Chapter 3 – Meet the Family
Eric’s smile appeared as he looked at her for the first time. “I can see you. It’s fuzzy and shadowy, but I can see you.”
The doctor interrupted Eric’s staring to get his attention. “Can you turn to me so I can check some things?”
Wishing he could continue looking at Sookie, he reluctantly turned his head as the doctor requested. After inspecting Eric’s eyes, using a few instruments to test his vision and ensuring there was no pain, the doctor nodded to Melissa. That meant she could raise the lights some. This time when Eric turned, he could see more of Sookie’s face. By the fearful expression she wore, he knew she was waiting for his reaction. Assuring her right away, he cupped her cheek and told her his first thought. “You’re beautiful.” Unable to help himself, he leaned in and gave her a soft kiss on the lips. He wanted to take it further, but they had an audience.
He could see Sookie was puzzled by his reaction. Her hand touched the right side of her face over part of her mark and asked in a quiet voice. “You must be unable to see clearly yet.”
He put his forehead on hers and said, “Sookie, I thought you trusted me. I told you you’re beautiful and I meant it.” Eric believed they might have a long road ahead trying to convince her that his feelings for her went beyond a physical attraction, though he already felt a physical pull to her. For weeks, he’d been dreaming about being intimate with Sookie. In his dreams, it was her; her heart, her kind words, her soft, warm hands, her scent. A physical appearance wasn’t the star of those dreams. Though now that he’d seen her, those soulful deep eyes and yes, her luscious breasts, were going to feature going forward.
The eye doctor checked a few more things and left with the nurse and counselor after giving a last order. “You can raise the lights one more time in about twenty minutes. Not full blast though.” He headed to the door. “It’ll be a few days before you can handle that. Sookie knows the procedure so you’ll be fine.”
“Yes Sookie?” He raised one eyebrow in question and she giggled. “What’s funny?”
“I didn’t know you could do that.” His forehead creased in confusion so she clarified and pointed to his eyebrow. “Raise one eyebrow like that.”
“Ah, well now you know.”
She nodded and was quiet for a moment until she dared to ask, “So how well can you see?”
He suspected she thought he couldn’t see her scar. “I can see that you have long hair with beautiful curls and stunning eyes with thick lashes and I think they are blue but I can’t be sure in this light.”
She gave him a smile then bit her lip. “They are blue. Yours look the same.”
He nodded and continued. “I also see,” he glanced down, “Well, I don’t mean to be indecent but I see curves that I want to explore.” She blushed at his words. “And I want to give you a better kiss now that we’re alone.”
“You do?” She was surprised at his request. “Are you sure you’ve seen . . .”
“Shut up and kiss me.”
She put a hand on his chest and stopped him from leaning closer. “Eric, I have to be sure. I can’t discover in a few days that you didn’t get a good look at my face.”
“Sookie, stop.” Wanting to put an end to her worry, he decided to be blunt. He moved so he could gently hold her shoulders. “Do you think anyone is perfect? Do you think I didn’t worry that you’d fine me lacking?” He shook his head. “I knew whether I could walk or see wouldn’t matter to you. No, my Sookie wouldn’t be so shallow.”
Sookie put her head down and realized how stupid she’d been. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry, I want you to believe me. My guess is your scars and the discoloration have caused you issues your whole life.”
“Yes, but it’s not an excuse. I should have trusted you. I shouldn’t have run off.”
“I won’t let you go again. I should have fought you yesterday but I was in shock that you were saying goodbye.”
“I won’t let you go either and I won’t run again. Ever.” She paused and took a big breath. “Eric I know we’ve only known each other for a short time, but I’ve never felt so connected to anyone. I think I’m falling in love with you.” She closed her eyes and tried to continue. “I don’t expect you to say anything back.”
His heart soared at her words; finally they were on the same page. He put a finger over her mouth while he chuckled, “Sookie, I’m not falling in love with you” She gasped but he continued on, “I already fell.”
“Oh. What happens next?”
“For starters, I want that kiss I asked for earlier.”
The next week, Eric was being discharged from the hospital and moving to a furnished rental Sookie found for him; a whole two blocks from her house. He would stay there while he executed on his retirement from the Marines. His exact plans were unknown, but he’d already committed to the Philadelphia area. Specifically, he promised Sookie that he wasn’t leaving. Sookie had taken the day off and they were in the lobby of Will’s waiting for Eric’s car to arrive.
