Rick Simon turned the doorknob and opened the door quietly. He stuck his head in to survey the kitchen of his brother's home. A.J. was standing by the counter drinking a tall glass of orange juice. Judging by his attire, sweaty forehead and flushed cheeks, he seemed to have returned from his morning run not too long ago. He must have heard Rick at the door but said nothing.
In contrast to the older brother's forced cheerfulness, his sibling's tone was ice-cold, which told Rick loud and clear that A.J. had not yet absolved him from last night's antics.
"Hey, you're not still mad at me, are ya?" asked Rick just in case.
No response from A.J. but a chilling silence.
"Oh, come on! Don't give me that. Stop pouting and be reasonable. I said I was sorry!"
Something Rick had said made A.J.'s head swivel. "Be reasonable? BE REASONABLE?" A.J.'s voice became screechy giving Rick an ample warning that he was still hopping mad. "Says a man who is yet to find the definition of 'reasonable' in his dictionary!"
"I yam what I yam," grinned Rick impishly. "But you're the good son in our family. You're always level-headed and…and very forgiving." He placed more than a slight emphasis on the last word.
"Even a saintly soul, that I'm not, would snap after three decades of torment, continuous torment heaped upon by his sadistically maniacal brother like you!"
Rick bowed his head trying his best to look contrite.
"Sabotaging my date night is nothing new to you, but taking off with my date is a new low even for you!" A.J. drove his point home by jabbing his finger at Rick.
"Hey, I was just trying to help you out."
A.J. froze and stared at his brother in disbelief. Rick didn't like the feverish gleam in his brother's eyes—it made him look like a rabid dog, or a psychotic killer.
"All I wanted was comfort Rebecca 'cause she looked kinda scared when you rushed out the door screaming my name at the top of your lungs…" Seeing A.J. breathing hard like a marathon runner at the finish line, Rick hastily continued. "You should thank me, A.J.—she's all wrong for you."
After a beat or two, A.J. managed to croak, "All wrong for me…"
Rick nodded vigorously.
"That from a man whose most meaningful relationship lasted all of five days."
"Why settle for one woman when there are so many to choose from? Look, you know what they say about the attraction between the opposites. You and Rebecca are too alike—serious, well-dressed, well-educated, able to slip a phrase like bon vin blanc into a conversation…"
"So, you're trying to say, I should see a woman like you, and you should date a woman like me?"
Rick crinkled his nose and pondered what his brother had said for a moment. A.J. snorted when he saw Rick cringe and shudder.
"Okay, okay. There's a flaw in the theory, I admit," Rick conceded. "But I'm not here to argue. I'm here to apologize."
"Far be it from me to stop you," uttered A.J. sarcastically.
"I really mean it, A.J. Here, take a look." Rick took out something out of the breast pocket of his shirt and offered it to his brother.
A.J. regarded Rick suspiciously and hesitated a moment before accepting what seemed to be a couple of tickets. When he saw what they were, his head snapped up.
"The Chargers game next week! How did you manage to get a couple of good end zone seats like these? The game's sold out!"
"I have my sources," said Rick succinctly. He had no intention of telling his brother that Carlos had given him the tickets in return for letting him use A.J.'s home and Camaro for a week during his brother's vacation in San Francisco—without A.J.'s consent, needless to say.
A.J. clutched the tickets against his chest like a young child holding his teddy bear or blankie and sat down on the armchair.
"This is very considerate of you. I'm…I'm really touched, Rick. I think you're finally growing up."
"Ah! Don't get too mushy on me, A.J., but you're welcome," said Rick with a half smile.
"Hey, Rick? I bought some doughnuts on the way home. Would you like one?" asked A.J. offhandedly as he kept staring straight ahead into space.
"Mmm, doughnuts!" Rick licked his chops and opened a cardboard box on the counter. There were two each of maple bars and jelly-filled doughnuts. At the moment, it didn't occur to him neither he nor A.J. liked maple bars. Rick picked up one of the jelly-filled doughnuts and took a big bite with gusto, but just as soon as he tasted the filling, he spat it out in the kitchen sink with an "Ugh!" He grabbed a handful of paper napkins and gave his tongue a thorough scrub with them.
"A.J.!" Rick roared as soon as he got the use of his tongue back.
A.J. was sitting sideways in the chair watching Rick's every move with a mischievous grin on his face.
"I want those tickets back!"
"No way! They're for your stealing my date. That," A.J. pointed at the box of doughnuts, "…is for doctoring my escalopes de poulet a la moutarde de Dijon au vin blanc."
