Aaron had never really thought of sleep as a blessing before. Now, in his foggy waking mind, it was such a sweet gift. He wanted to turn over and go back to sleep when the hard lines of reality broke through the cloud of his loopy dreams. The parlor emerged like a submarine from beneath the sea, shapes and colors slowly becoming clearer as the water dripped away. He wanted to submerge again and see all the nonsensical creatures and colors of the deep. But try as he might, he was awake, and the dreams would not solidify like they did moments ago.
Aaron took a deep breath and smelled the scratchy upholstery of the cushions beneath his face. A warm blanket nestled up to his jawline. The air felt delicious and clean, and he caught a whiff of eggs frying. His stomach gave him a kick of hunger.
But he still didn’t want to get up. He could vaguely remember peaceful mornings like this one where he had the freedom to lie in bed for awhile undisturbed. He would get up in his own time, and then head downstairs to join Mom and Dad for breakfast. Everything was perfect and gentle.
Get up! snapped the pain in his gut.
Aaron groaned, wondering when he’d last eaten. Then he slowly began to remember crawling a mile in the dark with a baby swaddled to his torso. His head jerked up from where it lay. Sean?
Nobody else was in the parlor. Aaron tried to sit up, but a wave of dizziness knocked him back onto the warm cushions. Now he fought the desire to rest awhile. Until he saw Sean, he could not close his eyes again.
Someone appeared in the doorway across the room. Haley...? No. Her sister.
“Aaron?” Jessica peered at him curiously and came closer. “Are you finally awake?”
“Whereshawn?” Aaron mumbled.
“The little guy? He’s with my mom. Should I tell her you’re awake?”
Aaron sighed. He tried to shrug, but Jessica didn’t seem to catch it.
“I... I guess I’ll get her.”
Aaron felt like he’d been shot in the stomach earlier, and the pain tore at his insides. “Can I... have some... food?”
“I’ll ask.” The younger girl quickly rushed around the corner into the kitchen.
Aaron tried sitting up again and made it halfway. Every muscle felt like a rock. With a little more strain, he managed to sit up and lean into the back of the couch. Despite the deadly hunger and the ever-present aches and pains, he felt considerably better after his rest.
Soon Mrs. Brooks came out of the kitchen with Sean clinging to her shoulder. She was dressed in tidy slacks and a flowery blouse with a red apron, and she wore her tired blond hair up in a bun. She smiled kindly and said, “Good morning, Aaron.”
“Ma’am.” Aaron nodded his reply.
“You probably want to see Haley. She’ll be down shortly, but she slept in too. She was up much of the night and the day before looking after you.”
Aaron frowned. “How long have I been asleep?”
“Well, we found you in the front yard yesterday morning. You’ve been asleep for more than twenty-four hours.”
Aaron’s eyebrows knitted. Wow. If only he could sleep that much everyday.
“Jessica’s getting you something to eat,” Mrs. Brooks went on. “In the meantime, can I talk to you for a minute?”
Aaron nodded, and the woman holding his brother sat beside him on the couch. Sean looked up at her, then at Aaron, and then waved his arm up and down wildly. He shrieked and gurgled and looked at both of them again with a quizzical expression.
“What’s the matter?” asked Mrs. Brooks.
Aaron bit his lip. “He, um... he expects you to hit me.”
Mrs. Brooks put a hand to the side of her face and took a slow, deliberate breath. Aaron could see the tears she was fighting to blink back and quickly looked away.
“I know. I know. You don’t have to say anything.”
She paused. Then, “May I hold your hand?”
Aaron felt oddly uncomfortable at the suggestion. “What? Why?”
“So that Sean can see what loving touch looks like.”
Aaron glanced up at her, still adverse to the idea. As awkward as it would be, he could at least understand the benefit she described. Sighing, he lifted his hand, and Mrs. Brooks took it warmly in hers.
Sean made another hitting motion with his arm and gave Mrs. Brooks a confused face.
“No, Sean,” she said softly. “My hands are not for hurting. I can use them to be gentle.”
With her free hand, she held onto Sean’s tiny fist. Ever so gently, she uncurled his tightened fingers and guided his hand over to Aaron’s. Then she joined the boys’ hands and cupped them briefly between her palms. Sean tensed and started making another fist under Aaron’s fingers.
“Gentle, Sean.” Mrs. Brooks tenderly stroked his hand. “Use your hand to support, not to harm.”
Sean drooled as he stared at his brother. Then he clapped his other hand over Aaron’s and buried his nose on top of Aaron’s knuckles. Aaron felt baby phlegm and saliva drip down to his wrist but resisted the urge to pull away. Then he felt his baby brother’s wet lips pucker in a quick kiss.
He didn’t know when Sean learned to kiss. Maybe Mom taught him when Aaron wasn’t around. The sweet gesture surprised him, and Aaron gingerly placed his free hand on top of his brother’s. Sean rested his soft cheek against the embraced pairs of hands and cooed.
“He loves you, Aaron,” said Mrs. Brooks.
Aaron allowed himself the trace of a smile.
Sean’s attention quickly bounced to something else, but Aaron tried to hold onto his hand for as long as he could. Soon Sean pulled away and busied himself with a plastic cup Mrs. Brooks had given him to teethe on. Aaron wiped his hand on his pants and smoothed out the Band-Aids on his palms.
“How do you feel today, Aaron?” asked the woman.
“Better. But still hungry.”
As if on cue, Jessica came from the kitchen with a bowl and a glass of water. The bowl contained thin rice cereal, a scoop of applesauce, and a plain egg. Mrs. Brooks tried to keep Aaron from inhaling the food in mere seconds, and for a short, irrational moment, he feared she would take it away and make him starve. His mother would have done that. Aaron feared if he didn’t eat fast enough, he couldn’t keep all he was given.
