_____________________________

 

 

†††† I hurried past the nursesí station while shrugging into my winter coat.I heard Janet's "Rick!" from somewhere behind me as my hand hit the double doors.If the security guard that was now posted there hadn't been quite so agile that swinging door woulda' busted his nose.

 

†††† Now exactly where the hell I thought I was going, since my only means of transportation was Janet, I'm not sure.I kept right on walkin' though, stomping by the same waiting area, offices, and labs we'd passed minutes before.

 

†††† Janet was forced to run in order to catch up with me.She was thrusting her arms into her own heavy coat when she finally came abreast of me.

 

†††† She reached out and grabbed my elbow, swiveling me to face her.

 

†††† "Just where the hell do you think you're going, Richard Simon?"

 

†††† "I'm goin' home."

†††† "Home?To San Diego?"

 

†††† "No!Home to your house.I'll get my stuff and go to a motel."††

 

†††† "Whoa!Wait a minute!First of all, you don't need to go to a motel.I've got plenty of room.And second of all...second of all, just what the hell was that all about back there?"

†††† I continued walking toward the elevators, giving Janet no choice but to follow.

 

†††† "I'm tired and it's been a long day.I'm ready to go home and call it a night."

 

†††† "Without saying goodbye to your brother first?"She voiced her disbelief."Without taking a few minutes to speak to him?To let him know you're here and that you care?"

†††† "A.J. knows I care."

 

†††† "He does?And just how would he know that?He asked for you, and you turned and walked away from him.You might as well have whipped him the bird and told him to kiss your ass!"

 

†††† I stopped and rubbed a hand over my aching forehead."Look, Janet, Iíve got a lotta things on my mind.I already told you I'm pissed at A.J.That doesn't mean I'm not grateful he's gonna be okay, because I am.I sat down in that waiting room for five hours giving myself an ulcer while worryin' about him.But right now I need a little distance from this whole situation, and a little distance from him, too."

 

†††† Whether she fully understood how I was feeling I don't know.But at least she stopped givin' me grief over it.

 

†††† "All right," she nodded,"but just when will you be ready to close this distance between the two of you?"

 

†††† "I dunno."

†††† "Well, you'd better have an answer for me when I come back here tomorrow afternoon to visit your brother, because I can guarantee you he'll ask me where you are.I have no intention of lying to him, or making excuses for you."

 

†††† "Yeah," I growled,"well, we'll worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes.That seems to be the way A.J.'s been living his life this week.In total disregard of everyone else but himself, so why the hell should I be any different?"

 

†††† I stomped off for the elevators once more.Janet followed me with a sigh of exasperation, but kept her mouth shut.

 

†††† We didn't exchange one word all the way back to Janet's house.The BMW's doors slammed simultaneously when we climbed outta the car in her garage.

 

†††† She unbugged her alarm system and we stepped into the back hallway.She reset the alarm and locked the door.I picked my duffel bag up off the floor where I'd left it, hiking it onto my shoulder. I told her again I'd go to a motel if she preferred, but she just shot me a look that told me to get real.I let the argument drop there.Despite the fact that neither one of us really wanted to share the same living space that night, with Hewitt still on the loose it was probably best if she wasn't alone.

 

†††† Janet pointed to a dark room in the hallway as we passed.

 

†††† "You can use this bathroom.There's a linen closet in there full of clean towels and washcloths."

 

†††† I followed her all the way up the stairs to the room A.J. had been staying in.His suitcase sat neatly beside the long triple dresser, and I caught the faint whiff of a cologne he favors.

 

†††† "You can sleep here for now.When A.J.'s released from the hospital you can move into my office until he's well enough to make the trip home.I have a couch in there that converts to a bed.

 

†††† "There's leftovers in the fridge.You're welcome to warm up in the microwave whatever looks appealing.†† Otherwise, there's cereal in the cabinet next to the stove and bread in the breadbox by the sink.I think A.J. bought a sliced turkey breast at the grocery store the other day if you want to make yourself a sandwich.†† Feel free to search the cabinets or refrigerator for whatever you can find.The only thing I ask is that you clean up the kitchen when you're finished.I'm not your maid, and I have no intention of being."

 

†††† Her spiel was quick, impersonal, well rehearsed, and meant to let me know she was angry with me.Before I could say "Thanks," or "Can I heat something up for you, too?" or "Where do you keep the potato chips?"she was gone.†††

 

†††† Janetís bedroom door was shut with such a violent slam the pictures hanging on the wall in the hallway rattled.I gave a helpless little shrug of my shoulders before turning to dig through my duffel bag.I pulled out a pair of clean boxer shorts, an undershirt, my toothbrush and paste, and my electric razor.I gathered everything together and headed down to the bathroom she'd told me I could make use of.

 

†††† I stood under the hot water a long time.I thought of calling the hospital when I was finished to tell A.J. good night, or to ask one of the nurses to tell him for me, but just as quickly decided I was still too ticked off to deal with any of it.He'd almost gotten himself killed, and for what?An ex-wife who had caused him nothing but pain.Not that I woulda' wanted to see Janet get hurt either.But A.J. knew a lotta good Seattle detectives.He coulda' recommended any one of them to her.He didn't have to come here himself.

 

†††† And most of all, he didn't have to lie to me about it.

 

†††† It was twenty minutes later before I emerged from the bathroom.If I'd been in the house by myself I woulda' just come out in my boxers and T-shirt, but decided it behooved me to pull on my jeans, too.†† Not that I'm all that modest or a prude, but I had a feelin' Janet wouldn't appreciate me walkin' around in front of her in my skivvies.

