At six in the morning, Hunter climbed onto my bed. "Aunt Sookie!" he said, in what he probably thought was a whisper. Just this once, his using our mind-to-mind communication would have been better. But naturally, he decided to talk out loud.
"Uh-huh?" This had to be a bad dream.
"I had a funny dream last night," Hunter told me.
"Uh?" Maybe a dream within a dream.
"This tall man came in my room."
"He had long hair like a lady."
I pushed up on my elbows and looked at Hunter, who didn't seem frightened. "Yeah?" I said, which was at least borderline coherent. "What color?"
"Yellow," Hunter said, after a little thought. I suddenly realized that most five-year-olds might be a little shaky on the identification of colors.
Uh-oh. "So what did he do?" I asked. I struggled to sit all the way up. The sky outside was just getting lighter.
"He just looked at me, and he smiled," Hunter said. "Then he went in the closet."
"Wow," I said inadequately. I couldn't be sure (until dark, that is), but it sounded very much as though Eric was in the secret hiding place in my closet and dead for the day.
"I gotta go pee," Hunter said, and slid off my bed to scamper into my bathroom. I heard him flush a minute later, and then he washed his hands - or at least, he turned on the water for a second. I collapsed back onto my pillows, thinking sadly of the hours of sleep I was doomed to lose. By sheer force of will, I got out of bed in my blue nightgown and threw on a robe. I stepped into my slippers, and after Hunter exited my bathroom, I entered it.
A couple of minutes later we were in my kitchen with the lights on. I went directly to the coffeepot, and I found a note propped on it. I recognized the handwriting immediately, and the endorphins flooded my system. Instead of being incredulous that I was up and moving so ungodly early, I felt happy that I was sharing this time with my little cousin. The note, which had been written on one of the pads I keep around for grocery lists, said, "My lover, I came in too close to dawn to wake you, though I was tempted. Your house is full of strange men. A fairy upstairs and a little child downstairs - but as long as there's not one in my lady's chamber, I can stand it. I need to talk to you when I rise." It was signed, in a large scrawl, "ERIC."
I put the note aside, trying not to worry about Eric's urgent need to talk to me. I started the coffee to perking, and then I pulled out the griddle and plugged it in. "I hope you like pancakes," I told Hunter, and his face lit up. He put his orange juice cup down on the table with a happy bang, and juice slopped over the edge. Just as I was about to give him a long look, he jumped up and fetched a paper towel. He took care of the spill with more vigor than attention to detail, but I appreciated the gesture.
"I love pancakes," he said. "You can make 'em? They don't come out of the freezer?"
I hid a smile. "Nope. I can make 'em." It took about five minutes to mix up a batch, and by then the griddle was hot. I put on some bacon first, and Hunter's expression was ecstatic. "I don't like it floppy," he said, and I promised him it would be crisp. That was the way I liked it, too.
"That smells wonderful, Cousin," said Claude. He was standing in the doorway, his arms spread wide, looking as good as anyone can look that early in the morning. He was wearing a maroon University of Louisiana at Monroe T-shirt and some black workout shorts.
"Who are you?" Hunter asked.
"I'm Sookie's cousin Claude."
He has long hair like a lady, too, Hunter said.
He's a man, though, just like the other man. "Claude, this is another cousin of mine, Hunter," I said. "Remember, I told you he was coming to visit?"
"His mother was - " Claude began, and I shook my head at him.
Claude might have been about to say any number of things. He might have said, "the bisexual" or "the one the albino, Waldo, killed in the cemetery in New Orleans." These would both have been true, and Hunter needed to hear neither of them.
"So we're all cousins," I said. "Were you hinting around that you wanted to eat some breakfast with us, Claude?"
"Yes, I was," he said gracefully, pouring himself some coffee from the pot without asking me. "If there's enough for me, too. This young man looks like he could eat a lot of pancakes."
