*This story was written in 1994, and is similar to And The Angel Wore A Cowboy Hat, in that it’s up to the reader to decide if Rick is dreaming, or if he, on occasion, visits an alternate Simon universe. Though these types of stories are a bit unorthodox, I had fun stretching my writing imagination when I was penning them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Not since Vietnam had Rick Simon seen anything like this. The carnage, the destruction, the broken and bloodied bodies. Children screamed in pain and terror. Bystanders frantically clawed at the rubble, trying to free the trapped and injured victims. In the background, sirens wailed as the first rescue units raced to the scene.
Rick ran down the sidewalk, carelessly shoving people aside who hindered his path. He had been in the Simon and Simon office when the explosion shook the entire building. Windows were blown out of offices on the lower floors, causing slivers of glass to fly like shrapnel.
At first Rick had thought San Diego was in the midst of a powerful earthquake. The coffee cups on the ledge behind A.J.'s desk clattered together like fine china, and a trailing ivy residing on top of the filing cabinet did three mid-air flips that would have been the envy of any Olympic gymnast. The ivy's pot shattered when it hit to the floor, and rich black dirt was strewn across the beige carpeting while the neon Simon and Simon sign swung back and forth as though a strong breeze had blown through the room.
"What the...?" Rick bolted for the door.
Other occupants of the fourth floor emerged from their offices, too, all bearing the same look of confusion Rick knew had to be dominating his features. A babble of voices followed the detective to the stairwell.
"What was that?"
"Was it an earthquake?"
"Sounded more like something blew up to me."
When a woman from the travel agency office headed for the elevator Rick stopped her. "Don't use that. We don't know what's goin' on for sure. You don't wanna find yourself trapped in there if the electricity goes off."
The woman nodded, grateful for Rick's common sense. The little group stayed right on Rick's heels as he trotted down the stairs. They picked up other groups of people as they descended, people like Rick, who were wise enough not to summon the elevator. Everyone asked the same question of one another, "What happened?" but no one could supply an answer.
Rick walked out into noontime sunshine. With the ever-growing entourage behind him, he looked like a teacher leading his students on a field trip.
The detective paused for a moment and craned his neck, looking in the direction the explosion had come from. The only thing he could see over the throngs of people ahead of him was a rising cloud of smoke, and fine grains of dust that floated toward the ground like a gentle snowfall. As a teenager ran by him Rick whipped out a hand and snared the boy's arm.
kid, what's goin' on?"
The boy's blue eyes were wide with shock. His pale face and light hair were streaked with soot, and blood flowed freely from a two inch gash by his nose.
"Darvin's Deli just blew up!"
The boy pointed down the street. "Darvin's Deli just blew up! I was on my way there to get lunch for me and my mom. I have to go, mister! If Mom hears about it before she sees me she'll freak!"
Rick didn't stop the boy as he pulled away from him. As a matter of fact, Rick’s mind hadn't registered anything the teen said beyond his first sentence, "Darvin's Deli just blew up!"
For just a moment Rick's feet were frozen in place. "A.J.," he whispered. "Oh my God...A.J.!"
The heels of Rick's cowboy boots smacked a hard rhythm against the concrete sidewalk. He barreled through the milling crowds like a bowling ball smashing into pins.
He can't be in there! Please, God, he can't be in there. Please let me find out he decided to go somewhere else and get us lunch. Please let me find out he stopped to shoot the bull with someone on his way there. Please let me find out he was held up by traffic trying to cross the street. Just please, please, don't let me find out he was in there.
As Rick ran he frantically scanned the people around him looking for a familiar blond head. A familiar blond head he didn't see. When he came to the scene, the devastation was awesome. Bricks, twisted metal beams, and broken glass littered the area for one full block. The smell of smoke and burning wood made the sky dark and the air hard to breathe. People were shouting at one another as, brick by brick, they attempted to free the deli's trapped patrons. The explosion had occurred at sixteen minutes after twelve. The popular little eating establishment had been packed with customers waiting their turn to order a sandwich and a cup of soup.
Glass crunched underneath Rick's boots as he vaulted beams and scampered over piles of bricks.
Why did it have to be Friday? Why?
On Friday the delicatessen had homemade cheddar cheese and ham soup. It was a favorite of the Simon brothers, and if they happened to be in the office at lunchtime on that particular day of the week one of them invariably walked down to Darvin's in order to bring back two cups of soup and two sandwiches.
The detective's mind vividly replayed the scene that took place in the Simon and Simon office not twenty minutes earlier, as he surveyed with growing despair the mound of rubble surrounding him.
"Hey, A.J., you gonna stop workin' and go down and get us some cheese soup from Darvin's?"
A.J. looked up from a legal pad he was making notes on regarding a new case. He watched his brother cross in front of him on his way to the TV.
"What?" The blond questioned sarcastically. "And your legs aren't functioning today?"
"No, no," Rick casually dismissed. "It's not that. It's just that it's Friday."
"Rick," A .J. sighed with mock long-suffering. "It's always Friday whenever Darvin's is serving cheddar cheese soup."
"I know that. And it's always Friday when my soap opera has its cliffhanger. I've missed it the last three Friday's 'cause we've been out doin' leg work on cases."
"Which is why I bought you a VCR for Christmas several years back - so you could tape your soap opera on Fridays. I was hoping I’d no longer be subjected to its asinine plots and the inane lives of its shallow characters."
Rick pointed a stern finger at his brother while clicking on the television. "Hey, buddy, I don't comment on your chosen form of stress relievers, so don't comment on mine. Personally, I think dancing around and working up a sweat while punching a hanging bag filled with sawdust is about as silly as you think my soap is. But what the heck, to each his own."
"But can't you just set your VCR to tape the damn thing?"
"I could if I ever took the time to figure that part of it out," Rick said while crossing the floor once more to return to his desk, "which I haven't yet, so there's no use arguing the point."
A.J. stood as the opening credits of Rick's show began to roll. "I'll be happy to instruct you in regards to that sometime soon. Very soon." In deference to the warm day A.J. left his suit coat hanging on a branch of the coat rack. He wasn't nearly as put out by Rick's request for lunch as he let on. As a matter of fact, he was looking forward to a leisurely stroll in the sunshine. "I'll be back in a little while."
Rick's eyes were locked on the action playing out on the TV screen. "Sure, A.J. Whatever you say."
A.J. smiled and reached a hand into the pocket of Rick's field jacket that was, as well, hanging from the coat rack. "And I'm taking twenty bucks from you to pay for everything."
Rick gave a distracted nod. "Sure, A.J., whatever you say."
A.J. pocketed the two ten dollars bills he'd just retrieved. "And I'm keeping the change."
"Sure, A.J., whatever you say."
"Oh, and by the way," A.J. said with a devilish grin as he opened the office door to exit the room, "I suppose now's as good a time as any to tell you I put a For Sale add in the paper for the Hole In The Water. You'd better start looking for new accommodations."
A.J., whatever you say."
door had long shut behind the blond man when his words finally registered with
Rick. "Hey!" He shouted.
"What did you say?"
All Rick heard was laughter and the distinct 'click,' as the elevator gate was closed.
Rick coughed to clear his lungs and squinted through the black smoke. The fire that was raging as a result of the explosion came from the building next door. At least those pinned underneath the rubble weren't in immediate danger of being overcome by smoke inhalation, or dying as a result of burns.
Rick's eyes flitted to the bystanders who were frantically trying to offer aid. Some men had run over from a construction site and were dressed appropriately in blue jean and hard hats, but as well, men in suits and ties and women in high heels who had run out of nearby offices, were doing what they could to help.
A.J.'s here somewhere helpin' dig people out, Rick attempted to convince himself. That's the first thing he'd do, try to help those that are trapped. I know he's got to be helping...please let him be helping.
For lack of a better idea Rick yelled, "A.J.!" as he ran around the perimeter of the destruction. Like a mountain goat on an unstable, rocky slope, the detective stumbled and lost his footing several times, only to rise again, ignoring the stinging cuts on the palms of his hands. "A.J.! A.J.!"
No one paid any attention to the detective as the cries of the victims, shouts of the civilians offering aid, and wail of the sirens drowned out his calls.
Rick had no choice but to step back when the firemen and paramedics arrived at the scene. Policemen moved ahead of the rescue personnel in an attempt to clear the area. A young cop put a beefy hand on Rick's chest and roughly pushed him backwards. "Get out of here now," he growled. "You'll only get in the way."
Rick's hand grabbed a fistful of the crisp, starched uniform shirt. "Don't you go pushing me, you little sonuvabitch. I think my brother..."
Before Rick could say anymore, a nightstick was rammed in the small of his back and he was roughly spun around. Rick was looking into the face of another young San Diego police officer he didn't know, while the one he had just assaulted was encircling his wrists with handcuffs.
Rick arched his back and turned his head as far as possible. He struggled to free himself. "Listen to me! I think my..."
The private investigator would have no doubt spent the remainder of the afternoon in a jail cell had Downtown Brown not come running over at just that moment. The plain clothed black detective showed his badge to the young cops he didn't recognize.
the deafening noise around them Town roared, "What's going on here?"
Rick turned at the voice of his old friend. Town could read both the relief and fear in the detective's eyes, but at the moment didn't understand the reason behind either one of those emotions. "Town, I--"
"When I told him he had to get back, had to get away from the area," the burly young man with the crew cut explained, "he became resistant and combative, Lieutenant."
I'll show you resistant and combative, you little punk. You probably haven't had your badge for more than two days, you look so damn green.
Town's eyes glanced at the young man's nametag. "Take the cuffs off him and carry out your orders, Landers." Town looked to the other rookie, who had joined his partner in restraining Rick. "You, too, McKinny. I'll take care of Mr. Simon."
Neither man questioned Town. Like Rick had suspected, they were both fresh out of the academy and eager to please anyone who was considered to be their superior.
Town grabbed Rick by the elbow and steered him away from the mayhem at a trot. "What the hell are you--"
Rick jerked out of his friend's grasp and halted their progress. He, too, had to shout to be heard. "Town, I think A.J.'s in there!"
Town looked at the pile of rubble behind him, where paramedics and fire fighters were beginning to extract the first victims.
think A.J.'s in there!"
Rick shook his head in both frustration and desperation. "No, I'm not sure! But he headed out of the office right at noon to come here to get us lunch! I--"
Town reclaimed Rick's elbow, intent on getting him to an area of safety. They didn't need any more civilian victims than they already had. And if A.J.'s body was found lying bent and twisted underneath the destruction, the last thing Cecilia Simon was going to need was to be burying two sons.
"You don't know for sure that he's in there, Rick! He could have already been heading back to the office when the explosion occurred!" A massive red fire truck rumbled by the men, blasting its air horn. "Or he might not have arrived yet when it hap--"
"But I didn't see him anywhere!" Rick pleaded. "I looked, Town. I looked! I didn't see him!"
Despite Rick's protests, Town ushered him across the busy street bustling with fire trucks, ambulances, and squad cars. "You wait here," the police lieutenant ordered when they'd reached the safety of the sidewalk. "I'll--"
Like a dog intent on following its master, Rick was once again at Town's heels. "No! I have to--"
"Rick, damn it!" Town turned and planted his hands firmly on Rick's chest. He propelled the stubborn detective backwards until Rick was forced to step up on the sidewalk once more. "Wait here and let me do my job. If A.J. is among the victims...your mother's going to need you, Rick. She's going to need you. Now let me go over there and see what I can find out. As soon as I know something I'll be back."
As much as he wanted to start digging through the rubble brick by brick, Rick could do no more than clench his fists and nod. Other police officers were urging all civilians to the sidewalk Rick was standing on. He knew if he was caught near the devastation again he might not be so lucky as to have Town come to his rescue. He couldn't risk being shackled in the back of a paddywagon if A.J. was, indeed, found to be among the injured...or the dead.
Rick watched Town run across the street. His eyes lost track of his friend when the black man zigzagged behind two fire trucks.
The sidewalk Rick was waiting on soon swarmed with people. Some were the bystanders who had been the first to offer aid and were now intent on remaining to see this tragedy through to the end, others were gawkers; employees and patrons of nearby shops and restaurants who had spilled out of the establishments upon being thrown from their seats by the explosion, while others were like Rick; people who feared a family member or friend might have been inside the deli when the blast occurred.
Over the din of sirens, the roar of fire trucks, and the shouts of rescue workers, Rick could vaguely pick up snatches of conversations going on around him. One woman was weeping hysterically while being comforted by a stranger.
"My husband! My little boy! They were in there," she sobbed into the man's chest. "I know they were in there. It's Friday! They have cheese soup on Friday. My son loves it. I ran across the street to get some shopping done while they stood in line. It was so crowded in there. I knew I could get some other errands run while they waited. My son didn't want to come with me. He wanted to wait with his daddy. I shouldn't have left. I should have never left! At least we'd be together now if I hadn't."
A man who appeared to be about Rick's age plowed through the throngs of people and tried to crash through the police barricade. With little regard to his distraught story, the uniformed officers pushed him back as he struggled and shouted. "My daughter! My daughter works in there! She's only seventeen! Please, I have to know if she's okay!"
"My wife!" An elderly man wailed. "My wife was in there! I was waiting for her in the car. Can someone tell me something about my wife?"
Rick tried in vain to block out the anguished cries of the people surrounding him. He felt like an isolated island in the midst of a stormy sea. He wasn't capable of offering comfort to anyone, nor accepting anyone's empty words of reassurance. So he just stood there, alone and silent. The only action on Rick's part that gave away the fact someone buried under a ton of bricks and steel might be a loved one of his, was the way he stood on the tips of his boots and craned his neck at repeated ten second intervals in an effort to see past the obstructions blocking his view of the devastation across the street. When his eyes weren't trained in that direction, they were scanning the crowd around him with the hope A.J. was among those bystanders who had been ushered across the street safe and sound.
Rick's calf muscles screamed in protest, as once again he
pushed himself up on his toes. Two hours had passed since he watched Town disappear across the street. Ambulances had come and gone during that time span, but as of yet none of the people waiting with Rick had been informed as to whom those ambulances might hold, and what type of condition their occupants were found in. For as frustrated and impatient for answers as Rick was, he understood all too well the reasoning behind this. The victims those vehicles contained were no doubt in serious condition. At the moment transporting them to the hospital took precedence over notifying relatives. That would come once hospital personnel had a chance to go through the patient's pockets in search of identification.
Rick tuned into the voice of a police officer, who was now relaying to the frantic bystanders which hospitals the victims were being taken to. People began to disburse in a rush, recklessly shouldering and elbowing their way through the crowd in an effort to get to their vehicles. Rick had just turned with the intention of running the five blocks to the small parking lot where the Powerwagon resided when he heard his named shouted.
It took Rick a moment to locate the voice over the shouts of rescue workers and the screechy bellowing of air horns.
Downtown Brown stood across the street in front of a fire truck, frantically waving Rick in his direction.
The detective didn't even stop to look for oncoming traffic as he raced across the street to his friend.
Town grabbed Rick by the elbow with an urgency that unnerved the investigator. The black man threaded them through fire trucks, and around hoses coiled underfoot like thick, overgrown snakes. His feet never slowed from the pace he had set the moment he took hold of Rick's elbow, a pressing jog.
"Town, what's goin'--"
The police lieutenant halted their progress as they came to the pile of rubble, twenty feet high in places that had, two and a half hours earlier, been the popular deli known as Darvin's.
"A group of firemen found A.J."
right hand shot up and encased Town's forearm in a bruising grip. "Where is he? How bad was he hurt? What hospital was he taken to?"
The words flew out of Rick's mouth as fast as breaking news is rushed over a Teletype. Town was all too aware of the reasons behind the rapid-fire questions. If Rick kept talking he wouldn't have to hear what Town needed to convey. There was no doubt that, simply by looking into Town's face, Rick was already well aware the news his friend had for him wasn't good.
"How long ago did the ambulance leave with him? What'd the paramedics say about his injur--"
Town pulled his forearm from Rick's grip and gave the man a little shake. "Rick, slow down. Slow down and listen to me for a second. A.J.'s still here."
Rick looked around, but all he saw were firemen hosing down the building next door, rescue workers scrambling over the rubble, and police officers engaged in traffic control.
"Still here? Where? What do you mean, he's still here?"
"He's trapped in the basement."
voiced his confusion in one word.
