“Consider yourself lucky, kid. When I was your age the only field trip I went on was to some terrible slaughter house in Texas to watch cows get turned into steaks,” I said to my twelve-year-old son as we were walking through the National Mall in Washington D.C. It had been a long bus ride up from North Carolina where we lived, but I was happy Aaron was getting to see something other than our own backyard. I didn’t want him to grow up as sheltered as I did.
“That’s gross, Mom,” he cringed. “I don’t want to know where steaks come from.”
“Papa thought he was really funny havin’ Mama make us pot roast that night.” Daddy was a damn sadist.
“Papa isn’t right in the head,” he chuckled.
Aaron wasn’t exactly wrong about that.
“Do you want to see Arlington Cemetery while we’re here?” My brother was buried there. He was killed in the battle at Hamburger Hill on May 13, 1969. Aaron never got to meet his uncle. Aaron was born on May 29th, four days after Jason’s funeral.
“Yeah. I think it would be neat to visit. Isn’t my uncle buried there?”
“Yes, that’s where Jason is buried.” I’d told him about Jason from the time he was little. It really was a shame Aaron would never get to know him. I think Jason would have been a good influence since Aaron had to grow up without a dad.
“I’d like to go visit,” he said. “It would be kinda like we’re meeting.” My son looked over at me. We were almost eye to eye.
“Almost, except Jason won’t be able to hold you down and fart on you.” That was precisely something my brother had done to me as a kid. That part of Jason I didn’t miss at all. “Aren’t you sad I never gave you a little brother?” I snickered.
“I am. Now I don’t have anyone to fart on,” he laughed.
“You’re gross,” I laughed too. “Well maybe someday some guy will take pity on your old mom and marry her.”
I had been married once. As far as Aaron was concerned, his father was JB du Rhone, who had also died while serving his country. He had been burned pretty badly by napalm, and had died of an infection after an operation in a makeshift hospital over in Vietnam. Aaron wasn’t even a year old then. JB knew that Aaron wasn’t biologically his son, but he never cared. I knew I was never going to see Aaron’s father again and JB had known it too. I loved him and he would forever have a place in my heart, but I couldn’t say that I had ever been in love with him. JB and I had gotten married out of a sense of self-preservation.
If I had told my parents I was pregnant before I got married, Daddy would have flipped out. Sometime before I got back from California it had happened. It was hard to pinpoint when, exactly, I had gotten pregnant, but I knew the baby was Eric’s. The decision to marry JB was the only one that made sense to me at the time. I was young, scared and didn’t have a whole lot of options available to me. If I would have told my father I was pregnant he would have disowned me. My mother had caught on that it wasn’t JB’s baby the minute she saw Aaron.
JB was a strong, sturdy man but he wasn’t at all Nordic looking, nor was he exceptionally tall. Aaron came out almost nine pounds and was twenty-three inches long. He had always been a big boy and the fact that he was already almost taller than me was a clear indicator who his father was. He also had Eric’s eyes, not that my mother would know that. I’d kept photos of him hidden away. There was no point in telling Aaron the truth since I had no idea where Eric was or if he was even still alive. I’d sent him a letter once, but it came back marked ‘return to sender’ on it. I figured it meant he didn’t want to talk to me and left it at that.
So as far as my son was concerned, his father died in the war. Hell, that may have very well have been truer than I wanted to believe. I hoped that Eric was out there somewhere, living a happy life with a beautiful wife and a house full of children. It was much better than being stuck in a dark tomb.
“As long as he likes me too, I’ll accept him,” Aaron chuckled as we walked.
“Of course he has to like you. You know I won’t stick with anyone who doesn’t.” I had dated a few men over the years, but ultimately things didn’t work out for one reason or another. Often times it was because the man couldn’t handle having a ready made family. That was just too bad. Aaron came first and always would.
“Should we start heading back toward the hotel?” We had been out and about for most of the day. Just that day alone we had been to the Capitol Building and we had walked through the Smithsonian. We were trying to cram in as much sightseeing as we could in the three days we had left.
“Yeah. I’m getting tired and little hungry.” He was always hungry.
“Alright. Let’s head back.” I had volunteered to be one of the chaperones for the trip. Aaron had the option of riding in the car with me, but he preferred riding with his friends. I was alright with that. It was good that he was starting to get more independent. That’s what was supposed to happen. I knew I couldn’t be his favorite person in the whole world forever.
We still had quite a walk to get back to the hotel. The Washington Monument stood tall and proud ahead of us in the distance. I was grateful to be able to experience the city with my son. Being a single mom meant I worked a lot of hours to keep us afloat, so it meant I missed more of his life than I wanted to. There wasn’t a choice, though. I wasn’t willing to marry just anyone. I had already married one man I wasn’t in love with; I couldn’t do that again. It would set a terrible example for Aaron, and I wanted him to someday find a girl he was crazy about to marry.
