Haley couldn’t stop looking at the kitchen clock. Aaron should have arrived an hour ago. He said his home was a twenty minute walk away, and he insisted on arriving by foot. Now Haley wished she’d picked him up.
“Wasn’t he late to the play last month?” Jessica asked nonchalantly as she fixed a salad. “It’s like him to be late, but he always does show up eventually.”
“Not this late.” Haley tapped her foot. She got up and began pacing in the roomy kitchen.
Mrs. Brooks came downstairs in a jogging suit with her hair tied up. “I’m going for a run, girls. Can you keep an eye on things for thirty minutes?”
“Of course, Mom,” said Jessica. “I’ll have lunch ready when you’re back.”
Mrs. Brooks gave Haley a questioning look. “I thought you were having a friend over?”
“I am. He’s not here yet.”
“Well, you guys have a good time, and I’ll see you later.”
Their mom gave Jessica a kiss goodbye, then planted one on Haley’s worried head.
Soon after Mrs. Brooks left, Haley went outside to the porch swing to watch the street. Aaron! You can be so frustrating.
A minute later, Jessica stuck her head out the front door. “Telephone. It’s Aaron.” She made a funny face.
Haley jumped up and took the receiver from her sister’s hand. The cord was pulled taut, so she stepped back inside. “Where are you?”
“Haley?” Aaron sounded a little exasperated. A crying baby could be heard in the background. “I’m so sorry. I can’t come over today. I have to watch Sean.”
“What do you mean? Are you two home alone?”
“Yeah. I woke up this morning and found Sean screaming in his crib. He’s got a fever. Mom and Charles have disappeared without explanation, and I’ve been trying to calm him all morning.”
Haley sat down at the table. Jessica sat across from her, persistent in her role of nosy sister. “That’s too bad,” said Haley. Then she thought of something. “Why don’t I come over and help you with him?”
“I don’t know when they’ll be back. It’s not a good idea.”
“Oh, come on, Aaron. That’s not enough to keep me away. I’ll come over, help Sean calm down, and then maybe we can still look at your math homework. Trust me, I was helping change Jessica’s diapers when I was just three years old.”
Jessica gave her dirty look.
“Thanks, but that’s not really my main concern,” said Aaron.
“What is? Don’t you think your mom would like to meet me? And if your stepfather shows up, I’ll tell him it was my idea.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I’m not afraid, Aaron. Please let me help you. I want to swing by.”
She heard him breathing on the other end of the line. How could he possibly say no to her simple offer?
“Well, maybe we can get away with it. But you can’t stay long. And park across the street.”
“No worries. I’ll be right there.”
“Would you mind picking up some milk on your way?”
“I’ll do that.”
Aaron gave his address, and Haley returned the phone to its cradle.
“What just happened?” said Jessica. “Are you really leaving the house while there’s lunch to make?”
“You seem to have it handled pretty well. C’mon, Jess, I won’t be long. I can’t miss this chance.”
“Chance for what?”
“To see him again!”
Jessica groaned. “You are so lovestruck.”
“You’re just jealous.”
Haley arrived across the street from the Hotchner home about ten minutes later. She double-checked the address and scanned the light blue, wood-panelled, two-story house. It made her think of a down-on-his-luck gentleman who once had a formal, well-kept appearance but had begun to neglect himself in recent times. The lawn was overgrown and scabby. The paint on the house ran in peeling streaks. Some shingles were on permanent leave. Every single window was closed and had the shades drawn. Not very inviting.
Carrying a quart of milk in one hand, Haley walked up to the weathered white door and tentatively knocked. From the front step, she could hear a baby crying.
The door opened a crack, and Aaron’s thin face appeared. He looked up and down the street before letting Haley slip inside. In his arms he cradled a red-faced, howling baby that wore only a onesie and a poorly wrapped green blanket.
Aaron was almost as unpresentable. His dark locks looked scattered and battle-weary. He wore stained blue jeans that were faded to the bone in places, and he wore a gray hand-me-down “Bristol Pirates” T-shirt bearing the logo of a Virginia baseball league. He looked like he was wearing the same clothes he had slept in and had done little to improve his appearance since waking up.
