About half a dozen boys filled the narrow dressing room, talking loudly and trying on costumes. With a dress rehearsal only ten minutes away, the mood was jovial but slightly rushed. Aaron sat hunched on the bench gazing at the blue lockers, hugging an off-white pirate shirt, black embroidered vest, and baggy trousers in a bundle over his chest. He wanted to wait until all the other boys finished and left the room before he changed. He couldn’t bear the thought of removing his shirt now and having everybody stare and jeer at the still-sore welts crisscrossing his back.
The pirate king and the police sergeant began bantering on either side of the bench so they had to talk over Aaron. They tossed garments to one another and made tasteless jokes. The one standing behind Aaron gave him a jab in the shoulder. “Looks like he’s chickening out. What will we do without our fourth pirate?”
“Hurry up, Hotchner,” said the half-costumed boy in front of him. “We’re not waiting on you.”
“Be ready in a minute,” Aaron mumbled.
“Yeah. Why don’t we help you?” The boy behind the bench seized his arm.
Aaron pulled away angrily. The boy in front of him laughed. Grabbing both of his shoulders, he shoved Aaron back onto the tile floor. Aaron cringed as he landed with a thud. He had missed hitting his head on a locker by inches.
Several shouts of interest went up as boys from every side pointed and queried. The two who started the confrontation knelt on either side of Aaron and scuffled with him in an attempt to reach his shirt buttons. Aaron did everything in his power to swat their hands away, but he knew it was a losing fight. In only seconds, his secret would be out, and the mockery would surely hurt more than all the blazing wounds.
“Eric! Chris! Get off the floor before I bring in the director,” an older boy hollered in a firm voice, causing the bullies to withdraw. “We’ve got to be onstage in five minutes, and I’m not going to let this loser blow it. He’s not worth it.”
Aaron looked up to see Vinny. The scowling boy wore his pirate pants but hadn’t yet changed shirts. He turned away from where Aaron lay and began working a belt through his pant loops.
Aaron got up, feeling a little dizzy, and gathered his costume. Actors began trickling out until only he and Vinny remained. Interestingly, Vinny pulled his costume shirt on over his longsleeves instead of exchanging one for the other. Aaron decided to do the same.
“Thanks for stopping them,” he said quietly.
Vinny pointed an angry finger. “Don’t you dare even think about thanking me. I couldn’t care less if they tore you to pieces and threw your body to the dogs. You’re nothing to me.”
Unable to reply, Aaron began buttoning up his pirate shirt. His shabby red henley could just barely be seen under the costume. While Vinny took a swig from his secret bottle, Aaron glanced again at his co-star’s fading bruises. He noticed a newer one darkening Vinny’s temple.
Vinny shot him a glance. “Stop looking at me, unless you want to die.”
“Was it your father?” Aaron immediately felt out of bounds. He didn’t know where his boldness came from.
Vinny stopped what he was doing and faced Aaron with an incredulous glare. “What? You got something to say?”
“Don’t say a word about my father. You have no idea what he’s like. You haven’t a clue what it’s like to live the way I do.”
But Aaron did understand. Apparently, Vinny wasn’t as aware of Aaron’s homelife as Aaron first thought. Never mind bonding over what they had in common.
“And one more thing.” Vinny wasn’t through. “That girl playing Mabel; she’s mine. I don’t want to see you going near her, or even talking to her without my permission.”
Now Aaron felt incredulously mad. “As if she’s your’s to control! You can’t tell me—”
Vinny held up his fist to Aaron’s face and shook it threateningly. “Don’t test me.”
All Aaron could do was nod. Vinny took one last swallow from his bottle and then headed out. Aaron finally had the room to himself, but it was now time to be onstage. He quickly finished up and limped backstage with the rest.
The final rehearsal went smoothly, except for when Pirate #3 bent a cardboard sword and Aaron crossed the stage at the wrong time. He didn’t get a chance to speak to Haley, but he felt Vinny staring at him the whole time. He couldn’t risk it now.
Aaron felt spent when he got home. He closed the door behind him and prayed that Mother and Charles were in good moods.
He knew right away that something was not right. The lights were off, except for a flickering lamp in the living room. He heard the sound of someone’s breath coming in heaves and hitches from the couch. Cautiously, he entered the living room.
First he noticed the portable crib in the middle of the room. Sean lay inside, fast asleep, dreamily sucking on a pacifier. Aaron moved past the crib towards the couch.
He saw his mother sitting on the sofa and sobbing like her life was ended. She held one hand to her eyes and cried so hard Aaron felt his gut wrench at the sight. He didn’t know what had happened, but he set down his bag and approached the couch. Coming up beside her, he gingerly put his arms around his mother’s shaking frame. She raised her head at his touch but did not acknowledge his presence. While she continued to sob, she did hold onto his wrists and pulled his embrace close. Aaron waited at least five minutes for her sobs to die down.
She ran a hand across her eyes and sniffed. She sat there for another minute, breathing in quivers and holding Aaron’s wrists in place. Finally, she spoke in an utterly defeated tone. “I miss your father. He was a good man.”
