November 5, 1983
John barely takes notice of the details around him, save for the day's gray skies or the wind that sends goose bumps skimming across his body. It doesn't really matter whether those shivers are due to the morning chill or from the circumstances - standing at his wife's grave - nothing penetrates the haze of John's grief. He stands tall and unmoving in his new suit. Dean huddles at his side throughout the ceremony while John holds a bundled up Sammy who cries his way through the funeral.
Not that John blames him as his own tears fall freely down his cheek. The wind swallows the pastor's words until everything sounds like white noise; only Sammy's continuous wailing soothes John's scorched soul. It's a banner cry of anger, one John understands as he holds Sammy, awkwardly shifting his son to bounce on his shoulder and offer what little comfort he can.
Behind them stands a group of their friends; mostly people from work and customers, their surrounding neighbors, and friends of Mary's. Further back, a small group of strangers is gathered, people who read about the fire, or heard it on the news, and want to offer their condolences. Then there are the gawkers: those who want to see the widower left with two small children.
At first John isn't even aware when the pastor stops talking and steps aside. Around them everyone quiets so that John hears the pain in Kate Guenther's voice as it rises and cuts through Sammy's cries. Her sorrow mirrors his pain. Her voice carries his grief heavily in every word she sings. The sweet timbre of her voice cracks, barely holding together, as she sings the last verse of Amazing Grace.
As the song ends John ignores everyone except his boys. He feels shattered, unapproachable. He is isolated by his grief, feels pushed further and further from the rest of the world by every moment he survives without her. Dean and Sammy are the only ones that force him to hang on, to continue. He needs to do for them what he failed to do for Mary - protect them.
None of it makes sense but neither did seeing Mary trapped against the ceiling, her stomach cut open and bleeding up. The image is singed in his mind, held by the flames that danced around and over Mary's body until they burst, engulfing his wife. Those moments move in slow motion, replaying like his favorite football team whenever they fumbled: every angle explored, though the end result never changes. With Mary suspended on the ceiling - fully aware - staring down at him, the pain and horror evident in her eyes.
He's pulled back from the memory abruptly as he feels Dean's arms curl around his leg. John wants to pick Dean up and hug him, but they're alone and holding Sammy is a challenge. John can only run his fingers through Dean's hair. Dean accepts the invitation and scoots closer, tightening his grip around John's thigh.
Together they stand there while John stares numbly at the coffin, lost in memories that are interrupted only by the demands of the dispersing crowd.
November 2, 1983
John had no words of comfort. What could you tell a four-year-old who had just lost his mother – who had watched their home burn? John hated that Dean had seen so much that night.
After running out of the house and grabbing Dean, John had heard the explosive burst of flames breaking through the windows. It was too surreal, the fire lighting up the evening sky. He'd felt like he was seeing everything happen through a filter while the sirens of both police and fire trucks had come closer and closer.
Through the chaos of noise and activity, John had noticed water hitting the nursery's windows. Billows of smoke had filled the sky as jets of water had struck the windows and roof. Almost in retaliation, the flames burst through the walls and the roof, determined to consume their home.
Dean had been at his side, wide-eyed, and John had seen the moment that his son had come to the slow realization that his mommy had still been in the house and that she hadn't come out. Dean hadn't cried, hadn't spoken, not then. Not even when the EMTs had checked him over, or when the police officer had tried to ask him questions. Dean had only nodded yes or had shook his head no.
Later that night, the fire had finally gone out and the fire department had declared the house too dangerous due to the levels of lingering smoke. By that time the EMT's had medically cleared him and the boys. His partner from the garage, Mike Guenther, had arrived with his wife, Kate. Though reluctant to leave, between Mike and Kate's cajoling and the police's insistence, John had gathered his children and left. Minutes later they had arrived at Mike's house, where Kate had given them the guest room.
Still in shock, John had gone through the motions. He had tucked in Dean. They had shared the same bed, both still dressed in damp, smoky pajamas. Neither had been willing to let the other one go. Sammy had slept soundly between them. It wasn't until Dean, exhausted, had curled to Sammy's side, and had fallen into a fitful sleep that John's body had shaken as he cried.
That next morning, when Dean had awakened, John had seen confusion written on Dean's face, the light of hope that it had all been a nightmare. Until Dean's eyes had blinked, he had seen Sammy beside him, and he had stared imploringly into John's eyes. John had recognized Dean's urge to deny, even at four, that it was all real. He had shaken his head and looked around the room in an obvious search for Mary. Before John had been able to stop him, Dean had heard someone in the hall and scurried out of bed to run to the door, opening it in a rush.
He had startled Kate.
She'd offered Dean a smile, her eyes wet, rimmed in red from fallen tears. Kate had quickly realized Dean had expected her to be Mary. Her lips had trembled in response to what she saw in Dean's face. Turning, Dean had run back to bed, had flung his body against John and buried his head in the crook of John's neck. John had felt the give of Dean's body, the wrack of tears, the choked wails of who he wanted, Mommy.
Wordlessly, John had wrapped his arms around Dean, squeezing that small frame against his chest. His soul had screamed in complete agreement with Dean's inconsolable cries, his want just as overwhelming as his son's. A noise had eventually caught his attention, and he had looked up to see Kate's solemn face, tears falling, as she had pulled the door closed.
Kate returned with a tray of food and a bottle for Sammy. Sammy was only willing to eat in-between cries. It was as if Sammy had decided that if he cried loud enough, long enough, the one person he wanted would hear him and come to pick him up. Seeing the tray of food turned John's stomach but, for Dean's sake, John forced himself to eat and to make sure Dean followed suit. Kate rambled on about making some calls, about leaving shortly to do a few errands, some shopping, and about how John didn't have to worry about the shop - Mike would handle everything. John heard her, he even knew that he would probably be grateful at some later point, but he wasn't able to connect any importance to anything not directly related to his boys. He nodded when it seemed appropriate, just wanting her to leave – to leave them alone. There were no words she could have offered, that anyone could offer, to soothe his soul. There was no sage advice, there were no condolences that John wanted to hear. The only things he wanted were the same impossible things that Dean wanted, that both his boys wanted: their Mommy, his Mary.
John tried to talk to Dean, to explain – and failed. Every time he tried, the lump in his throat grew and swallowed the platitudes: she was with God now, the angels came and took her and she is in a good place - he just looked into Dean's eyes and silently watched his son cry. Small hands reached up to wipe away his own tears, and Dean settled himself back into John's arms, his legs hitched around John's waist, hugging. Dean's small fists clutched tightly to John's shirt, afraid to let go.
John woke a few hours later to the sounds of Sammy's cries. Undisturbed, Dean remained sound asleep, his body spread out, covering John's chest like a blanket. John scooted up enough to move and gently roll Dean's sleeping form onto the bed beside him.
Once John's hands were free he scooped up his younger son and stood, rocking Sammy with a jiggling bounce. "Shhhh," John breathed, grabbing a diaper as he headed toward the connected bathroom. John closed the door behind them, not wanting to wake Dean as he turned on the light and the overhead fan buzzed to life.
John stood there for a second just staring at the counter and the supplies he'd need that were already sitting there, waiting.
Kate and Mike didn't have kids, and, outside of Sam and Dean, Kate had never really been around kids. She had declared she wasn't ready to start a family, but with Kate's attention to detail and spur-of-the-moment innate awareness of everything he'd need for the boys, he had to wonder if maybe Kate wasn't ready now. He'd have to mention it to Mary…
The slip hit, and stark realization shredded him with the knowledge that he'd never have that time, those moments, with Mary ever again.
Once again, Sammy's fussing brought John back. With a deep sigh, John moved toward the sink. The counter was long and wide enough to support double sinks. Kate had filled one sink and covered it with a kitchen cutting board draped with a heavy cloth, basically converting the space into a changing table. Grateful for the thought, John laid Sammy down.
Leaning over his son, he smiled, "Hey kiddo" as Sammy looked up and gurgled in response. John's smile faded and his eyes watered as a flash of the night before intruded. He tried to force the memory away of those last moments before he saw Mary on the ceiling – but this time, staring down at his son, John was washed with the sudden awareness of how close he came to losing Sammy. Closing his eyes, John shuddered at the thought, then reprimanded himself. He needed to stop. Opening his eyes, he pushed forward, going through the motions. His hands quivered as he stripped Sammy of his jumper and started to remove the diaper. Reaching over, he turned on the water faucet and adjusted the temperature before rinsing and wringing out the wash cloth. With one hand he clasped and lifted Sammy's legs. With his other he pulled the dirty diaper away and used the cloth to wipe Sammy clean.
It was mundane routine, one he'd had lots of practical practice with in the last six months. It was one of the many dirty chores John didn't have a problem doing. Instead, he was usually too elated by the small miracle in his arms.
Being a father had exceeded all of his expectations from the moment Dean was born. John had felt akin to the Grinch whose heart had grown and expanded at just the idea, and then had expanded even further as he had held Dean for the first time. When Mary had told him she'd been expecting again, John had been beyond ecstatic. Any spare time he had had, John had spent with Mary, holding her, caressing her belly, talking to Sammy and relishing whenever Sammy would kick in response.
At times, it had been reminiscent of their first year as newlyweds. John just hadn't been able to get enough time with her. He had hated every moment he'd been away from Mary. His favorite moments had often been at the crack of dawn while they'd been alone in bed, feeling secure within the haven of their bedroom where he'd been able to hold her. His fingers had spread out over her stomach, measuring, feeling the taut stretch of her skin. Often Mary had tried to push him away, overly conscious of John's inspection and awareness. It hadn't been something that he had done with Dean. During her pregnancy with Dean, the whole experience had been too new. It had been curiously exciting and a bit daunting for both of them as first-time parents. Though he had held her and had catered to Mary's every whim, John's focus had been on Mary, not her pregnancy or the changes of her body. Back then, John had been too worried about everything else to do more than that. Anxiety over the shop, bills, trying to buy a house, taking care of Mary had all taken their toll, and topping the list was whether he'd make a good dad like Pop had been to him.
With Sammy, though, throughout Mary's pregnancy John had felt fearless and grateful beyond words. This time he hadn't wanted to miss anything - even if it had started to annoy Mary.
Once Sammy was born, though, she had been grateful that his fascination hadn't worn off. She'd appreciated how he'd marveled at Sammy's small body, less afraid than he had been with Dean. He'd kissed and smelled all ten wondrous toes and fingers, had exclaimed in pride whenever Sammy's fingers had wrapped around John's pinky, refusing to let go. Midnight feedings, diaper changes - it hadn't mattered, nothing had deflated John's joy. Once, while he had been changing Sammy, Mary had jokingly wondered aloud if he had been replaced by a pod person. He had ignored her teasing jabs but had then, in retaliation, bent down to whisper conspiracy to Sammy when Sammy had suddenly started to pee, hitting John's chin and chest. Mary had inhaled and then had burst out laughing loud enough to draw Dean's attention who had come running to see what had happened. Mary had been doubled over, tears of laughter running down her face. Dean's scrunched up face had turned from Mary, to him, to Sammy, then had rotated back to Mary as he'd tried to figure out what had happened. John had lasted maybe a minute, maybe two, before Sammy's gurgling smile of relief had broken him, and he had cracked, joining Mary in the hilarity of the moment - even as he had wiped away the pee dripping off his face.
John was so lost in the memory that he didn't hear Dean until it was too late. Dean burst through the door, sheer panic evident in his features as he rushed over to crush his body against John's side. The sounds of hiccups boomed over the fan's hum. As if he sensed Dean's panicked turmoil, Sammy burst out crying, drowning out everything else.
The vivid memory of Mary's laughter faded as the weight of grief settled back in its place. Using his body to block Sammy from rolling off the counter, John shifted and swiftly bent down to pick up Dean. Immediately Dean's legs anchored around John's waist, and Dean's face buried against John's neck.
John tried to soothe his son, rubbing circles over his back, "Shhhh, it's okay, kiddo. Bad dream?" Dean silently shook his head, no. His lips pressed just below John's ear. Only sputtered, choked sounds escaped with hiccups intersected between. Suddenly, John understood that when Dean had woken up he had been alone, and it had terrified him.
Helplessly, John returned Dean's hugs. By the wetness against his neck, Dean's tears were falling in a steady stream. John's own voice was suddenly gone, suffocated under the weight of Dean's pain.
The rest of the day crawled by. Later that night, John just lay there staring at the clock's luminous hands; it was two in the morning. His heart ached, and he couldn't sleep for fear of nightmares following. John's sorrow grew even more intense with the realization that it had been a short span of time, exactly twenty-four hours since the fire, since he lost Mary.
Each hour ticked by at a snail's pace, from two to three to four, five in the morning. John would doze off then snap awake from a nightmare. Sammy slept tucked up against him, with Dean on the other side. John found that he kept threading his hand through Dean's hair, caressing and rubbing the silky strands between his fingers to soothe the restlessness of both him and his son. The texture was smooth and baby fine, making it apparent that in addition to Dean's features, his hair was closer to Mary and her side of the family than to John's. Mindlessly, John continued petting, carding his hand through Dean's hair, until sleep took him.
November 3, 1983
When Kate came in that morning with another tray of food, Mike was behind her rustling several bags. Kate had indeed gone shopping and had bought clothes for the three of them, from outerwear to underwear. There were more diapers, bibs, toothbrushes, a shaving kit and all the other essentials he would need for Sammy, Dean and himself. What they'd had yesterday was beyond repair, had either been burned or damaged by the smoke.
This time Kate didn't leave but stayed, fidgeting at the door. Clasping Mike's hand, she finally plunged ahead and brought up the topic of funeral services. Had he and Mary ever discussed it? Discussed what Mary - John wanted? He almost laughed in Kate's face because all John wanted was Mary. Instead John bit his lip to keep from laughing, yelling, or even screaming. He listened to her, to Mike's rough sympathy, and tried to be grateful that they were both willing to help in any way they could.
Finally, John nodded, tried to breathe and switched his attention back to the soothing repetition of feeding Sammy. Sammy's body squirmed, and he kicked out in between bites from where he sat in John's lap. John focused on the spoon, on each act of the process: one spoonful scooped and swallowed, the second spoonful spit out, the swipe of the spoon over Sammy's lips to capture the rejected food – Sammy's frustrated crying between mouthfuls. John shared Sam's irritation. He rarely fed Sammy; that was, had been, Mary's thing. This was out of his son's routine. Sam wasn't in his highchair, John didn't smile, didn't play or make plane engine noises. He didn't coo for Sammy to open up like his wife had.
Images of life and the ringing sounds of laughter filled John's mind until his hand shook and his throat burned, each breath jagged and harsh even to his own ears. John tried to refocus, but his eyes burned as he blinked away the tears. He found a connection, a shared solace with his son. In hearing Sammy's cries, he found a tether to bring him back to the present. Resuming his task, John could do nothing more than nod to Kate as he continued to feed his son, scooping and capturing the food that Sammy spit out then re-spooning it back into Sam.
They had talked about it; both were too familiar with losing family to unexpected, too early death. Still, he didn't know how to answer Kate, his ability to speak suddenly lost in the wash of his memory. John hated to think about it, but, yes, they'd talked about their possible deaths – not that they had ever agreed.
He knew Mary had wanted to be cremated, had wanted not to join her parents in the reserved plot. Nor had she really wanted to join John's parents. In the end, she'd conceded to whatever he wanted but had made him promise that he'd notify her uncle if she passed before him. John hadn't done that yet, hadn't fulfilled that simple request. John hadn't stepped outside of Kate's guest room except to use the bathroom.
John wasn't sure if he actually heard something or if he just felt the intensity of their stares. Either way, John looked up to see Kate and Mike still standing there. The looks on their faces, the sympathy, the pity – John realized they were aware of how far he had zoned out. How long, he wasn't sure, but a quick glance at the tray showed that Sammy's jar of baby food was empty. From under his lashes John nodded, creating and swallowing saliva to speak around the lump lodged in his throat. "M…" John's lips trembled and he clamped them shut, belatedly realizing he couldn't say her name without shedding more tears. His voice raw and coarse, "I should, I should call." They waited, ready and willing to do whatever John wanted, or needed. "In the office, my desk, in the bottom drawer. There should be a black phonebook, her uncle's number is in there – I should call…"
Mike answered, his voice booming and too loud in the hushed quiet of the room, nodding as he spoke. "I'll go now to get the book and bring it home." Then Mike was gone, too eager to leave. John would have laughed if he thought it'd come out sounding anything like laughter.
Slowly, John realized Kate was still standing there, waiting expectantly. "I should wait until I call him before I make a decision." At his answer, Kate nodded, seemingly pacified by his words. She stepped forward and took the tray before she left.
Once the door was closed, he moved Sammy's sleeping form onto the bed at his side. Patted his hand on his other side for Dean, silently letting Dean know he could scoot closer. Dean needed no further encouragement as he bypassed where John's hand lay and crawled up into the space in John's lap which had been vacated by Sammy.
