Two days after Sarah showed me her secret, Sebastian walked into my office and handed me a brown envelope. It was almost seven in the evening, and I was not expecting any correspondence from anyone. My name was written in beautiful calligraphy on the front but nothing else.
“Who is it from?”
“I don’t know. A courier just dropped it off with no explanation.”
I glanced up at him and laid the envelope on my desk. I held it down with my cast and reached for the letter opener with my left hand and slid it under the flap. Slowly, almost reverently, for I was pretty sure I knew who it was from, I sliced open the missive. I pulled out a single folded sheet of fine stationery. I unfolded it and held it up. I held my breath as I read the perfect handwriting.
My dear Erik,
I am very sorry to have to write this letter to you. My father has surprised me with a trip to Europe as a Christmas present, and I will not be back in New York until after the New Year. I will let you know when we get home.
An intense fury rose up in me at this news. She’s a liar! She hates you and doesn’t want to ever see you again. The hellions in my brain hissed their hatred and spewed their contempt as unwanted feelings of abandonment and betrayal instantly consumed me. It must have shown in my face, for Sebastian asked, “Erik, what’s wrong?”
I simply shoved the paper across the desk to him, picked up the telephone, and dialed. When a man’s voice came on the other line, I spoke through clenched teeth. “Miss McAllister, please.”
“May I tell her who is calling?”
“Yes, sir, just a moment, please.” The voice sounded impressed, but it made no difference to me.
A few minutes passed and then she picked up the phone.
“Erik! Why are you calling?. You could have just sent a message. I know how expensive long-distance is.”
“This is why, Sarah,” I said slowly.
“Why I don’t let anyone get close! Everyone who gets close leaves me!”
“No! I can’t do this, Sarah. I’m sorry; I don’t want to hurt you, but I can’t let you hurt me, either. Good-bye.”
“Erik Desmond, don’t you dare hang up on me!”
I froze in the process of doing just that. I felt my wall slam into place around my heart and I looked down at my desk and said nothing.
“Erik.” Sarah’s voice had softened considerably. “Why do you think I am leaving you?”
“You have to ask?” I said coldly.
“It’s just a vacation,” she said. “I’m coming back.”
“Are you?” I asked, a sneer coating my words with slimy sarcasm. “Or is that just a story to let the monster down easy?”
“Stop it! Don’t talk about yourself like that. You are not a monster.” Her words ended in a sob, but I ignored it, keeping my heart locked away.
Before she could say anything else, I placed the receiver in its cradle and stood up. Turning toward the stairs, I stopped when Sebastian spoke.
“What are you doing, Erik?”
I straightened my back and said, “Keeping myself safe.”
“No, you’re not!” I spun around at the anger in his voice. “You’re hiding away! You said everyone has left you, but you know that’s not true! I’m still here!”
Glaring at him, I wrenched the middle drawer of my desk open and grabbed an envelope out of it. I slammed it down in front of him and said ominously, “Not for long.”
“What are you talking about? What’s this?” He picked up the envelope and opened it.
“Your Christmas present.”
His eyes widened, and he pulled out two pieces of paper. “A bus ticket? And a…” He stared at the paper in his hand. “A letter of recommendation? What’s this for?”
“It’s so you can get a good job back in Knoxville. Go home, Sebastian. Be with your family.” I resumed my path to the stairs, and just before I started up them, I spoke over my shoulder. “Stay with them. That’s where you belong, not here with a worthless freak like me.”
I ignored him and raced up the stairs. I locked the door behind me and immediately went to the elevator and locked it as well. Almost without delay, the door handle began to rattle, and then Sebastian was pounding on the wood.
“Erik, let me in! Talk to me!”
My studio called to me, and I went in, shutting the door behind me, muting the noise from the stairs. I wondered briefly if Sebastian was strong enough to break the door down as I pulled a fresh canvas from the pile next to the door and set it on the easel, but then I just sat and stared at it. Nothing came to me, and the voices in my head were screeching that I would always be alone, that Sebastian was only pitying me and Sarah hated and feared me. My vision narrowed as black crept in around the edges until all I could see was the white square mocking me with its emptiness. All of a sudden, I swept the canvas off the easel, sending it flying across the room. That wasn’t enough to silence the noise, though, and I went on a rampage, flinging paintings into the wall, ripping finished and unfinished drawings to shreds, and even overturning every table in the room. When that still wasn’t enough , I stormed out of the studio and paced the length of my living room, my free hand fisted in my hair and my casted one beating my temple.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up…”
The voices slowly became one, and it was the one that had terrified me every day of my life. The words that I fiercely wanted to forget slammed into me and drove me to my knees: useless, worthless, ugly, bastard, brat, no-good trash, hideous, good-for-nothin’, nobody, puny, weak, idiot, stupid. My father’s voice taunted me and I beat my head harder.
