The time went slowly by, one day drifting into another in a succession of hazy, confusing moments. The pain in my head was gradually receding, but it was still there, and, as such, I still took medication. Doctor Clark had moved me out of the sickroom into the empty bedroom upstairs, and I thought that I had been moved into heaven. It amazed me to think about how much money Doctor Clark must have had to be able to afford such a luxury. The first night I slept in the bed, I thought to myself that I never wanted to get up again, for, as comfortable as the bed in the sickroom was, the one in the bedroom was a thousand times softer and warmer. My bare feet sank into the carpet each time I got out of bed, and my toes unconsciously curled into the plush softness.
Doctor Clark gave me some more of his own clothing to wear. When he first suggested it, I laughed to myself, picturing how I would look with this large man's clothing hanging off my frail, puny body. However, when I changed into the shirt and pants, I was surprised to find that they fit me quite well. Although Doctor Clark was much heavier than I was, the pant legs and the shirt sleeves were only a little bit too long. I looked at myself in the mirror and still saw a scrawny, useless creature, but I couldn’t deny the fact that the doctor and I were almost the same height. Since the doctor was by no means a small man, my brain fought with itself over the idea that I might not be as small as my father had led me to believe. It was then that I realized that the clothing I changed into my first day here was probably also the doctor's; I had assumed it had belonged to someone much smaller than him—a son, perhaps.
A lot of my time was still spent in bed, but when I was not there, I was usually in the library. Even though I couldn’t read a word, there was something about the feel and the smell of that room that made me felt safe. I would take a book and curl up in the chair, staring at the markings on the pages, desperately wishing I could understand them. I contented myself with looking at the pictures instead; there were animals and people and cities and mountains and trains and flowers and machines. Some of the pictures were in color, and some were black and white, but I thought they were all beautiful. I wanted to ask Doctor Clark about them, but I knew that, no matter how kind he had been to me, he was far too busy to worry about my absurd questions.
About a week after I came to the doctor’s house, I was in the library thumbing through a book about flowers when I heard the small bell above the front door ring. This was a common occurrence since Doctor Clark was the only doctor in our small town. People came in all the time for him to take care of their injuries or illnesses. I stayed out of sight when anyone came through the door. From the top of the stairs, if I stayed to the side, I could see down into the front room, and I watched the people who were waiting there without them seeing me. When I heard the bell ring, I put down the book and crept to the stairs. The left side of my face was still swathed in bandages, and my left eye was still swollen, so I had to position myself such that I could use my right eye to see. Peering through the bannister, I saw a man in a tan and black uniform walk into the house. I gasped in horror; I instantly knew that this man was the sheriff. My father’s words about cages and torture flooded my mind. He often told me that simply being alive made me a criminal, and that if the sheriff caught me, he would make sure that no one ever saw me again.
As these terrifying thoughts overpowered me, I began to shake uncontrollably, and I was about to flee back to the safety of the library when I heard my name spoken by the sheriff. I was paralyzed by fear, and, even if my very life had depended on it, I was not able to move. Even when Nurse Williams left him and began to climb the stairs, I was frozen. She knew that I watched the people who came to the house, so she wasn’t surprised to see me crouched on the floor, but she stopped in shock when she saw me with my hands clenching the wooden slats on the railing, knuckles white, and my body trembling all over. She rushed to me and knelt down, trying to turn me around.
“Erik? What's wrong?” Her panicked voice failed to break through the terror with which my mind was filled, and it sounded as if she were speaking to me from across a great distance.
The sheriff must have heard her alarm from the front room, for he came rushing toward the stairs. As soon as his foot hit the bottom step, my paralysis was shattered, and I broke from the nurse’s grip and bolted to the library, slamming the door behind me. I frantically scanned the room for somewhere to hide and found nothing, so I crammed myself into the small space between two bookcases in the corner farthest from the door, my trembling becoming almost convulsive. I could hear footsteps quickly mount the stairs and race down the hall, and I curled myself into a ball facing the wall. My arms were over my head, which was tucked tightly against my knees, which were drawn up to my chest. Without realizing it, I had begun to rock back and forth, and I heard a low moan surround me. I didn’t know that the sound was coming from me.
The footsteps stopped outside the door, and I braced myself for the crashing of the door, the storming in of the sheriff, and the shouts and blows that would certainly accompany both. Instead, all I heard was a soft knock on the door and the doctor's quiet, gentle voice.
“Erik? May I came in?”
Unable to speak, I shook my head, not caring that he couldn’t see me. I knew that at last he had had enough of me being a burden to him. He must have called the sheriff to take me away so that no one would have to bother with me anymore. I knew that the contentment and, yes, happiness that I had known the past week were too good to last. My father was right—no one could stomach having me around them. No matter where I went, people would always hurt me and shun me because of who and what I was.
