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Battered Child Syndrome

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Isaac is three when his father starts hitting the dog.

She’s a beautiful dog. A young yellow lab named Honey who’s always, it seems, smiling. Her tail is constantly wagging, hitting walls, furniture, people standing around her. And one day, she accidentally knocks a mug off the coffee table.

She jumps when it shatters and Isaac laughs, petting her with childish fingers and telling her, “It’s okay, Honey. S’okay.” She wags guiltily and licks his face while he giggles and strokes the soft fur on her ears.

His father comes downstairs then, and sees the mess and looks at Isaac with an unidentifiable expression on his face. “What’s this?” He glares down at the shattered mug and the spilled tea. “Isaac. Did you do this?”

Isaac laughs again, oblivious to the poorly masked anger. “No, Daddy. Honey. Honey did it.”

The glare shifts from the broken cup to the lab, who is wagging and smiling, Isaac’s fingers still entwined in her fur. “Honey did this?”

Isaac nods absently, distracted by the new discovery that the tags on the dog’s collar jingle like bells when you poke them.

And without warning, his father kicks Honey in the ribs. Once. Twice. Again. “Stupid fuckin’ dog!” She whimpers and stumbles backward, nearly falling into Isaac’s lap, and he’s frozen in horror, unable to move as his best friend collapses to the ground.

He goes running to his mother, wailing that “Daddy hurt Honey, Mommy!” and subsequently causes the first argument of his parents’ marriage. An argument that he can hear through the floorboards as he huddles in Camden’s white-knuckled embrace and cries, cries, cries.

Isaac’s mother loses the argument. Honey’s whimpers of pain become more and more constant as time goes on. She takes to sheltering in Isaac’s room, hiding under his bed, and he strokes her until she’s calm and goes cautiously downstairs again.

The arguing continues too. His father leaves the house for days at a time, and those days are nice ones, full of baking and movies and cuddles. His mother talks with Camden in a low voice but whenever Isaac comes in, wanting a cookie or a hug, conversation abruptly stops.

-

Isaac is four when his father starts hitting his mother.

They’re arguing in the kitchen again. Isaac is sitting on the floor in Camden’s room, clutching an orange crayon and messily practicing the alphabet. Camden’s doing his seventh-grade math homework and incrementally turning up the music he’s blasting in an attempt to drown out the argument downstairs.

The yelling gets louder and Camden says one of those bad words that Isaac’s not supposed to know, throwing down his pencil and leaning back in his chair in frustration. Isaac listens to the fight for a moment and bursts into tears when he makes out his name. It’s his fault, it must be, Mommy and Daddy are fighting because of him and then all of a sudden glass is breaking and Camden is jumping to his feet and running out of the room, telling Isaac to stay put, don’t move. He hears “You’re making Isaac cry-- Dad, what the hell?” and then the back door slamming, which means his father has left for another few days. Two sets of footsteps come upstairs and Isaac pokes his head out to see them. His mother is bleeding from a gash on her forehead and she turns away from Isaac quickly, going into the bathroom with Camden and locking the door.

It’s the first time, but it’s not the last.

The fights get increasingly longer and louder. His father keeps buying his mother presents to make up for his rage, mostly new dresses, jewelry-- a fancy bracelet, an engraved ring, a silver locket-- and a set of nice dishes. He throws one of them at her the next day and she donates the remaining ones to a thrift store.

-

Isaac is five when he meets his first friend.

It’s his first day of kindergarten. He’s wearing a blue plaid shirt and cargo shorts, an unruly cloud of brunette on top of his head. His mother’s fingers card through his curls and he smiles as she tells him that he really needs a haircut. She’s kidding, of course; they both like his hair exactly how it is.

Camden cooks cheesy scrambled eggs and a panful of bacon while their mother packs their lunches in brown paper bags. Isaac holds Camden’s hand on the way to the bus stop, and just because it’s his first time riding the bus, Camden doesn’t brush him off.

Isaac finds his classroom and his cubby all by himself. He puts his red backpack away and sits down alone in the corner of the room near a bin of wooden blocks. Almost everyone else seems far more interested in the collection of toy cars, some of which look brand new, but Isaac likes blocks, building whole cities and knocking them down when he sees fit.

Someone taps him on the shoulder and he looks up, assuming it’s the teacher, but it’s not. It’s a girl, wearing a light blue dress with cherries on it and a red headband holding back her curly blonde hair. She’s pretty. It’s Isaac’s first interaction with a pretty girl, and he freezes.

“Hi,” she says.

It takes him about ten seconds to figure out how his tongue works again before he manages to shyly reply, “Hi.”

“Can I play?” she asks.

He nods and scoots over, allowing her access to the structure he’s building.

“My name’s Erica,” she says, smoothing her dress over her knees and reaching out to adjust a green block that’s balancing precariously at the top of the tower.

He smiles. “I’m Isaac.”

They play together, stacking blocks and knocking them down, until the teacher rings the bell to start class and calls them all over to the alphabet rug in the center of the room. Isaac shares his snack with her, raisins out of a red cardboard box. In return, she splits her dessert with him in the cafeteria.

“I like you, Isaac,” she declares, breaking her chocolate cake into two crumbly pieces and handing one over to him. He doesn’t answer, mouth stuffed full of cake, but the smile in his eyes is enough response for Erica.

They play together again on the playground that afternoon. He pushes her on the swings and she teaches him how to play hopscotch. At the end of the day, she hugs him before she gets on the bus to go home.

-

Isaac is six when he calls an ambulance for the first time.

It’s Camden’s fourteenth birthday and he’s spending it at the kitchen table, helping Isaac practice his spelling. Their mother is cooking dinner-- spaghetti, Camden’s favorite-- and their father is at work. Camden points the pencil at a picture of a boat and Isaac dutifully lists the letters aloud: b o a t. Camden ruffles his hair and gives him a smile before pointing to the next picture, this one of a plane, and Isaac’s face screws up in concentration as he tries to recall how to spell it.

The garage door flies open suddenly and Camden’s scooping Isaac out of his chair and sending him into the living room. Isaac peeks around the doorframe and watches as their father stalks in and leans over the pot on the stove. “Pasta? Really? Is pasta the only thing you know how to make?” And then the pot is flying toward the floor and boiling water is everywhere and his father is backhanding his mother so hard that she falls and hits her head on the counter, cracking it open. She hits the ground and doesn’t get up.

“Dad!” Camden screams, but Isaac can’t stop looking at his mother. Blood oozes, looking like strawberry syrup, and Isaac is terrified, digging his nails into the doorframe so hard that he’s peeling off paint.

“Mommy?” he asks uncertainly, and their father rounds on him.

“You want your mommy?” he says in a mocking tone. “Well, I want my wife back. And you stole her from me!” He grabs a glass off the table and hurls it toward Isaac, missing him by fractions of an inch as Isaac ducks back behind the doorframe. The cup shatters, sharp slivers covering the floor.

Their father rolls his eyes. “Stupid bitch. I’m going out.” The door slams behind him.

Camden is at their mother’s side in all of two seconds, pressing on the injury with a white dishtowel. “Isaac, I need you to call 911, buddy,” he says, and Isaac stumbles toward the phone, cutting his feet on broken glass, punching in 911 just like Mommy taught him.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

He’s shaking. Tears burn his eyes and the back of his throat stings. “M-my mommy…”

He isn’t sure how long it takes the ambulance to get there, but the doctors take his mother away to the hospital. Camden and Isaac spend the night at the Stilinskis’ house. Noah and his wife Claudia are Isaac’s godparents and they have a son named Stiles who’s about Isaac’s age. Stiles distracts Isaac with dinosaurs and toy cars while Noah helps Camden with his science homework. Isaac and his new friend sleep on the couches in the living room and then they wake up early to help Claudia make a birthday cake for breakfast since Camden didn’t get one the night before.

They stay with the Stilinskis one more night before their mother is released from the hospital, her temple adorned with staples and a thick white bandage. She gives them tight-lipped smiles and tells them she’s alright, but Camden doesn’t smile back and Isaac wonders why.

-

Isaac is seven when his best friend has her first seizure.

It’s February of second grade. Erica is in his class again. They’re making valentines for their families, cutting up construction paper into asymmetrical hearts and writing names on them in cherry-scented markers. Isaac’s getting out of his seat for a glue stick when Erica reaches out and taps him on the shoulder. He turns to her, enchanted as ever with those light brown eyes.

She hands him a folded valentine and he opens it up, revealing a perfectly cut pink heart and his name in slightly crooked capital letters. He beams, and her eyes sparkle with delight.

