I can’t describe what it’s like to want to scream every minute of every day.
Two years after a terrifying night of pain destroyed his normal teenage existence, Aaron Downing still clings to the hope that one day, he will be a fully functional human being. But his life remains a constant string of nightmares, flashbacks, and fear. When, in his very first semester of college, he’s assigned Spencer Thomas as a partner for his programming project, Aaron decides that maybe “normal” is overrated. If he could just learn to control his fear, that could be enough for him to find his footing again.
With his parents’ talk of institutionalizing him—of sacrificing him for the sake of his brothers’ stability—Aaron becomes desperate to find a way to cope with his psychological damage or even fake normalcy. Can his new shrink control his own demons long enough to treat Aaron, or will he only deepen the damage?
Desperate to understand his attraction for Spencer, Aaron holds on to his sanity with both hands as it threatens to spin out of control.
THE boy’s heart slammed against his ribs as his sheets bound him, wrapping tendrils of cotton around his trembling arms and legs. Hot breath exploded from his lungs in sharp bursts as he fought against their hold and he tried but failed to keep the blinding fear at bay. Sweat rolled down his back in the dark, stifling space as he pulled his arms free of their nocturnal bindings. As he searched the dark corners of his room, several minutes passed before his fear burned off into white-hot rage. Two years had passed since the attack, but night after night, his dreams continued to torture him. It was a wonder he ever slept. Even with the regimen of pills his so-called doctors forced on him, he just felt like a walking corpse.
The description fit so well because everything inside him had died.
He forced back the wave of nausea that plagued him every morning when the drugs wore off, and pushed back the blankets. Peering between the heavy blue curtains, he focused on the Midwestern sky outside. Each of his days was full of repetition and habits, some far stranger than others. For example, the weird game of Russian roulette he played with himself each morning dictated that if the sky was blue and the sun was shining, he could find it within himself to brave just one more day. If, however, he saw a dark and ominous sky, he would roll to his side, face the wall, and pull the covers up over his head. Invariably, his mother would come in to check on him, wanting nothing more than to kiss his forehead or smooth his sleep-disheveled hair, but she never did. Instead, she tried not to mourn the loss of her son but to embrace the broken, disfigured boy left in his place.
The sun’s harsh rays caused him to squint as he gazed through the gap in the curtains, so he forced himself to get up. The long-sleeved T-shirt clung to his body, soaked in the sweat of a late summer morning. The boy bundled clean clothes tight against his chest, thin socks sliding across the slick wooden floor as he shuffled to the bathroom to start his daily routine. Everything in his life revolved around routine. Every mood, every activity, seemingly every thought was closely monitored and controlled through the drugs. Just once, he’d like to get through a day without being nearly incapacitated by fear and pain, and be a fully functioning human being again.
At eighteen, his life was over.
The dark hardwood floor, heavily paneled curtains, cherry wood furniture, and navy-blue bedding gave his bedroom a special kind of gloom, so things brightened just a bit in the adjoining bathroom. Decorated in light blues and peaches, the room had an oceanic theme of shorelines and seashells. The décor should have calmed him, but it didn’t. He probably hated that room more than any other in the house—his nakedness, his reflection, his shame were all on display there, harshly spotlighted by the energy-efficient bulbs in the fixture above the sink. The boy turned on the water in the shower, allowing it to heat to its highest tolerable level, and stepped back. The long-sleeved T-shirt and sweats, which seemed to grow larger with each passing week, fell to the floor along with underwear and socks. Staring at the faded pattern on the shower curtain rather than looking at his own body, he pulled the plastic back and stepped into the tub.
