You Don’t Count The Cost
*Author’s Note – Many of the extended Simon family mentioned in this story are the creation of a Simon & Simon fan fiction writer named Christine Jeffords. When I wrote this story in 1992, I wanted to remain consistent with what had already been established within other fan fiction stories in terms of names and number of siblings for Jack Simon. The TV show specifically named only Ray Simon as a sibling to Jack; it was left unknown as to whether Jack had other brothers or sisters. Christine fictionalized that he came from a family of seven children. That’s a ‘fact’ I adopted throughout my years of writing S&S fan fiction. Thanks to Christine for her imagination where Jack Simon’s family was concerned.
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With Christmas only three days away, A.J. and I were busy wrapping up several cases we were workin’ on. We planned to close the office for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and enjoy a holiday vacation here in San Diego. This was our Christmas present to us. It was something we hadn't done since forming the partnership of Simon and Simon ten years earlier.
1990 had proven to be a good year for us as a business, as well as a good year for us as a family. The business was operating in the black for the third year in a row, and continuing to grow in client base. A.J. and I had worked hard to build a good reputation as private investigators, so I guess all those years of sleazy divorce cases and repo jobs were finally payin’ off. In the past few years, we had managed to get some lucrative contracts with several firms doing security checks for them on new employees. We had also snared contracts with some of the more wealthy citizens of San Diego to provide security at their private parties, among other things.
Not only had A.J. and I finally managed, through these contracts, to have more steady work than we had in the early years, we had also managed to start makin’ a pretty good living for ourselves.
We were by no means rich, but as A.J. put it, we were financially secure for a change. If nothin’ else, this last made our mom happy. Although in light of this, I think she also had to accept the fact that having two sons who were private investigators was going to be a way of life for a long time to come.
Obviously, financial security can go a long way in helpin’ to harmonize family relationships, and it had certainly helped ours. A.J. hadn't seriously yelled at me all year for any of the various treasures I had gotten at Surplus Sammy's, and had only been mildly annoyed when, in October, I had to hand over one of his favorite sweaters to Bruno in exchange for some phone numbers we needed.
Mom, A.J., and I had also sailed through the year without so much as a cold between us. Considering how accident prone A.J. and I can be, 1990 was a gold start year health wise for us as well.
As a matter of fact, the Christmas card Mom had received from our family doctor, who is also a close family friend, had a note in it sayin’ how much he had missed me and A.J. this year, and how we had ruined his plans to purchase a new Oldsmobile before the year ended. Mom didn't find that too amusing, but A.J. and I thought it was damn funny.
All these factors helped put me in true holiday spirit as Christmas approached. It was shaping up to be what looked like an old-fashioned Christmas. The kind you only see in a Norman Rockwell painting, or on a Hallmark card, minus the snow, of course. The entire Simon family was making an effort to get together this year at my Aunt Pat's house. She's my dad's youngest sister, and lives here in San Diego. Aunt Marion and her family were driving down from San Francisco. Dad's older brother, George, and his wife would be flyin’ in from Florida. Aunt Joan and her husband live here in San Diego, and Dad's eldest brother, Will, who’s been a widower for a couple of years now, would be drivin’ down from his home in Los Angeles.
The biggest surprise of all, was that Uncle Ray had called Aunt Pat early in December and said he would be here as well. Although he wasn't planning to get in until Christmas morning, I was thrilled. Mom and I tried to remember the last time Ray was here at Christmas, and both of us thought I was about seven or eight. A.J. didn't remember him ever being here for the holiday, so I guess that would be about right. Quite a few of our cousins were planning to make it to Aunt Pat’s, too, and were bringing their families along. So with lots of little Simons under the age of eighteen, Mom had said it looked like Aunt Pat was gearing up for sixty people ranging in age from a couple of months old, all the way up to Uncle Will, who was seventy‑five.
These circumstances somehow motivated me to do something I had never done before in my adult life. Christmas shop before December 23rd. Actually, I was usually a Christmas Eve Santa, runnin’ around the afternoon of the 24th trying to find perfect gifts for Mom and A.J. But, this year I was done even before my brother, which is amazing considering he usually disgusts me by announcing sometime around Halloween that his Christmas shopping is done, and have I started mine yet? My usual reply is to tell him that there's nothing I can get him then, that I can't buy on Christmas Eve at K‑mart. This year I finally got to turn the tables on A.J. by tellin’ him on December 10th that I was done shopping. Boy, the look on his face was priceless. He didn't know what to say. He finally gave me a sheepish grin and mumbled, "There's nothing I can get for you now, that I can't buy Christmas Eve at K‑mart." I told him he'd better be more original than that, or Santa would take his presents back.
Actually, my Christmas shopping hadn't involved a lot of time this year. A.J. and I went in together on a picture Mom wanted for the living room, and a gift certificate for a favorite jewelry store of hers. A.J. had been easy for a change. He lost the watch I gave him for his birthday back in 1981. Evidently the band had broken while he was scuba diving, although he wasn't sure. A.J. just knew that when he came out of the water the watch was gone. Although he didn't say too much about it, I could tell he felt bad. It was the only watch he ever wore, and it had been engraved with his initials, along with his birth date. I guess it would be considered kind of a personal gift, and that's why he felt so bad. Only my little brother could get sentimental over a watch.
Anyway, I'd gone to the same jewelry store where we got Mom's gift certificate and picked out a real nice watch for him that does just about everything but tell you the temperature of the person standin’ next to you. I had it engraved with his initials and the date of 12-25-1990, and also had them add, ‘Best Friend.’ It was gonna be a tight fit getting all that on there, but the jeweler thought he could do it.
I couldn't wait to see A.J.'s face when I gave it to him. I knew the first thing he'd do after all the gifts were open was read the instructions that came with the watch, and in about thirty minutes know how every feature on it worked. He drives me nuts that way. He's been like that since he was a little kid. Whenever we got a new game for Christmas, I’d be ready to dive right in and learn to play it as we went along, but not A.J. As soon as he was old enough to read, the entire family had to sit at the table and listen to the step-by-step instructions before we could start. My dad used to laugh at us - A.J. so serious and organized over some stupid game like Sorry, and me fidgeting with the dice and game pieces ready to strangle him because I wanted to start playin’.
The gift I was most anxious to give, though, was the one I got for both Mom and A.J. As I said, I had been feeling real good about the way things had been goin’ for all of us in 1990, and the way things had been goin’ for the business the last few years.
Several years back I had started putting money away with the intention of taking Mom and A.J. on a cruise when we hit our tenth year of business. By the time we went on the cruise it would technically be our eleventh year of business, since the tickets I had purchased were for the last week in February 1991. There hadn't been any other time it was going to work out for the three of us in '90, so as summer was ending I decided to be nosy about their plans for early in the new year, and see if I couldn't find a week we could all go and surprise them. I hadn't intended for it to necessarily be a surprise, or a Christmas present, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew that if I told A.J. he'd insist on payin’ for half of it, and I didn't want that. This was something I wanted for Mom and him. Therefore, A.J. thought he and I were going to BA.J.a fishing the last week in February, and Mom thought she was baby‑sitting A.J.'s plants, watching Rex for me, and picking up our mail. Only Abby knew the truth, ‘cause I had already arranged for her to do the things Mom thought she was going to do.
This was such an out‑of‑character, organized plan for Rick Simon that I figured I'd have to revive Mom and A.J. with smelling salts after they opened the little box that held the tickets. Yeah, this Christmas was really lookin’ to be special.
It was shortly before nine on December 22nd when I arrived at our office and did the usual early morning jobs. For me, that generally involved pouring myself a cup of coffee and reading the paper. I was expecting A.J. sometime around nine‑thirty or ten, since he had to stop and check on another job we had going.
A guy we had grown up with was the manager of a local discount store, and at Christmas time he had to deal with an influx of shoplifters. Jeff hired A.J. and I the two weeks prior to Christmas to ‘police’ the store. We had done this every year since going into business. It was a job that usually involved two long weeks of standing on your feet for ten to twelve hours at a time, while observin’ too many over‑tired little kids and giggly teenagers. It was also the kind of job that, after the couple of years we'd just had, A.J. and I woulda’ had no qualms about dropping, except Jeff was a friend going back to when A.J. was five years old, so saying no was pretty impossible.
Therefore, we didn’t say no exactly. A.J. suggested we hire a couple of college kids to take the bulk of the patrol since we had other cases going. He figured out what we could pay a couple of guys, and still end up with money in our pockets as well. Jeff was agreeable to the whole thing, so I suggested Carlos's son, Diego, who was a sophomore at U.C.S.D., and A.J. thought of a young cop we knew that worked for Abby, who always moonlighted at various jobs around Christmas time. They were both working out great, but A.J., being A.J., stopped by the store every morning to check in with Jeff, and to talk to Diego or Bob to make sure things were going okay.
We had to meet Abby at ten‑thirty that morning to wrap up another case if luck was on our side. We had been hired, on and off, by the San Diego Police Department to work on some cases they didn't have the manpower for
themselves. Abby and several other department heads who knew us had gone to bat for us when this was brought before the city council and police commission.
Like all big city police departments, the San Diego department didn't have the resources to be everywhere they needed to. Abby had proposed to us, and then to the higher‑ups, a plan involvin’ A.J. and me working for them at times when they’re short of people. Since some cops view P.I.’s as nothin’ more than private citizens with a license to carry a gun, this was a controversial issue for a while. After much discussion, A.J. and I agreed to do our part for the S.D.P.D. without guns. The work we would be doin’ for them didn’t exactly require heavy artillery, so it was no big deal to us. Normally, I woulda’ told them to screw it, that I didn't need their job that bad, but Abby had done enough favors for us, however reluctantly, so A.J. and I felt we owed her one.
Mostly the work involved stakeouts and nosing around the streets asking questions. Stuff, as I told A.J., "A rookie cop could do with his eyes closed." The upside to all this though, was that the pay was pretty good. Plus we were gettin’ to know more people within the police department, and making contacts on the streets, which in our business, is always a plus.
Because of all this, we had recently spent our time driving around warehouses throughout San Diego tryin’ to break up a burglary ring that had been goin’ strong the whole month of December. The warehouses were storage facilities for various discount stores, and for the most part, electronic equipment was kept in them. The buildings were being hit at all hours of the day and night. There didn't seem to be a pattern, only that the warehouses were in relatively isolated areas, and everything being taken was easy to sell on the streets. TV’s, stereos, VCR’s - the kind of stuff that, at Christmas time, is in big demand. Abby was helping out in Burglary during December ‘cause of personnel shortages, so she had A.J. and me drive around observing these warehouses at various hours of the day and night. Three weeks of this, and neither of us had seen anything.
Our break came when one of the cops at the station took a call from what sounded like an adolescent boy giving him the address of a warehouse, and a time it was supposed to be ripped‑off on the 22nd. Abby called me at home on the night of December 21st to ask if A.J. and I would be interested in following this up with her the next day. I knew we would, so agreed to meet her at ten‑thirty the next morning. The last thing she said to me was, “Tell the golden boy not to dress like he's going to his junior prom. Jeans and a T‑shirt would be appropriate." I laughed, and when I finally reached A.J. later that evening, I passed the message along to him. He sounded annoyed when he commented, "So Abby thinks she needs to tell me how to dress for a stakeout?" I didn't say anything. I figured the two of them could fight it out the next day.
The door opened to our office at ten that morning, and A.J. walked in dressed as Abby requested. Or at least as close to it as A.J. Simon could manage. His jeans looked new, like all his jeans seem to, and his T‑shirt was actually a blue polo shirt with a ‘little critter’ on the left side of it, as Town would say.
‘Well, I guess ya’ don't quite look dressed up enough for the prom," I told him with a smirk on my face. "How are things going with Jeff?"
A.J. stood across the desk from me scanning the headlines on the newspaper I had just laid down.
"Fine, they caught two more shoplifters yesterday. Jeff’s pleased with both of them. Oh, Diego said to tell you his feet hurt, and that he's not sure if he should thank you for this opportunity or not."
I chuckled at that. I knew how bad Diego’s feet were probably hurtin’ after almost two straight weeks of that kind of work.
"He’ll thank me when you pay him on Christmas Eve. That’ll make him forget all about his feet."
