“Lock the door,” I reminded him once we were inside.
It wasn’t quite a race to see who could get naked first, but it was close. Eric was amazing in bed. Not just because he was technically skilled, but because we were emotionally connected. That made all the difference. I fully trusted him, which opened doors that I didn’t even know where lurking in the shadows. I felt safe enough with him to really let go.
The proof of it was in the orgasms it caused.
Holy smokes, my eyes curled and my toes crossed.
It was that good.
Eric took his time. No rushing through the foreplay to get to the part that made him feel good. He waited until I was close to the edge before he finally slid into me. His hang time was decent enough, but I never really got off through intercourse anyway.
Eric knew what he was doing, and how to move. He had a good size ship and the motion of the ocean was just right to battle the rogue wave ready to surge. My nails dug into his back and I buried my face in his neck when I came so I wouldn’t wake Emma or the dogs with my moans.
It wasn’t more than a few seconds before Eric finished too. Even with the IUD, we were still using condoms. I hadn’t had a slip or anything to worry about in almost five years but why press my luck? Just because we were in love it didn’t mean we were ready for a baby together.
“I love you,” he said before kissing me.
Hearing him say it made me so happy it hurt, but in a good way.
He had to pull out to get rid of the condom. Eric came back with a damp washcloth so I could clean up a little bit, which I appreciated.
“I don’t know why I’m cleaning up. We’ll probably do that again.”
“Probably,” he smiled.
“See this is why you get humps. It gets me orgasms.”
“As long as you can restrain yourself around my family.”
I laughed and said, “I don’t know, your parents might approve.”
“You know, you might actually be right,” he laughed, too. “They’re going to love Emma.”
“I hope so.” I’d met them when Eric had taken me to his mom’s birthday dinner.
Mrs. Northman was a petite woman, but after carrying so many babies she looked permanently pregnant. She had a good sense of humor, and kept her wits about her even with a very full house. The youngest of her brood was nine. Eric was already an uncle. His sister Karin had a two-year-old son named Mason, and his brother Michael was expecting a baby girl in February.
Eric put his boxer shorts back on and knowingly forfeited his T-shirt to me so I could sleep in it before he got into bed with me. He was a great snuggler. My head fit perfectly on his chest, and I rested a leg over his. I closed my eyes and felt his lips on my forehead. It wasn’t quite bedtime yet, but for the moment I was happy to just lay there and enjoy the silence.
♥ ♥ ♥
I made an appointment with my lawyer first thing Monday morning so we could go over the papers Bill’s lawyer had sent me. Peter Threadgill had been my attorney since I initially saw him shortly after Emma was born so I could have court ordered child support paid to me. As a broke nineteen-year-old, I needed all the financial support I could get. The initial payment was set for $150 a month, which didn’t even cover diapers for a newborn.
I took him to court to adjust it when he suddenly was rolling around town in a fully loaded brand new truck, buying rounds at the bar on the weekends and in general acting like a big baller with Benjamins burning a hole in his pocket. The truck turned out to be his parents’ and the money came from an inheritance he received from his grandmother on his dad’s side of the family. Bill was pissed about it and called me a gold digger to anyone who would listen.
He never could get it through his head that the money wasn’t for me, but for Emma. Bill thought I should have to supply him with an accounting of where “his” money was going. At that point the judge ripped into him and told Bill that if he had as much control of himself as he was attempting to have over me, he’d be in a much better position.
If I could have, I would have high fived the judge and bought him a beer.
My lawyer assured me that I had nothing to worry about, and that Bill had no basis to take me to court to try and change our arrangement. He wasn’t paying child support and he wasn’t making an effort to be in Emma’s life on a regular basis. Whenever Bill got out of line with his texts, I took screenshots to give to my lawyer. I’d been called every nasty name under the sun in the last five years. There was absolutely no love lost between Bill and me.
Still it bothered me that Emma was the one left suffering for it.
I could see those wounds healing a little bit at a time thanks to Eric’s presence. She was finally getting a taste of what it was like to have a dad in her life. It scared me a little to think maybe once the honeymoon phase was over Eric and I might decide it wasn’t the right fit we thought we were. If Emma’s heart got broken too, that would be the worst part of it all for me. I’d move on in time, but I knew that loss would stay with her a lot longer than it would me.
I shook that feeling off.
Things were good for the moment. I didn’t want to ruin it or jinx myself with silly what-if scenarios. I could literally drive myself crazy with that kind of stuff.
