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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.

Chapter Text

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.

 

Chapter Text

Stiles is nine when Uncle Jimmy comes to stay. Uncle Jimmy isn’t really his uncle. He’s one of Dad’s friends. Stiles likes him. He drinks like Dad does, but he doesn’t get angry when he’s drunk. Instead he turns the music up and sings. Sometimes he dances too, like he’s holding an invisible lady, twirling her and dipping her while Stiles watches from the hallway. Uncle Jimmy catches him watching, and winks at him.

Uncle Jimmy has come to help Dad out. He lives above the workshop in the wreckers yard. Stiles sometimes sneaks over there when he knows the dogs are chained up, and visits. He likes to watch Uncle Jimmy work.

He likes the way that Uncle Jimmy pats him on the head. He likes the way Uncle Jimmy does magic tricks with quarters, then lets Stiles keep the quarters. He likes the way that Uncle Jimmy says, “Ah, he’s a good kid, Larry. Leave him the fuck alone, why don’t you?”

Uncle Jimmy also works some nights at the video store in Beacon Hills, and he brings home DVDs. Stiles sees more movies in the first month that Uncle Jimmy is staying with them than he ever has in his life. Uncle Jimmy sits next to him on the couch while they watch, usually with Dad snoring in the chair beside them, and doesn’t even care when Stiles fidgets.

He makes Stiles feel safe and happy.

Right up until he doesn’t.

 

***

 

Stiles climbs onto the bus and stops short. Derek and Cora and their big sister are riding the bus again for some reason. Stiles looks at them, and then looks away and slides into his seat.

“Hey.” Derek leans over the back of Stiles’s seat. “Are you okay?”

Stiles twists in his seat, surprised to find Derek’s face so close. He flinches back.

“Stiles?” Derek asks, and Stiles wonders how he knows his name.

There are sharp edges inside Stiles now. He can feel them when he hugs his backpack to his chest. The pieces inside him are like the rusted metal of the wrecks in Dad’s yard. They screech and scream when they grate together, and the noise is so loud in Stiles’s head, but nobody else can hear it.

“Leave me alone,” Stiles says, and turns to stare out the window. Specks of rain leave pock marks on the grimy glass, and Derek’s stare feels hot on the back of his neck all the way into town.

 

***

 

Dad drinks too much and passes out early.

Stiles stares at the TV, unblinkingly.

Jimmy yawns and stretches, and stands up. He goes down the hallway to the bathroom. He leaves the door open, and Stiles turns his mouth down at the sound of him pissing in the toilet bowl. Then the toilet flushes, and he hears the splash of water in the sink.

Then: “Mitch.”

Stiles sets his flat can of soda down on the scarred coffee table, and get up and walks to his bedroom.

Uncle Jimmy is waiting there for him.

 

***

 

Stiles hates the feeling of callused hands on his skin. He hates the sound of Uncle Jimmy’s voice, strained and out of breath, and whispering things that make Stiles want to push him away. He’s nine though, and Uncle Jimmy is a grown up. He’s so much bigger than Stiles.

Uncle Jimmy tells him he’s a good boy, and then he tells him what will happen if he’s not. He tells him all the ways he’ll hurt Stiles, and Stiles believes him.

Stiles doesn’t tell anyone.

 

***

 

The Hales are like an itch that Stiles can’t scratch. He knows he shouldn’t go onto their property, except every day he’s drawn a little further into the Preserve toward their house, and he thinks, this is how space shuttles explode. (Stiles watched a TV show about exploding space shuttles last week, and it’s kind of been stuck in his head since.) Because every day when nothing happens, every day when there are no consequences, every day Stiles’s brain recalibrates and tells him that this is fine. If Stiles hasn’t exploded yet, then nothing’s wrong, right? Except the problem with that is there’s no warning steps or anything. It just goes fine, fine, fine, fine, BOOM.

That’s what Stiles took away from the TV show anyway.

One day it’s going to go BOOM in Stiles’s face, but he just can’t keep away. It draws him like a magnet, and rewards him with glimpses of lives so different to his own.

Today, Stiles has crept close enough to the Hale house to see the house itself. It has a wraparound porch and shutters that are painted white and a green front door. It looks like the sort of house that’s photographed for glossy magazines. Stiles bets nobody inside that house ever gets lice. He peers at the place from behind a screen of bushes.

There’s a woman on the porch. Stiles thinks it’s a woman, but it’s kind of hard to tell. She’s lying in a hammock with one leg hanging over the side.

