I could feel the plane’s descent as we approached Shreveport on the final leg of our flight and clutched the folded American flag in my lap a little tighter. It had been a long and grueling journey home, from our forward operating base in Afghanistan, but, despite the wrenching of my gut and the pain in my chest, there was nowhere else I would want to be; no one else I would’ve wanted in my place because there was no one else who honored my fallen brother more than me.
Alcide and I grew up together, having met in kindergarten, and were inseparable from that day forward. We were closer than any two biological brothers and where one of us was, the other could be found. Alcide’s mother had died when he was a baby and my father had taken off before I’d been born, so we managed, between the two of us, to have a complete set of parents, connected through us by our friendship. Even when he met, and then started dating, Sookie when we were in Junior High, I was never made to feel like a third wheel and, even though I’d jokingly given him a hard time throughout the years that he was lucky he saw her first, I could see how good they were together. She was his Sun and his world revolved around her. I knew that he knew it as well because of the many times we’d been in the car, on our way to her farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, and I always marveled at how he was able to spot the turn onto her gravel driveway when it was pitch black outside. There were no streetlights and her house was far back enough from the road that you couldn’t see it through the trees, so when I asked him about it once he’d told me with a smile, “It’s Sookie. She glows like a beacon and her light will always guide me home.” I’d been envious, but happy for him to have found someone like her, even if I made fun of him for being a romantic prick. If anyone deserved to be happy, it was my best friend Alcide.
When we’d graduated from high school, with no way to afford college, I suggested that we enlist in the Marines together under the buddy program, meaning we’d stay together through basic/advanced individual training and onto our first assignment. Alc agreed and proposed to Sookie the day we came home from basic and they were able to get married a few days later at the courthouse, with me standing up as their best man. Through the following years, they were both there for me when my mother was taken by cancer, as I was for them when Alcide lost his dad to a drunk driver and Sookie lost her Gran to a stroke. Together we were a family and Sookie would always joke how she got a two-fer; two husbands for the price of one. I pretty much lived with them, always having dinner at their house when we weren’t training or deployed and Alcide and I were equally nervous/terrified/territorial and dumbstruck in love when their daughter Amelia was born. She was the spitting image of her father with her dark hair and green eyes and I couldn’t have loved her more if she had been my own.
When we got orders to deploy to Afghanistan, we moved Sookie and Amelia back to the Bon Temps farmhouse knowing our enlistment would be up by the time the deployment ended. Neither one of us wanted to reenlist so Sookie and Alc planned on living in the farmhouse she’d inherited when her Gran passed away and offered to let me stay there until I could find a place of my own. Ame had turned four years old the month before the move and was excited she would be able to start kindergarten in the same school where Alcide and I met. I knew this because she talked my ear off for most of the trip back.
We’d been in Afghanistan for 17 months, fighting over care packages from Sookie and bragging on Amelia’s smarts and beauty to anyone that would listen, when the unthinkable happened. We were always on alert, but it had been on a routine patrol out in the pitch black terrain when gunfire erupted. Explosions went off all around us, lighting up the sky, and it wasn’t until it was all over that I learned my best friend, my brother, was gone. Our entire platoon knew how close we were and even though there hadn’t even been enough time to do the necessary paperwork to transfer Alcide’s remains by the time the plane arrived to take him away, our Commander managed to pull some strings and I was able to leave with him. I would be starting my terminal leave early, so the most important mission of my military career would be over once I got my brother home.
The C-130 landed in the dead of night with the aid of night vision goggles because of the blackout conditions that were in effect and positioned the plane on the runway where hundreds of soldiers from our unit were lined up in formation. Shutting down their engines wasn’t standard operating procedure for their aircraft due to potential maintenance problems and the hostile environment, but seeing all of the soldiers there to send off one of their own had the pilots and aircrew complying without another word. Army; Air Force; Navy; Marines; Guardsmen; we’d be the first to give the other hell for their chosen branch of service, but in times like these, we were all brothers in arms together.
The only lighting came from the back of the airplane, which was open to receive Alcide’s remains, and the aircrew ran over to join the formation of soldiers, marching alongside of us, with our colors flying high, until we came to a stop at the back of the plane. Our platoon was lined up on each side of the aircraft’s ramp, with the rest of the soldiers lined up behind us, and as the ambulance approached, the formation was called to attention. As Alcide passed the formation, someone shouted “Present arms,” and everyone saluted with the salute held in place until he was placed inside of the plane. The senior commanders, sergeant major, and chaplain said a few words to the men and when it was over, as I was making my way onto the airplane, a young Marine named Tommy Mickens came running up to me with tears streaming down his face. Alcide had taken him under his wing and watched out for him from the moment he saw him. He’d seemed even younger than his eighteen years and the bravado he tried to portray to his platoon was nothing but a mask to his fears and Alcide saw right through him.
