THE FINAL SCORE
The Final Score is a story within a story to some extent. It starts during the brothers’ adult years, takes us back to an incident during their childhood, and then returns us to Rick and A.J. as grown men. The Final Score was inspired by the aired episode, Revolution # 9 1/2, and by my story, Revisit the Past. Revisit the Past is posted in the Simon and Simon Library under Cecilia’s Diary. There is also reference made in this story to the aired episode, Zen and the Art of the Split Finger Fastball, in which Rick and A.J. attended Fantasy Baseball Camp.
A.J. Simon was seated at his desk on this Thursday morning in mid- June. He was shuffling through a stack of client reports, sorting out the ones he needed to work on today, while setting aside the ones that were completed and could be filed.
The blond detective looked up when the office swung open.
“Oh, geez,” Rick groaned, as walked on stiff legs to the coffee pot. “Damn, that hurts.”
As Rick filled his mug, he caught sight of his brother’s bowed head. "What are you smilin' about?"
A.J.'s grin broadened when Rick groaned while turning for his desk. “Nothing. I’m not smiling about anything.”
The muscles in Rick’s back seized as he eased into his chair. “Shit. Oh, shit, did that hurt.” Catching sight of his brother again, Rick asked, "Just what's so damn funny?"
A.J. couldn't help but laugh at Rick's foul mood.
“You're moving 1ike you're ninety-years-old this morning. What’s the matter, big brother? Too much baseball this week?"
Rick groaned again. "Don’t even say that word in front of me.”
“That’s the one. I swear, A.J., Abigail's gonna be the death of me yet. What she puts us through is inhumane. She’s a slave driver. She's a wolf in sheep's clothing. She’s the devil in disguise. "
"Oh, come on,” A.J. chuckled. “I think you're exaggerating just a bit. It's not Abby's fault that you're out of shape."
"I am not outta shape! No man was meant to run around a baseball
diamond twenty times, do fifty push-ups, and field thirty ground balls, after he's already put in a ten hour day at work."
"You've never put in a ten hour day at work in your life," A.J. quipped.
“I’d come over there and belt you one for that remark, only it’ll hurt too much to stand up.”
A.J. smiled at the threat he knew to be an idle one. "Listen, despite all your moaning and groaning, you'll live. Last night was our final practice, and Saturday is the game. After that, it's all over for another year."
"Thank God. Every year I promise myself I won't let Abby talk me into doin’ this again, and every year I somehow wind up runnin’ laps and playing right field."
"That's because every year we wind up owing Abby about fifty favors by the time this baseball game rolls around. It's kind of hard to say no."
"Isn't hard for me to say no, little brother, but you sure have a problem with it. You’re the one that always gets us into this." Rick mimicked his sibling. "Sure, Abby, Rick and I will play in the charity softball game again this year. Of course, Rick would just love to play right field."
Rick glared at the blond man as his mocking came to an end. "You completely ignored me when I shook my head no while you were on the phone with her."
"How could I say no? We do owe her about fifty favors, and something tells me we're going to be in need of a few more before the year is out."
"All right...yeah, I suppose you have a point," Rick reluctantly conceded. "It'd be just like Abigail to be stingy where favors are concerned if we don't play in her stupid softball game."
"Oh, quit complaining. It's for a good cause." A.J. picked up a stack of reports and leaned across his desk. "Here, help me finish this paperwork. We've got an eleven o'clock appointment with Mr. Schenning at his office, then we have to see a woman named Judy Riley over at the community college about a potential job."
"Is there gonna be time for a nap in there anywhere?” Rick yawned, as he eyed the stack of papers he’d just taken from A.J.
"No, but I'm sure you'll manage to take one anyway," A.J. retorted, while beginning his work.
Unlike his diligent brother, Rick stared idly at the papers on his desk. He reflected back on the past week of activities that had left him so sore.
This was the third year that Rick and A.J. had been members of the San Diego Police Department's softball team. The police and fire departments set aside one Saturday every June to play a softball game for charity. The money that was raised was given to an inner city organization that worked to keep youths out of street gangs, and interested in other, more wholesome, activities. Both the police and fire departments willingly participated in this worthwhile cause. Those members who didn't play ball, and weren’t on duty, were pressed in to service as ticket sellers, peanut and popcorn vendors, and hotdog and soda stand operators.
Rick and A.J. had gotten drafted on to the team in 1988, the same year they had worked a case that had them playing baseball at Fantasy Camp. Upon Abby's discovery that both brothers had played Little League ball, and then as adults had played in a softball league for a number of years, she let the detectives know she expected them to play on the team she had been drafted to coach for this charity event.
Right from the start, A.J. was enthusiastic about the idea, while Rick suspected having Abby for a coach was not going to be a pleasant experience. He was right. The first year he and A.J. had played, and each year since, there had been five practices leading up to the game. By the time the final practice came to an end that first year, Rick had told A.J., "Geez, Abby makes Coach Jensen look like Little Bo Peep." Hal Jensen had been the brothers' high school gym teacher and football coach. Rick had always said the man would have sent Hitler screaming for his mother, had he been in Germany during World War II.
Rick had soon discovered as well, that Abigail Marsh didn't believe in player-coaches, as Rick had been at Fantasy Camp.
"I'm the only coach here, Simon," she had informed the detective as he tried to weasel his way out of laps and push-ups. After two days of being dissatisfied with Rick's performance at second base, Abby had yelled from the sidelines, "I thought you had played this game before, Richard! My grandmother can field a ball better than you, and she’s eighty-years-old!"
A.J. had laughed from the pitcher’s mound. “Rick spent more time under the bleachers with Betty Carol Simmons, than he ever spent playing second base, Abby."
It was then that time Rick's permanent position became right field. A position he complained about every year, because of the lack of activity that came his way. Abby chose to ignore his grumbling, as she repeatedly pointed to right field and ordered, "Get out there, Simon, and look alive."
But, despite all of Rick's moaning and groaning, the brothers did enjoy themselves at this annual event, and at the practices that led up to it. The first year Rick and A.J. had played, the police department's team had lost by a heartbreaking score of six to five, with A.J. pitching the entire seven innings. The next year the department's team had won, again with A.J. pitching all seven innings. This year Abby had her heart set on another victory, thereby making her a, “hardened coach with a mission,” as Rick had told his brother one evening after practice. “A mission to cripple me for life, if she doesn’t kill me first.”
Focusing back on the stack of papers in front of him, Rick glanced at his watch. He knew he'd better get to work if they were going to be leaving the office soon.
The only thing worse than having Abby upset with me, is having A.J. upset with me, Rick thought, as he bit back another groan while reaching for his pen.
Saturday was warm and sunny, bringing with it perfect weather for a baseball game. It was eighty degrees by the time the bleachers began to fill at noon in anticipation of the one o'clock starting time. Rick was standing off to one side of home plate, eating a hotdog and watching his team take batting and fielding practice. A.J. was on the pitcher’s mound. He lobbed the ball softly across the plate so his teammates could get some good hits, and at the same time saving his arm for when he'd really need it.