There’s a window open in the upstairs of the house. A curtain floats out with the breeze. So does some music.

A cat strolls along the front path.

Stiles watches, his eyes narrow.

The front door of the house opens, and a man steps out. He walks along the porch, to where the hammock is swinging slightly from side to side. He grins down at the woman lying in it, and climbs in on top of her.

“Peter!” the woman shrieks, but the sound isn’t sharp at the edges with fear. It’s full and warm, as though she’s laughing.

The hammock bulges and distends as knees and elbows fight for room inside it, and then their laughter fades and everything is quiet again.

Stiles thinks of skin touching skin, the scrape of calluses and hair, of fingers that leave bruises, and he gets a sick feeling in his stomach.

He scrambles out from under the bush, and slips back into the Preserve.

There’s a low burn of anger in him, and he doesn’t really understand it. He picks up a stick as he walks, and thwacks it against the trunks of the trees he passes. It’s not fair. Stiles was just there to look at the nice house, and the nice cat, and then that man—Peter—ruined it all. It’s not fair that Stiles wasn’t even doing anything bad—apart from the trespassing—but now he has to think about things like that.

Like stubble and bad breath and the weight of a heavy body holding him down.

That’s not fair.

The Preserve bleeds into a million shades of green as angry tears sting Stiles’s eyes.

It’s not fair.

Stiles smacks the stick against the trunk of a tree.

Thwack.

Thwack.

Thwack.

He remembers too late that trees have sap that move through them like blood through veins. That bark is their skin. That they have places in their cores that remember trauma.

Here, a forest fire.

Here, a flood.

And here a small, angry boy called Stiles, who beat the tree to try to make his own hurt sting less.

Stiles drops the stick and runs his fingers down the rough bark of the trunk.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers to the tree, and wonders if he left a bruise.

 

***

 

Stiles folds a lot of secrets into his skinny body. Folds them up and tamps them down, and wonders if his skin will burst.

 

***

 

Stiles arrives home from school to the usual. Dad and Uncle Jimmy and some beers. Stiles doesn’t look at either of them as he sidles through the living room toward the kitchen. He makes himself a peanut butter sandwich and, unbidden, takes two beers out of the refrigerator and carries them into the living room for Dad and Uncle Jimmy. Dad grunts, and Uncle Jimmy reaches out and scrubs his callused palm over Stiles’s buzzcut, and winks at him.

“I’m just saying,” Dad says, continuing on the conversation like Stiles isn’t even there, “what’s the catch?”

“No catch,” Uncle Jimmy says. “Five grand each, no catch.”

Dad grunts again.

Dad and Uncle Jimmy are always talking about money, and about how they don’t have enough of it, or how some bitch is sucking them dry, or some useless kid.

Stiles slips away again, hopeful that he’s built enough goodwill that tonight will be okay. Or, if that doesn’t work, that they’ll both get so drunk Dad won’t be able to hit him, and that Uncle Jimmy won’t…

Stiles takes his sandwich to his room. He leaves the door ajar so he can hear Dad and Uncle Jimmy talking. So he can hear if they stop. If one of them gets up.

He sits down on the floor and eats his sandwich and works on his homework.

Stiles still isn’t good at school.

He still gets in trouble for not listening, for fidgeting, for his inability to follow directions, and sometimes his teacher calls Dad, but mostly Stiles is learning how to fly under his teacher’s radar. Sometimes he still looks enviously at the other kids—Jackson Whittemore got a whole Lego Star Wars set for his birthday last week—but he’s always careful to make sure they don’t see.

Stiles doesn’t like school, and he doesn’t like home, and he’s avoided going too far into the Preserve since the day he had to tell the tree he was sorry. Stiles is like the raccoon that lives in the wreckers yard, with Dad and his shotgun on one side and the snapping, snarling dogs on the other. That raccoon has only got narrow spaces to live in too.

It isn’t fair. Not for Stiles and not for the raccoon, but who knows better than Stiles that life isn’t fair?

Footsteps tread down the hallway and stop outside his door.

A shadow looms.

Stiles sets his sandwich down and climbs to his feet.

He doesn’t cry.

Crying doesn’t help at all.

 

***

 

Stiles is ten when the Hale house burns down. It happens at night and lights up the Preserve for miles around. The glow of it looks like sunset above the trees.

Stiles’s small-drawn world gets suddenly larger that night.