Kate's question about whether they had discussed the possibility of Mary's death reverberated and repeated over and over in his mind.
The first traumatic death that had affected John was his mother, Erica. She had been sick for a little more than a year, had gone back and forth to the hospital until that last month when she hadn't come home. Years later, it had been his big brother, Frank. Frank, with his best friend George, hadn't wanted to wait and see if they'd be drafted. They had shocked everyone when they enlisted. There had only been a year left - they had marked the calendar in the shop - until Frank would have been sent home. But that had never happened. Instead, George had arrived home in a body bag, and they'd received notice that Frank was MIA. That had been the main reason that John had enlisted as a Marine: his long-shot hope that, once he got over there, he might have been able to find Frank or, at least, discover what had happened to him and bring his body home. Ironically, it had only been after John had enlisted that the Marines had notified them that they had found Frank's body, killed in action, and the Marines had been in the process of returning his body. John had thought Pop would have boxed his ears when on finding out that John had enlisted. He had forged Pop's name. On the contrary, John had watched helplessly as his old man had cried and had made him promise to come back alive.
It was after John returned from 'Nam and started to seriously see Mary, when both her parents had been killed by an unknown psychopath. The police had listed the homicide as a robbery gone wrong. That had never made sense to John since nothing had been stolen.
At the funeral, John had met Mary's uncle and few cousins. They had been oddly tight-lipped, and Mary had seemed to have a strained relationship with them. He remembered that Mary had gone with them, late, one night after the funeral. She had said it was family business that her uncle had insisted upon. They had dropped Mary off, and she had returned more solemn then she had been at the funeral. That had been the last that John had seen of them. Mary hadn't even invited them to the wedding. Regardless, her uncle had stayed in touch, calling once or twice a year to check in. The calls had been brief, like they were an obligation, and though John wouldn't say Mary had ever voiced any warmth in those calls, neither had she ever expressed any animosity.
Funny - he could remember that, before Mary's parents were murdered, she had talked at every opportunity about leaving Lawrence. She had wanted to explore and settle down somewhere – anywhere - that wasn't Lawrence.
It had been painfully obvious that Mary and her father had had conflicts. John had been and remained sure that most of it was over him - even Deanna's acceptance of him hadn't been able to ease Samuel's mind. For some reason, Samuel hadn't liked him; whether it was because he had willingly served in Vietnam or because he was a lowly mechanic from a family of mechanics; John had never figured out. Mary had always tried to reassure him that that wasn't the case, that it was more she and Samuel had just had different views on her career choice - she wasn't willing to go into the family business of sales that required traveling around the mid-west. Again, something John had never been able to blame her for, and, for the life of him, he still couldn't see Mary as a traveling salesman. For that matter, he'd always had a difficult time seeing Samuel in that role. Mary had constantly told him otherwise, her voice brimming with pride whenever she'd spoken about it. She'd said that her father had been good at the job, the best she had ever seen.
All John had known for certain was that Samuel had blamed him for distracting Mary, for driving her away from a career path he'd wanted her to follow and creating a divide between father and daughter.
The tension had been enough that Mary had wanted out of Lawrence. She'd wanted to travel across the country and go to California. That was why he had started looking around for a vehicle. John had had access to the tow truck, but Pop had needed that for the shop. He had almost bought a wagon; instead he had let himself get talked into a cherry ride, a black '67 Impala. He didn't regret it, but that had been the beginning of the end; one by one, like dominoes, their plans and dreams of traveling, of moving away, had stalled out until the murders had permanently curtailed them.
John had stayed at her side and had helped Mary through her parents' murders. He had held Mary's hand as she was questioned by police, and she had clung to him even while he had been questioned. Throughout the entire investigation, the police had found no answers, no clues as to why the psycho had picked the Campbells. Afterwards he'd stood at Mary's side while she had made the funeral arrangements for her parents. A few years later, Mary had done the same for him after Pop had died from a massive heart attack. John was thankful Pop had gotten to know Mary, had been there at their wedding, had walked Mary down the aisle. Pop had been there the day Dean was born and had lived just past Dean's first birthday.
John gradually focused on Dean, who there, kneeling, his knees digging into John's lap, face to face with John. His son's expression was somber and too serious for any four-year-old. Dean's small hands cupped John's face, forcing him to look into his son's eyes, see the anguish. Dean opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. Slowly John understood the silent question that Dean was asking, that Dean was afraid if he spoke out loud that it would somehow make it come true. Dean's wide expectant green eyes stared imploringly, the unspoken question hung in the air between them, Mommy isn't coming back, is she? John felt the tears well up, felt them burn as they slid down his face. Dean waited. John's voice cracked and the noise resounded within the room. The lump in his throat grew and prevented him from speaking.
Shaking his head, John finally answered, "No," confirming Dean's greatest fear.
Dean just stayed there, staring, no tears, lost and not understanding. This time he didn't wipe John's tears away, his body just gently pressed in and curled up against John's chest. Quiet and still, they stayed like that, Dean's small hand patting over John's heart. John's body trembled in pain and grief as he cried for both of them. For everything he understood that his son didn't – for knowing, for seeing too much. The weight of responsibility: that John didn't stop it, couldn't save Mary, couldn't fix it … until at some point exhaustion took over, he collapsed, and they both fell into a deep sleep.
November 4, 1983
Returning from changing Sammy early the next morning, John noticed the new tray of food at the end of the bed and a rocker for Sammy next to it.
"Looks like Kate's back." As he moved over toward the bed, he saw that the tray was filled with two plates, one a plate of cheese and crackers, the other with cut-up fruit. Beside the plates was an open package of chocolate chip cookies with a tall glass of milk and a new bottle for Sam. He felt the warm consideration of his friends loosen something inside him for the first time since the fire.
Then John spotted the black book he had asked Mike to retrieve.
John's heart sank and his throat tightened with the realization he couldn't avoid going forward. He had to call Mary's uncle.
Shifting Sammy from hip to rocker, John settled Sam in and fastened the small safety straps. John turned to Dean, his voice scratchy as he spoke, "Okay kiddo, I have to go downstairs and make a phone call." John watched his son's eyes widen in fear at the thought of John leaving him. Bending down, John murmured, "Shhhh, I'm not leaving – I'll just be downstairs."
Dean's lips trembled, the gleem of unshed tears pool promising to spill as Dean reached out grasping John's hand – silently pleading.
Pained, John shook his head. He didn't want Dean listening on as he talked to Mary's uncle or hearing the calls John had to make for the funeral arrangements. "It's one of those stupid grown-up things that I have to take care of. I'll just be in the living room. You know how Aunt Kate's place is, you just walk into the hall, and you'll see me downstairs. I'll leave the door wide open and will hear you if you need me - I promise."
John felt the tug on his hand and knew that Dean wanted to refuse. With regret he used the only leverage he had to force Dean to stay. "I need you to watch Sammy for me. Bet I'll be back before you can finish all those cookies." Picking up the bottle, John held it close enough for Sammy to grab. Immediately Sammy clasped his chubby fingers around the bottle, clutching tightly as he started greedily sucking. "See, Sammy's hungry. I bet you are too. And, you can have as many cookies as you want, okay?" John ignored Mary's whispered teasing reprimand. One he had heard whenever he had let Dean eat sweets too close to dinner. John, that'll spoil his dinner. John would heartily reply, Nah, he has Winchester genes, and a Winchester's appetite is huge. He'd make his point by sweeping Mary up into his arms, lips nibbling on her neck to force giggles out of her and out of Dean while he watched.
Pushing the memory back, he smiled into Dean's face. "I'll be right downstairs, okay?" John didn't wait for Dean's reply as he pulled out of Dean's grasp and grabbed the black book. A quick glance back once the door was opened all the way showed Dean still standing there, his face sad, lost, and all-too-mature before John's eyes.
John turned and walked out of the room, his heart breaking with every step. At the top of the stairs, he saw Kate. Her hand squeezed his arm as she passed, "I'll stay with them."
John nodded his thanks then, and, as he headed downstairs, requested, "Leave the door open."
The call to Mary's uncle was quick and almost painless. John had only stumbled when her uncle had asked how Mary had died. John wasn't even sure actually what he said, but he felt accountable, compelled to explain why he hadn't saved her, but the words lodged in his throat. Somehow John answered with the bare facts, rambled out by rote: there was a fire; it was under investigation; they were considering faulty wiring. Once John mentioned the fire, her uncle interrupted and didn't need to hear anymore.
After that, Mary's uncle rushed through expressing his sympathies, offered to pay for the headstone while mumbling some excuse about how he wouldn't be able to get away for the services. He appreciated John calling, he said, and the next moment, John was listening to a dial tone.
He should have been furious, but he couldn't manage it. The majority of John's anger was reserved for himself. He was angry that he didn't save Mary and that he was keeping his silence about a truth he was afraid to voice: what he had seen, how Mary had actually died. That somehow someone attacked her and cut her open, leaving her to hang from the ceiling like a sacrifice. It was a truth he knew no one would believe, and if he did say something to the wrong person, they wouldn't just look at him crazy, they'd probably go ahead and lock him up – take the boys away. No, John was praying, banking on the idea that the forensics would find evidence to prove someone was there, someone who set the fire and murdered Mary.
An abrupt cry sounded, and John glanced up toward the stairs. The door to their room was being held open by Dean's small fingers. The door jerked as Dean let go and went in to Sam. A minute later, the crying stopped. Not wanting to delay things any further, John turned and refocused on the grim task at hand.
Grabbing the phone book, he looked up Jake's number. Jake was a friend; someone John had known most of his life, though growing up they had never been best buds. Because of Jake's position as the local mortician, though, that had changed. Like John, Jake had taken over his family's business, Anderson Mortuary, after he graduated. It was through that that their friendship had changed. With Mary's parents, Jake's dad had handled everything, but Jake had been there. Then a couple of years ago with Pop, it had only been Jake. Initially he'd thought it would be awkward because of his friendship with Jake, but he'd quickly discovered that having Jake as a friend had actually made the process easier. This time it would probably be the same in hindsight, but John couldn't think beyond his own grief or how much he hated this whole process.
Gladys, the receptionist, answered on the second ring. "Anderson's Mortuary. How may I help you?"
"Hi, Gladys, is Jake around?"
"Oh, John, is that you? I'm so sorry. We saw everything on the news this morning."
John nodded absently into the phone, lost anew. A harsh breath was forced out by the weight of his gratitude that he hadn't seen or heard the news. Suddenly he realized, as Mike and Kate probably already had, that the rest of Lawrence had woken up to his loss.
Gladys easily interpreted the sound, his anguish, something she dealt with every day, so she interrupted his train of thought and assured him, "I'll get Jake." She put him on hold.
John barely waited ten seconds before Jake picked up, "John?"
John spoke, his voice raw, "Hey, Jake."
As predicted, Jake took over and reassured John that he'd take care of everything; to start, he'd call the hospital and find out when exactly they were going to release the remains. Since John and Mary hadn't been church goers, Jake asked if John wanted a memorial service.
John's head hung as he considered it. He didn't want any of this, but a memorial service wouldn't just be for him. It would be for all of their friends – other family. Though now, the only other family that'd be there would be the boys. Sammy wouldn't know, but Dean... John wasn't comfortable putting Dean through that and there was no way he was leaving Dean home.
On the heels of that thought - of home, John shuddered involuntarily at the vision of their home burning. Jake interrupted John's silence to tell him they could hold off deciding for now – that he'd take care of everything, have it set for whatever way John wanted to go.
Jake offered his condolences and told John not to worry before he hung up.
John returned the phone to its cradle and just sat there, staring into space. John's eyes caught the gleam of his ring, and he twisted it around his finger. Memories hit: when Mary had put the ring there had been one of the happiest days of his life. With Mary he had many happy days, a lifetime's worth, but even accepting that realization, it was still too short, too little. Facing each day, each moment without her… thinking that he would never again wake up to her scent, her warmth, made him ache. He'd even miss her pointed elbows poking his stomach in sleep, silently demanding more room. Yet once he'd moved and shifted, she'd scoot back in even closer, only to repeat the jab twenty minutes later. A small smile graced his lips. His mind filtered through the multiple varieties of Mary's laughter that had gone from a soft lilt, to a devious sneer, to a full-out belly laugh that had brought tears to her eyes. It had all been part of Mary's vitality, part of the jovial spirit that encompassed only a small sum of everything that had been his wife. Shifting through memories, John tried to catalog, to memorize each moment. However hard he tried, though, the reality that he'd never again see, hold, or hear Mary hindered his memory. Those happy moments were fleeting and chased away by the endless loop of the hours just before the fire and of Mary, there on the ceiling.
Once again, Sammy's cries broke through. John blinked, remembered where he was and looked up to see Dean no longer hiding behind the door. He was kneeling, looking on, his hands clutched tightly around the balusters. Even from there, John could see in Dean's eyes the shared understanding of what they'd both lost.
John made it up the stairs before Dean could move, taking the stairs two at a time. Dean turned to watch him ascend the stairs; otherwise Dean didn't move from his spot. Reaching Dean, John squatted down to Dean's level. His hand cupped Dean's neck, and he slid his thumb over his son's cheek, silently directing Dean to look at him as he said, "We're going to be okay."
Dean stared at him unblinking before going through the motions and nodding at the words, but John could see the truth: Dean didn't believe it any more than John did.
The atmosphere once again settled back to a place where everything was disjointed, emotions weighed down by grief. It was a feeling he remembered. It was a vacuum, an open vastness of emotions, feeling everything, feeling crushed, overwhelmed, physically jammed into a small space, walled in and claustrophobic. A space where every second slowly ticked by, filled with the awareness of being trapped by the sorrow as it wrapped around him. He felt it now, that excruciating slowness of every breath, of every movement as if time had stopped or was slowing for his benefit, and he was forced to relive those last moments that flashed through his mind, the flicker of each torturing flame. He had to cope with the acute realization that Mary had been his other half, his center. She had been the one who made him feel whole, and, without her, he was feeling so lost that he might as well have tipped off the edge and into the abyss.
Only Dean and Sammy anchored him. With the innate demand of extreme youth, Sammy’s cries for attention continually drew John back to the now; his son's need to be fed, need to be changed, kept John grounded and guided him forward.
What finally dragged John’s attention to the world around him was when Mike rolled a crib into their room. John finally objected, telling Mike that it was too much, that what he and Kate were doing was overly generous, and Mike needed to take money from the shop’s till to pay for it. Mike dismissed John's objections. Someone had dropped the crib by earlier that morning, but it had needed to be put together. It had been almost non-stop; people had been dropping off things since Wednesday morning. With Sammy sound asleep in the rocker and Mike sitting watchfully nearby, John picked up Dean and headed downstairs to investigate. Walking into the family-room, John eyed the bags scattered all over the place. He found them packed to the brim with everything from pants, tops, sweaters, shoes, boots, socks, and underwear, even a few winder jackets. A few other bags were filled with toys and various stuffed animals of every shape and size. John didn’t know what to say: the amount in the room nearly exceeded what they had originally owned.
John turned as he heard Mike joining him. Mike held the rocker where Sammy slept soundly on. Though John couldn’t find the words, some of what he was feeling must have shown on his face. Mike gently put the rocker down on the table. Giving them both a moment to compose themselves, Mike stared at the packages and said quietly, his voice rough with emotion. “People care, John. To some folks, Lawrence might not be considered a small town, but seeing you and the boys on the news... People recognize when someone, one of their own, is in need.”
Mike’s hand clamped onto John’s shoulder squeezing, then let go as he moved toward the kitchen calling out, “Beer?” Mike didn’t wait for a reply. A minute later, Mike returned with an open bottle of beer for John and a soda for Dean. Nodding his thanks, John put Dean down and took the beer. Dean pressed against his leg, and John left his other hand caressing Dean’s neck.
Mike plunged ahead through the awkward silence and pulled a bag toward him. Setting his beer to the side, he started to empty the bag, letting John see the contents. “I don’t know… I think people just guessed on the sizes. Most seem to be hand-me-downs, but some of ‘em…” Mike trailed off holding up a pair of jeans that still had the tags dangling from them.
The front door opened, and Kate walked in carrying a stack of clothes on hangers draped over one arm and a couple of small bags in the other hand. Upon seeing John, Kate smiled. “Oh, John, Dean, it’s good to see you both downstairs.” Setting the bags down on the counter, she hung the clothes on the hook that jutted out from the door that led to the garage.
“I saw Jake, and, well, I took the liberty...” she flushed and quickly turned away from the men as she started to unzip the bag she still carried. “I wasn’t sure exactly what sizes, so I got three in three different colors.”
