No Place Like Home
“I don’t know which one of you I should be more upset with,” Mr. Brooks calmly told the teenagers on his front porch. His wife stood with crossed arms at his side, and Jessica was most likely listening inside the screen door. Haley frowned at the thought.
The tow truck driver from Quantico had dropped the kids off at the Brooks’, discussed the repairs with Haley’s dad, and then gone on to take the truck to the shop. While Aaron had been over-cautious during the trip home, Haley felt very grateful that they had found such a considerate and honest driver.
Aaron now struggled to hold the squirming baby as he quickly said, “It was my fault, sir. I encouraged Haley to come with me.” His self-blame seemed automatic.
“Why did you run away from home, Hotchner?” Beneath his low tone, Mr. Brooks seemed almost amused.
“I’ve been, uh, having a hard time with my parents. We needed some space.”
“Is that all?”
“That... that’s the main problem. We just got fed up with each other.”
Haley’s heart ached to see her friend take responsibility and yet be unable to tell the whole story. She wasn’t sure at this point if he held back the truth to protect himself and his brother, or if he was simply too ashamed to disclose all the facts.
“So why did you take your brother along?” asked Mr. Brooks.
“To give my folks a break, I guess.”
Mr. Brooks gazed very sternly at Aaron for another minute. Haley always shrunk under his stare, but Aaron maintained his calm very well.
“Is there something more I should know about?” asked Mr. Brooks.
“Only that I’m sorry I got your daughter involved and that your truck broke down. If you like, I can work extra hours and pay for all the damage.”
“That won’t be necessary. You’d best hurry home, Hotchner, before I call your parents myself. Do you need a ride?”
“I can walk. It’s not far.”
“Be careful with that baby,” said Mrs. Brooks, who had been watching the conversation intently.
“Yes, ma’am. And please, don’t be too hard on Haley. It was my fault.” With that, Aaron slowly turned and walked away down the sidewalk with Sean in his arms and the diaper bag hanging from one shoulder. Haley couldn’t imagine the amount of pain he must be hiding from all that weight on his injuries.
She watched him until he took a right at the end of the street and disappeared behind the next row of houses. She knew he wasn’t going home and hoped he wouldn’t get caught.
“Haley,” said her mother. “You really care about that boy, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do, Mom.” Haley sighed and followed her parents inside. Jessica was on the couch with a magazine, not eavesdropping as Haley feared. Of course, now she looked interested. Lucky for Haley, she and her parents went to the study, out of earshot.
Mr. Brooks shook his head and chuckled dryly. “I was once a teenager in love, and you know what? I never snuck out late at night behind my parents’ backs. In fact, I waited until marriage.”
Haley’s eyes went wide. “Dad! You think that Aaron and I— You think we’re making everything up to cover for ourselves? You actually think that we were out... making love!” She was so flustered, she could hardly speak from there.
“No! Aaron and I promised each other we’d wait. But that’s completely beside the point. All that happened last night... I was just going to drive him to another city, then come right back. If the truck hadn’t broken down, I would have been back before midnight.”
She could tell by her parents’ eyes that they believed her, and yet they probed for the hidden details.
Her mother spoke up. “What could be so urgent that your friend needed you to drive him out of town without even telling your family what was happening?”
Haley sighed, realizing she had no choice but to divulge a most carefully guarded secret. “He doesn’t want me to tell anyone, but I really think you should know. Aaron’s been having some serious troubles at home.”
“So he is a bad boy?” Mr. Brooks scowled.
“Not at all. He’s... um, he’s not treated well.”
Now her mother looked doubly attentive. “What do you mean?”
“I mean his parents hate him. They make life hard for him, and he wanted to run away to protect his baby brother.”
Neither adult spoke. Now she wasn’t sure if they believed her.
“Can you explain that a little better?” asked Mr. Brooks.
Haley felt she would explode if she didn’t explain the whole truth in tragic detail. But perhaps if she told her parents, they would tell the police, the police would bother the Hotchners, and Aaron’s mom and stepfather would retaliate horribly on the boys. Haley now realized what a necessary weight Aaron’s secrecy was.
“I don’t know all the details. I just know they make him feel worthless, and he wanted to escape for awhile.”
“Haley,” said her mom, “just what are you saying? Do they hurt him?”
Haley swallowed. “Maybe.”
“Because if they do, you would have made a police report, not harbored him away.”
Haley nodded. “Of course.”
Mr. Brooks shook his head again and looked at his wife. “What do you make of this?”
“I don’t know, Roy.” She then faced her daughter. “Haley, I know there’s more to this, and I expect you to tell us the details when you’re ready.”
“I know,” said Haley. “Just please don’t blame Aaron. He’s really having a hard time.”
