Chapter 11: Grief of Several Kinds
Grief is the price we pay for love.—Queen Elizabeth II
Sunday, December 30
Eric sighed as he turned down the blankets of the bed in Sookie’s old room. Adele had died three nights before.
As it had turned out, Eric couldn’t keep Sookie sheltered from all of her mother’s antics, no matter how hard he’d tried. The morning after Adele’s death, Michelle and Jason Stackhouse had shown up at the house with a U-Haul truck and had tried to convince Sookie to let them take “a few things” that Michelle swore they’d been promised.
During the same “conversation,” Michelle had also tried false affection, ridicule, bullying, and guilt. But Eric had stood as a buffer, and—true to his word—Sid Matt had come through with a court order banning Michelle and Jason from entering onto the property without permission. Despite that, however, Eric had still hired two guards from a private security firm recommended by Bobby’s FBI contact in order to make sure that the house stayed secure.
Although Adele had died in the very early hours of Friday morning, her funeral could not be held until the following Thursday, January 3, due to the holidays and the fact that the town’s only funeral director was sick with the flu. Of course, Sam had been quick to offer Sookie all the time off she needed. However, Eric’s work schedule was another matter, and he had needed to scramble in order to move things back.
He sighed again as he thought about how Sookie had tried to convince him to return to Manhattan while she stayed in Bon Temps. But there was no way in hell he was going to leave her alone to bury her gran and to deal with Michelle Stackhouse!
Luckily, Eric had a great team at NP, and his current executive assistant, Clancy—whom he’d hand-selected after he realized that Ginger had been reporting information to his father out of her ignorance of the situation between them—was always on top of things. Added to that was the fact that Eric ran his division with great efficiency, so with the addition of high-speed Internet in Gran’s house—which had been installed that afternoon, despite the fact that it was a Sunday—Eric had been able to set up a little office for himself, and he’d already completed all the business he’d previously planned for the Friday before. Given the fact that it was New Year’s Eve the next day, there would not be much to do early in the week, but he and Sookie planned to stay through Saturday to settle Gran’s affairs, and beginning Wednesday, he would need to do quite a bit of work. And Adele’s old dial-up system just wouldn’t have been sufficient for that.
Actually, Bobby had been the one to arrange for the high-speed Internet access—in addition to doing about a million other things. Eric had tried to give his friend a raise, though Bobby had told him to “fuck off” when he mentioned it. Eric couldn’t help but to smile a little bit as he recalled that conversation.
Meanwhile, Pam and Amelia had been helping to run interference with Appius.
The official story—mentioned casually to Nora by Pam—was that Eric and one of his girlfriends were both very sick with the flu. Pam explained that Eric would be working from home until his doctor said he was no longer contagious and that the girlfriend was also staying with him.
Since Eric had rushed from Appius’s office, Sigebert or Wybert had been watching Carmichael Tower building 24-7, and Amelia was doing her part by staying over. She was actually cat-sitting a very lonely Ned, who’d been banned from Pam’s home twenty minutes into his “visit” after he’d climbed her silk drapes. Of course, Amelia was also spending quality time with Pam.
Thalia, however, was the true star of the deception. Using some equipment Bobby had gotten, Eric recorded himself calling Clancy’s cell phone the evening before; of course, Eric had feigned his best sick-voice. Working her magic, Thalia had made it seem like Eric was speaking from his office at home.
That morning, Pam and Amelia had also given a performance for Appius’s listening pleasure. They’d pretended that they were looking for a book for Eric in his office since he was too sick to get out of bed. They had talked about how Amelia was starting to feel a tad bit better and about how sweet it was of Eric to rush to her side when he’d discovered she was sick—only to fall victim to the flu himself. And—in true Pam fashion—she had made sure to snark that they’d better not infect her.
Eric had also instructed Clancy to send Andre an email explaining that Eric was ill and would likely be working from home for most—if not all—of the upcoming week. The email also conveyed Eric’s apologies for running out of the meeting. Eric explained his sudden departure by saying that he’d learned that a friend of his was ill.