Town gave a grim nod. "The basement was evidently the deli's main storage area. As you can imagine, when the building exploded that's the first thing that was filled with its remains. They've found...three bodies down there so far."
Rick felt the blood drain from his face. He swallowed in an effort to produce saliva. "A.J.?"
"They found A.J. down there, too," Town confirmed. "He's alive, Rick."
For a brief second Rick glanced up at the cloudless sky and whispered, "Thank God." His attention returned full-force to Town and he broke into a fast walk. "Take me to him."
Town kept pace along side the detective. "Rick, you need slow down for a second and hear me out."
Rick's impatience was clearly broadcast in his terse, "What?"
"He's trapped underneath God only knows how many tons of brick and mortar. The firemen have been working to free him for over an hour now, but they're making very little headway. Because of the way he's pinned, they haven't been able to fully access the seriousness of his injuries. As well, the danger involved in getting him out of there is that the rubble will come tumbling down on him, and on those who are trying to save him."
Rick's footsteps increased in speed. "Take me to him."
"Rick...I'm not certain they'll let you down there."
"They'll let me down there all right, Town. Just take me to him."
Town didn't attempt to further dissuade Rick as he led the way around the rubble. He'd known the oldest Simon brother long enough to know further argument in a situation such as this would be nothing but a waste of time.
Even before the two men reached the far side of the destruction, Rick knew A.J. was somewhere in the vicinity. A fireman was crouched down looking into what Rick surmised was the basement area where A.J. had been found. He could tell the man was talking to someone, but was unable to hear his words over the noise around him. Other firemen were gingerly clearing the pile of bricks and metal by hand. Another group of men dressed in the heavy, protective gear of the San Diego Fire Department, had formed a bucket brigade on the opposite side of the destruction and were standing in line, waiting to retrieve buckets of the building's ruins as they were handed up to them from the basement.
The individual who had been down on his hunches stood as Town approached. The Hispanic fire chief was a short, compact man in his mid-forties with wide shoulders and a barrel chest. His thick dark hair peeked out from underneath his sturdy helmet. Sweat caused the ends to curl tightly against his forehead and around his ears.
Town spoke loudly in order to be heard over the powerful background noises. "Chief Guverez, this is Rick Simon. He's the brother of the man your people are working to free."
The chief held his hand out to Rick. "Mr. Simon," he nodded. "I'll get right to the point. We've got a problem. A big problem."
Rick's words were voiced as a statement, as opposed to being voiced as a question. "Regarding my brother."
"Yes, I'm afraid so. As Lieutenant Brown has probably already told you, he's trapped down there and we're having a helluva time getting him out." The man's dark eyes cast about the pile towering in front of them. "An industrial sized refrigerator is laying across his legs. Bricks and other wreckage from the explosion are on top of that. We're working on removing that debris right now, but as far as how we'll get that refrigerator off him...I just don't know. We were hoping to slide him out from underneath it, but we can't work fast enough to get the debris off him before more comes cascading down. It's a danger to him, and a danger to the men who are down there with him." The chief nodded toward the men running back and forth emptying their buckets several yards away, before returning them to the crew below. "Right now they're filling five gallon buckets with whatever they can extract by hand."
Town surveyed the frantic activity around him. "What about bringing in a Caterpillar to dig it out?"
Rick knew what the man's answer would be before it was even formulated.
"Too dangerous," the chief replied. "The entire area is too unstable for us to be digging around down there with heavy equipment like that until all the victims are out. We believe Mr. Simon's brother is the last victim who's...alive. But, of course, we can't be certain of that fact at this time. There's a possibility of others yet being found."
Without further preamble Rick stated, "I wanna go down to him."
Despite the demanding tone Rick had used that left no room for argument, he was surprised at the chief's willing acquiescence.
"Under normal circumstances I wouldn't allow a civilian into a situation like this, but these aren't normal circumstances, Mr. Simon. There's a doctor down there right now. There's a strong possibility he's going to need you to make some tough decisions for your brother. That's why I asked Lieutenant Brown to try and locate a family member as quickly as he could."
"What kinda decisions?"
"The doctor will apprise you of the situation," was all the chief would say. He indicated to a passageway in the debris. "It'll be a tight fit, but I think you can shimmy on through. If you had much girth to you, we'd have a problem. And whatever you do, don't grab a hold of anything. Just let your body slide down. If you start clawing for a hand-hold you're likely to bring a ton of bricks down on top of you and everyone else."
Rick nodded his understanding and waited impatiently while the chief yelled to his men that the victim's brother was on his way down. The detective handed his hat and field jacket to Town.
"Be careful down there," Town instructed for lack of knowing what else to say.
Rick gave a tiny nod. "I will be."
The long legged investigator dropped to his butt and gingerly eased his feet through the narrow opening. The fire chief hooked his hands underneath Rick's armpits to prevent him from sliding into the basement in an uncontrolled tumble. Rick wriggled and shifted like an earthworm disappearing into a snug hole, until the only part of him left to be seen was his shoulders and head. Chief Guverez released his arms, allowing Rick to slowly descend the rest of the way on his own.
The fire chief's concerns regarding Rick's body spilling into the basement, and bringing along with it a shower of debris, were unfounded. The detective actually had to work at navigating his legs and trunk over and around haphazard piles of brick and metal. The area surrounding him was dim and hazy, in the same way a city is on a morning when the air is filled with too much smog from the smoke stacks of factories and the exhaust systems of cars. Powdered dust continuously floated downward like a fine, wet mist. The gray dust clung to Rick's face, hair, and clothes. It worked its way into his nose and down his throat causing him to sneeze twice. By the time he reached what once had been the basement's floor his hands and forearms were dotted with cuts and scrapes. Through the haze, Rick could vaguely make out huddled figures on the other end of the wide room. Shafts of sunlight were more prominent in that area, and there was a larger opening through which firemen passed up buckets of debris.
Despite the need to rush to his brother's side, Rick carefully picked his way over mounds of bricks. He felt like an unskilled rock climber, and all-too-soon his back ached in protest of the hunched position he was forced to maintain while slowly progressing toward the firemen.
Rick's eyes briefly cast to the destruction surrounding him.
It's a miracle they were even able to find A.J. down here. Oh, God, please don't let anyone else be buried alive underneath all this. It'll take days...probably even weeks, before it can all be cleared out. By then it'll be too late. Don't put anyone else's family through this kind of heartache.
Rick forced his mind clear of all despair and continued his journey. It took him five long minutes to reach his brother's side.
Men surrounded A.J. to the point, that at first, Rick couldn't even see him. The firemen were issuing instructions to each other while working to clear massive amounts of rubble away from the blond detective. Just as Chief Guverez said, the men would no more than remove one brick before another would tumble into its place. A black man dressed in blue jeans and a red oxford shirt, whom Rick guessed to be the doctor the fire chief had mentioned, was bent over A.J.'s head in an effort to protect him from the falling elements.
Because of the piles of debris and the men frantically working to clear it, Rick was forced to crawl the last few feet. A.J.'s head was turned away from him, and his eyes were closed. Blood seeped from a cut by his mouth, and from another jagged line that ran across the middle of his forehead. Just like it did Rick, a film of gray dust covered A.J.'s hair, face, and clothes, in much the same way fine dust covers the body and clothes of a coal miner. Someone had loosened A.J.'s tie and undone the first three buttons on his shirt to offer him a clearer airway. One of the fireman's coats had been draped over his upper torso, in what Rick guessed was an effort to combat shock. The collar of the dress shirt that had been a crisp, starched white when A.J. left the office, was now stained a murky, gray-red where mortar, soot, and blood had mixed together. A blood pressure cuff loosely encircled A.J.'s right biceps, and an IV line had been started by one of the paramedics or the doctor, Rick wasn't sure which. The needle was inserted in a vein in the blond detective's left arm, while a clear bag of fluid rested above his head on a haphazard shelf of bricks created by the explosion.
A.J.'s upper body seemed to have landed unscathed for the most part. It was his lower body that was buried under mounds of bricks, and as Chief Guverez had stated, his legs were trapped under a fallen refrigerator big enough to hold a week's worth of food for the San Diego Chargers.
The doctor glanced in Rick's direction as he came to hunker uninvited by his side. He assumed Rick was another firefighter until he saw the fear and concern in the eyes that traveled the length of A.J.'s body.
"I'm his brother," Rick said.
The man nodded. Although in this cramped space it was hard to discern for certain, Rick guessed the doctor to be A.J.'s height, though about fifteen pounds heavier than his brother. His forearms and biceps were thick and powerful, as though weight lifting was his main form of exercise. Not a speck of hair was to be seen on his ebony skull, leading Rick to the conclusion that, for whatever reason, the man shaved his head on a regular basis. A neatly trimmed goatee circled his mouth and covered his chin, and in his right ear he wore a small, gold hoop earring making him look more like the captain of a pirate ship than a doctor. A gold chain circled his dark throat, along with the earpieces of a stethoscope.
"Noel Evans," the black man introduced. "I'm a surgeon at Memorial Hospital. I just happened to be in this area when the explosion occurred. I've been down here with A.J. almost from the time they found him."
"Thanks," Rick readily spoke his gratitude to the man he estimated was somewhere near his own age. "I appreciate that. I know this is a pretty dangerous place to be right now."
The doctor gave a little snort. "I've been in worse. This is nothin' compared to some of the places I found myself in about fifteen years ago."
Rick didn't even have to ask what the man was referring to. Somehow, he instinctively knew. "Nam."
The doctor threw the detective a sidelong glance while reaching down to take A.J.'s pulse.
"Yep, Nam. I was an Army medic with the 5th division, 1968 and '69."
"Marine Corps. Sergeant. '67 to '71."
"Four years," the black man stated with appreciation as he laid a light hand on A.J.'s chest to gauge his rate of respiration. "That's a helluva long time to spend in-country. But then, you Marines always were gluttons for punishment. Either that, or you were fools."
the gravity of the situation, Rick smiled.
He knew A.J. couldn't be in better hands. "I've been accused of both a time or two." Rick’s smile left him as his eyes fell back
on the still form of his brother.
"How is he?"
The doctor had to raise his voice in order to be heard over the ever-increasing shouts of the frenzied firemen. "His pulse is thready, as is his respiration. He's in shock, but as to the extent of his injuries at this time I can only guess. He keeps drifting in and out of consciousness, which could mean anything from a concussion, to a broken skull, to internal injuries. He has been lucid enough at times to tell me his name and answer questions for me, which is a positive sign. But, as you can tell, I'm at a disadvantage right at the moment in terms of properly accessing his condition. The IV I've got him on is to combat the shock and keep him well hydrated. I wanted to put him on oxygen just to help him out a little bit, but the firemen have concerns about having a tank of it down here. Especially since they don't yet know what caused the explosion."
Rick nodded his understanding.
The doctor gingerly scooted back and away from A.J.'s head. "Let's switch positions. I'd like to see if the sound of your voice will rouse him. I can work with him more effectively if he's conscious and can answer my questions."
Mindful of the fact that the doctor was unsure as to just what type of injuries A.J. had sustained, Rick came to rest on his knees at his brother's head. Gently, he laid his right hand against the side of A.J.'s face that was exposed to him. As he suspected it would be, the skin was cold and clammy to his touch. "A.J.!" He called over the noise around him. "A.J., it's Rick! A.J., come on, wake up. A.J.!"
Rick had to repeat himself three times before he finally saw a faint reaction from his brother. A.J.'s head moved slightly, as though he wanted to turn his face completely upward, and his pale lashes bobbed as he fought to open his eyes.
Rick's thumb moved in a soothing caress over his brother's cheekbone. "A.J., come on! Wake up now."
Again, Rick could feel A.J. trying to move his head. Mindful of the range of injuries the doctor spoke of, from concussion to fractured skull, the detective exerted a minute amount of pressure with his hand in order to prevent A.J. from making such a movement.
"Don't try to move, A.J.," Rick ordered. "I just want you to open your eyes and talk to me. Come on!" Rick coaxed again. "Open your eyes, little brother."
A few more long seconds passed before A.J. was finally able to comply with Rick's request. His glazed eyes traveled the limited area he was able to view, as though in search of the brother who had been beckoning him. His confused query came out in a raspy, weak croak as if his throat was crying out for water. "Rick?"
Again, Rick's thumb moved back and forth over his brother's cheekbone. "Yeah, A.J. I'm right here."
Rick shifted position just enough so A.J. had a clear view of him without moving his head. "Dr. Evans is still here with you, too. He wants to ask you a few questions."
A.J.'s quiet, "Okay," at least indicated to Rick he was lucid enough to understand what had just been said.
The doctor's movements were gentle and cautious as he first listened to A.J.'s heart and lungs, then took his blood pressure. Rick knew this gentleness was in part because the man was only guessing as to the full extent of A.J.'s injuries, and in part because a careless move, even of slight proportions, could rain further debris down on top of them.
The doctor stuffed the stethoscope back in his shirtfront, then laid probing fingers on A.J.'s pelvic bone. Rick moved his hands from A.J.'s face to his shoulders in a tender offer of support and encouragement.
Dr. Evans's hands traveled from the waistband of A.J.'s slacks, all the way up to his neck. He pressed and prodded while continuously asking his patient if any of those movements hurt him. Although he never cried out in pain, A.J. sucked in several sharp breaths as his abdomen was probed, and then again when the doctor came to his chest.
The doctor kept his tone light. "A little tender in some spots, huh?"
A.J. responded with a breathless, "Yes."
Rick's eyes flicked to Dr. Evans, but the man's face remained expressionless as he continued his examination.
When the doctor touched A.J.'s right wrist he received another acknowledgment of pain, this one a sharp cry of, "Ow!"
The man's eyes finally met Rick's. "As I've suspected since I first came to his aid, his wrist is broken. And possibly his forearm as well."
"What about the other stuff? The pain he had when you touched his stomach and chest? Does that mean he's got internal injuries or bleeding?"
"It could mean that. Or it could simply be severe bruising. We'll know more once we get him to the hospital, of course."
The doctor's attention focused itself on A.J. once again. He had to beckon loudly to the detective whose eyelids kept blinking heavily, in much the same way the eyelids of a young child blink when it's long past bedtime.
The black man looked to Rick. "You try."
Rick nodded and his concerned gaze fell to his brother's pale form. "A.J.? A.J., come on! We're not done yet. A.J.!"
Rick's voice had the desired effect. The blond man struggled to open his eyes for his brother.
"A.J.," Dr. Evans said, "I need you to tell me where else you hurt aside from your abdomen, chest, and wrist."
The doctor and Rick both leaned closer to hear the mumbled reply. "My head."
Rick's palm came to rest once again on the side of A.J.'s face and he quietly joked, "That's what happens when you decide to spend the day layin' in a bed of bricks, A.J."
A.J. couldn't see Rick with his left eye because of the position he was lying in, but his right eye traveled upward until he could view the familiar moustache and the mouth underneath it that was trying hard to smile. A.J.'s reply was dry and full of as much humor as he could muster. "It wasn't exactly my choice," he weakly quipped. "And next time?"
"I think it's your turn to go out and get us lunch."
A.J. didn't notice the sudden change of expression that erased Rick's smile, nor did he seem to notice Rick's uncharacteristic lack of response to the brotherly teasing. Pain and fatigue had caused the blond man's eyes to drift closed once more.
Dr. Evans glanced down at the working firemen. He didn't see how they were going to get the refrigerator off his patient's legs without bringing in some type of equipment to aid in their excavation. Aside from the fact that it was dangerous for every one of them to be down here, the doctor had concerns regarding the lack of blood flow making its way to A.J.'s legs.
"A.J.," the doctor beckoned of the blond man. "A.J., do your legs hurt?"
Again, A.J. struggled to open his eyes. His one word question was quiet and dazed, in complete contrast to his joking of only moments earlier. "What?"
"Your legs, A.J. Do your legs hurt?"
A.J. allowed his eyes to close as he forced out his answer. "No."
"No?" Both the doctor and Rick echoed, indicating their bewilderment at A.J.'s response. Logic told the two men having a refrigerator lying on top of your legs would subject you to at least a small amount of pain.
"No." A.J.'s head gave a slight, negative shake. "I can't feel them."
"You can't feel your legs?" Rick asked for clarification.
Rick's lower lip disappeared between his teeth, and his mouth set in a grim line. He looked over at Dr. Evans.
"What's that mean?"