John stared at the suits, and felt overwhelmed. “I talked to the shop owner, Phyllis Conner, she knew…” Glancing back, Kate’s eyes fell on Dean. She closed her mouth; obviously changing whatever she had originally intended to say. “She assured me that she could accommodate any size in any color here that you like, for either of you.” Kate separated a few hangers and pulled out another suit, then held it out for John to see a suit close to Dean’s size. “You’ll both need to try them on and let me know…”
Everything was moving too fast with hurricane Kate leading the way. John’s first thought was he wanted to tell her to go to hell- to just leave them alone. Yet Kate was handling everything, all the details, people, calls, their suits, everything he couldn’t deal with. Grimly, John nodded and stood up, “Come on, kiddo.” Taking one suit from Kate and gathering the others on their hangers, John grabbed the rocker's handle and headed toward the stairs. Dean trailed faithfully along behind him. Guilt and gratitude hit him at the door; and John paused to offer Kate a firm, “Thanks.”
Once they were back in the safety of their room, John laid the suits out over the bed. Wide-awake, Sammy shifted restlessly in the rocker, so John placed him in the crib. Sammy stood immediately at the railing, rocking, standing up on his toes, bending down on his knees and bouncing before he wobbled and fell. A few days ago John would have laughed, maybe been overly enthusiastic, and encouraged Sammy to try again. Now he could only offer a small smile before turning away at the thought that Mary would never see Sammy's first steps.
Looking at the bed and the suits lying there, John sighed, “Better see if they fit.” Pulling one to the side for himself, a dark charcoal gray, he then pulled out a smaller suit and draped it close enough for Dean to reach. John was about to prompt Dean to undress, when a knock interrupted them.
John walked to the door and opened it to find Kate there, offering him the other bags she had come in with earlier. “I also got you shirts and a few ties. Only thing I didn’t get was shoes. Once you decide on the colors for your suits, just let me know your shoe sizes, and I’ll go pick them up.”
Feeling besieged by Kate’s kindness, John nodded and took the bags, his hands shaking so that he wound up jerking them away. Whatever it was that she saw in his face, Kate's kind smile softened, and her hand reached out to clasp his forearm. She squeezed it and ran her fingers in a comforting caress before pulling away. As she turned away abruptly, Kate’s eyes glistened, and she left him standing in the doorway.
Closing the door, John made his way back inside, tossed the bags on the bed, and silently started to undress. Following his lead, Dean did the same.
Kate had done a good job. The first suit didn’t fit very well - too tight through the shoulders - but the second one did. Shirts were easier. Picking through the wrapped and folded selection, John found his size in both plain white and pinstripes. Still dressed, John turned his focus to Dean. Dean had better luck with the first suit fit though it was obvious Dean hated it and couldn’t stop fidgeting. It was a black suit, and very similar to the one John was wearing; Dean looked good, handsome - perfect. Staring at their reflections in the mirror, John could almost see Mary’s reaction, her smile as she took in their appearance… if only they had been going to a wedding. The image faded as John remembered the actual circumstances.
Catching Dean’s gaze in the mirror, John’s hand dropped onto Dean’s shoulder, and his smile twisted grimly as he stepped back and took off the jacket. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dean do the same.
Hours later, but still early in the day, Jake swung by the house to give him the news that the hospital would release Mary’s remains on that day or the next, at the latest. He needed to know what John wanted to do.
What John wanted - to return to his intact home with his living, breathing wife - wasn’t going to happen. The next best thing would to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible – there was no reason to forestall the inevitable - not when Mary’s uncle wasn’t going to come. John only had to consider Dean’s needs and he was sure Dean didn’t want to draw this out any more than he did.
With that in mind, John asked if they could John didn’t care about the rest of the details, so he let Jake decide. Jake promised to call later as soon as he knew more, shaking John’s hand on his way out.
They heard the downstairs phone ring again. John let it ring - it wasn't his phone anyway. Jake clasped John’s shoulder in a comforting gesture. At least, considering the attention they had received in the news, the short notice would mean that the funeral would attract a smaller crowd.
John nodded, watched Jake go down the stairs, then closed the door to muffle out the phone's insistent ring. John still hadn’t read or watched the news, but Kate’s phone continued to ring off the hook.
John stood midway down the stairs. He didn’t need to turn around to know Dean was watching him, anxiety and fear of being left along etched in that little face. Kate stood a couple steps below him, waiting. At his hesitation, she reassured him, “I’ll leave the door open.” John’s eyes met hers; and a small smile graced his lips in thanks, and he continued down the stairs to see Greg.
Reaching the bottom, John held out his hand. Greg returned the gesture and nodded, his face grim. “John, I'm real sorry, but I’m here officially. I have to ask you a few questions.”
John glanced at the other man, also in uniform, who stood behind Lt. Greg Faber. A creak sounded. John knew it was Dean, but he also knew Dean would stay where he was as long as he could see John. Greg didn’t say anything, but he seemed to understand as he motioned that they should move into the living room.
Before they sat down, Greg gestured to the other man, introducing him. “John, this is Lee Harper, my new partner.” Lee only inclined his chin in greeting.
John nodded back at Lee and took the same seat he had used when he had called Jake, so Dean would be able to see him easily from his perch at the top of the stairs. Greg pulled an ottoman over to sit across from John. John glanced behind Greg to his partner, but Greg held up a placating hand. “Don’t worry about him, he’s just here to observe.”
Greg paused and took a breath, turning his cap over in his hands. “Listen, John, I really wish I didn’t have to do this, but I need you to walk me through what happened.” Greg licked his lips, and prompted John. "That night." Suddenly feeling all the exhaustion that came with his grief, John had no choice but to push it away and deal with the present. He nodded and clasped his hands together tightly.
Greg gave him a friendly smile. “Just take a deep breath and exhale. Then you can start at the beginning, and tell me what you can remember.
John rested his elbows on his knees as he leaned over and cleared his throat. “I- uh, I, mean, I don’t know what happened. Everything was basically normal. I got in late, after dinner. Mary was putting Sammy down. I took Dean to put him down, and then I, uh, I told him a bedtime story. Downstairs Mary was writing in her journal. After Dean went down, I flipped on the TV in the living room and started watching a movie. Shortly afterwards Mary-” his breath caught as he said Mary’s name. A moment later John pushed through, “she went up to bed. I must have fallen asleep on the recliner. Next thing, I- I woke up when I heard her scream. I ran up the stairs, I …”
He couldn’t finish the sentence - not with the image of Mary there on the ceiling playing in his brain - he couldn’t tell them that. They wouldn’t believe it. Hell, he didn’t believe it, and he’d seen it; he knew it happened. Twisting his hands and looking down, John mentally back-pedaled to try and figure out something else to say instead.
“The fire was everywhere - the heat; I tried to reach her… I fell back against the crib, that’s when I remembered Sammy. I picked him up and ran outside into the hall. Dean was there, and I passed Sammy to him.” His voice choked, remembering the scene as he spoke, “Told him to take Sammy, to run… to not look back.” John smiled with pride even as the tears fell, chanced a glance up towards his son, but couldn't get a clear look at the boy's face. “He did. He just ran. I went back in, the fire.. I couldn’t, I tried, I tried…”
John’s fingers were interlaced, the palms pressed together, and the pressure increased until his arms shook.
Greg reached out and laid his hand on John’s shoulder, trying to offer him some kind of comfort. “All right, John, I think that’s good for now.”
John looked up, his eyes shifting over to Greg’s partner. The man just stared John down, glaring, no sign of empathy or compassion in his eyes. John held Lee's gaze, refusing to pull away – it was Greg that broke their connection when he stood and got between them.
“If I have any other questions, I’ll let you know. And, John… I’m really sorry.”
Only the routine of changing and feeding Sammy seemed to indicate its passage. Later in the day, Jake called to let John know that the hospital had released the remains. If it still was what John wanted, services could be arranged for Saturday morning.
John readily agreed, feeling a scant moment's worth of relief as he hung up. He wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible, to get past the funeral. In his heart, John knew he’d never let Mary go, not really. John had never let his mom or Frankie go, or, for that matter, Pop or the dozen fellow marines John had seen fall and had left behind in ‘Nam.
In retrospect, John was grateful that he'd always had someone to comfort him though the grief: Mary and Pop when he returned from ‘Nam and then Mary had been his rock through Pop’s death.
With Mary’s death, losing his other half, his boy’s mother John felt shattered.
Though he had friends, Jake, Mike and Kate, this time it was really only for his boys that John was able to hold it together. It was a sobering thought, but one he’d abide by. He had to be strong for his boys, to live in the now, and to live and push for their future. Mary would want that, demand that of John, and he couldn’t let her down any more than he had already - couldn’t let his boys down.
November 5, 1983
The weather on the morning of the funeral - gray and cold - reflected John’s mood. After John had showered and changed, he dressed Sammy before turning his attention to Dean.
Once he had Dean dressed, John only had to brush Dean’s hair. Sitting on the edge of the bed, with Sammy standing in the crib watching, John pulled Dean toward him and then gently turned him around to brush his hair. John tackled the knotted bed-head tangles from Dean’s longer blond locks. Once John had made several passes, until Dean’s hair was tangle-free - but he didn’t stop.
Finally John’s hand stilled. He had stalled all morning, trying to find the right words, but nothing had come to him, and he was out of time. Quietly he asked, “You know why we’re getting dressed, where we’re going?”
Dean only nodded. John turned him around. He had to make sure Dean understood - had to make sure that he wasn’t making a mistake by letting Dean and Sammy go to the funeral. Kate and Mike had already questioned him, concerned that Dean was too young. He was too young, Mary was too young, but John vividly remembered going to his mother’s funeral. Granted, he had been slightly older, but John couldn’t imagine if Pop would have denied him the chance to go, to say a final good-bye. “Mommy, she’s not coming back. Today we’re going to the cemetery to say good-bye.”
Wide-eyed, Dean stared at him blankly. John lifted his hand, threading his fingers through Dean’s hair then caressed down the side of Dean’s face, settling his hand firmly on his shoulder. “Remember Mr. Bumps, when we had to say good-bye?” Dean’s chin trembled as he nodded again, remembering the little ceremony they'd held in the back yard for the gerbil. “The fire…” John choked, as the memories of Mary's and his mother’s death collided, as he remembered Pop talking to him, the weight of Pop’s voice. John’s own voice was hoarse as he whispered the same words to Dean, “We have to be brave and say good-bye to Mommy; to be brave soldiers.”
Dean crushed his body to John, hiding his face, small hiccups escaping. Reflexively, John’s hand moved in soothing circles over his son's back.
They stayed huddled together until John heard Kate’s soft knock and slowly pulled away – it was time.
Thinking back, John can barely remember the ceremony, or who spoke, or at the end when a line of people who wanted to offer their condolences before they left formed. Mercifully, John is too numb and grief-stricken to register most of the words. Dean ignores them and stays leaning into John’s side while he continues staring at the casket.
Most people recognize the platitudes, and thanks John mumbles as they move on.
It's difficult enduring people’s condolences; John only wants to be alone with his boys and refuses to let anyone help – to take and hold Sammy, who continues to be fussy. It might be selfish, but John knows he's using his son as a shield, a barrier to detach himself from the people he and Mary grew up with. John knows probably ninety percent of the people there, either friends or had been friends and acquaintances with them in the past, but John doesn’t care. He uses handshakes to maintain a physical distance from everyone, especially those who felt an impulsive need to hug him. While he holds Sammy, Dean uses John. His small frame clutches John’s leg and he hides his face behind it whenever anyone bends down trying to get close in order to talk to him.
For most it's Sam’s cries that really get people to move on. To John, Sam's cries are a soothing echo of what he's feeling while to everyone else Sammy’s sharp cries cut through the wind to ward them away.
Sadly, a few obtuse people hold their ground. They stand there telling him stories about Mary, crying their sorrow, almost as if they're waiting for him to console them on their loss. Mercifully, Kate, Mike, or Jake are nearby to intervene, to grip the offending party's elbow and maneuver them away.
As the line disperses, Mike lets John know that he and Kate will wait by the car to leave him and the boys a moment alone.
John isn’t sure how long they stand there before John squats down, blocking the sun from his son's face. Dean’s eyes relax enough that John can see the strain the day has been on his son. John shifts to clamp a hand on Dean’s shoulder, his thumb rubbing back and forth as he tries to find something to say.
Trapped between them Sammy’s cries deafen John’s ear, and Sam squirms within John’s hold. Dean reaches out to pat Sammy’s face. Almost instantly Sammy’s cries quiet down into small hiccups, Dean’s small hand grasped within Sammy’s. John notices a movement in the corner of his eyes: Dean’s thumb dancing over Sammy’s hand – offering the same comfort John is offering Dean. His heart swells, and he nods silently. It isn’t what either of them wants, but they both recognize they have each other, and John has to hold on to that.
Eventually Sammy quiets and slips into sleep, exhausted from his crying. Dean nods at his father, and John rises. He pauses to glance one last time at the casket before he takes Dean’s hand and turns to leave.
Once they get back, John escapes upstairs with the boys. Noise drifts up from downstairs, even with the door closed, to the point where he can hear Mike and Kate talking to people who hadn’t realized there’d be no reception. The front door opens and closes as people come and go. At some point, Kate brings up a tray of food. John doesn’t have the heart to force Dean to eat; both feel languid and too despondent to do anything. Their emotions are so over-strung that eventually they collapse into a fitful sleep.
At some point during the night John wakes and can't go back to sleep. Leaving the door open, John quietly heads downstairs and makes his way over to the wet bar in the living room to pour a hefty drink.
Kate is either already up, or he woke her.
When she approaches, John’s eyes shift to see her silhouette reflected in the sliding glass door. He doesn't turn around; he just stands there staring out the window. A cold chill emanates through the window, the sparse moonlight sprinkled over the yard leaves an eeriness that suits John's dark mood.
In the reflection, he sees Kate start to reach out before pulling back. Inwardly he feels pleased. John doesn't want to hurt her, but right now he can't handle any offer of comfort or sympathy. He takes another sip of his drink.
John can't see her face - but her voice is hesitant, lost, when it breaks through his thoughts. "It doesn't seem like it now, but in time, John..." John flinches and straightens his stance. He doesn't want to be angry, but he is, and he doesn't want the banality that everything was going to be all right- not now, not ever... without Mary nothing will ever be all right; time will never heal this wound.
Even as he thinks it, even as angry as he is, John also knows that thought is a lie; this realization only fuels his anger.
Time does go on, whether he wants it to or not, and time... well, maybe it doesn't heal everything, but over time, things hurt less. At the moment, John doesn't want it to hurt less. He wants the pain, wants to wallow in it, to punish himself for not saving Mary. He takes another swallow of his drink, and the liquor burns its way down his throat. Struggling not to say something he shouldn’t, something he’d regret, John closes his eyes and simply growls, "Couldn't sleep."
Kate chokes out, "I know- I still...” her voice trailing off with the pain at the loss of her friend evident in every hitch and hesitation. It's painful to hear, to suddenly be aware of. Since that night he has cocooned himself with the boys, has ignored everyone else’s pain including Mike and Kate’s. Intellectually John knows they're in shock, grieving as much he is, but it has been easier to push them away - he can't deal with their pain too.
John hears a shuffle; he opens his eyes to see Mike standing behind Kate, an arm laid across her chest, gently pulling her back to him and offering comfort. The image pains John to see - memories start to flood his mind, and he has to close his eyes and shove the mental images down. Taking another sip, John opens his eyes and purposefully avoids looking behind him.
John feels rather than sees the shift when Mike decides to speak, his voice gravelly, "John..."
John doesn't let him say whatever he's going to say. Instead John lifts his drink, "Just going to finish this to help me sleep, then go back upstairs to the boys. I don't want Dean to wake..." He can't help remembering how Dean woke up the other day- terrified that John wasn't there. John's stomach sinks at the thought, and he barely resists the impulse to run back upstairs.
Once more, John senses rather than sees Mike's nod of acceptance, hears rather than watches as Mike steers Kate away.
John takes another mouthful. Mike calls out, "I'll leave the hall light on, just hit it when you come up."
John holds up his drink in reply. What he said about Dean is true, and he isn't going to stay down here long for that very reason. After a moment, he swirls the last swallow around the glass, staring at the liquor before gulping it down. The burn lingers, leaving him momentarily content. He isn't tired, not in body anyway, but it doesn't matter; Dean needs him. Turning, he places the glass back on the bar and heads for the stairs. Upon reaching the top, he turns the light off and stands at the threshold of their room. His eyes move to Dean's still form on the bed, sound asleep. John exhales the breath he has been holding in relief.
Hearing a gurgle from Sam, John moves toward the crib. When he reaches the crib, he has a sudden flashback to that night. It's like the memories are always right there, hovering on the edge, waiting for him to slip and let his guard down.
The images wash over him, grabbing hold. They are vivid and lucid within his minds-eye. For this moment, he's an outsider observing how everything unfolded, how John had fallen asleep watching a movie in the chair downstairs and was startled awake by Mary's scream, how he had raced up the stairs in the direction of Mary’s scream, how the drop of red had splattered on Sammy’s face, how he’d looked up to see Mary...
