My fucking phone won’t stop fucking ringing. It’s my fucking day off. The fact that it’s two in the afternoon and I’m still sleeping is no one’s business but mine. I worked twelve hours a day last week while fucking Rasul was on vacation. At the last minute Fuckface decided to whisk Sophie-Anne away for a quick trip to Key West.
Blindly, I reach out for my phone. I don’t even look to see who’s calling because whoever it is, is going to die a slow, painful death the next time I see them.
“Speak,” I grumble into the phone.
“Eric, man, it’s Jason.”
“I’m going to cunt punt you the next time I see you for calling me over and over again,” I warn him. If he called because his alarm fucked up his truck again I’m going to strangle him with the wires for reinstalling the fucking thing.
“Eric, I hate to do this over the phone,” he says, ignoring my threat. “There’s really no easy way to say this… Tray’s gone, man…”
“So call his cell. Fucker keeps it on silent most of the time, but–“
“Gone as in dead. He fell and got a nasty bump on his noggin. It took him instantly,” he clarifies.
Because I’m still mostly asleep I say, “Not funny, asshole.”
“No, it’s not. He’s gone, Eric. Gone, gone.” Jason goes silent to wait for the news to sink in.
I pull the phone away from my head and see that I have several missed calls and texts are filling up my inbox. I see three from my sister, a bunch from the guys at work… Fuck.
“This is for real? How did it… I mean how did he fall?” I’ve been really good friends with Tray since grade school. He’s been like a brother to me since puberty. He can’t be gone.
“According to his mama he missed a step coming down off a ladder. He was at her place cleaning the gutters. He hit his head just right on that stump out front,” Jason explains.
“I… I gotta… I’ll call you later.” I hang up. I can’t even wrap my head around this. Tray is only twenty-nine. He’s got a five-year-old son who needs him. Shit, I hope Sean didn’t see him fall.
I drop the phone on the bed and stare up at the ceiling. Right now I’m too shocked to feel much else but I know this is going to hurt like a motherfucker. My phone starts pinging and ringing, leaving me no choice but to silence the fucking thing. I don’t want to talk to anyone right now.
I’m not sure how much time passes before I sit up. My hands scrub my face a few times and then I get up. I stagger to the bathroom and start the shower before I take a leak. In the mirror above the sink I see the shitty tattoo I got in Mexico when I went down there with Tray and Ras for Rasul’s twenty-first birthday. Ras got all gay on us while he was drunk and suggested we get matching cobra tattoos, so I have this fucked up cobra on my shoulder. I fuckin’ hate that tattoo and love it at the same time.
At least I didn’t get it on my ass like Ras did.
And his looks more like a dick than a snake.
I get in the shower and a barrage of memories flood my mind. There have been so many things that have happened over the last twenty years we’ve been friends. I was in second grade when I met him, but because of my height I was always mistaken for an older kid than I was. Tray was two grades ahead, not that it mattered much. We liked the same sports teams, same music, same movies and the same cars.
When I was old enough, his dad gave me a job at the garage doing oil changes, tuneups, tire changes or rotations, replacing brake pads… little shit like that. I got to watch the old timers work and I learned a fuckton about cars just by being in the garage. When Tray was nineteen his dad was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. All the mechanics were smokers and George Dawson was no exception. He died less than two years later and left the shop to Tray.
Of course I worked my way up the ranks. I’m pretty good with cars but Tray has me mostly dealing with the customers because I’m good with people and I can explain shit to them in a simple way they can understand. My job at Dawson’s Garage is the only one I’ve ever had. It’s the only one I want. I have no reason to leave, but I can’t afford to buy the place and I doubt Tray’s mom is going to want to take over. The shop is a lot of fucking work.
After my shower I dry off and get dressed. I pull on a pair of ripped up, stained jeans and grab a worn, plaid shirt from the closet. I should probably try to get in touch with Trina, Tray’s mom, but I’m not ready for that yet. I pull on my boots and check my phone. Eighteen missed calls and thirty-six unread text messages.