The explanation for Eric’s hasty exit from the meeting was imperfect at best, but the other pieces of the story helped to corroborate it. And they were all hoping that Appius would buy the ruse. The fact that Eric had dropped everything to “rush to Amelia’s side” would be potentially problematic—as would the fact that she was staying over with him. These pieces of news would make it seem as if Eric and Amelia were closer than the “fuck buddies” they’d been portraying themselves to be, but Bobby was already trying to come up with ways to turn the situation to their advantage.
The New Year’s holiday was also convenient, given the fact that the office would be closed for the following two days. That meant that Eric would be missing only three days of work that week. He would also have less work to see to than normal, which, in turn, would mean that he’d be able to put most of his focus where it belonged: on Sookie.
He sighed. Adele had requested that her Will be read before her funeral, so Sid Matt had made arrangements for the reading of the document to occur in his office on the morning of December 31—the next day.
Eric took off his T-shirt and lounge pants and got into bed. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples for a moment. He wished that he could spare Sookie from having to be in the same room as Michelle, but he couldn’t. Sookie had been named executrix of the Will, so she had to be there. And, unfortunately, both Michelle and Jason were named in the Will as well.
Eric heard the shower turn off and knew that Sookie would be joining him in a moment. It had been during the first shower she’d taken the morning after they arrived that he’d secured the box Adele had told him about. After only a few minutes of searching, he’d found the loose board under Adele’s bed. After taking out the ring and the letter explaining its history, Eric had shown Sookie the love letters Adele had spoken about, the letters that Earl had written to her. Bobby had had no trouble making sure that they would be with Adele in her casket so that they would be buried with her.
“What are you thinking about?” Sookie asked as she climbed into bed with him. She was wearing one of Eric’s T-shirts and a thick pair of socks, which he knew she’d shed once she’d been in bed for a few minutes.
Eric smiled. “Love letters. Gran suggested that it was a good idea to send them.”
Sookie returned his smile and raised her hand to his cheek before leaning in for a soft kiss, which she quickly deepened.
When she pulled back, they were both a little breathless.
“If you’re not ready, we don’t have to,” Eric said.
“I want you,” Sookie replied, moving closer to him. “Gran wouldn’t want me to stop living. And,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes, “she’d want us to get plenty of practice for when we start making her great-grandbabies.”
Eric chuckled. “Yes—she seemed to have very definite ideas in that regard.”
“She really liked you,” Sookie said quietly.
“And she really loved you.”
Sookie sighed. “I should have been here—taking care of her. I shouldn’t have,” she paused, “held back so much from her for so long.”
Eric cradled her cheek in his large palm. “Sookie, Gran didn’t need taking care of. Just think about what she and Mormor got up to in Sweden and then again in Manhattan. She was strong and active—quite literally until the day she died.”
“But if someone would have called the ambulance right away . . . .” Sookie stopped midsentence.
“Don’t,” Eric ordered. “Even if you’d been living here, there would have been no guarantee that you would have been home when Gran had her first heart attack.” He sighed. “And she wouldn’t have wanted you to stay in Bon Temps; you know that as well as I do. She knew why you couldn’t stay here. And she loved you, Sookie; she was proud of you and the life you’ve made for yourself.”
A tear slid down Sookie’s cheek as she leaned into Eric’s chest and held on for dear life. “What do you think she’ll do tomorrow?” she asked after a few moments of quiet.
Knowing exactly which “she” Sookie was referring to, Eric sighed. Being Appius Northman’s hated son had taught him exactly what Michelle Stackhouse was capable of doing.
“She’ll try to hurt you—to crush you—any way she can,” he sighed. “But you won’t let her.”
“And you’ll be there,” she said. She didn’t need to ask.
“Yes. I will,” he confirmed. “Right there next to you.”
She kissed his bare chest, even as he placed a gentle kiss on the top of her head.
“I talked to Pam earlier,” Eric said after a while. “We owe her a new sweater—as well as the drapes.”
“Ned?” Sookie asked with a smile in her voice.
“Who else? Apparently, she was trying to prevent him from climbing the Christmas tree.”
Sookie giggled. “Big mistake.”
“On Pam’s part,” he chuckled.
“You know—Ned’s going to be pissed at us when we take the tree down.”
