*In this story I’ve taken the Simon brothers back in time in order to further flesh out the characters of Bud and Edie Krelman. In the aired episode, Divorce, Bud tells Rick that he and A.J. are like the sons Bud never had. Rick then reminds Bud that he and Edie have four sons. Based on that exchange, I decided to bring the Krelman family to life within a work of fiction.
*Vacation is written under the assumption that Jack Simon wasn’t killed until A.J. was approximately ten years old, as alluded to in the aired episode, Revolution Number 91/2, and based on a work of fan fiction entitled Journey Into The Past by Brenda A.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Are the boys asleep?" Jack Simon inquired of his wife as she entered their bedroom that Friday evening.
"A.J. is." Cecilia walked over to the open suitcase she had laying on the bed. She picked up a few articles of clothing that were sitting beside it and began packing them neatly. “I just made Rick turn the light off. He was reading one of his comic books."
Jack sat beside the luggage on their bed, watching his wife as she finished up her last minute preparations in anticipation of tomorrow's departure. "I think the boys are looking forward to this week as much as we are."
"I think you're right," Cecilia agreed, then, added, "I hope they're not too much for Edie and Bud. Maybe six days is too long, Jack. We could just go away for the weekend."
Jack smiled as he teased gently, "Having second thoughts, Mommy? Are the apron strings being let out a little too far?"
Cecilia gave her husband a look of exasperation. "No, it's not that, it's just--"
"Cece, come on," Jack interrupted. "You were the one who said last fall you didn't want a vacation this year that involved camping or roller coasters. You said you wanted to do something different for a change."
Turning away to pick up some clothes off the bureau, Cecilia replied, "Yes, but I didn't mean without the boys. I only meant that five years of sleeping in a tent was enough, and I needed a break for one year."
"And you were right, you deserve a break," Jack agreed. "I thought you were really excited about all this when I suggested it back in the spring. You were the one who said the boys would love staying at the Krelmans’ for a week; that they'd consider that a great vacation."
"I know, Jack, but now--"
Jack Simon got off the bed and stood behind his wife, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her back against his chest. "But now that we're set to leave tomorrow you're not so sure, is that it?"
"Yes, that's it,” Cecilia finally admitted. “We've never left them like this before. One of us has always been here." Smiling slightly she told her husband, "I'm a little worried, that's all. We'll be in San Francisco, Jack. It's not like we're only going to be gone for the evening. I can worry you know; I have that right. I am their mother."
Jack laughed as he turned his wife around and hugged her. "Yes, you have that right, Cece. But don't worry; they'll be fine at Bud and Edie's. You've already given Edie the hotel phone number, and I know you well enough to know she's been given the phone number of every doctor in San Diego."
"No, Jack, you know our boys well enough to know I've given her the phone number of every San Diego doctor."
"Okay, okay, so they're active. There's nothing wrong with that."
"No, there never is until we spend the day sitting in the emergency room while one of them has a cast put on, or has stitches put in."
Ignoring his wife's statement, Jack reiterated, "They'll be fine. I already gave Rick instructions he's to help Edie by keeping an eye on Andy, and I told him he's not to leave Andy out of any activities since there's no other kids in Bud and Edie's neighborhood Andy's age. Rick promised me he'd do those things for me. And, I gave Andy instructions to keep his big brother out of trouble," Jack chuckled. "So, I think I covered all the bases. Rick will keep an eye on Andy, and Andy will keep Rick out of trouble. It should be a good week for all of us."
"I suppose you're right," Cecilia conceded. "I am looking forward to this trip, I can't deny that. And the boys are sure excited about staying at the Krelmans’. I'm a little hurt, though, because they haven't acted like they're going to miss me. Not even A.J."
Jack sat back down on the bed. "Your baby's growing up, Mommy."
"Don't I know it," Cecilia replied. "Speaking of Mommy, A.J. hasn't called me that in almost a year now. I can't believe he turned seven two weeks ago. It seems like we were just bringing him home from the hospital for the first time." Cecilia closed the suitcase and set it on the floor. "And Rick, my Heaven's, Jack, he's twelve! Next year we'll have a teenager. I just can't believe it sometimes. Have you noticed Rick’s now taller than me? I'm afraid he's going to be taller than you by the time he's done growing."
"I'm afraid of that, too," Jack said ruefully. "Someday I'll have to look up at my own son. A father shouldn't have to do that, Cece."
Cecilia just laughed as she teased, "So now you know how I feel, Daddy."
"Yes, I do. They grow up too fast, you're right," Jack agreed with a thoughtful expression on his face before changing the subject. "Well, are we ready to pull out of here in the morning? I'd like to have the boys to Bud and Edie's by nine so we can get on the road."
Cecilia sat beside her husband. "Yes, we’re ready. You and I are packed, and the boys are packed, so as soon as we finish breakfast we can go. I told Edie we'd be there between eight-thirty and nine."
"Good," Jack nodded his approval. "Rick's finally packed, too, huh?"
"Yes, finally. I told Rick he'd be kept in the house all afternoon if he didn't get it done this morning. That threat got him in motion - for all the good it did me."
"What do you mean by that?"
"When I checked Rick’s suitcase this afternoon to make sure he didn't forget anything all I found was his swimming trunks, one shirt, and one pair of jeans."
Jack shook his head and smiled as Cecilia relayed, "When I made Rick come in to repack he told me he didn't need to. He said he was sure he had enough for one week. I told him, "Rick, you didn't even pack any underwear or socks!" Shaking her head at her laughing husband Cecilia asked, "Do you want to guess what your oldest said to that, John Simon?"
"I can't imagine, but I'm sure it's interesting."
"Oh, it is," Cecilia confirmed. "Rick said he planned to wear his trunks all week as underwear and swimming trunks both, that way he didn't have to pack so much. When I mentioned something about cleanliness, he told me not to worry, that if he went swimming everyday they'd stay clean, and if he didn't go swimming he'd just shower with them on. And he doesn't figure he really needs socks since it's summer time. And what's the big deal over only one pair of jeans? He'll have the clothes he wears to Bud and Edie's tomorrow, so between those and what he packed he figures he'll have enough. And he's prepared if he does happen to run short - after all, Aunt Edie does have four boys. He can always borrow something of theirs if he needs to."
Over Jack's laughter Cecilia said, "I swear, I don't know what I'm going to do with that boy sometimes. I know perfectly well that suitcase hardly had a thing in it simply because Rick didn't feel like packing. He was in a hurry to get outside and play ball. The scary thing is, all his excuses made sense in kind of an absurd way."
"That's our Rick," Jack confirmed as he laid back against his pillows.
"I'm telling you, Jack, those two boys of ours are so different. A.J. was all packed for this trip three weeks ago. I couldn't figure out why I kept seeing him in the same T-shirt and shorts day after day, and then when I went to wash there were no dirty clothes of his in the hamper. Do you know what he had done?"
Jack just shook his head no as he smiled at his wife. His children's escapades always amused him...well, most of the time anyway.
"A.J. had packed almost every piece of clothing he owned, and some of Rick's clothes for him, as well." Cecilia started laughing at this point. "A.J. had so many clothes jammed in that suitcase it looked like he planned to be gone for a year. I don't have to worry about our youngest not having any underwear at Edie's. He had packed every pair he possessed and hadn't been wearing any for three days!"
Jack began laughing once again, picturing in his mind this scenario.
"It was all I could do to convince A.J. that he had packed too much and we needed to take some of those clothes out. Especially the underwear. I had to keep assuring him I was going to do laundry right up until our trip, just so I could get that child to put on some underwear again."
"So, he was just wearing his jeans or shorts with no underwear for three days?"
"Yes, Jack! I couldn't believe it either!" Cecilia laughed as she lay down beside her husband. "I don't know about these two boys of ours sometimes."
Kissing his wife, Jack Simon's eyes twinkled. "I don't either, but I think we'll keep them, don't you?"
Cecilia smiled at the man. "Yes, I think we will."
Taking his wife in his arms, Jack reassured her one last time. "Everything will be fine, Cecilia. The boys will have the time of their lives at Bud's, and we'll have the time of ours in San Francisco. You deserve this, hon. We didn't have much of a honeymoon thirteen years ago, you know."
Cecilia thought about that as she lay next to her husband. He had been home on leave for three weeks in July of l943 when they had gotten married. They had spent two days and nights in a small coastal town a couple hours north of San Diego before Jack had to report back to the O.S.S. offices that were housed at the naval station here in the city. Two weeks later Jack was headed back to Europe, and didn't see his new bride again until February of 1946, when she greeted him with his twenty-two month old son, Rick, in her arms.
