I was surprised the next day, when we again sat down at the kitchen table, that I remembered everything that Doctor Clark had taught me the day before. Granted, it was only the alphabet, but, for someone who had been told his entire life that he was too dumb to learn anything at all, it was a joyous occasion. The doctor seemed as pleased as I, and he smiled brightly after we went through a set of flashcards with no mistakes on my part.
“Very good, Erik. I told you that you could do it!”
I smiled back and asked, “So, what's next?”
“Well, you have to know how each letter sounds, so that when you see them in a word, you can read it correctly.”
The next three days were spent going over the sounds of the letters. Doctor Clark started me out with the same small book which showed the basic sounds and how together, they made words. I quickly mastered it, however, and he pulled out the next book in the series. I devoured that book as well, and within a very short amount of time, I was on the third book. He spent every free moment he had with me and the books. I, in turn, spent every free moment going over what he had taught me. This resulted in me being able to read the more simple books in the library by the end of the first month of lessons.
A little less than five weeks after I arrived at the doctor’s house, I was sitting on my bed, reading a book, when he knocked softly on the open door. I looked up and saw him standing there with a smile on his face. I put the book down on the nightstand and stood up.
“Do you need me?” I asked.
“Yes, Erik, I do. I need you to come downstairs with me, please.”
I nodded, noticing that my head no longer hurt when I did so, and followed him to the sickroom where I had spent my first days. While my head no longer ached, my ribs still screamed at me if I turned the wrong way or tried to lift anything above my head. I had long been used to that pain, however, and it barely fazed me. Because of the injuries to my body, my torso was continually wrapped tightly with bandages, and I was severely restricted in what I was and was not allowed to do.
Doctor Clark had taken an x-ray of me the first day I was able to stand up straight, and he had informed me then that I had more healed fractures than he had ever seen in one person as well as several currently broken ribs. He expressed surprise that none of them had injured my internal organs, and he was also amazed that I was able to function through the pain he thought I must have been in. I tried to explain to him that I was used to pain and was therefore able to ignore it for the most part, but he didn’t seem to understand. He asked me if I had ever been seen by a doctor before.
“No, sir,” I answered, “you are the first doctor I have ever been to.”
This comment caused anger to flare in the doctor's eyes, but by then, I had learned that I was not the object of that anger, my father was. He said nothing, however, and life went on as usual.
I followed the doctor into the room, he motioned me to the bed, and I sat down. This was a regular occurrence, as he often checked my ribs and face. Now, he gently palpated the skin around the healing wound on my head, and then did the same to my ribs, asking me how the pain was. I told him that my face only hurt a little, which was true, and that my ribs felt much better, which was not, exactly. They felt a little better, but not much.
Doctor Clark had removed the stitches from my face about two weeks after my injury, but he kept the bandages on since the cut was so deep and extensive. He didn’t want to risk infection, even though, for the most part, the cut was sealed.
I had yet to see my face, and I sincerely wanted to. I had never wanted to see it at home because my father often told me how horrid it was, and I’d had no desire to gaze upon a monstrosity. However. having learned to believe Doctor Clark when he said that I was a handsome boy, I had gotten used to looking in the mirror over my dresser as I brushed my hair and got myself ready in the morning. In the unbandaged side of my face, I had even begun to see the handsome young man my mother loved and that the doctor talked about.
“Well, Erik, everything looks good. The cut has healed well, and there is still no infection.” He stepped back and looked at me intently. “Would you like to see?”
I inhaled sharply, and immediately regretted it as pain stabbed through my side. I hid it well, however, and smiled as best I could. “Thank you, sir. I would like that very much.”
“Good!” He took my hand and helped me off of the bed. We walked to the bathroom, and he waited behind me as I stood in the doorway, my eyes closed. I took a deep breath and the last step to the sink, opening my eyes in the process.
The image in the mirror before me took my breath away. The right side of my face was as untouched and smooth as it had always been, but it took on an surreal quality as the left side contrasted sharply with it. A thick, red scar ran from the hairline just above my temple, past the corner of my eye, and down over my cheek to the corner of my mouth. I had not been able to see out of my left eye because of the bandages, and I wished that was still the case. All of the self-confidence I had gained over the past weeks evaporated in an instant as I gazed into the mirror. I felt the burn of unshed tears as I simply stood there, gripping the sink tightly until my knuckles turned white. When I dropped my head, no longer able to stomach the image before me, I felt Doctor Clark's hands gently grip my shoulders.
“Erik, what are you thinking?” he asked softly.
I took a shaky breath and responded without moving, “I am thinking that I am as ugly as my father always said I was.”
I heard him take a deep breath, and then he turned me around and enveloped me in his strong arms. “Oh, Erik,” he whispered, and then, for the first time in my memory, a single tear escaped my right eye and traced its way down my cheek until it was absorbed by his coat. There was no movement or sound for a split second, and then it was as if a dam had broken, and all the pain, terror, shame, and humiliation of the past sixteen years gushed forth in a torrent of tears. I clutched at the doctor's coat as if it were the only thing keeping me from sinking into a black sea of despair. The sobs that were wrenched from my lungs weakened me to the point that my legs couldn’t support me anymore, and they gave way. Doctor Clark gently lowered me to the floor, never releasing his hold on me, and we sat there for an eternity while my whole world condensed into a small, hard ball of disgust and self-hatred that settled itself deep in my belly.Eventually, the tears stopped flowing, but it took longer for my heaving chest to relax into somewhat normal breathing. It was only then, however, that I realized that my head was pounding, and my ribs were screeching their disapproval at the punishment I had just put them through. The pain suddenly hit me so hard that I felt myself blacking out. The last thing I remembered was hearing Doctor Clark call out for Nurse Williams before I fell headlong into a darkness blacker than the blackest moonless night and deeper than the deepest ocean trench.