Author’s Note: This was written for the Kittyinaz December 2015 Writing Challenge. Thanks to Ms Buffy who took the time to beta my work. The piece was voted first, and I believe the difference was in her polishing. Thank you!
The challenge involved selecting one of several prompts. This was mine:
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Sookie looked at the snow globe that sat in its special Plexiglas box above the cash register. It had been just about this time three years ago that her life had begun. She smiled, remembering how, at the time, she thought her life was ending, but that was the funny thing about fate. It came when you least expected it.
Three Years Ago…
Sookie and John Quinn married right out of high school. He was the town’s golden boy, captain of the football team and everyone’s favorite son. He was louder and stronger than anyone else. His classmates revered him and mothers wished he would date their daughters. No one understood why he chose mousy, stick-in-the-mud Sookie for his girl, not even Sookie. In her junior year he had seen her in the library. He smiled at her in that larger-than-life way he had and he held out his hand. She shyly offered her own and that was that. John started to give her rides home, and then he gave her rides to school. He walked her between classes and brought her to his games.
Gran was so happy her Sookie had landed the town hero; she just about threw her granddaughter into John Quinn’s arms. In no time the little house on Hummingbird Lane was crowded with pictures of Sookie and John. There were pictures with John in his football uniform and pictures at his sports banquets. There were pictures of the two of them before junior prom and then before senior prom. It was the night of the senior prom that John asked her to marry him and she couldn’t say no. He’d taken her virginity later that same night after the dance in a room at the Motel 6. Sookie knew that meant it was forever and within a few months of graduation, she was standing in the little church she had attended most of her life, being married. They moved in with John’s mama in another little house on the other side of town. John already had a job at the local lumber mill and Sookie was expected to learn how to be the right kind of wife for him under his mama’s supervision.
Every Sunday they would go to afternoon supper at her Gran’s house following Church. Most nights John would go out without her. Some nights he went to the gym. Other nights he went out with some of the fellows from the mill. For the first year of their marriage, at least two nights a week, they would go out, just the two of them. ‘Date nights’ John called them.
During the day Sookie worked as a waitress at First Alarm. It was a restaurant right in town that only served breakfast and lunch. It was close to where they lived and Sookie walked there most days. It was a popular place, and people liked her ready smile and her ability to remember their orders. Her tips were good and Sookie used the money to buy small things. Most of the money she gave to John for their bank account. They were saving to buy a third car, one for Sookie.
Yet as their marriage passed its second anniversary, John started finding reasons not to go on Date Nights. That didn’t mean that he didn’t want to make love, it just meant he would wake her up when he got home. Sometimes he was gentle and loving about it, sometimes not so much. He was a big man and Sookie knew that what John said went. That’s how it was. She also knew that he didn’t want any children yet and she made sure of that too. She didn’t want to disappoint him. She never had, but somehow she knew that if she did, it would not go well for her.
Then one night, close to their third anniversary, John’s mama said she wasn’t feeling well. John wasn’t home, but that wasn’t unusual. John’s mama told Sookie she had a sick headache and she needed Motrin. She told Sookie to drive to the Walmart using the car her son bought her.
Sookie drove slowly; worried she would get in an accident. As she put on the turn signal to enter the parking lot, she could see flashing lights ahead. She pulled into the lot and found herself walking with the rest of the crowd to see what happened. Theirs was a small town and everyone knew that if there was an accident, it was likely someone you knew or knew of.
As she walked closer, her arms wrapped around her, she could see Sheriff Andy Bellefleur. His face was grave. She could see the outline of the twisted car and something in her head went numb. The car was John’s car. There was an ambulance. In front of her a woman said, “Oh my God, they’re dead!”
Sookie walked forward and touched the woman’s shoulder. It was Holly, Hoyt’s wife. “Who’s dead?” she asked.
Holly didn’t say, and then Andy Bellefleur was there, telling her that he would take her home. There was a buzzing in her head. The fire engine arrived, and people were shifting back and forth, giving her glimpses of the car, and then the outlines of two heads. “Who’s in the car with John?” Sookie asked Andy. She could tell he knew, but he took her arm and turned her to walk in the other direction.
When they pulled up at the little house in the police car, John’s mama was on the sidewalk, her face twisted with grief. When Sookie stepped out of the car, John’s mama slapped her. She yelled, “If you’d been a better wife to my boy, he wouldn’t have stepped out on you! He would have been happy to stay home! You’re the reason my boy is dead!” and she grabbed Sookie’s arm and shook her as if she was a dog. Andy stepped in between them and yelled at John’s mama, telling her she was crazy. He picked Sookie up from the ground where she had fallen and took her back to her Gran’s house.
Sookie didn’t like to think about the funeral. John’s mama had refused to allow Sookie to stand with her at the head of the receiving line. She told anyone and everyone that Sookie was the reason John was dead. Sookie found out that it was Dawn, a girl who had been a few years behind them at school, who met her death in the car. The whole town seemed to know that John was seeing Dawn and had been for some time. Everyone knew, except Sookie.
When Sookie returned to work three weeks later, she found that folks decided that John was the best thing that ever happened to her. They decided he was also the last thing that would ever happen to her. They treated her as if she was the one who died. They watched her with sad eyes. Women patted her hand and men looked at her with pity. No one bothered to lower their voice when they told their companion across the table, “Poor Sookie! Her life is over now.” Sookie knew. Who would want to defile the memory of the town hero, the golden John Quinn, by being with his bad luck widow?
Gran was stunned when Sookie told her she decided to move to New Orleans. Amelia Broadway, a woman she had known since they were girls together, had called Sookie a month after the funeral. Amelia apologized for not offering her condolences sooner, but she hadn’t heard the news right away. The conversation was awkward. Sookie was pretty sure Amelia had slept with John in high school, but then again, Sookie was slowly finding out through the whispered words of ‘well-wishers’ that John had slept with a lot of people both before and after they’d been married. When Amelia started talking about the restaurant where she worked in New Orleans, Sookie found herself asking if the restaurant was hiring.
Amelia was so surprised she stammered out, ‘They’re always hiring.” Sookie couldn’t believe she’d asked the question. Even more, she couldn’t believe Amelia’s answer and she had sat in silence until Amelia said, “Well, I guess if you’re interested, you could come live with me for a while.” When there was more silence, Amelia asked, “Are you interested?”
“Yes,” Sookie heard herself say, and the next week she found herself walking up the stairs with her suitcase full of clothes to the apartment she would share with Amelia Broadway.
Amelia’s apartment was small. Sookie told Amelia that she would find a job or return home. “I appreciate you saying that,” Amelia nodded, “Keeps me from throwing out a widow.” It was the first time Sookie heard the word applied to her. She suspected folks said it behind her back, but hearing it said to her face made her feel as old as Gran.
Sookie put her things in the hall closet and agreed to sleep on the fold-out couch. Together they went grocery shopping and the next morning, Amelia took Sookie to meet Sam Merlotte, the owner of Fous du Matin. It was a Tuesday, but Sookie could see that the kitchen was either getting ready for a crowd or fixing to throw out a lot of food. Grits were bubbling in huge pots. There were long-handled pans with sauces and there was a wine cooler that had been converted to hold eggs. A stand-up oven held trays of bacon and another held trays of boudin sausage. Sookie was familiar with some aspects of Creole cooking, but some of the things she glanced at as she walked through the kitchen to Sam’s office were a mystery. She knew there were eyes on her, but she kept hers carefully fixed on the floor.
Sookie had met black men before, but never one that looked like Sam Merlotte. He was broad shouldered and his skin was the color of café of lait. That wasn’t unusual. It was the ginger hair and blue eyes that threw her. He didn’t bother standing up as Amelia explained who Sookie was and why she needed a job. Sookie heard the word ‘widow’ a couple times and ‘home town.’ Sam stared at her all the while and Sookie could feel herself start to blush. Sookie was blond and fair skinned. She knew that when she blushed it was a whole body thing. It crept up the back of her neck and swept over her ears before making it all the way around to encompass the tip of her nose. She swallowed nervously, and when Sam asked, “You have any experience?” she jumped before answering.
“Yes, sir,” she squeaked. Sookie swallowed, pushed up her courage, and said in a steadier voice, “Yes, sir, I do. I worked the past two years at the First Alarm. It’s a breakfast and lunch place back home. We’re pretty well hopping until close.” Sookie finished by saying with not a little pride, “Best grits in two counties!”
Sam smiled then, “Well, Cher, you just sayin’ that cause you ain’t tasted my grits,” and then he winked at her in a way that made her realize that what he said might have two meanings, and she blushed more. Beside her Amelia laughed and there was something in the look that passed between Sam and Amelia. Sookie knew then that Sam was Amelia’s boyfriend. “Well, you look like you’re dressed okay,” Sam said more conversationally and he stood up, “Grab an apron and let’s see how you do.” He glanced back at Amelia, “Give her a menu and let her shadow you. You think she’s ready, you let her take a couple tables,” and he confirmed Sookie’s suspicion by kissing the tip of Amelia’s nose before walking past them and into the kitchen.
“There!” Amelia said, gesturing to a box of aprons that were folded. They were longer than Sookie was used to. She passed the loop over her head and reached into her pocket for a band to pull her hair up into a ponytail. She took the ends of the apron ties and wrapped them around her, making a bow in front. She had lost some weight since the funeral and it was times like this that reminded her. She looked down at the design that was embroidered across her chest. It was a Mardi Gras fool in a three-pointed hat. He was sewn in greens, yellows, and purples, as he danced across the black cloth. “Our logo,” Amelia gestured with her chin. “He’s a breakfast fool!”
Amelia also grabbed a fresh apron and explained they always took one from the box when their shift started and deposited it in the rolling basket when they left. There was a drawer in a filing cabinet for purses. Amelia showed Sookie the rows of shallow shelves next to the door that led to the seating area and they spent the next ten minutes filling water glasses. When there were enough glasses, they went from table to table making sure salt and pepper shakers were filled and condiments were ready.
When all the prep-work was finished, Amelia motioned toward the kitchen, “Come on. We all stand around and eat before the doors open. I’ll introduce you to the kitchen guys,” and together they walked into the kitchen. Sam was walking in from a meat locker and headed toward the back of the restaurant.
Sookie heard him yell, “God damn it, Bill! Smoking outside means smoking outside. It don’t mean standing in the door letting the flies in. I don’t give a shit if it’s raining. Your poison is your choice!” Sam walked back into the kitchen and caught Sookie staring at him, “You don’t smoke, do you?” he asked.
“No, sir!” Sookie replied, and she felt her blush rush over her again.
