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Painted Wooden Letters

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There are painted wooden letters that spell out his name in a frame on Mieczysław Reid’s bedroom wall. His mom bought them at the craft store, and decorated them even before he was born. None of the kids in Mieczysław’s first grade class know how to say his name. None of them talk to him anyway, since he always gets in trouble and also he gets lice a lot. Last time he came home with a note from the school saying the lice were back, Audrey buzzed all his hair and put kerosene on what was left. It burned, and he got a blister behind his ear that popped and hurt for days and days afterward.

“What the fuck you crying for?” Dad asked him, and threw a can at him to make him go away.

Mieczysław is six. He sometimes lies awake at night and looks at the letters on the wall. Mom was the only one who knows how to say his name, but she’s gone now. She died. Even his Dad can’t say it. Sometimes he looks at the wooden letters, every one painted a different color, and wonders if his mom loved him when he was still in her belly what would it be like it she was still here?

Audrey and Dad fight at lot.

They live out of town in a house by the wreckers yard. Dad owns the yard. They don’t have many neighbors, but sometimes the wind must carry their voices, because someone calls the police.

Mieczysław stands behind his bedroom door when the deputies come, watching through the gap.

Audrey and Dad stop shouting and yelling then. Sometimes they even laugh and tell the deputies it was nothing. Just letting off steam. And Mieczysław shuts his mouth, because he knows better than to say otherwise, and usually the police take a look around and then go away again.

Except for one night, and one deputy.

Mieczysław hasn’t seen this deputy before. He’s tall. Mieczysław is six though. Everyone is tall. He has blue eyes the same color as the sky just before it softens into dusk. The skin around his eyes crinkles when he sees Mieczysław peering around the door and he smiles.

“Hey, kiddo.”

Mieczysław clamps his mouth shut.

“Who’s this?” the deputy asks.

“My kid,” Dad says. “Mitch.”

Audrey looks at him sidelong, and lights a cigarette.

Mieczysław scurries back into his room. He sits down between his bed and the far wall, and digs his school library book out of his bag. He’s not good at reading. It’s hard to concentrate like the other kids do; just another thing he gets wrong all the time. But he likes the pictures.

He flicks through the thin book, half-listening to the rise and fall of voices outside his room. To Audrey and Dad, and the deputy. He jolts with surprise when the door to his room opens.

“Hey,” the deputy says. His gaze rakes over the room, eyes narrowing slightly. And then he sees the wooden letters in the frame and says, every syllable perfect: “Mieczysław, right?”

Mieczysław gasps in surprise. “How did you know that?”

The deputy smiles, and sits down on Mieczysław’s bed. He pats the mattress, and Mieczysław, totally disarmed by the deputy’s magical pronunciation, scrambles up to sit beside him.

“My name is John,” the deputy says, and then lowers his voice like he’s sharing a great secret. “But it’s really Janusz.”

Mieczysław’s mouth falls open.

John smiles at him, and leans over to pick up the book. He looks at the cover for a moment, and then looks at Mieczysław again. “Are you okay, Mieczysław?”

Mieczysław nods rapidly, unable to voice the lie.

“Do Mom and Dad fight a lot?” John asks him.

A shake of the head this time. He can’t bring himself to correct John’s assumption that Audrey is his mom. She’s not though. She’s not.

“Okay,” John says at last with a long sigh. He takes a card from his pocket and slips it in between the pages of the book. “If you need me, you can use this number to call me, okay? Or you can call 911. Or you can ask a teacher or a friend to call me. Do you understand, Mieczysław?”

“Yes,” Mieczysław says.

“Okay,” John says again.

Mieczysław keeps his eyes fixed on the book until John goes. Then he plucks the card out with shaking fingers, and—

“What the hell is this?” Audrey asks, snatching it from his grasp. “You don’t need this.”

She tears the card into pieces, and stalks away.

Later, when the house is very quiet and very dark, Mieczysław creeps out into the kitchen and goes through the trash. He never does find all the pieces of the card:

 

s Sheriff’s D

uty John Stil

09) 385-757

 

He doesn’t know why he saves the bits of card he finds.

He doesn’t know why he fixates on the half-destroyed name of the man who said his with such ease.

Maybe it’s because he told himself that Mieczysław was a secret, a strange gift, a magical spell that only he and Mom could say. Like a password to get into a secret club, like the ones the kids at school have, except Mieczysław never knows the secret word. And maybe if Deputy John does, then Mieczysław doesn’t need to be the only one in his club, right?

The idea of that makes him feel dizzy and sick and exhilarated at all the same time.

Maybe if Deputy John knows how to say his name, then he’s supposed to belong to Deputy John. And maybe that means that Deputy John can belong to him too.

The next day at school, mindful of his bruises, Mieczysław sits and tries not to fidget. They have a substitute teacher because Mrs. Frank is sick. The man calls the roll and gets as far as Mieczysław’s name before he stumbles.

“I don’t know how to say this,” he says, and all the other kids laugh.

Mieczysław is breathless. He juts his chin out, and says, “My name is Stiles.”

