Much later, my eyes were closed, and I was enjoying the quiet of the room when I heard the door slowly creak open. The distinct sound of the doctor’s footsteps approached me, but I didn’t move other than to open my eyes. He was standing in front of me, and he gave me a small, sad smile before moving to the second chair in the room.
It was just a wooden, slat-backed chair from the kitchen, but Doctor Clark had brought it up to the library weeks before so that the two of us could sit and read together. I was always the one who sat in it when we were both in the room, but I didn’t feel like being gallant by offering him the nicer chair, so I stayed where I was. His smile slipped a little as he set the chair closer so that when he sat down our knees were almost touching, for at any other time, I would have given him the armchair and taken the more uncomfortable one.
I didn’t speak, but I knew that he wanted to talk about what had happened, so I sat up straight, my hands on my knees. The doctor reached over and took my hands in his and lightly squeezed them.
“Are you ready to talk, Erik?” he asked softly.
I cocked my head slightly and looked at him as I thought about the answer to that question. I knew that I could talk about what had happened, but I certainly didn’t want to. I felt bad about the way I had treated him, however, and so I gave him a slight nod, took a deep breath, and released it slowly. My lips opened with every intention of sound coming from them, but there was nothing. It was as if the words were stuck in my brain and refused to let themselves be known. I closed my mouth, frowned deeply, cleared my throat, and tried again.
“I scared that little girl,” I finally managed, my voice barely above a whisper, and those simple words broke through my resolve and the dam holding back my thoughts. I suddenly began to babble, my voice rising with every word. “I didn’t mean to, Doctor Clark, honest! I was just standing there, and then she screamed, and then you came out, and then I was running, and then those men came, and…”
“Erik, slow down,” Doctor Clark spoke softly, but his words penetrated the panic that was once again welling up inside of me. He squeezed my hands again and said, “Breathe, Erik, deep breaths. Calm your breathing; that's it. Deep breaths—in and out, in and out.”
I stared at him while I did as he asked, inwardly hating myself for giving in to the fear again and for being unable to stop it from coming in the first place. Those men searching for me, even though Doctor Clark had been there, reminded me too much of my father's footsteps closing in on me, which had always resulted in pain or humiliation. I felt myself relax, however, as the doctor's deep breathing exercise slowed my heart rate and allowed me to think clearly.
When I was calm, the doctor said, “Now, I want you to listen to me very carefully, Erik, and I need you to believe what I'm telling you.” He paused and looked into my eyes until I nodded. “You did nothing wrong today. Sandy was scared, yes, but it was not your fault. She is just a little girl, and she didn’t understand what she was seeing. Once her mother calmed her down and explained what happened to you, she was very sorry for her reaction.” My head dropped as he spoke, and he reached one hand to my chin and raised my eyes to his. “Do you understand what I'm saying, Erik? Nothing that happened today was your fault.”
I silently looked at him, and then I slowly stood up, pulling my hand from his. I walked to a shelf and softly ran my fingers along the spines of the books, letting them trace the contours as I traversed the length of the room. I thought about what he had just said, and I knew he believed what he had said, but by the time I got to the corner, a conclusion had formed in my mind. I slowly turned around and dropped my hand to my side. My brow was furrowed in intense concentration, and I knew that I was frowning. I looked at Doctor Clark and battled with myself about whether to voice my thoughts.
He must have seen something of this struggle in my face because he stayed where he was and quietly stated, “Erik, what are you thinking? You know you can tell me anything, right?”
I nodded, and the battle was decided. My eyes never left his as I responded, “I do understand what you're saying, Doctor, and I know that I didn’t do anything to cause that girl's reaction, but what I don’t think you understand is that it doesn’t matter.” I saw confusion cross the doctor's face, but he didn’t speak. “What I mean is, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t physically do anything to scare her; just being me was enough. She saw my face and was terrified. You keep telling me that I am not a monster, but you are wrong. I may not be a monster on the inside like my father, but I am one on the outside. That little girl proved it.”