“Damn, you sure are sweet!” The man who said it walked around Sam. Sookie figured it must be the one called Bill, the one Sam had just yelled at. He was tall and dark-haired. He had sideburns which made Sookie smile a little. You just didn’t see those on a man that often anymore.
“No, not really,” Sookie replied and took a deep breath. “I’m Sookie Quinn,” and she smiled politely, “Pleased to meet you.”
“This is Bill Compton,” Amelia indicated with a wave of her hand. “And that,” the waitress gestured toward a black man in a colorful bandanna on his head who was chopping scallions, “is Lafayette. Don’t touch his knives.”
The man chopping turned around and nodded in their direction, “You got that right, baby girl.” He turned his head just so, managing to look at Sookie over his shoulder and down his nose at the same time. There was something very feminine about the movement and Sookie watched him assess her before he turned back to his table.
The door in the back slammed and another man walked in. “Oh,” Amelia said, “and this is Eric. Eric does most of the sauces and fancy cooking here.”
Sookie found herself staring at a giant with blond hair. She figured if she were to stand next to him she’d barely reach his shoulder, but what held her attention was the raised pattern of scarring that covered half his face. When she realized she was staring and he was staring back, she blushed even harder and dropped her eyes. “Pleased to meet you,” she stammered and held out her hand like they were meeting at church for the first time.
The giant didn’t move right away. Sookie glanced up from under her eyelashes and was just about to drop her hand when he raised his own to touch hers briefly, “Nice to meet you, too, Miss?”
“Sookie,” she stammered, “Sookie Quinn.”
“She’s trying out today,” Amelia volunteered. She turned to Sookie. “Come on,” and she pushed her friend toward the stack of china plates and, grabbing one for each of them, walked Sookie through the kitchen pointing out the different food choices and selecting some for her own breakfast. When they settled against the counter, Amelia shoulder bumped her, “You must have made an impression. Eric doesn’t like folks to touch him.”
Sookie found her eyes drawn back to the tall man. He had wrapped his narrow hips with his apron ties. He wore a black short-sleeved t-shirt, and his arms bulged as he lifted pots and heavy pans into place. Bill and Lafayette were joking. Sam seemed to be within their circle, the three of them easy in the way of friends. Sookie had the impression that Eric was not.
“On y va!” Sam called.
“That means the doors are opening,” Amelia told her and they moved their dishes to the back next to the dishwasher. Amelia glanced around, “Sweetie is late again,” she sighed. “Sweetie washes dishes and takes our bus bins.” A redhead brushed past them as they walked into the seating area. She shot Sookie a quick look and mumbled, “Good mornin’” on her way through. “That’s Arlene, the other waitress,” Amelia told her.
Sam unlocked the door and Sookie could see people lined up on the sidewalk. “We’ll be busy this morning,” Amelia told her. “Rain means no outside seating, but that won’t discourage folks none. They just grouse until a table opens up.” She shrugged, “Busy for us, but wet customers are bad tippers.”
Sookie nodded. She knew how bad weather could put people out of sorts. At home she made an extra effort on days like today to share a smile and be friendly. She figured what worked on folks in her home town would work on city folks too, and for the next four hours she shadowed Amelia, rushing to fill water glasses and coffee cups. Amelia ran the espresso machine and by the end of the shift, Sookie could too. She learned the menu, order by order, and shuffled dirty dishes for both Arlene and Amelia back to the dishwasher. When Sweetie disappeared, Sookie figured for a bathroom or a smoke break, she loaded the dishwasher and stacked the hot plates coming out.
She managed to hustle back and forth without dropping anything. Truth be told, the routine of waiting tables, smiling extra hard, and greeting strangers was comforting. It reminded her of the best parts of home. She didn’t miss folks reminding her that she was now ‘poor Sookie,’ or the whispered conversations about who John had slept with and when he started cheating, the conversations she wasn’t supposed to hear.
When the lull before lunch came, Sookie trailed Amelia back into Sam’s office. Her new roommate dumped her tips on the desk. “Wow, better than I expected, and you did good!”
“Sure did,” Sam confirmed as he walked in and wrapped his arms around Amelia from behind. “Think you can handle your own tables for lunch?”
Sookie nodded. Sam laughed at her before turning his head to nip at Amelia’s ear. He pulled her close and ground his hips against her backside. Amelia giggled, and Sookie scooted from the office, shutting the door behind her. It wasn’t that she was a prude; it was just that Gran had been clear that what was private between a man and a woman should remain that way. Sookie believed that and always tried to treat what was between John and her with respect. She didn’t remember a time that John behaved with her the way Sam was behaving with Amelia, not when there were other people around. The thought made Sookie wonder.
“You sticking around?” Bill was standing behind the grill.
Sookie nodded, “Yup, looks that way.”
“We’ll see,” Arlene drawled. “Most gals can’t keep up with the pace in this place. You look so scrawny could be the next big wind that comes through here will just blow you away!” and she laughed in a hard way.
Sookie shrugged, “I’m tougher than I look,” and she squared her shoulders to show more confidence than she felt.
“Told you!” Lafayette laughed and Arlene’s smile faded.
There was the sound as if something had fallen in Sam’s office and that sound was followed by a moan. Sookie couldn’t remember ever having blushed so many times in one day, but she knew her face was bright red again. Lafayette laughed and went into the back, returning with a damp, cool napkin. “You really are fresh off the farm, aren’t you?”
“I can handle myself,” Sookie shot back, but followed it with, “Thank you for the cloth. I appreciate it.” She used the napkin to cool her cheeks and moved further away from the office door.
Arlene hopped up on the counter, “Sure hope they make it quick this time, I need to get to my purse. It’s my time of the month. I wouldn’t want to make some kind of mess because trim time is in the way.”
“You are nasty!” Lafayette hissed.
“Nasty?” she said with a sneer. “Nasty is knowing I’m walking into Screw Central to get the apron I’m wearing to serve customers every day!” and Arlene hopped down. “I’m going out back to catch a smoke,” She tossed her hair and looked in Bill Compton’s direction, “You coming?”
Bill shrugged and wiped his hands before following her out.
“She better hope she gets her monthlies, way she screws around,” Lafayette said too loudly to be ignored, but soft enough that folks didn’t have to respond. He turned to look at Sookie, “Amelia take you through the lunch menu yet?” When Sookie shook her head, the sous chef walked over and linked his arm through hers, “Well then, I figure I better give you the ten cent tour.” Over the next fifteen minutes Lafayette told her about the menu selections and a bit about how each thing was made. As they approached the side of the kitchen dominated by Eric’s broad back and the bubbling pots, Sookie realized that she almost forgotten he was there. It was mind boggling how anyone could forget someone so large, but she realized there was something about him. He didn’t make eye contact. He didn’t engage in any of the conversations. His movements were spare. It was almost as though he made an art form of blending into the background.
“So, Viking, what are the specials today?” Lafayette asked. He turned to Sookie, “Eric is the real chef here. He makes all the calls on specials and menu changes. He just knows what appeals to folks. I think he must be part voodoo priest he figures it out so good.”
“Catfish almandine,” Eric said. “Crab cakes with a shrimp remoulade, and a wilted spinach salad with duck and polenta.” He said the words to the grill, never looking at them once. Sookie worried that she’d offended him earlier when she’d stared at his face.
“Sure sounds fancy,” she said. “Guess I should have known it wouldn’t be any po’ boys around here.”
Lafayette laughed, “Oh, we serve them too, but Eric here always makes sure they are something special, don’t you, Eric?” If Eric heard he didn’t give any indication. Lafayette chuckled.
As they walked back to the other side of the kitchen, Sookie mumbled, “I sure hope I didn’t offend him none. I didn’t mean nothing by looking.”
Lafayette glanced over at the tall chef, “Don’t you worry your head about that! That has nothing to do with you. Eric is just non-social. He treats everyone that way. Fact it, I think he likes you. If he didn’t, he probably would meet your eye, just to scare you with that face of his!”
Sookie couldn’t help herself, “Shush!” she scolded the sous chef. “There’s no need to be mean. He can’t help how he looks any more than I can.”
“Well, that’s a lie,” Arlene said loudly as she walked in from the back. She was wiping at her bottom lip with her finger. “There’s plenty you could do to make yourself look more attractive,” then she gave a sharp laugh, “but I bet it would be against your religion or something,” and she grinned at Bill.
Bill was adjusting the waistband of his pants and he grinned back. “Now you stop funning the new girl,” and he patted Arlene’s backside. “Or maybe you should. She does get cute when she blushes.”
Sookie felt her cheeks burn right away and even she found herself laughing helplessly along with the others. She was innocent in plenty of ways and she knew herself well enough to acknowledge it. The door to Sam’s office opened and Sam walked out first. He took a look around and said, “What are y’all doing? Waiting for lunch to fix itself?” and everyone scattered, moving to the things that needed to be done to finish breaking down one meal menu and start serving the next.
Lunch went well. Sam leaned against the front counter behind the register. “Well, Cher, you might as well come back tomorrow,” His grin made the toothpick in his mouth angle toward the ceiling and he winked. “You fit in just right!”
“Like peas and rice,” Bill gave her a wink.
She and Amelia finished their side work and set tables for morning, and then they both headed for the back. Amelia handed Sookie thirty dollars from the roll of cash she pulled from her apron pocket. Sookie saw the way Sam looked at her new roommate, but she shrugged. It wasn’t up to her to tell a waitress how to split their tips. Amelia had taken time to train her. When Sookie had her own tables it would be different.
“Tomorrow you’ll have your own tables,” Sam echoed her thoughts, and then he turned to Amelia, “See you tonight?”
“Why should tonight be different?” she flirted and she took Sookie’s arm. As they walked down the street toward their apartment, Sookie asked, “What do you want to do for dinner?”
Amelia shrugged, “Well, usually I just pick up a salad or a sandwich and head home.” She stopped in the street and looked down. “Look, Sookie, I should tell you that Sam sleeps over most nights. I have a door on the bedroom, but, well, that’s how it is.”
Sookie thought about the couch being right out in the open and the bathroom they would all share. “It’s your place,” she mumbled.
“Yeah, it is,” Amelia nodded vigorously, “but I thought you should know.”
Sookie swallowed and dug out her all-purpose sunny smile, “Look, Amelia, I don’t have any right to complain. I owe you for letting me stay with you. I’ll work hard and find another place as soon as I get my feet under me. I won’t crowd you, I promise.”
“Oh, you’re no bother!” Amelia was all smiles now. “Rents are kind of high around here. Figure you can help chip in some starting next week,” and she turned and continued walking.
