PART ONE- 1
Dean Winchester has learned to walk quietly.
It swims up in him like Pavlovian response, like riding a bicycle, if only you don’t remember ever having a bicycle, or learning how it is to ride one, or what it feels like to fall off and hit the ground and taste blood and sand in your mouth.
But he has learned, and here he is in the kitchen. My kitchen, blue and peeling. My splintered kitchen, my floorboards that stick up, and my nails that protrude from walls like a million Indian ghosts are trapped inside me. That’s how they trap their ghosts there—in prisons of wood and iron.
Dean Winchester pulls out a nail. Twists it into a hook.
He’s going to open a door.
Dean Winchester pulls out a nail and loosens a ghost. I shape it out of ectoplasmic jelly. I tell the ghost: keep your shape. Don’t look like a house. You have hands, not kitchens. You have carpals, not carpets. You have a mouth and teeth, not a fireplace and a grate.
You look like his brother.
“Sammy?” he says. He flicks salt at my ghost, but my ghost doesn’t flinch. Salt and sugar and burned loaves: what house does not know this?
My ghost holds his hand. My ghost pulls him close. My ghost licks the salt from his fingers, one digit at a time, sucking it into its mouth. He doesn’t believe it; he traps it against the counter with his hips, rubs salt into its eyelids. But: Oh, Sam, he says like his heart is breaking, and my ghost plays along.
I love you, it says. Dean. Brother.
In salt is truth.
Dean Winchester has a spool of thread with him that loops and loops through me. Thin thread, but it is strong as iron. All my rooms and all my corridors; he’s run through it all, learned me inside out, and he’s left a trail of thread so I can’t trap him in my labyrinth. My ghost paws at his palm, tries to take the spool from him. He shakes his head and puts his arms around the ghost’s neck, finds the place where its hair softens into curls. Sam, he says. Sam, you look like a ghost. He twists the hair around his fingers, pulls the red thread around the ghost’s throat.
He pulls hard.
This is not how it begins.
Let me backtrack.
At the end of a long, thin gravel road is the house by the sea, looking for all the world like a place in a dream, a place that is made for when you forget what sorrow looks like— and death too.
Only a woman lived here in the beginning, ladling storms into bowls, beating out lightning in thin scintillating sheets on her washing stone. The house was still an infant then, possessed of only a floor and a garden, itching in her bones to grow but powerless in her cradle. The trees that stood around her were taller than her, thick in their trunks, dark at their roots where the sun never touched them.
The house knew no secrets then, and stood as clean as a scraped out egg.
But one day it grew a floor. Shot up sharp and whining in the night, like a boy in the throes of growing pains. Wind howled through the empty rooms, and the weather goddess frowned a bit at the strange new addition, but went about her work like you do in the face of no answers.
The house still craved a secret, a wound, a skeleton to hide in her many closets.
If you stood at the roof of the house, you could see a sea that was, on most days, smooth and green as polished malachite. A little farther out, on an outcropping of rocks, stood a candy-cane lighthouse that shone occasionally. It didn’t follow any schedule. There were no ships, but the golden eye-shine of the lighthouse found the house time and again, like the eye of a God looking through a peephole.
But here’s a secret that the house sees one day.
Look, look—it might not come again.
It’s red thread that leads Sam Winchester to the house by the sea. If you want to be grotesque you could call it the color of blood. But it isn’t, really— more like rust or lobster, and his fingers get tangled in it as he reels himself closer.
It’s a moonless night, and the weather goddess doesn’t see him at first because she’s busy.
Down goes her hammer on her shale-stone base, and out comes lightning. It’s purple and white, smooth as diamond but with jagged cuts that she makes with angled swings of the iron hammer. She’s singing a rain song, and the wind sings it back to her. Storm lashes wet and violent from the heavens, thunder rumbling in syncopated rhythm with the strike of the hammer.
Sshhh, the house wants to say. Sshhh.
Sam tries to call out, but his voice scrapes weakly from his throat, doesn’t get anywhere near audible. He coughs, hard and wet, and his hand twists at his shirt, bunching wet fabric.
Here’s something that the house knows: Sam breathes in and the air catches in his throat, heavy with salt. The panic that’s lodged in his throat competes with his need to breathe, and he twists his head around, looks into the blank wall of darkness behind him. There’s nothing there. No shape to guide him, no landscape to vaguely identify this place on a Rand-McNally map.
The lighthouse fires its beacon all of a sudden, malevolent golden-eye seeking him, and Sam puts up a hand, the sudden motion knocking him off balance. He gasps, stumbles on rock and dirt, and gets thread wrapped around himself. Bends his knees, braces for impact, starts going down—
Here’s a second secret: the albatross is actually a man, or was a man, at least at the beginning. This is the man who reaches out to steady Sam as he falls, and his eyes glow blue, like something preternatural come swimming up from the sea.
This man is an angel.
Sam, says the man, Sam, like names are more than just plosives and breath, like names will keep certain things grounded. Names like fragile helium-balloon strings. Names like anchors of iron.
The man-who-is-an-albatross, the albatross-who-was-a-man, pulls a scarf from his coat and hangs it around Sam’s neck, lifting his hair over the cloth so it settles on skin, tails hanging over the front of his shirt like bloody tears.
“Where is this place?” Sam croaks, staggering away and kicking up some dirt. He has to force the words and the air out, and the syllables fall like something sharp that can impale you if you aren’t careful. The stranger’s face—angular, handsome, eyes a Dresden-blue that would belong more on a girl—is lit up in a sliver of a second before the lightning-smith raises her hammer again. The man’s checking him now, hands crawling frantically over his torso, and that gets Sam backing up further, getting even more entangled.
“Sam—” the man says. He lurches forward, grabs Sam’s sleeve again. “It’s me. You have to listen—”
“Where am I?”
“Listen. There’s not much—”
Here’s something that the house doesn’t own, but eyes greedily every day:it’s big, ball-shaped, and like one of those Russian dolls that you can take apart, layer by layer, where each layer shows something else.
It’s a story, and the man’s building it for Sam—so he can understand what’s happened to bring him here.
Outside is the universe, in bold strokes of blue and black. Crack that open and the inside shows Heaven—white but empty. When that comes apart, there’s the Earth, and inside of that a turbulent Hell. The man drops the story and it falls to the ground, steams there, and Sam picks it up.
Crack Hell open, and there’s a library. A stubby, short-statured man is sitting in it, carefully looping thread around his fingers. Sam goes to crack him open too, but the man stops him.
“Not yet, Sam. You are—you need to get better before—”
The man’s already losing his shape. His fingers on Sam’s arm elongate, whitening as they do, becoming long sharp feathers that pulse with veins of iridescence. Sam blinks in surprise and jumps back, watching the blue tips of them shine like vapor lamps, and the wings beat once, twice, loud snapping that bring the crack of shotguns to mind. An iron beak pecks gently at a bit of Sam’s hair, and then the bird takes to the sky. It squawks at him, but they don’t speak the same language anymore. The eye of the lighthouse follows the bird blearily. The albatross watches Sam for a few more heartbeats, its blue eyes sorrowful.
Then it beats its powerful wings and zooms towards the lighthouse, and leaves Sam standing there alone, looking down at the story.
Here’s why the house doesn’t own the story:Sam drops it. He only follows its roll halfway to the cliffs before he’s falling again. And there’s no one to catch him this time.
Here’s why the house grows an attic: the weather-goddess stitches him together with a fifth of whiskey and the only kind of sutures that Sam would know—dental floss. But there’s still blood, and it seeps through the floorboards and into the veins of the house, and some kinds of blood are good for your growth. It hurts the house to grow that attic, but seems like necessary pain. And as the weather-goddess puts her bloody hands in Sam’s wounds, as he bleeds out from under his scarf that the man tied there to keep him together, the house drinks down his blood and all his secrets, fills all its closets with the vast number of skeletons, holds the pain in the grains of its wood.
And Sam breathes, and breathes, and in the course of time his eyelids turns a lesser blue. There are tears in his eyes like naphtha, and smoke in his mouth like phosphene, and these are the new things that the house is made of.
Here’s what the house is, after it has drunk its fill: eaves caved, shingles broken, wood embrittled.
Here is where the story is: glimmering at the bottom of the cliff.
Here is what precedes the green-eyed man: wolves, and a basement that the house gives birth to with great surprise.
Here is an apology, shaped like a coat-rack. Here is a cat, made of what’s right in front of you that you never see. Here is a bloody scarf, stashed deep like a dirty secret. Here is a welcome mat, dusted for new arrivals.
And, yes, at the end of a long, thin gravel road is the house by the sea, looking for all the world like a place in a dream, a place that is made for when you forget what sorrow looks like— and death too.
(This house is bigger than you know. This house is bigger than you will ever know.)
And it’s up this road that the car wheezes now: spitting, swearing, sniffing at the trail and rolling its poor, broken-down self up to the house. It leaves dark oil slime behind, a thin snake coiling and rippling under the baleful eye of the sun.
Look now, look.
It creeps like a thief, or a loved one.
Dean can trust this sky with his greatest, darkest, deepest secrets.
Inexpressibly bright today, and just as smooth, just as bafflingly innocent. You could throw something at it and the sound would ring back at you: clear, stark, a stiletto blade piercing through the dying rumble of the old Lincoln.
The Lincoln is a trash-heap pea-soup colored car, which is the size of a yacht and has been patched up too many times. The driver’s side door is barely hanging on. It’s a scourge on the roads and on the minds of environmentalists everywhere, and its coughed black smoke all the way here. Broke down once in the middle of nowhere and hit the tail-side on the rusted silver railing that marked the boundary between road and ocean while Dean tried to get it under control. Now he’s sooty from the adventure, tired, hot and sweaty. He would give his soul for a beer.
Sweat pools on the back of Dean’s neck, collects in the creases of his elbow. He uncaps a bottle of water, takes a deep swallow and then leans over the wheel, listening to some pop song spilling through the crap speakers. We’re up all night to get lucky, something, synth-sounds and electric pops. He misses the rock channel like his phantom appendix.
The sun is hot, pinges off the hood and shoves needle-white daggers into his eyes. It heats up even the washed-out cranberry Naugahyde. Dean shifts his ass on the seat, wipes his brow with his hand, and watches the house with a frown.
“It’s a little worn at the edges,” the owner Claude Glenship had said, with the smile his dentist must have worked on for hours. “But it’s got Great Bones.”
Sure, Dean thinks. He won’t be surprised if there are weathered-down wooly-mammoth bones in the walls of this house; that’s how woeful it looks. It’s tall, gambrels punching the sky and triangle-upon-triangle making the mansard roof. Probably was stately and elegant and beautiful once, but it’s an Old Man House now, atrophied muscles and liver spots, burst capillaries and peeling skin. There’s a definite slouch to one side, as if it’s gotten tired of the world and wants to just slump peacefully into the quartz-white sand. Even has a funny kind of hump on top where the attic is, like a Bactrian camel in stasis.
A big bad wolf could huff and puff and blow it all away.
Dean cranes his neck towards the roof and the sky. The attic window has a varsity flag taped to it while all other windows have at least one miserable, wilting plant. The red paint is salt-bleached and peeling off the siding, the shingles are broken, and one step is cracked. Four different mailboxes stand stuck in the sand, oddly placed so that it looks like two ostriches with their heads in the ground. All of them spill with yellowing mail.
And then there’s also the whole issue that the house is perched on shale and sandstone bluffs, one tiny earthquake away from cold death in the arms of the sea.
Dean sighs, leaning down to fiddle with the radio.
He could have found a better place, had he had time. But he didn’t. He’d called Glenship the moment he saw the ad in a local newspaper. (Housemate wanted; seaside Burton House, own bedroom and bathroom; cheap rent, free coffee) Dean told Glenship when he met him: I don’t have any time, and I’m new in this town, and I need someplace to stay. The man had shaved eyebrows, which Dean supposed made him look like a shriveled walnut. He’d sipped from a coconut cream piná colada while they talked. Dean had signed his paperwork and looked at pictures of Burton House.
Why, Glenship had asked, what are you doing, to be in such a hurry? And Dean had glared at the man’s little maraschino cherry floating in the milky-white fluid, because it was a stupid question, really, and one that everyone above sixty asked him. Why not be busy? Why not live fast? YOLO and all that shit, you know, even if he’s not into all that punk youth crap. He’s not even that young anymore. His bones ache for settlement. Excitement sediments under his skin these days, but there is beauty in urgency. As a song said.
He’s not exactly sure why he’s in a hurry, actually.
Dean looks up and there’s a dark-skinned woman on the porch now, watering a violently flowering hydrangea. Her hair is a floppy try at Amy Winehouse, crackling with violet currents, and her flowery cardigan blooms like a Hawaiian flower in the breeze. She looks like a flabbier reinvention of Goddess Pele.
“Hey,” Dean calls, getting out of the car. Mrs. Carmody, he remembers. Used to be a weather-girl on TV forever ago, still can’t quite let the obsession go. “Mrs. Carmody? I’m Dean Winchester, the new tenant.”
She doesn’t turn.
Dean peels off his over-shirt, ties it around his waist and does a quick sweep of the landscape. The air is salty, sits heavy on the tip of his tongue. There’s a lighthouse a little further, perched precariously on a cliff, great mirror eye turned towards an outcropping of rocks so sharp that they would give Scylla a run for her money. The sea foams and froths, sulky today, the tide high from the conglomerate gravity of the sun and the moon. Waves break on the rocks, and horseshoe crabs scuttle away from the cold.
“Hullo!” Dean calls again, striding towards the house, and now the woman turns, one hand coming up to shade her face from the sun.
“Oh,” she says, squinting. “Mr. Glenship did call—you the mechanic?”
“Yes, Ma’am, but only sometimes.”
“And at other times?”
Dean shrugs. There was an answer there once, but he can’t remember it now. Something to do with fighting. Maybe he was in the Army and hit his head too hard on a whiz-by missile. He doesn’t know. There’s grit in his eye, which he tries to dig out while Mrs. Carmody and her cardigan stare at him.
She says, peering at the Lincoln, “Fucking terrible looking car.”
“Oh, I know,” Dean replies, cheerfully. He looks back at it: the rust and Bondo, a thousand bumper stickers like butterfly band aids. “Total Detroit dogshit, but thing was cheap.”
“Hmph.” She drops the hose, wipes her hands on the front of her cardigan. There’s a hair stick in her head, ammonite and plastic, and you can tell she’s a seaside person by the amount of shells and beads around her neck. “Thought a mechanic coulda fixed ‘er up a bit better.”
“Be like workin’ CPR on a corpse,” Dean says, grinning wide, and gives her his hand to shake. She’s clammy, and it’s a bit like gripping a choking fish. A crackle of electricity runs up her hand, and Dean tries not to squirm. “Been dreaming of a car though.”
“Yeah?” Mrs. Carmody fans herself. “Which one?”
“’67 Impala. Best year for Chevy, if you ask me.”
Mrs. Carmody sniffs. “Right. Know what’s not good this year? Climate. Got El Nino and the monsoon fighting it out over there in India, can you imagine?”
Dean can’t imagine, but it’s polite to nod, and so he nods. Mrs. Carmody stops shaking his hand and lets go, and he fights the urge to wipe it on his jeans, instead focusing on the house again.
“Who else lives here? Glenship only told me that you’ve been here the longest.”
“Everyone who’s got a mailbox,” Mrs. Carmody says. She points out the mailboxes, one gnarled finger accusatorily jabbing in a general clockwise direction. “Stacy Beck, she’s got the bottom-left side of the house, though she hardly needs a patch of wallpaper, really. I got the bottom-right to myself. Now, you’ll move into the floor above. We have a man in the basement—I can never remember his name, but he smokes only cigarillos.” She leans closer, says in the kind of stage whisper that she probably used to keep Mr. Carmody awake at church: “I’m pretty sure he’s got a connection with the Family, capital F, like mafia, you know? Anyway, he lives in the basement. There’s Sam above, in the attic. He’s studying for something. I never see that boy. He’s got a cat, and I never see it either. Stacy’s got some ugly fish. You got any family?”
“Nah. Had a little brother, but he’s dead now. I think.”
“Oh. How did it happen?”
Dean frowns. That’s a stupid question too. He can never remember the answer right. It’s a bit like looking through a fog. It dredges up grief like a hot little bullet in his heart, but feels far away. Like watching someone else mourn something small, maybe a pet goldfish.
“Accident in the Florida Keys?” he guesses wildly. Sounds plausible enough, right? Better than what he gave Glenship: lost at sea. Like he was a goddamn pirate. Lazy, Dean, fucking lazy.
“Well, I’m sorry,” Mrs. Carmody says, dismissively, brushing sweat off her brow. “Phew. Hot today, isn’t it? Quite a bit of the polar ice-caps melting off. You seen the picture of that lonely polar bear on a disappearing ice-shelf? That’s what the future is, boy. I’ve got a chart, mapping temperature and cloud patterns, because the weather’s just unreliable these days. Been brewing up a thunderstorm.”
Dean cracks a smile. “Should get all my stuff in before that, then, right?”
“Better, yes. Look, the weathercock’s pointing south. That’s bad luck. You didn’t bring any ghosts with you, did you?”
“Not one. Glenship triple-checked.”
Mrs. Carmody rolls her eyes. “’Coz we already got one in the basement, is why I asked. Don’t think me rude.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Mrs. Carmody.”
“There’s a sweet boy, then,” she mutters, as he walks back to the car. Sweat is already making circles on the front of his shirt. He’s going to be soaked by the time he’s done, and Dean counts as he grabs the first box from the backseat. One: cassettes.
It’s darkening by the time he’s done (Twelve: old copies of Hustler), and then he wanders around the ground floor of the house and the weedy gardens that surround it. Mrs. Carmody seems to have disappeared, and his other house-mates are nowhere to be found.
Behind the house, there’s a greenhouse with plants growing through the broken glass panes. A fountain with three dancing naked girls stands in the centre of what was once a flower-garden. Each of them is missing something: a limb, a nose, a boob. Boob Less has one hand pointing lackadaisically towards stone garden benches stuck in the midst of a feral, amorphous weed-jungle.
Someone’s left a copy of Dante’s Inferno on one of those benches, dog-eared and bookmarked, but it looks like it’s been placed there recently. Dean wonders if it belongs to the student in the attic. Sam, wasn’t it? Generic name like that.
He sits for a while on the stone steps of the porch, watching the sun disappear into the sea, listening to the sound of salty waves breaking on the shore. A crab picks its way out from under the porch. Seagulls wheel about, cawing and screaming, colliding against the walls of the house.
It’s noisy and beautiful. Chaotic.
He could like this place, he guesses. It’s better than wherever he came from.
The road here had taken Dean through curving asphalt roads and the grey-blue slopes of mountains, past redwoods, and further along, lesser trees fringing the altars of sacred sequoia— firs and oaks, hemlock groves. Doppler-shift blurs of nowhere-towns smattered like pearls on a string.
And all the way, he’d played a game with himself. This was to be a new beginning. He was going to forget the long road his life has taken so far, and start anew. He thought it so hard that the thought became solid, his past-self this gasoline-stained, hard-eyed man sitting shotgun. The unwanted man hummed along to the music in this guttural, broken-down voice. His arm bled through his sleeve, but he kept scratching at it. Hey, hey, hey, he said. Nothing green can stay. When Dean couldn’t bear it anymore, he stopped the Lincoln and asked the man to get out, please, politely. The man had looked at him for a moment, horrified, like he didn’t recognize Dean, like he didn’t recognize himself or this strange world he’d found himself in. It was a wild look. Not of an animal caught in the headlights, but of a lion in captivity coming across a pride of his kind butchering a village. But the man had obeyed, sliding out of the car, plopping out into the golden afternoon, like an unwanted oil-slick. God, what if he hadn’t? Dean had kept looking at the rear-view mirror all the way but the man, if he had ever even run, had never caught up with him.
Dean’s happy to be rid of him. Really. Who wants a past like that?
He goes back in when the stars start to show, and Mrs. Carmody’s weathercock starts spinning in every direction, crowing loudly.
Burton House, this place is called, like the kooky filmmaker, and the downstairs living room has a single old bunny-eared TV, hooked up to one of those ancient VCRs. He tries to switch it on but it’s apparently stuck on ghost-transmission, grayish masses of static undulating on the screen.
Mrs. Carmody’s thunderstorm sits on the table, crackling merrily in a jar.
