Chapter 26: Where to Pray
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Eric marveled that he could “feel” that Sookie was near, despite the fact that he had his back to her and they were perusing different sections of Gallery 455, which was a large L-shaped room. Feeling the pull of her eyes on him, he glanced over his shoulder; sure enough, she was looking back at him—or, at least, at a part of him. Her eyes immediately moved from his ass to his eyes.
He winked. She blushed. And then they went back to their explorations of the gallery. They’d repeated that little “dance” many times since they’d entered Gallery 455, though—more often than not—she would be the one to catch him watching her.
Despite the room’s shape, Eric made sure he could always see Sookie, his body instinctively gravitating toward where it needed to be so that they could share a look every once in a while. His ears trained themselves to the light touches of her sandals against the wooden floors as she moved slowly from one exhibit to the next. The sound comforted Eric—made him feel connected to her.
And—for his part—he made sure to step a little more heavily than he usually did as he moved. Eric wanted to make sure she could hear him when he moved. Somehow, he knew that it would help her to feel at ease.
Sookie had told him that there were some low-pitched sounds that she still had a hard time hearing, though she picked up most tones pretty well. By the time Sookie’s grandmother took her to a specialist, it had been too late to repair all the damage her inner ear disease had caused.
Eric sighed heavily and closed his eyes. He couldn’t fathom the physical pain and suffering Sookie had endured, though he was acutely aware of the kind of mental torment a parent could cause. Sookie hadn’t yet told him everything about Michelle Stackhouse, but Eric already knew that he hated the woman. He had never been violent; he’d never even hit anyone before, but his instincts made him want to strike out at the woman who had caused Sookie so much pain. His fists and he jaw clenched, but he took a slow, deep breath and tried to relax. He knew firsthand that anger over the past would do no one any good.
As he opened his eyes, they were met by an intricately-spun silk carpet hanging on one of the gallery’s walls. Eric let the beauty of the piece finish calming him down. He hadn’t known much about Islamic art before he entered the gallery that morning, though the room that Sookie and he were in housed what he would call artifacts more than art. Most of the pieces were beautifully constructed, but there was a practicality to them as well, and they provided a glimpse of the color-filled culture they belonged to.
Originating from the 1200s to the 1500s, the pieces in Gallery 455 consisted mostly of finely crafted tiles and painted folios from books. There were also some beautifully made dishes and jars and ewers, as well as a bit of jewelry. By far, the largest piece in the room was something called a Mihrab, which was a prayer niche. Eric moved the few feet he needed to in order to be in front of that piece again. And—again—he was struck by it.
The Mihrab was composed of a mosaic of cut ceramic tiles in various shades of blue, turquoise, brown, and cream. In addition to patterns, the tiles also formed into calligraphy. The large structure curved inward, obviously constructed to make a space for a person who wanted to kneel and pray.
Eric had always been interested in architecture; in fact, when—as an eleven-year-old—he’d been asked by his morfar what work he might like to do when he grew up, being an architect had been his first thought. Of course, his father would have never agreed to Eric’s being an architect. In fact, by then, Appius had already outlined not only Eric’s academic path, but also his career path. And—even at that young of an age—Eric knew that questioning his father’s wishes would have led to punishment. Appius’s favorite threat was to tell Eric that he’d no longer be allowed to see his grandparents in Sweden or his siblings at all if he didn’t “behave appropriately.” And Eric couldn’t risk losing those things, so he complied with Appius’s decrees to the letter.
However, Appius couldn’t stop Eric from being interested in the way things were built. He lifted his hand toward a particularly beautiful tile that captured the darkened shade of Sookie’s eyes right after he kissed her. Though he wanted to see if the tile was as smooth as his mind imagined and though he wanted to trace the connections between the tiles so that he could understand the construction of the piece better, he obeyed the sign on the wall and didn’t touch the Mihrab.
In truth, his hands had wanted to touch every tile in the room, and he’d loved learning about the various structures that the intricately fashioned textiles had helped to create. Meanwhile, Sookie had spent more of her time in Gallery 455 perusing the pages from various folios.
Eric smiled. It seemed that the gallery had been designed specifically with them in mind, considering Sookie’s love of books and his love of the construction of things. He smiled a little wider. For once, he was certain that they would be choosing very different pieces for their favorites, which was ironic, given the fact that it was the first time that they were exploring a gallery together.
