Life or Death
The next morning couldn’t come soon enough. Mr. and Mrs. Brooks started to wonder where their older daughter kept running off to, but Haley assured them she was just seeing her friend who had been hospitalized after an assault and robbery. She knew Aaron wanted his secret kept, even with her family. She wanted to tell her mom and dad what was really going on, but she didn’t want Aaron or Sean to get in even more trouble as a result.
Haley was in the Emergency Department before the sun had even broken above the cloudy horizon. Flora, the nurse who was looking after Aaron, finally allowed Haley to come back and visit him.
A bluish-green curtain partitioned Aaron’s small bed from the rest of the ward. Machines and monitors hummed and beeped. A slow hiss ran through the nasal cannula that stretched across Aaron’s half-bandaged face. He breathed slowly and deeply while shivering under a thin sheet.
Haley couldn’t hold back her tears. She placed a small handful of hibiscus flowers into a glass at the bedside before sitting in the single plastic chair. Aaron’s tired-looking eyes watched her sadly.
“How are you feeling?” whispered Haley.
“I don’t know.” His voice was sapped of all energy.
“What do you mean? Are you hurting?”
Aaron looked straight up at the ceiling. “Maybe. I don’t want to talk about it.”
They sat in silence for a minute. Haley wanted to hold him, to say something reassuring, but she couldn’t move.
“What did you tell the police?” asked Aaron weakly.
“I said the men wore masks and we couldn’t identify them. The police said they’d never before seen an M.O. like it for a simple on-the-street theft. Do you think they’ll investigate?”
“Not for long. There are no leads.”
“I think they suspected we’re holding something back, especially when looking at your injuries.”
“We have nothing more to tell them, and I’m not even pressing charges. They’ll drop it eventually.”
“Does your mother know what happened?”
Aaron shook his head faintly, eyes distant. “I can’t stay here. I should be with Sean. Charles is going to get him.”
“No, he’s not. I did some checking and I found that Charles is in the oncology ward. I don’t know the extent of his problem, but it seems he’ll have to stay all day for some blood work.”
At the news, Aaron relaxed a little and sank deeper into the pillow. “Thank you, God,” he breathed, eyes closed.
“How long do you think you have to stay here?” Haley asked.
“Not long, I hope. I guess they did some sort of emergency surgery to stop the bleeding in my chest, and they have to make sure my ribs are stable before I can go.”
Looking at him in the weakest condition she’d ever seen him, Haley didn’t think he would be getting out anytime soon. It only made her sadder. She hoped she would never have to see him in this condition ever again.
“We’re still in danger,” he muttered. “I wish I could put the people I love into some sort of real protection. In some safe house far away with guards.”
“But then we wouldn’t see you, would we?”
“It would only last until Charles is really gone.” His breath jolted and he groaned. “Oh, Haley. It hurts. What am I going to do?” His voice had become so quiet she had to lean close to hear.
“You’ll be okay,” she whispered, gently stroking his hair. “Don’t lose your smile.”
“With you I can’t.”
Soon Nurse Flora came back in. “Mr. Hotchner, I need to apply more antiseptic now. Do you want your friend to step out?”
Aaron closed his eyes briefly. “She can stay.”
“Alright. Can you roll to your side?”
Aaron tried. Flora held a hand over his chest to steady his uneven breathing and helped him roll over to his side. Aaron grimaced at the effort. Flora opened the back of the white hospital gown and gently removed the strips of bandages from his many short welts and cuts. Haley saw Aaron’s lip quiver and his eyes well up. She took his hand and leaned closer.
Then Flora poured something like hydrogen peroxide from a brown bottle onto a wad of gauze and started dabbing the wounds. Aaron’s face squinted up and he started shaking hard. Big tears rolled over his nose, down his temple, and to the pillow. Haley held his hand even tighter, trying to hold herself together as he gradually fell apart.
Haley couldn’t bear to see her friend so broken and vulnerable. She always thought of him as being so strong and heroic, even after all the times she had comforted him in his agony. Now, she realized, he needed her strength more than ever before. She struggled to hold back a sob.
Aaron, on the other hand, was losing the fight against a torrent of tears that washed the partially covered wounds on his face. His hand squeezed hers. As his eyes clenched shut even tighter, his self-control melted, and he began crying piteously. Haley wanted to strangle someone—Charles came to mind—at the sound.
Nurse Flora put a comforting hand on Aaron’s shoulder as she worked. “I’m so sorry, son. I’ll be finished soon.”
Haley knew Aaron was crying about more than just the pain. She knew about the frustration and fear and sadness he carried pent-up inside, and she knew he needed a chance to let some of it out. She tried to think of something, anything she could do to make it easier for him. The words of an old song she had heard years ago came to mind, and she quietly began to sing for him.
“Under His wings, what a refuge in sorrow!
How the heart yearningly turns to His rest!
Often when earth has no balm for my healing,
There I find comfort and there I am blest.”
