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Cadet - 2. Cadet Fourth Class • I

“Crap, I hate this stuff.” Ritch slammed the book closed and stood. He needed a break before frustration got the better of him. Unable to pace very far in the dorm room and trying to give his mind a rest, he dropped to the floor ready to crank out as many pushups as he could.

His roommate, Will Bender, glanced away from his laptop and shook his head. “You’re nuts, Peterson. What are you doing? Aren’t you sore?” Both had joined an intramural basketball team and the game earlier in the day had been grueling. First year cadets like he and Will were often on the receiving end of upperclassmen’s aggressive play. Who cared if a C4C was banged up a little? It was all meant to build character and resiliency.

Ritch stopped, rolled over, cradled his head in his hands, and stared at the ceiling. “I hate Econ.” He glanced at his watch and groaned. “Too late to call the East Coast now, but I’m asking Dad for help tomorrow. He’s the family’s financial wiz.” Economics 101 was one of the required core courses, and Ritch was struggling with the international aspects of the class.

Pursuing its goal of molding leaders, the Academy strived to provide a broad-based education. Its academic program balanced Science, Technology, Engineering, and MathematicsSTEMwith the arts and humanities. Ritch had yet to figure out what economics had to do with flying planes and leading.

“Speaking of calling home, I got a text from Mom earlier. She’s all excited about meeting you.” Will had invited Ritch home for Thanksgiving after finding out he had decided not to travel to Washington during the upcoming break. “She said they’ll pay half the rental.”

“No way, man. You better tell her I won’t take her money.” Ritch had begged off from flying home due to the break’s shortness. He feared getting stuck if a storm blew in and closed down airports. Spending the weekend in Vail at the family’s lodge could have been an option, but the place was rented out for the week, to the same family group that had used it the past couple of years. Alternatively, he considered heading up to Denver and checking into a hotel, until Will extended an invitation to travel to Wyoming. “Did you mention I can afford it on my own?”

“What? Tell my parents my roommate’s a millionaire?” After experiencing the lavish spending César and Brett did during Parents’ Weekend, Will had pushed Ritch sufficiently—he was eventually sworn to secrecy—to find out how wealthy his roommate was. “I gave you my word, Peterson. You asked me to keep it quiet, and I have. But I’m sure my parents will figure it out this weekend. Some of the others here at the Academy will too in time. Don’t be surprised when gossip flies.”

“The longer it takes the better.” Ritch had been reticent to explain when dorm mates saw the new snowboard and equipment his fathers had bought him over Labor Day Weekend, brushing it off as a belated eighteenth birthday present, which it was. He did not want to be known as the rich cadet. Bad enough people had stared at him for a while after his friendship with the Obamas and his acquaintance with a few celebrities became fodder for squadron chatter. He would rather be known for other things.



Ritch remained behind the wheel as they neared the trip’s halfway point. Paying for the rental was a way of thanking his roommate and his parents for hosting him over the holiday. It also meant easy mobility in Wyoming, since Will did not own a vehicle. “Have you ever ridden a bull?”

“Nope. Mom would have never allowed it. When I got hurt falling off while practicing barrel racing, she forced me to give up the idea of competing entirely.” Although they lived together and shared a couple of classes, Will and Ritch were still learning details about each other. There was not a lot of free time to sit around drinking beer and bullshitting, as students at most colleges and universities did. “Dad quit the circuit when I was born because of her too. He got tossed, broke a leg, and she threatened to divorce him if he didn’t stop. At least that’s what they’ve told me.”

“Does he miss it?”

“Pretty sure he does. I guess he’s used to being an insurance salesman by now, but I can see the way he watches whenever the rodeo’s in town. There’s longing in there.”

“That sucks. But having a kid definitely changes your lifestyle. I saw it in my brother and his husband when my niece was born. I’m gonna wait a hell of a long time before I marry, and the wife starts popping out kids.”

Ritch’s current attitude towards sex was more cautious than in high school. Earlier in the year, his ex-girlfriend found out she was pregnant, and going through the termination with her had been difficult.

It had been his hand satisfying his needs over the past few months. Maybe he could get laid when he went home for Christmas. He knew he would be using condoms no matter what. Maybe two at a time. In case one broke.

“What about your dad? Does he miss the military?”

“I don’t think so, man. He put in his time, was shot, and got the medals to prove it. He seems happy running the construction company, since he gets to be with Mr. A. all the time. With my brother and me out of the house now, the dads plan to travel a bunch. That should keep him entertained.”

“Your whole family seems to travel a lot. I still can’t believe you’ve been to Australia. And to Germany and Italy.”

“Italy doesn’t count. I was like two years old. The only reason I know I was there is I’ve seen pictures. And neither does Germany. I was just born there because Dad was stationed at Ramstein.”

