Chapter 17: Conversation Piece
Eric strolled around Gallery 758. It was a relatively small room in the American wing of the MET. There were only sixteen pieces, most of them large paintings, and Sookie had left the museum only ten minutes before to get her lunch. Since it was such a nice day, he knew that she would take her time enjoying the park. Thus, there would be no rush trying to look at all the pieces before choosing one. After he made his first sweep of the room, his mind wandered back to what he had learned about Sookie and himself during the previous few months.
After his first Sunday at the MET, Eric hadn’t made any direct contact with her; mainly, that was because he didn’t want to ruin the trips to the MET for her. He intuited that they were somehow sacred to her, just as they had become to him.
He only allowed himself to watch her for a short time each Sunday—though he wanted to get lost in her for hours. But he felt like he was intruding—stealing away her privacy—if he watched for too long, so he granted himself the luxury of only a few minutes, usually during the time that she was in “their” gallery.
He sighed. Even in the imperfect video feed, Sookie was beautiful, and every week, he was both stirred and comforted when he saw her. But she was not quite the same girl he’d met in January. From week to week, the changes were subtle, but part of him—a part that was deep inside—recognized and celebrated every nuanced transformation right along with her. Sookie stood a little taller, a little more confidently, than she had in January. In March, she had started to interact with people with whom she came into contact in Gallery 823, sometimes having short conversations with them or sometimes just sharing brief nods or smiles with them. Most significantly, her smile when she interacted with the gallery’s visitors had transformed from forced and nervous to soft and automatic.
Unable to stop himself, he had mentioned “Susanna Stackhouse” to Pam a couple of times over the months—offhandedly, of course. His sister had reported that the “odd” employee had begun to fit in better. Pam reported that—despite still “staring” at times—”Susanna” had started saying hello “like a human.” Pam was grateful that the “normal employees” no longer seemed to be all that bothered by “Susanna” since she’d been moved to a different workspace. Pam was happy that she no longer had “to think about the troublesome girl.” After that conversation, Eric couldn’t safely ask Pam about Sookie without making her suspicious about why he was raising the topic. However, at least, he got the impression that her job was no longer threatened.
Eric had found out a little more about Sookie by checking the résumé NP had on file for her. She had graduated from college with a 4.0 GPA, receiving bachelor’s degrees in both English and Journalism. She’d followed that up immediately with a master’s degree in English, also from the University of Mississippi—Ole Miss. In fact, she’d been hired by Sam Merlotte before she’d even finished her M.A., which had been earned in June of 2011, five months after she started at NP. A note in her employee file had been written by Sam Merlotte in July 2011 indicating that Sookie had received a small raise based on earning her higher degree.
All of Sookie’s reference letters in the file were short. Every letter spoke of “Susanna Stackhouse’s” precision in editing the school newspaper at Ole Miss. None of them spoke of her beyond her work or her work ethic, though the letters hinted that she had been thought of as peculiar by her college professors too. One of the recommenders had indicated that “Susanna” had a “unique way of seeing the world”; another said that she was “singular in her work habits”; the third reported that she worked “best on her own, but could be counted on to do precise work.” There was another note in Sookie’s file from Sam Merlotte, indicating that he’d heard a stellar verbal recommendation for “Susan Stackhouse” from a professor named Horace Dekker, with whom Sam had also studied. Sam’s note indicated that Dr. Dekker had been killed in an accident before he’d been able to send an official recommendation letter; however, after being offered a job during a phone interview with Sam, Sookie had arranged for the requisite three letters of recommendation to be sent by other professors.
After perusing the file and seeing nothing that would have made Sookie stand out above other potential job candidates, Eric concluded that Sam had offered Sookie a job solely on his mentor’s recommendation—or, perhaps, because Dr. Dekker had just been killed. Likely, Merlotte had thought of his giving Sookie employment as one last gesture to honor his old professor.
