by Angel Johnson
Linda scurried through the house in preparation for her latest juvenile delinquent: six year old Aaron Richardson. She placed a padlock on the drawer containing the knives. She stroked her hip and felt the budge in her jeans pocket from the half dozen keys crammed inside. She inhaled. She let her eyes scan the kitchen in search of anything flammable that she could have possibly missed.
There is no such thing as a bad child, Linda told herself. Every child deemed bad was not actually bad but, in fact, heartbroken. Unlike adults, heartbroken children can be repaired.
Linda knew that brown children having potential to be nothing but a product of their environment was the main cause of many problems in the black community. Violence, poverty, gangs, and drugs all stemmed from children who didn’t have the right training as they went into adulthood. Everything starts with the children and if any betterment of the community would occur, it would begin with them.
Linda ran back into the guest room, which would be Aaron’s room, in order to check that all the windows were locked from the inside. That way, she could set the alarm and it would go off if the windows were opened.
Aaron’s room was fully loaded with the latest video games, a flat screen television, and a chest full of toys and action figures. After bouncing around in the foster care system for extended periods of time, most children enjoy a little fun. Little Aaron was removed from his home due to abuse and neglect so she had no fear of spoiling him.
Linda picked up a stuffed panda from a large bin of toys and cradled it in her hands.
What type of child would it be this time? she wondered.
He was exhibiting violent and self destructive behavior. So he was either the disobedient child who believed that he was grown and could no longer be disciplined. Or was he a child that had experienced horrible things and had to regain his childhood innocence? Linda had known them all and addressed many of their issues in the latest book she had written, Lost Innocence: Teaching the Abused Child How to Be a Child Again.
The doorbell rang and Linda ran in response to it. She moved fast because she was an athletic woman who spent the majority of her days walking swiftly or running in a full sprint. She was an attractive woman despite a long scar just above her right cheekbone.
It was this scar that reminded her of the most valuable lesson from her first year of being a foster parent; never underestimate the emotions of a distraught child. That was also the year that she learned to lock up all sharp objects just in case.
When Linda opened the door to greet Diane, she was surprised to see her disheveled. Her mascara was smeared. Her hands were shaking. Like Linda, Diane was an organized and energetic woman.
Linda stepped back and gave Diane a slight smile. It made her very uncomfortable. She began to frown while she listened to Diane rant. Diane was hysterical.
“It is one of the worst cases of abuse I’ve ever come across. Very bad. His mom suffered from mental illness. She had these violent outbursts. The paralysis in Aaron’s legs. I think she did it. They say she tried to kill him. She was convinced he was the Devil.”
Linda attempted to process the incoherent mess coming from Diane. She was beginning to get annoyed. She wanted to stick to the facts.
“Paralysis?” Linda replied. “There are stairs throughout my home I do not have the proper accommodations if he cannot walk.”
“Oh yes,” Diane replied. “He has a slight limp, but he walks. He also kicks, hits, and destroys. He is unusually strong. The only thing Aaron doesn’t do is speak.”
Linda stood pressed against the front door listening to the Diane’s warnings. The conversation was intended to discourage her, but instead it only made her more interested. It had been a long time since she had been challenged by a child.
“That is quite typical,” Linda responded. He needs to learn coping mechanisms. I can teach him that.”
“Honestly Linda,” Diane pleaded. “By the time I got to him, it was too late. No one has ever kept him more than a couple of days. That child is a lost cause. Keep him heavily sedated. I don’t expect you to keep him for more than a couple of days.”
“It will be fine,” Linda assured her. “Aaron will stay here for at least two weeks. Fax me a copy of his doctor’s statement.”
“No,” Diane replied urgently. “I know you want to fix this child and write about it in your next book but you cannot fix this child. There are not enough drugs or therapy in the world to fix him.”
Linda moved towards Diane with her hand on her hip.
“Oh yes,” Linda said. “He can be fixed and I will be the one to fix him. He is a six year old child. I can guarantee you that there will be vast improvements in Aaron’s behavior in two weeks. Mark your calendar.”
“That’s no child!” Diane yelled. She had begun to clinch her fists. “Aaron is no child.”
