Mom's Way or the Highway
Aaron waited outside his mother’s closed bedroom door until he heard her steadily snoring. It was already 9:52 p.m. Tightly clinging to the rail and forcing himself to take deep breaths, he crept back downstairs with Sean’s diaper bag, which he had retrieved from his old bedroom. Since Charles’ departure, Aaron had ventured back into his room in hopes of sleeping there like a normal kid. However, in his absence, Mother had set up the portable crib beside his bed and converted the room into an impromptu nursery. This didn’t really bother him as much as it maybe should have.
Downstairs, Aaron stuffed all the packaged cheese, crackers, raisins, and canned spam he could find into Sean’s diaper bag alongside the baby care products. He also crammed the baby formula and bottled water into the remaining space. Finally, he grabbed a flashlight, a folding kitchen knife, and the tube of Neosporin he’d been given for his wounds.
A tentative knock came from the front door. Aaron looked out the window before letting Haley in. She wore a green overcoat and carried a plastic grocery bag containing peanuts and salami.
“You okay?” she whispered.
“Fine. How’s the weather?”
“Cold and rainy.”
Haley looked around the empty house, frowning. “Where’s your mom?”
“Haven’t seen him yet.”
Aaron noticed that Haley didn’t look directly at him. She looked at his tattered sneakers, at the flickering living room lamp, at the overstuffed diaper bag on the kitchen table. Then she quickly looked away from the kitchen and found something else for her gaze to wander upon. She couldn’t meet his eye, and Aaron began to realize why. With all he had been through over the last few days, she had been there too—watching helplessly as Charles tied him to the table and attempted to kill him, taking up a weapon to keep the man from smashing Aaron’s skull in, and finally letting Aaron use her hand as a tissue during the longest and most agonizing hospital stay of his life. Reviewing the painful events in his mind, Aaron found that he too had trouble looking at Haley. He hoped that so many raw emotional experiences would not end up driving them apart. Then again, how many ordinary high schoolers had to fight for their lives or were forced to witness their friends take a near-fatal beating? Could they ever really adjust to the jarring reality of their situation and the high stakes of their relationship?
He also hoped that Haley didn’t think he resented her for not stepping in for him sooner. He was simply amazed and grateful that she acted as she did. He longed to tell her what he really thought: You’re so strong, Haley. You’re stronger than I ever was.
Awkwardly shrinking away in the lack of conversation, Aaron added Haley’s groceries into the diaper bag and then began rolling up the quilt that usually lay draped over the back of the couch.
Now Haley watched him curiously. “What are you doing?”
“Sean and I have to run away. Otherwise Charles will kill us or Mom will neglect us to death.”
“Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. Arlington, maybe. Or Quantico. I don’t know which is closer.”
“Okay.” She didn’t question his decision like he feared she would. “Dad keeps a road atlas in the truck.”
“Will you come with me, at least until I figure out where I’m going?”
“What did you tell your dad?”
“I said I was visiting you and might hang out for awhile. Don’t worry. I’ll call him once you find a safe place to stay.”
“You know, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. I can walk out of here.”
Haley gave him a bemused stare. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
While Aaron finished packing the necessities, Haley went upstairs to retrieve Sean. The baby snoozed against her shoulder as she carried him down.
“You’re sure you can get away with this?” Aaron asked, worried about what her parents would say.
“No worries. I can explain to my folks. Besides, I’ve always been curious to see Quantico.”
I took Sean to protect him. -Aaron, read the note he slipped under his mom’s door. Then he carried the bag outside to the truck without looking back. Haley transferred the baby to his arms, and the three of them settled into the vehicle.
“Why didn’t you run away sooner?” Haley asked as she drove.
“I don’t know. I always thought I could handle anything until now. I know Charles will come back for Sean, and he won’t go so easy next time.”
“Have you thought of what you’ll do when you get to... wherever?”
“Let’s go with Quantico. And no, I haven’t figured out the details. Maybe I’ll get a job and wait for Charles to forget about us.”
“You’ll write me?”
Neither youngster even considered how wild and risky the scheme actually was. All they could think about was never getting hurt or ignored again. That desire alone drove them with oversized dreams and half a tank of fuel all the way to the town’s exit road.
Rain beat steadily on the windows and hood. Haley huddled against the wheel, straining to see the road and work the wipers into a brisk pace. Twilight had deepened into night, and only the increasingly rare streetlamp shined off of the streaks of water pooling on the glass and street. Thick trees on either side of the road only made the darkness denser. The truck’s headlights accomplished little other than turning the sheet of raindrops into a screen of shimmering diamonds. Haley tuned the radio to news at a low volume, and they listened for any announcements regarding change in weather.
“How far is Quantico?” asked Haley.
Cradling Sean in one arm, Aaron squinted at the road map. He gripped his mother’s small kitchen flashlight between his teeth and tried to make sense of the markers. His jaw soon ached, still throbbing from the iron assault. With one tooth already knocked loose by Charles, he quickly had to stop putting pressure on the rest.
