A/N: Thanks for all of you who wrote reviews for or selected Comfortably Numb as a favorite or a story to follow! Your support is awesome!
Just in case you forgot the date, the follow chapter takes place two years before the first one.
Chapter 2: Retreat
January 15, 2011
As she always did, Sookie Stackhouse tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. She was good at not being noticed. After all, as a defense mechanism, she had been perfecting the art of being invisible for almost her entire life. And her looks, which were nondescript at first glance, didn’t do much to make her stand out. Thankfully, most people’s eyes didn’t linger on her long enough to take a second look.
Unfortunately, Sookie’s clothing did make her stand out—but for all the wrong reasons.
She’d arrived in New York just ten days before with only one suitcase—a small one—to her name, and she was wearing the very best garment that had been in that suitcase; however, when she took in the people around her, she felt utterly inadequate. Other than herself, every woman at the Northman Publishing party looked to be dressed in garments that they’d picked straight off of the runways of European cities she’d never be able to afford to go to—let alone buy dresses in.
She knew exactly how much her own dress had cost her―nothing. It had been given to her six years before as a hand-me-down from Tara, who’d been her friend at the time. Of course, that was the week before Tara had gotten angry at Sookie at their graduation. She’d terminated their friendship in a very dramatic fashion: by screaming at her on Gran’s porch, even as she dumped over the small graduation cake that Gran had baked for the girls.
Even before then, Tara hadn’t been what most people would have called a consistent friend, but she’d been one of only two Sookie had had—the other being Tara’s cousin, Lafayette, who was himself an outcast at their school since he’d been openly gay in a very conservative town.
Sookie sighed. At least, Tara hadn’t asked for the dress back before she stormed off the porch, demanding that Lafayette take her home.
Sookie was thankful for the fact that Lafayette had remained her friend following the incident. He’d moved to California the summer before Sookie had gone to college, but they still exchanged a few emails and occasionally spoke on the phone, and Lafayette always made Sookie smile when they did talk. She looked forward to those conversations very much, but—afraid of being a burden to her busy friend—she never initiated them.
Lafayette had once told Sookie that every girl needed a little black dress―or, as he’d called it, an “LBD.” He’d followed that up by telling her that he had several in his own closet. She smiled at the thought of her flamboyant friend, who earned his living as a Drag Queen in Los Angeles.
However, Sookie hadn’t had many opportunities to use her LBD. She’d worn it on her first date with Bill Compton, but since he’d never taken her out again―preferring to stay in and watch movies or television―she’d not had an opportunity to wear it again for pleasure.
The second time she’d worn it had been less than two week before—to the funeral of Dr. Horus Dekker, her academic adviser at the University of Mississippi. He’d fallen victim to a drunk driver on Christmas Eve.
When Sookie was a freshman at Ole Miss, Dr. Dekker gave her a job as a copy editor for the Daily Mississippian, the college’s prestigious newspaper. That job helped her to earn her undergraduate degree without having to take out student loans for her room and board. Moreover, he’d overlooked her peculiarity and had been instrumental in her getting into the graduate program at Ole Miss, even though she’d found it impossible to secure the requisite number of recommendation letters from other professors. It wasn’t that she’d been a poor student—far from it. It was just that she hadn’t been memorable to her teachers. But Dr. Dekker had argued on her behalf, and he’d even helped her to get an extra part-time job as a copy editor at the town newspaper in Oxford, Mississippi, so that she could afford to move off-campus.
Dr. Dekker’s help had been surprising to Sookie, given the fact that they hadn’t actually interacted that much. However, the professor oversaw the Daily Mississippian, and he had recognized the quality of her work. Most of the time, he even let her complete her work after normal business hours and on the weekends. It had been the perfect job for Sookie, made even more perfect because she was able to complete it alone. After she got her B.A. degree in English, Dr. Dekker arranged for her to have a scholarship paying for her M.A. degree—in exchange for Sookie copy editing the online version of the Daily Mississippian until she was done with her course work. That job had been even better for Sookie, for she’d been able to do it all via the Internet.
Dr. Dekker’s sudden death had shaken Sookie. Tara’s hand-me-down black dress had been the only appropriate black garment she’d had, so she bought a pair of black flats, which were on sale for $5.99 at Payless Shoes, and went to pay her last respects to Dr. Dekker, even though she’d never exchanged more than three personal words with him.
Ironically, the dress that she was wearing had been appropriate for the funeral as well as for her first and only real date; however, it seemed grossly inadequate for the annual Northman Publishing party.
Sookie had been hired at Northman Publishing—or NP as it was referred to in the industry—only twelve days before. She’d gotten hired after only a phone interview with Sam Merlotte, who managed the copy editors at NP. She wanted to believe that it was her skill that had gotten her the job, but she knew it was Dr. Dekker who had been responsible.
