Three weeks passed, and with that time passage changes came to the Simon family. A.J. was out of the hospital and recuperating at home, although walking with a pronounced limp, as well as with the aid of a cane. Necessity warranted that Rick move in with his brother to be of assistance, despite the fact that A.J. had protested that occurrence quite strongly. In the end, however, there wasn't much the blond man could do when Rick arrived with duffel bag and Rex in tow, and a look in his eye that clearly said, ‘Don't even think of givin' me an argument over this, A.J.’
A.J.'s body was slowly on the mend from all he had suffered, but as far as Rick was concerned, his younger brother had made no progress emotionally. The changes Rick and his mother had hoped to see once A.J. was out of the hospital just weren't happening.
Rick now stood off by himself, in a back corner of the large physical therapy room at County General Hospital. He had dropped A.J. off here two hours earlier, leaving at that time to run some errands. Having just returned to pick his brother up, Rick remained unobtrusive to those around him, listening to the scolding A.J. was receiving from his therapist.
"A.J., you didn’t work with this knee at all over the weekend, did you? You haven't been doing your exercises, have you?"
A.J. opened his mouth to protest, only to have the tall black woman cut him off before he even got started. "And don't tell me you have been like you did last week. I know better. The knee wouldn't be this stiff if you were doing the exercises I showed you three weeks ago."
A.J. sat on the medical table, clad in shorts so that the injured knee was exposed. The detective didn't respond to the bawling out he had just received. An act that only further served to try the patience of his therapist, Monique. The woman was well aware of the circumstances that brought A.J. to her, and while she felt sympathy for the blond man, she knew her sympathy wouldn't heal him.
With her hands planted on her hips, Monique stated firmly, "A.J., you can walk normally again. You can be everything you were before the accident if you just give yourself a chance. But you're the one who has to do the exercises. You're the one who has to come here with a positive attitude and the determination to get better, and you're the one that has to carry that positive attitude and determination back home with you. I can't do those things for you. Those things have to come from inside you."
A.J. met the woman's eyes with an indifferent stare. "End of lecture?"
"I'm not lectur..." the frustrated woman stopped in mid sentence. "Yes," she sighed in defeat. "Go on. We're finished for today."
Monique watched as A.J. struggled to get off the table, but did not offer him assistance. He grasped his nearby cane and without so much as a "Goodbye", "Thank you", or "See you on Friday", he limped out to the waiting area.
The therapist stood staring into empty space long after A.J. had slowly and painfully made his way to the door.
Monique turned when she heard a deep voice from behind.
"I'm sorry about that."
"Rick! Hi! I didn't know you were here today. I thought you had dropped A.J. off."
Rick shoved his hands in his back pockets and leaned against the table his brother had just vacated. "I did, but I got done early with the errands I had to run so I came in the back and stood by the door for a few minutes."
"So you saw."
"Yeah," Rick acknowledged grimly. "Therefore, like I said, I'm sorry about that. My brother's actually a nice guy...a very nice guy under better circumstances. Right now though...well, he says a lotta things lately that he doesn't mean."
"I understand that, Rick. Considering what he's been through, his attitude isn't at all surprising. And believe it or not, every once and a while A.J. forgets and lets some of that ‘nice guy’ slip through. I have a feeling he'd be a good friend to have."
"The best," Rick confirmed solidly. His tone turned downtrodden as he asked, "What can I do to help him?"
"Not much, I'm afraid, until he decides to help himself."
"I swear, Monique, there have been times in the last three weeks that I've wanted to beat the crap outta him. I know my brother almost better than I know myself, and if there's one thing I know about him without a doubt, it's that ounce for ounce A.J. Simon has more tenaciousness and determination when faced with adversity than any human being I've ever encountered. It's not like him to back down from a challenge. Especially when his ability to walk is at stake. I know he's depressed...sad, I understand that and I feel for him, I really do. But this attitude he's latched onto of just not givin' a shit is drivin' me nuts."
Monique crossed her arms against her chest, lost in thought. After a minute had passed she asked, "Has A.J. talked to anyone about what he's feeling?"
"Are you sure? A close friend maybe, or another family member?"
Rick shook his head. "No one. I'm sure. I'm his best friend, and he hasn't said a word to me. If he hasn't talked to me, then I know he hasn't talked to anyone else."
"I suspected as much," the woman stated. "I'm no psychiatrist, Rick, but I do know enough about human psychology to know that A.J. has to talk to someone. He can't keep it bottled up forever. The longer he keeps blaming himself for the accident, the longer that knee goes without the proper attention. Eventually, there's going to come a point in time when all the therapy in the world isn't going to do him any good. He's got an important deadline here that he's doing a very good job of ignoring."
"I know that," Rick agreed.
"I just hope he doesn't become aware of that fact after it's too late."
Rick sighed. "I hope not, too. I know I have to get him to open up about all of this, to tell me...or someone, what's eating at him, what he's keeping hidden away, but I just don't know how to do it. Lord knows I've tried everything I can think of."
Neither Rick nor Monique had anything else to offer one another after that. Rick pushed himself away from the table. "I'd better get goin'. Thanks, Monique."
The therapist didn't know what else to say besides, "Remind A.J. that I'm to see him on Friday...and Rick?"
Rick turned around.
Rick nodded. "Thanks."
The detective headed toward the back door, weaving his way around exercise bikes, gym mats, and weight machines.
"Rick!” Monique called, gesturing with her thumb toward the door A.J. had exited through ten minutes earlier. “You can go out the front door!"
"No, I can't,” Rick smiled. “If I do, A.J.'ll know I was in here talkin' to you. There will be hell to pay then, let me tell you. I'll go out the back and walk around to the front entrance."
Monique laughed at Rick's slyness. "You might not need that much luck after all."
Quietly, Rick responded, "Oh, yes I will."
Two days after that physical therapy session Rick arrived home from the office shortly after five to find A.J. reclining on the sofa. The blond had the stereo headphones on and his eyes were closed.
Rick laid his hat on the countertop and washed his hands at the sink without his brother being aware that he was even in the house. The oldest Simon brother took note of the pile of unopened office mail still sitting on the kitchen table, as well as three manila case folders that had yet to be touched. Rick and Cecilia had hoped that if some work were brought home from the office, A.J.'s interest in life would reassert itself. Unfortunately, that had yet to happen. A.J.'s days seemed to revolve around sitting on the deck and staring out at the canal, or lying on the couch lost in the world of Mozart.
Something inside Rick snapped as he stood staring into the den at his sibling. For weeks now he had mapped out, and put into place, carefully constructed plans designed to help A.J. work through his depression, designed to push A.J. into helping himself to heal both physically and emotionally. Rick had no ideas left, and right at the moment he was angrier at his brother than he could ever remember being.
Rick's anger heated up and turned bright red as his eyes came to rest on the cane that was hanging over one arm of the sofa. The cane that, to Rick, symbolized A.J.'s unwillingness to help himself, and unwillingness to work toward getting better.
That cane and all it represented prompted Rick to trod heavily through the living room past his slumbering brother and turn off the stereo.
A.J.'s eyes popped open when the soothing music ceased. He pulled the headphones off and struggled to sit up. "Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
Rick stood over his brother. "I'm bringing you back to the real world."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Rick waved his right hand in the general vicinity of the kitchen. "It means that it's past time you took some interest in what's goin' on around you. It means that there's two weeks worth of mail sittin' over there that needs to be opened. It means that there's three case files over there that I need you to study and give me an opinion on. It means that it's time you start doin' the things for that knee that Monique told you to!"
A.J. looked up at his angry brother with nonchalance and said quietly, "None of those things matter."
Those words were barely spoken before Rick had two fistfuls of A.J's shirt and was yanking the blond man to his feet. "Damn it, A.J., they do matter!"
"Ow! Rick! My knee!" A.J. protested as he tried to unsuccessfully break Rick's hold. “Stop it!”
Rick's grip forced A.J. to put weight on the injured knee.
"Does that hurt? Huh? Does it hurt, A.J.?" Rick shouted, forcing A.J. to take several steps. "Walk on it, A.J.! Damn it, walk on it!"
A.J. struggled, further aggravating the knee. "Stop it, Rick! Stop it!"
Rick pulled A.J. so close that they were nose to nose. "Does it hurt, A.J.? Does...it...hurt?"
"Yes! It hurts!" a disheveled A.J. admitted. "It hurts, okay? Are you happy now?"
With that, Rick's anger left him as quickly as it had come. He loosened his hold on his bewildered sibling, gently easing A.J. back down to a sitting position.
