July 4, 2011 • 1200 hours/ 12:00 p.m.
“Slow down, boys!” I laughed as Jase and Hunter seemed to jet into the kitchen, grab snacks and drinks, and then zoom back into the yard.
Hadley shook her head. “I can’t believe how well Jase is doing. I mean—he went from walking to running in the blink of an eye!”
“I know,” I said, hearing the relief in my own voice. “I’ll never forget hearing he’d lost his leg—after hearing the news about everything else we lost that horrible night,” I whispered as I looked out the window.
Hadley came to stand next to me and put her arm around my shoulder. “But we didn’t lose them.”
I nodded and wiped away a tear as I watched Hunter and Jase get some of their snacks stolen by Remy. In turn, they chased him, looking—for all the world—like two happy, healthy boys.
The opposite of what they’d been in the mangled back seat of Alcide’s SUV.
Shaking myself from that thought, I gave Hadley a quick hug and then went back to chopping vegetables for the potato salad and coleslaw I was putting together. It was nice to have Hadley hanging out with me more often again. For several months after the accident, she’d kept her distance. Oh—I understood why. Her focus had been on Hunter’s rehab.
Plus, for a while, it was difficult for people to be around Jase and me and not feel overwhelming sorrow and/or pity for us. Hadley had intuited that those were the last things we needed.
However, Jase had missed Hunter, whom he’d always looked up to. It had been Captain Northman who’d taken Jase to visit his cousin in Monroe during one of his Saturdays with Jase. Without me there, it had been easier for Hadley to interact with Jase, too.
She just didn’t know how to deal with me at the time. Later I learned that she’d felt guilt for only visiting Jase and me once in the hospital. She’d not wanted to see—quite literally—what could have been if Remy had been in the vehicle, which he very well may have been if she’d not convinced him to forgo a fishing trip with the boys in order to spend a romantic weekend with her in New Orleans. And—of course—she’d felt guilty about that too—the fact that she and Remy had been initially “out of touch” when the police called them. To put it crassly, they’d been having sex at the time—the kind that was loud enough to cover up the sound of her phone, which was set on vibrate and was located in a different part of their suite. Indeed, Hadley and Remy’s newborn daughter, Katie, had been conceived that very night.
When Hadley had finally shared the origins of her guilt with me, she’d also shared how off-kilter her thoughts had been during the early months of her pregnancy—when she worried constantly that something might happen to Hunter because she’d gotten pregnant. Now—she could look back on that time and understand that her fears were fueling her irrational thoughts, but I knew that she’d gotten some counseling to work through her issues.
I looked over at the tiny sleeping bundle—named Katie after Remy’s mother. She was not known to be a good sleeper; however, she was currently napping peacefully in her little bouncy chair. Given her lung capacity (and her propensity to cry-scream), I think that everyone in the house (and the yard) was thankful for that.
“So—who all is coming?” my cousin asked.
“Tara, J.B., and Dora; Amelia and Tray; Calvin Norris and his new wife, Amy; Janice and Mike; and Lafayette and Jesús.”
“So, Lala finally decided to ask out Jesús?” Hadley asked, popping a carrot into her mouth.
I nodded. “They’ve been together for about a month now; of course, Laf’s being in the Marines makes things difficult.”
“Speaking of Marines, you didn’t say that Captain Northman was coming. Is he working or something?”
I felt my skin tingle with warmth. “No. He is actually coming—I think. I know Jase asked him to,” I added, trying to sound casual.
Hadley shook her head and chuckled, even as Tara and Amelia came into the kitchen.
“So you’re still in denial about Captain Hunkman?” Amelia asked, having clearly heard what Hadley and I were talking about.
“Shh!” I sounded sharply, both to encourage her to keep her voice down around Katie and to warn her that the topic of Captain Northman wasn’t one I wanted to address. In so many ways, he’d become the elephant in the many rooms of my house.
The elephant in my heart.
Amelia’s face took on some concern as she put down the dish she was carrying and came over to hug me.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she whispered to me. “I know why you don’t wanna let him get close to you.”