Clenching his eyes closed John tries to halt the memory, the image already ingrained in his mind. It stops momentarily only to re-loop to when John was once again racing back up the stairs until he stood beside Sammy’s crib as he was now.
There he had seen nothing; it had been quiet, peaceful, and serene. Just as it is now. When he'd walked over to the crib he'd found Sammy awake, smiling, and undisturbed. Just as he is now. John had smiled, figuring the scream had been part of a nightmare, probably something from the movie had triggered a memory, something from his tour in 'Nam. He'd had nightmares before. They'd never completely gone away, but they were less frequent these days.
Then that drop of red had splattered on Sammy’s face. His finger had moved toward it, his mind numb, confused as he'd turned looking up toward the source only to be horrified to see Mary there, spread out on the ceiling, cut open; the crimson blood spreading, soaking the white of her nightgown.
John jerks, looking down at Sammy, who's grinning and trying to get John’s attention. Sammy wraps his fist around John’s finger and pulls. John stares down at his son, wondering what he is missing- there is something there in that terrible memory, something important.
Dissatisfied with anything less than John’s full attention, Sammy cries out. At that cry, a realization hits John like a bullet to his gut. What had happened to Mary had happened in Sammy’s room. Whoever, whatever, had done this hadn’t been after Mary, he- it- whatever it was - had been after Sammy. Mary wouldn’t have gone to Sammy’s room in the middle of the night unless she had heard Sammy, unless she had needed to check on him. John pulls back, his hand slipping away from Sam. He grips the railing of the crib, his mind whirling as he puts pieces together, as he recalls Mary’s eyes imploring him, trying to tell him something vital. Sammy’s here. She protected Sammy, stopped… – something… at the cost of her life. Mentally he screams, stopped what?
He doesn't have an answer, doesn't know what, why, or how he/she/it could have put Mary on the ceiling. It's still a mystery. Nevertheless, he feels that one piece settle into place, believes against logic with all of his heart and knows without a doubt that Mary died protecting her son, her family.
John unclenches his grip and lets go of the crib’s rail to graze his finger over Sammy’s cheek in comfort. Pleased with the attention, Sammy squeals in delight as he reestablishes his hold on John’s finger.
The next morning starts early with an official visit by Greg and his partner. Once in the living room, Greg informs him that now that they have the initial forensic results back, and they have to go over John’s account of events again. John has been waiting for news, hoping they will have a lead on who and what started the fire.
His high expectation for answers must show on his face because Greg just grimaces and shakes his head. “We didn’t-”
John's legs give out from under him, and he sits down, looking back up at his friend in disbelief. “What? You didn't what?”
“There was no evidence of a break in, no evidence of arson, no faulty wiring, nothing to explain what happened, why or how the fire started.”
John opens his mouth then closes it.
“We need you to clarify a few things.” Greg says, steadily staring at John.
Slowly John nods.
Harper returns the nod and steps forward to take over the conversation. “Good. Now let’s start at the beginning.” He flips through his pad and stops before saying, “You mentioned you were downstairs watching TV?”
“I fell asleep.”
“What were you watching?”
“Excuse me?" Harper’s voice has cold a sharp edge, “Mr. Winchester, answer the question,” even when belatedly he adds, “please.”
John glances at Greg, who is now refusing to look at John. It's obvious that Harper is taking the lead from here. John huffs in anger then swipes a hand over his face, “I don’t know. It was some a war flick.”
“So was that the habit after you moved back in, you sleeping downstairs?”
Startled John glances at the man and whispers, “What?”
“Several sources mentioned that you and your wife were having problems, that you left your wife. Did you?”
The question just hangs there while John stares, floored by the sudden turn of questions. Heatedly, barely containing his temper, John angrily replies, “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
Greg answers first, “Just answer the question, John.”
John unclasps his hands and grips his knees, then flexes his arms; the tendons pop while he tries to contain his rage. Through clenched teeth, he answers, “All right, we had a few problems. Who doesn’t?”
Harper pushes, “What exactly were those problems?”
John glares, but Harper only waits. Finally John understands: Harper doesn't just dislike him; he thinks John started the fire and killed Mary. John blanches at the idea before dropping his head into his hands and muttering, “Money and time, like most couples.”
“Care to explain?”
Sighing, John shrugs and shakes his head. “When Mary told me she was pregnant with Sammy, business at the garage wasn’t good - especially after buying the house. I got nervous, thought that I’d lose the garage or the house, that I wouldn’t be able to provide for my family. Things were financially tight enough that I took Mike on as a partner and then started to spend more time at the garage to build up the business. I didn’t want Mary to worry. I got carried away and spent too much time at work. I didn’t delegate enough things to Mike… I wasn’t spending enough time with Dean or with Sammy after he was born.”
John concentrates on his breathing, inhales then exhales, emotionally collapsing as he remembers the fights. It's true he had spent too much time at work trying to rebuild the business, but that wasn’t what they had fought about – that wasn’t what had forced him to move out. No. Mary had been supportive of John building up the business. In fact it had been her idea to let Mike buy in as a partner. It was also true that she wanted him home more, for her and for the boys, but she had never given him any kind of an ultimatum.
Thinking back, as many of the arguments had been over Mary’s erratic behavior: strange fits of paranoia she'd refused to explain, of acting uncharacteristically skittish and overly protective of the boys. In the last month she'd refused to take them anywhere that wasn’t necessary. It had escalated one day when he came home early. He’d sent the sitter home and had taken the boys to the park without her knowledge. Mary had had a fit. After that, there had been salt lines in every room, at every entrance and every window, additional carvings and little satchels found throughout the house. Whenever he had asked or outright confronted her, she’d just told him not to worry, that it was nothing. It had been obvious that she’d been lying or, at least, lying by omission. When he’d pushed for the truth, though, she’d only pushed back with a stronger refusal. He hadn’t understood why she would lie to him. He still didn’t. Why she couldn’t trust him? Whatever it was, she had been adamant that it was better that he not know – had been adamant that he’d have to trust her. That was what had made him walk – the lack of trust.
It had hurt enough that he'd had to leave – especially when he had seen how it had been affecting Dean. Their fighting had reached a boiling point, and it had taken a toll. They had intentionally never fought in front of Dean, though he’d seemed have the knack of overhearing them, of walking in whenever it had started to get heated.
Suddenly aware of his long lapse into his own thoughts, John’s throat tightens as he chokes out, “She wanted me home more. For her, for Dean…”
Seemingly unmoved Harper inquires, “Where did you stay? Here?”
John slumps and shakes his head, “No, the garage.”
“How long before you moved back in?”
“I was only gone a few days. I just needed to clear my head… Dean had heard us fighting - it wasn’t good. I, er, we had never wanted do that, not in front of the boys. A couple of days later, I think I was at Carson’s Drugs when I saw all the Halloween costumes. When I’d left, Dean hadn’t decided on a costume yet. We had talked about Batman, but I wasn’t sure… so I bought a dozen, then swung by after dinner. Afterwards, I stayed.”
“Did you sleep downstairs?”
“None of your fu…” John stops abruptly when he sees Greg nod toward the stairs. Cursing under his breath, he belatedly remembers that Dean is watching and possibly hearing everything.
John shifts his gaze back to Greg’s partner to see Harper’s brow rise, his mouth quirking expectantly. “Actually, now it is my business.”
Frustrated, John is unable to dampen the threatening edge of his tone as he answers, “No, I slept upstairs, in bed, with my wife.”
He can see Harper is about to ask something else, but Greg intervenes. “I think that’s enough for now.” Harper is about to protest, but Greg’s eyes pointedly shift toward the stairs. All three of them look; Dean stands there, agitated. With one foot already on the second step, ready, about to spring down the stairs.
Reluctantly Harper nods, conceding the point. As he turns to leave, he asks John, “And you’ll be staying here?” The tone and implication are apparent; Harper thinks John is lying. The implicit order to not leave town is abundantly clear. John stands; they're toe to toe as John glares his own distrust and growing hatred back toward Harper.
Harper is the first to flinch and step back, a smirk in place as he states, “I’m glad we understand each other.” He turns around and heads out. Greg lingers, like he wants to say something, like he wants to say that he's sorry about this, about everything. John doesn’t want to hear it, so he walks to the door and holds it open. With a sigh of regret, Greg nods, quietly turns and leaves. John doesn’t deliberately slam the door, but, still, it vibrates as it bangs closed.
A moment later, Sammy starts crying. John moves up the stairs, but Dean is faster and propels himself into John’s waiting arms half-way down. Dean reassumes his new favorite position, wrapping his legs around John’s waist and clutching tight as John makes it the rest of the way up the stairs.
Throughout the day, Harper's voice taunts John. The silent accusation that he'd had something to do with Mary's death hovers over him, practically tangible in its weight. John knows the truth, but the accusation fuels his need to self-recriminate, adds to the guilt that he didn't stop it, didn't push Mary harder for answers, wasn't aware until it was too late.
The what-he-did/didn't-do ate at John's soul as much as, if not more than, the image of Mary pinned on the ceiling. He has, since the fire, constantly berated himself that he didn't save Mary. Now he has to be honest with himself; he had known before the fire that something was wrong, that Mary had been keeping something from him. He had known that, had known there was something going on when he walked out - it had been why he walked out. She had only been trying to protect him and the boys, but why had she felt that she had to do it all by herself, that she had to protect him by not telling him the truth? He doesn't know - can't even guess at her reasons. What he does know is that she had known something was going to happen. In his gut, John knows that Mary had tried to stop it, had tried to prevent whatever it was that took her from them.
In the end, it all comes back to the single impossible question: how the hell did she end up on the ceiling? Who cut her open and left her bleeding out like some kind of inverted sacrifice?
John doesn't have an answer and neither do the police nor forensics, apparently, and that's because the whole damn thing doesn't make a lick of sense. What he saw that night was unnatural, unworldly, illogical, simply impossible… the word turns around in John's mind until a quote from Sherlock Holmes surfaces, Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. He saw it with his own eyes; it's not impossible, then, just wildly improbable, and he has to prepare himself for the, likely even more improbable, explanation.
It's a truth he has to face, to figure out. Ignoring it - pretending he didn't see what he saw - hiding out here at Mike and Kate's place isn't going to give him any answers. John needs those answers. If he's going to have any hope of protecting the boys from whatever took their mother, he needs to know what it is that he's fighting. Glancing at clock, he decides there's enough time to get downtown and leave before school lets out. John turns to look at Dean, "Hey kiddo, want to go for a ride?"
Dean looks up, then his eyes drift toward Sammy in an unspoken question. "We're going to take him with us. As long as he's quiet, we can stay a little while." Confused, Dean just stares, so John pats him on the head and takes the lead. "Come on, let's get Sammy ready."
It doesn't take them long to get dressed, loaded into the car, and on their way.
John notes that the parking lot of the library is empty as he pulls in. This isn't exactly a surprise in the middle of the day, but they only have a couple of hours before school lets out and then the library will be brimming with people. After getting out of the car, John settles Sammy into the stroller he had stashed in the trunk from last time they had gone to the park.
Inside, John strolls over to the help desk. The woman turns and smiles when she sees the stroller with Sammy nestled inside, and her face practically lights up at the sight of Dean attentively watching Sammy. John can tell she recognizes Dean but can't place him. Then she glances up to see John, and her smile falters. She clearly recognizes him, and her eyes go glassy as she silently offers her sympathies, biting her lips.
John cringes at the gesture, wanting to leave, wanting to avoid the sudden realization that every time he leaves the house he is going to face this scrutiny, these looks of condolence… of pity, that, from now on, it's going to be something he sees on everyone's faces. This is something he is going to have to deal with for a long time. It will be fresh for at the least for the next several weeks, and then the upcoming holidays… He can't even bear to think about those now.
Holding his ground, John nods his thanks then clears his throat. "I'm looking for…" Nervously John trails off, searching for the right word, for something reasonable to describe what he's searching for. What he wants is answers, but where to start searching - what category? Lacking a better description he nervously blurts out, "spiritual books."
It turns out to be the exact right thing to say. The corners of her mouth lift slightly, and she offers them a somber smile before directing John to the appropriate section while grabbing a few picture books for Dean. John scans the titles while Dean squats down to kneel on the floor and entertain Sammy.
John only has an hour to spend combing through the books before they have to check out and leave because Sammy starts to get fussy despite Dean's efforts to entertain him. The librarian helps him establish a new library card, but John catches the moment when her face falls after she connects the theme of his chosen titles – each book deals with the paranormal. Her goodbyes to the boys sound more strained than her greeting.
They make it back outside to the Impala. John carries the stack of books, letting Dean help guide the stroller. Before heading back to Kate and Mike's place, John decides to stop at McDonald's. He briefly considers going inside, but after a glance in his rearview mirror shows Dean's body slumped against Sam's car seat, he decides on the drive-thru. Usually whenever Dean spots the golden arches he's eager, bouncing around in his seat, wanting to stop and get a Happy Meal, but since Mary's death Dean is constantly lethargic and entirely too quiet. There's no doubt in John's mind that Dean knows where they are; he just doesn't care. John goes ahead and orders what Dean usually likes, a cheeseburger, fries, and an orange soda.
Back at the house, John gets Sammy out of his car seat. With one hand he holds Sammy and the diaper bag over his shoulder and passes his lunch to Dean who already has grabbed his own lunch and soda. Once they're inside, John spots a note from Kate stating that she'll be back before dinner, but if they get hungry to go ahead and help themselves. With the house empty, John decides to stay downstairs. John drops the diaper bag on the table in the family room. Spotting a highchair, he pulls it closer to the table and sets Sammy in. Pulling a chair out for Dean, he calls over his shoulder that he'll be right back, he's just going to grab the books.
When John returns a minute later, he finds Dean smiling at Sammy, his Happy Meal already open, the cheeseburger unwrapped and half the patty gone. Several pieces ripped from the patty lie scattered on the paper. Sammy is busy chewing, his arms stretched out toward Dean, fists curling and opening excitedly in a 'give me' gesture, waiting for the next piece. Dean grins, completely focused on Sammy, and he picks up another small piece of meat to feed his brother.
John can't deny he's missed seeing Dean's smile. It warms his heart, but, glancing over at Dean's half-finished burger, John sighs. He doesn't want to reprimand Dean, but it's easy to see his son has been following his example too closely. Gingerly, he makes his presence known and pulls a chair out to sit down. Dean's smile disappears when he catches John's knowing look, and he drops his head, hair hanging down over his eyes. John pulls out his Big Mac and fries and flattens the bag before unwrapping his burger and spilling the fries out beside it. He takes one all-beef patty from the Big Mac and slips it into Dean's discarded bun. "You finish that half before Sammy finishes it for you. He's not the only growing Winchester around here, is he?"
Dean looks back up, his lips pressed together, and shakes his head, no. "Didn't think so. If Sammy wants more you can feed him the rest - after you finish—." John grins and takes a large bite, chewing greedily, purposely making mmm sounds like he's starved and the Big Mac is the most delicious thing he's ever eaten. What John really feels is disgusted, but he chews each bite with gusto. He purposefully ignores how his stomach rebels with each swallow and forces each mouthful down. John continues the act, smiling as he snags a few fries gestures at Dean's food to encourage his eldest to eat.
Tentatively Dean picks up his own cheeseburger and takes a small bite. John's barely a third of the way through with his burger when he stops, knowing if he doesn't he'll be showing Dean what not to do with his food - techniques of upchucking, for example. He glances over to what is left of Dean's burger, and is thankful to see it's gone and his son is chewing the last bite. Though Dean finishes it's obvious that he's more concerned with helping Sammy eat the other half of a patty. Then it occurs to him, Sammy is the only one with an appetite. Pleased with his solution, John almost chuckles at the thought as he tears up small bites - it's a good thing Sammy's a growing boy.
Sammy squeals in delight as John joins Dean in putting small bits of burger in front of Sammy. John catches Dean's eye, and they both share a grin over Sammy's antics and delight at eating grown-up food.
For the moment things are light and comfortable, and John feels good enough to break the quiet. "How's about we stay down here and watch some TV?" Dean nods. It pains John to see his son so uncharacteristically silent. Dean's always been overly exuberant and, from the moment he started talking, has been an inquisitive motor mouth, asking question after question about everything. John tries to remember the last time he heard Dean actually talk that wasn't staggered with hiccups or mumbled between tears while John held Dean's small frame against him... Determined to hang on to this tranquility, John stands and starts to clean up their mess - first on the table, then on Sammy. Grabbing the diaper bag, John moves toward the couch and spreads a blanket down before laying Sammy down to change him. Once Sammy's clean, changed and settled in his rocker seat with Dean beside him, John clicks on the TV and grabs a couple of books to browse through.
When Kate comes through the door, John startles awake. At some point he must have fallen asleep. Before he can even cast a guilty glance down, John realizes Dean is curled up beside him, asleep. He indicates to an embarrassed-looking Kate that Dean's sleeping before he leans forward and puts the book on the coffee table in front of him. Then he carefully picks Dean up and stands. He motions to Kate that he'll be back after he puts Dean down to bed.