Immediately upon entering the house, Haley felt overwhelmed by the smell of cigarette smoke. The meagerly furnished living room seemed almost hazy with stagnant smoke, or maybe she only imagined it because of the heavy smell. Newspapers and dishes, some broken, crowded the kitchen table around the corner. Haley spotted the neck of a bottle that had clearly been hastily hidden under the couch. There was nothing particularly welcoming or homey about the dimly-lit, trash-strewn Hotchner home. Aaron provided the only positive presence.
“Sorry for the mess...” Aaron started to say.
Haley held up a hand. “Don’t worry about it. How is Sean doing?”
“Forehead feels hot. He won’t stop crying and I couldn’t find anything to feed him.”
“May I take him?” Haley set down the milk bottle on a lamp table by the couch.
“Sure.” Aaron handed off the baby and knelt to pick up the blanket that slipped to the floor.
“He doesn’t need that,” said Haley as she rocked Sean in her arms. “We need to cool him off.”
“A lukewarm bath would work great. Can you start the water somewhere?”
“In here.” Aaron hurried into the kitchen, and Haley cautiously followed.
He stopped suddenly in front of her and held up a hand. “Let me get this glass off the floor,” he said, and he grabbed a dustpan from a nail on the wall. Not until he mentioned it did Haley notice the curved shards and aluminum vodka bottle cap shining on the tile.
Once Aaron had swept up the mess, he started moving crusty dishes from the sink to the counter. Haley hung back, slightly shocked at just how bad the disarray was. While she waited, she used her handkerchief to wipe up the nonstop river of phlegm collecting on Sean’s chin and dripping down his front.
With the sink emptied, Aaron crammed a plug into the drain and cranked on the tap. “Have you ever done this before?” he asked.
“Only with puppies.”
Haley held Sean while Aaron quickly undressed him. Then she tested the water in the sink before lowering the baby’s tiny, overheated body into it. At first Sean screamed even more, but after a short moment, he calmed down and began splashing a little.
Aaron breathed a sigh of relief as Haley tenderly dabbed the baby’s skin with a wet rag. Sean’s temperature had already fallen a notch.
Haley enjoyed bathing the baby and tickling his toes. He stared bewildered at her face, unused to the attention. “Your brother’s adorable,” Haley told Aaron.
“Could you get some milk ready for him while we finish up?”
“I think so.” Aaron poured a large amount of milk into a baby bottle, and then proceeded to screw the lid on. “It’s ready.”
“What? No, it isn’t. You didn’t warm it.”
“Honestly, Aaron. He is only a baby.”
Following her instructions, Aaron warmed the milk and tested a drop on his wrist. “I’m not very good at working with babies,” he admitted. “Sean is the only one I’ve ever known.”
“Well, you’re doing fine.” Haley dried Sean off with a hand towel and redressed him. Sean seemed very curious about the new person in his house and kept fingering Haley’s face.
The teenagers and the baby soon settled onto the couch. Aaron wanted to try feeding the baby, but Sean squirmed and fussed on his lap. Haley watched and offered advice until Aaron managed to get the baby to drink some milk. Sean relaxed in his arms and sucked contentedly while Aaron grinned.
Finally they could converse in peace. “So how are you today?” asked Haley.
“Frazzled, until you came by. How about you?”
“Worried, until you called. I’m glad you let me visit.”
Aaron tilted the bottom of the bottle upward as Sean drained the milk. “You should probably go now,” he said softly.
“But I just got here! I can’t let you boys spend your Saturday alone.”
“For your own good, you should head out soon.”
Haley didn’t see the need for all that concern, but she shrugged it off. “Okay. I’ll leave very soon.” She wasn’t sure if now was a good time to bring up math.
“Hey, did I tell you who I met at your dad’s store?” Aaron said suddenly.
“The pig farmer with one leg?”
“After that. I met two bona fide FBI agents.” Aaron seemed abnormally thrilled about it.