The doctor's only reply was frustratingly noncommittal.
"It could mean a lot of things."
Rick didn't have a chance to demand that the doctor expound on that statement as the black man gingerly began to make his way toward the firemen. "You stay here with your brother. I'll be back in a few minutes."
Activity came to a halt down by A.J.'s feet and legs. Several firemen crawled over the debris. Hunched down on their knees, the men and Dr. Evans conferred in quiet tones. Chief Guverez appeared at the opening above them. He leaned his upper body into the basement in order to allow himself to be a part of the decisions that were occurring within. Because of the voices of the other firemen still hard at work, and the sounds that leaked in from up above, Rick couldn't hear what was being said. He attempted to satisfy his impatience by reminding himself that A.J. needed him by his side. His thumb unconsciously stroked tiny circles on A.J.'s right cheekbone.
In what seemed like hours, but was less than five minutes, Dr. Evans returned to A.J.'s side.
"We have a number of problems facing us, Rick, and a number of decisions you and I need to make."
"You and I need to make?"
"The firemen are going to continue their efforts at safely extracting A.J.'s legs from underneath that refrigerator. They've decided digging from the top is nothing but an effort in futility. Now they're going to tart digging from the bottom, with the hope they can get A.J.'s legs to fall away from the refrigerator so we can then pull him out."
Rick glanced around at the mountains of debris. No matter what the plan, it all looked pretty dismal from his vantage point. "And if that doesn't work?"
"If that doesn't work there's one option left us."
Rick didn't like the unsettled look he saw hovering about the man's coffee colored eyes. "And that option is?"
"I'll have no choice but to amputate his legs."
Rick tried in vain to find some saliva. "I...no, I
"Rick, I just said we'll have no choice. We've got to get A.J. to a hospital. He's been down here three hours as it is, and I'm only guessing as to the extent of his injuries. He's growing weaker at an alarming rate, and needs medical attention in a way I'm not capable of providing given the current circumstances."
Although Rick's mind screamed at him for even entertaining such a notion, he forced himself to ask, "How will you do it? I mean..." Rick looked down at his unconscious brother. "I mean...will he feel it?"
The doctor hesitated in a way the detective didn't like. "I won't lie to you, Rick. As much as I wish I could promise you he won't feel a thing, I can't. For a variety of reasons, including the extreme danger of explosion, there's no possible way we can bring any type of traditional anesthesia down here. What I will do if we're forced to go this route is give A.J. Morphine intravenously, as well as pump his legs full of as much Novocain as possible."
Rick swallowed hard as he recalled being witness to similar procedures in the jungles of Vietnam using much the same methods of pain relief. He had even held a young soldier down one time when a field doctor had been forced to do what Dr. Evans was now talking of doing to A.J. The young man had screamed and thrashed and fought until he passed out from the horrendous pain. Later, Rick heard that the kid had died.
"That's it, huh?" Rick asked quietly. "That's all you can give him?"
"Yes," Dr. Evans nodded, "that's all I can give him. Keep in mind, however, that A.J. says he can't feel his legs. That could mean his legs are crushed and the nerves so damaged, that he won't have much sensation no matter what I do."
Rick threw the doctor a tiny smile. "If that's supposed to make me feel better about this whole situation, you're comin' up kinda short there, Doc."
"I know," the black man smiled in return. "And it's not necessarily supposed to make you feel better, it's simply a statement of fact."
Rick glanced down at his still unconscious sibling. "So where do we go from here if...if amputation is what this boils down to?"
"Chief Guverez is on the phone to Memorial right now. He'll have the necessary equipment brought to me. As well, I gave the chief the names of an additional man I want here with me. He's another surgeon, one of the best around. Granted, it's going to be rather primitive, but we'll manage. All of us. Including A.J."
Now Rick felt like the one who was dazed and in shock. "I...I just don't know. I--"
The doctor nodded his sympathy. "We'll have to wake A.J. up again. You'll have to talk to him. Prepare him."
Rick shook off his muddled thoughts and forced himself to focus on the problem at hand. As he watched the firemen work like moles trying to dig themselves out of a hole that forever keeps refilling, he knew the doctor was correct. Their choices were growing more and more limited, and A.J.'s life could very well depend on how quickly decisions were made, or weren't made. He tried not to allow himself to think of all the veterans he'd encountered without legs. Of all the men who had never been able to recover from such a maiming, and lived out their lives dependent on others for their physical needs. Of all the men who had lost their minds when they'd lost their limbs. And most of all, he tried not to think of A.J. Tried not to think of A.J. running the length of a tennis court, or riding his bike, or boxing, or just plain walking. He tried not to think of the vibrant man his brother was, and how this one forced decision would change all that forever. Might even change it...change A.J., in ways Rick had yet to imagine.
Rick swallowed hard while stroking his hand through A.J.'s tangled hair. When he decided he was as ready as he'd ever be, Rick roused his brother.
"A.J.?" Rick's hand moved down to give A.J.'s shoulder a gentle but firm squeeze. "A.J.?"
A.J.'s acquiescence of Rick's persistent beckoning only consumed the lanky man with further guilt. Rick moved sideways as much as the limited space around him would allow. At least now A.J. could see him with both eyes.
Rick's hand traveled back up to his brother's face. "A.J., I...I...I need to talk to you about something."
A.J. tried hard to throw a smile his brother's way. His
words were barely audible, slightly slurred, and spaced far apart as though the effort expended to talk was getting harder to come by. "You been...dippin' in the...in the office kitty again...without tellin' me?"
A small smile touched the corners of Rick's mouth. "No. No. That's not it."
"I...got it. You bought some piece a'...junk from Sammy again and you figure...you figure now's a good time to tell me...considering at the moment you'd be able to...to outrun me."
At the word 'outrun,' Rick squeezed his eyes shut in an effort to hide his anguish from his brother.
"Rick?" A.J. rasped in confusion at the despair he saw etched on his sibling's face. "Rick...what is it? What's...wrong?"
Rick opened his eyes and forced himself to meet A.J.'s gaze. "A.J...A.J., there's a possibility...a small possibility, that the firemen aren't going to be able to extract your legs from underneath that refrigerator."
A.J.'s eyelids closed of their own volition. That movement emphasized to Rick how little strength his brother had left.
"So...whaz that mean? You juz gonna...leave me here? You finally found a way...to get rid of the...the pesky little brother Mom saddled you with...thirty-five years ago?"
Even as grave as the situation was, A.J. was still managing to joke about it. Still managing to ease the stress for both of them. Still hanging in there and fighting for all he was worth. And still trusting Rick. The teasing, the joking about leaving him buried underneath the rubble and finally getting rid of him, clearly told Rick how much faith his brother had him. How much A.J. knew, without a doubt, Rick would see this absurd situation through to the end right at A.J.'s side, while somehow making it all turn out for the best.
And knowing all that made Rick's words harder to come by.
"A.J.," Rick took a deep breath. "A.J., there's a possibility Doctor Evans will have to...have to...have to--"
forced his eyes open. "Have
Rick hated himself for what he was about to say. And hated even more the unwavering trust he saw as his brother's blue eyes gazed up at him.
Oh, A.J., it should be me layin' there, not you. Oh, damn. I'm so sorry. I'm so damn sorry, little brother.
"What...Rick? Doctor Evans will...have to what?"
Rick looked across A.J.'s body at the black man who nodded.
The detective's eyes dropped back to his brother's face. "Have to amputate your legs so that we can get you ou--"
"No. No!" A.J.'s head began to frantically shake back and forth. He struggled to free his legs with more strength than either Rick or the doctor thought he had left. The black man was forced to hold A.J.'s shoulders to the ground while Rick stilled the jerky motions of his brother's head with his hands.
"A.J., stop it," Rick commanded. "Stop it, damn it! You'll hurt yourself."
The men's hands stilled A.J.'s movements, but they couldn't still his words. "No, Rick. No! Don't let them. Don't let them do that!"
Despite the IV needle in his arm, A.J.'s left hand shot up and grabbed a fistful of Rick's shirt. "No, Rick. Please! Please, don't let them! Please."
Doctor Evans intervened in a low, calming voice. "A.J., we aren't yet certain that measure will be necessary. But you've been trapped down here a long time now. We have to get you to the hospital. The firemen are going to try one more thing before we consider...other options."
A.J.'s pain glazed eyes traveled from the doctor back to his brother. "No, Rick," he whispered his anguish. "No. Please. No."
The blond man was still repeating that heart-wrenching litany when his body left him no choice but to slip into unconsciousness once more.
S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S
It's been a long time, Rick Simon thought. The lanky man stood in the driveway leaning on the open door of his truck while gazing upon the house he had grown up in.
A very long time.
Fourteen years earlier, in the summer of 1967, Rick had left his home...and his family, for Canada. He hadn't been back since. Had been unable to come back, had been unable to have contact with his mother and his younger brother in all these many years. Uncle Sam didn't look to favorably upon draft dodgers. Or least wise, he hadn't until President Carter pardoned the men who had fled north of the border during the Vietnam War.
A small sound from the cab of the dilapidated '68 Dodge pickup caused Rick's attention to shift. He smiled as he watched his six-year-old son go through the motions of waking. Rick thought the boy looked somewhat like himself as a child, but as well, he could clearly see the beautiful features of the child's French Canadian mother. Especially in the plains of the boy's delicately sculptured face, and in the eyes that were deep, chocolate brown just like his mother's eyes had been.
Laurette. Even after three years Rick could not think of her without wanting to cry. He could hardly bring himself to say her name, and on some days, when his boy looked at him with that sweet smile that had been so much a part of her, Rick had to turn away in order to hide his tears.
They had never married, though talked about it a number of times, but that didn't keep Rick from thinking of her as his wife and life-long companion. Life-long companion until a tragic accident prematurely took her from Rick and their young son.
Rick ran a hand through the boy's sun bleached brunette locks. During the cold Canadian winters his hair was almost as black as his mother's had been, but in the summer, when he ran and played in the sun from dawn until dusk, his hair would become streaked with gold, giving it a distinctive auburn cast, much like the color Rick's hair would take on in the summer when he was a boy.
The little boy blinked the last of the sleep from his eyes and smiled at his father as he pushed himself up from the seat. "Are we here, Papa?"
Unlike how an American child would say papa, the boy didn't accent the first syllable of the word, but rather the second as the French do. The child was fluent in both French and English, and Rick had recently begun teaching him Spanish as well.
"Yes, we're here," Rick acknowledged softly.
The brown eyes wandered over the manicured lawn bright with blooming flowers, and then traveled to the sumptuous Mediterranean house. The child's mouth fell open in wonder. "This is beautiful, Papa. More beautiful than I ever dreamed."
Rick laughed. He supposed after growing up in a five room cabin in the vast Canadian wilderness, his mother's home and well-to-do neighborhood seemed like the Taj Mahal to his boy.
Rick held out his arms to his son. "Yes, it is beautiful, isn't it? As a matter of fact, it's even more beautiful than I remember it being."
The boy allowed his father to deposit him on the ground, then moved out of the way so Rick could shut the truck's door. "This is where you grew up? Where you and Uncle A.J. played when you were little boys like me?"
Although the child had never met his Uncle A.J., he talked of him often. Rick had told him so many stories about himself and his brother as boys that A.J. seemed as real to the child as the wildlife that lived on and around the lake outside his cabin.
Nostalgia lit Rick's features as he looked at the house, then beyond to the familiar streets and homes of the neighborhood. "Yeah. This is where your Uncle A.J. and I grew up, and where we played when we were little boys no bigger than you are now."
The child took the hand Rick offered him. He looked up and smiled. "I think I'm gonna like it here, Papa."
The boy turned and did his best to imitate the sharp whistle he often heard his father use. "Come on, Marlowe. We're gonna meet Grandma now."
As though he could understand everything that had just been said, the big yellow dog jumped from the bed of the truck with a happy, "Whoof!"
Rick held onto his son's hand and led the way to the front door, Marlowe following at their heels. Rick looked down at the boy as the heavy, wooden door loomed in front of them. The child didn't seem to sense his father's apprehension, nor did he appear to be nervous about meeting his grandmother for the first time. He swung Rick's hand back and forth in the carefree manner all children possess, and eyed the big house with a mixture of curiosity and awe.
"Go on, Papa," the child urged. "Ring the bell."
Rick swallowed hard and wiped his sweaty free hand on his blue jeans. He reached out a finger, and after a further moment of hesitation, rang the doorbell. When a reasonable amount of time passed and no one answered Rick's summons, he began to turn away with the intention of leading his little entourage back to the truck. Before Rick could stop him, his son reached up and rang the bell again.
"Maybe she didn't hear you the first time," the child explained with the common sense of a wise old man. "Or maybe she's on the telephone or in the bathroom."
Rick couldn't help but smile at the boy, who in so many ways, reminded him of himself at the same age. "Yeah. Maybe."
Again the pair waited, but again, no one came to the door.
For all I know she doesn't even live here anymore. She might have moved away a long time ago. Or she might be...dead.
Rick shook off his thoughts when he felt his son let go of his hand. The boy took off running as fast as his legs would carry him. "Come on, Papa. Let's go look in the backyard! Maybe she's outside!"
Marlowe raced after the little whirlwind with a gleeful bark, leaving Rick no choice but to follow. "Hey, you two, get back here! Hold up there a minute! You can't just go traipsing around someone's yard as though you own the pla--"
Rick rounded the corner of the house and came to a startled halt. There, on her hands and knees in her flower garden, was his mother. Even kneeling in dirt, she was still the same tiny, beautiful, stylish woman Rick so vividly remembered. She was looking up now, not at Rick, but at Rick's son and the big barking dog who accompanied him. She pushed herself to her feet and smiled a memorable, warm smile that brought tears to Rick's eyes. How many, many times he recalled being on the receiving end of that smile when he was a child.
"Well hello, sweetheart," Cecilia Simon greeted the handsome boy with the huge, striking brown eyes that made her think of velvety rich Hershey Kisses. "Are you and your puppy dog new to the neighborhood?"
The boy giggled. He enjoyed teasing people and playing jokes, just like his papa did. "Yes, we're new," he replied very seriously. His eyes danced when he finally pointed behind himself to the man who stood hesitantly by the corner of the house. "Papa brought us."
Cecilia's gaze followed the boy's finger. A tall, thin, balding man sporting a moustache and dressed in faded jeans, cowboy boots, and a blue short-sleeved work shirt, eyed her with a mixture of love and uncertainty.
Rick knew that, for just a few brief seconds, his mother had no idea who he was. But then, the last time she'd seen him his hair had hung to the middle of his back, and his sideburns were long and bushy and grew right into his beard. The overgrown sideburns and beard had been gone many years now, and his hair was shorn closely to his head, much of it falling out on its own volition.
Cecilia didn't realize she was stepping on her carefully tended flowers as she moved toward her oldest son. One hand came up to her mouth in shock. Her blue eyes stood out in sharp contrast to her suddenly pale face. "Rick...Rick? Oh my God, Rick?"
Rick held out his arms to the mother who was now running toward him. He enfolded her gently and pulled her to his chest. His eyes closed as his chin came to rest on her hair. "Yeah, Mom," he whispered. "It's me."
Cecilia looked up and cupped her son's face in her hands. Rick bent down to allow her to kiss every spot available to her. She laughed and cried as she held him to her, and tried to ask a thousand questions all at the same time. She ran her hands over his rapidly thinning hair. "Just like my father. You're going to be bald just like your Grandpa Collins. I never would have imagined it."
"Neither would I," Rick chuckled. "But I guess they always say a guy gets that gene from his mother."
Cecilia chuckled as well. "Yes, I guess they do."
Cecilia studied the son she hadn't seen for almost fourteen years from top to bottom. It was after her inspection was through that she finally remembered the child behind her. "And the little boy? He's yours?"
Rick's smile was proud and full of all the love a parent's smile can possess. "Yes. He's my son. Andrew. Andrew John."
Rick didn't quite understand the little smile of amusement that touched the corners of his mother's mouth for just a fleeting second. "Oh, Rick. A little boy named for your brother and your father. A.J. will be so thrilled."
Cecilia extracted herself from Rick's embrace and turned around. She opened her arms to the boy who was watching the reunion play out from a distance. "Can Grandma give you a hug, sweetheart?"
Andrew nodded and ran toward his grandmother. Without any hesitation he threw his arms around her neck and gave her a firm squeeze. She hugged him tightly and looked up at Rick. "He's just like you when you were a little boy. Not the least bit shy."
