Dancing Away With My Heart

I haven’t seen you in ages. Sometimes I find myself wondering where you are. For me you’ll always be eighteen, and beautiful, and dancin’ away with my heart.”-Lady Antebellum

I watched Pam stare down at the cards in her hand with a nervous look on her face. Usually Pam was a fantastic poker player, but at the moment her mind wasn’t on the game. She was too busy thinking about her daughter. Jessica was at the age where meeting the wrong boy was still a possibility. Meeting the right boy was probably way off into the future, but there was always that chance Jessica found ‘the one’ the first time out. It was unusual, but it happened.

“Pam, it’s just a first date,” I reminded her.

“If you had kids you wouldn’t be so damn casual about this,” Pam said without looking up from her cards.

“It’s just a date. They’ll have dinner, go to a movie, or go bowling or something. It’s a lot of chatter and awkwardness,” I sighed.

“Unless you meet the right person, and then before it’s over the girl is already planning the wedding,” Pam threw her cards down. “I can’t concentrate. Do you know that Jessica has had a thing for this boy for the last six months? She’s never been stuck on a boy for that long. Ever.”

“Okay, and how many guys have you dated in the past where you were sure he was ‘the one,’ but then you go out and you realize that you have absolutely no chemistry? It happens sometimes.”

“If you’re trying to make me feel better, you suck at it,” Pam sat back in her chair.

“I’m not trying to make you feel better, just maybe see things a little more rationally,” I picked up her cards and started to reshuffle the deck.

“I know my daughter, Eric. If things don’t go well she’s going to come home heartbroken and I don’t want to spend the next week binging on chocolate chip cookie dough and watching chick flicks while she licks her wounds. I hate when she’s upset,” Pam bit her thumb, a nervous habit I’d picked up on about five minutes after I met her way back when we were in high school.

“She’ll be fine, Pam. I seem to recall you suffering a few broken hearts yourself that you thought you’d never get over,” I reminded her with a crooked smile. “It’s all part of being a young adult. Jessica will be fine, either way it goes.”

Pam sighed and said, “No offense, Eric, but when is the last time you were in love with someone? Do you even remember how it feels?”

I narrowed my eyes and said, “That’s different, and yes, I remember what it’s like to be in love with someone. You were around for my relationship with Ginger.”

Pam snorted and said, “I don’t think that was love. I think that was a whole lot of lust and fucking.”

“Yeah, that too,” I winked and smiled at her, and Pam rolled her eyes.

Ginger and I had been together for about two years before I realized that we had gone as far as we were going to go. I loved her, I knew that much, but I also knew she wasn’t the one I wanted to settle down with. I couldn’t see myself having children with her, or being an old man next to her. We had a lot of fun together, and our relationship had been relatively drama-free. I realized we never really had serious conversations about much of anything; we were always flitting from one fun thing to another.

There were basic things about each other’s lives that we should have known that we didn’t. We somehow managed to keep it pretty casual, even though we were in love with each other. When it came right down to it, Ginger and I just didn’t have what it took to make things work in the long run. About the time I started to wonder if maybe breaking up was the right thing to do she came to me and told me she’d met someone else, someone who could give her all the things I wasn’t sure I could.

We parted ways pretty amicably, which just went to show me that she really wasn’t the right girl. If she had been, I would have fought much harder to keep her. Letting her go was easy, even if it hurt for a while. I got over her and started dating again. I’d had a couple of girlfriends since then, but most of my relationships were lucky to make it to the six month mark after Ginger. It wasn’t that I regretted breaking up with her, but that I realized I was at the point where I wanted all the things that Ginger did with the other guy she met.

I ran into her two years after we broke up. She was married to the other guy, and they were expecting their first child. I was happy for her and jealous at the same time. I wasn’t jealous that she was having a baby with someone else or anything like that, but that she had found the person she was supposed to be with. I wouldn’t say that I was desperate to get married and have a family, but it was something I wanted. I’d had enough of the partying and relationships that didn’t go anywhere. I was ready to put down roots and have a simple, stable life.

Pam, on the other hand, had married young. She met Alcide at a bar just outside of Baton Rouge when we were still in college. At the time Alcide was stationed at Fort Polk as part of the 162nd Infantry Brigade in the Army. Talk about your whirlwind romances… Pam and Alcide were married within three months of meeting each other. At the time I thought she was crazy for getting married so young, but ten years later they were still going strong. Alcide was currently doing a tour overseas in Afghanistan, where his platoon was working with Afghani soldiers to help them take better command of their own country.

Comparatively speaking, it wasn’t a hostile place to be, but because it was Afghanistan there was always the chance something could pop off at any moment. I knew Pam lived in mortal fear that something awful was going to happen, and she would end up getting one of those visits from someone that no military wife wanted to get. It was for that reason that I tried to spend as much time with Pam as I could. I’d become good friends with Alcide over the years, and he knew I had no interest in Pam romantically; she was like family to me. Jessica was my Goddaughter, for lack of a better term, and I loved her as well. To her I was Uncle Eric. I had been there since the day her parents brought her home.

I didn’t know why, exactly, but Pam wasn’t able to get pregnant on her own, so she had arranged a private adoption with a pair of teenagers from New Orleans who just weren’t ready to be parents yet. The adoption was open, and Jessica knew that Pam and Alcide weren’t her birth parents. Sophie-Anne and Andre came up to Shreveport every year for Jessica’s birthday and it was obvious they loved their daughter very much, but knew she was better off with Pam and Alcide. I couldn’t imagine giving a kid up, personally. I admired their strength. Since then her birth parents had gotten married and had two more kids—twins, as a matter of fact.

It amazed me that Jessica never felt any sort of resentment toward her birth parents for being the kid they didn’t keep, but she was also old enough to understand that her parents had given her up because they loved her. The life she would have had with them wouldn’t have been nearly as good as the life she had with Pam and Alcide. I think it helped that it had never been a secret that she was adopted. Knowing from the time she was a child that Pam and Alcide had chosen her was a pretty big deal. It all worked out just fine in the end.

“I should set you up with one of my girlfriends,” Pam said from out of nowhere, jarring me from my thoughts.

“What? No. No, no thank you. You’ve been there, done that. Besides, who are you going to set me up with that I don’t already know?” I quirked an eyebrow at her.

“Does it matter? Come on, I know you and this girl will hit it off. She’s blonde, curvy in all the right places and she doesn’t have any ex-husbands or kids. If I didn’t know any better I would think she was the female version of you,” Pam snickered.

“Why would I want to date myself?” I shook my head.

“Because it’s the only thing you haven’t tried,” Pam teased and I seriously considered flipping her the bird.

Just then the front door flew open and then slammed shut. Feet stomped up the stairs and then a door upstairs slammed. Jessica was home, and obviously things hadn’t gone well.

“Fuck,” Pam muttered.

“Want me to kill him? I’ll take him out at the knees and go all Marcellus Wallace on his ass if you want me to,” I volunteered.

Pam got up and started for the stairs, “Just agree to this date and we’ll call it even.”

I didn’t quite see how that would be calling it even, but I knew Pam wasn’t likely to give up. She was a pitbull when she wanted to be. I straightened up the deck of cards and swept the pretzel sticks we had been playing for back into the bowl sitting on the table. I pushed in chairs, took our glasses to the kitchen and then let myself out of the house. Pam wouldn’t be needing my assistance in dealing with Jessica, and odds were Jess wouldn’t really want to see me just then anyway.

The drive home took just over a half hour. When I got there I went straight to my recently remodeled kitchen and grabbed a beer out of the fridge. I started my iPod and went to what was probably supposed to be the dining room. I had turned it into a billiard room instead, and had a regulation size pool table in there instead, along with a dart board up on the wall. Why go to a pool hall when I could just play at home? The drinks were cheaper and the company was always better.

I racked the balls and grabbed my cue from its spot on the wall mount. While lining up my shot I thought back to what it was like when I was Jessica’s age, and every date I ever went on felt like I was standing at the edge of a cliff. Sometimes it was all in good fun, but there was always that potential for the world as I knew it to end in a split second. I thought about the girls I had dated back then, and how my criteria had changed over the last twenty years. Because I was an athlete in high school, and one of the more popular guys in school, I had dated more than my fair share of girls.