“That’s my platoon leader,” he said to me, unashamed of the tears falling freely down his face. “Please take care of him.”
I couldn’t allow myself to let go of my emotions yet; not yet, so I gripped his shoulder with my hand, answering, “He’s my brother. I will.”
As the plane continued to descend towards Shreveport, the sound of the captain’s voice over the PA broke through the continual loop that had been playing in my mind of the last 20 years of my life.
“Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking. We have a passenger on board that deserves our honor and respect. His name is Staff Sergeant Alcide Herveaux, a soldier who recently lost his life. Escorting him is Sergeant Eric Northman and your entire flight crew is asking that you remain seated so that he may exit the aircraft first and attend to his fallen brother on the final leg of his journey home.”
Thanks to me wearing my dress uniform, I’d gotten several handshakes and words of thanks from assorted passengers when boarding the flight, but now that they knew why I was onboard, the polite nods and smiles I’d gotten had changed into teary-eyed expressions of sympathy and understanding. The complaints I’d overheard about the flight, which had been delayed by fog, and possible missed connecting flights ceased from those around me and when we touched down on the runway, everyone was riveted by what they saw through the windows.
It was nighttime, but the moon was full and the flashing red lights of the awaiting fire trucks and police cars lit up everything for miles, with the runway lights lighting the way to the airport. It dawned on me then that it had been nighttime each time we’d landed, from Bagram, to Ramstein, to Dover and now in Shreveport, with the runway lights guiding the planes each time, but the Sun had always been up when we’d taken off and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was God’s way of leading Alcide home.
The fire trucks were parked on opposite sides of the runway, each of them shooting large streams of water over the blacktop and forming an arch which showered the plane as it passed through. I could see there was no movement on any of the other runways; no airplanes were taxiing around us. It seemed as though everything came to a standstill with everyone there giving their respect to Alcide.
He deserved nothing less.
There was a reverent hush amongst my fellow passengers with whispered thanks and prayers as I stood when the plane had come to a stop. The flight attendants openly cried which only made my own tears try to battle their way out. I’d cried once, so far, and that had been on the battlefield, but knowing I’d be seeing Sookie and Amelia in just a few moments, I knew I was fighting a losing battle. I only hoped to keep it together long enough to get through the Honor Guard ceremony before I lost it completely.
I could see the crowd gathered on the tarmac in my periphery when I exited the plane. It appeared the entire parish had shown up to give their respects, but when I caught sight of long blonde hair and a small brunette at her side, I quickly looked away before I could see their faces. I took the flag I’d been carrying over to the Marines who were waiting to unload Alcide’s casket and stood back and watched as they climbed into the cargo hold, carefully draping the flag on top of it, and was a little surprised when I looked up and noticed the passengers on the plane were still seated. Even though they could now get off of the plane, none of them did and their show of respect warmed my heart.
As Alcide was taken from the plane, everyone around us stood at attention and those that were in uniform, and some who weren’t but had served in their lifetime, saluted as his casket was carried passed the crowd by the Honor Guard, and remained that way until he was loaded into the waiting hearse. I stood at the back and held my salute until the door was closed before turning and finally allowing myself to look over and see Sookie and Ame standing nearby. Their crying faces were my undoing and when I finally got them in my arms, and felt theirs wrap around me, I couldn’t hold back my grief any longer.
Our bodies shook as we cried with mine coming from both grief and worry. I’d only been able to speak to Sookie briefly once we’d landed at Dover AFB, but she’d been on her way to the funeral home to make arrangements, at the time, so we hadn’t been able to talk for long. I’d been worried that she would hate me; hate me for not protecting him; hate me for not being there to take the bullet that took his life. I’d almost expected her to because it was exactly how I felt. It had been my idea for us to join the Marines in the first place. Why should I be the one that got to live when he had so much more to live for? I would’ve taken that bullet for him if I could have, but it was too late. I was too late to save him and I hated myself for it. In my guilt, I felt like I was the one that killed him.
Sookie ended up getting her emotions in check faster than me, but I figured she was doing it for Amelia’s sake so I did what I could to rein in mine as well. The three of us climbed into Alcide’s pickup truck with me behind the wheel and followed behind the hearse all the way home to Bon Temps, led by a police escort and no less than a hundred cars behind us. I knew I would appreciate it someday, when I could find it within myself to appreciate anything, but in that moment I was just an empty void.
I hadn’t realized none of us had spoken a word at all until I almost missed the turn to the farmhouse and Sookie’s voice startled me as she pointed up ahead to her right, saying, “It’s there.”
Alcide wouldn’t have missed the turn.
Every light in the house was on as we drove up the pitted gravel driveway and I pulled around back and parked by the kitchen when Amelia’s small voice came from the backseat asking, “Uncle Eric? Are you staying with us?”
