Chapter 39


Saturday Evening, December 18th, 1993



     Bayside Center was alive with blinking lights of red and green and white.  Wreaths hung from every door, including those of the in-patient residents.  A fat round evergreen decorated by a number of the residents stood in the expansive foyer in gay greeting.  Another tree, this one over twelve feet high, was in the center's main conference room. 


     Being held in that main conference room tonight was the annual Christmas party the staff threw for the current patients, both in-house and out.  There was music, door prizes, a skit performed by the doctors, and more food than ever got eaten.  It was an informal evening that did not include the patients' families.  It was intended to be a fun time for all.  No one was pressured to behave a certain way, or to be anyone other than who they were.  It was not a night to discuss treatments or progress or diagnoses, which is why family members of patients were not among the invited guests.  


     A young woman still in graduate school and serving her apprenticeship with Clay Burrows knocked on A.J.'s closed door. 


     From within she heard his succinct, "What?"


     Jennifer McMillian's long flaming hair entered the room before she did as she leaned forward and around the door she opened halfway.     "Aren't you going to join us for the party, A.J.?"


     A.J. was sitting in an overstuffed recliner with an open book in his lap. "No."


     "Come on.  We're having a great time.  You'll have fun."

     A.J. shook his head in the only answer he deemed necessary. 


     Jennifer sighed in frustration before closing the door and leaving A.J. to his privacy.  Ten minutes later another knock sounded, only this visitor didn't wait to be granted permission before entering.  Clay Burrows thrust his upper body into the room.


     "Hey, A.J.," Clay greeted with cheerful exuberance.  "Come on and join the party."


     A.J. took a deep breath that was meant to control his temper over this second unwelcome interruption.  "No.  I'm not interested."


     "Everyone else is there.  They're all wondering where you are."

     Since A.J. did not speak to anyone other than the few staff members he was forced to, he highly doubted ‘everyone’ was wondering where he was.  Most of the patients only knew him as Dr. Burrows' patient who doesn't talk, or as the blond guy who swims laps in the pool every morning and massacres the gym's punching bag every night.


     A.J. returned his attention to his book.  "I'm not interested."


     "I was really hoping to introduce you to my wife."


     A.J.'s eyes rose to meet the doctor's.  "Why, Clay?  So you can show her the new freak you're trying to cure?"




     "I don't want to attend.  I already told Jennifer that, and now I'm telling you. If you send anyone else down here to get me, I'll tell them the same thing."


     "All right,” Clay sighed.  Have it your way.  But you're missing a heck of a party."


     A.J.'s reply was dripping with sarcasm.  "I'm sure I'll survive the disappointment."


     Clay shook his head in frustration as he shut the door.  He supposed he should look at the positive side of things.  A.J. had said more to him in that short exchange than he'd said in a month.  Unfortunately, discussing whether or not to attend a Christmas party was hardly going to get either one of them anywhere. 


     After Clay left, A.J. sat his book aside and walked over to look out the wide picture window.  Small white lights adorned the trees in front of the center.


     For some reason the last Christmas party A.J. had attended came to mind.  It had been the one held on Christmas Eve at St. Jude's Shelter For The Homeless.  It hadn't been fancy.  A.J. supposed compared to the one going on down at the other end of the building it had been downright shabby.  But just like the humble stable the Christ Child was born in was enough for his parents, that humble shelter and the people who were a part of it was enough for A.J.  Malachi had grown to become his best friend, and Dominique...well, she had become his lover.  And others who resided in Beulah Land like Will, Cal, and Shorty, had grown to become his friends, too.  Maybe they had even grown to become his family.  A family who didn't pressure him to talk about things he didn't want to.  A family who didn't care about his comings and goings.  A family who didn't try to control him by telling him what he could and couldn't do.  A family who looked out for him, in the same way he willingly looked out for them. And they had sure liked his cooking.  They were always saying, "Boy, you gotta eat at St. Jude's, man.  They got a guy there by the name a' Jack who can take Spam and make it taste like the pot roast your mama used to make.  The dude don't say much, but I'm tellin' ya', man, he sure can cook."


     The more A.J. thought about it, the more he knew where he really belonged.  It would be so easy to get there.  All he had to do was go home, pack the coveted knapsack Dominique had given him, and take off in the Camaro.  Once he got to San Francisco he'd sell the car he had just purchased in early April.  He didn't need it.  And the shelter could use the money he got out of it.  Eventually, he'd give his family instructions to sell his home, too. 


     As A.J. threw his clothes into the large zippered sports bag his mother had secreted in her trunk the day she and Rick left him here, he thought briefly of his family.  How would they feel when they found him gone?  He supposed it would hurt them for a while, but they'd get over it.  Hadn't he and his mother gone on with their lives after Rick chose to take off on that damn motorcycle of his shortly after returning from Vietnam?  Yep, overall they'd managed just fine and so had Rick.  Just like A.J. would now manage just fine.  He'd give them a chance to adjust to his absence, and then call home to let them know he was okay.  Maybe on Christmas Day.  Or New Year's Day.  Or soon thereafter.  Deep down inside the last thing A.J. wanted to do was cause them more pain, but eventually they'd come to see that his leaving was the best thing for all of them.  Eventually they'd come to see that was the only way he could keep them safe.


     As A.J. gathered up his razor, toothbrush, books, and what few other personal belongings of his the room contained, a part of his mind begged him to reconsider what he was doing.  But another part of his mind, the part that still suffered the residual effects of brainwashing despite Clay's months of therapy, called forth the image of Dylan Reed being carried through overgrown grass in a body bag as shown on the TV news.  

And when A.J. thought of that, he was carried back to all those long months in Agilar's basement. 


     "If you ever tell anyone, anyone at all, what was done to you or who you are, I will derive great pleasure from killing both your brother and your mother. I will derive great pleasure from torturing them, as I have tortured you."

     A.J. chased the cold cruel voice from his mind.  He looked around the room one last time to make sure he had everything.  As A.J. opened the door and peered out into the hallway, he thought of how much easier life was going to be as Jack. 





     Escape from Bayside Center hardly required any effort at all.  The main entrance/exit doors were only locked after ten p.m. at night, and were reopened again at nine in the morning.  It was not intended that Bayside keep anyone against his will.  If a patient was so inclined as to walk out, the staff tried to reason with the person as opposed to agitating him further with bars and locks.  So, had the party not been going on, A.J. would have simply sauntered out the front doors.  But too many people were loitering about in the lobby.  The last thing A.J. needed was Clay Burrows running after him in an attempt to prevent his departure through pleas and false promises.  And for all his well-intentioned efforts, Dr. Burrows would ultimately fail, of that A.J. had no doubt. However, A.J. also knew the first thing Clay would do after he was out of the doctor's sight, was pick up the phone and call Rick.  And A.J. knew the first thing Rick would do, was make good on his threat of gaining power of attorney and medical guardianship.  Then Bayside would have the right to lock A.J. in.  The blond man vowed to himself that would never happen.  Agilar had held him against his will for six months.  No one else was ever going to do that to him again.


     Therefore, instead of walking toward the main entrance, A.J. turned left and headed down the winding maze of corridors that held the twenty-five rooms for in-house residents.  There were three emergency exit doors, one that led out onto the front lawn, one that opened onto the back, and another that opened onto the south side of the brick center.   Based on the orientation he'd been given on his first day as an in-patient A.J. knew these doors could only be opened by a staff member using a key that would disengage the fire alarm.  Otherwise, if one simply pushed the heavy handle the door would indeed open, but the fire alarm would sound in a piercing wail throughout the building and the sprinkler system would engage.  As well, an alarm was activated at the local fire station.


     A.J. had no desire to announce his departure in a style quite that grand.  In addition to that, setting off a false fire alarm was a felony.  Therefore, neither did he have a desire for a warrant to be issued for his arrest.     


     Bypassing the alarm that was wired to the heavy metal door was child's play for the detective.  He'd been doing this kind of work for almost twenty-five years now.  Ever since he'd first been hired to work summers while still in college for a now long-retired San Diego private investigator by the name of Neil DeBell.


     Because the party was in full swing at the other end of the building the resident halls were deserted, meaning A.J. didn't have to worry about keeping watch over his shoulder.  Two minutes after he'd set to work, A.J. slipped quietly into the night.  The blond man only had to walk five blocks before he was moving out of the quiet residential area that surrounded the center and onto busy sidewalks lined with shopping malls, gas stations, and restaurants.  He hailed a passing taxi.  He had plenty of money in his wallet.  Obviously, in the past month, he'd had nothing to spend it on. 


     The blond detective gave the driver his address on the Grand Canal.  As he leaned back against the seat A.J. smiled for the first time in weeks.  He was going home.


     Home to San Francisco.




Chapter 40


Saturday Evening, December 18th, 1993



     Because A.J. had no idea as to how much the neighbors knew in regards to where he'd been during the past four weeks, he had the taxi driver drop him off a block away from his home.   He didn't want the sound of a slamming car door to draw anyone's attention to him.  Though he thought it was highly unlikely any of his neighbors were aware of the circumstances surrounding his sudden departure, he wasn't about to take any chances.  Rick was crafty.  There could be the remote possibility some neighbor or the other had been asked to keep an eye on A.J.'s house, and in the event A.J. should return to it, that same neighbor may have been asked to give Rick a call.


     The neighborhood was quiet, just as it had been an hour earlier when Rick and Cecilia had arrived in it.  A.J. encountered no one as he walked toward his home, not even a passing car.  Mr. Gorman's house was dark, which was a good sign.  If Rick had asked anyone to keep an eye on A.J.'s place, it would have been nosy Mr. Gorman.


     A dim arc of light shone through the stained glass of the kitchen door.  That didn't cause A.J. any concern.  His mother had told him she'd set his automatic timers.  He knew once he entered he'd find his bedroom lit up as well.  That would be to A.J.’s advantage.  It wouldn't be necessary to turn on any other lights.  Everything he intended to take with him was in his room.  Nothing much in the way of material items really mattered to him anyway, except that blue knapsack.


