“You know, if you really wanted to help out around here, you could try something revolutionary like getting a job,” Rafael McCall said with his usual condescending smirk.
That was how it all started, and later Stiles thought that it was the only good idea the asshole ever had.
~ ~ ~ ~
“Now, normally the hospital does require a high school degree to get a job as an orderly,” Melissa told Stiles, “but they’re willing to make an exception for you because I vouched for you and because you’ve had all the necessary prereq classes, like CPR and stuff. And we’re short-handed right now, we really need someone in the long-term care unit who can work evenings. So. You start tomorrow, just come straight after school and Beth will get your orientation started.”
“Okay,” Stiles said, pushing his carrots around on his plate. They were having this conversation at the dinner table. That would be one advantage of working evenings. Fewer awkward family dinners.
“We’ll expect you to keep your grades up, of course,” Rafael remarked.
“Yes, sir,” Stiles said, studying his fork with far more concentration than it deserved.
Melissa glanced at her husband and then tried to smile. “If you have trouble with the workload, just let me know, okay?” she said, and Stiles nodded. “Oh, and that reminds me – I should take you by the bank tomorrow afternoon. We can get an account set up for you, so you can get your paychecks done as direct deposit.”
“Oh, that sounds like too much of a bother,” Rafael said, looking up and smiling directly at Stiles. “He can just sign them over to me and I’ll give him the money, like I do for Scott.”
Scott looked up at this, as if he were considering lodging a protest, or perhaps even reminding his father of the time he had ‘lost’ the ledger which showed that Scott had saved up nearly four hundred dollars. Then he saw the look on his mother’s face and bent over his plate again.
“Sure,” Stiles said, because to be honest, he didn’t really care about the money anyway. He wouldn’t give Rafael the satisfaction of holding it over his head. He made a solemn vow to himself in that moment to sign over every paycheck without protest and never even ask about the money. He would let the asshole keep every penny before he saw Stiles beg.
“What’s an orderly do?” Scott asked, trying to change the subject.
“Oh, it’s pretty similar to the stuff you do for Dr. Deaton, just with human patients instead of animals,” Melissa said. “Moving patients around, feeding them, bathing them . . .”
“Gross,” Scott said, wrinkling his nose, and Stiles laughed a little. He wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, but menial jobs were a part of life for the average teenager. He would take this over working at McDonalds.
“Well, it could be worse,” Rafael said, with his usual denigrating smile. “I mean, you could be working as a mall cop or something.”
Stiles pushed back from the table so quickly that he knocked his chair over. Scott reached up and grabbed him by the wrist, and Stiles nearly choked on his rage. He had to take a long, slow breath, in and out, before he managed to say, “May I please be excused?”
“No,” Rafael said, but Melissa said, “Yes,” at the same moment, and without looking at her husband, she repeated herself more firmly. “Yes, Stiles, go on and get your homework done. Big day tomorrow, after all.”
Stiles fled without further thought to the consequences. Rafael would make him pay for that loss of control later, but he wasn’t going to just sit there and be insulted. He made it up to the room he shared with Scott and quietly closed the door, not slamming it, as he had learned the hard way not to show his anger by doing that. He flopped facedown onto the bed and spent some quality time screaming into the pillows.
Scott came in about fifteen minutes later, quiet and awkward, because there was only so many times a guy could say, ‘I’m sorry my father is such a douche’ and Scott had surpassed that years ago. He knew that there was nothing he could say or do that would make it hurt any less, so he did what he was best at – went for a distraction. “Hey, can you help me out with my history homework? I still haven’t caught up from the days I missed while I was sick.”
“Sure.” Stiles rolled off the bed and went for his textbook. He managed to lose himself in the efforts of Napoleon for a little while. Not that he had any idea how that was going to mean anything to him in the future. Rafael McCall wasn’t short enough to have a Napoleon complex, and he probably wasn’t smart enough to conquer Europe, although he had sure as hell conquered Beacon Hills and the Stilinski family.
As if reading his mind, Scott said, “Hey, uh . . . you gonna tell your dad about the job?”