Rick chuckled. "No, not in the slightest, that's for certain."
combed her fingers through the child's hair.
He was wiry and long legged like his father, but his beautifully
sculptured face spoke of other lineage as well. "And what about his mother, Rick? Your wife? Where's
Andrew wriggled himself from his Grandma's arms. "My mama went to live with God and the angels and my Grandpa Simon when I was three. But me and Papa, we take good care of each other."
Cecilia could see tears pool in Rick's eyes at the frank explanation given her by his son. For the time being she simply reached out and took her eldest's hand in hers and gave it a strong squeeze. She looked down at Andrew and took his hand as well. "I can see we have a lot to talk about. But that can wait. I'm willing to bet you two men are hungry."
"No, Mom," Rick shook his head. "I don't intend to put you out. We stopped and had lunch a couple hours--"
"I'm hungry," Andrew firmly declared. "And so is Marlowe. And I didn't eat that much lunch, Papa."
Rick gave his son a pointed look. "Andrew, I told you you needed to clean your plate. You didn't listen to me, so now you're suffering the consequences."
Cecilia laughed. "Oh, Rick, whether you realize it or not, you sound just like your father. I never thought I'd live to see this day come to pass. For many years you vowed you'd never grow up to sound like him."
Rick gave a sheepish grin. "It's amazing how one little boy can change all that."
Cecilia's eyes twinkled. "Yes, it is, isn't it? But regardless, I'm certain a snack won't hurt either you or Andrew. After all, a growing boy needs plenty of food. Isn't that right, Andrew?"
The boy smiled his triumph at his father, then turned his sweet smile on his grandmother. "Yes, Grandma, that's right. Do you have any cookies? And maybe some milk to go with them?"
Cecilia gently patted the child's cheek. "Yes, sweetheart, Grandma always has plenty of cookies and milk."
The woman reclaimed Andrew's hand, and still holding onto Rick's, led her son, grandson, and Marlowe into the kitchen through the patio doors.
It was a long, glorious afternoon in which Cecilia took delight in visiting with her oldest son and playing with her newly discovered grandson. Marlowe and Andrew romped and roamed and explored her yard while the adults talked, then Cecilia suggested Rick take the boy and dog for a walk to a local park while she prepared supper. After dinner they dug Rick's old bike out of the garage and Andrew got his first wobbly lesson on a two wheeler while his father ran along beside him holding onto the seat, and his grandmother cheered from the sidelines.
At nine o'clock that night a freshly showered and shaved Rick trotted down the stairs. Cecilia sat on the living room couch awaiting his return. "Andrew's still asleep?" She asked.
Rick crossed the room and sat beside his mother. He propped his sock covered feet up on the coffee table. "Yeah, he's still asleep. Thanks for reading to him while I was in the shower."
"I didn't read to him, honey, he read to me. And he didn't so much as stumble over one word. I was certain he must have read that book before, or had it read to him is a better way of putting it, and therefore had it memorized, but he told me he's never heard the story before."
"He probably hasn't."
he reads exceptionally well for a six-year-old, Rick. You said he's never been to school?"
"No," Rick shook his head. "I'm home schoolin' him. At least for now. It's how his...mother wanted things done. Plus, we live so far out in the wilderness that during the winter months he would have to board in the town where the school is at. He's too young for that in my opinion, and I...well, I'm not ready to have him away from me for that long just yet."
"I can understand that," Cecilia agreed with sympathy for Rick's position as a widower and single father. Although Cecilia thought the idea of home schooling to be rather unconventional, she had heard of other parents doing it, and certainly couldn't blame Rick for his reasons. After having spent just the afternoon and evening with Andrew she already felt he was more intelligent, inquisitive, and far better educated than most six year olds she encountered.
"What about Andrew's mother's family? Are you close with them?"
Rick looked away from Cecilia. "No. No, we're not. They...well, for a lot of reasons they didn't approve of me. And Laurette...Andrew's mother, Laurette and I never married. We lived together three years prior to Andrew's birth, then decided we wanted to start a family. Her father...her father came right out and told us he considered Andrew to be a bastard and a sinful abomination in God's eyes."
Cecilia reached over and took Rick's hand in hers. "Oh, sweetheart, I'm so sorry. People like that are heartless and small minded. They don't know what they're missing by not allowing themselves to be grandparents to Andrew. He's a wonderful little boy, Rick. You've done a good job in raising him."
Rick looked at his mother and smiled through his tears. "Thanks, Mom. I...I've never doubted that you wouldn't love him. I knew you might not approve of how I've sometimes lived my life, but I never thought for one minute you'd turn your back on me or my son."
"No, honey, I would never do that." Cecilia squeezed the hand she held. "Tell me about Laurette, Rick. Tell me about my grandson's mother."
A slight smile curved the corners of Rick's mouth as he thought of the only woman he had ever given his heart to. "I loved her so much, Mom. So much. She was so damn good to me, and so good for me. She...she came into my life at a time when I was so desperately in need of someone."
Cecilia nodded her understanding. For the next half hour, without interruption, she allowed Rick to tell her whatever came to his mind about the woman he had fallen in love with, and who was the mother of his child. When he was finished, Rick broke down and cried in her arms in a way he hadn't cried since Laurette had died, and Cecilia comforted him in a way she hadn't been able to do for fourteen years.
It took Rick a long time to gather his emotions, but when he was ready for their conversation to move forward he brought up the subject he'd been avoiding all day. "And A.J.? How is he, Mom? Where is he?"
For just a moment Rick thought he detected a hint of sorrow behind his mother's smile, but it was gone so quickly he wondered if he had misread her expression. "A.J.'s fine, son. He's just fine. He lives right here in San Diego. Just a few miles from here, as a matter of fact. In a house on the Grand Canal."
"Did he finish college? Did he go on to become a lawyer like he always planned?"
"Yes, he finished college. But no, he's not an attorney. Other...things got in the way, and he's a private investigator now."
private investigator? Really?"
Cecilia nodded. "Yes, really. I don't always approve of the profession, I think it's too dangerous at times, but your brother loves it, so I keep my peace."
"It's not that dangerous," Rick was quick to point out in a tone Cecilia was all too familiar with.
Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. "What do you mean, it isn't that dangerous? How would you know?"
Rick shrugged. "Oh, I just know, that's all." Rick quickly shifted the subject. "And is he married?"
"Yes, he is. To a wonderful, beautiful girl named Janet. She's the lawyer in the family. She's employed by the district attorney's office."
Rick gave an appreciative whistle. "Important lady."
"Yes, she is. And very intelligent and well-thought of."
"Sounds like A.J.'s done good for himself."
Cecilia looked off in the distance as if remembering a time that was very painful. "He's had a few rocky roads, but yes, he has done well for himself."
"What do you mean, he's had a few rocky roads?"
Cecilia shook her head. "Nothing. I didn't mean anything by it, honey. You've had your share of rocky roads, too. None of us goes through life without some. And just like Andrew is your pride and joy, A.J. now has a son of his own that he dotes on day and night."
"He does?" Rick's face lit up with delight. "You mean I'm an uncle?"
Cecilia smiled. "Yes, honey, you are. An uncle to a little four-year-old beam of sunshine named Zachary John Richard."
Rick was stunned. "The Richard being for...?"
"Yes, Rick," Cecilia nodded. "The Richard being for you. Zachary's the spitting image of your brother, and of your father. A.J. spoils him shamelessly, or so Janet is always complaining. But despite that he's a gentle, sweet natured little boy in much the same way A.J. was as a child." Cecilia leaned sideways and gave Rick's arm a squeeze. "And now I'm so happy to have two grandsons to love."
smiled in wonder. "I can't believe
it. I mean, here we both have sons, and
we've both given them names in honor of each other, and in honor of Dad. Pretty hard to believe, isn't it?"
Cecilia looked up and smiled. "No, Rick, it's not pretty hard to believe. At least not when you give it some thought. It's exactly what I would have expected each of you to do."
"And what did A.J.'s hot-shot attorney wife think of him wantin' to name his son after a draft dodger?"
Cecilia was surprised at the sudden bitterness she heard in Rick's tone. And, to a certain degree the jealousy, as though he envied A.J. his wife and conventional lifestyle.
"I don't know what Janet thought of that, Rick," Cecilia stated practically. "You'll have to ask her if you want to find out the answer to that question."
Rick shook his head in shame. "I'm sorry, Mom. I didn't mean anything by that."
"Rick, you made a choice to leave the United States fourteen years ago when you received your induction notice. Don't blame your brother for the hard times you've been forced to endure because of that choice."
Rick was immediately contrite, and knew he deserved the scolding he'd just received. "I won't, Mom. I...I don't. It's just that, sometimes, I...I regret the choice I made. I wasn't a coward."
"I know that, son. And so does A.J."
"You know that, and A.J. knows that, but most people view me as one."
"And since when has Rick Simon ever cared how other people view him?"
Rick couldn't help but chuckle. "I guess never. Or at least not usually. But now that I have a son of my own...well, someday Andrew's going to ask some pretty tough questions of me, and I'm gonna have to give him honest answers. What's he gonna think of me, Mom?"
"The same things he thinks now. That you're a wonder father." Cecilia smiled fondly. "Or a wonderful pa-pa′, as he puts it. That you're an intelligent, caring man who didn't feel he could fight in a war he didn't believe in. There's no shame in that, Rick. You, and I, and A.J. talked about this before you left. You have never shamed or embarrassed me, or your brother. We wanted you safe. And if going to Canada was the only way to ensure that, then we were behind you one hundred percent. The three of us discussed this at length, remember? We knew it might be many years before we saw one another again. When President Carter pardoned the deser...the men who chose to go to Canada, the first thing A.J. did was call me up on the phone and tell me, "Rick will be coming home soon now, Mom. Rick will be coming home soon."
Rick smiled with fondness at his brother's loyalty. "A.J.'s always been one helluva little brother. I've really missed him, Mom. Missed him so bad that it hurts sometimes in a way I can't really describe."
"And he's missed you in the same way, Rick. He'll be so happy to see you."
"Don't tell him I'm back, okay? I want to surprise him tomorrow."
Rick rose from the couch with all the excitement of a little boy who's got a big day to look forward to. He bent and kissed his mother's cheek. "I can't wait to see him. I wanna go over to his place first thing tomorrow morning."
"Rick, wait a minute. Sit back down, please. I have something I need to...tell you."
brows drew together at the sudden seriousness that overtook his mother's
tone. "What? What's wrong, Mom?"
How much should I tell him? Cecilia wondered. How much should I prepare him? A.J. has always said he wants to tell Rick himself, but I can't let Rick go over there without warning him. Or at least making him aware that he should anticipate some changes upon first seeing his brother again.
"Sit down please," Cecilia repeated.
Rick retook his seat as ordered. "What is it, Mom? Whatta ya' wanna tell me?"
Cecilia took a deep breath. "Your brother...your brother served in Vietnam from almost two years, Rick."
Cecilia nodded confirmation of what she'd just said.
"But how? We talked about this when I left. He was college deferred. He shoulda been college deferred for seven years. Until he got through law school. By then we knew they probably would never take him, and that woulda been what...1974 when he graduated? They weren't hardly drafting anyone by then. At least that's what I had heard."
"You're right, Rick, A.J. was college deferred. But by...some mistake I suppose, he got a draft notice in 1971. Right after he graduated from UCSD. He was scheduled to attend law school that fall, but for reasons still unknown to me, A.J. was no longer sure that's what he wanted to do. He...seemed to be at a crossroads in his life that summer. For the first time ever he seemed uncertain about his future. When he got that induction notice, he acted upon it without ever discussing it with me."
"But he shouldn't have had to go," Rick pleaded to no one other than himself. "He should have never had to go. Even if he didn't go on to school...with me gone, and you a widow, they shouldn't have taken him."
"I know that, Rick. And with the connections your father had, and I have, with Senator Kimball, I could have easily gotten the error straightened out. But as I said, A.J. didn't discuss it with me. I wasn't aware he had received a draft notice until he told me one evening that he was leaving for boot camp the next week. Because of his education and age, he was entering the Army as a lieutenant."
"He did it because of me, didn't he? Because I put a black mark on our name. He did it to redeem us with our family and friends."
"No, Rick, that's not it. That's not it at all. He did it because he wanted to. Because a lot of his friends had died over there, or lost family members over there, and he felt it was his duty to go. He wanted to go, sweetheart. Of all the things I'm certain of in this world, this is the one I'm most certain of. A.J.'s decision to go to Vietnam had nothing to do with you. Nothing whatsoever. And don't think for one minute that it did."
"But he's paid for it, hasn't he? Somehow or another he's paid for the time he spent there. That's what you meant by A.J. having traveled some rocky roads, isn't it?"
swallowed back her tears as she thought of her youngest son. "Yes, Rick, he's paid for it. But not in the way you think. A.J...well, our A.J. is remarkably resilient
and strong. He's never pitied himself,
nor allowed others to pity him. In more
ways than not he's the same kid brother you so fondly remember."
"What do you mean, in more ways than not?"
"A.J. will tell you, Rick. I promised him when this day arrived, when you came back to us, that I would allow him to tell you his story. I won't break that promise to him now."
"Shhh." Cecilia laid two fingers against Rick's lips. "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies."
Rick smiled against his mother's fingers at a small portion of an old limerick Jack Simon had often recited to his boys when they were small.
Rick removed his mother's hand and gave it a final squeeze. "I take it I might as well say my good nights, then?"
Cecilia kissed her son on the cheek. "You might as well, for you'll get no more out of me."
Rick chuckled as he rose to join his sleeping son in the bedroom he and A.J. had once shared. "Night, Mom."
night, Rick. And, Rick?"
halted his progress for the stairs and turned.
"It's good to have you home, son."
"It's good to be home, Mom. It's real good to be home."
A red Camaro was parked in A.J.'s driveway on Saturday morning, leaving Rick no choice but to park at the curb. He held the truck door open until Andrew and Marlowe had scampered out of the cab. Rick took his son by the hand and stood for just a moment, staring at the house his mother had given him directions to.
Rick could faintly hear the sound of gloved hands smacking the vinyl of a punching bag. As he, Andrew, and Marlowe approached the open garage he heard a man's voice. "Good job, champ! Jab with your left. Now with your right!"
Despite the fact that the voice was deeper and more mature than he remembered it, Rick knew the speaker was his brother.
"Come on, tiger, don't stand in one place like that. You'll make an easy target for your opponent. That's right! Keep moving."
"Like this, Daddy?"
"Yeah, just like that. Now you've got it!"
Rick smiled at the gentle encouragement he heard in the man's voice, and the enthusiasm he heard in the child's. This was not a father pushing his son to do something the boy didn't want to, but rather a father and son spending time together engaged in an activity they both enjoyed.
The little boy dropped his hands to his sides and gave a wide-eyed stare when the strangers with the big dog entered the garage. His tennis shoe clad feet inconspicuously sidled in his daddy's direction.
Like Cecilia had said, Rick's nephew was every bit the image of A.J. Clear blue eyes dominated his face, his lips were pink and full, his hair thick and golden blond. He even had the same deep, dimpled indention in the skin that ran from his mouth to his nose, and Rick suspected he also had A.J.'s dimples in his cheeks when he smiled. Standing next to A.J. as he was now, there was no mistaking the two were father and son.
In the time it took A.J. to recognize his brother, Rick intently studied his sibling, looking for the natural changes brought on by the passing years. His hair wasn't as long and shaggy as it had been fourteen years ago, though he still wore it long enough to make him appear ten years younger than he was. His facial features were sharper, as if the last of the baby fat had been shed years earlier. His shoulders and chest had broadened in a way that led Rick to believe he lifted weights. And the sleeveless, snug fitting tank top he wore showed off prominent biceps and a flat stomach that spoke of a man who took care of his body. A pair of gray sweat pants were tied at the waist that Rick thought had thickened a bit with maturity, just as his own waist had, but did not, in any way, hint at excess weight.
The little boy hugged himself more tightly to A.J.'s leg as Rick and Andrew took a step closer. Zachary's endearing shyness, and the way he sought protection from his father, reminded Rick of his brother at the same age.
A.J. didn't admonish his son to be a brave boy like some fathers might have. Rather, he gave the child's arm a little pat as if to let him know he was there for him, and always would be, when the world got a bit too scary. It was when A.J.'s attention turned from his son to his visitors that recognition dawned.