Aaron paused to take a few pictures so I stopped and went over to the reflecting pool at the center of the park. I had a few more wrinkles than I used to and I was starting to see some gray hair, even though I wasn’t even thirty yet. It came with the motherhood package, I supposed. Plus I worked at a local hospital as a neonatal nurse. I loved the job, but it was taxing. The success stories were wonderful, but the tragedies were heartbreaking. Even so, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
I was still looking at my reflection when I heard someone behind me say, “Excuse me.”
I turned my head to the left and almost fainted. It couldn’t be…
“Sookie Stackhouse,” he said in that deep baritone. My name sounded just as sweet as it ever had coming from his lips.
“Once upon a time,” I quietly answered. I couldn’t believe I was face to face with Eric Northman. It was like an automated response; I flung myself at him, hugging him tightly.
He inhaled deeply as he held me just as tight, like he didn’t want to let me go. Eric’s broad chest was a little bigger than it was before. His once scraggly hair was cut short in almost a buzz cut. His hug was just as good, though.
“You don’t do my memory justice,” he whispered.
“You don’t either,” I replied. I looked up at his face just to make sure it was really him and I wasn’t seeing things. “You’re not going to believe this, but I was just thinkin’ about you.”
“I don’t. I’m sure you’re married with your small gaggle of kids,” he teased. He reached up to run his fingers through my hair like we hadn’t missed a day together.
“Widowed,” I said. As for the kids, that was when Aaron made his presence known. He was protective and probably had a thing or two to say about a stranger getting so familiar with his mother.
“Mom, who’s this man?” Aaron asked, cutting Eric off. He looked a little concerned.
When Eric looked over at Aaron his eyes went wide but he didn’t say anything.
“This is Eric. I met him that summer I went to California to see Aunt Lin and Aunt Hadley,” I explained to my son. Well, our son. “Eric, this is my son, Aaron.”
He stared at Aaron for a moment, no doubt seeing his own eyes staring back at him.
“It’s good to meet you, Aaron,” Eric said quietly.
“I’ve never heard anything about you. Mom, why didn’t you tell me you met a man that you’re so friendly with?”
“It was a long time ago. Plus, this is the first contact I’ve had with Eric since I left California.”
“I… should we catch up?” Eric asked. He was still confused. Or in shock.
“Yes, I think that would be good. Do you live here now?” Obviously I had no clue where he had ended up. After that letter came back like it did, I didn’t think I’d ever hear from him again.
“Thinking about it. I’m here visiting my buddy Hoyt,” he told me.
“Oh, well, I don’t want to keep you–”
“No, you’re not… He’s working now anyway. I just needed to get out of the house…”
“I see. Well, Aaron and I are staying at the State Plaza Hotel a few miles from here. We’re here on a school field trip,” I explained. “We drove up from North Carolina.”
“Is that where you’re living now?” He looked down at Aaron again. My son was now staring at Eric, trying to figure out where he knew him from.
“Yes. My uh, my late husband was a Marine based out of Camp Lejeune. It was southern without being my daddy’s brand of southern, so I stayed. We live in Surf City.”
He nodded and said, “Aaron’s father, I assume?”
“Yes,” I said because I didn’t have a choice. I wasn’t going to tell Aaron right then and there that I had lied to him his whole life about who his father was. I never even planned for this moment.
“I… yeah, uh… sho– would you guys like to get lunch?”
“It’s actually closer to dinnertime for us. We’ve been out and about since early this morning,” I said. I looked to Aaron and asked, “Would you like to have dinner with Eric?”
“Ummm, sure?” he answered, looking over at me.
“It’s on me, anywhere you two want to go,” Eric offered.
“Then I’ll let Aaron pick. He’s not very picky and he eats like every meal is his last.”
“Good man,” Eric chuckled. It was exactly how Eric ate.
“Can we get pizza?” Aaron asked.
“Fine with me.” I didn’t think Eric would say no to that.
“Pizza it is,” Eric nodded. “Lead the way.”
“Uhhh I don’t know where the nearest pizza place is,” I laughed. “I’m sure a cab driver can drop us somewhere.”
“Probably,” he chuckled. When he smiled his eyes crinkled a little at the corners. He reached out to rub his hand down my arm. “It’s really good to see you again, Sookie.”
Aaron’s eagle eyes were glued to Eric’s hand.
“It’s good to see you again too.” Normally I would have reached for his hand, but given the circumstances and knowing how my son was, I wasn’t sure that would go over well. As the three of us started walking I noticed Eric was limping a little bit. I wasn’t sure what caused it or how long that had been going on, but I was sure I was going to find out.
