Chapter Two: Opportunity
I have just finished reading the information Pam has scrounged up on the Stackhouse siblings. Their parents died in a flash flood several years ago, and their grandmother raised them until the older Stackhouse was a freshman in college. Then the grandmother up and died, and Jason Stackhouse has been struggling to keep Social Services from taking his sister into foster care. I look again at their class records and find that these Stackhouse kids do not fuck around. 4.0 GPA for Jason all through high school and college. Sookie is currently holding a 7.4 GPA, and taking four different advanced placement classes. Jason is looking at the possibility of graduating as Endene University Valedictorian if he does not fuck it up. His sister is quite possibly going to follow in his footsteps.
They both work hard outside of school as well. Sookie Stackhouse works part-time at Rochester Café, earning just over two hundred dollars a month after taxes. Jason Stackhouse works at Booker Stadium as a security guard part-time, and as a graveyard shift worker at the Buy’n’Bag part-time as well. His monthly income is nearly nine hundred after taxes. Throw school and football into the equation as well as the hours he is working makes me wonder when the boy has time to sleep.
Sookie’s SAT scores are impressive, and I note that she is registered to take them again in April. She shows signs of being a perfectionist. She probably believes she could have prepared more and done better.
I review their Social Services file. There are several citations for inadequacies for food. Then again, they live in a very modest apartment, but I would not call it a slum. Apparently Jason tightened his belt to keep Sookie in a better part of Shreveport, and their food expenses suffered on account of that. Why are they not receiving more assistance from the State? They obviously take care of one another and love each other deeply. Should that not be encouraged and rewarded? How is it their fault that life dealt them an abysmal hand?
I look at the photos of Jason Stackhouse his freshmen year, and then the photo from his junior year. He has lost a significant amount of weight, and his eyes… That is a thousand-yard-stare if I ever saw one. I click on an email from the Head Coach of the Saints. I have a decent relationship with the man, and he happened to have Stackhouse’s footage. In his replying email, he commented that the kid’s abilities were those of a natural, but there are obvious signs that Stackhouse has either been injured or has lost focus in the last year. I review the materials and must agree. However, I can tell that the decline in his ability comes from an injury, not aloofness.
Reviewing again, I find that Stackhouse is at Endene University on a football scholarship. If word got out that his shoulder was failing, he would not receive his fourth year scholarship and be forced to drop out.
No sleep. No food. Constant work. Constant stress. Of course the man’s body is failing.
What the hell do I care?
I am looking at Sookie’s photos now. She is so small for her age, and I detest the thought of starving children. Even though Stackhouse is a man, in today’s society I would still consider him a child, a very strong, honorable child. If this were the time of my age, he would have been a comrade in arms, a brother to me.
Big blue eyes are staring up at me from my desk. His. Hers. Damn.
I start remembering the early evening as I stare at Sookie’s photo.
“JACOB, YOU JERK!” I watched the pretty little blonde shriek at the bus that stuttered right past where she had stood the last three minutes, waiting for it to rumble to a stop. Apparently she knew the driver as she cursed his name.
It was nine-thirty. The library was an ‘Out Door’ only at this point, and I observed the young woman looking around anxiously for a pay phone. Would she call a cab?
At first I had no interest in the little morsel as I scanned the library for an appetizer. I enjoy this particular hunting ground due to its size to occupancy ratio. Though the selection is meager, it is easy to pick a meal, seclude it, feed, and glamour quite effortlessly. Tall book cases, deep alcoves, and minimal security cameras. I was not in a hunting mood this evening, and the library is my primary feeding spot when I am bored, but uninterested in a chase. Which is rare.
However, when I spotted the slim, little woman, she abruptly stopped her typing, began turning her head toward me, stopped, and then went back to focusing on her paper. She looked too young to be a college student, but age is getting harder and harder for me to distinguish with every century.
Her scent was delectable, almost luring me in like bait on a hook. However, it is more than just alluring. She smells of comfort. She smells of ‘Home.’ That is the only explanation I am able to make for my later actions.
I watched her rise shortly after nine, remove her USB from the computer, and pack up her bag. As she shouldered the strap, it pulled the tail of her hooded sweatshirt, revealing a sickeningly thin abdomen.