“I bet you remember Australia.”

“Damn right, I do! And I can’t wait to go back, mate. I mean, it helps my brolaw’s from there. Bro, you have no idea how cool it is to wake up in the residential section of a bloody winery and walk outside into vineyards with a mug of coffee. Oi! And that was the tame portion of the trip. I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, visited the Sydney Opera House, and tried surfing at Manly Beach. I fell in love with the country and its people, just the way my brother warned me I would.” Ritch’s attempt to sound like an Aussie failed, but Will still smiled.

“I hope I get to meet him. He and his husband sound cool as hell. How’d you do surfing?”

“Spent more time climbing on and falling off the board than riding waves, but it was a blast. I’d do it again.”

“I’m sooo jealous.” Will sounded dejected. “I’ve never been anywhere.”

“You’ve been to Colorado Springs…”

“Not helping, Peterson.” Bender gave Ritch a mock punch on the upper arm. “Hey, take the next exit. We can get gas, use the restroom, and get something to drink. I’ll drive the rest of the way.”

While Ritch pumped gas, Will went inside to piss. When he returned, carrying a large Gatorade and a bag of beef jerky, Ritch went inside. Until sometime in their second semester, Air Force cadets were required to be in uniform when in public. During trips home, they had to wear it while traveling to and from the Academy. Stretching beside the car before resuming their trip, the guys commented on the stares they received while in the convenience store.

“I think I’m gonna enjoy wearing my uniform out in public,” Ritch said, climbing into the passenger seat. An older gentleman, most likely a veteran himself, Will guessed later, saluted them when he stopped on the other side of the pumps. The young cadets returned it with textbook precision.



With Will behind the wheel, the music playing was his choice. Before he restarted the engine, he connected his phone to the sound system, and country music filled the car as they rocketed north on Interstate 25. They had crossed the state border into Wyoming before their stop, and were a few miles south of Cheyenne, when Ritch’s phone rang.

“Kill the music?” Caller ID on the phone showed Private Number. That often meant a scam call, but Ritch could not be sure. What if it was someone at the Academy? Going against his usual practice, he answered it. “Ritch Peterson.”

“Ritchie? It’s Michelle.” The voice was unmistakable.

“Mrs. Obama?” Ritch wondered if he looked as shocked as his roommate did.

“Sasha just got home and mentioned she’s been keeping in touch with you. I hear you’re not coming home for Thanksgiving.”

“That’s right, ma’am. I decided not to risk getting stranded if the weather turned. I’m spending the holiday with my roommate’s family in Wyoming. As a matter of fact, we’re in the car right now. I hope you don’t mind he’s listening to the call.”

Before Mrs. Obama could reply, a text from her daughter came through: sorry… she forced me to give up your number. Three crying emoji completed the message. Ritch had to cover his mouth to avoid Mrs. Obama hearing him laugh. When he turned the phone around to show Will, Bender’s eyes opened a bit wider.

“Not at all! What’s his name?”

“William Bender, ma’am. He goes by Will.”

“Hello, Will. This is Michelle Obama.”

“It’s an honor, ma’am.”

“The honor’s mine, young man. Barack and I appreciate what the men and women in the military do for our country. Thank you for your service. Ritchie?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Are you coming home for Christmas?”

“I am. Already have my flight booked.”

“Great! While you’re in D.C., I expect you to stop by for a visit. If you can get away from the family, come over for dinner one night. We haven’t seen you since you and Sasha graduated.”

“Of course, ma’am. It would be my pleasure.”

“Well, I’ll let you get back to your travels. Will, convey my wishes for a happy Thanksgiving to your family. Ritchie, we’ll see you next month.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Unlike Ritch, Will did not cuss much. Yet, once the call ended, the first words out of his mouth were “HOLY FUCK!”

Ritch dissolved into laughter and struggled to reply. “Welcome to my world, roomie.”

“Oh, man, I can’t believe I just talked to the First Lady of the United States.”

Former First Lady.”

“Whatever. My parents aren’t going to believe it either.”



Will was not from Casper proper but from the small town of Glenrock, approximately half an hour east of the larger city. His parents owned a few acres bordering the North Platte River. The terrain was extremely dry, and despite the snow banking the access drive, the SUV kicked up a cloud of fine dust which drifted east in the near-constant wind. The ranch-style home sat halfway between the pavement and the river.

“MOOOM!” Will’s loud greeting when he stepped out of the vehicle was superfluous. As soon as he stopped and honked, the front door had opened and a smiling woman stood waiting for them.

With the temperature cold enough to keep the plowed snow frozen, and not wearing overcoats, the cadets hustled inside. Ritch was happy to enjoy the warmth, while his roommate’s mother tried to squeeze the life out of her son.

