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Cadet - Prologue. Western Skies

“You gonna read the whole thing?” Ritch glanced right as the man in the passenger seat swiped his finger across the tablet’s screen. They had left Washington, D.C. at sunrise and were close to an hour into the initial 700-mile segment of their westbound trip. Ritch had barely slept the night before, repeatedly awakening due to the bittersweet anticipation of leaving home.

“Yeah… I’ve seen the sights before. Remember I made this trip with your brother a few years ago? Plus, I want to know what you’re getting yourself into.” Rod had volunteered to drive to Colorado with his younger cousin.

Richard Leonard Peterson and Rodney Sebastián Abelló were not blood relatives. Their common link was CJ; he and Ritch had the same mother but different fathers. Rod’s and CJ’s fathers were brothers.

At fifteen, CJ moved to Washington when Ritch’s father discovered his stepson was gay and banished him from their Miami home. Two years later, when Ritch’s parents died in a boating accident, CJ’s fathers took the orphaned boy in, and Ritch joined his brother.

Rod was reading the Air Force Academy’s 2024 Appointees Handbook. Having been accepted into the Academy, Ritch decided to spend a couple of weeks at the family’s Vail lodge before heading to Colorado Springs. He wanted to acclimate his body to the higher altitude before Basic Cadet Training began in late June. He and Rod planned to spend two nights in Chicago before continuing their trip.

“I’m definitely not cut out for the military and all their bullshit requirements. Hair, tattoos, jewelry, underwear…” Rod turned off the tablet and tossed it in the back seat. The Jeep he had traveled in with CJ in 2014, Defiant, a bright-yellow, ten-year-old Wrangler, had been passed down to Ritch when he turned sixteen. “Do they also tell you when to wipe your butt?”

“I think we’re only allowed to crap before oh six-hundred. Otherwise, we’re required to hold it.” Ritch downshifted and signaled to take the next exit on I-76. “Need to get gas. The tank wasn’t full when we left.”

“That works. We can stretch our legs, take the doors off, and I’ll drive the next stint. Want me to get you anything from inside?”

“Yeah, a couple of Monsters.”

Rod shook his head. “I foresee the need for a bathroom break before we have to stop for gas again. What flavor?”

Ritch smirked. “All you have to do is slow down and get on the right lane. I’ll lean over and pee out the side without even getting out. Nothing sugar free. Preferably the original one with the puke-green M on the can.”

The Jeep’s doors were stashed in the back, and Ritch sat shirtless in the passenger seat, fiddling with his phone by the time Rod returned. Although not as hirsute as the Abellós, the teen was immensely proud of the chest-hair patch he had sprouted in the last year.

“Forget your phone, buddy. Since I’m driving, we’ll use mine for music. I can’t stand that urban shit you like,” Rod said.

“Old fart!” Ritch banged a fist into the roof. “Too bad we can’t go topless, but I think this hard thing’s gonna come in handy with ski mounts.”

 

As Rod turned on Newport Avenue, Ritch belted out the lyrics to “Rain on Me” at the top of his lungs. The song by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande was one they both agreed on. Because Rod was familiar with the Boystown neighborhood, he had retaken the wheel for the last segment of the drive. He slowed down and both scanned their side of the road for an open parking spot.

Near the end of the block, a slender black guy stood from the front step he sat on and waved at them before turning to the open bay window. “THEY’RE HERE!” He hustled across the sidewalk and moved aside four orange traffic cones saving the spots in front of the house.

“Hey, Silas.” Ritch stepped out of the Jeep, hugged the smiling young man, then directed, as Rod parallel parked the Jeep and the attached trailer.

While in Chicago, they were staying at Randy and Ty’s place. Randall Abelló was Rod’s identical twin and Tyler Scott was his husband. Years before, they had taken Silas Washington in as a foster child when the teen’s father beat him after finding out his son was gay. Silas had never left and was considered part of the family.

