Michael Stilinski has been living in Berkeley for two years before he finds the soda hop three blocks from his apartment.
To be fair, it’s in the opposite direction of campus, and Michael hasn’t exactly had much time in between classes, his part time job working campus security, and trying to spend time with the few friends he has in the city. Plus, the people eating there were all in pastels and exercise clothes that probably cost more than Michael’s entire collection of (glorious, thank you very much) Hawaiian print shirts. But he still wants to kick himself for being such a reclusive idiot when he walks in the shop and sees an angel on roller skates taking people’s orders.
She has big blond curls that bounce as she skates from table to table, a cute little nose with a tilt at the end, and light brown eyes, like the perfect mix of coffee and milk. Her name tag says Kathy and she doesn’t laugh at him so much as with him when Michael forgets how to order a sandwich because he’s too busy staring at her.
She leaves her number on the check, and when he finally gets up the nerve to call three days later, tells him that she’s always been a sucker for a guy in uniform.
To celebrate his brand new Criminal Justice degree and her MFA, they pack a picnic and drive to the shore in the middle of the night. Kathy’s been anxious, dancing around telling him something all night, and when she won’t touch the champagne, but opens a bottle of water instead, Michael knows.
He laughs and cries and kisses her until they roll off the blanket, already talking about baby names. She tickles him and pushes him away and says he wouldn’t be so eager if he’d ever met her father.
“Daddy’s old-fashioned,” she says. “He’s only ever wanted the best for me.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Michael says. Then he pulls the ring out of his pocket. “You’re going to have to teach me how to say his name before the wedding, though. Otherwise, I’ll just have to call him ‘sir’ for the next thirty years.”
He’s packing up the last of their things in preparation for the moving van scheduled for the morning, when the phone rings. He’s expecting Kathy to call, since she’s been feeding him facts about Beacon Hills ever since she took the teaching position there. Apparently, they have no dedicated police force for the town, but instead use the sheriff system. He’s already put in his application for one of the available deputy positions, eager to start a quiet life there with his bride and their baby.
The phone rings, and he answers, teasing cut short by the strange voice on the end, asking him to come to the hospital. There might be more information, but Michael doesn’t hear it. Doesn’t process anything but the desperate need to get to Kathy right this second.
They make him wait to see her, make him listen to the explanation out in the hall on the other side of a closed door. Collapsed in a store. Bleeding. Emergency surgery. Potential scarring. Kathy is resting, they tell him, but the baby…
Michael leans back against the nearest wall, and tries to remember how to breathe around that word. Gone.
And then he recoups, straightens up, and nods once to himself. The baby is gone, but Kathy is still here. They still have their whole lives ahead of them.
They don’t tell anyone she’s pregnant this time, both still haunted by the memories of unpacking boxes of baby gifts at their first apartment in Beacon Hills.
Instead, they look at houses that are just big enough for the three of them and tell people that they’ve been wanting a home office. They drive two towns over to look at nursery furniture they refuse to order just yet, and they paint the spare room in generic colors that could mean anything.
But still, Michael has taken to stretching out on the sofa, his head in Kathy’s lap, and whispering to the life inside of her. Telling it how improbable it is, how all the doctors said she’d be unlikely to conceive again after the miscarriage. Cheering his little peanut on with all of their combined hopes and dreams, as though if he believes enough, it will work.
The first person they tell is Kathy’s father, because they don’t know if he’ll live to see the baby’s birth. The old man’s been fading lately, fighting the good fight against cancer and losing, and Michael and Kathy want him to know about this one good thing before he goes.
He dies two weeks later, and includes his unborn grandchild in the will.
It’s a boy.
All the agony of losing their daughter is worth it in the moment that Michael holds his son in his arms for the first time, tiny baby fingers curling around just one of his. Kathy says she hopes he doesn’t inherit his father’s ears.
He has his mother’s nose.
Stiles, as he’s called himself since he was first learning to talk and couldn’t manage his own first name (not that Michael can blame him, he still struggles with it first thing some Monday mornings), has been sent home twice from kindergarten already. His teachers are frustrated and completely unable to keep up with him. Kathy thinks it’s hilarious.
“He’s too bright for his own good,” she tells Michael. “In a child, that makes it damn near impossible to concentrate on one thing. Especially if he’s not interested in the topic. We just need to keep him engaged and stimulated. He’ll grown out of it.”
Michael comes home some nights to find the pair of them conked out on the couch, books in hand. It would figure that his and Kathy’s boy would completely skip over the basic books but still refuse to give up his copy of The Cat in the Hat.
The less said about Stiles’s brief stint in Soccer Camp, the better.
It turns out, though, that Stiles loves lacrosse. He’s about as good at it as soccer, but Kathy points out that it doesn’t really matter, not if he’s having fun.
Kathy starts getting headaches.
She says they’re nothing, but Michael sees how much Tylenol she goes through. With every instinct he has, he knows something isn’t right. She brushes him off when he asks, though, and they go to Stiles’s last game of the season.
He warms the bench the whole time, but the highlight is after the game, when Stiles points out Lydia Martin. They’ve heard all about Lydia’s many charms for a while now, but it’s nice to put a strawberry-blonde to the dream their boy is in love with.
