Over there, past that line of trees, that was where things would get better.
Past the trees and whatever lived in them, past the wall of inescapable truths and untreatable wounds -- and, man, is that bastard solid -- over there, past that place, that was where things would get better.
Sam sucked out the tomato poking from the soggy, pink crust of his sub, kept his eyes on the trees. He had an idea they were larches but he couldn’t be sure. At anyrate, for the past half hour he’d been watching for them to reappear as the Impala wound its way along what had to be the twistiest, pukiest stretch of asphalt ever bludgeoned into the side of a mountain. He’d dreamily placed some significance on the pretty, spiky things, made them a random metaphor that suited the drive and his mood, but every time they’d come into view they seemed neither closer nor farther away, and that was disturbing.
Because, obviously, it was impossible to leave behind something that you couldn’t even get close to in the first place.
Half of Dean’s sandwich sat in its wrapper on the seat between them, shifting slightly whenever the car made a turn. Sam could see the movement out of the corner of his eye. He had said nothing about it so far, not a thing, because he figured the half-a-sandwich diet was a whole lot better than the no-sandwich diet Dean had been following yesterday, a yawning ten-hour fast bookended by a protein-lite breakfast and a sorry excuse for a pizza.
Appetite had been a bit of an issue since Bedford, however many days ago it was now. After watching Bobby leave and mutually agreeing they were good, Dean had hammered the car in no particular direction, just trying to get away, and when Sam got behind the wheel he did the exact same thing. Eating hadn’t come into it, and neither had sleeping. Eventually, everything protested - the Impala’s tires, Sam’s butt, Dean’s dry eyes. They’d slowed to a meander through Nebraska and finally turned hard right at Bridgeport one evening after Sam finished a long phone call out in a motel parking lot.
“We’re going north,” he’d announced when he got back through the door and found Dean pretending to be engrossed in some shopping channel featuring eternity rings.
Dean seemed to consider arguing for a bit. Then he had some whiskey and said nothing. Saying nothing was his favorite position in most debates right now and it actually made things a lot easier, especially since the last thing Ruby had said was “how are you going to handle your brother, Sam?”
No handling required this time. Sam breathed a little easier, but only a little.
They left the motel at the tail end of a twelve-hour silence, hit I-90 at Rapid City and tracked it through Montana.
Since this morning they’d been ascending into what looked like it should be a national park but didn’t seem to be, and had left the rest of the world behind. All the trees and mountainscapes, the rivers and vistas in the clean, cold air, made Sam believe he was thinking clearly.
“Look, this job,” Sam said, picking up the half-sandwich and then putting it back, “it could really ... I mean, it could really be hardcore, Dean.”
There was no discernible response and Sam had to sit really hard on his desire to explode. Not that it was even a sulky silence. It was more like the silence of total defeat, and Sam hated it.
“Yeah, so from where I’m sitting you’re going to go down as soon as you get out the door.”
Dean shook his head then, like some buzzing insect had bothered him. His voice, when it came, was low and scratchy, like he didn’t want to use it or hear it.
“You want to drive?”
“No, I... no, I don’t want to drive. I want you to talk to me.”
“We’re done talking.”
“Oh what... like forever?”
“Are we working or not?”
Dean shifted his weight, flexed his fingers and then settled them once more around the wheel. “North Silverbridge,” he said. “You remember. Looks like demons. You told me all about it.”
“Yeah, and what do we do when we get there? I mean, if we’re done talking, and you can barely stand up and you’re fucking losing it? That’s ... uh, just me versus the demons then, right?”
“Tell you what, why don’t you discuss it with them?”
Sam opened his mouth and some words nearly came out.
Go to hell, Dean.
So nearly. The phrase backed itself up just in time.
He blinked. Saw the trees again through a hot, bright sheen. They were no nearer. He cleared his throat, patted the crackly sandwich wrapper.
“You’re not going to finish this?”
Obediently, Dean looked down at the seat, gave the half-sandwich some distracted thought, and then leveled his gaze back on the road. “Help yourself.”
“I don’t want it.”
“’kay, problem solved.”
Sam let his head fall against the seat-back, shuffled the pages and map on his lap. His stomach felt the lurch of the car as it swung around a bend, and he realized there was another reason why concentrating on the pretty trees had been good.
It was warm inside the car. Outside there was sharp sunshine bathing the mountains. All was airy and spring-like and fresh and they were driving a back road that was in such bad shape after the winter that nobody else in the world seemed stupid enough to be driving it too. They hadn’t seen another soul since breakfast.
The Impala hit a pothole.
Sam felt his stomach creeping upwards towards his mouth. “Um,” he said.
“You’re not,” Dean said. “Don’t.” Then he suddenly craned his neck forwards as if listening for something, some particular sound within the general noisy growlings of his baby not enjoying the drive. “No,” he said, a sudden realization dawning. “That’s ... no.”
“Really I’m good... you don’t need to.”
“I’m stopping,” Dean said, but the Impala began to roll to a peculiar halt by itself. Sam was pretty sure it wasn’t Dean applying the brakes, because he was half lifting his hands off the wheel, body leaning forward, head still cocked as he listened. There was a crunching sound like the gear-box had just eaten itself, and then a melancholy tick-tick-tick as they slowed to a stop at the side of the road, tipping down a slight incline and swishing to a standstill on dry, rutted mud and stones. The engine sighed into silence.
Dean sat where he was for just a split second, hands still raised in some kind of silent entreaty, and then he was out of his door.
“Crap and crap and... crap!” he shouted.
It was the loudest Sam had heard his voice for some time, and it shocked him. The hood flew up, rocking the car slightly.
Sam stayed sitting until the nauseous feeling passed, and then he swung open the door and put one foot down on the rocky ground. “What is it?” he asked.
Dean came along the side of the car, face set. Sam heard the trunk creak open, the sound of rummaging. Then Dean came past carrying a couple of tools which he dropped on the ground by the front wheel hub.
“What?” Sam demanded again, “What is it?”
When he got no reply he was forced to get out of the car and go up front. Dean had his head right under the hood, was poking around in the recesses of the engine with a wrench in one hand. He reached his other arm in, thrust the hand into the black. He usually worked with smooth and loving precision when anywhere near the hallowed interior of the Impala’s heart and guts. Now he was being all crazy.
Sam heard what he thought was the hiss of hot metal on flesh and jumped.
Dean whipped his hand out again with a growl, cracked his head on the hood and then struck something so hard with the wrench that Sam’s ears rang. “Fucking engine!”
“Take it easy,” Sam said, thrown for a loop by this further incontrovertible proof that his brother was losing his grip. Dean was never rough around his beloved’s inner core. He never shouted at her and he would have thumped anyone else who might try it.
“What do you think’s wrong?”
“Fanbelt...” Dean muttered, gesticulating wildly before thrusting the hand in again to the exact same place as before. “And there’s something else, not sure what... maybe it’s just overheating, I don’t have the tools for... shit!”
“Be careful!” Sam yelped. “For God’s sake, Dean!”
Dean turned, stared at him with wide eyes. “What?”
“Just be careful,” Sam said quietly. “Look at you, you idiot, you... ” He grabbed hold of Dean’s sleeve, pulled his hand towards him. “Ah, Jesus, Dean... you know better than...”
Dean let the wrench drop, with a clatter, right into the engine. He was still staring at Sam. Then he looked down at the two white slashes criss-crossed into his oily palm.
“No it’s fine,” he said vaguely. “It doesn’t hurt.”
“Yeah, so that’s not good.”
The muscles in Dean’s hand and arm clenched hard. Sam looked up, thinking maybe the nerve-endings weren’t as stunned as the whitened flesh suggested, and felt his heart dive for his boots. A couple of fat tears sprang into his brother’s eyes. One brimmed right over, crawled down his face, and the other plopped straight on to his sleeve, an inch from where Sam had hold of him. Dean inhaled quietly.
Sam was prepared for cursing, bravado, denial in spades, but he wasn’t prepared for tears, for the tangible frisson of horror that had caused them.
You’re remembering something. No, no, no. Don’t think about it. Nonononononono.
Sam wanted to give up. All the clean, clear thoughts in his head were suddenly useless. He had a whole flash-vision of himself as a four year-old, sobbing his heart out over something that was wrong with Dean which he couldn’t fix with a bright smile and a chubby hand stroking his arm. He couldn’t remember what it had been, just that he’d hated being helpless and it had made him angry. Angry enough that the whole incident had ended in him being in trouble with John and Dean still not fixed.
“OK,” he said, a little bit angry now too because this just so hadn’t needed to happen. “You’re a freakin’ jerk, Dean.”
One of Dad’s most basic tenets, practically shaken into them, was that they shouldn’t waste each other’s time by requiring first aid for self-inflicted injury. Even as little kids they’d gotten short shrift if they cracked their heads together during a tussle.
“So just don’t do the not-breathing thing, all right? You’re not going to do that are you?”
“Don’t think so,” Dean said in a voice that sounded suspiciously starved of oxygen. A flat, uncharacteristically patient voice, and not Dean. Sam had been listening to Dean not being Dean for some time now and it irritated and panicked him in equal measure. His nostrils flared at the tone and at the way his brother practically stuttered out the words. A stutter meant Dean might be about to go awol on him. Like, awol in Crazyland. He kept his fingers clamped on the cuff of Dean’s shirt until he’d slid the other hand under his elbow.
“You need to come and sit.” It was a firm direction, brooking no dissent. As he said the words he tugged Dean away from the hood and along the side of the car.
“The engine’s screwed,” Dean muttered as Sam pushed him into the passenger seat. He lifted the injured hand as if to scrub it down his face and Sam grabbed for it again.
“Would you quit that? Damnit, Dean, this looks like a freakin third-degree burn you’ve got here. It needs ... just keep still.”
“No, now come on. Don’t touch it.” He batted away the hand that was hovering, fingers clawed to scratch. “What are you doing, what’s wrong with you?”
Dean’s eyes roved from one hand to the other, like he was drunk. Sam knew he wasn’t, hadn’t been for a few days at least.
“I’m going to cover it, so just do me a favor and leave it alone. I know I can do a lot of awesome things but skin grafts isn’t one of them.”
Sam returned to the trunk, marched back with bandage, gauze and ointment in hand. That slap-in-the-face expression of remembrance had gone away but Dean looked pretty lousy. Lousy and offline.
When Sam placed the dressing over his palm, Dean’s lashes fluttered slightly and for some reason that seemed all wrong.
“OK there?” Sam asked. “This’ll cool it some, keep it clean. Yeah? OK?” When he got no reply he squeezed the ends of Dean’s fingers, first gently and then harder.
“Come on ... hey, are you zoning out? Would you please not zone out? What do you think’s wrong with the car, Dean? Tell me again. Tell me what we’ve got to do.”
“Call a mechanic,” Dean said after a few blinks, like he’d chosen the answer at random from a list that was too long and largely unsatisfactory. His lashes were wet, clumped into sharp fronds that caught the light. Flapping his other hand, he muttered, “Bottle of Jack ... in the trunk.”
“Do not give the person alcohol ... come on, man, get it together.”
Dean eyed him resentfully. “I’m in shock,” he said. “I burned my freakin’ hand, bitch. Give me the Jack.”
“We should swing by a doctor, and soon. It could get infected. It’s going to hurt like fuck and we’ve got nothing.”
“We got Jack.”
“OK, enough with the refrain already.”
“So I can feel something now. Yeah. Feels like I burned it.”
“Tsk,” said Sam, and then. “So you have a number to call if you break down, right?”
“I don’t need a number to call. She doesn’t break down.”
“Oh really. That might have been true once.”
“Meaning you don’t really look after her anymore.”
“Oh and you would know that because ..?”
“Because you don’t, Dean. You don’t spend the time.”
“She’s never recovered from four months on your watch is all. She’ll be fine. It’s just ...” Dean snapped the fingers of his good hand. “You’re going to have to whip off your pantyhose for me, Sammy. Doesn’t matter what color they are. You know, tan works just as well as black.”
“Screw you, Dean. Seriously. Is this fixable?”
“Not out here, not without pantyhose.”
“Great,” said Sam. His heart was beating a little fast, and not because they’d just broken down at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, but with the unexpected pleasure of having a pointless argument that wasn’t about him.
He watched Dean fussing for his cell and then holding it up and grimacing.
Sam’s didn’t have bars either. Not a one.
“When did we last see a sign for... anything?” he wondered out loud. “I mean, like any evidence at all that the apocalypse hasn’t already been and gone?”
Dean planted his boots against the ground, centered himself firmly but didn’t try to get up.
Sam rose, staring back along the road. He shook his head. “No point walking back the way we came, dude,” he said. “We have to keep going. We gotta hit something within a mile or two. Find a phone, get you some help. You going to be all right to walk?”
“Does this look like my foot to you?”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“You can take it any freakin’ way you want. Just let me have the Jack. Look, I know what you think of me and I don’t care, OK? I may be the weak brother, but I’m still the big brother so just... give it to me.”
“Get it yourself, asshole,” Sam said.
And that was it. They were back to being two wasps stuck under a glass, nothing to sting but each other.
Dean hauled himself on to his feet and went to get the whiskey. Under Sam’s silent gaze he unscrewed the lid, looked at the full bottle dispassionately for a second, and then took several slugs, apparently counting to about three between each one. Then he wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his injured hand, winced, jammed the bottle between his elbow and ribs to get the lid back on, and then slung it back in the trunk, slamming it shut before coming round the front. Sam had moved a few steps away, looking down the road in the direction they were going to walk. He heard the hood bang shut behind, the key turning in the door locks. Then Dean arrived at his side.
It was a moment that had happened many times. They would set off from point A on the way to point B and they would be side by side. They would take the first step in sync sometimes, turn in the same direction, move off at the same speed. It didn’t feel like any of those times to Sam. He caught the whiff of liquor on Dean’s breath.
“So you’re all good now?” he asked.
“No,” Dean replied, “I’m about half a bottle from being all good and if I didn’t think you’d bust my balls in a really irritating whiny voice for the next hour and a half I’d bring the freakin’ thing with me.” His shoulders rose and fell like he was trying to shrug away some physical or mental burden.
Sam put his hands on his hips. “We could stay here,” he said. “Wait for someone to come along. Or you could stay here and I’ll walk.”
“Why do you think I can’t walk?”
“I don’t know. I don’t. I don’t think you can’t walk, I just... forget it.”
Impossible to explain his all-consuming certainty that he might crack open from head to toe where he stood if he had to deal with any more injury or violence perpetrated against his brother ever again. From wherever or by whomever. Ever.
“Quit looking at me funny,” Dean said.
They set off down the road not quite in step, at a pace set by Dean. After a few minutes Sam tried to slow it a little and bring Dean into his rhythm but that was a useless exercise.
“How’s the hand?”
“Told you. Hurts.”
“What all over?”
“Where exactly does it hurt?”
Sam arrested Dean’s progress with a tug of his jacket. “OK, so work with me here, Dean. If it hurts then maybe it’s not so bad, I mean if it hurts where you burned it.”
“Of course it fucking hurts where I burned it.”
“Dude, come on, please.”
“Okay, it doesn’t.”
“It doesn’t hurt where I burned it. It hurts where I didn’t burn it, which amounts to the same freaking thing far as I can tell.”
“You know, it probably needs a splint.”
“Probably does,” Dean agreed, holding the hand away from him like it was contaminated. He came half a step nearer, like they were about to actually look at each other and have a real conversation. Sam was acutely aware of the lines and shadows on his brother’s face which just ought not to be there, that his eyes were full of something Sam couldn’t bear to see. Now that they were face-to- face in this unyielding mountain light he supposed some strange and terrible thing shone out of his own eyes and that was why Dean didn’t look straight at him anymore either.
Dean frowned, flicked his gaze up and started talking rapidly, quietly, almost as if he had no control over where the words were coming from.
“Uh, got this kind of burning flesh thing going here, Sammy, and I’m not real good with the whole burning flesh experience to tell you the truth and it’s just that once it starts it won’t go away and if I think about it apart from making me want a drink really fucking badly it kind of freaks me out and I’m not sure I know what’ll happen but I’m figuring there’s going to be damage like a scar or maybe I won’t be able to use it and we really need to make sure it doesn’t get infected because that would be bad so with that in mind I will tell you if I feel crappy and now can we get on and find somewhere where I can get some pantyhose before it gets dark can we please?”
Sam stared at him.
“You should be lying down under a blanket and I should be calling 911,” he said.
“Okey-dokey,” Dean said, eyes falling, and he turned away, began walking again.
Well that was just great.
Just perfect for a Tuesday afternoon up here on Bore Your Ass Off Hill.
So thought Chester, aged fourteen. It seemed wholly typical of his life that no sooner had Mom taken off to meet the real estate guy, leaving him in sole charge of the Travelstop, than a couple of complete crazies came wandering out of nowhere down the highway. In his general direction.
He had just wiped the glass door clean of his own sticky fingerprints when he saw the two guys appear at the brow of the hill. They were about the age and height of robbers, he was pretty convinced of that. To Chester’s mind, anyone wandering down this highway instead of leaving it far behind them in a four-wheel drive had to be certifiably crazy. Anyone looking like these two guys had to be both certifiably crazy and tending to the criminal.
Chester got back behind the counter double-quick. His hand felt for the sawed-off, twelve-gauge double-barreled shotgun on the shelf right under the cash register. Mom was nothing if not cautious, especially at the moment.
Too many weird things have happened, Chester, and there’s too many crazy people wandering around. You keep the gun close while I’m gone and don’t you dare get pissy about it.
In truth, Chester was much more afraid of the shotgun than he was of the family business being robbed by lunatics and weirdos, but he always tried to do what Mom asked of him. Because there was only the two of them, and he figured he owed her. Well, except when she was being particularly Stressed-out Lunatic Mom From Hell.
“Help you?” he inquired as the door jangled. He brought one hand up to rest nonchalantly on the counter.
A dark-haired guy in an off-white shirt and tan jacket led the way. Tall guy. Broad and balanced and tough. The dangerous one, Chester had no doubt.
“Oh hi, how’re you doing? Our car’s up on the ridge,” was Tall Guy’s opening gambit, delivered with an easy and convincing smile. “Is there an auto repair nearby? And, uh, can we use your phone?”
Chester had expected a pile of bull, but the hopeful and pleasant manner in which this pile of bull was couched threw him. However, he was pretty sure that Mom, in her wisdom, would’ve hated these two on sight. They were everything that made her unhappy - male, around her age, and not wearing suits.
“You need to go down to North Silverbridge. Twenty miles thataway,” Chester said. He pointed out through the window and straight down over the valley. “Got no phone - lines blew down and we can’t get a cell signal today. Happens sometimes.”
“Dude, I’m not walking twenty miles,” said Tall Guy’s companion, a trashed-looking guy holding one arm crooked as if in an invisible cast. He was a little sweaty and green around the gills.
Chester couldn’t help being apologetic. “Sorry, we got gas and not much else. Haven’t had a delivery since Friday.”
Trashed Guy looked at the shelves, eyes roving over the bottles of mouthwash, boxes of gum and cans of soup, looking a little sweatier suddenly, a little more pinched than he had even two seconds ago.
He swished a hand over his face, cleared his throat. “Do you have a ....?” he asked thickly.
Chester fingered the shotgun again. “Blue door,” he said, jerking his head backwards. “Don’t make a mess.”
Trashed Guy slipped past him and barged through the door. It clapped shut and then the bolt inside was drawn. Chester braced himself, ready for the sudden move he was sure Tall Guy was about to make.
“Listen,” Tall Guy said, glancing at the blue door and then back, “you wouldn’t have any ... pantyhose would you?|”
Chester narrowed his eyes.
“No,” he said. “We haven’t. We don’t.”
“OK, but nothing at all like it? That might work as a... you know, in an... no... no, I guess not.”
“Told you, mister, mechanic’s twenty miles thataway.”
A hacking, spitting noise came loudly through the panels of the blue door. Then something else that sounded to Chester much more unpleasant and desperate.
Tall Guy was behind the counter in a second. He banged on the door.
“Hey, Dean, what’s going on with you? You all right?”
Chester could hear pained breathing.
Awesome. Some loser was about to die on the floor of the john while Mom was with the real estate guy. Seriously, these things always happened to him. Like that time this woman started having a baby halfway between the pump and the door.
“Don’t make me come in there,” Tall Guy said, hand slipping on the greasy handle. He rattled it up and down. The whole door moved back and forth but the lock held. “Dean, don’t make me.”
“I’m losing my lunch,” came from inside. “Can’t a guy lose his lunch in peace anymore?”
“You sound like you’re losing more than that, man.” Tall Guy rattled again. “”Sides, you hardly had any lunch.”
