We sat there on the same porch swing we used to sit on together as kids. Only back then there hadn’t been an awkward silence in between us.
Or maybe it was just me who felt awkward, but for some reason I just couldn’t shake the feeling.
This was Sookie.
She was the same girl who used to smile at me, like I hung the moon just for her.
I would have, if it had been possible.
She wasn’t all that different than I remembered her.
Smart. Kind. Pretty.
All of the boxes had been checked.
We were older now – sure – but while some things never changed, some things did.
And something felt different.
Maybe it was because she didn’t need me now like she once did. Back then I was her shield, protecting her from the other kids who loved to hate on her.
Now it was blaringly obvious she could take care of herself.
The way she handled herself in her courtroom and even the way she carried herself outside of it showed everyone just how strong she was, both inside and out. Even Bill – her ex-husband – still seemed a little in awe of her.
And maybe even a little afraid of her.
But he’d gone to law school, so he obviously wasn’t stupid.
And while I didn’t believe myself to be stupid either, I wasn’t educated like he was.
But the amount of diplomas we each had weren’t our only differences.
All during our meeting earlier that morning, I kept getting distracted with thoughts unrelated to my case. Watching his mannerisms – his involuntary little tics that we all have – and listening to the way he spoke, were so different than mine.
He was what she looked for in a man. She’d married him after all.
Even though it didn’t work out between them, they were still friends – good friends – so it stood to reason there was still some sort chemistry between them, even if it was only platonic.
He – or someone like him – was what she was attracted to.
I was nothing like him.
Bubba shifted on my lap, pulling my eyes back to him and that’s when I realized what my problem was.
She’d picked this beat up old cat, just like she’d picked beat up old me for the same reason.
Sookie’s big heart just wanted to make life a little easier on both of us.
But that’s all it was.
After all, what could I possibly offer her that she would actually want?
“What is that smell?” she asked, making my eyes dart her way in time to see her lift her nose into the air and inhale deeply.
While I was freshly showered, I didn’t think she was talking about me, so I put Bubba down and got up, holding my hand out to help her stand as well and said, “That is dinner.”
“You made dinner?” she smiled up at me.
Like I’d hung the moon.
Just for her.
But even if I could, I couldn’t.
It was barely dusk.
Following me into the kitchen, I stirred the pot I’d left simmering on the back burner and then pulled out the pan of fresh cornbread from the oven before turning to her and saying, “I hope you like chili.”
She had all of the ingredients for it, but there was no telling, so I was relieved when her eyes grew wide as she said, “Like it? I would marry it if I could.”
My responding smile was small on the outside, but bigger on the inside because I couldn’t help making the comparison.
Bill didn’t remind me of chili at all.
Chicken noodle soup, maybe, but not chili.
The contrast between the two made me second guess the spiciness of the dinner I’d made.
But because she wasn’t a mind reader, she only said, “I’m going to go change real quick. This calls for an elastic waistband.”
Chuckling at her enthusiasm, I dished out two servings and set them on the kitchen table before slicing into the cornbread and setting the pan in between the two.
I had just finished pouring two glasses of sweet tea, when I heard her reentering the room and turned towards the sound on reflex.
And nearly dropped the pitcher still in my hand.
I’d only been staying with her for a couple of nights so far, but on the previous two she seemed to recognize my need for some space. My head was still jumbled from everything, so when we’d walked into the farmhouse on that first night, she merely waved a hand around the space in front of her and said, “Like I said, it’s just how you remember it. You can have the rooms upstairs and the bathroom in the hall is yours. Fresh towels and linens are in the closet and help yourself to whatever’s in the kitchen. The washer and dryer are still out on the back porch.”
She’d gone ahead and set up the things she’d gotten for Bubba, showing him where she put his food and water dishes and the litter pan, and then disappeared into her room for the rest of the night. I’d noticed she’d left the door ajar from the light spilling into the hallway, so I knew she was leaving it up to me if I felt like talking.
But at the time, I hadn’t.
And at the time, I was grateful.
I’d been on my own for so long, I was used to being by myself. I enjoyed the silence and maybe it was from growing up without a phone or TV to keep me occupied, but I didn’t feel the need to fill it. Most nights I would read whatever book happened to catch my eye at the local library or sometimes I would bring work home with me and spend the rest of the night toiling away on an especially challenging carburetor that was giving me problems.
Whether Sookie figured it out on her own or had just taken an educated guess, she seemed perfectly willing to leave me to my own devices.
Like her beat up cat, she seemed perfectly willing to wait for me to come to her.
