When he first sees her she's like a misshapen blade dissecting the horizon, swaying slightly, cutting through the faint misty green of the hills behind her to pierce the black tarmac. She's sharp, sudden; the endless ribbon of the road has been sliding away under him for so long that he's drugged by the movement, entranced, and the line of her slicing through it makes it seem to reel and twist and John blinks, hard.
As the car gets closer he sees the white of her dress isn't flawless; darker patches on it blur into the darker background. Her hands are loose, open, hanging down on either side of her thighs. A few lengths closer and the darker patches resolve into blackish smears of dirt or grease, spatters of red decorate the white on her upper body.
"Daddy," Dean blurts into the humming silence of the car's interior.
"I see her, Dean," he answers, easing off the gas and resting the ball of his foot lightly on the brake pedal, letting the car coast and the weight of it slow itself a few hundred yards before he presses down.
She doesn't turn as they come up behind her. John pulls into the shoulder on the right and she stays on the left, facing forward. He brings the car to a stop gently, not even the slightest jerk, and maneuvers the gear stick, sending a glance over into the back seat before even looking out the window. Sammy's still motionless in his baby carrier, hands laying over his hips in half-curled fists, neck bent at a seemingly impossible angle to rest his head against his shoulder, plump baby-cheek squashed against it to push his mouth into an open pout. The carrier's too small for him already, past time by a few weeks for John to visit the local Goodwill and find something to strap Sammy into while still giving his excitable limbs somewhat of a free rein.
The woman doesn't turn to look at them. She's still swaying, and the side of her face nearest the car is stained red with darker clots clinging to her skin, matting her hair. John winds down the window, reaches for the buckle on his seatbelt.
"Hey," he says. "Hey, you okay?"
The woman lifts her hands, and the loose sleeves of the dress slip from her forearms into the crease of her elbows. Her fingers are still lax, slightly curved in their inertia. "Help us," she says, voice nearer a groan than anything else.
John opens the door, looks both ways. The road is empty as far as he can see behind them; ahead the town clusters around the narrowing thread of the road, low and dark.
"There was an accident," the woman says as he jogs across the road toward her. She's standing just off the tarmac. Her feet are cleaner than the rest of her, pale in the cheap, bronze-strapped sandals. Her hair's a dark auburn, gleaming like polished metal in the morning sunlight where it's not dull and dark with wetness. "Please, help my baby." She still doesn't turn to look at him, even as he reaches the edge of the road.
"Where? Ma'am, you're hurt, let me--"
He reaches for her arm as he steps around in front of her, and he has a split second to see that the other side of her face is… ruined, crushed, missing in the instant before she flickers out of existence, and his hand drops through empty air.
It wasn't that hot in the car and the morning's less icy than it's been further north, but suddenly the air on John's skin is cold against clamminess, a trickling itch from his scalp down to the backs of his knees, and his body's wheeling around before he's even had a chance to think about it.
Dean's standing in the road, halfway between John and the car, eyes wide.
"Get back in the car, now," John says, and Dean's jaw clicks shut. He scrambles in through the still-open driver's side door, and John's strides are long and quick enough that Dean's not even settled in his own seat before John's dropping in, slamming the door. "Have you got your seatbelt on?"
A click, after the fumbling skitters of plastic and metal as Dean tries to right himself and buckle in at the same time. "Yes."
John drops the handbrake and near-floors the accelerator; the back right tire struggles for a moment to grip the soft shoulder and the wheels squeal a little when all four finally make it onto the tarmac.
There's an indignant hitching of breath from the back seat, and Sammy starts to cry.
"Don't ever leave your brother alone in the car," John says. "Do you hear me?" Sammy's wails make John's fingers clench involuntarily around the steering wheel, but there's no way he's stopping before they get to the town, only a couple of miles down the road, now. "Dean."
"Yes." Even under the baby's cries and the unleashed roar of the engine John can hear the ragged edge in Dean's voice, like the word's pulled forcefully from his throat. John grits his teeth. This is important, damn it.
He shifts down to the speed limit when he gets into the town; the outskirts are only momentary and then they're in the main street. It's small enough that there's only one of everything, no need for creative naming to differentiate, and as they slow to a cruise John reads, Bergson Post Office, Bergson Diner, Bergson Hardware & Supplies, then further down a larger building, small but still surprising white dome roof; Bergson Civic Library and Council Offices.