Amelia stopped to pick up a salad. Sookie bought herself one too from the money Amelia had handed her. No sooner had Amelia thrown her garbage away then she started pulling off clothes, heading into the bathroom for a shower. Sookie had intended to ask for a key, but her new roommate was half-naked, and in a wink, the door was closed.
Sookie pulled out her phone and was about to dial Gran when Amelia started to sing from the bathroom. The houses Sookie had lived in were solid structures and sound didn’t carry much. The apartment seemed to amplify any noise and Sookie figured she’d better head outside. Then she remembered that Amelia had not given her a key.
Sookie looked at Amelia’s purse, but she knew opening it was against every room mate code there was. “Guess I’ll just use the buzzer,” she mumbled. After making sure the door was locked behind her, she walked down the stairs and then out the main door. It was a typical September evening and the humidity, combined with a full day of hustling in a restaurant, make her skin itch. Sookie glanced up and down the sidewalk as she pushed the contact button that would dial her Grandmother’s house.
Sookie barely said hello before Gran asked, “When are you coming home?”
Sookie felt guilty, hearing the way her Gran asked it. “Not for a while,” she smiled, hoping her Gran would think she was happier than she felt. “You’ll never guess! I have a job already!”
“What kind of job would that be?” Gran’s tone turned sharp. “I remember that Amelia Broadway! She was always a little too good for folks around here. She was one fast piece. Everyone says so. You are a good girl, Sookie Quinn. You married a good man, and you should come back and find yourself another good man. You belong here, sweetheart, not in some dangerous city surrounded by strangers.”
“John cheated on me,” Sookie reminded her Grandmother. “His mama hates me now, and she says bad things about me every chance she gets.”
“Oh, John Quinn’s mama is crazy,” her Gran said dismissively. “She comes from crazy people and no one pays her no mind. Besides, I didn’t raise a quitter or a coward. You sound like you’re just running away from things.”
Sookie thought about it and she figured there was some part of what Gran was saying that might be true. “I want to try living here for a bit, Gran.” Sookie smiled harder, “You are right, You didn’t raise a coward. I’m here, and I want to give this a real try.”
She could hear her Gran’s sigh as clearly as if the woman was standing right next to her, “Well, guess I stepped right in that! You should know you are missed and not just by me. There was certain someone I ran into just the other day who was asking about you.”
Sookie said what she was expected to say, “Oh? And who was that?”
“Alcide Herveaux,” Sookie could hear her Gran’s pleasure. “I ran into him at the Piggly Wiggly. He’s the manager down there now.”
“Gee,” Sookie said, trying to sound enthusiastic, “That’s great.” Alcide had been one of the guys on John’s football team. She remembered him making fun, telling John he must have a small dick to be happy screwing it into a bookworm. He was tall, but unlike John he hadn’t shaved his head when the rest of the team did. John told her that Alcide Herveaux loved Alcide more than anyone else, and Sookie believed him.
“Yup, I was standing at the meat counter having them grind my hamburger,” Her Gran refused to pick up the pre-packaged ground beef from the display case. She always made the butchers at the grocery store grind it for her fresh. “Alcide walked right up and said, ‘Where’s Sookie, Miss Adele? Don’t she usually bring you here to do your shopping?’ And I told him you’d decided to take a little break to visit New Orleans, and he said that I should say ‘Hey’ and let him know when you get back in town.”
Her Gran stopped and Sookie knew she was expected to make some response, “Gee, that’s great.” Sookie knew her tone was anything but enthusiastic.
“I know that losing John was hard on you, Sookie. He might not have done right by you every day, but I know you loved him. What you’re doing down there is mourning a little, and that’s just natural. Now, you just promise me you’ll call every night. You get your fill of that big city, and then you come on back. This is your home, Susannah Marie. Don’t you ever forget that.”
“I won’t, ma’am,” Sookie looked up to see Sam swinging down the street. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” she said quickly and hung up before the restaurant owner could greet her.
“Why you standing out here, Cher?” Sam asked. He had a six pack of beer in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. When he saw Sookie’s eyes go wide, he smirked, “You drink, don’t you?”
“Not much,” she mumbled. Sam laughed and the two of them walked up the steps to the third floor. Sookie knocked and Amelia opened the door.
“Look who I found downstairs,” Sam smiled.
“I’ll get you a key tomorrow,” Amelia said quickly and then reached past Sookie to take the wine from Sam. “Thanks! You know how I love Pinot Grigio!”
Amelia skipped to the kitchenette which was only steps from the sofa. She opened a drawer and pulled out a corkscrew. Sam opened a cabinet and pulled out glassware. “You having wine?” he asked Sookie.
Sookie shook her head, “No, it gives me a headache.”
“Well then,” Amelia grabbed a beer and shoved it at her, “Have one of these.” Sookie found herself fumbling to take hold of the bottle while Amelia pulled out a bag of microwave popcorn. Once it was done, Amelia poured it into a bowl and flounced down on the couch. There was a flat screen television mounted on the wall and Sookie found herself sitting on a stool at the counter while Amelia and Sam settled on the sofa to watch a horror film.
Sookie didn’t know what to do. She was tired. Her clothes were in the closet and she needed a shower. Her bed was held hostage under two playful people who were doing grab hands while a story about a psychopathic boyfriend rolled by. Fortunately Sam seemed more interested in taking Amelia to bed than watching the rest of the movie. At least it seemed fortunate until Sookie found herself without a shirt as Sam walked back into the living room on his way to the bathroom. He was just wearing boxers and Sookie barely had time to cover herself with her hands. When Sam came back out, she was under the covers and too nervous to think about a shower.
“You could join us,” Sam was standing near the open bedroom door. Sookie pretended she didn’t hear him and turned toward the opposite wall. She heard the door click shut and she almost relaxed when the sounds from the other room started. Amelia, it turned out, was a moaner. When slapping was added, Amelia became a screamer.
“You could just go home,” Sookie told herself, but at the same time she didn’t want to be a quitter. She lay awake, half expecting Sam or Amelia or both to come into the living room and embarrass her some more. She didn’t want to cry, but somehow the tears came anyway. Her eyes were open for a long time after the sounds of Amelia and Sam making love stopped.
The days settled into a routine. At first, Sookie worked at the restaurant three days a week, and then when Arlene got into a screaming fight with Lafayette and quit, Sookie’s schedule increased. September became October. Fous du Matin was open every day from seven in the morning until two in the afternoon, seven days a week. Sam had started the place five years ago with just he and Lafayette. They found a following with the locals and slowly, word got around. It was a quieter place then, and offered folks who lived in the neighborhood a good place for breakfast that was unknown to the tourists. Then that changed.
The way Sookie heard the story, Sam had run across Eric in the French Market. They were shopping for some of the same items and a conversation started. Sam knew of Eric from another place he worked, but it was also after the accident that created the scars and Eric wasn’t working then. Sookie believed the story. Sam talked with everyone. He was just that kind of guy. The quieter you were, the more he talked and even if you were in a bad mood, somehow you weren’t when he finished. Sam made you happy just to be around him.
Eric came to work at the restaurant and Sam gave him a free hand with the menu. There was something about the combinations of flavors Eric created that captured the interest of anyone who ate his food. In no time word spread beyond their little neighborhood, and the restaurant had been featured in local magazines and Internet sites. Sam showed her a magazine from last year that was handed out to passengers on a national airline. In the magazine there was an article about where to find the best breakfasts in America. Fous du Matin was number ten. It was a small paragraph, but it was there, and Sam was rightfully proud.
Sam was the only one who ever made Eric Northman laugh. The first time Sookie heard it, she hadn’t been able to keep the look of pleased surprise from her face. Lafayette grinned right back at her, “Makes you think of angels singing, don’t it?”
“More like rocks grinding,” Bill added, following it quickly with, “Come on, Sookie. When you going to go out with me?”
“I don’t date people I work with,” Sookie said for what felt like the hundredth time. What she wanted to say was, ‘I will never date you, Bill Compton,’ but it wouldn’t have been polite.
“Besides, she’s in mourning, or some such,” Amelia blurted as she flounced by, pushing her order onto the wheel and spinning it toward the cooks.
Sookie hadn’t mentioned John or being a widow to anyone at the restaurant except Amelia and Sam. What’s more, Sookie asked Amelia and Sam not to say anything about it to anyone else. She didn’t want to be ‘poor Sookie’ here too, but now the cat was out of the bag. She saw the questions forming on Lafayette and Bill’s faces, and she felt the familiar slow burn of her blush rush over her face. “It’s a long story,” she smiled quickly and grabbed her plates.
That afternoon, as they gathered in the kitchen, Sookie told her co-workers her version of her story. She kept it to the highlights. She had been married out of high school. He was the most popular boy in town and she had felt really lucky. They were together almost three years when he was killed in an auto accident. She didn’t tell them about John’s roving eye or the poisonous text messages she still received from John’s mama. She didn’t tell them that the cause of the accident was the woman’s head in his lap or that he’d spent every penny she ever gave him. She finished by saying, “I needed to get away from all that and this seemed a good place to do it.”
She thought she could get through the story without crying, but she’d been wrong. Lafayette handed her his own clean, white handkerchief. Even Bill looked sympathetic. As she wiped her eyes, smiling at her own foolishness, she glanced up to see that Eric had turned around. There was something in the way he looked at her that made her breath catch and her heart race a little. If she hadn’t already been beet red, she thought she would be now, and then he turned away and it was gone.
When work was done, Sookie told Amelia she would be walking home by way of the French Market. She didn’t trust herself not to start yelling at her roommate. It had been yet another classic Amelia moment.
Amelia grew up the child of some of the richest folks in Sookie’s little town. She always had new shoes and the latest fashion in clothes. She had piano lessons and dance lessons. She went to concerts and had lavish birthday parties. She had no brothers or sisters, and she was the apple of her daddy’s eye. Amelia might have been a little princess, but instead she was the town hellion. By fourteen, she was smoking and drinking. When her mother told her she couldn’t wear makeup to school, she smuggled it out of the house and rushed to the girl’s room first thing every morning to paint herself up. She tied her blouses in the back to emphasize her small breasts. Amelia was the first one in their crowd to have a boyfriend, then the first to have a parade of boyfriends. She liked juniors and seniors and they liked her. When it was time for her to take her driving test, she could show the instructor a thing or two.
Folks in town talked about how Amelia’s mother was sick and that if she’d been well, she would have despaired to see the wild piece her daughter became. Then, in her junior year, Amelia’s mother did die. Cancer was what Gran had whispered, and Amelia and her father moved away. She had come back for junior prom and she had come for the football games through her senior year, but no one had seen her much since then until Sookie heard from her.