Cecilia knew in all the years since then Jack had wanted to make that lack of an extended wedding trip up to her. He had always wanted the two of them to get away for a few days alone, but with a hectic work schedule and two little boys in the intervening years, this was the first time such an opportunity arose. Therefore, Cecilia made the decision she would say no more about her concerns over leaving the boys. Jack was right. They'd be fine. She was going to enjoy this trip. Who knew when they'd be able to do something like this again? And besides, Cecilia would be calling Edie every other night to make sure things were all right. What could possibly go wrong?
Cecilia decided not to answer that question as she snuggled further into her husband's chest.
As Jack reached up to shut off the bedside light he said," I was thinking, Mrs. Simon, that we might want to get started on that honeymoon tonight. You know, just to get me back into practice and all."
“You get enough practice, Jack Simon,” Cecilia said dryly. “I don't think you need any more."
"Oh, yes I do," Jack teased, as he held the woman he cherished in his arms.
Cecilia's last thoughts before her attention was turned to other things was, Jack's right. This is going to be a good week. A second honeymoon wasn't such a bad idea after all.
It was quarter to nine the next morning when the Simon family pulled into the Krelmans’ driveway. The boys spilled out of the car and were greeted by Bud and Edie's thirteen-year-old twins, Michael and Mark. Before Cecilia could stop him, Rick ran off with the twins. She grabbed A.J. by the shirt collar to prevent him from scampering after his older brother, and called to Rick, "Don't leave the yard, Rick! Dad and I want to talk to you before we go!"
Jack pulled the boys' suitcases from the trunk of the car and set them by the front door. "Rick will take these inside for you, Edie. You just tell him where you want them."
"That's fine." Edie told the blond man. "I'm going to put Rick in with the twins." Smiling down at A.J. she said, "And A.J. can pick where he wants to sleep. I'll bet he wants to room with David."
A.J. eagerly nodded his head. David was the Krelman's oldest son, and A.J. had a bad case of hero worship for the seventeen year old who was always so kind to him.
"Speaking of David, where are the rest of your men, Edie?" Jack questioned.
"Bud went into work today. David and Roger have been working for him this summer so they went along, too." Shaking her head she added, "Not without a good deal of complaining though. I guess when you're sixteen and seventeen year old boys, you have better ways to spend your Saturdays than working for your father." Edie smiled at Jack, "Bud didn't give them much of a choice, however."
Chuckling, Jack said, "No, I don't suppose he did."
Cecilia spent the next few minutes going over things with Edie.
"And I'll call you tonight, Edie, to give you our room number. Then I'll call again Monday night to make sure things are all right. If you need us, you call any time. We'll check with the desk clerk every time we come back to the hotel."
Edie smiled as she reassured her friend, "Cece, don't worry. Everything will be fine. For goodness sake, I've got four boys of my own. What's two more?"
Jack laughed as he ruffled A.J.'s hair, "Our two boys can get into enough trouble for eight boys, Edie. I'm warning you of that right now."
"Oh, Jack, be serious," Edie admonished. "You two go and enjoy yourselves. Rick and A.J. won't be any trouble at all. Michael and Mark have been talking about this week since June. Having your two boys here will help keep them busy and out from under my feet. I've got some things planned to do on some days, too. We'll go to the beach at least once, and David promised he'd take all the boys to a movie tomorrow night." Walking with Cecilia and Jack to the car, Edie reiterated, "Quit worrying. There's no need to."
As Cecilia and Edie talked a few more minutes, Jack called several times for Rick. The oldest Simon boy finally appeared from around the corner of the house and came to stand by his father.
"Mom and I are going now, Rick."
"Okay, bye," Rick said, turning away again.
"Rick, come back here!" Jack Simon demanded. Rick came to stand by his father again. "Now you behave yourself for Aunt Edie, please. And don't forget you promised me you'd help her with Andy. I'm counting on you to keep an eye on him, Rick."
"I know, Dad. Don't worry, I will."
"All right then," Jack said as he pulled his oldest to him in a hug. "You have a good time this week. I'll see you Friday afternoon, buddy."
Jack said his good-byes to A.J., while Cecilia hugged Rick. "Have fun this week, sweetheart."
"I will, Mom," Cecilia's impatient eldest told her. Rick was anxious for the good-byes to end so he could get back to the busy day he and the twins already had planned.
"I will," Rick said, rolling his eyes. "Bye."
"Rick! I'd like a kiss, please."
Turning back once more, Rick gave his mother a kiss. Seeing she was finally satisfied, he asked, "Can I go now?"
"Yes, dear, go ahead."
Rick ran off toward the back of the house calling, "Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad!"
Jack just shook his head fondly at his active oldest as Cecilia knelt in front of her seven-year-old, tying an undone shoelace.
"You have a good time this week, A.J. And you listen to Aunt Edie and Rick for me, all right?"
"You be a good boy for Aunt Edie."
"Mom, I'm always a good boy," Cecilia was very seriously informed.
Cecilia laughed. "Yes, you are." She hugged A.J. and told him, "Then you make sure Rick is a good boy this week. You keep him out of trouble for me, all right?"
"I will. Dad already told me that was my job."
The three grownups chuckled at that remark as A.J. shifted impatiently from foot to foot. "Mom, can I go? The big guys will run off without me if I don't get back there."
Cecilia quickly kissed her son. "Okay. Daddy and I will be back on Friday. Will you be all right until then?"
Cecilia heard Jack's sigh and, "Cece, let him go. He'll be fine."
The woman reluctantly released her baby. "Go play with the other boys. Bye."
"Bye, Mom," A.J. said and then turned to give his dad a final hug.
"Bye, sport. I'll see you Friday. On Saturday you, Rick, and I will go on that fishing trip I promised."
"Okay, Dad. Bye."
And with that, A.J. ran off in the direction Rick had disappeared a few minutes earlier. He paid no attention the sound of his father’s car starting as he parents left to start their journey to San Francisco.
Several hours later the Krelman twins and the Simon brothers entered the garage in search of a football. It was then that Rick and A.J. spotted the brand new identical red Schwinn bicycles.
Rick couldn’t hide his admiration of the gleaming bikes. "Wow! These are really neat. When did you guys get 'em?"
"Last month for our birthday," Mark replied as his brother continued to rummage through a wooden chest in search of a football. "You wanna ride one, Rick?"
"Sure, go ahead." Mark indicated to the twelve-year-old which bike belonged to him. “Try mine out.”
As Rick started pedaling down the driveway on Mark’s bike, Michael turned from his task, football in hand.
"Ya’ wanna try mine, A.J.?"
Eyes shining in anticipation, A.J. eagerly agreed. "Yeah, Mike, please."
The bike was actually too big for the seven-year-old. Mike Krelman had to lean it over on its side so the younger boy could get on. Once A.J. was straddling the pedals, Mike lifted the bike upright.
"I guess it's kinda big for you," Michael observed. "You can't reach the pedals if you sit down, can you?"
"No, but I can ride it standing up," A.J. assured as he pedaled out of the garage.
The little boy's fun came to a quick end when Rick caught sight of him from the street and rode back up the driveway.
"Get off that bike, A.J.!"
"Mike said I could ride it."
"It's too big for you. If you fall, you'll get hurt. Now get off!" Rick commanded as he stopped Mark's bike next to A.J., got off, and grabbed the handlebars of Michael's bike.
"Rick!" A.J. yelled in protest.
Michael came to A.J.'s defense. "It's okay, Rick. He can ride it. I told him he could."
"No, Mike, it's too big for him. He can hardly reach the pedals. He shouldn't be on it. If he falls, he'll do something stupid like break an arm."
"I won't fall, Rick, and I won't break my arm! And you can't tell me what to do!"
"Yes, I can. Mom and Dad said I was supposed to keep an eye on you. Now get off this bike! It's the same size as mine at home and you know Mom won't let you ride it for the same reasons I'm tellin' you not to ride this one." Glaring at his little brother in what Rick hoped was an imitation of their father's angriest look, he ordered, "Now, A.J.! I mean it!"
"Okay, okay," A.J. gave in, climbing off the bike with help from Michael.
As the four boys took the bikes back to the garage, A.J. mumbled, "I sure hope you don't plan on bossing me around all week."
Rick smiled at the back of his brother's head. "Not as long as you do what I tell you. Besides, A.J., I'm not bossin’ you. I'm just keeping you from getting’ hurt."
A.J. scowled up at his sibling. "I wouldn't have fallen."
"Maybe not, but with the way you were straddlin' that bar, all you would have had to do was hit the brakes hard and you would have been in real pain, let me tell ya’."
A.J. ignored the three older boys as they laughed at Rick's last remark. The bikes and angry words concerning them were soon forgotten as the four boys were joined by several other neighborhood kids for a game of football.
By Sunday evening the Simon boys had spent two full days playing outside with the Krelman twins and other neighborhood boys. They’d been to a movie, as well, escorted by Bud and Edie's oldest son, David.
