Chapter One

"Uh, Mr. Cohen? It's Ryan. Atwood?", Ryan's voice came through the answering machine filled with uncertainty. "I tried your work but they said you took the day off..." his voice drifted off. "I, uh...look, Mr. Cohen? Can...could you call me when you get this? The number's...". He rattled off the number. There was a sigh followed by a momentary silence. "It doesn't matter what time, ok?" Another sigh before he said, "My, uh, my mom, she...she's gone and I...I'm sorry to bother you but I...need help...ok then. Bye." and the sound of a dial tone ended the call.

Kirsten stood staring at the machine a moment then reached down and deleted the message. She knew Sandy would want to help him and she didn't want that boy in her house again. Not after getting Seth drunk and dragging him into a fight. He stole a car for christ's sake. He was a bad influence. She still couldn't believe Sandy brought him into their home in the first place.

It had been a couple of months since Sandy had taken Ryan back home and Seth was still giving her the cold shoulder but she could tell he was getting over it. Ryan had promised to call him and he had but Kirsten intercepted those, too. Answering one call herself and telling him she'd be sure to give Seth the message and deleting others from the answering machine. Seth's anger at her was waning as a result, and shifting to Ryan for not following through and staying in touch like he'd promised. He'd begun talking to her again without so much venom in his voice, and she didn't want to set them back by having this boy worm his way back into things, reminding Seth why he was pissed at her to begin with. Let alone allowing Sandy and Seth to find out that she'd been keeping his calls from them. Seth would forget about him soon and move on. Out of sight out of mind. She poured herself another drink.

After placing the call, Ryan hung up and settled on the dingy motel room bed. He hoped Mr. Cohen would call back soon.

After Sandy had dropped him off at home that weekend, he'd gone in to find the house empty with a note on the counter basically telling him he was on his own now. He'd heard Mr. Cohen drive off and thought about calling him but all he'd written on his business card was his home number, so he'd have to give him time to get home. Then he wondered what good it would do to call him. Mrs. Cohen clearly didn't think much of him and didn't want him in her house. All Mr. Cohen could do was take him to social services. That wasn't an appealing prospect. He'd get stuck in some group home. Besides, he'd pretty much been fending for himself for a while now. It's not like his mom or A.J. lifted a finger for him. He's the one who cleaned up their messes and did the laundry and got himself fed. The only time they paid him any mind was to tell him to get lost because they were having "friends" over or to complain about what a pain in the ass he was. He had figured it wouldn't be that hard to be on his own. At least he wouldn't be walking on eggshells around A.J. or some other asshole every fucking day of his life. He just needed to get another job and save up a little cash to get his own place. He thought that maybe Trey would know of someone he could get in touch with to get a fake ID so he could rent a place of his own and get "legit" work. He decided that he'd just stay in the empty house for a while and give himself some time to get on his feet. No heat, electricity and water wouldn't be anything new. His mom used to spend money on booze and drugs instead of paying the bills and things were always getting shut off. He could grab showers at the shelter or something. He thought he could do it.

Things were going as planned for a while. He'd found a job working construction again and the foreman agreed to pay him cash off the books. Making sure he knew to get lost when OSHA or any big wigs showed up at the job site.

Unfortunately, his plan hit a snag when he came home from work one day to find the house boarded up with a padlock on the doors. The landlord must have finally come around to collect rent and found that his mom and A.J. had skipped out on him without paying. They had fallen behind before but Ryan was always able to hold the guy off, swearing that he'd get him the rent money as soon as he could and the guy knew that Ryan was the only reason they'd kept relatively up to date so he'd usually let it go for a while, knowing Ryan would get him paid eventually. Ryan knew too much time had gone by but he couldn't risk being found out. He felt bad about the guy getting stiffed it but he needed to look out for himself right now. If things worked out he figured that maybe he could get him his money soon, or at least give him what he could until he was paid up. He hated going back on his word.