There’s an economic kitchen in the house, cracked plates and a soapy sponge lying on the linoleum, Formica counters, and half a bloody chicken in the humming Frigidaire. It looks enormously unappetizing, but his second house-mate, Stacy Beck, drops in to claim it not long after he finds the promised flask of ever-present free coffee. She doesn’t speak, just smiles, and is thin enough that she’s probably two-dimensional. Her hips stick out, narrow like fjords in Norway. Her lipstick is the shade of murder.
“Hi,” says Dean, and Stacy Beck informs him that she’s heading out for a party.
Enjoy the house, she says. Don’t piss off the fish.
By the time she has the chicken cleaned up and boiling his stomach is starting to rumble, and so he drives down the hill again, hits a Taco Bell, and nearly falls asleep at the wheel driving back. There’s no traffic—it’s like the concept has been erased.
Weird, but whatever.
Dean breathes in the salt-stink and engine oil and thinks of being happy. It bounds inside his chest, this wrecking ball that squeezes his lungs.
Out past the cliffs and the bathwater-grey sea, the horizon flat-lines.
Dean catches sight of someone at the edge of the cliff, just past the weed-choked front garden. The stars in the sky are the size of motherfucking golf-balls, today. It’s a beautiful night. There’s a thrill in the air, electric. The person at the edge of the cliff turns when the Lincoln sounds its death-rattle, and Dean holds up a hand in salutation.
Sam, he thinks. The guy’s not smoking cigarillos or wearing a suit, so this must be Sam.
A spray of sudden rainwater hides the guy from Dean.
“Hey,” he calls. “You’re going to get wet.”
Sam waves back, but then turns to the ink-colored sea, and Dean gets this sudden ping in his chest, like someone’s struck a tuning fork to his exact frequency.
Dean goes back in, settles on the couch, puts his legs up on a coffee table (now devoid of thunderstorm) and closes his eyes. His body aches. There’s also a tugging feeling at the back of his mind, like he’s forgetting something. He casts about trying to remember, but nothing bites. He rubs a spot on his arm and is surprised that the skin is clear. He doesn’t know what’s actually supposed to be there.
The ceiling fan whirs and drags above him, and at eight, Mrs. Carmody comes and does some tinkering with the antenna. The weather channel comes on. A marvel, thinks Dean. Must be the strange and wonderful positioning of this house like this upon a cliff that analog waves can still reach it, the way light from dead stars will continue to reach earth for a while after they’re dead.
“Thundershowers,” Mrs. Carmody says, suddenly, like boo yeah, hallelujah. “See?”
There’s a clap of messianic thunder. Dean nods. Rain thrums ghostly fingers against the broken shingles. The Lonely Repairman commercial comes on, and Mrs. Carmody vibrates at being denied her weather.
His eyes are half-open as he stares at the window, at the sluggish trails of water running down it, and for a moment Dean thinks he sees a pair of blue eyes, bright in a sudden flash of lightning, a navy tie and a brown trench-coat, and startles out of his position with a cry.
“What?” asks Mrs. Carmody.
Dean just stares at the window, heart beating crazily out of rhythm.
A name begins to curl on his tongue, trying to find form. With a thrill of fear, Dean swallows it.
Stacy Beck walks in, ready to party in a sequined coat, and turns flat blue eyes towards them.
“What’s going on?”
The man in the trench-coat is yelling something, beating on the glass. He’s trying to write something on the glass, but the water just floods over the words, washes them off.
Dean jumps as a sudden beam of bright light passes over the man, like the searching eye of some cyclopean God. There’s a gull pecking at his coat, another pulling at his tie, and he looks downright soaked, and also delirious.
“Son of a bitch,” Dean mutters, dry-mouthed. “Over there.”
His gaze flicks to Mrs. Carmody, who pushes her glasses-on-a-leash up her nose. Stacy looks at the window, and folds a paper-kite shoulder in a shrug.
“There’s nothing there.”
When Dean looks again, the man is gone. A bird cocks its head innocently at him, before flying away.
“I thought I saw—”
Mrs. Carmody clucks. “Phantom visions. Happens to the best of us, dear. Stacy, would you fetch him a beer?”
Dean sinks back onto the couch. He accepts the drink that Stacy brings him, and Mrs. Carmody engages him in a conversation about static electricity and charged clouds. By the time she’s done and the beer bottle is empty, Dean’s forgotten all about the strange man.
He dreams against new sheets in this humming old house, dreams in color, dreams in a language he doesn’t know and a narrative so complex he can’t follow.
In his dream there’s black smoke, a drumming like taiko, and the roar of the sea. In his dream he’s leaning over someone, straddling them, and the person beneath him is laughing. It sounds of contempt, condescension. It fills his head with the bitter-apple taste of wormwood and hate, and everything shatters in flashes of starry white. He knuckles at his eyes and the stars fall away in a spangle, like a veil of tulle.
He closes his eyes.
And then he’s sitting down somewhere, and a man is moving around. There’s sticky thread on his skin. Sticky red thread that stretches like taffy when he yanks at it, and yank at it he does, a manic, grasping, bottomless panic guiding him—god, please, help—but it snaps right back like elastic. There are words on it, ink running up and down, but not in a language he can recognize. It’s cold, cold like a January morning with the wind whipping at your face, a cold that can burn, a curtain of it, and Dean shivers. He strains against the thread, thinks go to sleep. Go to sleep, it will all be over when you wake. It sounds like a promise to a kid that could never be him.
“I have the devil’s luck today,” the man says, shuffling towards him, and a high-beam of something like a flashlight catches Dean’s face. “Why won’t you just keep dreaming?”
He closes his eyes.
Opens, closes, opens. From outside comes a howling like a wolf, loud, but it quickly degenerates to angered snarls, growls. Then barking, yipping, keening—silence.
Is that a dream too? Dean blinks, presses his face to the pillow. Loses some more time.
He wakes into bottomless dark, with the house making shifting noises as all houses are wont to do. A cat meows from somewhere. Someone’s moving around downstairs. Dean lies there very quietly for a few seconds, his heart doing a jackhammer beat in his chest. And then he tries to sleep, only, the gurgle of boiling water and the intermittent meowing of the cat is bothering him. He’s alternately hot and cold, and the whole of the day is catching up with him, dull, throbbing pain jamming in his veins. Finally, he just gives up and climbs out of bed.
Padding downstairs in the dark, feet bare, he keeps an eye out for the cat. A few times, he thinks it sounds close but he never really sees anything. He rubs at his eyes vigorously, trying to rub away the dreams.
They’ve been bothering him awhile now. He wonders what they mean.
Downstairs, there are books open on the dining table, and a pot of fresh coffee.
He looks in the kitchen and Sam is leaning against the counter, dressed in a loose T-shirt and sweats, chewing on an apple. He doesn’t see Dean at first, all his concentration taken up by his mobile-phone screen. The bluish-white light of it is the only form of illumination in here, and in it, he can see that Sam has unruly hair, haloing around his face and swallowing it in a black hole. It’s too dark to make out anything else. Dean steps in to grab a mug and he jumps, makes a small grunt of surprise.
“Sorry,” Dean says, raising one hand in peace. “Hi.”
Sam’s quiet a minute, a quizzical, polite smile on his face. “Hey,” he says, finally. “You’re the new guy. Thought you were TDS for a minute.”
Sam gives an aborted shrug. “Tall Dark Stranger. In the basement.”
“Right. I’m Dean.”
“Sam, but then Mrs. Carmody’s probably told you that already. I room in the attic. Couldn’t sleep?”
Dean nods, realizes that Sam can’t quite see him in the dark, haloed in his phone-display as he is, and says, “Yeah. Are you the one behind the perpetual coffee?”
“Wow, we just put that in the ad as a laugh. It worked?”
“Better than you think.”
Pause. And then Sam says, to direct the conversation, to fill it up, whatever: “So, you drove? All the way from Kansas?”
“Yeah. I don’t like planes. I’ve never liked planes, you know. It’s not even a 9x11 thing. All that empty space between you and the ground. Don’t wanna end up like Turkish delight on some poor schmuck’s hood after they announce there’s only one parachute for a hundred of us.”
Sam laughs, surprised. “That’s fucked up, Dorothy.”
Dean watches as Sam moves, grabbing a second pot. It smells seriously good. Deep, rich Arabica. Sam puts the pot down near Dean’s mug. The windows in the kitchen are all open, and dirty blue curtains ruffle in a sea breeze. A lot of people sing about the sea, write about it. Dean’s never given much thought to it, but the sound of it is reassuring somehow. Reminds him that he’s only one in a million, a flappy butterfly that could bring a hurricane, but not if he didn’t try too hard.
Closer up, Sam has high cheekbones and eyes that waver indecisively between blue, brown and green. He’s really tall, big overall, a wall of muscle under his shirt when he moves, but there’s an economy to his movements that seems to balance out the largeness. He slouches a little, like his soul hasn’t quite grown into the length of his spine yet, or maybe it just likes to curl up.
“You a student?”
“History and religion, yes. Writing my dissertation, on death deities.”
“What’s a death deity?”
“Oh. Old Gods of Death and Hell. You know? Hel, Hades, Pluto, Yama,” Sam counts off on his fingers, little thought-antlers wrinkling on his forehead. “Koschei, to an extent.”
Dean thinks of the copy of Inferno, wonders if it’s soaked in the rain. “What’s that supposed to accomplish? Other than massive depression, I mean.”
“I don’t know, really. There are parallels. To, ugh, conformism. Counter-culture. Revolutionary sub-tropes. I mean, it’s a thesis! You write it and then you do stuff and make enough money for a farm with watawabas or something.”
“What are watawabas?”
Apparently you don’t take up academic discussions with Dean Winchester if you can help it. Sam figures it out and backtracks. “Anyone give you a tour of the house yet? Not that there’s much to see. Few common rooms here, you’ve already seen your floor, the rest is closets and bathrooms and shit.”
“Stacy mentioned fish.”
“Oh, yeah. The fish. You want biscuits?”
He opens a cupboard, and Dean peeks into a semi-dark space, filled with a plethora of implausible food. There’s salmon roe and beets in vinegar, jellies with balls of peeled fruit suspended in them, black rye bread and tons of thick, golden honey. Sam pushes away whole cobs of butter-yellow corn in search for his biscuits, which turn out to be Ottoman. It comes in a ridiculous looking decorative box and everything. Dean wants to make a wise-crack that starts with odalisques and young Turks, but the thought never really takes form. Ah, well.
“Fuck. Who does the shopping here?”
Sam laughs, and Dean notes the dimples carving into his cheek with an odd ring of familiarity. “I don’t know, really. Mrs. Carmody looks the type. Cupboards are always stocked. You want honey with that?”
He ends up sitting at the dining table, cramming implausible biscuits and honey with the subtle under-taste of orchids and summer into his mouth. He’s fucking starving. That he didn’t notice before is not very mystifying, which in turn is almost surprising. Dean’s trying to unwind that thought when Sam gives him another jar, try this, but the hints in the honey are too exotic for his tongue to place.
“Lavender, and yucca,” Sam says, grinning. “At least that’s what it says on the tin. It’s a science, you know. Beekeeping. Been around since the Fall.”
The Fall, like the Fall of Man, not the season.
Sam talks about school, the sea. There’s a cove down there at the bottom of the cliffs, only accessible at low tide. The lighthouse only works when it feels like it, and even when it does, it doesn’t really do it to moor any ships more than to satisfy its own needs. Twice a month, Sam likes to climb up to the widow’s walk up there on the mirror room, at night, because the stars are bigger there. At the base of the lighthouse is a spot where the fish conglomerate; a spot that glimmers with strange colors because of God-knows-what; possibly the iridescent filmy stuff that environmentalists skim off lakes.
Dean sprawls in his chair and tells him how the Lincoln broke down twice on his way here, how the weird quesadilla he’d had on his way tasted like dried fish, how Mrs. Carmody reminds him of Pele—the Hawaiian pork-hating Goddess. Why does Pele hate pork? Yeah, he knows that too. Something to do with her brother. Sam listens, laughs at the story. Finds a packet of M&Ms in his pocket and Dean eats that too, also remembering to grin at Sam with his shattered-rainbow chocolate mouth just because he feels like it. Sam’s not as grossed out as he should be.
They watch the moonlight pooling in helpless little novas on the wood, the furniture. Dean steals glances at Sam’s lips, the shape of his ear, wondering why he’s familiar.
And when what strangers can talk of without the buzz of discomfort tapers out to nothing, Sam leans forward and starts pushing the salt cellar around.
He asks, “Have you got any family?”
Dean shrugs. Thinks of the dead brother and all his deaths pressed up like handprints on foggy car windows. Accident. Murder. Pirate-kidnapping.
“Medical negligence,” he says this time, and Sam clucks his sympathy, takes a last swallow of his coffee, and then wanders up the stairs while Dean looks out the window at nothing in particular.
Dean leans back in his chair and listens to the velvet-sounds of night. A thick slice of moonlight spills through the open window, lighting up Sam’s blank notebook. The invisible cat meows. Dean dips the edge of his finger in the honey, scoops up a dollop and sucks it right off his skin.
It tastes like memory.
There are phantom bees, buzzing at the back of his head, and he scratches his arm again.
Dean thinks of his dream, in that drowsy, affable way you do once the light is on and the memory of it is fading. It was a weird dream. It had made him nervous, Dean realizes, the way fiery-furnace-Bible or stolen-kidney stories make him nervous. It’s settled in his belly like a rock. A little malignant lump that you know is there but won’t let the doctor check, because you know the news will be bad. Little malignant lump that jitters like a Lovecraft demon’s baby.
There’s an image that requires eye-bleach.
He’s wondering about the man with the devil’s luck when Sam comes bounding back down the stairs, a big pile of laundry in his arms. He shoulders open a door, and Dean follows, because this house hasn’t divulged all its secrets to him yet. The washing machine is in the odd in-between place between two stairwells. He watches Sam load it and toss a scoop of detergent in. A lone incandescent bulb on a chain glows nakedly above.
“I work part-time at a clinic,” Sam explains. Dean wonders what this is apropos of, but then he sees the bloody clothes. Most of the blood is on the sleeves. Long, rusty streaks of it, looping and speaking an incomprehensible language. “Tiny place, but it gets its share of weird cases.”
Sam laughs shortly. “I just started yesterday. I hear you fix stuff. Were you always—?”
“Nah. I’m taking a break. Did some heavy lifting for a while.”
Sam watches as water fills the machine. “Military?”
“Not quite. I don’t think so, at least.” Dean sits down on a stair, wraps his arms around his knees. Sam’s wearing white converse, and there’s a spot of blood on the left one. It swims in Dean’s vision, this tiny, dark sun. “It was worse, yeah? In its own way. I think it was worse.”
I was worse, he corrects in his head.
“Me too,” Sam says. “I think I used to do something awful too. Before this house.”
“I don’t even look twice at blood now.”
Dean doesn’t think he will, either. He twists his fist in this quick motion, wonders if it is muscle memory for a knife in somebody’s ribs. Forgetting has been attached to him like a second heart. It goes tick-tick-tick every little while, but then he thinks of stuff like this. Knowing violence. Doing violence. Twist, stab, rip.
Sam comes and sits down by him. The clothes in the machine are moving now, an apocalyptic gyre of frothing water and twisting cloth. The drone of it is restful. Dean stifles a yawn, worries a hole on the knee of his jeans.
Sam twists his head to the side and addresses the wall when he speaks.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbles, looking vaguely unhappy. “But have we ever met before? You just…you seem awfully familiar—”
But I can’t place my finger on it, thinks Dean. He’ been wondering too, but thinking of that is kind of difficult. It kind of lodges like a sharp object between his ribs. Admitting to anything seems worse than death.
“No,” he says, through a mouthful of needles. “I don’t think we have.”
There’s Smoke in the Water, drifting up from the basement. The smell of cloves and cigarettes. Dean takes a breath, and feels heady, dizzy, his thoughts scattering with a buzzing like bees.
Sam nods, watches the clothes in the washer without comment. His mouth twists down, a ghostly, puzzled sadness in his downcast eyes. Dean stares at him far longer than acceptable, feeling guarded and electric, jonesing to deny it further for some reason, weirded out by his own strongfeelingson the subject. It seems like a long time later that Sam pulls out of his thoughts and looks up with a weak smile.
“You want to see the fish?”
PART 1- (2)
Dean settles into something of a routine. At night he sleeps and wakes intermittently, because the fucking sea is too fucking close. The house does a little rumble on occasion, and Dean keeps imagining it the way houses are in old MGM cartoons—about to take a good ol’ leap, right into the water below.
In the mornings, he drives in the opposite direction of the touristy area, to the fork in the road that takes him either to a market or to the old lighthouse. The birds swoop about, buffeted by wind and spray, above a long stretch of green and white awnings in the market. There are leafy greens and fish and surfing boards, but no mechanic. It’s close to an Interstate and sees a fair share of tourists, whose rental cars are savage beasts prone to vagaries and keep breaking down. Dean’s rather pleased.
He sets up shop at an Auto Parts store there, run by a Vietnamese man with a weird name. Mr. N’s what Dean’s taken to calling him, this tiny dude with a smile like Jack Skellington, and he greets Dean every morning with a Marlboro Lite. Dean looks at it every day, tastes phantom smoke in his mouth but from light years away. If he had had a habit, he’s given it up far enough in the past that he can’t quite center his thoughts on it. He saves them though, because it seems like the polite thing to do. He stores them in an Old Milwaukee can back at the house, and they keep disappearing, so at least someone’s finding them useful.
Of his house-mates, he sees Sam the most, even with him at college and the library most of the day. Mostly because they both don’t seem to get a good amount of sleep— as if seven to eight hours is so much luxe that they can barely stand it—but also because of the instinctive, automatic familiarity that Dean won’t stop denying.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Sam, though he pressed the matter occasionally. “Remembering is hard work.”
So Dean quickly starts seeking Sam out at night. It doesn’t seem weird at all, and Sam gives his nights away easily, like these are hours as thoughtlessly simple as bus tickets. It seems an almost impersonal thing to do, like he’d do it for anyone just because he couldn’t sleep, but it’s also emphatically not like that. Sam’s not like that. They have a certain je ne sais quoi, or whatever it is that George and Martha had. Fred and Ginger. Butch and Sundance.
Sam’s not much of a talker unless you get him talking about nerdy stuff that goes right over Dean’s head, but he’s a good listener, slips right into listening to Dean going on and on about ancient music bands like he’s been doing it all his life. He doesn’t laugh at all of Dean’s dumb jokes, though there’s a tinge of fondness to his irritated little that’s-lame huffs that Dean likes. And though Dean starts a running joke about his hair and Cousin It from the Addams’ Family, he likes that about Sam too.
There are other things he likes about Sam. How he carves half-faces into the table with a buck-knife. How he’ll sit on the shotgun seat of the Lincoln with the door open and his legs out on the ground, listening to the radio. How he gets royally pissed when something is not Google-able, because he’s not a very Google person at all.
(“TOR’s always better,” Sam says, and shows Dean his preferred search engine of choice. Search the Web. “You know? It’s on the onion router. The hidden internet? Get way better results.”)
They watch late night games, supporting opposite teams, waking Mrs. Carmody up with their banter. Sam starts off proper and intellectual and getting hung up on numbers, but quickly careens into that headspace where you don’t know what you’re saying anymore and you’re running your mouth because you’re tired and there’s stuff on TV that you can opinionate about and it’s okay to be mindless when you’re with someone who sings along to TV jingles.
Sam throws a hand over his face when he can’t look at Dean anymore and that distracts Dean enough that he shuts up with the tuneless warbling.
Dean watches Sam’s hands a lot. Writing, slicing bread, wrapping around cans of Coke or beer. They are familiar. The way they work. The little nicks and scars and paper-cuts faded to pink and white. Like a map that he knows by heart. He’s somewhat charmed by himself at the thought, not very charmed by the ones that usually follow, the ones that want to know if all of Sam is as familiar as his hands.
“She’s going to slap him,” Dean says, half out of his chair with his eyes glued on the stupid movie they’re suffering through. “Wait for it…ha!”
“Dude, how much TV do you watch?”
Right behind Sam and through the window, the moon’s in the sky like a buoy, large and friendly. Dean watches it and moves the ashtray on the coffee table around with his foot.
