"Sorry I have to go, guys." César hugged Tyler and Randy goodbye. "The first three months of the year are the busiest ones for accountants. Year-end financial statements and tax returns are all due and we get swamped."
"It's cool, we'll be back sometime soon." Randy glanced over his shoulder at Tyler who'd already sat back to finish his breakfast. "This is a great jacket. I like the look, Unc."
César hadn't shaved over the weekend. The scruffy look combined with the jeans and motorcycle jacket he wore, gave him a bad-ass appearance. "The office is technically closed today. We get to dress down." He turned his attention towards CJ and Chipper who sat eating at the kitchen counter. "You two get your school work done after your cousins leave."
"Sure, Dad. I don't know about Chipper, but I don't have a lot. I'll make dinner tonight. I'm in the mood for Cuban food."
"Sounds good to me. I should be home mid-afternoon. Randy, once you have a new set of drawings with the changes we talked about, FedEx them to us. It's gonna be good to have all those new bedrooms in the basement. We won't have to worry about hotels when the family comes to Washington for Thanksgiving this year."
CJ was again engrossed in reading the sports page of The Washington Post while chewing on his egg, bacon, and cheese breakfast burrito. "What?" he asked with a mouth full of food after Chipper gently elbowed him on the side.
"How many people come for Thanksgiving?" asked Chipper. "Sounds like a lot of family if you've had to get hotel rooms."
"It'll be the first time we get together in DC," replied Brett. "When CJ was still living in Miami, César and I flew down there for the holidays so we could see him."
Chipper pushed his stool back, walked towards the coffeemaker, and waved his mug at the other men. "Anyone need a refill?"
"Bring the pot over," said Randy. "So, anyway, we won't be that many. The two of us, my brother, my parents, and our grandparents. As good as it is to head south in November for some beach time, I think it'll be a fun change."
"I hadn't thought about it before, but I guess I'll be wherever Doc goes. Or maybe I'll go to New York to see my sister."
Brett refilled his mug, took a sip, and stood up with his empty plate in his hands. "We'll figure it out later. Maybe your sister can come to Washington, and you guys can have dinner with us. I cooked breakfast, you get to clean up, CJ. I'll be upstairs checking e-mails. What time is your flight back to Chicago?" he asked Randy. "Are you sure you don't want me to drive you to the airport?
"Three o'clock," replied Randy. "Thanks, Uncle Brett, but we'll call Uber."
• • •
Dinner was eaten sitting on the couch, plates on the coffee table, in front of the TV. Since CJ had cooked, Brett and César cleaned up while their son excused himself. He went to shower and planned on spending the remainder of the evening reading, finishing the novel he'd started over the weekend.
"I didn't want to say anything in front of CJ yet, but I spoke with Olga again today."
"And what did Aba have to say?" asked Brett, rinsing a plate before placing it in the dishwasher.
César leaned against the counter, his arms folded across his chest. "That woman is amazing. I'm not sure how she accomplished it, but Lourdes and Dickhead agreed to her plans."
"You're kidding me." Brett's raised eyebrows and wide open eyes reflected his surprise. "Damn that shocks the hell out of me. I was sure the flyboy would object."
"I'm sure he fought it at first. Olga told him I'd offered to pay for everything. It may have helped some."
Brett dried his hands on a kitchen towel, poured detergent into the machine, and closed its door. "When are we telling CJ?"
"I wanted to check with you first. That's why I didn't bring it up tonight. Either tomorrow during dinner, if I'm back early enough, or the following night. He's going to throw a fit when I ask him to call his mother and be nice to her."
"I'll call her, and thank her. I'll e-mail her, and thank her. Hell, I'll send her a handwritten note, and thank her! I'll play nice because of Ritchie. But she better not expect me to be all lovey-dovey."
César looked at his son, while Brett's attempt to disguise his chuckling as a cough miserably failed. "Stop encouraging his attitude, Jarhead. Don't you think it's time you start forgetting and forgiving, CJ?"
"No, Dad, I don't. Have you forgiven her for what she did to you?"
"Yes he has." Brett had watched and listened quietly―except for a couple of grunts and his occasional chuckles―while CJ and César carried on. "He told me so a long, long time ago. He had to forgive her. What she did was wrong, but it resulted in you being born. That trumps everything else. And for the record, I forgave her too. Because of her I got myself a great son."