The blond man's face bore a mixture of emotions. Disbelief, shocked surprise, and pure delight being the three Rick could immediately identify.
A.J.'s voice came out in barely more than a whisper. "Rick?"
Like he had done the day before to his mother, Rick held his arms out to his beloved brother. "Yeah, A.J., it's your wandering big brother. I've finally wandered home."
And just like Cecilia had, A.J. threw himself into Rick's arms. Though not before Rick took note of the prominent limp that considerably slowed A.J.'s progress across the garage floor. Rick briefly wondered if it was some type of permanent injury A.J. had incurred since he'd last seen him, or if he had more recently injured himself. Perhaps he'd twisted his knee while working out with his son.
Rick had no time to dwell on the limp further as he alternated between hugging A.J., and being hugged by his brother. The boys stood looking up at their fathers, Andrew with a big grin on his face because he understood what was going on, and Zachary with confusion because he didn't. The grown men hugged and laughed, then hugged and laughed some more before studying each other at arm's length.
Rick's eyes were bright with unshed tears. "I'd have known you anywhere, A.J. Anywhere. You've hardly changed at all since the last time I saw you."
A.J. chuckled as he brought a hand up to rub over his brother's balding scalp. "I wish I could say the same about you."
"Why you..." Rick pulled his brother to him once more. They scuffled like playful puppies a moment before their game ended in another long, heartfelt embrace.
Rick could hear the tears in A.J.'s voice. "I've missed you, Rick. I've missed you so much. There hasn't been a day that's gone by in the past fourteen years that I haven't thought about you. I'm so glad you're home."
Rick squeezed his eyes shut as his tears spilled over to run down his cheeks. "I've missed you too, kid. I've missed you, too."
Zachary turned to Andrew. "Why is your daddy crying?"
Andrew shrugged his shoulders. "Beats me. Why is your papa crying?"
Zachary shrugged his own shoulders in imitation of the older boy. "Beats me."
Upon hearing the boys' exchange, the two men broke apart with a laugh.
Rick turned A.J. so they were both facing the children.
"A.J., this is my son, Andrew. Andrew John."
The tears that had been running down A.J.'s face started up again in earnest. Although he'd always had faith Rick would one day return home to San Diego, for some reason he never imagined Rick would have a child in tow, and certainly not one named for him.
A.J. looked at his brother. He had to swallow hard before he could speak. "For me? He's named for me?"
"Well a' course he's named for you, ya' big dummy. Who else would the Andrew be for?"
It took A.J. a long moment to compose himself. He swiped at his tears, then, held his hand out to his own son. Zachary willingly clasped hands with his father and came to stand by A.J.'s side.
"And this is Zachary." There was no mistaking the love or pride in A.J.'s eyes and voice. "Zachary John Richard."
Rick nodded. This time it was he who had a lump in his throat and fresh tears in his eyes. "Mom told me."
Rick hunkered down on his knees in front of Zachary. "Hi, Zachary. I'm your Uncle Rick." He pointed toward his own son. "And this is your cousin Andrew."
Zachary's blue eyes flicked from Rick's face to Andrew's, then back again.
"You look just like your daddy did when he was a little boy, did you know that?"
Zachary shook his head and hid his face in A.J.'s leg.
Rick chuckled. "Well, you do."
Zachary peered at Rick with one eye. "If you're my Uncle Rick, then what happened to all your hair?"
"What happened to my hair?" Rick reached out a gentle hand and playfully tickled the boy's stomach. "Why you little..."
Over Zachary's giggles and squeals A.J. explained with a laugh, "He means your long hair, Rick. In a lot of the pictures he's seen of you your hair was long."
Rick cocked an eyebrow at the youngster and gave him a long, teasing look. "So you weren't makin' a smart crack about the fact my hair is fallin' out like your daddy did?"
Zachary giggled and shook his head no.
in that case I'd better stop tickling ya', huh?"
Zachary nodded and smiled.
Yep, the kid sure does have his dad's dimples. What a cute little guy. In another ten years or so the girls will be lined up at his door, just like they were for A.J.
"And as far as my hair goes, kiddo, I got it cut off a long time ago. When it started coming out on top all by itself I decided the rest of it had to go."
While Rick carried on further conversation with his nephew, A.J. turned his attention to Andrew. He found the boy to be much like Rick had been as a child. Gregarious, inquisitive, intelligent, and funny. And while he could see a number of his brother's features in Andrew, he could also see someone else, especially in the child's deep brown eyes, which made him briefly wonder where Rick's wife was.
The conversations between the men and their nephews began to wind down. A.J. knew there would be plenty of opportunities for more conversations, and more time spent with the boys. Right now he wanted to spend some time alone with the older brother he hadn't seen for over a decade.
"Zack, why don't you take Andrew out to the side yard. You boys play for a little while and then I'll fix you both some lunch."
Without any hesitation Zachary took Andrew's hand. "Come on! I have lots of stuff to show you. I have a swing set, and a teeter totter, and a sand box, and a fort, and a jungle gym, and a slide, and cross-over bars, and--"
Andrew's appreciation shown in his eyes and voice. "Wow! You got more junk than a park. Let's go!"
The two boys ran out of the garage with Marlowe at their heels. Rick and A.J. could just barely hear Zachary exclaiming over the large, friendly dog.
"You're so lucky! You gotta dog. My mommy won't let me have a dog. She says we don't have enough room for one."
The brothers walked over to the garage window and looked out. For a few minutes they stood there and watched their children play together in harmony.
Rick smiled. "Looks like they're gonna be fast friends, just like we were."
A.J. smiled in return. "And I wouldn't have wanted it any other way."
The blond man turned to lead his brother into the house. Again, Rick observed the stiff, heavy limp. As well, he had been peripherally aware of the fact that earlier, when A.J. had been talking to Andrew, the blond hadn't bent down to be at the child's level as Rick had done with Zachary, but rather remained standing stiffly over him. Rick observed even more closely now. It seemed to him as though A.J. had to work hard to move his left leg.
It was when A.J. halted their progress to the door that would lead them from the garage to the den and bent to pick up Zachary's boxing gloves, that Rick noticed it. The legs of A.J.'s sweatpants rose just a fraction. But that fraction was enough for Rick to be able to see the polished, flesh colored wood of the prosthesis. The prosthesis that took the place of A.J.'s left leg.
A.J. pitched the gloves onto his work-out bench. "Come on. I'll show you the house. I think we've still got some coffee brewing. And there's orange juice, apple juice, soda, or milk if you'd prefer something else. I can't wait to introduce you to Janet. She's at work today. She should be home sometime between four and five."
A.J. barely heard the strangled call from behind him. When he turned around the look on Rick's face told him all he needed to know. His brother had inadvertently seen, or maybe guessed, what A.J. had planned to tell him when the time was right.
Hot tears filled Rick's eyes. He didn't attempt to contain them. They spilled over to trickle in crooked rivets down his cheeks.
A.J. moved toward his brother. "Don't be sorry, Rick. It wasn't your fault. It had nothing to do with you."
A.J. could see the pain, confusion, and sorrow on Rick's face, and could easily hear it in his choked voice. "But it was because of me, wasn't it? Because I didn't go, you felt you had to. Because I disgraced the family you--"
A.J.'s hands came to rest gently on his brother's upper arms. "Rick, no. You didn't disgrace the family. I've never thought that, and neither has Mom. My decision to serve in Nam was just that. My decision. Made for my own reasons. None of which had anything to do with you."
Rick hands rose now to grip A.J.'s upper arms. Only instead of his grip being loose and comforting as A.J.'s was, Rick's was tight and demanding, and full of shame and anger.
"But why? Why did you do it? You didn't have to go!" Rick shook his brother in time with his harsh words. "Why, damn it? Just tell me why, A.J.! Just tell me why!"
Before A.J. could form a reply racking sobs overtook Rick's body. His anger gave way to gulping, breathless tears. He slowly crumpled like a balloon with a slow leak. A.J. caught him and pulled him to his chest. He ran a soothing hand over Rick's back.
"Don't cry," he whispered to his older brother in the same soft, gentle way he often whispered those words to his four-year- old son. "Don't cry. It's not your fault. I don't want you to cry for me. I don't want anyone to cry for me."
Despite A.J.'s request, Rick buried his head in his brother's shoulder and let his tears fall freely. He could smell a comforting mixture of musky sweat, sweet shampoo, and spicy cologne. "But I never wanted you to go. I never wanted you to be hurt because of me. It's my fault. It's all my fault."
A.J. brought a hand up to cup the back of his brother's head. "Shhh. Don't cry, Rick. Don't cry. It's not your fault. It's not your fault and it never has been."
How long they stood like that, Rick crying and A.J. offering quiet comfort, neither brother knew. When Rick was finally able to compose himself he lifted his head from his brother's shoulder. He self-consciously wiped at the tears on his face with the back of his shirtsleeve. A.J. didn't say anything, but rather placed a solicitous arm around his brother's shoulders and led him into the house.
The brothers talked a long time that morning. They had fourteen years of catching up to do. Rick learned about A.J.'s college days, and why he subsequently chose not to go on to law school. He learned how A.J. came to open his own private investigation business, and how he met his wife, Janet Fowler. Of his service in Vietnam, A.J. said little and Rick didn't ask. For very different reasons, the subject was too painful for both of them.
Rick told A.J. of his years traveling throughout Canada and the variety of odd jobs he'd held down during that time. His voice dropped when he spoke of Laurette, his lover and the mother of Andrew. He told A.J. about the one hundred acres of land he and Laurette had purchased, and the cozy log cabin they'd built with their own hands while dreaming of a lifetime together. A lifetime that was cut short far sooner than Rick ever imagined, and when Andrew was just three years old.
Rick then told A.J. of how he'd struggled to put his life back together without the beautiful woman by his side. How he now made a living for himself and Andrew by trapping, fishing, and taking on other odd jobs, including some freelance private investigation work.
The brothers laughed at this odd coincidence. Granted, their methods might be different, but after a fashion they were both pursuing the same profession.
Shortly before noon two dirty, giggling boys burst into the house proclaiming they were starving. While A.J. prepared lunch, Zachary led his uncle and cousin to the bathroom where Rick oversaw the washing of faces and hands amidst boyish laughter and teasing. He stood back and watched the boys with a quiet smile on his face. He could tell they were already well on their way to forming a strong bond of friendship not that dissimilar to the same bond that had always been shared by their fathers.
Long after lunch was over and the boys and Marlowe had returned outside, the Simon brothers sat at A.J.'s kitchen table talking and reminiscing. Janet hadn't arrived home yet when Rick gathered up Andrew and Marlowe. Cecilia was hosting dinner for her sons and their families that evening. Rick had promised his mother he'd return in time to grill the hamburgers she was thawing for the boys, and the steaks she had out for the adults. Zachary begged A.J. to allow him to go to his grandmother's house with his Uncle Rick so he could continue playing with his newfound cousin. The blond detective didn't object to that suggestion, and like Rick, was thrilled to see that his son and nephew were rapidly becoming best friends.
A.J. walked Rick and the boys to the truck that afternoon. He waved goodbye as they pulled away from the curb, and promised he and Janet would be over soon after she arrived home from work.
A.J. remained standing on the sidewalk long after the truck was out of sight. He smiled his happiness. Rick was back. Back for good, if A.J. had anything to say about it. And as an added bonus, Rick had a son not much older than A.J.'s little boy.
Life is going to be good again, A.J. thought as he turned and limped into the house. Rick's back. Rick's back and our family is whole again. Thank you, Lord. Thank you.
The weeks following Rick's return passed swiftly. The eldest Simon brother was busy reacquainting himself with the city of his birth, and contacting old friends like Carlos. He'd often stop by A.J.'s office for a few hours throughout the day, and had on more than one occasion lent his brother a hand in regards to a case. As well, he obtained A.J.'s permission on various days to take Zachary out of his nursery school so the little boy could join him and Andrew on their travels. On many nights Janet worked late, prompting Cecilia to invite A.J. and Zachary for supper with her, Rick, and Andrew. Cecilia also hosted several family gatherings for both the Simon side of the family, and her own side, to enable aunts and uncles and cousins to visit with Rick and meet his son.
Throughout all Rick's encounters with old friends and with family members, he didn't sense animosity from anyone with the exception of his sister-in-law, Janet. Granted, she kept it heavily veiled, but nonetheless it was always present. She was good to Andrew, however, so Rick kept his peace, even though the urge to confront her about her icy attitude toward him had been hard to resist on several occasions.
Rick and Andrew had been staying at Cecilia's home for four weeks when A.J. and Janet were getting ready for bed one Friday night. Zachary was staying overnight at his grandmother's as well, he and Andrew having been treated by Rick to a movie and dinner at McDonald's.
Janet came out of the master bathroom in her short, satin nightshirt. She paused a moment and watched her husband as he sat on the edge of the bed removing his artificial leg. He grimaced as the heavy prosthesis was removed. Despite the towel he used for additional cushioning, the flesh of his stump was red and swollen. Janet, more than anyone else, knew how painful it was for him to wear the artificial leg all day, and how hard he had to work in order to manipulate it. When he was in the house and they weren't expecting company, he more often than not didn't put it on, but rather maneuvered on crutches with practiced ease. He could also stand for amazingly long periods of time on just his right leg, without the aid of the crutches if need be.
Janet bent and kissed his cheek as she rounded the bed. A.J. was too quick for her, however, and he caught her around the waist and pulled her on top of him. His mouth found hers, and for a long minute they engaged in an ardent kiss that ignited further passion. A.J.'s lips then sensuously trailed down her face and neck before traveling to her sensitive breasts. Janet arched her back with pleasure and allowed him to undress her. A.J. himself was wearing only a pair of loose fitting gym shorts, which made it easy for Janet to divest him of his clothing, despite the fact his hands were gently stroking her inner thighs the entire time she was undressing him.
They made love quickly and eagerly the first time, then slowed down for a long session of playful touching, teasing, massaging, and caressing. When they both finally allowed themselves to reach orgasm a second time, Janet screamed her pleasure and A.J. called her name in a way they couldn't when Zachary was in the house.
Long after their loving was finished, they laid naked in each other's arms in their queen-sized bed. Again, another pleasure they couldn't engage in when their son was in the house. Although Zachary had been taught to knock on closed doors, a four-year-old who's been awakened by a bad dream, or with a stomachache, doesn't always remember the rules.
Janet felt A.J. stiffen in her arms, then watched as he shot straight up. He moaned as he rubbed his left leg below his thigh. Rubbed the portion of his leg that was no longer there.
Janet sat up with him, but could do little more than run a gentle hand up and down his bare back and murmur words of comfort. He'd been plagued on and off by phantom pains for as long as she'd known him. It was her understanding that most amputees are. At one time doctors thought the excruciating pains their patients described existed nowhere but in their heads, but more recently some doctors had come to theorize the pains were brought on by highly sensitive nerve endings left behind in the stump of the amputated limb. Regardless of whether or not the pain was real or imagined, Janet knew from experience that it hurt in an excruciating way A.J. could only describe by saying it felt like someone was holding a glowing hot poker against his bare skin.
When the pain finally subsided Janet propped two pillows behind her husband and helped him lean back against them. His face was the color of parchment paper, and beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead and upper lip, but she was used to that by now. It didn't make her feel any better, but she was used to it.
"A.J., can I get you anything?"
The blond's eyes were closed and his head rolled back and forth in a negative gesture. "No," came his slightly breathless reply. The same reply she had gotten ever since she had first come to know him seven years earlier. "I'll be okay. Just give me a minute."
Janet sat, tight lipped with fury, and watched her husband suffer. For lack of anything better to do, she gingerly covered her husband with the sheet, then slipped back into her nightshirt, being careful not disturb A.J. as she did so.
Within a few minutes A.J.'s pain completely subsided and healthy color once again returned to his cheeks. He didn't dwell on what had occurred, just as he never did. Janet did enough of that for both of them. Instead, he began to eagerly talk about the one subject his wife was rapidly growing tired of.
Janet swore if she heard one more thing about Rick Simon from her husband, son, or mother-in-law, she'd scream. She'd absolutely scream. Only this time her scream wouldn't be from pleasure, but rather from anger and frustration over what her husband and the rest of his family was too blind to see.
