A/N Yes, it's that time of year again! Here's my IWTS entry for 2013.
This story is entirely due to the lovely Thyra10 both challenging me (publicly) to write something for this year's competition, and to her beta skills being put to work on this story. So all thanks and love to her, and I hope she's having a wonderful holiday. Don't forget to check out her entry as well!
Based on the song by Aimee Mann.
Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to any SVM characters, nor to the music and lyrics of Aimee Mann.
Some days I can't do anything right.
This was clearly one of those days. I had overslept, spilt coffee on the kitchen floor and scraped some paint off the side mirror on my car when I stopped to check my mailbox. And that was all before I got to my job as a waitress at Merlotte's Bar and Grille.
Since then I'd squirted ketchup on my clean white t-shirt, dropped a basket of chicken strips, and when I tried to place a salt shaker on Maxine Fortenberry's table, I dropped it into her lap instead.
My Gran, who'd raised me from the age of seven when my parents had been killed, would have said that it was the universe's way of telling me I needed to do something nice for someone else. But in my view I just needed some more sleep. I'd been working a lot of night shifts and it was showing.
So I was glad to be working a lunch shift today, hoping it'd give me the chance to get to bed early and catch up on my sleep. Maybe I'd watch a movie first. Paint my toenails. Read a book.
And, sure, maybe that didn't sound like the most exciting things I could have done on a night off from work, but I was happy with my life. Mostly happy with my life.
I was only 27 after all. It wasn't as though things were going to be like this forever.
Right now, though, I was just pleased my shift was nearly over. I could hang up my apron and cross another day off the calendar.
I was out the back, gathering some more napkins from the storeroom when my boss Sam Merlotte, owner of the bar, called out to me. "Sookie! Hey, you got a visitor out here."
That brightened my mood a little. As it was afternoon it might be my friend Tara, come in for a glass of sweet tea and accompanied by her six month old twins. Or it could always be my sister in law Michele, with news of how her own pregnancy was going.
But when I got out to the bar, arms full of the napkins I'd just gathered, I found the last person I'd expected to see.
Well, maybe she was the second-last person I expected to see, anyway. But it was shock enough. "What are you doing here, Pam?" I asked her. She was sitting at the bar as if she belonged there, which at…what was she now? 13? No, 14. At 14 I sure hoped she wasn't that used to spending her time perched on a bar stool.
Pam shrugged in an off-hand way, like our crossing paths was a complete surprise to her. "I just stopped by," she said. And then she grabbed a handful, a large handful, of peanuts from the bowl on the counter and crammed them into her mouth in a none too ladylike fashion.
"Are you, uh, hungry?" I asked her.
"I could eat," she replied, not making eye contact with me.
"Well, come on over to a booth. I'll get you a menu." I put the napkins down on the shelf behind the bar and watched as Pam climbed down off the barstool and picked up a black and neon pink backpack which looked like it was bursting at the seams. That backpack gave me an uneasy feeling. What 14 year old turned up over an hour's drive from her home carrying what looked like all of her belongings?
A 14 year old who needed a free meal, clearly. "I don't need a menu," Pam said, when I brought one over. "I just want a burger and fries and a Coke." She sounded a little imperious when she said that, but then she clearly thought better of it. "That's OK, right?" Her face creased and for a moment she looked like the little girl I'd first met five years earlier.
"Yeah. That's OK. It'll be my treat."
"Cool," Pam replied with studied nonchalance. And then she flicked her hair out of her eyes, hair which used to be a beautiful silver blonde, and was now a muddy brown with almost-white roots showing. She studied her nails which were each painted a different colour of chipped nailpolish, and ignored me.
I left to place her order. On my return with her Coke, she was simply staring out the window and didn't thank me when I placed the glass down. I wanted to remind her that manners were free, but I wasn't her mother and it wasn't my place. I wasn't anything to Pam. I was just some woman she'd met long ago when I was her father's girlfriend.
At least, that's what I'd thought I'd been. Maybe I hadn't. But I didn't want to dwell on what had happened with me and Eric Northman.
So I did what I'd been practicing for the last three years. I didn't give Eric another thought.
When I brought her the burger she started eating almost before the plate touched the table surface. I'd wanted to ask her what was going on, but maybe I'd wait until she'd finished.
Whatever it was, it didn't seem good. "That's Eric's kid, right?" Sam asked me, when I went back to the bar.
"She waiting for her dad?"
"Um. Hope not." That would be one more surprise than I'd really want. "Far as I know, he's still in Oklahoma City. I can't imagine that he'd turn up here in Louisiana." Sam nodded, but didn't comment, which I appreciated. I'd had enough sympathy when Eric had left. Poor Sookie who'd always be a spinster now; she was a well-known object of pity in our little town of Bon Temps. Possibly in the whole parish. For all I knew they were talking about her from Jackson to Dallas.
But I didn't want to be her anymore. Her life sucked.
Of course that didn't solve the mystery of why Pam was here in the middle of the afternoon. When she had nothing but a few fries left on her plate, I walked over and sat opposite her in the booth.
"So, Pam. What's up?"
"Nothing." She ate another fry.
"Um…you're not in school today?"
"OK." Again, she wasn't my responsibility so I was hardly likely to berate her over non-attendance. But at the same time, ditching school and coming out to Bon Temps didn't seem like she was up to anything that was going to end well.
