By the time I heard footsteps outside my door, I had already been reading my book by the light of the lamp next to the bed for about three hours. I was dressed in a white shirt, blue suit, and blue tie. I had spent half an hour earlier shining my everyday black shoes, for I had decided that if I couldn’t control how my face looked, I could at least control how the rest of me looked, and maybe, if I made sure I dressed well, people would not notice my face as much.
Before the doctor could knock, I walked to the door and opened it. If I hadn’t been so nervous, I might have laughed at the surprised looked on his face, but in truth, I was trying not to retch.
“Erik? How long have you been up?”
I didn’t answer, but just shrugged one shoulder and looked at the floor. I only flinched a little when I felt his hand on my shoulder.
“Erik, look at me.”
My head came up slowly, and I saw the concern on the doctor’s face. He took my chin between his fingers and looked at me closely.
“Talk to me. What are you thinking?”
I opened my mouth to tell him, but at that moment, my stomach finally decided to rebel, and I could feel the bile begin to rise. I wrenched myself from his grasp and rushed down the hallway, just barely making it to the toilet before losing what little was in my stomach. I knelt there, gasping and trying to get my body back under control, and then I heard the doctor behind me. My cheeks flamed as I thought about how weak I still was, and I waited for the words of disappointment and disgust that I felt would be justified. Instead, I heard water running, and then the doctor knelt down next to me and gently wiped my forehead with a cool, wet cloth.
“It’s all right, Erik,” he whispered, using his other hand to gently rub circles on my back. “It’s all right.”
After about five minutes and several dry heaves, it felt like my stomach contents would stay where it belonged, and I sat back on my heels, hands on my knees. I looked over at Doctor Clark, who was still kneeling beside me, and he must have seen something in my face, for he said, “You know you don’t have to come with me, right? I would never force you to do something you didn’t want to do.”
I shook my head and swallowed, grimacing at the burning in my throat. “No,” I said softly. “I want to go. I don’t want to be confined any more. I want to be able to go out among people without fear.”
Doctor Clark studied me for a moment, and then he nodded. “Very well, if you say so.” He stood up and held out his hand to me, and when I took it, he gently pulled me to my feet. “Get yourself cleaned up, and I’ll meet you downstairs, yes?”
I straightened myself and my clothing. “Yes,” I answered, and he smiled and left the room. I placed both of my hands on the sink and hung my head for a moment, taking deep breaths. Then I turned on the cold water and rinsed my mouth before splashing some on my face. Drying myself with a hand towel, I stood straight again and looked in the mirror. Time had softened my scar, and it was an even white, with no red edging it, but it was still extremely noticeable, and my eye and mouth were still distorted so that it looked like I was squinting and grimacing at the same time. I smiled into the mirror, and then frowned when I saw that still only one side of my mouth lifted. The other was held in place by the scar, and my eyebrows came together. At that moment, all the hatred and anger in me flared to life, and I clenched my fist. I actually raised it in order to hit the offending image, but I caught myself before I let it fly. I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths before I felt I could control myself, but when I opened them, the frown was still on my face. I was so angry that I knew it would be there for a long while, so I simply hung up the towel and left the bathroom.
I went to my room to get my suitcase, but it was already gone, so I walked down the stairs to the front room. It was sitting next to the front door along with the doctor’s, and there was a light coming from underneath his office door. I knocked on the door, and heard the shuffling of papers and the scrape of a chair on the wooden floor. Within seconds, the door opened, and the doctor stood there looking at me.
I simply shook my head and turned toward the door and picked up both suitcases. I waited without speaking, and then I heard the doctor sigh heavily.
"Let’s go, then,” he said.
I followed him to the car and put the suitcases in the trunk before getting in. The doctor climbed in next to me and stared at me for a moment before starting the car. No words were spoken between us as we drove out of Willow in the early morning light.
Once outside the town limits, though, Doctor Clark said, “Something is wrong, Erik, and I wish you will tell me what it is. The nausea was from nervousness, I understand that, but now you’re angry. What happened after I went downstairs?”