“Shut up! Go away and leave me alone!” I screamed my anger into the air, surged to my feet, and rushed to the stairs. I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe, like the room was closing in around me, and I had to get out.
I unlocked the door and slammed it open before rushing down the steps. Sebastian was on the phone in my office, but I barely noticed him as I sped past him and out the door.
The voice of my friend was no match for the one screaming in my head, and I continued on until I reached the stairs. Throwing the door open, I made my way down them, not even hesitating at the thought of descending forty-nine flights. I met no one, for all the businesses were closed. Once I finally reached the bottom floor, I burst through the front doors and stood on the sidewalk, hands on my knees, taking deep lungfuls of the icy December air. It was bitterly cold, and there were very few people about. Those who were out were tucked snugly into their coats and hats and scarves and didn’t even glance at me.
I backed up until I hit the brick wall of my building, and then I slid to the ground and rested my head on my knees. My father continued to torment me, and I whispered raggedly, “Shut up, shut up…” over and over and over again, but he didn’t listen; he never did.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but I wasn’t cold yet when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I staggered to my feet and yelled, “No! Leave me alone!”
I jerked away from the hand and raced into Central Park, dodging cars with blaring horns as I crossed the busy street.
A tiny part of my mind recognized that it was Sebastian running after me, but I was out of control, and I ran faster to get away. My lungs were burning with the exertion and the cold night air, but I kept going.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up…” I whispered as I ran, for my father would not leave me alone. I had no idea where I was going, but I soon found out when I suddenly lost my footing and slid down the bank of The Pond straight onto the ice. I landed hard on my back and the pain brought me back to myself a little. I lay there panting, my eyes closed and my mantra still going. “Shut up, shut up, shut up…”
“Erik! Are you all right?”
I heard the sounds of Sebastian scrambling down the bank, and then he was at my side, kneeling on the ice, his hands brushing over me searching for injuries.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up!” My voice got louder and louder until I was shouting, and I rolled over onto my stomach and pounded my cast into the ice.
“Hey! Knock it off before you break through and sink us both.” Sebastian grabbed my arm just below the cast, and I stilled, but I couldn’t banish the specter of my father.
Worthless little brat! Good-for-nothin’ little bastard! Ugly little freak! I hate you! I wish you’d never been born, you little no-account!
“I’m not going anywhere. Come on, let’s get you home. You’ll freeze out here.”
I hadn’t been talking to him, and I still wasn’t. “No!” I pulled my arm free of his grip, folded my arms beneath my head, and rested my forehead on them. “Leave me alone! Please, just leave me alone!”
“At least get off the ice. Come on.” He put his hands under my arms and pulled me to my feet. He carefully maneuvered us off The Pond and sat me down on a bench nearby. Then he draped his overcoat around my shoulders and said, “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.” He knelt in front of me. “Promise me, Erik. Promise me you’ll stay here.”
I raised my eyes and just stared at him before dropping them again. He sighed and stood. I looked up and watched him walk away from me, and then I rested my elbows on my knees and held my head in my hands. The voice in my head had dulled to a low whisper, but it was persistent, and I clenched my teeth. I couldn’t stay still, and I got to my feet and started pacing, mumbling to myself in an effort to get the voice to stop completely.
Unexpectedly, another voice began to speak to me. It started so soft I couldn’t understand it, but it got louder and louder.
Look, Erik; it’s snowing! Isn’t it beautiful? Just like you. Just like my beautiful boy. Let’s make a snowman.
I cried out in anguish and collapsed onto the icy path. Tears streamed down my face and sobs wracked my body.
He’s perfect, my darling boy, but you know he can’t stay. We have to take him down before your Papa comes home. I know, my love, but he will be angry if he knows you’ve been outside. We’ll keep this as our little secret, all right? I love you, Erik.
“I love you, too, Mama.”
A hand came down on my shoulder, and I flinched away from it.
“Sir, are you okay?”
I didn’t recognize the voice, and I scrambled to my feet, frantically wiping my face.
“Go away! Leave me alone!”
“Sir, please, can I help you?”
“No! Just go away!” I kept my head down and turned away from the man.
“Officer, is everything all right?”
Sebastian was back.
“Do you know this man?”
“Yes, sir, I’m his friend. He…got some bad news earlier and is having a hard time with it. Don’t worry; I’ll take care of him.”
“If you’re sure, I guess it’s okay. Get him inside, though. The weather’s supposed to get worse in just a few hours.”
“Yes, sir, I’ll do that. Thank you.”
Footsteps moved away from us, crunching over the snow, and Sebastian sighed as he sat me down on the bench again. A hat was put on my head, a scarf around my neck, a glove on my bare hand, and a cloth over the exposed fingertips of my casted hand. He raised the collar of the overcoat and helped me put my arms in the sleeves before buttoning it.