By the time I got to the salon that morning Maxine was already on her way out. Her hair was taking its time growing back, and she made sure to remind Janice of that every chance she got.
“Alcide,” I smiled when I saw him in the back of the shop. It had been a while since I saw him last. “How ya been?”
“Pretty good.” He came over to give me a hug. “Debbie and me are talking about moving in together.”
“That’s great, congratulations.”
“Yeah, same to you. I’ve seen you around town with Eric.”
“Oh yeah? He’s great. We’re doing really good together. Emma adores him and he seems to adore her right back.”
“That’s cool. Bill was at the bar on Friday shooting his mouth off as usual. He said something about getting custody of Emma…”
“That’s a pipe dream on his part. He filed papers but if we get the same judge as the last time we went to court, he’s going to get a new asshole and all the court costs awarded to him and that’s it.”
“It’s none of my business but I don’t know how any judge could rule against you,” he said.
“Thanks, Al, that means a lot.”
“I call ‘em like I see ‘em, and I never see Bill with Emma,” he shrugged.
“Al, I’m ready whenever you are!” Janice called.
“I’m getting a trim,” he informed me. “It was good to see you, Sookie.”
“Yeah, you too. Give me a call sometime and we’ll have you guys over for dinner.”
“For sure,” he smiled before going out front to where Janice’s station was.
Claudine was busy with a client, so when an older woman with mousey brown hair – and lots of gray – and pale skin came up to the counter.
“Welcome to the Beauty Saloon, how can I help you?” I asked as I approached her.
“I really need to cover up this gray,” she said, touching her hair.
“Sure,” I nodded. “You’ve come to the right place. Have you been here before?”
“No, I just moved up here from Omaha. My name is Judith.” She extended a small hand with nicely manicured nails in my direction.
“Sookie. It’s nice to meet you, Judith. Do you know what color you want to do?”
“Nothing too radical. I don’t fuss much with my hair, so I’d prefer to do something easy to maintain and style,” she said.
“Are you looking for a cut as well?” Her ends definitely needed a trim, if nothing else.
“I’m open to it. I don’t want to go too short.”
“No, no, you don’t need to. I’d just like to trim your ends and have you walk out of here with vibrant, healthy looking hair.”
“That sounds good to me.”
“Great. Well why don’t you hang up your coat and then come back to my station with me?”
Judith was a thin woman, but taller than I was. She seemed a little nervous, but if she had never colored her hair before I could understand why. It was a gamble putting her hair in the hands of a stranger.
“Okay, so… I think a warm, milk chocolate color would look great on you,” I told her once I had her seated in my chair. If I had to guess she was probably in her early forties. She wasn’t old, but her gray hair was definitely adding unnecessary years to her appearance.
“That sounds nice,” she replied, but didn’t sound enthusiastic about it.
“You sound like that’s the color you’d settle for. Did you have something in mind?”
“No… I just… Do you have a color palette I could look at maybe?”
“As a matter of fact, I have hair swatches. I’ll be right back.” I went to the mixing station to get the books.
It took some time going through them, but Judith ultimately chose a chestnut brown color that had red undertones to it. I started with the dye and let her look through some magazines to see if she could find a haircut she liked.
“Who’s the little girl?” She pointed to the picture of Emma taped up on my mirror. It was from her last dance recital when she was still doing ballet. Her hair was pulled back in a bun and her costume had her looking like a little fairy with the wings and the shimmery eye shadow I’d put on her.
“That’s my daughter.”
“Really? You look like you’re barely out of high school.”
“Oh bless you,” I chuckled. “I had her young, but she’s my sunshine.”
“The guy I’m seeing has a daughter about that age,” Judith told me. “He’s having problems with his ex. She never lets him see their daughter.”
“That’s too bad,” I frowned. “He should fight for visitation.”
“He is. I’m worried it might not go his way, though. He’s got kind of a spotty past. Everyone does dumb things when they’re young, but he spent some time in jail. A judge might not be able to overlook it.”
That story sounded a little close to home, but I was pretty sure Bill wasn’t the only fucknut to do dumb shit.
“Does he have his life together now?”
“He’s still a work in progress, but he’s trying,” she answered.
Then it couldn’t be Bill she was talking about. He definitely wasn’t trying. If he was I might have been willing to talk about him getting time with Emma, but Bill liked things the way they were. As far as I knew, he wasn’t doing anything to prove he was a stable, mature adult.
