True to her word, Sookie visited Eric every day after work while he was at Magee for his physical therapy. It was usually dinner time so she often brought a meal to share. She wanted to give Eric something other than ‘hospital shit’ as he called the food. Today when she arrived his room was empty. After asking, the nurse on his floor directed Sookie’s gaze down the hall. Eric had been at rehab for over four weeks and she was shocked to see him using both the railing and brace as a guide as he walked toward her.
He grinned when he was within ten feet of Sookie. “I smell someone’s Italian cooking.”
“You do.” Sookie replied. “It appears it’s in time for a special reward for your hard work.” She put her food basket down and approached him. “Did you plan your dramatic entrance?”
His smirk answered for him. “Maybe?”
They settled into his room and she set them up to eat. Her background enabled her to use the same techniques as the Wills eye staff to assist him. Eric still struggled some, but his independence was making a show. “I love this baked ziti. Thank you for cooking it.”
“You’ve said that the last two times I made it. That’s why you keep getting it. Well, that and the fact that I have tons of fresh tomatoes in my small garden.”
“You make this from fresh tomatoes? It’s the real deal?”
“Yep. I’ve started canning some too.” She was about to add that they’d enjoy the fresh taste well into the winter, but that wasn’t something she was about to put out there.
Surprising her, Eric made the first move. “Ah, then I’ll get months of this flavor.”
His indication of staying in touch made her speechless and she could barely squeak a reply of “Sure.” To prevent the need to speak again, she shoved a forkful of ziti into her mouth. When she came up for air, she changed the subject. “Did you get outside before it rained today?”
Changing the topic didn’t work well since his answer brought them right back to more dangerous ‘couple’ territory. “I went out after. I thought of you since your perfume reminds me of that after rain smell. It made me anxious for your arrival. That’s also when I cooked up the idea to impress you with walking alone in the hallway.” Sookie was silent at that comment so he had to ask more to get her talking. “Were you?”
“Was I what?”
“Impressed?” He held up his hand and she took it; that tingle was there. “With my walking.”
“I was of course. I’m pleased to see your independence coming through.” She looked at their hands, clasped together and let her heart flip flop. Her feelings were getting dangerously close to the point of no return and she had to stop herself before she crossed the line. Internally she scoffed at her thoughts. That line was crossed weeks ago but it didn’t stop her from moving forward and learning more about him. “Last night you promised to tell me about your family home in Pittsburgh.”
“I did.” He shoved another forkful of pasta in and swallowed before he elaborated. “My dad and his brother developed an online recruiting website in the eighties. The site took off beyond their wildest dreams.”
“What’s the site name?”
“It was ‘The Vine’ but they sold it to a larger software company and it was incorporated into their Human Resources suite of products. Anyway, when they sold it, they became millionaires.” He shrugged and added, “We were comfortable before but they both retired when I was in Junior High.”
“You mean, millionaires – as in emphasis on the ‘S’?” He nodded while he chewed more of his dinner. “Why did you join the service then? You could have been a rich playboy with that money and your looks.”
He smirked. “I considered it but only briefly. Joining the Marines was always my plan after graduating. My Dad was a Marine, not a lifer, but for ten years, and his dedication leaked through to me I guess. I wanted to get my Masters then go.”
“You studied history, right?” She popped in her last mouthful and leaned back from the table.
“I did. My plan had been to teach after the Marines.”
“Still want that?” He nodded as he had a mouthful of food. “There are tons of colleges and universities around Philadelphia.”
“I know. That’s why I have my lawyer putting the family home up for sale and getting things ready for me to move.”
Sookie almost spit her tea out. Her mention of all the schools in the area was an attempt to hint at having him stay in the area, and here he was already making decisions. “What?”
“What, what? I can’t live in my family home, it would hurt too much. I keep in touch with one friend from Pittsburgh, he also happens to be my lawyer, and he has a three – month-old baby. It’s not like we’re going to hang out with the differences in our lives.”
Sookie had no idea what to say. He hadn’t mentioned her in his comments about moving to the Philadelphia area and that was good and bad. Good, because she didn’t know where this was going and she didn’t think he should make a choice to live in Philly for her. It was bad to hear though, the fairy-tale dreamer wanted to have him say he wanted to stay with her. She thought she should move onto something less emotional as a topic, but she couldn’t help herself. “So are you headed to Pittsburgh after you’re finished your treatments, so you can take care of business?”