"Yeah, I'm sure you're right. And, I also told him how grateful I was for his help. I explained to Diego how you're getting much too old for these types of jobs. I told him you needed to save yourself for the important stuff, like getting the newspaper and picking up doughnuts on the way in."
“Oh, you’re a laugh a minute,” I told my brother as we headed outta the door.
We met Abby in the parking lot of the police station and got the address of the warehouse from her. We continued there in my truck, while she and Hanrahan took a different route in an unmarked car. One other cop was headed there, too, in an unmarked vehicle.
We all arrived within ten minutes of each other. After seeing no activity, we parked the cars behind several buildings and entered the warehouse with the key Abby had obtained from the owners. That part of the city was nothing but rows of storage facilities and warehouses. We went inside to look the place over, and to wait to see if the tip panned out.
Supposedly, this job was going down around noon, which, as A.J. said, made sense if the people involved were assuming anybody workin’ in the warehouse would break for lunch about then. There were three dozen rows of shelves stacked high with boxes. I slipped into a row on the right side of the building toward the front, while Abby took the row directly across from me on the left. John Hanrahan was on the left as well, but in a row toward the back of the warehouse. The other cop with us, a big guy named Carl, was crouched down behind some boxes not that far from Abby, but near the big metal sliding doors. He could move a door just far enough back in its track to be able to peek out and have a limited view of any activity going on in front of the building.
During prior break-ins the locks on the front of the sliding doors were always smashed to gain entrance. Since most of these buildings had side‑entrance doors, it was surprising that entry wasn't gained that way. It would be pretty simple to pick the lock on those doors. That was one reason, aside from the youthful sounding caller the previous evening; that we were pretty sure we were dealing with a bunch of kids, and not professionals.
Abby had directed A.J. to the back of the building. The side entrance door opened into the row he was assigned to. If the perpetrators scattered, we figured our various locations gave us a good chance of grabbing a few of them. If it was kids we were dealing with, it usually only took catching one or two in order to get the names of the others involved.
We waited in relative silence for a half hour. It was ten minutes after twelve when Carl quietly told Abby a van was pulling up in front of the building. We got back into position behind our boxes and shelves. The last thing I saw was the back of A.J.'s blond head as he turned for his hiding place.
I could hear the lock on the sliding doors being smashed with what sounded like an axe. It took them five minutes to get the lock off. The big doors were rolled open, allowing sunlight to flood the center of the building.
The first thing I saw from my vantage point was two freckled face kids of about thirteen who looked like they should be singing in their church choir, not ripping off a warehouse. A van backed in and four more boys spilled out, but these guys looked quite a bit older than the first two. Probably closer to eighteen or nineteen. The driver opened the back doors on the van and instructed the others to start loading it up. Abby let them get eight boxes on before she stepped out from behind the row she was in.
“Boys, police! Hold it right there.”
We all stepped out at that point. The kids froze for a moment. Before any of us realized what was happening, the kid who had been driving reached his hand in his jacket pocket and pulled out a gun. He was so quick and smooth about it that I saw the gun first. I never saw his movement at all that I can remember.
He fired a couple of shots as soon as he pulled the gun out and we scattered. It was then that the cops pulled out their guns. Of course, A.J. and I didn't have ours, as this was one of those simple cases a rookie cop could handle with his eyes closed. None of us had anticipated encountering a seventeen-year-old with a five hundred dollar a day cocaine habit, and the attitude that he wasn't going to be caught no matter what the cost.
Several more shots were fired, but from where I was I couldn't see what was going on. I decided since I wasn't armed I'd better stay put until I could decipher exactly what was happening. I knew A.J. was smart enough to be doin’ the same thing so, at the time, I wasn't worried too much about him.
A minute passed from the first gun shot until I heard John Hanrahan on his walkie‑talkie calling for back up.
"Officer down, we need an ambulance at our location! Repeat, Officer down at our location!"
My heart sank at John’s last sentence. As I cautiously came out from my hidin’ place I was expecting to see Carl laying on the ground. I suppose that was an odd expectation, but I didn't know Carl that well, and I did know Abby well, so my mind automatically told me, Stuff like this doesn't happen to people you know. Especially right before Christmas.
Boy, I couldn't have been more wrong. When I finally got to where I could see what was goin’ on, I discovered the injured officer wasn't an officer at all, but instead, my brother. And he was definitely someone I know well.
I hardly glanced at the kid with the gun who was now layin’ face down on the warehouse floor. My only focus was on the form I could see sprawled out at the back of the building. As I ran the length of that warehouse all I could see were A.J.'s tennis shoes and pant legs. Abby and Hanrahan blocked my view of his upper body. They knelt on either side of him with their backs to me. Even as I came on them and knelt next to Abby by A.J.’s chest, I couldn't tell how serious it was or where he was hurt.
It wasn't until I glanced down at Abby's hands that I knew. She had her palms pressed against his left side. I saw the blood soaking A.J.’s shirt and seeping out from between her fingers. Neither John nor Abby had coats, but I was wearin’ my field jacket. I stripped it off and folded it several times to form a makeshift pressure bandage. I started to put it over Abby’s hands with the intention of holding it there myself, but she kept shaking her head.
"No, Rick, I'll do it. I'll do it, Rick. Talk to your brother. Talk to your brother, Rick!"
Finally, I let her take it. It wasn't until much later that Abby told me she wouldn't let me hold the bandage myself for fear that if A.J. bled to death on that warehouse floor I would somehow hold myself responsible. I don't know if she's right about that or not. I try not to think about it much. The whole situation was a nightmare. I don't need any false scenarios added to my memories of that day.
Hanrahan got up and ran outside to one of the vehicles. He came back with a blanket that was part of the first aid package in all S.D.P.D. cars. I felt a little better once A.J. was with it. I had no doubt my brother was in shock. He was pale, and his breathing was rapid and shallow. I had seen enough severe gunshot wounds in Vietnam to know this one was bad, real bad. I had noticed a visible change in A.J.'s coloring and breathing just in the sixty seconds it took John to get the blanket and come back. A.J. seemed to be getting whiter and whiter. I was scared he'd bleed to death before help ever arrived. Abby finally broke into my numb thoughts by shouting.
“Talk to A.J., Rick. Damn it, Rick! Talk to him!"
At the time, it seemed like I was in a film being played on slow motion. I was only acting, not reacting. I didn't even have the presence of mind to wonder why it was so important to Abby that I talk to someone who was obviously unconscious. Weeks later, I would recall her tellin’ me to do this, and then remembered having read somewhere that doctors think even patients in deep comas can hear what the people around them were saying. I guess Abby must have read the same article.
Anyway, I finally did as she told me. I bent close to A.J.’s left ear and put my hand on his head. “Hang on, A.J. Hang on. Help is on the way. Everything's gonna be okay. Just hang on, little brother."
I said those few phrases over and over. I looked down his body to see blood staining my jacket and heard A.J.’s breathing become more ragged. I started yelling.
“Damn it A.J., don't you dare give up on me here! Don't you give up! I'm tellin' you, A.J., you’d better hang on!"
I must have sounded furious, and in some ways, I guess I was. Furious at the thought that A.J. might die in a stinking warehouse, shot by some punk, without ever regaining consciousness. Without him knowing I was there with him. Without him hearing me say good‑bye. Without him hearing me say all the things that should be said to the kid brother I love.
After what seemed like an eternity I heard sirens in the distance. I began prayin’ real hard that one of those sirens belonged to the ambulance, and that A.J. would still be alive when it got there. I was vaguely aware of Abby and Hanrahan talking and working together to keep pressure on A.J.'s wound, as well as Carl returning from wherever he had been. I know Abby was talking to A.J., too. I think she kept telling him to hang on, to stay with us, but I don't really know for sure. Between talking to him myself, praying, and focusing on his pale face, I was fairly oblivious to everything else that was goin’ on around me.
The paramedics had to nudge me out of the way. A soon as they took over for Abby she stood behind me and put her arms on my shoulders. She tried to get me to stand up and move out of the way. I glared at her over my shoulder.
"Leave me alone, Abby. I'm not going anywhere."
I moved to kneel at the top of A.J.'s head. I laid my palms against the sides of his face. They had an oxygen mask on him now, which relieved me somewhat. It had been hell for me to hear him struggle for breath.
The paramedics contacted the hospital and soon had an I.V. of some kind goin.’ I understood enough of what they were saying to know A.J. was losing a lot of blood. I told them right away what his blood type was, and that he was allergic to penicillin - this last more out of habit than anything else. Penicillin certainly wasn't the miracle drug for the circumstance we were facing now.
As the paramedics worked on A.J., he began to regain consciousness. His eyelids fluttered, and I could feel him trying to move his head between my hands. I scooted over to his right side a little, still kneeling by his upper body.
When A.J. opened his eyes I knew he was only half conscious. His eyes were dull, and had that cloudy look you see with someone who's heavily sedated, or has just been awakened from a deep sleep. He didn't focus on anything. He eyes moved back and forth for a few seconds until I called his name.
"A.J. A.J., I'm right here. It’s Rick, A.J. I'm right here with you. You're gonna be okay. The paramedics are helpin’ you. You'll be goin’ to the hospital in a minute."
A.J. looked at me when I started talking to him. He blinked his eyes several times, the movements so slow and heavy that I didn’t know if he was able to focus on me or not. I knew by looking at him that he was in a lot of pain. I could see it on his face. I reached down and squeezed his right hand, shocked to discover how cold it was.
”A.J., I'm right here. You're doin’ fine. Just hang in there for me, little brother. We'll be going to the hospital soon."
A.J. tightened his fingers where they rested within my palm, and still acted like he was having trouble seeing me. He seemed scared, and I didn't blame him. I was pretty damn scared myself. I squeezed his hand again while assuring him I was there with him.
His mouth moved beneath the oxygen mask and I heard a faintly mumbled, "Rick?"
"A.J., don't try and talk. It’s Rick. I’m right here."
Up until that moment I had been sure A.J. knew I was there, but as soon as he voiced my name in a whispered question I was afraid he was so out of it that everything I had been sayin’ wasn't registering. He in a lotta pain, and seemed confused. I never remember feeling as useless as I did at that moment. There was an overwhelming feeling that even something so small as saying, "A.J., I'm here," wasn't helping my brother.
When the paramedics were ready to transport him I followed the gurney to the ambulance. As they put A.J. in the back I started to climb in behind him, only to be stopped by one of the paramedics.
"Sir, I'm sorry, you can ride up front, but not back here."
Abby and Carl were on either side of me. Abby, who knows my temper, said, "Rick, come on. You can ride with me. We'll follow the ambulance to the hospital."
I almost told them all to shove it and was gonna force my way in that ambulance with A.J., when I realized I would only be making a bad situation worse. The paramedics’ attention needed to be on A.J., not on me. Therefore, with one final look in the back at my brother, I turned and followed Abby to her car. John took my truck keys from me and told me he’d bring the vehicle to the hospital. My truck wasn’t my biggest concern at that time, but it was an appreciated gesture. The first of many appreciated gestured to be offered Mom and me over the next few weeks.
Although Abby and I were right behind the ambulance the entire way, by the time we got to the hospital A.J. was already in a trauma room. I was immediately pressed for information on his medical history, insurance company, and all the usual questions asked when someone is admitted to the hospital. I was just finishing up with the clerk when Abby approached.
"Rick, I think one of us should call your mother. Then I'll send a patrol car to pick her up."
I shook my head. "No, I'll get her.”
Yeah, right - like I was in any condition to drive at that moment. Obviously, Abby knew I wasn't.
"No, you and I are going to stay here,” Abby insisted. “It’ll be quicker to have a patrol car get Cecilia. Do you want to call her, or do you want me to?"
In all the years I had been forced to make unscheduled trips to the emergency room with A.J., I had never not been the one to call my mother. I hated myself right then for what I was about to say, but I knew this time I just couldn't do it. I knew I just wasn't gonna be able to tell Mom what had happened to A.J. without upsetting her. The tone of my voice would have given me away before I had a chance to say more than, “Hi Mom." It would be impossible to sound nonchalant about this particular situation. I had a feelin’ we were in for a little more than a few stitches here.
"Do you mind, Abby? Could you call her? I just...I can’t right now.”
Abby laid her hand on my upper arm. "I don't mind. Come and sit down over here. I'll be right back."