Also in Sookie’s file were two formal complaints from a woman named Arlene Fowler in the copy editing department. The complaints accused Sookie of creating “an uncomfortable working environment” for the other employees in the department and cited Sookie’s “abnormal staring habit.” Sam had written follow-ups to the complaints indicating that he’d spoken to Sookie about trying to adapt her “interpersonal behavior” and to Arlene Fowler about “respecting individual’s differences.” Merlotte’s letters had defended Sookie—at least to a certain extent—and the second of them indicated that he’d moved her workspace “to benefit the work atmosphere of all.” Also in the file were Sookie’s stellar work records for each quarter she’d been at NP. Not surprisingly, she ranked as the top copy editor at NP, both in accuracy and speed—though her speed had diminished a little in the past quarter.
Eric had learned more about Sookie through Bobby and then—later—through Alcide Herveaux, who still kept an eye on her during the weekends.
Admittedly, Eric had had a momentary doubt about Sookie’s innocence regarding the de Castro situation when Bobby had informed him that she lived in a house with Amelia Broadway, the daughter of Copley Carmichael. Copley had always been thought of as a ruthless, though honorable, businessman. He had also been a close personal friend to Appius for many years; however, it seemed that Copley had changed a lot because of the prolonged illness and death of his wife. Bobby had found out that Copley had all but retired, leaving his son, Paul, in charge of his real estate empire. Eric remembered the incident at the NP party three Januaries before when Nora had humiliated herself and upset the widower. Bobby’s digging around uncovered that Copley was currently living in the Hamptons and—although he was clearly no longer as close to Appius as he’d been before—he wasn’t his enemy either. Thus, in the end, Eric couldn’t imagine that Copley would be petty enough to join forces with de Castro to hurt Appius and Northman Publishing.
Although Bobby couldn’t find the proper paperwork filed with the borough of Brooklyn, it seemed that Amelia rented a room in her home to Sookie. Amelia was—by all accounts—something of an eccentric and ran some kind of a “New Age” shop in Greenwich Village. She had changed her last name to Broadway, her mother’s maiden name, when she’d had a falling out with Copley; however, according to Bobby’s information—much of which was gleaned from Claudine—daughter and father had reconciled shortly before the death of Mrs. Carmichael. Bobby had found no connection between any of the Carmichael family and de Castro or Madden.
After receiving confirmation that Sookie was not associated with de Castro through the powerful Carmichael family, Eric had found solace in the fact that Sookie lived with Amelia Broadway. Amelia’s house was in one of the safest parts of Brooklyn Heights. Purchased for Amelia by Copley, the home consisted of the first floor of a large brownstone which had been renovated in the 1990s.
However, Eric was not happy about the fact that Sookie was so often alone in the house at night. According to Alcide—who confirmed Bobby’s previous report—Sookie’s roommate hardly ever spent Fridays or Saturdays at home, leaving Sookie completely alone for almost 70 hours straight each weekend.
For some reason, the thought of her being alone—even in a good neighborhood and with Alcide keeping an eye on her—made Eric nervous. In fact, he never felt completely relaxed until he saw her at the MET on Sundays.
Beyond Sookie’s Sunday trips to the MET, Alcide had confirmed that her weekend routine was just as “boring” as Bobby had originally outlined. Sookie didn’t have much of a social life to speak of. As expected, she was a creature of habit—at least mostly. On Saturday mornings, she went to a grocery store in her neighborhood—always the same one. There, she would buy a week’s worth of food. She transported her items in reusable bags, using a little pull trolley. Going to the public library was always on Sookie’s Saturday afternoon agenda. Come rain or shine, she walked a few blocks more to go to the library in Carroll Gardens since the one in Brooklyn Heights wasn’t as good. According to Alcide, Sookie always had a full backpack of books to return, and she always left with her backpack just as full.
In the months that Alcide had been keeping tabs on Sookie, she’d been “out” three times on the days he was assigned to watch her. The first had been to a nightclub with Amelia and Claudine Crane. The second and third had been “dates” with a man named Preston Pardloe.
