A Family's Battle
“Why don’t you have a seat? You look like you might fall over.”
“Are you asking me?”
The gun raised. “I’m telling you.”
Aaron pulled out a wooden chair and sat down across the table from Charles. He tried to move as though he was acting on his own free will, reasoning that the more in-charge he felt, the less likely he would be to fall under Charles’ control.
“How did you get in?” he ventured to ask. He knew Charles couldn’t have watched the kitchen from outside because all the windows on the ground floor had been covered with thick black-out curtains to keep any outside light from entering the house while Aaron slept. He figured Charles would want to brag about his feat, if he chose to tell it.
“Like I said, you fools made it too easy. I broke into the garage and watched the kitchen from that door.” Gloating, Charles nodded back at the garage door which had a small square of glass in the upper half. “It was as if these people wanted me to get at you, don’t you think?”
Aaron leaned forward. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Aaron,” Charles sighed, annoyed. “This could have ended so much easier for all of us. I could be living happily with my son, you could have your ribs intact, and your mama might still be alive.” The gun in the man’s hand moved more emphatically than any of his facial muscles. “But no, you had to wreck all our lives.”
“You didn’t kill my mom,” Aaron said. “She’s in the hospital. You haven’t won over any of us.”
Charles turned his face to stone. “What’s to stop me from finishing what I started?”
Aaron wanted to retort that he would stop Charles no matter what it took. He wanted to sound confident. However, he knew not to antagonize the man, especially when he had a weapon. So he said nothing.
He heard a door close further back in the house, and padded footsteps approached the kitchen from behind him. Aaron tensed and started to raise himself from the chair, shouting, “Haley! Don’t come in here!”
Immediately the gun leveled with his eyes, only a couple feet from his face. Charles’ brow folded over his steely glare. Slowly, he shifted his aim from Aaron’s face to just over his shoulder. “You’re too late,” he mocked.
Holding his breath, Aaron dared to glance back. Haley stood frozen in the doorway with two eggs in one hand, and she looked at him with her mouth open and her eyes widening.
“Come. Join your friend.” Charles waved her over with the gun.
Haley came tentatively to the table and sat next to Aaron. Her hands still nervously gripped the eggs.
“Well, this is a familiar set-up,” said Charles, leaning back in his chair. “Will you two cooperate this time? It won’t be as simple as a tire iron if you don’t. I’ll fill you both with bullets if I don’t get what I want.”
Aaron maintained his stare as he reached for Haley’s hand under the table. He felt thick, gooey liquid dripping over her fingers and knew her tense grip had broken the eggs.
“Now which one of you is going to tell me how many other people are in the house?” Charles demanded.
Aaron pressed his lips tightly closed. As much as he wanted to keep the other Brooks and his brother from being discovered, he didn’t know how much he and Haley could withstand. Countless plans for escaping or counterattacking ran laps around his head, but all were too risky to try now.
“I don’t have a lot of time,” said Charles.
“We’re alone,” said Haley. “There’s nobody else here.”
Aaron closed his eyes briefly as he let out an anxious sigh. He knew Charles had already seen Jessica in the kitchen.
Charles gave a low, gravelly chuckle. “Is that so?”
Aaron quickly shook his head. “No. Haley just forgot...”
Charles leaned far across the table and made the barrel of the gun kiss Haley’s forehead. “You tell me then, Aaron. Is it worth watching your girlfriend’s brain explode to protect the baby brat?”
Aaron’s hand shook in Haley’s. “You saw her sister,” he said quietly. “She’s home.”
“Who else?” Charles pulled back the hammer on the gun.
Aaron’s mind scrambled. If he gave Charles an answer, he knew he would have to jump to a flawless backup plan. Unfortunately, he didn’t have one. Yet. He looked away from Haley as she trembled under the gun’s touch.
“Haley’s mom,” said Aaron. “And my brother Sean.”
Charles leaned harder into the gun, and Haley let out a faint cry, like a scared dove. “Are you sure?” Charles sneered.
“Where’s your father?” Charles asked Haley. “Or do you have one?”
“He’s at the courthouse,” Haley stammered.
“Well, he’d better stay there if he wants anybody spared.” Charles eased up on the gun and got to his feet. “I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. The girl’s gonna call her family in here, and I’m gonna leave with the baby. If either of you try to stop me, everyone under this roof dies.”
The only thing Aaron could think to do was buy time. While Charles walked to the kitchen doorway to take a quick look around, Aaron sighed. “Here you go again,” he said, struggling to hide his terror.