One thing hadn’t changed. Amelia’s thoughts rarely ran further than Amelia. If it was in her head, it spilled out her mouth. If there was a thing she wanted, she went after it with single-minded determination. If there was a thing she didn’t want, she dropped it with the same ferocity of purpose. Amelia knew Sookie’s secret, and Amelia didn’t like having to hold onto anything that wasn’t hers. When the opportunity presented, she flicked it into the world like a piece of lint from a black blouse.
Sookie hoped when she had cooled down enough to confront Amelia that the woman might say she was sorry. Sookie was pretty sure that the best she’d get from her curly-headed roommate was a nonchalant shrug. Truth be told, she wasn’t planning on living with Amelia much longer.
Sookie had been saving and the tips had been good. She set her sights on a little apartment in the brick building down the street. It was four floors up instead of three, but it was clean and the rooms were good sized. If things kept up, she’d have enough for the deposit and security in another month. As she walked down Canal Street, she cringed at the thought of telling Gran she was thinking about signing a year lease. Gran rarely argued with her, her weapon of choice was guilt. Sookie knew that the guilt that would be ladled on this conversation would be thick and heavy. Thanksgiving was in two weeks and the restaurant would be closed for the whole weekend. Sookie thought about her Gran sitting at the kitchen table all alone. It was a tough image, but then she thought of all the things her Gran did and the friends that she had. She knew her Gran would be fine and she resolved that come Thanksgiving, she would tell her Grandmother that she was moving to New Orleans for good.
Sookie rounded the curve in the road and walked under the awning that both shaded and housed the vendors. Sookie loved the French Market. It was as if every interesting thing in the world had all come together in booth sized bites. There were paintings and clothing, spices and flowers. On any given day musicians were playing. A man was juggling and another was reading poetry. One area of the market was set aside for a farmers market and that’s where Sookie headed. Many of the booths were rented to the same businesses week after week, but some changed over quite often.
Sookie walked briskly around the corner and almost ran into a man who was leaning over, examining peppers that were in a basket on the ground. She skidded to a stop and when the man turned around and stood up, it was Eric Northman. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Sookie stammered. “I didn’t see you there.”
Eric’s face neutral, and Sookie wondered if she should just turn and leave, but then he said, “Nothing to be sorry about.” He gave a half smile and Sookie noticed how it made the scarring pull in a way that looked painful. “I haven’t seen you here before,” he added. It sounded like a question.
“I don’t usually come here at this hour,” Sookie volunteered. “I generally come just before closing.” She didn’t want to say that the reason she waited until the last possible minute was that there were some who would offer her bargains and she wanted to save every penny so she could get her own place.
The tall man nodded and started to turn away, and Sookie heard herself asking, “And what about you? You usually come here around this time?”
Eric turned back, “No. I don’t come here often.” He glanced around, “I like to take a look every week or so to see if there’s something new.” He glanced at the basket of multi-colored peppers that he had been examining. “Like these,” he pointed. “I haven’t seen these in the City for a while.” He glanced over at the vendor, “How much?” Sookie stood back on her heels and listened to silent, dour Eric engage in a lively negotiation that included charm, humor, and shrewd observation. It took a bit, but a price was set, money changed hands, and Eric picked up the basket. He glanced down at her and Sookie had the impression he’d forgotten she was there.
“What are you thinking you’ll use them for?” Sookie had watched this man mix spices and herbs in all kinds of combinations. There were flavors she never would have considered putting together, but somehow when Eric was done, they were tastes that made her mouth water for more.
He looked surprised, then glanced at the peppers as he said, “Tilapia. The flavor will be bold to offset the bland flavor of the fish and the color will work.”
Sookie looked at the next booth. It held a variety of spices. “I recognize some of these, but others? I’ve never seen most of these.”
Eric’s mouth worked for a bit, and then he looked like he made up his mind about something. “The way I remember most of them is through smell,” and he reached over and picked a leaf from one of the bunches of green stems. He rubbed it between his fingers and held it to her nose. The scent was fresh but also lemony. Sookie found herself closing her eyes and when she opened them, it was to Eric’s smile. “I’m told that scent it the strongest memory,” he offered. “All I have to say is chocolate chip cookies and everyone remembers what those smell like.”
Sookie glanced at the vendor, “If I give you a dollar, can I take one leaf from almost everything here?”
The vendor screwed up his eyes, shaking his head, “What are you people?”
“Restaurant folks,” Sookie replied. The man shrugged and took the bill she offered. Sookie plucked one small leaf from a different type of plant. She rolled it between her hands and then smelled her palms. It was some type of pineapple scent. Without thinking, she raised her hand toward Eric. He leaned in, nearly touching her with his nose.
“Pineapple sage,” he told her.
About halfway through the different types of herbs, Sookie stopped. There was something about the scent now in her hand that triggered something. She reached back to pluck a stray leaf from the pineapple sage and rolled them both together. The smell that resulted was sultry, yet pure. “Wow,” she sighed, and held her hand up. Eric sniffed and his eyes widened. Sookie hadn’t realized how blue Eric’s eyes were, almost the same shade as her own. Sookie was suddenly aware that their faces were close to each other, their noses almost touching. She felt herself blushing, and Eric stood up suddenly and stepped away from her.
“It’s dark,” he observed. “I can walk you home.”
“Thanks,” she mumbled, embarrassed at her own reaction. They walked the blocks of the Quarter in silence, passing the tourist shops and bars. They walked up Canal Street and then down the side street where Amelia’s apartment was located. When they reached the exterior door, Sookie took her keys in hand and turned to thank Eric, but he was already walking away from her. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she called, but if he heard her, he gave no sign.
When she got upstairs it was to Amelia lounging in black t-shirt and her underwear, watching television. “Sam here?” Sookie asked automatically.
“Not tonight,” Amelia sighed. “Period time.”
Sookie made sure she looked sympathetic. As she dished out bowls of strawberry ice cream for both of them, it was on the tip of her tongue to ask Amelia about Eric, but then she remembered the casually cruel way Amelia had given up her secret. They watched television together and turned in early. Sookie found herself thinking about her reaction to Eric Northman as she watched the shadows play across the ceiling that night. ‘Silly,’ she scolded herself, ‘He ain’t interested in you,’ and closed her eyes.
But she was still thinking about Eric Northman the next morning.
Sookie walked through the back door with Amelia and found her eyes drawn to the tall chef’s station. He was there, as he was every morning, his reddened hands moving from pan to pan. Somehow she thought he might look her way, show some recognition, but she was disappointed. He glanced at them and his eyes went back to his station, a day like every other day.
“Well, how is this fine day treating you?” Lafayette sang out. Sookie raised her eyebrows. The sous chef was smiling in that cat-that-ate-the-canary way she saw pretty much every day on Amelia’s face. ‘Must be a new guy,’ she thought, and for some reason her eyes were drawn back to Eric.
“All things bright and beautiful!” Amelia sang in reply, and she pulled off her jacket and pirouetted on her way to Sam’s office. Sookie realized that though Sam made an appearance at the apartment most nights, he rarely stayed until morning. She suspected that Amelia wanted more, but when Sookie asked Amelia point blank, her roommate scoffed. Sookie recognized the signs. Amelia rolled her eyes, every inch the world-weary sophisticate, but it was a façade. Just under the surface was a sad girl who kept people away so she wouldn’t have to lose any more.
Lafayette laughed as Amelia blew him a kiss. “And what about you, Miss Sookie Quinn? You singing the praises of this glorious day as well?”
“Do tell, Sookie,” Bill teased and turned to lean against the grill, his arms crossed to show his biceps.
“It’s a beautiful day and I’m just happy to be here,” and Sookie bit her lip and started to walked past him toward Sam’s office.
Bill turned as she was almost past and grabbed her upper arm. Sookie didn’t know why, but she felt her stomach clench. “Maybe today will see your heart soften just a little,” Bill’s eye was knowing, “Maybe you’ll just walk out with me tonight after work. All that action at your apartment… a girl could be lonely,” and he rubbed her upper arm with his thumb.
“You know I don’t date co-workers, Bill,” Sookie said in a rush and pulled away from him.
“You are hard hearted!” he called after her.
It was another busy day. The weather was fine for November although the forecast called for rain later. Customers were talking about their upcoming holidays. Sookie had regulars and she called to them by name. Over plates of corn fritters and pain perdu they talked about the sides their tables would have for the holidays. There was a general debate over whether fried turkey was preferred to brined turkey. There was a customer who explained how they baked turkey on their charcoal grill on their deck. Customers talked of travel and how many family members would be joining them. They lamented the shortage of hotel space and the congestion on the roads the days before the holiday. Sookie smiled and joked. When customers thought to ask her about her own plans, she mentioned heading to see her Gran, but then turned it back to talk of the customer’s own plans as quickly as possible.
Amelia had nowhere to go. Sam hadn’t said anything and Amelia hadn’t asked him. Sookie knew her roommate was expecting an invitation to Gran’s house. If Sam didn’t say something soon, Sookie would be obligated to take Amelia Broadway with her, and all the things that she needed to say to her Gran would go unsaid.
When breakfast was done and the others were gathering to eat, Sookie headed into Sam’s office. She found him there working through a stack of invoices, his laptop open, and the music on. “Can I ask you something?” she said in a rush.
“Sure, Cher,” Sam shrugged. “You want a raise?”
Sookie’s head tilted, it had never occurred to her to ask for one. “No, but it’s nice to know it’s available,” she shrugged. “No,” and Sookie swallowed and lifted her chin. Interfering in other people’s lives was not what she did. Her Gran had drilled into her that it was not polite, but lately Sookie had begun to question living a life where you waited for things to happen. She had begun to think that maybe it was worth the risk to try to make things happen. “I wanted to ask if you were planning on taking Amelia out for Thanksgiving dinner.”
Sookie couldn’t figure out what the expression on Sam’s face was about. His smile disappeared and then he looked down at his desk. Her blush rushed over her and she felt as if her armpits were sweating, but she held her ground. “You think she wants that?” he asked carefully.
“Yeah,” Sookie told him. “I think she wants that and more.”
If Sookie didn’t know better, she would have thought that Sam didn’t care. He leaned back and said, “Well, thanks for letting me know,” but she saw the way his eyes moved to the door and she could almost see the wheels turning.
Sookie filled her plate and stood next to Amelia. She was late and before she was done, Amelia was up front starting to prep her tables for lunch. Sookie knew she needed to hustle if she wanted everything ready in her own station. Amelia might be pleasant, but she didn’t believe in doing work that wasn’t hers. Sookie finished a few more bites and then walked her plate back to the sink. Sweetie was out back. She could hear his voice and Bill’s.