"Thanks, Papa. You and Dad may have forgiven her, but I bet Dad hasn't forgotten. And he never will. Think how I felt being thrown out by her husband, and her allowing it to happen. I won't forget it for as long as I live."
César smiled at his husband's comments and his son's reply. "Maybe she thought it was best for you and Ritchie? Maybe she was trying to save her marriage so your brother could have a home?"
"BULLSHIT! She should have had the guts to stand up to the asshole. You and Papa would have made sure money wouldn't be a problem if she stood her ground and left him. She sure as hell showed initiative when she took advantage of you. Why couldn't she do it last year? Fuck her!"
"Okay, time to settle down," said César in a calm, conciliatory tone. "I'd prefer this not be an ongoing discussion. And obviously, I don't want this to come up while Ritchie's visiting. I'll call your mother, you can send her a message later. You shouldn't talk to her while you're raging."
"Do you always do what your dads want you to do?"
"Always," replied CJ, the corners of his mouth curling up. "Except when I don't."
He had jogged from home to Chipper's place after breakfast, and the two had walked down to the waterfront to check out the frozen Potomac. It didn't happen often, but with temperatures hovering right at the freezing mark for the past week, an unbroken layer of ice had formed on the river. A layer which weather reports described as thin and extremely dangerous for anyone to step on.
"You're such a goody two-shoes."
"Watch it, buster!" CJ tugged on the red wool scarf he'd rakishly thrown over one shoulder, tightly wrapping the lower portion around his face. The wind had picked up and the frigid air had begun to seep underneath the collar of his coat. "And anyway, I was ordered not to try walking on the river. They didn't say anything about the canal."
Built in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal stretched from Washington to Cumberland in western Maryland. It was in use until the early twentieth century when other methods of transportation made it obsolete. Currently part of the National Park System, the old tow path running alongside the canal served as a hiking trail. Where mules once labored to pull barges, humans now trod. CJ had explored the area before, including the Georgetown Visitors Center on Jefferson Street, where he had picked up one of the NPS brochures describing the park and its history.
The canal's bank rose a mere foot or two above the water level where the land on which Doc's condominium sat abutting it. "Man, there were people skating up and down it yesterday. The ice has to be thick enough." Chipper took his phone and wallet out of his pockets and placed them on the embankment. "We'll slide to the other side and then walk back. But in case I fall through, I don't want to ruin this stuff."
"If we fall through, you're history for talking me into this." CJ followed his friends lead, placing his own phone next to Chipper's before sitting on the path's edge and gingerly placing his feet on the shimmering ice. Standing, he tried to take a step and found himself slipping and falling on his ass. "Fuck! That hurts."
"Stop being a wuss, CJ. Get up." He offered a hand to his fallen friend, pulling until CJ was again standing.
"I'll give you wuss..." CJ threw himself at his buddy, knocking him over onto the frozen surface. The two boys slid towards the center of the canal but stayed on the ice once their bodies came to a stop. They kept pushing each other, sliding from one side of the frozen waterway to the other. When the horseplay came to an end, both were laughing, breathing hard, and starting to sweat.
"Hey," said Chipper, brushing ice crystals from his coat. "Are we riding together to the party?"
"I haven't heard anything. But I'll mention it to the dads when I get home. For sure we can pick you and Doc up on the way."
"Cool." Chipper climbed the short wall, stood atop the stonework lining the canal, and again extended his hand to help CJ up. Retrieving their phones and wallets, they walked towards the iron and wood trestle bridge spanning the waterway, coming to a stop at its center. They leaned over the side, resting their forearms on the dull red railing, watching other thrill seekers walk or skate on the ice.
"You know something?" CJ adjusted his sunglasses against the glare reflecting off the frozen water. "I was worried all week you'd be uncomfortable with me after what we did last weekend."
"Why? I started it. It was something I wanted to try and you're the first friend I felt comfortable enough with."
"Yeah, I know. Still..." The word hung in the air as the two boys watched an older couple sit on the stone parapet and exchange their shoes for skates.
"Still nothing. The last six months have been tough for me. It was my idea to move to Washington, but doing it and leaving my friends in New York behind killed me. Even if I haven't always shown it." Chipper looked at CJ momentarily, before returning his gaze to the skaters. "I miss Mom and Cristina. I'm not even sure how I thought up moving in with Doc, but now I realize it was a stroke of genius. Right after meeting you, I knew we'd end up being friends, but I had no idea how much easier you'd help make the move."