People die.

Lots of people do. A larger family than Stiles has ever known is turned to ashes that night, and it hurts. It aches in the space behind his ribs, even though he didn’t know them, even though he was a little scared of them, and even though he doesn’t know what secrets they were hiding in that big, fancy house they had.

Dad and Uncle Jimmy watch the glow in the sky from the front porch.

“Holy shit,” Dad says.

Uncle Jimmy takes a swig from a bottle of whiskey. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Hell, that burns.”

And then he laughs when he realizes what he said.

 

Chapter Text

Stiles is in class when a lady from the office knocks on the door and tells him to follow her.

“Ewww!” one of the other kids says. “I bet Stinky Stiles has got lice again!”

Stiles burns with shame as he crosses the classroom.

Except it’s not the nurse waiting to see Stiles at the office. It’s Deputy John, and a woman Stiles doesn’t know.

“Hey, kiddo,” Deputy John says, and crouches down so he doesn’t seem so tall. “Do you remember me?”

Stiles nods.

“And this is Emily,” Deputy John says. “Emily is a social worker. She works for Child Protective Services. Do you know what that is?”

Stiles shakes his head.

“It means we’re going to ask you some questions, Stiles,” Deputy John says. “Just to make sure you’re okay.”

Stiles thinks that maybe they’re going to ask him at the school, except they don’t. They take him outside, and put him in the back of a green sedan. It smells like pine. There’s a little plastic tree hanging from the rearview mirror. Emily drives.

Stiles knows he isn’t meant to go with strangers. That’s what they say at school. But Deputy John isn’t a stranger, is he? Deputy John knows Stiles’s secret name, and he knows how to say it properly and everything.

Still, his heart starts to beat very, very fast when they get to the Sheriff’s Station, and hot tears spring from Stiles’s eyes and track a path down his face.

“Am I in trouble?” he asks, his voice a cracked whisper.

“No,” Deputy John says, turning around in his seat. Stiles searches his eyes for a lie. He can’t see one. “You’re not in trouble. I promise.”

They take Stiles inside to a room that has a couch and a TV and looks like a living room instead of the sort of room that should be in a police station. There aren’t even any bars or locks or anything.

Emily sits with Stiles on the couch, and asks him about school, and if he has any pets, and what his favorite TV show is, and Deputy John gets him a juice box and a packet of chips. Then Deputy John sits down on the chair beside the couch, and tells Stiles about the video.

 

***

 

“That’s it,” Uncle Jimmy says. “Look at me, Mitch.”

Stiles stares at Jimmy’s phone and tries not to cry.

 

***

 

Shame is a slick, cold, black kind of feeling, like oil gushing out of the ground, and Stiles is swept away. All the sick, horrible things that Stiles feels, all the sick, horrible things that he’s tried to hide, and Deputy John and Emily have seen them. They know.

They know what Uncle Jimmy does to him, and Stiles has tried for so long to pretend that it’s not happening at all.

“It’s okay,” Deputy John says. “It’s okay, Stiles. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

But he did. They know he did. They’ve seen the video.

 

***

 

Stiles goes to the hospital, and holds Deputy John’s hand when the doctor looks at him there. Deputy John seemed surprised that Stiles wanted him there instead of Emily, but he holds his hand and talks about all the different sort of cupcakes they make at the bakery across from the station, and Stiles can almost pretend that the doctor isn’t doing anything at all.

Deputy John has a nice voice. It falters once or twice when the doctor uncovers bruises and abrasions, but he never lets go of Stiles’s hand.

When they’re finished, he and Emily take Stiles to buy a cupcake. It comes in its own little box, and Stiles holds it carefully. He thinks that he’ll put it in his backpack, and hide it under his bed when he gets home, and he can eat it later tonight.

“Aren’t you going to eat that, kiddo?” Deputy John asks.

“I’m going to save it for home,” Stiles says. “Can I?”

“Stiles,” Deputy John tells him, his forehead creasing with worry. “You’re not going home.”

 

***

 

Stiles is ten when he goes into foster care. By the time he’s eleven he’s been moved four different times. He even has to go to a different school once. He gets diagnosed with ADHD, and has to take Adderall. It makes him less fidgety.

When Stiles is twelve one of his foster brothers corners him in the bathroom and tries to make him do things. Stiles slams his head into the shower screen, and cracks it. The screen and the kid’s head. And then he kicks him to make sure he stays down.

