“Owen! Over here!” Spencer Liston strolled towards his brother and the two others with him. “Mate, it’s good to see ya.”
“Wow! Your brother’s almost as big as Tank, Ozzie.” Ritchie stared at the blonde, blue-eyed man’s oversized biceps contracting when he hugged first Owen and then CJ.
“You too, CJ. It’s been a while.” Spencer held his brother’s boyfriend by the shoulders and gave him a slight shake. “Looking good, mate. I’m glad neither one of you has gotten fat now that you’re an old married couple.”
“You’re still an asshole, Spencer. And we ain’t married! Hell, I’m not even sure I’d marry Ozzie. It’d mean being stuck with you as an in-law.” CJ’s good-natured ribbing earned him a shove. “Dude, meet my brother. Ritchie, this is Ozzie’s baby brother. I actually met him first, by like six months. I definitely got the better part of the family.” CJ lowered his voice while grinning. “Spencer can be kinda asshole-ish.”
“Watch it, you wanker. Don’t forget I’m your ride.” Spencer extended his arm to shake hands with CJ’s brother. “Good to meetcha, Ritchie. I heard a lot of good stuff about you from my sister. She’s all excited you guys are visiting.”
“How come she’s not here? I thought Liz would meet us at the airport.” Ritchie had made it clear he was looking forward to seeing the girl he befriended the previous year and kept in touch with through social media. CJ suspected there was a touch of limerence in his brother and hoped it would not become an issue.
“She stayed behind to help set up tonight’s party.” Spencer draped an arm around Ritchie and fixed his gaze on CJ. “Happy birthday, mate. Since you spent your actual day inside a plane, we’re having a little party for ya tonight. Liz wanted to come, Ritchie. But we had no idea how much luggage you guys had and didn’t want it to be too cramped in the ute. The ride home’s a bit over two hours.”
CJ and Owen finished their exams on Tuesday and within forty-eight hours―the day before CJ’s nineteenth birthday―boarded a plane for the long flight to Sydney. It was CJ’s third trip to Australia in four years but this one was a bit different; Ritchie was along this time. The boy began pleading the previous year, after meeting Elizabeth Liston when she visited the United States. In time, the fathers relented. Ritchie was promised the trip as a Christmas present, but it came with plenty of strings attached. The boy was to obey CJ and Owen as if they were César and Brett. He was prohibited from smoking pot and could only drink wine while on the premises of the Liston Winery, or somewhere else only if Owen’s parents or JP’s mom and dad were with him.
They also limited the time he could spend in Sydney alone with his brother and Owen. They made it clear a couple of days would be fine for sightseeing purposes, but expected all of them to stay in the Hunter Valley otherwise. Ritchie was younger than CJ had been during his initial trip and not as mature as his brother was at the time. They trusted him in general but the kid had a wild streak in him.
“That’s the area where the hotel we’ll be at later this week is in.” CJ pointed out the window towards The Rocks as they approached the Sydney Harbour Bridge. “And if you look in the other direction, you’ll see the Opera House.”
“This is sick!” Ritchie sat up front with Spencer while CJ and Owen had taken the back seat. The kid had already left the imprint of his nose on the glass, unable to tear his face away from the window. “I can’t believe I’m in Australia! It’s my first time outside the United States.”
“You’re so full of shit, bro. You were born in fucking Germany!”
“That don’t count, CJ. It was at an Air Force base and I don’t remember any of it. I was a little kid when we moved to Miami.”
“I call bullshit! You were like eight.” CJ shook his head when his brother gave him a one finger salute.
“Mate, you remember when Liz was in Miami and you suggested she’d like a picture with her feet in the Atlantic Ocean? Should we do the same for Ritchie with the Pacific?”
“Shit, yeah! I was thinking we’d do it when we took him to Newcastle. I mean, we have to stop by and say hello to Joe and Kate.” CJ referred to JP’s parents who lived in the coastal city.
“Uncle Joe and Aunt Kate are already at the house, CJ. They’re spending the night so you’ll see them when we get there.” Spencer glanced at his passengers in the back for a moment. “Do you guys mind if we roll down the windows? It’s so nice outside and I’m thinking the fresh air will be nice after all the time you spent in the airplane.”
Owen looked at CJ for a moment and then leaned forward. “Spence, are we in any rush to get home? Are there any plans before dinner tonight?”
“Not that I’m aware of. Mum said you guys might want a nap.”