Eric glanced at a particularly loud group of people that were passing through the gallery, barely pausing to look at anything. Many people had filtered in and out of the room as he and Sookie had studied each piece closely. Or—in Sookie’s case—she had studied every item except for the Mihrab, though it was clearly the showcase piece that had drawn most of the other museum visitors into Gallery 455. By contrast, Sookie had walked past the piece—several times—without giving it much of a look at all.
As Eric looked back at the breathtaking Mihrab, he couldn’t help but to wonder why Sookie seemed to be avoiding it. However, he decided not to ask as he glanced over at her; she was beautiful in that moment, and he couldn’t bring himself to do anything to spoil her obvious pleasure. She was hovering over a display case full of pages from folios, and her lips were pulled up into a contented smile.
Eric found himself smiling as well. Sookie was obviously enthralled by the various pages from the Shahnama, or the Book of Kings. He sighed as he took her in before turning back to the colored tiles of the Mihrab. As he studied the patterns, his mind wandered.
He’d had a good week—the best week of his life, actually. Except for the times when he and Sookie had to work and the evening that Sookie had spent with Claudine, he’d spent his time in Brooklyn. And each night, he’d slept soundly in Sookie’s bed, holding her close.
And sound sleep—peaceful sleep—was not something he’d been used to.
From Wednesday to Friday, his meetings had kept him at Northman Publishing until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., and then he would make a quick run to his house in order to grab clothes for the next day since he never presumed that he’d be able to spend more than one night at a time with her.
Every morning, he would ask if he could return that night—just as nervous as he’d been the first time he’d asked. And she would say, “Yes.”
He was always surprised—always grateful.
Pam was engrossed in a new paramour, so she was yet to notice that he hadn’t been around. Despite the fact that they lived in the same building, they didn’t hang out together too often. She was what one would call “social,” using her house mostly as a closet. He used his home as a sanctuary.
In truth, Eric was still learning how to have a relationship with his sister; he didn’t want to risk becoming burdensome to her. They’d grab dinner or a drink together once or twice a week—if Pam wasn’t otherwise occupied, that is. Eric knew that Pam would think nothing of it if she stopped by and he was out. But—just to be safe—he’d asked the guards in his building, who also functioned as doormen, not to mention his comings and goings to Pam. Given the fact that they liked him a heck of a lot more than his often snarky sister, they were happy to help out.
For a week, Sookie and he had been in a bubble of sorts—a simple domestic space that was better than any paradise he’d ever imagined for himself. When he arrived at her home after work, they would have dinner, feasting on recipes that Sookie’s grandmother—Gran—had taught her. And—for the first time in his life—Eric now understood the concept of “comfort food.”
Some nights after dinner, they had curled up together and watched television or a movie. On other nights—when he had needed to complete some work—Sookie would read or do research for a book that she one day wanted to write about diary writing in Early Modern England. Eric had found out that Sookie’s initial plan had been to pursue her doctorate degree in English literature after she finished her master’s degree. And—though she was currently not interested in returning to school—she hadn’t dropped the project she had intended to focus on for her PhD.
Eric had wanted to ask her why her plans had abruptly changed while she was in the middle of getting her master’s degree. After all, he wanted to find out everything about her. But he hadn’t asked. He sensed that Sookie was the kind of person who would speak about something when she was ready. And since Eric was the same way, he couldn’t begrudge her going at her own pace. He could already tell that she was sharing more of herself than she’d ever done before—just as he was doing.
The day before had been the best day of the week and—without a doubt—the best day of his life. Sookie and he had slept in, waking up at around 5:00 a.m. and then deciding to go back to sleep. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d done that, and when they’d awoken again at 9:00 a.m., he’d felt truly and exquisitely rested.
After they’d risen, she’d started some oatmeal as he’d put the coffee on and gotten the newspaper for them. They’d shared their first sit-down breakfast and had exchanged parts of the newspaper in the sunlight of Amelia’s back patio area.
After they’d cleaned up the kitchen together, they’d done Sookie’s grocery shopping for the week. And after bringing the food back to Sookie’s, they’d walked hand-in-hand to the library, where he’d gotten his first public library card. With it, he checked out another book on Vikings since he’d finished the one Sookie had already had. He’d also picked up a couple of classic science fiction novels that he’d heard of, but had never had a chance to read.
