A Country Girl Can Survive

Leap of Faith
Chapter 3: A Country Girl Can Survive

As we walked into Merlotte’s I heard Hank Williams, Jr. singing, “And we can skin a buck; we can run a trot-line. And a country boy can survive.” It was the little things that reminded me how different Bon Temps was from Atlanta. Sam’s granddad was the original Merlotte, and although his parents still owned the place, Sam had taken over most of the day to day operations. He prided himself in maintaining the family tradition and not much had changed, besides the cook, in years.

I steeled myself to deal with the locals, including my friends and family. Eric had his hand on my lower back, and I think if he hadn’t been there, I would have turned around and left.

People began murmuring as soon as they saw us together. We made it back to the pool tables where Jason and the Hoyt were playing a game before we were accosted. Tara marched directly up to me; ignoring Eric, she handed me a gin and tonic and gave me a hug in one smooth motion. I knew as soon as the hug eased that she was going to say something hateful to Eric, but I couldn’t stop her.

“So, you think you can just walk back into her life like nothing happened! Do you asshole?”

“Tara,” I started, but Eric spoke up.

“No, Tara, I don’t. I didn’t know she would be home, and I didn’t know that Gran died. I’m trying to be a friend to Sookie right now, and whatever else happens is really none of your business.”

My stomach sank at the word ‘friend,’ but I felt truly nauseous when he put Tara in her place, because you just don’t do that. Or you don’t do it without stirring up a hornets nest.

“None of my business? None. Of. My. Business? Do you think it was my business to take care of her when you left because she was fucking destroyed?”

“Tara!” I shouted.

Eric’s cheeks were red, but not from embarrassment; I still knew him almost better than I knew myself. He was biting back what he wanted to yell at Tara; that he didn’t break my heart on purpose, he left because he felt it was his duty to serve his country and honor his uncle. Back then I had wanted Eric to return to me with every fiber of my being, but I never considered what it would have meant for him. I couldn’t imagine being the reason that he gave up serving in the military.

But my thoughts passed in a breath as Tara turned on me.

“What?” she asked me harshly. “You’re not going to tell him.”

People were trying to pretend like they weren’t listening. Eyes were shifting around trying to focus on anything but the three of us.

“Tara,” I said again, hoping the third time would be the charm, but it wasn’t.

“You’re not going to tell him how seriously broken you are on your own. You’re going to try to make it sound like everything’s fine now but you know it isn’t. He needs to understand Sookie,” she continued. “He needs how bad it was and he needs to know about the damned Cajun that wanted to marry you. That two-timing dumb fuck got what he deserved, even if you did it on accident.”

I gasped and put my hand to my mouth. She did not just say that.

“I told you that in confidence,” I whispered.

My gasp had finally caught her attention. She sighed and said, “Shit Sookie, I’m sorry. I just…I can’t lose you again.”

Eric was rubbing circles on my back as Tara and I stood looking at each other. I couldn’t speak and I had no idea how I was going to explain any of what she had just said to Eric.

Thankfully, the twins stepped in, wonder-twin powers or something, Claude led Tara to the bar and Claudine ushered me to the bathroom. Eric squeezed my side for reassurance, but I had no idea what he could be thinking. That I was a complete nut job? Most likely.

Claudine knew how messed up I’d been when Eric left. She was also one of the few people who knew the whole story about Alcide’s botched proposal, and the fact that he had cheated on me through our entire relationship, if that’s what you could call it.

“Are you okay?” she asked when the bathroom door closed behind us.

I just looked at her.

“Okay, stupid question,” she said and we both laughed.

I leaned back on the door and shut my eyes tight, hoping when I opened them it would all be better. Nope. I opened my eyes, and I was still in the bathroom with my cousin reeling from a verbal bitchslap from Tara.

“You really should tell him, Sookie. He has to know everything before you two can even think of moving forward,” she said quietly. It was pretty much the nicest statement she’d ever said that involved Eric and me.