“I think we’re fine. We all slept on the plane.” CJ and Ritchie both nodded when Owen glanced at them. “How about we get off the M1, drive through Gosford, and then zip up the coast?”
“Sure, but it’ll add about an hour to the trip. You guys okay with that?”
“I’m fine with anything.” Ritchie did not bother looking away from the landscape rolling by.
CJ shrugged and nodded. “Me too. We can stop somewhere along the way, take some pics, and Ritchie can post them to his Instagram.”
“Perfect! Do it, Spence. We’ll stop at The Entrance. I’ll text Liz”—Owen already had his phone out—“and she can tell the rest of them we’re taking a detour.”
Ritchie peeled his face away from the window for a moment. “What’s The Entrance?”
“It’s a seaside holiday spot on the Central Coast.” Spencer switched to the leftmost lane and diminished their speed. “It gets its name from the channel between two strips of land which connects the ocean to Tuggerah Lake. Too bad we’ll be going by so early in the day. We’ll miss the pelicans.”
“What about the pelicans?” CJ was a little confused. He had not heard anything about pelicans during his previous trips.
“Mate, it’s like the biggest tourist attraction in the area!” Spencer sounded animated. “It’s a great sight when all these birds show up every arvo and get fed. They even built a special place for it.”
“Arvo means afternoon in Oztrayan, Ritchie.” The preemptive explanation came because it was a word neither Owen nor JP used a lot. CJ realized his boyfriend sounded more like an American each day but he still loved Owen’s Aussie accent.
“Ritchie!” Elizabeth Liston left the chair next to her grandfather and rushed towards the vehicle as soon as it came to a stop. “I’m sooo glad you’re here. And you, CJ! This is so great. And, I get to have my big brother around too! It’s going to be the bestest Christmas.”
The effusive greetings were accompanied by hugs and kisses from the pretty girl. While she fussed over Ritchie as if he was her own sibling, CJ smirked and elbowed Owen. “I think I’m going to really enjoy this trip. Spencer yells out your name at the airport and now Liz shouts out Ritchie’s. Kinda nice to be anonymous for a change.”
“It’s still early.” Owen shook his head as he reached in the car to retrieve their luggage. “I say we give it a day and you’ll be well known around here. Complete strangers will be asking for your autograph in no time at all.”
“Asshole!” CJ hefted his bag and headed towards the covered porch where Jack Liston stood waiting. CJ’s smile as he approached the man grew. “Jack! It’s so, so good to see you again.”
“Welcome back, CJ. I heard what Owen said about strangers asking for your autograph. I’m not sure it’ll go that far, but there are a few neighbors who want to meet you.”
“Told ya… Hey, Jack.” Owen had a mischievous grin when he hugged his grandfather. “Have you been talking about my boyfriend, Grandpa?”
“You can’t imagine, Owen. Whenever we have visitors, Jack makes it a point of talking about his grandson’s boyfriend and his involvement in politics. It’s nauseating to be honest. And then he wants to show them pictures of you and CJ.” Liz reached behind her and took Ritchie’s hand―the boy stood in silence, darting his eyes everywhere. “Jack, this is Ritchie. He’s CJ’s brother.”
“Hello there, young man. Welcome to Australia, the Hunter Valley, and Liston Vineyards and Winery.” Jack shook hands with Ritchie.
“Thank you, sir. And thank you for letting me stay at your house.”
“Bah! You’re family, son. And none of this sir stuff. I’m Jack. It’s what my grandchildren call me and I expect you to do the same. Now, CJ, I’m hoping you’re still addicted to our Verdehlo. I have a bottle ready to be uncorked. Why don’t you all go in and drop off your luggage? When you’re done, come down to the restaurant. I’ll have a few starters and the wine waiting when you return.”
“What do you think your mom and dad want to talk to us about?” CJ was far from drunk, but he was not entirely sober either. At some point in the evening, he lost count of how many glasses of wine he had during his belated birthday dinner; Jack seemed ready to refill his glass after each sip.
“Oh, wild guess it’s about what a lightweight Ritchie is when it comes to wine. I think he was tipsy after his second glass!” Owen chuckled and burrowed his head further underneath CJ’s arm.
“Asshole! You know he isn’t allowed to drink so much back home. The dads won’t let him.”
“Yeah, but they told us he could as long as my parents or JP’s were around. We’re not to blame.”
“Fine, whatever. Seriously, though, you have any idea what they want?”
