After the night we’d had, I was surprised Sookie hadn’t found an excuse to nap while she waited for me to rise, but I still had company.
I rose feeling a heartbeat echo through my chest, but my little companion wasn’t quite who I was expecting.
The first thing to be seen when I opened my eyes was a tiny head covered in busy little wisps of ginger curls. Hope was sprawled akimbo as though she was free-falling.
Before I could wonder if it was normal, because I could have sworn babies were supposed to sleep in tight little bundles, I remembered that Sookie compared my mind to floating.
I was so distracted by the chaos of Hope’s swirls of hair, wondering if she’d have ringlets like Misty’s, I didn’t notice my surroundings right away.
In my defense, a ceiling is a ceiling. Unless there was a ceiling fan or some sort of ornamentation, they tended to look alike… Granted, the room I’d died in had a ceiling fan, but it wasn’t as though I was used to one and I’d switched rooms.
Rising in an unfamiliar bed, with Hope on my chest… No sense of Sookie or Misty… No noises as clues…
Fuck fuck fuck.
I took the pillow and smelled it… Me and Sookie.
At least I’d skipped to a version where We knew each other.
I scanned the room…
Two closed doors, the open bathroom door, a dresser, a desk, and a sofa.
Everything was stylish, yet minimalistic…
No windows, but there wasn’t any way to be sure I was in a saferoom… It did seem that way though.
I sat up slowly, hoping to not wake the baby and failing… No sooner than I shifted Hope in my arms, she woke and smiled at me.
“Don’t smile yet. We aren’t sure what we’re dealing with.”
The first door was for a closet full of an assortment of My clothing and Sookie’s… The second door led to an open commons area with a large lounge, small kitchen, and yet another collection of doors. Without a way to know if any were safe to open, I opted against exploring while I was holding Hope.
I was on my way back to the closet to acquire something other than lounge pants to wear when I noticed the cellphone on the nightstand. Someone had painted the case to resemble an E.T. movie poster and ‘E.T. phone home’ was written out.
There was a preset internet link for a Bon Temps weather website, and two photo albums titled ‘Us’ and ‘Other’… and among the handful of phone numbers stored in the address book, there was a listing for the ‘Mothership’.
Hope smiled again and offered a little coo while the phone rang.
“That’s a very sweet smile you have, even if you’re dangerously oblivious.”
The phone was answered sleepily by a woman, “Hello?” Her voice was familiar, ringing of Sookie’s accent but it wasn’t quite the same.
“Who is this?”
After a pause, she asked, “Eric?”
“Yes, and you are?”
She snickered, “This is Linda… I’m your youngest child.”
“The short story is that you brought me over when my boyfriend went to you as a hail-mary. Most of the Lindas in the archives died about six months after Eric brought me over… Gawain, wake up, you lazy bitch. We’ve got braid-shit to deal with…”
After a long groan, there was a loud slap and he argued, “You deal with it. The braid is your fault… How many grandchildren do you have in that version?”
I answered, “I’m holding the youngest of three. She came with me, but otherwise, it seems as though I skipped alone… I don’t know if My Sookie woke somewhere else, or if she was busy packing. We’re due to return to Eijsden tonight.”
Linda gasped, “Three? How old? Are you with Hadley or are you and Sookie raising Hadley’s cast-asides?”
“She’s five days old. Her name is Hope Lynn. Sookie is Mine and she’s in the process of adopting Hope as well as 9-year old Misty and 8-year old Jenny.”
After a long pause, Gawain offered, “We have a boy. Mack, short for Maguire. Hadley overdosed and he was in foster care for nearly a year before we learned about him. The father is unknown, but he was a Shifter. We suspect a local, because Hadley ran off when she was already pregnant, but he’s a twat. We’re not willing to risk his reaction.”
“You’ve had the pleasure?”
“You could say that. Part of our holiday has been tormenting Merlotte, but there’s a Sookie in the braid who married him. I met her first.”
Linda giggled, “At least he’s good for something… So, you’re sitting in the family safehouse… We’re in Shreveport. We’ll leave as soon as the sun sets, but in the meantime, Bubba might be resting in one of the bedrooms. He knows about the braid though. The saferoom is under Momma’s house, but when I talked to her a little while ago, she was heading out to a DGD thing. Do you have an archive?”