“He’d better not be making a mess,” Chester said. He’d assumed the puke thing was a scam to make a move on the cash register but if it was, they were sure taking their time.
There was a rounded silence for a while on the other side of the door. Then some quieter breaths, the sound of water running. Tall Guy stood back when he heard the bolt.
Trashed Guy - Dean - came out. He sucked his teeth, looked longingly at the mouthwash.
“Need to sit?” Tall Guy asked him, extending a hand.
Sheesh. Sounded more like a Mom than a hard-bitten robber, but Chester still didn’t trust him. Or the other one. That spluttering and puking could all have been put on with some weird purpose in mind. Chester just hadn’t figured out what it was yet.
“Nah, just felt a little crappy for a second there.”
“Crappy? Was that crappy, or are you in shock?”
“Just crappy. I told you I’d say if I felt crappy. I just felt crappy.”
“Not so crappy.”
Tall Guy didn’t look pleased. He looked like Mom did when Chester came home with a bloody lip. Kind of like she blamed him for getting whumped in the first place, as well as irritated by his stupidity and totally fuming that he wouldn’t take it seriously. Trashed Dean did what Chester did in the bloody-lip circumstance and created a diversion. He held up a length of sand-colored fabric and dangled it rather suggestively between Chester and the Tall Robber Guy.
“You can’t have that,” Chester protested at once. “That keeps our pipes from rattling.”
“Is that ...?” Tall Guy breathed out the question in some awe.
“It certainly is,” his partner said. “And we certainly will have it.”
“Look, hey, we’ll pay you,” Tall Guy said. “Then we’ll go fix up our car, come back and do something about those pipes.”
“You can’t have it,” Chester repeated, getting a little panicky now. His hands closed right around the shotgun.
“It’s a shitty piece of old pantyhose,” Trashed Dean said. “We’re not paying for it and we’re not coming back.”
“I’ve got a gun,” Chester said, “a sawed-off. And my Mom says I have to use it if we get robbed.”
“Trust me,” said Trashed Dean. “You wouldn’t want to use it. I happen to have a .45 Smith and Wesson on my person.” He smiled. “Which my Mom knows nothing about.”
“Now come on,” said Tall Guy, shaking his head severely. “Let’s not get silly about this. Listen, my name is Sam - me and my brother don’t want to rob you, OK? Why don’t you tell us who you are?”
“And more to the point, why aren’t you in school?” Trashed Dean put in.
Chester looked a little more favorably on Tall Sam than he had before, now that he had the same name as a real sweetheart of a black lab that belonged to the school janitor. Although, he wasn’t quite convinced yet about his ultimate robber status, or how buckets of crazy either of them were.
“I’m Chester Beattie. I’m not in school today because .... Mom doesn’t want ... I’m working.”
“OK. Chester,” Tall Sam said, apparently mustering up a kind voice without too much difficulty. “This is how it’s going to go. We’re going to buy some water. Then we’re going to walk back to our car and fix it the best we can, with this piece of pantyhose if you don’t mind. On our way through to the auto repair, we’ll stop by and get some gas.”
“What about the pipes?” Chester asked suspiciously.
Trashed Dean frowned. “String,” he said impatiently. “Or tape. It’ll do the same job.”
Chester kept a hand on the shotgun when the cash register opened. Tall Sam paid for the water with a bunch of screwed up ones and some coins. He handed a bottle to Trashed Dean, watched him drink.
“What you do to your hand?” Chester asked.
“Bitten by a mountain lion. Biiig sonofabitch.”
“Holy shit, really?”
“No, not really.”
“He burned it,” Tall Sam said quietly. He’d never sounded less like a robber. “And we really need a doctor to take a look.”
Chester looked across the valley. “That’d be North Silverbridge again. There’s a medical center you could go to. My Mom works there, although she’s not there now. If she was here she could maybe help you out. But she’s not here. Or there.”
“No, right. I see. That’s .... thanks. We’ll check it out.” Tall Sam smiled tightly, began herding his brother towards the exit like a sheepdog. “Take it easy, Chester.”
Chester watched them go out, faintly surprised that still no attempt had been made on the cash register. But glad too, in lots of ways.
“You say your car’s up on the ridge?” he called out on a sudden thought.
“Yeah,” Tall Sam said, looking back.
“Well, there’s a shortcut. If you take a left out of here and then cut up through the trees to your right, there’s a little track. It’ll take you straight across and out below the ridge, misses out the big bend. Pretty steep climb to start with, then it levels out.”
“Yeah,” said Trashed Dean. “And tell your Mom you’d rather be at school.”
Chester snorted. “School sucks,” he said.
“I know that, dude, but you get to leave the shotgun at home. Safer that way.”
The door jangled shut and he watched them pause outside as if considering whether to take the suggested shortcut. Tall Sam seemed to cast the deciding vote. They turned left and began walking.
Chester felt a pang of regret. It got boring and lonely as hell up here, and in the great scheme of things these guys had really been pretty OK. Of course, he’d known all along that they weren’t robbers. They seemed kind of cool actually. He’d have liked it if they’d stayed longer, at least until Mom got back.
Still, they said they’d come for gas in a bit.
They said they would.
It was breezy among the trees. Without the early March sunshine, there was a chill to the air, the kind of chill that made Sam realize how very weary he was, how very far north they were. He could feel the pull and sting in his muscles as they negotiated the first stretch of Chester’s shortcut, a slippery slope of loose stone and hard earth.
“You think we can fix the car?” he asked Dean’s back.
“OK then ... you. Do you think you can fix the car?”
“I can try.”
“Yeah,” Dean said, stopping and turning, breath coming in and out a little laboriously. “If you do as you’re told and don’t ask pansy-ass questions.”
“You’ve done it before, right? Replaced a busted fan belt?”
“And we’ll get to North Silverbridge?”
Dean, moved off again, muttering.
A couple of hundred yards further on Sam fished for his brother’s attention again, just to get him to slow down.
“That kid,” he said. “Chester. Do you think he’ll be all right?”
Turned out to be an inspired question, because Dean stopped right away, turned around, suspicious and a little bit amused. He put one hand on his knee, caught his breath.
“Well, I mean ... didn’t you want to be in school sometimes, you know ... when Dad had you out working?”
“Not ever,” Dean replied at once.
“So what you said was just bullshit? You wouldn’t have preferred to be hanging in the schoolyard with your buddies, knowing where you had to be, knowing what was going to happen that day, that you’d be safe?”
“Safe? Some of the schools we were at, man, there were freaks everywhere you looked. It wasn’t safe.”
“Safer than running round the countryside with a shotgun.”
“I don’t think so.”
Dean turned as if he was about to carry on walking, then he turned his head back again, gave Sam a look.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“We’re talking,” Sam said. “I mean, I’m saying something and you’re giving me an answer. That’s talking, right?”
“And what is is exactly that you’re saying, Sam?”
“That since ... Iowa ... we haven’t been talking.”
Dean did that little glance and away thing, cradled his hand into his chest and pursed his lips as if considering a weighty problem.
“Can take a little chat about feeling crappy, Sam, some back and forth about the goddamned fan-belt maybe. More than that, I don’t know.”
A pulse of irritation beat in Sam’s temple. “You are one sarcastic sonofabitch, you know that?”
Dean walked on. Sam took a few faster steps to catch up, digging his hands in his pockets. They were leveling out now along a track strewn with brown pine needles and flint. It took Sam some effort to keep in his own space, to work against the magnetic pull that caused them to collide occasionally, a gentle bump of shoulders or elbows.
“The road,” Sam said in sudden relief, pointing. The road was definitely up ahead and they began to walk towards it across a clearing. “I don’t know about a shortcut, but .... what the hell?”
There was a house directly on their left. It was absolutely the last thing Sam expected to see.
For a start it seemed like way too pretty a dwelling to be sitting right out here exposed to the mountain winds and empty silence. Sam came to a halt and stared at it, although Dean kept right on going.
“Wow.” Off to the left Sam could see the line of trees from earlier, still spiky and pretty, but just as far away. “What a ... fantastic ... wow.”
Dean stopped and turned round to look at him, eyebrows hiked.
“Really, man,” said Sam. “Isn’t this just a great place to build a house?”
Dean scowled. “Oh sell it to me, Sam. No cell phone signal. No neighbors except ones with claws. And ... uh ... just what do you do when you run out of coffee up here on Brokemyfreakinback Mountain?”
Sam felt a big grin stretch his face.
Dean came back to stand next to him, doing him the favor of giving the house a good, long appraisal.
“OK,” he said eventually, clearly unconvinced.
“Imagine that view, every day. This air.”
To Sam’s mind this was a loved house, solid, newly painted, nestling stoutly in the alpine firs. Even as Dean started off again, his eyes swept over the windows glinting in the sunshine, the smart roof tiles and healthy bay trees in pots by the door. It seemed that nobody was home though. There was no vehicle parked outside and the blinds were all down.
Just as Sam was about to fall back into step with his brother, he thought someone shouted.
“Did you hear that?”
Sam arrested Dean’s progress with a hand to the arm.
It didn’t surprise Sam much that Dean hadn’t heard anything, although it pained him. Reminded him yet again that Dean was way off his game, even if it hadn’t been for the burn and the lack of lunch. To Sam’s mind it all added up to the terrifying possibility that Dean was letting go, bit by bit, day by day, the fight trickling out of him like lifeblood.
Sam kept his hand on Dean’s arm, almost territorial.
“Really, dude,” he said quietly. “Listen. I heard something.”
Dean shook his head. He pulled away from Sam’s grasp, mouthing an “ow”. Sam held his gaze, miming for him to stay still.
“Oh hey, then smell that.”
And again, it didn’t feel very surprising that Dean looked at him like he was simple-minded. Far as Sam could make out, his brother’s senses were blunt and messed-up, all of them.
“Bread, dude,” Sam laughed, filling up with pleasure in spite of himself. “Don’t you just love that smell?”
“Listen,” said Dean through clenched teeth. “I am not John-Boy, and you are not Jim-Bob. And we never were.”
Sam heard the sound again. From deep within the pretty house. He began to walk, losing Dean from his peripheral vision.
“Hello?” he called, and went up the steps. He couldn’t believe it. Someone was yelling for help and Dean wasn’t moving.
The front door sprang open, and a woman appeared, tall and well-dressed with shining grey hair and an oven mitt in one hand.
“Thank the Lord,” she said, holding it out towards Sam, the other hand touched lightly to her neck. “There I was in the kitchen baking and Jim fell out of his chair. I could really use some help.”
The combination of her brilliant smile and anxious eyes were all it took.
Sam didn’t hesitate.
He was the leader right now.
To Dean’s mind the house was ugly.
Although he’d been as surprised as his brother to suddenly come across it clamped on the side of a windy mountain, all he thought about it was .... ugly. No garden and too much money spent on polishing the roof tiles.
He didn’t really care about it because his goddamn hand hurt. Well, maybe it did. His arm did, for sure, throbbing in time to his heartbeat. The hand on the end of it was doing something - he hadn’t quite gotten a feel for what it was yet. It felt huge, like a big useless glove, the skin tight and hot around his finger-joints and wrist. The sensation was eerily familiar and made him feel queasy.
When it came down to it, he was really not sure what had happened with the engine and skin-melding thing. Although he knew it had involved his own stupidity, he couldn’t quite get a handle on the sequence of events or how he’d managed to do what he did, not once but twice. At any rate, the pain at least gave him a good excuse to think about something that wasn’t to do with Rock Ridge or Bedford, or with Sam, whose words and deeds kept on scuttling around in his head like cockroaches and made him not want to open his eyes in the morning.
Three swallows of Jack Daniels helped. Jack always helped, or so he told himself. After that, though, the walking took it out of him and he had been about ready to fall on his face when they got to the Travelstop.
In the rest-room there, after puking up the latest round of sandwich and fear, he had stared at himself in the mirror above the sink. Looked himself over, chin to crown, while Sam continued to rattle the door handle from the other side. Hard to fathom how the whole of Hell could be in a tiny space like the inside of his head. Yet there it always was, waiting for him, whenever he slept without a Jack-flavored safety-net. Or whenever he forgot himself so completely that he shook hands with a hot engine. Luckily his eye had been caught by the incongruous sight of the pantyhose wound around some exposed pipes at that point.
Next they were on some shortcut back to the car, which wasn’t nearly short enough.
And then they came upon the house.
He would have just walked past without a second thought except that then Sam heard voices and smelled bread baking.
Dean heard nothing but the wind blowing through the trees. He smelled nothing but pine and pollen.
Saw the crazy woman though, when she threw open the door. Mad eyes and dressed all wrong. Sam seemed as charmed by her as he was by the fucking house. Dean had to drag his feet up the steps. All of a sudden something had piled on top of gravity, a weight that pressed painfully on his shoulders, trying to get him down. His knees protested, his spine ached. Everything wanted to cave in, sink to the earth and lie still.
Fighting it, Dean latched his sights on Sam’s back, let his brother’s upright energy draw him along.
“There I was in the kitchen, baking,” the woman said, as if she was in the middle of a conversation. “And then Jim fell out of his chair.”
All right, so Jim’s an idiot. Why do we care?
Dean’s brain struggled with it all. This woman ... baking ... in her pressed pantsuit ... in this lonely, super-clean nonsense of a house?
Inside the front door he felt chilled and had to lean on the wall.
“What’s the problem?” Sam was asking her, already following.
Dean wasn’t sure for a second if he felt grateful that Sam wasn’t fussing over him, or totally freaked by it. Then that second passed and he knew for sure that he was totally freaked.
They were in an angular yellow-painted hallway flanked by neat doors, a hexagonal carpet lying in the center, over which hung a large brass chandelier. Dean thought the pattern on the carpet was too wild and strident, the solid chandelier too heavy. He wanted to get back to the car.
“My brother,” the over-dressed woman was saying, leading the way to the one door which was open. “He fell and I need help to ...” She indicated the door and Dean heard Sam say, “Oh, hey ...” as he disappeared through it.
Determined not to let him out of his sight, Dean pushed off the wall. Crossing the carpet was like wading through mud in lead boots.
“Here,” the woman said, glancing at him, “honey ... can you help us?”
Dean got through the door and found Sam already stooped next to an elderly man sprawled on the wooden floor, tangled up in a wheelchair amid a sea of books and loose papers.
“No he can’t,” Sam said over his shoulder. “Burned his hand earlier, needs to take it easy.”
“Honeee,” said the woman, head on one side. She stared directly at his bound limb, then up at his face. He didn’t like her tone of voice and he didn’t like her expression. “How did that happen? Would you like me to take a look at it?”
Dean’s tongue wouldn’t come off the roof of his mouth. He made a dismissive gesture, began to pat his pocket to find the water. Somehow his hand was all over the place, swatting thin air. The woman watched him curiously.
“There you go,” Sam said. He’d righted the wheelchair as if it had been no effort at all.
“Heh!” the man said cheerfully. “Way to go there, young feller. Heh. I was just reaching for my pen and then ... woof! Over I go!”
“Jim, you frightened the life out of me, you old fool.” The woman brushed her smoothly manicured hands down her immaculate pantsuit, causing the bangles on both wrists to tinkle. She was laughing and Dean couldn’t think what was so funny.
“Baking?” he found himself saying. “Really?” He could smell nothing but dust.
The look Sam shot him was wide-eyed with disapproval.
“Marlena Broomfield,” she said, plainly ignoring Dean. “And my brother Jim. I really can’t thank you enough, Mr ...?”
“Sam, and my brother Dean.”
Jim Broomfield cackled from his chair. “Someone needs to park their ass!”
“Yeah, Dean, come on, man, you look like you should really sit,” Sam said but his smiling face didn’t seem to fit his words.
Just what is it that’s so freakin’ hilarious about all this?
Dean swiveled his gaze from the old man to his brother and then to Marlena Broomfield who was indicating a wooden straight-backed chair.
The temptation to rest was immense, but Dean wouldn’t do it. He was icy-cold and his hand was agony. All he wanted was to leave. And for Sam to change out of his Good Samaritan costume.
“No I’m good,” he got out.
“Oh here,” Sam said, turning away from him with a nonchalance that Dean felt like a poke in the gut. “Can I help you with this?” He bent again to the puddle of paper.
“Careful with that, son. That’s my life’s work you’re stamping on,” Jim told him.
“Heh! It’s all right, M. I can see the boy’s no fool.”
From his position hovering over the chair Dean could see the papers were all covered in handwriting and neat pencil drawings.
“What are you working on, Mr. Broomfield?”
Sam, please. Tell me you’re not as interested as you sound.
“It’s a book about trees, son.”
“Those ones with the spindly branches,” Sam said, waving his hands. “You can see a whole line of them from up on the ridge ... you know what I mean? What are those?”
Dean felt like walking across the room and punching his brother in his goddamn polite, personable teeth.
“That would be the larch,” Jim said.
“Beautiful tree,” said Sam, nodding.
“Let me offer you something, Sam and Dean,” Marlena put in then. “Some coffee perhaps?”
Sam looked round at Dean grinning, like he knew exactly what he was going to say. Dean’s hand burned angrily, worse than before.
“Heh, something stronger I think?” Jim suggested.
“Now Jim, the boy doesn’t need any more liquor.” Marlena seemed very sure of this and Dean felt his brows contract lazily in a frown of protest.
“Oh he’s not drunk,” Sam assured her, sounding bright as a freakin’ button. “And coffee would be great. Dean, if you’d just sit down for a minute ....”
“No!” Dean said angrily, and then they were all looking at him. “I’m gonna go back to the ... car. Fix it.”
Sam got to his feet, a sheaf of paper in one hand. He stepped carefully over the remainder.
“Really ... dude ..” His fingers closed on Dean’s good arm, squeezed hard. “Have a cup of coffee. Sit for a while.”
“Rather get started.”
“With one hand? I don’t think so.”
Dean wondered if he was suffering from a freakishly-quick infection. Sam’s voice sounded like a 45 being played at 33, and he looked pleased with himself, like the Sam of the Rock Ridge hallucinations. The Sam who crackled with power and wrapped his hand round Dean’s airway.
Wearily, Dean shut his eyes. He heard the three voices, knew they were talking about him. He pulled his arm free, regretting the loss of contact.
“Must,” he said. “Sam, we must. We gotta go. North Silverbridge.”
“Honey,” came Marlena’s forthright trill. “Whatever you got planned for North Silverbridge, I’m sure it can wait.”
“Your brother is a stubborn boy, Sam.”
“Yes he is.”
Yes, Sam? Freakin’ yes?
“Sam, I’m going, I’ll see you back at the car.”
Bright dark eyes turned to him.
Come on, Sammy. Ditch the creepy siblings. Let’s go.
“Fine, dude, I’m right behind you. Take it easy.”
Dean pressed his elbow into his stomach, bent himself slightly over the injured hand. It felt like it was on fire.
No, nothing wrong with Sam. This is me. I’m the one who’s screwed.
“Ah, honey,” he heard. “Close the front door behind you.”
He couldn’t remember crossing back over the hexagonal carpet or opening the front door. All he knew was that inside the house his brother was chatting with two crazy people like they were old friends.
Dean reached for the big ring in the center of the door, closed his good hand around it and tugged. It was unnaturally heavy, or else he was unnaturally weak. When it finally banged shut, he staggered backwards down the steps and landed on his ass.
If there’d been a vote at any of the schools he’d ever attended, Dean figured he might have won Most Likely to Become a One-Armed Auto Mechanic.
From the moment the Impala had sputtered to a halt, his prime motivation had been to get her going again, to do something he knew he was good at. Soon as he’d picked himself out of the dust in front of the Broomfield place and decided to let Sam carry on being neighborly, he was thinking it through.
Once back at the car he had the hood open and the wrecked fan belt out quicker than you could say sonofabitch. He was a little unbalanced, but having one hand out of commission didn’t make him quite as useless as he’d feared. Putting pain on the back burner, so to speak ... that was something else he was good at. And somehow it felt easier doing this kind of stuff when Sam wasn’t watching, waiting for him to be an idiot of some kind. Clumsy, buzzed, insane, hopeless ... any of those.
Out in the air, pressed close to the bumper, breathing in the smell of hardworking metal and old motor oil, he felt more together than he’d felt for some days. His hand still hurt, though, and the whole arm went numb when he tried to hold one end of the pantyhose down. He knew he’d have to be messed in the head to ignore how serious it was.
Daylight was starting to fade and Dean wanted more than anything to be back in control, behind the wheel with the engine running, when Sam caught up. He straightened from his task only once to look down the road to where he was expecting his brother to appear at any second.
Trouble was, it wasn’t just the belt. He was pretty sure the alternator was on the fritz and something else ... something else had made the engine overheat. Overheat enough to make his palm an empty wasteland for the next fortune-teller who happened along.
Nope, sorry. Your heart, your head, your life ... nothing doing anymore, buddy.