“Great timing guys, the pizza should be here in a few minutes.” Ty walked out the front door wearing basketball shorts and flip-flops. When he had last spoken to them while they were still on the road, Ritch and Rod had expressed a hankering for Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.

Ritch was used to his cousins wearing very little when the weather was warm. While Rod’s body had somewhat softened after marrying, Randy, and particularly Ty, were as fit as when Ritch first met them years before. He smiled, not for the first time wondering why gay guys usually spent more time at the gym than straight ones.

“Hey, Ty. Where’s my brother?” Rod walked around the trailer and thumbed the combination lock. “Silas, you wanna grab the backpacks from the back of the Jeep? I need to get something from back here.”

“Randy walked to the liquor store. We ran out of vodka.” Tyler joined his brother-in-law and hugged him. “Jesus! How much stuff are you guys lugging around?” There were several bags stuffed around the motorcycle inside the trailer.

“Don’t look at me. All I have is one. The rest’s all his.” He nodded in Ritch’s direction.

“What the fuck, Ritchie? You pack everything in the house?”

“It’s Ritch now, Ty. Remember? It’s not all mine, and most of that shit’s gonna stay at the dads’ place. Motorcycle leathers, skiing stuff, and a bunch of crap I can’t take to the Academy yet. They limit how much you can bring at first.”

Tyler’s brow furrowed. He looked confused. “What do you mean it’s Ritch now?”

Rod chuckled. “Didn’t you hear? He’s decided since he’ll be away from everyone who knows him, he doesn’t want a little kid’s nickname anymore.”

“Ha! Good luck with that one. Randy’s gonna be calling you Ritchie no matter what. He’ll do it just because you ask him not to.”

“Yeah… I kinda expected that. He and my brother are always the first ones to give everybody a hard time.” Ritch shook his head and grinned. “At least CJ has his husband pushing him in the right direction. Nice sign, by the way.” He pointed at the black cardboard obscuring one of the windows with #BLM stenciled on it.

Tyler slung an arm over Ritch’s shoulders and gave him a friendly shake. “Glad you like it. We heard a little about your adventure last week, but we’re gonna want details. You guys made us proud.”

“I had to be part of the response to George Floyd’s death, Ty. What that cop did, keeping a knee on the guy’s neck for so long he died, was shameful. I mean, I’m gonna be wearing a uniform too real soon, and I don’t want anyone comparing me to a murdering cop.”

Public reaction condemning Floyd’s death and police brutality against African Americans in general had been swift. Protest rallies became a daily occurrence across the United States and other countries. Some degenerated into riots. On June 1, Ritch and Rod, along with a group of family and friends joined a peaceful protest on Lafayette Square across from the White House.

Although the crowd was not violent, the response instigated by President Donald Trump and his acolytes was. In the wake of some marches turning ugly, several cities, including Washington, D.C., instituted curfews. However, before those gathered across from the presidential home were required to leave the streets, they were ruthlessly attacked. Horse mounted Park Police and members of several other federal law enforcement agencies used smoke, tear gas, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. All because Trump wanted a photo in front of St John’s Church while holding a bible.

“Thanks, Ty. It was the right thing to do. But let me tell you something, we all need to buy gas masks. I don’t ever want to get tear gassed again.”

“How bad was it, Ritch?” Silas was already inside the house and had placed the backpacks by the front entrance.

“Let’s wait until Randy gets back, and we’ll tell you all about it. Don’t wanna have to repeat ourselves. The one thing I’ll say to you is we all have to vote. My brother’s been drilling in me that I have to register as soon as I turn eighteen. That fat, orange piece of shit has no business running this country.”

“Who you guys talking about? The clown in the White House?” Randy had returned from his booze buying expedition.

“Hey, Randy.” Ritch proffered up a fist.

“What up, Ritchie? Did you enjoy riding twelve hours with my brother?”

“Call me Ritch. It was okay except for different music tastes. Your brother’s an old fart.”

“Screw you, twerp.” Rod’s retort was a repeat of what he had uttered more than once during the drive. “He and I are the same age. And I’m definitely not an old fart. Jesus Christ! Randy and I aren’t even thirty yet.”

