Cecilia Simon sat on her living room couch on Tuesday afternoon, sewing buttons on one of A.J.'s shirts. She glanced up at the Grandfather clock in the corner. It was twenty minutes after five. She expected A.J. to arrive home from baseball practice soon. That thought had no more than flitted through her mind, when the front door flew open.
A.J. bounded into the house. His schoolbooks were under one arm, his letterman’s jacket and gym bag under the other. The sixteen-year-old threw his jacket over a chair, and sat his books and bag on the bottom step of the stairway.
"Hi, sweetheart. How was your day?"
A.J. flopped down in an easy chair. "Pretty good. I think I got an A on that chemistry test I had today."
"Good for you. Was it as hard as you thought it would be?"
"It was kind of tough, but not as tough as some of the tests Mr. Olsen has given us this year."
Cecilia tied off a thread on one of the buttons. “How was practice?”
"Good. Coach made us run twenty laps around the diamond though. He said we were goofing off too much."
"Oh, I see.” It was the middle of May and school was due to be out for the year in three weeks. Cecilia could easily imagine that A.J.'s coach was having problems keeping a tight rein on twenty-five varsity baseball players all with a bad case of spring fever. “That doesn't sound too pleasant."
"It wasn't that big of a deal. Well, for some of the guys maybe, but I'm still in good shape from track season."
Cecilia nodded her acknowledgment. The school’s track season had ended just as baseball had begun. "Did you stop by the park on your way home like you wanted to?"
“Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. I got the job. I start as a lifeguard the first Monday after school's out. I'll work every day during the week, and every other Saturday, too."
"That's great, honey. Congratulations."
"Thanks. I can't wait to start."
"I'll just bet you can't," Cecilia said with a sly smile on her face. She had overheard A.J. talking to a friend on the phone the other day about this potential job, and several times during the course of his conversation with Bill, "cute chicks," and "bikinis,” and a “good sun tan,” had been mentioned. Cecilia was well aware that her sixteen-year-old had more on his mind than just keeping rambunctious children in line, and watching out for swimmers in peril.
Cecilia decided now was a good time for a motherly lecture. "A.J., being a lifeguard is a serious responsibility. The personnel director for the park district wouldn't have hired you if he didn't think you were the type of young man who can handle the job in a mature manner." Cecilia gave her son meaningful look. "There's more to this job than simply working on your tan and watching for ‘cute chicks’."
A.J. blushed at the thought of his mother having over heard that particular conversation with Bill. "I know, Mom. I know. Don't worry. I'll take it seriously."
"I’m glad to hear that, son.”
A.J. decided that now would be a good time to change the subject. "What's for supper?"
"Ham and scalloped potatoes. I made a chocolate cake, too."
"That sounds great!"
"I thought you'd like that. Please get cleaned up while I finish sewing on these buttons, then we'll eat. How in the world did you pop three buttons off this shirt anyway?"
A.J. stood to head upstairs. "Some of the guys and I were fooling around – you know, wrestling and stuff after the game the other day. I guess that's when it happened.”
"Well, I wish you wouldn't ‘fool around’ when you've got your good school clothes on. You're getting as bad as Rick."
A.J. walked over and kissed his mother's cheek. With a grin, he teased, "Oh, Mom, I could never be as bad as Rick. I'm the good son, remember?"
Cecilia teased her youngest right back. "Rick can be good when he puts his mind to it, and you can be bad when you put your mind it. I'd simply say that you've been the easier child to raise."
"So I guess you're trying to tell me that Rick and I are about even, huh?"
Cecilia answered with a grin of her own. "Yes, that's what I'm trying to tell you. Now run upstairs and get washed, then set the table for me."
A.J.'s, "Okay, Mom," was heard as he started up the stairway, only to be called back again.
"A.J., hang up your jacket first. You’re getting to be as bad as your brother."
A.J. laughed as he came back to the living room and picked up his jacket. As he headed for the small coat closet in the foyer he asked, "Speaking of Rick, did we get any mail from him today?"
"No, honey. Nothing today."
There was a pause, before A.J. gave a disheartened, "Oh."
"We'll hear from him soon, A.J."