 

†††† The extra effort didn't prove to make much difference.Janet was nowhere to be seen.I could detect a familiar smell when I entered the kitchen and placed a light hand on the four-slot toaster.It was warm, indicating to me she'd been in here but had either eaten her meal quickly, or had taken it up to her room.

 

†††† And here I was gonna apologize to her and offer to cook her something, I chuckled to myself with both amusement and sincerity.

 

†††† I didn't have much of an appetite, and was too tired to face cleaning up a big mess, so settled on a bowl of Grapenuts and a Florida orange for my supper.Janet had kindly left the dishes we'd used that morning on the kitchen table.I knew she'd done it on purpose, and thought of how she told me I was to clean up when I was finished.†† I reluctantly admitted to myself I deserved her wrath so took care of all the dishes and dumped the leftover coffee down the sink.

 

†††† It didn't take me long to figure out how to get her dishwasher going.I emptied it first of the clean dishes sitting inside, searchiní the necessary cabinets until I had them all back where they belonged. I went about reloading it, found the soap, poured it in the dispenser, shut and latched the door, then pressed the 'start' button.

 

†††† Once I discovered where she kept the coffee and filters I even set the coffee maker to start brewing at seven the next morning.I wiped off the kitchen table and put her placemats and centerpiece where they belonged.Satisfied that the room would pass Janet's inspection come daybreak, I shut the light off, grabbed the newspaper from the magazine rack in the living room, retrieved the folded dirty clothes I'd sat at the base of the stairway after my shower, and headed up to bed.††††††††††

 

†††† Janetís door was still shut when I passed by, but a light shone from underneath.I thought about knocking and calling good night, but decided better of it.Maybe we needed a little distance from one another as well.††††

 

_____________________________

†††††††††††††††

†††††††††† †††

†††† I was dead to the world when I was woken from the depths of sleep by someone callin' my name.I'd read the paper in the bed in Janet's guest room, then shut the light out shortly after nine o'clock.It had been a long day and I was beyond exhaustion.

 

†††† It took me a few seconds to realize where I was.The hall light spilled in through the bedroom door that was now open.Janet stood there with her robe half on.

 

†††† "Rick!Rick, wake up!We've got to get back to the hospital!"

 

†††† My first thought was that Dallas Hewitt had somehow gotten past the security guard posted at the Intensive Care entrance.

 

†††† I glanced at the bedside clock radio while struggling with the mattress to rise.†† It was one forty-two a.m.

 

†††† I wasn't too concerned about the fact I was clothed in nothing other than my boxers and T-shirt when I kicked the covers off and jumped to the carpeted floor."What's wrong?What's happened?"

 

†††† "Leslie just called!It's A.J.!He's been having seizures of some sort on and off since eleven.She thinks we'd better get down there as quickly as we can."

†††† I could hear the tears in her voice.I tried to combat them by projecting a calm I didn't feel.

 

†††† "All right, get dressed then.I'll meet you at the car."

 

†††† She brought a trembling hand up to her mouth as her tears began to flow."Oh, Rick...oh what if something happens to A.J.?What if...what if he doesn't make it?It'll be all my fault.I'll never forgive myself.I should have never called him."

 

†††† That was the moment I decided there'd been far too much blame placing going on of late.And I was the guiltiest party of all.It was time to put all that aside and focus on what was important.††

 

†††† I walked over to Janet and wrapped her in my arms, totally oblivious to the fact that I was in my underwear and she was in a thigh-length purple satin gown with a robe that wasn't quite on.Just holding her like that for those brief seconds reminded me of what it had been like when we'd been friends.It had been a lotta years now, and a lotta water had run under the bridge, but she wasn't a bad person, and she never had been.

 

†††† "Don't cry, Janet," I whispered into her hair."Don't cry.It's not your fault.No one's gonna blame you for anything.If anyone's gonna take on any blame around here it's me."I gently pushed her toward her room before she could say anything else."Go on now.Get dressed."

†††† I pulled my socks on and jumped into my jeans.I rifled through my bag and came up with a brown corduroy shirt.I hastily worked the buttons into the holes, leaving the last three undone.That fact was hidden when I shoved the shirttails into my pants.My winter coat was layin' across the only chair in the room.I grabbed it and my wallet on the way out, leaving my hat behind in the rush.

 

†††† I was tugging my boots on in the downstairs hallway when Janet arrived with tears still streaming down her face.She'd thrown on a pair of jeans and an old bulky green sweater, had untied tennis shoes on her feet, and was still struggling into her coat.Without saying a word she handed me the keys to her car.I caught her by the elbow and we rushed out as one.

 

†††† Because of the lateness of the hour, and my heavy foot, a trip that should have taken us at least thirty minutes took us fifteen.†† I held Janetís hand as we ran through the dim parking lot for the front entrance.

 

†††† We were still running when we got off the elevators on the sixth floor.We never stopped as we flew by the security guard and burst through the doors into the Intensive Care Unit.

 

†††† The nurses at the station looked up, startled, when we barreled in like a couple of cops about to make a drug bust.In just scant seconds they recognized us, however, and one rounded the counter to take charge.She told us Doctor Zabler would be right with us.She wouldn't allow us to continue to A.J.'s room.

 

†††† The other nurse headed off in that direction.Within seconds she returned with Leslie in tow.The doctor ushered us right on out the doors again, not answering any of our questions until we came to the small room I'd seen earlier labeled Family Lounge.