"How'd you get here?" I asked her.
She shrugged. "I got a ride."
"What's it to you?" Pam's pale blue eyes flashed with the sudden challenge to my questions. She was like a stray cat that'd take the food you left out for it, but wouldn't let you pet it.
And she wasn't my pet anyway. Or kid. She was Eric's. And Karin's.
I didn't want to be involved in her life. I didn't know her. I'd studiously avoided trying to be any kind of step-anything to her when I'd been with Eric. I'd only met her a handful of times, and she'd mostly stared at me warily and clung to her dad. I didn't have kids of my own, and I didn't know what to do with someone else's.
I really wanted her to leave.
"Does your mom know where you are, Pam?"
She shrugged. "She's away from home anyhow."
"She is? Where the hell is she?" I probably should have worked a little harder to keep the anger out of my voice when I asked that, but I couldn't. Eric's ex-wife Karin had always been a little flaky, and I knew she'd tested Eric's patience at times, but I didn't think she was someone who left her daughter at home alone.
Of course I barely knew the woman. Guess you can be wrong about people all the time.
"Jackson. I think. I don't know whereabouts exactly. She went Sunday night and she ain't back." Pam didn't sound all that worried, but it was now Wednesday and I would have thought Karin would have surfaced by now.
"You call your dad?"
"No." Pam sounded like that was the last thing she'd ever do. "Mom'll be back…I just…um…" Pam picked at her cuticles for a moment. "Can I crash with you?"
"With…me?" I was so surprised by the question that I didn't even think about trying to hide the surprise from my voice, but I probably should have as Pam's face fell, although she made a good try at hiding her disappointment.
"Well if you don't want me, that's cool. I've got some friends I could crash with."
"I didn't say that, Pam. I'm just surprised is all. I mean, I've hardly seen you since…" I trailed off.
"Since Eric left? Yeah. Well, that was awful shitty. I mean, I thought he liked you." Pam shrugged, like she couldn't figure her father out.
That made two of us.
"Yeah. So why pay me a visit now?" I asked.
"Oh. Well. Maybe I thought you liked me." Pam stopped looking like a sneering teenage girl and, just for a moment, looked like the little girl with the big blue eyes I'd first met. The one who'd tolerate me but whose face lit up when she saw her dad. I wondered when she'd last seen him.
"I do, Pam. I just…" She wasn't my responsibility, I had a job and I couldn't be looking after a teenager. But she was a fourteen year old girl who seemed to have been abandoned by her family.
I sighed. What else could I do really?
"OK. Well, wait here until I finish my shift. Don't go anywhere! We'll try to get this figured out."
Pam looked a little happier and I stood up to go back to work. "Sookie?" she said, and I stopped in place. "Can I get another Coke?"
"Oh. OK." I picked up her glass to go to the bar.
Pam spent the next hour playing with her phone and writing in what I guessed was her journal. I was a little worried about her and a lot worried about what I was going to do with her and Holly, the other waitress on, picked up on that. "She, uh…a cousin?" she asked, as she watched me staring at the back of Pam's head again.
"Um. Ex's daughter."
"Oh. Well, you're awful good taking care of her for him."
"Yeah. I guess." I didn't feel like an awfully good person, though. I felt like an awfully put-upon person, which was something I never liked, and something I'd never liked about Eric. At times it had seemed like he'd felt entitled to flit in and out of my life, like I was only there at his convenience.
Sure, he'd had good points too. But I wasn't going to think about them right now. I'd learned a while back it did me no good.
When my shift was over, Pam followed me to my car, carrying that backpack that looked far too heavy for her. She climbed in and sat the bag on her lap, and then stared out the window on the whole drive back to my old farmhouse set at the end of a long gravel driveway. She didn't say anything and neither did I.
Inside my house though, was a different matter. "I forgot how old everything is here," Pam said, looking around the living room. She was right, my belongings had been collected by about a hundred years' worth of Stackhouse's who'd lived here before me, right down to my Gran who'd passed when I was 20. Very little of what Pam could see had been bought by me, but I kind of liked that. I liked that I had the connection to the people who weren't around anymore. I didn't have much family, only my older brother Jason and his wife Michele, so I'd settle for the things they'd all left behind.
"No wonder he liked you," Pam commented. "You come complete with all the old shit he likes."
"Antiques," I said, automatically. Eric dealt in antiques. And possibly Pam wasn't wrong. I'd met him when he'd bought a pie-crust table out of my attic. When I'd asked him here to have a look at the belongings gathering dust up there, the table wasn't one of the things I'd actually intended to sell, but Eric had talked me into it. Some days I wasn't sure what I regretted more, letting Eric have that table, or my heart.
One I'd never see again and the other lay trampled in the dust somewhere between here and Oklahoma.
OK. Maybe that was a little melodramatic. It was more a case that I'd shut the door to my heart when Eric had left and I hadn't opened it up again to see if my heart was indeed still there. For all I knew, I was just left with a big black hole.
"Yeah. Like I said. You have a bunch of old stuff." Pam didn't seem impressed, which was something I was mostly used to from my guests, but I did think a little gratitude might not have gone amiss.
"Well, I'll make up the spare room across the hallway from mine for you." I started to walk out to the linen closet in the hall for fresh sheets. Pam followed me.
