I woke hours later, still on my studio floor. Darkness had fallen, and I felt the vague disquiet that came after unremembered nightmares. I had the sudden, intense desire to see my mother, and I slowly stood and walked to the elevator. The ride down was agony, and it seemed to take forever. When it reached the balcony and the doors slid silently open, I stepped out and willed my legs to keep me upright as I made my way down the stairs.
The gallery was vastly changed since my show in November. The red curtains had been replaced with snow-white ones, and the dark wood easels and pedestals had been substituted with white marble. I slowly walked through the oils section, running my fingers over a painting of my mother in Central Park, the sun shining off her dark hair as she spun in joy. Many of the paintings for this show were fantasy, but they were a good fantasy. I knew that this was how we could have, should have, spent my childhood, and I wanted it to be true so badly.
I moved out of the oils, through the watercolors, into the sculpture section. There were three sculptures there, and I moved to the largest. It was a life-sized bronze bust of my mother, and the smile on her face was the one I had lived for as a child. It was the smile that told me without words that she loved me desperately, the one that said that I was perfect. I lowered myself onto the bench before it and just stared at my creation.
I heard the soft sound of the elevator opening, the footsteps walking along the balcony and down the stairs, but I didn’t move. Even when they came up behind me and stopped, I kept staring at my mother’s image. Gentle hands came down on my shoulders, and my breath hitched.
“She was beautiful.”
I nodded, and the tears started again. “I know,” I choked, and then I turned my head and looked up at the man standing behind me, his eyes red but dry. “I had to do it, Sebastian. I know you can’t understand or accept that, but I had to. I couldn’t let him get away with doing all those things to her. He had to pay for what he did.”
“I do understand, Erik. It took me a bit of time, but I do understand. And I accept it, too.”
My shoulders shook as I cried, and his grip tightened in sympathy.
“You know what the worst part of it is?”
I stood up, placed my hand respectfully on the statue, and rested my forehead on the cool metal. The tears dripped off my chin and landed on the marble base. “I don’t even have a grave I can visit. I have nothing left of her, Sebastian. Nothing except what I can create, and it’s not enough. I will never be able to paint enough, draw enough, sculpt enough to fill this hole in my heart. Killing my father didn’t bring her back. All of the creating in the world can’t bring her back, Sebastian, and that’s all I want.” I gasped as my chest tightened in agony. “I want her back.”
Strong hands turned me around and strong arms wrapped me in a warm cocoon. My arms went around him and I fisted his jacket as I buried my face in his shoulder and let him hold me as I cried. At one point he sat us on the bench, but he continued to hold me close. Forever later, there were no more tears, but my chest still felt as if it were being crushed, and I couldn’t catch my breath.
‘Breathe, Erik, just breathe. Come on now, deep breaths.” Sebastian’s words reminded me of Doctor Clark and my panic attack in his library, and the pain in my chest intensified.
“Come on, Erik, you’re scaring me. Take a deep breath.”
I tried but couldn’t. Stars appeared in my vision, and I felt dizzy. “Sebastian…I…”
That was as far as I got before I pitched forward and blacked out.
“Erik! Wake up! Please! Wake up!”
I opened my eyes and gasped. I was lying on the floor, and Sebastian was patting my cheeks. It was annoying, and I reached up and grabbed his wrists.
“Oh, thank God! Don’t you ever do that to me again!”
I raised myself up on my elbows and glared at him. “I’ll try not to.”
He grinned and stood up, holding out his hand to me. I took it, and he helped me to my feet.
“Feel any better?”
“No, not really.” I looked at my mother again and then turned away from the statue and went to the front door and grabbed my overcoat off of the rack.
“Erik, where are you going?”
“Out? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
I glanced back at him as I put the coat on. “Why?”
“Well, first of all, it’s still daylight and there’ll be a lot of people out there. Second of all, you haven’t been out of this building voluntarily in five years. Also, you look like hell.”