     A.J. dug in the front pocket of his jeans for his keys.  Even from outside he could hear the distinct click of the deadbolt lock as it released. The blond man opened the door and stepped inside.  His hand was still on the knob when he looked straight ahead into the living room.  It took a second for it to register with A.J. that his mother and brother were sitting stiffly on the sofa with their backs to him. 


     How the hell did they know? Someone must have seen me leave the center and tipped off Clay.  Maybe one of the cars that passed me while I was walking was driven by a member of the staff.  I never thought of that.  Damn!  I should have known better.  I should have cut through backyards.  How stupid could I have been to stroll right down the middle of the sidewalk as if I didn't have a care in the world?


     Although only a few brief seconds had passed since A.J. had opened the door, he was beginning to wonder why his family still hadn't turned around.  They had to have heard him enter.  He certainly hadn't tried to muffle his movements.  No matter, their temporary paralysis would serve him well.  Without saying anything, A.J. whirled around with the intention of fleeing through a succession of backyards until he could hail another taxi.  He hadn't seen his mother's car or Rick's truck parked anywhere nearby, which meant Rick would lose ground in the chase.  And as far as a footrace went, well ever since he'd turned sixteen A.J. had been able to outrun his brother.  He'd get a flight out of Lindbergh Field and arrive in San Francisco in a matter of a few hours.


     Before the blond detective had a chance to do more than formulate his plan in his mind, Eduardo Agilar stepped away from the wall that had been blocking him from A.J.'s line of vision.  He stood in front of the waist high counter top that allowed one to see into the living room. 


     "I do not think I want you to leave yet, my old friend.  After all, the party is just beginning."


     A.J.'s eyes grew wide with shock and disbelief.  His breathing sped up, and the sports bag slipped unnoticed from his fingers.  It made a gentle 'thump,' as it hit the kitchen floor. 


     Agilar walked over and placed the muzzle of the Browning against Rick's skull.  "Close the door, Andres.  Now."


     When the shell-shocked A.J. did no more than stand there, Agilar rammed the gun into Rick's skull. A small patch of the detective's scalp was torn.  Warm blood trickled freely down the back of Rick's head and stained the collar of his shirt red. 


     "I said now, Andres!  If you do not do it I will put a bullet through your brother's head!  Your mother will be next."


     A.J. swallowed hard and closed the door behind him. 


     Agilar looked down at Rick.  With triumph he crowed, "I thought you said your brother was away on vacation, Senor."


     Despite the burning sting of his torn scalp Rick returned dryly,  "He was.  He came back early."


     Agilar laughed.  "Sometimes I very much enjoy your sense of humor, Simon.  I am going to miss it when you are no longer around to entertain me."


     Agilar's attention returned to A.J.  As though he was the headmaster of a school maintained by rigid discipline he ordered, "Come here, Andres."


     Rick kept waiting to hear his brother tell Agilar to go to hell.  But the words never came, instead only silent compliance. 


     Agilar motioned A.J. to stand in front of Rick and Cecilia.  It was the first time they were able to look at him.  When Agilar had heard someone coming up the wooden walkway he had ordered them to remain sitting with their backs to the door.


     All color was drained from A.J.'s face, leaving him a chalky shade of gray.  His breathing was rapid and uneven, his eyes wide and filled with terror.  Neither Rick nor Cecilia missed the tremors that caused his hands to shake.  Cecilia was certain he was going to pass out.  Rick was wishing he would. That unexpected happening would catch Agilar off guard and give Rick a chance to overpower the man, despite the handcuffs that still circled his wrists.  If nothing else, Rick would yell for all he was worth for his mother to run.


     Agilar slowly circled the blond man like a buzzard circling a dying, defenseless animal in the desert.  "So, my friend, you have returned from your...vacation.  That is good.  That is very good, because I did not want this family gathering to take place without you."  Agilar's hand shot upward and grabbed A.J. by the jaw as he'd done earlier with Rick.  His tone changed from mockingly sweet, to cold and authoritative.  "What did I tell you, Andres, that you must never do?  What did I warn you about?"


     When A.J. didn't speak the man became more enraged.  He squeezed the blond's face and screamed with spaced emphasis,   ""               


     A.J. began to shake his head and Agilar let his hand drop.  The man's tone did another drastic change.  This time he sounded like a caring father trying to convince his son the truth would hurt him far less than a lie. 


"What did I tell you?"


     "I didn't," A.J. beseeched as he frantically shook his head back and forth.  His eyes pleaded with Agilar.   "I didn't."


     "You did not what?"


     "I didn't tell anyone.  I didn't."


     Agilar looked at Cecilia and Rick.  He wore the smile of a lion that has trapped a mouse.  "And what was it you were not supposed to tell?"


     A.J. replied like a dutiful student who had long memorized his lessons.   "What happened to me.  Who I am."


     "And what events did I tell you would occur if you did reveal those things?"


     "That...that...that...that..." A.J. couldn't seem to bring himself to finish.  "That...that..."


     "That what, Andres?  Do not stammer like the idiot I have told you many times you are.  Tell me."


     A.J.'s eyes followed the man's circular path that was growing ever tighter around him.   "That you would kill my family."


     Rick and Cecilia exchanged glances.  Never, in their wildest dreams, had they imagined this was how they'd discover what A.J. hadn't been able to talk about all these months.


     "And so what, Andres?  Did you not believe me?"  Agilar snared A.J.'s arm and twisted it until it came to rest between his shoulder blades.  Rick fully expected to hear the bone crack.  He shot off the couch.


     "Agilar!   Leave him alone!"


     Eduardo pointed the Browning at Cecilia's head.  "Shut up, Simon, and sit back down.  It is not you who I am talking to right at the moment."


     Rick's jaw clenched in rage as the threat to his mother forced him do what the Salvadoran ordered.


     Agilar returned his attention to A.J.  "Now that your brother is done interrupting us, Andres, I will ask my question again.  Did you not believe me when I told you I would derive great pleasure from raping your mother for days and nights on end?  Maybe even months on end before I finally kill her in such a slow way she will be begging to die?"


     A.J. bit his lower lip as his breaths came in harsh pants.  He didn't answer the man, though Rick didn't know if that was a result of the pain he was in because of his arm being held in a position arms aren't meant to be held in, or if it was because A.J. was incapable of answering the man.  


     Agilar smiled, reminding Rick of Biblical pictures he'd seen depicting the serpent in the Garden of Eden.  The man's dark eyes were small and danced with evil.  His thin lips formed a straight flat line against his handsome face.   "Or did you not believe me when I said I would enjoy torturing your brother until his brains are the consistency of porridge?"  Agilar waved his gun toward Rick.  "Look at your brother, Andres.  Look at him!"


     A.J. did as commanded.  His eyes met Rick's.  For the first time in all the years they'd worked together, Rick could not read his brother's intentions by looking into those blue eyes.  Because A.J.'s eyes were frighteningly empty.   Because even without the help of a bullet, Rick feared Eduardo Agilar had already killed his brother.  


     Agilar screamed, "Are you looking at him?"   


     Without allowing his eyes to leave Rick's face, A.J. nodded.


     "No!  Do not nod your head as though you are retarded, it makes you look like a fool!"  Eduardo twisted A.J.'s arm a fraction of an inch higher.   "Now say it!"


     Rick's heart couldn't stand the humiliation his brother was being subjected to and neither could his mother's.  Tears were streaming down Cecilia's face.


     Rick knew this degrading humiliation done in front of an audience was a form of brainwashing, and could now easily imagine all A.J. had been forced to endure during his months of captivity in the Agilar household.  It was amazing he'd come out of it as well as he had. 


     "Say the words, Andres!" 


     Despite the pain he had to be in, A.J.'s voice was wooden and devoid of feeling.  "Yes, I'm looking at him."


     "Your brother is a proud man, Andres.  Very proud.  I can see it in his eyes, and in the way that he sits there so straight and tall like a preening peacock.  What a shame to turn such a proud man into the same kind of babbling fool I have turned you into.  Though I admit, the thought is intriguing."  Eduardo smiled.  "And I can see your brother's courage.  A courage you lack, as I have often reminded you.  But your brother has the courage of a lion, Andres, and right now I can see that he wants to kill me."

     "No, Agilar," Rick growled,  "killing would be too good for a miserable bastard like you.  All I want is to be alone with you in a room for five minutes minus that toy gun you hide behind.  That's all I need, pal.  Believe me, that's all I need in order to show you who it is that lacks courage around here."


     Rick's words did not entice Eduardo as he fully expected them to.  As he hoped they would, so that the man would release A.J. and come after him instead. 


     "So you do not think your brother is a coward, Senor Simon?"  Agilar asked Rick.  "You do not think he is an idiot like I do?  You do not think he is an embarrassment to your family?  A...retard, as I believe you Americans refer to those with minds that are not quite...right, shall we say?"


     Rick made sure he was looking into A.J.'s eyes when he made his firm reply.  "No, I don't think any of those things.  I never have, and I never will, because they're not true.  And even if they were, it wouldn't matter to me."


     As abruptly as Agilar had seized A.J.'s arm he now released it with a downward jerk.  The sudden movement caused the blond to cry out in pain.  He leaned forward at the waist while cradling the injured appendage.  The Salvadoran grabbed a fistful of A.J.'s hair and yanked him back to a standing position. 


     "Stand up straight until I tell you otherwise!  Have you forgotten that you do nothing unless I tell you to?"


     A.J. shook his head no to indicate he hadn't forgotten.


     "That is better," Eduardo crooned as he caressed the side of A.J.'s face.  "Much better.  See, you are not so stupid after all."


     "Okay, Eddie,” Rick said, “you've had more than your share of fun for one night.   Whatever else is on the agenda let's get it over with 'cause ya' see, it's gettin' late and I'm not as young as I used to be.  A whippersnapper your age can party all night, but an old fart like me - well by eight I'm pretty bushed.  By nine I've usually gone to beddie-by."


