I am Erik. At least, that was what my mother told me late at night in the pitch blackness while my father slept.
“Erik,” she said, so softly I could barely hear her, “never forget who you really are.”
“Who is that, Mama?” I whispered back from my pallet on the floor.
“You are my son. You are my beautiful, talented, intelligent boy, and someday you will grow up to be a great gentleman. You are my Erik.”
I knew that despite our small, cramped cabin and our insufficient, meager possessions, she desired this for me more than anything—to become someone and leave this filthy existence and have everything I could ever dream of. Because of this, she taught me manners and the proper way to speak and act, dreaming that someday I would be able to put these abilities to good use. I inwardly scoffed at her words and desires, however, for I knew that they only came from a mother who was blind to the many faults of her child. She never said those words or taught me when my father was around, for he would throw her lies back in her face even as she said them, not to mention what he would do to her just for trying. At night, however, my father could not stop her from believing her delusions. I knew that she needed to believe them, for if she ever acknowledged the truth about me, she would surely not be able to live with herself. The truth was that I was ugly and stupid, a plague on the world. My father told me this truth every day, many times a day.
There were a few facts I knew about myself. I knew that my name was Erik Desmond Taylor, I was sixteen years old, I was born on the twelfth of July, 1916 in Willow, Tennessee, and my father hated me. He said it with his words, with his actions, and with every look he gave me. He said it with his fists and his belt and his feet. Every day, I tried to get him to love me by doing everything he wanted and some things I only thought he wanted. I knew, deep down, my father could never love a monster like me, and yet I still tried. I was a fool. Erik the fool.
My father left every morning to look for work, and my mother often went with him. Work was scarce in Willow, so he usually didn’t have much luck. One spring morning, as they were leaving, my mother turned and bestowed one of her rare, beautiful smiles on me. She quickly closed and locked the door, however, when my father bellowed for her to hurry up. After they left, I decided that I would clean the house while they were gone. I hoped that this would be the one time my father showed some pride in his son. I knew he wouldn’t, but the hope was there nonetheless, stupid as it was. Cleaning was a regular chore of mine, but this time, when I was done, the worn, wooden planks of the floor shone as did the cracked windowpanes. I had arranged the few dishes neatly on the shelves, and I had even made up the one bed and brushed the dirt off so that it looked, at least to my eyes, like the bed of a rich person.
When my parents walked in the door after another unfruitful day, both sets of eyes settled on the middle of the wooden table, where I had placed a single daisy in a jar of water. I saw two distinctly different reactions to this sight. My mother came in first, and her face lit up instantly in another one of the smiles I so longed to see. She looked around in wonder at the sight of her shabby home transformed.
“Why, Erik…” she began, but the back of my father's hand against her cheek stopped her cold. The crash resounded in my ears as I watched her fly across the room and hit the wall. Her hand cupped her cheek as she collapsed onto the floor, trying to cover the bruise that was already forming. As usual, no tears came from her eyes, but her shoulders shook even so.
“You don’t talk to him!” my father snarled. He glared at her with disgust for a short moment and then turned to me.
My father was a giant in every way. His form filled the frame of the doorway from top to bottom and side to side. His hands could fit around any part of my body with ease. His feet, shod in the work boots he always wore, left two large, dusty footprints on the newly scrubbed floor as he covered the distance between the door and me in long strides. I cowered as he leaned over me, his red-rimmed eyes staring down at his hated child.
“Where'd you get the flower, boy?” he sneered.
“I…I…I…” I could smell the whiskey on his breath as he panted with rage, and I knew things were going to get very bad.
“What's wrong, can't even talk right? You're so stupid! Well, let's see if I can't help you out.” He straightened to his full, giant's height, reached over to the table, and grabbed the jar. He turned back to me while he held it up at his eye level and studied it as if it was utterly fascinating. “This is a flower, yes?”
“Y-y-es, sir,” I stammered.
“Y-y-es,” he mimicked with a whine in his voice, “it is. Now, flowers do not grow inside, do they?”
“No, sir.” The words came out as a whisper, as I could already see where this was going, and a feeling of dread settled deep in my stomach.
“No, they do not. They grow outside. So, how does a flower that grows outside get inside?” He took his eyes off of the jar and slowly turned them toward me. I flinched as his gaze settled on my ugly face, and one dark eyebrow arched as he silently waited.
“I…” I couldn’t make my tongue work; the words just wouldn’t come, but I knew that he expected an answer, so I swallowed against my dry throat and tried again. “I went outside and got it,” I said, as my eyes dropped to the floor in shame.
“Ah! That explains everything!” My father's voice sounded almost happy, and I chanced a glance at my mother, who sat silently with her hands wringing in her lap, watching this scene play itself out. Her eyes were shining with the tears she dared not let fall, and they were fixed on my father. I could hear the silent pleading coming from her in waves—”Don’t, please don’t, don’t…” I saw her eyes widen in horror then, and she covered her face with her hands.
The jar hit the left side of my head with such force that it shattered. I screamed and fell to the floor, instinctively throwing my arms up to cover my head. The pain was so intense that I barely heard my father's screams through the pounding in my skull.
“How dare you go outside! No one wants to see your disgusting body! No one wants to be subjected to your hideous face!”His ranting continued, but all I could focus on was the fact that my hair was wet. Wet, yes, that made sense. There was water in the jar, so my hair would be wet. I forced my mind to settle on this one thought, even as my father's large boots began driving into my body as I lay on the floor. As I curled myself up into a ball and drifted into unconsciousness, there was one thing I couldn’t understand. Why was the water red?