“You’re my best friend,” she tells him, and his words are failing him so he hugs her so she knows that she’s his best friend too.

Her body stiffens in his arms and he pulls away, thinking he must have hurt her, but it’s like she’s paralyzed. Her eyes bulge and meet his for a split second, widened in terror, and then she’s unconscious and she’s falling and he gets to the ground before she does so her head lands in his lap. He doesn’t know what to do and he pulls her closer to him so her torso is resting against his chest. She shakes, making noises like she can’t breathe and he sits there, holding her silently and forgetting to breathe himself.

It takes about a minute but feels like a year before the teacher notices what’s going on and rushes over, pulling Erica away from him and turning her onto her side as she continues to convulse. Isaac strokes her hair and doesn’t even notice when she loses control of her bladder or when the teacher dials 911. Seizure, he hears, but the word means nothing to him, all he knows is shaking and choking and fear.

The seizure ends, but Erica is limp and disoriented, panting for breath, her head cushioned from the linoleum floor by Isaac’s hoodie. Eventually she tries to sit up and Isaac helps her. She says nothing, but he holds her hand anyway. Sirens pierce his eardrums. In the minutes before the ambulance arrives she asks what happened. He tells her he doesn’t know.

Men in dark blue uniforms come into the classroom with a stretcher and try to lift her onto it but she won’t let go of Isaac. The teacher calls his mother and he ends up going with her to the hospital, rubbing his thumb over the back of her hand and murmuring reassurances. He waits patiently, stays out of the way when she’s examined, sits where he’s told while she gets something called an MRI. His mother comes to pick him up at the end of it all, but he’s allowed in to see Erica first. She’s sleeping. He’s careful not to wake her as he places the valentine he made for her on the bedside table.

-

Isaac is eight when his mother dies.

Their father has been gone for months now and everything is good. The smell of alcohol is almost gone from the house. There’s no more shouting, or fighting, or dishes breaking against the wall. Honey’s limp is nearly healed, Camden and Isaac are excelling in school, their mother has a new job at the library, and everyone is happy. Happier than they’ve been in years.

Isaac goes to Erica’s house after school and they sprawl on her bedroom floor so he can help her with her math homework. Mrs. Reyes brings up cookies and milk. Erica stuffs three cookies into her mouth and proceeds to ask Isaac how to multiply by nines, spewing crumbs everywhere. They laugh until she nearly chokes and then he picks up a pencil to help her.

When they’re finished with their homework they play Uno, which Isaac points out is Spanish for the number one. Erica doesn’t really care but he’s proud of himself. She’s missing a bunch of cards, and they also don't really know the rules, so they end up just yelling Spanish words at each other and throwing cards haphazardly into the pile, laughing until they can't breathe and filling the room with screeches of “Empanada!”

About fifteen minutes later, Mrs. Reyes calls them down to dinner. It's chicken parmesan. Isaac and Erica help themselves and tell Mrs. Reyes about their day, giggling over something ridiculous that happened at recess. Isaac rolls his eyes sympathetically as Erica complains about Jessica, the teacher’s pet, and Mrs. Reyes laughs when they finish each other’s sentences.

Dessert is homemade raspberry cheesecake. Isaac’s never tried it and Erica serves him an enormous slice, reassuring him that she’ll finish it if he doesn’t like it. He does. He’s on his second serving when the phone rings.

Mrs. Reyes picks up and hands the phone to Isaac, her fingers woven together firmly as he presses the gray plastic to his ear. He hears Camden’s voice, monotone and detached, telling him that something’s happened and he needs to come home, that Claudia is coming to pick him up. He returns the phone to Mrs. Reyes. She asks what’s happened and he says he’s not sure, but he needs to go home. He thanks her for dinner and hugs his best friend tightly before going into the driveway to wait for Claudia.

Claudia drives him home without saying a word. When they pull in the driveway, Isaac sees the flashing lights and he knows, he knows what’s happened and he pushes the door open to see police officers and paramedics and something covered with a sheet and he feels eerily calm as Camden approaches him and pulls him into a tight embrace. The paramedics say something about heart failure and “it’s a shame; she’s so young,” and then the police officers are asking him questions and all he can answer is “I don’t know” because he’s too numb to say anything else.

They stay with the Stilinskis that night. Camden and Isaac sleep together in the guest bedroom, with Honey curled up at the foot of the bed. They don’t speak, just lie there in the dark and stare at the ceiling. Isaac drifts restlessly in and out of sleep. At one point he wakes up and Camden is crying. The next morning, he denies it.

Claudia makes them breakfast and then spends a few hours on the phone, talking about flowers and service and something called a wake. She takes them shopping for suits, white shirts, and black ties. Isaac doesn’t question the matching outfits. In fact, he doesn’t say a word for the rest of the day.

Two days later, everyone puts on their black and white outfits and drive two hours to a building Isaac has never seen before. His tie is too tight and he pulls on it absentmindedly as they go inside and Claudia speaks to a stranger in a low voice. The stranger is wearing a dark suit and smiles sympathetically at Isaac and Camden before leading them down a hallway.

Camden quietly explains that this is a funeral home and this is where they’re having the wake, which is when a bunch of people who knew their mother will come to “express their condolences.” Isaac has no idea what that means but he nods anyway and enters a dimly lit room with a bunch of flowers in it. The cloying aroma of lilies reaches his nose from the abundant bouquets and he sneezes. He’s allergic to lilies.

There’s something in the front, a long, dark-colored box, and he walks toward it curiously. When he’s about ten feet away he realizes that it’s open, and he stands on his tiptoes to see what’s inside.

It’s his mother.

She’s wearing a blue dress and shoes with heels. Her hair is curled and the scars on her face are covered with makeup so he can’t see them even though he knows they should be there. Her eyes are closed, like she could be sleeping. But her hands look funny, folded together awkwardly, and her skin is waxy and the locket that she always wears isn’t fastened around her neck and it’s wrong, all wrong and she doesn’t look right and she’s so stiff and cold and not like herself and he doesn’t want to remember her this way.

He cries then. He cries so hard that he can’t see, so hard that even Camden’s embrace can’t calm him, so hard that he has to be escorted out of the room. He’s so hysterical that Camden takes him to the parking lot and they sit in the car for forty five minutes while he screams and sobs and eventually cries himself out, falling asleep in the back seat.

They put on their matching outfits again the next day and drive to the church in town. The same long shiny box is there and Isaac knows better than to go near it this time, even though it’s closed. He sits in the front row with Camden. Erica arrives, looking paler than usual in a black dress, and she comes to sit with him. He tells her that he’s never been to church and she responds that he really hasn’t been missing out. It turns out that she’s right. The funeral starts with a guy in a weird white outfit saying some words that don’t make sense. When he’s finished, some people in bathrobes sing a couple of boring songs, and then he talks again. The only part that does make sense is the speech that Claudia gives toward the end. She talks about Isaac’s mother, about what a good person she was and how dearly she will be missed. People around him are crying but he’s not and he idly wonders if he should be. Erica squeezes his hand.

The service finally ends and they have to go outside to the cemetery. It’s cold and Isaac’s breaths steam in front of his face as he follows the men carrying the long black box, Camden’s hand on his shoulder. The box is lowered into a hole in the ground and everyone has to throw a rose down on top of it before they cover it with dirt. Camden kisses his rose before he releases it and Isaac copies him, entwining his fingers in Erica’s when he’s done. Everyone around him is crying, Camden included, but Isaac is just numb. He shivers absently and follows everyone back into the church to say goodbye. When they arrive back at the Stilinskis’ house, he crawls into the guest bed and lies there for twelve hours, staring at the wall.

When he finally gets out of bed and comes downstairs, Claudia hands him a box with a sympathetic smile. He takes it back to the bedroom to open it. It’s his mother’s silver locket, polished beautifully and lying in a blue velvet case. He puts it on, not even caring that necklaces are for girls, and then he cries.

-

Isaac is nine when his father hits him for the first time.

He and Camden stay with the Stilinskis for about a month after their mom’s funeral. Claudia travels to and from their house a few times a week, picking up extra clothes and other items they’ve left behind. About three weeks into their stay, Isaac wakes up to a small stack of presents and a plate piled high with waffles and ice cream, of all things. He’s confused for a moment until Camden reminds him it’s his ninth birthday.