“Having a good woman around to keep him on the straight and narrow might be a huge help to him,” I said.
“I hope so. I’m nine weeks pregnant,” Judith revealed.
“Really? Congratulations,” I smiled.
“Thanks. I’m still getting used to it. I didn’t think I’d have a kid this late in the game, but I’m excited about it.”
I hoped for her sake things went better with her baby daddy than they did with his first baby mama. God, if Bill had another kid I didn’t know how I’d handle that. Probably by laughing like a hyena. I told him to get snipped after Emma was born, but of course he laughed it off. He spouted some bullshit line about how ‘men are supposed to spread their seed’. I should have known then that I was up shit’s creek without a paddle.
There was no rationalizing with that.
While Judith’s hair was coloring I went to the backroom to check my phone. Occasionally Eric would send me a text while he was at work, but it was rare. He wasn’t allowed to take his phone around the prison just in case an inmate was able to overpower him. The less personal information the inmates knew about the guards the better.
I did have a few messages but none of them were from Eric. I had a screenshot taken by my best friend Tara. It was a picture of Bill’s Instagram account. The most recent picture was of a positive pregnancy test with the caption: “Looks like Emma’s gonna be a big sister.”
My stomach dropped into my ass.
I peeked out to my station where Judith was still looking at magazines. This couldn’t just be a coincidence. If Bill was having another kid because he thought it would help his case in front of a judge, I felt really sorry for Judith. As soon as she wasn’t useful to him anymore she’d be in the same boat as me.
If there was one thing I knew for sure, it was that Bill hadn’t learned a damn thing.
♥ ♥ ♥
I was surprised to see Bill calling me. Usually he sent a text. It was for the best because we had a tendency to fight when he called me.
“Hello,” I answered.
“Hey. I was wondering if I could get Emma for Thanksgiving,” he said, getting right to the point.
“We already have plans for that day,” I informed him.
“You have her for every freaking holiday, Sookie!”
“Excuse me, but do not raise your voice at me. Getting loud won’t get you what you want. Your parents have her the weekend before,” I pointed out.
“So I already made plans for Thanksgiving. You should have called me more than three days ahead of time if you wanted to do something that day.”
“I shouldn’t have to ask your permission at all to see my child. She’s as much mine as she is yours,” he argued.
“Says the guy who doesn’t pick her up or drop her off at school, pay any of her bills or get up with her in the middle of the night when she’s sick, which she is right now, by the way.” Emma climbed into bed with me in the middle of the night. She was burning up, running a fever of 102.4, and coughing so hard I thought she was going to throw up. Poor kid.
“Jesus Christ, it’s always about the money with you! Fuck! I swear to God, every conversation we have ends up being about money,” he complained.
“You’re damn right it does. You have no idea what it costs to support a child, Bill, and now you’re going to have two? Does your new baby mama know each deadbeat you are? Filing for custody doesn’t make you a good dad, just so you know.”
“Like I’m going to take advice from some dumb cunt fucking a rentacop?”
“He’s a former Marine who works in the department of corrections intelligence unit,” I corrected. “He also got up in the middle of the night last night to get medicine, popsicles and juice for your daughter.”
Eric was a pretty sound sleeper, but Emma was coughing and crying enough to wake him up. I had one dose worth of medicine left for Emma, so he volunteered to run out to the nearest twenty-four hour pharmacy. He got three different kinds of medicine, two kinds of juice, and a big box of popsicles to soothe Emma’s sore throat. He was an angel.
“If you ever let me see her–”
“I’m going to stop you right there, junior. You’ve been playing that same song on the world’s tiniest violin for months. Since she was two your parents have had Emma every other weekend with a few exceptions for vacations or scheduling conflicts. I always text you if something changes. I let you know when her dance recitals are so you can come, not that you do. You have had tons of opportunities to spend time with Emma, and time after time you choose something else. You don’t get to blame me anymore for your shitty parenting choices. You asked if you could have her for Thanksgiving and my answer is no. Goodbye.” I hung up on him. There was nothing else to say.
If he wasn’t such a dick I would have offered him the day before or the day after, but fuck that. With Emma not feeling well getting our own dinner cooked was going to be tricky enough. The turkey was thawing over at Eric’s house to save room in my fridge. Tara and her boyfriend JB were coming, both my parents were coming and so was my brother with his new girlfriend Crystal. I wasn’t cooking for a lot of people, but it was my first time cooking a turkey.