Honestly, this “skinny” fad is tiresome. These anorexic young women and their vile attitudes as they focus on vanity rather than vitality makes it difficult to enjoy fucking them. They also offer very little nourishment for me, and despite the young woman’s intoxicating aroma, she is what humans would call “empty calories.”
The blonde’s shoulders were tensed and I noticed once again that her head was beginning to tilt in my direction. She must have felt my eyes on her. Instead of looking at me, she glanced back at the library, down the street, back at the library, and seemed conflicted over what to do.
With how skinny she is, she would not make a very filling meal. It would probably kill her if I am honest with myself. She adjusted her bag again and I realized that she was wearing men’s jeans. They were crudely cut at the hem, and rested very low on her hips. The belt she wore was also a man’s belt, and judging by the fact that I could see the tail of it from my vantage point, it apparently had new holes punched in it. Her hooded sweatshirt was oversized. I realized then that she might not be so slight by choice.
I did not like that thought. For whatever reason, it unsettles me to think of hungry children, and judging by the fact I could see the high school I.D. badge on her bag, she is certainly a child. Hmm, Stackhouse. I know that name… I will have to ask Pam where I know that name. She is my own personal rolodex.
There was a temptation to sail past her and hide a twenty-dollar bill in her bag as I passed by, but she began to move before I could do just that. She unclipped something from her bag and held it tightly to her chest. What do you have there, Little Girl? I had thought. I was curious, and flew up and over her to the opposite roof top. She was clutching a can of Mace and one of those annoying rape whistles. Those fucking things can make a vampire’s ears bleed, they are so shrill.
Suddenly the girl went rigid, turned swiftly, and was off like a shot down the sidewalk. I began leaping toward the next rooftop when a man came darting from across the street and tackled the little girl into an alley. She was stumbling to her feet, trying to get the whistle to her mouth, and aim her Mace at her attacker. Before she could stutter out a single blow into the whistle, the man backhanded her, and her head slammed into the wall of the building.
I was on the street, across the road, and in the alley before the violator had made another move. His wrist was in my hand and I crushed it so that he might be found more easily through hospital records. With that sort of damage, he would not be able to avoid medical treatment for very long. I gave him an hour before the swelling and pain forced him to the hospital.
Tilting my head down, I flung the scum out of the alley, and told him to run for his life. He was still sobbing over his arm, but he took off into the night.
Finally, I crouched down and checked on the girl. She was crying quietly. Her face was reddening from being smashed into the bricks, and the opposite cheek was flushed as well from the initial strike. She might have broken a cheekbone by the swelling already occurring.
“I’m sorry, Jason,” she panted around her tears as her hands fumbled in the darkness, probably looking for her Mace. When her efforts were fruitless, she stumbled to her feet, and her big eyes looked at me desperately. Those big blue pools swam as her hands raised in a meek defensive stance. I could tell this girl had never thrown a punch in her life.
Once I was looking at her directly, I realized who she was. She had said the name Jason, and her last name is Stackhouse. ‘She must be the little sister of the Endene quarterback,‘ I had thought in that moment. I could see the resemblance.
I realized she was holding her arms like a boxer because I was blocking her exit. She believed that she was unlucky enough to have two attackers come after her this evening.
“Stay,” I told her as I took out my burner phone for situations where I must contact someone only once. I pressed 911. “A young woman was just attacked at Texas and Edward Street, half a block East of the public library,” I told the dispatcher before hanging up. “Stay here. The police will be by in a moment.”
“Don’t leave me,” she whispered when she realized I was not a threat.
“I will not be far,” I assured, walking across the street where I could keep her in my line of sight and then disappear once the police arrived. I called Pam quickly and told her to hunt down Jason Stackhouse, starting at Booker Stadium, for which she had a peculiar security pass. Discretely, I wanted to know what sort of asshole brother allowed their young, beautiful sister to walk home in the dark of the city.
When the flashing red and blue barreled down the street, I ascended atop the building.
I groan as I put the Stackhouses’ photos back in the envelope. Their lives will take me a month to sort out if I venture into assisting them discretely. Then again, Godric ordered that I must help humans. He never gave me a quota. Also, this pair has genuinely sparked my interest, so why not use them as a sort of parole hearing? If Godric sees how much I assisted them, perhaps he will shave the remaining years off my sentence.
First, I need to see if Pam is agreeable to having that Stackhouse boy in her system. His shoulder will not make it another season from the footage I have seen. I would be surprised if he managed to make it through Spring semester without his team mates noticing that he is favoring it still.