Laughing, Will pried her arms off him. “Give me a break, Mom. I can’t breathe.”

“Oh, hush. I’ve missed you. You look so thin. You’re not eating enough.”

It was a statement, not a question, and it made Ritch smile. The mother and son interaction caused a momentary twinge of longing. Having spent the past five years with two men, he had not been forced to deal with the well-intended nagging most of his friends did.

“Mom, give me a break. I’m eating plenty, but my body’s changed with all the exercise I’m getting.” Will glanced at Ritch and winked. “And you can blame Peterson here for me looking this way. As a birthday present, he paid for a tailor to take in my uniforms so they would fit better.”

The woman covered her mouth with a hand for a couple of seconds before spreading her arms open. “I’m being rude. Sarah Bender. It’s a pleasure to meet you at last, Ritch. You get a hug too.”

The warm embrace felt good after a few months of physical contact being limited to combat training and ass pats in athletics. “Thank you for having me, Mrs. Bender. These are for you.” Ritch had forced Will to stop at a convenience store when they exited the interstate and bought a bouquet of flowers as a gift.

“They’re beautiful. Thank you. Although Will doesn’t write nearly enough, he’s mentioned how happy he is with you as his roommate. Your family sounds fascinating. I can’t wait to hear more than the little snippets my lazy son has shared.”

“What are you talking about, Mom? Unless we’re out for training, I email you every Saturday morning.”

“Not enough, you should do it every day.”

“Yeah, right, as if. You have any idea how little time we have for things like writing letters?”

“I don’t care. Your parents should be a top priority.”

Will adroitly changed the subject. “Speaking of parents, where’s Dad?”

“Out in the barn. Go see them while I put these in water.” She held the bouquet as if it was the most precious gift ever.


“In the bowl on the dining room table.” Mrs. Bender dismissed the two young men with a hand wave and moved further into the house.

“What did she mean by them?” Ritch followed Will on his way to the back door. “Who else am I meeting?”

“Grab one.” Will pointed at the bright red fruit sitting where his mother had said they would be.

“I’m not hungry, bro. Those pork rinds we picked up got me full.”

“It’s not for you. And what she meant by them is that Dad’s out there with our two closest friends.”

The cadets walked through the open barn door, heading towards the other end, where a man in jeans and a brown field coat stood peering over a stall’s gate. “Hey, Dad.”

“Will!” The relationship was clear to the eye; Will Bender looked like a younger version of his father.

“This is my roommate.” After the hurried introduction, Will ignored the two men and headed in the direction of the stall where a horse’s head now hung over the gate.

“Winfred Bender. Call me Win.”

Ritch shook his hand. “Ritch Peterson, sir. It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.”

“Not a problem, young man. Will’s told us you’re a city boy. Ever been in a barn before?”

“Yes, sir, but nothing like this.” The barn had four stalls, two on each side, with two other rooms at the front. Ritch would later find out one held feed and the other was the tack room. “My ex-girlfriend’s family owns a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and I spent some time there a couple of summers ago. But their barns were very different from yours.”

“Bet they were a hell of a lot cleaner being a dairy. Come on, guys, let’s head back to the house.”

“Go ahead, Dad. We’ll be there in a minute. I want to introduce Ritch to Roma and Whiskey.” Will motioned for Ritch to join him where he was petting the horse peeking over the gate. “This is Roma. She’s mine.”

“She’s beautiful. Hi, Roma.” Ritch was captivated by the large eyes staring at him. “How’d she get her name?”

“Because of this.” Will tossed the apple he carried in the air, caught it, and held his hand out in front of Roma. She gently bit into it. “We have a few apple trees on the property. Rome apples are good for cooking, so Mom babies her little orchard year round. Wait until you taste her apple pie tomorrow.”

Will allowed his horse to take the remainder of the fruit and stepped back, holding his empty hands out. “No more for now, Roma. Anyway, when I was like nine, Dad took me to meet her about two weeks after foaling. She was so little and so cute. Dad had suggested I cut one of our apples up and bring the baggie along. She went nuts when I offered her a slice. When he told me she was mine, I wanted to name her Rome, after the apples, but Dad suggested Roma, since it was a girl.”

“What about that one.” Ritch pointed over his shoulder at the larger horse in the stall across the aisle. “Whiskey?”

“Yeah, he’s Dad’s.” Will approached the larger animal and scratched him behind the ears. “Hold your hand out for him. Don’t be scared. He won’t bite. Whiskey’s about twice as old as Roma. Dad’s had him since before I was born.”