“You know, I would have driven you to your house.”
He gave her a look like she had two heads. “Doc hasn’t cleared me to drive yet. You are driving me, just not your car.”
She gave him a stern look. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
To prevent getting into trouble for a potential insult to her car, he leaned over and gave her a soft kiss. “Sookie, you drive a Prius, I’m not sure I’d fit.”
“I was planning to borrow my sister-in-laws minivan.”
“I think we both deserve a better ride out of town. I mean, you did take the train in so we could drive home together.”
That had Sookie concerned about the car he ordered. “What kind of car did you order? I mean, what’s a better ride out of town?”
He smirked. “You’ll see.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “You know, your penchant for expensive things has come out now that you can see and have an iPad. I’m almost scared about the car you ordered.” She took a breath then kept going. “I don’t understand why you had to buy a car anyway. I mean, you said you have one in storage in Pittsburgh.”
“I have a classic sports car for fun driving in Pittsburgh. I needed an everyday car for now.” He nodded his head and watched as her eyes bugged out when she saw what he was looking at. “Here it is now.”
“A top of the line Mercedes for everyday?” She raised her eyebrows at him.
“Not top of the line, I didn’t get the Maybach line of S class.” He took her hand and led her out the door. “Sookie, I’ve been driving Hummers manufactured for the military. I’m looking forward to driving something more comfortable.” He paused and added, “When I can drive that is.” After depositing his duffle in the trunk, they both took their seats. “The seats have massagers in them.”
“Really? Where’s the button for that?” He laughed at her excitement as she started the car. Lightly touching the dash she cooed. “Forget the seat massagers; this car has more bells and whistles than I’ve ever seen!”
“So you do admit to liking it?”
“How could I not?” She turned to him before she pulled away from the curb. “The thing is, I would be just as happy in something that cost a quarter of this.”
He put his hand on her cheek. “I know you don’t need luxury, but I’m planning to spoil you, so get used to it.”
She mumbled a “We’ll see,” as she pulled away.
A short while later they arrived in their neighborhood in Blue Bell, PA. Sookie explained that she chose it because it was a decent commute into Philadelphia and close to a few of the other mental health facilities where she ran group meetings. She suggested they go to his rental first and make a shopping list so they could run out. They spent the day unpacking and filling his place with food and other basic needs. When he was settled enough to eat, shower and sleep, they left to return to Sookie’s for a dinner with her brother and family.
They held hands on the walk to Sookie’s and discussed the next night. “So tomorrow will be our first official date.” Eric said and smiled at Sookie.
She could feel her blush but maintained eye contact when she confirmed. “Yes. I can’t wait. Are you still keeping it a surprise?”
“I’ll tell you if you want, but you already know to dress casually. What more do you need to prepare?”
“Eric, dressing casually is hardly a clue. I helped you move in, I know you have jeans and your uniforms. Since you’re retiring, I hardly expect you to show up in your dress blues.”
“But you will see me in them at some point.”
She had no idea what he meant and she panicked thinking he’d changed his mind about retiring. “Why? I thought you were retiring?”
“I am but it’s not immediate. I’m on leave now until early fall, and then will start the process. I’ll still be an official Marine in November. You, my Sookie, are going to be the first woman I escort to the Marine Ball.”
Her hand went to her face like a shield when she questioned him. “You want to be seen with me? In front of other Marines?”
He blew out a frustrated breath and stopped their walk. “Of course, I want you, I want you on my arm, I want to show you off as my girlfriend. What part about loving you did you miss?”
“The part where I have years of baggage. I’m sorry.”
He gave her a peck on the lips. “You don’t have to be sorry, I’ll be sure to tell you so often you’ll drop that baggage.”
She smiled and guided him to her porch. They’d driven by her house on the way to his place, but he hadn’t been inside yet. Sookie pointed to the twin next to hers. “Jason and Michelle live in that twin, the other side. So we have one neighbor separating us.”
“You’re very close.”
“He’s my rock.” With a flourish, she opened her door and exclaimed, “This is home.”