“We’ll just remember not to wear any clothing we value that day.”
She raised herself up to look into his eyes. “Let’s practice that now.”
“The not wearing clothing part.”
He chuckled and bent down, capturing her lips with his. It wasn’t long before the few garments they had on were decorating the floor. And not long after that, they were discovering the squeaks in the old bed.
Sookie knew that she was probably squeezing Eric’s hand way too hard, but she couldn’t stop herself. She looked down at her clothing: blue jeans and a gray cardigan over a light blue camisole—and her red coat, of course. Pam had selected her clothing quickly when she had packed small bags for both Eric and her. Sookie had been happy to see that most of the things packed were casual, though her black work suit was also in there. However, that was for the funeral.
Sookie had had no idea what to wear for the reading of a Will, but she’d done the best she could with what she had.
She needn’t have worried. Jason showed up in an old letterman’s jacket, a well-worn T-shirt, and dirty-looking jeans. And Michelle Stackhouse looked comically overdressed in her flouncy black dress and veiled black hat. Sookie wanted to tell her mother that the Will had already been written, so there was no longer a need for her to play the part of a dutiful daughter-in-law in public, but she didn’t want to have any interaction with Michelle Stackhouse, so she refrained from making the comment.
Of course, avoiding a confrontation with Michelle and Jason was a pipedream, but Sookie was determined to try doing just that.
Sid Matt POV
“What’s he doing here?” Michelle asked as soon as she saw Eric. “It should be only family!” she yelled venomously in Sookie’s direction.
“Right!” Jason echoed, managing to look both confused and personally affronted at the same time.
“Mr. Northman was named in Adele’s Will,” Sid Matt said calmly, though his face conveyed his disapproval of Michelle’s questioning Eric’s presence.
Sid Matt had to hold in his sigh as he gestured toward the coffee he’d had his secretary set up on one side of the little conference room. He’d known Michelle Stackhouse her whole life—for fifty years, give or take—but he’d never been privy to the side of her that he’d seen during the past several days.
Of course, he wasn’t really surprised to know that there were secrets under the veneer of the Stackhouse family. After all, he was one of the only lawyers in the region; thus, he’d learned some pretty damned disconcerting things about his friends and neighbors over the years. No—he wasn’t surprised; he was just disappointed—but mostly for Adele’s and Susanna’s sakes.
Sid Matt had known Adele for upwards of seventy years. He’d even been paying her courting calls for the last two of those years! But she’d never shared any indication of her problems with her daughter-in-law, and that fact made him a little sad. Of course, he could have been privy to things if he’d read over Adele’s Will or the recent additions to it, but he was not in the practice of doing that sort of thing. No—unless he was asked to help in the writing of it, he was never aware of the specific contents of a client’s Will until he previewed it before the official reading. And Adele’s final wishes had been no different.
Sid Matt sighed. It was safe to say that—until Bobby Burnham had called him—he would have never imagined that Michelle Stackhouse was anything other than the kind Southern woman she projected herself to be. But a scrape of the surface had revealed something very ugly underneath.
Burnham had contacted Sid Matt the previous Thursday and had told him about Adele’s heart attack. Truth be told, Sid Matt had been surprised that he hadn’t already heard about it, given the grease with which the gossip mill in Bon Temps usually ran. And, if he would have known, he would have gone to Adele sooner—but for personal reasons.
However, Burnham, who had first identified himself as Susanna Stackhouse’s lawyer, had requested that Sid Matt drive to the hospital in Shreveport for professional reasons.
The elderly attorney closed his eyes for a moment as he remembered his goodbye with the woman who’d been his friend and who—because of the miracle of Viagra—had also become his lover four months before. Adele had been the second woman that Sid Matt had been forced to say goodbye to well before he was ready. Julia, his wife of fifty years, had been the first. And—although his relationship with Adele had been different—they had offered each other the companionship they’d been craving, and he’d hoped to enjoy that for years to come.
Julia had been his soul mate. But Adele had made him laugh more than any other person ever had. And—at his age—he knew of the value of laughter.
He’d loved both women, and he would continue to love them until the day he died.