The presents are mostly superhero action figures, but there’s also a new red sweater and a chemistry set with real chemicals in it. Isaac and Stiles spend most of the day working through the book of experiments, with Camden leaning over them to supervise. Then they help Claudia make fried chicken, Isaac’s favorite, and a chocolate cake. After dessert, Isaac asks why he and Camden can’t just go home. Claudia gently explains that it’s because they have to live with a grown-up, and their father is nowhere to be found. Isaac pouts. “I don’t want to live with a grown-up! I want to live by myself!” He freezes, expecting Claudia to get angry with him for his outburst, but she just kisses his forehead. He hears her start to cry as he leaves the kitchen.

A few days later, Noah’s cell phone rings in the middle of dinner, and he leaves the table to pick it up. Claudia frowns-- cell phones aren’t allowed during dinner-- but when Noah returns, the look on his face is too solemn for his wife to reprimand him.

“Your father’s come back,” he says. That’s enough to stun Isaac into silence for the rest of the meal. Camden glares at his plate and mashes his steamed carrots into a shapeless lump. Isaac isn’t hungry anymore, so he feeds his steak piece by piece to Honey under the table. Nobody says a word for the rest of dinner.

The next morning, Isaac and Camden are dropped off at home with their father. Noah stays as long as he can, busying himself with pretending to bring in bags and help Isaac unpack, but eventually their father asks him less than politely to leave so he can spend some time with his sons. Noah pinches his lips together into a tight line, but he gives Isaac a genuine smile and a hug before he leaves, along with a if you need anything, call me right away. Isaac watches the squad car pull out of the driveway, one hand a tight fist around his mother’s locket.

They coexist rather well for around a month. He drinks all day while they’re at school, and then when they get home, he’s passed out at the table. “Not a bad system,” Camden says one day as they drive home. “At least we don’t have to talk to him.” Isaac doesn’t say anything.

They slip inside quietly and pass through the kitchen for snacks before going upstairs. Isaac crunches an apple and practices his spelling words while Camden does his physics homework and Honey licks up the crumbs they drop. At some point, Camden polishes off a bag of chips and mumbles something about still being hungry, so Isaac volunteers to go get more food. Camden shakes his head, but Isaac insists and slips out of his older brother’s bedroom.

He tiptoes down the hallway and starts cautiously down the stairs. He’s being as quiet as he can, but his socks slip off the wooden steps and he falls, his body flying out from under him with a crash.

He hears Camden’s door fly open and “Shit-- Isaac, you okay?” before his older brother scoops him off the stairs, settling him back on his feet. He nods blankly-- fine, Camden, I’m fine-- but then his father is standing at the bottom of the stairs, awake when he shouldn’t be, a terrifying intruder into Isaac’s daily routine.

“What time is it, Isaac?” he snaps irritably.

The time-- 4:30 in the afternoon-- escapes his lips, followed by a weak sir.

His father ascends the stairs slowly, motioning for Camden to back away, but he doesn’t move, still gripping Isaac’s shoulders. “Camden. Upstairs. Now.” Camden’s jaw tightens, but he squeezes Isaac’s shoulder and disappears into his room. Isaac whimpers as his father towers over him. “Why am I awake at 4:30, Isaac?”

The excuse slips out. He tells his father that he fell down the stairs, that he’s sorry. All the while he’s backing up, reaching the top of the stairs and pressing his back against the wall.

“You fell down the stairs?” His father doesn’t sound sympathetic. Isaac nods frantically, forces out another apology. “Were you hurt?” He shakes his head.

The next thing he feels is his father’s palm on the side of his face.

Camden bursts from his room again, features contorted in fury, and says something to the effect of, “don’t you dare hit him again.” But Isaac’s numb, pressing his hand to his burning cheek, as Camden picks him up and takes him back into his bedroom. “Are you hurt?” He trembles. For some reason he feels like he should be crying, but he can’t.

“Talk to me, Ise, just tell me if you’re okay.” A feeble nod, his hand still glued to his cheekbone. “You sure?” He nods again, more firmly this time.

Camden doesn’t say anything more, just wraps him in a hug and doesn’t let go. Isaac hides in the safety of his older brother’s embrace and cries, the tears stinging his raw cheek.

He sleeps in Camden’s room that night.

-

Isaac is ten when Honey dies.

Camden is off at college and Isaac is in fifth grade, tackling his first year of school without an older brother looking out for him. Erica isn’t in his class, but he spends lunch and recess with her and tries to ignore how much he misses her, a constant ache in the back of his mind.

No matter how lonely he is at school, though, home is worse. He’s locked in the minute he gets home and trapped with his father until the next morning. There’s no escape from the constant judgement, belittlement, and fear. His only source of comfort is Honey, who still hides under his bed when his dad gets drunk, and who licks the tears off his face when he cries. Apart from Erica, Honey is his best friend, which is probably why it hurts so much when he finds out that she’s dying.

The vet frowns when he comes in alone, leading Honey along with a piece of twine tied around through the loops of her collar, and says that she hasn’t been well. His frown only deepens when he discovers that Honey weighs only 49 pounds, and when Isaac turns out his pockets at the register, forking over handfuls of bills leftover from Christmases and birthdays just to cover the appointment.

But Dr. Deaton keeps his mouth shut and makes small talk with Isaac while he looks in Honey’s ears, while he draws blood, listens to her heart. He gives her some shots and tells Isaac that it will be a minute while her heartworm test comes back; that in the meantime, he’s going to go check on something.

So Isaac waits. And waits. And waits. He’s patient, stroking Honey absently, reading the posters on the walls about different types of intestinal parasites, and hoping beyond hope that she doesn’t have any of those because God knows he doesn’t have the cash he’d need to afford those medications. All the while he watches the clock, counting the minutes until his father comes out of his drunken stupor and realizes he’s gone. He works himself into such an anxious state that when the doctor comes back he’s almost rude as he asks for the results and adds, “hurry, please.”

Dr. Deaton has a sorry look on his face and at first, Isaac doesn't understand why. After all, the heartworm test came back negative. But just as Isaac is grabbing Honey’s makeshift leash to leave, Deaton drops the bomb.

“Honey has lymphoma.”

The words send shards of glass through Isaac’s heart. He’s frozen, mind whirring, staring blankly at his beloved dog as Dr. Deaton explains that this means she has cancer. But Isaac is well-read; he knows what lymphoma is, knows what Deaton’s thinking but not saying. “So she’s gonna die?”

“Well, there are treatment options--”

“How long does she have?” Isaac’s not stupid. He knows that whatever the treatment options are, he can’t afford them, and he doesn't feel like getting his hopes up. “How long until she dies?”

“Most likely, not long. The cancer is very progressed. And she’s in pain. The humane thing would be to put her down.”

Isaac doesn't have enough money for that, either. He wraps his arms plaintively around Honey’s neck, buries his face in her fur.

“Listen, I’ll make you a deal.” Isaac looks up, blinking back the tears that are oh-so-close to spilling over. “You love this dog?”

He nods, because what else is there to do? Honey’s been around since he was a baby, she’s always been there for him-- hell, he loves this dog more than he loves himself. Whatever this deal is, he tells himself, he’ll make it work.

Dr. Deaton, with an apologetic look in his eyes, says he will euthanize Honey for free, if Isaac comes back and volunteers at the clinic when he gets older. Isaac agrees numbly, brushes a tear away with the back of his hand, and curls up on the floor beside his dog.

The process doesn’t take long, and it's not complicated, not nearly as complicated as Isaac thinks it should be to end a life that’s been so well-loved. There are needles, tubes, and monitors, but Isaac isn’t watching them, just stroking Honey’s head and mumbling soft words in her ear. His hand settles over her ribcage to feel her pulse. As her heart slows, he tells her he loves her one last time.

He leaves her there.

It's the hardest thing he's ever done to get up off the floor, to compose himself, to leave the office. All the way home, something whispers in the back of his mind, your dog is dead. Your dog is dead. Your dog is dead. He creeps upstairs to his room, pulls the covers over his head, and doesn't get out of bed until there’s not a single tear left in his body. Until he doesn't think he can ever feel anything again.

-

Isaac is eleven when he goes to his first lacrosse tryouts.

By the time he enters junior high, countless people have commented on Isaac’s height, on his athletic build. You should play basketball is the typical phrasing, and Isaac never has the heart to inform them that in Beacon Hills, the only sport with any merit is lacrosse. He was invited to join the school team in the fourth and fifth grade, but declined due to the issue of getting a ride to and from practice. But he’s grown over the summer, enough to use Camden’s bike. Now, he has no excuse. He’s joining the lacrosse team.

