The next day was a Saturday. The calmest, quietest, most unusual Saturday in recent history. Early in the morning, Aaron walked through the silent house, almost confused by the abnormal peace. Though he naturally tensed up at every corner, he felt a bold sense of freedom that let him relax as he wandered. The house seemed cleaner and brighter, too. Had someone opened the shades, or had the smoke simply cleared? He breathed the clean, smoke-free—albeit stagnant—air on his way to the kitchen. The only thing remaining to remind him of life as he knew it was the imploded hole in the wall where Charles’ fist left its final mark.
Mother sat calmly at the kitchen table, reading the paper and absently stirring a cup of tea. Sean sat in his high chair, just as silent as Mother, mashing a banana with his palm and rubbing it on his face. Aaron paused in the doorway, wondering if the idyllic image was really his own family. He decided to test it and said, “Good morning.”
Sean looked up but soon returned to his dismembered breakfast. Mother did not move or blink or speak. At least she wasn’t angry.
Aaron continued testing the limit as he poured himself a bowl of cereal. He usually stopped at the halfway point to ensure he could finish before he was stopped. Mother had been known to take his food out from under him if he didn’t hurry and replace it with something from last night’s rubbish bin—an orange peel, most likely, or maybe a half-eaten crust of sandwich. Aaron had gotten so used to being hungry, it struck him as a revelation that he might get away with having enough to eat now. Rather than stopping with a half-filled bowl, he picked up the cereal box again and poured until the wheat flakes formed a peak two inches above the rim.
Still, Mother did not look up. She did turn a page in the newspaper, if only to prove she was still alive.
Aaron held a hand over the cereal dome as he poured milk into the sides of the bowl. Expectedly, the cereal rose with the milk and spilled a ring of flakes onto the table. That was sure to get a response, Aaron thought.
Mother only took a sip of tea, eyes glued to the paper.
Well, maybe she just wanted him to enjoy his breakfast in peace. Whatever the reason, Aaron shrugged it off and sat down to his first full, unrushed, unworried breakfast in years.
Nobody took the bowl from him. Nobody knocked it from the table and ordered him to clean it up before he missed the bus. Nobody smacked him for “wasting hard-earned money to feed his useless bones.” He didn’t even feel the need to eat so fast that his stomach couldn’t tell the difference between cereal and orange peel. He ate at a leisurely pace, at least until his famished belly urged him to take advantage of this rare opportunity and devour everything in sight.
The change in environment was jarringly different and strange. Aaron couldn’t ignore it. Mother, on the other hand, was taking it all too well, acting as if nothing had happened. It was unsettling, seeing her blank face behind the paper as she sipped her tea. Charles was gone, but something was still very wrong. Mother completely ignored Aaron. He may as well have been a mere memory, just like Charles.
Finally Mother finished her tea and folded up the paper. Aaron tensed and placed his hands defensively over his now half-empty bowl. Still ignoring him, Mother lifted Sean from his chair and zipped up his jacket. “Let’s take that walk in the park now, Sweetie,” she said.
Sean gurgled. Perfectly compliant and innocent.
With the baby in her arms, Mother started to walked out of the kitchen. Aaron faced a Saturday alone.
“Mom,” he called suddenly, surprising himself.
She stopped in the doorway but didn’t look back.
“I’m going to see a friend today.”
Maybe she would object. She might even get mad and say he didn’t deserve friends. But, no. “I don’t care what you do,” she mumbled. Then she walked out the front door.
Okay then. Aaron wished he had gotten some reaction from her. Her new empty attitude was almost scarier than her past drunk monster persona.
Aaron finished his bowl, savored a second serving, and then rang up his best friend.
“Are you okay?” was the first thing Haley asked.
“I’m great. Guess what? Mom threw Charles out of the house last night. He’s gone for good!”
“Hey, that’s wonderful!”
“And now Mom is out with Sean. So do you want to study for that quiz?”
“Oh, I would love to! I’ll be right over.”
“Should be safe now. If Mom comes back and changes her mind, we’ll just hide out in the basement.”
“On my way.”
