NOTE: The following takes place TWO DAYS after the previous chapter.
NOTE 2: “O-Course” refers to an obstacle course in “military speak.”
Saturday, July 9, 2011 • 1915 hours/ 7:15 p.m.
“Momma?” Jase asked, even as he pushed food around his plate with his fork. He’d been doing that for the last several minutes, though I knew that he usually liked the dish—lasagna.
“Yes?” I asked, putting down my own fork. When Jase got my attention with the tone of voice he had just used—not to mention the fact that he’d lost his usually large appetite—I knew that he wanted to discuss something serious.
“You seem sad,” he said softly, his eyes on his plate.
“I am sad,” I responded, unwilling to lie to my twelve-year-old child.
“Is it because Uncle Eric didn’t wanna have dinner tonight?” he asked.
It was the first Saturday night that Eric hadn’t had a meal with us in a long time. His empty chair was made even worse by the fact that I’d thought—just two days before—that Eric would be at my table much more often. Now, I just hoped that he’d eventually return to it—where he belonged.
After reading his note from Eric on Thursday evening—when my groggy child had woken up from his pain medication hungry and somewhat less angry at the world—Jase had texted Eric to tell him that he did want to spend Friday and Saturday at Bailey, as usual.
In truth, I thought about not letting Jase go. My son was getting exactly what he wanted, which seemed to be—for the moment, at least—Eric and me not together. I didn’t think he should be “rewarded” with life going on as usual, which was—again—exactly what he’d wanted. I loved my child, but I wasn’t about to let him stop Eric and me from being together, but I did want to be patient with him. After Jase’s nightmare, he’d told me why he’d acted out. The situation was complicated—to say the least.
Still—despite empathizing with both of the males in my life—I’d been upset at my child for throwing his fit and at Eric for leaving before the situation could be hashed out. But I’d ultimately agreed that Jase could go to Bailey for two reasons. First, I knew that Eric would need him; I knew that—if Jase did not go—Eric would fear that he’d “lost” Jase, even more than he already feared that. Second—to be honest—I was ready for some “alone time.” I needed a good, ugly cry, and—as most moms learned early into “mom-hood”—luxuriating in one of those wasn’t always possible or practical. Plus, I had been so frustrated at Jase that it was good for him to spend some time away.
Call me a bad mom, but I prefer to think of myself as human.
Eric had arrived the day before—Friday—at the usual time: 11:00 a.m. on the dot. But he’d not come inside the house—as he usually did—to wait for Jase to gather his things. And he’d not come inside when he dropped him off earlier in the evening either; he’d told Jase that he had to decline dinner due to some work.
I’d looked outside the window at Eric both times he’d driven into the driveway the past two days. I’d not been able to help myself, nor had I gone out to him. Maybe we were all a little stubborn; maybe I was just too weary to have another blow-up with Jase right away. Eric’s eyes had been forward as he’d sat in his van—forward and almost unseeing. He’d sent me a text both mornings since our “break up.” It read simply, “I’m sorry.”
I was too.
“I miss him,” I told my son, again being completely honest.
“He’s sad, too,” Jase said quietly. “He pretended not to be, but I can tell. And it’s all my fault.”
I sighed as Jase’s stitched and swollen lip quivered a little. It was a sign that he was near tears.
“Jase,” I said, reaching out to take his little hand. He was so grown up in some ways, having overcome so many hardships, but he was still my little boy in others. “You shouldn’t feel guilty for feeling how you feel.”
“I’m the reason you’re unhappy, Momma. But I don’t want you to be unhappy.” He frowned deeply, and a tear slipped from his eye. “But I’m afraid.”
“I know, Sweetie.”
He shook his head. “I lied to you about why, Momma. I said that it was your fault because you were gonna make Uncle Eric be my Daddy. But I don’t believe that. It’s not your fault. It’s mine!”
He was crying in earnest now, so I got up to get him a Kleenex. “What do you mean, Sweetie?”
“I’m the one that makes daddies die. When I’m their son, they die.”
“That’s not true, baby,” I said, fighting my own sudden tears.
“Alcide—he and I had a talk the morning of the accident. I asked him if I could start callin’ him Dad.”
“He told me,” I said, choking up a little. “He was really happy about it, Jase.”
“And then he died,” he returned quickly. “When someone’s my daddy, they die.”