Hunter was delighted with this idea, and he and Claude began topping each other on the number of pancakes they could consume. I was surprised that Claude was so at ease with Hunter, though the fact that he was charming the child effortlessly was no surprise to me. Claude was a professional at charming.
"Do you live here in Bon Temps, Hunter?" Claude was asking.
"No," said Hunter, laughing at the absurdity of such an idea. "I live with my daddy."
Okay, that was enough sharing. I didn't want anyone supernatural knowing about Hunter, understanding what made him special.
"Claude, would you get out the syrup and the molasses?" I said. "It's in the pantry over there."
Claude located the pantry and brought out the Log Cabin and the Brer Rabbit. He even opened both bottles so Hunter could smell them and pick which one he wanted on his pancakes. I got the pancakes on the griddle and made some more coffee, pulling some plates out of the cabinets and showing Hunter where the forks and knives were so he could set the table.
We were a strange little family grouping: two telepaths and a fairy. During our breakfast conversation, I had to keep each male from knowing what the other was, and that was a real challenge. Hunter told me silently that Claude must be a vampire, because he couldn't hear Claude's thoughts, and I had to tell Hunter that there were some other people we couldn't hear, too. I pointed out that Claude couldn't be a vampire because it was daytime, and vampires couldn't come out in the daytime.
"There's a vampire in the closet," Hunter told Claude. "He can't come out in the daytime."
"Which closet would that be?" Claude asked Hunter.
"The one in my room. You want to come see?"
"Hunter," I said, "the last thing any vampire wants is to be disturbed in the daytime. I'd leave him alone."
"Your Eric?" Claude asked. He was excited by the idea of Eric being in the house. Damn.
"Yes," I said. "You know better than to go in there, right? I mean, I don't have to get tough with you, right?"
He smiled at me. "You, tough with me?" he said, mockingly. "Ha. I'm fae. I am stronger than any human."
I started to say, "So how come I survived the war between the fae and so many fairies didn't?" Thank God I didn't. The minute after, I knew how good it was that I'd choked on those words, because I could see by Claude's face that he remembered who'd died all too well. I missed Claudine, too, and I told him so.
"You're sad," Hunter said accurately. And he was picking up on all this, which shouldn't be thought of in his hearing.
"Yes, we're remembering his sister," I said. "She died and we miss her."
"Like my mom," he said. "What's a fay?"
"Yes, like your mom." Sort of. Only in the sense that they were both dead. "And a fae is a special person, but we're not going to talk about that right now."
It didn't take a telepath to pick up on Claude's interest and curiosity, and when he sauntered back down the hall to use the bathroom, I followed him. Sure enough, Claude's steps slowed and stopped at the open door to the bedroom Hunter had used.
"Keep right on walking," I said.
"I can't take a peek? He'll never know. I've heard how handsome he is. Just a peek?"
"No," I said, knowing I'd better stay in sight of that door until Claude was out of the house. Just a peek, my round rosy ass.
"What about your ass, Aunt Sookie?"
"Oops! Sorry, Hunter. I said a bad word." Didn't want Claude to know I'd only thought it. I heard him laughing as he shut the bathroom door.
Claude stayed in the bathroom so long that I had to let Hunter brush his teeth in mine. After I heard the squeak of the stairs and the sound of the television overhead, I was able to relax. I helped Hunter get dressed, and then I got dressed myself and put on some makeup under Hunter's unwavering attention to the process. Evidently, Kristen had never let Hunter watch what he considered to be a fascinating procedure.
"You should come to live with us, Aunt Sookie," he said.
Thanks, Hunter, but I like to live here. I have a job.
You can get another one.
"It wouldn't be the same. This is my house, and I love it here. I don't want to leave."
There was a knock on the front door. Could Remy be arriving this early to collect Hunter?
But it was another surprise altogether, an unpleasant one. Special Agent Tom Lattesta stood on the front porch.
Hunter, naturally, had run to the door as fast as he could. Don't all kids? He hadn't thought it was his dad, because he didn't know exactly when Remy was supposed to show up. He just liked to find out who was visiting.