Ten minutes later, Linda was alone with Aaron attempting to figure out what Diane had been talking about. Aaron was a tiny little fellow. Obviously underweight. He looked to be four years old rather than six. He had a slight limp and had difficulty standing upright. She helped the child into his seat at the kitchen table.
Linda’s first endeavor would be to find a nutritious food that the child would actually eat.
“Aaron,” she said. “What would you like to eat for lunch?”
Aaron growled. It was a low, raspy sound. The growl was of an abnormal pitch, much too low for a child of six. The child’s voice could possibly be the factor that unnerved Diane. She deduced that due to the child’s lack of pitch control, she should not rule out the possibility that Aaron might be autistic.
Linda also noticed the pungent odor coming off the child. Not the smell of sweat or urine which was the usual scent. It was something else. Something very sour.
“Little man, would you like a grilled cheese sandwich?” Linda sang. She always raised her voice three octaves higher when talking to small children. Studies confirmed that children find it soothing.
“It’s delicious, Aaron. You know what? I’ll have one too.”
Linda took a large lead skillet out of the cupboard and sat it on the stove. She turned her back to the child and opened the refrigerator. She had to kneel down in order to reach the bottom shelf. It was possible that she was out of butter and might have to make do without it but she definitely had bread and cheese. She had just located the butter when she decided to look back and wave at Aaron.
When she looked back, she noticed that Aaron was no longer sitting at the table. This was odd. She had not heard any footsteps at all against the hardwood floor. Surely a child who walked with a limp could be heard against floors. Where could the little boy have gone that fast without making any sounds?
Linda ran in search for the child. She sniffed the air as she walked but the child’s smell had already permeated throughout the house and never lost its intensity. Upon entering each room, she stopped and listened for footsteps. There was one privilege to having a house with no carpet. If she listened carefully she will know the location of everyone inside the house. Five minutes later, there was still no Aaron.
Hide and seek, Linda thought. Aaron thinks this is a game. She created a new rule in her head while power walking through the house. Never turn your back to a child within the first two hours. He might just disappear on you.
Before she knew it, Linda found herself back in the kitchen. She had opened every closet and peered under every bed and was still unable to find the child. Undoubtedly, Aaron was still in the house because she had not heard the alarm.
Linda decided to wait and listen. If the child did walk off and accidentally got lost on a mission of discovery, he would probably return to the place where he started. If the child is playing hide and seek, he will eventually give up when he discovers that no one is seeking him. She listened carefully but still did not hear anything.
A soft thud. Linda heard it but could not identify where it came from. She looked around the kitchen to see who was approaching. There it was again, except this time it was not one thud but many. It was not the sound of footsteps but as if someone was pounding against the floor.
She was not aware of leaning down and pressing her ear against the floor but she was kneeled down and listening. The floor vibrated underneath her hands with each passing thud. The last sound she remembered hearing was the heavy smack of the lead skillet against her skull.
When Linda opened her eyes, she saw little Aaron crouched over her growling. He was drooling and she assumed by the puddle of saliva on her shirt that she had been out cold for quite a while. She felt a searing pain at the back of her head. There was a ringing in her ears. It was possible that she had a mild concussion from the blow.
Linda tried to get up but the pain was too great. She touched the back of her head and felt the warm blood on her fingertips. She attempted to use her arms to hoist herself into an upright position but her body had never felt heavier. She didn’t understand how a three foot tall child with a limp could manage to run up fast enough in order to hit her in the head with a skillet.
As Linda struggled to lift her weight, Aaron put his tiny arms around her. Grabbing her by the torso, he leaned back and she was able to sit upright. She looked into the child’s eyes and gave a faint smile.
“Empathy,” she said. “What you just did Aaron was empathetic. You just helped me sit up, little man. That means you’re not psychotic.”
Linda laughed as she dragged her body across the kitchen floor towards a chair.
This child is not a lost cause after all, she thought. Aaron and I have just made a major breakthrough. This little black boy will not end up working in the streets as a drug mule. He is going to go to first grade and play video games.