Dr. Dekker and pity.
Sam Merlotte’s alma mater was the University of Mississippi too, and Horus Dekker had been his mentor fifteen years before. But Sookie didn’t really care why Mr. Merlotte had hired her. All that she cared about was that his offering her a job had meant that she could leave Oxford, Mississippi behind.
As she pretended to study Monet’s famous painting, Haystacks, she thought about the many ways her life had changed so quickly. A month before, she’d been a graduate student, balancing her time between working on her course papers, meeting deadlines for her copy editing jobs, and spending time with Bill. But on December 22, all that had changed when she got a visit from Lorena Krasiki. It was not a social call, and the more Lorena had said, the more Sookie’s world had come crashing down.
Immediately after Lorena had gone, Sookie did something out of character for her: she reached out for help, emailing Dr. Dekker to see if it would be possible for her to finish her Master’s Degree from somewhere else since she had only her Thesis left to write. Thankfully, she didn’t have to quit her job at the Daily Mississippian. Since she’d finished her course work the week prior to her encounter with Lorena, she was no longer responsible for copy editing that publication.
She’d also asked Dr. Dekker if he had any contacts that might be looking to hire copy editors—preferably out of the Mississippi and Louisiana area. She’d said only that she needed to leave town for personal reasons, and—to her great relief—Dr. Dekker hadn’t asked any questions.
On the contrary, he’d been supportive again, calling her only minutes after she’d sent the email. He told her that it wouldn’t be a problem for her to write her Thesis from elsewhere. In fact, he reported, many students did that. All she would have to do was to submit her work by the May 1st deadline and return to Oxford in mid-May to defend her Thesis.
After that, things had moved very quickly. As it turned out, Dr. Dekker did have a job contact for her, Sam Merlotte with Northman Publishing in New York City. As an avid reader, Sookie knew of the company, of course, and the prospect of copy editing books instead of newspapers was an exciting one—even though the idea of moving to New York intimidated her. According to Dr. Dekker, Mr. Merlotte and he spoke each year around Christmas time, and they’d had their annual conversation just the evening before. Mr. Merlotte had lamented that his best copy editor had given his notice that day. And, apparently, Mr. Merlotte hated having to go through the process of interviewing people.
By the next day, Dr. Dekker had recommended Sookie to Mr. Merlotte, she had filled out an online application, and a phone interview had been set up between Sookie and Sam for after the Christmas holiday.
Sookie had gone to Dr. Dekker’s funeral on December 27, the same day as her phone interview with Mr. Merlotte. As a close friend of Dr. Dekker, Mr. Merlotte had, of course, known about the professor’s death, and the interview turned into a thirty minute conversation about their mentor—with Mr. Merlotte doing most of the talking.
However, by the end of the call, Sookie had a new job. Mr. Merlotte had even given her the contact information for one of his wife’s friends, who had a room for rent in her Brooklyn home. One phone call later, and Sookie had a place to live.
Sookie packed her meager belongings quickly. Her apartment had come furnished, so she just had her suitcase—her one suitcase—with her sparse wardrobe and a couple of small, framed photos. Even her laptop had been borrowed from the university. Luckily, Gran had given her a small external hard drive the previous Christmas, and she already had all of her college papers and research saved on it. Her backpack was able to hold the few books she actually owned. In fact, it had taken Sookie longer to return all of the books that she had borrowed from both the college and city libraries than it had for her to pack everything she owned.
After packing, she called the newspaper in Oxford, and—since they had many other copy editors on staff and she was only part-time anyway—her boss didn’t have a problem letting her go without notice. So on December 28, Sookie got on a bus from Oxford, Mississippi to Bon Temps, Louisiana, where she spent a little time with Gran. Two days later, she was on a plane to New York. She’d barely had a chance to familiarize herself with the subway system before beginning at Northman Publishing on Monday, January 3.
Barely in New York for a week, Sookie already loved the city—mostly because she could be completely anonymous in it. She could blend in easily.
Looking around at the exquisitely dressed people around her, however, Sookie knew she didn’t blend in. She was already working hard to avoid Arlene Fowler, one of her fellow copy editors. Arlene had seen her earlier and had practically sneered out loud upon taking a look at Sookie’s dress. Sookie took a deep breath, wishing that her jersey dress didn’t stand out like a sore thumb. It was faded from the many washings Tara had given it, and it was a bit loose as well, the fabric well-worn and having been made for comfort more than fashion. Plus, Tara and she had different proportions.
