The thin traces of blood wouldn’t wash out of his gray T-shirt. Aaron Hotchner knelt on the bathroom floor, wringing out his shirt over the nearly empty tub. It was well past midnight, and he had washed himself and then his clothes in near total silence. Wearing his spare jeans, he quietly completed the task of draining the water and wiping up every drop and puddle he could find. He left his wet shirt draped over the edge of the tub, and, using his hands for support, got to his feet.
Every movement made his muscles twinge and ache. Aaron turned and staggered over to the sink, where he had left the contents of his pockets on the counter. A penny, a wad of notes from class, a business card, his father’s photo. Aaron reached for the business card and read the number printed beneath the words “FBI Special Agent Jason Gideon.” If you could only see me now, Agent Gideon. You would never have paid me any mind.
He looked up at his pale reflection. His dark hair still lay dripping in tangles that begged to be combed. Many of his earlier cuts and bruises had nearly faded to memories, but the fresh welts across his arms and scrawny torso served as reminders that the pain would always return. Aaron stopped counting his visible ribs and looked sadly up at his face. Then he glanced down at the Polaroid, then back up at himself. Jeepers. He did look like Dad. Only a younger, much weaker version.
Comparing their faces, Aaron tried to come to terms with the distressing truth his mother always reminded him of: he could never live up to his father’s memory. He should have died instead of his father. And he alone was the cause of his father’s death.
In short, he deserved every mark, and many more to come.
Aaron tossed Agent Gideon’s card into the waste basket. Agent Rossi said he was a good kid. What did he know? Hotch, he’d called Aaron. “Hotch” was a smart, unafraid, untormented young man with a full life ahead of him and who had a right to discuss criminal cases with the experts. Hotch was the bright kid Agents Rossi and Gideon thought they met. But Hotch was only a prospect, only the unattainable alter ego of a boy who would never amount to anything. He could be “Hotch” for the FBI, but at home he was only Aaron. As much as he wanted to be the likable Hotch who shook the agents’ hands and accepted their praise, he knew he could never get past the confines of his fate. He had no business talking to the FBI, unless he planned to let them lock him away forever.
Aaron pulled on an oversized brown T-shirt that used to be his father’s. It was one of his only remaining shirts that wasn’t torn or bloodstained. He then stuffed his few items into his pockets and balled up his other clothes. He quietly entered the hallway and glanced across at the half-open door to his old bedroom. He hadn’t stepped inside for months. It was too close to his parents’ room.
Agent Rossi’s Hotch wouldn’t be afraid to sleep in his own room. He would be untroubled, not hiding in the basement. Hotch could face any challenge, any obstacle, any person and not be intimidated. Aaron didn’t have the guts.
Weak, timid, battered, guilty Aaron crept downstairs and into the basement where Sean slept in the rag bin. Aaron put his still-wet clothes into the cardboard box where he kept his few possessions, and then he spread out some rags to lie on. Riddled with guilt, he couldn’t relax. He knew he didn’t deserve any comfort after the agony he put his mother through, after he made Father go away and provoked Mother to anger. If everything was his fault, he should be paying for it in spades.
But what could he do now? At least the rags were uncomfortable and he felt lower than a medieval serf. Still, he felt he should be even lower. His life was despicable. He could never show his face to Haley again.
Aaron bit his knuckles to keep from crying from the pain. He finally fell into a deep sleep troubled by nightmares about his Mother’s accusations.
Haley Brooks had labeled only two out of ten flower diagrams. She kept glancing at the empty seat beside her. Biology was no fun without a lab partner.
All she could think about was the last time she saw Aaron. The brutal assault that she did nothing to prevent. The hurtful words he absorbed. The look of utter brokenness in his eyes. The shame alone might keep him from ever returning to school.
Haley’s pencil hovered over the diagrams. The text blurred and she closed her eyes. Why didn’t she do anything? She replayed the scene repeatedly in her mind, changing the parts where she had an opportunity to stand up to Mrs. Hotchner. She saw herself grabbing the cord, knocking Aaron’s mother down, even standing in her way. She would have done anything differently if she had another chance.
She had never imagined the torture that went on in the Hotchner home. She simply didn’t think of what Aaron faced on a daily basis, but now the image was burned in her mind. Now she felt responsible in some way. She couldn’t let it happen again.
And where was he now? She felt the same anxiety that came when Aaron didn’t show up on time for the play. This time, she knew what his obstacle looked like. What if his mother held him back for more of her torment?
Haley barely finished a fourth of her assignment by the time the bell rang. Not thinking of biology for a second, she marched into the hallway and began looking for Aaron in all his usual places. She even knocked on the boys’ locker room and called out his name, but was told to look elsewhere.
Haley’s next class started, but she was walking out onto the baseball diamond. A few members of the team stood around discussing the game. She asked Jimmy if he’d seen Aaron.
“Try up there.” The redhead nodded to the upper bleachers.
A lone boy sat hunched with his chin in his hands on the bench nearest the top.
Haley breathed a sharp sigh of relief. As she turned to approach the bleachers, Jimmy called after her, “He said he didn’t want to talk to anybody.”