Rick had ruined A.J.'s chicken dish with mustard and white wine sauce by adding unappetizing, and quite possibly inedible, ingredients last night. To get back at his brother, A.J. had sucked out the jelly filling and replaced it with the mixture of ketchup, Tabasco, and chili pepper.
Rick got a coffee mug out of the drainer and poured the coffee from the coffee maker carafe. He took a big gulp only to spew it out in the sink yet again.
A.J. was now laughing uncontrollably, his head thrown back, body twitching with laughter.
Next minute or so, Rick busied himself with rinsing his mouth and gargling with the tap water to get the nasty aftertaste out.
"A.J.!" Rick yelled for the second time.
"And that," A.J. gasped between fits of laughter, "…was for replacing my fifty-dollar-a-bottle chardonnay with white grape juice."
Rick was becoming red in the face.
"You're getting the taste of your own medicine, Rick," said A.J. still chuckling. Actually, what Rick had tasted was a concoction of coffee, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and vinegar.
"Ever since we were kids, I have begged and pleaded to stop these pranks of yours, but you wouldn't listen. I'm afraid this is the last resort to get through to you. How does it feel to be on the receiving end of sophomoric stunts? Huh? And don't get me wrong, I'm not doing this for the sake of enjoyment."
Rick didn't buy the last remark. "You're gonna pay for this." He snarled.
"Oh, come on! You started it."
"No one gets the last laugh at my expense, especially a little twerp like you!"
"You can make idle threats all you want, but you can't scare me. We're not kids anymore, Rick. Your reign of terror ended long ago. Why don't you wake up and smell the coffee?" A.J. paused. "Oh, wait. You already have, haven't you?"
A.J. resumed chuckling and got up from the chair to get ready for work.
"You have no idea what I'm capable of, A.J. You should be afraid—very, very afraid."
"Oh, yeah? Make me."
A predatory grin, that had been all too familiar to A.J. since they had been boys, started to spread across his brother's lips, and for an instant, an eight-year-old in him flinched, wishing he could retract what he'd said, but just as soon as it was brought on, the fear dissipated. He wanted to kick himself for falling for Rick's old trick.
"Is that a challenge?" Rick asked softly still grinning like a psycho. He could see his brother's bravado falter for a brief moment.
"Come on, Rick. This is so childish. I refuse to be roped into one of your puerile games!"
Rick's grin became wider. "Chicken!" He gleefully taunted his brother.
"You're wasting your breath. At least one of us has grown up. I'm not going to stoop to your level no matter what you say."
"Okay. So, I win."
"What?" A.J. was flabbergasted.
"I win by default."
A.J. shook his head as if to refuse to believe what he'd heard. "Rick, this is not a sporting event. I don't remember signing up for participation. You… Listen, I don't pretend that I am remotely capable of following your reasoning process, but please let me reiterate; I am NOT playing your one-upmanship game. All right?"
Rick shrugged. "Fine. Don't do anything then."
"That's exactly what I'm going to do—nothing." A.J. was glad to be able to leave this matter behind.
"I'm not gonna let you off the hook that easy though," said Rick smiling sweetly.
A.J. frowned. "What do you mean by that?"
"You know damn well what I mean—it means that you're gonna have to watch your back, as well as your front, left and right, for the next few days, and the best part is, I don't have to worry about watching my back."
A.J. squeezed his eyes shut and sighed in sheer frustration.
"Remember the camping trip we went on when you were thirteen or fourteen? You thought it was a bear coming after you in that cave you wanted to 'explore.' Man, you almost wet your pants when I grabbed ya!" Rick reminisced happily. "And when you crawled into your sleeping bag and found a coupla snakes, you screamed like a little girl…" Rick continued to harass his kid brother just like old times.
His eyes downcast, head hung low, A.J. mumbled something.
"Come again?" asked Rick.
A.J. lifted his head to look his brother squarely in the eye and declared, "Let the best man win."
Rick's face lit up like a Christmas tree on steroid. "What? You're on?"
"Yes," answered A.J. tersely knowing full well that Rick now got him where he wanted him.
"All right! That's my little brother—a gracious loser, who's willing to take a lickin'."
"Don't be so sure. I can be just as wicked and devious as you if I set my mind to it. After all, you provided numerous examples, from plain bad to diabolical, for me to examine over the years."
"Do you know what your problem is, A.J.?" Rick snickered at his brother who seemed exasperated and miserable. "You're good at lots of things, like schoolwork, sports, cooking, but you lack one thing to be a great prankster—spontaneity."
"I have no desire or aspiration to be a prankster, great, mediocre or otherwise, but just so you know, I can be spontaneous, capricious and impulsive like you if I want to."