“Oh really? What did they want?”
“They’re in town investigating... a crime.”
Haley’s ears perked up. “What crime?”
“Just a murder.” His sudden lack of detail confused her. “But anyway, they were real nice and told me to call if I had any questions.”
“That’s pretty exciting,” Haley said, thought she didn’t see the thrill in it.
“I know! I wish you were there.”
“Need some help with that?”
Sean had finished the milk, and Aaron tried to balance the baby in his lap while putting the bottle down. He handed her the bottle. “Thanks. Now what?”
“Now you burp him.”
Aaron’s expression said plenty. “Here, you show me.”
Haley took the baby and patted his back. Sean spat up a little on her shoulder.
Aaron rushed to wipe the dab of white from Haley’s sleeve. “I think he likes you.”
“I like him.” Haley smiled and held Sean on her knee. “I hope he grows up to be just like his brother.”
“I want to check his temperature again.” Aaron took the baby back and felt his forehead.
“Cooler, but he’s still warm.”
“He should be warm.”
“Yeah, he’s extra warm.”
“Do you have a thermometer?”
Sean couldn’t care less about his temperature. He gurgled delightedly in his brother’s arms, happy to be the center of so much attention.
The sound of a car door slamming had the effect of lightning to Aaron’s body—he stiffened and sat straight up, eyes wide. Haley heard keys jangling.
Suddenly Sean was in her arms and Aaron was guiding her around the couch. “You have to get down. Stay behind the couch. And, Haley, listen to me. No matter what happens, do not move or make a sound.”
“Why? What’s happening?”
“Promise me. You and Sean cannot make any noise.”
“I... I promise.”
“Good. Don’t move.” And with that, Aaron disappeared from her view. From where she crouched with the baby hugged to her chest, Haley could hear papers ruffling and glass clinking. It sounded like Aaron was cleaning the room.
The front door slammed, and a new pair of footsteps drew nearer to the couch. Haley expected to hear the newcomer say something, or Aaron to say hello, or something. She did not expect the unmistakable sound of flesh hitting flesh with a sharp smack. Aaron made a faint groan, but his voice sounded muffled behind tightly closed lips.
There came another smack, and then another. Haley flinched at each and felt her heart going at breakneck speed. She had to take a peek, just to make sure Aaron was still okay.
Haley leaned forward and slowly peered around an armrest. What she saw surprised and horrified her. She was always under the impression Aaron’s stepfather was his abuser. She never would have expected to see a woman who must have been Aaron’s mother smacking him left and right. What really unsettled her was that no one said a word. And Aaron just stood there, mostly upright, taking it silently.
Aaron’s mother was a gangly, unkempt woman with stringy brown hair hanging in tangles. She had poorly applied make-up clouding her eyes in splotches, and her eyelashes appeared especially thick and fake. Buried between the hedges of mascara were two very bloodshot eyes. She wore tight jeans and a yellowish sweater and a pair of thick-toed leather shoes. She didn’t look at all like an orderly or well-kept mother. In fact, she would have scared Haley if she were her mother.
Just as suddenly as she started, Mrs. Hotchner stopped hitting Aaron. She just stood there breathing hard and swaying a little, from alcohol no doubt.
“After all the misery and heartache you’ve caused,” she said in a low growl, “you have the guts to stand in front of me? You still don’t respect me?”
Aaron said nothing. With a barely perceptible dip of his chin, he glanced back at the couch. Haley quickly pulled back. A second later, she peeked out again, this time to see Aaron silently getting down on his knees as if in reverence to royalty. She wanted to help him. She wanted to scream at that woman and help Aaron escape the house. But she couldn’t move. Not yet.
Her stomach was twisting into unpleasant knots. She wanted to throw up as she watched Mrs. Hotchner pull an extension cord from the wall behind a lamp table and loop it in half. With his back to the couch, Aaron’s face remained hidden, but Haley could see his hands curling into fists at his sides.