Barely five minutes later, Haley came jogging through the door with her arms laden with notebooks and paper. Aaron had had just enough time to get neatly dressed, thoroughly comb his hair, and brush his teeth with periodontal precision. This time, he would be presentable. The last time she came over, Aaron had spent the brief minutes before her arrival picking up trash and hiding every alcohol bottle he could find. This time, the floor didn’t need much cleaning, and all of Mother’s bottles were neatly lined behind the cupboard door. Surprisingly, Mother had cleaned up her own angry mess last night. The cleaning helped restore some of the pure tidiness of the home that existed before Father died. Aaron actually felt good about the house he had to present to his friend.
In fact, he felt so good he insisted she leave all of the study material on the table and come with him for a guided tour. Haley laughed and agreed, seemingly relieved and hopeful that this visit would turn out much better than the last. Aaron knew she shared his excitement about Charles leaving, but if there was any hesitation in her joy, he knew it was because she had seen his Mother, not Charles, beat Aaron almost senseless.
He showed her his parents’ bedroom first, explaining how his father used to read to him on the big bed. Then he showed her his own room, which was in a sad state of neglect. Besides the dusty pile-up, it was clear that he hadn’t slept in the bed in ages. Trying to overlook that fact, Aaron began showing her his nearly forgotten possessions: a coin collection in a plastic case, a partially finished airplane model, and even his tin soldiers from when he was ten. Showing her around, Aaron just wanted to feel normal. He wanted to prove that he was an ordinary kid with typical interests and a normal home. It didn’t quite work, but it felt good for a moment.
Though not a normal staple of house tours, Aaron wanted to show her the unfinished basement. The shelves and piles of junk beside the washer and dryer begged for organization, but otherwise the middle of the room was rather tidy. A rag bin and laundry basket stood side-by-side with contents neatly folded. Boxes had been lined up and stacked in arrangement for seating and desk space. A few curious drawings and notes had been tacked to the wall beneath rusty pipes, along with a wrinkled map of the city. Aaron couldn’t hide the fact that the basement looked much more lived-in than his own room. Not much point hiding it anyway.
He knelt and opened a box. “I want to show you something.”
Inside were hardback volumes of law books crammed tighter than sardines. Aaron lifted one of the Virginia Revised Statutes tomes and flipped to the title page. There he found a note jotted in his father’s perfect cursive: “Note to self—Page 134 was lent to fellow student Montgomery. If not returned by my son’s due date, the deal to name my baby after my classmate is off. -J.H.”
“I don’t get it,” said Haley.
“Neither do I,” admitted Aaron. “But my father wrote it, and it makes me think about the things he did and the jokes he started and the deals he made. It always makes me smile.”
Aaron replaced the book and opened another box. “Look, here is my dad’s Army uniform. Did you know he toured in Vietnam before he got married?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“And here is his wedding photo.” Aaron commented as he opened his father’s metal-cased Bible and found the black-and-white snapshot between the pages. He frowned at his mother’s smile, but his father’s glow was infectious. Also folded away between Matthew and Mark was a Polaroid of a grumpy baby in a hospital bed with his mother. Father leaned over with the most elated expression.
Haley giggled at the baby’s face. “Is that...?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“You haven’t changed a bit!”
Aaron smiled a little at her teasing, though she may have had a point about his expression.
Haley smiled and looked in awe over all the crates of memorabilia. “You have a lot of lovely memories of your father.”
“Yeah. I smuggled all his stuff down here; otherwise I’m afraid Mom would have thrown it all out. She was so mad when he died.”
Haley put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “At least you know better. You’ll never forget him.”
They looked through artifacts and memories for a few more minutes. When they finished, they came back upstairs and approached the stack of schoolwork. Aaron began thinking up other distractions before they got studying.
They sat down and began talking about family. Aaron had big dreams to start a family someday. He talked about being a father and raising children—six or seven, he imagined. Haley shared many of his dreams. Aaron mentioned how watching Sean made him want to look out for a child of his own. His role model was his father, of course, and he hoped to overcome the examples set forth by his mother and stepfather.
They were interrupted by the sound of the front door unlatching. Aaron froze and listened.
Haley glanced at the basement door, obviously wanting to take cover. “Aaron...”
“Don’t worry. It’s just Mom. She knew someone was coming over, but I’ll explain if needed.”