I honestly hadn’t thought about it. I hadn’t been able to think about much that didn’t have to do with Alcide and getting him home. I wasn’t even sure Sookie would be willing to talk to me, much less want me to stay with them, but I didn’t have to think on it for very long because Sookie spoke up, answering, “Of course he’s staying.” Her voice was as empty as I felt and I never realized just how full of life she had been up until then, now that it was gone.
I killed her too.
I got out of the truck and opened the rear door with Amelia launching herself into my arms. How would I explain to my sweet baby girl how sorry I was that I was the one that got to come home and not her father? Sookie had joked that Ame was five going on twenty-five, but I wasn’t sure how much she understood about what was going on. It turned out, she knew quite a bit.
“My daddy’s in heaven,” she said as I carried her inside. I wasn’t prepared for her statement; completely caught off guard at having this conversation with her even though it was already on my mind and could only nod, neither knowing what to say nor knowing if I’d have a voice to say anything if I did.
She went on to say, “God needed an angel and he chose daddy, but we’ll get to see him again when it’s our time to be an angel.” The tears were back, streaming down my face, and she looked so much like him that it hurt to look at her, so I pulled her head into the crook of my neck as I sat down on the couch in the living room, unwilling to let her go just yet. She was a part of Alcide and I was just as unwilling to let go of him, but I swore to myself I would do better for her. I would protect her and watch over her; help raise her as much as Sookie would let me.
We’d talked in the abstract about dying; what-if scenarios, but Alcide had never come right out and ask me to watch out for them if something were to happen to him. He didn’t have to; it was a given. We were all one big family. One big family that now had one big piece that was missing and could never be replaced.
I stood silently in the doorway watching Eric and Amelia, with both of them falling asleep on the couch within minutes of sitting down. He looked exhausted, like he hadn’t slept in weeks, which could very well have been the case, but then the same could be said for me.
When the strange car had come up the driveway a week earlier Amelia and I had been outside. It was a beautiful day and the sun was high in the sky, so while she rode her bike around the front of the house, I’d been tending to the lawn. Between training exercises and deployments I’d learned to be self-sufficient because Alcide would be gone for long stretches of time. I didn’t mind it though, I was proud of him and of Eric. While everyday citizens might support our troops, it meant something very different when you loved the person who was away for months at a time, fighting a war that barely got more than five minutes of press coverage these days. You had to live that life to understand the pride and worry that went with it and I was looking forward to their enlistments ending so I wouldn’t have to worry as much anymore.
When I saw the military uniform worn by the man driving and then a chaplain sitting beside him, I knew something had gone terribly wrong. I was listed as next of kin for both of them, I was next of kin for both of them and as they made their way to where I stood, afraid to let out the breath I’d been holding, my whole body started trembling. When they told me it was Alcide that died, my eyes immediately sought out Amelia and my legs carried me to her as I collapsed on the freshly cut grass and held our baby girl while I cried out that they were wrong. There must have been some mistake; someone else had died that day; not my Alcide.
I’d been in love with Alcide since before I’d hit puberty and our relationship was nothing short of spectacular. We were both stubborn as the day was long and where he wanted to take care of me, I wanted to do things for myself. He was pragmatic and I was impetuous, but somehow we made it work, with our opposite natures either complementing the other or creating one hell of a firestorm. He was my anchor, my happily ever after and now he was gone, leaving me to raise our daughter alone.
The week leading up the funeral passed in a haze of people and appointments and I was thankful the shock of it all had allowed me to remain strong and calm for Amelia’s sake. She knew her daddy was in heaven now, but I don’t think she fully understood that she’d never see him again. He wouldn’t be there for her birthdays or proms. He wouldn’t give her away at her wedding or get to hold his first grandchild, but I wouldn’t allow myself to think about it now. I put it off for another day because in the here and now, my daughter needed her mother, so I would wallow in my grief when the time allowed.
The funeral…I dreaded it. Funerals were meant to give those left behind closure, but there was no closure to be had for me. I didn’t want closure. I wanted my husband back. My daughter needed her father. Realistically I knew the dangers of him joining the military, but I was irrationally angry. I didn’t sign on for this. I didn’t agree to be a single parent and none of this was a part of our plan. He was supposed to come back and we’d maybe try to have another baby and then we’d grow old together, bickering at each other while holding hands as we took our evening stroll. I’d suffered more than my fair share of loss in my lifetime, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through losing my best friend; my lover; my husband. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to.
I’d left Eric and Amelia on the couch together and kept myself busy unpacking Eric’s suitcase and doing his laundry, knowing sleep wouldn’t be coming to me that night. The next morning I got Amelia dressed, waking Eric in the process, and then got myself ready knowing we had to get to the church for the service, but I moved slowly knowing deep down that I didn’t want to go. Going meant I would be saying goodbye and I wasn’t ready to do that yet. I didn’t think I’d ever be ready to say goodbye to him and my hands were shaking so bad that I couldn’t get my earrings into my ears and ended up throwing them across the room screaming, “THIS IS BULLSHIT!”
