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Tough Decisions

Tough Decisions

Background

Erik is now 11 and in bad shape. He managed to escape from a circus cage where he was badly beaten and nearly starved to death. Then, since he was too frightened to be around civilization, he stays alone in the wilderness, eating whatever he can find. When winter approaches, with its cold storms and no food, he has to make a difficult decision. 

He can starve and succumb to the elements or he can venture into a town to steal what provisions he needs to keep living or he can take a chance and try to work for someone to earn his way. It’s a very tough decision for young Erik. 

Read on and see what his decision was and how it affected his life.

Tough Decisions

I cried and I cried. I cried over my father and his loss. I cried over what those thieves stole from me and my lost violin. I cried over being kidnapped and sold. I cried over the boy who was treated with the most inhuman of inhumanities. I cried over Tanner and his daughters. I cried over Yves and his death. I cried for that boy and all he’d lost and was forced to undergo. I cried and I cried. Consequently, seven months of concealed tears were shed in only a matter of minutes.

     I was without whatever it was that had protected me from my memories and deep feelings. My heart and mind were left vulnerable to my stabbing and torturous thoughts, and they punctured my defenseless emotions as easily as that dog’s teeth had punctured my leg.

     Molly moved uneasily and turned her head toward me, rubbing it against my back. I slid down her shoulder and then her leg until I reached the ground, once more in a heap of nothingness. I pushed against the side of my head with my fists and rocked on the cold, wet ground. I listened to my moans, which only Molly and I could then hear.

     That smell had overtaken me so completely that I was trapped in its clutches as easily as I’d been locked in Yves’ cage. The smell of fresh-cut wood and fresh mortar brought all the pain and agony of what seemed like a lifetime ago back in full force. With a vengeance, my emotions demanded to be heard and felt.

     “Oh, Papa,” I cried out. “Why, Papa? Why? Oh, Papa, I miss you. Oh, Papa, why?” I cried as I had a year in my past when I lay on my father’s grave. “Why, Papa?—Why?”

     My fingers were cold and blue, almost as cold as the earth beneath them; the earth that accepts our lifeless bodies when no one else wants us any longer. As the vision of Papa’s grave stung its way into my thoughts once more, my knuckles pushed deeper into the wet dirt. My fingers ached desperately to feel the ivory keys beneath them. I needed them to take me away from all that surrounded me.

     Why? I questioned, as I pushed my chest up from the ground. Why? Nothing made any sense anymore. Sitting up, I watched the air around my head fill with my labored breath. I pulled my collar up closer around my neck, trying to prevent the mist encircling me from penetrating my clothing. However, I was no longer able to prevent my past from penetrating the barriers around my heart.

     Getting to my feet, I ran my hands under Molly’s mane, allowing her to share her warmth with me. Then, mindlessly, I untied her and threw her lead over her neck. Breathing on my fingers, I pulled them up inside my long sleeves and crossed my arms over my chest, trying to protect myself from the heartless elements.

     I looked over my shoulder toward the town that had easily stripped me of a protective coating of a different kind, and one that wouldn’t be as easy to replace. I looked in the other direction toward the tree where all my worldly possessions hung and started walking back, with Molly faithfully following. As I approached the tree, the crisp autumn leaves crunched under my cold and bare feet, releasing an additional surge of painful memories.

     It had been a year since Papa’s death, and yet I felt as if I was back there again at his gravesite. The sound of the leaves, the smell of the damp air, and the cold breeze slicing through the tears on my cheeks, all added their persuasive testimony to the smell of the fresh-cut wood. Together they forced me back to that distressing day that ended our ability to make any more cherished memories together.

     I thought, how strange for a smell or a sound to bring back such vivid and unexpected memories, both painful and precious. All their unspoken words stripped me of the peace that had nurtured me all those months by the stream.

     I pulled my damp blankets from the tree, wrapped myself in them, and sat down. I tried to light the candle to warm my fingers and toes, but the matches were too damp and refused to help me. After a few unsuccessful attempts and with an angered huff, I threw the useless matches as far as I could. Curling my feet up under the blanket, I rubbed them, trying to warm them.