It was later that night when the second incident with Aaron occurred. Linda awoke to screams coming from the little boy’s room. She was exhausted and had to fight to wake up because she had taken some Percocet for the pain in the back of her head. She had tucked little Aaron only few hours ago but she knew that interrupted sleep was a part of the process. Night terrors are typical of children transitioning from an abusive environment.
Linda was surprised by the manliness of the little boy’s choked screams. It was as if it was not a little boy screaming at all. Linda shook off her uneasiness because she had not yet ruled out hearing impairments that could cause the abnormal pitch in the child’s voice.
Coming down the hall, Linda put her hand over her mouth gagging. She had just bathed Aaron earlier that evening but the child’s smell was stronger than ever. It crawled into her mouth and down her throat leaving an acidic aftertaste. The smell reminded her of one thing and until now she couldn’t remember what it was. Now she could name it.
It was the smell of rotting flesh. Linda had only smelled it one time in her life, quite early in her career. Her subject had died and remained undiscovered for over a week in 90 degree heat. At that time, the smell let her know that there was death on the other side of the door.
Linda wouldn’t have to be concerned about something as horrific being on the other side of Aaron’s door. He was still screaming as loud as his little body would allow. Even louder. Linda knew it must have been one hell of a nightmare for the little boy to scream like this. He screamed as if he was in physical pain, but she knew that emotional pain can hurt more than physical pain at times.
The room was on fire.
It wasn’t until Linda felt the hot doorknob that she smelled the smoke. Linda questioned the plausibility of this. Surely she would have discovered matches on the child when she tucked him into bed in his pajamas.
Fire, Linda thought. How is that possible? Pyromania, too. I can’t believe this.
She began kicking at the doorknob hard until it broke off and the door flew open. There was a perfect circular ring of fire surrounding the child’s bed. Linda drew back as the clouds of smoke billowed towards her. She ran into the hallway, switched on the smoke ventilator and grabbed the fire extinguisher. The boy’s tiny body was convulsing on the bed. His arms and legs jerked wildly.
Seizure, Linda thought. No one told me he was epileptic. This changes everything.
“How are you doing my little firebug?” Linda said. She sprayed the fire extinguisher following the trail of fire around the bed. White foam stacked everywhere.
“Stay calm. You’re going to be fine.”
Linda leaped onto the bed on top of the child. Grabbing him by his hips, she turned the child’s body on his side. She scanned the child’s hands for any visible burns. The perfect circle of fire required an accelerant. The child appeared unscathed.
“It’s going to be okay little man,” Linda cooed. “It will pass. Was this just an elaborate rouse so that you could get to ride in the ambulance?”
Oh, that child’s voice, Linda thought covering her ears.
“No,” Aaron said. His facial expression had shifted and the scared little boy that lay moments ago had completely left. The boy’s seizure had passed and someone else was looking at Linda through Aaron’s eyes. This child was not Aaron, but someone new. If there were two distinct sides to Aaron, this would imply MPD. A dire diagnosis for a six year old child.
It also occurred to Linda that the child could speak. The word “no” is a word. It may be the simplest word of all but it is indeed a word. The child could speak. He had been faking mute the entire time. The thought that little Aaron was faking a disability made Linda angry.
“Since we know you speak now Aaron, answer me this,” Linda said. “How did you manage to start the fire?”
Linda grabbed the child’s wrists and leaned down on top of him.
“Tell me about the fire Aaron,” she yelled. Linda would never dream of yelling at Aaron before, but if Aaron had been pretending to be disabled all this time, he needed to be yelled at.
When Aaron was still unresponsive, Linda decided to try another approach.
“Child,” Linda said. “What is your name?”
Linda had learned this tactic from working with a teenage girl during her second year of graduate study. Each persona had a different name.
“I am the Devil,” Aaron responded.
“Okay,” Linda said with confidence. “You are the Devil. Did your mother tell you this?”
“Yes,” the child responded. “I am from hell. The fire that never shall be quenched.”
His facial expression remained unchanged. This was a new personality altogether.
That phrase is straight from the Bible, Linda thought. Yet it applied directly to the question that was asked. He is quite possibly gifted.