I looked over at him and took a deep breath. I gritted my teeth to keep from screaming out my frustration and anger. “I tried to smile,” I said simply.
Suddenly, my self-control snapped. “My father took away everything from me!” I yelled. “My childhood, my mother, my face, my security, and even my ability to smile!”
“Erik, what are you talking about? You smile all the time.”
“No,” I shook my head, “I can only half-smile. Did you not notice that the left side of my mouth doesn’t move?”
“Of course I noticed it,” the doctor said, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t smile.” He glanced over at me. “Erik, you have a wonderful smile. When you are happy, your entire face lights up. Your eyes glow, and you make other people smile with you.”
I huffed and turned to look at the passing scenery. I didn’t want to believe him, but once again, my conscience told me that he had never lied to me, so why would he start? I watched the trees and fields and flowers fly by, and I slowly relaxed. I decided that the doctor knew more about life than I did, and I would trust him on this, as I had on everything else. Having made that decision, I instantly felt better, and I turned to him again.
“See,” he said with a smile, “I told you.”
“Told me what?”
“That when you smile, others do, too.”
I hadn’t realized that I was smiling, but I settled back into the seat and proceeded to enjoy the trip. The scenery was absolutely beautiful, with flowers in full bloom and birds and small animals abundant in the fields and trees. Once, I even saw a black bear about fifty feet from the road, lumbering its way into the forest, unaffected by the vehicle passing by it.
After a while, the doctor and I began talking about what we would see and do in Knoxville. He wanted to take me to dinner and the theater, which was what my black suit was for, and he promised we’d spend some time shopping in the many stores downtown. I asked about the number of people that would be there, and I momentarily panicked when the answer was “somewhere around a hundred thousand.” So many people, and they would all be looking at me! The doctor noticed my fear, though, and he reassured me that because there were so many people, one more boy would not be that noticeable. That calmed me somewhat, but as we got near the city, my palms began to sweat and my heart began to race.
When the streets began to fill with cars and people, and the buildings grew closer and closer together, I knew we were nearing our destination, and my eyes grew wide as I took in all that was around me. The buildings were taller than anything I had ever seen, and there were more people than I had even imagined in one place. For a long time, I could only look in wonder at the sights around me, but after a while, I began noticing some details.
One of the first things I noticed was that the clothing that Doctor Clark and I wore was of much finer quality than that of most of the people walking on the sidewalks, and while I hadn’t really seen many people from Willow, I did know that the ones who came to the house, for the most part, didn’t dress as well as we did.
Another thing was the car we were driving in. I had asked the doctor about it once, and he said he had just bought it. It was a 1930 Alfa Romeo Spyder, and he’d had it shipped all the way from Italy. It was one of two cars he owned. The other was a Ford Model A, which was the one he used around Willow. This one was much nicer, and he kept it covered with a thick cloth in a locked shed next to Aurora’s stable. Most of the cars passing us were closer to the Model A than this one, and the thought came to me once again that the doctor had a lot of money. I thought about this as we turned a corner and I saw a huge white building with a long line of cars in front of it. I felt my mouth drop open at the sight, but I couldn’t seem to close it.
“Do you live here, too, Doctor?” I gasped as he bypassed the line and headed straight to the front door.
I was not prepared for the hearty laugh that came from the doctor at my question. “Only when I come to the city for business, Erik,” he chuckled. “This isn’t a house; it’s the Clark Hotel.”
“Oh,” I said, and I instantly recalled everything I had read about hotels. I knew that they were places where people paid money to stay for a short time when they were away from home, but I hadn’t fathomed that one would be as big as this one was. It was three stories, and it stretched about one hundred yards from end to end. The roof was blue slate, and the walls were a pristine white.
As we stopped, a young man in a blue jacket and white pants moved to the doctor’s door and opened it for him, holding it while the doctor climbed out.
“Doctor Clark, it is good to have you back with us.”
“Thank you, John.”
I looked at the doctor in confusion, and he just smiled and nodded for me to get out of the car. I did and then moved toward the trunk to pull out our suitcases.