He will need a bit of blood once a month for the next year and a half. If we keep the dose just right, it will make the damage to his shoulder manageable without causing him worse injury when her blood leaves his system.
Pam will hate that. She has been leaning more toward women again lately, but she appears his age, is beautiful, and the poor boy will probably be ruined for all other women after she beds him. Pam will especially hate that she must feel what the boy feels for six to seven weeks after his last dosing.
Now, what to do about the girl? I rub my thumb over my chin as I consider possibilities. I could proposition her to be my lover; take care of her that way. Being a master of seduction has its practical uses, but that might cause the brother to go into a tailspin. I do not wish to cause a rift between them as I try to bail water from their sinking ship.
I need to find a means of supplementing their income without them becoming suspicious. There is the option of going to this Rochester Café and glamouring its regulars to leave better tips for Sookie, but that would be tedious. I could get Jason a raise by glamouring his bosses, but looking at his hourly wages, I can already see that both places of employment have him almost capped out. If they pay him much more, he will see the charity behind it.
There had been a security pass on Ms. Stackhouse’s bag as well as her school I.D. It was peculiar because the families of players do not usually get such passes, only employees. That is why I had sent Pam toward Booker Stadium to begin her hunt for the brother. It is also why after I left the hospital, I went straight to the stadium to begin my own investigations.
When I glamoured the man at the guard station, I discovered that Jason did indeed work there as well as play. I spoke to all of his coworkers who were present, discovering a great deal about the quarterback. Mostly I found that this young man would die for his sister if it came to that.
Perhaps that is why I actually want to help these siblings? At first, I wanted to help the girl. It was ingrained in me that strong, beautiful, honorable women should be looked after and respected. When I believed her family was neglecting or hurting her, I wanted to protect her. Then, after I found this strong, honorable brother killing himself every day to give her the simplest of necessities to survive, I found that he deserved my help as well. The truly respectful thing to do is not charity, but opportunity.
Reviewing the boy’s schedule, I find that he has a final football practice tomorrow into the early evening. Odd since their school’s season is over, but I dismiss my curiosity for now. The security guards told me that Sookie usually attends his practices on Wednesdays since it is her day off. She sits on the sidelines and does her homework like a good girl. She yells, praises, and cheers her brother on during practices when she can make it, and she has never missed a game.
Apparently the team has made many allowances for the siblings as far as protocol and regulations go. Sookie is allowed on the field, outside the locker rooms, and has even been allowed to travel with the team to games. It is obvious that the two of them have managed to worm their way into people’s consciousness’s. I should not feel so disgusted with myself for allowing the same to happen to me.
Regardless, the sun will rise soon and I need to slip into my cache before that happens. I will infiltrate Booker Stadium again the following evening with Pam and see if we cannot create some opportunities for the Stackhouses.
My hair is down, and my eyes are on the floor. Please, no one look at me.
‘Jeez, when is Jake gonna ask me out again?’
‘Someone’s gonna notice I always got a freakin’ book in front of me. Why won’t it just stay down?!’
‘Trig, why do you hate me?’
‘Wonder if I made the cut-‘
I shake my head and shake loose the thoughts. No one is paying attention to me. Good.
Being a telepath has a lot of advantages. I can see danger comin’ from a mile away. I know when my brother really needs some encouragement. I have a chance to prepare my defense before accusations fly. Most importantly, it is my ultimate defense against being discovered.
Ever since I can remember I have been able to hear the thoughts of everyone around me. Honestly, I don’t know how or why I kept it from Jason or my family, but something inside me has told me all my life that they are safer and happier without the burden. I know Jason would still love me if he knew. I know my parents and Gran would have, too, but there was always this voice in my head… not someone else’s, but almost the voice of a more mature and grown up me. Grown up Sookie stated over and over and over that to really be happy, and for everyone around me to be happy, I had to hide this side of myself for now.
Sometimes I think I’m crazy. I mean, it’s a lot more likely that I’m hearing voices, not thoughts. I’ve agonized over that possibility since I was twelve and learned about schizophrenia. However, there has always been one element that has assured me I am not actually insane, and that is the accuracy of the voices.