When I thought about my first ‘serious’ girlfriend way back when I was seventeen I couldn’t help but laugh a little. We had no idea what we were doing, and our relationship was dictated by rumors and peer pressure. In all fairness to Dawn, I let my buddies get the better of me, and convince me that sex was the most important thing. I put more pressure on Dawn than I should have to give it up. I went so far as to give her an ultimatum, and when I thought about some asshole doing that to Jessica all I wanted was to go back in time and kick my own ass.

What was done was done, however, and the experience had been terrible for both of us. Dawn gave in and we had sex, but it wasn’t as special as it should have been considering we were both virgins at the time. I didn’t love her and she didn’t love me, and back then I didn’t realize how important that could be. I just wanted to do it, and she didn’t want to lose me. After we had sex there was this resentment between us that festered in our relationship, and we ended up having a very public breakup at the birthday party of a mutual friend.

Dawn never spoke to me again, and she sure as hell didn’t want to hear me out when I tried to apologize to her a week later.

Before I knew it I was thinking about every girl I had ever dated that I made a mistake with, or meant anything to me in my past. There was one, in particular, that stood out in my mind. When I thought of her I smiled. I didn’t know if I believed in the idea of ‘the one that got away,’ but if I did, Sookie Stackhouse was that girl.

oOoOoOo

Prom Night- May 5, 2000

The decision to go to prom alone had been an easy one. Just about any girl I would have asked was guaranteed to say yes, but I just wanted to have fun. I didn’t want to worry about coordinating my tux with a dress, or finding the right corsage to compliment a girl’s jewelry or shoes. Not to mention, there were certain implications that were attached to asking a girl to prom, and since I was at a point where I didn’t really want to be in a relationship, I figured it was better if I just went stag. So that’s what I did.

I went with a group of friends, actually, so I wasn’t alone. It was a good night, if you didn’t take into consideration the over-priced, bad catered food that was served. No one really went to the dance for dinner anyway. The old high school gym was packed with girls all looking like they were fresh from a debutant ball, or practicing for when they would eventually be bridesmaids in each other’s weddings in just a few years. Not a single guy was comfortable in the tux they were wearing, but most guys were willing to endure it if there was a chance at getting lucky before the night was over.

Being there by myself meant I had the option to do pretty much anything I wanted, whether it was dance with a random girl, sit at a table, talk to my friends, or leave the whole thing early. I had been nominated for prom king, but I had no interest in winning. It was just a meaningless title that wouldn’t matter a single bit beyond that night. The title was actually so cliché I hoped I had nothing to do with it beyond that nomination.

I remember standing off to the sidelines when the names were called, and feeling grateful when Sam Merlotte’s name was called instead of my own. I sagged with relief, and figured I’d maybe stick around for a little while longer before calling it quits. Pam had come with a date, but I knew it wasn’t anything serious. We had plans to ditch the prom early, get out of our monkey suits and go get shitfaced at the lake. There wasn’t much else to do in the small, one stop light town Pam and I had grown up in.

It was while I was scanning the crowd, searching for Pam so I could ask her when she wanted to get going that I spotted Sookie Stackhouse. God, she was gorgeous. I’d always thought so but since she was Jason Stackhouse’s little sister she was pretty much off limits to a guy like me. What I’d done to Dawn was common knowledge, and even though Jason was smaller than me I was pretty sure he’d kick my ass if I went anywhere near his little sister. She stood beside her date, a guy I didn’t recognize from around town, and she whispered in his ear. He laughed, but there was something cordial in their posturing, as opposed to something intimate.

He might have been her date, but I was willing to bet it wasn’t serious.

Sookie was wearing a red dress that showed off all of her assets, including her perpetual golden-brown tan, and cleavage that the best plastic surgeon in the world would never be able to recreate. Her hair was swept back away from her face, leaving her neck invitingly bare. Someone called her name and she turned around to reveal that her dress was practically backless. I shifted uncomfortably when I felt that familiar stirring in my pants. Sporting random wood in the middle of the prom was a bad idea.

Her date excused himself a moment later, and I figured if I was going to take a chance, that was the time to do it. The prom king and queen finished their dance, and I headed across the room to where Sookie was standing alone. She didn’t notice me approaching her, but that was fine.

Sookie?” I said to get her attention.

Her head turned and she smiled at me, revealing perfectly straight, pearly white teeth. “Hey Eric. You’re lookin’ awfully dapper,” she reached out and smoothed the lapels of my jacket.

Thank you. You clean up pretty nice yourself,” I looked her up and down.

This old thing?” Sookie fiddled with the skirt of her dress. “To tell you the truth, I can’t wait to get out of here. I don’t mind gettin’ all dolled up for a little while but these shoes are pinchin’ my feet. I’m a jeans and t-shirts kind of girl, you know?”

Oh, I knew. Sookie was the sort of girl that was hard to miss. Even on days when she put absolutely no effort into it, she always looked beautiful. In that moment, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t just told Jason to mind his own fucking business, and then ask his sister out. He didn’t get to dictate her life; she was a big girl.

The deejay announced the last dance, and that was my shot.

Want to dance?” I offered and extended my hand.

Sure,” Sookie smiled again and took my hand.

Your date won’t be pissed, will he?” I asked as we walked out onto the dance floor.

Preston? Nah. He’s an old family friend. Actually, he’s got a girlfriend, but he agreed to come with me to keep Bill Compton from dry humpin’ my leg all night,” Sookie explained and I couldn’t help but laugh.

Just like my breakup with Dawn had been public, so had Sookie’s breakup with Bill. They had dated for a little over a year, and were safely on the road to being considered class couple material when Sookie caught him cheating on her with some other girl down at Lake Charles the summer before senior year. She dumped him on the spot, right in front of everyone else that was there that day. Sookie didn’t make a big deal about the breakup, in spite of the fact that she had every right to make a total fool of Bill after what he did to her. But then Bill took care of that all on his own constantly whining and begging, making these huge gestures to try and win her back.

None of it worked and the more he pestered her, the more agitated Sookie had become. Or so I heard from Pam.

We found a spot on the dance floor, and my left hand settled on the small of her back. Her skin was soft, from what I could feel of it, and it didn’t escape my attention when she broke out in goose bumps. Our eyes met briefly while we danced, and there was something there between us that had never been there before. Sookie and I had known each other since we were just little kids. We didn’t travel in exactly the same social circles, but since her brother and I had played football together I saw her all the time at games. She stopped coming to them as often after Jason graduated, but since Bon Temps was such a small town it wasn’t like we could really avoid each other.

She was also in the same psychology class I was, and sat in the next row over thanks to the seating assignment being alphabetical. We saw each other on almost a daily basis. How had I never noticed her? I mean really noticed her?

Edwin McCain played over the speakers the hired deejay had set up near his booth near the platform toward the far end of the gym. A rented disco ball hung from the rafters of the gym, sending dots of light all around the room. The crowd started to thin out a little since just about everyone had plans for after the dance. Parties were set to pop up all over town, and there was that sense of togetherness enveloping us all. For the nostalgic types, these were the moments most likely to be preserved in memories.

You know, those final moments for us all to be together as classmates before we went off into the world to do whatever it was we were destined to do. No doubt a great many of the kids I went to school with never left Bon Temps for more than the four years they were in college, or the military. Some would move away forever and never look back. Some would remain in town and die in the same place they were born. Back then our slates were clean, and there was nothing but possibility lying before us.

For me, in that moment, the only thing that mattered was the fact that the most beautiful girl in the room had her head on my shoulder. All I could think about was that I didn’t want the song to end, because when it did I knew we were going to have to go our separate ways. She had her life and I had mine.

But it didn’t have to stay that way.

The song did eventually end, as all songs do, and when Sookie smiled up to thank me for the dance, I wasn’t quite ready to let her go just yet.

Thanks for the dance, Eric,” she said, her hand still holding mine.

Hey, Sookie, hang on a second,” I took a step closer to her. I was nervous, which was something I wasn’t used to. It had been a while since a girl made me nervous. “Listen, I uh… I was thinking if you’re not busy next week, maybe we could hang out.”