“Do you think we should move forward? That we can?”

“Sookie, I don’t have anything to do with that. I know he owns your heart and he always will, but I don’t know that you can afford to give it to him again.”

“Are you okay? Why aren’t you telling me he’s an asshole and it doesn’t matter?”

Claudine chuckled and looked away from her reflection to answer me. “You’re right,” she said, “I think Eric is the biggest asshole on the planet. I’ve never liked him, I probably never will. But Sook, you actually looked like a human being today when you were sitting with him; not like the zombie you’ve been for the past few years. If he does that for you, then you need to try.”

Thoughtfully, I nodded. Had I really been that bad? Even recently? I mean I knew I wasn’t 100%, I’d given up on that, but was it that obvious? How did I not know that everyone still thought I was still a train wreck? That sucked. I walked over and checked myself in the other mirror. My cheeks were still a little red and my eyes were glassy. There wasn’t much I could do at this point, but I needed to pull myself together to go face Eric and everyone else.

“You’re going to be fine Sookie. You’re a Stackhouse. We’re strong women,” Claudine said. She expertly ran blood-red lipstick across her lips, gave them a little smack, and smiled approval at herself in the mirror.

Then she turned to me with a serious look and said, “But don’t expect me to be nice to Eric. He pushes every button that I have and I enjoy pushing his.” With that, she walked out of the bathroom leaving me standing in her wake.

Apparently she had decided I was okay enough for her to leave. I muttered to myself that I could do this, and followed her.

Coming around the corner, I had to stop in my tracks. Eric was bent over, aligning a pool stick, and giving me, and everyone else, a fabulous view of his ass. He drew the stick back to take his shot and the movement of his biceps distracted me from his glutes. The balls clicked as he sank one of the solids. He stood and stretched to set up the next shot, oblivious to the females ogling his backside.

I saw Arlene looking at him out of the corner of my eye and all I could think was, Hell no.

I strode with a purpose to the pool table and blocked the view of Eric’s behind, staking my claim. I turned to face the crowd, and the women acted like they hadn’t been watching. Shit, maybe they weren’t watching. What the hell was I doing? I felt like I was losing my mind.

Eric stood then, after missing his shot, and was surprised to find me standing so close.

“You okay?” he asked, reaching a hand out to touch my cheek.

“Yeah,” I said. “This weekend is just a little bit much.”

He smirked and said, “Yeah, this weekend isn’t what I expected either. Let me know when you’re ready and I’ll take you home.”

His proximity instilled courage in me, so I said, “Are you even going to ask about what Tara said earlier?”

“You’ll tell me if you need to.”

I nodded.

“I think I need to, but I don’t think I can yet,” I said quietly.

“When you can,” he said.

He stepped back to take his turn at the pool table, and I moved to stand next to Tara. I was pissed at her, but she was my best friend. With one look I knew how sorry she was. I squeezed her hand, and we went on like nothing had happened.

The evening wore on and everyone behaved, for the most part. They avoided asking questions about Eric and me and stuck to talking about Gran or telling old high school stories.

At one point I saw Arlene head over towards Eric, but then I saw Tara “accidently” spill a beer all over her before she got to him. She winked at me as Arlene high-tailed it to the restroom.

Alcohol tended to loosen her tongue, and Claudine was on a roll. She was telling stories about her latest boy toy. Sweet Jesus, the things that she told us. I never wanted to meet the guy; I would blush from head to toe if I ever saw him! Claude had been talking with Sam at the bar, but when he saw my face he realized it was time for his sister to head home.

Claude hadn’t even made it over to us yet when I felt Eric’s hand on my waist. I leaned back into his chest automatically. It shouldn’t be so easy for me to feel comfortable with him.

I was thinking that the natives hadn’t been too bad tonight, conceivably it could have been much worse and I knew it.

And then Claudine started talking to Eric, “So asshat, how long are you in town for?”

