Sometime during the darkest, longest stretch of the night, a pair of cold hands rested on Aaron’s trembling shoulders. He tried not to move, and he felt one hand slide to his face and touch the tenderest wounds. Aaron winced, but the hand—now holding a coarse rag—began wiping blood away.
He reached for the hand at his face and held it firmly. “Stop... please...” he choked.
In the semi-darkness, he couldn’t make out the figure kneeling at his side, but he heard a deep intake of breath. Then Mother’s whisper: “I’m sorry, Aaron.”
He flinched at her voice alone. “What are you doing here?”
“I just want you to know... I’m glad you’re home safely.”
Aaron almost choked again. “Don’t say that. You don’t mean it.”
“I do.” She resumed the painful cleaning of his face, and Aaron moaned.
“Why do you care?” he gasped.
“You’re my husband’s son. I can’t risk losing him completely.”
Aaron wanted to tell her to leave him alone. He knew her bizarre affection would not last. But instead of shunning her, he gave in to her touch. He held her hand to his face, not letting go. Maybe she really did want to help him, but regardless of her motives, Aaron just wanted to savor some human closeness that didn’t hurt.
“You might not believe me, but I was really scared when you went to jail,” said Mother softly. “I was scared for our family and what might become of you.”
Aaron didn’t know whether or not to believe her. He just kept listening, pretending her words were sincere.
“I realized how fragile we all are. I wish I could fix everything, make it how it was before.” Her fingers moved and she sighed. “Would you ever forgive me, Aaron?”
He wanted to think he would. But knowing she would turn around the next day and torment him all over again, he couldn’t see himself accepting any apologies. “I don’t know, Mom.”
“I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t.”
With that, Mother placed something small and lumpy on the concrete in front of Aaron’s face. Then she leaned over and kissed the small corner of his face that wasn’t on fire. Just as suddenly as she had appeared, she was gone. The garage felt colder than before, and darker too, now that she had closed the door again. If she was really sorry, Aaron thought, she would bring him inside and throw Charles out.
Then Aaron reached to where Mother left some strange object. The lump squashed softly in his grip, like a crusty sponge. He drew it closer to his face and breathed in the dry scent of stale bread. For all he knew, she could have left him some contaminated or spoiled food, but he hadn’t eaten since breakfast in jail. Not raising half his face from the cold, hard ground, he devoured the crumbling gift. Though long past its date, it tasted like a royal pastry. His hazy head swam with gratitude.
He was home alright. Home to the roller coaster-ing contradictions, confusing emotions, and undying vigilance. His cheekbone was probably fractured, too.
Aaron couldn’t meet anyone’s eye as he walked into math class in the morning. He heard Mrs. Gillansy gasp but refused to look up at her.
“What happened to you, Hotchner?”
Aaron struggled to contain a furious outburst. Burying his emotions deep inside, he reluctantly recited the humiliating, reputation-shredding words Charles had shaken into him earlier that day: “I got mixed up with the wrong crowd and resisted arrest.”
If he had looked up and seen the wave of turning heads and intrigued expressions, he would have turned and ran far away. As it was, he simply sat down and opened the textbook in front of his face. He knew he would be the talk of the school for weeks, maybe months to come. However subtly, Mrs. Gillansy began treating him like a special needs student who might pose a threat to everybody else.
The very second the bell rang, Aaron stormed down the hall and went outside. Autumn had choked most of the foliage surrounding the school grounds, but as Aaron walked further away, he noticed some sparse blooms. He sat down among the stripped trees and swaying stalks lining the parking lot. Breathing in the crisp, leafy scents, he knew what he had to do.
Haley was already in her place in biology, an empty seat beside her. She was considerably early; only two other students were setting up in the back. Aaron took a deep breath and headed to her seat in the front row.
“Aaron?” Haley’s eyes went wide at his face.
He wanted to hug her but controlled the impulse. “Look,” he whispered, suddenly fighting a wave of shyness. “These are for you.”
He held out a motley bouquet of orange hibiscus flowers, lacy-looking weeds, maples leaves, and some small white blossoms he couldn’t identify—all held together with a knotted strip of notebook paper. Together they created a vibrant, if not slightly sagging and wrinkly, display of muted color.
Haley inhaled with pleasure and accepted the bundle of cropped plants. “Oh, Aaron. It’s lovely.”