 

†††† The private waiting area was about the size of your average bedroom, the walls painted pale pink.A white phone was mounted on one of them with instructions hanging beneath that told you how to dial into the Intensive Care nursesí station.Light pink carpet blanketed the floor.A couch and two chairs made it appear as though it was a calm oasis in someone's home.Two lamps with white shades were situated on end tables.They were turned to their dimmest setting, causing a person to automatically speak in hushed tones as though a baby was sleeping somewhere in the near vicinity.

 

†††† The doctor indicated for me and Janet to sit on the couch.She perched on the arm of the chair to my left.With one sentence she explained why she'd brought us to this room.

 

†††† "It's better if we speak in here so we don't disturb the other patients."

 

†††† "What's goin' on?"I asked."Janet said something about seizures."

 

†††† "Yes, though at this point I'm without an explanation as to why.So is the neurologist who's with A.J. now."

 

†††† "I know seizures can be brought on by head injuries," I informed the woman,"but you said the bump he's got isn't serious."

†††† "And we still don't believe it is.We did a CT scan an hour ago and it's showing nothing that would indicate the cause of what A.J.'s experiencing."

 

†††† "So what's happening?"Janet asked."Why is A.J. having seizures?"

†††† "We're still attempting to come to a clear conclusion.It's possible this is a side effect of the drug Hewitt injected A.J. with.It's also a possibility it's a side effect of the entire trauma he suffered, including being out in the cold for so long.Or, it's possible A.J.ís got himself so agitated that he just can't relax."

 

†††† "Agitated?"I asked.I recalled A.J. lying quietly in bed, cold and sedated the last time I'd seen him.Several words came to mind that would have described his appearance then, but agitated sure the hell wasn't one of 'em.††

 

†††† "He's been upset ever since the two of you left.No matter how much we sedate A.J., he's not out for long.And even when he is, all he does is mumble your name in his sleep."

 

†††† The doctor was looking right at me when she said that, so there was little doubt as to whose name A.J. was repeating.

 

†††† I stood up."Let me see him."

 

†††† "Rick, I'm not sure now is a good time. He's been through a lot.If we don't get the seizures under control...well, I'm not certain how much more he can physically withstand."

 

†††† "You said he's upset.You said he's callin' for me.So let me see him.I think I can calm him down."

 

†††† I saw the doctor look to Janet who nodded her head yes.I felt Janet reach for my hand and give it a squeeze right before I followed Leslie out of the lounge.

 

†††† Other than in A.J.'s room activity on the floor was at a bare minimum.A man I took to be the neurologist was in with A.J., but stepped out when Leslie entered with me.He gave her a raised eyebrow in question as he passed.

 

†††† "I'll explain in a minute," she told me."Please wait by the nursesí station for me."

 

†††† A.J.'s bed had been lowered so he was now lying flat.His wrists were loosely secured to the railing in thickly padded restraints, which I knew was for his own safety, but that didn't make it any easier for me to see.His face was the color of diluted putty, his features drawn with the physical strain brought on by the repeated violent contractions of his muscles.Dark circles of exhaustion ringed his closed eyes like smoky bruises.Common sense told me he couldn't take much more.

 

†††† Doctor Zabler spoke from somewhere behind me."I'll be back in a few minutes, Rick.If you need me before then I'll be at the nursesí station."

 

†††† I nodded my head and heard her walk out.I crossed to the left side of A.J.'s bed and leaned over the railing. I ran the fingers of my right hand through his hair while softly calling his name.

 

†††† "A.J.?"

 

†††† It took him a moment to open his eyes, and even longer to focus on me.I repeated my actions, combing my fingers through his hair again and calling his name.

 

†††† He licked at his cracked lips and whispered so low I could hardly hear him.††††

 

†††† "Rick?"

 

†††† I squeezed his forearm, then undid the restraint so I could take his hand.

 

†††† "Yeah, A.J., it's Rick.I'm here."

 

†††† Although there was little strength to it, I felt him squeeze back.

 

†††† And that was it.There were no apologies, no accusations, and no explanations on either of our parts.There were just two brothers who were always there for one another, and who always would be.

 

†††† I stayed by A.J.ís side all night, reassuring him with a touch and quiet words whenever he seemed confused as to where he was, or whether or not I was still with him.He didn't have any further seizures.The doctors were hard pressed to explain that phenomenon, but I wasn't.†† All I had to do was look down at his hand encased in mine, and that was all the answer I required.

††††

 

S&S††† S&S†††† S&S†††† S&S†††† S&S

 

 

†††† I was released from Seattle's Shoreland Hospital on Tuesday afternoon.Other than feeling like I'd been run over by a semi-truck and dragged behind it for ten miles, I was fine.

 

†††† I spent the remainder of Tuesday and most of Wednesday sleeping and reading in Janet's guest room.I'm not sure what Rick did except he seemed to spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking and cleaning.How Janet had managed to make him such a slave to the stove and a sponge was beyond me, but I was certainly anxious to discover her secret.

 

†††† Leslie allowed Earl Wilke in to see me on Sunday evening.Telling him everything I could recall of my ordeal wasn't easy.It had been terrifying to be completely helpless like that minus my sense of sight and hearing.At the time I had no clue as to where I was and what Hewitt had planned for me.If I did somehow manage to survive, I was left wondering if the blindness, deafness, and paralysis would be permanent.To say it's something I don't like to dwell on is an understatement.