All the men in Edie Krelman's household were sprawled out watching TV at nine o'clock that Sunday evening. Edie noticed A.J. was just about asleep in the chair he was sitting in.
"A.J., why don't you go upstairs and get your bath, hon?" Edie suggested.
A.J. gave a weary nod of his head as he got out of the chair.
"You call me before you get out of the tub. I'll come up and see if you got all the dirt off like your mom does."
Cecilia had informed Edie that while her youngest was perfectly capable of running his own bath water and washing himself, he didn't always come out of the tub perfectly clean if she or Jack didn't do a final inspection.
A.J.'s eyes grew wide as he stammered, "You... you don't have to do that. I'll...I’ll get clean."
"It's okay, honey. I don't mind."
"No...no...really, Aunt Edie. I'll get clean, I...I promise."
Rick turned his attention from the TV screen, having figured out what the problem was. "I'll go up and check on him, Aunt Edie, you don't have to." Turning to A.J., Rick said, "Go take your bath, squirt. I'll be up in a little while."
The look of relief on A.J.'s face was funny to see. By this time Edie, too, had figured out what the problem was.
For goodness sake, A.J., I diapered your bottom when you were a baby."
At that remark A.J.'s face turned red as he made a hasty retreat out of the room.
Fifteen minutes later there was a knock on the bathroom door. "Who is it?" A.J. called as he played with some plastic boats in the tub.
A high-pitched soprano voice was heard from the other side.
Edie. I've come to see if you're clean, A.J. I'm coming in now."
"Very funny, Rick," A.J. said as Rick opened the bathroom door.
Rick laughed as he leaned against the sink. "What's the big deal? Why won't you let Aunt Edie check on you?"
A.J. looked at his older brother as if he couldn't believe Rick would even have to ask such a question. "I don't want her to see me naked."
"So," Rick shrugged. "You let Mom check on you when you're in the bathtub. What's the difference?"
Rick was given a dose of typical seven-year-old philosophy. "Rick, Mom's a mom. Our mom. Aunt Edie's a girl. There's a big difference. I don't want her to see me naked, not ever."
Rick teased his brother, "She did diaper your bottom, A.J."
A.J. rolled his eyes. "She says that all the time. I hate it when she says that. Why does she do that, Rick?"
"I don't know, 'cause she's a woman, I guess. They're kinda strange." Changing the subject, Rick ordered, "Come on, get washed up and get outta here. It's gettin' late. and me and the other guys have got to take baths, too."
"Okay," came the reply as A.J. picked up the washcloth.
"So, do you like sleeping in David's room?"
"Yeah, I do. He's a nice guy." Looking up, A.J. informed his brother, "He doesn't tell good stories though."
"Not like me, huh?"
A.J. stood to get out of the tub. Rick handed the little boy the towel that was draped over the sink.
"No, his stories are too short. And they don't have any adventure in them like yours do." As A.J. dried himself off he added softly, like he was revealing a big secret, "They're kind of boring."
Rick laughed a little as he watched his brother slip into pajama bottoms. "Well, don't tell David that. You'll hurt his feelings."
"I won't," A.J. assured his brother as he threw his towel in the hamper.
Rick stood up to drain the bathtub. "Come on. A.J. Help me clean the tub."
"You never clean the tub at home."
"Yeah, I know. But Mom said we have to help Aunt Edie do this kind of stuff. She doesn't want Aunt Edie to have a lot of extra work 'cause we're staying here." Rick handed A.J. the boats. "Put these back where you found them and I'll start cleaning up in here."
Five minutes later the bathroom passed the Rick Simon inspection test. The twelve-year-old was headed back down the stairs when he turned around because he couldn't hear his younger brother following him.
"Where ya' goin'?" Rick asked.
"To bed," the tired boy replied.
"Well, aren't you at least comin' down to say good night to everyone?"
“I'm too embarrassed."
"Embarrassed about what?"
"By what Aunt Edie said. You know, about changing my diaper."
Rick laughed at his little brother and his silliness. "Geez, A.J., forget it, will ya'? What are you gonna do, hide up here until Mom and Dad come to pick us up on Friday?"
"Nope. Only for tonight."
Rick just shook his head at his brother. He knew there was no use to push the issue with A.J.; the youngest Simon was notoriously stubborn.
"Okay, if that's the way you want it. Night, squirt."
"Good night, Rick," A.J. replied as he headed down the hall toward the room he was staying in.
Monday morning dawned warm and sunny. The entire Krelman household was up by seven thirty. Bud and his two oldest boys were headed off to work at Bud’s Putt and Stuff miniature golf course after breakfast. The twins, Rick, and A.J., would be left to their own devices that day.
By seven forty-five everyone was sitting around the table enjoying scrambled eggs and bacon. Everyone but Bud that is. Just as the children and Edie were eating their first mouthful of eggs, Bud Krelman came storming into the room.
"Edie, I can't find my blue shirt! Where have you hidden it this time?"
Ignoring her husband's wrath, Edie replied simply, "It's at the cleaners, Bud."
"At the cleaners! What's it doing there?"
"It was dirty, Bud."
"That's it! Every Monday I ask for a certain shirt, and every Monday that shirt's at the cleaners. It's been that way for the last eighteen years. I've had it!"
Rick and A.J. sat with their mouths hanging open at this exchange. The Krelman children simply sat eating their breakfast, completely ignoring their father.
"Sit down and eat your breakfast, Bud. You'll be late for work," Edie told her red faced husband as she buttered herself a piece of toast.
Bud huffed and puffed a moment, then sat down at his place at the table.
"Scrambled eggs! I hate scrambled eggs! You know I hate scrambled eggs! That's it, we're getting a divorce!"
"Oh fine, Bud! Let's get a divorce over scrambled eggs. You just do that! You go find yourself a woman who will make your eggs sunnyside up. See what I care!"
The couple went on like this for the next ten minutes as Bud ate his scrambled eggs between declarations of divorce. The Krelman boys continued to eat as if this whole scene was nothing out of the ordinary. Rick and A.J. sat taking it all in as their eggs grew cold. Although both boys knew Edie and Bud Krelman were somewhat unusual, they had never witnessed anything quite like this before.
It got even more confusing when, fifteen minutes later, their Uncle Buddy stood up and kissed Aunt Edie good-bye as he gathered up his older boys, telling them to go out to the car. He walked by ruffling the hair of each of the four remaining boys. When he came to A.J., Bud bent down and told the youngster, "Now you keep these three hooligans in line today, A.J., and take care of your Aunt Edie for me, okay?"
"Okay, Uncle Buddy, I will."
A.J. and Rick just stared after the man in confusion, then transferred their confused looks to Edie, who was now humming as she cleared the table. The Simon boys looked at each other across the table and shared twin shrugs of puzzlement.
An hour later all four boys were out in the backyard when the twins' mother called, "Michael! Mark! Get in here this minute! I told you those beds were to be made before you went outside!"
Michael and Mark walked through the back door and past their upset mother, followed closely by Rick and A.J. Edie smiled at the two Simon boys.
"You boys can stay outside. You both rolled up your sleeping bags this morning without me asking, and you helped me clear the table and do the dishes, too. I hope some of your thoughtfulness and good manners rubs off on those twins of mine."
As Rick and A.J. turned to go back outside, Edie's said, "I'll be sure to tell your mother what a big help you've both been since you got here Saturday. She'll be so proud of you boys."
Rick sat on the back step to await the return of his friends, A.J. sitting down beside him.
"I sure hope Aunt Edie forgets to tell Mom I've been helping her," Rick commented.
"Why?" a puzzled A.J. inquired.
"'Cause, A.J., if she tells Mom I've been helping her do things like dishes, and cleaning the bathtub, Mom's gonna expect me to do that kinda stuff at home, too."
"Oh," A.J. said, though he didn’t really understand Rick's predicament. After all, their mother had said they were to help Aunt Edie. A.J. would think Rick would want their mom and dad to know they'd been good and had been doing what they'd been told.
Because his older brother's ways sometimes confused him, and because this was one of those times, A.J. changed the subject.
"Rick, what's a divorce?"
"Well, a divorce is when two people who are married don't live together anymore. They kinda get unmarried, I guess."
"But they can't do that!"
"Who can't do that?" Rick questioned.
"Aunt Edie and Uncle Bud, Rick. They can't not live together. They're a mom and dad! Moms and Dads are supposed to live together."
"Aw, A.J., Uncle Bud and Aunt Edie aren't gonna get a divorce. They were just sayin' that. They didn't really mean it. You saw how Uncle Buddy kissed Aunt Edie when he left for work. People who are gettin' divorced don't kiss."