Alcide’s first mention of Parloe had been in his April 1 report; Eric had thought—hoped—that it was a goddamned April Fool’s prank. But it hadn’t been. The day before, March 31, Sookie and a man that Alcide had never seen her with before had had a two hour lunch at a café near Sookie’s house. She had walked there to meet him, and he had walked her home. The “date” had ended with the man kissing her cheek.
Immediately after reading Alcide’s report, which Eric had received on a Sunday night—after a particularly good day at the MET—he had called Bobby, asking him to find out who the hell the man was and then to investigate him. Thankfully, Parloe had paid at the café with a credit card, so his name had been easy for Bobby to find out. Within two days, Bobby had a complete report for Eric.
Preston Pardloe worked in the Midtown office of Morgan Stanley and rented an apartment in the East Village. He’d gone to college at NYU and worked as a mid-level financial advisor. He had no arrest record. In fact, he’d never even gotten a traffic violation. He seemed perfectly innocuous—a good guy for Sookie to date.
Eric had despised him from the first moment he saw Alcide’s report.
Though Eric knew that he had no right to be jealous, he had been. Very.
Sookie and Pardloe’s second date had been to dinner—to a restaurant near Sookie’s home called Jack the Horse Tavern; Pardloe had picked her up in a taxi. Alcide followed them to the eatery, but stayed outside. From there, he called Eric, who had told Alcide to inform him immediately if Sookie went out with any man again.
Two hours later, the date had ended somewhat abruptly. Pardloe hailed a cab; Alcide, having a car of his own, followed the couple back to Sookie’s house, where Sookie got out of the taxi without any signs of affection occurring between them. After that second “date,” there seemed to be no further interaction between Sookie and Pardloe. As ashamed as Eric was of himself and as selfish as he felt, he was still glad Pardloe hadn’t lasted longer than those two dates.
Eric was well aware of the fact that he had no right to think that way. Hell—he had been fucking Isabel on the night of Sookie’s second date, which had been on April 14.
That night, Eric had called Isabel as soon as he’d learned from Alcide that Pardloe had taken out Sookie again. The thought of her being with anyone else had rattled Eric so badly that he had used Isabel to try to un-rattle himself. Immediately, after doing that, he felt empty and even more distressed than he’d been before. He felt guilty.
The next day, he’d met with Isabel and had called things off with her—at least sexually. He’d not had sex with anyone since then either—the longest period he’d gone without fucking since his last semester of graduate school when he’d been swamped with schoolwork.
But that “dry spell” had been necessitated by his being busy. Now, he just couldn’t bring himself to fuck anyone; truth be told, he couldn’t even bring himself to think about touching any woman—other than Sookie.
But that was impossible.
Eric sighed. When he thought about Sookie’s solitary life, he couldn’t help but to wonder if it was more or less lonely than the life he led. On the surface, his life seemed lively enough. He went out two or three nights a month—going to high-profile parties or charity events. The parties were the “right” events for someone of his “standing in society” to attend. And the people at them were the “right” people—appropriate “friends” for him to have.
However, the people who surrounded him at the events were not his friends; they were acquaintances and business associates. Only if Pam attended—or if he took Isabel—would he have someone there with whom he enjoyed spending time. However, because most of the functions he attended were dictated by his grandmother Grace, Eric was well aware that he was expected to comport himself in a certain way at them. Plus, he was always given an “agenda” for the evening by his grandmother and/or his father. There were usually people with whom he was commanded to speak. Or there were people with whom he was to be seen and photographed. Other times, there were business deals that he was required to broach with people who were more easily coaxed in a social setting.
Not surprisingly, the events that made up his “social life” felt like a chore to Eric. He used to comfort himself with the fact that the parties were often a prelude to his fucking whatever socialite or starlet he’d taken to them. But—if he was honest with himself—that part of the night, too, had always felt like a chore, something he needed to do to try to feel some kind of pleasure.
Thus, Eric had been pleased when Isabel Edgington returned from Paris in February. The European version of Vibrant had been launched and was running smoothly, so she’d come home to Manhattan. And they had picked up their casual relationship right where it had left off. They accompanied each other to social functions, and, after them, they alleviated each other’s sexual tension. They had been the very definition of “friends with benefits.”