She watched as Eric took in her living room. His eyes zoned in on the fireplace. “I thought since we were in the same development our homes would be the same, but you have a fireplace?”
Sookie nodded proudly. “Yep. It was an upgrade when the house was built. Jason and I fought over it but since he and Michelle planned on kids, I talked them out of it for safety reasons since I wasn’t having any children.”
Eric’s face screwed up in concern at her words. “You don’t like kids?”
She realized where he was going with that question. “That was four years ago. Hell, Eric, even if it was six months ago I would have argued the same point with him. I never thought I’d find love, much less have kids. You changed all that.”
“So you want kids?” He put his hands on her waist and pulled her close.
“I do but don’t you think we should have that first date and several other talks and firsts before we get to that point?”
“I’m impatient. I had to wait too long to move us from the friend zone. I want to speed everything up now.” He leaned in to kiss her and she gave in but pulled back quickly.
“You can speed things up later. My brother is likely on his way over.”
“Later then.” She could see the heated look in his eyes and it caused a shiver down her spine.
Since he’d been in a hospital, the hospital where Sookie worked, they hadn’t discussed much else about their relationship. They hadn’t done more than small kisses either. After Sookie had told Eric that he was her first kiss and first boyfriend he committed to wooing her properly. She recalled how he’d waggled his eyebrows at her when he added that at some time soon, he hoped he’d be her first lover. He was making that same face now.
They were interrupted when her niece arrived by walking directly into the house and saying, “Ee’s a diant.”
Sookie bent down to her level and said, “He’s not a giant, but he is big.” She picked up the girl so she could introduce her to Eric. “Ella Stackhouse, this is my boyfriend Eric Northman.”
Eric put out a hand and she shook it. “Hello Ella, I’m happy to meet you.”
“You da bwind guy?” She waved the hand Eric had shaken in front of his face, to test his sight.
He chuckled. “I was, but your Aunt and her hospital fixed me. I can see your pretty green eyes and strawberry blond hair just fine.”
“Aunt Sookie fixes bwains, no eyes.”
“Well she helped me get ready for my surgery. I was sad before I met her, she made me better.”
“ELLA!” Sookie heard her brother calling. “There you are baby. I told you not to walk directly into Aunt Sookie’s house.”
“Sorry about that Sook, she ran ahead as usual.” Jason put his hand out to Eric. “Jason Stackhouse, this is my wife Michelle.”
They exchanged pleasantries and then all moved to help Sookie prepare dinner and set the table. Sookie was pleased to see Eric and Jason getting along. As they ate, Jason talked about his job on the police force and how he satisfied his passion for football by coaching a local middle school team. Eric shared stories about his time in the Marines, those stories appropriate for the dinner table. They all blended well together and Sookie felt warmth in her belly while watching everyone react.
The easy conversation lasted through dinner, with Ella as the star. The girl had eyes for Eric and she was playing up to him the whole time. Eric obliged her and listened to her talk about her favorite characters. For the first time in her life, seeing Eric at her own table like this, Sookie could imagine a family for herself.
Later, while she started to wash the dishes, she overheard Jason and Eric talking through her kitchen window. Essentially, Jason threatened to kill Eric if he ever hurt her and it made her tear up. Her sister-in-law joined her in the kitchen with the rest of the plates from the table at that very moment.
“I like him Sookie.” Sookie had turned to face her sister-in-law and Michelle saw the tears in her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“Jason gave him the big brother / beat your ass talk.” Sookie wiped a tear away using the back of her hand. “It should have been Daddy, but it’s nice that Jason stepped up.”
Michelle took Sookie in her arms and they shared a moment remembering Corbett Stackhouse. “I loved your Daddy too. Still miss him.” She pulled back to look Sookie in the eye. “It was my privilege to know him for two years before he died.” She sighed. “Your mother though? She’s a different story. Have you talked to Eric about her?”
“He knows she’s in Louisiana and that we’re estranged. We never got further than that in the hospital. It’s something I know I need to cover soon.”
“Well, it’s not like we hear from her much, but better to be prepared with the history.”
“She only reaches out to Jason anyway. I don’t exist for her.”
Eric and Jason had rejoined them in the kitchen after getting Ella settled in for a movie. Jason figured out the topic of discussion. “You’re talking about Mama?”