Randy tilted his head and frowned. “What do you mean Ritch?” The offhand comment had apparently taken a moment to sink in.

“It’s what he goes by now. He told us when we were in D.C. for CJ’s graduation last month. Weren’t you listening?” Silas had flown to Washington with Tyler, Randy, and Randy’s parents. CJ’s college commencement exercises had served as an excuse for an Abelló family reunion. “Ty forgot too.”

The smirk on Randy’s face confirmed Rod’s prediction. “Riiight… So, Ritchie—”

“Jerk!”

“I just realized something.” Tyler reached over and grabbed Ritch’s forearm. “What happened to that fancy watch you always wear?”

A couple of years before, after Ritch had become a licensed pilot, his brother had given him a black steel Breitling Chronomat 44 as a Christmas present. It was a classic aviator timepiece. When not wearing it, the strip of untanned skin above his wrist proved he hardly ever took it off. In a world where most people his age wore smart watches, if they wore one at all, Ritch bucked the trend.

Rod answered the question before Ritch could. “The Air Force Academy doesn’t allow metal ones.”

“You serious?” Randy’s question reflected his surprise.

“Yeah… I bought this one since it’s all plastic. We’re not allowed metal ones or any jewelry during training this summer.” Ritch subconsciously rubbed his wrist; he was unaccustomed to how much lighter this new one was.

“And that’s not all, guys. During the ride from D.C., I read through the handbook they send all incoming freshmen. They have so many requirements and restrictions, I’d be running in the other direction if I had to deal with it. They even tell him what type and color underwear to wear!”

“It’s not as bad as he makes it sound.” Ritch felt the need to defend the Academy. “It’s all part of being in the military. Cap’s the only one who relates.”

Ty licked his lips. “I hope it’s jockstraps they require. I wouldn’t mind being surrounded by a bunch of flyboys in those.”

“You mean like that time we brought home those two army boys from the bar?” Randy wiggling his eyebrows elicited chuckles from everyone.

“You guys are a pain. Leave Ritch alone. And for the record, the four of you were so noisy that night I had trouble sleeping.” Silas returned his attention to Ritch. “You should have seen the surprised look on those two soldiers when they found a black boy making breakfast the next morning. Randy introduced me as his son, and I thought their eyes were gonna pop out.”

Tired from the drive, Ritch and Rod begged for an early bedtime. They crashed before midnight and their hosts allowed them to sleep late the following morning.

 

“Want a beer?” Tyler elbowed Ritch to get his attention and nodded at the vendor standing at the end of the row.

“Nah… I’ll take a Coke when they come by. You do remember I’m underage, right? I’m gonna dread not being able to have anything for a few months.” The Academy had a strict set of rules, and one prohibited alcohol consumption by anyone under twenty-one. “I’m gonna miss having a glass of wine or two with dinner ’til I go home for the holidays.”

“You mean you’re not hiding bottles from your brother-in-law’s winery with you?” Owen Liston, CJ’s husband, owned a piece of the family business in Australia. He and CJ received bottles regularly, and everyone who tried the wines fell in love with them.

Ritch looked at his feet. “I am…” He raised his head and grinned. “But it’s not for me. CJ and Ozzie asked me to carry them to Vail and leave them at the house for future use.”

“Wait! You mean there’s Liston wine in that trailer, and you didn’t offer us any last night? That’s it. You’re sleeping with the motorcycle and the wine tonight.”

“Stop being a dick, Ty.” Rod slapped the man on the arm. “I knew it was there, and I didn’t say anything either. Those bottles don’t belong to either one of us. And anyway, it’s all inside a cooler with a little dry ice to keep them cool while driving.”

“What’s the combination on the trailer’s lock?”

“Jerk! Leave me alone. I wanna watch the game.”