“Been livin’ out of motel rooms. Not a whole lot you can do when it’s pouring out and you got nothing to do except watch TV. You ever catch the afternoon soaps?” Dean grins, makes a finger-pistol. “Man, Spanish housekeepers. It’s got this undercurrent of conservative porn? I don’t even know, but damn.”
Sam gapes a little, but careful, like he doesn’t want to judge. Dean focuses on the mole by the side of his nose and Sam squirms, this little crazy glimmer creeping into his eyes before Dean protests, deliberately wide-eyed, “They’re surprisingly good!”
“It’ll rot your brain,” Sam says. “And so will all this stuff we’re drinking—”
“Shut up and get me another beer.”
“Get it yourself,” Sam says, but Dean makes a pouty face and he goes, after flashing the appropriate expression of disgust. His fist bumps for a fraction of a second against the top of Dean’s head, and Dean nearly makes a wild grab for him.
Impulse or something. He grins and watches the private detective shoot off some Cuban mobster’s head, then loses the smile and cranes his neck to focus on Sam’s back as he leans by the fridge.
It’s weird. Dean can hear his happiness ring loud like an alarm bell to something awful and strange. Like the ginger-bread house innocence of this is but a sham, and witches and ovens are hiding just around the bend.
But then, everything is strange here, and all you can do is not notice it. Don’t give it the satisfaction, you know. Ignore it conveniently, the way those girls in movies do when they know the love-interest snacks on AB-neg.
The thing about Burton House is that it seems to shift.
Not in the way of fantasy books that it sprouts a leg or a floor or a stretch of industrial lighting, but in its own, almost imperceptible ways, the house seems to possess life, arrange its limbs in an order that is undictated by pattern or algorithm. The walls have an odd relationship with the ceiling, in that sometimes it seems like the room has more than four corners. Dean sometimes wakes up to see that the wallpaper in his room has patterns of circles rather than the fleur-de-lys from yesterday. Sam’s books and papers keep disappearing on him, leading to panicky crawling under couches and rifling through cupboards. The corn and honey keep appearing like overblown motifs in some hack writer’s handbook.
The six-packs don’t disappear or else Dean would have considered hoodooing the house into submission already.
“Do you sometimes have really weird dreams?”
Dean grins around a mouthful of crackers. “The wet kind? Oh, yeah.”
“Oh my God,” Sam says, because he’s melodramatic like that, Dean’s noticed. Sam rolls his eyes, unimpressed. “No, man. I mean, really. Weird. Nightmare on Elm Street kinda weird.”
Dean shrugs. Chews loudly. They’re sitting on the porch. There are pin-pricks in the sky, a little lamp glowing behind them with bugs teeming around it in droves. “I think I’ve always been a bad-dream kind of person.”
“Me too. But recently? Like you can’t explain them? And they seem, I don’t know—more real?”
“Why do you have to ask all these questions?” Dean asks. I wish you wouldn’t, I wish you wouldn’t, Sam. Every time he does, Dean gets this sinking feeling in his stomach. This hold on feeling. This hanging by a straw feeling. It yawns inside him and he can feel his lungs fanning, this thick white wedge of panic in his throat.
Sam shakes his head. There are tired rings under his eyes, and the back of his eyelids are a bruised purple like he hasn’t been sleeping. He brushes his fists over his cheeks, quickly, like a human mantis.
“Something terrible happened once,” he says. He closes his eyes and presses his lips together, like he can keep the whole of his self inside him that way. “And then I woke up, and it all seemed like a long bad dream that snuck out of my head and became real. Now I don’t trust anything.”
“That’s stupid, man. How can you live like that?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t know who I am. Like there’s a lot that’s missing.”
Dean pulls in a breath and says in a radio-announcer voice: “My name is Dean. I’m an Aquarius. I drove here from Kansas. I have a stupid Lincoln that dies on me thrice a day, a history with armed combat, and a crush on a Chevy that’s not mine yet. I can fix cars. Isn’t that just enough to go on? It is, for me,” he pats Sam on the shoulder. “Maybe it’s a problem with you brainy types. You overanalyze.”
Sam looks at him like this is the kindest lie anyone has ever told him. His hands open on his knees, slow and brave, like everything Dean’s just said is a key to some fisted-anxiety lock. They look eminently holdable, and Dean considers them. Something is weird in his head today. Some half-formed idea goes swimming through brain-soup.
Dean does nothing. His blood beats fast in his head, a syncopated sound with the sea.
Dean does nothing.
“There’s a Bergman movie on,” Sam says, finally. “Something stupid. You wanna watch?”
“You ever played that game where you turn off the sound on the TV and make up ridiculous lines?”
Sam huffs a laugh. His eyebrows lift. “God, I wouldn’t want to play that with you. I bet you could make The Lion King filthy.”
An albino jackdaw flutters off the house’s roof and lands on the yard. Dean watches it peck at something on the ground, maybe a worm, and breathes in a sharp inhale when the bird looks at him with a bright blue eye.
“Yeah,” he says, distractedly. The bird skips along the ground, caws loudly. Dean resists the urge to throw a stone at it. “You know what? I bet I have.”
“It’s not that easy to buy a car,” the man at the salvage yard says through the phone.
It’s a week later and Dean’s sitting in a pool of sunlight, nursing a cold bottle of beer, a packed IHOP breakfast of blueberry pancakes cooling near his bare foot. Mrs. Carmody throws him disapproving glances, but he guesses, hey, it must be eight pm somewhere. He takes a drink, thinks of some way to contradict this pompous son of a bitch, and ends up making faces at his knees. The pancakes smell like heaven, so the day is not all bad yet.
He’d always wanted to eat at an IHOP. There’s one a bit further down the road, where the beach becomes more touristy. He’d walked through morning joggers and beach-ball-orange kids; past stalls just opening for the day’s business. The parasols by the side of the beach had all still been folded up and looming against side-walls like dormant pterodactyls, but there was the smell of breakfast, of frying fish. It permeated every nook, every corner, and inside the blue-and-white restaurant, it was even more prominent.
IHOP was out of cherry-flavor anything, so Dean bought blueberry. The carpeting at the restaurant said IHOP-IHOP-IHOP all the way to the lines.
Now Dean watches Mrs. Carmody at the table, chopping potatoes while reading something that seems to be an astrology magazine. The potatoes look like badly formed infants, with tiny fists here, a possible smushed head there. He almost expects them to start walking around screeching pro-life propaganda.
“—are you listening, Mr. Winchester?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dean mutters, exasperated. He kicks the edge of the sofa with his foot, groans into the receiver. “Hey, seriously, man. What do I have to do? It’s a fucking car, not the Holy Grail.”
A crackle of static, and then: “Don’t be so quick to dismiss it as just a car. Why, it could be the most important object in the universe. Mint condition. I expect the best price. You couldn’t find a more cherry vintage if you signed over your soul!”
“No, I get it, I do,” Dean huffs, “But you’re not even naming your price! What do I have to do, the Three Trials towards Car Ownership?”
“Offer it due consideration,” the man’s voice is steel-wool, slick and professional. “Isn’t that what they always do in fairy-tales when they want something?”
Dean hangs up, livid. He sits there for a minute, twisting the hem of his shirt in annoyance, then leans back and rests his head on an armchair, staring up at the pockmarked ceiling.
Sam’s cat meows from somewhere close by. It’s got a pitiful kind of sound, like it has been neglected forever, though Dean’s seen Sam leave food for it in multiple places. Dean has never actually seen the kitty-cat in question, but then, has anyone?
“Is it even real?” he’d asked Sam once.
Sam, slumped over his notes, had taken a moment to answer. “You hear it, don’t you? You just don’t see it.”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Maybe you’re not looking at it right.”
Dean’s dubbed it Schrodinger. He’s not entirely sure why, but that guy had had some opinions about a boxful of dead/alive cats, hadn’t he? Between it, Mrs. Carmody’s weathercock, and the fish in the upstairs bathtub, he’s living with more pets than he’s ever imagined possible.
“And the wolves?”
Sam had stiffened. “What about wolves?”
“There are wolves in the forest, aren’t there? I’ve heard them, at night.”
“Right. I guess. They’re just there. They’re peaceful.”
Sam had smiled, brightly. Incongruous smiles were a thing with him apparently, a means to protect himself. Like umbrellas against storms, or clothes against cold. Dean didn’t press the issue.
“It’s a really great car, you know,” he tells the fish when he goes up there to feed them his breakfast crumbles. They press against the side of the tub, these giant toothy things with nasty red eyes and flat-heads like the early ancestors of alligators. Sam had pulled back the jaw of one when he first showed Dean the fish that night, showed him the diamond-sharp eyeteeth and the wicked overbite. Sam calls them tiktaalik roseae, tiktaaliks for short. It’s a good name for a fish. “I would do Trials for it.”
Someone clears their throat from behind him and Dean turns to see the suited back of a tall man. The fishes push wildly against the bathtub, as if they’re straining to see. The man moves quickly, quicker than it would seem humanly possible, not paying heed to Dean’s “hey”s. He flits past the mirror and keeps going, down the stairs, his footsteps thunk-thunk-thunking against the old, chipped wood, heavier than he looks to be. The windows don’t reflect him.
Momentarily, there is the slam of a door. The one to the basement.
Dean looks down at the fishes and shrugs, the weirdness of this developing sullenly in his mind like accidental sunlight in a darkroom.
He catches the Marlboros thief pretty fast.
As a matter of fact, he hadn’t expected it to be anyone else. Stacy is too two-dimensional to support something character-building like a smoking habit, and Mrs. Carmody is too flanderized in her obsession with weather. TDS only smokes cigarillos, it looks like, though Dean never actually sees them. Sometimes when he walks into a room there will be the ghost of pungent smoke and a coppery scent, and he’ll know the man has been in. Otherwise, save for the Zeppelin drifting up the floorboards, no one will even know if he is still alive or not.
So, well, that leaves Sam.
Who doesn’t look like a smoker, honest. Sam seems more like a guy who’ll sleep on a dark beach just to make sure newly-hatched turtles find their way safely into the ocean, but when Dean wakes up this night, heart hammering and the ghost of a voice still going Dean-Dean-Dean in his head like a plea, when he pads down the stairs and finds the kitchen empty, something tells him that Sam is not in the attic, sleeping.
Sure enough, he finds the door open, the porch light burning. A halo of moths and bugs flutter around it, and Dean ducks as one zooms over his head. There’s one the size of Mothra beating fragile wings against the thin shell of the incandescent bulb, like a kamikaze pilot figure-eighting doggedly at its target.
A light at the end of the tunnel, Dean thinks suddenly. Come with me. I can show you. He blinks and the line sinks back into the murk in his brain.
Out on the yard, the clothesline ripples with ghosts. Sleeves rise up to the sky, ghostly pale, pleading for deliverance. Some of them still have the faint taint of blood rust.
Mothra whizzes right past Dean’s shoulder and into the house, where it promptly pings against something hard. He hears its wings shatter.
The grass blades are sharp, wet with dew under Dean’s feet. The waves sound tremendous and close, slamming against the rocks, against the base of the lighthouse which is working today, broad beacon of light impossibly brave against the thickness of the night. Dean looks around but sees no-one, hears nothing except the sea and the sleepy murmuring of the weathercock, and he’s about to turn back to go inside when the light from the lighthouse lands on him like the Great Eye of Sauron.
He blinks rapidly, throws a hand over his face to protect his shocked eyes, but by then the light is retreating, moving in a sweep over the grass, hesitating by the side of the house for a second before going out. Dean just catches a glimpse of a figure against the wall there, just a sliver, but he walks a few paces. The night seems to grow and multiply around him, cold and drenched with salt spray, the sound of the cicadas is ear-splitting.
And when he’s walked the length of the porch, Sam’s standing there on the other side, against the side-wall, staring up at the sky, the thin plume of smoke escaping his lips barely distinguishable from the haze of fog.
He doesn’t see Dean. The faint light from an upstairs window just barely outlines him in gold, and the tip of that lit cigarette is very, very red against the night. Sam has one leg bent and his foot braced against the wall, shoulders loose, head tilted up. He’s only wearing a thin, worn old t-shirt and drawstring pants, and the familiarity of his shape is so achingly sweet that Dean can feel it even in his teeth.
Sam brings the cigarette to his lips again, and then coughs a bit, like he’s unsure.
Like he hasn’t done this before, or doesn’t have practice, or something.
In the next moment, Sam tilts his head slightly in his direction. Slow and lazy, almost lolling. Delayed gratification, that’s the thing. Dean shifts, a tiny bit startled, but Sam still doesn’t see him.
Dean stands still and silent there, all of his words seemingly lost. There’s something about this, the spinning smoke from Sam’s mouth maybe; the windy, wet night maybe. A curl of heat coils in his chest, spreads quickly in his blood, and he kinda wants to go over. Push him up against that wall there.
The cigarette tip burns: tiny, blazing, red-dwarf star between paper-nicked fingers. The smoke from it looks like it could be both sweet and acrid, and Dean wonders how long the taste will stay on Sam’s lips.
Something rattles Dean, causes thermodynamics to go to hell on him, because he flushes and his spine chills—both together.
He thinks of black smoke. All of the black holes in all of the skies, and if the lighthouse seeks them out again, maybe Dean can see if Sam’s eyes look just like them. Satiny caves, empty of feeling.
It’s a weird thought. It melts like an ice-cube in his chest, spreads necrotic.
It terrifies him.
Suddenly, he doesn’t want to know.
He backs up, walks away. Wants to ask if Sam is okay, why doesn’t he sleep, what the fuck is he doing out here at this hour, does he want company. But his head is clamming up, stuck on some ghost-station, thinking of bellows and meat-skins, blacksmoke, lampblackeyes, Hell capital H,but also Sam.
Dean frowns, wavering. He balls his hands into fists. He’s jittery as fuck, walking back to the open door. He stops there, tries, “Sammy?” in a whisper and it sits right on his tongue, works right, just a word but ineffable—god—and hasn’t Sam mentioned he hates the nickname? No one calls me that. Yeah, once. When Dean said something about Sam Spade.
He shoves a hand through his hair, squeezes the back of his neck. Pushes all thought vigorously from his mind.
He’s left with a craving for honey.
Ignoring it, Dean retreats to the safety of his bedroom, taking stairs two at a time to get there, only breathing with some control once the door is shut and the light is on. He hangs up his hysteria like a coat, watches it sink morosely against the walls, dark and fluttering. Then he walks to his freezing bed, each step seeming to turn him into a stone Gorgon, and thinks of smoke and demons.
He doesn’t fall asleep till he hears the snick of the front door closing downstairs, and Sam’s footsteps up the stairs a few minutes later.
Three Mondays since Dean moved in, and on Tuesday, when he comes down the stairs at morning, Sam’s sitting down on the bottom one. He’s nursing his favorite coffee mug—the one with the chipped rim and Java written on it in a pixilated font. A good little nerd mug that, if anthropomorphized, would give lectures on Socrates or Gandhi.
Sam looks exactly as awful as he’s been looking for the last one week, and Dean says, without preface: “Maybe that clinic’s not for you, huh?”
Sam jumps, nearly drops the mug, and then goes back down like a snipped kite. His eyes glitter dully. He hasn’t changed out of his shirt from yesterday, and there’s blood on the sleeves again.
Sam brightens, but almost imperceptibly. No one says no to free breakfast. It’s an unwritten cosmic rule, as sacred and inviolable as bro code. “Eggs, if we have it?”
Dean stifles a yawn, rubs at his mouth with the back of his hand. “How’s your dissertation going?” he asks, because talk of academics is likely to cheer Sam up. Today it does the opposite. Sam deflates till Dean thinks he’s either going to escape or start crying.
“I’m writing about the price paid.”
“The price paid for what?”
Sam’s quiet for a beat. Then he says, “For resurrection.”
Dean sighs. “Hey, Sam. You know how these weird things you say go right over—”
“There’s always a price, isn’t there? With Eurydice, with Satyavan, with Inanna—resurrection’s a deal. You strike a deal, you name your price, you bargain. Mostly, whatever’s making the deal with you screws you the fuck over. And I don’t like zombies!”
Sam makes an agitated sound, seeming to turn suddenly into a denser, more formidable version of himself. Okay, Dean thinks. O-kay, nerd boy.
Outside, the air is iridescent whisper-grey, like the soft down of a pigeon. Sunlight is spilling diffusely through the windows as Dean fills his coffee mug and sets about breaking eggs. It’s a nice day. Nice days warrant quests.
“I’m gonna go look at a car, later today. Gotta take her for a spin and negotiate details with the asshole guy at the yard. You wanna come with? I need a second opinion.”
“A car?” Sam considers.
Dean cracks a wide grin. “The best car.”
Sam goes through a series of yawns, closes his eyes and ends up looking like he’s been cold-cocked by the Sandman. His veins make a leaf-pattern tracery on the back of bruised eyelids, and Dean wants to tell him to stay in.
One eye drags open. “Yeah, okay. Pick me up from the college library?”
“Sure. You want to, maybe, grab some shut-eye first?”
Sam shrugs, morosely. He sways to his feet, and a wing of his genetically immoderate hair falls over his forehead. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Oh, hi Stacy.”
“Hey,” says Stacy. “Does anyone know what to feed the tiktaalik roseae? I think they’re dying.”
Dean frowns. “Maybe smaller fishes? Turtles?”
“I don’t think they’ll digest turtles. They’re Devonian.”
Stacy shrugs. “I don’t want them to die,” she says, and pulls her sequined coat tight around herself. She looks a bit like a woeful Marilyn in the Seven Years Itch, and Dean goes to console her. By the time he’s done, Sam’s disappeared.
Fifteen minutes later he reappears, showered and dressed, little drops of water still glistening in his hair. Dean watches as he shovels whole spoonfuls of scrambled eggs into his mouth, looking at Dean occasionally like he wants to say something. A doomed expression seems to have torpedoed him into slumping even more into the table. His fingers are pinked from rough soap. His hands shiver on his glass, knocks his cutlery in frantic rhythm against the plate.
Dean doesn’t call him on it.
“You think you can ditch your shift tonight?”
“You look like you could use a break, Sam.”
Sam nods, slowly. His expression is indecipherable. “I’ll try.”
When he passes Dean on his way out, he leans in close, whispers: “Christo.”
Sam’s eyes narrow, all kinds of colors today and darkening by the second. He’s waiting for a reaction, but only for a fleeting second before he’s moving again. Dean grabs his wrist without thinking, bird-bone slender at odds to the rest of him, brings him to a stop by pushing down hard on the soft spot where bones meet. Stacy, standing at the fridge now, pauses to turn her head slightly towards them. Dean pushes down harder. Thinks of how easy it is.
“What the hell was that?”
Sam shakes his head, struggles free. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know. You passed, okay? You passed.”
He throws Dean a terrified look and flees into the cool morning.
Okay, so Dean’s a terrible person. Nothing he didn’t know before.
He waits till Mrs. Carmody is gone grocery-shopping, and then sneaks up the stairs, past his floor. The stairs to the attic are tiny and he has to duck his head to avoid banging it on the beams. Gonna end up worse than the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sam, he thinks, but then he clicks open the door and walks into a tall room, sloping roofs and all. Student penury is evident in the bareness, but then he guesses maybe that’s just Sam’s style, after all. There’s a bookshelf. There’s a Stanford Cardinals flag. There’s a table, bowed down under the weight of many books and papers. Thick tomes that come in boxes, with titles that Dean can’t even read without getting a migraine.
There’s a soft-bound report on the bed, with the title Contemporary Hell versus the Inferno, which explains what the book is doing here at least, but Contemporary Hell? Okay. Whatever floats your boat, Sam.
Dean shouldn’t be in here, he thinks. It’s just that Sam has been acting weird, and that word he’d said this morning, Christo, Dean knows that word. It’s a word from a dream, one with no internal-logic that could help in plotting it, just abstractions and pretty lights and black, black smoke.
You don’t ignore something like that. Something that’s like a towrope to this secret and savage land you used to know once.
Schrodinger meows from somewhere. Dean does a cursory sweep of the room on reflex, almost expecting to see a disembodied smile hovering in the air in front of him when he turns, but there’s nothing.
He moves to the table. Most of the pages there are typed, with Sam’s neat hand making annotations and clarifications in bright red marker. It’s dry stuff, really, quotes and religious motifs and long, harrowing descriptions of death and pagan Gods and culture. He peers at it for a moment, takes note of the overall haphazardness. Can’t be pre-planned, not this mess. He shrugs and then pushes through them, through sketches of what might be religious sigils that Sam’s been researching, through pages cramped with writing and website addresses and reference notes. And then he comes across something that makes him pause.