Certainly, Eric had appreciated the no-strings companionship he had with Isabel more than ever, especially after the debacle with Freyda de Castro. He admired the work that Isabel did greatly, and Russell Edgington was Eric’s favorite person among his father’s generation. Russell seemed to exist in high society with his sense of humor and his humility intact, extremely rare things among the upper crust of New York society.
Indeed, having Isabel on his arm for events had made them much more palatable for Eric. And the sex had been good, so they had kept having it. It had been just what he thought he needed at the time: physically pleasurable, but emotionally distant fucking. However, even from the first, Eric could tell that Isabel’s heart had been in the physical exchange about as much as his had been—not at all. Plus, after that night in April when Eric had literally used Isabel to alleviate his jealously over Sookie having an innocent date, he couldn’t in good conscience continue with that part of his and Isabel’s “arrangement.”
Using Isabel had felt like a betrayal to everyone involved: Isabel, himself, and especially Sookie.
As it turned out, Isabel had been using Eric too. She had been fucking him to try to get over someone else—a fact that had made Eric feel slightly better. She had fallen in love with a married man in Paris—Hugo, who was an artist that she hadn’t known was married until she saw him with his wife and two kids one day.
Luckily, after Eric had talked to Isabel about stopping their physical relationship—at least for the time-being—their friendship had actually flourished. In fact, Isabel was the only person—other than Bobby—to whom Eric had told anything about Sookie, though he’d not mentioned her by name. He’d simply told Isabel that he’d met a woman who fascinated him like no other. He’d also told her that Appius would be against the match, so he was not going to pursue the woman.
Eric had appreciated Isabel’s candor about the situation. She hadn’t tried to give him empty platitudes about “following his heart” or “true love conquering all”; she had perceived enough about his relationship with Appius to know better than that. Isabel was one of only two people who knew that Eric had to get married to a “certain kind of woman” on or before his thirty-fifth birthday if he wanted to become CEO at Northman Publishing. She also knew that Appius considered Eric to be a “place-holder” until Appius Jr. was old enough to take over the company. Eric had told her that these stipulations were part of a contract between him and Appius. However, he hadn’t given her any details beyond that.
Even after they’d halted the “with benefits” part of their friendship, Eric and Isabel had continued to go to events together since neither one of them wanted to pursue other relationships—sexual or otherwise—with anyone else at the moment. An added bonus of his still “dating” Isabel was that Appius had backed off about Freyda, whom he had still been advocating even after he’d learned of Felipe’s spies. Plus, Isabel was certainly the kind of girl who would meet the “standard” that Appius had set for Eric’s wife in their contract. After all, if Eric married Isabel, it would unite two powerful New York families, and Russell had no other heir, so Isabel would be the one to take over Vibrant—and all of Russell’s other holdings—when her father stepped down.
Indeed, Appius had even offered his “approval” of the match via email when Isabel got back to Manhattan. And—in truth—Eric and Isabel had discussed getting married several times, even after they’d stopped having sex. They both knew that they were a good match in many ways, and they were both very practical people. In fact, they had already reached a tentative arrangement. Unless Isabel was able to find a “love match” before then, she’d agreed to marry Eric on the eve of his thirty-fifth birthday.
However, thinking about marriage like it was just another business matter had made Eric face an important truth about himself: for the most part, his life was empty. Of course he’d known that before; the “new” wrinkle was that this fact had begun to bother Eric—to “fester” in the same part of his soul that celebrated the changes he’d seen in Sookie.
He sighed deeply as he moved on to study another painting more closely. The disconnectedness that he’d cultivated with both others and even with himself had taken its toll—finally and irrevocably.
All around him, he saw people with whom he wanted to have real connections: Ben and the others at the MET, Pam, Gracie, Bobby, and especially Sookie.
He ached for that link down to the bone. But he was scared—terrified of what a connection with her would mean.
It would lead to loss—a loss that would gut him.
To make matters worse, the insomnia from which Eric had suffered throughout his life was more severe than ever before—though, this time, it was partially his own fault. Until he literally became too exhausted to function or to work, he wouldn’t allow himself to sleep because when he did, Sookie was always in his dreams.