Michelle answered for them. “The one and only queen of the selfish bitches.”
Sookie could see that Eric was shocked at the comment, but he didn’t know the story. From what he’d told her, except for cooking, his mother walked on water so he couldn’t understand. He’d learn that wasn’t always the case. “Let’s forget about her for now. I baked cookies for dessert. I say we invade Ella’s movie time with milk and the cookie tins.”
Eric tilted his head toward the living room and asked after a moment, “What’s playing? I don’t recognize it.”
Jason groaned. “Despicable Me. She’s in love with that movie.” He smirked, “She’s probably got her stuffed unicorn and toy Minions with her.” With his hands on Eric’s shoulders he added, “Prepare yourself. You’ll probably be asked to be one of the minion characters. Study them in the movie so you’re prepared.”
As they walked into the living room, Eric leaned over and asked, “What’s a minion?”
A few hours later, Sookie and Eric were alone and he brought up her mother. “I know you freeze up when she’s mentioned. Can you tell me why?”
He could see the pain in her eyes as she answered. “It’s hard for me to discuss but yes, you should know.” She gestured to the front door. “Can I interest you in the porch swing?” While it was a beautiful night out, Eric suspected that her motivation wasn’t about enjoying the out of doors. It was darker outside; he would see less of her as she spoke.
Taking her hand, Eric guided her outside and settled them on the swing. There he waited patiently while she collected her thoughts. If anyone saw them, they were a couple enjoying the evening. Inside however, Eric was bracing himself for a story he was sure he wouldn’t enjoy.
After a few moments, she started. “I was born with the stain, the port wine stain on the right side of my face.” He nodded that he understood she meant the berry colored part of her face. “I lived in such a small town … well most people didn’t say anything. They had all seen it from my birth when I wouldn’t remember their reaction, so I grew up through middle school in a cocoon if you will.” She paused. “That all changed when I went to high school. Our high school combined several middle schools from different towns. Suddenly, I was thrown in with strangers including some cruel teenagers.” The memory caused a tear to leak out and she wiped it away furiously. “My daddy was my hero. I would come home crying and he’d be there with hugs and love and kind words. Jason was great too. He beat the hell outta tons of kids. Anyone that looked at me sideways got the Jason treatment. Couple of boys from my hometown also defended me. There was one person who did not . . .” Sookie took a deep breath and he took one of her hands and threaded their fingers together. Sookie continued by spitting out “My mother was a different story. She wasn’t my biggest fan up until then, but she wasn’t cruel.” She scoffed and added, “Until the end of my freshman year. That’s when what little relationship we had went to hell.”
She stopped then and leaned into him. Knowing what came next was going be worse than what she’d already said, he gave her the time and they rocked together on the porch while he rubbed her arms and whispered words of comfort and encouragement. After what seemed like a lifetime, she picked up where she’d left off. “Jason was a junior and my mother was helping out at school for his prom. She had all these new friends that were part of the PTA but they’d never met me. For the prom, the PTA asked for help to decorate. I went, as did a bunch of other girls.” She waved her hand around as she said, “I don’t need to go into the details but they started their usual taunts. Instead of being upset for me, my mother was upset at me.”
Though he’d been quiet when she spoke, he couldn’t help reacting. “What the hell?”
“She’d been pushing me to get this laser treatment to remove the stain. My father and I were in one camp on this; don’t do it, the method wasn’t proven. Mommy dearest used the incident with the other girls at prom decorating to launch into the argument again. Long story short, she waited until Daddy was fishing with Jason and took me to a local doctor. Some of the stain lessoned, but as you can see, it was replaced burn scars. That was Daddy’s fear.” She shook her head as the memories flooded in. “I remember the day he came home from his trip. I was on the couch recovering and he saw the bandages and my tears. He was on his knees weeping while he squeezed me tightly. Essentially, he begged for my forgiveness for leaving me alone with my mother knowing she was adamant about the laser treatment.”
Instead of continuing, she was lost to her tears and Eric held her while she processed the memory and her feelings. With broken words and tears, she added, “It put a rift between the two of them, so I was guilty about that. Daddy was guilty about leaving me alone with her. My mother was standing firm that her actions were right, that it was worth the risk.” She lifted her head to Eric and he saw the pain in her eyes. “She wanted me to go back and try to reduce the stain more!”