“I don’t care,” I said, unlocking the door and stepping outside. “I need some fresh air.” Sebastian scrambled to join me. I locked the door and started down the sidewalk, wiping my face and running my hands through my hair “Sarah McAllister told me once to stop being a victim, and that’s what I’m going to do.” I stared at the ground as I spoke. “It is what my mother wanted for me, Sebastian. It’s why she taught me the proper way to speak and act.” I chuckled.
“What is it?”
“My mother once told me that if I ever turned into a hillbilly, she would die of embarrassment.”
“I always wondered why you didn’t have a Tennessee accent.”
“My father did, but she didn’t. I don’t know why, but I assume she wasn’t from there. Her accent was much more refined, more cultured. I wonder where she was from.”
“I don’t know, Erik, but I do know one thing. She was an amazing woman who raised an amazing son. How either one of you stayed sane through all of that torture is something I will never understand.”
We fell silent as we proceeded toward Fifth Avenue. Reaching the corner, we crossed the street and continued down Fifth, following the border of Central Park. I looked around me and appreciated the beauty of the city around me. I noticed some people frowning when they saw me, but I ignored them. When we reached 80th Street, I had an idea.
“I know what I want to do,” I said, picking up the pace.
“I want to go to Museum of Art. I want to see what’s there.”
“Sure, that’s a great idea.”
We entered the museum, paid the fee, walked into the first room, and I was in heaven. The images and objects surrounding me were more beautiful than I had ever dreamed of, and I walked around slowly, stopping in front of items that particularly intrigued me. Sebastian dutifully followed along, but after three hours of my pontificating about Monet, van Eyck, and Velazquez, he abruptly stopped walking. I didn’t notice until I was several feet from him, but then I registered the lack of his footsteps beside me, and I stopped as well. I turned back to him and said, “What’s wrong?”
He was smiling at me, and he said, “Nothing is wrong, Erik. I’ve just never seen you this happy before.” He took a few steps and looked up at the Renoir before us. “Just think. Someday your work may be displayed in here right next to…whoever this is.”
“Me? Next to Renoir? He was one of the greatest artists ever!”
His eyebrows went up. “Are you serious?” He looked at me closely. “You are serious! Erik, you are arguably the greatest artist in the modern world. Do you not realize that?”
“No,” I said simply, gazing up at Mme. Charpentier and Her Children, “my creations will never be able to compete with history’s elite.”
“Really? You want to bet on that?”
I frowned at him. “What do you mean?”
“Let’s do a little experiment, shall we?”
“Sebastian…” That was as far as I got as he walked away from me and approached a young couple. They both looked to be in their mid-twenties.
“Excuse me, sir, ma’am. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?”
“Not at all.” The young man turned away from the painting they had been studying.
“Thank you.” He glanced at me to make sure I was listening, and I was. Intently. “First of all, and please don’t take offense, do you know much about art, or are you just here to appreciate the beauty?”
“No offense taken,” the young woman laughed. “I am actually an art major at New York University. I’m here doing research for a paper.”
“Fantastic! And you, sir?”
The young man smiled. “I’m afraid I’m just here with her,” he said, indicating the woman. “I really don’t know much besides what I like and what I don’t like.”
“That’s all right,” Sebastian said, “I’d like your opinion as well. Now, have either of you heard of Erik Desmond?”
The woman’s reaction was completely unexpected. Her eyes lit up as a brilliant smile appeared on her face. “Oh,” she breathed, “one of my professors brought in a small charcoal drawing of his! It cost him a pretty penny, but he said it was worth it. He said that within ten years, it would be worth ten times what he paid for it, at least!”
“What was the drawing of?”
“It was simple, but elegant. It was a landscape, and it had a lonely, dilapidated cabin in the middle of a field, surrounded by a few trees. It looked abandoned at first glance, but then, when I looked closer, I saw a child’s face in the cracked window. He looked so sad that I cried. It made me want to scoop him up in my arms and tell him that everything was going to be all right.”