Mr. Brooks sighed. “Well, I’ll call the Hotchner home later and see what they have to say. For now, let’s get back to the store.”
Haley winced a little. She hoped she hadn’t endangered her friend, and yet she wondered if she should have done more.
Aaron had turned in the direction opposite his home. He didn’t really know if he would find any homeless shelters in town, but perhaps he could stay at a church or school. He must have been a strange sight—a badly bruised teenage boy with a duffel bag and a baby, walking aimlessly past storefronts and pedestrians. When he sat down at a bus stop to rest, an older lady passing by sympathetically tossed him a dollar coin. Aaron contemplated but quickly abandoned the idea of sitting there with a cardboard sign.
He was very familiar with his hometown from exploring it with his father years ago. Still, he wished he had stayed in Quantico where Mother was less likely to find him.
He started following a thin, languishing stream that ran through a ditch beside the sidewalk. The stream turned out to be rain drainage that washed away through a hole under the street, and it led Aaron to a high school near a mobile home neighborhood. He thought about going inside and asking for a place to stay, but a closer look at the seedy location encouraged him to move on.
Beyond a wire fence around the school yard, a small cluster of kids decked out in counterculture paraphernalia and punk hairdos sat on a picnic table smoking. Aaron could smell the weed from a block away. He could also hear the low, eerie beat of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” grinding from the radio on the bench. He tried to hurry past without drawing too much attention.
One of the lanky boys wearing a blue mohawk and cheap bling shouted, “Hey, want some dope? Ditch the rug rat and hang with us.”
Aaron perfected his hard glare and walked silently on. He was scared but didn’t show it. Thankfully, no one came after him. He was clearly in a part of town that required extra vigilance, and he glanced warily in every direction as he tried to find his way back to the middle of the city.
But the further he went, the deeper he got into the high-crime area. He saw a couple gangbangers with identifying tattoos standing beside their bikes outside a coffee house. Aaron couldn’t tell if they were watching him behind those sunglasses, but he avoided their gaze all the same. He also saw homeless people huddled behind stuffed grocery bags and layers of winter clothes, and he saw a few provocatively dressed women standing on street corners and eying him with bewilderment. A police siren wailed down the next block, and Aaron stepped out of plain view into a doorway. He had to get Sean out of the open and out of this area as soon as possible. But at the same time, Aaron was fascinated by this area where the crime rate soared. He saw the people, some just getting by, some living off crime, and others caught in the middle, and his heart went out to them. He wondered if there was anything he could do to help them. Maybe someday.
Finally Aaron took the right turn and was headed in the direction of the main street. He had remembered something he’d read in his father’s law books about the “safe haven law” and focused his search on finding a church or hospital. Soon he passed a six-story bank and saw a hospital around the corner, the same one where he recuperated after his most brutal beating.
By this time, Sean had dozed against his brother’s shoulder, and Aaron shifted the baby’s weight in an attempt to ease his own breathing. He didn’t want to be recognized by hospital staff, but maybe he could find a nice nurse who would let him and Sean stay the night in the waiting room.
Suddenly he stopped. An unmistakeable station wagon was pulling out of the hospital’s main parking lot, and Aaron stepped backwards in terror. Sean woke with a start, as if he too realized something was wrong, but Aaron shushed him and turned back toward the bank.
A horn blared at him. Aaron tossed the bag aside and hugged Sean to his chest as he broke into a run. Of all the paths in the whole city, why did he have to cross the same path as that car?
“Hang on,” Aaron told the baby, though it didn’t really matter what Sean did. Aaron held him tight and dodged around other people and signs. The horn shrieked again, but he didn’t dare look back. The light at the next intersection had turned yellow. Aaron ran faster than he thought possible and flew over the crosswalk with seconds to spare.
Only once he reached the other side did he allow himself a glance over his shoulder. Much to his dismay, the station wagon plowed right through the red light and charged at him like an incensed bull. Aaron took off running again.
Sean bounced in his arms and drooled on the back of his neck. “Mommy!” he shouted, the only word he knew how to say.
“No, Sean, we’re not going with Mommy. Or Daddy.” He glanced back again, thinking Charles was at the wheel. Surprisingly, his mother drove the car and did not appear to have anyone with her. It was unusual for her to ever go out alone. Aaron wondered if she had taken Charles to the hospital for some reason.
“Whoa, kid! Slow down!” A balding window washer held out his hands to catch the boys. “What’s the matter?”
“Please let me through,” Aaron pleaded. “Someone very bad is trying to catch us.” The station wagon veered toward the curb at a deadly speed.
“Let me call the police,” said the man.