It was all bullshit. Why did he have to die? Why did I have to raise Amelia on my own? How could I be both a father and a mother to her? She was the spitting image of him, both physically and with her personality. Would it ever not hurt to look at her?
I collapsed on top of the bed sobbing, the same bed we’d conceived our daughter in, and didn’t think I could find the strength to get up. I knew if nothing else, I needed to find it for Amelia’s sake because it was just her and me now.
He’d left us.
I didn’t hear Eric come up the stairs or enter the room, but I felt his arms go around me and all it did was weaken whatever resolve I’d managed to muster. For every, “It’s not fair,” I sobbed out, he returned an, “I’m sorry.” I knew he was hurting too. They’d always been close, in some ways closer than Alcide and me, but I was too weak; too lost in my own grief to help him, but I knew he was strong and he’d be able to go on with his life. Eric and I were connected through Alcide and now that he was gone, I knew it was only a matter of time before he left us too. He had his own life to live. My life ended on a mountain in Afghanistan.
We managed to get through the church service and Alcide was buried in the cemetery next to the farmhouse, alongside his parents, with full military honors. I’d managed to do okay until the flag that had been draped over his coffin was folded and handed off to Eric. I watched him kneel down in front of me with tears falling from his eyes as he handed it to me and barely choked out, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to Country and Corps.”
He caught me as I fell forward from my chair, sobbing out loud, and held me through the 21 gun salute and the playing of Taps. The farmhouse had been filled to the brim with food for the wake and Eric somehow managed to carry both Amelia and me back there. He took me upstairs and laid me down on the bed before kissing my forehead and shutting the door behind him. I listened as the house began to fill with the sound of voices and closed my eyes trying to remember the sound of the one voice I wished I could hear. With all of my energy spent, I finally let go. It was the first time I’d slept for longer than an hour in days.
Sookie was exhausted and I hoped she would stay upstairs and get the rest she obviously needed. I’d woken up that morning when she was lifting Amelia off of my chest, where she’d slept for the night, to get her ready for the service and was in the middle of pressing my uniform when I heard her scream upstairs. I found her sobbing in bed and didn’t know what to do. It was my fault she was going through this and all I wanted to do was find some way to fix the unfixable, but every time she’d sob out that it wasn’t fair, wasn’t fair that I got to come home when he didn’t, all I could say was that I was sorry because I was.
The entire town turned up for the funeral and I took care of the host duties at the wake with Amelia a constant shadow at my side. She seemed comforted by my presence and I knew I was comforted by hers, so I relished in the fact that she didn’t want to be without me. When the last person finally filtered out of the house she helped me clean up the kitchen and as I was giving her a bath she said, “Mommy’s sad.”
I nodded, saying, “We all are.”
“She misses daddy.” Since I’d been back she hadn’t been as talkative as she normally was, but I hadn’t really expected her to be given what we’d been dealing with. I also hadn’t expected her to be as astute as she was at her age.
“We all do,” I agreed.
I was thrown for a loop when she asked, “Are you going to be my new daddy?”
I know my mouth was gaping open when I quickly replied, “No. Your daddy will always be your daddy. No one could replace him.” No one could fill his shoes; he was one of a kind. Seeing Amelia’s fallen face I added, “But I’ll always be there for you and help you when you need it. I’m your uncle. We’re family.”
Amelia’s eyes moved to look over my shoulder as she said, “Uncle Eric said he’s not gonna be my new daddy.”
I turned to see Sookie standing in the bathroom doorway and she looked down at me with swollen red rimmed eyes before looking back at Amelia and agreed, “He’s not. He has his own life to live, so it’s just gonna be you and me.”
She seemed so cold, without any warmth in her voice at all, but I hoped it was just the stress she’d been under and not her finally coming to her senses, placing the blame for Alcide’s death squarely on my shoulders where it belonged. I wanted to disagree with her, but the sounds of Amelia crying drew my attention back to her and I pulled her out of the tub, wrapping a towel around her tiny body, and told her, “You are a part of my life and I’m not going anywhere. I’ll always be here for you.”
I took Amelia from Eric, pissed at him for making promises to her that he couldn’t keep. As I got her into her pajamas and into bed, Eric came into the room and gave her a kiss goodnight before leaving again. I watched him walk out of her bedroom door and wondered just how long it would be until it would be the last time she watched him go, leaving me to have to explain why she’d lost someone else in her life.