“You know my name Claudine.”

“Yes, but asshat is more fitting. Answer the question.”

“I’m home for two weeks.”

“And then?”

“And then I go back.”

She had a shitty grin on her face, “I hope you give Sookie some additional details and don’t just abandon her again.”

Why was everyone throwing me under the bus? And what had happened to sweet Claudine from the restroom? Damn. This is what she meant about pushing buttons.

I felt vibrations in Eric’s chest just before I heard a growl. Holy crap that was sexy.

Through gritted teeth he said, “That’s quite enough Claudine.”

Claude stepped in front of his sister and looked over his shoulder at us. He mouthed, “Sorry,” and turned back to his sister to give her a fresh drink. It apparently distracted her, because I heard Claudine begin complaining about the crappy vodka that Merlotte’s considered top shelf.

Without a word I led Eric towards the door.

“Sookie, we don’t have to leave,” he said.

I was embarrassed from Claudine’s attack, it was the final straw for me, but I looked up at him and tried to smile. “I need to get out of here,” I said. Nodding at my brother, we headed for Eric’s car.

A new song came on his IPod as we pulled out the parking lot. With just the first few notes of the tune, I recognized the song. I didn’t even need to hear the first verse.

Breathe in for luck,

Breathe in so deep,

This air is blessed,

You share with me.”

The song was “Hands Down” by Dashboard Confessional and I’d heard it a million times. The lyrics were about a high school couple and the best date they ever had. It was more my taste in music than Eric’s; but it was on every mix CD we ever made each other.

Eric tried quickly to push the button to skip the song; clearly he recognized it as well.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I still love that song.”

Then I burst out laughing when I heard the music start again. It was “The Space Between” by Dave Mathews Band. We had seen DMB together twice.

“Seriously,” he groaned. “It’s on shuffle, I swear.” He hit the skip button again and Metallica came on, definitely more his style.

We didn’t talk much more on the way home; but my bad mood from the bar had eased after the IPod incident. Pulling in, he turned the engine off and looked at me with a sad smile.

“Sookie, I don’t really know what is going on here. I don’t want you to feel pressured or, like you need to make any decisions. Okay?”

I nodded, and he continued.

“I think that some things happened after I left that I don’t know anything about,” he said, holding his hand up telling me to let him continue. “You can tell me about it when you’re ready. I’m sorry that they are shoving it in my face. It’s your story to tell. But, Sookie, you have to understand that seeing you totally blindsided me today. I didn’t know that you would be in town, and I had no idea what seeing you was going to do to me. Fuck. Everything came back. I just wanted to pull you in my arms there in the store.”

He stared out the passenger window past me for a second, and then he squeezed my hand. “Bird, I want to spend as much time as I can with you while you’re here,” he said, “But only if you want to.”

It had been bothering me all night. There were things that I needed to know, to understand before I could make that decision.

“Eric, can I ask you something?”

“Anything,” He said, taking my hand and rubbing the back of it with his thumb the way he always did.

“Why did you think I would try to contact you?”

He looked away from me and let out a deep breath and then met my eyes before he spoke. “I knew I was breaking your heart Sookie,” he said quietly, moving his hands to the steering wheel. “But I had to go; it was something I had to do. I just thought, after my phone calls, that you would at least try to get in touch and let me know how you were; or shit, yell at me some more or something.”

Phone calls – as in more than one? My face went pale and I felt bile in my throat; I thought I might be sick right there.

He had a death grip on the top of the steering wheel with both hands and he leaned his head against them to look at me. “Oh God, you didn’t know?” he said with disbelief.

“I had no idea,” I said, I think I was actually trembling. Having always thought that he had walked away from me without a second thought, the idea that he called to check on me meant the world. What the hell had happened? Who had kept it from me that he called? “Who did you talk to? What did they say?” I asked quietly.

