A/N: I need to give you a content warning. In this chapter, Sookie is going to talk about Uncle Bartlett. We all know that Sookie was molested when she was a child. I, for one, believe that her abuse was a major factor in making her the way she is in the book series. I believe that it affected her interactions with the men in her life almost as much as her telepathy did. Charlaine Harris dealt with the issue to a certain extent, but—given the way Sookie didn’t deal with the “trunk episode” and a multitude of other things, I think that her past continued to plague her. The Sookie in Comfortably Numb is also greatly affected by her abuse. And her talking about it is a needed step in her recovery. That said, I’ve tried to convey what happened to her without being overly graphic. If you are the victim of abuse—or reading about such things disturbs you—then you should, perhaps, avoid the paragraphs that are italicized.
Chapter 62: They Always Do
Sookie knew that this was where Eric wanted to have their conversation, but she could also tell that he was struggling to begin it.
“You can ask me anything, Eric,” she said, though she couldn’t help but to fear just what he was going to say.
Eric took a deep breath. “I’ve noticed something that you do sometimes, and I’ve wanted to ask you about it for a while now.”
“Okay,” she encouraged—despite her fear.
He took another breath. “It’s just that you sometimes stare into corners—almost like something forces your eyes to go to them.” He paused. “And sometimes you seem to get trapped looking into them.”
“Oh,” Sookie said in a whisper. “I thought I didn’t do that much anymore.”
“You don’t—at least, not often,” Eric assured. “But sometimes. I notice it sometimes.”
He sighed. “In the closet while you were packing to come to Sweden. You were in there for a while, so I came to check on you.” He reached for her hand. “In our bedroom a few weeks ago. I thought you were reading, but when I looked up, your eyes were in the corner.”
“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t realize.”
He reached out to take her hand. “It happened more often in your old room at Amelia’s when we were spending our first week together. And then earlier this morning—in the sauna—before we made love. It’s almost like you go somewhere else for a little while, and the look on your face . . . .” He was quiet for a moment and then took another deep breath. “The look on your face tells me that you’re in pain.” He closed his eyes. “I don’t want you to be in pain, Sookie.” He opened his eyes, and Sookie could see that they were reddening and bright. “I think it has something to do with your mother—with Michelle—because it’s the same look you get when you talk about her.”
He shook his head a little as he saw her pained expression. “You don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to, Sookie.”
She sighed. “It’s okay. It’s something I used to do even more. Gran was the first to notice that I was doing it. She said that sometimes I’d spend hours staring into a corner. She figured I was thinking things through, and I never corrected her. I just started trying to recognize when and where I was doing it. I know that I did it a lot in my dorm room at Ole Miss, which is probably one of the reasons why I never kept a roommate for very long.” She smiled sadly. “After a while, I was just given my own room, and then in graduate school, I was able to afford my own small apartment because I did some editing work for the Lafayette County Newspaper.” She paused. “I caught myself staring into corners in my apartment too—but not as much as before. It usually happens in smaller rooms where there aren’t many windows.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry if it bothers you. Claudine’s helped a lot by giving me strategies when I catch myself doing it.”
“It doesn’t bother me,” Eric assured her.
“It is sort of a weird behavior though,” she said with a sigh. “I wouldn’t blame you if it did bother you a little.”
“It only bothers me in that you seem upset when it’s happening.”
She reached over and ran her free hand along his cheekbone before biting her lip as if she wanted to say something. He sat silently as he waited for her to decide whether she wanted to talk or not.
She took a deep, steadying breath. “You’re right about it being because of my mother—because of Michelle. She used to punish me by setting me in the corner in my room. She’d—uh—hit me or make me sit there longer if I didn’t keep my eyes trained right into the corner too. Sometimes, she’d turn off the lights in my room, and since she’d put up a thick curtain on the one window in my room and I was not allowed to open it, there wasn’t a lot of light in there.”
“Your dad let this happen?” Eric asked in a somewhat strangled tone.
“He didn’t know about the things she did,” Sookie explained. “Michelle always made sure that my punishment ended before he got home from work. But I spent most of my weekends and a lot of hours after school staring into that corner.”
Sookie felt a hot tear streaming from her eye, but before she could wipe it away, Eric had produced a handkerchief for her to use.
She smiled at him. “I love that you use these. My dad always did too. I remember how nice a stack of them would look after I washed and ironed them. It was my favorite part of doing the laundry.”
Sookie wiped her eyes. “In fact, for a while, only chores would get me out of being punished, so I loved them.”
“What were you punished for?” Eric asked hesitantly.
