The Longest Crawl
Not long after his fever broke, Aaron had regained the strength to sit up and take tiny sips of thin, soupy rice cereal. He couldn’t keep down the first couple bites, but they waited awhile, and he could manage much better now. He didn’t mind having Mrs. Brooks feed him with a spoon, for though he felt like a helpless child, he could now imagine having a mother who cared for him. Mr. Brooks had given him clean shirts to wear, one of his own white tees and a blue sweater, which was comfortable despite being much too big. Haley came by several times to sit beside him and take his temperature and hold his hand. Even Jessica helped by bringing him water regularly. They all accepted him like family.
His stomach still felt tight and jumpy, but he was keeping the meager meal down. Such a monstrous, paralyzing assault had taken over his insides when he became famished. After starving for days, he stopped feeling the hunger pangs, but now that he was getting something to eat, the pangs returned in clawing sweeps. If he was stronger, he might have gotten up and raided the Brooks’ cupboards.
The dear Brooks. What possessed them to help a pathetic boy for nothing in return? Aaron didn’t understand their kindness, but he could never stop being thankful for it. If only his throat didn’t hurt so much, he would express his gratitude more vocally.
Though he was starving, Aaron soon had to stop eating. He relaxed and leaned back, wincing a little at the pain in his back. Mrs. Brooks dabbed at his face with a wet rag while Haley soothingly encouraged him to get some rest now. Mr. Brooks came into view and ushered Haley off to bed. Once Mrs. Brooks had cleaned up a little, she said goodnight to Aaron and went upstairs as well.
Mr. Brooks sat down in an armchair adjacent to the couch and folded his hands on his knees. He sighed and looked over at Aaron with a heavy, sleepy gaze. “I wish you had told me sooner, Hotchner.”
I wish you had noticed, Aaron thought, but he didn’t resent the man at all.
“I hope you know that I’m terribly sorry for all that’s happened to you,” Mr. Brooks went on, “and I wish you didn’t have to go through it.”
Aaron nodded his acknowledgement.
“If I had known, I... well, things might have been different.”
What might have been different? Aaron thought curiously. The way you treated me? Would you have taken me from my home sooner?
“I didn’t realize what a dangerous couple of crazies you lived with.” Mr. Brooks glanced around the room uneasily. “And Aaron, there’s one more thing that worries me.”
Aaron frowned, listening close.
“Haley was with you all the time. She even ran away with you. Now tell me, did your parents ever hurt my daughter?”
Now Aaron knew what the antsy and exhausted man was getting at. He thought back, trying to remember any time that Haley got to experience the Hotchner household’s brand of parenting. He recalled one time when Charles interrogated him about Sean’s whereabouts. Charles had slapped Haley once or twice and probably would have hurt her further if anything happened differently. But Haley, at the time, insisted it didn’t hurt. “They tried,” said Aaron softly. “One time.”
Mr. Brooks looked away in anger. Then he rubbed his tired eyes. “I want you to realize something, Aaron. I don’t want Haley to get hurt anymore than I want you getting hurt again. One thing I cannot bear is to see my children harmed. You’re taking on a huge responsibility dating my daughter, you understand? You have to protect both of you. I want you two to remain friends, but only with extreme caution.” Then he gave Aaron a firm, hard stare. “Because if anything ever happens to Haley, I will never forgive you.”
Aaron was reminded that Mr. Brooks made his real family his first and foremost priority. He had a right to. As for Haley, Aaron didn’t think he could forgive himself if something happened to her because of him. He nodded. “I understand. And I hope, sir, that you will give me your trust. I will do all I can to keep her from harm.”
“See that you do.” And Mr. Brooks put a strong hand on Aaron’s shoulder. “Good night, boy. I hope you get better soon.”
Aaron was thinking about his responsibility to protect other people from the monsters in his life, so he didn’t respond. Suddenly he looked right up at Mr. Brooks. “Sean,” he whispered. “Where’s Sean?”
“My baby brother. Did you save him too?”
Mr. Brooks furrowed his brow. “No, I didn’t take the baby.”