Ritch mopped up the remaining gravy with a dinner roll and stuck it in his mouth. He knew there was dessert coming but was unsure he had room for it. He stared at his empty, nearly clean plate with satisfaction. “I’m stuffed.” The meat loaf and mashed potatoes where close to the best he had ever had. “That was fantastic.”

“I told you Mom was a great cook.” Will had talked the most during the meal, regaling his parents with details about life at the Academy. At one point, he gave Ritch an evil look. “By the way, Mom, Dad, Michelle said to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.”

Ritch groaned.

Sarah Bender looked confused. “Michelle who? We don’t know any Michelles. Do we, Win?”

“Michelle Obama, of course.” Will laughed while his parents stared at him and Ritch shook his head.

“Oh, really? And when and where did you talk to the First Lady?” Mr. Bender’s tone suggested he expected a joke and was humoring his son.

“On the way up here. Right before we went through Cheyenne. And like Ritch reminded me, it’s former First Lady.”

“Are you being serious?” Win Bender’s amused expression turned into a doubtful look.

“Serious as a heart attack. She called him while we were driving.” He pointed at Ritch while grinning. “She was upset she and Barack had not seen Peterson since his high school graduation. My roomie promised to visit them over Christmas. He’ll probably do that after stopping by the Clintons.”

“You’re a pain, Bender.” Ritch turned to his roommate’s parents and tried to smile. “It’s a long story.”

Win Bender leaned back and amusement again danced on his face. “We have time.”

Ritch was thankful Will had shared his family’s composition with Mr. and Mrs. Bender when he mentioned inviting Ritch for Thanksgiving. One less thing he had to explain. He first described Sidwell Friends School and how the Obama girls had been classmates, leading to his White House visits. When asked about Clinton, he admitted he had met them, but the relationship was actually with his brother. CJ had volunteered for and been a surrogate for Hilary’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“Sounds like your family’s a bunch of liberal Democrats.” Mr. Bender’s comment upset his wife.

“Win! That’s rude! What a horrible thing to say.”

“What? I’m just stating the obvious. Hell, we’re a bunch of conservative Republicans here. We all voted for Trump, while Ritch’s family I’m sure helped Biden win the election.”

“Actually, sir, one of my dads, the Marine, is a life-long Republican. The other one’s always been registered as an independent. My brother was a Democrat at first, but gave up on party affiliations after the 2016 election. I registered as an independent too when I turned eighteen.”

Glancing at his father, Will shook his head. “Sorry, Dad. I’m still a registered Republican, but I voted for Biden. No way could I support someone who thinks I’m a loser.”

If Win Bender was surprised, it was mild compared to what came next when his wife spoke. “Me too, dear. I voted for Biden this year, and I voted for Clinton last time.”

“WHAT? WHY? And why didn’t I know this?” The man was obviously flustered.

Sarah Bender calmly stared at her husband. “Because if I had told you, you would have ranted and raved, spewing stupidity about them being Communists. I couldn’t support Trump when he’s an adulterer, a cheat, and a liar. What kind of example does that set for the children I teach?” Standing up, she grinned at her slack-jawed husband. “Everyone ready for dessert?”

Ritch surprised himself by having two servings of the bread pudding, before helping Will clear the table, and load the dishwasher. Thankfully, politics were not discussed again that evening.



Glenrock High School.” Ritch read the sign on the fluted concrete block and glass building. “This where you went to school?”

With Win Bender still grumbling about being blindsided by his wife and his son, and Sarah Bender continually telling them to get out of her kitchen, Will dragged Ritch out of the house, promising an exciting tour of Casper. He swore they would be back in an hour or two.

“Yep. Seventh through twelfth grades. It’s where Mom teaches too.”

Casper, with a population around 60,000, was quite different from Washington. In the nation’s capital, it could take days just to drive around the sights, even if one did not stop anywhere. In the smaller Wyoming city, a couple of hours were enough to see everything.


“Wanna go ice skating?” Will had mentioned they would sit down for dinner around 4:00 pm, so they still had time to waste.

“Nah… I wanna be lazy today. How about we stop somewhere for lunch and head back to the house to watch football?” Ritch smirked at Will. “Maybe by the time we get back, your dad will have recovered. It must have been quite a shock to discover his wife and son are both Marxists.”

“You’re a jerk, Peterson.”



“Ritch, would you be a dear and get the door? It should be Melissa.” Mrs. Bender had told him her friend, Melissa Griffon, would be joining them for dinner.

“Sure thing, Mrs. Bender.” With a last glance at the game on the TV, Ritch walked to the front door and opened it. “Hi! You must be Melissa. I’m Ritch Peterson, Will’s roommate at the Academy.”

