Authors: Ali Dean
Tags: #Romance, #Young Adult
Ryan Harding is waiting by my locke
r the next morning. “Hey Ryan, what’s up?” I greet him, wondering what he’s doing here.
“Not much. I was hoping to catch you.” He leans on the locker next to mine as I play with my combination.
“How’d you know this was my locker?”
“Oh, I was talking to Charlie this morning, and I asked him.”
I take a peek at him. His hands are shoved into his shorts pockets, a pair of worn dark khakis that are slightly frayed at the bottoms. With a light blue tee shirt that accentuates his tan, he looks good. I notice girls checking him out as they walk by.
He clears his throat. “So, are you going to the party tomorrow night?”
School started on a Thursday this year, so the weekend has already arrived. “No, I don’t really party.” He must not have gotten the memo about me.
“Really?” He looks genuinely surprised. “Oh.” He pauses for a beat while I close up my locker. “Do you not like them? I was kind of hoping you’d go with me.”
I smile at him. “I don’t know if I like them. I’ve never been.”
He follows along while I walk to my first class. “You should at least go to one. See what it’s all about. You know, part of the high school experience.”
I chuckle. “I’m surprised that the cross country national champ is peer-pressuring me like this. How can you stay focused if you party?” I shake my head at him. “I don’t go to the parties myself, but I hear enough about them to know that they’re not exactly in line with my training plan.”
“Yeah, I’m sure they aren’t too different from San Diego parties. But don’t you need to have a little fun in high school? I’d go crazy if all I did was think about running.”
“I’ve heard the speech about balance before, but I see what you’re saying. I do have fun.” An idea occurs to me. “Why don’t you hang out with some of us this weekend? I usually spend time with people on the cross team that you’ve already met.”
We’re standing at the door to my Spanish classroom. I glance at him, curious if he’ll find an excuse to bail. After all, my group of friends didn’t even register on the popularity totem pole, and he was already being scoped out by Lisa, who was at the top of the high school food chain.
“That would be great.” Ryan smiles and his blue eyes crinkle. Boy, he is really cute.
I’m momentarily distracted when I feel my stomach flutter. I blink quickly and look away to avoid his gaze, then rush to fill the silence. “Anyway, I wanted to take you up on that offer for a ride after practice.”
!” He seems genuinely enthusiastic about it, and opens his mouth to say something else, but the bell rings for first period and he changes tack. “See you at lunch? Which period do you have lunch today?”
“Uh, B I think?”
“Oh, I’m A. . .. so I guess practice then. See you later!” We wave at each other as I head into my classroom.
I find myself thinking about Ryan throughout the day. I’m excited to see him at practice. We have a five mile recovery run from yesterday’s workout and I’m disappointed that the boys and girls run in separate groups on our easy days. I keep sneaking peeks at Ryan while we stretch out after the run. His shirt is off, and I can see his abs contracting as he does sit-ups and push-ups. I’m having trouble concentrating on my own exercises.
“He’s really hot, huh?” Dorothy Sandoval asks. She’s doing lunges next to me, and her eyes are on Ryan.
“Yeah,” I say evasively, forcing myself to look away from him. I’m wary around Dorothy. She’s the only other senior aside from Claire on varsity this year, but she doesn’t hang out with our group. Dorothy is friends with a group that Zoe refers to as the “wannabes.” These girls go to all the parties, and do whatever it is they think they’re supposed to do to be cool, but they‘re still a step below the most popular group of seniors in the social hierarchy.
Dorothy’s never been rude to me, but her agenda is fairly transparent and not something I want to be a part of. Her attitude wouldn’t bother me if it didn’t impact the cross team. She’s got a lot of talent, but is really inconsistent in her workouts and at races. I think her main goal with running is to keep her body looking good. She doesn’t seem to care if her social agenda with boyfriends and parties interferes.
“I hear he’s been hanging out with Jace’s crowd. I hung out with him at Lisa Delany’s party last weekend. I think he was happy that someone on the cross team was there. I bet we’ll be really good friends.” Dorothy doesn’t take her eyes off of him as she chats. I can see the predatory look in her eyes as she imagines her plan unfolding. Ryan could be her “in” to the Barbie group.