Luckily, he still had his back pack with him so he wasn't left completely destitute. He never left that behind in case he had to take off in a hurry. With holing up at the house no longer being an option, he'd stayed at the shelter a couple of nights but then the people running it started asking questions about his age and where his parents were. He stopped going there. He didn't want social services or the cops getting sicked on him from some do gooder wanting to do the right thing. He'd gone to see Trey and told him about Dawn taking off. Trey agreed that Ryan would be better off on his own than in some group home or foster care. They'd both been through that before. So he hooked Ryan up with a guy who could get him a fake ID but it was going to be costly. Which meant that Ryan needed more time to save up the money and couldn't waste it on motel rooms. So he stayed in abandoned buildings or anywhere he could find. He almost had enough together but last night he woke up to some pervert with a knife slobbering all over him. He fought him off, getting a little cut up in the process, and managed to get away. He broke down and got a room so he could patch himself up.

He woke up this morning and decided to rethink things. He still didn't want to go to some group home but after last night, he thought it couldn't be any worse than some freak trying to rape him on a warehouse floor. There would at least be a carpet or a bed at a group or foster home and there most likely wouldn't be a knife involved. He then had a thought that maybe Mr. Cohen could help him get emancipated and maybe he could live on his own where he wouldn't have to worry about anyone trying to fuck him at all but he wasn't so sure Mr. Cohen would be willing to help him anymore. He thought back to their last meeting.

Ryan had showed up for his court date at the end of last month and pretended as if nothing was wrong. Luckily, Ryan remembered that Mr. Cohen had said that he'd get his assistant to call and remind him of the date and he managed to get a call into him first and assure them that he'd be there before they had a chance to find the line disconnected. Mr. Cohen had gotten him probation, just like he said he would. The judge asked where his parents were and he told him that his mother couldn't get off work to be there with him. Apparently no one had checked to see if he was going to school because he was told to take advantage of this chance and to keep up with his school work and show up for his assigned appointments with his PO and he was dismissed. Mr. Cohen had asked how things were going and he told him things were better. Mr. Cohen then mentioned that Seth was pretty disappointed that Ryan hadn't called like he said he would. Ryan tried not to let his puzzlement show. He thought back to the call that Mrs. Cohen had answered and recalled how quickly she had gotten him off the phone. She'd been polite and promised to let Seth know that he'd called but, obviously, she hadn't and Seth hadn't gotten the messages he left for him on the machine. Also thanks to Mrs. Cohen no doubt. He had thought briefly about telling Mr. Cohen. He didn't want Seth to think he had lied to him. He liked Seth but he figured maybe things were better this way. If he'd stayed in touch with Seth then he'd have to lie to him again and again. So he'd simply told Mr. Cohen that he was sorry but that he just didn't feel that a friendship with Seth would work out right now. Mr. Cohen had looked disappointed in him and told him that the least he could have done was told Seth that to his face instead of leaving him hanging like he had. He then wished Ryan luck and told him not to screw up this second chance and left him standing on the courthouse steps.

Ryan winced at the memory and shook his head mentally at how easy it had been to work the system.

His first meeting with his PO was much like the court date. The man seemed to merely be going through the motions, barely looking at Ryan as he went down his list of questions, followed by the obligatory admonitions to stay out of trouble and report to him every month. If his PO was anything like the ones Trey had before then he didn't think he'd have to worry about anyone finding out that he wasn't going to school. Most of them had heavy caseloads and didn't follow through on things like that very often unless something was brought to their attention. Which usually took nothing short of getting arrested, for Trey. Staying under the radar hadn't seemed too hard. Things were going ok until crazy knife man had him second guessing things.

Calling Mr. Cohen's office today had left him with knots in his stomach. He feared that Mr. Cohen might not want to help him after the way he thought he'd treated Seth. He didn't leave a message since they told him he wasn't going to be in that day, so he just tried his home number. He was pretty disappointed when the machine picked up and almost lost his nerve and hung up, but sucked it up and left a message.