I can say exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time. It makes me pretty popular, but in the way I like. Almost everyone likes me just enough to leave me alone and be amicable. That’s all I really want. I’ve lost too many loved ones, and being close to anyone other than my brother is scary. Sometimes I considered telling him that I hated him and he should just dump me into the foster system so I don’t have to look at him anymore. It would have been a ruse to make a clean break and be forever alone, but in a way he needs me too much.
He doesn’t need me in the financially cripplin’ way that I’ve provided, but blood is way thicker than water when it comes to Jason. If he let me go, he’d feel like the worst brother in the whole world. He’d never get over it and he would just fall apart.
I know he loses sleep over it, which is terrible because he hardly gets enough sleep as it is. Poor Jason, he’s gonna kill himself doing all this. If you add work, school, and football, he’s working over ninety hours a week. I’ve seen in the other team members’ heads that they’ve caught him sleeping in the quad, on the sidelines, and one memorable moment, standing, leaning against a pillar still holding his books.
The lunch lady shovels extra meat onto my sloppy joe. She gives me a wink and sad smile as she also heaps on a little extra green beans. I pay for my lunch and sit quietly at my lunch table with some of the kids in Drama club. They are all so exuberant and demonstrative that they hardly notice I don’t really talk. It’s fun to watch them bein’ silly and just havin’ fun.
“Hey, Sookie, what happened to your face?” Jenna asks suddenly and my mouth stops chewin’ to give her my wide-eyed look. “Both of your cheeks are bruised!”
Dang, I couldn’t keep my face hidden behind my hair while I ate. It’s too long to keep outta my mouth.
“I got mugged last night on the way home from the library,” I tell them quietly.
“Oh my God, are you okay?” Meredith asks shrilly.
“I’m fine, just a couple bruises,” I assure them. “Some guy came by and chased him off, so he didn’t get my wallet or anythin’.”
‘Ha, wallet. You mean your plastic baggy of bus fair and lunch money?’ Joe thinks uncharitably, but I hear his following guilt as he thinks that. How can I be mad at fleetin’ thoughts? He’s in high school, for goodness sake! I should be grateful he has the discipline not to say that out loud.
“Oh, that’s terrible! I’m glad someone stepped in and helped you. Was he older?” Meredith asks as she starts to anxiously finger comb her light brown hair. Her hazel eyes are big and curious.
“I guess. Maybe a few years older than my brother?” I guess. I don’t want to think about the guy who saved me. I couldn’t hear his thoughts and those little malfunctions in my telepathy freak me out. I’ve noticed them quite a few times since moving to Shreveport with Jason. There are just mental voids that pop up from time to time. It’s comforting in a way because if there are people I can’t hear, maybe I won’t be alone my whole life. I could have a perfectly normal relationship with someone whose thoughts I couldn’t hear. The only reason Jason doesn’t notice is because he loves me so much, he overlooks a lot of my weirdness.
Unfortunately, one of those voids popped up last night, and I was so focused on the strange movements of that mind that I got blitzed by the real threat. Who would have thought that the silent mind was going to become my savior?
He was beautiful. Tall. Built. Shoulder-length blond hair, and so authoritative. Not in a condescending way, more like a cop. Taking into action, swooping in, and handling the situation with a calm disposition and reassurance. He was so beautiful…
“Earth to Sookie,” Jenna is waving her hand in front of my face.
“Huh?” I look at her curiously and she stops flapping her fingers at me.
“I asked if they caught the guy that mugged you?” Jenna repeats.
“Oh, no, not yet. The guy who stepped in broke the mugger’s wrist, and the cops are screenin’ all the hospitals to see who comes in, but I won’t know if they caught him until I get home and check the answerin’ machine.”
Joe rolls his eyes, “When are you gonna get a freakin’ cell phone?”
“We can’t afford it. I know Jason really wants me to have one, but right now it’s not in the cards. When we can afford it, it’s gonna be for emergencies only. He said I can’t give the number out to anyone because we’ll only be able to get the cheapest plan.”
“That’s so lame,” Jenna grouches. “You’re a teenager. You deserve a phone! He has a serious Rapunzel Syndrome over you!”
I don’t think that’s true. Sure, he worries a lot about me, but he doesn’t stop me from workin’. I think his restrictions are reasonable. We live in the city. We’re all alone in the world. I don’t think he’s bein’ unreasonable ’bout not wantin’ me to go out after dark. We rely on public transportation, and that means standin’ ’round alone at bus stops a lot of the time. That’s dangerous at night.