“My family, your family, they said you were fine and that you didn’t want to talk to me. Shit, Sookie. I called as soon as I could. I stopped trying to get through to you when I went to my first post, by then I figured you must really not want to talk to me,” he said, shaking his head. “From the things I’ve heard today, you weren’t fine, and it kills me. I didn’t know.”

Of course my family said I was okay. How do you tell someone that they’ve left your sister or grandchild a discarded shell of a human? But his family, why would they lie to him like that? I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

“Eric, I wasn’t fine. I was a mess, but I can’t really talk about it with you yet. I mean, it was a long time ago, but all of the sudden it’s like it was yesterday.”

He smiled, “Yeah. Tell me about it.”

Before we could go any farther, there was something else I needed to know. Quietly, because I was afraid of the answer, I asked, “Are you, right now, I mean…Are you even single?”

That brought a chuckle. “Yeah, Sookie. I’m single. My life hasn’t really been conducive to dating and relationships, they haven’t really worked out for me. What about you?”

“Oh, I’m single,” said with a little huff. Sarcastically, I continued, “I’ve had some problems with commitment. If you can imagine that.”

“Sookie, I’m really sorry. They told me what I wanted to hear and I believed it.”

“What do you mean ‘What you wanted to hear?'”

“It wasn’t easy for me either, Sookie. Leaving you was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. When I got to South Carolina I was miserable. If I had known how bad things were back here, I would have found a way to come home.”

And there it was. A Recruit can’t just come home because he broke some poor girls’ heart, everyone knew that. His family, and my family, looked out for us the only way they could, by lying through their teeth.

“You wouldn’t have been able to come back Eric, we both know that,” I practically whispered.

“I would have tried,” he said, running his hands through his hair.

We sat quietly, each digesting what we had just learned. He reached up to brush his fingers along my cheek, “Will you please let me spend time with you this weekend?”

I leaned into his hand and sighed, “Eric…I just… I don’t know if I can go through your leaving again.”

He put his other hand up, cupping my face gently, “What if I promise to come back for you?”

My heart fluttered. Did I hear that right? I’m not sure that’s a promise you can make, or one I’m willing to live with. There was no way I was prepared to answer that question or really even think about it yet.

“Hey, what happened to no pressure?” I said, trying to laugh it off.

He laughed and kissed my forehead, dropping his hands from my face. “Yeah, sorry, no pressure,” he said, with a smile. “Sookie, I’ll be here tomorrow if you need me.”

“I think I would like that,” I said quietly.

“You’re tired,” he said. “I’ll walk you up.”

Like a gentleman, he opened my door and walked me up the porch steps. The light came on automatically; Jason must have put a motion detecting light up for Gran. We blinked in the bright light and smiled shyly at each other. How many times had we played out this scene before?

There were so many things that I needed to say to him, that I needed him to know. Now there were questions too; things I needed to know about him. But none of that mattered tonight; I just wanted to crawl in my bed and sleep.

“You should get some sleep,” he said as if he’d read my mind.

I nodded, not sure that my voice would work. I moved to unlock the door but dropped my keys. He picked them up with a chuckle and unlocked the door for me.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” he said, giving me a quick kiss on the hair and backing down the porch stairs.

After locking the door, I stood and watched him drive away through the window. Closing my eyes, my brain started spinning. What was I doing? How could I do this to myself? Did it really matter that he had called; or was I reading too much into it? I turned and saw my black dress hanging from the mantle where I’d hung it after ironing it. Everything came back to me with a piercing stab to the chest. Gran’s funeral was in the morning. How had I forgotten, even for a moment? I forced myself up the stairs and went through my evening routine.

I lay in bed, wishing sleep would come, but the only thing that came were tears. Tears for Gran, tears for Eric and me, for all of the years we both spent missing each other, and for the future that was uncertain. I heard my cousins come in, trying to be quiet, or at least Claude tried. I closed my eyes and feigned sleep when I heard my door creek open, one of them was checking on me.

I didn’t want to deal with either of them.

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