A Shared Secret
While Haley wiped tables and Aaron shined shoes, they listened to the best insider tales of deceitful neighbors, the Vietnam War, the excitement of Reagan’s recent election, and police bulletin top picks.
All types of people came in and out, everybody from an Army veteran turned mailman to a leftover hippie turned literacy activist. Customers milled about in a colorful display of fashion trends—70’s rock star hair in one corner, a 60’s jacket in another, 40’s flat caps at the bar.
Mr. Brooks threw out a young man with a reefer pipe and a perm, and then served an extra drink to the airman with a scarred ear and a verbal autobiography in the making. The indignant stoner lurked for awhile, threatening to sue for discrimination, but one word from the veteran at the bar sent him running with his pipe hugged to his chest.
One story led to another, one bite of gossip got chewed across the room in a hurry, and one generation mingled discordantly with the next. It was a hotspot for everything juicy and uniquely cultural in town.
Aaron enjoyed eavesdropping and people-watching so much, he wished he had a longer shift. But when his two hours finished, he reluctantly clocked out and accepted his wages from the register. He wished the FBI agents would show up again. There was so much more to talk about. Glancing back longingly at the argument that was just heating up between a pilot and a marine, Aaron followed Haley out to the truck. She usually drove him to his street, then let him walk the last block home. The carefree drive marked the last moment of safety in his day.
A new song by Gowan, called “A Criminal Mind,” now played on the radio. Curious, Haley turned the volume up a notch and listened to the woeful chorus about one man’s unchangeable criminal nature.
“This song is so depressing,” she decided.
Aaron shook his head. “I think it’s kind of interesting. Why does he have a criminal mind and why can’t he change it? What was his crime in the first place?”
“Of course, it is just a song.”
“Wow, this guy is cold,” Aaron marveled. “Totally remorseless. I hope he’s not loose in society.”
Haley quickly reached out and changed the station. Aaron saw the trace of annoyance in her eye and decided against changing it back.
“So you have baseball practice tomorrow?” Haley asked.
“I’ll be there. Knock them out.”
When the truck reached the curb, Aaron took his time getting out. Finally he stood by the side of the street, looking up sadly at his friend.
“Be safe,” said Haley. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Aaron nodded, wordless. Haley drove away, and Aaron walked home all alone.
He came inside and immediately found his mother glaring at him with her hands on her hips. He glanced at the clock over the couch just to verify that was home no later than usual.
But not to his mother. “I thought you ran away,” she said mournfully. “What are you trying to do, give me a heart attack?”
“Mom... this is the same time I come home everyday.”
“I don’t want to hear it. You weren’t home soon enough to supplement the bills I had to pay. Where’s my six dollars, you thief? Hand it over now.”
Aaron reluctantly reached into his pocket, and his mother tore the money from his hand as soon as it appeared. She looked like she might explode with baseless fury.
Before Aaron could walk away, Mother grabbed him by the neck, threw him face-first into the lamp table, and started beating him with a leather strap she’d been holding at her side. She swung each blow with such force Aaron couldn’t support himself anymore. He crashed to the floor and began crawling away. Mother caught his collar, slammed him sideways into the wall, and continued the attack with all her strength.
In times like these, Aaron mentally ran away to a safe place that looked a lot like Mr. Brooks’ truck. He had to imagine the cool wind on his face, the beautiful laugh at his side, and the adventure of speed that drove him from harm.
Only this time it was much harder to escape. The assault knocked the air from his lungs, and each strike felt like it was whipping right through his ribcage. Aaron hugged the wall and cried out, once again wishing he had the power to make it stop.
When his mother paused to catch her breath, Aaron scrambled halfway up to his feet and bolted unsteadily past her to the bathroom, just missing her reach as she tried to catch him again. He slammed the door shut and locked it, then pushed his full weight against it as his mother hammered on the wood and swore at the top of her lungs.
It’s not my fault. No guilt. It’s not my fault. Aaron tried desperately to remind himself of Haley’s words. If he gave in to the shame that loomed over him, he might lose the strength to hold the barrier. But Haley was right. He had done nothing to deserve a regular pounding. His mother was in the wrong, not him.
“Charles!” he heard her scream. “Come get this brat out of here!”
When nothing happened, she screamed again: “I know you heard me, Charles! Don’t let him insult me like this!”
Still, no one came, and Aaron realized his bargain with his stepfather was finally paying off. Luckily for him, his mother left him alone and continued her argument with Charles in the next room.
Exhaling with relief, Aaron sank to a seated position on the floor. His back hurt so much he had to turn and lean on the door with his side. Several of Haley’s stitches in his shirt felt torn apart again.