It was exciting. If I was being honest I hoped the next year Eric and I would be living together for the holidays. I liked having him around, and Emma did too.
My poor baby was out cold in my bedroom. I went in to check on her, and she was so deeply asleep that she didn’t even notice when I checked her temperature with the ear thermometer. Emma didn’t feel quite as hot, but her cheeks were still flushed and she was sweating a little. The thermometer beeped, and read that she was at 102. I wasn’t happy with that. If her fever stayed up high like that I was going to end up in the emergency room for the holiday. I really didn’t want to cancel on Eric’s parents, but it looked like I might not have a choice.
I left Emma in the bedroom, and went back to the kitchen to resume making my grocery list. The front door opened and shut.
“Hello?” I heard my dad say.
“I’m in the kitchen,” I replied.
“How’s Emma?” He walked into the room and set a jug of Pedialyte on the counter.
Bless his heart!
“Still running a fever of 102, but at least she’s sleeping now. I think the Tylenol knocked her out, finally.”
“Sleep is the best way to go. If you have to, wake her up every few hours just to get her to drink something so she doesn’t get dehydrated,” Dad advised.
“She’s been asleep for about an hour now. Poor pumpkin is so congested,” I frowned.
“It’s hard when your kid is sick. No one likes to see their child suffering.”
“No normal parent anyway. Bill called a little bit ago. He wants Emma on Thanksgiving. As usual he called me a gold digger and complained that I never let him see Emma…”
“Of course he did. He still thinks the rest of the world is going to cater to him like his parents do. If Jesse and Caroline had any sense, they’d kick him out and make him figure it out on his own,” Dad said.
“I think he’s moved in with the new baby mama.” The rumor mill pretty much confirmed it was Judith. She was a nice lady so I wished her well.
“He moved in with you too. Jason said she’s older?”
“Yeah, she came into the salon last week and I met her. Either she was scoping me out and pretending not to know who Emma and I were, or Bill never showed her a picture of Emma.”
“Who knows. How much older is she?”
“Damn. What the hell does a forty-year-old want with him?” Dad shook his head.
“Beats me. He had the balls to say some shit about Eric being a rentacop.”
“Even if that was true, at least Eric has a job,” Dad snickered.
“Thank you. I feel like there is literally nothing of value Bill could teach Emma. I wouldn’t even trust him to teach her to tie her shoes.” He was useless. It would make my life so much easier if he would just go away and forget he ever had a daughter. I hated feeling that way.
“I don’t either,” Dad agreed. “How’s things with Eric?”
“Amazing. I swear, he makes me believe that karma is a good thing. I put up with Bill for so long, and I never thought I’d find a good guy, but I did. Well, I guess he found me, but still…”
“It’s nice not getting those middle of the night, hysterical phone calls about how you’re going to be alone forever, or you just got in another fight, or Bill just stormed out of house, or you two broke up again…” The sad thing was, Dad wasn’t exaggerating. He was always the one I called when stuff happened, even if it was 2:30 in the morning and I knew he’d be sleeping. No matter what, Dad always answered the calls and talked me down off the ledge because he was a damn good dad.
“Am I spoiled?” I randomly asked. “Bill used to say I was all the time.”
“First of all, he’s got no room to be pointing any fingers at anyone. Second of all, you might have been spoiled before Emma was born, but not anymore. I’ve seen you go without things or give things up to see her have a better life. Has he ever done any of that for her?”
Nope, he hadn’t.
“Don’t worry about what he thinks, Sookie. No matter what you do he’s always going to find a way to put his mistakes off on someone else. Just keep doing what you’re doing and let your lawyer worry about him,” Dad advised.
“Do you need anything else while I’m here?”
“No, I’m okay. Tomorrow Mom is coming over to watch Emma while I go shopping. Eric’s coming over after he gets off work, so if I need anything he’ll pick it up on his way. He has to stop at home to get the dog anyway.”
“Okay. Be careful, it’s supposed to snow pretty hard tomorrow,” he warned.
“I will. I’ll tell Emma you were here.”
“Thanks. Call if you need anything.” I gave Dad a hug and a kiss goodbye, and walked him to the door.
It was bright and sunny outside but the temperature was perfect for snowfall. It wasn’t supposed to start until later in the afternoon closer to rush hour. Mom was coming in the morning. I had appointments booked at the salon in preparation for the holiday and I couldn’t reschedule them. Mom to the rescue. Plus she had plenty of experience with sick kids. If Emma couldn’t have me, Grandma would do.