"Yeah, I know we will." The teenager smiled in an attempt to hide his disappointment. "I'm going to clean up. I'll be back down in a minute."
Cecilia watched her son as he took the stairs two at a time, then listened to his footsteps on the floor above. She gave a sad smile while recalling A.J.'s inquiry about the mail. He did that without fail every day upon his arrival home from school. The last time they had heard from Rick, had been a month earlier when he had called home on his twenty-second birthday.
Rick was working at a gas station in a small Nevada town. At least that's where he’d been yet when he had called four weeks earlier. Rick had taken the job last fall when he was on the road and had found himself short of cash. When Rick had been home for three days at Christmas, he had told his family that he had a decent room in a boarding house, and that he liked his job and Nevada, and that he might even stay there awhile.
Cecilia had worked hard at hiding her disappointment that day. She hadn’t wanted to spoil their brief holiday by getting in an argument with her oldest. She’d had hopes that by then life on the road would have gotten old for Rick. Cecilia had been counting on Rick announcing that he was ready to come home for good and attend college. She’d been counting no Rick saying he was ready to settle down and take life seriously.
Although Cecilia hadn't mentioned a word of her hopes to A.J., it was evident that her youngest was harboring similar thoughts. While Rick was packing to head back to Nevada the day after Christmas, Cecilia overheard the boys’ conversation as she passed by their bedroom.
* * * *
“I wish you didn’t have to go, Rick. You’ve only been here three days. Can’t you stay longer?”
“Nah, kid. Sorry. If I’m not back to work the day after tomorrow, I’ll lose my job.”
“You could get a job around here.”
Rick had looked up from where he stood beside his bed packing his duffel bag. “Come on, A.J., we’ve talked about this before. Let’s not fight, okay?”
“I don’t wanna fight.” A.J. dropped his eyes to the floor. “I just wish...I...well, I just wish you’d stay around here, you know?”
Rick gave his brother a soft smile of understanding. “Yeah, kid, I know. It’ll happen someday. I promise.”
When A.J. didn’t reply, Rick tossed a wad of balled up T-shirts at him, hitting him in the chest. “Hey, come on now. Don’t send me off with a long face.”
A.J. looked up at his brother with a half grin. He bent, retrieved the T-shirts, and threw them back at his sibling.
Clothing and teasing remarks flew back and forth as the brothers engaged in a free-for-all. The fun finally came to an end when Cecilia stepped in the room.
“Richard, I didn’t wash and fold those clothes, only to have you and your brother throwing them around the room in some silly game of Chinese Laundromat.”
Cecilia’s reproach didn’t put an end to her boys’ fun, but only served to escalate it. When she was bopped in the head with a pair of balled up socks, she couldn’t help but join in their game as well.
* * * *
In the time since that Christmas visit there had been a smattering of brief letters and three phone calls from Rick, but that was it. It certainly wasn’t enough correspondence to satisfy A.J.
As she finished her mending, Cecilia rose to put things away and get supper on the table. The thoughts the woman had concerning her oldest son were pushed to the back of her mind as her youngest boy ran down the stairs and began telling her about his day at school while he set the table.
Over the next four days Cecilia barely saw A.J. Between school, baseball, homework, and his friends, the popular teenager was always on the move.
On Saturday night A.J. trotted down the stairs. His hair was still damp from his recent shower as he slipped into his shirt.
Cecilia glanced up from the book she was reading. "My, don't you look nice. Is that the new shirt you bought?"
"Yeah," A.J. confirmed as he tucked his shirttails into his pants.
"I hope this date is worth the money you spent on it," Cecilia teased.
"I hope so, too."
"Just be yourself and you'll do fine."
A.J. had a date with a cheerleader he had long admired from afar. Her recent breakup with a steady boyfriend had given the young man the opportunity to admire her from a much closer range. It didn't take A.J. long to decide that he liked what he saw.
The blond sat down in a chair to tie his shoes. "Sue is used to an older guy. Her old boyfriend was a sophomore in college. I don't know if I can show her a good time like he did. You know, college football games, fraternity dances, stuff like that."