“Most of the time, it was because I’d get a word wrong when I was reading lips. Michelle would make me watch television, and she would drill me. Of course, she would be able to hear the T.V., and sometimes I would mispronounce things, especially when I was younger or didn’t know the word. She said that she wanted for me to seem normal in public, but—of course—she made sure to tell everyone that she knew that I was abnormal. They felt sorry for her because of all the effort she made to give me a normal life—effort that she claimed I just didn’t appreciate,” she said bitterly.
She closed her eyes. “I got so good at reading lips because of that ‘training.'” She sighed as she reopened her eyes. “When I was older and became more proficient, my mother would put on the area Spanish channel, and I had to produce those words too. She’d drill me until I made a mistake.”
“Until she could justify your punishment,” Eric said, his jaw tightening.
She nodded. “Yes. I would eventually make a mistake, so into the corner I would go.” She shivered a little and paused for a moment. Eric wanted to pull her to him, but—intuiting that she should be the one to initiate more contact between them—he refrained. Instead, he merely squeezed her hand in encouragement.
“I hated being punished because Michelle or Jason would sometimes creep into my room and watch me—to make sure I didn’t look anywhere but into the corner. If I did, I was in worse trouble. Sometimes I could almost feel them there, but I could never be sure unless I saw their shadows or unless one of them hit me or nudged the chair. But I didn’t dare to turn around. Of course, Jason would sometimes tell Michelle that I wasn’t looking in the corner—even when I was.”
Anger clouded Eric’s face. “Why would he do that?”
Sookie shrugged. “Jason definitely has a cruel streak like Michelle, but—in his defense—she taught him to resent me as much as she did. And I’ve read that a lot of older siblings are mean to younger ones. However, with a different mother, I don’t think he would’ve been nearly as bad. And—uh—he wasn’t the worst part,” she said with unease. She closed her eyes. “I haven’t even told Claudine about the worst part yet.”
“You can tell me,” Eric encouraged gently, “but only if you want to.”
Sookie nodded, but moved her eyes from him to the main lake. Both Sookie and Eric were silent for a while.
“I know why you chose this place to be your spot,” she finally said, as her eyes trailed a boat, which was slowing down near their cove.
“Yeah,” Eric said following her gaze to the boat. It carried a smiling family, including several kids whose laughter echoed off the cliffs behind them. “It’s beautiful here, but mostly I came to watch people like that,” he said, gesturing toward the boat. “It’s what I always wanted. I didn’t think I’d ever have it, but it made me feel better to know that it could exist—somewhere.” His voice lowered to a whisper. “It just wasn’t something that was meant for me.”
“And you could watch without anyone seeing,” she observed.
“Boys and men aren’t supposed to cry—you know,” he said at an even lower volume. “When I was very little—before I found this place—I would cry during my meetings with Appius, and he would tell me that it was a sign that I was weak and unworthy to be his son.” He paused. “But after I found this place, everything changed. Out here—where no one could hear or see or know—I could cry. So—when I had my meetings with Appius—I would just store up my tears.” He chuckled ruefully. “If an Eric cries in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Does it even happen?”
“No,” she whispered. “No—there is no sound,” she added, answering the question for her own childhood, as well as his.
He gave her a sad smile. “I would collect a year’s worth of pain and let it out here—next to this tree.”
“Like the trees in the Monet painting—lonely,” she observed as she thought back to their first encounter and the way he’d looked at Monet’s The Four Trees with a mixture of longing and pain before he’d schooled his expression into one that was carefree—one which she now understood was a part of his carefully crafted public persona.
“Even lonelier. It’s why I began to carry these when I was in Sweden,” he said, gesturing toward the handkerchief.
She nodded and looked back at the family on the boat. Away from the busy center of the lake, the father had put the vessel’s anchor down just north of the mouth of the little cove, and the kids were jumping out to swim. Their laughter echoed even louder than before.
Sookie spoke in almost a mechanical way. “My mother would sometimes have my uncle Bartlett babysit me and Jason when she went out. Actually, he was my dad’s uncle—Gran’s brother—so I guess he was my great uncle.” She squeezed Eric’s hand and then turned it over. As she traced patterns onto his palm, her eyes stayed on the family in the main lake.
“I found out a few years ago that Gran was estranged from Bartlett. He was quite a bit younger than she was—by more than ten years. And they had never really gotten along. But my mother seemed to like him.” She paused and continued to draw on Eric’s palm, using the action to steady her nerves.
“The first time he babysat for me and Jason, I was pretty young—five or six, I think. I had good and bad days with my hearing then, but Michelle had already started my ‘training.’ I was being punished for not saying the word ‘execution’ correctly.” She paused. “It’s funny that I can remember that, but I do. I was just learning how to read lips at the time, and I don’t think I’d ever heard that word before. But—then again—it’s not really a word someone that young tends to know.” She sighed. “I said it like ‘exe-cushion.’ That’s what it looked like to me the first time I saw someone say it, but I never made that mistake again.”