Rick observed his various teammates, all dressed in blue jeans and each wearing a white Major League style baseball jersey that had written across the front in blue lettering, San Diego Police Department. The matching blue caps they wore had the initials S.D.P.D. across the top.
Rick leaned against the batting cage while he appreciated the rear end of a female team member who was now at bat. He jumped when a voice sounded in his left ear.
“Simon, what are you doing standing here? There's no one out in right field!"
"Geez, Abby, you scared the crap outta me."
"Well?" Abby questioned. “What are doing just standing around?”
"I'm eatin’ a hotdog, what does it look like I’m doin’?"
Abby crossed her arms over her chest. “Eating a hotdog, huh? While your teammates are practicing?”
"You don't expect me to play on an empty stomach, do you? Even Major League players get to eat before a game, Abigail. Besides, nothing's goin' on out in right field. You can take my word on that."
"You should be taking batting practice then," the coach informed her player."
“I already did."
"You call that batting practice? You were only up to the plate once, Rick, and you struck out!"
"Well, now, I can't get a hit off my own brother, can I?” Rick licked ketchup from his fingers and tossed his empty hotdog wrapper in a nearby garbage barrel. “I mean, ever since A.J. was just a little guy and pitched to me, I've always struck out in order to make him feel good. If I got a hit off of him today, Abby, I'm likely to throw his whole game outta whack."
"Simon, you drive me crazy sometimes! That's the stupidest line of bull I've ever heard. Now get in right field!"
The lieutenant turned and stomped away from Rick as A.J. approached. He was ready to give his arm a rest, and take a little batting practice from the cop that took over for him on the pitcher’s mound.
The blond man took the half empty soda container Rich handed him, draining the remainder of the Pepsi in four swallows.
"You know, A.J.,” Rick said, as he watched Abby sort equipment in the dugout, “I think Abby takes steroids."
“Really, I think she does. If you want my opinion, she's totally wacko over this stupid baseball game."
"She's just competitive, Rick. It's important to her that the department does well. Your problem is, that you like to get her dander up. I haven't heard anyone else complain about her."
"I don't like to get her dander up! She gets my dander up! Take now, for example. I was standin’ here minding my own business when she got all over my case just ‘cause I was eatin’ lunch.”
“You were supposed to be in right field.”
“A little family loyalty would be nice,” Rick growled. “Especially considering I let you finish off my Pepsi.”
“Oh, now that was big of you.”
Before the bickering could continue, the detectives heard, "Rick!" "A.J.!" called from the stands. They looked up to see their mother waving at them.
A.J. smiled and waved. "Hi, Mom!"
"Hey, Mom!" Rick called.
Abby had spotted Cecilia as well, and was headed to say hello to her. Upon seeing this, Rick said, "I’d better get to right field before Abby tells Mom on me.” He clapped his sibling on the shoulder. “Pitch us a good game, little brother."
"I'll give it my best shot," A.J. promised, as Rick jogged across the manicured grounds to take his position.
At the start of the fifth inning, the police department was ahead by a score of three to one. Although the game was competitive, it was also fun. Friendly insults and teasing flew back and forth between the teams as the game progressed.
Those in attendance were primarily family and friends of the players, as well as members of the police and fire departments, and employees of other city organizations. Those factors caused the crowd to be rowdy, and join in on the teasing and good-natured cat calling. Abby observed all of this from the sidelines. She was pleased that, as usual, this charity event was a big success, and an enjoyable day for all in attendance.
A woman from the fire department team was on first base as their clean-up hitter took the plate. The batter was a mammoth fireman from Truck Company 22, by the name of Dan. The man stood six foot four, and was two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle. This was the same man who had batted in the team's one and only run. The pressure was now on Dan to drive in another run for the fire department, just like there was pressure on A.J. to keep the fire department’s score as it currently was.
Cheers and calls of encouragement could be heard for Dan, along with, "Come on, A.J., strike him out!"
"Get him out of there, A.J.!"
“Put him away, A.J.!”
And, one last shout that came from right field, "Come on, A.J., show him what you're made of!"
The count on Dan was at two balls and one strike when A.J. wound up and pitched a hard, fastball into the strike zone. The blond man never knew what hit him. He would later remember hearing the crack of the bat, but had no memory of what followed.
Dan swung at the ball and connected solidly, sending a line drive straight at A.J.'s head. The detective hadn’t straightened yet from his pitcher’s stance, when the ball walloped him in the middle of his forehead. A.J.’s cap flew off as the force of the blow lifted him from the ground and threw him backwards. He landed behind the pitcher’s mound, sprawled on his back.
Rick had taken a few steps in from right field when his brother was beaned, then began running as he observed how still A.J. was, and realized that the blond was unable to rise. By the time Rick arrived at the mound most of the police department team, as well as some of the firemen, were standing in a circle around A.J.
Rick pushed his way through the crowd. When he arrived at the inner circle, he saw that A.J. had pushed himself into a half standing position. Abby and Dan were supporting the injured man by holding onto his arms.
"A.J., are you all right?” Abby questioned. “A.J., answer me! Come on, A.J., talk to me. Are you all right? A.J., I think you'd better lie down."
A.J. staggered on legs that crisscrossed as though he were drunk. Dan moved back as Rick approached and allowed the detective to grasp A.J.'s left arm. Rick realized then, that Dan had been supporting most of A.J.'s weight. Rick got a firmer grip on his brother, keeping one hand beneath A.J.’s armpit, while wrapping the other around his bicep.
"A.J.?” Rick questioned. “A.J., are you okay? A.J.?"
A.J. didn't respond to Rick, just as he hadn't yet responded Abby. His knees buckled as he staggered in a circle.
“A.J.? A.J., come on, answer me." Rick demanded, while giving his brother’s arm a firm tug. “A.J.!”
A.J. finally turned at the sound of Rick’s voice. Immediately, Rick could tell that A.J.’s eyes weren’t able to focus on him.
"A.J., it's Rick. Come on, talk to me, little brother. Are you okay? A.J.?”
For just a brief second A.J. seemed to rise to some level of awareness. He looked at his brother and mumbled, "Rick," right before his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed into Rick’s arms.
A fireman ran from the hotdog stand and identified himself as a paramedic, while a cop ran to one of the squad cars in the parking lot in order to summon an ambulance. The crowd in the bleachers murmured in hushed tones as they watched the upsetting event unfold before them. Cecilia made her way down to the field. She hurried across the diamond and knelt beside Rick and Abby. A.J. was unconscious and his face a pasty shade of white. The only color to his skin was the large red circle in the middle of his forehead where the ball had struck him.
The paramedic took A.J.'s pulse and lifted his eyelids to look at his pupils. "What's his name?” the man asked Rick. “A.J.?"
The paramedic spoke loudly to the unaware blond man. "A.J.! A.J., wake up! A.J., can you hear me?”
