After going over a new song with Lara in the morning and grabbing an early lunch at the mall, Ryan made her way over to Crystal City to pick up a Zipcar. Working with Lara had kept her from dwelling on the party, but riding out to Chantilly in the little compact, she couldn't avoid it. It's really sad when you think about faking sick to miss your own brother's birthday party.
She popped in a CD and tried not to think about it.
Other people would be there, she reminded herself. Other relatives, probably even some friends from the neighborhood. With luck, her parents would be too busy hosting the party and talking to people to give her any grief. The one thing she did not need was to be reminded, in front of people, of how her parents thought she was wasting her time, her life, "playing" with the band. You're not even there yet. Don't get worked up over things that haven't happened,
she chided herself. She took a deep breath and advanced the CD until she found a song by Muse and calmed down.
She found a spot in front of the neighbor's house and parked by the curb. Gathering her bag and gift for Evan—she'd found a graphic novel she knew he'd been looking for—she walked up to the house. It was a nice house, a two-story colonial. There was a basketball net in the driveway, and she remembered watching her brothers shoot hoops with their dad.
Ryan knew the air hockey and ping pong tables were still in the finished basement and assumed there'd be a pile of people lined up to play. Her dad never missed a chance to organize a game, tournament or competition if he could. She grimaced, remembering her fifteenth birthday and the way her father had insisted everyone gather outside for an obstacle course race. It might have gone over better had the party not been attended by a dozen teenage girls who were more interested in talking about boys, movies and music. She walked up the front steps and knocked before going in.
"Ryan! You're here!" Her mother was the first person to spy her.
"Of course I am. I wouldn't miss Evan's birthday." Ryan gave her mom a hug and pat on the back. "I even have a gift. Where should I put it?"
"Just over here." Judy Bancroft led her daughter over to a table in the corner of the living room. "Oh, it's so good to see you off your crutches." She squeezed Ryan's arm.
"Good to be off them. So where's the birthday boy?" A roar rose up from the basement and she gave her mother a wry grin. "Guess I'll go say hello."
Before she went to the basement, Ryan traded greetings with friends and family, then decided to maneuver into the kitchen for a drink. She tensed up when she saw her father.
"Ryan." He nodded. "How are you?"
"Good, thanks." Ryan tried to ignore the awkward feeling she had whenever she talked to her father. Most people got at least a clap on the shoulder from James Thomas Bancroft, Sr.; she got a nod. With a deep breath, she rummaged in a large cooler for a soda. "So, um . . . how's work?"
He shrugged and reached for a beer. "Not too bad."
"Great." The usual strained silence fell between them. "So . . . did Mom tell you about our gig at the 9:30 Club? We're pretty excited." Ryan didn't know why she even said it. Even if her mother had said something, she doubted her father would have listened. Or cared.
He grunted a noncommittal noise and popped open his beer. Before either could say anything else, someone yelled for James to come down to the basement.
"Looks like they can't start without me." He nodded again and left.
Ryan leaned against the counter. She'd never had the best relationship with her father, and it hadn't improved when she'd not only rejected sports but focused on music as her career choice. She hadn't been far off, she thought, when she'd told Lara that not having a son as his first child had almost broken her father's heart.
Ryan pulled out of her thoughts and managed to smile at her brother. "Hey, JT. How's it going? Surprised you made it home."
JT clapped her shoulder and she gave his hand an awkward pat. JT was three years younger than she was, but had been taller than she since he was twelve. He had taken after their father the way she'd taken after their mother in looks. He had their dad's brown hair, brown eyes and squared-off jaw.
JT had been a star football player in high school, as had their father, and he'd opted to go to UMD, their father's alma mater. He'd likewise been unimpressed with Ryan's musical aspirations, although too focused on his own life to give her much grief about it.
After working out and playing football for years, he looked older than he was; she thought he could easily pass for twenty-five. She wondered if he got carded when he went out.
"Come on, Ryan, I couldn't miss Evan's eighteenth birthday." JT rummaged through the cooler for a soda.
"Yeah, me neither."
"Besides, it's a lot easier now that I've got the car."
Ryan nodded and sipped at her soda, forcing herself to think on a reply. The car had been JT's twentieth birthday present the previous June; her twentieth birthday present had been a gift card. She shook her head. "Well, it's great you could come. I know Mom and Dad like having you around. God knows why." Ryan laughed as he narrowed his eyes at her. "How's school?"
"Excellent." JT took a swig of his drink. "We've got that new guy, Dunston, from Philly. He's supposed to be one of the best receivers out there, and so far it's all true. With Barski at quarterback, and Dunston to receive, we should run the conference. I'm still undecided about the draft, though. Dad thinks I should, and my agent says I should easy go in the first or second round, but you know. You have to look at all the options."
Sports, sports, and more sports, thought Ryan. "Well, good luck with all that."
"Thanks, Ry." Another roar sounded, this time from the den, and JT took off.
Ryan wandered back out to the crowd and looked for Evan. She didn't see him in the living room or den, and decided to brave the basement. She looked around and found Evan off to the side, shouting encouragement to their father, who was facing off for some ping pong against a man she didn't recognize.
