At nine, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen, Erica and her mother have recycled versions of the same conversation.
Both of Erica’s parents are breathtaking in a way that’s not at all unexpected when you consider that they met at an International Graduate Students mixer at Berkeley—her mother wearing a nametag with a squarely-printed SPAIN on it and her dad, shamed-faced, CANADA—and had Erica a scant ten months later, the ink still drying on the prints of their wedding photos. The pictures of Erica’s parents that are scattered around their house are achingly perfect: Erica’s mother, thin and bronze, with her mane of dark hair flickering down around her shoulders, framed under the curve of her father’s arm, his blue eyes snapping and clear as river water.
Erica’s mother is a writer and Erica’s got a debilitating disease that has ruled her life with a greediness rivaled only by her little brother’s obsession with soldering small electrical objects to one another; there’s not a lot of money, even when you take into account the relatively low cost of living in Beacon Hills, but they’re comfortable.
That’s how Erica’s mother justifies the trips to Beacon Hills Mall, where they stand in H&M and her mother flicks through a rack of shirts, her teeth worrying at her lower lip. Erica’s mother is thirty-nine and her arms are thin and defined because she runs three miles every morning, regardless of rain or shine or shitty California indecisive weather. “What about this one?” Erica’s mother asks, lifting a thin blue tee from the middle of the rack and holding it out to Erica like a peace offering.
Erica stares at it: the heather blue fabric and the raglan lines of the shoulder seams and the flattering scoop neck that exposes the gaunt collarbones of the plastic hangar. Theoretically, it’s a nice shirt, and it’d be even nicer clinging to the sharp lines of her mother’s body.
From inside the wasteland of her sweatshirt, Erica sinks her neck into hidden space and says, “For you? It’s nice.” She means it as a desperate parry against her mother’s well wishes, and she searches frantically for a subject she can change to, to perpetuate the illusion of casual mother-daughter bonding.
She’s not fast enough. “No, Cita, for you,” her mother urges, pressing the shoulder and sleeve of the shirt to Erica’s front. “Ay,” she whistles through her teeth, “look at your eyes!” Her mother smiles and it crinkles the corners of her dark, liquid eyes, turning them into cartoon parodies of themselves.
Over her mother’s shoulder, Erica watches with equal parts dread and resignation as Lydia Martin walks through the front door of H&M, frozen Starbucks drink in one hand and Pauline Queensland in the other. Erica doesn’t even have that much against Lydia Martin in principle; she’s one of the few classmates that Erica has who doesn’t actively make her life hell and she’s never said anything snide to Erica about her clothes or her hair or her face.
But Erica still hates Lydia in a way that’s easy because Lydia is beautiful and effortless and Erica has never forgotten the four weeks in eighth grade when Lydia had tutored her in algebra. Erica had missed three weeks of school and was the sort of behind that generally characterized only Scott McCall and Lydia, at the top of their class, had stayed behind on Mondays and Wednesdays to impatiently run Erica through factoring until their teacher had felt that Erica had sufficiently recovered.
“No,” Erica tells her mother, looking at the shirt but most of her attention still on Lydia as she puts down her drink and picks up a pair of burnt orange pants, frowning at the detailing along the side seam. “I—I don’t need any more shirts, Mama.”
“It’s not about need,” her mother says dismissively. “It’s about want! Wanting to be a beautiful young woman. Here, take this,” and her mother shoves the shirt, along with two nearby skirts and a pair of jeans that look like they’d barely fit around a baby gazelle, let alone Erica’s gigantic thighs, into her arms.
In the dressing room, Erica pulls off her sweatshirt and then the oversize t-shirt underneath, purposely not looking into the mirror or the direct glare of the lights overhead. She can hear her mother outside, waiting on a bench for some sort of sartorial miracle to occur; for Erica to throw open the door to the dressing room and emerge, a la Charaxes brutus, cocoon of epilepsy and medication and hateful teenage everything successfully shed.
Erica pulls on the shirt and faces the mirror.
Three minutes later, she comes out of the dressing room and hands everything back to the attendant, including the jeans she’d only gone so far as to unbutton before giving them up as a lost cause. “Let’s go,” she tells her mother through numb lips. “Papa and Ben should be done by now.”
“Are you sure?” her mother asks, voice crackling with disbelief. “None of them?”
“I don’t need more clothes,” Erica reiterates, and she has to say it again as they walk by a display of flirty, frilly skirts, and then once more outside of Forever 21, which is hatefully lit by brilliant white lights and brimming with thin, enthusiastic-looking girls and their tiny stick legs.
“Look!” Ben shouts when Erica and her mother find him outside of the Discovery Channel store. He opens his plastic shopping bag and reveals a remote-control helicopter, his birthday present of choice. As with every other toy produced by the Discovery Channel store, it seems to feature fourteen unnecessary lights and bits that spin and make noise. “You build it yourself,” Ben continues in rapturous delight.
“Sounds dangerous,” Erica observes, trying to be nice, and Ben’s smile grows even larger, a gaping maw eating the bottom half of his face.
“Really?!” Ben shrieks.
“Ai madre,” mutters Erica’s mother under her breath, and her father laughs.
Erica’s mother performs some sort of psychic married-people conversation with Erica’s father, who takes Ben under his arm and steers him towards Macy’s and then the parking lot beyond it, where their car is parked. Erica’s mother switches a bag full of half-priced Barnes & Nobles Classics to her left arm and puts her right hand at the small of Erica’s back, although how she finds it through the lumpy and shapeless sweatshirt is a mystery.
“Cita,” her mother says quietly, “baby, it’s okay that you don’t like the things at that store.” This is a different opening line than previous iterations of this conversation, but Erica can see where it will lead as if it’s been sculpted in tubes of neon, blinking over a familiar stretch of highway. “You look so much like your grandmother,” Erica’s mother continues. Her warm hand is barely discernable against Erica’s back. “All this hair.”
No one else in Erica’s family is blonde, or particularly pale, excepting this mysterious grandmother that Erica has never met. There’s not a lot of money to go back to Spain, not with all of the doctor’s bills and Erica’s consistent medication, and Erica’s grandmother has gone on record to say that over her dead body is she going to take four trains to Valencia and then fly halfway across the globe just to stay for a few days. Erica’s mother has explained, in a controlled and deceivingly calm tone, that over her dead body will Erica’s grandmother stay in their house for longer than two weeks; the matter has never resolved itself.
Erica’s lips still feel anesthetized; she licks them and the first itchy sensation that rewards her for her labors is the left corner of her lower lip cracking and splitting. She sucks it between her teeth until the taste of the coppery taint has been assimilated into the rest of her mouth. Finally, she says, “I know, Mama.”
Purportedly, this stubborn beast of a grandmother was something of a looker in her day. According to Erica’s mother, all the men of her village wanted a piece of her pie. There are scant pictures of her in the house, and even fewer of her in her prime, but Erica has examined them all thoroughly. She’s spent hours in total tracing the line of her grandmother’s nose and then her own in a mirror. It’s a depressingly stark representation of how far Erica’s family is willing to go to lie about her appearance: yes, Erica’s grandmother is a looker; and no, Erica doesn’t look anything like her.
“Okay, baby,” her mother says, and she tugs Erica closer with a fistful of sweatshirt. There might be some shred of embarrassment lurking deep inside Erica at being manhandled by her tiny, delicate elf of a mother in the middle of Beacon Hills Mall, but if it’s there, it’s buried under all the other reasons Erica has to be embarrassed about her general existence. “You’re my beautiful girl,” Erica’s mother murmurs in Spanish, too low to be heard over the pounding low-volume mall soundtrack of Justin Bieber’s greatest hits. Erica feels the words against the skin of her neck and they crawl like ants over her spine before burrowing in.
Erica, for understandable reasons that don’t need to be verbalized, hates pretty much everything about both herself and her epilepsy, but the one thing she is grateful for is that her seizures didn't start until she turned eight.
Ben is two. Erica’s mother is giving him a bath in the upstairs bathroom, teaching him a silly nursery rhyme in Spanish that is supposed to remind him of all the places he has to clean, like behind his ears and knees and between his toes.
Erica remembers that because her first experience with an aura is with Ben shouting, “Dedos! Dedos! Dedos de pie!” as she tastes blood in the back of her throat. At the age of eight, Erica’s experiences with blood have been limited to the occasional skinned knee and the shocking instance of watching her father slice the tip off of his pinky finger while chopping up potatoes for a tortilla.