"Hunter," I said, picking him up, "this is an FBI agent. His name is Tom Lattesta. Can you remember that?"
Hunter looked doubtful. He tried a couple of times to say the unfamiliar name and finally got it right.
"Good job, Hunter!" Lattesta said. He was trying to be friendly, but he wasn't good with kids and he sounded fake. "Ms. Stackhouse, can I come in for a minute?" I looked behind him. No one else. I thought they always traveled in pairs.
"I guess so," I said, without enthusiasm. I didn't explain who Hunter was, because it was none of Lattesta's business, though I could tell he was curious. He'd also noticed there was another car parked outside.
"Claude," I called up the stairs. "The FBI is here." It's good to inform unexpected company that someone else is in the house with you.
The television fell silent, and Claude came gliding down the stairs. Now he was wearing a golden brown silk T-shirt and khakis, and he looked like a poster for a wet dream. Even Lattesta's heterosexual orientation wasn't proof against a surge of startled admiration. "Agent Lattesta, my cousin Claude Crane," I said, trying not to smile.
Hunter and Claude and I sat on the couch while Lattesta took the La-Z-Boy. I didn't offer him anything to drink.
"How's Agent Weiss?" I asked. The New Orleans-based agent had brought Lattesta, based in Rhodes, out to my house last time, and in the course of many terrible events, she'd been shot.
"She's back at work," Lattesta said. "Still on a desk job. Mr. Crane, I don't believe I've met you before?"
No one forgot Claude. Of course, my cousin knew that very well. "You haven't had the pleasure," he told the FBI man.
Lattesta spent a moment trying to figure that out before he smiled. "Right," he said. "Listen, Ms. Stackhouse, I came up here today to tell you that you're no longer a subject for investigation."
I was stunned with the relief that swept over me. I exchanged glances with Claude. God bless my great-grandfather. I wondered how much he'd spent, how many strings he'd pulled, to make this come true.
"How come?" I asked. "Not that I'm going to miss it, you understand, but I have to wonder what's changed."
"You seem to know people who are powerful," Lattesta said, with an unexpected depth of bitterness. "Someone in our government doesn't want your name to come up in public."
"And you flew all the way to Louisiana to tell me that," I said, putting enough disbelief into my voice to let him know I thought that was bullshit.
"No, I flew all the way down here to go to a hearing about the shooting."
Okay. That made more sense. "And you didn't have my phone number? To call me? You had to come here to tell me you weren't going to investigate me, in person?"
"There's something wrong about you," he said, and the façade was gone. It was a relief. Now his outside matched his inside. "Sara Weiss has undergone some kind of ... spiritual upheaval since she met you. She goes to s¨¦ances. She's reading books about the paranormal. Her husband is worried about her. The bureau is worried about her. Her boss is having doubts about putting her back out in the field."
"I'm sorry to hear that. But I don't see that there's anything I can do about it." I thought for a minute, while Tom Lattesta stared at me with angry eyes. He was thinking angry thoughts, too. "Even if I went to her and told her that I can't do what she thinks I can do, it wouldn't help. She believes what she believes. I am what I am."
"So you admit it."
Even though I didn't want the FBI noticing me, that hurt, oddly enough. I wondered if Lattesta was taping our conversation.
"Admit what?" I asked. I was genuinely curious to hear what he'd say. The first time he'd been on my doorstep, he'd been a believer. He'd thought I was his key to a quick rise in the bureau.
"Admit you're not even a human being."
Aha. He really believed that. I disgusted and repelled him. I had more insight into what Sam was feeling.
"I've been watching you, Ms. Stackhouse. I've been called off, but if I can tie you in to any investigation that will lead back to you, I'll do it. You're wrong. I'm leaving now, and I hope you - " He didn't get a chance to finish.
"Don't think bad things about my aunt Sookie," Hunter said furiously. "You're a bad man."