I sighed deeply. “Oh, Sweetie. I can understand why you think that might be true, but you need to believe me when I tell you that it’s not. Alcide died because of an accident—a horrible accident that had nothing to do with you. He did not die because you loved him enough to want to call him ‘Dad.'”
“What about Daddy? He got shot, and Uncle Eric could too,” Jase said before blowing his nose in the haphazard way most boys seemed to do.
“I know,” I said. “And I’m scared for Eric, too. But he’s promised to try to be safer from now on, and he has a safer job. All we can do is to pray for him when he’s not with us.”
“But what if he dies, Momma?” More large tears fell from his eyes. “What if he dies just because I want him to be my Dad—because I—I love him even more than I loved either of my other dads?” he confessed in a soft voice.
Grateful I’d brought the box of tissues to the table with me, I grabbed a Kleenex so that I could wipe my own eyes. “Did I ever tell you the story of when my mom and dad died?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “A little.”
“I was ten years old when it happened,” I started. I took a deep breath to compose myself. “Your grandmother and grandfather had gone on a cruise.”
“And they drowned,” Jase said, already knowing that part of the story.
“Yes. Daddy wasn’t a good swimmer, but Momma was. When he got into trouble, she tried to help him, but they both drowned.”
“That’s why you’re afraid of me swimmin’ by myself—isn’t it?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. I’d made sure that he learned to swim when he was young, but—even before the accident—I forbid him from swimming on his own. In fact, the only time I’d ever yelled at him had been when he’d snuck off to swim at the Compton house three years before.
“I was mad at my daddy for not learning how to swim better before he tried to do something like diving underwater. And I was mad at my momma for trying to help him. If she hadn’t, she would have lived. So I’d have lost only one of them. Most of all, I was sad. I thought it would be better if I never loved another person in my life because—if I didn’t—I wouldn’t have to feel that sad again.”
“Did you love other people?” my son asked innocently.
“Of course, silly,” I smiled at him through more tears. “But I’ve lost a lot of people, too. After my parents died, we lost Grandpa Mitchell only six months later—because of cancer. And Aunt Linda, your Aunt Hadley’s momma, died only a few months after that—also from cancer. And then—when I was only seventeen—your Uncle Jason died.”
“Like my daddy? In a battle?” Jase asked of his namesake.
“Yes,” I said. “And your daddy helped me to get through that.”
“But then he died,” Jase said sadly.
“He did, and—at first—I thought my heart would surely break forever. But it didn’t. I had you to love, so it kept right on beating. And then I found Alcide to love, too.”
“But he died too, Momma!” Jase said, a little agitated. “And so did Gran and Grandpa Jackson!”
“Yes,” I sighed. “And my heart felt like it might break again. But I still had you.”
“And then you loved Uncle Eric, too?”
“Yes. I fell in love with Eric.” I smiled at him.
“What if he dies too, Momma?” Jase asked fearfully.
“Then my heart will hurt really bad, again,” I said, wiping away another tear. “But that’s not gonna stop me from loving him.”
“Are you afraid?” he asked solemnly.
“I was,” I admitted. “After Alcide died, I was afraid to love again—except for loving you. But I couldn’t help myself. Gran told me once that—when it came to love—a heart could never be full enough. I guess that’s true. I am afraid that we’ll lose Eric. I’ve lost two husbands already, and it makes me sad to imagine losing another. But—if I’m never with him, then I’ve already lost him. Do you understand?”
Jase looked a little confused, but nodded nonetheless.
“I’m sorry, Momma. I don’t wanna make you sad anymore. Or Uncle Eric. I think it’s okay if you are together.”
“You know that we’d just be dating for a while,” I said with a sniffle.
Jase shrugged. “I’m a kid, but I’ve seen love movies, so I know what happens,” he said.
I will admit to being a little confused. “What happens?” I asked.
“The cool girl gets together with the good guy, and they get married and stuff.” He rolled his eyes. “Jessica thinks those are the best kind of movies. But I like Iron Man.”
I couldn’t help my chuckle. “What do you think of love movies?”
He shrugged again. “I think you’re tied with Jessica as the coolest girl I know. And Uncle Eric is like the best good guy ever. I bet he could even slay a dragon if they were real!” he enthused. “Jessica thinks I need to find one to kill for her, but I’ve told her a million times that they’re not real!” he added with some exasperation. “But then she admits they aren’t real, but that I should find one anyway. I don’t get women!”
I giggled. I couldn’t help myself.
