Minutes or hours later, a voice brought my head up slowly.
As my eyes focused on the face hovering in front of me, peering closely through the gloom, the voice continued.
“Oh, thank heaven! We’ve been looking everywhere for you! Are you all right?”
My mind cleared, and I realized that the voice belonged to Sebastian, the bell boy from the hotel, and I was shocked to see concern and relief on his face. Black, thick suspicion flowed over me, and my seemingly ever-present glare returned. I pushed myself off of the wall and stood tall, and he straightened in front of me.
“I’m fine,” I said, and the corners of his mouth dipped slightly.
“Um…good.” He hesitated. “Doctor Clark is waiting for you back at his hotel. He sent us out to find you.”
“Thank you,” I said stiffly, “but that wasn’t necessary. I was just on my way back.”
It alarmed me how easily the lie slipped from my lips, but Sebastian didn’t seem to question it. “Well, do you mind if I walk back with you?”
I did, but I also didn’t know my way back, so I squared my shoulders and brushed off my clothing. “Not at all. Do you mind?”
“Do you mind walking back with me?”
“Wha…no, of course not.”
“Really?” I said with more than a little incredulity. “You’re not concerned about walking about in public with me? Not ashamed to be seen with a freak?”
Sebastian paused and stared at me for a moment, and I saw anger building in his gaze. “Listen, I don’t know what happened to you, but you’re a little young to be so cynical, and I don’t appreciate you assuming the worst about me.”
“Is it an assumption? I saw the way you looked at me at the hotel.”
He threw up his hands. “Curiosity, nothing more. You can’t blame me for wondering.”
That stopped me as I appreciated that he may be right. I cocked my head and searched Sebastian’s eyes for any hint of untruthfulness, but all I saw were clear brown orbs gazing back at me, and I could see frustration and a touch of hurt in them.
“All right,” I said thoughtfully as I gestured down the street, “lead the way.”
Sebastian nodded once and turned from me, glancing over his shoulder as if to see if I would really follow. He seemed surprised that I was right beside him. We walked in silence for several blocks, my attention not on where we were headed, but on the shops and side streets and alleyways we passed. I hoped beyond reason to catch another glimpse of my mother, but there was nothing, and by the time Sebastian spoke again, I had almost convinced myself that I had never seen her or my father at all, that it was all just an expression of my overactive imagination.
“So, what did happen to you?”
Sebastian’s tone was conversational, but when I turned to him, I saw him trying not to stare. My brow furrowed, and I decided to satisfy his curiosity in a rather morbid way.
“You mean every time, or just the last time?”
“Uh, I meant your…” he waggled his fingers weakly toward my face.
“Ah, the last time. This,” I gestured to my scar, “was the final loving stroke my father gave to me before he disappeared with my mother.”
Sebastian visibly swallowed. “Final?”
“Final. It was the culmination of seventeen years of beatings and abuse. It was just the first one that needed a doctor’s attention afterwards.”
“Wow,” Sebastian breathed. He paused as if unsure how to continue. “What…what did he use? A knife?”
“No,” I said as if discussing the weather, “although he normally used his fists, feet, or belt, on this particular occasion, he used a glass jar.”
“I…” he stopped walking and turned to face me fully when I halted beside him. “I just want to say I’m sorry you had to go through that, Mr. Taylor.”
I frowned and looked at him skeptically. “Why?”
“Why am I sorry?”
My answer was a nod.
“Well,” he said, starting to walk again, “because no one deserves to be treated like that, especially a child.” He glanced at me. “Not that you’re much of a child now, but when you were smaller…”
I didn’t know what to say. Up until that point, only the doctor and Nurse Williams had said anything about the injustice of my father’s treatment of me. It surprised me to find out that others felt the same way they did. This thought threatened to knock a few stones from the wall I’d built, and I wondered how many more people thought like Sebastian.
“Thank you,” I said softly. “That means more to me than you could know.”
Sebastian smiled at me and put his arm around my shoulder. I flinched at the sudden movement and despised myself for it, but he ignored it.
“Well, that’s enough of the gloomy stuff,” he said lightly. “What do you think of Knoxville so far?”