"Yeah, but I heard him say, 'Edie, I want a divorce!' when he couldn't find his shoes on Saturday, and then I heard Uncle Buddy say, 'Edie, that's it, we're getting a divorce!' when he found out there was no ice cream left last night."
By this time Rick was laughing at the younger boy. A.J. had been trying to imitate Uncle Bud's deep, gravely voice, as he related all this to Rick.
"They're not getting a divorce, A.J.," Rick assured his brother after his laughter had died. "Uncle Bud and Aunt Edie are just kind of...different, I guess. Dad says they're characters."
"Like in a book?"
"Well, no, not really," Rick said, scowling in concentration. "This time it means that they're just people who are funny...strange. I don't know, just different, like I said before. Know what I mean?"
Shrugging, A.J. squinted to look up at his older brother. "Yeah, I guess so. I guess it doesn't really matter what they are, ‘cause they're nice. And they're kinda funny, too." After a moment, A.J. commented further, "I like it here, Rick."
"Yeah, I like it here, too. Mike and Mark got a lot of neat stuff, and they're fun guys to hang out with."
"Yeah, they're nice. So is Roger. David's really nice."
Rick smiled at the blond boy. "You really like David, don't ya,’ kid?"
"Yeah, I do," A.J. acknowledged, then quickly added, "But, I don't like him better than I like you, Rick. I like you best. I wouldn't wanna live here."
"You wouldn't?" Rick teased. "Gee, A.J., just think, if we
lived here you'd have five big brothers then. Wouldn't you like that?"
"No," A.J. shook his head. "You're the only big brother I want, Rick."
"Don't need anybody else bossing you around, huh, kid?"
"No, that's not it." Shrugging his shoulders, A.J. told Rick, "I just want you for a brother, Rick, no one else. Just you."
Twelve-year-old Rick felt pretty good inside as his little brother spoke those words. He put his arm around the younger boy's shoulders.
"And you're the only brother I want, too, A.J." Echoing A.J.'s words, Rick added as he winked at the younger boy, "No one else. Just you, squirt."
Later that same day, in the afternoon, the Krelman twins and the Simon brothers were in the backyard tossing a baseball around between them. The ball was thrown just out of reach of Mark Krelman's glove and landed in a tree-lined thicket that separated Bud and Edie's property from the neighbor’s next door. As Mark was beating through the overgrowth looking for the lost ball, he called out, "Hey, you guys! Come here! Look what I found!"
The three other ball players ran toward Mark. They came upon him bent over a grassy knoll.
"What is it?" asked his twin.
Mark lifted up some loose grass and dirt to reveal a little den of small snakes.
"Garter snakes!" Rick exclaimed.
"Yeah, look at 'em all. I counted 'em,” Mark informed the other boys. “There's ten of 'em here."
The boys took turns taking a closer look, then began picking the snakes up and letting them slither up their arms.
"My mom really hates snakes," Mark said.
"Yeah, our mom does, too,” A.J. declared. “Doesn't she, Rick?"
"She sure does," Rick said with a twinkle in his eye. "Last year one crawled in her sleeping bag when we were camping. It was just a little California King snake, but boy, you should have heard her scream."
"She screamed really loud, for a long time, too, even after our dad told her it wouldn't hurt her," A.J. said, finishing Rick's story.
Michael put one of the snakes inside his T-shirt. "I have a book on snakes and it says they like warm, dark places. That's probably why that King snake crawled in your mom's sleeping bag."
The four boys marveled over the snakes a little while longer, when Mark, who could get into more mischief than even Rick, had an idea.
"Hey! Let's put these snakes in Mom and Dad's bed. That will be real neat! Mom will scream for sure."
Rick was ready to join in the fun immediately. "Yeah, then we can see if your mom can scream louder than our mom." Thinking for a moment, Rick asked, "But how will we get them in the house without your mom seein' us?"
"I know," Michael chimed in. "Dad's got a bunch of burlap bags in the garage that he brings home from work. We can use one of those."
At Michael's words, all the snakes were deposited back in their den. The boys ran off to the garage to collect a bag, returning to the trees a few minutes later.
Soon ten garter snakes were deposited in the bag, and then the mechanics of how to get them in the house and past Edie without raising any suspicion was plotted out. After several plans were suggested and subsequently rejected, Mark finally came up with one he deemed just right.
"I've got it! We'll have A.J. carry them in. Mom will never suspect anything if he goes in the house by himself."
"That's a great idea. She'll know we're up to something if the three of us go in carrying that bag," Michael said as he indicated to himself, his twin, and Rick.
"Yeah, A.J. can do it,” Rick confirmed. “Can't you, A.J.?"
Now right up until this very moment A.J. had been a willing participant in the older boys' prank. He would have been more than happy to follow them into the house and let them carry out their plan, while he remained a silent observer. Up until now it had all sounded like fun, until somehow he was the one chosen to carry out the mischievous scheme.
A.J. shook his head. "No...no, I don't think I'd better do that. I'll just follow you guys."
A.J. immediately saw the look of disappointment on the faces of the twins, and the look of disgust on Rick's. Trying to win back his older brother's favor, A.J. suggested, "I can be your lookout. I'm a good lookout, Rick. You said so yourself."
And Rick had said that, many times. The role of lookout was one A.J. was accustomed to whenever Rick put in motion one of his many pranks. The role of the actual prankster was one that was foreign to A.J., and he'd just as soon keep it that way.
That wasn't how it was going to be though as Rick told him, "We don't need a lookout this time, A.J. All ya' gotta do is carry this bag in the house and empty it in Aunt Edie and Uncle Bud's bed. It'll be real easy."
"Yeah," Mark agreed. "Mom's in the kitchen with Mrs. Bellinder from across the street. Whenever she comes over they talk for hours. There's no way Mom will catch you, A.J."
"But I'll have to walk right by them to get upstairs," A.J. pointed out, hoping this information would set him free.
"That's no big deal," Michael assured the boy. "Me and Mark always carry our stuff around in these bags. Mom will just think you're bringing in some baseballs or something."
"Yeah, if she stops you, A.J., just tell her you're bringin' in our old toy cars to put 'em away,” Mark suggested. “Mom knows you like to play with those, and they're in a bag just like this in our room."
"Go on, A.J., Aunt Edie won't catch you,” Rick assured. “Nothing's gonna happen. Just go do it."
A.J. almost put his foot down then and said no. But the look of eager anticipation on the faces of the three older boys caused him to reluctantly change his mind. He didn't really want to spoil their fun; he just wished he didn't have to do all the dirty work. And, too, A.J. was afraid if he refused, they'd leave him out of their activities for the rest of the afternoon. He knew his older brother well enough to know Rick would be exasperated with him for the remainder of the day. It certainly wouldn't be beneath Rick to banish A.J. from any further fun the big boys might have planned.
Finally, A.J. said the words the older boys were waiting to hear.
"Okay, Okay. I'll do it."
"All right!" the three boys shouted in unison upon hearing A.J.'s words.
Final instructions and tips were given to the young adventurer, then, he was sent on his way. He trudged along with slumped shoulders like he was headed for the gallows.
"A.J., don't look so guilty!" Rick called after him. "You're gonna give the whole thing away if you go in there looking like that. Act natural! Geez, you look like you're waiting for someone to beat ya' up or something."
A.J. hardly heard Rick's words as he kept repeating to himself over and over as he approached the back door, "Don't say you've got snakes in the bag. If Aunt Edie asks it’s cars, not snakes. Don't say you have snakes, say cars, say cars."
A.J. took a deep breath as he opened the back door and walked into the kitchen. Sure enough, Aunt Edie and her neighbor were sitting at the table talking. They hardly paid any attention to A.J. as he walked past them. He thought he was home free until Edie asked, "What's in the bag, A.J.?"
A.J. turned and swallowing hard. "Trucks...I mean, baseballs...I mean cars." A rush of words finally tumbled out. "Lots of stuff, Aunt Edie. There's lots of stuff in this bag and I gotta put it away right now!"
Edie just shook her head and smiled at the little boy and his amusing urgency. "Well, that's fine, honey. You just run up and put it all away then. Don't let us stop you."
A.J. ran out of the room and up the stairs, returning a few minutes later empty handed. As he raced through the kitchen, Edie called after him, "Do you want some cookies, A.J.?"
She barely heard the youngster's reply as he flew out the door. "No thanks! I've got to get back outside."
A.J. was given a hero’s welcome by the bigger boys when he returned outside reporting that the mission was accomplished. After assuring the boys that the snakes had all been deposited underneath the bedcovers at the foot of the master bed, and that the bag had been well hidden, and that Aunt Edie didn't suspect a thing, A.J. was pounded on the back and told what a great guy he was. The blond boy completely forgot all his fears about the trouble he might get into over the prank, as he spent the rest of the afternoon basking in the glory that was heaped upon him by the instigators of the crime.