Jase glared at me a little. “Uncle Eric told me that what Jessica really wants is for me to be there for her whenever anything bad happens—just like she was there for me after the accident.”
“Eric is pretty smart,” I said. “I think he’s right.”
Jase nodded and looked outside. “Can we—uh—drive to Shreveport and talk to him? I wanna tell him that it’s okay if you and he date.”
“But it’s dark, Sweetie,” I said, “and I know you don’t really like it when we go to Shreveport at night. What if we called him?”
“Okay,” Jase agreed. “He could come home!”
I took out my cellphone and dialed Eric’s number, feeling my heart beating wildly. But it just rang and rang and rang.
And Eric never didn’t answer his phone.
A cold feeling of dread took me over as I contemplated my child’s worst fears—and my own. What if he’d been in an accident? I tried to hold myself together as I disconnected the call.
“What’s wrong?” Jase asked.
“On second thought, why don’t we drive to Shreveport? It’d be a surprise for Eric.”
Twenty minutes earlier
I parked my van under the car port next to my base residence. As was my habit, I sent a quick text to Jason, telling him that I was home.
I spent a moment just sitting in the car, the engine still running. I considered going somewhere. But where?
It was Saturday night, and I was not due to work again until Thursday. Jason’s Monday and Wednesday morning swimming lessons had been cancelled—due to his stitches—so I felt listless, not knowing what I would do with my remaining time off.
In truth, I struggled to think of a time when I had days stretching in front of me that I had no clear plans for. I’d not had them when my father was alive. My life, then, had been extremely structured: swim practice, weight training, tutor lessons, meals, study, sleep, repeat. When I was lucky, I got an hour or two of “free time” to read something I chose.
I’d certainly not found much free time during the year after my parents’ deaths. I’d gone to public school, worked for Mrs. Cataliades, cooked for myself, figured out how to pay necessary bills, and learned how to keep a garden alive.
And then I’d joined the Marines. Between training sessions and deployments, I’d initially returned to Long Beach to see to the house and to help the gardener I’d hired make sure that the living things remaining on the estate didn’t die. During two-day leaves—when going to Long Beach would have been impractical—I’d hung out with Bill or sometimes found a random woman to fuck.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, I’d had very little free time, especially once I rose in the ranks. Often, when I did have a couple of days off here and there, I would write to men who’d been injured under my command. Or I’d get caught up on the endless mounds of paperwork the Marines seemed to love to dump upon Lieutenants and Captains. Or I’d amp up my study of the area’s language.
The only time I could remember having free time was when I’d taken a month-long leave between deployments to visit Pam in London. But Pam had actually wanted to spend some time together. And I’d also met a woman to share some time and some casual sex with. Plus, there had been a lot to see in London when I’d been on my own.
And—of course—my time in Louisiana had begun with taking care of Jason and Sookie. And it had transitioned into developing the training program, taking classes, and spending time with Jason.
I couldn’t imagine how I would fill my next four days and nights—before I could return to work.
Not thinking of anywhere to go, I turned off the ignition. I waited until the last little clicks of the newly-turned-off engine stopped and then stepped out of the vehicle before trudging wearily inside the house. I walked mechanically into the kitchen, sat in one of the chairs at the table, and took off my boots and socks. In a combat zone, I tended to leave on my boots, except in the shower. Hell! Depending on my situation, I rarely even slept without them! So it still felt like a luxury to walk around without shoes.
After washing my hands, I made myself a sandwich. Then I popped open a beer and took my dinner to the sparsely-furnished living room.
For Jason, I’d purchased a television set and a DVD player, though I’d gotten only the most basic cable service available. Though Lafayette had called my lack of television channels “scandalous,” it was plenty for me. I turned on the television, ate my sandwich, and sipped my beer.
I couldn’t have told anyone what was on the television. But the noise was nice.
The last two days had been difficult for me.
I sighed. On Thursday, after I’d left the farmhouse—left Sookie—I’d arrived in Shreveport at around 1815 hours (6:15 p.m.) Despite the lateness in the day, I’d gone into work; I thought I could begin prepping for the trip to Afghanistan, and I needed to do something to keep from rattling apart. But Colonel Flood had made a late day of it. And—as soon as he saw me—I was ordered to “get the fuck out and enjoy my vacation.” It seemed the colonel was a great believer in R & R.
Once home, I’d called Karen to break things off officially. I’d told Sookie I would do so, and even though Sookie and I would not be continuing our relationship after all, I didn’t feel right about—or even capable of—keeping things going with Karen.