     Again Agilar laughed.  But he didn't do what Rick wanted him to. He didn't move away from A.J.   But when he did...when he did Rick was going to launch himself at the man's midsection.  Although his mother wouldn't want to, Rick felt certain she would have the presence of mind to run.  As far as A.J. went...Rick looked up at his brother.  The blond's eyes were now glazed over, and it was evident A.J.'s mind was no longer in the room.  Maybe no longer with him at all.  Rick glanced at Cecilia to see she was observing the same things in her youngest.  Therefore, Rick hoped that when he threw himself on Agilar his mother would grab A.J. by the hand and run for all she was worth.   If luck was with them A.J. would run right along with her, regardless of whether he knew what was happening or not.  And if luck stayed with them, Rick could engage Agilar in a struggle that prevented him from getting to the trigger of his gun for at least a half a minute.  His mother might no longer be young in years, but she was thin and fit, and wearing shoes with no heels.  Thirty seconds ought to give her and A.J. a good head start in the dark neighborhood.  A neighborhood Cecilia knew and Agilar didn't.          


     Agilar circled the blond man again.  "You have made me very angry, Andres, did you know that?  Because of you, Senorita Reed began sticking her nose where it did not belong.  But no matter.  I have taken care of her, just like I plan to take of you.  Though only after you and I have spent much quality time together again.  And after I have killed your family first, of course.  After I have killed them while you watch, as I told you would happen if you betrayed me."  Agilar moved closer and spoke softly in A.J.'s ear, but not so softly that Rick and Cecilia couldn't hear his every word.  "After I have raped your mother until she begs me to kill her.  Until she hates you for what you have caused to happen to her.  And after I have turned your brother's brain to mush.  He will no longer be the proud, courageous man you see sitting on the sofa.  He will be a weak, broken, sniveling man, and he will come to hate you as well, before he dies."


     A.J.'s upper body crumpled at the waist.  He brought his hands and arms up to cover his bowed head as though he was protecting himself from physical blows.  "No, no," he begged in a child-like whimper.  "No, no, no."

     A.J.'s knees gave way and he sank to the floor.  His back came to rest against the easy chair.  The blond man remained in a seated position, curled in a protective ball.  "No, no, no, no."


     Agilar poked the blond's shoulder with his gun.  He looked over at Rick and Cecilia.  His chin jutted forward and his chest puffed out, as though he was proud of himself.  "See there," he smiled.  "He is of no use to either one of you.  He has betrayed both of you.  He is an idiot and a coward."


     Cecilia was openly crying now, not for herself or what she feared was in store for her family, but for her youngest son. For the way Agilar was hurting him.   She was A.J.'s mother.  No matter how old he was, it was her job to protect him from people like Eduardo Agilar if he was unable to protect himself.  Only she couldn't go to him.  She couldn't take him in her arms and offer him love, and comfort, and protection, because Agilar would surely kill him if she tried.


     "No, no, no, no."


     A.J.'s cries had changed to a babble that sounded like a baby trying out his first words.  "No, no, no, no."  He began to rock his body back and forth like a toddler who's trying to offer himself solace after a particularly trying day.   "No, no, no, no."


     Despite the steel cuffs, Rick Simon's hands were clenched in fists.  He didn't attempt to mask the hate and fury in his eyes, or on his face. 


     Before this is all over with I'll kill you, Agilar, I swear I'll kill you.  Or I'll die trying.

     And all the while Rick could not block out the heart wrenching sounds that droned on in the background. 


     "No, no, no, no."


     Agilar kept his gun trained on Rick while keeping a watchful eye on both him and his mother.  Like he had done back at Cecilia's house, the Salvadoran pulled his flip phone out of his pocket and summoned Juan to pick them up at the door.


     "No, no, no, no."


     Through the arms he was clutching loosely to his head A.J. saw Agilar's attention was riveted on Rick and his mother, and not on himself.


     "No, no, no, no."


     He quieted his nonsensical babbling so he could hear what Agilar was saying into the phone.


     "No, no, no, no."


     A.J.'s words grew even softer, while still maintaining the rhythm of an old steam engine chugging up a hill. 


     "No, no, no, no."


     He saw Agilar's feet cross in front of him.


     "No, no, no, no...Nooooo!"


     A.J. shouted loud and long in as much of an effort to divert Agilar's attention from his family, as in an effort to let Rick and Cecilia know what he was doing. 


     The blond man's body flew out of its crouch.  He launched himself at Agilar's legs.  His grip of steel around the man's knees brought Agilar crashing to the floor.  The Browning landed with a soft 'plunk' in the thick carpeting just out of Agilar's reach. 


     Although A.J.'s attention was on the struggling Agilar who was clawing his way to the gun, the blond man commanded his family, "Run damn it run!  Run!"


     Cecilia did run, though not with the intention of leaving the house.  She threw the dead bolt in place on the kitchen door, then jammed a chair from the nearby table underneath the knob.  Her methods might not keep Juan out for long, but if nothing else they'd buy time.  She crossed the small room to the phone and punched out 911.  Frantically she said who she was, what address she was at, and what the situation was, making sure she told the dispatcher the assailant was Eduardo Agilar.  While that last bit of information probably meant nothing to the woman on the other end of the phone, Cecilia knew when the first radio calls went out it would mean a great deal to the patrol officers and detectives who heard it.  Cecilia also told the dispatcher to contact Abigail Marsh.


     While Cecilia was doing her part to keep her family safe, A.J. was doing his.  He and Agilar rolled and struggled and fought on the floor.  Just as the Salvadoran was about to grab the Browning, Rick kicked it out of his reach.  Despite Agilar's violent attempts to free himself, A.J. maintained his hold on the man while cleanly sweeping up the weapon that slid his way.


     A.J. pressed the muzzle to Agilar's temple and yanked the man to his feet by his shirt collar.  He savagely drove the Salvadoran into the wall that was adjacent to the French doors.  The gun was repositioned under Agilar's chin. 


     "So you think I'm an idiot, do you, Eduardo?  So you think I'm a fool, is that it?"


     A.J.'s eyes never left Agilar's.  For the first time ever he saw fear in the brown orbs.  Now Eduardo Agilar was going to find out what it was like when Andrew Simon was in charge.


     "What's the matter, Eduardo," A.J. hissed in the man's face, "cat got your tongue?"  A.J. threw the man's head back against the wall.  It made the same sound a ripe melon makes when being thumped by a persnickety housewife.  "When I tell you to talk, you idiot, you'll talk!"  A.J. roared. "Are you reading me, Eduardo?"

     The man frantically nodded his head.  "Si¢."

     "That's right.  Si.  When I tell you to say it, you damn well better say it!  And when I tell you to shut your mouth, you damn will better do that too!"


     By this time Cecilia was off the phone.  She rounded the snackbar.  "Rick..."


     Rick didn't take his eyes from the scene playing out before him between his brother and Agilar.  He shook his head at his mother.  "Stay back, Mom," he ordered quietly without turning around.  "Just stay back."


     Cecilia changed tactics.  "A.J...please.  Please."


     A.J.'s left forearm rammed itself into Agilar's Adams apple.  "Do you hear that, Eduardo?  Do you hear my mother begging me to spare your life?  Begging me to spare a piece of worthless shit like you for no other reason than because she's a good woman."  A.J. exerted pressure, taking Agilar's air supply to the bare minimum.  "And you would have hurt my mother without blinking an eye. You would have killed her without thinking twice about it.  Well, let me tell you something, Eduardo, no one," A.J. rammed his arm into Agilar's throat again, causing the man to fear his windpipe was about to be crushed.  "No one hurts my mother or threatens to hurt her.  No one!  Do you hear me?"


     Because A.J.'s arm was preventing him from speaking, Eduardo was forced to give his head a tight nod.


     "Don't nod your head like the stupid fool you are!  Answer me!"


     Agilar's, "Si¢," came out in a barely audible croak.  The man's lips were beginning to turn blue from lack of oxygen. 


     "A.J.," Rick finally intervened much to his mother's relief.  "That's enough now.  Let him go."


     A.J.'s hand returned to its former grip on the man's shirt collar.  "And do you hear that?  That's my brother asking me to allow you to live.  That's the man whose skull you planned to crush in a vice.  I know, Eduardo, because I'm not as dumb as you think.  I never have been.  I remember things.  Lots of things.  As a matter of fact, I remember everything you ever told me, and everything you ever did to me.  And I'm gonna have a helluva lot of fun doing each and every one of those things to you."


     A.J. spun the man's body around in a circle, then threw him against the wall once more.  The gun came to rest under Agilar's chin again. 


"It's too damn bad I don't have a basement though.  That would make our game even more realistic, now wouldn't it?  But my mother has a basement.  Maybe she'll let me borrow it for oh...let's say about six months time.  I hope it turns out to be as much fun for you as it was for me."


     With that every memory A.J. had pertaining to his captivity was slammed to the forefront of his mind.  He grabbed Eduardo Agilar under the chin and began viciously throwing his head back against the wall in an effort to purge the demons that resided within himself. 


"Maybe I won't feed you for five or six days and then keep snatching the plate from you when I finally do give you food!"  A.J. shouted.  He was completely oblivious to his mother's pleas and his brother's commands to stop.  "Or maybe I'll make you go without water for days on end, then leave a nice refreshing glass of it just out of your reach.  I bet you'll like that one!  You certainly seemed to enjoy it when you did it to me!  Or maybe I'll stick a needle in your vein and make you wonder what the hell it is I'm giving you!  Make you wonder if you're going to end up an addict, or have any mind left when the day comes I finally let you out of that stinking basement!" 


     The back of Agilar's skull was torn open and bleeding now, but the man was still conscious.  Police sirens pierced the quiet of the neighborhood as A.J. finally released him.  Agilar's body slowly slid down the wall. 


     "Or maybe I'll let you live," A.J. said quietly.  He stood over Agilar with the Browning hanging loosely at his side.  "Maybe, despite what you did to me and my family, I'll let you live because I'm not like you.  Because my mother raised me to care about people, and not to hurt them."

     As the first police cars pulled into the driveway A.J. sat the gun on the counter top.  He gave Agilar one last glance as he stepped over the man's legs.  Without a word to his family, A.J. opened the French doors and walked out onto the deck.