“Mmmhmm,” is all I say in response.
I finish my last set of strength exercises and move towards Zoe and Claire to avoid any further conversation with Dorothy.
“What’s the plan for this weekend?” I ask them.
“It’s Friday. I thought we’d go to the first football game of the year,” Zoe replies.
“And we have our long run tomorrow. Do you guys want to meet at my house to do yoga after?” Claire offers.
As we make plans, the guys join in our conversation. “Are you running with us tomorrow, Pepper?” Charlie asks.
“No, Coach wants me doing long runs with the girls for now.” I like running with the girls’ group, but it requires me to back off from the faster pace my legs always seem to want to go. Which I guess is the point. For now, at least.
“You guys want to come over to my place on Saturday night?” Rollie asks. The Fowlers have a huge house and Rollie is an only child. It’s the best place for us to hang out at.
We make arrangements to carpool to the football game later tonight, and plan to meet at Rollie’s house late afternoon tomorrow, after we’ve done our long run and yoga at Claire’s place.
“Do we have to meet so freakin’ early?” Dorothy complains.
“Nine isn’t that early,” Zoe says. “And we’re meeting two minutes from your house. I think you can handle it.”
“Look, it’s the first football game of the season, and the party afterward is going to be raging. You guys might be going to bed at a reasonable hour but I don’t plan to. Why can’t we just go a little later?” she whines.
“Dorothy, it’s supposed to be a high of ninety-five tomorrow. Do you really want to run for an hour and a half when it gets that hot out?” I ask her.
“Besides,” Jenny pipes up, “all the big meets are in the morning, so we should at least do some of our runs early to get used to it.”
I smile at her. Good point.
“Fine.” Dorothy crosses her arms moodily. She loses the scowl quickly when she sees Ryan approach. He was talking to Coach during the weekend planning conversation.
“You shower here, right, Pepper? Do you want to meet by my car after?” Ryan asks.
I can feel Dorothy’s eyes on me.
“I usually only shower here because I’m waiting on Jace. We can leave now if you’d rather do that.”
“As long as you don’t mind a stinky car ride with me,” he counters.
“It’s your car. And we’ll stink together so it’s cool. Your windows roll down, right?” I tease.
Ryan has almost the exact same Jeep as Jace, except it’s green instead of black, and it’s an automatic instead of a standard.
“A bunch of us are going to the game tonight if you want to come,” I tell him.
“Oh yeah? I already told a couple guys I’d meet them for pizza beforehand, but maybe I’ll see you there.”
“Let me guess. You’re meeting at Lou’s?”
“That’s the place. Why? Is it good?”
“Yup. Best pizza in town. I like the deep dish crust but they’ve got thin crust too if that’s your style.” Just the thought of it makes me hungry. “Who are you meeting?”
“You know Remy Laroche and Ben Hughes?”
“Yeah, of course. I mean, we’re not friends. But I know who they are.” They’re the captains of the boys’ soccer team and two of the most popular guys in school, along with Jace and Connor, who captain the football team.
“Are you going to the party with them afterward?” I’m curious. We have a long run in the morning, and the boys are meeting even earlier than we are. How does he juggle it?
“Nah. One party a weekend is enough for me.” He grins in my direction. “I’ll check out the one happening on Saturday night. Sunday’s my sleep-in day anyway.”
“We’re getting together at Rollie’s place tomorrow. It’ll just be a few of us. He’s got a pool and a ping pong table. You should come.”
Now that I know he’s being recruited by Jace’s group, I seriously doubt he’ll hang out with us. But it can’t hurt to ask.
“That’d be cool. Here, put my number in your phone and give me a call when you’re ready to go over tomorrow. I can pick you up.”
After I put his number in my phone he asks me who’s going to be at Rollie’s.
“Most of the guys’ team, probably. Chris, Matt and Charlie, who are seniors with you. And then Rollie, obviously, and Omar, who are both juniors with me.”