"What do you mean?" CJ turned, leaned his back against the topmost metal pipe of the guard rail.
"I'm still getting used to the changes, but Doc and his group of friends, including your dads, have made me feel welcome and safe. And you and your buddies have made me feel at home at WALLS."
"Yeah, we've got a nice group at school."
"Man, that's an understatement! You guys have all been great. Especially you, Harley, and Thiago. I'm lucky the three amigos let me in. I have a feeling the four of us are going to be tight for a long time to come."
• • •
The invitation JP had given the dads explained the significance of Australia Day. The official National Day of Australia, it commemorated the day the flag of Great Britain was raised at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip. The embassy in Washington sponsored several events to mark the holiday, including a gathering for family and friends of Australians living in the area. Since the holiday fell on a Sunday this year, the casual party was held in the afternoon. The Aussie diplomat had complained about also having to attend a more formal reception for diplomats and politicos, which would be held in the early evening at the ambassador's residence.
"It feels different this year," said Tom, accepting the bottle of Cooper beer from his husband. "After all the events I've attended over time, this is the first one I don't feel like a complete outsider."
CJ had learned his lesson about alcohol consumption amongst Australians well, he didn't hesitate to accept a glass of wine when it was offered. He raised his glass for a sip, closed his eyes as his mouth was filled with flavor, and allowed the liquid to trickle down his throat. "It's good but it sure ain't a Liston Vineyards Verdelho."
"I'll see what we can do about having some of Mr. Liston's family wines served when you next visit." The smiling woman had approached without CJ noticing her. "I gather you were able to sample their vintages while you visited our country. Did you enjoy yourself?"
A warmness spread through CJ's face, but for his tan, the rosy color on his cheeks would have been more pronounced. "Madame Ambassador, my apologies. I think I developed a fondness for one particular wine while visiting. I may be spoiled now. But this is pretty good still."
"No need to apologize, young man. But if what you say is true, I may have a word or two with my staff about what we order next time." She momentarily turned her attention to Tom. "Detective Kennedy, you've been part of this family for as long as I've been in this position. I'm so glad to hear you're feeling like it at last."
"G'day, Madame Ambassador," said Tom, displaying a toothy grin.
"Please, Uncle Tom, stop." CJ closed his eyes and shook his head before addressing the ambassador. "I told him he can't pull off the Aussie accent already, but he keeps trying."
"And I presume you can do better?" asked the woman, her smile widening.
"Mate, my Oztrayan is brilliant!" enthused the boy, bringing chuckles to those within hearing range. "Ma'am," he continued while placing a hand on Chipper's shoulder. "I'd like to introduce you to my friend, Chipper Pereira. Bud, this is the honorable Reneé Sacks. She's Australia's Ambassador to the United States."
"It's my pleasure, ma'am," said a somewhat subdued Chipper.
"Likewise, Chipper. And how do you fit in with this motley crew, if I may ask?"
"I moved to Washington at the end of last year to live with my Uncle Matt." The usually self-assured boy spoke in a timid, quiet tone. "CJ and I go to the same school."
"Welcome to Washington and to our little corner of Australia. I hope you enjoy yourself. Now, if you'll forgive me, I should circulate amongst our guests. I always try to greet everyone who comes help us celebrate. Gentlemen..."
Chipper wiped his hand on his pants, switched his glass of wine to it, and repeated the process with the other. "I can't believe I just met the Australian ambassador. Wow! And she knew you? Damn, CJ."
"What? I'd met her before." The boy took a furtive glance to see who was nearby and leaned in a bit closer to his friend. "And of course she remembered me. I'm unforgettable!"
"Asshole!" said César, clipping the back of his son's head while the rest of their group laughed at the boy's quip. He spoke just above a whisper; only the two teens could hear him. "Don't be getting cocky."
"Ouch, Dad. I'm gonna report you for child abuse."
Super Bowl Sunday dawned cloudy but dry. By lunch time, the temperature was approaching sixty. Harley had arrived right at noon, carrying his skateboard and a backpack with a football in it. He'd ridden the bus to Georgetown, as had Thiago who arrived a few minutes later. The roar of Doc's Corvette made CJ drop the ball Thiago had hurled his way. It rolled end over end, through the brick courtyard, coming to a stop against the retaining wall by the side of the Exorcist Stairs. The three boys ignored the ball and walked towards the garage. By the time they'd gone through the structure, Doc and Chipper were stepping out of the sleek muscle car haphazardly parked in front of the rolling doors.