“No, but I wouldn’t worry about it. They said they wanted the four of us to get together before we return to Sydney and we’ll find out what they want then. I’m sure it’s about my graduation next year and my plans for after.”
“You don’t think they’re upset with me about something, do you?”
“Bloody hell, what are you talking about? I think the one time they weren’t real happy was when I told them Brett bought you a gun and―”
“Yeah, asshole. Why did you have to bring that up? Maybe they’re going to tell you to stop seeing me.”
“Ha! First thing is, you forget I’m an adult. They wouldn’t dream of telling me anything like that. If they did, I’d tell them to bugger off. Second, in case you missed it, they were bragging about how lucky I was to be around you during the campaign. And how proud they’ve been every time I’ve sent them an article or a video clip of you.”
CJ started chuckling. “Not as proud as your brother when he found out we’d met Katy Perry. I thought Spencer was gonna start drooling.”
“Leave it to the straight boy to salivate over a pair of famous tatas.”
CJ slipped on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and left his boyfriend in bed sleeping while he headed towards the kitchen in search of coffee. He was not surprised to find Owen’s grandfather at the kitchen table with a steaming cup and the newspaper in front of him. He knew Jack was an early riser from his previous visits.
“G’day, CJ. Coffee’s ready, or if you’d prefer tea…”
“Thank you, coffee would be great. Are we having yabbies’ today? Can I help this year?”
The Liston family patriarch smiled at the reference to the freshwater crustaceans traditionally eaten on Christmas day. “I see you remember our local critters. Good on ya for offering help.”
“You can do anything you want while you’re our guest, CJ. Happy Christmas!”
CJ whirled around and came face to face with Owen’s mother. In her fifties, he thought the woman was gorgeous. You could definitely tell where Owen, Spencer, and Liz got their blonde hair and good looks. “Good morning, Pam. Merry Christmas to you. I remember the younger grandchildren help Jack collect yabbies’ from the pond behind the dam. I’m curious but I wasn’t sure if I’m too old to join the group.”
“Bah! Nonsense!” Jack waved a hand in dismissal. “Of course you can join the mob. Some of them are already milling about outside. We’ll head out to that part of the property when your brother and Liz come down. She did promise to bring him along. As for you, you’re a celebrity around here. The kids will love spending time with you so they can brag to their friends later.”
CJ was confused. “Why am I a celebrity? I’m thinking most of them already met me three years ago when I was here for Christmas.”
“That you did.” Pam fixed herself a cup of tea and sat next to CJ. “And some saw you again when you came back on your own the following winter. But―even though most of them aren’t familiar or interested in American politics―all of them know about your involvement. Some have seen the video clips Owen sent us. You’ve been on TV. That’s special for them and it makes you a celebrity in their eyes.”
“Well, he can get off his celebrity arse and come outside to help me.” Owen’s father had sneaked into the kitchen and clamped a hand on CJ’s shoulder. “I wish our kids would be early morning people like CJ here. You better go wake up our dear daughter, Pam.”
“Morning, Geoff. What can I do to help?” Geoffrey Liston ran the family’s business but one could tell the man did not spend all his time behind a desk―even if his midsection had grown an inch or two since CJ last saw him. If this was what Owen would look like in twenty-five odd years, CJ was not about to complain. His dark tan and calloused, scarred hands a testament to a lifetime spent in the vineyards.
“You know that old, copper, washing-machine tub we use to boil the yabbies in? I need help setting it up.”
By the time they wrestled the tub into place, filled it with water, and piled wood around it, most of the family was up. Owen, JP’s parents, and a few others left for Christmas Day services at a church in Cessnock while Liz helped Jack herd her younger cousins with CJ and Ritchie tagging along.
When the churchgoers returned, those who remained behind were showered, dressed and gathered in the closed-for-the-day bistro at the winery. The younger set was excited and ready to open their presents. CJ and Owen sat next to each other with a plastic bag between them.
“Anyone know what Krochet Kids is?” Owen looked around at his family, dismissed Ritchie with a wave of the hand when the kid raised his arm, and then turned to CJ. “Why don’t you go ahead and explain it?”
CJ grinned, noticing the anticipation on the youngster's face. “Ozzie told me not to bother with gifts for the adults, but we brought some things for the younger crowd. Here’s the quick version of Krochet Kids’ story. You can google the organization if you want to know more.