It’s nothing much. A bird. The shape of one, and the stuttering lines show hesitation. The outline of it, the wings, the feathers all detailed in black, but something about the bird suggests that it’s actually white. And blue-eyed. Maybe.
Jackdaws, Sam’s writing says, in a corner. Traditionally an omen? Psychopomp?
Dean puts down the paper. There’s also a thick notebook under the mess, covered with newsprint paper, which falls open when he’s rooting through other stuff.
From downstairs, Mrs. Carmody shouts his name. Are you home, dear?
Dean stops. The notebook reads like something he might have written if he was into Freud and dream-journaling and all that funny shit. He rifles through and there are mentions of black smoke and blood, lighthouses, funny sketches of weird weapons and an entire page of Latin, crossed and written over many times. Been living with Jack Torrance, he thinks. Holy crap. Exorcizamus te…what is this stuff? Dean tries to pilfer the book, drop it in his pocket, and then two things happen all at once.
First, a note with his name on it flutters down. And then the lighthouse finds him again. The beacon fixes its malevolent bright eye on him with the fury of a thousand suns.
Dean throws his arms up. In a moment, something huge and fluttering blocks out the light. Its shadow falls all over the house, and he can hear the weathercock cawing in terror. Everything tilts to the left, like a painting knocked askew. Sam’s bed rolls across the floor and crashes into a dresser. Dean jumps out of the way as the table follows. He has to hold onto a light fixture to stay still himself, and from below, he hears the sound of cutlery breaking, Mrs. Carmody screaming so shrilly that the house starts raining.
Dean picks up the note.
Dear Dean Winchester, (it reads)
This house is big and wide, not long and thin. There are people behind the walls. There are non-suitable building materials holding this house up. There are extra floors.
This house is not a monster.
Dean reads the letter twice, then folds it and puts it in his pocket.
All of Sam’s stuff is scattered over the floor now, getting steadily wet, and Dean surveys the mess. He lets go of his light fixture, and figures out how to walk on the tilted floor without much difficulty.
Things change, he consoles himself. It’s the way of life.
“Mrs. Carmody!” he yells, poking his head out the door. “Will you stop with the raining?”
It takes a moment, but then the rain cuts off. Dean staggers back in. Sam’s notebook’s on the floor and he picks it up, then feels a prickling on the back of his neck, like someone’s staring at him. The sharp scent of clove and cigarillos tickle his nose.
“What are you looking at?”
TDS says nothing. His face is in shadow. His fingers, curled around the doorframe, leave smeary blood prints.
“You’re a hell of a creepy dude, you know that?” Dean says. He puts the notebook back, because he doesn’t want TDS to think he’s a thief. “I’m just here to feed the cat, okay?”
TDS does a full-body shudder. His fingers clench, unclench. Blood drips off him like sweat.
“Fucker,” Dean mutters under his breath, angry now, so angry. He shivers. He hates this guy, he hates the smell and darkness and the pain rolling in waves off him. He hates how no light escapes the guy, like the outline of him is an event horizon towards something awful.
TDS clears his throat. “Nothing green can stay,” he says. “Nothing green.”
He turns away, walking in a slow shamble, staggering as he tries to figure out the new inclination of the house.
“That’s not how it goes,” Dean says, loudly, to an empty room. “That’s not how the poem goes.”
Here is why the fish don’t eat: their teeth have been stolen.
In order of arrivals to the house, Mrs. Carmody was the first. (And that’s without counting the people in the walls.)
She lived there even before there was a lighthouse, or a moon, or stars. She lived and made storms, bottled rain, and occasionally trapped pestilence in jars to dish out to those who annoyed her too much. In her bathroom cabinet are tiny bottles of small pox, malaria, and leprosy. In earlier times she used to take a boat and row to the middle of the sea, where she’d scatter the seeds upon the wind for the entire world to breathe in.
Her present predisposition is one of wariness. She doesn’t like change, and cowers from it. She focuses on her gardens. The macroscopic world can go screw itself.
Stacy Beck came to live in the house much later, after the house had grown up and sprouted the attic. Sam was responsible for her. He found her on the beach, howling and running through the rocks and driftwood bare-foot, her hands full of fish and the albatross after her.
“Hey!” he’d yelled out, and the house still remembers the thrum of his urgent footsteps down the stairs. He ran past the spot where the man-who-is-an-albatross became the albatross-who-was-a-man, his hair flying, his face in an expression that came easy to those who have been running towards danger for a very long time. “Hey, stop it!”
He lobbed a piece of shale at the bird. It cawed loudly, wide wingspan glittering a thousand rainbow shades as it executed a preternaturally perfect aerial roll, and looked at him with terrible blue eyes full of sorrow.
Sam stopped, clawed gently at his shoulder where the old wound had healed into nothingness.
The girl, having lost the attention of the albatross, climbed up the incline and onto the yard of the house, flopping onto her back immediately. She was wet, with long stringy hair that spread out on the ground with her fish threading through it like the strands contained the sea.
She sat up, and then lobbed the glowing ball she’d been carrying (same ball that has the Heaven, Earth, Hell, a Library, and further secrets—you remember, do you not?) off the cliff. The albatross gave a dismayed caw and swooped after it.
“Did you steal that?” Sam asked.
“It was just there,” the girl sobbed. She clutched her fishes closer. “It was just there, I didn’t know about the bird!”
Sam helped her up. “You want to come in?” he’d asked, steadying her, his eyes kind. “I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
But the house is kind too. The house shows extraordinary generosity, and allows Stacy to put her fishes in the bathtub. There they dream of biting at the glowing ball, the taste of Heaven, Hell, Earth and the Library, and so the house steals their teeth, blood running quick in its veins, that it may keep secrets that need to be kept.
At night it sends the cat to do it. It’s a good thing he’s invisible.
Here’s another secret that the house knows: the first time Sam opened the door to the attic and then closed it behind him, he wasn’t alone.
He walked in and he hadn’t ever breathed so well or seen more clearly. Across the room and through the window, the sky seemed to writhe like the pound of flesh denied to Shylock. Sam smiled glumly and balled the bloody scarf into something as tiny as those bread-rolls you’re served salad on. He stood with his back against the door and the thing sitting on the bed smiled too. It had been there since Sam walked in but looked so exactly like him that he hadn’t noticed it. It wore the same bloody clothes, only the gash on its shoulder wasn’t closed. Its teeth weren’t so different from his, but Sam balked just the same.
That is not my face, Sam thought nonsensically. The house felt him think it, quietly. His heart was calm, ponderous. He was thinking it through logically, because he knew madness. Madness was when you attributed too much thought to what was real or not. Madness was when you pretended there was no one in the walls.
Your mind is telling you things, the House mused, but oh Sam, oh—don’t listen.
The Zombie stood up. It held tears in its eyelashes like ice-crystals. We died this day, it said. And it was for the State, and it was for the greater good.
“You’re going to quote…the Communist Manifesto at me. Why?”
Live for us, Sammy, the Zombie said. Wake up to the truth. It had a smile that was too bright, that was its problem. Sam never smiled that bright, unless he was pretending and didn’t care how it hurt his mouth.
Sam turned around. He could hear a wolf howling from somewhere, and the sound pierced right through his heart. He pushed open his door again and stumbled out into the landing, and then the howl came again. Like something dying. Like something dying of violent, jagged heartbreak.
The Zombie said: what are we without our shadows?
It never went away after that. The House couldn’t trap it, no matter how much it tried. Thus are the creations of our minds that try to tell us the truth.
But don’t concentrate on it, Sam. Don’t let it hoodoo you to death.
“I think I’m in a dream, but I don’t know how to get out of it. Is that normal? Do you think maybe sulfazine and neuroleptics will work? What’s the success rate of a lobotomy?”
Ajay laughs, pushing his Starbucks coffee cup towards Sam. “Dude, relax, yaar. We don’t want a repeat performance of Mr. Henderson’s class, do we? You’re just stressed. You work like a fucking cyborg and you’re writing this badass thesis and then there’s the house—”
“Dean just called,” Sam says, unhappily. “It’s shifted seven degrees to the left.”
“Aw. Any lasting damage?”
“Some plates, and the coffee table cracked. The fish fell out of the bathtub, but Stacy put them back in. They’re dying, you know. We don’t know what to feed them.”
Sam’s colored half a page of OMR bubbles in purple ink. It’s supposed to be a test of some kind, to allow insurance of some kind. Ajay put him up to it. It’s a build-a-chain-and-get-commission kinda deal. Sam goes along because he’s a good friend like that, and occasionally sacrifices his IQ points in lieu of moderately tolerable human company.
He looks down at the library books on the table. His head hurts, and his eyesight blurs. He thinks of Inanna, the Uruk Goddess who died and was resurrected when her husband took her place in the underworld. Of King Vikram, whose own foray into Hell left him possessed and his kingdom in shambles.
They’re depressing stories where no one gets away with things without someone paying a price.
Dead things should stay dead but they find it so hard, mutters a smirking voice. So hard. Motherfuckers.
Sam ignores it. It’s just a Zombie, after all.
He doesn’t think this is the first time that he’s hallucinating an imaginary friend. But there’s a problem when it kinda looks like himself, except a whole lot deader. Sam wishes it would go away upon waking every morning, and maybe for a while it stays away, but it always finds its way back to him, standing in quiet corners of rooms and following him into offices and libraries. Sometimes it sits on chairs and reads, eyes rolling in its head.
“I should go,” Sam says, and starts grabbing his stuff. “Dean wants to look at a car.”
“Ooh,” says Ajay, smirking. “Is it a date?”
Sam rolls his eyes. “No, you girl.”
“But you like him.”
Sam contemplates this. You see, he thinks. It’s because—just because. It’s a line from something, but he can’t remember what. “Dude, I don’t know…” he scrapes back his chair as he stands up, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I keep thinking…”
Ajay tuts. “Which is the problem, really, with you at least, Sam. You think too much.”
“I just don’t feel right.”
“About everything. Me, you, that clinic. About this whole…”
“World?” drawls Ajay, “Reality? You’re not going to go string-theory parallel-universe Cubist psycho-babble bullshit on me, are you?”
“What do the Cubists have to do with it?”
“Fuck if I know, man, they’re all whackjobs.”
The Zombie gets off its chair and drifts down the hallway. Sam watches it go, settles his eyes on the snail-trail slime of blood it has left. What does it stand for? Symbols exist for a reason.
He maps it with his brain, the sad and sorry thing. Not eyes, but pools of black. Not proper clothes, but tatters. And over its stomach, a deep, wide gash.
The first actually terrifying memory he has of the Zombie is in the lighthouse, where he ran down stairwells after stairwells, the steps getting progressively more clustered together and harder to navigate. Ran down like he was following the thread on a screw, and it followed him all the way on rubbery legs. All things die, it kept calling after him. Sam tried stopping after a while, tired of running, but then it idled there, started moving only when he ran again. All things die. I can’t catch up with you.
“Did you ever see the Return to Oz movie, Ajay?”
“I don’t think so. Which one’s that?”
Sam shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “The one where Fairuza Balk plays Dorothy and Nicol Williamson is the creepy doctor with insane patients in his basement. The one where Auntie Em puts her in a mental hospital and they try to shock-therapy Oz right out of her brain.”
Sam doesn’t know the point of this conversation anymore. He swallows and says in a rush, “Yeah, I know. Why’d they put that in a kids’ movie, right? Fucking horror story. Anyway, at the end of it, the doctor gets burned to a crisp in a thunderstorm, and Dorothy sees her friends from Oz looking at her through a mirror. They tell her to shut the fuck up about emerald cities and all that shit. You know—things that are not there,” he pauses, chews on his lip worriedly. “Nobody wants to listen to you when you’re seeing things that are not there.”
Sam pushes his books into his satchel hurriedly and says goodbye to Ajay. He walks slowly down the hall, thinking of the house, tilted seven degrees the way satellite orbits are. Wonders what star they’re orbiting. The Zombie would probably say something like reality, or incontestable solidity or What We Were With Our Shadows In Place. It’s verbose and pedantic like that. It’s really rather annoying. It’s not just that Sam’s fighting some kind of mental disintegration here; he doesn’t see why he had to end up with the weird dead Bronte-quoter too.
The Zombie appears from a stone pillar as Sam walks down the steps of the library.
What did you write about today? It asks, curiously. It’s holding today’s newspaper, with most of the words blacked out with a marker. Sam wonders what the rest of the words will read when put together.
“Lakota myths,” replies Sam, and then tries “Christo” on the Zombie, just because he hasn’t yet.
The Zombie looks at him. Beneath its shirt, its chest starts dripping black ink. Sam breathes out in a hiss, through gritted teeth, bracing himself against a wall. The Zombie puffs a comically tiny cloud of black smoke that hovers in the air, and then melts back into the stone. It leaves the newspaper behind.
Sam looks down at it and sees E-x-o-r-c-i--
He picks it up and lobs it at the nearest dumpster. It falls in with a surprisingly satisfying thump.
Sam sits down on the steps to wait for Dean. He rolls up the cuffs of his shirt so the old rings of blood that never wash out disappear under cloth. After a while, the Zombie climbs back out of the stones to wait with him.
Sam startles as radio blasts suddenly into the car. Dean’s got his fingers wrapped around the steering wheel, and his eyes are big and green and feasting on the dashboard, the console, and Sam in the shotgun seat. Dean smiles at Sam like he’s been gifted the entire world in a box, pretty pink sparkly bow and all, and Sam smiles back, his heart going a mile a minute, terrified by the intensity of emotion that sweeps through him.
This car, he thinks. This fucking car.
Dean drums his fingers on the steering wheel, floors the gas, and they shoot forward. The sun splits and shatters on the shiny black hood. The windows are open and the wind goes crazy, spinning ticket stubs and leaves and candy wrappers into the car. Dean whoops, wolf-howls, gone all delirious, says oh baby, yeah, like that. Sam grins like a fool, just watching him, the flush in his skin, the smear of grease on his cheek and all the excitement on his face. It’s infectious. It makes him want to do crazy things.
Dean shouts, “Does this leave that Lincoln coughing in the dust or what?!”
“She fits you.”
“Hell, yeah, she does! Look at her go, just silks around those curves!”
Sam doesn’t ask Dean if he even has a driver’s permit. He doesn’t comment on the number of road accidents on this stretch of the road every year, or ask if Dean’s got life insurance, or point out the questioning flapping of their unbuckled seat-belts, or even mention the drivers flipping them the bird. Go faster, he wants to say. Go faster, Dean. Break the sonic barrier.
He’s fucking endorsing the craziness of this.
“Some engines are alive” Dean yells over the screaming wind. Sam leans his head lightly against the pillar of the window, watches orb after orb of red-yellow-green lights float dreamily over black metal. The sea appears on one side, immediate and hallucinatory, sparkling blue like so many gemstones. “Some engines got a soul, Sammy.”
Sam’s heart jumps to his mouth, hammering hard. Sammy, he thinks.
It feels bright inside like he’s swallowed a star.
He licks his lips, sticks his head out the window like a dog. The sun is a runny blob up there, surrounded by fat, angry rain clouds. The wind steals his voice, his sight. Bleary tears run down his face from his smarting eyes.
“You know what travels faster than the speed of light?” Dean shouts, all caught up in the moment, and he grabs Sam’s sleeve, yanks him back inside. “Your head, when a tree lops it off your neck.”
Sam flips him off.
“Sure, sure, ingrate,” laughs Dean, and then he sighs. “Gotta take ‘er back now, don’t I?”
It’s starting to rain outside. Dean turns the music up. Thunder rumbles, and a bolt of lightning hits the sea. They roll up their windows, turn into a tunnel, and get caught in traffic. When they emerge again, behind a crocus-blue van and a VW with Christian bumper stickers, the rain is coming down with a vengeance. It smears all tail-lights, darkens the atmosphere. Wipers drag their metronome tune. Umbrellas bloom on the street, only to be murdered by the wind, turned ‘round and opened to the rain. The road is a slick black ribbon in the rain.
Sam feels the thunder all the way to his fingertips, lightning beneath his skin. The sound of water and traffic and music and Dean’s singing all thread together into a loud rush in his ears. The air shimmers; could splinter like ice any moment. It’s all like something made up in a dream. Nothing like a fast car and rain and a beautiful boy. That’s a line from something too, if a bit bastardized, but oh, it’s true.
He puts his hand outside, feels the wind snap his fingers back. Makes a dolphin motion through the rain.
“Think Mrs. Carmody’s used a bigger jar,” Dean says lightly, of the thunderstorm. He stops at a signal, turns to crack a grin at Sam. A few raindrops glitter in his hair where he wasn’t fast enough to roll up his window. “You got an umbrella?”
Sam shakes no.
“Guess we’re getting drenched then.”
And then Hell’s Bells come on, and Sam doesn’t even realize they’re back at the salvage yard when it ends, he’s so engrossed in watching Dean perform.
“All righ’?” the guy at the yard asks, when they’ve gotten out and run all the way to the porch of his office, ducking between cars, getting absolutely soaked in the process.
“Perfect,” Dean says, shivering, wringing water from his jacket-sleeves. He twists his head to stare back the top of the Impala, just visible past other cars in all phases of life, ailment and death. His adoration is big and bright and obvious, like a child after a magic show. “What do I do next?”
Sam can’t see the guy under his huge baseball cap, but his fingers are tobacco-stained. He’s got six of them, two with ingrown nails. It’s like the hand of a gargoyle.
“Three nights,” he says. “Spend it where I send you, and you can have the car.”
Dean shakes that gargoyle-hand. Gets a business card with a list on the back, a plum colored toffee and a cigarette that he gives Sam, which surprises Sam but not that much. Sam just stands there shivering till he’s done, ants under his skin, shocked alive by the rain.
“You’ve heard the story of the boy who learned to shiver?” Sam asks, when they’re climbing back into the Lincoln, soaked, all his clothes sticking to his skin, and the rattling old AC that Dean fitted the car with freezing him. “He stays in three places for three different nights to learn how to shiver.”
“Does he get a car in the end?”
“No,” says Sam, with subdued delight. “He kills a vicar.”
“Damn.” Dean wipes a cloth over the fogged-up window, slots the key in the ignition. “Does he learn to shiver?”
“What makes him shiver?”
“Rainwater,” Sam says, over the rumble of the engine, the cold worming into his teeth now, making them chatter. “And love.”
The house is quiet when they get back, dark from the rain still pouring outside, lights gone out in the storm. There’s nobody else home. Sam thinks Mrs. Carmody at least must be out there protesting about the house’s new inclination; the weather certainly has gone to shit. And the guy in the basement could or couldn’t be there, but there is no Zeppelin so it’s probably safe to assume that he isn’t.
“You’re kidding me, dude. Is it even legal?”
“I don’t know,” Sam says, truthfully. He lights a matchstick, watches it flare.
“You’re like a baby radical.”
Dean watches curiously. “So where did you learn this trick?”
“Read it in a book.”
“Yeah? What other tricks d’you know?”
Sam snorts. He cups his palm around the match to protect it from the spray coming through the madly billowing curtains over the kitchen windows. Then he places a sugar cube over a perforated spoon, and touches the tip of the match to it, turning it over, holding it till the cube glistens gold.
“That there is toxic green, is what it is,” Dean comments, turning the Mari Mayans bottle over in his hand. “Radioactive.”
“Vincent van Gogh certainly thought so.”
“It’s said to induce artistic passion. You know. Writers and artists and their muses and stuff,” Sam shrugs. He takes the bottle from Dean, tilts it lightly and fills the glass. The liquid is bright, insane green, fluorescents in the bubbles. “You wanna take a sip of it as it is?”
Dean does. “Bleurgh,” he says, scrunching up his face. He reaches past Sam for water. “That’s bitter. What’s in it?”
“Wormwood. And anise. And a lot of other weird stuff, but wait. Watch.”
Sam puts the spoon and the sugar cube over the glass, and drips a little cold water over it. The absinthe turns the slightest shade milky. Dean moves closer, holds the glass as Sam pours. Sam wills his hand not to shake; he’s still in his wet clothes, still shivering. So is Dean. Twist his head just a little and Sam can see the short hairs at his neck all standing up to attention, like a spooked cat.