They’d gotten back to Sookie’s house at about 12:30, and they’d quickly made sandwiches for lunch before curling up in bed to read for a while. Sookie had fallen asleep after about twenty minutes, and the feeling of her even breaths against his body had made him stop reading and just enjoy the sensation of her resting against him.
After she’d woken up, they took turns showering, and then she put him to work chopping vegetables. He cut up potatoes and carrots, while she chopped about ten ingredients for the soup she was making for them. After that, he pulled parsley leaves from the stems. That task had taken him quite a while, but—in the end—he had the half cup she wanted of the fragrant herb. While he’d been doing that task, Sookie had mixed up some batter for cornbread and put it in the oven to bake.
Luckily, Sookie didn’t mind his slow speed at completing the jobs she’d given him, and they chatted easily about Gran, Pam, Amelia, Holly, Bobby, and even Isabel. Over the week, he’d learned quite a bit about Sookie’s mother, and he’d also told her some things about his father, but they had kept their Saturday conversation light.
As the soup simmered during the late afternoon and early evening, they played Scrabble and Chess, which were the only two games Amelia owned. Neither of them had played either of the games before, so they took their time reading the directions. As expected, Sookie took to Scrabble instantly and dominated Eric in their game. Eric won their Chess match, however.
They had smiled their way through both games. Eric couldn’t help but to wonder if they’d ever get to play them again as he helped her put them away, but he didn’t let himself dwell on the sad thought that his time with her might be limited to only one week.
After all, it was his fault that the specter of time overshadowed them in the first place.
Instead, he’d let himself live in the moment—to enjoy the perfect day.
As they’d cleaned up the dishes after their dinner, Gran and Pam had called almost simultaneously.
Finding that he wasn’t at home, Pam had wanted to meet Eric for drinks—ostensibly to discuss their upcoming trip to Sweden. When Eric said that he had other plans, her real reason for wanting to get together was revealed. The model that she had been dating had gone to Paris for the weekend, so she was bored. Eric promised Pam a lunch on Monday and then hung up before she started begging him to cancel his current plans.
Sookie’s phone call had taken longer and was clearly emotional for her, but—despite his impulse to go to her and hold her through whatever was upsetting her—he’d given her space and had gotten a little work done. When Sookie got off the phone with Gran, she told him that her cousin Hadley was back in the hospital.
The Monday before—during Gran’s usual weekly call to Sookie—she’d told her granddaughter that Hadley had contacted her and that she’d gone to New Orleans to see her long-missing grandchild.
Sadly, Hadley had AIDS, likely gotten through sharing needles when she was addicted to drugs. Hadley was also almost eight months pregnant with a son that she planned to name Hunter. The week before, Hadley had gone into false labor, and since she was high-risk and her doctors wanted her to deliver by cesarean section to limit the chances that she’d pass the HIV virus to her child, she’d spent a few days in the hospital. While there, she’d finally called Gran to let her know that she was alive and that she would soon have a great-grandchild.
Scared into sobriety when she realized she was pregnant, Hadley had succeeded in breaking her addictions to alcohol and drugs seven months before, only to find out—after her first appointment with her OBGYN—that she had AIDS. Gran had told Sookie that the child’s father, Remy Savoy, had also tested positive for HIV, but he hadn’t developed AIDS and his viral load was being kept down with a cocktail of drugs that he was taking.
Hadley wasn’t as lucky. She had refused to have an abortion and had carried her child as safely as she could, though doing so had prevented her from taking some of the more potent experimental drugs that might have helped to lower her own viral load.
Gran had called the day before from a hospital in New Orleans where Hunter had just been born. Thankfully, a blood test had shown that the infant didn’t have the HIV virus; however, the doctors had put him on AZT out of caution. According to Gran, the caesarean delivery had taken a lot out of the already weak Hadley. Sadly, Hadley’s doctors weren’t sure that the woman would rebound. Gran had also reported that Hadley and Remy were planning to marry and that Remy seemed like a good man. He had been off of drugs and alcohol for as long as Hadley had been, and he now had a good job. Gran had hope that Remy would be a good father and husband.
