Sitting in my cell, I silently cursed my own stupidity for even contemplating returning to my home state, much less following through with it. I should have known better than to go with my instincts.
They’d never served me well before.
But when I’d gotten word that my mother had died in prison – cancer, they’d said – I got to thinking about where I’d come from and I felt some asinine need to go back. I wanted to see if it would feel any differently now, knowing she was gone for good.
And it didn’t.
The guy working behind the counter of the convenience store we used to frequent when I was a kid was the same one I remembered from all of those years ago. He remembered me too, which was surprising in a way.
To me he was just one of many who’d fucked my mother over the years.
But hearing the undisguised nastiness in his tone when he saw me, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans that still showed the miles I’d traveled to get there, as he said, “Figures you’d be livin’ up to your mama’s expectations,” I had barely been able to force my feet to carry me back out again.
I had been thisclose to beating on a man who was more than twice my age.
But that same restraint left me, when I happened to walk by the store again hours later. Already closed for the night, staring at the ‘Closed’ sign hanging on the door, it felt weird.
Almost like God himself was trying to tell me that every door was closed to me and always would be.
My rage had been instant, as was my reaction when I kicked the door in.
After all, God and I hadn’t seen eye to eye in a very long time.
But apparently that was all that was needed to be charged with Simple Burglary. I didn’t happen to agree with the responding patrolmen’s assessment, which was what led to the additional charge of Resisting Arrest.
Everything inside of me had already been coming to a boil when I’d been standing in that courtroom.
My mixed feelings over my mother’s death.
My past still haunting me, no matter how long I’d been gone.
No matter what I did or what my intentions were, it felt like I would never catch a break.
It all quickly became too much by the time I realized I was – quite literally – pleading my case before my childhood crush. I couldn’t take it anymore and crumbled right in front of her eyes.
No matter how kind her words had been, she had to think I was a loser.
I couldn’t really disagree.
But oddly enough, seeing her again had its bright side and if God and I were on speaking terms, I might have thought it was a part of His grand plan.
Sookie had always been able to see the good in me, even when I hadn’t been able to see it myself. So even though I doubted I would be seeing her again, the brief glimpse I had gotten of her that day made me hope it was a sign that better things were to come for me.
But that ominous sense of foreboding made a speedy return, when no sooner had I had the thought about better things, than the guard walked up and opened my cell door saying, “Northman. Your lawyer’s here.”
Putting my arms out for him to close the shackles around my wrists, I felt my lips twist in disgust at the thought of having to talk to that peckerhead again.
But I quickly found my bright side again and smiled, remembering how Sookie had let him have it.
She’d turned into quite the spitfire from the shy girl I remembered.
I wished I could have stuck around and seen her arguing in a court of law.
But then, being a lawyer turned judge, I doubted she would’ve wanted to hang around with the likes of me.
My run-ins with the law started not long after I’d been dumped into the foster care system. Hanging around with the wrong crowd had gotten me into my share of troubles.
Sookie had obviously taken a different path in life.
She had always been smarter than the other kids, so it was no real surprise she’d done well for herself. She used to help me with my homework out of the goodness of her heart and while my grades had improved during the short time she’d been a part of my life, my only real reason for agreeing to her help was so that I could spend time with her.
Raised by her Gran after her parents had been killed in a car crash, she’d almost been as poor as me, but I knew that wasn’t why she’d always been nice to me.
Sookie was just a naturally sweet girl.
And it used to piss me off whenever the other kids would pick on her. They were just jealous of how smart she was.
But there was no use in thinking about her like that even now because now she was married.
Seeing ‘Compton’ after her name told me so.
And she probably thought I was a loser, so I forced away thoughts of what could have never been anyway and followed the guard into the room where I would be meeting my lawyer.
Only it wasn’t my lawyer.
Already on his feet, he smiled at me, looking just as confused as I felt, before he thrust his hand towards me and said, “Mr. Northman. My name is William Compton, but you can call me Bill. I’m here to offer my services to you as your defense attorney, pro bono.”
The suit he was wearing probably cost more than the trailer I rented back in Texas, so I couldn’t understand why on earth he would be here to see me.
But running through his explanation again, my mind settled on his name.
Or rather, his last name.
“Compton,” I repeated my mental stopping block. And then looking back at him, I stated more than questioned, “You’re Sookie’s husband.”
“Ex,” he clarified. “But we’ve remained good friends over the years and she asked that I speak to you about representing you on your case.”
Laughing, I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “Only Sookie would be friends with her ex-husband.”
Smiling more genuinely, he agreed, “True. She’s one of a kind.” Then straightening his tie, I saw the wedding band on his finger and wondered if it was hers.
The one he’d worn while they were still married.
Was he still pining for her and saw this as a way to get back in her good graces?
It wasn’t really my business. I could hardly say that I knew her at all, now that twenty-five years had gone by. But still.
But I kept my mouth shut because I couldn’t really afford much – much less to kick a gift horse in the mouth. Burnham had acted like he was doing me a favor, instead of his job, and I was sure it was only a matter of time before I got brought up on battery charges when I kicked his prissy ass.