Chapter 41


Late Saturday Night, December 18th, 1993



     For the next two hours A.J. Simon's house swarmed with police personnel.  While Abby took A.J.'s statement out on the deck, another detective questioned Cecilia at the kitchen table, while yet another talked to Rick in the living room.  A police photographer was present and taking pictures of the crime scene.  The majority of the remainder of the officers weren't necessary.  Eduardo Agilar had immediately been taken into custody.  His accomplice, Juan, had been about to turn into A.J.'s driveway when he heard the sirens.  He fled in the black Mercedes, but had been detained at the Mexican border where he, too, was taken into custody.  


     Abby tried to clear the house of unnecessary personnel on several occasions, but finally gave up her efforts.  The Simons had a lot of friends within the police department, and had grown to be given the same loyalty and respect one cop gives another.  Therefore, when the call went out that Eduardo Agilar was holding the Simon family in A.J.'s home practically every off-duty cop showed up at the scene, aside from the nearby on-duty patrol officers who answered the dispatcher's summons.             


     It was close to midnight before things began to wind down.  The photographer had already left, as had the officers who had to return to patrol.  The remainder of the Simons' friends and acquaintances began to leave in groups of two's and three's until Abby was the only one left.  She walked out on the deck to say a final goodbye to A.J., then returned inside to do the same with Rick and Cecilia. As the two women stood talking quietly, Rick made his way outside.


     The two porch lights that were mounted on the house above the deck had been turned on at some point after the cops arrived.  A.J. sat quietly at the table bathed in their yellow glow while he looked out over the dark water.


     Rick pulled out the chair next to his brother's and sat down.  "Everybody's gone but Abby.  She thinks it would be a good idea for you and me to stay with Mom tonight.  Although she's not anticipating any more trouble, she's gonna have patrol cars watchin' my place, your place, and Mom's place for the next couple of days.  Besides, Mom's pretty shaken up."


     For the first time since he'd entered the house that evening A.J. responded to his brother.  He made a little sound that was a cross between a snort and a laugh.  "Mom's a little shaken up?"

     "Yeah," Rick chuckled.  "I hear ya', believe me.  We're all a little shaken up.  So is that okay with you?  That the two of us spend what's left of the night with Mom?"

     "That's okay with me.  But aren't you going to take me back to Bayside?  Eventually Clay will be calling you. I went AWOL, you know."


     "I kinda figured that when you walked in the door this evening,"  Rick stated dryly.  "And Clay already did call."


     The phone had been in constant use since the police had arrived.  Having remained out on the deck the entire evening meant A.J. hadn't paid any attention to it the various times it rang, and had made no move to answer it.


     "Oh," was all A.J. said now. 


     "To say he was surprised to hear about our little...adventure tonight, would be an understatement.  I told Clay you'd tell him more about it in a few days."


     A.J. cocked an eyebrow at his brother.  "A few days?"

     "Yeah.  Whenever it is you see him again."


     "So you're not taking me back?"

     "What would be the point?"  Rick shrugged.  "You'd only bypass the fire alarm and slip out the same emergency exit you got out tonight."


     A.J. knew he'd left no evidence of how he escaped behind for Clay to find.  "How do you know that's what I did?"


     "Because that's how I woulda' done it if I was so inclined."


     Again, all A.J. said was, "Oh."


     Rick leaned back in his chair and shifted in his seat until he was sitting sideways on his left hip.  This position allowed him a clear view of his brother's face.  "A.J., where did you plan on going when you left Bayside this evening?"


     "Where do you think?"

     "Up to San Francisco.  Back to Malachi and Dominique."


     "Yes," A.J. nodded.  "That's where I planned on going."


     "Why?"  Rick asked, though he was pretty sure he already knew the answer.


     "To keep you and Mom safe.  To keep the two of you out of Agilar's clutches."  A.J. gave an ironic smile.  "Only I walked right in on what I was trying so hard to avoid."


     Rick chuckled quietly.  "Boy, did you ever.  Talk about lousy timing."


     "I don't know," A.J. shrugged.  "Maybe it wasn't so lousy after all."


     "No," Rick was forced to agree.  "I guess it wasn't so lousy after all, was it?" 


     Rick thought back to the way the evening's events unfolded.  In his mind's eye he could see A.J. standing before him and their mother, his complexion a pasty gray, and to all intents and purposes in shock and unaware of what was happening around him.


     "A.J., can I ask you something?"


     "Sure.  I think by now you've come to learn that if I don't want to answer you, I won't."

     Rick saw the glint of humor in his brother's eyes and smiled.  "Yeah, kid, I'd say by now I've come to learn that."


     "So what is it you want to ask me?"


     "How much of what happened in there tonight with Agilar was an act, and how much of it wasn't?"

     "To a certain extent, Rick, it was all an act, and to another extent, it was all very real."


     A.J. looked out over the water again.  "When I first walked in the door and saw him...well, I guess none of what happened shortly thereafter was an act.  Everything he'd done to me, everything he'd threatened to do to me, and most of all everything he'd threatened to do to you and Mom, hit me full in the face like someone was dowsing me with ice water.  It was as if I was living out my worst nightmares.  I suppose that for a few minutes I was in shock.  Or at least I think I was, because looking back on it now, those first couple of minutes are kind of hazy.  But then when he made me come stand in front of you and Mom, and I saw your faces...when I saw your faces I knew I was the only chance both of you had at getting out of this alive.  I knew I couldn't allow him to control me again.  I knew I had to play whatever game was necessary to make Agilar think I was nothing but the coward and the idiot he had told me I was all those months."


     Rick reached over and laid a gentle hand on A.J.'s arm.  He did nothing more than squeeze.


     A.J. lifted his right shoulder in a nonchalant shrug.  "So I did.  I played his game with the hope that the tables would turn to my advantage.  With the hope that he'd let his guard down where I was concerned, and not perceive me to be a threat.  When he made that phone call I knew I had to do something.  I knew if he got the three of us in that car it was all over.  I knew he'd take us down to Mexico, or maybe even beyond there, and then he'd do to you and Mom the exact things he promised me he would."


     A.J. made eye contact with his brother once more.  "I would die rather than let that happen, Rick.  When I went for Agiliar’s legs I figured that's where it would end.  I figured before the fight was over I'd be dead.  But I didn't care.  I wanted you and Mom safe, and if I died while trying to achieve that goal then so be it.  All I wanted was to give you and Mom the chance to get the hell out of here."  A.J. gave a small smile.  "Of course, both of you were too damn stubborn to take it."

     "No, A.J.," Rick shook his head.  "We weren't stubborn.  We just weren't going to leave you behind, that's all.  We're a family.  We don't leave one member alone to fight the Agilar's of the world by himself."


     "I could have killed him.  I really could have.  Maybe if Mom hadn't been here I would have.  Maybe if I would have cornered him alone somewhere I would have blown his brains out without giving it a second thought."

     Rick recalled the night back in February when he'd dragged Agilar around by the neck.  "I know, A.J.  I know.   Because I woulda' done the same thing given the chance."


     The men's conversation was interrupted by two soft arms that encircled each of their shoulders.  "And so might have I," Cecilia Simon stated softly from where she stood behind her sons.  "Because each one of us has always done what was necessary to protect the others."  Cecilia made sure she was looking down into her youngest son's eyes.  "Regardless of the final outcome, each one of us has always done our best to keep the others safe.  And that's all we can ask of each other, or of ourselves, isn't it, A.J.?"


     A.J. knew his mother was conveying a wealth of unspoken thoughts in those few sentences.  She was telling him running away wasn't the answer and never had been.  She was reminding him that the three of them, she and Rick and himself, had always stuck by one another through good times and bad, and always would.  And most importantly, Cecilia Simon was telling her youngest son that she and Rick had never lost faith in him, even when he had lost faith in himself.  That even at his lowest, even when he was lashing out at them in anger and shouting hurtful things, they still loved him.  They still loved him, and regardless of what he thought or what he sometimes felt, they'd never ask him to give more than he could.  But they would expect him to do the best he could.


     A.J. nodded.  "Yes, Mom, that's all we can ask of ourselves."


     Cecilia's arms tightened their hold on both of her boys.  Her face came to rest between theirs.  She felt each of them put an arm around her in turn, and then felt A.J.'s kiss on her cheek before his head came to rest on her collarbone. 


     Cecilia ran a hand through A.J.'s hair.  He hadn't kissed her or hugged her, or allowed her to do either to him, since the day she and Rick had left him at Bayside.  He had objected even more vehemently to Rick's attempts at touching him, making it no secret that he harbored enormous anger toward his brother for forcing him to stay at the Center against his will.  But now Cecilia watched as A.J.'s free hand reached for his brother's. Rick's hand met A.J.'s halfway.  The hands clasped together in a firm hold that would not allow penetration.  Combined with the way Cecilia had her arms around her sons, and her sons each had an arm around her, those clasped hands represented to Cecilia the final link in forming a circle of love that could not be broken no matter the adversary. 


     Maybe in some strange way, Cecilia Simon thought, this horrid night just might turn out to be a new beginning for all of us.



Chapter 42


December, 1993 - February, 1994



     And a new beginning it proved to be.  A.J. returned to his home, returned to work, and resumed counseling sessions with Clay Burrows on an out-patient basis three days a week.  This time he progressed rapidly with milestones being passed in leaps and bounds.  This time he did not falter or lose ground even once. 


     Clay told Rick and Cecilia the reason behind this rapid progression was because A.J. was forced to do in his living room that Saturday night what most of us never have to, confront his worst fears head-on.  And he was forced to make a choice.  That choice being to either once again become Agilar's helpless victim, or gain control of the situation and become the victor.  Clay also suspected A.J. rediscovered the inner-strength and stubborn tenacity he thought Agilar had beaten out of him.  That A.J. discovered he wasn't a babbling idiot or a coward like Agilar had worked to convince him he was through those long months of starvation, beatings, drugs, and brainwashing.  That A.J. discovered Eduardo Agilar wasn't some kind of demi-god to be obeyed and feared, but rather nothing other than a man who was capable of being rendered powerless like all men are. But above all else, Clay felt the most important discovery for A.J., was that he was the only one who could save the family he loved so much.  That what he did or didn't do in his living room that night would directly effect whether or not his mother and brother lived or died.  In the end, of course, the blond man discovered he still had what it takes to get the job done.  And in so doing, he rediscovered A.J. Simon.                   