“You’re sure she doesn’t mind?”
“Things are different now.”
She didn’t look convinced.
Then the door opened, and a tall, greasy figure pushed inside. Aaron went numb with dread and backed out of his chair and onto his feet. Charles stood with one hand on the doorknob and the other holding a mechanic kit. He looked especially sloppy and wore rubber gloves on both hands.
“What are you doing here?” Aaron demanded. Haley came beside him and anxiously took his hand.
“I came for what’s mine,” slurred Charles. His eyes looked bloodshot and intense.
“Don’t come any closer,” said Aaron, moving in front of Haley.
Charles set his box down on the table and walked intentionally up to Aaron. He looked down with an evil gaze. “I won’t hurt you if you tell me where to find my baby. You know he belongs to me.”
Aaron looked him in the eye, lowering his eyebrows into a steady glare. “I have nothing to say to you.”
Charles cracked him in the jaw with the back of his hand. “Try again.”
“Leave my house. You’re not welcome here.”
Though he sounded brave saying it, chills gripped Aaron. He knew it wouldn’t end this easy. From behind him, Haley’s fingers tightened on his arm.
Charles stroked his own neck and chin as he sized up his prey. “You know, she may be boring and worthless, but your mother did give me something—a son. He’s mine and I’m not leaving without him.”
“The courts will decide that, and I don’t think they’ll agree with you.”
“Do you know what else she gave me?” Not waiting for an answer, Charles’ clawing hand grabbed a hold of Aaron’s bony wrist. “She gave me a brainless target to release my frustration on.” He yanked Aaron by the arm and held him against the table.
“Leave him alone!” Haley broke free from her paralysis and landed a spirited fist in Charles’ shoulder. Charles flinched in surprise, then quickly recovered and slapped her in the face.
Aaron’s free hand shot out and punched Charles rather uselessly in the chest. “DON’T TOUCH HER!”
“Well, aren’t you both nice and feisty.” Charles grabbed both of his wrists and leaned close to his face. “You struggle, I cut her pretty face open.”
Aaron glared right back. “You hurt her, I won’t say a word about where Sean is.”
“We’ll see.” With a forceful glance at a thoroughly shaken Haley, Charles pulled a coiled wire from his kit and tightly lashed Aaron’s hands together. Forcing Aaron to his knees, he then bound the boy’s hands to a table leg.
Haley hovered nervously nearby, clearly wanting to interfere, but at the same time not wanting to anger the crazed man. But then Charles turned to her and grabbed her hands. Aaron felt his heart kick up against the bottom of his throat. Charles leaned close to Haley’s face and smelled her hair.
“She can’t help you,” said Aaron. “I’m the only one who knows where Sean is.”
Charles exhaled slowly, making Haley blink and wince beneath his breath. “She is a sight to see, Aaron. I’ll give you that. What’d you promise her to make her your doll? What have you got to offer?”
Aaron shook his head with a sigh, trying to resist the twisted game that his stepfather began. He couldn’t shake the sight of Charles holding Haley so close to his face—reality refused to change. Aaron pulled a little on his restraints but found that they were secure.
“Does she know anything about you?” Charles asked. “About how weak you are, how you can’t do anything without my say-so? Does she even know who I am?”
“She knows everything about you,” said Aaron. “You don’t scare her anymore than you scare me.”
“Do you think she wants to get hurt?” Charles’ tone dropped to a whisper, as if the answer actually concerned him.
Aaron glared at the man. He didn’t trust himself to answer anything now.
Now Charles grinned slyly and faced Haley again. “Believe me, little girl. He’s not worth getting hurt for. Tell him to cooperate.”
Aaron wanted to beg Charles to let Haley go. He would have even offered to go with Charles in Sean’s place to forgo this entire ordeal. But he knew Charles would only settle on getting his own way, so he tried to think of any other way out of this.
“I don’t remember her name,” said Charles, now gripping Haley’s chin in one gloved hand. He turned her head slightly from one side to the other, examining her. “I remember her face...” An eerie smile wrinkled his own features. He even hissed a low, unnerving chuckle through his teeth. “I remember. I saw the two of you holding hands downtown like a couple of sick lovebirds. Made me sick. And you...” He ran his tongue over his lips. “You’re Haley, aren’t you?”