Stiles chewed on the end of his pencil. “Not yet. I guess I’ll let him know if I manage to keep it for more than a week.”
Scott nodded and went back to his work. He didn’t say anything else about it. That was one of the things that Stiles treasured about Scott’s friendship – that he knew when to just shut the fuck up for a while.
Stiles got his homework done, he showered and went to sleep and then went to school and everything was normal. Harris was being a jerk, Finstock made them run laps, Scott wound up in the nurse’s office after Jackson kicked dust up in his face and he had an asthma attack.
Beth was a short, plump woman with graying hair who took a copy of his driver’s license and had him fill out some paperwork and then showed him around the ward. There were currently twenty-one patients with a variety of conditions checked in. Some of them had been there for years. Just breathing the air was depressing. It had a certain smell to it that Stiles couldn’t put into words. The smell of disinfectant and death and despair. It reminded him so strongly of his mother’s last days on earth that it made him want to puke.
“Bobby and Linda are on tonight and they’ll look after you,” Beth said. “They’ll be bringing dinner up in about an hour and they’ll need your help then. Some of the patients can feed themselves, some can’t, and some have family members that come in and do it. Until then . . .” She showed him over to a corner with a cart loaded up with fabrics. “Everyone’s sheets need to be changed. If you come across someone who’s in bed, just skip the room. Later, Bobby will show you how to get the patients in and out of bed safely.”
“Yes, ma’m,” Stiles said, taking the cart.
His mother had stayed in the long-term care unit for nearly two months as the cancer had ravaged her body. Stiles could remember it so clearly, all the afternoons spent at her bedside, proudly telling her about what he had done at school that day. Some of the nurses had thought he was a nuisance, others had always greeted him with a warm smile.
He started in the first room to his left. The woman was sitting in a worn chair, and she greeted him in a rusty voice. Stiles said hello and introduced himself. He was going to be seeing a lot of these people. He might as well be friendly. He changed her sheets while she asked him what was for dinner, and got annoyed at him when he didn’t know.
It went like that for the first several rooms. One of the women was asleep in bed. Another asked him to help her to the bathroom, which he did after checking to make sure it was okay with Linda. One of the men was recovering from surgery and asked him to open a window.
He hesitated outside the room his mother had been in. It seemed like it shouldn’t matter. It had been so many years ago. She had died in this room, while he sat there and held her hand. It had changed everything. Nothing had been right since that day.
He swallowed hard and told himself to buck up, then pushed his way into the room with his cart. He was unnerved almost immediately by the man sitting in the chair by the window. At first, he thought that the man was staring at him, but then Stiles realized that he was just . . . staring. Blankly. Like the space between them held the mysteries of the universe.
Stiles glanced quickly at the name on the door. “Hello, Mr. Hale,” he said, hoping his voice was steady. “My name’s Stiles. I’m new around these parts. Don’t mind me, just gonna change the sheets on your bed.”
Peter Hale didn’t respond in any sort of way as Stiles stripped the sheets off his bed and then put the new ones on. “Hospital corners,” Stiles told the catatonic man. “Learned how to do them a long time ago. Personally, I hate them. They make my feet feel smothered. But hey, we don’t want you falling out of bed, right?” Peter’s thousand-yard-stare was making him nervous. He was babbling, and told himself to shut up, but then something occurred to him. “Hey, do you mind if I – ”
He knelt down next to the bureau. On the inside of one of the drawers, he had written, ‘Stiles was here’, in tiny, dark lettering. To comfort the next kid who came along, maybe. He had been eight years old; forward thinking wasn’t his forte now and it certainly hadn’t been then.
“It’s still here,” he said to Peter, as if the man cared. “I wrote on the inside of the drawer. Oh, don’t tell anyone that. I mean, not that you can. I. Shiiiiit. That was pretty insensitive, I guess. My mom was here for a couple months.” He shut the drawer and stood up. “Uh, dinner’s going to be around shortly. So I, uh, I’m just gonna go.” He dumped the dirty sheets into the hamper on his cart and hastily exited the room.