As I sat down on the couch she led me to, I called after her, "Abby, try not to upset her, okay? There'll be time enough to tell her how bad it is when she gets here."
Abby nodded. "I won't upset her. I'm going to dispatch a car before I call her so she won't have long to wait and be tempted to drive herself."
I smiled my thanks and realized, not for the first time, what a good friend Abby was to A.J. and me, even though we often didn't see things eye to eye. At times I felt like my relationship with her was somewhat like that of a brother and sister. A brother and sister who had spent a good deal of their childhood tryin’ to kill each other, but a brother and sister nonetheless.
Abby returned in a few minutes to sit beside me.
“I got a hold of your mother. By the time I hung up, the patrol car was there. She should be here in ten or fifteen minutes."
“Was she upset?" I asked while staring at the door A.J. was behind.
“A little, but I was pretty vague. I told her A.J. had been hurt, and that you weren't calling her because you were filling out hospital forms and giving the necessary information. She was okay with it until I mentioned I was sending a car for her. She knew something was up then, and demanded that I tell her what was going on.” Abby sighed. “You know your mother, Rick."
I sure did.
“What'd you tell her?"
"That A.J. had been shot, but that we didn't know how bad it was yet and not to worry."
I knew from the nature that phone call, and Abby sending a car to pick Mom up, she was gonna arrive knowing things weren't good.
"Thanks, Abby. I shouldn't have pushed that off on you, but I--"
Reaching over, Abby squeezed my hand briefly. "Hey, forget it. That's what friends are for."
As we waited for Mom to arrive, the activity in the emergency room was increasing. First Hanrahan came in to hand me my truck keys and get further instructions from Abby, then two detectives appeared to question Abby and get details about what had transpired. I was glad I hadn't seen enough of anything to be questioned. I don't think I could have dealt with it right then. More medical personnel were rushing into the room where A.J. was, and I remember havin’ this absurd vision of people hanging out the windows. I didn't see how they could fit one more person in there.
In the midst of all the chaos, I turned to Abby and questioned, “Where's the kid who did this to my brother? Where'd they take him?"
Abby looked at me with a funny expression on her face before saying, "He's dead, Rick. Carl shot him."
I looked at her for a few seconds and then turned away. I could feel my jaw muscles clench as I stared straight ahead.
"Good. I don't even care. I'm glad the little bastard’s dead. If he wasn't, I'd kill the sonuvabitch myself."
Abby didn't say a word, but then, what could she say? She knew I wasn't just saying that in the heat of the moment. She knew I meant every word of it.
A doctor came out of the trauma room, introduced himself, and told me they would be rushing A.J. to surgery. He was still losing a lot of blood, and they didn't know for sure where it was coming from. He spoke briefly to me about the massive blood loss, and said this was not the best time of the year for someone to need blood since many of the regular donors don't show up during the month of December. When I informed the guy that A.J. and I share the same blood type and that I was more than willing to donate whatever they would take from me. The doctor told me that would help, and that he would have someone see me in a few minutes. My spirits weren't lifted any when he ended the conversation with, "I've got to get ready for surgery, Mr. Simon. We don't have time to waste."
I did halt him briefly by asking what A.J.'s chances were of pulling through this. I felt like I was being examined under a microscope then. I think he was sizin’ me up to see if I could accept what he said next.
"I can’t quote you odds. It doesn't look good right now, but we'll know more in a little while. Someone will be with you shortly to let you know where you can wait."
He turned away from me and hurried down the corridor. I stood there, angry and numb all at the same time. Our conversation couldn't have lasted three minutes, and I sure didn't feel like I knew any more now than I did when A.J. was first brought in. The fact that he was shot and bleeding heavily wasn't exactly news to me. I was in bad need of some answers to a lotta questions. Unfortunately, it didn't look like anyone had the time to give them to me.
The doctor hadn't been gone a minute when the trauma room door swung open and A.J. was wheeled out. He still had the oxygen mask on, and now had three I.V.s, including one with blood. His clothes had been cut off, and he was covered from the waist down with a sheet. Where his torso was bare I could see nothing but bandages soaked with blood. When I looked at A.J.’s face it was as white as the sheet covering him.
He was wheeled past Abby and me so fast I didn't have a chance to do anything but look. I intended to follow to see if I could talk to him for a second, even though I was pretty sure he was unconscious, but I didn't get the opportunity. For at that moment who should appear in the corridor, but my mother.
Oh, great. Perfect timing. So much for breaking this to Mom gently.
They wheeled A.J. right by her. I think it took a few seconds for it to register with Mom that this person being rushed to surgery was her youngest son. Mom had a blank look on her face for a second, but then started to run after the gurney calling his name. That action finally got me moving. I ran down the hall until I caught up with her. I stopped Mom by wrapping my arms around her.
She pushed against. "No, Rick, let me go! Let me go to A.J.. Let me go to him. Let me go, Rick!"
I held her against my chest. "Mom, stop it now! You can't go to him. You can’t. They have to get A.J. to surgery right now."
She finally quit struggling and sagged against me. "Oh, Rick, I never thought it was this bad. I knew it was serious when Abby called, but, oh my Lord, not this bad. Not my baby."
We held onto each other for a few minutes with me offering what comfort I could. A nurse approached us and said we could go to the fourth floor and wait there.
“Someone will keep you informed as the surgery progresses,” the woman promised.
The next five hours were the longest of my life. Every forty‑five minutes a nurse would come to tell us that A.J. was holding his own and was still in surgery, and that was the extent of the information we received.
Abby stayed with us the entire time, filling Mom in as to what had transpired in the warehouse that afternoon and answering all her questions. I was grateful to her since I wasn't up to a review of the events of the day at that moment. Other than the hour I was gone to give blood for A.J., I spent most of those five hours pacing the floor or staring straight ahead at the wall. Except for the times when I would sit for a few minutes and hold Mom's hand, I tuned her and Abby out, my thoughts only on A.J..
I told Abby several times to go back to the station, but she wouldn't. I knew for every hour she was with us, that would mean one more hour at work for her later that evening typing up reports and answering questions. Since A.J. and I were technically private citizens, and the jobs we were supposed to be doing for the department routine ones, I figured she was in for a lot of hassles and headaches from the hierarchy. I was pretty sure Abby stayed at the hospital with us, not only because she was a good friend of Mom’s, but also because she felt responsible for what had happened. I found out several weeks later from Mom that I had guessed correctly. Abby carried a lot of unnecessary guilt on her shoulders over this incident for a long time.
While Abby waited with us she made use of the public phone mounted on the wall between the restrooms. She came back to tell us that a large number of officers from the station were coming down to give blood for A.J. in case he needed it.
“A.J. and I are O negative, Abby,” I told the woman. “That’s kinda rare. You might wannna tell them that before anyone makes a trip down here for nothing.”
“It won’t be for nothing,” Abby assured me. “If A.J. can’t use the donated blood, then someone else can. They want to do something to help your brother, Rick. Right now, this is the best way they feel they can go about it.”
Mom started crying then, and I got pretty choked up, too. The shooting had only occurred two hours prior to this, and to think that these people thought so much of A.J. that they would do this really touched us.
About four hours into the surgery, what I knew was inevitable happened. Abby came back from another phone conversation and told us that the media was going to break the story on the eleven o'clock news for sure, and possibly go with it as early as five, which was only about twenty minutes away at that time. Abby suggested that if there were any relatives or friends who should know, we'd better plan to make a few phone calls since she figured they'd use A.J.'s name as well. Mom and I had previously decided not to call anybody until the surgery was over and we knew more. Now we had to change our game plan.
Mom called Aunt Pat, and then she called her brother Larry, who lived in L.A. They both insisted on being with us. Uncle Larry was going to get in his car and come down right then. Mom had to do some fast talking to convince both of them not to. She told them there wasn't anything they could do, and that she might need them more in a few days. Aunt Pat left it that Mom would call her later in the evening to update her on A.J.’s condition, and Mom made her promise for not to call anybody else on the Simon side since they were all headed into San Diego over the next couple of days for our Christmas celebration. Mom felt they could be told when they arrived, and that we'd know more by then anyway. Uncle Larry was going to call Mom's other brother, who lived in Oregon, and try to get a hold of Mom's younger sister, who had left that morning from San Diego's airport to spend the holidays in Ohio at my cousin's.
Mom made Larry promise not to let anyone change their holiday plans, and told him she’d call him back later that evening. After she hung up the phone I suggested she call Edie or Margaret and let one of them know. From there, I figured they could let others in Mom's social circle know who might be likely to see the story on the news and be upset. These phone calls were hard for her, especially since the only reply she could make to everyone's questions about A.J.'s condition was to say we didn't know anything yet.
Shortly after five‑thirty I stopped my pacing long enough to see two doctors headed down the corridor toward us. I was surprised to recognize one of those doctors, our family doctor, Bob Barton. Bob shook my hand and gave Mom a hug while answering the simultaneous question Mom and I asked, "How is he, Bob? How’s A.J.?"
"Rick, Cece – A.J.'s still with us. He’s hanging in there."
I didn't think those sentences sounded too promising.
Bob introduced us to the doctor who had come with him as Lloyd Rafferty. He was the surgeon who had operated on A.J., and was also the same guy I had talked to briefly in the emergency room. For the first time, I noticed how tall the guy was. He had to have been close to six foot seven. He towered over my tiny mother as she stood to shake hands with him. I'd say he was about fifty, and had a hairline in an even sorrier state than mine. He was quite a contrast to our family doctor. Bob was seventy years old now, and stood five foot nine inches tall. Where Doctor Rafferty was on the skinny side like me, Bob has an athletic build yet for a guy his age. He still rides his bike a few miles each day, and he still plays tennis regularly. As a matter of fact, Bob had been the one who taught A.J. how to play tennis when my brother was thirteen. He and A.J. meet every once in a while to play a few sets. Despite his age, Bob's got these bright, piercing blue eyes, that can still look right through me when he's patching me up after some ‘damn fool stunt’ I've pulled, as he puts it. He's also got a mop of reddish blond hair yet, with only a little gray interspersed throughout it.
Because of Bob's coloring and build, he and A.J. have been mistaken for father and son more than once. Bob always teases A.J. and me when that happens, saying it's a fate worse than death to have people think you've fathered the Simon boys.
Both doctors ushered us to the couch, and after we had introduced Abby to them, Doctor Rafferty began explaining A.J.'s condition to us.
"Mrs. Simon, Mr. Simon, the bullet entered the upper left portion of A.J.’s abdominal cavity and lodged in the spleen." As he said this he pointed to the upper left part of his body, right below his rib cage, indicating to Mom and I where the damage was done. "The spleen carries out several important functions. It dismantles worn-out red blood cells, and recycles parts for new blood cells. It also acts as a filter to remove foreign material, including germs, from the blood. The spleen also makes antibodies, and is therefore a part of the body’s immune system. Because of these factors, the spleen is filled with blood, and that's why A.J. experienced such a large blood loss. We've removed his spleen, which has stopped the hemorrhaging. There didn’t proved to be a way to stop the bleeding, or remove the bullet, without taking the spleen, too."
I think the expression on my face must have matched the ones I saw on my mother's and Abby's - kind of blank shock. I was under the assumption that spleens are kind of important things. I didn't quite put them in the same category as tonsils and an appendix.
Mom looked at both doctors and then asked Bob, “What's all this mean, Bob? What’s all this going to mean for A.J.?”
"A.J. can live without his spleen, Cecilia. Occasionally, a person is even born without one. Neither Doctor Rafferty nor I know of any serious side effects caused by one being removed, other than the patient being more susceptible to colds, flu, and other normally minor viruses. A.J.'s spleen being removed is not our biggest concern right now. As Lloyd told you, the spleen is an organ that is full of blood. A.J. could have easily bled to death before we ever got him to surgery. In fact, he almost did. That's how close it was. A.J. has lost a tremendous amount of blood. That he's still with us is a small miracle in itself."
When he paused there I jumped in. "Just what are we up against, Bob? What’s A.J. facing here?"
Doctor Rafferty answered me. "The thing we're up against, Mr. Simon, is that your brother has lost massive amounts of blood and that’s very hard on the body. He was in shock when he arrived here, and has now been through five hours of surgery. We had a hard time getting the bleeding under control, which is why we were in surgery so long. When we are faced with an injury as severe as A.J.'s we also have the additional worry of infection." He paused a moment before wrapping up his heartwarming speech with, "Right now, I can't make any guesses as to what A.J.'s chances are. It could go either way at this point."