Clicking off the flashlight, Aaron shook his head. “Can’t say for sure, but I think it’s only about ten miles.” He wished he had checked before they left.
“That’s it? Oh, good. We can find you a motel when we get there.”
Aaron silently agreed, wondering how in the world he would pay for such a thing. Maybe some planning ahead would have been a good idea.
Aaron and Haley shared a few peanuts while she drove, and Sean dozed. Aaron tried not to think too much about the challenges ahead.
“I just want to say, thank you for being with me in the hospital. It meant a lot.”
Haley blinked, clearly remembering the emotional scene. “Of course. And Aaron, I’m sorry I didn’t stop your stepfather sooner.”
“Don’t be sorry. He would have just turned on you.”
With that out of the way, they talked about other areas of interest for another five minutes. Sean stirred once or twice, but Aaron rocked him in his arms back to sleep. Every movement tore at his ribs and back, but he had decided long ago to hide the pain. Though he appreciated Haley’s concern, he was tired of being so emotionally vulnerable around her. If he didn’t start building a shield now, he might never be strong in her presence, or so he thought.
Somewhere along the seventh mile, the truck began making uneasy, sputtering sounds. Haley insisted they push on, though the vehicle jerked a bit and continued spitting worrisome noises.
By the time the truck reached the cover of a highway overpass, Haley slowed it considerably. Something clunked in the engine.
Aaron sat straight up. “What was that?”
“I can’t be sure.” Haley frowned and pulled over off the road. Rain carried by the wind still swept over the truck, but most of the downpour was blocked by the bridge above.
“I can check,” offered Aaron.
“No, stay here with Sean.” Haley left the truck stalling and climbed out to examine the exterior with the flashlight. Aaron held the baby close, wishing he didn’t feel so useless.
Haley hopped back inside a minute later.
“Well?” asked Aaron.
“I need to turn off the engine.” She removed the key and went outside to pop the hood open.
Aaron waited anxiously. Sean woke up with a whimper and began squirming in his lap, so Aaron fed him a pacifier and tried to keep the blanket wrapped around him. When Haley returned, she looked nervous and worried.
“Dad’s gonna kill me,” she muttered.
“What?” Aaron realized a second later that she was just using an expression. He was so used to realistically fearing the sentiment expressed in her flippant statement.
“The fan belt broke and tangled in some engine parts. I can’t risk starting the ignition again.”
Aaron paled at the very start of her sentence. He already had dreadful associations with fan belts. Could this get any worse?
He asked her to shine the light on the map and tried to read the tiny numbers. “Quantico’s only two miles away. Do you think we could walk?”
“This late at night? We’d be safer standing on a busy railroad track all day.”
“We can’t stay here.”
“I know. I’ve got to call my parents soon, or they’ll send the whole Army after me.”
Aaron didn’t expect the stab of jealousy that suddenly tore through his gut. It didn’t usually bother him that Haley’s parents were so much more caring than his, but now he unexpectedly envied their concern. When he half-heartedly fantasized about running away as a child, just for the adventure, he always knew his parents loved him too much to let him get away with it. He knew his father in particular would be heartbroken if he never returned. Now... His mother would probably wake up thrilled to find him gone.
They sat a minute in stunned silence.
“Well, now what?” asked Haley.
“I guess we’ll have to spend the night here,” Aaron suggested quietly. “In the morning, we can walk to Quantico and find a towing company. Then you can call your folks.”
Sean began to cry, and Aaron searched for the pacifier the baby had spat into the folds of the blanket.
“Well, on the positive side,” said Haley over the baby’s cries, “Charles will never find you here.”
Aaron nodded grimly. Sean would not calm down.
“This was a mistake,” said Aaron. “I’m sorry I got you involved.”
“No worries. I’m glad you two aren’t alone out here. Can you imagine if you had tried to walk to Quantico?”
He would have happily taken that alternative, even if he had to huddle alone with the baby under the bridge in several inches of mud. “Yes. You would still be in your warm home with your family.”
Haley looked at him crossly. “Well, I’m not sorry. Don’t try to get rid of me now, Aaron.”
He wanted to admire her steadfast support, but now it seemed foolhardy. Aaron held Sean close. Perhaps the only good thing to come of this was the baby’s life and freedom. He forced himself to focus on that and hold off the negatives until later.
Haley sighed. “Let me take Sean. It’s the least I can do.”
Aaron surrendered the wailing infant, secretly grateful to get the pressure off his screaming ribs. Now with the burden removed, everything ached afresh. He furtively grabbed his tube of Neosporin.
Haley took the diaper bag in her free hand. “I’m going to change him. Be right back.”
As she got out and laid the baby on the flat, roomy hood of the truck, Aaron reached quickly under his shirt to apply the ointment. The doctor had taped some bandages to his chest to keep his three broken ribs in place, but many uncovered areas still blazed with hemorrhaging wounds. It was more difficult reaching the raised marks and broken skin on his back. He thought of asking Haley for help, but no, he decided she didn’t need to see any more of his vulnerabilities than she’d already been exposed to. He had been humiliated plenty in her presence and still lamented his inability to pay back her kindness.