     Rick himself attributed a portion of A.J.'s positive recovery to the beating his brother had given Eduardo Agilar.  Every time A.J. threatened to do to Agilar what the man had done to him, A.J. was purging his soul of the tortures and indignities he had suffered at Agilar's hands.  That's why Rick had prevented his mother from stepping into the skirmish.  That's why Rick himself stood by and watched until it reached the point where he was fearful A.J. might kill the man.  Not that Agilar wouldn't have deserved death had it come his way, but Rick knew his brother.  He knew A.J. was not a cold-blooded killer.  He was well aware there would come a day when A.J. would have regrets over what he had done had things too far.      


     Agilar was now safely encased in jail once more, only this time he was awaiting trial.  A trial at which Cecilia, Rick, and A.J. would all testify. 


     Aside from the fact Eduardo Agilar all but admitted to the Simons he had killed Dylan Reed, Abby Marsh worked together with the Mexican authorities and found evidence of the woman's captivity in the same basement room A.J. had been housed in.  There was a shoe left behind that matched the one found on her body.  There was a broken gold necklace her father identified as having been a birthday gift from him.  There was dried blood that matched Dylan's type, and there were strands of hair that DNA tests proved were the reporter's as well.  Abby briefly wondered how an intelligent, calculating man like Eduardo Agilar could have been so reckless when it came to his disregard of disposing of the evidence of his crimes.  But the more thought she gave it, brought Abby to the conclusion that Eduardo, like his father and brother before him, fancied himself invincible and above the law.  Perhaps he thought no one would bother to search his desert hideaway.  Or perhaps he thought the Mexican police would look the other way.  Or perhaps he planned on being long gone before the authorities thought to search there for the Simons.  Or perhaps he was simply an egotistical fool.   


     Abby also had no doubt the Juan who drove Agilar's Mercedes the night Cecilia and Rick were accosted was the same Juan in Dylan's notes.  The man who had said nothing in front of Rick and Cecilia sang like a canary when he was arrested.  According to him, it was Eduardo who killed Carson and Jeanette Baily as Abby had suspected all along.  It was her hope that between the evidence found in Agilar's basement concerning Dylan Reed's captivity there, Juan's testimony, the Simons' testimony, and the evidence that would be presented from Dylan's many notes and interviews, a jury would find Eduardo Agilar guilty of three counts of murder in the first degree.  Aside from that, it was almost certain he'd be found guilty of two counts of kidnapping and aggravated assault in regards to what he'd done to A.J., and again, to Dylan Reed. Then there would be kidnapping charges for Agilar’s capture of Rick and Cecilia. Added together, all those charges would keep Agilar off the streets for life, if he wasn't also given the death penalty.


     It turned out to be a good Christmas for the Simon family that year.  Far better than it had looked like it was going to be only days earlier.  Cecilia, Rick, and A.J. spent a much needed quiet Christmas Eve together at Cecilia's house.  They were invited to Cecilia's sister's home for Christmas Day.  Cecilia half expected A.J. to refuse to go, but he didn't.  He actually seemed to look forward to it.   It was the first family get together he’d attended since Rick brought him home in late February.      


     The calendar had just turned to January when A.J. hesitantly picked up the phone one evening and called Dianna.  It was the first time he had talked to her since early March, when he had loudly and angrily declared that he didn't want to see her.


     Rick had heard correctly when rumor reached him the previous summer that Dianna was dating another man.  That relationship, if one could call it that, only lasted three weeks.  She'd dated a few other men in the intervening months, but none of them grew to mean anything to her, and after a few weeks they, too, disappeared from her life.  Dianna often thought of A.J. and how much fun they used to have.  Of how many common interests and hobbies they shared.  Of how sweet and gentle A.J. was.  Of how he could always make her laugh, and how he always, always, treated her with respect and kindness with the exception of the last time she had seen him.  But she had forgiven for that long ago, and now only wished him well.


     The last time Dianna talked to Cecilia had been the previous summer.  Cecilia had told her A.J. was in counseling and making slow, but fairly steady progress.  But then around Thanksgiving, Dianna heard from a friend who knew someone, who knew someone, who knew the Simons, that Rick and Cecilia had been forced to have A.J. committed to a mental institution.  Supposedly he was locked away in some state far from California, though no one really knew where.  Dianna told her friend she was sure that wasn't the truth, that Rick and Cecilia would never do such a thing, but she didn't pick up the phone and call Cecilia to find out either.  Dianna knew if that turned out to be the case it would break her heart, and she just couldn't stand to suffer another broken heart where A.J. Simon was concerned.


     Dianna would have had to be out of the country to have missed the television and newspaper coverage of the story regarding Eduardo Agilar's final assault on the Simon family.  Combined with everything else A.J. had suffered, Dianna wondered what effect that terrifying night had on him, but she doubted she'd ever know.


     But then out of the blue, one Tuesday evening in early January, he called her.  His voice was soft and tentative as though he was afraid she'd hang up on him.  When she started crying, he cried, too.


     They made a date for dinner for that upcoming Saturday night.  In a way, it was like starting their relationship anew.  They were a little shy with one another, and the conversation was a little stilted, but the next afternoon they got together for a bike ride through Balboa Park and things got a bit easier.  A.J. asked her to come to dinner Monday night, and on Wednesday she asked him to eat at her place.  A month passed before they slept together again for the first time, but that was okay with Dianna.  It had been a little like being courted all over again, only this time she knew what a skilled, caring, and gentle lover A.J. was.   This time it was as special as the real 'first time' had been two years earlier, only without the shyness and nervous apprehension.


     Dianna didn't remind A.J. that prior to his disappearance they had been discussing marriage, and he didn't mention it either.  She didn't know if that was because after all he had suffered he no longer remembered that fact, or if he just wasn't ready to deal with it amongst everything else he was dealing with.  Again, that was okay with Dianna.  Starting over had proven to be good for both of them.  And Dianna had been married once before.  She wasn't necessarily in any hurry to make another trip down the aisle.  Such a decision would come in its own sweet time.  For now, Dianna was willingly to sit back and savor the ride with the man she loved. She had decided a long time ago A.J. Simon was worth the wait.


     The last weekend in February 1994, marked the one year anniversary of A.J.'s return to his family.  His counseling sessions with Clay Burrows had recently been cut down to one day a week and would soon become a thing of the past.  A.J.'s life was finally sailing on a steady course in the right direction.  That didn't mean there wouldn't be an occasionally stormy sea ahead.  According to Clay, no one experiences the horrors A.J. did without occasional repercussions.  The difference this time, however, was that A.J. was once again the confident, self-assured man he had been prior to his captivity.  This time A.J. knew he could weather whatever blew his way.  This time A.J. knew he was the one in control.


     It was important to Cecilia and Rick to mark the anniversary of A.J.'s return, and important to A.J. to mark that event as well.  He insisted on hosting dinner at his home in honor of the occasion.  What started out with plans of being a quiet family evening, quickly moved to more of a party atmosphere when Dianna and Rick's girlfriend Nancy were asked to attend.  Then A.J. picked up the phone and invited Town and Temple and Abby as well.  Neither Rick nor Cecilia missed the significance of yet another milestone for A.J.  Other than the two of them, and just recently Dianna, A.J. had not invited anyone to his home in the past year. 


     The house was filled with voices raised in conversation, good-natured teasing, and laughter, as A.J.'s guests sat at the dining room table Saturday night lingering over coffee and dessert.  Unusual though it was for him, Rick remained a silent observer of all that was going on around him.  He thought back to that Saturday exactly one year earlier.  As A.J. threw back his head and laughed over something Town said, then turned to tease Temple about Town's remark, Rick couldn't help but recall the terrified man who had been too scared to give the waitress his order. 


     A.J. had traveled full circle in the past twelve months.  Some parts of that circle he'd even been forced to navigate twice, and once and a while his progress had slowed to a complete halt.  But somehow, he always managed to get himself moving again in the right direction.


     Rick looked across the table at A.J. now with peaceful satisfaction.  He was immensely proud of this man he called brother. 



Chapter 43


March, 1994



     On a Thursday night two weeks after the dinner party, A.J. and Rick were having supper in their mother's home.  As the three of them were cleaning up the kitchen A.J. mentioned to his mother and brother that he was going to be out of town for a couple of days the following week.  All their old fears regarding A.J. disappearing on them were resurrected when he told them his destination was San Francisco.


     A.J. easily read their unrest and offered a reassuring smile.  "It's just for a visit.  I have some...friends there I need to thank."

     Rick's response was a nonchalant,  "It's a long ride.  You want some company?"

     Unlike what might have happened a few short months earlier, A.J. didn't yell that he didn't need a babysitter, or that he didn't need Rick controlling his life.  He took Rick's question as it was meant to be taken - a casual inquiry as to whether or not A.J. wanted to make the drive alone.


     The blond man gave an amiable nod of his.  "I guess I could use some company if you'd like to come along."


     Rick shrugged.   "Beats workin.’" 


     A.J. rolled his eyes.  "With you, doesn't it always?"


     The brothers left for San Francisco at noon the following Tuesday.  Rick was rather surprised when they pulled into the parking lot of The Traveler's Rest motel later that night.  He was even more surprised to discover A.J. had rented Room 60.


     The two travel weary men made quick work of getting settled in their room.   Rick pulled off his boots, laid back on his bed, and reached for the television's remote control that was laying on the nightstand.  He paused in the act of clicking the TV on and watched as A.J. slowly navigated their surroundings.   Rick had heard of veterans who had traveled back to Vietnam in an effort to lay to rest the ghosts that had haunted them since they'd returned home.  He began to wonder if that's what this trip represented to A.J.  If this was A.J.'s way of laying Jack to rest for good. 