In some of the dreams, she was simply by his side, giving him a sense of connectedness that would be lost to him as soon as he woke up. Those dreams made his waking hours infinitely more difficult to bear.
In other dreams, he was searching for her, running through the halls of the MET, trying to locate her inside the labyrinth of galleries. Sometimes, he would find her sitting in their gallery, waiting for him, but he could never speak to her, and she would never turn around to see him there.
Other times, he wouldn’t find Sookie in Gallery 823; he would find Appius there. His father would laugh at Eric’s inability to find her. Then he would tear the Van Gogh painting from the wall and burn it as Eric was frozen in place. The wheat in the painting would blacken and turn to ash.
However, no matter which of the dreams he would have, Eric would always wake up feeling emptier than before.
Every week—by Sunday—he was literally aching to see Sookie. And it was becoming more and more difficult for him not to seek her out at work. Just knowing that they were in the same building had used to soothe him; now it made him restless. Many times, he’d found himself in the elevator, having pressed the button that would take him to her floor. After all, he could just say that he was there to see Pam. Hell—even he might believe the lie.
But he always resisted getting off of the elevator.
Since January, he’d seen her in person only twice—both times at staff meetings in the NP auditorium. However, he’d kept himself hidden from her, arriving at the last minute and stationing himself behind her against the back wall so that he could see only her golden hair.
Watching her through the cameras at the MET was better—safer. There he could maintain better control over his emotions. But, still, he ached.
The worst part was that he somehow knew—intuited with absolute certainty—that Sookie could fill the gnawing hole that had been growing in his chest since he was a child.
More every day, that hole refused to be denied—refused to be ignored.
But Eric wouldn’t allow himself to seek comfort beyond seeing Sookie one day a week, even as he knew that continuing to see her like that was a kind of self-imposed torture. But he couldn’t stop himself. Being where she’d been and seeing what she’d seen was a way for him to be with her—even if it was a fucked up way that could get him arrested for stalking.
Still, every Saturday night—even as he imposed long hours of sleeplessness onto himself—he tried to talk himself out of going to the MET. But he’d been unable to stay away. Just being near her—and knowing she was safe and content—bandaged him.
However—as long as he kept his distance from Sookie—Eric knew that his father would never know about her. And if Appius didn’t know, then she couldn’t become one of his tools to inflict pain upon Eric. She couldn’t be taken from him. She wouldn’t be hurt by him.
Eric knew that he didn’t deserve Sookie. And she sure as hell didn’t deserve the anguish that he would bring her.
So he stayed away.
However, Eric couldn’t deny the changes that being close to her had forced him to undergo. She had made him study himself, and he’d not liked what he’d seen. He couldn’t imagine going back to the way he had been before he’d met Sookie. He couldn’t imagine picking up a casual fuck, a nameless addition to the long line of nameless women whom he’d had sex with in order to find momentary pleasure. Eric sighed. His only redeeming quality in all of those “relationships” was that he’d always made it clear to the women—before he would even touch them—that he was interested only in fucking them. After he’d laid his cards on the table, he’d let the women decide. Most of them said yes. A few of them said no. Sadly, it didn’t matter much to Eric which answer they gave; they had been interchangeable with others.
But Eric hadn’t even considered giving Sookie his usual “pre-sex talk” that night in Galley 823 before he’d kissed her for the first time. And after he’d tasted the sun that she offered to his dark life, there had been no way that he could have ever treated her like the other women he’d been with. He still wasn’t sure what would have happened between them if she hadn’t told him about de Castro and Madden conspiring against NP, but he knew that it would have changed his life even more than she had changed it already.
Before their first kiss, he’d been telling himself that he was just intrigued by the woman with the golden hair—that he was simply going to fuck her, get his fill of her, and then discard her like all the others.
Of course, he’d been lying to himself.
After their kiss, he’d been running only on pure instinct. He’d planned to get her out of the museum and then take her to his home where he’d never taken a woman before. After that, he wondered if he would have been able to let her go.