"Don't worry about that. I'm sure you and Sue will have a good time. I saw her mother at the grocery store yesterday. She mentioned how pleased she and Sue's dad are that you two kids are going out together tonight."
A.J. smiled. "Really?"
"Really. I got the impression that Mr. and Mrs. Durnam felt that Sue's prior boyfriend was a bit too old for her. I think they're relieved that the relationship came to an end."
"Good," A.J. said, as some of his worries concerning this date evaporated. "If I've already got an ‘in’ with her parents, I've almost got it made."
Cecilia chuckled. "Yes, that definitely helps."
A.J. plucked his mother's car keys from a small table in the foyer, then opened the closet and pulled out his letterman’s jacket.
Cecilia turned and looked over the back of the sofa. "What time does Sue have to be home?"
"Okay, then I'll expect you shortly after that."
"All right, Mom," the teenager replied as secured the three bottom snaps on his jacket. "Bye."
"Goodbye. Drive carefully!"
"I will," came the answer Cecilia barely heard as the front door shut behind her son.
Like all mothers when one of their teenaged offspring is out on a date, Cecilia dozed lightly that night with one ear alert for the sound of the front door opening. When she didn't hear that sound by one a.m., she got out of bed, put her robe on, and went downstairs. She spent the next half hour looking out the living room window at the quiet, dark street, waiting to see the headlights of her car as it pulled into the driveway. At one forty-five Cecilia called Sue's house, only to be assured by the young woman's drowsy father that A.J. had dropped Sue off at five minutes to midnight. He then woke up his sleeping daughter, who came to the phone and told Cecilia that as far as she knew, A.J. had headed straight home at the end of their date.
At two-thirty that morning the phone call finally came that told Cecilia exactly where her teenager was.
"Mom? Mom?” The urgent whisper brought Cecilia out of sleep. “Mom?”
Cecilia felt someone shake her shoulder. She woke up with a start, surprised to find that she had been asleep, and even more surprised when she turned around in her chair and looked up at the man standing behind her.
Cecilia stood and embraced her oldest son. She leaned against his strong chest, taking in the smell of leather and road dust.
When the woman finally released Rick she held him at arms length. She looked him over from head to toe, assessing the things only a mother will be concerned with when her child has been absent from her for too long. The main ones being: does is he healthy, and has he been eating right. When Cecilia came to the conclusion that the answer to both those questions was yes, she told Rick, "I'm so glad you're here."
"I left as soon as I got your message. My landlady came to the gas station at eight this morning to tell me you’d called.”
"I thought the station was closed on Sundays."
"It is. But sometimes if we've got a lot of mechanic work the boss lets me earn a few bucks by workin' there on Sundays to get us caught up." Rick glanced over his mother's shoulder and eyed his brother who was sleeping in a hospital bed. "How is he?"
Cecilia squeezed Rick's right hand as she looked at her youngest. "Pretty banged up, but he'll be all right, thank God."
"Mrs. Wetter - my landlady, told me you knew for sure he had some broken ribs, but that you didn't know much else. You were waitin' for X-rays, or some test results, or something."
"That's right. I didn't know too much when I called this morning. Besides his ribs, his left shoulder is dislocated, his left wrist is sprained, and he's got a concussion. Because of that, they’ve been checking his neurological responses throughout the day. An hour ago the doctor said it was all right to let him sleep now."
Rick released his mother's hand. He walked to A.J.'s bedside and took a closer look at his injured sibling. The teenager was pale and had dusty blue bruises beneath his eyes. His left arm was in a sling, and an Ace bandage encircled his left wrist. There was a square bandage on the right side of his forehead, and some minor cuts on his face that had been cleaned and disinfected since his arrival.
"How the hell did this happen, Mom?"
"On the way from his date last night. A man ran a stop light at the intersection of Lake Street and Tillman Avenue. He hit the driver's side of the car."
"Was the guy drunk?"
"The police haven't said yet." Cecilia walked around the bed and stood across from her oldest. "I'm supposed to find out more tomorrow."
"Well, they'd better have some answers by then. What's the guy's name? Who did this to A.J.?"