“Would you like to come with me to the produce market tomorrow?” Sookie was so startled she dropped her plate on the metal counter and twirled around, her hand to her chest. Eric was right behind her and Sookie was surprised that someone that big could move so quietly.
“Sure,” her response was out of her mouth before she could even think.
“I’ll be outside your place at five,” and he turned to walk away.
“In the morning?” Sookie squeaked, but Eric didn’t respond. When Sookie walked back into the kitchen she saw Lafayette looking at her, his smile more than satisfied. She cut her eyes at him, thinking ‘don’t be silly!’ and walked with purpose to tend to her tables.
That night, Sam came over, and when the alarm went off the next morning, Sookie realized he had stayed. His shoes were still beside the door so she made sure she turned the lock in the bathroom when she got ready to take her shower. She heated coffee on the stove from the day before and carefully poured in milk. She was sitting on the front stoop when Eric came into view. His long legs scissored along, eating up the distance with an easy gait. His eyes were fixed on the sidewalk, and he looked surprised when he lifted them to see her there, waiting for him.
“You’re ready then,” he continued to look surprised.
“Sure am,” Sookie said brightly and stood up, almost bouncing on the balls of her feet. She knew that there was nothing romantic about this. Still, it was nice and she found herself glancing at him as she trotted to keep up.
At first she thought he just didn’t notice how she was struggling, but as they crossed into the Quarter, he stopped and turned to her. “I’m sorry I’ve been walking so fast,” he sounded as if he didn’t explain himself often, and Sookie figured he probably didn’t. “I’m not used to taking this walk with someone else.”
Sookie decided to ask the question that had been swimming in the back of her head, “Why did you ask me to come?”
“You have a good nose,” he replied and then let out some air as he added quickly, “for scents. There are more herbs here. You may find something else that combines well. I thought you’d be interested.”
“I am!” Sookie smiled quickly and nodded. “I always loved to cook at home and we grew all kinds of things in the backyard. When the weather was like this, Gran and I would experiment in the kitchen. Pickles and such. It’s some of my best memories.”
Eric nodded, and the smile he flashed her was different, “I like to experiment too,” and then Sookie watched his face close back into the smile that was really a shield. He turned and they walked some more, but this time, he walked slower.
When they reached the produce market, the men next to the trucks seemed to know Eric by name. They called to him, telling him what they had brought that day and what was looking best. Sometimes Eric agreed with them, but sometimes he didn’t. Sookie realized that this was how he made purchases for the restaurant. What he saw that he liked would be incorporated into the day’s specials. “Do you come here knowing what you want?” she asked.
He glanced her way and then shook his head. “I make up my mind when I see what’s here,” he explained.
They came to a place that was nothing but long tables loaded with herbs and savories. There were leaves and stems of every color. Sookie saw cactus and roots, flowers and dust. She glanced up to see Eric watching her. “It’s amazing!” she said. “I never knew there were so many different kinds.”
At a word from Eric, one of the men bagged twenty different varieties. He threw them all in a sack and handed them to Sookie. When she reached in her pocket, Eric shook his head. “No, you experiment with those. See if you can find more combinations and share them. That will be payment enough.”
As they walked to the restaurant, Sookie asked, “You have plans for Thanksgiving?”
Eric shrugged, “Not really. I like to drift through the city. I’ll probably go hear some jazz. And you?”
Sookie heard herself telling him about going home to see Gran and how much she was dreading it. “She’s an old woman. She has lots of friends and she has clubs and cards most every night. Still, she wants me to come home,” Sookie found herself glancing at the buildings around her. “It sure ain’t like where I come from, being here.” She shrugged, “Back home I know where pretty much everything is, and where everything goes. Here? I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.” She bit her lip as they approached the back door of the restaurant, “Guess I just like to feel like I know where I belong.”
Eric opened the door for her and she thanked him. He nodded and headed over to his station without saying another word.
Sookie walked back to Sam’s office. The door was closed, but things sounded quiet. She knocked and there was some shuffling before Sam called, “Come in.”
Amelia was standing by Sam when Sookie entered. Her roommate was grinning, “I’m sorry,” she gushed, “I won’t be able to come home with you after all!” Sookie smiled tightly, figuring it didn’t bear mentioning that she hadn’t invited Amelia in the first place. “Sam is taking me home to meet his family,” and her roommate dissolved into an uncharacteristically girlish squeal.
“That’s great!” Sookie replied with more enthusiasm than she felt, but then she saw Sam’s face and she felt guilty that she wasn’t more happy for these two people who had helped her so much. “I mean it,” she said more warmly, “I’m happy for you both.” Sookie lowered her eyes, grabbed her apron, and beat a hasty retreat. She hesitated, but then pulled the door shut after her.
Bill Compton was standing a few steps away, “So, you looking for company for Thanksgiving?” he asked.
Sookie didn’t know what to say so she stammered, “No. I’m all set, thank you very much.” As she smiled tightly in his direction, Bill dropped the slightly leering expression he always seemed to wear when he spoke with her. “I hope everything goes well at home, Sookie,” he told her. “I truly do,” and Sookie could hear the sincerity in his words. It was like a mask had dropped from the man and she saw someone else behind it, someone who might be a friend.
“Thank you, Bill. I hope the same for you,” Sookie swallowed and headed into the restaurant to prepare for the crowds.
Sookie’s trip home seemed faster than she remembered. The bus pulled up and she stepped off to find Gran waiting for her. It was almost like she’d been gone forever. There were people who crossed the street to welcome her back. Mrs. Fortenberry pulled her car over and parked just so she could rush over and hug the young woman. “Oh honey! We’re so glad you’re home!” she gushed. “Your Gran and I have been so worried about you. Just tell me that you’re done with your adventuring and coming home for good. Things haven’t been the same without you!”
People she knew rapped on store windows and waved through the glass. Hoyt yelled, “Hey, Sookie!” as he drove by. “I feel like a returning war hero, folks are making such a fuss!” Sookie said to her Gran, her face beet red, and wishing she was in the car already.
“Folks really missed you, sweetheart,” her Gran smiled. “We’re all so glad you’re back!” and she stopped before they got into the car to pull her granddaughter into another big hug. As they started the drive out of town and toward the house on Hummingbird Lane, her Gran asked her to stop at the Piggly Wiggly. Sookie shot her a look, but her Gran protested, “I need fresh milk and some of those pastries you like for breakfast. They aren’t fresh until now,” and she used that don’t-sass-me tone of voice.
As they walked into the store, Sookie could see her Gran craning her neck and she knew, with a sinking feeling, just who her Gran was looking for. They were standing in the check-out aisle when a deep voice said, “How are you doing, Miss Adele?”
Her Gran’s face lit up like a young girl’s as she replied, “Why, I’m doing mighty fine, Alcide. Did you see who’s come back? Sookie? You remember Alcide Herveaux?”
Sookie turned and found she had to tilt her chin up just a bit to be able to smile into the man’s face, “How are you doing, Alcide? It’s nice to see you again,” she said automatically.
Alcide had changed. His face had filled out and his beard was heavier. His eyes were warm and his smile was so genuine that her own became more genuine too. “It’s nice to see you again,” he said, and he reached out to take her hand.
As their hands touched, Sookie felt flustered and she knew her blush was creeping, but before she got really uncomfortable, Alcide released her hand and said, “Let me carry that to your car for you, Miss Adele,” and he walked past them to take the bag of groceries.
On the way to the car he talked with Gran about what their plans were for the holiday. He told them about going home to be with his own family, and which brother was returning, and which sister wasn’t. When he’d closed the trunk, he turned to Sookie and asked, “Would you like me to take you to the game?” Sookie didn’t need to ask which game he meant. It was the high school football game, the Green Bowl. It was the last game of the season and the best. Everyone turned out to watch and catch up with their friends while the turkey and ham was baking at home.
“Of course she would!” Gran answered for her.
“That would be nice,” Sookie added, and she realized it would be.
Gran and Sookie bustled around the house. Sookie made a sweet potato pie and Gran asked her to make ice box cake too. “That’s a lot of sugar for two single women,” Sookie teased.
“We could have company,” Gran teased back. “Pretty as we are? Bet they swarm us like flies on a warm day!”
Sookie rolled her eyes, but made the second dessert anyway. They prepped the turkey and Sookie carried it in its bucket of brine to the refrigerator on the back porch. They cleaned the house and straightened the living room. Gran let Sookie help her pull down the curtains and they ran them through the washing machine. Sookie hung them outside in the afternoon sun, and then they brought them inside so she could touch them up with the iron the way Gran liked them. They were settling down to sandwiches when the phone rang.
Gran talked briefly then called out, “Sookie? It’s for you!”
Sookie took the heavy handset and lifted it gently to her head, “Hello?”
“Hi,” Alcide answered. “Just wanted to make sure nine tomorrow morning was okay.”
“Sure,” she answered. Sookie half expected Alcide to make more conversation but instead he said, “Great! Well, I’ll see you then,” and hung up.
“What time?” Gran asked, her back turned like she wasn’t listening sharp to every word. When Sookie told her, Gran scolded, “You could have asked him for breakfast!”
“I couldn’t,” Sookie shot back, “He didn’t hardly give me time to talk at all!” When her Gran’s look told her she lacked manners, she realized she wouldn’t have minded Alcide coming earlier. After dinner as they sat in the living room, Gran watching a story, Sookie thought about that.
Sookie put her things away in the room she had lived in since she was a girl, and she thought about Bon Temps some more. She knew everything about this place. She knew the best places for fishing and where the fireflies were thickest. She knew people down to the bone, as her Gran liked to say, because she’d known them all her life. Sure, folks had secrets, but it was rare someone surprised you. Even when something strange happened, like the time the bull got loose and walked down Main Street, you could predict what each and every person would do at a time like that. There was something safe about it.
Not like New Orleans. The only familiar faces were the people she worked with. There were other people now, regular customers and shop keepers she was getting to know on a first name basis, but for every person she knew, there were hundreds she didn’t. Some nights, New Orleans seemed a like a bag of cats. You never knew what was going to come out. Could be happy, could be crazy. There were days Sookie found it overwhelming, but there were other days, more days lately, that she found she enjoyed the newness of things.
She found herself thinking about the people at the restaurant. She thought about the new look that was passing between Amelia and Sam, the look of promise. She thought about the easy comfort she felt teasing and laughing with Lafayette. She thought about the shy glances that Sweetie sent Lafayette’s way, too shy to say anything about how he felt, and Bill, who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Then she thought of Eric. She figured it was his silence that attracted her. She could project all kinds of feelings into that void. Who knew what he was thinking? She was pretty sure it wasn’t about her. Still, when the bad side of his face was pointed away he was pretty handsome and, she had to admit, it made for a daydream or two.