But Mrs. Brooks did not take the bowl until he was finished. Then she handed it to Jessica with a request for more.
“Alright. Now I can tell you about all that’s happened,” Mrs. Brooks began as Jessica left. “Yesterday, right after we found you outside, Roy—my husband called the police and had them go to your home. They found your mother upstairs, and... and they saw that she had been shot in the shoulder.”
Aaron took a deep breath. “But she’s alive?”
“Yes, sounds like she’ll survive. But your stepfather...”
“Where is he?”
“They couldn’t find him, him or his car. He could be anywhere right now.”
“He’ll find us,” Aaron muttered.
“Not if we can help it. Now, there’s something else that my husband forgot to tell you about when he first brought you here.”
Aaron’s stare begged her to go on.
“A couple of FBI agents came to his store looking for you. They asked him to call them when he found you, but he completely forgot until yesterday evening.”
Aaron felt his heart skip with interest. “What did they want?”
“As far as we know, just to talk to you. So Roy gave them a call before going to bed. They said they’re working a case, but they’ll try to come by as soon as they can.”
Aaron wondered what Agents Gideon and Rossi could possibly want to talk about, but he was excited at the idea of seeing them again. “Do you think they’ll catch my stepfather?”
“I don’t know. Roy didn’t tell them everything about your situation.”
Aaron thought for a minute. “Did I miss anything else?”
“Well, we had a doctor look at you. He said you’re one of the toughest kids he’s ever met, and you’re likely to recover just fine.” Mrs. Brooks smiled. “And the police would like to interview you when you’re ready. And Roy is at the courthouse right now, discussing your case.”
Aaron said nothing, absorbing the new information. It seemed so bizarre to have public servants looking after him. After being strictly trained to avoid the people who could help him, he still wondered if something bad would come of this. But at least Sean was safe, and nobody could use him as leverage.
Unless... Charles found them.
Jessica returned with more food, and Aaron ate slower this time.
“I used the last egg,” she told her mom.
“There’s more in the cellar.”
Then, to Aaron’s delight, someone appeared on the staircase. He hadn’t seen Haley in so long, it seemed like, and now she gazed over the railing in her nightgown and purple bathrobe with her hair tied back. There were circles under her eyes and no make-up on her face. She looked tired, disheveled, and a bit cranky, but in Aaron’s eyes she descended the staircase like an elegant princess in a ball gown. This beautiful girl made the world spin a little faster.
Mrs. Brooks gave Aaron’s hand a gentle squeeze. “I’m going to get Sean a clean diaper,” she said quietly as she got up.
“I’ll go with you,” volunteered Jessica.
They passed Haley at the bottom of the stairs and walked briskly to the rooms at the top. Haley, with one hand still on the railing, smiled meekly at Aaron.
“You’re awake!” she said in a scratchy voice.
“So are you!” he chuckled.
Haley walked over and beamed sleepily. “Can I hug you?”
She gave him a quick, loving embrace, careful not to hurt his ribs or other injuries. Then she sat down with a sigh.
“Thanks for looking after me,” he said.
“You made it pretty easy. No complaining or anything.”
“I was asleep.”
“That’s no excuse. You’re a perfect patient.”
“I had no choice.”
Haley grinned and rested her arm over the back of the couch. “Aaron, you know what used to be the most important thing in my life?”
“The theater. I thought I could become a star and make billions showing off my talents to the world. I was really full of myself.”
Aaron wanted to disagree. She always seemed very selfless to him.
“Well, I now realize there are more important things in the world than fame. You showed me what matters most. Thank you.”
“I did? So what matters most?”
Haley giggled. “Love.”
Aaron felt his face flush, but he smiled. He quickly cleaned his bowl.
“I can get you more cereal,” Haley offered.
“I’ll get it. I’m doing a lot better now.”
“Would you like another egg?”
“Jessica used the last one.”
“In the cellar. I know. But I don’t want to eat you guys out of house and...”
Haley’s stare shut him up. “I’ll get another egg.”
As Haley headed for the cellar door, Aaron pulled himself to his feet. To his relief, his strength had returned. He walked slowly and carefully to the kitchen doorway and came around the corner.
He froze. There at the square kitchen table with a checkered cloth sat a muscular man. Greasy hair pushed back, stubble glistening with sweat, dark eyes flashing. Over his tan T-shirt, he wore a leather jacket that looked out of his budget range. His beefy hand clenched around a shiny revolver that rested on the tabletop.
Aaron set the bowl on the counter and glared into Charles’ wicked eyes. “How did you find me?”
“You’re just as stupid as your mother was. It wasn’t hard finding out where your girlfriend lived, and I knew you’d come crying to her. You’re so weak.”
Aaron said nothing but continued glaring, taking in every detail he could about the man’s appearance. He seemed sober this time and cigarette-free. The gun in his paw gave off a cold silver gleam. Aaron recognized it as the Smith & Wesson Model 15 that Charles once showed off, and he figured it was the same weapon that hospitalized his mother.
“I never thought that blond wuss would leave this room,” Charles muttered. “You know, I’ve been watching the house for some time. It was too easy. But that girl, she ain’t your squeeze. Does she have a sister?”
Aaron kept his lips sealed and his glare steady.
“How many people are in this house?” Charles hissed.
“If you expect me to answer, ask me about the weather.”
Charles’ face grew colder. “Shut your smart mouth. I don’t need you to tell me anything now that I’m in control; I can find out for myself.”
Aaron kept his breathing steady and refused to break his stare. All the fear he felt for himself, Sean, and the Brooks got packed neatly on a shelf in the back of his mind, and he began praying with every thought.
“You know there’s no way out of this one.” Charles caressed the barrel of the gun. “Are you scared?”
Aaron shook his head once.
“You should be.”