Of course, this new surge of confidence is great and all, but it doesn't prepare him for the wave of crippling anxiety that hits him when he sees the number of people on the field. Erica shoves him forward with a hissed, “you’ll be great!” but he stumbles over his own feet as he scans the field. The only boys he knows are Stiles and Scott, so he hurries over to them, eager to look like he fits in. The kids milling around are mostly 8th graders, and wielding their own lacrosse sticks. Isaac doesn't have one of his own so he grabs a loaner from the bin of school equipment. The handle is a bit dented but otherwise it looks sound, substantial enough to get him through tryouts. It reminds him of himself in a way, a little banged up but otherwise good enough.

They start with running laps. Isaac is fine with this; he likes running, and he’s generally good at it. He stays toward the front of the mass of boys, rounding the corners of the field with ease. He's only just beginning to get winded when the group halts and dives into push-ups. These he struggles with. He's always been lean, but his upper body strength isn't anything exceptional, and his arms are trembling so hard after only twenty that he has to stop.

His true strength comes out when the drills begin. Passing, catching, and shooting are second nature thanks to hours in the backyard with Camden and Stiles. He even ends up demonstrating two-on-ones with two older kids, which is terrifying in the moment but satisfying once he realizes he didn't mess up. When he scores on the eighth grade goalie, he hears Erica cheering for him from the bleachers, and for the first time in forever he's proud of himself. But it's not after tryouts that he realizes he’s truly done, in Coach’s words, “a fantastic job.”

The list comes out the next day and Erica drags Isaac out of science class last period to see it. But the mob around the locker room door is so thick that Isaac can’t get close enough to actually read it. Erica is considerably shorter than him, plus a lot more confident, and she shoves through the crowd, ducking under raised arms and stepping on feet to get to the front. Isaac watches her blonde head bob through the crush of disgruntled boys, coming to a stop in front of him with an odd look on her face that he can't quite read.

“Ise,” she whispers, “I can't believe it.”

He says nothing, staring her down in silent confusion to make her explain herself.

“Isaac, you made first line!”

It hits him with a jolt. “I-- what?” He pushes to the front himself, ignoring the irritated groans when his head blocks the list. And there it is, third from the top of the list.

Isaac Lahey: First Line.

Erica texts her mom, who is so proud of him that she insists on buying him ice cream before she drives him home. Isaac chooses strawberry (it’s Erica’s favorite, and at this point, sharing with her is a given) and basks in the praise that she and Mrs. Reyes are showering upon him because God knows his dad won't care that he even made the team.

It’s a good day, and even though his father screams bloody murder when he gets home late, he can't ruin Isaac’s afternoon. Not this time.

-

Isaac is twelve when his father locks him in the freezer for the first time.

Things are getting worse at home and he’s not sure why. His father is drinking more and his daily routine is no longer predictable, meaning that Isaac is walking into hostile situations that he’s not prepared for almost every day. When he comes home, he has to peer in through the kitchen window: if his father is asleep at the table, then he’s safe for the moment and can quietly creep up to his room. If not, however, he has to silently unlock the back door and hope for the best-- hopefully a shorter beating.

He’s jumpy at school, and for a while he thinks he can get away with it, keep Erica from noticing. But she knows him too well and pulls him aside one day after math to ask him what the hell’s going on. He tells her he hasn’t really been sleeping all that well and hopes that’ll be the end of it. And for a while it is. She lets him drop it, doesn’t say anything about his erratic behavior and disheveled appearance until one day she sees the bruise in the shape of a handprint on his wrist.

Isaac tries to cover it but Erica is faster, gripping his hand and elbow and rotating his forearm to get a good look at the bruise. “What the hell is this?” she asks him, and his mind goes blank because he knows his father all too well and if he tells her the truth, his dad will kill him.

So he does one of the things he’s best at. Isaac weaves a story. Keeping his voice low so as not to draw attention, he fills the air with meaningless details about lacrosse practice a few days ago, explaining that he’d gone stumbling forward and Coach had grabbed his arm so he didn’t fall. He tells Erica it doesn’t hurt and that he’s okay, lying through his teeth to his very best friend as he tells her that I’m alright, nothing is wrong.

He thinks he’s covered it.

But that afternoon when he gets home to a furious father, holding a plastic telephone receiver in one hand, he knows he hasn’t.

“So,” his father seethes, dropping the phone like it’s suddenly burned him. “What’s this I hear about a bruise?”

Isaac curses internally, because he loves Erica, he does, but sometimes she just can’t keep quiet, can she? He knows that she told her mom, knows that Mrs. Reyes was alarmed at the thought of anything bad happening to him, knows that she called his father immediately to confirm the story and ask for details. He loves Erica with all his heart, but in this moment he wishes he’d never met her.

“Kids these days,” his father fumes, grabbing the front of his shirt and yanking him abruptly closer. “Can’t keep their mouths shut for anything. When I was a boy--” He doesn’t finish, pulling the basement door open with a squeal of the hinges and depositing Isaac at the top of the stairs. “Down.”

Isaac does as he’s told, ducking his head under the low doorway. He’s all too aware that he’s not getting out of this one. He can tell by the tone of his father’s voice that he won’t be persuaded by bargaining or tears. He stops at the bottom of the stairs and is directed to the right by a hard jab between his shoulderblades. On the wall opposite him is a box of matches, a rectangular can of kerosene, the glint of an old axe that they used to take camping. His lungs stop working for a moment and a shudder rips through his body. He’s going to die down here tonight.

He's shoved forward again and his knees slam into the freezer-- the freezer that's stood empty since his mother passed away. Unplugged for years, the ice inside long melted, the only remnant of its past use was a padlock hooked precariously through the clasp, which his mother had always used to keep Isaac from eating popsicles before dinner.

“Get in.”

“What?” It comes out before he can stop himself, pure bewilderment overriding the filter he usually uses when speaking to his father.

“You heard me. Get. In.”

With trembling hands Isaac lifts the lid, holding it up with one hand as he carefully steps in. He looks at his father unsurely before lowering himself until his back presses flat against the bottom and his knees are pulled up against his chest.

His father closes the freezer door without a word, and then Isaac hears the click of the padlock, the rattling of chains as he’s sealed in. He hears heavy footsteps walking away, ascending the creaky stairs. After a few moments, he hesitantly calls, “Dad?” but he receives no response.

He presses his shins against the roof of the freezer, testing the chains, the lock. The lid budges just slightly, causing the chains on top to clang loudly against the hard surface. He tries again, his muscles vibrating with the effort, but it’s useless. He’s trapped.

Somehow he remains incredibly calm, taking the deepest breaths his compact position will allow. He reasons with himself that unlike the beatings, which could last hours, this gave his father time to cool down, to come to his senses, and then he’d be right back down to unlock the freezer. He manages to keep convincing himself of this for about an hour.

But then Isaac starts to hurt. His legs begin to protest their uncomfortable position, cramping and spasming painfully. His spine throbs and he can feel each vertebra beginning to bruise as they dig into the floor. Plus, he’s hot-- the insulation of the freezer is not working in his favor in terms of ventilation. A disturbing thought suddenly occurs to him: What if I run out of oxygen? He starts to panic, to hyperventilate, forcing stale air in and out of his lungs. I need to get out of here. He pounds on the lid, his back slamming into the floor. All the while, one thought is beating through his head, pulsing with every surge of his blood.

I can’t die down here.

Something primal and frantic takes over then. Isaac examines his ragged nails and, without a second thought, begins clawing at the lid. It’s smooth, although back when it was still in use it would be coated with ice crystals that Isaac would sometimes scrape off just for the hell of it.

He scratches harder, rakes his nails along the top, the sides of his plastic prison. Suddenly his fingers are hot and wet and he realizes his nails are ripping and breaking off, leaving bleeding beds. His panic increases, if that’s even possible, as his one defense is stripped away from him, but he can’t stop. Now his raw fingertips are leaving stripes of crimson as they are rapidly abraded on the ceiling of his coffin. “Let me out!” he yells hoarsely. “Please, Dad, let me out!” But he’s dying, his throat is constricting with lack of air and his head is spinning as he wheezes, begs his nonexistent attacker for mercy, pleads with all that is good and holy to just get the hell out, and now he’s crying, hot sticky salty tears pouring down his cheeks.

He doesn’t know how long it is before his father opens the freezer, and he doesn’t care. He shoots up as fast as his aching limbs will allow, scrambles out of the freezer, sprints up the stairs like a bat out of hell, sucking in air and praying to gods he doesn’t believe in that they won’t let his father do that to him again.

That night he dreams he’s trapped in a cage and wakes up in a cold sweat.

-

Isaac is thirteen when he goes on his first double date.