I wasn't satisfied with that answer.
"You must have some idea as to what my brother's chances are. You must have some thoughts as to whether he’s going to live or die." I put my arm around Mom's shoulders. "My mother and I wanna to know. We need to know what we're facing here."
"Mr. Simon...Rick, right now if I had to quote odds, I'd give them at fifty‑fifty. That’s about all I can say at this point. Your brother's been severely injured, and all the things I mentioned before, the shock, the blood loss, and the surgery, have taken their toll on him."
"Rick, Cecilia,” Bob said, “we’re not lying to you. We’re telling you everything we know right now, and as much as I hate to say this, things aren't extremely promising at this point. But, A.J.'s got several factors going for him. Number one; he's still with us, and he’s stable at this time. Number two; prior to the shooting he was in terrific shape. We know he's an avid exerciser and doesn't smoke, nor does he drink in excess. He takes care of himself, and that’s to his benefit right now. For all he's been through, his heart rate has continued to be strong." Bob paused there, his gaze taking in both Mom and me. "The most important thing, though, is this family. The three of you are close. You have a lot of love for each other. A.J. knows that. He knows he has your love and support. Sometimes...well, sometimes that can be more important than any medicine we have to offer.”
I gave a slight nod of my head and then asked, “What happens now?”
“We’ll be closely monitoring A.J. There's always the chance the bleeding could start up again during these next two or three days, therefore we'll be keeping him sedated so he stays quiet. They'll be moving him into Intensive Care shortly if they haven't already. You’ll be allowed to visit him for ten minutes each hour, though I can make arrangements for some rules to be broken so you two can stay with him longer than that provided you stay out of the nurses’ way.”
Mom and I smiled our thanks. Bob had done a lot for us already by just being there. He was a friend of my dad's from as far back as their high school days, and had been our family doctor since he went into practice when I was four. He had delivered A.J., and had always remained close with our family even all these years since my father had died, so I knew this situation had to be difficult for him, too. Bob had retired three years ago, but found he missed working, so now helped out in the emergency room a couple of days a week. He also sat on the hospital board; a position he had held for the last ten years. Someone on the staff who knew A.J. notified Bob of what was going on, and he had been with my brother ever since they had started surgery.
Doctor Rafferty excused himself in order to check on another patient. Both Mom and I shook hands with the guy and thanked him for everything he’d done for A.J. so far. Bob led us to Intensive Care, patiently answering our questions and calming our fears as we walked. Abby went with us to the I.C.U. floor, but since there wasn't much else she could do, and I knew we'd be pushing it to try to get her in A.J.'s room as well, I told her she might as well go. She looked beat, and I knew she had a long night ahead of her yet. When Mom agreed with me Abby said her good-byes.
“Cecilia, please call me if there’s a change in A.J.’s condition. I don’t care what time it is. Otherwise, I’ll stop by sometime tomorrow morning.”
Mom and Abby hugged one another, then Abby got back in the elevator and headed for the lobby.
Bob took us to A.J.’s room. Or what passes for a room on the I.C.U. floor. It didn't have a door, but did have a big picture window that faced out on a centrally located nurses’ station. Although Bob had already told us what to expect when we saw A.J., it still came as a shock. It seemed like he had tubes going into every part of his body. An I.V. went into each arm, and there was also blood going into another line that was inserted in the bend of his left elbow. He had a nasal tube in, which Bob said aided in suction, and he also had oxygen prongs in both nostrils. There was a tube at the end of his incision that drained into a small suction bottle. Although I couldn't see it, I knew there was a catheter in, too, that ran up to his bladder.
Over the years that spanned my tours of duty in Vietnam, as well as all my travels in and out of the United States, I had thought I had seen just about everything there was to see. That day I realized I was wrong.
I had never had occasion to visit someone in the hospital as critically injured as A.J. was. It was hard to imagine that anyone in need of all this medical aid could still be alive. I found myself watching the rise and fall of A.J.'s chest just to reassure myself he was alive. Mom must have been pretty shocked by the sight of all this, too. She squeezed my hand hard as Bob found us chairs to sit in. Mom commented to me how horrible A.J.'s coloring was, and she was right. He wasn't pale anymore like he had been earlier. Now his skin had more of a waxy gray look to it. I can remember thinking briefly, He's not gonna make it. I know he's not gonna make it. Then chasing that thought away with, He's gotta make it. He's got to.
Bob stayed with us quite a while answering any questions we had as we thought of them, and introducing us to some of the nurses as they came in and out of the room. He made arrangements for Mom and I to more or less come and go as we pleased. Having your family doctor as a close family friend can be of great benefit in certain situations, and this was one of those situations. Special permission or not, I had no intention of leaving that room in the near future.
Bob went over with us the various complications that could arise, especially concerning the amount of blood that A.J. lost. Giving him too much blood could cause fluid to collect in the lungs, but losing the amount of blood he did causes a whole different set of problems. I remember questioning Bob on the blood A.J. was getting, worrying about AIDS. I had read of enough people over the last few years that were innocent victims of the disease through contaminated blood.
“Don’t worry, Rick,” Bob assured. “All donated blood is screened and test for the AIDS virus before it’s used. There’s no reason for you to worry in that regard.”
Yeah right, don't tell me there's nothing to worry about, I thought. Right now I'm worrying about everything. I'm the big brother. I’m supposed to worry. I've had years of practice, and have actually gotten good at it.
I felt like we were in a no‑win situation. It sounded like we were damned if we do and damned if we don't. Bob mentioned again how we were lucky that A.J. made it this far. He told Mom she could count it as her Christmas miracle that A.J. hadn't bled to death before he arrived at the hospital. I hoped, then, that we were entitled to more than one Christmas miracle, because after seeing A.J. and being informed of the complications that could arise, I felt like we were gonna to need three or four miracles at least.
Bob left shortly after that with the promise to see us in the morning. Mom and I settled in for our vigil. Nurses came and went checking on A.J. Doctor Rafferty stopped by later in the evening for one final check on my brother, and Mom made several phone calls. She called Aunt Pat and a few others to update them on A.J. as she had promised. When she was done making her calls she came back from the phone that was located in the waiting area outside the I.C.U. doors.
“Aunt Pat and Uncle Jim are going to stop by tomorrow sometime.”
“That’s nice of them,” I said, as I glanced at my watch. "Are you ready for me to take you home? It's almost ten o'clock."
"I have no intention of going home tonight,” Mom said in a tone that wasn’t gonna allow for argument. “I'm staying with A.J. until they can tell us something more definite. Bob arranged it, so I'm here to stay." After a pause she asked, “Why?” Are you ready to go home now?"
She got me on that one, and she knew it. There was no way I was going anywhere. I also knew better than to fight her on this issue. Years of experience told me I'd lose anyway.
“Well, since we're both here to stay then, how about if I go get us some coffee and sandwiches?"
Mom agreed to that, so I left long enough to get us something to eat, although neither of us got much down in the end.
That night was pretty uneventful. Every time a nurse came in she would report to us that A.J. was holding his own. Mom and I dozed on and off in the chairs we were sitting in, waking up each time someone came into check on A.J. The nurses were fantastic. They patiently answered our questions, explaining exactly what they were doing whenever they were working with A.J., and askin’ me questions about him and our line of work, just general stuff like that. Mom and I stayed out of their way, and whenever it was necessary, went to the waiting area. We were on our best behavior ‘cause neither one of us wanted to risk being told to leave. We knew we’d had been granted a special privilege by being allowed in with A.J. in the first place.
As the night wore on, A.J. seemed to be feelin’ some pain. He would moan softly, or turn his head slightly, or I would notice his eyelids flickering. I asked a nurse about it and she said although he was sedated like Bob had told us he would be, it was possible he was aware of some pain at times. That really bothered me. Things were bad enough the way they were. I didn't want him to suffer. Whenever A.J. would act like he was hurting, Mom and I would talk to him, letting him know we were there, telling him to stay with us, and hopin’ that the sound of our voices could be heard and were offering him some comfort. At that point there wasn't much else we could offer, which made me feel like I was lettin’ A.J. down, and which made a long night even longer.
The morning of the 23rd dawned bright and sunny, far different from my mood. My back immediately told me that I was past the age when a man should spend a night sleeping in an orange vinyl chair. A lab technician came in with two nurses, so since the room was overcrowded, Mom convinced me was should go to the cafeteria for some breakfast before the doctors made their rounds.
Breakfast was quick and silent. The only thing Mom said was how much it bothered her to know that A.J. was in pain. I knew it did. I saw it in her face the previous evening as she held his hand and talked to him. As hard as it was for me to see him in hurting, I knew, as his mother, it had to be twice as hard for her. I held out my hand to her and squeezed as she laid hers in my palm. I didn't know what to say that would make her feel any better. Looking back, I'm sure there wasn't much I could have said.
We got back to A.J.’s floor at eight‑thirty. Abby was sittin’ on the couch in the waiting area.
"Abby, what are you doing here?” Mom asked as Abby stood up. “You should be home sleeping. You look like you're ready to drop."
Mom was right. Abby did look like she was ready to drop. It was obvious she hadn't gone home from the station yet since she still had on the clothes she was wearing the previous day. In that respect she fit right in with Mom and me as far as wardrobe went.
"I'm heading home now. I stopped by to check on A.J. and see how you two are holding up. You both look pretty tired yourselves."
We stood there talking for a few minutes, filling Abby in on what we knew about A.J. and telling her we were waiting to meet with his doctor. After we finished our update of A.J.’s medical condition, and made a few additional minutes of small talk, Abby looked at me.
"I also came to tell you that we caught the kids who were in the warehouse yesterday. Two of them are about ready to break down and do some talking."
"That's good, I guess, but it really doesn't matter. The one I wanna get my hands on already got exactly what he deserved."
I sensed, rather than saw, Mom and Abby look at each other after that comment left my mouth. I don't know if they were shocked at what I said, or just confirming with one another that they both knew I felt that way. Either way, it didn’t matter much to me. If they were expecting me to have some sort of compassion for the kid who shot my brother, then they were lookin’ at the wrong guy.
We spotted Doctor Rafferty and Bob Barton arrive on the floor, so said our good‑byes to Abby. We followed them toward A.J.’s room where we waited outside while they went in to check on him.
They were in there quite a while before both doctors came out to speak with us.
“How’s he doin’, Bob?”
"He’s doing all right, Rick. He seems to have had a pretty good night, and he’s fairly stable right now. We're a little concerned about his B.P., blood pressure that is. It's been kind of erratic throughout the night, but nothing for cause of great alarm at this point. We're keeping him sedated today so there shouldn't be much change in his awareness level. Don't let that concern you."
Before I had a chance to ask any more questions about the blood pressure problem Bob had mentioned, Doctor Rafferty picked up the conversation.
“We’ll take A.J. off the blood he's been receiving sometime later today. We'll be continuing the antibiotic we started last night for a few days as a precautionary measure. His respiration and pulse rates are good, they have been all night, so that’s good news at this point."
Mom asked the doctors about them taking A.J. off the blood considering how much he’d lost, but they reiterated the danger of fluid collectin’ in the lungs if he was given too much blood. Doctor Rafferty talked to us about that complication and some others that could arise. When he was finished I jumped in.
“You said that one of the functions of the spleen is to help the immune system by fighting infection. Just what is that gonna mean for A.J. now that his has been removed?"
Bob leaned back against the wall as he answered me. "To the best of our knowledge, it shouldn't have much of an effect on A.J., other than to say he might be more prone to colds, the flu, and other upper respiratory illnesses. I’ll likely recommend he get a flu shot each fall, but again, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“A.J. gets enough colds and stuff as it is. If this is gonna make him more prone to those kinda things, I better buy stock in Dristan and Excedrin. I could stand to make a pretty good buck."
“Good idea,” Bob smiled. “In light of that, maybe it’s the right time to raise my fees for a patient visit.”
It’s amazing how a little bit of humor can go a long way in situations like the one we were in. Those few moments of lightheartedness gave Mom and me a needed lift. A lift that, unfortunately, didn't last long.
"So, things are better today,” I stated. “A.J.'s chances of pulling through are better than they were yesterday."