I’d noticed how attached she was to him, she’d always been attached to him, but now that Alcide was gone I didn’t want her to latch on to the idea of Eric filling the role of her father. Yes, they’d been as close as brothers, but I couldn’t expect him to take on that responsibility, nor did I want to go through the grief and disappointment if he decided to change his mind. Eric had had girlfriends through the years and none of them had been serious, to him at least, but I knew it was only a matter of time. He was a good guy and handsome to boot, so he’d eventually settle down one day and have a family of his own. When that happened we couldn’t expect him to be there for us all of the time and Amelia would be left devastated with me having to pick up the pieces all over again. I decided to give us all a little bit of time to grieve and get used to the idea of Alcide being gone, but I wouldn’t allow us to become dependent on Eric for anything.
I couldn’t afford to.
I found Eric downstairs, sitting at the kitchen table, with an open bottle of Jack Daniels in front of him and a nearly empty glass in his hand. I got my own glass and Eric filled it before topping up his own and held it out in front of him, saying, “To Alcide.”
“To Alcide,” I said, clinking my glass with his. I wasn’t normally a whiskey drinker, but at that point I would try just about anything to dull the pain and figured it couldn’t hurt.
We were halfway through the once full bottle when Eric finally spoke first, saying, “It’s my fault.” I couldn’t say anything, not knowing what he meant, and only stared at him when he continued, “If only I’d been next to him when the fight started. I could’ve taken the bullet instead. I would have taken the bullet and then he would be here right now.”
He buried his face in his hands and his shoulders shook as he cried, making my heart ache even more. I got up from my seat and knelt down in front of him, wrapping my arms around his body and said, “He wouldn’t have wanted that.” I knew my words were true as I spoke them. Alcide wouldn’t have wanted to watch Eric die any more than Eric wanted to see him die and he wouldn’t have thought twice about taking a bullet to save Eric. It was just who he was; who they both were.
When I stood up, Eric wrapped his arms around me, crying into my shirt and making me want to cry as well, but I felt too numb; too detached for the tears to actually break free. I’d managed to wall myself off from feeling much of anything by that point, so I just went through the motions of trying to comfort Eric. I was surprised by his next words.
“Please don’t make me leave,” he whispered.
I wanted to tell him he could stay forever, if only so I wouldn’t have to be alone; have to raise Amelia all by myself, but it was a selfish and unrealistic request, so I gave him his out, saying, “You can stay until you find your own place, but you can’t stay here forever. You have your own life to live; you’ll have your own family someday and…”
He cut me off, looking up into my eyes, and practically snarled, “You are my family! You and Amelia are all I have left.” He clutched my body against his, with his face buried into my stomach, and sobbed out, “I already lost my best friend; my brother. Please don’t make me leave. I can’t lose you guys too. Don’t make me be alone.”
I tried to soothe him by rubbing his back and saying, “Okay, Eric. Okay.” He pulled my down into his lap and continued to sob against my shoulder, rambling out, “I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand losing both of you too. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I got him killed.”
That got my attention more than anything else and I pulled away from him, lifting his chin so he’d look me in the eyes, and asked, “What do you mean? How did you get him killed?”
The tears continued to flow from his eyes as he whispered, “It was my idea to join the Marines. If I hadn’t suggested it this never would’ve happened. It’s all my fault that he’s gone.”
A part of me wanted to blame him; wanted to have someone in front of me I could take out my anger on, but seeing the remorse in his face, I couldn’t do it. Alcide and I had talked about him joining the military long before he ever signed up and we’d both agreed it was a good choice. His father had been a onetime Marine and Alcide wanted to follow in his footsteps. Besides, there wasn’t much career-wise around our hometown for him to be able to find a decent job when we graduated high school and he’d planned on using the GI Bill, when his enlistment ended, to get a college degree.
Reaching out, I wiped the tears from his eyes, and said, “It’s not your fault. He wanted to join. We talked about it a lot and I doubt either one of us could have stopped him.” Remembering how stubborn he could be, I smiled softly, adding, “You know how he was; more stubborn than a Mississippi mule.”
As I looked into Eric’s eyes I realized, out of everyone else, he was the only one who could possibly understand what it was to lose Alcide. What a world without Alcide in it was like and I suddenly felt closer to him than I ever had before because of that connection we shared. Up until then, I’d always looked at Eric as a brother-in-law of sorts, but now we were more like kindred spirits, united in our grief. They came as a package deal when I started dating Alcide and I hadn’t minded one bit. He was a good friend to Alcide and an even better uncle to Amelia. You could see how much he loved her when he looked at her, but I didn’t want to have any expectations of him. It wasn’t fair to either one of us, but it was especially unfair to Amelia.