     I leaned back against the tree, pulled the blankets up over my head, and watched gray clouds moving gracefully across the horizon. There I stayed as the sky became lighter, without trying to prevent the steady stream of tears that fell from my unwanted face.

     I wanted to feel like I had while at the stream. Life was good there without feelings—without pain. That place by the slow-moving stream where my emotions were also allowed to move slowly. I wanted it back. But instead of it, all the horrors of the last year pressed in on me, especially those last moments in the cage.

     For so long I wanted to see certain ones in my life dead because of the pain they’d caused me, like Franco, Pete Junior, Pete Senior, Luca, and Yves. I wanted to see them dead. But once it was accomplished, and I’d taken a life, I realized the horror of it all. It was such a simple thing to say, “I’ll kill you,” but an entirely different thing to kill someone. The realization that I’d robbed someone of his life was worse than any horror I could have experienced.

     The inhumane mistreatment Yves had subjected me to was too unbearable to consider. The suffering Pete Senior and Luca had caused by the murder of my beloved father was a fate worse than death. But all that put together could not compare to the unbearable grief I felt knowing that I was the cause of someone else never taking another breath.

     My tears might have blurred the horizon that night, but the vision of Yves’ dead eyes was perfectly clear and haunted me more than any other. Because of it, I made a vow never to take another life, no matter what was at stake. I would rather give up my own life than to see another dead face beneath my hands. I begged for the images in my head to be removed, but I was trapped inside my body with a mind that would forever hold the memories of what I’d done.

     I then appreciated the beautiful simplicity of my life at the stream, where I went about my daily routine without thinking. But without that strange emotional void, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I tried desperately to force my feelings back behind a wall, trying to convince myself not to feel. But it appeared my psyche wouldn’t allow me to retreat into that place again unless I’d suffered more. How much more misery did I have to experience before it would let me return to that place where no pain dwelled?

     Instead of peace, like a moth to a flame—ignoring danger—I was being driven back to that town with its smells. Picturing myself on my father’s grave, I knew there was a real danger if I returned to that town. The floodgates of my pain had been unlocked and if the waters became any deeper I could drown in them. Or I could be captured and locked up again or, at the least, I could be laughed at and scorned.

     In addition, I feared the thought of trying to locate work. After all, that’s what cost me the last year of my life and ultimately led to my being labeled a murderer. But there was a force that was driving me to face whatever was there, whether the force was a chance to feel closer to Papa or a chance to build. Or perhaps my heart was becoming addicted to pain and I wanted more of it. Whatever the power was, it gradually took over my common sense that told me to turn and run. Instead, it made me think I could use what I’d learned during the last year to protect myself. Therefore, with waves of tears, I looked longingly toward that town.

     Most of that day, I thought about Papa and what he would tell me to do: Don’t give up on your goals. Give people a chance to know you, Erik. Those words were the first ones to reach me. Then I had an additional horrifying thought. What if he was alive in heaven somewhere and watching what I was doing? I didn’t believe he was, but what if? He would be tormented to see what I’d done and what I was going through.

     I began to rock, and the tears came faster, as all the horrible memories began passing my mind’s eye. I’d killed a man. I took his life as easily as a piece of bread.

     “Oh, dear God,” I cried. “If there’s an ounce of mercy in you, you won’t let Papa see what I’ve done. Oh, Papa, you were right. Oh, Papa, I’m sorry!”

     I cried hysterically, unable to free myself from the faces I loved and the faces I hated. What had I done? What was I going to do?

     It was completely dark by the time I’d gained any amount of control over my tears, and I let out an angry shout. “No!” I didn’t believe Papa was watching me, but on the off chance he was, I had to make things better for him. I had to finish what I started and reach for my goals of Venice and the conservatory.

     An entire year had passed since I’d left Perros-Guirec, and I didn’t know where I was in relation to Venice, or if they would remember me there. But I did know that I couldn’t focus on the obstacles. I also knew I needed to do something constructive if I was to keep what was left of my sanity and to make Papa happy—if he was watching me. In addition, I knew I needed to work for money so I could reach Venice.