I couldn't have put it better myself, but I wished for Hunter's own sake that he had kept his mouth shut. Lattesta turned white as a sheet.
Claude laughed. "He's scared of you," he told Hunter. Claude thought it was a great joke, and I had a feeling he'd known what Hunter was all along.
I thought Lattesta's grudge might constitute a real danger to me.
"Thanks for coming to give me the good news, Special Agent Lattesta," I said, in as mild a voice as I could manage. "You have a safe drive back to Baton Rouge, or New Orleans, or wherever you flew in."
Lattesta was on his feet and out the door before I could say another word, and I handed Hunter to Claude and followed him. Lattesta was down the steps and at his car, fumbling around in his pocket, before he realized I was behind him. He was turning off a pocket recording device. He wheeled around to give me an angry look.
"You'd use a kid," he said. "That's low."
I looked at him sharply for a minute. Then I said, "You're worried that your little boy, who's Hunter's age, has autism. You're scared this hearing you came to attend will go badly for you and maybe for Agent Weiss. You're scared because you reacted to Claude. You're thinking of asking to transfer into the BVA in Louisiana. You're mad that I know people who can make you back off."
If Lattesta could have pressed himself into the metal of the car, he would've. I'd been a fool because I'd been proud. I should have let him go without a word.
"I wish I could tell you who it was who put me off-limits to the FBI," I said. "It would scare your pants off." In for a penny, in for a pound, right? I turned and went back up the front steps and into the house. A moment later, I heard his car tear down my driveway, probably scattering my beautiful gravel as it went.
Hunter and Claude were laughing in the kitchen, and I found them blowing with straws into the dishwashing water in the sink, which still had some soap bubbles. Hunter was standing on a stool I used to reach the top shelves of the cabinets. It was an unexpectedly happy picture.
"So, Cousin, he's gone?" Claude asked. "Good job, Hunter. I think there's a lake monster under that water!"
Hunter blew even harder, and water drops spattered the curtains. He laughed a little too wildly.
"Okay, kids, enough," I said. This was getting out of hand. Leave a fairy alone with a child for a few minutes, and this was what happened. I glanced at the clock. Thanks to Hunter's early wake-up call, it was only nine. I didn't expect Remy to come to collect Hunter until late afternoon.
"Let's go to the park, Hunter."
Claude looked disappointed that I'd stopped their fun, but Hunter was game to go somewhere. I grabbed my softball mitt and a ball and retied Hunter's sneakers.
"Am I invited, too?" Claude said, sounding a little miffed.
I was taken by surprise. "Sure, you can come," I said. "That would be great. Maybe you should take your own car, since I don't know what we'll be doing afterward." My self-absorbed cousin genuinely enjoyed being with Hunter. I would never have anticipated this reaction - and truthfully, I don't think he had anticipated it, either. Claude followed me in his Impala as I drove to the park.
I went to Magnolia Creek Park, which stretched on either side of the creek. It was prettier than the little park close to the elementary school. The park wasn't much, of course, since Bon Temps is not exactly a wealthy little town, but it had the standard playground equipment, a quarter-mile walking track, and plenty of open area, picnic tables, and trees. Hunter attacked the jungle gym as if he'd never seen one before, and maybe he hadn't. Red Ditch is smaller and poorer than Bon Temps.
I found that Hunter could climb like a monkey. Claude was ready to steady him at every move. Hunter would've found that annoying if I'd done it. I wasn't sure why that should be, but I knew it to be true.
A car pulled up as I enticed Hunter down from the jungle gym to play ball. Tara got out and came over to see what we were doing.
"Who's your friend, Sookie?" she called.
The tight top she was wearing made Tara look a little bigger than she had when she'd come into the bar to eat lunch. She was wearing some pre-pregnancy shorts scooted down under her belly. I knew extra money wasn't plentiful in the du Rone/Thornton household these days, but I hoped Tara could find money in the budget to get some real maternity clothes before too long. Unfortunately, her clothing store, Tara's Togs, didn't carry maternity stuff.