I was so caught up in my thoughts I hadn’t noticed the look in his eyes had changed until his lips were suddenly on mine. They were soft and warm and I was so taken by surprise that when his tongue traced across my lower lip, my mouth opened up all on its own. It had been so long since I’d been kissed, I lost myself in it for a moment before my senses came back to me. It was wrong. This was wrong; the wrong lips; the wrong tongue; the wrong arms around me when I needed to be held more than I ever had before and I pushed away from him, jumping up off of his lap, saying, “No!” before running from the room. I threw myself onto the bed and eventually cried myself to sleep, all the while begging Alcide to forgive me for what I had done.
I panicked the next morning when I peeked into Amelia’s room and saw that her bed was empty. I checked the downstairs and didn’t find her, but seeing that all of the doors were still locked had me going back upstairs where I found her curled up with Eric on his bed, both of them sound asleep. I wanted to be angry at him; angry for kissing me; angry for being the one my daughter turned to in the middle of the night, but I couldn’t because only hours earlier we had turned to each other as well. I knew he was hurting, maybe as much as me, but I still didn’t want to get too comfortable with his presence in our lives knowing it was only a matter of time before he left too.
I don’t know what came over me when I kissed Sookie. I’d always thought she was beautiful, but I’d never thought about her that way. At first she was Alcide’s girl and then Alcide’s wife. The thought of doing anything with her in a romantic sense never crossed my mind because it was a line I would never cross as Alcide’s best friend, but seeing how sad she was and feeling my own grief over his loss; a loss only she could understand had me crossing that line. She was one more part of Alcide; she had been since before we were teenagers and in that moment, I needed to find some way to feel close to him again. Sookie was that bridge and I reacted without thinking, but when she broke our kiss; pulled away from me and took off to her room, I felt like the biggest asshole to ever walk the planet. My best friend was buried just a few hundred yards away and there I was putting the moves on his widow on the very same day he’d been laid to rest.
He’d definitely shoot me now if he could.
When I tried to apologize to her the next morning all she would say was, “I don’t want to talk about it.” I couldn’t really blame her; I didn’t want to talk about it either. That kiss only added to my guilt because I couldn’t deny, even to myself, that it somehow felt right. But that couldn’t be right because she was Alcide’s wife; she was Amelia’s mother; she wasn’t, nor would she ever, be mine.
And yet somehow, in the days and weeks that followed, I couldn’t get the idea of having something more with Sookie to leave my mind. I tried not to let it show, only showing any affection I felt to Amelia, but watching her move numbly through life was hard to do. She didn’t smile much; she hardly ever laughed. It was as if she wouldn’t allow herself to find any joy in life and while I understood how she felt, I did my best to put on a happy face for Amelia’s sake. Even at her young age she knew something was wrong with Sookie; knew her father’s death had left a scar on not only her and I, but on her mother as well and it hadn’t even begun to heal.
I still felt guilt over my role in Alcide’s death; guilt for my growing feelings for Sookie and the only thing I could think to do to assuage any of it was to try and make her life easier. The first time she’d run out to get groceries and came home to find me cutting the grass, she lost her mind yelling at me saying she could do it. I knew she could do it; she had been doing it all along, but I knew if Alcide had been there he would’ve done it, so I didn’t see what the problem was; at first.
When I found her changing out the float inside of the toilet tank to stop it from running, I offered to do it for her and she nearly bit off my head again saying she didn’t need my help.
I knew she was just lashing out, still grieving over his loss, but it didn’t make me feel any better because I knew I’d come to need her. When she wasn’t busy biting my head off, my interaction with her and Amelia were slowly but surely healing my broken heart. I could tell when her mind wasn’t on her grief and the difference was startling. I could see now what Alcide had been talking about when he’d said she glowed from the inside out, but whenever her thoughts reversed themselves, it would grow dim again. I wanted to fix her, give her a reason to blind us all with her inner light, but she would have to let me first.
Weeks slowly turned into months since Alcide’s death and life went on, but in my heart I couldn’t let go. Eric hadn’t made any moves to find a place of his own and had begun taking classes in Shreveport to get a degree in business. He and Alcide had always dreamed of owning their own bar one day and Eric wanted to make their dream a reality in his honor. I watched his interactions with Amelia, the love he obviously felt for her was palpable, just as palpable as the hesitation he felt whenever he interacted with me. I couldn’t blame him for it; I practically disemboweled him every time he tried to do something to help out around the house. Aside from the morning after, we never discussed our kiss and he never tried anything like it again, but I knew it was still in the back of both of our minds.
I felt guilty. Guilty for kissing him back; guilty for finding any pleasure in it; guilty for seeking comfort in someone else’s arms when all I could think about was all of the times Alcide and I had fought thanks to me being pigheaded. Alcide would be so hurt if he was here now, but somewhere, in the back of my mind, a part of me thought that might not be the case. He wasn’t selfish enough to want me to go through the rest of my life alone. His heart was too big; he was too good of a man for that. We’d talked about it, late at night when it was just the two of us lying in bed, but I’d always told him there could never be someone else that could take his place; that he was irreplaceable, but he would always counter that they wouldn’t be replacing him; that our hearts had more than enough love to share with more than just one person. I didn’t want to listen to him then, instead bringing up his fifth grade ex, Debbie Pelt, as a red herring to my feelings, because while my head heard every word he said, my heart didn’t want to listen.
