The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months. It only took a few more weeks for my injuries to heal completely, and the bruises on my body faded so that the only evidence they ever existed was branded in my memories. Along with the physical healing, the nutritious food the doctor fed me added weight to my frail frame.
After I was up to a healthy weight, the doctor had me start taking care of Aurora, his horse. I learned how to clean her stall and the entire stable, clean and polish her tack, feed her, trim her hooves, brush her down, and exercise her. This last was my favorite, because in order for her to get exercise, I had to learn to ride. When I was on Aurora’s back and we were trotting through the forest behind the house or racing across an open field, I felt free. She was the only one who could see me then, and she didn’t care that I was disfigured. Another added benefit of caring for her was that the vigorous work built my muscles to the point that, although I knew people would shun me for my face, I would be able to stand up to anyone who tried to harm me.
My emotional healing had been, for all intents and purposes, halted in its tracks, however. I spoke much less than I did before my face was revealed to me, but I was still polite to Doctor Clark and Nurse Williams. They had been too kind to me for it to be any other way. My politeness had a withdrawn quality to it, though, and I knew the doctor noticed it. I saw regret in his eyes with every “yes, sir,” “please,” and “thank you,” and I understood it, for even I could hear the lack of enthusiasm in my tone.
I continued with my studies with an ardor that surpassed even my previous excitement. I applied every free second to learning. This zeal quickly paid off, and I was reading quite well within only a few months. I had devoured the reading books from the school and had moved on to the books from the doctor's library. I read everything I could get my hands on—drama, romance, history, mythology, scientific papers, biographies, speeches, technical writings—and I remembered almost everything. I also learned grammar and writing through my reading and copying lines from the books.
After my prowess at reading was realized, the doctor introduced me to mathematics. If it were possible, I enjoyed this even more than reading. Through reading, I could learn about history, science, economics, and any other subject I could find a book about, but with mathematics, I was introduced to the beauty and logic of numbers. As I worked with the concepts of sums and products and exponents, I was transported to a completely separate, peaceful place and time where my past and current problems were almost nonexistent.
Although I could see that Doctor Clark was worried about my lack of social interaction, I could also see something in his eyes when I reached some new milestone in my studies, whether that was the first time I was able to read an entire book without help, or when I mastered the concepts of fractions and decimals. I didn’t know what it was at first, but I realized it one day after I asked him for a new math book, having finished my current one.
“Erik,” he said, smiling, “I am so proud of you. You are progressing much faster than I would have ever thought possible. I'd even venture to say that you might be considered a genius.”
Pride. That was what I saw, but I hadn’t recognized it because I had never seen it before. No one had ever expressed pride in me before, not even my mother, for while she may have felt it, she never would have dared let me know. As my knowledge of academics grew, so did the knowledge that my mother and I had been the victims of a cruel, evil, ignorant man, and that my mother was right when she said that I was intelligent and talented. She also called me beautiful, and that may have been true at one time, but every time I looked in a mirror, I knew it was no longer the case.
As time went on, the wound on my face became less and less red and inflamed, but, even when it was completely healed, the scar that remained was thick and white, and it pulled at the corners of my eye and mouth, distorting them. Because of this, I never went outside where people might be able see me. Doctor Clark tried to get me to come with him when he made trips to see patients, but I always refused, afraid of what other people’s reactions would be. He persisted, however, and finally, about a month after I was fully healed, I agreed.
The town of Willow was quite small, and when he visited patients in town, he walked, but there were numerous families living in the outlying areas, so, on this particular day, we got into his car for a five-mile drive to see a boy who had fallen out of a tree and hurt his arm. I had never been in a car before, and the experience was exhilarating. The rumbling sensation beneath me as the wheels crunched over the gravel, the smell of the leather seats, and the feel of the wind on my face as we drove were incredible. Doctor Clark had taught me to understand time and the calendar, so I knew that it was the first of July. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the flower-scented air flowed through the open windows and around the interior of the car. The drive was far too short for my liking, but I turned to Doctor Clark with a small smile—the first to grace my face since the bandages had come off.
Doctor Clark pulled into the yard of the small, white, clapboard house and smiled back. “Do you want to come inside with me, Erik?” he asked.
My smile faded slightly, for, other than Nurse Williams and the doctor, no one else had seen my face since my injury. I quickly decided that I was not ready to meet new people yet, and I answered, “If it's all right with you. I'd rather wait here.”
He nodded with understanding, and, laying his hand gently on my shoulder, climbed out of the car and walked to the house. I watched him until the door opened and he went inside, and then I turned my attention to my surroundings. I sat in the car, looking at the maple trees surrounding the house. Insects were buzzing in the air, and, off in the distance, a dog barked incessantly. I didn’t see any people around, and I suddenly longed to be free to move and breathe the fresh, summer air, so I stepped out of the car. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, reveling in the newness of the sensations bombarding me. At the cabin, I was never allow outside, although I did risk it occasionally. Even when I did, the odors that surrounded me were of rotting garbage, stagnant mud, and the stench from the outhouse. Inside the cabin was not much better. Unwashed bodies and clothes let off their own foul smells, and those, coupled with the omnipresent, burning tang of alcohol and the sour smell of cabbage soup, created such a pungency that I was surprised I was not sick more often while living there. I never knew how much fresh air and fresh scents could contribute to one's health.
My eyes suddenly popped opened in horror at the sound of a shrill shriek almost directly in front of me, and I sucked in a harsh breath and held it. Standing in front of me was a small girl, perhaps six or seven years old. She was wearing a light blue dress, her blonde hair was pulled back into two ponytails tied with matching blue ribbons, and her feet were bare. I thought she would have been a beautiful little girl normally, but at that moment, her face was contorted with such terror and revulsion that she looked like someone's strange caricature of a child. The scream continued at full volume, and the door of the house slammed open. The doctor and a young woman were standing on the porch, frozen for a split second at the scene before their eyes. As the child continued her howling, though, the spell holding them was quickly broken, and they both hurried down the porch steps toward us.
Their movement released my own feet from their stupor, and I tried to back away from the girl, but within one step, I found myself trapped against the side of the car. I looked toward the two adults running toward me, and I panicked. I bolted away from them, tearing across the yard before disappearing into the woods surrounding the house.
“Erik, stop! Come back, please!”
I barely registered the doctor's voice as the terror began to swell within me, robbing me of all rational thought. I fled blindly through the woods, arms covering my head to protect it from the branches whipping me at every step. Roots tripped me up frequently, but I merely staggered to my feet and continued my frenzied flight. As I ran, I could hear my father's voice inside my head, sneering, “They'll come for you now, boy! That little girl will tell them what a hideous monster you are, and they'll hunt you down and kill you!”I continued to run until I could barely breathe, and my muscles screamed their protest at the punishment I was putting them through. I collapsed onto the forest floor, sucking shallow, rapid breaths into lungs that were spasming in their frantic effort to supply my brain and body with the oxygen needed to function. I tried to push myself up into a sitting position, but my arms and legs refused to responded to my wishes. An eternity of agonizing pain later, my breathing slowed, and I was able to take deeper, more oxygen-rich breaths, which, in turned, allowed my brain to function more normally. I sat up and leaned against a nearby tree before looking around me. All I could see were trees. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of trees with no break no matter which way I turned. I could feel the panic begin to rise in me again, and I slowly stood and turned in slow circles, eyes wildly searching for something other than trunks and leaves. After a lifetime, I sank down to the ground and dropped my head into my hands, tears streaming down my face as the reality of my situation dawned on me. I was lost.