♥ ♥ ♥
My last scheduled client called to cancel twenty minutes after her appointment was supposed to start. Technically it was still Autumn, not that northern Nebraska knew that. It had been snowing heavily since three o’clock. There had to be five or six inches of snow on the ground. I was no stranger to driving in it, but it still made me nervous.
Since I was the last one in the shop I decided to clean up and call it a night. All I wanted was to go home, cuddle my sick baby, and drink hot cocoa in front of the fireplace. I pulled out my phone and called Eric while I swept up the shop.
“Hey, baby,” he said.
“Hi. I’m guessing you made it home from work okay?”
“Yeah, I did. I’m actually at your place. I know you have a lot you want to do tomorrow so I thought I could help you out,” he said.
“I am,” he agreed. “Are you okay to drive home?”
“Yeah, the Jeep does okay in snow.”
“The truck’s cleaned off. I can just swing by and pick you up. We can get the Jeep in the morning,” he suggested.
“When are you done?”
“Maybe thirty minutes. My last appointment canceled.”
“Okay. I’ll get Emma ready and we’ll come get you,” he told me.
“Are you sure?”
“It’s going to take forever for you to clean off the Jeep. If you really want to bring the Jeep home I’ll stay and clean it off–”
“You don’t have to do that.”
Nice thing number 3524649658966 Bill would never do for me: clean off my car in a blizzard.
“I know I don’t, but Emma’s sick and you’re the only thing that makes her feel better,” he reasoned.
“I love you, you know that?”
“I love you too. Finish up. We’ll be there soon,” he said.
We got off the phone and I finished my sweeping. I took the wet load of towels and put them in the dryer. The hamper was emptied into the washing machine for the next load that was going to be washed. I made sure everything was secure and locked up before I bundled up to go. Eric’s truck pulled up in front of the salon a few minutes later and he parked next to my Jeep.
I waved before stepping over to the alarm panel to set the alarm. I exited the building and locked the front door. Eric reached over to open the passenger door.
“What’s the verdict, babe?”
“I’ll come back in the morning. Let’s just go home.” I climbed up into the truck. “How’re you feeling, peanut?”
“My froat hurts,” she complained.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I wish I could make it all better for you.” I hated to see her suffering.
Eric backed away from the shop. I felt my cell phone buzz in my coat pocket. I pulled the phone out to find I had a text message from my brother.
Jason: Bad accident on 275. Bill booked on third DUI. Might have killed someone this time.
I gasped as I looked at the car he’d hit. It was flipped over onto its top, and the front end was gone.
“Oh my god,” I whispered.
“What?” Eric looked over at me.
“Bad accident on 275. It was a DUI situation.” Eric stopped the truck and I showed him the message.
“Oh man, that’s bad,” he muttered.
I knew from previous research that Bill was looking at a year in jail for his third DUI offense. There was also the fine he’d have to pay, but the big one was losing his license for fifteen years. Emma would be a licensed driver before he would. If he killed someone he was also looking at significantly more time if he caught a judge who was tired of Bill’s bullshit. It wasn’t his first offense. The chance of a judge thinking he was just a dumb kid who made a mistake wasn’t as high as the first time Bill caught a DUI charge.
“If the other person dies he could be going away for a long time,” I said as Eric started driving. I couldn’t imagine taking Emma to jail to see her dad.
He reached for my hand to give it a squeeze, but quickly released it to have both hands on the steering wheel. The roads hadn’t been plowed yet, and it was pretty obvious everyone had gone home and hunkered down to ride out the storm. Even his heavy truck had skidded a few times in the slippery snow, so I was grateful he had offered to come get me. The Jeep did okay in the snow, but I had a tendency to panic a little bit, and I was sure by the third little fishtail I would have been hysterical. I liked that he knew me well enough to know a girl like me and winter weather driving didn’t go together that well.
When we reached home I helped my sick kiddo out of the backseat and carried her inside, since Eric had carried her out. She didn’t have boots on, just her bootie slippers. Emma didn’t want me to put her down even so I could take my coat off, but that was a fight she lost. It resulted in a small meltdown that I knew had more to do with her frustration over being sick and being exhausted than it did anything else.
“Emma, do you want to come lay on the couch with me?” I asked once the crying died down.
My poor baby rubbed her eyes from the spot on the floor where she’d thrown herself down. She was all red in the face and snotty from her tantrum.
