I had no business getting all dolled up for Ryan. I was supposed to be focused on Cal, but somehow he became just some guy in the background, out of focus and unimportant in my life. I thought I heard Beth screaming from a far off place, asking me what the hell I was doing, but I ignored her. She couldn’t control my life. I’d get to Cal when I got to him. She had to understand that.
I studied myself in the full-length mirror. I’d never looked prettier for work. I thought I looked like a Barbie doll, my hair pulled up high on my head in a ponytail, locks curled and tumbling in flirty waves from the elastic band. I pumped up the eye factor with heavy mascara. I wanted to go for an Edie Sedgwick look—all ‘60s glam. I even ironed my uniform, a typical diner waitress outfit. Blue shirtdress that hit just above my knees. I slipped on my Keds and grabbed my apron.
I planned to knock his socks off.
. . . I approached him after counting to twenty. I didn’t want to seem too eager.
“Hi,” I said. I felt bright and bubbly and on top of the world.
I placed my hand on my hip and popped it out. “Come here often?” I couldn’t resist.
“Once. The waitress was cute, but she’s got nothing on you,” Ryan said.
Damn right she doesn’t. I went Edie Sedgwick for you, buddy.
“God, you look gorgeous,” he said.
Oh, those heart flutters. I wanted to feel those heart flutters forever.
“I’m in an ugly uniform,” I said, looking down at my outfit. I smoothed my apron on my stomach.
“Not ugly at all. Sexy more like.”
I blushed, and this time he saw. I couldn’t conceal it under the glare of the restaurant lights.
“Hungry?” I asked, and pulled out my order pad.
“What would you recommend?”
“Honestly? I’ve only eaten the turkey sandwich. It was all right,” I confessed.
“Don’t you get to eat for free?” Ryan asked.
“Are you kidding? A little bit of a discount, sure, but nothing for free,” I said. “And anyway, I’m so tired after work, I don’t want to stick around and eat. I want to go home.”
“I can understand that,” he said. He looked over the menu. “Well, I guess I’ll try this steak sandwich.”
“A man who eats manly meat,” I said. “I like it.”
“Manly meat, huh?” he asked, chuckling.
“Sure. Didn’t you know steak was the manliest of meats?”
“Making a note of it,” Ryan said.
I nodded. “And to drink?”
“A Cherry Coke,” he said.
“Now that’s a little girly, but I’ll let it slide.”
“Well, I really ordered it for you,” Ryan said. “See, I thought you could bring it over here along with two straws. You could sit across from me, and we could drink it together.”
Ryan closed Brooke’s front door softly and walked towards the street. He turned in the direction of his house, then changed his mind, walking the opposite way towards a community park. It was dusk, and he knew the park would be empty. He wanted, needed
, the solitude to lash out.
He picked up speed, deciding it was wiser to run. He felt the tears welling and wanted to be safely hidden before they poured forth. He was out of breath when he made it to the playground, and crawled under a bridge that made up part of a play castle. And then he lost it, burying his face in his hands, crying shamelessly and angrily.
“Fuck!” he screamed into the purple air. The sun was nearly hidden, casting about the striking shades of a picture he had just painted with Brooke. He didn’t want to see the colors. They looked like her. They felt like her. They smelled like her. They screamed at him. Told him he was a charlatan, that he didn’t deserve her and never would.
He threw his head back, staring at the underside of the bridge and shouted, “What the fuck am I supposed to do?!”
“What am I supposed to tell her?!”
“God, please,” he pleaded, pounding the ground on either side of him.
He pulled his knees up to his chest and hung his head, crying as hard as he did the night he was fourteen years old and went home instead of to the police station. He cried for Lucy and Brooke and all the other girls who were victims because he was a coward. He didn’t know how to make it right. He didn’t know how to face Brooke tomorrow.
He held it together tonight while she detailed her attack. He wanted to be strong for her. It was nearly impossible when all he wanted was to break down just like her, cry and scream his anger just as she’d done. But he knew he couldn’t. It wouldn’t be right. Wouldn’t be fair. She needed someone strong, someone to cry on, and so he would be strong for her.
He closed his eyes, seeing Brooke’s face change to Lucy’s. Seeing Lucy’s face change to some girl he didn’t know. And her face change to another girl he didn’t know. They lined themselves up in his brain, standing there staring at him, waiting patiently for him to make the decision. To do the right thing. It would take him a week, but he would go. He would find the strength to go.
“Hi?” Lucy said, confused.
“I know who you are,” she said, her mouth turning up in a sad smile. “You’re dating Brooke.”
He nodded. “May I come in?”
“Uh, sure,” Lucy replied. She moved aside to allow him in, watching him suspiciously as he walked into the living room. “How’s Brooke?”
“Scared. Angry.” Ryan stood in the middle of the room unsure of what to do.
Lucy nodded and made her way to the couch, inviting him to join her. They sat in an awkward silence for a few moments while Ryan tried to formulate his thoughts, his reason for visiting.
“I just . . . I just want you to beat the shit out of me, okay?”