Lydia is beautiful, Stiles informs them. And a genius. And perfect. And she doesn’t know it, but one day, she’s going to be his girlfriend.
Michael looks at his wife, and thinks stranger things have happened, and doesn’t burst his son’s bubble.
The headaches get worse.
And then Kathy forgets her father’s name.
Thankfully, Stiles is wrapped up in a Spider-Man story arc and doesn’t notice the tension in the house. He’s just excited to spend the day at a friend’s while his parents “run a few errands.”
It takes a week for the tests to come back, and they refuse to tell Kathy over the phone. Michael takes the day off work, and sits beside her, holding her hand as the terms wash over them. Words like chemotherapy, inoperable, and up to two years.
Two years. On the outside.
Michael’s fingers clench with the urge to grab Kathy and run out of there, away from everything.
They decide not to tell anyone about the tumor if they can help it. If anyone asks, Kathy says she’s quit her job to write a book and take care of Stiles while Michael settles in to his new job as Sheriff. They buy her a wig – a stylish cap of blond curls – and about a dozen scarves. They turn the downstairs office into a guestroom that becomes their bedroom because Kathy never knows when the vertigo will strike, and they color-code her pills so there are never any mix-ups.
And they tell Stiles that his mom is sick, because he’s too smart not to have noticed.
He teaches himself how to cook a few basic things, and starts packing his own lunches, making his own breakfast. Then he starts shoving plates in front of Michael on the nights when Kathy is too sick to do anything but take more morphine and sob out her misery. It’s nothing special; macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, soup, salad…but now when Michael comes home from a late shift, the books Stiles has fallen asleep with are usually cook books and nutrition books.
It breaks Michael’s heart to see his son helping Kathy to the bathroom, but he won’t take this from Stiles. He won’t deny him this last gift to the woman who can still light up a room with her laugh.
Kathy stops taking her pills, and asks Michael to help her hide it from Stiles.
“He’d understand,” she says, sobbing into his shirt. “But I don’t want him to have to.”
Michael rocks his wife’s frail body and kisses the downy, patchy fuzz on her scalp. “I know.”
They go to the beach.
It’s cold and blustery, and Kathy is so bundled up she can barely move, but she refuses to back down. They trudge all the way to a picnic table and have lunch, just the three of them. Michael tells Stiles how he almost blew it from the start because he was so knocked over with how gorgeous Kathy was. Kathy tells Stiles about his sister.
“I would have named her after your dad’s mother,” she says, eyes distant.
“So, what, did Dad lose a bet when I was born?” Stiles asks, and she throws an empty water bottle at him. He sobers. “I wish I’d known her.”
“Me too,” Kathy says, her hands shaking from the pain.
He’s been expecting the call.
Kathy wouldn’t let him hold vigil, and Michael’s glad for it in a not so small part of him. He’d rather think of her with her big blond curls and bright cut-off shorts, teasing his lunch order and his heart out of him. He’d rather remember her spread out on their small bed in that apartment they shared for one year in Berkeley before they moved to Beacon Hills, her naked skin glowing with tan and life and love, a million jokes dancing in her eyes that she has passed on to their son. He’d rather remember how she always burned every batch of cookies she ever made, and he would eat them like they were gourmet delicacies.
He’d rather he didn’t have to do this, but that’s not up to him.
So every day, he sends Stiles off to school, and every day, he goes to work. Kathy’s hospice nurse comes in and clucks about the house, and then the next day they do it all over again.
Until the day Michael gets the call.
He’s in the station, standing at the front desk when someone forwards the call to him without warning; a temp who had no idea that the sheriff has been quietly waiting for his wife to die. But that doesn’t matter once he hears the news. Gone.
He sinks to the floor, knees useless under the weight of the world. His lungs won’t work right and Michael wants, more than anything, to run to Kathy and hold her like he did that day in the hospital sixteen years earlier, when they lost their daughter. He wants to pull himself up and keep going, because that’s what he needs to do, what everyone expects him to do, but he can’t. He just can’t.
It doesn’t matter that he’s been waiting for this. There’s no being ready for losing the love of your life long before the lifetime you pledged is up.
Later, he’ll think that a Thursday afternoon is a strange time for the world to end, but right now all he can think is that he’s going to have to pick Stiles up at lacrosse practice. He’s going to have to tell his son that Kathy is gone.
But Stiles isn’t. And Stiles is going to need him, more than ever.
“He’s such a brilliant, caring boy,” Kathy told him once, not long after her diagnosis. “I hope the world doesn’t chew him up and spit him out again.”
“Lucky for him, his dad carries a gun,” Michael teased. “I dare anyone to hurt our son.”
“Life will do that for us.” She kissed him then. “But I think with you to show him the way, he’ll turn out all right.”
Finally, Michael learns how to breathe around the sucking chest wound that was his heart and soul. He struggles to his feet, acutely aware of dozens of eyes on his every move. The entire town will know Kathy’s dead within the hour, but at least that will save him the trouble of having to make calls.
He wipes the tears off his cheeks, knowing they’re far from the last, nods once, and heads for the door.