My eyebrows rose, and I stared at him. “You’re joking.”
“No, why would I be?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because my entire time here has been spent either dealing with people staring at me or getting lost.”
“Lost?” He laughed. “I thought you were on your way back to the hotel.”
I frowned and my glare returned.
“Hey,” he said, his tone serious, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to laugh.”
“It’s all right,” I said, straightening my shoulders and looking straight ahead. “I need to not be so sensitive.”
“Hm, that may be,” Sebastian replied pensively, “although I’d say that you have every right to be upset when people stare or say things to you. Perhaps if you just didn’t let people know how much it bothers you, it would be better.”
“I try not to,” I said with a huff, “but I’m tired of having to deal with something that isn’t even my fault!”
“I agree that it’s not fair, but then again, life isn’t always fair, so…”
He didn’t finish his thought as we rounded a corner and saw the hotel. Suddenly, I had no desire to face Doctor Clark. I knew that I had hurt him terribly with my earlier words and my running away, and my feet slowed until I was at a standstill as shame overwhelmed me.
“Mr. Taylor?” Sebastian also stopped and looked at me with concern.
He seemed to sense what was wrong because he leaned closed to me and said, “Listen, I don’t know exactly what went on between you and the doctor, but he’s a good man, and I’m sure it will all work out.”
“But I said something to him that was awful.” I flushed and looked at the ground. “I don’t know if he’ll want to see me again.”
“Are you kidding? Not five minutes passed after you ran off that he sent all of us bellboys out to look for you.” He chuckled, and I looked up to see him grinning at me. “You must be really fast, you know. By the time we started out, you were nowhere to be seen.”
“Not fast enough,” I mumbled as I recalled that I couldn’t catch my parents, if they had been there at all.
Sebastian looked at me with confusion, but then he put his hands on my shoulders and turned me toward him. I had to look down at him slightly since I was taller, but I still felt like a little boy about to be scolded.
“Listen, you need to man up and face Doctor Clark. Whatever happened between you two, I’m sure he’ll understand.”
I stared at him for a moment, and then I nodded. Without a word, I pulled away from him and began the walk to the hotel. As I got closer, my hands started to sweat, and my breathing quickened, but I berated myself for my weakness and kept my feet moving. I noticed the stares and whispers around me, but I ignored them. My head held high, I took one step through the front doors before I heard the doctor’s voice.
“I don’t care how long it takes, Thomas! The guests will simply have to wait a little longer. That boy must be found!”
Doctor Clark was facing away from me, but I could see the tension in his shoulders, and an indefinable pain flowed through me with the knowledge that I put it there.
“But Doctor,” the portly man in blue and white in front of him said, wringing his hands, “you’ve only left two bellboys and three valets here.” I saw him cringe slightly, and I assumed the doctor’s glare was as fierce as mine usually was. “We’re starting to get complaints about the lack of service.”
“Fine, if anyone complains, tell them they can have their room for free tonight. Better yet, so no one gets upset, make an announcement that there is an emergency that requires the staff’s attention, and to compensate for the inconvenience, all rooms are on the house tonight.”
“But Doctor, the cost!”
“Damn the cost, Thomas!” the doctor bellowed, and the man flinched. “I want everyone looking for Erik! I will not have anything happen to that boy if I can prevent it!”
The man nodded hesitantly, and then looked over Doctor Clark’s shoulder when Sebastian spoke.
“Doctor Clark, he’s right here.”
The doctor spun around, and his lips compressed as he stalked toward us. Inside, I was cringing as much as the man he was talking to, but I stood tall and forced myself to meet his eye. I couldn’t keep myself from clenching my jaw and bracing myself for a blow when his hands came up, though. I knew he had said he would never hurt me, but he was so angry that I was sure he would forget his promise and strike me. I was taken aback, therefore, when the blow never fell. Instead, Doctor Clark simply touched me gently.
“Erik,” he breathed as his hands and eyes skimmed over my head and shoulders and arms. “Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” I said, perplexed. “I’m not hurt.”
“Thank God.” The words were barely a whisper, and then he turned to Sebastian. “And thank you, Sebastian. I can assure you that there will be a reward for you.”