Linda decided to do some research after bringing Aaron home from the hospital and tucking him safely into bed. She rummaged through stacks of books and articles looking for any cases on children with demonic possession. She knew that Aaron was not possessed by the Devil but that wasn’t really the point. The fact that Aaron believed that he was possessed and could generate a theatrical performance of this magnitude meant that she better become a master on the subject.
She had to bring the boy back to reality. It would be quite a waste if such a bright little boy ended up in some group home for the mentally incompetent. He could be some sort of savant or prodigy.
One day, Linda thought. It had only taken a few hours to get Aaron talking while the whole world believed that the child could not speak. This was exactly what was wrong with people. They underestimate these children and shove them into the learning disability category without thinking twice. Linda shook her head disapprovingly. It truly was a shame. It was with these thoughts that Linda finally drifted off to sleep for the second time.
Linda dreamed that her hands were on fire.
When she opened her eyes, all she could see was dark blood everywhere. The bed was moist in a pool of blood. The blood soaked the bed sheets, her clothes, and it had dried into her hair. After looking around, she noticed that the puncture wounds on her hands were the source of the blood. The blood rushed from her hands and she found the shock of it so severe that she did not feel pain, only an intense throbbing.
“I bet you thought that was pretty damn clever Aaron,” Linda said as she crouched over the bathtub running cold water over her left hand.
“I’ll have you know that assault is a very serious crime.”
Linda had opened her first aid kit but could use nothing inside of it except the sterile gauze and iodine. There were two distinct stab wounds on her left and right hands. Each wound had a circumference of about an inch. She had been stabbed clear through on both hands and when looking at her hand she could see through it.
She reached for the bottle of whiskey and took a big gulp. She would start with the left hand first. She reached down and picked up the threaded needle and began to sew up the hand.
Linda looked up at Aaron who was looking at her from the doorway. The child looked sorry.
“If I was to go to the hospital right now Aaron, they would lock you up for sure,” Linda taunted. “There is no way that I could explain wounds like this. There is no way that I can explain calling an ambulance twice in one night. I just want you to understand the severity of your actions.”
Linda gasped in pain as she thrust the needle downward into the already sensitive flesh. Her eyes began to water and she started to weep softly to herself.
I do not have much time to do this, she thought. I’ve already lost so much blood. How could I have slept through that? I can understand getting stabbed in one hand…but two? These hands will get infected soon. They will begin to pus and swell. Then, they will have to be removed.
“My hands,” Linda cried. “How could you have done this, Aaron?”
“I am not Aaron,” the child responded. “I am the Devil. Trouble, sorrow, and despair are my truth. It follows me everywhere that I go.”
“I’ll fix you!” Linda screamed. “If it’s the last thing I do. You’ll be a good little boy. You’ll see. You’ll see.”
Two weeks later, Linda and Diane sat in the living room. She could tell that Diane was thirsty for details, but she had yet to come up with any plausible story.
“Linda, I have to tell you,” Diane said. “You look like hell. It must have been a rough two weeks. Look at your hands. And what’s worse is that you are limping. What happened to your legs?
Linda sat in the chair unable to close her mouth and the drool oozed off of her lips. It took her thirty seconds to gain control and be able to speak.
“Diane,” she whispered in between low growls. “That child took a lot from me. This will probably be my last case.
She jerked her body backward and forced a bandaged hand to her face. She wiped the saliva from her mouth with much effort.
“Would you like to see the little boy?” Linda asked.
“Yes,” Diane replied.
“Hey Aaron,” Linda called faintly. “Come into the dining room and say hello to Diane.”
Diane watched in amazement as Aaron skipped into the room smiling.
“Hello Diane,” Aaron said. “How are you today?”
“I’m fine Aaron,” Diane said. “You’re in a good mood.”
“Do you want to look at my drawings Diane?” Aaron asked.
“Yes,” Diane replied.
Diane called multiple times for Linda’s notes on Aaron’s case. She left voicemails congratulating her on the remarkable change in Aaron’s behavior. She offered Linda her highest acclamation and even suggested that she write the foreword in Linda’s next book. Linda never returned any of Diane’s calls.