 

†††† In the end, what I could tell Earl and what I couldn't didn't make much difference.I was moved off Intensive Care on Monday morning.When I woke up from a nap in my new room late that afternoon Rick was sitting beside my bed.I thought that was odd.It was right in the time period when afternoon visiting hours had long been over and evening ones had yet to begin.

 

†††† I reached for the button by the side of the bed that would raise me to a sitting position.

 

†††† "Rick?"

 

†††† He allowed the silence to linger before speaking in a quiet voice.†††† "A.J....A.J., they found Hewitt a couple hours ago.I

wanted you to hear this from me before you saw it on the news."

†††† "Hear what?"

 

†††† "He's dead, A.J.He hung himself.He hung himself in the...in the boxcar where Janet and I found you."

 

†††† I turned my head on the pillow and looked away from my brother.He didn't press me to speak.He seemed to sense the wide range of emotions hammering me for all angles.When I felt his hand on mine I squeezed for all I was worth.He squeezed back, and in that one small gesture told me he understood.

 

†††† Dallas Hewitt had been the cause of a lot of pain.He'd ended many lives before their time, and caused the families of his victims unrelenting suffering.Had caused his own family endless pain and suffering as well.And had very nearly succeeded in killing me.Possibly he would have killed Janet, too, had he gotten the chance.

 

†††† But while I had long ago quit trying to figure out what goes haywire in the minds of people like Doctor Hewitt, that doesn't mean I took his death lightly, and that I don't feel for the children and brother he left behind.Most people would look at Dallas Hewitt and say he got what he deserved.I look at him and wonder why he didn't receive the help he needed before his actions spiraled so out of control.

 

†††† While I highly doubt Rick would agree with my sympathetic feelings for the man, he stayed with me that night so we could watch the news together.I didn't ask him to, he just stayed.I suspect he knew I had to put the case to rest and didn't want me doing that alone.When the broadcast was over I shut the television off, and with Rick's help, got out of bed.I shouldered into my robe, belting it with clumsy fingers that were numb and swollen from the aftereffects of frostbite.†† My feet worked their way into the slippers Janet had bought for me the previous day.

 

†††† My brother and I walked the hallway in silence that evening.When we got back to my room Rick asked me if I wanted to talk.I shook my head no and he let the subject drop there.

 

†††† When Janet arrived from work Rick was helping me clear the food off my dinner tray.She scolded him for eating what I was supposed to be eating, then scolded me for not eating what I was supposed to be eating.I think she sensed my mood and probably knew the reason behind it.She insisted I put my robe and slippers on so the three of us could walk down to the hospital cafeteria for dinner.Even though Rick had just polished off one supper, he was game for another.††

 

†††† By the time we'd eaten and they walked me back to my room I was in far better spirits.We'd laughed and joked and teased throughout our meal, the light-hearted levity reminding me of what good friends the three of us made when all the other trivial bullshit of life was out of the way.

 

†††† My brother and I flew out of Seattle at eleven o'clock on Thursday morning.Both Rick and Janet tried to convince me I needed another day or two of rest before traveling, but I was ready to leave.Seattle was no longer my home, in many ways it never really had been.San Diego was my home, and I was anxious to get back there.I missed Lauren, I missed her boys, I even found myself missing lazy old Toby.After what I'd been through it was going to feel good to return to all that was familiar, welcoming, and safe.

 

†††† Rick had the household up early the day of our flight.He bustled around making breakfast for the three of us, then took out the garbage, changed bed sheets, and gathered up the towels and washcloths he and I had used.I heard him ask Janet where her laundry detergent was, then heard water running in the washing machine.

 

†††† I looked at my former wife with amazement.†† "What did you do to my brother that's got him scurrying around your house like an employee of Cleaning Maid Easy?"

 

†††† She chuckled while revealing her secret."I simply told him if he was going to stay here with me then he was going to pick up after himself."

 

†††† "That's it?I mean, you didn't threaten to do him bodily harm? Or Heaven forbid, burn his favorite cowboy hat in your fireplace?"

 

†††† "No.Nothing like that."

 

†††† She was amused by my befuddlement.

 

†††† "But I've been trying for years to get him to pick up after himself."

 

†††† She gave me a solicitous pat on the back as she walked away."Maybe you just don't phrase it right, A.J."

 

†††† Janet and Rick had picked the Concord up from the parking garage on Sunday morning.Even though it had to be returned to the airport, thereby giving Rick and myself transportation there, Janet insisted on going into work late that day so she could see us off.

 

†††† She followed us to Sea-Tac International in her BMW.A half an hour after arriving our luggage was checked in and the rental car had been returned.†† I paid the remainder of the balance owing on the car with the business credit card.Before I could get the receipt tucked away in my wallet Janet grabbed it from my hands.

 

†††† "Hey! Give that back to me."

 

†††† "No.I need to keep it with the other receipts so I know you don't leave anything off when I get your bill."

 

†††† "Janet, I'm not sending you a bill."

 

†††† She planted her hands on her hips in a gesture I well remembered from our married years."Oh, yes you are."

 

†††† "No, I'm not."

†††† "Yes, you are."

 

†††† "No..."I stopped there, realizing we sounded like a couple of kids arguing over a toy.

 

†††† I steered her away from the rental car counter.Rick followed us, but stayed out of our disagreement.

 

†††† "Look, Janet, I'm not going to bill you for anything."

 

†††† "A.J., I told you when I called you that I wasn't going to let you come up here if you didn't treat me like a regular client.Which means I pay you just like a regular client would.No favors.No special treatment.Nothing.Just send me the bill and be done with it."