Moreover, I knew that my body would not want another woman for a long time—if ever. My whole physical being had luxuriated in Sookie, and it still craved her. Likely, it always would.
Karen hadn’t been that upset, though she had told me that she’d “be available” if I changed my mind. I knew that I wouldn’t.
Beyond completing that task, I had nothing to do but “haunt” my base residence.
I considered planting something in my little yard, but it wasn’t planting season; plus, I was about to be gone for the better part of a month. So I’d cleaned the little dwelling from stem to stern. And then—not able to sleep—I’d put a fresh coat of paint on one the walls. And then I scrubbed and re-stained the kitchen cabinets.
And that had just been Thursday.
There had been one bright spot to my night, however—a text from Jase at around 10:00 p.m., asking me if he could still come to Bailey the next morning. My body had shaken with relief.
He didn’t hate me! I’d not fucked up irrevocably with him.
Despite my nervousness about seeing Jason the next morning, I was grateful he’d still wanted to see me at all—that he still wanted to have anything to do with me.
Our interaction had been a bit awkward, especially at first. However, I’d tried to keep my demeanor light. And focusing on the drive and discussing weekend plans had helped us both to overcome the initial weirdness.
The only time Jason and I had mentioned the issue was when he asked if I was mad at him. I’d told him the truth—that I was not angry and that I understood and respected his wishes when it came to his mother. After that, he’d seemed to be less anxious, at least.
Beyond that, we’d talked mostly about his swimming (and his disappointment that his lessons had to be put on hold for a while due to his stitches), books we’d read, and movies we’d watched. Yesterday evening, I’d made sure that I arranged a little barbeque so that he could hang out with his base friends. Today, we’d gone to a diner we both liked for lunch, and then we’d seen Thor at the theater. After that, I’d taken Jason home, making an excuse about needing to do something on base when he’d wondered if I would be having dinner with his mother and him that night.
I found that I could act like everything was normal—at least as long as we kept busy. But I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do so if I interacted with Sookie. The guilt I felt over hurting her was too profound.
And I hated myself for it.
Still, even without the hope of being with Sookie, I found that I continued to breathe. I continued to eat, though I was not hungry and nothing tasted good. I continued to bathe. I continued to sleep, though not well and not for long periods.
But I did continue.
What else could I do? One week before, I’d been living well enough. It was only a few days that I got to taste what a perfect life could be like. I would have thought that I would give up anything for that life—but I would have been wrong. As it turned out, I couldn’t give up Jason’s trust and love. And I couldn’t be responsible for problems between Jason and Sookie; I wouldn’t come between them.
I just wished that I could go back in a time machine so that I could figure out a way to ensure that Sookie never thought twice about me. That way, I would have never had to hurt her. Of course, if I really ran across a time machine, I’d find a way to save Bill’s life. That way, I would have never had a reason to interact much with either Jason or Sookie. It would have been only my loss. On the other hand, Sookie would have never been a widow. And Jason would have never known the loss of a father.
That version of the world would have been better for them.
But time machines were as mythical as the thought of my own father telling me that he loved me. Both were impossibilities.
After a while, I took my half-eaten meal to the kitchen and grabbed another beer. Despite feeling like shit, two would be the most I’d drink; I’d seen enough alcoholics in the service to make me wary of using alcohol as a salve. Still—I knew that the second would help me to feel less.
And—though it wasn’t the bravest thing—I needed to feel less for a little while.
After hitting the head and washing my hands, I took my beer to the living room and resumed my place in front of the couch. This time, I tried to concentrate upon what was on television. It was an episode of some crime drama; I tried to get caught up on the story, but my mind wouldn’t let me as my thoughts continued returning again and again to my days and nights with Sookie.
I could recall every detail of them, but now they seemed to belong to a different Eric, one that I almost wished that I could not remember.
A/N: Hello all! I hope that you liked this chapter. Jase is starting to figure things out, but my heart breaks for him. He thinks he’s a kind of curse. Poor kid. Meanwhile, Eric breaks my heart because he actually thinks that he doesn’t deserve to be happy. And he thinks that he’s bad for Sookie. Sigh. I promise there will be interaction between the three next time.
Please leave a comment if you have the time and/or inclination.
P.S. Sorry this is the only chapter this week. I am SWAMPED with work right now, and it’s difficult to find time to even read over a chapter and post it for you. Hopefully, things will slow down by the middle of next week.