It's still early in the morning, and he gives way to a solitary pick-up truck with a bad paintjob at the intersection at the end of mainstreet before swinging the car around in a U-turn, cruising back along slower. A glance to his right shows Dean twisted around, one arm hooked and dangling over the back of the seat to wiggle fingers at a still-screaming Sammy, the gesture probably unconscious judging by the way he's peering intently out the window at the slowly-passing shop fronts.
John pulls up to the curb in front of the diner, then reverses into place to give the bulbous red fire hydrant enough leeway. Sammy's cries are louder without the rumble of the engine to offer counterpoint, and Dean doesn't move as John shuts off the engine and gets out of the car, pocketing the keys as he walks around to haul open the back door.
"Dean," he says as he unclips the baby carrier from its anchors. "Could you give me a hand here, buddy?"
Dean scrambles out and John winces slightly as the door slams with a little too much force, but then Dean's darting in under his arm, crouching to reach the baby bag on the floor, hefting it up and out of the car as he withdraws backwards. John turns the carrier around on the seat and the volume of Sammy's crying drops slightly. It'd be easier to just take the whole thing in with them, but the poor kid's probably screaming because he's spent the past four hours wedged in without the option of sitting up and looking around, so John unbuckles the final safety straps and wraps his hands around Sammy's chest, belly warm and hitching against John's hands under the soft layer of cotton jumpsuit.
Dean's waiting on the curb with the baby bag slung over one shoulder, body angled significantly in an attempt to balance out the weight of it. He wrinkles his nose as John nudges the door closed behind them.
"I think he needs changing, Dad," Dean says authoritatively, and John sighs, grimacing a little in agreement as he settles the baby against his side, Sammy's hand fisting in the fabric of his shirt pocket. Sam's mostly quiet, now, expressing an entirely different kind of misery in the sob-exhausted hitches of breath John can feel in the hand spanning across Sammy's back. His eyes and nose are still leaking a little, but not streaming. John shifts Sammy's weight and frees a hand to wipe at Sammy's face with the hem of his own shirt, then rests his free hand on the back of Dean's neck. The hair there's spiky above the smooth skin, as if it's still reeling from its recent cut, refusing to lay flat.
"Ready for breakfast, kiddo?" John asks, and Dean nods fervently.
The inside of the diner isn't that much different from any number of diners in small towns they've passed through just to get here. Not that John has a problem with that; familiar territory and all. The door catches a bell that tinkles as the door swings closed behind them, and a woman standing behind the counter lifts her head, the motion of her hand pushing the cloth across the counter stilling. She blows frizzy hair out of her eyes, offers a wide grin as they trek across the black-and-off-white checkerboard of the floor.
She has lipstick on the block of her front tooth, clayish orange against gleaming white. "You all just get into town?" she says, smile not breaking around her words. "Need some coffee?"
"Yes ma'am," John answers. "And yes please. We wouldn't turn down some breakfast, either."
"Well, I can help you with that." She withdraws the cloth and replaces it with a mug, stained with use but shining-clean.
"Do you have…" John pauses to switch the baby to the other side, Sammy's grip on his shirt dragging it askew across John's chest. "You got baby change?"
The smile falters a little. "Well sure, but only in the ladies."
John blinks, letting his brow furrow a little; he's been driving straight for four hours and he wants a damn coffee and he's tired, and Sammy's tired, resting his face against John's collarbone and probably damn uncomfortable too, with the smell of the soiled diaper mixing with the sharp chemical-citrus of the heavy duty cleaner the waitress'd been using.
"Aw, heck," she says after a pause, edge of her orange mouth twitching a little, signaling her decision. "It's early enough, nobody else's gonna be around here for at least another half-hour. Go on in."
"'Preciate it," John says, offering a weary smile of his own. "Dean." he reaches out a hand and Dean lifts his head, hefting the baby bag to his shoulder again from where he'd dropped it to rest on the linoleum, reaching to take John's hand.
"I can keep an eye on him if you like," the waitress offers, leaning over the counter to beam down at Dean. "And I've got some fresh pie right here that's just begging for a little boy such as yourself to take a bite of it. What's your name, honey?"
Dean looks from the woman to John, eyes huge without the cover of his bangs. John nods briefly.
"Dean," Dean says, short and matter-of-fact.
"Well come on up here, Dean." She reaches a hand out and down, nails short and functional, painted the same shade as her lipstick. Dean looks at it then clambers up onto a barstool with the agility of a small monkey.