"I can't stay upstairs?" she asked.
"I don't use upstairs. Not for just me. It ain't worth opening it all up."
"But I'm here now…so?" Pam sounded hopeful. I pulled a set of sheets out of the closet.
"I think you'll be more comfortable in this room." And, I added silently, it's not like you're moving in. At least I hoped that was the case. I was beginning to regret just bringing her home with me. What if Karin never reappeared? Would I be able to find Eric, let alone make him come out here and get his daughter?
Would I want to?
Pam sneered in a way which made her look uncannily like her father, and then watched me put the sheets on the bed. I was having an internal debate with myself about broaching the subject of contacting Karin. In the end I decided it was a must.
"So, uh…do you wanna call your mom?"
Pam shrugged. "She knows I'm OK."
"When did you last speak to her?"
"Oh. Monday? She's, uh, she went off with this new guy she's got. Well she's working for him, but she thinks it'll be somethin' else. Soon. I dunno, though."
"What's he like?"
"Alcide? He's kind of a douche."
"But other than that…he's OK. I mean…to you?"
Pam sighed and sat down on the bed. "He doesn't do nothing to me, if that's what you mean, Sookie. Anyways, he don't come around much. I think it's mostly in Momma's head. Mostly they just work together, I think."
Karin's romantic delusions aside, I was worried about Pam, and about the world she lived in. She might act like she could take care of herself, but it didn't take much to see just how vulnerable she was living with a mother who'd take off with guy on a whim. Working for him or not, she had a responsibility to Pam.
"So, let's call her, and see what's up," I said, sitting down on the bed next to Pam.
She bit her lip and looked to the side. "I don't wanna. She'll be mad that I left."
"But she couldn't have expected you'd just stay there? Alone?"
"Yeah…but, uh. There's a neighbour-lady who was checking on me. And, uh, well see the landlord, he's been trying to get us out and Momma said I had to stay there to make sure he didn't just throw our stuff into the street or nothing, but we was a little low on food…and I got bored. It sucks being by yourself the whole time." Pam looked a little ashamed, and I felt bad for her. I'd spent enough time rattling around my house by myself to know how that felt.
"I think you should call anyway."
Pam looked at me, her mouth a hard, tight line. "Well, you can call her, but I ain't gonna."
"Fine. What's her number?"
Pam got her phone out of the backpack she'd left in the living room and scrolled through the menu. "Here you are," she said, holding it out to me. I punched the numbers into my phone and waited. Pam left the living room, clearly not sticking around to find out if her mother was angry with her.
After a few moments Karin's voice answered, sounding tremulous and far away. "Hello?"
"Oh. Hi Karin. It's Sookie. Stackhouse."
"Oh. Sookie. I ain't talked to you in an age." She made it sound like we were old friends, and we were far from that. "This about Eric?"
"Pam? What's she gone and done?"
"Well, she's here. With me. I just thought…" Karin cut me off.
"I told her to stay put. I'm in Jackson, but I'm coming back real soon. I am. But my car broke down, and I ain't got the cash to pay for repairs and I'm real sorry, but things are kinda tight."
"OK. Well, what about the guy you're working for? Shouldn't he be helping you to get back?"
"I ain't gonna ask him and let him know I'm poor. He just…he wanted me to get some things for him, and I did. But now he's gone on to Baton Rouge and I'm kinda stuck here. Of course if I could find someone to lend me the money then I could get back real fast…" Karin let that one hang.
"Karin, I really can't help you." Lending Karin money was a bridge too far in my book.
Karin sighed audibly. "Well, I don't know when I'll be back then." She sounded real peevish about that.
I knew I was going to regret the next question out of my mouth, but I asked it anyway. "What about the money Eric's been sending you for Pam?" When Eric and I had been together, well, as together as we ever were, I had tried real hard to keep out of all the personal stuff between Eric and Karin. But I did know that he sent her money every month, no matter how much he sometimes resented it when things weren't going so well for him and he'd had to work doubly hard just to make enough to get by. And I was annoyed that I was stuck here with Pam while Karin was playing the poor card over in Jackson.
"Well that all dried up when he came back," Karin said.
"He's back in Shreveport." She gave a little laugh. "Guess you didn't know, huh? Not that he's been to see us or nothing, but I got the message that money's tight for him, so it's tight for me too now. Asshole. It sure is real nice how all of his problems land on my doorstep."
I could say the same thing, but I was having trouble adjusting to the fact of Eric having moved back to Shreveport. Karin kept talking though. "I guess you could always try to track him down and tell him he's gotta take Pam. Pam won't thank you, Eric probably won't thank you, but she'd be outta your hair. And, believe me, Sookie. I know that Pam's not the best company at the moment. Who'd have a teenager, right?"
I thought about the way Pam had sneered at my belongings, and her general lack of gratitude. I couldn't entirely disagree with Karin.
"She's still a little young to be home alone," I said.
"Phfft. I wasn't much older than Pam is now when I moved out on my own, and I turned out all right." Well, we could argue that fact, but now wasn't the time for pointing out that Karin's own teenage pregnancy was likely to be repeated by the next generation if she maintained this attitude.