But it was all Sookie had, and Mr. Merlotte made it very clear to her that the party was not optional, and she certainly didn’t want to rock the boat any more than she already had. She had contemplated wearing one of the two suits that she wore to the office every day—suits that she’d purchased at the Goodwill store in Brooklyn the day before she’d started at NP. However, neither of those garments would have been appropriate for a cocktail party, and she was already made fun of by Arlene and the other women in her office since the suits had clearly seen better days. Of course, no one ever said anything within her earshot, but she could still “hear” them.
But her ticket to New York, her deposit for the room she was renting, and her MetroCard had taken almost every penny she had in her savings account. In fact, she wasn’t exactly certain how she would be able to afford to eat until the first of February. Thankfully, the person from whom she’d rented her room seemed quite well off and was extremely generous, and Amelia was more than happy to let Sookie cook for them both using the ample food in her refrigerator. However, Amelia was gone a lot, and Sookie didn’t feel right about taking any food when she wasn’t also preparing it for her housemate. Luckily, generic cereal and Ramen noodles were cheap—even in New York—and there was a reasonably priced fruit stand down the street as well, and the owner sold the bruised fruit really cheap, so it was within her limited budget—barely. Of course, anything beyond those staples, including milk, would have to wait for her first real paycheck, but that check would be a lot more money than she was used to.
When she got that check, she would be able to afford her rent and meals that went well beyond Top Ramen. She’d even be able to get a mobile phone and to put aside a little money each month for a clothing budget. Luckily, a lap top had been provided as part of her job, and Amelia already had WiFi. However, Sookie knew better than to squander any money she got. Plus, she hoped that she would be able to send a little to Gran each month, and she was planning to put as much as she could into a savings account.
Sookie’s musings about money were put to the side when she saw Pamela Northman enter the room. While Mr. Merlotte was the manager of the copy editors, Ms. Northman was the head of the whole editing department. Plus, she was one of the children of the company’s owner, Appius Northman. Sookie breathed a sigh of relief as Ms. Northman looked around—as if searching for someone in particular—and then turned and left the gallery Sookie was in.
Sookie neither wanted to know nor did she care about the inner dynamics of Northman Publishing beyond her own job, but it was impossible to miss the fact that the gossip in the office swirled around Appius Northman and his children, three of whom worked at the huge publishing house. While Pam was the manager of the editing department, Nora Gainesborough, Appius’s stepdaughter, was the CFO of the company. With her little “handicap,” Sookie had heard that Pamela Northman—or Pam as she was called by Sam—was sort of like Miranda Priestly from The Devil Loves Prada; however, it seemed that Nora was more like the devil himself.
According to the main gossipers in Sookie’s department—who included Arlene, Dawn Green, and Maudette Pickens—Nora was apt to yell at people in her department for no reason whatsoever and had fired quite a few of her staff during her time at Northman Publishing.
However, the main gossip in the company was centered on Appius’s eldest son, Eric Northman. Sookie had yet to see Eric since the copy editors were relegated to one of the lower floors in Northman Tower, but—using her “quirk”—she’d certainly picked up quite a bit of information on him. It was said that he was handsome; “Adonis” was the word most often used to describe him. Confusingly, he was called both “aloof” and “charming,” as well as “haughty” and “congenial.” And, apparently, he was quite the lady’s man. In fact, Dawn liked to crow about the fact that she’d experienced the great Eric Northman once.
If Dawn was to be believed, Eric had been riding in the same elevator as she was, and between the fifth floor—where Dawn had gotten onto the elevator—and the third floor, he’d successfully talked her into going back up to one of the three apartments on the top floors of Northman Tower. It didn’t seem like Dawn would have taken much convincing. Sookie had read enough from Dawn’s lips to know that Eric was “skilled in the fucking department” and “hung like a stallion.”
But Eric Northman was also clearly respected at the company, apparently just as skilled in business as he was in bed. It was rumored that Appius was hard on Eric, but the son—even at the age of 29—was spoken of with a lot of admiration. For one thing—according to the gossip—he was good at putting out Nora’s fires.
Eric’s official title was Deputy CEO, and he was the heir apparent to Northman Publishing, but Sookie wasn’t really interested in that. As long as the company was sound and she got to keep her job, she would be happy.
“Susan,” Sam Merlotte said congenially from behind her.
Sookie spun around with a practiced smile on her face. “Hello, Mr. Merlotte,” she said as she noticed the lovely woman on his arm.
“This is my wife Luna,” Sam introduced the Latina.
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Merlotte,” Sookie said.
“It’s Ms. Garza, actually,” Luna corrected pleasantly. “But you should call me Luna.”
Sookie smiled in agreement, though her palms were clammy from her nervousness. If there was one thing she hated, it was a social situation. “Thanks for passing along the information that Amelia was looking for a renter,” Sookie said, glad that she had a topic to mention.
Luna smiled, “I’m happy that it worked out.”