“In New Orleans, they’d do this slowly. Take hours. And you’ll see every shade between green and white.”
Sam finishes pouring, stirs the half-dissolved sugar into the liqueur. Dean makes a flourish and picks up the glass. Sam thinks it almost looks too sweet, but Dean takes a sip, wriggles his eyebrows while he tries to make up his mind. Then he scowls at the glass and takes another sip.
“Argh, I dunno,” he mutters, makes a face, and drinks the whole thing. “Make me another.”
“Okay,” laughs Sam, “but I’m not carrying your ass to bed.”
“Who’s going to bed? I’m wired. I’m…whichever Marvel dude who can produce electricity from his fingers.” He makes a squiggly motion with his magic fingers, just to prove the point. “I could power a block.”
“Just power this one house.” quips Sam, leaning over to flick a switch on and off uselessly. But he pours a second glass anyway, turns it opalescent-milky for Dean. Dean’s more appreciative this time, blinking dreamily and nodding as he sips at the sugared Spanish absinthe. He gets to the middle of the second glass and then holds it out.
“Try some, bitch.”
You and the nicknames, thinks Sam, but he lifts a bemused eyebrow, takes the glass. It’s a bit of a shock, the first sip, piquant alcohol and liqueur hitting hard, but the second time is much better. Sam can taste the bitter undercurrents from the herbs that go into it. He feels the sugar and fire burn his throat on the way down, bloom hot in his belly, this infernal flower. He takes another, larger swallow, and now something’s unspooling behind his eyes, a soft bee-sting buzz. When he’s drained the glass, Dean’s holding out another.
“Only fair that if I get poisoned, you do too,” he says, sliding to the floor to sit with his back against the cupboards under the counter. Sam blinks at his bright smile, follows him down. “Wow. This shit’s better than Valium.”
“No kidding, man.” Sam says.
“I really don’t think it’s legal.”
But Dean sounds appreciative. Sam’s tongue is pleasantly numb now, and he takes slower sips, watching Dean over the rim of his glass. Watching Dean watch him, intently, his eyes the same fucking color as the unspoiled liqueur. He looks like a silent movie star, shot through buttery light and tinted lenses.
Dean just watches.
Sam squirms and gets a cupboard handle jammed into his side, and he barely even notices. The absinthe’s not the only reason he feels on fire.
Sam’s sloppy with the glass now, trying to pull himself in— out of shyness or embarrassment or desire, he can’t tell anymore. Dean holds the bottle between his feet. He eyes it and then Sam, and then they don’t bother with sugar or ritual. They share one glass, mouth to mouth, dragging it back and forth between them. And then they just share the bottle. Sam’s vision is blurry, his brain blitzed. Dean says something about a book and Latin and a bird, and Sam just wants to listen to him, Sam’s all amenable and shit, and why is he in this house again?
(He can’t remember. Last he remembers he was drowning.)
Dean grabs the back of his neck, starts pushing his fingers through Sam’s hair and it’s like he doesn’t even notice it. Sam notices it. He looks at the stretch of his legs on the floor, the loosened shoelace on his right shoe, anywhere but at Dean. When Dean passes it, Sam tilts the glass too much and the Mari Mayans spills over his palm. The cold is shocking, and Sam looks down, feels the drops settling sticky on his skin, running through his fingers, over his knuckles, his wrist. Slow, sugary trickle, and he moves to get up, half in a dream, to wash it off, but Dean grabs his hand.
“Don’t waste,” he says, darkly. And then he closes his mouth over Sam’s skin, licks it off all slow and warm. When Dean pulls back, his pupils are black and blown out, his skin flushed. Sam shivers, but tightens his hold when Dean laces his fingers skeptically through Sam’s.
“Okay,” Dean says, gone suddenly hoarse, his smile all teeth. “Okay.”
He gets to his knees, leans with a palm placed flat over Sam’s head. Leans down to kiss him, no nonsense, no high-school bonking-teeth awkwardness, just sparse prose, clean like a sonnet. On Dean’s lips, the absinthe acquires a smokier taste, and Sam licks at them, then opens up for his tongue, one hand rising up to card through Dean’s short, damp hair. He tries to move, rock forward into the kiss, but Dean stops him with a hand splayed out over his chest. Dean pulls away, but Sam tightens his grip in his hair, and Dean looks down at him, glistening mouth and parted lips, and kisses him again.
Sam doesn’t know how long they stay like that, making-out on the kitchen floor. His head fills with a buzz that’s more than bees, hornets maybe, and he only notices with a far-away sense when the lights come back on and the dim bulb above the kitchen counter comes to life. It throws stripes over Dean’s shirt, so Sam rucks it up, fighting hard with wretched wet material, and then he watches the light fight it out against the whiteness of his chest. He pushes Dean onto his back on the floor and leans over him, knees on either side of Dean’s legs, puts his mouth on all of those angled stripes. Dean squirms, the muscles in his stomach jumping as Sam makes his way over them. He’s ticklish, he gasps at Sam’s teasing, tries to push Sam off, and then gets a leg over him, flipping them over. Sam’s head hits the floor pretty hard and he sees white stars, only compounded by Dean’s elbow slamming into his ribs. Sam gasps and flops like a fish.
This is why you don’t try to get something going when you’re really drunk.
Dean topples on top of him. It’s kind of funny. Sam giggles. It kind of hurts too, but it’s okay. Sam likes it.
“Slow,” he slurs. “I’m wasted.”
“Fucking lightweight,” Dean says, right in his ear. So familiar that it pokes Sam in the heart.
Sam fights sudden, ridiculous tears.
They’re long and lazy with their pace, like they’ve all the time in the world. Dean mouths at his ear, sucks on his collarbone, pulls his head back with a hand in Sam’s hair to get at his throat. He pretends to be a vampire and Sam laughs at him (really, Dean, a vampire?) and Dean bites him just to be convincing. Sam traces Dean’s tattoo with his fingers. He feels like he’s on a long, flying path, like there’s no gravity. He emerges from another few minutes of kissing Dean, twists his head to the side for catching his breath, and his eyes lock on a pool of gold where a bottle of honey lies broken under the table.
And then Dean puts his hands on either side of Sam’s face, angles him so they’re inches apart, looks at him like he’s searching for Sam’s soul. He asks: do you believe in ghosts?
Dean hesitates. Murmurs against Sam’s cheek: “I had a dream. You and I dug up a grave, dressed a corpse in a bridal gown. Then we burned her.”
And just like that, ice jams Sam’s veins. A blinding chill judders through him, like he’s been electrocuted. He fists his hand in Dean’s shirt, and doesn’t know if he’s holding on or being threatening.
Memory, from buried source, sharp as a laser: too many shovels in too many graves, too many stone angels staring down from above too many names of too many deceased.
“You shot her ghost with a gun full of salt.”
“No,” Sam whispers, “no.”
“I set her bones on fire.”
In a flash, Dean’s face sinks into this sneering expression, which is also too familiar, and kind of like an ice-pick between his ribs. “You’re the one writing about resurrection, about death Gods. You’re the one asking about dreams—”
“It’s not real,” Sam hisses. “I ask because I want you to tell me each time that it’s not real—”
Sam stops abruptly. It occurs to him that he can’t breathe, that he’s not breathing, that he’s been holding his breath and talking through gritted teeth. He sucks in air, presses his cheek against the cold floor.
A minute passes. Then another.
“Okay, fine, sorry. It’s not real,” Dean says, finally. His hands run down Sam’s arms, around him, rubs at his shoulder blades comfortingly. “Then what is?”
(Smoke. Blood. There’s this dream that Sam has, this dream in which he’s—)
“I—” Sam shakes his head. Dean’s hands are in his hair now, stroking, and it feels like he’s six, it feels like he’s six with a fever and lying down delirious, his skin burning and his throat clogged, his coughs full of glass-shards. They’re living by a railroad and the air shatters every time a train passes by—copper-rust, creosote-heated scent that makes Sam cough and cough, spit bloody phlegm. His stomach cramps and there are needles in his lungs and starbursts exploding behind his eyes, and Dean—Dean is—Dean fucking Winchester is his—
“Sshhh,” Dean says. He sits up on the tilted floor, pulls Sam’s head to his chest. His skin is frost-dry now, and Sam can barely bear to breathe. “Sshhh, I got you.”
His Zombie’s back. It’s sitting at the dining table. It still has that gash on its stomach and its shoulder and its hair is matted with blood. Please go away, Sam thinks, fervently. He concentrates on the spot between its eyebrows, imagines he’s David striking Goliath right there. Please go away. Go away.
“I’m sorry,” Dean says. He is. Sam can see the shape of his mouth, all ruined. “I’m sorry, Sam. It was just a fucked-up dream.”
But it’s not, is it? Sam’s known for a while. This house is a carnival trick. An unimaginative, low-budget phantasmagoria populated by NPCs that walk and talk but don’t contribute. Cheap legerdemain trick like the kind in circuses where you peep through a hole and see impossibly fantastic things.
In vino veritas, the Zombie says.
He’s known for a while. Maybe since the Zombie. Maybe since Dean.
He also realizes that he’s babbling. He’s saying stuff he’d rather not be saying, stuff the kind that Billina and Ozma warned Dorothy not to say. Keep it to yourself, shut the fuck up.
“Let’s get you to bed, huh?” Dean says, slightly whey-faced now.
But this proves really fucking difficult. They make it to the first floor, and then Sam just sits on the stairs and thinks of how seven degrees is seven degrees too much.
“Okay, come on. You can sleep in my bed.”
Sam peels off his wet clothes and Dean gets him a shirt of his. Dean has a couch, on which he says he’ll sleep, but then he hovers and Sam looks at him and he just gets in with Sam.
“Sometimes I dream in Latin,” Sam says.
He’s not making any sense, but what the fuck.
“Sshhh,” Dean says again. “You know where dreams live? Over here,” he rubs his thumb over Sam’s knuckles. “And if you press down on them, they stay away. I didn’t make that up. It’s true. I read it somewhere.”
“You’re going to be very embarrassed about this in the morning.”
Dean frowns. “True.”
Sam narrows his eyes and tries to look at him a different way. Tries to see him filthy with grave-dirt, black under his fingernails. Tries to see him with soot on his face, smeared like Indian war-paint, the smell of smoke and charred bone and gasoline reeking off him. Thinks of him at dive bars and bent over smoky pool tables, grimy light reflecting off his tarnished ring while he counted cash. Thinks of him pinching Sam jealously when he wins rock-paper-scissors and gets to stay with the hot chick, or sleep on the backseat of the car, or the last onion ring in the plate they’d just shared because they’d run, suddenly and stupidly and entirely, out of cash.
Sam thinks of sneering and shoving at him, hating him, paring him with hard looks till he squirmed. He thinks of all of Dean’s reciprocation, all the times and all the places with their fists getting bloody on each other. Thinks also of all the times Dean’s carded his fingers through Sam’s hair, dragged him close, and his fingers said: you’re my boy and I’ll lick you clean, I’ll keep all things with teeth away.
Nothing soft and candlelight about it, about them, and so Sam bites on his lip and looks, myopically, for landscape with violence. Clumsy hands in dark rooms. Backseat groping with the ghost of gun-smoke still a hot presence around them. These are things he knows, things that have been crossed out.
How do you undo strike-through, Dean? he wants to ask, but he’s the one good with computers, isn’t he? He’s the one good with computers, and Dean’s the one good with loyalty and their tangled-up history.
“Go to sleep, Sam,” Dean says. The lighthouse has gone wild outside, gleaming and gleaming, cipher to some watchful being somewhere else. The Zombie sits on the desk, watching.
Sam closes his eyes, feels the light sweep over his eyelids.
The inside of his eyes are crimson in regular intervals, like a stop sign trying to dance to the tune of Morse code.
This is where things fall apart.
The clinic part is a lie, if you haven’t figured it out already.
That’s the thing when you have zombies and lighthouses and pesky birds to worry about: you turn into an unreliable narrator. But who isn’t, really. Poor Sam. He lies to Dean. He lies to himself. You lie to yourself. I lie to myself. I am bigger than I appear and I lie endlessly. I am full of ghosts and rooms and I lie shamelessly. My basement is limestone and it doesn’t mix well with the sea-salt, but I lie to the sea that I am strong. My kitchens lie and my closets lie, holds damp and rot and blood beneath paint and wainscoting till that one day when it will become terribly, glaringly obvious.
I am nine-sided and you only see one side of me. The rest of me is growing so fast that it hurts me.
I am a house, and houses aren’t ever something that’s I, me, my—houses don’t rock possessive pronouns. Deference to cultural meme marks that I be relegated to object, and objects don’t get first person narratives. But I took his blood, and I hold my doors shut against the wolves, and I am entitled.
Oh, Sam. How you lie.
Here is what the gargoyle at the salvage yard has told me through the blue electric web of the phone lines: having a car is having freedom. It’s a petty lie that pretends to snip your strings, let you loose. And then: O America, my newfound land, kingdom of my heart.
She brings luck. She is the answer to your crises. She is the forward movement towards truths.
She is a black car. She will help with perspectives.
Here is what the man at the salvage yard wrote on the back of the card: Three places- a) psychomanteum, b) basement rabbit hole, c) woods at 3 a.m.
Here are, oh, more secrets.
Here is why the lighthouse shines: it’s an angel’s eye.
Here is what Sam dreams of: smoke and drowning.
(And I am afraid I am afraid that he will dream for too long and too much for me to save him but I will I am the safe-house I am the house that is safe and I will not let him be wronged.)
Here is why the wolves are in the forest: they belong to Dean. They stand for what he did before he stepped past my welcome mat. They stand for heartbreak, and violence, and what you do to others because you do worse to yourself.
Here is why I stand tilted: I am growing. My food is secrets and memories, and I am growing in ways you can’t see yet.
But you will see. You will see all of me.
Don’t tell anyone.
Dean wakes, and Sam is clinging to him.
It isn’t the sweet kind of clinging that you expect out of young lovers. If you’ve seen adventure movies where the Red Shirt chick is about to fall off the face off a cliff and she’s digging in with fingers and nails and thighs—you’re closer. Dean can tell, somehow, even without moving, that Sam’s lost. His fingers clench hard on Dean’s shirt, bunching up the fabric in his fists. His head is thrown back, and all thought is gone from his eyes. Dean blast-rockets through alpha-waves and into the land of Wide Awake.
Sam looks down but doesn’t register him. His eyes are empty, little black holes punched in a paper face.
“Dean,” he says, very clearly. “Do you hear them?”
Dean rolls and Sam rolls with him, and the floor is hard and cold and shockingly painful against his back when he hits it. Something taps the window. Probably branches. There’s a tree out there that tries to get in sometimes at night.
Dean prises Sam’s fingers from his shirt, so hard that he hears Sam’s bones click. Sam fights dreamily and steadily with him, seemingly upset by something. Dean flips them over, winces at the hard thwack of Sam’s head hitting the floor, but that seems to break the spell. Sam blinks, pushes him off perfunctorily and gets to his feet.
“Something’s in the walls.” he says. His voice seems to be swimming up through unchartered depths, and something cold and dark settles claws into Dean’s head at his statement. Sam starts gathering his still wet clothes, moving jerkily, like something else is pulling his strings. He picks them up and drops them, then picks them up again. His gaze flits feverishly over Dean. “Do you hear the wolves? Do you hear the people in the walls?”
Dean takes a step toward him, carefully. “Sam, stop.”
“We have to get out of here.”
Sam strides purposefully over to the window, opens it and then sits himself on the ledge. Wind rushes in, the waves too close, too noisy. Dean watches him from what feels like far, far away. He can’t get his thoughts to collate. His breathing quickens till he thinks he’s going to start hyperventilating, but he can’t make himself move.
Sam throws his legs over to the other side.
“We have to go back,” he says.
“We can—we can go back in the morning, Sam,” Dean mumbles. His heart stutters in his chest. The please tacks to the roof of his mouth, doesn’t quite get past his lips. Sam leans forward, like he means to fall headfirst, and that gets Dean moving, finally. He grabs Sam’s shoulder and jerks him back into the room. Sam goes strangely without much resistance.
They hit the ground a second time. The shake starts in Dean’s shoulder and then spreads all over him, till he’s about as steady as a leaf in a storm, but spread-eagled firmly over Sam, pinning him to the floor.
“You know what’s wrong here?” Sam mumbles, his voice ringing hollow like a doorbell to a condemned building. “You know what’s wrong? It’s like the Babel fish has forsaken us.”
“Do you—are you okay? Are you awake?”
Sam grabs the front of Dean’s shirt and tugs. “The fucking Babel fish has let go,” he says, viciously. “You know that reference, Dean.”
“Sam, Sam—” Dean says, lets him struggle onto his back and still doesn’t let go. “Are you awake?”
Very softly Sam says into Dean’s shoulder, “It’s like we don’t speak the same language… Please understand. The house doesn’t want me to know you.”
“Is the house a monster?”
“It’s bigger than it looks like,” Sam whispers. “I don’t really think it’s a house. I think it’s a place for the dead to wait. I think the dead are waiting in the walls.”
Dean lies very still. Sam murmurs quietly, repeating the same things, but Dean’s too focused on holding on that he barely hears him. Sam goes quiet after a while, and Dean closes his eyes, counts his breaths. Is the house a monster? Or is that the people who live in it? He wakes up again with a low grunt when Sam’s elbow connects painfully with his shoulder.
Dean holds him down until his struggling turns to puzzlement. Sam’s fingers scrabble weakly at his grip. He thrashes and then he laughs, that surprised laugh of a six year old at winning a carnival teddy bear.
“Dean? Dude, what’re you doing?”
There’s a moment of silence while Sam goes totally still and Dean tightens his grip on him.
“H-holding on,” Dean says, uncharacteristically terrified. “I’m only holding on.”
He kisses Sam’s neck, his shoulders. Nuzzles against his throat and feels his heart beat. Sam’s quiet, steady, nautilus heart. He matches the rhythm of his breathing to it, and Sam looks at him with quizzical sea-glass eyes. Then he swims out, climbs ashore. Dean continues to lie on the lopsided sea of his bedroom floor.
It’s safer here than anywhere else.
Something changed yesterday.
Sam looked too long through a crack and saw glimpses of another life. And now the house has been taken bad. Everything is off-kilter, starting with the smell of rich sauce and charring meat emanating up the stairs.
Sam stands in his bathroom and stares at himself in the mirror, but only for a quick, fleeting moment in which he doesn’t recognize the person staring back at him. The person on the other side presses a hand to the mirror and leaves behind a foggy handprint.
Sam didn’t do that.
His heart drops, and he breathes in air thick with the steam from the water. The skin of his chest is unmarked, and that seems strange, like forever ago. He draws a star on the fogged-up mirror, and swallows a lump in his throat.
You’re losing your mind.
The house rattles in the wind today. It’s a strong wind and the house isn’t strong enough, despite appearances to the contrary. Sam gets out of the bathroom and then goes to stand at the sloping window, pulling on his shirt, struggling into his jeans. The sea is turbulent, and the albatross swoops around the lighthouse. Stacy is at the edge of the cliff, the wind raising a halo of hair around her head. She’s got her fishes in hand, and is setting them free.
Thump, they go into the ocean, and the sound reverberates in Sam’s ears.
We know your secrets, they seem to say. We bit at them. Our teeth were taken.
Sam hazards a brush through his wet hair, realizes that he can’t get it to look like anything except a dog’s flank seen through a flea’s eye, and goes down for breakfast.
There are so many sounds that seem illogically disparate. They come sequentially, never merging with each other. The house rumbles. A disconsolate wailing comes down from the roofs and blows all about. On the first floor, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds drifts up through the floorboards.
He can hear Dean moving around in his room as he passes. The thump of his shoes, the humming. He sounds slightly nervous. Sam doesn’t blame him; something changed yesterday.
The wolves howl from the forest and Sam shivers, yanks at his sleeves and rolls them to his elbows. He tells himself it isn’t to hide the rings of old, washed-out blood.
The dining room is lit with new Tiffany lamps in candy colors. They weren’t there yesterday, and the light makes the room look bigger. There’s breakfast on the table already, but it’s curiously too rich. Sauces and meat, still sizzling, drizzled in wine. Sam looks and looks at it, like it’s a puzzle solved by staring. Limp onions float in the gravy. Potatoes soak up grease on spidery thin butter paper.