“You have to... Go back and get him.”
“Does your mother hurt him too?”
Staring off into space now, Aaron shook his head.
“Well, Aaron, I can’t just take a baby from his family if they’re not hurting him. Besides, I’m too exhausted to be out driving right now. I’ll tell you what. How about I go to the courthouse tomorrow morning and look into permanently removing you and your brother from your parents’ home?”
“I need to see him now.” Aaron had to be sure he was safe.
“You can wait until morning. I promise I’ll see what I can do, first thing.”
“I’m sorry, Aaron. I’m practically walking in my sleep now. I would be a hazard on the road.”
Aaron knew there was no point in arguing more. Mr. Brooks turned off the light and went upstairs with the rest of the family.
Aaron remained alone on the couch in the dark. All he could think about was baby Sean in terrible danger with nobody to keep him safe. And right then, he decided he would do just as the Brooks had done—venture into that house, find his brother, and take him to the safety of this loving home. This was his responsibility, and his alone.
He leaned hard on the armrest for support as he got to his feet. Right away, he wobbled and felt nauseous. He held onto the armrest for another minute while he gathered his senses.
It was nearly midnight, and Aaron didn’t think anybody in the neighborhood would be awake. It was probably best that way. There was only a twenty-minute walk from here to his home, and he could surely make it back without being missed.
Getting out the door proved to be the first challenge. Aaron guided himself along furniture until he reached the open space of tile between the kitchen doorway and the front door. Treading carefully in the dark and feeling his stomach pitch in every direction, Aaron took slow, shaky steps across the floor. He nearly fell but caught himself on the doorknob.
Deadbolt, click. Lock, click. The door eased open now. Aaron found himself heaving for air, and he had only made it to the front porch.
After he had closed the door, he sat down on the first step of the porch and deeply breathed in the crisp, cold air. He smelled dead leaves and smoldering cinders from unseen fireplaces. Several stars had poked their pointy heads through the night canvas, and only a few smoky clouds blotted the sky. It was really a very beautiful night, but the cold was starting to bite through the knitted fabric of the oversized sweater. Aaron rubbed his arms, flinching as the sweater brushed against welts. When he thought about it, his wounds stung as if fresh. Was he crazy to think of returning to the place where he received them?
Crazy or not, Aaron grabbed the porch railing and pulled himself up. He had lost a sock somewhere between the Hotchner basement and the Brook parlor, and the sidewalk burned his feet with its coldness. Focusing only on his mission, Aaron took a few steps away from the railing.
He felt like a toddler learning to walk, only there was no soft carpeting to fall on and no Daddy’s arms to waddle into. Still, Aaron made each step count and constantly reminded himself he was doing it for Sean. Babies had a lot of courage getting on their fickle feet and building strength through repeated tumbles. Aaron wondered if Sean had started walking yet. Perhaps this challenge was one of the only things they had in common. Aaron smiled at the thought.
Thankfully, the next yard was bordered with a four-foot-high picket fence. Aaron leaned on the boards with his hands and used them as a guide. One step, then another. Eventually he made it past that yard.
And then came another. And another. By the third yard, Aaron started to feel his strength give out. It was a long shot, coming out here in his condition. Maybe he should turn around now before he collapsed on some stranger’s drive.
Then who knew what might happen to Sean? For all Aaron knew, Charles could be done with his surgeries and out of the hospital now. He wouldn’t hesitate to harass the Hotchner home and take the baby.
Aaron pressed on. Every muscle felt it was being stretched out and drummed upon.
He had to take many turns and cross a semi-busy street on his journey. Many times he felt that his legs would crumble, and he had to sit down every so often to hold his ribs and breathe deeply. He was sweating despite the bitter cold, and his stomach felt upside-down. He grew dizzier with each step and feared he would step off the sidewalk in front of a car.
It felt like a miracle when Aaron reached his street and saw his home sitting sadly hunched like it always did. The twenty-minute walk had stretched to an hour, but at last he made it.