I curled tighter into myself and rocked faster when I heard the door slowly creak open. My mind jumped back to the uncountable times our cabin door sounded the same, and I knew that what awaited me would be as bad—or worse—as when my father was the man coming through the door. I tried to get my mind to go away, as I had many times with my father, but the terror that filled it refused to be pushed aside. It stayed with me like a demon, taunting me with images of whips and chains and iron bars.
The hand on my shoulder caused me to jump, and a whimper escaped my lips. I clamped them shut immediately, knowing that any kind of sound would only make things worse. This hand was not harsh, however, and as soon as I flinched, it was removed from my body. I waited for another, brutal touch, but there was nothing. I thought that it was a trick, something to get me to relax, but I was not going to fall for it. I was shocked, therefore, when I suddenly heard the doctor's voice next to my ear and felt his warm breath on my cheek.
“Erik, my boy, don't be afraid. No one is going to hurt you. I promised you that no one would ever hurt you again.” He continued to speak soothing words to me, and his voice was like cool, clear water flowing over my body, invading my senses, breaking down my defenses, and calming the fiend in my brain. I didn’t jump when I again felt a hand on my shoulder, for this time, I was thinking clearly enough to know that it was Doctor Clark who was touching me and not the sheriff. Even through my terror, I believed the doctor when he told me he would never hurt me. He had been nothing but kind to me, and he had done nothing to cause me not to trust him. As he gently rubbed my back, I slowly looked up at him, slipping my arms down to hug my knees.
He was kneeling next to me, and as I looked into his eyes, I saw emotions in them that I had only ever seen before in my mother's eyes. I read sadness and worry as well as helplessness. I was not sure what the doctor could feel helpless about, but I knew that look intimately. I glanced over his shoulder and saw Nurse Williams and the sheriff standing in the doorway. I shuddered violently and cringed away from him toward the wall, pulling ever tighter into myself as I tried to will myself out of that room and safely away from the man in the uniform.
“Erik? What is it?” Doctor Clark continued to caress my back gently with one hand.
“Don’t…” I tried to speak, but the words stuck in my throat. My eyes involuntarily traveled back to the sheriff and stayed there.
“Don’t what, Erik? Talk to me, please,” the doctor said quietly as he looked over his shoulder at the man.
My eyes slowly came back to the doctor, and I locked gazes with him. My voice shook as I finally managed to whisper, “Don't let him take me away. I’ll be good, I promise. Please don't send me away.”
“Oh, dear God!” the doctor breathed as he drew me into his embrace. I leaned into his strong arms, and he gently held my head to his chest. He looked over his shoulder and said quietly, “Shirley, Robert, could you two wait downstairs for us, please? I need to talk to Erik alone.”
There was no sound from either of them, but the door shut quietly and their footsteps receded down the hallway. As soon as they were gone, Doctor Clark pushed me away from him and gently took my chin in his hand. I tried to burrow back into his chest where I felt safe, but he held me back.
“Erik, we need to talk. I need to know what you are thinking right now, what you are feeling. Why did you think the sheriff was here to take you away?” His voice was still kind, but it was firmer than before, and I knew I had to answer.
I took a shuddering breath and looked down at my hands, which were grasped together around my knees so tightly that the knuckles were white. Doctor Clark followed my gaze and slowly pried my fingers apart. He turned me slightly so that he could kneel directly in front of me, and he held my hands tenderly in his. I stared at our joined hands for a moment as I took another deep breath and began to talk, my voice never rising above a whisper. My eyes flicked toward the door to make sure it stayed closed. I told him what my father said about my crime of being born and about the sheriff—that he punished criminals and would take me away to a deep, dark cage and keep me there forever, away from people, alone with my hideousness for all eternity.
“Oh, Erik,” the doctor sighed when I was done. I was startled by the sadness in those two simple words, and I looked up at him. His eyes were closed, and he was breathing heavily. When I said no more, he opened his eyes slowly, and the tears in them shook me to the core. I had never seen my father cry—I had rarely even seen my mother cry—and it felt wrong to be watching as a single tear traced its way down the doctor's cheek. I turned away from him, ashamed to see him in that state. My chest constricted uncomfortably, and I took deep breaths to try to release the pressure.
We stayed that way, neither saying a word or moving, for quite a while. Then Doctor Clark gently squeezed my hands and stood, pulling me up with him. “Erik, do you trust me?” His words were quiet but firm, as if he were trying to soothe a cornered animal. I looked at him and nodded, not trusting myself to speak any more. “Then I want you to believe me when I say that Sheriff Butler is not here to hurt you or take you anywhere. As a matter of fact, he has come to tell me some good news.”
My brain couldn’t process his words at first, and I just blinked. After a short time, however, I began to think again, and I shook my head to try to banish the thoughts that continued to torment me by saying that Doctor Clark was lying, that he was just saying this to lower my defenses. “Good news?” I was still whispering, fearful of attracting the attention of the sheriff downstairs.