     I felt weak and completely drained from many days without sleep or food, but mostly from all the tears. Regardless, I began walking back toward the town. I could smell the new wood long before the site came into view, which once more stirred that ache in my chest. My head shook slightly, and I questioned if I could afford to be stirred again. But once I reached the site, I walked inside anyway and started looking around in the dark at the half-finished walls.

     I ran my hands over the smooth wood and closed my eyes as the sights and sounds of the pleasant and not-so-pleasant past floated through me. I walked up the stairs to the top floor and looked out the unfinished window at the moonlit landscape. I was suffering to the nth degree, and I desperately wanted to run away from my awakened feelings, but I forced myself to stay.

     I sat in the windowsill and closed my eyes. Then within a moment, tears began forming, and I was overwhelmed with memories and their accompanying feelings. No! I don’t want to feel any more pain—my mind began shouting loudly. Quickly, I ran down the stairs and out of that memory-laden building. Once outside, I stopped with my heart beating in my ears. Then I turned breathlessly toward the dark doorway and came face to face with a large sign posted next to it.

     “HELP NEEDED”

     I stood there looking at it for a few moments before I turned and ran again to where Molly was tied. Once there, I returned to my lonely tree, and to my damp possessions, and to my tortured thoughts. As I wrapped all my damp blankets around me again and curled up on the ground, I struggled with my conflicting emotions. Do I dare try to work around people again? Am I strong enough emotionally to be around so many memories? Can I trust anyone enough? How do I know that I won’t wind up in another cage again? No, I couldn’t take a chance—I simply couldn’t.

     I reached for my treasured ring and watch around my neck and held them tightly against my chest. With their soothing comfort, my tears finally dried, my eyes finally closed, my mind finally stopped its perpetual argument with itself, and I finally fell asleep—but not for long.

     I woke with a gasp and Yves’ disgusting face laughing in mine. Sitting up, I doubled over in stomach pain— both from fear and from hunger. I looked around and felt a desperate need to leave that place, so once more I was on Molly and on the move. But I wasn’t far away before my psychological pendulum swung in the other direction. The desire to do something creative with my hands and mind became too strong, stronger than my fear. So turning back toward that town, I knew I had to try to live my life again.

     Unfortunately, the stars were beginning to give over their control of the sky to the rising sun on the new day, and I was still sitting alone in the grass under that same tree. Although I was frightened, I knew I was going back to try for that job, but I had to regain the courage first. I hadn’t spoken to another human in over seven months. I hadn’t really spoken much at all, even to Molly.

     I looked in the direction of the town and my heart sped up along with my fear, but I had to move forward—I had to. It took me until the close of that day to gain the courage to venture toward the job site. With my new mask in place, I made my way to the alley behind the site and stood back in the shadows—watching.

     From my experience with Papa, I knew the foreman was usually the last one to leave a site, so I waited for the last person to remain. I could see a light moving inside, but I was still fighting for the courage to venture in. I watched as a man came out with a toolbox and put it in the back of a cart, and the sight of him made my heart race.

     One reason was the thought of Papa as I’d watched him so often throw his toolbox in his work cart. My heart had that sound memorized. The other was the appearance of the man. In the dark, he looked similar to Yves, and I could only hope he would look different in the light of day. I held my breath as I told myself to step forward and talk to him, but my feet wouldn’t cooperate without my courage, which had already left for the tree.

     As I watched him, my thoughts turned to Yves and I became even sicker inside. I wrapped my arms around my stomach as that war began to wage within me again. Can I judge this man simply because he looks like someone I loathed and someone who caused me so much agony? Do I shun him because of his looks? Haven’t others always done the same thing to me, and didn’t I hate them for it? He can’t help it if he resembles that horrendous man any more than I can help my lack of a nose. Can I trust him and ignore the feelings in me? Do I resist the temptation to listen to the sick feeling in my gut and not run away but go to him?

     I turned back and watched as another younger and thinner man came walking down the back street leading a gray horse, which he hitched to the cart. I listened as the two men talked about the plans for the next day and then the younger man left. The conversation told me the man who was left was the man I needed to talk with, but I still couldn’t get the courage to venture toward him. Instead, I stood in the shadows, silently watching.