He nervously waited as day turned to night. When he had still heard nothing by the following afternoon it was clear that he wasn't going to call at all. If he hadn't been stressing out so much he might have used that brain of his, that Mr. Cohen seemed so impressed with on their first meeting, to put two and two together and realized that Mrs. Cohen may have been responsible for that as well, but all he could think was that his fears were confirmed. That Mr. Cohen had come to the same conclusion about him that Mrs. Cohen had the second she'd laid eyes on him, and Seth was probably pissed off at him, too. So he swallowed down his disappointment and would have to go on as he had been, trying to find someplace safe to sleep. He'd just have to be extra careful to ensure that he wasn't followed. He was truly on his own.

Kirsten had been relieved as time went by and Sandy hadn't mentioned Ryan again. Ryan's calls had eventually stopped and things were slowly getting back to normal. Until yesterday. Damn that kid. She hoped that when Sandy didn't return his call he'd get the message and leave them be.

Sandy, however, may not have been talking about Ryan, partly out of respect for Seth, but that didn't mean the kid hadn't been on his mind the whole time. He didn't like that Ryan's mother hadn't been at court with him and something seemed off. He seemed thinner and tired. He had claimed everything was all right at home but Sandy had his doubts after his one encounter with Dawn Atwood, along with the bruise on Ryan's face when he'd gotten kicked out and first called him for help. Trying to ease his mind, he tried to call Ryan's home periodically only to find out that the line had been disconnected. It wasn't an unusual thing for a poorer family to let the phone go in favor of other things but he became worried as the days and weeks pressed on and the line remained disconnected. He had taken the day off yesterday to take care of a few personal matters and couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong all day. Kirsten was acting strange when he got home and he couldn't get Ryan off his mind. He tried to call him once more when he returned to work, knowing he'd be met with the same recording. He thought back to the last time he'd seen him, on those steps, after his court date. He thought back to his terse manner when Ryan had told him that he didn't think a friendship with Seth was feasible and recollected how the kid hadn't looked him in the eye when he said that. He hadn't meant to be so abrupt with him but his son was hurting as a result of him not calling. Looking back he was getting the feeling that something more was going on.

He decided to go by Ryan's home after work. As he drove down the street, his heart sped up at the sight of the boarded up windows. He pulled into the drive and saw the padlock on the front door. He got out of the car and went to the next house and knocked on the door. A girl about Ryan's age answered it and looked at him warily. Sandy asked about the Atwoods and after a moment if intense scrutiny she told him that they moved a couple of months ago. She glanced over at his car and said that it was the weekend he'd dropped Ryan off. He asked her if she knew where they'd moved and she said she didn't know. She said that Ryan had hung around for a little while but then he disappeared, too. That caught Sandy's attention. He asked her what she meant and she then informed him that Dawn and A.J. had moved before Ryan had come back that weekend.

As he was driving home, his thoughts swirled with this new information. Ryan's mom had left without him. Ryan hadn't let on that anything was wrong when he showed up at court. Surely, he would have said something to him if she had abandoned him. Maybe she simply had to move suddenly and, with Ryan staying with him, she didn't know how to contact him. Forcing her to leave without him. Maybe Ryan had tracked her down and was now living back with her again and she really was working when he made his court appearance without her. His mind trying to come up with explanations that might settle the growing worry. Nothing rang true, though, so he made a quick trip to see Ryan's PO. The PO didn't seem too concerned that they had moved, insisting that he'd get the information from Ryan when he showed up for his next meeting. Sandy didn't let on that they had moved before he had his last meeting with the guy. He didn't want to mess up Ryan's probation if he could at all help it. He tried to push his concerns aside and drove home. He'd do some more checking the next day.

Dinner that night was a quiet affair, as usual. They exchanged the generic, "how was school?" and "how was work" pleasantries and then the conversation lapsed into silence with each Cohen left to their own thoughts. Seth had reverted back to his solitary nature. It saddened Sandy. He had seen a glimpse of how exuberant and full of life Seth could be in that one full day that Ryan had spent with him. A little flash back to the eager happy child he'd been back in Berkeley. Kirsten sat with wine in hand seemingly oblivious to the walls that surrounded each of them.