Going upstairs with Dean's sleeping body plastered against his chest reminds John of the numerous times he's carried Dean up to bed to tuck him in. Though the weight of Dean's body is the same, and the trust and the safety Dean feels within his arms, Dean unconsciously clutches tighter in sleep, and John can feel his son's pain and is struck again by their loss. John's guilt gives voice to the painful words of disappointment Dean will never utter about how his daddy didn't save Mommy.
John didn't. He can't deny that simple truth. That acknowledgement leaves an ache, an emptiness, far greater than Dean's weight on John's very soul.
Once he has Dean in bed, John makes his way back downstairs to collect Sammy. He hears Kate bustling around in the kitchen while he picks up the books he's left on the couch, slings the diaper bag over his shoulder and gingerly picks up Sammy using the rocker before he makes his way back upstairs.
With the boys settled, John goes to retrieve the pile of books he'd left behind. Making his way toward the family room, he can see Kate standing over the pile, shifting the books in the stack in order to read the titles. As he nears, she looks up, and the worried expression on her face is palpable. It's obvious she's about to voice that concern. John doesn't let her and simply tells her, "Don't," before snatching the books away and returning to his room.
John continues to read for the rest of the afternoon and into the night, only breaking to feed both boys and change Sammy until they fell asleep again later that night. John following into small fits of sleep throughout the night.
First thing in the morning, John's up to feed and dress the boys, so he can pack them into the car to make a supply run at the drug store. There he buys a stack of yellow legal pads, pens, pencils, and a leather journal.
The rest of the week falls into a routine. Shortly after breakfast, they head off to the library for research. It starts at their local library, and, by mid-week, he's read and returned dozens of books, and he has another dozen books on a waiting list to check out when they become available. He starts researching fires in and out of Lawrence, going through the newspapers in the stacks and those dating back even further that are on microfiche. He's searching for a pattern, for an M.O. By the end of the second week, John's quest for more information expands into the college library.
Scratching notes, taking down addresses and eventually finding those who had a fire - he asks the questions that no is asking him, asking if they felt or saw anything strange… It's difficult to not ask outright, but he doesn't. It helps when he continues to take Sam and Dean with him. It makes it easier for John to only hint at the possibility of something supernatural.
Each day he returns later in the afternoon, and he faces Kate who doesn't bother to hide her concern or her anxiety.
John ignores her. He doesn't want to get into a fight, and John knows that if he were to tell Kate the truth of what he saw – if he were to tell Mike, they wouldn't believe him anyway. The more he actively avoids Kate and Mike, the more the tension in the house grows - increasing each day - until it reaches palpable levels.
At the end of that first week, John has an appointment to see a psychic. Whatever it was that he saw the night of the fire, it was far outside the norm. Somewhere, he got the idea that maybe a psychic might know what it was or might at least be able to direct him to someone or someplace where he will be able to get answers.
The first appointment is a bust; it's obvious this guy is a fake, on the make like so many other frauds. Though discouraging, this doesn't stop John from calling another psychic to make another appointment. In the end, he goes down the list of those who advertise in the yellow pages and in the classified section of the newspaper.
A couple of days before Thanksgiving, John makes an appointment with Missouri Mosely. It doesn't appear particularly promising if he goes strictly by her ad, a small blurb stating, 'You can find the answers at Missouri's.' He grimaces at the lousy pun, but his list of psychics in Lawrence is getting shorter. He'll keep the appointment, hanging on to the lesson he learned the hard way in 'Nam about how appearances can be deceiving.
Tuesday, the day of his appointment, John keeps up their new routine, packing up the boys and heading out to the library. Afterwards John stops at McDonald's to purchase lunch before he meets with the psychic. He pulls into the parking lot of the park, where they have been eating every day, weather permitting. Together, they move in synch, Dean balances the bags of their lunch while John holds Sammy on his hip and retrieves the stroller. They walk out together to a picnic table near the set of swings.
Thankfully John doesn't have to do anything in order to get Dean to eat anymore as his son's appetite is slowly improving each day. It still isn't like it had been, before, when, if given the chance, Dean could put away an entire Big Mac by himself. Of course, Mary had not been too keen on giving the boy the chance. Now Dean barely finishes his cheeseburger and only picks at the fries.
Looking around, John has to admit it's nice and quiet, a good day to stop and eat. John tips his head up and closes his eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun washing over his face. It's unusually warm for this time of year, the tail end of a long stretch of Indian summer. It's not hot enough to take their jackets off, but it is warm enough that they don't need their heavy winter coats. Opening his eyes, John turns to Dean and watches him watching over Sammy, watches how Dean's eyes follow and stay attuned to Sammy's every need and move - just as John is acutely aware of both his sons, and everything around them.
At the abrupt noise of a few kids racing toward the swings, John swallows and tries to recall the last time Dean had acted so carefree. He only knows it was before the fire and before he and Mary started fighting. He remembers when he routinely took Dean to the park it was sometime back in late June after Sammy was born. John made time to take Dean to watch all the games his best friend Scott and his team the Hawks played. At the time of sign-ups for T-ball, Dean was too young since the rules stated that any player had to be five by the time the season started. Scott turned five in the middle of June, squeaking in just before the deadline.
Dean seemed to be okay just watching, though. It probably helped that by then Dean had his own glove. John practiced throwing and catching with Dean in the backyard, and they went to the park as often as John could manage. Often on weekend mornings, before it got too hot, Mary would lay out a blanket and sit outside with Sammy to watch them practice. By the end of the summer, Dean was good, a natural, better than half the kids older than him, including his best friend Scott.
Thinking of Scott, John wonders if Dean misses him. Scott wasn't at the funeral, but John recalls that his parents were. They tried to talk to Dean, but Dean wasn't having it, hadn't been willing to talk to anyone and had hid behind John until they left.
Breaking the silence, John casually asks Dean if he misses Scott. Dean only shrugs in response. Watching the other kids chasing each other, John adds that if Dean wants to see Scott, they can call. Dean doesn't look up. He simply shakes his head no.
John can't help himself and he pushes on, mentions that if Dean wants to go play, go down the slide, or the swings he'll be happy to push him. Dean declines, and John helplessly watches his son draw further in, giving every scrap of attention to Sammy. Dean always adored Sammy, but now he's sure Dean's single focus on Sammy stems more from the same fear that motivates John – the fear that he could abruptly lose Sammy the same way he lost Mary.
Facing the sun, John blinks against the day's brightness while images from before the fire of Dean laughing and playing flash through his mind. He has to wonder if he'll ever see Dean so carefree again. The thought is sobering and weighs heavily on John.
Finishing lunch, they quietly clean up and make their way back to the car – the laughter of the kids who are running around playing taunting John the whole time. Even as he starts the car and pulls away, their laughter rings in John's head only to be replaced by the sound of Dean's laughter - a sound John fondly remembers, but hasn't heard in some time. John's eyes shift, and he glances up to the rearview mirror to see Dean gazing out the window.
John recoils as the memory of his son's laughter fades to be replaced by a loud, booming voice. It's his own voice, angry, flames crackling behind the accusations as John's conscience silently damns him for allowing all of this happen. His hands clutch around the steering wheel as he tries to regain his focus. Hoping to drown out the internal monologue of damnation, John pushes a cassette into the tape deck, letting the sounds of the Allman Brothers filter through the speakers and drown out his thoughts. Rolling the window down, he ups the volume as he pulls out.
By the time John pulls into Missouri's driveway, he's wound tight, discouraged and wondering if he's just wasting his time and money. Still, he opens the backdoor to un-strap Sammy and place him in the rocker. Dean scoots out as John shoulders the diaper bag, hoping he won't have to change Sammy until after they leave. He's about to ring the bell when the door swings open. A young woman in jeans and a tee-shirt is standing there, impatient with one hand holding the door open, the other holding the door jamb as her eyes look him up and down before settling on his face. Clearly unimpressed with what she sees, she snaps. "You're late."
It's abrupt, and John is suddenly feeling unsure, but he's come this far. He returns her brash appraisal. She's not what he imagined - younger than he thought, and… normal for a lack of a better description. The other psychics had dressed the part with scarves and turbans, like they were auditioning for a bad B movie. He tilts his head and offers a placating smile. She stares at him for a second longer, then her lips twitch into a smile and her eyes soften, lighting up her entire face. She leans toward him, and her smile widens warmly as she clasps both of her hands around the one he's offered. She knows his name, Dean's, Sammy's. It's not exactly strange since he does have an appointment, and his face, name, and recent history have been in the paper and on the news numerous times since the fire.
No, it's more the genuineness of how she greeted him and the kindness and warm affection that follow her actions. The typical sorrow and empathy was also there, but there was more than that, something he couldn't put his finger on or explain - a respect, an understanding. When she turns to Dean, she doesn't offer what too many adults do. She doesn't contort her face into an exaggerated pout to offer her sympathy. Instead, her smile is affectionate as she acknowledges Dean before waving them both inside.
Once inside the living room, she turns her attention to Dean rather than John. She asks Dean if he had enough to eat at lunch? She doesn't wait for an answer but goes on and offers her unsolicited opinion about what she thought about eating any meal from a fast-food restaurant. Then she lowers her voice, conspiratorially confessing that she enjoys McDonald's french fries. Nevertheless, she remains adamant that their food isn't substantial or very appetizing. Almost absently she asks Dean if he has room for anything else.
Dean blinks, surprised she knows what they had for lunch. He doesn't answer verbally, only offers a reluctant nod. John can see, though, that Missouri is winning him over. Dean's lips are pulling up at the corners, tilting from an awed expression into a small and less hesitant smile than the one he offered her at the door.
Missouri returns the gesture then fusses over Sammy who gurgles as she looks down at him and declares, "My, aren't you big! Dean, right?"
Dean is suddenly fidgeting in amusement; it's unmistakable when Dean's lips twitch again over Missouri's mistake, stretching out into a full smile.
John catches her eye as she winks, before she leans over Sammy to let him grab her finger. "Strong too, judging by the grip he has on my finger. Real strong." Addressing Sammy she asks, "You gonna be big and strong as your brother, as Sammy?"
Throwing his head back, Dean bursts out laughing. John's startled by the sound - actual laughter. Dean shakes his head no before telling her, "No, that's Sammy. I'm Dean."
She plays up to Dean, looking back and forth between the brothers. "Oh, well, you're pretty big too." A bell goes off, interrupting their newly established repartee, and she turns toward the sound before turning back and looking directly at Dean. "You've got good timing too. Maybe you can help me? I did a few batches of cookies. You like cookies?" She doesn't wait for Dean's response before adding, "It's my mama's recipe, hot from the oven. Think you have room for a few cookies?"
Hair flopping, Dean's head bobs enthusiastically before he suddenly remembers John's there. Dean turns toward him, silently asking permission. Dazed at seeing Dean so - well, so Dean - John can only laugh as he nods his assent.
Missouri hardly waits before heading into the kitchen. "Well, come on. then. We can't let 'em burn." Dean dashes after her, scooting closer to her side as they walk toward the kitchen. She holds the door open for Dean and hollers out, "Come on, John, you can watch."
John stands frozen by the front door, not acknowledging that his eyes are watering. He's overcome by Dean's response to this lady and the realization of how much he's missed his son. John inhales, exhales and tries to regain his composure. Just as he starts to feel steadier, Dean runs back, grabbing John's free hand and pulling. "Come on, Daddy. She made lots and lots of cookies. Especia- I mean, she made sugar cookies, and she said we could decorate. Come on…" Dean pleads as he tugs again, excited to get John to move. A second later, John obeys and follows Dean into the kitchen.
It's only as Dean drags him into the kitchen that he notices the heavy scent of baked cookies. Dean didn't exaggerate when he said Missouri had made a lot. There are something like a few dozen cookies scattered around the kitchen. John was too preoccupied to notice the smell when he arrived, too preoccupied with wondering if this was yet another dead-end. Opening the door, the smell hits like a heavy wave, the delicious mouth-watering aroma of fresh baked cookies smacking him in the face. Dean lets go and rushes over to Missouri. John can't do anything but stand there, holding Sammy as he takes in the sight before him.
The kitchen is spacious, light and comfortable. On one counter, there are three plates piled high with cookies, each plate holding a different variety of cookie. Moving closer, he can see that one is chocolate chip, another peanut butter but the third isn't something he can tell by just looking. From behind him, Missouri tells him, "Coconut, my mama's favorite. You'll have to give it a try." John turns and notices she isn't even looking in his direction. He's facing her back; she's busy on the other side of the kitchen removing a sheet of cookies from the oven and placing them onto a rack to cool.
"Now, I need you out of my way. Winchester men are too large." John hears Dean's giggle. "You, grab a cookie and go, sit down. Dean, you stand on this stool and get ready - I'll need your help to scoop out the last batch and set the timer. Then we'll focus on those sugar cookies."
Dumbfounded, John does as he's ordered, randomly grabbing a cookie and quickly finding a place to sit down. He pauses when he sees the highchair and starts to twist around but stops as he hears the words, "You can set the rocker to the side." Without skipping a beat she continues, "Dean, honey, once your daddy puts Sammy in his seat, mind taking the rocker and putting it in the living room?"
Suddenly, Dean's waiting there by John's side. Feeling disjointed, confused, and maybe a little lost, John sits the rocker down on the floor and unstraps Sammy. Just as he has Sammy free, Dean snatches the rocker to do as Missouri asked. Dean returns with only a quick glance his way before his standing on the stool waiting for Missouri's next order while John finishes setting Sammy in the highchair.
In need of reward - not reassurance, no, never reassurance - when John finishes and sits back down, he grabs the cookie and takes a small bite; followed by a succession of larger bites while he leans back in the chair, content to watch Missouri help Dean scoop out drops of cookie dough onto a cookie sheet. As he finishes the cookie and is about to brush the crumbs to the floor, Missouri calls out, "Don't you dare mess my clean floor. You just sweep those crumbs into a napkin. Today we're going to exercise manners, understood?"
John's eyes widen and Missouri's lucky he doesn't cough out a bunch of crumbs onto her floor. He stares at Missouri's back: she never turned around. Yes, the linoleum is shiny, but there's no reflection to see his actions. Swallowing, his throat suddenly dry, John politely responds with a quiet, "Yes, ma'am."
She lets out a soft snort, and he hears her muttering to Dean, "Your daddy is a good man, but sometimes… Now, Dean, you stay right there. Don't move." She grabs a potholder and partially pulls a rack out of the oven. She twists around to grab the two trays sitting on the counter and places them inside the hot oven before pushing the rack back in and closing the door.
"John, in the pantry behind you, on the bottom shelf, there's a package of paper towels. If you'll get one roll? Okay, timer's set." Taking the empty bowl and spoon, she heads over to the sink, turns on the tap and fills the bowl with sudsy water. "You, young man, need to wash your hands. Come on over here and bring the stool with you so you can reach."
Missouri is soft-spoken, save for when she's addressing John, calm, efficient and orderly. She seems older than her years, and John has a suspicion that she'd give his old drill sergeant a run for his money. At the same time, John can't deny Missouri appears to be intuitive, sensitive and overly aware of each of their needs. While Dean dries his hands, she tells him to go take a seat after he's done, then opens the refrigerator to get milk. She pulls a few glasses down and sets them on a tray. She pours two full glasses, the third only half way, before returning the milk to the fridge. John is about to ask, to send Dean out to grab the diaper bag, when she pulls a bottle for Sammy from a shelf in the door, kicks the refrigerator shut and lays the tray out on the table with a flourish..
The rest of the afternoon is more about Dean decorating the sugar cookies and making a mess of Missouri's kitchen than anything paranormal. They don't talk directly about the fire, or Mary - even though it's the main reason why John's there in the first place. Instead, the visit feels like Missouri is a family friend they have known for years. She's very motherly, and what with all the baby supplies, John finds himself wondering why her house wasn't already filled with kids before the Winchesters arrived. He silently answers himself that she's too bossy. He isn't even exactly serious but as soon as the thought crosses his mind, Missouri turns and sends him a heated glare. Blushing, he retracts the thought - if she isn't a real psychic she feels like she can read his mind - and focuses his attention on Dean, concentrates on helping him decorate cookies.
Despite his best efforts, John's mind starts wandering again soon enough. Watching Missouri go back and forth between coddling Dean and Sammy, it's hard not to think about Mary, not to think of all the times he came home to the mess after, or watched while, Dean helped Mary in the kitchen. Usually they baked brownies, cupcakes or cookies. Mary never used a boxed mix; she wanted to make everything by scratch, to be more traditional.
