The next morning, I was on the balcony above my gallery by seven forty-five. The sketchbook in my hand contained drawings I had never shown anyone—not Doctor Clark, not Sebastian, and definitely not the public. I wanted to show Sarah, though, for I knew that her reaction to these particular works would be the determining factor in my decisions about what would happen in my near future.
The bell above the door rang, and Sarah walked in. She shook her head free of the snow that was falling outside before removing her cloak and hanging it up on the rack by the door. She was wearing a long-sleeved green dress, and I drank in the sight of her. She looked around the room with a bright smile on her face that spoke of anticipation.
She looked up but once again, I was in shadow, and the smile slipped a little.
“Why are you hiding up there, Erik?”
I held my breath for a moment and relished the sound of my name on her lips even as I attempted to banish the fear that was boiling deep inside me.
“You’ll see soon enough,” I whispered, and although I didn’t think she could hear me, she frowned nonetheless. Louder, I said, “Please go into the oils section, and I’ll meet you there.”
She nodded and immediately moved through the curtains. I followed her, and when she had seated herself on the bench, I slowly walked down the stairs. When I approached the black curtain at the bottom, I reached forward to move it aside but hesitated.
“Would you please close your eyes?”
I hazarded a peek around the curtain, and sure enough, her eyes were shut, and I walked silently toward her until I was right in front of her.
Her hands were folded in her lap, and I placed the sketchbook on the bench next to her and then turned my back to face the five now-empty easels that were still perched in their positions like minions waiting for their master to put them to use. I hadn’t used them since the night Sarah and her father had come to my show. The paintings that had once been on them had been shipped to Rochester.
“You may open them now.”
“May I ask you a question, Erik?”
“Why am I here?”
“I wanted you to see those.” I gestured behind me in the general direction of the bench, and I listened as she picked up the portfolio and opened it. Neither of us spoke, and the only sound in the room was the rustling of paper as she slowly flipped through the pages. After the first three, I heard her catch her breath; then she turned four more pages. When the next sound I heard was a sob, I hung my head and closed my eyes. It was breaking my heart to hear her cry, but each sob and soft cry was reaffirming my belief that I could trust her.
It was just a whisper, but the agony in that single, soft word overwhelmed me, and I dropped to my knees. It flashed through my head briefly that I was showing this girl weakness, but I didn’t care. My chin was on my chest, my hands were on my knees, and I was taking shallow, quick breaths as I envisioned the drawings she was looking at. In each one, I had documented an act of violence my father had committed against either my mother or me. I had drawn in detail, and there was no mistaking the evil in my father’s face or the terror in ours. What Sarah didn’t know was that this was the last of eight such books, and each drawing was of a different beating. I waited and listened while silently counting the pages she turned until she reached the last one. It was the only one with any color—the red of the bloody water, and it was the only one which I had drawn not knowing if it was entirely accurate. I had drawn it based off of Doctor Clark’s retelling of what he had seen that night he had entered our cabin and saved my life.
My head snapped up at Sarah’s voice in front of me, and my eyes went wide in terror. She was on the floor, our knees almost touching, and tears were streaming down her face. True to her word, however, her eyes were tightly shut.
“Is it all true? Did he really do those things to you and your mother?”
“Yes.” My voice was harsh.
Sarah tilted her head up, and I felt her gaze on me through her closed lids. She raised her left hand and stretched it toward me, and I inhaled sharply and pulled back from her.
“Erik, don’t be afraid of me,” she said softly, and her hand landed on my right arm. My body was rigid, and every atom in me screamed at me to run, but she tightened her grip and scooted a little closer.
“Sarah, don’t. Please don’t.” I didn’t recognize my own voice, and I swallowed thickly when she grasped my other arm with her right hand.
“Shh. I want to show you something. I want to show you why I understand.”
I nodded even though she couldn’t see me. She released my arms, and I forced myself to stay where I was. She slowly unbuttoned the cuffs of her dress and began rolling them up. My eyes were drawn to her movements, and as the fabric moved up her arms, I saw scars.
They were faded, to be sure, but still very noticeable. Sarah slowly held up her hands in front of me and rotated them. The scars were thick, and they completely encircled both wrists. Without speaking, she dropped her hands and turned away from me, moving her hair over her shoulder so that her upper back was visible. I sucked in my breath at the crisscrossed scars that covered her beautiful skin, and I could see that the scars continued down her back and disappeared beneath the fabric of her dress.
“What happened to you?”
“My mother.” Sarah turned back to me, eyes still closed, and buttoned her cuffs, letting her hair hide her injuries again. “When I had done something she thought I should be punished for, she would hang me by my wrists and whip me. Usually it was with a belt, but sometimes she used a cane.”
“Why did your father beat you?” she said with a frown. “There’s no reason for it, Erik. They were evil, plain and simple, and we were their victims.” She stood up suddenly and wiped her face. “But I refuse to be her victim now. Don’t you see, Erik? Your father may not be hurting you physically any more, but you are still his victim. You are allowing him to keep you hidden away from the world, and that is very sad.”
She moved behind me, and I slowly stood. “There’s a huge difference between you and me,” I said.
“You can cover your scars. I can’t. Mine is there for everyone to see.” I glanced behind me and saw that she was facing away from me. I turned and gently laid my left hand on her shoulder. She raised hers and covered mine. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Everyone who has seen me has reacted with either disgust or terror.” I swallowed the lump in my throat, and a small groan escaped me.
“Erik, what is it?”
My hand tightened on her shoulder, and I hung my head. “I couldn’t bear it if I drove you away, too.”
I instinctively turned away from her as she turned, never letting go of my hand.
“Erik, I’m a lot tougher than you seem to think. I like to think I’m more compassionate, too. I will never force you or trick you, but I hope one day, you’ll trust me enough to show me your face.”
Her hand left mine, and she moved to the curtain. I looked up in time to see her raise a hand to move it aside, but she stopped.
“For letting me in.”Without another word, she disappeared behind the curtain, and I stood where I was and listened to her leave. I suddenly wondered if I would regret either letting her in or letting her leave.