"This is my cousin Hunter," I said. "Hunter, this is my friend Tara." Claude, who had been swinging on the swing set, chose that moment to leap off and bound over to where we stood. "Tara, this is my cousin Claude."
Now, Tara had known me all her life, and she knew all the members of my family. I gave her high points for absorbing this introduction and giving Hunter a friendly smile, which she then extended to Claude. She must have recognized him - she'd seen him in action. But she never blinked an eye.
"How many months are you?" Claude asked.
"A little more than three months away from delivery," Tara said, and sighed. I guess Tara had gotten used to relative strangers asking her personal questions. She'd told me before that all conversational bars were removed when you were pregnant. "People will ask you anything," she'd said. "And the women'll tell you labor and delivery stories that make your hair curl."
"Do you want to know what you're having?" Claude asked.
That was way out of bounds. "Claude," I said reprovingly. "That's too personal." Fairies just didn't have the same concept of personal information or personal space that humans did.
"I apologize," my cousin said, very insincerely. "I thought you might enjoy knowing before you buy their clothes. You color-code babies, I believe."
"Sure," Tara said abruptly. "What sex is the baby?"
"Both," he said with a smile. "You're having twins, a boy and a girl."
"My doctor's heard only one heartbeat," she said, trying to be gentle about telling him he was wrong.
"Then your doctor is an idiot," Claude said cheerfully. "You have two babies, alive and well."
Tara obviously didn't know what to make of this. "I'll get him to look harder next time I go in," she said. "And I'll tell Sookie to let you know what he says."
Fortunately, Hunter had mostly ignored this conversation. He had just learned how to throw the softball up in the air and catch it, and he was distracted by the effort to put my mitt on his little hand. "Did you play baseball, Aunt Sookie?" he asked.
"Softball," I said. "You bet I did. I played right field. That means I stood way out in the field and waited to see if the girl batting would hit the ball out my way. Then I'd catch it, and I'd throw it in to the pitcher, or whichever player needed it most."
"Your aunt Sookie was the best right fielder in the history of the Lady Falcons," Tara said, squatting down to talk to Hunter eye to eye.
"Well, I had a good time," I said.
"Did you play softball?" Hunter asked Tara.
"No, I came and cheered for Sookie," Tara said, which was the absolute truth, God bless her.
"Here, Hunter," Claude said, and gave the softball an easy toss. "Go get it and throw it back to me."
The unlikely twosome wandered around the park, throwing the ball to each other with very little accuracy. They were having a great time.
"Well, well, well," Tara said. "You have a habit of picking up family in funny places. A cousin? Where'd you get a cousin? He's not a secret by-blow of Jason's, right?"
"He's Hadley's son."
"Oh ... oh my God." Tara's eyes widened. She looked at Hunter, trying to pick out a likeness to Hadley in his features. "That's not the dad? Impossible."
"No," I said. "That's Claude Crane, and he's my cousin, too."
"He's sure not Hadley's kid," Tara said, laughing. "And Hadley's the only cousin you had that I ever heard of."
"Ah ... sort of wrong-side-of-the-blanket stuff," I said. It was impossible to explain without casting Gran's integrity into question.
Tara saw how uncomfortable I was with the subject of Claude.
"How are you and the tall blond getting along?"
"We're getting along okay," I said cautiously. "I'm not looking elsewhere."
"I should say not! No woman in her right mind would go out with anyone else if she could have Eric. Beautiful and smart." Tara sounded a bit wistful. Well, at least JB was beautiful.
"Eric can be a pain when he wants to be. And talk about baggage!" I tried to picture stepping out on Eric. "If I tried to see someone else, he might ..."
"Kill that someone else?"
"He sure wouldn't be happy," I said, in a massive understatement.
"So, you want to tell me what's wrong?" Tara put her hand on mine. She's not a toucher, so that meant a lot.