"Rick, I don't know. It doesn't really matter. The police will handle it."
Rick looked down at his bruised and bandaged brother. "Yeah,” the man said with a good dose of sarcasm, “I just bet they will."
"Rick, they will," Cecilia stated. "And you let them. I don't want you causing trouble with anyone over this."
"Mom, look what the guy did to A.J. We're lucky he's not dead. That guy deserves--"
"Richard, stop. I said we'll let the police handle it. I've got enough to worry about with A.J. right now. I don't need to worry about you, too."
"Rick, promise me you won't cause trouble."
Rick looked down at his brother again, then across the bed to his mother. Cecilia’s hands were planted on her hips, and her mouth set in a firm line that told her son she meant business where this request was concerned.
Rick finally nodded. "Yeah, yeah, okay. I promise. But I wanna be there when you talk to the cops tomorrow."
Cecilia smiled at this headstrong son who was so much like Jack when it came to his protective nature where his family was concerned. “Fair enough.”
Cecilia and Rick stood over A.J.'s bedside while Cecilia quietly answered Rick's questions concerning A.J.'s injuries. After his inquiries had been answered, Rick carried a chair from the corner of the room and placed it next to the one his mother had been sitting in when he’d first arrived. The man sat down and stretched his long legs out in front of him. As his mother sat down next to him, Rick removed his leather jacket and Stetson hat and threw them on the empty bed next to A.J.’s.
Rick's dark hair tumbled out from under the hat in an unruly mass that fell to his shoulders.
“You need a haircut, Rick. You look like something the cat dragged in."
"Awe, Mom, it's not that long. I've seen some guys wearin' theirs so long that they have to put it in a ponytail."
Cecilia’s eyebrows rose with shock. "Like a girl?
Rick shrugged. "I don't know. What difference does it make? You know, a couple hundred years ago all men wore their hair long."
"Yes, well, that was then, this is now. You'd better never wear yours that long. Your father would roll over in his grave."
Rick decided that now was not the time to mention that he wasn’t planning on getting a haircut anytime in the near future, nor that he was planning on adding a beard to the moustache he was already sporting. He had recently decided that he fit that new phrase he kept hearing, anti-establishment.
Rick glanced at his sleeping brother and changed the subject. "A.J.'s getting tall. He must have grown a couple of inches since Christmas."
"He's about five foot nine now."
"I just might be lookin' up at him before he's done growing." The man frowned. “Not to sure I like the thought of that, either.”
Cecilia chuckled. "Maybe, but I don't think so. You were already six feet tall when you were A.J.'s age. I don't know if that means anything or not. I suppose time will tell. He's got a few growing years left. When you were A.J.’s age you were growing so fast I thought you'd reach six foot six before you were done, but then all of a sudden you slowed down."
Rick nodded as recalled those awkward years of rapid growth that had brought him to his adult height of six feet two inches. He looked at A.J. again. "He's gettin' real broad in the chest and shoulders like Dad was."
"Yes, he is. A.J. will have more of your father's build than you do when he’s grown."
Rick nodded again, knowing that last statement was true. His lanky frame was definitely not inherited from Jack Simon.
"The older he gets, the more A.J. looks like Dad, too. I noticed that at Christmas. He's going to be the spitting image of Dad in a few more years."
"He will be,” Cecilia agreed. “I’ve also begun to notice that his voice is like your father’s. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was your dad talking each time I answer the phone and A.J. is on the other end. Sometimes it hurts, being reminded of your father like that, but in a good way."
Rick reached over and took one of his mother's hands in his. "I know, Mom. I know."
Cecilia squeezed Rick’s hand. He saw a glimmer of tears in hers eyes when she looked at him.
"And here you are, so strong, so ready to take charge, so ready to do battle with anyone who would dare hurt your family. So like your father, Rick. So very much like your father."
Rick squeezed his mother's hand in return. He allowed a melancholy silence to linger between them a few moments before asking, "So, how's the car?"
"I haven't seen it yet, but one of the police officers said it could be repaired."
"Where is it?"
"I had it towed to Mr. Garwood's station."