“Oh yeah, I met Omar at that party at Lisa’s house the other night. Cool guy. He plays baseball with Remy and Jace in the spring, right?”
“Yup, that’s him.” Omar Hernandez is the only one in our group who doesn’t do track in the spring. It’s kind of fun having one of our own to root for at baseball games but I think we embarrass him a bit with our enthusiastic cheering. Dorothy was actually wrong about being the only one on the cross team at Lisa’s party. Omar’s got a whole other group of friends he hangs out with sometimes who are much cooler than us, and he’s not a jerk about it like she is.
“What about the girls?”
“Just me, Claire, and Zoe. The other girls who train with varsity are cool but we don’t really hang out with them too much outside practice.”
“What about Dorothy?” he asks.
“Dorothy?” I can’t hide my surprise. I totally thought she was exaggerating when she said they’d be good friends.
“Yeah, sorry if she’s your friend, but she’s, uh, a bit much,” Ryan says sheepishly.
I laugh. “No worries. I’m not really friends with her so you don’t have to feel bad. I’m sure she’ll be at that party you were going to go to.”
Ryan scratches the back of his head. “Sorry. It’s just, she kind of made a pass at me the other night at Lisa’s party. I don’t think she’s gotten the hint that I’m not interested like that. It’s sort of awkward.”
I can’t help laughing again. I can definitely picture Dorothy throwing herself at him. “Lucky you. I don’t think she’s going to give up easily.”
Ryan is easy to talk to and the drive home flies by. There’s no doubt Dorothy will have competition from other girls seeking his attention. Maybe even me.
Ryan fits in great with my group of friends, but he also manages somehow to establish himself as one of the most popular guys in school. We had a ton of fun hanging out on Saturday night, and he’s quickly become a good friend.
The following Saturday is the first cross meet of the year, and I’m not racing. Ryan isn’t either, which makes it a little easier, but it still feels strange. I show up at the meet to warm up with the team, just like I would for any race, but I don’t have a number pinned to my jersey, and I don’t toe the starting line with everyone else.
Ryan and I jog next to the course together after the race starts.
“Did your coach back in California take you out of the early season meets like this?” I ask.
“Yeah, after my freshman year. As soon as I had an extended championship season.”
The race today isn’t an important one, but I can still sense the familiar nervous energy buzzing through the runners and the cheering crowds. “I feel better knowing you’re following the same training plan, but it still seems weird to me,” I confess.
“I know. I love racing. But you really can’t expect your body to hold up through Nationals if you start racing now. You don’t want to make it all the way to Nationals, and then find your legs totally trashed because you took out the beginning of the season too hard.” He slaps his hands lightly onto his quads. “I did that sophomore year.”
“I thought you said your coach started taking you out of early season races that year,” I ask, confused.
“He did. But I didn’t trust it, so I did extra runs and hard workouts without telling him. I just barely made it to Nationals, and then I got third to last place. I also gave myself stress fractures and had to sit out the track season.”
I make a face. Stress fractures suck. “And then the next year you came back and won Nationals. You learned your lesson, I take it?”
“Yeah, that’s probably why it’s a lot easier for me to sit out this time around.” He shrugs. “I’ve done it, and it worked.”
If I’m honest with myself, I might have a little crush on Ryan. I hope I do. He’d be the perfect guy for me to get past Jace. Ryan’s adorable, and sweet, and he’s been giving me great advice about training and racing. It seems like he could be interested in me in a more-than-friends way, but Dorothy keeps saying that Lisa Delany is gunning for him, and I can’t compete with that.
“Do you have any plans for tonight?” he asks. We stop to stretch out near the finish line, where we can cheer for our teammates when they pass in a few minutes.
“No plans. I’ll probably just watch a movie or something. You?”
“Remy’s having a party.
You should come. I can pick you up.”
“Are the parties that much fun? All I hear about are the hook-ups, the drugs, the drinking… I don’t really do any of that stuff. And I doubt I’ll know very many people.”
“You’ll know more than I will. And you don’t
to do any of that. If you don’t have fun, we can leave and watch a movie instead,” he suggests.