"Truth be told, Tara, I'm not sure." I had an overwhelming feeling that something was askew, something important. But I couldn't put my finger on what that might be.
"Supes?" she said.
"Well, I got to go into the shop," she said. "McKenna opened for me today, but I can't ask her to do that for me all the time." We said good-bye, happier with each other than we'd been in a long time. I realized that I needed to throw Tara a baby shower, and I couldn't imagine why it hadn't occurred to me before now. I needed to get cracking on the planning. If I made it a surprise shower, and did all the food myself ... Oh, and I'd have to tell people Tara and JB were expecting twins. I didn't doubt Claude's accuracy for a second.
I thought I would go out into the woods myself, maybe tomorrow. I'd be alone then. I knew that Heidi's nose and eyes - and Basim's, for that matter - were far more acute than mine, but I had an overwhelming impulse to see what I could see. Once again, something stirred in the back of my head, a memory that wasn't a memory. Something to do with the woods ... with a hurt man in the woods. I shook my head to rid myself of the haziness, and I realized I couldn't hear any voices.
"Claude," I called.
I walked around a clump of bushes and saw the fairy and the little boy enjoying the whirligig. That's what I'd always called it, anyway. It's circular, several kids can stand on it, a few others run around the edges pushing, and then it whirls in a circle until the impetus is gone. Claude was pushing it way too fast, and though Hunter was enjoying it, his grin was looking a little tense, too. I could see the fear in his brain, seeping through the pleasure.
"Whoa, Claude," I said, keeping my voice level. "That's enough speed for a kid." Claude stopped pushing, though he was reluctant. He'd been having a great time himself.
Though Hunter pooh-poohed my warning, I could tell he was relieved. He hugged Claude when Claude told him he had to go to Monroe to open up his club. "What kind of club?" Hunter asked, and I had to give Claude a significant look and keep my head blank.
"See you later, sport," the fairy told the child, and hugged him back.
It was time for an early lunch, so I took Hunter to McDonald's as a big treat. His dad hadn't mentioned any ban on fast food, and I figured one trip was okay.
Hunter loved his Happy Meal, ran the toy car from the container over the tabletop until I was absolutely tired of it, and then wanted to go into the play area. I was sitting on a bench watching him, hoping the joys of the tunnels and the slide would hold him for at least ten more minutes, when another woman came out the door into the fenced area, with a boy about Hunter's age in tow. Though I practically heard the ominous thud of bass drums, I kept a smile pasted on my face and hoped for the best.
After a few seconds of regarding each other warily, the two boys began shouting and running around the small play area together, and I relaxed, but cautiously. I ventured a smile at Mom, but she was brooding off into the distance, and I didn't have to read her mind to see she'd had a bad morning. (I discovered that her dryer had broken down, and she couldn't afford another one for at least two months.)
"Is this your youngest?" I asked, trying to look cheerful and interested.
"Yes, youngest of four," she said, which explained her desperation about the dryer. "All the rest of 'em are at Little League baseball practice. It'll be summer vacation soon, and they'll be home for three months."
Oh. I was out of things to say.
My unwilling companion sank back into her own grim thoughts, and I did my best to stay out. It was a struggle, because she was like a black hole of unhappy thoughts, kind of sucking me in with her.
Hunter came to stand in front of her, regarding her with open-mouthed fascination.
"Hello," the woman said, making a great effort.
"Do you really want to run away?" he asked.
This was definitely an "oh shit" moment. "Hunter, we need to be going," I said quickly. "Come on, now. We're late, late!" And I picked Hunter up and carried him away, though he was squirming and wiggling in protest (and also much heavier than he looked). He actually landed a kick on my thigh, and I almost dropped him.
The mother in the play area was staring after us, her mouth agape, and her little boy had come to stand in front of her, puzzled at his playmate's abrupt departure.
"I was having a good time!" Hunter yelled. "Why do we have to go?"
