The night that Stiles his born, his mother refuses to go to the hospital. Mr. Stilinski doesn’t ask why. He knows better, knows that his wife will do just as she pleases without stopping to ask for permission.
“Honey,” he says through the locked bedroom door, “maybe—I just think that if we called someone—”
“Go away,” she calls back. Her voice is cool and relaxed. It does not sound like she is trying to push a resisting force into the world, does not sound like she is trying to expel eight pounds of life from her body. It sounds like she has been napping.
“But what if—”
“There will be no problems,” his wife’s voice assures him serenely. “Go watch the game.”
They name the baby Zashchitnik Rowan, so Mr. Stilinski is 100% sure that his kid is going to get beat up on the playground. His wife looks at him with level eyes and says, “Zashchitnik is a family name.”
Stiles’ first memory is of his parents in the garden. His mother always planted tomatoes and his father always begged her not to. She was crouched by the bush, tweezing its insides, while his Dad stood behind her with one hand shielding his eyes.
Stiles must have been watching from inside the house, because he cannot hear them, though their lips move. His father speaks, and he watches his mother’s shoulders shake as she laughs.
His mother lines the garden’s edges with black powder that she says are ashes from the mountains. She says it helps the vegetables grow. She says it keeps the pests away.
They both look up at him at the same time and his mother’s voice is suddenly clear and close: “you’ll make sure he eats his fruits and vegetables once I’m gone, won’t you?” she asks, and he can’t possibly have heard her, but he nods.
“Did you know that one shark tooth is the entire size of your head,” says the boy on the playground, the words forcing their way through thick wheezes.
Stiles frowns. He thinks it was a question, but there was no mark at the end of the words, so he isn’t sure how to respond. “What kind of shark?” he asks after some consideration. Worst-case scenario, he’s just answering a question with a question, and there’s nothing wrong with that, right? He’s pretty sure his Dad does it all the time, like when his mom says, aren’t you going to eat your broccoli and he says don’t you look beautiful tonight?
The boy blinks at him. “The . . . sharky kind of shark,” he decides after a moment. “The ones with teeth.”
“All sharks have teeth,” says Stiles.
“Yeah, exactly, the size of your head,” agrees the boy, and then sticks out a hand. “I’m Scott.”
Stiles looks at the hand, and then at the boy, and then fits his own hand into it. “I’m,” he begins, and then stops. The boy waits patiently. He frowns when Stiles finishes, “Zashchitnik.”
“No, it’s—” he sighs. “How about you just call me Stilinski?” That’s what the other cops call his Dad when they come over for dinner.
“Okay,” says Scott. “Nice to meet you, Stil—Stilin—”
Stiles sighs again. “Or maybe just Stiles?” he says, and Scott beams.
His mother always reads to him at night. She has this big leather-bound book written in a language Stiles does not understand. Usually he has trouble keeping his mind steady: it jumps around, always hungry, taste testing from everything but never able to finish a dish.
“In a certain land,” his mother begins, and Stiles shakes his head.
“That’s not how Scott’s mom says they go,” he tells her. “They start ‘once upon a time.’”
His mother pauses thoughtfully. “Hmm,” she muses. “Are the stories Scott’s mom tells true?”
He considers this. “No,” he decides.
“Well, there are you are then, iskrit’sya,” she murmurs, pressing her hand to his scalp. Stiles closes his eyes and lets her fingers scratch into his hair. It’s getting long. “All my stories are true.”
He feels sleep closing in around him. “So there is really magic, and people that turn into animals, and boots that take you seven leagues in a single step?”
“Anything can be real,” she answers, and her voice sounds like music, her voice sounds the way that summer breezes feel as she presses a kiss to his forehead. “But first we must create it.”
“How?” Stiles mumbles, falling backward into dreams.
“Be the spark,” he thinks that she might whisper, but it could be his imagination.
His mom starts to feel sick the same year that they diagnose his ADD. He is tired all the time, his brain rattling against the walls of his cranium like a prisoner against barred windows. Sometimes he can feel his heart speeding all the way up, like he is going into warp drive.
“There is nothing wrong with you,” his mother assures him even as his Dad goes inside to get the prescription filled.
“But,” he begins, and she cuts him off with a sharp look.
“Do you remember the story of the flying ship?” she asks, twisting around in the front seat so that she can look at him directly in the face.
He rolls his eyes. “Mooom,” he groans. “I’m not a baby anymore, okay.” She raises a single, graceful eyebrow, the way she always does when he’s spoken without thinking. He sighs. “I mean. Yes. I remember.”
“When the Fool was young, what did everyone think of him?”
Stiles looks down at his hands. “They thought he was stupid,” he says.
“And was he?”
“It’s not the same,” Stiles starts to say, but his Mom just raises that eyebrow again and he concedes: “No. He wasn’t.”
She twists two face the front again as his Dad emerges from CVS. Stiles asks quickly, before anyone else but his Mom can hear, “But he had special, like—stuff, I don’t have special stuff.”