John offers the waitress a conciliatory smile, she rolls her eyes good naturedly in response. John picks up the baby bag. "Dean, you don't move from this spot, okay?"
"Yes, sir." Dean's not even looking at him, rather watching the waitress making the first incision on the steaming-fresh pie she's set on the counter next to him. John glances briefly out the shop-front, scoping the still mostly-empty street and sidewalk outside before heading to the bathroom.
When he reemerges Dean's demolished half a piece already, and there's a second plate with an even more generous slice, fork resting by it, on the counter in front of the stool next to him. The waitress sees John coming, and finishes filling the mug with a stream of aromatic, steaming coffee as he sits, settling a somewhat more perky Sammy on his thigh.
Sam's hands slap idly against the chrome edging of the counter and he makes a wordless sound, demanding attention with his grip on the sleeve of Dean's flannel. John stirs a sugar into his coffee and watches as Dean picks up an errant, squashed cherry from the edge of his plate and feeds it to his brother. Sammy's jaw works and his face scrunches for a moment in reaction to the sudden intense flavor; Dean laughs.
"Well aren't you just the cutest thing," the waitress coos, stroking the backs of her knuckles briefly over Sammy's cheek. John takes a generous swig of his coffee, swallowing fast to minimize the burn, or at least confine it to his throat, then secures one arm around Sammy's waist while he reaches with the other into the baby bag sitting on the stool next to them. It'd be easier to sit in a booth, more maneuverability and more autonomy for Sammy, but food's only half the reason they've come here. Sam makes a noise of approval when John pulls out the baby cup, his hands latching around a handle and John's thumb respectively.
"County's finest," the waitress quips. "You want me to warm it up for you?"
"Please. And a glass cold for Dean. And some oatmeal too, just a small bowl."
He uncaps the lid on the cup when she brings it back, dipping his pinky finger in it briefly to test the temperature before re-covering and guiding it to Sammy's grasping hands. Sam latches onto the shaped lip of it immediately, using both hands to tilt it up and making small, pleased noises.
John takes the opportunity to cut a corner off the slice of pie with the edge of his fork. It's cooled to perfect eating-temperature, the pastry melting on the roof of his mouth, burst of sweet-bitter flavor on his tongue. Beside him, Dean's downing an entire glass of milk in one fell swoop, he and Sammy staring at each other over the rims of their respective cups. John allows his eyes to slip closed for a moment, the smell of coffee and pie and the sounds of eating soothing with the warm-tinted darkness as the muscles around his eyes and forehead finally begin to relax.
There's the click of porcelain against the counter, and he opens his eyes to see a small bowl of steaming oatmeal sitting in front of him, knob of butter bleeding oily yellow out into the white lumpiness around it. The waitress smiles almost apologetically, walks back to where she's re-arranging the pie case.
By the time the oatmeal's stopped steaming, Sammy's set the cup down. John moves it to a less precarious position than the very edge of the counter, and drags the bowl of oatmeal closer.
"Can I, Dad?" Dean's looking up at him expectantly and John nods, happy to watch Dean replicate the here comes the airplane! routine that had always set him off watching Mommy enact, something about Sammy's saucer eyes following the path of the spoon hitting Dean right in the funny bone every time. John takes another swig of coffee.
"Well if I could get my kids to do that, my life'd be a whole lot easier," the waitress says wryly, coming back to where they're sitting, observing the boys. She looks too young to have kids, and John tells her so. "You flatter me, sir," she says, mock-Southern belle, but her lips are quirking. "They're me and my sister's kids, anyhow," she says. "Cousins, a little farther apart in age than these two, I'd say. Though just about as adorable." She picks a napkin up from a stack on the counter, dabs at the oatmeal smeared across Sammy's face. Women all over the Midwest have done just the same, whether unable to resist Sam's baby-face or unable to resist the lure of coddling a baby without a mother present. As if on cue, she says, "and where's your momma, huh? With a face like that, she can't be too far away."
"Momma's in heaven," John says briefly. Dean doesn't even pause, stirring the melted butter into the cooling oatmeal, head down, waiting for Sammy to demand another spoonful.
The waitress makes an exaggerated sound of distress, still cooing in baby talk, as if the entire conversation's taking place between her and Sam. "Oh, baby," she says, then reaches out a hand to stroke through Dean's hair briefly. Dean doesn't look up. "My poor boys."