Though his crying continued, Haley felt the slightest relaxation in his tight grip. He held her hand to his damp face and chokingly prayed, “God, if You’re here, keep us safe. Get us through this.”
He winced again at the treatment and wept harder into Haley’s hand. All she could do was be there for him, and silently pray. I don’t really know if You’re real, God, but if You are, please watch over the Hotchners.
“Under His wings, O what precious enjoyment!
There will I hide till life’s trials are o’er;
Sheltered, protected, no evil can harm me,
Resting in Jesus I’m safe evermore.”
A day later, Aaron sat on one end of the couch with a hand over his chest. His mother sat on the cushion farthest from him with Sean in her arms and her eyes glued to the soap opera on the fuzzy TV set. Aaron hadn’t been home more than an hour, and his mother’s lack of concern irritated him. She hadn’t even asked where he’d been for a day and a half. When he told her Charles beat him so badly he had to go to the hospital, she dismissed him.
“Charles is gone. Don’t bring him up again.”
“But he came back, Mom. He wants to take Sean away.”
“I told him to leave, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s left. If he wants Sean, he can take it to court, but he’ll lose.”
“He doesn’t care about that. He will come and take Sean whenever and however he feels like it.”
“Aaron, I don’t really know or care what you’ve been up to recently, but I don’t appreciate you trying to cause more conflict in my house. Drop the subject.”
“Sean is in danger.”
“You will be in a minute, if you don’t shut up.”
She then buried herself behind vodka and TV.
Now that Aaron was out of the hospital, he knew Charles was probably out too. He feared that the monster would burst in at any moment and take Sean while slaying Aaron and his mother. How could he protect them if she didn’t listen to him?
Aaron started to think up a plan. It seemed crazy at first, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized what a necessary option it might be.
“Can I have something to eat?” he quietly asked.
Mother took a gulp from her bottle but did not answer.
So Aaron struggled to his feet and staggered to the kitchen with one hand on the wall for support. Simply breathing had become a difficult and conscious task. Moving around had become a herculean challenge. This might complicate his plan a little.
He looked through the cupboards and reviewed their contents. There were few options, and he focused on those that would last a little while outside of refrigeration. Then he located a box of powdered baby formula and a bottle of water. Perfect.
Holding off on his plan for now, Aaron peeled open a can of tuna and ate the unseasoned chunk of meat straight out of the can. He had barely finished licking the can clean when the phone on the counter rang.
He glanced over into the living area. Mother hadn’t budged. “I’ll get it,” he called.
He picked up the phone and said, “Hotchner residence.”
Low, steady breathing almost tickled his ear. “Back home, are you?”
Aaron’s chest clenched. “What do you want?” Suddenly, he felt braver talking to Charles over the phone than in person.
“You know what I want. Now put your mother on, you brat.”
Aaron glanced again at the motionless mother and baby on the couch. He turned away and lowered his voice. “You can’t have what you want. Go away and leave us alone, or I will certainly call the police on you.”
“You don’t make threats to me, boy.”
“You won’t take Sean.”
“I’ll make you a deal. You and your worthless mother hand that baby over without police or courts, and I will never come to your house again.”
Aaron glared at the wall, fingers tightening around the phone. Surrendering would end badly for everyone. He didn’t expect this monster to hold to his deal, and besides, he would be a dreadfully dangerous father to Sean. He could not forget Charles’ most recent lapse of sanity.
Adapting a deeper, stoic tone quite unlike the pinched, fearful voice he normally used around Charles, Aaron stated, “I don’t make deals. I’m the guy who stops guys like you.”
He could hear Charles’ intake of breath and knew a retort was coming, but he didn’t wait for it. Aaron slammed the phone back into the cradle with a little more force than he intended. Thrilled and amazed that he got the last word, he stared down the phone and reviewed his options.
The phone rang again a minute later, startling him. He snatched it up and said in a low tone: “Charles.”
“Aaron?” Haley’s voice.
“Oh, Haley. What’s up?”
“I’m sorry, I know you said never to call your home...”
“It’s okay. What’s going on?”
“I just called to check on you. I wanted to stop by, see if you needed anything, but I knew you’d rather I called first.”
“I appreciate that. I don’t need anything right now, but...” He glanced again over his shoulder at his mother. “If you’d like to come by, I’d love to see you.”
“Is it safe?”
“Can you come at ten? Just tell your folks you’re going to hang out late.”
“That’s probably manageable. Is everything alright?”
“We’ll see. Haley, would you mind bringing a few nonperishable snacks?”
“Okay. See you tonight.”
Soon Aaron staggered back to the living area. He saw Sean squirming in Mother’s lap and wondered what he could possibly do to protect that infant.
“Can I take the baby?” he asked softly. “Just to look after him for a minute?”
Mother looked up with a hazy glare. “If your face wasn’t already so messed up, I’d smack you with this bottle.”
Aaron sighed and sat back down on the further end of the couch. He had to make a life or death decision, and his plan became solid. He would have to act tonight.-------------
[Featured hymn, “Under His Wings” by William O. Cushing, is public domain.]