Chapter 15: Benchmark, Part 2
March 18, 2012
As Sookie sat on her “usual” park bench and ate her lunch, she thought about how her world had changed and then “resettled” in the two months since her two encounters with Eric Northman. If their first interaction had caused her usually heavily structured life to be unsettled completely, the second had placed her squarely back onto her feet and given her to courage to walk forward.
The Sunday after that second encounter, there had been a new bench waiting for her when she went to Gallery 823. It was positioned perfectly—right in front of Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses. However, Eric had not been there, nor had he approached her any other Sunday since then. He’d not sought her out at work either.
Still—Sookie felt the inevitability of another meeting with Eric Northman, even though the thought of it scared her as much as it excited her. As she’d told Claudine the week before, she was anxious to see him again—”anxious” in all of the contradictory connotations of that word. She wanted to see him—more than anything. But she was nervous. She was eager, yet uneasy. Claudine had posited that—based on what Sookie had told her about their two prior encounters—Eric likely felt the same way she did.
Sookie couldn’t help but to wonder if Eric was trying to “get ready” for a third meeting just as she was. If his core had been shaken as hers had been, then he, too, may have needed time to steady himself. In truth, a big part of Sookie was glad that he hadn’t approached her yet. As much as she longed for him in a way she couldn’t explain, she still felt that she needed more time. The feelings that he brought out of her were frightening and exhilarating all at once, and she wasn’t quite prepared for them.
However, despite that fact, she was feeling more and more certain of herself every day. She was building a life for herself that made her content, and for the first time, she was feeling “right” in her own skin. She felt “good.”
She smiled a little. She couldn’t help but to be proud of the progress she’d made—not just to “be more normal,” but to accept herself if she wasn’t quite normal. She was even beginning to “like” who she was—to like Sookie Stackhouse.
Sookie closed her eyes and enjoyed the warming breeze. A few hardy flowers had already bloomed, though it was not yet officially spring and the winter had been harsh. It had rained the night before, and the world seemed to be teeming with new life. In so many ways, it felt like spring had come to her life too—a spring to replace a bitter, long winter.
Sookie was grateful for the change of seasons, and she was grateful for Eric Northman for unwittingly helping her to change them. She opened her eyes and looked out over the Turtle Pond, which had become one of her favorite places in Central Park. She let her mind wander as she watched the late winter breeze cause ripples in the water.
After the NP party in January, things had happened quickly regarding the de Castro situation—at least as it involved Felipe’s spies.
Sookie had “overheard” from the lips of her fellow copy editors that John Quinn, who turned out to be the head of security and who had been the object of many crushes, had been fired the Monday after the party. Though Sookie hadn’t known Quinn’s name, she had seen him before, and he was a striking man—though her tastes did not include men who were so bulky with musculature. She also wasn’t a big fan of the shaved-head look, though she could certainly understand the appeal of his unique eyes and his well-constructed body to others. Dawn, especially, lamented the loss of Quinn since she had enjoyed “hooking up” with him on occasion.
Rumor had it that Quinn had been fired because he and Eric had gotten into an altercation over Nora. Arlene had been the first to “report” the buzz as far as Sookie knew; thus, Sookie couldn’t help but to wonder if the redhead had fabricated the entire story to make herself the center of attention. Either way, Arlene’s story had quickly spread through Northman Tower.
Arlene claimed to have seen Quinn being escorted from the building the day he was fired. According to the company scandalmonger, Eric had been “supervising Quinn’s removal.” The next day when Sookie “overheard” the story from two women in the company cafeteria, that “supervising” had turned into Eric and Quinn getting into a fistfight in the lobby of the building before Eric literally threw the larger man out onto the sidewalk. Two days later, the story included Eric being arrested and Quinn being rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Another version reported that Eric had “literally beaten Quinn to a bloody pulp,” which necessitated Appius having to bribe a judge to prevent his eldest son from going to prison.
Of course, when the rumors about “what” had happened had not been enough, guesses about “why” it had happened had begun in earnest. Arlene and her cohorts speculated that Eric may have found Nora and Quinn fucking in his own office. And since no one put that kind of behavior above Nora, the conjecture had become rumor and then “fact.”
