“Thank you for flying Virgin Atlantic and welcome to Brisbane. We should be pulling into the gate in a few minutes; we’re just waiting on one to become available. As you know it’s a busy time of year for travel, so we thank you for your patience and ask that you please remain seated until the pilot turns off the fasten seatbelts sign.”
Luckily I was able to fly first class, so it wasn’t as cramped as it could have been further back in the plane, but after 18 hours in the air even I was chomping at the bit to get out of here. The in-flight movies were hopeless, the man next to me snored horribly, and I spilled juice on my pants during a rather rough patch of turbulence.
All I wanted now was to get to my sister’s house, take a hot shower, and go to sleep. I’d flown in to spend Christmas with her as well take a break from my life. It had been so long since I’d had a vacation that I forgot how crazy travel was around the silly season. What made it worse was that it was summer in Australia, so there was all the summer holiday travel to deal with as well. I sighed and made a mental note not to travel at this time of year ever again. Twenty minutes later, sleep was FAR from my mind and I was contemplating getting back on the plane and heading straight back home again. We were still waiting on the tarmac, a child somewhere on the plane was screaming blue murder, and the snoring man next to me had released a stench that could have been used for WMD’s. I’d never been so supremely annoyed in my life! THEN? It got fantastically worse!
I walked out of the gate, intending to follow the crowd to baggage claim and was slightly mollified by the fact I wasn’t locked up with them anymore. I noticed people rushing forward to meet my fellow travellers: grandchildren running to meet grandparents, boyfriends meeting girlfriends, children greeting parents. I loved airports for exactly this reason.
One person that caught my interest was a pretty blonde woman who was looking frantically around. I assumed she was looking for a relative or long lost boyfriend and I lowered my head to keep myself from staring and to continue walking without tripping over the many tiny people running about. She, however, had other plans…
“Eric Northman?” she asked. I nodded and with a squeal of giggles, she jumped up and tackled me, wrapping her arms around my neck and doing the best impression of a monkey I’d ever seen outside a zoo.
“Eric! Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!” she squeaked in my ear, hugging me tightly and choking off my air supply. “Ohhh! I’m so glad you’re finally HERE! Pam has told me so much about you! You’re going to have so much fun! You’re going to have to take another holiday to get over your holiday! We have SO much stuff planned for you to do! You’re going to LOVE Australia! I think by the end of your trip you’re going to want to move here!”
Her excited squealing was so rushed, I barely had time to register that she was actually speaking English before she moved on to the next explosion of gleeful words. If I wasn’t stupidly tired I might find her entertaining. As it was, she was just annoying the hell out of me.
“Excuse me, but would you mind removing yourself?” I used the tone that I normally reserved for employee disciplinary meetings, but it didn’t seem to scare her at all.
“Oh, sorry!” she giggled, sounding about as close to sorry as I was to a good mood. She clambered down but before letting me move any further, she pulled off my jacket and rolled the sleeves up on my shirt, pocketing my cuff links.
“My sister sent you to pick me up?” I asked, prepared to run if she had even a vague inclination of attacking me again. The cufflinks and jacket were replaceable and a small price to pay for the ability to breathe.
“Oh, yup!” she chirped. Then, with an almost insane grin, she dashed off to follow the crowd to baggage claim. I’m going to throttle Pam, I thought. Where does she FIND these airheads?
I quietly sighed and tried not to drag my feet as I followed the blonde terror who was supposedly keeping my sister entertained. I had come to Australia to get away from the people who knew me as a hard-ass. I was sick of playing the grumpy boss-man with everyone I knew and just wanted to relax. Apparently grumpy boss was my default setting, at least until I was able to get away from this woman.
While we waited for the luggage to start moving, this fair-haired hurricane of enthusiasm was babbling away about day trips and wineries and… climbing trees? What?
“Uh… woman… who are you?” I asked. I was too fed up to bother being polite right now.
“Oh!” she giggled again. “I’m Sookie, Sookie Stackhouse! I’m Pam’s housemate. Sorry, I was just so excited to meet you, I forgot to introduce myself! Here I am babbling away like we know each other, you probably think I’m nauseatingly cheerful or certifiable…” she trailed off with another strange giggle and I withheld a groan of pain, although I couldn’t stop my hand moving to pinch the bridge of my nose while I prayed for the strength to endure.
‘Sookie’ managed to hold her tongue for the remainder of the time we waited for my bags, a blessing for which I was truly thankful. She even managed to get a cart so we wouldn’t have to carry them to her car – which she had informed me was “Way over there” with requisite hand waving and chuckles.
Luggage claimed and loaded onto the cart, we walked out into the ridiculously sticky heat of the December day. I was immediately thankful she had taken my jacket and rolled up my sleeves. If I could have taken the shirt off entirely I would have, but I wasn’t quite that comfortable yet. Not to mention I was so pale I’d probably be burnt to a crisp after two minutes of direct sunlight.
Sookie and I trekked across the lots to the car in the near silence which I had been praying for and she was gracious enough to grant. When we stopped at an old VW bug, I couldn’t hold in a shout of laughter. The little car was not only bright yellow with rust stains, but she had attached a flower to the radio antenna and the seats were covered in what looked like Cookie Monster’s cousins.
“Yes?” She asked frostily.