     He covered the back of the cart with a tarp before he got in and drove away, taking my chance with him. Once I saw him start to disappear down the street, my curiosity, more than my courage, enabled me to follow him. Thankfully, he drove slowly and for less than two tenths of a kilometer, which allowed me to keep up. He put his horse and cart in a barn, and shortly thereafter, he went inside a modest home.

     I waited and watched as the light inside moved from one room to another, sending shadows across the closed curtains. I listened and heard the sound of dishes in what I presumed was the kitchen. I could smell the scent of a fire in the fireplace, and my heart ached for a home and my father back in my life. I waited and watched from the barn, until the light, which stayed on for several hours in what I thought was a bedroom, finally went out.

     I went back to the location where Molly was tied, and then I rode back to the tree. There I tried to sleep for a few hours, but my thoughts and emotions were too busy to allow me to sleep. For that few hours, my logical side and my emotional side battled the pros and cons of trusting anyone.

     Eventually, I was back at the job site and watching the sunrise. Again, I waited until the cart approached and the man unloaded his tools and went inside. A short while later, the younger man showed up on foot and unhitched the horse and then led it away. Before too long, he was back and went inside. There they stayed, while I stayed in my hiding place and watched the building and listened to the sounds of construction.

     It was extremely painful for me on so many levels. I wrapped my arms around my aching stomach and paced, trying to grab hold of my scant courage and enter. But the lighter the horizon became, the heavier my heart became, until I finally ended back at the tree sitting in the grass. I rebuked myself for my cowardly actions and swore that, once it got dark, I would go back and not leave until I had an audience with the man in charge, regardless of what he looked like.

     Therefore, just as soon as it started to get dark, I was back in the shadows of the alleyway, watching the light in the windows of the construction site. I could feel my resolve sliding through my fingers again. Then when the younger man left, I knew I had to act quickly or lose the opportunity for another day.

     My heart raced when the older man came out with his toolbox and tossed it into his cart. Holding my breath, I forced my feet to move and approached him, or at least I came within a few strides of the cart before I began my request.

     “I’m here about a job. Are you the foreman?” I asked through hesitant vocal cords.

     At first, I startled him, and he turned quickly to look at me for a moment before he asked, “What can you do?”

     “Anything you ask of me,” I answered, almost with my normal air of confidence.

     “Well, don’t we think highly of ourselves?” he came back quickly. He raised the tarp and continued. “How old are you, boy? Can’t be over twelve or thirteen and rather scrawny.”

     While not revealing I was only eleven, I took a deep breath and tried to convince him of my abilities.

     “I’m old enough and strong enough to do whatever you ask of me.”

     He looked me up and down, with his eyes staying for a moment on my torn and bloody pant leg and then my bare feet, before he started his questions again.

     “Where are your parents?”

     Since his questions and tone were beginning to irritate me, I came back instantly and harshly. “They’re dead.”

     “Oh, really? Well, I don’t know if I could trust a young boy who chooses to hide behind a mask.” My eyes narrowed and so did his as he surveyed my body again. I was ready to turn and leave when he added, “What are you hiding?”

     Again taking a deep breath, I tried to answer politely. “Nothing that would prevent me from doing a good day’s work.”

     Glancing up and down the street, and then leaning with one hand on his cart, he proceeded to look closely into my eyes and ask, “Where do you live, boy?”

     “At present, on the back of my horse, but if you choose to hire me, I would live here in this town.”

     He frowned and stepped toward me, and I stepped back, keeping the distance between us a safe one. His movement made my heart race, and I questioned my decision to enter among the human race again. Then he stopped his forward movement and started asking me the questions that I expected him to ask me.

     “Do you know anything about building or masonry?”

     “I spent five years as an apprentice to the best builder and mason in France,” I responded with pride.

     “Five years, you say?” he rhetorically asked, while his bushy eyebrows raised and the tips of his fingers began feeling the whiskers on his chin.

     Trying to talk my way past his gestures that made me cringe, I answered civilly, “Yes, Monsieur.”

     “The best?” he echoed, as he turned from me and started back toward the building. Next, he asked, “What’s his name?”

     “Maurice Jourdan. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?” I responded, not realizing how hard it would be to say his name aloud.