The rest of the evening was hard work, delivering meals, learning how to move patients around, which patients were able to do what on their own. Half of them got bathed at night and half of them in the morning, Bobby told him, to stagger things for the staff. Stiles was strangely relieved to learn that Peter Hale was in the morning shift, and so he wouldn’t be seeing the man naked. He wasn’t sure why it mattered, but it did.
Then they had to get all the patients into bed, and the nurses were going around making their evening checks and distributing night-time medications, so Stiles and the other orderlies had to make sure not to get in their way. By the time that was finished, it was eight thirty. Stiles’ shift was until nine. He spent the last half hour wheeling loads to and from the hospital laundry, and then he got to go home.
Melissa picked him up and asked how it had gone, and Stiles told her the truth, that it was fine, nothing to write home about, but a job was a job. It wasn’t like the family needed the money. Rafael earned enough at his job as the sheriff that he was fond of saying he could support the whole family by himself, and in fact he didn’t approve of Melissa working, though he never pressured her quite enough to make her quit.
Much to his relief, Rafael was out on a call, so he wasn’t subjected to a lengthy interrogation about his new job. He retreated up to his room and started on his homework. Scott came bouncing in, his usual upbeat self, and he was practically going nuts because the pretty new girl at school had come by the vet’s office. Apparently she had hit a dog and been upset about it, and she and Scott had had a moment or something like that.
“How about you?” Scott finally asked. “Did you meet anyone interesting?”
“Oh, yeah,” Stiles said, chewing on the end of his pencil. “The catatonic guy was particularly interesting.” He glanced up, saw Scott’s blank face, and said, “I’m joking, Scott. I was changing laundry and feeding pureed squash to people with advanced Alzheimer’s. No, I did not meet anyone interesting.”
“Oh,” Scott said, and apparently took this as an opportunity to go back to talking about Allison. Stiles didn’t mind. He had decided long ago that if Scott could manage to be happy in this miserable existence they shared, he would do everything he could to keep it that way.
~ ~ ~ ~
It took Stiles about a week to settle in to his routine at the hospital. Every day was a little different. Since he worked evenings, it was rare that he needed to help move patients around or bring them to appointments. Mostly he changed sheets, cleaned things, and helped distribute dinner, then helped Bobby get all the patients into bed for the night. Some of them were more ambulatory than others. Out of the twenty-one patients in the ward, fully half were bedridden, and only two were completely mobile. Some of them just needed assistance getting in and out of bed, and some of them had to be lifted or carried.
After everyone was in bed, it was usually more cleaning, taking the trays of dishes down to the cafeteria or loads of laundry in and out until he went off shift. He was always tired afterwards, but it wasn’t a bad tired. Okay, the embarrassment of helping people in the toilet was pretty excruciating at first, but he got used to it.
During his second week on the job, there was a case of MRSA in the main part of the hospital, and everyone went on a cleaning frenzy. Stiles was given a bottle of disinfectant, a stack of clean rags, and told to scrub anything that held still. The janitorial staff would do the floors and the bathrooms, but he was to do everything else. “Windowsills, bookshelves, light switches, anything that someone could have touched, wipe it down,” Beth told him.
He started in crotchety old Mrs. Schubert’s room and worked his way down the hall in his usual fashion. As always, he found himself hesitating outside Peter Hale’s room. His mother’s old room. Then he squared his shoulders and went inside. “Hi, Mr. Hale, it’s Stiles,” he said, even though Peter’s gaze never wavered from the window. Stiles started wiping down the light switch and the doorknob. “Just cleaning up a little round here. Scouting for rogue germs.”
He wiped down the bureau and the end of the bed and the nightstand. There wasn’t much on it. A box of Kleenex and a paper cup. He had never needed to help out in here much. Peter suffered from a state of catatonia that, according to Bobby, allowed him to respond to basic commands. If he said, ‘Peter, time for bed’, then Peter would get out of his chair and lie down in his bed without further instruction and only minimal assistance needed. He just never spoke, never really looked at anybody, and couldn’t respond to complex commands.
“Why is he like that?” Stiles had asked on his third day at the hospital.
“Nobody’s really sure, though the doctors would love to tell you otherwise,” Beth had said. “Some combination of post-traumatic stress disorder and brain damage from smoke inhalation during the fire, maybe.”
