The next night, five o’clock rolled around, and I was as ready as I could be considering that I was about to meet dozens of people who didn’t know me and who just might react badly when they saw me. I was encouraged by Fred and Mary’s reactions, but my hands still began to sweat as I stared into my bathroom mirror, and I wiped them on a towel. I then stood up straight and made sure everything was perfect. My black tuxedo was pristine, and I carefully placed the white pocket square in position and straightened the black silk bow tie. Taking one last deep breath, I left my apartment, closing the stair door behind me.
In my office, Sebastian was waiting for me, and he looked like a little boy who was eagerly anticipating his birthday present. His eyebrows rose as I entered the room, and he smiled.
“You look great! Every lady tonight is going to want your phone number after they see you.”
I frowned, and his smile slipped.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Erik?”
“I’m sure. Come on,” I said, heading back up the stairs to my private elevator, “I need to show you something before the show starts.”
He followed me, and while we rode down to the gallery, I thought about what was about to happen. I had called Sebastian the night before and had given him my instructions, and while he had been a little confused, he had readily agreed to do as I asked. He hadn’t been in the gallery since Fred and Mary had left, so I knew he hadn’t seen the last piece I had put there.
I walked down the balcony stairs, and he followed me closely. Across the room from the front door, the wall had previously been vacant, but now it held a large piece covered in a snow-white cloth.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“My last piece for the show. When everyone is inside, you are to reveal it. Then do what I requested.”
“Since you asked so nicely, how can I refuse?” he said with a smile.
I grinned. “Sorry; I'm just very nervous. Please will you help me?”
He clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Of course I will. Do you know what you are going to say?”
“I think so, but, Sebastian, what if someone says something and I make a fool of myself? I've never done anything like this before.”
“Erik,” he said, becoming instantly serious, “for the last time, you are an amazing person, a brilliant artist, and my best friend. Anyone who can't see past your scar to understand that isn't worth worrying about. If someone says something rude to you, just let me know, and I'll make sure they are escorted out of here.”
I smiled at his words, and the next thirty minutes were spent making sure everything was perfect. At five forty-five, I walked up the stairs and took up position by the elevator. Just like before, the balcony was in shadow, but I wouldn't be staying there this time. I had decided to introduce myself to the art world, and I was terrified.
Time ticked slowly by until it was six o'clock. I could see the front door from where I was standing, and saw Sebastian unlock it and step into the doorway. I heard him gasp softly, but then he held up one hand.
“Ladies and gentleman, can I have your attention, please? Due to the size of the gallery and the fragility of the work inside, I can only allow thirty people in at a time. Please respect this so that nothing inside is damaged.”
A low murmur reached me through the open door, but I couldn't make out words, and I wondered exactly how many people were waiting out there.
“Now,” he continued, “please enter, but stay in the first section, for there will be two announcements before the show officially starts.”
He stood aside and I could see him counting as people started to move past him, the first two being Fred and Mary. I did the same, and after thirty, he held his arm across the doorway.
“That's it for now, ladies and gentlemen. If you'd like to wait for someone to leave, you are more than welcome to do so, but if not, please remember that the gallery will be open for the next two weeks at six in the evening each weekday and at ten in the morning Saturdays.”
He shut the door as the people outside began to loudly protest, and I chuckled. I'd have to compensate him with a bonus for dealing with this so well. He moved to the covered piece and placed his hand on the cloth, and I moved to the railing to watch.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the first showing of 1939 of Erik Desmond's artwork. This particular show has a theme, and Mr. Desmond has prepared this piece to explain it to you”. He gently pulled the cloth off, and there was a collective gasp from the crowd. Even Sebastian's eyes went wide, and then he glanced up at me with a sad smile.
The piece was a mosaic of tens of thousands of tiny ceramic tiles. I had started it the day I decided to do a show in honor of my mother, and I had put the finishing touches on it that very morning. It was about three feet tall and two feet wide. At the top was an image of my mother, all in white, a smile of love and contentment on her face. Her arms were wrapped around herself as though she were holding something special to her chest, and behind her were a set of golden gates which were wide open. The background was a mix of gold and white and the palest blue. Beneath this, in silver and gold tile outlined with blue, were words:
REBECCA ADELINE TAYLOR
GOD AND THE ANGELS REJOICE TO HAVE HER
EVEN AS HER SON GRIEVES TO HAVE LOST HER
I saw tears in the eyes of many of the people assembled below me, men and women both, but no one made a sound. Sebastian gave them a moment to appreciate the piece, and then he cleared his throat. All eyes went to him, and I took a steadying breath.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the second announcement I have for you is this: for the first time ever, Mr. Erik Desmond will be present at this showing.” The crowd began to murmur, and Sebastian held up his hand. “Please, ladies and gentlemen.” They quieted down. “Direct your attention to the balcony above you.”
