Stiles is five-going-on-six years old when his mother buys a pony. He’s a grouchy, tubby little black fellow with a white stripe down his forehead, and a fluffy mass of a mane that refuses to do anything except grow in a fierce imitation of a Mohawk. It takes all of five seconds for Stiles to name him Batman, and only three or four more before he’s begging for a ride. She ruffles his hair and laughs, and reminds him that they need to bring their new family member home, first – then they can get down to business.
The pony’s ex-owner, a Latina woman with crow’s feet already worn into her young face, smiles down at her former charge. “It’s nice to know he’ll be in good hands,” she says. “Not too many decent horse people left, these days.”
They cart Batman away from the sale barn in a trailer borrowed from one of their neighbors, and set him up in the tiny, two-stall stable in the field behind their house. He sniffs everything with interest, paces a few circles, then comes to peer over the door at Stiles, who follows his mother’s instructions, offering the flat of his hand for the pony to sniff. The wiry bristles sprouting from Batman’s muzzle tickle Stiles’ palm, making him giggle. When Batman wuffs out a blast of warm air, Stiles lets out a high-pitched shriek, startling him back, away from the noise.
“First rule of horses,” Stiles’ mother says, kneeling down next to where he is staring in confusion at the now-empty space about the door. “They get scared as easily as we do.”
“I didn’t do anything.” Stiles’ lower lip juts out in a pout, and his mother sighs.
“What if you and I were having a conversation one day, and I started yelling, just for no reason? Wouldn’t you be afraid?” She waits for his nod. “Well, horses don’t speak English, but we’re always having conversations with them, whenever we’re around them. They don’t understand words, but they listen to how we speak, and watch how we move, and that tells them whether or not we’re safe to be around. Do you see?”
Stiles jerks his head in a nod. “Does he hate me now?” he asks, voice quavery.
“I don’t know – he might.” Rising from her crouch, she unlatches the stall door. “C’mon, the only way to find out is to apologize.” She pushes it open, wide enough for Stiles to see Batman standing against the back wall, head turned towards the sound of their voices.
Pausing to swallow and take a deep breath into his almost-six-year-old lungs, Stiles steps onto the cushy sawdust of the stall. “Hey, Batman.” He extends the same hand as earlier. “I didn’t mean to scare you, I promise.” Shooting a glance over his shoulder at his mother, who nods, he takes another step inward. “I’m sorry.”
Batman whickers. When Stiles moves a little closer, he comes off the wall and circles inward until he’s facing the boy head-on. His ears flick back, then forward, then back, and then, as he blows out a careful breath, they face the front again. He butts his muzzle against Stiles’ fingers.
“I think he forgives you,” his mother says.
Stiles grins and wants to squeal, but remembers himself just in time. He pats the velvet softness of Batman’s nose instead, then moves carefully past the pony’s head, rubbing one hand along his crest, like his mother tells him to, and, slowly, warily, stretches up on his toes to wrap both arms around Batman’s neck, hugging him tight. The pony drops his head to accommodate the extra weight, and watches through his forelock as a warm grin stretches across the face of the woman by the door. He grunts softly, then bends his neck further, twisting around so he can lip at the carrot stashed in Stiles’ back pocket.
Stiles is six when he rides Batman for the first time, because him mother tells him that you should let a horse adjust to their new environment before dumping strangers on them. He’s never ridden before, except once for five minutes at a fair, but he knows what every piece of tack is called because of the books she bought him, and he names them all while she’s putting them on and adjusting various buckles and straps. She lets him walk Batman outside, then helps him mount properly, shows him how to set the stirrups at the correct length, and which way to hold the reins, and starts them off at a slow walk around the field, towards the corral with the sandy footing that they built just last month.
“If a horse can’t trust their rider, they can’t trust anything,” is the first lesson he learns. “If that truck passing by on the road scares you, it’ll scare him, too. If you are calm, your horse will be calm. If you are angry, your horse will become angry. You and your horse are one and the same when you ride.”
“What if he’s angry, and I’m scared?”
His mother smiles. “Then don’t let yourself be scared. Own your emotions. Own your hands and your legs. Own everything you do. You’ll be fine, then.”