“For what I’m about to tell you. Just hit me as hard as you want.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
Ryan was quiet, rubbing his face. Lucy grew frightened immediately.
“Did something else happen to Brooke?”
Ryan looked at her confused. “Huh? What? No no. She’s okay. I mean, she’s still shaken, but she’s okay. I mean she’s safe. She’s not okay. She’s safe.”
“Then what was that comment all about?” Lucy asked. She felt the inevitable tears, the ones she’d been crying all week for Brooke.
“Lucy . . .” Ryan’s voice trailed off.
“Tell me why are want me to beat the shit out of you!” Lucy demanded.
“I was there that night. I saw you. On that bed. I tried to stop it. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I thought I was going to a drinking party. That’s what they told me. I tried to stop them, Lucy, but I couldn’t.” And then the tears poured forth anew, running unabashedly down his cheeks. He didn’t wipe them away. He wanted her to see them, to believe them, because they were true.
Lucy sat stunned, staring at him.
“I didn’t know about that sex league, Lucy. I wasn’t part of it. I don’t know if they brought me to that motel room to initiate me or something, but I freaked out. I fought them, but they beat the shit out of me.” He looked up at her, a wild expression on his face. “Hit me, Lucy.”
“I want you to! Please, just beat the shit out of me!”
Lucy thought he’d gone crazy. She hopped up from the couch and backed away.
“That’s it. I’m a monster. But don’t back away from me. Hit me instead. Don’t be afraid,” he said, standing up.
Lucy took another step back.
“Stop backing away from me!” he shouted. “Fucking stand up for yourself!”
Something snapped in her brain at the sound of those words: “Stand up for yourself.” And then she came at him, her fists flailing. She pounded his chest, slapped his face repeatedly, punched his stomach until he doubled over.
“Why?!” she screamed, smacking the side of his head as he stood, bent over, not resisting or trying to protect himself. “Why did you let them do that to me?!”
She pounded his body. She wouldn’t let up. Her tears seemed to fuel her rage, and she struck him with all the strength her 100-pound body could muster.
“They were too strong,” Ryan gasped, feeling her tiny fists all over him.
And then her fists were gone. Just like that. He turned his face to look at her, unsure if it was safe or possible to stand up again.
“I tried,” he replied. “I got a few swings in before I blacked out.”
“They beat me unconscious,” he replied, standing up.
Lucy’s mouth dropped open.
“It’s no excuse, Lucy. But when I came to, they told me they’d kill me if I talked. I was scared. Young and scared. But it’s no excuse.”
They stared at one another for a while. Ryan was determined to hold her gaze, knowing this was part of the punishment he deserved—staring at the victim he couldn’t help. He felt the same weakness now as he did that night in the motel room.
“I’m sorry they did that to you,” Lucy said, and then she walked towards him and wrapped her arms around his sore waist.
He stood frozen, unable to comprehend the turn of events. She should be crying and screaming at him, not hugging him. He didn’t know where to put his arms. He wanted to engulf her in them, allow himself the allusion of protecting her, but he was afraid.
“It’s okay,” she whispered into his chest, and then he wrapped his arms around her, holding her hard to him—perhaps too hard—but she didn’t resist. She just cried. And he cried.
Hours later Lucy had learned everything. Everything Ryan could remember. They sat on the couch while he detailed his depression, the strained relationship that developed between himself and his parents, and his loneliness at school.
“Well, if I would have known you were so lonely, I would have talked to you. We could have been lonely together,” Lucy offered. She grinned and chuckled. Ryan stared at his lap. “Ryan?”
“It was supposed to be funny.”
“I heard the rumors Cal started about you,” Ryan said.
“Yeah? I heard the shit he said about you, too.”
“I should have talked to you.”
“Me too. Nobody should ever feel alone in high school.”
“We can be friends now,” Lucy suggested, and he smiled.
“I want to go to the police. I want to tell them what I saw.”
“But Ryan, you really didn’t see anything,” Lucy said.
“It doesn’t matter. I know what happened to you. I know what they were planning to do to you. And I want to tell the police.”
Lucy sat silent for a moment. Ryan fidgeted with his fingers.
“They’ll want me to give a statement,” she said.
“Lucy, you just beat the hell out of me. Are you really afraid anymore?” Ryan asked. He looked at her and smiled. She grinned.
“Well, perhaps not. But you didn’t see much that night. I don’t remember anything, really. What are the chances those boys will be found guilty for anything?”
“It doesn’t matter. It happened to you. And that’s what we say. Because it’s the truth.”
Lucy nodded. She thought better than to bring it up, but she couldn’t keep the secret any longer. “Ryan?”
“Did Brooke ever tell you why she was hanging out with Cal?”
Lucy shifted in her seat. “Cal raped Beth. Her best friend. Did she ever tell you about Beth?”
Ryan looked shocked. “I went to Beth’s funeral, and yes, I knew she was Brooke’s best friend, but I never knew why she committed suicide.”
Lucy took a deep breath. “I have no business telling you this, but I think you should know. And I’m not telling you this to make you feel worse than you already do, but Brooke’s your girlfriend and she should have been honest with you. Honest with someone
about her fucked-up plan.”