“I went to his gallery show in November,” the man said. “I was overwhelmed by the magnificence of his work, although I have to say that the oils disturbed me greatly. Again, I’m no artist, but if I could afford it, I’d buy anything by him in an instant.”
Tears burned behind my eyes, but I refused to let myself cry in public.
“So,” Sebastian said, “I can assume that you both think highly of him?”
They both laughed. “That would be the understatement of the year, I’d say,” the man said, and his companion nodded.
“Second to last question. Do you think his work will someday be displayed here someday?”
The woman scoffed. “Only if the curators have any brains in their heads at all. I know they usually don’t put work in here until the artist has been creating for many years, but I think his should be here now.”
“I agree,” the man said.
“Okay, last question. If he says it’s all right, would you like to meet him?”
I caught my breath and frowned deeply. I had not agreed to this at all.
“Oh my God, yes!” the woman practically squealed, and the man nodded vigorously.
I turned my back as Sebastian said, “Well, my name is Sebastian Holdaway, and I am Mr. Desmond’s...public representative for lack of a better term. You are?”
“Fred Chandler and Mary Holmes.”
“Mr. Chandler, Miss Holmes, if you’ll wait here, I’ll see if he’s amenable to talking with you.”
“You mean he’s here?” Mary gasped, and I flinched.
“He is, but he is a very private person, and I don’t know if he’ll want to meet you.”
His footsteps approached me, and I clenched my fists at my sides. When he stood in front of me, I hissed, “Sebastian, what are you doing?”
“Forcing you to take the next step, Erik. You said you don’t want to be your father’s victim anymore, right?” I nodded. “Then say hello to your admirers.”
“Listen to me.” He dropped his voice. “You have been in the public eye for hours now, and no one has run away screaming. Most people haven’t even done so much as glance at you, and the ones who have? Let’s just say that the ladies did not have disgust in their eyes. Quite the opposite.”
“Don’t lie to me, Sebastian. I’m not an idiot!”
“I know you’re not, and I’m not lying, Erik. You were too busy ignoring everyone to notice, but believe me, I did. More than once I thought you were going to be approached by someone, but then they seemed to change their mind.”
“Because of this!” I gestured at my scar.
“No, Erik, because you are being very unapproachable. It is your attitude that is keeping people at a distance, not your face.”
I took a deep breath and thought about it. Could he possibly be right? I decided to test his theory, just as I had tested Doctor Clark’s many years before. I was positive the reaction would be the same: cold politeness masking fear and disgust, but I nodded.
“All right, I’ll try.”
He smiled and started around me. I grabbed his arm and whispered, “I’ll try, Sebastian, that’s all. If I can’t do this, you’d better know a really quick way out of this building.”
He only chuckled and freed his arm.
“Mr. Chandler, Miss Holmes, come here, please.”
I started to tremble as dual footsteps approached us, and I went rigid in an attempt to stop. I closed my eyes and fervently hoped I wouldn’t make a complete fool of myself.
You can do this, my beautiful boy. You are my Erik. Be brave, my son.
My mother’s voice flitted through the panic that was building, and I held my breath, choosing to do as she bid.
“Erik…” Sebastian paused, and I closed my eyes as I slowly turned. I opened them when I faced the couple before me, my hands clasped tightly behind my back.
“This is Fred Chandler and Mary Holmes. They were just telling me how much they like your artwork.”
I swallowed thickly and nodded. “It is very nice to meet you both.”
Mr. Chandler stuck out his right hand, and I slowly brought mine forward and grasped it.
“It is such a pleasure to meet you, sir!” He shook my hand eagerly with a huge grin on his face. He gave no indication that he even noticed my scar, and I relaxed a little until I looked at his companion.
The woman was staring at me, her hands covering her mouth and her eyes wide, and I was about to turn away in anger when she stuck out her hand, and I saw a smile on her face.
“I can’t believe I’m actually talking to the great Erik Desmond,” she said, and I took her hand lightly.