As the water cascaded over his hair and face, he could see each and every one of his scars, even with his eyes closed. They were burned into his retinas like a horrifying roadmap of his mistakes, and it seemed that even a momentary reprieve from them remained beyond his reach. He glanced up and saw his shampoo, body wash, and other necessities carefully organized in the rack that hung from the shower head. Everything in its place—everything except him—he had no place anymore. He didn’t live; he didn’t fit; he simply existed. The washrag scratched his skin as he washed with practiced, detached efficiency, taking great pains to stop scrubbing when his skin was only pink and not red. Even though it had been more than a year since his mother had found him on his knees in the shower, scrubbing his skin raw, he didn’t want to scare her like that again. That morning, just a few months after he’d been released from the hospital, he’d had one of his most vivid and realistic nightmares. When his mother finally talked him out of the shower, she sat with him on the bathroom floor keeping a foot of space between them while he rubbed aloe into his scarred limbs. The way she strained to keep her hands at her sides made something inside of him hurt. She wanted so badly to help him, but she couldn’t.
No one could.
Instead, she filled him with tranquilizers from the stash given to her by his latest shrink, and told him stories from his childhood as he stared blankly at the ceiling and tried to find meaning in the tiny patterns in the plaster. The safety and innocence he’d felt as a child had been ripped from him, almost as if they never existed. He had not mentioned that to his mother but remained quiet as she told him how he used to love playing in the bathtub. She tried so hard to reconnect him with that boy. Several shrinks tried the same tactic with him, attempting to reconnect him to his early teenage years. His mother, however, went much further back, trying anything to help her son. It never worked, and he wished that it would, even if just for her sake. Unfortunately for them both, the fantasies of deep-sea diver or mad scientist that he used to live out on the side of the tub with paper cups and bubbles were over. That boy was dead, abandoned on the floor of a garage that smelled like gas and fear and blood.
After slamming off the water in the shower, he reached out, ripped the towel from the rack, and pulled it behind the curtain. Steam hung heavy and thick in the small windowless room, and the scent of bodywash, though almost indiscernible, hung with it. The boy swiped a soft towel over his arms, legs, and torso in distracted, automated movements, but his skin was still damp when he pushed the curtain to the side and grabbed desperately for his clothes. He refused to unlock the bathroom door or even wait until the fan dissipated part of the steam. His shirt stuck to his skin as he dressed, but only when everything was covered, his scarred flesh hidden, could he take a full breath. The black comb shook in his hands as he smoothed down his short hair with a practiced touch, not bothering with gel or spray as other boys his age might be inclined to do. It simply didn’t matter. People saw only one thing when they looked at him: the ugly, jagged scar that ripped his face from right ear to the middle of his throat. So, really, the way he styled his hair, or didn’t, was inconsequential—no one was looking anyway. His parents had considered plastic surgery, but Aaron couldn’t stand the thought of being ripped into again, torn, disfigured, touched by another set of hands, even a doctor’s.
Aaron pushed that thought from his mind and started to brush his teeth as he stared at the painting hung over the sink. Calming, almost relaxing, it proved to be the best part of his morning routine. A peace and serenity lay within the complex geometric shapes that filled its black lacquer frame. At first, when he’d come home from the hospital, bandaged and nearly incapacitated, he’d ripped the bathroom mirror from the wall. His mother found him screaming, his hands nearly shredded, as if destroying the mirror would remove the image of his ruined face from his mind. It hadn’t occurred to him to put anything in place of the mirror. However, his mother, the one person who knew him best, felt in some way that the painting would be better than the bare, discolored wall. She had his father hang the painting while she shopped for accessories to match it. It took Aaron nearly six months to realize that she searched for the perfect towels and bought beautiful little shell-shaped soaps because she was at a loss for how to help her broken son. He also realized that she had been right; the bare wall would have been a constant reminder of why the mirror was gone. It would have been almost as bad as the mirror itself.
Leaving his towel and discarded clothes on the floor, the boy grabbed his MP3 player and a battered paperback from his cluttered bedside table and ambled down the stairs toward the kitchen. He felt almost childlike in his oversized clothes—clothes that had fit just a few months before. He stayed very close to the railing, curled in on himself, and stopped at the bottom to look around.