He’s walking to the bus with Erica after school when Stiles rushes up to him, tripping over his untied shoelace and nearly sprawling across the sidewalk. He scrambles up, explaining that he asked Lydia, the strawberry-blonde girl of his dreams, out on a date and she actually said yes. Before Isaac can congratulate him, he continues, saying that it’ll probably be more fun if it’s a double date and Isaac and Erica should definitely come. Erica raises an eyebrow and opens her mouth to decline, but Stiles is gone before she has the chance to tell him that she and Isaac are not a couple. They look at each other and Isaac shrugs, thinking it can’t hurt to go and support Stiles. Erica groans but agrees to come.

The next evening, Isaac sneaks out past his drunken father (leaving a note that says he’s staying over with a friend, which is probably not an acceptable excuse) and shows up to the bowling alley as Stiles instructed. He’s wearing a nice outfit, a light blue button-up and jeans, but not because he wants to impress Erica. He just wants to look nice. It is a date, after all. He scans the room for Stiles and sees him and Lydia sitting by a lane near the back. After he grabs his bowling shoes, he makes his way over.

They sit and talk for a while. Well, Stiles talks. Lydia’s quiet, chiming in only when necessary, but she’s nicer than Isaac thought. He’s never talked to her, seeing as she’s popular and he’s not. She actually seems to be enjoying Stiles’ nervous ramblings, and Isaac is just happy that he doesn’t have to participate in the conversation.

After about ten minutes, he starts to get nervous that Erica isn’t going to show. He checks the time over and over, glancing at his phone for texts, but he doesn’t get any and he’s going to be the first boy ever to be stood up by his best friend and Lydia’s going to think he’s a loser and why is he even here? He stands to excuse himself and turns toward the door, considering feigning sickness and going home early, when Erica appears, running toward them with a pair of bowling shoes in her hand.

She looks beautiful, in a loose mint green tank top and a pair of faded jeans. She hasn’t done anything to her hair but that’s okay because Isaac likes it that way, curling wildly around her face. As she gets closer, he sees that she’s wearing pink rose earrings and she’s also wearing makeup, something she’s never touched in the eight years that he’s known her. It’s not much, just shimmery stuff on her eyelids and a hint of lip gloss, but it looks pretty and he hugs her when she reaches him, incredibly relieved.

The bowling begins. Stiles goes first and the ball plops into the gutter. Lydia laughs at him while Isaac reaches across to the little computer and turns the bumpers on. He’s not that good at bowling either.

Lydia does well, knocking down nine of the ten pins, and then it’s Isaac’s turn. His first ball bounces off the bumper but he’s able to hit seven pins and avoid completely embarrassing himself. Erica goes next and she’s actually good at bowling, managing a spare and then a strike on her next turn. She wins by a landslide and gloats good-naturedly while Stiles goes to order food.

When Stiles returns they start another game, but they don’t get too far because their pizza arrives. It’s just bowling alley pizza, nothing special, but it’s hot and cheesy and Isaac hasn’t eaten all day because he’s been so nervous so he gulps down three slices before anyone even finishes their first. When it’s his turn to bowl, the ball slips out of his greasy fingers and he only hits three pins. His cheeks flame but Erica just smiles at him and hands him another slice.

They bowl for three more hours, until its 9:30 and Lydia’s mother has arrived to pick her up. Stiles walks her out and they have their first kiss in front of the bowling alley. Isaac looks at Erica and she looks back at him. He knows what she’s thinking. Do they have to kiss? He’s not sure if he wants to, really.

He checks his phone and sees he has a text from Mr. Reyes, who’s waiting in the parking lot to bring them to Erica’s house. He steels himself and glances at Erica, who’s looking at him with an odd expression on her face. She looks back at Stiles and Lydia, who are saying goodbye, and then back at him, and then bites her lip. He swallows hard and as they lean in he realizes they’re really doing this, he’s really about to kiss his best friend of eight years, and he can smell her cherry lip gloss and this is the weirdest thing he’s ever done and nope.

They reel backward simultaneously and make the most awkward eye contact Isaac thinks he’s ever experienced. They stare at each other, wide-eyed, and then Erica’s lip quirks and they both start laughing. They laugh so hard that they can't breathe and they’re both nearly crying when the air returns to their lungs. Isaac smiles sheepishly which just sends Erica into another fit of laughter. He grabs her wrist and pulls her into a hug, her chest heaving against his own, her giggling bright and twinkling in his ear. He’s relieved, but, for some reason, secretly disappointed.

He walks with her to her dad’s car, holding her hand and sliding into the back beside her. Mr. Reyes asks how the date went which sends them both into another bout of hysterical laughter. He glances back at them in the rearview mirror and chuckles as he pulls out of the parking lot.

That night, in Erica’s bedroom, they each claim one side of her king-sized bed and lie down facing each other. Her tousled hair is tied up into a messy ponytail and she’s wearing a black tank top and leopard print shorts. Mrs. Reyes comes in and asks them if she’ll have to keep the door open, but they just remember the almost-kiss from earlier and laugh so hard that she shakes her head in amusement and turns out the light.

He gets up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water. He knows his way around the Reyes’ house so he creeps into the dark kitchen, pours himself a cup, and stands by the window, watching the moon. When he steps back to put his glass in the sink, he bumps into Erica, who shouldn’t have been able to sneak up on him in the first place, and drops it. It shatters into hundreds of tiny pieces, and Isaac goes rigid.

Erica snorts, not seeing his panic in the dark. “Didn’t think I was that scary,” she jokes, kneeling to pick up the largest shards of glass. When Isaac doesn’t respond she looks up in confusion, switches on the light. “Ise? You okay?”

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, throwing himself to his knees and scooping broken glass in his hands to throw away. “I didn’t mean to, I’ll pay for it, I--”

“Ise, it’s fine,” Erica says firmly, but there’s a hint of concern behind her eyes. “These are ugly glasses anyway, my parents are already talking about buying new ones.” He’s not convinced, but she takes his arm and practically drags him back up to her bedroom. “Get back in the bed and stay put. I’ll clean it up.”

He crawls between the covers as she leaves and curls up on his side, facing away from the door. By the time she comes back, he’s almost asleep, but he’s awake enough that he notices when she lies down behind him, draping her arm over his torso. He’s still shaken, but she helps, and he eases himself off to sleep.

He doesn’t have any nightmares that night.

-

Isaac is fourteen the first time he cuts.

It hasn’t been a good day.

High school isn’t nearly as easy as he thought it was going to be. Most of his classes are fine, but he just can’t get geometry and his grade is steadily dropping. Erica tries her best to explain it to him, but at this point, she doesn’t really get it either. And if he doesn’t suddenly start to grasp the material, he’ll be kicked off the lacrosse team, which, besides Erica, is the only thing keeping him going.

The difference between his and Erica’s situations is really very simple. When Erica presented her C+ to her mother and father, a look of shame on her face, they got her a tutor and told her it was alright as long as she was trying her best. When Isaac pulled his report card from its orange envelope with shaking hands and passed it across the table warily to his father, he was silently praying that he wouldn’t get the freezer.

He did.

But from the moment this day dawns, it’s a disaster. Isaac wakes up late, misses morning practice, and he takes a geometry test that he’s pretty sure he failed. To make matters worse, he forgets his lunch, so he has to buy a shitty, plasticky grilled cheese that he spends the lunch period picking at while Erica tries to muddle through a homework assignment. In English, he gets back a paper that he didn’t do very well on, and that on top of the rest of the shit this day has thrown at him is enough to make him grab a hall pass and sink down against the wall in the boy’s bathroom, sobbing.

He cries about practice, his test, the paper. But as tears pour down his face, he realizes that this day isn’t all he’s crying about. He cries about his geometry grade and his academic probation for the lacrosse team and how mad his dad is going to be. He cries about the bruises on his face and his sore ribs which are protesting every single heaving breath. He cries about the freezer and how he can’t tell Erica anything because then he’ll just end up getting beaten, but all he wants to do is tell her the truth because he loves her. He cries about Honey because now he’s working at the vet and every dog he sees reminds him of her and even though it’s been four years he still misses her. He cries about Camden because he said he’d protect him, but where the hell is he now? And he cries about his mom, because more than anything else he feels, goddamnit he misses his mom, and he hates that he’s alone and he hates that he’s stuck with his dad and he wishes that his dad would just fucking die. He draws his knees up to his chest and rocks back and forth, shoulders shaking with anguish because what the hell is he supposed to do?