I broke our embrace in time to brush a tear from my eye.
I noticed Tara and Amelia sharing a concerned look before Tara pulled me into a hug. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t think you should be happy,” she said, demonstrating—for about the millionth time in my life—that my two best friends enjoyed tag-teaming against me.
I shook my head. I’d talked to all the women in the room before about my decision not to pursue anything with any man for the foreseeable future, let alone with a soldier.
Still—they’d all been trying—and in Amelia’s case that trying had not been subtle—to get me to “hook up” with “Captain Hunkman” (Amelia’s labeling, not mine) in order to see what happened.
“The captain and I are just friends,” I said assuredly.
“That’s not what a room says when you two are both in it,” Amelia intoned.
“What are you talking about?” I asked defensively.
“Chemistry,” Hadley said. “We’ve all noticed—whenever he’s around.”
I shook my head. “I’m not going to open that door with him.”
“Then consider a window,” Amelia sassed.
I shook my head more forcefully. “No!” I said firmly, but kept my voice down. “Alcide’s only been gone for just over a year, and I’m not gonna put myself into a position where I could lose someone else.”
“Surely you don’t plan to be alone for the rest of your life. You—quite literally like three days ago—just turned thirty-one!” Tara said.
I shrugged. “My thoughts may eventually change, but they’re not going to where Captain Northman’s concerned. Did I tell you that he’s goin’ back to Afghanistan in early August?”
“I thought he ran that training program at Bailey with Lala,” Tara observed.
“He does,” I responded. “But apparently he needs to go overseas to do field research in order to stay up-to-date. He’s told Jase that he probably won’t be where the fighting is. But he’ll be in a combat zone and also going through those damned caves over there!” I shook my head and angrily wiped away a tear. “We all know that he could get killed. One of those amputees that visited Jase last month lost his leg because of a mine in one of those caves!” I shook my head. “I won’t do it; I won’t spend my days and nights agonizing over what could be happening over there! I’ve done my time as a Marine’s wife, and I’m done with all that!” I added fervently.
Just then, Amelia and Tara’s eyes widened as they looked toward the doorway between the foyer and the dining room. I turned to follow their gaze and saw Captain Northman standing there—looking a little pale, despite the tan he’d gotten from so much outdoor training.
I gulped, not knowing exactly how much he’d heard, but knowing he’d heard enough to make me want to disappear for a few weeks.
“Captain Northman,” Hadley greeted with an awkward smile. “How are you?”
“Fine, Ma’am,” he said with a nod, after seeming to take several seconds to unlock his eyes from mine. “And you?”
“Good. Thanks,” my cousin said. “Remy, Jase, and Hunter are outside.”
“Tray, J.B., and Dora too,” Tara added.
The captain nodded. “I passed them on my way in. I was tasked with getting a supply of beer, and I wanted to drop these off.”
“What do you have here?” Amelia asked, taking a large box from the captain’s hands.
“Pies, Ma’am,” he said.
For my part, I still couldn’t say anything; my skin felt hot from a blush I was certain was quite visible—and maybe permanent.
“Pies?” Amelia asked as she peeked in the box. “They look homemade.”
“I’ve learned to bake, Ma’am,” the captain said. “I—uh—developed a taste for homemade when I was here and copied some recipes from Adele’s book. Was that okay?” he asked me rather awkwardly.
“Sure! And thanks. I’d been worried that we wouldn’t have enough desserts,” I said, trying to compose myself.
“Jason mentioned it,” he offered quietly. “They’re apple—like he likes. Well—uh—I’ll just grab those beers, if it’s okay, Ma’am.”
“Sure. Help yourself!” I said before turning back to my task of chopping. Quickly, he gathered what he needed and left through the mud porch.
As soon as he was gone, I groaned a little. “See? I’m a freaking disaster where he’s concerned!” I shook my head. “And the last thing I wanted to do was to make him feel bad about his job. It’s not his fault that I’m broken.”
“You’re not broken,” Tara comforted.