There are a handful of microseconds wherein Erica has time to think, dazed, Did I bite my tongue?
And then Erica wakes up to her mother screaming at the 911 operator in hysterically florid Spanish; Ben, shampoo still in patchy tufts on his head, crying and haphazardly swaddled in a large towel; and Erica’s arms and legs are bleeding from dozens of tiny scratches and she can taste blood, for real this time, because her mouth is overflowing with it. She feels it dribble down her chin, thinned by saliva, and her tongue is swollen and angry where it is tucked against her cheek.
Eventually, Erica’s mother calms down enough to remember that she speaks fluent English. An ambulance comes and Ben stops crying because he’s fascinated by anything that has wheels and a siren and a pair of EMTs strap Erica to a stretcher and load her into the back, cataloguing her injuries and attempting to calm her mother down.
Erica is grateful that she’s eight because it means the decision that her parents have to make afterwards—not to have any more children—has no bearing on Ben’s existence. Erica gets the unique pleasure of listening to her parents crying through the vent that their bedrooms share; she hears every broken word that her mother says when her parents make the decision to have her mother go back on birth control.
“We can’t do this to another baby, Raoul,” her mother says. “Not if Benicio gets them, too.”
That’s what idiopathic means to Erica, when she’s eight and nine and ten, eavesdropping on her parents and wishing that she could put a pillow over her ears and not have to worry about actually suffocating: What if Benicio gets them, too? Idiopathic means every day until Ben turns thirty will be filled with terrifying potential for Erica’s parents.
Ben is unconcerned, even the year that he turns eight and Erica turns fourteen. Their parents spend all three hundred and sixty-five days of that year on edge. Erica’s mother has already replaced their mahogany coffee table with a gigantic wicker basket purchased from the garage sale that Melissa McCall had held a week after her useless husband called it quits and left Beacon Hills with the meanest secretary Dr. Deaton’s vet clinic has ever had, but that year—the year that Ben blows out the gigantic 8 candle on top of his cake (the party is Spiderman-themed)—Erica’s mother sells their end tables and buys sturdy standing lamps and enough throw pillows to drown a dog.
Erica has three grand mals that year. She face-plants during the one in April and breaks her nose, which doesn’t do a lot to improve her general appearance. She doesn’t even have the benefit of saying it adds anything rakish to her appearance, like she reads about every romance novel hero ever who breaks his nose in some pursuit or another; Erica wasn’t made for rakishness.
Ben wins the regional science fair in Redding and goes with his five-fan hurricane simulator to the state competition, where he gets fourth place and a certificate that Erica’s parents frame and hang over his dresser. There isn’t enough room in the car for Erica and the five fans, so she spends the day with Melissa McCall, who has the weekend to herself while her son visits his father.
Erica and Mrs. McCall bake cookies; it’s clearly something Mrs. McCall has been longing to do with someone, and Erica wouldn’t trust Scott to put together a Lunchables pizza properly, let alone a batch of cookies. Besides, no one in the Reyes household has done much in the way of cooking since the incident with the potatoes and Erica’s father’s finger.
They eat them off of the cookie sheet with a rubber spatula. Erica almost expects someone to come along and tell her that this isn’t a valid life experience and she has to go home and wait for her normal parents and her achingly normal little brother, but instead Mrs. McCall pours Erica a glass of pink lemonade with a spoonful of Splenda and they eat so many cookies that Erica has chocolate in places she wasn’t even aware were exposed to any baked goods.
At half past four, after they load the dishwasher and Erica finishes drying the last of the cookie sheets with a dishcloth, Mrs. McCall tops off Erica’s glass of pink lemonade and sends her into the living room to work on her homework. Erica and schoolwork are passing acquaintances at the best of times and mortal blood enemies at the worst of them. She does all right in the classes that rely on reading but the ones that have anything even vaguely resembling a formula involved are basically impossible.
Erica is reading the chapter on the FOIL method and the variables have begun to rise off of the page and dance around each other with mocking little tilts to their arms and legs when the front door to Mrs. McCall’s house bangs open and the boy in the doorway shouts, “Scott! Dude, I sent you, like, twelve PMs, what the hell.”
Erica almost falls off of the couch; she drops her pencil and it takes the opportunity to run for safety underneath the couch, the wily little bastard. Mrs. McCall appears from the dining room to scowl at the boy who Erica now realizes is Stiles Stilinski, Scott’s shadow and better half. She shares a few classes with Stiles; it’s impossible not to notice him, considering how frequently and loudly he shares his observations on balancing chemical equations with the rest of their twenty-person science class.
“Stiles,” Mrs. McCall says with an air of long-suffering, “Scott isn’t here this weekend. He’s at his dad’s.”
“What,” Stiles says, “I don’t remember that at all Mrs. McCall, and is it possible that I smell the gloriousness of Grandma Delgada’s famous chocolate chip cookies?”
Mrs. McCall sighs, audibly, and her shoulders crumple. “Better you than Scott, I suppose,” she says under her breath, and then she waves Stiles towards the kitchen. “Be my guest, Stiles.”
“Thanks, Mrs. McCall!” Stiles cries. He offers her his palm for a high-five, which she ignores in favor of giving him a tired, unimpressed eyebrow lift. “Right, cool,” Stiles continues, not at all thrown off by her lack of enthusiasm. “I’ll just show myself in, I guess.” He shuts the door behind him and barrels into the kitchen with speed that speaks to long-standing familiarity.
Stiles sucks all of the air in the room out with him when he vanishes through the kitchen doorway. From where she is frozen on the couch, her hand still curled into a claw around the absence of her pencil, Erica can hear his delighted cries as he unearths the Ziploc bag of cookies from where Mrs. McCall had hidden them in the cabinet above the fridge.
Erica doesn’t have very many friends, as she isn’t allowed to participate in any high-stress activities—which includes most of Beacon Hills Middle School’s extracurricular activities—and she’s in and out of school so often that she might as well not be enrolled. She’s read about the kind of friendship that it seems like Stiles and Scott have, the type where you’ve been friends for forever and your parents just sort of deal with you falling in and out of each other’s houses, but she’d filed that under Things People Made Up for Literary Purposes, like attractive pirates and animals that talk.
Stiles reappears with two cookies in each hand, his cheeks full of another. “These are exceptionally awesome today, Mrs. McCall,” he observes in a shower of crumbs.
Mrs. McCall presses her thumb and forefinger to each temple and massages them roughly. “You can thank Erica, Stiles. She helped.”
The second that Stiles realizes she’s sitting on the couch feels like a clap of thunder over Erica’s head. Stiles’ face is rounded under the kind of haircut that Erica’s mother would die before letting Ben try; it’s aggressively unattractive, but it feels less intentional than Erica’s own tendency to buy clothing two sizes too large for her shoulders. “Yo!” Stiles exclaims. More crumbs explode into the area around him.
“Stiles,” Mrs. McCall thunders without even looking. Stiles immediately looks guilty; he swallows the mouthful of cookie and mouths, Sorry!
“Didn’t see you,” Stiles tells Erica when he’s finished. “What are you doing here? Scott’s not around. Wait, are you friends with Scott now? He didn’t tell me!” Stiles appears outraged by this development; as far as Erica can tell, it’s because Scott hasn’t informed Stiles as to an important part of his life, not because Scott has seen fit to befriend the girl that is so socially toxic even Vernon Boyd won’t share a lunch table with her. Not that Scott has befriended Erica—for all that their mothers are best friends and Mrs. McCall seems to always be the ER nurse that checks Erica in after one of her grand mals, Scott has said about twelve words to Erica in the entirety of their acquaintance, most of them along the lines of, “Do you have a pencil?”
“My parents took my brother to Redding,” Erica says. Her face feels swollen and itchy, like her tongue does after one of her seizures. She wants to look at Stiles’ face for a long time, until she can absorb every nuance of his expression, but that’s too embarrassing to contemplate, so she looks at Mrs. McCall’s shoes instead. They’re slim black slippers; her feet are crossed at the ankle as she leans against the doorframe leading into the dining room.
Erica waits for the inevitable—Why didn’t you stay at home by yourself? Are you some kind of baby?—but Stiles must shrug and move on because what he actually says is, “Have you finished the problem set for algebra yet?”
Involuntarily, Erica shoots a look of loathing towards her textbook and pile of notes, splayed across the coffee table like the remains of Jack the Ripper’s final victim. “No,” she mutters.
