Few subjects were so endlessly interesting as math. Mrs. Gillansy hadn’t thought so when she suffered through functions and equations during high school back in the 50’s, but in college she discovered her knack for computing. Now it was her special pleasure to encourage high schoolers to adore the majesty and mystique of math free from hateful ignorance.
So it frustrated her when certain students didn’t catch on, or when they rejected the subject altogether. While most of her class did a tolerable job, one particular teenager showed a worrisome lack of engagement. Aaron Hotchner, the boy with bruises on his arms from rough play and D’s on his homework from bad concentration. Hotchner’s total disinterest irritated her, in part because it reminded her of herself at that age. But he hadn’t even bothered to show up for today’s quiz! She had worried about his situation before, but now she feared he was past help.
As Mrs. Gillansy scanned the heads bowed over the desks as if praying to their math, she could point out to herself which students were most likely to excel. Some had bountiful math skills. Some would make great scientists or engineers. That one boy, Vinny Perotta, was top of the class before being expelled. He was surely destined for greatness with his knowledge, if he could only learn to control his anger.
As for Hotchner—absent for a consecutive week now—he might make a great garbage collector.
What could she possibly do for him now? It broke her heart to see a student fail, but if he wasn’t willing to try, Mrs. Gillansy wasn’t willing to waste her time on him.
Business had been slower than usual today. Roy Brooks didn’t mind; he was content to stay behind the counter and pour the occasional drink as a couple of regulars talked sports. Only one or two customers meandered about the store examining tools, and nobody seemed to be itching to start a brawl. It felt good to have a more relaxed day for once.
Luckily, nobody needed their shoes shined. Roy’s unreliable bootblack hadn’t shown up for work since the incident with Haley and the truck. Roy hoped that more details on that little caper would be forthcoming.
Just as the two beerbellied men at the bar made their predictions for next weekend’s football game, the front door jingled open. In came a dark-haired man in a suit and a brown-haired man in more casual business attire. The two men looked around and approached the bar, but they did not sit down.
“Can I get you anything?” asked Roy.
The man with short-cropped brown curls and a corduroy jacket shook his head. “Actually, we came to see your bootblack.”
“Hotchner?” Roy raised an eyebrow. “He hasn’t been showing for work in days.”
“Do you know where we might find him?” asked the dark-haired man.
Roy frowned suspiciously. “May I ask why? Is he in trouble or something?”
“Quite the opposite.”
A light of recognition came on for Roy. “Hey, aren’t you two those FBI agents that came in several weeks ago?”
The men exchanged a glance.
“That’s right,” said one. “But don’t worry. We’re not investigating Hotchner, or your shop.”
“Well, I honestly couldn’t tell you where he is. Try the school. He could be anywhere.”
The brown-haired man scrunched up his chin and pursed his lips in thought.
His partner sighed. “Alright. Will you give us a call if he turns up?” he said and placed a business card on the counter. Roy glanced down at the nonlocal number and Italian surname.
“Thanks for stopping in, fellas,” he said as they turned away. “You’re always welcome to stay for awhile.”
With a nod, the two agents left the store. Roy was left wondering what was really going on here.
Haley Brooks finished cutting her chicken, then set down her fork and knife. She didn’t feel like eating. Though Mom’s vinaigrette green bean salad and crispy ranch chicken smelled exquisite, Haley’s stomach had moved off the appetite highway.
Jessica had already finished her vegetables and now gave Haley a questioning look. Little sister had been surprisingly gracious the past couple days. She alone seemed to understand how much Haley cared about Aaron. Unlike virtually every other time Haley got in trouble, Jessica didn’t pester her about the details. This time she gave her some distance, which Haley couldn’t have appreciated more.
The last few days had been nerve-wracking. Each day since returning from Quantico, Haley sat nervously through school, avoided conversation with her parents at home, and went to bed wondering why in the world Aaron hadn’t attended any classes all day. She hadn’t seen him since he walked away from her home three days ago. She had hoped Aaron would find a safe place to stay and keep under the radar, but her father’s call to the Hotchner home confirmed her worst fear.
Over the phone, Mr. Brooks had asked if Aaron made it home safely. Apparently, Mrs. Hotchner replied that he had, and she was so happy and relieved to have him back. When Mr. Brooks asked if everything was alright, she heartily denied any concerns. This terrified Haley, and all through the three days since the call, she pondered whether Aaron had walked home or been caught. Or had his mom been bluffing? Whatever the case, was he alive?
Now Mr. Brooks talked about his store in a low, grumbling tone to his wife. It sounded like he was losing business, but Haley wasn’t really listening close. Suddenly he addressed her directly.
“...And where’s that friend of yours, Aaron Hotchner? He hasn’t come to work since before you kids ran away.”
Haley felt her stomach clench and shifted in her chair. “He hasn’t been to school either. I’m worried.”
“Well, if he’s not dependable, I’ll have to let him go. You tell him that, next time you see him.”
Jessica cast an anxious look across the table, as if wondering how Haley would react. Haley started to tremble.
“Aaron’s not coming to work or school, Dad,” she stammered. “And I think I know why. He might be in serious danger.”
Mr. Brooks set down his knife and looked up firmly. “What are you talking about?”
“There is more to the story,” said Haley, eyes pinned to her plate. “There’s a reason Aaron ran away with me.”
Nobody made a sound except for Mr. Brooks’ growly “Well?”
“Remember when he went to the hospital and I said he was mugged at the bus stop? Well... it wasn’t a pair of strangers who beat him up; it was his own parents.”
Mrs. Brooks put a hand to her mouth, and Jessica gasped.
“They beat him almost everyday,” Haley went on, voice quickening and eyes dampening. “Both his mother and his stepfather. Aaron feared for himself and his baby brother, and that’s why he ran away.”
Her parents exchanged a look of shock. “If that’s true,” said Mr. Brooks gruffly, “then why the heck didn’t he tell us? Or why didn’t you?”
“Because... Aaron’s stepfather threatened to kill the baby if the police get involved, or if anyone finds out. I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you months ago.”
Her mom leaned back with a sigh of dismay. Mr. Brooks slapped his napkin to the table, looking very angry.
“I knew Hotchner’s folks were up to no good!” he said. “What are they doing to him now?”
“I don’t know,” said Haley, wiping her tears. “But I’m really scared for him.”
“Darn right you should be. I’m going over there right now.”
“Be careful,” said his wife as he got up and grabbed his coat. “Find that boy, but don’t get yourself into trouble.”
“If they so much as get in my way, I’ll knock them flat,” said Mr. Brooks as he marched to the door. “Any parent who treats a child like that doesn’t deserve niceties.” He slammed the door behind him.
Mrs. Brooks put an arm around her daughter’s shoulder as Haley shook with silent sobs. What scared Haley the most was not knowing if her father was already too late.