Haley trembled so hard Aaron feared Charles would break her jaw in an attempt to hold her still. Aaron felt drops of sweat reach his collar and condense on his brow. He was shaking too and adjusted his weight on his knees, wishing he could stand up. Wishing he could grab Charles and throw him out. Wishing he hadn’t made Haley come here again.
Charles gazed down at him and wrinkled his nose. “You honestly think you two will be any better off than me and any of my lovers? You don’t know the first thing about love. I’ll have to teach you, won’t I, son?”
Aaron’s heart tried to bruise every rib in his chest. He clenched his jaw, bit his tongue, tasted blood. Furious. He felt his face heat up but didn’t dare say a word.
“I’ll tell you how love works,” Charles went on, now taking another wire from his kit to bind Haley’s hands together. “After today, you two will never want to see each other again.”
Aaron closed his eyes and inhaled. For once, he couldn’t predict the outcome of the encounter with his stepfather. This wouldn’t be as simple as getting away with a coat of bruises. For all he knew, he might die, and Haley with him. Or maybe Charles had something more sinister in mind. On top of all the uncertainty, Sean’s safety was in the balance.
He looked up again to see Charles pulling out a chair for Haley. “See, I can be a gentleman too. Have a seat, Haley. Comfortable?”
Haley looked to Aaron as if for help, but he could offer none. Her right foot curled nervously around the leg of her chair and her bound hands clasped together in her lap. He had never seen her so pale.
Keeping an eye on both her and Aaron, Charles took a few steps up the stairs and hollered, “Anyone home?” Getting no answer, he crossed to the living room, opened and shut the basement door, and called out for Mrs. Hotchner. He finally came back to the kitchen. “Where are they?”
Aaron looked away. In his peripheral, he saw Haley’s eyes pleading with him but intently shook his head. Now he had nothing to do but pray.
“Tell me where my son is, and we can make this quick,” Charles demanded.
Conflicted between his need to protect both Haley and Sean, Aaron said nothing. He figured he could take whatever torture Charles had in store and not betray the baby, but if his stepfather went after Haley, he wouldn’t know what to do.
“I never lose in cards, and I never lose in life,” Charles went on. “I always get what I play for, you understand? Now I’m not leaving this crumby family without him!”
“Sean is not a poker chip,” said Aaron.
“Well, you’re a bad hand.” Charles crouched in front of Aaron and put a rough hand on his throat, threatening to squeeze. “How dare you deny me what’s rightfully mine?”
Haley spoke up, voice shaking so hard she could barely enunciate. “Stop, please. Don’t hurt him.”
“You shut up!”
Aaron avoided meeting her eye. “Haley,” he said softly. “It’s okay.”
“That’s right, Haley, it’s okay,” Charles shot back. “It’s okay the minute I walk out of here with my baby.”
Failing to get a response from anyone, Charles struck Aaron in the face with a closed fist. Aaron almost fell over, but his hands tied to the table leg jerked him to a stop. He straightened up and stared straight ahead, ignoring the coppery taste filling his mouth in sync with the steady drumbeat in his jaw.
Charles turned to face Haley. “He can take that, see? What do you suggest I try next?”
In answer, Haley shook her head, eyes streaming.
“You’d better come up with something,” Charles said. “Because you should want him to answer me as much as I do. Because if he doesn’t, I’ll have to kill you, Haley, and you’re too pretty for that.”
“Then kill me if you’re going to,” said Haley, choking.
“Don’t be so eager. Aaron still has a chance to save you.”
Aaron breathed heavily, trying to steady himself. If he let go completely, he might pass out, but then nothing would stop Charles from killing Haley. He had to stay awake, alert. His head might stop spinning if he could only breathe.
“Where did your mother take Sean?” asked Charles. “Will they come back, or have they left you alone here with this daft girl?”
“I don’t know if they’ll be back,” said Aaron, and it was true. He didn’t.
“Then where are they?”
“I don’t know that either.”
Charles cuffed him as hard as he could. “That’s a lie. Are they at the employment office? The hospital? The park? The daycare? I know you know.”
“They could be anywhere by now.”