As Sookie had told Eric about the phone call, he had been able to discern that something else regarding Hadley was bothering Sookie, but—once again—he’d not pushed her to speak of it. And they’d quickly settled back into the comfortable rhythm that had defined the rest of their Saturday.
Instead of staying in for the night, they’d gone out to a movie. It had been the first time either of them had ever been to the cinema for a date. When they’d returned to her home, they’d cuddled in bed and kissed—a lot—though Eric had been careful to keep his hands from wandering.
With great difficultly, Eric wasn’t pushing things with Sookie on a physical level. He was letting her take the lead, but he also wasn’t denying anything she initiated either. He was sure that he’d never kissed a woman as much as he’d kissed Sookie during their week together. However, kissing her—or just holding her, for that matter—had been more satisfying than any sex he’d ever had. Of course, his cock was currently rebelling since the only relief he’d given it had been with his own hand in the shower. Sadly, the releases he had while imagining having sex with Sookie didn’t truly satisfy either him or his dick. But at least they took the edge off for a little while.
It wasn’t that Eric was complaining. The wonderful intimacy that he’d experienced with Sookie over their week together had been enough to make him more content than he’d ever been.
He sighed as he thought about the end of the previous night. As had become their custom during their week together, they’d fallen asleep with Eric spooning Sookie. It had been the perfect way to end the day.
Yet Sookie had had a nightmare in the early morning hours. He’d awoken immediately as she was thrashing and crying in her sleep. He’d felt the instantaneous urge to protect her, and he’d turned her to face him and had held her close to his chest, his lips whispering assurances into her hair until she finally fell back into a restful sleep.
He’d stayed awake after that, his hands softly stroking her hair and her back—soothing her in her sleep and himself in his wakefulness. She’d had no other nightmares.
Sookie had woken up with a smile on her face, her head lying near his heart. She’d felt perfect there.
She didn’t seem to remember her nightmare, which Eric was thankful for. After they’d both showered, they’d left hand-in-hand for the subway station and had enjoyed coffee and a pastry on the MET’s steps. Their conversation had been easy, and Eric had felt lighter than he ever had.
However, as soon as they’d gotten to Gallery 455, apprehension had begun to invade Eric in small waves. Today was the day that Sookie had initially told him that she would decide whether she wanted to be with him. And—although he’d insisted that she not give herself a deadline for making her choice—she’d told him that she would try to have her choice by then. Thus, he couldn’t help but to wonder if she had made it yet.
He was too afraid to ask her; he didn’t want to miss even a minute of time with her if she made the smart choice and cut him loose.
He ran his hand through his hair nervously.
He wished that he could offer Sookie more than three years and eight months of his life. More than anything, he wanted to give her a home and children—the family from the painting two weeks before. But those things were not in his power to give.
All he could offer was his whole heart, and that she already had—not that it was worth much.
No matter how many times he asked the question, “What if,” he had to be realistic about the answer. To protect the people he cared about, he had to do as his father required and fulfill the terms of their contract. It wasn’t even so much about becoming the CEO of Northman Publishing either, though that was something that Eric had eventually come to want for himself.
No. If it were just that—just a job or the money that came with it—he would have left New York and Appius behind years before. But it wasn’t just his own future that he had to consider.
He sighed. Since he’d first laid eyes on Sookie Stackhouse, he’d considered every possible scenario that might break Appius’s control over him—but he knew that his father would wield all of his terrible power to punish Eric if he broke the contract. And that punishment would entail crushing anyone and anything that Eric cared about—including the woman who now owned his heart and his soul.
Eric couldn’t risk that; his own happiness wasn’t worth it. Sookie’s happiness was, however, and it killed Eric that he couldn’t see a way to ensure it. The contract allowed for only one “escape clause,” but even that would lead to 104 people being hurt. Eric had counted and recounted them many times since January, spending long, sleepless nights trying to figure out what he could do to protect everyone and still have Sookie.
In his darkest hours, he’d even prayed for his father’s death.
But not even that would free Eric; Appius had made sure of that. Eric closed his eyes, once more feeling his “imprisonment” stealing his breath away. He reminded himself that he was lucky to have a little bit of freedom and a little bit of time with Sookie. But he would only be able to enjoy those things if Appius didn’t find out about her. The one thing that Appius would never tolerate was Eric’s happiness, and Sookie would be the one to suffer for it.
