“Was it your father or your mother, sir?”
I stiffened and sucked in a breath through my teeth. “What are you talking about?” I knew, of course, but I wanted to hear her say it.
“The monster in your paintings. Your father or your mother?”
I almost spun around in anger at the thought of someone accusing my mother of being such a fiend, but I controlled myself with great effort. The only sign of my anxiety was the rapid clenching and unclenching of my fists.
“What makes you think it was either of them?” I asked tightly.
“I don’t know for sure, of course,” Sarah replied softly, and I heard rustling behind me, “but I have found that it is usually a parent who abuses a child, not a stranger.”
I gritted my teeth and took a deep breath before glancing over my shoulder. “Miss McAllister, it is very presumptuous of you to determine that I was abused when you know nothing about me.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly, and she frowned. I couldn’t help but think that she was almost more beautiful when she was angry than when she was not. “I don’t think it is a presumption, Mr. Desmond,” she said stiffly. “I told you that I understood, and I do.” She moved to the side of my desk, and I angled my body so that my back was still to her. “Your paintings told me a story that I used to live every day. It has been many, many years since my mother abandoned me to the streets, but I still remember every insult and every wound she ever inflicted upon me.” Her words became more bitter as she spoke, but her voice got softer until at the end, she was almost whispering, and I looked back at her just as a single tear trickled down her cheek.
One stone in the wall surrounding and protecting me shuddered and threatened to fall free, but I forced it back into place and turned my back on her fully as I answered frostily, “You have no idea what nonsense you are speaking, Miss McAllister. You have no right to say such things to me, and I wish for you to leave, immediately.”
A small gasp reached my ears, but I reinforced the wall a bit more and waited, iciness radiating from my every pore. Glancing over my shoulder at her, I sneered, “Are you still here?”
“No,” she whispered before she turned and fled out the door.
As soon as she was gone, I dropped into my chair and hung my head. I didn’t move as I heard the door open and close and became aware of Sebastian’s footsteps as they approached me.
“What did she say, Erik?” he asked softly.
“Nothing!” I answered through clenched teeth, not sure if I was more angry at her words or more ashamed at the way I had just treated her, but after a short while, I decided to just be angry. “She was just a foolish girl who talks too much!”
The sound of incredulity Sebastian made caused me to spin my chair around and glare at him. “What do you mean by that?”
“By what?” he asked, eyes wide and innocent. “I didn’t say anything.”
I surged to my feet, and he took a wary step backward.
“Erik, what’s going on?”
“Nothing,” I repeated stiffly. “I am going to work out.” Taking another step toward him, I gave him a feral grin. “I have the undeniable urge to hit something. Be very glad it isn’t you.”
Without letting him respond, I headed toward the stairs at the back of my office and made my way up to my apartment. As soon as I was in my living room, I began stripping off my clothes until I was clad in nothing except my trunks. By the time I was standing in front of the heavy bag hanging from the rafters in the back room of the penthouse, there was a trail of clothing behind me, and I was more than ready to do whatever was necessary to bring my mind back to the unemotional, indifferent place I liked it to be. I wrapped my hands and flexed them a few times before settling into a boxer’s stance and taking a swing at the bag. The instant my fist impacted the bag, I let my thoughts drift as my body took over. I didn’t know why I had responded to Sarah the way I did. It bothered me more than I cared to admit that she knew exactly what the oils depicted. I didn’t know if it was the idea that she had been through something similar to my own childhood or if it was that she had threatened to break down my carefully built walls that made my fists fly again and again. After a while, I no longer focused on the fact that I had shut down completely when we were in the same room. Instead, all I saw in my mind’s eye was a beautiful, dark-haired girl with sad, brown eyes staring at me as if her heart had been shattered into a thousand pieces. After one last strike at the bag, I wrapped my arms around it and laid my head against the cool leather.
I was breathing heavily, and I glanced at the clock on the wall to my right. I had been pounding the bag for over an hour, and I could feel the burn in my muscles, but it felt good. I unwrapped my first hand but stopped and stared at it as I dropped the tape to the floor. Studying it closely as I formed a fist, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to actually hit someone. The unwanted memory of my fingers around the Dutchman’s throat came back to me in a rush, and I shuddered as I remembered the pleasure I had felt as he lost consciousness.
Exhaling slowly and turning even slower, I saw my one and only friend standing in the doorway. If it hadn’t been for my exceptional hearing, I probably would not have heard him, he spoke so softly.