 

†††† I looked to Rick for help.He shrugged his shoulders.

 

"Sounds like the lady means business to me.And I learned a long time ago not to mess with her when she gets in that mood."

 

†††† Having gotten no reinforcement from my sibling, I turned back to my ex-wife."If I'd done anything to help you then granted, maybe you would owe me for my services.But the point is, I didn't do anything.The guy was never after you to begin with.It was me he wanted all along."

 

†††† "Maybe," Janet agreed."But maybe not.His intention could very well have been to hurt me as a motive of revenge against you.Whatever the reason, we'll never know now.And besides, every P.I. takes on cases where the results aren't what he expected, but that doesn't mean he foregoes billing his client for his time, effort, and expenses."

 

†††† "That's true, but--"

 

†††† I couldn't have been more startled than when she leaned forward and kissed me on the mouth right in mid-sentence.

 

†††† "A.J., just shut up and send me the damn bill."

 

†††† I watched wide-eyed, as she moved from me to Rick.She got on her tiptoes to kiss him.

 

†††† "And don't forget to add in whatever it cost you to have Carlos's cousin fly you up here."

 

†††† When Rick put his arms around her and kissed her back I realized the two of them had somehow made peace after a long-running, bitter, and hard fought war.

 

†††† Regardless of how old my brother gets, he'll always be a shameless flirt and a ladiesí man.He kissed Janet a second time before she pulled away from him laughing.

 

†††† He cocked an eyebrow at me."You know, A.J., the lady does have an interesting way of askin' for her bill.It'd sure be nice if all our female clients would take up her methods."

 

†††† Before I could make a reply an announcement went over the P.A. system saying our flight was ready to board.Janet walked with us to the gate.She and Rick exchanged a final hug.I knew he was referring to their frantic search for me when he told her,"You make one helluva partner, lady.You ever decide to give up that fancy job you got, you give me a call."

†††† She laughed at him again, told him he was and always would be too much of a Peter Pan for her, then sent him on his way.

 

†††† Rick walked down the concourse that would take him into the plane.I knew he went on ahead without me so Janet and I could have a moment alone together.

 

†††† Her lips brushed my cheek, while at the same time she gave me a strong hug."I was so worried, A.J.So scared something had happened to you and that you were...that you were..."

 

†††† I wrapped my arms around her when she couldn't bring herself to finish that thought.

 

†††† "I know, Janet.I know."

 

†††† She wiped her eyes as we broke apart.She took my hand and gave it a squeeze.

 

†††† "Thank you for everything, A.J.Everything.Take care of yourself."

 

†††† "I will.You do the same."

 

†††† "I will.And, A.J.?"

†††† "Yes?"

 

†††† "If you don't mind...if you don't mind I'd like to call you every so often.It's nice...itís nice keeping in touch with old friends."

 

†††† I smiled at her shy request while bending forward to place a kiss on her cheek."Yes, it is.Old friends are special.Call me anytime you'd like."

 

†††† The final announcement for boarding the flight south to San Diego came.Right before I turned away from my former wife I said, "Oh...and, Janet?"

†††† "Yes?"

 

†††† "You really should look into that Lars character more closely.If you want my personal opinion, he's not the guy for you."

 

†††† She smacked my arm and laughed."Oh, A.J."

 

†††† There was a strong, serious undertone to my voice."Promise?"

 

†††† She rolled her eyes in exasperation but vowed,"Promise."

 

†††† The last sight I caught of Janet was of her standing in front of the large windows watching our flight take off.I knew she couldn't see me, but I gave her a little wave anyway.But then again, maybe she could see me because she waved back.

 

†††† On second thought, she probably just knew.

 

 

_____________________________

††††

†††† Our return home was uneventful, which was just fine with me.I'd had enough events of late to last me a lifetime.

 

†††† With Mom being out of town for the next month it wasn't going to be necessary to explain to her where I'd been or what had happened, which was just as well as she'd only be upset.†† When I asked Rick not to mention it to Mom either, he simply nodded his head in agreement.

 

†††† Toby was excited to see me that Thursday evening, or at least as excited as Toby can get.He pushed his fat body off the living room floor and kind of wiggled his butt in an odd little dance of greeting.Carlos dropped both Rick's truck and Rex off after work, allowing Toby time with his favorite playmate.

 

†††† Although I wasn't going to admit it to Rick, he and Janet had been right.I should have waited a couple more days before making the trip home.It was five fifteen before we turned in my driveway.Along with luggage delays at the airport, paying for the Camaro's stay in the parking lot, and rush hour traffic, came a walloping headache and bone-aching exhaustion.

 

†††† Rick pulled the Camaro into my garage.We both stood and stretched a long moment after climbing out of the sports car. The day had been filled with too much sitting and too little legroom.With renewed muscles we grabbed our luggage from the backseat.By the time we were settled in the house, Carlos had stopped by, and Rick had gone out to get us something to eat, it was six-thirty.I was practically asleep on the couch when he got back.It was all I could do to make my way to the table.And even then I was so tired that the food he'd brought home had very little appeal.

 

†††† I was in bed by seven-thirty.I hadn't expected Rick to spend the night, but to be honest with you I'd been too exhausted to ask him what his plans were.It came as no big surprise to find him sleeping on the sofa in my den the next morning.