Hang out, or go out?” Sookie tried to reign in her smile a little.

Go out,” I clarified and hoped she didn’t notice my hand was sweating.

I’d love to,” she kept looking up at me, but then her date called her name. “I have to get back to Preston, but give me a call this weekend and we’ll figure something out, okay?”

How do you know I have your number?” I quirked an eyebrow.

You played football with Jason. If you’ve still got the team roster, you’ve got my number,” she winked and started walking backward toward her date. “See you later. Thanks again for the dance.”

oOoOoOo

Present Day

I was just flipping through an old photo album in search of some prom pictures since I knew Sookie had ended up in a couple of them. It turned out Pam had snapped a picture of the two of us dancing that last dance at the end of the night, and for the majority of the summer I had carried that picture around with me. To this day, I still don’t know what it was that flipped the switch in my head. All of a sudden everything had just made sense where Sookie was concerned.

I sipped my beer, and laughed at some of the pictures I’d saved over the years. My cell phone rang in my pocket, and I dug it out to see Pam was calling. Before I answered the call I reached over and turned the iPod down so she wouldn’t have to repeat herself. Pam hated competing with my stereo for my attention.

“What’s up, Pam?” I asked when I answered the phone.

“We won’t be needing the pliers and blow torch,” she sighed, and sounded exhausted.

“That’s good to hear. Just know I have them if you change your mind. Is Jessica okay?” I asked, and came to a stop when I found a picture of Sookie and me that I had forgotten about.

Just seeing her smiling face again, even if it was trapped in the eighteen-year-old version of her made me smile.

“She will be. I could try and explain it but you don’t really want to get into the complicated workings of a teenage girl’s mind,” she told me.

“No, no, I don’t,” I agreed, and I knew I sounded distracted.

“What are you up to?”

“Oh, just drinking a beer, playing pool…” I trailed off.

“You lucky bastard. Thanks for cleaning up a little before you left, though,” Pam said sincerely.

“No problem. I figured you would have your hands full with Jessica.”

“She ranted and cried for about an hour. Now she’s on the phone with one of her girlfriends, so I assume she’ll be fine. So… given any thought to that date I mentioned?” Pam asked. Of course she wasn’t going to let that go.

“Pam, I really don’t-” I started but she cut me off, in true Pam fashion.

“Whatever you’re going to say, just save it, Eric. Obviously whatever it is you’re doing to find a girlfriend you actually like for more than a week isn’t working. Besides, you know I would never set you up with someone I didn’t think you would have a real shot with,” Pam pointed out.

I sighed and said, “Fine. Fine, but if this doesn’t work, I don’t want you bitching at me for it.”

I heard Jessica calling out to Pam in the background on Pam’s end of the line.

“Fuck, I gotta go. I’ll talk to my friend and text you tomorrow with the details,” Pam said quickly and then hung up.

I set my phone aside and picked up the picture of Sookie and me. We were sitting on the gate of an old pickup truck that had belonged to my grandfather. She was wearing a pale pink summer dress and her legs were crossed at her ankles. I sat beside her in a pair of blue jeans and a white button down shirt with my sleeves rolled up to my elbows. Back then my hair was shorter than it is now. It was styled within an inch of its life, something I quickly stopped doing when I realized how much Sookie liked running her fingers through it when she kissed me.

Her head was resting on my shoulder and the sun was setting in the background. The picture had been one of the first she had taken with the digital camera that had been a graduation gift from her grandmother. It was a test shot, so to speak, just to test the timer on the camera, but the picture had turned out pretty good. Sookie had printed a copy for me, and it was one of the last things she gave me before she went away to college at the end of that summer.

But God, how great that summer had been.

oOoOoOo

Summer 2000

Sookie and I never really had one of those relationship talks about where we were going. On our first date I learned that she’d earned a scholarship to NYU and would be leaving for New York in August. That meant we would only have about two months together before she had to go. I was going to LSU. I had no idea what I wanted to study, whereas Sookie was torn between medicine and law.

I knew she was a smart girl, but I had no idea she was that ambitious. She was passionate about both things, and hoped to find a way to be able to combine them. She was excited about seeing the world outside of Bon Temps. I envied her excitement for her future, but I also knew there was a small part of her that was scared, even if she didn’t ever let it show when she talked about going away.

I’m afraid I’m going to fail,” she told me when we were walking around the lake during our first date.

I think everyone has that fear,” I squeezed her hand reassuringly.

There’s just so much at stake. I don’t mean to offend anyone who chooses to stay here in Bon Temps for their whole life, but that’s not what I want. My brother will probably finish college, come back here, get married, coach the football team and raise a family in my parents’ old house. That’s fine for him because it’s what he wants in life. Really, it’s not that I want anything big; I just don’t want my life to be confined to this place. If I come back, I want it to be because I choose it and not because I’m stuck,” Sookie explained.

That’s reasonable,” I stopped walking, and so did she.

What about you?”

What about me?” I lifted an eyebrow.

When you’re done with school, what do you want to do with your life?” Sookie asked.

Honestly, I have no idea. I’m thinking about studying business, but I don’t really know what I want,” I admitted.

You know, I kind of envy that,” Sookie said and turned toward the water. “My path was decided so long ago, and I did it to myself. I don’t blame anyone for my choices, but it’s just… if it doesn’t work out I don’t have a backup plan.”

I think you’re putting too much pressure on yourself,” I put my hands on her shoulders and rubbed them a little. “There are so many things in the world you can’t control, and new opportunities present themselves all the time… like seeing the most beautiful girl in the room without someone to dance with,” I whispered in her ear.

Sookie turned her head with a smile on her face. “Why didn’t you ever ask me out before that night? We saw each other every day for the entire school year. I never knew you were interested in me.”

Truth?” I asked and she nodded as she turned her body toward mine.

A breeze kicked up and I tucked some of her curls behind her ear. She leaned into my touch, which was a good sign. I discovered pretty quickly that I liked touching her. It didn’t have to be anything big. Just my finger brushing over her arm, or my hand on her knee… it was enough. It felt right.

It’s not that I never noticed you, because I did, I guess it’s just a timing thing. You know how you can hear a song on the radio for the first time and not really think anything of it, but then one day you hear it again and all of a sudden the words all make sense? Like it all just sinks in and you wonder how you weren’t crazy about it the first time you heard it? That’s what happened with you,” I told her and her eyes welled a little.

I think that’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” Sookie admitted.

For what it’s worth, I was afraid you were going to slap me since you were out on a date with another guy when I asked you out,” I confessed and Sookie laughed.

If I had been serious about Preston, I might have,” she told me, and when our eyes met she bit her bottom lip nervously.

I knew that signal. I’d seen it a million times before. My hand reached out and gently eased her bottom lip from between her teeth. I was pretty sure I heard her breath catch as I leaned down. She tilted her face up just right, and when my lips brushed against hers it was like touching a livewire. Her lips followed mine, and before I knew it my hands were in her hair, and hers were on my waist while we kissed.

She tasted like cherries and her hair smelled like flowers and coconut. I didn’t know it then, but that was a smell I would end up looking for, for years after Sookie and I went our separate ways. It was unique to her, and just one of the many things about her that I found myself craving pretty quickly. I’d kissed more than my share of girls by that point, but I had never felt anything like I did with Sookie.

From that night on, we were pretty much inseparable. Every spare minute we had we spent together. She was working part-time at the library that summer, shelving books and working behind the circulation desk. I started working for the parish on their road crew with Jason and a few of the other guys we’d played ball with. I was up every morning in time to meet the crew at seven, and worked until three in the afternoon. I’d go home and crash for an hour, take a shower and then meet up with Sookie if she wasn’t working.

We went bowling, hung out at the lake, drove around, partied with friends and even went fishing a couple of times. Sookie was a country girl and not a southern belle. She had manners like a lady would, but she was capable of getting dirty and baiting her own hooks. We talked a lot about the kinds of things that I didn’t usually talk about with the other girls I dated. Sookie seemed genuinely interested in hearing about my life, and I wanted to know everything about her that I possibly could.

In short, I was crazy about her.