Stiles had read enough to know that coma patients could hear and respond to voices, and since Peter’s hearing was obviously fine, he talked to the man even though he never responded. The room was depressingly bare. It wouldn’t take him long. He walked over and wiped down the window and the sill, then started on the tiny bookshelf. There were a few books on it, nothing special. “You like to read, huh?” He pulled out a book of the Just-So Stories and flipped it open. The inside said, ‘Happy birthday, little brother. – Talia.’ The edges of it were charred.
Stiles remembered the fire. Everyone in Beacon Hills remembered the fire. It had been a big deal. A family of fourteen people, three survivors. Laura had been away at college. Derek had been at school after the Friday night football game had gone into overtime. Everyone else had been home. Peter had been the only survivor inside. Stiles remembered it for a couple reasons. A girl in his class had been killed, a pretty, stuck-up brunette named Cora. And Rafael had talked about it a little, some bitching about a ‘conspiracy theory’ that it had been arson, something he was quick to dismiss.
“You know,” Stiles said, “they should bring in some decorations for you or something. Brighten the place up.” He darted a glance over at Peter, who didn’t respond, didn’t even twitch. Stiles wiped down the first shelf and then saw the framed pictures on the second, right at eye-level. One of them was clearly a family portrait, with – Stiles counted, yes, with fourteen people in it. The other was two men wearing tuxedos, posing underneath a tree. Peter was the shorter of the two, his cheek pressed against the other man’s shoulder.
“Wedding photo?” Stiles asked, picking it up and wiping down the frame. “Your wife must . . . oh, husband, I guess,” he added, as he brought it closer to his face and realized both people in it were men. “So you’re gay, that’s cool,” he said, glancing at Peter. He looked at the family photograph and saw Peter and the same man on the left side. The husband must have died in the fire along with everyone else.
He wasn’t going to talk about that, so he said, “I sometimes think I am, too. I mean, there’s this girl I like? But then I also like to look at guys. I guess I’m probably bi. And sometimes I just want to be straight because it would be less trouble, but sometimes I want to be gay to spite Uncle Raf.” He set the photo down and continued cleaning along the shelf. “One time he caught me watching gay porn and we had a serious talk about it. By ‘we’ I mean ‘myself’ and ‘Raf’s fists’.” He scrubbed down the other chair in the room. “Since then he has religiously checked my browser history to make sure I stay on the straight and narrow as if I am not smart enough to get around that. Raf is a Grade-A douche.”
Stiles got back to his feet and looked around. “There, okay, sparkly clean, no germs here,” he said. “You take it easy, I’ll be back with your dinner in a while.”
As he left the room, he wondered why he had said any of that. But it was strangely comforting to have someone to talk to, even if it was someone who wouldn’t talk back. Peter Hale would never give away any of Stiles’ secrets. He was safe in a way that nobody else was, not even Scott.
“So, I got this job, and I want to tell my dad,” he said to Peter the next evening as he we restocking the paper towels, soap dispenser, and anything else that needed it. “It’s like, part of me knows that he would be proud, but then part of me feels like I would be rubbing it in his face, like I’m a productive member of society now. And I would want to give him some of the money so he can, you know, fix his place up a bit, but I know he wouldn’t let me.” He glanced up as Bobby wheeled the tray by with the meals. “Hey, should I keep doing this or help you out?”
“Paper towels and stuff can wait,” Bobby said. “Might as well start in here, since you’re already in here, he added, and shuffled through the trays until he found Peter’s plate and handed it over.
Stiles corralled the little tray table and wheeled it over, setting the plate down and looking at the unappetizing mass of mashed foods. He had said something about it the first time, and Linda had given him a harsh talk about not reminding the patients of what they had lost. After that, he had spooned pureed carrots and mashed potatoes into the patients’ mouths without a word.