Eric didn’t see any options or escape routes. He had to keep Sookie a secret from Appius if he wanted to have even three years and eight months with her. And then he had to fulfill the terms of the contract to the letter so that 104 others wouldn’t suffer.
Only two would suffer. And the only suffering he cared about was hers. Once more, his own selfishness tore at his heart. How could he do this to her?
How could he be such a monster?
His only redeemable action had been telling Sookie upfront how much time he could be with her—and that was of little consolation. But—at least—she’d be able to choose with her eyes wide open.
Looking at Sookie, Eric knew that—if she decided to be with him, if they were together for 4.8% of his life as he selfishly wanted them to be—saying goodbye to her would be the most difficult thing that he’d ever do. Of course, saying goodbye to her was going to break him no matter when it happened.
To be honest, Eric had always tried to avoid love—even with his mormor and morfar and Pam—and had begun to wonder if he was capable of really loving someone. But—already—what he felt for Sookie was either love or it was something close to it. He was scared to love her—frightened of the way his love caused pain to others.
At this point, he was frightened of her saying yes and frightened of her saying no.
He looked back at the Mihrab.
If she said no, then this day could very well be their last day together.
If she said yes, then he would have to bear knowing that he would be responsible for her pain when their expiration date arrived.
The prayer niche seemed to call to him. But he didn’t know what to pray for. Should he pray to have her? Should he pray for her to run? Or should he thank God that she was even considering being with him?
For the thousandth time, he thought about how it would have been better for her if he’d never approached her. And—again—he cursed his selfishness.
“Hey,” she said, her hand slipping into his from behind—pulling him from the vortex of his thoughts.
He turned to face her. “Hey,” he said trying to hide the melancholy that had overwhelmed him.
“You okay?” she asked perceptively, her fingers threading through his.
He didn’t answer. Instead he kissed her forehead.
“Eric?” she asked, her eyes brimming with concern.
Eric’s phone buzzed in his pocket, giving him a reprieve from responding to her question. As he glanced at the number, he sighed with relief and then answered.
“Hello Ben,” he said into the receiver and turned to nod toward one of the cameras that he had noticed in the room. Sookie squeezed his hand before releasing it and going back over to the manuscripts she’d been looking at.
“Hey Eric,” Ben said. “We just wanted to say thanks for the sandwiches that you had delivered.”
“No problem,” Eric said as he nodded again toward the camera.
“So?” Ben asked. “How are things going in there? I’ve had to practically beat Doris and Tony with a stick to keep them from watching you two all day. And now that Milos is in here on his break, it’s even worse!”
Eric chuckled. “It’s going well.” He looked over at Sookie and noticed that she was looking back at him, a little blush glowing on her cheeks. “It’s going very well.”
“Good,” Ben said sincerely. “It’s nice to see you two in the same room, Eric,” he added softly, probably so the others couldn’t hear.
Eric couldn’t help but to smile as he looked at Sookie smiling at him, and his dark mood lifted for the moment.
“Ben, Sookie would like to meet you all—the Sunday crew. Can I bring her by before we take off for lunch?”
“I assume you don’t want her to know about the betting,” Ben observed astutely.
“No, I don’t,” Eric answered. Whether he and Sookie were together or not, he wanted to ensure that she felt comfortable and safe in the museum that she loved so much. He just hoped that the others would be able to play along without letting it slip that Sookie was a common topic of conversation for them on Sundays. Eric knew that the crew didn’t mean her any harm. And it wasn’t as if they watched Sookie more than anyone else; if anything, they watched her less because they knew she wasn’t going to harm the art. They just kept an eye on her because they “liked” her.
“Sure, bring her whenever you’re ready,” Ben said. “I’ll make sure the others know the score.”
“Thanks,” Eric said sincerely before hanging up. He winked at Sookie before they both turned back to their explorations of the gallery.
A/N: I hope that was worth the wait. I promise that I’m not planning to leave this story to chase another rabbit. I’ve worked the TB season out of my system, and I’m committed to staying with this story until it’s complete and then move right to its sequel. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post several chapters a week as I was doing before.
I’m glad to be back to this story! Thanks for your patience as my muse forced me elsewhere. I have to say though that a vacation from the angst of this piece was welcome for a little while, but now I’m refreshed and even more excited to pick this story up!