That was part of the reason why I’d chosen to make her dinner tonight. Partly as a way to thank her for everything she’d done – and continued to do – for me and partly as a way to let her know I was ready to rejoin civilization.
So long as civilization was confined to the two of us.
Even with my weirdly awkward feelings, I felt more comfortable around her than anyone else and it had nothing to do with the fact I was in my foreign and familiar hometown. It was kind of like how I felt about Sookie.
Foreign and familiar and yet home nonetheless.
But seeing her walk into the kitchen wearing a simple t-shirt and shorts, with her face scrubbed free of makeup, her hair pulled back into the ponytail I remembered from years earlier, and glasses on her face, I got a sense of déjà vu.
And another kind of sensation somewhere lower on my body.
Seeing her that way made me realize I hadn’t seen her dressed in anything other than how she did when she went to work.
As a confident, professional, and successful business woman.
She looked every bit of who she was.
Judge Susannah Compton.
But seeing her now made me realize, while I might have been calling her Sookie, it was only now that I was finally able to see Sookie.
As ridiculous as it sounded – she’d only been gone from the room for a few minutes – she was a sight for sore eyes.
“What’s that smile for?” she asked, looking a little unnerved.
I hadn’t even realized I was smiling, so I forced myself to stop staring at her and put the pitcher back into the fridge, trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound stupid and ended up stupidly saying, “You’re wearing glasses.”
Looking back at her, she seemed to not be able to tell if that was a good thing or a bad thing, so I let her in on a not so little secret by adding, “I like them.”
I missed them.
“They make you look more like…you.”
But I wasn’t her type, unless it had to do with beat up strays.
That was okay though.
Hopefully I would get that job and be able to find a place of my own before she got a boyfriend and had him over to the house.
Or maybe she already had one?
“What’s wrong now?” she asked, with a small laugh. “You look like you tasted something bad, but you haven’t even put your spoon into the bowl.”
This was what happened when you spent so much time alone.
No poker face.
So I fell back to what was familiar – with her anyway – and playfully glared in her direction, while saying, “Shut it, Stackhouse and eat your dinner before it gets cold.”
But calling her Stackhouse – while familiar – wasn’t really true, so as she lifted her spoon to her mouth, I asked, “Why didn’t you change back to your maiden name after your divorce?”
Her responding moan told me nothing.
About the answer to my question, anyway.
But I had I sneaking suspicion it told me plenty about what she might sound like in a bedroom.
Shifting in my seat to try and ease the tightening in my jeans, I took a big gulp of sweet tea hoping it would cool me off.
And it may have worked had she not stared back at me like I was the only man on earth and moaned out, “Oh my god, Eric.”
If there was a God – and it was a mighty big if – He was a cruel bastard.
“This is sooo good,” she drawled out and then leaned forward, dropping her voice to bat-like decibels, and added, “It’s better than Gran’s.”
Unable to stop myself, I mimicked her posture by leaning forward and whispered in return, “Why are we whispering?”
Smiling like she was up to no good, her eyes darted to the open kitchen window and back again, before whispering, “Because she might hear me. She’s only across the way.”
We used to hang out in The Sweet Home Cemetery as kids, reading the headstones and making up stories as to how they had met their end.
So I matched her silliness with my own by looking at her and saying, “If she shows up with her wooden spoon, you’re on your own.”
Dead or alive, I knew better than to go up against that woman.
“I’d call you a chicken shit, but I am too,” she laughed. “So it’s a good thing I only have to be faster than you.”
“With those short legs?” I snorted. “I’m not too worried.”
“Hey!” she glared and stuck one of her legs straight out, then lifting it up so I could see it.
Whatever she said – if she even said anything – was lost on me.
I couldn’t hear anything over the blood rushing through my ears, seeing all of that smooth golden skin.
I really needed to find a place of my own before I did something stupid.
Like jumping on her.
When the din died down in my head – my other one wasn’t quite back to normal yet though – I was able to hear her say, “What were you saying? Oh yeah, my name. I just kept Compton because I was Susannah Compton when my career first started. I’d already begun making a name for myself by the time we divorced, so I thought it would probably be better for my career if I just kept it.”
“Do you mind me asking,” I began to say, looking into her eyes to see if there was any hesitation there. “Why did you two get divorced?”
Blowing on the spoonful of chili in front of her lips, she shrugged and dropped a bomb before putting it into her mouth by saying, “He cheated on me.”
“He what?” I questioned, much louder than I’d intended and added in an accusing tone, “How are you still friends with him?”
After meeting the guy, never in a million years would I have suspected he was even capable of such a thing. Granted, I didn’t know him very well at all, but he was chicken noodle soup.