“It was founded by three friends from high school. Avid snow sports enthusiasts who learned to crochet and had―liking the idea of unique headwear―made knit hats for themselves, and eventually for sale to their friends. Fast forward to them being in college. One of them spent a summer in Uganda and came back bemoaning the conditions many people lived in. People who spent a lifetime in refugee camps surviving on international and governmental aid.
“The idea to empower these people by teaching them how to create with needles and yarn, and then paying them a fair wage seemed logical. Today, Krochet Kids International has programs in Uganda and Peru. Even though it’s summer here in Australia, we thought you guys would like to own something special. Each hat’s signed by the person who made it. And you can find more about them on the organization’s website.”
“I’ll give CJ credit for thinking this up.” Owen gave his boyfriend a quick smile. “He always wants to help others and this is one of the many ways he tries. Okay, we have a bag full of beanies and you get to pick the one you like best. Youngest first and if we have any left over, the old people can fight over them.”
While CJ and Owen played Santa Claus, Ritchie sat next to them talking to JP’s parents, Kate and Joe Smith, with his brother paying attention to the conversation. “This is so sick. I can’t believe I’m sitting here with Uncle JP’s parents.”
“And we think it’s sick we’re sitting with CJ’s younger brother.” Joe ruffled the kid’s hair while smiling. “We’ve heard a lot about you.”
“So what did you get for Christmas?” Kate sipped from the glass of wine she held. “I’m surprised you’re not in there trying to get one of those things.”
“Nah, I got one already. I just didn’t bring it with me. I got a couple of games and some clothes but my big gift was the trip down here.”
“What about your brother and Ozzie?I swear I can’t get used to that silly nickname. What did they get for Christmas?”
“I think the dads paid for their trip too. Ozzie gave CJ two LEGO architectural models: Fallingwater and The Guggenheim Museum. They’re buildings by this architect my brother really likes.”
“Frank Lloyd Wright.” Kate reached for the bottle on the table behind them and poured herself a refill. “We’re familiar with your brother’s interest in architecture. Heck, I thought that’s what he’d be studying. What about Ozzie? What did he get?”
“Oh, it was insane! CJ had leather saddlebags custom made for Ozzie’s motorcycle. They have all these Australian designs all over them. Kangaroos, koalas, the big bridge in Sydney. He even had them do grape vines all around the edge.”
Boxing Day found most of the extended Liston clan returning to the winery. The traditional cricket match―between Australia and Pakistan this year―was the day’s attraction. In the morning, Owen found his old cricket bat and tried to give Ritchie a basic idea of the game. Assorted cousins joined in and an impromptu game broke out with the great lawn behind the buildings serving as the pitch.
“You behave, okay?” CJ had a hand on his brother’s shoulder and looked at him with a serious expression. “Don’t give Kate and Joe a hard time.” JP’s parents had spent the night at the family compound once again and offered to take Ritchie with them to Newcastle and show him around. Liz was quick to invite herself along as the official tour guide. “You listen to them like if it was me or Ozzie.”
“Give me a break, CJ. I’m not a little kid, you know?”
“Don’t worry about him, CJ. We’ll take good care of him.” Kate turned around for a moment as she approached their car and waved at the group watching them. “So, Ritchie, what did you think of what Owen was teaching you?”
“I don’t know. I think cricket’s boring. I do like to watch rugby whenever Ozzie puts one on the TV. I wish we could go watch a real live game.”
“Wrong time of year, mate. You’ll have to come back in winter like your brother did.”
CJ waved at his brother before turning back and rejoining the crowd. When he saw Owen’s father wave, CJ headed in towards him. “What’s going on, Geoff?”
“Do you have any interest in watching the cricket?” The man smirked; he obviously already knew the answer to the question.
“Can’t say I do. I’m fine watching if that’s what everyone else wants to do.”
The man threw his head back and laughed. “You’re so bloody polite and accommodating. Don’t worry; I won’t make you suffer. How about you, Owen, Pam, and I head into Cessnock for lunch? There’s a nice Indian restaurant with an all-you-can-eat spread.”
“Sounds good to me.”
An hour later, the two couples sipped Cooper beers and nibbled on samosas which CJ doused with tamarind chutney. Geoff wiped his hands with a napkin and looked at the two young men sitting across from him. “Okay, guys, Pam and I want to talk about the future.”
CJ felt Owen stiffen next to him and reached under the tablecloth to grab his boyfriend’s hand, wanting to help the man relax. “I thought you already agreed to let Ozzie stay in school for another year. Is there a problem?”