“At some point I’ll go but Godric, my friend and lawyer, is having most everything handled. I’d like you to go with me, see where I grew up.” He hesitated before adding, “I mean if you want to that is.” Since she didn’t say anything, he kept going. “Course, you know, having you in my life is why I’m staying in this area.”
And there they were, the words she didn’t want to hear, yet they made her heart soar! Eric was staying for her. It was something she couldn’t think about so she steered the conversation back to Pittsburgh. “So, do you have things in Pittsburgh you plan to move here? I mean, does your friend know what to keep from the house?”
“He knows I want the piano and artwork from my family home.”
He paused to take a drink and she took the moment to ask about the piano. “You play?”
He nodded. “Ten years of lessons. How about you, do you play anything?”
“Violin like my Dad, Jason plays the guitar. He still does. I can’t remember the last time I picked up my instrument.” She watched him as he listened to her. It was a blessing to sit with someone and have a conversation without wondering what they thought of her face. She sighed internally. She was going to need to make a decision soon about telling him or not.
He broke her out of her thoughts to tell her about something else he wanted from Pittsburgh. “I have a prized possession in storage I can’t wait to get.”
“My car. Godric and I haven’t figured out if I’m going to fly home and drive it back or have it delivered.” She watched as his mood soured before her eyes. “That all depends on the outcome of my eye surgery. I’ve waited this many weeks; it seems like waiting two more weeks is too much!” He threw up his hands in frustration but didn’t realize his arm was near his dish and ziti went through the air. After hearing the clang of his plate, he sucked in a breath and paused before asking, “I didn’t get you with any of that food did I?”
She chuckled at him. “You’re lucky this time Captain.” She moved to pick up the mess. “I’m wearing white. You would have been in big trouble.”
Two weeks later, Sookie was helping Eric move back to Wills for bandage ‘unveiling’ after his surgery. His walking had improved, both from his leg injury and navigating with his blindness, so he asked if he could walk to Wills with his belongings going via a car. Sookie discussed the request with his doctors at both facilities and they approved, with one condition. They wanted a separate wheelchair escort with Sookie and Eric ‘in case’ and she agreed but decided not to tell him. His independence was a mental boost and she didn’t want to burst his bubble.
Eric was waiting for her in the Magee lobby. Seeing Eric dressed in the jeans and white tee-shirt she’d bought him took her breath away. While at Magee, he worked on his leg but was also granted supervised time on the other exercise equipment. Though it seemed impossible, it appeared that he’d grown the muscles across his back during the visit.
Eric’s voice jarred her out of her thoughts. “I know you’re here Sookie. Are you going to say anything?”
“I was just ah, checking out the flowers in the lobby.” She saw him smirk and figured he’d caught on to her stare. Confirming her suspicion, he lifted his arms to stretch, showing off his biceps. They were big but not the overly muscular body builder type. She drooled.
That line she hadn’t wanted to cross? At some point during her daily visits it had been crossed and then some. She was way beyond ‘in like’ with the man. In fact, she was pretty sure she was falling in love. Many times in the past few weeks, she believed Eric felt something for her as she did for him, but having no experience with men had her second guessing. It was all going to crash down around her. She either needed to take off from Wills before his bandages were removed, or try to maintain friendship even after he finally got a look at the horror show that was Sookie Stackhouse. Nobody but family could love Sookie Stackhouse. Then she realized, even some of her family didn’t love her.
“You ready Sookie. We’re still walking, right?”
“If you’re sure. Your stuff was brought down already.” She wrapped his arm around hers and they left for the two block walk back to Wills. “Are you excited about the bandages?”
“Of course. Tomorrow I’ll know if this all worked. Well, I’m excited and I admit I’m scared.”
“I have confidence.” She stopped the chat short to announce an obstacle. “Coming to the ramp in the sidewalk.”
“Got it.” They slowed enough for him to easily maneuver the ramp and bump in the street they crossed. Then they continued on. “I can hear it.”
Sookie didn’t understand. “Hear what? I hear some street traffic.”
“The wheelchair wheel, it squeaks.” He turned in the direction of the orderly following them. “That and Joseph wears the same aftershave that one of my college roommates wore. I don’t know what it is, but it’s distinctive.”
Sookie’s heart sank for Eric. She didn’t want his discovery to ruin his mood over the small milestone of independence. “I’m sorry Eric, it was how I got . . .”