 

†††† He went into the office later in the day to pick up the

mail, listen to the answering machine, and return phone messages before stopping at the grocery store for me.†† I'd have had to have been heavily sedated not to realize Rick hadn't said more than a dozen words to me since we got on the plane to come home.†† If I didn't know him as well as I do maybe I wouldn't have perceived his coolness to be anger.Maybe I would have perceived him to be tired, or just not in the mood to talk.But I didn't perceive either of those things because he's been my brother long enough for me to know when he's ticked at me.I could easily guess that his solicitous behavior toward me both in the hospital, and at Janet's home, came from his fear and worry over my health.Now that I was back on my feet I was no doubt going to, at some point in time, be on the receiving end of his deep-seeded wrath.I felt kind of like a kid who knew he'd done wrong and knew he deserved the whipping he was eventually going to get.It was waiting for that whipping that was taxing on the nerves.

 

†††† Rick disappeared early on Saturday morning but left Rex with me, leading me to believe he hadn't returned to his boat.I got the impression he simply didn't feel like being around me.

 

†††† Lauren and her boys were coming for dinner on Saturday night.I'd asked Rick to join us, but as it grew closer to the time of Laurenís arrival and he still wasn't back I assumed he'd decided to skip it.

 

†††† Rickís truck pulled in just ahead of Lauren's minivan.When he walked into the kitchen he had a boy hanging from each hand.

 

†††† Shane and Tanner broke free from Rick to run to me.I crouched down to receive their hugs and felt Tanner's lips smack wetly against my right cheek.

 

†††† "I really missed you, A.J.!" The five-year-old declared."You were gone forever!"

 

†††† "Yeah, A.J.," Shane echoed,"you were gone a whole week.Where were you?"

 

†††† From where he stood above us Rick muttered,"Funny.I was askin' myself that same question on many a night."

 

†††† My eyes flicked to the brother who brushed past us to lift the lid on the simmering pot of marinara sauce.

 

†††† "I was on a case," I told the boys."It took me longer than I thought it would."

†††† Lauren kissed me on the lips as I stood."You look tired, sweetie.And pale.Are you okay?"

†††† "Yeah, A.J.," Rick said,"you look pale.Are you okay?"

 

†††† Why Rick suddenly decided to be such a shit was beyond me.Perhaps this was his twisted way of extracting revenge.I got the impression he had every intention of making the night as uncomfortable as possible.He knew perfectly well I hadn't told Lauren where I'd gone or what had happened.He knew perfectly well I had no plans to tell her now, or in the future.Not that Janet was a threat to Lauren.In the year and a half we'd been seeing each other we'd only briefly discussed my marriage.It was natural for Lauren to wonder why it had come to an end so I'd told her.And that was it.We'd never talked about Janet again.I couldn't see what would be gained or lost now by telling Lauren what events had occurred in the last week of my life.Just like I didnít want to upset Mom, I didn't want to upset Lauren either.

 

†††† "I'm fine," I assured."Just came home with a...bit of the flu bug I guess."

 

†††† "Ah," Rick nodded."The flu.That can really knock a guy down, that's for sure.Can hinder his eyesight, hearing, muscles, the whole works.You watch yourself there, A.J.I'd hate like heck for anything that drastic to happen to you."

 

†††† If Lauren wondered what Rick was rambling about, or why there was such a biting edge to his voice, she didn't comment on it.But it's quite possible she didn't even notice as she was busy helping Tanner get his jacket off and reminding Shane to remove his shoes before he walked on my carpeting.

 

†††† The five of us sat around my dining room table eating spaghetti and meatballs and warm garlic bread.Conversation was kept lively by the boys, who were anxious to tell me of the events in their lives over the past week.

 

†††† Rick was sopping up the remainder of sauce on his plate with a piece of bread."Sounds like the boys had a busy week.Why doncha tell 'em about your week, A.J.?"

†††† From his seated position Tanner jumped up and down in his chair."Yeah, A.J., tell us about your week!Tell us about the case you were on!"

 

†††† Lauren reached over and put a firm hand on his thigh, indicating with just that movement he was to calm down. "Shhh," she admonished softly.†† "You don't have to shout.I know you're excited to see A.J., but he's not deaf.He's sitting right next to you and can hear you perfectly fine."

 

†††† "I don't know about that, Lauren."Rick stood to carry his plate into the kitchen.†† "Seems to me A.J.'s been havin' some trouble with his hearing lately.Could be a sign of old age, I suppose.But than again, could just be a sign of foolishness."

 

†††† Lauren heard Rick this time and gave me a look of confusion.I shrugged my shoulders and said in a stage whisper,"He didn't get his nap today."

 

†††† She chuckled and let the subject drop there.

 

†††† We got through dessert without Rick making any more helpful remarks.He and Lauren loaded the dishwasher while the boys and I cleared the table.Unlike was the norm for the two of them when they shared in kitchen chores, Rick wasn't teasing Lauren or endlessly chattering about whatever came to his mind.I'm sure she found that unusual, and I know Tanner did.

 

†††† As he carried the last plate in and handed it to Rick he paused to look up at him.His blue eyes were round and serious.

 

†††† "What'sa matter, Rick?Why are you so crabby tonight?"

 

†††† "Tanner Reed!"Lauren scolded.

 

†††† Rick chuckled and swung the boy up until he was seated on the counter.He thoroughly tousled Tanner's fiery hair."I'm not crabby tonight, pardner.Just tired."He turned to give me a pointed look."Takin' care of A.J. when he has a Ďbit of the flu bug' is more than one man can handle."

 

†††† Tanner hopped off the counter and came running over to wrap his arms around my waist."I'll help you, Rick.I'll take care of A.J., too!"