He allowed himself a faint smile. Haley beamed at him, graciously overlooking his grievous bruises.
“How have you been?” she whispered. “I’m sorry I couldn’t visit you yesterday.”
“No worries. Stepdad’s making me feel right at home.”
“I keep wondering if, maybe, if I could get him to leave, Mother might be happier.”
“I don’t know how you would do that.”
“Me neither.” Actually, he did have an idea, just a seed of an idea. It was a long shot.
Haley fingered a smooth petal. “So about studying for the quiz, I don’t actually have the right textbook.”
“You can borrow mine.”
“Or we could get together later today. Or tomorrow if you’d rather.”
Aaron hung his head. To make everything worse, Charles had instilled a strict curfew over the house with the intent of limiting Aaron’s time with any friends. He wasn’t sure how to tell her.
“You know, I should probably see about getting rid of Charles first. Then we can plan to study together.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“I have got an idea. I just want to know you have my back.”
She cocked her head a little. “You know I will.”
“Good, cuz this could get dangerous.”
“I would expect nothing less from you.”
Aaron and Haley felt like burglars waiting late at night for their targets to enter the building. They hunched in the old blue pickup and quietly watched the dark brick buildings across the street.
The street was lined on both sides with boarded-up store fronts and narrow passages to even darker, emptier alleys. Metal trash cans and bulging black bags lay fallen beside brick walls, their contents strewn over the cold asphalt. The chilly wind had no doubt toppled the cans, and no one seemed to be around to right them again. Rain poured steadily over rooftops, down the walls and windows, onto the street. A siren blared far in the distance, but it was the only sound in the still, foreboding atmosphere.
Across the street, a dark tavern with yellowish windows squatted under a net of powerlines. A garish neon sign flickered and buzzed above the doorway, screaming at nobody in particular, “PLAY THE NIGHT AWAY! BENTLEY’S STAKES AND LIQUOR.” A station wagon had parallel-parked in front of the bar, and Aaron waited patiently for the two occupants to get out.
The plan was rife with risk, but Haley had agreed to play the getaway driver. Aaron had gone directly home after work, endured Charles’ vulgar verbal abuse while he hurried through his homework, and then waited inconspicuously until Charles left the house “for a drink.” Haley had parked down the block, as planned, and Aaron crept past his mother to go out and meet her. Then the pair followed Charles from a distance as he picked up his blond lover and drove downtown.
Now they watched Charles lead the woman through the sheltered doorway into the bar. A snatch of popular music spilled out into the street when the door briefly opened.
“Ready?” Haley asked.
Aaron nodded and secured a medical mask over his mouth and nose. He then slipped on Mr. Brooks’ sunglasses and his own father’s Bristol Pirates baseball cap. “Wish me luck,” he whispered, then leaned over and jokingly kissed Haley through the mask. She giggled.
As a final touch, Aaron zipped up his grandfather’s brown leather airman jacket. Then he hopped out of the truck and crossed the rainy street with back hunched and hands in pockets.
Gathering his courage, he entered the bar. Cigarette smoke curled around him, but the mask kept the worst of it from choking him. He coughed a little to complete the facade that he wore the mask for a cold. He heard the clatter of poker tokens being tossed around, and the faint slap of playing cards shuffling. Over in one corner, a group of motley vagrants laughed raucously at who-knew-what, their voices thick and their behavior swayed with alcohol. A curvaceous brunette strutted from table to table, waiting on anyone who wasn’t already too intoxicated to make an order. Glasses clinked and cigars puffed without relent, and Aaron stopped for a minute, wondering wildly if he was out of his mind and if it would be a better idea to walk back out. But then he spotted the familiar shaggy brown hair and goatee of the one he was looking for, and he made up his mind to follow through.
The place was noisy and crowded. Above the unsavory shouts and chatter, Blondie’s recent hit “Call Me” pulsed through the atmosphere. Half the patrons looked like they should be deep inside jail. Aaron felt very grateful that no strong-armed guard stood at the door to check for IDs, though he almost wished somebody would tell him to think again and get out while he could.
Charles sat at a circular table, slapping cards with the best of them. Already his head swayed to one side and a half-empty glass sat near his elbow. The Hotchners’ blond neighbor hugged his arm and stroked his shoulder as she whispered in his ear. Aaron already knew Charles was cheating, but seeing the disgusting display made him feel physically sick.