"Hey, Doc," said Harley, walking towards the car's driver side where the physician stood. "When are you taking me for a ride in the Vette? Or better yet, when are you going to let me drive it? I've never ridden in one of the new Z51s. I bet this sucker can really move. How many miles do you have on it now? My grandfather has a friend who owns an older model and I've―"
"Forget it, Harley," called out Chipper from the other side of the car, where he was bumping fists with the two other teens. "I've got first dibs when Uncle Matt decides to let anyone else drive this baby."
CJ shook his head, smiling at Harley's enthusiasm over any motorized vehicle. "Go on in, Uncle Matt. They're all sitting in the kitchen drinking beer. Dash came over with Uncles Tom and JP. They're looking at houses for sale on his laptop."
"Thanks, CJ. A beer sure sounds good right now." Doc held up his keys and jingled them in front of Harley. "As soon as the new car smell finishes wearing off, bubba. But I did promise Chipper he'd get first crack at it."
"Uncle Matt," called out CJ, as the man was about to enter the house. "Could you tell the dads we're walking over to the University? We'll be on Healy Lawn throwing the ball around if they need me."
"Sure thing, bubba," replied Doc before closing the door behind him.
Two hours later, after a spirited game of touch football with a few Georgetown students, the boys returned covered in dirt and grass clippings, their sneakers caked in mud. "Lose the shoes, go upstairs, and clean up. You can scrape the mud off and rinse the shoes afterwards." César stood in the kitchen, removing the cover off a tray full of chicken wings Brett had ordered and picked up from The Tombs. "The sooner you're clean, the faster you get to eat."
"Hurry up, guys," said Harley. "I'm hungry, and I want some wings before Doc eats them all."
"HEY!" shouted Doc. "What was that crack for? If I remember right, you're the one with a hollow leg around here."
"Yeah," replied a chuckling Harley. "But you're the one who's been gaining weight and growing a belly."
Doc's mouth hung open as the men around him laughed. Brett reached over and squeezed the man's side, making the physician jump. "He's right, you know? I think you're getting a tad chubby."
The last thing CJ heard as he climbed the stairs taking two steps at a time, was Doc telling his father to fuck off.
The snow had stopped falling the previous evening, but the six inches the storm dumped on Washington had brought the city to a temporary standstill. Although the accumulation wasn't as large as in many of the suburbs, DC was not used to having significant snowfalls, it was still enough to cause closings all over the area. Schools had been canceled on Thursday and Friday, turning the Presidents' Day long weekend into a five day mini-vacation.
CJ had spent most of the morning shoveling the sidewalk in front of his house and the elderly couple's living next door, as well as the driveway between the two homes. The street had been plowed sometime overnight. Mounds of snow surrounded many of the cars parked in the area, and slush made walking treacherous. César had gone into the office, but Brett had stayed home at the insistence of his boss, Colonel Edwards, who suggested he spend the time reviewing files or something.
"I should have brought an extra coat with me for him," said CJ, walking into National Airport's arrival lounge. "But all my clothes are too big. I don't think he'll have enough warm stuff. I sure as hell didn't until I moved here."
"Relax already, it's not even that cold." Brett adjusted his tie and opened his overcoat so his uniform was clearly visible. He'd explained to his son that since Ritchie was a minor, and they all had different last names, the airline could have doubts about releasing the boy to them. Seeing a Marine Corps officer could just help clear any hurdles they might encounter. "Plus, it's not like we're in the middle of nowhere. We can make a quick shopping trip tomorrow morning if we need to."
"Yeah, I guess you're right..." He left the word hanging as he scanned the faces of the passengers moving through the terminal. "There he is," said CJ, pointing towards the side of the security checkpoint where a flight attendant was walking next to his brother heading their way. "RITCHIE!" The two brothers ran towards each other, embracing and talking at the same time, as Brett shook hands and exchanged a few words with the young woman escorting their guest.
"Bro, it's so good to see you," said an enthusiastic CJ. "You remember Papa?" he asked, gesturing towards Brett.