Sid Matt shook his head sadly as he thought about how quickly time passed and how fleeting life was. Adele had been almost ten years his junior, though he could hardly remember a time when she wasn’t a part of his life in some way. She had been his own dear wife’s best friend. And Sid Matt’s brother, Jacob, had been Earl Stackhouse’s closest friend. Hell—Jacob and Earl had even served together in the army!
The elderly gentleman sighed. Both Julia and Jacob had been a little lost when Earl and Adele had moved to New Orleans about a quarter of a century before. Thus, Sid Matt had gone to New Orleans with his wife and/or brother many times over the years in order to visit with the Stackhouses. Of course, Sid Matt had never considered romance with Adele until both of their spouses had passed on.
After Earl’s death, Adele had moved back to Bon Temps. It had seemed natural—sweet even—when Susanna had moved in with the widow, although the teenager hadn’t yet graduated from high school. Around that time, Sid Matt had overheard Michelle Stackhouse telling some people at church that it had been difficult for her to let Susanna move out of her home, but that Adele was so lonely that it was her Christian duty to make sure her mother-in-law was well taken care of.
At the time, Sid Matt had found the mother’s sacrifice to be admirable, and he’d been happy for it for Adele’s sake. Adele certainly hadn’t said or done anything to indicate that she had trouble with her son’s widow. The only hint he’d ever gotten was years before—when Julia had made a comment that Earl and Adele were estranged from their son Corbett. But Sid Matt hadn’t asked his wife any questions about that; for better or worse, it had never really been the lawyer’s personality to want to delve too far into the personal lives of his friends and acquaintances. Perhaps that was because his profession forced him into those lives too often as it was. And the ever intuitive Adele had probably sensed that about him.
Indeed, except when she was in the throes of passion—at which time she would curse like a sailor—Adele had always been the picture of Southern politeness and restraint. Sid Matt smiled a little.
Of course, Adele could gossip with the best of them. But—thinking back—Sid Matt realized that Adele was someone who preferred gossiping about the good things in life, like who was having a new grandbaby or who was taking a vacation. And she’d never shared negative gossip about her own kin—at least not around him.
It was safe to say that—despite his friendships with Adele and Earl—Sid Matt had never really looked closely at the rest of the Stackhouses, even after Adele had moved back—even after his own romantic interest in her was piqued.
Sid Matt was ashamed to admit that some of that lack of looking had to do with Susanna herself. Everyone in town had always talked about how the girl was “different.” Apparently, she had become deaf during her early childhood, but she could still talk, which was an oddity in and of itself. But she could also “listen” since she’d learned how to read lips. At times, Sid Matt had noticed the way that young Susanna would stare at everyone and everything in a room, her eyes always trained on people’s lips even if they were far away from her. It had been disconcerting to Sid Matt when he would glance around a room only to find the little girl’s eyes trained on his mouth as if she were studying it. Most people in town thought the girl to be “strange,” perhaps even “touched in the head.” In truth, he’d felt a little sorry for Michelle Stackhouse, having to deal with such a difficult situation.
And he’d also made a concerted effort to stay out of Susanna’s sightline.
Truth be told, when Susanna had gone off to college, the whole town—including himself—had let out a collective sigh of relief. No longer would they have to monitor their words in public places when “crazy Susan” was in the area.
Since Adele’s death, Sid Matt had spent his nights tossing and turning as he thought about the woman with whom he’d been in a relationship—albeit a “secret” one. The elderly pair had made the decision to keep their own romantic association quiet for “decorum’s” sake. It had been only four years since Sid Matt had lost his wife, and, given the fact that Julia and Adele had remained so close over the years, it hadn’t seemed “proper” to Adele to publicize the fact that she’d “hooked up” with her deceased best friend’s widower. Given that secret, Sid Matt couldn’t help but to wonder what other mysteries Adele had been holding onto—all for the sake of decorum.
Sid Matt had also been thinking about what things might have been like for little Susanna. For the first time, he’d let himself dwell on the little girl in his memories and not on his own discomfort or the things that others in the town had said about her. And when he did linger on that child, he realized what had made him uncomfortable around her in the first place. It was not her lip reading; it was her eyes when she did it. Though they studied, they always seemed devoid of emotion. He’d compared them to the cold eyes of a reptile, and he’d looked away from them. What he should have done was to ask “why” her eyes were that way.