The blond man sat rubbing the stiff knee while scowling up at his pacing sibling.
"No, A.J., I'm not happy. And neither are you. That's the problem here."
A.J. didn't respond to Rick's words, just continued to sit and rub and scowl.
"See, there you go again, closing yourself off. Shutting yourself down to everyone around you." Rick came to a halt in front of his brother. In an almost pleading tone he apologized, "I didn't want to hurt you...your knee. That's not what I set out to do. It's just that this whole...attitude of yours frustrates the hell out of me. I guess I thought...I don't know...I guess..."
After weeks of being wrapped up in only his own pain, A.J. responded for the first time to the pain of someone else - to the pain in his brother's voice. As Rick's sentence trailed off unfinished, A.J. asked softly, "You thought what, Rick?"
Rick sat down on the coffee table across from his brother. "I guess I thought that somehow I could show you that your knee doesn't have to hurt. That you've got to give yourself a chance to be whole again. That if you'll just do something as simple as the exercises Monique taught you, that in time you'll be back to where you were before the accident."
A.J. leaned back against the couch. "I"ll never be back to where I was.”
"A.J., you will. The doctor says it can be done. Monique says it can be done. And Mom and I know you can do it."
"It's not the knee, Rick. That has nothing to do with it."
Rick leaned forward, laying a hand on A.J.'s uninjured leg. "Then what is it, A.J.? What's goin' on inside of you that's taking all the fight out? That's making getting well so unimportant to you?"
When A.J. didn't answer him, Rick squeezed the leg his hand still rested upon. "I know that Melanie's and Josh's deaths have hit you hard. I understand how you feel--"
A.J. shook his head. "No, you don't."
Rick sighed, then, tried again. "A.J., I liked Mel and Josh, too...a lot. It hurt me, too, when the accident happened. I'm still hurtin', so is Mom, and we both know you're hurting real bad. But you've got to pick yourself up from all of this. Somehow you've got to find the strength within yourself, the strength I know is there, to go on."
When A.J. chose not to answer his brother once again, but rather kept his attention focused on some point beyond Rick's right shoulder, the older man asked a question he'd been mulling over for quite some time now.
"A.J., were you...well, did you and Mel...the two of you...were you...were..."
Rick's stumbling attempts at communication only garnered him a confused look from his brother.
"Did you two...were you two--"
"Did we what, Rick? What are you trying to say?"
"Well...uh...were you two in love with each other? I mean, was something serious goin' on that I didn't know about?"
"So that's what you and Mom think?"
Reluctantly, Rick admitted, "I've wondered, and I’m Mom has too, although we haven't discussed it in so many words."
"You don't have to. There's nothing to discuss."
A.J. gave his brother a half smile. "Don't sound so disappointed."
"Well, I just thought...well, with how hard this has been on you, and I know how much you loved Josh, I just thought maybe you and Melanie had...talked about a future together," Rick confessed. Or were sleeping together, was the other thought Rick had that he wisely chose not to voice.
"No, actually the subject of marriage never came up between us, although Josh broached the subject with me on more than one occasion." With a smile, A.J. added, "Of course, I don't know for sure if he really wanted me in the family, or if it was you he wanted."
A.J.'s smile widened as he recalled the bedtime conversation he'd had with Josh weeks before. "He told me one night when I was staying with them at Mom's that if I married Melanie then you'd be his brother, too. He thought that would be pretty neat."
Rick chuckled at the amusing misconceptions of a child. A bit misty-eyed he stated, "He was a heck of a kid."
"Yes, he was," A.J. acknowledged. Admiration came through clearly in the blond's next words. "And Melanie was a heck of a lady."
"Yeah, she was," Rick agreed.
"In more ways than you know, Rick."
"What do you mean by that?"
Silence was Rick’s only answer.
"A.J.?" the detective pressed. For some reason, Rick had a feeling that if he could just get A.J. to elaborate on the present subject he might get to the bottom of all that was troubling his brother.
"A.J.?" Rick prodded relentlessly, while once again squeezing the leg his hand rested on.
A.J. abruptly moved the leg aside, causing Rick's hand to slide off. That action didn't deter the oldest Simon any.
"A.J., what did you mean by that?"
A.J. wouldn't meet his brother's gaze when he finally answered. "It was just something between Melanie and me. Something she asked me not to share with anybody...even you."
Rick contemplated that explanation for a moment.
"Look, A.J., I understand that you made some kind of promise to Mel, and I respect that. But at the same time, I'm gettin' a strange feeling that something about that promise is what's bugging you...what's keeping you from moving forward with your life."
A.J. couldn't stop the small smile that formed on his lips. "When did you get so smart?"
"Always have been."
"I could argue that statement," A.J. quipped.
Rick wasn't about to let his brother steer either one of them too far off course. "I'm sure you could. But that's not what I wanna talk to you about."
A.J. knew that Rick wasn't going to just give up and go away, but nonetheless he gave it one last valiant try. "Rick...just drop it. Okay? Just let it...rest."
Rick's eyes bore into his brother. "A.J., you're the one who's not lettin' it rest. You're the one whose entire day revolves around listenin' to that damn stereo or starin' out at that damn canal. You're the one who's runnin' an awful high risk of never walking normally again."
When A.J. made no reply to all Rick had said, the oldest Simon brother sighed with frustration. He practically pleaded, "Don't you see what you're doin' here? You're punishing yourself for something that goes way beyond even that car accident. Damn it, A.J., if you don't talk to me, you're gonna have to talk to somebody."
"I'm okay, Rick," came the flat statement.
"Bullshit, you're okay!" Rick exploded. "And if you think I'm kiddin' you about talkin' to somebody about all of this - a professional, then you'd better think again because Mom, Raj, and I are all about two steps away from hauling you to a psychiatrist's office."
"I won't go."
There was no mistaking the fury in Rick's tone when he threw his hands up in the air in defeat. "Okay, fine! You won't go! I guess short of pickin' you up and carrying you there, there's not much I can do about that. And even if I drag you there kicking and screaming the whole way. I guess I can't make you talk once we arrive, can I? But mark my words, A.J., someday you're gonna wake up and decide you wanna' put your life back together, only there ain't gonna be nothin' left to work with. If you don't do the exercises for that knee that you're supposed to be doing, you're not going to walk again without the aid of that damn cane! And as far as the business goes, well I can't run that by myself forever, you know. Eventually I may just take on your attitude and not give a shit anymore. And when that day comes there won't be a business left for you to go back to. Is that what you want? To be an out-of-work cripple?"
A.J. didn't deem it necessary to respond to Rick's tirade. He ignored his brother by staring at the pattern on the sofa cushions.
Rick scowled and studied his sibling.
"Boy, Josh should get a look at his hero now. In his eyes you could do anything, A.J. Those last few days before the accident he kept telling me how neat he thought it would be if you were his father. He asked me if it was okay for him to pretend that you were his dad. He thought the world revolved around you. What would that little boy think if he could see you now?"
A.J. met his brother's eyes. "Shut up, Rick," he warned in a dangerous tone.
Rick chose to ignore the warning. "What would Josh think if he saw you doin' nothing but sitting here feeling sorry for yourself? Hell, A.J., he wouldn't even recognize you. He'd wonder what happened to--"
"I'm not feeling sorry for myself!"
"No? Then would you mind tellin' me just what you are doin'? Would you mind tellin' me something? Would you please tell me what you're keeping locked up inside you?
"Leave! Just...leave me alone."
So, we're back to that, Rick thought. Right back where we started from.
Not knowing what else to do, what more he could say or offer in an attempt to help his brother, Rick rose. Without a backwards glance or another word, he walked straight for the kitchen door. The only detour he made was to swipe a hand out and snatch his hat off the counter top before firmly bringing it to rest on his head. Rick's hand was on the kitchen doorknob when he heard a resounding crash behind him followed by a heavy thud.
The lanky detective turned to find his brother on the floor of the den. All color had drained from the blond man's face, and his eyes were squeezed tightly shut against the pain that radiated up his right leg. He was biting his lower lip in an effort to keep from crying out, and rocking back and forth as he clutched the injured knee.
Rick let A.J. sit there and struggle for a full minute before silently walking up to his brother's side. He bent over and grasped the blond under both arms and sat him none too gently back on the couch. Rick then righted the overturned coffee table. Without the slightest hesitation he headed back for the door again. His heavy boot steps resounded on the kitchen floor. As he put his hand on the doorknob, Rick turned.
"You know, the next time you fall I just might not give a shit about bein' around to pick your stubborn ass up off the floor."