From there, the story evolved to echo each teller’s fantasies, as rumors always did. Sometimes, Nora had been screwing Quinn in Eric’s office as a kind of revenge since other rumors purported that Eric was still seeing Freyda de Castro on the side. Other times, Nora and Freyda were the ones screwing, and Quinn had needed to restrain Eric from killing the two women out of a jealous rage; in this version, the innocent Quinn had been caught in the crossfire. Other times, Quinn and Eric were the ones fucking, and Nora had walked in on them.
The only fact in the story, as far as Sookie could tell, was that Quinn was gone.
In early February—when it was learned that Sandy Seacrest, Appius’s personal assistant, had also been let go the day after the party, another round of gossip jetted through the halls and elevator shafts of Northman Tower. Fueling the rumors was the fact that Sandy’s dismissal had been kept quiet. Led once more by Arlene, the bigmouths at NP speculated that Sandy and Appius had been having the affair and had gotten caught in flagrante in Appius’s office—by Quinn. Maudette, Sookie’s coworker with the most active imagination, speculated that there must have been a love triangle between Quinn, Sandy, and Appius.
Soon after, the rumor spread that it was Appius—not Eric—who had hit Quinn in a jealous rage and that Quinn was lucky to have kept his life. Of course, Arlene yammered that she wouldn’t be surprised if Quinn had an “accident” soon. After all, Appius was known for being ruthless, and Arlene ventured that there was more than one body buried in the foundation of Northman Tower.
The week after that, a new wrinkle was added to the story as Andre Leclerq, Sophie-Anne Leclerq-Northman’s brother, was thrown into the mix. Rumor had it that Sophie-Anne insisted that Andre be hired as Appius’s personal assistant as a condition of her staying married to Appius after his “scandalous infidelity” with Sandy. Arlene even said that she had witnessed the after-effects of a little “cat fight” between Sophie-Anne and Sandy. Arlene claimed that the previous December, Sandy had exited the elevator with a clear hand print on her cheek and that Sophie-Anne had looked “incredibly satisfied” as she followed Sandy out of the conveyance.
It was odd, Sookie thought, that none of Arlene’s rabid followers questioned her about why she hadn’t spoken of that particular episode before. When Sam overheard her retelling the story at lunch, he did ask that question. Ever the consummate story-weaver, Arlene just shook her head sadly, claiming that she had remained silent in an attempt “to protect Sophie-Anne from her husband’s betrayals.” To his credit, Sam had just rolled his eyes and walked away from Arlene and her gathered audience.
Even if Sookie hadn’t known the real reason why Quinn and Sandy had been fired, she wouldn’t have believed the gossip about a love triangle between Quinn, Sandy, and Appius—at least not in the way it was being spoken about. She’d not seen Appius many times, but his body language made her guess that any love triangle between the three would have starred Quinn in the middle.
Moreover, from unintentionally “reading” Andre’s lips in the lobby one day, Sookie was pretty sure that he hadn’t been put in the office to keep Appius faithful to Sophie-Ann. Far from it! Before Sookie had looked away, she’d picked up that Appius and Andre were incredibly “close” and that Andre enjoyed being tied up with Appius’s neckties. Sookie sighed. That was certainly information that she wished she had never “heard.”
Of course, Sookie had said nothing about the situation with Quinn and Sandy, even though she knew why they had really been fired. Just the same, she’d been fascinated by the gossip that she “saw” on people’s lips and overheard in the ladies’ room. As it had grown and spread, she’d studied Pam, the only Northman she saw on a consistent basis. If the rumors about her family had bothered her, it couldn’t have been detected by looking at Pam. In fact, her face had held only amusement when she’d walked through the main room of the department one day as Arlene was loudly spreading one of her more colorful tales.
Later, when Nora had come to the editing department for a meeting, Sookie had seen Pam and her talking as they walked toward Sam’s office. Pam was telling Nora about Arlene’s outlandish slapping tale. “As if,” Nora had responded to the story. “Sophie-Anne would never risk a nail by slapping anyone,” Nora had observed. The two had shared a laugh before they caught Sookie staring. They’d both given her a somewhat disgusted look; thus, Sookie had quickly buried her nose back into her work, looking forward to the day when she’d be able to move into her new workspace.