I felt a surge of panic threaten my new-found resolve as they did so, but I squashed it down until it was only an uncomfortable knot in my stomach. As I had asked, Sebastian caused the balcony lights to turn on so that I was illuminated from three sides, my face revealed for all to see. I didn't say anything for a moment but only watched the reactions of the people below me. Fred and Mary were both smiling brightly, and she even raised her hand in a small wave. My lips curled up slightly at that sign of friendship, and I watched the others. Only a few had looks of disgust or fear, and I chose to ignore them, for the majority only looked curious or awe-struck. I placed my hands on the railing and silently beseeched my mother for her help.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said out loud, happy that I managed to keep my voice steady, “thank you for coming to my show. I am honored that you would take time out of your lives to come and see my work. I only ask two things while you are here. Enjoy yourselves and, if you are so inclined, feel free to purchase something.”
A wave of laughter rippled through the crowd, and I backed up so that I was against the wall next to the elevator. I took a deep breath and thought about what I was going to try to do next. From below, I heard Sebastian say, “You heard him, ladies and gentlemen, please, enjoy yourselves. If you are interested in a purchase, please come talk to me, and I'm sure we can come to an agreement. Everything in the gallery is for sale with the exception of the pieces which are clearly labeled to the contrary. So, feel free to browse, and Mr. Desmond will join us in a moment.” There were only two such pieces: the bronze bust and the tile mosaic. Those were for me to keep.
I closed my eyes briefly and thought of Sebastian's words to me. He was right. If someone couldn't see past me to the beauty of my art, they were the ignorant ones and weren't worth my time. I smiled, opened my eyes, and walked briskly down the stairs. I paused for a moment at the bottom before pushing aside the black curtain and stepping out. The only two people in the oils section when I emerged were Fred and Mary. It didn't surprise me. I guessed that Sebastian had told them where the stairs were, and it was nice to have someone I trusted waiting for me.
Fred smiled and held out his hand. I took it, and he squeezed briefly. I then took Mary's hand, and she actually blushed when I smiled at her.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Chandler, Miss Holmes. I hope you have a good time.”
“I'm sure we will,” she said. “Thank you for getting us to the front of the line. We wouldn't have made it in otherwise.”
“Why?” I asked. “Exactly how many people are out there?”
“Well,” Fred said, looking around him at the paintings, “when we arrived at five-thirty, the line was almost to Fifth. I'm sure by the time the door opened, it wrapped around the corner. After seeing this, I can understand why.”
“No. There must still be a hundred or more people out there. I guess the people we invited told others who told others, and so on and so on.”
I didn't know what to say, and I didn’t have a chance anyway since at that moment, the curtain moved aside and a group of people came through. They immediately surrounded me and began asking me questions and complimenting me on my work. It was overwhelming, and I felt the panic building again. I answered them rather automatically, but they seemed satisfied and eventually moved off. I walked to a small painting of my mother, her head surrounded by a heavenly glow, and I rested my hand on the frame. I closed my eyes and braced myself for what I knew was going to be a very, very long night as a few more people entered the section.
“You handled that better than I thought you would.”
The words were a whisper next to me. I smiled even as my stomach threatened to betray my nervousness by discharging its meager contents. “What exactly did you expect me to do?” I looked at Sebastian.
“Oh, I don’t know. Either hit someone or run away, I guess. I wouldn’t have been surprised by either of those reactions.”
“Believe me, Sebastian, it is taking all that is in me not to do one of those two things. Preferably the second.”
My friend put his hand on my shoulder. “Hang in there, Erik. Tonight won’t last forever.”
“I know; it’ll just feel like it.”
He chuckled. “You’re probably right. Now, turn around and talk to these lovely connoisseurs of art.”
I groaned softly but did as he said, and the next three hours were equally split between stamping down the terror that continually threatened to bubble over and trying my best to be congenial to the patrons who came and went. I wandered through the gallery, stopping every once in a while to talk with someone, and I was shocked to see Sebastian tying a “Sold” ribbon onto my pieces quite often.