The slam of the door echoed throughout the silent house. In mere seconds A.J. heard Rick's truck engine roar to life.
Just as he had demanded only a few short minutes ago, A.J. Simon was left alone.
The sun had long set by the time Rick Simon returned to his brother's home that night. A few beers at his favorite watering hole, as well as a few games of darts with some buddies, had allowed Rick the time and distance he needed from his brother. It was ten-thirty when the Powerwagon was parked once again in its familiar spot in A.J.'s driveway.
The only light on in the house came from the den. The same light that had been on when Rick had left four hours earlier.
As the night had worn on and Rick's temper had gradually simmered down, he had told himself that he was not going to allow himself to feel guilty over the way he had walked out on his injured sibling. After all, hadn't A.J. asked him...no make that ordered him, to leave? Hadn't he been trying for weeks now to help his brother, only to have the gentle offerings and solicitations firmly rebuffed? What more could A.J. expect from him? What more could Rick expect from himself?
Now, however, that lone light overrode Rick's promise to himself from earlier not to carry any guilt over this matter. More than likely that light meant that A.J. hadn't moved since Rick had left. Or at the very least, hadn't ventured farther than the half bathroom the main floor contained. Without Rick there to help him, A.J. couldn't get up the stairs to his bedroom.
But he didn't want my help, Rick firmly reminded himself.
That reminder didn't quite absolve all the guilt. That light shining soft yellow out onto the driveway seemed so lost and alone. Just like A.J. was lost and alone.
Rick hesitated at the kitchen door. The sound of Rex whining on the other side of it finally prompted the detective to turn his key in the knob.
Rex danced around Rick in a circle of barely contained excitement, his swishing tail dusting A.J.'s kitchen cabinets.
Rick threw a quick glance in his brother's direction, then bent down to accept the dog kisses that were lavished on him. He stroked the soft yellow fur and spoke quietly to Rex for a minute, then opened the door and let the dog outside for his final run of the evening. Rex knew the boundaries of A.J.'s small yard and could be trusted to stay within them. When he was done getting his exercise he would lay down on the deck and sleep until Rick or A.J. let him back in.
Rick wasn't as certain as to how to deal with his brother as he had been how to deal with his dog. There was a time not that long in the past when that hadn't been true.
Rick stood in the kitchen and looked into the den. A.J. had yet to acknowledge his presence. The blond was sitting in the exact same spot where Rick had left him hours earlier. His right leg was propped up on the coffee table, his head was leaning back against the couch, and his eyes were closed.
Rick was beginning to wonder if A.J. was asleep, when he saw his brother's head turn toward the opposite wall and saw his eyes open.
Rick walked into the den. He stood over his brother and asked quietly, "Are you ready for me to help you up to bed?"
"Not yet," came the equally quiet response.
Rick perched gently on the coffee table so as not to disturb A.J.'s knee. "You want me to turn on the news?"
A.J.'s gaze reminded fixed on the wall that at one time had contained his stereo and reel-to-reel tape recorder. Those outdated pieces of equipment had been replaced several years back, and that wall now contained a large home entertainment center filled with a thirty-five inch TV set, VCR, and CD player.
A.J. shook his head no in response to his brother's question.
Rick tried one last time. "Have you had anything to eat?"
"I'm not hungry."
I'm not going to lose my temper. I am not going to lose my temper, Rick repeated to himself over and over again.
The lanky man took a deep breath and mentally counted to ten.
"A.J, I think you'd better eat something and then go on up to--"
A.J.'s eyes finally fixed on his brother. He didn't allow Rick to finish his sentence. "I've been sitting here doing a lot of thinking while you were gone."
A smile actually played a bit at the blond's mouth. "I mean, what else could I do? I was kind of stuck here until you came home."
Rick knew the words weren't accusation directed at him, but rather self-deprecation on A.J.'s part.
"By your own choice," Rick reminded in a tone that was meant to both tease and be taken seriously.
"I know," A.J. softly acknowledged. "And in all my thinking I've...I’ve ended up with something I want to talk to you about...if you still want to listen, that is."
"I'm always willing to listen, A.J."
"I know." A.J. nodded as he shifted position. Very carefully he brought his injured knee to the floor, while at the same time pushing himself to a more upright position on the sofa. "This is just...difficult. It was something that was just between Melanie and me. I was the only person she ever told. I don't know if I have the right to share this part of her life with someone else, even if that someone else is you."
"A.J., I realize that I don't know what it is you're talkin' about. What it is you mean by ‘this part of Melanie's life.’ But I am certain of one thing. If Melanie knew what you've been goin' through these past six weeks, how you've let the guilt and anguish you feel get the better of you, how you've let those things impair your ability to heal one hundred percent, then I think she'd give you permission to unburden yourself to me. I think...no, I know, she knew us both well enough to know that anything you tell me in confidence on her behalf will remain a well guarded secret."
Afraid his brother had misunderstood, A.J. rectified, "It wasn't that she didn't think you could keep a secret. Far from it. It's just that...well, like I said, I was the only person she ever told about her...past. I don't even know why she chose to tell me really, except that she and I had grown close because of Josh taking such a liking to me, and we had a lot in common, shared a lot of the same interests, and maybe the night she opened up to me the circumstances were just right, and--"
"Hey. Whoa. Stop. You don't have to justify it. I'm not bent out of shape because Melanie and you had formed a special friendship that didn't include me so don't worry about it. Besides, I've often found you to be just the right person to talk to when I need to share a confidence with someone."
A.J. couldn't help but smile at Rick's words and the truthfulness they contained.
When A.J. didn't say anything more, when he didn't seem to know where to start with his tale, Rick gave him a bit of a verbal push.
"Look, A.J., I'm not being nosey. At any other time something that was just between you and Melanie would stay that way. But this time I think you need to let someone else in on what she shared with you, 'cause whatever it is has been eatin' at you for too long now. Let me help you if I can...please."
A.J. leaned wearily against the sofa cushions. He seemed to come to some type of a conclusion when he said, "Mom mentioned to me that you met Melanie's brother at the funeral."
Puzzled, Rick acknowledged, "Yeah, I did."
"What'd you think of him?"
Never one to be less than honest when it came to assessing the personalities he encountered on any given day, Rick said, "I thought he was a big mouthed jerk."
"Just because of what he said about me? About how he hoped I ended up a worthless cripple or whatever?"
"Mom told you that?"
"Yes, but that's beside the point. Is that why you didn't like him? Simply because of what he said about me?"
"No. That had something to do with it, I suppose,
but I just didn't like the guy.
Frankly, I can't tell you why.
It was just a gut feeling I had from the moment I met him."
"Your gut feelings usually prove to be pretty accurate, as much as I hate to admit it."
Rick smiled a bit at the teasing before doing some of his own. "So, what's the scoop? Does Melanie's brother run little old ladies down with his car and then sue them for scratching the paint job? Or is he some kind of serial killer who preys on hot shot blond private investigators?"
It wasn't lost on Rick that A.J. didn't partake in the humor behind his words. His brother chewed on his lower lip a moment.
"No...nothing like that. He...he sexually abused her from the time she was six until she was thirteen."
"You heard me."
"Yeah. Yeah, I did," came Rick's soft acknowledgment. It took Rick a few seconds to digest this revelation. "And in all these years she had never told anyone?"
A.J. shook his head. "No. Not until she told me. And as to why she chose to confide in me, I can't even begin to guess."
I can, kid. I sure can.
Rick tuned back into his brother.
"I assume she had just come to a point where she needed to tell someone. She had kept it all inside for far too long."
"Her mother didn't even know?" Rick asked.
"That's the sad part. I'm sure she did."
"What do you mean? That she knew, and never did anything about it?"
A.J. nodded his head.
A.J. began to explain what he knew of Melanie's upbringing based on the things she had told him.
"Mel's father was the president of a multi-million dollar company. She didn't tell me what type of work he did, but she did say he traveled a lot, and that when he was home he always seemed to be at the office."
"He's dead, right?" Rick asked. He seemed to recall Melanie mentioning briefly one day that her father had died unexpectedly right after she had entered college.
"Yes. He passed away of a heart attack fifteen years ago."
Getting back on track with his story A.J. continued. "Because he traveled so much and worked such long hours, the sole responsibility of the household and the raising of Melanie and her brothers fell on her mother's shoulders."
"Brothers? I only met one at the funeral."
"I'm getting to that part. Mel's brother Douglas, the one you met, was five years older than her. There had been another brother, Curtis, in-between the two of them who had been two years Melanie's senior. He fell out of their backyard tree house when he was seven and died two days later as a result of the severe head injuries he had sustained. Melanie said she often wondered if that was the start of all their problems."