The best thing about the office gossip regarding the Northmans was that it took everyone’s focus off of Sookie—at least for the most part. However, there was one complication in Sookie’s attempt to achieve anonymity. When the yearly proficiency reports came out for the copy editors and Sam met with them as a group, he unintentionally caused the others to be even more contemptuous of her. It didn’t surprise Sookie that she had scored well above the others in accuracy and speed, but Sam’s giving that information out loud at the meeting certainly made her life a little more difficult for a while. After the meeting, Sookie made a point of “listening in” to her coworkers when they were in the cafeteria discussing their own statistics.
During her next therapy session, Claudine and she’d had a long talk about how Sookie was being treated at the office. Since Sookie was reticent about talking to Sam or confronting those who were bullying her, Claudine suggested a different tactic. Claudine posited that jealousy was just as strong of a motive for the others’ disdain as Sookie’s “uniqueness.” And though it went against both of the women’s personal inclinations, they talked about how it might be better if Sookie tried to underperform for a while so that the others’ envy would wane. Of course, Sookie could not “underperform” too much if she wanted to keep her job; thus, the information she’d discovered about the other copy editors’ rates of speed and accuracy levels had been crucial.
All of the other copy editors were very good at their jobs; otherwise, Northman Publishing wouldn’t have hired them. But to limit their errors, they had to work slower than Sookie normally did; plus, occasional mistakes, mostly of the punctuation variety, did periodically creep into their work.
Sookie made the decision that her comfort level at work outweighed her need to be perfect at her job, even though she hated the fact that she was altering herself for the bullies in her department. However, Sookie needed to keep her job, and one more complaint would lead to Pam firing her.
Remembering her school days when she would purposely miss questions on tests so that she would get C’s and not A’s, Sookie intentionally “missed” a couple of things in her newest project—though she made sure not to leave major errors in the text. At one point, the author had used a hyphen instead of a dash as he should have, but Sookie “missed” that error. At another point, a semicolon had been misused, but she left that too. All told, she left five mistakes in the manuscript—all of them minor, but all of them errors which she would have normally caught.
Sookie waited until right before the book went to publication—while there was still time to make changes even though it was inconvenient—to email Sam about the several “last-minute” errors she’d “just found.”
When Sam came to her station to give her his patented speech about punctuation being as important as words—something she’d heard him give at least five times to other copy editors—she celebrated inside, even as the others gloated.
“Sorry, Mr. Merlotte. I’ll slow down a bit,” had been Sookie’s reply to the lecture. And she had slowed down a little after that—her previous “errors” justifying her change in rate. It wasn’t in her personality to leave mistakes in people’s hard work on purpose, but she could slow down without feeling bad about doing it—especially now that she knew how fast she “should” have been working.
Thus, between the rampant gossip about the Northmans and Sookie’s little reprimand from Sam, Arlene and the others stopped paying much attention to Sookie. Also, though it was difficult—since she’d spent most of her life reading lips and still counted on that skill almost as much as her hearing—Sookie tried not to do it as much—or, at least, not as obviously.
Through mid-February, however, her main problem had been that she still worked in a large central space with a lot of people in it. When she saw movement that looked like a conversation, she was automatically drawn to the people’s lips. That was how she’d learned to function in school before her hearing had been restored. That was how she had been able to avoid her mother’s wrath, so not “listening” was difficult for her.
On March 1, things became infinitely easier for her when she was moved into her new workspace. The office was large and even had a window, and even though part of it was being used for storage, Sookie was happy to have the private space. She was even happier to learn that Arlene had been told by Sam that the move was more for the others’ benefit than for Sookie’s. Thus, the others had taken Sookie’s move as a victory and as a sign that they were being catered to; both of those things were beneficial to Sookie. In fact, since the move, Arlene and the others had all but ignored her, and she was glad that she no longer had to interact with most of the people in her department. With Claudine’s help, Sookie was still working on her social skills, but she really didn’t want to practice them with people like Arlene, Maudette, and Dawn.