“I’m too broken to handle someone like Captain Northman,” I said with a sigh as I wiped another tear from my eye. I blamed the onion I’d chopped earlier.
“Hon,” Tara sighed, “I get why you want to protect your heart—why you’re afraid of losing another good man to a war halfway around the globe—but I think you need to be honest with yourself.”
“I am being honest with myself,” I insisted.
I noticed a look exchanged between the other three women in the kitchen.
“Won’t you already be in agony with worry when he goes?” Tara asked softly, even as Hadley went to lift up a stirring Katie.
I shook my head in denial.
“You already love him” Amelia stated, matter-of-factly. “You’ve been holding your feelings and him at arm’s length for months. I just think that you should let yourself embrace your feelings—since they’re there anyway.”
“Ames!” Tara said in a chastising tone. “Sookie needs to do what she needs to do. And we need to respect her decisions.”
“I do,” Amelia said to me. “I do respect your choices, Sookie. And I was the first to be concerned that this thing with Captain Northman and you wasn’t healthy—that it was a rebound thing or an obligation thing for all he did for you and Jase after the accident. Hell! I even worried that he might be taking advantage of your vulnerability until I came to know him better. That man loves you! And I think you love him. I just want you to be happy!”
A throat cleared from the entrance to the kitchen. I sighed heavily as I turned to see Alcide’s sister, Janice, standing there, looking none too pleased.
I closed my eyes tightly, wishing that Eric hadn’t been so damned efficient at fixing every squeaky floorboard in the whole damned house when he lived with us!
“Hi, Janice,” I greeted somewhat sheepishly.
“Is she right? Are you already moving on from my brother with that soldier?” she asked bitterly.
“No!” I responded emphatically.
“And so what if she is?” Amelia asked at the same time as I replied.
“It’s too soon,” Janice said loudly to Amelia.
I could tell that Amelia and Janice were about to get into a verbal fight. The two had never really gotten along. Janice didn’t really like Captain Northman either, always worried that he was trying to take her brother’s place—no matter what assurances I’d given her.
I quickly went over to Janice, effectively blocking her view of Amelia. “Listen, Jan, I’ve got no intentions of starting up anything with anyone. And—even if I ever did—that person could never replace your brother in my heart.” I noticed her lower lip quivering and remembered how young she was. She’d been only sixteen when Alcide and I had started dating. And she still retained the idea that everyone had a soulmate. She thought Alcide was my soulmate—and that I was his. “I loved Alcide so much,” I assured her.
“No one said you needed to stop doin’ that in order to find new love,” Amelia said stubbornly.
“Come on, Ames!” Hadley said. She was always the peacekeeper. “I don’t think Tray’s seen little Katie in more than a month—since he couldn’t be at Sookie’s birthday dinner. Why don’t we go find him?”
Amelia huffed, but left with Hadley.
I turned back to Janice. “Try not to let her bother you, sweetie,” I said hugging her.
“I’m sorry,” Janice said in a small voice. “It’s just that I still think of you as my brother’s wife.”
I nodded in understanding. “Listen, Captain Northman is here, but I don’t want you to be uncomfortable—okay? No matter what anyone says,” I commented, glancing at Tara, “I’m not going to be pursuing any relationships. So it’s not something you need to worry about—okay?”
“Okay,” she said rather meekly—all of her earlier anger gone. “You could though, Sook. You know that—right?” She paused. “You do deserve to be happy. And—if not with my brother—then with someone that will treat you right. Maybe that is Captain Northman. I know I said some things about not likin’ him here and all, but he’s a good person. Anyone could see that. You’ll always be my sister, and you deserve a good person to love, Sookie.”
I brought her close for another embrace. “That’s nice of you to say, Jan. But it’s not something to worry about right now.”
She nodded and then excused herself so that she could go help her husband, Mike, set up some fireworks they brought. We’d all be going to the town’s show at the football field that night. But—in the meantime—there were a lot of little fireworks to set up for the kids.