And then he runs.

Deputy John finds him three days later, digging through the trash cans behind Burger King. It becomes a sort of a pattern they fall into. Stiles acts out, angry at everyone and everything, and runs, and Deputy John finds him again. And Stiles hates how the only time he feels safe is sitting in the back of Deputy John’s cruiser on the way back to the station.

He doesn’t know how he became this kid. How he went from scared and silent to someone with so much anger in him. Maybe because with his dad he couldn’t get angry. At least his foster parents can’t hit him. If they do, they’ll get in more trouble than he does. And if there are other kids and they try to fight Stiles, well at least they’re not too much bigger than him.

Deputy John always looks so disappointed though, when he finds out what Stiles has done, and Stiles really wishes that when he was six and Deputy John asked him if he was okay… he really wishes that he hadn’t lied.

He wishes he’d begged Deputy John to take him with him, to rescue him before he got ruined. Before he got beaten and broken and did horrible things with Uncle Jimmy. Before he was so angry.

“Oh, kiddo,” Deputy John says one night. Stiles is riding in the front with him, and they’re eating cheeseburgers from McDonalds because Stiles is starving. “You gotta stop, okay?”

Stiles hunches over.

“I know you were hurt,” John says. “And I know you’re still hurting, but this path you’re headed down, it’s not a good one. You’re a smart kid, and there are people out there who want to help you, but you have to want to help yourself too, son.”

The word hurts more than it should. It brings up all those old fantasies Stiles once had. It brings tears to his eyes.

“I want you to help me,” he whispers.

John reaches out and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Okay, Stiles. Emily and your therapist—”

“No,” Stiles says, his heart thumping. “You. You gave me your card. You said that you’d help me. You.”

John’s eyes widen.

 

***

 

Stiles is twelve when he moves into John Stilinski’s house on North Maple Street. There are rules. There are so many rules. Stiles has to work on his grades, and not get in trouble at school, and John and him have to let Emily visit once a week, and Stiles has to go to his therapy, and John has to get a babysitter for when he’s on night shifts so that Stiles isn’t left alone in the house. There are a lot of rules.

It’s not always easy, but sometimes it is. Stiles thinks that John has been lonely since Ms. Novak died, and he likes having someone to talk to. And Stiles isn’t a baby. He can make his own breakfast and do his own laundry and stuff. He doesn’t need John to look after him. He just needs John to love him.

It takes months and months and months, but slowly the ground solidifies underneath Stiles’s feet. He has his own bedroom, and it’s a nice one, and it’s okay if he puts posters on the wall, and stickers on his bed frame, because he’s not going to have to leave suddenly, all his belongings shoved in a plastic bag.

Stiles starts to grow his hair out, because he likes the way that John scruffs it up and smiles at him fondly when he does.

Stiles has new clothes for the first time in his life. John takes him to Walmart, not Goodwill. He even has his own computer, which John gets second-hand off someone from work, but Stiles can play games on it, and do his schoolwork on it, and even watch movies on it.

When Stiles is twelve, John Stilinski becomes the Sheriff of Beacon Hills, and he and Stiles host a barbeque for the department to celebrate. John sees the flash of panic in Stiles’s eyes when he cracks open a beer, so he sets it down and drinks a soda instead. That settles something inside Stiles that he didn’t even realize was still so disturbed. He sticks by John’s side all night, watchful of the other people around who are drinking, but no longer afraid.

When Stiles is twelve, he brings home his first report card with no D’s on it. He has B’s and C’s, and even a B+. John’s proud smile warms him from the inside.

When Stiles is twelve he drops a mug on the kitchen floor, and it shatters everywhere in a lake of hot chocolate. The years drop away in an instant, and panic rises up in him. There’s a whine in the back of his throat he hasn’t made in a long time, and he flinches and jerks.

“Stiles!” John yells.

Stiles’s body remembers how to run—he needs to get away, to hole up somewhere safe, to hide—but before he can go John is holding him by the arms.

“Don’t move!”

It takes Stiles a moment to realize that John’s shout wasn’t an angry one.

“You’re in bare feet, kiddo,” John says, searching Stiles’s face with his gaze. “I need you to stay still so you don’t cut yourself. Are you hearing me, kiddo?”

Then later, when John’s sitting with Stiles on the couch and Stiles is still twitchy, still anxious, John says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you when I shouted.”