“Sorry, I’m just… surprised.” I said, feeling a little bad for laughing. “You ah… you couldn’t get something… less yellow?” I asked, snickering a little.
“It wouldn’t be Bumblebee if it wasn’t yellow,” she smirked.
“Closet Transformers fan?” I asked, laughing again.
“Nothing closeted about me!” she replied, poking her tongue out for added emphasis.
She opened the front of the car to stow my bags and I laughed all over again as she struggled to heft them in. My better side made an appearance and I ended up muscling them into place so she didn’t bust something.
“Thank you.” She said, slamming the trunk and moving around to unlock the door, leaning over to unlock mine as soon as she was in.
While I shoved my seat back as far as I could to get myself comfortable in the tiny bubble, she had to move hers all the way forward. She pulled a cushion from the back, which I assumed she used as some sort of booster seat. I was polite enough to hide my chuckles this time, but she caught me and grinned.
“Go ahead and laugh,” she chuckled. “Everyone does. I can’t help being short, and the bucket seats mean I can barely see over the dashboard unless I’m on this thing,” she added, waving the cushion in my face.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so grumpy with you so far. I really am grateful that you were here to pick me up, although I’m sure I could have managed a cab.” I said, half apologising.
“It’s not a problem, and really, getting a taxi over to our place would have cost you a crap-load,” she said with another cheery smile before finagling the gears into reverse and getting us underway. “I was prepared for you to be sour; Pam said you hate travelling and that you’re grumpy with new people anyway,” she said with a smirk.
“Nice to know my sister is talking me up,” I said with a laugh, knowing that she was right to warn people. I really was a terrible traveller.
Watching Sookie manage the traffic, I was glad that I hadn’t caught a cab; getting through the suburbs would have been a nightmare if I’d needed to give the driver any kind of direction. It took nearly an hour to get to the house, but it was worth it when my sister came bursting out of the door with a huge smile on her face.
“Eric!” she squealed, hugging me and bouncing up and down at the same time.
“Hi Pammy.” I grinned, pleasantly surprised at her openly gleeful greeting. We were usually pretty reserved with each other, just because that was how we had grown up. Obviously Sookie’s bubbly nature had been rubbing off on Pam.
“Come in! Come in!” she said, bouncing a little.
“I think I’d better get my bags first; Sookie will hurt herself,” I said with a laugh.
Sookie gave me a grateful smile as I took my bags off her hands; she had obviously been struggling with them, trying to give us space to enjoy saying hello. I felt like an ass for being so harsh with her at the airport. I’d have to apologise again later; maybe I’d take them out for dinner or something.
With that kick in the pants from my conscience, I followed them both into the house. It was a very Pam-like house: picket fence, huge bay window, cream scroll work on the tiny porch and stained glass in the front door. The front garden left a lot to be desired, but knowing my sister and her less than green thumb, the fact that it wasn’t a toxic waste dump was a plus.
We walked through the living space. Past the kitchen, the bathroom and laundry were pointed out, as well as Pam’s room, Sookie’s room, and guest room… wait, Sookie’s room? They’re not a couple?
“You two are JUST housemates?” I asked Pam, after Sookie had gone to make us all refreshments.
“Yep,” Pam replied with a grin. “I was sick of putting my lovers up in the other room and having to search for another housemate every time they stopped being fun and I kicked them out. Sookie is fun without the hassle of being my girlfriend.”
“Ok, but you don’t really NEED a housemate,” I said, now confused as to why my very picky sister would put up with someone she wasn’t sleeping with or related to.
“No, but I needed company,” Pam said quietly and a little sadly. “Sookie is a good friend and she needed to share with someone to manage her bills, so I offered her my spare room. She’s really fun and a great cook. I promise you’ll like her, once you get used to her bubbly hyperactivity.”
“Having a complete stranger climb me at the airport was pretty interesting,” I said with a laugh.
“Oh, she did that?” Pam asked with a chuckle. “She gets so excited, sometimes I think she’s going to bounce out of her skin, and that would just be gross.”
I laughed again and followed her out to the kitchen where Sookie had rustled up some lunch for us all. It looked amazing and after pouting my way through breakfast on the plane, I was pretty hungry.
I practically inhaled the first half of my huge chicken salad sandwich. It looked like it had been made from one of those homemade loaves, and was so full I needed both hands to hold it closed.
My gorging was interrupted by giggles from both Pam and Sookie. I looked up to find them laughing at me, only two bites into their own sandwiches when mine was almost gone.
“Glad to know you appreciate my skills in the kitchen, Eric!” Sookie said with a chuckle.
“It tastes amazing, Sookie, thank you. In defence of my manners, I am hungry,” I replied, a little shamefaced, but too happy about the tastes on my tongue to care much.
“Not a problem. I work at a gourmet deli so I get all kinds of recipes from the owner,” she laughed, depositing another half on my plate.
“You made this?” I asked, forgetting I had a mouthful and wincing when Pam’s hand reminded me.
Sookie chuckled again and nodded. “It’s not hard. Bread-makers are awesome and it only takes a few minutes to throw together a chicken salad.”
“That may be true, but it doesn’t make this any less delicious.” I said with a wink, stuffing my face again. Sookie blushed before turning back to her food, and Pam gave me the high eyebrow. I wasn’t much for compliments and she knew it, but I’d been rude; I had to make up for it somehow.
