Authors note: Trigger Warnings: Domestic abuse (past), Murder (past, but described), Child abuse (past), Graphic descriptions of violence and medical procedures.
The Rules of Courage
The youth perceived that the time had come. He was about to be measured. For a moment, he felt in the face of his great trial like a babe, and the flesh over his heart seemed very thin.
~ Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
“Did you hear about the Peterson kids? The new ones who just came in, sister and brother? Guess their dad sliced up the mom after the kids left for school. Haywood brought them in. Said the mom tried to get to a phone but couldn’t make it. The father left her to bleed out and ended up getting pulled over for driving crazy. Guess he was on his way to their school. Really tore Haywood up.”
“Wow, that’s awful. But at least some higher power was looking out for those kids.”
Eric escaped the dream, blinking in the low candlelight of the morning.
His heart beat heavy and fast, like he’d been running.
He wasn’t in the orphanage.
He wasn’t in Indiana, but not with Ellie either.
He wished he could talk to his sister.
“Don’t be such a baby, Eric.”
For a few moments he just lay there, looking out on the blurry Tunnel nursery.
Where were his glasses?
You can’t lose them—that was the law they grilled into you when they handed them over.
Wait. There they were on his new table.
Last night he’d placed them on the fruit crate William let him have after kitchen duty. He asked, and the cook gave what he could. That was the rule here.
Eric fingers searched for the glasses among the shapes on his improvised table and hoped no one asked him for anything he couldn’t give.
He didn’t have a lot–his glasses, his portrait of Ellie, and his small collection of treasures—a few rocks and shells, a blue pencil, an old subway token, and a Donald Duck comic, bent and softened by reading. Everything else, from his clothes, trunks, school bag, and the stuff within, were borrowed and would need to be returned, given to some kid after him.
Eric perched the glasses on his nose, and the blur of the children in the surrounding beds, cots, cribs, and bunks became more recognizable—Some huddled under blankets, others were up making their beds, or reading, or playing quiet games together.
In the Tunnels, the orphans all slept in the same room. Little Melanie cuddled with Samantha this morning. And Kipper was untying Adric’s crib cover to grab the crying boy. They all took turns putting him to bed and getting him in the morning, since he was too small to wander.
That was another rule. You looked after each other.
“Until you find your feet, always have a partner, someone who has experience here. Even when you do learn your way, it’s better to go in pairs.”
Father had suggested that when they first arrived, and Ellie had followed the advice with a squeeze of the hand.
“Listen to Father, Eric.”
He had a few friends to hang out with, but he didn’t have his partner anymore, at least, not his all-the-time one. He looked over at the picture in the frame Cullen had made.
He could have told Ellie about his dream.
“Don’t be such a baby.”
Eric slipped out of the covers, dangled his feet, and dropped to the cold stone floor. Hurrying, he slipped on his shoes, then yanked the trunk from underneath and rummaged for a shirt, clean underwear, pants, sweater, and socks, and headed to the bathroom.
Zach had shown him where to dress, a hidden corner. He could have privacy if he wanted, not like at the orphanage.
Once dressing, (peeing,) teeth-brushing, hair, and making his bed were taken care of, he just had to wait for breakfast.
Eric peered over at Danny’s—no—Dan’s bunk. (Danny was a baby’s name his friend declared recently.) He was the next smallest kid around Eric’s age, and could usually be counted on for a morning game of marbles or thumb war. But Dan was just throwing off his covers and grabbing his clothes.
Should read, anyway, Eric thought.
He bounced down the mattress towards his school bag hanging from the bed post and pulled out both his ragged book, The Red Badge of Courage, and his slightly used spiral notebook. (Only five pages ripped out.)
He’d been promoted from Mary’s Reading class to Vincent’s only two weeks ago. The next lesson wasn’t until Monday, but he could work on his homework.
He opened to the assignment written in his newly-learned cursive.
Read your book every day. Write your impressions, questions, or anything you have trouble understanding.
The book was a strange, filled with old fashioned writing and oddly spelled words with loads of apostrophes. The author spelled some words phonetically, (like they sounded), and in the colloquial language (everyday words) of the place and time, Vincent had explained, so you should read it aloud. That helped. You could do that, even in the older class, thank goodness. Still, the “anything you have trouble understanding” part filled too many pages. Words like:
And his questions:
How did solders join? soldiers
What guns did they use?