It was where Mary deviated from her mother. When Deanna grew up, women were expected to follow in traditional roles. Outside of marriage and having a child, Mary would beam with pride over how her mother broke with tradition - was a part of the work force by being involved in the family business. Although Mary respected her mother's choices, she wanted and longed for tradition, to have a family. He remembers from the few meals he shared with the Campbell's that Deanna had been a good cook. Admittedly, however, she had gone for convenience over any other criteria in her cooking, and the few baked goods Deanna didn't buy from the store had been in a box only three easy steps before.
It wasn't until after they were married that John discovered Deanna never taught Mary to cook, and though Mary wanted to have a traditional home, up until then she had never applied herself to learn. Mary had wanted things to be different for Dean and Sammy, had wanted to be the more at home wife and mother. As often as Mary cooked, to say Mary's culinary skills were lacking was an understatement, and her baking - even less.
Although John would have to admit that over time Mary's skills improved enough to where he could actually make out what the initial dish was. They had even compromised and created a rule, if he couldn't recognize what it was; he didn't have to taste it. What John couldn't identify outweighed the foods that were deceptively familiar, but those he was required to eat regardless of odor, charred bits, or missing ingredients.
He remembers the first time Dean had officially helped Mary in the kitchen. He had come home early to find the front door wide and the windows open. With a little bit of fear in his heart, he had followed the burnt smell back to the kitchen. John's eyes had roamed over the disaster he found there - dishes littered everywhere, flour seemed to be generously dusted over the floor and every appliance, including, somehow, the top of the refrigerator. Not to mention the fact that it was comically caked over his son's head. Dean's normally dark blue overalls were painted with flour-white clouds and food splatter. He stood by the back door, small hand gripping the knob while the other clutched the doorjamb, and awkwardly waved the door back and forth, open and closed, in what had been an ineffective attempt to fan out the room.
Meanwhile, Mary was at the oven, her back toward John, oblivious to his presence. From there, John's eyes had followed the billow of smoke to the sink, where he'd seen what was left of two cakes. One pan had water running over its charred top, but the other was still smoking. John stepped forward to douse the source of the continued smoke, and that's when Mary had finally noticed his presence and turned towards him even before he yelped after brushing the smoldering wreckage under the tap. He was bringing his burned fingertips up to stick in his mouth in a reflexive gesture when he turned to face Mary. Her face was streaked with tears that made little channels in the flour that covered her face and was liberally dusted throughout her hair.
John hadn't meant to laugh, but then his mouth twitched and sound bubbled to the surface until the laughter burst out of him like a gusher.
In retaliation Mary hit him on the arm, hard, and he'd deserved it, but after that, she stopped crying. Her mouth spread out into a grin as she hit him again, softer and playful this time, and cursed under her breath that it wasn't funny. By then Dean had run over to them. Amused, John bent down to scoop Dean into his arms and, in the process, plastered flour over his own front.
Mary's mouth had gaped open like she was seeing Dean for the first time - dusted in white and pudding, or maybe that was egg yolk - and she couldn't sustain her faux-stern composure any longer as she joined John and broke down laughing.
John pulls away from the memory and lets it fade to the sound of Dean's laughter filling the room here in the present. John's heart does a double take even as the tension in his shoulders eases. John realizes now how much he's feared that he'd never hear that sound again. He catches Missouri staring at him, her lips lifting into a knowing smile and her eyes softening with that same understanding that had been there when she'd greeted them at the door.
John's about to say something, but Sammy's excited squeal diverts his attention. Warmth, laughter and giggles fill the room, and, for a brief moment, the memories hurt a little less.
Taking control of the situation, as easily and assertively as she had started, Missouri declares they're done. The table is littered with sprinkles, leaking tubes of gel frosting in various colors, a small tub of vanilla frosting sitting tilted, empty, and threatening to topple off the table, but all of Dean's artistic endeavors are either in a pile on a plate or drying on the rack. She tells Dean to go clean up and wash his hands and then orders John to do the same with Sammy as she passes John a warm wash cloth. Once he has Sammy clean, John pulls him free from the highchair and takes him into the living room to change him. All the while, Missouri keeps busy cleaning and clearing the table. By the time John's done and coming back to the kitchen, soiled diaper in hand to toss casually in the trash basket, Missouri has the chaos of the kitchen whipped back into order. Replacing a wriggling, burbling Sammy in the highchair, John can't help but return to his early thought that she'd wipe the floor with his old drill sergeant.
Missouri responds with a huff as if he had said it out loud, then she follows the huff with an eye roll as she dismisses the thought and holds out a chair for Dean, who isn't in the room right now. Just as John completes the thought, Dean bounds into the room. John blinks and tries to shake away the sudden creepiness of the whole situation.
Missouri's eyes narrow and she snaps at John. "Don't!"
Stopping mid-skip, Dean's smile falls as he glances between them like they're ticking bombs. Sitting down and the table Dean keeps his eyes on his lap while he asks if she's angry with his daddy. Missouri's eyes go wide, and she wastes no time in pulling another chair over, and sitting down next to Dean. Her voice starts gentle as she tells him, "No." She leans into Dean, and her tone turns playful while she whispers loudly enough that John has to bite his lips to keep from smirking as he listens. The teasing softness in her eyes remains to the end, belying the sternness of her closing remarks. "Your daddy just needs a little sass to keep him in line." She pauses to shoot a glance in John's direction, after which her tone matches her eyes. "And sometimes it helps him from getting too sad."
Dean's head dips in agreement as if he understands, his previous distress wiped away.
Firmly she declares, "You're so much like your daddy, aren't you? Full of sass and spitfire?"
Again his son nods as he takes in Missouri's words, and Dean's face is beaming with pride.
Missouri stands up with an overly dramatic sigh and eye-roll. She walks over to the counter and pulls open a drawer to grab some supplies, as she mutters loudly, "Lord, help me survive Winchester men."
Dean giggles at that. "You mind your manners, Dean. The good Lord is going to be getting more than one prayer with your name on it." She puts down a pad of construction paper and a box of crayons in front of Dean. "Now, you think you can entertain your brother for a little while, while I talk to your daddy privately? We'll only be a short bit, right in the living room?"
To John's surprise, Dean doesn't protest, absently signaling his consent. He's already preoccupied with opening the box of crayons and spilling them out, with trying to show Sammy how to hold the pink one.
Missouri's hand presses hard on John's back, both guiding and encouraging him into the living room and over to the couch.
John feels itchy and jerky when he sits down, abruptly remembering why he came here in the first place. Remembers that Missouri isn't an old family friend he's known forever – though it feels like it - she's someone who might have information about why Mary died. Sitting beside him, Missouri reaches out and rubs her hand over John's back in soothing circles, and John is happy to accept the comfort of it.
They sit there for what feels like a long time, the silence stretching between them comfortable rather than strained. Missouri just sits there patiently, waiting for him to calm down. All the while, the memories roll through his mind, before and after the fire: from their fights before he left, to when he returned, to the drops of blood when he stood at Sammy's crib, to seeing Mary on the ceiling with flames engulfing her body. His body trembles at the recollection of each flash point.
John isn't totally sure if Missouri can actually see the images rolling through his mind, or just empathically feel his pain; either way she doesn't move an inch, even when he feels her body shudder next to his. As he sits there, he realizes the truth: he trusts her, and has since maybe a few minutes after they walked in the door. John can feel it in his gut: she's a true psychic, gifted, and possibly more importantly, she's a true friend.
As if he's said it all out loud, Missouri clasps his and gives it a reassuring squeeze when she tells him, "John what you saw… there is no right to that." She pauses, looking him straight in the eyes. " I… I'll need to go to the house. There I can see, try to pick up its essence."
John blinks, unsure he's heard her correctly, and then he's just staring, dumbfounded. "No, John, you're not crazy. What you saw, your Mary on the ceiling cut open like that? It was real, John. I have never encountered the like of it before, but I can tell you, it was real."
Whatever flickers of doubt John's had about either Missouri or what happened that night, she's just killed them. John has never said anything about what he saw, not to anyone. Not only does she know, but she believes him. Her hand on his back starts rubbing in circles again when tears roll down his face, his body shaking with unrepentant relief.
"Friday, you pick me up right here, and we'll go to the house. You'll have to leave the boys, but they'll be fine." Overwhelmed, his throat too closed to utter a sound, John can only bob his head up and down.
Just as John is once again breathing evenly, they can hear Sammy starting to get fussy. Missouri pats his back one last time then stands and tells him to go splash water on his face while she sees to the boys.
When John comes back into the kitchen from the bathroom, Sammy is in the rocker happily sucking on another bottle. Sitting beside Sammy is a large shopping bag that Missouri has packed full of plates piled high with the fruits of this afternoon's activities.
At the door, she squats down, hugging Dean good-bye. "You're gonna grow up like your daddy aren't you?" She doesn't wait for an answer. "You're proud and stubborn folk, you Winchester men." She grins at the pride Dean is displaying. "That's fine, but you take care of your daddy and Sammy. Next time we meet…"
Dean tentatively finishes the line she draws out, "Sass and spitfire?"
She nods and taps the end of his nose. "That's right, you got it: lots of sass and spitfire." Dean grins back at her then glances to Sammy, his face turning serious as he states, "Not Sammy though. He's just a baby, he'd get upset."
John watches Missouri's face turn just as serious while she promises, "Not Sammy, I promise. Though I might have to sass you extra, like your daddy…"
Accepting her answer, Dean's lips stretch wide displaying his teeth.
John shares one last look with her, knowing he'll be back right after Thanksgiving, then turns away. He lets Missouri usher them out the door and feels a strange hope growing in his chest even as he hears her closing the door behind them.
The next day, Kate corners him in the kitchen and strongly suggests that maybe John needs to talk to someone - a professional - and hands him a card. John politely, but just as firmly, returns the card and says no.
She only stares at the card for a few seconds before she tries again. This time she turns around and whirls back holding a couple of books. They are from the stack he checked out from the library. “Ghosts, John? Amityville? Is that how you’re handling and accepting Mary’s death?”
He wants to tell her that it's none of her business. He knows what he saw and, now, so does Missouri; he doesn’t need Kate to believe. On the other hand he is a guest in her home, and she is an old friend.
“John, please - this, it’s not good for the boys, for Dean. Don’t you see that? I know it’s difficult, but you need to grieve - this, what you’re doing… ” The pleading in Kate's voice turns sour with disdain “reading this, seeing psychics?” Kate takes a deep breath as she tries to plead her genuine concern, but all John can hear is the judgment in her voice. “It’s not healthy, John. Please, please call that number, you really just need to speak to…”
He doesn’t allow her to finish, stops her with his flat answer of “No!” as he walks out.
For the rest of the day, John avoids Kate, and she returns the favor in kind. The tension between them increases enough that, throughout the day, John considers packing the boys up and leaving – he doesn’t, can’t. At some point, he knows he’ll have to start looking around for a place to live, an apartment or a house - he’ll have to make decisions on their house. John can’t help but drag his feet; even being upset with Kate isn’t enough to completely motivate him. Truth is, if he didn’t have to go back to the house, he wouldn’t - too many memories. But he does need to go back at least once – he has to know what Mary tried to protect them from. In his heart, he knows that was what Mary did, but John can’t deny that he wants, needs the confirmation. After today he knows Missouri can do that. He has to know if this thing is after his family and if so: why? He needs to know if the boys are in danger like he suspects – if the real target of the attack was Sammy. Most importantly, John needs to know how to find this thing and kill the bastard.
On Thanksgiving morning, Mike pokes his head into the bedroom, pushing the door open but not quite intruding on the space as he stands in the doorway dressed in jeans and his Chiefs football jersey. “You and the boys are gonna come down and watch, right?”
John just stares at him. “Come on, John, I'm not gonna stop you from staring into space all day, but at least staring at the tube's gotta be better than staring at the walls, right? And I'm sure Dean would rather watch football.” Mike’s keeping up a light banter, but his gaze lands and lingers on the stack of books on the nightstand that John still needs to read before shifting over to Dean who looks up, hopeful, waiting for John’s verdict.
John isn’t a sports fanatic, but watching his teams in football and baseball with Dean is something they have always done together since the Super Bowl.
Among the Winchester men, it was Frank who had been the sports fanatic. He watched every game they broadcast and was on both the football and the baseball junior and varsity teams throughout high school. Though somber, they continued to watch after Frank enlisted, and then, when John came back from ‘Nam, he returned back into the same routine even after he married. He’d go over and spend Sundays with Pop up until he died, watching football .
This year he was at home, and Dean sat on his lap as they cheered the Steelers on to victory with a 31 to 19 against the Rams. When baseball started up that spring, John started watching that with Dean too, keeping the tradition he’d had with Pop. It gave Mary a break and made it easier for her to put up with him watching for hours. That’s when Mary and Kate had started to spend time together, leaving John with Mike who had to endure whenever Dean got fussy or go hang out at one of the local bars.
John had never minded; he loved spending time with Dean, loved having his son sit curled up in his lap as they’d watched a game. He spent hours explaining the games, long before Dean was even capable of saying football. It was even John’s interest in sports that attracted Dean to sports and his desire to play T-ball. John looks at Dean, sees the hope and realizes that, like his son, he longs for the comfort and normalcy the game offers. John sighs, but he can feel a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he caves from the looks Dean and even Mike are throwing him. He tries to keep his expression stern and inclines his head to Mike’s shirt. “They’re not playing today.”
“I know, though they should be, but at least we can watch the Cardinals hand Dallas their collective ass - err, butts. Sorry Dean.” Mike shrugs his apology, but it does nothing to wipe off his triumphant grin as he finally walks into the room and grabs Sammy's rocker before holding the door open for Dean and John. “Let’s go. Pre-game starts in twenty.” As they head to the family room, John notes that Mike isn’t the only one bouncing down the stairs.
With only five minutes left in the second quarter John stands to get a drink. Crossing over to the bar to get a soda, John realizes that Kate has the table set and then notices that it's set for ten. Neither Mike nor Kate have siblings and their parents live in Kentucky and Florida respectively, so John knows the table isn’t set for just them as he expected - or blindly hoped. The idea of company suddenly hits John as he realizes he can’t endure dinner, a holiday dinner under the scrutiny of his friends. The epiphany leaves him feeling cold and anxious to run. It’s irrational but he panics and races blindly up the stairs. Dean is quick to follow a few seconds behind him. John feels like an ass, it’s not like he didn’t know it was Thanksgiving. All morning he’s enjoyed the aroma of Kate’s efforts knowing that Kate’s turkey would be as delicious as it smelled. The thought pains him, stabbing him with shame that he is somehow betraying Mary and her cooking skills. He knows it is ridiculous and just as ludicrous as being afraid of having dinner with friends - people he grew up with. However the last time John saw any of them outside of Mike, Kate, or Greg was at the funeral.
He can’t, he’s just not ready to deal with anyone, yet - not today. Not with all the memories of his past Thanksgivings with Mary that he’s kept at bay just sitting there waiting to be consumed. Ashamed but knowing that he’s about to run, John turns and squats down to look Dean in his face and then guiltily looks away when he sees the fright etched into Dean’s face. He is responsible for that. Swallowing his own shame, he looks into Dean’s eyes. “Hey kiddo, I’m sorry if I scared you. If you’d like to watch finish watching the game with Mike - stay for dinner, I know how much you love turkey stuffing. I just can’t…” Dean shakes his head frantically, his own rising panic making it clear that he doesn’t want John to leave him.
John nods reassuringly. “Okay, better get your shoes and jacket.”
Grabbing the diaper bag, a sweater for Sammy and his own jacket, John books it out of there before Jake or anyone else shows up.
Kate tries to tell that it will just be close friends, people who care. She lists names, most of which John doesn’t have a rational problem with - well, maybe other than Greg’s partner Harper, but John knows he’d run even if Harper wasn’t invited.
John just can't cope with the idea of facing people when he wants to ignore the fact that that today is a holiday. The thought has him on the verge of hyperventilating: he's going to have a Thanksgiving without Mary. John and Dean are on their way out the door, ignoring Mike's lame comments about watching the rest of the game which he stops in mid-sentence when he catches John’s eyes. Whatever Mike reads there, he just clasps John’s shoulder then steps aside. “Dinner’s at three.”
John nods in acknowledgment he walks out.
Nearly everything is closed except the movie theater. It's early enough that there is only a small crowd and most folks in line are there to see “Trading Places”. John buys tickets for “A Christmas Story” after being reassured by the clerk that it isn’t overly sweet and sentimental. John goes through the motions of standing in line at the concession stand and getting an over abundance of candy and popcorn to occupy Dean throughout the movie. Finding a seat is simple as the theater is mostly empty.
The movie turns out to be ridiculous and slow enough that it's easy to watch without putting too much thought into what he's seeing. Dean doesn’t outright laugh as much as he snickers throughout the movie. Even John's lips twitch at the corners when Ralphy descends the stairs in the pink monstrosity and again when the dogs get into the house, trash the kitchen and feast on the turkey.
Afterwards, it's only fitting to have Thanksgiving dinner around the corner at The Golden Dragon.