Sandy cleared his throat and asked Seth if he'd heard from Ryan. Seth's surprised eyes and Kirsten's narrowed ones whipped to him. He hadn't wanted to twist the knife for Seth but he wanted to know. He still had thoughts of Ryan gnawing at him.

Seth shook his head sadly and said, "No. I guess he didn't really like me. He was just being nice when he said he'd call." He pushed his food around his plate, having suddenly lost his appetite.

Kirsten glared at Sandy and said, "Why would you bring him up, Sandy? Hasn't Seth been hurt enough by all of this? Can't you just let it go?"

Sandy was taken aback. He'd barely mentioned Ryan since taking him home and yet Kirsten was acting like he'd mentioned him constantly over these last couple of months. "I was just wondering. Some things have come to light that have me concerned."

"Well, you shouldn't be. He was a criminal, Sandy. You brought him into our home and he put Seth at risk", she huffed.

"He's not a criminal, Kirsten. He is a kid who made a mistake and he may be in trouble", Sandy stated frustratedly.

"When did he put me at risk?", Seth asked Kirsten with his brow furrowed in confusion before turning to Sandy and asking, "Why are you concerned? What's going on?.

To Sandy, Kirsten first says, "he's probably always in trouble, Sandy. He was here one day and he got into a fight." She turned to Seth and answered, "A fight he dragged you into after getting you drunk. He's a bad influence." She wanted them both to forget about Ryan. She didn't want that bad element back in their lives and she didn't want them know that she'd deleted the messages. Sandy would be upset with her if he knew Ryan had called him for help and she prevented him from doing so.

With raised eyebrows, Seth says, "Is that why you made him leave?! He didn't get me drunk or drag me into a fight. I got myself drunk and got HIM into a fight."

Kirsten scoffs and pours herself another glass of wine.

Sandy ignored her and asked Seth what he meant.

Seth explained, "A girl I like took one look at him and was hanging all over him. When I saw that I got mad and I took it out on him. I outed him in front of her and everyone. The whole crowd turned on him when they heard he was a car thief from Chino. I left him hanging there and started drinking and the more I drank the angrier I got and then I wandered down to the beach and stupidly mouthed off to the water polo mafia and they were about to pound me into sand. Ryan showed up in the nick of time and totally had my back. He stood up for me, dad. Even after I was such a dick to him. No wonder he didn't call me."

Kirsten winced at how sad Seth sounded and felt a twinge of guilt for letting him believe Ryan had blown him off. She reached for her drink and caught Sandy watching her, like he could see her deception. She smiled nervously and took a drink and tried to school her features as Sandy slowly turned his attention back to Seth.

"How did you get the black eye, then, son?", Sandy asked. Kirsten's behavior niggled at the back of his mind. Her smile was puzzlingly out of place.

"Well, Ryan laid Luke out and then the whole crew pounced on him. He was way outnumbered so I jumped in and took one in the eye", Seth proudly stated. He sighed and then went on sadly, "I said some really shitty things to him, dad, and he still defended me to those goons. No one's done that before. I had to try to help him".

Kirsten sat quietly as Sandy reassured Seth that he understood and wasn't angry at him for fighting. He stated that the drinking, on the other hand, was another issue. She tuned him out as she took another drink of her wine, shame churning in her stomach, completely missing the look Sandy threw her way as she brought the glass to her lips. She'd jumped to the wrong conclusions but there was little she could do about that now. She couldn't tell them about his calls. They'd be furious with her. Besides, that didn't change the fact that Ryan had been arrested. She may have been wrong about the fight but he was still bad news. She was sure of it. Seth had never been in a fight of any kind that she knew of before Ryan came along. She had to distract Sandy and get him to forget about the boy. She wasn't about to let her marriage fall apart because of some kid from Chino. Seth's voice pulled her from her thoughts.

"What's got you so worried, dad?", Seth asked again. "You said everything went ok at his hearing, right?".