He closed his eyes tightly before moving on to study the next painting. It was better that he’d never gotten her to his home—never let her fully into his life. After all, she would have eventually been taken from him—in one way or another.
Yes. He was glad that Sookie had shocked him out of his stupor by speaking up about what she knew regarding de Castro and Madden. In the end, it had saved him from having to lose her.
More importantly, it had saved her—from him.
Still, when Eric came to a sudden halt in front of the painting that he knew Sookie would choose as her favorite, he couldn’t help but to ask a question that had plagued him since he had first caught a glimpse of her golden hair: What if?
“What if?” he whispered into the gallery, though it was empty except for him.
The painting that had captured his focus was called Conversation Piece. It was by Lilly Martin Spencer, whom he had never heard of before that day.
Eric’s phone buzzed in his pocket, alerting him to the fact that Sookie was on her way back to the gallery. Just as he did every week, he thought about lingering; he thought about asking her if the painting he was looking at was—indeed—her choice for the day. He thought about telling her that it was his choice too. He thought about telling her why this particular painting touched him more than the others. He thought about asking her why it touched her.
“What if?” he asked himself again, even as he left the room to go into Gallery 759 so that he could slip away without her seeing him. Over the past several months, he had learned how to navigate the galleries of the MET very well, so he quickly worked his way around to Gallery 823, where he sat on the bench and stared at their painting for what felt like the millionth time. He knew every brushstroke. Every line. Every color.
“What if?” he mumbled as he looked at the golden field of wheat.
He closed his eyes. “What if?”
When Eric entered the control room of the museum a few minutes before 5:30, that two-word question was still in his mind.
Doris was squealing, signaling that she had won the betting pool for the day. Eric had known that someone would win since there were only 16 pieces in Gallery 758, and more than 16 people would want to bet; however, after Ben’s core group, it was first come first serve each Sunday, and no one could pick the same piece as someone else.
Sookie had chosen Conversation Piece—as had Doris apparently. Everyone already knew that Eric had chosen the same item since Doris had texted him to find out his choice an hour before.
“What’s your secret?” Tony asked Eric with frustration. “How do you always know what she’s gonna pick?”
“I don’t always know,” Eric said, correcting the young guard.
Tony rolled his eyes. “You’ve known every time, except for—what—twice? So—how did you know that she’d pick the one she did today?”
Eric thought for a moment. The theme of Gallery 758 was “Life in America,” and it held work from 1830 to 1860. Many of the paintings in the room depicted domestic scenes—snippets of life. The artists had been—as the description in the room indicated—trying to seize moments of “life” with paint.
Conversation Piece depicted a contented-looking husband and wife, admiring their child. Neither the wife nor the husband had exaggerated expressions as they took in their child; they simply looked “normal”—contented. The infant’s face was hidden, but his or her hands reached upward. The man held a sprig of what looked to be cherries over the child’s head to entice him or her. There was a discarded toy on the floor, but neither the mother nor the father was concerned about it. The scene was calm and the colors were warm.
The painting held a possibility—though a faint one. It held the question: “What if?”
“It shows a family,” Eric said, having to struggle not to let his voice crack as he finally answered Tony’s question.
“A family?” Tony asked.
“Yeah,” Doris said, looking straight at Eric as if she were seeing right into him. “A rich-ass couple that doesn’t give a damn about anything—except the little baby smack-dab in the center of the picture.”
Eric looked at the woman and nodded slightly. Doris did seem to understand a lot.
“What if?”—the question shot through his mind again.
He decided that—come what may—he had to answer that question. He had to answer it even if he destroyed what little sanity he had left in the process.
So—in the most selfish move he’d ever made in his life—Eric sent a text to Bobby.
He also sent a prayer to God, though he wasn’t sure he believed in the deity. The prayer was only one word: “Please.”
A/N: Hello! Thanks for all the reviews/comments that I got on the last chapter. They were much appreciated!
Please review/comment if you have time, and thanks again for reading!
Character Banners by Sephrenia