The sound of glass shattering brought the Benders rushing to see what had happened. Melissa Griffon stood frozen in place, looking pale, and holding both hands over her mouth. The wine bottle and casserole dish she had been carrying had slipped from her hands as soon as Ritch introduced himself.

“Melissa! What’s wrong?” Mrs. Bender rushed to her friend and wrapped an arm around her. “Win, help me get her to the couch.”

Her eyes never left Ritch, as she stumbled inside supported by Will and his father. The senior Bender moved a couple of cushions around and motioned for her to lay down.

“I’m alright. Stop fussing. I’m alright. Can one of you get me something to drink, though?” She did not stop staring at Ritch.

“What can I get you, Ms. Griffon?” Will was halfway to the kitchen when she replied.

“Booze. A shot of anything strong.”

Mrs. Bender sat next to her and took one of Melissa’s hands in her own. “Are you dizzy? Are you sure you should be drinking alcohol?”

“Oh, heck yeah. That’s exactly what I need.” She spared her host a glance before returning her attention to Ritch. “What did you say your name was, son?”

“Ritch Peterson, ma’am. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes, yes. I’ll be fine. Are you named after your father?”

The question surprised Ritch. How the hell did she guess that? “I am, ma’am.”

“Crap! You look just like him.” She dropped her head down and covered her face with both hands. Then she laughed. “Where the heck did you come from?”

“Ma’am?” Ritch was confused. He was aware he looked a little like his father but had no idea how she knew that.

“Tonight’s going to be interesting.” She shook her head, momentarily glanced at the Benders, before returning her attention to Ritch. “Griffon’s my late husband’s last name, Ritch. My maiden name’s Peterson.”

Ritch was flabbergasted. Without thinking, he took a few steps backwards. When his legs came in contact with an armchair, he dropped into it. In the middle of his confusion, a moment of clarity brought recognition. “You’re my aunt!”

Melissa nodded and smiled. “Smaaart boy.”

A million thoughts swirled in the cadet’s mind. He needed to call home. “Cap and Mr. A are going to freak out. They tried to find you when Mom and Dad died—”

“Richard’s dead? Who are Cap and Mr. A?”

The Benders had been quiet until Win spoke. “I need a drink.” He pointed at the bottle of whiskey and the tumbler his son had placed on the coffee table. “Will, bring another glass. Hell, bring a couple. I think your boy there”—he nodded at Ritch—“could use one too. Bring one for yourself.”

“Win, they’re not old enough. They could get in trouble.” Sarah Bender at last let go of Melissa’s hand.

“Relax, honey. What happens in Wyoming, stays in Wyoming.” His levity seemed to lift the cloud of confusion permeating the tableau. Ritch and Will chuckled.

“Mom and Dad died in a boating accident almost six years ago, ma’am. Captain Brett Davenport and his husband, César Abelló, are the men who took me in and finished raising me. When they couldn’t find any trace of you, they said the only way someone could disappear these days was if they lived somewhere off the grid.”

“They weren’t far off the mark.” The woman chuckled, but her eyes never left her nephew. “I lived in Alaska for a while after I left home, and Pete Griffon was my third husband. I’ve changed last names often enough I can see people having trouble finding me. So, a gay couple adopted you. Are you gay?”

Ritch’s gut reaction was to tell her it was none of her fucking business, but he realized she did not ask in a disparaging way. “No and no. They would have adopted me if I wanted to, they left the choice up to me, and I thought if I said yes I’d be dissing my parents. But I love them to death. Will’s met them and knows what they’re like.”

“They’re great guys, Ms. Griffon. They came to Colorado Springs for Parents Weekend, and I got to hang around them.” The look he gave Ritch was definitely evil. “They’re millionaires. And so’s your nephew.”

“Shut up, Bender!”

Melissa at last seemed to relax; she laughed before downing her drink and quickly refilling the glass. “You can tell me about the money thing later. You didn’t answer my question, though. Are you gay?”

“You missed it, I did answer. I’m not, but that better not make a difference. My dads obviously are and so’s my brother.”

“Your brother? I have another nephew? How many of you in total?”

“Just the two of us. But he’s not your nephew. He was born before Mom and Dad met and married.”

Win Bender downed his drink and stood. “Okay, this is obviously going to be a momentous Thanksgiving. Let’s take a break for a few. I’m sure Melissa and Ritch would appreciate a little privacy. They have a lot of catching up to do. Sarah, Will, come on. Let’s go finish fixing dinner.”

“You can stay, Mr. Bender. I don’t mind. Will already knows most of my story, so it’s cool.” Ritch at last reached for his glass and sipped the dark liquid. It burned going down his throat, but even before the alcohol kicked in, he felt better. “But I do need to take a break. I have to call home. With the time difference, they might be having dinner already. If I wait until we’re done, it could be a little late to catch everyone.”