Now that my stomach wasn’t making me nauseous and I wasn’t surrounded by thousands of people, I was starting to relax. We finished our meal and collapsed onto the sofas, just chatting and laughing.
It was good to be with people who weren’t expecting me to be or do anything; it was so tiring always having to be ‘on’ at work or out in public generally. Even dates were practically an interview lately, so I had given up when the last one asked me what my bank balance was.
In telling Pam my horror stories of dating since she had left for Australia, we had a good laugh, but I caught Sookie looking at me with worry now and then. I don’t know what she was worried about. Maybe she thought I was a little to frank about my dating life. I wasn’t going to apologise for making fun of the girls that were dating my Lexus instead of me. I excused myself to go to the bathroom while the girls were fighting over which movie to watch.
Walking back down the hall way, I overheard their hissed conversation; they mustn’t have seen me or I’m sure they would have shut up.
“… but it’s so sad that he can’t be liked for who he is!” Sookie said passionately. “He’s a great guy when you get past the prickly bits, and he’s really funny! Why are people so shallow?”
“They’re shallow because that’s the kind of people he’s forced to hang out with back home. It’s hard to meet people outside our social circle,” Pam replied, obviously having made her point before I had started eavesdropping.
“I think we should try to find him some fun while he’s here… he needs a good…” Sookie’s sentence stopped dead when she realised I was back in the room. She blushed a little and carried on like she hadn’t just been talking about me. “We settled on Boondock Saints, I hope that’s ok with you?”
“Sure,” I grinned, happy to pretend I hadn’t heard anything. I didn’t need people feeling sorry for me, but I definitely agreed with what Sookie had been saying. I was sick of the crowd of people I socialised with; excepting a few people I had gotten to know and trust, I wouldn’t miss anyone from home if I upped and moved.
I wanted a relationship like my parents had; even now, in their 80’s, they held hands and laughed together. I needed someone I could have a conversation with, laugh with, relax and have fun with. Was that so much to ask? Apparently it was, because I had yet to meet anyone I could spend time with on a long term basis.
Australia was obviously working for Pam; maybe I should think about moving here myself. It’s not like I had anything tying me to any particular location. My parents were in an assisted living facility in Tuscany, Pam was here and I was… everywhere and nowhere. I was so busy thinking about what was or rather, was not going on in my life, that I completely missed the movie and realised the girls had asked me a question.
“Eric?” Pam asked.
“Sorry, huh… what was that?” I stammered, unable to hide that I hadn’t been listening.
“I asked what you felt like for dinner,” she said again with a smirk. “I swear you live in your head too much and I’m making it my mission to get you out of it while you’re here.”
“Good luck with that,” I laughed. “I was thinking that because I was such a grumpy ass to Sookie this morning, I would take you both out for dinner to apologise for my less than appreciative thank you.”
Sookie chuckled. “You don’t have to do that. Pam warned me and…”
I cut her off with a hand in the air. “I’m not taking no for an answer. I was rude and I’d like to make up for it. Now where will we go?”
“There’s a place just up the road, Castelli’s. They only do pizza and pasta, but it’s all fresh and homemade and I swear if you’ve ever had anything better, then I’ll turn purple and start speaking in Russian,” Sookie said in a rush of words.
I couldn’t help chuckling at the utterly absurd outburst. “Then I guess that’s where we’re going, because I’d pay to see that,” I said, after I had settled down a bit. Pam was right: Sookie was funny once you got used to her.
Sookie blushed again. “I’ll just go grab my purse.”
We had a fantastic meal in the little restaurant: fresh bruschetta, delicious pasta and I had a personal pizza that really was pretty awesome. Sookie was so nervous that I wouldn’t like it, she was making those weird shapes with her mouth, like someone trying to get a baby to eat. It was so funny that when I went to take a bite while trying not to laugh, I managed to choke instead.
Sookie immediately jumped to my rescue to pound my back, only succeeding in making me laugh harder and choke again. My life saved and the pizza pronounced to be ‘the best ever’, Sookie managed to settle down and enjoy her meal. She even went so far as to order dessert and made me wish I had too, although I had less than no room for it.
Instead of heading home, we drove to a nearby mountain lookout. The car barely managed to make it up the hill, and I joked about having to get out and push, but the view and the cool breeze were worth it. Pam and Sookie stood on either side and pointed out landmarks so I could figure out where their house was. They didn’t need to point out the airport, but they did anyway. It was strange, but the air seemed cleaner here. I felt like a weight had been lifted and I owed it to my stubborn sister and her bubbly friend.
I gave them both one-armed hugs and asked to go home; I’d been up for a really, really long time and I was starting to feel the effects of a good meal.
The next thing I remember was waking up to the sound of Pam and Sookie’s next-door neighbour singing along to a football fight song. It sounded like the French national anthem, and I’m sure that if any French person ever heard the caterwauling that was going on, they’d be more embarrassed for the Lions than offended at the use of their anthem.
“Garry! Shut UP!” Sookie shouted and slammed a window closed.
Deciding that it was highly unlikely I would be getting back to sleep after that serenade, I pulled on a robe and gathered some clothes. I couldn’t quite see straight yet and hoped to avoid causing myself harm on any corners. Narrowly missing the end of the bed, I staggered out of the bedroom to the bathroom to try and wake up.