Now I had Eric here trying to fill the void Alcide’s death had left behind and I both loved and hated him for it, but I tried to keep it all to myself as best as I could. I tried to keep my interactions with him cold and detached knowing we were only a stopgap in his life. He was here out of guilt and grief and when he got over it, he would move on, but I couldn’t stop Amelia’s love for him from growing. Seeing how happy he made her, I didn’t really want to and instead I knew I’d just hate him even more when he left her behind; when he left us behind.
It had been ten months since Alcide’s death and Christmas was only a few weeks away. I hadn’t wanted to decorate or celebrate the holidays at all, but I knew I would have to eventually do it for Amelia. It had started getting darker earlier in the evening now that the winter months were upon us and I was going through her book bag at the kitchen table when Eric walked in grumbling about missing the turn for the driveway again. I might’ve chuckled at him had it not been for the piece of paper in my hand. It was a flyer for a Daddy/Daughter dance they were having at the school and I didn’t realize my hand had been shaking until Eric stilled it with his own.
Taking the paper, he read it, before kneeling down in front of me and wiping the tears from my face that I didn’t know had been falling, as he said, “It’s okay. I’ll take her.”
Everything I’d been feeling; everything I’d been pushing down so I wouldn’t have to feel it came bubbling out and I screamed, “YOU’RE NOT HER FATHER! YOU CAN’T REPLACE HIM! NO ONE CAN!”
With the way I’d been treating him over the last several months, all but pushing him away in any way I could, I was sure this would be the breaking point and have him walking right out the door. I turned my back on him, not wanting to see him leave now that I realized I wanted him to stay. For all of my attempts at not becoming attached to him; not wanting to depend on him for anything; they’d all been in vain. I’d gotten used to having him around; used to have another grown up in the house and the thought of him not being there anymore was more painful than I expected. He’d kept me company; kept me sane when I was sure insanity was just around the bend. The lives of everyone around us had gone on, but he understood my pain better than anyone else. I wasn’t in love with him, but then I’d barely given myself permission to even like having him around. I did, however, appreciate him and loved how he was with Amelia, sometimes being the parent when I couldn’t even bear to get out of bed, even if I never told him so. And I’d be lying if I said I never wondered if there could be more between us. He was fun and kind and not difficult to look at, at all, but those thoughts merely fueled my guilt.
I didn’t know how Eric felt about me though and while I knew he hadn’t been seeing anyone in a romantic sense since he’d been back, I reasoned it was because he’d been busy with school and there were slim pickings in Bon Temps. I’d expected he would’ve found a pretty young co-ed to spend some time with by now, but he only ever went straight to school and back home again. He spent all of his free time at home with me and Amelia, but now that was all going to change. Because of my bitchy ways, Amelia was going to lose the only other man in her life; in our life and it was all my fault.
I felt the heat from his body as he moved to stand behind me and the hair stood up on my arm moments before his hand came to rest on it, as he softly said, “I know that. No one could ever replace him; for any of us, but all I’m trying to do is be there for you; for both of you.”
“Why?” I wondered out loud.
He took a deep breath before admitting, “Because I…I care for you; for both of you and I’ll always be there for you both no matter what.”
“But you’ll leave,” I argued softly. “You’ll find a nice girl and settle down and you’ll leave.” I knew it wasn’t fair to push him away and then accuse him of eventually leaving, but I’d learned all too well that life wasn’t fair.
He moved to stand in front of me and when I refused to meet his eyes, he tilted my chin up with his fingertips. He looked nervous, but resigned as he said, “I’m not going anywhere until you kick me out. Sookie, I…I feel something for you as more than just my friend and the fact that you’re my best friend’s widow makes me feel like shit because of it, but I can’t help it. If you don’t feel the same way, if you never return those feelings back to me, I’ll still be here for you.”
I stared back at him not knowing what to say. I could admit, at least to myself, that I felt something other than friendship for Eric, but I was still confused as to what that was. He was right though; he could never replace Alcide in my heart, but was my heart big enough to let him in too?
Everything had been left up in the air after I admitted my feelings to Sookie. I knew she was still grieving and I’d give her all the time that she needed, but I didn’t want her to think I was just hanging around until something better came along. Over the months I’d been living there I’d come to care for her more than I felt comfortable with, but that didn’t change the fact that I did. I wanted to be more than just friends with her and hoped Alcide would understand; would know that I would do my best to do right by both of them. I would do anything for both Sookie and Amelia no matter what it was; I just hoped Sookie didn’t decide what was best for them both was for me to leave.