He had decided not to let anyone see him cry anymore. Although he felt free from guilt, he felt the weight of injustice bringing him down. He felt sincerely wronged, humiliated, and in so much heavy pain he could hardly move. No one could see him now, but he just wiped his tears away, hugged his knees, and prepared for a night on the cold tile.
Sometime during the night, Aaron got up to get a drink from the sink, and he spotted Agent Gideon’s business card in the trash can. He decided to take it out, just in case. Should he involve the FBI in his home life? That would probably cause more trouble than involving the police. But then, how bad could it be, really, if he brought the police into his life? What if he managed to do it so furtively that his parents didn’t have a chance to hurt Sean before the cops showed up? Maybe it would actually work.
And then what? Would the police take his mother and stepfather away, never to be seen again? Was he ready to raise Sean alone?
Going to the police seemed more viable an option now than ever. He simply couldn’t stand the thought of getting clobbered again with his wounds still so fresh. He felt weak for wanting help, but it really did hurt, and it was so tiring. If he didn’t do something soon, he might snap and hurt someone else.
Haley noticed Aaron’s foul mood the next day and kept a cautious distance. He knew she wanted to avoid annoying him further, but he was sorry he couldn’t talk to her calmly today. He could tell that she knew he had a terrible night, and she extended her patience. This time, he preferred that to her comforting him.
Haley sat on the bleachers doing homework. To say the practice went smoothly was like saying the vacuum of outerspace was noisy. Everyone messed up and nobody could focus. It only added to Aaron’s festering frustration.
He held the bat trying not to picture all the monsters in his life as the ball sailed toward him. Hearing his mother’s demeaning voice in his mind, he spaced again and missed the ball.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Jimmy, the pitcher, moaned. “Hotchner! What’s distracting you?”
“Nothing,” Aaron growled. But it was his third strike. He suddenly felt so upset at his mother that he hauled off and struck the wire fence behind him with the bat. The whole fence shuddered, and Haley looked up in surprise.
Jimmy ran up to him. “Yo, do you have a problem?”
The bat sank to the ground and Aaron looked down. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I’m just frustrated.”
“Yeah, we all are. So let’s get this over with and go home to recharge.”
Aaron nodded, closing his eyes and inhaling deeply. His sudden move with the bat had worked the muscles in his wounded back, and he felt flashes of pain returning.
“Now Peter’s in the outfield, and he’s missing every ball we send his way,” said Jimmy. “Not to mention he’s missed the last three practices. Would you go and find out if his head is in the game?”
Aaron wasn’t in the mood to deal with a disenchanted ballplayer. He trudged into the outfield and called out the boy’s name.
The minute he saw Peter, he stopped. The younger, heavier boy stood staring at the ground with one hand to the side of his head. When he glanced up, Aaron recognized the scared, distant look in his eyes.
“Is everything alright, Peter?”
Peter nodded, gaze glued to the ground.
Aaron’s heart drummed. A warning bell was screaming in his mind. Peter’s absences suddenly made sense, and he felt a silent understanding with the young boy, but he had to confirm his suspicion. “Is there something you need to talk about?”
“What d’ya mean?”
Aaron spotted the dark circles under Peter’s eyes. “Who’s hurting you, Peter?”
“Nobody.” Peter leaned his head harder into his hand.
“They told you not to tell, didn’t they? They make threats and make you feel like you’re alone. Even when you’re not at home, you’re haunted by them.”
Tears filled Peter’s eyes.
“But they’re wrong. You don’t deserve to be hurt. You can trust me with your secret.”
Peter looked up slowly. His lip quivered and breath came unsteadily. “I need help,” he whispered. Then he dropped his hand from his head.
First Aaron noticed the scarlet lining covering the boy’s hand. Then he looked up and saw a tangle of red staining Peter’s curly dark hair.
Aaron touched the injury and found the blood to be fresh. “What happened?”
“I made a mistake and he corrected me. But it won’t stop bleeding!”
“Who did this?”
“My uncle. He says I never stop doing something wrong.”
“Well, he certainly doesn’t. Peter, you might need to lie down. I’ll get help.”
“No, don’t get...” Peter’s eyes fluttered and his knees wobbled.
Aaron caught the boy and eased him to a seat on the ground. “Haley!” he hollered the first name that came to mind. Haley and Jimmy both took off in his direction.
“How long has he been hurting you?” Aaron asked.
“Several months. I don’t know.”
“I’m so sorry.” Now Aaron could see the bruises shadowing Peter’s arms. “I should have done something sooner.”
“You never see me except for baseball practice. You couldn’t have known.”
Jimmy got there first with Haley close behind. They dropped to their knees on either side of Peter and started asking confused and unhelpful questions.
“Stay with him,” ordered Aaron. “I’m calling an ambulance.”
Peter moaned and closed his eyes.