I looked him straight in the eyes. "Hunter, you be quiet until we're in the car," I said, and I meant every word. Carrying him through the restaurant while he was yelling had focused every eye on us, and I hadn't enjoyed the attention. I'd noticed a couple of people I knew, and there would be questions to answer later. This wasn't Hunter's fault, but it didn't make me feel any kinder.
As I buckled his seat belt, I realized I'd let Hunter get too tired and overexcited, and I made a mental note not to do that again. I could feel his little brain practically jiggling up and down.
Hunter was looking at me as though his heart were broken. "I was having a good time," he said again. "That boy was my friend."
I turned sideways to look him in the face. "Hunter, you said something to his mom that let her know you're different."
He was realistic enough to admit the truth of what I was saying. "She was really mad," he muttered. "Moms leave their kids."
His own mother had left him.
I thought for a second about what I could say. I decided to ignore the darker theme here. Hadley had left Remy and Hunter, and now she was dead and would never return. Those were facts. There was nothing I could do to change them. What Remy wanted me to do was to help Hunter live the rest of his life.
"Hunter, this is hard. I know it. I went through the same thing. You could hear what that mom was thinking, and then you said it out loud."
"But she was saying it! In her head!"
"But not out loud."
"That was what she was saying."
"In her head." He was just being stubborn now. "Hunter, you're a very young man. But to make your own life easier, you have to start thinking before you talk."
Hunter's eyes were wide and brimful with tears.
"You have to think, and you have to keep your mouth shut."
Two big tears coursed down his pink cheeks. Oh, geez Louise.
"You can't ask people questions about what you hear from their heads. Remember, we talked about privacy?"
He nodded once uncertainly, and then again with more energy. He remembered.
"People - grown-ups and children - are going to get real upset with you if they know you can read what's in their heads. Because the stuff in someone's head is private. You wouldn't want anyone telling you you're thinking about how bad you need to pee."
Hunter glared at me.
"See? Doesn't feel good, does it?"
"No," he said, grudgingly.
"I want you to grow up as normal as you can," I said. "Growing up with this condition is tough. Do you know any kids with problems everyone can see?"
After a minute, he nodded. "Jenny Vasco," he said. "She has a big mark on her face."
"It's the same thing, except you can hide your difference, and Jenny can't," I said. I was feeling mighty sorry for Jenny Vasco. It seemed wrong to be teaching a little kid that he should be stealthy and secretive, but the world wasn't ready for a mind-reading five-year-old, and probably never would be.
I felt like a mean old witch as I looked at his unhappy and tear-stained face. "We're going to go home and read a story," I said.
"Are you mad at me, Aunt Sookie?" he said, with a hint of a sob.
"No," I said, though I wasn't happy about being kicked. Since he'd know that, I'd better mention it. "I don't appreciate your kicking me, Hunter, but I'm not mad anymore. I'm really mad at the rest of the world, because this is hard on you."
He was silent all the way home. We went inside and sat on the couch after he paid a visit to the bathroom and picked a couple of books from the stash I'd kept. Hunter was asleep before I finished The Poky Little Puppy. I gently eased him down on the couch, pulled off his shoes, and got my own book. I read while he napped. I got up from time to time to get some small task done. Hunter slept for almost two hours. I found this an incredibly peaceful time, though if I hadn't had Hunter all day, it might simply have been boring.
After I'd started a load of laundry and tiptoed back into the room, I stood by the sleeping boy and looked down. If I had a child, would my baby have the same problem Hunter had? I hoped not. Of course, if Eric and I continued in our relationship, I would never have a child unless I was artificially inseminated. I tried to picture myself asking Eric how he felt about me being impregnated by an unknown man, and I'm ashamed to say I had to smother a snigger.
Eric was very modern in some respects. He liked the convenience of his cell phone, he loved automatic garage-door openers, and he liked watching the news on television. But artificial insemination ... I didn't think so. I'd heard his verdict on plastic surgery, and I had a strong feeling he'd consider this in the same category.