Janet interrupted A.J. halfway through his account of the case Rick had helped him with that day.
"When are Rick and Andrew returning to Canada?"
A.J.'s head rolled sideways on his pillow so he could make eye contact with his wife. "Returning?"
"Yes, returning. When are they going back home?"
"They are home, Janet."
Janet studied A.J.'s face a moment, but was unable to discern what he meant by that remark. "Yes, I realize San Diego is where Rick was born and raised, A.J., but his home is in Canada now. I assume at some point in time he and Andrew will be returning there?"
"No. They're not planning to."
"Not planning to?"
"No. Rick is in the process of selling his cabin and land right now."
just where is he going to live?"
A.J. didn't like the sharp edge he heard in his wife's tone. As if Rick didn't have the right to sell his home and relocate. He struggled to push himself to a seated position so he wasn't forced to look up at Janet. "He's going to live here in San Diego. Where did you think he was going to live?"
Anywhere but here would be fine with me, was what Janet thought, but not what she said.
"Where in San Diego? I mean, he's not planning to continue freeloading off your mother like he has been, is he?"
"First of all, Rick is not freeloading. He's giving Mom money to put toward the groceries and such, plus he's been doing household projects for her that I haven't gotten around to. And secondly, whatever arrangements my brother has worked out with my mother is none of your business anymore than it's mine. But for your information, no, he's not planning on living with Mom. He and I made a few stops today when he was helping me with that job. He's thinking of buying a houseboat and renting a slip at one of the marinas."
made a face that voiced her displeasure.
"What?" The dumbfounded A.J. asked. "What's wrong with that?"
"I just can't imagine raising a child at a marina. You know what kind of places those are. What kind of people live on houseboats year round. They're nothing but a bunch of swinging singles looking for a quick roll in the hay. Most of the women who live like that are nothing but big busted bimbos who don't wear enough clothing to cover a modest poodle. And the men...well they're nothing but tongue wagging losers who whistle at, and insult, every woman who passes by. They all probably have mirrors on the ceilings above their beds and think it's some kind of original idea."
A.J. couldn't help but laugh at his wife. For a woman who could be so wanton in the bedroom, who was so young, and beautiful, and vital, she could have very old-fashioned ideas when she took a mind to.
"Oh for heaven's sake, Janet, not all marinas are like that. They're not that much different from any neighborhood. You have to take the bad along with the good. Besides, the two Rick's seriously considering caters to families. They both have good-sized playgrounds, a basketball court, and an activity center. Believe me, Andrew's well-being will always be foremost in Rick's mind."
"If that's true, then why hasn't Andrew ever been to school?"
"You know the answer to that. Rick's teaching him at home."
"What the hell is that suppose to mean?"
"Just what you think it means. That's the biggest line of bullshit I've ever heard. Rick doesn't send that boy to school because then he wouldn't have the freedom to come and go as he pleases. They don't live by any kind of schedule, A.J. Andrew spends more time outdoors with Rick than he does sitting behind a desk. I know, I've talked to Andrew about it."
"He's only six years old, for crying out loud! I don't think it's that big of a deal at this point in time."
"Maybe you don't, but I do. He should have already completed kindergarten, and be three quarters of the way through the first grade. If Rick does decide to live here, and he chooses not to send Andrew to school, someone could turn him into the authorities, you know."
A.J.'s eyes narrowed with suspicion and anger. "Well, someone had better not. At least not a certain someone I know. And whether or not you want to admit it, Janet, you know as well as I do that Rick is giving Andrew a good education. He can speak and read both English and French, and Rick is in the process of teaching him Spanish right now."
"So I've heard," Janet muttered. "Many times."
A.J. chose to ignore his wife's words, and the sharp tone behind them. "You've heard Andrew read to Zachary, and you've seen some of the books he's taken out of the library. He's reading at least three grade levels above his age group. And he knows a good number of his multiplication tables, plus already has quite a handle on geography. He helped Rick map out their route down here. Not to mention his vast knowledge of the wilderness."
"Well of course he has a vast knowledge of the wilderness!" Janet exclaimed. "That's where he spends all his time!" Janet took a deep breath when she could see her words were only making her husband angrier. "Look, A.J., all I'm saying is there's a lot Andrew is missing out on by not being in school on a daily basis. Maybe not in terms of education, but certainly in terms of social skills, and the opportunity to participate in day to day play and structured activities with the other children."
"His social skills are just fine," A.J. rebuked. "You've seen him with Zachary and the other kids from the neighborhood. All the kids like him. He's a natural born leader like Rick was. And he's a good little boy."
"I'm not saying he isn't. I'm just saying--"
A.J. held up a hand to stop the argument that was getting
them nowhere. "None of this matters anyway. Rick plans to put Andrew in school next fall. There's only two months left of school now, so he'll continue to home school Andrew until that time. That's one of the reasons Rick thinks he's going to take a slip at the marina just a few blocks from here."
"So both Zachary and Andrew will attend Grand Canal Elementary. With Zack starting kindergarten next year we thought it would be nice if Andrew starts second grade in the same school. You know, that way it will be easier on both the boys, since school will be new to each of them."
"It won't be that new to Zachary," Janet reminded pointedly. "He's been attending day-care and nursery school since he was six weeks old."
A.J. shot his wife a look that voiced his displeasure over that decision. "Yes, I realize that." If A.J.’d had his way, Janet would have stayed home with their son until he started first grade. But that was an old argument that there was little point in resurrecting now.
"Regardless of whether or not school will be new to Zack, it will be nice if he and Andrew can attend together. You've seen what good friends they've become in the past month." A.J. gave a soft, fond smile. "Watching Andrew and Zack together, well it's been a double bonus, Janet. They're good for each other. They're becoming as close as brothers. As close as Rick and I were as kids. What they have together...the closeness they share, it's what I've always wanted for Zack. You know that."
"A.J., don't bring that up now. It won't do anything but start a fight."
A.J.'s words were dark and harsh. "I didn't bring anything up. It's not a crime for me to voice what I want for Zachary, regardless of whether or not you want the same things."
It was another old argument, and one Janet was growing weary of in much the same way she was growing weary of hearing about Rick Simon. A.J. wanted more children and Janet didn't, it was as simple as that. Or maybe as difficult as that, was a better way to put it.
Janet loved Zachary with all the love a mother could possibly have for her child, but the pregnancy had been an accident as far as she was concerned, having occurred far too early in their marriage, when they'd both been giddy on too much wine. Or at least she'd been giddy on too much wine. She sometimes wondered if A.J. hadn't purposefully planned that four month anniversary dinner with the intention of getting her just mellow enough, and turned on enough, so as to allow her to loosen up and forego the use of birth control. Why they hadn't talked about children prior to marriage Janet never knew. She suspected they were so passionately in love as to both be naive enough to believe they each wanted the same things out of life. Or maybe they thought they could talk each other into, or out of, whatever was necessary. All she knew was children were not high on her priority list, and she discovered too late that just the opposite was true for A.J.
He'd made love to her on and off that entire Friday night and far into the next afternoon. Janet would be lying if she denied any second of it was less than ecstasy. It came as no surprise when she missed her period the next month, and when she was told she was pregnant the following month.
Janet never harbored her husband any ill-will for that night, in part because she had been an eager participant in their lovemaking and not so drunk that she wasn't aware of what she was doing, and in part because she knew how much a baby meant to A.J. But she also vowed it would never happen again. Zachary was perfect in every way, and Janet felt no need for more children. A fact she often reminded A.J. of when he was nuzzling her neck and fondling her breasts, and trying to sweet talk her into expanding their family.
For the benefit of their sometimes rocky marriage, Janet decided a change of subject was in order. "All right, so Rick moves to the marina and Andrew and Zachary attend school together. That's fine, I suppose, but what happens next?"
A.J. sighed heavily with resignation. He was well aware Janet had purposefully changed the subject. She did that each and every time he spoke of, or hinted at, the two of them having more children. "What do you mean, what happens next?"
"What will Rick do for a living? Beaver and otter aren't exactly plentiful here in San Diego, meaning he won't be earning any money trapping, or whatever it is he does up in Canada to occupy his time."
A.J. hesitated a long moment before responding. So long that Janet was forced to prompt, "A.J.?"
He hazarded a glance in her direction, then quickly focused on the highboy dresser across the room. His mannerisms made Janet think of Zachary when he was about to confess a wrongdoing he knew he was going to be in big trouble for.
"I've been talking to Rick about...about going into business with me."
Countering his wife's tone, A.J. responded quietly and evenly, "You heard me."
"Yes, I did, Andrew Simon. I heard you just fine, as a matter of fact."
Janet stared at her husband until he was forced to look at her. "A.J., I thought we agreed you were going to close the business down at the end of the summer. That you were going to work for Daddy at Peerless until the day comes he's ready to retire and turn it over to you. I thought--"
"I know what you thought, Janet. But what you thought, and what I want, are two very different things. I don't want to close Simon Investigations. I never have. I opened that business when I came back from Nam. You know how much it means to me."
Yes, Janet did know how much the business meant to A.J. And she also knew how little income it was generating. If it wasn't for her career as an attorney, and A.J.'s monthly disability check from the government, they wouldn't be able to make it on the meager earnings from Simon Investigations.
That didn't mean, however, that Janet wouldn't readily acknowledge the business was important to her husband. Very important, as a matter of fact. She supposed that to him, it represented his independence.
A.J. had opened Simon Investigations shortly after he'd been released from the veteran's hospital. Shortly after he'd learned to live independently on crutches and an artificial leg. That's how Janet had met him. She'd been going to law school, while at the same time working for her father as a secretary at the Peerless Detective office across the street from where A.J. opened Simon Investigations. Janet was so curious about the handsome, decorated war veteran she saw limp into that little office every morning that she did what she'd never done before regarding any man she desired to introduce herself to. She waited for him to arrive one morning and purposely bumped into him on the sidewalk while carrying an armload of files piled so high they covered her eyes. It was when he attempted to bend down and help her pick them up that she discovered why he limped so terribly. He threw himself off-balance and they both ended up on the ground in a tangled heap of arms and legs. She didn't know if she loved him more right at that moment for the way he so gallantly apologized to her and helped her to her feet, even while struggling to his own, or if she immediately fell in love with him because of his resilience and strong sense of humor regarding his situation. He wasn't embarrassed that she had inadvertently discovered the source of his disability, or if he was he didn't show it. He seemed to be at ease with who he was, and what life had dealt him. He never felt sorry for himself, or talked about how things used to be. About what a skilled athlete he had been, or about how physical endeavors of any sort had always come easy to him. That Janet learned later from his mother.
Janet and A.J. had their first date that night. A month later they began sleeping together. Even without his prosthesis, Janet never thought of him as less than a whole man. And no other man had ever made her feel the way he did in the bedroom. Ten months after their first date they were married, in June of 1975. In July of '76 Zachary was born. In the intervening years, A.J. had struggled to keep Simon Investigations afloat, which was another reason Janet refused to entertain the notion of more children. They were living quite comfortably now. She had no desire to put additional strain on their finances, or on their marriage.
"A.J...yes, I do know how much the business means to you," Janet now acknowledged. "But Peerless will grow to mean a lot to you as well."
"Not in the same way my own business does. Not in the same way the business I started always will."
Janet gave her husband a long look. "A.J., be honest with me here. How much does this change of heart regarding working for Daddy have to do with what you want, and how much does it have to do with what your brother wants?"
doesn't have anything to do with what my brother does or doesn't want. It's simply that he's done investigation
work for people up in Canada. He knows
the business almost as well as I do. I
just happen to think this will be a great opportunity for both of us."
"How so? Simon Investigations barely puts food on our table. How in the world is it going to provide an income for both you and Rick?"
"Because with Rick's help, I'll be able to take on jobs I've had to turn down in the past because of my...leg. We've already talked about how to build up the client base. Rick has a lot of good ideas."
Janet rolled her eyes. Despite the fact she'd known Rick for only four weeks, she was well aware he was just brimming with good ideas. "Oh, I can just imagine."
"Never mind. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that Daddy is counting on you coming to work for him. He's counting on you one day taking over his business."
"Well, that's not what I want to do, and it never has been. And if you'd listen to me once and a while instead of dictating as to what I should and shouldn't be doing, then you'd know I don't want to work for your father."
"And why not? What's wrong with Daddy?"
Several things, A.J. thought to himself with dry sarcasm. None of which I'm stupid enough to mention right at the moment.
"Nothing's wrong with your father. But Peerless Detective's is his business, not mine. He worked to make it what it is today, just like I want to continue to improve on Simon Investigations. With Rick's help, I can do that." A.J. took Janet's hands in his in a desperate plea. "Don't you see, Janet, I don't want people saying I'm your father's charity case. I don't want people saying that Myron Fowler had to give his son-in-law a job because A.J. Simon is a cripple who can't make it on his own."
"No one would say that."
"They might not say it, but they'd think it."
Janet pulled her hands free from her husband's grasp. "A.J...I just...I just thought we had this all worked out. With Daddy you'll bring in a regular salary. We won't have to wonder any longer if you're going to be bringing home a thousand dollars this week, but then only a hundred dollars for the next six weeks. With Daddy you'll have a stability we haven't had since we started this marriage."
"But with your father I won't have Rick as my partner."
Janet bit her lower lip in reluctant thought. "Well...maybe Daddy could find a place for Rick at Peerless. Maybe--"
A.J. threw his head back and laughed. "Fat chance. First of all, Rick would never work for a nine to five operation like Myron's. And secondly, you saw how well the two of them got along when they met each other at that dinner Mom hosted a few weeks back. That would be like putting two tomcats in a wet paper bag and watching them fight their way out. They despised one another, Janet."
Janet sat up in a self-righteous huff. "If your brother had behaved himself, and not baited Daddy like he did, there wouldn't have been any problems!"
"And if your father had kept his mouth shut, and kept his opinions to himself regarding Rick's lifestyle, there wouldn't have been any problems!"
"The only problem I see here, A.J., is your brother! If he had stayed in Canada where he belonged we wouldn't be having this discussion right now, and you'd still be planning to go to work for Daddy in the fall!"
"Not necessarily. And what the hell do you mean, ‘if he'd stayed in Canada where he belonged?’"
Janet gave the covers a violent kick, grabbed her pillow, and shot out of bed. "Oh, excuse me. I didn't mean Canada. What I meant was, if Rick had gone to Vietnam where he belonged, a lot of things would be different, wouldn't they, A.J.? For example, you'd still have two legs!"
"Janet!" A.J. leaned as far over the edge of the bed as he dared. He swept out a hand in an effort to snare his wife's arm as she flew by. "Janet! Janet, get back here!"
The only answer A.J. got was the resounding slam of the guest room door. He snatched up a crutch from its place against the wall by the head of the bed, and with a savage yell of frustration threw it like a javelin across the room. He didn't care that it nicked the wood on the expensive highboy, and just barely missed sailing through the glass of the French doors.
Right now he didn't care about much of anything.
Summer passed with a number of changes occurring within the Simon family. Rick purchased a two bedroom houseboat for himself and his son, and rented a slip at the marina just a mile from A.J.'s house. Andrew would attend the same school as Zachary in the fall, and had already been registered and tested. It came as no surprise to Cecilia and A.J. that Andrew's test results were outstanding, therefore qualifying him for the school's gifted and talented program, available to all children above the kindergarten level. A.J. had hopes Zachary would join his cousin in the same program when he was old enough, and Cecilia had no doubt he would.
Janet didn't speak to A.J. for three days when, in early June, Rick went into partnership with his brother. She was silent with seething anger for another two days when, shortly thereafter, the name on the office door was changed from Simon Investigations to Simon and Simon Investigations.
Cecilia volunteered to watch Andrew for Rick that summer, while Zachary continued attending his nursery school, though he sweet talked his mother into letting him spend the day with his grandmother and cousin as often as he could. The boys were inseparable, taking swimming lessons together and joining a peewee baseball team that Rick and A.J. volunteered to coach. As well, their fathers took them on a week long camping trip right before school started.
It was late one night in October when Janet received the phone call. A.J. had said he'd be home by six, but when six-thirty rolled around and there was still no sign of him she went ahead and gave Zachary his supper. By eight-thirty Zack was bathed and had gone to bed upset because his daddy hadn't been home to read him a story and tell him good night. Janet was growing a little upset herself, and had called the office three times, and Rick's boat twice, but got no answer either place. She talked to Cecilia, who was watching Andrew at her home, but she hadn't heard from her sons either and, like Janet, was beginning to worry.
quarter to ten the call came. Janet was
pacing the den floor and picked up the phone on the first ring.