Sookie had been abnormally quiet in the weeks leading up to the Daddy/Daughter dance and I was worried she was going to ask me to leave once we got through the Christmas holidays. She’d stayed in her room a lot with the door closed; I assumed thinking over everything, so I tried to mentally prepare myself for when she asked me to move out. The old Compton place on the other side of the cemetery had been abandoned long ago and I looked into buying it so I wouldn’t be far away. I didn’t want Sookie to feel like I was stalking her, but I wanted to be close enough to be there at a moment’s notice if they needed me. I’d gotten attached to both of them, but especially to Amelia and the thought of not being able to see her everyday broke my heart. Her smile could brighten up my day no matter what was on my mind and she shined just as brightly as her mother. Looking at her, her resemblance to Alcide didn’t hurt me anymore. If anything it warmed me; made me feel almost whole again and I cherished her presence in my life.
She’d been extra excited about going to the dance and I’d been sure to compliment her pretty dress, although it paled in comparison to her beauty. Sookie had curled her hair into ringlets that hung down passed her shoulders and she spent the majority of the night having me twirl her around the gymnasium floor. I didn’t mind, even if my stomach did, because the sound of her happy laughter echoing around me was worth any price.
I was busy concentrating on the road, hoping I wouldn’t miss the turn onto the driveway again when I noticed the lights up ahead. I stopped when I reached them and just stared until Amelia’s voice shouted gleefully behind me, “Christmas decorations! Mommy decorated!”
I made the turn while she continued to chatter on behind me, hoping out loud that she could help decorate the Christmas tree, but the only thing I could do was marvel over the fact that Sookie had managed to string lights down each side of the driveway from the road all the way up to the house. She was waiting for us on the front porch with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders and Amelia scampered out of the car before I ever got my seatbelt off, with a chorus of “Yay! Christmas lights!” as she made her way into the house.
However, I was nervous and didn’t want to read into anything. Over the last few months Sookie and I had talked a lot about Alcide, sharing memories with each other, and me telling her about the light, be it hers, the runway’s, or the sun, guiding him home. I couldn’t allow myself to hope.
When I made it up to the bottom step I looked up at her saying, “The lights look nice. I would’ve helped, you know.” That was still an issue at times; me helping, but I didn’t want to leave it unsaid.
Sookie took a step down, so that we were eye to eye, and said, “I know. You help; I bitch you out for it; it’s what we do. But this,” she gestured towards the lights, “I couldn’t ask for your help with.”
“Why?” I asked, almost afraid of what she was going to say.
She reached down and took my hand in hers, saying, “It’s my gift to you. I want you to be able to find your way here; to find your way home.” Seeing the smile I felt forming on my face, she squeezed my hand, adding, “I want you to feel like this is your home, but I can’t make you any promises Eric. I do feel something for you; something more than friendship and if you’re willing to give me the time to wrap my head around it, I think I’d like to see where that can go.”
I climbed up another step to be closer to her and leaned down, placing a soft kiss on her forehead, saying, “I’ll wait for as long as you need.”
Sookie was more than worth the wait.
Five years later…
I looked around the bar at the smiling faces and was happy the grand opening had been such a success. Eric had worked so hard; we both had, but I really wanted this to succeed for him. He poured his heart and soul into opening up the town’s only bar and grill, but seeing how much everyone was enjoying themselves, I wasn’t too worried anymore.
Eric and I had come a long way over the years. We’d spent months doing nothing more than talking and holding hands. More months passed before we even kissed again, but he was always patient, never pushing me to go farther than I was ready to and letting me take the lead. He was more understanding than I had any right to expect, but I think the fact he loved Alcide too only helped me to come around. If they had never met; if Alcide had been nothing more than a sad story to him, I doubt we would’ve lasted. I needed the man in my life to know how important the one before him was to me and not be jealous or intimidated by it, but cherish his role in my life as much as I did. We both knew Alcide could never be replaced; he was irreplaceable to both of us, but we were able to expand on our love for him to include each other. It no longer felt like we were betraying him; we were celebrating his love of life and of us and I know he wouldn’t have picked anyone else but Eric to be my husband or Amelia’s father, if he couldn’t be there to do it himself.
After the last person had left and the last table had been wiped clean, Eric came up to me with a sleepy Amelia at his side holding onto one hand with the other holding a sleeping Jackson on his shoulder. We’d named our son after Alcide’s father, a move Eric had said he’d already decided years earlier since he’d been the only father figure in his life. It only made me love him more and as we turned onto Hummingbird Lane, our family once again numbering four, I smiled as Eric took the turn onto the driveway in the pitch black of night, happy he no longer needed the lights to guide his way home.