“Let’s wash your face and get you some medicine first, okay?”
Emma, much calmer now, nodded and got up off the floor. I lifted her up onto my hip. She hugged me around my neck, and laid her head on my shoulder.
“Did you have fun with Nana today?”
“We watched Scooby and then she made me tomato soup and soldiers,” she told me. The “soldiers” were a grilled cheese cut into sticks that were easy to dip in the soup.
“Nana’s a pretty good cook, isn’t she?”
“Uh huh,” Emma agreed.
I sat her on the counter in the bathroom to gently wipe off her face. Her little nose was so red and chapped from all the blowing. I got the Vaseline from the medicine cabinet, and dabbed a little on it with a Q-tip to help it heal or at least feel less ouchie. I hated it when Emma got sick. Watching her feel so miserable was the worst thing.
“Mama, is my other dad in trouble?” Emma asked out of nowhere.
I paused for a minute because that question had so many loaded points to it. Emma was a smart girl so I wasn’t surprised she figured out we were talking about Bill. It both warmed my heart and broke it a little that she was referring to Bill that way. On the bright side, I was so happy that she saw Eric like he was a dad to her. It was the big missing piece in her short life. On the other hand, it made me so sad she ever had to go without.
“Your dad was in an accident. Remember last time your dad got in trouble it was because he was drinking alcohol and got in an accident?” Emma nodded. “Well, I guess he didn’t learn his lesson, because he did it again. This time the person in the other car got hurt really bad. If they die, it could get your dad into really super big trouble.”
I let that process for a minute. She was too young to really understand what it all meant.
“Does that mean Eric can be my dad all the time?”
“Would you like that?” I countered, rather giving her an answer.
Emma nodded again. Her messy, tangled her swung with her bobbing head.
“He plays with me, and he reads me stories, and he gives me hugs, and he makes you smile. My dad never makes you smile.” Her answer made my eyes well up.
“Eric’s a very good man. He makes me very happy.”
“And I like Heidi,” she added.
Eric’s dog took to Emma immediately. Heidi was patient and let Emma play doctor with her, checking her ears or pretending to listen to her heartbeat. Heidi was a much better patient than Sloth.
“I like Heidi too,” I smiled.
“But I still want a piggy,” Emma reminded me.
I laughed and got her medicine out of the cabinet. I poured a dose into the measuring spoon sitting on the vanity, and handed it to Emma. She didn’t really like taking medicine, but she liked that it made her feel better for a while, so she took it. I rinsed the spoon, and then lifted Emma off the counter.
Eric and I weren’t ready to move in together yet, but knowing Emma would be okay with it made things a lot easier. When we got to the living room Eric had a little bowl of sherbet waiting for Emma. The three of us sat down on the couch together with The Wizard of Oz.
“I put a pizza in the oven,” he said, leaning over to kiss my head.
“Thanks, babe.” He put his arm around me, and I leaned on him a little bit.
Even with the Bill drama, everything felt like it had finally fallen into place. After years of doubt’s, fighting and tears, I finally had the family I wanted for myself and my daughter. It wasn’t quite riding off into the sunset, but it was close enough for me.
Six Months Later…
There was a lot going on. Emma was about to graduate from kindergarten, for starters. She didn’t get her pig for her birthday, but Eric and I decided to get her one for her graduation present. We had been reading up on how to take care of a pig, and I felt pretty good about it. Taking time to potty train the little oinker was going to be a little tedious, but it beat having a pig pottying all over the house.
On top of that, Bill had ultimately been charged with vehicular homicide. Nan Flanagan had been slammed into head on when Bill lost control of his truck. Her little Hyundai Sonata was no match for his heavy Dodge Ram. Bill was charged with a third DUI, vehicular homicide, and possession of a controlled substance. Police found a bottle of Oxycontin in the center console that he didn’t have a prescription for. Bill really screwed up.
Eric and I sat in the back of the courtroom, waiting to hear the judge’s sentence. I was prepared to tell Emma her dad was going to jail for a really long time. She hadn’t come to court at all since she didn’t need to be there, but I had been telling her about the things that were going on in the trial. My heart went out to Jesse and Caroline. They were good people, but maybe not the best parents. Their complacency had allowed Bill to develop the notion that he held the world on a string. There were never any consequences for his mistakes.
Judge Octavia Fant put an end to that.
