Sight Among Blind Eyes
“Alright, everybody, I want you to substitute (a + 3) for x and write in (a - 3) for y. Rewrite your equation and we’ll work it from there.”
Through his throbbing headache, Aaron Hotchner couldn’t translate Mrs. Gillansy’s lecture into English. He couldn’t think so hard today. It hurt every muscle in his head.
His pencil was much better at tracing out a Jolly Roger than a senseless equation on his notebook paper. He knew if he didn’t pay attention, he would spend another quiz period staring at the wall and praying for the solutions to pop out of the taupe paint. But at this point, he couldn’t help it. Math hurt. Physically and cruelly.
The TA liked to say that those who did poorly in math couldn’t be anything other than bartenders. He said that math geniuses (like himself) had their pick of the highest jobs, and he had his eyes on the FBI.
Yeah, Mr. Bigshot FBI-wannabe, Aaron thought when he looked at the TA. We’ll see how far flunking math can take me.
Maybe if his head was clear and his thoughts uncluttered, he could concentrate and do very well. But the last few days had been a nightmare. He hadn’t managed to fit much studying in at all. His stepfather Charles had become a taskmaster who wanted to see Aaron fix every crack and loose nail in the house. Before he knew it, Aaron was also scrubbing dishes, raking leaves, cleaning the car, and fixing the roof. He knew Charles would never forgive him for confronting him about his unfaithfulness. But now Aaron knew his stepfather’s other secret, that the man was suffering from lung cancer. It wouldn’t be long before Charles had to succumb to full hospital care. And when that time came, Aaron would have only his mother to deal with.
Mother was in worse shape than he’d ever seen her before. He knew she harbored a festering hatred of Charles, but she never dared lose her temper against him. Instead, she hit the bottle harder than ever and carried out her rage on Aaron. Last night had been especially brutal.
Baby Sean could only understand so much. He did not cry as often these days because he was getting used to being ignored. Aaron would come home each day, gaze at the sad but silent infant lying on his blanket on the living room floor, and then quickly get out of the open. He wished he could do more for his little brother, but usually his main concern was delaying the inevitable attack for as long as possible. If his mother couldn’t find him, she would disappear into her room with a bottle, and Aaron would put Sean in his crib before going down into the basement for the night.
The one high point of his life was Haley Brooks, whom he met through an epic performance of “The Pirates of Penzance.” They had spoken once or twice in the last week, but Aaron was sure they would become closer friends as time went on. She also knew his secret, and she didn’t look down on him for constantly getting hurt. She made him feel a little more worthwhile. If she knew the full extent of the tortures he faced at home, she might be repelled or afraid to speak to him. As things were, she extended so much grace.
Aaron stopped thinking about Haley’s kindness—his medicine—and looked up to see Mrs. Gillansy leaning over his desk. All the other students had heads down and pencils scribbling in focused math. He alone sat twitching and tapping his pencil and squirming against the pain he couldn’t hide.
His teacher lowered her voice. “Is everything alright?”
“Are you okay? Do you need help?”
For a minute, he sat speechless. Was it because of the crescent-shaped bruise from a belt buckle on his forearm, the arm he hadn’t covered well enough with a sleeve? Was it because of the tear in his shirt just below the shoulder, where he could still feel the lash? Or was it his overall pale and listless composure that day that gave away his secret? What would she do now that she knew?
“I... I’m okay. It’s no so very bad,” he said quietly, not wanting a lot of attention just then.
“You tell me that, but the evidence says otherwise.”
Aaron swallowed a lump in his throat. “What are you going to do?” he whispered.
“There’s only so much I can do on my own. I’m going to recommend you start seeing someone who can offer more specialized help.”
Aaron lowered his face and began searching his desk space. What if she meant a hospital? Or what if law enforcement was called? “I don’t want the police getting involved,” he said softly.
Mrs. Gillansy’s eyes widened. “Oh gracious, that won’t be necessary. You’re failing math, but that’s not a criminal matter.”
All of a sudden, Aaron felt his mixed trepidation and hope collapse. Mrs. Gillansy hadn’t noticed his injuries at all, or if she did, paid them less mind than his performance in math. Maybe that was for the better.
“I understand, Mrs. Gillansy. I’ll try to do better.”
She patted his hand, right beside a bruise on his wrist. “I’m sure you will. You’re a bright young man.”