The two oldest Krelman boys were gone for the evening, out on a double date together and not due back until their midnight curfew. It was all the remaining four boys could do that evening to get through supper without giving their secret away. One would suddenly start giggling, soon to be followed by another, and on down the line in an absurd domino fashion. This went on continuously throughout the meal, prompting Bud to ask, "What'd you feed these boys for lunch, Edie? They've got a bad case of the sillies." That only made the foursome laugh harder, as they looked at one another and anticipated the night ahead.
At nine o'clock Rick was helping A.J. clean out the bathtub.
"Now don't forget, A.J., don't fall asleep. Me and the other guys will be goin' to bed at ten. Aunt Edie and Uncle Bud always come up about ten-thirty. You gotta stay awake until then. That's when Aunt Edie will scream."
A.J. nodded. "I'll stay awake, Rick. I've got some books of Mike's Aunt Edie gave me to read on Saturday. I'll read one of those until I hear them come upstairs. Then I'll pretend to be asleep just like you told me to."
Rick ushered A.J. down the hall to David's room to see the younger boy off to bed.
"Now don't forget when Aunt Edie comes up to tell you good night in a few minutes act normal. Don't give anything away."
"I won't," the blond promised as he climbed into his sleeping bag.
"Okay. Good night, kid."
Looking up at Rick, A.J. replied, "Night, Rick."
With hesitation he added, "Rick...I won't get in trouble, will I?"
"Naw. Don't worry about it. You won't get in trouble. Aunt Edie will just think those snakes crawled in from outside. And even if she doesn't, she's a good sport, A.J. She likes to have fun almost as much as we do." Rick gave his brother a big grin and a final round of assurance. "Don't worry about it. This is gonna be great!"
A.J. thought Rick's words over for a second, then forgot all about his worries and responded enthusiastically, "Yeah, it's gonna be great!"
Bud and Edie were getting ready for bed at ten forty-five that night. Bud could hear the laughter coming from the twins’ room.
"Those boys are sure wound up tonight. They've been laughing over nothing since supper time."
"I know it," Edie acknowledged. "All four of them have been acting goofy all afternoon. I don't know what the joke is, but they seem to be enjoying it."
"Is A.J. in there with them tonight?"
As she slipped into her nightgown Edie replied, "No, he's in David's room. He was sound asleep when I came up to say good night to him ten minutes after he got out of the bathtub. I took an open book off his chest and shut the light off without him ever even knowing I was in there."
Talk in the room halted as the couple finished getting ready for bed.
Five minutes later, Rick and the twins heard a loud, "Bud, get your feet off of me!"
"What are you yappin' about now, Edie? My feet aren't on you!"
"Bud, your feet are on me, and you're tickling me. Now stop it!"
Smothered laughter came from the twins' room that wasn't heard by Bud and Edie as they continued arguing. The arguing was interrupted by a series of loud, shrill, female screams, followed by a female voice yelling, "Snakes! Snakes! There's snakes in the bed! Get them out of here, Bud! Get them out of here!"
Michael, Mark, and Rick could no longer keep their laughter quiet. Hysterical merriment overtook them in the twins' darkened bedroom as they listened to Edie's screams. Their laughter intensified when they could guess by the sounds coming from the master bedroom, that Edie was now jumping up and down and running frantically around the room.
Within ten minutes things had calmed down somewhat in Bud and Edie's room, but the merriment coming from the twins' room was still going strong. The door was suddenly opened, and there stood Bud framed in the light from the hallway, pretending to be angry.
"I think you three fellas have some snakes to catch."
The boys only began laughing harder as Mark said, "We didn't do it, Dad. A.J. did."
"Yeah, A.J. did," echoed the other two laughing pranksters.
Edie appeared in the doorway just in time to hear the traitors' accusations. By now she had figured out how those snakes had gotten in her bed, and what A.J. had really had in the bag earlier in the afternoon. Standing with her hands on her hips, Edie informed the laughing trio, "And I can just imagine who put poor little A.J. up to that trick. I know better than to think that he would do such a thing if you three hadn't told him to." Pointing at each guilty party she ordered, "You, you, and you, get up and collect those snakes. All of them!"
Rick was right. Edie really was a good sport. After all, this was hardly the first time that she had been made the victim of some silly prank in her all-male household. She lightly swatted each offender on the behind as they passed her on the way to gather the snakes.
As the boys collected the reptiles, observed closely by Edie and Bud, Rick asked, "Where's A.J.?"
"He's sleeping, Rick,” Edie informed the boy, “and I have no intention of waking him up. I think the real culprits are taking care of the snakes, aren't they?"
Rick laughed as he admitted, "Yeah, Aunt Edie, they are. But I can't believe A.J. actually slept through all this. I told him he had to stay awake ‘cause it was gonna be great!"
"Well, follow me then," Edie told the oldest Simon boy as she walked toward David's room.
As Rick and Edie peeked into David's room, Rick could see that A.J. was, in fact, sound asleep, sprawled out on his back. The blond boy wasn't just faking like Rick had first thought might be the case.
Edie closed the door once Rick was satisfied his little brother was in dreamland. "I just couldn't wake up that sweet little boy and make him help you rotten troublemakers."
Teasing, Rick said, "Boy, A.J.'s sure got you fooled, Aunt Edie."
"Nobody has me fooled, Rick Simon, least of all you. Now, you get in there and get rid of the rest of those snakes."
Rick's eyes sparkled as he mused out loud, "Gee, I can't remember if there were nine snakes or ten."
As Rick wisely scurried down the hall to help the other two snake collectors, the last thing he heard was, "You'll start remembering if you know what's good for you, Richard Simon!"
There was much teasing and laughing about the whole incident going on at the breakfast table the next morning. Young A.J. was getting the brunt of most of the teasing, until Bud came to the aid of the seven-year-old.
"Well, now, I can understand why A.J. was so tired last night. He got stuck doing all the dirty work for you guys yesterday."
Getting up to leave for work with his older sons, Bud tousled A.J.'s hair. "You don't let these big boys mess with you today, A.J." Giving the twins and Rick a mock look of sternness Bud added, "If they mess with you, I'll mess with them in a big way when I get home tonight. Okay, partner?"
"Okay, Uncle Buddy," A.J. said as he smiled his triumph at the teasers.
Later that morning Rick went in search of his younger brother, who had disappeared sometime between the neighborhood football and baseball games. Walking into the garage he exclaimed, "Hey! What are you doing? I told you to stay off of that bike!"
A.J. quickly took his foot of a pedal and backed away from the red bicycle on which he was just about to climb.
"I'm not doing anything, Rick," he lied, red faced with guilt. "I'm just waiting for Aunt Edie, that's all."
"She's gotta go to the grocery store to get some ice cream. If she doesn't, Uncle Buddy's gonna divorce her. He told her that again last night. I heard him. He was serious this time, too."
Rick just rolled his eyes at his little brother. Seven year olds believe everything they hear.
“How come you're waiting for Aunt Edie?"
"She said I could go with her and pick out the flavors.”
"Oh, all right. But don't run off again without tellin' me where you're going." After a pause, Rick questioned, "Is she still plannin' to take us to the beach this afternoon?"
"Yeah, she said we'd go right after lunch."
"Good," Rick said as he turned to head out of the garage. "I'm going back to play ball. I'll see you later then."
"See you later."
Turning back abruptly, Rick pointed a warning finger at his younger brother. "And stay away from that bike. Do you hear me, A.J.?"
The seven-year-old sighed, "Yeah, Rick, I hear you."
By Wednesday afternoon the Simon boys had been at the Krelmans’ for four days, and they were indeed, as their father had predicted, having the time of their lives. There was always something going on at Bud and Edie's house, and the two boys stayed right in the thick of things.
The twins, as well as Rick and A.J., had been out in the backyard playing football with another pair of neighborhood brothers and were now saying good-bye to the boys who had to return home. As they boys turned away from their friends, Rick looked around for A.J.
"Now where'd A.J. run off to? He was just here a minute ago."
"I think he's riding my bike,” Michael said. “He asked me if he could a little while ago, and I told him it was okay."
"Mike! It's not okay. I told you that on Saturday. Your bike's too big for him."
Michael had to run to keep up with Rick as the Simon boy trudged across the back lawn.
"What's the big deal, Rick? He won't fall."
Rick's face was set in anger. "He might, and if he does he could get hurt. I'm supposed to be keepin' an eye on him while my folks are gone. He's my responsibility, Mike." Marching toward the front of the house, Rick added, "And the big deal is, I've already told him twice to stay off those bikes. A.J. knows he's not supposed to be riding them. He shouldn't have gone behind my back and asked you. He knew he was doin' wrong."