She reached for the canvas sack that Lafayette had packed with goodies from the restaurant. He told her they were snacks for the road. She opened a box of pralines, and then a small takeout box with several boudin sausages. She opened the last box to two half pears situated just so. They were in a dark sauce that smelled familiar. She took it downstairs, “Hey Gran, the restaurant where I work sent some food. There’s a pear dessert here that won’t keep. Want to share it with me?”
She plated the pears and spooned the sauce over, then popped them in the microwave. When she opened the door she was better able to smell the blend. There was rum, but there was something else. She handed one plate to her Gran and took the other to the table. “This tastes like velvet!” her Gran exclaimed. “But better!”
Sookie smiled and dipped her spoon. The pear melted in her mouth, the flavors dark at first, then almost citrusy, and something else. She closed her eyes, inhaled, and she remembered. It was the smell from the French Market, the one she had combined.
Sookie was ready when Alcide came up the stairs to knock on the door. Gran poked her head out of the kitchen, and said, “You make sure you come in and say hello after the game!”
“I will, Miss Adele,” Alcide called back, and then looked at Sookie and rolled his eyes. Sookie laughed. It was the same in any house you visited in this town. No matter how old you got, your elders always saw you as twelve years old and they treated you that way.
Alcide escorted her out to his car. It wasn’t anything flashy, but it wasn’t a minivan either. He opened her door and waited until she was settled to shut the door. Sookie noticed he was wearing dark Dockers and a button down shirt. He had a sweater pulled over it and it made his chest look nice. He had a jacket thrown over his arm. His brown, curly hair was shining, and he talked about people they knew and things that had happened in the town. Sookie remembered how John had told her Alcide was self-centered. She thought he’d grown out of it.
Once they got to the high school, it took them almost a half hour to get out of the parking lot. Every face they met was someone she knew or he knew or they both knew. It wouldn’t have been any different if Sookie hadn’t left. This was the place and event that everyone attended, especially those who had left town. But Sookie had left, and she found herself sharing stories of the world outside. She was a person who was bringing something new this year, and she felt less and less like ‘poor Sookie.’
The team lost the game. “They could have used you out there!” several men yelled to Alcide. He smiled and shook his head, then he put his arm around Sookie and escorted her back toward the parking lot. They chatted the whole way back to Hummingbird Lane. It had been sunny, but there was a sharp wind. Alcide had dropped his jacket over her shoulders. As they climbed the steps, Sookie handed it back to him. They could smell the turkey.
“You better come inside, or Gran won’t let me hear the end of it,” she said wryly.
“Just for a minute,” Alcide promised. “If I’m not home to help carry things to the table, my Momma is going to have words for me, too.”
Alcide chatted with Gran, asking about cards, and the health of a couple women in her social circle. Sookie realized he was very well informed about things most men wouldn’t have noticed. Gran winked and flirted, touching his arm, and making Sookie agree that Alcide was still as strong as when he’d been playing football. After declining an invitation to stay for dinner, he headed to the door.
Gran and Sookie walked him out. “I had a nice time today,” Sookie told him and she meant it. “Thank you.”
“Why don’t you invite Alcide to stop by for dessert later?” Gran asked Sookie. She looked at the taller man and said, “You could tell him we made icebox cake. His Momma tells me that it’s his favorite.”
Alcide smiled at Sookie, then told her Gran, “I’d be delighted to stop by for a piece, Miss Adele. Say around seven?” and it was agreed.
Alcide had two pieces of cake. Gran made a point of letting Alcide know that it was Sookie who made it, her tone so obviously pushing them together that Sookie couldn’t stop the blush from rushing across her face. Alcide didn’t look uncomfortable, though. Instead, he scolded Gran for being a busy body, and then the three of them pulled out the Scrabble board. It was a game her Gran had used to improve Sookie’s vocabulary and Sookie was pleased to see that Alcide could hold his own. He must have known she was judging him, because at one point he nudged her after putting down a high scoring word and said, “Bet you thought I was just a dumb jock!” making her blush some more.
He wouldn’t leave until he’d washed the dishes and as Sookie walked him to the door he asked, “Would you like to have breakfast with me tomorrow?” When she lowered her eyes, he added, “I promised my Momma and sisters I’d run them into town to shop, but you know how that is! We have a deal. I hang out at the First Alarm. It’s right down the street from the mall. When they have too many bags, I swing by, they throw them in the trunk, and I leave. I get to stay away from all that foolishness and they get chauffeur service. It’s a win-win.” When she smiled, he said, “It would be nice having the company.”
“What time?” she asked, and they agreed he’d be by to pick her up at eight.
The next day Sookie was almost done with her breakfast when John Quinn’s momma walked into the First Alarm. She hadn’t changed much unless it was to look even crazier than the last time Sookie had seen her. Her hair wasn’t quite brushed and she looked like she’d applied her eye makeup with a trowel.
“Uh oh,” Sookie sighed when the woman spotted her. Alcide’s back was to the front door and he turned around as John’s momma approached them, her sharp heels making clack-clack noises against the tiles. Sookie took a deep breath, preparing for the worst, but then Alcide stood up.
Sookie couldn’t see what he was doing, but she could see the surprised look on John’s momma’s face. She stopped right in her tracks and Sookie heard Alcide say, “I don’t know what you’re fixing to say, Miss Quinn, but whatever it is, it won’t be now,” and Sookie could see his crossed arms, making himself a solid wall between Sookie and John’s crazy momma.
“She killed my boy!” John’s momma screeched, trying to point around him.
“Sookie didn’t do any such thing,” Alcide said gently. “It was an accident.” John’s momma looked to the other diners, but if she expected to find support, she was disappointed. Folks were looking at her like she was a problem and Sookie could see her hard face become less certain. “Now, I think you should head home,” Alcide continued, “I’m sure there are things that need doing. I heard your daughter is coming to visit you this year. You wouldn’t want her to come home to an empty house, now would you?”
“No…” John’s momma’s voice quavered and Sookie almost felt sorry for her. She had never met John’s sister. She was older, and there had been some bad blood. She found herself comforted by the idea that her former mother-in-law wouldn’t be facing a holiday table all alone.
When Alcide sat back down, Sookie looked at him with new eyes. They were the same eyes she used to have for John. She saw a hero, a larger than life man who had stood up and defended her. She didn’t know what to say. ‘Thank you’ didn’t seem like enough. Alcide gestured to the waitress to warm up their coffees. “So,” he asked, “you want to see a movie tomorrow?”
Saturday morning, Gran remembered a dozen things she needed from the Piggly Wiggly and she asked Sookie to drive her. “You’ll be leaving on the bus tomorrow and who knows when you’ll get another break from that job of yours,” she wheedled. Gran hunted out Alcide with more skill than any hound, and Alcide talked mostly to Gran, but he threw Sookie enough eye rolls to let her know he found her Gran’s shenanigans humorous and he included her in on the joke.
Alcide showed up that night right on time and they went to see the new adventure film that had just opened at the mall. Afterward, he tucked her hand into his elbow and they walked back to his car, looking in shop windows, and Alcide asked if she’d be back for Christmas.
“I think so,” Sookie told him.
“I hope so,” he told her.
When he walked her up her front steps, she turned and he took that step forward, the one that let him tilt her head toward him and lower his own to kiss her. It was a good kiss. She felt her lips curve up and she felt a little tickle in her chest. She smiled and giggled nervously while he brushed her cheek with his thumb. “I sure hope you don’t stay away long, Sookie,” he told her, and then he smiled a broad and brilliant smile and walked away.
Sookie stood on the porch, letting the warm air out, watching the tail lights of his car until she couldn’t see them anymore.
The whole long bus ride back to New Orleans, Sookie thought about home. She thought about cooking with her Gran in the kitchen. She thought about all the familiar faces that were so genuinely happy to see her among them. She remembered how good it felt to know that she had a place she belonged. She thought about Alcide Herveaux.
Sookie knew that if she returned to stay she would likely become Mrs. Herveaux. She would move into the little house he owned all on his own. He had hopes of being made a District Manager and moving to the corporate office in Charleston someday. Alcide Herveaux was a good man.
Yet as the miles rolled by, Sookie found herself thinking about the pear dessert she found. She remembered the way it rolled across her tongue, and she found herself thinking about the tall, blond man she knew had prepared it.
‘Damn, you’re silly,’ she scolded herself. ‘What is it Gran says? A bird in the hand?’ Still, when the skyline of the Crescent City started to appear down the road, Sookie found herself more excited to be back.
Sookie unlocked the door of the apartment to the strong smell of ham and a half-closed bedroom door. Sam’s shoes were against the wall, set together just so. “I’m home!” she called and quickly walked to the kitchenette. She figured they decided to warm up leftovers but got distracted warming up each other. Sookie turned off the oven, and then closed the bedroom door more firmly. She didn’t expect the two of them to acknowledge her or stop what they were doing. “I need to move out!” she mumbled.
She put her things away as best she could and was just loading the left-overs from Gran’s into the refrigerator when Amelia emerged, wearing a kimono robe. “Welcome back!” she waltzed forward, hugging Sookie, and then glancing at the oven. “Bless you for saving them!” she giggled, and grabbing mitts, pulled the trays from the oven. Sam trailed her from the bedroom wearing running pants and a t-shirt.
“Welcome back, Sookie!” he smiled. “You have a good visit at home?” Then Sam surprised her by wrapping her up in a hug, “Welcome home, Cher!”
“On y va!” Amelia called, and together they pushed together their leftovers, opening containers, and shifting things through the microwave. Amelia had made a good impression on Sam’s family. Amelia tried to shrug it off, but Sookie could see how pleased she was. They all gathered around the counter, filling plates with small bites. Sookie told them about home and then she mentioned Alcide Herveaux.
“I remember him!” Amelia smirked, “He was one hunky-dunky! Too good for most girls, but those eyes!” and she nudged Sookie.
“He was real nice. A gentleman,” Sookie told them. “Gran would have us married tomorrow,” and then she thought of something. “Look, don’t mention it at the restaurant, okay?”
“’Course, Cher,” Sam agreed and Amelia nodded.
When Amelia headed to the shower, Sookie and Sam sat down on the couch. “So, it went okay, then?” Sookie asked him.
He smiled at her, “It did,” he nodded. “More than okay. She is crazy…” and both their heads turned when Amelia started singing.
“Crazier than a bag of hammers,” Sookie agreed.
“I think she is my kind of crazy,” Sam told her. Then he looked right at her, “And what about you, Sookie? Is this home town boy your kind of crazy?”
“I don’t know,” she blushed. “Maybe. It’s just I know everything about my home. It’s familiar. And safe.”
“Well,” Sam said carefully, “When I see you here, I think maybe you belong in New Orleans, that New Orleans belongs to you. You just need to let her claim you.”
Sookie smiled, and shook her head, but for some reason, she thought of Eric and the sound of his laughter.
The restaurant owner stood up, “I’m headed home,” he told her. “Everything opens tomorrow, and we are morning fools again.” He walked to the door and was toeing into his shoes when he turned around, “Oh, and Eric said if you wanted to go to the produce market again, he’ll be by at five?” The way Sam asked it, Sookie could tell he was asking more.
Sookie felt somehow she had been caught in her daydreaming and the question she knew she shouldn’t ask slipped out, “What happened to him? Was he always like that?”
Sam stopped, “The burn? It happened about seven years ago. He was working at a place in the Quarter. He was engaged to girl, Pam something. They were everywhere together. He loved her perhaps more than he should have. She was not a restaurant person. She whined at him about the hours, but she loved the attention his cooking created. She could sit in the restaurant and rub elbows with all the celebrities.”
Sam reached for his jacket, “I wasn’t there the day it happened, but everyone knows they were fighting. He was standing near the fryolators and she threw water. There was a splash back. The other chefs got the clothes off him, but his exposed skin, his face, his hands were burned. The hospital took care of the surgery on his hands, but his face? Since his eye was intact, no cosmetic surgery. No grafting or reducing the scars. Eric was a chef. He didn’t have fancy insurance that paid for extras.”
Sam looked at Sookie carefully, “I think he has the money now. He could have that fixed if he wanted, but I think he’s used to it. It reminds him to pay attention to the things that are important,” and Sam winked before he walked out the door.
Sookie was sitting on the stoop the next morning, her travel mug in hand. She wrapped her hands around it. It was chilly for here and she felt the damp creeping through her. She was looking in the direction Eric had come the last time so when he said, “Oh, I brought you coffee” from the opposite direction, she jumped and dropped her mug. Her head swung around and her eyes met his knees, and then she rose to see him staring down at her.
“Can you wait just a minute?” she asked, and scooping up her mug from the ground, she opened the building door, sprinted up first one flight, and then the next. She set the cup against her door, hoping Amelia would bring it inside, and then ran back down as fast as she could. She burst through the door, winded and panting. She leaned over, gulping air, her hands on her knees, and glanced up, “You’re still here!”
Sookie couldn’t figure out if Eric’s expression was amusement or disdain, but then he settled it by laughing. It was such a pure sound Sookie found herself wheezing our her own. “I know you don’t want to be late,” she apologized. She stood up, her hand at her side, “I’m okay! We should go!”
Eric handed her the extra cup of coffee he’d brought and they started walking toward the Quarter. Eric walked more slowly than the last time they had walked together, which was a good thing because she was still puffing like a steam engine. She knew that had he worked those long legs of his as he had the last time, he would have left her in the dust and she told him so. It was when they cleared Bourbon Street that she felt herself recover. She took one more deep breath, and said out loud, “I’m okay.”
“That’s good,” he replied without looking at her, “I was afraid I’d have to carry you.” Sookie glanced up at his profile. It was the scarred side. She thought he might be smiling. It was hard to tell because the rows of griddled skin pulled the corner of his eye toward his chin. When they reached the covered area where the trucks pulled up, Eric said, “It’s nice to see you,” and his eyes were warm. Before she could reply, one of the vendors stepped in front of them, pushing his Japanese radishes, and the moment was gone.
As they were finishing, the herb vendor stepped forward and handed Sookie a potted lavender plant. “A gift,” he smiled. It reminded Sookie and she turned to Eric, “Thank you for the pears. They were delicious.”
“You’re welcome,” he replied, looking at the lavender, not at her.
“How did you do it?” she asked. He did look at her then, not understanding what she was asking. “How did you get that exact flavor into the sauce? It’s the same one from the French Market, isn’t it?”
“You have a good nose,” he told her.
“Someone told me that scents make the best memories,” she smiled and then she blushed. She couldn’t believe she was flirting with Eric Northman.
Eric looked away, and then he looked back, “It’s an infusion. You heat the herbs in the rum. I bruised them first so they would release their oils.” As they walked to the restaurant, Eric described the process and Sookie found herself interested.
“It sounds more like science,” she said almost to herself.
“I think of it as painting with flavors,” he told her and then they were there at the back door.
“Why lookie, lookie, here comes Sookie,” Lafayette sang out and he moved forward to wrap her in a hug. “It is so good to have you back, girl. How was your holiday?” and without waiting for her to say a word, the sous chef launched into a recounting of his days off, including a general description of the new guy in his life. Sookie looked over Lafayette’s shoulder, trying to hold onto her morning with Eric, but the chef had moved to his station and all she saw was his back.
Amelia and Sam were working, and Sookie walked through to the seating area to get her own side work started. The ovens were still heating, and Bill and Sam were walking things out of the coolers to stack supplies in readiness. “Almost makes it not worth shutting down,” Bill groused, “It’s so much work to get things ready again.”
There was a knock at the back door and Sookie saw Eric head back, pulling Lafayette and Sweetie along. Between the three of them and the driver, fresh food started moving back into the restaurant. Everyone was hustling, and Sookie realized she was now one of them. They relied on her to do her part.
It took almost an hour, but then Sam went to the grill and made them all breakfast himself. He sang as he cooked and the rest of them lounged against the counters. Sookie had seen the line of people already standing on the sidewalk and there was still almost an hour before the doors opened. It felt good to be part of something like this. As everyone served themselves, Amelia struck.
“So, you aren’t really going to go back to Bon Temps and marry Alcide Herveaux, are you?” Everyone stopped, forks suspended in midair, and Sookie felt the food in her mouth turn to sawdust. As every eye turned her way, she felt herself turn all shades of red.
“I didn’t know you had a fella back home,” Lafayette batted his eyes. He looked over at Amelia, “Cute?”
“Could dance for dollars hot,” she shot back, and made a fanning motion with her hand. “But that’s Sookie for you. John was the town God and she married him right out of high school. Guess it shouldn’t surprise anyone that she’d bag Alcide.”
“Guess that explains why you’re playing so hard to get,” Bill sniped, and she could see that he thought she’d led him on. She turned toward where Eric had been eating to see a now empty place and she felt her heart clench just a little.
“It’s not like that!” Sookie stammered. “My Gran wants me to move home. She wants me to be happy,” but right now Sookie wasn’t happy. It all seemed like too much all the sudden, and she couldn’t get out the back door fast enough to keep her friends from seeing her tears.
She heard Sam say something and Amelia protesting, “What? What did I say?”
She even thought about quitting, but then she thought about all the people inside and all the customers waiting out front. The back door opened and Lafayette stepped out. He opened his arms, and she stepped into them. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she whispered against his shoulder. “There’s a part of me that wants to go home. It’s safe. I won’t ever have to worry about where to live or who I’ll meet. I’ll know how every day of my life will happen.”
“Sounds terrible,” Lafayette laughed.
Sookie laughed too, “Yeah, I kind of think so, too.” She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and laughed, pulling her big girl panties up.
“You just need to give this good ole gal some time,” Lafayette tapped her mouth with his finger. “You give New Orleans a chance, she’ll feel better than home.”
They walked back into the restaurant, the sous chef keeping his arm around her shoulder. Amelia met her eyes, and Sookie knew that Sam had said something and Amelia must have listened. “I’m sorry,” her roommate told her. “It was your secret to tell. I shouldn’t have blurted it out.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” Sookie confirmed. “Especially since it’s not true. At least, I haven’t been asked. Hell, I only been on one date with him,” and she felt herself embarrassed again. There was something about discussing Alcide Herveaux here, in front of everyone, that made her unhappy and she found her eyes traveling to a certain tall, broad back. “I have to get ready for work,” she walked with purpose into Sam’s office and returned with her apron. She walked straight into the seating area, not making eye contact with any of her co-workers. Sam walked up behind her, squeezed her shoulder for a second, and then walked to the door.
“On y va!” he announced, and the day began.
Things settled into their routine and December rolled around. Christmas decorations appeared. The restaurant sported wreaths and Mardi Gras jester ornaments hanging from the ceiling. Sam and Amelia were growing closer, and Lafayette introduced Sookie to Jesus. As she watched couples walking hand in hand down the street in front of the restaurant, she found herself wondering if there was someone out there for her. There was a part of her that felt bad. John had not been dead even one whole year, but as she watched the way lovers treated each other, she got the impression that some part of her marriage might have been missing.
Truth be told, Sookie was lonely. She longed for the way strong arms felt when they wrapped around her. She couldn’t avoid hearing Sam and Amelia every night and when she wasn’t annoyed, she found herself yearning for a love of her own. Every couple of days she would meet Eric, and together they would walk to the market. They talked about flavors and combining ingredients. He told her she had a natural talent and encouraged her to experiment. Every once in a while he would use her ‘discoveries’ in a dish. Sookie knew it was business, but she found herself daydreaming about him.
When the box showed up at the restaurant addressed to her, she didn’t question it, she wanted to believe Lafayette’s teasing that she had a secret admirer. She opened the box and inside she found a postcard. It showed the Café du Monde on the front and it instructed her to present the card to Sally in the morning. It was signed, ‘Love, NOLA.’
Sookie looked at the box. She took it apart, looking for a card or some explanation of who had sent it or why. The postcard was handwritten, but it didn’t look like anyone’s handwriting she knew. The box had been dropped off, not mailed. There was no clue, and so Sookie waited for her first day off. She walked into the front of the restaurant and asked to see Sally. When the busy woman bustled over, Sookie handed her the card. Sally’s eyes warmed, “Oh,” she said, “You’re Sookie. Come with me!” She took the young woman to a table near the back of the restaurant. “You wait right here,” she smiled. Sookie looked around. There were tourists all around her covered with powdered sugar. She had heard about this place, everyone in New Orleans had, but she had never been here.
In two shakes, Sally was back with a cup of coffee and a plate with four powdered pastries. “Someone wanted you to feel right at home,” Sally told her, and then with a wink, the waitress was gone. Sookie couldn’t help but smile. It was all so unexpected. She looked around, half thinking that whoever had sent the gift would be there, but she didn’t see anyone she knew.
When she finished, she flagged down Sally. “How much do I owe you?” she asked.