Sandy sighed and said, "Yes. Everything went all right but I've been trying to call him and can never get through. Their phone's been disconnected for quite some time. So I went by there today, to talk to him in person..."

"You did what?", Kirsten exclaimed. "You did your job, Sandy.", she stated tersely. "You've done enough." She stood up angrily and cleared her plate and glass from the table. "You don't owe that boy anything", she gritted out as she rinsed her plate in the sink and stalked out of the room.

"When did she become such a bitch?", Seth asked as he stood from the table.

"Seth...", Sandy said with an admonishing tone. Although, his heart wasn't really in it. His own thoughts hadn't been far off.

"What?!", he exclaimed defensively. "It's true. She gets more like grandpa every day", he spat out.

Sandy sighed and rubbed his forehead in frustration, not being able to argue. Kirsten had been sounding a lot like Caleb these days. Getting so wrapped up in work and in appearances. She had been behaving less and less like the woman he married every day...and always with a wine glass in her hand it seemed.

Seth's voice brought him from his thoughts. "Dad? What happened with Ryan when you went to see him", he asked, turning attention away from his mom.

Sandy, knowing he should be going and talking to Kirsten instead, told Seth what he found when he went to Ryan's home. Seth instantly became worried.

"So, maybe he didn't call because he had all that other shit going down", his spirits picking up a little at the thought that maybe Ryan hadn't intentionally blown him off. His thoughts turned back to Ryan and he frowned. "Why would she leave without him? Do you think he found her? Do you think he's with his mom?"

Sandy held up a hand, "I don't know, Seth". He shook his head, not knowing if he should hope that Ryan was with his mother or not. "All I know is that she, apparently, was gone when I dropped him off. I should have gone in with him. If for nothing else than to make sure things were calm enough for him to return."

"You said he showed for his meeting with his probation officer?", Seth asked. At Sandy's nod, he went on. "Well, that means he's still around. So that's good, right? I mean, if he skipped out out town then he'd be in trouble with his probation, right? Maybe you could, you know, just happen to be there when he shows up for his next meeting. Then you could find out what's going on. Do you think he'd come clean if he knew that you knew that his mom wasn't there when you dropped him off? Hmm. Maybe you could follow him. I could come with you. We could stealthily trail him to where he's staying. You know, just to see." He finally stopped and took a breath.

Sandy blinked and tried to catch up. "That's a good idea about the PO meeting. I could catch him coming out, or maybe going in if he's early. That would probably be better. That way I could give him a heads up about the PO being aware that he's no longer at the same address. Could be bad if he goes in there and doesn't say anything about it or if the PO tries to trip him up and not letting on that he already knows." Sandy blew out a sigh. "As for whether or not he'll open up to me, I don't know. I was a bit short with him at the court house. He might not feel like he can come to me. Especially knowing how your mother feels about him."

Seth frowned. "What's her deal, anyway? You'd think Ryan robbed a liquor store or something."

"She thinks she's protecting you, Seth. She doesn't know Ryan.", Sandy tried to defend.

"She doesn't want to know Ryan", Seth declared. "Enough about mom. Back to Ryan. When's his next meeting with his probation officer?"

Sandy rubbed a hand down his face. "Not for a couple of weeks. I'll keep checking around until then and see if I can track him down. Maybe check his school. He's supposed to be keeping up with that. I should have asked his PO but if Ryan hasn't been keeping up with his schooling his probation could be revoked. I really don't want to rock the boat for him until I know what's going on."

Seth nodded with a frown. "He wouldn't have not called me if there wasn't a good reason. I know I didn't know him long but now that I'm really thinking about it he wouldn't just blow me off like that, dad. I know he wouldn't. Something has to be wrong. We need to find him".

"We will, Seth", Sandy assured.

"But what about mom?", Seth questioned.

Sandy sighed, "if she doesn't want to know about Ryan, then we won't tell her. It's not like I want to bring him home again. I just want to make sure he's all right". He knew it was a lie. He would bring Ryan home again in a heartbeat if it weren't for Kirsten.