So in the following silence, Bill went on to ask, “So, do you agree to allow me to represent you? I can assure you I will do a much more thorough job than the legal aid the court appointed for you.”
And seeing my eyes narrow, he chuckled, “Sookie was quite vocal in her assessment of his skills.”
It didn’t feel quite like charity, which I wouldn’t have wanted. But I could hardly afford to turn him down, so I agreed with a small nod, “Okay. And thank you. And tell Sookie I said thanks too.”
“Very good,” he smiled and took out a few forms for me to sign. When I was done, he took them back from me and handed me his business card, saying, “If you could, please give me a call or just stop by my office in a few days and we’ll go over your case. But from what I read of the arrest report, I’m almost certain I can get the DA to plea this down to a misdemeanor, so you’ll likely only have to pay a fine.”
“I can’t afford to pay a fine,” I admitted and added, “And I can’t stop by your office since I’m stuck in here. Bail was set at twenty-five thousand, so I’ll be here until the trial.”
And I would likely be there to serve out whatever sentence equated to the fine they thought I should pay.
“We can worry about the fine later,” he said, with a look that could be called both calculating and compassionate.
It was pretty impressive that he could combine the two so seamlessly.
“But your bail will be posted just as soon as we finish up here, so you can be on your way as soon as they process the paperwork.”
“What?” I asked and added in the next breath, “Who?”
The look he gave me said it all.
“No,” I argued with a shake of my head. “I won’t take any charity and I can’t afford to pay her back the twenty-five hundred it’ll cost to get me out of here.”
“Mr. Northman,” he sighed and then changed tactics by saying, “Eric. Sookie mentioned you might feel this way, which is why she instructed me to tell you this is not charity. She is merely repaying a debt she feels is long overdue to you and from what she’s told me of her childhood, I agree with her. But this entire endeavor won’t cost anyone anything but a little bit of time.”
“But the twenty-five hundred,” I argued, not sure what else I could say.
I hadn’t gone to law school to learn the art of arguing.
The furthest my education had gone was earning my GED.
“You misunderstand, Eric,” he offered with a small smile. “Sookie has posted your bail, not your bond.”
Sookie posted twenty-five thousand dollars of her own money to get me out of jail.
The ‘why’ was still on the tip of my tongue, but not having a clue as to her motives, I tacked on, “Why would she do that? How does she even know that I won’t skip town?”
But she couldn’t know that.
Smiling wider, he answered, “She would do that because she said if you weren’t too stubborn to take the offered help, you wouldn’t be asinine enough to run off when you could stay here and still be scot-free.”
Then without waiting for me to try and form another argument, he closed his briefcase and said, “I’m sure it doesn’t need to be said, but the defense attorney in me needs to say it. Stay out of trouble, Mr. Northman.”
With his pseudo-lecture given, his face took on an amused exasperation when he said, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get home to my wife. We’re expecting our first child and apparently that means I’ll be stocking our freezer with Ben & Jerry’s The Tonight Dough ice cream repeatedly, until our firstborn, who she’ll likely want to name Ben, Jerry, or Jimmy, is born.”
Then adding as an afterthought, before he left the room he turned to me and said, “By the way, Sookie’s number is on the back of my card. She said you can call her anytime.”
And true to his word, an hour later I was free on bail, standing on the sidewalk in front of the jail and staring at the back of his business card, with her phone number already memorized.
We’d been so poor growing up that we never had a home phone, so I’d had no way of contacting Sookie before I’d been taken away by the state. And never having a phone of our own, I’d had no reason to know what her phone number had been, so I couldn’t call her after I was gone either.
I’d thought about her over the years, like she had apparently thought about me, if what she’d said in the courtroom was true.
But I didn’t need to wonder about that.
Sookie wouldn’t have lied about anything, much less that.
I was still without a phone, having lost the prepaid phone I had somewhere along the way, when I’d left Texas to come back here. The cheap motel I was staying at didn’t have phones in the rooms either, but there was a payphone in the main office.
However, I didn’t want that creepy fucker who worked behind the counter listening in on whatever I ended up saying to Sookie, but thinking of him only reminded me of the fact I was only paid up for one more night. I still had a little bit of cash to my name, having used the majority of what I’d had to travel back home, but I would have to choose between food and a roof over my head.
For a split-second, getting out of jail seemed like a bad idea.
So I reminded myself that I would figure it out.
I always managed to figure it out somehow.
But lost in my current thoughts, I thought nothing about the fact the jail and courthouse were pretty much one and the same. One ran into the other, with the entrances for each on the opposite ends.
So I really shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was hearing her voice coming from seemingly nowhere, as she asked, “Wanna come with me to the shelter and pick out a cat? Or two?”
Seeing her again so unexpectedly, I tried to think of something to say to her, which was a bit ridiculous since I’d just been contemplating calling her.
‘Thank you’ seemed like a good start, so I had no idea why I thought to say with a smirk, “You’re slipping, Stackhouse. I seem to recall a time or ten when you smacked me up the backside of my head for saying ‘wanna’.”