“Sorry, Eric!” Sookie yelped as I closed the bathroom door.
It’s not that I’m not a morning person. It’s just that I like to wake up in my own time, not to the sound of a cat being skinned and dragged through a rosebush, backwards, while being doused in vinegar… just saying.
A hot shower and a mint-flavoured teeth scrubbing later, I was feeling a lot more human. Walking into the kitchen, I found Sookie pouring me a cup of coffee and raising an eyebrow to ask if I took milk or sugar.
“White with one, please,” I smiled. “Sorry about that, I’m not much of a morning person.”
“I figured.” Sookie grinned, passing me a cup of salvation. “You are related to Pam after all. The only reason she’s still asleep is because she wears earplugs during football season.”
“Still, sorry, and thank you,” I said with another smile. I don’t think I’d smiled this much since the last time I’d seen my sister. I really needed to get a life I enjoyed.
“Not working today?” I asked, trying to make small talk… badly.
“I’ve already been,” she grinned. “Finished at 10am.”
“Holy crap, so you just eat coffee straight out of the tin then?” I joked.
“Nah, I’m used to being up at all hours.” She shrugged and busied herself about the kitchen, packing some containers into a cooler before putting a lid on it.
“What’s that for? Lunch date today?” I asked, being nosey this time. Something in there smelled good.
“Actually, it’s for you and Pam,” Sookie replied, poking her tongue out. “She was planning to take you up to Bribie Island today, and she’d better get moving or it won’t be worth the drive. You should go pack an over-night bag; just a change of clothes, swimmers and something to sleep in.”
“Do you want me to wake her up?” I asked, knowing how feral my sister was when she didn’t want to be woken up.
“Nah, it’s okay. I have a system,” Sookie said with a grin, pouring a cup of hot water and lowering in a tea bag. I don’t know what it was, but it smelled awesome.
Sookie dunked the bag a few times before squeezing it out, adding a little milk and sugar to the cup and walking to my sister’s room. I jokingly hid behind the chair I had been sitting on as Sookie knocked on the door, making her giggle.
“Pam, rise and shine,” Sookie said loudly, bursting into the room and apparently shoving the cup under my sister’s nose. Pam’s roar of disapproval changed to a moan of thanks part-way through.
Sookie must be some kind of miracle worker. It usually took Pam at least an hour to be sub-human, longer if you wanted some kind of conversation, and at least two for her to be polite about it.
Thirty minutes later, I had a bag packed and Pam was out of her bedroom, showered, dressed and happy. I started to wonder if maybe there was some kind of herbal upper in that tea and glanced at the packet to make sure I wasn’t just imagining it.
“Sookie, why aren’t you ready to go?” Pam asked, putting her cup in the dishwasher.
“I’m not going!” Sookie squeaked, obviously shocked to be asked. “You’re spending time with your brother. You see me all the time.”
“We’re going to the beach; what planet are you on?” Pam laughed. “I know you love the beach and I know you’re not working for the next two days. Now, go pack or I’ll do it for you.”
Sookie looked slightly scared at the idea and took off for her bedroom, coming back a few minutes later with a backpack and a huge towel. She looked less than happy about being bullied into coming with us; I felt a little sorry for her.
“Don’t look at me like that; you know you haven’t taken a decent break in over a year.” Pam said when she saw the slight pout on Sookie’s face. “Now, let’s go.” Pam added, grabbing the keys to her car and leading the way out the door.
Sookie snapped out of her sulk and shooed me out the door, carrying the heavy cooler with her. I took it off her hands when she turned to lock up; it was heavier than it looked and I wondered what she’d packed. She tried to take it back, but with a raised eyebrow from me she quickly gave up. I guess she was used to looking after everyone, not the other way around.
A couple of hours later, we were pulling into a tiny house that was almost lost in the wild garden around it. Pam – being Pam – got out and left Sookie and I to grab everything out of the car while she went inside. She did have the presence of mind to throw open the windows and turn on the ceiling fans, though.
With the car unpacked, food put away and clothes changed, we walked the short path to the beach. I’d never seen anything so awesome. The sand was so white it was practically glowing, and so clean that it squeaked under my feet as I walked. The waves were the kind of blue that you see in photos but never think to see in real life; the sound they made as they rushed in to shore was so soothing, I could have listened for hours. I must have had a stupid grin on my face because Sookie and Pam grabbed me by the hands and dragged me down to the water.
I was entranced with the waves crashing onto the sand and washing up to caress my feet. Meanwhile, Pam and Sookie had set up base camp with a tent-like sunshade and laid out the towels.
While I was getting my toes wet, Sookie and Pam were being heartily appreciated by the guys sitting nearby. I gave them my best ‘you’re fired’ glare and they stopped staring, much to my satisfaction; sometimes being a scary boss wasn’t so bad. It’s not that they didn’t have the right to look at attractive women; it’s just that these women were under my protection and I wouldn’t have them ogled.
I waited patiently for the girls to finish smothering themselves in sunscreen. I was sure I’d only need a little on my face, but bikinis covered considerably less skin. Pam covered Sookie’s back in the gooey white ooze and Sookie attacked me. I had smeared a little over my face, but she assured me it wouldn’t be enough and covered me all over again. Face, ears, neck, arms… she was about to start on my legs when she looked at me strangely.
“Are you going to wear your shirt in the surf?” she asked, randomly.