     Rick didn't do anymore than observe as A.J. investigated every nook and cranny.  When the blond man was satisfied with what, Rick wasn't quite sure, he laid back on his own bed.  It hadn't been lost on Rick that when they'd walked in the door A.J. had claimed for his own, the same bed Rick had given him the year before. Whether that action as well, held some sort significance, again Rick didn't know.


     The only comment Rick made to his brother was, "There's a basketball game on ESPN.  The Bulls and the Lakers." 


     A.J. nodded his satisfaction of the choice as Rick's finger hit a switch on the remote and the TV came on.


     Rick was more than willingly to allow A.J. to be in charge of the agenda on this trip.   The next morning A.J. drove them to the restaurant across the street for breakfast.  The same restaurant Town and Rick had grown so fond of the previous year.  The same restaurant where A.J. had been unable to bring himself to speak to the waitresses.


     Events unfolded much differently this time around.  Rick didn't have to sit in the same seat with his brother in an effort to block A.J. in and keep him from running.  And A.J. was perfectly capable of ordering for himself, nor did he have to rely on Rick to answer the questions the waitress asked of him regarding how he wanted his eggs prepared, or if he wanted white toast or wheat.  When the woman flirted with him in the way gregarious waitresses will sometimes do with their male customers, A.J. gave her a charming grin and flirted right back.  


     The brothers had no reason to rush through breakfast so lingered over a second cup of coffee.  Unlike the last time they were together in this restaurant, conversation flowed easily as they talked of the most recent cases they'd acquired, and playfully bantered with one another over this and that as had long been their custom.


     A.J. insisted on paying the bill when they left, just like he was insisting on picking up the tab for this entire trip.  When Rick tried to give him some money A.J. pushed his hand aside.  "I told you I'd pay you back."


     "What?"  Rick asked as they walked toward the cashier.


     "Last year.  I told you I'd pay you back, so now I am."


     "And I told you that wasn't necessary."


     "I know it.  But it's important to me."

     Rick didn't argue the point further.  To begin with, he knew it would do him no good to try, and as well, Rick got the impression that just like the rest of this trip, A.J. paying for their meal was part of the healing process.  Again, maybe it played a part in putting Jack to rest.  Jack, the man who one year ago, hung his head in shame outside this very same restaurant while being forced to admit he had no money with which to pay for his food.


     Without telling Rick his plans, A.J. drove back to the motel.  Rick followed his brother inside.  He sat at the table reading the morning paper while A.J. changed out of the jeans and polo shirt he'd put on after his shower.  The casual attire was replaced by an indigo blue suit.  The double breasted jacket was oversized and boxy as was the current style.  A.J. wore a crisp white dress shirt underneath, and a tie striped in indigo blue and pale salmon.  On his feet went a pair of freshly polished black slip-on dress shoes.


     Rick looked up as he caught a spicy whiff of his brother's favorite cologne.  A.J. was picking his keys up off the dresser and pocketing some other miscellaneous items.


     "My, my, my, don't we look fancy," Rick teased.  "You got a hot date or somethin' this morning that I don't know about?"


     A.J. smiled at the teasing.  "I wouldn't exactly call it a date.  I'm just going to say hi to some old friends."


     Rick folded the paper and sat it on the table.  He began to rise from his chair, that motion was halted when A.J. held up his hand.


     "I...this is something I need to do alone, Rick."


     "Okay," Rick nodded as he sat back down.  "I'll be waitin' here for you when you get back."


     A.J. smiled.  "I know you will be."


     Rick caught his brother's eyes.  "And I know you'll be back."


     "Yes, Rick," A.J. nodded. "I'll be back.  That's a promise."


     Rick watched through the window as A.J. trotted down the stairs and climbed in the Camaro.  Again, he thought of the contrast between the handsomely dressed self-confident man who had just left the motel room, and the timid man of one year ago with his shoulder length hair and second hand clothing.


     As he watched his brother pull out of the parking lot Rick vowed quietly,  "No matter what the circumstances, A.J., I'll always be waiting." 


Chapter 44


Wednesday, March 16, 1994



     A.J. drove the Camaro down streets that were in some ways so familiar, and in other ways so foreign.  He couldn't help but chuckle when he caught himself wondering where he should park.  The last thing he wanted to discover when he returned to the car was that the hubcaps were missing.  A.J. found it funny in an ironic sort of way, that when he had lived in this neighborhood missing hubcaps were the least of his worries.  Everything he had owned then had fit in the backpack Dominique had given him.


     A.J. finally chose a spot that he thought would be relatively safe.  He was halfway between Beulah Land and St. Jude's, and could easily walk to both.  The blond man locked the car and took off on foot in the direction of Malachi's alley.  For the first time A.J. noticed the immense poverty in this part of town.  Strangely enough, when he'd lived here he'd never paid much attention to it.  It just...was, and he accepted that.


     A.J. stepped over winos passed out on the sidewalks and circumnavigated congregating groups of the homeless.  He received more than his fair share of odd looks.  In his suit and tie, A.J. no longer fit into the neighborhood he once thought of as home.


     Every familiar building and street corner A.J. passed held a memory he did not allow himself to block out.  Living here for five months was as much a part of him as everything else he had experienced in his life.   A.J. had come away from here with a lot of special memories, though he expected a good number of the people who knew him best would find that hard to understand.  He even suspected his mother and Rick didn't fully understand it.  But they respected it, and that's all he could ask of them.


     A.J.'s walk brought him to the mouth of Beulah Land.  He spotted Malachi immediately.  The black man stood in profile talking to Shorty.  Someone whom A.J. didn't recognize looked over and spotted him.  With a cry of  "Cop!"  the man took off running.  The entire alley, save for Malachi, cleared out after him.


     Malachi ambled toward the stranger who had created such comic pandemonium.   "What can I do for..."  The black man's face split into a wide grin of recognition.  "Well I'll be...Jack!  It's you, isn't it?  It's really you!"


     A.J. nodded his head.  "Yes, Malachi.  It's really me."

     Malachi didn't hesitate to engulf A.J. in a bear hug.  A hug A.J. returned wholeheartedly.


     "I never thought I'd see you again, Friend," the black man said.  "But there's hardly been a day that's passed that I haven't thought of you.  Hardly a day has passed that I haven't prayed for your recovery."

     A.J. smiled as he and Malachi stepped out of their hug. 


"Thank you, Malachi.  I'm sure your prayers have played a part in helping me accomplish what I have this past year.  I wasn't able to tell you thank you when I left here last year.  Or at least not tell you thank you in the way I wanted to."


     Malachi waved a hand in dismissal.   "You're my friend.  Friends don't need to thank one another.  Friends just do for one another what needs to be done."


     "Yes," A.J. nodded.  "They do.  And for just that reason, I have something I'd like to give you."  


     Malachi's brows knit together in puzzlement as A.J. reached into the inside pocket of his suit coat.  He pulled out a white envelope on which he'd written Malachi's name.


     Malachi took the sealed envelope that was held out to him.  He slit it open using his thumb.  "The last time someone gave me an envelope like this it had a bus ticket it in for..."  Malachi looked at A.J. with surprise as he pulled out a blue and white ticket.  "Georgia."


     "You haven't been home in a long time, Malachi.  Don't you think it's about time for a visit?"


     Malachi smiled and nodded his head.  "I suppose it is.  As a matter of fact, I imagine it's long overdue."


     "In a manner of speaking, you bought me my bus ticket home last February.  And when I didn't want to get on that bus, you made me board it anyway.  Now do me a favor and go home and see your mother.  I know she misses you."


     "Yes, I'm sure she does.  Thank you."  Malachi stuffed the envelope in his coat pocket.  "I hope you're not planning on leaving without seeing Doctor Dom."


     A.J. gave a soft smile.  "No, I'm not planning on leaving without seeing Dominique.  I'm headed in that direction right now."


     As A.J. turned to walk away Malachi hailed him. 


"Jac...A.J., by returning home with your brother, you have found your place of peace and rest, haven't you?"           


     "Yes, Malachi,” A.J. nodded. “By returning home with Rick, I have found my Beulah Land."


     Malachi smiled as A.J. walked out of the alley.  "Praise the Lord, Friend.  Praise the Lord."





     The past year had brought changes to Dominique Cascia's life, just like changes come to anyone's life during a twelve month period.  Her sister, Justine, had announced on Christmas Day that she was expecting her third child in June.  Her youngest sister, Vanessa, was going to be the first Cascia daughter not to return to San Francisco after college.  Vanessa would remain in South Carolina, where she had earned a coveted position on a women's professional volleyball team that would be traveling the world.  Dominique herself continued to divide her time between Mercy Hospital and St. Jude's, though what time she had leftover after those two obligations was no longer strictly devoted to her books and Adeline.  For Dominique was engaged to be married in August. 


     The previous summer mutual friends had introduced her to a helicopter pilot who worked for the San Francisco Fire Department/ Paramedic Unit.  She and Nicholas Kerr had immediately hit it off, and soon formed a strong attachment to one another.  He loved all the same things Dominique did including children, dogs, books, and those less fortunate than himself.  He had even begun volunteering at St. Jude's when his schedule would permit.


     Right after Justine's announcement on Christmas Day, Dominique and Nicholas added to the excitement by announcing their engagement.  Her father teased and said he wasn't sure he was ready for a Swede in the family.  Nick's pale complexion, blond hair the color of snow, and ice blue eyes made him stand out in sharp contrast to the other members of Dominique's family, including the husbands of her sisters, who were also of Italian decent.  When the laughter had subsided, Dr. Cascia toasted the couple and sincerely welcomed Nick into the family.  Everyone echoed the welcome. Much to Dominique's pleasure, Nick was well liked by all of them.


     But even with a new and very important man in her life, Dominique couldn't help but think of A.J. on occasion.  Or Jack, as her mind always referred to him.  She had kept the picture and flyer Rick Simon left behind.  They rested side by side in a scrapbook Dominique had that dated back to her girlhood, and contained the memorable events and achievements of her life.