My phone goes in my pocket and I grab my keys from the kitchen. Last year I finally got enough money together to be able to put a decent down payment on a house of my own. The place needs work, but I’ve been doing it myself with the help of my friends. I don’t mind that the kitchen needs a makeover or that the backyard needs new sod in some spots. The place has good bones. Cosmetics are easy to fix.
There’s a carport on the side of the house where my F-250 is parked. I’ve had this beast for a decade now. She’s ruby red with white detailing on it. The interior is black and this truck has seen a lot of big moments in my life. She’s not my first love, but pretty damn close. No, my first love was the girl who’s name is still painted in pretty, white script under the passenger’s side window. Once upon a time I thought I was going to marry her.
We were young and had very different plans for our lives than what the other wanted. I was content to stay here, work at the garage and have a small life. Sookie, on the other hand, wanted to see the world outside of Bon Temps. She wanted to go away to school, travel, try living elsewhere for a while. Last I heard she was living just outside of New Orleans and commuting to Baton Rouge for work. I know she went to college in Florida but I forget what she studied.
I hop up behind the wheel with the intention of going for a ride. I don’t have a destination in mind, I just want to drive. At first I leave the music off. It still doesn’t feel real. A world without Tray just doesn’t make sense to me. He’s good people. Not just because he’s my friend, but because he’s honest to goodness good people. He busts his ass to make sure Sean has everything he needs and he spends time with his kid. Things didn’t work out with Sean’s mom, but Tray’s done everything he can to be civil with her so things aren’t ugly for the kid.
Tray’s the kind of guy who would do just about anything for anyone. He took good fucking care of his mom after his dad died. If someone was short on money to pay for repairs at the shop he’d let them pay in installments, as long as they paid something every other week. He was looking into being a peewee football coach since Sean wanted to start playing.
On top of all that, Tray was a good friend.
I turn into the Grab-It-Kwik parking lot. Inside I see Maudette behind the counter and the way she smiles at me tells me she’s heard the news. We hooked up once years ago and I definitely had my beer goggles on, but despite being turned down consistently for the last five years, she keeps propositioning me every time our paths cross.
I grab a case of chilled beer and carry it up to the register where she’s trying not to make it obvious that she adjusted her cleavage for my benefit.
“Hey, Eric,” she greets me. She gives me a sad smile and adds, “I’m sorry about Tray.”
“Thanks.” I get out my wallet and pull my debit card from it so I can swipe it through the reader.
“You know if you need a shoulder to cry on, I’m available,” Maudette offers as she turns the reader in my direction.
“Thanks, but I’m okay.” Knowing her she’d poke holes in the condoms. No thanks.
“Well, you know where to find me.” She rips off my receipt to hand to me.
“I do.” I take the receipt and the beer, and get back to the truck. For a minute or so I sit there, contemplating opening one while I drive but I decide not to.
I get back on the road and finally turn on the radio. Down in these parts it’s not all just country music, but it mostly is. Tray liked the old school stuff. Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson… the guys who basically set the table for country music and shared with the rest of the world what it means to grow up in the South. Tray might have cursed you up one side and down the other on Thursday, almost come to blows with you at Merlotte’s on Friday and accused you of cheating at poker on Saturday, but come Sunday morning he was at church and all was forgiven in his eyes.
He was teaching Sean how to tie his shoes, to open doors for girls and not to spit in front of ladies. He was looking forward to – and simultaneously dreading – teaching Sean how to shave, how to drive and the importance of respecting the girls he went on dates with. There were plenty of ways Tray could be a caveman, but when it came to the women he dated he treated them all well. That included Sean’s mom, and it wasn’t easy since Caitlin could be a real pain in the ass about everything for no reason other than it amused her to make Tray’s life hell.
Things had improved in the years since Sean was born but in the beginning it was a fucking nightmare. It was amazing how much Caitlin calmed the fuck down when Tray’s lawyer located some old, sexist as fuck law that would charge Caitlin for being an unwed mother. It was a total bullshit law but if she was found guilty it would be a $500 fine and ninety days in jail. I couldn’t believe that law even existed but it was an old statute signed into law in 1913. As ridiculous and obscure as it was, it got Caitlin to calm down.