It’s like the house is trying to bribe him, appease him. Stop asking questions. Stop looking for clues. Eat, drink, be merry.
Sam sits down at the table. Pulls the plate towards himself. He’s like Tantalus though; before he can actually put any food in his mouth, his appetite is taken from him. His Zombie sits across him, shoveling food into its mouth.
For the freedom of the state, the individual must be repressed, the Zombie says. For the growth of the state, the individual must lose everything. Violation is only a means to the end.
“I wasn’t violated.”
The Zombie only smiles. It eats the mutton. Then the ribs. Then the potatoes. Sam watches, nauseous.
These are holes that will not be filled, the Zombie says, and points to holes left by angels, by demons. Violation is a means to the end.
Sam’s fingers shake on his plate. He can’t stand the smell of the food anymore. He can’t actually smell anything except the coppery tang of blood from the Zombie.
“Please,” he says. “Please stop speaking.”
You can’t afford to sleep. You have to wake up, the Zombie says. Wake up to the truth.
“Exorcizamus te—” says Sam, standing up. His voice is trembling, and he breathes in a sharp inhale as the Zombie stands up too. “Ex—Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus—oh, oh God.”
The Zombie smokes. Dark loops of smoke writhe out of its mouth, dance in the air.
Sam goes through the entire spell. The smoke keeps pouring out, pooling on the floor like a shadow. It struggles to form shape, and Sam sees stroboscopic flashes of bright red hair. It’s in the shape of a woman, who opens a wide, dark mouth and screams and screams. It screams in a crude language, the language of Adam, and through the flashes Sam also sees a crude old weapon, fashioned from bone, cleaving into the red-haired thing. And then it’s gone, seeping right through the floorboards.
“—audinos,” Sam finishes. The Zombie looks at him. It’s white, there is not a drop of blood in its face. It’s Sam, but paler. Its teeth are very noticeable, though they aren’t different from his teeth at all.
Sam breathes like he’s just run a race.
“Who was she? Who was the woman in the smoke?”
The Zombie’s shoulder is a mess of gore. This house, it hates me, the Zombie says. And true enough, there’s a rumbling from upstairs, and then from the walls, like the pressure in the water pipes that run invisible through the house is getting greater. Sam hears a rush of water from the taps in the bathroom upstairs. The windows darken, and somewhere a door slams. Water begins trickling through the cracks between doors and floors, and from upstairs, he hears a muffled yell as someone opens a door and nearly slips on the puddles.
The house, it’s displeased. You looked too long through a crack and it’s displeased.
Sam thinks he understands now. What the Zombie is.
He says it aloud, haltingly: “You’re a part that the house took away on the first night, right? You’re a part of that Sam, the bleeding Sam who nearly died here. You’re a memory.”
Don’t believe in free-market, the Zombie says. Don’t ‘let it be’. Laissez-faire, it’s terrible. It smiles. And then it comes apart like a cairn of thread. The first thread unspools from its foot, and then faster and faster, whole runs of it coming free from its calf, its hips. Sam looks away as its chest unspools, and when he looks back there is only the top of its scalp. He holds his breath and holds onto the edge of the table. The floor seems to dip strangely, and his breath comes in panicked white clouds, so different from the demon smoke that came out of the Zombie. When it’s over, Sam’s left with mounds of red thread.
“What do you mean, then?” he asks, to nothing. “Do you mean I’m dead?”
He gets no reply.
Sam sits back down on the chair, and the kitchen grows darker around him. Water rushes in, sloshing against his ankles. He hears the house whisper around him, hush hush, like a cooing mother, and also the sound of shutters falling like thunder.
“Well, it’s official,” Dean announces, once everyone is gathered in the kitchen. “We’re on lockdown.”
The house grew shutters in the night. They’re rusted, but they’re still strong shutters that have fallen shut over all the windows, all the exits. Stacy wrings her hands together, murmurs about her fishes. Mrs. Carmody just sighs and butters her toast. They’re all standing in knee-high water, and Sam’s still shivering. He folds his fingers around the cup of coffee that Dean made him, and eyes the walls warily.
“Why would it do this, though?”
“I think it feels threatened,” says Sam. “Or maybe it doesn’t want us to feel threatened, and it’s overcompensating.”
Dean asks, “Why would it feel threatened?”
“The albatross,” Stacy says. She tries the kitchen door for the millionth time, and it remains locked. “The wolves. The fishes too, but I got rid of them. Houses don’t like such things, you know. Houses like warm water in pipes, and calm feet on floorboards, and corn in the pantry, and soot on stoves.”
Dean sighs, fingering a cheese knife. “I wouldn’t know.”
“My Zombie died,” Sam says, apropos nothing.
The others just look at him with mild consternation.
They walk through rooms and try windows, other doors. The house remains firmly shut. It’s disquieting. Stacy suggests getting an axe and breaking down the door, but the point is mooted when the wolves howl again, louder.
I think it’s our fault, thinks Sam. Shouldn’t have kissed. Shouldn’t have remembered.
Dean puts his ear to the walls and hears a slow thrumming pulse, which just makes Sam more anxious.
“You hear it?”
It’s like the house has a heart. Sam holds his hand to his chest and finds the beats syncopated.
“We could starve.” Sam says, grimly. “We could run out of food.”
“He could kill us all,” Mrs. Carmody says, throwing a dark look at the closed door to the basement. “Murder us in our sleep. And no one would ever know.”
They all shift on their feet, cast furtive glances at each other. The house trickles and hums.
“I’m going to my room,” says Stacy.
“Good idea. Leave the investigation to us.”
Once Stacy and Mrs. Carmody are gone, Sam and Dean go back to the kitchen. Dean eats a somber breakfast of toast and eggs and tall glasses of juice. Sam watches, sick to his stomach thinking of the Zombie. Then they go back into the living room. Dean fights with the shutter, manages to get it an inch above the sill and looks out of the window while Sam picks up the newspaper, which diligently arrives every day and always bears the same news. Sometimes the words are mixed up randomly, like a Microsoft Word auto-summary. The main title today reads: Birds Distribute Human Investments.
Sam thinks of the albatross, and how it had built him a story. Heaven, Earth, Hell, a library.
“Once upon a time,” Sam reads, “An angel wrote a story. He was a terrible, lazy writer, with no idea how the world really worked outside of his extraordinarily boring pearly palace, and so all his characters had the same surname, or only a surname, and some had no names at all. And all his characters had only one trait, or were flat. But this was an angel, the only one who’d learned how to type, the only one with a type-writer, and only rarely do the stories of angels stay on the paper they’re written on.”
“That’s not an article,” Dean scoffs.
“It is, though,” says Sam. “Look.”
Dean doesn’t look. He presses his nose potato-flat against the glass. “There are wolves, everywhere.”
“Don’t look at them. Don’t look at their eyes.”
Dean cranes his neck. “Why not?”
A cold feeling of devastation rises in Sam’s throat, and he rubs at it. “Just. Just don’t.”
Dean turns to him. “Hey, Sammy. Do you know what the psychomanteum is?”
Sam knows every room in this house, even the ones he hasn’t visited yet. This house is bigger than it looks. The exact dimensions of it slip and slide like watery jelly, but Sam navigates it like he was born to it, like it was born to contain him, like he is the minotaur to its labyrinth.
“It’s right on your floor,” he says. “Is it on the car dealer’s list?”
“Fair warning,” Sam says. “I don’t think the house likes that car dealer much.”
The house shivers and shifts as they make their way upstairs. The stairs become narrower, until it becomes so tight that they can only walk single file. And even then Sam has to duck his head and hold his hands tightly to his sides so he doesn’t get squeezed by the walls. It’s a relief when they’re finally on the landing.
“Come on. This way.”
He leads Dean to a room set at the end of a long hallway, longer than it could possibly be if you kept in mind the outward appearance of the house. It’s a tall room, with no lights. Sam tugs on a cord and lights up a lamp. The shade gleams in shifting colors, and in the changing light, they can see the mirrors on the walls.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Sit.” Sam says, indicating a chair. “You just sit.”
He moves the lampshade to a central spot, and blinks as the brightly colored, rotating shade is reflected off the mirrors a million times. Reds and blues, stark magentas. The effect is kaleidoscopic.
“It’s s’posed to be this psychological experiment or something,” whispers Sam. “You sit here and you just observe, and maybe you’ll learn things about yourself. Or see ghosts. Or truths.”
Dean moves closer to the mirrors instead. He puts a hand on the surface, and light undulates over his palm, lights up his blood in a haze of red. Dean looks back at Sam, like check this out, makes a dolphin-motion with his hand skating over the surface of the mirror. In the next moment, he yelps and jumps back as the mirror sucks his skin right in.
“Son of a bitch!”
Sam makes a worried noise. “Dean—”
“There are people in here,” Dean whispers. He turns back again, eyes blazing. “Come and look, Sam. There are people.”
“Come on.” Dean says, and then he goes through the mirror. It sucks him in like the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. Sam’s frozen for maybe half a second, but then he follows.
That’s like a reflex-thing too. He always follows.
The inside of the mirror is a long hallway with people pressed into the walls. There’s a faint semblance of something like a line, and as Dean walks he notices that the people are shivering, and they have the eyes of oracles—set deep into the smooth planes of their faces, with spider-web veins standing out in stark relief against their skin.
They don’t talk. They just look. Their eyes are perfect little circles from being distraught for too long.
“That’s not creepy at all,” mumbles Dean, and looks behind him. The mirror’s still there, but no Sam yet. Dean swallows and turns back to the corridor in front of him. What, he wonders, are these people waiting for? What is the prize at the end of this queue?
Maybe this is what he’s supposed to find out.
The people only stare back at him. They don’t look alive. They don’t look like anything, except maybe Silent Hill rejects.
Dean walks faster. There are doors set into the walls, with blue light pouring through the gaps in the frame. Some of the people in line keep trying the doors, but then hops back like the doorknobs burn them. There’s music playing through the speakers, and Dean finds himself humming to it. Are you sleeping, are you sleeping, Brother John, Brother John? He tries to open a door himself, and the others mill around, curious.
Heaven’s on the other side, they tell him. Heaven—heaven—heaven’s locked.
The blue light is like the eye of the lighthouse, and it burns him.
Dean jumps back, cursing. He collides with one of the quiet people, and it goes soft and shapeless like a mannequin made out of thread. Its neighbor makes a strangled sound and grabs for Dean’s arm, squeezes until Dean gasps. He looks down at his own skin, wonders if he’ll turn into thread too, but he remains flesh and blood.
The others start murmuring and pushing towards him.
“Stay back,” he says, and he’s holding a pair of scissors he didn’t have before. He waves it. Makes threatening snipping noises with it. “Stay back.”
The whispering is soft as rain, growing louder. Can’t get in, Dean hears. Can’t get in—can’t get in—can’t get in—
The murmuring rushes at him like a wave. Dean puts his hands over his ears and runs. The ghosts—because they can only be that, right, they can only be ghosts—follow him, murmuring. Help. Waiting so long. Trapped. Help. Their soft hands grab at his clothes. They start screaming the words, desperate.
“I can’t help!” Dean yells over his shoulder. “I’m nobody; I can’t help!”
He snips his way through the door of an elevator, pushes at buttons until he’s moving. Down and down. The arms of the ghosts drift through the doors, searching for him. Dean waves the scissors and they pull back, howling. The elevator rushes downstairs at free-falling speed. Dean grabs an armful of the wall, soft and crimson, and then becomes aware of a shadow behind him. He watches it spread on the floor, growing like a water-stain.
He opens the scissors.
Snip the ghost.
“Dean.” Sam says, quiet, cadence-less.
Dean has him by the throat, his fingers wrapped around as if he’s trying to hold Sam still before stabbing. Sam has a knife against Dean’s chest. Dean doesn’t notice it till he breathes, and then he looks down and sees a tiny rip in his shirt. Sam drops the knife. Dean closes the V of the scissors and lets it fall too.
“Jesus. I thought you were one of them.”
“I thought you were.”
They pinch each other, relieved when neither falls apart.
“How did you get in here?”
“I followed you.”
“That makes no goddamn lick of sense. I was in front of you.”
Sam whispers, in a doomed tone. “I think sense is overrated in this house.”
Dean rubs at his eyes. “What was that, outside?”
“What was that outside, Sam?”
“The Veil,” Sam says. “It’s called the Veil. The House told me. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s a country made of thread and ghosts.”
“What does that make us?”
Sam presses his lips together in a grim line. He says nothing.
“What? Sam, if you’ve got something to say, spit it out!”
The elevator falls. Brace for impact, says the part of Dean’s head that’s always terrified of falling. He orders Sam to drop to his knees, and then kneels himself. They stay close together, Sam’s lashes scraping Dean’s cheek so when he blinks it feels like his own. Wind rushes shrill and screaming and Dean wonders if this is what the house sounds like, if this is its own voice.
“Immigrants,” Sam murmurs. “It makes us immigrants. Or refugees.”
Dean thinks of refugees. Refugees run from something. Something that could kill them or worse, something in their pasts. Their world gets to be too much and the new country promises life. So it has strange rules and stranger inhabitants and all of what you know about yourself is turned on its head, so what?
You still get to live. You get to live.
“Did you see the people too?”
Sam shakes his head. “I think I died, Dean,” Sam says, calmly. “Before I came here. I think I died and that’s what the Zombie was trying to tell me, only the house is keeping me alive. It’s only one door away from the Veil.”
“Yeah,” Dean says. He feels like the top of his head just came off. “You’re not dead, Sam.”
“Why do you say that? Because you want—”
“No. Because you’re not made of the same stuff as them and neither am I. We’re something else.”
Sam looks at him carefully. “Okay, so maybe you’re right.” Sam says. “What does it all mean, then? What does the house mean?”
Dean frowns. He makes something up. He can’t believe they’re even discussing this. “Just what houses should mean. A safe place.”
Sam nods thoughtfully. “Okay. And what if I’m right, and the house is just a part of the Veil, and all of this is my imagination? And all the things you said yesterday about ghosts and evil is true, whether I want to believe them or not, and all that I thought of yesterday is true too, and I—I know you—and,” he pauses, draws a breath, “—and everything else is a lie. The house is a lie. I am a lie. What then? What then, Dean?”
Dean thinks. His throat is slick and hot from yelling at the ghosts and then speaking in whispers, and he swallows hard. Runs a hand through Sam’s hair, ignores Sam’s hissing when his fingers snag.
“If it’s all your imagination,” Dean says, “Then I’m a lie too.” He grins, brightly. “And I have way too much charm to be a lie, don’t you agree? Trust me. You’re not dead. I’m not a lie, I can prove it.”
The elevator crashes to a stop. Sam holds on tighter, making a pained grunt as his shoulder slams into the wall. When his teeth have stopped juddering at their roots, Dean opens his eyes and Sam looks at him seriously. His eyes are very light.
He flicks salt at Dean, like an exorcism.
Dean thinks hollowly of the past that he threw out of the Lincoln when he first came to this house. He thinks of the scissors he held against Sam just now. In a V, right over his heart.
Some kind of nameless, formless understanding blooms dark and cold in his heart, and a stab of fear makes him step away from Sam.
I think I’ve done something very bad.
Dean fucking runs.
He runs out of the door and into wet sand, keeps running towards the sea. The sky is gold and the sea is buttermilk pale. Waves stutter half-assed poetry. The lighthouse is dark. He turns around and there are walls and the door, right there on the beach, the walls unpainted and naked nails protruding from the wood.
He’s really running from Sam. He doesn’t even know why. His brain misfires and foam comes frothing over his feet. The water whispers. Dean lets it sink him to his knees. The waves drag at him and sand slides from under his feet in sheets. Stacy’s fish school together and swim around him in the water—up to his thighs now—and they bite at his fingers as he beats them away. Their useless phantom teeth try to tell a story.
Sam’s calling his name now, but Dean is still running. From him. From the salt. If you can’t find me, I can’t hurt you, Dean thinks. If you can’t find me, you’re safer from the fight that isn’t yours. The sky is a mess of gold and lilac like dragon scales, and the sea is the tail of the dragon, lashing and lashing at him.
He really should run.
The water foams around his waist. And then there’s a wave that knocks him down.
Dean goes down side-wards, and the water rushes up his nose, down his throat. He can’t find his feet. He sputters and surfaces, grabs a mouthful of air and salt and scrapes his arm on rough sand. His lungs burn as the water closes over his head, throws him around like a rag-doll. This is how you drown, thinks Dean. All the kinds of drowning he’d ever known were never the literal kind. He wonders if this one is, and thinks it’s probably not.
Dean inhales more water. The surface glitters like glass. The sky is a country afar.
Sam drags him out. Wide-eyed and scared, and he curses while Dean throws up salt-water over his shoulder, while he drags them both back to solid ground. His grip’s going to show as bruising tomorrow.
Sam is wet and shaking as he peels off Dean’s over-shirt, then his T-shirt. Then he lays Dean down like he’s something that needs drying out in the sun. He flops down next to Dean and keeps shivering, the sun a gold-colored spot in his eyes, water or tears wetting his face.
Dean can’t read if he’s upset or angry or both.
“Why did you do that?”
Dean has no idea. He tells Sam as much and Sam gets a pinched expression but doesn’t look away.
“Why would you do that?” he asks again.
“Is it still there?” Dean croaks.
“What, the house?” Sam shakes his head. “We didn’t leave it. I think we’re still inside.”
“This is the basement beach.” Dean quips.
Sam repeats Dean’s question from before, back to him, in a whisper: “Is this house a monster?”
Dean’s feet are still warm from the water washing over them, though the rest of him is freezing. He lets Sam turn him over, so they’re facing each other; lets him brush sand off Dean’s shoulder like that’s a soothing gesture or some bullshit. He presses a hand against Sam’s cheek, feels the heat of his breath in a warm circle. There’s not enough space between them and their legs are tangled. He shifts somewhat miserably, knocks his knee against Sam’s.
Sand and denim don’t mix, thinks Dean.
They’re quiet for such a long time that it seems like a jinx. The waves rasp against the shore.
“Take off your wet clothes,” Dean says, in an old, practiced voice that belongs to someone he once was. “You’ll catch pneumonia.”
“I’m not a delicate dandelion.”
“No,” Dean says, rolling his head to stare at the sky. He feels like this conversation’s taking on a set pattern, with no idea who set it. “You’re a prissy daisy.”
Sam fits his knuckles gently against the old break in Dean’s collarbone. His expression is indecipherable; his gaze slanted and dark.
“I’m not a lie,” Dean says, precisely. “You can’t drown a lie.”
“You ran from me.” Sam says mournfully.
“Maybe you should be running from me. Maybe it’s not the house, maybe I’m the monster.”
Sam shakes his head again. He kisses Dean’s top lip, then his bottom, then both together. He licks the salt from Dean’s mouth, a stripe down his neck. His palm, gritty with sand, drags through Dean’s hair. And then he stands and drags Dean to his feet. Dean starts singing Brother John again. He actually wants to say something else to Sam, like, “You’re not dead,” or “I’m going crazy, Sam. Are you?” or even something out of a rejected take in a cheesy flick, like, “I like looking at you, you’re kind of my favorite thing to look at.” But he’s wet and they’re in this fucked up place and so he sings Brother John instead.
Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
They’re walking in a wrong direction. They’re walking to the strip of shallow water and sand that leads to the lighthouse, and then up the rocky incline. Dean pushes through the old, rust-hinged door after Sam, and then they take a corkscrew staircase to the mirror room. The light is cold and grey, and there are symbols on the walls in a language he can’t read. The same language that shows up in his dreams.
“It was the people in the walls that told me,” Sam says when they’re on the balcony and the sea stretches around them, plain and featureless grey. “That I belonged with them.”
“But you’re here. Maybe you’re saving someone.”
Sam wants him to see the miracle of the fish that he once told Dean about, and so they take a second steep ramp that branch off the balcony. The water glows like Christmas lights in a portion of the sea, and the fish dart around in it, lit up pink and gold and silver. A large white bird sits on a rock farther away, watching curiously.
Sam says: “Who?”
Dean looks at him quizzically.
“Who am I saving?”
The fish swim like disco lights.
The house by the sea is next to the Veil, and it was put there to intercept Sam.
The house doesn’t really know if it should have intercepted his brother, but it was the man in the library who sent him here.
