"This. Sucks," Ryan muttered.
Scowling at his yellow legal pad with disgust, he ripped off the top ink-stained sheet and wadded it into a ball. Dimly, he could hear a series of spastic raps at the poolhouse door, but he ignored them, concentrating instead on sinking his latest rejected draft. It arced perfectly, but then it ricocheted off Seth's nose as he sidled inside the poolhouse, teetered on the rim of the wastebasket and tumbled to the floor.
"Hey!" Seth protested, snatching a cushion off the chair to shield his face. "I totally knocked, dude! In my patented Seth Cohen rhythm too. And you didn't say not to come in, so I assumed I was welcome. Or maybe not welcome exactly. But I figured at least I wouldn't be attacked by flying missiles when I came in, and, and . . ." He peered over the top of the pillow, his brows puckered suspiciously. "What are you doing in here anyway?"
"Writing my paper," Ryan growled. Flipping to a fresh page, he glared a challenge at the notebook propped against his knees. "For soc class. It's due tomorrow."
"Ahh, I see." With a bemused nod, Seth replaced the chair cushion and sank down on it, tenting his hands under his chin. "And you thought that writing a paper meant writing on paper? Ryan, Ryan, Ryan. That's . . . well, that's adorable, really. But may I remind you that it's 2006? And you have a computer? See, right over there--with a keyboard and spell-check and delete key and built-in thesaurus and everything. Seriously, you can do a lot with it besides just downloading porn."
Viciously, Ryan crossed out the two words he had just written. "Seth," he warned.
"Wait. Music," Seth amended with sudden apprehension. "Did I say porn? Because I meant downloading music. Not, you know, porn, since I never go to porn sites, no matter how enticing their pop-up ads might be, what with the popping and the up. And if you tell Summer I do . . ." He shuddered at the prospect. "Yeah, I'm sure you can guess, Ryan. So not mentioning my little slip of the tongue to her would be good. In fact, not mentioning tongue at all--"
"Seth! I'm working here." Ryan lobbed yet another crumbled paper ball across the room. He grunted with satisfaction when it plopped in the wastebasket.
"Working. Right. Yep, I can see that. I'm thinking you're a little short for pro basketball, but hey, a guy can dream. And that is a mean . . . whatever . . . move that you have there, man. Do you win when you fill the trashcan? 'Cause I think you're only about three shots away."
Ryan groaned, dropping his head to his knees. "Seth," he mumbled. "Could you just go?"
"I could, yes," Seth conceded. Leaning back blithely, he made himself more comfortable. "And I will. But first I have two questions and a statement."
"And you won't leave until . . .?"
"I have quested and stated, right. Okay, query one: why aren't you using your computer, dude? Nobody writes papers longhand anymore."
Shrugging, Ryan strummed the edge of his notebook with a thumbnail. "I don't know," he admitted. "I guess because I watched Sandy take notes on legal pads all day, it just seemed like I should. . ."
"Oh. Got it. This sad retreat from technology is Dad-inspired." Seth shook his head sympathetically. "Ryan, you've got to understand. Dad totally romanticizes the legal profession. He never got past The Paper Chase and that whole 'You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer' shtick—and really, including that film in your lawyer-marathon the other night? Definite overkill, buddy. Also blatant sucking-up. Anyway, just because Dad likes to envision himself as who's-it, the main character--"
"James Hart," Ryan supplied automatically.
"Right. That guy. And incidentally, the fact that you remembered his name? Proof positive that we've seen the film too often. Anyway, just because Dad's stuck in a fountain pen and legal pad era doesn't mean you have to be." Retrieving Ryan's laptop from his desk, Seth presented it to him with a flourish. "Voila! I give you . . . the writing implement of the . . . well, the now. Embrace it, man. Or at least use it. Save a tree or five."
"Uh-huh." Ryan gave the computer a dubious glance and put it aside as he picked up his notebook again.
Seth sighed dramatically. "Luddite," he scoffed. "Okay, I tried. Question two, why are you having such a hard time with this paper? I mean, beyond the fact that you're trying to handwrite it? Don't you just have to describe your day with Dad and tell what you learned from it? I'm thinking 'I listened to Sandy Cohen talk legalese and I learned that it's a mind-numbing experience,' should about cover it. Now, on the other hand, if you want to tell how a girl came to write her phone number on your palm . . ."
"I don't. Now make your statement and leave, Seth, so I can work in peace."
"Yes, but Ryan, you haven't answered question two yet. You don't have to do any research or cite sources or interpret poetry here. Why is this paper giving you problems?"
Ryan jabbed the point of his pen into the margin of his notebook. "I don't know," he admitted reluctantly. "I just . . . can't seem to figure out how to say what I want to say."
"What? Really? A wordsmith like you? The mind boggles."
Seth's defensive leap didn't prevent Ryan's pillow from hitting him smack in the face.