A.J. was riding Michael's bike up and down the street, getting as much enjoyment out of what little time he knew he had. He couldn't risk being on the bike much longer for fear Rick would find out, so he had just decided to turn around and head back up the driveway to put the bike away.
Well, big brother was right. The bike was too big for A.J. to handle properly. In his haste to get back home, A.J. turned the bike around without looking behind him. The youngster realized too late he had turned directly into the path of an oncoming car. A car that wasn't more than a few feet from him.
The three older boys were rounding the corner of the house when Rick witnessed a sight he knew he'd never forget. The fender of an oversized Ford hit A.J. and the bike he was riding, causing the boy to fall over. He was trapped half under the car with Mike's bike on top of his legs.
"A.J.! A.J.! A.J.!" Rick yelled as he ran toward his brother. Mark followed closely at Rick's heels while Michael ran into the house hollering for his mother.
Before Rick even got to the curb a horrified Edie Krelman was running out the front door with Michael at her side.
By the time Rick got to the street, A.J. was already trying to push the bike off of himself and get out from underneath the car. Immediately, the shook-up driver and Edie instructed A.J. to lie still and not to move until they had a chance to look him over.
Mark and Rick gently untangled A.J.'s legs from the spokes of the wheels while Edie and the man who had been driving the car questioned the little boy as to where he was hurt. Once the youngster had the adults convinced he wasn't in any pain and that no bones were broken, Edie and the man helped A.J. roll out from under the car and stand up.
Edie looked A.J. over and questioned him thoroughly. She finally decided the only injuries he had suffered were the ones visible to her of a badly scraped left arm and leg, and a slightly bruised and scraped left cheek along with a cut lip. She spent a few minutes calming down her shaking neighbor and apologizing to him for the accident. In a relieved tone the man said, "Don't worry about it, Edie. Boys will be boys, and accidents do happen. I'm just thankful I was only going fifteen miles an hour and this little guy isn't hurt badly."
The man got in his car once again as Edie began escorting all the boys back to the house. She instructed the twins to put the bike in the garage. She walked with her arm around A.J.'s shoulders, leading him toward the front door. Rick walked on the other side of his little brother, his hand gripped tightly around A.J.'s upper arm.
There was no doubt in young A.J.'s mind that Rick was furious with him. After Rick's first terrified shouts of A.J.'s name, and then his frantic inquiries of A.J. as to whether the younger boy was all right, Rick hadn't said a word. Not one more single word to his little brother. Rick had let his silence do his talking for him, and his message was getting through loud and clear to A.J.
Edie took A.J. up to the bathroom and sat him on a stepstool she kept in there, the other three boys following close behind. The next few minutes were spent cleaning and bandaging the little boy's wounds. Edie continued to question A.J. as to whether or not he was hurt anywhere else as she worked. Satisfied finally that A.J. was telling her the truth, Edie breathed a sigh of relief as she finished with the last bandage. She pulled A.J. to her chest then, hugging him tightly.
"I'm so glad you're all right, honey. When I saw you lying in that street, underneath that car, I was just so scared."
"I was scared, too, Aunt Edie," A.J. admitted softly.
"You shoulda' been," Rick growled at his brother as Edie released the little boy. "I told you to stay off that bike, A.J.! Just what did you think you were doing, pullin' a stunt like that?"
When Rick's question was met with nothing but shamed silence, he demanded, "Answer me, A.J.! What were you doing? How come you didn't listen to me?"
Taking in A.J.'s pale face, and Rick's angry one, Edie quickly stepped in. "Rick, that's enough now. It's over, A.J. isn't hurt badly, and that's all that matters."
Rick turned away in disgust as Edie began gathering up the bandages and disinfectant she had been using. After a moment, A.J.'s soft voice broke the uncomfortable silence in the bathroom as he said to Michael, "I'm sorry about your bike."
At this point Michael was just so happy A.J. was all right, and nobody was blaming him for letting the little boy use the bike, that he simply grinned at the blond and offered words of assurance.
"Don't worry about it, A.J. It's only got one scratch on it from the car. It already had three others I put on it, so it doesn't matter. It still works just fine."
Rick ignored this exchange and he said to the twins, "Come on. Let's go back outside."
A.J. started climbing off the stool. "Wait for me."
"A.J., honey, no. I want you to stay in the house with me for just a little while at least. I want to make sure you're all right."
"No, please, Aunt Edie. I'm okay."
Rick turned from the doorway to glare at his brother. "A.J., you stay in this house like Aunt Edie says. I mean it, too!" Turning back to the twins Rick said, "Come on, let's go," and disappeared out of the bathroom without giving his sibling another glance.
Upon seeing the forlorn look on A.J.'s face Edie said to the youngster, "They'll be back in a little while, hon. It's thundering out right now. I'll bet it's going to start raining any minute."
A.J. was silent for a minute before saying softly, "Rick's awful mad at me."
Edie smiled at the boy as she reached out to run a hand through his tangled hair. "He'll get over it, A.J. Just give him a little while. He'll cool down."
Looking up at Edie with a long face A.J. told her, "He's never been this mad at me before."
"Honey, I think Rick's probably more scared than mad. His face was as white as a sheet when he was getting that bike off of you, and his hands were shaking. You gave your big brother an awful fright, A.J."
And me, as well, Edie thought to herself at that moment. She could completely understand how Rick was feeling right now - both scared and angry. She was feeling that way, too. And while Edie knew Rick was angry with his younger brother for disobeying, she had also guessed Rick was probably just a little angry with himself, as well. Just like Edie was angry with herself. Angry because she was in charge of A.J. and didn't have the faintest idea he was out on the street riding Michael's bike. Hadn't, in fact, even known he'd been wanting to ride the bike and had been forbidden to by Rick.
Deep down, Edie knew Jack and Cecilia wouldn't blame her for any of what had just happened, but that didn't change the fact that all Edie kept picturing in her mind was A.J. lying seriously injured, or even lifeless, under that car.
Looking down into the sad eyes of the child sitting before her, Edie shook off her dark thoughts and smiled. "Come on, hon. Go into the twins' room and pick out a game. You and I can play that until the boys come back. I need to start supper pretty soon, too. Your mom tells me you like to cook, A.J. Would you like to help me?"
"I guess so."
Edie cupped her hand under A.J.'s chin and tilted his face upward. "Hey, come on now. Everything will be all right. Rick won't be mad for long. He'll get over it." Edie patted A.J.'s uninjured knee. "Now let's go get that game."
With that, A.J. followed Edie out of the bathroom, limping slightly as he favored his bruised leg.
Edie's prediction that Rick would soon get over his anger didn't prove true. It started raining an hour after the boys left the house, and they returned home as the first raindrops fell. The twins ran upstairs to retrieve more games the four boys could spend the rest of the rainy afternoon playing. As the various games progressed it became apparent that Rick had little to say to his younger brother, and what he did say was short and sharp.
Things weren't much better that night at the supper table. Edie had filled Bud in on the afternoon's events when he got home from work. True to his humorous nature, therefore, Bud began gently teasing the four boys about their latest escapade as the evening meal progressed.
"Well, A.J., I guess this really makes you the Rough Rider, doesn't it?" Bud asked as he laughed at his own play on words in regards to a Western TV show that was popular with most boys now days.
Bud realized almost immediately that his attempt to lighten the mood had fallen flat. Rick's jaw muscles clenched at the mention of the accident in an uncanny way that reminded Bud of Jack Simon. A.J. sat with his eyes cast down on his dinner plate, picking at his food. Bud wisely changed the subject then, but it wasn't lost on him or Edie that neither Simon boy had anything to say throughout the rest of dinner.
That night there was none of the brotherly chatter and teasing coming from behind the closed bathroom door as had gone on previously that week when Rick checked on his sibling while A.J. took his bath. Rick simply stood with his arms folded as he leaned back against the sink.
"Come on, hurry up, A.J. It's late, and I got better things to do than baby-sit you tonight. Get a move on."
As A.J. climbed out of the tub, Rick handed him a bath towel. In doing so, he looked his younger brother up and down, taking in the bruises that had been hidden by A.J.'s clothes. The bruise on the youngster's left leg was black and blue now, and ran in a continuous mass from shin to thigh. It hadn't been lost on Rick either, that A.J. had been limping as he walked. For just a moment an expression of fear crossed Rick's face before it was replaced with nothing but stone cold anger.
"I hope that leg's hurting you. Maybe it'll remind you to listen to me from now on when I tell you not to do something."
“Rick, I'm sor--"
"I don't wanna hear it, A.J.! Just get your pajamas on and get to bed," Rick ordered as he turned his back on his brother and began draining the bathtub.