"Came here for a fresh start," John says.
The waitress nods as if she understands. "Got family here?"
John shakes his head. "No, no family. Just m'boys."
"Of course," she says. "Of course. You got a place to stay yet?"
"Was planning on asking your advice on some motels that won't mind fussy sleepers," he says, resting a gentle hand on Sammy's back. "Not too pricey, mind. Just while we look for a place."
"Of course," she says again. "There's a place on the far edge of town -- reasonable rates at this time of year, and not many other customers to complain about making too much noise. And y'know…" She pauses, striking a pose that seems mostly unconscious; one hand on her hip, the other raised to rest fingers lightly on her chin. "My sister keeps an eye on the kids while I'm here. If you're looking for work, I'm sure she could keep an eye on these two for a couple hours, here and there… I mean look at them, they're angels."
John laughs briefly. "Don't let them fool you," he says. "We've been traveling all night -- just wait until you see them on full energy tanks."
"Bouncing off the walls is still better than tired and cranky," she counters. "I'm Susie, by the way."
John takes the proffered hand and lifts it briefly. "John. And this is Sammy."
"Hullo, Sammy," she says.
"May I please have another slice of pie?" Dean asks.
"For you honey? Anything." Susie sighs almost wistfully, lifting the knife. "Angels," she says.
Dean crashes face-first out on one of the doubles as soon as they get in the motel room, and John settles Sammy on his back on the second, arms splayed out and belly rounded out from a breakfast of milk and oatmeal and cherries. When both are asleep and the room's filled with the soft sound of their breathing, John props the door and cracks the trunk, ferrying in their luggage. It's unwise, letting them nap during the daytime. Or at least, letting Sammy sleep. Dean had stayed awake most of the time John was driving; but after a full night's sleep too much napping was only bound to leave Sam awake and demanding attention -- more often than not lately vocally -- at all hours.
John needs time to settle, though, to scope the vicinity and set up and he needs down time, not tuned into every noise of Sammy's, every movement of Dean's, just letting the gentle susurrus of their sleeping noises provide a reassuring backdrop to his slowing thoughts.
When all the bags are in and the car locked, he sets Mary's father's briefcase on the narrow desk and pulls out a sheaf of papers from within, retrieving his journal from the front pocket and setting it next to them.
The topmost page is a leaf torn from a newspaper, newsprint too-dark and smudged across the soft surface of the paper. First American woman walks in space, the main headline reads, and John folds it away to isolate the minor story on the bottom corner of the page. He pins the page on the wall above the desk.
The photo is small, blurred; a blonde woman in a white blouse holding a rock in front of her belly with both hands. Meteor shower hits rural Iowa, the headline above it says, the subheading: Saved by ghostly premonition, woman claims. The woman's squinting a little, face bleached pale by the bright sunlight, mouth twisted a little into a determined smile. The house behind her only a slightly darker shade with white pickets stabbing up in front of it, huge tarpaulin tied over half the roof, asymmetric.
From the sheaf John withdraws a dog-eared book with a hard cover, corners softened through use. The title on the spine is almost unreadable it’s so struck-through with creases, but it runs through John’s mind nonetheless as he runs his fingers over it, Encyclopaedia of Apparitions, Spirits & Spectres, as if the familiarity is Braille beneath his fingertips.
He slides the Xeroxed papers carefully out from between the yellow leafs of the book and pins them around the newspaper article, gradually expanding out into the generously blank wall.
John opens his journal and uncaps the pen, desk so short his knees crowd against the wall behind it.
Bergson, Iowa, he writes. October 1984.
Sammy wakes first, with a sleepy whimper of discomfort, and John's changing him when Dean wakes.
"You need to use the bathroom, kiddo?" John asks as Dean rubs at the sleep-inertia muddling his features.
"I’m not a baby, Dad," Dean says, and wriggles across the wrinkled coverlet before dropping to his feet on the floor. He leaves the door open a crack, and the yellow light from the windowless bathroom room oozes out into the paler, filtered sunlight of the motel room.
John settles Sammy sitting upright on the bed and goes to rummage in the bags not two steps away. When Dean steps out of the bathroom and sees the comb in John’s hand he pulls a face.
"Either I can do it or you can do it yourself," John says, no give-or-take to his tone, and Dean sighs before walking toward him, turning his back. John sits down on the edge of Sammy’s bed, gentling Dean a couple of backward-steps closer with hands on his shoulders.