Just after nine o’clock, I was explaining one of my drawings to two sisters, one sixteen years old and the other eighteen, when I was interrupted by a loud, obnoxious voice behind me.
“You can’t possibly expect me to believe that you are the great Erik Desmond!”
I slowly turned and glared at the man. He was dressed impeccably in a midnight blue tuxedo, but I quickly learned that his manners belonged to someone from the dregs of society.
“No, I won’t excuse you, you fraud!”
My eyebrows rose, and I saw Sebastian quickly moving toward us, a look of dread on his face. He needn’t have worried. I wasn’t upset by this man’s accusations; on the contrary, he amused me, and I smiled.
“Fraud? What makes you say I’m a fraud?”
“Just look at you! There is no way such a freak has it in him to create these pieces! There’s no way the beautiful woman in these pictures birthed someone like you!”
That made me mad, and I took one step toward him before Sebastian inserted himself between us.
“Don’t what? I’m not going to hurt him.” My eyes never left the brute standing in front of me, his arms crossed over his chest, but I spoke to my friend. “I’m going to prove him wrong.”
The question came from Sebastian and the man at the same time.
“Get me a piece of paper, a pencil, and something hard to draw on. I’ll simply show him that I did indeed create these works.”
“If I leave, are you going to stay away from him?”
The concern in Sebastian’s voice caused me to chuckle, and I said, “I promise to leave him alone unless he starts something.”
“I guess that’s the best I’ll get,” he muttered, and then he hurried to the counter where he grabbed one of his accounting books and a pencil. He brought them back to me, and I took them from him.
I hadn’t stopped staring at the man, but now I looked at Sebastian. “Thank you.”
I glanced at the man once before I turned to the last page, which was blank, and started sketching. He didn’t look quite as confident as he had when he had blurted out his allegation of fraud, and I smiled.
The people around us had formed a circle with us in the middle, and I could hear the murmuring. A few words drifted through the general hum such as amazing and idiot, the first of which I decided to apply to myself and the second to the idiot who was now glancing uncertainly around at the crowd.
Ten minutes later, I was done. I signed it with a flourish, tore out the page, and handed the book to Sebastian. The crowd hadn’t moved an inch, and my smile grew as I held the paper out to the man. He hesitated and then took it, frowning as he looked at what I had drawn. It was actually three pictures, and they told a little story of a man being thrown out of the gallery by the owner of said establishment. I had put as much detail as possible in them considering the short amount of time I’d had, but his widening eyes told me it was enough.
“Now,” I said as I stepped close to him, “I suggest you leave before that story comes true.”
His eyes came up to mine, and he turned to leave.
He froze and glanced over his shoulder at me. “What?”
I reached around him and plucked the paper from his hands. “That is not for you to keep,” I said with a grin. “Who knows? It might be worth a lot of money someday.”
He frowned and made his way through the people, many of whom had started to laugh at him. I heard the bell above the door, and he was gone.
“What did you draw, Erik?”
Without a word, I handed the paper to Sebastian. He looked at it and then laughed out loud. He was instantly surrounded by people who wanted to see what I had drawn, and as soon as they did, they laughed as well. After a few moments of this, I took the paper back, and the crowd went back to whatever it was they had been doing when they were interrupted.
The two ladies I had been talking to were once again standing by the drawing we had been discussing, and I rejoined them.
“Here,” I said to the younger of the two, “a gift from me to you.” I handed her the paper, and her eyes went wide.
“Are you kidding? This is worth a lot of money! I can’t just take it.”
“Of course you can,” I said, shrugging. “I’m giving it to you, so you can take it. Actually, wait just a moment. I’ll be right back.”
She nodded, and I went to the back of the gallery where I had a storage space with extra frames and such in case of breakage. I rummaged through it briefly before I found a wooden frame and blue mat just the right size for the paper. I brought them back, inserted the drawing, and secured it to the frame.
“There,” I said, holding it out to her, “that’s better. This way it won’t get crumpled.”
Her eyes were wide in shock, and she reached out shaking hands to take it from me. “Thank you, Mr. Desmond! Thank you!” she cried, and to my utter surprise, she gave the picture to her sister and threw her arms around me in a hug. I gently returned it and then put my hands on her shoulders and pushed her back.