When the man got no response, he looked at Rick again. "You're his brother?" At Rick's nod, the paramedic instructed, "Try talking to him again. If we can get him to come around, and get him to stay with us, we’ll be better off."
Rick nodded his understanding. "A.J.! A.J., come on, wake up. A.J.! A.J., I need to talk to you. A.J., wake up! A.J.!"
While they waited for the ambulance, both Cecilia and Rick tried to get A.J. to wake up, but their efforts were wasted on the unconscious man. A paramedic squad arrived ahead of the ambulance, and within five minutes time, A.J.’s vital signs had been taken, an I.V. of saline had been started, a cervical collar had been place around his neck, and the hospital had been contacted to notify them of an incoming head trauma victim. Rick assisted the paramedics in keeping his brother’s spine straight as they log rolled him onto a backboard.
It wasn't until the backboard was being lifted to a stretcher, that A.J.’s eyes opened briefly. However, he didn't seem to recognize his mother or brother, and after his eyes had lethargically traveled between the anxious faces hovering over him, he slipped back into unconsciousness.
After A.J. was put in the ambulance, Rick took his mother by the hand and led her to her Mercedes. He opened the passenger side door for her, then ran around to the driver's side and got in behind the wheel. Rick took the key his mother handed him, started the vehicle, and drove out of the parking lot with Abby right behind. He followed the ambulance to County General Hospital, praying throughout the entire drive that A.J. would be all right.
"Mom! Hey, Mom!" ten-year-old A.J. shouted as he searched the house for his mother. “Mom!”
"I'm out here, A.J.!" Cecilia called from the backyard.
A.J. ran through the kitchen and opened the sliding screen door that led to the patio. He bounded out into the June sunshine.
Looking up from the flowerbed she was weeding at the end of the patio, Cecilia smiled. "How was practice?"
A.J. smiled back. "Real good! Coach Krieger says we're gonna be a hard team to beat this year."
"That's wonderful news. You boys have worked so hard this spring. See, all that time you've spent practicing is going to payoff."
A.J. sat down on the step next to where his mother was working, his knees poking through the holes of his well-worn blue jeans. The boy watched his mother pull weeds and said quietly, "Mr. Krieger wants me to be the starting pitcher tomorrow."
Cecilia looked up and scrutinized her son’s face. "How do you feel about that?"
A.J. didn't make a reply to his mother, and as the silence lengthened, Cecilia became certain that he wasn't going to.
Jack Simon had been killed in a car accident ten months earlier. A.J. had been with his father that night, and the months since that tragic event had been very difficult for the boy. The last thing father and son had done together was spend the morning sharpening A.J.'s pitching skills, then spent the afternoon at A.J.'s Little League game. That day, Jack Simon watched for the first and last time, his youngest son pitch and win a baseball game. Immediately following Jack's death, A.J. wouldn't even mention baseball, let alone play it. Several months had passed before the boy finally picked up his mitt again, but even then he couldn't bring himself to pitch. Cecilia knew A.J. had refused to do so for his school’s intramurals team, and had chosen to play shortstop instead.
Seeing the pain on her son's face now as she awaited his answer, Cecilia knew the sorrow A.J. felt at his father's passing was far from dealt with. She gently laid a hand on A.J.' s knee as she moved to sit next to him on the step. "A.J.?"
A.J. looked down at his tennis shoes and shrugged his shoulders. "I guess I'll pitch. I told Coach Krieger I would. Rick's been helpin' me practice a lot this week, and he told me he's countin' on me winning the game tomorrow, so I guess I kinda have to."
"Honey, you don't have to pitch tomorrow if you don't want to. You and I can both talk to Coach Krieger about it. And Rick won't mind, either. He'll understand. He knows how difficult this is for you right now."
Evidently A.J. had already made a decision on his own concerning this matter. He looked at his mother and stated firmly, "No, Mom, I'll pitch. I want to. I'm gonna do it for Daddy."
Cecilia smiled softly at her son as she put her arm around his shoulders and gave him a little squeeze. "Daddy would be so proud of you, A.J. I have a feeling he'll see you pitch tomorrow."
"You mean from Heaven?"
Cecilia's eyes blurred for just a moment with unshed tears. “Yes."
A.J. nodded. "Yeah, Mom, I think he'll see me, too. I like to think that anyway, even though I guess it sounds kinda dumb."
"I don't think it sounds dumb. I think it makes a lot of sense."
Again, A.J. nodded as he and his mother sat together a few minutes longer in the afternoon sunshine. Finally, the youngster changed the subject. "Where's Rick and Uncle Ray?"
"They went to the auto-parts store to get some things. Uncle Ray is going to help Rick give my car a tune-up."
"Is Uncle Ray still coming to my game tomorrow?"
"Of course, he is. He promised, didn't he? We're all going to be
there, sweetheart. We wouldn't miss the first game of the season for anything. Your mother can't wait to see her star pitcher take the mound."
A.J. rolled his eyes at his mom’s last remark. "Mom, I'm not that good."
"Sure, you are. And someday when you're a famous Major League pitcher, your old mother is going to sit in the stands and tell people how she used to diaper your bottom, and how you used to take your teddy bear every where you went."
Mortified at that thought, the ten-year-old exclaimed, "Mom! Don't ever do that to me! Never!"
Cecilia laughed as she tousled her son's shaggy hair, then glanced at her watch. "It's almost four thirty. Mrs. Owens will be here to pick you up in an hour. You'd better get inside and take a shower, you're filthy. Did you pack what you needed for tonight?"
"Yeah, I'm ready to go.” A.J. was spending the night at a teammate's house, along with two other boys. Kind of a pre-game slumber party, as Cecilia thought of it.
As A.J. stood to go in the house and shower, Cecilia reminded him, "Don't forget to take your uniform. I hung it up on the back of your bedroom door. You won't be coming home until after the game tomorrow, so if there's anything else you need, don't forget to pack it in your duffel bag."
"Yeah, Mom, I know,” A.J. assured, as he entered the house. “I won't forget anything."
Cecilia began gathering up her gardening tools. She put them away in the garage, then went into the house, too. She had a plate of cookies and plate of brownies to wrap that she was sending with her son, so Mrs. Owens didn't have to feed four hungry boys without some assistance.
As Cecilia washed her hands at the kitchen sink, she thought of how thankful she was. Even as short as two months ago, she didn’t think A.J. would be willing to play baseball this summer, let alone pitch. As a result of his own inner tenacity, the boy had managed to conquer another milestone in regards to his father’s death.
I’m so glad Ray kept his promise, and is here to see A.J. pitch the first game of the season. Ray’s presence will mean so much to A.J., and it would have meant so much to Jack to know that Ray will be there tomorrow in his place.
Cecilia wiped her hands on a clean towel and then got out the wax paper. To the sound of water drumming in the shower overhead, she wrapped the snacks she was sending with A.J. when he left the house.
Noontime the following day, found Ray, Cecilia, and Rick sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch. A.J.'s game didn't start until two o'clock, so they were in no hurry to finish.
