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Painted Wooden Letters

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Stiles likes to go into the Preserve sometimes, even though it’s scary. Because sometimes what’s at home is scarier. Stiles likes to imagine that he can live in the woods. He can build a house and… and he doesn’t know how to do that. He tries once but it’s really just a bunch of sticks and Stiles knocks them over trying to climb inside the shelter they make. Also, he’s hungry by the time he finishes. Stiles doesn’t know how to get food from the woods, only from the refrigerator.

Once, Stiles accidentally finds the Hale house. He hasn’t seen the older Hale kids since that time on the bus, but when he walks out of the trees and discovers himself standing on a lawn, he sees the older girl sitting on the porch of the house. She’s reading something on her phone.

Stiles runs away again before she sees him, because he knows what trespassing is and he doesn’t want to get in trouble.

There are No Trespassing signs up all around the wreckers yard, and Dad gets really angry when kids try and break in sometimes at night. Stiles doesn’t know why they want to do that. He thinks maybe they’re doing it for a dare, because there are two dogs that Dad lets off their chains at night, and they’re scary.

Stiles hadn’t seen any No Trespassing signs on the way to the Hale house, but that doesn’t mean the Hales won’t be angry.

He runs until his chest hurts, and then he stops and finds a stick and draws patterns in the dirt for a while. Finally, when it’s getting dark, he goes home again.

 

***

 

In second grade, Stiles gets a teacher called Ms. Novak. She is very pretty, even though she’s a grown up, and she listens carefully when Stiles tells her that his name is Stiles, and she crosses out Mieczysław on the roll, and calls him that instead. Sometimes he thinks that he’s in love with her. Sometimes he thinks she can tell, because she seems to look at him a lot more than she looks at the other kids. It makes him feel warm all over, and a little bit shivery, and a lot ashamed of his scabbed knees and his clothes that sometimes have rips in them, and the tiny scabs on his scalp from scratching even though it’s been months since he had lice last.

Ms. Novak calls Dad in one day for a talk.

“Stiles is a very special little boy,” she says.

“What? His name’s Mitch. What the hell has he been telling you?”

Stiles wilts under Ms. Novak’s confused look.

“Mitch is a very special little boy,” Ms. Novak says.

She tells Dad, her voice soft but firm, that she thinks Dad should take him to the doctor and get him tested for something called ADHD. She thinks that’s why he’s sometimes distracted, or disruptive, and finds it difficult to focus.

Dad tells her he’ll think about it.

And later, when they’re at home again, he takes his belt off and hits Stiles around the backside and thighs with it until Stiles is wailing at him to stop.

He’d better not hear any more bullshit reports about Stiles being disruptive in class, Dad says, or there’ll be more where that came from.

 

***

 

Halfway through the school year Ms. Novak gets sick.

The whole class makes her Get Well Soon cards.

Stiles uses thick pieces of sticky tape to put in some pretty flowers he found in the Preserve. He’s careful to write his name as neatly as he can, just to show her that he’s trying his best: STILES.

He puts his card with the others to be sent to Ms. Novak.

She doesn’t come back to school though.

 

***

 

Weeks later Stiles is waiting outside the liquor store for Dad when he sees her again. She’s coming out of the grocery store next door, and a man is with her, pushing their cart.

“Hello, Stiles,” she says.

It’s strange seeing teachers outside of school. Stiles wrinkles his nose, suddenly embarrassed by the knowledge that teachers have home lives. Does Ms. Novak have any pets? Does she wear fuzzy slippers at night? What does she look like in her pajamas? Even thinking those things makes him feel funny inside, like it’s not something he’s supposed to know.

“Hello,” he says finally, looking up at her, and then at the man beside her.

His heart stops beating.

It’s Deputy John.

“This is my husband,” Ms. Novak says. “John.”

He looks different out of uniform, but his smile and the crinkles around his eyes are just the same. “Hey, kiddo. How’ve you been?”

There’s a moment of panic then, because Stiles sees the way that Ms. Novak looks at Deputy John, some sort of understanding dawning on her face, and Stiles knows what that means. He’s suddenly ashamed of his dad and his house and the yelling the way that he was ashamed about his scabs and his torn clothes. He doesn’t want Ms. Novak to know those things about him. He wants to be better.

“I made you a card,” he blurts out suddenly.

“Yes,” she says, smiling. “It was beautiful. Thank you, Stiles.”

Please take me home with you, he wants to say. Please be my mom and dad.

He doesn’t say anything though. Just stares at the cracked pavement and drags the toe of his shoe over a mark.

Please be my mom and dad.

He’s too scared to say it aloud. He’s scared that Dad might hear, maybe. Mostly he’s scared because he knows that wishes don’t come true. He knows that if he says it aloud and they say no, then the fantasy will be destroyed forever. And Stiles doesn’t like the real world. Stiles needs that fantasy to protect him from it.