How were camps set up?
What did people get sick with?
What did they eat?
Vincent said his questions were thoughtful.
Vincent even answered the question he hadn’t written down.
May be why he dreamt of Dad and the closet in the children’s home.
Don’t be such a baby, Eric.
He wasn’t a baby.
Eric propped his pillow against the iron headboard, opened to his bookmark, and fell into the smoke and soldier filled world. Henry, the main character, had just found the outskirts of a battle, and with it, dying men and corpses. Eric wondered if any of them had bled out before help came.
He’d read almost two more chapters when a quick tug of his foot made him jump about five feet.
It was Finn.
“Sorry, but it’s breakfast,” the boy informed him and bolted out with the others.
The pipes rang—Breakfast served. Breakfast served.
Eric hadn’t noticed.
He hopped off the bed, causing his notebook to fall and pencil to roll. He scooped them, dumped, and ran.
He’d have to write his impressions later.
* * *
Most of the time, food was better in the Tunnels than the orphanage.
Today, William served oatmeal.
Wet, dribble-off-your-spoon, might-as-well-be-glue, oatmeal, and even sadder, hardly any brown sugar to go with it. At least sugar covered some of the blahness.
Sugar flavored glue might be edible. Only glue, not so much.
Moving the cold glops around his bowl, Eric wondered if William might serve something else. Maybe the cook would notice people weren’t eating.
But he didn’t. He only noticed Mouse.
“Oatmeal is yuck,” Mouse complained to Jamie and Pascal and threw down his spoon.
They all were thinking it—sure—but nobody was itching to say. Even if he was usually nice, William could get real angry. That wouldn’t stop Mouse, of course. Nothing stopped Mouse’s thoughts from walking right out of his mouth, usually loudly.
That’s when the yelling started.
“Do you think it’s easy feeding this many people every day? No one appreciates the time and planning it takes!” William bellowed.
For about a million more minutes of shouting, that was the them, until the cook finished with, “Mouse, if you happen to invent something useful for once, like a gizmo that shoots out eggs and bacon for fifty, I’ll happily hand you my apron.”
Then he stomped out.
Eric didn’t like the yelling, but the joke kinda landed.
Eric meandered to the nursery behind the other kids, thinking of his mom’s oatmeal. Most oatmeal was yuck, but not hers. It was thick, “stick to your ribs” food, she would say, covered in fruit and maple syrup. He missed her cooking.
But tomorrow was Saturday—chore day Up Top—and that usually meant good stuff for Sunday breakfast. The others might come back with eggs or maybe bagels! Bagels were great, even if they were few days old. Zach and Hannah were helping with Mr. Long’s Saturday delivery, and that meant potatoes, so possibly home fries.
Eric had Helper Check with Kipper and Geoffery, which was a solid job, usually with perks. The hardest it got was hopping on a ladder to screw in lightbulbs or cleaning the top of a cabinet. Mr. Farrow sometimes made them grilled cheese, and Mrs. Trawinski usually gave out candy bars. Those were the best days.
At first, he hadn’t wanted to go Up Top for chores. He thought someone might recognize him and send him back to the children’s home, but Zach told him not to worry. Zach said Topsiders barely saw in front of their own faces, let alone noticed some Tunnel kids running around. He’d gotten away from an orphanage too, and they never found him. Eric didn’t have to be afraid.
Don’t be such a baby, Eric.
Well, that was tomorrow, and Science class was this morning. He could make it to lunch, especially if they had Science.
He liked most of the classes here, not like regular school. Math was good—numbers made sense. Reading was cool, but he was only ok at spelling and the pits with punctuation. Cells and organs, though, volcanos, and animals, and space, that’s what he wanted to learn about. How people breathed oxygen and gave off carbon dioxide and how trees did the opposite. Chemicals could make explosions, or medicine, or acid. Father tried to answer his questions. That was another thing different here than at the orphanage. At the orphanage, the grown-ups asked the questions, not the other way around.
He shuffled into an empty nursery.
Everyone was already gone. He’d taken too long walking back.
He was late!