Ritch had never been to Wrigley Field and asked if they could get tickets for a game while planning the road trip. The departure day from Washington was picked so they could attend a day event. Randy had a client meeting and was unable to join them, but he and Tyler had a contact in the Cubs’ front office who came through with four seats behind the visitors’ dugout. Ritch insisted on paying for them as a way of thanking the Chicago guys for allowing him to stay at their place.

 

That night, the drive to dinner took longer than the ten-minute walk from the ballpark to Ty and Randy’s place. The Cubs had won the game and the guys were in a celebratory mood. Ty made a beeline for the kitchen and stuck his head in the fridge. “I’m getting a beer for the shower. We need to hurry; Lynne and Rico will start calling if they have to wait.”

“What do you have? I’ll take one.” Ritch’s comment made everyone look at him. “What? I couldn’t drink at Wrigley, and I won’t be able to at dinner. Those places are in public. But in private…”

Tyler retrieved four Goose Island Bourbon County Stout bottles and passed them out. “Local brew, try it. And what difference does it make if you drink in public or private?”

“It’s illegal for me to do it, so I only do it away from prying eyes. A long time ago, I asked my brother a similar question, and he mentioned with everyone carrying a phone with a camera all the time, there’s always a chance to end up in someone’s social media post. I don’t need the Academy hassling me if that happens.”

Rico and Lynne Abelló, Randy and Rod’s parents, had invited them all to dinner. The couple was exiting their car when Randy pulled up in front of the restaurant’s valet stand.

Lynne spread her arms asking for a hug. “Ritchie! It’s great to have you in Chicago.”

“It’s Ritch!” The response was simultaneous from Rod, Tyler, and Silas. Randy chuckled.

“Oh?” Lynne looked confused.

“He told us about it last month, honey. He wants to get rid of the kiddie nickname.” Rico winked at Ritch before adding his own hug to the greeting. “Hope you like Mexican.” He waved towards the door, followed the group in, and signaled at the hostess. “Abelló, party of seven.”

She ticked off something on her list and smiled at them. “If you’ll follow me…”

Once seated and after ordering a soft drink, Ritch opened his menu. “What’s good here?”

“Everything, buddy.” Rico’s comment was seconded by everyone else at the table nodding.

“Dude! Really?” Randy sounded distressed. “You’re asking what’s good at Frontera Grill? Dad’s right. Everything on the menu’s good.”

Ritch had learned a long time ago not to be intimidated by his cousin’s outbursts. “Chill, Randy. I’ve never been here before, so how the frijoles would I know what’s good?” He grinned, feeling proud of himself. “See what I did there? With the frijoles? Trying to capture the Mexican atmosphere.”

Everyone but Lynne groaned; she smiled. “Frontera Grill’s a Chicago institution, Ritch. It’s been here on Clark Street for over thirty years and has won a bunch of awards. Many consider it the best Mexican restaurant in the country.”

“Your brother loved this place when we brought him here, Ritchie.” Randy was obviously not going to let up on the name thing. “He even got to meet Bayless, who was here that day. The guy was surprised CJ knew so much about him.”

“Who’s that?” Ritch asked without taking his eyes off the restaurant’s offerings. He was having trouble deciding what he wanted.

Randy sounded affronted. “You ignoramus, that’s the owner. Rick Bayless’ one of the country’s top chefs.”

“Bah, that’s CJ who gets all excited about meeting famous cooks.” Ritch fanned a hand dismissively. “I think he watches more cooking shows than anyone else. Well, except our friend, Tank, who should be a chef, he’s that good. CJ’s introduced me to a couple of restaurant owners before. I usually forget their name before we leave the place. I’m more interested in the food.” Ritch closed his menu and set it down on the table. “I think I want the ceviche to start. How’s the Oaxacan carne asada?”

“Good choice.” Rod closed his own menu. “That’s actually his signature dish. He says it took him twenty years to nail the mole negro. I think I want the same. Let’s order some guacamole for the table.”