“No. I was distracted until I died.”
“K. There’s a laptop in the desk…” There was a sudden and extremely unfortunate eruption just under my hand and Hope’s face was turning red. “Fire it up and start on some notes about your version while you wait for us. There’s a handful of USD drives…”
Gawain corrected, “USB. Universal Serial BUS. Why can’t you remember that?”
“Because my little baby-Vampire brain is still full of recipes, asshat. Shut up and save that pretty mouth of yours for something useful.”
I chuckled, “Are you two a couple?”
“I think Eric brought me over just to babysit him… Anyway, USB drives are in the desk too. Make sure you grab one of those. I made a little video to say hi to all the grandbabies who didn’t meet me.”
“I’ll do that. Are there, by any chance, baby supplies here? Hope seems to be trying to fill her diaper.”
“Oh God… You poor thing. No. Nothing… Mack was already walking when we got him… I’ll tell you what. The room next to the one where you found the phone has a dresser full of…”
Gawain grumbled, “Twat.”
“Gawain’s clothes. Give her a sink bath and wrap her up in one of his Ts.”
“Perfect. Thank you.”
“We’ll be there ASAP.”
I left the room we rose in to explore, going to the room Linda suggested in search of Gawain’s dresser, but the one I found was full of women’s clothing. It was the taller chest of drawers that held Gawain’s things.
If it weren’t for the fact that Hope was beginning to squirm, uncomfortable with a soiled diaper, I would have inspected the dresser and closet… The range of styles I’d found suggested two females shared the space. It was as though someone like Sookie was sharing a room with someone like Liz. One drawer had been full of satin and silk, and the other had been full of lace. The next row down was a drawer of chemises and negligees in one drawer, and cotton nightgowns, tank tops and boxer shorts in the other…
Linda hadn’t said she was My only or new child. She said she was My youngest.
When I realized I finally had an opportunity to see Liz, Hope took a brief break from complaining about her diaper to smile at me.
I chuckled at her. “She’ll tease me for having you, but don’t hold it against her. If I still had my Liz, you’d already be quite spoiled.”
Like her diaper…
I’d never concede to the fact that I was beaten by an infant. While I tried to remove Hope’s soiled diaper, she put her foot in the smear and ruined her little sock. While I removed her socks, she urinated on her sleeper. And as soon as I wrapped her in Gawain’s shirt, her legs straightened and she began turning red again.
“You think you’re funny, don’t you?”
She answered me with a bizarre screech that I was sure I’d heard from a velociraptor in Jurassic Park.
I leaned on the counter, looking down at her, talking to her about where Sookie could be, if she came with us, and making idle guesses about her skip-brother’s ability until I was sure I wouldn’t be part of a never-ending cycle of re-diapering her.
Once Hope was clean again, I settled at the desk to begin making notes for our hosts, making sure to take a ‘USD’ drive from the drawer…
The bleakness of my life beginning with the coin-toss that kept Liz and me in Europe, and the excitement of Sookie’s life since her parents were still married… through the events of last night.
I’d placed a pillow on the desk and laid Hope on it. She seemed perfectly content to watch me and coo at my progress… but I couldn’t help but notice the serious look on her face while I explained how I lost Liz, and how much lighter her little noises were when I was outlining Sookie’s success as a writer.
I was elaborating on the varied personality traits of Linda’s grandchildren for her (and noting my new suspicions about Hope’s ability) when I heard a door close in the distance.
The ‘Bubba’ Linda had mentioned. I finally wondered if it was the same Bubba we’d encountered the night before, if ‘Bubba’ was a common name or nickname in Louisiana.
Whoever Bubba was, he didn’t have a heartbeat.
I removed Hope from her makeshift bed and moved to the door, listening for movement… I was sure a Vampire would have heard me speaking to Hope and typing.
I reached for the doorknob, reminding myself that Linda had mentioned Bubba matter-of-factly rather than warningly, but before I could turn the knob, a voice boomed from the other side of the door. “Mister Eric!”
He drawled, “I thought I heard ya. Who ya got with ya? Mack?”