“That’s not necessary, Doctor. I really just happened to come across Mr. Taylor. He was on his way back here, and I simply walked with him.”
I inwardly cringed as my lie was repeated, and I looked at Sebastian who was smiling at me. I knew in that instant that he had never been fooled by my words, but he was kind enough to keep up the pretense. I nodded to him, and he nodded back.
“Nevertheless, I always compensate good work, and that is what you have done here.”
Sebastian shrugged one shoulder. “As you wish, sir.” Then he turned to me and held out his hand. I took it slowly, and we shook. “Mr. Taylor, it was very nice talking to you. I wish you all the best.”
“Thank you,” I said, and then he turned and walked away.
The doctor put his hand on my shoulder, and we turned toward the man he had been talking to when I walked in.
“Thomas, forget what I just said. Send word out that Mr. Taylor has returned and that everyone is to return to work.”
“Yes, sir,” the man said in a tone of voice that I imagined would fit better on a peasant kneeling before a king than on a modern man.
“And Thomas?” The man stopped, looked back at us, and raised his eyebrows.
“I’m sorry I spoke to you in such a way just now. Please forgive me.”
“Oh, sir, there is nothing to forgive.” He gave a smile to match the tone and hurried away.
“I truly despise that man,” the doctor said to himself, but I heard him loud and clear, and I tried not to grin, for, although I had only seen a little of the man, I couldn’t agree more. Then the doctor’s brows came together, and he turned to me. “Come on, Erik; we need to talk.”
Anxiety boiled within me, but I followed when he led the way to the elevator. Once inside, he hit the button for the third floor, and when the doors closed, to my utter shock, he pulled me into a hug. “Please don’t ever do that to me again,” he said softly, but I only stood stiffly in his embrace. When we got to our floor, he released me, and we walked down the hallway to the suite. Once there, he opened the door and gestured for me to enter. I took one step through the doorway and stopped.
I glanced behind me. The doctor had shut the door, and he nodded toward the white couch in the main room. The few steps it took to get there seemed to take forever, and when I was seated, I kept my eyes on the blue carpeting.
“Erik, look at me.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him; the shame of my actions and the guilt about making him worry were overwhelming.
“I…” I gritted my teeth against the emotions flooding my brain—disgrace, self-reproach, and disgust. The disgust was rapidly becoming the eminent feeling, disgust toward myself for two completely different reasons. The first was for causing the doctor the slightest bit of pain when he had always only been truthful and kind to me, and the second was for allowing myself to succumb to any sort of weakness.
As I continued to stare at the floor, the doctor came into my view as he knelt before me. I frowned and wrenched my head up to direct my gaze away from him, and it landed on the window. He sighed deeply, and I tried to contain a grimace as I struggled not to react.
“All right, then,” he said as he moved to a chair opposite the couch, “just listen. I’m sorry, Erik.”
My head slowly swiveled toward him, and my frown deepened. “What could you possibly have to be sorry for? I’m the one who should be apologizing.”
“Yes, you should.”
My frown became one of confusion, and I cocked my head as I watched him relax back into the chair.
“Well, I do apologize, Doctor. I’m sorry for what I said, and I’m sorry I ran off. I don’t know what made me do either of them.”
“I think I do, my boy, and that’s what I’m sorry for. I’m sorry I didn’t realize how much you’ve been hurting inside. Your physical wounds have, for the most part, healed, but I wasn’t aware that you’ve been bottling up all this anger. I should have seen it when you yelled at me in the car on the way here, but I didn’t, and I’m sorry.”
An uncomfortable feeling filled me as he voiced his regret. “So,” I said slowly as my eyebrows rose, “you’re saying that you’re sorry you can’t read my mind.”
The doctor’s lips twitched, and he chuckled. “I suppose I am, and when you put it that way, it sounds rather foolish.” When I didn’t respond, he sat forward on the chair. “Something is still bothering you, Erik. Will you tell me what it is?”I sat silently for a moment and debated whether to mention my parents. It only took a moment, however, and then I took a deep breath and told Doctor Clark everything that had happened since I found myself on the filthy street corner.