Aaron nodded, but he held back his own tears. Right now, his mother needed his comfort. Though his soul ached to let loose with torrents of weeping, he could not put that burden on his mother. Not while she needed him to be strong. And in that moment, he actually pitied her. She never knew how to handle her grief, and the anger she took out on him was likely a release of frustration and sorrow.
“I miss his gentle hands,” Mother went on, voice breaking. “I miss his smile and his honesty, and... and his loyalty. I loved him; you must believe that.”
A single tear escaped Aaron’s eye. “Yes, I know. I love him too.”
“I don’t know... what I’ve done. I wish none of this ever happened. I wish...” Dry sobs took over.
“I know. Believe me, I know.”
Finally, Mother relaxed and leaned into Aaron’s embrace. Her body continued to shake and her deep breaths came in quaking waves. Aaron held her tight, knowing moments like this were so rare.
Mother must have exhausted herself crying. In only a few minutes, her body went completely limp and her head rested against Aaron’s shoulder. Her steady breathing signaled her sleep.
Aaron gently laid her down on the couch. He then pulled a quilt up to her shoulders and kissed her softly on the cheek. “I miss Dad and you,” he whispered.
Once he was sure she was comfortably resting, Aaron got up and limped to the stairs. Relying heavily on the railing, he made his way up to his parents’ bedroom. The door was ajar, so he went ahead and pushed it open.
Charles sat on the bed clutching his chest. He had a pile of papers beside him. The cigarette in his lips was almost gone. He looked up at the intruder and quickly dropped his arms to his sides.
“Why are you here?”
“To talk to you.” Aaron felt a flood of anger welling up inside and battled to keep it at bay.
Charles coughed and leaned forward. He looked thinner than usual.
Time to cut to the chase. “Why are you having affairs?” Aaron demanded.
Charles looked up furiously. “Why you... I ought to belt you into the next century. Get out of my room.”
Aaron wasn’t about to back down. “It’s not your room; it’s Mom and Dad’s room. I didn’t want you here, but now that you are, and now that you’ve pledged yourself to my mom, she deserves your loyalty. That’s one thing I learned from my dad. Husbands love their wives, and that means all the time, no matter how much you lose interest, no matter what distractions come up. If you’re going to play the part, I won’t let you get away with cheating on my mom.”
Charles reached for a bottle at the bedside and flung it at Aaron’s head. Aaron ducked, and the bottle shattered on the doorframe.
“I’m warning you, kid...”
“No, I’ve had enough of that. You listen to me. If you don’t love my mom and you intend to hurt us all, you can just hit the road right now. This isn’t your house. You’re not my father.”
“I’ll kill you!”
“I’ll call the police, and a lawyer too. If they have to remove you, they will.”
“You won’t get the chance. You’ll be dead, you and your lousy mama and that stinking baby too.”
“I’ll drive you out of town before that happens.”
Charles stood, unsteady but menacing. “Big talk won’t save you.”
“I'm not finished.”
“You’re done talking. Get on your knees. I want you to respect me.”
“No. I won’t play your game.”
Charles strode closer. “You will respect me.”
“I won’t grovel at your feet.”
Charles got close enough to clamp a hand around Aaron’s arm. Aaron twisted away, causing them both to careen into the wall.
Charles dove with both hands at Aaron’s chest. Aaron grabbed his wrists and pushed back with all his might. Charles propelled a knee up into Aaron’s stomach, and the boy winced but did not let go of his stepfather’s wrists. Though Charles pulled away and repeatedly pushed him against the wall, Aaron did not loosen his grips.
Aaron seized his chance and used Charles’ own momentum to fling the man against the bed. Papers fluttered up from their pile. Aaron caught sight of one page that looked like an oncologist’s report. Another paper looked like a bank statement. Aaron glanced from the papers to the abandoned cigarette and connected the dots. Lung cancer. That’s what the man was worked up about.
Charles rose from where he fell and charged at Aaron again, fist raised. Aaron blocked his arm with his own and punched the man in the stomach. Charles doubled over, and Aaron felt a little shocked, and a little thrilled, that he had just punched his stepfather.
Charles was up again in no time. He moved too fast now and grabbed Aaron’s head in both hands. Though Aaron grabbed his wrists again, the man had full control and pushed him into the bedside table. The lamp came down with a crash. Aaron tried to get up, but Charles knocked him onto the mattress.
“I can do to your mother as I please!” Charles yelled. “And I can take care of you as I see fit. I am the father here, and you have no right to say otherwise.”
Aaron made another desperate effort to get up. Charles’ thick palm in his chest held him in place.
Charles breathed heavily now, and he looked weaker than when they’d started. Even so, he had a last reservoir of strength to expend, and he was furious enough to finish anything. He reached for a chipped ceramic mug on the lamp table and raised it high above his head.
Aaron thought remorsefully about his Mother, Father, and baby brother as he lifted his hands to shield his face. And what about Haley? He knew how much the play meant to her and didn't want to let her down. So many lives affected by the end of one, and yet he doubted any of them would miss him. I’m sorry I failed all of you.