Her eighteenth birthday came on July 1st that summer. Sookie invited me over to have dinner with her and her family. Her grandmother was a great cook, and there was no way I was going to pass up Mrs. Stackhouse’s fried chicken. Although I felt a little bad for her because between Jason and myself, we could each put away a whole chicken if we were hungry enough. It was a good night, to start with, but it only got better after Sookie and I took off to spend some time alone.

We ended up at what I had come to think of as ‘our spot.’ It was just a little clearing that was tucked away off of a back road. When we got there Sookie went to working making a little makeshift bed in the back of the truck with the spare blankets and pillows I’d tucked back there. Lying in the grass was no longer an option. There were too many bugs and neither of us wanted to go home eaten alive because of them.

Meanwhile I dug my birthday surprise for her out from under the front seat and turned on the radio in the cab before getting out of the truck and joining her in the back. She was fussing with the digital camera her grandmother had given her for graduation, and was caught completely off guard when I appeared with a silly Hostess cupcake that had a single candle lit sticking out of its top.

I’ll sing if you want, but I don’t want to torture you,” I said with a smile.

Sookie set the camera aside and smiled at the cupcake before blowing the candle out. Her eyes were closed, and I assumed she made a wish of some sort but I didn’t ask her what she wished for. She took the candle out of the cupcake and tossed it to the side. I handed her the cupcake and she split it in half to share with me. I sat down beside her on the gate of the truck, and we ate our cake.

This is the best birthday cake I’ve ever had,” she said when she was finished, and leaned over to kiss me. “Thank you for coming to dinner tonight. It means a lot to me that you were willing to do that.”

I wanted to be with you. I don’t care if that’s dinner with your family or at some silly chick flick I can’t stand,” I smirked and she elbowed me.

I’ve only made you go to one chick flick, and I didn’t even make you go. There was no gun to your head,” she said in her own defense.

The movie had been awful, but it was an excuse to sit in a dark, air conditioned room and make out for a while. I would have been a fool to say no. Besides, I couldn’t really complain. Sookie wasn’t just all about chick flicks. We’d also gone to see Final Destination, Road Trip, Mission: Impossible II, and High Fidelity. Sookie preferred comedies, more than anything else. Because she was a girl, I gathered, she didn’t mind a little romance thrown in, but it didn’t have to be like that.

Her favorite movie was Forrest Gump. My goal was to find it playing at a drive-in somewhere close enough for us to drive to before she left for school. That was one of her bucket list items, and I was determined to find a way to make that happen, even if I had to string up an old bed sheet and borrow a projector from someone.

How’s the camera working so far?” I asked her once we were done with our cake.

So far so good, I think. I haven’t taken too many pictures before tonight. There’s a timer on it that I want to try out one of these days,” she said.

Why not tonight?” I suggested and pointed to a tree stump not too far away from us. “You could put the camera there and see what happens.”

Good idea,” she grinned, kissed me and hopped off the gate.

I watched her place the camera just the way she wanted it, and then set the timer. She ran back to the truck and jumped up beside me. My hand reached for hers and she rested her head on my shoulder. Her ankles crossed, but didn’t swing like they usually would. The smell of flowers and coconut filled my lungs, and I didn’t hear it when the shutter clicked to take the picture.

I know you’re here for another month, but I want you to know right now that I am really going to miss you when you leave,” I tilted Sookie’s chin up so I could look into her eyes. “I didn’t expect to feel this way about you when I asked you to dance. I wish I would have known what I was missing; I wouldn’t have wasted so much time.”

Sookie stretched forward to kiss me, and when she pulled back she said, “Maybe it’s for the best. I really like you too, but our lives are about to go two different directions. Saying goodbye is going to be hard enough with the way things are now. Could you imagine if we’d been together for years? I don’t know if I could do it.”

I knew better than to ask her to stay. It would be for purely selfish reasons, and she had worked hard for all the things she had. I wanted her to have those things, even though I knew I was going to miss seeing her every day. Even if it was just for a couple of minutes, just being close to her for a little while made the worst day completely worth it. It dawned on me then that I was falling in love with her.

I didn’t know if I should tell her that or not, though. Wouldn’t it just make things harder in the end? We had gotten into whatever it was we had going with the understanding that when she left for school, that would be the end for us. We would be friends, but that’s all we would be. I knew there was no way I could do the long distance thing if we were more than friends, and it wasn’t fair to either one of us to put that much pressure on ourselves to try and keep our relationship going.

Maybe it would be effortless, but I doubted that was the case. We were going to be busy with school and getting acclimated to our new environments. We were going to be meeting new people and trying new things. The last thing I would want is to make a mistake and cheat on her the way her ex had, and I didn’t want Sookie to feel beholden to me when she should be free to do whatever it was that made her happy. I didn’t want her to finally get her dream, only to have strings from her past holding her back. She deserved to really grab onto every single possibility and opportunity that came her way without worrying what some boy back home was going to think of her.

So my intention was to enjoy what time we had left before she had to leave. With that decided, I figured it was best to keep it to myself that I was falling for her. I didn’t want to make leaving harder for her than it already was, even if I knew then that it was going to break my heart when she left.

We shifted back on the truck bed, and stretched out under the sky that was rapidly changing colors with the descent of the sun. Our hands were clasped together, palm to palm, with our fingers laced. I would point out constellations that were starting to peek out, and Sookie would make up stories about the clouds in the sky. We laughed a lot together. I never knew she was as creative as she was.

Just as the sky started to turn violet and then indigo, Sookie turned her face toward mine and leaned over to kiss my jaw.

Thank you for today. It was perfect,” she whispered to me.

I turned to face her and said, “You’re welcome. I’m glad you had a good birthday.”

That poor bottom lip of hers was back between her teeth and before it could get too vicious a chewing, I freed it and leaned in to kiss her. There was something different about the way she kissed me back, and it didn’t take long before she adjusted her position so she was straddling me. Her fingers nimbly went to work unbuttoning the nicer shirt I had worn for dinner with her family. I had a wifebeater on underneath it, and I had to sit up briefly so she could pull both articles of clothing off.

Making out with Sookie was always fun. We hadn’t had sex yet, but we had briefly talked about it. I knew she wasn’t a virgin, and she knew I wasn’t either. Then again, when I lost my virginity it was pretty much common knowledge around town. I had explained myself to Sookie about all of that, and she hadn’t judged me once for what I had done. In fact, she seemed to understand, and told me that if she had it to do over, she wouldn’t have given her virginity to Bill.

But hindsight is twenty/twenty, and it was too late to go back and change the past. What was done was done. I learned from my mistake, and Sookie felt like she was a little wiser, too. So there was a silver lining of some kind of what we had been through.

My hands settled on her boobs, and kneaded them a little roughly. Sookie moaned into my mouth, and rocked her hips against mine. At that point the farthest we had gone was third base, which is to say that I knew for someone who didn’t have much experience with it, Sookie gave one hell of a blow job. She’d only done it twice, at least with me, but goddamn. Being that she had only been with one other guy, and that was more than a year ago, it was pretty much like Sookie was still a virgin.

I had learned that she tasted good everywhere and that was just one more thing to be addicted to. I loved the noises she made, and the way her nails would dig into my skin, wherever they might be when she came. She was kissing my neck when I reached behind her and unzipped her dress. Sookie pulled back long enough for me to take her dress off of her, and then her bra.

Jesus,” I muttered at the sight of her breasts. I’d seen them before, and they were perfect.

She took my hands and put them where my eyes were trained, and then leaned in to kiss me again. We resumed making out, with a little good old fashioned dry humping thrown in for good measure. But then Sookie started to fiddle with my pants, and I pulled back suddenly.

What’s wrong?” she asked while trying to suck in some much needed air.

Nothing is wrong, it’s just that… I really want you. All of you, but I don’t know if you’re ready and-“

I am,” Sookie cut me off. “I’m ready. I want all of you too.”

Are you sure?” I wanted her to be sure. So sure that she was never surer of anything else in her life.

Absolutely. I even brought something,” she blushed and leaned over to grab her purse. A moment later she produced a box of condoms with a hint of embarrassment. “I didn’t want to be presumptuous, but I wanted to be prepared just in case.”

Apparently she didn’t know about the box I had stashed in the glove box in the truck for that very same reason, but it didn’t matter anymore. We were set, and I was impressed with Sookie’s initiative, although I probably shouldn’t have been. There was no doubt neither of us was ready to be parents at that point in our lives, and it was also just as obvious that we had reached the point of no return.

I’m glad you’re prepared, but I should confess something,” I rested my hands on her hips.

Okay,” she said nervously.

There’s another box of those in the glove compartment for the very same reason,” I told her. At first when she didn’t say anything I was worried she would think that was the only reason I had brought her out to the clearing, but then she smiled and I knew it was okay.

I guess that means we’ll have plenty of backup in case we need it,” she dropped the box and kissed me again.

We fell into a rhythm, my tongue massaging hers and searching every bit of her mouth I possibly could. Eventually we shifted so I was on top of Sookie I managed to kick my pants off the rest of the way since she had gotten it started for me before we moved. I kissed my way down her neck to her breasts, and looked up to see her watching me as I moved over her skin. She smelled so incredibly good, and there was a salty sweetness to her skin everywhere I kissed or licked her.

She giggled a little when my chin rubbed against her stomach, but I had learned pretty quickly that she was the ticklish sort, so I knew it wasn’t meant as a performance review, but a natural response. She lifted her hips and let me pull her panties off. I sucked in my breath at the sight of her fully naked and laying there just waiting for me to make my move. If I hadn’t already been painfully hard for her at that point, seeing her completely naked would have done the trick. I was never going to be able to burn that image from my memory, not that I ever wanted to.

I had decided that my secret favorite spot on her body was a little round birthmark on her left hip. It was just a tiny little dot, but anytime I kissed that spot her body reacted to it in ways I wouldn’t have expected. My fingers grazed their way up her legs, and over to her inner thighs. My eyes took in everything they could, and I did my best to memorize every single detail of her, from the way her hair naturally parted itself just a little to the right, to the slight dimple in her chin, the dip where her collarbone met her neck and then those curves… those glorious curves that I could spend a lifetime exploring and still feel like it hadn’t been enough time.

Her thighs parted for me and my fingers brushed against her already slick center, Sookie reached up and pulled my face back to hers, and she kissed me while my fingers did exploring on their own. Her hips shifted and adjusted accordingly with the movement of my fingers, and when I slid one of them inside her, she moaned while she kissed me. I took it slow, knowing we had plenty of time and I didn’t want to rush things and hurt her in the process.

I didn’t know much about sex back then, and neither did she. My father had given me the sex talk when I was twelve and he caught me looking at one of his Playboys. The whole thing was embarrassing, at the time, but that conversation stuck with me. Dad wasn’t mad at me for being curious, and really, it wasn’t like I was the only boy my age with the same questions going through his mind. He explained some of the finer things about the differences between boys and girls, but I didn’t get the real sex talk until just before I went on my first date.

I don’t think Dad was expecting me to score my first night out, but it was educational nonetheless. The most important thing he’d told me was not to go too fast. He told me it was always better to follow the girl’s lead because she would always let me know when she was ready for more. He’d been really disappointed in me when I confessed what had happened with Dawn, but I think he also understood the kind of pressure that had been put on me. All the same, I knew it was up to me to rise above it and do the right thing.

For Sookie, I would do just that. I cared about her too much to be a greedy bastard. So I waited for her cues to tell me when to press on, and where to put my hands or lips on her body. Guys in the locker room at school talked about g-spots and all the crazy things that could happen when a girl had an orgasm. It was always easy to spot which guys were full of shit because they were always the loudest talkers about all of these experiences they claimed to have. My guess was that it was probably stuff they had seen in porn, or maybe something they’d heard from another friend of theirs, but most likely not something they had actually experienced themselves.

Whatever the case was, I knew there was a lot for me to learn, and I was looking forward to learning some of that stuff with Sookie’s assistance. My fingers pumped in and out of her slowly, occasionally twisting or scissoring a little bit to stretch her. I knew I was on the right track when her hips started to move in time with my fingers, and her nails dug into my shoulders.

Eric, please…” she whimpered, her breath hot and moist against my lips.

Please what?” I nipped at her neck and she moaned again.

Go faster,” she said breathlessly, and I did what she asked.

Her moans got louder and I felt the fluttering of her muscles as they started to contract around my fingers. When my thumb rubbed against her clit she cried out, and a few seconds later she was clawing at me while she rode out her orgasm. There was that dorky sense of accomplishment that came with watching the way her face changed when she came. Her eyes squeezed shut and her mouth was open; her back arched and for a moment she couldn’t breathe. Then all she could do as she came down was pant while her eyes fluttered open again.

That was the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen,” I told her, and then quickly covered her mouth with my own. I kissed her deeply and continued to finger her for a few seconds before pulling back so I could taste her.

Sookie reached over and grabbed the box of condoms while I licked my fingers. Goddamn, she tasted good. She freed one of the packets from the box and tore it open before handing it over to me. I wasn’t a pro at the whole condom thing yet at that point, and if I’m being completely honest I was also a little nervous, which didn’t help matters at all. If Sookie noticed that my hands were shaking she was cool enough not to say anything about it.

Once the condom situation was taken care of, I repositioned myself so I was between her thighs and braced myself on my hands on either side of body. My hips dipped and I rubbed against her, making both of us groan. When she reached down and wrapped her hand around my dick to put it where she wanted it, I found myself trying to think of anything other than what was actually happening so I didn’t embarrass myself.

Are you ready?” I asked her just to be sure when I knew I was right there at the Promised Land.

Sookie nodded and said, “Just go slow.”

I will, I promise,” I lowered my mouth to hers and kissed her again.

Slowly, I started to push into her. I knew it was going to be a tight fight, but Jesus. I took my time, and tried one trick of the trade that I knew actually worked—rubbing her clit while I pushed in a little farther. She cried out, but in a good way, and her knees came up a little higher which also helped me get deeper inside her. Sex was still a relatively new thing for me at that point in my life, so just the fact that she was willing to do it already made her the coolest girl I knew in that moment.

The fact that she was just as into it as I was made it better, but must importantly, I knew she cared about me. Maybe not as much as I cared about her, but I wasn’t keeping score. The point was that we were both there, in the exact same moment, and when our eyes met I knew she was right there with me. For that one split second, I knew we felt exactly the same, and that was all I cared about. I waited for what felt like an eternity once I was as deep inside her as I could get, and hoped to God she moved her hips soon or I was going to finish before we even really started.

All that warmth and tightness, to say nothing of the way her chest rose and fell with every breath that escaped those swollen-from-too-much-kissing lips of hers, and I wasn’t going to last long. I hoped like hell that I would at least surpass the minute mark, but there wasn’t a guarantee back then. Thankfully, her hips moved, and I knew that was my cue to get going. I kept it slow and steady since her body hadn’t fully adjusted quite yet.

I don’t know how I managed to last as long as I did, but I still came before Sookie. I didn’t want to, and I tried to hold back but my body just wasn’t going to cooperate with my head. I didn’t leave her hanging, of course, but I figured it was just grounds for us to try again if she wanted to. There was no way in hell I would turn it down if she suggested it, that’s for damn sure. Hell, just getting rid of me after that was going to be a serious problem for her.

After getting rid of the condom, I’d settled on my back and Sookie rolled into my side. My arm closed around her and her leg rested on top of mine. Stars were shining brightly in the night sky overhead. We were quiet for a while until I broke the silence with the intention of apologizing to her, but the second the words ‘I’m sorry’ left my mouth she covered my lips with her finger.

You have nothing to apologize for. That was great, Eric,” she kissed my chest.

Yeah, it was, but you didn’t-” I started, but she cut me off again.

Then that just means we’ll have to do it again and get the timing right,” she looked up and winked at me.

Marry me. Fuck New York, and all of that shit, and just stay here with me. I promise I will make it worth your while, my eighteen-year-old brain wanted to say those things to her, but thankfully my brain/mouth filter was working properly, so I didn’t say any of those things.

I like the way you think,” I said instead.

Good, because that felt fucking amazing,” Sookie climbed on top of me. “Wanna do it again?”

Just so you know, for future reference,” I pulled her mouth to mine, “the answer to that question is always going to be yes.”

What a lucky girl I am, then,” she smiled against my lips, and then kissed me.

oOoOoOo

Present Day

I stared up at the ceiling fan as it turned slowly, counting the number of revolutions it made in a minute. I found myself wondering where Sookie was at that moment. Did she ever become the doctor she wanted to be? Was she a bad ass lawyer who busted dangerous criminals? Was she married? Did she have children of her own? I assumed she was safe somewhere in the world since I hadn’t heard anything about her dying.

I hadn’t been back to Bon Temps in a long time, and I had long since lost touch with just about everyone I was friends with in high school except for Pam. My parents had sold the house there my sophomore years of college and moved to Knoxville for my father’s job. I didn’t really have a reason to go back to town after that, so I didn’t bother. I hadn’t attended our ten year high school reunion. I wasn’t usually one for nostalgia or posterity. The only reason I would have gone was to see Sookie, but how pathetic would that have been?

It occurred to me that I could probably look her up on Facebook or something like that, but that was kind of weird too, wasn’t it? Besides, I didn’t know the first thing about how those social networking websites worked. I supposed I could have asked Jessica about it, but what teenage girl wants to help her surrogate uncle be what I knew she would refer to as a ‘troll,’ or a ‘big creeper.’

All the same, just knowing for sure that Sookie was alive and well somewhere in the world would have made me happy. I hoped that she got all of the things she had dreamed of someday having. It was hard to believe so much time had passed since the last time I saw her, and yet it was a paradox because sometimes it was hard to believe it was only twenty years. Where had all the time gone?

The moon peeked out from behind the clouds as they passed by overhead, and I wondered if somewhere in the world, Sookie was looking up at the moon at the exact same time. Hell, maybe she was thinking of me. I wondered if she ever did. Every now and then I would see a movie that we had seen together on TV. Every single time I saw Forrest Gump I thought of her, and there were certain songs on the radio that made me think of her as well. It was a lot of little things, but I wondered if that was normal, or if it meant maybe I had never really gotten over her.

By the end of that summer, I knew I was in love with her. In the days leading up to her departure, I did some serious battle with myself in regards to whether or not to ask her to stay at the last minute. In the end, I let her go because it was the right thing to do. My brain flashed on that old adage about how if you love something and set it free, it’ll come back to you if it’s yours. If it doesn’t, then it was never meant to be.

Twenty years later Sookie hadn’t come back to me. I guess I had my answer.

oOoOoOo

August 2000

I can’t believe I leave in less than twelve hours,” Sookie looked around her bedroom.

There were boxes stacked up everywhere with all the things she was taking to New York with her. I couldn’t believe the summer had gone by so fast. It seemed like after her birthday time was moving ten times as quickly. The days blurred into one another and were punctuated with her smiles, the time we spent together and all the conversations we had when we were alone.

I felt something in my heart crack, and I told myself to get it together before I started crying like a bitch. I wasn’t going to do that to her, even though I wanted to. I wanted to have a full-blown mantrum, wrap myself around her and beg her to stay.

But I didn’t.

I wouldn’t.

Come here,” I held my hand out to her and she stepped closer to me to take it. “Just because you’re leaving doesn’t mean I won’t still be a part of your life. I’m going to miss you like crazy, though.”

You know, the God’s honest truth is that there is a part of me that wants to walk away from it all and stay here with you,” Sookie said once I had her wrapped in a hug. For a minute I couldn’t breathe. Between her confession and the ball of emotion clogging my throat, it just wasn’t happening. “I know I would be happy with you, and I know I would fall head over heels in love with you. But I also know that someday I would look back and wonder what I missed by not going.”

She looked up at me with tears in her eyes while she struggled to breathe. Her hands clutched at my t-shirt as her lower lip started to wibble. All I could do was run my fingers through her hair and try to keep the stiff upper lip I knew she needed me to have right then.

It’s all about the timing, right?” I asked softly and she nodded, but then broke down. “Hey, it’s going to be okay, Sookie.”

She clung to me while she cried, and even though I was playing the role of the stronger one, I was just as broken inside as she was on the outside. I let her cry it out for the both of us, giving her all the time she needed to work through whatever was going on in her mind. There was a part of me that was glad she was having the same thoughts I was, but if I was being completely honest I was also happy she wasn’t caving and giving in to those doubts.

The last thing I wanted was for her to look back on her life and feel resentment, or like she had made a mistake. If we could walk away from this relationship still feeling good about each other, knowing it ended in a good way, I could live with that. It was better than her settling out of fear and someday realizing she hated me because I had held her back from doing what she always wanted to do.

It was going to hurt like hell, but I was going to let her go.

I have a surprise for you,” I said when her well of tears ran dry.

Eric, we said we weren’t going to make a big deal,” she said, even as she was wiping tears off her cheeks.

It’s not a big deal, I swear. This is just something I promised myself I would do for you before you left for New York. Wanna check it out?” I asked, and she nodded. “Good. Come on.”

She held my hand as we went downstairs. We left with Gran’s blessing, and I promised to have Sookie back in time to leave in the morning. The fact that she was spending her last night in Bon Temps with me instead of her family wasn’t lost on me. That was a pretty significant thing, but she had done all the goodbye stuff with her family the weekend before. The last few days had been hectic with all the last minute packing and shopping she had to do.

Sookie was driving up to New York with her grandmother in a moving van they had rented, and then once the van was turned in up there, Mrs. Stackhouse would fly back. I had even agreed to pick her up from the airport since Jason had already gone back to Texas and I wasn’t leaving for Baton Rouge for another ten days. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself for the remainder of the time I was in Bon Temps, but I suspected I would be seeing Mrs. Stackhouse pretty often.

The one thing we had in common was Sookie. More to the point, we were both going to miss her more than either of us knew.

Where are we going?” Sookie asked once we were in the truck and headed for the surprise destination.

You’ll see,” I wasn’t giving her any details. She was just going to have to wait and see what I had planned.

We passed the time while I drove with the music cranked up and Sookie singing along with one pop song after another. Like me, she was an awful singer but she was the kind of girl who sang like no one was listening, and in my estimation that made her beautiful. The fact that she danced in her seat made her adorable and sexy as hell. I couldn’t wait to see the look on her face when we got across the border into Arkansas.

Eric, why are we going to Arkansas?” she asked when we croseds the state line.

I told you, you just have to wait and see,” I reached for her hand and kissed the back of it.

Sookie huffed her irritation and suggested, “How about we play Twenty Questions?”

We can, if you want, but I doubt you’ll be able to figure it out from that. Just sit back and relax; we’ll be there soon,” I promised her.

Ugh, fine,” she grumbled, but I knew she wasn’t really mad.

The radio station changed all on its own and what had been a pop station became classic rock. Sookie leaned over to tune it in better and the introductory bars of ‘Free Bird’ filled the car. Sookie started to laugh, which was the opposite of what I expected. She slide over on the old bench seat and rested her head on my shoulder.

God sure has a fucked up sense of humor sometimes, doesn’t He?” Sookie snickered, and then I understood why she was laughing.

Yes, He does,” I agreed and turned my head just enough to kiss her forehead before resetting my eyes on the road where they belonged.

We were just getting to the epic guitar solo toward the end of Free Bird when Sookie realized where we were going. She sat up straight and leaned forward, like she couldn’t believe what she was seeing, and then she looked back at me with shock written all over her face. I just smiled smugly.

Are you serious? How did you do this?” Sookie asked as I pulled into the drive-in.

It wasn’t me. I’ve just been keeping an eye out,” I said.

There was a midnight screening of Forrest Gump about to happen, and Sookie was going to get to see it on a drive-in screen just like she wanted.

You’re amazing. I can’t believe you remembered I said that,” Sookie pulled my face to hers and kissed me for all she was worth as the truck slowed to a stop to wait in line for admittance. “Dammit, I don’t know how much of the movie we’re going to see.”

Why?” I quirked an eyebrow.

Because I plan on rockin’ your world at least one more time before I have to leave,” she said and squeezed my thigh.

I’ll skip the pun about going out with a bang,” I smirked, even though I had just done it in a roundabout way.

oOoOoOo

Present Day

Pam: Date is set for tomorrow night. Do *not* bitch out on me. She’ll be wearing a red dress and her hair will be up in a ponytail. Meet her at Merlotte’s in Bon Temps.

Bon Temps? Seriously?

Me: Seriously? Bon Temps? Why there?

I waited only a few seconds before getting a response from her.

Pam: Because she’s new to the area and she actually knows where that is without getting lost. Just suck it up and go, will you?

I groaned, but sent her a text back. Why we had to do this via text message was beyond me.

Me: Fine. What time?

Pam: 7 & wear green t-shirt of yours that I hate so she’ll know it’s you.

Me: You aren’t going to tell me her name?

Pam: Nope, you’ll find out tomorrow. Gotta run! Toodles!

It was moments like those when I questioned why Pam and I were still friends. I knew she meant well and that she was just trying to help, but really was it necessary to go to Bon Temps? Why there, of all places? I could have gone to wherever this woman was. There had to be somewhere closer to her house than Merlotte’s.

I hadn’t seen Sam Merlotte since graduation. I knew he opened the bar about ten years after that, but I’d never gone in there. More than likely it was the hang out for all the people we’d gone to high school with, and if I wanted to see them I would have gone to our reunion. No thanks.

Since I was going to be in the area anyway I decided I would swing by the cemetery that had separated the Stackhouse property from the Compton property and pay a visit to Adele. She had passed a few years before. I just happened to see her obituary in the paper on the day of her funeral. I thought about sending a card or flowers, but decided against it. I hadn’t spoken to any member of the Stackhouse family in more than a decade so I figured it would have been out of place if I had tried to assert myself into their lives again at that particular point.

I spent the day trying to figure out which of Pam’s friends I had been set up with since I was pretty sure it had to be someone I already knew. For a while I considered texting Jessica to see if I could get it out of her, but I knew she had a tendency to be like her mother when it came to watching me squirm. They were evil, evil women when they wanted to be.

While I was walking around the grocery store picking up a few odds and ends, I stopped when I came to a display of fruit snacks. I grabbed a box of Fruit Gushers off the shelf, and remembered a road trip I had taken with Sookie two weeks before she left home. She had been put in charge of getting together the snacks for the trip, and that was when I had learned about her love of the very snack food I was holding. She had loved them since we were children, and proceeded to show me her tongue after eating a package of them since she knew it would be bright blue.

It was the little things like that, that had made me fall in love with her all those years ago. The simple joys she found in every day life that most people take for granted. Something as simple as a fruit snack could make her unendingly happy and I admired her for that. I put the box back on the shelf and kept walking. I was inspecting a carton of eggs to check for cracks when a song I hadn’t heard in years started to play.

Prom night. The song we first danced to. It wasn’t our last dance, as it turned out, but it was the most important of all the dances we ever had since it was the one that started everything. Was it weird that all these years later I still remembered the littlest details about her?

With all the time that had passed, surely I shouldn’t be able to remember it all. But I did.

I remembered everything.

oOoOoOo

August 2000

Dear Eric,

Hello from the Big Apple! We just got off the phone, but there is something else I wanted to tell you, and I have to do it in a letter because I want there to be tangible proof of this somewhere. I want to release it into the universe, have you be able to hold onto it when you miss me. That picture of us that I took on the back of the truck? I carry it with me everywhere. I know we said that we would just be friends, and we’re both free to do what we want to do with whomever we want to do it with, but I want you to know that you’re always with me.

But that’s not why I’m writing.

I’m writing to tell you something that I didn’t have the guts to tell you before I left, and I’ve been too scared to say to you on the phone. I’m afraid that if I say the words out loud that it will change everything in ways that I’m just not ready for. Before I left home I was afraid that if I didn’t do this that I would someday regret it. Now that I’m here, doing the things I said I was going to do I can’t help but wonder if maybe someday I’ll look back and wonder if leaving you was the biggest mistake of my life.

Only time will tell, I guess.

What I want to say is very simple, and yet incredibly complex all at the same time. Here it goes…

I love you.

I love you and I miss you. Every day.

Maybe it’s not fair of me to put that out there knowing that I’m not going to give up the life that I have, but I think you have a right to know how I feel. So, there it is. I love you.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

Sookie

oOoOoOo

Present Day

I pulled into the Merlotte’s parking lot after an unsuccessful trip to the cemetery. Since I had no idea where Adele was buried it would have taken me forever to find her. I gave up after about twenty minutes of searching. If I was late for my date I would never hear the end of it from Pam, and the last thing I needed was for her to go all shrill harpy on me.

With about five minutes to spare I got out of the car and went inside. A young African-American woman with an attitude was behind the bar, and she stared at me while I looked around for the blonde ponytail that would belong to my date. Clearly Merlotte’s was the kind of place that was used to getting its regulars and not too much outsider clientele. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of gold. My head turned and I noticed a red dress to go with that blonde ponytail.

I took a deep breath and headed in that direction. As I got closer, a scent I hadn’t smelled in almost twenty years filled me, and I stopped in my tracks. No, it wasn’t possible. Flowers and coconuts. Only one person I’d ever met had that smell. Pam knew all about Sookie. They had been friends way back in the day.

This was a set up in more ways than one.

“Sookie,” I barely managed to get her name out of my mouth.

She turned her head and looked over her shoulder at me. She smiled the same smile that had stolen my heart back when I was too young to understand just how infrequently something like that would happen to me. I stood there completely frozen, all of my brain signals getting crossed at the same time. It was a good thing breathing was a reflex, or I would have been fucked.

“Hello there, stranger,” she slid out of the booth she was sitting in.

She looked amazing. I couldn’t believe Sookie was standing in front of me. All those curves were just as delectable as they had been back when I knew her. I say that only because I didn’t know her anymore. I knew the girl she used to be, but the woman standing in front of me wasn’t quite that girl. I could see the same sparkle in her eyes that had always been there, and the way the right side of her mouth lifted just a hair higher than her left when she smiled. There were a few fine lines near the corners of her eyes, and her skin carried the same golden glow it always had.

“How did you… where have you…” I couldn’t complete a thought, and the musical quality of her laughter was something I hadn’t realized I’d missed. “God, I missed that sound,” I said, and before I knew what I was doing I had my arms around her and was lifting her off the ground.

She hugged me back, and just that simple act had everything sliding back into focus. I couldn’t believe I had her in my arms. This couldn’t be a coincidence. The fact that I had been thinking about her so much in the last forty-eight hours should have been a sign to me that something big was about to happen. Pam wasn’t usually so vague about the women she was setting me up with either, but since I hadn’t really been expecting much from the date I hadn’t bothered to give it too much thought aside from guessing identities.

Eventually I put Sookie down and when I tried to slide into the opposite side of the booth, she tugged on my hand so I would sit next to her. That was fine with me. When I sat down she didn’t let go of my hand. That was fine with me, too.

“So, how have you been?” Sookie asked me, her smile never fading.

“At the moment I’m feeling a little blindsided, but in a good way. I had a feeling Pam was up to something when she suggested this date, but I’m glad she did. It’s really good to see you,” I squeezed her hand, and got a little excited when I realized her palm was sweating.

Did I make her nervous? If I did it would be great retribution for that first dance at prom.

“It’s good to see you too. I ran into Pam by chance one day when I was coming out of the nursery,” she said and my eyes went wide. “Plants. I was buying plants for my garden.”

“Oh,” I laughed nervously.

“I don’t have kids,” she said, but didn’t seem disappointed or bitter about that fact.

It surprised me, though. She had told me once upon a time she wanted a whole houseful of kids so when she was done figuring out how to save the world, she could master making the perfect chocolate chip cookie.

“Anyway, I was coming out of the nursery just as she was walking in. I did a double take and ended up following her into the store. I’m sure she thought I was insane. Eventually I caught up to her and we talked for a while. I asked about you, and she told me that you’re still living down here and you weren’t seeing anyone. I figured I would take a chance and asked her to set this whole thing up for us,” Sookie confessed.

“This was your idea?” I was impressed, to say the least.

“Well,” her eyes dropped and her smile finally faded. “After the way things ended all those years ago I wasn’t sure you would ever want to see me again.”

“Sookie,” I tilted her chin up, “things never really ended, if you think about it. We just sort of faded out of each other’s lives. We got busy with school and our lives, and…”

“It just got to be too much,” Sookie finished for me and I nodded. “Look, I can understand if you don’t want to stick around. I really just wanted the chance to tell you that I’m sorry the way things worked out the way that they did. I kicked myself for a really long time because of it. I never wanted to hurt you. All those things I said in my last letter… they were all true. I really did love you, Eric.”

There were tears in her eyes and the way she was shaking made me want to comfort her. It felt like the right thing to do, even after all the time that had passed. There was something I needed to know first.

“Did or do?” I asked her.

“What?” Sookie wiped at the couple of tears that had escaped.

“You said that you loved me back then. Do you still?” I asked, and she looked a little caught.

“I… I… I don’t know,” she finally said.

“Sookie, I never blamed you for what happened. Yes, it hurt that we faded out of each other’s lives the way we did. Sometimes I think if I had known that the way I felt about you was something that I would never find again with another person, I would have fought harder for you to stay. It would have been selfish of me to do it, but if I had known, I would have,” I confessed to her, and then realized I had never told her I loved her. I had kept that to myself for almost twenty years. It was time she knew the truth.

“Just for the record,” I turned in the booth as much as I could because I wanted to look into her eyes when I said what I needed to say. “I loved you too. I never told you because I didn’t want to make things harder for you than they already were, and I didn’t want you to feel like you had to make a choice between me and going after your dreams.”

Sookie squeezed her eyes closed and more tears fell down her cheeks. I reached up to brush them away with the pad of my thumb.

“It’s crazy. I’ve been thinking about you almost nonstop for the last two days and now here you are. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried this is all a dream that I’m going to wake up from tomorrow to find out it never happened,” I tucked some of her hair behind her ear. That same piece was always coming untucked.

“What if we wake up together tomorrow?” Sookie suggested when her eyes opened.

I smiled at her and said, “That would be a dream come true.”

oOoOoOo

2 Years Later…

It was a big day in the Northman household. Not only was it Sookie’s fortieth birthday, but it was also the day we were bringing our daughter home from the hospital. That blind date Sookie had orchestrated turned out to be the do-over we both needed, and from that day on it was like no time had passed between us. We fit perfectly into each other’s lives, and suddenly I understood how it was that Pam and Alcide were able to get married after so short an amount of time.

Sookie and I couldn’t have done it back when we were eighteen, but we were older. We were ready. Because we weren’t getting any younger we couldn’t afford to waste any time. I loved her, and I realized after that night at Merlotte’s that I had never stopped. I had buried it, and let it evolve in my heart, but I never stopped loving her. Just as important, Sookie discovered she felt the same way.

After Adele died Sookie had inherited her grandmother’s house, and the land it sat on. She had followed through on her plans, and had ultimately chosen law as the profession she wanted to study. For years she had worked as a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s office, but she had gone as far as she could there without running for office. Sookie wasn’t a politically motivated person, and came to the realization that the job was starting to burn her out.

It had completely consumed her life, and she woke up one morning to the realization that she was burning the candle at both ends for nothing. Yes, she had a beautiful apartment and a long list of impressive contacts in her cell phone, but when she went home at night she was alone. Well, not entirely since she’d gotten a cat, but she saw that as more of a cry for help than anything else—just the first step to becoming a scary cat lady that children feared.

All of her hard work, she felt, was for nothing because she had no one in her life to share it with. After doing some serious soul searching Sookie decided she needed a change. Since she had the house in Louisiana, she thought maybe she would take some time, regroup, and maybe get the house in marketable shape so she could sell it. Instead, she ran into Pam and the rest, as they say, is history.

We were married two months after we found each other again, and I haven’t regretted it for a second. There’s a part of me that wonders how much we lost by being apart for so long, but I know better than to play the ‘what-if’ game for too long. It’s too easy to assume I missed out on good things, when really, that’s probably not the way of it. Life is about balance, which means there are plenty of bad things I missed out on as well. Had we done things differently back then we could have ended up divorced and hating each other before we turned thirty.

I couldn’t live with that.

Things turned out the way they did for a reason and personally, I just considered myself lucky that we found each other a second time. Everything else was gravy.

Except for our daughter. Macie Jane Northman was born three days ago at the hospital over in Clarice. She came into the world with powerful lungs, a shock of blonde hair and legs that seemed to be fused to her chest, even though the nurses insisted she would stretch out in time. She was a little butterball, and we were immediately in love with her.

I wondered what she would think when someday she asked how her mother and I fell in love with each other, and it was a story that went on for twenty years—and even then, Sookie and I didn’t think we’d found our happy ending. We were still waiting for it to find us. An ending would suggest we were finished, and we liked to think we were just getting started. We had a lot of years to make up for, and I knew we planned to pack as much living into our days as we could.

Sookie was moving slowly since she was recovering from a c-section. Macie scared the hell out of us when her umbilical cord suddenly became wrapped around her neck. When her heart rate took a nosedive, Sookie was wheeled into surgery for an emergency c-section. The doctor had Macie out in less than a minute, and it was the scariest minute of our lives.

I never in a million years I thought I would be so relieved to hear a baby scream as I did when the doctor pulled Macie out.

“You okay?” I asked Sookie, remaining at her side as she went up the couple of stairs to the front porch.

“Why did I want a porch again?” Sookie grumbled as she took another step. “I’m fine… well, relatively speaking.”

Together we had completely renovated the old farmhouse, and it was stunning. Everything was redecorated, refinished and restyled to reflect our tastes, and somehow it worked out beautifully. There was a hint of country charm mixed in with my preference for cleaner lines and more neutral colors. The house was in the best condition it had ever been in.

I wished I could say the same for my poor wife.

“If you want to wait here I’ll take the Doodlebug inside and come back for you,” I offered.

“No, I can walk,” Sookie smiled at me, but then winced on the last step.

It was a good thing our bedroom was on the first floor.

As soon as we were in the house I set the car seat down on the couch, and much to my surprise, Sookie didn’t take Macie out of it. In the hospital she had been a bit of a Nazi when it came to other people handling the baby, but she explained it away as her protective mother instincts kicking in. She also had an irrational fear that Macie was going to get kidnapped from the hospital’s nursery by some baby-starved whacko.

“How about some tea?” I suggested once Sookie was settled on the sofa.

“I would love some,” she smiled up at me.

“Okay. I’m going to go grab the bags from the car, and then I’ll get you some tea. Holler if you need anything,” I leaned down to kiss her forehead.

“I’ll be fine,” Sookie sighed and moved some of the pillows around on the couch to make herself more comfortable.

I went outside to the car and got the bags, but there was something else I had for her in honor of her birthday. When I got back inside I set the bags down by the stairs, and then went to the kitchen to get Sookie her tea, as promised. I also happened to have a package of Hostess cupcakes in my hand. I found a package of birthday candles in the pantry with her other baking supplies, and pilfered one to stick in her cupcake.

After pouring Sookie’s tea, I lit the candle and headed for the living room. When I got there, I found my daughter sound asleep on my wife’s chest. Sookie was also asleep. I set the tea down on the coffee table, blew out the candle before I set down the cupcake and scooped up Sookie and the baby to take them back to our bedroom so she could really get some sleep.

“You’re going to throw your back out,” Sookie said sleepily, but didn’t open her eyes.

“No I won’t. You’re light as a feather,” I kissed her forehead.

“Liar,” she yawned.

I set them down on the bed, took off Sookie’s shoes for her and then kicked off my own before getting up on the other side of the bed so I could stretch out beside her. Macie’s cheeks were rosy, and she made a little sucking motion even when she slept. The nurse’s said that was a reflex, and a good sign that everything was on track. I closed my eyes, let the smell of flowers and coconut fill my lungs and reached for Sookie’s hand.

Her fingers laced with mine and she said, “We’ll share that cupcake later.”

“How did you know?” I turned my head toward hers.

She opened her eyes, looked at me and said, “Because I know you. I think I always knew you.”

I leaned over and kissed her before I said, “Yeah, I think you did, too. Happy birthday, Sookie.”

-The End-

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