 

The following morning, Ritch and Rod were alone in the house, waiting for rush hour traffic to be over before embarking on the next segment of their journey. Whereas the drive from Washington to Chicago was twelve hours, Chicago to Omaha would take eight. An almost straight shot on I-80, the remarkable thing about the landscape was the lack of anything remarkable. All through Iowa, corn and soybean fields sprouted as far as the eye could see. The monotonous scenery became boring quite fast.

Two-and-a-half hours west of Des Moines, Iowa, a mere thirty minutes from their destination for the evening, disaster struck. The interstate jogged south at that point and while Rod napped, Ritchie danced in his seat. Good weather and Post Malone on the sound system put him in a good mood. Flashing lights in the rearview mirror made him look at the speedometer at the same time he took his foot off the accelerator.

“Fuck!” Ritch’s shout and the roughness beneath the tires, as he slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder, woke up the sleeping man in the passenger seat.

Rod glanced at Ritch, banging the steering wheel, before turning around and looking at the Iowa State Trooper pulling up behind them. He grinned. “How fast were you going?”

“Not that much, maybe ten miles over the limit.”

“That shouldn’t be too bad…”

“The dads are gonna kill me. They were sooo pissed last time I got one. They said next one there wouldn’t be an attorney, and I’d have to pay the fine and deal with the points.”

Rod sounded surprised. “Damn, Speedy, how many times have you been caught?”

“A couple.” A couple was a conservative count. As long as he did not accumulate enough demerits to put his license in peril, he did not mind too much. In reality, underneath his calm demeanor, the adrenalin boost had his insides tingling. Whenever he experienced speed, he felt the same way. It was one of the reasons he wanted to fly jets. Breaking the sound barrier was atop his to-do list.

“Yeah, right. Dire threats from parents usually take more than a couple. You have your information in your wallet?”

“Good afternoon, gentlemen. Where are you headed this beautiful day?” The middle-aged, rotund man encased in shades of brown halted his approach a step or two behind the driver’s side window, scanned the interior of the Jeep, and finally stood to Ritch’s side.

He was certain the cop was checking to see if they had weapons, while he and Rod kept their hands visible. Following a different lesson from his brother, Ritch glanced at the officer’s nametag. “Good afternoon, Trooper Oliver.” The tag read D. Oliver and CJ had taught Ritch to use people’s names when addressing them; it supposedly put everyone in a better frame of mind when they were acknowledged. “We’re on our way to Colorado Springs, sir. The Air Force Academy. My cousin’s keeping me company on the drive.”

The middle-aged officer smiled. “That explains the Air Force tire cover. You a cadet, son?”

“Yes, sir. First year.”

“That might also explain your speed.” The cop grinned. “But no matter how much you press the accelerator, this hunk of metal ain’t no jet, son. It’s not going to fly. You do realize you were speeding, right?”

Ritch had enough sense to look embarrassed and glance down when he replied. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“You have your driver’s license, registration, and insurance information handy?”

Ritch flipped the sun visor down and removed a clear, hard plastic envelope velcroed in place containing the requested items. “The car’s still registered to my brother. It’s a hand me down, and we never bothered to change the ownership.”

The man looked at the documents for a moment. “Your address matches the registration, so we should be okay. Relax while I go run these through.”

As soon as the cop was on his way back to the cruiser, Rod leaned over and whispered. “You keep all that stuck to the visor? Don’t you keep your license on you all the time?”

Ritch took a quick look in the side mirror. “I have two. Told them I’d lost it and got a replacement. That way, even if I forget it at home, I still have it if I get stopped. And it’s there because that’s what CJ used to do. He kept his gun in the glove compartment sometimes.”

“Here are your documents.” The trooper handed Ritch the items once he returned to the Jeep’s side. “I don’t want you to start off your military service with a traffic citation, so I’m giving you a warning instead. Please try to stick as close to the speed limit as possible for the remainder of your trip.”

Rod punched Ritch on the right biceps. The smile on Rod’s face was almost as big as the one on his cousin. “Say thank you, cuz.”

“Damn it, Rod. Give me a chance.” He turned the smile on the officer. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.”