“What happened?” Eric asked his voice shaking a little from both fear and rage.
“My mother decided that I needed to be punished. As always, she moved one of the wooden kitchen chairs into my room and arranged it so that it was facing the corner. The chair was so straight and put so close to the wall that it would trap in my legs between the corners of the seat once I was sitting. And I knew that I had to stay still—completely still—and look into the corner.”
He turned his hand over to capture hers when he felt that her hand was trembling.
“My hearing was just a big buzz that day, so—at first—I couldn’t tell if anyone was behind me,” she continued, her teeth chattering despite the warm temperature. “Like I said, sometimes Jason would come in. Most of the time, he would just kick my chair or thump my head. But—that day—Uncle Bartlett had come for the first time. I’d known that he would be there sometime that afternoon because I’d ‘read’ my mother telling Jason about it earlier that day. I’d hoped that Jason wouldn’t pick on me when he was there.” She paused. “And Jason didn’t.”
“What happened?” Eric asked in a whisper, even though the biggest part of him didn’t want to hear her response.
“The first time he was there, I knew that my door had been shut. Usually, it stayed open throughout my punishments. But I knew it’d been shut because the room got darker. For a long time, I didn’t know if anyone was in the room with me. And then, I saw something move on the wall—a shadow, a lot bigger than Jason’s.” She paused as fear radiated off of her body. “After a while, I felt his breath on my neck, but I didn’t dare turn around. Later, I told my mother that Uncle Bartlett scared me, but she just slapped my ears and told me that my punishment for being difficult was that I would have to sit in the corner every time Uncle Bartlett babysat so that I wouldn’t bother him.”
Eric closed his eyes tightly, trying to curb his anger so that Sookie would feel safe enough to continue. The last thing that she needed was for him to lash out angrily at the man who had abused her.
She continued. “He babysat a couple of times a month, always on Saturdays, and—even though he didn’t stay for much longer than a few hours each time—it seemed like he’d be there forever.” She stopped talking for a while, and eventually she repositioned herself so that her back was to Eric’s chest. She leaned against him, and he slowly wrapped his arms around her until his hands were resting gently at her waist.
“Is this okay?” he asked quietly.
She nodded and kept her gaze fixed on the boat.
“At first,” she resumed, “Uncle Bartlett would just be in the room with me, but later he began to touch me. And then he made me touch him.”
“How bad did it get?” Eric asked in a strained voice.
She took a shaky breath. “All things considered, I was lucky; he touched me only over my clothes, but he,” she paused, “touched me everywhere he could without moving me from the chair.”
Eric took a haggard breath behind her.
Sookie went on. “I just focused on one spot in the corner, a little mark I’d put on the wall with a pencil—only a dot really. But I wouldn’t take my eyes off of it.” She shook her head. “No matter what! Eventually, his touching me wasn’t enough for him, and he would take down his pants and put my hand around his penis,” she continued almost clinically. “Then he would move back and forth until he finished, but I never looked at him or it.”
Eric wanted to hold her tighter, but he stayed still. He wanted to take away Sookie’s horrific memories of her uncle, but he couldn’t. He felt more helpless than he had when he was six years old and sitting in front of his father.
“It was weird, but when he was there, that spot on the wall was my sanctuary, even though I hated that corner.” Sookie’s voice trailed off a little. “When I was eight years old, Bartlett was arrested for molesting my cousin Hadley. She was a few years older than I was, and from what I read from my father’s lips, he did far worse things to her than he did to me. Hadley’s mom came home early one day when he was babysitting her.” She shook her head. “He had Hadley in his lap and they were both naked. I don’t know if he raped her. My dad didn’t say.”
“Oh god,” Eric said under his breath.
Sookie tore her gaze from the water and turned to face Eric. When she saw his agonized and disgusted look, she immediately tried to move out of his arms.
“No,” he said, holding onto her with a mixture of firmness and gentleness. “No,” he repeated fervently as if he could see the self-destructive path of her thoughts. He intuited that she thought he was blaming her somehow. Or maybe she thought he felt less for her now. With his emphatic “No,” he wanted to nip both of those potential thoughts—or any other negative ones—in the bud.
“Nothing you have told me changes how I feel about you, Sookie. You’re a beautiful, incredible person on the outside and on the inside. But I’ve always known that—always! Now I just know more about what you’ve had to overcome in your life. And—if anything—I’m even more amazed that you are the remarkable woman you are. I’m proud to be with you—and even prouder of who you are. And—by God—I swear that if I see you staring into a corner, I will either come and stare at it with you or I will stand in it myself, so that you can stare at me!”