Stiles is nine when his world cracks and splinters at the edges. His parents are sitting at the dining room table when he gets home from school, so he knows something is off immediately. The dining room is only used for special occasions, or when family visit; the rest of the time, they eat around the island counter in the kitchen, so that the conversation doesn’t have to break when one of them gets up for more food.
They won’t tell him what it is at first, just that she’s very sick, but he presses, and presses, until she breaks and bites out, “He’s going to find out sooner or later” when her husband puts up a fight.
Silence falls with a snap.
She turns back to Stiles, reaches across the table towards him, until he relents and leans forward to grab her hands, a game they used to play when he was younger. He doesn’t have to stretch that far to reach her any more, and the irony rankles, once she tells him, because he knows what leukemia is, because Bobby Sanchez’s dad had it, and he died last summer.
They’re hand-in-hand, hanging on tight, but his mother is suddenly very far away.
He wakes up in the middle of the night, with the light on in his parent’s room, their voices too muffle to eavesdrop. He still hears them when he tiptoes by in the hall, down the stairs, and out the back door, then bolts across the field to where Batman is slumbering easily on his side in his stall. The pony lifts his head when the stall door swings open, ready to rise and bolt, but relaxes back when he sees who it is.
“Hey, boy.” Stiles sinks to his knees next to Batman’s solid warmth, raising one hand to scrub his fingers in the thick winter coat covering the pony’s neck, all the protection he needs from Beacon Hills’ mild seasons. He sniffles a little, wipes it off on the back of his free hand. “Mom’s sick. And they told me she’s gonna get better, but I… I dunno. She’s got leukemia. It’s this cancer you get in your blood, makes you bruise really easily, and she – I’m scared, Batman.” Slipping in closer, he lays his head against Batman’s barrel, and closes his eyes against the tears. “I don’t want Mom to die, Batman. I looked stuff up. I’m… I don’t want her to die.”
Batman whickers, ears rotated back to listen to Stiles’ voice, but doesn’t move.
“I don’t want my Mom to die, Batman,” Stiles says, repeats it over and over, like the force of his wishing will make all the difference. “I don’t want my Mom to die; I don’t want my Mom to die; I…shit,” spitting out a word he learned just last week. “Please don’t let her die, Batman.”
Batman whickers. He stays still while Stiles settles down against his side, while his breathing evens out from hiccupping sniffles to the drawn-out inhales and exhales of sleep, and only flicks his ears in acknowledgment when a wan, tear-streaked face appears over the door, and a breath of relief sighs from a father’s lungs.
Independence Day of the year that Stiles turns twelve is when they sit in the local funeral home and listen to a procession of friends and family from all corners of life recite anecdotes and shed tears. “She was too young,” they say. “The best ones always go too young.”
“God save her son, and her husband too,” they say. Stiles doesn’t remind them that God doesn’t exist, because she once told him that would be like telling little kids that Santa isn’t real.
“She was an angel,” they say, and Stiles hides his face, because she wasn’t.
Once, when Batman was in a foul mood, he put his head down and bucked and bucked and bucked until Stiles flew off to land in the dirt. His mother picked him up, dusted him off, and sat him down on the fence of the corral, then cornered the errant pony and stripped off his saddle and pads before climbing aboard bareback. She wasn’t a tall woman, but she still looked too big for Batman, who she nudged into a canter, and then a gallop, with only the barest hint of visible effort, legs wrapped tight around his barrel and back straight as a rod, never letting him drop his chin or veer out of line. She was stone, then, even with the sun gleaming off her shaved, helmetless head. Living stone that flexed with the rhythm of the hooves pounding beneath her; stone that sucked in air; stone that let its shoulders move, free… but stone all the same - permanent. Pink marble, at first, when they could still pretend everything was normal, gradually fading to gritty gray granite, which was so tough, it seemed like it would be around forever, and then into limestone, which withered under leukemia’s white, acidic pulse. And then she was gone.
They place her ashes in a small ceramic urn, which gets presented to Stiles’ father at the end of the ceremony. He takes it with shaking hands, then passes it off to Stiles, who holds it secure against his chest for the entire car ride home. Neither of them says a word.
