House of Angels
Roy Brooks knocked several times on the Hotchners’ front door. Irritated, he started hammering with the side of his fist.
Finally, he heard the lock unlatch, and he withdrew his hand. The door opened slowly inward, and Mrs. Hotchner leaned out through the narrow opening with one hand on the frame above her head. The smell of booze punched Roy in the nose.
Underneath her knotty brown hair, the woman’s face looked terrible—sagging with stress and exhaustion thinly masked by smears of make-up. Her lipstick was applied with overkill. She looked dazed and completely out of the moment. Roy could hear the sounds of the television inside the house, a sign that her attention was elsewhere.
“What do you want?” Mrs. Hotchner slurred.
“Where is your son?”
Roy's eyes went wide with fury. "Your son. Aaron. Where is he?"
A light of remembrance seemed to dawn in Mrs. Hotchner's eyes. "Aaron," she whispered, then licked her lips dismissively. "He's not my son."
Roy's fists could not clench tighter. "Where. Is. He?"
Mrs. Hotchner gave a half-shrug. “What’s it to you? Are you from the school?”
“I’m his boss and the father of his classmate. Aaron hasn’t been to work or school in at least half a week. Now where is he?”
“He’s paying recompense for running away. It’s not your concern.”
“It will be when I call the police and have them flood your house turning over every stone.”
Mrs. Hotchner suddenly straightened. “You wouldn’t.”
“I’m about to. There’s a payphone down the street.”
“What do you want?” Her tone dropped as if to make an illegal deal.
“I want you to release Aaron into my care for awhile. He’ll be off your hands and out of your hair.”
Mrs. Hotchner glanced warily up and down the street. She looked so drunk or spacey, as if she might fall asleep at any second. “Under the condition that you don’t call the police?”
“If that’s the only way.”
“It is. Swear to me.”
“I swear I will not involve the police, unless you keep him from me for another minute.”
Mrs. Hotchner sighed and moved away from the door. “Step inside. Wait here.”
But Roy did not wait. He stayed right behind Mrs. Hotchner as she unlocked the basement door and tried to hurry ahead of him down the short, narrow steps. She rushed into the shadows beneath a nearly expired lightbulb and began searching.
The air in the basement was musty and cold. Roy took in the clutter but didn’t see the boy. He looked around boxes and behind shelves. This place was filthy. Roy cringed when he saw a rat scamper behind the washing machine.
Suddenly he spotted a limp figure curled up against the far wall. “Aaron!”
At the sight of Aaron, Roy felt his stomach curdle. He cursed at Mrs. Hotchner, longing to go back on his promise, and knock her head in as well.
Aaron lay in fetal position with his arms curled loosely over a thin metal case at his chest. His face, where it wasn’t bruised, was the color of vanilla yogurt gone bad, and his mouth hung slightly open. His eyes were open a crack too, but they did not blink, making him appear quite dead. In fact, Roy suspected he had already died.
Roy dove to his knees at Aaron’s side just as Mrs. Hotchner cut in between them. “Aaron! Speak to me!” she shrieked. Trying unsuccessfully to block him from view, she grabbed Aaron’s hands. Now Roy noticed the handcuffs clinging tightly to the boy’s wrists.
“Take those off at once!” he ordered.
Mrs. Hotchner was already fumbling with the key. Roy touched Aaron’s face and found to his surprise that he felt very, very warm. Aaron suddenly managed to blink his glassy eyes.
Roy helped crank off the handcuffs and gently touched the reddened skin where they were too tight. He took the metal case Aaron had been clutching and realized it was an old Army Bible.
His focus returned completely to Aaron. “Blink if you can hear me, son.”
Aaron’s pupils shifted in his direction, and he blinked, though Roy could not be sure if it was an intentional or natural response.
Roy shot Mrs. Hotchner a glare. “When has he last eaten? Or had something to drink?”
The woman raised her shoulders and started to answer, but stopped when she didn’t really seem to know. Roy fought the urge to strangle her. “Go get some water—.” He called her an unsavory term.
She quickly left the basement.
“Aaron, it’s okay,” Roy said softly. “You’re going to my house now. Just hang on.”
Aaron gave a dry moan. He seemed to try to move.
Roy supported Aaron’s head and helped him sit up. Immediately, Aaron’s arms and head flopped as if emptied of structure. He slowly began to shiver, and then he coughed a dry, guttural cough. He leaned back against the wall, trying to swallow.
“Can you say something?” Roy begged.
Roy now closely saw the full extent of Aaron’s facial bruising. He also noticed reddish-brown stains patching his shirt. “My word,” he muttered. “What have they done to you?”
Mrs. Hotchner returned with a sloshing glass of water. Genuine worry, or a close imitation, clouded her face. “I don’t know what happened. He was walking around fine not that long ago.”