Peter continued to stare off into the distance, and Stiles kept talking because he absolutely hated silence. “I want him to be proud of me,” he said, getting some applesauce on the spoon. “It’s just that, we have, uh, a complicated relationship. Actually I haven’t seen him in a few months. He was doing pretty well then, I mean, he was on the wagon and everything . . .” He delivered the spoon into Peter’s waiting mouth. The man swallowed without prompting. Stiles had gotten better at this over the course of the week, making sure he didn’t slop it everywhere.
“It’s hard, you know, when you live with an alcoholic, or even when you have one in your family, because you start to weigh every decision with . . . if I do this, will Dad start drinking again?” Stiles continued to feed the applesauce to the catatonic man. “But I should tell him. I mean, I want to tell him. What do you think I should do? You think I should tell him, right?” he asked, but Peter, of course, did not reply. “Yeah, I’ll tell him. Maybe I can go over after work.”
When work ended that night, he felt enough confidence to go see his father, and he knew from experience that he should do it before he lost his nerve. He took his bike over from the hospital and hoped that nobody saw him. Technically, there was no rule or law against him being at his father’s place, but he knew that Rafael hated it when he went there, so he tried to do it on the down-low.
Tom Stilinski lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of town, and he was never any happier when Stiles came to visit. “It’s a rough neighborhood,” he always said. “At least don’t come after dark,” he sometimes added, but Stiles came when he could, and didn’t let the risks bother him.
He checked his watch and saw that it was about nine thirty as he chained up his bike and went inside, down a half-flight of stairs, and knocked on his father’s door. He answered dressed in his work uniform, the gray-green of the security company he worked for. He looked a little surprised to see Stiles, which he always did. “Hey, you,” he said, stepping back to let him in. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I just thought . . . I wanted to come say hi,” Stiles said. “You know, I was in the neighborhood, so . . .”
“I hope not,” his father said, turning for the fridge. “You want something to drink?”
“Uh, sure,” Stiles said, and tried his best not to glance over his father’s shoulder to see what was in the refrigerator. It wasn’t his responsibility to monitor his father’s drinking, he reminded himself firmly. But his father sat down with two cans of Coke.
“What’ve you been up to?” he asked.
There was so much empty space between them that just breathing it in hurt. So much lost time and words unsaid, so much that couldn’t be changed. “I, uh, I got a job,” Stiles said. “Melissa helped me. I’m working down at the hospital, as an orderly in the long-term care unit.”
“That must be tough for you,” Tom said, fiddling with the tab on his can of soda.
“Yeah, well, I got used to it,” Stiles said. “Anyway, uh, it’s interesting. I’m keeping up my school work, don’t worry. Uh, I had to quit lacrosse but there probably wasn’t much point in it anyway.”
“Uh huh,” Tom said. Stiles sort of wished he had argued about it. “How are things with the McCalls? How are Melissa and Scott doing?”
“Scott’s fine, they’re all fine,” Stiles said.
“Rafael treating you okay?”
That question had so many layers and mousetraps that Stiles wanted to slam the door in its face and run away screaming. “Yeah, sure, of course,” he said. “I mean, you know him, he’s not sunshine and flowers, but you know, I could do worse, right?”
Tom’s face tightened and closed off, and Stiles cursed himself for saying something so insensitive, for implying that his father, his real, actual father, was ‘worse’. He gritted his teeth and reminded himself that this wasn’t his fault, that he had asked his father to come back and live with him, that it was father who had said, ‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea, son’, and therefore he had no right to judge Stiles’ current living accommodations or his opinions on them.
They stared at each other in silence for a long minute before Tom said, “You should get home. It’s late, and I’m sure you have homework to do. I have to leave for work soon, anyway.”
“Yeah.” Stiles rose in defeat.
“I’ll drive you on my way,” Tom added, looking around for his shoes.
“No, that’s okay,” Stiles said hastily. The last thing he needed was Rafael seeing him get dropped off by his father’s beaten up old Jeep. “I have my bike. I’ll be fine.”
His father hesitated, but then nodded. “Okay. You, uh. Work hard. I’ll see you soon.”
They hugged, awkwardly, and then Stiles left as quickly as he could. Home – or back to the McCall house, which he was supposed to call home – was the last place he wanted to go. But he did anyway. He had nowhere else to go.
~ ~ ~ ~