“Wonderful news, Erik. After I discovered your parents gone, I immediately went to the sheriff and asked him if you could stay with me until they were found. He told me that he would find out the legality of that, and he just called me to tell me that he had good news. I thought that you would want to hear it, too.” He told me all of this as he looked deeply in my eyes as if gauging my reaction as each word left his lips. I'm not sure what he saw, but he must have been encouraged because he continued. “Will you come down with me and hear what he has to say?”
Terror threatened to consume me at the thought of actually standing in front of the sheriff, but I forcefully pushed it down until it was just a dull throb deep in the pit of my stomach. I told myself that I did trust Doctor Clark, and he wouldn’t let anything happen to me, and the thought that I could stay with him bolstered my courage somewhat. I nodded slowly, and his face instantly lit up with a bright smile. I could feel the corners of my mouth wanting to imitate him, but there was still enough doubt that they stayed in place. Nevertheless, I allowed him to lead me out of the library and down the stairs.
The sheriff and Nurse Williams were standing in the front room with their backs to the stairs, and they were talking quietly with each other. My sharp hearing was able to pick out words even from the top of the stairs. “Erik...father...furious...kill…idiot.” Already overactive, my imagination filled in the blanks, and I surmised that they were saying that my father was furious enough to kill me, the idiot. I stayed behind Doctor Clark as we approached the sheriff, and, even though every fiber of my being was telling me to run, I forced myself to keep in place, my eyes fixed on the man in the uniform. He saw me looking at him and gave me a tentative smile, and, although I hadn't had a lot of time to learn how to read other people, the smile seemed sincere.
“Robert, thanks for waiting. Let's go into my office.” Doctor Clark held tightly to my hand as he motioned for the sheriff to precede us through the door to the left of the front room.
In the room was the doctor's desk with his large, brown, leather chair behind it and two cushioned chairs in front of it, but no one sat down. The sheriff stopped just inside the room, and the doctor and I stood in front of him. Doctor Clark shut the door behind us, and a sudden feeling of being trapped overwhelmed me. I inhaled sharply and tried to pull away toward the door, but the doctor pulled me to him, never releasing my hand, and placed his free arm around my shoulder.
“It's all right, Erik, trust me,” he whispered. Out loud, he asked, “So, Robert, what's the good news?”
Sheriff Robert Butler looked at me for a moment, the slight smile still on his face. Then he turned his gaze to Doctor Clark. “Well, Henry, I did as you asked. I checked to see if Erik had any other relatives, and I found none. You can take temporary guardianship of Erik until the whereabouts of his parents is determined.” He turned back to me. “Erik, do you understand what that means?”
I glanced at him and nodded silently. I trusted Doctor Clark, but I did not trust the sheriff, and he saw that. His smile faded, but his voice remained kind. “It means that you can stay here with Doctor Clark until we find out what happened to your father and mother.
At the mention of my father, I involuntarily flinched and gripped Doctor Clark's hand a bit tighter. He responded by squeezing my shoulder. “It's all right, Erik. Remember, I told you I would never let him hurt you again. I promise you; I will do everything possible to make sure you never have to see him again.”
I took a deep breath and relaxed my grip, but I didn’t let go. My eyes were on my feet, and I only heard movement as the sheriff moved toward the door. “I'll keep you in the loop as far as the Taylors are concerned, Henry. I've got a number of contacts working to find them.”
Doctor Clark released my hand, and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him shake the sheriff's hand. “Thank you, Robert, I really appreciate it...we really appreciate it.”
“Don't mention it. Let me know if you hear anything, too.”
I kept my gaze down until I heard the sheriff's footsteps leave the carpeted floor of the doctor's office, cross the wooden floor of the front room, and, accompanied by the bell above the door, leave the house. As soon as the front door closed, I risked raising my head. My throat was still constricted with fear, and I had to swallow several times before I could speak.
“Did he mean it, Doctor Clark? Can I really stay here with you?” I could only manage a whisper, but the doctor heard me clearly.
“Yes, Erik, you can stay. Even when we find your parents, I will make sure you never have to be around your father again.”
“But...” I stopped, not wanting to contradict him.
“But, what?” When I didn’t answer, the doctor continued, “You can asked me anything, Erik. Don't be afraid.”
I nodded and said, “What about my mother? Do I have to stay away from her, too?” The thought frightened me almost as much as the sheriff did.
“No, Erik, I will also make sure that you can be together.”
My face brightened at this, and I smiled up at the doctor. He smiled back and again squeezed my shoulder.
“Come on,” he said, leading me out the door, “I have something else I think you'll like.”As we walked, I wondered to myself what I had done to deserve such kindness.