Aaron hung around the bar, keeping his head down and trying not to be noticed. He watched his stepfather down glass after glass, waiting for him to effectively numb his mind. He had planned to take Charles’ keys and escape with them, leaving the man stranded. Knowing Charles, he would likely make a fuss and refuse to leave after closing time, and chances were good that he would get arrested for not controlling his violent temper. Now that he was in the thick of the scheme, Aaron couldn’t help seeing the plan as frighteningly juvenile. He didn’t even know how he would get the keys.
He thought wildly of joining the poker game. Maybe he could get Charles to bet his car keys. Aaron used to play poker with his father, never for money, but for bits of junk like bottle caps and fishing hooks. It was more of a conversational pastime than a high stakes game, but he wasn’t a bad player. He always wondered if he would ever have to use his card skills for a more important purpose.
Of course that wouldn’t work here. He would just keep waiting for Charles to get so inebriated he would just hand his keys to this oddly disguised stranger.
As he watched everybody play their cards, he noticed Charles give the woman a push. “Get me something to drink,” he ordered her.
Aaron suddenly realized that Charles was using that woman more than he was loving her. He started to wonder how much of their “relationship” was mutual and how much was Charles’ need to control someone. He remembered Charles forcefully kissing the girl at a cafe weeks ago. He had thought she didn’t want to be around him then. Now she looked like a mindless slave.
The woman got up, and Aaron saw her displeased face as she turned away. As she headed for the bar, she accidentally bumped into Aaron, knocking his sunglasses to the floor.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Aaron crouched to retrieve the glasses and then stood. The woman’s eyes went wide at the sight of the red and purple marks around his eye and upper cheek. Unscreened by the shades, Aaron looked at her face and saw her wretched sadness. He didn’t feel very sorry for her, but he realized she deserved to know the truth. With one hand, he tore off the mask, revealing more extensive bruising and untreated cuts down to his lips and chin.
The woman acted like she wanted to move on, but she couldn’t look away from the terribly battered face. “You’re... you’re just a kid.” Of course, that wasn’t the main problem.
Aaron touched one finger to his bruises. “I think you should know,” he said quietly, glancing back at Charles. “Your boyfriend did this to me.”
The woman gasped. Despite her thick make up, she looked pale. “Chuck?” she whispered.
“And who are you?” She looked truly aghast.
The woman’s look of shock washed away as anger reddened her face. Before he could stop her, she turned back to the table, marched up to Charles, and said, “Hey!”
Charles turned to face her, looking annoyed. Immediately, she struck him in the face, and he crashed into the tabletop. He sprang back up, chair clunking aside as he got to his feet, furious, but his drunkenness had deadened his sense of direction.
“You sick son of a b—!” the woman screamed at him. “I never want to see you again. You’re a sorry, evil excuse for a man!”
Charles stuttered but said nothing. He didn’t seem to comprehend what just happened. Aaron stood back, trying to keep out of sight, but not wanting to miss a second of the exchange. His jaw had dropped when the woman hit Charles, and an odd, heady sensation had made him go numb. You tell him, lady.
Then the woman reached past Charles and took the car keys he had dropped on the table. “You can walk home, for all I care,” she said and began moving away. “Don’t call me.”
“Don’t you walk away from me!” Charles reached for her arm. Another patron got in his way.
The woman let the door slam as she left. Aaron quickly ducked out of sight behind a particularly large customer with a Spanish mustache.
“She’s stealing my car!” Charles hollered. He misstepped and staggered into another man. “Call the police!”
Nobody moved apart from their uninterrupted activities. Charles looked ready to blow a fuse, and Aaron marveled at how his plan had worked completely different from how he planned it. Before a fight could break out, he hurried through the crowd, out the door, and across the street. Charles’ station wagon tore down the road as he passed.
When Aaron climbed into the truck’s passenger seat, Haley wrinkled her brow at him. “What in the world happened? And why aren’t you hiding your face?”
Aaron dropped the mask and glasses into the glove compartment and pulled off his dad’s hat, releasing a cowlick in the back of his hair. “I didn’t have to take the keys,” he said. “Chuck’s girl dumped him.”
“Will it work?”