"Good idea." Mr. Garwood owned the neighborhood service station. Rick had worked for him when he was in high school. "I'll go there tomorrow with you and take a look at it. How'd you get here?"
"Uncle Bud drove me. Then he and your Aunt Edie were kind enough to drop off her car here for me a little while ago so I could get home tonight, and have transportation until mine's fixed."
"That was nice of ‘em," Rick said. "I could always let you borrow my motorcycle, Mom."
"Thanks, but I think I'll pass on that offer. The one time you took me for a ride was enough."
"Yeah, for me, too. You kept screaming, "Slow down, Rick!" in my ear."
"That's because you were going too fast."
Rick chuckled. "Even if I went twenty miles an hour, it'd be too fast for you, Mom."
"On that motorcycle of yours, it sure would be, son," Cecilia agreed. She glanced at A.J. as she changed the subject. "Your brother will be happy when he wakes up and finds you here. He misses you, you know."
"Yeah, I know. I miss him, too. He's a good kid. I should try to write more often, huh?"
"That would be nice."
"Yeah, and call too," Rick berated himself. "Time just kinda has a way of slippin' away from me."
"Yes, time has a way of doing that. We were glad you called on your birthday though."
"I'm glad I did too. A.J. sounded kinda down that day. Did you notice that?"
Cecilia looked away from her oldest, not sure how to answer him.
Cecilia finally looked at Rick. "A.J. had his hopes up that you'd surprise us by coming home that day. I think he was convinced that any minute you'd walk in the door like you did last year."
"But I told him at Christmas time that I probably wouldn't be home for my birthday. I told him I only came home last year because it was my twenty-first, and you guys had let me know you were planning that big party for me. I explained to him that I'd have to work on my birthday this year, Mom."
Cecilia smiled with understanding. "I know that, Rick. But you know A.J. Sometimes he only hears what he wants to hear. You told him you probably wouldn't be home, not that you definitely wouldn't be home. I think A.J. took ‘probably’ to mean that there was a good chance you'd show up before the day was over. He even baked you a cake."
“Why didn't you tell me that when I called?"
"What good it have done, Rick? You were hundreds of miles away. You could never have made it home to eat that birthday cake even if you’d wanted to."
"I could have at least told him thank you."
"Sweetheart, I didn't tell you simply because nothing would have been gained by it. A.J. chose not to say anything about it when he talked to you, so when he handed the phone over to me I decided not to tell you, either. Deep down I think he knew you weren't coming home that day. I think he made that cake with some kind of hope that if there was a birthday cake you'd magically appear. We all have to grow up, Rick, no matter how painful it is sometimes."
"I know, but I never meant to hurt him like that. I'd never intentionally hurt him."
"I know you wouldn't, and so does A.J. Now don't feel guilty. Do you know what A.J. did with that cake?"
"As soon as we hung up after talking to you he said, ‘Well, I guess Rick's not going to make it home, so we might as well eat this cake.’ Then he put twenty-two candles on it, lit them, and we sang happy birthday to you and blew them out. Then your brother smiled and said, ‘I'm sure glad I made my favorite cake and not Rick's. It's going to make eating this thing a lot more enjoyable.’"
"Why that little twerp,” Rick smiled. “He made his favorite cake, huh? The chocolate one with the banana filling?"
"That's the one. We cut it and had cake and ice cream. He was fine after that. He's a tough cookie. A.J. will be able to handle whatever life deals him."
"Yeah, I know," Rick agreed. "It's just that I hate to see him hurt. I wish I could spare him the pain that comes with growin' up."
"I used to wish that same thing for you when you went through your teen years. Unfortunately, that's not how it works. To a certain extent we all have to do our growing up alone and in our own way."
Before Cecilia could say any more, a nurse came in the room to record A.J’s vital signs. Once the Simons were assured everything was fine with the youngest member of their household, and that he wouldn’t wake up for some time yet, Cecilia suggested, "Let's go down to the cafeteria for something to eat, Rick. I bet you haven't had supper yet."
"No, or lunch either. I drove straight through."
"I thought as much." Cecilia stood and urged her eldest toward the door.
Rick stood, as well, but paused and looked back at his brother. Cecilia laid a hand on his back.