The doctors exchanged glances and were silent a moment before Bob spoke.
"I wouldn't go that far, Rick. A.J.'s still in critical condition, and as we've said, there are complications that can still arise. You’ll have to be patient and take this an hour at a time for a while. That's how quickly things could change for him one way or the other over the next couple of days."
It only took those three sentences to put me back in the black mood I had started the day with.
After the doctors walked away Mom and I went into A.J.’s room. I was naively expectin’ to see him look better, but that wasn’t the case. He was still as gray and still as when we’d last seen him, and hooked up yet to every piece of equipment the hospital possessed, or so it seemed anyway.
It turned out to be a helluva long day. We spent the morning dodging nurses and other medical personnel as they came and went from the room. When we were alone we talked to A.J., although he was still sedated enough that he didn't respond at all. I squeezed his right hand several times and tried to get him to squeeze back, but he never did. We had lots of phone messages that day, too. Sometimes the caller would ask to talk to Mom or me, and sometimes they'd just inquire with the nurses as to A.J.'s condition. Late in the day, one of the nurses teased us by saying we needed our own private line. We must have had thirty calls by that evening.
Aunt Pat and Uncle Jim stopped by shortly after one that afternoon. A nurse came and told us they were in the waiting area. Aunt Pat gave both of us a hug and kiss. She and Mom had been friends in high school, and it was through that friendship that Dad and Mom met. She was one favorite aunt - a funny, warm lady.
"Cecilia, I'm so sorry,” Pat said as she hugged my mother. “What can we do?”
“Nothing, Patty. You're doing it by just being here."
We visited for a few minutes about A.J., and then they wanted to take us to the cafeteria for lunch since neither one of us had eaten yet. I told Mom to go ahead, and that I'd stay with A.J. Of course, they all ganged up on me and insisted that I go along.
"Come with us, Rick,” Aunt Pat said. “We won't be gone long. I promise."
"Thanks, but I'm not hungry. I'll stay here."
"Honey, you need a break. We've been with A.J. all morning. We can tell the nurses where we'll be if anything changes."
"No, Mom, I'm not hungry. I'll stay here."
"Come on, Rick,” Jim urged as he put an arm around my back and tried to get me to walk toward the elevators. “You've got to eat something."
Without meaning to, I lost my temper and jerked my shoulder away from him.
"No. Leave me alone! I'm not hungry. I'll be with A.J."
I turned and started walkin’ away from them, when as quickly as it had arrived, my anger left me. I knew I had just been pretty shitty to two people who were only trying to help, and were as worried about A.J. as we were. I also knew my mother didn't need a display of my temper at that particular moment either. I forced myself to turn around and walk back to them.
"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that. It's just that I don't want to leave A.J. alone right now, okay?"
Everyone looked at me for a moment, and then Aunt Pat gave me another hug.
"It's okay Rick, we understand. We'll bring you something back."
I held the woman to my chest. "Thanks. Thanks for understanding."
As I walked away I could just barely hear Mom saying, "This is so hard on Rick. He won't talk about how he feels, but I know it's tearing him apart."
The elevator doors closed with the three of them inside.
You're right, Mom, I thought as I headed toward A.J.’s room. This is tearing me apart. As a matter of fact, it's damn near killin’ me.
And those thoughts summed up all those feelings I wasn’t talkin’ about.
The big surprise that day, although it really shouldn't have been, was the appearance of Carlos outside A.J.'s door at six o'clock that evening. Mom and I sitting in the chairs that were quickly conforming to our individual body shapes when I heard a voice pitched just above a whisper call my name.
"Ricky! Hey, amigo!"
Carlos's wife, Eva, had called a couple of times that day to check on A.J., but I hadn't talked to her, and had never thought that he might show up. I stood and walked to the doorway. I was immediately embraced in the kind of bear hug only Carlos can give.
"How you doing, amigo?"
"I'm okay,” I replied as I led him in the room. “Come on in.”
Though I knew Carlos probably shouldn't be in there, no one was around, so what the heck.
Mom voiced her surprise at Carlos’s sudden appearance. “Carlos!”
Carlos’s beefy arms engulfed my tiny mother. "How are you, Senora Simon? Are you hanging in there?"
In all the years I've known Carlos, and we're going on thirty‑seven now, he's always referred to Mom as Senora Simon. I’ve always found it kinda funny since he was born here in San Diego and has no accent, although his Mexican heritage is important to him and his family.
"I'm hanging in there Carlos," Mom said while stepping out of my friend’s embrace. "It's nice of you to come by. It means a lot to all of us."
Mom walked over to A.J.'s bedside and put her hand over his. "A.J., Carlos is here to see you. You'd better talk to him before he and your brother have a chance to start plotting mischief."
A.J. didn't respond, a’ course, but that didn’t stop Carlos from walkin’ over to the bed and putting his hand on the top of Mom's. He bent close to A.J.’s ear.
"A.J., your Mama and Ricky are worried about you. You work real hard at getting well. Diego said to say hello, and that he's thinking about you. You better do as I say and get better soon, or Ricky and I will have a chance to relocate Snakes‑R‑Us to your living room."
I could see Mom's eyes fill with tears, and I was kinda choked up myself. Not that what Carlos said was all that meaningful or anything. It was just the fact that he had taken the time to come to the hospital, and was trying so hard to act normal in a very abnormal situation. I had to admire the way he walked right up to A.J.'s bedside and talked to him as if he could hear every word, while ignoring the equipment and how A.J. looked. I was getting’ somewhat used to it all by now, but whenever I walked into that room after being out in the hall for a while, it was like seeing it for the first time again. Good old Carlos never blinked an eye though.
The three of us were talking quietly when one of the nurses Mom and I had gotten to know came into the room. She didn't say anything about Carlos being there, though she did study him through her lashes as she took A.J.’s vital signs. In an effort to cover for Carlos, Mom said, “Kathy, I don't believe you’ve met my other son yet. He just got in. This is Carlos."
"It’s nice to meet you, Carlos." Kathy’s eyes fell on the tattoos that covered both of his arms from wrists to biceps. She glanced up for a moment, taking in his black hair and deep brown eyes, and then she looked back down at my brother.
"Boy, you and A.J. don't look very much alike, do you, Carlos?"
With that remark, Kathy got Carlos started on an elaborate story of how he and A.J. were actually identical twins, but people got them mixed up all the time, so Carlos had finally gotten so sick of it that he had changed his appearance. But the time Carlos was done spinning that tale, Kathy walked out of the room shaking her head and laughing. "I don't know you people. If anybody asks, I know absolutely nothing about what’s going on in here."
It was good having Carlos there. He even had Mom and me laughing a little before his visit was over. I sobered up quickly though, as I glanced at A.J. It was so absurd; us laughing and him lying there oblivious to everything around him. I think in some weird way, I was expecting that laughter to be our miracle. That if A.J. heard us laughing, he'd wake up and join in too. But, of course, A.J. didn't wake up and laugh with us, and then I just couldn't laugh anymore either.
This time Mom forced me to get out of the room for a while with Carlos. She said she'd stay with A.J., and I wasn't to think of arguing with her. I hadn't been out of there since eight‑thirty that morning for more than a couple of minutes at a time, so I’ll admit that I was ready for a break.
Being with Carlos proved to be good for me. We went and got some coffee, then walked around outside on the hospital grounds. It helped more than I thought it would, to have someone to share my fears with. To have someone to shoot the bull with about what had happened in that warehouse the previous day. And just to be able to talk about A.J. with a person who knew him well, but wasn't Mom. Someone, like Carlos, who was distant enough from it all to be objective, and not overly emotional. Carlos let me ramble that night, let me rant and rave about the kid who had shot A.J., and most important of all, let me voice my fears for my brother. He knew I wasn’t expecting any answers, so just walked along beside me and listened.
We took supper to Mom when we returned to A.J.’s floor. Carlos stayed just long enough to say good‑bye. Bud and Edie Krelman had come up while I was gone, and they were visiting with Mom in the waiting area when Carlos and I had returned. They stayed quite a while, which was good for Mom, in the same way Carlos’s visit had been good for me.
It was after nine when Bud and Edie left. Edie had gone by Mom’s house earlier in the evening and packed a bag for her with a couple of changes of clothing, and stuff like a toothbrush, toothpaste, makeup, and a comb. Mom went to the ladies room to ‘freshen up’ as she put it, though I woulda preferred she hitch a ride with Bud and Edie, and sleep in her own bed that night. But, she wouldn’t hear of it, so we both ended up spending the night at the hospital again. Mom seemed to be sleeping pretty good about midnight, or at least as good as a person can sleep in a chair. The same couldn't be said for me, however.
I finally got up and moved my chair closer to the right side of A.J.'s bed. I spent the next few hours alternating between sitting next to him, and standing up at the small window, staring out at the night sky. Except for the comings and goings of the medical staff, thing were quiet until about three. I was sitting beside A.J. and noticed he was getting’ restless. His eyelids fluttered several times, and he was making quiet little moans while moving his arms and legs. The staff had repeatedly told us how important it was that A.J. stay quiet these first few days. They didn't want him moving around too much for fear the bleeding would start up again.
I immediately stood up and laid my hand on his right shoulder and bent close to his ear.
"A.J., it's okay. You're in the hospital, and Mom and me are right here. Everything's gonna be fine. Calm down now, A.J., everything's okay."
I repeated that several times as he continued to move restlessly. A few seconds went by, and then I was surprised to see his eyelids flicker and open halfway. It was, again, much like it had been in the warehouse two days before. A.J.'s eyes were glassy looking, probably from the sedative he was getting. He didn't focus on anything, just moved his eyes from side to side.
"A.J., it’s Rick. You're in the hospital, and you're gonna be okay. A.J., can you hear me?"
A.J. didn't respond to me, and in a few moments his eyes slid shut again. I had just sat back down when his eyes fluttered open again, and this time he did say something, but certainly not anything I expected to hear. His voice was just a whisper. I leaned close to listen when I could tell he was tryin’ to talk.
"Daddy...I hurt. Hurz, Daddy."
"A.J., it's Rick. I know you hurt, little brother. I'll get a nurse in here and see if they can't give you something to help."
A.J. didn't acknowledge me, but mumbled again, "I hurt, Daddy."
I still, to this day, don't know for sure what made me say what I did next as I laid my hand on his shoulder.
"I know, Andy. I know you hurt. I'll see what I can do to make it stop. Hang in there for me, Andy. Hang in there."
I had never called my brother anything but A.J. That's what Mom was calling him the day she brought him home from the hospital. Dad had been the one who started calling him Andy when A.J. was a baby, and had continued to do so until he died when A.J. was ten. That night I borrowed Dad’s habit and called him Andy, too. If the memory of our dead father was bringing him comfort, then I was willing to go along with it.
A.J. quieted down some after that. I left the room long enough to go to the nurses’ station. As I was tellin’ the nurse who came back to the room with me about my brother’s discomfort, Mom woke up so I filled her in as well, leaving out one minor detail. I didn't think Mom needed to hear that A.J. was calling for Dad. If it happened again, she'd obviously know now that she was awake. If it didn't, it would only hurt her to find out, and I figured Mom had already been hurt enough over the past two days.
The nurse took his vitals and wasn't pleased with the urine output when she checked the catheter bag. Mom and I were concerned when she mentioned that. Bob had told us they'd be watching this closely as shock can cause kidneys to shut down. The nurse also told us his temperature was slightly elevated, but not alarmingly so. Her words, not mine. I was pretty alarmed by this time, and so was Mom. The nurse tried to reassure us that given A.J.'s injury, this wasn't all that unusual. She was going to contact his doctor, and thought he'd increase the antibiotic A.J. was getting for now. I remember looking at my watch to see it was almost four in the morning, so I knew Doctor Rafferty be in there sometime before nine. As dawn broke, I finally fell into a light doze that was frequented by dreams of my father being shot and left for dead in a vacant warehouse.
Mom and I stayed with A.J. until Doctor Rafferty came in with Bob at eight o'clock Christmas Eve morning. A.J. had continued to be restless on and off throughout the early morning, frequently opening his eyes a little and mumbling, "Rick, it hurts," or "Mom, I hurt." At least he never said anything about Dad again. Mom was having a hard enough time dealing with it every time he said those phrases to us.