Damn, he needed time. Time, warmth, light and two hands.
Sam was probably right about not looking after her. He hadn’t been looking after her. So not cool that Sam was always probably right.
“Sorry, baby,” he found himself saying, the fingers of his injured hand touching down on a groove in the metal of the radiator. “Haven’t been taking care of you.” He rubbed some oil across the pads of his first three fingers with his thumb and then sniffed them. “Sweetheart ... are you leaking?”
Talking dirty to his car. Most fun than he’d had in months.
The almost-evening breeze skimmed the hair on top of his head. There was a pinkish glow to the sky and there was peace. Actually, he hadn’t really noticed that before, the peace. Too busy trying to prove that while he was many irritating things, weak wasn’t one of them. And at least he could still make it to the top of the ridge first, burned hand or no, and have the car back on the road before sundown.
Pathetic really, but what was he going to do? Forty years hadn’t changed his M.O.
Dean smeared the oil on his jeans, examined his handiwork so far.
It was going to be touch and go. He really needed the extra pair of hands, even if they belonged to his messed-up, lying, fumblefuck of a brother.
“Just what the hell?” he asked of the Impala. “How long does it take to small-talk some crazy old dude about trees and drink a cup of goddamn coffee anyway? Answer me that.”
The noise of an approaching vehicle made him look up and he moved a step towards the road, wiping across his brow with the bad arm.
A blue truck flashed its lights at him. It slowed down and came to a halt right behind where the Impala was stranded. The engine rumbled on for a while and then went quiet. Nobody got out so Dean decided to approach. When he reached the truck - Mazda B-Series, about four years old and scratched to hell - the electric window rolled down. A brown-haired woman was sitting behind the wheel on her own, tanned forearms, four piercings in her ear. She looked like she wasn’t at all sure she should have stopped.
“You in trouble?” she asked, pressed back suspiciously in her seat, arms still stretched out on the wheel.
Eyes the color of shiny hazelnuts. White t-shirt, too small, but that was actually more than OK.
Dean cleared his throat, held up his bound hand. “I’m kinda ... fucked,” he found himself saying. “Trying to fix my car ... waiting for my brother to get back. You wouldn’t be able to come and ... hold something for me?”
“Did you seriously just say that?” the woman asked, her little red mouth quirking.
Dean felt un-used muscles in his face stretch, heard himself babbling. “The flashlight mainly. I .. really ... one hand ... not going to be able to ... uh, are you getting a cell phone signal?”
Damn. A cute brown-haired woman, busting out of her t-shirt, smelling like vanilla ice-cream and offering to help him, and he had nothing. Turned out owning a coal-black space where his soul used to be didn’t help in the business of hitting on mortal women. Not at all.
“Not right now, no. Not up here.”
He quickly stepped away as the woman unlocked the car, gave her plenty of room to open the door and get out. When she was on the road she banged shut the driver’s door with her hip before coming closer to him. He couldn’t help taking in a deep breath, just to get another hit of vanilla.
“My God,” she said , “you’re ... are you sniffing me? Are you dangerous?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” He flushed so heavily it made his cheeks hurt.
Oh. Fuck. Dean Winchester and shy in the same sentence. Tell me it isn’t true.
“Right.” She looked him up and down. “I can hold a flashlight. Name’s Gina if that helps.”
“Hey, Dean. Picked a helluva place to break down. What you do to your hand?”
“Engine was kind of hot.”
“Kind of ... hot,” she repeated, and looked him up and down again. “Yeah. I get it. Well then lead on, Dean, I haven’t got all day.”
Dean had the not-unpleasant sensation that her eyes were fixed on his butt as he walked back to the Impala. She stood close enough with the flashlight that her flowery-sweet ice-cream scent was all over him as he bent to his task again.
Cars and women. Women and cars. Jesus. It’s not like I ever asked for much.
“I don’t believe this,” she said after watching him for a while. “Is that what I think it is?”
“It’s doing the job.”
She laughed hard. “I heard you could mend cars with underwear. Never believed it.”
“Now you know.”
“If it works.”
“Oh, it’ll work. If I could just get it ....” There was a ping and the pantyhose slipped from his grasp again.
“Hey, you’re in real trouble with that hand aren’t you? Shouldn’t you get it looked at?”
Dean held up his paw, impatient in spite of himself, in spite of her sweetness. “I’m looking at it. Looks fine to me.”
“Oh right. So you have an attitude. Yeah. Figures.”
“Figures?” He stood up straight.
She shrugged, smirked at him a little.
OK, so flirting. On the side of the road. On a mountain. Wasn’t this one of those real life versus porn situations? Dean forced himself to concentrate.
“Where’s your brother?” she asked when he finally got the damn thing to hold. He was sweaty, had engine oil all over him and his good hand was covered in scrapes where he’d kept banging it against sharp metal and plastic edges.
“Left him at the Broomfield place.”
“Oh you bastard,” Gina said. The flashlight went off and she dropped it on the ground.
The mood had changed so drastically that Dean would not have been surprised if a black cloud sailed into view over their heads, or a bunch of tumbleweed came blowing across the road. Gina stepped right back, holding up both hands as if to ward him off.
“That is so not funny. That is ... so not fuckin’ funny.”
Dean laid aside the rag he was about to use to wipe his hand. He knew he wasn’t the most tactful person on the planet; sometimes said too many words, or said too few, or just strung all the wrong ones together. On this occasion, though, he was at a loss to know what he’d done. “Okay, come at me again with that, Gina. What is it that’s not funny about the Broomfield place?”
“Like you don’t know,” she said, turning to leave. “Jesus. I can’t believe I could be so stupid. Not to see that you’re just another sick freak.”
The utter disgust on her face told him he had crossed a boundary. Like, straight through the border guards without a passport.
“Hey, hold on there. I really ... don’t ... know what you’re talking about ... but hey ... hey! I need you to tell me! Now, for ... fuck’s sake, I need you to tell me now!”
Gina was already walking away with fast, controlled steps along the uneven road. Dean realized that shouting at her was a bad idea but the apprehension pricking across his back and the dull flare of pain were undermining his self-control. Gritting his teeth, he strode after her.
“Gina, whoah ... slow down ... wait a second, what’d I do?”
She turned on him then, furious, got close enough to jab a finger in his chest.
“Do you think killing people’s funny?”
His stomach dropped like a stone.
“Of course I -”
“People died in that house, you pathetic loser. People’s sons and brothers died in that fuckin’ house. They found their heads in the ... and you think it’s funny ...”
“Believe me,” he said. “Believe me when I tell you I don’t think it’s funny. Gina, please ... “
“Yeah, well I hope your car doesn’t start and nobody stops and you stand out here all night freezing your ass off. I hope you lose your fuckin’ hand, you ... just ... just go to hell, you sick fuck.”
“OK,” Dean said, and he’d grabbed hold of her before he could stop himself. He could hardly speak his chest had tightened up so much. “OK to all of that. I’ll go to hell, yeah, whatever. Just ... tell me what happened in that house.”
He was willing her to be calm but she wasn’t having any of it.
“Do some research, asshole,” she hissed, and broke from his hold. In five more steps she was back at the truck.
Dean let her go. By the time her vehicle had regained the road in a squeal of tires, he was banging down the hood of the Impala. By the time she’d passed him, angrily honking her horn, he was in the front seat, praying to the great god of Chevrolet to just let his baby ....
The engine caught the first time, revved with a bit of a cough, but kept going. Dean gripped the steering wheel with the hand that could still grip and accelerated on to the road. He knew he should probably take it slow, because one-hand-and-an-elbow driving was asking for a skid, and because he needed to make sure he didn’t miss the house when he came to it, but his instincts were screaming at him to floor the accelerator, burn rubber and just ... get there.
Something bad. Something very, very bad.
Dusk had faded to dark in the blink of an eye. The trees were indistinct shadows now, the valley spread out below the mountain was beginning to wink with tiny lights.
Here, it was here.
Dean slewed to a stop. This was where he’d come on to the road after staggering up off the ground in front of the steps.
What the hell had he left for again? Because Sam was being a decent, helpful guy?
He practically fell out of the car. Picked up another gun and some rocksalt shells from the trunk, didn’t know how in hell he was going to load it with only one hand ... ran. Ran into the trees.
The clearing was just that. A clearing in the trees, containing nothing.
There was no house.
Not so much as a sapling or a log or ... anything. Just an empty space in the trees, the ground shelving slightly, like the place had been leveled by a spiteful alien attack-ship.
Dean hitched in a breath and held it. How had he freakin’ well got this wrong? Was his radar so terminally fucked?
He and Sam had come along Chester’s shortcut from right over there. The house had been here, right here in this clearing, facing out to the valley. He’d walked past these trees going back to the road ....
“Sam ...” he said to the open, empty space. A spasm of pain shot through his arm from his shoulder to the tips of his fingers, nearly winding him.
This couldn’t be.
It just couldn’t.
Sam never got his cup of coffee.
He could smell it all right, alongside the aroma of warm dough that crept through the house, but none arrived. Registering a sharp sense of unease that Dean was in no shape to be wandering around on his own, but feeling obliged to give a helping hand to these people, he carried on picking up the scattered pages as fast as he could. There seemed to be thousands of them, out of order, some of them a little crumpled. The drawings were such beautiful, delicate work, that he wanted to be as careful as he could. Several times he had to stop himself just gawking in amazement.
Jim Broomfield sat in his wheelchair, clucking his approval.
“Can’t thank you enough,” he said. “M would never have had the patience. She’d just have thrown them all on the desk and told me to get on with it. Heh! Doesn’t have much patience, my M.”
“Do you have a working phone?” Sam asked from his knees. “I really need to get my brother to a doctor.”
“Well, I can see how you’ve got your hands full there. I know I can be a bit of a pain in the ass at times, but at least I don’t drink.”
It took Sam a moment to realize the direction the conversation might go.
“Oh ... no ... Dean isn’t ... he doesn’t ... well, that is ... it’s just his hand, I think. He’s not feeling so great.”
“If you say so.”
Sam glanced up. The old man was grinning at him, not entirely warmly.
“Uh ... so, I’m sorry, did you say you had a phone?”
“Nooo, lines blew down two nights ago. Goddamn crews haven’t made it up here yet.”
Sam blew out a calming breath. “Right.”
“He shouldn’t have left,” Jim observed.
“Your brother should have stayed. Boy needed to take the weight off, let someone look out for him.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t do that,” said Sam, transferring a neat pile of paper back on to the leather-topped desk by his ear.
Jim cackled suddenly. “Sounds like my nephew Jefferson,” he said. “Wouldn’t let anyone do a thing for him.”
Sam nodded. He didn’t want to hear about Jefferson, and he didn’t want to talk about Dean. “Nearly done,” he said. “And then I must go catch up with my brother.”
“That’s Jefferson,” Jim told him, and Sam couldn’t help following the line of the old man’s gaze to a bunch of photographs on the mantelpiece. “Died in ’92.”
Sam flicked through the last pile of paper, eyes moving rapidly, and then clambered to his feet.
“He was sick,” Jim carried on. “Wouldn’t tell anyone, though. Too late by the time we found out.”
Sam still didn’t say anything. It wasn’t like family disasters were very shocking to him anymore.
“He was only ... oh ... thirty or thereabouts. Our dead sister’s boy. Like a son to us.” Jim was still staring at the photographs and Sam couldn’t resist going over to see. All the shots were of the same young man. On a motorcycle. Dressed in hiking gear. Playing tennis. White-water rafting.
Quite the athlete.
Sam wasn’t sure if he’d had this thought himself or if he was channeling Dean.
“Goddamn lazy bastard,” Jim said from the wheelchair.
“That boy. Lazy, weak sonofabitch.”
Sam’s brow crinkled in confusion. The smell of baking bread and brewing coffee was beginning to get a little cloying. There seemed to be no fresh air in the place, and .... oh right .... now he was beginning to smell something else. Sam couldn’t have described the smell if anyone had asked him, but he was getting it all right. Cold and clingy, pouring out of the walls.
“You know what?” he said, “I’m going to pass on the coffee. I need to get back to Dean.”
“The weak ones,” Jim said. “It’s always the weak ones that turn.”
Tragedy and madness ... that was what he could smell. It suddenly tickled his gag reflex. Sam felt the freezing puff of his own breath pass his lips and saw the vapor hanging in the air before him.
“Fuck,” he said with feeling. “I walked right into this, didn’t I?”
Sam cursed everything he could lay claim to then - his one-track mind, his inability to help his brother, the rolling tide of lousy Winchester luck. Damn. Something had told Dean this house shouldn’t be here. Dean, who’d been struggling so badly, had felt it from out there on the mountainside. And Sam, with all his superior Spidey-sense and freaky mojo honed to the nth degree ... Sam had missed it.
He already knew what would happen when he got across the blaring hall carpet and reached the front door. It wouldn’t open. Of course it wouldn’t. It was jammed and unmoving in the solid, unholy way that haunted doors always were. The windows would be the same. The whole damn house would be the same.
Fuck. Too late, too late.
“Too late,” Jim said right behind him.
Dean reversed out of the empty clearing at speed and was lucky he didn’t wrap the Impala round a tree. The last time he’d driven one-handed, the hand now useless to him had been stroking Mindy Meyerson’s inner thigh and that evening hadn’t ended too well either if he remembered rightly. For a split second, staring out of the rear window into the dark, he had a total blank about which direction he should go. His desire to act and his ability to do so were not synchronized. In fact, the gap between the two scared the hell out of him.
He needed his cell to pick up something. He needed instant information. Fuck, he so needed Bobby on the end of a phone.
All of these things were out of his reach, so he went for the next-best alternative.
Dean couldn’t believe his luck that there were actually still lights on at the Travelstop. Not only that, parked out by the pump was the blue Mazda. Two figures were visible standing at the counter inside.
Gina evidently wasn’t getting gas. She was right by Chester behind the counter and as soon as she saw Dean come through the door she shouldered a shotgun. He froze.
“Mom,” Chester said. “This is one of those guys I was just telling you about.” He looked out the window. “Did you manage to fix the fan-belt?”
“Uh-huh,” Dean said cautiously. He could only raise his good hand to show compliance with the 12-gauge aimed at his chest as the other one seemed to be attached to a weight that left it hanging forlornly in front of his stomach. Gina held the weapon with a natural confidence that had probably attracted Dean to her as much as the t-shirt.
“Why the hell are you following me?” she snapped out.
“I’m not following you, Gina. I swear. Tell your Mom again, Chester, tell her I was here earlier with my brother.”
“Sam and Dean, Mom. I thought they were robbers but they only wanted some water and pantyhose.”
Gina snorted. “So what was that bullshit about the Broomfield house? Where’s your brother now?”
“I don’t know, that’s kind of the fucking problem, Gina. I’ve lost him, out there in the ... and the thing is, if I knew the story, then I might be able to ... find him.”
Her hold on the weapon didn’t waver.
“How’ve you lost him?”
“ Look, I know this makes no sense at all -”
“Oh you think? No, don’t say anymore.” She hefted the gun, shifted the weight a little, kept it aimed. “Let me guess. You’ve read something somewhere ... on some stupid website I’ll bet, and you thought you’d come up here and see if there were any spooky souvenirs or some crap like that? What did it say, this website or whatever? Was it about the murders? Or just about the fire?”
“Nothing. Neither. Believe me.”
Gina frowned at him. “Believe me, he says.” She was looking straight into his eyes, as if searching for the guy whose butt she had followed down the road, who’d made her laugh and quirk her lips. She sighed. “OK, Dean. You want the story. Story goes ... house burned down four years ago, with the Broomfields in it.”
“They set it on fire,” Chester added. “Locked themselves in the cellar and torched the place.”
Dean made himself absorb these statements quickly, ignoring the mental indigestion that resulted. “Why would they do that?”
“Cause they figured the cops were coming,” Chester said.
“There was an investigation.” Gina began to lower the shotgun. “Finally, an investigation into things that had happened .... over years and years .... to people who came to the mountain and never went home. They found them all, in the burned-out house. Well, found their heads.”
Dean knew he wasn’t breathing in complete lungfuls of air, that he was beginning to ride the wave of an aggressive panic. “So ... this loopy brother and sister combo ... what? L-lured them in?” he stuttered, “killed them in the house and then ....? “
“Yeah,” said Chester. “Chopped off their heads. Gross.”
“Jesus, Chester!” his mother snapped, “and you wonder why I want to move away from this fuckin’ place?”
Dean pressed the heel of his good hand hard above one eye. “Why though? Why do that?”
“I know,” Chester said, and Dean knew he had been right to come back to the Travelstop. “I know all about the bread-baking crazy people. Ask me.”
“Yeah, well we don’t need to hear it, buster,” Gina interrupted him. “It’s way beyond time we were closing and going home. Listen here, you ... Dean ... I don’t know why your brother is still running around up there. There’s nothing for him to get any kicks out of. There’s no haunted ruin or anything. Nothing was left but the foundations and they took all those away years ago.”
“I’m going back,” Dean said. “And I need to know exactly what they did and why.”
“Oh my God, why would you be interested? I mean really. If I could call the cops on your weird ass ... ”
Dean had to stuff as much information as he could into the non-addled parts of his brain. Obviously without explaining that he was scared his brother was caught on the other side, in a house that no longer existed, with a couple of ghosts who were probably trying to decapitate him at this very moment. And not pass out. All of which felt like a huge, between-the-eyes head-fuck.
His voice was wobbly with effort.
“I don’t give a crap who, but ... one of you ... please, would you just freakin’ tell me.”
Sam had long given up hoping for a return to normal.
He’d spent good chunks of his childhood and youth bitching about how far from normal he considered his life to be, and when he walked away it had felt unbelievably good. Like walking into the light.
No sooner had he constructed the normal he wanted though - girlfriend safely asleep in bed, groceries in the cupboard, a bright future on the horizon - than the earth began to shake. His unexpected re-acquaintance with Dean on the floor of the Palo Alto apartment rocked him to his foundations.
In retrospect, though, even that bone-crunching experience seemed more of a slight tremor than the major 7.5 it had felt like at the time.
Sam had managed to steady himself after the seismic event. He’d felt more and more solid as he and Dean bonded. In fact, despite Jess, despite Dad and the whole tainted-blood mess - hell, despite Azazel and Ruby and Lilith, in fact right up to the dying hours of a warm night in New Harmony, Indiana, Sam had been able withstand the still-shifting plates under his feet. But by the time that night came to an end the earth had just plain opened up, and normal had fallen in.
So, when Sam rounded on Jim Broomfield, whose breath he had felt move the hair on the back of his neck, he wasn’t exactly surprised that no-one was there.
A little woozy at what he saw, maybe.
Because, yeah, the house looked like it was having its very own own out-of-body experience.
The hall seemed larger then when he’d crossed it moments before, the doors further away, the color of the walls almost painful to look at. It was darker too, although not a sun-going-down kind of dark. This was different. This was a never-any-light-here kind of dark.
Sam knew it well.
He searched his pockets, relieved he had a mag lite but not too impressed with anything else. A small flask of holy water - no use at all right now. Some rock salt shells - no damn use without a gun to fire them from. A small silver-bladed knife in a leather sheath. Pretty, but no damn use.
OK, has this happened before? Did Dad ever come across this?
Sam’s backlog of run-ins with the spirit world opened itself quickly at page one. Lucky for him he could speed-read. All the old facts were ready to go, now he just needed all the new facts.
He crossed the hall rug once more. The pattern wasn’t moving, exactly, yet it somehow made his eyeballs pulse. He had to look away.
Sam did a quick Q&A with himself.
What do I know?
Jim’s not here right now, and Marlena’s not here right now. They will both be back.
What do I need to know?
Why they’re here. And what I can use to keep them at bay.
He started in the study, which was behaving in the opposite way from the hall. Everything here seemed to be crowding in and he had to resist the urge to back out. The mag lite beam swept around from the doorway, across walls lined with bookshelves to the window. Nothing outside was visible. On the hearth was a coal scuttle and a brush. And a poker, heavy and charcoal-black. The first thing Sam did was scoop it up off the strangely dust-free stone.
Another sweep with the mag lite showed him the desk where Jim Broomfield had been at work, the abandoned wheelchair. Which the old man apparently didn’t actually need. He seized the handle of a drawer, pulled it out and emptied the contents on to the floor. Then he followed suit with the other three drawers and dropped to his knees in the middle of the mess, poker under one arm.
He heard voices somewhere, in another room maybe, unclear and disembodied. They were trickling out of the walls like water.
“All right, all right, enough!”
Gina slammed the shotgun back down on the counter.
She was tired of all this. Tired of juggling the medical center job and the stupid Travelstop, tired of North Silverbridge and all the creepy people that kept coming there, tired of being a moonlighting single Mom whose son kept getting beaten up at school.