Pam’s chuckle surprised CJ. “Oh, lord! Young love. It’s so cute how all of a sudden you two started looking worried. Are you thinking we changed our minds? That we’re going to ask Owen to come home or stop paying for his schooling?”
“Mum…” Owen sounded meek at that moment.
“Don’t worry, boys. We haven’t changed our minds.” Geoff raised his bottle in salute. “We’re very happy with you as a couple. We approve. But, I think we need to be honest here. No mucking about. Owen, do you ever plan on returning to Australia?”
“Yep, that’s what we thought.” Pam placed a hand atop her husband’s and shook her head when he made to speak. “Owen, we love you and we want you to do what you feel’s right for you. We’ve talked to Kate and Joe about what it was like when John Paul went to school in California. Soon after you left for America, they warned us there was a good possibility you’d want to stay.”
“And none of us had an inkling you’d hook up with someone rich and famous to tempt you even more!” Geoff was surprised when Pam smacked him on the arm.
“Hey! That’s not fair.” A wave of defensiveness washed over CJ. “I’m not rich and I’m not famous. My dads may have money but that’s them. Any fame I may have will fade real quick. Anyway, Ozzie can make his own decisions. He doesn’t need you or me putting pressure on him. It’s his life and he has the right to live it any way he wants. And if you―”
“Bloody hell! Down, tiger.” Geoff raised his hands trying to placate his son’s boyfriend. “No need to bite our heads off. We already told you we approve of you and Owen.”
“Sorry… It’s just that I don’t like it when people pick on Ozzie or give him a hard time.”
“That’s admirable, CJ.” Pam raised her hand, motioning for the server. “I’m ordering another round. I think we’re going to be here for a while. We may as well enjoy ourselves. If we get drunk, we can always call Spencer and ask him to come get us. Okay, where were we? Ah yes, school.
“We know your ultimate goal’s to work in environmental law, Owen. And we approve of another year of studies. If that’s what it’ll take you to find the kind of position you want. However, we’d like to offer you an alternative. Something we think will be useful to you no matter where you end up or what you end up doing.
“We’d like you to consider going to school for two more years instead of one. Since CJ has at least three more remaining, it won’t create an awkward situation between you. It could happen if you’re working and he’s still a full-time student.”
“So what do you think I should do?”
“We’re hoping you still have time to apply. We think it’d be a good idea for you to get a degree in business to go along with your law one.”
Two days later, after long goodbyes peppered with hugs and kisses, CJ was behind the wheel headed towards Sydney. It was his first time driving on the opposite side of the road. Owen had the passenger seat while Spencer, Liz, and Ritchie sat in back. The three whispered to each other and CJ kept a suspicious eye on them through the rearview mirror. He turned around for a moment when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Daddy CJ, I have to go to the bathroom.” Liz started giggling as soon as she spoke.
“I’m kinda hungry, mate. Can we maybe get something to eat when we stop for our sister to pee?” Spencer’s serious expression dissolved into an evil grin.
Ritchie wasn’t about to be left out of the fun. “Are we there yet, CJ? Are we? Are we?”
“Stop laughing, Ozzie! This is all your fault, you know?” CJ was shaking his head and grinning.
“Bloody hell! My fault?”
“Yeah! You’re the one who insisted on bringing the kids along. I told you we should have left them with your mother.”
The banter did not abate for a long time. It was when they were near Sydney the subject changed after Ritchie started asking questions. “What’s the name of this zoo we’re going to again? And will I get to see live kangaroos and koalas?”
“Taronga is an Aboriginal word meaning beautiful view.” Owen turned around to talk to Ritchie. “It’s not as old or as large as National Zoo in Washington, but it does have some animals you won’t find in DC.” Owen glanced at CJ for a moment. “Your brother and I went online and arranged admission to Taronga’s Wild Australia Experience. You’ll―”
“You did?” Liz sounded both surprised and excited. “That’s really expensive, isn’t it?”
“Don’t worry about it, Liz.” CJ reached over and took Owen’s hand in his. “Consider it a Christmas present from us. Anyway, it wasn’t that much more than the cost of admission to the zoo and that’s included in the tickets we bought.”
“You know something, CJ?” Spencer’s smirk made CJ nervous when he looked in the mirror. “If you spoil my brother like this all the time, no wonder he wants to stay in Washington!”
Owen shook his head and flashed his brother the finger. “Ritchie, the zoo’s on the north bank of Sydney Harbour. It’s across from the Opera House, a little closer to the bay’s entrance. Part of the package includes rides on the cable car so you’ll get a great view.”
