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Someone Else's Child

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It’s McCall’s wife, Melissa, who stops John in the hallway after he picks up paperwork for Claudia’s life insurance. He remembers meeting her briefly at an event before McCall left the force for the feds. She looks different in her scrubs.

She has slender hands, and her fingers are cold on his forearm.

“Sheriff Stilinski,” she says, her eyes darting to the folder in his hands. “It’s about Stiles.”

That’s right. McCall’s son lives down the street. The boys go to school together.

“Yes?” He doesn’t try to mask the weariness in his voice. It’s been two days living in a world without his wife and he’s already tired of it.

“I spoke to some of our staff about...” Melissa falters, tucks a curl behind one ear. She has dark circles under her eyes. “It’s not really my place but if you’re interested, I can recommend some local counselors who work with children. We have a few on staff, but I think it might be best for Stiles to—”

“Stay out of the hospital?” John asks. It sounds more caustic than he intends. He’s aware of how irrational it is to resent the facility itself when everyone worked so hard to save Claudia’s life, but he’s tired of fluorescent lights and cheerful art and the sounds that the machines make. Even the machine that buffs the linoleum in the middle of the night. He might hate that sound the most.

“Yes,” Melissa says gently. She takes a breath, and John braces himself for more advice that highlights the fact that he has no idea what he’s doing. “Scott’s been begging me to let him have his first sleepover. So, please. If you need a hand, if you need Stiles out of your hair for a little while, just ship him on over. They really seem to get along and Scott... well you know kids. He’s a shy guy. It’s great to see him making a friend.”

“Yeah,” John says. “Sure. Thank you.” He accepts the slip of paper with her contact info even though it’s already programmed in his phone and filed in Claudia’s handwritten phone book on the kitchen counter. Melissa gives him a pamphlet on children and grief along with a handout listing local counselors and all of it feels heavy in his hands as he walks through the automatic doors into the humid night air.

John doesn’t call her, but he hangs the handout on the side of a fridge with a magnet shaped like a green letter S.


***




Stiles ends up back in the hospital the day before the service.

John is certain he’s having a severe allergic reaction. It looks like anaphylaxis. He’s seen a few cases of bee stings and one or two nut allergies gone wrong. He’s pretty sure Stiles isn’t allergic to anything, but there’s no time to thumb through the paperwork and instructions Claudia left behind. He places Stiles in the backseat of his squad car, blazes along the familiar route and parks in the ambulance bay at Beacon Memorial.

“He can’t breathe,” he says, carrying Stiles inside. His son weighs all of 55 pounds and he’s shaking like a dog in a thunderstorm. He’s pale and cold and gasping and John has to pretend like it’s someone else’s child, like this is just another day on the job, so that his legs don’t go out from underneath him. “Please, he can’t breathe.”

One epipen dose, a psych eval and six hours later, Stiles is discharged with a referral to an allergist just in case and another to a psychiatrist with ASAP scrawled in red pen on the corner of the paper.

“Panic attack, huh,” John says, scruffing Stiles’ hair. It’s getting long, shaggy over his eyes.

Stiles is chewing on the stretched-out collar of his tee shirt. He spits it out to say, “You don’t have to call like the doctor said. I already have a pysch-cry-ah.” His brow furrows like he’s angry at the word for having too many syllables. “Psych. Psy—”

“Psychiatrist?”

Stiles nods. “Dr. Shin. She gives Mom my medicine.”

John idles at a stop sign. His chest hurts. There’s someone behind him, but he doesn’t care. No one’s going to honk at a cop.

How the hell is he going to do this?


***




John gets a rookie to stay at the house with Stiles during the funeral. Deputy Graham shows up with a sympathy card and a Target bag full of puzzles and candy.

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” John asks.

She smiles. When she’s not in her uniform, she looks like somebody’s teenaged daughter. “It’s no problem, Sheriff. I’ve got three little brothers.”

“Do they like puzzles?”

“No,” she says. “But they’re not like Stiles.”

John smiles through a twinge of confusion and guilt, kisses his son on the head, and leaves to bury his wife.


***




“Dad, this itches,” Stiles says.

“You can’t scratch it though. Remember what the nurse said. If you don’t scratch it you can get a lollipop on the way out.”

“I know. It’s the test one.”

“The hm?” John asks, distracted by a poster about common allergens across the United States. People can be allergic to grass?

“It’s the control,” Stiles says, one jittery shoe tapping John’s leg. He’s sitting up on the exam table in cargo shorts and his bare back is covered in pen marks from the allergy skin tests. “Everyone is allergic to it, so it itches. Like a bug bite.”

“Where did you learn that?” John asks. He doesn’t recall the nurse explaining much more than the way it wasn’t going to hurt for long.