The doctors were with A.J. a long time, but in the end, didn't think we needed to be too concerned. A.J.'s pulse and respiration was strong, and although he was still running a low-grade fever, they thought the antibiotic would clear that up. They were somewhat concerned as to the cause of the fever and decrease in kidney function, but decided to monitor him even more closely than he had been for the time being. On Doctor Rafferty’s order the nurses had started reducing the dosage of the sedative he was getting the previous evening, so neither doctor was surprised that A.J. was restless and complaining of pain. I assumed they’d up the dosage again, but Doctor Rafferty said no, they wouldn’t be doing that.
“Why not?” I asked. “My brother's in a lotta pain."
Bob tried to calm me down. "Rick, we need to know where we're at here with A.J. and--"
"I can tell you where you're at! My mother and I just spent the last five hours tryin’ to comfort A.J. as he lay in that bed telling us he hurts. He's in pain, Bob. That's where you're at."
"I know that, Rick, and don't you think for one minute I don't know how hard this is on you and Cecilia. But we've had A.J. sedated for almost two days, and we've got to start bringing him out of it. There are certain things we aren't going to know regarding his condition if he can't talk to us. Yes, he's going to be in pain, and yes, it’s going to be hard on all of us to see him go through that, but that's the way it’s got to be, Rick. A.J. should be more alert than he is this morning, and we've got to find out why he's not. Reducing the sedative is one way we're going to do that."
Bob paused, waiting for my response. When I didn’t have anything to say, he continued.
“Rick, I promise I'm not going to let A.J. suffer unnecessarily. As I’ve said before, we'll cross each bridge as we come to it. But, you've got to face the fact that A.J.'s recovery is going to be a long, sometimes painful process. He's not going to get up and walk out of here next week, ready to play a few sets of tennis. The human body just wasn't made to have a piece of lead lodged in it."
I didn't need that last sentence for posterity, but I guess I deserved everything else. I had no right to get outta line and lose my temper, a habit I seemed to be falling into quickly over the past couple of days, but I was tired, and it had been a long night.
"Okay, I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that shit, it’s just--"
"You're worried about your brother. I know." Bob smiled slightly. “When this is all over, you and I will sit and have a talk with A.J. about not taking what I write in my Christmas card so literally."
As crazy as it sounds, that last comment helped a little. It gave me some hope that this whole nightmare would end, and end with A.J. healthy. Like I said, sometimes having your family doctor as a family friend isn't all bad.
Mom persuaded me to go down and have some breakfast with her as the doctors went their separate ways in order to see other patients. Neither of us said much. When we did, it pertained to the things Bob and Doc Rafferty had discussed with us. Mom didn't say anything about me losing my temper. Maybe I voiced some of her own feelings as well, I don't really know. It still surprises me sometimes to realize how much she and I are alike.
We got back upstairs at quarter to ten. I decided I'd better call into the office for messages, something I hadn't done since A.J. had been admitted. Mom stood beside me as I used the phone at the nurses’ station. She handed me a small notebook and a pen from her purse, and told me to write down the name of anybody who had called to inquire about A.J. That project required two pieces of paper. The machine was full of people who, over the last couple of days, had heard what had happened. The majority of the calls were from clients and business contacts wishing us well, or telling us they were thinking of us. That meant a lot to me, and I knew it would mean a lot to A.J., too.
Mom must have seen the look on my face as I listened to the last message, and she certainly noticed that I was no longer writin’ anything on the paper in front of me. As I hung up the phone she looked up at me with concern.
"Rick, what is it? What was the last message you took?"
I kinda stared off into space as I answered her "Uh...that was the jewelry store where I bought A.J. s watch. They were calling to remind me that I hadn't picked it up yet, and to let me know that they close at noon today."
Mom waited for me to say something else, and when I didn't she finally broke the silence.
“Well, it's only ten o'clock. You've got plenty of time to get it. Why don't you go over there right now. I'll stay here and--”
"No. I can get it after Christmas. It’s not like it’s gonna matter now one way or another. I mean, we won’t be opening presents tomorrow so--"
"Rick, I want you to go get that watch right now. Tomorrow is Christmas, and it's a Christmas present. I want it under the tree with the rest of the gifts where it belongs."
“That watch is going to mean a lot to A.J., regardless of if we open gifts tomorrow or not. It means a lot to me. Please, honey, go and pick it up now."
Looking down into Mom’s face, and thinking of all she'd been through, I couldn't say no to the only request she'd made of me since A.J. had been shot.
I bent and gave her a quick hug. "I'll go to the jewelry store, then stop by the office and pick up the mail. A.J. won't be too happy if he finds out I've let it sit there for two days."
“Well, then, we won't tell him. If he asks, I'll just say, 'Of course dear. Rick was getting the mail every day."
I winked at her. "Mom, you're a real troublemaker, you know that? Then you wonder where I get it from."
"No Rick, I've always known where you get it from,” Mom laughed. Believe me, I’ve always known.
I left then, promising not to be gone long.
As I drove to the jewelry store, my mind kept going over some thoughts I had that I couldn't share with Mom, mainly the reason why going to pick up that watch was so difficult for me. I kept wondering if something did happen and A.J. didn't pull through, what was I going to do with it? I knew there was no way I could keep it, putting it away in some treasure box to be pulled out and admired from time to time as if it were some kind of reminder to me of A.J. I knew myself well enough to know that I'd never be able to look at the thing. It would be packed away, never to be reopened again.
And, it's not like I could give it to someone else if A.J. didn't make it in an effort to get it outta my sight. I mean, I didn't know anybody else called A.J., and certainly no one else I knew fit the last two words I had had engraved on it, ‘Best Friend.’
Another thought I kept having was, if A.J. never gets a chance to wear the watch, would we end up burying him with it on?
All these thoughts were why I had decided it would be easier to leave the watch at the store until we saw how things went. At least, that's what I had planned to do until Mom stepped in. I sure couldn't tell her my reasons for not wanting to pick it up. Those weren’t exactly the kind of things I wanted to share with my mother right at the moment.
I walked into the jewelry store to be greeted by Christmas music coming from their sound system and the sight of brightly lit decorations. Three weeks ago, when I walked into this same store to be greeted by these same things, they didn't seem nearly as obnoxious as they did that Christmas Eve. I remember how excited I had been that day as I got A.J. what I termed the ‘perfect gift.’ It was funny, now I couldn't have cared less.
I was greeted by a cheery sales girl of about twenty who, of course, wanted to share a little of her Christmas spirit with me. Unfortunately for her, I didn't have any to share back. I told her who I was and what I wanted, and she went to the back to retrieve the watch. When she returned she said, “This is one of our best watches. It will last forever. You made a good choice, Mr. Simon."
Normally her remarks concerning the watch and its quality would have pleased me. When A.J. had replaced the one he lost scuba diving, he had just gone to K‑Mart and bought himself a twenty dollar generic model. At the time I was surprised that he hadn't spent more money. Hadn't gotten one that had a few features on it like a calendar and a lighted dial. When I mentioned that fact to him, A.J. shrugged his shoulders and said, "I didn't have the time to look the day I bought it, so this one is okay for now. Maybe later I'll find something else."
Well, he never had gotten around to getting himself something else, and that’s why I had been so pleased with myself over the choice of this particular present. But now my response to the girl in reply to her remarks about the watch's quality, and her compliment on my selection, was a short, "Yeah, thanks," said with all the enthusiasm of an overworked Santa.
“Would you like to look at the engraving, Mr. Simon? Everything you wanted on there fit."
She handed me the watch from across the counter. I turned it over, and through a sudden blur of tears read, A.J. ‑ 12‑25‑90 ‑ Best Friend.
I handed it back to her, saying flatly, “Thanks. That's great."
The clerk wrapped it for me. I paid her and took the package from her, she commented, "That was really nice what you had engraved on there for your friend. You must be very close to him."
"Yeah, I am. He’s my brother."
Amidst her, "That’s so nice," and "Merry Christmas," I left the store. Poor kid musta thought I was a real scrooge.
I stopped by my boat long enough to bring in my mail, shower, shave, brush my teeth, and put on clean clothes. Carlos was keeping Rex for me, so that made things easier. Since I didn’t know what the next few days would bring, I packed a sports bag with a few changes of clothes, my razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, and a comb. I grabbed the bag, locked the boat, and went by our office. I threw the mail in my truck, then decided to stop at the police station. I wanted to say thanks to the people who had given blood for A.J., or had just called to let us know they were praying for us. I hated to be gone from the hospital too long, but decided I’d give Mom a call when I got to the station to make sure things were okay.
As I was walking into the police building, I ran into Abby walking out.
"Rick! I was just going to stop by the hospital to see you. I talked to your mother about twenty minutes ago. She didn’t say you were coming by."
"I had some errands to run, so I thought I'd stop in long enough to say thanks to everyone who's been so good to us these last couple of days."
We talked for a few minutes out on the front steps. I knew Abby had a plane to catch to Colorado sometime that day so she could be with her family for the holidays. She had mentioned to Mom on the phone the previous night about maybe not going, but instead staying in San Diego because she had a lot of work to do. Mom made me get on the phone with Abby then, and I told her in no uncertain terms she wasn't to cancel her plans because of us. I assured her we didn't blame her for what happened, and told her that I knew A.J. would want her to be with her family. This was the first year in three or four that she had been able to get home for Christmas. I didn't want her not going. This was supposed to be a special Christmas for Abby, too.
As we finished our conversation Abby said, "Maybe I'll see you at the hospital in a little while. Otherwise, Merry Christmas, Rick."
I knew she said the phrase because she wasn't thinking about it one way or the other. Abby immediately looked like she was sorry those two words had come out of her mouth, so I pulled her close in a quick, hard hug.
"Merry Christmas, Abby. You tell my brother Merry Christmas, too, when you're at the hospital, okay?”
Abby pulled away from me and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I will,” she promised. “You can count on it.”
I watched her walk to her car, then turned and slowly trotted up the steps that would lead me into the main lobby of the police department.
I ended up spending more time in the station than I planned, so it was a little over an hour later before I got back to the hospital. Abby had already been there and left, but sitting in the waiting area visiting with Mom were Aunt Pat and Uncle Jim, as well as Uncle George and Uncle Will. Uncle George's wife was there, also, so after we exchanged greetings we sat and talked for a while. Pat, Jim, and Will had just come from the airport where they’d picked up George and his wife. Uncle Will had driven down from L.A. the previous evening. I didn't see either of these uncles too often. It
had probably been seven or eight years since I’d seen Uncle George, so we all had some catching up to do.
I could never get over how much Uncle Will looked like Dad, or at least how I'd imagine Dad would look if he were alive today. In a way, it was kind of like getting a preview of what A.J. would look like when he hit about seventy years old. I remember thinking I'd have to share that thought with him sometime. He'd be happy to know he'd still have hair.
My relatives always seemed to show up at mealtime. Or maybe they just decided it was time to eat when they arrived. Whichever it was, once again they wanted to take Mom and me to lunch, this time somewhere other than the hospital cafeteria. That was too bad, to. I was really startin’ to have a thing for the hospital’s gluey macaroni and cheese.
Much like the previous day, Mom consented to going and I abstained. However, unlike the previous day, nobody tried to pressure me into changin’ my mind. I'm sure they had all been warned. They left with the promise of bringin’ me back a "hot meal,” as Aunt Pat put it. I went to get an update on A.J. from the nurses, and then spent the next hour and a half sitting by his bedside.
Mom returned with my hot meal around two‑thirty. She told me she had given Pat a key to A.J.’s house and asked her to stop there and take anything out of the refrigerator that might spoil.
“I told her to use what she could for tomorrow’s meal.”
“Good idea,” I agreed. I didn't know how much food A.J. had at his place. That night was supposed to be our annual Christmas Eve open house. Mom and I had already called several people the previous day to let them know what was going on, and from there they were going to contact others. Carlos had also swung by A.J.’s and put a note on the door for us in case we missed anybody. So many people came and went during one of these gatherings, that it was just about impossible to get a hold of them all.
Mom sat by A.J.'s bedside while I ate. She filled me in on several phone messages that had come in while I was gone that morning. Of course, she saved the best for last.
"Liz called, too."
I almost choked on my roast beef and gravy. "Liz called? What did that witch want?"
Mom gave me a disapproving look. "Richard. She called because she heard about what happened to A.J. and she was concerned."