“You are welcome. Take good care of it. After all, it’s an Erik Desmond original.”
I had spoken in jest, but she nodded her head vigorously and her eyes shone with adoration.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an announcement to make.”
I smiled at her and then moved into the main section and raised my voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that the show is now closed for the evening. Please feel free to return some other day if you wish. Thank you for coming.”
The majority of the people came up to shake my hand before leaving, and when the last person left, I sighed deeply and sank down on the bench in front of the mosaic.
“You did well, Erik,” Sebastian said softly. “I’m proud of you.”
“It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” I said, raising my eyes to my mother’s image. “She helped me.”
“I’m sure she did. Are you going to stay for a while?”
“All right, I’ll lock the door behind me. Good night.”
“Good night, Sebastian, and thank you.”
“You’re welcome, my friend.”
The bell above the door rang, and I thought it was him leaving, but his gasp told me otherwise.
“Sebastian, who is it?”
I stood up and turned around, and the world tilted.
The girl standing before me had waist-length, raven-black hair and shining brown eyes. Her hands were clasped tightly before her, and her eyes were wide as she stared at me, at my scar, and I resisted my natural inclination to turn away from her.
“Do you want me to stay?” Sebastian spoke softly, and my eyes flicked briefly to him.
“No, you can go,” I said, and he nodded before moving out the door and locking it.
“Don’t say it, Sarah.”
“Say what?” Her voice was small and hesitant, and her eyes shone with unshed tears.
I did turn away from her then and clenched my fists at my sides. “Whatever it is you’re thinking right now. I couldn’t stand to hear horror or pity from you.”
“I’m not thinking either of those things, Erik.”
I glanced back at her. “Then what are you thinking?”
She took one step toward me and then stopped and cocked her head. “Do you really want to know?”
I nodded, but I wasn’t entirely sure.
She sighed and wiped her gloved hand across her eyes. “I’m thinking that you were right. You can’t hide what was done to you like I can.”
I straightened my back and slowly turned to face her. “Did you doubt me?”
“No, I didn’t, but I have to say that your scar is not what I expected.”
“I’m sure it isn’t,” I said bitterly. "I'm sure it's worse."
“In a way, but at the same time, you are as handsome as I thought you were when I first saw you in your office.”
I grunted incredulously, but she closed the distance between us and raised a shaking right hand toward my face. Before she could touch me, I firmly grasped her wrist.
I drew a deep breath and released her, turning toward my mother’s memorial mosaic. “Just don't.”
Sarah's close proximity was causing my control to fail rapidly. I desperately wanted to retain it, and I did so by trying to push her away again.
“What are you doing here, Sarah?”
“I came to talk to you, to tell you I was back in the City. Erik, what has happened to you since I left?”
“Quite a lot,” I said, “but I don’t understand why you care.”
“Erik, stop it!”
I spun around at the anger in her tone, and I glared at her. “Stop what, Sarah? You left! Why should you care what happened to me between now and then?”
She stepped close to me and craned her neck as her glare met mine. “It was a vacation! I told you I was coming back! Why didn’t you believe me?”
I opened my mouth and then closed it, running my hands through my hair before turning away from her again. I racked my brain for an response and then it came to me. I looked up at my mother and took a deep breath.
“I was afraid.”
She moved before me and put her hands on my arms. “Why? What were you afraid of?”
I looked at her and searched her face for any sign of horror or disgust or pity and only saw concern and worry. I decided to be honest. I would have to deal with the consequences if she didn’t understand. “I couldn’t lose you like I lost my mother, and if I didn’t expect anything from you, then it wouldn’t hurt so much if you didn’t come back.”
“Oh, Erik,” she whispered, and then she stepped to me and wrapped her arms around my waist and rested her head on my chest.
I couldn’t breathe.
This hug meant so much more than the one I had gotten from the girl to whom I had given the picture, and my arms trembled as I pushed her back.
“Sarah, what do you want from me?”
She smiled. “I just want to be your friend. I have the feeling that you need more of those.”
I nodded as I processed her words. Friends. I could do that.
Her smile broadened, and she said, “Good. I should go now, though. My father is waiting for me out in the car.”
She turned toward the door, but I stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“Sarah,” I said as a tear trickled down my unblemished cheek, “please don’t leave me again.”
She raised one hand to wipe the tear away. “I’m not going anywhere, Erik.”I didn’t know why, but this time, I believed her.