“Yeah, me neither,” Stiles says. “I was gonna bother Scott about it, but I guess he’s not around. D’you wanna work on it together? That cool, Mrs. McCall?”
Erica can’t decide if she wants the couch to eat her up to her burning ears or if she’d rather be struck by lightening and instantly incinerated. Both options seem kinder than the alternative, which is Stiles Stilinski receiving a nod from Mrs. McCall and then joining Erica on the couch, where he throws open his backpack and it belches up a series of crumpled papers. Once he’s sorted his algebra notes from the ones from U.S. History, Stiles offers them with a flourish to the coffee table gods. The edges are littered with unintelligible scrawls and bad drawings and a couple Lydia Stilinski’s that Stiles attempts to casually scratch out before Erica can see them.
His stupid and fairly understandable crush on Lydia Martin aside, Stiles’ notes are revelatory; they’re far more sensible than Erica’s, and the sections where Erica had given up and drawn big question marks are carefully drawn out and explained in Stiles’. By six, Stiles has single-handedly taught Erica more about algebra than three weeks of tutoring by Lydia and two one-on-one sessions with Mr. Bernais, and she finishes boxing in her last answer with a triumphant flourish that she’s never before associated with math of any kind.
Stiles rounds off his stream-of-consciousness babbling with, “Why did your parents take your brother to Redding?”
It’s the first direct question Erica has been asked all afternoon that can’t be answered with yes or no. “He’s competing in the regional science fair,” Erica says, focusing on lining up the edges of her homework.
“Oh, hey, that’s awesome,” Stiles says, with actual enthusiasm. “What’s his project? I tried to do that in third grade, but I ended up kind of blowing up Mrs. Morales’ classroom and she swore that I’d go to the competition over her dead body, and at that point it seemed cruel to continue on in pursuit of scientific truth.”
Erica tells him, “I remember that!” and then, “He’s simulated a hurricane and is using it to demonstrate the effectiveness of anti-hurricane architectural structures.” Ben had checked out so many books on architecture and engineering that the librarians at the library downtown had started setting them aside for him when they were returned; Ben is the sort of wunderkind that charms librarians.
“Jeez,” Stiles mutters. “Is your brother a freak architecture prodigy or something?”
To her surprise, Erica almost tells him the truth: We aren’t allowed to have outdoor hobbies, just in case. She swallows down the inclination, like she swallows most of the things that she wants to say, and she settles for, “Ben really likes houses.”
“So do I,” Stiles informs her, “because, hello, roofs are awesome and who doesn’t like doors, but that doesn’t mean I spend my spare time imagining how they’d hold up in a hurricane. When was the last time Beacon Hills even saw a hurricane?”
“Probably never,” Erica admits with a giggle.
Then it’s six-thirty, and Stiles shouts as he jumps to his feet that he’s going to be late for dinner, crap, Dad’s going to kill me, and he waves good-bye to Erica and thanks Mrs. McCall for the cookies as he dashes out of the door, still stuffing his notes back into his bag. Erica drifts to the front window and watches him run for where his bike has been left in a heap on the front lawn, next to where Scott’s waits for its owner to return.
As he pedals away, Erica imagines herself as Elaine, gazing down from her white tower as Lancelot paddles away on his boat, up the river and away from her for a time that will stretch into forever. This is a good analogy; it’s sustained as Erica follows it through to the natural conclusion, where Lydia is an impatient and imperious Guinevere, and then of course Jackson Whittemore is King Arthur—does that make Danny Mahealani Merlin? He’s Jackson’s best friend, which would probably make him Gwaine, or maybe Kay, but Erica has never liked Kay and Gwaine had made a lot of stupid decisions; that doesn’t seem very Dannyish. So Danny is Merlin, then.
And Erica is Elaine, alone in her tower.
After Erica’s mother goes to Mendelsohn & Sons Framing on East Laurel and gets the certificate from the state competition and medal from the regional science fair framed, three months pass and Ben turns nine. Then two years pass, and Ben turns eleven. Erica is seventeen, the oldest in her class because of the year, when she had been first diagnosed, that she’d had to repeat. Her crush on Stiles Stilinski is demoralizing and it is the only part of Erica that displays any kind of strength; it’s a cancerous strength, tied into her marrow, and she can’t get rid of it.
Ben is still healthy. Erica’s parents, crippled by the brochures on Living with Epilepsy that they keep in a box in their shared office, don’t let him try out for the town soccer league and Ben retaliates by deconstructing every automated toy they have ever bought him and using them to hybridize a robot with their Roomba. Erica watches from her bed, chin propped on her knees, as she procrastinates on her Spanish homework by reading her mother’s worn copy of La casa de los espíritus. She sees Ben, blazing with purpose, march past her open door with his arms full of the Roomba and its associated parts. Four hours later, Ben goes downstairs to angrily make himself a sandwich and he brings her back a pile of Fig Newtons; she consumes them with steady-minded thoroughness as the smell of fried electrical circuits seep out from under Ben’s door.
“Madre de dios y las putas,” Erica’s mother shrieks when she sees the robot. “Is that our vacuum? Benicio Dominico Fonte Reyes, if you don’t fix that you are grounded for the rest of your natural life.”
“I want to play town soccer,” Ben says mutinously, and that’s how Erica’s brother becomes the most promising goalie seen in a Beacon Hills soccer jersey in forty years.
It’s not fair to Ben for Erica to resent him. She isn’t allowed to do normal teenage things like drive or stress about boys or do anything between the hours of eleven p.m. and seven a.m. but sleep and they don’t have cable because Erica’s parents are determined to live up to their Berkeley ideology even if they had to give up working there to move closer to the best epilepsy specialist California has to offer. Erica eats, does homework, and reads; her days are monotonous and unbroken, except for when she feels the wave that begins in her head and crashes down into her stomach: the aura that preludes a seizure.
By February of her sophomore year, Erica hasn’t had a grand mal in ten months and her medication is “working great”—Erica has twenty pounds that weigh around her stomach and thighs like a reminder that she’s either going to die before her thirtieth birthday or turn into a gigantic floral-bedecked Aunt Marge; her face and shoulders and back are marked by craters and red bumps that scar over in what feels like seconds; there’s a video of her shitting herself on YouTube that has 400,000 hits and is apparently “deeply hilarious,” to judge by the most up-voted comment—and Ben is just as much of a prodigy in his physical pursuits as he has been in his intellectual ones, picking up hockey and basketball after soccer as if he was born to them.
There’s a new player in the Camelot of Beacon Hills—Allison Argent, who dresses and looks like she might be a model who moonlights as a singer-songwriter. She’s the Ragnall to Scott’s well-meaning Gwaine, except for the bit where Erica can’t see anyone even trying to curse Allison with ugliness and disfigurement; it probably wouldn’t stick. From the back of the classroom, where Erica can read under the cover of her desk and not have to worry about being singled-out, she can observe the petty nuances of their interactions.
The only person who looks like he gives even less of a shit is Vernon Boyd, who goes exclusively by Boyd now. Unlike Stiles, who’d managed to make his nickname stick by virtue of not telling anyone his first name, Boyd enforces the shift from Vernon through utilization of being fucking terrifying. Erica can’t stop thinking of him as Vernon; but it’s not exactly like she has a lot of chances to screw it up, since she speaks maybe five words a day, three of which are Here and pizza, please in homeroom and the cafeteria respectively.
Erica was taught to read by a writer and an insurance investigator; she pauses at the end of each chapter to absorb whatever she’s just read, and if that end aligns with a particularly salient point in whatever class she’s in, she inches more and more towards not failing her sophomore year. Erica doesn’t want to do anything with her life beyond sit on her bed and read, preferably with the covers drawn over her head and a pile of Chips Ahoy waiting on a paper towel on her bedside table. She’s not stupid enough to mention that when Ms. Morrell calls her into her office to discuss Erica’s post-high school goals.
Sometimes, when Erica pauses, the point is not salient and the teacher is barely interesting, and Erica ends up feeling her eyes drift to the back of Stiles’ head, which is either industriously bent over his notebook or tilted so that he has a clear line of sight out of the window, depending on which class they’re in. If she doesn’t share a class with Stiles, she angles her head to the side and imagines what Boyd is doing at his desk. He has a solidity about him that he wears drawn over his head like a suit of armor.