Eric shoved his stuff into his bag and sprinted to Father’s chamber.
Dan, Kipper, Samantha, and Geoffrey were already sitting at the tables, along with the other children, the ones who had families.
Eric didn’t know them as well, since they slept in their own chambers. Felicia and Hanna seemed nice, if girly, but Tim was a loner, and Brian was mean. You avoided kids like Brian Up Top or Below. Guess they were everywhere.
“See, the squirt made it,” Brian snickered when Eric rushed in. “They all thought we’d have to send out a search party. I told em to look under a pile of books and we’d find ya.”
Dan and Kipper, who were sitting with Finn and Brian didn’t laugh, but a few of the others did.
Everyone knew Eric was the smallest and youngest in their class. Brian, the dumpy brat, didn’t have to rub it in, though. He wouldn’t sit with that jerk, even if there was room for him.
“Be quiet, Brian” Samantha snarled from the girls table.
Ellie used to do that too, treat him like he was helpless. Drove him nuts.
Samantha peered over with her sad eyes again. As if he needed another reminder … of everything.
Father shuffled from his desk to the head of the class. “That’s enough nonsense,” he announced.
The room quieted as he waited, then cleared his throat and commanded, “Hand in your assignment, please.”
Eric reached into his notebook and pulled out the cell definitions and drawings. He hoped Father liked them. He’d decided to add a few extras—red blood cells and muscle cells—at the bottom. He’d copied them out of the book Father let him borrow so he could catch up. No T.V. here but loads of books.
Each paper had his full name, Eric Peterson, written across the top. He checked before he deposited them on the pile. Then he sat on a step, the only open spot, pulled out his pencil, and waited for their teacher to begin the next lesson.
“You’ll remember from last class that cells are the building blocks of life, be they in, say… a dog, or a flower, in Mouse’s racoon… or indeed, in you Felicia—Felicia, please put that note from Samantha away and pay attention. Now, can anyone name a specific type of cell for me?”
Eric’s hand shot up.
* * *
After Science, Math, and lunch—PB&J sandwiches with apple slices, better than breakfast—Dan asked if Eric wanted to go swimming.
They traveled first to the bathing chamber, laughing about how Brian insisted rocks had cells. Anyone could make a mistake, but the dummy kept saying he was right and everyone else, even Father, was wrong.
They joked until they got to the bathing chamber and the stacks of towels. These weren’t like their old fluffy ones in Indiana, or even the cheap, flatter towels from the apartment or the orphanage. Tunnel towels were stitched from a few pieces of fabric, thin, and you were only allowed one each. (Please and thank-you, another rule.) Dan wrapped his around his neck and screamed, “Race ya!” as he zipped out the exit. Eric snatched his and chased his friend on the curving path.
Not far from the entrance to the pools, Eric heard children shouting and splashing.
“You didn’t say the others would be here too.”
Dan turned, huffing, “Of course they are, doofus. We can’t swim by ourselves. You know that.”
Those were the rules, and probably good ones.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Eric agreed, but he bet Brian would be with them and Brian didn’t make anything better or safer.
They entered the pool chamber, dropped their towels, and began stripping to their underwear. Eric’s pair were starting to pinch his legs. He’d have to ask Mary for another size up soon. Maybe tomorrow… or the next day.
“Hey, it’s the squirts!” Brian yelled and started flicking water towards them.
Eric wanted to leave.
Before he high-tailed it though, Dan caught him by the wrist and dragged him into the water.
Now, Eric really wanted to go.
“Marco!” Geoffery yelled.
“Polo! Polo! Polo!” A chorus of voices answered.
“Polo,” Eric grunted.
* * *
He got tagged a grand total of five times. The others kept swimming to the deep where he couldn’t stand, water shot straight up his nose twice, and once he choked down a gulp. Was that even safe? Where did this water come from? As soon as he returned he’d have to ask.
They called the game with him still “It”, but that was ok. He could finally escape.
Of course, that’s when Brian suggested jumping off the cliffs… for fun.
“Sure,” Samantha and Kipper agreed.
“I’ll go,” Dan replied, rushing out, way too eager.
“Nah,” Eric said, trudging to the shore. Jumping sounded super dangerous.