“Maybe if you lost people you love the ways we did you would understand,” I snap instead.
Jenna’s eyes widen at my comment and she mumbles an apology. The rest of the table is quiet for a long time before they return to ignorin’ me and focusin’ on their latest antics. Good.
I run up to the guard station at Booker Stadium and wave at Chuck who scans my access pass. “Hey, Chuck, how are you today?” I ask politely.
“I’m good. I heard about last night from Larry and I got you something,” he grins down at me. I love Chuck. He’s about forty-five and has a couple girls about my age, but they go to a different school. “Here you go!” He hands me a can of peaches and disposable fork. I know my eyes light up. “Want me to open it for you? I got a can opener in here somewhere.”
“Sure, thanks,” I grin and hand him back the can. He opens and closes several drawers before he finds the can opener and then cuts off the top before handing me back the container.
“Now, those are for you. Hear me? Don’t go givin’ your brother the whole thing,” he warns with a playful grin. He knows Jason will end up with half anyway, but he also knows that I tend to give him the lion’s share. To be fair, the lunch ladies take pity on me at school, and Jason has a much more physically taxing life than me. He deserves more of the food.
“Thanks, Chuck,” I wave goodbye and head into the stadium. The guys are already on the field practicing when I come onto the sidelines. Coach Murphy sees me, smiles, and jogs over. “Hi, Coach,” I smile.
“Hey, Sooks,” He gives me a quick hug that I steel myself against. I hate being touched by broadcasters, but the coach is nice, so I don’t flinch away. “Got homework?”
“A ton,” I admit.
“I’ll find you some gloves for those baby hands of yours,” he teases and runs back to the benches to find the smallest pair of gloves he can scrounge up. They’re enormous on my small hands, but I should still be able to hold a pen or pencil.
A whistle blows and the guys come over to the sidelines. I hand Jason “half” of the can of peaches. He grins down at me, kisses the top of my head, and gobbles them down. ‘She gave me practically the whole fuckin’ thing. Shit, Sooks. You know you need to eat more!’
While the team goes over plays on the sideline, I scoot onto the bench, curl my legs Indian style, and take out my homework. I don’t like watching full contact practices. They make me nervous. Jason’s the only one that doesn’t get tackled, but there have been instances where one of the other team members got over excited and tackled him anyway. I’d rather not watch. I’m always livin’ in fear that one good tackle will make his shoulder finally explode or somethin’.
When the sun is low, the stadium lights come on brightly and I have to look away from my book for a moment because it seems fluorescent against my eyes with the new lighting. I blink several times and watch the guys on the field. They are running laps, and the coach comes over to me again and throws a coat over my shoulders. I hate that the team babies me, but at the same time Jason finds it comforting, so I don’t fuss about it. He needs to know that he can trust others with me, especially after last night.
I finish up my homework and it’s getting dark. Practice will end in an hour, and then Jason will walk me to the bus stop, make sure I get on safely, and then walk back to the stadium for his night shift. He’ll be at the Buy’n’Bag tomorrow.
When the whistle blows for the last time, I get up and stretch, shirk off my borrowed coat, and shiver a bit at the chill. The guys head to the locker room and I start pacing in front of the long hallway, waiting for my brother.
As I wait I see two people bisecting the forty-yard line, heading to the entrance of the locker room. My back straightens as I realize I can’t hear their thoughts, and I watch them carefully as they approach. I quickly recognize the tall blond and my heart stutters.
That’s the guy who saved me last night, I think in wonder as he comes up to me, looks down, and smiles tentatively.
“H-hi,” I stammer. He’s even more gorgeous in the light.
“Hello, Ms. Stackhouse,” he returns my greeting.
“How did you know my name?” I ask apprehensively.
“Your school I.D.” He points at the tag on my book bag nonchalantly. “I saw it last night. I kept wondering where I knew the name ‘Stackhouse’ and then I remembered your brother,” He gestures to the girl next to him. She’s beautiful, maybe a few years older than me, but she seems even older somehow. Old souls or something. “This is my sister Pam, and I am Eric.”
“Hi, Pam,” I greet politely.
“Hello,” She only nods. Her voice is enchanting! She’s like a real lady or something!
I note that I can’t hear either of their minds and wonder if it’s a genetic thing since they’re brother and sister.