Erica doesn’t know who he is, when she casts The Once and Future King from her classmates. He shows no loyalty to Jackson/King Arthur or any perceived social order, but he’s not so bitter that she could tag him as Agravaine or Lot. There are so few apathetic characters for Erica to pick from. Everyone in Arthurian times had displayed a clarity of purpose that Erica envies. Either they hated Arthur and wanted to kill him, or they swore an oath and gave him their life and their sword.
She imagines him on the fringe, like Elaine, but there are only fathers for her to pick from: Bors of Brittany, father of Lancelot; or Nimue’s father, who had been so fearful of Merlin’s power that he gave his daughter in marriage before thinking it through. None of them fit Boyd where he sits in the back corner of the classroom, his face expressionless and vast.
Sometimes, Erica does the unthinkable and mixes legends—because she can imagine him perfectly as Mimir, the wisest of the Aesir, who lost his head in his pursuit of truth. Maybe Boyd only seems wise because he doesn’t speak and sits alone at lunch and works at the ice rink where Erica has to sit on the bleachers once a week and cheer on Ben’s hockey games; but when Boyd speaks, it is always short and direct and accomplishes just as much as yards of Stiles’ babbling.
What impresses Erica most about Boyd is that he actually sits in the cafeteria at lunch. Erica hasn’t set foot in a cafeteria beyond picking up her food since she was twelve; she eats outside when the weather permits and in an alcove off of the corridor that leads to the library when it’s raining. She has to lick her fingers carefully to make sure that she doesn’t smudge oil into any of the pages of her book, and if she does that she can trick herself into thinking that she’s eating slowly, as if that will stop the weight from building onto her bones.
In the middle of April, Stiles almost steps on Erica when he takes a corner at a flat run and then propels himself into the alcove. “BAH!” he shrieks when he sees Erica, feet folded as far under her as her sweatpants will permit, holding a piece of pepperoni in one hand and American Gods splayed with the other. “Hoooly crap,” he gasps, holding a hand flat against his chest. Erica can see the bones in his fingers when he does that; it does funny, twisted things to her insides. “Erica?!”
“Hey,” Erica says quietly, and then she stuffs the piece of pepperoni into her mouth so she doesn’t say something stupid and involuntary.
“I didn’t realize this was—your thing,” Stiles says, gesturing to the alcove as if it’s her bedroom. She waits for him to say, I like what you’ve done with the place, but he stuffs his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and rocks back on his heels. “Cool. Cool. Quiet. I dig it.”
Erica peels another piece of pepperoni from her slice of pizza, which is congealing in the cold, recycled air of the hall. “Yeah,” she says. “It’s, um, real cool.” She points her book to where a spider is industriously building a web in the far corner.
“I’ve seen worse,” Stiles cackles, “trust me, at least this place isn’t, like, burned down,” and then he blanches, swallows his tongue, and spits, “Right, this has been great, gotta go, catch you on the flip side,” and, after checking the direction from which he’d been running, darts down past the library to the front lawn. Stiles does weird like Lydia Martin does fabulous; Erica thinks about him but she doesn’t analyze his behavior because (a) she knows less about psychology than she knows about thermochemistry, which is to say, less than negative nothing, and (b) that way lies madness.
She forgets about Stiles, and the rest of her pizza, as she returns to her book. American Gods is one of Erica’s favorites; she can recite whole sections of it, and Shadow’s calm, methodical nature appeals to her as the frame through which she views the ridiculous, overblown machinations of Loki and the All-Father.
Erica keeps her books at school separate from her books at home; she reads Possession for the fortieth time that weekend, on the living room couch so her father can watch her head from his desk in his office. Her mother drives Ben to soccer practice and grocery shopping and offers to take Erica to the mall with a full and obvious look of distaste at the ratty hoodie Erica has wrapped herself in, but Erica shakes her off and devours her favorite section, the love letters, to the irregular sound of her father typing the edits to a case report.
She picks up American Gods again on Monday and reaches the end of a chapter as Mr. Finstock begins a rant apparently unrelated to their current topic in Mike Greenberg’s general direction. Stiles isn’t in class and Erica’s eyes play hopscotch, darting between familiar sites, until she lands on Boyd and recognizes in him, finally, the same draw she feels to Shadow. I read you like I read my favorite book, she thinks, and it shocks her into watching him outright. She catches so much more when she isn’t trying to drink him in out of her peripheral vision; his features are stony and his notes, when she looks at them, are written in a clear boilerplate hand. Even if Erica can’t catch him writing, he clearly follows everything that’s being said.
The thought ignites a pilot light in Erica’s chest; on Tuesday, even though it’s dumb and reckless and the sort of stunt she would expect Ben to pull, Erica goes to gym and doesn’t remind Finstock—who always needs reminding, he’s the least effective teacher at Beacon Hills High School and the most glaring example of how lacrosse runs the town’s administrative network—that, as an epileptic, the last thing she should be doing is climbing a rock wall.
Erica has failed at many things in her life, so she has no idea why failing at the rock wall tightens the screws digging into her head; but it does. Erica wants to unearth hidden depths in herself, the way she discovered them in Boyd. She feels within herself the potential to be better than Elaine, more than a tableau in a William Holman Hunt painting. It’s fairly stupid to think that somehow rock climbing—which Erica hates and doesn’t actually want to be good at—is going to be the key to unlocking her tower, but that’s what Erica thinks when she sneaks back into the gym and begins to climb.
And then, of course, she tastes it: blood.
Erica’s mother collects her from the hospital and, after taking one look at her, turns to Melissa McCall and whispers, “Should she be that pale? She’s never that pale. Did she cut herself open when she fell—lose some blood?”
“Believe it or not,” Mrs. McCall whispers back, “Scott caught her before she hit the ground. It should be the same recovery as always.” There’s a pause as both women turn to look at Erica where she’s sitting in a wheelchair, fiddling with the hem of her sweatshirt. She pretends not to hear them, just as she’s pretending not to feel the aching, tight burn of where Derek Hale had sunk his teeth into her skin and then deeper, teeth scraping bone, tongue brushing along opened flesh. “Do you need me to check on you tomorrow?”
After a long second, Erica’s mother says, “Thanks, Melissa, but we should be okay.”
Silently, Erica sends her apologies to Ben and his fledgling soccer career; if it survives Erica’s most dramatic grand mal to date, it’s going to be a miracle of biblical—maybe even Genesis-level—proportions. Erica’s mother’s hands, when they grip the back of the wheelchair, are shaking. Erica is anticipating a full-blown screaming match about the rock wall, and she’d frankly deserve it, but her mother retaliates with unexpected and discomfiting silence as she loads Erica, as gentle as if she’s handling a first edition Sir Walter Scott, into the passenger seat of the car.
Erica is still nauseous and sticky-feeling from the hospital and her unexpected detour to the morgue. If she doesn’t think about Derek directly or the enthralling way that it had felt to have his eyes directly on her, she doesn’t have to think about the fact that she’s either going to die or wake up as a werewolf tomorrow morning. No one has looked at Erica directly in years, just for the act of looking; adults are always checking for signs of mental instability or imminent collapse.
After she pours herself into a shower and half-heartedly scrubs at her hair, Erica examines the bite in the mirror over the sink in the upstairs bathroom. Through sheer willpower and a not insignificant amount of physical maneuvering, Erica hasn’t looked at herself in a mirror in two years beyond the simple frame of individual body parts: hair, chin, shoulder, calf. Now she has a new reference frame: bite. The sheer sexuality of it is uncomfortable and shocking; no part of Erica has ever touched another person’s mouth, beyond the brush of her father’s lips across her hair.
Now, a man has sunk his teeth into Erica’s flesh and sucked the site of contact clean. The parallels are so obvious that a first year undergraduate could write a halfway competent paper about it; Erica does, in her head, as she pulls on an XXL t-shirt with Fernando Torres’ jersey number on the back and a pair of men’s sweatpants with BERKELEY written down the left leg. The bite was Erica’s first taste of potential erotic fulfillment, and she realizes as she curls up in bed that she wants the whole apple’s worth of knowledge.
The fact that she even wakes up the next morning tells her that the bite has taken. The overwhelming rush of sensation that follows communicates in wide swaths of narration that it wasn’t a dream; from her place in bed, with her bedroom door open, she can hear the individual drops of water collect in the base of the filter and drip drip drip out of the coffeemaker. She can smell her father’s chest expand, the muscle fibers stretching and relaxing as he idly flips through the newspaper at the kitchen table.