“Hope? Awwwwww damn, Mister Eric, you ain’t steppin’ out on Sookie, are ya? It’ll kill ‘er.”
I opened the door asking, “Who would ever step out on Sookie?” but I almost dropped Hope.
Elvis. Someone brought him over.
He looked incredibly simple, tilting his head to inspect Hope, “Awww. Ya know, gingers is trouble… That’s Hope?”
“You ain’t my Eric, are ya? You one’nim others.”
I almost didn’t realize that my arm and side were suddenly wet and very warm.
Bubba chuckled, “Uh-oh. Ya got watered.”
I nodded. “She thinks she’s funny.”
“Ya get fertilized yet?”
I walked past him to go back to Gawain’s dresser for another shirt and Bubba followed, chuckling when he realized what I was doing.
“When she eat last?”
“I rose an hour ago… She’d been laid down to nap with me…”
“Damn. She’s gon’ be hungry soon… Adele know yer here?”
I shook my head. “Linda and Gawain do. They should be on their way. Adele had a meeting to attend…”
He followed me to the other bathroom and watched me change one t-shirt for another, asking how old Hope was because her ‘stem’ hadn’t fallen off yet.
Elvis… and we were talking about a baby.
“Is there a nearby store where I can buy diapers and formula? We could be here for a while.”
“Wal-Mart up the road a piece. They’ll have e’erthang ya need. A whole baby department… How come you got an accent?”
“Yeah. You ain’t sound American.”
“I’m not American.”
“My Eric’s American… ‘less he’s pissed. Ya ain’t pissed, are ya?”
“No. I’m a little out of sorts thanks to rising with a baby on my chest when I haven’t cared for one since I was alive.”
“That’ll do it… Where’d you and Sook buy the ginger?”
“Her name is Hope. We didn’t buy her…”
“Right. Sorry. Adoption… we could go. I don’t wake up til sunset. We’re safe to venture out…”
When he reached for Hope, my fangs dropped. Fuck Elvis. She was not his to touch.
He stepped back and put his hands up. “Dang, my bad! I was just gonna hold ‘er so you could change yer shirt, Mr. Eric. I’m sorry.”
I growled, “Don’t let it happen again,” as I turned for the closet.
He hadn’t gotten any smarter since he died.
Perhaps it was that I’d jostled her when I changed into a dry shirt, but Hope’s first complaint was a full squall by the time Bubba pulled his Eldorado onto the parish road.
While Bubba continued to apologize for ‘over-stepping’, I realized I was beginning to feel hungry… even though I’d just fed before dawn.
I chuckled at her, “Just when Sookie has mothering telepathic children down to a science, you decide to be different…” She seemed to calm slightly, so I continued, “And you like napping with me because the house is busy, but I’m calm. You use me…” She calmed that much more. “Are you really hungry enough to cause such an uproar, or were you jealous because Bubba had my attention?”
Bubba congratulated, “That’s workin’, Mr. Eric… Sounds like ya got yerself a Daddy’s girl.”
“Can you drive faster? I don’t know how long she’ll be content.”
He bore down on the gas pedal, almost doubling his speed, and offered, “Just keep talkin to ‘er. That’s all it took fer me. A calm voice.”
“I’d almost forgotten you were a father. You were still young when our paths crossed, just a boy really.”
“Dang. Ya don’t know yer Me, but ya met Me when I was alive?”
While I spoke, I maintained eye-contact with Hope. “I’ve never lived in the States, but I owned a hotel in Paris…”
“Not far from Le Lido, walking, if not staggering, distance…”
“You and your friends enjoyed bedding dancers… and destroying rooms… and you, specifically, enjoyed Liz’s talents.”
“Awww, Mr. Eric, I was just a cocky kid, showing off fer my friends. I ain’t mean nothin’… Was Liz one’a yer girls?”
“You know her as Pam.”
He blurted, “NUH-UH!” and swerved the car.
I chuckled, “Your friends approved. It seemed they were quite concerned with your fixation on young girls. Liz appeared to be your age at the time. One of your friends suggested she fabricate a pregnancy to force you to settle down.”
He boomed, “Asshole! Which friend?”