 

†††† I laughed while patting Tanner on the back."Well thank you, Tanner.That's nice of you.I'm sure your disposition outshines Rick's on any day."

 

†††† Rick brushed by both of us, mumbling under his breath.

 

†††† "Yeah, well maybe if he'd been through with you what I have his disposition wouldn't be so hot either."

 

†††† I watched, mystified, as my brother disappeared up the stairs.††††

 

†††† I covered Rick's sudden departure by taking over the kitchen chores he'd been doing while engaging Lauren and her kids in playful conversation.By the time we were done Rick had been out to his truck and returned with a Three Stooges video, a favorite form of entertainment for him and the boys.

 

†††† Rick seemed to loosen up a bit while he and the kids sat on the couch imitating the antics of Moe, Larry, and Curly.For their own safety, Lauren had to finally put an end to their games.

 

†††† She and I were sitting at my kitchen table enjoying a glass of wine and private conversation.When things started to get too rowdy she called into the den,"Hey, you guys!Cool it!Someone's going to get poked in the eye if you don't stop what you're doing."

 

†††† "Yeah," Rick agreed. as though he wasn't the instigator of all the horseplay to begin with,"listen to your Mom.Someone could get poked in the eye.And not bein' able to see is no fun, let me tell you.Just ask A.J. about that.He knows."

 

†††† That was when the temptation to bean my brother over the head with the rolling pin was at its greatest.

 

†††† Fortunately, Lauren and the boys left shortly after that.While Rick helped the kids find their shoes, slip into their jackets, and say their final goodbyes to Toby and Rex, Lauren rose from her chair and came to wrap her arms around my neck.She leaned close and spoke softly in my ear.

 

†††† "Rob will be taking the boys to his house after their soccer game tomorrow afternoon.Will you be feeling well enough for an early dinner at my place and then," she gave a throaty chuckle,"dessert afterwards?"

†††† I looked up at her and waggled my eyebrows.In deference of the boys' presence I kept my reply quiet and low pitched."You bet.You know how much I love your desserts."

 

†††† "Yes, I do.And if you get to feeling sick again I can just as easily play nurse."

 

†††† I laughed."That would be a fun game, too."

 

†††† I lifted my face enough so our lips made brief contact.

 

†††† I watched Lauren as she gathered up her boys while at the same time teasing Rick.

 

†††† There was so much about this woman I loved.She had a playfulness and sense of fun Janet was lacking.†† The word vivacious had been invented just for her.She was a wonderful mother, a wonderful lover, and above all, a wonderful friend.She never expected more of me than I could give her.She was forever tolerant of the time I couldn't give her because of my chosen profession.The profession Janet hated.And she was a friend to the brother who had often gotten on Janet's nerves.Lauren once told me Rick was easy to like because he was nothing more than a big kid.†† "After all," she'd said with a twinkle in her eye and a laughing lilt to her voice, "I've already got two little boys.What's one more?"Admittedly, Janet had never looked upon Rick and his impulsive ways with that kind of good humor and acceptance.

 

†††† I walked Lauren and the boys out to their vehicle.I slid open the rear panel door so the kids could scramble in.I shut it firmly, gave them a final wave through the glass, then opened the driver's door for their mother.

 

†††† "Be careful driving," I cautioned as Lauren climbed in the van.

 

†††† "I will be."

 

†††† In a few short seconds everyone was buckled up and Lauren was backing onto the street.I stood in the darkness watching until they turned at the intersection.

 

†††† I reentered the house to find Rick in my den stuffing clothes in his duffel bag. I leaned against the kitchen countertop by the sink and observed.

 

†††† He didn't look up from his task."Lauren and the kids are gone?"

 

†††† "Yes."

 

†††† "Me and Rex will be goiní too."He swung the bag onto his shoulder."Thanks for dinner."

†††† I didn't say a word when he whistled for Rex, nor as he and the dog rounded the snack bar into my kitchen.It wasn't until he was about to brush past me on his way out the door that I snared him by the upper arm.

 

†††† He shrugged my hand loose.†† "Let go a' me."

 

†††† "Hold up a second then."

†††† When his eyes met mine it was if they were issuing a challenge. ďWhy?"

†††† "Why?Because I think you have something you want to say to me."

 

†††† I thought for sure he was going to deny that with brusque, "Don't have nothin' to say to you, A.J.," right before he continued out the door.†††

 

But that's not what happened.Instead, he stared at me for a long moment, then allowed his bag to slide to the floor by his feet.Just like kids who have realized they've been given a few more minutes to play together, Rex and Toby disappeared into another part of the house.

 

†††† "Okay, yeah.I do have something to say to you."He turned his face so I could see him in profile only. His jaw set in a harsh line indicating to me the depths of his anger."On second thought, I don't have something to say to you.I have something to ask you."

 

†††† "Ask me?"

 

†††† "Yeah," he swiveled to face me once again."ask you."

 

†††† I tried to interject a portion of humor with a light-hearted wave of my hand."Ask away then."

 

†††† The humor was lost on my brother.His words were tight and terse. "Why did you lie to me, A.J.?"

 

†††† I didn't have to inquire of Rick what he meant.I knew perfectly well to what he was referring.

 

†††† "Because if I'd told you where I was going and why, you would have been mad."

†††† He loudly voiced his disgust at my reply.

 

†††† "Oh for God's sake, A.J.!That's the stupidest buncha' crap I've ever heard!You stopped worryin' about whether or not I was mad at you back when you were four years old!And even then, I always suspected the big sad eyes and droopy mouth was nothing more than an act."