"Wrong! Being spontaneous, capricious or impulsive is not something you can teach yourself, or flip the switch on. You're either born with it, or without. I hate to tell you this, kid, but you ain't got it."
"You're wrong," said A.J. stubbornly.
"What are you two arguing at this hour of the morning?"
The Simon brothers instinctively clamped their mouths as soon as they heard their mother's voice. It was still early in the morning, and yet, Cecilia Simon, standing by the kitchen door, was chipper and dressed fashionably in a pastel pink ensemble.
"Hi, Mom." A.J. gave her a perfunctory greeting.
"Mom, what're you doing here all gussied up? It's not eight o'clock yet." Rick groaned.
"Aren't you glad that I got here when I did to break up your fight?"
"We're not fighting," grumbled Rick.
"Then why were you yelling at each other? What are you boys up to?"
"Nuthin'," muttered Rick poker-faced throwing in a slight shrug, a gesture reminiscent of his rebellious teenage years.
"It's nothing, Mom," said A.J. almost simultaneously in the sweet tone of an innocent mommy's angel.
Of course, Cecilia knew that her sons were up to something. The lad doth protest too little, methinks, thought she with a secretive smile. But she also knew that she wouldn't be able to get them to fess up unless they were ready and willing to do so. Until then, even A.J., the chattier of her two sons, would become monosyllabic and uncooperative on the subject matter not unlike a hostile witness on the witness stand during cross-examination.
"All right, then. I'm glad to hear that because I came here to ask you a few questions, not to be a referee in your fight."
"I told you, we're not…"
As Rick began to bellyache, A.J. quickly overrode him. "Ask away, Mom."
"Well," Cecilia clasped her hands in front of her chest. "What are you boys doing next Wednesday night?"
Unsure of where their mother's question would lead them, Rick and A.J. briefly exchanged a puzzled look.
"Um, nothing special, I guess," replied A.J.
"Good! What about you, Rick?"
"I dunno. I don't plan things weeks ahead."
"So, does that mean you can make yourself available next Wednesday night?" Cecilia asked with a hopeful look in those large pixie eyes of hers.
"Yeah, I guess so, but what exactly am I making myself available for?"
"Well, there's a charity function I'm attending…"
Rick cut her off. "Ah! Say no more. Take A.J. with you. He makes a better escort."
A.J. shot an angry look at his brother.
Cecilia appeared a little annoyed. "Rick, I don't have to ask one of my sons to accompany me to the function, but there are a couple of ladies from my bowling team who are in need of companion."
Rick was almost afraid to ask the question. "Who?"
"Sandra Bauer and Gretchen Hartmann."
"No! Not Randy Sandy and Retchin' Gretchen!"
"Rick!" Cecilia and A.J. were aghast to hear such a tasteless, insensitive remark although they had heard those unflattering nicknames whispered among some harpies who also frequented the same bowling alley. The problem child of the family had undoubtedly been in tune with the gossip.
"Don't you think me and A.J. are a little too young for them?"
"Sandra is only several years older than I am," remarked Cecilia tightly.
"But missus H must be old enough to be our grandmother!"
"Gretchen is barely into her seventies and looks at least a decade younger than her age."
"Mom, go ahead and tell the ladies that Rick and I are more than happy to be of their service." A.J. jumped in to be on the mother's side.
This time, Rick gave his brother a dirty look.
"We should treat our mother's good friends like ours, shouldn't we?" A.J. looked into Cecilia's eyes like a child eager to receive his mother's approval.
Before Rick could voice his opinion, Cecilia beat him to it. "Oh, wonderful! Thank you, honey. I can always count on you."
Cecilia gave her youngest an affectionate hug to seal the deal. Rick was half expecting to see A.J. stick his tongue out at him like he used to behind their mother's back whenever he'd succeeded to get him into trouble.
"Now, why don't you take a shower and get ready for work, sweetheart?" said Cecilia.
"Yes, ma'am." A.J. obediently replied playing the role of a perfect son to a tee.
"Well, I must be going—I'm on the function's committee and have a breakfast meeting to attend this morning." Mission accomplished, Cecilia was on her way out. "Don't forget to mark your calendar, honey." She cheerfully reminded Rick as she briskly walked out of the house.
When Rick spun around to give his brother a piece of his mind, A.J. stuck his tongue out at him and scrambled up the stairs to take a shower before he found out what payback Rick had in store for him.
"I'll see you at the office, Rick!"
Rick could hear his brother laughing all the way to the shower stall upstairs.