Aaron was just rubbing more ointment into his battered face when Haley returned with a quiet but shivering baby. “You alright?” she asked timidly.
“Just fine.” No pity, please.
“Well, if we’re going to stay here all night, we might as well get some sleep,” Haley stated once she had wrapped Sean in the quilt.
Aaron agreed, wondering if he would ever make it to Quantico, and what Haley’s parents would say when she finally contacted them. He realized he could never again get Haley mixed up in his problems. Though it meant distancing her, he had to keep her safe.
Rain continued drizzling at both ends of the overpass. Aaron felt thankful for the shelter, but he still worried about how they would survive stranded in the dark somewhere between cities. Lone vehicles with headlights burning through the rain passed by only occasionally, and he didn’t want any of them stopping to check on the motionless truck on the gravel beside the road.
Aaron ensured that every door and window was closed and locked, then encouraged Haley to keep out of sight under the dashboard on the driver’s side. There she huddled with the softly crying baby wrapped in her arms, while Aaron crouched under the dashboard on the passenger side. In the dead of night, they fought against tentacles of cold that turned their fingers blue and iced the air they choked in. Aaron wished he had brought along an additional blanket, but at very least Sean was bundled up.
Unable to shush Sean’s tears away, Haley began to softly sing a melody from “The Pirates of Penzance:”
“Oh, dry the glistening tear
That dews that martial cheek;
Thy loving children hear,
In them thy comfort seek.
With sympathetic care
Their arms around thee creep,
For oh, they cannot bear
To see their father weep!”
Aaron listened in silence, remembering the pure delight he experienced meeting Haley onstage for the first time. He remembered hiding backstage listening to her first rehearsal of that pretty song, and getting choked up at the simple beauty of her voice. He never thought he deserved to be with someone so full of inward and outward beauty. Now here she was, helping him yet again, gently soothing his baby brother to sleep and protecting him against the cold like a good mother. Aaron didn’t know why, or how, but he knew that he and Sean had been truly blessed.
Though he tried to stay awake to keep watch, Aaron drifted off within an hour and dreamed about the clumsy Pirate #4 sailing away with Mabel and a baby pirate, escaping the swords of a truly treacherous sea captain, and trying in vain to reach that distant island of Quantico.
Charles found the Hotchner house as silent as it was dark. He retrieved a knife from the kitchen before creeping silently up the stairs. Trying not to cough from the squeezing pain in his chest, he pushed open the door to his most recent wife’s room.
In the thick shadows, he couldn’t recognize the blocky shapes in the room. But he still knew the layout and felt his way around pieces of furniture, piles of clothes, and abandoned rubbish. He couldn’t find the crib anywhere.
Charles paused over the bed, where couldn’t quite see but could hear Mrs. Hotchner breathing steadily. He reached for her face and felt her tangled hair. What drew him to this woman in the first place? Did he really think she would provide a bright spot in his swamp of addiction, anger, and illness? Well, she failed him, just like the seven other wives and girlfriends before her. Deeply, honestly, Charles wanted to escape his lifestyle, but he didn’t know anything else. He had to remain numb and distracted or memories of the war would surely drown him. But this woman was now just as worthless as the rest became to him, and he was already planning his next attempt at a family with a girl who wasn’t already a mother.
Now where was that baby? Charles didn’t want the brat, really, but he knew the next woman would be more sympathetic to his plight if he had a sad baby to care for. Then he could leave the kid in her care and sit back as the welfare checks rolled in. Then he wouldn’t have to work so hard to support his Marlboro commitment, his wild nights out, and his increasingly frequent cancer treatments.
Charles moved back out of the room and crossed the hall to the horrible boy’s room. He hadn’t seen that skinny, ugly rebel enter this room in months, but if he found him tonight, he would surely silence him forever. Holding the knife down beside his leg, Charles flipped on the light. He saw an empty, dusty bed and a portable crib. He dove for the crib but only found a frog-shaped teether on the thin mattress.
The brat had taken his baby! Charles turned and hurried downstairs. He should have killed the boy when he had the chance. He thought about Aaron’s audacity over the phone, and he only got angrier. All he could think about was how much he wished he had never stopped beating him, and that he had killed his stupid girlfriend as well.
Unable to find the boys on the ground floor, Charles ventured into the basement and flicked on the bare lightbulb above the clutter. “Aaron! You’re dead!”
They were nowhere to be found. Charles knocked boxes around and looked around shelves, but found no children.
He needed several minutes to calm down. His lungs blazed again. Finally catching his breath, Charles trudged upstairs and sat on the couch, where he sat stroking his knee with his knife. He had to reevaluate his strategy now.
Quietly cursing the Hotchner boy, Charles relaxed and waited the rest of the night for the woman to wake up.----------------
[All songs from "Pirates of Penzance" are by Gilbert and Sullivan. Public domain.]