 

***

 

Sometimes Stiles lies awake in bed at night and wonders what if would be like if Deputy John was his dad, instead of Larry Reid. He thinks that if Deputy John was his dad, he’d have a nice room in a nice house. He’d have lots of toys and… and… his imagination gives out at this point usually, because he’s six. He measures luxury in toys. Mostly though, he thinks that if Deputy John was his dad then he wouldn’t get in trouble for being him. He wouldn’t have to sneak around the house, careful not to make the floorboards creak and give away his position. He wouldn’t have to go to bed hungry. He wouldn’t have to try to be invisible. He wouldn’t have to duck and run when he wasn’t.

It’s not really the toys that Stiles burns with envy over when he sees the other kids in his class showing them off.

It’s that his classmates have parents who love them enough to buy them.

 

***

 

Reid Wreckers is out of town, about a half mile back from the road that continues on into the Preserve. Stiles gets the bus to school. Beacon Hills is a small town, so it’s not just kids his age on the bus. Some of them are big kids. High school kids. Stiles lives furthest out of town, so he’s the first one on the bus in the morning, and the last one off in the afternoon. Stiles doesn’t like the bus. Nobody sits next to him. He thinks it’s because of the lice. This one time a girl saw them in his hair and she screamed, and since then the other kids always leave the seats around Stiles empty.

One day Stiles climbs on board the bus and there are other kids already on it.

Two big kids, and Cora Hale.

Cora goes to Stiles’s school. She’s in second grade. She doesn’t talk to Stiles because he’s only in first grade, and those are the rules.

Finding other kids on the bus is so shocking that for a moment Stiles stands frozen in the aisle, before the bus driver tells him to hurry up, they don’t have all day.

Stiles clambers into his usual seat.

Nobody must have told these kids about leaving a space around Stiles though, because Cora and the older boy are sitting right behind him. The older girl is sitting behind them.

This is unprecedented. Usually Stiles is the only kid on the bus until they get to Mason Road, which is when Harvey Mills, who is in fifth grade, gets on.

“This is going to take forever,” Cora Hale says with a long sigh as the bus rumbles along the road.

“It’s only until Mom’s car gets fixed,” the older girl says. “And then I’ll get my license in the summer.”

Stiles sits and listens avidly, and tries not to squirm too much. It’s really hard not to turn around and look at them, and Stiles thinks he’s doing okay until he suddenly realizes he’s accidentally done it, and he’s made eye contact with the boy.

The boy is a big kid. He’s probably eleven or twelve or something. He has dark hair, and he’s looking at Stiles and his eyebrows are saying: Why is this kid staring at me?

Stiles turns around again, and counts mailboxes as the bus approaches Mason Road.

The Hale kids don’t say anything after that, but Stiles thinks he can feel them staring at him.

 

***

 

Stiles gets a cheese sandwich and a carton of milk for lunch because Dad didn’t pay the bill again.

If he was Deputy John’s kid, he’d be allowed to have tater tots maybe.

He spills his milk down his front when he tries to put the straw in.

Later, one of the bigger kids pushes him in the playground and he falls down and skins his knees.

Stiles doesn’t cry.

He’s used to it.

 

***

 

“I’m sorry,” Audrey says, her mouth pursed tight. There are shadows under her eyes as she jams her clothes into an old gym bag. “Sorry, Mitch.”

Stiles has never heard her say sorry before.

He doesn’t love Audrey, and she doesn’t love him, but Stiles still likes her most of the time, because sometimes she gets annoyed with him, but not angry. Not like Dad does. Sometimes when Dad is angry at both of them, that makes it feel like they’re on the same side.

And here she is, shoving her clothes into a bag.

Stiles doesn’t think he loves her, but a part of his heart goes with her when she walks out the door.

And Dad is so angry.

 

***

 

There’s a narrow space under Stiles’s bed. He lies there on his stomach, his head throbbing. He doesn’t close his eyes. He doesn’t dare do that. His bedroom door is closed, and there’s a narrow band of light underneath it.

Outside, the TV is blaring. It’s so loud that Stiles probably wouldn’t be able to fall asleep anyway.

Stiles listens to the TV. He listens for hours, counting the commercial breaks until he knows a lot of time has passed. Then and only then he scrambles out from under his bed. He treads to the doorway and listens carefully before he opens the door a crack.

Every step he takes into the hallway feels like a journey of hundreds of miles. It takes an eternity—his heart thumping and the blood roaring in his skull—to make it as far as the living room.

Dad is snoring on the couch, empty beer cans on the floor by his feet.

Stiles wishes he was a ghost. Wishes he could glide past, soundless and invisible. He keeps as far away from the couch as he can on his way to the kitchen, stepping as lightly as possible. In the kitchen he holds his breath as he eases the refrigerator door open. The slight sucking pop as the seal gives sounds as loud as a gunshot. Stiles reaches in and finds the cheese slices. He grabs as many as he can, and sneaks back through the living room to his bedroom.

He eats the cheese slices sitting with his back to the door, and shoves the wrappers in his school backpack to throw away tomorrow.

He crawls into bed, his belly still growling.

He doesn’t love Audrey, but he wishes she’d taken him with her.

He stares at the painted wooden letters in the gloom, and tries not to think of his mom, because that just makes his heart hurt more.

Stiles wishes for a lot of things, but he’s smart enough to know that wishes don’t come true.