“You’re angry, and you’re going to act on that anger irrationally. You know, I used to wonder why you were always so angry. But then I figured it out.”
“Oh, really?” Charles stopped in the doorway, and Aaron turned around to face him.
“You fought in the war, just like my dad. You saw all the tragedy and horrors. I think you even had it worse than some because you spent time in a Prisoner of War camp.”
He could see Charles’ face pale, and then redden, and his fingers curled up tightly on the revolver’s handle.
“You were tortured, and you haven’t been able to get over it,” Aaron continued. “That’s why you’re so angry. That’s why you bury yourself in addictions and shallow relationships. And that also explains some of your violence.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ve heard enough.”
“Do you remember one day making me kneel on gravel and winching tourniquets around my arms?” Aaron almost flinched at the memory. “For awhile I tried to understand why you did that. Then when I was locked in the basement, I looked through some of my dad’s old journals. He wrote about P.O.W. experiences, and he specifically mentioned tourniquets used for torture by the Northern Vietnamese army. I looked back at other things you’d done, and I started to realize where you got your patterns of behavior. You were trying to enact on me some of the injustices you faced overseas.”
“You’d better shut up quick.”
“My father suffered, too,” Aaron went on. “But he dealt with it. He didn’t let go of his faith or his family. Sometimes he had unexpected angry outbursts at home, but he always tried to contain it. I hardly noticed he was dealing with the memories. My father was a great man and a great soldier, and you could have gone the same way.”
“You’re asking for a bullet down your throat.”
“All I’m saying is I think I understand why you want to control us. You feel inadequate because you got captured, and you want the chance to fight back. You want to be the one on the controlling side for once. Sean is only a pawn in your power struggle. But it doesn’t have to be this way...”
Charles returned to the table and swung back his hand to strike him, but Aaron’s hand shot out to catch the man’s wrist in midair.
Charles sucked in a sharp breath and clicked his tongue. “Oh, you do not want to do that.”
Aaron only glared hard over their locked arms. He heard Haley’s unsteady breathing beside him but did not release his grip or move his eyes.
The tense silence was suddenly split by the sound of the doorbell chiming two shrill notes. Charles looked up abruptly and hissed, “Who would that be?”
When nobody answered, a sharp rap sounded from the door.
Charles yanked Aaron to the floor. “Get down, both of you!”
Haley quickly joined Aaron in crouching at the foot of the table. She tried to wipe the broken eggs from her hands to her gown.
“Who’s at the door?” Charles turned to the window, which was still covered with a black-out curtain. He crossed the room and lifted the lower corner of the curtain to peer out. “Two men,” he said as he returned to the teenagers with his gun raised. “Who are they?”
Aaron wondered if the FBI agents had come, like Mrs. Brooks said they might, but he didn’t know for sure. “We don’t know. I swear,” he told Charles. “Why don’t you let one of us check?”
Haley nodded. “They might be from the phone company. We’ve been needing someone to check the landline.”
“Well, if that’s true, they can come back later,” said Charles.
But then they heard footsteps on the stairs. Charles flattened himself on one side of the kitchen doorway. Aaron strained to see into the next room, and he caught a glimpse of Jessica heading for the kitchen, where the front door was.
"Stop right there!" Charles leveled his gun with Jessica's curly blond head.
She had only made it to the kitchen doorway and looked at them all with wide eyes.
"Get down on the floor," ordered the jumpy man, and Jessica sat next to Haley and Aaron. "Nobody moves until I say so.”
Aaron made no move, but he kept thinking about what he would be willing to do to protect this family.
“Brooks said that someone would be home all day.” David Rossi stroked his chin in thought.
“Check the address.” Jason Gideon was already wandering from the front door and looking at the house from new angles. He couldn’t see in through any of the windows, and that struck him as odd.
“This is the house,” said Rossi. “Now don’t wander off. They might have gone out and forgotten to tell us.”
“They might have.” Gideon continued along the side of the house, and Rossi reluctantly came after him.
“But you know they didn’t.” Rossi sighed.
“Let’s look for another door. And watch for anything suspicious.”
“Already way ahead of you.”
Mrs. Brooks had bought some baby clothes and supplies the day before. Now she finished dressing Sean warmly in a blue jumpsuit and carried him to the top of the stairs. She missed having a baby in the house, and she felt blessed to look after this little boy. And his brother.
“Jessie, who was at the door?” she called down the stairs. No reply.
Strange. Mrs. Brooks came downstairs and didn’t see anyone in the parlor. Only a single lamp lit up the parlor, but she could make out the kitchen light pouring from the doorway around the corner. Somehow she knew without a doubt that something was wrong.