“Uh, no,” I answered. “Should I?”
“Well, either wear a shirt or take it off so you can put sunscreen on your body. I’m not going to cover you in aloe if you turn into a lobster,” she replied in a motherly fashion.
I choked a laugh and pulled my shirt off as commanded by the tiny dictator. Her hands moved firmly over my back, smoothing the sunscreen and massaging my shoulders slightly. When she had finished my back, I turned around so I could do my front. Sookie’s eyes seemed slightly glazed and her mouth was gaping a little, so I turned back to see what she was looking at. There were a couple of guys nearby who were fairly ripped and had a healthy bronze glow. I guess I couldn’t blame her for focusing on something else when I was displayed in my pasty glory.
Sookie was blushing slightly when I turned to face her; she must have been embarrassed at being caught. I finished rubbing the last of the sunscreen in and made a puppy dog face.
“Now can I go in the water?” I asked, pouting a little.
Pam and Sookie both laughed and nodded. I wasn’t waiting to be told twice, so with a stupid yelp of glee I ran back down to the surf, waded in and dove under the oncoming wave. The water rushed over my head, roaring in my ears and tickling me all over with bubbles. I surfaced and turned to face the beach, watching the girls squeal at the cold water on their legs before they gathered their courage and dove in.
A couple of hours later we were happily exhausted. I felt a little sticky from the salt and wanted to shower, even though I almost wished I didn’t have to. We walked home and got changed again before heading out to the store. We were so hungry, that the meals Sookie had packed for us weren’t going to last, so we figured a barbeque was the way to go.
We padded around the aisles in our flip-flops, shivering slightly in the almost sub-zero temperatures of the shop’s air conditioning. We grabbed bits and pieces for dinner. Pam and Sookie were arguing over which ice cream to get, so I took both cartons from their hands and put them in the cart, effectively ending the argument. I had a craving for a big juicy steak and I wasn’t going to let ice cream stand in the way.
Barbeque cooked and plates loaded with food, we talked and laughed our way through dinner. I groaned and put my knife and fork back on the plate. I had eaten too much, I was sure of it, but I couldn’t seem to care. It all just tasted so darn good! I don’t know if it had been the day at the beach or if everything just tasted better because I was actually paying attention to it. Either way, it was an awesome meal.
“Anyone for dessert?” Sookie asked, pulling bowls from the cupboard.
“I need a little time to digest,” I groaned. “I don’t think I’ve eaten so much in a long, long time.”
“Sookie, if I eat any more right now, I think I’ll explode,” Pam said with a chuckle.
“I’ll take it as a compliment, then,” Sookie giggled and sat down again. “We’ll just have something later.”
We played scrabble, ate some ice cream and finished off a bottle of wine before falling into bed.
I slept like a log and had dreams of walking along the beach, holding hands with someone and watching the waves rolling in to crash on the sand. I’d never felt anything so extremely peaceful and right in all my life.
The next couple of days flew past with visits to the beach and a nearby museum that was tiny but interesting. We drove home with a little sunburn, a lot of smiles and more than a lot of good memories. I could see a difference in both Pam and Sookie. Pam was more relaxed and had lost the slightly annoyed expression that normally graced her features. Sookie was calm and almost quiet; she didn’t have the air of a harried assistant with too many things to do and not enough time to do it in.
So the days went on, Sookie working in the mornings and coming home to wake my sister to take me out for more adventures. I slept in. I read books that I had been meaning to read for ages. I ate good food, courtesy of Sookie. I watched stupid movies and smiled more than I had in years. Sometimes the outings were just Pam and I; we wandered around an art gallery, the city centre, a huge gothic cathedral and the botanical gardens. Sometimes we would wait for Sookie to come home and we’d all go for a drive.
The next day Sookie had free, we drove down the coast and out into the mountains to a forest retreat. It took forever to get there and I was slightly nauseated by the time we got to the top; the tiny road had wound so slowly and steeply, I was amazed we made it at all. I had a few attacks of horror when we had to pull over to the side to let buses past on their way down the mountain. The drop off was so sharp, I was sure that if I breathed too deeply we’d fall off the edge.
The petrifying drive up was worth it when we climbed out of the car and gathered around the bird feeding area at exactly the right time. A wildlife officer put some seed in my hand and in seconds I was covered in brightly coloured birds. A couple landed on my head and Pam was laughing so hard she scared a nearby native turkey, making her laugh even harder.
Sookie snapped photos and grinned like the crazy girl I’d met at the airport. I was glad to see her enjoying herself. Even in the short amount of time I’d known her, I’d realised that she worked much too hard. I was glad to see my sister talking her into relaxing now and again, although I sometimes didn’t condone the deals she made. This trip, for instance, had been wheedled out of Sookie with promises to cook dinner the rest of the week. We all knew it wouldn’t be happening: Pam could burn water.
Birds having been fed and Pam having gained control of her faculties, we went into the café and ordered some food. Despite the day starting out hot, it was surprisingly cold up on the mountain. Hot chocolates were needed and delightfully savoured as we waited for our meals. The portion sizes were more than I was used to, so I ended up leaving half of the massive pot pie, much to my stomach’s dismay. It was delicious, but I was just too full.