"Well, fine. Look, Karin. I'll keep her for now, but only for now. I ain't…" I stopped for a moment, wanting to make this as crystal clear as possible. "She's your kid and you have to come back for her, you hear? I ain't keeping her forever."
On the other end of the line Karin was saying something that was possibly a thank you, or maybe just more complaints, but I was too busy looking at Pam who'd come back into the room. She was staring at me, and her big, blue eyes were shiny with tears.
Oh hell. She'd heard me and now she thought she wasn't welcome. I said goodbye to Karin and disconnected the phone. Then I gave Pam my best apologetic look. "I've told your mom you can stay," I said.
"I heard," Pam said, in a flat voice. "But when do I have to go?"
"Well. When your mom gets back."
Pam shrugged. "I don't suppose she's exactly hurrying."
"Her car broke down."
"That car's a piece of shit. I don't think it can be fixed."
"Well, that's beside the point. I'm sure she'll make it back."
Pam gave me a long, hard look. "Glad you are." She turned and walked back to the room she was staying in, backpack in hand and I let her go.
Karin was right. I wasn't cut out for dealing with a teenage girl.
I made us some spaghetti for supper, and then I called Pam to come and eat. She eventually appeared, wearing earphones, which she only reluctantly removed when I asked her to.
This wasn't going at all well. "So, uh, your dad's back?" I asked, as we ate.
Pam poked her spaghetti. "I guess. That's what Momma says."
"So you ain't seen him?"
"Nope. And he ain't called me in months."
"You… uh. You want to try gettin' hold of Eric?"
"Why?" Pam asked sharply. "So you can hand me over to him? Guess you didn't really mean what you said then, tellin' Momma you'd keep me. You just want to use me to see him again, don't you Sookie?"
"No." For the simple reason that I wasn't sure I could withstand seeing Eric again. I didn't want to open that door, I didn't want to find out what happened when I looked into that big, black hole he'd left where my heart should be.
Nope, I was fine as I was, thank-you very much. Fine living an Eric Northman-free existence.
"So why bother him then? He don't bother none about me." Pam shrugged like she didn't care about that. But she did care, you could see it in the tight line of her jaw.
"Because he's your father," I said. "And, you know, he's got a responsibility to you."
"No, he don't. He got a responsibility to pay my momma, and he ain't been doin' none of that. He means nothin' to me." Pam got up from the table and disappeared.
I cleaned up our dishes and mulled over what to do next, and then, after much deliberation, I got my phone and I called the last number I'd had for Eric. I did it quickly, before I lost my nerve.
It was disconnected. So there went that line of inquiry.
Before I went to bed I knocked on the door of the spare room and checked that Pam was OK. She had the earphones in again and didn't take them out. "We'll have to leave early in the morning," I told her. "So I can get you to school."
"I ain't goin'."
"Yeah, you are Pam. My roof, my rules. School is a must. We leave at seven forty-five."
Pam turned away from me and faced the wall, but I think she heard me.
The next morning we set off ten minutes later than planned. I'd had to have two cups of coffee to get myself moving. Pam had had three, despite my objections. Apparently Karin let her have all the caffeine she wanted and she announced that she wasn't being treated like a child in my house.
I decided I wasn't going to win all the battles and at least I was getting her to school. I hoped she'd stay there.
All the way to Shreveport Pam fidgeted; her leg bounced, her fingers drummed, she checked and re-checked her phone. I hoped that this was the effects of the caffeine and not something else, something related to school, or peer pressure or, heaven forbid, boy troubles.
I really, really didn't want to know if it was boy troubles.
"Text me so I have your phone number," I said to her, as we travelled along the highway in the direction of Shreveport.
"In case." I didn't want to spell out that I was little worried that she'd disappear if she left my sight, so I hoped she wouldn't press me further.
It seemed to work. Pam sighed, but she pulled out her phone and, after I told her my number, she hit some buttons on her phone. After a moment or two, I heard the tell-tale beep of my own phone.
I located the school from some rather half-hearted directions from Pam. When I pulled up at the gate she got out of the car and gave a small wave behind her. "See you at three!" I called, but I didn't get an acknowledgment.
And then I drove off, with no clear plan for the rest of my day. On a whim, I decided to drive past Eric's old house…just because.
It was something I'd studiously avoided doing in the three years since he'd left for Oklahoma City with a woman called Freyda who had an interest in antiques and had promised him his own store. Here, in Shreveport, he'd bought and sold out of his garage as his father had done before him. It wasn't ever going to get him rich, but it had made him happy and who was I to judge?
But Freyda had offered something I couldn't and he'd gone. Like that. Like he'd never really cared about me at all. Maybe he hadn't. Maybe he was the one with the hole where his heart should be and he didn't care about any of us – me, Pam, Karin. We were all left behind when Eric moved on.
I got to the house and I parked on the street out front. It wasn't a fancy house, just a single-storey clapboard house like all the other houses in the street. The yard was in need of some major work now, there was garbage strewn everywhere. But parked in front of the garage was the unmistakeable sign that Eric was in residence. His Corvette.
He'd had that car when I first met him, and I think he'd had it before he'd met Karin. Whatever happened, however bad things got financially, Eric and that car seemed inseparable.
Must be nice to be that Corvette.
I had thought that I might drive off if I got to this point and had actually established he was in Shreveport. But I didn't. Instead I got mad. I couldn't really say if I was mad on my own account, or on Pam's, or maybe both. But I was fuming as I marched up to the front door and I banged on it with the side of my fist.