And she hadn’t gotten laid in months. Speaking of, there was something both worrying and powerfully appealing in this Dean guy’s eyes, and Gina felt it like a hot flash, an ovary-popping mix of sympathy and desire. Oh boy, he was right on the edge of collapse here and it was tripping all her hopeless-case switches. Whether he had any handle on reality she didn’t know, but he was plainly desperate, a human being in dire need of more kinds of help than she guessed she could give.
At any rate, her livid anger at the notion of the Broomfield saga being part of some lunatic tourist trail was beginning to die away in the face of his distress.
“Okay, you can stop the crazy now, Dean. Whatever you say is fine - disappearing house, brother, whatever. Just, look, I’d like to do something about that hand of yours. Why don’t you stop frothing at the mouth and come back here for a second, huh? Chester can tell you a nice story to take your mind off the pain.”
“I don’t have time,” he said through his teeth.
“Oh you do, Dean. Trust me, you do, ‘cause I don’t see you managing much of anything unless you let me help. Ches, get the green box for me would you, hon, and lock the door? Jesus, I fuckin’ hate being up here in the dark.”
Although he was plainly seething with frustration, she got Dean to come through to the back room and sit in a chair. In the confines of the small interior he smelled of motor-oil and liquor. And like he could do with a good rub-down in the shower. That image hung in her head for way too long and made her grab his injured hand with more energy than she intended.
“Fuck!” he yelped. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“Ooops, misjudged your threshold there. Sorry.” She shifted down a gear or two, began to unwind the edges of the bandaging carefully. “Ohhhh-kay. You dress this yourself?”
“Huh. Well he did a halfway decent job. I’m guessing you were bitching and complaining the whole time, right?”
Gina’s stomach did a few flip-flops when he glared at her.
Oh come on, Gina, not the whole moody, bad-boy trip again. Enough. Fuckin’ enough already.
“Chester, could you get Dean a drink of water and some of those Advils from the box please?”
She continued unwinding, aware of the tiny muscle twitching along Dean’s jaw, the sweat beading on his forehead. Finally the filthy, oily fabric was off, and she let it slip to the floor. What she could see of the hand was puffy with fluid. As she lifted away the dressing on the palm he turned his head away with a swallow.
It was a mess.
“The water, Ches.”
Chester handed over a glass and some pills, then he sat opposite Dean on an upturned box.
“You take these, Dean. I’m going to wash up and then clean this for you. That OK with you?”
Dean nodded. He took the pills, finished the whole glass of water and set it back on the table with his uninjured but unsteady hand. As Gina left for the bathroom she heard him say in a tight growl, “What happened after the fire?”
Then she heard Chester begin. By the time she’d scrubbed-up as much as she could with the remains of a bottle of Walgreens anti-bacterial and come back, Dean was out of the chair.
“You are one difficult patient,” she told him. “Would you just sit down? Now? Before you fall down? Jesus.”
Her son did her the favor of looking a little guilty for having over-excited someone who was clearly supposed to be sitting quiet. Dean looked a little guilty too. He sank down on the chair again but Gina didn’t miss the rueful look that passed between them.
Chester carried on as Gina got to work. “This is back in ninety-something, ‘kay? So, just the two of them up here, always been together, he’s a botanist or something, no marriages, no kids, just their nephew Jefferson who comes to live with them before he goes to college. Jock of the century. Apple of their eyes and blah blah. Then while he’s away, Jefferson dies of some freakin’ awful disease and they don’t even know. He stops coming to see them and when they find out what happened, it, like, triggers something. They’re probably a little psycho anyway, but this ... this sends them over, you know?”
Gina didn’t think she’d heard her boy say so many words at a stretch for a very long time.
“The investigation?” Dean’s voice sounded a little faint. He had shut one eye as Gina began dabbing around the burned skin at the base of his fingers. She was tempted to tell her son to shut the fuck up right now please, but it seemed that at least the story might take Dean’s attention away from what she was doing.
“They didn’t even start until a couple of years ago when a hiker guy got away from them. He said - get this ... he said they asked him for help. And they offered him this fresh-baked bread and coffee and all. Before him there’d been five missing guys. Can you believe it? All on the mountain. No bodies found ‘til the house went up.”
“I can believe it,” Dean said. “I can believe almost anything. It’s kind of my job.” He winced as Gina flashed him a resentful pout. “I’m sorry, but it is.”
“Gotta tell you, Dean, I don’t like the look of this at all. Here .. where the burns criss-cross ... that’s third degree damage, and where it’s blowing up, that’s second degree, and then you’re all ... and with the stupid auto-repair it’s probably infected. I’ll put on some ointment, but that’s not really gonna do jack shit. You need antibiotics, heavy-duty, maybe a bionic hand down the line. You’re certainly a candidate for a burn specialist. How does it feel now?”
“Tell me about the fire.”
“Your hand’s burned to a fuckin’ crisp and you want a story about a fire? Are you going to tell me why I’m bothering to do this?”
Dean’s eyes shut briefly again. His tongue came out and he licked at his dry bottom lip. “Because you’re a sucker for sick puppies?”
A spasm of laughter caught at her midriff but she suppressed it.
Yeah. Sick, moody, bad-boy puppies.
“I could put a splint on. Might help although you won’t be able to use it.”
Dean pushed the hand towards her. “Just wrap it, tight as you like.”
“Okay. Your funeral.”
“The fire?” Dean prompted again.
Chester rocked forward, squeezing his hands between his knees. “Okay, so the cops are running their investigation and everybody in this dumb place is all like oh I’ve always been suspicious of them because they had this real obsessive, weird ... y’know, thing about the nephew and they were so fu- they were so wasted, and not because he was dead, noooo - they were pissed ‘cause he stopped comin’ to visit.”
Dean was breathing like he was trying to inhale Chester’s words. Gina could feel that he was about to get up again and that this time he wasn’t going to agree to sit. She’d heard this awful story a hundred times before; couldn’t ever understand Chester’s interest in it.
“Did they find the Broomfields?”
“Like I said, they knew the cops were coming and they decided to flame out.”
“Right. Locked in the cellar. But their bodies - they find their bodies?”
Gina finished off the wrapping, tapped Dean’s wrist with two fingers to show him she was done and that she didn’t like his line of questioning, then stood back a step and folded her arms.
“Are they still under the house, Chester?” Dean asked.
Gina made a noise of disbelief. This guy ... he was a nightmare. A total, fucking nightmare. And - why, oh why, God? - completely, insanely hot.
Chester flicked his eyes to her, and then back to Dean. “Far as I know. Don’t think anybody bothered to dig ‘em up.” His eyes opened wide then, like he was seeing something written on Dean’s face. “Hey, you see something up there? You didn’t see ... them? Like ... dead them?” He looked enjoyably freaked and Gina was really pissed. Really pissed that something like this should bring him out of himself when all her efforts had failed.
“I think that’s really enough, Dean. Chester will tell this tale to all comers, but I’ve had just about as much as I can take of the Broomfields and fuckin’ weird people asking about them.”
“No, but, Mom,” Chester got in real quick. “Just one more thing ... this is really cool. There’s this website -”
“Oh my God, I knew it ...”
“Hold on, let me tell you. It is kinda weird, but it’s cool too. There’s all the stuff about what happened and the victims and then there’s this game you can play. With the house. Like it’s a virtual Broomfield house and you can go in it and they come and try and get you. It ... it ... it’s cool.”
Chester finally ran out of steam.
Dean had got to his feet. “Tell me you have a laptop,” he said, “I wanna play that freakin’ game right now.”
Gina could see by the shine in her son’s eyes that he thought Dean was the coolest thing since ice.
When Sam heard the voices clearer, out in the hall like they were summoning him, he moved on, poker in hand.
He’d found plenty of facts.
Jefferson’s whole life, from womb to tomb. Photographs, baby teeth, locks of hair, drawings, letters, certificates, schoolbooks, cards and agendas, his every visit and contact marked with a flourish and in capital letters. JEFF ON FRIDAY! JEFF BIRTHDAY! JEFF CALLING! The drawers of the room were stuffed full of Jefferson. Nothing and nobody else. The papers didn’t break up in Sam’s hands, exactly, but they felt fragile as ashes.
Across the hall in the kitchen, there was certainly no coffee. No bread either. The old-fashioned range was sparkling and cold and there was nothing but the sharp, stagnant stink of - Sam swallowed it down. Yeah, that would be dead people. It had been hanging around behind the tragedy and madness but it was strong in here. Strong enough to make his gut roil.
The dead people were the ones in the walls, too, like crackling voices on old transistor radio sets. And they weren’t the only ones, because the Broomfields had stuff on their minds, too. Whenever they weren’t actually present, in all their grim otherworldliness, they kept saying Sam’s name as if he were a naughty boy playing hide and seek.
There were three chairs at the wooden table whose surface was pale and scrubbed clean. It was uncovered, marked by ridges which looked like they’d been sanded repeatedly. Like it was a big chopping board. By the door to outside were two metal pails. Wooden-handled implements lay soaking under a surface of pink, soapy water.
Across the kitchen was another door, unpainted, with an old-fashioned brass latch instead of a handle. He tried the latch but the door was evidently locked from the inside, what sounded like a metal chain clanking when he pushed.
Okay, you don’t want me in there, so that’s where I’m going.
He had just measured up a hit on the latch with his poker when the volume of voices notched up dramatically.
“Damnit, Sam,” Marlena said as she slipped through the wall nearly in front of him. She had something in her hand that he couldn’t make out but he didn’t have time to consider what it was. He swung the poker away from the door and towards her like he was batting a home run out of the park, split her right through the shoulders. She shuddered into a shower of black, dissipating in a couple of seconds.
Sam decided to re-locate again for the time being, exited the kitchen, crossed the hall and took the stairs two at a time.
What had to be Jefferson’s room was the first he came to on the top landing.
College pennant over the bed. Books everywhere, books and boots. Pairs and pairs of boots.
Some were dirty, covered in grit and mud. They were piled in a corner, a mess of laces and upturned soles and he moved them gingerly with a foot. The carpet was in need of a good vacuum. It looked like half the mountain had been tracked in, a strange contrast to the clean of the rest of the house. There was a mound of clothes on the floor by the window and six watches lined up on the nightstand.
Sam couldn’t figure out whether this room was a shrine or a dumping ground.
There was the thumping sound of feet ascending the stairs.
It was weird. He’d been facing up to ghosts since forever, and every last one of them freaked the hell out of him.
But he wasn’t freaked now.
It couldn’t possibly have been any darker on the mountain than it was when Dean got back out there. The chill couldn’t possibly have set in so wickedly. And the weakness in his hand, arm and whole right side couldn’t possibly have felt more debilitating.
He parked the Impala up between the trees, left the headlights on so the beams swept right over the clearing at low level, highlighting the bumpy terrain, the bugs and the emptiness.
“What the hell, Sam,” he said as he popped the trunk. “What the hell, what the freakin’ hell, Sammy.”
He’d gotten Gina to load up the duffel for him, with salt, flashlight, shotgun, shells, Zippos and enough fuel to start some serious deforestation. She’d called him every name under the sun but she’d still done it. He slung the duffel over one shoulder, nearly staggered under the weight, rooted for the pick-ax and a shovel. Somewhere in his mind’s eye - which, honestly, was the eye he distrusted most - was the three-dimensional, computerized Broomfield house. It was probably completely inaccurate. Almost certainly not properly to scale. But it was positively the only thing he had to go on.
He sincerely hoped Sam was working stuff out in his big brain, supposing it was still attached to the rest of him, because he didn’t think much of his brother’s chances with only a one-armed auto mechanic to rely on.
Dean gave it some thought, but he didn’t take a slug of whiskey. It might have been the first time in half a year that he hadn’t done so before heading into a hunt.
And some kind of weird shit this hunt was, that was having him try and dig for bones in the dark at ten thousand freakin’ feet above sea level.
He made a conscious effort to focus, got his bearings using the trees. There were supposed to be four, all the same, in an unruly line about ten good paces to the right of where the front door had been, and hopefully still was. He dropped the duffel at the point he was going to call the front door, wrestled it open with an unwieldy hand and elbow, dumped out everything except the shotgun.
It occurred to him that a disappearing ghost house could probably reappear again whenever the hell it liked, and he wondered what that would be like. You know, if he happened to be standing right where a wall was or whatever.
He walked several feet, arms full of tools, said “carpet” out loud, glancing up minutely as if he expected to see the brass chandelier swinging above his head, shut his eyes quickly to get a visual of the ground floor. The House of Horrors game had located the kitchen diagonally opposite the room where Jim Broomfield had spilled out of his chair.
And, from memory, if he entered the kitchen around here - he dragged a rough line in the earth using the shovel - then the cellar door should be around ... Dean bent his head in a silent laugh. He was feeling a little crazed now, drunk on pain and anxiety.
“Tell me you’re here, Sam,” he said, and let everything he had hold of drop to the ground.
He mentally ran through the game again. Front door, hallway, study, check. Stairs, kitchen, cellar, check.
“Cellar door, Sammy. I’m at the cellar door.”
He looked at his boots, took a breath.
Standard salt and burn, son. Don’t waste time, just put your goddamn back into it.
Yeah, thanks for the advice, Dad. Think I can take it from here.
He bent to grab hold of the handle of the pickax, gripped it hard in both hands. The first impact made his eyes water, even though his strike had been tentative to say the least.
“Sonofabitch,” he squeezed out through gritted teeth.
Then he swung again and this time put his goddamn back into it.
“Is Dean sick?” Chester asked eventually.
After they’d watched the Impala disappear into the yawning black of the forest road, they’d climbed into the Mazda in silence. His mom had fussed more than usual with the lights and the locks. Then, while she set a tight-lipped course for North Silverbridge and home, Chester sat working open the rip at the knee of his jeans and looking at bugs flying towards the headlights.
Gina turned on the radio and got that glaring look through the windshield that suggested that if Chester was going to speak, he’d better make it interesting, helpful or at the very least relevant.
She sounded like she was working hard not to snap.
“Is he sick, or mad or something?”
“Troubled, maybe.” Gina paused, drummed her fingers on the wheel, nails tapping out a nervous beat on the leather. “You know what I mean by troubled?”
She glanced at him, frowning. “No, not like Britney, Ches.”
“I liked him,” Chester said and was surprised when his mom didn’t react like he was a pubescent retard.
“Yeah, I know you did.”
“We helped him didn’t we? I mean, whatever he’s going off to do, we helped him, right?”
“I guess we did.”
Chester let the silence go on for a bit. His Mom wasn’t glaring anymore. She’d relaxed her arms a little, dropped one hand down the wheel, seemed thoughtful.
“What d’you think he’s going to do exactly?” Chester pulled at the denim fibers, scratched the bit of knobby knee that poked through the hole.
“Get whatever it is out of his system. Keep the gun to himself I hope. Find his brother.”
“Sam seemed OK. I mean, he seemed kind of in charge.”
“Like he was looking after Dean?”
Chester snorted at that. “It’s the other way round isn’t it?”
His mom’s arms had tensed up again. Chester chewed his lip nervously. Once she started to be mad about one thing she generally got mad about other things. And, eventually, about everything. He wasn’t quite clear what she was mad about right now, but he knew he should do whatever he could to calm her down. He hadn’t told her yet about the letter from his math teacher that was still lying at the bottom of his backpack.
“What is it with you boys anyway?” she burst out suddenly. “What is it with all the game-playing, huh, the soldiers and monsters and God knows what-all else, I mean ... why are you all like this?”
“What did the real estate guy say?” Chester plucked the question out of a shaky thin air and managed to stop his mom in her crazy, hate-everybody-with-a-Y-chromosome tracks.
She made a little noise then as if she might be about to burst into tears, which, let’s face it, wasn’t unlikely these days. Chester sighed.
“Well, it was pretty interesting.”
Yeah, right. Like a real estate guy would be interesting. Dean with his trashed hand and monster-fixation was interesting. Sam with his understand-everything vibe, he was interesting. Real estate guys, not so much.
“Yeah. Seems like we have two offers on the apartment. Which means it might not be too long before we can tell Principal Moron to take his we-don’t-need-a-policy-on-bullying bullshit and shove it up his ... until we can take you out of school and hightail it out of this crappy place.”
“Where we going, Mom?”
There was that little almost-hiccup that preceded tears again, and once more his mom managed to swallow it down. Chester was proud of her.
“Ches, where is anybody going? Huh?”
Chester flung her a grin across the front seat. She grinned back, then glued her eyes on the road ahead, chin up.
“I saw, you know,” he said, his grin making his top lip hurt.
“What did you see, Mr Mysterious?”
“I saw you give Dean your number.”
“Yes. So he could call me if he wants to see the burns guy at the Center. I was just doing my job.”
“Sure you were,” Chester said.
“Little brat. You want pizza?”
“Pizza sounds awesome.”
“Well all righty.”
The headlights picked up the sign for North Silverbridge.
Chester wondered how Dean was doing, running around the mountain looking for his brother. He hoped he’d remembered how to find the cellar.
When Jim Broomfield materialized on the upstairs landing and blocked the way downstairs, Sam swung at him with the full-force of the poker.
If he hadn’t known better he’d have thought the old man’s form began to dissolve even before the iron made contact with the curve of pink scalp shining through the thin hair - almost, in fact, as soon as Sam raised his arm.
Perhaps it was just a very good iron poker. Good and solid, the kind Bobby would have multiples of, stashed in the cupboard under his stairs.
When he got back down to the kitchen he used it to batter through the locked door. It didn’t take that much effort on his part, either. Sam vaguely wondered if there was some kind of charm working on it.
As the panels split, sending splinters of old wood flying in all directions, stale air puffed into Sam’s face. He kicked in the last portion, hearing metal tumbling onto wood. The door was padlocked and chained, the remains now hanging from a large ring bolted into the wall at the side. The low babble of voices that had been following him around ran through the kitchen behind him and then faded out.
Sam ducked his head through the doorway. The mag lite threw shapes across the rough stone on both sides and down the stained wooden steps plunging into black.
He figured if he went down there they would come to him, and when he had both of them in one place, then ... Sam felt a little flutter of anticipation in his blood. He swept the mag lite ahead of him, put some testing weight on the first step. It creaked.
Of course it freakin’ creaked.
At the bottom, the cellar was laid out tidily. The flagstone floor was clean of everything except dust and although a putrid smell hung in the air the interior seemed dry. Shelves heaving under fileboxes and bottles of wine lined the four sides of the room. There were no hidden corners and nothing remotely nasty that Sam could see. It was a neat, tomb-like little room. The voices he’d been hearing in all the walls remained quiet. They hadn’t followed him down. He didn’t feel Jefferson either.
Sam stood still, concentrating on what else he could get a feel for. It was instinctive to try to tune in. It was the way he worked now and it gave him a thrill as much as it set off a twitch of guilt. After a moment or two he got a keen sense of something incoming and this time he managed to turn right around just as Jim appeared.
The old man looked into his eyes, and Sam’s gut squirmed a little.
“You’re so like Jefferson,” Jim decided. “We happen to know that. We happen to have been told all about you. Left your family high and dry, then not a card, not a goddamn peep.”
Putting aside the super-disturbing fact that nobody but demons had ever known squat about him before, Sam allowed the jibe to hurt a little and then nudged it out of his mind.
“Jefferson didn’t get sick, did he? You killed him.”
That seemed to amuse Jim Broomfield mightily. His whole face screwed up in a laugh, eyes disappearing into folds of ancient skin, teeth receding under his lips as his bony shoulders shook. Then his teeth appeared again, and his eyes, dangerous.
“Oh he got sick all right, something with an oma in it. Sick blood. You know all about sick blood, don’t you, Sam?”
Sam felt the sting of acid at the back of his throat.
“We never killed him,” Jim said. He looked rueful, like a man who’d been an old fool, knew it, but didn’t care that much. “All those other boys though ... who came grubbing up to the house to get high on M’s good bread, and then just wanted to leave again.”
All those other boys.
Damn. All those other boots.
Jim cocked a head, eyed Sam and then the poker. “Just got the picture, huh?”
“Oh, there you are,” Marlena said, “are you hiding from me?” She had popped up halfway down the cellar steps holding a meat cleaver. She was wearing a silky print scarf round her neck, and more damn bangles. Like she was ready to go out somewhere, not try and sink a wicked-looking blade into his neck. She was smiling and her eyes were unblinking. They weren’t dead eyes, like some ghosts wore, but they were empty of life nonetheless.
“Didn’t need any of your sleepytime toast, M. He couldn’t get down here fast enough,” her brother stated.
Marlena, too, eyed the poker thoughtfully.