"Don't let her fool you, Mom. She wasn't concerned. She probably wanted a chance to tell me, ‘I told you so.’ She always said something like this would happen someday."
Mom shook her head at me, but I didn't care. I know it was nice of Liz to call, and I'm glad for my mother's sake she did, but I was also glad I hadn't been there to talk to her.
Mom changed the subject at this point.
"Rick, Aunt Pat wants us to come for Christmas dinner tomorrow, and Bob thinks we should go home tonight and get some rest."
I started shaking my head. A gesture my mother overruled.
"Now just listen to me for a minute. I've been thinking about it, and I think we should do both of those things. We need a night of sleep in something other than a chair, and I also think we need a little time with our family tomorrow."
"Mom, A.J. is our family."
“Don't you think I know that, Rick? A.J. is my son. But I also know we both need a break from all of this for a little while. If you'll listen to me without shooting your mouth off, maybe what I say will make some sense to you.”
After just being talked to like I was about fifteen years old, I bit my tongue and kept my peace as Mom continued.
"One of the nurses told me there’s a Christmas Eve service tonight in the hospital chapel that starts at eleven‑thirty and ends shortly after midnight. I'd like us to go to it, then go to my house and get some rest. We can come back here first thing in the morning to be with A.J. before we head to Aunt Pat's. They're not eating until one, so we won't have to leave here until twelve‑fifteen. Pat said she understands that we won’t to stay long. We'll leave her number at the nurses’ station so they'll know where to get a hold of us if they need to."
Mom didn't say anything for a few minutes then, and when I didn't either she added hopefully, "You know, Ray is supposed to be there."
I looked up at her and gave her a half smile while thinking, Yeah, Uncle Ray. Another part of this special Christmas that had me so excited a few days ago. Another part that doesn't really matter anymore.
I chased those thoughts away and said, "Mom, if that was me layin’ there in that bed, A.J. wouldn't leave here. You know he wouldn't."
"Rick, if that was you in this bed, A.J. would be getting the same lecture you're getting now, and yes, he would be leaving. Just like you will." She finished with, "If for no other reason than because I'm your mother, and I said so. We are going to do this tomorrow, Rick. We need to do it, son."
I let this sink in for a minute, and although I was kinda mad at her for using the old, "I'm your mother and I said so" line to manipulate me into doing something I didn't want to, I nodded my agreement.
"Okay Mom, if this is so important to you I'll go, but if A.J. has another bad night, or things change, I'm not leaving. Don't try to make me either."
Mom reached out her hand to me, and I took it in mine. "Thank you, Rick. And if A.J. has another bad night, you and I will both stay, I promise."
We sat for a few minutes like that, and then Mom asked me if A.J. had seemed to be feeling any more pain while she was gone.
"Yeah, he seemed to be hurting pretty bad again for a while, but I think he’s sleeping okay now."
"Bob was here again while you were gone, Rick. He's concerned that A.J. isn't more aware of what's going on around him. He said that A.J. should be able to respond to us by now, and that they want to get him to a point here fairly quickly where he can start sitting up and taking a few steps. They're concerned about the possibility of pneumonia setting in if he doesn't start responding soon."
I didn't say anything to all that. I didn't really know what to say that wouldn't upset her. I couldn't believe they were talking about getting A.J. up. He was so sick yet, and the scar he had from the surgery was wicked. I knew any movement on his part was gonna hurt like hell. Not for the first time, I wished I could wave some kinda magic wand and make this whole situation go away. I hated seeing him like that, connected to so many tubes, and in so much pain.
Without standing up, I threw away the Styrofoam container my lunch had been in and glanced over at A.J. Mom stood by his side combing her fingers through his tangled hair. I'm not sure if it was so tangled from him lyin’ there for the past two days, or from Mom and I constantly doing what she was now. As she brushed her fingers along his hair where it was cut short by his ears, Mom looked at me and smiled slightly.
"You know, your brother's starting to get some gray in his hair."
I smiled back. "Yeah, I know, but it's no use telling him that. He'll just say it's been bleached by the sun like he's been telling me for the last two years."
"It's hard for me to realize sometimes that my sons are old enough to be getting gray in their hair...or old enough to be losing their hair," Mom said while looking at me.
Thanks, Mom, I needed that right now," I teased dryly.
I guess talking about the lack of youth on my part, and on A.J.’s part, got Mom to feeling nostalgic.
“Rick, do you remember the year you and A.J. were both Wisemen in the school Christmas program?"
“I sure do.”
"A.J. was seven. He came home from school one day in early December and told your father and I that he was picked to be an angel again for the third year in a row. He was so upset, and told your dad, ‘I don't want to be a stupid angel. Only girls are angels, and I'm not a girl! I want to be a wiseguy like Rick.'”
Mom was smiling as she continued to relate that day to me. "Your dad could barely keep from laughing when A.J. said that, but promised him we'd call the school and see what we could do. Of course, with his blond hair and blue eyes, the teachers thought he was perfectly cast in the role of an angel. After I told them how upset and disappointed he was, they agreed to let him be a Wiseman.
"Your brother was so happy. He came home from school a couple of days later and announced, ‘I get to be a Wiseguy, Dad. Me and Rick both get to be a couple of Wiseguys.’”
Mom was laughing softly now as she finished her story. "I can still see Jack's face as he looked at A.J. He was trying to laugh as he told him, ‘Perfect casting, Andy. Both you and Rick are a couple of wiseguys.’"
I had to laugh then, too. I'd never heard this part of the story before.
“I do remember us walking up that aisle together in the auditorium. A.J. was between Tommy Barnes and me, and barely came up to our waists; he was so short. I also remember that stupid headpiece he was wearing was too big and kept falling over his eyes so he couldn't see where he was going."
“I'd forgotten about that. Actually, I think I've blocked it out of my mind completely over the years, in an effort to protect myself from the emotional trauma of it all. You kept pushing the crown back up for him, and you would no more than get your hand away when it would fall over his eyes again. Finally, you got so disgusted you grabbed A.J.'s hand and marched up to the front with him. He kept saying, ‘Rick, wait! I can't see!’ And you kept telling him, quite loudly I might add, ‘Just be quiet, A.J., and come on.’ The organist was still playing We Three Kings, and Tommy Barnes was still walking slowly and solemnly up the aisle like you boys had been told to do. You two were already standing on the stage by then, with A.J. trying to peer out from under that crown so he could see. I was so embarrassed and, of course, your father thought the whole thing was hilarious. He leaned over and said just loud enough for me to hear, ‘Yep, Cece, those are our wiseguys, all right.’"
Mom was shaking her head at me while trying to hide her smile. “Mrs. Gordon dislikes me to this day. Between the stunts you boys pulled going up that aisle, and the fact that she had other little boys who refused to be angels after A.J. put up such a fuss, she blamed me for ruining her Christmas pageant. You know how that Christmas program was her pride and joy. Every year she was in charge of it, and still is, from what I hear. Rumor has it she stills says, ‘All my Christmas programs have been a wonderful success. Except for that year Cecelia Simon's two boys were Wisemen. That’s one I'll never forget. It doesn't surprise me that those two have grown up to be some kind of pretend policemen who don't carry badges. I'm sure they can't find respectable jobs.’”
"Don’t let it bother ya,’ Mom. Mrs. Gordon was nothing but a fat old Nazi. Look at it this way. If A.J. and I ruined her stupid Christmas program, it's your claim to fame. They were always so boring and predictable. I bet she's still doing the same things she did thirty-five years ago. At least you got the chance to throw some variety into one."
"I didn’t throw variety into the poor woman’s pageant, you and A.J. were the ones who did that. You boys were impossible sometimes. Your dad had you both pegged right. Nothing but a couple of wiseguys."
We spent the afternoon in this vein, Mom and I reminiscing about past Christmases. Good Christmases. Christmases when our family had numbered four.
A.J.'s temperature started rising again about five that evening. I was so engrossed in my conversation pertaining to that matter with one of the nurses at the nurses’ station, that I didn't notice anyone had come up behind me until I heard, "You guys just can't stay out of trouble, can you?"
I swiveled at the sound of the familiar voice.
“Town! What are you doin’ here, man?"
I knew A.J. had talked to Town two weeks before in regards to our Christmas Eve party, but at that time Town had indicated he didn't think he'd be able to make it to San Diego for Christmas this year. The last time we had seen him had been Memorial weekend when the three of us had taken a fishing trip together.
“I was able to get this afternoon and tomorrow off, so I got here a couple of hours ago. I went by A.J.’s and saw the note on the door. I made a few phone calls and found out what had happened." Town paused a moment and then questioned, 'Why the hell didn't you call me, Rick?"
I shrugged. "Mom and I were going to, Towner, but then we decided to wait until we knew more one way or the other."
Town nodded his understanding. "I heard things weren't good. You still don't know anything definite?"
I dropped my gaze to the floor then, as if what was there was going to help me with what I had to say next. "No. It's bad. Things are...bad. A.J.'s in a lot of pain and not responding like he should be. Add to that, now he's running a temperature and no one really knows why. He lost a lot of blood before we could get him here. Between that and the surgery it's all taken a toll on him."
I walked away from my old friend and stared at the wall, my back to him. I barely spoke above a whisper. "He's gonna die, Town. I'm just so afraid he's gonna die."
We were both silent for a minute, then he walked up behind me and I felt both of his hands come to rest on my shoulders.
"Rick, you don't know that for sure. I can tell by looking at you it's been a long two days and you're tired. Until A.J.'s condition changes in a way that the doctors can give you an answer one way or the other, you just gotta have faith that things will work out here."
"Right now, Towner, faith just ain't much to go on.”
“Yeah, I know, but that's all you've got, Rick. That, and the fact that your brother is just about the most stubborn, hardheaded guy we know. If anyone can pull through this, that person is A.J."
At that, I turned to face him once again.
"You're wrong about that. My brother isn't just about the most stubborn guy I know. He is the most stubborn guy I know. He's been the most stubborn guy I know for about forty years now."
Town returned the slight smile I gave him. “Well, this time maybe some of that tenacity will pay off."
"I pray you're right, Town. I just pray you're right." Changing the subject, I said, "Come on, Mom's in A.J.'s room. She'll wanna see you. I think we can sneak you in there for a minute."
Mom was wiping A.J.'s face with a wet cloth and talking to him quietly as Town and I entered. She was as surprised to see him as I had been, and he immediately engulfed her in a hug and just held onto her for a minute. For the first time, as Town held her, I noticed how tired she looked. How wearing this whole thing was on her. I remember wishing then that we had some answers. That someone with a medical degree would tell us something besides, “We just don't know yet."
As Town released her, Mom looked up at him. “Where's Temple? Didn't she come with you?"
“No, she has to do the eleven o'clock news tonight. She’s leaving to drive down here tomorrow morning. We're having Christmas at my sister's house."
Town stood by Mom a second or two longer, then walked over to A.J.’s bedside. He wasn't able to hide his reaction to A.J.'s appearance the way Carlos had. I guess that made sense though. To Carlos, A.J. was my little brother. To Town, A.J. was like a brother.
Aside from the various medical equipment and tubes he was still attached to, A.J.’s complexion was a washed-out gray yet, and now his lips were beginning to split and crack from the fever and lack of moisture. Town composed himself and talked to him.
"Hey, A.J., it's Town. This wasn't exactly the way I wanted to find out your party was canceled. You'd better work hard at getting well, buddy. Your mom and Rick are worried about you." With that, Town laid his hand on A.J.'s shoulder and squeezed gently. “We're all pullin' for you, and I know how stubborn you are, so I'm expecting you to get better. Do you remember telling me a few years ago that the one thing you never wanted to do was let Rick down, or disappoint him in any way? Well, I'm holding you to that. Rick's counting on you to pull through this."
Boy, those last couple of sentences sure caught me off guard. I don't even know if Town realized he said them aloud. Or maybe he assumed that A.J. had shared those thoughts with me at some time or another. He hadn't, and hearing Town say them now took me by surprise. I had to wipe my eyes quick with the sleeve of my shirt in order to keep tears from spillin’ over.
A.J. didn't react to Town at all, although earlier in the afternoon he had begun to open his eyes more. Mom thought several times that he seemed to focus on her, and she thought he knew she was there. I wasn’t as certain about that fact. I hadn't seen him act like that yet, and seeing absolutely no reaction now, I began to wonder if the only thing Mom had observed was her own wishful thinking.