“As Serendipity would have it, Pam ended up giving your brother a ride to the hospital last night. She was on her way to bring me my car and saw him running like a mad man to get to you,” Eric explains. I find a flaw in that coincidence, but choose to ignore it.
“I never got a chance to thank you for last night,” I blurt out. “So, umm, thanks for stepping in and helping me.”
“You are very welcome,” He’s smiling at me and his teeth are surprisingly less than perfect. Not in a disgusting or unappealing way, but given the nice clothes, I thought he might have a perfect, unrealistic smile. I find myself liking his teeth. They make him appear normal.
“So, did you come to see Jason?” I ask curiously, looking at Pam and wondering if she dragged her brother down here to see if she could catch Jason’s eye. I wouldn’t hold it against her. A lot of girls try to chase Jason.
“My brother wanted to meet him,” Pam replies, but she is smirking, and I can’t make heads or tails over what that smile is about.
“I admit after our chance meetings last night, I became overly curious about you and your brother,” Eric tells me, and I tilt my head curiously. “I see that you two are struggling, and I wondered if I might talk to him about that.”
I frown now and shake my head, “We don’t take charity, Sir.”
“I would not consider it “charity,” I would call it an opportunity,” Eric assures.
I shrug, “Well, I guess that depends on how Jason sees it.”
Before we can talk any more, Jason comes out of the locker room and practically freezes when he sees Pam. ‘Holy shit! How did she find me?’
“Jason, this is Eric and Pam. I guess you met Pam last night?”
“Yeah,” Jason holds out his hand to shake Eric’s. Their hands squeeze tightly and then Jason looks back at Pam. “So, are you her brother?”
“I am,” Eric is smirking the same way that Pam was, and I find it frustrating as heck.
“Well, you might want to press upon her the dangers of lettin’ a strange man get in her car with her. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely grateful, but if she were my sister, I’d flip my shit!” He glares at Pam with disapproval.
“Believe me, Pam was reprimanded accordingly.” Again with the dang smirk!
“I promise; she just gave me a ride. Nothin’ happened,” Jason is getting nervous, and I squeeze his hand comfortingly. They wouldn’t have carried on such a calm conversation with me if Pam had told her brother that Jason had been untoward with her.
“Oh, she told me you were quite the gentleman while she drove you to the hospital,” Eric assures him. “Actually, I was just telling your sister that I looked into your family after all the events of last evening.”
“Jason,” I whisper, “this is the good Samaritan that stopped the guy from muggin’ me.”
My brother’s eyes widen as I tell him this and his hand suddenly releases mine. Before any of us can react, Jason has his arms wrapped around Eric and he is nearly sobbin’ as he just keeps repeatin’, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, so fuckin’ much.” My eyes prickle with tears. Jason isn’t usually so emotional, but when it comes to me, sometimes the waterworks kick in.
“It was a very lucky circumstance and I merely did what any man should,” Eric disengages Jason from his grateful embrace, lookin’ more than a bit uncomfortable. Jason returns to my side and starts kissin’ the top of my head. The mention of the events from last night seem to make him want to kiss on me over and over. “You see, Jason, Pam and I are very well off. You probably knew this when you saw her driving my car last night.” Jason nods and I see him visualizin’ the cherry red Corvette. Even I know that’s a real nice car, and I don’t know anythin’ ’bout cars. “I have many connections and affiliations. To be blunt, nothing happens in Shreveport or Bossier without my knowledge.”
Jason’s back tightens under my hand. “Listen, I think I know where this is goin’,” Jason tries to ward him off. “We don’t take charity.”
Eric chuckles under his breath and shakes his head, “Yes, your sister said the same thing. However, I was actually hoping to talk to you about football.” Jason cocks his head curiously, and Eric leans in and whispers, “I was watching footage from your previous games last night, and I am aware that your shoulder is going to give well before your fourth year scholarship is renewed.” My brother’s eyes widen and he glances back toward the locker room nervously. I rub his back to try and sooth his anxiety. “My question is, does playing mean all that much to you, or do you merely need the scholarship?”
Jason fumbles with his words a moment before explainin’ in a rush, “I love playin’, Sir, but it’s not my future. I got everythin’ set to do my student teaching next Fall… Well, mostly set. I have to take a couple classes over the summer, but I’m already linin’ up for them. I can survive the preseason, but I just need to play long enough to get my scholarship locked in for that first semester. After that, I’ll have to admit defeat. If it turns out I need surgery, I can’t let the school know ’til after they renew my scholarship.”