“Okay.” Haley climbed the steps and walked carefully out to where Aaron sat. Aaron barely glanced up out the corner of his eye, then returned his gaze to the white benches below his feet. His threadbare tan sweatshirt easily covered the worst of his wounds, but Haley could still make out some curved, inflamed red marks on the back of his neck, his hands, and under his right eye. She sat beside him and sighed.
For several minutes, nobody said anything. Then Aaron murmured, “You shouldn’t see me anymore. I’m not worth your time.”
“What do you mean?”
“You heard my mom. Our family fell apart because of me, and it’s always my fault she’s so angry. I make everything worse. I shouldn’t be alive anymore.”
“So what are you going to do? Kill yourself?” Haley couldn’t believe she just said that.
He gave her a look that neither confirmed nor denied her remark.
“Because that’s the way you sound right now,” Haley went on, heart bounding with worry. “You’re talking like the world would be better off without you.”
Aaron opened his hands and then curled them closed again. “It would be.”
“That’s just what your mother wants you to think. But why? What did you really do, not in general but specifically, that was so wrong?”
“My father shouldn’t have died. I... shouldn’t have made it happen.”
“How did he die?”
“Heart attack at work. The stress finally got to him.”
“And you think that was your fault?”
Aaron bit his lip, eyes welling up. “It was.”
“You personally gave him a heart attack while he was away at work?”
“You know what was the last thing he said to me? He said, ‘Aaron, you and I are much too busy these days. I can’t handle the stress much longer.’ He was so busy because he spent all of his spare time with me.”
“So you’re completely responsible? Clearly his heart condition had nothing to do with it. Or even the stress of his job, which I hear can be pretty difficult by itself. But it was none of that. It was only you. Is that what you want me to believe?”
Aaron looked away, clearly annoyed. “My mom keeps telling me I should have let him get more rest. She’s right. He never lay down in the afternoon because I wanted to discuss my homework with him or go for a drive to some part of town we hadn’t seen yet. He never had a moment to himself to relax.”
Haley really didn’t know how to advise him, but she could see how he was obviously not responsible for his father’s death. Why couldn’t he see it? How long had his mother been literally hitting him over the head with redirected guilt? “Your dad sounded like a great man,” said Haley. “I’m sure he was glad to spend all the time that he had with you.”
“I should have known... the stress... with his heart...”
“Aaron, stop. There is nothing you should wish to change. You have wonderful memories of your father; don’t regret them. Your mother does not know how to handle her grief, so she throws it on you. Don’t listen to a word that woman says. Nobody could have prevented your father’s heart attack.”
“My mother can’t be all wrong.”
“What, do you want to be found guilty?”
“I want to be certain if I’m not.”
“Then listen to me: you’re not.”
Aaron met her gaze with teary eyes. “But I do make my mom angry. I’m guilty of that.”
“That’s her problem. You’ve done nothing wrong. What your mother does to you is wrong—evil even. But it’s not your fault.”
“How do you know?”
“Because your worst crime last Saturday was to look after your sick brother and protect him—and me—from getting caught in the violence. If you think that’s deserving of terrible pain and humiliation, maybe I should rethink our friendship.”
Aaron looked a little taken aback, but also slightly less depressed than before.
“Now, what I witnessed last weekend was an outrageous crime. I’m so sorry it had to happen, and that I did nothing. But now, we can’t let it continue. I’m begging you, Aaron, talk to the police. They can help.”
“No. If my parents know I talked, they’ll hurt Sean.”
Haley leaned back, scowling in frustration. She couldn’t think of a way around that dilemma. “At least let me make sure you’re okay.”
“I don’t understand you,” Aaron said softly. “Why do you care about me?”
“You’re my friend.”
“You know how dangerous it is to be around me. Why don’t you find someone else to be with? Pick any other boy. Pick Jimmy. You should be with someone who’s not going to put you in danger by always being mixed up with violent people.”
“I should pick who I want to be with, and that’s not going to be any convenient kid on the block.”
“I’m so afraid that someday you’ll get hurt by somebody who’s out to get me, and I won’t be able to save you.”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take to be with you while I can. I’m not afraid of what anybody else might do to me.”
“You’re too good for me, Haley. I don’t understand how I’ve been so blessed.”
“You could use some happiness. As for the rest, all you need to know is that I love you.”
Aaron shook his head and closed his eyes. He stifled a sob and turned his head away.
“Don’t cry.” Haley wiped a tear from his face with her thumb. Aaron met her gaze, then leaned in and gently kissed her on the lips. Haley’s eyes went wide with surprise. Aaron’s kiss lingered only a second, and then he sat back. Delighted, Haley leaned over and gave him a kiss in return. This one lasted a little longer.
When their lips parted, Aaron put one arm around her and rested his chin on her shoulder in a sort of exhausted “thank you” hug. Haley let herself melt into his brief embrace while it lasted. She breathed in the scent of cheap bath soap in his hair and felt very peaceful being so close to him. The comfort they shared lasted the rest of the day, long after they had gone to their separate classes.
Neither could stop thinking about the kiss.