“On TV that show about the immune system,” Stiles says. It takes John a few seconds to remember the stack of documentaries Claudia ordered when Stiles got bored with Magic Schoolbus. She said he had to learn about more than just Batman’s history of crime fighting, especially since real police officers were even cooler than Batman.

“Dad?” Stiles asks.

“Mm?”

Stiles squirms. “Can you at least blow on it. It itches. It really itches,” he whines.

John fans a magazine at Stiles’ back until a timer goes off and a nurse comes to to confirm that none of the test spots show signs of allergic reaction.

“I’m going to have to do a small injection at a few of these sites just to make sure,” she says, wetting a cotton ball with alcohol. “It’ll be quick. And then lollipops, right Dad?”

“Right,” John says hurriedly. “And we’ll get fries on the way home.”

Stiles holds still for each injection, his tears making a soft pattering sound on the paper below him.

He isn’t allergic to anything.


***




“Dad, I need a haircut,” Stiles says. He shakes his head and his hair bounces around. It really is way too long.

“I’ll swing you by the barber after school tomorrow.”

“But M—” Stiles stopped saying mom a week ago. His lips press down around the word each time, like he’s trying not to let it escape. “I got my hair cut at home. There’s scissors and stuff in your bathroom.”

Fifteen minutes later, John’s bathroom floor is covered in fuzzy brown hair and Stiles looks more or less like he just had brain surgery.

“Dad, my hair is weird,” Stiles says, examining himself in the mirror. The double vanity is half empty now. Claudia’s makeup and toothbrush are a box under the sink.

“I hate to say this son, but I’m going to have to break out the big gun here.”

The big gun is the set of clippers at the bottom of the grooming kit. John makes quick work of it, buzzing Stiles’ hair at the second lowest setting.

Stiles frowns. “Now I look like a tennis ball.”

“Tennis balls are yellow. Your hair is brown. And you look very handsome.”

Stiles rubs his head with both hands, his mouth twisted up in a dubious expression. “Okay,” he says abruptly, before darting out of the bathroom, leaving a little dust cloud of hair behind him.


***




John doesn’t drink until Stiles is sleeping.


***




Stiles wakes in the middle of the night and for once, it’s not in terror. He wanders downstairs, half asleep, and climbs up into the Lazy Boy with John. They watch infomercials.

“Can I taste one of the ice cubes?” Stiles asks, reaching for the highball glass on the endtable.

“No sir,” John says, warm and sleepy.

“It smells weird.”

“You smell weird,” John says.

Stiles giggles, the sound so small. He’s so small, and the house is so big, and the world is so empty.


***




Scott McCall shows up at the door, his bike in the grass behind him, one wheel still spinning.

“Can Stiles play?” he asks, bouncing on the balls of his feet like a cheerful toy.

Before John can answer, Stiles is squeezing out the door beside him. “Bye Dad! See you later,” he yells, grabbing Scott by the shirt. They run off, leaving the bike behind, being kids. It’s Sunday and it’s breezy and bright outside and John feels a grin tug at his lips as he returns to the game on TV.


***




John picks his battles and never tries to impose organization rules on Stiles’ crime scene of a bedroom. As long as nothing is actively rotting, he leaves it alone. It’s only because he’s moving the bed over to check the fire alarm that he finds the shoebox full of her things tucked underneath. A travel size perfume bottle. Eyeshadow. Hair pins. A note she left in his lunchbox. A scarf. Her ID card from work.

He spends an hour sitting on the floor in Stiles’ room. He’s never noticed the way Stiles groups the DVDs and books on his bookshelf or the way his action figures are lined up along his desk like a little army.

He frantically sifts through Stiles’ clothes when he realizes he doesn’t know what size he wears. He should know this. He should know these things and he doesn’t.


***




Stiles will only eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with strawberry jelly. On the second day of summer break, John forgets and makes it with his own grape jelly and one bite in, Stiles throws the sandwich down and bursts into tears. He doesn’t cry like he normally does, not the stoic, quiet crying John is used to as much as he's disturbed by. There’s an angry snarl to it. Stiles is red-faced and shaking and before John can reach him he screams, "You don't do anything right!"

"Stiles!" John says, stern. Angry. He's doing as best as he goddamned can and if Stiles wasn't such a basketcase John could enroll him in Little League and make normal sandwiches and buy different detergent and sleep through the night. "Go to your room!"

“I don’t have to!”

“You’ll go or I’ll make you go!” It’s more or less a roar.

"I hate you!" Stiles yells. He runs upstairs, hiccuping sobs that John can hear even after his door has slammed shut.

John pours a drink. It's noon.

He pours another. And another. Until it doesn’t burn anymore.

He wakes up in the dark, his cheek stuck to the kitchen table. He smells jelly and half-recalls a fight about sandwiches if you count screaming at your 8-year-old a fight.