He sobs until his eyes are swollen and sore, until his cheeks are sticky with drying tears. As he calms himself enough to return to class, his eyes lock on a discarded pencil sharpener, lying beneath one of the sinks. He grabs it, rotating the small piece of blue plastic between his fingers, watching as light reflects off the tiny silver blade.

He knows what he’s going to do before he does it.

His ragged fingernails find the screws holding the metal in place and twist them loose, before he pulls the blade free with a slight snapping noise. And then he rolls up his sleeve.

He drags the edge across his skin, pressing firmly (because this is just a pencil sharpener after all). At first, he doesn’t think it’s actually worked, but then blood bubbles up across the line he’s traced and it stings like a bitch and he knows there’s no going back now.

Isaac is mesmerized.

He runs his arm under the sink to stop the blood, prompting another wave of stinging pain, and then cuts again, two, three, four, five, six times. Rinse and repeat, he thinks dryly, rinsing off the blade in cold water and turning to leave it in the garbage can with the rest of the pencil sharpener.

But then he pauses, reconsiders.

He tucks the blade into the pocket of his jeans and leaves the bathroom.

-

Isaac is fifteen when he has his first kiss.

He’s walking out of chemistry one Friday morning when his eyes land on his blonde best friend. This in itself is not unnatural. Not only is she one of the only friends he has, but her large personality tends to attract his attention most of the time.

Today is different, though. She’s wearing her favorite black jeans with a hole in the knee and a black tank top under a red and black flannel she’s obviously stolen from his drawer, because she’s almost drowning in it. She’s clearly put some effort into her hair and makeup as well. It’s a new look for her and quite frankly she looks radiant, and maybe slightly badass.

“Hey,” she says when she gets close enough for him to hear, beaming up at him.

“You look gorgeous,” he says.

“Aw, thank you,” she says, fluttering her black lashes. “Not as beautiful as you, though.”

The flirting. That’s rather new. Isaac isn’t really sure what to call it. If confronted by anyone, both he and Erica are quick to deny, to explain that it isn’t flirting if they’re best friends. They’ve always had a somewhat snarky, sarcastic relationship, so it isn’t hard to pass off the frequent compliments and catcalls as simply an extension of their normal jokes, but Isaac isn’t really sure what it all means to her at this point. Sure, if asked, he’d claim he loved her in a purely platonic way, but… anyway, they have some fun with it.

She flips her curls over her shoulder dramatically. “Guess who got an A in history.”

“Definitely not you,” Isaac answers, smirking, without missing a beat.

She laughs. “Believe it or not, I managed to ace that test, even though I would prefer for the man who teaches it to go die in a hole.”

“Proud of you,” he says, and he means it. “I’ll buy you ice cream at lunch.” It’s a tradition for them, when they get an A on a hard test or finish a project a few days early. Erica started it, calling it a morale booster, and now it’s customary when even the smallest thing goes right.

She beams at the offer. “You will? Excellent. I’m in the mood for a fudge bar and a push pop.”

Isaac rolls his eyes. “Uh, never said I’d buy you two.” But he knows that he will, because she smiles at him, and he slings his arm around her shoulders as they walk toward the cafeteria, listening to her chattering about how she and Scott are competing for the highest math grade and if she wins, then he’ll have to buy her ice cream too.

Their usual table is already occupied by Scott and Stiles as they slide into their seats. Erica slams her gray backpack onto the table and commands their attention as she announces her victory in history class. Stiles rolls his eyes good-naturedly and Scott frowns in concern.

“Should I be worried about that math thing?”

“Absolutely,” Erica says seriously, just as Isaac leans back in his chair and says confidently, “Pretty sure she’s gonna destroy you.”

She smiles, that same goddamn smile that has melted his heart since kindergarten, and then says, “Alright, Lahey, I believe you owe me some ice cream.”

He groans, “How could I forget?” and stands, walking with her to the vending machines and inserting two dollars so she can buy whatever the hell it was she wanted.

On the way back to the table, she unwraps the fudge bar for herself, and passes the push pop to him. “I know it’s your favorite,” she says before he can protest. “Still coming over after school?”

He’s cancelled his shift at the vet and convinced his father that he’ll be at work. Plus, Erica’s house is the only place in his life where he’s never had the urge to cut, so there’s that. It’s a sort of added bonus. There’s no way he won’t be there. “Definitely.”

That afternoon, he and Erica are on the couch in her basement, “studying,” which mean they’re watching horror movies. He doesn’t particularly like them. Neither does Erica, to be completely honest. Isaac thinks she just likes being scared.

He’s lying sideways on the couch, his shoulders propped against the armrest, and she’s lying practically on top of him with her spine on his chest. This is their typical cuddling position, especially for horror movies, since Erica can easily roll over and hide her face in his shoulder until the scary parts are over, while he describes what’s happening on the screen. Right now they’re watching Sinister, and her face is buried in the crook of his neck. One of his hands combs absentmindedly through her golden curls while he scans the screen.

He starts to explain what he’s seeing, even though right now it’s really a whole bunch of nothing. “She’s just mowing the lawn, nothing’s really happening--” a loud noise cuts him off and they both jump-- “ohshitthat’saperson.”

Erica shoots up indignantly. “She lawnmowered a person?

He chokes back a laugh. “Yep. Ran them right over.”

She rolls over, directs her face back to the screen. They watch in silence for a moment before she speaks up again. “This is a terrifying movie,” she comments.

“I told you that before you turned it on,” Isaac notes. “I can think of several better ways we could be spending our time right now.”

Erica looks at him again, a devilish grin on her face. “So can I.”

And then they’re kissing. One of her hands slides to the back of his neck, the other tangled in his hair, as his slip behind her to her back. She leans closer, his fingers settling in the dips between her vertebrae, and caresses a thumb across his cheekbone. He lifts his head, sits up, wanting to be closer, pulling her nearer, her lips infecting him like a virus and filling him with something hot that just makes him want more of her, but he still has some semblance of self control so he pulls away long enough to ask, “are we going to study?”

“You bet,” Erica whispers. “I’m studying you.” And then her lips are back on his and Isaac suddenly no longer gives a shit about the test that he spent all day worrying about, because he’s been in love with this girl for ten years and no amount of stress from school is going to ruin this moment for him.

-

Isaac is sixteen when he tries to kill himself.

He was fine for a while, really.

When he started going out with Erica, she found out about his cuts. They’d been making out in the boy’s locker room when his blade fell out of his pocket, and she knew the moment she bent to pick it up what it was for. She’d looked at him for permission before sliding up the sleeve of his hoodie. “Ise…” is all she’d said, and then she knew, and Isaac was so relieved that she finally knew that he started to cry, after which she told him that whenever he felt like cutting, he should call her instead.

They use that system for a while and Isaac starts to wonder if maybe he’s getting better. He still has the urges, of course, still has his bad days where he just wants to be alone and can’t even look Erica in the eyes because he hates himself and his life and the whole world so damn much, but he hasn’t cut in a little over a month and it feels fucking good. Even on his worst nights, when all he wants to do is fucking slice at his skin until blood pours out and he dies, because yeah, sometimes that sounds good to him, calling Erica and listening to her telling him how much she loves him is enough to make his lungs loosen up a little bit, to let him calm down enough to fall asleep so he can face the next day.

Until his father finds out that he has a girlfriend.

Cue the worst night of his life.

He comes home around 3 since the vet is closed for the day and slides quietly into the kitchen, rushing to grab his phone, which he accidentally left on the counter beside the sink. It’s not there. He sighs, cursing his absent-minded self and wondering where the hell else he could have left it, and then his father comes down the stairs and he freezes in his tracks.

“Looking for this?”

The phone dangles from his father’s thumb and forefinger by one corner, as if he’s disgusted to be touching it. To Isaac’s dismay, the screen is shattered, but he says nothing, because he knows his father did it to get him angry. “Yes,” he says, trying to keep his temper under control.

“Well, since I’m your father, I decided to look through it and-- well, I didn’t know you had a girlfriend, Isaac.” Isaac shakes, his whole body buzzing with adrenaline. “Can’t believe you never brought up that interesting little detail.”

“Yeah, well, we don’t exactly talk much,” Isaac snaps. He’s not sure where this attitude is coming from but he likes it, likes this confidence he suddenly has to talk to the man who’s scared him for so long.

“What did you just say to me?” His father’s tone has changed, from sardonic to furious, and Isaac gulps. He’s gone too far. He’s gone too far this time. He’s gonna get the freezer for sure.

“Get over here, you little shit!” Oh man, he’s really done it this time. His father stalks forward, grabs him by the shirt. “You think you can talk to me like that?”