Mrs. Brooks walked slowly and quietly to the kitchen. She heard a whispered voice—a man’s voice. It was not her husband’s. Perhaps it came from whoever was at the door, but she doubted it.
Mrs. Brooks peered into the kitchen. It took her a few seconds to process what she saw: the three teenagers huddled on the floor, all held at gunpoint by a sloppy, greasy-looking man who faced away from the doorway. That was all the time she needed. Maternal protective mode went into overdrive.
“Your 2 o’clock, Aaron!” said Mrs. Brooks. Everyone looked up. Without another thought, she reached out and flicked off the kitchen light. The room vanished into darkness.
Aaron barely caught a glimpse of Mrs. Brooks’ face before the light sapped away. Her quick words cemented in his mind, and he focused ahead slightly to his right. He knew that was where Charles stood, but the fact that Mrs. Brooks told him made him realize the action he had to make.
Under the cover of sudden darkness, Aaron lunged in Charles’ direction. He felt his hand collide with the gun and put all his strength into wrestling it away. Charles struggled back, and Aaron feared he would reach for the trigger.
Aaron pried at the man’s fingers and shoved himself against Charles’ body. A set of knuckles shot out of the darkness, but without visibility, they only grazed Aaron’s cheek. Aaron heaved his body against his stepfather’s, and they both slammed into a counter edge. Their grappling hands knocked against something hard, and Aaron felt the man’s grip release. He heard the gun thunk to the floor a second later.
Before he could dive for the weapon, Aaron felt a stony arm lock around his neck. An elbow plunged into his side, and he suddenly couldn’t breathe.
Mrs. Brooks didn’t know if she was thinking clearly. She only knew that the children would have no chance to fight back if that man had light on his side.
Moving quickly, Mrs. Brooks carried Sean back into the parlor and opened a foot locker behind the couch. Only a few pairs of shoes carpeted the bottom of the oak chest, and Mrs. Brooks placed Sean into the dark container. She jammed a shoe into the crack between the box and the lid to keep it from closing all the way. “I’ll be back,” she whispered, then she hurried back to the kitchen.
She heard sounds of a scuffle and wondered if she should turn the light back on. Someone knocked into her, and she tensed.
Then she heard the girl’s whisper: “Mom?”
Jessica. “Shh,” said Mrs. Brooks. “Get outside and go get help.”
Jessica rushed past her into the dimly lit parlor and headed for the back door. Mrs. Brooks ventured into the kitchen, unsure of what or whom she would find.
Gideon found the back door behind the house, but Rossi felt uneasy about sneaking around.
“Did you call for backup?” Rossi asked his partner.
“I thought you said that you were all the backup I’d ever need,” Gideon replied.
“Yeah, Jason, that was when I saved you from a reporter’s nosiness. We don’t know what’s inside this house.”
“Do you think someone’s in danger?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
Gideon placed a hand on his holster. “Then let’s find out.”
Before he could reach for the doorknob, the door swung open. A young girl, about thirteen, gasped in surprise at the sight of them.
Rossi cast Gideon a sideways glance. You explain this one, buddy.
The girl partially closed the door behind her and whispered, “Who are you?”
Gideon and Rossi pulled out their badges and flipped them open almost in sync. They had been practicing that move for awhile now. “FBI Special Agents Jason Gideon and David Rossi,” said Gideon, letting the girl compare their badges with their faces for a second. “What’s your name?”
“Jessica Brooks. Please, I need your help. There’s a bad man trying to hurt my family.”
Gideon and Rossi exchanged a glance before drawing their guns. “Tell us more.”
“It’s Aaron’s stepfather. He has a gun, and my mom and sister are in there along with Aaron and his brother.”
Rossi nodded to his partner. “Let’s go.”
“You’ll need lights,” said Jessica.
The agents reached for their pocket flashlights. Gideon told Jessica to get to safety, and Rossi opened the door.
Mrs. Brooks couldn’t find Haley in the dark kitchen. She headed toward the sound of a struggle at her left and strained to see the two shadowy figures wrestling against the counter. Her eyes had become accustomed to the darkness quickly, but all she could make out was the difference in height between the combatants.
Mrs. Brooks couldn’t see well, but she did know her kitchen. She reached for a frying pan which hung from a nail in the wall. Knowing that the taller figure was Aaron’s stepfather, she swung the metal pan and crashed it into the back of his head. The slighter figure fell to the floor, having been released from his attacker, and the man who’d been hit staggered for a second.