“Are you coming home, Erik?”
“You heard the policeman. You can’t stay out here. The forecast is for a blizzard to hit the city tonight.”
“I don’t care.”
“You don’t care if you freeze to death?”
“No.” I stood slowly and looked out into the park. The snow had started to fall, and it was beautiful, but all I could see was the aftermath of the snowman incident when I was seven years old.
My father had come home early, and after my mother and I had dismantled our perfect snowman, we were headed around the cabin to go inside when the front door slammed open and my father’s form filled the doorway. He stalked toward us and grabbed me by my hair, dragging me inside. When my mother tried to stop him, he slapped her so hard that she fell into the snow, her blood rapidly staining the pristine white a deep red. She screamed for him to stop, though, and then he shut the door in her face and locked her outside. She pounded on the door, but he simply stripped me bare, pulled his belt from his pants, and proceeded to beat me in silence. The only sound was his harsh breathing and the snap of the leather on my skin. As always, I took the pain without so much as a whimper, and the one time I chanced a glance at him, there was an evil grin on his face as though he was thoroughly enjoying himself. When I had almost passed out from the pain, he stopped and flung me into a corner of the room before opening the door and letting my mother inside. She took one look at me and cried out, but she only took one step toward me before my father grabbed her and gave her the same treatment he had just given me.
I started walking into the park, and Sebastian called after me.
“Erik! Where are you going?”
“I don’t know.”
He raced in front of me and put his hands on my chest, trying to stop my progress, but I shoved him aside and kept walking. He grabbed my left wrist, and I stopped. I turned to him and growled as anger and grief warred within me, “Let go of me.”
“No, Erik, I won’t let you kill yourself! If you don’t get inside, you’re going to freeze!”
“I don’t care, Sebastian! Don’t you understand that? Just leave me alone!”
His eyes went wide, but his grip tightened. “You want to die?”
“At least then I’ll be with my mother again.” The tears started flowing again. “I miss her so much, Sebastian; I can’t stand it anymore,” I said softly, and I pulled my arm from him and walked down the path.
“Just go away, Sebastian. Just let me be with her.”
“No, I can’t do that.” He rushed in front of me again, but I simply stepped around him. “You are my friend, Erik, and I can’t let you do this to yourself.” He fell into step beside me and continued to talk as we walked, but I wasn’t listening. It took a few minutes for me to realize that I wasn’t listening to anything—the voices in my head had finally stopped, and I heaved a sigh of relief.
Soon, I found myself on the banks of The Lake, and I slowly stepped out onto the ice. It was covered with a fine sheet of snow, and I began walking in what I was sure seemed a rambling order to Sebastian, but in my mind, there was a definite pattern. When he tried to join me, I held up my hand to stop him, and he sat down on one of the benches along the path ringing the lake and watched me.
At one point, I knelt down and used my gloved hand to add some detail to the picture I was creating, for the frozen lake was my canvas, and the snow was my paint. When I finished, I carefully retraced my steps back to the bank, and I sat down heavily next to Sebastian.
“It’s beautiful, my friend.”
I looked at the lake. I had recreated the snowman building event. My mother and I were depicted with the snowman between us, and we were both smiling.
“It was, indeed.”
“Is it an actual event?”
I nodded, and then I stood up and gazed out at nothing. “My father beat us both bloody when he caught us outside that day. I was seven. He stripped me naked and whipped me with his belt and then did the same to my mother. He made me watch as he beat her, and do you know what she did?”
“She looked up at me as his belt cut into her and whispered that she was sorry. That night, after he fell asleep, she tended to my welts and said that it was her fault that he had beaten me. You see, it had been her idea to make the snowman, and if she hadn’t suggested it, we wouldn’t have been caught.”
“Erik, I don’t know what to say.”
I sighed. “You don’t have to say anything, Sebastian.” I turned to him. “I’m just so tired. I’m tired of feeling angry, tired of feeling sad, tired of wanting every minute of every day to find my father and kill him, tired of desperately wanting to see my mother again.” I turned back to the lake. “It hurts so much, Sebastian. I just want to see her again.” My voice cracked on the sob that was ripped from my chest. “Why won’t you let me see her again?”
His arm came around my shoulder, and I let him turn me toward home. “Because I would miss you too much. You are like a little brother to me, Erik, and I love you like one. I can’t lose you.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing.We eventually made it back to my building, and he rode the public elevator up to the forty-ninth floor with me since my private elevator was still locked. He accompanied me to my apartment, and he put me to bed as if I were a child. I curled up on my side as the tears continued to fall, and he left my room, leaving the door cracked. I listened for either the elevator or the door to the stairs and heard neither, so I assumed he had stayed. I couldn’t bring myself to care, and after a long, long time, I slept.