Town stayed with us for a while that evening. When Kathy appeared to check on A.J., Mom introduced Town to her as, "My son, Marcel."
Kathy kept a straight face as she said hello to Town. She got Mom good, though, when in the process of working with A.J., she said to him, "A.J., I'm counting on you to wake up soon and talk to me. I'm curious as to just how many brothers you have. You sure don't look like the last two I've met. I think your family is pulling some kind of joke on me, and I need you to straighten everything out."
Mom gave Kathy a sheepish smile, but I could feel myself grinning. I really like this lady. She had been nice to us, and had looked the other way whenever we broke one of the rules. I also appreciated the way she talked to A.J. when she was in the room, as if he could hear every word she was saying. It always made me feel as though she thought of him as a person, as opposed to just another patient.
After Town left, Mom and I spent the rest of the evening with A.J. He opened his eyes quite a few times, but didn't seem any more with it than he had when he'd done it before. His temperature stayed up, but he wasn't acting too uncomfortable. By the time eleven‑fifteen rolled around, Mom was getting ready to go to the Christmas Eve service, and although I almost told her I wasn't gonna go, that I'd stay with A.J., I abruptly changed my mind.
Mom bent to tell him where we were going, and that we’d be back early in the morning. I opened my mouth to protest, to tell her I'd decided to drive her home and then come back to the hospital, when in the act of kissing A.J.’s forehead she started to cry. Tears ran down Mom's face as she stood over him brushing his hair back with her fingers. As I looked at her, I could see in her eyes how hard this was for her. How leaving A.J. on Christmas Eve in that hospital was tearing her apart. I also saw again, how tired she was, how old she suddenly looked, and I knew that Mom was right. We did need to get some sleep. We did need to take a break from that place for a few hours. I also realized that Mom needed me more right then than A.J. did. I couldn't do anything for him, but I could for her. Even if it was just holding her as she cried, like I was doing at that moment.
I felt sure then, that I was doing what A.J. would want me to - taking care of our mom.
I released Mom and said my own good‑byes to my brother. I held onto his right hand for a minute and squeezed it, while telling A.J. I'd see him in the morning. I probably hadn't kissed him since we were little kids. Since I was about eleven and started pushing my six-year-old brother away when he tried to give me a goodnight kiss while telling him, "Guys don't do that kinda stuff." But, that night, I bent and kissed his right temple as I put my mouth close to his ear and told him I loved him. I hoped A.J. could hear me. That if he hadn't heard anything else up until that point, I hoped he heard that. I also remember regretting that I hadn't told him that when I knew he could hear me.
I stood there then for a few minutes longer and found myself brushing A.J.'s hair back off his forehead like Mom had just been doing. I looked across his bed at Mom.
"If we don't quit doin’ this A.J.'s gonna leave this hospital with less hair than I have. You and I’ll sure have hell to pay then."
Mom didn’t say anything, but instead simply smiled at me. The love I saw on her face as she looked from me to A.J. I can't begin to describe. I know she's always been proud of the closeness he and I share, and she should be. She helped nurture that closeness many years ago.
As I continued to looking down at my brother, I found myself hoping that A.J. knew every time I teased him, or played a practical joke on him, it was my own quirky way of saying, "I love ya,’ kid." I thought about that for a minute, and then figured he did know. That A.J. knew just how important he was to me, and how much his big brother loved him. I figured he knew, just like I knew he loved me. I mean; A.J. doesn’t exactly go around professing his love for me either. But, whenever A.J. yells at me for overspending at Surplus Sammy's, or for drinking too much tequila, or for pulling some stupid stunt that lands me in the emergency room with a broken ankle, I know it's his quirky way of saying, "I love you" to me.
Leaving A.J. then, walking out that room, was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I was so afraid I was saying good‑bye permanently. I remember praying that I wasn't.
Mom and I got to the chapel right at eleven‑thirty. If I had to guess, I’d say there were about sixty people there. Quite a few of the hospital staff were in attendance, probably the unlucky ones who had drawn the holiday shift. I also recognized various people I’d seen or talked to on A.J.'s floor. Like Mom and me, these people had a seriously ill family member in the hospital.
I daydreamed through most of the service, my thoughts on A.J. When I would tune into the chaplain, he was giving the usual Christmas Eve rendition of the nativity story. I suppose people would notice if you threw in an extra wiseman, or left out Joseph or something.
I became aware of my surroundings again when everyone stood up. There was a woman up front with a flute, and a young guy with a guitar. They began playing “Silent Night.” Everyone had barely started singing when the tears started flowing down my face. I didn’t realize that I was gonna start crying, it just happened. Mom was crying as well by this time, silent tears running down her cheeks. She leaned into me as I stood sideways and wrapped my arms around her. Just about every person there was in the same condition we were by the time that song was through. It was a good thing the chaplain had a booming voice and the hospital staff held themselves together, otherwise it would have been the most silent version of “Silent Night” anyone had ever witnessed.
As we started to leave the chapel, Mom wiped her tears away and looked up at me. "I think I'll go back upstairs for a minute and check on A.J. before we go."
I knew she hadn't planned to do this. I had heard her tell the nurses we were going to the Christmas service, and then going home for the night. I also knew, after what we just went through, how she was feeling. How suddenly checking on A.J. seemed so important. But, I also knew one more thing - that if I let her go back up there, she'd never leave again. I knew all of this because I was feeling the exact same way. Feeling that I wanted to be with A.J., and that I didn't wanna leave him on that night of all nights. Looking down at Mom's tired, drawn face, caused me to say what I really didn't want to, but what I knew I had to.
"No, Mom, we need to go home. We're both tired, and the nurses promised to let us know if there’s any changes. We'll be back here by nine tomorrow morning."
Mom started to protest that, so I added lightly, "Come on, Mom, if A.J. sees you this tired he's really gonna give me hell for not takin' care of his best girl."
Mom gave me a reluctant smile and nod. "All right. Since you put it that way. I don't want your brother giving you a hard time."
Not for the first time in my life, I thought my mother was one strong lady.
As we headed for my truck Mom made small talk.
"It was a nice service, wasn't it sweetheart?"
"Yeah, it was fine."
"Rick, you weren't paying attention, were you? Just like when you were little and we'd go to church, you never paid attention then, either. You were always daydreaming, or making paper airplanes out of the bulletin. Or worse yet, getting A.J. all wound up by poking him or teasing him."
"Yeah, or my favorite past time, making funny faces at him so he'd start laughing."
"Sometimes, you two boys drove me crazy. And sometimes, you still do. If A.J. had been with us tonight, you'd have probably been up to your old tricks again."
I opened the door and helped Mom in the truck.
"Yeah, I probably woulda’ been. I can still make A.J. laugh when he's trying so hard to be serious."
Going around to the driver's side, I remember thinking of the real reason why I hadn't been paying attention in that service. It wasn't because I was bored, or restless, or up to no good. It was because I was angry. Angry at God. Angry at what He'd let happen to A.J. Angry at what He'd allowed to happen to such a genuinely kind, loving, human being.
I couldn't direct my anger at the person who really deserved it - the kid who had done this to A.J. He was already dead. Therefore, God was the next in line, and He certainly had been receiving His fair share from me over the past few days. Actually, I must have been one of the most confused sheep in His flock at that time. One minute I was cursing Him, accusing Him of being an unjust, unfair God, and the next minute I'd find myself praying for all I was worth that the brother I loved would not be taken away from me. Yeah, I was one mixed up little lamb all right.
I drove through the streets of San Diego that night, occasionally catching glimpses of families in their living rooms already enjoying their Christmas celebrations. It didn't seem right somehow, that people should be happy, should have something to celebrate, while our lives were on hold. All the trees, and lights, and presents, just didn't seem festive to me anymore. My Christmas spirit had left me in that warehouse three days before. Then I thought of us, and our usual Christmas celebration. How oblivious we Simons were, as well, to others who were in the same position Mom and I now found ourselves in. You don't realize how lucky you are, I guess, until your luck runs out.
Feeling the need to chase away these demons, I reached over and turned on the radio, not even thinking that all we'd be able to get were Christmas carols. As soon as I recognized the strains of “Jingle Bells,” I reached to turn the radio off. Mom stopped me by requesting, "No, Rick, leave it on please."
I guess she had her own demons to chase away.
We rode in silence, in the only noise in the cab of my truck being that of the radio until I heard Mom crying. I looked over to see her staring out the passenger’s side window, her shoulders shaking. I put my hand on her arm and questioned, “Mom?”
"It's nothing, Rick. Just the song."
Bing Crosby’s version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was filling the cab. This is Mom's favorite Christmas song. She told me once that it brought back a lot of happy memories. Memories of a time when she was a young war bride awaiting the return of her soldier. Memories of a time when she was a new mother, and I was a baby. I knew that she always played this song right before she went to bed on Christmas Eve. She had told A.J. and me that it didn't make her sad, or make her miss our dad, but instead, made her feel especially close to him.
Now though, listening to her cry as if her heart was breaking, I knew she wasn't thinking of that young war bride, or that new mother and child, or even of Dad. I knew her thoughts were on her youngest son, and she was wondering if he'd ever be home for Christmas with us again. I reached down and held her hand in mine as I drove us the rest of the way home, all the while with Bing insisting that he would, indeed, be home for Christmas.
By the time we got to Mom's house it was after one. I headed right into the kitchen for a glass of juice. I'd have preferred Tequila at that point, but I knew Mom didn't have any. I opened the refrigerator and saw some Christmas elves had paid us a visit as it was stocked with casseroles, eggs, and a new gallon of milk. As I looked around the kitchen, I saw plates of desserts setting on the counter top.
"I wonder who brought all this over?” Mom said as she entered the kitchen. “It was nice, but we certainly won't eat all this food."
I knew she was right, we wouldn't. Even my infamous appetite had gone by the wayside in the last couple of days. I had to force down what little I'd eaten since A.J. had been hurt, and I knew Mom was barely eating as well.
“We can take some of it to the hospital tomorrow if you want to, and share it with nurses and other staff."
Mom glanced up at me as she got her own juice. "Good idea. Maybe it will help say thanks for all they’ve done for us."
"I’m sure it will,” I agreed as I put my empty glass in the sink. “I think I'll go on up to bed. How about you?”
Mom had sat down at the kitchen table where a couple of boxes were sitting along with wrapping paper, scissors, and tape. She musta been in the middle of wrapping gifts when Abby had called her three days before.
"I think I'll stay down here a while. I want to finish wrapping these and clean this mess up."
"Mom, it’s late. Just leave it. It doesn't matter right now."
“Yes Rick, it does matter. At least to me it does. These are A.J.’s, and I want to wrap them and put them under the tree."
I didn't say anything to that. I almost told her it didn't matter, that A.J. wouldn't be opening anything in the morning anyway. Fortunately, I stopped myself before that came out of my mouth. If wrapping A.J.’s gifts was gonna bring her some amount of comfort, so be it. I walked over to her, and bent to kissed her cheek
"I love you, Mom. Good night."
She kissed me in return and told me she loved me, too. I left her alone then, and went up to bed.
As I climbed into my old twin bed fifteen minutes later, in the room A.J. and I had shared as children, I thought of how Mom had told me earlier to use the guest room because it had a full size bed. I had told her no, that this would be fine. If I couldn't physically be with A.J. that night, at least by being in our old bedroom, I felt close to him. I remember thinking, man, if these old walls could talk, the stories they could tell.
I lay awake thinking of A.J. and me as kids, remembering the nights I used to read him stories before we went to sleep. Remembering the nights a scared four-year-old would climb in my bed after a bad dream, or the nights, years later, when we’d stay up late talking about some girl, or world problem, or future plans. I recalled the night I told a then seventeen-year- old A.J. that I was going to Vietnam, and remembered the night after I came back from there when he held me after my own bad dreams.
Finally, right before I drifted off to sleep, I recalled all those Christmas Eve nights when two little boys would fight to stay awake while trying so hard to wait up for Santa Claus. I wondered if, somehow that night, A.J. was recalling these things, too, or was he oblivious to it all? Had he already been taken from us, without us even being aware of it? I just didn't know, and alone in that dark room with nothing but my memories, I was just so damn scared.