"Melanie’s father blamed her mother for the boy's death. He was away on a business trip at the time, and seemed to feel that his wife had somehow been negligent in regards to watching the children. Melanie said that her father became even more absorbed in his work after her brother's death and was gone from home more than he was there. Because of her husband's attitude toward her, Melanie's mother didn't have anyone to lean on and became dependant on Douglas, who was only ten years old at the time, to help her through her grief."
"Hell of a load to dump on a kid."
"Yes, it was. It was a hell of a load to dump on a kid who was already shouldering a load of burdens no one knew about."
do you mean?"
"Melanie and her brothers were up in the tree house together the afternoon of Curt's accident. Melanie was playing by herself, having a tea party with her dolls in a back corner, while the boys were roughhousing and wrestling with one another. Like most kids, none of them gave a thought to the possible dangers involved with rowdy play in a tree house fifteen feet off the ground. The two boys were rolling around on the floor, playfully fighting, when they got too close to the doorway. While they were scuffling, Curt rolled out. He hit his head on a limb as he fell."
Rick shook his head in sympathy. How many times as kids, had he and A.J. roughhoused and wrestled in their own backyard tree house?
"Mel remembered Douglas bending over Curt crying and pleading with him to wake up, telling Curt over and over how sorry he was while she ran in the house and got their mother. For the next few days things were in disarray. Curt was rushed to the hospital by ambulance where emergency surgery was performed. Melanie's father arrived the day after the accident happened, but Curt never regained consciousness. He remained in a coma until he died. Although Douglas blamed himself for what had happened, he never told his parents the whole story. With everything that was going on they simply accepted it when Doug told them he didn't see how the accident had occurred. That all he knew was that Curt fell. Doug made Melanie promise to back up his story, and being that she was so young, she did. She never realized until years later to what depth Douglas held himself to blame for the incident. Even when he was well into his teens, she used to hear him crying in his room at night sometimes, begging Curt to forgive him. Unfortunately, her parents were too wrapped up in their own problems to come to the conclusion that there was more to the story behind Curt's fall than Melanie and Douglas were revealing.
Mel said that it was just about a year after Curt's death when Douglas first began...molesting her. He started out by pretending they were playing a game of some kind. She said that at first she was very confused. She couldn't understand why, if they were playing a game, that they had to keep it a secret. Later, as he grew bolder and more...experienced, she couldn't understand why the game hurt her. But, she didn't know any better. She thought that was the way all little girls were treated. As she grew older and began to understand better the ramifications of Douglas's game, she said some things about the ‘game’ to her mother. Her mother scolded her, telling her she shouldn't lie about things like that. Melanie said that maintaining a very upper class image was important to her mother. In her adult years, Mel came to realize that her mother ignored it all because it would have created a scandal had word gotten out as to what was happening within her family. Melanie's parents were quite prominent and well-known members of their community. Her father even had political connections of some sort."
"But it was her daughter for God's sake!" Rick exclaimed. "They were both her children! They all needed help!"
"I know, Rick," A.J. acknowledged. "But keep in mind that this was in the nineteen sixties. Things weren't like they are now. People weren't as open with children about this type of thing as they are today. Melanie's mother also had a drinking problem. Whether that was a result of Curtis’s death as well, or something that was going on before hand, Melanie didn't know. She was too young when Curtis died to have a clear recollection of how things had been previously. As an adult, she also came to the conclusion that her parent's marriage basically came to an end the day Curtis died. She suspected that her father had more than his share of affairs over the years, so I guess her mother hid all the family's problems and pain in her afternoon glasses of sherry."
"That explains why Mel was so vague about her family," Rick said. "Why she wouldn't turn to them for help after her divorce. I never could quite figure that out. I mean, when she told us that she'd gone to an all-girls prep school in Connecticut, and then to Harvard, I knew she had to come from money. I always wondered why she didn't turn to her family for help, but since she never brought it up, I figured it was none of our business."
"Mel told me that she'd only maintained contact with her mother over the years for Josh's sake, and that even that was on a very limited basis. She'd had absolutely no contact with her brother since she went away to college. She felt very strongly about the fact that he was never to be near Josh."
"I don't blame her," Rick stated.
"No, neither did I."
"And she never had help with all this? Never sought anyone out? Never even told a close girlfriend?" Rick asked, not knowing how someone could keep a secret like that inside for so many years.
"No. She was too ashamed. Too humiliated. Like most children put in that position, Melanie felt like she was the cause of what was happening to her. Her mother's blatant denial of what was occurring didn't help any either."
Sadly, Rick said, "No, I'm sure it didn't."
"After Melanie's divorce was final she just wanted to start her life over. She wanted to rid herself of past memories and ghosts. It was just before she...died, that I think she came to realize that exorcising those memories and ghosts wasn't something she could do on her own anymore."
"Man, she had a rough life," Rick commented as he absorbed all A.J. had just told him, and then thought of the ten years Melanie had spent trapped in a physically abusive relationship with James Cason. "You know, I never would have guessed in a million years that she had gone through so much. She seemed so independent, so self-assured. As it was I never could figure out why she had stayed with Cason for so long. She just didn't fit the profile of the typical woman we've seen in that type of situation."
"I know what you mean. Until she told me her story I couldn't figure out why she had stayed with Cason and put up with the beatings for so long either. When we were talking about all of this I asked her about that. About why she had stayed with him all those years. She told me that a part of her thought she deserved to be treated that way. That somehow she was being rightfully punished for what had happened to her as a child, or as Melanie she put, ‘For what I allowed to happen to me.’ I think what really gave her the push to file for divorce was Josh. She hated seeing him so upset all the time, so scared. She began to see that his childhood wasn't shaping up to be that much different than hers, and that frightened her. She wanted him to have all the happiness and innocence childhood should contain. She was also concerned that if she didn't get out of the situation before Josh got much older, that he'd grow up to be like his father since up until that point in time Cason was the predominate male influence in Josh's life."
"A valid concern."
"Very much so," A.J. agreed, before the brothers fell into a contemplative silence.
Rick spent several minutes assimilating all he had just been told. He tried to fit all the tragic pieces of Melanie's life together in his mind, reshaping the image of the woman he thought he had known as he did so. There were so many layers to her he never would have guessed. She had done such a good job of hiding her pain from the outside world.
Thinking of that, of how Melanie had kept her pain and inner turmoil hidden from so many and for so long, prompted Rick to ask, "Uh...A.J...if you don't mind me askin,’ just how did all this come up between you and Melanie? What happened that made her decide to finally open up after all these years?"
A.J. had been leaning back against the couch with his eyes closed. He opened them and pushed himself into a more upright position.
"I don't think she intentionally did decide to open up, Rick."
"What do you mean?"
"I think it was more a matter of circumstance. You know the picture that Mom has of the two of us hanging over the fireplace?"
Rick nodded, his mind's eye clearing seeing the portrait A.J. was referring to.
"The first night that I was staying with Mel and Josh when Mom was up in San Francisco, Josh wanted me to read him a story and put him to bed. After I had gotten him settled I went back downstairs to find Melanie just standing there, staring up at that picture. That's more or less when the whole story came out. I think that picture brought back a lot of unhappy memories for her."
"Her mother has one similar to it hanging above the fireplace in her home. At the time it was taken Melanie and Douglas were the exact same ages that you and I were when the one Mom has was taken. That picture ended up being the catalyst behind Melanie's revelation. She wanted to know if we were as happy as we looked in the picture, or if it was just a put on. Then she wanted to know if you had ever hurt me."
"Hurt you? In what way?"
"Yeah. That was my first reaction, too. Of course, at that point in time I still had no idea as to what she was trying to get at. I honest to God thought she was going to accuse you of having molested Josh. I know that sounds stupid now, but at that time I just couldn't figure out where she was going with the entire conversation. And, I thought that was a pretty strange question for her to ask me."
"I'll say," Rick agreed. "Sorry, A.J., I hate to break the news to you at this late stage in the game, but you're not my type. Never have been."
A.J. smiled at the teasing. He appreciated the much needed change of tone Rick interjected into the conversation through his own quirky brand of humor. "Don't apologize, because you're not my type either. I prefer my type to be of the female sex, and to also possess considerably more hair than you do."
"Hey, watch your smart mouth."
"Yeah, yeah," A.J. casually dismissed his brother's threat.
"So...uh...what happened after that?"