     He stopped, turned back toward me, took a stern look at me, and then almost under his breath, he replied, “Yes, I’ve heard of him.”

     I could see he must have heard a lot because he looked as if he was putting the puzzle pieces together. He motioned for me to follow him as he entered the building and began picking up a few scattered nails on the floor. I approached the doorway, but didn’t go inside, wanting to keep my escape route wide open.

     He was on one knee, dropping the nails into a small box, when he looked up at me and continued, “I’ve not only heard of him but I also respected him. I was saddened to hear about his accident.”   

     “Accident!” I blurted out, while unconsciously storming inside a few steps. I lost the control of my voice, which allowed a sharp edge of my temper to show through. “It was no accident, Monsieur, it was murder. Cold-blooded murder!”

     He was taken aback by my abrupt action and got to his feet quickly. He looked at me cautiously and raised one palm to me.

     “I see. I also heard about his son. You wouldn’t be him, would you? Was he your father, by chance?”

     His son?—My father? Those words sliced me in half, and I could feel the tears begin to form. My voice cracked when I put what I hoped was my last question to him.

     “Monsieur, I merely want to work. Do you have a job for me or not?”

     He answered softly, “I’m not sure.” He tried to move around me, as if he was inspecting a new horse, while running his fingers through his dark thick hair. But I backed out of the door, not allowing him to get behind me. He stopped, tilted his head, and fixed his eyes intently on mine.

     “From what I’ve heard, Maurice’s son was somewhat crazy. Are you crazy, son?”

     Control yourself, I tried to tell myself. Now isn’t the time to answer his question with your temper or sarcasm. By that time, I was wishing I hadn’t made the decision I had.

     But, taking a couple quick breaths and returning his fixed stare, I responded, “Things aren’t always what they seem, Monsieur. I’m telling you, I’m a good worker, and I’ve been taught well. I’ll give you an honest day’s work.”

     He nodded and slowly turned away from me while lowering his head and running his fingers through his hair again. Next, he turned back to me with another question.

     ”What about your mother, boy? I believe Maurice Jourdan was survived by a wife, was he not?”

     My irritation and my lack of patience showed in my next words. “As I said, my mother is dead, and I believe the boy you’re mistaking me for is also dead.”

     Quickly, he came back. “So you want me to believe that you’re not Maurice Jourdan’s son?”

     “As I said, his son is dead. He was killed by thieves. I’m not he,” I answered with a sigh.

     I was telling the truth—that Erik was dead.

     Trying again to circle around behind me, he put his large, opened hand out to touch me. I instinctively flew out of his reach and turned to face him with my lungs trying to keep pace with my racing heart. Almost with a chuckle, he responded to my actions.

     “Oh, like a frightened deer we are. Nothing to fear here, boy. I only wanted to see if you had the muscle to back up your statements. You appear to be extremely thin, and this type of work requires a lot of stamina.”

     I couldn’t open my mouth, so I simply nodded in response to his words and searched his eyes for his true intentions. They looked sincere and kind, but should I trust him? My heart, which was threatening to leave and return to the safety of the tree without me, was telling me, no, you can’t trust anyone.

     He asked me to follow him and then turned around and began walking up the stairs. I hesitated, going over in my mind the layout of the upper rooms in my head. The majority of them had unfinished walls that would make it easy to slip between the studs and escape if I had to, but I still didn’t move on his words.

     He turned and looked back at me, and after raising his hairy eyebrows, he asked, “Well, do you want the job or not?” When I barely nodded, he continued, “Then follow me.”

     I started up the stairs while at the same time keeping an eye on him and my way out of the structure. I made sure I always kept a safe distance between us. As we entered each room, the first thing I looked for were the windows, and then I tried to keep either the windows or the door in view at all times.

     He kept motioning for me to follow him as we walked the site, and he gave me the third degree about everything from level lines, to bearing walls, to cantilevers, to how to prepare different types of arches and batches of mortar. By the time we were on the third story and he was finished with his questions, he sat down on a pile of lumber. Again, he rubbed his beard and looked up at me still standing a safe distance away from him.