“What’s a matter, Eric?” Brian asked while wading out of the water too. “You too chicken?”
Eric snatched up his towel, wiped his face, and threw on his glasses.
“I’m not chicken,” he protested. “I just don’t want to.”
“Leave the kid alone,” Kipper called, but Brian kept it up.
“Why, Eric? If you’re not a chicken, come on. We’re all going. You should too.”
“Come with us.” Dan insisted,
“Yeah, squirt. It’ll be good for you,” Brian continued to pester.
That was the problem with mean kids, always pretending their teasing and nastiness was for your own good.
“I’ve got homework.”
“Oh, homework. Sure, nerd. So, you coming Danny?”
Didn’t the jerk remember his name was Dan, not Danny?
“Or are you going to hang with mister scaredy-cat-know-it-all?”
His friend stared at Eric for a second, then began to walk towards Brian.
“I’m coming with you guys.” Then added without even turning around. “Eric’s just a baby, anyway.”
He wasn’t a baby, or a nerd.
He didn’t need them. He didn’t need any of them!
His feet scrambled and his body shook. Before he knew what he was doing, he rushed Dan.
A voice inside whispered, Stop.
Don’t do this.
Eric didn’t listen.
They hit, Eric tackling from behind, taking the other boy straight off his feet. They skidded across the sand like sliding into home, then hit something, hard, scraping across the ground for a second before stopping.
Dan shook off Eric’s hold and scrambling until he was facing him.
“Hey—” he started to holler, but whatever else he was going to say was lost to sight of blood.
A rock, jutting out of the sand, had sliced the inside of his arm from wrist to elbow.
“Oh, Jesus!” Dan cried out.
“I’m sorry!” Eric yelled struggling up. “I’m sorry!”
Felicia started screaming. Kipper and Samantha launched towards shore. Brian just stood there, a telephone pole with an open mouth.
Eric wanted to run.
Ribbons of red gushed down Dan’s arm, dripping off, splashing little craters beneath him.
Eric needed to hide.
He turned to the exit, clutching his towel, ready to flee.
Don’t be such a baby, Eric!
He could dodge, but what if the others didn’t get Dan help in time?
What if Dan died?
What if he killed his friend?
Ellie wouldn’t run.
Kipper reached them as Eric turned to Dan.
“Kipper, help me wrap my towel around his arm! Hurry! We need it tight!”
The older kid nodded and held one end against Dan’s elbow while Eric circled the cloth, tugging each time around. Dan tried to pull away from the pain.
“Dan, stop! We have to put pressure on it!” Eric bound the arm to end of the fabric, then yanked and tucked the end.
“We need to get to Father!”
He helped Dan stand.
Samantha shouted, “I’ll send a message to him you’re coming.” She twirled, looking for the nearest pipe.
Eric caught Dan’s large eyes. “It’s gonna be ok, Dan.”
Eric didn’t know that, but it seemed like something his sister would say.
Dan nodded. Didn’t even fight when Eric held the wound as they raced the halls with Kipper in front telling people to move out of the way.
Samantha’s message, <<Father, Dan’s arm cut deep. Coming to you>> echoed thorough the Tunnels, followed by Father’s reply. <<Meet at hospital chamber>>
Eric led the gray-faced Dan past the sickroom curtain to where Father was placing packs and metal basins next to a bed.
Dan had to be ok. He had to.
“Come over and sit, Daniel.” The doctor put on his glasses and took Dan’s arm in his hands. “Tell me what happened.”
“I fell on the beach,” Dan said and went silent.
Eric looked at Kipper, but the older boy said nothing.
They weren’t going to tell.
It’d be ok.
He wouldn’t get in trouble…
… just like Dad never did.
A secret … like the ones they had to keep when he and Ellie were small.
“I pushed Dan down,” Eric blurted. “He got cut on a rock when we fell. I’m really sorry.”
“I see,” Father said. “Is that what happened, Daniel?”
Dan peered over to Kipper for a second, then nodded, adding, “Eric wrapped it up real tight his towel.”
“He did,” the old man agreed, studying the bloody cloth. “But I must remove it now, Daniel. Are you ready?”
Dan didn’t look ready, so Eric took his other hand. He gripped his palm as Father unwound the wet, red towel.