As long as the kids were properly supervised and nothing too powerful had been bought, I was fine with it. Goodness knows—Jason and I had set off a lot more dangerous fireworks—in the woods, by ourselves, and without Gran knowing about it—back when we were Jase and Hunter’s ages.
Four words: Unsanctioned Roman Candle fights.
Now that Captain Northman had arrived, I had to admit that I was no longer worried about anyone being hurt. I sighed. He just did that for me—made me confident that we’d all be safe in his presence.
Tara approached and put her arm around me, drawing me close to her for a moment. I was happy she didn’t say anything more about Captain Northman or my anti-love life. Instead, she just picked up some cabbage and began chopping.
In turn, I picked up another onion; it gave me a good excuse for the tears that continued to linger in my eyes as I thought about how Hadley, Tara, and Amelia were right. I really was likely already too far gone when it came to my feelings for the captain—for Eric.
Specifically, for my Eric—the man who’d shown himself to me for the first two months he’d lived with Jase and me. Before our kiss.
After that, he’d backed off and become careful around me, limiting the amount of time we spent together to the point that we were never alone. I knew he’d done that to make me feel more comfortable after our kiss, but I’d missed the lighter, freer man he’d been transforming into before I asked him to give me space. I missed his easy smiles and the sound of his laugh. He still offered them to Jase, of course, but—in pushing him away after we’d kissed—I’d lost the easy friendship we’d been enjoying.
The more than friendship—if I were being honest with myself.
I pushed that thought away. It was not the time for me to do anything about Captain Eric Northman or any feelings I’d let myself develop for him.
For Jase’s sake—as much as for the sake of my own heart—I needed to keep going on as we had been.
I concentrated on making sure that Hunter and Jason were playing with the fireworks responsibly. Honestly, I was more worried about Cal and J.B., who were a bit haphazard when it came to setting off black cats. Lafayette just rolled his eyes as the two grown men acted less mature than the actual children in the group.
As for me? Well—I’d seen too many large explosives to get any pleasure out of setting off fireworks. However, I did enjoy seeing Jason having so much fun, and some of the items were actually quite pretty when they were set off.
Still—for a supposedly patriotic holiday—the Fourth of July had been quite stressful for me. After walking into Sookie’s kitchen only to find her scoffing about the idea of caring about a soldier and making it clear that worrying about me when I was overseas was the last thing she wanted to do, I’d thought about just making an excuse and leaving.
Indeed, my body had twitched to run from the house—to replay one of the routes that had become so familiar to me when I’d lived there. On a run, I knew that I could allow myself to experience my feelings—both the good and the bad.
Yes—I’d wanted to leave. To run.
But one look at Jason’s excited face had helped me to reestablish my priorities. And—then—once the fireworks had been pulled out, I knew that I couldn’t leave. If I did, I would have worried about the boys being hurt.
I sighed as I thought about the night ahead and the next day, even as I tried to follow and participate in some small talk with Tray and Mike, Janice’s husband. They were talking about baseball, a sport I’d never really followed before moving to Louisiana, but that I was becoming more interested in because Jason wanted to continue Little League. I’d been researching how to help him adjust to playing the sport with his prosthetic and had already asked Rasul to make another visit since he lived a very athletic life with his.
I knew that Jason was also speaking with his mother about getting a special prosthetic for running. The only concern seemed to be that Jason’s body was due to go through some growth spurts, so regulating his activity-level would be of paramount importance. Still, baseball had been deemed something safe for him to do—as had swimming.
When Jason had learned (from Pam—since he and she had begun talking via Skype when he was at my base residence) that I used to be an Olympic-caliber swimmer, he looked me up on the Internet and found some of the articles that had been written about me before my parents died in the car wreck. He’d been impressed to find out that many people had once thought that I was a sure thing for the 2000 Olympics.
To me, my swimming seemed like a lifetime ago. To Jason, it sparked an idea. Dr. Lee had been doing a little bit of aqua-therapy with him during their physical therapy sessions and had encouraged Jason to work on swimming. Not only would the activity be good for his overall strength, but also it would put no undo strain on his body—and would even ease him through his growth spurts.