"Dad," Stiles is shaking his arm. "Dad, I don't hate you. I'm sorry. Daddy. Wake up please." Stiles isn't crying, but his voice is thin and hoarse and there's an undercurrent of terror so strong it makes the hair stand up on John's arms.

He sits up, his head protesting with a solid throb. There's a half-flattened sandwich on the table next to a bottle of Jack and hell, the bottle is empty.

"I'm sorry," Stiles says. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."


***




John passes the liquor store on his way home and doesn’t stop.


***




It's been two months and John can finally name all of Stiles' doctors without consulting his well-worn cheat sheet. Stiles is seeing a therapist for CBT to help with his panic attacks and a pediatric psychiatrist for his ADHD meds. He sees the same dentist that John does for checkups and he has a physical for school in a few weeks with his ancient pediatrician. He still sees a grief counselor every two weeks and he has an evaluation with a pediatric GI to make sure his picky eating and stomach aches are from anxiety and not something else.

John looks for patterns and clues and tries to parse it all out but sometimes when he looks at his son just sees her doe-eyes and moles and the curious shape of her nose.

He always believed that Stiles loved her more, and it made him a little wistful, but never sad. Not when Stiles brought her so much joy. Even when she raised her voice, even when she dashed onto the back deck saying she needed a moment, even when she stayed up all night taking his temperature every eleven minutes during flu season, he brought her joy.

John’s love feels more like fear than joy. What if he’s doing everything wrong?


***




John is tucking Stiles in, like he always does now, when another panic attack comes on like a storm.

“Dad,” Stiles says, voice just a squeak. He reaches out like a toddler. His arms are so skinny.

John holds Stiles and tries to coach him through deeper breaths. When that doesn’t help, he carries him out back and they sit on the deck and John holds him some more. It’s chilly. He doesn’t tell Stiles that the deck was her favorite place. He talks about the broken coffee machine at work. He talks about preseason football. He talks about the stray llama they found in the preserve and how the local vet kept her until a farmer adopted her.

“Llama?” Stiles asks.

“An honest to God llama,” John says.

“Llamas are used to guard sheep. They can fight wolves and coyotes.” Stiles takes a shuddery breath and snuggles into John’s shoulder, his body growing heavier as the trembling tension releases.

“There aren’t any wolves in California.”

“Still. Can we get a llama?” Stiles asks.

“I’ll look into it. What would you call your llama?”

Stiles is quiet for a minute. “Ca-llama-ty Jane. Obviously,” he says, rolling his eyes.


***




John stops at the liquor store on the way home. They’re having a sale. He’s just being frugal.


***




“There’s a girl in my class,” Stiles blurts out at breakfast. He taps his orange juice glass against the table. His toe drums against the floor. The beats are mismatched and frenetic and John thinks about the emails he’s already getting from Stiles’ teachers.

Exceptional. Hyperactive. Quick to anger. Delightful. Gifted. Distracted.

“Just one?” John asks.

“Only one that counts,” Stiles says, smiling at his pancakes.


***




They have another fight. It starts with the brand of toothpaste John brings home and ends with John yelling that things are just the way they are, and Stiles needs to deal with it. Stiles shouts that he’s running away and John lets him go. He won’t get far.

Every time he replays it in his head, it sounds more ridiculous. Why was he so angry? Why was Stiles so angry? Do other fathers fight with their children like this? He can’t remember ever fighting with his own father, ever disrespecting him.

The kitchen is haunted. “I can’t do this,” he tells her cookbooks, her casserole pans, her laptop gathering dust on the bill paying desk. She doesn’t like his drinking but if she’s not there to stop him, why should he listen? Why should he try?

The phone rings. It’s Melissa McCall.

“Don’t worry about it,” she’s saying. “Things have been... well, let’s just say Scott’s disappeared a few times on us too.”

“But he loves you,” John says. His voice feels rough in his throat. “Doesn’t he?”

There’s a long pause. “Stiles is already in some of Scott’s spare pajamas, so if it’s okay with you, we’ll just do an impromptu sleepover, okay?”

“Sure. Yes, thank you,” John says. He clears his throat. “Tell him. Tell him...”

Melissa says, “I will.”


***




“We found baby raccoons,” Stiles shouts when John opens the door. His cheeks are bright red from running. “There are like eight of them! They have tiny paws.”

Scott is standing behind him, and he’s skinny too, and when he takes a puff from an inhaler and nods frantically, John thinks he’s either worrying about Stiles too much or Stiles has literally found his soulmate.

John smiles.

“Like 32 tiny paws!” Stiles crows.


***




Just when John thinks the night terrors have tapered down, Stiles wakes up screaming again.

“They’re hurting her,” he screams. Over and over.

The neighbor’s floodlights come on, casting an orange glow on Stiles’ curtains.