"Yeah, it's me."
"Don't you ‘hi hon’ me, mister. Where are you? Do you know how worried I've been? You said you'd be home at six. Zachary went to bed crying because you weren't here."
"I know. I'm sorry. Things got a bit...hairy on the case Rick and I were working on. We've had a little...accident. I need you to come pick us up."
"An accident? Pick you up? Where are you?"
"At County General Hospital."
"At the hospital! A.J., what's wrong? What happened?"
"I...uh...I broke my leg."
"Your leg! Oh, A.J.!" Before Janet had to chance to wonder about the light, almost teasing tone her husband was using, and before it registered with her that she could faintly hear people laughing in the background at A.J.'s words, she said in a rush, "I'll bundle up Zack and drop him off at your mother's. I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Janet? Janet? Janet, wait! Wait! It's not what you think. Janet?"
But all A.J. was speaking to was a dial tone as his wife frantically ran through the house collecting jacket and purse and child.
Janet dropped Zachary off at Cecilia's with a rapid explanation and the promise to call as soon as she knew more. As she drove to the hospital all she could think of was how difficult this situation would be for A.J. He had a hard enough time getting around as it was. How would he ever manage with an artificial leg and a cast? And all their bedrooms were upstairs. She had told him buying a home with no bedrooms on the ground floor was foolish considering his disability, but he'd refused to listen. Now he'd probably have to sleep on the couch for a while, but that would be so uncomfortable for him. Maybe she'd have to look into renting a hospital bed they could set up in the living room for a few weeks. And she might have to take some time off work to be with him. Oh, how would they ever afford that? Janet hated to impose on Cecilia for A.J.'s care during the daytime, but they might have no choice.
All these thoughts raced through Janet's mind as she haphazardly parked the car and ran into the emergency room.
A clerk directed her to the examining room where she found her husband, her brother-in-law, a nurse, and Raj. Janet was very familiar with the Indian doctor who had treated A.J. for various falls he'd taken over the years as a direct result of his artificial leg, and the active life he still insisted on living despite it. There had been two cracked ribs once, a sprained wrist on another occasion, three broken fingers on another, and the most recent accident had resulted in a mild concussion after he'd taken a tumble down their stairs.
"A.J.!" Janet stopped short as she rushed into the room. A.J. was seated on the exam table with his back to her, Rick standing at his side. She could see his prosthesis had been removed from his left leg, but it was his right that was puzzling her at the moment. Not only was it not in a cast as she expected it to be, but it was flexed at the knee and swinging casually back and forth.
A.J. turned around and threw his wife that big dimpled smile that was meant to charm her out of any mood. It was then that she caught sight of his blackened left eye and the neat row of stitches above his right.
Janet approached the exam table staring in shock and dismay. "What happened?"
A.J.'s smile never left him as though he was Zachary describing the biggest adventure he'd ever been on. "Rick and I were hired to let a guy know he wasn't to be harassing his ex-wife anymore."
Janet took in the black eye and split lip her brother-in-law was sporting. "It looks as though he got the best of both of you."
A.J. shook his head and laughed. "No, not really. You should see him."
"Oh, yes, Mrs. J.A.," Raj clucked as he bustled around the room. "You should most definitely see the other guy. My, my, my, not a pretty sight. J.A. and his brother Ricky gave the man a run for his dollar bills, that is for certain. He will not be feeling well for several days to come. No, no, no. Yes indeed, not well at all."
Janet glared at her brother-in-law. "I hope this doesn't mean you two are in trouble with the police again."
Trouble with the police was a new, and very unwelcome occurrence, as far as Janet was concerned. A.J. had never taken on cases that caused him to have run-ins with the law until Rick had shown up.
"No, babe," A.J. assured. "No trouble. We've already talked to them. Everything's fine."
Janet turned her glare on her husband. "You'd better be telling me the truth, Andrew Jackson Simon."
Rick bowed his head in an attempt to muffle his snicker as A.J. dutifully replied, "I am, Janet. I am."
Janet ignored Rick in favor of accessing her husband's injuries. "But what about your leg? You told me it was broken."
A.J. grinned sheepishly and pointed to a corner of the room. Janet's eyes followed the direction his finger indicated, only to see his artificial leg laying there in two jagged pieces.
Janet's shriek echoed off the sterile walls. "How did that happen?"
"The guy ran over it with Rick's truck. Right before he smashed the truck into a brick wall, that is. That's why we had to call you to come get us. His truck isn't driveable at the moment."
"He ran over your leg? A.J., you could have been killed!"
"No I couldn't have been, Janet. It was my artificial leg."
Everyone laughed but Janet at the joke she found absolutely no humor in. For now, she simply shook her head in anger at her brother-in-law, and in exasperation at her husband. She was tired, A.J. was tired, and they needed to pick up their son from Cecilia's before calling it a night. The discussion she intended to have with her husband over this escapade could wait until morning. However, the discussion she intended to have with Rick couldn't.
Raj helped A.J. adjust a pair of crutches the hospital was loaning him for the evening while the nurse was placing a bandage over his stitches. With A.J.'s attention occupied elsewhere, Janet snared her brother-in-law by the elbow and steered him to the back of the room out of A.J.'s line of vision.
Janet's words were spoken in a quiet hiss. "I don't appreciate this, Rick."
"You know what."
"Look, Janet, since the day I got here it's been obvious you have a burr under your saddle where I'm concerned. So if ya' got somethin' to say to me, then just go ahead and say it."
Janet glanced over at A.J. to see the conversation he was having with Raj and the nurse was drowning out the words she and Rick were attempting to keep quiet.
"I don't appreciate you interfering in our lives."
"I'm not interfering in your lives, Janet."
"When my husband changes his mind about working for my father because you suddenly show up, that's interfering. When my husband takes you on as his business partner when he previously had decided to close down Simon Investigations, that's interfering. And when I have to come pick my husband up from the hospital because he's been hurt while on some case you've talked him into taking, that's interfering."
"I had nothin' to do with any of those things, Janet, and I think deep down you know it. Or at least you should. If you love A.J. half as much as you claim, then you'd know how much his business means to him, and how little he wants to work for your old man."
"Don't you tell me about love, Rick Simon. Don't you dare tell me about something you know nothing about."
"And just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"You think about how much you love A.J. the next time you watch him struggle just to stand up. And you think about how much you love him the next time you watch him suffer through phantom pains. And you think about how much you love him, Rick, the next time you watch him play ball with Zachary. He'll never be able to run along side his son the way you can run along side yours. And you think about how much you love him when he comes home exhausted every night because of the effort he has to expend just to move that damn wooden leg all day. And the next time he's in the hospital with a one hundred and four degree fever because what's left of his leg has become infected from the friction created by his prosthesis, then you sit by his side and wipe him down with cool water while offering words of comfort. It's you he calls for anyway, when he's delirious like that, so you might as well be there. But when you see him go through all those things, Rick, and you will, believe me, you will, then you think about the decision you made fourteen years ago and you ask yourself why you weren't where you were supposed to be. You take a long, hard look at your brother, and ask yourself why he went to Vietnam and why you didn't. You ask yourself why he was where you should have been. And maybe, if you do all those things, you won't wonder any longer why I resent you for coming back into A.J.'s life."
With that, Janet turned on her heel for the door. "I'm going to pull the car up closer, A.J."
A.J. threw his wife a smile over his shoulder. "That's fine, babe. We'll be ready, won't we, Rick?"
When A.J. received no answer from his brother, he tried again. "Rick? Rick? Earth to Rick." A.J. scrutinized his sibling. "Rick. Hey, Rick? Are you okay?"
The blond man turned to the doctor and said half in jest, half with seriousness, "I think you'd better have another look at Rick. Maybe he's got a slight concussion or something."
Rick shook off his troubled thoughts and gave the advancing physician a wave of dismissal. "I'm fine. Just...fine."
Rick moved to help Raj ease A.J. off the table. They assisted him in getting comfortable with his new crutches, then, walked beside him to the exit doors. If A.J. noticed Rick was unusually quiet throughout the ride to their mother's house he didn't comment on it. Rick was thankful he was in the back seat, and therefore not expected to partake in the conversation going on in front between husband and wife. Janet's harsh words kept repeating themselves in Rick's mind.
You ask yourself why he was where you should have been. You ask yourself why he was where you should have been. You ask yourself why.
S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S
A.J. flicked on the dim light over his kitchen sink. His brother was seated at the table in his usual nighttime attire of boxer shorts and a sleeveless, yoke-necked T-shirt. Rick's hair was sticking up in spiked tufts, as though what sleep he'd gotten had been restless and filled with haunting images and unnerving dreams.
"Rick, what are you doing sitting down here in the dark at three o'clock in the morning?"
Rick fiddled with the glass of orange juice resting on the table in front of him. "I happen to do some of my best thinking in the dark."
A.J. arched his eyebrows in amusement. Rick could almost mouth word for word the teasing barb he knew was coming his way.
"Well, you certainly don't do much of it in the daylight. Think, that is. If I'd have known your brain worked best after the sun went down I would have changed the office hours a long time ago."
Whatever equally flippant remark A.J. was expecting to be tossed back was never delivered. Although he was disappointed in that turn of events, he didn't find it unusual. Ever since the explosion ten days earlier, Rick had seemed to lose the finely honed sense of humor that had always been so much a part of him.
A.J. made his way across the kitchen floor, his left leg dragging slightly behind him. By some miracle he'd come away from the harrowing experience without any critical injuries, but that didn't mean he was past the painful effects of massive bruising both internally and externally, pulled muscles, and a broken wrist. His left knee still didn't bend properly, especially when he first climbed out of bed, and his right leg gave him occasional trouble as well. But the doctors assured him with the help of the exercises they'd instructed him to do, and several physical therapy sessions, his legs would heal themselves in time. The concussion A.J. had suffered along with his other injuries had caused him to be hospitalized for forty-eight hours, and now he was under doctor's orders to rest at home. He was to see his own physician in five days, and was hopeful after that visit he would be allowed to return to work.
As far as the mental trauma incurred by the so far unexplained natural gas explosion, admittedly A.J. couldn't deny he was dealing with his fair share. Eight people had died in the accident, two were still hospitalized in critical condition, and five more were as of yet hospitalized in various other conditions. It was difficult for A.J. to ask himself why he was one of the lucky ones. Why he had survived and others had died. But the practical part of him knew there were no easy answers to that question, and he supposed the other people who had survived the blast relatively unscathed were asking themselves the same thing. A.J. was well aware he was more fortunate than some - he'd returned to the arms of a loving family. Both his mother and Rick had made themselves readily accessible when he was in need of a listening ear, or a comforting hand, or simply a quiet companion.
A.J.'s memory of the nearly four hours spent buried underneath tons of brick and steel was sketchy at best. He still wasn't sure how much of what he recalled actually happened, and how much his injured brain had fabricated. The one thing A.J. did know for certain, was that Rick had risked his own life to be by his side during the time period the firemen were so frantically working to free him. The blond detective didn't recall the exact moment they'd managed to extract his trapped legs, he found out later he was unconscious at that point, but he did remember waking up very briefly in the ambulance and seeing the fuzzy outline of his brother's face. Rick bent over him and offered words of encouragement while laying a gentle hand on his head. A.J. managed to give his brother a weak smile and squeezed the hand that held his, before lapsing into unawareness once more.
But despite all those memories, both clear and hazy, that A.J. was silently coming to terms with, it was Rick who worried him most of late. His older brother had been quiet in a pensive, brooding sort of way, and A.J. often heard him up pacing the den floor in the middle of the night. And rarely since A.J. had come home from the hospital did Rick engage in the brotherly teasing and banter that had always been so much a part of their relationship. In fact, he was overly solicitous, insisting on doing things for A.J. that the blond man was perfectly capable of doing for himself, and that his doctors wanted him to do for himself.
A.J. retrieved a glass from the cupboard and limped over the refrigerator.
The sound of chair legs scraping against the floor caused A.J. to turn and see his brother in the process of standing.
"You take a seat," Rick insisted. "I'll get that for you."
With a wave of his casted hand, A.J. motioned for his brother to reseat himself. "I'm perfectly capable of getting my own glass of juice, Rick. Just sit back down."
For whatever reason, Rick was forced to look away as A.J. limped to the table. That action wasn't lost on the blond man. It was another odd thing Rick seemed to be doing a lot of lately.
A.J. pulled out a chair and sat next to his brother. He drank several swallows of juice before setting his glass down on the cloth placemat.
When it became apparent to Rick that A.J. wasn't in any hurry to return upstairs he stated, "You'd better go back to bed. You'll catch a cold sitting down here like that."
A.J. glanced at his own attire of slippers, pajama bottoms and belted terry cloth robe, then studied Rick's skimpy outfit.
"I think the chances of me catching a cold are pretty remote. You're wearing even less than I am, and you don't seem too concerned about that possibility for yourself. Plus, colds are caused by air-borne viruses. You don't get them from sitting around a kitchen table at three in the morning regardless of what you're wearing. Unless, of course, the person you're sitting with happens to have a cold. And you don't, do you?"
"I don't what?"
"Have a cold?"
"No, I don't have a cold."
"So see, I think we're both safe."
"Yeah," Rick replied with preoccupation, as though he was only half listening to the conversation that was taking place, "yeah, I guess we are."
A.J. gave a small, frustrated shake of his head that Rick didn't seem to notice.
Rick's eyes traveled to the kitchen wall clock. "You'd better go back to bed. You're supposed to be resting. As a matter of fact, at this time in the morning, you're supposed to be sleeping."
"Rick, is there some reason you don't want me down here with you?"
Rick glanced at his brother, then, looked away. "Whatta ya' mean?"
"Just what I asked. Would you rather I leave you alone?"
"No. No. I...no. Whatever gave you a stupid idea like that?"
Rick focused on A.J. once more. "Me?"
"Yes, you. You seem awfully intent on me returning to bed. And you were like this last night when I found you sitting down here by yourself, and two nights before that, and the night before that."
"It's simply that you're supposed to be in bed, that's all. Not up roaming the house. I'm just makin' sure you follow doctors' orders."
"I don't think coming down here to get a glass of orange juice and to sit with you for a few minutes constitutes roaming the house."
"Whatever," Rick shrugged. "It's just that you're supposed to be taking it easy." The detective stood. "I'm tired anyway. I think I'll go back to--"
A.J. reached out a hand and laid it on his brother's forearm. He exerted just enough pressure for Rick to get the idea A.J. wanted him to retake his seat. Rick had fled from him during the previous early morning hours when A.J. had tried to engage him in conversation. The blond man was determined that wasn't going to happen again this morning.
A.J. didn't bother to attempt a subtle line of questioning. Subtlety was a lost art on a man like Rick Simon, who was a straight shooter and demanded the same treatment in return.
"Why are you having trouble sleeping?"
"Trouble sleeping? Me?"
A.J. rolled his eyes. "You're starting to sound like a parrot, you know that? Yes, trouble sleeping. You."
"I'm not having any trouble sleeping. Where'd you come up with that dumb ass notion?"
"I pulled it out of a hat, Rick," A.J. shot back sarcastically. "Where do you think I got it? I came up with that ‘dumb ass notion,’ as you put it, because I've heard you down here wearing a path in my carpeting every night since I've been home. I also know that at least three times a night you're standing over my bed staring down at me under the pretense of checking on me. And that doesn't even begin to cover the times you're probably doing the same thing when I'm not aware of it. My injuries aren't so serious that I need to be hovered over like a nervous new mother hovers over a three day old infant."
Rick's flare of angry temper was way out of proportion for the current circumstances. At least as far as A.J. was concerned.
"Fine! If I'm pissin' ya' off because I care then I won't bother you anymore. If that's the way you feel about it then I'll go back to sleepin' on the boat. It's not like I need this shit in my life anyway! It's not as though I don't have enough things on my mind! I ain't cut out to be anyone's nurse anyway."
Before Rick could stalk out to the boat A.J.'s left hand shot up again. He had to use considerably more force this time in order to prevent Rick from escaping the house. The blue eyes that looked up at Rick painfully reminded the lanky man of the little boy in his dream. Zachary.