“Give me that.” Roy took the glass and held it to Aaron’s blood-spotted lips. Aaron took a sip, but most of the water dripped down his chin and shirt. Almost instantly, he drooled the small mouthful back out. Another sip was equally unsuccessful.
“Help me get him upstairs,” said Roy, barely hiding his anxiety.
Mrs. Hotchner grasped Aaron’s shoulders, and he was too weak to pull away. Roy put his arms around Aaron and guided him to his feet. Aaron wobbled and leaned into the man’s side. With over half his weight supported by Roy, Aaron staggered on jello legs to the steps. Mrs. Hotchner kept her hands on Aaron’s shoulder but didn’t offer much support.
The ascent upstairs took several minutes and patient, deliberate steps. Roy did most of the work himself. They finally reached the living room, where unfriendly images danced about the TV screen. Roy and Mrs. Hotchner hauled Aaron outside and lifted him into the backseat of Roy’s car. Aaron flopped over on his side and lay there stretched across the bench.
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” said Mrs. Hotchner in a tone that almost sounded authentic. She leaned through the window and caressed the boy’s socked foot. Aaron turned his head slightly away.
“Back away from him!” said Roy.
Mrs. Hotchner complied resentfully.
“While he’s in my care, you won’t come near him! You or your worthless husband. Understand?”
“As long as you don’t bring in the police.”
Roy wanted to swear his tongue out. He wanted to knock her teeth out. But he decided this woman wasn’t worth anymore of his time, and he got into the car without another word to her. “Hang on, Aaron. We’re going home.”
Mrs. Brooks heard the car pull up and hurriedly opened the front door with her daughters close behind her. She watched in horror as her husband half-carried, half-dragged the dead-looking boy from the backseat to the front steps.
“Help me with this boy!” he called.
Mrs. Brooks immediately held out her arms to help support Aaron’s weight. Haley and Jessica hung back, seemingly stunned and uncertain about what to do. Aaron almost pitched forward, but the Brooks guided him through the kitchen and to the couch in the parlor. Aaron sank into the cushions and his head flopped back.
“He’s very sick,” said Roy, feeling his face. “Dehydrated, too.”
“We’ve got to get his shirt off, cool him down.” Mrs. Brooks pulled at the bottom of Aaron’s threadbare brown sweatshirt.
“Haley! Jessica!” called Roy. “Get some water, a washcloth, antiseptic, and bandages.”
Mrs. Brooks found it surprisingly difficult getting Aaron’s shirt off. The faded fabric stuck to wounds on his chest and back, and some fresh bleeding began when she gently tore it away. Aaron barely had the strength to wince.
Mrs. Brooks dropped the balled-up shirt on the floor and gazed in horror at Aaron’s pale, splotchy torso. Dirty bandages were peeling from over his ribs; mottled bruises and discolored raised lines patterned his chest. Mrs. Brooks fought the urge to vomit.
Haley brought wet washcloths and a bowl of water, while Jessica carried in antiseptic, cotton balls, and bandages. Mrs. Brooks wrung out one cloth and draped it over Aaron’s forehead. Roy carefully removed the bandages from his ribs and began cleaning his chest. Aaron barely reacted but just slouched there flaccidly, quietly taking it.
Aaron was feeling so many things right now, he didn’t know what to focus on. First, he felt overwhelmed with bewilderment. Only hours ago, he had completely prepared himself to die. He had mentally parted from everything he ever knew, even deciding he could never again see Haley or Sean in this life. He tied off every loose end in his mind and accepted what he could not fix. He was ready to go, and had even lain down to make the going easier.
And then the angels came, pulling him back from death and carrying him to safety. He didn’t know how it happened or if it was just a dream. He only knew that light had entered his dark tomb and whispered to him, “Wait! It’s not your time to go. You have more to do. You have a future.”
A future. Aaron had given up all hope for that a day ago, when he accepted that he would never escape. At one time, he thought he would grow up and make a difference in the world. It was a lofty idea for a boy in his position, and the utter deprivation of his confinement brought him back to reality. He wouldn’t dare dream of a future again—until freedom sang its song of hope in his head.
Now he wondered why he had surrendered to death. He simply could not abandon hope now. His journey had only started. And this mental image of himself lying stricken on death’s door became a vision of countless, nameless children in similar deathly peril. Victims. Aaron was one, he knew there were others, and he knew that they were the people he was supposed to help. He had to hang on for them.
So hang on he did, though in the new light of his release from captivity, he found himself struggling against a hurricane of ravaging hunger that felt like razors on his insides and a myriad of pain that felt like razors on his skin. And these beautiful people—did he know them?—were cleaning the wounds they could see.
All he really wanted was a six course meal and a hot bath. Were they washing him now? Like a baby. But why did it hurt so much?
“Aaron? Can you say something?” Mrs. Brooks looked worriedly into his vacant, wandering eyes.
“He’s still burning up. Haley, more cold water. Quickly.”