Scampering for the door, Seth paused just long enough to peek back and add hastily, "Statement, R.A. Mom says dinner will be here in fifteen minutes. See you inside!"
An hour later, a tentative knock roused Ryan from his glum contemplation of the scribbled notes in front of him. He was about to yell, "It's locked, Seth! Take a hint!" when Kirsten's muted voice drifted in.
"Ryan? Are you all right? You missed dinner."
Instantly, he vaulted off the bed, calling "Just a minute!" and scrambling to open the door. Kirsten stood just outside, an apologetic smile on her face and her hands balancing a loaded tray of food and a brimming glass of ice tea.
"Seth said you were doing homework and we probably shouldn't bother you, but I thought you might get hungry . . ." she explained sheepishly.
"No. That is, yeah, I was, but . . . here, let me get that. Thanks." Taking the tray, Ryan deposited it on the counter. He turned to face Kirsten with an abashed shrug. "Sorry," he said, indicating the mussed comforter and the overflowing wastebasket. "It's kind of a mess."
Kirsten chuckled softly. "Sweetie, it looks lived in, that's all. Besides, it's your room. And it's not even in the same league as Seth's. At least I can breathe in here."
"Yeah." Ryan grinned. "His room does get a little, um, ripe sometimes."
"That it does," Kirsten agreed. She glanced around, her brows arching quizzically at the evidence of frustration—several chewed pen tops, scattered, half-written sheets striped with angry black lines, a crumpled paper ball skewered by a ballpoint. "Still, this level of . . . disorder . . . is unusual for you. Rough assignment?"
Ryan chewed the inside of his cheek. "Not really," he demurred. "I mean, it shouldn't be. I just have to write a summary of the day I spent with Sandy. It doesn't even have to be long. Just done. By tomorrow."
"Oh." Inclining her head, Kirsten considered the matter. "But you're having trouble writing about it? Why? You were glad you went, weren't you?"
"Yes!" Ryan blurted. He flushed, hearing his own strident emphasis.
"I meant . . . even with the visit to Trey? Is that what's making it hard for you, Ryan? Because I'm sure you don't have to mention that at all. It has nothing to do with the assignment."
Shaking his head, Ryan fumbled to explain. "No, that's not the problem. It's me." Embarrassed, he glanced up from under his lashes. "I don't know how to talk about Sandy. And I want to do him justice, that's all. If that makes any sense."
Kirsten smiled tenderly. "Of course it does. But Ryan, there's no reason to worry. Just trust yourself," she advised. "You'll do fine." With a swift, gentle kiss, she patted Ryan's arm, directing him toward the tray of food before she turned to go. "I'll let you get back to work. But sweetie, first you really should eat."
"Room service, Ryan," Sandy called from outside the poolhouse. "I've got dessert! The last piece of lemon meringue pie, snatched directly out of Seth's greedy hands."
He waited a few moments, then peeked inside. Ryan was slumped on his bed, eyes closed, half-used legal pad open on his lap, and his cheek awkwardly resting against his own shoulder. Grinning fondly, Sandy crossed to the counter, setting down the pie and retrieving Ryan's almost-untouched tray of food. He was already halfway out of the room when he stumbled over a stray pen, sending the pieces of silverware clattering loudly against each other.
"Huh?" Ryan mumbled, blinking drowsily. "Sandy? What's going on?"
"Sorry, kid. I was just delivering a snack—even though it looks like you pretty much passed on dinner. Didn't mean to wake you."
Yawning, Ryan scrubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "No, it's okay. Shouldn't have been sleeping," he admitted, shaking his head in an effort to rouse himself. "Got to get this paper typed." He grinned wryly as he shuffled some scattered pages together. "Good thing it's short."
"Ah yes, the infamous paper. Kirsten told me what you were working on." Sandy tapped the edge of the stack, his expression pensive. "May I?" he asked. "Would you mind?"
Ryan flushed. "I, um . . . it's really messy. And not very good. But . . . I guess." He chewed the corner of his lip, adding doubtfully, "If you want to."
"Tell you what." Sandy retrieved the pie and brought it to Ryan, exchanging the plate and fork for the papers he was holding. "You can eat while I read."
Seating himself comfortably at the foot of the bed, Sandy faced sideways, squinting in the dim light. Occasionally as he read he glanced over his shoulder at Ryan. The boy was always watching, an empty fork denting his lower lip, his anxious blue eyes skittering downward as soon as they met Sandy's gaze.
When he finished the essay, Sandy coughed softly and started to read again, this time out loud. He heard Ryan's startled breath of protest and felt him shift uneasily on the bed before he fell silent, listening. Sandy's voice was warm and smooth, deftly ignoring the many corrections, the arrows, insertions, and crossed-out words.