“No! No police or we die!” Aaron pushed past him, almost bumping into his bucket of soap, and bolted around a parked garbage truck. The nearest bystanders looked around in confusion.
Now Mother had rolled down her window. “Stop that boy!” she hollered. “He took my baby!”
The garbage collector reached for him, but Aaron wheeled around and ran between the parked cars at the curb. Now a six-foot bodybuilder was on his tail, and Aaron’s pulse raced faster than his pounding feet. Sean didn’t help anything by gurgling “Mommy! Mommy!” over his shoulder.
Not far ahead, a crowd was forming outside an office building during a fire drill. One very round man directed the bystanders and explained the rest of the procedure. Aaron didn’t slow down.
“Stop, you rotten kid!” the garbage collector shouted. Not far behind him, the car horn barked in a rapid sequence.
Men in suits and a few formally dressed women looked up at the commotion. Aaron put one hand over the back of Sean’s head to support it as he dove into the crowd on the sidewalk.
He hunched over and squeezed himself between the well-dressed bodies. Conflicting shouts rang out from every direction, but he didn’t stop turning, moving, hiding, running.
“Let me through,” he muttered to those closest. “Someone wants to hurt my brother and me.”
“Stop him!” other voices bellowed. “That kid is a baby-snatcher!”
A tentative hand seized his arm. Aaron pulled away with such force he fell against another member of the crowd. Sean shrieked in surprise at each sudden jerk and movement. Aaron tried to calm him, but the oppressive multitude had become constricting and loud. People had no idea whether to restrain the boy with the baby or let him get away. Many couldn’t even see him but tried to catch or call to him anyway.
Aaron’s only goal was to keep Sean from getting knocked in the chaos and to find a safe place away from other people. He could see the top of the garbage collector’s bushy head bobbing through the crowd and knew that others would soon join him in tackling the lost boys. But nobody had the whole story and nobody knew where to look. The crowd became a throbbing, groping, shouting, tangled mess of bodies and ubiquitous arms, many of which grabbed onto Aaron briefly before being brushed off by somebody else. Aaron could barely breathe.
Holding the baby over his shoulder to keep him from getting squashed between adults, Aaron searched for an opening. With everybody else lost in confusion and a misguided sense of duty, he thought he could escape unnoticed. At the first chance, Aaron squeezed between two shouting office workers and a janitor and landed against the brick wall of the building. He had reached a long, narrow alley. With a quick glance back at the discombobulated crowd, Aaron took off panting down the alley.
“Are you okay, Sean?” He touched the baby’s face and checked his temperature with the back of his hand. “Anybody bump you?”
“Shhh, not today.”
He treaded through the dirt and rubbish on the ground and passed a huge green dumpster. Pausing to catch his breath, Aaron leaned against the brick wall and readjusted his hold on Sean. His arms ached intensely now, but he knew he had to continue. He had just escaped his pursuers and felt a renewed hope that he would get out of this one unscathed.
Cradling the frightened-looking baby, Aaron pressed on. He passed a white door that appeared to be the back entrance to an industrial kitchen and then stepped out of the alley. The street ahead was much less busy and much more shadowed. The abrupt calm chilled him.
The squealing of tires turned Aaron’s head. Headlights blinded him, and he only had seconds to react. Aaron dove out of the way as the station wagon thumped up onto the sidewalk right where he was just standing and screeched to a halt inches from a lamppost. Mother seethed with anger behind the wheel.
“Mom!” Aaron yelled. “You could have killed us!”
“Get in the car.”
“No, please listen to me.”
Mother opened her door and put one foot on the ground. The intimidation in her eyes seized Aaron, and he reluctantly climbed into the backseat. His stomach was in knots and he had broken into a cold sweat. He wondered if she would wait until they were home to kill him or if his end would come sooner.
Aaron hardly had time to buckle before the car nosed around into the street. He sat in silence for several minutes, clinging to Sean as the car swerved angrily around corners and through red lights. Then he blurted, “I did it to protect Sean!”
“I said shut up!”
They completed the drive in silence, though Aaron anticipated a furious outburst at any moment. He couldn’t get his stomach to sit still and feared he would vomit what little food he’d eaten that day.
When they reached their home, Mother didn’t need to touch Aaron. Her looks alone got him out of the car, across the dying yard, and through the front door.
When the door slammed behind him, he knew his fate was sealed. He didn’t know what she would beat him with or for how long, but he knew it would only end when he stopped breathing altogether.
Mother quickly forced the baby from his arms. Right away, all her attention shifted to Sean. She checked him over obsessively, making sure he was okay before laying him gently on the couch beside a lumpy cushion. Then she turned back to Aaron.
He tried to find the right words to say. Nothing came to mind.