She and Roy sponged the boy down as they cleaned his wounds. Jessica’s hands shook when she handed her mother cotton balls doused with antiseptic.
Mrs. Brooks hated having her daughters witness something like this, and she hoped they would remain strong and not run to hide in their rooms. Not long ago, they were too bothered by this sort of thing to even look at it. Haley in particular suffered a strong sensitivity to anything that looked painful, but she seemed able to keep her revulsion in check as she rushed about helping with treatment. Mrs. Brooks felt a bit proud of her, but she could express that later.
And this boy, Aaron Hotchner—her heart broke for him. She had always wanted a son, and she couldn’t imagine how any parent could inflict on their child what he had been through.
She and Roy finished cleaning and bandaging the wounds on his chest. “Help me lean him forward,” she said. “I need to examine his back.”
Roy guided Aaron into a forward-leaning position and held him there with his big hands. Mrs. Brooks covered her mouth and felt tears spill from her eyes. “Oh, Aaron. What did they do to you?”
Roy peered over Aaron’s shoulder to see the mess of old and new marks etched into his back from his shoulders to his waistline. Some looked like red curves and loops, others resembled the purple imprint of hard objects, still others appeared as raw strips flecked with miniscule specks of some rough material. It took all of Mrs. Brooks’ will to keep from crying, but she heard Roy utter some furious words under his breath.
Haley came back with more water and stifled a cry. Mrs. Brooks took the bowl, still wordless.
“I thought he’d been to the hospital,” growled Roy. “Did nobody look at this?”
“We... we had to attribute it all to a mugging,” Haley said, tears streaming. “They asked questions, but we refused to give any more information. I’m sorry.”
Mrs. Brooks took a deep breath. “Roy,” she said in a quaking voice. “Some of these cuts are infected. I’m going to have to open them to get them clean.”
Haley sank to her knees in front of the couch and put her hand on Aaron’s. Jessica hung back, watching but keeping her distance.
“Alright,” said Roy grimly. “Be careful.”
He let Aaron drop against his chest and wrapped one hand behind the boy’s head. His other hand held Aaron’s shoulder in a way that wouldn’t put pressure on his wounds.
Mrs. Brooks washed the wounds thoroughly and gently. She then pressed her thumbs on either side of a partially healed cut and slowly pulled it open. Now she could feel his muscles tighten under her hands. A tremor ran through Aaron’s body. Mrs. Brooks’ own hands shook, but she couldn’t stop now. She parted the skin further and pushed the infection out. Blood and pus leaked from the cut. Mrs. Brooks quickly wiped it up and dabbed at the reopened cut with antiseptic. She thought she heard Aaron groan, but only faintly.
As she applied pressure with gauze and then moved on to the next cut, she barely noticed how Aaron’s seemingly lifeless arms somehow found the strength to curl around Roy’s middle, and Roy, in turn, held the boy closer, like his own son.
Whose hands were these around him? Whose warm-smelling shirt? Aaron inhaled the embrace deeply and breathed in the clean scent of the man who held him close. Was he a man, or an angel? Such a deep peace came from the presence.
Now Aaron knew. It was his father come to comfort him, come to hold him one last time. Dad, how I’ve missed you.
He couldn’t remember the last hug he’d shared with his father, but he knew he wouldn’t forget this one. He buried his face in the laundered shirt and welcomed back the familiar sensations. He wished so much for the strength to hug him back.
Pain broke through the heavenly calm. He felt the tearing agony in his back, so sharp, so cruel. He must be getting whipped all over again. No, please make it stop.
But then the warm embrace tightened, and he turned to his father for comfort. As daggers sliced across his back, Aaron silently begged to be carried away. He put all his weight against his father’s chest and finally managed to wrap his own thin arms around the man. Carry me.
And he was like a child again being lifted high in the strong arms that he trusted. He smelled the fresh air and felt sunshine fill his face. Looking up, he saw Daddy smile at him. Aaron smiled back. The pain was gone. Sweet music flooded his heart, and he felt like he could fly.
Daddy held his hand as they walked through this paradise together. They didn’t say anything, they just walked, deeply content. What a gift, a precious gift from God.
Somehow Aaron knew when they had come to the end of the walk. Then Daddy gave his hand a final squeeze, smiled brightly, and walked on alone. Aaron watched him disappear, and he waved until the figure was gone.
He was alone, but not afraid. He was left with a heavenly peace and a deep-rooted conviction to carry on, no matter what.
Roy Brooks eased Aaron’s limp body to its side on the couch. Mrs. Brooks had finally finished cleaning and bandaging his back, but the boy had passed out several minutes ago. Now his eyes were closed and his features looked more relaxed than ever before.
Roy fingered Aaron’s short, messy dark hair. Sleep peacefully, son. You’re safe with us.
Mrs. Brooks still checked him over, looking for wounds she had missed. She felt his face and finally let out a relieved sigh. “The fever’s broken.”