War of Wills
“Park on the next block, in front of the laundromat.”
Following Aaron’s directions, Haley haphazardly parallel-parked the truck and hopped out. “We’re having our first date in a laundromat?”
Aaron grinned slyly. “Yeah. I thought we could sit together on a washing machine, eat crackers, and watch other people’s clothing spin itself silly.”
Haley was giving him an arched eyebrow. “How romantic. Where are we really going?”
Aaron gestured with his arm. “Right here. We can sit on a dryer if you’d rather.”
“You’re not serious.”
He wanted to savor it another second. She really bought this! “Of course not!” he laughed a few seconds later.
Haley gave him a playful push. “I knew that!”
“We’re going to the cafe next door. You’ll like it, I promise.” Aaron kept his fist wrapped around the five dollar bill in his pocket, not wanting to lose his only untaxed earnings too soon. The opportunity he’d waited weeks for was here at last, thanks to FBI agent Jason Gideon.
Aaron had to kid with Haley on their way to the cafe. Anything to get over the mild feeling of shame he felt by not being able to drive his date on their first outing. He felt awkward and inadequate, but Haley’s grace made everything easier.
Long before he knew any girls, Aaron had always envisioned his first date as a fantasy of joy and romance. He would drive a fast car—the latest, coolest model on the market—and the dream girl at his side would put her hands out the top as they soared. He would buy her a three-course meal, and she would kiss his face in delight. Then maybe they would go to a long movie, kiss through half of it, and spend the rest of the night driving full speed with the top down. He couldn’t get driving out of his head.
Though reality was nowhere near the dream, he was with Haley, and it was much, much better this way. He felt enraptured at the chance to spend Friday’s lunch period with her, though they didn’t have a lot of time.
Aaron held the cafe door for Haley. “My father used to take us here as a family,” he said. “I haven’t been here ever since.”
It was a small diner with echoes of the 50’s shouting out from the tiny booths and square tables. Very few patrons sat about the narrow space, and a teenager mopped what little floor space remained uncovered. A rattly ceiling fan whop-whopped casually in circles, and pictures of pop stars from the 50’s and 60’s crowded every wall. Aaron grinned. It hadn’t changed much.
He noticed the Beatles’ “Let It Be” playing gently over the radio, and he looked quickly at Haley. “Oh, I forgot you don’t like the fab four.”
Haley looked too gleeful to notice. “I can tolerate them. Besides, this place is lovely.”
Aaron smiled too. Then he looked out over the tables, and his smile faded. He saw his stepfather sitting in a booth at the far wall, but he wasn’t alone. He wasn’t with Mom, either. A voluptuous young woman with a mane of curly blond hair sat beside him draping her slender arm around his waist. Their faces came close together and they snickered through an unintelligible conversation.
“Aaron, what’s wrong?” Haley asked.
“That’s my stepfather,” he whispered, nodding in the man’s direction. “And that’s... our neighbor from down the street.”
“She plays cards with Mom sometimes. They get along better than any of Mom’s friends from before Dad died.”
Haley seemed unsure of what to say for a minute. Then she quietly said, “I’m sorry, Aaron. Do you want to leave?”
Initially, he did. But now he had a better idea. “No,” he said. “I want to show him what love is supposed to look like.”
Haley’s smile crept back. “Sounds intriguing.”
Aaron took her hand. “Come on. Let’s find a good seat.”
He led her very gently to a table just yards from where Charles sat with his partner. Only one empty table stood between them. Aaron gave Charles a hard stare. Charles did a double take, and his face darkened with recognition. Aaron then removed his attention from the cheating stepfather and held a chair for Haley.
She sat gracefully, and then Aaron went around and sat across from her. He could feel Charles’ glare burning into his back, but he focused completely on Haley. The social awkwardness he feared would choke the experience was no longer an issue. He felt a little upset at Charles, but more so he was confident he could talk to Haley without being nervous.
Aaron handed Haley the menu and hoped she’d find something he could cover with only five dollars. “What sounds good, Haley?”
She looked slowly through the options, unable to hold back a soft smile. “What do you suggest?”
“I always enjoyed the spicy chicken sandwich. Do you like chicken?”
“I do. May I try that?”
“Yes, ma’am.” We’re at $2.15. “Would you like anything else?”
“Lemonade would be lovely.”
Aaron smiled and nodded. From the corner of his eye, he could see Charles casting disbelieving glances at him. He refused to acknowledge him.
Aaron gave the order to a high school-aged waitress, grateful he just had enough to cover two sandwiches and a lemonade. While they waited, he and Haley held hands across the table.
“Your earrings are beautiful,” Aaron commented, seeing the emerald studs.
“Thank you. My mother gave them to me.”
“How are your dance rehearsals going?”
“Wonderful. I’ve been mentoring Jessica, and we finally mastered a pirouette and adage. However, the jumps will take a lot more work.”