"Eric!" I hollered. "Eric, you open up now, you hear?" There was silence from inside the house. "I know you're in there, Eric, so you come out or I'm coming in!" That was an empty threat, but I thought it sounded good.
It had the desired effect, anyway. I heard the sounds of someone shuffling down the hall, and then the door handle clicked and the door opened.
The interior of the house was dark, real dark, and Eric blinked rapidly as the bright sunlight hit his face. I felt like doing a little blinking myself as I took him in.
He was still handsome, he was still imposing reaching six and a half feet barefoot, but he was undeniably older. He was also unshaven, his blond hair was unkempt, he was possibly unwashed and wearing only his underpants.
"Oh, hell Eric. Have you been drinking all night?" Eric shrugged but didn't answer. He didn't seem all that surprised to see me, either, which made me wonder why he thought I was here.
"I ain't here for a social visit," I said.
"You might as well come in, anyway. Bright out here." Eric turned and walked back into the house, and I followed, picking my way carefully down the hallway, trying to avoid the large pieces of furniture that were lining the walls. Claw feet are hard to see when it's gloomy.
The living room was in a real state. There were bottles and cans strewn about, old newspapers, and, always, furniture and more furniture stuffed into every available space.
Eric sat down on the couch. "You think we could open the curtains?" I asked, but I didn't wait for him to reply before I did just that. The light didn't make any of it look better, not Eric, and not the room. The darkness that had formerly engulfed us, now seemed to take root in Eric himself. Looking into his eyes was like looking into an abyss.
I sat down on a loveseat opposite Eric and waited for him to say something, but he didn't. He just threw his head back against the back of the couch and closed his eyes. That wasn't helpful.
"So, you're back then?" I said, in order to start the conversation.
Eric rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and sat up straighter. "Yep," he said.
"Maybe." Having this conversation was like pulling teeth.
"Freyda not with you?"
I wanted to ask if they'd split, but I decided that would be too personal. Sitting here, in Eric's living room, amongst the debris of I didn't know how many nights of hard drinking, with him in just underwear was honestly as personal as I wanted to get.
"You gonna see Pam?"
Eric frowned. "Pam?"
"Yeah, Eric. Your daughter. Pam. Little girl. Looks like you. Needs a dad about now."
"She's better off without me," he mumbled, and he looked at the ground.
"I would argue that ain't the case. Not when Karin's taken off to Jackson and left her."
Eric looked at me sharply. "She did what?"
"She left Pam. And then Pam turned up at my work. And now I have Pam, which seems a shame when she has a perfectly good father who, fortuitously, is now located right here in Shreveport."
"Thanks for taking her. I'll, uh; I'll call Karin when she gets back. Tell her she's a shit mom."
"Why don't you call Pam, Eric?"
Eric didn't answer that, which I took to mean Eric didn't want to answer that. Instead he stood up. "You want a drink?"
"Not this early." That didn't seem to stop Eric, as he walked into the kitchen and came back out holding a can of beer, which he opened and took a long drink from.
"Well, I can't stay," I said. I wouldn't stay. I didn't want to stay to watch Eric drink himself into an early grave.
Eric looked at me then. "Please," he said. "Please stay, Sookie."
"Why? What for? You got your beer, you don't need me." I stood up and slung my purse over my shoulder.
I tried to walk back into the hallway, but Eric blocked my path. Up close he didn't smell none too fresh but, even so, my heart started drumming out a faster rhythm.
So it was still there after all.
"I've always needed you," he said, and that just made me mad all over again.
"Oh, bullshit Eric! That's low, and you know it. You were more than happy to leave here three years ago, to leave me, and leave all of this behind. Now you're back, for whatever reason, and you think you can pick up where you left off? Well, you can't. That bridge has been well and truly burned."
Eric's dark blue eyes flashed with anger. "You act like I'm the bad guy. I'm not the bad guy in all of this Sookie."
"I guess it depends on who's telling the story."
"Why? Because in your version it doesn't matter that you never thought I was good enough for you? That you never gave us a real chance? You never, ever trusted me not to break your heart. Admit it, Sookie. Admit it, for once and fucking all. You always thought I was going to leave you, didn't you?" Eric had leaned right over me during this exchange and to anyone else he might seem a little scary. I wasn't scared though. I was never going to be scared of what Eric might think of me again.
"Well, you did. So I sure as hell don't see what that proves, Eric. Proves I was right, maybe, but it don't change anything. You still left me."
"You weren't mine to leave, Sookie. You were your own, and you fucking know it."
This was not getting us anywhere. I knew deep down that no matter how good it felt to be hurling these insults at Eric right at that moment, later on I'd feel the pain of all the raw wounds it had opened up. How dare he say I hadn't given myself to him?
I had. I had loved him so much. But I wasn't stupid. I knew when we started that a twenty-two year old waitress and a thirty-one year old guy with a checkered work history and an even more checkered relationship history didn't stand much of a chance. And re-hashing it all now wasn't going to bring what we had back.
And it sure as hell wasn't going to help Pam.
"I don't want to argue with you, Eric. We've done enough of that in the past. I just want you to give Pam the attention you owe her. Make sure that you don't burn all your bridges with her."
