“Oh!” Mary took one step inside and stopped. Fred almost ran into her, and he gently pushed her forward so that all four of us could enter. I shut the door behind me and locked it. The last thing I wanted was unanticipated company.
We were facing the same bust I had shed tears over, and I felt the urge to shed them again as my two guests stepped up to the pedestal. Fred only stood and looked at her, but Mary slowly circled her, investigating her closely.
“She’s lovely, Mr. Desmond,” he said.
“Do you have your own bronzing supplies, or did you have someone else help you?” Mary asked as she stopped in front of the bust.
I stared at her in horror at the thought of someone else touching my work and couldn’t speak. Sebastian laughed.
“No, Mary, no one helps him. I think he’d have a heart attack if anyone dared touch his work before it was finished.”
She glanced back at me and laughed along with him. “From the look on his face, I think you’re right.”
“What?” I shook my head. “I mean…”
She laughed again, and I had to smile, it was such a joyful sound.
“Sebastian is right. No one but me ever works on my pieces.”
She nodded. “I thought so. Where is your studio?”
“On the top floor of this building. In my apartment.”
“You live here?”
“Hmm. That must be convenient.”
“It can be.” I thought about the fact that it was so convenient that I had almost never left the building in five years.
Fred had moved to one of the other sculptures. This one was gray marble, about two feet tall. It depicted my mother standing in front of a mirror, brushing her hair.
“The detail you’ve managed here is amazing,” he said with awe. “I feel like if I touched her hair, it would slide through my fingers like silk.”
I smiled at his praise. This was the first time I had compliments directed at me instead of overheard from the balcony, and it felt good. He looked between the statue and the bust and then turned to me.
“They’re of the same woman, aren’t they?”
“So is this one,” he said, moving to a red clay sculpture of my mother and me. I was four years old in this one, so I didn’t think Fred would realize who he was looking at. My mother was sitting cross-legged with me in her lap, and she was reading a book to me. My tiny finger was pointing at the page, and her face was turned toward me with a bright smile on her face. It was one of the very few stolen moments where she had taught me that there were some good things in the world.
“Yes, it is.”
He looked closer. “Is that a cut on the boy’s face?”
He frowned but said nothing more, and soon they moved through the curtain to the left. This led to my drawings, both pencil and charcoal. These were all of the two of us, and as such, all of them showed an injury on one of us and occasionally both. Fred’s frown grew darker until he reached a drawing which showed one of the last memories I had of my mother.
I was sixteen years old, and it was a week before my father disfigured me. He had belt-whipped me that day for some imagined wrong, and the drawing clearly showed the welts on my back, but my face was hidden as my mother held my head to her breast, tears running down her bruised face. It was one of the most brutally honest pieces in the gallery, and Mary gasped when she saw it and raised her hand to her mouth. She stared at it, and then she turned to me.
“Who are these people, Mr. Desmond? Did these things really happen to them?”
“Yes, they did. All of it happened just as you see here.”
Fred was looking at the drawing, and he was facing away from me when he said, “You told us your mother was your inspiration. This is her, isn’t it?”
Mary gulped, and tears sprang to her eyes when I nodded.
He turned around slowly, his teeth clenched. “You’re the boy, aren’t you? The boy in these drawings, in that sculpture?”
“Yes.” The word was barely a whisper as I felt my control slipping.
The tears in Mary’s eyes slowly slid down her cheeks.
“Who did these things to you?” My eyes narrowed, and she hastily said, “Never mind; it’s none of my business.”
“At least tell me the bastard who did this to you paid for his crimes.” The anger in Fred’s voice surprised me. I hadn’t expected him to feel anger. Disgust and pity, perhaps, but not anger.
“He paid for them.” I had the sudden urge to be alone, and I turned to Sebastian. “Can you please show these two out? I have to go.”
He nodded, and gestured toward the curtain. Fred and Mary followed me through, but while I continued toward the curtain opposite, they made their way toward the door. Just before I passed through, Mary’s voice stopped me.
“Thank you for showing us this. It was indeed an honor that you trusted us so much.”