“How many people?”

“It varies every year, but usually around twenty. Extended family and a few close friends.”



“RITCHIE!” CJ looked well into the cocktails.

Ritch had no control over his response. The word automatically came out of his mouth. “Asshole!”

Melissa had patted the spot next to her, and Ritch had joined her on the couch. He cringed when he cussed but a look at his aunt assured him it was not a problem; she struggled to rein in her laughter.

“Not in front of Liebe.” CJ stretched his arm out to reveal his husband, Owen, and their daughter, sitting next to him. The two-hour difference meant it was nearly six in D.C. Based on the background racket, Ritch could tell everyone was in the basement watching football.

They all wanted to say hello and walked within camera view to at least wave. When Brett and César confiscated the phone and locked themselves in a bedroom, Ritch introduced them to Melissa.

“Well, well, well, the missing woman surfaces.” Brett and César both looked surprised and maybe a little apprehensive. “We had someone look for you, Melissa. They couldn’t find you.”

Before the conversation could get much further, Mrs. Bender announced dinner was on the table. “Dads, gotta go. Food’s ready. I’ll call again tomorrow morning and explain why the investigator couldn’t find Melissa.”



Everyone agreed to delay dessert until after at least one cup of coffee. The food had been plentiful and delicious; the green bean casserole Melissa had dropped on the front stoop was not even missed. By some silent agreement, they mostly talked about the cadets’ first months at the Academy. Ritch knew he and his aunt would be at the center of any subsequent conversations.

She once again patted the spot on the couch, and Ritch joined her. “Okay, most of what I’m about to tell you, I’ve shared with Sarah before, and I assume Win knows. This will be news for you and Will.

“When I was a senior in high school, I got pregnant.” Melissa’s poignant pause appeared designed to invite a comment, but none was forthcoming. Sarah knew the story, and it appeared Win did too. Will kept a neutral expression, and Ritch tried to mirror it. However, the revelation jolted him, as it was what had happened with his own girlfriend earlier in the year.

“My prudish, conservative parents—your grandparents—were appalled. They ranted and raved about my evil ways and wanted to know who the father was, probably planning a shotgun wedding. When I let them know I wanted an abortion, they threw me out.”

“That’s the same thing Dad did when he found out CJ was gay. He threw him out of the house and sent him to live with his biological father in Washington.”

Melissa smiled sadly. “Guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Anyway, my boyfriend was older, had his own place, and invited me to move in. I wasn’t in love with him or anything, but I needed somewhere to crash.

“I terminated the pregnancy and graduated from high school. That summer, I figured it was time to strike out on my own and for some reason decided Alaska was the place to go. Met my first husband there, married, and eventually dumped his ass when I realized he was an alcoholic not interested in recovery. I was not about to be somebody’s punching bag every time they got drunk.”

“Peterson’s familiar with punching bags, but he’s too nice to ever hit a woman.” Will’s comment made Ritch roll his eyes, but it helped ease the tension building in the room.

“You’re an idiot, Bender.” Ritch felt the need to explain. “I’m a boxer, Melissa. Been doing it since I was a kid, and I’m on the boxing team at the Academy.”

Melissa rubbed Ritch’s arm, displaying her approval. “Good for you! Being able to defend yourself’s a useful skill.”

“Can I ask you something?”


“What did Dad do while all that was going on?”

“The sanctimonious prick took our parents’ side and called me every name in the book. I kept in touch with a couple of friends for a while, and they told me he’d joined the Army.”

It saddened Ritch his father had been a jerk to his own sister. Much the same as he had been to CJ. “It was the Air Force, not the Army. He eventually went to OTS and became an officer.”


“Officer Training School,” Will helpfully offered. “It’s how someone can become a commissioned officer in the Air Force without going to the Academy or through ROTC at a regular college.”

“Guess my brother did well for himself.” She patted Ritch’s thigh. “And his son’s doing him one better.”

“What happened after Alaska?” Ritch was curious about a lot of things, particularly his grandparents and his father as a teenager, but figured he could probe for details later. He was certain this would not be the last time he interacted with his aunt.

“I bounced around the Pacific Northwest for a few years, married, divorced, and married again. We landed in Wyoming when my husband went to work in the oil industry. After he died, I moved down here and liked it enough I decided to stay.”

“Do you work?”

“Hell, yes, boy. I help run a not-for-profit animal rescue joint. Maybe you can come out for a visit before you leave?”

“I’d like that.” Ritch glanced at Will who nodded. “Can we do it tomorrow afternoon? Will planned something for the morning, but all we talked about for the afternoon was meeting some of his high school friends. Maybe we can do that on Saturday.”