Aaron didn’t know ballet moves, but he pictured Haley dancing and it looked perfect. He asked more questions about the dance style, and she willingly explained moves and techniques.
When the meal arrived, Aaron said grace. He then distributed the sandwiches and opened Haley’s straw for her.
“You’re quite the gentleman,” she giggled.
“My father was a wonderful example.”
Aaron shot a sideways glance in his stepfather’s direction. His stomach churned when he glimpsed Charles grip the woman’s head and pull her into a long, slobbery kiss. He seemed intent on spiting Aaron.
Aaron gently withdrew his hand from Haley’s. “How is your sandwich?”
“Perfect,” she said, mouth full.
Aaron made sure the salt and pepper were within her reach. Charles was still wrapped in a sensual kiss. It seemed the only way he knew to express affection.
Aaron knew he and Haley were better than that. They continued to talk politely and respectfully about school, interests, and dreams. Aaron kept making Haley laugh with his dry wit, and more than once she had to hide behind a napkin to conceal the bite in her mouth as she cracked up. They restrained from touching each other anymore, determined to demonstrate a relationship of substance rather than physical closeness.
Charles had resurfaced from the suffocating kiss. He glowered at the two young friends, seemingly wishing they would separate or leave. Unable to attack them directly, he turned back to the woman and forced her into another rough kiss.
Aaron felt deeply unsettled by what was happening in the nearby booth. He fought it the only way he could think of, by treating Haley with the utmost respect.
When he saw that Haley had finished, he asked if she needed anything else. He knew he was out of change, but he figured he could wash dishes in exchange for whatever she needed. But she only asked for a glass of water.
Aaron got up, took her glass, and walked right past Charles to the counter. A server cranked the tap, and Aaron returned the full glass to Haley.
Charles stood suddenly and pulled the woman after him with an arm around her shoulders. Leaving behind an untouched meal and two half-empty beers, he stormed out of the diner with the girl looking slightly less thrilled than she appeared before Aaron and Haley arrived.
“I guess he got sick of watching us,” said Haley.
“Good. He was making me sick.”
“Well, you don’t have to stop.”
“Being such a gentleman.”
Aaron smiled. “It’s been a real pleasure spending time with you, Haley. Thank you for being my friend.”
“The pleasure is all mine.”
“Ah well. Back to class. Back to the anguish of math.”
Haley cocked an eyebrow. “Oh, you’re on bad terms with math?”
“You could say that. We haven’t spoken in months.”
“I’m not saying I’m an expert or anything, but how would you like to come to my house tomorrow and study the parts you’re struggling with?”
“You’re good at acting and math?”
Haley grinned, then began singing a line from a song in “The Pirates of Penzance,” the play that brought them together:
“I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical...”
Aaron broke into a rapturous grin and joined in the song:
“About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.”
They both dissolved into laughter. When Aaron caught his breath, he happily told her, “I would love to join you in a study session, Haley Brooks. Math has met its match.”
With the date set, the two of them left the five dollars on the table and walked out together, hands to themselves, overflowing with gratitude for that friend at their side.
Aaron didn’t know what to expect when he got home that evening. As soon as he closed the front door, Charles grabbed him violently by the shoulders and slammed him back into the wall. “I am going to thrash you so good if you say one word to your mother. You won’t be able to lie down for weeks.”
Aaron stared steadily into the angry eyes and saw a trace of concern. “I believe you,” he said. “But what if I don’t tell her? Will you stay away from me if I keep your secret?”
“What? Is this some kind of blackmail?”
“I’m asking you not to order me around, not to insult me or my father, and not to hit me. Only if you do this, I won’t tell Mom you’re messing with her neighbor.”
Charles’ fist trembled with fury at his side. “I ought to put these knuckles right through your eye.”
“You do that, and I’ll go straight to Mom and tell her about—”
“That’s enough! Stay out of my sight, and I won’t bother you. But not a word, you hear? If I find out you’ve blabbed, you might as well kiss all your bones goodbye.”
“I’ll hold you to this deal,” said Aaron, unflinching.
“Yeah, I’ll bet you will.” Charles abruptly held his fist up to Aaron’s face and shook it, as if showing how much he longed to pummel the boy. “One day you’ll be in so much trouble, and nobody’s gonna be there for you. You are a scoundrel.”
“No more than you. Excuse me, Charles.” And Aaron walked right past his tormentor. He exhaled in relief, amazed he had pulled off the bargain. Of course, he had no way of holding back Mother’s attacks, but Charles was stronger, and now he was out of the picture.
Aaron flopped onto his back on the couch, glad he felt free to do so. He began flipping through his math notebook and smiled as butterflies filled his stomach. He was looking forward to an uninterrupted Saturday with his best friend.
Charles sulked and muttered for only a moment more, then bounded upstairs and slammed the bedroom door. Though Aaron knew his leverage might not last permanently, he felt victorious for today.