“What are you talking about?” Ryan felt the warning flutters in his heart. For a split second he thought he didn’t want to learn what Lucy insisted on telling him.
“Brooke cheated with Beth’s boyfriend. She carried around a lot of guilt over it, especially after Beth took her life. She thought the only way to find forgiveness was to set herself up as a rape victim in order to get Cal behind bars. It was crazy and stupid, and she eventually abandoned the plan. I think you had a lot to do with that.”
Ryan stared off into the corner of the room. He couldn’t process the things Lucy was saying.
“It’s like she finally came to her senses. But then—” Lucy took a deep breath. She didn’t want to cry anymore, but she couldn’t stop herself. “—Why did she take that drink?!”
“How can someone be savvy and stupid at the same time?!”
“I’m so angry at her, and it’s not her fault. But I’m angry, Ryan!”
“I hate those boys!” Lucy cried. “I want to kill them. I’ve never felt it before—the urge to kill someone. But I want to. If they were here, I’d kill them with these hands!” She turned her palms up and showed Ryan. He took her hands in his.
“I’d rather you not go to prison, too,” he said, trying for lightness. It worked, and she smiled. “But we can make them pay. We can go to the police. Tell them the truth.”
“I want you to go. I do,” Lucy said. “But will you just give me some time?”
“Yes.” Ryan squeezed her hands and let go.
“Should I not have said anything about Brooke’s secrets? It really wasn’t mine to tell.”
“I think you were trying to do the right thing.”
“Are you angry that she didn’t talk with you about Beth?”
“No. I can’t be angry with her for keeping secrets when I did the same.”
Ryan didn’t voice it aloud, but for the first time he felt like he didn’t know Brooke at all. And he knew that once he admitted his secret to her, he’d never get the chance.
“Ryan, why are you so gorgeous and strange?”
My sister told me she laughed her butt off at that part in the book—the part where Brooke gets drunk. I wanted it to be silly and lighthearted to take away from some of the heaviness in the novel. I mean, good grief. If the entire novel were like Chapter 20, who on earth would read it??
But back to gorgeous and strange Ryan. It’s official. The ladies love him, and many of you were a little mad you didn’t get more of him in the book. In my defense, I will say that Going Under was not meant to be primarily a romance. In fact, I purposely wrote the romance as a side item. This did not make for completely happy fans. You were semi-happy, but not all-the-way happy. ☺ So here’s me making it up to you. I’m giving you a little inside information on our leading man that hopefully will allow you to forgive me in some way for not featuring him on every page. xo
Full name: Ryan James Foster
Born: September 27 in Raleigh, North Carolina at WakeMed
Astrological Sign: Libra
Stats: 6’2”; 180 lbs; brown hair; blue eyes
Favorite food: Steak fajitas
Favorite music: The Smashing Pumpkins, specifically their Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness album. (His older cousin turned him on to ‘90s alternative rock.)
Favorite TV show: Game of Thrones
Activities: surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding (he’s really hot when he snowboards), swimming, making out with Brooke
Favorite book: The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Favorite movie: Snatch (Hey, what do you want me to say?)
College degree: B.S. Business Finance
Current job: Finance manager for a chain of local skateboard and skateboard supplies stores in Chapel Hill, NC
Idiotic move in college: Hosted a “hurricane party” at a friend’s place half a mile from the beach. These are popular parties during hurricane season in Wilmington, NC, and they really piss off the local authorities. No one was hurt, but a lot of college students got wasted and then naked. Ryan only got partially naked.
Biggest regret about Brooke: Not getting out of the car. He drove to NC State to see Brooke her freshmen year. He sat in the car in front of her dorm. He waited for hours and finally saw her walking towards the dorm entrance. And he wanted to go to her, but he was afraid. So he watched her swipe her key card, open the door, and disappear from view. He wouldn’t see her again for two years.
Sweetest Moment: Marrying Brooke. Simple. No fuss. A courthouse. The important people. A beautiful woman in a little white dress. Saying “I do.” And the next installment in their great big adventure.
~Broke his arm three times when he was in elementary school and middle school.
~Had braces twice: once in fourth grade and then again in seventh because he never wore his retainer.
~Played center forward in soccer until he messed up his knee.
~Pledged a fraternity in college and then quit.
~Turned down a make-out session with a girl in his freshmen composition class. Told her he was already committed to someone else.
~Became inseparable friends with Alyssa from philosophy. She was the only one who could stomach his incessant talk about Brooke.
~Wears one contact in his right eye to give him monovision (one eye sees distance and one eye reads up close).
~Does pushups every day.
~Tried vegetarianism for a week at the insistence of his friend, Charlie. Missed his steak fajitas too much to commit for life.
~Wants to give Brooke babies as soon as possible.
Okay fans. If that didn’t placate you, I will be collecting questions about Ryan during the tour that I will answer at the end. You have to email me at email@example.com to ask a question (please limit them to two), and I will post all the questions and answers by June 9. Sound good?