Will’s nodding became more pronounced. “That works. I’ll call my buddies.”



The next morning, after Will was done with him, Ritch could not believe how much his ass hurt.

“Bro, you’re walking funny.” Will avoided the punch Ritch threw at him. “All you need are boots and a Stetson, instead of sneakers and a ball cap, and you’ll look like a cowboy.”

“Jerk! Man, I can’t believe just a couple of hours on a horse has my butt hurting this much. And my legs aren’t too steady either.” Ritch rubbed both hands down his hamstrings. “But you just gave me an idea. I’m gonna ask the dads for cowboy boots for Christmas. I like the look.”

Ritch took off his gloves and held his hands in front of the vents as soon as Will started the car. Although the sun was out, the temperature was near freezing. “So, how did your mom end up being friends with my aunt? We never talked about that last night.”

“Mom chaperoned a couple of field trips out to the shelter. They became friendly, and since she lives alone, Mom always invites her over for holidays.”

“I liked Melissa.” Ritch had a good feeling about the woman. “I liked the way she talked. No nonsense, honest, and clear. It’s what I’m used to with my dads.”

Will nodded. “She’s cool. I enjoy it whenever I spend time around her.”



“What’s that?” Ritch pointed at an object resembling a hilt-less, black dagger sitting atop a pile of papers on Melissa’s desk.

The ranch housing the Bar Nunn Rescue Center was a half-hour north of the Benders’ home. Inherited by a wildlife enthusiast, it had been turned into a home for dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, goats, horses, and who knew what else. Ritch had lost track while touring the facility.

“T-Rex tooth, I think.” Will picked it up, bounced it in his hand, and threw it at Ritch.

“Good eye, Will. I picked that up during one of my dino hunting summers. Was gonna sell it but decided to hang on to it in case we’re ever in dire need for money here.”

“How does the shelter survive?” Ritch had noticed everything looked functional, but it all appeared well worn.

“Donations. We get a few pennies from the county for housing stray domestic animals, but that probably pays for about a month’s worth of annual expenses.” She opened a cabinet above a minute kitchen area and withdrew three mugs. “Swiss Miss okay with you two?” She held up an envelope of the hot-chocolate mix.

“Definitely. It gets this chilly back home in D.C., but it usually lasts for a couple of days only. I’m still adjusting to the extended cold. It was freezing this morning when we went riding.”

“You’re gonna love January in Colorado. I’m dreading PT when it’s below freezing.” Will tore open a package, dumped the contents in the mug, and held it under the coffeemaker’s hot water tap.

“One more question about your finances, Melissa.” It did not take long to figure out what to do after their walkthrough. “How much’s your average donation and do you accept credit cards?”

“Yes, we take plastic. Not sure about average. We get some nice contributions from a few of the larger businesses in the area, but individual ones are usually under a hundred.”

Ritch took his phone out and withdrew a credit card from the holder. He handed it to Melissa. “Put a thousand dollars on that. When I go home for Christmas, I’ll talk to my dads. The family foundation will at a minimum match my donation.”

Melissa stared at her nephew in surprise. "No shit?"

Copyright © 2021 Carlos Hazday; All Rights Reserved.
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My thanks to Mann Ramblings, Parker Owens, and WolfM for their assistance. The story is better that it would have been without their assistance.

Story Discussion Topic

Welcome to the discussion thread for CJ’s series. All things CJ are fair game, I simply ask you be respectful of others. I will actively participate in the discussion. Ask questions, speculate about what’s coming, or bitch about what happened. We’re now open for business!    

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Chapter Comments

32 minutes ago, Carlos Hazday said:

YES!!!!! Someone gets my innuendos. Having Ritch ride a horse for the first time was too good an opportunity to use the walking funny bit to pass up. Someone who rides regularly told me I probably did not stress enough how much pain he was probably in. LOL

I read it but guess the innuendo slipped passed because 1, Ritch is unequivocally straight and 2, I've ridden a lot in the past. I remember being sore when I was first beginning and warning friends when I took them for their first ride ... on a horse ... how sore they might be.

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17 minutes ago, dughlas said:

I read it but guess the innuendo slipped passed because 1, Ritch is unequivocally straight and 2, I've ridden a lot in the past. I remember being sore when I was first beginning and warning friends when I took them for their first ride ... on a horse ... how sore they might be.

You usually notice this type of stuff. Did you start the weekend already? I think it's 5 o'clock somewhere. 😁

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2 minutes ago, Theo Wahls said:

Carlos always a joy to see a new story about the CJ universe. Thanks for the great writing. I know how hard it is to write a saga and keep all the characters under control. Oh and thanks for the missing aunt. Ritch needs family as we all do.