I answered, “Does it matter now, nearly fifty years later?” still directing conversation to Hope. “You’re quite a brat to be only a few days old. Now that you have my undivided attention, you’re happy… Am I going to need a pillow on my desk at home? This is fine for now, of course, but eventually, I’m going to be in a situation when I need to be taken seriously and I doubt my subjects would respond to a threat delivered in an even tone from someone holding an infant…”
Sirens and flashing lights.
The shopping center was glowing in the distance, we were in the home stretch, and Bubba had been caught speeding.
Hope’s mood was already deteriorating when Bubba pulled the car to the side of the road. By the time the cop left his car to lumber towards Bubba’s, she was screaming louder than I thought possible.
The officer approached my side of the car for some reason.
Bubba grumbled quietly, “Dayum. You know him. Name’s Andy.”
The round-faced man tapped on my window and leaned over while I rolled it down.
“Hey Eric… oh he ain’t happy…”
He reached through the window to touch Hope and I grabbed his wrist.
“Don’t touch her.”
Bubba offered nervously, “Hey Andy. Can ya just follow us ta Wal-Mart ‘n ticket me there? Baby needs a diaper and a bottle somethin’ fierce.”
As I released Andy’s wrist, he scoffed, “How’d a couple’a Vampires end up with a baby and no diaper bag?”
Bubba offered, “Friend’a Lin’s had a ‘mergency. Dropped the baby at the house, but took off with the baby-stuff in tha car.”
The cop shook his head and chuckled, “Two Vampires and a Baby… Y’all even know what to get for the poor thing? You can’t just pour regular milk into a sippy-cup.”
I growled, “I remember labels.”
“You better hope so. You put the wrong formula in her belly, she’ll wanna die…”
No pressure. Thank you, asshole.
“Go on. Git. Bubba, you stop drivin’ like a bat outta hell.”
Similac with a blue label. Small, pre-made bottles and the disposable nipples. Why the fuck were they packaged separately?
Huggies Little Snugglers in size ‘N’.
Huggies wipes, unscented.
All of it based on my memories of watching Sookie tend to Hope or pack the bag for her to spend the night with Corbett and Selma.
Bubba wandered away from me to ‘help’ and returned with a lavender lace dress… because we were late for a tea party? Not helpful.
I followed him to the clothing section and quickly found a soft sleeper, a package of socks and a blanket to wrap around her.
In the ten minutes I spent tossing items into a buggy, I had to protect Hope from being groped by four women… their comments ranged from suggesting her temper had something to do with the color of her hair, to probing for information because it mattered to them how much she weighed when she was born.
Every time, a show of fangs proved to be the only deterrent necessary… but then we were followed to the cashier by three boys ‘whispering’ into walkie-talkies… someone was on hold with police, asking if Hope had been reported missing.
Wal-Mart’s restroom… the women’s restroom, because there wasn’t anywhere for Hope to be laid down in the men’s…
Bubba removed tags and ripped packaging and asked if I could glamour Hope to stop crying… but as soon as I began pulling Gawain’s shirt open, she began calming down.
A dry diaper… her little feet were like ice when I put socks on them… her sleeper’s legs and sleeves were too short and the body could have held two Hopes…
Her mouth was open and waiting, like an excited baby bird, once the bottle was close enough for her to see it… then she made sounds that could be mistaken for a piglet while she ate…
I’d been pacing, walking back and forth along the length of the room, concentrating on how quickly she was calming down… actually feeling it.
There was no doubt in my mind that Hope had inherited Hadley’s ability.
The traffic in the restroom had been light. Most women walked in, then immediately exited again and then complained to a cashier that the ‘ladies’ was full of men.
I could hear the heavier footsteps of a man, and assumed a manager was planning to ask us to leave, but when he turned the corner, he chuckled, “Well I’ll be damned.”
Bubba greeted him, but I wouldn’t have needed to hear his name to know he was Jason Stackhouse.
“You look as much like your father as Brandon does. You have his accent, but not his voice.”
“You met him?”
I nodded. “He gave a line-dancing lesson last night. You’ve already met Brandon, yes?”