“It’s my pleasure, Miss Holmes.”
“Can I ask you a question, sir?”
I narrowed my eyes slightly but said, “I suppose so.”
She tightened her grip on my hand and led me to a nearby bench where she pulled me down next to her. Without releasing me, she asked, “Where do you get your inspiration? I’m majoring in art at college with a concentration in painting, and I’m having trouble coming up with ideas of things to paint, but you seem to have an unlimited reservoir of inspiration. Are your paintings inspired by real life? No, that can’t be; you’re far too young to have experienced the things you paint about…”
My eyebrows reached my hairline as she rambled on. I gently pulled my hand from hers and waited for her to stop talking.
She stopped abruptly at her friend’s sharp word, and we both looked up at the two men standing in front of us, smiles on their faces.
“Would you let the man get a word in? You’ve asked him about thirty questions and haven’t given him a chance to answer any of them.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said contritely, a flush spreading up her neck and giving her a cute glow.
“That’s all right,” I said. “I caught most of your questions, although I must admit that to answer them all would take the rest of the night. I will answer your first one, though.”
She frowned in confusion.
“Where do I get my inspiration?”
“Oh, yes,” she laughed.
“My greatest inspiration is my mother,” I said, and I was surprised that I could do so without breaking down, but I stopped and pressed my lips together.
“She must be a wonderful person to inspire such brilliance.”
“She was, yes.”
“Oh, Mr. Desmond.” She placed her hand on my arm, and I almost lost the fragile hold I had on my control. “I am so sorry to hear that.” She released me and smiled sadly. “What about your father? Is he your inspiration, too?”
The sorrow that had threatened to overwhelm me with the talk of my mother vanished in an instant and anger rapidly flowed through me. I gritted my teeth tightly, and Sebastian thankfully stepped in.
“You could say that,” he said, “but he’s not a topic Mr. Desmond likes to discuss.”
“I’m sorry,” Miss Holmes said.
“No,” I said tightly, “it’s all right. You didn’t know.” I cleared my throat and decided to take a chance on something. “I have a proposition. Are you two doing anything right now?”
“Other than roaming this mausoleum?” Mr. Chandler said with a laugh. “No, why?”
“Well,” I said, standing up, “if you are so inclined, I’d like to give you a preview of my upcoming gallery showing.”
Three sets of eyes went wide, two in delighted pleasure and one in pure, unadulterated shock.
“Are you serious?” I flinched at the high-pitched squeal made by the woman next to me. “We’d be so honored.” I looked at Mr. Chandler, and the grin he bore told me he agreed wholeheartedly.
“Then come with me,” I said as I started toward the front entrance of the museum. My two recent acquaintances instantly fell into step beside me while my old acquaintance seemed glued to the floor. I glanced over my shoulder and smiled. “You coming, Sebastian?”
“What? Oh, yes, of course.” He joined us, and we stepped out into the January sun.
“How far is it?”
“Not far, Miss Holmes. Just about a mile or so.” I started down the sidewalk, and they followed like puppies.
“Please, call me Mary. Miss Holmes sounds so stuffy.”
“And you can call me Fred, if you like.”
I simply nodded, not quite ready for them to call me by my first name.
The walk back to my building was brief, but Mary jabbered the entire way. By the time I unlocked the door to the gallery, I had learned that she was the youngest of seven children, her parents lived in the Bronx, and she and Fred were to be married in July. I learned absolutely nothing about him, though, for each time he started to speak, she apparently thought of something else to say.
“Mary.” I interrupted her.
“What? Oh, sorry.”
“Not a problem. Before I let you inside, I just want to ask you both one thing. The show opens tomorrow, and don’t want any advance…publicity.”
“You want us to keep our mouths shut,” Fred said with a smile. “You got it.”
Mary nodded enthusiastically, her eyes glued to the door handle.
“Promise me, please.”
“We promise, right, Mary?”
“Yes, of course, I promise.”“All right then.” I opened the door and pushed it open so they could go in.