“I’m just sorry we couldn’t have had your no-account brother stay,” she said. “When he came in all limp and sad-eyed ... well, I thought he might have been our easiest one yet. Wouldn’t even have needed the bread.”
Sam had heard Dean called many unpleasant names before. Some of them had even been a perfect fit. Hell, he’d called him some colorful things himself and meant every word of it at the time. But it seemed to Sam that checking yourself into eternal damnation for the sake of your brother was so very far away from being of no account that it was practically funny. If, of course, it hadn’t been so hopelessly fucking tragic.
The rage he felt was sudden and overwhelming.
“How many?” Sam asked, throat constricted with it. “How many were there?”
“Oodles, and not one of them as tricky as you.”
“How’s the poker doing?” Jim asked brightly. He took a long step forward.
Sam jabbed it at him sharply and Jim sucked in his chest, stopped moving.
“No,” Marlena chided. “Let me. You know the old rhyme, Sam? La-ti-tumty-tumty-ted, here comes the chopper to chop off your -- ?”
Sam wielded the poker again. It met the thick, ugly blade with a loud clang, sent shockwaves right through his body. He swung again, aimed to separate some part of Marlena from the rest of her, but although she staggered slightly, nothing else happened.
“That thing won’t stop us,” she said, frowning. “Things have moved on, Sam.”
“Fine,” said Sam.
The poker fell to the stone floor with a dull thunk. He was getting tired of it anyway. Energy sparkled within him, a heady sensation, something akin to adrenaline, and yet nothing like it. He felt his chest swell with a sweet rush.
Oh God, how he hated this.
But how he loved it. How he loved the feeling he got when he harnessed it, a sweep of pure light through his bones.
“Brad,” said Jim. “Scott, Christopher, Michael and .... I don’t remember.”
“Cordell, Jim. Cordell from Fairbanks, Alaska.”
Sam’s knees nearly went. He’d heard their voices and now he could feel every last one of them, an unbearable mixture of hope and youth deadened by narcotics and shot through with fear.
His arm came up.
Marlena’s mouth fell open in little “o” and she let the cleaver slide from her grip. There was smoke rising from the floor and a tiny lick of orange flame had caught at the heel of her right shoe.
“Oh my Lord,” Jim said, looking down at it, “Sam, are you something to do with that Lilith bitch?”
Dean dug down through earth and stones in the cold dark. He dug into debris and silt, where the forest floor had sunk through what was left of the Broomfields’ kitchen.
The pick-ax did its job opening up the ground, and then it was time for the large shovel. When he picked it up the combination of weight and momentum swung it against his shin with a crack and he dropped it again.
“Holy mother fucking shit!”
For a second Dean stared angrily at his injured hand, already a mess of ruched bandaging, damp with whatever was underneath. He’d taken a couple more of the Advil Gina had stuffed in his top pocket but they were really doing shit to help. The damn singed hand was swelling up again. He needed fluid. He needed to stop digging for bones in the forest. He needed .... a flush of irritated energy made him seize the shovel, bottom lip jammed under his top teeth. He knew each strike was going to cost him, and they did. Every impact was a stab of rusty nails through his palm, echoed by a sharp light behind his eyes.
And when he couldn’t hold the shovel anymore, he slithered into the trench he’d made and began scooping furiously at the loose soil and scraps of evidence that told him he was right on the money.
Bits of wood came up into his cupped hands.
Chester had been pretty adamant that the Broomfields were thought to have set the house alight on the ground floor, gone down into the cellar and barricaded themselves in.
They might have burned up in the inferno.
They might have suffocated.
Perhaps the incineration had penetrated so deep that there was nothing left and there wouldn’t be a damn thing he could do about it.
“Show me your bones, fuckers,” Dean heard himself say.
Five dead young men. Drugged, killed, de-capitated. Bodies stuffed into the outhouse freezer.
“And you’re the ones who’re mad?” he ground out, mud clotting under his fingernails as he swiped. “You did that and you’re the ones who want to come back and get mad?”
If they’d got Sam ... if they’d got him ... but no, they wouldn’t have. Sam was good enough to think of something, to defend himself. He was a great hunter, nearly as good as Dad. Better than Dean, apparently. Stronger, smarter, bl-blah blah.
Yeah, and here I am still saving your ass, Sammy-boy. You remember that.
The ground shifted in a ripple of moving earth and Dean froze for just a second. It would be peachy, he thought, to manage to bury himself before he hit pay dirt, but he couldn’t afford to stop, or even to slow down.
He was down deep enough now that the light from the Impala was not much use anymore. There was grit and soil in his sleeves and down the back of his shirt and he was wheezing like an old pair of bellows.
It was a yahtzee though. It was definitely a fucking yahtzee.
Even the nerveless fingers of his bad hand knew the feel of bone when they touched it.
Five minutes later he had the trench alight from end to end and he was scrabbling a frantic way up and out.
“Dean,” Sam breathed out when he saw the first little flame.
He knew without a shadow of doubt that his brother must be up there now, flinging salt and lighter fuel around in the forest like crazy, and that thought felt pretty damn good. What he didn’t know was why he could work his mojo on spirits these days. And how come they they knew him.
Lilith had to be the connection. She was always the fucking connection.
Jim seemed to be a straight-up, full-on ghost though. Nothing came out of him, fled his body in a black swarm and a scream like a soul tumbling headfirst into hell. Instead, one reach of Sam’s hand in his general direction and he just about caved in on himself, eyes round with surprise. He was gone before the fire caught. Sam left Marlena to Dean. She howled as she felt her bones ignite. It seemed to turn into a laugh at the last, and Sam, shading his eyes from the sudden flare of heat, realized that the shelves in the cellar were beginning to smoke.
It caught, dry and deadly, on the back of his throat and he made for the steps. Up in the kitchen the door to outside was still shut tight and he couldn’t move it.
The hall was already full of smoke too. It had filled up like a movie on fast-forward. Sam could barely see the stairs through it, but he could hear crackling, feel the heat against his cheeks. The Broomfields were burning their house around them as they went, and it was going up like a torch.
Disoriented, Sam turned this way and that, hands outstretched, looking for the front door.
His heels caught something and he went down, back thumping what he guessed was the bottom of the stairs. Immediately he tried to stand up again, but the strength had gone from his legs. Above him the first floor was alight and the fire was burning at full volume. Chunks of plaster, lit like coals, fell near his head.
Sam rolled, pressing his face down, palming the floor. When he tried a lizard-slither under the smoke to what he thought was the door his head cracked a wall he wasn’t expecting.
Not even knowing where the stairs were now, Sam got a fist to his mouth and coughed. There was an overpowering drag in his lungs,
Then he heard a series of muffled crashes, like something or someone was staggering somewhere near. After long seconds in which Sam could feel unconsciousness beginning to bleed across his brain, a shape loomed from the smoke, went right past him.
Sam got out a hand and swiped. He caught at a jean-clad ankle and nearly brought the figure down on top of him.
The figure twisted towards him, face unseen. Two strong hands grabbed him under the arms, started to pull. He felt himself shift across the floor as the flames roared in his ears.
It was so familiar, being saved. Sam wasn’t sure if that or the smoke was stopping him breathing. He let out a yelp as his back banged down steps. He felt the arms change position in a swift and seamless move, locking across his chest and hauling him backwards along the ground, carrying him away from the heat. Away from the fire.
Sam lost it then. He opened his mouth to shout but didn’t get a sound out. His throat tightened and he blanked.
And then he was back again, he didn’t know how long afterwards, sprawled outside the Broomfield house and he could feel cold, normal air wisping across his face.
Sam lay where he was, sucking in air, huge, painful gasps that burned.
The outline of the house, black and orange, faded to a pale gold shimmer before his eyes. It hung in the air for a few moments and then dissolved, leaving a faint imprint on his retina until he blinked. Then he saw only the outlines of the trees blanketed by weird light. When he realized it was coming from the Impala he immediately thought how awesome that was. It meant Dean had done what he said he’d do. He’d fixed the busted fanbelt with nothing but pantyhose and nailed it, because - yeah - Dean always nailed things like that, no matter how many hands he had to work with.
Dean’s forearms were still clutched around his chest.
“Dean ....” Sam could feel his brother’s ribcage pushing fast, heavy breaths into his back. “You can let go now.”
Sam coughed as he felt the grip loosen. He rolled sideways, hit the earth, got on to his knees. Dean stayed where he was for a moment, then got into a painful-looking sitting position.
“Holy shit,” he said and lifted one arm.
Sam got a good hold on it and levered him off the ground. He wasn’t a bit surprised to find that Dean was shaking, his mouth and throat starting to work in that scary way that meant normal breathing service was about to be interrupted.
“Okay, Dean,” he said stupidly. He let go but stood there in the half-dark with both hands in the air ready to catch.
“Holy motherfucking ... Jesus crap.” Dean took one step backwards and then another one sideways. “Burning houses, man. That’s ... man, that’s motherfucking .. Jesus crap shit.”
“Whoah,” Sam said. “What’s with the rhumba, dude?”
Dean’s boots continued to meander until he got himself into a half-stable position, bent at the waist, one hand on his knee. Sam stayed near enough.
“Whathefff -” Dean said eventually. “Whattheffff -?”
“Yeah,” Sam said, rubbing a big hand down his face. “Don’t know.”
“Yeah I am. I think so. That was ... what was that?”
Dean’s first response went something along the lines of “muffucksh -” but Sam cut him off before he tried it again. He looked over at the Impala lighting their way. It was really cold now. The ground was littered with tools and clods of earth, and over in the middle of the clearing was a huge trench.
Sam took hold of the back of Dean’s jacket. “Jesus, Dean, you didn’t dig that with your hand all fucked up?”
“No, a freakin invisible bulldozer did it, asshat.”
Sam pulled on the leather, got Dean upright, gave him a little push towards the car.
“Yeah, well thanks for that. You go sit, man, I’ll get the gear.”
Dean dug in his jeans pocket, tossed the keys and ignored his order. The steps he took toward where the duffel lay were steadier but still a little wayward. He bent over, snagged the duffel, rooted around for the shotgun and whatever else he could find, then watched Sam scooping up the shovel and pick-ax. “I’ve had enough of this fucking one-handed crap. You good to drive?”
“I’m good. Let’s go find a bed. How’s the hand holding up?”
“It’s holding up just fine. Let’s go find a bar.”
Sam made a doubting gesture at his own cheek to let Dean know he looked like he’d had soot thrown at him. “You look like you’ve been down a mine, Dean.”
Dean scrubbed at his cheek angrily. “I don’t want a freakin’ clean face award, Sam, I just want a drink.”
Sam wanted someone to look at Dean’s hand, but as it was past ten he guessed that was a vain hope. He also wanted a shower and to lie down and think. There was a possibility he might want to eat, too, but he certainly didn’t want a drink. Getting Dean from a burning house straight into a clean bed without enough fingers of whiskey to fill a pair of gloves was going to be a challenge, that was for sure.
“OK, so let’s see what we find. We’re going to head straight to North Silverbridge, right?”
Dean banged shut the passenger door with a sour laugh. “Yup,” he said. “Straight to Demon Central.”
“And the car? She okay?”
The slight change in Dean’s expression showed he was impressed at Sam’s concern. “She’s wearing Silky Beige, since you ask, and as long as you don’t over-rev her with your giant freakin’ foot she’ll be fine.”
When it caught, the engine didn’t sound quite right to him and he couldn’t help but press a little harder on the pedal. Cringing slightly he glanced across, but Dean was just staring out at where the house had been, lips pursed.
When Dean finally turned back and met his eyes, the piercing appraisal was kind of what he expected and he knew it was nothing to do with his driving.
“So, you’re going to fill me in on how come your neck’s still attached, right?”
“Right,” said Sam, but he didn’t know where to begin.
Dean was vocal all the way down the mountain.
Between bouts of shifting himself around in the passenger seat as if it was, you know, way more uncomfortable than the driver’s side, he filled Sam in on roadside mechanics, the Beattie family set-up, and most of the moves in some computer game that Sam really couldn’t get his head around.
Sam just let him fidget and talk. Dean falling over himself to offload straight after a hunt was something that reminded Sam of years ago. It was part of Dad and Dean and him all together, the smell of cordite and the outdoors, the rumble of the Impala on full throttle, the goddamn mythology of his life. It also made him hope Dean wasn’t as wrecked as he ought to be.
“So you’re feeling pretty good now?”
“Pretty good.” Dean nodded. “Listen, we ganked two spirits that needed it and got away without a scratch. That always makes me feel pretty good.”
Sam wondered whether the crunching bruise on his back counted as a scratch.
“And the hand?” he asked, “I still can’t believe you dug a trench in the dark using that hand.”
It was hidden inside Dean’s jacket. Although Sam hadn’t gotten a good look he felt maybe it wasn’t really too bad, given the energy his brother had displayed over the last twenty minutes or so.
Kind of an amped-up energy though.
Not so good maybe, if Sam could read Dean as well as he thought.
“The hand is ... it’s good. Gina fixed me up.” Dean was cheery rather than dismissive and that sounded promising, too.
“Right. So Gina. Tell me about her.”
Right, so Mindy. Tell me about her.
Sam remembered that he’d never learned much to his advantage by such a request.
“Oh,” Dean said, pushing back against the seat, stretching his legs out as much as he could, going for casual. “Chester’s mom. I told you that, right? So, yeah ... Gina stopped on the road when I was working on the car. Offered to help me out.”
“Help you out.”
“Hold the flashlight, Sam, what else? She strapped the hand while Chester was giving me the lowdown on your pals.”
“What does that mean?” Sam knew his voice had hitched up a notch, which was kind of a familiar pattern from the past as well. While Dean had been busy prattling his way down from a post-hunt high, Sam would usually chip in with the odd squawk of dissent. And John would end up grumping at both of them.
“Well, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I think it was you that decided to go busting in there in the first place. To get all cosy with the dead people.”
“Dean, that was .... I don’t know what that was.”
“I don’t know what that was either, Sam.. But what the hell, man. Half-blood prince, ghost-whisperer, whatever the hell you are these days, it came down to the old business in the end, didn’t it? You and me, a job well done.”
“All right, you can shut up now.”
“I’ve had enough.”
“Yeah?” said Dean, sounding a little surprised. “Yeah, well me too.”
Sam felt guilty for cutting him off, but the casual insinuations seemed to be coming thick and fast now and they were beginning to bruise. Dean, seemingly aware that he’d hit home on the raw nerve that was his target, became silent and Sam thought after a while he’d fallen asleep. There was no reaction at all when they passed the sign for North Silverbridge, or when, on the outskirts of the town, they approached a pale, single-storey building that proclaimed itself a motel. Sam began to slow down.
“Let’s stop there,” Dean said, finger shooting out, but not at the motel. Sam glimpsed a Coors sign winking up ahead on the other side of the road.
“No, let’s not. Let’s stop right here and crash, man. We both need it.”
Dean’s head turned. “Fine. You check us in. I need a beer.”
No way was Sam leaving him alone with a beer. Because a beer didn’t even mean a beer.
“Crap, Dean. How many times? You’re on painkillers, you need to rest. Do you want the damn hand to go gangrenous and drop off?”
“Alcoholic stimulants are sometimes helpful,” Dean said as if he was quoting an age-old truism.
Sam couldn’t help the laugh that popped out. “Oh really? How’d you figure that one?”
“Encyclopaedia of Medicine, smartass.”
Sam remembered the dark leather-bound volume, spine fallen off, pages flimsy and yellow, that for a few years had traveled around in John’s duffel. “Dean, that was published in 1937. Dad got it as an antique, not as a first aid bible.”
“It had a buttload of good advice that book.”
“Yeah, like butter on burns.”
“Well I told Gina to break out the Land o’ Lakes but she’s all into this modern crap.”
“She a nurse or something?”
“I think she answers phones at the Medical Center, but maybe she missed her calling.”
Sam took his gaze off the dark road for a second or two, just long enough to catch the glimmer of a smile on his brother’s face. “You really like her, don’t you?”
Dean’s head turned away, back to looking out the side window. “Just stop the car.”
“Okay,” Sam agreed. “But I’m coming to find you in fifteen.”
Dean slid from the car when it stopped, shut the door hard.
Sam’s head was reeling from the conversational gear-changes that had punctuated the whole ride down from the mountain, at everything he knew and didn’t know. He watched Dean shrug his jacket tight around his shoulders as he walked towards the door of the bar and had a horrible feeling that his brother didn’t even really want a drink that bad, that all he really wanted was just to get away.
By the time they’d been checked into the motel, Dean had managed one and a half beers, ordered them both burgers and made a half-hearted job of cleaning his face. Because of the food, Sam agreed to stay and have a beer himself, although he seemed twitchy.
Dean wanted to hear the story of the day from Sam’s point of view, he really did, but he didn’t want to hear it sober. By the time the second beer was finished and he had a third and a shot glass on the table he felt sheltered enough by the oncoming buzz to let Sam tell him what had happened. In fact, he deliberately didn’t react several times just to make sure his brother went on talking. That felt like progress.
So demons are palling up with ghosts now.
Dean didn’t voice any of the unpalatable conclusions that came to him. He just listened, and made sure Sam knew he was listening. A few swallows of beer, keeping the eye contact. A wipe of hand across his mouth. Maybe a nod.
And they’re all shit scared of Sammy.
An eyebrow and another swallow. The bottle laid carefully back on the table, because he didn’t want to give the impression he was buzzed enough to get clumsy.
And I might think I saved his ass, but actually he could probably have just walked out of there on his own. Because he is Sam. All-Powerful Freakin’ Sam.
Dean cleared his throat of the remains of the burger, which was starting to seem more indigestible by the second.
“And you heard all this? The victims? What about Jefferson, did you hear him too?”
“No, but I could sure feel him.”
“You could feel him?”
“Yeah, you know, he was kind of like this presence all through the house. Seemed to drive the Broomfields crazy.”
“It drove them crazy?”
“Yeah, Dean. Why do you keep repeating what I say?”
“I’m just trying to process, Sam, that’s all.”
“Okay. Well, I think we’re definitely on to something in this town.”
“Gina sure doesn’t like it. She thinks it’s full of weird, dangerous people.” He looked around the bar, surprised to notice all of a sudden that it was pretty full. “Although it might be that she just thinks all people are weird and dangerous.”
“Oh, right, Gina. And uh ... what else does Gina say?”
“Are you yanking my chain, Sam?”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
“Right. Just so long as we’re clear. You want another beer?”
“I ... no. No more. And you ... really, dude, you should slow down.”
“Dude,” Dean said, and he emphasized the last consonant with a kind of angry relish, “ ... when I agreed back at Bobby’s that you could kick my ass about drinking I didn’t mean right after a job.”
“OK, so just ... just slow down, Dean, that’s all I’m saying.”
It had been exactly six days since Sam had last mentioned it.
“I don’t need this, Sam.”
“Yeah, well if there’s big stuff going down here, Dean, then what you need is to get your fucking head together. This is too much, man.”
Dean felt a nervous clench in his stomach. “Okay, so on the too much front ...” He hesitated, wanting to dredge it all up again, but nearly paralyzed by where that might take them. What he’d said to Sam under the Siren’s spell was more or less what he’d wanted to say since he’d first found Ruby was back, and he wanted to say it over and over until he understood it himself.
Sam looked the same, he did. He sounded the same, most of the time. It’s just that ... hell, maybe he’d decided not to be the same anymore and Dean wasn’t sure how to tackle that except by shouting or punching him. He wasn’t proud of his lack of imagination. Even worse, though, Sam was right that he should slow down. Dean had never set out to lose himself inside a bottle. He’d just sought a little downtime, a way to blur the edges of the pictures in his head. He’d always intended to stop when the time was right, but now of course it was too much. Too hard.
Didn’t exactly need Sammy telling him that though. Hell no.
“There is nothing you can tell me about excess, Sam. Exactly zip.”
Sam nodded his yes-I-am-hearing-you-but-I-believe-you-to-be-talking-crap nod. “Okay, so fine. But Gina’s not the only one.”
“The only one what?”
“Who’s worried about this place.”
“Oh,” Dean said. “That’s right. Ruby. Poor worried Ruby.” He took firm hold of the shot glass, lifted it to his lips and knocked back the contents. His hand was steady as he banged the glass back onto the table-top but he couldn’t stop a full-body shiver as the liquor hit his system. In his lap, still shoved inside his jacket, his injured hand felt hot and heavy. The combination of that and the thought that Sam was beyond his capacity to understand made him want to run, really fast, right out of here and down the road.
Instead, he figured he would just have to drink more. He knew enough to appreciate that although it was just another kind of running away, at least he was not far from what was always a short-lived but nevertheless attractive period of well-being. Maybe one more shot short.
Sam was looking at him like he was pretty much a loser.
“Go to bed,” Dean said. “I’ll be fine.”