With a bit of chagrin, A.J. admitted, "I blew my stack. I yelled at Melanie and told her that she was going to be in for one hell of a fight if she even thought of accusing you of such a thing."
Rick couldn't help but smile at his brother's loyalty.
"I said some other things, most of which I don't remember anymore, but something along the lines of reminding her that she was the one who had hired us. That she was the one who had said over and over again that she appreciated the time we were devoting to Josh. About that time she interrupted me and apologized profusely, told me to calm down, told me that I'd misunderstood her, and then began to explain what she had meant by her questions. Slowly, as the night wore on, Mel told me the entire story. I didn't go up to bed until three in the morning, and to be honest with you, I don't think she went to bed at all that night.
"The next evening, after I'd put Josh to bed, Melanie told me that she'd reached a decision. She was going to get counseling."
"Because of your influence," Rick stated with pride.
A.J. shrugged. "I wouldn't necessarily say that. All I did was listen to her and try to reassure her that she'd done nothing wrong. I told her that I would always be a willing shoulder for her to lean on whenever she needed one, but that as well, I had no idea how to help someone who had gone through what she had. I told her then, about the Family Center where we all went for counseling when Mom was assaulted. I told her how helpful they had been, how much Mom had liked her counselor, and how Mom even volunteers time there yet today. I told Melanie that most of the counselors were women, and that I was sure she could see Mary if she requested her and used Mom's name as a referral.
"And so she called," Rick concluded.
"Yes, she did. She called the next morning. And that night she was dead."
Rick reached out and laid a gentle hand on A.J.'s uninjured knee. "And that's what's so hard about all of this."
A.J. nodded. "Yes. That's what's so hard. Melanie was finally getting a chance to have a good life. A complete life without the demons from her past haunting her any longer. I thought...I really thought that was a turning point for her. That without Cason, and with the aid of the counseling, that she really was going to get a chance to do what so few people are ever given the opportunity for...starting over. If anyone deserved a chance like that it was Melanie. I remember..." A.J. squeezed his eyes tightly shut, though not tight enough to prevent a tear from running down his cheek.
Rick squeezed the knee his hand laid upon. "You remember what, A.J.?"
A.J. opened the blue eyes that contained nothing but overwhelming sorrow. "One of the last things I remember about being in that car with Melanie and Josh before Cason...hit us, was that we were singing. For days Josh had been singing that dirty limerick you had taught him. Melanie had scolded him time and time again regarding it, telling him that if she heard it again she just might wash his mouth out with soap. But that night, she lost out to a five-year-old's tenacity and your overpowering influence. She was in such good humor that she overlooked Josh disobeying her. Mel was happy because she had liked the apartment her boss had lined up for her, and also happy because he told her he'd be promoting her, and then transferring her to one of his companies in Florida before Josh started first grade in the fall. She was also supposed to have her first counseling session the next evening, and although she was a bit apprehensive about it, I know that she was looking forward to it. She asked me if I thought one of us would be available to baby-sit Josh while she was there. I remember telling her that I was sure one of us would be free. She laughed then and said if Josh's baby-sitter ended up being you, that she was going to have a long talk, a very long talk, with you in regards to what songs were appropriate to teach five-year-olds."
"Anyway, Mel and I kind of ended up taking a, ‘if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, attitude’ and started singing Josh's song right along with him. Josh interrupted his singing long enough to..." A.J. broke off there as tears began to stream down
his face in earnest.
"Long enough to what, A.J.?" Rick prompted gently.
"Long enough to..."
Rick simply squeezed A.J.'s leg again and waited silently until his brother was able to go on.
"Long enough to lean forward as far as his seat belt would allow and...and wrap his arms around my neck and say...I love you, A.J."
A.J. buried his face in his hands. "God, Rick, that was the last thing he said to me. The last thing I heard in that car that night before Cason rammed into us. If either one of them screamed, or said anything else while that truck was hitting us, I don't remember it. All I remember is that little boy saying, ‘I love you, A.J.’"
Rick leaned forward on the coffee table and pulled his brother into his arms. He hugged him tightly, allowing A.J. to cry silent tears into his shoulder.
"Maybe that's all you're supposed to remember, A.J. Maybe that's all God wants you to remember. Maybe that was Josh's gift to you."
Rick had to listen carefully to pick up the words A.J. uttered into his shirt. "You don't know how many days I've wished it was me. How many days I've wondered why I lived and they died."
"Yes, I do,” Rick quietly assured. “Yes, I do, because I've sat here every single day with you knowin' you were asking yourself that question. Knowin' that was part of the reason you weren't allowing yourself to go forward with your life. But don't you see, if you stop living now, you're doing more of an injustice to Melanie and Josh than Cason could have ever dreamed of doing."
A.J. pulled back, self-consciously wiping the tears off his face. "What do you mean?"
"You've got some wonderful memories of Melanie and Josh, A.J. The three of you spent some great times together. You went to Seaworld, and the zoo. You took Josh to his first major league baseball game, and you were starting to teach him to swim right before the...accident. You probably knew more about the two of them than anyone else. You owe it to them to keep their memories alive. Even if those memories are only the private ones you carry around within yourself. Yes, it's tragic that Melanie's life came to an end just as it was beginning, and that Josh hardly had a chance at life, but none of that's your fault. Maybe someday you and I will have the answers as to why the accident happened. Just like maybe someday we'll find out why our father was taken from us at a time when we both needed a father so much. But you and I both know those answers won't come while we're still here on this earth. And I've got a feeling that neither Melanie, or Josh...or Dad, want to see you up there any time soon. As a matter of fact, I think all three of them would give you hell if you arrived before your time is due." Rick reached up and laid his hand on the back of A.J.'s neck. "And I can guarantee you that I'm gonna keep givin' you hell if you don't let me help you get yourself back on track here."
A.J. couldn't help but smile.
"A.J., all Mom and I want is to see you healthy again. To see you walk like you should be able to walk. I'm living for the day I see you jog out that door for your morning run. I'm waiting for my partner to come back to work. I can't do it by myself, kid. I never have been able to and you know it. I need you by my side."
"You make it sound so easy, Rick, but it's not."
"I know it's not," Rick acknowledged softly. "I know you're still hurtin' inside, and that that pain is more intense and harder to heal than any physical pain you could ever feel. But, A.J., it's tearin' Mom and me apart to see you like this. To know that you're keeping yourself from healing completely. To know that inside you're blaming yourself for something that just wasn't your fault. You're good at what you do, A.J. You're one of the best P.I.s in the business. You didn't make any mistakes regarding Melanie's case. Her ex-husband was determined that she was going to pay a price for their divorce. There was no way you could have known that and unfortunately, with the way he chose to act upon that, no way you could have avoided it."
"My head knows all those things, Rick, but my heart...well that's another matter entirely."
"I know it is. And I know it's going to take time. Maybe even a lot longer than either one of us want it to. But I think, if you start living your life again, go back to work at the job you love, I think you'll find the healing process a bit easier to cope with. Melanie knew how much you loved being a P.I., A.J. This is what she would have wanted – no, expected - of you."
It took a minute, but Rick finally saw smile touch the corner of A.J.'s mouth.
"She said Leos are stubborn."
"I can attest to that," Rick confirmed.
"She also said Aries rush in where angels fear to tread. And that although they keep it hidden, deep down inside they're very gentle, caring people."
Rick returned his brother's smile.
There was a twinkle in A.J.'s eyes when he added, "She also said they're deep thinkers, but I find that hard to believe. I think she got your birth sign mixed up with someone else's."
Rick pulled his brother to him in a cross between a hug and a wrestling hold. "Why you. I oughta club you a good one for that smart ass remark."
A.J. chuckled against his brother's shoulder, then leaned comfortably back against the sofa cushions when he was released. Rick gave his brother's leg a final clap before standing. He decided a complete change of subject was due for the moment.
"I think it's about time I get you some dinner. Considering it's goin' on midnight, how about something in the breakfast food group like French toast or pancakes?"
"Do you mind waiting on dinner...or breakfast rather, for a while?"
"Well...no. But why?"
A.J. looked down at the floor when he requested almost shyly, "Because I've got a physical therapy session tomorrow and I'm way behind on my exercises. I need someone to help me with some of them. Would you mind?"
"Do you really think you need to ask me that question?"
A.J. looked up. "No. I guess I don't."
"Let's get crackin' then."
"I know it's late," A.J. apologized in consideration of the hour. "If you're too tired--"
not too tired," Rick negated.
"Hell, this ain't late.
Remind me to tell you about the time me and Carlos stayed up round the
clock for five straight days. Believe
me, this ain't nothin' compared to that."