“I see, so if I gave you the opportunity to receive a different scholarship and you could focus entirely on work and school, that would be appealing to you?” Eric asks, and my eyes narrow. What does this guy want from my brother?
“I guess… Football is twenty or more hours out of my week, but at the same time, if I weren’t hurtin’ so bad, I’d rather put up with it and finish my last season. It’s kinda pointless though. I couldn’t qualify-”
“I can push an application through anything, Stackhouse,” Eric smiles, and I can’t understand why I feel like my brother’s makin’ a deal with the devil. “You could spend more time with your sister, or work more to provide her more.”
“Jason, Jason, don’t do it,” I find myself tuggin’ at his sleeve like a small child.
“What are you sayin’, Sooks?” Jason looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind.
“They’re not right,” I tell him. “There’s somethin’ wrong with them!”
Pam is lookin’ at me like I’m crazy now, too.
“Stackhouse, may I speak privately with your sister?” Eric asks, and my eyes widen in terror.
“Er,” Jason looks at my fearful eyes and puts his arm over my shoulder. “Nah, she’s got good instincts.”
“I would believe that. I saw her run from her attacker before I even knew he was there,” Eric nods. “However, I think her instincts about me might be about something else entirely.”
I look at him suspiciously.
“Look, I’ll just stand over by the tunnel outta earshot. He says anythin’ to you makes you uncomfortable, you come runnin’ back to me, all right?” Jason looks up at Eric and tells him firmly, “Do not touch my sister.”
“I will keep my hands in my pockets,” Eric tells him.
“You keep your damn hands away from your junk, too,” he snaps, and Eric actually booms with a laugh while Pam chuckles.
“Hands in the air it is,” Eric concedes, raisin’ his arms above his head.
“Put your hands down,” I grumble at how ridiculous he’s bein’.
Naturally crossin’ his arms over his chest, Eric leans away slightly as he looks down at me. I think he’s about a foot taller than me and I have to crane my neck to look at his eyes.
“Ms. Stackhouse, to be frank, you have every right to distrust me. I have earned that suspicion from many,” he tells me candidly. “However, I am not, nor have I ever been, a snake oil salesman. I am not offering your brother money, nor asking him for favors in return. To be perfectly honest, he is more than likely going to qualify for the Injured Athlete’s Scholarship once his shoulder is permanently destroyed by this sport. I guarantee you that under the circumstances he is currently living in, you can expect permanent and excruciating damages by this summer if he continues to hide the problem. That shoulder needs to be immobilized, and he needs to see a physician before he is being subjected to rotator cuff surgery by the time he turns twenty-one. Do you understand what I am telling you?”
My eyes are wide and I can feel my lip tremble at Eric’s assessment. “What’s in it for you then?” I ask quietly.
“You do not accept charity. This is what I can offer,” he tells me with a shrug.
“You don’t strike me as the type to do favors without gettin’ somethin’ in return,” I tell him.
“And you would be correct. It is not my usual operating procedure,” he confesses. “But,” he stresses, “I am an admirer of honorable people. That is something for which those who have worked with or for me can vouch. You and your brother are honorable people. You work hard, struggle, never complain, and press on. In this vain, mediocre era, I want to encourage your family’s tenacity and strength. I want it to flourish and see more people strive toward becoming what you and your brother are. Honorable.”
For a moment, I actually believe he’s bein’ genuine, but I can’t let go of a lingerin’ suspicion. Maybe it’s the silence of his mind that unsettles me. Maybe it’s the fact that last night he seemed to have a radiant aura about him that is obscured in the stadium floodlights. There’s even a chance that it’s because I find him attractive and I’ve never really found anyone attractive before, at least not people I’ve met in real life. Usually their thoughts turn me right off.
“If you hurt, betray, or manipulate my brother, I will kill you,” I tell him in warning. “He’s all I got left, you hear me?”
“Loud and clear, Ms. Stackhouse,” He nods in understanding before gesturin’ for my brother and his sister to come back to us. Jason stares at Eric sternly and Eric smiles at him. “Your sister and I have talked, and she is no longer against you accepting my offer now that she has made her concerns known to me.”
“So, what does that mean?” Jason asks nervously.