Aaron ran like an olympian to the school payphone in the first hallway. Diving between two clusters of students, he caught himself on the receiver, tearing it off the hook at the same time. His thumb hammered out three digits: 9-1-1.
“I’m at school. A student was beaten by his uncle and has a head injury.”
“What is your location?”
Aaron gave the school’s address. “Get over here, now! He’s been waiting a few months for help!”
He then left the phone dangling by its cord and ran back to the field.
Minutes later, an ambulance with red and blue lights sweeping off the fence and grass roared into the outfield. Two medics rushed to the small group of students and began examining Peter. When they failed to get any answers from the boy, they directed their questions to the quickly increasing group of students around him. Aaron answered every question and ensured that Peter was getting the best care possible. One medic checked Peter’s pupils with a penlight while the other applied gauze to his head injury. Peter grew paler and less upright as time went on.
“Don’t worry, Peter,” Aaron assured him. “You’re safe now. These people will help you.”
“I’m scared, Aaron.”
“Hold my hand.” Aaron encased Peter’s chubby hand in his firm grip. He held on until the medics moved Peter to a stretcher and wheeled him into the back of the vehicle.
“He can’t hurt you anymore,” said Aaron. “Tell the doctor everything.”
“I’m so scared,” were the last words he heard before the ambulance doors slammed.
Aaron was left staring after the boxy white vehicle with whirring lights as it pulled out of the field and sped down the road. Students chattered and whispered with excitement. The concern Aaron felt for his friend was getting rapidly consumed by the hidden rage that he wrestled with all day.
“I’m glad you checked on him,” said Jimmy at his side. “I would have simply yelled at him to pay attention.”
“I’ll bet you would have.”
“Aaron? Are you okay?” Haley asked.
He shot her a glare, something he had never done before. It wasn’t meant for her, but at this point he could not control his anger. “Do I look okay?”
Before anyone could stop him, he marched from the field and into the school, feeling so angry he saw red highlights everywhere. He neared the door marked “teacher lounge” and stormed inside without knocking.
Five or six teachers relaxed at the table, on the sofa, or at the counter getting coffee. Conversation died and they all looked up at the fiercely glaring intruder.
“Does anybody know Peter Claybert?” Aaron asked in a louder voice than he intended.
After a brief moment of surprise, the gym teacher, Mr. Marek, volunteered a response. “Yes, he’s in my class. He’s in most of our classes. What’s the matter?”
“What’s the matter? If you won’t open your eyes, open your ears, and I’ll tell you what’s the matter!”
Mrs. Gillansy, the math teacher, quickly stood and stepped closer. “Calm down, Hotchner. Why don’t you have a seat?”
“I’m not going to sit for this. I want to see all your eyes, see if you ever use them. Peter’s in all your classes! Do you even see him? Or is he just another report card who makes your math lectures look bad?”
Mrs. Gillansy exchanged a glance with another teacher. Her stare conveyed an offended air. “Did something happen, Hotchner?”
“You wouldn’t know, cuz you don’t pay attention! Peter just got taken to the hospital. His uncle beats him all the time, and this time he was about to pass out from a head injury.”
The history teacher gasped and put a hand to her mouth. “Good gracious! I’m glad he’s going to the hospital.”
“He could have gone sooner!” Aaron yelled, stare intensifying. “Don’t you see him come to class every single day and sit there carrying all the signs of his secret burden? Don’t you see the bruises? Don’t you notice the way his behavior changes unpredictably, or the way he flinches when classmates raise their hands? I know he does. And I know you’ve seen. Some lousy excuse for a teacher you are, ma’am. And you, sir. And the rest of you.”
Nobody said a word. They stared back, speechless. A few looked down.
Aaron fought tears as he vented the last of his anger. “He lives in fear. Do you know what it’s like to be afraid to get up in the morning, or afraid to turn on a light in the kitchen? Afraid to even get some cereal for breakfast? Peter was suffering, and your classrooms should have been his safe haven. He never had anyone to go to, because nobody noticed. And now it might be too late.”
A few teachers tried to speak, but no words came. They shifted in their chairs, adjusted glasses, cleared throats. Guilty.
Mrs. Gillansy came over and put a hand on Aaron’s shoulder. Aaron flinched and pulled away. He seized the doorknob. “Well, it’s a real shame your students don’t matter to you. Or what are you afraid of?”
“Aaron...” the math teacher tried to reason with him.
Aaron shook his head and fled the room. He ducked into an empty classroom and collapsed in the shadowy corner behind the teacher’s desk. Emotionally spent, he buried his face in his arms. He worried about Peter and wished someone had noticed his dilemma sooner. Despite his best efforts, he already knew with complete certainty that those teachers were just as blind as they were before. His own scars and bruises remained invisible.