Rick turned and walked over to the coat closet where the small exercise mat was stored that A.J. had been given on his first day of physical therapy weeks earlier.
Rick pushed the coffee table and easy chair out of the way, then unfolded the mat and laid it down on the den floor. Without the aid of his cane A.J. walked the few necessary steps to the mat. Rick helped his brother ease himself down to a reclining position.
Rick had watched Monique enough over the past month to know what to do without A.J. giving him any instructions. The lanky man started out slowly and gently, first just raising and lowering A.J.'s leg straight up off the floor several times, then raising it and moving it straight out to both the right and left. Although A.J. grimaced each time a new motion was introduced, he didn't say anything in regards to his pain. The brothers soon began to banter back and forth, teasing and joking, as was their second nature.
After several minutes Rick began to bend the leg at the knee. The teasing came to a halt when A.J. gasped in pain. Rick stopped his movement, watching his brother for a signal to either stop or continue. A.J. took a couple of deep breaths, then, nodded his head. Rick resumed flexing the knee. Their conversation picked up where it had left off, and although several times A.J.'s end of it would die away to be replaced by a quiet groan, or complete silence, he'd always manage to start it up again when he had gotten through the worst of the pain.
Rick noticed the sweat that was starting to trickle down A.J.'s forehead. "You okay? Should we quit?"
A.J. chuckled. "For weeks you've been riding my butt about not doing these exercises and now you want to quit?"
"Well...no...I just mean, if it's gettin' to be too much maybe we should take a break or something. Just for a few minutes even."
A.J. shook his head. "No. I'm not supposed to. I should be doing them for twenty minutes straight six times a day."
Rick couldn't hide the concern in his voice. "You're sure?"
A.J. smiled. "Yes, Rick, I'm sure. It's okay. It's not that bad. Besides, if you want to see me running again I've got to do this."
Rick resumed the exercises once again. "Don't let me stand in your way then."
A.J. raised himself up on his elbows. "You've never stood in my way. You've gotten behind me and pushed on more than one occasion when I was in strong need of a push, and you've gotten in front of me and pulled when I needed someone to take the lead, but never have you stood in my way."
Rick smiled into his brother's solemn eyes. "Never, huh?"
"Nope, never," A.J. confirmed before laying back down on the mat.
Just as quickly as A.J. had set the tone for serious conversation, he switched it back to lighthearted banter.
As Rick worked his knee the blond said, "Hey, Rick, do you remember when we were kids how mad you used to get at me for messing with your stuff?"
Rick laughed. "Yeah, I sure do. More than once I tried to convince Mom to put you up for adoption. You're just lucky that she had taken such a shine to you, A.J. Otherwise, I think I woulda' sold you on the black market and you woulda' ended up bein' the only blond child of some wealthy Middle Eastern oil sheik."
"And do you remember how mad I used to get when you'd let your side of the room get so messy that all your crap would start to spill over onto my side?"
Again, Rick laughed. "Yep. You used to get pretty hyper about that. I remember comin' home one Saturday after spending the day at Carlos's and finding all my stuff out in the front yard."
Now it was A.J.'s turn to laugh at the long ago memory. "Yeah. I threw all your junk out the window."
"Man, I was ready to kill you. It was a good thing that you were smart enough to hide in Mom and Dad's closet when you heard me coming, 'cause I swear I woulda' thrown you out the window if I'd have gotten my hands on your scrawny little neck."
"I guess that I was lucky that Dad intervened on my behalf."
"That you were, little brother. That you were," Rick agreed. "What brings all this up?"
"When Melanie asked me about our picture, about if we were as happy as we looked and whether or not you'd ever hurt me..."
"These were some of the things I remembered about our growing up years."
"Yeah, we had some pretty good times, didn't we?"
A.J. laughed. "You call those the good times? Those are the things that I told her were the bad times. The times when we fought and didn't get along."
"Yeah, but when you think about it now, and you add thirty plus years to some of those memories, those times do seem kinda good, don't they?"
With a smile lighting his eyes, A.J. nodded. "Yes, I suppose they do."
"So, for old time's sake, do you wanna come over to my boat and mess with my stuff."
"You don't have any stuff worth messing with anymore."
"Hey! What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that all that gadgetry you possess from Surplus Sammy's holds no interest to me whatsoever."
"Okay, then how about this? How about if you come over and throw some stuff out the windows for me?"
"Oh, no. I know what you're up to. That's your way of getting me to give your boat a thorough cleaning. No way."
"You know, A.J., you're not as easy to fool as you were say, thirty-five years ago."
"That's because after all these years of being your brother I'm a little older, a little wiser, and a lot grayer."
A.J.'s tone suddenly changed again. "It's sad, though, when you think about it."
"Think about what?"
"Everyone should be able to look back at their childhood and have the same types of good memories we do. But not everyone does."
Rick knew, of course, that A.J. was thinking of Melanie. "No, little brother, not everyone does. I guess that makes us a couple of the lucky ones, doesn't it?"
“Yeah, Rick,” A.J. nodded thoughtfully. "I guess it does."
Three Weeks Later
Monique walked toward the back of the gym where Rick Simon was standing all by himself. The detective was unobtrusively observing his sibling doing leg lifts while seated at a weight machine.
The black woman came to stand by Rick, following his gaze across the large room. "He's come a long way, Rick. I'll be honest with you, I'd just about written your brother off. So had his doctors. I don't know what you said to A.J. that's made him work this hard, come this far in such a short period of time, but whatever it was it sure worked miracles. I hope you wrote it down because I've got a few other patients I could use it on."
Rick shrugged, not willing to take any of the credit. "I didn't say much of anything. I just listened. There weren't any magic words, Monique. A.J.'s done this all on his own."
"Now, Rick Simon, I know better than that. Three weeks ago A.J. would barely talk to me, let alone do anything I requested of him. Now...well now he's a completely different person. He asks me how I am. How my week's been going. How my children are. Wants to know what I have planned for him at the start of each session. Asks me what he can do at home to make the healing process go quicker. This isn't the A.J. who first came to me two months ago."
"No. But this is the real A.J. Remember how I told you that my brother's a nice guy?"
"All he needed was a reason to like himself again. A reason to feel as though his life was worth living."
"And you gave him that reason," Monique guessed.
Rick shook his head. "No, I didn't give it to him, Monique. I just helped him find it again. That's how A.J. and I work."
Monique watched A.J. strain with the weights, moving beyond the number of repetitions she had told him to do. "It seems to be a successful recipe. I wouldn't plan on changing it if I were you two." The physical therapist walked away from Rick, calling, "Okay, A.J., that's enough for today! You don't want to over do it!"
Rick pushed himself away from the wall and began following the woman. Softly, he said, "Nope, I don't plan on changin' it. You don't mess around with something that's come out perfect every time for over forty years."
Monique couldn't help but laugh at the two men as Rick approached and teased, "Pee U. You smell like one of George Foreman's sweat socks after he's gone about six rounds. You're not riding home in the cab of my truck. You'll have to ride in the back with Rex."
With mock indignation A.J. replied, "Me? Stink up your truck? How can I possibly stink up anything that already smells that bad? For heaven's sake, Rick, you haven't cleaned the cab in three years. I can still smell the cheap dime store perfume one of your female friends spilled in there."
"Cheap dime store perfume? That wasn't cheap dime store perfume. I spent a lot of money on that perfume!"
"Yeah, right. It was probably some concoction Surplus Sammy brewed up in his back room and sold to you at what he claimed was a discount price."
"Well...so what if it was? And besides, it wasn't one of my lady friends that spilled it. It was Carlos."
"I'm not even going to ask you why Carlos would have spilled cheap dime store perfume in your truck. Somehow, I have a feeling that I don't want to know the answer to that one."
Monique put an end to the argument, gently pushing both brothers toward the exit. "A.J., I'll see you on Wednesday. Don't over do it with that knee now, you hear? And, Richard, I suppose I'll see you on Wednesday as well?"
Rick bowed deeply at the waist. "That you will, my lovely maiden," he said with a jaunty English accent. Rick grasped Monique's hand and placed a kiss on the back of it. "And while the villagers are beginning to gossip about how often you are seen with my worthless brother, I know it is really me you pine for. Until Wednesday, my lady, your memory shall warm my heart."
"Oh, give me a break." A.J. moaned.
Monique pushed the two men out the door. "Yes, give me one too," she said with a laugh. "I'll see you two jokers on Wednesday."
"See you Wednesday, Monique," A.J. called.