Erica rolls out of bed and her body is a revelation. The energy of the shift has burned through the fat deposits and acne scars and she stares at herself in the bathroom mirror, touching her chin with disbelieving fingers, as she whispers, “This cannot be possible.” The last time Erica read a book featuring this kind of transformation, she was eleven and gullible. She’s Hermione on the night of the Yule Ball, permanently Sleekeazied. She’s Ragnall, without the emotional complexity of an idiot husband.
“Me cago en la puta,” spits Erica’s mother when Erica walks into the kitchen, choking on her coffee. “Cita?”
“I’m feeling better,” Erica tells her. “Can I go to school today?” If she books it, she can probably make it in time for lunch and her afternoon classes.
“Have you been exercising, baby?” her mother asks, eyes narrowed suspiciously. It looks like they’re going to have that conversation about the rock wall after all; but Erica heads her off with a bit of hand-waving about salads for lunch and it’s not as if Erica’s mother can dispute the physical evidence before her eyes. Erica, who has never before willingly gone to class when she could stay home and read in bed all day, plays the I’m going to fail if I miss any more school card with ruthless abandon and her mother finally accedes, grudgingly, if Erica promises to come home and rest immediately afterwards.
“Of course,” Erica promises, threading her fingers together behind her back. “Um, can I borrow something to wear?”
It—being a werewolf—doesn’t work like Erica had assumed it would. She can, indeed, smell just about everything off of everyone, but it works a bit like reading people’s expressions. While some are so open that it’s impossible to not understand what they’re feeling—she knows more, for example, about Scott McCall and Allison Argent’s sex life than should be legal under the terms of the Geneva Convention—but others require familiarity and context clues to place the particulars.
The experience is sort of like being handed a sixth sense and not being told how to use it; a sixth and a seventh, really, since Erica’s sexuality is unexpectedly difficult to operate properly. She’s been handed the keys to a piece of heavy machinery and the one who did the handing over, she learns eventually, knows fuck all about how to work it.
All in all, that it takes her parents until the end of the summer to say anything is more than a minor miracle: it’s frankly astonishing, and Erica at first dismisses it as lucky and then circles back around to viewing it as a manifestation of years of guilt they’ve been stockpiling about their homebound useless epileptic daughter. Until April of her sophomore year of high school, Erica has never slept with her bedroom door shut; she’s never left the house without one of her parents in attendance; she has a cell phone but it’s the least used of any on their family share plan, because no one calls or texts Erica except the members of her own family.
And then, of course, April happens and Erica’s bedroom door is shut more often than not, to account for the fact that Erica isn’t home at night. She has more texts than she knows what to do with: perplexing orders from Derek, frantic question marks from Isaac when he doesn’t hear back from her right away, perfectly organized and grammatically flawless interjections or comments or questions from Boyd.
Erica hits her former crush in the face with a piece of a car; she wears a leather jacket and puts on enough lipstick that she smears red like blood across Derek’s face; she walks with an exaggerated sway and she wears shoes with stupidly high heels and she goes to H&M and blows allowance normally regulated to books on a set of tank tops a size too small and jeans that run up her new legs like a hot pair of hands.
She breaks both of her arms, dislocates one of her shoulders, cracks a rib, and shatters her tibia. She is kidnapped and tortured by both a human and a werewolf; she kisses four men, one woman, and has her nose broken, for the second time, by a fist that is as hard as steel. The second time that her nose heals, the damage from the original break disappears altogether. Erica methodically runs a finger across all the scars on her life from her years with epilepsy and she wipes them away; she molds the clay back into as perfect a shape as she can manage.
And Erica kills a man with her bare hands; she rips out his throat with her teeth and she drinks so much of his blood that it makes her sick and dizzy and she has to stumble, with her arm looped over Boyd’s massive, rock formation of a shoulder, back to Derek’s house under the pale sliver of the new moon.
Maybe it’s unsurprising that it’s six hours after Erica becomes a killer that she climbs through her bedroom window, holding herself awkwardly to brace her still-healing bones, and her parents are both sitting on her bed. She knows better than to think Ben is asleep; she can see the knee of his pajamas where he’s crouched outside of the door. Even worse, she can hear him breathing.
“Hi,” Erica says, classic Stiles, as she levers herself up over the sill. This is the first time Erica has ever heard her mother be silent, and it’s a terrifying calm.
“Are you,” her mother finally asks, in flawlessly cold Spanish, “trying to kill yourself, Erica?”
The question is so breathtakingly missing the point that Erica wants to laugh. She’s watched herself do it in the mirror, the way that the red of her lipstick cuts a swathe across her lower face. It’s attractive and dangerous, just like Erica has become. As she perches half in and half out of the window, her legs straddling the sill, she draws her wolf eyes over her parents, eager both to see and not.
What catches her eye is the pile of books by her bedside table; purchases picked on a whim from the library book sale. She’d gone with her father and Ben in May but with the press of the kanima along her shoulder blades like a razor, Erica hadn’t been able to devote to it her usual level of focus and she’d ended up with a handful of things that hadn’t seemed nearly as appealing once she’d settled down enough to sort through them: Judith Merkle Riley for the historical mysticism that had fallen flat against the hypnotically magical realism of Erica’s own existence; Aimee Bender, too close to the bone; Orson Scott Card, finally too much of a homophobic racist asshole for even his prose to make up for it.
“No,” Erica finally says, and it sounds patently like the lie that it is.
“Because,” her mother thunders, “this isn’t exactly the best way to go about living! Climbing through second story windows?!” She makes a breathless huff and cuts across the air in front of her face with her thumb pressed to her forefinger; it’s achingly dismissive. “What if you fall? What if you crack your head open on my laurel tree?”
Slightly hysterical, Erica reminds her, “The laurel is too far away for me to hit,” which has exactly the effect that one might expect; Erica’s father turns puce and his face tightens up sourly.
“You can’t do things like other teenagers,” her father says; he speaks in English, because his Spanish is embarrassingly terrible, “and you need to accept that, Erica. We thought you had accepted that.”
“I had,” Erica admits, swinging her left leg so her heel bounces against the outside of the house. “I have. I’m not like other teenagers, that’s true.” Erica has gone from one kind of outcast to another; but once, where she was strung out in a galaxy on her own, light-years from everyone else performing a similar function, she’s now part of a solar system of outcasts, rotating around the sun of their Alpha.
Erica has killed to keep Derek safe; that feels like more of an admission than anything she’d done under his orders in the spring. She now knows, in a peculiarly set sort of way, that all of her talk about killing Jackson and killing Scott and killing this and that and the other thing had been done under a distinct set of circumstances where she had felt unbearably powerful and everyone else weak and stupid. It had felt right to want to kill.
Without conscious input, her fingers dig into the wood of the windowsill and the vinyl siding of the house shrieks in protest. Now that Erica has killed, she doesn’t really want to do it again.
“Then why the hell are you doing this?” Erica’s mother demands. “Look at you!”
“Yes,” Erica agrees, liquid voice slicing through her mother’s objections. “Look at me. I look good, don’t I? I’ve lost all that weight; my acne’s gone away. I have friends.” She’s wearing her favorite corset tonight; in addition to accenting her breasts, it accentuates her point.
Under her breath, Erica’s mother mutters, “Friends, please, you’ve got Ted Bundy and his crazy band of serial killer back-up dancers,” which might be the most relevant social reference Erica’s mother has ever made. It’s sad that only Erica and her mother hear it; it’s the sort of statement that has never failed to shock a bark of laughter out of Erica’s father.
“Cita,” her father begins, wearily, and he cards a hand through his hair, “you’re sick. You have to run your life a certain way because of that. It’s not fair and it’s hard because you’re a beautiful girl and you’ve realized that, but we love you. We don’t want anything to happen to you because you’re out in the woods in the middle of the night and you’re with a bunch of your friends who don’t know what to do if you have a seizure.”
Erica hasn’t had the best track record in the past few months with regards to responding well to logical statements, but she reminds herself that these are her parents and they may have been ill-equipped to deal with an epileptic daughter but they’re at least trying, which is a ten-fold improvement on Boyd’s checked-out mother and a kazillion-fold improvement on Isaac’s psycho dead father.