He held his hand up. “No worries. I appreciate that you went to bat for me to walk at all.”
“And we’re here now.” Sookie announced and pushed the button for the automatic door. After helping him through the lobby and elevator, they made it to his room. “I’m going to sit you at the table first. I have a surprise.”
“I don’t smell anything but your wonderful scent.” He took a large inhale as he leaned her direction.
Wanting to quickly get off the topic of her scent, she practically ran from the room. “I left it in the staff kitchen before I went to Magee. I’ll be right back.”
She returned a few minutes later and he put his nose in the air to sniff. “I smell beef but it’s not like a burger. And I know you didn’t make me steak. My eating has improved but I don’t see me cutting through a steak.”
She giggled. “No, I’d have too big of a mess to clean up if I gave you steak, especially since you hate to have others cut your food.” She added with a mumble. “Stubborn pain in the butt.”
“I heard that.” He tried to look upset by setting his mouth in a stern line.
“Ah, yeah, I knew you would Mr. Super Ears.” She put a plate down in front of him and gave him the lowdown on how to eat it. “You hold this in your hand to eat. It’s warm, but not burning hot so go on.”
Eric felt around the plate and gently touched whatever she’d put down. “Oh my God. Is this what I think it is?” He didn’t wait for an answer though, he shoved half of the handheld meat pie in his mouth.
“Did I get it right?” His mouth was full but he got out a yes. “Whew, I’m relieved. I wanted to try something from your college years but I couldn’t get a coney. I know pasties are from the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, but I thought I’d take a chance.”
He burst out laughing and Sookie was at a loss. He caught his breath and explained. “Sookie, these,” he held up his food, “are called paah – sties. Pasties are the things women wear here,” He pointed to his chest rather than saying anything indelicate.
She blushed, though he couldn’t see her and chuckled at her own mistake. After a moment, she reached into a cooler and pulled out a few cans of soda. “I got Faygo pop in assorted flavors. Any interest?”
“Redpop?” He put a hand out and making a ‘gimme’ motion and she laughed at his enthusiasm. “Sookie, you’re an angel! I’m in food heaven.”
Since they were seated next to each other, she was able to touch his arm. “My pleasure Eric.”
They finished eating while Sookie caught him up on the world news, then she helped him into bed. Once he was settled, she regretted the loss of contact and Sookie knew she yearned for more time with him. She’d made up her mind though, it was time to leave.
“So, I have another offsite meeting tomorrow morning, and I’ll be out for a few days after.” She took a breath to steady her voice. “I know you’ll be released before I’m back, so I guess I should say goodbye now and wish you luck.”
The room was silent for a moment as Sookie stared one last time at Eric. The image of him with his mouth open in shock would occupy a dark place in her mind and heart forever. She was broken out of her thoughts when a nurse stepped into the room.
“Sookie?” The nurse spoke to her. “Sorry to interrupt but we need you for an admission. Young kid is in pretty bad shape.”
Sookie was confused, since she didn’t know of any admission but she didn’t question the nurse in front of a patient. “Sure, thanks Melissa.”
As Sookie left the room, the nurse called into Eric. “Welcome back Captain. I’ll be back in a few minutes to get you settled.”
Sookie didn’t hear Eric say anything as Melissa physically dragged her to a meeting room down the hall and shut the door. “What are you doing Sookie?”
“What do you mean? The walk from Magee to here? I had permis . . .”
Melissa gave out a frustrated sigh. “Not his walk Sookie. I’m talking about how you’re saying goodbye to Eric now. Aren’t you like, in love with him?”
“That’s a little personal, don’t you think?”
“It is personal and while you manage to wall off most people, I’m not going to stand back and watch you do it now. That man has made you smile more in the past weeks than I’ve ever seen you smile in the time you’ve been here.”
“My feelings are irrelevant. Actually, no, they’re very relevant. I can’t feel this way about him and have him look at me in disgust.”
“News flash Sookie, that man is in love with you too.” Sookie scoffed at the nurse. “You forget. I’m one of the nurses who went to Eric a few times a week to check his bandages. He spoke about nothing but you Sookie. Your visits, your dinners, your cookies, your family, your sense of humor, your voice.” She pointed to Sookie’s chest and added, “you, you, you.”