Here is who the man in the Library is—the same man who has the devil’s luck, the same man who is the eye of the lighthouse. This man holds the entire house in a shoebox, and looks in like it’s a story that he’s been telling. And while it’s true that this man gave the house its infant-walls, it is not the man’s tale that the house is built of.
The house is built from blood and secrets. The house is built from those that possess it.
You remember the note from before, the one that wasn’t signed. There are extra floors. There are people behind the walls. This house is big and wide, not long and thin. This house is not a monster.
Tonight on its rafters sits an albatross, and it tells a story about how houses are built.
Here is the story the albatross tells:
Whittle wood into the shape of a house and carve five windows. Pull a red thread through every window so that the knot and the center of the house is the same, a red heart.
For tradition’s sake, smatter salt in the floor of the house. Tie in a thin cloth a handy ancient spell, old earth and a stick dipped in animal fat. An effigy of a weather goddess will bring you luck. The Maiden of the Fishes will focus your efforts.
Take your wooden house and hang it from a frangipani tree by the sea. Or nail it in with an iron nail—that’s always the better option.
This is the easiest way to catch a soul. The easiest way to keep it from being lost in the Veil among all the others.
This is the easiest way to catch a soul.
Dean is woken up by the wolves.
He’d been dreaming of the library again. About the little fat man in his dingy sweater, and the title of the book he’d been reading in Dean’s dream—God Has Other Plans. In his dream, the little fat man told him about the spirit houses.
“See,” he said. “It’s really quite simple. Souls can fit anywhere. So, if one particular dead soul was bothering them, some Indian tribes used to just capture them in spirit houses. Put a tiny effigy or two in it, and it works like a magical mousetrap. Of course, whole thing’s quite unstable. Doesn’t work for too long. Which is why,” the man snapped his fingers in Dean’s face, “your angel needs to get cracking.”
Dean wakes up from the dream confused. The wolves are howling outside, and the clock reads 3:00.
(Psychomanteum, rabbit hole, woods at 3.)
Nothing makes much sense to him here, but hey. “Get cracking,” Dean mumbles. Jacket: on. Shoes: on.
The sea is quiet tonight, and Dean wonders what kind of quietness this is. Calm before the storm, or just steady still silence. His feet crunch on twigs and pebbles. Mrs. Carmody’s washing-line greets him with billowing empty-sleeved hullos. Sam’s window is dark. Dean watches it for a beat before he starts walking.
The chill bites right through his clothes and at his bones. Dean keeps an eye on the sky as he walks, past the gorse that whispers roughly against his jeans, past the range of the lighthouse that X-rays him in cinematic slow-motion at haphazard intervals. The stars are bright, like violence against the sky. Dean feels the night in his bones too, a wild thing, inconclusive and never satisfied. Always shrouding itself in mystery—and hear now, hear how the wolves call.
The woods aren’t much, just a smattering of trees before the cliff wall drops away on the other side. Dean turns on his flashlight by thumping it against his thigh. The beam is inadequate in this darkness, with the wolves out here somewhere. So maybe this is stupid. Maybe this is the height of stupidity, who knows. But Dean thinks of the psychomanteum, all these strange and unknown places that the house filters like scum in a sieve, by-catch in a trawling net, and he wants to know.
Don’t look in their eyes.
Out here in the woods, snow falls out of season. The whiteness stands out, stark like spare lines of poetry. Icicles glimmer and fracture the flashlight beam. Dean’s suddenly walking in a soundless, deathless world—he feels—where the ice and snow give back everything they take.
Breath, light, reflection.
And past the next break in the tree-line are the wolves.
They stand in a circle, shrouded in mist and fog, tails like pale tips of fire in the dark. The center one paws the ground steadily, as if in search of something.
There are some decisions you take.
To walk into a snow-bright clearing of wolves at 3 in the morning.
To trust that you will prevail.
To think that if you fall, someone will come to help you up.
Stupid decisions like that. But they come so easily, as if something has inscribed the same in palimpsest ink into every strand of his DNA. Like operant conditioning. Like a preamble to himself.
The wolves pant and rumble, unmoving in their spots, the center one still searching, and Dean steps into the clearing.
Don’t look at their eyes.
His teeth chatter from the cold. He takes a few steps forward, and all the wolves turn towards him. Their panting swarms into a collective wall of noise. Their mouths peel back to sharp yellow canid teeth. Sleek fur gleams from the drops of fur collected on their pelt, and it’s a cold, horrible light.
Don’t look at their eyes.
And Dean gets why.
The black is slick and shiny, like plastic. It eats up the sclera and bulges at the top, and it’s the eyes of Hell.
The monsters rumble. And in their rumble is a rhythm, a song. A roundelay in the language of death and destruction, thunderous and bell-like at the same time. Resonance comes and goes. The song is not just a sound but also taste and smell and sight, and also rage, and also a lid on the rage—because what boils potently under a cover is more dangerous than what’s left to the elements.
Dean hears the song, and Dean understands it. He’s heard it before. These are cadences he knows, syncopations he’s learned.
The air fills with the gray breath of the wolves. Far across the sea, the first hour of crimson dawn wavers indecisively behind curtains.
The song cantillates.
And then the wolves howl. And then they run. With the song and the fracturing light and the falling moon, things are a blur of white and red and blue and gray. Dean doesn’t move. His vision is dizzied, sparking, and through his eyes the wolves look like innumerable missiles, homing in on him, each one seeming to say: I’M YOUR DEMON.
I’M YOUR DEMON.
And then the song becomes noise. And then they fall on him.
Their teeth are chrome and charcoal, flashing and marking. They tear at him and the sky peels back, neatly, and where it does is a canopy of red thread, crossing and criss-crossing, a spell to keep things in check. Dean blinks in this daze he’s somehow slipped into, but the sky stays the same.
His ears fill with noise.
The wolves, the song, the screaming.
The wolves tear through his clothes; their teeth snap his bones. Pain saws and drags through his belly like sprocket trains. The wolves gnaw at his ribs, maestros to turn them into an uneven calliope. Dean does nothing to stop them, because they’re his demons, after all. He deserves them. Their black eyes reflect him—blood-let and torn—and in them he sees violence, irrational and unquenchable. Their paws strike up clots of dirt and clouds of dust, rising and falling with the heavy iron of his blood. Their carrion breath heats the air he breathes. An array of bloodied muzzles and Hellish eyes flit by him like static scenes in a cinemascope.
Dean comes apart like strands of cheese.
And then a wolf howls.
It’s the one in the center. The one that’s found its long-sought trophy.
The song intensifies. The other wolves howl too, stepping away from Dean, pulled to something that represents them better. Dean shifts, and the bits of his body that still fit together locks and constellates into a new, broken thing. His fingers card through grass soggy with cooling blood. Up there the sky seems to reflect his plight, crossed with so many red-lines. (Blood-lines.) Dean closes his eyes, breathes in air that’s fresher except for the salt-rust of blood, and when he opens his eyes again, the song stops.
A wolf growls, before it cuts off with a long whine. Dean curls to his side to see better, and watches Sam pull a long knife neatly from the belly of the center-wolf. A trail of its guts spill to the ground, and Sam steps away.
His sleeves are bloodied. His sleeves, like the first time Dean ever saw him.
“I told you not to go looking for them!”
Sam’s distraught. Sam’s a tall man, made of lightning and motion, and he carries with him the murder of a dozen wolves. Or maybe more, from before, from when Dean didn’t know or care about the wolves but Sam did. Maybe it’s Sam who’s been keeping them away from the house by whatever means.
It doesn’t make sense for Sam to fight Dean’s demons. To stop them from eating him alive. Ought to be Dean’s fight. But Dean’s not fighting. Put him together again and he’ll still not, he’ll be more enraptured by the song and the wolves and whatever else this is.
From where he is, Dean watches the flash of Sam’s knife. It leaves a lasting sparkling in his vision. Dean fades out, and when he comes back, Sam is babbling something frantic at him. His wounds are not even bleeding anymore, but there are Sam’s big hands, still trying to hold him in.
“They wanted—they want—” Sam mutters, his voice shaking, “—always looking for you. Always trying to get past the woods—”
Ssshh, Dean wants to tell him. Ssshh, Sammy. The air is icy on the bits of him not protected by cloth and skin and fat anymore. Dean moans instead.
“I’ll get her—” Sam says, pushing bloody hands into his hair. “I’ll get Mrs. Carmody. You just—please, Dean—”
And then Dean’s alone.
The sky pulses above. Some of the threads are broken and dangling, and the interrupted canopy creeps him out.
Dean feels like they’ve lost. Which is weird, considering he doesn’t know what they’re supposed to gain, or what they’re supposed to win even, but it feels like he’s lost—and by extension, Sam. But I’m proud of us, he thinks. Something takes on a bigger meaning there. I’m proud of us, like a line copied from a greater life than this. A greater life— of which all this is but a bizarre tacky addition.
There’s a second resonant pulsing from somewhere beneath the ground. Dean grits his teeth and crawls forward a little. His breath rattles in his chest like the screw that breaks the machine down. Fuck this. But he crawls further. To where Big Shot wolf had pawed up the ground. He can’t see what’s under, but he hears it thrum.
He reaches down and touches bone.
And then a terrible, burning pain begins in his chest. His body jerks in response and his voice is gone. He screams soundlessly. Watches the rips mend, the skin stitch itself back together. His bones fit the broken pieces together like jigsaw. The blood on his skin threads back under the seams of his skin.
It takes a long time. The sky stretches and shrinks in alternation above, like a beating heart. Dean counts the beats, too agonized to move. His fingers clench on the grass, and he learns that coming together is as bad as coming apart.
And when it finally stops, Dean breathes in huge, indecent gasps. With his other hand, he scrabbles for purchase on the bone-blade.
And then the entire world shifts, sideways, as in an earthquake.
Sam leaves Dean and makes for the house at a run, but he never makes it.
He runs and the world splits into fractals. Along the edge of the cliff and a little farther off is Mrs. Carmody, staring at the sky. Sam runs, and he thinks again of black cars on roads, angels and albatrosses, demons and dreams of choking on smoke. He thinks of Dean and losing Dean and the thought floats through him like a haunting.
And then the albatross swoops at him.
Its eye glitters cerulean blue, which is all he sees of it before he’s knocked over and off the side.
The water meets him like a metric ton of steel. It’s freezing cold, and Sam barely swims up for air before the waves pull him down again. And around him the water seems not like saltwater but salt and water, chemical and water, thicker down below where it sucks him down towards its center. He swims and sinks and his ribs stretch to breaking point to keep breath in him. Something flits past him and Sam thinks it’s the fishes, Stacy’s toothless impossible fishes, and then a whole school of them swarms around him, and at their discretion he sinks, sinks like a stone, towards the deeper places where the water is thick as ink.
Sam thinks of how tired he is of dying: the cold and the dark, the pain or lack of it, the dizziness and drama. He struggles through another fathom of dark, thick water. He exhales a scream of bubbled air, and the fishes swim in long curves around his sinking body.
We know where the story is.
Sam begins to choke. The rules are the same for drowning in this world, and his lungs scream for air. He kicks upward, but it seems to work in opposite effect—the water drags him down, yanks at his legs, until he finds the sea-bed.
Where the story is.
And when he sees it, mired in debris and still shining, Sam makes a grab for it because he understands now that it’s important. Required reading. Mandatory watching.
The story is cool in his hand, cooler than the water. It glows mutedly.
Sam floats up.
Sam Winchester is—
(here, deep in this house that grew tall from his blood, in the walls, in the walls)
– in the walls.
Sam Winchester has run, not from the wolves, never from the wolves—the wolves he can handle.
The wolves belong to his brother, and he will always handle them. It doesn't matter how they bite, how their teeth draw his blood, how they paw and pare and fall upon him. They are his, as much as they are Dean's, and he will never run from them.
Sam Winchester runs from memories.
He comes in through the kitchen door, wet and bloody and holding the story, and the house folds itself around him—cups its hands (kitchens? closets?) around him—like the mother he never had. He'd gone back, but he couldn't find Dean.
(I tell him—I tell him how the Blade healed him, I tell him.)
And now he sets the story on the dining table, among platters of food that the house puts up desperately. He ignores the pastries, the gleaming slivers of meat, and the fruit so bright it's gruesome. Food steams and sizzles, swim in sauces hot and thick and rich, and this is all houses can do, this is all houses can offer as comfort and distraction—but Sam will have none of it.
(I tried to protect you, Sam; I tried to keep you alive because that is what houses do.)
He cracks open the Universe, Heaven, Earth, and Hell. He cracks open the Library too, and smoke pours out of the globe, thick and tarry. There's no albatross to stop him this time.
And then Sam steps back, and his back hits the kitchen counter while the smoke twists itself into the shape of a woman.
(The house does not like this woman. Her hair, like gemstones, like cheapness, like cherries in wine—her soul, blackened like old silver—her hunger a hard thing in her stomach, and nothing in this house will be enough for her.)
She laughs, blows dust from her nails. Her name is a name without poetry, but it's all right. She's quite without poetry too. Let's just compensate with bloodlust.
(She is only smoke in a shell, smoke in a mannequin, she will stand without her bones. Crack her open and there is something else inside her, something—)
Sam puts the kettle on.
Mrs. Carmody calls from somewhere: are you okay, Sam?
Sam puts the kettle on and sparks fly. Golden sparks. The woman curls, contorts, stretches. She says his name like it belongs to her. Like she's been called Sam too.
(Sam, what are you doing? Sam, are you not you?)
This is not how it happened the first time. How it happened the first time was that she found him.
It didn't happen in a house that hurt and loved and tried to keep the bad things at bay. It happened in the middle of nowhere. A gas station. A men's restroom. An empty motel room. One of those ephemeral places that you remember as a blip of lost time between point A and point B.
Sam was looking for Dean.
He'd been looking for three days, and Dean was just gone. But he'll find him, Sam kept thinking. Dean, his Blade-sickened brother, disappeared from home, ssshh, he'll find him, ssshh. This time, he will.
Sam only stopped driving because he was falling asleep at the wheel, and when he raised his head from the basin, water dripping in streams down his face, all the highways showing in his tired eyes, she was in the mirror with him.
They fought, and her head cracked the mirror, her hips slammed into the basin. Loud as thunder. Loud as Judgment. What, did you expect this fight to be quiet? They are giants, after all. If not in body, in their separate histories. Sam Winchester, the boy-king-who-never-was. Abaddon, Knight of Hell. But in less than a minute, her fingers peeled off the ceramic, and she snapped the door shut. So he was trapped with her. That wasn't new, because in a way he was always trapped, with someone or the other.
Abaddon beamed, fluffed her hair. "The best kind of bargain chip? Family. Did you know Crowley has a son?" she crowded him against a wall (Sam puts the kettle on. Sparks fly. She's not real), and put her hand over his heart. "So I dangled him by his intestines and Crowley let-something-slip."
(Her finger-nails are sharp, like iron. Did you know the Children of Lilith have fingernails of iron? And teeth, too. They say it's so they can carve their way up a pile of bodies, even limbless. Did you know, Sam?)
"Where's your marvelous little magic shield?" she asked, pulling his shirt away. She meant the broken tattoo. Sam hissed, dug out his knife (puts the kettle on) and Abaddon laughed, like, how quaint.
Her lips tasted like cheap lipstick.
She was violent. Black and sugar-bitter. Carbuncle and ice. He coughed, choked on her, thought: not again, not this, not again.
She is the smoke that he remembers, the smoke that drives the engine here. She is also the drowning that he imagines.
His lungs expanded with her, his eyes watered. She was slow, deliberately so, she wanted to enjoy this. Her nails pressed into his spine, gouged his skin. She said: hullo, Sammy.
(This is a secret that the house swallowed. Why do you want it back, Sam?)
Abaddon is only a ghost now. Only a memory. She curls against his back like a hothouse flower, kneads gently at his wrists. Her lips brush his throat.
He's not breathing.
Here's how an electric shock works: it slithers through you like fire and ice and fills you up like air in bellows and hurts you so you can't speak—you can't move—you can't—you don't—you aren't. And the will to move your own eyes escapes you as the fire wraps around your brain, settles at the base of your brain-stem and spreads out its own dendrites that play you to its scintillant tune and frequency.
Here's how a possession differs: it's worse.
The smoke brought cramps that twisted his body, left him sliding down the wall, legs pedaling helplessly to keep him upright. But then she picked him up, easy as she pleased.
Let's go find your brother, she said. Let's go string up some people. Let's go spill some blood. Let's do everything. Carpe diem, carpe noctem. You with me, Sammy? You with me? Let's fall forever.
(Let me enfold you, the house says. Let me keep you alive.)
"Fuck," Sam says, and knocks the kettle off the stove with the back of his shaking hand. It spills, hissing. He twists away, hot water splashing the back of his hand, his wrist. He drops to the floor. His hands run through his hair and come up empty, open, trembling. There's still blood on his fingers.
He doesn't run yet, but he will. We're not always talking about the present when we're talking in present tense.
Sam Winchester is in the walls. He's got a burn on the back of his hand, but that's not the only wound he has.
He wants all his secrets back.
Dean comes home to a house that has shifted again, become slivered with holes, become waterlogged. Dean comes to a house that groans and shakes, wood groaning against grain, bones grinding against each other. The walls angle inward, pushed in by force or the intermittent gales that blows in from the sea.
Dean couldn't get the bone-blade in the end, after all. Because with the shift in position, it had disappeared further into the earth. He couldn't grab it. And he didn't have time.
Dean comes home to a house that sits by a sea that waits, watching, all of its power and all of its magnificence held tightly leashed. Earlier with the wolf and the stars, the sky had torn back for a moment, ripped away and showed him something else, and now at the very edges of the horizon is a wrinkling, the way packaging boxes just don't fit right once you rip open the sides.
Dean comes home to no Sam, but there's Mrs. Carmody, sitting at the table, crying tears that form an iridescent sleet all over the house. Stacy sits next to her, patting her arm occasionally, sniffing from time to time. Ice shimmers and grows around them, weirdly sparkly, like something from a frost-giant-Barbie movie.
And Dean's seen—well, a lot of weird things, he can just imagine—but it's his first time making his slippery way to a woman with a glacier growing out of her tear-ducts.
"It's Sam," Stacy says, seeing him. Her face crumples into an origami car-wreck. "He's gone mad."
"Oh," says Dean, looking around. It looks like the pipes have burst, all that water surging up to coalesce with the buckets that Mrs. Carmody has been crying, and Stacy's ugly fishes are trapped under the ice, unhappily pushing against it. "What did Sam do?"
"He came in and asked about her past? I guess?" Stacy says. "She said she didn't remember, but he insisted. Made her sit down and think hard about it, and I guess that broke something in her, you know? She doesn't really know where she came from. She's just always been here."
"I lived in the sea but then it wasn't nice anymore."
"I don't like the bird. It watches."
Dean looks out. The lighthouse looks as it has always looked, secretive and self-serving. The albatross sits on the sills, massive wings spread right around the circular room.
Its beak clicks open.
"Stacy," Dean says. His head is buzzing, and the only part of him that didn't heal, that spot on his arm, smarts terribly. He presses his jacket tighter against the wound, tries to think of things logically. If the whole adventure with the wolves has made anything at all clear, it is that he needs to find Sam. "Where did Sam go?"
"Downstairs," Stacy says, worriedly. "He said he had to talk to the Tall Dark Stranger. You know, in the basement."
Dean breathes in a sharp inhale.
That's not good, he thinks. That's not good at all.
Stacy mumbles, "I told him not to."
"Can you tell me when he came to live here?"
"The man in the basement?" Stacy frowns. "Right before you."
"Yeah?" says Dean, staggered. He thinks back to that sunny day, with the man he threw out of the Lincoln. Had he made it here first?
Dean climbs the ice, right to the open basement door. From downstairs, there's Ramble On and a dangerous electric scent. Funny how it doesn't smell much like cigarillos anymore, but another kind of smoke. Dean walks down the stairs, past the washing machine with Sam's clothes swirling in it, bloody from his last encounter with the wolves. Water splashes up and out through the sides of the door, sloshing filthily beneath his feet. The basement opens wide at the bottom of the staircase, a mostly empty, dark, dank space, save for the shapes of hordes of corn and honey stacked up against the wall.
The dark man lounges against a wall, only the shadow of him visible in the near-dark.
There's only one light-bulb, the cord dangling in front of Dean's face. He pulls it, and the light clambers over the walls, lighting up the stranger, his vicious, violent smile. There is fresh blood on his clothes, on his fingers.