"Until Wednesday, my fair maiden."
Monique was still laughing long after the Simons had made their way to the parking lot.
"Don't lose that recipe, Rick,” Monique said before turning to give her attention to a waiting patient. “Don’t ever lose that recipe.”
One Year Later
Rick Simon was alone in the office he shared with his brother on a day in June. He was puttering around, only getting accomplished about half what he should before A.J. returned from the bank and the post office to pick him up for lunch.
As Rick forced himself to concentrate on an expense report for a client, he glanced up at his desk calendar to verify several dates. Rick paused a moment, realizing that in less than a week they would mark the first anniversary of Melanie's and Josh's deaths.
A lot had happened in that one year's time, Rick thought. The world had been robbed of a beautiful, caring, intelligent woman who had so much to give; and a lively, bright little boy whose potential contributions were left unknown. The man responsible for their deaths had been sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole.
The man left behind to pick up all the pieces and somehow start anew had, of course, been A.J. Rick's brother had come a long way in the last year. No one knew that better than Rick himself. A.J. was no longer receiving physical therapy for his knee, but as a result of the accident was swimming three mornings a week at his health club before work. Swimming had been the first vigorous activity reintroduced in A.J.'s life, and the one he had been advised to seriously pursue in order to promote continued healing. The various other sports A.J. loved had also become a part of his life once again at intermittent stages throughout the past year. He'd been cautioned to be careful when playing those like tennis and racquetball because of the strain the sudden twists and turns incurred in those games can produce on the knees, but other than that he had gotten a clean bill of health from his surgeon three months earlier. The only time A.J.'s knee seemed to bother him now was when they'd been sitting in the Camaro for several hours doing surveillance work or if, for whatever reason, they spent any great length of time crouched down in someone's shrubbery. At those times A.J. would be forced to stand up and walk around a bit before the knee stiffened on him completely. Rick would recall then having been talked to about the possibility of the doctors needing to amputate A.J.'s leg and would decide that, all in all, a stiff knee was a small price to pay for what might have been.
Even one full year later Rick was left unsure of the emotional ramifications A.J. still dealt with as a result of the accident. As Rick had told Monique, he had no magic words. For a long time A.J. had suffered from bouts of depression, and although he never said anymore to Rick about it, the older man was sure that A.J. had days yet when he asked himself why.
Why did I live? Why did they have to die? What could I have done differently? Why?
Lately those dark days seemed to be behind A.J. for the most part. He was still far too quiet on some days, and would occasionally be moody on others, but through it all Rick simply offered his silent support. Sometimes A.J. chose to lean on that support and sometimes he didn't. Rick figured his brother knew best in regards to what he needed to get through each day and willingly made himself available for whatever role A.J. chose for him.
It was as Rick was lost in these thoughts that the office door opened to admit A.J.
"Ready to go?"
"Uh...yeah...in a minute. Just give me a sec to finish up this expense report for Dyer Enterprises."
A.J. walked around his desk and sat in his chair, smiling. "How come that's not done yet? Have you been pursuing your favorite past time of napping while I've been gone? "
"No, I haven't been napping," Rick said with a mock edge to his tone. "I've been busy."
A.J. looked through the mail he had carried in, agreeing, "Uh huh."
The blond man interrupted Rick's work a few moments later. "I got a call at home the other night from Langdon Frahm."
Langdon Frahm had been Melanie's boss at San Diego Research. He was also the president and part owner of the company. Rick and A.J. had encountered him on two different occasions while they had worked for Melanie and had quickly understood why she had thought so much of the man. In an age when it was growing uncommon, this man put his employees ahead of the bottom line. He really cared about the people who worked for him. Melanie had told the Simons that Frahm's philosophy was, ‘If you don't work for your employees, your employees won't work for you.’ He gave his loyalty fully to those whom he employed, and expected nothing less in return. He had been the person who had checked into the background of Simon and Simon before Melanie had hired them.
Rick had sat next to the gray headed man and his wife at the funeral service for Melanie and Josh. Frahm's grief over the entire affair had been evident when he didn't try to hide the tears that he couldn't keep from running down his face during the minister's sermon. He also had flowers sent to A.J. in the hospital on behalf of his entire staff, and had made it a point to come and visit the blond detective before he was released to go home.
Since that time Rick and A.J. had worked for Langdon Frahm on several occasions. He switched from the detective agency he had been using to do background checks into potential employees and gave his patronage to the Simons instead. He also had the brothers speak at two seminars he'd held for his employees over the past six months, one on how to make your home crime resistant, the other on how to avoid falling victim to con artists and costly scams.
In answer to A.J.'s statement, Rick asked, "What'd he want? Is he ready for us to do that seminar on personal safety that he was plannin’ on holding for the women who work for him? Man, I'm really lookin' forward to that one, A.J."
A.J. couldn't help but smile. "Yes, I'm sure you are. But no, that's not what he wanted."
"Oh. What was it then?"
"He called to invite us to their corporate picnic."
"That was nice of him. When is it?"
"Two weeks from Saturday."
Rick glanced up at his desk calendar once again. "I guess I'm free that day. You feel like goin'?"
"I...I don't know. I've got to...give it a little more thought, I guess."
Rick looked over at his brother, taking note of the downcast eyes.
Maybe being around all those people who knew Melanie so well will be hard for him right now. Especially with it being near the anniversary date of the accident.
Before Rick had a chance to tell his brother that if he didn't want to go he shouldn't feel obligated to, A.J. said, "Their picnic isn't just for their own employees. They host it at Balboa Park along with four other big companies. Langdon said they have games for the children, plus all kinds of adult activities including volleyball, horseshoes, softball games and a five mile race."
"Wow. Sounds like they go to a lot of trouble."
"Yes, they do. It costs anyone who enters the race eight dollars, and each corporate team that plays softball and volleyball has to pay an entry fee also. There's some other friendly wagering that goes on between the companies as well that can amount to thousands of dollars."
"Geez, these people take their friendly wagering seriously."
A.J. nodded. "For a good reason. The executive officers of all these companies meet in the spring and choose a charity to donate all the money to they raise from the picnic. Langdon said that this year...that this year the event is being hosted in the memories of Melanie and Josh."
"I see." Rick now understood A.J.'s hesitation in regards to participating in the picnic.
"Not only did Langdon call me to invite us to the picnic, but he also wanted to know what I thought of the charity he had earmarked to receive the money raised this year in Melanie's memory."
"And what was that?"
"The Center Against Domestic Violence," A.J. stated quietly.
"I think that would have meant a lot to Melanie, don't you?"
"Yes, I do. I also asked him to set aside some of that money for one other charity."
When A.J. didn't offer any more Rick asked, "And that was?"
"Friends Of Children. It's an organization that treats children who are victims of incest. I asked him to make a donation in Josh's memory on behalf of his mother."
Rick swallowed hard. "I think that's a real good idea, A.J. What'd Langdon say?"
"He didn't ask for any details, if that's what you mean. I told him that charity would have meant a lot to Melanie, and maybe to Josh as well, had they both had a chance to live a full life. He was just pleased to know that the organizations he was donating to had personal meaning to Mel."
"As I'm sure they both would have," Rick agreed. "Melanie would be very proud, A.J."
A.J. lifted one shoulder in a shrug of indifference. Rick decided that, for the moment, he'd let the conversation end there and give A.J. some time to sort out his thoughts and feelings regarding Langdon Frahm's phone call.
For now, all Rick said was, "You know, that picnic might be kind of fun. We do know a lot of the people that work there. They seem like a nice group."
"Yeah," was the most A.J. would commit to.
"Well, you think it over for a few days and let me know if you decide to go. I don't really want to go by myself, but if you're goin' and you don't mind the company, then I'll come along too. We could both play on the softball team."
A.J. gave a small smile. "Langdon mentioned that. He was trying to sign us up. I told him I'd call him back on Friday and let him know for sure."
"That gives you a couple of days to think it over," was where Rick left the subject. The lanky man rose from his seat. "Come on. Let's go get some lunch. I'm starving."
A.J. rose as well, and followed his brother out the door. "Did you get that expense report done?"
"Well...uh...no. But I'll finish it up when we get back."
"Someone from Dyer's is going to be here to pick it up at two o'clock, Rick," A.J. reminded as the two entered the elevator.
"I know that. But you can't expect me to think on an empty stomach."
"It comes as a surprise to me that you think on a full stomach."
"You know, A.J., you might think that it's too late for me to put you up for adoption on the black market, but it's not. All it's gonna take is for the right offer to come along and you'll be the seventh son of seven sons livin' over on some sand dune somewhere gettin' to where you need to go on the back of a camel. Boy, then will you look back on old big brother and realize how you took him for granted."