Tears fell from Sookie’s eyes but she shook her head in denial. “I can’t risk it.” She grabbed a tissue and sobbed into it before continuing. “You know how heartbreaking it is to be with a patient when they have their bandages removed for the first time? They are so excited and happy. Then they get a look at me. I can see it on their face. The shock and disgust is evident.”
“I’m afraid you’re making a mistake. Did you think about telling him? Maybe taking the shock factor out of the equation?”
“No. I enjoyed talking to him when he didn’t know what I looked like.”
Melissa wiped a tear from Sookie’s cheek. “I hate to break this to you, but seeing your port wine stain and scar for the first time can be a surprise. I’m not trying to hurt you; I’m trying to help you. Why can’t you give him a chance?”
“I can’t. It’s not worth the pain.”
“For God’s sake Sookie. For a Psychologist you haven’t really thought this one through have you?” The nurse raised her hands in frustration. “You’re impossible.” Sookie said nothing further and Melissa gave up. “I’m done. I’ve said all I can because for some reason, you’d rather give up the opportunity for something great because he may notice your scarring and have a reaction.”
Sookie turned and walked out of the meeting room, past Eric’s room, and to the garage. She left before she could change her mind. It didn’t help that she heard Eric talking to someone as she passed asking to find Sookie for him. No, I can’t let little girl fantasies about love and happy endings give me false hope. This ends now, it’s for the better.
“I don’t understand Melissa.” Eric started. “She just left? I mean, she didn’t say goodbye, not really.”
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“I thought, I mean, she said.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “She gave up being my counselor specifically so we could be friends and she leaves like this?” An idea came to him. “Hey, the woman that replaced her as my counselor for Wills, she and Sookie are friends I think. Can you get in touch with her for me? She’s supposed to be at my unveiling tomorrow, but maybe she can convince Sookie to come back. I mean, how can I be excited about taking these things off,” he gestured to the gauze around his head, “If I Sookie isn’t the first thing I see?”
The nurse agreed to contact the counselor and left Eric to his thoughts. He was broken hearted that Sookie felt so little for him; that she could toss him aside. This whole time, the touches, the soft conversations, he thought they were building something. Apparently he was the only one who thought that. Then he realized what her retreat was all about. That makes no sense though. The woman uses tough love like a baker uses icing. Does she exempt herself from the hard truth? I know she’s been hiding something from me about her physical appearance, I’ve heard some comments from the nurses here. Does she really think anything is going to change how I feel about her? I’ve got to fix this; I’m not losing her.
The next day, Eric’s eye doctor, his fill-in counselor, and Melissa were with Eric for the removal of his bandages. The doctor had no clue about the drama that had unfolded in the past twenty-four hours and was surprised to see a sullen Captain Northman. In the weekly visits the doctor had made to Magee, he knew Eric had seen some light creeping in through the bandages and that was usually a sign that vision was returned or returning. “Eric, we spoke about this, I believe you have reason to keep your hopes high.”
Eric sighed. “I’m sorry doc, it’s not my vision that has me in a foul mood. Let’s just get on with this.”
“Melissa, please dim the lights for Eric.” The doctor addressed the nurse then turned to Eric. “That’s standard procedure as we’ve discussed. I know you’ll want to see everything in full color and brightness, but your eyes will appreciate the dim lights when see again for the first time.”
That comment earned the doctor a grimace and he couldn’t help but reply. “I’m getting up in years, so be thankful the lights are off when I’m the first face you see. You won’t need the grimace until the first time you see my wrinkles in full light.”
“No offense, but yours isn’t the first face I wanted to see.”
He smelled her before he heard her speak. “What about my face?”
Eric blew out a relieved breath. “That’s more like it. Come . . .” he patted the space next to him on the bed, the side opposite the doctor. “I want you right here.”
“Eric . . . I . . .”
“Right here woman.” His tone left no room for her to argue; everyone in the room was watching. To ensure he didn’t make her mad, he added some humor to the nerves he knew she was feeling. “I’ll throw a tantrum if you don’t join me.”
A moment later, she was taking his hand, and he felt the bed sink where he’d told her to sit. He lifted their joined hands and kissed her knuckles. “Thank you for coming back.”
She whispered into his ear. “I . . .I’m scared.”
“Don’t be.” He leaned further into her. “Trust me.”
When the two had stopped their quiet conversation, the doctor asked permission to move forward and after Eric nodded, he began to unwind the bandages. Eric blinked a few times when they were finally off and turned to Sookie.