"Listen, fucker. Whoever you are, I know Sam came down here. Where is he?"
The dark man rolls his neck slowly on his shoulders. In his right hand, he holds a weapon. Something old, something that looks like it could have been made out of the bones of a tiktaalik rosae's seventh-generation evolutionary grand-child. It taps against the wall behind him. The sound is horrible, like something that is a noise first, then a song, then a noise.
"How did you get that?"
"Can you hear me?"
Dean pulls out the machete from his jacket. He takes a step closer to the stranger, and the man reacts immediately. He rushes at Dean and knocks him against the far wall with far more strength than any normal man should have. The breath rushes out of Dean in a whoosh, and he gets the knife between him and the man, using the side of it to separate them. The man's hunky bone-blade lodges painfully against his hip, but doesn't cut.
"Why do you pretend?" the dark man sneers. "He's stopped pretending. He has it all figured out. He came down here and he knew everything."
The dark man gets an arm under Dean's chin, forces his chin up so all he can see is the ceiling, the cracks in it like the surface of Mars. Dean breathes in and smells the same heady electric scent from before, something that gets his heart beating too fast, makes the blood rush into his head. Fighting it, he struggles against the wall, tries to push the man away. The bone-blade sings. Song, noise, song, noise.
"Tell me who I am," the man says. "Tell me who I am and I'll let you go."
Dean gasps, feels the man's blade press tighter against his hipbones. "Fuck you."
The man gets a hand between them, twists Dean's arm till the machete crashes to the floor. The sound rings loud in his head, and Dean looks at it, just at arm's reach till the dark man knocks it away with his foot. It slides over the floor, right against the far wall. And out there, drops of bright red blood lead right into the wall.
"What the fuck did you do to him?"
"I sent him down to Hell," the man says. "Down to Hell, and he is still there. Now if you tell me who I am, I will let you follow."
The man's hands come up to close around his throat.
Dean chokes, and through the choking, through the struggle for the air that stays dazzlingly just out of reach, through the flailing and failing of his body and the fire in his lungs, the song of the bone-blade sings into him. The notes of it are familiar, yes, and his bones feel unconnected from his self, strewn amidst octaves too high and too low to map.
"If you tell me, if you stop pretending—," the dark man says, "If you stop allowing yourself to forget—"
They twist, they fall, and where the jacket falls away from Dean's skin rests the bite of the wolf, golden and glowing, a mark exactly like the man's. The Mark.
Voiceless, flailing, Dean thinks, me, me.
It's vengeful. It's devastating.
His eyes see nothing but the nails of his hands finds the man's back, claws into his skin. He rips the clothes from the man's skin and then rips the skin from the man's frame. Drags his arms through the man's scalp and peels it off easily. His right and left hand work in autonomous discord, and when they come back to his control he sees only blood, and it's golden and hot when he tries to pry apart the man's fingers, pulling each back to break them like sticks, and through it all the song, the bone-Blade— through it all the man's hands at his neck, strangling.
You are me.
The dark man lets go. All that remains of him is but blazing ash, his skin scorching black, his hair turning white and burned off all pigment. The singing blade drops from his hands and goes skittering across the floor, somewhere off to the side. It slams into the wall of corn and honey.
Dean looks down at the husk, and then at the direction of the blade. His chest heaves, trying to drag in as much air as possible, but choking on the smoke. Inside of him a beast curls, and he doesn't know if it seems defeated or enraged. His eyes close.
Sam. He needs to find Sam.
Over there the walls have opened up, spread wide and back to show a staircase. Dean can see a door at the top. It's open.
He picks up the machete.
The door at the top of the staircase is only one in the maze that this house has built when Dean wasn't looking.
Or maybe Sam built it. Out of memory, and emotion. And this here, these rooms that stand between them, what exactly do they mean?
When he can't count the doors in the corridor anymore Dean walks back, back into the basement and up into the house now scorched and empty, searches through the utility drawers in the kitchen till he finds a long spool of red thread. Back in the basement, he ties the thread around the doorknob, and then walks into the labyrinth.
"Good thinking," he tells himself, and the sound of his own voice scares him very badly. "Jeez, please don't let there be minotaurs."
He closes the door behind him and the thread yanks in his hand, longingly. To stay back. To stay away. Nothing seems better than that, but look at how the doors shudder. Look at how the corridors twist invitingly, like the many caverns in Ali Baba's cave.
From the beams of the roof, eyes watch him. Dean notices them and holds their gaze, till the white-winged bird flutters down from its perch to land on his shoulder.
"You're not a fucking albatross anymore," Dean says. "Fucking bird."
It pecks at his earlobe.
Dean opens a door. And then another. And another, and in each he finds different things. Moments. Memories.
Once in Chinatown, somewhere, a Philippine woman had tried to sell him a fly preserved in Baltic amber. That's what this reminds him of. Here is a palace of memory, architecture of the mind, all that was forgotten and all that has been allowed to be forgotten, and how many more rooms till the end?
Dean opens doors.
In this room: the lighthouse, like the eye of a watchful angel. Here a circle of salt, empty shadows crouched inside it. Here a room without a ceiling, only a sky spread above, pinpricked with stars and stained the chemical pink of neon over there above a far-off city. Here a song from a fraying tape stitched together with cheap glue and Dean's stubborn need to hold onto things. Here a generic motel room with math homework on one side of a cheap plastic table and a bloody athame on the other.
And all these doors open into, out of and sideways from each other, so there's no telling where you're going, no telling how deep into the house Dean is.
Sam, he thinks, where are you?
"Do you know?"
The bird only titters.
Dean opens doors.
And here in this room the tiktaalik roseae, fish that couldn't exist, fish that lived in another time in a world that was still swarming with protoplanetary dust motes, just an element of whimsy in this story that someone else is telling.
And here in this room the wings of an angel, scorched into the walls.
And in this room a ceiling that Dean runs from before it catches fire.
And here in this room the walls covered in thread that connects photos and newspaper articles, the way Dean's thread connects these rooms, all these memories.
And here in this room all the doorways to Heaven, and all the people in the Veil, and so crowded that Dean shuts the door and bolts it from outside before anything can get through.
And here in this room the smell of the road, the wild, gasoline and wind and driving away from a thunderstorm, the taste of stale candy and rangy meat from roadside diners, the fly-by picture-window frames of fields and blips of towns. The everything minutiae, the everyday fabric.
And here in this room so many dead things, so many grotesque things, and in the next room so many weapons, and in the next room so many old books, and in the next room so many phone numbers crossed out from sticky notes on the walls because the owners would never pick up again, and in the next room a pair of shot glasses, two chairs pulled close to a table, the dregs of ice still melting and the ghosts of fingerprints on sweating glass.
And in this room is a motel room, the worst kind that you pay for in hours and smells of fish always and sex most of the time, the kind where fishermen take their hookers, and also the kind where they don't bat an eyelid when you and your brother show up caked in blood and high on adrenaline at two in the morning. Sam says, from the edge of the bed, well fuck, shocked by himself, by them both. And That Dean on the bed touches fingertips to his thigh, because he's allowed, this is allowed, and it's some kind of irony that his fingers leave soot against Sam's skin, darker than his, no less flawed.
'That Dean' being somebody else, someone from a golden time you love to watch but have about as much chance cahooting with as you do with Kurt Cobain or Fred Astaire.
Dean lingers here, watches them, watches Sam get up and walk over to the window. Watches the moonlight through the drapes turn mother-of-pearl bright on his bare shoulders, pool on the shiny divot (or three) on his skin where bullets have left their marks. Watches the motel-sign shimmer and lose itself in a firefly glow of diode spots. Watches the Other Dean follow, hungry, locking his hands over Sam's hipbones, turning him around. Watches him nip away half-worded protests from Sam's mouth, push him back against the wall. Watches him find a rhythm, watches the slip and slide of That Dean's hands on their cocks, and Sam's bitten-down smile and the soft sounds he lets himself make, and the red siren lights streaming their semaphore language through the drapes, painting their skin.
And in the next room the days that followed, but only the taste of them, resentment and anger and withdrawal on Sam's side, confusion and anger and guilt on Dean's side, and how it felt when clarity cut through all of that, like the first glimpse of sunlight over a wrecked, nuclear-wintered city, and how then they were okay.
And in this room the last days before Hell, when everything tasted like ash and Dean couldn't look at Sam and Sam couldn't look at Dean turning his eyes away from him, like he couldn't bear to see what he saw.
And in this room the taste of smoke and alcohol, and barely there, hiding ashamed under the ugly old sofa in the centre, the tang of inhuman blood.
And in this room the memory of a dark-haired girl: her curves, the smell of her skin, the edge of her razorblade smile.
And in this room—like penance for the darkness of the last three— a song, and in this room a forest, and in this room the jolt of a bike against rocks somewhere in the Ozarks that time ages and ages ago when Sam skinned his knee and whined for a week. And in this room the wet rainy day when they ran for the Impala and Dean fell, a surprised little gasp from his mouth, all his breath knocked out of him in a second, one hand crushing underneath him and pain twisting his face, and how Sam laughed at first, and then how he took the hand in his and blew on it, so stupid, like that would make it all better, and how Dean grinned at that and cuffed him on the side of his head.
And in this room the precise shape of that laughter, remembered. Because they are brothers, because—
(Keep going, says the bird.)
And in this room blood welling in Sam's hand and an imaginary man telling him to blow his brains out and Dean telling him what's real.
And in this room a possession, a second layer of sludge running down the cranberry wallpaper.
And in this room another, redolent of roses.
And in this room yet another, cut open like a wound in the wooden floor, through which blue light spills.
And in this room a tattoo parlor, with half a star only on the piece of paper beside the machines, incomplete, broken.
And in this room the last time Dean had looked across at Sam, with heat in his gaze and the Mark throbbing on his hand, and Sam had gazed back with the stupid, calm defiance that he'd acquired to protect himself or Dean or the world from them both, and how there weren't any words, and how they'd fucked, not had sex or made love,plain fucking, getting off on every ingot of bitterness they had, stored up between them like cheap currency.
And in this room a library, with a crack across the long mahogany table that sits in pride of place.
And in this room the one night that Sam searched for him using books and in the next the two days that he spent burning rubber out on the roads.
And in this room worry, spilling diffuse blue light.
And in this room a garden— what Cain had before Abel's blood cursed the land it grew on. Corn shooting up from the ground—not the golden kind but the blue kind, the first blue corn that hasn't been kissed by the sun yet—and wheat, and pumpkins along the ground large enough that twelve mice could never pull them, and long snake-gourds writhing into being on creepers that climb all over invisible trellises. Melons and tomatoes, apple trees hung so heavy with fruit that they lean over to kiss the ground, and all about the heavy buzz of bees in their lavender fields, the honeysuckle leaves, the strange and sweet yucca bulbs. Dean holds his hands over his ears as the pumpkins split, Halloween-orange pulp spattering all around, as the tomatoes burst in streams of red, as the apple tree drops all its fruits and all its leaves like something stripped unwillingly, violently naked. He runs out as the sun sets over rural apocalyptica, over land that smells bitterly of iron, and sees that the twisting maze of corridors end in a door.
And in this room, this last room, everything they were and everything they'd become, and all the words they never learned how to say.
The Other Dean in this room is as far gone as the Tall Dark Stranger, if not worse. The Other Dean is a predator, pure and simple. The Other Dean has the First Blade, and immense rage in his eyes.
The Other Sam in the room is not even Sam. Sure, he looks like Sam. But then Sam has a history of this same thing. Looking like Dean's brother, but being someone else. Being something else. And, in this illusory place that Dean simply calls 'room', he can see that in Sam. Sure there's the body that Dean knows, his human Sam, but there's also something else. A second demonic skeleton, of smoke and fire.
Dean doesn't watch the fight, because he knows how it ends. One can only be hoodwinked so much before one snapped like stretched-thin saltwater-taffy. And then you wake up to the truth.
Abaddon laughs. In Sam's voice, it's powerful enough that the burning, awful pain in Dean's lungs returns. Dean's dreamed of this. Dreamed, because nightmare does not have a verb. Dreamed of Abaddon, pinned underneath him, laughing in derision because: look, look who I'm wearing—but in those recurring dreams, Abaddon did not have a face.
Oh God, Sam.
Sam—Abaddon—bleeds, because that's how the Other Dean knocked him/her down—with the Blade to the shoulder. Inside of Dean, the fire burns hotter. The wolves didn't start it, he thinks, it was always there. His own poison, acting against him. But when the Other Dean ends Abaddon, he does it almost gently. The cut in Sam's belly is smooth but deep, and Dean can see the moment when Abaddon ceases to be and Sam just is.
He can see the moment, down to the second of the change.
It's that when you've spent your whole life digging through other people's graves, and you've seen your partner from every angle, in every kind of season and every kind of weather, under every kind of light and the absence of it, and you can tell what they look like happy or concussed or glum or scared. Always you feel this phenomenal sense of knowing this person, and they're like this secret map that you alone can read; this language that you alone can speak, this fabric that you can turn out to see all the stitches and all the loops of threads that hold them together.
And so Dean knows.
From the long blinks, the widening of Sam's pupils, his realization. Even before that, from the surprised gasp of breath he takes.
The Other Dean doesn't, though, not until Sam takes the Blade from him. It's difficult. Sam grits his teeth and tears run down his face. The struggle is silent, and the Other Dean loses out to his returning reason and his brother.
What have you done now, Dean thinks for him—this doppelganger of his, this confused half-demon that now touches a corner of Sam's lip with his finger and worries vaguely about the blood. Sam coughs; a horrible, rattling sound.
What have you done. What have you done.
Dean takes a few steps backward. The fire in his lungs grows stronger, blazes with immense heat. It blooms from a point, grows bigger and hotter and whiter, and it sucks the moisture from his lips; loosens his tongue with its pervasive heat. His skin feels too small to hold this fire. This fire that the wolves put in him. (The fire that was always there).
He thinks of Sam, of Kevin, of all the poor bastards that kept getting in the crosshairs between him and this curse. And he thinks too, of the short span of time between leaving the bunker and Sam/Abaddon finding him—whatever he's done under the influence of the Blade. Or maybe it was never the Blade's influence, actually. Dean thinks, maybe it was all just him. Thinks of this fire eating it all away.
Eating him all away.
Room after room after room, and Sam finally stops when he opens a door to the lighthouse.
All is grey and cold through the windows, the sea gone flat and featureless as a sheet of paper, the house crumpled and bowed inward. The mirror and the eye of the lighthouse flash as Sam enters, and the albatross slides its wings like blades through the glass of the windows.
"Sit down, Sam," the bird says. "I'm going to tell you everything that happened to you."
He tries to think up a smartass remark to offer it, but his heart just slips a little further down with every breath.
Sam sits, and light begins pouring out of the bird. Bright and blue, and he can't really look at it without hurting his eyes. He looks out at the sea instead, at all that frozen water. And then he closes his eyes because he'll just cry if he keeps them open.
Everything that happened.
He already knows what happened. Sam remembers as the bird grows brighter. He learned the story that he found in the sea, and it told him everything.
The house had tried to tell him too. His Zombie had tried to tell him. The people in the Veil had tried to tell him. Heck, his research paper had tried to tell him. A demon had possessed him, and then Dean had tried to kill him—but what came next, what went on next? Sam kept the Blade a secret buried in earth, not knowing what it meant, and battled away the wolves. His brother's demons. But now the memory of the Blade lodges shard-like in his throat, and he has to swallow around it.
"Not so far behind us," says the bird, and its white wings gleam nacreous. "I wanted to heal you, but I could not. You were too far gone. The both of you. I had to buy time. So instead I struck a deal with Metatron."
Metatron, who tells stories. Little fat man, in the Library. Pretending to be God.
Here's what the storyboard looks like: bits of bone and an old dollhouse, red thread, old kind of magic that puppeteers alternate realities.
"The spirit-house is as elaborate a place as you make it to be. A place to hide death, a place that can never come true. I brought your soul here to buy time to heal your body. But this place does not work according to the whims of angels, so I could only talk to you once you learned who I was—"
"Cas," Sam breathes. "Why don't you turn back to human?"
The bird—the angel—cocks its head. "Birds are simpler," he says. "This was the form this world chose for me. And the eye of the lighthouse was the way Metatron could watch. But Sam, your brother followed you inside. Metatron let him."
"And his death is hidden here, as is the First Blade. You brought the Blade with you, in your memory, because you knew you had to hide it— because what it means to keep it hidden is a chance to salvage his soul."
What it means to keep it hidden.
Here are things you cannot keep hidden for long: love, disease, sickness of the mind. And those things that make you stronger, abler—whether they taint your soul or not. Those things that lets you stay alive; you can't keep those hidden for long.
Keep it hidden.
Sam hesitates. All he says is, "I have to go to Dean."
Sam opens a door and steps into darkness. The silence is colossal here, pressing and repulsive, and Sam feels like all of him is shrinking, becoming smaller, such that he will never feel warm again, never feel full. There's a violent hunger like a star in his belly, and he waits, quiet and shifting in the silence that speaks of wanting.
When the dark gives, he steps into the kitchen of the house by the sea. Plates lie broken on the floor, and the counters are cracked. The house is sick. Sam can see that in the eaten-up walls, the scorched curtains. The house creaks, and the sea reciprocates by crashing out on the rocks. It's a different sea from the one he saw just minutes ago, but that's just how illusion goes.
"Dean?" Sam calls, softly. He steps over cups and pieces of china, holding onto things to keep himself upright on the lopsided floor. "Dean!"
Sam moves to the living room and trips on a loose wire. He goes down with a shout, and catches himself with his palms that scrape painfully on the wooden surface. But before he can get back on his feet, he feels the pressure of Dean's hand on his back, pushing him down. Sam lets him creep into the crook of his neck, near his ear. Dean kisses him there, softly, starts with, "I'm so-", and then stops himself and just presses his palms to either side of Sam's face.
His eyes blaze. (Green, not black.)
And then he blazes.
Sam screams, but holds on—
(Because where will we go? Where will we go from here?)
—and the heat is immense. Sam feels his skin dry, his sweat burn away, his mouth parch. Any words he wants to speak, he tries to speak, are all eaten up by the fire. Dean makes a move to pull away, but Sam holds him there, hands wrapped around Dean's scorched wrists, because if burning is the only way of consolation Dean knows— then fuck it, Sam will burn too.
Within the flame, tongues of fire leap, white and red and orange, other indefinable hues. Sam feels them straight through his skin, through his body. The fire fills his mouth, his throat, his lungs and continues to spread, everywhere, and Sam squints to see Dean, dark in the inferno, moves closer and against him, the furnace raging. Sam thinks of how the house had taken them apart, made them strangers, and how despite that they'd found their way back to each other—and how he'll go, unasked and without thought, into the red and ash, flame and ember, let his marrow smelt and his blood boil for Dean, with Dean.
He's not going through with losing Dean, whatever be the end result.
And outside the sun goes up and the sun comes down. A sticky caramel sky with an improbable moon takes up the sky, and the blaze still rages. Sam breathes ash, pleads in telepathy. He tells Dean, we don't really want to die. He tells Dean, you don't have to burn. You didn't do it. That's what you tell me: it wasn't your fault, Sammy.
When it finally looks like all he'll be left with is the scorched bones of his brother, Sam breaks free and stands up. The house heals him as he walks, and he walks down to the basement. The Blade is still there, and it sings no song for Sam.
Keep it hidden.
Sam picks it up. Just don't lose your brother, he thinks. Don't think of consequences, backdrafts, fallouts. Don't lose your brother. It's what Dean would do. Sam will figure out the rest later. If they win, they win together.
In the end, the decision is easy.
Keep it hidden.
Back in the living room, Sam leaves the Blade on the floor. He cannot stand around and hope, so he walks out. Out the door, and he keeps going down the trail. To where the Lincoln should be, but the Trials stand completed, and the Lincoln's not there anymore. This is the car he knows. The one Dean loves. The getaway car, which might just get them away from this bizarre world as well.
Sam waits by the passenger door, resting his hands on the top. The wind smells like fire and ash, but also like flowers and the sea. He closes his eyes and hears the rush of the waves, and hopes for footsteps.
"This is a bad idea," Dean says.
Sam opens his eyes. Dean smirks at him, his eyes flitting black.
"Good," Sam says.