I notice my truck heading to Tray’s but I’m sure his mom is there and as much as I love Trina, I’m not sure I can handle her right now. I can’t imagine being in her shoes. Her husband and only child are gone. At least she’ll have Sean, but it’s not the same. This isn’t fair on so many fucking levels and for so many reasons.
I make the conscious decision to head toward the lake instead. We used to go camping out there regularly, even if it was just for the night. Hell, we’d get a bunch of beer and sleep in our truck beds if we didn’t feel like pitching tents. But that was before Sean came into the picture and our responsibilities shifted. I decided I wanted to buy a house and saving for that became more important than blowing my money on bars and chicks who didn’t really matter much to me beyond Saturday night.
I had a few girlfriends since Sookie, but none of them were as meaningful to me. Ginger was a fun rebound that lasted almost a year. There was Pam, the bisexual wonder who was gungho for threesomes and all kinds of kinky shit. We were together for more than a year before she met a woman named Miriam, who convinced Pam she was a full on lesbian.
Then there was was Freyda. There are crazy ex-girlfriends and then there’s that bitch. Two weeks into our relationship she was talking about meeting my mom and she was in love with me before I knew her middle name or her birthday. It seemed like she was talking marriage almost immediately. Her older sister was getting married around the time I first met her and I quickly learned that there was some serious competition between the two of them. I tried to tell Freyda I wasn’t ready to get married. Even if I had been, I wouldn’t have married her.
I had no proof it was her that did it, but I was positive that I’d been roofied more than once, and it just so happened that she “took care of me” on those nights. Three weeks after I dumped her she claimed she was pregnant but then miscarried before I could go to a doctor’s appointment with her. To this day I don’t know if she really was pregnant. Last I heard she was moving up to Oklahoma to live with some rich cattle rancher or something.
It takes almost forty-five minutes to get out to the lake. Tray bought a cabin here two years ago thinking he’d someday bring Sean out to teach him how to fish and hunt and to go muddin’ when the conditions were right. I’m the only other person with a key to the joint. I can’t bring myself to go inside just yet so I grab the case of beer and take it out to the pier behind the cabin.
I’m not sure how old the cabin is but I know it’s not new construction. Its only got five rooms and it smells like a funky old cabin should. I twist the cap off my beer and take a seat at the edge of the pier. My boots come off after I set my beer down. The water’s cooling off but it’s the last week of October.
I can’t believe Tray won’t be here for Halloween or to enter the annual pie eating contest at church before Thanksgiving. He won’t be around for Christmas or to make an obscene amount of Jello shots for New Year’s Eve. My best friend won’t be planning my bachelor party or jokingly trying to talk me out of marrying some great girl. He won’t be godfather to my kids.
Tray won’t see his son grow up. He won’t be there to explain to Sean why his voice keeps cracking or that it’s normal when he gets his first boner. All the things a dad is supposed to be there to explain to his boy, Tray won’t be there for, at least not in a way that will be satisfactory to Sean. There’s always going to be a hole in the kid’s life where his dad should be. It was hard enough for Tray to lose his dad when he did.
It’s impossible to fathom why Tray is the one that’s gone. With all the shitty people in the world, why him? It doesn’t make sense.
I drain one beer. Then two. I’m almost down three soldiers when I hear tires crunching on gravel in the distance. I don’t look back to see who’s there because it’s not important. Anyone who knows about this cabin who might show up here probably came looking for the same solitude and quiet that I did. Even so, I lift my hand and check to make sure I didn’t cry all over myself. I didn’t. But it’s coming. It’s going to take me out at the knees and knock my wind out.
There’s the sound of a car door opening and closing. The sun’s disappearing. Shit, I didn’t realize it was getting so late. There are footsteps and then the sound of glass clanking together. My head turns in time to see the cap being twisted off a beer bottle. Manicured fingers are wrapped around the bottle. The arm is attached to a petite, curvy body that’s capped with long, platinum blonde hair and the prettiest blue eyes I’ve ever looked into.
I take a breath with the intention of saying hello since it’s been years since I saw her last, but instead the levees break and I lose it. Completely.