By the time they leave the restaurant, it's almost seven. Pulling up to Mike and Kate’s driveway, they find that it’s reassuringly empty.
Once inside, John heads directly for the stairs, Sammy sound asleep in the rocker and a full and exhausted Dean trudging up behind him. When they reach the top of the stairs, however, Mike appears. “You okay?”
Embarrassed, John nods, “Yeah. I’m sorry about that-”
Mike shrugs, interrupting. “No need. Wasn’t a good game anyways. Fuc..” Mike stops when he spots Dean. He clears his throat of the expletive, rolling his eyes. “Er, I mean, the stupid Cowboys stomped our butts, 35 to 17. So, did you eat? There’s a ton of leftovers.”
Dean nods for John. Standing beside him, John’s hand cards through Dean’s hair while he answers softly, “We’re good.” Since returning from Missouri’s, Dean was better, more animated, but today, when John couldn’t contain his emotions and ran out, Dean reverted back to his more stoic personality.
Mike nods when John looks back up. “All right then. We’ll see you in the morning.” Mike offers a parting smile before he closes the door.
John stands there, continuing to thread his fingers through Dean’s hair. “Think you need a bath?” It's a question, but John isn’t waiting for an answer. He drops the diaper bag and sets the rocker with a sleeping Sammy by the crib before he nudges Dean toward the bathroom in order to start a bath.
The following day, when John pulls into Missouri’s driveway, she's already standing there waiting for him. He's about to get out, but she dismisses the overture and tells him to just unlock the door. Not a stupid man, John leans over and does as he is told.
He's been feeling apprehensive all morning, scared of what they’ll find out, but that isn’t the only thing that's preoccupying John’s mind. He's still stuck on a few minutes ago when he reluctantly left the boys alone with Kate. Dean attached himself to John's leg and refused to let go. John had to forcibly pull Dean’s arms away, promising him that he’d be back as soon as he could. He explained that he was going to see Missouri. It didn’t help. Dean demanded to go with him, crying, promising John that he’d behave.
John knelt down and wiped away Dean's tears, tried to tell him that he’d done nothing wrong but Daddy needed to go do a few grown-up things, that John needed him there to stay with Sammy. John stressed that he needed Dean to be a good soldier to protect Sammy, and that he was counting on Dean. His son stared at him, large limpid eyes begging him to change his mind. John couldn’t, even when he noticed Dean’s lips quivering. Reluctantly Dean finally nodded his consent and accepted the responsibility John had thrust upon him.
Sitting in the car in Missouri’s driveway, John blinks, remembering where he is and why. Missouri’s hand pats John’s forearm. “You had no choice, you couldn’t bring him. Hang on to the fact he’s a Winchester. Your boy takes less to coddling and a bit more to sass and…”
“Spitfire?” John finishes in a dry smirking tone he hasn't had chance to use lately.
Missouri nods slowly, her voice steady and sure. “Like you, they lost their momma; Dean needs you. They both do. Just like you, when you needed your Pop. Same thing your pop and Frank did for you, now you’ll have to do for them. They’re going to need you to be strong, John. Strong enough to hold and nurture them, prepare them for later on, when it's time - you’re going to have to be strong enough to leave them.”
…prepare them later on… to leave them… Startled when Missouri’s words resonate a truth he can’t – doesn’t want to imagine. Numbly John turns the ignition, but just sits there a moment after he starts the Impala. Missouri doesn’t say anything as he recomposes himself, and the engines purr calms and centers John enough to focus on driving as he shifts and hits the gas to back up.
It doesn’t take long before they pull up to the curb of the house. Swinging the door open John stands and looks up at the wreck of the house that was once his home.
John knows what to expect, physically at least. He was there for a long time that night, watching the firemen run around. The sprays of water hitting the house doused out flames that kept threatening to spread out from the nursery and lick their way across the roof. Memories from that night flow over him, flip over to images from the first time he saw the house and slide into when he brought Mary here and they stood, hand in hand, looking up at the house that held their dreams and their future. The possibilities seemed limitless.
John recalls the day they celebrated escrow closing, signing the final papers and receiving the keys. That night, they walked through each room, Mary carrying a pen and writing notes right on the walls of what they were going to do. She planned it all out: what color paint, or wallpaper, her window dressing preferences, where to put the couple of heirloom furniture pieces – then they’d christened each room - sometimes twice. John smiles at that thought. It took them almost two days to hit every room.
Afterwards they just jumped in, peeling and sponging off old wallpaper and cleaning walls to prep them to be ready to paint. There hadn't been any official move-in date; they just gradually moved their things over as they continued working: sanding, staining the stair banisters, floors, retiling. Even so, most of the rooms remained in disarray until they focused their energy on creating Dean’s baby room. By the time Sammy had been conceived - and that night was another smile-worthy memory - the house had turned into a home..
From there John flashes forward to that last night, to watching the chaos while holding Sammy, Dean tucked up beside him as he watched horrified as his house, his home, his life, burned. Watching those same vivid flames that had engulfed Mary’s body engulf the body of their life together.
John doesn't notice Missouri getting out of the car and moving over to his side until he feels her hand on his back. Gently, Missouri lets him know, silently, that it's time to take the plunge, that they should go before they garner unwanted attention from his neighbors. He almost wants to laugh, knowing that it's already too late; there is no doubt Kravitz has already heard, and come to peer at, the Impala. She's probably peeking through the curtains right now. Their neighbor across the street is actually named Adel Watts, but Mary swore she was Gladys Kravitz in the flesh.
Missouri’s hand squeezes him just above his elbow, guiding him forward. “You never mind her.”
Reaching the front door, John pulls off the yellow tape, inserts his key and opens the door.
Walking inside, the images once again rush through his mind, one after another - speeding past, blurring with each step. Emotions pull at him, and he hears the echo of laughter, Dean running through the house, Mary yelling out for him to stop running, Sammy crying, feet running up the stairs, running down, doors opening, closing, Beatles music greeting him seconds before Mary’s voice rang out: loudly, proudly singing off-key. Not that any Winchester cared - they didn’t, he didn’t.
Her voice fades when John steps toward the kitchen – the joyous sounds fading as if someone's slowly turning the volume knob on a stereo until only deathly silence greets him.
Missouri walks by him, her face contorting while she stares around the room. Her eyes well with tears, seeing things. No sound emerges, but she clearly mouths, ‘Oh, John,’ before she continues on, passing by him and walking through the house.
John watches Missouri’s head cock to the side and then she nods as if she's listening to someone. Then an odd - no, ridiculous - thought occurs to him, that maybe the house is telling Missouri what happened.
Missouri’s voice comes out in a low whisper, “Such evil.”
Missouri walks toward the stairs, John trailing after her. “Mary had come down, she saw you – it was then.” Tentatively, Missouri takes a few steps up the stairs, her hand grabbing the railing, steadying herself, moving upward.
Mesmerized, John continues to follow Missouri, his foot on the first step. Mid-way Missouri stops. She’s gazing at the light. “She thought it was you. She heard Sammy cry, had gone in to check on him. She saw you and Sammy had stopped crying. She thought he was you, that Sammy was safe.”
Suddenly Missouri races up the stairs, stopping just before the landing. She turns to the light and taps the glass. Turning around, she glances his way but looks past him down the stairs. “When Mary saw you sleeping, she realized - it wasn’t you...” Her voice falters and she staggers back, pressing her back to the wall as if she's getting out of someone’s way. Missouri’s eyes follow an invisible phantom before she collects herself and moves in the same direction down the hall, toward the nursery.
The stairs creak under John’s feet. It's a familiar sound that no longer sounds familiar against the heavy scent of blackened char that fills his nose with every breath. Bile gurgles, swirls in his stomach, in his throat, as he remembers running up the stairs at Mary’s scream. Making his way to the top landing, John stills while he watches Missouri.
She isn’t looking at the nursery entrance, but rather her head tilts upwards gazing at the ceiling. Her expression distorts in horror like she can see Mary up there on the ceiling. John doesn’t have to guess, he knows - can easily envision it from his own memory… Suddenly it’s too much; his failure to save Mary tears at him...
Stumbling back down the steps, John barely makes it downstairs before he’s running to the small bathroom where he empties what’s left in his stomach. The memories keep washing over him, and his stomach clenches as he coughs out in dry heaves that are made worse by every sickly sweet breath of charred air.
How long he stays like that, John isn’t sure. At some point his stomach quiets enough that he's able to stand. Cupping water in his hand, John swishes spits and swallows in succession, then repeats the process several times before splashing water over his face and neck. Leaning over the sink he looks up to see his own reflection, a face he doesn’t recognize. What has always been shadowed dark growth is now a full beard and mustache. Dark circles surround blood shot eyes which belong to a stranger who stares back at John, the accusations palpable. Abruptly John bends over, fingers bracing his hands on the sink trembling in anger over what he didn’t do, how much he failed. With a grimace, John straightens out and splashes water over his face once again. Turning the water off, he blindly grabs a hand towel and briskly wipes his face with it, even though it stinks of smoke and avoids looking at the mirror while he shoves the towel back over the rack.
He hears Missouri at the top of the stairs before he sees her. She's starting the descent, and John needs to compose himself before he can talk to her, so he walks over to the living room's picture window and stares out.
Missouri’s steps are slow when she reaches the bottom, giving him the time he needs. She spends several long seconds meandering over to him before he senses her presence a few inches behind him.
Looking out the window, John tries to remember the last time he mowed this yard, but he can’t. The flames seared away the tops of the grass over about a quarter of the lawn, anyway, and it looks uneven. Better to think about lawn care than anything else. He's mindlessly rubbing his thumb along the window frame, trying to ignore everything behind him.
Missouri is telling him how sorry she is, but he doesn’t want to hear it. All he can do, all he has the heart to do, is spit out, “How?” and twist around to face her.
Missouri’s gaze meets his. Already it’s a look John knows well; she doesn’t know what to say, but he also understands her silent answer to his real question. She doesn’t know what it was that killed Mary other than it was unworldly and evil.
She glances away after a few seconds, unable to bear whatever she sees in his face. A moment later, she turns back and edges him to side. He steps out of her way as she inspects the window frame. Her finger runs over the carving Mary had placed there.
“Mary did this.” It isn’t a question but John nods his head in confirmation anyway. “When?”
John closes his eyes, trying to place the memory. “When we first moved in, then again a few weeks ago. It was… the first time… she said it was an old wives’ tale, one her mother taught her. Something to protect the house, it's supposed to give you good luck, kind of like hanging a horseshoe.”
Missouri nods absently, her hand trailing along the sill, pinching a bit of the salt she finds there between her fingers.
John swipes his hand through his hair, shaking his head, hearing his own voice echo Missouri’s silent, 'What's this?' about the salt. The salt had been the seed of their arguments this past year. He didn’t understand why Mary had insisted on salting all the windows, the doors, had added the new carvings… Mary’s refusing to tell him what was going on, begging him to just trust her. He did trust her, but he'd also known that she was keeping something from him… The answer hit him like a Mack truck; she knew, Mary knew, or at least suspected, that something was going to happen. Maybe she had even known what exactly it was that came for Sammy.
Missouri says, “I’m afraid so.” John isn’t even sure if he said it out loud or not, but it doesn’t matter much as the truth twists around in his gut. Missouri moves to the other side of the window and finds a similar carving. Quietly she goes around the house, noting that each window and door has carvings and salt lines. At the back door she also finds a small cloth pouch. Going back to the living room, she looks around the window where she first noticed the carvings. Inside the drape, near the top and hidden inside a fold of the drape, she finds another satchel. She heads back upstairs, John following her. Instead of seeking out the nursery, she passes the taped off doorway and enters John and Mary's bedroom.
John can’t move, just stands still while not looking at the police tape blocking entrance to the nursery, to the last place he saw Mary. He concentrates on Missouri instead. Even from this distance, he can watch her closely as she inspects the windows, finding yet more satchels. Without a word, holding them in her hand she strides out and down the hall to Dean’s room then checks the playroom doing the same. When she's in the play room she gestures for him to come closer. “Here.”
John comes up behind her. “The line here is broken in several places, and this.” Along the sill beside the salt line are a couple of matchbox cars. Then Missouri peers around the room until she finds what she's looking for. The satchel had been moved. “What was here was powerful. Mary, she had prepared these, and…” Missouri held up the displaced satchel, “combined with the salt lines and the carvings, they’d keep out most any demon.”
Shocked, John asks, “A demon?”
Missouri nods and looks John in the eyes. “I can’t be 100% sure, but it’s the only thing that makes sense. These, they're powerful magic, John, something only a hunter, an experienced demon hunter would know. But what came, what was here - it wasn’t any ordinary demon; it was old, powerful evil. These,” she unclasps her hand revealing the satchel, “the salt, even if they hadn’t been disturbed - they might have slowed it down, but it would have… It wouldn’t have changed anything.”
John feels himself go limp, despondent. Missouri finally resorts to taking his elbow, turning him and pushing him back down the stairs. He’s devastated that Mary didn’t tell him, didn’t trust him enough. It adds to the guilt over not being there for her to the point that he doesn’t even notice Missouri collecting a few things for him: pictures and snapshots that were hanging on the refrigerator.
Missouri calmly reminds him that he needs to get back to the boys, that he has to think of them for now. It’s enough to get John to focus, and he is breathing easier as they leave the house. On the way back to Missouri’s they’re quiet. After he pulls into her driveway, Missouri tells John to wait for her.
She runs inside and returns swiftly, holding a pad. It’s the same one Dean was drawing in the other day. “I didn’t go through these right away, and then when I did, I didn’t get it. But, being at the house, there’s an energy, and it all connected.” She passes the drawings to John. As he thumbs through them, tears well up as he comes to a set of Dean’s drawings of the house on fire. There are several pictures, but it’s the last one where they’re outside on the Impala looking up at the house on fire.
Closing the pad, he closes his eyes in an attempt to stop the tears from falling – it doesn’t work.
Missouri brushes his hand aside and opens the pad back up, flipping the pages back to the last page. Confused, John doesn’t see whatever it is Missouri wants him to see. Blinking away the tears, he stares at the last picture then spots it. In the window surrounded by flames is a black figure looking out. It has yellow eyes. Once she knows he sees it, Missouri adds, “I thought it was Mary burning but…” she shakes her head.
John answers for her. “You think Dean saw it? That thing - the demon?”
“I don’t think, John, I know. I don’t think Dean knows what he saw. He doesn’t remember - not like how you or I would remember - he’s too young - and I wouldn’t push him to remember.” She points to the drawing. “But, it’s there in his subconscious. Dean saw it. It wasn’t after Mary, Mary had gotten in its way – it was after your boys, after Sammy.”
John gasps, unable to take it all in. They fall into a long silence before John finally asks, his voice choked, “What do I… how do I fight it, keep my boys safe?”
“I don’t know. Only another hunter can tell you, but there’s someone I can call. See if he’ll see you, help. For now go h- go back to your boys. They need you.” Missouri opened the door, “I’ll call you as soon as I hear back.”
John nods, unable to produce any other response.
How he gets back to Mike and Kate’s place, John’s not sure. He drives on autopilot, still dazed from being at the house with the heavy scent of charred wood and smoke that lingers in his nostrils. It's the revelations, though - that Mary had prepared and fought by herself and that Dean had seen the yellow-eyed sonofabitch that did this to his family - that leave John still feeling shaken. John swallows down the bile that scorches his throat and threatens to burn higher. Opening the front door to his friends’ house, John heads straight to the wet bar, opens a bottle of scotch and fills a rock glass. He downs it in one swallow and quickly refills it two fingers high. Gulping the second drink down, John tries to trade the smoldering musk of burnt memories with the stinging burn of the amber liquid. He's still too upset, too overwhelmed with the memories and questions flooding his mind, to deal with anyone, so he sits in the shadows, hoping to get numb enough that he can sleep, that he can stop thinking.
At some point, John gets up. He’s drunk and not sure how long he’s been sitting there, but as much as he’s had to drink, it’s still not enough to numb him. But, thoughts of Dean, Sammy come to him, and he berates himself for not thinking about them first. He's worried about Dean. He remembers how devastated Dean acted when he left. Returning the glass and bottle back to the bar, John makes his way upstairs. At the top of the stairs, John notices the bedroom door is wide open and the lamp on the bedside table is on but dimmed low. Once inside it's obvious that Dean isn’t in the bed. Panicking, John rushes to the crib to check for Sammy. He can finally clamp down his panic when he finds not just Sammy but also Dean inside the crib. Dean is curled on his side next to his baby brother leaving Sammy as much room as he can, and both of them are sound asleep. Tears run down John’s face as he looks down into the crib. The realization that something is after his boys - why remains the painful question whispered in his mind - is making him an even jumpier and more protective parent than normal. How is he going to protect them…? It doesn’t matter how; he will. He has to.