Bright enough to see that you notice what’s really wrong, but don’t care enough to do squat about it, Aaron thought angrily. For the most part, he didn’t want his teacher reacting to his condition. But it irked him to see her glancing at the marks and cuts his sleeve wasn’t long enough to hide and then turning away as if a battered student was the most natural thing.
Go ahead, make mathematics the altar of your worship. Nevermind the students who can’t study enough because of bigger problems. Sorry I can’t live up to your straight-A fantasies.
Suddenly Aaron sat straight up and hurled his math book to the floor. Not giving any explanation or stopping at Mrs. Gillansy’s shouts of bewilderment, he got up and darted out into the hallway.
That was childish of me, he thought as he marched away. I should go back and apologize.
But he wasn’t sorry. He was fed up. He was angry that his stepfather treated his family so poorly, angry that Sean was so neglected, angry that Mother had abandoned any qualms about beating her oldest son senseless time after time. Most of all, he was angry that nobody seemed to care. He didn’t want any serious questions asked or any police investigations started, but he did want the world to wake up and realize some children were hurting very much.
Why don’t they care? Why don’t they see anything? Aaron saw clusters of teachers and students filling the hallway. A meeting must have just let out. Feeling uncommonly bold, he rolled up both his sleeves as far as they would go. Red cuts and mottled marks stood out on both arms. Let them see. Let them wonder. Let them try to extend a helping hand.
Aaron’s heart sunk as he continued down the hall. Students either stared or turned away, but said nothing. A few smirked. Teachers gave weird little nods as he passed or pretended to have something to ask their coworkers. Aaron felt his eyes welling up with tears. How many kids, he wondered, had walked right through these adults’ lives with plenty of pain and trouble on display, and nobody did a thing? How many other abused kids filled the corridors, waiting for somebody to step in?
Somebody has to stand up for kids like me. Somebody has to make a small stand for justice.
It was an enormous task for one high schooler to take on alone.
“There she is! I’m going to see if she wants to sit at our table.”
The handsome baseball player sprang to his feet in time to intercept the pretty blond before a bespectacled boy from another table had the chance. Vinny glowered a few tables away. The junior girl carried a purple thermos and a tin lunch box with circus designs. She smiled politely as the boy stepped in front of her and made an awkward bow of the head.
“Hi there, Mabel, is it? I saw you in the school play last week. It was, man, it was amazing.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“Well, I was wondering if, I dunno, you wanted a seat?”
“Oh, I found one. But thank you.”
His face fell. “Well, if you ever wanna come over and just say hi, y’know...”
“I appreciate that.”
The girl continued on toward a table straight ahead where only one student sat with his face behind a biology textbook. The pitcher arched an eyebrow as he watched the girl sit across from the geeky boy.
Aaron? ... Aaron Hotchner?
Haley set down her lunch and tipped down the top of the school book with her finger to see the empty table in front of him. “You haven’t been bringing any lunch lately,” she observed.
Haley tipped her head to one side. “You look angry.”
Aaron finally met her eye. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Do you want to talk about it?”
Aaron closed his book and leaned over the table. “Everybody here is so blind, so caught up in their own lives.”
“No... No, of course not. You pay attention.”
“Well, you never have to hide from me.”
He looked at her for a minute, wide eyes showing vulnerability to her kindness. She smiled, suddenly feeling a touch bashful.
“Are you hungry?”
He looked down.
“Hey, I said you don’t have to hide.” Haley opened her lunch box and removed one half of a tuna fish sandwich. “I have too much anyway.”
Aaron gratefully accepted, but he hesitated with the crumbly meal pinched between his fingers. Only once Haley had gotten through half of her share of the sandwich did Aaron inhale his in ten seconds flat.
Haley giggled behind her hand. She couldn’t help it. Aaron blushed and smiled along.
Her smile, just her presence, was so refreshing. And yet Aaron felt oddly uncomfortable. Perhaps it was better when nobody cared about his problems. He didn’t want her to feel like she always had to help him.
“I have to be in dance class with Jessica in seven minutes,” Haley said, not noting his discomfort. “Do you want to meet me after class? I’d like to show you something.”
Now there was a chance he couldn’t pass up. To meet with this special girl instead of going home sounded so wonderful. He nodded.
“Okay. I’ll see you by the tree next to the parking lot at 4.”
Another nod. He watched her leave, wondering where she found it in her heart to give so much to someone who lacked everything.
And so things had gone on since she designed his pirate scar. She always looked out for him. If only he could return the favor. Aaron wished he could do more for her rather than always relying on her help. Maybe someday...