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Specifics of Hell

Kayla Rae Whitaker

They took Aron in a helicopter to Knoxville. He didn’t come back to school that week, or the next. He wasn’t at church, either. The Reverend scared us all by turning into a ghost overnight, his belly going loose and fatty, something that dragged instead of pushed forward, his hair losing its weird glow. His sermons were quieter; one Sunday talking about Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, his voice broke and he had to stop.

The Sunday after Christmas, we came to church to find a fence in front of the slope. There were whispers from Aron’s cousins, rumors that spread all over the church yard, that Aron had been brought back to the hospital in town. He’d woken up from the coma, but the fall had caused some sort of brain damage. The doctors told his parents that he would not be able to walk or talk again. It was one of Aron’s girl cousins who told us, a middle schooler who kept her arms folded tight across her chest. When asked, she said, “He’ll be retarded.” What did that mean, exactly? “Can’t take care of himself. Just retarded.”

This made my stomach surge. James Mark slowly slid his Game Gear into his back pocket.

After sermon, our mother came to us and said, “would you two like to visit Aron in the hospital?”

Bryce and I looked at each other, neither of us wanting to be the one to say no.

“They’re allowing visitors now that he’s back. Reverend says Aron’s real eager to see his friends from church. Why don’t we go?”

The Rev limped over to us, hair flapping. “What’d they say,” he boomed to Mom, grinning weakly. He looked down at me. “I bet they’re on board. What do you say, boys?” He clapped me on the shoulder. I looked down.

We followed the Rev’s Chevy to Central Baptist East. He led us inside to the second floor, Christmas wreaths and a spinning, blinking tree against the smell of bleach and urine, to a room at the end of the hall. A curtain was drawn around the bed. A nurse wearing blue rubber gloves emerged. “Aron’s getting his bath right now. He’ll be done in just a minute.”

We stood in the hallway, Dad and the Rev speaking in low tones, the Rev running his fingers over his nose and grabbing the end, over and over. He sighed and turned. I heard Nashville: something about moving Aron down there, to a specialist. Our mother nodded vigorously. She reached out to grasp Bryce’s shoulders, stopping him in mid-fidget. She took my head, petting hard. Bryce and I froze, gave each other looks. Knew that this meant something and whatever it was, it made us afraid and we noticed for the first time that our mother was a good half-foot shorter than Dad.

And then the curtain was opened, and the nurse came out and announced that we could go in. And the Rev strode through first with, “hey there, bubby,” and Dad stepped in after, hands in pockets, and then Mom, herding us in front of her, whispering, “go on,” and we could see Aron’s feet first, limp and white, heels splayed. Completely still. I stopped.

“Go on.” Mom pushed her hand into my back.

Bryce looked sidelong at me. If I bolted, he would, too.

The Rev sat at the side of the bed, cradling a small, pale kid hooked to ten different machines. Wires bandaged into his arms, cords taped to his chest, one disappearing into a hole in his throat, another hooked to his nose. He was more wire than kid. They’d shaved his head. His hands were folded into his chest, wing-like.

“Bubby,” the Rev said, his arms around him, lifting him into something close to a sitting position. “Bubby, look at who’s here. Your friends came to see you.”

Aron opened his mouth, wide as if to speak, then wider, wider. He showed his teeth. He made a loud honking sound. He lifted a hand toward his face, crumpled. It went to his nose. Plucked. His eyes rolled to the ceiling. “Now, bubby,” the Rev said, and gently took his hand away.

Bryce and I stood at the foot, watched the Rev produce a towel and wipe Aron’s chin. Aron shifted his eyes, just for a moment, in our direction, then turned them upward, focusing on a space above our heads.

We walked to the car in silence. When my stomach threatened to erupt, I shoved my fist in and swallowed hard as I could. Dad leaned in and patted my shoulder. “You okay?”

“Fine,” I said.

We were eating pot roast for dinner in the clothes we’d changed into, chewing and staying quiet, when Mom dipped her head close to her plate and started shaking. We froze, not sure what was happening, until she lifted her head and showed us her face, red and crumpled. She gasped for air. “I just. I just. I just.” Dad rose and said, “Marilyn.” And she said, “I just. I can’t. I can’t.

Dad put his arms around her and helped her upstairs. Bryce and I looked at each other, too shocked to say anything.

Mom stayed upstairs the rest of the night, alternating between quiet and choked, heaving sobs. Animal noises. I passed their bedroom once and saw her curled on her side, hands cupping her face.

“Go back to your room,” Dad told me, putting on his jacket and heading for the front door.

“Where are you going?”

“Just running over to see Dr. Nicholls next door for a minute. Don’t go outside. Tell Bryce the same.”

“Is Mom okay?”

“Everything’s fine. Just stay put.”

He was back within the hour, touching me on the head when he passed as if to make sure I was still there. He stepped into the bedroom and drew an orange bottle from his pocket, shook out a single pill. Picked up the glass of water at my mother’s bedside and held both out to her, telling her to drink, and I looked at the pill and thought, druggery.


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