For a moment, Sookie was taken aback by the vehemence in his voice, but then, suddenly, tears started streaming from her eyes. She wiped them with his handkerchief.
“I’ve done that before,” she said after she’d composed herself.
“Stared at you in a corner. The first time I saw you, you were in a corner in the Monet Gallery. You were watching everyone—just like I watch everyone. It seemed like you were looking for anyone who would hurt you, but no one was looking at you—except for me.”
He smiled a little. “You’re right. I learned when I was a kid that if I stood in a corner, fewer people would look at me, and I could stay out of the way. Sometimes being invisible is a good thing.”
She took his hand, finding intense comfort in his warmth. “Claudine has helped me to understand that I will sometimes seek out a corner to look into—when I’m feeling scared or insecure or vulnerable. She says that it’s an automatic response, like shivering when there’s snow outside. But she also says that I can work on recognizing when I’m doing it. And then all I have to do is to tell myself to look away. It was hard for me to do that at first, but I’m getting better at it. Now I just think that if I wouldn’t have felt nervous and vulnerable at the Northman party the first January that I was in Manhattan, I wouldn’t have looked into the corner of the Monet Gallery. I wouldn’t have seen you.”
They both knew that she was talking about seeing him in a way that no one else ever had or ever could see him. It was the same way that he was able to see her.
“I saw you too,” he said, lifting his hand up to touch her hair. “I saw your hair.”
She nodded and smiled a little. “I know. I’m sorry that I didn’t—that I couldn’t—turn around and look at you then, even though I felt that you were looking at me.” She sighed. “But I was so withdrawn then that I couldn’t help but to hide from you too,” she admitted. “I certainly wouldn’t have been ready to fall in love with you like I have.”
He bent forward and kissed her lips gently. “I’m grateful every day that you love me, Sookie.”
She smiled and kissed him lightly in return.
Their talk over, they were both drained and content to be quiet for a while. Eric repositioned himself so that he was leaning against the tree, and Sookie leaned back against him, his long legs on either side of hers. He stroked her hair, and it wasn’t long before Sookie dozed off.
He continued to watch the family playing in the water.
Being with Sookie had been the most fulfilling part of his life, and being with her in the place where he felt safest had been even better. He couldn’t help but to wonder what it would be like if he and Sookie were free to stay together and have a family. Would there be boat rides and laughter in the summers? Would he and Sookie sneak kisses like the couple on the boat had done as their children splashed happily in the water? Could he give his children the kind of love he’d always craved?
He could almost see Sookie and himself, smiling and laughing with a boatful of children: a little girl with Sookie’s eyes and wavy blond hair, a tall and gangly boy whom he’d teach to swim, a tiny baby cradled in his mother’s arms. And Sookie looking up at him, her eyes absorbing all the light of the sun.
“I love you,” he’d be unafraid to tell them—again and again. He’d make sure they heard it every day.
His body shook with a sudden sob, causing Sookie to stir against him. Eric stilled and closed his eyes to close out the family on the boat. He knew better than to dream too much—to want too much. It would only cause him more pain. He banished his fantasy. After all, the closest that he would ever get to it would be the very moment that he was in—the fleeting feeling of holding the woman he couldn’t even say, “I love you,” to out loud.
He sighed and swore that things would be different for any child that he had. Since the contract he’d made with his father demanded at least one child from him—with a “suitable” woman, of course—he vowed that he would let his child dream anything he or she wanted. And he planned to keep that child as far away from Appius as possible so that his father couldn’t steal those dreams away.
No—Eric thought to himself—he would not be the happy man on the boat, living in contentment and stealing kisses from Sookie as she nursed their baby. But he could be a parent who brought his child to this lake during the summers. And—perhaps—if he married someone like Isabel, she would come too and watch over the child with him.
He could have half the dream.
“They moved on,” Sookie said as she stirred in his arms and looked out toward the main lake where the family had, indeed, pulled up anchor and gone.
“They always do,” Eric whispered.
A/N 2: First, thanks to those of you who commented on the last chapter. You—of course—knew that the angst couldn’t stop forever. But this chapter is an important step for Sookie, and it shows how Eric is still so stuck! Sigh. It was a painful necessity to write.
We’ll be back in New York in the next chapter, and we are skipping from July to September. It might take a couple of days for me to get that chapter into shape. Transitions are always tricky. Also, for fans of the “Gift Horse” series, you’ll be glad to know that a third story is in the works.
Until the next installment of this or the next installment of that.