“Ryan, are you asking me, like, on a date?” He smiles slightly and looks down. “I’m serious. I’m asking because I don’t know how these things work. I’ve never been on a date before. Except to prom with Charlie last year. And that was more as friends.” Charlie kissed me that night. It was my first kiss, hardly more than a peck on the lips, and it had been nice. But I didn’t really want anything else, and I don’t think Charlie wanted our friendship to change either. So that was the extent of my dating experience.
“Do you want it to be a date? It can be, if you want. Or we can just go, you know, as friends, teammates, whatever.”
“We’ll just leave it at that for now. Ambiguous. But yes. I’ll go with you.” He grins at me, relief evident on his face. “But I should warn you. You’ll have to meet my Gran when you pick me up.”
Gran insists that Ryan come over for dinner before taking me to the party. When I hear the doorbell ringing I scurry to open it before she can get there.
“Hey, Ryan.” Dave came with me to the door and now he sniffs around Ryan, sizing him up. “Are you okay with dogs?” I ask, reaching down to ease Dave back.
“Yeah.” He laughs. “We have a bulldog.”
“That’s good. The guy sniffing your butt here is Dave. He likes to think he protects me and Gran from intruders but he’s harmless.”
I notice a bouquet of flowers in Ryan’s hand. He follows my eyeline and says, “Oh, I brought these for you and your Gran. You know, for making dinner. My mom made brownies for me to bring, but my little brother ate half of them, so. . .”
I laugh and smell the flowers as he hands them to me. “Thanks, I’ll grab a vase.”
Gran pokes her head into the entryway holding a spatula in her hand. She’s wearing the polka-dot apron I got her for her birthday and one of her matching sweatsuits – orange, this time. Her puppy-dog slippers squeak when she walks towards us.
“Hi there, Ryan! Oh, you brought flowers. I knew I was going to like you. I made lasagna. Do you like lasagna? You aren’t a vegetarian, are you? A lot of vegetarians these days. I don’t understand it myself. We’re carnivores. Why fight nature?”
“No, Mrs. Jones, I’m not a vegetarian,” Ryan says, and I can tell he’s holding back laughter.
“Mrs. Jones? No one calls me that, dear. It’s just Bunny. That’s been my name as long as I can recall and that’s what you’ll call me. Now come on in. Have a seat.”
I pull out the chair that Jace usually sits in and gesture for him to get comfy.
“You guys have some great names in your family,” Ryan says as he sits down. “Pepper, what’s the story behind your name?”
I sit down across from him. “Unfortunately, the only explanation is that my parents were crazy.”
“It’s true!” Gran calls from the kitchen.
“Yeah, Gran and I have no idea why they picked such a weird name. But it’s mine. And they chose it. So I like it.” I shrug and take a sip of lemonade. “Is lemonade okay? Do you want milk or soda or some water?” Jace always drinks milk. I don’t know what other boys drink.
Gran brings the lasagna into the room and places it in the center of the table. “Now, Ryan dear, I can’t give you anything to drink because you’re driving, but my baby girl here needs to have a glass of wine.”
“Gran!” I exclaim. “I don’t drink!”
“I know, sweetie, which is why you need to have a glass of wine.” She places a wine glass in front of me and starts opening a bottle.
“Gran, that makes no sense.”
“It does. This is your first party, and there will be lots of people drinking. And I think you need to warm up, and see what it’s all about while you’re in a safe place with someone who loves you.”
I bury my face in my hands and groan. If I was a blusher, I’d be scarlet. I glance up at Ryan, who is barely containing his amusement. “I’d tell you she’s not normally like this, but she is. And yes, I saw you looking at the centerpiece on our coffee table. It is indeed a bong.” I roll my eyes at him and he stifles a snort.
“Here you go, dear.” Gran pours me a large glass. “Dig in!”
Maybe if I enthusiastically fill my plate with food, Gran won’t notice that I haven’t touched the wine.
But nothing escapes Gran. She reaches over and taps the glass. “Pepper, give that wine a try. Goes great with this meal. You’ll love it.”