Another blow. And another. Aaron glimpsed Haley sitting behind his stepfather with the sorrow of death on her face. Her shoulders shook and she lowered her head with a sob.
Charles grabbed Aaron’s collar. “You know, you’re hurting dear Haley by making her watch this. How do you think she feels about you now? Think she could still love a boy who doesn’t care about her feelings for him?”
Aaron wouldn’t look at him.
Charles punched him in the gut. “Where’s my son?”
Getting no answer, he sprang up and grabbed Haley’s tearful face. “Whatever happens to her is your fault,” he told Aaron, before slapping her. Haley gave a startled gasp of pain.
Aaron caught his breath and called out, “Look, I’ll tell... I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
Charles turned back to him. Aaron choked and tried to speak, but his words came out in a whisper. Charles crouched and leaned close.
Aaron needed to gain some semblance of control. He met the man’s eye at last. “Before I tell you, I need to know something. Why do you want Sean?”
“He’s my son!”
“So am I.” It was the most difficult thing Aaron ever had to say. He would never consider Charles his father, but now he took into account the man’s guardian rights. “Why don’t you want to take me?”
“You?” In disgust, Charles spat on the floor at Aaron’s knees. “Look at you. You’ve already grown into a rotten scoundrel. I can’t do anything with you but teach you the same lessons over and over until you die. Sean, he’s brand new. Women flock to the lonely man with a brand new baby. Don’t you know anything about love?”
“I know you’ve never really loved anyone.”
Charles leaned back. For a second, his eyes flashed. He looked strangely offended.
“I tried, alright?” His tone had dropped as if to share a secret with Aaron alone. “I tried to straighten out my mind and start a loving family. But after the war, my first wife left me. I never saw my daughter again. My second wife was a snitch, acted like one night of drinking and one fight was the end of the world. Do you know how hard it is to find love with a ridiculous battery record? I never wanted to hurt anyone. I loved those women.”
Aaron looked again at his stepfather’s eyes. There was something unsettlingly genuine about this man in those brief seconds. Aaron hadn’t know anything about his life before he came to the Hotchner home, but it sounded as tumultuous as he’d guessed.
“This baby is my fresh start,” insisted Charles. “Ladies will see that I really am loving. I can finally start a family. And I certainly don’t need an unloving brat like you as my son.”
“Sean will grow up, just like me,” said Aaron softly. “What will you do with him when he’s older?”
“He’ll be nothing like you. I’ll see to that.”
“Aren’t you concerned about getting angry with him? What will happen if you keep treating everyone around you like they’re meant to be trampled on? How will Sean be any different from anyone else in your eyes?”
Charles stared back at him with a gaze so intense Aaron half-expected it to hurt. “You’ve got some nerve, boy,” said the man. His face was paling with fury and his fists curled into tight, trembling rocks.
“You need to get help, Charles, and that’s why I can’t let you endanger another person. You won’t win your fight until you get help.”
He should have seen the first fist coming. It caught him blindsided in the temple, knocking his vision flat for a whole five seconds. By then a volley of blows had flattened his lungs and taken out the feeling in his arm. Now Charles was kicking him. The man had gotten up and towered over his captives with a crazed look.
“How... dare you!” Charles could’ve torn the door off a car if he wanted to. Could have maybe even thrown that car over his head. Aaron had never seen him so explosively angry.
“I don’t need help!” Charles screamed. “I can help myself! I need to win this war on my own! Kill the enemy! The Viet Cong is coming!”
The man had completely transformed into a furious, panicked creature. Any trace of control or presence of mind had been shot down the moment Aaron inadvertently pulled the trigger.
“Haley, move away if you can,” he murmured. Having been so engrossed in his conversation with Charles, he almost managed to forget Haley was sitting there watching them. Now all his thoughts returned to her again, and he wanted her out of the picture.
Charles reached for his mechanic kit. “Where’s my gun? I’m going to kill you!”
Haley slid sideways out of the chair and quietly stepped backwards. Her face screamed torrents of concern.
Move back! Aaron mouthed. “Now!”