He nodded. “Yeah, we’ve had him for a couple’a years now. Aunt Lin’s thing is awesome. It’s how we found Mack… Who’s this you got?”
He approached me to study Hope, but he kept his hands to himself.
“Hope Lynn. She’s five days old… She’s Hadley’s third child. Sookie has taken them all in.”
He frowned and mumbled, “Skank. At least y’all got ‘em… She’s adorable, man. Congrats… Ya burp her yet?”
I nodded. “Just before you joined us.” Because I felt as though I needed to belch.
He chuckled and took a step back. “Funny as shit, dude. It ain’t this tense at Wal-Mart on Black Friday… I was clear at the other end of the store gettin’ food for the dog Mack made me get for him. I got to the checkout and heard someone talkin’bout a Vampire with a baby.”
“Mack made you? Is he a pusher?”
“Naw. Empath like me, but the girl at the pet store was smokin’ hot. Mack wanted the puppy and she wanted the sale. I ended up with a date and a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. I’m not allowed to take him to the mall anymore.”
Bubba added, “Or fairs.”
An empathic Shifter? That boy was going to be delightful during full moons.
I offered, “We originally thought Hope would be telepathic like her older sisters, but now that I’ve spent some time alone with her, I suspect she’s empathic.”
He looked her over for a moment before nodding, “I’ll buy that… She’s emittin’ like crazy right now… I could curl up and take a nap on ya… She’s focused on you, your calm. Not your head. Mack did the same thing. When Sook is sleepin with ya, she’s not there. She disappears into ya. Hope’s just with ya…” He walked towards the pile of packaging to begin placing everything back into the bags. “We oughta git. Folks is more uptight now that I been in here a while. Guess they think ya got me too.”
Bubba’s driving was much calmer for the return trip, obeying the speed limit even though Jason passed us…
Hope was perfectly content, resting against my chest while I made a list… Normally it would have been a mental list but since she seemed to enjoy being spoken to, I made the list aloud…
I’d noticed a big difference between Adele’s house, how she kept it, and how the flophouse was kept… Hope and I thought photos of it would amuse the girls, if not Sookie and Corbett.
Given Corbett’s new revelation about grieving his lost sister, Hope and I thought I should have Linda draft or record a message for her brother.
Since it had been decades since Adele died in my version of reality, a message from her would certainly be in order… as well as recent copies of her recipe book for Corbett’s restaurant.
Photos and details about the new skip-brother would be happily received. Hope agreed with another belch.
Of course, I would be waiting to see Pam, but the time could be filled productively.
While we brainstormed, thinking of various tasks to perform, I closed my eyes instead of staring at the ceiling of Bubba’s Cadillac and wondering why the fuck there were cat scratches on it…
Without another idea, Hope squirmed as though she was encouraging me, but that’s when I was hit with a barrage of anxiety.
It was sudden enough to cause chills.
When I opened my eyes, I was on the sofa in the living room of the flophouse, facing the dark television. Several heartbeats were racing in the otherwise quiet kitchen.
I’d already reset.
Still… no Pam for me.
But at least Hope wouldn’t be forced to deal with my inexperience any longer.
The anxiety I felt from Sookie and Misty had put a very unpleasant scowl on Hope’s face.
I called out, “You should relax. The tension in the house is affecting our little empath.”
Four breaths hitched at the sound of my voice, but they all remained frozen for a moment before the stampede started.
While the girls crowded onto the sofa next to me, Sookie wrapped her arms around my shoulders from behind and kissed my cheek.
Jenny and Lindy pet their sister while Misty jokingly chided her for getting to skip.
The side of my face was damp from Sookie’s tears and she mumbled, “We were so worried. Was it bad?”
“Bizarre. I met Bubba and Jason. I have to assume the reason for the skip is on the USB drive in my pocket. I was still waiting to make contact when I reset inadvertently.”
“You didn’t make contact with… anyone?”
“I rose in a suite of safe-rooms under this house and spoke to Linda and Gawain…” I fished the USB drive from my pocket and offered it to Misty. “Your grandmother recorded a message for you. And you have a new skip-brother. His name is Mack. He’s empathic… like Hope.”