"For this assignment," he read, "I chose to shadow Sandy Cohen. I don't know how to describe our relationship. Sandy started out as my lawyer, when I got in serious trouble back where I used to live. The he became my guardian. That's the legal term, I guess, but guardian is a really strange word. Its root is 'guard,' so in a way, having a guardian sounds like you're in prison and someone is making sure you don't escape. That's not Sandy at all. But guarding somebody is caring too—protecting them, looking out for them, doing whatever it takes to make sure they don't get hurt. Sandy definitely does all those things, so in that sense, I suppose the term 'guardian' fits. I wanted to spend the day with him because he is my role model, and if he hadn't been a lawyer—if I hadn't been lucky enough to get him as my lawyer—I might never have known what a real man should be.
"I know this assignment was intended to give us insight into a person's career choice and how work reflects someone's personality and place in the world. What I learned from shadowing Sandy was that he practices law because he has faith in people. He knows that human beings can make mistakes, and so can whole societies, but he also believes we have the power to fix those mistakes if we apply certain principles. Sandy mentioned justice and fair treatment, and those are important. But when I watched him work, I saw other qualities too. Sandy treats everyone he meets with respect and humor and compassion. I saw that wherever we went, in all kinds of circumstances. His first client was just a little kid boy. Where I grew up, most adults I knew acted like children don't deserve consideration, like their feelings and ideas don't matter at all. Sandy isn't like that. No matter how old you are or what you've done, he listens, even to what you don't know how to say. He makes you feel like you're worth something after all.
"Sandy is the kind of lawyer who makes a difference in society, not in a big, sweeping way like the Supreme Court does, but person by person. He shows people how they can find justice, or atone for what they did wrong, or get a second chance. Anybody who spends time with Sandy is bound to realize, just from his example, that it's not just what the world owes us that matters, it's what we owe each other. I never learned that growing up. Now, thanks to Sandy, I have. I hope I never forget it.
"I mentioned that Sandy is my guardian. The thing is, in a couple months I'll turn eighteen, and that won't be true anymore. Until I spent the day with him, I wasn't sure what would happen after that. I don't mean physically. I knew the Cohens would never ask me to leave, but I still thought something would change. Without a legal relationship, I believed we wouldn't have any real claim on each other. Sandy is the one who brought me into the Cohen family. Once he's not my guardian anymore, I didn't know who he would be to me, or where I would belong. Now I do. No matter how old I am, he will still be my guardian. He'll be my inspiration. And even though I have a biological dad, in all the ways that count, Sandy Cohen will always be my father."
Letting the last sheet of paper drift to his lap, Sandy brushed his hand across his eyes. Behind him, Ryan stirred, shifting closer and clearing his throat.
"Is it . . . okay?" he prompted hoarsely.
Sandy inhaled a deep, shaky breath. "No. It's too much, kid." Turning around, he pulled Ryan's head to his shoulder, holding him in silence for a long moment. "A lot more than I deserve," he whispered finally.
"No it's not--"
"Yes. It is." Chucking his fingers under Ryan's chin, Sandy lifted his face and smiled. "But thank you, kid. This means more than I can tell you."
Ryan's mouth curved in a small, answering grin. "You're welcome," he murmured shyly. "Only Sandy . . .?"
"What is it?"
"We're crushing the pie."
Leaning back, Sandy stared askance at the lemon meringue smeared like finger-paints over his sweater and Ryan's t-shirt. He threw back his head, laughing delightedly. "You were supposed to eat that, not wear it! Way to spoil the moment there, son!" he chortled. "Come on. Get changed and let's go inside. The pie may be gone, but I know there's ice cream--"
"Yeah, but my essay," Ryan protested. "I've got to type it."
Grabbing the papers, Sandy hauled Ryan to his feet. "I'll take care of that while you have dessert," he suggested, swabbing meringue from his sleeve. "It won't be any trouble now that I've deciphered this chicken-scratch that you call handwriting."
"Hey!" Ryan glowered in mock-indignation. "That's rooster-scratch. And you can type, Sandy? Really?"
"I? Am a man of many talents," Sandy declared with a facetious bow.
Ryan nodded, sobering instantly. "Yeah. I know." Closing his eyes, he took two deliberate, measured breaths, and then faced Sandy, his gaze direct, clear and candid. "I guess I never said this. But in case you didn't know . . . I love you, Sandy."
Sandy cupped Ryan's neck. "I love you too," he answered simply. "And I am very, very proud to call you my son . . . Now hurry up. I'm sticky, and the ice cream awaits. At least I hope it does—Seth mentioned that he was still hungry, so there are no guarantees."
With a groan, Ryan grabbed a clean t-shirt and disappeared into the bathroom. Sandy watched him go, his playful expression melting into one of pride, gratitude and deep, abiding affection.
"You can have the typed copy, kid," he murmured, reverently fingering the sheets of yellow paper covered with Ryan's scrawled, painstaking words. "But this one? This one, I plan to keep."