After our meals had settled a little, we walked out to the treetop walk. It was a huge suspension bridge built in amongst the trees; if I had been afraid of heights I’d be in trouble. As it was, Sookie was pale and shaking, so I held her hand and made sure I didn’t bounce too much. Pam rushed ahead and bounced as much as she pleased.
At the halfway point, there was a ladder leading up a tree to several platforms that had been built. Sookie urged me to climb up and take some photos, as it was worth squeezing into the tiny safety cage built around it. So, because she’d asked, I climbed. Pam was ahead of me again, exclaiming over everything and squealing like a kid at a fun fair, pointing out landmarks and grinning so hard I was sure her cheeks were hurting. The view from the platform was amazing, but it made me realise exactly how high I was when I made the stupid decision to look down. So while Pam climbed further up, I chickened out and went back down, happy to keep Sookie company on the relative safety of the bridge.
“That was pretty awesome.” I smiled when I had my feet firmly on the ground again. Sookie had regained her colour, but maintained a death grip on my hand until I reminded her that we were back on solid earth.
“Sorry,” she chuckled. “I guess it’s pretty obvious I’m not so great with heights.”
“Not everyone is,” I smiled. “I usually am and those platforms in the tree were pretty frightening.”
“Tell me about it!” she giggled. “I only made it up there once; I’m never doing it again.”
“You come here often?” I asked. We were waiting for Pam, who had decided to go around and climb the tree again; she’d been so excited, she hadn’t taken any pictures.
“I came here a couple of times with my ex. He was big on bushwalking and that kind of thing,” Sookie replied quietly. “There’s a huge swing and flying fox – oh, zip line,” she corrected herself at my confused look, “around here somewhere. I’ve been on those too, but that was the first and last time.”
“If you’re scared of heights, why did you do it?” I asked, slightly confused. She was still a little shaken from the bridge; she would have been terrified on a zip line.
“Well, I wanted to prove to myself that I could, and he was a bit rude about the whole thing,” she replied with a small frown. “I dumped him as soon as we got home… jerk.”
Pam came back at that moment, putting a stop to the conversation. I wasn’t upset about it though; I’d come to feel protective about Sookie over the last week, and if I’d heard any more about the ‘Jerk’ I’d probably say something stupid and upset her. We took a walk around the mountain gardens, flowers and weird plants all over the place that Pam and Sookie took photos of. Their giggles bounced off the rocks, setting off peals of bell-like calls from a native bird that Sookie informed me later was aptly named a bellbird.
It was starting to get late by the time we made it back to the car, so we set off for home, stopping in at the grocery store on the way for Christmas day supplies.
“Oooh, we have to get Tim-Tams,” Pam said gleefully, grabbing a few packets of what looked to be tiny chocolate mattresses off the shelf. “Eric hasn’t tried them yet.”
“Aw, poor deprived li’l soul!” Sookie crooned, patting my arm. “Don’t worry Eric, Pammy and I will corrupt you well and good. You’ll never want to go home.”
I laughed, but already thought she was right. The feeling of this place was so different to what I was used to. It had only been a week, but I already felt at home and could completely understand why Pam had decided to move to Australia. My return flight wasn’t for another week or so, but I was already dreading it. We bought some fresh seafood and lots of fresh fruit. Sookie took great joy in sniffing the mangoes to check their readiness. When she found one to her liking, she practically danced in place before shoving it under my nose so I could smell the heady scent for myself. I had to admit that although the smell of the fruit was delicious, I took more delight in watching Sookie’s little dance. I’d never met anyone who took such pleasure in small things.
Shopping done and supplies gathered we headed home. We unpacked and made room in the fridge for all our goodies, shoved everything in, and then stumbled to bed. If I didn’t know better I would swear they drugged the air around here; I had never slept better than I had the last few days. Again, I dreamed of walking and holding hands with someone; this time I knew it was ‘her’ and I was unaccountably sad when I woke up and she wasn’t next to me.
I got the lovely task of crawling around in the roof the next day, passing down boxes of decorations and fending off attack from creepy crawlies. I hid my shudders of revulsion well, although the cockroaches here were enormous; they were tough to ignore.
The tree was set up, decorated and flashing away merrily. Pam and I hung more decorations over the curtain rods while Sookie arranged presents under the tree. That was when I realised Sookie would be spending the day with us and I didn’t have a gift for her! I’d have to get Pam to sneak me out sometime to get something Sookie would like.
Sookie worked almost non-stop in the couple of days before Christmas; it worked out great for me in terms of shopping opportunities, but I found myself missing her company. It had hit me out of the blue; I had thought about it for ages that morning, when I felt like something was missing and realised it was her. She had found a way under my defences and after getting over the shock, I had to say I didn’t mind her being there. Sookie was always so bubbly and up; she was a pleasure to be around and so different from everyone else I knew.
Placing her badly wrapped gift under the tree, I found myself slightly nervous over her reaction, come morning. I’d never been so anxious about a gift before, partially because I rarely bought them for anyone but family, and partially because I was worried Sookie would think less of me if I’d messed up. Would it be too personal? Would she like it? What would I do if she didn’t?
When Sookie came home that night, I found myself watching her a little more intensely than usual. She hadn’t changed at all, as far as I could tell, but my perception definitely had. She laughed and joked with Pam and I as she moved around the kitchen, hair shining and completely out of control despite her ponytail, eyes sparkling and dancing with mischief when she was about to blurt out something cheeky. She smiled all the time and it was impossible not to smile with her. Sookie was her own person: an intelligent, funny, good-natured, nurturing soul and I had never seen anyone more beautiful in my life.