“Trust me,” Erica finally says, “you don’t need to worry about that.” She doesn’t trust her parents the way that Stiles clearly trusts his father or Scott trusts his mother; she can’t even begin to predict how they might react to the truth about Erica’s recently developed extracurricular activities. It’s hard to trust someone you don’t know, and Erica barely knows her parents. She’s spent the last nine years of her life buried in books.
“Oh?” her mother snaps. “So if you have a grand mal out there, you’ll be fine?”
“That’s not an issue,” Erica replies evasively.
“You can’t pretend you aren’t sick!” her mother shouts. “It doesn’t work like that!” Shockingly, she begins to cry: huge, fat tears that Erica can smell clear across the room. There’s nothing attractive about the way that Erica’s mother cries, which is disconcerting because Erica has always lived under the impression that her mother did everything with a certain baseline attractiveness that had been embarrassing from thirteen onward, when Erica had been forced to recognize her own inadequacies within her own home.
But her eyes catch imperfections where before there had been none: wrinkles and sags of skin and the grey hairs tangled in with mahogany brown; the water pools in the lines of her mother’s face and the salt leaves shiny tracks against her mother’s skin. Erica hears the sobs at a deeper register, where they rattle against her mother’s diaphragm. What had once seemed like elfin delicacy now rates as disturbingly frail; now that Erica has killed someone, her mother won’t stop looking like prey.
Stop, Erica thinks desperately, but she can’t turn it off.
“Stop,” Erica whispers. “Mama, stop it.”
Her mother glares through wet eyelashes. “Look at what you do to me,” she hisses. “Crying like a child because my daughter doesn’t care enough about her parents not to kill herself.” Her mother tries to click her tongue dismissively, but she can’t manage it with all of the mucus building up in her nose. She has to gasp for breath. Erica feels rather than sees her father’s fingers dig into the skin of her mother’s shoulder.
“Mama, I’m not going to die,” Erica swears. “I know what I'm doing. You just have to trust me, okay?” She says it without thinking, as she throws her leg over the windowsill and drops onto the carpeted floor.
To her everlasting surprise, this stops the tears. “Trust you?” her mother repeats, and Erica is starkly reminded of her own doubt and mistrust in her parents.
“Yes,” Erica says, weaker this time. “Please. Mama.”
Out in the hallway, Ben shifts onto his heels and the thin cotton of his pajama pants brushes against the wood frame of the door. There’s a handprint on top of the copy of Enchanted at the top of the pile on the bedside table; it’s raised like braille from the dust on the rest of the cover. The hand is too small to be Erica’s and too large for Ben’s. She is trying to imagine her mother resting her hand on a beat-up edition of a book that even Erica has found too misogynistic to enjoy anymore when her mother inhales and says “Vale,” in unison with her father’s, “All right.”
“What,” Erica says, involuntarily. “Wait, really?”
Erica is still fairly awful at lie detecting, but she listens very hard to her mother’s heartbeat as she says, “We want you to be okay,” and it’s not a lie. Now that the original hesitation has been vanquished, that’s gone, too; there is, for an inexplicable reason, trust in her voice.
Erica is seventeen and she’s now a murderer and for some reason, despite the fact that she’s been lying to her parents for five months with such a steady flow of bullshit that her grace period seems like a miracle, they trust her. In retrospect, the fact that it takes her father opening his arms to make her cry is astonishing; once, Erica would have been sobbing the moment that she tumbled through the window and saw them there.
“Get in here, idiot,” Erica mumbles two seconds into the hug, and Ben scrambles on his hands and knees through the door and throws himself onto the pile on Erica’s much-abused twin bed. He smells like cooked wires and copper and the Roomba that he never returned.
“Cita,” her mother murmurs, pressing a trembling hand against the back of her head, “oh, baby, Cita, it’s okay,” and Erica cries until her nose is plugged up and she can’t smell anything except herself, as if being caged in the bosom of her family has caused forced her back into being human. It is not as distasteful a sensation as she would have anticipated. “Todo está bien,” her mother chants, and her father’s big hand cradles the back of her head as she buries her head further into the nest of their shoulders. “Todo va a estar bien.”
The next full moon isn’t for two more weeks and Erica needs time to evaluate the repercussions of her new arrangement with her parents; she turns off her phone, props her bedroom door open with her old friend the wooden wedge, and puts an old pair of sweatpants. She then gets unbearably hot and goes downstairs to unearth a large pair of kitchen shears; she stands in her underwear at the kitchen table and cuts the legs off of the sweatpants at what she evaluates as high on her thigh.
Her mother watches from the dining room table as Erica tugs on her newly improvised shorts and pulls the drawstring tight; even with it knotted as far down as she can get it, the shorts still fall to her hips and cling perilously. They stay up solely by virtue of Erica’s fabulous Reyes ass, and they’re barely fit for the house, let alone public consumption.
Erica looks up and her mother has a speculative gleam in her eye, which means twenty minutes later Erica puts her jeans back on and lets herself be shoved by a woman half her size into the passenger seat of her mother’s Golf. Her father and Ben wave from the porch as Erica’s mother peels out of the driveway and aims towards Beacon Hills Mall.
“This,” Erica says to her mother, “is a psychological disaster waiting to happen.” Erica is now far more intimately familiar with psychological disasters than anyone her age should be, but, as Stiles is fond of saying, them’s the lumps.
Her mother huffs high in her throat and pulls the Golf into a parking space outside of Macy’s. “I’ve seen your wardrobe,” she tells Erica. “Corsets and skirts that used to be classified as belts; I’m not exactly impressed.”
“I’m not a doll, Mama,” Erica says, exasperated.
“If you’re nice,” her mother says, “I’ll take you to Barnes & Nobles.”
“Playing dirty, I see,” Erica comments, and her mother grins.
First is Macy’s shoe department—“Don’t think I haven’t see my leopard-print heels disappearing every other week,” her mother admonishes—and then, Erica holding a bag in which is a pair ludicrously inexpensive red patent leather heels, they stop at Aerie, which is having a huge sale, and Erica’s mother flings underwear at Erica like she knows that Erica is half-naked around attractive men 80% of her week. Her mother has always had a very European approach to nakedness, and that’s emphasized when she orders Erica into the dressing room with a variety of bras that lift Erica’s cleavage up around her ears, presumably so she can begin her campaign to phase out the corsets. “Pushy,” the attendant remarks with a genuine smile, and Erica smiles back, rolling her eyes heavenward. “You have no idea,” she says, and the attendant laughs.
The bras are a solid investment, since the weight loss had shifted Erica from a 38C to a 34C and she’d been making do with safety pins—hardly the best option for a werewolf girl on the go—and it’s not like Erica is going to object to underwear that will, hopefully, make Boyd swallow his tongue instead of his default expression of unperturbed. The shoes are more difficult to rationalize, since heels have always been number four on the list of things Erica is forbidden to own, but she rolls with it all the way to H&M, where her mother goes slightly crazy and selects a lot of basically every item of clothing.
“This qualifies as back to school shopping,” her mother says as she shoves more dresses over the door to the dressing room. “Tell me what you think of the pink one!”
“Well,” Erica says to her reflection, “for one thing, it’s pink.” She pulls it on anyway, and the pink is just as nauseating as she’d anticipated, even if it’s paired with a devastating neckline. “What do you think?” she asks her mother, pulling open the door. “I think I look like a bottle of Pepto Bismol, right? A kind of sexy bottle, but a bottle nonetheless.”
Her mother moves her eyes up and down the line of the dress; she swallows twice, eyes inexplicably wet, and says, “Yes, yes, wrong color,” and hands off two more sweaters. “Try these.”
“I demand at least three books in exchange for this!” Erica shouts over the door. She makes a face at herself in the mirror; there’s an unexpected buoyancy to being surrounded by herself and not pathologically despising everything. Just for the novelty of it, she runs her fingers over the part of the glass that reflects the sweetheart neckline of the dress. Her skin glows under the fluorescent light of the dressing room, and it’s a healthy vitality that speaks, more than anything else, to what the bite has done for Erica’s life.
“This is okay,” Erica says, shocked by the sound of her own voice. “I look—okay.” Even in the ludicrously pink dress. She strips it off finally, and replaces it with a chiffon skirt (no) and striped green tank (yes?) and the first of the sweaters, shrunken so its blocks of color can frame her breasts and her face. “This skirt is hell,” she tells her mother when she opens the door to solicit her opinion. “But I kind of like the sweater.”
Erica’s mother promptly bursts into tears.