The edges of the wound had puckered, like fingers after being in the tub too long. The blood—thicker, darker—still oozed when the doctor poked it. (And with each prod, Dan squeezed until Eric was sure his fingers would crack.)
“You did a remarkably good job on this bandage, Eric. Where did you learn how to dress a wound?”
“Vincent showed me. We’re reading The Red Badge of Courage. You know, about the Civil War?”
“That’s fortuitous,” the old man said as he held Dan with his gaze, “because you must be courageous, while I stitch this.”
Dan glanced over at Eric, and gulped, “All right.”
The doctor poured a brown liquid on the cut which must have hurt like heck, cause Dan yowled and nearly broke Eric’s hand again.
Father put on a new pair of gloves, took a curved needle and two scissor things with mouths on the ends, and started making stitches. It was pretty impressive, because he didn’t use his fingers, just the chompy little scissors to guide the needle through the skin and muscle.
Dan hissed and yelled a few times, but he wouldn’t bawl. He was super brave.
At the end, near his wrist, Father stopped.
“We’re close to the radial artery,” he explained, tying quick knots. “I’ll place some butterfly closures and wrap it, but the rest will have to heal by intension.” He dabbed the blood off with the cloth and gave Dan a stern look. “No playing, no running, nothing at all until I check this. You are confined to bed unless for class or meals. Understood?” the doctor commanded, pointing to the cut. “You’re a very lucky boy, Daniel.”
Studying the stitches, Dan snickered, still a little shaky, “That’s funny, Father, cause I don’t feel very lucky.”
“Daniel,” the man said, frowning, “you could have cut a major blood vessel… or a tendon, and then where would we be, hmm?” He stared at Eric and Kipper too. “It could have been much worse, boys. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Father,” Dan said, no longer smiling.
“Yes, Father,” Eric agreed.
“No horseplay, especially around the pools, or there will be no swimming privileges. Do I make myself clear!”
“Yes, Father,” the boys replied in unison.
The leader turned directly to Eric. The hot, wobbly sensation—the one you got when you were gonna get a pounding—engulfed his body.
But all the doctor said was, “Thank you for bringing Daniel, Eric. You can go. I’ll speak to you later.”
* * *
Eric ran to the nursery, trying to avoid everyone, but as soon as he entered every kid gawped. They must have heard already.
Samantha, her hair in wet strings, gave him the sad eyes again.
He wouldn’t cry.
Don’t be a baby.
Don’t be a baby.
He couldn’t cry.
His clothes lay in a pile on the bed. Someone brought them back. He pulled them over his damp head and soggy underwear, then grabbed his picture, treasure box, a candle and matches, and fled to the wardrobe room.
Once safely behind the closet doors, he lit the candle, dropped his stuff, and curled in.
He liked this place. It was quiet and hardly used. Being here reminded him of the Narnia stories mom read when he was little.
Now, he’d always be little. That’s what happened when you starved, right?
Maybe he should be little forever. He couldn’t grow up to be like Dad. Mom said Dad had been a nice guy once, but that they had to leave home for New York, because he had “a temper”.
Now Eric had to leave the Tunnels because he had a temper. The Tunnel folks wouldn’t want him, and that was probably smart. He shouldn’t be around people, if it meant people got hurt.
He couldn’t stop the tears any longer.
Don’t be such a baby, Eric.
Better a baby than a man who hurt people.
He missed his friends. He missed his mom. He missed his sister. He even missed Dad.
He wasn’t ten yet and he’d lost just about everything. Each time, it was like a big shark came and took a bite of him. Dad, bite. Mom, bite. Ellie, bite. Their home, their apartment, little league, Dan, The Tunnels, bite, bite, bite, bite, bite.
If he kept losing chunks, how soon until there was nothing left? How long before he just bled out?
He cried harder.
He must have fallen asleep crying, because the next thing he heard was Father calling from the room outside the doors.
“Eric? Eric, are you in here?”
He stayed quiet.
“Eric, please come out. I see the candlelight.”
Would Father send him back to the children’s home?
Eric peeked out the crack to see the old doctor pawing through the cobwebs on his way across the room.
“I’m really sorry,” Eric squeaked the apology again.