It was tying my stomach in knots, but the problem with this revelation was that I kept swapping between feelings; one minute I thought of her like a little sister and the next I felt like she was someone I could have a relationship, if not a future with. How the hell had that happened? Just days ago I was laughing at her checking out muscle-bound men on the beach; what had changed between then and now? Why was I even contemplating this? It’s not like she’s shown any interest in me at all; I’m sure to be making it all up… right?
“Hey, Eric? Are you ok?” Sookie asked, putting a plate of food in front of me.
“Yeah,” I smiled. “Sorry, just thinking about stuff.”
“Well, no more thinking,” she replied. “By now you should know I’m an awesome cook, and if you don’t taste the food on your plate I’m going to be mighty peeved and tell Santa to give you coal in the morning.”
We chuckled and dug in; my brain finally stopped grinding after about two bites, when the flavours started dancing in my mouth. The meal was amazing, but it was made more so by the people I was eating with. We settled in to the couches with ice cream and a movie, Pam on one side, Sookie on the other. For some reason, I had been designated pillow and I can’t say I was complaining about having Sookie snuggled into my side. Her hair smelled like apples and I barely paid attention to the movie at all.
Credits were rolling when I woke up; my neck was sore and Pam was laughing at me.
“How you and Sookie managed to fall asleep in the middle of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, I really don’t know,” Pam said, poking me in the ribs.
“Well, when you get tired, you close your eyes and then…” I started explaining. Pam’s hand reminded me I was being a smart ass by hitting my ribs.
“I’ll go get a blanket,” Pam said when she’d finished reminding me I was stupid. “Sookie sleeps like the dead; we’ll never wake her enough to get her to move to her bed.”
“She’s only little,” I replied, looking down at her. “I’ll carry her to bed, you put her in and then she won’t wake up with a sore neck.”
“Ok,” Pam said doubtfully. “But no complaining if your arms hurt tomorrow.”
“Shut up, Pam,” I muttered good-naturedly. “I might not be Mr Universe, but I’m not a complete weakling.”
“Ah-huh… yeah, tell that to the jar of pickles you tried to open today.” She snorted, running ahead to open the door and get Sookie’s bed ready.
I gently lifted Sookie into my arms; she curled into my chest and wrapped an arm around my neck. It felt nice to have her there and I smiled at the feeling of completeness I felt when I held her… well, until Pam was able to see me anyway. I couldn’t have Pam finding out that I had a thing for her house-mate if I didn’t even know what that ‘thing’ was.
Settling Sookie onto her bed was easier said than done; she didn’t really want to let go of me. Eventually, Pam got her under the covers and Sookie rolled into her pillow with a small hum of happiness.
“Night, brother,” Pam said sleepily, hugging me tight.
“Night, Pammy,” I replied, hugging her back. “Sweet dreams.”
“No one’s said that to me in a looong time,” she chuckled. “Sweet dreams to you, too.”
I lay in bed staring at the ceiling for a while, thinking things over. It would never work, Sookie and me. We barely knew each other; we lived on opposite sides of the planet, for goodness’ sake. No, better to keep this to myself and get over it; I always had before, I will again. The decision made, I rolled over to go to sleep, but I had a funny feeling… like I was slightly hollow.
I dreamt I was walking along the beach again, holding hands with the mystery ‘her’. It was a perfect evening: the sun was setting the sky on fire as it sank behind the hills, the waves crashed and hissed over the sand and I felt complete. I turned to look at the woman beside me and smiled when I saw the contentment on her face.
“So you never suspected a thing?” she asked.
“Nope,” I laughed. “I’m going to blame it on years of trying to ignore people who wanted me for my money.”
“Eric!” she chided me. “You should know me better than that!”
“I do,” I said, pulling her into my arms. “I know you better than I know myself.”
“Prove it,” she replied with a challenge in her eyes.
I bent my head to hers, brushing my lips softly against her own, sinking my hand into her silken blonde hair and groaning at the taste of her mouth as my tongue sought hers. Her hands caressed my face and neck, moving up into my hair so she could kiss me harder.
“I love you, Eric,” she whispered.
“I love you too, Sookie,” I replied.
Christmas morning came with the smell of coffee, pancakes and bacon. I lay in bed for a little while, remembering my dream and thinking it over. I was trying to think of anything that might have been said or done to make my subconscious think there was something there, when there obviously wasn’t. I kept coming up blank. I couldn’t think of a single thing that Sookie or Pam had said or done with me that they wouldn’t have said or done with each other.
Pam knocked and stuck her head in my bedroom door. “Come on, sleepy head. I want to open my presents before Santa realises he made a mistake and takes them back,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “And if you don’t hurry up, I’m not leaving you any bacon either.”
“Pam, could you come here a minute?” I asked quietly.
“What? You’re not dying are you? Cause if you are, I’ll kill you,” she said, slightly frightened at my tone.
“No,” I smiled. “I’m fine; I just want to ask you something.”
“Well, you can ask,” she said mischievously. “But I might not answer.”
“Have you been trying to set me up with Sookie?” I asked bluntly.
“No, why?” she asked, taken aback.