“Just leave them, Erik. The bellboy will get them.” I could still hear humor in the doctor’s voice, and I frowned slightly, thinking that he was laughing at me.
He put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be angry, Erik. I find the situation humorous, not you,” he said as another young man in blue and white stepped forward.
“Doctor Clark,” he said respectfully, “how nice to see you again. May I get your bags for you?”
“Of course, Sebastian,” the doctor responded, and he guided me forward as the man got the suitcases from the trunk. “Just follow my lead, Erik,” he said softly. “You don’t have to speak to anyone if you don’t want to.”
Nodding silently, I quickly decided to try to keep my reactions to my surroundings to myself until I could ask the doctor questions in private. I certainly didn’t want to act like the country fool that I was.
I directed my attention to the hotel itself, and I attempted not to stare at the beauty of it. I didn’t have much success. The large lobby was brightly lit with five chandeliers that looked like brilliant, twinkling stars. The couches and chairs scattered around the room had rich, blue coverings, and as I walked past one, I gently brushed my hand over it. The covering was soft and smooth, almost silky, and I delighted in the texture. The rest of the furnishings were just as stunning, from the end tables to the planters that held tall, yellow-flowered trees.
Suddenly, I ran into the back of Doctor Clark, and I looked up to see that he had stopped in front of a counter.
“I’m sorry, Doctor,” I said contritely, but he only chuckled.
“That’s all right, Erik.” He wrote something down on a piece of paper, and then turned to look around the room. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I said softly, embarrassed that I was so caught up in the room that I hadn’t watched where I was going.
He smiled kindly at me and then turned to the person behind the counter. Looking up, my heart skipped a beat. I found myself looking at the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. Her golden blonde hair was twisted into a perfectly formed bun, and that only served to accentuate the long curve of her neck. She had the look of the Greek goddesses I had seen in the doctor's books. Her eyes were as blue as the sky when there isn’t a cloud to be seen and just as fathomless, and her skin was a pristine, alabaster white. Those eyes sparkled brightly when Doctor Clark began talking to her, and I could immediately tell that she was happy to see him. Her eyes never left his face, and she looked as if she might faint when he smiled at her.
“Effie, how long will it take to get my suite ready for my ward and me?” He placed one hand around my shoulder and pulled me forward.
A surge of panic rushed through me, but the doctor's strong hand around me and the slight squeeze on my arm gave me the courage to quash it and stand straight and tall beside him. The girl's gaze swung toward me, and when her eyes went wide with horror and she sucked in a quick breath, I had to force myself to keep my face impassive. It was obvious that she was profoundly shocked to see me, and her hand flying to her mouth only reinforced it. I suddenly decided that I was tired of feeling ashamed and afraid, and I instead became intensely angry. I stood as still as a statue, staring daggers at her, mentally daring her to say anything.
“This is Erik Taylor,” the doctor said, seemingly unaware of the tension in the air. “He will be staying with me.”
“Oh,” Effie started at his words, and her eyes flew back to him, “yes, sir. I...um...” She quickly looked down as if to compose herself. “The suite is ready now, sir.” She tried to surreptitiously glance at me again, but since I had yet to look away from her, I saw it clearly.
“Good,” Doctor Clark said and then turned to me. “Ready, Erik?”
At the sound of my name, I dragged my eyes to him and saw him frown at the look on my face, which I assumed wasn’t pleasant. “Yes.” The frown deepened at the coldness in my tone, but I had already decided that Knoxville would be no different than Willow, perhaps worse with a hundred times more people to stare at me, and I started to close my heart away behind an impenetrable wall of stone, determined that no one and nothing would breach it, not even the doctor.“Very well,” he replied, the frown never lessening, and he nodded once to Effie before walking away from the counter. I also gave the young woman a crisp nod and followed him, but not before I saw her flinch and quickly turn her head away. I sighed inwardly and focused my attention on the doctor's back. I was determined not to let anyone see my discomfort, and each step across the blue carpet added another stone to the wall around my heart.