It turned out that Karen’s Cafe was just outside of Wilmington in a little town called Tree Hill, but the cafe was a popular one. I started out waiting tables there. As far as I was concerned they had the best coffee in town, which was good news for a confirmed java addict like myself. I liked the women I worked with. It was an all female staff in a cafe run by two women who were Tree Hill natives. It turned out Haley, one of the bosses, had a husband who was a former NBA player turned sports agent. Haley was also a musician and had toured a while but I had no recollection of her work. She had a few pictures from her time on the road up in the cafe, but she didn’t really talk too much about that time in her life. Figuring it was none of my business, I didn’t ask too many questions.
Besides, I was there to do a job, not be her new best friend.
I was renting a little house in Wilmington within walking distance of the cafe. My house was ten miles away from Wrightsville Beach where I spent a lot of my free time. I was thinking about getting a roommate to help out with the rent. The cost of living was less than it was in Nashville but despite how busy the cafe got, I still wasn’t raking in cash hand over fist. After auditioning for Haley three months after I started at the cafe, she agreed to give me a slot on the open mic night. It didn’t become a regular thing for me at first.
Somehow on that ten hour drive from Tennessee to North Carolina something changed for me. It wasn’t that music stopped being important to me. I was still writing songs and I still played guitar when I felt like it, but the burning desire to make it a career faded away. While I sat on the beach and played for myself I started to wonder if maybe I had been pushing too hard. In the desire to get where I wanted to be I started doing things for all the wrong reasons. I hated to admit it, but it had stopped being fun.
So I backed off.
I wrote when I was moved to. I played when my fingers got the desire to do it. Songs came to me while I washed dishes or wiped down tables. Just for the fun of it I kept a notepad in my apron and jotted things down so I could work on them later. Maybe I’d find a way to string one line with another. Instead of making music my life, I decided to focus on living.
I made new friends in Wilmington and Tree Hill. Brooke and Haley, my bosses, were great. I enjoyed their company. Their kids were almost always around the cafe and I thought it was cool that they were so family oriented. Brooke’s twins were a handful but super adorable. Haley’s kids were a few years apart. Jamie was whip smart and had also inherited his dad’s athletic side. One way or another, that boy was going places. Lydia, Haley’s daughter, was a little more quirky. She had a sense of humor way more sophisticated than most six-year-olds I knew anyway.
Not that I knew many six-year-olds.
A year after leaving Nashville I felt pretty settled in North Carolina. It was a good fit for me. There were plenty of artists hungry to make a difference, and yet it wasn’t as difficult as Nashville. I wasn’t worried about being harassed or hustled or stabbed in the back by another musician. I felt relaxed. I felt free.
As per usual, I was lying awake in bed before my alarm clock went off. I could see fluffy white clouds in the bright blue sky beyond my bedroom window. The house already smelled of coffee thanks to the automatic timer I set the night before. I was working the swing shift at the cafe that day so I didn’t have to be there until ten. The doors opened at seven in the morning and closed at nine o’clock at night unless it was the weekend. Weekends we opened at ten and closed twelve hours later. Anyone interested in the night life was advised to go to Tric, a nightclub that was opened by the original owner of Karen’s Cafe.
I lived alone if you didn’t count the stray dog that had followed me around for days before I finally took him in. I named his Rusty because of his color. The vet I took him to said he was part German Shepherd, part Dachshund. He had the body of the latter but the head of the former. While his coloring was that of a typical Dachshund, his fur was more like that of a Shepherd. He was a sweet little dog who took commands well. He’d been living with me for the last four months. Almost every night since I brought him into my house, he had slept on my bed, curled up beside me.
He was such a mama’s boy.
When I moved in bed Rusty opened an eye to see what I was doing.
“Don’t worry, I’m not getting up yet,” I told him. I reached out to pet his curled up body. He closed his eye and within a few minutes he was snoring. It had taken some time to get used to that, but in the end it was so stinkin’ cute I couldn’t make him sleep in another room.
Inevitably the alarm went off. Rusty startled a little bit but then stretched out. When I sat up he stood up, ready to start the day. I knew he was ready to take a walk. He was always ready to take a walk. While he could be a super chill dog, he needed exercise. The Shepherd in him demanded it.
I got out of bed and walked into the ensuite so I could tame my hair, pee, and brush my teeth. Before I left the house I put on some flip flops and a bra. The neighborhood may have been a relaxed one but that didn’t mean they wanted my titties swinging free all over the place. Rusty waited anxiously for me to get his leash on. He had pretty good manners most of the time. I loved that he was a fast learner.
At the last minute I grabbed a light sweater and put that on over the tank top I was wearing. On went my sunglasses and then I opened the door. What I wasn’t prepared for was to find a familiar face standing on the other side of it.
“Eric? How did you find me?” His hair was grown out a little and he had a little stubble action happening. I never told him where I was living in North Carolina. I had only sent a postcard to let him know I had arrived and it didn’t include my address.
“Asked a lot of questions,” he answered. “You look good.”
For a minute I just stood there stunned.
“What are you doing here?” It was my turn to ask a lot of questions, apparently. Rusty stepped outside to check out the visitor. He had the instincts of a Shepherd, too.
“Taking a chance,” he told me. “Walking away from a life that means shit to me for a chance with a girl that means everything.”
A girl that means everything?
“Someone I know?”
Rusty barked at Eric. It was a bark bigger than his little body. He took a seat at my feet and stared up at the visitor with dark eyes, like he was warning Eric to be very, very careful if he didn’t want to get his ankle ripped off.
“You, Sookie.” Eric knelt down to allow Rusty to sniff his hand if he wanted to.
“Me? Since when am I the girl who means everything?”
“Since I woke up and I couldn’t think of anyone or anything but you. I fucked up a lot, Sookie,” he said as he stood back up. “I’m done with Nashville and all the bullshit that comes with it. I’m ready for more… with you.”
Whoa… I wasn’t really sure what to say to that. I hadn’t thought about Eric too much over the last few months. It wasn’t like I had forgotten him, exactly, as he just didn’t enter my mind. He wasn’t part of my thought process. I just assumed he was happy with his life, doing whatever he was doing.
Rusty whined at my feet, reminding me that he needed to go potty.
“Rusty needs to take a walk. You want to join us?” I offered. It was the best I could do.
“Yeah. I’d like that.”
“So you just up and moved?” I pulled the door closed behind me. Rusty was ready to go. He got up right away and started walking away from the front door.
Sure enough, there was Eric’s truck in my driveway. He wasn’t kidding.
“I did. I sold all of my furniture. I have two duffel bags full of clothes and I stopped at my mom’s to drop anything else of importance on the way here. I’m done. I quit the band, too…”
“Whoa.” Obviously he’d have to if he was moving out to North Carolina. It wasn’t like they were going to follow him.
“Yeah… things went to shit a couple months ago. Music stopped being fun, so I walked away from it.”
“That sucks,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
I really was sorry. I understood it, though.
Rusty stopped at a tree on the other side of the sidewalk closer to the street and lifted a leg to pee. He had a whole bunch of regular spots he liked to mark so everything in the neighborhood knew he was around.
“It was time,” he shrugged. “I’m sure I’ll find my way back some day. The one thing I couldn’t seem to shake was you, though. Ever since that last night together you’ve been a very present thought in the front of my mind. I’m pretty sure there’s a song about not knowing what you got until it’s gone,” he chuckled.
“There are several,” I confirmed. “So you just dropped everything and came here, even though I may have moved on to someone else?”
“I did. That’s why I said I was taking a chance. You may not have even talked to me,” he said.
“Lucky for you, Gran raised me better than that.” I could have slammed the door in his face but that wasn’t my style. If he packed up his life and brought it all the way to North Carolina he had to be serious. It caught me completely off guard. I wasn’t really sure what to do with the information he was giving me. “Do you have a place to stay lined up?”
“No, I’ve been in town all of hmm… an hour? I was just going to look for a hotel once I talked to you,” he told me.
“There are a few in Wilmington you might like. They get a little pricey though, close to the water,” I warned.
“I have a good chunk of change saved up. I’ll start looking for a job so I can rent a place,” he said. “I’ll figure it out.”
“If you’re still into bartending I know Tric is looking for a bartender.”
“Sign me up,” he smiled. “I might need to borrow your address for my taxes.”
“I’ll consider it.” I stopped when Rusty had to mark another spot. “There are lots of houses in this area for rent. My neighborhood is all new construction, as you can see.”
I lived in a nice new subdivision closer to Cape Fear River. That was within walking distance, too.
“I see. The houses are nice,” he said. “How’s your music been coming along since you came here?”
“Fine. It’s taken a backseat to getting my life together here. I’ve made new friends and I play occasionally at the cafe. Sometimes I go over to the beach and take my guitar with me but only when the mood strikes,” I told him.
“I haven’t touched a guitar in three months,” he admitted. That was a huge deal. “I have my acoustic with me, because it’s a part of me but I haven’t had the desire to play. I think I’ve finally reached that part of my life where I need to figure out what the hell I want to do with myself, you know?”
“I think everyone reaches that point eventually.” It was what led me away from Nashville. I hadn’t figured everything out yet but I was so much happier than I was a year ago that I had to be on the right track.
“Yeah,” he sighed. “I came to you because when I close my eyes and try to imagine my future, the only thing that’s ever clear is you.”
“I don’t really know how I feel about that,” I admitted. “I’ve been looking forward instead of looking back.”
“Me too. I’m sorry, Sookie,” he apologized sincerely. “For every wrong thing I did to you. If nothing comes of this talk, I at least want you to know I’m remorseful for the way I treated you when we were together. I love you, and that’s not how you treat the people and things you love.”
I stopped walking, much to Rusty’s dismay. He took the opportunity to mark a new tree so it wasn’t all bad.
“I accept your apology. We both made mistakes. I’d like to think I learned from mine. I hope you learned from yours.” I wasn’t an angel. There were times when I was mean and selfish or I said things I knew would push his buttons. I’d say things because I could and that wasn’t okay.
“I’ve learned a lot over this last year,” he told me.
“That’s good. I’m happy to hear that.” We started walking again. “You know, I have a spare room. You could stay at my place until you find a place of your own.”
Temporary. It was just temporary.
“You sure?” He looked surprised.
“You don’t have to stay with me if you don’t want to but I figured since I have the space…”
“It would be a lot cheaper than getting a hotel. I can pay rent for the time I’m here,” he told me.
“We’ll see. I can talk to my landlord and see if she has any other rental properties in the area too,” I offered.
“That would be great, Sookie,” he smiled. “My mother will feel better if she knows I’m somewhere safe as well. You know how she worries.”
“Are you sure she’s not in the backseat of your truck?” I snickered.
“Oh, I’m sure. I made sure she didn’t follow me out when I stopped by her place,” he laughed. “I know you probably think I’m crazy for doing this, but really, my priorities have changed.”
“I wouldn’t say you’re crazy. I think it’s more brave than crazy to drive 700 miles to maybe have a door slammed in your face.” I had to pull Rusty back when we got to the end of the street since there was a car coming, about to make a left turn in front of us.
“I’ll take brave,” he smiled. “I just figured, what do I have to lose?”
“Just the gas money,” I chuckled. He’d already given up his home, his furniture and pretty much everything else.
“At this point, yeah. It was worth the gamble. You look gorgeous, by the way. You look happier than I’ve ever seen you and it’s a good look on you.”
“Thanks. Life just works here, you know? I’ve backed off the music and I just do it for fun now. Instead of trying to make things happen, I’m just living.” It was working for me. If something was supposed to happen musically, it would. People were always saying let go and let God. I used to think that was cheesy, but I was starting to think there was something to it.
“I know it’s not something you can give me an answer to right now, but I’d like to make our lives work together some day. It’s just something to think about.”
“I’ll think it over,” I told him. At the moment it was all I could offer. He nodded his acceptance and we kept on walking.
By the time we got back to the house Rusty was ready for a big ol’ drink of water. I took his leash off while Eric was retrieving one of his bags from the backseat. There was just enough time to show him around before I had to start getting ready for work. If he was going to be around the house Rusty would at least have someone to keep him company, which he would love. Anytime I got a break at work I ran home to let him out to potty.
I was filling Rusty’s water bowl when Eric came back inside. He paused and looked around the great room that combined my kitchen, dining room, and living room. There was a screened in porch off my living room where I spent plenty of time in the evening while Rusty ran around the yard. I picked the house I did not just because it was new but because the yard was fenced in. Rusty found me just when I was thinking about looking at the Tree Hill Rescue for an animal in need of a home. Since he kept following me around, I assumed he was supposed to be mine. We’d been roomies ever since.
“So, this is the kitchen, obviously. There’s a guest room right by the front porch but I doubt you want that room. It can get a little loud sometimes with the construction going on across the street,” I said to Eric as I put the water bowl down on the floor at the end of the cabinets.
“This place is huge for just one person,” he commented.
“It is. I was actually just thinking before I got out of bed this morning that maybe I should look for a roommate.” I knew immediately he was thinking it was a big sign that he showed up minutes later.
“And then I dropped onto your from door. Must be fate,” he winked.
Yep, I knew that was coming.
“Come on, I’ll show you the upstairs.” I led him to the stairs. Of course he was watching my ass as I climbed up the staircase. I didn’t need to look back to know it. “There’s all this open space here where, if we decided you’d be an okay roommate, you could have your own little living room area. There’s a bathroom up here too.” I moved through the open space and pushed the bathroom door open so I could flip on the light. It wasn’t anything fancy but there was a tub with a showerhead, a sink and a toilet.
“Perfect for me,” he said as he looked around.
“And then here’s the bedroom.” I walked into the room that was to the left of the bathroom.