“You need to rest. I want to take a look at your -”
“Sam!” Dean’s bellow was enough to rock Sam against the chair back and to make half a dozen people look over at them.
Sam stood up. He reached for his jacket, draped over a stool, screwed up his face minutely, eyes flicking from Dean’s face to his hidden hand and then back. He shook his head like he’d done a lot lately.
“I’m going to get a coupla hours. Then we need to see what else we can find out. Maybe talk to ... Gina. And as soon as that place she works is open we’re going to go down and have someone look at you.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Sam nodded. He seemed to accept that this was all he was going to get.
“Don’t be long,” was all he finally said before he left. Dean was only partially glad that Sam hadn’t actually grabbed him by the collar and dragged him out the door, because while it might have been embarrassing, at least he wouldn’t have had to call time himself.
Left alone, Dean finished the third beer. As was the usual way, now that the beer had washed down easily enough, what he wanted was another shot of whiskey, to kickstart him towards a few hours of empty slumber. He figured he deserved it. It actually took some pretty kick-ass willpower, he told himself, not to do this every night, and since he had need of extra juice, what with the stupid singed hand and the creepy crap that had just happened ... He got up and went to sit at the far end of the bar where he could keep his back against a wall. The bartender saw him coming, got down the whiskey bottle and by the time he was settled the shot was already in front of him.
Dean reached awkwardly, having to lead with the wrong hand and his elbow knocked over a stand of leaflets, sent them fluttering to the floor. He slid off the stool, gathered them up, began to poke them randomly back in slots.
A corral in the sunshine full of cheerful equine characters. Horseback-riding in the National Parks.
A grey stone building with a flag outside. Historic Site Museums Trust.
A dun-colored creature with antlers standing on top of a mountain. The Elk Foundation.
Blocked capitals on a yellow background. Some Live. Others Survive.
Even while knowing exactly what this was about and what it probably said, Dean put this last one down next to his glass. He sat, clumsily prised it open with one hand.
“Check the appropriate boxes,” it read inside, and his eye ran down a list of items. “Feeling down ... panic attacks ... drinking problem ... relationship breakdown ... loneliness ... bad luck ... bereavement ... constant arguments ... insomnia ... sensing evil around you ... suicidal thoughts ... fear of death. Thank you for your time.”
He didn’t care about the stupid check-list. That was for people with stupid fucked-up shit in their lives. People who had absolutely nowhere to turn. Every bone in his body ached except the ones in his bad hand, which just felt like they were sizzling on an open grill. With difficulty he got his good hand into his pocket and fished for some notes.
He looked up when he realized the bartender was watching and ghosted him a smile.
“What do you know? I got a full set.”
The bartender raised both brows and motioned at the untouched shot glass.
Dean looked at it like it was radioactive.
“You don’t want it?”
“No,” Dean said, as if that was a ridiculous idea. “It’s too much. I gotta go talk to someone.”
“Well hey, man, that’s great,” he heard the bartender say. “There’s a number on the back ....”
Dean stood up. He crooked his good arm, cradled the bad one along it, and headed for the door.
The motel room smelled like damp towels and there were four cigarette butts floating in the toilet.
Sam showered off the Broomfield house. Although it felt like he was standing in a layer of fine sand lining the bath tub, the water was hot and there was mint shampoo. It was the same type as they’d had two motels ago, when Dean had accused him of trying to bleach his hair with toothpaste. Sam left half for his brother anyway and stepped out of the shower feeling nearly as invigorated as the back of the little bottle told him he would.
He got dressed again because he figured he needed to be ready. Then he set up the laptop at the table. He knew he’d missed the whole bodies on the mountain story in the first place because he hadn’t bothered to do this properly when he should have. He’d just taken what Ruby had told him - and herded Dean into the car.
Now he hunted it down and read it all through, wondered what else Ruby knew.
He read the Silver County Echo’s obit for Jefferson Broomfield Davis and it turned out he’d wanted to be a lawyer. He looked up Cordell Carter from Fairbanks, Alaska and read heartbroken quotes from his older brother, Pete, who drove taxi-cabs.
And now there were a whole lot of little things going on in North Silverbridge. Not big, shocking things like the Broomfield murders. No, these were small, disturbing things. Pets going missing. Food-poisoning in schools. Electricity blackouts for no reason. Higuys, am I the only one who thinks the weather’s kind of weird for the season LOL? The local online forum was full of them.
Sam felt his eyes grow heavy, so he shut off the computer, lay on his bed and studied the ceiling.
If he thought about it, there was no surprise in the notion that demons and ghosts might be in one another’s social circle these days, albeit a little stand-offish. Probably every other supernatural thing he and Dean had ever come across figured in the address book too, although they were maybe allies of the last resort. What Sam didn’t like was the idea that they might all be gossiping about him in the playground. Skewed, one-sided gossip. Like Jim Broomfield’s ghost had known he’d left the Winchester fold once and that no-one except him had been happy about it. He’d known about blood. And he’d known Lilith.
Sam guessed a demon-spirit combo might be pretty hard to handle. They hadn’t been able to get to him, though, not really. That was a kicker. That was the immunity stuff again, the stuff that freaked the hell out of Dean, even though you’d think he might be pleased. You know, about the protection.
Sam rolled over on to his stomach, hooked both arms under the pillow. He wanted to talk to Dean. Desperately, right now. But he couldn’t, even felt like he shouldn’t. His brother was too shredded.
Despite the knot in his stomach and wondering why the hell Dean didn’t just give it up and come back, Sam fell asleep.
He woke cold and stiff to his cellphone ringing. Dean’s name came up on the caller ID.
It wasn’t Dean though.
A woman’s voice, clear and snappy, came through. “Is this Sam?”
“Yeah.” He rolled off the bed. “Who’s this?”
“Hi, Sam. This is Gina Beattie. You met my son at the Travelstop earlier.”
“Oh ... yeah. Gina. Hi, how are you ... what’s going on?”
“Yeah so I got your brother here. Think he needs a ride home.”
“Dean’s with you? Is he all right? Is he drunk?”
A short, considering silence. “He’s a little tired.”
“Shit, I’m sorry. He’s made a pain in the ass of himself, hasn’t he? I’ll come right over and get him. Where are you?”
“Four blocks up from where you are, going into town. Apartment building behind a hedge. We’re number two twenty-four.”
“I’ll be right there,” Sam said.
“Great,” Gina’s voice came back, sharp as a tack, and Sam got a brief idea why Dean might like her, “because some of us have got to go out and earn a living in the morning.”
The phone went dead and Sam scrambled for his shoes. He’d got them on and was nearly at the door when his phone went again.
Unknown caller ID. He pressed it to his ear as he got the door open.
“Sam, where the hell are you?”
Sam gritted his teeth, held the phone away from him for a second and then jammed it back against his ear. “Not now,” he said shortly. “Later,” and he shut it off.
Gina was only four blocks away, but there was no way Sam was going to carry Dean’s sorry ass, so he made for the car. He could feel his phone vibrating in his inside pocket. When he started the engine, he hoped it wouldn’t be the extra rev that snapped the pantyhose. He reached into his jacket and turned the phone off.
In less than five minutes he was standing outside a gray door pressing the bell as if the person inside was hard of hearing.
Sam wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but somehow it wasn’t the woman who answered. She was in her mid to late thirties and she let him in, unsmiling. “Gina?”
“Yeah, who else?”
Gina was small, had mussed-up brown hair and was hidden inside some men’s pyjamas.
When he slid through the door, which she opened only a crack, he found Chester standing in the background.
“Hey,” the kid said, raising a hand awkwardly.
“Thanks for calling.” Sam felt guilty and out of place. Chester looked tired. Gina slung an arm around his shoulders, protective.
“He should be asleep, he’s got to get up for school.”
“Unless I don’t go,” Chester said.
“So where is he?”
“Listen ... Sam. Your brother called me and he sounded a little messy. I told him to come here because ... well, hey, I’m fuckin’ stupid like that. He seemed like he’d been drinking but nothing scary. He’s really not doing too well with that trashed hand of his though. For some reason he wanted to tell us all about the house and what happened. Like I would care.”
Her own last statement seemed to bemuse her and she looked a bit apologetic.
“He needs to go to hospital, you know that, right?”
“I know that.”
“But, well, he said you two don’t do hospitals and I don’t want to know why. Some stuff is coming through loud and clear, but I got a teenager in the fuckin’ house, I mean .... “
“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. I’ll just take him and go.” Like he was a package.
“Sure, good. He kind of fell asleep about twenty minutes ago in a chair and we left him. Had some chocolate milk and waited for you.”
“Great,” said Sam.
Gina nudged him. “Just go, Ches, we’re all good here. Get your skinny butt into bed.”
“’Kay,” Chester said. He glanced at Sam. “Dean said the whole house like ... burned up again. Like, with you guys in it. That’s awesome.”
“Go!” Gina hissed. “And don’t be whining at me about your nightmares. Sleep well.” She got her hand to his ducking head, managed to sweep her fingers through his hair.
“Night, Chester,” Sam said. “Thanks for your help.”
He grinned at his mother, picked up pace down the shadowy corridor.
Gina motioned at a half-closed door and led the way in. They entered an unlit living room which had a big table pushed back against one wall. There were shelves laden with DVDs to the right of the table, and a flatscreen TV which was flickering silently. A big sofa on the other side of the room was piled with cushions and there were several armchairs. Dean was sitting next to the table, with his chin resting on his good hand and the bandaged one in the crook of the bent elbow. Sam could see his eyes were closed and his face looked a weird color, although he hoped that was just because of the light from the TV.
“Hey,” he said.
Gina got to him first and her voice was louder. “Dean!” she said, and touched a hand to the side of his shoulder.
Well, Sam knew Dean could move fast. He’d spent years being very careful about waking him because of the speed he could extract the knife from under his pillow and potentially have it in your ribs. Of late he’d been aware that Dean liked a gun within reach and so he’d remained pretty respectful about disturbing him, knowing that while Dean’s reactions were off the pace at present, he still had a habit of breaking out of sleep like he’d been bitten by a dog.
Sam didn’t see this coming though.
At the touch, Dean launched himself off the chair, eyes instantly wide, focused on something that wasn’t there. Something that was enough of a threat to him that he needed to attack. His momentum took Gina totally off-guard. She was spun round and spread-eagled against the bookshelves before Sam could move to block it. Several books clunked to the floor.
“Leave him alone, bitch.” Dean’s voice was menace. He sounded totally clear-headed.
Gina didn’t scream, and she didn’t struggle, although Sam could hear her panting.
Instead she took in one long, shaky breath and then said calmly, “No, no, no, it’s me. Dean. It’s me.”
Sam didn’t wait for reality to return. He seized rough hold of Dean’s shirt at the neck, jerked him backwards. Dean came away at the pull, unresisting, bringing more books down which, as they hit the floor by his feet, made him stagger. Sam realized he was hanging on to Dean’s injured arm when his brother swore and all but buckled at the knees.
Gina shimmied away from both of them, backed across the floor.
“If my son comes in here,” she said angrily, but clearly didn’t know what she’d do if he did.
“It’s okay,” Sam said, reaching down to hook his brother under the other arm. “He’s okay. Gina, I’m sorry. Shit, are you -?”
“Jesus, Sam!” she snapped, “I don’t know, I don’t know what his problem is except he’s fucking crazy!”
Sam pulled Dean up to standing, slipped a second arm around his waist because he felt like he was heading for the floor again. “Dean, you with us?”
Dean’s face was a really nasty color now. It couldn’t just be the TV because Gina, although she looked kind of luminous, at least had a tinge of warmth in her skin.
“You’re not are you?” Sam said, letting go long enough to clap his palm and three fingers across Dean’s forehead. The skin felt slippery and cool. Dean was freaked and out of it but he wasn’t delirious. Sam nodded. “Good, okay. Because that timing would suck, dude. You got your wits about you yet?”
Dean looked at him vaguely.
“Take it easy, man. Everything’s cool.”
Dean didn’t try to grapple himself free of Sam’s hold. He just stayed still, shut his eyes hard.
“Dean!” Sam was forceful. Wherever Dean had been seemed to be taking way too long to go away.
“I do something really crappy?” Dean asked, keeping his eyes closed.
Sam frowned over the top of his head at Gina. He had no idea if he was talking about a dream or the last few minutes.
“It’s all right,” she said. “You didn’t hurt me. You just got confused, thought I was someone else.” She took a step forward, laid her hand on Dean’s sleeve. “Who’d you think I was, Dean?”
Sam thought that was a bad question. “Sometime,” he said, “We’ll explain it all to you, Gina. Right now I need to get him out of here.”
Gina didn’t let go the sleeve. The face she turned to Sam demanded some kind of explanation. Now.
“Listen,” Sam said, “Gina, this is ... my brother’s been through ... uh, we’ve got a few ...”
Gina’s eyes roved Dean’s face. “Don’t tell me, you’ve got a few issues. Now there’s a surprise. Hell, I can work with issues, you should see me. But you know what? Just forget it, you don’t need to explain. Hey ... ” Something perilously close to a smile formed on her lips as Dean’s eyes wandered open again. “You’re back. Hi, remember me? You just pushed me face-first into a shelf.”
Dean seemed perplexed, brows knitted. Sam could feel the moment he decided to fight his way out of the hold so he slid the arm off his waist, waited a second until Dean was steady, and then slowly took away his other hand.
Dean rubbed at his face.
“He might puke,” Sam said. “He often does.”
Gina rolled her eyes. “Well you’ll know how to handle it, then.”
“I’m not going to puke,” Dean said sourly. He didn’t look very convinced. Something, some feeling of nausea or pain or embarrassment was overwhelming him to the degree that he couldn’t look straight at Gina for more than a second, although Sam noticed she never took her eyes off him.
At the front door she even rubbed at the side of Dean’s good shoulder again, like he was old friend. Someone, evidently, that she might care about. Sam nodded at her, noticing belatedly that she was pretty, potentially quite hot under the oversized nightclothes, although not what he considered Dean’s type at all. The four rings in her ear winked in the streetlight. Still, what the hell did he know anymore.
“Thanks,” Dean mumbled at her as he set off for the gap in the hedge.
She shook her head at his back and then turned to Sam. “I’m working at the Medical Center in the morning,” she said. “From everything I know so far, I’m not sure it’s such a great idea you just turn up. They’re all over insurance like flies on shit in there but ... I’ll see if I can figure something out, get him in to see one of the burns people, and in the meantime ... ”
“In the meantime?”
“Look, Sam, I figure you know how to keep the stupid thing clean and dry. Stop him using it, like at all. Give it a chance. It’s not looking nice, either. It’s not looking nice and healing up, know what I mean?”
“Yeah, he needs more than ointment and aspirin. I knew that from the moment he hurt himself, but you ... it’s really not that easy.”
She shrugged. “I get that. So anyway, I have, like, a handful of pills left over from an ear infection that Ches had. They’re broad spectrum, might catch a few bacteria. If he’s not allergic to penicillin.”
“Not so far.”
“You want ‘em? I mean, he’s wide open to something nasty, Sam.”
“Yeah, that’d be good. Thanks. We’ve kind of run out of supplies lately.”
Been too busy falling down the rabbit-hole.
“Wait here a second then.” She turned and went back inside, re-emerging a minute later with two little bottles and a small stack of dressings still in their wrappers. “Here you go. I’m all out of Advil. Vicodin any good to you?”
Sam took possession of the bottles and dressings with a nod. “This is weird, I know.”
“Yeah, well. I wanted to be a pharmacist once. Or a pharmacologist. You know, something where I could mess around in a lab all day. Put pills in bottles.”
“Really? Dean pegged you for a nurse.”
Gina snorted loudly. “Oh I’m really not that caring. And I don’t like to take exams.”
The thought of exams sent a bolt of painful nostalgia through Sam that completely shocked him.
What the fuck. I am not that guy.
He shifted his feet. “Thanks for tonight, Gina. For all of tonight.”
Gina motioned over his shoulder. “Yeah, whatever. Go look after your brother. His head’s as messed up as his hand and from what I know it’s a helluva long way back up once you fall over that fuckin’ edge.”
She took a last look at Dean, leaning, with his back to them, against the side of the Impala, and then closed the door.
Sam dug the car keys from his pocket.
“You doing better?” he questioned when he got to the driver’s door.
Dean was still sideways against the car, posture tense.
“I wanted to fuckin’ kill her, Sam. I thought she was Ruby.”
“Just a nightmare, dude,” Sam began soothingly, but Dean waved him quiet.
Pressing a shaky hand to his chest he abruptly presented three beers, two shots, a burger and half a glass of chocolate milk to the sidewalk.
Sam slid over the hood of the car to get to him before he head-butted a lamp-post on the way to his knees.
Sam drove back to the motel without a word. Next to him, Dean leaned on the passenger door, leveling a one-eyed squint on the road ahead, good hand crumpled under his chin.
When the car rolled to a halt, Sam killed the engine and glanced over.
“Fuck,” Dean said. “Tired.”
That seemed part-way lucid, at least. Dean was able to haul himself out of the car and walk unaided the twenty yards to the single block of rooms. No carrying involved, which was always a bonus.
“We’re in six,” Sam told him.
It had begun to rain. A curtain of pearly beads streamed down under the light outside their door. Inside the room, Dean shook himself like a dog, made a grumpy noise at the bright light that Sam flicked on as he came in behind. All business, Dean fought his way out of his jacket, weaving just a little in a lopsided, Quasimodo shuffle. He stripped down unaided, announced he was going to take a shower and then charted a determined course towards it. Sam was encouraged that he had enough strength to keep the bathroom door closed for a few seconds so he couldn’t be followed. As soon as Sam heard the water slapping on the tiles he barged in anyhow, because no way Dean was going down in the deathtrap of a motel bathroom.
Actually, Dean didn’t complain at having Sam present in the end, just gave him a resentful shove when he got too close at the toweling-down stage.
Out of the shower, half-dry and wobbly, Dean noodled around trying to climb into something clean. Sam watched him poking in the pile of clothes upended from his duffel onto one of the beds. He was eyeing the closets speculatively.
Right. As if unpacking was the smart move at this late stage in the game.
The rain had begun to come down harder, probably winding up for a full-blown tempest, making the windowpanes rattle.
“Listen, man, I want to sleep.”
Sam hoped he didn’t sound as needy and pathetic as he actually felt. What he wanted was to put a few more hours of blank between himself and the know-it-all spirits. Between himself and his slow-motion train wreck brother.
Dean dug into his duffel, rooted violently, sending balled-up socks bouncing in all directions.
“I could really--” he began, and then picked up the duffel in one hand and threw it into a corner. It hit the wall with a thump and dropped to the floor. “Fuck.”
Their easy, well-worn routines were falling apart. Mess everywhere, first-aid kit nearly empty, not a single bag of chips or can of soda to their names. They hadn’t even laid the salt lines.
“You don’t need it, Dean. We have ...” Sam waved his hands, indicating a multitude of alternatives, “ ... Vicodin.”
Dean turned around to smirk at him. “I don’t see it as a substitute.”
“Jack’s in the car,” Dean said as if to himself.
Jack. Since when had the goddamn stuff become like a another brother?
“And it’s staying there. Time to sleep.”
Sounded like a first-round throw.
Sam wondered if it was worth having a conversation about this right now. “Yeah,” he said, as agreeable and patient as he could manage. “So that, back there at Gina’s? That was a bad dream, because you’re exhausted and you need to rest. Just lie down.”
“What’s going on?” Dean asked, changing the topic and sitting abruptly on the side of his bed as if his legs wouldn’t hold him up one second more. He flapped a hand at the window, which looked as if it was only just about managing to withstand the onslaught of weather.
“Later, dude. Come on, legs up.”
Sam was aware that his new older-brother utterances were starting to piss Dean the hell off but it was getting too easy now.
“I feel like fucking shit, Sam.”
“So stop being a jerk and get into bed.”
“I ... Ruby, Sam.”
Man, when Dean got his teeth into something ... Sam made a conscious effort to unclench his own.
“You were dreaming, okay?” Sam suspected his voice was beginning to sound more ragged and Dean squinted up at him, slightly wary now. “Look, man, I need to sleep even if you don’t, so please, would you just give me a break here?”
“I’m not stopping you.”
Dean frowned as if the sudden volume of Sam’s bark pained him. He rolled back against the pillows, defeated for the time being. Sam sat down next to him armed with water and supplies. He laid a towel across his knees and Dean obediently dropped his hand on it, then put his other arm over his eyes. Sam snipped at the second lot of tape and bandaging that Dean had trashed today.
“Auto repair.” A mumble.
“We’ll get there, Dean. Is this hurting you?” Sam paused. “Because it should be.”
A dismissive noise from under the arm. “Just be careful with those fuckin’ scissors.”
