The Freedom of the Future
Aaron woke up feeling stiffer and colder than ever, and yet somehow refreshed. He hadn’t slept so peacefully in ages. No crashes or shouts or hurting hands yanked him from his dreams all night.
He pulled himself up onto the seat and grabbed a couple Altoids from the tin in the glove compartment. Chewing them slowly, he looked at the sleeping girl and the slumbering baby under the steering wheel. Safe.
It occurred to him how truly beautiful life was, a thought he had never harbored before. Despite everyone who hated and abused him, he was blessed with having someone to really love. Even with the pain and discomfort he always wore like an extra shirt, he was living and breathing and had something to fight for. Surprisingly, he felt happy. It was the first time he really thought about how wonderful life could be.
He also realized how very, very pretty Haley looked when she slept, even with her hair a mess. So pretty, in fact, that he forced himself to stop looking. He had chosen to respect her purity, and that didn’t mean staring lustfully at her while she slept. He hadn’t realized how much he wanted to touch her until that moment. Consciously, he had to redirect his gaze before the urge took over. Out of love and respect for her, he closed his eyes.
I respect you for who you are, Haley. Not for how you look or how you make me feel. I hope you know that.
Purposely distracting himself, Aaron looked around at the damp, empty street beyond the windshield. Now in the early morning hours, he could make out the endless expanse of road disappearing into the sunrise. The clouds, in addition to the grassy slopes on either side of the bridge and the concrete pillars supporting the street above, blocked half the light, but the rays that filtered through sparkled on the asphalt for many miles. Leftover rain dripped in waxy rivulets from the sides of the street above. Aaron could see collected raindrops as well as dead leaves falling from the bushy lining of trees behind the guardrails. The world around him was really very wet and gray and cold, but in this moment of freedom, it looked beautiful. Stunning even.
Cheered despite the gloom, Aaron began whistling his favorite Beatles tunes as he prepared a bottle of Sean’s baby formula. Starving, he snacked a little as he worked, and this morning, even the spam tasted good.
Normally at this time of day, Aaron would be sneaking around the house getting ready for school. He hunched over so often as he hurried for cover, his shoulders had become stiffly bent forward. Today, nobody was belting him for turning on the kitchen light before 6 a.m, so today he focused on sitting up straight and keeping his spine in-line. It hurt a lot to straighten his back out, but once he accomplished the feat, he felt a bit better and a lot prouder.
Sean woke up before Haley did, and Aaron silently changed and fed him. When Haley finally emerged from her deep sleep, Aaron was bouncing Sean on his knee and quietly singing the chorus to “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine.” Sean laughed in bubbly shrieks. A happy laugh was about as rare coming from Sean as it was coming from Aaron, and he smiled along with the baby.
“Good morning,” said Aaron when he noticed Haley blinking up at him.
Haley’s hands went to her head and her eyes went wide. “Oh my gosh!” she gasped in a scratchy voice. “Don’t look at me! I haven’t washed or brushed my hair yet.”
Aaron stifled a laugh. “Don’t worry. You look wonderful.”
Haley crawled up into the driver’s seat, a little unsteady with sleepiness, and glanced in the rearview mirror. Immediately she gave Aaron a light shove on the arm. “You lied, Aaron! I look like my hair’s been through a tornado!”
Aaron laughed so hard his ribs jabbed him in protest. Haley feistily fixed her hair with her hands while both Hotchner boys tried to hide their giggles. Aaron could tell she wasn’t a morning person.
“I wonder how I would look as a brunette,” Haley muttered, examining her reflection. When she was finally satisfied with her appearance, she leaned back and sighed. “Good morning, Aaron. Looks like we’re still stuck on the highway.”
“Yeah, but Quantico is only a two-mile walk away. I’m ready to go once you’ve had some breakfast.”
“Breakfast,” Haley groaned.
“Spam or salami?”
Haley groaned again and closed her eyes. “I think I’ll just sleep for another half hour, if you don’t mind.”
“Take your time.”
Her eyes snapped open. “Really?”
“Yeah, I’ve got the rest of my life to make it to Quantico.”
Haley sighed deeply. “That may be true for you, but I owe my parents a call.”