“Holy shit,” Erica says, reaching out and grabbing her mother around the upper arms. “Mama? Mama? Are you okay?”
“Cita,” her mother blubbers, framing her face with her hands. “My beautiful girl.” The girl in the next stall leans out of her door; it’s Letty Westfield, from Erica’s fourth period Spanish class last year. Erica’s feelings on Beacon Hills’ non-werewolf teen population have remained fairly negative; she bares her teeth at Letty, and the latter swings back into her dressing room, slamming the door shut after her.
“Mama, what the hell?” Erica asks, pulling her mother out of the hall and into the tiny dressing room.
“You’re so precious to me, baby,” her mother wails. “You’re my baby girl.”
Erica doesn’t really know what else to do, so she wedges her mother’s head between her neck and chin and holds on as her mother’s hands clench into the fabric of the sweater and pull, her body shaking. “I love you, Mama,” she says, and it only makes her mother cry harder. A little abruptly, Erica realizes that she hasn’t said the words in years; in fact, if Erica thinks about it, she hasn’t said anything in years.
“Don’t leave me, Cita,” her mother sobs.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Erica says. “Look, I’m buying all these clothes you want me to buy, aren’t I?”
“I want you to want them,” Erica’s mother cries.
Erica doesn’t know if it’s appropriate to laugh at your parent’s panic attack in the middle of an H&M dressing room, so she coughs lightly and swallows it. “Mama, I have plenty of clothes.”
This makes her mother cry harder.
“Okay,” Erica admits, “a lot of them don’t fit and we should probably burn everything that’s larger than a size 12, but you don’t have to buy me clothes to prove that you’re okay with this, Mama.” She runs her hand through her mother’s hair. Perhaps this is why Derek does it to Stiles all the time; it’s comforting to feel the scratch of hair against her palm and nails, and it releases her mother’s scent into the air. “You could’ve just gotten me the books.”
“No,” her mother says forcefully. “You look great in that sweater.”
“Well,” Erica admits, “my boobs look pretty great, yeah,” and so her mother buys her the sweater—when Erica puts her foot down, only the sweater—and then Erica and her mother spend four hours in Barnes & Nobles, drinking white mochas and arguing about which Margaret Atwood novel better represents dystopian decay. Her mother looks vaguely shocked when Erica finishes a particularly compelling point about Oryx and Crake and she forgets to parry with her next argument in her defense of The Handmaid’s Tale.
“What?” Erica asks, tonguing at her upper lip. “Do I have foam somewhere?”
“No,” her mother says. All signs of tears have been eradicated by caffeine and the flush of a good intellectual argument; in their place is the woman that Erica has come to expect across the dinner table from her, vital and thriving and full of the sort of flushed vivaciousness that Erica could only envy, never emulate. “How many times have you read Oryx and Crake?” she asks.
“I don’t know, seven or eight,” Erica says. “My copy’s getting pretty worn, actually.” She looks at the pile of books at her feet, which is two more than the number to which she and her mother had originally agreed, and sends a beseeching look at her mother. “Just one more?”
“You’ve plenty of books already,” her mother says. “We should get one for Ben.”
“He has an unhealthy taste for Rick Riordan,” Erica reminds her. “Derivative and tacky, but he has it. Isn’t there a new one of his Egypt series out?”
“Maybe?” her mother says blankly. Erica explains Rick Riordan and then Percy Jackson as a concept, which derails into mythology as a literary construct, and then they circle back into the Science Fiction/Fantasy section so Erica can find a quote in Dune that she wants to use to convince her mother to read it.
She’s thumbing through the middle section, trying to find the part about Paul’s first sandworm ride, when a cowed-looking employee with a nametag that says JOSH sidles up to them and says, in an awkwardly croaking voice, “We’re going to be closing soon.”
“Ah-ha!” Erica says, “this is it,” and she reads the paragraph cleanly through to the end of the chapter. JOSH is staring at her as though he’s never seen a girl in a leather jacket recite from Frank Herbert’s seminal classic before. “We got it,” she tells him, unable to keep from growling some of her irritation, and he meeps and bolts for the door marked employee-only behind him.
On the ride back, as Erica thumbs through her new books, scenting the fresh ink smell with her highly appreciative wolf’s nose, her mother locks her grip around the steering wheel and begins, in a queer voice, “It’s easy to love your children and not like them, Erica.” All that Erica can think of that is Isaac’s father and the repressed way that Isaac sometimes holds himself, waiting for the click of the freezer door shutting over his head. “What I mean,” her mother continues, “is that you can love your children and it won’t be the kind of love that you have for a friend. You never treat them like anything more than just your child; you’re stuck in that relationship.” She smiles, absently, out over the stretch of road in front of her car. “I thought that would be us, Cita. You’ve always been so locked inside your head, it feels like we’ve never talked to each other, just past.”
Erica closes her books and places them on the floor of the car, wedging them between her legs. “Mama,” she begins, and then she has no idea how to continue.
“You have lovely thoughts in here,” her mother says, letting go of the wheel to run a finger along Erica’s forehead. “I’m glad you can say them now, Cita.”
After dinner, which is ordered-in Chinese, Erica claims one end of the couch and Ben the other, his Rick Riordan haphazard mess already parted to the second chapter. “You’re such a dweeb,” Erica notes in a deeply suspicious voice, and Ben doesn’t look up as he kicks her thigh.
“Because you can talk,” he says huffily. “Seriously, like you needed your own copy of Atonement.”
“I couldn’t read the other one,” Erica says, distracted into answering honestly. “I can smell Papa’s tears all over it.”
“Creepy,” Ben observes, and then they’re both submerged. Erica devours like she hasn’t read in ages; she reads to dig herself in, to burrow deeply and pull apart herself and rebuild from the pieces. She can never read Atonement in one sitting, especially not the war scenes—they scrape up her throat from far down in her stomach. She fudges on the chapter pauses and uses them for little things, like bathroom breaks and another glass of water, recklessly racing towards the discerning moment where Robbie climbs over the hill, one of the twins draped over his shoulders, the other holding his hand.
She finishes the chapter and reflexively checks the clock over the mantle; it’s half past midnight, and Ben has made a significant dent into his Riordan trash. “Isn’t this past your bedtime?” Erica asks suspiciously. If she tries, she can remember her parents shouting something about bed as they retired an hour ago, but everything external to the pages had been repressed by the starkness of the sticky English summer heat.
“Maybe,” Ben says distractedly. “Isn’t it past yours?”
“Cute,” Erica replies, and she snatches the book out of his hands. “At least do Mama and Papa the courtesy of reading under the covers with a flashlight, not out in the open of the living room, flagrantly defying their every edict.”
“I preferred it when you were quiet and shy,” Ben informs her, nose at a very Lydia angle as he picks himself off of the sofa. He holds out his hand like a disgruntled cat; Erica laughs as she puts his book on his palm.
“You and the rest of the world, kid,” she says in her best Sam Spade, which is not very good.
The contentedness of returning to her books blends with the peacefulness of her wolf; Erica showers and pulls on a pair of her new underwear and then her favorite t-shirt, worn thin and big around the shoulders. She debates starting part two of Atonement, decides against it, and then burrows into her comforter with The Once and Future King on her lap. Even if her door were closed—which, it’s not—she’d still be able to hear her parents’ even breaths in their bedroom, and Ben’s frantic heartbeat as he pages through whatever exciting adventure Rick Riordan has crafted in his pursuit of the bastardization of Egyptian mythology.
Erica cheats and skips ahead to Lancelot’s section, which is her favorite. An hour later, as she gnaws steadily on her lower lip and mouths, Don't fall in love with her you beautiful idiot, there’s a quiet knock on her bedroom window.
It’s Boyd, of all people. Erica holds a finger up to her lips and glares; she slips out of bed and silently shuts her door before opening the window. “Are you taking stalking lessons from Derek?” Erica demands. “How are you even standing out there? I barely fit and I’m half as big as you.”
“Magic,” Boyd says drily. “It’s got a timer on it, though, so…”
Erica steps to the side and gestures him in. “What brings you to the Reyes household at this hour?”
Boyd’s grin is so fast that it’s already gone by the time Erica’s brain has caught up to seeing it. “Erica, it’s not even two yet.”
“Oh,” says Erica lamely. “Yeah, right. Of course.” Now that Boyd points it out, Erica can’t remember a time in recent memory that she was even home at this hour, let alone tucked into her bed. She wants to hate it, as a reminder of the nine years of her life that she spent reading books under tables and not talking to anyone, but her native response to life-threatening situations appears to be turtling in her bedroom under a pile of words from T. H. White.