Charles hadn’t found a gun. Instead, he pulled dangling loops of a thick, rough-textured copper wire from the bag. Aaron barely had time to lower his head to his chest and tense his muscles before the assault began. The force of the blows conveyed Charles’ hollered desire to kill someone. Aaron felt his skin tearing right along with his shirt and wanted to scream.
Haley gasped, “Stop! You’re hurting him!”
“I’ll kill you!” Charles repeated. “I’ll kill all of you!”
Aaron thought about stories that his father had told him, stories about fellow soldiers in Vietnam who became Prisoners of War. Aaron was never sure if Father himself was taken prisoner, but he knew many dreadful details about the tortures these prisoners suffered. When under terrible pain at home, Aaron tended to think about those P.O.W.s, of which his father might have been one, and how much worse their circumstances were. He knew those men were in much more pain than he was in now, and he wished he could have their courage. He imagined himself as his father's comrade and tried to live up to his father's unbreakable spirit.
Suddenly Charles stopped. With a short knife, he cut loose Aaron’s left hand from its bond and pushed him around so he hung by his right arm while facing his captor. “He’s still breathing!” Charles yelled. “I’ll finish it.”
His face burned red. He reached for his kit again and removed a curved tire iron. Focus on me, Aaron mentally pleaded. Not Haley.
Aaron got his wish. Charles brought back the tire iron in a wide arc behind his head, then hurled it around to smash into Aaron’s ribs. In an instant, Aaron couldn’t breathe. The iron slashed across his chest again, and he felt something snap inside.
Charles pushed Aaron back with a boot to his stomach. Then he planted his hand over half of Aaron’s face and struck him again with the iron. A nerve-fraying, bone-crunching blow turned his upper arm into a throbbing mess. Another blow shattered another rib. The next blow broke open the scabs on his face while nicking some bone underneath.
In all his years, he had never experienced such overwhelming, crushing pain. He couldn’t move or breathe.
Haley knew she needed a weapon. As soon as the tire iron broke her friend’s rib, she stopped being scared. Now she was purely furious. Despite Aaron’s silent demands for her to get away, she hurried back to the table and reached for the mechanic kit with both hands still bound together. A speedy inventory of the tools in Charles’ kit turned up a long-handled wrench. Haley seized one end in both hands and rushed up behind Charles. Throwing all her strength into her arms, she struck him in the back.
Charles howled in pain and surprise and turned, iron clenched midair. Haley didn’t give him a second to think as she struck him in the side.
“Who are you?” he roared. Recognition flashed through his eyes, but Haley couldn’t be sure if he had completely broken free from his episode.
He stumbled to his feet and raised the tire iron. With his arm in the air, leaving his front defenseless, Haley struck him in the chest. He paused to catch his breath, and she struck him again.
The iron suddenly dropped with a heavy thunk. Charles clutched his chest, trying hard to breathe. He collapsed against the table and began searching frantically through his kit. He found a prescription bottle of lung cancer medication, but several shakes proved it to be empty. Without another word, Charles grabbed the kit and left the house without even closing the door.
Haley dove to Aaron’s side and began feeling his face and chest for breaks. Her stomach twisted inside-out when she felt his ribs depress under her touch. Aaron moaned, but he was also wheezing. He sputtered and drooled blood, then spat out a tooth.
“Aaron... Aaron, say something! Are you okay?”
“Yeah... I’m... I’m okay. Are you?”
It sounded ludicrous when he gave his “I’m okay” mantra in this state. Using the short blade Charles had left behind, Haley quickly cut the cord that still held his right hand to the table leg. She then worked the blade around to cut her own bonds. “We are going to the hospital,” she said. Period.
“No... can’t... do that.”
“You can hardly breathe. Come on.”
Aaron shook his head, and tears spilled down his face. But he had no strength to resist as Haley put an arm around him and guided him to his feet. She had to support over half his weight as they trekked outside and across the street to Mr. Brooks’ truck. Charles’ station wagon was already gone.
It was a struggle getting Aaron into the passenger’s side. He couldn’t pull himself up and almost fell over a couple times. But Haley persisted. Quietly apologizing for whatever pressure she had to put on his back and arms, she supported him into the seat and helped him sit up. The seat belt kept him from falling over again, but it also seemed to hurt his chest.
