Chapter 1 -- Tainted Idol
My earliest memories of life with Aaron are clouded over with bitterness. I vaguely remember playing on the kitchen floor with a Tonka truck and suddenly hearing a door slam. Mother took an immediate interest in me, getting down on the floor, making pointless conversation about my toy. Though I focused on her, I was really listening to the yells and thuds that trembled down the hall. The sounds scared me, and I always knew it was Aaron's fault. I had seen Father yell at him for making too much noise around the house, so I blamed him whenever a sound scared me.
I suppose I was bitter at Aaron from the start. As a baby, I wouldn't let him hold me and would sometimes shriek when he came near. His face always frightened me. Sometimes he had blood on his lip or blackness around his eye. Kids don't like to see blood! Besides, he was ten years older than me and a bit of a freak, as far as I was concerned. We never did much together.
Father, on the other hand, was my best friend. We did everything together. I wanted to be just like him, even if it meant wearing a tie everyday. We went to the park together, enjoyed long ball games, sat at home and watched TV. I felt very proud to have such a special place in his life, and most of all, I felt safe around him.
My secure world changed when I was about four. I sat at the kitchen table with my mother and father, scarcely wondering where my brother was. After a few bites into the meal—some salty, oily soup—Aaron slipped through the kitchen door with a bulging backpack draped over one arm. Every muscle in his body shook madly. He closed the screen but left the door ajar.
Father stood—a rigid, pale, glaring statue. "Close the door, Aaron."
Aaron took one last glance at the street outside before pushing the pale green wood into the frame. I became vaguely aware of Mother taking my hand, whispering to me, and trying to draw my attention to the overflowing spoon in her hand.
Before I could say one word about the screen door, Father rushed at Aaron and backhanded him with stunning force. I gasped and became stone-still in shock. Aaron tightened up and curled his arms over his chest.
"Where were you?" Father demanded so softly he didn't sound as angry as he looked.
"I... I missed the bus," Aaron whispered.
I watched Father's arm curl back and then smack into Aaron's face. Aaron choked but said nothing. Another fist landed, then another from the other side, and another. My brother began sliding his feet sideways with his back against the counter, trying to escape the kitchen. But Father caught his arm and delivered a rapid succession of blows to his head and shoulders.
I started crying, in all honesty not because I cared about Aaron, but because I was terrified of Father coming after me next. I had never seen him lash out like this before. I had never seen him hurt anybody. Now he was making my brother bleed, and for the first time I understood the harm he was capable of. Mother could not quiet me now, and neither could Father's orders to shut up.
Finally Father stopped hitting Aaron, but Aaron did not lower his arms from over his head. Father held a fistfull of his son's sleeve as he leaned closer to the reddened face. "I'm sick of excuses," Father hissed. "Don't ever make a fool of me again." He shook Aaron. "Ever."
Aaron sniffled in response, still holding a forearm over his eyes. I continued to bawl.
"We're done here," said Father calmly, releasing his grip. "Go straight to bed, and I don't want to see you again today."
Aaron nodded and hurried upstairs, dragging his bag.
Father turned to Mother and me and pointed. "Keep that boy quiet."
But I was terribly frightened and more than ready for life to return to normal. Father sat down and slowly wiped his hands on his napkin. I soon stopped crying and my parents started eating again, but I could not take my eyes from the red smears on the rumpled white napkin.
Later I stood on my toes in my PJ's and leaned over the sink to brush my teeth. I noticed Aaron's brush sitting undisturbed in his blue plastic cup. Had he really gone straight to bed? Mother and Father had closed the door to their room, the coast in the short hallway was clear. After rinsing my toothbrush, I tiptoed across to Aaron's room and knocked softly.
A sniffle, then a faint "Yes?" I took that as permission to enter.
Aaron's room was half the size of our parents,' with only enough space for a sagging bed and a square dresser about my height. Aaron sat on the floor, back against the bed frame, with a flashlight in one hand and an open algebra book in his lap. One look at the tear-stained purple and red splotches lacing around half his face, and I became a silent statue again. I stood frozen in the doorway with one hand on the doorknob and my jaw hanging like a dead fish.
"What do you want?" Aaron muttered. "Get out of here."
I cowered a little. I didn't even know the guy, and I was barging into his room. "Are... are you okay?"
"Go to bed, Sean. Don't worry about it."
"But you... you—But Dad... I—"
Aaron closed his book and stood. I stepped back, realizing how tall he was. "Nevermind what goes on with Dad and me," Aaron said in a low voice. "You just stay out of it and leave me alone. Got it?"
I got it alright, but something still bothered me. "Will Dad hit me too?" I whispered.
Aaron's expression changed suddenly from a scowl to a look of sadness. He shook his head. "You just stay clear, okay? And you'll be fine."
I stood there another moment, twiddling my thumbs, unreassured.
Aaron came forward and knelt in front of me. "I want you to forget everything that happened downstairs. I want you to think of Dad as the loving, gentle father that you know. He doesn't hurt me. You're safe. Now go to bed."
And that was that. I half expected a good-night hug or kiss at that point—he was, after all, my brother, however distant. But he just turned away and went to work collecting his school books from the sparse floor.
"Good night," I said, then closed the door and hurried to my own room.
Try as I might, I could not forget what I had witnessed. My perfect father was forever tainted.