Indeed, one of the reasons why I was staying over that night was because Sookie had arranged for the pool at the Compton house to be cleaned for Jason’s use. In turn, the Comptons had arranged for a private swim coach/therapist to help Jason, and she would be starting the next day and then giving him a lesson every other day; however, she’d only be working with him for a couple of months. I’d taken off the next week and a half so that I could attend his first several lessons with him—mainly so that I could learn how to help him train once the coach was gone. I planned to drive up each day he had a lesson; however, I was staying that night since it would be so late following the fireworks show, and Jason still became a little nervous when people had to drive long distances at night. For him, I’d agreed to stay over—once he’d gotten his mother’s permission, of course.
“I think Sookie’s done lost her mind with the mountain of food she’s got!” Lafayette said as he brought out yet another platter of hotdogs and hamburgers to grill.
“There are many people here,” I said, though I agreed with him that there would likely be excess food. As a hostess, Sookie always went above and beyond. I’d learned that at each gathering she’d insisted I come to: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Jason’s birthday, Easter, and various other birthdays—including her own birthday dinner just the weekend before. I had enjoyed all the gatherings, always appreciating the grace with which Sookie put them together, even when she was still—quite literally—getting back on her feet. My favorites had been the ones held when I was still living in the farmhouse. For those, I’d been tasked to help with a variety of preparations—from stringing lights to cutting vegetables. It had been pleasant to do those things for—and with—Sookie and Jason. As a guest, my role had changed, but I still enjoyed my time among the people who gravitated around Sookie and Jason. I supposed I was one of them now.
“Can you do the dogs while I go get my flirt on?” Lafayette asked as he leered at Jesús, who was participating in a skins and shirts football game that had broken out about five minutes before. Jesús was on the “skins” side, and it seemed they were short a member.
“Sure,” I said as I took over grill duties. I’d not run a grill until I lived at the farmhouse. However, I’d quickly learned that both Jason and Sookie very much enjoyed grilled meat and vegetables. It hadn’t taken me long to master simple things—thanks to Sookie’s guidance and the Internet. And nothing was simpler than hot dogs.
I watched proudly as Jason played with the others. He had come so far in such a short time.
“Wow!” I heard Sookie whisper from next to me. I glanced at her and saw her taking in the same sight I had been. Her gaze was just as astonished—and proud—as mine was as Jason scurried around as if his “new” leg were just a normal part of himself.
It had been only about a year since he’d been lying near death in a hospital bed.
For a moment, we exchanged a look, and she smiled at me a little.
It was a smile that filled my heart—even as it stopped it for a second.
A/N: I hope you enjoyed this chapter. I’m still not 100% happy with it, but I got it to where I think it’s okay. I really wanted to bring Amelia and Tara back into the picture in order to show their perspectives about how Sookie and Eric seem from the outside looking in. Sookie’s doing a bit better recognizing how Eric makes her feel, but she’s still scared to act. Sigh. As I was writing this part of the story, I “understood” why the story was speaking to me this way, and I went with it, but—damn—if I wasn’t a bit frustrated and impatient with her. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little glance into Sookie’s head and her life. Plus, I wanted to show Jase’s recovery here. I will say that I took a lot of inspiration concerning recovery rates from the survivors of the horrible Boston Marathon bombing victims. Many of them were amputees, but one of them ran the marathon just two years after losing her leg! I always admired that perseverance. So—yeah—stories like that and stories I have heard about amputee soldiers were definitely my inspiration.
I hope you will comment on the chapter is you have the time and the inclination. It’s winding up to be another crazy week, and your thoughts and support continue to bolster me.
P.S. I’ve been asked about The Engine quite a bit, one PMer even lamenting that I had abandoned it. It is definitely not abandoned, but realistically, I think it will be another month (at least) before I can start posting it again. Grading is kicking my ass. Oh—and there are always surprises, like a sprained my ankle today! Ugh! Anyway, none of my unfinished work is “abandoned.” I plan to finish everything I have started as long as there are readers who want me to. And—honestly—I’d likely just finish them for myself too.