"Don't count on it," came the last reply heard as the elevator door slid shut.
Two weeks later, on a warm Saturday afternoon, the Simon brothers could be found at Balboa Park attending San Diego Research's corporate picnic. Children ran to and fro, laughing and shouting while participating in three-legged races, sack races, beanbag tosses, and a wide variety of other activities led by eight enthusiastic parents and two clowns.
Picnic tables heaping with food more than satisfied even the ever-hungry Rick. After the noon meal had a chance to settle a bit in everyone's stomachs the round robin softball games commenced. Rick and A.J. played on the team with Melanie's co-workers. At four o'clock that afternoon the brothers found themselves playing for the championship. Although their team ultimately lost, all the players, including Langdon Frahm, congratulated themselves on a hard fought battle and washed down their sorrows with a round of cold beer.
The five mile run over the paved streets within the park was set to begin at seven p.m. This had grown to become the most popular event of the annual picnic, and this year had attracted over three hundred entrants ranging in age from ten to seventy.
Most of those who had signed up to run chose not to return to the picnic tables for sandwiches and other leftovers as the dinner hour approached.
Rick, with an overloaded paper plate in hand, came to sit next to his brother on one end of a picnic table. Noting that A.J. wasn't eating, Rick asked, "You're gonna run?"
A.J. nodded. "Yeah. I think so."
"After the baseball games and everything today your knee's not bothering you?"
"No. It feels fine."
In-between mouthfuls of coleslaw Rick cautioned, "Take it easy. You don't want to push it to the point that you cause yourself some kinda injury."
"Yes, Mother," A.J. dutifully replied, for which he received a playful snarl. The subject ended there when the brothers were joined by several of their softball teammates and the conversation turned to, "The game we almost won."
Two hours later, along with all the other spectators, Rick lined up along the path where the runners were due to finish. Twenty eight minutes and some odd seconds after the start of the race the first runner crossed the finish line. The crowd cheered for the twenty-four-year old man who was employed by Mr. Frahm's company. It was two minutes later before any other runners appeared, but one by one young men and two young women, most of them in their early twenties, came across the line. Rick was taken by surprise when, right in the middle of one of those packs of young people, came A.J.
Loud cheers erupted on A.J.'s behalf as he ran the last few yards to the finish line. Langdon Frahm and his employees knew the significance of the victory they were seeing today. It touched Rick that these people had cared so much for Melanie and Josh, and now in turn, were showing their appreciation for the man who had tried so hard to protect them.
A.J. was the twenty-eighth runner to cross the finish line that day, and was the first place winner in his class; men age forty to forty-five. Later that evening a brief ceremony was held and medals were awarded to all men, women and children who had placed in the top three spots within their age group. The young man who won the race overall was given a trophy. All the runners received a blue ribbon that read, Participant In The Corporate Picnic 5 Mile Run. Dedicated To The Memories Of Melanie And Joshua Cason.
Darkness had long since fallen when Rick and A.J. decided to call it a day. The tired detectives said their goodbyes to Melanie's co-workers, then shook hands with Langdon Frahm and thanked him for the invitation. The executive promised to be in touch with them soon in regards to the safety seminar he wanted them to host in the near future.
As the brothers walked the desolate path to the distant parking lot A.J. had left the Camaro in, Rick praised, "You did good today, little brother. I never expected that knee to hold up as well as it did for that race."
"I didn't know how well it would hold up either, to tell you the truth. I've been doing a lot of running again, but I haven't entered a race for a couple of years now. I didn't know what to expect. I just knew that I wanted to give it my best for Mel and Josh."
Rick put his arm around A.J.'s shoulders. "I think you did better than that, A.J. I have a feeling that somehow, Melanie and Josh were a part of this day. And I know that they were the ones cheering the loudest for you when you crossed that finish line."
"They were on my mind a lot today," A.J. admitted softly. "I kept thinking of how much fun Josh would have had with all the games and all those other kids. He would have loved the clowns."
"Yeah, he would have," Rick agreed. "You know, A.J., I'm real proud of you. You made the decision to come here today, even though I know it was hard for you to be a part of this."
"Do you remember how you told me that I owed it to Melanie and Josh to keep their memories alive?"
"That's why I came today, Rick. That's also why I asked Langdon to donate some of the money raised to Friends Of Children. It's the only way I have to let others know how special Melanie and her son were. I hope that somehow, with the money that's donated, some little girl somewhere won't have to go through what Melanie did. I hope through better education it helps put an end to that type of crime. I know it's idealistic, but it would be nice to think that someday, every kid will have the opportunity to grow up in the kind of home I did. In a home where I always felt safe and secure and loved, and my big brother hurting me in any way was the farthest thing from my mind."
Rick stopped their progress toward the car. He turned and pulled his brother into his arms. "There's nothing wrong with harboring that wish for every child, A.J. You were a good kid, little brother, and you've grown up to be a heck of a man."
A.J. reciprocated the bear hug he was engulfed in. "I don't tell you thank you often enough for being the kind of brother a little boy looked up to. And even after all these years, for being the kind of a brother a grown man looks up to. Thanks, big brother. Thanks."
"You don't have to thank me, A.J. You repay me in kind often enough."
The brothers broke apart, though Rick left one arm draped across A.J.'s shoulders. As they continued their trek to the Camaro Rick said, "Hey, let's stop at McDonalds on the way home. I'm starvin'."
"You've got to be kidding me! After all that food you shoveled in today? Rick, you ate enough to sustain yourself for the next three weeks."
"I did not! I'm hungry. Come on. Please. We can go through the drive-up. You won't even have to get out."
"Oh, all right. But you'd better not get sesame seeds all over my seats again. And I don't want the filling from a hot apple pie oozing out onto the floor either. And make sure you don't drop any fries. I always end up finding French fries in the strangest places after we've gone through a drive-up. Every time you eat in my car it looks like I've taken an entire preschool class out to lunch."
"You know, A.J., you need to learn to relax more. You really are far too picky about the every day little nuisances."
"I should be. I quite often find you to be one of them."
The brotherly teasing continued all the way to the car that night. Rick stood in the darkness as the Camaro's engine roared to life. He patiently waited for A.J. to lean over the front seat and unlock the passenger side door. As he stood there, Rick swore he heard the giggle of a familiar little boy.
“I like it when A.J. teases you, Rick.”
Rick looked around in puzzlement.
“I'm right here, Rick. Right beside you. You told A.J. that me and Mom were here cheerin' for him, and we were.”
"Josh?" Rick whispered in astonishment.
“Yeah, Rick, it's me, Josh. Hey, Rick, you know what? I still like it when A.J. teases you.”
A moment passed before Rick was willing to become a participant in what he thought was occurring. Softly he said, "So do I, partner. So do I. You take care of your mom now, you hear?"
“I will. And Mom says for you to take care of A.J. Tell A.J. not to be sad anymore. Me and Mom are real happy. I love you, Rick. I love you, A.J. I have to go now. It's real fun where I live now, Rick. Goodbye.”
"Bye, Josh," Rick whispered.
Faintly, as if the voice was floating somewhere above him, Rick heard, “Hey, Rick! I still remember our song. Peter Murphy, Peter Murphy, sittin' on a rock, along came a bumble bee and stung him on his...Cocktails, lemonade, three cents a glass, if you don't like it you can kiss my...Ask me no questions I'll tell you no lies, a man got hit with a bucket of shi..."
“Joshua James! How many times have I told you not to sing that song? Oh, Rick Simon, you've got some heavy explaining to do to a lot of people when you arrive up here, let me tell you.”
Rick heard a soft laugh filled with affection.
“Take care of yourself, Rick. And take care of A.J. He's a very special soul. Don't let him blame himself for something that was beyond his control. It was the way things were meant to be. I'm at peace now. I love you both.”
And with that, Rick heard no more.
"Goodbye, Melanie," the lanky detective whispered to the star filled sky.
A.J. was tuning in a radio station when Rick finally climbed in the car. "Who were you talking to?"
"Oh...just the angels."
A.J. gave his brother an odd look. "The angels? I think I'd better hurry up and get you something to eat. You get weird when you're hungry."
As A.J. pulled the Camaro out of its parking spot and drove off into the night, a little breeze fluttered softly where the two men had just been. It might have been the wind...or it might have been the beating of angel wings. Rick knew which one he thought it was, and he smiled.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Chance Made Us Brothers, Hearts Made Us Friends