Reluctantly, Haley shared in the breakfast of raisins, crackers, and processed meat. When she had finished eating and grumbling, the trio collected their gear, climbed out of the truck, and locked it up completely. They started with Haley carrying the diaper bag and Aaron carrying the baby, but they would exchange loads several times during the long, chilly walk.
The occasional vehicles that sailed down the road mostly ignored the young travelers. At one point, a bright green minivan honked at them, but its stoned passengers only smiled and waved uselessly as it passed. A motorcyclist cast them a glare but didn’t even slow down. One produce truck did slow almost to a stop, and the driver hollered, “You young honeymooners need a ride?”
“No, thanks,” replied Aaron, and the truck’s wheels spattered them with mud as it sped away.
“Why couldn’t we take a ride?” Haley panted, barely able to support the bag hanging from her shoulder.
“Because he’s more to likely strangle us and leave us in a ditch.”
“Well, that’s morbid! Don’t you trust anybody?”
“With your life, and Sean’s? No.”
Over an hour later, the tree line on the horizon thickened. Haley pointed out the peaks of rooftops. Soon a big, stately sign greeted them: “Welcome to the Town of Quantico.”
I never thought I’d make it this far.
Aaron’s first step into the town of Quantico sent a trembling thrill up his spine. All the coldness and exhaustion became ignorable. To him, this journey had come to mean more than just a way of keeping Sean safe. This journey marked the pinnacle of his struggle to escape his mother’s control. Making it this far, he found renewed hope that he might actually beat the odds and make something out of his life.
As they walked slowly down the main street, Aaron gazed in awe at the old buildings and contemplated options he had never dreamed of before. He thought about attending a university and studying in a fine old town like this one. He thought about working his way up to a worthwhile career that wouldn’t restrict him to one city forever. The ideas were daring and exhilarating.
He remembered the last time he’d dared to consider his future. All it took was one small mention of law school, a silly dream to follow in his father’s footsteps, and Mother finished the discussion with a flying belt buckle.
“You couldn’t work on a pig farm, much less at such an important job!” she snapped. “You’ll never be your father, and I’m not paying for you to try!”
Several biting blows convinced him to defy his mother’s expectations, but she wasn’t finished yet.
“You have no money. You’ll never leave this house! Someday I’ll be dying, but you’ll stay here to look after me. Won’t you, Aaron?”
How could he argue with a swift, leather-mounted square of metal? Aaron had quickly agreed.
She had then grabbed him by the hair and forced him to stand up, shaking and bleeding and completely under her control. Aaron had stared straight ahead as she whispered in his ear: “You’ll die before you leave me.”
Aaron could hardly see through the blood trickling in his eye, but he made no move to clear it. He had simply stared, thinking up how he would get as far from Mother as possible the minute he graduated. If he ever graduated. But in the back of his mind, a nagging weight tethered him down. Was his mother right, that he would never amount to anything and never be able to leave home? Would he be doomed to act as her slave forever?
To make sure he got the message, Mother had then tossed him to Charles, who kicked him until he got bored. Aaron had not thought or spoken of his future ever since. Clearly, he had no future.
Now, running away to Quantico made him reconsider the demands that had been pounded into him. Mother hadn’t stopped him from leaving the house and finding a solution to a problem on his own. Maybe she couldn’t stop him if he someday chose to go further.
The youths finally stopped at a gas station where they asked for the nearest towing company. Haley also asked to use the phone, and the clerk showed her to the outdoor payphone beside the restrooms at the back of the store. Aaron sat inside on a hard bench with the bag and the baby, scanning the magazine racks, listening to the corny 70’s music, and waiting for his friend to return. Haley was on the phone for nearly thirty minutes and must have used up much of her change. If he’d known she would be so long, he would have gone out with her and listened in.
Haley returned, looking somewhere between guilty and vexed.
“Everything okay?” asked Aaron.
“Oh, sure. I might get grounded till graduation, but that’s no big deal, right?”
No big deal at all, thought Aaron, compared to what I might face.
“What did you say to your parents?” he asked.
“Just that you needed to be driven to another town and the truck broke down halfway.”
“So you didn’t tell ’em why?”
“No, I didn’t. I’m sure I’ll have to explain more when I get home.”
“I can help explain if you like.”
“Never mind that. Let’s get to the towing company.”
“I’d better call my mom first.”
“I’ve got to let her know Sean is okay before she sends the police looking for us.”