With a great deal of perceptiveness A.J. asked, "Rick, just who is it you're so angry at? Is it me? Or is it yourself?"
Rick threw his head back and bit down on his lower lip. After a long moment he emitted a heavy sigh.
"Please, Rick," A.J. requested quietly, "sit back down."
Several seconds ticked off on the hand of the clock before Rick did as his brother asked. He sat sideways on the edge of the chair he had just vacated facing A.J., with one arm coming to rest on the table.
Other than Marlowe's faint snores drifting down from the guest room upstairs and the soft hum of the refrigerator, the room remained clothed in silence. A.J. knew that by reseating himself Rick was contemplating discussing whatever it was that was bothering him. Certainly Rick Simon never took orders from anyone, not even A.J., if he had no desire to partake in whatever it was someone else thought he should. Had that been the case tonight, A.J.'s hand on Rick's arm wouldn't have prevented the older man from stomping right out to his boat and slamming the kitchen door behind himself for good measure. A.J. wasn't positive what it was he said that had caused Rick to calm down, but he took an educated guess.
"You didn't answer my question."
Rick looked at his brother with veiled eyes. "What question?"
"About who it is you're angry at."
Rick's tone was defensive and in sharp contrast to his words. "I'm not angry at anyone!"
"You seem like you are. Angry, upset, and even remorseful for whatever reason. You've been like this ever since I came home from the hospital."
"A.J., I think that pain medication you've been taking has altered your perception of reality. I don't know what you're yakin' about here, but I'm not upset or remorseful, and most of all, I'm not angry. Especially not at you."
"Then you must be angry at yourself."
Rick exhaled with disgust. "I just got done tellin' you, I'm not angry at anyone!"
"You can tell me whatever you want, but I know you well enough to know the truth. Something's eating at you, Rick. Something that's disturbing your sleep and...changing you. Something that's causing you to be unusually quiet. Something that's taken away your natural exuberance."
For the first time in ten days Rick favored his brother with a genuine grin. "I have natural exuberance?"
A.J. couldn't keep himself from smiling in return. "Most of the time you do. But you've lost it somewhere. You lost it the day of the explosion, didn't you?"
Rick's eyes dropped to the table and his voice dropped with them. "I almost lost a lot of things the day of the explosion."
"Rick, don't blame yourself for something you had nothing to do with."
You ask yourself why he was where you should have been. You ask yourself why he was where you should have been. You ask yourself why he was where you should have been. You ask yourself why.
words echoed in Rick's mind. But she
hadn't really spoken those words. It
had all been a dream, hadn't it?
Rick's index finger traced a pattern over the smooth maple wood of the table. A.J. sat in silence observing his sibling. He had a feeling if he was patient long enough, if he waited long enough, that Rick was on the verge of opening up.
A.J. was right. It took five minutes that seemed like five hours to the blond man, but finally, in the quiet of the dim kitchen, Rick spoke.
"A.J., have you ever had a dream that just...won't quit?"
A.J.'s confusion came through clearly in his question. "Won't quit?"
"Yeah, won't quit. A dream that keeps comin' back night after night. The same dream over and over again."
"I guess I've had dreams like that a time or two. When something's on my mind that's really bothering me."
Rick searched his brother's face with unrelenting intensity. "But when you've had a dream like that, has it ever been in mini-series format?"
A.J. cocked his head. "Excuse me?"
"Now it's you who's sounding like a damn parrot, little brother."
"Maybe I am," A.J. readily admitted with a hint of humor, "but it's because I have absolutely no idea what you mean by that."
"You know. Like Roots, or Rich Man Poor Man, or The Thorne Birds, or--"
"Yes, Rick, I know what a mini-series is. I'm just not certain as to what dreaming in mini-series format means."
"It means that each night you dream exactly the same thing you did the night before, only another installment is added to the dream."
A.J. nodded thoughtfully. "I see. Well, no. I can't say I've ever dreamed in such a manner."
"Until recently, I haven't either."
Rick momentarily broke eye contact.
"How recent, Rick?" A.J. pressed.
Rick lips briefly disappeared in what A.J. perceived to be indecision. "Well...uh...I guess the dream started about ten nights ago."
"The first night I was in the hospital."
"Uh...yeah...I guess that's about when."
A.J. was so confident regarding the answer to his next question he almost didn't ask it. Later, he would be grateful he did. "And is this dream about the explosion?"
"Well...uh...no. That's the weird thing. It's not."
"Do you want to tell me what it's about?"
"I don't know," Rick shrugged. "It's kinda weird."
A.J. chuckled. "As if any dream you have wouldn't be."
felt a bare foot gently nudge his right shin as his brother admonished,
"You think you're real funny, don't you, wise guy?"
When the levity of the moment faded, A.J. allowed the conversation to take a more serious turn once again. "You've listened to me a lot in the last ten days when I've just needed someone to talk to. Let me do the same for you now."
Rick contemplated his brother's offer a long moment.
"Well, okay, here goes. But you're gonna think I'm off my rocker."
Before A.J. could speak the sharp retort that was on the tip of his tongue Rick pointed a stern finger at him. "And don't say it."
A.J. smiled. "All right, I won't. But it was a good one."
"I'm sure it was, but if you wanna be privy to my dream you'll keep your mouth shut until I'm finished."
A.J. nodded his agreement.
It took half an hour for Rick to retell the dream that was by now so vivid he could have sworn he actually lived it. A.J. only interrupted him on two occasions to ask questions that Rick willingly answered. When Rick was done he appeared to be both physically and emotionally drained, leading A.J. to conclude that the dream, though seemingly innocent enough in nature, was disturbing Rick a great deal.
"So see," Rick concluded as he rubbed a hand over weary eyes, "it's weird, isn't it?"
Rick's hand dropped to the table. "Well a' course it is! Why in the hell would I dream that you were married to Janet and that we both had kids?"
A.J. smiled internally at the way Rick purposefully avoided bringing up the real issue of the dream. The issue that was so clearly apparent to A.J., and the issue A.J. suspected was clearly apparent to Rick.
"I don't know. Why would you dream that you were a draft dodger and I was a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War? Don't you think that's a bit out of character for both of us, not to mention the fact it's not anything like how the real events of that time in our lives unfolded."
"I know. It's just that..." Rick let the thought trail off as though he had no desire to voice what he knew his subconscious was doing to him night after night.
"Rick, ever since the explosion happened have you been feeling as though you should have been there in my place?"
You ask yourself why he was where you should have been. You ask yourself why he was where you should have been. You ask yourself why he was where you should have been. You ask yourself why, you ask yourself why, you ask yourself why.
cleared his throat. "Been
"At the deli."
"Um...well...I suppose the thought's crossed my mind a time or two, yeah."
Rick shot his brother a look that said he couldn't believe A.J. had to ask such a question. "Why? Because you went there in my place. Because I was the one who asked you if you were gonna get us some soup. If I hadn't been watchin' that damn soap opera--"
"What? If you hadn't been watching that damn soap opera, what? You would have gone to Darvin's instead? And you think that would have made the situation easier on me? Do you think that, for even one second, I've ever wished it had been you trapped in that basement instead of me?"
"Well, no, but--"
"Don't, Rick," A.J. commanded. "Don't do this to either one of us. If I hadn't wanted to go to Darvin's that day I wouldn't have. But I did want to. I was looking forward to getting out of the office for a little while and taking a walk. So what you were, or weren't doing, has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that I was the one who went to get us lunch."
"But I should have gone with you."
"And what good would that have done? Would your presence have somehow prevented what ultimately happened?"
do you think I would have wanted to be trapped down there knowing you were hurt
somewhere, too, or maybe even dead?"
"And don't you think I needed you right where you were? At my side?"
"Well, yeah, I guess, but--"
"But nothing. I did need you there. I needed you there more than you'll ever know or understand. So as far as the guilt goes you're carrying around, let it go. It's not necessary, and it's a waste of your time and effort."
A.J. was finished Rick was wearing a bemused smile that made his moustache
"What?" The blond man asked.
"You know somethin', kid? You sure as hell missed your calling as an attorney. I bet you coulda' nailed a lotta guys to the cross with the way you can talk nonstop when someone has your feathers ruffled."
"Yeah, maybe. But I'm best at it when it's my older brother who has my feathers ruffled."
"I'll try to remember that in the future," Rick chuckled. He let silence fill the room once more as he weighed whether or not to bring up one last important aspect of the dream. An aspect A.J. had totally overlooked, or perhaps an aspect that meant nothing to him because he didn't recall the events from which it was born.
"A.J...uh, how much do you remember about
being trapped in that basement?"
A.J. shrugged. "This and that. A few things I remember fairly well, like the doctor who was helping me, and then you being there with me. But most of it...well, most of it's pretty unclear."
Rick thought that was probably for the best. He'd rather A.J. go through the rest of his life with no clear recollections of that day, as opposed to him being able to vividly recall and relive every detail. That was the stuff nightmares were made of, and as far as Rick was concerned, A.J. didn't need to deal with anymore than he already was in regards to the explosion.
Rick hesitated as he contemplated asking his next question. "Do you...remember me telling you there was a possibility Dr. Evans might have to amputate your legs in order for the firemen to free you?"
By the way A.J.'s eyes widened Rick knew the answer to his question. Overall, that came as no surprise to the eldest Simon brother. He'd suspected A.J. had no memory of that event since the blond had first come to semi-consciousness in the ambulance, and then again shortly thereafter in the emergency room. Never once had A.J. asked about his legs, nor seemed concerned that there was a possibility they might no longer be attached to his body. Afterwards...well, afterwards there just hadn't been a reason to bring the subject up. Until now. Until that damn dream had progressed to the point it made a restful night's sleep impossible to come by.
"You don't remember that, do you?" Rick asked.
"I...I...a few days after I came home I thought about it. I mean, I thought I remembered you talking to me about something like that, but the memory was so hazy I concluded it was some kind of hallucination. Especially since you never mentioned it."
"I never mentioned it because, when you didn't mention it, I figured you didn't remember it happenin' and I thought that was best for both of us."
"Which is exactly why you're dreaming that I lost a leg in Vietnam. Despite the different scenario, your mind's replaying what might have happened in the basement of that deli, isn't it?"
Rick swallowed hard. "Yeah, I suppose it is. I...I would have had to give Doc Evans the go ahead, A.J. You weren't capable of making the decision for yourself, and I was gonna be forced to make it for you. Hell, at that point it wasn't even a decision. It was looking very strongly as though none of us was gonna have a choice. And there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. Not one damn thing. I couldn't fix it. I couldn't make it better for either one of us. I just wanted to carry you out of there in my arms and never look back. But I couldn't 'cause you were trapped, and the firemen were sayin' they might not be able to get you out any other way except by lettin' the doctor amputate."
you told me all this? While I was lying
there, I mean? You explained all this
Rick squeezed his eyes shut and nodded his head. He felt A.J.'s fingers on his bare forearm.
"And what did I do, Rick? What did I say to you?"
It was strange how the memory made hot tears spring to Rick's eyes and caused a lump to swell in the middle of his throat. He'd never cried about it before, not even when it was happening. "You...you begged me not to let them do that to you."
It was also strange how A.J. instinctively knew what to do at that moment. He didn't apologize for making the situation in the deli's basement harder on his brother by pleading with Rick not make such a decision, he didn't apologize for not being stoic and taking the news like a 'man', and he didn't offer excuses for his muddled state of mind. He simply leaned forward in his chair and wrapped his arms around his brother.
Rick felt A.J.'s cast come to rest lightly on his back. It only took him a second to return the hug. If A.J. knew silent tears were falling into his robe he didn't comment on it. As a matter of fact, he didn't say anything. He didn't have to. Rick knew this hug was meant to voice a thousand things that would forever remain unspoken. First and foremost, it was telling Rick all the guilt he had been burdening himself with was silly and unnecessary. Secondly, it was telling Rick that had such a devastating decision had to have been made, that in time A.J. would have come to understand why, and just like in Rick's dream, A.J. would have eventually triumphed over adversity. But unlike in Rick's dream, A.J. wouldn't have come out on top without Rick by his side every difficult step of the way.
Rick heard A.J.'s voice near his right ear. "You would have never left."
Rick started to lift his head only to have it gently pushed down again. "Huh?"
"You would have never left. You're not like you dreamed. Not anything like that. You would have stayed and helped me face what I had to face had it been necessary to allow Dr. Evans to...amputate. And you're not a coward. You never have been, and you never will be. And you've always, always, been right where you were supposed to be."
have been? Even when I'm supposed to be
at work, but I'm playin' hooky with Carlos instead?"
A.J. couldn't help but laugh. "Don't push your luck, big brother. Don't push your luck."
Rick's arms tightened and he pulled his brother closer. "Don't worry, A.J., I won't. Believe me, kid, I know how lucky I am."
A week later, on a bright Monday morning, the Simon brothers were in the process of climbing into the Powerwagon. A.J. had received the go-ahead to return to the Simon and Simon office from his doctor on Friday afternoon, and was now looking forward to the start of the new workweek. Rick hadn't been plagued by any further installments of the bizarre dream since his early morning discussion with A.J., and now found his sleep to be peaceful and his days to be guilt-free.
It was Marlowe's insistent barking from the bed of the truck that caused Rick to pause in the act of getting in the vehicle. He looked in the direction that was holding the dog's attention. Strolling past the house on the sidewalk were two boys wearing backpacks filled with schoolbooks. One was dark headed and looked to be about seven years old. The other was blond and appeared to be of kindergarten age. Rick's jaw hung open as he took three steps toward the curb.
Those are the kids in my dream! I must have seen them around the neighborhood and never even realized it. That's where the faces for Andrew and Zachary came from.
The boys ran up the driveway toward Rick. They clamored on the rear of the truck and gave Marlowe repeated pats and strokes.
"Hey, kids," Rick admonished, "be careful there. He doesn't know--"
"Hey, Marlowe," the dark haired boy greeted as he hugged the big dog to himself.
"Hi, Marlowe," the younger boy echoed. "We'll see you later. We havta go to school now."
Amidst the boys' giggles, Marlowe licked both their faces until there wasn't a dry spot to be found.
Rick stared with astonishment. "You," he finished weakly.
The boys jumped off the truck's bumper. The brunette wrapped his arms around Rick's waist. "Bye, Papa. See you later."
Before Rick had time to react the boy's arms were replaced by an even smaller pair. "Bye, Uncle Rick. See ya' after school."
Again, before Rick had time to react, the blond boy's hand was grabbed by his friend. "Come on, Zack. We've gotta hurry or we'll be late."
The boys took off running together, Zack yelling as he was being pulled along, "Slow down, Andrew! Your legs are too long! I can't keep up with you."
flew into the cab of the truck.
"A.J.! A.J., did you see them?"
looked up from the morning paper.
Rick turned and pointed out the rear window. "Those kids!"
A.J. followed Rick's gaze to the sidewalk, only to see it filled with children on their way to the local elementary school. "Yes, Rick, those are kids," A.J. patiently replied as though his brother was half-retarded. "Kids walking to school. The same kids we see walking to school every morning as we head to work."
"No, not those kids! The other kids!"
"What other kids?"
"The two kids that ran up and petted Marlowe. Two boys. One had dark hair, and one was blond. They--"
A.J. returned his attention to his paper. "Rick, this neighborhood is full of kids with dark hair, and kids with blond hair, and kids with red hair, and I even saw one with green hair not that long ago if you can believe that, and every single one of them loves Marlowe. What's the big deal?"
"It's just that they looked like...that they looked...it's just that their names were..."
glanced up. "Their names were
Rick looked at his brother, then turned to stare down the sidewalk once more.
He'll never believe me. Not in a million years.
"Nothing. Forget it. It's not important. Like you said, this neighborhood is full of kids who love Marlowe. They were just a couple more of his fans."
A.J. leaned his head out his open window. "Hear that
Marlowe? You've got fans."
Marlowe gave a confirming "Whoof!" as Rick backed the truck out of the driveway. A.J.'s head was buried in the paper once more when Rick passed them on the sidewalk. Two boys, one dark headed, the other blond. One named Andrew, and one named Zachary.
They waved to the Powerwagon as it passed, and Marlowe's tail thumped in excited rhythm as if they were cherished playmates. A.J. took no notice of what was occurring, but Rick smiled and waved back. He couldn't help but wonder if he'd see them again.
Maybe in my dreams, huh, boys? Maybe in my dreams.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~