For the first day or so, she couldn’t see much past the oxygen mask over her face. Steady beeping and hissing sounds underlined every discordant dream that washed through the clean-smelling room. Nothing completely erased the piercing pain in her shoulder, but she did appreciate the morphine drip that never ran dry at the bedside. An uncomfortable handcuff held one of her hands to the bedrail, serving as a constant reminder of her miserable choices.
A single recurring dream kept Mrs. Hotchner from getting any real rest. She saw the love of her life, the handsome Army man who carried more scars than he knew what to do with. Mrs. Hotchner loved that man, with all his valor, all his troubles, and all his resilience. He often said that she saved his life out of the Army and inspired him to enter law school, but in truth he saved her. In her dreams, she danced with him again.
Somehow, she no longer knew how, this miraculous man left her alone with a good-for-nothing look-alike. She then tried to replace her perfect man, and the loveless monster that took over her life never went away. Depression consumed her, but in her dreams, she forced herself to see past it. Too late, she saw what a danger this new man was to her children.
She didn’t open her eyes soon enough. The dream always ended the same: Charles left her to die and then hunted Aaron down. Aaron, her little boy. The dear child who stole her husband from her, even while they were all together. The only change in her dreams was how she found Aaron at the end. One time, she found him with his body shredded by a knife. Another time, he had a chestful of bullets. Most frequently, she found him beaten beyond recognition.
Each time, Mrs. Hotchner knelt beside her boy’s broken, bloody body and wrapped her arms around him. No tears came as she held him. She was in shock and felt that her soul had been torn apart.
“Aaron, I’ve killed you. Just like your father. I didn’t protect you.”
When she woke up, she lay there feeling completely drained. She thought about what she would do if she had another chance. She could have saved Aaron. Somewhere along the way, she could have prevented this tragedy.
Why did she even hate her son? He had never done anything to hurt her. No matter how she tried to hand over to him the load of pain and sadness that broke her own spirit, she knew she had no right to make him the scapegoat. She should have been carrying him through the hard times, not forcing him to carry her. Now her misjudgements had killed him, and she would never be forgiven.
Perhaps this was for the better. With Aaron dead, she couldn’t hurt him anymore. All she had left to wish for was to follow him quickly and painlessly, but she didn’t deserve even that.
Although the doctors said her condition had improved and she could even sit up, Mrs. Hotchner had no desire to live on. The weight of all she’d done in the years since her husband died crushed the life from her heart. She had left Aaron to die without a mother or a father.
A nurse soon came around the curtain and checked Mrs. Hotchner’s vitals. Then she gently said, “Your son wants to see you now, ma’am.”
“Sean?” In all the confusion since Charles shot her, Mrs. Hotchner almost forgot about her other baby boy. When Charles went out to kill Aaron, she knew he wouldn’t hurt the baby, and now she only had one boy to cling to. She just wasn’t sure she could hold on even for him. “I’ll see him,” she sighed, having nothing else to do.
The nurse left, and a short while later, Mrs. Hotchner heard someone approaching. Only she didn’t hear footsteps; she heard a strange creaking sound. The curtain wafted to the side, guided by a thin hand, and a boy in a wheelchair steered himself toward the bed. Instantly, Mrs. Hotchner recognized the apparition from her dream, and she realized she hadn’t awoken after all.
Like his mother, Aaron wore a thin, white hospital gown. He looked pale, and several dark bruises stood out on his face, arms, and bare feet. He looked as though he had been ill, and his expression made no change when he saw his mother’s face.
Mrs. Hotchner realized this might be her last chance to change the ending of the dream. She had to do whatever she could to keep her son from harm’s way, so she held up a hand. “Don’t come near me, Aaron.”
He had stopped moving and didn’t look like he intended to come any nearer.
“I don’t know anymore what I might do,” said Mrs. Hotchner. “I can’t be sure I won’t hurt you.”
Aaron still said nothing. His silence was unnerving. He was only a mirage, but his mother didn’t want to lose him again. What could she do? What could she say?
“Charles wants to kill you,” she said. “You have to hide where he can’t find you.”
“Mom,” said the boy in a startlingly real voice. “Charles is dead.”
Impossible. “Aaron...” Mrs. Hotchner started to choke. “This must be another dream. Or are you really there?”
His parched lips parted to allow a whisper. “I’m here.”
Mrs. Hotchner’s breathing jerked. “Squeeze my hand, Aaron.”
He slowly reached over, and she felt the boy’s thin hand clasp her fingers. At his touch, a lone tear shot down the side of her face. “Aaron, you’re alive?”
He nodded solemnly.
Mrs. Hotchner closed her eyes as sobs shook her body. She started to draw Aaron’s hand to her face, but he gently pulled away.
She wiped her tears on the back of her hand. “You’re alive,” she whispered again. “And Sean?”
“He’s fine. Doc says you can see him later.”
She took a deep breath. “You should leave me alone here. You surely have better things to do than share in my misery.”
Aaron shook his head. “I’m here now. I don’t know if you’ll ever see me again, so I want to stay for a minute.”
“So have you come to mock me one last time?” The minute she said it, she knew she didn’t really mean it. She just projected her guilt to her son automatically.
“I’ve come to say goodbye,” said Aaron steadily.
“You’re wasting your time. You’re alive, Aaron. You should be getting as far from me as you can.”
“Well, I’m sorry for everything. Is that what you want to hear? Will you forgive me?”
“I don’t know. I’ve tried, but I’m not ready yet.”
“Then what do you want from me?”
He paused, studying her face. “Nothing. Goodbye, Mom.”
With that, he placed his hands on the wheels of his chair. He was going to slip away again, disappear forever. Mrs. Hotchner raised a weak hand to stop him. “Aaron, wait.”
He faced her again and stared sadly at her limp form. Mrs. Hotchner felt tears trickle down to her ears, and she sniffed up mucus. She felt like nothing, worse than nothing, in the presence of the boy she had traumatized and almost seen killed. She didn’t think he was willing to hear anything she had to say, but what if this was truly the last time she ever saw him?
He was a good boy, she realized. He was actually a blessing, her own child, a miracle. She now knew she would have done absolutely anything differently to keep him with her.
“I love you, my son,” she murmured. She really meant it this time, from the most sincere corner of her heart.
Aaron’s hard expression softened only a fraction. After an uneasy few seconds, he wheeled his chair closer to the bed and leaned over his mother’s face. Not hesitating anymore, Aaron planted a slow, gentle kiss on Mrs. Hotchner’s forehead. She wanted his lips to linger for awhile longer.
Too soon, Aaron backed away. He pulled a thin metal case that looked like his father’s old Army Bible from the side of his chair and placed it on the bedside table. Then he steered himself out of the room without looking back.
Mrs. Hotchner could still feel his parting kiss on her head. Though perhaps he didn’t want to say it, she knew Aaron loved her, in his way. He may need more time to forgive her, but for now she was content to know he didn’t hate her like he probably should.
She looked over at the Bible, then at the ruffled curtain where her son disappeared.
Goodbye, Aaron. Have a good life.