Stiles knows that now, but his body doesn’t. His muscle memory doesn’t. It takes a long time for his fear to subside. He doesn’t know how to explain to John that it wasn’t just the shout. That he was shattering into pieces the second the cup slipped from his grasp, and long before it hit the floor and did the same. That he saw the whole thing in slow motion.

He leans against John, and they watch TV until Stiles falls asleep.

When Stiles is twelve, John brings home a bunch of official-looking paperwork, and sits down with Stiles on the couch while he explains it to him.

Then there are lots of sessions with Emily, and with his therapist, and at the courthouse, and it reminds Stiles of those first horrible months when he was in care, and he chews his nails down and starts to have nightmares about being taken away.

“Stiles!” John always wakes him by putting the light on first, and by standing in the doorway and calling out. He doesn’t touch Stiles while he’s still asleep, because Stiles has panic attacks if he doesn’t know it’s John. “Stiles!”

Stiles sits bolt upright, sucking in a breath. “Don’t let them take me away!”

John sits down on his bed, and opens his arms.

It’s an invitation, not a demand. Stiles dives into his embrace, and buries his face in John’s shoulder.

John rubs his back. “You’re not going anywhere, kiddo. I promise.”

It’s not a lie, but how can Stiles believe it? He feels suddenly breathless with fear, because this past year he’s gained so, so much, and he’s terrified of losing it again.

When Stiles is twelve, he and John go to the courthouse one last time and when they come out again Stiles’s last name is Stilinksi.

When Stiles is twelve, he calls John “Dad” for the first time, and realizes that he’s finally made it home.

 

***

 

When Stiles is thirteen he meets Scott McCall, and has a friend for the first time in his life.

When Stiles is fifteen, he starts high school. He brings home his first report card full of A’s, and Dad is so proud he photocopies the report card and sticks it on his wall at work. Later that week, he surprises Stiles with the keys to the baby blue Jeep that used to belong to Ms. Novak.

“Claudia would have wanted you to have this, kiddo,” Dad says, his eyes shining with tears. “She would have been so proud of you.”

Stiles doesn’t remember his mom. He guards Dad’s memories of Claudia as jealously as if she was his too though, and he doesn’t think Dad minds. Stiles likes to pretend that he’s not just Dad’s son, he’s Claudia’s too. He likes to imagine that his life before he was twelve didn’t exist. He likes to imagine that his Dad and Mom were always John Stilinski and Claudia Novak, and he was their little boy.

“Why Stiles?” Dad asks one night.

“You gave me your card,” Stiles says. “I’ll show you. Give me your wallet.”

Dad hands it over.

Stiles takes one of Dad’s cards out. They don’t say Deputy these days. They say Sheriff.

Stiles sets the card down on the kitchen table. “You gave me the card, but Audrey tore it up. I couldn’t find all the pieces.” He presses his thumbs over the words:

 

s Sheriff’s D

riff John Stil

09) 385-757

 

“You knew how to say my name,” he says, looking up at Dad. “I couldn’t read yours, but I wanted to belong to you.”

“Oh, kiddo,” Dad says, his breath escaping on a long sigh. “Come here.”

Stiles leans into his hug.

“I love you, son,” Dad tells him, voice rough with emotion. “And you’re stuck with me now. No takebacks.”

“I love you too,” Stiles says. “And same.”

He’s Stiles Stilinksi now.

Mieczysław Reid doesn’t exist anymore, and hardly anyone even remembers him.

Good.

Stiles doesn’t want them to.

 

***

 

When Stiles is sixteen, the killings start, and Derek Hale comes back to Beacon Hills.

Chapter Text

“This is private property,” Derek Hale says, and something twists up inside Stiles’s guts, and makes him feel like a little kid again, small and scared, and ashamed. He’s sure that Derek Hale will recognize him, but Derek’s gaze sweeps over him without stopping, and Stiles’s heart beats a little easier.

He’s Stiles Stilinski, isn’t he? He’s the sheriff’s smartass kid. He’s John’s son. He’s rewritten his own past so carefully that he almost believes it. He’s loud and brash and he flails—doesn’t flinch—he flails, and draws attention. He doesn’t skitter away and hide. He doesn’t close his mouth and hunch into himself. He’s not that kid anymore. Stiles has erased his history. He’s not that kid. He was never that kid.

“This is private property,” Derek Hale says, and what if he knows? What if he’s looking right at Stiles and seeing the wrong version of him? The kid with the bruises and the plaster cast on his arm. The kid with the scabs on his scalp and the circles under his eyes and the pinched-thin mouth. The dirty, ugly kid from the wreckers yard.