“For friends of the City?” The waitress rolled her eyes, “Nothing! It’s all taken care of,” and she disappeared into the back.
Sookie brushed the sugar off of her. She couldn’t keep from smiling. When she returned to work the next day, Lafayette asked, “Did you go?”
Sookie told the sous chef what had happened and he nudged her, “Oh, someone has a Secret Santa.” Sookie felt her face blush and she looked up to see Bill watching her. He had regained his leering ways, and Sookie found herself biting her lip, hoping with all she was that her Secret Santa was not Bill Compton. For some reason, her eyes swung toward Eric. If he heard what Lafayette said, he didn’t show any sign of it as he moved in his graceful way.
Sookie made sure she was on the stoop the next morning. Eric took her to a fish market and Sookie found she could barely speak, she was so anxious for him to say something, give some hint. When he asked her if he was boring her, she realized she was being silly. She knew he wasn’t interested, her Secret Santa couldn’t be him.
Two days passed and she started to think that it might have been Lafayette doing her a kindness when a second box arrived. She was up front when the messenger service came in the door and handed the box to Sam. Sam’s eyes flew to her, and she knew right away it was another gift. She excused herself from the table she was serving so she could intercept the messenger.
“Where did you get the box?” she asked the young man.
“I have an office where I pick up my deliveries,” he told her. “I don’t know where they come from,” and he hopped on his bicycle and pedaled away.
Sookie asked Sam to hold onto the box for her and once the lunch rush was over and the dining room was set, she took the box back into the kitchen. She wondered whether she should wait until she got home. “Come on!” Amelia pushed her. “Don’t make us wait!”
Sam put his arm around Amelia, “Let Sookie make up her own mind about her presents,” he scolded his girl.
Sookie looked at Amelia’s impatient bouncing and Lafayette’s open curiosity, and she opened the box. It was like before. This time the postcard had a picture of the French Market. On the back was a number and the words, ‘Love, NOLA.’ She showed Lafayette the number, “What do you think this means?”
It was Bill who offered the answer, “I think it means you should go to the stall that has that number.” Sookie looked up to see Eric watching her. She almost smiled when he abruptly turned around.
“You think I should go tonight?” Sookie asked Bill.
“Why not?” Bill asked. Sookie glanced back toward Eric, but he was finishing his set ups for the next morning.
“I’ll come with you!” Amelia announced. When the doors closed, the two women walked the blocks to the market. They found the map, and then found the stall that matched the number. It was a flower vendor. Sookie handed the vendor the postcard, and he said, “You must be Sookie.” He reached into a large metal container and pulled out a large bouquet of red roses and daisies mixed with baby’s breath. ‘These are for you.”
Amelia admired the flowers and on the way home, she said, “I know he’s kind of rough, but I think Bill really likes you.” Sookie stared at the flowers. She wasn’t sure she wanted them anymore, especially if they were from Bill Compton. Still, this whole thing was romantic and clever. It made her feel wonderful, being treated so special. If this was Bill Compton’s doing, maybe she misjudged him. She remembered that time before Thanksgiving when he had just been himself. Maybe he was just shy about showing his kind side in front of the others. Sookie wondered if she should give Bill a second chance, but it was blue eyes she thought of, not brown.
That night as she lay on the couch, Sookie stared at the flowers. She thought about whether she should sign the lease and stay in the city, or go home and start the life her Gran would like her to lead. She knew her Gran loved her. She knew that the home she had left was more welcoming. She knew there was a man there who would try his best. They were all powerful reasons to return. On the other hand, Sookie was no longer the shy girl she had been. She was making friends and making her own way. She still blushed, but New Orleans Sookie was more confident than Bon Temps Sookie. ‘I like being here,’ she realized. She wasn’t ready to make a final decision, but she didn’t feel the need to run home either.
She was taken by surprise when the next box arrived. It didn’t come to the restaurant. Instead it was delivered to Amelia’s apartment. Sookie brought the small box upstairs and set it on the coffee table. It had occurred to her as she walked up the stairs that whoever was doing this might expect some form of repayment. If it was Bill Compton, she wasn’t sure she would like the price.
Behind her Sam said, “Cher, that box ain’t going to bite. Open it up, and put Amelia out of her misery.” Amelia swatted at Sam, but Sookie could see her roommate was almost jumping out of her skin.
“If you don’t know who’s sending them, then you’re not obligated to do anything!” Amelia correctly guessed.
“I don’t know, Amelia. It just seems like I’m taking advantage of someone,” and Sookie continued to look at the box.
“Seems to me the last two were from NOLA, yes?” Sam asked.
“That’s what the card said,” Sookie confirmed.
“Then all you have to do is give our city your best, whatever that is. Go on, Cher, open it,” and Sam winked.
Sookie found a piece of cardboard inside the box. She turned it over to see that it was a $40 ticket for the 8:00 PM performance at the Preservation Hall tomorrow night. Sookie had heard about the jazz there. If there was one thing about this city, it was the way music was part of everything around her. There wasn’t a day that went by that Sookie didn’t hear music. There were single musicians on the streets and bands that played at the French Market. She could hear music drifting from the doors on Bourbon Street and there were parades led by bands down the streets of the Quarter.
“Bet you find out who’s behind this tomorrow at the Hall,” Amelia gushed.
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” Sam winked, and Sookie found herself both anticipating and dreading the discovery.
The next night Sookie showed up at the downtown landmark, and joined the line. She hadn’t been there long when Lafayette and Jesus walked up behind her. “You going to the eight o’clock?” the sous chef asked. Sookie showed Lafayette her ticket, and he let her see theirs. “This was meant to be,” he smiled. “We can all sit together.” They were close to the front of the line. When they got inside, Sookie found herself on a bench right in front of the stage. She was surprised how small the place was, but the feeling that her Secret Santa was near made her crane her neck to stare at the others who crowded, first on the benches behind her, and then to stand in the back of the room. She chatted with Jesus and Lafayette keeping an eye on the rest of the audience, but then the lights went down and the music started. It was magical. The musicians were talented, and Sookie found that there was something in the way they interacted that spoke to her. She found her foot tapping, and she couldn’t stop smiling. It didn’t feel like any time went by before the lights came up.
“It’s over?” she asked.
“Been an hour,” Lafayette chuckled. “Plenty long enough for those standing in the back.”
Together they walked to a nearby restaurant. As they sipped their drinks, Sookie asked “Who do you think is sending me these presents?”
“I surely don’t know,” Lafayette said slowly, “and I figure it’s best I don’t. I have plenty of my own business without sticking my nose in someone else’s.”
“Want to give Amelia lessons?” The words just slipped out, and Sookie blushed, apologizing for saying something so mean.
“Don’t you apologize! Ain’t nothing wrong in telling the truth,” Lafayette laughed. Then the sous chef looked at her closely, “Why? You have someone in mind?”
“No!” Sookie shook her head, but she knew she was lying.
Together, they walked to the apartment Sookie shared with Amelia. As they parted on the sidewalk, Lafayette asked her, “Have you decided about going back to Bon Temps yet?”
“I have,” Sookie told them, “I’m staying, at least for a year. I’m stronger here. I have friends and I have a place. I guess NOLA’s welcome worked.”
Sookie knew that Lafayette had shared her answer as soon as she walked in the door to the restaurant the next morning. Sweetie smiled at her more broadly than usual and Bill Compton smiled in a genuine way. “I’m happy the presents worked,” he told her.
Bill offered her a cup of coffee and when his fingers touched hers, he let them linger. “It was you?” she asked.
“Who else?” Bill shrugged. Sookie smiled, but she couldn’t help herself. She glanced over Bill’s shoulder at the chef’s station. She could see Eric leaning over, his hands still.
Just then there was a noise, and Sam walked back from the seating area. “Sook? Special delivery!” and he handed over yet another box. It was a little larger than the others, and Sookie raised her eyes to Bill.
Bill’s own eyes were fixed on the box and he asked, “Are you going to open it?”
Sookie smiled and she set it down, and grabbed a knife, but there was something about all this that didn’t sit right. She set the knife down and turned back to Bill. “If these are from you, you know where this next one will lead me. So, I’ll tell you what. I’ll meet you there.”
Bill looked surprised, “Well, I think that’s a great plan,” he told her, but then he made a point of glancing around. “It just seems kind of mean to keep the others in suspense,” and he smiled in a way that reminded her of John Quinn not a little.
“Well, I think suspense is good for the soul!” she replied with more sass than she felt. Sookie took the box with her into Sam’s office. She almost put it with her purse in the file drawer, but for some reason she decided to hide it in the bottom of the clean apron box. Then she headed out and went to work. All day Bill teased her about it, and Sookie was pretty sure she caught him hunting in the office. Amelia also plied her with question after question, but Sookie held firm. “I’ll open it on my way home. Then I’ll just go there and wait,” she replied. “I know my Secret Santa will find me this time.”
When the restaurant closed, Sam gave her a sprig of mistletoe. “For luck,” he told her, and Sookie left the restaurant. For the first time since she’d arrived, she hailed a cab and drove away. She didn’t want to risk someone following her, someone who wasn’t her Santa. In the back of the cab, she ran her fingernail along the tape, breaking the seal. Inside, nestled in green and red tissue paper, was a snow globe. It was not large, but it had a wood base, and inside was the statue of Andrew Jackson, the same one in Jackson Square. Sookie gave the cabbie directions, and within five minutes she found herself standing in front of the General. The lights on the front of the Church were already on and there were carolers singing. There weren’t many people walking the pathways in the Square this evening. It was close to the dinner hour and most were home with family. Sookie spun around, looking carefully at the individuals and groups that moved through the area. She walked around to the back of the statue, looking toward the street entrance. She turned again, and as she looked back at the church entrance she saw him.
Eric Northman stood still, his eyes trained on her. Sookie couldn’t keep the smile from spreading across her face. Her feet started moving, carrying her toward him, and his long legs were moving too. As she reached him, she held up the snow globe. “I’m so glad it was you,” she told him.
Eric reached down to touch the snow globe, and then raised his hand to touch her face.
Sookie didn’t see the scarring any more. She saw the intelligent eyes and the quiet intensity. When he smiled, she didn’t see how the skin of his eye pulled. She saw the beauty of his spirit. Sookie dropped the snow globe in the pocket of her coat and then raised her hand, holding out the sprig of mistletoe. The tall chef took it from her and held it overhead. Then Eric Northman lowered his head to hers and in the hush of the evening light, he kissed her.
Sookie moved out of Amelia’s apartment, but not to the fourth floor walk-up. She moved in with Eric Northman and together they explored the walkways of New Orleans, taste by taste. But that is a story for a different season.