"Like I did with you?"
"I'm here, ain't I? I wouldn't be here if…" I stopped. Why was I here again?
"If you didn't care for me, a little?" Eric asked, smiling rather than snarling at me.
"I care about your relationship with Pam. I didn't have a daddy, not by the time I was Pam's age, and I'd hate for another girl to lose hers."
Something dark crossed Eric's face. He'd had a troubled relationship with his father, the details of which I'd never pressed him for and he'd never offered. But he had, from time to time, said that he was going to make it different for Pam. Somewhere along the line, sometime around the move to Oklahoma, he'd lost that desire.
I really wanted him to get it back.
"So, tell me Eric," I said. "Why are you back if not for Pam?"
"My circumstances have changed," Eric said darkly. He set his beer can down on the coffee table, and turned away from me.
"You split from her?" I tried to sound neutral when I asked, that. Eric's romantic relationships weren't really any of my business these days. But I pretended that I was asking so Pam would know if her dad was going to be around, or not. I hoped I was good at pretending.
Eric shrugged. "I guess."
"She won't come here, try to take you home again?"
"It isn't my home. And she's busy anyway. She's pregnant."
I took in a deep breath and bit my tongue. It wasn't my place to comment on that. And then I re-thought it. If I didn't tell Eric a few home truths, then who the hell was going to?
"So you're gonna leave another woman with another baby, Eric? How many kids in how many states you fixin' to have by the time you're done, huh? Is that the problem, did you just replace Pam so you don't need her anymore?"
Eric turned around quickly. "It isn't mine," he said. And then he picked up his beer again and walked into the kitchen.
I put my purse down and I followed him, worried about what he might do. I found him bracing himself against the counter-top. "That's rough," I said from the doorway.
Eric shrugged, but kept his back to me. "She never really wanted me, anyway," he said.
I wasn't sure how to answer that. I wasn't Freyda, and I wasn't about to be tried in her place for her crimes.
I walked over to Eric and rubbed his back, which felt more intimate than I would have liked due to the fact I was touching his bare skin. Memories came flooding back, memories I would have rather forgotten.
Turns out that a hangover, several day's beard growth and a lack of personal hygiene on Eric's part hadn't dampened all my desire for him.
I guess Eric was doing some reminiscing of his own too. "I remember when you wanted me," he said. "You wanted me so much we had sex right here on the kitchen floor."
"That was another lifetime, Eric."
"Was it?" Eric turned to face me and I dropped my hand away from him. "Because it doesn't feel like it was. You did want me."
I couldn't deny it. I nodded.
"Would you…" he paused. "Would you have had my baby?" He looked a little lost, and I could see in his eyes how much his pride had been hurt. How much he wanted me to throw myself down and say I would have done anything for him.
But I couldn't re-write the past. Or I wouldn't, anyway. "You never asked," I said gently. It hadn't seemed a part of our agenda. He had one kid already. I was young. It had never really crossed my mind.
"If you'd wanted, we could have. We could have had everything; kids, a house, a dog. Everything, Sookie." Eric sounded so earnest, I almost believed him.
"Would you have really changed your life that much for me?"
Eric had travelled a lot, buying and selling the things he dealt in. Sometimes I wouldn't see him for a week or more. And he'd said to me more than once, and I knew I wasn't misremembering this, he'd said that he liked that I didn't pressure him. That Karin hadn't understood his work, that she'd wanted him home every night, that he'd felt stifled living with her and Pam and that that wasn't him. I'd wanted to accept that, tried to accept that.
I was young. And you lived and learned.
"Sookie, you never knew the half of what I'd do for you," Eric said sadly. I thought about that for a moment, and it was a moment Eric seized. Along with me.
The next thing I knew I was being pressed up against Eric's chest as he pulled me to him. My arms automatically went around his back at the same time as I realised this was not where I should be. This wasn't helping Pam, it wasn't helping me, and I wasn't even sure it was helping Eric.
Eric seemed to think it was, though. "I missed you so much," he muttered into my hair.
"You knew where I was," I told his chest. "Even Pam could find me."
Eric laughed a little at that, and I felt that old feeling come back. The pleasure I took in making him happy, in banishing those demons that he always seemed to carry on his shoulder. That was me, Sookie Stackhouse. I could do that for him, and it made me feel powerful.
At least for a moment. But then one of Eric's hands moved up my side and started trying to investigate my breast. That, combined with the fact that Eric's underpants really weren't hiding much, made me a little uncomfortable.
I stepped back and Eric dropped his arms. He gave a low chuckle. "You can't really blame me," he said. "You always did have outstanding breasts."
That was probably meant to be a compliment, but it made me feel a little like I was just another piece of furniture he was appraising. I didn't tell him that, though, lest it set off another round of us trading barbs back and forth.
We had always been combustible. Trouble was that every passionate session on Eric's kitchen floor was matched by just as many instances of harsh words followed by long silences. Eric and I didn't seem to do so well at the calmer times, and our relationship, with its highs and lows, was both exhausting and exhilarating.
Sometimes, when I looked back on it, I was surprised I'd made it through intact. And I was less surprised that I didn't want to rush back to that kind of life.
"You go and get cleaned up. Put some clothes on," I said to him. "And I'll…" I waved a hand around the kitchen.