“And we’ll get to see kangaroos and koalas?”
“Yep. And platypuses! These tours are small, just eight people at a time. We get our own specialized tour guide. We’ll be able to take pictures in the koala enclosure. And we get a souvenir too.”
“Sick! I can’t wait!”
The zoo closed at five and the quintet of friends walked out the doors at a few minutes past the hour. They had such a great time, even the more reserved Spencer could not stop talking about the experience on the way to the hotel. Since he was the most familiar one with Sydney traffic and the area surrounding the Central Business District, he was now in the driver’s seat.
“Welcome back, Mr. Abelló. It’s good to have you staying with us again.”
Ritchie gawked at his brother in shock. “They know you here too?”
While Owen burst out laughing, the middle-aged man at the reception desk gave the young man a benevolent smile. “Based on the resemblance, I’m going to guess you two are related. Is he your brother?”
“I’ve not met him before, but we keep records on our guests.” The man glanced at the monitor embedded on the desk. “Your brother has stayed with us twice before and we value returning visitors. However, we may have a problem here. There’s five of you but we only seem to have reservations for three. One double room and a single.”
CJ glanced at the nametag on the man’s vest before replying. “The reservations are correct, Grant. They should be for Richard Peterson, Owen Liston, and myself. Owen and I will be sharing the larger room.”
“It’s okay, mate. I live in Sydney. My sister and I are staying at my place.” Spencer draped his arm around Liz and pulled her close. “We’ll be fine all alone by ourselves, Liz. I offered them my flatmate’s room and the couch but these damn Americans are all snobs. They fancy their plush hotels.” The comment earned him simultaneous, discreet one finger salutes from CJ and Owen.
After registering and dropping off luggage in the rooms, they headed out to dinner at a café on Bondi Beach. It was past midnight when Spencer dropped off the visitors at the hotel. He and Liz returned early the next morning and joined the other three for breakfast before embarking on the day’s adventure.
“What’s the big smile for, mate?”
CJ turned around, lifted his sunglasses, and rested his elbows on the ferry’s railing. He glanced upwards at the receding view of the Harbour Bridge before fixing his gaze on Owen. “Thinking about three years ago and riding the ferry to Manly. We’d just met and the last thing I’d have imagined was this. Three trips to Australia in such a short time. Two of them without the rents, and this one acting as the adult for my kid brother.” CJ raked his eyes up and down Owen’s body and his smile grew. “And having a hunky, Aussie surfer boy as my boyfriend.”
“Yeah, well, took you bloody long enough. I was about to give up on you. If you hadn’t come to your senses when you did, I’m not sure what would have happened.”
“I call bullshit! You would have waited some more if my cousins hadn’t forced me to realize what I had and was in danger of losing. You were a goner from the moment we met.”
“You’re such a wanker. A bloody, conceited wanker.”
Had CJ not known better, he would have sworn his brother was high on something. Ritchie’s excitement about getting on a board and riding waves was fun to watch. The kid bounced all over the place from the moment they docked at Manly Wharf. His energy did not falter as they strolled down The Corso―a pedestrian mall lined with popular surf shops, pubs, cafes, galleries, and street entertainment―towards the Pacific Ocean.
Owen led the way to the same rental shop they visited when CJ first traveled to Australia. The Liston siblings brought their own boards and wet suits but CJ and Ritchie needed to rent. Once properly outfitted, they strolled across the street to the beach, ready to hit the waves. Owen volunteered to stick with Ritchie until the boy was able to get up on his own.
“Hey, daredevil! Where do you think you’re going?” CJ shouted at his brother who, board under his arm, was walking away from their group.
The kid stopped and turned around giving CJ a huge smile. “Waves are bigger towards the end, near the rocks. I want to try those.”
“I don’t think so, bro. Those look a bit too large for a rookie.”
“Awww, come on. I’ll be fine. You saw me. I haven’t fallen off in a while!”
“What? In like the last ten minutes?” Owen glanced back and forth between the brothers. “I’ll go with him. But if he breaks a bone, you get to tell César and Brett. I don’t want the dads getting pissed at me.”
There were no broken bones―Ritchie handled himself well―but there were some bumps and bruises visible as he peeled the wetsuit off when they called an end to the day. The sun was low on the horizon as they crossed the bay once again and returned to Sydney proper. CJ was more convinced than ever his brother was an adrenalin junkie; he derived pleasure out of high speed and risky situations.