“Well, I just… I had a dream and… I dunno, I guess I’m just being stupid,” I said, shoving her off the bed and getting out. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Liar,” she yelped. “You big purple liar!”
“Shhhh!” I hissed at her. “I’m not lying, I am being stupid.”
“No you’re not, you gigantic moron!” she squeaked. “You like Sookie! Oh my gosh, you like like her!”
“No, I’m just imagining things because we’ve been hanging out so much,” I said stubbornly.
“No, you’re being a stubborn ass because you’re falling for my housemate,” Pam hissed in reply.
“She’s had a crush on you for AGES. I think she fell in puppy-love with you when she saw your pictures on the walls, and now that she’s met you she’s head over heels.”
“What?” I asked, freaking out a little. “Is she?”
“Eric Johan Northman, you goof!” Pam said. “Of course she is! Who else volunteers to pick up a stranger from the airport?”
“Well, you have to admit, it’s not like I have a great track record,” I mumbled, sitting back down and feeling stupid.
“Tell me about this dream you had and we’ll see what I can make of it,” Pam said bossily. “We both know I’m the smart one anyway.”
I chuckled at her and told her all about what was going on, what the dream was about, and what I’d noticed about Sookie in general. In short, I poured my guts out to my snarky, sarcastic, lovable sister and I didn’t know what the outcome of that would be.
“Oh boy, you really are dumb,” Pam said with a chuckle. “Sookie was staring at you on the beach, not those muscle guys. She’s never easily talked into going places and while you’ve been here she’s joined us every time we’ve asked. Not to mention spilling her guts like she has; it took me ages to get her stories out of her, and you get them over a glass of wine on your first night here! She’s just as interested in you as you are in her, you stupid head.”
I was speechless.
Sookie knocked on the door, “What secret squirrel business are you two doing in there?” she asked. “Breakfast is getting cold and if you don’t get your butts out here right now, I’m giving it to Football Garry.”
“No!” Pam and I yelped, jumping up and lurching for the doorway. “We’re coming!”
Breakfast melted in our mouths and I’m sure I ate entirely too much. Knowing that Sookie had feelings for me had me on such a high, I don’t think I even kept track of how many pancakes I finished off before my stomach started hurting.
“Present time?” Pam asked hopefully.
“After you put your plate in the dishwasher, Pam,” Sookie said chidingly. “You know the rules.”
“Yes, Sookie,” Pam snickered, bounding over to the kitchen to do as she was told.
“Honestly, Eric,” Sookie turned to me. “What did you say to her? She hasn’t needed me to tell her to put her plate in the dishwasher for ages!”
“I didn’t say anything!” I laughed. “It is Christmas though, so maybe that explains it.”
“I know!” Sookie squeaked and clapped her hands, bouncing in her seat.
We cleared the table and started the dishwasher before joining Pam at the tree. She’d taken the time to separate everything into piles: hers, mine and Sookie’s. As soon as Sookie and I touched the wrapping paper on our own gifts, Pam was tearing into hers, gleefully flinging decapitated Santas and reindeer everywhere.
I opened my own presents more slowly, but with no less enthusiasm, keeping an eye on Sookie’s pile. She’d set my gift aside, hopefully not to return, but to open last. I was close to begging her to open it when she finally picked it up again.
“You can return it,” I blurted out. “If you don’t like it, I mean.”
“I’m sure I’ll love it,” she said with a soft smile.
Pam’s elbow hit my ribs with force that was apparently supposed to draw my attention to the fact that Sookie was smiling. Thanks, Pam.
I’d given her a framed photo of the three of us at the beach. It was my favourite one of her, because she’d been looking and smiling at me rather than at the camera. I’d also given her a crystal statue of an angel; during our mammoth talks, she often commented how she thought her Grandmother was her guardian angel because she always heard her voice when she was about to do something stupid.
So I found out what month Sookie’s Grandmother had been born in, and made sure the wings matched the birthstone.
“Oh Eric,” Sookie gasped, tears coming to her eyes. “Thank you.”
“Pam helped. I’m glad you like it,” I said softly. Pam was wiggling her eyebrows like mad.
“I love it, it’s perfect,” she whispered. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect. I can’t thank you enough. Seriously, it’s beautiful.”
Sookie leant over and hugged Pam tightly, gently kissing her cheek and whispering a thank you before leaning over to kiss mine. Just as I had turned to speak again she leaned in, her lips met mine and an electric shock went straight through me. It was exactly like my dream, except she tasted like maple syrup and there were fireworks.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Sookie gasped, pulling back and blushing hotly.
“I’m not,” I said, catching her eye and leaning in again, gently pulling her face to mine. This time when our lips met, it was on purpose and it was even better than the first time.
“Well, now we have that sorted out, who’s for a Christmas movie? I have Bad Santa,” Pam said loudly, obviously interrupting and making Sookie and I laugh.
“You don’t have anything to say?” Sookie asked her.
“As long as I’m invited to every Christmas and the children don’t call me Aunt Pammy, I’m easy,”
Pam said with a smirk. “But does that mean I have to look for another housemate?”
Sookie blushed again and hid her face in her hands. “Pam!” she squeaked.
“I was thinking… an Australian branch of Northman Inc. would mean I could see you more,” I said, laughing at the shocked look on both their faces. “What? Too soon?”
O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat