A Different Path
This was ridiculous. A kid shouldn’t be afraid to get cereal in the morning. Aaron held back behind the kitchen doorway, wishing the voices and rustling papers would go away. Whenever he peered around the corner, the scene was the same. Mother and Charles sat at the kitchen table arguing through piles of bills. Charles kept getting up and pacing out his frustration as he puffed on a cigarette. Mother kept reaching for the grimy vodka bottle that left wet rings on the papers. Sean sat ignored in a high chair with banana smeared on his face.
“Maybe if you drank less...” Charles growled.
“Maybe if you smoked less!” snapped Mother. “Someone’s got to give something up, and it’s not gonna be me!”
Aaron glanced at the clock. He would be late for school if he didn’t hurry up and get breakfast. Go away, he willed the adults. Another minute later, with no sign of their retreat, he took a deep breath and ducked into the kitchen.
With the adults tied up in their dispute, he thought he could make it to the cupboard unnoticed. He figured he would take the box of Wheaties into the next room, have a few handfuls without milk, and then sneak it back before hurrying out of the house. He almost made it.
“Wait, Aaron!” Mother jumped to her feet and caught his arm.
Oh, drat. Aaron stiffened and avoided eye contact. Don’t start, he wanted to tell her. You’ll never stop.
“Aaron,” Mother said again, half to herself. “How could we forget Aaron?”
A strange, plastic smile started reshaping her face. Aaron leaned back a little against the cupboard, wary of the mood that was coming over her.
“Aaron, honey, why don’t you have a seat? We need to talk.”
“Uh... About what? Sorry, I really can’t be late for school.”
“Yes, you can. You know what I heard through the grapevine?”
He was afraid to ask. An old Creedence song began going through his head, and he focused on that instead of on whatever incriminating information his mother's grapevine had revealed.
“I heard that you got a job. One of the programmers who works with Charles said that you shined his shoes.”
Charles spat onto the floor in disgust. “That’s right. We’ve got a freaking bootblack in the house.”
Aaron felt his stomach turn to ice. He had only been working for Mr. Brooks about a week, and he had done everything in his power to keep it a secret. He didn’t want Mother and her crony exploiting the bright spot in his life.
Just my luck.
“How much do you make?” Mother demanded. She still had not released his arm.
“Very little. Hardly worth mentioning.”
“But it’s something, isn’t it? Come on, tell me your hourly wage.”
Aaron thought briefly of lying. If he said something truly trifling like $1.50, she might leave his earnings alone. However, she would quickly find out he made twice as much. He should have known she always found things out.
A sudden sharp slap to the ear made his decision for him. “Three dollars,” he told her. “Just... three an hour.”
“For how many hours?”
“Two a day. That’s all.”
His mother completed the mental math quickly. “You make $30 in a week? What could you possibly need $30 for?”
Anything he said would sound unimportant to her, he knew. Now it didn’t matter. “Savings. Someday I might need to buy a car...”
Charles scoffed loudly from the table.
“You’re being ridiculous,” said Mother. “You have more important things to worry about right now than unlikely future events.”
No matter how much he wanted to be like other teenagers, Aaron knew he was still subject to her version of reality. He really couldn’t fight it. “That’s right,” he muttered.
“I want you to keep working,” Mother ordered. “Don’t stop for a day. And I want to see six dollars on the table every evening, or else you’ll have to sleep on the street when we can’t afford this house anymore.”
Aaron struggled to keep his anger at bay. How could she use him like this? Why didn’t Charles work more? Why didn’t they use their money wisely?
“If things get worse again,” she continued, “you can always take on another job. It’s a good thing we have so many resources to pull from.”
Now he was very angry. He wanted to live his own life apart from his mother’s control. A job was a step towards independence. This manipulation of his job was a step back into subjugation.
“Or maybe you were right earlier,” he said in a low voice, shaking at the thought of his own audacity. “Maybe if you didn’t spend so much on alcohol and cigarettes, you wouldn’t need extra income.”
Mother looked shellshocked. Charles stood and yanked the cigarette from his teeth, gazing at Aaron disdainfully. Sean watched with such a blank expression Aaron didn’t think a tornado would faze him.
Then Mother knocked Aaron down with another heavier slap to the ear. He tried to catch himself on the counter edge, but his fingers slipped and he sprawled on the tile. Mother’s shoe snapped up into his chin, throwing him back against the oven door.
“Tell me when he wakes,” said Charles. “Then I’ll go a round with him.” With that, he staggered out of the room.
Aaron cringed, arms across his face, waiting for more. But when Mother leaned down to reach for him, it wasn’t to deliver a blow. She seized his collar in both fists and pulled his face close to hers.
"Don’t think I can give up the bottle that easy,” she hissed. “It’s the only thing keeping me from missing your father so much I could kill myself. You would feel exactly the same if your security was threatened.”
There was no point in mentioning his sense of security was long gone. He now felt even angrier at his mother.
It occurred to Aaron that he was a tall, potentially strong teenaged boy. Though his mother leaned over him with all her anger holding him down, he knew it wouldn’t take much to throw her aside and return all the unrestrained beatings he had suffered since tragedy made him fatherless. Mother was of slight build, just like him, and she was also buzzed with alcohol. He could overpower her faster than she took him down. Maybe she would even benefit from getting knocked to her senses. At very least, she would get some idea of the agony she thoughtlessly dished out on her son.
As Aaron imagined his revenge, he glanced aside to see the baby in the highchair. Sean continued to stare, having watched the entire scuffle without reaction. Regularly watching his mother beat his big brother had damaged the poor boy’s mind. He rarely smiled, and he did not react negatively to violence like he used to. He had learned that violence was normal. For him to then see his big brother use violence to right violence... to attack his own mother... That would ruin his conscience forever. He needed to see somebody who avoided lashing out to solve their problems.
Aaron looked back at his mother’s eyes. She continued to gaze angrily at him from half a foot away. Deep in her fiery glare, Aaron could see a shadow of sorrow. He had seen that sorrow lingering since Father died, the same sorrow he saw in his own eyes whenever he looked at his miserable reflection. Aaron knew the shadow would never leave completely. It was something he wanted to come to terms with in order to function in his life.
Mother had never accepted that. She hid the sorrow in alcohol and anger, never wanting to deal with it. And now here they were, victims of the same sadness but with different outcomes. And Aaron knew he could never beat up his mother, though she hurt him more than she’d ever know. To really get past the pain in his past, Aaron knew he had to find a different path.
He couldn’t hurt his mother. Oh goodness, no. Dear God, forgive me for thinking of it.
Aaron searched briefly for the compassionate mommy he once knew. He looked for the face he used to gaze at while she sang calming rhymes. He looked for the smile that wished him well on his first day of school. When he found no trace of her, he looked away.
“Do I make myself clear?” said Mother.
“Then get to school.”
She got up and returned to her bottle. Aaron breathed a sigh of relief that the attack lasted no longer. He scrambled to his feet, gave Sean a quick kiss on the head, and ran outside without looking back.
No breakfast, no lunch. Fine. He’d done it before. Aaron Hotchner coped through endurance.