“We’ll see. He’s mad as a drunk cagefighter.”
They decided to wait until the police came. However, an hour later they were both dozing and hadn’t seen any flashing lights. Aaron sighed, hoping the cops would be on their way soon.
“Let’s go home,” he said, feeling resigned but cautiously optimistic.
“Alright. Keep me awake.”
They talked about anything at all, just like they used to before Aaron’s arrest. They were both so glad for that mess to be over, and though Aaron secretly thought about his new interest in the murder case, he didn’t mention it. Haley’s ballet was coming up soon, and Aaron promised to attend. Haley asked if Aaron would consider appearing in anymore stage productions. When he said it was unlikely, she actually seemed relieved. Okay, his acting sucked. But he told her that he kept the pirate hat she gave him stored away in a box in the basement. He hoped to keep it forever. He also noticed the bouquet he gave her tucked into a rubber band around the truck’s sun visor.
When Haley pulled up to Aaron’s street past midnight, they saw the station wagon on the sidewalk in front of the Hotchner home. Minutes later, the blond woman marched out the front door and hurried down the sidewalk toward her home.
“This can’t be good,” Aaron muttered.
“If you’d rather sleep on my couch tonight, I’m sure Dad would understand,” said Haley.
“That’s alright. I have to know what’s happening here. Thanks though.”
“Keep me updated.”
Back at his home, Aaron crawled into a narrow window well and dropped down through the open basement window. Moving quickly past the grumbling washer and dryer and miscellaneous boxes, he ventured up the ladder-like steps and peered around the half-closed door. The living room looked trashed with bottles, couch pillows, books, and a lamp thrown about. He even saw an overstuffed suitcase and box of computer parts leaning against the wall. Hearing a bottle shatter over in the kitchen, he quickly withdrew.
Aaron waited till the coast was clear, then crept into the living room and ducked behind the couch before he could be sighted. Crouching in the tight, dusty space, he realized with a jab in his gut that this was where Haley had witnessed his mother flogging him with a nasty extension cord. He had since buried that cord in the backyard under the thorn bushes. He prayed he would not be discovered this time.
He could hear Mother muttering to herself and breaking things in anger. He hoped to pick up some clue about her conversation with the neighbor, and he could quickly guess how it went.
Only a couple minutes later, the front door unlocked. Aaron tensed up and risked peering around the arm of the couch. To his great chagrin, Charles stood in the doorway, reeking of smoke and alcohol and looking slightly dazed.
Mother marched out of the kitchen and asked the question on Aaron’s mind: “How did you get back here?”
“Taxi. Like you care.”
“I don’t care! I thought you said you had stopped sleeping around. You promised!”
“I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
“We will talk! Do you know who was just here?”
“Don’t wanna know.”
To Aaron’s surprise, Mother picked up the lamp and swung it at his head. Charles barely ducked in time. “Knock it off, woman!” he snapped, voice pitched too high.
“I won’t have you pushing us around and going behind my back with my neighbors! It’s bad enough that you torture Aaron and threaten Sean. Now you’re attacking me!”
“Oh, like you’ve never hurt those boys! Leave me alone.”
“No. No, we’re done. Get out of my house.”
“Leave us! You can sleep in a hotel. Don’t ever come by again.”
Charles looked exasperated and, for the first time, vulnerable. “You can’t do this to me!”
Mother picked up the large suitcase and dragged it past him to the door. Pushing the door open with one hand, she tossed the case out onto the lawn. She then threw the box of computer parts after it. “I’ve packed all your junk for you. Now leave!”
Charles clenched his fists but couldn’t focus his glare. “This isn’t over!”
“Then I’ll see you in court!”
“I hate you and your bratty boys!”
Mother hurled a bottle at him. This time it connected with his temple, and he staggered backward. His chest heaved and he looked like he wanted to shout something. Instead, he turned and punched a hole in the drywall. The minute he stormed outside, Mother slammed the door and bolted it.
She stood there with her hand on the knob, breathing heavily. Finally taking an easy breath, she sank to the floor and began sobbing. Aaron wondered if he should go out and comfort her. He decided to stay put, mind still reeling from the night’s events. His goal of removing Charles had finally been reached, and he could hardly believe the monster was gone.
The question remained, would Mother still be a threat? Or were they really on the path to improvement?