We made it to Constitution Avenue and Eric hailed a cab for us. I had left my car at the hotel, figuring it was cheaper to take a cab back than it was to pay for parking all over the city. A Yellow Cab came to a stop and Eric opened the door for us to get in. Aaron went first, which was fine since I had the shortest legs. The middle was probably the best place for me to sit. Eric squeezed in beside me and closed the door.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
“The nearest place that serves good pizza,” I answered.
“You got it,” the guy said, and pulled back into traffic without even looking to see if another car was coming.
Eric slung his arm over the back of the seat. I knew he wanted to hug me the way he used to. It was obvious he had a lot of questions to ask about Aaron. I could also tell Aaron wasn’t so thrilled with this strange man with his arm around his mother.
I was going to have to do some fancy tap dancing to keep things on an even keel.
“You want a meat lovers with extra cheese?” I asked Aaron. That was his favorite pizza.
“Sounds good to me,” Aaron nodded as he looked at the menu.
“Me too. Sookie, do you want one of your fancy veggie pizzas?” Eric teased. He surprised me when his hand found mine under the table.
“You’re funny.” I hated veggies on pizza. “These days I usually get the corner slices on Aaron’s pizza.” My growing son could almost put down a whole large pizza by himself.
“She used to steal my corners too,” Eric told Aaron with a little chuckle. “I finally gave up and just started giving them to her.”
“How long were you two friends?” he asked, looking back and forth between us.
“Just for the few weeks I was in California. Aunt Hadley introduced us,” I told Aaron.
He nodded as he continued to look between us.
“After you left I went to visit my parents for a couple weeks… I got my draft papers the day you left,” Eric told me.
My heart stopped for a few seconds.
“Oh Eric,” I frowned. “Thank God you came home.” That was all I could say. He seemed to be okay mentally, but I had seen my share of military personnel who didn’t get the psychiatric care they needed. It wasn’t pretty. I hoped Eric was taking better care of himself.
“If I didn’t Mom was going to go have a ‘talk’ with Nixon,” he chuckled. “I was shot in ‘73 and she damn near had a heart attack before Dad stopped her from flying out here to have that talk.”
“You’ve been shot?” Aaron asked in awe. “Like with a real gun? And you lived?”
“I was shot. I was lucky to make it out of the jungle that day,” Eric nodded. I could tell talking about the war was uncomfortable for him, but he continued on with his story. “I got shot in the upper thigh, barely missed an artery. Five millimeters to the right and I wouldn’t be sitting here with you two right now.”
Thank you, Jesus, for watching over him…
The gunshot wound explained the limp.
“I’m glad you made it through. Jason wasn’t so lucky. He died in the spring of ‘69 a few weeks before Aaron was born.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I lost a lot of good friends over there. You don’t know loyalty until you’re sitting next to someone you’re willing to take a bullet for,” he said. He gave my hand a squeeze under the table.
“What about your brother? Did he enlist?”
“He did, but he never went to combat. He stayed here. He was pissed until I sat him down and told him some of the things I saw over there.”
I shook my head. A waiter came by to take our order. Once that was settled I dug five dollars out of my wallet and gave it to Aaron.
“I noticed a pinball machine on the way in if you want to go play while we wait,” I offered.
“Heck yeah!” Aaron was out of his seat faster than the speed of light.
I laughed and took a drink of my soda before turning to Eric.
“Go ahead, ask me anything you want.” I had things to hide, but I’d tell Eric the truth. He deserved it.
“He’s mine.” It wasn’t a question.
“I found out three weeks after I got home. I was married a month later,” I said.
“Did you try to contact me?” He started playing with my fingers.
“I sent you a letter, but it came back marked ‘return to sender’, so I just assumed you weren’t interested anymore.” That had hurt a lot more than I expected it to. It was what had forced me to tell JB I was pregnant.
“I still have your letter in my wallet. I wasn’t living there anymore, is all. I’m sorry you thought I didn’t care. Your husband, was he good to Aaron?”
“He never got to meet Aaron. Two months after we were married he was deployed. Aaron was just under eight-months-old when JB died of sepsis after surgery to repair some napalm burns. He was a good man, though. He knew Aaron wasn’t his baby, but he didn’t care. He was as excited as if he was his biological father.”
“It’s too bad he didn’t get to meet him, then. I’m glad you had someone that was there for you. Had I known I would have done my best to see you before I went to war.”
“I know you would have. Aaron… as far as he knows JB is his dad,” I said.
“Are you going to tell him the truth?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t planning on it. I never even thought about it until an hour ago.” If Eric was going to disappear again I didn’t see the point of telling Aaron his real dad was alive, but uninterested in being part of his life.