While I took Sookie’s hand and led her around to sit on my lap, Misty squeaked, “Yeah? How are you so sure?” I could have choked on how relieved Sookie felt to have us return.
“Because it was just the two of us for a while. I felt her hunger, and when I fed her, I felt the pressure in my stomach when she needed to be burped… And Jason confirmed it. He compared her focus on me to Mack’s instead of Sookie’s.”
Jenny cringed, “Does that mean Hope’s going to be like Mom?”
I shook my head. “No. There are versions of your mother who discovered Her ability before Her life began to spiral. We know Hope’s an empath. We won’t allow her to share Hadley’s fate.”
Lindy grinned, still smoothing Hope’s hair. “Maybe that’s why you skipped, so we’d know really early… But can I be upset you didn’t get to see Pam yet? It’s not fair.”
“It could have been worse. This was much better than rising with an abused version of Sookie. I’ll see Pam eventually.”
“I want to meet Bubba. Grampa’s a big fan. We listen to Elvis Christmas music while we open presents.”
“I don’t think Hope’s a fan… He suggested gingers are trouble.”
Sookie covered her mouth to laugh and the girls followed suit.
“What did I miss?”
Sookie giggled, “I guess the rumors didn’t make it onto your radar… Ann-Margaret probably isn’t the only red-head he had an affair with, but she was the one that caused the most trouble for him.”
That was funny.
From behind me, Gawain asked, “You made contact with Me and… Linda?”
“Yes. Apparently, You’re Her sex slave.”
Sookie snorted, “My aunt kicked cancer only to dominate Gawain. I need those details.”
I shrugged. “You’ll need the ‘archive’ for details. According to the little bit Bubba told me while we were at Wal-Mart, Gawain came to Shreveport to harass Me after I brought Her over. He’s been Her bitch ever since.”
Sookie gasped, “You made Aunt Linda!?”
“Her boyfriend went to Me as a ‘hail-mary’, whatever that is… She said most of the other Lindas died within a few months, so apparently it was a timely act of desperation. Gawain subsequently fell in love with Linda, and I’ve been Your bitch ever since as well. I’m curious about Her ability though. Her intuition, the retro-cognition, was heightened to an extent and Jason said something that implied Linda rose with an ability akin to Ian’s. Jason said She’s how They found Brandon and Mack. He was in foster-care after Hadley died.”
Misty snickered, “Grampa Gawain?”
He scoffed as he sagged to the loveseat. “So bizarre… How much time did you gain? It’s only just now sunset.”
“I rose with my usual hour before sunset. I spent the time swaddling and re-swaddling Hope in Your clothing, calling to speak to You and Your Domme, and making as many notes about our version as I could think of. Once Bubba rose we went to Wal-Mart for formula and diapers. I’d say I only gained half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes. We were driving back when I reset. My first hints were that Misty and Sookie’s feelings returned to me.”
Sookie pouted her lip and sighed, “We felt y’all leave… Hope started fussing while we were putting dinner together. We all tried to calm her down, but ended up taking her to you. Little brat went right to sleep… We knew you’d be back at sunset, so we’ve been watching the windows and concentrating on the bedroom… talk about watching pots.”
Jenny shook her finger at Hope. “Just picture Eric, you little monster. You don’t have to yell at telepaths.”
Sookie continued, “We’ve been worried for a while… not knowing how you woke up, or if she was going to be a handful…”
“She wailed while we were in Wal-Mart, but if one more person tried to touch her, I would have started screaming too… Do you need any help preparing to leave?”
She shook her head. “I packed up slowly during the day…” She glanced over my shoulder and said, “The boys and Francesca are staying an extra night.”
I looked back to see Francesca standing between the boys… she looked like a frightened statue.
“Any take on this based on your classical studies?”
She blinked and shook her head.
“Do you need a moment?”
She nodded slowly. “Yes please.”
Completely understandable… and I could only hope skipping wouldn’t affect her reaction to the news that her children wanted to be Misty and Jenny’s Makers.
Judging by the grave set to the boys’ faces, they were concerned too.
I handed Hope over to Jenny and lifted Sookie when I stood… taking her with me as I walked.
“I’m going to shower and change. Someone thought it would be funny to urinate on me.”