Eric nodded. "OK." And then he left.
I did what I could around the place. I cleaned up all the bottles and cans and put them out for recycling. I wiped the dust off the surfaces, including the coffee table that always took pride of place in Eric's living room. Like the antique business, it was something he'd inherited from his dad, a beautiful piece of furniture with a pattern of inlaid wood.
I wondered if, like Eric, it had gone to Oklahoma and come back again. Or whether, like me, Eric had put it in storage for a later date.
I wasn't sure I was ready to come out of storage just yet.
Or that I ever would be.
I cleaned up the crumbs in the kitchen, and threw out some containers of mouldy Chinese food I found in the refrigerator. There wasn't any other food of note in the place, so I had no idea what Eric had been living on. A liquid diet, I suspected.
He was really not someone I should ever be contemplating getting involved with again. Let alone be having kids with. If he was a horse he'd be the last one you should bet on.
And yet I loved him. Still. And I probably always would.
But I'd decide what to do about that knowledge at some other time. Right now, because she was no one else's, Pam was my priority.
Eric emerged from the bathroom looking a lot cleaner and a little brighter, and wearing jeans and a t-shirt. "You want coffee?" he asked.
"I can't stay. Not a social call, remember?"
Eric looked a little saddened. "No. I guess not."
I picked up my purse again and started towards the door. Now there was some light coming into the hallway I could see the pieces of furniture that lined it a lot more clearly. I was almost to the front door when I saw something I never expected to see. My old pie-crust table.
I stopped in my tracks and looked at it, trying to work out if it was indeed my table. The table that once upon a time had been mine, anyway. Last time I'd seen it, it had been driving off in the truck of a guy I hoped was going to call me later in the week for a date.
Eric hadn't called. He just showed up back at my house one night and fell right into my bed. I guess we were both a little impulsive back then.
Eric followed my gaze. "The guy sold it back to me," he said. "And I had it re-polished. I was going to give it to you. Just before…" He stopped talking, but I could finish the sentence.
"Just before I found out who you were dealing with when you went on all those business trips to Oklahoma? And that you were wining and dining her while you were there?"
Eric looked at me fiercely. "I never slept with Freyda, Sookie. Not until you told me, categorically, to go fuck myself."
So he'd fucked her instead. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to think about that. "What choice did you leave me, Eric? I still had my pride."
Eric sighed. "I guess we both did. And look where it got us." He laughed a little, but without much mirth. "Looks like we failed Relationships 101."
But it didn't mean that he had to be a failure to Pam. I didn't want him to be a failure to Pam. I wanted him to do something, anything. I wanted him to move forward, to get on with his life, to prove to me that he could still be the Eric I had wanted him to be. And if not for me, then for Pam.
"Call Pam," I said to him. "Here, take her number." I pulled out my phone and I handed it Eric. He stared at it for a moment, and then he took his own phone out of his pocket and pressed some buttons.
"Can I get your number?" he asked.
"It hasn't changed. But don't call me. Call your daughter. Tell her she's got someone who wants her."
Eric looked torn. "Maybe you should talk to her first. Tell her…"
I cut him off. "Tell her what, Eric? That you mean well, but you've got nothing to give her? I call bullshit. Stop all this…just stop being such a Gumby." That had been an expression of my Gran's whenever she'd felt that someone was just blowing where the wind took them. "Stop sitting and waiting for something to happen. Pam doesn't need much. And all she wants is her dad."
"I don't know how to be that anymore. I don't think I ever did," Eric said quietly.
"Then learn. Figure it out. Do something and get out of this funk you're in. Do something before you lose her forever. Sell that damn table and buy some groceries so you can have Pam come and visit. Karin's on track to get evicted, you know that? What are you going to say to a kid with nowhere to live? If you can find her, that is. She'll be gone forever, most like. And you don't have to have much of an imagination to figure out what happens to a teenage girl with no home and no family."
Eric looked stricken. "But she's with you, now? And she's OK?"
"Yeah, but she'd be better off with you."
Eric pressed his lips together. "You have a lot of faith in me, Sookie. And I don't know why."
"I don't think I know why either, Eric. But I always did. And I guess I never stopped." I shrugged. I couldn't make sense of a lot of my feelings for Eric, they just were.
"I wish I'd known," Eric said, sadly.
"I wish you had too. I thought you did. I thought I'd proved all I had to. But it wasn't enough, was it?" Eric didn't answer that one. "We all made choices, Eric. And we all gotta live with them now. But we're the adults. Pam's just a kid."
"I know." Eric didn't seem happy about being lectured by me, and I figured he'd had enough. I knew I had.
"I gotta go, Eric. But…just call Pam, OK?" I turned and walked out the door.
Eric called after me. "Sookie?"
Eric walked out onto the porch and squinted in the sunlight. "Will you come back? And, uh, help me? With Pam?" He chuckled. "Kick my butt into shape a bit more?"
I thought about that. A part of me wanted to say yes. But I couldn't see it ending well. "I ain't your personal trainer, Eric. So, no. I'm not coming back so you'll have someone to fight. We've done enough of that over the years." And then I turned on my heel and left.
After I drove away from Eric's place I killed some time by buying groceries and then I called Sam to tell him I couldn't work the night shift that night. He wasn't mighty pleased with me, and I was a little worried about how much Pam's stay was going to cost me, both in wages and in food.
