And I will always do my duty, no matter what the price.
I’ve counted up the cost, I know the sacrifice.
Oh, and I don’t want to die for you,
But if dying’s asked of me,
I’ll bear that cross with honor,
‘Cause freedom don’t come free.
I’m an American soldier, an American,
Beside my brothers and my sisters I will proudly take a stand,
When liberty’s in jeopardy I will always do what’s right,
I’m out here on the front lines. Sleep in peace tonight.
American soldier, I’m an American soldier,
~ American Soldier by Toby Keith
After our weekend getaway, it seems as if my relationship with Eric moves into overdrive. Within a day of us returning, Eric purchased a new Audi SUV. I knew he loved his Corvette, so I couldn’t understand why he traded it in. I was furious with him; my SUV is perfectly fine for us to drive around in. When I questioned Eric about it, he responded that the Corvette wasn’t safe for Hunter. He makes it hard for me to stay mad at him when he always seems to know the right thing to say.
I finally told Gran about Eric. She wasn’t surprised; she said she could tell that I seemed happier since Christmas. I told her I was scared what people would think; Sam hasn’t even been gone a year. She said that if I spent my life worrying what other people think, then I would never be happy. I have to do what’s best for Hunter and me; if that’s Eric, then so be it. Gran also said she expected to meet “my young man” when she and Jason came up for Hunter’s birthday in March. Gran’s last words to me before she hung up were that she would take care of Jason; I had to chuckle about that. My brother, Jason Stackhouse, loves the women in his family and is fierce when it comes to protecting us. I can only imagine the posturing he is going to do with Eric when he finally gets to meet him.
The following Friday night, Eric spent the night. It wasn’t exactly planned; we both fell asleep after several spectacular rounds of sex. After our weekend away, we both found it difficult to sleep without each other, so neither of us had slept well that week. I woke up panicked about Hunter’s reaction to Eric spending the night; how do you explain to a four, soon to be five, year old that Mommy loves someone other than his Daddy?
I took Hunter downstairs so he could watch cartoons while I made breakfast. I worried the whole time I cooked about what to tell Hunter. I don’t know why I worried though. Eric came downstairs looking all sexy with his sleep tousled hair and wearing nothing but jeans, his dog tags, and the happiest grin I’d ever seen. Hunter launched himself into Eric’s arms, demanding to know why we didn’t tell him that Eric was here. Eric admitted sheepishly that he had accidentally fallen asleep in my bed. I held my breath waiting for Hunter’s reaction. All my little man had to say was that my bed was big enough, so he was sure I didn’t mind. Oh if he only knew how little I minded . . .
That weekend was perfect. Eric took care of Hunter while I ran errands. Hunter’s birthday was mid-March, so I needed to start getting everything ready for his party. This year’s theme was baseball since Hunter would be starting t-ball at the beginning of March. I went to Party City, buying everything that I could find related to baseball. Then I went next door to Michael’s to buy the tin to make a baseball shaped cake. I was also going to make cupcakes decorated as baseballs, since we were inviting his entire preschool class as well as kids from church, not to mention all the adults that would be milling around.
When I got home, I found Eric lying down on the couch with Hunter lying on top of him. I set my bags down and quickly pulled out my phone so I could snap a picture. I swear my ovaries exploded seeing the two of them wrapped around each other. Absolutely adorable!
When both of my guys finally woke up, I had already put everything away from my errands and was starting to make chicken and dumplings for dinner. Eric ran to his house so he could pack a bag for the rest of the weekend. Hunter was sitting at the breakfast bar coloring while I worked. I want to know how my baby feels about Eric being here on a more permanent basis.
“Hunter, do you like having Eric around?”
My baby boy gives me a look that says “duh” before he resumes coloring. He drops the blue crayon before picking up a yellow one. Who would have thought I’d be ignored by my son already? I stop cutting up vegetables so I can come around the counter to stand by his side.
“Hunter,” I try again, “how would you feel about Eric being here all the time?”
Hunter still doesn’t answer me; instead he finishes coloring his picture. He then drops the crayon to show the picture to me. “See Momma,” he says pointing at the picture, “that’s our house. That’s you, me, and Eric. We all live together.” He points to the three stick figures that are supposed to represent us.
I point to another stick figure in his picture, “Who is that baby?”
Hunter looks at me as if it is a stupid question. “That’s Daddy. He’s in Heaven watching over us; he wants us to be happy.”
My son’s words cause a lump to form in my throat, and I feel tears swim in my eyes. “How do you know Daddy wants us to be happy Baby?” My voice is hoarse; it sounds as if I have swallowed a mouthful of gravel.
Hunter looks up at me; his eyes are more wise and sad than any child’s should. “Because he loves us, Momma. Why wouldn’t he want us to be happy?”
I squeeze Hunter tightly, dropping kisses on top of his head as the tears fall from my eyes. When did my little man get to be so perceptive?
It is the day before Hunter’s birthday. Hunter and I are at Raleigh-Durham International Airport waiting for Gran and Jason to arrive. They are coming for Hunter’s birthday and party. Hunter is so excited; he talked non-stop for the entire hour and a half we were in the car. In keeping with tradition, I’m taking tomorrow off for Hunter’s birthday. This is something I’ve done since he was a baby; we spend the entire day together doing whatever he wants . . . within reason of course. This year, we’re spending the day with Jason and Gran; they haven’t seen him since last summer. His birthday party is Saturday, and then on Sunday, we have to take Jason and Gran to the airport.
I’ve pulled into the hourly parking garage so we can meet Gran and Jason at The Meeting Place; it’s a place at the airport where people can wait for their friends and family to arrive. Hunter and I have spent a good amount of time here; thank God they have a Starbucks for me. There isn’t much to keep Hunter occupied at the airport, but thankfully Hunter brought his iPad to keep him occupied. I had checked their flight information before we left the house, and it said they were supposed to arrive on time, but you never know how these things will go.