     Dominique had often considered calling Rick just to see how Jack was doing.  She had kept his business card, and occasionally pulled it out of her wallet and studied it.  One time she'd even dialed the phone, but then hung up before anyone could answer.  As much as she wanted to know, she didn't want to know.  Dominique was afraid of what she would find out.  She was afraid Rick would tell her his brother had suffered far too much at the hands of the man who kidnapped him, and had not been able to reacclimatize himself to his old life.  She was afraid Rick would tell her Jack hadn't recovered from the traumas inflicted upon him and never would.  She was afraid Rick would tell her Jack was gone, that they'd been forced to institutionalize him, or that he'd runaway and returned to living on the streets.


     It was because she didn't want to hear those things that Dominique couldn't bring herself to call.  She preferred to remember the walk she and Jack had taken together on Christmas Eve, or the afternoon he had spent with her at her parents’ home, or the times they had made love.  She tried hard not to remember their last day together.  The day Jack’s brother had come to take him home.  The day Jack begged her not to make him go.            


     But despite those memories, both good and bad, Dominique continued to devote herself to her homeless friends.  She still wondered if her efforts really made a difference, but that unanswered question didn't prevent her from arriving at St. Jude's promptly at ten a.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


     Which was how A.J. knew where he'd find her.


     She was in Father Papenek's office, as A.J. instinctively knew she would be.  Her back was to him as she took inventory in her medical supply cabinet, just as she had been doing the first day Malachi brought him to her.


     Dominique heard the hard-soled heels of A.J.'s shoes against the worn tile floor.  She turned around to greet her visitor.


     "Can I help you?"  She asked automatically.  Upon catching sight of his expensive suit she swiftly amended,  "Oh, I bet you're looking for Father Papenek. He's not here right now, but I can give him a message if you'd--"


     "No," A.J. shook his head in interruption.   He smiled.  "Actually, Dominique, I was looking for you."

     The nurse stood there for a fraction of a second wondering who this well-groomed handsome stranger was.  His soft voice was hauntingly familiar.  And his was so familiar, too.  Those beautiful dimples, and those bright blue eyes...  


     Dominique's hand flew to her mouth and her eyes grew round in wonder.   She backed up two steps in disbelief.  "Jack?  Oh, my God...Jack?"


     A.J. nodded his head.


     Tears flowed over to stream down Dominique's cheeks.  She slowly moved forward and circled the blond man.  She reached out a hand to touch his arm, as though still not believing he was really standing before her.


     "I can't...I can't..." Dominique gasped.  "I can't believe you're really here.  That it's really you."

     A.J. chuckled.  "It's me."


     Without thinking to ask his permission first, Dominique flung herself at A.J. and threw her arms around his neck.  She cried into the soft fabric of his jacket.  "I...I...I've thought so much about you in the past year.  Everyday I've wondered how you were doing.  A part of me has wanted to pick up the phone and call your brother at least a hundred different times, but a part of me was scared to."


     A.J.'s arms encircled the tiny woman.  "I know," he softly agreed.  "I know."


     The couple held onto one another a long time, as if in that simple hug they were reliving all they had experienced together.  When they finally parted Dominique stood there laughing and crying both at the same time. She studied A.J. from head to toe.  


"You look so good.  So healthy."  She ran a hand through his short hair, and then down the lapel of his suit jacket.  "So happy."


     "I am."


     Dominique swiped at her tears.  "I'm glad."


     "I came back to thank you," A.J. said quietly.  "For everything.  And to give you what you told me you needed most on my last day here."


     "What was that?"


     "To see a man you've helped turn his life around.  To see a man you've helped, walk through the door wearing a suit and tie.   To hear that same man tell you he has a warm bed to sleep in, and plenty of food on his table."


     Before A.J. was finished Dominique was crying again.


     A.J. looked down at the nurse with unconcealed tenderness and love. "I had to let you know you do make a difference, Dominique.  I had to let you know your time spent here isn't wasted.  I had to tell you that if it hadn't been for you and Malachi...well, if it hadn't been for the two of you, I don't know where I'd be today.  I had to tell you thank you for the great lengths you went to in order to reunite me with my family, while at the same time making sure I’d be safe."  A.J.'s eyes twinkled as he smiled.  "And I had to tell you that yes, I did laugh when Rick told me about your rather...unorthodox black bag job in his motel room."


     Dominique chuckled through her tears.  "And I told you, I'd be disappointed if you didn't."


     The woman reached behind her and grabbed a tissue from the box on Father's Papenek's desk.  She wiped her eyes and blew her nose. "Here you are looking so handsome, and I'm nothing but a mess."


     A.J.'s smile was warm and sincere.   "No, you're not. You never could be." 


     When Dominique had collected herself and thrown her tissue away A.J. reached into the same pocket from which he'd early pulled Malachi's envelope.  This time he produced two envelopes, another white one, and one that was pink and looked to be a part of a stationary set. 


     "These are for the shelter," A.J. said while handing the woman the envelopes.  "They're my way and my family's way of thanking you and your church.  Go ahead.  Open them."


     Dominique opened the white envelope first.  Inside was a two thousand dollar check written off the Simon and Simon business account.


     Dominique stared down at the offering in wonder.  "Oh, Jack...I'm sorry - A.J."


     "That's okay.  I realize I'll always be Jack to you."


     Dominique nodded and gave the detective a soft smile.  "Yes, you will be."  She looked back down at the paper in her hand.  "Thank you for the check.  It's so generous of you and your brother.  And I'm sure Father Papenek will call and thank you for it as well, when I give it to him."


     A.J. shrugged.  "I wish it could have been more.  But with...everything that's gone on in the past two years...well, Rick has worked hard to keep the business afloat with very little help from me."    


     "It's plenty, Ja...A.J.  Believe me, it's a very appreciated gift."


     Dominique next opened the pink envelope.  Inside was a handwritten note in neat clean script.


     My dearest Dominique,


         Although we've never met, my sons have told me much about you.  From the bottom of my heart, I sincerely thank you for everything you did for A.J.  God heard my many prayers when I asked Him each night A.J. was gone from us to watch over my youngest son and to keep him safe.  I truly believe it was through God's intervention that A.J. came to you and Malachi.


     Thank you, Dominique, for caring about my boy.   Please thank Malachi for me, as well, for the friendship and kindness he extended to A.J. at a time when A.J. so desperately needed a friend.


     May God always bless you, Dominique.



     Cecilia Simon


     Underneath the note was another check, this one written off the bank account of Cecilia G. Simon.  Dominique's eyes widened when she saw the dollar amount.  Only a very few of her church's most wealthy parishioners had ever made a donation that surpassed this ten thousand dollar one from Cecilia Simon.


     "Oh...A.J.  This...this is very kind of your mother.  As well as very, very generous of her."


     A.J. gently pushed Dominique's hand up so he couldn't see the dollar amount.  "She wouldn't tell me how much it's for, so don't you tell me either.  She'll be mad if I find out."


     Dominique chuckled.  "How like a mother."


     "Yes," A.J. nodded with a smile before growing serious again.  "Have Father Papenek earmark both of those checks for things the shelter needs.  It's important to my family and myself that they benefit the men who use St. Jude's."


     "I understand.  And I can assure you Father Frank will put them to good use."


     Dominique enclosed the checks in the white envelope and laid them on Father Papenek's desk.  The pink note written her by Cecilia Simon was returned to its envelope and laid on the priest's desk as well.  Later, Dominique would show it to Malachi, and then take it home with her.  It would be added to the page in her scrapbook that contained A.J.'s picture and the flyer regarding his disappearance.


     A.J. reached into one of the deep side pockets of his jacket.  "I have one more thing for you."

     "Something else?"  Dominique laughed, not able to imagine what more this man thought he could give her.  "Goodness, it's beginning to feel like Christmas around here."


     A.J.'s eyes twinkled in fond memory. "Funny you should mention Christmas." He handed the woman a slender red velvet box.  A single gold bow was tied around it.


     "For me?"  Dominique questioned a final time as though she thought she'd been given all the gifts she deserved.  "Are you certain?"


     "Yes, Dominique, I'm certain." 


     Dominique untied the bow, then opened the hinged case.  She began shaking her head back and forth.  "Oh, no...Ja...A.J.  No, I can't accept this.  It's far too expensive of a gift for you to--"


     A.J. brought his hand up to cradle Dominique's hand.  The hand she was using to hold the open case that contained a string of real pearls.


     "I want you to have them, Dominique.  It's important to me that you do.  I wanted to give you something that would always be a reminder that the work you do here does make a difference in the lives of the people you help."


     Dominique couldn't stop herself.  She began crying silent tears again.


     A.J.'s voice was quiet and tentative.  "And I...I also wanted to tell you that the...the nights we spent together at your house were very special to me.  You gave me something no one had given me in a very long time. You gave me love.  But, as well, I need to apologize for those times.  If was far from my intention to hurt you.  I guess for a while we were both under the assumption we could somehow make a life together.  If I've caused you pain because of that, then I'm sorry."     


     Dominique shook her head and gazed into A.J.'s blue eyes.  "You never caused me pain, A.J.  I knew all along that I was taking a risk by loving you.  The times we had together were special to me, too.  I've never forgotten them, and I never will."


     "Neither will I," A.J. confirmed quietly.  He ran a finger over her glittering engagement ring.  "I see some things have changed since I've been gone."


     Dominique smiled as she thought of Nick.  "Yes, some things have.  I've met a good man.  A man I love deeply.  I'm going to be married in August."


     A.J.'s words were warm and sincere.  "Congratulations.  I'm very happy for you."

     "And what about you?"  Dominique asked.  "Is there a special woman in your life?"


     "Yes."  A.J. smiled as he thought of Dianna. "Yes, there is.  A very special woman who waited a very long time for my return."


     "I'm glad."


     "So am I."


     Dominique gave the blond man a final hug before he turned to make his leave.  She squeezed her eyes tightly shut. "Thank you for everything.  I'll never forget you, Jack."


     A.J. knew she'd purposefully called him by the name she had, in effect, christened him all those long months ago when he'd first come to her a broken man in need of medical care, friendship, tenderness, and love.


