“Mama, my hand hurts. Make it stop.”
“I know it does, baby, and I am so sorry. I tried to stop him.”
A tiny blood-covered hand reached up to wipe the tears from my mama's face.
“Don't cry, Mama.” The pudgy fingers gently traced the black and purple mark covering my mama's cheek. “I won't ever let him hurt you again.”
“My brave little Erik. I love you so much. Don't ever forget that. Promise me you’ll always remember that.”
I opened my mouth to answer when a voice called out from beyond the cabin's door.
“What the hell?”
My four-year-old body instinctively turned toward the comfort of my mother's arms, but she was no longer with me.
“Mama? Where are you? Mama, don't leave me, please!”
I turned in frantic circles, but I was alone, and the monster was coming back. I curled into a ball and wrapped my arms around my head, feeling pain race through my right hand as I grasped it with my left. I knew that the monster had stomped on it because I didn't get out of the way fast enough, but I also knew that if I made a sound, even worse would happen. I was only four, though, and I couldn’t keep back a whimper as a black form filled the doorway. Against my will, words spilled from me in a rush.
“No, Papa! Please don't hurt me anymore! I'm sorry! I won't do it again, I promise! I'll move faster next time! Please don't hurt me again, Papa!”
“Oh my God, Erik. What happened to you?”
Confusion filled me when I heard compassion in the monster's voice, but I still flinched and turned away when it knelt in front of me and reached out its hands toward me.
“No, Papa! Please!”
“Erik, wake up,” it said softly as it gently took my shoulders and sat me up. “It's me; it's Sebastian.”
Sebastian? The monster's name was Papa, not Sebastian. I opened my eyes slowly and saw before me, not a giant black monster, but a man with worry and confusion blanketing his face. I blinked against my tears, and my surroundings slowly became clear as the nightmare faded.
I was not four years old; I was twenty-two. I was not in a cramped cabin in Willow, Tennessee; I was in a spacious penthouse in Manhattan. I was not a helpless child; I was a strong, famous, wealthy, successful man, and my friend, Sebastian, was kneeling in my bathroom looking at me with intense concern.
I raised my right hand and started to run it through my hair but stopped with a loud groan. I held it in front of me and slowly rotated it. There were deep gashes on the palm, and, although the blood was no longer flowing freely, they still looked bad. What bothered me more than the cuts, however, were the swollen and split knuckles, purple bruises, and the pain that shot through my entire hand and up my arm when I tried to form a fist. On top of that, several scabs on my knuckles loosened with the motion and began to ooze blood. A deep frown creased my brow as I looked at Sebastian.
“What time is it?”
I grunted as I levered myself to my feet without putting pressure on my hand. I staggered slightly and caught myself on the sink with my left hand only to remember the cuts there, too.
“Only a few hours, then,” I muttered as I awkwardly made my way toward the door.
Sebastian's voice caused me to stop and look at him. “What?”
“It's eight in the morning,” he said with a frown that matched my own. “I came to find you since you're usually at your desk by now. How long were you in here like this?”
Panic started to well within me, and I tried to stamp it down forcefully, but it built up again and again. The only other times in my life I had lost that much time were when I had fled inside my head to avoid the pain of my father’s beatings, and it scared me that I let myself get to that place again. I remembered my nightmare clearly, and I swallowed thickly as bile threatened to rise. Shoving Sebastian out of the way, I stormed into my bedroom as anger quickly replaced the fear. Furious at myself and at my father in equal measure, I halted in the doorway and surveyed the damage before me.
The mirror shards were scattered over the top of the dresser and the floor in front of it. Blood almost completely covered the area where my fist had made contact with the wall, more was on the dresser, and there were several drops leading to the bathroom.
“Are you going to tell me what happened, Erik?”
Sebastian was right behind me, and his tone was soft, but I heard the concern clearly. Ignoring him, I carefully picked my way through the broken glass to the closet where I stripped off my blood-stained shirt and dropped it on the floor. I gingerly pulled out a clean shirt with my left hand and attempted to put it on, but as I stretched out my right arm after inserting it in a sleeve, I accidentally hit the wall, and the agonizing pain dropped me to my knees.
Sebastian immediately knelt beside me, and he cautiously took my wounded hand in his, eliciting a deep groan from me as a white-hot fire slowly but inexorably began to devour my hand and arm.
“Why did you do this to yourself?”
“I was angry,” I said simply, biting my lip in agony.
“That's what the bag is for, you idiot.” Sebastian's words were harsh, but his anxious tone and the worried expression on his face made me hang my head in shame. He helped me to my feet and finished buttoning my clothes before guiding me out to the living room. “Come on,” he said softly, “we've got to get a doctor to look at this hand.”
I stopped abruptly in front of the couch and yanked my hand from his, gritting my teeth to keep myself from crying out.
“No!” I grunted. “No doctors! No one, Sebastian! I'll take care of it myself!”
“How?” he asked, disbelieving. “It's broken, Erik, and if you ever want to paint or sculpt or even draw again, you need a professional to fix it.” He glared at me. “Unless you don't care about that.”