“What is it, Sebastian?” I sighed.
“Are you all right?”
The disquiet he exuded immediately penetrated my wall as only he could, and I felt remorse at how I had treated him earlier. Running my hands through my sweat-slicked hair, I remembered that I had never finished unwrapping my hands. Busying myself with that task, I nodded my head for a moment and then changed to shaking it.
“No, I’m not,” I admitted.
“Can you tell me what happened?” He took one step into the room, but I held up my hand. Stopping, he looked at me questioningly.
Without a word, I moved past him, and he stepped aside to let me go. I headed toward the bathroom and was not surprised when he followed me. I ignored him as I turned the shower on full blast, the hot water promptly steaming up the air and the glass enclosing the shower. I removed my trunks and stepped under the water before closing the door. Unfortunately for me, even with the glass and the streaming water, I could still hear Sebastian.
“Erik,” he said as he sat on the toilet, “I’m not going anywhere. Talk to me.”
“I have nothing to say, Sebastian. Go away.”
I frowned and glared at him through the fogged glass. “What do you want me to say? That I’m angry? Fine, I’m angry.”
“At what? Or should I ask ‘at whom?’”
I groaned as I let the water wash away the sweat and dirt and shame and anger and…
“Fear,” I whispered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” I mumbled, but he wouldn’t stop. For the next ten minutes, he badgered me to talk to him, and I tried my best to get him to leave me alone. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I hurled my fist into the tile, instantly regretting it as pain radiated down my arm.
“Damn it, Sebastian! Let it go!”
“Not a chance, Erik! I’m not going to let you bottle everything inside you this time! Tell me what happened in your office with that girl! Why did she run out crying? What did you do to her?”
His words caused my blood to go cold even with the scorching heat of the water. “She was crying?”
“She was trying to hide it, but yes!” I heard his irritation, and I slowly turned off the water and opened the door of the shower. “I talked to her at the elevator, and she said she was fine, but I know she wasn’t, so I ask you again. What did you do to her?”
Guilt filled me as I wrapped a towel around my hips. “I was inexcusably rude to her.”
He cocked his head. “That’s what she said, but I didn’t believe her.” Skepticism was written all over his face. “I’ve never known you to be rude to anyone, Erik, not since we’ve been in New York. Distant and unapproachable, yes. But always unquestionably polite, never rude. What is going on with you?”
I shrugged as I pushed past him and entered my bedroom. I slowly sank into a chair, not even bothering to dress. “She understands what my paintings were about.”
“And this is a bad thing?” Sebastian sat on the edge of my bed.
“Yes, Sebastian, don’t you see? If she understands, that means she went through it, too.” I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose against the headache I felt coming on. “She asked me if it was my father or my mother who abused me. I practically called her a liar when she said that and told her she didn’t know what she was talking about.”
I opened my eyes a slit and stared at him. “Why what?”
“Why did you tell her that?”
My head dropped back against the chair, and my eyes closed again. “Because I couldn’t bear for a stranger to know the truth. I was scared.”
“Scared of her?”
“No,” I replied, trying to put my thoughts into words, “scared that if she knew what happened to me…”
“What, Erik? Say it.”
“Say what, Sebastian? I don’t even know what I’m afraid of.”
“Yes you do.”
I glared at him for a moment, and then stood up and moved to the dresser. I placed both of my hands on the top and stared at myself in the mirror. “I can’t let her in, Sebastian.” My words were barely a whisper, but he heard me clearly.
“Because.” I stopped and trailed one finger down my scar, flinching as I felt the rough tissue. “Because if she gets in, she’ll see the real me, and the real me is nothing.”
His reflection showed a deep frown, and disbelief was blatant in his expression. “You can’t be serious. Don’t tell me you believe all that crap your father fed you as a child.”
“It wasn’t true when he said it, no,” I responded, turning toward him and leaning back against the dresser. “But look at me now, Sebastian. Look what he did to me! Nothing I can ever do in life can make up for the fact that I am hideous! No one will ever accept that a monster like me is behind my beautiful works of art.”
“I see it every day, Erik, and I’ve got to tell you, I don’t even notice it anymore.” He stood and walked toward me. “You are my friend, Mr. Desmond, and I will always tell you the truth, even when it might hurt you, so believe me when I say that you are an amazing person.” He laid his hands on my shoulders, and I dropped my gaze to the floor. “Look at me, Erik.”