Mrs. Brooks aimed to strike again. Suddenly the man came at her with a swinging palm and knocked her weapon aside. Two beefy hands collided with her shoulders. She felt the wall slam into her back.
Trapped, Mrs. Brooks quickly estimated the location of her assailant’s eyes. Forking two of her fingers, she sent a swift jab into the man’s face and felt his orbs swivel under her fingers. She silently congratulated herself on her blind aim.
The man screamed and planted one hand on his face. Mrs. Brooks kicked him as hard as she could in what felt like the stomach.
As the man doubled over, Mrs. Brooks leaned over him threateningly. “You will never hurt my family again, you monster!” she said. “Not my daughters, and not my boys either!”
She couldn’t tell what he was doing, but she feared she had given him a brief advantage in her hesitation. She reached down to subdue him, but an iron claw caught her wrist. Next she felt a long, cold blade slip under her clavicle, and she struggled to breathe through the pain.
Her daughter must have heard her gasp, for suddenly Haley’s voice rang out. “Mom! Are you hurt?”
“Knife,” Mrs. Brooks choked the warning.
The blade slipped out of her, and she sank to the floor with both hands over the wound. It wasn’t so bad really. She had to get up and fight. But suddenly she didn’t know which way was up. She couldn’t fight any more than she could move.
Dear God, protect my children. All four of them.
On his hands and knees, Aaron could feel his ribs scraping against each other. He coughed and gathered his senses. The room was still as dark as it was before.
His hand brushed against something cold and hard. Aaron drew the object closer and felt the clear shape of the revolver. He knew the hammer was already pulled back. One wrong move could end badly for everyone. He held it carefully in one hand and began feeling his way across the floor.
“Aaron!” he heard Charles shout. “It’s over! I have your girlfriend, and I’m about to cut her throat open. Where are you, Aaron?”
Aaron didn’t know whether or not to believe the man, but he couldn’t take any chances. So he crawled silently in the direction of the voice.
“Answer me, Aaron! You won’t want to miss this.”
Aaron could make out the faint outline of the man beside the table. He raised the gun, but then he heard Haley’s strained breathing. Charles probably shielded himself with Haley. Aiming was impossible in the dark.
“I’m going to kill all of you, starting with the girl,” said Charles, and Aaron didn’t know what he could possibly do to stop him.
Gideon’s flashlight beam swept through a tidy laundry room immediately past the back door. The two agents stepped cautiously around laundry baskets and boxes of detergent. Rossi reached the open door at the end before his partner and quickly scanned the next room.
This room looked like a parlor. A single lamp brought some light over the ominous shapes of furniture, but everything near the walls was hidden in shadow. The agents didn’t know why every window was blacked out, but it didn’t bother them as much as the crashing sounds around the wall.
With guns and flashlights raised, the agents cleared the parlor. Rossi took a quick look up the staircase but didn’t see anything of immediate concern. He followed Gideon to a doorway around the corner, and their lights washed over the unmistakable shapes of a kitchen table and countertop. Gideon’s beam rested on the upper half of a stubbly man who held a teenaged girl to his chest. The man clenched a bloody knife to the girl’s neck, dangerously close to her carotid artery.
The man squinted in the sudden glare, and Gideon opened his mouth to make an order. He didn’t get the chance.
Aaron didn’t know where the light came from. One second, all was dark. In an instant, Charles’ evil glare appeared above the table with Haley’s frightened face below his. Aaron saw the gleaming, bloody knife at Haley’s neck, and he saw Charles’ claw tighten on the handle.
The spotlight remained a mystery, but Aaron knew exactly what he needed to do. Raising the gun so it aligned at a perfect upward angle with Charles’ head, he held his breath and followed the rules: front sights, trigger press, follow through.
Aaron’s eardrums seemingly blasted apart the same second he saw a spot of red appear on Charles’ forehead. Bluish smoke ribboned across the beam of light, and Charles blinked at him, shocked. The knife fell from his hand. He then toppled with Haley still held against his chest.
Two people rushed in on either side of Aaron. One of them grabbed his shoulders and steadied him while the other went around the table with a gun and flashlight. Aaron didn’t lower the revolver. He couldn’t yet be sure that Haley was safe or that these two newcomers posed no threat.
The man at Aaron’s side seemed to be talking, but Aaron couldn’t hear a word. When he finally looked into the worried familiar face of the brown-haired agent, he felt a mixture of relief and worry.
Aaron dropped the gun. “I did it to protect my family,” he said.