The man wiped his gloves on his vest and reached out.
“I believe that, Eric.”
Maybe he could convince Father to let him stay here with the other unneeded things.
Eric jumped down from the wardrobe and Father took his hand.
“Daniel confessed that he and Brian were making fun of you before the fight. However, you should not have pushed him.” He wagged his finger.
“I know!” Eric yelled and started bawling like the baby he was, which only made him cry harder. “I didn’t mean to hurt him that bad.”
Father wrapped his arm around him and sighed. “It was an accident.
The old man said nothing more to stop the crying, just pulled Eric to a dusty, cloth-covered, couch to sit. After an eternity, the tears slowed, and Eric started breathing at regular intervals again.
Father handed Eric a handkerchief and waited while he wiped his face. Then he lowered his gaze.
“I want you to understand how serious this is, Eric.”
Eric nodded, still shuddering.
“We all make mistakes, goodness knows,” the leader continued and hugged Eric’s shoulder. “One of mine was leaving you on your own to manage your grief.” He squeezed a little, like Ellie used to. “However, part of my job is to look after everyone’s safety.”
Eric hiccupped. “Yes, Father.”
“We give second chances here … but they come at a cost.”
Eric’s mind went crazy with questions.
What cost? What did he have to give? He barely had anything.
“The cost,” Father clarified, “is learning and doing better.”
Eric nodded once more, but only because it was expected. He had no idea how that was even possible.
“I talked to Vincent concerning what went on today. He reminded me of another little boy who had to learn to control his temper.”
“What did he do?”
The old man looked away. “He hurt his friend. He cut his face.” Then he turned to Eric, speaking slower, as if he needed him to understand. “But he learned from that mistake, and we helped him.”
“Well … we did lots of things,” the doctor said as he sunk into the couch. “We talked together. We read books, played chess. He started writing about his feelings. He learned to channel his anger and strength into protecting the people he loves. It wasn’t easy, as it won’t be easy for you. But, in the end, he became a valued teacher and a trusted member of our Council.”
Eric bet he knew who it was.
“Was it Vincent?”
Father raised his brow and smiled.
“You are a clever boy, Eric.” The old man patted his hand.
Maybe they’d figure this out, especially if he could be smart like Father said.
“You could’ve run after you hurt Daniel,” Father said, serious again, “but you brought him to safety and confessed your error. That showed a maturity beyond your years. I’m disappointed in the fight, but I’m proud of your conduct afterward.”
After today, the idea of fighting made Eric want to hurl.
“That leads me to a proposal,” the old man continued. “You see, I was very impressed by your bandaging skills and how you stayed to watch me stitch Daniel’s arm. Few people would.”
“Really? It was rad.”
Stopping the bleeding, fixing the hurt … why wouldn’t someone want to learn how?
“’Rad,’ hmmm?” Father stopped, as if thinking about that. “I imagine it is, but that’s why I’m a doctor. And I think you could be a doctor someday … if you wish. How does that sound?”
It sounded too good to be true, so Eric just nodded.
“I was checking your homework when I heard the call on the pipes. You haven’t been in my classes for long, but you have an aptitude for study and the ability to take charge when needed. Those are valuable skills. I’m getting older, and I can’t do everything on my own.”
After a moment of quiet thinking, he added, “The truth is, I never could,” and looked off as if into some other place. “I’ve been feeling my age of late and despite what I, and everyone, thinks, I won’t be around forever.”
He shook his head and returned to Eric.
“So, I propose you help me.”
Help? No one ever expected anything from Eric, the baby, especially something so important. Butterflies zigzagged in his belly—scary, but exciting too.
“It means extra lessons in science and medicine, which would take no small amount of your free time. It’s a serious commitment, Eric.”
It sounded like it, but Eric was pretty certain he wanted it, even if he had to give up some play time.
“We can try a probationary period to start,” Father offered, “to see if you’re a proper fit. I have a feeling you are. You remind me a great deal of myself at your age.”
Wow. Him like Father?
“We’d be partners, you and me. Would that be all right?”
Not just all right.
Father would teach him how to be a doctor.
He’d grow up to be something good. And if people got sick again, maybe no one would have to die.
“I’d like that, Father.”