Stiles doesn’t even wait for the engine to turn off before he’s out of the jeep and over the fence into the field, sprinting towards the dark shape of Batman grazing around the edge of the stable. Tears clog his vision (why is he always crying?), and he loses a shoe, then trips, and the urn bruises his chest when he crashes into the ground, while the ceramic cracks into spiderwebs, lets thin trickles of ash escape to blow away on the gusting breeze.
With hoarse, croaking sobs wrenching from his chest, Stiles curls himself around the urn, mud soaking into his dress jacket and the fancy pants they made him wear for the funeral. He screams, only to lose it in the wind. The same wind that’s stealing Ma, he thinks, and cries harder.
Batman is watching him with beady brown eyes when Stiles picks himself up off the ground and walks over, the urn going to pieces in his hands. “She’s gone,” Stiles tells him.
“And she’s never coming back.”
“She gave up on us.”
Silence from Batman, as the wind picks up to pluck at Stiles’ jacket. He sniffs, just once, and walks past Batman into the stable, to the empty stall that they use as a tack room and storage for hay and grain in the winter. The urn fits easily into the back corner that adjoins Batman’s stall, and Stiles wedges it into the dirt a little, making sure that it won’t tip over of its own accord. A few pinches of ash seep out as he does so, clinging to his hands, and he doesn’t brush them away until he goes back outside. There, the wind does it for him.
It’s early afternoon, but fireworks are already starting to roar into the sky.
Stiles is thirteen when the bills weigh too heavily upon his father’s shoulders, and the little house with its field and corral and stable is too much to maintain. Three days after Stiles enters eighth grade, a long, lean man, with green eyes that shine against his dark skin, pulls up in front of the house with a horse trailer rolling smoothly along behind his pickup. He has a soft voice, and a careful smile that makes Stiles feel a little better, but not much.
He lets Stiles walk Batman into the trailer, and waits without comment while he combs his fingers for the last time through the pony’s quasi-Mohawk, resting their foreheads together, murmuring nonsense while the tears drip off his chin. And when Stiles climbs out, red-eyed but calm, he offers a hand that is cool, dry, and rough with calluses. “I’ll see him to a good home,” he promises.
Stiles nods. “Please.”
He spends the day (and night) of the move at Scott’s house, leaving his father to begin the process of unpacking everything into their new, tiny apartment in downtown Beacon Hills. He’s too hollow to feel ashamed. The only food he touches is a bowl of curly fries that Melissa McCall sets down between him and Scott on the couch after dinner, with a severe look at her son. He and Scott sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the bowl balanced on their legs, nibbling fries, watching cartoons, and flicking through channels on the TV during commercial breaks.
Sometime in the mid-afternoon, they land on a news report of a devastating fire not far outside of town, at the breeding and training center of the long-established Hale family. Forty Thoroughbreds and a dozen people were trapped inside: almost the entire Hale family, plus several of the staff who lived on-site. Two Hales were not present: Laura and Derek, a sister-brother pair. (Laura, a junior at the University of Washington, had been taking her seventeen-year old brother on college tours in the Northeast for the entire week.) A blaze so large and so sudden could only be arson, the police are saying. They’re already looking for evidence.
Scott clears his throat. “Didn’t Laura Hale used to babysit you?”
“A couple times, I think, yeah.” A few foggy memories of a pale girl with dark hair float to mind. Onscreen, they are panning across a wasteland of smoking beams and desiccated, leaning structures, flakes of ash still floating down onto reddish-gray lumps that no one wants to examine too closely. Sherriff Stilinski glances at the camera briefly when it passes over him, and Stiles’ guts knot. “But she and her brother made it.”
“Alright, boys, I’m headed…” Ms. McCall steps into the living room, catches sight of the disaster on the television, and freezes. Scott jumps for the remote, gets it in his hands, but then wavers uncertainly, eyes flicking between his mother and the screen.
The silence lingers, stiffening and stifling, until the report switches over to a championship bike race.
Ms. McCall swallows. “I was going to tell you that I’m leaving, and have to work late tonight,” she intones. “And now I guess you know why.”
While Scott stutters out something approximating a decent response, Stiles stares at the winding line of bicyclists on the screen, and wonders if anyone has bought Batman yet.