“You are special stuff,” his Mom says, and reaches back to squeeze his hand. “You don’t need a flying ship if you are the flying ship.”
His Dad opens the door and slides into the driver’s seat. “Okeydokes! All set.”
Stiles’ mom doesn’t let go of his hand.
Three months later she’s lying in a hospital bed throwing up green slime. Stiles doesn’t understand exactly what it is or why it’s inside her, but she’s thin and pale and shaky and the vegetables in the garden won’t grow.
His Dad doesn’t do much but sit by the bed with his forehead pressed against his Mom’s knuckles, doesn’t speak except to ask if she’s all right, if she needs anything, doesn’t sleep except in snatches when his body falls apart and betrays him.
Stiles stays in the chair in the corner and draws his knees to his chin and doesn’t take his medicine because he’s scared to let his brain stand still.
“Zashchitnik,” his mother says one night, just before the nurses are about to kick them out, “come here.” Her voice is airy and soft, but not beautiful like it usually is. Her voice doesn’t sound like a summer breeze anymore, it sounds like frost, it sounds like ashes.
She lifts a hand to his shirt and tugs on it until he leans down. “Do you remember all the stories?” she asks, and there is an urgency in her voice he’s never heard before.
“The flying ship,” Stiles answers, choking on the lump in his throat. He grips at the bed, afraid to touch her. “And the magic ring. And—”
“What can be real?” she asks him, her voice hitching.
“Anything,” Stiles answers.
“By—” and the tears spill out as he feels her grip weakening, as she pulls away from him, as his father wakes up and starts yelling for the nurse, “by—”
“How,” his mother says again, but her mouth isn’t moving, there is no way she could have—
“Be the spark,” Stiles cries, and the heart monitor begins to weep, long and slow and steady.
His father doesn’t look at him, not for a long time. He puts his hand on Stiles’ shoulder during the funeral but he won’t say his name. He keeps his eyes on the table at dinner, feeds them both frozen meals that Stiles can feel clogging his arteries. Nobody fixes the ring of ashes around his mother’s garden and all the plants wither into brown death.
Stiles curls up in his bed at night and doesn’t take his medicine and tries to remember all the stories his mother told him but he can’t, there were too many, he can’t, she always told them in that voice that sounded like summer and--
and now it’s getting cold and Stiles isn’t, Stiles is too young to, Stiles didn’t call the--
he had known she was, what she was, that she was, he had seen her fading out but he hadn’t said, hadn’t called, hadn’t hadn’t hadn’thadn’thadn’t he’d just--
stoodthereandwatchedher as she—
His Dad finds him sweating and shaking so hard he bites a hole in his tongue. His Dad gathers Stiles up in his arms and they shake together like skeletons that someone forgot to bury.
Stiles starts taking his medicine again. His Dad watches him do it every morning with breakfast. So he goes to school and doesn’t talk to anybody and does his homework and Scott sticks behind him like a shadow and doesn’t ask questions.
Once, Scott says, “My dad’s gone too, he didn’t die but he’s gone, and I know it’s not the same, but.”
And Stiles nods and tries not to rip all his skin off because it’s too tight and he feels like he’s going to burst out of it. Scott doesn’t say anything else, but that night he rides his bike to Stiles’ house and climbs in the window and sleeps on the floor.
In the morning, Stiles’ Dad tries to tell Scott he can’t do that anymore, but Stiles starts to breathe really fast and he can’t slow down and he can’t slow down and he took his medicine, he swears he took his medicine, he swears he—
“All right, son,” his Dad says, voice soft, and he still hasn’t said Stiles’ name. “All right.”
“How come Mom didn’t do radiation?” Stiles asks his Dad a year and a half later, when the wound still hurts when you touch it but he can feel the blister starting to form.
His Dad is quiet for a long time. “We caught it too late,” he answers after a while. “She was sick for a long time before we went to the hospital. It had already metastasized.”
“Why did you wait so long?”
His Dad blows out a breath, maybe some sort of laughter, maybe some sort of a sob. “Wow, that medicine sure does keep you focused,” he says dryly, instead of answering.
But it does keep him focused, and he doesn’t just want to taste test, he wants to know everything about the how and why of his mother not being here anymore. So he sneaks into his Dad’s office and goes through his old papers and receipts and everything from that year, from that time, and—
His hand stills over the hospital bills, the prescription bills, the consultations.
Of course, he thinks, bells ringing in his head, the sound of his own thoughts distant.
Of course they hadn’t gone to the hospital. They hadn’t been able to afford the visit. They hadn’t been able to afford the tests because they had just finished paying for Stiles’ visits to the psychiatrist and the ADD testing and all the filled prescriptions—
He can see his mother now, sick, tired all the time, but so sure it was just a virus, why spend all that money for over-the-counter antibiotics when they had to keep shelling out for Stiles’ medication just so that he can be a functioning human being, of course, of course they hadn’t.