She poked him in the side. "Hi, Evan."
"Ryan!" He looked down—Ryan thought wryly how her brothers made her feel about three feet tall—and grinned. Like Ryan, he had their mother's auburn hair and green eyes. He was taller than JT by a couple of inches, and when he'd gotten into sports, no one had been surprised when he had been drawn to basketball.
"Happy birthday, squirt." She put one arm around him and squeezed.
Evan scoffed but returned the hug. "I've been taller than you since I was, like, ten or eleven."
"I know, but I'm still the big sister. So there."
"All right, all right." Evan shook his head in mock resignation, then smiled. "Thanks, Ryan. I'm glad you could make it. I thought you might have rehearsal or something. I ran into Trout the other day; he told me about the 9:30 Club. That's great! Congratulations."
"Thanks, Evan." Ryan was pleased. She and her youngest brother had always gotten along. Evan was the only one in the family who took her music anywhere near seriously. Any teasing was always good natured, and he usually asked to hear any new songs. It was a nice contrast to the way everyone else reacted.
"I'm aiming to be at your gig at Maryland, and I'll bring some friends, too."
"Thanks, Evan. I'd appreciate that." She gave his arm a squeeze.
"No problem. I'm not sure I can make it to the 9:30 Club, but I'll let you know. And tell me if the date changes or anything."
"Sure." They were quiet for a minute, watching the ping pong. "So," Ryan asked, "who's winning?"
"Dad." Evan raised an eyebrow. "Do you think he'd be this quiet otherwise?"
"Ah. Right." Ryan nodded. When their father was winning, he was focused; when he was losing, he would chatter to put his opponent off his game. She watched for a few minutes, then told Evan she was heading back upstairs.
"Don’t leave before the cake," he advised. "Mom got chocolate with raspberry filling. There'll be a stampede."
Ryan laughed and went back up. She found a couple of her cousins who were still in high school and caught up on what was happening with them, then her dad came up to start the grill. It was October, and the weather was cooling, but it took more than that to keep her father from grill duty.
The men gathered around the grill on the back patio and their conversation turned to the football season, real and fantasy; the just-begun hockey and basketball seasons; the end of yet another disappointing season for the Nationals; and the future of the Redskins, a year-round soap opera that provided plenty of material. The women went between the porch and the kitchen, helping Ryan's mom set things out, and their conversation was either about kids, or the effect of their husbands' sports hobbies.
Ryan debated where to go. She didn't care to step out and discuss sports with the men, and she didn't have kids, nor a boyfriend, so chatting with the women was tough as well. Her younger cousins said hi when she greeted them, but they were more interested in discussing high school problems with each other and playing their handheld video games. The ones that weren't Facebooking or tweeting. At least the burgers will be good
, she thought. She had to admit her dad was a grill master par excellence. He had honed his skills for tailgating parties.
Settling into a seat on the patio for the gresh air, she tried to relax. Pieces of conversation floated to her, and it wasn’t long before she felt herself tensing up.
"Yeah," said her father, "I think JT'll go for the draft next summer. I mean, why the hell should he wait? He's on pace to set the school record for tackles in a season. It'd be crazy for him not to enter."
"How about Evan?" someone asked.
"He'll be a starter, you watch." Her father's pride was undisguised. "Even as a freshman. They're nuts if they don't start him."
She looked up and smiled. "Hi, Uncle Pete. How are you?"
"Great. How's everything going?"
"Oh, pretty good, thanks."
"Keeping yourself busy?" Her uncle asked.
Before Ryan could answer, her father did.
"Ryan still thinks she's going to be a rock star." He flipped the burgers.
Ryan ground her teeth and felt herself flush. The derisive tone rivaled the pride with which he'd spoken of Evan and JT. She kept telling herself she was used to it, and someday, she would be.
Her father continued, "Her mother and I keep hoping she'll grow out of it and get a real job. She could do more than the drone work she's doing now." He shot a wry glance at Ryan. "Don't think JT or Evan is going to support you once they've been drafted."
Ryan struggled for something to say. "It's not like that," she managed. "We work hard."
Her father shot her a sidewise glance, his disdain evident. "If you think that's work, little girl, then your mother and I did something wrong."
Ryan excused herself through gritted teeth and went back in the house. She had to leave; her dad had pushed too far this time and she couldn't pretend in front of all these people. She made a beeline for the guest room that held the coats.
"Ryan. Hey, Ry!" Evan found her as she was grabbing her jacket. "What's up? We haven't even had the cake yet."
"I'm sorry, Ev. I was going to find you and say goodbye. Dad pissed me off. Again." She shoved her arms into the sleeves. "I know I should be used to it, just let it roll off me or whatever, but it was too much. Too far. I am fucking sick
of him making me feel like a failure because I don’t chase a goddamned ball around a field." She stopped and took a breath. "Sorry, I don't mean to take it out on you."
"It's okay." He jammed his hands in his pockets. "I'm sorry he makes you feel that way."
"Not your fault." She took another deep breath and tried to relax her shoulders. "Look, I'll just tell Mom I don’t feel well. I don't want to cause a scene and ruin your party."