“I will get you a form for the scholarship I know you to be a perfect applicant for and bring it to you. I will give you my card if you have any questions about it between now and then,” He hands Jason a real, honest to goodness, business card and my brother puts it in my back pocket ’til we get back to the apartment. “This was your final practice of the year, yes?” Eric asks curiously.
Jason shrugs in that lopsided way he’s adopted the past month or so, “Yeah, pretty much just an end of the semester thing for the guys. That’s why we practiced full contact. Coach is tryin’ to get the guys pumped for next season.”
Eric nods and I bounce anxiously from foot to foot. “Then I will bring you the application, you fill it out, and I will shove it right under Sandra’s nose until she sends you an acceptance letter… I do not wish to push my luck, but may I suggest a physician for that arm?”
Jason’s jaw tightens, but he manages a mostly sincere smile, “Nah, I’ll finally give up and let the team’s doc take an honest whack at it once I get a new scholarship confirmed. I think he’s suspectin’ me now when I say it feels fine. It’s been grindin’.”
“I see,” Eric nods again and we stand in silence a moment. “Well, it is still early and the guard at the gate told me you do not start your rounds until eight. May I take you two to dinner?”
‘Is he tryin’ to feed us without makin’ it look like charity?’ Jason wonders worriedly. ‘Damn, I’d kill to get a real meal in Sooks for a change…’
“That would be nice,” I smile as sweetly as I can muster. I want to put a good meal in Jason just as desperately. Half a can of peaches does not a dinner make. Jason sighs in relief next to me.
“Well,” Pam interrupts our negotiations, “I have places to be. I will see you at home, Eric,” She nods to her brother.
“Goodnight, Pamela,” Eric responds, and she leaves as Jason and I gather the remainder of our things before going down the street to the bus stop and getting a meal at the corner diner.
Jason and I eye the menus, lookin’ for somethin’ cheap, but filling. There’s broccoli and cheddar soup, which is pretty inexpensive, and when Eric hears us both order the same thing his eyebrows raise in curiosity.
“Miss, could you please get their drinks? I believe you caught them unprepared,” Eric tells the waitress as he picks up a menu. “Tsk, tsk, both of you picking the cheapest thing on the menu. I suppose if I said I would buy dinner tonight you would still pick the same thing?” Jason and I look at each other, and then bow our heads like we’ve been chastised or somethin’. “If I were to hold onto the receipt for this meal, would you feel better about ordering what you really want and paying me back for it later?” he offers.
Chicken strips! I think excitedly, longin’ for honey mustard and fried chicken. French fries, coleslaw! Oh my gosh, is that chicken fried steak!?
Jason is thinkin’ just as enthusiastically about the bacon cheddar burger.
“It is more than obvious that there are other things on the menu you would prefer,” Eric tempts us further. “You can ask the waitress for something other than water as well,” he suggests, and it is like Lucifer whisperin’ seductively in my ear.
We meekly order our desires and when the food comes, I think Eric can see the passion in our eyes and the hesitation in our mouths. We want nothin’ more than to smash the food in our faces, but we hold back to savor.
Halfway through my chicken strips, I look across from me and see Eric starin’ at me with curiosity. It’s then that I notice my face is cold. I reach up with one hand and find my face damp with tears.
“I’m sorry!” I say in surprise, not realizin’ I had started to cry. “I don’t know why!” I’m shocked at my body’s response to the food. It’s not like we’ve been starvin’. I shouldn’t be feelin’ this sort of emotional relief when I had a perfectly filling meal at lunch, thanks to the generous lunch lady.
“You have not had good food in a while I take it?” Eric asks softly.
I wipe away another stray tear as Jason stops eatin’ to look at me with fear and failure in his eyes. “I-it reminded me of Gran’s fried chicken I think,” I offer him consolation for my reaction.
When we finish eating, Eric pays the bill, and I wonder that he didn’t eat anythin’ at all. Maybe he ate already or has dinner plans later?
Eric takes the receipt, writes “Due per Jason Stackhouse” on the back, and puts it in his wallet. My brother nods appreciatively at the action and we all rise to leave.
“May I drive you home, Ms. Stackhouse? Mr. Stackhouse, I will gladly take you with us, and then back to the stadium once your sister is home safely,” he adds at the end, settin’ my brother at ease.
“Yeah, that’d be great,” Jason shakes his hand.