As I suspected, their flight is delayed, but only by thirty minutes. Hunter and I stop by Starbucks to get me a skinny iced caramel macchiato; Hunter gets a yogurt parfait. We sit at a table waiting for our family to arrive; Hunter plays Candy Crush Saga while I sit lost in my thoughts. I’m a bit nervous about Jason and Gran visiting; I really want them to like Eric. I don’t think I was this nervous when Sam met my family; God, that seems like a lifetime ago.
Jason’s booming voice cuts through all other noise in the airport terminal. Hunter and I rise to see my older brother rushing towards us, the handle of a rolling suitcase in each hand. Hunter goes running to Jason, who has crouched down with his arms outstretched to pick up my son. Jason swings Hunter around in a big circle, causing my little man to squeal with laughter. I can’t help but smile looking at the two of them; I know I’m going to have my hands full the next few days with Jason around. He really is a big kid trapped in an adult’s body. I hurriedly gather all of our things and make my way to their side.
My Gran, Adele Stackhouse, walks slowly to Jason’s side. My brow furrows and I frown when I see her walking with a cane. Before I can say anything, Gran waves off my concern. “It’s nothing to worry about dear. Just something the doctor recommended I use when I’ll be walking long distances.” Gran pulls me into her arms for a hug. I look at Jason questioningly while Gran can’t see, and he gives me the look that says we’ll talk later. When people ask where I get my stubbornness from, at least I can say I came by it honestly. Gran moves out of my arms and kisses Hunter on the cheek since he is still hanging around Jason’s neck. “My goodness Hunter; I hardly recognize you! I think you’ve grown a foot!
“That’s ‘cause I’m five now, Gran!” Hunter holds up five fingers to also illustrate his age. He is absolutely adorable when he wants to be.
I grab one of the bags from Jason since Hunter wants to hold his hand as we walk out of the airport. The two of them are chatting up a storm, and are completely oblivious to the fact Gran is walking slower than I remember. I keep pace with her so she doesn’t feel left out. “How are you doing Gran?”
“I’m fine darlin’,” Gran tells me with a smile and a pat on my arm. “Just these old bones don’t want to cooperate like they used to. But don’t you worry about me. Why didn’t Eric come with you two?”
“He was supposed to come with us, but he had a meeting with the Colonel come up this afternoon. He said he would call me when he’s done,” I say with a shrug. However, I can feel the familiar blush and smile sweeping across my face. This happens to me every time I think or talk about Eric. Hell, it happens to me when I’m looking at him too!
Gran smiles fully at me. “It’s good to see you so happy again, Sookie.” We finally reach the car. Jason loads up all our bags as Gran and Hunter get settled in the back of the SUV. Once my brother is in the car, I pull out of the parking garage so we can begin the trek home.
I am slightly annoyed that my CO called me in for a meeting this afternoon; he knew I was scheduled PTO so that I could drive with Sookie and Hunter to pick her family up at the airport. And if I wasn’t annoyed enough by having to go to the meeting, the Colonel has kept me waiting for forty-five minutes! It’s only because of all my years as a soldier that I am not fidgeting in my chair.
“Northman, get in here!” Colonel de Castro’s booming voice can be heard through door. I rise and swiftly move into his office standing at attention as I wait for him to address me.
“Sit down, Eric,” de Castro says tiredly as he leans back in his chair. I do as directed, but I cannot relax; something tells me this isn’t going to be a good meeting.
“You are being sent back to your unit.”
After what feels like an eternity, I finally pull up to the curb in front of Sookie’s house. I turn the car off, but I stay sitting in my car, my head tilted against the headrest and my eyes closed. I keep hearing de Castro’s words over and over in my head. I feel as if my world had come crashing down; I’ve finally found the love of my life, and I know I’m going to lose her. I can’t put her through what she went through with Sam; I just can’t do that to her and Hunter. I open my eyes to look at Sookie’s house. The front porch light is on; she does that for me when she knows I’ll be stopping by. It’s my version of a lighthouse . . . it guides me home. Home . . . it’s frightening how quickly her house has become home to me. I shouldn’t have come here tonight, but I can’t stand the idea of going back to my empty house.
The front door opens then closes and Sookie stands on the porch watching me. I cannot see her expression, but I’m sure she is worried. With a heavy sigh, I climb out of the car and slowly trudge up her driveway. Sookie stands on the porch with her arms crossed over her chest, trying to block the chill of the night air.
“Hey, I thought you were gonna call. I was beginning to think you had cold feet about meeting Gran and Jason,” she teases me with a wide smile on her face. Her expression falls as I move closer to her, standing on the lower part of her sidewalk so that we are nearly the same height. I try to give her a small smile, but there is no joy in my face. I feel as if I have a black cloud of doom hanging over me. She uncrosses her arms, bringing her cold hands up to my face. Her expression moves quickly to one of concern. “Eric, what’s wrong?”
I stare at her silently, cataloging every feature of her beautiful face as if it is the last time I’ll see it. Part of me wants to lie to her, denying anything is wrong so we can have this weekend with her family. Then there is the part of me that wants to grab her and hold her close, crushing her body to mine as I speak every word of love I can think of. But there’s another part of me that wants to spare her the pain of our separation. I have this idea that I should pick a fight with her, something so horrible that she’ll distance herself from me; that way it won’t hurt when I have to leave.
Something in my eyes must give me away, because Sookie’s eyes widen in horrified understanding. Her voice shakes when she speaks. “You’re going away aren’t you?”
I nod my head, releasing a shuddering breath. “I’m joining my unit in Afghanistan. I’ll be shipping out in two weeks.”