A.J. cast a mournful glance at his older brother's back before doing as he was told. When he realized Rick wasn't going to say anything else to him, A.J. slowly limped down the hall to David's room.
The only change in Rick's attitude the next day was now he wasn’t speaking to A.J. at all. By eleven o'clock young A.J. came to the conclusion that the silent treatment was going to last a while. The only time Rick would break the pattern was when A.J. left the yard to go into the house for a drink, or to use the bathroom. Whenever that would happen, Rick would instruct harshly, "Don't you go disappearing on me, A.J.! You get your butt right back out here when you're through."
By the time evening came A.J. was thoroughly miserable, and had no idea how to set things right with his older brother. Every time he had tried to talk to Rick, tried to apologize for disobeying him, the little boy was cut off by a sharp, "I don't wanna hear it, A.J." By the end of the day poor A.J. didn't know what his brother wanted to hear.
It was shortly after one a.m. Friday morning when Rick Simon was awakened by someone shaking his shoulder and softly calling his name. He looked up into the face of Edie Krelman and propped himself up on his elbow, both sleepy and confused.
"What's wrong, Aunt Edie?"
"Rick, A.J. is--"
Rick began frantically climbed out of his sleeping bag. "What's wrong with him? He's sick, isn't he? He’s hurt ‘cause of that car hittin’ him. Where is he?"
"Rick, no, calm down," Edie said to the twelve year old in a hushed tone. "A.J. isn't sick or hurt. There's nothing wrong with him. Now calm down."
Rick attempted to calm himself at Edie's words of reassurance. He was kind of embarrassed by his reaction, but he couldn't help it. He was in charge of A.J. while Mom and Dad were away. Anything that happened to A.J. was ultimately Rick’s responsibility.
"If A.J.’s okay, then what's goin' on? Why’d you wake me up?"
"Your brother’s down in the kitchen. I can't get him to come back upstairs and go to bed."
"What's he doing down there?"
"I'm not sure, hon. I woke up about a half hour ago and heard someone going down the stairs. When no one came back up, I went to investigate. I found A.J. sitting at the kitchen table all by himself. He says he can't sleep."
"That's kinda weird," Rick commented, more to himself than to Edie. Usually once A.J.'s head hit the pillow for the night he was out for the count.
Edie sat down on the floor next to Rick. She kept her voice hushed in deference to the sleeping twins. "Rick...I think A.J.'s upset because you're so angry with him about the accident on Wednesday."
"Aw, I'm not really mad at him anymore. I was mad Wednesday. Really mad," Rick admitted. "But I wasn't mad yesterday. I was just tryin' to make a point."
At Edie's confused look Rick elaborated. "I was just tryin' to make A.J. understand how much what happened with the car and all, scared me. I was tryin' to make him see that he's gotta listen to me when I tell him not to do something ‘cause there's a reason for it." Rick looked into Edie's eyes as he confessed softly, "He scared me so much, Aunt Edie. When I saw A.J. lying under that car, I was just so scared. I was so afraid he was hurt real bad, or maybe even dead.” Looking down at his sleeping bag, Rick spoke in barely a whisper as he finished, "I don't think I could go on living if something happened to him. That's why when I finally knew he was gonna be okay, I was so mad at him for pullin' such a dumb stunt."
Edie gave Rick a soft smile as he looked back up at her. "I understand that, Rick. Believe me, I understand completely how you were feeling, but A.J. doesn't."
At Rick's puzzled look, Edie told him, "Rick, A.J.'s only feeling your anger. I don't think he understands that anger comes from your fear for his safety. He thinks you don't want to be his friend anymore."
"Did he tell you that?"
"Yes, he did," Edie nodded. "Just a few minutes ago."
Rick climbed out of the sleeping bag and stood up. "I'll go down and talk to him."
"Do you want me to come with you?" Edie asked, as she stood also.
"No, I better handle this by myself. Don't worry, Aunt Edie, I'll get him to come back to bed."
As they walked down the hall Edie said, "All right. You go on then. I'll be in my room, but I won't go back to sleep until I hear you boys come back up. If you need me, come get me,"
"Yeah, I will."
As Rick walked away, Edie reminded, "Remember, Rick, he's only seven years old. Sometimes seven year olds need to have things explained clearly to them. They can't always read between the lines, if you know what I mean."
Rick nodded, thinking over Edie's words. "Yeah, I think I know what you mean."
Rick entered the kitchen to see A.J. sitting at the table with a glass of orange juice in front of him. The room was bathed in a soft glow of yellow provided by the light above the sink. The house was so quiet that Rick could hear the summer night noises of crickets and frogs through the open windows.
A.J. looked up briefly at his older brother, then turned his attention back to his half empty glass.
As Rick took a seat next to the younger boy he asked lightly, "You
startin' a new habit here, A.J.? Orange juice at one-thirty in the
A.J. simply shook his head no.
"How come you're down here all by yourself?"
"How come?" Rick asked the bowed head.
When A.J. didn't answer him, Rick inquired, "Is it because you think I'm mad at you?"
That question was met with silence for a moment, then a defensive, "Well, you are."
"No, I'm not, A.J. I'm not mad at you."
Those two sentences caused A.J. to look up at his big brother, anger flashing in his blue eyes at what he deemed an out right lie. "Yes, you are!" A.J. accused. "You wouldn't talk to me all day, and when you did you were real mean. And every time I tried to tell you I was sorry you wouldn't listen to me. You kept telling me you didn't want to hear it. And Wednesday night you told me you hoped my leg was hurting me. Well, it was, and you didn't even care, Rick! You hurt my feelings that night 'cause you were so mad and 'cause you said that to me."
Rick sat absorbing A.J.'s angry words for a minute. Although he still felt his own anger over his little brother's stunt was justified, A.J.'s rush of words from a moment ago made Rick see the other side of the coin. They made Rick see how A.J. had been viewing his anger. A.J.'s words also made Rick fully understand Edie's comment from earlier about a seven-year-old not being able to read between the lines.
Rick thought a moment before he offered his explanation.
"A.J., I'm not going to lie to you. I was real mad at you on Wednesday, there's no doubt about that. I was mad at you because you had disobeyed me after I had warned you twice to stay off that bike."
"I know that, Rick," came the sullen response.
"Just let me finish here, all right? I've got more to say to you," Rick informed his brother. "I was mad at you for disobeying me, but I was even more mad because you scared me so bad."
A.J. looked up at his brother in surprise. Rick locked gazes with the younger boy. "When I saw you layin’ in that street, underneath that car, I was so scared. I was afraid you were hurt really, really bad. I mean bad enough that you would have to go to the hospital, A.J. Bad enough that I couldn't fix whatever was wrong like I can your skinned knees." Rick lightly laid a hand on his brother's bare arm as he finished, "That's why when I finally knew you were gonna be okay, I got so angry with you. I was angry because you had done something I had told you not to in the first place, and you had gotten hurt. I just kept thinking over and over of how lucky you were. I kept thinking of how bad you coulda' been hurt, and it would just scare me all over again."
The two boys sat together in the silence of the summer night for a little while, then Rick spoke again. "I wasn't really mad at you yesterday, A.J. I guess I was just being rough on you to make you understand that you had done something wrong by riding Mike's bike after I had told you not to. But I was wrong not to listen to you when you tried to tell me you were sorry. I already knew you were sorry, but I should have let you say it. I should have listened to you. I'm sorry about that. I'm sorry I acted that way, okay?"
"Okay," came the soft reply.
Nudging A.J. gently with his elbow, Rick gained eye contact once again with the younger boy. "I'm sorry I told you I hoped your leg was hurting. I didn't mean that. I really did care that it was hurting you. I could tell it was by the way you were walking. So see, I really did care. You know that, don't you?"
"Yeah, I know that."
"Is it okay now?" Rick inquired. "Does it hurt any more?"
"No, it doesn't hurt. It's okay."
"Good," came the relieved reply. "Can I have a drink of your juice?"
A.J. nodded as he pushed his glass toward Rick. After Rick took several swallows he set the glass down.
"When Mom and Dad left last weekend they made me promise I'd keep an eye on you. I had a responsibility to them. I guess that's kinda why I was so mad at you, too. I kept thinking of what I was gonna tell them to explain all this. How could I tell them that because I wasn't watchin' you, you almost got run over by a car?"
"It's not your fault, Rick. I snuck off on you. You didn't know what I was doing. I'll tell Mom and Dad that. I won't let you get in trouble for this, I promise."
Rick smiled at his little brother's loyalty. "Don't worry about it. You don't have to tell Mom and Dad anything. At least not right away. Aunt Edie talked to me after supper, and she said for us not to mention it to Mom and Dad until she's had a chance to talk to them first. She didn't tell Mom anything about it on the phone Wednesday night. Aunt Edie promised me nobody would get into trouble."