“Excellent!” the man exclaimed. “Let’s shake on it and go home.”
They did and dust started flying everywhere, which caused them both to chuckle and cough. Then Eric gathered his stuff, and they started back to the nursery.
While they traveled, Eric asked about the alligator mouth scissors—Addison forceps and needle driver. He wondered what got poured on the cut that made Dan yell—Iodine, to kill the germs and stop gangrene, same as in the Civil War—and found out it wasn’t regular thread used to sew Dan, but special suture thread Father snagged from a friend Above.
They entered the nursery. Dan was there, sitting on his bunk reading. He gave a small thumbs up, and Eric let go of the breath he didn’t know he was holding.
They got to his corner and Father watched as he put his stuff away, noticing Ellie’s portrait when he placed it on the crate. Father lifted it, running his hand over like he wished he could touch it through the glass. Eric would have said, careful, but the old man treated it like it was super breakable crystal or something.
“This is a beautiful picture of your sister,” he said after studying it awhile. “Very like her. Did you draw this?”
The day they drew it they should have been focused on schoolwork, but Eric couldn’t. All he could think about was forgetting Ellie’s face, yet his teacher didn’t get angry. They stayed after class, and the two worked on the portrait together.
That was the biggest rule here, helping.
“Vincent got the face right, but I showed him how to do Ellie’s hair. She had hair like Mom.”
Father sat on the side of the bed, still looking at the picture, and cleared his throat as if something was stuck in it.
“It’s … ah … good portrait. Yes … an excellent likeness.”
“Thanks.” Eric took it and placed it on his table. “Father? I had another question.”
“Of course.” The older man smiled, shaking his head. “What do you wish to know?”
“You said that Dan’s arm will have to ‘heal by… intension.’” Eric turned and pulled his hair from above his ear. “Is this ‘healed by intension?”
“Come sit,” commanded the old doctor and with gentle fingers, probed the indented scar.
The last time Eric saw the gash was in a mirror at the orphanage. By that point, nearly a year after leaving Indiana and a week after dad found them in New York, the cut had gone from gritty red to shiny pink.
“Looks like an avulsion wound…” Father said, examining. “Yes, this was healed by what we call ‘secondary intention’. Without stitches, your body did it’s best to fill in the area with scar tissue.”
He let Eric’s hair fall.
“Do you wish to discuss how you got that?” He asked, pointing.
Talking about Dad would lead to talking about Mom, and that seemed too big today.
Father took a deep breath.
Would he be mad? Would he push like the lady at the orphanage?
But all the doctor said was, “That’s fine, Eric,” and sounded sincere.
Not today … but if he had another nightmare, he could let Father know or maybe Vincent.
The old man stood, stretching as straight as he could, which wasn’t very straight. No wonder he needed help.
“Now you have your things back where they belong, we must go sterilize of our instruments, ready for the next mishap.” He pulled Eric to stand. “The first lesson of medicine—always have your equipment prepared and organized, because you never know, day or night, when you’ll be called.”
“’Day or night,’ got it.”
“And if we finish quickly, we might have a chance for some tea and a game of chess before dinner.”
“Umm, I don’t know how to play.”
“You don’t?” Father asked and seemed more excited than upset. “Well, we must teach you! Now, the first rule of chess—” he continued, bending low, “is don’t trust Vincent. He cheats.” He whispered the last bit loudly, as if sharing a secret, but not really.
Eric narrowed his eyes and smirked.
“I don’t think you’re telling the truth.”
The older man laughed, “You are a clever lad,” and ruffled his hair.
Hoping he wasn’t pushing too far, Eric said, “If it’s ok, after we finish, I was gonna see if Dan wanted company.” He glanced over at his friend propped up and reading, but also watching them. “He might get bored.”
Dan would need someone to look out for him while he healed. Eric could give him his comic and they could hang out until he was better. It wouldn’t make up for what he’d done, but it might be a start.
“Not only clever and courageous, but kind too. Of course, you may keep your friend company after our work. Quite thoughtful.”
Father put his arm around him.
“I believe we will make an excellent team, you and I.”
That’d be great, Eric thought as the two walked from the nursery together.
It’d be nice to have someone to talk to again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath his soul changed.”
― Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
email the author: crowmama
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