Chapter 7

Ryan entered the vacant room; a table with two chairs the only furniture. Gently, he eased his aching body down onto one of the metal chairs. It had been a week since the 'incident', that's what Kirsten had taken to calling it, and his body was still stiff and sore. His bruised ribs had turned from a mottled blue-purple to a faded greenish-yellow but didn't hurt any less. He rested his bandaged hand on the table before him; his knuckles were healing slowly, split and bleeding from his fight with Rick but not broken. The burn on his neck was his worst injury, twice daily dressing changes that he had to submit to letting Kirsten do. He hated being dependant on her for anything, especially something he'd been partially responsible for.

Admitting that he wasn't to blame for what happened wasn't easy, and he wasn't ready to completely cast off all accountability, but he was trying to forgive himself—and today was another step on that path.

A sharp buzzing caught his attention and he looked up as a door opened and a prison guard entered the room. His hand was clasped firmly on the arm of a prisoner—Dawn. Ryan stared as the guard unlocked the handcuffs pinning her wrists together and led her to a chair across from him. She smiled nervously as she took a seat, immediately reaching her hands across the table toward him.

"How are you?" Her voice was pleading, her eyes searching. She looked…concerned.

Warily, Ryan pulled back, tucking his arm in. He wasn't used to this, wasn't sure how to respond to her attentiveness.

She caught the gesture, pulled back slowly herself. Letting her hands fall limply to her lap, she smiled sadly, shrugged her shoulders. "I messed up, Ry." She stopped, seemed to consider saying something else, then shrugged again.

He was surprised. Today had been rehearsed in his mind countless times. He'd come in, see her crying her eyes out, begging forgiveness. Or maybe she'd be flippant, blame it all on him, or Seth. But to just say nothing, just accept it, he didn't know how to handle this version of his mother.

"I just wanted to see you." He stared hard at her, taking in her reaction. "Make sure you were okay."

The smile again. "Make sure I'm clean?" She waved away his protest. "Do I want a drink? A smoke? A hit?" Her eyes were clear, focused intently on him. "Of course I do. But I haven't. I won't."

Ryan nodded, not believing her.

"It's different this time, baby. I'm going to change. You'll see a difference."

He had no reason to believe her. "You said that before."

"But I never killed a man before."

They'd both been thinking it, but once Dawn put the words out there, the atmosphere changed. The air felt thicker, like it took effort to move one finger. Slowly, Ryan shifted in his chair, leaning just the slightest bit toward her. She didn't make a move; stayed rooted to her chair like a statue.

Finally he spoke, "I don't really remember what happened."

She paused, seemingly searching for the right words. "Everything seems blurry to me, but I remember you fighting with Rick, and Seth was just there, just lying there. The cops were at the door and all I could think was that I had to stop them from getting in; we had the coke." Dawn met Ryan's eyes, ashamed. "I got the gun out to protect Rick, protect us. I can't lie to you; I thought the cops were going to arrest him." She shook her head, bowed away from him. "I don't expect you to forgive me."

He was quiet for a long moment. Processing what she'd said, accepting it as what he'd already assumed. "Tell me the rest."

His mother looked up again, unsure of what to say. Finally, she said, "I got the gun, and then suddenly everything was different. Rick was on top of you and he had his gun pressed to your neck." Her voice shook as she recounted the scene. Hands trembling, she showed Ryan how Rick had pressed the barrel into his neck, pushing her fingers against her palm. "The look on his face…I just aimed and pulled the trigger. I never shot a gun before in my life. I barely even held one."

Ryan was quiet, waiting for her to finish.

"I didn't know what I was doing." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I could have killed you."

His stomach lurched. "He would have killed me."

She shook her head, closed her eyes.

Ryan got it—it was easy to take blame onto your own shoulders. Trying to pin it on someone else, no matter how obvious the target, didn't work for some people. Normally, he would have pegged his mother as someone who could pin blame on people without a second thought, but here she was, explaining how she'd saved the life of her son and still looking for blame.

Gingerly sliding his bandaged arm across the steel tabletop, Ryan reached out with his left hand until he was almost touching her. "Mom."

Dawn jerked her head up at the familial term.

He spoke softly. "You saved my life. Thank you."

And with that phrase, he was free. He could see the hope flooding her face. She cried, he almost did, and she snatched him into a hug before the prison guard could force her back to her seat. He'd passed a torch to her today—hope that everything would be alright. For so many years, he'd carried the weight of hope with him. Hope that she'd love him, hope that she'd be the mother he'd always wanted—and now he was done. In the one moment that he'd needed her most, she'd come through. After that, he didn't have to hope for anything else.

As he pushed away from the table, said his final goodbyes and watched her leave, a peace settled over him. She would be in jail for a long time, the third Atwood family member to be incarcerated in the California penal system. It was almost expected, like they were born into a life they couldn't change.

Ryan turned to leave the room. Sandy was waiting for him outside, a celebratory meal planned at home that night with Seth and Kirsten—his family. The Atwood streak would stop at his mother, he was going to work hard to make it that way. Life didn't have to follow a set plan; she'd left him a legacy, he didn't have to live it.