I roll my eyes again. “Don’t you go rollin’ them eyes at me, girl. If you don’t like it, I’ve got a whole liquor cabinet we can work with.”
I take a tentative sip. It’s a bit sour and I make a yucky face. “Nope. Don’t like it.”
“No problem!” Gran claps her hands and stands up. “It’s an acquired taste. I was kinda hoping you wouldn’t like it.” She heads over to the liquor cabinet and pulls down two shot glasses. She pours some vodka into each glass, spoons out some sugar, and then heads to the kitchen.
“Gran?” I call.
“Baby girl, you don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to do this!” She sounds like a kid on Christmas morning.
“I’m so sorry,” I say to Ryan. “But I did warn you.”
“Pepper, this is more fun than any family dinner I’ve ever been to. Your Gran’s awesome. Seriously.” He’s given up and is just grinning like an idiot now.
Gran shuffles back over to the liquor cabinet with a lemon in hand and I can’t help my adoring smile. “She kind of is, isn’t she?”
“You should take the shot with her. I’ll make sure nothing happens to you tonight. If you decide to keep drinking or anything,” he adds.
“What do you mean? What would happen to me?”
Ryan shrugs. Gran carries the two shot glasses over to the table. She looks over at Ryan. “Do you drink, dear?”
“Not often. I won’t drink tonight, Bunny. I’ll keep an eye on Pepper. I’m driving anyway. Does she have a curfew?”
Bunny eyes him. “No, no curfew. What kind of party is this, anyway? Pepper, you’re wearing a pair of those high top Converse sneakers that your dad used to wear. Are you going to be playing basketball or something?”
“No, Gran. It’s just, I heard the party was at Remy Laroche’s house, and he lives up the mountain a ways, so I thought we might be outside hanging out.” I look at Ryan, who smiles encouragingly. “I’ve never been to one of these things, but I hear sometimes there are bonfires and stuff, and I need some shoes on so I’m not tramping around in the woods with sandals or heels or something.”
“Heels?” Gran scoffs. “Baby girl, you don’t own any heels.”
I shrug. “I know. I’m just saying, if I did.”
“I suppose this is dressed up for you,” Gran concedes. She gestures to me and looks at Ryan. “She looks nice, don’t you think?” I’m wearing a cutoff jean skirt, and a button-down plaid cowboy-style shirt that I got at a thrift store.
“She always looks great, Bunny,” Ryan assures her. “And especially beautiful tonight.” He grins at me.
I narrow my eyes at him. “Okay! Shots?” I pick mine up and look at Gran. Her eyes twinkle. We clink glasses and I throw mine back, like I’ve seen on TV. I’m surprised when it’s sweet, and I barely taste the alcohol. It’s like lemonade.
“That was actually pretty yummy, Gran!” I exclaim.
“Yup. Now, just cause you can’t taste it real strong and it’s yummy, don’t mean you should keep on drinking. One of those will make you feel good, but more than that and you’ll start to get drunk. So no more lemon drops for you tonight.”
We finish up dinner and Gran hugs us good-bye. Ryan tries to insist on doing the dishes, but we’re shooed out the door.
We wind halfway up Mt. Lincoln before we see the cars parked along the road and hear the music coming from Remy’s house. My palms are sweaty and my knee won’t stop bouncing. I’m glad Gran gave me that shot. I’m a wreck as it is and I think I’d be freaking out even more without it. Ryan opens my door and I realize I’m still sitting in the passenger seat, twisting my hands. I’m grateful when he takes one and holds it as we walk towards the music. His hand is warm and firm.
If I’m honest with myself, I’m not just nervous about the party, or how people will react to me being here. I’m nervous because I know Jace will be here, and I don’t know how he will react. Ryan squeezes my hand and I smile at him.
Remy and Ben are standing outside smoking cigarettes. They’re the captains of the soccer team, and I’m surprised to see them smoking. But I try to pretend like I’m not. “Hey, guys.” I wave at them stupidly.
Remy puts out his cigarette and walks towards me. “Pepper? What are you doing here? Is everything okay?” He looks concerned.