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Ripple Effect
Author: J. Bengtsson





RJ: Born Ready



The limo pulled up to the curb. Crowds gathered on all sides of the vehicle, held back by flimsy, plastic barriers and burly security guards well versed in young female hysteria.

“Marry me, RJ,” screamed one woman with brightly colored locks.

Another held up a cardboard sign reading Follow me with her handle in big block letters.

Crushed up against the barricade, a crying girl called out, “I love you, RJ.”

The funny thing about fame was you got used to it. Things that might have seemed foreign to you before, like women professing their love with their very last breath or a marriage proposal screamed through tinted windows, became so commonplace you barely registered the words. It didn’t seem that long ago that I was a nothing—a throwaway skateboard kid from Idaho with a tiny social media following and a nonexistent bank account. What happened next was what teen male dreams were made of—hand-plucked from obscurity to become one of the five members of this century’s biggest boy band, AnyDayNow.

Brought together by the spin doctor himself, manager Tucker Beckett, we were manufactured in every sense of the word. From the songs we sang to the clothes we wore to the food that passed through our digestive systems, everything we did had to be cleared through handlers. Scheduling our shits, although not required, was highly encouraged. As much as I hated the oppression, I couldn’t deny the results. Tucker had made us into exactly what he’d promised—internationally revered superstars.

For five years we performed together. Traveled together. Got stinkin’ fuckin’ rich together. And the fame? My god. It was beyond any of our wildest dreams. Me, Bodhi, Dane, Hunter, and Shawn. Goddamn, I loved those guys. None of us shared the DNA that defined a bloodline, but we were family all the same. It was that bond, one I’d never felt with my own brothers, that I missed the most after our breakup. But I didn’t miss the rest—the estrogen-fueled mobs, the micromanaging middlemen, the saccharine lyrics I was forced to sing.

AnyDayNow had inevitably run its course, and the way I saw it, we’d gotten out just in time. Here’s the problem with boy bands—they’re never meant to last. In fact, there’s a simple mathematical formula—puberty plus eight—that accurately predicts how long a boy band can thrive in the wild. Our little girl fans didn’t want us to grow old. They wanted our youthful faces and smooth skin to stay frozen in time. But there’s no aging in reverse. Inevitably, we had to grow up, get hairy, and move on.

I shook off the memories threatening to derail my big day. Today wasn’t about the band or the guys or Tucker Fuckin’ Beckett. It was about me and my new sound. I’d been working nonstop since AnyDayNow’s demise six months ago to polish my solo album, and now, finally, the day was here.

“Look at that,” Roland beamed. “They love you, RJ.”

Unimpressed, I didn’t bother looking his way. Roland Akers was my new manager—a yes-man through and through. He did whatever I said, when I said it. With Roland, there was no micromanaging. No rules. Roland said yes. Roland listened. Roland made things happen. For example, the three-song mini concert I was about to perform on the pier. Okay, look, I’ll admit to having my doubts when Roland had first proposed it to me. Sure, I knew my shit was good, but was it smart to unleash it on my teeny-bopper fans who weren’t used to this type of music? These tunes were harder, deeper, and heavier than the pop songs they knew and loved. But I also understood what Roland was saying. I needed these girls. They were the buzz required to launch my solo career.

Tucker Beckett would’ve said no. He would’ve told me that celebrating the release of my album with a concert on the pier in front of a handpicked selection of AnyDayNow superfans was too splashy, too ego-fueled. He would’ve tried to stifle my creativity. Well, fuck him. Where was Tucker Beckett now? Oh, yeah—he was dying a slow post-AnyDayNow death, while I was on the cusp of superstardom all over again… with the cowering Roland Akers by my side.

No one could say I lacked confidence. Even as a child, I’d wanted to be seen. To be heard. To be loved. And that meant I needed to excel at everything I did. There was no better way to stand out in a crowd than to be better than everyone else—or at least better than my older brothers. And so I embraced my skills, whether that meant sports or skateboarding or singing, and showed them off, earning myself more than a few enemies along the way. But what did I care? There were always more ‘friends’ waiting in the wings to skim a little off my shine.

I’d concede to being a cocky bastard—bastard being the key word here. As a matter of fact, I was the result of a ‘break’ in my parents’ marriage, or at least that was how my mother described it. My father might not fully agree. According to his recollections of my illegitimate beginnings, they had been happily married with two kids, a dog, and a cat, and floating cherubs singing love songs in the rain. Obviously, the truth lay somewhere in between.

All I knew for sure was that Mom got pregnant with me by some traveling musician who’d played a few gigs at the bar she used to frequent with friends. His name was Greg or Gary, or possibly Jack. She couldn’t remember exactly—damn those Mojitos—but she did remember having sex with him once or twice or possibly three times in the back of his van. And then, after he was long gone, Mom found herself pregnant with a busker’s baby and desperately trying to cover it up.

How did I know the gritty details of my mother’s infidelity, you ask? Because it came up every time my parents fought… like every fucking time.

How many times do I have to tell you to put the toilet seat down, Renato?

I don’t know, Heather. How many times did you fuck that musician in the back of his van?

Yeah. So, that was how I knew.

Mom hid the truth for as long as she could, the two of them preparing for my arrival just as they had for my brothers before me. But when the doctor handed me to my father in the delivery room, Dad took one look at my light skin and bright-blue eyes and handed me back, insisting he’d been given the wrong baby. But no, I’d come straight out of his wife’s birth canal and into his waiting arms. There was no mistake, buddy.

He just takes after my side of the family, Mom insisted, offering up her Irish freckles as proof. But no one in the birthing room believed her. Hell, I was minutes old, and I didn’t believe her. There wasn’t a drop of Renato’s side of the family in me. That much was easily confirmed in our first party of five photo. Ah, yes, it was a classic. My father with the look of death on his face. My mom nervously looking his way. And me, translucent, in the middle of my two older brothers. I was the human equivalent of the childhood game, ‘Which of these things just doesn’t belong?’

But Mom wasn’t willing to part with her lie so easily, even naming me after him—Renato Junior—in her continued effort to deceive. How was that for a consolation prize? Sorry I slept around but here, I’ll name him RJ after you—just so you’ll never ever forget what I’ve done. As you can imagine, nothing about my existence sat well with the man. He’d gone from a proud, expectant father of three boys to a bitter man with another mouth to feed. This was no Hallmark movie. Renato never ‘came around.’ He never accepted me as his. And we never lived happily ever after. At least, I never did.

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