***




When it finally clicks into place, John’s embarrassed at how long it’s taken him to recognize the pattern. Stiles’ nightmares and panic attacks are always worse when John’s worked night shifts and long days. John requires no less than six personal references and a full criminal background check for every babysitter, so he’s fairly certain they’re not the problem. And Stiles loves his increasingly frequent overnight stays with the McCall family down the street, so it probably isn’t that either.

He calls Stiles’ therapist for advice.

“You’re a police officer,” she tells him. “If you don’t mind me being blunt—”

“I don’t,” John says quickly.

“He’s afraid that you’ll die too.”


***




It’s been a year since Stiles last visited the station. He’s ridden in John’s squad car many times, and he’s hung out in the parking lot, but he’s never come inside. Not since. Not for a while.

“But it isn’t take your kid to work day,” Stiles says. He’s almost nine and hasn’t grown out of holding his father’s hand yet. His grip tightens as they enter the station, but he smiles when he recognizes Deputy Graham.

“Hey squirt,” she says, tossing him a Reeses.

Stiles sits at the front desk and does his homework. After an hour has passed, Stiles smiles a little and says, “It’s pretty boring here.”

“Sure is,” John says, breathing through his relief.


***




Every day Stiles spends at the station seems to calm him, and John thinks everything will finally start to get better until Stiles gets a hold of a code book somewhere in the back office and memorizes most of it before John can confiscate it.

“Do you want to talk about this?” John asks. Because Stiles’ comic books are a little scary but they don’t go into details and John wasn’t ready for Stiles’ understanding of evil in the world to become more specific than bad guys. Offhand he can think of about 30 codes he doesn’t want to explain to a third grader.

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “If there’s a 980 could that make a superhero?”

“Possibly.”

“Can I have my own scanner?”

“No.” As Stiles sputters in protest, John adds, “Not until you’re 15.”

“But.” Stiles swallows. “What if an officer needs urgent assistance?”

John pulls Stiles into a tight hug. “Listen, the worst thing I’ve seen around here is llama spit.”

“Yeah right,” Stiles says, muffled against John’s middle.

“Look at me.” John waits, then tries not to falter at the trust in his son’s eyes. “I’m very, very good at my job. And so are the men and women I work with. Beacon Hills hasn’t had an officer fatality in your lifetime. We do everything we’re supposed to do to stay safe. Do you understand?”

“What if a bad guy shoots you?” Stiles asks.

“What if a bad guy steals you?” John asks.

Stiles blinks. “Are you scared too?”

“Sometimes, kiddo. Sometimes I am.”

“Okay,” Stiles says, tightening the hug.


***




They bring a poinsettia to the cemetery on Christmas Eve. It’s the first time that Stiles has been, and he stomps through the dry grass between the headstones like he’s dashing around a theme park. John wonders if this is it, if this will be the setback he’s supposed to expect. If Stiles is going to have a mental break, it should be after Christmas. Let the kid enjoy the holidays.

He never should have tried this.

Stiles stumbles to a halt in front of the shiny white headstone with his mother’s name on it. It’s cold, and his breath fogs. Quick, shallow puffs. He puts the plant down and touches the words and numbers and then looks at his feet and shuffles away clumsily to stand beside the headstone.

“There are five stages of decomposition,” Stiles says. His hands are shaking. “Do you want to know them?”

John’s breath goes ragged. “No.”

Stiles starts to cry. “I wanna go home.”

John crouches, murmurs a quick countdown, and hefts Stiles up into his arms. They’re a bulky mess of winter coats, and they’re both crying, but it’s a short walk back to the car.


***




They make a fire at home and camp out in sleeping bags on the living room floor next to the Christmas tree.

In the morning, John gives Stiles his smallest gift first. “I know you don’t carry a wallet yet,” he says, surprised by how nervous he feels, “but when you do you can keep it in there. But I don’t want you using it to get out of citations. Traffic laws exist for a reason, to keep everyone on the road safe and—”

“Dad!” Stiles yells, jumping up. “This is so cool!”

It’s just a little badge John had to special order. Police Officer’s Son, it reads, around a glossy California state seal.

Stiles gets a skateboard too, along with a helmet and knee pads, and when Scott shows up at the door at 7:45 with a matching set, John says it’s okay if they go outside to practice in their pajamas as long as they come in and put real winter clothes on when their toes start freezing off.

“Or our balls,” Scott says under his breath. Stiles punches his arm. They disappear down the front walk, giggling maniacally.

It’s too quiet in the house when the boys are outside, but the tree twinkles warmly, casting lacy shadows on the wall. This, John thinks, is where she is.

There’s a card under the tree, made with folded construction paper. On the cover, Stiles drew a nearly unrecognizable llama wearing a wreath and standing over baby Jesus in a cradle. On the inside, he wrote, I love you Sheriff Dad.

John laughs, joyfully.

Maybe they’re going to be all right.