That gave me pause. I hadn’t trusted anyone other than Sebastian and Doctor Adams for so long that I wondered why I had done so this time, but at the same time, a warm rush ran through me, and I had another idea. I looked over my shoulder and said, “You haven’t seen everything yet. Come back tomorrow night for the opening. You’ll be my special guests.” Without giving them a chance to respond, I passed through the curtain, let it fall behind me, stopped, and listened to the people I could no longer see.
“Please, it’s Sebastian.”
“Okay, Sebastian, can you please tell Mr. Desmond that I am sorry if I upset him? I truly didn’t mean to.”
“I’m sure he knows that, Mary, but I’ll tell him. Will we see you tomorrow?”
“Of course. We wouldn’t miss it for the world. What time?”
“The show starts at six o’clock.”
Fred spoke up. “Do you think Mr. Desmond would mind if we told our friends about it?”
I sucked in my breath and prepared to return and tell them in no uncertain terms that if they said anything about me, they would regret it, but I calmed down when Sebastian said, “You can tell them about the show but nothing else. Not about his work and most definitely not about him. Don’t even mention that you met him, please.”
“Let’s just say that I have a feeling that tomorrow night will be a surprise for everyone who comes, and if you say anything before then, it will be ruined.”
“I understand. We won’t say anything to anyone.”
“Thank you so much.”
The bell above the door rang as they left, and I walked through another curtain to the section that held the masterpiece of the current collection. I had finished the portrait of my mother and me in the cabin, and it was displayed prominently on the wall directly across from the curtain so that it would be the first thing people saw as they came in. I clasped my hands behind my back and gazed at her, remembering that day and the joy and comfort I had felt in her arms after my father had hurt us once again. It made me sad, but I no longer felt like crying.
“Will I ever stop missing her, Sebastian?”
He put his hand on my shoulder as he stepped up beside me. “No, I don’t think you will, Erik, and that’s all right. I just hope that the pain gets easier to deal with.”
I sighed and sat down on the bench, and he rested his hands on my shoulders. “I think it already is,” I said. I flicked my eyes to him with a smile. “It was really nice meeting Fred and Mary.”
“They were nice, weren’t they?” I could hear his smile.
“How did you know?”
“I didn’t. I just wanted to prove to you that I’m not the only one who thinks your work is awe-inspiring. What happened after that was nothing I expected, but I’m glad it happened.” He squeezed my shoulders. “I’m proud of you, Erik.”
I took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Do you think she is proud of me, too?”
“Absolutely. I’m sure she is looking down on you right now and smiling, thinking of how brave her son is.”
“Brave. She always said I was brave, but I never believed her. I always thought I was such a coward to let my father do those things to us and not fight back.”
“Well, she was right then, and she’d be right now if she said it again.”
I stood up and turned to him. “Thank you, Sebastian, for helping me do this.”
“You’re welcome, my friend. Now, about tomorrow night. Fred and Mary…”
“I know you did,” he said with a laugh. “What do you think about them bringing friends?”
I shrugged. “That’s fine, but…”
“Do you expect me to make an appearance?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to?”
“I don’t know. Let me think about it.” He nodded, and I said, “Now, I have to finish the last piece for the show.”
“You’re not done? I thought everything was down here.”
“No, there’s one more, and it’s almost finished. I’ll bring it down myself when it is. You can go home.”
“Are you sure? I can stay if you need me to.”
“No. I need to be alone to decide what I want to do at the show. I promise I’ll be fine.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.” He held out his hand, and I took it. We didn’t shake but only held to each other firmly before dropping our hands. “I’ll see you tomorrow at…”
“You got it, five o’clock. I’ll meet you in your office?”
“That will be just fine.”
He smiled brightly and waved as he moved the curtain aside and disappeared.
I had just told Sebastian I would think about what was going to happen the next night, but the truth was, I had already decided. I had to destroy the last vestiges of my father’s lies and power over me, and the best way to do that would be to present myself to the people who came to the show. I figured there would be a few dozen people, and it would be incredibly hard, but I knew it had to be done if I were ever to be completely free from my father. I turned back to the portrait and fell to my knees before it. I clasped my hands in my lap and bowed my head.“Mama, please be with me tomorrow. Help me be brave. I want you to be proud of me.”