Cecilia listened to Rick and Ray tease one another, and was once again glad that Ray had made this visit. He had stayed with her and the boys for three weeks the previous fall after Jack had passed away, and at that time he had told the boys he'd come back when the school year ended for another extended stay. It was then, that Ray had promised A.J. he'd be here for the first Little League game of the season. Cecilia was pleased to see Ray keeping that vow. With Ray, a promise of any kind couldn't always be taken to heart.
Cecilia was brought back to the present, as Ray commented, "Ricky did a real good job on your car, Cece. I didn't do anything more than hand him a few tools. You've got yourself a heck of a mechanic here."
"That I do," Cecilia confirmed, while Rick beamed with pride. "Mr. Garwood raves about the work Rick does for him at the gas station."
Rick had turned sixteen in April, and had gotten a job at the corner gas station working after school, and on weekends. Now that school was out for the summer, he worked additional hours. Rick’s goal was to have enough money saved by his seventeenth birthday to buy a motorcycle.
Cecilia was proud of her teenager, and the way he was taking his job so seriously - somewhat of an unusual event for her Rick. She had also been surprised at how diligently he was putting most of his paycheck into the bank each week. Again, this was a side of Rick she hadn't often seen in the past. On the other hand, Cecilia realized her oldest was growing up, and that she was bound to continue to see changes in him as he finished out his high school years. Jack's death had changed Rick, too. She couldn't deny that. It seemed to Cecilia that Rick had left the last traces of childhood behind that night his father died, as he tried so hard to take Jack's place for both her and A.J. She had no doubt her husband would be just as proud of Rick as she was.
"Well, Ricky, maybe you’ll be a full-time mechanic in a couple of years, uh?" Ray asked.
"College first," Cecilia said firmly.
Rick made a face at his mother's words. "I wanna travel, Uncle Ray. Just like you. I wanna see a lot of different places, do a lot of different things, even work a lot of different jobs. I don't think I just wanna do one thing all the time. At least not for a while, anyway."
Rick's eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. Ray was about to respond just as enthusiastically, when he caught the look his sister-in-law threw him that said, "Don't encourage him."
Ray cleared his throat. "Yes...well, Rick, you can see a lot of different things when you travel, that's true. But you never have a place you can really call home. I miss that sometimes. And some of the jobs I've had didn’t pay very well - hardly enough to get a room and eat on. Your mom's right. College is important. Your dad really hoped you'd go to college some day. He started saving for it when you were just a baby. You really should get your education first, then make a decision about traveling when you're a little older."
Rick simply nodded at his uncle's words, as he focused his attention on his ham sandwich. He had already had numerous arguments with his mother over the issue of college attendance, and wasn't about to get into another one in front of his uncle. Besides, Rick was wise enough to know what had just transpired. His mom had sent out strong signals to Uncle Ray concerning Rick furthering his education, and Uncle Ray had picked up on them and had been smart enough to play the game out to the end, choosing the words carefully that Cecilia wanted to hear. None of it really mattered to Rick, though. He had already made up his mind about college, and knew that he wouldn't be attending. At least not in two years, as his mother hoped. The teenager was thankful that before the discussion could continue, the phone rang. Cecilia got up to answer it. After hearing the caller’s request, she held the receiver out to her brother-in-law.
"It's for you, Ray."
Cecilia and Rick tactfully ignored Ray's conversation, as Rick helped his mom clear the table. Cecilia had just started washing the dishes, and had assigned Rick the task of drying, when Ray hung up the phone.
"I've got to throw my things together! I've got a plane to catch.
"What?" Cecilia questioned as she turned around, her hands still immersed in soapy water. Ray had been visiting for two weeks, and had planned on staying another two, as far as Cecilia knew.
"That was a call from my partner. I need to get down to Aruba. He just heard there's big money to made with this year's seaweed harvest, and now's the time it has to be done."
"Wow!" Rick exclaimed, eyes twinkling. “Neat!”
"Today, Ray? You have to leave today?"
"Yep, Cece, I'm afraid so. There's lots of papers I have to sign, and lots of red tape I have to untangle before I can set all of this in motion.”
Cecilia shook her head at her wayward brother-in-law and his latest scheme. "Ray, what in the world do people even use seaweed for?"
"I don't know. Something important, I'm sure. I didn't ask. All I know is, there's lots of money to be made at it, and I've got to get a flight out today."
Cecilia had to bite her tongue to keep from making a sharp comment to Ray concerning all the other business deals he had been excited about over the years, that he was certain would bring him great wealth. Not once had he made much more than two hundred dollars, and more often than not, he ended up borrowing money from Jack in order to get himself out of some silly venture.
As much as Rick hated to see his uncle's visit cut short, visions of all the money Ray was about to make danced in his head. This was what Rick loved about his Uncle Ray. He was a free man, able to come and going as he pleased. A new adventure awaited him around every corner. This was what Rick saw for himself in just two short years.
"Come on, Ricky, help me pack."
Ray hurried from the kitchen with Rick at his heels. The excited teenager trailed his uncle to the upper story of the house, asking one question after another about the new business deal Ray was about to embark on.
Cecilia turned back to her dishes as the two left the room. Her jaw remained clenched, and pots and pans were banged louder than necessary, as she finished cleaning up.
Forty-five minutes later, Ray and Rick ran down the stairs carrying Ray's suitcases.
"Call me a cab please, Ricky. My plane leaves in an hour."
Cecilia stood in the living room waiting to confront her brother-in-law. “Ray, you promised A.J. that you'd be at his baseball game this afternoon."
Regret crossed Ray's face. “Ooops. I guess with all the excitement, I forgot. Well, he'll understand, Cece. You just tell him Uncle Ray said good luck, and that I'll send him lots of money when I strike it rich."
Ray's words only served to make Cecilia angrier at what she perceived to be his total lack of responsibility. She was so furious with the man, that Cecilia knew if she said anything else to him right now it would be something that would cause a permanent rift between them. Because of that fact, and the fact that Rick was off the telephone and standing next to his uncle, Cecilia bit her tongue. She wasn't going to have it out with Ray in front of her teenage son. She knew anything she had to say to her brother-in-law at this moment wouldn't be nice, and Rick loved the man too much for Cecilia to subject him to a falling out between her and Ray.
"The cab will be here in a few minutes, Uncle Ray."
"Great, Ricky. Thanks."
“I wish you coulda' stayed longer."
"Me too, Ricky. Me too. But you understand, don't you? This is a one in a million opportunity, and it just came up out of the blue."
"Sure, I understand."
Ray reached into his wallet. "To help you understand even better, here's this. You put this money toward that motorcycle you want.”
"Wow! Fifty dollars!” Rick held the bill between his hands and stared at it. “Thanks, Uncle Ray."
"Ray!" Cecilia exclaimed. Ray ignored Cecilia as he handed Rick another ten dollar bill. "And you give this to Andy for me. You tell him Uncle Ray said goodbye, and to get himself anything he wants with that."
"Okay,” Rick promised. “I will."
