Little relief came when Aaron Hotchner finally escaped to school in the fall. After an excruciating summer break, he tried to relax and be a normal kid at school, though he came across as quite the nerd and struggled to cover up more and more bruises each day. He got along well with his teachers, but very few classmates were willing to give him a break.
Aaron had gotten good at ignoring the taunts. Too much of his home life was public among a small group of peers, but no one bothered to report anything. These boys jeered at Aaron’s long sleeves and constantly tried to guess what he’d done to incur his stepfather’s wrath. Aaron never mentioned that his mother caused just as much, if not more, of his injuries.
His life was upside-down. Nothing made sense, and he had once again spent the previous night at the mercy of his parents’ twisted guilt game. Apparently he had done something wrong—apart from wanting his stepfather Charles to leave, he had no idea what—and they were there to steer him on the right path. Yesterday, like so many other days, the “right path” consisted of following every barked command, kneeling in reverence to their authority, and admitting his utter defeat. When that failed to satisfy, Aaron faced belittling taunts and a senseless beating with whatever was available—in this case, a heavy, knotted fan belt from the bin of broken car parts in the garage.
Aaron still did not understand why the violence began a couple years ago. He kept wondering if he really did deserve this sort of treatment after all, maybe for some terrible flaw in his character. Each night he spent shivering in a freshly torn shirt, curled up in agony, wondering how he could possibly earn his parents' approval. Perhaps this really was the new normal. Why was it taking him so long to accept it?
Aaron believed he had the best dad in the world—a caring companion, upstanding prosecutor, and thoughtful mentor all rolled into one. Hotchner Sr. spent all of his spare time at home with his wife and young boy, being a great friend and role model. Aaron loved everything about his dad, and he always looked forward to hearing about his job with the law firm. In Aaron’s eyes, his dad was a superhero.
Almost two years ago, the impossible happened. Aaron’s dad suffered a heart attack. He died at work over piles of case files and a set of photographs featuring his close-knit family. Mrs. Hotchner didn’t take his death well and nearly shut herself out of her son’s life. For a long time, she lived off of bourbon and the decent savings her husband had made through his distinguished career. Her prestigious college education vanished down the drain of depression. Aaron was left to mourn alone.
It wasn’t long before Mrs. Hotchner brought home a smiling, glaze-eyed computer programmer whom she met at a bar. Aaron disliked Charles from the start, but the man never left. Often Aaron would spot Charles and his mother sitting together on the sofa, snickering deliriously, a cigarette in his hand, a glass in hers. With this man around, she seemed to drink more than ever before. When Aaron later asked his mother to make the man leave, she slapped him so hard he couldn’t see straight for hours, something she had never done before. It seemed Charles was there to stay.
Charles hardly ever went to work. He slouched around the house, eating their food, sometimes fiddling with computer parts. Often he would sprawl on the couch and flip aimlessly through TV channels while Aaron tried to concentrate on homework. A cigarette always dangled between the man’s lips.
He had a bad habit of ordering Aaron around, making him come and go and do things on a whim. “Hey, you skinny kid!” he liked to snap. “Get over here.” When Aaron did, Charles made a grand game of slapping him around and mocking him. Aaron threatened to tell his mother, but when he did, she hit him too. The couple that had replaced his parents had built an impenetrable wall of delusion around themselves.All the while, Aaron held on tight to the memory of his real dad. Now he had a baby half-brother, a tiny, fussy squirt named Sean, and he couldn’t help pitying the helpless child for having Charles as a father. Whenever he was left to look after the baby, Aaron would stare down into the portable crib, try to imagine away the life he was trapped in, and then tell Sean all about Mr. Hotchner. The poor kid would never know the most important man in Aaron’s life, so Aaron introduced him through loving stories. He showed Sean the faded photograph he kept in his pocket, and he started to wonder if Sean saw the picture of Mr. Hotchner more often than he saw his own father.
Each day was a struggle, and Aaron never knew if he was somehow going to win, or if he would be better off quitting the fight while he still could.
In the hall between classes one day, a square-jawed older boy Aaron had never seen before caught him by the collar and slammed him against a locker. Aaron cringed, his shoulder already in pain from where his mother hit him with a bottle the night before. He couldn’t hold back the tears that rushed to his eyes.
He expected the taunts to begin any minute. Instead, the boy just glared hard at him.
Finally, a couple minutes later, Aaron asked an exasperated “What?”
“You looked at me wrong.” The big hand tightened on Aaron’s collar.
“Well, I’m sorry...”
The boy applied more pressure. “I don’t want to hear that. Look, I know all about you. Your old man was a lawyer, wasn’t he? Did he teach you to pick your fights so poorly? Lawyers are evil. Everybody knows it. I want to know, did you kill him? Was he so evil that you finally fought back and—”
Aaron had heard enough. Maybe today he was extra sensitive, or maybe he just missed his father now more than ever. Most of all, he couldn’t stand being accused of ending the wonderful man’s life. Furious, he shoved back hard against the boy, and they both toppled onto the tile floor. Notebook paper exploded in all directions. The bystanding youth stopped to watch as Aaron and his tormentor pushed hard against each other’s arms and faces.