Thanks, Theo. Readers' reactions a d comments fuel my writing. Without them I would write but might not be as keen to publish. I mean, who wants to perform in an empty space. It took me quite a few books and years to introduce her, but it had been in the planning for a while. I still wonder at how my mind co es up with these convoluted scenarios. One reason Will hails from Wyoming was so I could have Melissa within driving distance of the Academy.

Thanks for reading and the comment.

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Another great chapter!  And I can sympathize with Ritch's sore ass!! Been there done that!! Also you were quite clever to bring Win up-to-date on his family's voting preferences!!  He disserved the backlash with his comment: “Sounds like your family’s a bunch of liberal Democrats.” Wonderful story Carlos - thank you! 

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27 minutes ago, KayDeeMac said:

Another great chapter!  And I can sympathize with Ritch's sore ass!! Been there done that!! Also you were quite clever to bring Win up-to-date on his family's voting preferences!!  He disserved the backlash with his comment: “Sounds like your family’s a bunch of liberal Democrats.” Wonderful story Carlos - thank you! 

Glad you enjoyed it. I haven't been on a horse in over 50 years so no way I'd recall. I relied on friend's advice. LOL

I wanted Win's comment to be matter-of-fact with a little snarkiness; I do not believe he intended it in an insulting way. I also tried to ensure the reasons his wife and son gave for not following family tradition were valid. I'd love to be a fly on the wall when Win and Sara discuss their voting record next. :P


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Another great chapter. I said it before and will repeat myself. You couldn't have come up with a more fitting and wonderful end to such a horrible casserole. :whistle::D

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I think Mr. Win did very well. He blustered but did not get angry angry.

I love Will's Family. I can't wait until it is his turn to meet Ritchie's "Family". I hope he meets alot of them for his first time. Maybe a trip to Washington for Christmas? I would love to bear witness to his meeting the Obamas. That would be cool. Not sure I could do it. I'd probably break down in tears or faint. And I'm not even American. I'd make a fool of myself somehow. Whilst we're talking American politics, the people that would be my major gush puppies would be Bernie and AOC. I would die! At the least, I would be out for the count.

I think it is way awesome Ritchie has met his long lost Aunt. His Father comes out as being even more of a douche than we thought. Ritchie loves him, so he can't have been all bad.

It still seems a bit strange that we are reading a story that revolves around Ritchie, seeing him as an adult. So used to thinking of him as the Kid in the Family, so this story is good :) Excellent spin-off choice.


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1 hour ago, WolfM said:

Another great chapter. I said it before and will repeat myself. You couldn't have come up with a more fitting and wonderful end to such a horrible casserole. :whistle::D


Careful, those things are extremely popular in places like Wyoming, Montana, and such. For some reason, canned green beans always taste metallic to him. I could survive the Campbell's condensed soup (had plenty of that when I was a poor boy growing up on the other side of the tracks.)

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1 hour ago, Buz said:

I think Mr. Win did very well. He blustered but did not get angry angry.

I love Will's Family. I can't wait until it is his turn to meet Ritchie's "Family". I hope he meets alot of them for his first time. Maybe a trip to Washington for Christmas? I would love to bear witness to his meeting the Obamas. That would be cool. Not sure I could do it. I'd probably break down in tears or faint. And I'm not even American. I'd make a fool of myself somehow. Whilst we're talking American politics, the people that would be my major gush puppies would be Bernie and AOC. I would die! At the least, I would be out for the count.

I think it is way awesome Ritchie has met his long lost Aunt. His Father comes out as being even more of a douche than we thought. Ritchie loves him, so he can't have been all bad.

It still seems a bit strange that we are reading a story that revolves around Ritchie, seeing him as an adult. So used to thinking of him as the Kid in the Family, so this story is good :) Excellent spin-off choice.


Will already met Brett and Cesar at the end of August (last chapter) and will spend time with them again the following February (part of that's detailed in Malibu). He'll spend time with a few more of the gang soon enough. Not sure I could handle the entire Abello clan together for my introduction to the family. LOL

I've met two Presidents and one vice-president (and by meeting I mean we shook hands and I introduced myself LOL) and it was fine. They were all tall though.

Ritchie as an adult has been interesting to write. I did not want to turn him into a CJ clone, but I had to take into account how close that family is and therefore how much the dads and the brother would help shape him. Hopefully you guys can tell he's his own man.

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59 minutes ago, Wesley8890 said:

Im liking Mrs Bender. Nice little shock for Ritchie though!

I thought he handled it well. A tad restrained compared to how his brother would have, I'm sure. LOL

Mrs. Bender sounds like a practical woman to me. She avoids discussing certain things with her husband to keep the peace, but she's going to do what she thinks is right.

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