"Duh! Don't be silly, CJ. Of course I do," replied the younger boy, extending his hand towards Brett. "Thank you for inviting me to come visit, Captain Davenport."
"Welcome to Washington, Ritchie." Brett tousled the boy's hair and took the handle of the black suitcase the boy had been pulling. "We're all very happy you could make it. And if you want to thank somebody, thank your grandmother. She's the one who started the ball rolling."
"Yeah," interjected CJ. "Aba called Dad and got it going. They didn't even let me know you were coming until it was all set up."
"They didn't tell me until last weekend either! Mom said she didn't want me going crazy, so they waited. Then they told me they were taking the boat over to Bimini for the long weekend, and I was coming here."
Ritchie spent most of the ride from the airport to Georgetown staring out the window at the city lights, talking about the snow. He was excited there was so much of the stuff he'd not seen in years on the ground. As they pulled into the driveway of the townhouse, Brett clicked the garage door opener and the lights inside the building came on.
"Wow! I love your Jeep, CJ. It looks so cool. Can we go for a ride tomorrow?"
"I can't drive by myself yet, bro. Maybe one of the dads will let me take it out sometime this weekend for a little practice run. I need an adult with me all the time until I get my regular license."
"But you're already sixteen."
"Yeah, but the law's different here in Washington. I can't get the provisional one until at least six months after the learner's permit. And I just got that last month. Come on, let's take your stuff inside. Dad's waiting for us." He pointed at the black Cadillac Escalade parked in the first bay. "That's his car."
Smiling, Brett motioned for the boys to walk on ahead of him. CJ carried his brother's small suitcase, while the wide-eyed boy stared at the cars and the motorcycles in the garage.
"We're home!" shouted CJ as soon as he'd opened the door to the kitchen.
"Yeah, I gathered," said César, placing the beer bottle he was holding on the counter. He approached Ritchie and got down on one knee so he wouldn't tower over the boy who was more than a foot shorter. "Welcome to our house, buddy. It's real good to see you again," he added, enthusiastically hugging the kid. "I'm so happy you could come visit."
"Thank you, sir. Thank you for inviting me."
"You're very welcome, son. Before you do anything else, call your grandmother and let her know you're here. We don't want her to get worried."
"Come on, Ritchie. Let's go upstairs to our bedrooms. You can call Aba from there." CJ gave his dad a quick kiss and carrying the suitcase, bounded up the stairs, with Ritchie following on his heels.
• • •
Aware of the sensitive situation regarding Ritchie's visit, and the potential consequences should anything happening to the boy while he was in their care, César and Brett vetoed CJ's idea of taking the boy down to M Street and walking around the area. Since it was Valentine's Day, they had made plans for a romantic dinner and thought the boys could stay in and order pizza for dinner. At their son's insistence, they relented and gave permission for the brothers to walk the few steps to The Tombs. Their own dinner reservations were at 1789, the upscale sister restaurant adjacent to the pub.
"I like that kid." Brett stood in the middle of the bathroom, as he removed his shirt. "He's so like CJ in many ways. Even if looking at them you can't tell they're brothers."
"Oh, I don't know about that," replied César. "If you put them side-by-side, you can see the resemblance."
"True, but it's slight. They share some of their mother's facial features. They even have similar colored eyes—I think Lourdes has a thing for blue-eyed men. But CJ's over half a foot taller. Our son looks like a man while Ritchie's still a little boy."
The two men had returned from dinner to find the boys sprawled on the couch wearing sweatpants and t-shirts―a black Harley-Davidson one with ATTITUDE INCLUDED printed on it for CJ―watching one of the Captain America movies. CJ had paused it when his dads walked in and the four had sat talking for a little while, the conversation ending after they'd finalized their plans for the next day.
"You know something, Jarhead? The main reason I keep trying to get CJ to relax his attitude towards his mother is because in a way I'm thankful. She screwed up with me, but as a result I have a son. Then she screwed up by not standing up to her husband, but as a result we ended up with CJ here."
"Hell, I feel the same way. Although I'd love to beat the crap out of Dickhead for being an ass. Have you noticed the hero worship in Ritchie's eyes whenever he looks at his brother? It breaks my heart those two don't get to see each other more than a handful of times a year."
My thanks to all of you who've e-mailed with your thoughts on the CJ series. Your continued encouragement helps get me through those times I don't feel much like writing. You may contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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