“Stay safe, son.”

Once the cop returned to his car, Ritch exhaled so loudly Rod started laughing. “You lucky… little… fucker. I can’t believe you got off with a warning.”

“Dude, that was dope. Chalk one up for the Air Force Academy.”

After a night at a Holiday Inn right off the interstate, they resumed their travels the following morning. Although Ritch would be spending the next ten days at the family’s place in Vail, their destination for the day was Denver. Rod had an early evening flight to Washington and the dads would be waiting for them at the airport.

Brett Davenport and César Abelló were a tad unsteady on their feet when the four men clustered behind the towed trailer. Having arrived a couple of hours before, they had spent their time at a sports bar inside the facility. Rod had traveled light, and once he had his shoulder bag and backpack, hugged everyone and headed inside.

“Guess I’m driving to Vail, ain’t I?” Ritch smirked as the two men stacked their luggage inside the trailer and argued about who got the front seat.

César won after claiming he was older and needed the extra leg room since he was taller. Once seated and belted, he slapped the top of the dashboard a couple of times. “Let’s go, cadet. I need a nap, so wake me up when we get there.”

 

After being on the road the whole day, Ritch was tired and crashed shortly after dinner. His alarm buzzed the following morning at 4:30 am. A quick bathroom stop later, he was in the kitchen pouring himself a cup of coffee. Even though he had been exhausted, Ritch had enough sense to set the coffeemaker to brew at the same time his phone went off.

“Fuck, you look funny.” Brett hip-bumped him out of the way and reached for a mug. “What’s with the coffee? You usually go for the OJ first thing.”

“Morning, Papa. Still a little tired. I’m glad I set the coffee up last night. Should be back to normal tomorrow.” Ritch gave the retired Marine the once-over and grinned. “And what the hell you talking about looking funny? We’re dressed the same.”

The two shirtless men wore running shorts, but while Brett had a pair of Nike’s on, Ritch had opted for the boots he had purchased in March soon after receiving his 2024 Appointee Handbook. He had worn them more often than any other footwear since.

Although the Air Force Academy would issue him some while outfitting him his first day, they recommended incoming cadets purchase a pair of Operational Camouflage Boots prior to arrival and wear them sufficiently to break them in. There was an entire section in the information booklet about the two most common physical problems during summer activities being blisters and shin splints.

Brett pointed his mug at Ritch’s feet. “I haven’t run wearing those things in a very long time. Make sure you take some Gold Bond powder with you. It’ll help with the stink and cool you off a bit. And you’ll need it for your balls, too. After a day’s training, your crotch will feel like a swamp.” It was not the first time the older man drew on his experience in the Marine Corps to offer advice.

“I’ll get some before we leave here. Thanks for coming running with me.”

“No problem, kiddo. How far we going, and are we doing it every day?”

“Four miles in half an hour.” Ritch smirked when Brett looked surprised. “Every other day. On alternate ones, I’ll do bodyweight circuit training.”

“Works for me. Let’s warm up and go find a trail.”

With temperatures in the fifties, they donned shirts and stepped outside to stretch. A few jumping jacks and bends later, Ritch set a comfortable pace and slowly picked up speed. He looked at his watch frequently to check on time and distance. At the two-mile mark, he turned around, already breathing hard.

The handbook listed average and top speed and repetitions for the recommended exercises. When it had arrived, Ritch immediately set himself fitness goals and followed the program religiously. By the time he left Washington, he was ripped. But the soft D.C. hills and lower elevation bore no resemblance to Vail’s mountains rising over 8,000 feet. It took him much longer than thirty minutes to finish, and he was gulping air by then.

Brett was in even worse condition at that point. “Fuck, I’m out of shape.” They tumbled into the kitchen and jostled each other trying to reach the refrigerator’s water dispenser.

“Guess we’re gonna be having breakfast early while we’re here. I’ll cook while you two go shower. What do you want to eat?” César sat on a stool at the kitchen’s island a coffee mug in hand while scrolling through something on his tablet.