“What can I say,” she smiled. “Even after all of this time, you still bring out the you in me.”
Seeing her smile at me, like I hadn’t just appeared before her in her courtroom, I didn’t want to lose that yet. So instead of bringing up everything that needed to be said, I only said, “Cats, huh? Am I not enough of a stray to meet your quota for the week?”
My teasing words had the opposite effect because instead of looking amused, she looked a little like the Sookie I remembered.
The one who used to smack me up the backside of my head.
And she even sounded a little like her when she said, “You’re a long lost friend, who’s down on his luck.”
In other words, don’t argue with her.
I should have seen it back then.
She’d been born to be a lawyer.
But I couldn’t help but think she might be wrong.
It seemed my luck was looking up.
“Come on,” she said, gesturing for me to follow her. “The shelter is just down the street and you have a knack with animals. Tina loved you and she didn’t give her love to just anybody, so I need you to help me pick out a cuddle monster.”
“Tina loved my big hands,” I chuckled.
That cat had been a whore for back scratches.
“So,” she began casually. “Tell me what you’ve been up to. Have you been back for very long?”
“Not much and no,” I replied, smiling at the look on her face.
She clearly wanted more of a response than that.
So I explained to her how I’d bounced around the foster care system for a while, until I aged out and went out on my own. I’d briefly thought about joining the military, but with the few scrapes with the law I’d already had, I didn’t think I would take to the lifestyle very well.
I had a lot of anger issues back then.
I’d calmed down a lot as I got older. I didn’t fly off the handle anymore and tended to think before I acted.
For the most part.
Not so much, the night before.
But more than just good for scratching cats’ backs, I found out I was pretty good with my hands underneath the hood of a car too.
“I got a few odd jobs as a handyman, but my last job before I left to come back here had been as a mechanic in a garage, just outside of San Antonio.”
Now at the shelter, I was pretty sure my ‘job’ should be to help make sure she didn’t leave the place with every cat they had.
She was cooing and shooting doe-eyes at every last one of them.
But able to multitask, she didn’t need to look at me while she asked, “So, is that what you’ll do when your situation is cleared up? Go back to San Antonio?”
“My situation?” I asked, unable to not chuckle. “That’s a nice way of saying it, but to answer your question…I can’t, really. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. I only came back here out of some stupid need to see if anything had changed. If maybe I had changed enough to come back now that my mom is gone.”
Her head whipped my way then, having forgotten all about the orphan cats now that she knew she was standing next to Orphan Eric.
Feeling a bit uneasy underneath the spotlight of her light blue eyes, I shifted a little where I stood and acted like I was interested in the cats.
Not even a little bit.
“You don’t want a dog?” I asked, feeling the need to say something other than asking her what she was thinking.
I had a feeling I already knew.
Thankfully, she didn’t press for any more information – I was still feeling a little of the raw emotion I’d shown her and the entire courtroom earlier – and only replied, “I would love one, but I’m not home enough. I leave the house around 7:30 and sometimes I don’t get home until well after 7 o’clock at night. Cats will go and do their own thing, but it wouldn’t be fair to a dog. They need companionship.”
“Don’t we all,” I heard myself say.
But I hadn’t meant to.
Not even a little bit.
“How about you?” she asked, with her eyes once again focused on me. “Do you have a dog?”
“No,” I smiled, with a small shake of my head and joked, “I don’t even have a house to leave them in all alone all day long.”
“Where are you staying?”
Not wanting to meet her eyes, I looked at a few more cats and said, “Just some cheap motel on the outskirts of town.”
An uncomfortable silence filled the space in between us and all of the awkward was coming from me, but I didn’t know how to get rid of it.
And I guessed Sookie didn’t know how to get rid of it either, which was the only explanation I could come up with for why she said, “How about you come and stay with me? You know, until you figure things out.”
“What?” I asked incredulously.
But having been educated in the art of arguing, she already had one at the ready and said, “I live in that big old house all by myself and I’m hardly there as it is, so you won’t even have to worry about tripping over me with your big yeti feet. And the house is just like you remember it, only older, so I could really use someone who can fix the place up a bit. Maybe replace a few of the floorboards out on the porch. Fix a leaky faucet here and there. Things like that. And for doing things like that, you’ll get free room and board out of the deal. It’ll be mutually beneficial for both of us. An even trade. And I might even know of a garage that might be looking to hire a mechanic, but I have to check with the owner first, so no promises.”
It was my only argument.
I could admit it was a weak one.
So I went a step further and asked, “Why are you doing this? Why have you done all of these things for me, from getting your ex-husband to represent me free of charge to paying my bail? And now you’re offering me free room and board?”
So she went a step further, by taking a step forward that put her closer to me, as she looked up and asked, “Why did you do all of the things you did for me when we were kids?”
“I was sweet on you,” I admitted in a bout of verbal vomit.
But she just smiled, wider than I’d seen her smile since I couldn’t remember when, and she laughed, shaking her head as she went back to picking out a cat and repeated her words from earlier that day in the courtroom.
“The nicest kid in school.”