Please.

“Is everything okay, kiddo?” Deputy John asks.

Stiles lifts his gaze and nods.

Stiles is very good at lying.

 

***

 

Stiles’s arm has been hurting for days when his dad takes him to the hospital. He has a greenstick fracture. Stiles isn’t sure what that is, exactly, except he thinks of the sticks in the Preserve that are too soft to snap properly, and watches with interest as the doctor wraps wet layers of stuff around and around his arm.

“I fell off one of the cars,” Stiles says for the fourth time, or the fifth.

It’s not true.

Stiles stays out of the wreckers’ yard because he’s scared of the dogs, but nobody here knows that.

“Kids, huh?” Dad says with a rueful laugh.

Stiles chooses the bright green color for his cast.

Nobody at school signs it.

 

 

***

 

“This is private property,” the dark-haired Hale boy says when Stiles skids down the gully and lands on his backside in the dry leaves in the creek bed below.

Stiles is winded. He lies there, gasping for breath.

The boys walks over to him and scowls. “What are you doing here?”

Stiles is running from Dad. Dad’s angry today, and Stiles knocked over a can and sent beer spilling all over the floor. He tries his hardest to be still and quiet, but sometimes it feels like he’s trying to put a lid back on a fizzed-up soda bottle, and the harder he tries the worse the explosion is going to be. Stiles tries to be good, but he flails a lot. He does it now, sending leaves scattering while the boy glowers at him.

“Nothing!” he protests, once he can suck some breath back into his body.

“This is private property,” the boys says again.

Stiles shoves himself up into a sitting positing. “I didn’t know!” he lies.

The boy’s glower softens. “Are you hurt?”

Stiles clambers to his feet. “No.”

The boy raises his eyebrows and nods at his bright green cast.

“Well, not from now,” Stiles says. He squints at the boy and scratches his nose. “This happened last week.”

“Does it hurt?” the boy asks curiously.

Stiles isn’t sure how to answer that. “It itches,” he says at last.

“Come on,” the boy says. “I’ll take you back to your place.”

 

***

 

The Hale boy’s name is Derek. He doesn’t talk much, but Stiles figures that’s because he’s a big kid, and Stiles isn’t old enough for a big kid to talk to. And even if he was old enough, he wouldn’t be the right sort of kid for someone like Derek Hale. If Stiles knows one thing for sure, it’s that he’s just wrong in all the ways that count. Other kids don’t like him. It hurts sometimes, in the same way that a deep bruise hurts. It’s the sort of hurt that aches. It’s the sort of hurt that lingers.

Stiles thinks it would be nice if someone liked him.

He thinks he would like to have a friend.

 

***

 

The most terrifying sound in Stiles’s small-drawn world is the snap and hiss of a beer can being opened.

 

***

 

Dad has a bunch of different girlfriends after Audrey. Some of them come and stay for a few weeks. Some of them only last a night, and then leave again in the morning. Stiles once watches from the hallway, his face scrunched up, as one of them kisses Dad on the couch. She’s sitting on his lap, and she’s doing something with her hand that Stiles can’t quite see, and they’re both making ugly noises. Stiles doesn’t know exactly what they’re doing, but he knows instinctively that he doesn’t want to get caught watching, so he gives up on the idea of sneaking into the kitchen to make a sandwich, and goes back to his bedroom instead.

He works on his homework. He’s supposed to do a project on space, but he doesn’t have any glitter or glue or markers. He doesn’t even have any cardboard. He tries to draw pictures of the planets on paper torn out of the back of his regular notebook, but it doesn’t look good without any glitter or paint. This one girl in Stiles’s class, Lydia, has actual glitter markers. Her project will be awesome.

Stiles freezes as he hears footsteps in the hallway, and only relaxes again when they pass his door and continue on to the bathroom.

He works some more on his project, his empty stomach aching, and then crawls into bed to wait until Dad and the lady fall asleep. Then he can go and make himself a peanut butter sandwich.

He waits a long time.

 

***

 

When Stiles is eight, Ms. Novak dies.

Stiles hears about it first at school, where the kids are all whispering like it’s something exciting, something scandalous. It makes Stiles feel sick, and he runs away to the bathroom and locks himself in a stall.

It’s not fair.

First his mom, and now Ms. Novak. He thinks, horrified, of Deputy John. Is he sad, like Stiles is? Is he crying too? Does he know that the people Stiles loves always die? Does he know this is probably all Stiles’s fault? If Stiles hadn’t loved Ms. Novak, hadn’t stuck those flowers into her card and written his name with such precise care, then maybe she’d be okay still.

Stiles has to be careful not to love Deputy John, just in case.