“Mr. Compton, you have shown no remorse for your role in Ms. Flanagan’s death. This court has been lenient and merciful on you in the past, giving you the chance to turn your life around. You squandered those opportunities, and in doing so, you have spat in the face of this system. I take that disrespect and disregard for the law very seriously. So far you have skated by with slaps on the wrist. That ends today before you take any other lives, including those of your children,” Judge Fant said.
Judith had given birth to a baby girl the week before, the day Bill was found guilty on all charges. I wasn’t sure Judith and I would ever be besties, but we did agree that it was important for our girls to have a relationship with each other. She’d named her daughter Willa Irene after Bill and her mother, but the baby had her last name. She didn’t want Willa’s name to pop up right away by being connected in name to her father.
“The court hereby sentences you to the maximum sentence that is in my discretion to give: $20,000 in fines, court costs and finally, 56 years in prison to be served at Holt County Corrections, with eligibility of parole in twenty years. This court is adjourned.” The gavel banged on the desk and I heard Caroline sob toward the front of the room.
Eric squeezed my hand and I looked over at him. Bill was effectively out of Emma’s life.
It wasn’t what I wanted deep down. I had hoped that the three of us would have found a way to co-parent her. That dream died with the judge’s sentence. How ironic that Bill was going to end up in the same prison as Eric, but on the other side of the bars.
I knew Eric couldn’t show favor to Bill, and even if he could, he wouldn’t show it. Eric was the first to say Bill got what was coming to him.
We both stood up and I went over to Jesse and Caroline to give them my condolences. I had already assured them that I wouldn’t prevent them from having a relationship with Emma. Regardless of Bill’s mistakes, they were still her family. I wasn’t ready to have my five-year-old taken into a jail to see her dad, so Bill was going to have to settle for letters and photo updates until Emma was older. I didn’t know what Judith was going to do. She had no family in town, no reason to stick around other than Emma. I wouldn’t be surprised if she went back to Omaha.
As he was being led out of the courtroom in shackles, my eyes caught Bill’s. There was nothing left of the boy I’d foolishly fallen for seven years before. His eyes were dead. There was no light in them. It wouldn’t surprise me if he ended up on suicide watch. Finally he’d gone too far. Judge Fant was throwing the boom at him. I hoped reality was setting in for him. It was too bad it hadn’t five years ago. Things could have been very different.
Eric and I walked out of the courthouse together. He had the keys to my Jeep in his pocket. Our hands linked on the walk to the car.
“I think I’ll drop you off and go to my place to grab another load of boxes,” he said.
Over the last two weeks Eric had been moving his things into my house.
“Well I can stop at home to change and then come help you,” I suggested.
“Nah, I’m almost done. I think this is the last load. Tomorrow I’ll clean up and turn in my key. Are you really sure you want to be stuck with me?” he asked.
“There’s no one else I’d rather be stuck with.” I tilted my head up to get a kiss from him.
It was going to be rough telling Emma that her dad was going to jail for a long time, but I had always been honest with her. At least she had Eric in her life. He wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Once we were in the car I said, “Last night Emma asked me if she could start calling you Dad now that you live with us.”
Eric looked surprised, but happy and honored by the request.
“If that’s what she wants, I’m okay with that,” he told me. “You know I’m almost as crazy about her as I am about you.”
“I know, and I love you for it. You really have no idea how much it means to me that you treat her like she’s your own daughter.” Eric generally left the disciplining to me, but if Emma started acting up he always had my back. If I said no, so did he. Emma found out pretty quick that there was no playing one off the other.
Eric’s stock answer was, “Mommy’s the boss.”
“I honestly wouldn’t know any other way to treat her,” he said.
I leaned over to kiss his neck. Our fingers laced together as we drove away from the courthouse. My head rested against the back of the seat and I watched his handsome face as he drove. He was so stinking cute it hurt.
“You know, someday I really want to have babies with you,” I told him.
Eric smiled. “How many?”
“I don’t know. Three? Maybe four?”
I laughed and said, “Five kids is plenty.”
“Maybe for a beginner,” he teased.
“We’ll see. I don’t know if raising a football team is in the cards for me. We’re getting a late start for that big of a family.”
“Yeah, I guess we are. I can live with four.” Eric kissed the inside of my wrist.
We weren’t rushing into having kids, but I was sure that a baby would come pretty fast after we were married. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see all those things in my future. It made me feel good to know that Eric saw them as well.
He was my proof that dreams did come true.