“Why are you still here while your father is gone?” his mother said in a pleading tone. “Why do you insult me every single day by looking just like him?” She landed a few swift blows with the cord, and Aaron’s arm came up to shield his face.
Haley felt bile in her throat. Her arms tightened around Sean, but he didn’t make a sound.
“I spend half my days crying and my nights in agony,” Mrs. Hotchner went on. “Do you know why? Because you ruined my life!” The assault continued. “Well, why don’t you say something?”
Despite the taunts, Aaron still kept his mouth shut. He was building a silent shield around himself, and Haley didn’t think he could be shaken.
As Mrs. Hotchner struck her son from every angle, Haley could see no end in sight. She feared some serious damage would occur if it didn’t stop soon. I have to do something. I don’t care what he said; I’m getting out there and stopping her.
As she shifted her weight to stand, Sean made a faint whimpering sound. Haley quickly withdrew and rubbed his back to calm him. She wiped his nose and rocked him gently. Perhaps it would be wiser to honor Aaron’s wish. Haley would stay put, but she couldn’t watch anymore. She just rocked Sean and listened tearfully to the painful lashing sounds and the terrible, shaming taunts.
“This is all your fault, Aaron. How could you do this to me? Don’t you love your own mother? Don’t you care about how I feel? I lost my husband. What did you do about that? If not for you, he might still be here! You have destroyed our family, and you just don’t care!”
Haley had to steal another glance. Aaron shook with his arms folded over his head. Angry red marks screamed across his arms and the back of his neck.
“Well, say something!” His mother struck him again, this time in the face.
Haley quickly pulled back. Her face squinted up, tears began barrelling down her cheeks, and her own nose started running. Make it stop!
Aaron wanted the world to end that very second. A silent mantra paraded around his head: Don’t move, Haley. Stay where you are. Don’t move. It was bad enough that Mother put him through this. Why did Haley have to be there too?
Worse yet, Aaron felt himself succumbing to the blame tirade. Each stinging word hit deeper than the slicing blows, and he dwelled on each one. He started to feel queasy.
His mother had accomplished her ultimate goal. The goal that went beyond transferring her own pain to her son’s frail body. The goal of making him feel her own shame and worthlessness. Aaron knew his mother carried a constant burden of guilt, depression, and self-loathing. If she could cause him to feel the same way, perhaps she thought she could lessen the load in her heart. This time she succeeded more than she knew by bringing him down to such a low and vulnerable place. He felt smothered in shame and displaced guilt. Worst of all, Haley now knew how worthless and guilty he was. She would look down on him now, and high school would be just like it was before he met her.
“Well? Well?” Mrs. Hotchner punctuated every word with the swinging cord.
Aaron almost choked on his own breath, then he spoke for the first time since his mother came home. “I’m sorry,” he said so faintly he wasn’t sure she heard. His voice cracked.
“I’ll bet you are.” His mother finally, mercifully tossed aside the cord. She brushed a strand of hair from her eyes with the back of her hand and sighed heavily. “Where’s your brother?”
Aaron did not reply. He only stared at the floor and sniffled. His mother knocked the wall with her palm and staggered upstairs. Aaron remained kneeling, head bowed, gripped in fiery agony from his skin straight to his soul.
Haley shifted Sean to one arm, then stood and came cautiously around the couch. Her friend didn’t move at the sound of her approach. Haley knelt beside him, battling with herself over what to say. Only then did she see the crinkled Polaroid Aaron held limply against his knee. Mr. Hotchner smiled up from the sepia image. Aaron’s downcast eyes shone with tears.
For a minute, nobody said anything. Haley cringed at the sight of Aaron’s flushed, red-streaked skin. Aaron trembled but otherwise did not move. Haley hesitated, then gently placed a hand on his quaking shoulder. They knelt like that, with Sean drooling in the crook of Haley’s other arm, for another several minutes.
Finally, Aaron spoke. “I killed my father,” he whispered.
Not pausing a second for the weight of the revelation to sink in, he silently took Sean from Haley’s arm and carried him through the basement door. Haley was left staring after him, face streaming with tears, pondering his last statement.