That hit me hard. The thought that I needed my hand to create my art overcame my terror at having someone see me, and I reluctantly nodded. “Fine, but he has to come here. I'm not going out there.”
“I figured as much,” Sebastian said as he sat me down on the couch. “Don't move.”
He disappeared into the bathroom and then the kitchen before reappearing in front of me with some aspirin, a glass of water, and a bag of ice.
“Take these,” he said as he handed me the pills and water, “and keep the ice on your hand until I get back. It should help with the pain a little bit.”
I frowned at him as I swallowed the medicine, but I did put the ice on. “I'm not a child, Sebastian.”
“I know that, Erik, and I'm not trying to make you feel like one, but right now you need someone to take care of you, and that someone is me.”
Unexpectedly, a lump formed in my throat, and I had trouble taking a deep breath. I looked down at my lap and whispered, “Thank you.”
He moved to the telephone in my home office, and I heard him ask the operator for the closest doctor. As he was being connected, he asked me, “May I assume that cost is not an issue?”
“Of course not,” I mumbled. “Just make sure the man knows what he's doing.”
I listened as he talked to the doctor, and one thing he said made me smile through the pain.
“Listen to me, Doctor Adams. You will not speak of this to anyone, do you understand? If you do, I'll make sure you never work in medicine again.” He paused and then said, “Good. We'll be waiting.”
After he hung up, he stared at me for a moment and then walked over and grabbed my elbow.
“We need to make you presentable,” he said with a smile. “There's no sense in you looking like a slob when the doctor gets here. Which will be in about fifteen minutes, by the way.”
I stood up, shock slowing my movements. “Why are you doing this?”
He looked at me, and his smile vanished. “Doing what? Helping you? Erik, do you really have to ask?”
I nodded silently.
Sebastian put his hand on my shoulder, and I saw a muscle in his jaw twitch. “You are my friend, Erik,” he said thickly, “but more than that, I love you like a brother. Anything you ever need, I'll always be here for you.”
Gratitude filled me, but I frowned slightly and dropped my head.
“Erik, what's wrong?”
I shook my head and moved to pass him, but he tightened his grip and wouldn’t let me go.
“Talk to me,” he pleaded. “Stop shutting me out.”
“I...” My throat closed with emotion, and I couldn’t speak. Clearing my throat, I tried again. “Thank you, Sebastian, for everything, but I don't deserve it.” I shrugged out of his loosened grasp and walked to the bedroom where I tried to put on my black jacket. I failed miserably, and frustration built rapidly as I flung it onto the bed.
Sebastian slowly picked up the offending piece of clothing and held it for me. After I slipped my arms into the sleeves, gritting my teeth against the pain as I moved my right hand, he turned me around, grabbed a red tie from my closet, and hung it around my neck. Without a word, he pushed me down so that I was seated on the bed, and he carefully maneuvered around the glass on the floor to put socks and shoes on my feet. I could tell that he was upset by his clenched jaw, but shame, guilt, exasperation, and anger kept me from saying anything. He tied my necktie more forcefully than necessary, and then he grabbed a comb and began to tidy my hair. When he was done, he slammed it back onto the dresser.
“Come on, the doctor will be here soon. He's going to treat you in your office. I thought you'd be more comfortable there.”
He turned from me and stalked to the stairs without looking to see if I would follow. I sighed deeply and stood. By the time I started out of my bedroom, he had thrown the stair door open and disappeared. I made my way slowly in the direction he took, forcing myself to walk even though every fiber of my being was screaming at me to stay hidden, to not let this stranger anywhere near me. I knew that Sebastian was right, though—I needed to have my hand taken care of if I ever wanted to use it properly again. It was this thought, and this thought only, that enabled me to walk down the stairs to my office. I also thought that condemned criminals on their way to the electric chair must have felt just like this.
Sebastian was waiting for me, and the look on his face was no longer worry or confusion; it was intense fury, and for the first time, it was directed at me. I knew why he was angry, but I said nothing as I seated myself at my desk. He leaned against it and glared at me.
“Why do you do that?” he asked heatedly.
“You know exactly what I'm talking about! Why do you cut yourself down like that?”
I exhaled slowly and slumped down in my chair. “I didn't say anything that isn't true.”
“That's nonsense, and you know it!”
I swiveled my chair so that I couldn’t see him anymore. “No, Sebastian, I don’t know it! You will never understand. Just drop it.”
“No, damn it!” He wrenched my chair back so that I was facing him again. “I will not continue to let you do this to yourself!” He took a deep breath and slowly braced himself on the arms of the chair as he leaned close to me. “Erik,” he said, his voice calmer, “what will it take to get you to understand that you are a good person who is worthy of every good thing this world has to offer?”
I scoffed, but a small smile formed nonetheless. “More than anything you can say, my friend.”
“That's too bad,” he replied seriously. “I guess I'll just have to find someone else to tell you so that you'll believe it.”My mouth opened to reply, but at that moment, the intercom buzzed.