The following morning Ritchie limped down the hallway with CJ and Owen trailing and chuckling. “Did you take any pain killers, bro?”
“I didn’t have any.” Ritchie glanced over his shoulder at his brother. “Do you guys?”
“Yeah, go on down with Ozzie. I’ll get them for you. I’ll repeat the same thing Papa told me the first time I went surfing. ‘You used muscles in a way you’re not accustomed to. No pain, no gain, but no whining allowed.’ You better start walking right; you have almost 1,500 steps to climb this morning.”
Having experienced the Harbour Bridge Climb in the middle of the day already, CJ suggested getting tickets for the early morning one this time around. Owen shut down the idea. He stated there was, “No bloody way I’m waking up in darkness to watch the aurora from the bloody bridge. No matter how pretty it may be.”
The group of twelve climbers stood atop the highest bridge trusses while their guide took pictures with the Opera House in the background. While waiting their turn to be photographed, Ritchie pointed at the ground below. “What are those things down there?”
“Rabbits. There’s a feral colony living down in the park.” Spencer pointed at a small group of the animals a bit further away. “They keep trying to get rid of them, but the bloody critters keep breeding like rabbits.”
“Funny, Spencer. NOT! Why would they wanna get rid of them anyway? I think they’re cute.”
“Yeah, see, they may look cute and fluffy, but they cause serious problems. Rabbits are considered a pest in Australia. They threaten native species, they undermine foundations, and unlike in rural areas, where breeding tends to be restricted to spring, the wet Sydney area lets them go at it year round. Rabbits cause the greatest loss in economic terms of any pest species. I read it costs the country over 200 million dollars a year.”
Following the almost four hour experience, they stopped for lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant by the wharf and then headed to the Opera House. As they departed the world-famous structure, Ritchie admitted he had enjoyed it. “That was fun to learn about such a well-known building, but I can’t figure out why you made such a big deal out of it, CJ. Sure, it was cool, but it’s still just a building.”
“Heresy! Just a building? That’s profanity, bro.”
On the way back to the hotel, Ritchie stopped to stare into the window of a shop touting authentic Australian gifts. “CJ, can I buy a couple of presents? I wanna get gifts for Aba and Abuela. And, I want one of those hats for myself. Maybe a boomerang for Fadi. I promised to take him back something.”
Liz was quick to offer her assistance. “I’ll go with you, Ritchie. I’ve met your grandmothers so I can help you.”
“Do you need money?” CJ was already reaching into his pocket.
“I have like fifty dollars on me…”
“Mate, the hat alone I’m certain will cost more than that. Good felt fedoras are expensive.” Owen was pointing at the one Ritchie had indicated.
CJ used his American Express most of the time but also carried a bankcard in case an establishment did not accept Amex. “Here, Ritchie, use my credit card. How about you and Liz meet us at the pub next to the hotel when you’re done?”
“Ohhh, okay. How much can I spend?”
“Whatever you want, bro. If you go over the credit limit, you’re on your own.”
Walking away, Spencer clamped a hand on CJ’s shoulder. “Mate, you’re crazy. You gave a credit card to your brother, told him he could max it out, and left him to go shopping with my sister? I thought you knew Liz better than that. What’s your limit on it anyway? How much damage can they do?”
“I don’t know. I almost never use it. I think it’s ten grand.”
Spencer’s shocked expression had CJ and Owen chuckling. Owen tapped his brother’s chin with a finger. “Close your mouth, Spence. You’re gonna start catching bugs. And stop looking so surprised. Weren’t you the one who told me I was lucky to have a rich boyfriend?”
“Fuck you, Owen! Hey, CJ, can I borrow one of your credit cards? I think I want to do a little shopping myself.”
“Asshole!” CJ threw a soft punch at Spencer but the guy moved out of the way before the fist could connect. “Ritchie’s a good kid. He won’t go crazy. But how much you wanna bet he buys something for Lucy?”
Spencer held the pub’s door for CJ and Owen. “Is that his girlfriend?”
“I don’t think it’s anything official. Lucy’s my best friend’s sister. She and Ritchie are about the same age. And I know they talk all the time.”
“We know they’ve had at least one make-out session. The two of them disappeared for a while during CJ’s high school graduation party. There was a lot of smeared lipstick on both of them when they resurfaced. That boy’s gonna be hell on wheels, wilder than CJ.”