"Come on, honey. You need to eat something. He'll be fine. He won't even know we're gone."
With one final glance at A.J., Rick turned and followed his mother out the door.
At eight thirty, the soft chiming sound came over the hospital's public address system that indicated the end of visiting hours. Cecilia gathered up her purse and jacket, then approached A.J.' s bedside. She bent and kissed his cheek, then turned to Rick.
“Are you ready to go?"
Rick remained in his chair. "Not yet, Mom. I think I'll stay a while longer."
"Honey, visiting hours are over."
Rick shrugged. "I don't think anyone will ask me to leave me if I don’t get in their way. I won't stay long.
"All right. But come home soon. You look tired."
Rick smiled as he realized his mother would always ‘mother’ him, no matter how old he was. "I'll be home by ten. How's that?"
"Okay. I'll see you later then."
"Yeah,” Rick replied as his mother exited the room, “see ya’ later.”
After his mother left, Rick stood and walked to the window. He watched the sun slowly set as darkness began to blanket the city. Summer was rapidly approaching. The days were growing longer and warmer as they moved toward June. A small smile touched the corners of Rick's mouth as the spring weather brought back memories of two little boys playing outside until dark, running wild through the neighborhood until their mother called them in for baths and bed. Rick had always equated springtime with new-found freedom for just that reason. The school year was almost over, homework didn't matter too much any more, and you knew summer was just around the corner, waiting for you to reach out and grab it.
Rick's thoughts were interrupted by a quiet moan coming from the occupant of the hospital bed. Rick moved to stand by A.J. just as the groggy teenager opened his eyes to slits.
"A.J.? Hey, A.J., wake up for a minute."
A disoriented A.J. groaned at the bright lights that assaulted his as he tried to open them wider.
"That's it. Come on now and wake up so you can tell me hi."
A.J. scanned the room through half open eyelids. “Rick?”
Rick laid his hand on A.J.'s right shoulder and squeezed. "Right here, little brother."
The boy’s eyes finally came to rest on his big brother. His voice was raspy and weak when he declared, "You're really here."
Rick smiled. "Of course I'm really here. Whose big brother did you expect to show up for a visit?"
"I thought I heard your voice earlier, but then I thought I was dreaming."
"You probably did hear my voice. I've been here since about five."
"What time is it now?"
“A few minutes before nine."
"She left a little while ago. Visiting hours ended at eight-thirty. I broke the rules so I could stay and see if you'd finally wake up and tell me hi."
A.J. looked around the room with confusion. "I think I remember Mom telling me she had called you, but I'm not sure."
Rick patted his brother's shoulder in reassurance. "You're probably gonna be a little mixed up for a few days. Don't worry about it."
Licking his dry lips, A.J. asked, "What happened?"
"What do you remember happening, A.J.?" Rick asked, aware the nurse would want to know the extent of A.J.'s memory when Rick reported his brother was awake.
A.J. struggled to recall the events that brought him to the hospital. "I remember dropping Sue off at her house. Then, nothing." After a long pause in which A.J.'s brows knit together in concentration he groaned, "Oh, no. Mom's car."
"That's right, little brother. Mom's car."
"Is she mad?"
"No, of course not," Rick assured. "It wasn't your fault anyway. The other guy ran a stop sign."
"Oh. I don't remember that."
"The doc told Mom you won't be rememberin' much of anything for a while yet, so don't worry about it." Rick gave his brother's shoulder a final squeeze. "I'd better get a nurse so she can have a look at you while your eyes are still open."
A.J. watched Rick head for he door with a growing sense of panic. "You're not going, are you?"
Rick turned around to explain again, "A.J., I'm just gonna get a nurse like I said. I'll be right back."
"No, I mean you're not going back to Nevada tonight, are you?"
Rick walked back to his brother's bedside. "A.J., no. No. I'm not goin’ back to Nevada tonight. I'll be sticking around until you're back on your feet."
"Oh. Okay," a relieved A.J. responded. He smiled while teasing, "That might be a while, you know."