Sookie continued to have a “social” conversation with the familiar guards at the MET every week. Moreover, a new copy editor, Holly, had been hired in mid-February, and the woman had shown immediate disdain for the kinds of conversations and gossiping that Arlene and her cohorts participated in. Holly had not, however, been reticent about befriending the girl the others called “odd.” In fact, Sookie and Holly often ate their lunches together, and the two had developed what Sookie would call a casual friendship. Of course, Sookie was still working through her “trust issues,” as Claudine called them. But she was getting better each day—even relaxing around Holly. And—of course—Sookie practiced her social skills with Amelia a lot too. She’d even told both Amelia and Claudine about her ability to read lips, as well as about being deaf until she was seventeen. She’d also opened up to Amelia about her interest in Eric, which had been another big step for her.
Sookie smiled. Her number of friends was growing, but she was afraid to let her guard down completely, and some habits were hard to break. For instance, at work, she’d placed her desk so that she was facing the door and not the window. The idea of being sneaked up on still scared her very much.
However, the natural light from her window at work energized Sookie, and she found herself able to work even faster in that light and without the distraction of others’ lips moving around her. Of course, that meant that she had to consciously slow down even more; she’d actually taken to reading many of her projects twice or even three times: the first time to copy edit them and the subsequent times to enjoy the books or to learn from them.
When her office door was closed, she would spend some of her time looking outside. Because she was on one of the lower floors of Northman Tower, she saw mostly other buildings, but there were also slivers of sky poking through—mostly white or gray, but sometimes blue. When she saw the blue, she allowed herself to think about the summer sky in Bon Temps. She’d always liked to lie in the sun and stare into the blue sky, which was so often cloudless in Louisiana. She’d loved the vastness of it. And it had provided respite for her. Now when she thought about that blue, she thought about Eric Northman’s eyes.
Since their second encounter in January, she’d not seen him at all—not even at a meeting for all NP employees two weeks before. If he had been at the meeting, he had kept to the shadows even better than he usually did. A sixth sense had told her that he was there, looking for her—or looking at her. But she couldn’t be sure.
She sighed. As much as she hated to admit it, it was possible—likely even—that Eric had better things to do than to think of her, let alone to look for her.
Two weeks before as she’d sat in the company cafeteria with Holly, Sookie had “heard” the gossip that Eric had moved on from Nora as well as Freyda de Castro. Apparently, he was dating Isabel Edgington, whom he had also dated a couple of years before—at least according to Arlene. Isabel was the daughter of Russell Edgington, who ran Vibrant, a fashion magazine. Vibrant was well known for its cutting-edge content and its interactive online version. Amelia raved about it.
Given Eric and Isabel’s almost celebrity status in New York high society—as well as Eric’s highly publicized dismissal of Freyda de Castro—Eric and Isabel’s pictures had been featured on Page 6 of the New York Post quite a few times in the past weeks. The Post had confirmed that the couple was “an item.”
Isabel Edgington was beautiful and there was an intelligence in her eyes that came through even in pictures; in truth, she seemed to complement Eric both in looks and in the way she carried herself. She was obviously taller than Sookie, and she looked healthy, even though she was slenderer than Sookie. She had dark hair—almost black—and it shined even in the matte pictures of the newspaper. In fact, Eric and she clearly shined together.
Sookie wanted to dislike Isabel, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Something about the woman seemed “nice,” and Eric looked relaxed in the photos that had captured them together. However, for the first time in Sookie’s life, she did feel jealousy.
Sookie thought a lot about Eric—even more than she’d done the year before. And she couldn’t help but to wonder if he thought about her too. She also couldn’t help but to wonder if he was serious about Isabel.
She still didn’t know why he hadn’t had her arrested or fired in January. In fact, her involvement in the whole Quinn/Sandy/Victor/Felipe thing didn’t seem to be known; at least, it was not on the lips of the people she came in contact with.
Sookie sighed and thought about the impossibility of the fantasies she couldn’t help but to have about Eric Northman. She touched her lips—remembering what it had felt like to have his lips on hers.
However, she also liked to think about the tenderness of his kiss on her forehead in Gallery 111. Both of those kisses were totally unlike anything she’d ever known before, and they were also so unlike each other. One had ignited her passion, and the other had comforted her like cool water. Both had changed her life.