“She was wrong Sookie, making that decision based on her needs.” He gently raised her chin so she had to look at him. “You know that, right?”
“Oh, I know she was wrong. The impact wasn’t only the emotional and physical scars that occurred then. It stayed with me, made me afraid to try the newer safer procedures, well until now.”
“What do you mean? You aren’t doing something thinking I want it, are you?”
Her head shook as she answered. “No. I’m doing it for me. I’ve been considering it for a few months. I realized, well after I spoke with a therapist, that I’ve kept the stain and the scar like a punishment. My father and mother never got along after the incident. He moved to a guestroom in the house and they put on a good show, but the marriage was over. By the time I graduated from High School, Daddy was sick and the divorce was a moot point.” Her lips turned up slightly at the corners. “My daddy and I were close and we spoke often. Before he was sick, he promised me he would pursue a divorce once I graduated from high school. I wanted him to do that. I wanted him to find his happily ever after because it was gone in our house. Our farmhouse had been in his family for generations and a divorce could have posed a problem for keeping it. I couldn’t argue the point, he loved the property. The house cost him his chance at happiness. I know that now, looking back on the situation.”
“Is that where your mother is? The family house?”
“Oh hell no!” Sookie exclaimed. “My cousin has it, so it’s still with Daddy’s side of the family.” She giggled and he was glad to hear it. “Daddy changed his will. Momma got nothin’ and she was spittin’ mad.”
He leaned into her ear and chuckled. “Your southern is coming out.” He thought it was adorable.
She gave him a teasing slap on the arm and said, “Hush it.” He laughed louder at her. “Anyway, I started researching some of the new treatments options last spring, before you arrived. Honestly, you made the decision for me, but not how you might think.” He was perplexed; he hadn’t suggested anything regarding her appearance. At seeing his confused look, Sookie clarified. “I mean, I fell in love with you but figured we had no chance because of my scar. I wanted to deal with this, the scar and the emotional history, before I ran into another situation like yours.”
“I don’t know what to say about that. I hate that you thought I would rebuff you.”
She put her hands up. “I know, I know. I mean, we talked about how I was too focused on what you would see and not love me back. It was wrong.”
“Good. For the record, I’ll love you with or without the stain or the scars. If you want to treat it, I’ll support you and help with whatever is needed. If you don’t, we keep going forward.”
“Thank you.” She sighed. “I’m ready to take action and put all this behind me.”
“Does that include your mother?” She nodded emphatically and he found that he was relieved that she didn’t feel the need to repair the mother / daughter relationship. “Well, I hate to say this about any mother, but really, she forced physical and mental pain on you and, to me, that is abuse. I hope I never cross paths with this woman.” Though he felt he could never hurt a woman, for Sookie’s mother, he thought he could make an exception; he was afraid he’d make the exception without thinking of the consequences.
“You probably won’t. She bugs Jason occasionally and that’s when she needs something.”
Eric’s mouth hung open before he addressed her comment. “He supports her?”
“NO! I didn’t say he responds; I’m saying that’s when she reaches out. She’s never met Ella; never asks about her.” She let out a snort. “I don’t know why I said that like I care. Both Jason and I prefer that she’s out of our lives. She was always a selfish mother and got worse when Daddy was sick. She never lifted a finger to help him.” When she finished her sentence she let out a long yawn. “Oh, I’m sorry, it’s not the company. Talking about that history is exhausting.”
“I understand.” He pulled her tightly to his side and kicked off from the ground to get the rocker swaying again. “Relax now.”
“I will. This feels nice.”
He agreed with her and continued to rock them gently. After a short while, he noticed her breathing had evened out and she was asleep. He knew what he needed to do. Carefully, he picked her up as he stood and carried her to her bed. There, he removed her shoes and tucked her under the blankets. That was the easy part. The problem was leaving her and ensuring the house was locked. Not having a key meant he could only use the locks on the knobs. He didn’t want to leave her vulnerable so he left her room and found a bedroom decorated for a little girl. It’s not like he had a choice, he wasn’t going home. I guess it’s pink ruffles and this tiny bed. He tucked in and fell asleep, hoping Sookie wouldn’t be mad at him for staying when she woke.