Maybe it was the excessive exertion after such a brief recovery. Maybe it was the sight of his house. Whatever the reason, Aaron suddenly stopped, unable to go on. He felt terribly sick, sicker than he had felt at any time during his imprisonment. He dropped to his knees and promptly vomited into the dead grass. There was very little to throw up, but when he’d finished, he continued retching. He felt as if a steel clamp had tightened around his head, and he squeezed his eyes shut to steady his spotty vision.
When the pounding in his ears finally calmed, Aaron gasped in a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. The sickening wave had passed, leaving him shaking and feeling very empty and weak. But he still had a job to complete.
A single upstairs light was on. Keeping low, Aaron inched up to the window well at the base of his house. Grunting, he removed the bricks and the board his mother had piled against the window, and then he leaned down and pushed the window open. Then he turned around and dropped to his stomach.
Going feet-first, Aaron slid down through the window and felt for a box to land upon. His bare foot knocked against cardboard. He glanced down and saw the two big boxes he had stacked earlier. Above him, his arms and wrists ached. Just as he got one foot firmly on the box, his hands slipped, and he lost his balance.
The short fall backwards felt like the longest, and then his back hit the concrete. Aaron almost screamed but suddenly found he had lost the ability to breathe. Shooting pains gripped every bone and muscle, and his face tightened up with inexpressible agony. A few moments passed before he could take in air again, and it was a very shaky breath.
He abruptly felt overwhelmed by the oppressive darkness of the basement. Familiar musty smells threw him into painful memories. He felt the fear of being buried alive return full-force. Mother had beaten him and thrown him down here to die. He would never escape, never see the sunlight again, never hear Haley’s laugh. And it was his fault. He deserved to die—
No! Those were lies. He didn’t have to listen to them now. Nobody, nothing could take his hope away. And still, he had a job to do.
Aaron lifted his head off the ground and looked for something to pull himself up with. He spotted a tall metal shelf and reached for one of the legs. Clenching his teeth to keep from crying out, he rolled onto his side and used the shelf to pull himself to his feet. Remarkably, nothing seemed broken. Now he was winded and aching, but with no new injuries to report.
Aaron crept up through the partially open basement door and let himself into the living room. The couch was once again stained with alcohol and littered with bottles. Most worrisome, he smelled a familiar nicotine bite in the air.
Like a second nature, Aaron knew his way around this house in the semidark. He grabbed the stair’s handrail and pulled himself up ten steps to the short hallway between bedrooms. The only light in the house streamed through a crack in his parents’ bedroom door. He could clearly hear the voices of Mother and... Charles... arguing with the ferocity of hornets. Aaron tried to push back the anxiety that pounded through his heart and quietly slipped into his old room.
There, at last, the crib!
Aaron rested both hands on one side of the crib and breathed heavily as he gazed down. Sean was not asleep. He lay there with three fingers in his mouth and his bare toes curling against his leg. At the sight of Aaron, he started kicking the striped mattress excitedly.
“Shh,” Aaron whispered. He bent over the crib and tried to get a hold on the baby. The reach pulled on every muscle in his back.
Scrunching up his face, Aaron struggled for a more secure grip on the baby. Straining at the weight, he slowly straightened up and lifted the baby, with his green blanket, out of the crib. He was breathing hard again. Sean stroked his cheek and cooed.
The sound of something breaking sounded from the next room. Aaron froze. Charles’ furious shout was followed by a distinct slapping sound. Aaron winced.
He took a step toward the door, but the sound of footsteps stopped him. Aaron’s heart pounded. Someone was headed right for this room!
Thinking fast, he dropped into a crouch and inched over to the bed. He ducked as low as he could with Sean still cradled at his side and scooted into the dusty space underneath the bed. Sean gave a small cough.
“Shhh!” said Aaron, holding the baby’s head off the ground.
“Shh,” echoed Sean. And he giggled.
Aaron wanted to clamp his hand over his brother’s mouth, but he was afraid that would cause him to cry. So he simply lay there on his stomach with Sean hooked in his arm, praying that he wouldn’t make another sound.
The door flew open. Aaron could only see the muddy pair of men’s shoes that marched inside and stomped right past the crib. If he sees the empty crib, we’re dead.