After them, she’d felt a little more hopeful, a little more confident in herself where men were concerned. She’d even gone out with Amelia and Claudine two Saturdays before, and a man named Preston had taken her number, though he hadn’t called her yet. However, it was something.
Again—she couldn’t help but to be proud of herself. She knew that she was moving slowly toward what most people would consider “normal,” and although she might never get there fully, Claudine had helped her to understand that she only had to get far enough to find happiness for herself.
Sookie smiled as she got up and began to walk slowly back to the MET. By far, the most healing part of Sookie’s life remained her Sundays at the museum. During her visits there, she just concentrated on the art and ignored the people who would roam in and out of her chosen gallery for the day.
Her time at the MET was a rest to her. Of course, staying out of sight from anyone with lips that she could read could also be considered as “rest.” However, that was isolating. The MET gave Sookie something she’d never enjoyed before. She was around people there; however, the art was enough to keep her from studying those people.
And Sookie found that she liked—really liked—to have people milling around her. She especially liked the families. She had been lonely for so much of her life, and being around people was good for her. Hardly anyone noticed her in the museum, which she also liked. No one was around her long enough to form the opinion that she was “strange” or “odd” or “touched in the head”—as some women in the South had liked to describe her. Plus, going there got her out of her small room, which had four close corners that she sometimes found herself unwittingly staring into.
Moreover, she was learning that most people wouldn’t look at her like she was “peculiar” if she just kept her eyes on their eyes—instead of on their lips—when she spoke to them.
With Eric—for some reason—that had been easy. But—then again—looking into his eyes was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.
Sookie sighed as she thought about him again. Each of her visits to the museum included a stop in Gallery 823 now. Though that particular gallery was often well-peopled on Sundays, most didn’t spend much time looking at any painting in particular. So—in a lot of ways—Sookie felt like she had Wheat Field with Cypresses all to herself.
And sitting on her bench—her gift from Eric—Sookie could enjoy the room and get lost in her favorite memories, at least a little while.
Sookie understood well that her life would still seem quite closed-off to others, but—in truth—she felt that she was opening up, just like the snowdrops in the park. As if laughing in the face of the cold, those little white flowers were popping up all along the path she always took from the MET to the Turtle Pond. Their buds faced downward, but when she’d “raised the chin” of one of the little flowers, she’d found it beautiful.
Sookie sighed. She’d only approached the kind of contentment that she was currently enjoying one other time—when she had been in her relationship with Bill. But—even then—it wasn’t the same. She’d been getting all of her confidence from Bill that time; this time, it seemed to be coming from her—from within—despite the fact that Eric had helped to spark it.
Sookie stopped and bent down to look at a particularly dense cluster of snowdrops. Yes. The little flowers were as beautiful as they were tough.
Over the last several weeks, she had been talking to Claudine about Bill—a lot—finally ready to deal with some of the wounds his actions had inflicted upon her. Indeed, Claudine had helped her to realize a lot of truths about the period of her life that she’d been with Bill.
Sookie had just started her second semester of graduate school when she met Bill. Graduate school had proven to be much better for Sookie in terms of how many people she had to be around. Instead of upper division classes with thirty people in them, she had seminars with ten or fifteen. Her living arrangements were also better. Her small efficiency apartment was a place where she could be more comfortable than in the dorms, even though her hall leaders had quit placing roommates with her by the end of her sophomore year as an undergraduate. Understandably, all of her roommates had complained about Sookie’s propensity for staring into the corner of the room for hours on end and had requested to be moved within weeks of being placed with her.
As a graduate student, Sookie was also able to do all of her copy editing work from home, which was another godsend, and two days before she’d met Bill, she’d found out that she wouldn’t be required to teach any classes since she had her job at the newspaper. Dr. Dekker had arranged for that too. To receive funding for their classes, most graduate students in the English department were required to teach one composition class per semester; happily an exception was made for her because of her other work. Her “oddness” probably also had something to do with the exemption, but Sookie certainly hadn’t complained.