Rick chuckled as he lightly punched his brother's uninjured shoulder. "That doesn't surprise me in the least, lazybones. You take all the time you need, little brother. I’m not in any hurry."
As A.J.'s eyes threatened to close Rick ordered, "You stay awake another couple of minutes. I'm going to get that nurse."
"And you'll be right back?"
Rick nodded. "And I'll be right back. Now behave yourself until then, you hear me?"
"Yeah, Rick, I hear ya’," came the reply from the bedridden teen as Rick left the room.
Three days later, on Wednesday afternoon, Rick encountered five teenagers on the stairway that led to his and A.J.'s bedroom. Rick stopped and pressed his body against the wall so the teens could pass, then stood visiting with the two boys and one girl he knew. As their conversation came to a close, he said, "Thanks for stoppin' by to visit with A.J."
Amidst a chorus of "Your welcome’s," and "No problem, Rick," the teenagers finished descending the stairway. As they got to the bottom one of the girls Rick didn't know turned and called back up, "I'll stop by again tomorrow afternoon with your homework assignments, A.J.!"
Rick heard his brother's, "Thanks, Sue!" drift down the stairs. The pretty girl with the short skirt and waist length blond hair heard it too, as she turned to join her friends in saying goodbye to Cecilia.
Rick finished climbing the stairs to his old bedroom. A.J. was sitting propped against some pillows on his twin bed. Cecilia hadn't allowed her youngest the freedom of roaming the house yet since the doctor had ordered bed rest when A.J. was released from the hospital the previous morning. But now that he was home A.J. had insisted on being dressed in something other than pajamas, and was now reclining on his bedspread attired in blue jeans and a T-shirt, his bare feet crossed at the ankles.
Rick sat on his own bed. "So, that was Sue, huh?"
"I gotta admit you pick ‘em good, little brother. She's quite a looker. 'Course you did learn everything you know about women from me."
"Yeah, sure, Rick," A.J. agreed with teasing sarcasm. After a pause, he asked, "When are you going back to Nevada?"
"You're not? How come?"
"I told you I was gonna stay here until you were back on your feet, didn't I?”
"Yeah, well, I’m okay now."
Rick smiled. "You don't look like you're back on your feet to me, kid. You look like you're layin' around on your ass actually."
"Ha, ha. You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do. But I wanna stay until you really are back on your feet. Mom's been kinda shook up by all of this. She asked me to hang around until things settle down."
"So when are you leaving?"
"I'm not. At least not for a while."
"Really. When I went to Mr. Garwood's Monday to look at Mom's car he offered me a job for the summer. One of his mechanics is having back surgery and won't be able to work again until sometime in August, so I'm gonna fill in for him."
"It’s just for the summer, A.J. I want you to understand that. About the time you head back to school in the fall, I'll be leavin’ again."
"Why, Rick? Why can't you stay around here?" came the question from the upset young man. The same question that had been asked of Rick by A.J. at least a dozen times in the past three years.
"A.J., it's like I keep tellin' you. I'm not ready to settle down in one place yet. Someday I will be, but just not right now."
"Where will you go? In the fall, I mean."
"I don't know. I'll probably do some travelin' again. I've got quite a bit of money saved from my Nevada job, and I should be able to save a lot working for Mr. Garwood this summer." Rick shrugged. "I don't know for sure where I'll go. I might head for Canada."
"Oh, just to have a look around," Rick stated vaguely. He doubted that his younger brother had paid much attention to the news reports and brief newspaper articles about a place called Vietnam. For now, Rick decided to leave it at that. Rick wasn't about to share with A.J. that he had a feeling Vietnam and/or Canada would eventually come to play a large role in his life. If he was drafted, as Rick knew he probably would be if he didn’t go to college, then there were decisions to be made. He didn’t think he could be a draft dodger, but he wanted to check out all the possibilities available to him.
Rick lightened the subject as he reached out and gave his brother's leg a pat. "So, kid, we've got the whole summer ahead of us. How's that sound?"
"Sounds great. Did Mom tell you about my job at the pool?"
"Yeah, she did mention something about you soaking up the rays and keeping watch over all the cute chicks."
A.J. rolled his eyes. "I bet she didn't put it that way."