There was no emotion in my words as I spoke, and I was glad for that. The panic that had threatened to overtake me earlier had been pushed to the back of my mind, and it had been replaced with a numbness.
“Erik…” the doctor began, but I interrupted him.
“No, Doctor, please don’t try to tell me I'm wrong. I know I'm right, and I also know there is nothing I can do about it, so I have decided that I simply won’t interact with people any more. I don’t want to be the reason for their terror, unintended or not, and so I will not subject them to the sight of me.”
“Erik,” Doctor Clark said, standing and walking to me, “that is not the solution. I have told most of the residents of Willow about you and about your injury.” I frowned deeply at that, for I felt uncomfortable with the thought that my childhood was an open book for the people around me. He must have realized this because he hastily continued, “No, Erik, no one knows exactly how it happened. I would never tell anyone that without your permission. They simply know that you were severely cut, and it left bad scarring. They understand and will not be afraid of you or hate you because of something you have no control over.”
I desperately wanted to believe him, but I couldn’t. The little girl's reaction was still too fresh in my mind. As I looked at the concern in the doctor's eyes, however, I knew that I couldn’t cause him any more grief. I didn’t want to lie and tell him that he was right, so I simply said, “I don’t think you're right, but I will try. I guess we'll see which of us is right.” I was about to say more when the bell above the front door rang and Nurse Williams' voice floated up the stairs. My sharp ears picked up every word.
“Hillary, how nice to see you. How is Timothy's arm?”
“It's just fine, Shirley, thank you. Doctor Clark said it was just a sprain. He'll be in a sling for a little while, but that's all.”
“I am so glad to hear that. Are you here to see the doctor?”
“No.” There was a slight pause. “We are here to see Erik.”
At those words, the fear that I was so fiercely trying to bury forever attempted to submerge me in its blackness again, but I fought it back and locked it away in a remote corner of my mind. I was unable to completely ignore the persistent tapping as it fought to get free, though. As I stood there with my inner struggle, the doctor put his hand on my shoulder.
“Stay here, Erik,” he said quickly. “I'll see what they want.” He didn’t wait for my response but swiftly left the room. I heard his footsteps as he walked down the stairs, and then I heard his voice.
“Mrs. Thompson, how may I help you? Is Timothy doing all right?”
“Yes, Doctor Clark, thank you, he's doing just fine. We're here for a different reason. Sandy felt very bad about what happened earlier, and she'd like to apologize to Erik.”
“Um,” the doctor hesitated for a moment, but then he spoke again. “All right, I'll go get him.”
I heard his returning footsteps, and he appeared in the doorway. He was about to speak, but I spoke first.
“I heard,” I said flatly. “I suppose this is the first test, isn't it, Doctor?”
The frown that crossed his face sent a brief wave of remorse through me. I truly didn’t want to sound cold when I talked to him, but I knew that if I didn’t build up my defenses at once, I would fall apart once I went downstairs.
“Erik,” he said worriedly, “you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
“You're wrong,” I said shortly as I passed him and walked through the door, my back straight and my steps firm, “I do. Have to, that is. You said yourself that they will understand and accept me. Let's see if you are correct, shall we?”
I heard him sigh as I walked in front of him down the hall. He shut the door behind him and placed his hand on my shoulder as we went downstairs. At the bottom of the steps, he moved next to me and dropped his hand to my back. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to comfort me or encourage me, but at that moment, I needed neither. I was not scared of what might happen, and I was determined to show him that I was right, that no one could accept me as I was.
Mrs. Johnson and Sandy were standing by Nurse Williams, and at the sound of our footsteps, they turned toward us. I felt a perverse sense of validation when I saw the woman's eyes go wide and heard her inhale sharply. Sandy tried to duck behind her mother, but Mrs. Johnson's hand held her tightly to her side. I gave them credit, though, for no other sound escaped them, and I stopped just a few feet in front of them.
We stood for a moment, staring at each other, and then Doctor Clark moved between us and said, “Erik, this is Mrs. Johnson and her daughter, Sandy. Mrs. Johnson, Sandy, this is Erik Taylor.”