“Good morning, Aaron,” his father said brightly, only to have his smile falter when Aaron just nodded and walked past the table where the older man sat, relaxed and deep into his morning routine. The huge polished table, where his family had dinner together every night, stood sentinel between the kitchen and the open family room. Aaron was thankful for that airy design because he’d started to feel very claustrophobic around his family—smothered by his mother’s attention, his father’s disappointment, and his brothers’ resentment.
His younger brothers, Allen and Anthony, hadn’t come downstairs yet. Aaron, Allen, and Anthony—their straight As, as his parents had joked before their first A became an F.
As on any other weekday morning, his father sat drinking his coffee and reading the paper. His pants and shirt were pressed to perfection, his tie neatly tied. The only thing missing was the jacket that hung on the back of his chair, ready to complete the perfect picture that was his father. John Downing was the epitome of stability and success, which just underscored his son’s inability to cope with life. Almost too good-looking, his father’s black hair was cropped into an efficient and elegant example of corporate style, with the flecks of gray, no doubt caused in large part by Aaron, giving him a distinguished air. It was his eyes that gave him away, however. His clear, vibrant blue eyes which most would describe as kind, held a deep sadness. The light that had been kindled with the birth of his first son had dimmed. Aaron didn’t look at his father often anymore, maybe even less often than he looked at anyone else. Before his life was destroyed so brutally in that garage two years ago, Aaron had been the image of his father. He had the same chin, the same nose, the same black hair, and the same blue eyes. Attractive and well liked, Aaron had been just like his father, who, as a corporate attorney in downtown Chicago, was smart and successful. John Downing served as a constant reminder of the man his son would never be.
Aaron leaned against the gleaming surface of the kitchen counter and grabbed a banana. He wasn’t hungry, but eating something helped to defray the constant arguments with his mother about his weight loss. Though he never said it aloud, it didn’t matter if he ate, or if he wore his seatbelt, or even if he looked both ways before crossing. He was dead anyway; what difference did it make? It was only a matter of time before his body realized it, and he would finally have some peace.
Moving a little closer to the wall by sheer instinct, Aaron heard the thundering footsteps of what could only be his younger brothers, as they pounded down the stairs. They both greeted him with a quick “Hey, man” before making their way to the table. Chairs clattered and scraped against the wood floor as the boys sat down with their father. John Downing started talking to Anthony about a play from the younger boy’s last soccer game, and it wasn’t long before both of the boys were laughing and joking with their dad while Aaron stood seemingly forgotten in the corner of the kitchen. Only their quick, anxious glances gave away the fact that he was never forgotten.
For over two years it had been that way: polite nods, the briefest of required conversations. People treated him like a china doll: one wrong word and he would crack. For the most part, sadly, it was true. Though his younger brothers knew, at least conceptually, what had happened to him, sometimes they did say things that set him off. Allen would mention Juliette, or Anthony would tell him he was going to kill him if he didn’t stop clicking the pen in his hand. They were horrified afterward by their slips. Of course any normal person would have taken such comments in stride, but Aaron was far from normal.
He had become a complete stranger to his own family.
At the time Aaron’s world had changed, Allen had been fourteen and Anthony only ten. Aaron knew that, while he was still recovering in intensive care, his parents had sat his brothers down and explained as much as they could to them, given their young ages. Allen understood for the most part, but they had tried to shield Anthony from some of the horrific truths. Unfortunately, Aaron couldn’t hide all his scars, so eventually Anthony was faced point-blank with the brutality that had been visited upon his hero. When Aaron first came home from the hospital, the younger Downing boys hadn’t understood that their older brother, the one they had played catch with, the one who had taken them to the movies and the arcade, was a different person. He wasn’t fun. He wasn’t outgoing. He was frightening and screamed in his sleep every night, terrifying them to the point that they started to sleep in the rapidly finished basement. Aaron had offered, halfheartedly to move to the basement, but the cement walls and the cold concrete floor reminded him of the place where the men had taken him. He couldn’t even make it down the steps. Thankfully, his parents wanted him close so they could help him.