Leaving Sean with Haley, Aaron took a borrowed quarter to the phone outside. Taking a deep breath, he picked up the receiver.
“Who is this?” Mother’s rough voice came through loud and clear.
“Mom, it’s... it’s Aaron.”
“Where the #&!% are you, Aaron? And where is my baby? If anything happens to him, I will kill you with my bare hands!”
“We’re okay. We... Sean is safe and well.”
“How dare you run away, and take my baby too! Come back home right now, you little—” She proceeded to call him every nasty and obscene word that he knew existed, and many more besides. When she finished her bluestreak, Aaron felt surprisingly shaken. He felt like he had taken a beating over the phone, and it debilitated him just as blows would have.
You’re not with her. She can’t touch you, he reminded himself.
“You have to understand,” he said quietly. “I took Sean to protect him. I knew that Charles would come again and snatch him away.”
“You idiot! Charles is here right now! He came asking after you boys, concerned with what he could do to help you.”
Aaron stared. “Did he tell you what he wants the baby for?”
“Would you believe he offered to help raise Sean! The poor man only wants to help, and you’ve denied him that privilege.”
“I... I can’t believe you think he’s sincere.”
Mother swore at him again, making him cringe.
“He’s a changed man, Aaron. He broke up with his lover and is even going to quit smoking today. The least we can do for him is let him see his son!”
Now Aaron felt angry that Mother was so gullible and that Charles had deceived her so thoroughly. “Mom, he doesn’t care about Sean, or any of us. You saw him threaten Sean with a knife. Just a few days ago, he came to kidnap Sean for financial purposes, and he beat me severely when he couldn’t find my brother.”
“I would have done the same thing. If I don’t see you and that baby on my doorstep in the next hour, I am going to have the police hunt you down with all their guns and dogs. And this time they’ll never let you out of jail.”
Aaron couldn’t be sure whether or not she would act on that threat. “Sean is safe,” he repeated. “I won’t let anything happen to him.”
His mother started yelling again, but then suddenly the line cut off. Aaron heard the pre-recorded voice asking for more money to continue the call, but he chose to hang up instead. He stood there for another moment, collecting his senses and shaking the ill feeling Mother had left with him. With a deep sigh, he headed back inside to rejoin his friend and his brother.
Haley looked up as he approached. “All okay?”
“Hardly. Let’s get going.”
They walked two blocks to the towing service. Aaron allowed the small town’s charm to distract him from thinking about the phone call. He kept looking up and down the street as they walked, wary of everyone but also fascinated by everything. Suddenly he glimpsed a familiar face across the road. Was that Agent Gideon of the FBI getting into a black car? It couldn’t be...
Containing his excitement about the brand new sights, Aaron followed Haley and Sean into the towing company building. The manager at the desk took pity on them, probably because of the baby, and began asking details about their truck’s location.
“You must be pretty far from home,” commented the man when Haley told him what city they needed the truck towed to.
“Yes, a little bit.”
“Well, how about I give you kids a ride back home? Might as well if I’m headed that way with your vehicle.”
Haley thanked him, then looked back at Aaron. Aaron bit his lip, afraid his escapade was coming to a close. While the man worked out some details back in the garage, Haley stepped closer to Aaron.
“Are you coming home, too?” she asked.
Aaron sighed. “Do I have a choice?”
“We can find you a place to stay. You can still hide out with Sean.”
Aaron shook his head. “I need to help explain to your parents. Sean and I can then stay at a homeless shelter until we figure something else out.”
“But my family would be happy to—”
“No. I appreciate it, Haley, but you’ve done enough for me. I need to figure this out on my own so you’re not placed in any danger. Besides, I wouldn’t have much luck starting out in a different town. Nobody’s going to give me a job here.”
“Didn’t you think about that earlier?”
“Afraid not. I wasn’t thinking very clearly. Too many blows to the head, I suppose.”
“I’m glad I could get away for a little while, but I can’t stay. I’ll just keep clear of my mother and Charles, and it will be fine. Someday I’d like to return to Quantico, for sure, but it won’t be today. Besides, I can’t just let you ride home alone with a strange man.”
“Alright, Aaron, you crazy protector.”
“Hey, I don’t need any goofy title.”
“Cut it out.”
He shrugged. That one didn’t sound so bad.