All of Stiles’s realities collide when Derek Hale stares at him. Collide and collapse, and something even crazier floods in to fill the hole: werewolves.

And Stiles rolls with it, because what the fuck else is he supposed to do? The only thing is, his dad can’t find out. It’s bad enough that every day Dad goes to work and anything could happen. The mundane world is dangerous enough (who knows that better than Stiles?) so he sure as hell can’t expose Dad to anything worse. And it’s not like Stiles can’t keep a secret, right?

So Derek Hale is back in town.

So it’s Laura Hale’s body that was found in the woods.

So werewolves are a thing, and so are werewolf hunters.

So Scotty is a werewolf too.

These are all things that Stiles and his Adderall can deal with.

“You don’t scare me,” he tells Derek Hale one time, his fingers curled through the grill separating them in his dad’s cruiser.

But it’s a lie.

Because he knows that Derek remembers him.

And he knows now that Derek must have smelled all Stiles’s secrets on his skin.

 

***

 

There’s a tension in his gut that Stiles hasn’t felt in years. An ache that sharpens day by day, until something has to give. Stiles is scared it’s going to be him.

 

***

 

“Kid,” Dad says one night, leaning in Stiles’s bedroom doorway. “Can we talk?”

Stiles closes his laptop. “Sure.”

“Downstairs,” Dad says, and Stiles’s stomach knots.

He follows Dad down to the kitchen. There’s hot chocolate already waiting.

“Hot chocolate,” Stiles says. “You only make this when something bad has happened.”

Dad gives a guilty start. “Sit down, kiddo.”

Stiles sits at the small table, and Dad sits down across from him.

“Got another body today,” Dad says. He rubs a hand over his forehead, a nervous gesture. “Stiles, it was Larry Reid.”

“Huh.” Stiles gives himself a moment to feel something. Anything. He remains curiously empty. “Animal attack?”

“Looks like it.” Dad reaches out and puts a warm hand over his. “You want to talk about it?”

Stiles really does, but not in the way Dad thinks.

Stiles remembers the way the Hale fire lit up the Preserve for miles around. Because so far everyone who has been killed has been linked to the Hale fire in some way. He has a sudden flash of memory:

“No catch,” Uncle Jimmy said. “Five grand each, no catch.”

After Stiles was sent to his first foster home, Larry Reid was charged with a bunch of child endangerment stuff. He did a few years in prison because of it. Stiles hadn’t even known he was back in Beacon Hills.

His throat aches when he speaks. “Were you going to tell me he was back?”

“He wasn’t supposed to be,” Dad says. “He wasn’t supposed to come anywhere near you, kiddo, not ever again.”

“J-J—” He can’t even get the name out.

Dad squeezes his hand. “Jimmy’s still in prison. He’s not going anywhere, I promise you that.”

Stiles is allowed to feel a little regretful for that, isn’t he? That Uncle Jimmy isn’t free to get his throat torn out by a monster in the woods?

He looks up and meets Dad’s gaze. “You never told me how you found the videos.”

“Stiles.”

“I wanna know.”

Dad holds his gaze for a moment, and then nods. “He was seeing a woman. She went through his phone one night, and found them. They weren’t uploaded anywhere, as far as we can tell.”

Stiles wonders how much more that would hurt. He wonders if it even would, or if at some point it would all just level out because he’d lose the capacity to feel it any more. Like a dog whistle blasting out at some frequency humans can’t hear. Like people who’ve been shot but don’t feel it once the shock from the blood loss kicks in. If the whole world had seen the videos, could Stiles really feel worse?

There was a time in his life when Stiles knew for sure he could always hurt more, but tonight he’s just numb.

Is optimism the same as fatalism now?

He blinks, and his eyes sting.

“I wish a mountain lion killed him too,” he says at last.

Dad’s eyes are shining with tears. “Me too, son. Me too.”

 

***

 

The alpha is a monster, but a part of Stiles wants to look him in the eye and thank him.

 

***

 

They’re both playing a part, Stiles and Derek. Both wearing a mask. Derek threatens, and Stiles flails, but he’s not afraid of Derek. Not ever at the same visceral level he was with Larry Reid or with Uncle Jimmy. He doesn’t lie awake at night, too afraid too sleep, after Derek growls at him. And when Derek smacks his head into the steering wheel that time, Stiles freezes. Only for a millisecond, but it feels like an eternity.