But Charles hadn’t turned on the light, and he hadn’t headed for the crib. Aaron could hear papers shuffling and being collectively picked up from the desk. Then the feet turned in the direction of the bed. Aaron held his breath.
Charles walked closer to the bed. His long shadow cast by the light in the hallway spilled into the tight space between the bed and the ground. Then Aaron saw one of Charles’ knees meet the floor. The man was kneeling. His rough hands came into view and rested on the floorboards, and Aaron’s heart very likely stopped.
As Charles leaned down on one knee, his hand reached out across the floor. It seemed to come closer to the bed.
But now Aaron could see the fallen sheet of paper he was reaching for. Once he retrieved the page, Charles got back up and walked out of the room. Aaron just about melted with relief.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, dear God.
The shouts soon resumed in the next room. Aaron could hear Charles yelling about his paperwork and trying to convince Mother that the bills somehow proved he should keep the baby. Satisfied that the adults were tied up in their dispute, Aaron crawled out from under the bed with Sean in his arms.
The sound of Charles hitting Aaron’s mother startled the boy. A second later, he felt surprised that he was so shocked. He was also surprised to realize that he wished Charles wouldn’t hurt his mother. Mother had been horrid, but Aaron still didn’t want her to be hurt. He didn’t know why other than that he wanted all the violence to end. He could feel each blow that he heard. So great was his distress at the sound, he almost went in there to make it stop.
But no, he was here to save Sean. Getting involved in his parents’ fight would jeopardized that mission entirely, and both boys might end up dead.
Trying to ignore the fight, Aaron unsteadily carried Sean to the top of the stairs. His breath whooshed out of his lungs. Stairs.
It had been difficult enough pulling himself up the steps, but now he had to carry a baby down. Aaron feared a single misstep, a single slip or imbalance. He took the first step and discovered with a jolt in his navel that it was lower than he expected. His hand tensed on the back of Sean’s head.
He heard Charles shout, “There is no one to stop me. Your other kid is gone too. Now I’m taking that baby tonight, and that’s final!”
Aaron pressed Sean to his shoulder with one arm, grabbed the railing, and took the next few unsteady steps as quickly as he safely could. He was in a warzone and felt he would soon be dodging grenades if he didn’t escape.
He made it to the kitchen without incident and stepped out of sight behind the corner. Sean started to fuss, and this time Aaron did put a hand over his mouth.
He could see the long, uneven shadow stretching down the stairs as Charles crossed the hall. Then a new light threw his shadow up against the wall. His furious roar a moment later curdled Aaron’s blood.
Aaron staggered around the kitchen table and unlocked the door. He heard more yelling.
“Where is he? Where’d you hide my baby?”
“I don’t know. But I’d rather he was dead than with you!” Mother screamed.
“Tell me where he is!”
Crashes soon followed, and Aaron fumbled with the doorknob. Then a sound that chilled his heart blasted through the house: a single booming, ear-shaking gunshot. Aaron felt his nerves turn to ice. His hand refused to move on the doorknob.
Sean’s crying broke into his daze a minute later. Now Aaron frantically yanked open the door and stumbled out into the lawn. He heard a thump and a rush of footsteps. Seemingly out of nowhere, Aaron found the strength and stability to run through the grass between houses and hurry behind the backyard fences.
Once he was out of sight, he collapsed. Thankfully, he turned a little to his side and cushioned the baby with his own body as he hit the ground.
He huddled there a moment calming Sean until his cries subsided. But he knew Charles had heard and would be upon them in a minute. The question of whether or not his mother was still alive nagged in the back of his mind, though he still didn’t understand why he cared.
“I can’t go on,” Aaron panted after he tried several times to get his feet under him. Each time, his starved and wounded muscles refused to hold. It was frustrating and terrifying, wheezing on all fours and completely failing to stand. He could hear Charles opening the front door and stepping outside.
“Hang on. I’m not finished,” Aaron whispered to the baby. From where he lay in the grass, Sean sniffled up at him.