Sookie sets the beer down and kneels down next to me. She doesn’t hesitate to wrap her small, yet strong arms around my shoulders. Her head leans on the top of mine, letting an curtain of soft blonde hair fall around my face. She doesn’t say a word; she simply holds me while I cry. She has a familiar, clean smell that fills my nose when I suck in a breath as her gentle hands rub up and down my arm.
God, I loved this girl once. I would have done just about anything for her. Sookie was the kind of girl a guy was supposed to marry. She was sweet, smart, took no bullshit and she was loyal as fuck. I knew someday she was going to be a great mother. We were too damn young back then to even consider marriage. Going our separate ways was fucking painful even though we knew it was the right thing to do.
My arms tighten around her but she doesn’t seem to mind. I don’t know how she knew where to find me, but I’m fucking grateful she’s here. There’s no one else I could fall apart in front of like this.
She shifts after a minute so she’s straddling my lap with her legs wrapped around me like she’s trying to hold me together. I can hear her sniffle every few seconds. She still doesn’t say anything. She’s waiting for me to say something first I assume.
Sookie was friends with Tray too. He pretended to be annoyed with her sometimes, but he loved her. He thought we were good together. Her perkier, friendlier demeanor was a nice counter to my sometimes grumpy ass. We balanced each other out somehow.
I was lost for things to say right then so when I got myself under control, I turned my head and pressed a gentle kiss to her warm, salty lips.
She doesn’t fight it or try to pull away. She just closes her eyes and starts to run her fingers through my hair. Sookie doesn’t try to push forward.
“I’ll be here as long as you need me,” she whispers against my lips.
I nod and even though I know it’s not why she came, I kiss her again. Kissing her has always made me feel better. She’s soft and warm, and even if she’s smaller than me, Sookie Stackhouse is a tough woman.
I hug her tightly and play with the ends of her hair. “Jay called?” I’m guessing her brother told her. I’m friends with Jason but I try not to ask how Sookie’s doing all that often. I want her to be happy but I’m still not over her enough to want to hear she’s happy with someone else.
“Yeah,” she answers quietly. She kisses me again as her nimble fingers play with the back of my hair.
“Thank you for coming.” I know I don’t need to say it but I’m really fuckin’ happy to see her.
“You know I’ll do anything for you,” she says. “That’s never going to change.”
“You know he always said I was a fucktard for letting you go,” I tell her.
“He was right,” she smiles. She still has a few tears trickling down her rosy cheeks. “I’m probably the best thing to ever happen to you.” She’s teasing, but she doesn’t realize how true that statement is.
So I tell her.
“You are,” I say and give her another soft kiss. I’ve loved her one way or another since I was fifteen. That’s almost half my life.
“Then why haven’t you asked me to come home?” she asks. Sookie tilts her head to kiss my jaw.
“Anytime I asked about you everyone said you were happy. I didn’t want to be selfish and ruin that for you,” I answer. My hands move to the back of her head to stop the progression of her kisses. I look her in the eyes and add, “But I think about you all the time. That hasn’t changed.”
“Ask me to come home,” she whispers.
“Is that what you want?” I can’t believe we’re having this conversation right now but it’s pretty much ten years in the making.
“I’m at a crossroads right now. I have choices to make about my career and if I have something to come home to I know what that decision would be,” she tells me.
I pick up her left hand and kiss her palm. “Come home, Sookie.” I put her hand over my heart. “Come home to me.”
“Okay,” she nods. “I miss you so much, Eric. So, so much.”
“You don’t have to miss me anymore.” The truth is, if she wanted to go right now and get married, I’d marry her. Somewhere deep in my gut I know she’s the one I’ve been looking for. I knew way back then when everyone said we were just kids and too young to be making such big decisions about our lives. Having her back here, in my arms, it feels right.
“I had a lot of time to think on the drive up. Life is too short to waste. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but it’s not worth it if I don’t have someone to share my happiness with. I’m… I’m actually surprised you don’t have a girlfriend,” she tells me. Her blue eyes are searching my face as she talks.