“N-no sir. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, I--”

“Like hell you’re sorry!” His father spits in his face. “You don’t even know what sorry is! I’m sorry you were ever born, that’s what sorry is!” Isaac blinks. No matter how many times he told himself his father didn’t care, it still hurts, stabbing through his very soul. “You worthless little shit, you think I give a damn about you and your little girlfriend? I don’t even believe she exists!”

“She loves me,” Isaac mumbles, which is clearly the wrong answer because his father punches him in the face, hard enough to send him sprawling to the floor.

“She loves you?” His father nudges him roughly with the toe of his boot. “For the last goddamn time--” A kick to the stomach that makes him curl up on his side, howling in pain. “There’s Nothing. About. You. To. Love.” Each word is punctuated by a sharp blow.

“Get out of my sight.”

Isaac clambers to his feet and runs up the stairs to his bedroom, slamming and locking his door. He wants to cry but he can’t so his mind settles on the next best thing-- cutting. He feels his pockets for his phone but realizes cynically that there’s no way he’s ever seeing that again. And if he can’t have Erica then he needs his blade and he needs it now. He goes into his bathroom, grabs the razor that he bought from the drugstore months ago but never opened, rips open the plastic packaging. He cuts fast and messy, and definitely deeper than he should, but the pain and the blood dripping over his forearms is so hypnotizing that he pulls up his other sleeve to attack his other wrist with just as much ferocity. There’s blood, so much blood, and Isaac just thinks that it’s beautiful, watching crimson droplets drip off his fingers with a kind of detached fascination.

He realizes that he’s fucked when it’s been a few minutes and the bleeding isn’t even slowing down. He racks his brain for ideas and comes up blank, since Erica’s house is too far to walk and he’d definitely fall off his bike if he tried to ride. Then he thinks of Stiles-- Stiles isn’t far, he can definitely make it to Stiles’ house, maybe. He exits the house silently, his dad passed out in front of the TV, and starts walking.

He’s not quite sure how he makes it to Stiles’ house, but he does know that he stops twice to throw up on the way there. He knocks, and then he rings the doorbell because yes, he’s that desperate, and he’s just starting to pray that Claudia or Noah won’t be the ones to answer the door when it swings open and Stiles is there, holding a bag of Cheetos in one hand.

“Hey, Ise-- oh, shit, what the holy hell is that--”

“I messed up,” Isaac offers, and then his knees buckle and he definitely can’t stand anymore.

“Jesus, Isaac, what did you do?” Stiles helps him to the kitchen table, grabs a dishtowel, starts applying pressure to one wrist. “Mom? Dad?”

“What is it, honey?” Claudia calls, entering the kitchen. “Hi, Isaac-- Oh, my. Oh God.”

“Hi,” Isaac tries, giving her a weak smile, but the color is draining fast from his face and he doesn’t feel so good. He has to keep swallowing in order to keep whatever acid still remains in his stomach down, and his vision is dimming around the edges.

“I’m calling 911,” she whispers, and then she yells for Noah, who comes rushing in and immediately presses down hard on Isaac’s other wrist, and it hurts so bad that Isaac starts to cry but he feels so nauseous, so sick and dizzy that he lays his forehead on the table for what he tells himself is just going to be a second and then he’s waking up again in the back of a car, his head resting in Stiles’ lap.

“Ise, you gotta keep your eyes open for me, okay?” Stiles asks, but Isaac isn’t interested in small talk.

“Where are we going?”

“The hospital. You’re bleeding out,” Noah says matter-of-factly from the driver’s seat.

“Please don’t tell my dad,” Isaac whispers, and if Noah’s hands grip the wheel a bit harder and if he presses ever so slightly harder on the gas, well, Isaac isn’t conscious to notice.

He wakes up in a bed with a stiff mattress, wearing a soft gown. There’s an IV line in his left elbow and bandages around both wrists, protecting the stitches that he’s sure are there, holding him together. He’s incredibly thirsty and his head hurts a little but he’s pretty sure he’s alive, unless this is some sort of weird purgatory since he’s not really a religious guy.

He must fall back asleep because at some point Scott’s mom wakes him up, wearing the scrubs he’s seen her leave for work in so many times. “Hi, sweetheart,” she says, but there’s a note of pity behind her words and he closes his eyes to escape it.

When he next wakes, it’s to his door opening, and Stiles steps in. “There’s someone here to see you,” he says, and Isaac frowns before Stiles steps aside and then Erica is there, and she’s already crying so Isaac just smiles apologetically and lets her kiss his forehead a thousand times as she scolds him and tells him to “never do anything that fucking stupid again” because she’ll murder him herself and “You think that’s funny? Try me, jackass.” He knows she’s just upset and so he just tells her he’s sorry, over and over again, until she has to go and kisses him on the cheek.

Several days and a blood transfusion later, Isaac is released into the care of Noah and Claudia Stilinski, who are looking after him while his father is oh so conveniently out of town on business. He spends two weeks with them while his stitches heal and eventually returns home, with Noah’s number on speed dial in his brand new phone.

-

Isaac is seventeen when his father dies.

He’s been out for almost a week, sleeping over at Erica’s, then Stiles’, then Scott’s, and then cycling back through. He’s just going back home for more clothes to spend another night at Scott’s when he stumbles upon his father.

The man who’s tormented him for almost his entire life is unconscious on the floor, his skin a sickly yellow, the whites of his eyes jaundiced. Isaac gags at the stench, a mixture of alcohol and something sour, and he knows he has to do something but at the same time he balks at the idea of helping. He leaves the living room, finds a half-drunk bottle of whiskey on the kitchen table, and takes one bitter swig, which he promptly spews across the room. He wanders in and out of the living room for fifteen minutes in an absolute state, tearing his fingers through his hair, until he finally digs his phone out of his pocket with unsteady hands and calls Noah.

“My dad,” is all he says, and Noah promises he’ll be there in ten minutes.

When Isaac hangs up, he wonders if maybe he should’ve been more specific. He knows he should have provided more details when Noah kicks in the front door and enters with his gun drawn, nearly scaring the shit out of Isaac. “Sorry, kid. I wasn’t sure if--” He cuts himself off when he sees Isaac’s dad on the floor. “Holy. Help me get him to the car.”

Isaac doesn’t say anything. He’s not sure he ever will again, at this point. Because this? This is too much for him. After all these years, after seeing his mother get battered into submission, after punishing himself his entire life for not being good enough for his father to love him, he’s expected to help him? He can’t, and he won’t. Most of him wishes that he’d found a corpse crumpled on the carpet, instead of a barely-breathing shell of the manipulative man who’d controlled his whole life. Because he wouldn’t have to help the corpse.

He digs his nails into his palms, a penance for his selfish thoughts, and helps Noah carry his unresponsive father out to the car.

Several hours later, Isaac’s ass is getting pins and needles from being parked in a waiting room chair for so long. He’s flipped through every magazine with disinterest and downloaded multiple apps to his phone to keep himself busy, mostly to keep his mind off the fact that he’s not sure how he’s feeling. Bitter? Angry? Maybe, but not as severely as he’d expected. Frankly, he’s not sure how he’s supposed to be feeling. Half of him is just confused; the other half darkly suggests that this is the best damn thing to ever happen to him. That part of him disgusts him so much that he he feels nausea roiling in his stomach, and after a moment of ignoring it he stumbles to the bathroom and throws up. When he comes back out after rinsing his mouth, a doctor is there.

Cirrhosis. Liver failure.

The doctor is speaking medical-ese, a language Isaac’s not familiar with, but he makes out something about chronic alcoholism and suddenly he can’t breathe.

He’s familiar with the panic that surfaces next: the kind that begins as a writhing mass of cut wires sparking in his chest, shocking his lungs into paralysis, and then morphs into a deluge of icy water that numbs his limbs, like he’s plunged into a frozen lake without a thought of his next breath. He chokes, struggling to force stale air into his lungs, as his throat tightens with screams that he can’t get out. The doctor is still talking, saying something about end-of-life care and Isaac is going to lose it, he’s going to fucking lose it because he’s trapped in his own head and his vision is blurring, matching the chaos going on inside his brain. He stumbles into the bathroom and locks the door, sinking down against the wall. He tries to remember what Erica always tells him, that the body can only panic for so long, that he has to just breathe through it and he’ll come out the other side, but this time there’s no light at the end of the tunnel because she’s not here and he doesn’t think he’s going to fucking make it out.