"Ray, no! Absolutely not! I can't--"
"Cece, don't worry, I'll be fair to the boys. When Andy is Rick's age, and saving for a motorcycle or a car, I'll give him fifty dollars, too."
“Ray, that's not what I was going to say. That's not the point. I don't want you giving either of the boys money. I don't think it's--”
"Cece, come on. Let me spoil them a little. They're good boys."
Once again, Cecilia was both angry and disgusted. She wasn't sure if Ray realized it or not, but he was trying to buy the boys' love. At least as far as she was concerned he was. It appeared to her as though Ray was trying to make up for all the times he wasn’t there for the boys. Since his arrival two weeks ago, he had showered Rick and A.J. with expensive gifts that they didn’t need, and that Cecilia knew he didn’t have the funds for. He had also sent several expensive presents through the mail since Jack’s death. How she longed to say now, "Ray, the boys don’t want your money, or your gifts. All they want is you, and your time. I know you feel guilty because you hardly ever see them. It’s obvious to me. You know how much they need you now that Jack’s gone. Why can’t you settle down here in San Diego? Why can’t you be the man in their lives that they’ve been lacking since Jack’s death? Why can’t you be a father to them?"
But because her words would have no influence on Ray, and because of Rick’s presence, Cecilia kept her peace.
A car horn blared from the driveway.
“There’s my ride,” Ray said. “I’ve gotta go."
Ray gave Cecilia a kiss on the cheek without taking notice of her anger, and then hugged Rick.
"Tell Andy goodbye, and give him a hug for me, too,” Ray instructed Cecilia as he picked up his suitcases.
Cecilia nodded. "All right. Goodbye, Ray.
Rick walked his uncle out to the cab, prolonging the parting as much as possible. The teenager reentered the house when the cab finally disappeared down the street.
"Go put that money away, Rick, before you lose it. Then get ready to go, please. A.J.'s game starts in forty-five minutes."
Rick noticed his mother’s cold aura, but didn’t understand what her anger was over.
Must be the money Uncle Ray gave me and A.J. Mom’s been on his case ever since he got her about buyin’ us stuff and spoilin’ us.
The teenager trotted up the stairs. He put the fifty dollars away in his dresser drawer, then pocketed A.J.’s ten so he could give it to his brother at the ball diamond. Rick put on a clean t-shirt and combed his hair, just in case there were any interesting girls in the bleachers today, then ran out to the car where his mother was waiting for him.
A.J. was warming up when Rick and Cecilia arrived. They found seats
in the stands next to Bud and Edie Krelman.
At least one man has kept his promise to A.J. today, Cecilia thought.
Bud had made a big deal over this opening game, promising Jack Simon's youngest son that he'd be in attendance to cheer him on. Bud and Edie had four sons of their own, the youngest of whom were twins a year older than Rick. Cecilia knew Bud had sat through plenty of Little League games in his day, and was probably glad such obligations were almost a thing of the past now that his twins would be seniors in high school come September. That reason alone made her all the more grateful that Bud had given up a Saturday afternoon to be here for a boy who wasn’t his.
Unlike that boy’s uncle, who couldn’t see fit to be here at all, were the woman’s bitter thoughts.
A few minutes later, A.J.'s coach called to the youngster to come in off the mound and rest until the game started. A.J. looked around for his family. He waved and ran to them when he spotted Rick and Cecilia in the stands.
The boy climbed up the bleachers and took a seat next to Rick.
Cecilia smiled at her son. “Did you have a good time at Jim’s last night?"
A.J. smiled. "Yeah. We didn't go to bed until one thirty!"
"One thirty! You boys shouldn't have stayed up that late,” Cecilia lightly scolded. “You've all got to play ball today."
"It's okay, Mom. Mrs. Owens let us sleep late. We didn't even have breakfast until eleven."
"Hey, champ, are you gonna win us a ballgame today?" Bud Krelman asked.
"You bet, Uncle Buddy!"
Cecilia smiled, happy to see A.J. so excited about this game. She had feared he'd have trouble dealing with this day - the first day he'd pitched a baseball game since his father's death.
A.J. looked around. "Where's Uncle Ray?"
"He had to go,” Rick said. “A.J., it’s the coolest thing. He's gonna harvest seaweed and get rich!"
"Yeah, he didn't wanna to go, but he had to. He left right before we came here."
The hurt on A.J.'s face was plain for Cecilia to see.
“But he promised. He promised he'd be here today. He promised that last year after Daddy died. Uncle Ray said he'd come watch me pitch the opening game."
Rick had no idea that their Uncle Ray's leaving would hurt A.J. like this. In an effort to smooth things over, the teenager reached into his pocket. "He left ten dollars for you. Here. Take it. It's yours. He said to tell you--"
"I don't care what he said to tell me. And I don't want his stupid money, either! He's a liar. He broke his promise!"
"Aw, come on, A.J., don't be so hard on Uncle Ray. He's a good guy. He didn't mean anything by--"
"Rick, that's enough," Cecilia ordered. The hurt and anger she saw on A.J.’s face, was the same hurt and anger she felt toward Jack's younger brother.
Cecilia rose from the bleachers. She placed a hand on A.J.’s back and urged softly, "Come with me a minute, son. I need to talk to you."
The two left a puzzled Rick with the Krelmans. Cecilia and A.J. left the bleachers and walked toward the nearby parking lot. When they were far enough away that no one could overhear their conversation, Cecilia spoke quietly with her son in an attempt to soothe his hurt before the game started. A.J. wouldn’t respond to his mother other than to nod his head yes, or shake it no, depending on what she had asked him. When Coach Krieger for his team to assemble A.J. ran to join the other boys without looking back at his mother, and without looking up at his cheering section in the bleachers.
Not for the first time since Jack’s death, Cecilia found herself wishing she could absorb all of A.J.’s pain so he’d never have to feel that emotion again. But despite even the power of a mother’s love, she knew that wasn’t possible. She watched her youngest a moment longer as he gathered with his team to listen to his coach’s final instructions, then joined Rick and the Krelmans in the bleachers.
A.J. pitched a remarkable game that day for a boy of almost eleven years old. He allowed only two hits, helping to lead his team to victory with a score of four to zero. By the end of the fifth inning, Cecilia could tell his arm was getting tired, but A.J. refused his coach's offer to replace him on the mound.
Cecilia was surprised to see A.J. perform so well after the earlier upset over Ray. She never did know if he simply blocked his uncle out of his mind completely during that game, or if he filled his thoughts with Jack, thereby having no room left for the hurt Ray had caused him. All Cecilia knew was that she and Rick, and everyone else in the stands that day who knew A.J., and knew how hard pitching this game was for him, were proud of him. Cecilia and her oldest son nearly yelled themselves hoarse as they cheered the youngest member of their household on.
The parents and family members of the ball players spilled out of the stands as the game came to a close. Cecilia stood talking to various friends for several minutes, then began scanning the sea of Little League uniforms looking for a familiar blond head. A.J. should have been easy for his mother to spot among the baseball caps. Cecilia knew as soon as the game ended, her youngest son's hat would be off and shoved in his back pocket.
