A useless love-a connection or affinity that doesn’t fit into the plans of anyone concerned.
It was his smile that killed her. Gap toothed and cheek to cheek. What a way to end a week. Showing him the room he would stay in, he ran around touching everything with awe and excitement.
“Don’t expect him to talk,” the harried looking social worker said as she’d bundled him into Joy’s arms. “Aaron is not supposed to have said much before, but he’s saying even less now.”
His little curls bobbing he bent over a dinosaur that had slipped from the toy box. With a child’s unknowing roughness, he made it stomp all over the walls. The quiet was a little strange to Joy, having had many temporary guests over the years, and she was used to playtime being a raucous time. At least he was settling in. Joy left him to it; she was on dinner duty tonight.
When Bonnie came home with Ria, Aaron was washed and warm in his pjs, sleepy-eyed and stroking his lapels. Bonnie kissed Joy warmly, her hands stroking the red frizz of her hair. She turned to little Aaron, his mouth open. Bonnie laughed, and squatted to greet their newest member, “And who is this delightful little fella?”
We all waited respectfully for him to say and Bonnie even tickled his little tummy. But he just smiled shyly and shuffled in my direction. I tousled his hair. “This is Bonnie. She’s my wife.”
I guided him into the kitchen, to stand beside our little gloom cookie. She laughed when we called her that; at least with the change in her music and outward appearance, she hadn’t lost her humour. Ria was just expressing the adult processing of a lot of sad events that had happened in her life. For her, it would always be a phase; we could see her struggling against a culture of blaming others for her pain, even though she might have earned the right too. “Hey little buddy.”
“This is Ria. She’s our only other friend staying now.” We smile at each other, knowing that we are not always friends now that she’s a teenager. Small children seem to understand that better than surrogate and foster carer.
“Ok, it’s bedtime buddy!”
Aaron took my hand and followed me meekly. It was unusual to have a foster child so well behaved, but not unheard of. Still, given what he’d been through, he should have had a meltdown by now. I mentally sighed. We were probably going to be in for quite a day tomorrow.
We woke to screaming. In our blindness we knocked over a lamp and tripped on a rug. Bonnie got to his bedside first, the nightlight glowing gently and highlighting the tight torque of the twisted sheets. The little sweaty brow with the matted curls, the eyelids fluttering, the dream war still raging; this here was our screamer.
“No, Jimmy. No!”
I got the softest hint of smoke. I looked over to Bonnie, who stroked his forehead and whispered soothingly to him. Slowly, his eyes opened and he gazed at us unseeing. Our hands underneath him, we gently unrolled him and straightened the bedsheets.
“Who was Jimmy?” Bonnie asked as we climbed back beneath the sheets and cuddled.
“I can’t be sure, but the social worker said that the mother and boyfriend were in custody being questioned about a fire that broke out with Aaron in the house. Luckily a neighbour saw the smoke and Aaron at the window. I think he was already being monitored before this happened.”
I had seen small injuries on his body as I’d gotten him in the bath. How any person could hurt a helpless babe I could never understand, and it was hard not to let my boiling blood take over. Maybe there was a reason the kid was so obedient. The thought made me swallow hard. These thoughts would not let me sleep well.
“We’re their safe place, love,” Bonnie stroked my hair and shoulders, knowing where my thoughts were taking me. “You can’t undo what happened to them before they got here.”
“I know.” I sighed, and rolled over, looking at the moonlight on my familiar side, my possessions littered about in my cluttered way. “I know.”
Bonnie wrapped around me, her breath warm on the back of my neck. Her breathing steadied and I knew she was asleep. For a while, I watched the wall instead, before exhaustion eventually brought me down.
Dressing Aaron the next morning, I couldn’t help my soft hiss as I noticed some mild, fresh burns on his brown little body. Poor little tike. I plastered the smile back on my face so he doesn’t think it’s him that making me angry.
As I tided up Aaron’s room, the smell of smoke or ash or something still bothered me. I smelt it as I made the bed. As I shook out Aaron’s pjs, I noticed singe marks. But, I had brought these brand new the day before.
I talked to Bonnie about it, who shrugged it off. Maybe it had come from some other source, some grease or grime. I didn’t have another explanation, so I had to let it go.
The following month was quiet, Aaron seemed to be settling in. No midnight calling out. No misbehaviour. A perfect little guest really. He loved reading with us, and with him tucked under our arms, he inched his way into our hearts. We knew he would only be with us a short time, but falling in love with his dear self had not been part of our plan.
It had been my turn to work late, a covered shift at the hospital. I was bone-tired, my hands shaking with weariness and I rounded the last corner before home. The bright red and blue flashing stung the back of my eyes. A policeman waved me off the road and blindly I parked and looked at the house. My house, with tiny embers floating up into the night, blackened with soot, its roof largely gone. I went for my phone and saw Bonnie’s missed calls.
Across the lawn, the dew cool on my feet, and I found my family on the verandah of our neighbours across the street. All of them were there, and safe. Running to Bonnie, I wrapped her up in my arms, kissed her and grabbed in Ria and Aaron. Our neighbour Jane took the kids inside and I allowed my burning eyes to cry as we turned and looked at our damaged house.
“What happened?” I asked Bonnie, looking at the way her mouth pulled down in the corner.
“I don’t know,” her voice broke and she fingered my sleeve. “I was working in the lounge and the kids were in bed. I heard Aaron cry out and as I got up, there he was at the door. He was sleepwalking.”
She looked at me then, her dark brown eyes wide with confusion. “He kept saying, ‘No, Djimmy.’ He was just standing there, looking at me. Then the fires, the flames, behind him…” Bonnie’s lips trembled. “It was like…he was on fire. No. He was on fire. I know he was.”
I held her hand tight, both of us sitting in silent but panicked contemplation. I saw the little shadow toddle into the doorway.
“Aaron,” I held out my arm and he walked into my embrace. “What’s up little man?”
He snuggled in and I heard his sniffles. “Fire.”
“Not your fault Aaron.” I looked over his curls at Bonnie, who still looked a little scared. “All an accident.”
I cradled him with one arm and tugged Bonnie gently. I looked at my tired and frightened wife. Tonight, we needed to rest. Tomorrow, we would decide how to tackle what came next. After all, this little man needed us more than ever.