"Good," came the relieved response from A.J. He knew he was the one who would get into the most trouble over the entire affair. He was relieved to hear things weren’t going to be as bad as he had previously thought.
"Do you understand now, why I was so mad at you?” Rick asked. “What I was trying to teach you?"
"Yeah, I understand," A.J. nodded. "I had a responsibility to Mom and Dad, too, Rick."
At Rick's bewildered look A.J. smiled. "I promised Mom and Dad I'd keep you out of trouble this week. And I did, too, didn't I? You haven't gotten in any trouble all week, Rick."
Rick laughed. "You're right, A.J. I didn't get in any trouble all week. Must be a record for me, huh, kid?" Rick smiled slyly as he teased, "After all, you were the one who planted the snakes in Aunt Edie's bed."
"I only did that so you wouldn't get in trouble. I only did it because I made a promise to Mom and Dad."
Rick laughed again as he shook his head at his little brother. "You're a strange kid, you know that, A.J.?"
After a minute of companionable silence, A.J. asked, "Is it over, Rick? I mean, about the bike and all? Are you done being mad? Are we friends again?"
"I didn't think we'd ever stopped being friends, little brother," Rick said. A.J. smiled at those words. His smile broadened further at Rick's next ones. "But I didn't think I was your friend, A.J....I thought I was your best friend."
Leaning sideways to hug Rick around his middle, A.J. confirmed,
"You are, Rick. You're my best friend."
Rick returned the hug. "Feeling's mutual, kid. Feeling's mutual."
Rick broke the embrace after a moment. "We'd better get back upstairs before Aunt Edie comes looking for us."
As the boys rose from the table A.J. asked, "Rick, would it be all
right if I spent the night in the twins' room with you?"
"You mean you don't want to be in with David? This is our last night here, you know. After tonight you'll be stuck roomin' with me all the time."
"I know. I don't care. Please, can I?"
Tousling his little brother's hair as they made their way side by side up the stairs, Rick replied, "Sure, kid, whatever you want. I've kinda been missing you this week anyway. There's been no snoring to put me to sleep."
"I don't snore!" A.J.
protested in a loud whisper.
"You do, too, real loud. Loud enough to wake up the whole house
"I do not!"
"I was only teasing," Rick laughed. "You don't snore."
Rick unzipped his sleeping bag and spread it out double on the floor. He threw a sheet over both him and A.J. as they lay next to each other in the dark room.
"Rick," A.J. whispered. "Would you tell me a story?"
"Okay, but we gotta be real quiet, and it's gotta be a short one.
It's late," Rick yawned. "Whatta ya’ wanna hear?"
"I don't care, anything. As long as it's not boring."
"Ok, let me think for a minute," Rick spoke in a hushed tone. "All right, I've got one," he said after a moment.
"Once upon a time there was a seven-year-old boy with blond hair who disobeyed his very wise older brother--"
"Rick...I can tell you right now I don't like this story."
Chuckling softly Rick said, "Okay, okay, I was only teasing. Don't get your shorts in a bundle, kid."
Rick started with a new story then, one that satisfied the critic lying beside him. Ten minutes later Rick's audience was sound asleep. Right before a tired Rick closed his eyes, as well, he glanced at the little boy beside him - his best friend - and thought, Sometimes you're a real pain in the butt, kid, but nobody could ever be as good of a friend as you are.
Thinking back to the bike accident from two days before, Rick said softly, "I'm really lucky to have you for a brother, A.J. Simon. I’m really lucky to have you."
Friday afternoon at four o'clock Cecilia and Jack were greeted by two excited boys as they pulled into the Krelmans’ driveway. Cecilia realized her fear of not being missed by her two sons was unfounded as she got a bear hug and a kiss from Rick, and two hugs and a kiss from A.J. Even Jack received a prolonged hug from his oldest, which was somewhat unusual in these days as adolescence approached. As Jack picked up his youngest and swung him in the air in greeting, the notion hit him, too, of how quickly his children were growing up. Andy was almost too heavy for him to do that with anymore. As he kissed the top of A.J.'s head, Jack thought of how much he had enjoyed the second honeymoon, but of how glad he was to be back home to his boys, as well. He had missed them more than he had imagined he would.
As the Simon family walked up to the house to talk with Edie and gather
the boys' suitcases, Cecilia asked, "A.J., what's wrong? Why are you
limping? And how did you get those scrapes on your face?"
At that, Edie Krelman, who had been standing on the front steps, jumped in and began explaining the events of Wednesday before A.J. had a chance to answer his mother. Edie did the best she could at down playing the incident in order to prevent A.J. from getting in trouble. She felt entirely to blame for the mishap, and also felt the young boy had already been through enough concerning the whole affair and had learned his lesson. Although Jack and Cecilia were concerned and somewhat upset, as any parents would be, they took the whole story fairly well, basically just thankful that A.J. had not been seriously injured. Edie imagined the whole thing didn't come as a big shock to them. both the Simon boys were known for their active lifestyles and sometimes reckless ways. The entire matter was put to rest in a very short time. Both Cecilia and Jack scolded A.J. for disobeying Rick and doing something he knew was wrong in the first place, then they each gave him a hug, knowing how lucky they were they hadn't been called home to a tragedy neither one of them could bear to imagine.
Shortly thereafter, suitcases and boys were loaded in the Simon car. Michael and Mark were told a final goodbye from their friends, and the Simon boys, as well as their parents, offered Edie Krelman a final thank you before Jack backed out of the driveway in order to take his family home.
Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny - a perfect day for the promised fishing trip of weeks before. Jack was in the garage gathering poles and filling tackle boxes when Rick walked in.
"Are you just about ready to go, buddy?"
Rick leaned against his father's workbench. "Yeah, Dad, I'm ready."
"Where's your brother?"
"He's in the house checking out what kind of food Mom's packing for us."
"Good man. If whatever Mom packs meets Andy’s approval, we should
have a pretty good lunch," Jack commented knowing how picky his youngest
could be. "So you guys had a good time at Uncle Bud's, I gather?"
Rick began helping his dad put various lures in a tackle box. "Yeah, we had a great time. It's fun being over there. There's always a lot of neat stuff going on."
"So I hear," Jack said dryly, thinking of the bicycle mishap, as well as the snake incident he and Cecilia had been informed of.
Father and son worked together in amiable silence for a few minutes when
Rick suddenly questioned, "It's not easy being a parent, is it, Dad?"
"Well...no, Rick...it's not. Not all the time anyway. Why?"
Rick shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, I don't know. Just askin,’ I guess. I kinda felt like a parent to A.J. this week - you know, with you and Mom being so far away and all, and it just wasn't always easy."
"You mean because of what happened with the bicycle? Andy disobeying you and getting hit by that car?"
"Yeah, that's part of it," Rick acknowledged thinking, too, of all the nights he had cleaned out the bathtub and tucked A.J. into bed. And then thinking of all the times he could have sworn A.J. was right outside playing next to him, only to turn around and discover his little brother was nowhere to be found. At those times Rick had to stop what he was doing to go in search of the child he was supposed to be keeping an eye on.
As his thoughts turned to the bike accident once more, Rick confessed, "He really scared me, Dad. When I saw that car hit A.J., and then him layin’ there underneath it, I thought he was hurt real bad for sure. I was so scared, and then later, after I knew he was okay, I was just so mad at him for not listening to me in the first place."
"Kind of like how a parent feels when one of his children disobeys, huh?" Jack asked with amusement.
"Yeah, kinda like that," Rick admitted ruefully.
Grinning at his son, Jack told him, "No, Rick, it's not easy being
a parent. It's especially not easy when your children are sick, or when they
disobey you and get themselves hurt like Andy did. The hardest thing for a
father to see is one of his children in pain. Believe me, I know. You guys have
put me through that often enough." Reaching out to tousle Rick's dark
hair, Jack smiled as he asked, "But, you know what?"
"In the end, no matter how hard it is sometimes, it's always worth it. At least that's what I think."
Thinking of all he'd been through this past week as A.J.'s surrogate parent, and then thinking of their talk in Edie's kitchen and their shared hug, and later their story as they shared Rick's sleeping bag, Rick answered his father with, "Yeah, Dad. I think that, too. I think it's always worth it in the end."
“I’m glad you understand.” Jack smiled as he instructed, "Now go get that troublemaking little brother of yours, and bring the lunch, too. I'm ready to leave so let's get a move on."
"Okay, Dad," Rick replied as he ran out of the garage.
Jack grinned as he loaded the fishing tackle in the car trunk, thinking of his two boys and the day ahead that was reserved exclusively for the three of them. Softly, he said to himself as he closed the trunk, "It's not easy being a parent, but like I told Rick, it's always worth it. Always."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~