Cecilia turned to Rick, who was talking to some of his buddies. "Rick, have you seen your brother?"
"No, not yet."
Another ten minutes passed without A.J. appearing. The park began to clear out, as families left with their young ball players. The Krelmans, Cecilia, and Rick, were scanning the remaining people, looking for the missing A.J.
Cecilia got up on her tiptoes in order to see over the heads of passersby. "I wonder where he is?"
"I'll find him, Mom. He probably followed some friend of his to the parking lot and is out there goofin' off or something. I’ll be right back."
Rick ran to the parking lot in search of A.J. He didn’t see his brother amongst the boys gathered there.
“Hey, do any of you guys know where A.J. is?” Rick asked three kids who were on his brother’s team.
"He’s sittin' in the dugout all by himself,” Jim Owens volunteered. “He said he’s not ready to come out yet...whatever that means."
Upon receiving that information, Rick took off running again, this time back toward the baseball diamond and dugouts. The teenager slowed to a walk as he reached his destination. He spotted his brother sitting in a far corner of the dugout bench, his blond head bowed and feet swinging listlessly.
Based on A.J.’s demeanor, Rick realized this ballgame had been harder on the boy than he had let on to anyone. Rick knew A.J. was feeling overwhelmed again by their father's death, and the grief that came along with the thought of the man’s passing. Rick could understand that. It had been hard for him as well today, to sit in those bleachers without his dad. Jack had loved baseball, and had always enjoyed watching both his sons play Little League ball. It was strange, but today Rick had discovered that a hotdog just didn't taste like a hotdog without his dad here to enjoy it with him, and the first crack of bat against ball didn’t sound as sweet without his dad by his side.
Rick stepped into the dugout. He walked over to A.J., and sat down next to him.
"Hey, kiddo, you pitched a terrific game."
A.J. shrugged while staring at his feet. "I guess so."
"Everybody wants to congratulate you. Mom's lookin' for you. She's really proud of you, A.J."
"It doesn't matter."
"What do you mean it doesn't matter? Of course, it matters. You were great!"
A.J. sighed. "Daddy wasn't here to see me, so I don't even care."
Rick slid closer to A.J., and put his arm around the boy's shoulders.
"A.J., Dad couldn't be here to see you. You know that. But he woulda’ been real proud of you if he was. Just like Mom is real proud of you. Just like I am, too."
A.J. didn't say anything.
At Rick’s prompting, the blond boy finally looked up and made eye contact with his brother.
"Uncle Ray coulda’ been here. He promised me he was going to come. If Daddy couldn't be here, then Uncle Ray should have been. He should have been, Rick!"
Rick thought a moment before making a quiet response.
“You’re right,” the teenager was surprised to find himself agreeing with his brother. Uncle Ray should have been here. He promised you he'd be here, and he shouldn't have broken that promise. But you gotta understand him, A.J. Uncle Ray didn't mean to break his promise, he didn't mean to hurt you. He's just not very responsible. Remember how Dad always said that about him? That Uncle Ray didn't know what the word responsibility meant, and that he wasn't dependable? Dad always said Uncle Ray went whichever way the wind blew. I guess that's kind of what happened today. He just gets excited about things, and then he kinda forgets his responsibilities."
"He shouldn't do that."
"No, he shouldn't, but that's just the way he is. Uncle Ray's a good guy, A.J., he really is. You just gotta cut him a little slack, that's all."
Rick could tell A.J. was still angry, as his younger brother sat next to him in stony silence. Rick finally broke that silence as he jostled his brother's shoulder.
"Hey, kid, I was here today, wasn't I? Doesn't that count for something?"
That got a small smile out of the blond. "Yeah, Rick, that counts for something."
"And I wasn't even under the bleachers with Betty Carol Simmons. Not once. I watched your whole game. Did you hear me cheerin' for you?"
A.J.'s smile broadened a little. "Yeah, I heard you cheering."
"So see, kid, you can depend on me. When you can't depend on anyone else, you can depend on me."
"I know that. I can always depend on you, no matter what." A.J.’s smile broadened as he teased, "And thanks for not spending the whole game under the bleachers smooching with Betty Carol. It must have been a first for you."
"Hey!" Rick protested, as he began roughhousing with his younger brother.
When the wrestlers broke apart, Rick recalled how their father had always taken his two sons out for ice cream after every Little League game.
"How about we go for ice cream, A.J.? Just you and me."
"How are we gonna do that? There's no ice cream store around here that’s close enough to walk to."
I'll go ask Mom for the car keys."
A.J. gave his brother a skeptical look. Rick had only had his driver’s license for a month, and in that time his privileges with the car had been limited to a few trips to the grocery store, and two dates. Because of those circumstances, A.J. stated, "She won't let you have them, Rick."
"Sure, she will," Rick said as he stood. "You wait here while I go talk to her. I'll be right back."
Ten minutes later, Rick returned with car keys in hand.
A.J.'s eyes were wide with excitement and disbelief. "You got 'em!"
"Yep. I didn't just get the keys either, little brother. Mom gave me enough money for us to go to Big Don's for burgers and fries, then to the movies, and then out for ice cream afterwards."
This would be a special evening for the brothers. A.J. had never been allowed to go anywhere in the car yet with Rick behind the wheel. Now it was just going to be the two of them out for a night on the town.
"Let's get going.” Rick said. “Mom wants us home by dark."
Dark was five hours away yet. That seemed like an eternity to
young A.J., as he scrambled out of the dugout and ran to catch up with Rick.
For just a moment A.J.'s tone changed as he thought of his mother.
"Rick, Mom's not gonna be alone, is she?"
Ever since their father had died, both boys had been concerned at the thought of their mother being alone for an evening if they were going to be away. They hated to think she might be lonely, even when she laughed gently at their worries, and assured them that now and again she enjoyed some time to herself.
This time, however, Rick was able to tell his brother, "No, A.J., she's not gonna be alone. Aunt Edie and Uncle Bud invited her for dinner. We have to pick her up at their place on our way home."
"Oh. Okay," A.J. said, as he ran ahead of Rick to the car.
Rick got in behind the wheel while A.J. fiddled with the radio-dial. Once he found a station he knew both he and Rick would like, A.J. turned the volume up. The sound of Buddy Holly and the Crickets singing Peggy Sue filled the car.
"Hey, Rick, let's go down by the beach and cruise for chicks."
Rick threw his brother a sideways glance as he carefully pulled out on to the street. "You're too young to cruise for chicks."
"I am not! Come on, Rick, please. Just for a little while."
Rick laughed as he headed toward the beach. "Okay, if that's what
you want. But what am I supposed to do if I see a hot chick? Ask her if she's got a little sister about the same age as my baby brother?"
"Rick, no! And don't call me your baby brother. I don't like that," A.J. pouted. "Just ask her if she's got a girlfriend for me."