Not quite a hearty meal, but enough to get you by.
Not appearing put off at all, by either my reaction or his actions, she swallowed what was in her mouth and casually said, “We all make mistakes and he confessed to his as soon as he saw me again after it’d happened. But seeing him and his new wife Judith together now, I can see the real mistake was when we got married. They’re good together as husband and wife. Bill and I are better together as just friends.”
I’d never been in anything that even came close to being called a committed relationship. If anything, my friendship with Sookie all those years ago was the closest I’d ever come and after witnessing the parade of men who went in and out my mother’s life, I hadn’t been sure being in a committed relationship was even possible.
But staring back at her now, I knew I was wrong because I couldn’t imagine any scenario where I would willingly throw a relationship with Sookie away.
“What a tool.”
“Hey!” she glared again, letting me know I’d been thinking out loud, but her lips gave away her amusement when she said, “That tool is my friend and he’s helping you out too, so be nice.”
Shaking my head because I really didn’t understand how she could be so forgiving, she gave me something to work with by adding, “Our marriage was safe and comfortable. Being with Bill was like slipping on an old pair of slippers, but that isn’t how I want to grow old. Safe and comfortable? Yes. But instead of sliding into an old pair of slippers, I’d much rather it feel like I’m riding on an amusement park runaway freight train. I want to feel that exhilarating thrill all the way to my bones, but at the same time know that there’s nothing to fear. I want to look at the man I’m with and have to force myself to not rip his clothes off and attack him at any given moment and I want to see him looking at me in the exact same way.”
She’d been looking me directly in the eye the entire time she spoke.
A cruel bastard He may be, but at least she couldn’t see the effect her words had on me.
Not with the tabletop blocking her view.
But with her explanation, I had to rework everything I’d assumed about her and the type of guy she would want.
Maybe she actually preferred chili to chicken noodle soup?
And proving He was a cruel bastard, she put more thoughts into my head by filling the silence and saying, “This chili is really good, Eric. I like spicy.”
Then winking at me, she added, “You might not want to spoil me so much though. If you keep this up, I might end up doing everything in my power to convince you to stay here for good.”
It wouldn’t take much effort on her part.
I was already wondering what it would take to make me want to leave.
Sookie bringing home a date would do the trick though.
But I’d spent enough time in this house when I was a kid that it felt like home to me.
Or maybe that was just Sookie.
I couldn’t really distinguish between the two.
“Speaking of staying,” she began and looked at me with an apologetic expression. “I kind of made some assumptions by going and talking to Tray without speaking with you about it first. It’s a bad habit of mine and for that, I apologize. I go and do without thinking things through, like keeping this house even though I know there’s no way in hell I can fix it up on my own. I could pay someone to do it for me, but I’m not home enough to supervise them and I don’t want strangers roaming around my house when I’m not here. But I don’t want you to feel like you have to go and see him about a job. If you don’t plan on staying, there wouldn’t be much point to it.”
“No, Sookie. Don’t apologize,” I blurted out.
That last thing I ever wanted her to feel was the need to apologize to me.
After everything she’d done and continued to do for me, there was no way I would ever be able to repay her for her kindness.
But listening to where her thoughts had strayed, I thought just maybe there was a way I could pay back a little of what she’d done for me.
I hadn’t given much thought to going back to Texas. At least not once I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the jail and talking to Sookie about cats.
Now that I had her friendship back, I wasn’t anxious to be without it again, so I said, “I want to stay. You know, here in this town.”
I didn’t want her thinking I planned on staying with her forever, so I added that last part hastily. But since I didn’t really have anywhere else to go at the moment and it would take some time for me to save up to move into a place of my own, I added, “I’m going to go and see him about that job tomorrow. But if you could make a list of all of the things you want done to the house, I can certainly take care of them when I’m not working there.”
She’d said doing odd jobs around the house would be a part of our deal, but she hadn’t really said much more about what she wanted done other than fixing the porch and leaky faucets.
I had those taken care of in a day and a half.
I’d taken it upon myself to take care of the yardwork, but without knowing what she really wanted done, I didn’t know where else to start.
But it was something I knew I could do for her that she would actually want.
It wasn’t quite the same as her looking at me and wanting to rip my clothes off, but it was something.
“So does that mean you’ll be sticking around for a while?” she asked, with a small hopeful smile. And then her tone turned teasing when she added, “Tell me no and I’ll make that list really long.”
“Make it as long as you want,” I smiled, feeling the tension I didn’t even know I was carrying disappear from my body.
I didn’t know if I could ever be the man she would want, but I could be okay with being the man she would need.