Bill had come into her life as a knight in shining armor. Sookie had been walking from the university to her apartment after a late seminar when two men, both of whom had knives, had come out of the darkness. They had demanded her backpack, which Sookie had immediately handed over, but their whispering lips had told her that their demands would not end there, so she’d run from them. They’d caught her easily, and one of them had tackled her onto the grass. In the next moment, she’d heard a scuffle near her and had looked up to see Bill fighting with one of the men. He’d already received a cut on the arm for his efforts.
Luckily, the noise of the fight had alerted the people in the house they were in front of, and Sookie’s two attackers were pulled off of Bill and then ran away. Immediately, Bill had seemed more concerned about Sookie than about his own injury. He had helped her to get up and had sat with her as the police questioned her, refusing to go to the hospital to get stitched up until she could go with him to get checked out since she’d suffered a big bump on her head and some bruised ribs when she had been pushed to the ground.
When Sookie “read” from the officers’ lips that a rape had occurred in the area just a few hours before and that the suspects matched the descriptions of the men who had attacked her, she was even more frightened and more grateful for the kind stranger’s support. From the beginning, Bill was extremely sympathetic and gentle, hardly touching her, but staying close. He even volunteered to stay on her couch while she slept since her attackers hadn’t been caught. It had been one of the nicest things that anyone had ever done for her. Looking back, she realized that she had trusted him too quickly, but—given her inexperience and the situation—it had been impossible for her to do otherwise.
A graduate student in computer science, Bill had asked Sookie out for her first date the week after she’d been attacked, and soon after that, they had fallen into a routine with each other. Incredibly busy with graduate school, Bill could spend only two evenings a week with her. And since that was about all she was ready for anyway, it had been perfect.
They would spend their evenings together at her apartment since he said he had roommates. He would bring over a movie and she would cook something for him, or they would order pizza. For several weeks, all he did was kiss her on the cheek as he was arriving and then again as he left for the night. Then one night, he asked if he could kiss her on the lips. Even that kiss, however, had been chaste.
Bill’s patience had continued much longer than other men’s might have. And she began to reveal certain things about herself to him, even as they slowly became more intimate with each other physically. She told him about her childhood deafness. She also told him about her ability to read lips. She told him about being bullied by kids in her school because of what they perceived as a “handicap.” She told him about how she still had a hard time fitting in.
In turn, he assured her that he was happy just being with her—that they didn’t need to have others around them. He even drove her to Bon Temps several times during her summer break from school so that she could visit Gran. And—because of Bill—things with her mother had been tolerable too. Not long after their first trip to Bon Temps, she’d given her virginity to him, and the two evenings a week that they spent together turned into two evenings and two nights, as he would sleep over.
Through talking to Claudine, Sookie had begun to understand that she’d fallen in love with Bill not out of some romantic notion, but because of his patience with her and because he’d been so protective after her attack. Plus, he’d been the first man to show her any real interest. Finding out why Bill had been so patient and protective and interested had shattered the trust she’d been able to put into another, which had left her in the extra fragile state she’d been in the year before.
And—of course—that had also caused the “shields” that she tended to put around herself to be thickened. The year before, Eric had somehow rattled those shields—even though she didn’t even interact with him. Then Amelia had knocked on them. And then—by seeing Claudine—Sookie had started to try to pry them open from the inside before Eric had effectively burst through her shields with a single kiss in January.
Then the next day, he had put those shields back up with another kiss; however, he’d somehow left her with the key to them so that she could open herself up more to others. She still didn’t know how he’d done that, but he had. And she was pleased with herself for taking advantage of that key.
Of course, the negative voice of her mother was still present in her head at times, but Michelle Stackhouse was slowly leaving Sookie’s day-to-day existence. And Bill’s betrayal was also moving from her everyday thoughts.
So at a pace that would seem painstaking to most but was the only one Sookie could make progress at, the “odd girl” was making baby steps out into the world.
A/N: As always—thanks so much for reading! Please forgive me if this had more typos than usual. I’ve been fighting a summer cold, but I had promised some of you that this chapter would be up today, so here it is. This coming weekend is a busy one for me (a friend is having a bachelorette party), so I might not have the next chapter up until early next week, so please bear with me.
Again, thanks for reading, and remember that I will answer comments/reviews with a preview of the next chapter.
Character Banners by Sephrenia