“Me too,” Sookie answered, realizing that she’d already run out of things to say.
“Are you having fun?” Sam asked, somewhat awkwardly. Sookie noticed that he was wearing a nicer suit than he normally did, and Luna looked very elegant in her charcoal gray cocktail dress.
“Yes. Thank you, Mr. Merlotte,” Sookie lied, keeping her smile firmly planted on her face.
“Sam,” he corrected as he’d been doing the entire first week she’d been working at NP.
“Okay,” Sookie said.
“Well, be sure to get a drink and look around a bit. The Northman Galleries here at the MET are certainly quite something. Have a great time, Susan.”
Sookie nodded and was grateful when Sam and Luna moved on. She hated the name Susan, but when Sam had assumed that was what she went by during their phone interview, she hadn’t corrected him. After all, his assumption made sense. Her legal name was Susanna, and most people called her either that or Susan. Her nickname, Sookie, wasn’t something many people knew.
Once Sookie was by herself again, she tried to stay behind groups—to see, but not be seen. And she also took the opportunity to really look at the paintings in the gallery that she was in. To say that Sookie was overwhelmed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art was an understatement. Unless the paint-by-number landscapes that decorated her childhood residence were counted, she’d not seen much art in person, and the Monet paintings in the gallery that she was in were some of the most studied and important works of art—ever.
Sookie had learned that the Northman Publishing beginning of the year party always took place on the second Saturday in January. In addition to the employees of Northman Publishing being in attendance at that party, other important New Yorkers, especially those in the publishing business, were invited. The party was held mainly in the Northman Galleries, which were composed of ten galleries in the European art wing of the MET. Using her skill, Sookie had already picked up on the fact that several of the pieces in the galleries had been donated by the Northmans, thus earning the family the right to have a section of the European paintings wing named for them.
The yearly party thrown by the Northmans was one of the only ones allowed to take place within the MET’s art galleries, and Sookie was floored by the fact that people were carrying around cocktails in the same rooms that housed priceless works of art. However, the Northman family had the kind of wealth that got them things normal people just didn’t get. Sookie had picked up on the fact that large, yearly donations to the MET enabled Appius Northman to do pretty much whatever he wanted, which meant that he could throw his party wherever he wanted it to be thrown.
In truth, Sookie could hardly fathom the kind of wealth the Northmans had, but she did like the art that she had seen in the galleries she had wandered through. Many of the paintings captivated her with their energy and texture, and she vowed right then and there to pick up one of the brochures that she’d seen about yearly memberships to the MET. There were so many galleries in the huge museum that Sookie knew that it would take someone years to get through them all, and she figured that—since she wouldn’t have a social life to eat up her pay check—a yearly pass to the MET might be an acceptable luxury item and a way to fill her weekends, especially once she was done writing her Thesis.
She let her eyes move slowly around the gallery she was in, only stopping their progress when they reached one of the corners of the room, right between Monet’s Water Lilies and one of the several doors in the gallery. There, Sookie saw a man who seemed to belong more in a Greek statuary rather than the Monet room.
The man was tall and blond, dressed impeccably in a black suit. His hair looked a shade or two darker than hers—probably because it was slicked back with gel. The most amazing thing about the man was that—although he was the most captivating thing in the room—only she seemed to be noticing him at that moment. The room was full of milling people, but the man was somehow separate from everyone else—as if he had separated himself.
“Adonis,” she said to herself.
Though Sookie couldn’t be a hundred percent certain, she was pretty sure that her eyes had landed on Eric Northman. And he was as handsome as everyone said; no—handsome wasn’t the right word. He was striking. But what struck her the most was not his looks; it was the way he was looking.
His blues eyes drew patterns around the room that reminded Sookie of the way she would study a space.
He seemed to be testing the gallery for danger, gauging it like a military veteran would scrutinize a space for traps and mines and ambushes. When his captivating blue eyes swept in her direction, however, Sookie moved her gaze to the corner of the room opposite from Eric’s corner. That corner was empty.
Something inside of her shook a little as she tore her eyes from that blank corner. Her every instinct—every desire—was to look back at Eric Northman, but she couldn’t bring herself to do that. She couldn’t because she was almost certain that he would be looking at her. She didn’t want his piercing blue eyes to penetrate her, for she feared them finding her lacking.
So she made her feet move her out of the gallery she’d been in, Gallery 819.
A/N: I hope that you enjoyed the chapter and getting to know this Sookie a little bit more. You’ll find that she’s had quite a hard life. Many of you have already figured out that Sookie is a lip-reader. How she came to be one will be revealed soon and plays into her tragedy.
I hope you enjoyed the pictures In actuality, nine of the ten galleries I chose for the Northman Galleries are actually the Annenberg Galleries in the MET.
As always, thanks for reading.
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