Sam shifted back, pushing against Dean’s thighs with his butt to get more room. He reached over and angled the lamp on the nightstand.
“I’m sorry,” he said but Dean hadn’t made a sound. The state of the hand Sam was poking at should really have been agony, but Dean was calm, chest rising and falling evenly, although he’d started to shiver from time to time, like a draft was coming at him.
Sam felt faint prickles, like pins and needles, run up the back of his own head. It happened sometimes, if he thought he’d gained a small insight into Hell that he wasn’t supposed to have. A certain stunned look in Dean’s eyes would be enough to do it, a look that washed the life right out of his face sometimes, just for a second or two. Or else it would be noises in his sleep. Not usually words, just noises that made Sam want to start throwing punches.
The magnitude of Dean saying nothing at all.
The problem, Dean decided, was that he’d fallen asleep.
Not entirely his fault. What with Gina’s place having been so warm and the milky chocolate crap doing the whole milky chocolate crap number on him and all. And Gina being ... well, Gina had been kind, a newsworthy phenomenon that filled him with regret and illogical irritation.
If she hadn’t been so goddamn kind, and if Chester hadn’t been so goddamn interested, and if all that kindness and interest hadn’t goddamn relaxed him so much, he was sure he would have been all right.
He had a solid-gold healing system, after all, passed down by a father who’d made Walking Wounded his own personal lifestyle choice. The system hadn’t failed Dean yet and he was holding out for it to kick into play any time now. He knew (because he wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t shit-faced) that the burned hand needed attention, but he also knew that he’d recovered quickly from worse without the need for any professional intervention at all. Dean thought he remembered trying to tell Sam that and being told to shut the fuck up.
In the back of his mind Dean wondered if cheating death three times already had something to do with it. Not that he thought he was immortal, which would have scared the shit out of him. No, he just seemed to have a weird talent for bouncing back. So, sure, although he’d ridden this mess of a hand pretty hard, as long as Sammy was still wielding bandages and there were drugs dropping from the sky, Dean figured in a few days he’d be back behind the wheel.
It hurt, of course it hurt. It hurt so much his left eye was getting stuck in a screwed-up wince, and there was a tremor in his jaw from fighting it and his fingers were swollen and useless and a pain in the ass. But there hadn’t been a point yet at which he didn’t feel more or less in control.
It wasn’t until that freakin’ nightmare dream thing jumped him at Gina’s that he realized he might have lost it.
Throwing up on the sidewalk hadn’t helped. Instead of feeling marginally better, like he usually did following a wholesale hurl, he’d lost all sense of balance and had gone down like a fucking ton of bricks, only saved from a split skull by the freakishly rapid movement of Sam from the other side of the Impala. He hadn’t passed out, but the street had whirled and pitched at him until he hadn’t dared lift his head to face it, hadn’t been able to frame a single word, either to protest the grip that Sam had on the back of his neck, or the fact that he was sitting in a slippery puddle of his own vomit.
Dean hadn’t remembered the journey back to the motel very clearly, although he was sure he’d never lost consciousness. He’d been aware of unbroken time passing, of movement, even of walking himself across a car lot and through a door. In fact, Dean was pretty sure he’d taken his own clothes off and stood in the shower. He was uncomfortably sure that he’d stood in a damn drafty lukewarm shower with his bandaged hand poking out of the curtain while Sam had squirted something minty at him and he’d pawed ineffectually at himself with his other hand.
Sam had definitely talked to him. He may even have answered. He certainly remembered trying to explain that he hadn’t wanted to lie down and close his eyes right now because he thought the freakin’ nightmare thing was going to come back. It would have been Ruby again, on the attack, or Alastair, digging around in his head with pinching fingers.
And now Sam was sorry about something. Like, really, abjectly sorry. Dean couldn’t fix on what Sam was sorry about on this occasion. Then he stopped trying to fix on the what and began to fix instead on some whys instead. Like, why the hell was it so freakin’ cold? Freezing, bone-deep cold.
And despite the fact that he didn’t want to lie down, he was flat on his back in bed, shuddering with cold and cursing at Sam for jabbing him with the scissors and Sam was fucking cursing at him too because he was trying to hold Dean’s hand still on his knees.
Dean knew he was falling asleep again.
He tried not to. He chewed whatever Sam gave him instead of swallowing. He tried to spit it out but Sam wouldn’t let him. A gritty, bitter mouthful washed down with something lukewarm and sweet. Took maybe ten minutes but then it kicked right in. Dean blinked against it, over and over again.
He didn’t like the dream that was coming.
Sam fell asleep with 1:55 on the clock. He could hear the rain drumming on the covered walkway outside the motel door, relentless. As soon as he lay down, gathering two fistfuls of sheet up to his chest, the sound began to take him away. He rolled his head back and forth on the pillow a few times to unstick his neck and then stopped with his face turned to Dean’s bed. Then he let himself go.
Two hours later Sam woke up with another one of those prickles, icy-wet at the back of his neck. A tangle of sirens wailed in the near distance. He sat up.
If possible, it was raining harder than ever. There was a hollow, slapping sound coming from somewhere, water tumbling from old guttering. Sam had goosebumps on his arms. A pressure headache ran in a taut line from one temple to the other. He could feel the weight of water hanging over the town like a stone.
The beds in the room were close together so he reached out to touch his brother’s cheek. It was hot and dry. Dean was lying still and stiff on his back, head tilted away. He hissed a little at the contact but didn’t rouse any more than that.
Sam flipped on the light.
Dean was hot, but not too hot. Sometimes after a bruising hunt he’d do this - run a low-grade fever and get everything out of his system. The thermometer would notch up close to worrying, then Dean would sweat it all out in buckets and wake up with a headache and a lousy attitude. His own personal detox.
This could be that.
Sam reached for the other cheek, tilted Dean’s face toward him.
Dean pulled his good arm up, covered his eyes with his elbow again.
“Shush,” he said.
“I’ll get you some water.”
In the bathroom, Sam ran the water as cold as he could, rinsed out the glass on the shelf which had a dead cockroach in it and filled it halfway. He tipped two Vicodins into his palm, looked up and tried to connect with the smooth-faced image in the mirror, tried to stare himself down.
When Sam came out the bathroom, Ruby was there.
She was sitting on the side of Dean’s bed.
Sam’s eyes snapped to the motel-room door, which was closed, and then back to her hair, which was bone dry, shiny and lustrous as ever.
Dean’s arm had slipped off his eyes and was lying crooked on the pillow over his head. He didn’t seem aware of her. Sam could see small muscles twitching across his face and around his eyes. Some tough and draining scene was being played out in his mind and Sam wanted to get him away from it as soon as possible.
“Glad you could make it,” Ruby said. The sarcasm in her voice was thick as cream. “Did you have to bring him by the way? He doesn’t seem to be in very good shape.”
“What’s going on?”
Despite his huge desire to throw her off Dean’s bed, Sam decided he ought to accord her a little bit of respect, seeing as how she’d reverted to talking about his brother like he was a fifth wheel.
“You were right to come, Sam. I mean, I wanted you to come, just didn’t figure you’d go extra-curricular on me.”
“Yeah, well things have changed. I need to look after him.”
“No you don’t.”
“Yes. I do. Just for a little while.”
“Oh stop it, Sam, we don’t have time.”
“You’re gonna tell me Lilith’s in town?”
Ruby folded her arms across her chest. “If not tonight, then soon. Seems to me she likes this shithole - although who knows why - and she’s doing her best to fuck it up. I wouldn’t bank on the chainsaw twins up there on the mountain being the only spirits she’s poked awake. You’ve noticed all the weather and combusting that’s been going on I suppose?”
“But what the hell for? This is a windy little town in the mountains, not a seal for her to break.”
Ruby rose from the bed and Sam felt relief swell like a small balloon in his chest. Dean had just made one of those noises and Sam wanted her out of there and Dean awake.
“Maybe she wants to see what you’ll do.” Ruby walked closer with a bit of hip swing. “I dunno, Sam, maybe it’s a power-play, maybe she wants the damn angels to do some smiting, whatever it takes to turn this place, any place, belly-up. It’s what’ll happen everywhere, you know, if you don’t stop her.”
“Just like that, in little old North Silverbridge?”
“Something’s building up, Sam, and we need to go find out what. We need to go right now.”
“I’m not leaving him here like this. I’m just ... not.”
“Well that’s touching, as always, really. But he’s not much use, I mean ... well, is he? When you get down to it? I don’t care what he’s been told, right now he’s not destined for anything except rehab. Your gig, Sam. Always has been.”
Ruby approached the side of Dean’s bed again, peered at him. Then she leaned over and touched his face. Sam’s fingers curled into tense fists but he kept them pressed into his thighs.
“Leave him alone.”
“His brain’s frying,” she observed, withdrawing her hand. “You know, I might have something that could help with that. It wouldn’t be the first time.” Her eyes hovered on Sam for a second. “Not that he knows how to appreciate being helped.” She stroked the silky hollow at the base of her neck with one finger and then swallowed. “Not like you do, Sam.” A fleeting, half-smile of affection, “When you haven’t got your head up your ass.”
“So, what? You just happen to have some witch’s brew in your pocket?”
“I might. That depends.”
Sam’s tongue swirled around the dry, bitter taste in his mouth. “On what?”
“On whether you’re going to cowboy up, cowboy.”
“Crap, Ruby, don’t use him to make me do things.”
Ruby bent down again, splayed her fingers across Dean’s brow and tutted when he flinched. “It’s very easy, Sam. You stop stalling and come with me now, I’ll slip him some magic juice that’ll make it all better.”
“He’ll get better fine without you.”
“Oh really? Look, I know you Winchesters like to laugh in the face of weakness, but your brother’s just not that tough of a Winchester anymore, is he? Being down in the Pit as long as he was, looks like it just knocked the stuffing right out of him. This fever he’s got going needs more than a bottle of pills and Sammy with an icepack, and I know you, Sam. If you were going to shuffle him off to an ER you’d have done it by now. So that leaves me.”
Sam wanted to kick her ass-first out the door.
But he also just wanted her. He wanted to cling to those satin arms until her breath panted hot against his ear and his blood hummed with life. He could have that, and Dean, too, safely back from wherever he thought he was.
Dean safely back.
Ruby slouched on one hip and scowled at his indecision.
“Oh and by the way, Sam, this offer expires in about ten seconds. It’s a one-chance-only kind of a deal. So, what do you say?”
At that moment Dean dragged in a breath, exhaled through clacking teeth. His elbow cracked the nightstand hard, but Ruby was at his side before the injured hand followed through. She caught hold of him by the wrist, tried to guide the whole arm back to the bed.
“Hush,” she said.
Sam wished she’d let go, even if it meant Dean back-handed the lamp and hurt himself more.
Ruby shook her head at him. “Jealousy, Sam? Trust me, it’ll make you sick as a dog. Don’t go there.” Her fingers uncurled from Dean’s wrist, moved up his arm and back to his forehead, an unbroken contact.
Sam made a move towards her, couldn’t stop himself. Ruby pressed the flat of her hand hard above Dean’s eyes, the tips of her fingers and thumb disappearing into his hair. She was frowning slightly as if she was doing something she’d rather not be doing. Sam could see the sinews in her hand, the line of Dean’s jaw sharp as he clenched his teeth.
“Stop. Ruby ... just stop.”
“What exactly do you think I’m doing here?”
“I really don’t ...”
“Oh you really don’t like it? Oh, okay.” She withdrew the hand again. “You are coming, right?”
“Fuck,” Sam said.
Ruby straightened from the bed. “How long are we going to dance around with this, Sam? I’ve got what you need and now I’ve got what your brother needs. Is it really so hard? Come on, we’ve been doing so well, really getting somewhere with all this. I mean, somewhere good. Last time was ... well, you remember last time.”
Four demons. One night. It had been a rush like nothing else Sam had yet experienced. Even remembering it was a rush. But that had just been private, him and Ruby alone. Dean had been unconscious after losing out to a bottle of cheap tequila and never even knew he was gone.
Ruby looked like she was reading his mind but wasn’t overly impressed with what he was thinking. “Look, you want him picked up off the floor and dusted down, right? I can do that.” She narrowed her eyes as if she could see him clearer that way. “Head up your ass again, Sam?” She dug in her pocket, held out a little pouch.
Sam sat back down on his bed, set down the glass of water and the pills, reached across and felt his brother’s face with his forearm.
OK, so hotter now, hotter than when he woke up. How was that even possible, so quickly? His gaze wandered over Dean and towards Ruby. He really hoped he knew her well enough now, to trust that she hadn’t ... somehow ...
Ruby seemed to read his expression perfectly as usual and looked reproachful. “Sam, I’m a demon, not a voodoo witch doctor. Believe me, I don’t want to hurt your brother. We’ve had our little disagreements, sure, but come on ... haven’t I had plenty of chances to finish him off, if that was my evil plan? Which it isn’t.” She hefted the pouch into her palm, tossed it across the bed and Sam caught it. “You’re looking tired.” The concern that laced her voice was aphrodisiac, made Sam catch his breath. “So shall we get this show on the road? Quicker we go, quicker you’ll be back.”
Sam pulled on the drawstring of the pouch, held it up to his nose and sniffed.
Shit. It smelled pretty good.
After falling into a hazy sleep, crunched-up pills still embedded in his molars, Dean tumbled out of bed and into the burning void.
There wasn’t much to see. No slideshow projecting in his skull. He didn’t bump into Alastair for a change, or even into Ruby who’d taken to marching uninvited across his bumpy dream-fields quite a lot lately. No evisceration or bloodletting.
Just regular burning. No visual, no audio, only sensation.
It was repetitive, near-surface dreaming, the kind he didn’t actually believe in but struggled to avoid. However much booze he knocked back it seemed he still had to dream in order to wake up.
This time the transition from dream to reality was short and sharp. Diurnal rhythms, or ice, had smothered the fever that had been stalking him. He opened his eyes on a breath, rose to sitting, winced at the rush of cool air across his clammy chest, blinked against the wetness in his eyes.
At first he thought someone had been knocking on the door.
Dean breathed, frowned. He rotated his head sluggishly from side to side looking for his gun, then realized it was rain he had heard, hammering against the roof over the walkway outside. A few seconds passed as full awareness slithered over his shoulders and down his body like a wet sheet.
Dean glanced down at the white mitten of bandaging wrapped around his hand, taped neatly at the wrist.
Ow. Fuck. Burns.
The room was empty. Sam’s bed was unoccupied.
Shit. Fuck. Sammy.
He wasn’t here, and that meant only one thing.
What’s the point? What is the freakin’ point?
A wave of such hopelessness crashed over him, that the weight of it nearly made him drop his chin on his chest. He felt something flare inside his head, right in his anger-management center. The bad hand jerked violently to the side, swept the nightstand clear of its contents. A glass of water, a bottle of pills and a neat pile of bandaging sprayed across the room and clattered to the floor,
“Sonofabitch!” Dean shouted after them.
The bathroom door opened, spilling cool light across the foot of the bed.
A pained demand for information followed.
“What the hell? Jesus, Dean, what the hell’s going on?”
Dean’s head swiveled and he pushed himself to sit up. Unless he was deep in some confusing dream or abrupt alternate reality - either of which was entirely freakin’ possible - his brother was standing right in front of him with one towel around his neck and another round his waist.
“I wasn’t expecting you to be awake.”
Sam’s gaze dropped, traveled along the floor to the trail of pills and pieces of glass, and then bounced back up.
Dean did attempt a mealy-mouthed justification for his wild swat at the nightstand, but no sound came out. It was taking him way too long to process the information that Sam had been in the bathroom. Had not been absent. Even seeing him, even breathing in the warm scent of shampoo, shaving foam and damp skin, didn’t seem to be enough to convince Dean that he was not looking at an apparition. The inside of his head buzzed, the insistent whirr of an electric hedge-trimmer hard at work on his cerebral cortex.
“Well you look like shit,” Sam said.
Dean knew that had to be true. His brother, on the other hand, was bright-eyed.
Dean wondered how it was possible that life was raking over his meager bones like some pitiless demonic vulture, while Sam still looked pumped and sleek with health. A bit pale perhaps, but chipper enough to piss Dean the hell off. And now getting that suspicious, defensive look on his face.
“What?” Sam moved the towel across the back of his head. “You thought I wasn’t here, didn’t you?” He dropped the towel, sat on the side of the bed. “You thought ... crap, Dean, where would I be if not here? You’re sick, I’m not going to walk out on you.” The back of his hand reached towards Dean’s face and Dean drew back so fast he nearly got whiplash.
“I’m not sick.” Pavlovian reaction.
“Oh really? Hundred and three most of the last four hours, dude.”
Dean shifted in the bed, threw aside the damp sheets. He was more or less convinced this was a flesh-and-blood Sam now, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to be fondled and fussed over by him and his big, annoying hands. Because he wasn’t sure that standing up was going to go so well, he crawled as far down the bed as he could.
“Rain,” he said.
“Gotta get the car to a mechanic.”
“First things first, dude. Fluid, breakfast, then car.”
Dean knew he was going to be putting all his strength into staying upright and coherent today, leaving nothing for challenging Sam’s confident leadership style. He took some water when Sam offered it, but not too much.
“How’s the hand?”
“Let me see.”
“Sam, it’s good.”
“Great, so let me see.”
Dean wondered if it was worth a fight. He thought he was going to have to find something to get control over, however small. Not this maybe.
He held up the strange paw. The binding was dry and in place. Sam pinched the ends of Dean’s fingers lightly in his own.
Sam leaned a little, stared him straight in the eyes. “Okay, I think we’re good. Go get dressed.”
Dean laughed. He couldn’t help it. He laughed too long and too hard, even though nothing at all was funny, until everything hurt and the hedge-trimmer kicked up a gear. He stood up, snatched his hand from Sam’s. Then he went and locked himself in the bathroom for some protection. He showered without much conviction, was left with a faintly tender sensation all over his skin. Everything was just below the surface, he could feel it.
Fever, the shakes, Ruby, Alastair and the Pit.
Sounded like a summer festival lineup.
He came back into the room in his jeans and a t-shirt, dizzy after the struggle to get them on. Sam stood by the table, spreading flat what looked like a white pillowcase. Dean didn’t come too near, stayed outside the bathroom door wondering how in hell he was going to get his socks on and what the hell Sam was doing with the scissors.
“Immobilization,” Sam said when Dean cleared his throat by way of asking a question.
Dean sucked in a breath. Okay, so he was going to be wearing the pillowcase?
“Just fucking bite me.”
Sam didn’t miss a beat. “Whatever, I am so doing this. You’re not driving, Dean, you’re not holding a weapon. We’re going to strap you up and you’ll have to live with it. Any doctor would do the same thing, if they even let you stay on your feet.”
“So I was a huge dick. So I burned myself on a fucking car engine because I was a huge dick, but I didn’t lose a limb, Sam. Fine, I won’t drive, but you’re not putting that on me.”
“I’ll put your freakin’ ass in a sling first.”
“You are not going to be putting any asses into any slings anytime soon.” Sam was smooth, unmoved. And so clearly on the money that Dean felt sick. Actually felt acid in the base his throat, had to swallow it hard.
“If there’s demon shit going on out there, Sam, then it’s just gonna make me a freakin’ liability.”
“I’ll have your back.”
Dean felt his face burn. Suddenly the bathroom looked a good option again. He was shocked to have so much poison, so many accusations of betrayal and treachery, backed up in his heart, if indeed that was his heart he felt, sitting like canker in his chest. Since the two right hooks he’d dispensed in the Willow Tree Motel had done no more than slightly rock Sam off his axis, and Dean had never been a confident southpaw, he figured smacking his brother in the mouth right now wouldn’t help any either.
The fight was already lost. This one and every other one. It hurt more than Dean thought he could handle.
“You’ll have my back,” he repeated finally, swallowing down all the other words he could have said. “And that’s supposed to make me feel better?”
Sam indicated the chair next to the table. “We don’t have any of the good stuff,” he said, as if he actually couldn’t hear Dean speaking at all. “You know, those slings with straps and thumb hooks.”
Dean slunk into the chair, mainly because upright was beginning to be a problem again. He watched Sam folding the thin white cotton into a triangle. A memory, smelling of blood and childhood, tickled his brain.
An oddly painful smile tugged one side of his mouth.
Dad had been busted up and out of it. Dean had torn a triangular bandage out of the first thing he could get his hands on and John had woken with his arm slung in half of one of his favorite shirts. He’d gone postal, never been more ungrateful in his life. Sam’s stiff back of efficiency softened a bit. He slid one end of his triangle under Dean’s arm and flipped the other over his shoulder. “I remember.”
Dean helped him a little, made sure his forearm fit the cradle Sam offered, angled his neck so Sam could tie the ends off at the back.