Aaron planted a hand on the boy’s chest, while the boy pressed his palm into Aaron’s eye. Aaron’s hand slipped, but he quickly punched the boy in the nose. The boy hollered and took Aaron’s collar in both fists. With a mighty heave, he rolled Aaron onto his back and buried a knee in his stomach.
Aaron cried out, not from the knee, but from the pressure on his wounded back. His brief lack of focus gave the boy all the time he needed. The boy delivered a series of swift cuffs, light blows compared to what Aaron was used to, but Aaron found an opening to catch his arm and twist it forcefully aside. He then took the advantage by diving into the boy’s middle, pinning him against the lockers, and landing a powerful fist into the already bloody nose.
Kids were chanting and hollering from every side. Aaron didn’t care who they were rooting for. He could feel his face reddening with anger as he seized the boy’s collar in one fist and sent the other into his jaw. By this point, he hardly knew why he was fighting. All the anger and violence in his life was exploding at last, and he didn’t see how he could stop.
The boy screamed just in time for a teacher’s assistant to come to his aid. The TA seized Aaron’s arm and threw him into the opposite wall. Aaron cringed against the bricks. Across from him, the bully held his nose and gave huge, fake moans. Murmurs and snickers trickled through the crowd.
“It was Hotchner’s fault. Hotchner started it.”
And the pitiful voice of the boy: “He tried to kill me!”
Aaron lay in a heap on the floor, his body throbbing. The only thing he could think about now was what his mother and stepfather would do when they found out about the fight, and now he deeply regretted his actions. Whatever happiness he thought existed somewhere in his life quickly died away.
“Get up, Hotchner.” The TA gripped his bruised shoulder again. Aaron winced as he stood.
The TA scribbled up a note that he folded and shoved into Aaron’s shirt pocket. He then ordered Aaron to visit the principal’s office while the other boy saw the school nurse. For that, Aaron could be mildly grateful. He knew that a school nurse would discover the marks that patterned his body, and she would call his mother, and the police would come, and that would make his mother mad, and she may never stop hitting him again. No school nurse, no policemen, was his mother’s rule.
Aaron had never been to the office before, but he knew the general direction. He started slowly down the hall, trying desperately not to cry from renewed pain in his back and face. Maybe he could smooth things out with the principal and keep anybody from calling his home.
The bell rang, and students began disappearing from the halls. Aaron walked alone down a long stretch of corridor, running over and over in his head what he would say to gain the principal’s favor. The bruises he knew the boy had given him probably hadn’t darkened on his skin yet. How could he claim self defense?
After the fourth corner, Aaron realized he was lost. He looked up at a row of plaques on one brick wall, but saw no sign for directions. He passed a pair of restroom doors and turned down another hallway. Perhaps if he wandered for a few hours, everybody would just forget the whole incident.
Aaron stopped in front of a large double door. The official appearance of the doors drew him, and he feared he had reached his destination. Cautiously, he pushed open the door on the right and stepped inside.
This certainly was not the principal’s office, unless the principal conducted his business in a nearly empty auditorium. Aaron stood for a moment behind the countless rows of red folding chairs. The stage at the far end of the room glowed under a single spotlight. Five or six teenagers stood at various locations onstage, and one adult looked up from ground level. He was waving a sheet of papers and giving directions.
Aaron knew he should turn around and continue his search in the hallways, but he lingered a minute. He wanted to watch the pretty girl with straight, golden blond hair climb behind a two-dimensional wooden boat.
Suddenly she looked up at the half-open door across the room. Her eyes met Aaron’s. He felt his jaw hanging a little loosely. The trace of a silly “what do you want?” smile bounced from her eyes.
“Can I help you?” asked the adult, turning to see the intruder. Aaron saw that he held a skull-and-crossbones flag.
“No, sir. Sorry, sir.” Aaron slowly backed out. He looked one last time at the girl, but she was already absorbed in her rehearsal. She was easily the first student at this school who hadn’t looked at him with utter disdain. I should have asked her name.
Aaron found the principal’s office in another five minutes. The girl had not left his mind. How could I have missed her for a whole year of high school? He thought of her when the principal grilled him, and he was even completely distracted when the principal took up the phone to call his mom.And even while his mother and stepfather spent the evening knocking him across the living room, Aaron maintained a clear remembrance of the girl who met his eye. He needed a plan. Unlike most of the school, she knew nothing about him. Perhaps she would give him a chance. Yes, thought Aaron, as he lay bleeding and aching on the ratty squares of carpet in the dark basement. He needed a plan. Something positive to focus on.