Oh, thinks Stiles again, and puts the paperwork back where he’d found it.
In the eighth grade he sees Lydia Martin reading a book called Mathematical Theory of Compressible Fluid Flow and writing notes in the margins. He steals it out of her locker while she’s outside at recess and reads:
The leitmotif, the ever recurring melody, is that two things are indispensable in any reasoning, in any description we shape of a segment of reality: to submit to experience and to face the language that is used, with unceasing logical criticism.
He looks up to find her standing there, nervously fingering a Smuckers Cherry Chapstick.
“That’s not mine,” she tells him, sticking out her jaw like she expects a fight. “I found it. It’s super lame.”
“I saw you reading it,” he replies before he can think not to.
“No you didn’t,” she hisses, leaning in and yanking down on his ear, hard. “No you didn’t, you got that?”
His ear hurts and he drops the book. “Ow! Jeez, okay, yes, yes, I got it!”
“Good,” she snarls, and rips the book from his hands. “You tell anybody about this and I’ll kick you so hard you’re whole body will turn into a blueberry.”
And then she’s gone, and Stiles realizes he can’t fully catch his breath.
“Lydia?” Scott repeats, jaw dropping. “As in, Martin?”
Stiles nods, writing LYDIA STILINSKI on the cover page of his notebook. “I can’t prove this yet, but I’m pretty sure she’s an angel fallen from heaven to hang out in Beacon Hills.”
Scott frowns. “Why would an angel hang out in Beacon Hills?”
“Because I’m here, duh.”
“So you think that Lydia Martin is an angel who fell out of heaven so that she could come to our stupid little town and ignore you?”
Stiles has to admit, Scott’s logic is kind of trumping his own. He considers. “Okay. Maybe not a fallen angel. But definitely in the running to become one.”
Scott scrunches his nose like a puppy. “Didn’t she make Kristy Garfield transfer schools?”
“Just saying. That’s not very angelic.”
Stiles heaves a sigh. Scott doesn’t know anything. Seriously, Stiles is 99% sure that if they hadn’t found each other on the playground all those years ago, Scott would definitely be dead somewhere, having gotten lost on the way from his bedroom to the bathroom and starved.
“Dude, angels aren’t all harps and togas,” he explains, as patiently as he can. “In the Bible they stood outside of Eden with flaming swords to run trespassers through.”
Scott grins. “Cool,” he breathes, and then, thoughtfully, “okay, yeah. I could probably see Lydia doing that.”
“This is why you should never doubt my metaphors,” says Stiles.
Stiles reads. He keeps his mother’s leather-bound book on a bookshelf in his room but he still can’t read it because it’s written in Russian. He could probably teach himself Russian if he’d take a week and really try, but he can’t bring himself to do it. The stories are pieces of his mother that he hasn’t touched yet, hasn’t lived yet, hasn’t had yet. The longer he puts it off, the longer he gets to keep something that is new.
He’s smarter than most of the kids in his class, or at least knows more than they do (except for Lydia; Lydia always knows as much as he does). Scott doesn’t understand chemistry or history so Stiles does his homework and lets him cheat off his tests during class. It’s easier than trying to make Scott learn.
It’s not that Scott is stupid, Stiles thinks; it’s just that Scott doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about how hydrogen can bond with an oxygen and basically create life. It’s enough for Scott to know that life exists.
That’s not enough for Stiles.
Stiles wants to know the how of things, the why of them, wants to trace all the heat and flames back to the first spark.
“Be the spark,” his mother used to tell him, but he’s not, he’s not bright enough to be the spark, so he tells himself that the least he can do is find it.
Lydia starts dating Jackson at the end of their freshman year of high school. Stiles is pretty sure she’s only doing it because he made first line of the lacrosse team, because it’s the only thing that makes sense to him. Lydia is brilliant and perfect and possibly made out of bricks and diamonds, and Jackson is a douchey asshole who shoves kids into lockers.
But sometimes he notices the way she looks during lacrosse games, her smile wide and soft, fingers tightening on her purse every time someone hits Jackson too hard.
On the way home the night that someone nearly breaks Jackson’s leg, the player can’t start his car, and there’s a spark plug poking out of Lydia’s back pocket.
“This is just a setback,” Stiles says confidently as the police scanner’s transmission dissolves into white noise. “I can fix this.”
Scott sighs. “Why are we listening to your dad’s scanner again?” he asks.
“Um, so we can solve murders, Scott. Keep up.”
“And why do we want to solve murders?”
“Why do we—they’re murders, Scott. Why wouldn’t we want to solve them?”
“Because we’re in high school?”
“Mary Kate and Ashley were nine.”
Scott opens his mouth to protests, and then shuts it again. “Touché,” he says. “Let’s solve some murders.”
Two days later, Scott says he got bitten by a wolf, and Stiles says, “dude, you’re totally a werewolf.”
He’s kidding, but he’s also right, and in the back of his mind he hears his mother saying, anything can be real.