“You’ve been missing,” Boyd rumbles. He moves his eyes methodically over the contents of Erica’s tiny bedroom; the walls, which Erica’s father had painted green as a birthday present seven or eight years ago, are barely visible under acres of white IKEA bookshelves. Erica has more paperbacks than hardcovers and everything looks secondhand because she rereads obsessively, but the point is made rather glaringly. “You’re a bigger nerd than Stilinski,” Boyd says, sounding delighted.
“Shut up,” Erica hisses, punching Boyd in the shoulder. He’s a giant, so she has to aim above her head to make contact. “I’m not. I passed the tenth grade by the skin of my teeth and the fact that no one, not even Harris, wants to be the hard-ass giving a failing grade to a severe epileptic.”
“So these aren’t yours?” Boyd replies.
“Shut up,” Erica says again. “They’re just books.”
She doesn’t meant that, especially since she could write some very high-quality college admissions essays—in a world where Erica Reyes could dream about getting into college, that is, which is a world that Erica doesn’t live in—about how her life has been shaped by having books instead of friends. The scary feeling in the pit of Erica’s stomach, the one she’s tried to cow into submission by being sexy and fun and dangerous, has unclenched itself after a full night’s sleep with no worry about what awaits Erica when she wakes up. There’s always another disaster on the horizon, as the past five months have elucidated, but for now, Erica doesn’t know what waits for her and it feels like a series of deep, centering breaths.
Boyd slips his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “No,” he says, “they’re not,” and Erica is struck with the realization, like she has been in isolated moments in the past, that the decision to take the bite was the right one for Boyd. He’s the calmest and wisest of their fledgling pack and as far as Erica can tell he’s never needed an anchor the way that Scott pins himself to Allison Argent. The wolf suits Boyd in a way that ill-fitting humanity had been bad for him.
Erica is starting to think that maybe what she needed was friends and a weekly appointment with a therapist. The bite has made her more, but the “her” it was working with was basically nothing; all it did was exponentially increase empty air and assumptions. There’s no way to tell if Erica is a better wolf than human because she never really tried to be human in the first place. It has always been much easier to slip underneath her skin and ignore all of the parts that hurt.
“No,” Erica echoes, a minute and a half too late to play that off as anything other than deeply introspective. “They were everything. For me.”
“I remember,” Boyd says, and Erica can peel back the words and see what’s framed inside of them: Boyd, watching her as she pretended not to look at him, her knees tapping the underside of her desk as she balanced a broken spine on her legs and bit at her thumbnail.
This feels like the kind of moment where something important has to be said; Erica knows that if she wastes moments like this, the ones that fall on the very edge of a rocky cliff face, she’ll just never say the vital things at all. “I can’t be sorry that it fixed me,” Erica tells him. “Maybe I should be, since I spent a lot of time fucking things up and hurting people, but I don't want to be sorry.”
Boyd shrugs. “Don’t be,” he says. It’s not dismissive; it’s the same tone he’d used when Erica had said, Derek is a mess and we’re going to die if we stay with his pack, and when she’d said, The Alphas are too dangerous to have full control of Beacon Hills. When Boyd has an opinion of a situation, Erica can count on it being full: fully weighed, fully measured, fully evaluated. Boyd is probably the most decisive person Erica knows.
“Okay,” Erica says breathily, and then, “Okay, good,” with a nervous tinge to it. This is the first time she’s ever had anyone, other than a member of her immediate family, in her bedroom since she was eight. Against her will, Erica feels herself succumb to a numbing blush. “What’s up?” she asks, and even if theoretically she knows how to ask that without sounding tremulous, she doesn’t manage it in practice.
Boyd looks down and seems to suddenly notice The Once and Future King, splayed across Erica’s quilt. “You didn’t answer any of your texts today. Isaac was worried.” Erica gets a trembling flake of guilt stuck in her throat for that; she can see in Isaac that fragility that she doesn’t have to worry about in Ben. Isaac has a complex understanding of the world and its myriad ways of being cruel and if she shields him from that, she feels a little better about how out of control her own behavior has become.
“Sorry.” She doesn’t have to sneak looks at Boyd out of the corner of her eye anymore; she can openly watch as he gently lifts her book off of her bed, flipping it over and scanning the passage to which it is open. “My parents caught me sneaking in last night and we had to talk about it, and then my mom wanted to bond.” The words are classic snarky teenager, but Erica can’t muster enough disdain to make the point really stick.
“Sounds nice,” Boyd observes. He uses his thumb to save her page as he flicks forward, reading of what’s to come.
“I—I mean, yeah,” Erica says, since nice is inoffensive and toothless and ambiguous enough to cover at least some of her day. “It. Um. How was yours?”
Boyd finishes what had occupied him in the text; he returns to her page and puts the book back in its original place on her quilt, the square ends of his fingers brushing up along the spine in a way that makes the muscles in Erica’s lower back knot. However she feels about Boyd is quieter than the blazing LOOK AT ME that has characterized her pseudo-sexual experiences of the past five months; she doesn’t really know what to do with it.
The tic tic tic of the clock in the hall decelerates as Boyd trails his eyes up, from the ragged carpet fibers under Erica’s bare toes to the places on her leg where she’s missed hairs while shaving to her knees, no longer knobby or fat or ill-proportioned when Erica looks in the mirror; then to the place where her t-shirt skims the tops of her thighs, strong and muscled from the bite and running and locking her legs around things; and the inside of her left elbow and the heavy, obvious curve of her breast, and then her exposed collarbone and the ball of her shoulder, which are sun-dappled and golden and no longer look like the bruised surface of the moon; and then her mouth.
Boyd says, “You don’t have to feel guilty about them.”
He’s catalogued so many parts of Erica in the past minute that she’s dizzy with the possibilities. “About what?” she breathes.
“Your family,” he says. “They love you. It’s okay that you have them and we don’t.”
“I,” Erica croaks helplessly, “what?”
“My parents aren’t really around and Isaac’s are both dead; we have the pack because we don’t have anyone else. But you don’t have to choose, Erica. You can have both.”
As if to underline this important thematic concept, Erica’s mother breathes out in her sleep, a steady, huffed, “Naaaahh,” and it layers over Boyd’s heart and his breathing and both are faster than usual, because this is important to Boyd, for some indecipherable reason: this is a thing Boyd needs Erica to understand.
Maybe, most importantly, it’s something that Boyd understands that Erica needs. “I,” Erica repeats, and she thinks, Did I do that? But she doesn’t even need a slideshow of her greatest hits of the past five months to know that she has, in fact, been doing exactly that: becoming Isaac’s new mom and licking her lips obnoxiously to make Stiles jealous enough that he’ll finally make a move on Derek and trying to point out to Scott that he doesn’t need to pine over Allison when Isaac is right there, staring at him with stupid moon-calf eyes. Erica has been crafting a new family and ignoring her old one because always crackling at the back of her mind has been the awareness that, for Boyd and Isaac, the pack is everything.
“I was right about Mimir, I think,” Erica says finally, and it’s not the most embarrassing thing she could’ve chosen to blurt out, but it’s certainly not a spectacularly smooth statement, either.
“What?” Boyd asks. His attention is so sharp that Erica doesn’t feel any pain when it slides into her body; like Excalibur, it slips seamlessly into stone and she grips it tight within herself.
“It’s not important,” Erica tells him. The words are very easy, when she has him locked inside already: “So, are you going to kiss me at some point or are you just going to stand there like Scott and look dumb?”
On look, Boyd lifts Erica with big, searing hands and palms her upper thighs as he presses her into the bookshelf against the wall that her room shares with Ben’s—children’s classics and young adult, including the entire Harry Potter series in both English and Spanish—and follows with his tongue where before had been only his words, the ones spoken and unspoken. He traces them to the back of Erica’s mouth and he bites, to give them permanence.
Erica scrapes her nails through the thin shell of his hair and bites back, until the blood trickles across her tongue and she can taste an aura, in waves of shivers that coast down from her head to her toes, and she hears ozone crackle in her ears and she rides it clear through to the other side, where Boyd’s hands ground her against the shelves and the cold spines of the collected books of Narnia slip under her hair. She tastes blood, and then she tastes Boyd: lake water and graphite, steady as Yggdrasil itself.