At this point, there’s nothing that can be done except wait out the attack, but it feels like it’s been at least an hour already and Isaac isn’t sure how much longer he can keep doing this. His brain scrambles for a distraction, for something else to focus on, but the only thing he’s registering is the panic, flashing alarm bells in his skull and shrieking sirens announcing that something is wrong, dammit but that he can’t fix it and God, he just wants this feeling to go away. His hands have crawled to his throat and he’s clawing at it without realizing, willing his trachea to loosen so he can get some air, but now there’s blood under his nails which is absolutely terrifying so he reaches into his back pocket frantically and pulls out his phone, dialing what he hopes is Erica’s number because he can’t really see at the moment.

Over his gasping for air, he can just hear, “Isaac?” and there it is, there’s his light at the end of the tunnel. She's not a cure, not an antidote, because that's not how this works-- but she gets him, knows how to make his lungs work so the panic can at least die down to a heavy stone in the pit of his stomach. “Remember what I said? You just have to keep breathing, and soon enough, it will be over. Listen to me, keep breathing. We’ll get through this together.” And so he forces another breath in and out of his malfunctioning lungs, commits her voice and her rational words to memory, imagines the smell of her hair… and he begins to calm down.

When he’s calm enough, and she’s told him she loves him and she’ll be at the hospital as soon as she gets the car, he hangs up and slides his phone back into his pocket with trembling hands. He pushes himself to his feet and splashes some cold water on his face, and then he takes a shuddery breath and goes back to the waiting room, where Noah is waiting to pull him into a hug.

He feels better after that.

The doctor carefully explains that the problem has clearly gone untreated for a long time and has steadily gotten worse. He talks about end-of-life care, about a funeral. Isaac nods along but he’s not really listening, especially once Erica shows up, because he’s busy trying to process his own thoughts. Erica just holds his hand and squeezes it every once in a while to remind him to breathe.

Noah and Claudia promise to handle everything: the flowers, the service, the burial. Actually, they ask Isaac first whether he wants there to be a service. He frowns, because he wants nothing to do with it, doesn’t want to celebrate the life of the man who’s tormented him since he was small. Noah seems to sense his hesitation and offers up cremation as an option. Isaac says he’ll think it over.

He stays in the spare bedroom at the Stilinski house that night, tossing and turning, staring at the damn ceiling because he’s too angry to cry but he feels like he should be.

The next morning, before he’s even rubbed the sleep from his eyes, Noah tells him his father passed away overnight. He says he’s not sure about the details, and he can get more information if Isaac wants it, but he doesn’t. He tells Noah that he thinks cremation is probably the best choice, and then asks if, instead of flowers, people can donate to a charity for alcoholism and substance abuse. Noah nods, squeezes Isaac’s shoulder.

“You’re a good kid, son.”

Isaac manages a weak smile and escapes back to the bedroom. This time he cries, but his chest feels lighter and his heart just a shade freer, though he can’t quite put a finger on why.

-

Isaac is eighteen when he graduates high school.

Graduation day dawns bright and clear, rays of sunlight burning away the leftover dew on the Stilinskis’ lawn. Isaac’s shoes leave damp footprints on the driveway as he slides into the passenger seat of Stiles’ Jeep. “We’re going to be late,” he announces as he slams the door. “There’s no way we have time to grab Erica and Lydia and still make it on time.”

“We’ll be fine,” Stiles says breezily, although he shuts his robe in the door in his haste and almost hits the basketball hoop on the way out of the driveway. “But if Erica’s not ready when we get there--”

“Erica? What about if Lydia’s not ready?” Isaac retorts.

“Oh, she’ll be ready. Lydia’s always ready on time,” Stiles says reassuringly, running a red light. “Shit.”

“Oh yeah?” Isaac teases. “My girlfriend’s not the one who whined for twenty minutes about the robes clashing with her hair.”

Stiles scoffs as he takes a right turn, overshooting it a little so that he swerves into the left lane. “Please. Red hair and maroon do not go well together.”

“You sound just like her,” Isaac says, crinkling his nose in amusement. They pull onto Erica’s road, and Isaac smirks as he sees his beautiful girlfriend standing at the end of her driveway, tapping her foot in mock impatience. “What was that you were saying? About Erica--”

“Shut up, smartass,” Stiles groans, screeching to a halt so Erica can swing into the back. He speeds away from the curb as soon as the blonde closes the door, in a clear attempt to try to get to Lydia’s without being late. Isaac is pretty sure they’re going to be unsuccessful, but he says nothing.

They arrive at Lydia’s house moments later, and Lydia, as Isaac predicted, is not outside yet. Stiles slams his head onto the steering wheel with a whispered, “Lyds! Come on!” before digging his phone out of his pocket and dialing her number. “Shit.”

As soon as he presses the phone to his ear, however, Lydia steps out the front door, wearing heels that add an extra three inches to her tiny stature, and looking gorgeous despite the fact that maroon may not be the best color on her. She gets into the car beside Erica and Stiles jerks the wheel, going forty-five in a thirty all the way to school because goddammit, they are not going to be late on graduation day.

When they arrive, Lydia plants a quick kiss on Stiles’ cheek before marching off to get ready for her valedictorian speech. “You’re going to be great!” he calls, but she’s already gone, her neatly decorated graduation cap perched on top of her strawberry blonde curls.

Erica watches her go with a low whistle and then turns to him. “I almost forgot,” she says, her eyes bright with excitement. “I brought your cap.” He smiles. They’d decided that they were going to decorate each other’s caps. Well, Erica had decided, and she was so excited about it that he’d decided not to argue with her, telling her instead just not to blame him if hers looked terrible. She leans back into the car and grabs the one she’s made for him, and he pulls hers out of the front seat. He hands hers over first, though, because there’s something important he has to do.

Isaac had spent over an hour on her cap. He’d written, “She believed she could so she did” on the top in a loopy, white cursive, and then surrounded it with a border of tiny white flowers. Erica’s face lights up as she examines it and when she beams up at him, he knows the smile on her face is genuine. “It’s beautiful,” she says, but then the slightest of frowns creases her face.

“What?” he asks nervously. Her hand shifts around the inside of the cap, and then slowly, carefully, she pulls it out, along with something long and silver.

“Isaac,” she breathes, “you didn’t.”

He smirks, because yes, as a matter of fact, he did. She looks down at the object in her hand and then back up at him, eyes swimming with tears.

In her hand is a silver chain with a small silver pendant dangling from it. A tiny bowling pin.

He reaches for it and fastens it around her throat, so that the charm rests in the dip of her collarbone, sparkling in the sunlight. “You know why I picked a bowling pin?” he asks, his breath hot on the back of her neck. He doesn’t wait for her to answer. “Remember that double date we went on, back in middle school? To the bowling alley?”

She nods as she turns to face him, one hand clasped over her mouth.

He smiles. “Erica Marie Reyes, that was the day I fell in love with you.”

She’s crying, but she smiles and kisses him, tasting like minty toothpaste and salt and smelling like that beautiful flowery perfume that she’s worn every day since freshman year. He brushes tears away from her cheekbones with the pads of his thumbs and presses his forehead against hers, until she shoves his own cap lightly against his chest.

“You, Isaac Lahey, were not supposed to make me cry,” she starts. “And someday I’ll get you back for that, but for right now just look at your cap because we have to go sit down soon.” He smiles a little at that and looks down to admire her work.

It’s obvious that she’d put a lot of time into it. She’d covered the maroon with silver and added the words “every cloud has a silver lining,” along with some pewter clouds that she’d clearly hand-drawn. He can’t keep the smile off his face and he kisses her nose before planting it on his head. “I love it,” he proclaims. “I love it almost as much as I love you.”

She reaches up to adjust the tassel on his cap. “I love you too, you huge goof,” she announces.

“I just can’t believe you chose this quote,” Isaac comments as they wander toward their seats, his arm draped around her shoulders.

“Why?” Erica asks curiously.

“Because you’re my silver lining,” he replies.

“God damn you, Lahey!” she groans good-naturedly, and Isaac just grins cheekily as she bursts into tears for a second time.

Isaac is eighteen.

Isaac is only eighteen, but he’s smiling like a fool at his high school graduation because he knows his life is only going to get better from here.

Isaac is only eighteen, but he’s celebrating his three year anniversary with the girl he’s going to marry someday.

Isaac is only eighteen, but he looks into his girlfriend’s eyes and knows that one day he’s going to be raising kids with her.

Isaac is only eighteen, but he knows that he’s going to love those little pieces of her with every piece of himself that he can.

Isaac is eighteen when he realizes that everything is going to be okay.