"What's funny, Aunt Sookie?" Hunter said.
"Nothing important," I said. "How about some apple slices and some milk?"
"No ice cream?"
"Well, you had a hamburger and French fries and a Coke at lunch. I think we'd better stick to the apple slices."
I put The Lion King on while I prepared Hunter's snack, and he sat on the floor in front of the television while he ate. Hunter got tired of the movie (which of course he'd seen before) about halfway through, and after that, I taught him how to play Candy Land. He won the first time.
As we were working our way through a second game, there was a knock. "Daddy!" Hunter shrieked, and pelted for the door. Before I could stop him, he'd pulled it open. I was glad he'd known who the caller was, because it gave me a bad moment. Remy was standing there in a dress shirt, suit pants, and polished lace-ups. He looked like a different man. He was grinning at Hunter as if he hadn't seen his child in days. In a second, the boy was up in his arms.
It was heartwarming. They hugged each other tight. I had a little lump in my throat.
In a second, Hunter was telling Remy about Candy Land, and about McDonald's, and about Claude, and Remy was listening with complete attention. He gave me a quick smile to say he'd greet me in a second, once the torrent of information had slowed down.
"Son, you want to go get all your stuff together? Don't leave anything," Remy cautioned his son. With a quick smile in my direction, Hunter dashed off to the back of the house.
"Did it go okay?" Remy asked, the minute Hunter was out of earshot. Though in a sense Hunter was never out of hearing, it would have to do.
"Yes, I think so. He's been so good," I said, resolving to keep the kick to myself. "We had a little problem on the McDonald's playground, but I think it led to a good talk with him."
Remy looked as if a load had just dropped back onto his shoulders. "I'm sorry about that," he said, and I could have - well, kicked myself.
"No, it was only normal stuff, the kind of thing you brought him here so I could help with," I said. "Don't worry about it. My cousin Claude was here, and he played with Hunter at the park, though I was there all the time, of course." I didn't want Remy to think I'd farmed Hunter out to any old person. I tried to think of what else to tell the anxious father. "He ate real good, and he slept just fine. Not long enough," I said, and Remy laughed.
"I know all about that," he told me.
I started to tell Remy that Eric was asleep in the closet and that Hunter had seen him for a few minutes, but I had the confused feeling that Eric would be one man too many. I'd already introduced the idea of Claude, and Remy hadn't been totally delighted to hear about that. A typical dad reaction, I guessed.
"Did the funeral go okay? No last-minute hitches?" You never know what to ask about funerals.
"No one threw themselves into the grave or fainted," Remy said. "That's about all you can hope for. A few skirmishes over a dining room table that all the kids wanted to load into their trucks right then."
I nodded. I'd heard many brooding thoughts through the years about inheritances, and I'd had my own troubles with Jason when Gran died. "People don't always have their nicest face on when it comes to dividing up a household," I said.
I offered Remy a drink, but he smilingly turned me down. He was obviously ready to be alone with his son, and he peppered me with questions about Hunter's manners, which I was able to praise, and his eating habits, which I was able to admire, too. Hunter wasn't a picky kid, and that was a blessing.
Within a few minutes, Hunter had returned to the living room with all his stuff, though I did a quick patrol and found two Duplos that had escaped his notice. Since he'd liked The Poky Little Puppy so much, I stuck it in his backpack for him to enjoy at home. After a few more thank-yous, and an unexpected hug from Hunter, they were gone.
I watched Remy's old truck go down the driveway.
The house felt oddly empty.
Of course, Eric was asleep underneath it, but he was dead for a few more hours, and I knew I could rouse him only in the direst of circumstances. Some vampires couldn't wake in the daytime, even if they were set on fire. I pushed that memory away, since it made me shiver. I glanced at the clock. I had part of the sunny afternoon to myself, and it was my day off.
I was in my black-and-white bikini and lying out on the old chaise before you could say, "Sunbathing is bad for you."
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