Haley hurried around to the driver’s side and started the truck before buckling. She sped away, tearing over the sidewalk as they turned, and drove over the speed limit into the city.
“Are you okay?” Aaron asked again.
She couldn’t believe it. There he was, suffering in every bone, and he was worried about her. “I’m not hurt. Don’t worry about me.”
“He’s going... to find Sean,” Aaron muttered, half to himself.
“Don’t worry about that either. You need to get treated.”
Aaron moaned, holding his chest and struggling to catch a breath. Haley reached out her right hand as she drove and comfortingly touched his shoulder. Tears stung her eyes. She could not let this keep happening. If she had the chance, she thought she might kill Charles and Mrs. Hotchner.
They pulled into the Emergency Room parking area with squealing tires. Haley didn’t bother to park in the lines. She hurried around to Aaron’s side and tried to help him down, but he held out a hand to stop her.
“No. We can’t... go in.”
“I’ll help you. We’re going to find a doctor.”
“Don’t make me go in. I don’t... wanna to this.”
Haley sighed angrily. “You can’t hide forever. You need help.”
Aaron shook his head. “No, that’s not it. It’s... Sean. Mom can’t protect him. Charles will... find him, and kill him if I talk to anybody.”
“Your stepfather wants to take Sean as his son. He’s not going to kill him.”
“He will. C’mon, you saw how dangerous he is. All I can see... is that knife... slicing up Sean’s face. Charles would do it. He doesn’t care.”
“Maybe I can do something to stop him. The point is, Aaron, you don’t have a choice. Your ribs might have torn your lungs. You could be bleeding internally and not know it till you die. Please listen to me, Aaron. I’ll do everything I can, but in the meantime, you have to come inside.”
“Haley, you have to promise... you won’t tell anyone what happened.”
“Come up with something. I was mugged... waiting at the bus stop. Two or three goons jumped me. They took my wallet.”
“But this is your chance to tell the police and get some real help!”
“No!” Aaron sank back from the exertion. “Do that, and Sean is dead.”
Haley stared into his teary eyes and nodded. “If you’re absolutely sure.”
Aaron now tried to move, and he didn’t stop Haley from guiding him down to the street. He nearly fell over into her arms.
In minutes, the teenagers burst into the ER waiting room. “We need a doctor!” Haley yelled. “Right now!”
A nurse was talking to a patient who kept coughing. She looked up and frowned.
“Your cough can wait!” Haley told the patient. “My friend is dying!”
“Ma’am, help is on the way,” said the nurse.
Aaron sagged against Haley’s shoulder. He was heaving for air, and blood spotted the floor under his face. Another nurse and an ER technician came running and caught hold of the terribly unsteady boy. They started taking a pulse, checking breathing, holding his head in-line.
“What happened?” asked the tech.
“We were waiting at the bus stop,” said Haley, voice shaking. “Two big men came up and attacked my friend, beat him and took all his money. Do something, please!”
Two more ER medics rushed over with a stretcher and started laying Aaron down. The nurse turned to Haley with a clipboard and paper. “I need to get some more information from you, Miss...”
“Brooks. Haley Brooks. This is my friend Aaron Hotchner.”
“Miss Brooks, you will probably have to make a police report. I have a few questions first.”
Haley tried to listen to the nurse, follow the medics, and formulate an untraceable cover-up story at the same time. The medics were taking Aaron through the glass doors toward a treatment pod. A nurse strapped an oxygen mask over Aaron’s face. One tech began cutting off Aaron’s shirt, baring ghastly bruises and splotches of blood. Through it all, Aaron only stared straight at the ceiling and tried not to flinch. His lively face had become a blank line behind the mask.
“Miss Brooks, you need to stay here,” the nurse said. “Can you tell me more about the attack? What did the men hit Mr. Hotchner with?”
Aaron was out of sight. Haley knew she had to do her part to help him by talking to the nurse. Now she could only stand there wishing she had prevented the whole thing.
“A tire iron,” she said faintly. The images flashed through her mind again, and she sank into a waiting room chair. Planting a hand over both her eyes, she began weeping. This shouldn’t have happened.
And to think Aaron was going into emergency treatment because he put Sean and Haley’s safety above his own. Why, Aaron? Why do you have to be such a hero?