Maybe I should have taken my table back from Eric and sold it myself?
I pulled up outside Pam's school just before three and waited in the car. Most of the other students had left by the time Pam ambled over and I was starting to worry that she'd taken off during the day and I'd never find her again.
I felt like having Pam around had aged me, just in the twenty-four hours we'd been together. I was used to just looking out for myself. This constant worry about another human being was exhausting.
"What's up?" Pam asked, as she climbed into the car.
"Not much." I started the engine and pulled away from the curb. "I, uh, saw Eric."
Pam tried to look nonchalant, and failed miserably. She bit her lip and frowned. "Oh."
"Yeah." There wasn't anything else to say. I couldn't make promises on Eric's behalf. He'd hurt both Pam and me in the past and there wasn't anything to say that he wasn't going to do it again. I had faith that he'd put it right, but I wasn't about to destroy any illusions Pam had about her dad by proving myself wrong.
We drove home with Pam shut down, eyes closed, earphones in, blocking out me and the world. I wasn't sure what I expected. She didn't seem the type to cry over her situation and maybe she'd learned not to a long time ago. I realised how little I knew about Pam, this stranger who'd sought me out because she trusted me to help her and not turn her away.
I felt the enormity of that trust and, for a moment, it was overwhelming. I wouldn't let her down. I wouldn't. If Karin never came back, if Eric disappeared again, then I would look out for her. I would be her friend, because we all needed one of those.
When we got back home, Pam disappeared to the spare room and I unpacked the groceries and made some meatloaf for dinner, pretending I wasn't waiting for Eric to call. I would have thought that after doing the same thing countless times when we were together I'd be an old hand at it by now. But this was different somehow. I might not be a parent…I might never be a parent. And I hadn't had my own parents that long. But it didn't mean I didn't know what Eric meant to Pam.
And vice versa. I hoped.
Pam eventually came out and sat at the kitchen table, putting her phone down beside her, and watched me. I hoped that if Eric had called she'd say something to me about it. But then, I didn't know if we were up to confidences yet. Or really how our relationship stood at all.
"Momma don't cook much these days," she said, in the end. "Mostly we get takeout."
"My Gran always cooked for us," I told her. "I remember the first time I ever ate at the Sonic. It was a real happy day."
Pam looked at me like I came from another planet. I tried something else. "I got some peaches, want a cobbler?"
Pam shrugged. "I guess."
"Want to help make it?" I'd loved doing that with Gran when she'd been around.
"I don't know how."
"Well, go wash your hands and I'll teach you. I mean, if you like." Pam considered my offer for a moment, and then she slowly got up from the table and disappeared, reappearing a few moments later with slightly damp hands.
We worked on the cobbler for a while and didn't say much beyond me talking Pam through what we were doing. She was obviously new at cooking, but she tried hard to follow along. I had to give her credit for that.
"Daddy likes peach cobbler," Pam said, as we were almost done.
"He does," I agreed. "I used to make it for him."
Pam nodded. "He told me." Conversation lapsed.
And then the silence was broken by the buzzing of Pam's phone on the table. She turned around and frowned at it for a moment before going over to answer it. She glanced at the screen briefly, gave me a worried look, and then pressed the button. "Hello?"
I couldn't make out the voice on the other end. But Pam's smile told me a whole lot. She didn't give much away to Eric though. "Oh, hey Dad. Yeah, I'm at Sookie's. Uh-huh. Not much. Making a cobbler. I remember. I might make you one, sometime. I know how now…" She walked out of the kitchen and I didn't hear anymore.
She didn't say much about the conversation afterwards either, but she ate her dinner politely, watched some TV with me, and went to bed when I suggested it. I wondered how long the model houseguest act would last, but I decided I'd appreciate it while it was on offer.
Tomorrow was another day and who knew what that would bring.
Just as I was about to climb into my own bed, my phone beeped. I looked and there was a text message from a number I didn't recognise. It just read. Thank you : )
I felt a little warm inside when I saw that. I hoped that Eric's good feeling towards me would rub off on his relationship with Pam. Because, as I kept telling myself, this was all about her.
I decided not to reply.
I put the phone down on my nightstand, where, after a while, it beeped again. I tried to ignore its siren call and I managed to wait a few minutes before checking it. This time it read No rules about texting you, right?
I turned off the light and lay in the darkness for a while. I had no delusions about what this was. Eric had always been an opportunist. After all, hadn't he turned the simple purchase of an old table into something more?
But if I'd been impulsive then, I wasn't going to be impulsive now. I wasn't the same woman I'd been five years ago, and I doubted Eric was the same man.
I hoped, for Pam's sake, he was a better one. Only time would tell if that was true.
I thought about all the things I'd wanted to say to him when he'd left me. They didn't seem so important now. Or maybe I simply lacked the energy to care about them at this late hour.
There was no perfect message I could send him, nothing that would stop any of our future meetings being as wonderful and as heart-breaking as seeing him earlier that day had been.
In the end I rolled over, picked up my phone and typed something out. It said Goodnight, Eric.
I pressed send, and then I lay down again, closed my eyes, and went to sleep, happy that I'd at least got Eric to talk to Pam. Maybe I'd done one thing right.
Hopefully that was enough.
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