Rick laughed again. "That would be great, A.J. I can just see us pickin’ up Mom tonight with you in the backseat, sittin' between two sixteen-year-old girls. We'd never get the car again if we did that. I can guarantee it, kid. I think we'd better stick to Big Don’s, the movies, and the ice cream parlor."
The brothers debated that subject back and forth a while longer, finally putting it to rest as Rick turned up the radio even louder. The brothers sang Jailhouse Rock right along with Elvis, as Rick drove around the local beach several times, then headed down the highway toward Big Don's.
A.J. was moving restlessly in his hospital bed again, as he had been for the past hour. The detective had not regained consciousness since he’d been brought to the emergency room twenty-two hours earlier. These restless movements were the first sign that his condition might be about to change.
A CT scan had been done soon after A.J. arrived at County General, and other tests had been run, as well. Thus far, the results had indicated that A.J. was suffering from nothing more than a concussion. The doctors hadn’t spotted any bleeding in the brain, and there was no sign of intracranial pressure, which meant no hidden hemorrhaging or internal swelling. Unfortunately, there was also no explanation as to why A.J. was still unconscious. The detectives’ physician, Joel Lankey, had told Rick and Cecilia that head injuries were always a cause for concern, even those injuries that didn’t appear to be that serious. By the time they’d reached hour twenty without any signs that A.J. was going to wake up soon, Joel told Rick and Cecilia that the longer the man remained unconscious, the more reason they had to worry that there were underlying problems that hadn’t been discovered yet.
Rick and Cecilia had been allowed one ten-minute visit per each hour, ever since A.J. had been brought to a room on the Intensive Care floor. As A.J.’s restless had increased, a nurse came to the waiting area in search of the detective’s mother and brother. Rick threw down the magazine he was leafing through, and Cecilia grabbed her purse, as they stood to follow the nurse to A.J.’s room. They’d been with the blond man for over thirty minutes now. Rick held his brother’s right hand, while keeping his other hand on A.J.’s left shoulder.
“A.J., calm down,” Rick said once again while exerting slight pressure on his brother’s shoulder. “Come on, you’ve already got enough bruises, you don’t need any more. Calm down. You’re fine. Calm down.”
A.J. mumbled something Cecilia couldn’t understand.
"What did he say?"
Rick looked down at A.J.'s closed eyes and pale face, then looked across the bed at his mother. "I don't know, Mom. I couldn't understand him."
Cecilia bent close to her youngest’s left ear. "A.J., what did you say? Come on, son, talk to me. I couldn't hear you."
A.J. mumbled again, while turning his head from side to side.
"A.J., wake up. Come on, A.J., I need to talk to you." When this urging got no response, Cecilia ordered firmly, "Andrew, this is your mother. Wake up for me, A.J. Wake up!”
A.J.’s eyes remained closed, as he mumbled, “Lee...leave me...‘lone."
"No, A.J., I'm not going to leave you alone. Now, wake up."
Rick could feel A.J. attempting to lift his upper body from the bed. He squeezed his brother’s hand, while urging the man back to the mattress.
“A.J., lay back down. We want you to wake up. Come on, A.J., wake up and talk to us.”
"Come on, Andrew,” Cecilia insisted, as though she was waking a child for the start of the school day. “Let's go here. Wake up."
A.J.’s eyes moved back and forth beneath his closed lids. "Leave me...leave me ‘lone, Mom. Rick's gonna...Rick’s gonna take me...take me for ice cream."
Rick looked at his mother and shrugged his shoulders. “Beats me,” he mouthed, when he saw the confusion on her face.
Despite the fact that he had no idea what A.J. was talking about, Rick urged, "Come on, A.J. I can't take you for ice cream unless you wake up. Come on, wake up. Wake up, A.J."
Rick repeated his words two more times, until A.J.’s lashes fluttered and his eyes slowly opened.
"Well, it looks like Rip Van Simon has finally decided to join us, Mom."
It took A.J. several minutes to get his bearings. His eyes darted back and forth between his mother and brother, as he tried to process what they were saying. When he was a bit more certain of where he was and who was with him, he offered his family a slight smile and a weak, "Hi."
Cecilia caressed the side of A.J.’s face. “Hi, sweetheart. How do you feel?”
"Like...like I've been hit with a sledge hammer."
"Not quite a sledge hammer, little brother, but you do have one helluva lump right in the middle of your forehead. Not to mention that you're black and blue clear down to your nose."
A.J. had no idea how he got in the condition his brother described, and before he had a chance to ask, a nurse entered the room with Joel Lankey. Joel requested that Rick and Cecilia wait out in the hall. When he allowed the pair to return to A.J.’s side ten minutes later, he was able to tell them he felt positive about A.J.’s prospects for a complete recovery.
“But he’s unconscious again,” Rick said, as he caught sight of his brother.
Joel shook his head. “No, this time he’s just sleeping. And now I advise you and Cecilia to go home and do the same. If anything changes, I’ll call you. Otherwise, have supper, get some rest, and come back tomorrow. I promise that A.J. will be much better able to entertain visitors then.”
“He’s never been very entertaining,” Rick quipped, “but if by that you mean I won’t have to stand here and do nothing but watch A.J. imitate Sleeping Beauty, then I guess comin’ back tomorrow will be fine.”
Cecilia kissed A.J.’s cheek, while Rick gave his brother’s right foot a gentle squeeze. The blond man didn’t appear to feel either ministration, and after lingering a couple of minutes longer, Rick and Cecilia finally left the hospital after a twenty-two hour vigil.
Rick walked down the long corridor the next afternoon with a bounce to his step that had been missing since A.J. had been injured. He carried a paper bag in one hand as he headed to his brother's room on the third floor. A.J. had been moved out of Intensive Care right before lunch.
Rick had talked to A.J. on the phone that morning, and had been assured by his brother that he was fine. Despite that assurance, Rick thought A.J. had sounded tired and weak. After Rick pried further, A.J. admitted that he had a headache so bad that even watching television or reading a newspaper was out of the question.
“The nurse told me this is normal though,” A.J. had said.
“Yeah,” Rick agreed. “Yeah, I’m sure it is.”
As soon as their connection was broken, Rick called Joel. He was put on hold while a nurse tracked the man down. Again, Rick was offered assurances that A.J. would be fine.
“He just needs rest, Rick. It will be a few weeks before A.J. completely feels like his old self again.”
Rick entered his brother's new room. The head of the bed was raised to a forty-degree angle, and A.J. was resting back against his pillows with his eyes closed.
Upon hearing cowboy boot heels click against the tiles, the blond greeted, “Hi, Rick.”
"How’d you know it was me?"
"Lucky guess," came the weak answer with a sardonic grin thrown in, as A.J. opened his eyes.
Rick pulled a chair up to his brother's bedside. "How ya’ feelin’?"
"You still have a headache, don't you?"
"Yes, but it's not as bad as it was this morning. Joel said I'd probably have it on and off for the next couple of weeks."
"Did he say when you could go home?"