Discussing their plans for the next day over beers, they decided Spencer and Liz would come over in the morning, bring clothes with them, and spend the entire day in The Rocks area. Street closures in advance of the New Year’s celebrations and fireworks display would strangle traffic in the CBD.
Since it was their last full day in Sydney, CJ wanted Ritchie to see as much as possible of Australia’s largest city. Wearing shorts and t-shirts, they strolled by Circular Quay―where they had boarded the ferry to Manly―heading towards Mrs. Macquarie’s Point at the northern edge of the Royal Botanic Garden. The view of Sydney Harbour was unparalleled in CJ’s opinion and he made certain they took plenty of pictures.
Turning south, their next destination was the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. Built in the early nineteenth century by convict labor to house male inmates, the visit allowed the Australians in the group to give Ritchie a brief history of Australia’s establishment by the English as a penal colony.
Near the southern edge of the park, the ANZAC memorial brought a more somber mood. Once again, as he had done with CJ, Owen took the time to explain its history and significance to Ritchie who listened in silence. CJ saw his brother bow his head, close his eyes, and move his lips without uttering a sound. He wrapped an arm around Ritchie’s waist and pulled his brother close. “You okay, bro?”
The boy used a fist to wipe at his eyes before responding. “Yeah… I’m… I’m fine. I was thinking about my dad. It was two years ago he and mom died. I still miss them, CJ.”
“I know, bro. I know.” CJ turned his brother around and wrapped him in his arms giving him a fierce hug. “And you’re going to miss them for the rest of your life. The pain will get smaller with time, but I don’t think it’ll ever go away. Dude, they were your parents. It’s okay to feel sad.” Ritchie was now sobbing against his brother’s chest. “But you’re alive. And the best you can do is honor them by becoming the man they would have wanted you to grow up to be. You have the dads, Ozzie, and me in your corner. We’ll always have your six.”
Looking behind them, CJ motioned for Owen, Spencer, and Liz to join them; the three had stopped and kept some distance away when CJ and Ritchie come to a halt. CJ gave them a wink and a smile. “How about lunch? What about that Thai restaurant we ate at before, Ozzie? You know, the one on the gay street.”
“That sounds good. Come on, Oxford Street’s a block or so away. We can stop at the bottle shop next to it and get a bottle of wine or two.”
“Yeah! I want to get some champagne for tonight too.” It was then CJ decided to disobey his fathers. It was not Liston Winery and neither Ozzie’s nor JP’s parents were with them, but he was going to get his little brother drunk. Then he would pour him into bed even if he had to carry him upstairs to the room by himself. A long nap before the evening’s festivities would do his brother good.
Spectators gasped and cheered throughout the nine o’clock lights and fireworks display. Although drinking was not permitted on the streets, CJ, Owen, and Spencer all carried water bottles filled with something stronger than water. Ritchie turned down the offer for a sip. “I’ll have champagne at midnight but not now. Had enough with lunch. I don’t like the headache.”
“Just wait ’til you get to uni, mate.” Spencer had been hitting his bottle and one could tell he was in a festive mood. “You’ll learn a hangover’s a small price to pay for a fun night out.”
“Hey! Stop trying to corrupt my brother. That’s my job.” Ritchie’s grin gladdened CJ’s heart. “You guys realize I’ve been living in Washington for a while but I’ve yet to spend a New Year’s Eve there? Twice in Sydney, once in Miami, and once in Vail. We’re staying in DC this coming year.” CJ took a sip from his bottle and then used it to point at Liz and Spencer. "The two of you can fly over and spend it with us.”
They partied on the streets for a while after the pyrotechnics display was over. The cacophony of music, the street performers, and the hugs and wishes from strangers for a happy new year made for a festive mood. As the clock ticked closer to midnight, they walked back to the hotel and made their way to the rooftop. The water bottles were traded for chilled champagne; they did not bother with glasses, instead passing the bottles around.
At midnight, there was a group hug before leaning over the parapet to watch the celebration below and the exploding shells above. CJ stood behind Ritchie, his hands resting on the boy’s shoulders. “How you doing, bro?”
“I’m okay, I guess. But no matter how much fun I have, New Year’s Eve’s always gonna make me think of Mom and Dad. Guess I better get used to it.”
CJ wrapped his arms around his brother and kissed the top of his head. “It gets better, bro. Trust me on this. It gets better.”
Thank you, Mann Ramblings, Kitt, and Reader 1810 for your hard work.
This story would not be possible without your assistance.
A special shout-out to @Bucket1 for his help with my Oztrayan.