     “Well, your mind has certainly been well taught, but how about your hands? I wonder if you can do all you say. I’m curious enough to try you out. Come back tomorrow morning bright and early. I like to get a good start. I’ll see at that time if you can do what you say you can do.”

     “Thank you, Monsieur,” I responded politely; not wanting to show the extent of my enthusiasm.

     He started telling me what I would be expected to do the next day, and, in the process, he began to circle me again. I automatically turned with him, not allowing him to get behind me. Then I heard a voice from behind me, and I flew back against a paneled wall. To my horror, I saw the younger man standing in the doorway—my way out of the building.

     My eyes flashed in the direction of the window, my only other way out. When I realized we were on the third floor, my stomach entered its ritual panic mode. In an instant, I pictured myself flying out of it, regardless if I was on the third floor or not, but the larger man was almost between me and the window.

     My heart began to pound harder, and my throat was closing. The older man looked at me with a frown, causing his brows nearly to meet in the middle, which made his appearance even more like Yves’ and even more daunting. His eyes stayed on me, searching me for a few moments.

     My arms and legs were spread and waiting for my chance to dart past him to the window. He raised his hand to the younger man in the doorway, indicating to him to back away, but it was too late. I panicked and flew for the window only to see his long arm reach out for me. When I heard his steps beside me, I felt as if my feet were in quicksand. I was almost to the window when his arms were around me, pinning my arms to my side and my back to his chest.

     I began screaming and kicking and throwing my body around violently. His head was next to mine, and I could hear him talking to me, but his words weren’t sticking. My mind flashed back to my time in the cage, and my fear began to turn into despair. I thought for a certainty I was headed for another cage, or perhaps a worse fate was to befall me—if there was one.

     I continued my thrashing as he backed us both up against a paneled wall and then into a corner. I was screaming for him to let me go, but I knew my words were falling on deaf ears. I struggled until I collapsed in his arms in complete exhaustion and deep despair, sobbing. He slowly slid down the wall, lowering us both to the floor, and when I felt not only his arms around me but also his legs on either side of me, I began to struggle again. But as hard as I fought, I was no match for his strength.

     His head was beside mine again and his voice softly repeated a “Shh” in my ear.

     He let me continue to struggle and scream, “Let me go! No, let me go!” until I was out of any strength whatsoever. I was sitting, still sobbing, on the floor between his legs, and shaking my head. I couldn’t believe I was captured again. “Please—Please, let me go,” I whimpered.

     “Boy, listen to me. Can you hear me?” he asked, as he gently shook my body with his arms that were still around me. “Child, it’s all right. Calm down. It’s all right.”

     I could hardly breathe while berating myself for not following my heart and fleeing to the tree when I had the chance.

     “Calm down,” he continued to request in a soft and soothing tone.

     I looked around the empty room and saw the younger man was gone. I felt the arms around me lighten up, and I tried to bolt again, only to have him tighten his grip again.

     “Boy, please listen to me. I’m not going to hurt you. I only want to help you. Please don’t try to run, and please don’t go for the window. We’re on the third floor and you wouldn’t survive.”

     The room became quiet with only the sound of our breathing for a short while before he spoke again.

     “I don’t know what’s happened to you, child, but you need help, and I only want to help. Please let me. Don’t try to run. I don’t believe you have anyone to run to or anywhere to go. Do you hear me?” I weakly nodded. “Good,” he whispered in my ear. “Now, I’m going to let go of you. Please don’t run away.”

     I felt the pressure of his arms release me, and I scrambled to my feet while he remained sitting in the corner. I stopped, turned, and looked at him. My breathing was fast again, and, with spread arms and legs, I once more searched the space around me.

     In a mild tone that reminded me of Papa’s, he began talking again. “You can leave if you choose, but I need good workers to help me with this building, and I believe you need a job and a kind hand, do you not?”

     His voice was sincere and soft as he spoke to me, but I didn’t let down my stance so I could flee at any given moment. He started to get up, and I started to bolt again, so he stopped and sat back down. He positioned his hands in the air between us as if to say, all right, I won’t move.

     “My name is Jean Luc. What’s your name?”

     Papa’s words came running like lightning through my anxious mind: You have to give them a chance to know you, Erik.