Charles would not call him anything else. Aaron Hotchner had been home barely six minutes when Charles suddenly marched him into the kitchen and began staring at him with arms crossed. Mother hung back with Sean in her arms. She actually seemed relieved that Aaron was home and upset that Charles had taken over.
Looking into Charles’ bloodshot, angry eyes, Aaron didn’t expect their deal to last much longer than a few seconds. He cringed a little, expecting to feel the blows soon.
“So what did you tell them?” demanded Charles.
“Oh, sure. You spent three days sitting in their nest, eating and sleeping with them. Come on, what did you tell the cops?”
“I didn’t tell them anything.” Watching Charles’ muscles bulge with anger made him wish he had told them everything. Why had he been so stubborn to think he could handle it on his own?
“I’m warning you, kid. Did you whine about us? Did you complain about how hard we try to enforce some discipline despite your thick head?”
Aaron shook his head. Just get it over with, if you’re going to hit me.
“When are they coming?” Charles roared.
Mother came near, looking distressed. “Honey, leave him alone. He’s had a hard time being locked up.”
Aaron felt surprised that she had come to his defense, though he knew it wouldn’t do any good.
“Shut up!” Charles turned to her. “He’s not resting until he’s ’fessed up!” Back to Aaron. “Now, what did you tell them?”
“Nothing, honest. What would I gain by telling the police anything? They would just take me from home, and I would be lost and alone again. I still needed a place to stay when I got out. Besides, I couldn’t be sure what you’d do to Sean if I got you in trouble. Don’t you see? Of course I didn’t say anything.”
Charles said nothing, but he paused a moment to light a cigarette. He took a quick puff, eying Aaron angrily, and then removed the cigarette between two fingers. As he blew more ribbons of smoke into the room, Mother drew slowly closer.
“Are you satisfied?” she asked.
Charles nodded stiffly.
“Then let him go to bed. He must be exhausted.”
Why is she sticking up for me?
Charles grunted. He took another puff on the cigarette, then clenched it between his back teeth. He turned to Mother and growled, “Get on upstairs.”
She hesitated, then started to move away. She hadn’t reached the stairs yet when Charles suddenly swung around and seized Aaron’s collar in one fist. With his other fist, he began punching Aaron repeatedly in the face. Aaron weakly tried to block the blows with his hands, but it was no use.
“Stop it, Charles!” Mother screamed. Charles continued pummeling Aaron.
His face throbbed and blood began pooling in the corner of his mouth. Aaron spat on the floor and put a shaking hand over his eyes. Stone hard knuckles crashed into his wrist. A right hook rattled his teeth. The room spun on its head.
When the attack finally stopped, Aaron didn’t know which way was up or down, or what were the shapes that swirled around him. He thought he might even be hallucinating and had never woken up from his cot in jail. He was only fully aware of the lightning bolts of pain lashing through every bone in his face like a cracking whip.
Only Charles’ grip on his collar held him upright. His stepfather leaned close to his ear and whispered in a gravelly, threatening voice, “I’m finished bending to you. You’ll never tell your mother about my squeeze. You don’t have the guts.”
The words barely made sense in Aaron’s chaotic head. He wanted to wipe the warm wetness that dripped down his chin.
Suddenly, the kitchen began reeling again. Charles’ hand was dragging Aaron into a lopsided dive that ended when his nose collided with the edge of the table. Aaron gasped and collapsed with his head against a table leg.
“Are you listening to me, jailbird?” Charles’ distorted voice boomed overhead. “You will never get in contact with the police ever again!”
Aaron pressed a hand over the left side of his face, trying to steady his vision and ease the pain.
He heard Mother’s voice pleading. “Leave him alone! He’s had enough.”
“I don’t think he got the message.” Charles moved away from Aaron. Aaron heard a drawer open and forced his vision clear. Charles had found a four-inch kitchen knife and held it menacingly in the light.
Oh, no, no, no, please no. Aaron felt his heart pick up speed. He had sometimes wondered how horrible it would feel to be stabbed and had prayed it would never happen to him. It may have been the thing he dreaded most. Seeing the knife turn slowly in Charles’ hand, Aaron imagined the blade carving up his torso and leaving him permanently scarred. That... that would be his worst nightmare.
But Charles didn’t move toward Aaron. Instead, he headed in Mother’s direction.
Then Aaron heard Mother scream, and Sean began to cry. Horrified, he saw Charles taking the baby from Mother’s arms.
“Don’t you touch him!” Mother screamed. She tried uselessly to get Sean back, but Charles pushed her aside with one hand to her collarbone. The knife gleamed eerily as he clenched the handle in his teeth.
Aaron’s panic level shot through the roof. Despite his dizziness and lack of orientation, he pulled himself to his feet and grabbed Charles’ arm with both hands.
“Don’t... hurt him.” Aaron gathered his strength. “Drop the knife!”
Charles backhanded him, easily landing him on the floor again. He took the knife from his teeth and held the blade close to Sean’s face. Mother screamed, and Aaron yelled at the top of his lungs. Charles only chuckled.
“No police,” said Charles. “Ever. Or I don’t have to tell you what will happen to this squirt’s face.”
Aaron raised his hand in protest but couldn’t pick himself off the floor. “I’ll do what you want! I won’t go near the police. Just put the knife down!”
“You’re so weak,” said Charles, bringing the blade closer to Sean’s face.
Then Aaron clasped his hands and raised his face subserviently to Charles’ towering figure. He never would have dreamed of begging until now. Tears tore through the blood on his face as he squeezed his eyes shut. “I swear, I will do anything! I’m begging you, Charles. Don’t hurt Sean.”
There was a long pause where only Sean’s crying could be heard. Then the knife plunged blade-first into the linoleum a few inches from Aaron’s leg.
“Pick yourself up,” ordered Charles. “And remember, no police means no police. I will know if you say one word.”
He then shoved Sean back into his mother’s arms. Mother embraced the baby, stroked his wispy hair, cried with relief.
Charles plucked the cigarette from his back teeth. “Alright, clear out! All of you!”
Mother hurried away with Sean. Charles kicked Aaron in his side, and Aaron began crawling away.
“Need help?” Charles taunted. Aaron shook his head, but his stepfather grabbed his collar and dragged him across the floor, through the kitchen door, and into the garage. After dropping Aaron on the cold concrete, Charles backed away and continued smoking.
“No police,” Charles kept insisting. “No police.”
The chant ended when he slammed the door. Trapped in the sudden darkness, Aaron buried his face in his arm and took several heaving, shaking breaths. He had never been so frightened until that blade came near his baby brother’s face. That image would forever stain his retinas, accompanied by the threatening order of “no police.”
Despite his promises to Agent Gideon and Ernie the guard, Aaron knew he could never get help from the police. He should have taken that chance when it was handed to him. Now he would live with regrets.
Some homecoming this was. He wished Haley was there to comfort him, or was she too a bystander harmed by his decisions?