It was big enough for a king size bed. At the moment it was empty. Twin windows were on the outer wall of the house. Folding doors closed off the closet. The room had a ceiling fan, although at the moment I had the air conditioning on. I wasn’t a huge fan of the carpet, mostly because it was so light, but there wasn’t anything I could do about that.
“I assume there’s a furniture store around here I can find a bed at?”
“Oh yeah. There are several places in Wilmington but if you’re not happy with what they have there, Raleigh is like a two hour drive. There’s probably a bigger selection there than down here,” I told him. I opened the closet doors so he could see there was a built-in unit that ran along the bottom I assumed was for shoes.
“This is great,” he smiled. “I’ll go out today to try to find a bed. If I can’t find one I like I don’t mind sleeping on the couch tonight. I highly doubt you’re ready for me to follow you to your room,” he chuckled.
“Not so much. Plus there’s only a queen size bed in there.” That was more than big enough for me. “Oh, and I have a vacant storage closet up here you can use too, if you need it.”
I led him out of the bedroom and over to a walk-in closet that was across from the bathroom. There was a second closet beside the bathroom that was a little bigger. That one housed my decorations when they didn’t need to be out and about.
“I don’t have anything but clothes and toiletries at the moment. If I get more shit it’s good to know I have somewhere to put it.”
I snickered and said, “I give a week before you have a mini fridge and your own espresso machine set up in here.”
“We’ll see,” he smirked.
Honestly, as far as roommates went I could do a lot worse than Eric. At least I’d know what I was getting myself into. I knew I could trust him with Rusty, who seemed to be okay with him,
“You’re not going to mind having a dog around? He’s generally pretty chill but when he wants attention he’s not afraid to let you know it.” The dog had literally picked up my hand with his two front paws while I was scrolling on my laptop to get my attention.
“No, a dog doesn’t bother me. He’s a cute little guy,” he replied.
“He’ll let you know when he needs to go out, too. Usually I come home on my breaks to let him out to do his business.” I led Eric back downstairs to show him where my room was.
The master suite was off the main living area. My bedroom was the biggest in the house. I had two walk-in closets but I only needed one. Obviously the space was designed with two in mind. The only reason I had clothes in two closets was because I had divided my stuff up between warm weather and cool. At the moment, the cool weather closet was closed up since I didn’t really need anything from there. I showed Eric the master bathroom and then where the laundry room was so he’d be able to do his washing when he needed to.
“Oh, and spare towels are in this closet.” I opened the door in the utility room to show him where the towels and spare linens were at. “If you need the vacuum cleaner I stashed it in the closet of the guest room up in the front.” It encouraged me to vacuum the whole house instead of being a lazy ass.
“That works.” Eric surprised me when he turned toward me. He pulled me into a tight hug, holding me close to his warm body.
“I guess that means you’re okay staying here?” I hugged him back, although not as tightly as he was holding onto me.
“Yeah, I am. Seriously, Sookie, this is great. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” I pulled back because I had to. “I have to get ready for work. I’ll leave you my house keys so you can lock up when you go. I’ll have to make copies later when I get off. I should be home before seven.”
“Okay. Hopefully I’ll have a bed by then. Does Rusty like to go for car rides?”
“Are you kidding me? You’ll be his new best friend.” I walked out of the utility room. “Who wants to go for a car ride?”
Immediately there was his big bark and then the sound of doggy nails on the hardwood as he ran toward us to get to the garage door.
Eric laughed and said, “Looks like he’s coming shopping with me. I can’t let him down now.”
“He’s going to need an assist getting up in the cab,” I chuckled and reached down to give him a neck scrub for being a good boy. “You want a treat? You’ll go on your car ride soon, I promise.” Of course he wanted a treat. I showed Eric where to find those as well and ran over the feeding and walking schedule. “Shit, I have to get in the shower and no I do not need help in there.”
“I wasn’t going to offer. You have to make it to work on time, don’t you?” he smirked.
“Yes I do. Okay, I’m off to the shower. If you can hold off for a few minutes I’ll separate my keys when I get out,” I said as I walked backward toward my room.
“Yeah, I’ll bring the rest of my clothes in. I’ll be here when you’re out.”
“Okay. Help yourself to whatever in the fridge if you’re hungry. Oh, don’t drink all my coffee. I haven’t had any yet.” He knew I’d scratch his eyes out if he did that.
“Cross my heart,” he promised, making the motion over his heart.
I ran into the bathroom to start the water. Thankfully the dress code at Karen’s Cafe was pretty casual but I still needed to not look a hot mess when I showed up. I stripped down out of my pajamas and hoped that I wasn’t making a huge mistake letting Eric move in with me. Sadly, there was only one way to find out and I wouldn’t know until it was too late.