 

†††† Hmmm. He's more perceptive than I give him credit for sometimes.

 

†††† "It's not that I was afraid of your anger," I explained, "it's simply that there would have been little point to it for either one of us."

 

†††† "Whatta ya' mean?"

†††† "I mean I had already made up my mind, Rick.I was going to Seattle to help Janet, and didn't need your approval to do that."

 

†††† "No, you didn't," he agreed. "But it woulda' been nice if you had told me what you were up to so I didn't spend three days worryin' and wonderin' about you."

 

†††† "You're right, it would have been.And I'm sorry I didn't feel that I could tell you."

 

†††† "So what's that mean?That given similar circumstances you'd do the same dumb-ass thing all over again."

 

†††† "If Janet needed my help, yes I would."

 

†††† "A.J., she's your ex-wife!Ex-wife.A term that generally means former.A term that means it's over.The curtain's been pulled.The train's left the station.The geese have flown south."

 

†††† I couldn't help but smile."The geese have flown south?"

 

†††† "Whatever.You get my drift."

 

†††† I grew serious."Yes, Rick, I do.But just because Janet and I are no longer married doesn't mean I can't offer her my help when and if she needs it."

 

†††† "Jeez, A.J.!†† What is it with you and that woman?"He shouted with arms akimbo."She's like a black widow who keeps drawin' you back into her web!"

 

†††† "Don't you think your analogy's a bit harsh?"

 

†††† "No, I don't!"He began to pace the floor."All right, all right, maybe.I mean...well, Janet's not a bad person.For a long time I thought she was...I blamed her for a lotta your unhappiness--"

 

†††† "I know you did," I quietly stated.

 

†††† "But I guess I was wrong to do that.I guess it's like you've been tellin' me all along.Once you get past all the why's and wherefore's, it just comes down to the two of you making better friends than you made husband and wife."

†††† "That's true."

 

†††† He stopped pacing and turned to face me.His index finger rose like a harsh pointer.

 

†††† "But that doesn't excuse what you did.We're partners in a business, A.J.Never before has either one of us ever taken a case the other one doesn't know about and agree to.Never before has either one of us snuck off amidst a bunchaí half-assed lies and half-answered questions.You could have told me, A.J.Regardless of whether I woulda' agreed with what you were doin', you shoulda' told me."

 

†††† He was right, I should have.I should have told him exactly where I was going that morning I called him, and I should have told him why.Granted, I would have then been forced to listen to him rant and rave and tell me I was ten ways a fool for even considering offering help to Janet, but at least Rick would have known where I was.If our positions had been reversed I would have expected the same courtesy from him.

 

†††† His monologue continued without so much as the briefest pause to allow me to interject an apology.

 

†††† "Do you have any idea how many somersaults my gut did when I got Janet's phone call at three o'clock last Saturday morning?Do you have any idea how I felt when I got up to Seattle and discovered we had virtually no clues to go on when it came to findin' you?Do you have any idea what thoughts were racin' through my head when we stumbled across you in that boxcar unable to see or hear us?Do you have any idea how damn lucky you are to be standin' here in front of me right now alive and well and whole?"

 

†††† Before I could say anything he crossed the small space between us.His arms came up and pulled me to him in a fierce, hard hug.He spoke so softly I almost didn't hear the final words that encompassed so much.

 

†††† "Do you have any idea?"

 

†††† And in that short phrase was everything Rick couldn't voice.

 

†††† Do you have any idea how worried I was about you?

 

†††† Do you have any idea how terrified I was for you?

 

†††† Do you have any idea how close I came to losing you?

 

†††† And most importantly;

 

†††† Do you have any idea how much I love you?

 

 

_____________________________

††††††††††

 

†††† Two weeks have passed since that Saturday night in my kitchen.Rick and I seem to be back on even footing these days.My trip to Seattle and the many reasons for it haven't been spoken of since, save for one brief moment.

 

†††† I returned to work the Monday morning after our spaghetti dinner.Rick was already seated behind his desk when I got there.He gave me a curse nod when I walked in the door.†† We were both quiet as we went through the morning catching up on paperwork and reviewing the case he'd accepted while I was gone.It was like we were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that didn't know quite how to fit together again after having been scattered all over the floor.

 

†††† At noon I shrugged into my sport coat while Rick grabbed his hat from the corner of his desk.As we walked out the door for lunch I stopped his progress by placing a hand on his arm and forcing him to turn and face me."I just want you to know," I confessed,"that every now and then...I do think about her."

 

†††† He studied me a long time.The twinkle that finally lit his eyes overruled the serious expression on his face.He shot me a, "What the hell am I gonna do with you?" look right before he brought an arm up and loosely slung it over my shoulder.His voice was full of soft compassion.

 

†††† "I know ya' think about her, kid.I know ya' think about her."

 

†††† It was as we were walking out the door he added,"And I guess if I'd spent a lotta cold winter nights snuggled up next to her in that little satin nightgown she favors, I'd spend plenty a' time thinkin' about her, too."

 

†††† I pulled away from him in shock.†† I knew he and Janet had parted friends, but I didn't think they'd become that close.

 

†††† "What?What are you talking about?You saw Janet in her nightgown?Rick!Rick, get back here!Rick!"

 

†††† All I got in return for my trouble was his laughter.Which was okay with me.We hadn't laughed together in over a week.It felt good, it felt right, and it only served to remind me that, I was indeed, back where I belonged.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

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