Rick laughed. “No, not exactly. But she did tell me about the job. What are you gonna do with all that money you earn?"
"I've been saving to buy a car. I hardly spent any of the money I made last summer painting houses with Mr. Donovan. I hope I can buy some kind of a car by my birthday."
"What kind do you want?"
"Well, I'd really like a fast little sports car, but Mom already said no to that. Besides, what I really need is something big enough to haul my surf board around in along with my friends."
"You know, when I was at Garwood's station the other day I saw an old '44 Woody station wagon that he said he would selling for two hundred dollars."
A.J. made a face. "Those things are awfully big, Rick."
"Yeah, but you could fit a lot of your friends in one, and all of their surfboards, too." With a sly grin, Rick whispered, "And a couple of kegs of beer."
A.J.'s eyes lit up. "Yeah!"
"When you’re back on your feet you and I can take a look at it. I bet Mr. Garwood will take fifty bucks off his asking price since you’re my brother. He said all it needs is a tune up, which you and I can do in Mom’s garage this summer."
"Sounds good," A.J. nodded. "I think I would like to take a look at it."
"Okay. I start work next Monday, so stop by the station after school one day next week and we'll look it over together."
Rick changed the subject then as he said quietly, "Oh, by the way, I'm sorry I didn't make it home for my birthday. Especially since you went to all the trouble to make me a cake."
A.J. couldn’t keep the accusation out of his tone. "Mom told you."
"Hey, don't get mad at Mom. She didn't really tell me, she just kinda mentioned it in passing. Besides, you should have told me on the phone that day."
A.J. shrugged as he looked down at the bedspread. "It wasn't that important."
"It is to me, A.J.”
A.J. looked at his brother while pushing his bangs out of his eyes. "Everybody should have a birthday cake. I would have felt bad if you had come home and there wasn't one here for you. That's why I did it. It's no big deal."
"Well, I appreciate you makin' it even if I wasn't here to enjoy it. You're right. Everyone should have a birthday cake. Because I didn't come home, I didn't have one this year."
"What'd you do for your birthday?"
"A couple of the guys I worked with took me out for a burger and few beers. That was about it. There's not much to do in Blue Diamond, Nevada."
"Maybe you'll be here for your birthday next year."
“Don't count on it, A.J.," Rick warned. At the crestfallen look on the teen’s face, Rick said, "But I promise you I'll be home for Christmas, and I think someone in this family graduates from high school next June. I'll be back for that for sure."
“Oh, so you're going to try to get your diploma again, huh, Rick?"
Rick reached his foot out and gave his brother's bed a shove. “Hey, you watch that smart mouth. You're just lucky you're already bruised and battered. If you weren't, you'd be payin' for that remark right about now."
A.J. just laughed at his brother's idle threat.
"And I expect to see you graduating as class Valedictorian, too, squirt. I don't go around bragging that my kid brother's smart for nothin' you know."
Sheepishly, A.J. asked, "Would you settle for your kid brother graduating somewhere in the top five of his class?"
"That'll do,” Rick smiled and winked. "Listen, if Mom will let you outta here for a while this weekend I'll treat you to a movie and pizza on Saturday."
"She'll let me out. I'll make sure of it."
"Okay. We'll make plans for Saturday then," Rick promised as he stood to go downstairs so A.J. could get started on his homework.
A.J. picked up the Calculus book that was laying on the nightstand, opened it, and began doing equations in a spiral notebook. He looked up as Rick was headed to the door.
Rick stopped and turned around. "Yeah?"
"I'm really glad you're home, and I’m glad you're staying a while, too."
If Rick Simon had had any doubts that his little brother was glad that he was home, they would have been immediately dismissed when he saw the broad smile that lit A.J.'s face.
"I'm glad I’m home, too, A.J.”
“So this time it’s more than a visit for sure?”
“Yeah,” Rick smiled. “It’s more than a visit. Until at least the end of August, I’m home to stay."
As Rick left the room, A.J. returned his attention to his schoolwork. The phrase, “I’m home to stay,” kept running through the teenager’s mind, and with it came the promise of a fun-filled summer with his big brother.