“I’ve been too busy with work lately. If I’m not at the shop I’m fixing up my house,” I explain. “I bought that old place over on Calvert Road that you used to think was haunted. It’s not, by the way.” Sookie thinks everything built before 1990 is haunted.
“Good, now I feel better asking if you don’t mind taking in a squatter,” she says with a beautiful smile.
“Didn’t I tell you to come home to me, woman?”
“I’m just making sure,” she giggles. “If I’m being honest, I was hoping you’d tell me you still want me. I’ve been thinking that for a while now. I didn’t know how to bring it up since we haven’t talked in so long.”
The hand still in her hair draws her closer and I really kiss her for the first time in almost a decade. I used to spend hours kissing this woman. I think we made out for like six hours straight once when we were teenagers. She used to drive me crazy in all the right ways and to this day no one even comes close to being as amazing as she was.
Sookie kisses me back. She’s the one that takes the step to deepen it. Her tongue slips between my lips as her arms tighten around my neck.
She pulls back from the kiss to breathe and places gentle kisses along my jaw, up to my ear. “I’m still in love with you,” she whispers. “I always have been.”
Truthfully, I’m still in love with her to. It was like it had gone into hibernation mode while she was away, but every time she called, emailed or even fuckin’ poked me on Facebook it woke up. It never truly went away.
“Ditto,” I reply. I’ve never lied to her and she has no reason to think I’d start now.
“Good,” she smiles as she pulls back to look at me. “Should we move this party to the back of the truck?”
“Actually, if you haven’t gotten too city on me,” I tease and she pinches my nipple since her hand is right there. See what I mean about no bullshit? “I have a key for the shack behind me. It’s Tray’s.”
“I will never be city,” she snorts. “You can start working on knocking me up so I’m sittin’ at home barefoot and pregnant.”
“Mmm… I don’t know if I want a bunch munchkin babies that have to drive on phone books like their mama– Ahhh!” I hiss when she pinches me again. Fuck, I love her.
“You know they’re all going to be gigantic and dwarf me before they’re ten,” she tells me. “Even the girls.”
“Well good. Anything under nine pounds I’m throwing back.”
She holds up her pinky to get me to hook it with mine. “Deal,” she nods.
I chuckle and make her pinky promise.
“You know that’s not how we used to seal a deal,” I say before kissing her neck.
“Mmm, no, you’re right,” she says, tilting her head to give me better access. “The dock is a little hard to be sealin’ deals on.”
“Especially the way you li–“
She stops me with a cute little growl as she leans forward to plant her soft lips on mine.
“I only like it that way with you,” she tells me between kisses.
I get Sookie’s legs unwrapped from around my waist. She gets up and then so do I. Sookie reaches for my hand and I give her my beer while I dig into my pocket for my keys. It’s been a few months since I was at the cabin last. I know Tray brought Sean out here two weeks ago for his first official father/son fishing trip and that gives me pause, as Sookie and I step inside.
“Are you alright?” She stops, turning to look up at me.
“Sean had his first and only father/son fishing trip two weeks ago,” I tell her. It should be the first of many.”
“It won’t be the same, but maybe you can bring him now,” she suggests. “You can tell him Tray stories while you guys fish.”
“That’ll be up to Caitlin,” I whisper. “But even if she agrees, I’m not his dad. I don’t even understand it. I have no idea how a little kid is supposed to get it, you know. It’s… it doesn’t seem possible that he’s gone. This feels like a dream. On one hand I lose my best friend but on the other my soul-mate comes back and she’s still in love with me. Talk about your roller coaster day.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever understand why things happen the way they do. We just have today and we’ll take the rest one at a time. I know Tray’s probably having a beer with Jesus, telling him it’s about damn time we found each other again. It sucks, Eric, but we’ll get through it. You have me to hold you up when days get rough.”
I smile at her and pull Sookie into a hug. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to tell her what it means to me that she’s here, but I don’t know if I need to. I know what it would mean to her if our roles were reversed and that’s enough. Her body feels good pressed against mine. She fits with me perfectly, but then she always has.
I don’t know if Tray’s having a beer with Jesus, but I am sure he’s smiling right now.