He now had a strong feeling that those eyes were so empty because of the veiled woman now crying crocodile tears as her son poured her a cup of coffee.
At the Shreveport hospital—away from the people she knew and wanted to impress—Michelle Stackhouse hadn’t seemed to be the same woman he thought he knew at all! Jason also had acted differently. Oh—Sid Matt had known that Jason Stackhouse had grown up to be a bit arrogant and uncouth, and the young man was certainly a womanizer, but the lawyer had figured that was a stage of youth. And at the church, at the local fishing spots, or in the cafés and the bar of the little town, the boy was respectful and pleasant enough to the older men of Bon Temps.
But with the strangers at the hospital, Michelle and Jason had behaved differently—very differently. As Sid Matt arrived at the ICU waiting room, he could tell that Michelle and Jason had been arguing with the hospital administrator over whether Susanna should be allowed to see Adele—just as Burnham had said they would be doing. Sid Matt had been shocked by their venom—until they’d seen him in the room. After that, they’d become more restrained, even claiming that they were doing what they thought was best for Adele—that they were trying to protect the old woman from her scheming granddaughter.
To Sid Matt, that dog just didn’t hunt!
In private, Adele had actually talked about Susanna quite a bit, and when she did, it was always with great love and pride in her voice. Sid Matt knew that Adele’s granddaughter had graduated from college and gotten a Master’s degree in English. He knew that she had a good job in New York City and that she was doing well there. In fact, Adele had visited Sookie in New York over Thanksgiving. The previous summer, she’d even gone on a vacation to Sweden with the girl and her beau. And none of those things had indicated that there had been a rift between Adele and the girl she’d called Sookie.
But Michelle and Jason had been insisting that the stress over a falling-out with Sookie had been the cause of Adele’s heart attack, and the hospital administrator had been forced to take that possibility into account. However, Halleigh Robinson, whom Michelle and Jason hadn’t recognized as Andy Bellefleur’s girlfriend—probably since she’d not been living in Bon Temps for long—had attested that Adele had been asking for her granddaughter and had even given Halleigh a phone number for her.
Luckily, Adele had awoken more fully from her sedative by the time Sid Matt arrived. And she was full of the spirit she was known for—despite her weakness. After talking to Halleigh and asking her to call another granddaughter—Hadley—Adele had spoken to both the hospital administrator and Sid Matt. What she’d requested of them was surprising to the lawyer, but he could tell that Adele was as lucid as ever.
First, she’d told them that she didn’t want Michelle Stackhouse anywhere near her—lest she try to pull the damned plug—or her property—lest she try to take everything that wasn’t nailed down and pry up the things that were. And she’d asked to see Sookie and “her young man” as soon as they got there. She also asked that her Will be read before her funeral and that Sid Matt look out for Sookie—to make sure she wasn’t bothered—while she was in Bon Temps.
After that, Kenya Jones had stepped out of the room so that Adele and he could say a private goodbye. That goodbye had been difficult for Sid Matt, and he’d wanted to stay with Adele, but the feisty woman—true to her stubborn ways—had insisted that he go home. Knowing how being there for his Julia’s death had almost killed him, she’d told him that she wanted him to remember her alive and well. She’d had her trademark sparkle in her eye as she’d ordered him to remember what they’d been doing just a week before that—on the kitchen table.
Sid Matt had obeyed Adele’s directive. And—in his grief—he’d been grateful that he could slip into “lawyer mode” when honoring her other final requests of him. Even after hearing Adele bar Michelle from her room, however, Sid Matt had been shocked to witness the display between Michelle, Jason, and a clearly distraught Susanna when he and Ms. Jones returned to the waiting room.
Of course, he’d been even more shocked when Burnham had been right about Michelle and Jason showing up at Adele’s property the very night she died. It didn’t take a genius to understand that they were there—in two trucks no less—to take valuables from the home. But when they’d returned the next day with a U-Haul, Sid Matt had wanted to get a bullhorn and shout out from the town square that Michelle Stackhouse was as two-faced as it got! Sadly, he couldn’t do that, given the nature of his work.