"Why would you ruin the party?" JT poked his head in and Ryan groaned to herself.
"I wouldn't. That's why I'm going." Ryan grabbed her bag.
"Oh, come on. Is this about what Dad said on the porch?" JT rolled his eyes. "Jesus, Ryan, he's only being honest."
"Gee, thanks, JT." She glared at him. "When Dad insults your life choices, I'll remind you that you said that."
"Maybe if you made better choices he wouldn’t say anything. Christ, Ryan, listen to yourself. You want to be in a band? Every kid in fucking high school wants to be in a band at some point." JT made a face. "Dad knows you won't make it, so why should he pretend?"
"JT, back off." Evan's eyes darted between his siblings. "All kinds of people make it in music. Who's to say Ryan won't?"
JT scoffed and shook his head.
"Well, I guess that settles it." Ryan's voice was rough. "Happy Birthday, Evan. I'll talk to you later." She gave Evan a quick hug but said nothing to JT as she pushed past him and down the hall.
Her mother was surprised but distracted when Ryan said she was leaving and only made a token effort to convince her to stay. As she got in the car, Ryan thought that would have hurt, had she not already been so upset by her father's and brother's statements. She calmed herself down as she drove out of the development, not wanting to be distracted on the highway.
Lara was still out when she got home. Ryan was a little disappointed—she'd been looking forward to venting over ice cream—but decided that some quiet time alone to read or work on a song would do more good. Not to mention, they were out of ice cream.
Knowing she couldn't work as tense as she was, she first set iTunes going and then grabbed a drink and sat on the couch. Arcade Fire segued into Radiohead and she started to relax as she let the songs play, not thinking, just listening. When her cell phone rang, she jerked in surprise and had to orient herself.
She looked at the display, surprised to see Brody's name.
"Hey, Ryan. It's Brody. What's up?"
"Not much." She sat up on the couch. "Where are you?"
"I'm hurt. I thought you knew the schedule inside and out." He sounded so aggrieved she had to laugh.
"Sorry, Brody. Family stuff today. Did you play already? I'm sorry if I missed it."
"Nah. You've got some time. Starts at seven."
"Okay, but where are you?" Ryan looked at her watch; it was just after five.
"Yeah, well. What can I say? I'm a lucky guy. So, how was the family stuff?"
"It sucked." Ryan didn't try to downplay it.
"Ouch. Sounds like someone needs some sushi."
She had to give a small laugh at that. "Maybe. Or there's always macaroni and cheese." It occurred to her that she hadn't eaten much of anything since breakfast and had only snacked at the party.
"Ryan, don't say that. I can't be distracted worrying about you like that."
"You worry about me?" She was surprised.
"I worry about anyone who treats mac'n'cheese like it's its own food group."
"I'll have a hot dog with it," she offered.
He made a strangled noise.
"Sorry." She giggled. "I don't know. I was so mad that I ended up not eating, and I'm not hungry yet, but I'm sure I'll be hungry soon. How about I promise to eat something that doesn't come in a box?"
"I'd feel much better."
"Okay then, I'll do that. You'd better go. Don't you have warmups or something?"
"Yeah, pretty soon. I just wanted to say hi to my favorite musician."
"Thanks, Brody." Ryan smiled at the warm feeling the comment elicited. "After the day I had, that's a really nice thing to hear. If you were here, I might even let you kiss me."
Brody was silent for a moment. "You shouldn't tease me like that, Ryan."
She bit her lip as a nervous excitement shot through her, then grinned. "Oh yeah? What are you going to do about it?"
"You'll just have to wait to find out."
She wondered if she imagined his voice was a little deeper than usual. "Vague threats don't scare me, Brody."
"Who said anything about vague?" He paused and Ryan felt that same combination of nerves and anticipation. "Fine, be that way. See if I cook for you again." He paused again, then relented. "Get some healthy food and then watch the game, okay?"
"Yes, sir." She laughed. "Good luck."
"Thanks. Talk to you later."
Ryan smiled again as she slipped her phone back into her pocket. She was still tense, but the phone call had gone a long way towards helping her shake off what had happened at the party. Favorite musician, he'd said, and she shook her head as she got up and wandered to the kitchen. He'd said it for fun, but it had been nice to hear anyway.
In fact, she realized, she felt like working on some music. She glanced at her phone and saw that she still had an hour and a half before the game. She could work on something, then grab some dinner, then watch the game.
She went over to her computer to sort through her works in progress and see what grabbed her attention. The second song did. She listened to what she had so far and then moved over to the keyboard. In the middle of fiddling with that song, another melody came into her head and she decided to work on that and switched to her guitar. She paid no attention to anything else until a thud from upstairs made her look up and blink, then she checked the time.
"Oh, man. They're probably halfway through the first period." She got up, stretched, and turned on the television.
With the game in the background, she started searching through the kitchen for something to eat. Hunger came at her with a vengeance and she bought time with some juice. Nothing looked appealing and so she grabbed a take-out menu. Chinese food didn't come in boxes, exactly, she thought. Boxes were squares or rectangles; those cartons were more like trapezoids.
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