“Eggs, bacon, toast, fruit?” Posed as a question, Ritch’s list elicited nods from Brett and a chuckle from César. “Do we have all that?”

“Yeah… We’ll have to hit a grocery store while we’re out here. You’ve been eating a lot more the past few months.”

“I’ve been working out a lot more too, Dad. I’ve put on some weight but my BMI’s dropped.” Ritch lifted his shirt’s front hem and tried to pinch his stomach. All he could squeeze was skin. “I’ve never been this fit before.”

“We can tell. What I can’t process is what you said about your diet at the Academy this summer. Six thousand calories a day?”

“That’s only while we’re out on the field. Papa already warned me I’ll be marching day and night, so I guess we need all that fuel.”

“Go shower. I’ll start cooking,”

They drove into town for lunch and while there, Ritch bought a door-frame bar. The Academy’s information claimed the average number of pull-ups for male cadets was twelve and the maximum twenty-one. Ritch could do nearly twenty with ease but kept pushing himself. Physical conditioning was taken seriously by the Air Force.

Subsequent days followed the pattern set during the initial one. Ritch was in bed by 9:30 pm and up at half-past four every morning. Those were the times cadets would go to sleep and wake up over the six weeks of summer training. Ritch had been going to bed earlier than usual since receiving the information package. A couple of days after arriving in Colorado, he could start running or doing calisthenics after splashing a little water on his face, without the need for a caffeine jolt. Either César or Brett would join him, and sometimes he had two companions.

Sunday after arriving, they took a day trip to Denver. The Colorado Rockies played a day game, and since none of them had ever watched a baseball game at Coors Field, they decided it was a good way of breaking up the monotony. Aside from a couple of matinees at the movies, they had spent most of their time around the house.

The slow pace of baseball games made them ideal to carry on conversations. “We’re gonna miss your birthday this year, kiddo.”

At seventeen, Ritch suspected he would be one of the youngest cadets in his class. He would turn eighteen in early July. “It’s not a big deal.”

“Bullshit!” Brett spilled a little of his beer when he wildly gesticulated. “Eighteen’s big, Ritchie. Not only will you be an adult, but you get control of most of your money. Your trust’s different from your brother’s, since a large chunk of the funds came from a bunch of insurance policies and the proceeds from selling your parents’ house.”

Ritch knew enough to realize not much would change. “But you guys are still going to manage it, right?”

“If that’s what you want, yes. Your brother set some of his money aside to invest on his own.” As usual, when it came to financial discussions, César took the lead.

“That’s CJ, Dad. I don’t follow the stock market or most financial news. As long as I can get a little money now and then, I’m fine. Hell, the Air Force’s gonna pay me a salary while going to school. I don’t need anything else.”

That salary was a measly 12,000 dollars a year. Cadets received an advance at the beginning of their time at the Academy to pay for uniforms, a laptop computer, and assorted other items. They repaid it through monthly deductions from their paycheck over the subsequent twenty-two months. After taxes and repayments, take-home pay was under 400 dollars a month for most cadets.

“Bullshit again.” Brett did not seem inclined to take it easy on his son. “Most of that money’s gonna be used to pay for required crap. You’re gonna need more unless you want to live like a pauper.”

“Quarter word!” Ritch ducked to avoid the head slap. The comment was an ongoing family gag brought out whenever anyone’s vocabulary turned uppity.

“Children… Look, Ritch, we’re fine with managing most of your funds, but you’re gonna have to start paying a little more attention. There are a few different accounts. One has the proceeds from insurance payouts when your parents died and what the sale of their house brought in. That one has a couple of million. You’ve been getting monthly Social Security benefits since they died. We’ve paid for everything from the day you moved in with us, so your balance has built up. That’s in its own account. And then there’s the one we set up and put money into to pay for college.”

Ritch shrugged. “Since I don’t have to pay for school, you can take that money back.”