"Yeah, probably in a couple of days. I know it doesn't look like it right now, but I have been up walking a few times today. I might actually be able to walk out of here by Wednesday with only a little bit of assistance from you."
"Good," Rick nodded. “I already told Joel I can stay at your house for as long as you need me there.”
“No problem. Did Mom call?”
“Yeah, right before you did this morning. She knew you were coming to visit this afternoon, so she’s going to wait until this evening. She said something about coming early enough to eat supper with me.”
Again, Rick nodded. He and his mother had assumed A.J. wasn’t up to having a lot of visitors today, so had decided to split their visits into shifts.
"Abby was here about a half hour ago," A.J. informed is sibling. "She said we won the game."
“Yep, the score was three to one. It never changed after you went down. I think you kinda put a damper on any further playing, little brother. They talked about callin’ it quits after the ambulance left, but considering they were playing for the benefit of those kids, they decided to finish."
"I’m glad they did. Abby wouldn’t have wanted them to call the game.”
“I don't think she would have cared. She followed Mom and me here, and never went back to the game, or to the picnic afterwards. She was really worried about you.”
"She more or less admitted that this afternoon during her visit. She said from now on she might have to make me play right field. She's decided that I'm too accident prone to pitch."
Rick's eyes brightened at the prospect of getting out of right field. "Great! Then next year I’ll get to pitch."
"Don't count on it," came the bedridden man's reply.
Rick changed the subject. "Did Dan stop by and see you?"
“Yeah. He was here for a few minutes right before Abby left. He was on his way to work."
"He felt terrible about this," Rick said. "He left the game on Saturday, too, and waited with us in the emergency room for a couple of hours."
"I could tell he felt pretty guilty. He must have apologized ten times in the ten minutes he was here." A.J. grinned. "I told him not to worry about it though, because you had hurt me a lot worse at various times over the years. I told Dan about the time you hit me in the head with the baseball bat when I was five, and then ran into Mom crying while telling her that you had just killed me."
"Hey, that was an accident! I didn't know you were standin' behind me.”
"Yeah, sure. You were just hoping to be an only child again."
"Mmmm...nice thought on occasion, but overall it’s not true, lumpy.”
A.J. smiled at the teasing. "What's in the bag?"
"Oh, geez, I almost forgot. Ice cream."
"You were so insistent that I was taking you out for ice cream yesterday, that I decided since I can't do that, I'd bring the ice cream to you."
A.J. reached for the Baskin Robbins container of chocolate chip ice cream his brother handed him, and then took a pink plastic spoon from Rick. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Rick pulled out a container and spoon for himself. The brothers sat in silence for a minute as they enjoyed their treat.
After eating a couple of spoonfuls, A.J. remarked, "This might sound kind of odd, but while I was unconscious, I had the strangest dream."
"Sounds interesting," Rick quipped, with dirty glint to his eye.
“It was about ice cream."
"Oh, so you dreamt a voluptuous woman was layin’ in bed with you, spoon feeding you ice cream?"
"Rick, only you would have a dream that stupid," A.J. said. "Actually, I dreamt about that first Little League game I pitched after Dad died, the one Uncle Ray didn't come to. I was dreaming about us going to Big Don's for burgers, when I woke up. It all seemed so real - like I was reliving the whole day somehow. That's why when I came to, I was so confused at first." A.J. chuckled. "I heard you calling my name, so woke up expecting to see my sixteen-year-old brother. Instead, some old, bald guy was standing over me."
"Hey, smart mouth, your headache is about to get worse."
A.J. chuckled at his brother's idle-prediction. "Believe me, it was kind of a shock to realize I wasn't ten-years-old any more either."
"Yeah, well, you're not, that's for sure. When you were ten, you were able to get out of the way of a baseball aimed at your skull. By the look of those bruises on your face, and that big old bump right in the middle of your forehead, I'd say you're losin' your coordination in your old age, A.J. Have you taken a look at yourself in a mirror today? You're pretty damn ugly.”
“Which must be why the nurses keep saying I look just like my big brother.”
"Glad to hear that blow to you head hasn’t dulled your sense of humor any.”
“I wasn’t being funny.”
Rick didn’t answer his brother, but instead, finished eating his ice cream. When he was done, he stuffed his cup and spoon in the paper bag and walked the trash to the garbage can.
"This is gonna sound weird,” Rick said, as he sat back down, “but believe it or not, Mom and I were discussing that exact same ballgame while we were waiting for you to wake up. I don't even know how we got on the subject. Hell, we sat together for close to twenty-four hours just waiting for you to wake up, so I guess we had talked about everything else we possibly could. It was Mom who started talking about that game. About how hurt you had been by what Uncle Ray had done. Then she reminded me of how she had let us have the car, and how you and I had gone for burgers, and to a movie. I had forgotten all about that."
"I hadn't thought about it in a long time, either. But that dream it just seemed so real. It was like I could really feel again, the pain of pitching that ballgame without Dad there to cheer me on, the pain of Uncle Ray not showing up, and then the loneliness that engulfed me after it was over. I sat in the dugout all by myself, knowing that was the way it was going to be from then on. That Dad would never see me play another game no matter how much I might wish for it."
A.J. grew silent for a moment, before smiling. "And then I vividly recalled the good feeling I got inside, when my big brother came along and tried his hardest to make it all better. To make it right somehow."
Rick smiled in return. "I don't know if I made it better or not, but it was like I told you then, A.J. - you can depend on me to be there when you need me. That was true thirty-two years ago, and it's true now."
"I know it is," A.J. acknowledged softly, of all the times Rick had been there for him since their father had passed away. Not the least of which, was just this most recent occasion, when Rick had stayed with him here at County General until he had regained consciousness and was on the road to recovery.
Rick reached over and gave his brother's arm a pat. "Hey, you’d better finish that ice cream before it's soup. Then I think you'd better take a nap. You don't look like you feel very good. Is your headache back?"
“Then finish your ice cream and get some sleep.”
A.J. handed his ice cream to Rick, afraid that if he ate any more with the way his head was hurting he'd get sick. “Here, you finish it. I am getting pretty tired, I guess."
Rick took the container his brother handed him, as A.J. pulled up the covers and settled deeper into his pillows.
“Are you going to stay a while?”
"I thought I would. Unless you don't want me to."
"No, no, I want you to. I might not be very good company, though."
"You're never very good company," Rick teased. "But I've been puttin’ up with you for a long time now. Don't see any reason to leave at this stage in the game."
A.J. let his eyes close. "Maybe after I’m released from here, we could go out for some burgers, and then to a movie - just the two of us. We haven't done that in a long time."
"Been a while, I guess," Rick agreed. "As soon as Joel gives his okay, we'll do that."
A.J. was drifting off to sleep at Rick's last words, and said in a voice that was an echo of that ten-year-old boy’s from so long ago, "I can always depend on you, Rick. Always."
Rick smiled at his slumbering brother and gave A.J.'s arm a light pat. Softly, he confirmed, "Yep, kid, you can always depend on me. When the final score is tallied, you can always depend on me."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~