I raised my eyes and surprise filled me at the sincerity in his eyes. “You are my friend,” he repeated, “and you are the best person I know. You are talented, smart, kind, and courteous…most of the time.” He grinned, and I couldn’t help but smile slightly.
“You forgot handsome,” I joked, but my words caused his grin to disappear, and I instantly regretted them.
“That, too,” he said seriously. “God, Erik, if I weren’t a guy, I’d have fallen for you a long time ago.”
My eyebrows came together, and I pulled myself from his grasp. “Not funny, Sebastian.”
“You think I’m kidding? Erik, you’re extremely good-looking, and you’ve got a body most men would kill for! I wish you would believe me.”
I tried to believe that he was telling the truth and not just trying to make me feel better, but the mirror told me differently every time I looked into it. I walked toward my closet and began to pull on some clothes.
“I appreciate the lie, Sebastian, but nothing will ever convince me that I’m handsome, or even decent, and no one will be able to reconcile my work with the real me.”
“How do you know that? You’ve never given anyone the chance.”
I froze with my shirt unbuttoned as I realized he was right, but just the thought of letting someone else get close to me was terrifying, and my hands began to sweat and shake as I once again saw little Sandy Johnson screaming in terror after just one look at me. “I can’t.”
I whirled on him and shouted, “I can’t, Sebastian! You will never understand! I can’t do it! I can’t set myself up for that again! Every person who has ever seen me since that night has either run away screaming or made some comment about how disgusting I am!”
I clenched my teeth and glowered at him. “Don’t go there, Sebastian. You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I do,” he said simply, “and I know that you are wrong. Your mother, Doctor Clark, Nurse Williams. They all loved you for who you are—an insanely gifted, artistic person who has a great capacity to give and receive love and friendship if you would only let yourself.”
“Don’t talk about them,” I snarled suddenly.
My hand shot out, and I grabbed Sebastian by the shirtfront and dragged him toward me up onto his toes. “Don’t talk about them,” I repeated, enunciating each word clearly and icily.
“Let go of me, Erik,” he said slowly.
I opened my hand abruptly, and he dropped to his feet. Straightening the wrinkles in his shirt, he knit his brow and said, “You have to mourn them someday, Erik. You have to mourn both of them.”
At his words, the fury that was always simmering deep within me suddenly raged into a full-blown inferno, and I shoved him backward. He hit the wall with a grunt.
“Get out of here, Sebastian, before I do something we will both regret.” My teeth were grinding together, and my hands balled into tight fists.
He raised both hands in surrender and backed out of the door. “Fine, I’ll go, but you know I’m right. You’ve never really grieved properly, and I see how much it’s eating you up.”
I took one step toward him, and he turned and left my room. I heard the door to the stairs open and close, and I stood silently, seething and trying hard not to hyperventilate as my breathing increased in speed. My jaw muscles convulsively tensed and relaxed, and all at once, I let out a savage roar, and my fist flew through the air into the mirror, shattering it into a million pieces. I swung at the wall exposed by the missing glass and hit it again and again, screaming out my rage the entire time. It wasn’t until searing pain burned its way through the storm swirling through my mind and body that I stopped and rested my hands on the top of the dresser. The glass from the mirror cut into my palms, but I ignored it and the pain shooting up my arm.
I stared at the wall and saw the blood dripping down it. I cocked my head calmly and looked down at my hands. The knuckles of my right hand were split wide open, and more blood was pooling beneath both hands. I raised them in front of my eyes and watched as my wrists and the cuffs of my white shirt rapidly turned a bright red. I turned my palms up and slowly pulled the shards of glass from both of them before unhurriedly moving back into the bathroom, dripping blood onto the floor the whole way. I grabbed two small towels and wrapped them tightly around my hands before sinking to the floor and curling up on my side, my knees pulled close to my chest and my arms covering my head, unconsciously imitating the position I had been in as my father almost beat me to death in that tiny, filthy cabin in Willow, Tennessee five years earlier. The anger vanished as quickly as it had appeared, only to be replaced with misery and anguish and grief more powerful than anything I had ever felt. Something inside of me released, and the tears that had not fallen in those five years fell in a deluge, and I began to sob as memories of Doctor Clark and my mother suddenly flooded my mind and completely overwhelmed me.“I miss you, Mama,” I whispered over and over as I curled into an even tighter ball.