“I’d like him to know,” Eric requested. “I’d like him to know that I wasn’t around because I didn’t want to be, but because of circumstances that were out of our control.”
“Where do you live now?”
“I’m back in Denver for now. If you need me to move closer before you tell him, I will. I was out here visiting Hoyt to see if I wanted to move here. I’m not married to the idea of living in Colorado.”
“I think if I tell Aaron who you are he’s going to be mad at me, then at you, and once he gets over it he’s going to want to know you. It’ll be hard for him to do that if you’re in Denver, but I don’t expect you to move to Surf City, either.”
“I’ve had much scarier men mad at me. The wrath of a twelve-year-old is nothing,” he chuckled humorlessly. “I’ve also learned life is too short to make plans and worry about little shit. If what it takes for me to get to know Aaron is to move to Surf City, I’ll start looking for a place this weekend. I just found out I have a son, Sookie. That’s… I can’t begin to explain how that makes me feel inside. What’s more is, you’re his mother. That means something to me.”
“I hope it makes you happy to know you have a son. I spent most of my pregnancy panicking it was two. He was a big boy.”
“I’m a big boy,” he pointed out like I didn’t know. “He looks like me. He’d figure it out sooner or later and then he’d be even more pissed.”
“He’s a smart kid,” I smiled. “He does well in school. He’s a great baseball player. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets snapped up as a pitcher someday.”
“You’re a good mother.” Eric lifted my hand to kiss the back.
“I try to be. I managed to get my associates degree in nursing. Raising a child alone isn’t easy, but it beats being under my father’s thumb.”
“I’m proud of you,” he said with a small smile.
“Thank you. I’m proud of myself. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth every second of every struggle,” I said. “What are you doing these days?”
I knew vets weren’t getting the support they deserved after the hell they survived over there. Knowing that Eric hadn’t gone by choice made it worse.
“I’ve been managing a bar in Denver. It’s not glamorous, but it’s something I know how to do well, as it turns out,” he chuckled. “When I got home it took me a while to get back into the swing of things, you know? I wasn’t as affected as a lot of the guys there, so I like to think I lucked out in that regard. It still wasn’t easy adjusting to normal everyday life where men aren’t hiding in a bush getting ready to slaughter yo– sorry, I don’t mean to get graphic…”
“It’s okay. I remember the news footage. I’m sure the things you saw were a million times worse,” I said with empathy. Talking about it was good, even if it was hard for me to hear.
“I don’t think this is the venue to have this discussion,” he replied. “There are kids around.” He glanced over at Aaron before looking back at me.
“I’d like to have it sometime, though. I mean, if you’re okay talking about it,” I said. I wouldn’t push him. I had several friends with veteran husbands who never wanted to talk about the things they saw or did over there.
I understood why it was hard to talk about. Well, I liked to think I understood. Who wanted to remember such horrific things, let alone describe them to someone they wanted to love? I knew from firsthand experience that suppression of all that trauma had dire consequences. My best friend Jessica’s husband had been a veteran. James thought he could handle it all on his own, that “therapy was for pussies”. Six months ago the flashing of twinkle lights on their Christmas tree set him off and he attacked her in their living room. When he came out of the flashback and he realized what he had done, he called for help. While Jessica was in the hospital he got dressed up in his dress blues, wrote her a letter of apology and shot himself at the dining room table. What a thing to come home to. I honestly didn’t know how Jessica was still standing some days.
Her strength was inspirational to me. She always said that he wasn’t himself in the end. Death, for James, was a release from the very private hell he had been trying to contain. It would have only gotten worse for Jessica, and odds were, James would have hurt someone else during another episode. I missed James sometimes too because the man I knew wasn’t as violent as his last days were. In his letter he had said he would never forgive himself for what he had done to Jessica, but he hoped she was more merciful than he was. Gosh, he loved her.
Just thinking about it brought tears to my eyes. I had about a million questions I wanted to ask Eric. Years ago I had said that I thought our paths would cross again. Boy had they. I looked over at Aaron, who was completely engrossed in the pinball game he was playing. Until that moment it hadn’t struck me how much he was starting to look like his father. People never questioned that JB was his dad because they just assumed he took after me, minus the height. My son wasn’t stupid. I knew it was only a matter of time before he figured out the truth.
I wasn’t sure how he was going to accept Eric, but I hoped he would eventually. Eric moving closer to us to build a relationship with him would go a long way. Whether or not he knew it, Aaron needed a dad. I had hoped I would find someone who could love us both. As if he was reading my mind, Eric squeezed my hand.
You found him before Aaron was even born, Sookie. He’s been with you all along.