In the morning, ignoring his hangover, John goes downstairs to wait for Missouri to call. He fixes the boys breakfast and drinks his coffee. After he finishes feeding Sammy, he starts making notes. Cross referencing what he knows now with books he’s read, he can dismiss the ones he now knows are outright fallacy while copying out the ones that ring closer to the truth.
Kate and Mike join John an hour or so later. Mike sits next to him, fingering the books John has stacked there. John can feel the heated, unspoken communication Mike and Kate pass over his head.
It’s like that for a week. Tension over what John can’t tell them increases substantially. After the afternoon with Missouri, his energy is renewed with purpose as he returns to his routine and stays focused on research.
It’s nearly two weeks after Thanksgiving when Mike sits down with him again. Checking out the new stack of books John has piled there, he cautiously asks. “How long you going to look into this…” Mike trails off, his confusion on the subject is clear.
John doesn’t answer and just shrugs.
It’s Kate who angrily adds, “You’re just avoiding reality - throwing away good money after bad.”
John heatedly replies, "You don't know what you're talking about!"
Mike sighs, John suspects he’s annoyed with wife, and then calmly prompts. "Then explain it, John, we only want to help."
He bites his tongue, knowing they wouldn’t believe him. John shakes his head once. “Can’t explain it. Either you believe, or you don’t.”
He hears Kate’s bitter laugh behind him and, out of the corner of his eye, sees Mike waving his hand, gesturing for her to stop. “Fine, if it’s what you have to do.” There was nothing in Mike’s words, but John gets it. Mike agrees with Kate, thinks he’s going off the deep end. It was Mike’s tone of voice, soft and calm- patronizing.
Mike firmly declares, “Okay!” bringing the subject to a close, and making John notice that he’s still sitting there, waiting. He leans forward earnestly. “Maybe we can talk about work? I could really use you. Maybe just part-time, for a few hours…”
It’s just a different tactic, and John doesn't want to listen as he goes on about how things haven’t been the same at work, about how it’s been strange at the garage without him. John gets what Mike is offering him, a chance to back away from what they deemed as crazy and divert his grieving into a channel that’s more socially acceptable. “There’s some bodywork. Old man Johnston’s son, Jared, had another fender-bender with that jalopy. You could probably bang the shit out of that thing for the next month of Sundays…” Mike laughs, but it falls flat when he looks at John.
Mike's overtures don’t turn out at all the way he expects - he's caught John at just the wrong moment, or maybe just the right one, from John’s perspective - and John flat-out tells Mike that he can have the business. Mike freezes in shock that John would take it that far, but even as Mike's jaw drops, John becomes more sure that he's made up his mind on this, had maybe made his mind up days ago. He needs to move out of here, probably out of Lawrence, so it's time to tie up whatever business he can here. Then, he can move on and continue his search to figure out what did this, figure out what is after his boys, after Sammy and get it, before it gets either of his boys.
John doesn’t have to say anything. He can feel his jaw set in that one position that writes his answer all over his face.
“The business, you still need…”
“Buy me out, gimme a fair price, and I’ll have papers drawn up.” John stands, and nods to Dean that they’re heading upstairs while he gathers up Sammy and the books.
John doesn’t need to turn to know Mike is probably still sitting with his mouth hanging open, utterly stunned. John keeps walking, keeps going up the stairs and ignoring his surroundings until Dean closes the door behind him.
John doesn’t waste any time and, by the end of the day, has moved out with the boys. They’re staying at a motel on the edge of town. It's not the nicest place in the world, but it's what John can afford until the insurance from the house and the sale on the garage comes through. He’d like to just take off, but he has to stay to tie up loose ends.
It’s not until after he lines the window sills and doorjambs with salt at night that he can actually get some sleep.
Between her work schedule and the holidays, he doesn’t see Missouri again, but he talks to her over the phone a few times. When she calls to pass on Pastor Jim’s address and number, she explains that Jim is expecting him and that if anyone can help John out, it's Pastor Jim. She thinks that he can offer John more answers and provide a place that’s safe for the boys.
John bides his time, and keeps busy by closing his ties to Lawrence. Over the next three weeks, between the move and researching, John hires a lawyer to start the paperwork needed to sell the business and then waits for the investigation of the fire to officially close. All the nuisances of his old life are filed and dealt with including submitting the investigation papers to the insurance company, making arrangements to put the house on the market once the contractors finish the repairs, closing probate on Mary's will and arranging new accounts for all of these minor windfalls that will have to support them until John finds what he's looking for.
It’s tangible and it keeps John busy and focused. Selfishly, it is easier to stay at the motel. Whenever he has to leave, he has to face Lawrence’s approaching holiday with festival lights strung everywhere from the roofs of residential homes to store windows. He’s flooded with memories of what was – of his first Christmas with Mary, of their last Christmas before Dean was born, of Dean’s first Christmas that turned out to be Pop’s last and of all the subsequent Christmases. Each year, as Dean understood and grasped more and more of what Christmas was, he waited more and more anxiously, anticipating what Santa might bring him, and woke them at the crack of dawn to attack the presents under the tree. Presents that were piled high, leaving Mary gasping over what he successfully kept hidden. He continually glances at the boys. He can see and feel the heavy shroud of grief that’s suited around Dean as plainly as his own. Dean’s no longer talking and rarely smiles - only for Sammy. That’s when he glances at Sammy, and it hits again that his son will never know Mary…
When he’s forced to venture out, he also feels the suspicion, hears the rumors flying around. None of them are grounded in any real facts, but, when he goes out, people are no longer looking at him with pity. Now he can only wonder what their looks are accusing him of: Do they really believe he had something to do with the fire? As the investigation comes to a close without revealing any leads, the authorities can’t do anything but Harper tracks John down. Once he realizes that John’s preparing to move away, he’s in John’s face telling him not to come back. Greg’s there, but stands back and does nothing. John guesses his old friend has taken to believing the worst. It hurts but helps make it easier to leave Lawrence for good, all their old ties cut.
By the end of ’83, everything’s finalized, and they can leave. John packs the Impala that night. He doesn’t want to travel New Year’s Eve, but he's more than ready to go first thing in the morning – start of a new year, a new day.
John’s good-byes are quick, curt, and bitter. Dean pays no mind to them at all and sits silent and lethargic in the back seat, Sammy crying next to him. There will be no peace for any of them, not until John can find that evil sonofabitch. Until then, John can only hope that this Pastor Jim guy Missouri is sending him to can help. At the very least, John hopes that he'll be able help the boys safe until John can kill that yellow-eyed sonaofabitch.
John wastes no time on fanfare. He has a destination: Blue Earth, Minnesota. Determined to make good time, John starts the car and pops a cassette into the tapedeck. Waylon Jennings’ voice fills the car, the song’s title proving all too appropriate to how he feels. With equal parts regret and hope, John cranks up the volume. I’ve always been crazy…
"John," Jim yelled out.
John didn't react or turn around; he knew Jim would find him eventually – it wasn't like he was trying to hide. He waited, knowing that Jim would come over to join him, so he could remain focused on the boys as they played. John couldn't take his eyes off of them. He consumed every detail, especially Sammy's carefree joy as Dean continued to bounce him on the teeter-totter. Sam's laughter rang out, filling the otherwise empty park. Dean focused only on Sammy, save for chancing brief glances John's way to make sure he was still there, watching.
Jim finally made it over and sat down beside him.
Although he served as the local pastor in Blue Earth, Minnesota, Jim was also a man that John found he could trust - even with the most outrageously supernatural problems. Unknown to his flock, Jim had another job as a hunter fighting the supernatural. Two years ago when John arrived on this doorstep, John was nervous respectful of Jim's position as Pastor. He was even more formal about calling Jim by his title, Pastor Jim. However, from the moment Jim opened the door, he'd taken John under his wing. By the end of the first day of helping John settle the boys into Jim's own home, John had realized he'd found a friend. By the end of the week, Jim had extended his welcome indefinitely and offered John the small one-bedroom cottage that stood behind the rectory as a semi-permanent residence while John settled in to research the demon that was after his family.
Jim was able to help, and, though he didn't know what it was that had taken Mary's life, he gave John direction and showed him the way to research this kind of thing. He also introduced John to other hunters who'd sought out Jim's advice. Most of the hunters were ordinary people with their own stories like John's, and, like John, they couldn't blindly go back and pretend it didn't exist. Some had military backgrounds and were seasoned hunters and others reminded him more of green soldiers who had just landed in-country. There were those who appeared too zealous and enjoyed the hunt just for the hunt - John gave those a wide berth and kept the boys within arms-reach whenever they appeared at Jim's door.
Otherwise, John avoided everyone except Jim and the boys. Over two and half years, John's world narrowed to nothing but researching and caring for the boys. Not wanting to be a free-loader, and with his bank accounts dwindling, John took to working part-time as a mechanic, but he would return home and spend hours upon hours on research. Taking Jim's advice, John also started studying Latin. More times then he'd like to recall, he'd lull Sammy to sleep by conjugating verbs in Latin instead of spinning a nonsensical fairy tale.
His focus and objective never wavered.
The further John investigated and started to engage in conversations with other hunters, the more completely he began to acknowledge the depth of what was really out there. Jim, Caleb and other hunters John trusted continually warned him that he had barely scratched the surface of how extensive the problem was becoming. The more aware John became of various things supernatural; the more John started to find cross references between what he read and what he heard from different hunters. Before he knew it, he had started to expand his research and help other hunters.
Recently he had tried to help Caleb with a hunt, but it had been five different kinds of disaster and a humbling experience to boot. Caleb and his partner, Jack, had been on the hunt for months for a thing that attacked kids, especially those with siblings: a Shtriga that fed off of children's life sources. At first it didn't seem that much was documented outside of the old-time lore, but, after hours of poring through pages of microfiche, John discovered a pattern in other cities. In North Haverbrook, Brockway, Cascade and other towns, every fifteen years, going back nearly over a hundred years, dozens of children would fall ill and succumb to an unknown disease. With their immune system compromised, the children would slip into a coma and die within days.
During his research, John noticed that the numbers of kids infected increased, nearly doubling, every thirty to forty years. John suspected the Shtriga either had a mate or was possibly nesting. John had left messages for Caleb explaining his suspicions. But when Caleb called back, he told John that it had been too late, the Shtriga had gotten away. Jack had interrupted it feeding killed it, but it hadn't been alone. The other Shtriga had been feeling on the kid's sibling. Both kids were infected, and it had left Jack for dead. Jack had died just as Caleb got him to the hospital. Caleb tried to pick up its trail, but, whether because he was too distraught or because the surviving Shtriga knew to cover its tracks when it left town, the trail was stone cold. In its wake, the Shtriga left dozens of children infected. The child with the earliest diagnosis had already died, and the others had lapsed into comas where they lingered with no hope.
The cold despair in Caleb's voice as he talked about making arrangements to bring Jack's body back home had opened a floodgate of John's own memories. John doesn't even remember what he said to Caleb - probably a bunch of meaningless platitudes. When he hung up, he just sat there, barely aware of his surroundings until the boys ran downstairs smiling and full of life. John heard music filtering in from the rectory. It was appropriate - irony at its best - a twangy, bittersweet recording of Amazing Grace.
Looking at his boys - their innocent joy always able to temper the dark rage and guilt within him – John had thought of the pain of those parents whose children he'd failed. He sat on his ass while those parents - hell, people in general - didn't know or understand the real dangers of what was out there. They didn't know how to defend, to protect themselves or their kids against those dangers. He had had to get away from the song - from the memories of funerals that weighed on his soul. That's when John had decided on this impromptu visit to the park.
Sitting there now, John couldn't escape his own responsibility. Two years and he hasn't done anything but research. How many people died, how many children might he have been able to help – to save…
John shook his head, already dismissing whatever Jim was going to say. "I can't do it anymore. I can't just sit around reading, waiting around, doing nothing. Not when I can do something."
"Not nothing, John. You have the boys to raise."
"And what have I done? Not a damn thing! They're not safe! I don't know anything more now than I did when Mary was killed. The boys are in as much danger as they were then. That thing can come after them - and it's not just that evil sonofabitch. Jack's dead. How many children were infected – are in comas, are going to die? It could have just as easily been…" John finally looked away from the boys, guilt swelling that he was leaving his boys vulnerable because they didn't know the true dangers of what was out there. But, that wasn't true. Dean knew.
They had stayed on with Jim for a couple of years and, in some ways, had created a home - not in the sense that they had settled, but, rather, they had created a routine. Sammy was the only who fit and was content and carefree. At three, Sammy was precocious, animate and loud everything Dean wasn't. John had thought that Dean's silence after the fire was just part of his grieving, and maybe it was. The problem was that, like John, he was still grieving. Outside of that day at Missouri's, Dean had barely talked. It wasn't like Dean was incapable of talking; it was just a rare event, and it was only for John or Sammy.
These days, though, most of Dean's conversations were with Sammy, and to John's ears they sounded more like gibberish, like they had created their own language. Their closeness was evident to anyone who saw them together as you never found one without the other. Even now, Dean still slept with Sammy, his own personal talisman. When Dean had gotten too big for the crib, they had switched to the bed. John had tried to discourage it once, after they had first arrived. He tried again when they couldn't both fit in the crib. It hadn't gone over very well with both boys crying through the night - Sammy more stridently vocal over Dean's tears and unvocalized whimpers as his oldest struggled to comply with John's wishes. On the occasions John had tried to enforce it, no one slept. Eventually John gave up and allowed them to share the same bed where both boys would sleep through the night.
However, even sleeping with Sammy, Dean continued to have nightmares about the fire. Overly attuned to the boys, John would wake and get up. Both boys would be sound asleep but Dean's body thrashed while he appeared trapped within his dream. John would caress Dean's back, shushing the nightmare away. Dean usually settled at his touch though a few tears would spill over his small face and he'd squeeze Sammy tight to him. Outside of the drawing Dean had done at Missouri's, it was only during these nightmares that John was reminded of what Dean saw, of what was locked in his subconscious. Worst were the times, which happened more often than John would like to recall, when Dean would cry out for Mommy and John's heart would break again.
Jim's voice pulled John back to the present. "I know you don't want to hear this, but you need to have faith…"
"You're right. I don't want to hear it. Faith didn't protect Jack, Mary, my boys or those children… I'm sorry, but I lost my faith in God the day He allowed that thing to come after my family. Now that I know what's out there, how can I turn my back? I can't. I have to do whatever it takes to protect them."
"By buying an arsenal? That's your solution, letting your boys grow up around that?"
John knew Jim would find out, so he didn't bother to deny the truth. "They'll learn."
"Do you hear yourself, John? They're boys, innocent little boys – you can't…"
John didn't let him finish. Voice low and gravelly with the preemptive regret he felt at the sacrifices he was volunteering his sons for. "They're not innocent, not anymore - especially Dean. He may not remember everything he saw, but he saw that thing. You saw the drawing; you know he remembers the fire - you know he still has nightmares. He hardly talks 'cept for that gibberish shit he and Sam created. No. That thing stole away his innocence just like it stole his mother."
John glanced over to his boys, his eyes watering because Sammy was still innocent. He couldn't save Dean from this, but, maybe Sammy - just for a few more years at least. "What do you want me to do? Leave him behind and let that thing take him? If I don't find it, destroy it first, it's going to come back and finish the job. It wasn't after Mary; she only got in its way. Fuck, I don't even know what the hell it wanted with Sammy - but everything that runs through my mind, after everything I've read-" A bitter laugh escaped John's throat, "You know better than me. Hiding, hoping it won't come looking for him a second time is just handing Sammy over to it, and I can't do that – I won't."
John waited for Jim to lash out. Silence followed for a moment or two before he heard the defeat as Jim sighed, "You're leaving?"
John confirmed it by nodding. "Soon."
Then he added, "For as long as I can, I'll keep it from him."
"Use what I know and teach him to protect himself, to protect Sammy."
John ignored Jim's gasp just as he ignored his own lingering doubt that somehow he was wrong, that there had to be another way. In his heart, John knew there wasn't, but he also knew he was going to lose his boys to this quest, one way or another. Saw it just as clearly as the image he couldn't escape from – that sickening memory of Mary burning. The words he spoke felt hollow as John thought about the dreams he had had for both of his boys – from the moment they were conceived, when the possibilities had seemed limitless, "It's only until I get that thing and destroy it, so I know that the boys will be safe. It's not what I had wanted, not what I dreamed about for either of them. Those dreams, their childhood," but not their lives, please, not their lives," were stolen the night I lost Mary."
Jim fell silent beside him. John suspected his friend was praying for him and the boys. Though John no longer believed in God, John didn't stop him - not when there might be a slim chance that it'd help. Sammy's excited squeal of 'Daddy' reached his ears. John looked up to see Sammy beaming and giggling. In that moment at least, Dean's face was for once free of sorrow. John wanted to see that look all the time, and hunting down and killing that thing would be a step in the right direction. Feeling more resolute, John answered his own niggling doubts, "Only thing I can do for them now is to give them a future - to make them stronger and prepare them to fight against what's out there."