But he’d really, really wanted to.
Trying to separate himself from his own grief at losing Adele, Sid Matt studied the countenances of the people in his conference room, even as he gestured for Judy, his assistant, to set up the tape recorder. He had decided that he was going to record the session just in case someone—namely Michelle—decided to contest the Will. Sid Matt gazed first at Jason Stackhouse, who had a look of eagerness on his face. The lawyer had seen that look many a time; it was the expression of someone who was not grieving at all. Jason Stackhouse was only there to see what he was getting.
Michelle Stackhouse—despite her dramatic mourning weeds—had no less eager eyes than her son, though she tried to hide that fact with an affected frown and the occasional dabbing of her eyes with a lace handkerchief.
No. The only true grief in the room emanated from Susanna and her man. The young woman’s eyes were red and swollen, most likely from several days’ worth of intermittent crying. Mr. Northman, who was holding Susanna to him like he was her scaffold, looked no less distraught, though his expression was a mixture of grief and concern for the woman next to him. Sid Matt had seen Eric’s look before too—though sadly not as often as Jason’s or Michelle’s. It was the look of an individual who was saddened by the death of someone—but mostly because of the sorrow that had been left behind in someone else. It was one of the more unselfish reactions to death that Sid Matt had witnessed over the years, and the elderly attorney immediately liked the young man even more than he had at the hospital.
“Why don’t we all have a seat,” Sid Matt invited. It didn’t escape his notice that Mr. Northman waited until Michelle and Jason had chosen their seats before leading Susanna as far away from them as possible and putting himself between them as well. He also noticed the gentle look exchanged between the couple as Eric helped her take off her coat and then pulled out her seat for her. Eric was offering her all of his strength for what was to come, and Susanna was thanking him with her eyes.
Sid Matt smiled a little as he sat down. At his age, he had come to understand that it was often the simplest things that were the most profound and the most permanent. And he knew that looks like the one he had witnessed indicated that the evident love between the couple would endure.
He began. “Now, I’ve asked Judy, my secretary, to sit in so that these proceedings can be recorded.”
“Why is that necessary, Sid Matt?” Michelle asked, trying to fake congeniality.
Now that he knew her act, Sid Matt didn’t have any trouble deciphering it. However, he answered as pleasantly as he could. “It’s just to make sure that everything is kept above board, Michelle. It’s important that Adele’s final wishes are followed—don’t you agree?”
Michelle, though clearly displeased, offered a curt nod and dabbed her clearly-dry eyes. “Of course. Anything for dear, dear Adele.”
Sid Matt looked over at Susanna. “My dear, I know this is an odd question to ask, but what would you like for me to call you? Your name is written as ‘Susanna’ on the legal documents, but some people in town used to call you ‘Susan.’ However, your grandmother always called you ‘Sookie,’ and so does your young man.”
“Whatever’s fine,” the young woman responded somewhat timidly.
At that, Sookie sat up a little straighter and gave Michelle a look of challenge. “Actually, my friends call me Sookie, Mr. Lancaster. I’d like for you to call me that.”
He smiled kindly at her even as he tried to ignore the subtle snorts of derision from the other end of the table.
“Then you must call me Sid Matt, my dear,” he said. “Alright,” he continued at a louder volume so that it was clear that he was addressing all those present. “This shouldn’t take too long. I’ll read the Will and the codicil. Then Adele instructed me to read a letter.”
Sid Matt pushed a box of Kleenex over toward Sookie but then noticed that Eric had already handed her a handkerchief. He smiled at the young man and gave him a nod.
Indeed—he liked this Eric Northman very much.
A/N: Hello! I hope that you are ready for the next “cycle” of Touch the Flame! I’ll try to get you at least two more chapters this week.
Thanks to those of you who commented on the last “cycle!” I really appreciate your sticking with me as I switch from one story to another.
I hope you enjoyed seeing things from Sid Matt’s POV. Many of you have been wanting to “see” Michelle’s unpleasantness in action. Buckle up!