“Bullshit! You’re making me repeat myself. That money’s yours. Can I offer a compromise?” Brett’s pace when having family conversations was much faster than his husband’s.

César’s indulgent smile made Ritch smirk. He loved the way his parents interacted. “Go ahead, Papa.”

“You’re gonna have to pay attention to money sooner or later, but I’ll give you until Christmas break to start. You’ll be overwhelmed your first semester anyway. How about we keep things as they are for now? We’ll continue your monthly allowance, pay for anything you charge on your credit card, and if you need extra cash, you call us.”

“That’s fine. I don’t think I’ll be spending a lot. No need to get a reputation as a spoiled, rich kid.”

“But you are, dude. You are a spoiled, rich kid. Just like I was.”

“Screw you, Cap.”

 

Ritch had trouble dealing with nervous energy the day before he was to report to the Air Force Academy. He thought about going for a second run in the afternoon, but Brett nixed the idea. “You don’t want to be sore tomorrow. You’ll be on your feet most of the day.”

Instead, he packed and rearranged his luggage—a medium backpack with United States Southern Command and the Department of Defense logo embroidered on it that had belonged to his father—so many times, César eventually yanked it out of his hands. “Enough! It’s not like you’re taking that much with you. Leave the cleats behind.” One of the three pairs of shoes he would be wearing on a regular basis, aside from boots and sneakers, were molded cleats the Academy suggested would be good for playing sports on grassy fields. “We’ll take them back to D.C. with us and bring them, with whatever else you want, when we come back for Parents Weekend.”

“I don’t know what to do with myself.” Ritch collapsed on his bed and sighed. “I just want to get the waiting over with.”

“Come on. Get up.” Brett grabbed one of the kid’s hands and pulled. “Put on shoes and a shirt. We’re going to the movies again. And if you’re a good boy, we’ll take you to Baskin Robbins after.” Brett’s affinity for ice cream was legendary, stopping for a cone or cup after a motorcycle ride was de rigueur.

Ritch chuckled; he felt like a ten-year-old all over again. “Okay, Papa. But I get to pick the movie. And I want two scoops on a sugar cone.”

Brett pushed César out of the room. “Whatever, Ritchie! Downstairs in five minutes or you get left behind.”

Ritch saluted the retired Marine. “Sir, yes, sir!”

“Asshole!”

 

Later that night, as the sun set, Ritch stood alone on the back deck, staring at the jagged horizon. Weather was something else he would need to get accustomed to. No more of the summer heat and humidity he had grown up with in South Florida and Washington. The high temperature had not even reached eighty that afternoon. The sinking fireball painted the mountains purple and the sky in shades of red, pink, and orange. A smile crept on his face. He loved city sunsets, but this was an order of greater magnitude. It was spectacular. “Ritch, buddy, I think these western skies could grow on you.”

Copyright © 2021 Carlos Hazday; All Rights Reserved.

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



1 hour ago, Anton_Cloche said:

Wow, great :read:. Fasten your seat and shoulder restraints and get ready for a G-Force ride as Ritchie, ahem 'Ritch' enters the Academy.

Not surprised Cap and Papa joined him in Colorado before he starts training. Let's hope everything goes as smoothly as possible (or what passes for smooth and calm in Casa Abello-Davenport).

Nice to see all the support Ritch has.:hug:

Thanks Carlos for this great start.

Stay Safe, 6ft apart, Wash Hands a Lot, #WearTheMask (HD logo version available) and (not to needle you, pun intended) #GetTheJab.

 

The dads are protective. And this is a new experience for them, their other son went to school a block away from home!

There will be a bunch of new characters (I can't help myself. Just like DeMille) but there 'll be regular appearances by favorites from previous stories. This chapter was heavy with them.

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1 hour ago, WolfM said:

I can't think of a better way to start the new year than to have a new story in the CJ world. It's about time Ritch gets to step out of his brothers shadow. :)

He's gonna be marching his way out of that shadow. Every single day before lunch.

You helped make today's post possible so you get lots of credit.

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