     A.J.'s eyes closed, too, as he held the woman against him.  "Thank you, Dominique," he whispered.  "And I'll never forget you either." 


     Unlike the last time they'd parted, this time Dominique walked A.J. out to his vehicle.  This time she stood on the curb waving until the car was out of sight.  This time the tears she shed for A.J. after he was gone were tears of joy and happiness. 


     And, for the first time ever, Dominique Cascia knew without a doubt that she had made a difference.



Chapter 45


Wednesday, March 16, 1994



     It was close to noon by the time A.J. returned to the Traveler's Rest.  Rick had occupied his time by taking a walk around a nearby shopping mall and was now lying back on his bed watching television.  When he heard A.J.'s key turning in the doorknob he sat up on the edge of the bed.  He reached for the remote and clicked the TV off as A.J. entered the room.


     "Hey," Rick greeted.


     "Hi," A.J. returned while removing his suit coat.  He hung it over the back of a nearby chair then loosened his tie.  He walked over and perched next to Rick on the lanky man's bed.


     "So, did you get to see both Malachi and Dominique?"

     “Yes,” A.J. nodded with satisfaction.  "Yes, I did.  It was important to me to be able to tell each of them thank you for all they did for me."


     "I know it was, A.J."


     “And now all I have to do is thank one other person, and the purpose of this trip will be fulfilled."

     The puzzlement was plain to hear in Rick's voice.    "Someone else?  Who?"


     A.J.'s eyes met his brother's.  "The guy who, roughly one year ago, told me he wouldn't leave St. Jude's shelter unless I came with him."


     Rick gave his brother a small smile.  "Mmmm.  Do I know this guy?"


     A.J. nodded.  "I think you do.  He's the same guy who was so patient and understanding when I couldn't bring myself to give the waitress my order.  He's the same guy who assured me my behavior hadn't embarrassed him."

     "Hell, A.J., I've embarrassed myself a heck of a lot more over the course of my life than you could ever think of embarrassing me."


     A.J. smiled, while at the same time admonishing, "Don't make it seem trivial, Rick.  Because what you did wasn't trivial.  At least not to me it wasn't."

     Quietly, Rick acknowledged, "I know."


     A.J. continued the litany that summarized the past year of his life.  "The man I still need to thank is also the same guy who sat with me on the floor right over there in that corner when I was too scared to do more than cower behind a chair and shake.  You allowed me all the time I needed without pressuring me, or making me feel foolish.  Even though I wasn't able to voice it that night, what you did for me...well, in a small way it healed a lot of hurts, Rick.  There had been other another place, when I'd been forced to cower in a corner in the hopes that I wouldn't be beaten again, or drugged again.  You...your kindness showed me that if I could just bring myself to trust you, things would be very different this time around."


     In a tone that sounded as though Rick was admonishing himself, he softly reminded, "But sometimes I betrayed your trust."


     A.J. shook his head.  "No, Rick.  No.  You never betrayed my trust, though I realize I accused you of that misdeed on several occasions.  But I was angry...angry about so many things, and unfortunately none of them had to do with you.  Agilar wasn't an available target for my anger, but you and Mom were.  I know both of you took a lot of shit from me last year you didn't deserve.  I apologize for that.  And I'm going to apologize to Mom for that, too.  And if I haven't ever told you this, I don't blame you for anything you and Mom did while I was...gone, in regards to renting my house and everything else.  You did exactly what I would have wanted you to do."


     "What's that?"


     "You kept the business going, and you stayed close to Mom.  You stayed strong for her.  I wouldn't have wanted it any other way."


     "I know.  I remembered the promise I made to you way back when we opened the business in that regard.  That promise is about the only thing that kept me from just packin' it all in and takin' off for points unknown."


     "What do you mean?"


     Rick looked across the room as his mind traveled back to the eleven months of hell he'd endured while his brother was missing.  "I looked for you for a long time without success, A.J.  Ten months passed before I got my first real lead.  I...I was certain you weren't going to come back to us by then.  I was certain..."



     "That I was dead," A.J. finished for his brother.


     Rick closed his eyes and nodded.



     Rick opened his eyes and looked at his brother.


     "I don't blame you for that.  I never have.  Ten months is a long time for someone to be gone under the circumstances which I disappeared.  As much as I wouldn't have wanted to, I would have thought the same thing in regards to you had our positions been reversed.  You thought I was dead, but you never gave up hope that I might still be alive. If you had, you wouldn't have followed up on every obscure bit of information that came your way.  You wouldn't have followed up on what Jose told you."


     Rick voiced what he was just beginning to realize had hurt him for so long.  "But you waited for me.  You waited for me until the day came you knew I was never gonna show up."


     "I waited for you," A.J. softly agreed.  "But I was never angry with you for not coming.  When I was lucid enough to know who I was and what was going on around me, I knew perfectly well you were doing everything in your power to find me.  I also knew Agilar had so methodically planned and calculated his move against us, that the chances of you ever finding me were slim to none through no fault of your own.  But, above all else, I knew that no matter how many years passed, you'd never quit searching."


     A.J.'s hand came up to briefly squeeze his brother's shoulder.  "I said a lot of things in Clay's office that day back in November that I shouldn't have.  I said a lot of things that I didn't mean, and for that I'm sorry."


     "You don't have to be sorry, A.J.," Rick graciously dismissed.


     "Yes, I do," A.J. countered.


     Rick shrugged and gave a good-natured grin.  "Well...okay.  If you wanna eat crow, then I guess I'll let you eat crow.  It ain't that often I get to enjoy you when you're bein' humble."


     A.J. bumped an elbow into Rick's arm.  "Ha. Ha."


     Rick grew serious.  "As long as we're talkin' about stuff that happened in Clay's office, I need to 'fess up and tell you something."



     "I never filed papers with Doug McKenna in regards to me becoming your guardian. It was something Mom, Clay, and I talked about, but it wasn't something I could do.  At least not then."


     "In other words, I was once again bluffed by Rick Simon."

     A.J. wasn't smiling, but Rick could hear the amusement in his voice. "Yeah...I guess you could say that."


     "Maybe,”  A.J. shrugged. “Or maybe not."


     "Whatta ya' mean by that?"


     "After I calmed down and gave it some thought, I knew you hadn't filed any papers with Doug."

     "How did you know?"

     "Because I have a law degree, that's how I know.  If you had done such a thing the court would have notified me.  I would have had the right to hire an attorney, and to demand a hearing before anything of that nature was decided."

     "Oh," Rick said sheepishly.  "I guess I should have looked into that, huh?"


     A.J. grinned.  "I guess so."


     Rick thought a moment.  "But, hey, wait a minute.  If you knew all along that I was bluffing, why did you stay at Bayside for as long as you did?"


     "Because deep down inside I knew I needed help.  Because I was well aware my life was rapidly slipping out of my grasp, but my pride wouldn't let me admit it.  My pride...and my fear, wouldn't let me willingly put control of my life in anyone else's hands.  Not even yours.  But while I knew I needed help, I also knew staying at Bayside would be a waste of my time, and a waste of Mom's money.  I was perfectly aware of what the problem was, but I was, as well, all too aware that I couldn't talk about it.  Or at least that's what I thought at the time."


     "Because of what Agilar did to you."


     "Yes," A.J. nodded.  "Because of what Agilar did to me.  I was so afraid for you and Mom.  Agilar had me convinced that, if I didn't talk, neither of you would get hurt.  Which was why it was so easy to be Jack.  Which was why the thought of going back to being Jack was so enticing.  Jack had no family.  Jack had no one.  Therefore no one could get hurt because of him."


     "No, I don't suppose anyone could get hurt because of Jack," Rick agreed.  "But it sounds to me as though Jack was a pretty lonely guy."


     Candidly, A.J. admitted,  "He was."


     "But now, after this trip, Jack has found a place where he's happy and at peace with himself?"  Rick asked.


     A.J. smiled.  "Yes, Rick, he has.  This trip was the final leg in a long journey that was meant to help Jack find his Beulah Land."


     "And you've found your Beulah Land, as well?"


     "Yes.  As I told Malachi a few hours ago, I have found my Beulah Land.  It's right where it's always been.  With my family.  With my mother and my older brother." A.J. reached out and pulled his brother to him.  "Thank you.  For everything.  I couldn't have found my place of peace and rest without you."


     Rick's arms came up to encircle his sibling.  "You're welcome.  I couldn't have found mine without you either, A.J.  I couldn't find mine without you either.


"And long as we're bearin' our souls to one another, I have something else I need to confess."


     When A.J. tried to pull out of his brother's embrace Rick tightened his hold.  A.J. was forced to voice his question from where his head rested on Rick's shoulder, "What's that?"


     "You know your coffee mug?  The one I gave you with your initials on it that you've been hunting around for since last March when you returned to work?"

     "Yes.  You told me you didn't know what happened to it."


     "Well...I kinda do."

     "You kinda do?"


     "Yeah."  Rick winced, as though he was fearful of the repercussions as he confessed, "I broke it."

     Again, A.J. tried to pull back so he could look at Rick, but to no avail.  Rick's hold remained firm and strong.  "You broke it?"


     "Yeah.  I broke it."


     Rick could feel his brother's chest move in a spasm of laughter, then heard A.J.'s chuckle by his ear. "We've overcome a lot of broken parts of our lives in the past year, Rick.  Somehow, I think we'll overcome this as well."


     "Yeah, A.J.," Rick softly agreed,  "I guess we will.  And I'm sure glad you decided not to go back to bein' Jack."


     This time when A.J. tried to pull out of Rick's embrace the older man let him.

     A.J.’s brows furrowed with puzzlement.  "What do you mean?"


     "If you had, it sure woulda' screwed up the letters I'm having etched on the new mug I bought you."


     A.J.'s laughter echoed throughout the motel room.  That joyous sound in and of itself, only confirmed further to Rick that all he'd gone through in the past two years on behalf of his brother had been worth every ounce of physical and emotional energy expended.


     Rick Simon now thanked God that after a long trying journey, both he and his brother had, indeed, come to dwell in Beulah Land.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


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