Mother stepped up to him menacingly, and her palm slapped Aaron hard over the lesser bruised side of his face. Then, just as suddenly, she pulled him into a constricting hug. Abruptly smothered by her alcohol-stained coat, Aaron had almost no idea what just happened. His broken ribs punched him with pain but he stifled a whimper.
Only a few seconds later, Mother tossed him aside with such force he landed sprawled on the floor. Then her fist gripped his collar and half-dragged him over to the couch.
Aaron’s cheek stung and his head swam. This was too confusing, too frightening. He wasn’t even sure if Mother was just mad or relieved to see him.
She pulled him up to his knees more gently than she had thrown him down. Her face was knitted with sorrow. “Oh, sweetie, how could you do this to me?”
Aaron stuttered. She slapped him.
“If you don’t have something to say, keep your mouth shut! I’m speaking now. And I am not happy with you, Aaron. You very nearly destroyed us.”
Aaron tightly pressed his lips together. Now might be a better time to listen than to make his case.
And just like that, the rant was over. Tears poured down Mother’s face, and she bent over to sweep Aaron’s frail torso into another bone-bending hug. He clenched his jaw to keep from crying out.
“I was so scared!” Mother wailed. “I didn’t know what had happened to you. And Sean—my baby, I didn’t know... I just...”
Her breath jerked and she pulled back. Then she scowled and struck Aaron harder than before. This time over his bruises.
“You took my baby! How dare you!”
Aaron clasped a hand over his blazing cheek. He glanced at Mother’s eyes and saw a look of utter insanity. Now he was really worried.
“Charles loves us, don’t you know that? He was over earlier, asking after you boys. He was concerned. But now he has to stay over at the hospital for a few days. He’ll be having surgery, and the extra stress certainly won’t help. This is all your fault, Aaron. Just like your father’s heart attack.”
She grabbed him by the shirt and shook him, looking angry enough to kill him right then, but at the same time so angry she couldn’t think how to do it.
Then Mother was back to tears. “I can’t keep living like this,” she mumbled. She hung her head and stared at her hands for a long moment. “I know you’re right,” she quietly admitted. “He will never change, and I can’t keep him from returning after the surgery. I don’t think I can keep you boys safe anymore.”
Aaron’s eyebrows went up. “You believe me?” he whispered as blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.
Mother sniffed and nodded. “But I don’t know what to do. I can’t stop myself.”
Aaron didn’t know what to do either. He just hoped she would really come around and start seeing his perspective on things.
Her chest heaved like she would start crying again. Aaron ventured a hand on her shoulder.
When Mother looked up again, her gaze had shifted. Her eyes became diabolical. “You took my baby,” she hissed again. “How could you?”
She rose to her feet and yanked open the drawer to the lamp table beside the couch. From there she removed a pair of handcuffs that shone dully in the murky light. “Charles came home one day with these. He knew they were meant for you, not him. You’re the criminal!”
Aaron’s heart sank. This emotional roller coaster of his mother’s was more torturous than a straight-up beating would have been. He waited for her mood to swing again.
But Mother grabbed his wrists and cuffed them tight enough to let the metal bite his skin. “Charles was always right! You’re a danger to us all.”
She pulled him by the cuffs to his feet and yanked him to the basement door. Glaring into his face, she whispered, “I wish you had gone instead of your father.”
“So do I,” said Aaron quietly.
Then she shoved him down the short, ladder-like steps to the basement. “You are never leaving this house again. Never!”
Aaron’s cuffed hands barely caught his fall. He lifted himself up on his elbows and twisted his head around. Mother stood framed in the doorway, glaring, seething. He could hear the neglected baby crying out of sight, probably very hungry by now. Then Mother slammed the door. The rectangle of light on the floor clapped away, and Aaron was buried in cold darkness. He heard the door lock and the footsteps move away.
Aaron struggled to his feet and felt for the light switch in the wall. He sighed heavily, realizing he might be trapped down here for awhile. Might as well come to terms with that. He should be glad he wasn’t getting beaten to death, but he hated being trapped.
He knew the basement well enough—every shape and shadow and box and shelf. There were laundry machines in one wall and a closet-sized bathroom in the far corner. But there was no food, very little light, and only two ways out. The door at the top of the stairs was unbreachable. He tried several times. He stacked boxes to reach the lone window just under the ceiling line, his usual means of escape, but this time it didn’t budge. He could see a board wedged into the window well and knew his mother had blocked the way. Fear threatened to drown him, but he had to stay strong. He couldn’t let this defeat him.
He sat down on an overturned laundry basket and rested his cuffed hands on his knees. Worrying about Sean wouldn’t help, but it might keep him alive. He hated not being able to help anyone.
He may be helpless, but he would not be defeated. At least not yet.