It wasn’t too long before they had started to sedate him, anyway.
His mother was already nearby at the stove, finishing up their eggs, by the time Aaron came out of his thoughts. Since he was always so quiet, neither his parents nor his brothers had noticed that he hadn’t been paying attention to anything around him for the last fifteen minutes. Of course, Aaron had done it frequently: completely shut down his attention to the outside world. These periods of complete dissociation from everything scared him. He was terrified that one day he’d get trapped in his own head and never find his way back out again.
His head was a fucking scary place to be.
Michelle Downing took the plates of eggs, bacon, and toast to her husband and younger sons at the table. Aaron hadn’t really even noticed that she’d been standing next to him cooking. He looked away from her stressed features and the premature gray in her hair, all caused by him. Her petite frame was where Aaron got his small stature, but that was one of the few similarities between Michelle and her eldest son. Where Aaron had inherited his father’s black hair, as had Anthony, Allen and his mother had chestnut curls. Aaron was the only child to get his father’s blue eyes. His brothers both had his mother’s soft brown eyes.
They had once been a typical close American family, John worked while his wife stayed home to raise their boys. Now their younger sons were left pretty much on their own while their mother struggled to care for their damaged older brother. They no longer went on vacation because Aaron didn’t deal well with change. They rarely went out to dinner because Aaron didn’t deal well with groups of people. They took turns going to Anthony’s soccer games or Allen’s wrestling matches because they didn’t want to leave Aaron alone.
It was as if they were all merely surviving, in the dark with no light on the horizon.
Aaron watched his family talking quietly as they ate around the table, and felt a stabbing pain of loneliness. They were the happy family, and he was just the freak that lived upstairs. Physically, everything in the house was the same, from the apple accessories in the kitchen to the big-screen television in the family room where they used to watch baseball together. He was different. There wasn’t a place for him anymore, even though his chair sat empty at the table waiting for him. Without another word, he set the unpeeled banana back on the counter and walked past the table where his family sat glancing at him with surreptitious looks. Opening the sliding glass door directly behind his father at the head of the table, he walked out onto their huge deck and closed the door behind him. It felt better out here, less suffocating, with fewer expectations. He sat down on one of the patio chairs, looked over their small, well-maintained yard, and thought about how much he hated days like this, days where he just couldn’t turn off his mind.
He squinted into the morning sun as his mother joined him on the deck. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that she was wearing an oversized gray sweatshirt that probably belonged to his dad. She handed him an instant breakfast drink. He took it, opened the top, and sucked it down in one long drink. Mr. Handley next door stepped out onto his own deck as Aaron handed his mother the empty container. Aaron could feel the old man’s eyes on him across the fence and wondered if he could hear Aaron screaming in the night. He heard his mother’s quiet sigh as she reached down to smooth back a wayward piece of his hair, and he jerked away violently. He hated the fact that he couldn’t even stand to be touched by his own mother. With a visible effort, she forced the hurt from her face as he looked up, but then turned and walked back into the house without another word.
Pulling his music player and the book from his pocket, he settled back on a nearby chaise, ignored his portly neighbor, and lost himself in someone else’s life.
Ok y’all. Seriously! Wow. Aaron HURTS! I sat down and pretty much read it in one sitting. Seems to be a theme for me lately on the books that are good! JP Barnaby does what I think all good authors do, she makes you feel. You feel Aaron’s hurt and frustration and you feel the hurt, anger, frustration, happiness, and sadness of everyone in his world. That’s not the easiest thing to do. JP also manages to turn a book about a gut-wrenching tragedy into a feel good story with a happy ending. Miracle of Miracles! I’m also glad to hear that there’s a sequel in the works because by the end of Aaron, you’re left wanting more… You know, kinda like I leave my dates… 4.5 Ooooey Goooey Strawberries dipped in Chocolate for JP Barnaby’s Aaron and a job VERY well done!