“I’m going to pin this tight, else you’ll be pulling it out.”
“I won’t be pulling it out.”
“Yeah,” said Sam, “Yeah you will.”
“We gonna pay for this fuckin’ pillowcase?”
There was nobody in the office anyway.
The rain was sheeting down and most of the outside lights were off. Dean stayed in the doorway of the room, hunched under his jacket, while Sam jogged up the walkway, banged on the shut door, then turned and jogged back.
“All locked up,” he said.
Now they were outside they could hear more sirens, the sounds chased by a gusting wind that seemed strong enough to have overturned a picket fence across the road and tossed part of it into the motel parking lot. There was a diner next to the bar where they’d eaten the night before, and they started for that, heads down.
They sat in a booth by the window, their presence upping the customer count by fifty per cent. Dean concentrated on the dripping glass to their left, squinting through the panes into the empty, too-dark street outside. Sam, uneasy, kept an eye on the quiet kitchen at the back of the diner, visible through an open door.
A sleepy-looking guy gave them coffee and took their order for scrambled eggs and toast. Sam managed about half his plateful while Dean struggled, mostly because using a fork with his left hand seemed to be too much of a problem and he kept abandoning the food to take deep gulps from a coffee cup containing nearly as much sugar as coffee.
As the other two customers left and the diner door opened, a police vehicle drove past at high speed, no siren, no lights. The sound of tires hissing on the wet asphalt made Dean screw his right eye shut again. The volume of noise had vibrated right through his bad hand.
Sam swallowed his last mouthful, watching as Dean’s cup clattered in its saucer.
“The car,” said Dean.
“I’m not sure.”
“I need to get her fixed, Sam, and I don’t give a crap about anything else.”
Again, Sam seemed to ignore him. “Hey!” he called across the diner. The sleepy guy came out of the kitchen. “Is there something going on we should know about?” He jerked his head to the diner door swinging in the wind. “You know, apart from unseasonal weather conditions?”
The guy came over, blinked at them.
“You don’t watch the news?”
“Sheesh,” said the guy, “The Church on Wilmington burned down overnight.”
Dean felt his eyebrows hike. Burning churches. That sounded right up their alley, if they had a freakin’ alley anymore. If they had one, and if they could get it together to get up it.
Sam didn’t look as if the news surprised him at all.
“Was there a lightning strike? How does something burn down in the pouring rain?”
“Do I look like the Fire Chief?”
“That’s not all, is it?”
“All? I guess not, if ya looking for weird. Medical Center razed to the ground. Still smoking, I heard.”
Unpleasant sensations he couldn’t put a name to poked Dean in the midriff. He followed Sam’s lead in getting to his feet, let his brother fish for notes. Although he couldn’t fix on exactly where he was supposed to be headed, he got to the door first and pulled it open. A sharp gust of wind and rain blew in, sweeping menus off tables and splattering on the floor. Dean reared back but Sam came up behind him, pushing him out and down the steps.
“I’m sure she’s fine!” he said in Dean’s ear.
“Gina ... I’m sure she’s fine.”
Right. So they were going to the Medical Center. Not the church. Forget the church. Dean rounded his shoulders, shrank down into his jacket against the rain. He felt off balance, unable to walk properly with his hand pinned against his upper chest, furious with Sam for having strapped and pinned the whole thing so fucking efficiently. Never mind unseasonal weather conditions. More like a freakin’ tornado.
“My car!” he bellowed suddenly.
“Forget it, we can walk!” Sam bawled back at him.
Dean seriously doubted that. Sam was leading the way, striding out against the forces of nature like a colossus, while he was finding each step a torture.
There was a police cordon around the Medical Center, a line of police, ambulance and fire department vehicles and a local news crew gamely battling against the elements while their satellite truck rocked and shuddered in the wind.
Dean let his brother go ask questions. He couldn’t think of the right things to ask, and in any case he was mesmerized by the steaming pile of destruction before him, the smell of wet and cinders, the tang of sulfur and the odd combination of smoke and rain blowing in his face. It looked like fucking ground zero. And there were ambulances. Fuck this shit. There were ambulances.
Thing is, he told himself. Gina wouldn’t have been there in the middle of the night. She’d still have been sleeping off the effects of a virtual stranger having a psychotic break in her living room. Gina didn’t go to work in the middle of the night. That wasn’t her job.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice said, “Did you do this?” right next to his ear and a finger jabbed him in the ribs from behind. He half turned, blinded by the rain and the fact that his eyes had scrunched shut against the pain that a simple finger-jab touched off in his hand.
Gina was shrouded in a yellow rain slicker, and Dean wondered when he’d missed the vital information that she was actually a deep-sea fisherman. Her eyes turned distraught as she took in his facial expression.
“Oh crap, I’m sorry ... oh shit, Dean, I’m sorry. Your hand. You ... shit, Dean.”
Then she was drawing him away from the cordon, across the road at their backs and under the relative shelter of a storefront with a jutting roof.
“What are you doing out?” she babbled. “What are you even doing up? After last night ... I mean, crap, Dean, you shouldn’t be ... “ She dragged her wild gaze off him and back over the street. He could see now that she was pale, wore no makeup and looked completely freaked. “Did you do this?” she repeated.
Dean hated the inarticulate gurgling sound he made. He had no idea why this woman wanted to talk to him anymore, why she was staring at him so intently, why she was so genuinely hopeful to hear him speak actual words that made sense.
“Why would you think that?”
“Because it’s fucking weird, that’s why. I mean, you know ... you, and weird, it ... fuck, that’s my workplace over there, it just up and spontaneously combusted in the middle of the night. Something completely weird and ... buildings don’t just do that, Dean. They don’t just do that.”
“Listen, no, you’re right. Buildings don’t just do that. I’m not really sure I can explain it to you because it’s ....” He squinted over at the cordon, swept his eyes from one end to another, searching for Sam.
Then he saw him.
Not deep in conversation with the fire department guy in the head honcho’s helmet, like he’d been a few minutes ago. Not weaving his way among the rapt but sodden onlookers who’d gathered at the far corner of the street. He was practically nose to nose with a woman who wasn‘t wearing what the hell she ought to be wearing, given the gale force wind that was whipping her black hair up around her face.
“Dean? What now? You gonna be sick?”
Dean snapped his mouth shut.
“Gina,” he said. “Would you help me?”
She scrubbed a sleeve across the drop at the end of her nose. “Shit, Dean, it’s what I’ve been doing since I first fucking met you. Think I’m about to stop now?”
By the time Sam discovered that Dean was no longer anywhere in the vicinity of the smoldering Medical Center, his head was full of unpleasant facts.
Like, the fire department had no clue how either of the fires had started. Just that it was exceptional, inexplicable. The whole thing seemed to have got them so rattled that it didn’t take Sam long to get the a-word out of them. There were no hints forthcoming about who might have done it, though, or even what they might have used. As for why --
Ruby was back.
Slinking out of the trees looking like the thundercloud that had caused all this. And not staying long by the look of it. Their conversation lasted long enough to make it clear she was pissed with him for rejecting her and had only stuck around to point out that this was what had come of it.
“Where is Dean, anyway?”
Funny how it was Ruby who noticed that he’d disappeared.
Sam knew at once where he would have gone, supposing he hadn’t decided to pass out on the sidewalk or something. One of the journalists prowling the area, who was just beginning to get suspicious of Sam, directed him to Mac’s Auto Repair. He practically ran all the way, thought it was closed when he found it. After a while, he found a woman on duty in the office, eyes glued to the TV screen located high up on a wall bracket, and a lone mechanic in overalls leaning on the edge of her desk.
“Has a guy come in needing a new fan belt?”
“About once every three weeks,” said the guy in overalls, not looking away from the screen.
“No, but today, like, this morning? Black, held together by pantyhose?”
Sam ground his teeth. “The car. Black Chevy Impala. Needs a new fan belt.”
Finally he looked over. “Oh sure. It’s in the workshop.”
“And the guy?”
“He and his wife are waiting in the waiting-room.” He indicated another door near the entrance to the workshop. “I said I could do it right away. Because, you know, no-one else is comin’ in today.” He nodded at the screen. “They’re too busy buildin’ the fuckin’ ark.”
Sam followed his pointing finger.
The guy in overalls looked closely at him. “Yeah. His wife. Girlfriend. Whatever.” His face split into a shifty grin. “That’s uh ... not your wife is it?”
Sam left the office, strode towards the not-real-busy workshop and pushed open the battered door of the waiting-room.
The room was square and dingy, smelling strongly of engine oil. There was a contraption in one corner blasting out radiant heat. Dean was practically sitting on top of it, hunched in a plastic chair. His hair was plastered to his head, his jacket was drenched and he was shivering.
“Dean? Where did you get to? I was worried, man.”
Dean looked up slowly, his jaw tight.
“Hey, Sam.” Gina, sitting next to Dean with her cell in her hand, acknowledged him with a half-hearted twitch of a smile.
“Hey, Gina, glad to see you’re all right.” He twitched a smile back, not able to get out of his mind that the guy in overalls thought she was Dean’s wife. Then he turned his attention back to his brother. “Sorry I took so long. It’s crazy out there.”
“I’m dealing with the car. Go do what you’re doing.”
“What do you mean, go do what I’m doing? I didn’t think I was flying solo here.”
“Oh you’re definitely not flying solo, Sam. What’d you do with your co-pilot, huh? She still out there fucking this place the fuck up?”
Sam felt himself reeling as Dean’s voice increased in volume, nearly cracking on the final syllable. Gina touched Dean’s arm and then took it away as if she suddenly realized she was out of line.
“I can explain,” Sam said.
“You can’t explain Ruby, Sam. You can’t fucking explain her to me, all right?”
“Yes I can. Not here, maybe.” Sam’s eyes glided back to Gina. Even on a really good day, when Dean wasn’t wasted and feverish, Sam had often wondered why women would give his brother so much leeway to crap on them. He had Gina sticking up for him like a devoted girlfriend in spite of how he’d just seriously gone off like a madman in front of her kid. Now she pressed her lips together hard and looked him over, as if she was thinking it was Sam not Dean who was the big bad in this two-dude crew.
Suddenly he resented the hell out of her.
“Gina,” he said, “could you maybe ...? I mean, would you mind giving us a ...?”
Dean interrupted. “Forget it, Sam, we’re not having the Ruby conversation here.”
“Jesus, Dean, would you at least let me try and tell you what’s going on?”
Dean had opened his mouth to reply, almost certainly in the negative, when the door open and the guy in overalls walked in.
“Hey,” he said, “you mind coming to explain something to me about this car of yours?”
Dean seemed to take a long time to switch from one conversation to another. Sam was alarmed at the blankness that flitted across his face, like a memory lapse had occurred. His good hand came up to sweep distractedly down one side of his face. For a few seconds Sam really didn’t know what Dean was going to do.
“Yeah,” he said eventually. “Sure.”
He stood up and there was a split second when Sam thought he was going to reach toward him looking for an anchor. Gina put up her own hand behind his back as if to make sure he wasn’t going to topple, or to guide him to standing with the force of her own encouragement.
“Later,” he said to Sam as he passed him.
The guy in overalls looked between Sam and Gina with a smirk and followed Dean out.
Gina rose to her feet, the slicker squeaking. “Looks like he’s escaped seeing a doctor, huh?”
“And you guys, you know what’s going on, right? This is part of, I dunno, whatever it is that you do. Whatever the hell it is you’re into.”
“Listen, Gina. I really need to talk to Dean. We’ll catch up with you later, okay? Why don’t you go home and we’ll call you.”
She just looked at him. “That would be a lousy line coming from your brother, Sam. It’s even worse coming from you.”
“It’s all I got.”
“Ruby your girlfriend?”
“I think you should go home.”
“And are you two going to have some kind of smack-down? I mean, I can totally see you laying into each other if I leave you alone.”
Frustration at her surged through Sam. Since when had people - ordinary people - gotten so freaking difficult to manage?
All his emotions, good and bad, were beginning to register in the very flow of blood through his veins. It was an odd, almost exhilerating sensation.
Something about his expression must have bothered Gina, because she suddenly widened her eyes a little, seemed to lose her confidence.
“Hey,” she began, when the door swung open and Dean came back in.
Sam recognized the look on his face. It was both resigned and uncomprehending, the way he always looked just before stepping in to stop a fight.
“Okay,” Dean said. “My car’s fucked. My hand’s fucked. Two ghosts burned a house down around my fucking ears. Two buildings incinerate in the night. And now that demon fucking bitch is here!”
Gina shrank a little inside her slicker as he turned her attention to her.
“Gina, you need to go.”
“I thought you wanted me to help you.”
“You have. You have helped me. Now you need to go.”
“I was just trying to tell her that,” Sam slipped in.
“Hey,” Gina said, “my job’s smoking on the sidewalk, I want to stick around and see what’s going to happen.”
“No, you don’t. You want to go get your car, go pick up Chester from school, and then leave.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You need to leave North Silverbridge. Take some stuff and get the hell out, Gina. It’s not safe.”
Gina’s eyes strayed towards Sam, like he could maybe interpret for her whether Dean was speaking anything resembling sense, whether he was delirious or just plain, out-of-his-mind crazy.
The woman from the office palmed open the door.
“Anybody live the other side of the park?”
Gina dragged her eyes from Sam with difficulty. “No,” she said.
“Okay, cool. TV says they’re evacuating that side of town. Worried about a landslide.”
“Shit,” Gina said. “School. Chester’s school.”
Dean waved at the door. “Go get your car, get your stuff. We’ll pick up Ches, see you there.”
When she raised her eyebrows at him, Dean made another irritated gesture with his good hand towards the workshop. “Ten minutes,” he said.
“We need to stay here,” Sam said as soon as she was gone.
Dean suppressed another shiver. He was going downhill rapidly, which Sam supposed he shouldn’t be surprised about.
“Sam, whatever’s happening here, and maybe it’s something to do with Ruby or Lilith or whothehellever ... .” He paused, and that odd blankness crept over his face again, like his train of thought had just up and left the station. “I can’t deal with it.”
Cold tendrils of dread curled around Sam’s heart. Hearing Dean say it was even worse than hearing him deny it.
“All I want ... all I can do, is get Gina out of here. It’s the thing I can do.”
What Ruby had said to him under the dripping trees bubbled like blood in Sam’s ears.
Demons close to Lilith. If they’re here, she’ll be here. She’ll be here. She may be here already.
“Hey, I get it. I get that she matters, man, but we need to stay. We’ve got a dress rehearsal for the damn apocalypse going on, Dean.”
“Ruby tell you that?”
Sam kept his composure, barreled past the hole in the road. “You said it yourself. Burning ghost house, Dean. Burning buildings in the night.”
“Fine. You stay. I’m going to make sure they get the hell away.” Dean finally began to do what Sam had been expecting all morning. He began to pick at the pins and tape that held his hand immobile against his shoulder.
“Oh crap,” Sam said. “Uh-uh. No you don’t.” Dean dropped his good hand, raised his head sluggishly. He looked like he was about to take a dive. The rainwater had dried from his face but now it was clammy and he was expressing all the pain of his injured hand in that goddamn eye scrunch.
Inevitability didn’t so much hit Sam as wave tauntingly from the other side of the room.
Not Lilith. Not today.
Because Dean can’t deal with it.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s get the damn car.”
It was still raining.
And it really didn’t take Gina long to pack.
By the time they got to the apartment building with a still-babbling Chester in the back-seat, she was out on the sidewalk with the trunk of the Mazda open and bags ready.
“Jesus I’m so happy,” she said when they came to a halt alongside. “Getting out of this shithole at last. Hey, Ches, say goodbye to Principal Moron?”
“He was busy,” Chester said as Dean let him out.
Dean pushed the seat back with difficulty and moved a few paces along the sidewalk, keeping his eyes off the bags. This kind of thing. This goodbye and packing up and leaving kind of thing. He fucking hated it.
“God, Dean.” Gina paused in her haphazard arrangement of luggage to look at him, her face so pretty and compassionate he couldn’t stand it. “You really need looking after.”
Sam made a face. That face.
“Ha!” she said. “Same goes double for you, mister.”
“What’s happening?” Chester asked. “Is anyone going to tell me?”
“We’re leaving, honey. Hitting the road. On to pastures new. Someone else can go up and open that fucking gas station. Maybe I’ll drop the keys and shit off with Sara. Or Kristen. What do you think?” Dean was not quite sure if her sparkiness was real or bravado, but either way, it made Chester grin.
“I think no one will care.”
She looked to Dean again. “You want to stop doing your weird shit and run a gas station?”
Dean couldn’t breathe. For a few seconds, he actually couldn’t breathe. Then he coughed.
“Sam liked the view and all that crap, but the whole mountain thing ... I thought it kind of sucked.”
“Well if you’re sure.”
She glanced at the closed apartment door, patted her jeans pocket, and then slammed the trunk shut.
“I don’t really do goodbyes,” she said. “Just so you know.”
“But I can hug you, right?”
“I can do hugs,” Dean said warily. “On occasion.”
“Fuck that.” Gina smiled a sudden brilliant smile, swung in and kissed him hard on the lips so he nearly staggered. “A hug wouldn’t cut it,” she explained. “And it’s best all around this way. Because, because it would really never work would it? I mean, you with your issues and all. You’d make me unhappy and I’d just hate you in the end.”
“And Ches ...”
“Crap, I wouldn’t want to, you know, make him unhappy too.”
“Yeah, like he doesn’t already have enough problems.”
“Shame. You might’ve made a pretty cool stepdad.”
“Bye then, Dean.”
The doors thunked. The locks went down. Gina jammed some sunglasses on her face while the rain pattered steadily down on the windshield. The Mazda revved hard, which made Chester laugh.
Then they drove away.
Sam got a look at the larches in the rear-view mirror as they looped back over the mountain.
Now they really were past them, things didn’t seem better. They could have been classified as worse really, because Dean kept nodding into a twitchy sleep and jumping out of it again, making a sound sometimes that was really just a quieter version of hand meets engine.
Sam flirted with the idea of finding an alternative to the larches. As the last of the daylight faded and the road signs flashed by in their never-ending parade, he toyed with a couple of things. Past the state line, past the end of next week, past Lilith ...
The radio hummed and crackled right out of the mountains.
They listened to bulletins for the first three hours.
Chester’s school was buried by a huge landslide, but it happened after the evacuation and not before. Buildings had burned and half a mountain fell down but no one had died in North Silverbridge. Inhabitants and commentators alike were just counting it as the baddest luck and freakiest weather ever.
Sam wanted to commemorate that victory of weird human optimism somehow.
Dean was cold but he wouldn’t say anything about it. Sam twiddled the heating control, threw another jacket over him when they stopped for food. Dean bitched but kept it pulled up when they hit the road again. He slumped against the car door, good arm wrapped around the bad. The burned hand was clean and dry. There would be scarring, no doubt about it. Sam knew it was still hurting like a sonofabitch because Dean submitted to a fancy sling with a thumb hook when they got to a pharmacy that sold the right stuff.
Now he was drugged up, heading for another night of fevered dreams and already beginning to talk nonsense. Sam seriously felt he might cry if he had to listen to that tonight.
“You need to stop?”
Dean had just shivered so hard that his head rattled the window.
“Not raining is it?”
Sam frowned. “No.”
“You’ll tell me when Ruby comes back, huh?”
Sam’s throat tightened. “What do you mean? Ruby’s not coming.”
“She fucking sat on my bed, Sam.”
Sam let the car decelerate a little, didn’t do a full brake. “Just a dream, man.”
“Sure?” Dean raised his head, turned it to peer at Sam through the dappling shadow and light inside the car.
They slowed up at an intersection. Sam pulled the handbrake, glancing at the empty road behind. Dean was wary immediately.
“Don’t start with that forehead shit,” he warned.
“Jesus, Dean, I don’t need to feel your forehead, I can tell by looking at you. Crap, and listening to you. Next place, okay? We stop.”
Dean shuffled under the jacket. He tried to raise his head to focus on the sign telling them what direction they were headed, but didn’t manage it.
“I need a drink,” he said.
“Really, really need a drink, Sam.”
Sam sighed. “Dean, if you need a drink, I mean if you really, really need a drink then it’s time to go back to Bobby’s.”
There was a short silence.
“Apocalypse,” Dean said. “’s’gonna be crap.”
Ahead there was nothing but a suddenly straight road disappearing into the void.
“But after the apocalypse,” Sam said quietly. He reached over and laid his hand across Dean’s burning forehead.
“Sammy ...” The voice was slurred and unguarded, made Sam’s chest hurt.
“After the apocalypse, dude,” he said. “That’s when things’ll get better.”
He didn’t take his hand away until he felt Dean’s head bump gently on to the window. Then he coaxed the Impala forward into the dark.