The initial shock had worn off for the most part, and the woman stuck out her hand. “It's nice to meet you, Erik,” she said kindly, but I could still hear a slight waver in her voice. I took her hand graciously, however, and shook it.
“Nice to meet you, too, Mrs. Johnson. I'm sorry about what happened earlier.” My words were polite and sincere, but there was an underlying coldness to them, and I saw her frown slightly.
“No, Erik, you don’t have anything to be sorry about. My daughter, however, does.” She pushed Sandy forward slightly, and I saw fear on the little girl's face again. It wasn’t the terror I saw earlier, but she was definitely scared. “Go on, Sandy,” her mother instructed.
The little girl swallowed and looked up at me, her hands clasped tightly behind her back. “I'm sorry I screamed,” she said in a small voice that tore a tiny hole in the veil of indifference I was attempting to place around myself. A tear escaped her eye and trickled down her cheek, but she made no move to wipe it away. “Mama told me that you got hurt, and that you were just a nice boy, and that I shouldn'ta got scared, so I want to say I’m sorry.”
I was not sure if the tear came from her fear or her shame, but I told myself that it didn’t matter to me. I swiftly mended the hole she had caused and stared down at her. “Don’t be sorry,” I responded without feeling. “I understand.” I didn’t want to elaborate any further about what I understood, and so I left it there, and Sandy dropped her head and looked at the floor.
There was an awkward silence, and then Mrs. Johnson spoke again. “Erik, I want you to know that you are always welcome at our house. Please don’t let what happened keep us from becoming friends.” Her words sounded sincere, but I was unable to completely accept them as such. Her first response to the sight of my face was too firmly embedded in my mind to be ignored. I nodded, however, and tried to smile.
“Thank you, Mrs. Johnson; I'll remember that.”
To me, her words and answering smile seemed just as forced as mine, and then she took a step toward the door, pushing Sandy in front of her. “Good,” she said a little too quickly. “I hope to see you soon, then.” I thought I heard a sigh of relief as they exited the house, but I wasn’t sure.
I turned toward Doctor Clark and saw that he was not smiling. In fact, he looked worried and a little angry. I didn’t know what he was angry about, but I didn’t care. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nurse Williams move toward me, her hand up as if to comfort me, but my next words to the doctor stopped her.
“I told you.”
The doctor's brows came together, and he stared at me intently. “Told me what, Erik?”
I let out a short, harsh laugh. “Oh, please!” I rasped out. “You can't tell me you didn't see the fear in that little girl's eyes. Or the shock in the mother's when she saw me. They were scared of me. They were scared of this!” My left hand gestured at my face sharply, and I grew angry myself. “Now, if you don’t mind, Doctor, I'd like to go to my room.” My voice had grown cold again, and I felt a slight twinge of contrition at the pain I saw cross the doctor's face, but I steeled myself against it.
“Erik…” the doctor began, but then he stopped and seemed to reconsider. He sighed deeply and said, “Go ahead.”
I nodded curtly and ascended the stairs. At my bedroom door, before I opened it, I paused with my hand on the knob when I heard the nurse’s voice.
“He isn't wrong, Henry.”
Another sigh drifted up the stairs. “I know, Shirley. That's why I'm angry. I truly thought people would accept him if they knew what had happened. Am I really that naïve? I mean, we accept him—we love him.”
“I know, but we've also known him longer. Perhaps he just needs to get out and meet people—let them get to know the kind, gentle, brilliant boy that he is. We know that boy, but no one else does.”
You are wrong about that, I thought as I quietly opened the door, slipped into my room, and just as quietly shut it. My mother knew, but she's gone. She proved that even love isn't enough for anyone to stay with me. If it was, she never would have left.I sat on my bed and picked up one of the books that covered my nightstand. I opened it and stared at the page, registering nothing as that last thought raced around my brain. I knew that my mother loved me, but she left anyway. Doctor Clark and Nurse Williams said they love me, so did that mean that they would leave someday, too? The demons that never left me cruelly whispered the answer—Yes!