Aaron had to learn to be versatile, especially when it came to wound care. The dim lighting from the basement’s one lightbulb did not help his case, and he was having trouble making his father’s work ties fulfill his needs. But he had to work with what he had. Gritting his teeth, he continued wrapping a long, blue-and-white striped tie around his foot and ankle. Another tie, this one with red diamonds, completed the wrapping. In the end, he could still do nothing about the pain.
For several months now, Aaron had been sleeping on a mound of rags in the cold, unfinished basement. For the first time, though, he was not alone at night. Coos and whimpers emanated from the plastic rag bin where baby Sean lay on a foot of torn, dirty cloths for a mattress. Charles had officially had his fill of baby cries day and night, so Sean shared Aaron’s “bedroom” now. For awhile, Sean cried because of the cold, so Aaron piled overused cloths on top of his melon-sized body. Baby care was the last thing Aaron wanted to be responsible for, but if nobody else would do it, he would silently take on the task.
It started when Aaron ran upstairs at the sound of his stepfather threatening to get rid of the baby. Aaron had no idea what was happening, and when he appeared in his parents’ doorway, the scene quickly became clear. Charles paced in front of the bed, alternately coughing and yelling hoarsely. A cigarette smoldered between his fingertips. Sean’s portable crib contained one very upset baby. And Mother clutched a wrinkled letter that she waved angrily at Charles.
“How could you do this to me? Do you think I deserve this?”
“I can’t talk to you over the squirt’s siren! Shut him up!”
“I thought you loved me!” Mother slapped the letter on her dressing bureau. “Well, I hate you! Why don’t you just take your baby and leave?”
“I don’t want him!” Charles spat and kicked an overturned lamp. “If you won’t keep him quiet, I’ll just throw him out.” And he approached the crib menacingly.
“You’re a monster,” said Mother. “First you hurt me by cheating, now you want to hurt your child?”
“I never wanted him!” Charles jammed his cigarette between his teeth and picked up Sean under the arms. Sean continued to wail with tears and phlegm dripping onto his onesie.
At that moment, Aaron made his presence known. “Wait, Charles.” He rushed forward. “Let me look after him until he calms down. Please, you’re not thinking straight.”
Charles turned to him with an absolutely furious glare in his eyes. He shifted Sean to one arm and brought his free hand down across Aaron’s face. Unprepared, Aaron fell to one side, and his right ankle twisted from the sudden opposing force. Aaron cried out and immediately clutched his ankle.
“Stay out of this!” screamed Charles, and, seeing Aaron’s pain, kicked the boy in the ankle. Aaron recoiled as a couple tears sprang down his cheeks.
He knew he stood a good chance of getting hurt again, but he had to complete his objective. “I just came for the baby. I’ll take him off your hands and you won’t have to worry about...”
Charles kicked him again, so hard Aaron curled up on his side and moaned.
Mother, who had been watching the whole time, rushed forward and scooped Sean from the man’s arm. “Leave my son alone!” she demanded, then she knelt and placed the baby in Aaron’s trembling arms. “Both of you, get out of here. The adults need to talk.”
With Mother shielding him, Aaron struggled to his feet with the tearful infant in his arms. He could hardly put an ounce of weight on his right foot without feeling streaks of pain shoot up his leg.
“You can just keep him,” snarled Charles. “I never want to see either of you again.”
Without a word, Aaron turned and limped—unbalanced, trembling, burdened—out of the room and all the way down the stairs. He paused to rest at the bottom step, then trekked on down the basement steps. Sean’s cries had receded with the change in scene, but tears still flowed down his round cheeks.
Both boys recuperated in the semi-darkness of the cement tomb, but neither could get to sleep. The shouts two floors above gradually died away. Aaron crouched against the water heater for warmth and pulled his rumpled script from his bag.
“Hey, Sean. Why don’t I practice my line for you?”
Aaron cleared his throat and summoned up his most regal-sounding voice: “Aye, Cap’n!
“Well, that’s no good. Let’s try again.
“Arrg! Aye, Cap’n!” A Scottish-inflected pirate growl.
Why couldn’t he get it right? Aaron got up and gazed at the confused-looking infant in the rag bin. “I’m going to get this,” he said. “It will be the best line in the whole play once I finish practicing.”
He noticed that Sean had completely stopped crying. Now the baby stared up at him with something like wonderment. Suddenly he reached up a tiny hand and made a sound like he wanted something.
“What?” asked Aaron.
Sean flexed his fingers. “Uhh!”
“Teether? You want something to chew?” Aaron found a peeling dress shoe on the floor and handed it to the baby.
Sean tossed it aside and reached again. “Uhhh!”
Then Aaron remembered what he always did when he looked after Sean. He reached into his jeans pocket and found the folded Polaroid. “You want to see Daddy?”
When he held out the photo, Sean’s face lit up. He reached until his fingers brushed the image of the lawyer hugging his wife and son. Sean cooed.
Aaron sighed. “I wish you had known my dad. He would have loved you. I remember when I was just a little older than you, he would let me in his bed and read stories every night. My favorite was Treasure Island, with the amazing adventure and hidden treasure and lots of pirates—”
Aaron stared. “Sean, that’s it! Daddy did the best pirate voice I ever heard.”
He thought back to those nights under the heavy covers, curled up beside his favorite person, imagining swashbuckling adventures. Daddy did all the voices with accents and emphasis and such passion.
Aaron looked at his script. He turned back a few pages and began reading the dialogue before his line, trying to capture the voice he remembered. By the time he reached his line, he hit the perfect deep pitch and salty sailor tone: “Aye, cap’n!”
Sean shrieked with delight. Aaron smiled at him. Dear Daddy, I wish you could see me now.
At the next day’s rehearsal, Aaron struggled to stay balanced and steady while limping through his part. He felt a touch of pride as he said his line, and hoped Haley noticed how good it sounded. She noticed him alright, but not in the way he hoped.
As the modern major general graced the stage with his difficult song, Aaron sat casually holding his ankle on his lap in the front row. Haley, with a clipboard, came and sat beside him.
"Hey. Are you okay?”
“I notice you’re limping pretty bad. Do you need to get your leg checked out?”
Aaron looked at her, speechless at her concern. He swallowed and shook his head. “It’s, um, my pirate limp. I thought Pirate #4 could use a pegleg, just like Long John Silver.”
She didn’t look totally convinced. “Does it hurt?”
“Hurt? Why... why would it hurt?”
She looked at him with such a piercing gaze that demanded honesty. He knew she knew he was hiding something, but he lost his voice again.
“Well, we’re in the next scene. Let’s go.” Haley touched his hand lightly. “Break a leg, if you haven’t already.”
Aaron nodded, amazed. That girl was special, no doubt, he thought as he limped after her. Anyone else would have knocked his feet from under him.