Where’s his fear?

Where is it?

He doesn’t understand how this is different, right up until he does.

He’s seen this before. He’s seen it in the way that two boys push one another up against the lockers, and suddenly one of them is in a headlock. He’s seen it in the way someone punches their friend in the shoulder, hard. He’s seen it played out a hundred times a day, this sort of weird casual violence that has no fear behind it, no calculated malice guiding it. This is what guys do. And it’s dumb and it’s cruel and it’s pointless, but this is what guys do.

Derek is treating him the same as he’d treat any annoying as hell kid he got saddled with. He’s not treating Stiles like he’s going to break.

It’s a strange sort of thing.

It’s weird and twisted up and complicated, which is basically how Stiles feels about Derek Hale overall, and he doesn’t want to make excuses for someone hurting him, but it doesn’t feel bad.

Stiles doesn’t know what that makes him.

Weird and twisted up and complicated too, maybe.

Except he remembers the boy who once asked him on the school bus if he was okay, and the boy in the woods who led him home.

Derek is wearing a mask now too.

 

***

 

“I don’t want the bite,” Stiles tells the alpha.

Tells Peter Hale.

(“Peter!” the woman shrieks, laughing as he climbs into the hammock with her.)

Peter Hale turns Stiles’s wrist in his grasp.

“I don’t want the bite,” Stiles says again.

He’s Stiles Stilinski, and that’s all he ever wants to be.

 

***

 

It’s dark when Stiles’s bedroom window squeaks open. Stiles has been awake for hours. His hands still smell like chemicals, however many times he washes them. The stench of burning flesh is still caught in his nostrils, his throat.

He didn’t thank the alpha in the end, did he? He helped to kill him.

Nobody wins in Beacon Hills.

Derek’s eyes flash red as he climbs over the sill. “Are you okay?”

“Mmm.” Stiles shifts, and his sheets rustle.

“I’m sorry,” Derek says. “I’m sorry that he hurt you.”

Stiles shrugs and flexes his wrist. “I’m okay.”

Derek’s voice is soft. “I wasn’t talking about Peter.”

Stiles’s heart freezes.

“I didn’t know,” Derek says. “I should have put it all together, but I didn’t know people could be like that. I thought maybe you fell down a lot. I thought maybe… I don’t know what I thought.”

“Don’t push me around anymore,” Stiles says.

“I’m sorry.”

“I…” Stiles stops, swallows, and starts again. “My name is Stiles Stilinski. That kid you remember, he’s gone. When I tell you not to push me around, that’s not because of that kid. I’m just warning you I’ll push back.”

There’s more bravado in that statement than Stiles is feeling, and he figures Derek gets it. They’re both messed up.

“Okay,” Derek says.

“You see him still,” Stiles says, “but he’s gone.”

“Okay.”

Something about Derek’s easy acquiescence makes Stiles bristle with anger. He curls his fingers into loose fists. “He’s gone!”

“I understand,” Derek says, like they both don’t know it’s the biggest lie Stiles has ever told.

“Leave me alone,” Stiles mutters. “Just… just leave me alone, Derek.”

Before he leaves, Derek reaches out and brushes his fingertips down Stiles’s cheek.

Stiles doesn’t flinch away, but his heart beats faster for a very long time.

 

***

 

Stiles is nineteen when he kisses Derek Hale.

He’s nineteen when he discovers that he trusts Derek enough to let him touch him in ways that, if he tries hard enough, Stiles can almost believe are new. He feels dirty the first time they have sex, hot and sick with shame. He pulls the Jeep over on the way home and vomits in the gutter. When he finally makes it home, Dad takes one look at him and demands to know what the hell happened.

And Stiles… Stiles tells him.

Dad phones his therapist and makes an appointment for the morning.

It’s… there’s no magical cure. All the werewolves and kanimas and darachs and druids in the world, but there’s no magical cure for Stiles. It’s okay. In the end, it’s okay. He learns to reconcile Mieczysław Reid to Stiles Stilinski. He learns he can’t shut Mieczysław out forever. He learns he can’t ignore him. It’s not easy, but he learns.

Dad helps him.

And Derek stays by his side, every step of the way.

 

***

 

Stiles is twenty-three when he decides that he’s ready to be more than just Stiles Stilinksi.

He’s twenty-four when he becomes Stiles Stilinksi-Hale.