Aaron tested his weight on all fours and found that he could crawl fairly steadily. Thinking fast, he laid out Sean’s green blanket and placed the baby on the middle of it. He brought two opposite corners over Sean’s body and tied them together, then brought the other two corners behind his back and struggled to knot them. Finally, he created a sort of sling with Sean hanging close to his broken ribs. Now he could crawl back to the Brooks’ and carry the baby at the same time. It was only a mile.
Aaron paused to listen. He heard the garage door grinding open and Charles banging around through the equipment bins. Now or never, time to go.
Aaron started crawling down the narrow strip of gravel and grass behind backyard fences. Even through the sweater, the knot in the blanket dug into a cut in his back, but he bit his lip against the pain and kept going. Sean gazed up from where he hung, swaying slightly as if in a hammock, close to his brother’s chest. It was an awkward and slow-moving journey. Already Aaron’s knees and palms were hurting.
Behind him, he could hear the station wagon starting up. He tried to hurry, but he felt like he was dragging a sack of rocks. Specks of dirt and tiny stones stuck to his palms, and the ground rubbed through the knees of his jeans.
Then headlights poured down the street, and a few rays ran away between houses. Aaron saw the light sweep over his arms and quickly folded himself around the baby. He lay motionless until the car had passed.
In the brief sweep of light, Aaron had seen how brightly red Sean’s cheeks had become. The baby was freezing in his thin pajamas.
Aaron slipped the knotted blanket off over his head and then removed Mr. Brooks’ blue sweater. He wrapped Sean warmly in the sweater, settled him back into the sling, and looped the knot back over his shoulders. With only a loose-fitting T-shirt to keep the cold away, Aaron shivered. But at least he would be moving, and Sean would be warm.
As Aaron continued crawling, Sean drifted off to sleep. Aaron found himself shaking with exhaustion, but the cold air kept him wide awake. His head didn’t spin as much when he was down on his hands and knees, and he found he could keep pushing himself for several more minutes.
Then came the intersection. Aaron paused beside the stop sign and watched a late 70’s sedan roar by. Only a distant street lamp lit up the shiny fenders.
How could he avoid oncoming traffic? Aaron sat for a minute, cradling Sean, watching late-night cruisers fly by. As he pondered his dilemma, he caught sight of a station wagon coming around the corner.
Aaron scrambled back into the bushes and hid himself in the scraggy branches. Peering out, he could see Charles drive slowly by, evil eyes scanning the roadsides as he went. Halfway down the street, Charles suddenly steered the car around in a sharp U-turn and revved off the way he came.
With the street finally clear, Aaron ventured out. The cold asphalt felt even rougher to his hands and knees than the gravel before. But now he hurried as fast as possible to get across. When he reached the yellow line down the middle of the road, Aaron stopped at the sound of an oncoming car. He curled himself up as small as possible, and the car sped right past. The wind of the vehicle rocked Aaron a little, but he soon recovered and crawled into the next lane.
In only seconds, a new pair of headlights bore down on him. Aaron pulled his gaze away and focused on moving as quickly as he could to the sidewalk. He just made it as a heavyset truck roared past his heel.
Aaron stopped to catch his breath. Sean stirred and moaned, and then went back to sleep. Aaron chuckled a little with relief and amazement that he had made it so far.
Already the first orange rays of sunrise had painted one side of the dark sky. Aaron wondered how many hours had past since he left the Brooks’ comfortable couch.
This journey was really taking a toll on him now. He breathed harder and felt pains in places that didn’t hurt before. Those areas that already hurt became significantly more excruciating. Hunger raked through his innards and exhaustion beat against his skull. Forcing his eyes open, Aaron continued crawling down the next few blocks.
He could barely move his stiff legs or hands by the time he saw that peaceful front porch. So close, so very close.
He didn’t notice the bloody handprints he left on the sidewalk as he neared the front steps. “Sean is safe” were the only clear words spinning around his foggy head.
One weak hand gripped the first step. Home. At last.
Then Aaron collapsed on his side in the grass and fell into a deep faint filled with confusing dreams. Sean remained sleeping peacefully against his brother’s chest for the rest of the night.