The tendons at the back of Dean’s neck are arched, each not wider than one of John’s thumbs. "Head back," he says, and Dean complies without complaint. John combs from front to back, canny now of the degrees of tolerable pressure felt through the cheap plastic as it strokes against Dean’s scalp. More gentle around the ears. Only had to learn that lesson once.
Sammy’s body is light enough that John barely feels the shift in the mattress that precedes the sudden, insistent fingers digging into his waist. He pauses, ready to shift his position, brace Sammy somewhere less precarious than the edge of the bed but Sam seems content with a fistful of John’s shirt, propping his body against John’s side, for the time being not requiring any further attention than the brush and sweep of the inside of John’s arm as he pulls the comb through Dean’s hair. Dean’s body rocks a little, aimless, rolling into the momentum of John’s strokes. It’s a lot easier than it was, this ritual; John has to suppress an automatic dread every time he picks up the comb now, the involuntary memory of a time when it felt like Dean was never as vocal as when he was shrieking, in pain or simple rage at John for dragging the comb through his mess of hair, plastic teeth snarling into the tangles.
"Gotta look sharp, buddy," John says as Dean turns back around, expression solemn and unimpressed. "Gonna make some new friends. Remember Susie? Gave you all that pie?"
"I don’t wanna meet any kids," Dean says, and John blinks. Dean surprises him anew every time, with the speed at which his perceptiveness and intelligence extends forward even day by day. Although it shouldn't be entirely unexpected, with the majority of Dean's interactions playing out in The Daddy and Dean Club.
John reshuffles his approach. "Which toys do you want to take?"
"Susie's nephew's a bit older than you, I bet he has some good toys."
Dean's mouth twitches a little.
"How 'bout we help Sammy pick some toys to take?"
Dean drops his head; angling his gaze up and to the side, watching his brother as if he's refusing to meet John's gaze. "Dad," he says, and his hand creeps to John's knee, fiddling with the comb where it's come to rest in John's loose grasp. "What happened to that lady? On the road?"
John breathes in quick-sharp, but mostly silent. Dean doesn't lift his head, but his hair doesn't hide his eyes anymore; they stay downcast, intent focus shifting between Sam and his own fingers, picking at the teeth of the comb. He's so still, and John's chest hurts from remembering Dean's grin, the way his limbs went loose and ribs shuddered with laughter when John used to seize him up and toss him in the air, Mary's laughter a bell-ringing echo of Dean's own, overwhelming her half-hearted scolding.
John licks his lips. He could touch Dean now, rest a hand on his shoulder, anchor him physically, at least; but his limbs feel ungainly and crude of a sudden, unfit for handling something so fragile, though Sammy's soft warmth at his side feels as familiar as his own skin.
"It wasn't a lady," John says, and his voice doesn't hold enough hesitancy for Dean to pick up on. "It was… Sometimes things happen. And the place they happen… Remembers it."
Dean's still not looking up, but John can see his brows drawn together, jaw tensed.
"The lady we saw on the road -- she wasn't a real lady, not when we saw her. She was just a memory."
Dean lifts his head this time, as if involuntarily, expression distressed enough to send an instinctual pang of alarm up from John's belly to his throat. "But who was remembering her?"
John opens his mouth, and his jaw works soundlessly. It's like he's untangling a knot; pulling at the most obvious strands will tighten it fiercely, he has to pick at threads, look closer. Tug gently. "The road. Just the road was remembering her."
Sammy makes a sound, a "D-duh-duh--" sound and it catches John by surprise like he's been hauled out of boiling water and dunked into ice. The duhs turn more into juhs as the sounds keep plodding out of Sammy's mouth, and John doesn't even realise he's smiling until he looks up from where Sammy's picking at the rivets of John's belt loops to see Dean's own face startle into an uncertain grin, staring up at John with wide eyes.
"C'mon," John says, drawing the comb out from beneath the light pressure of Dean's hand before hooking the arm around Sammy's waist and standing, baby under one arm. He runs his free hand through Dean's freshly-combed hair, finding the soft strands between his fingers before he's even realised he's moved. Dean's body rocks a little at the touch, easing into the movement like it did with the combing, involuntary more than anything else.
"Aren't you gonna comb Sammy's hair?" He sounds more than a little indignant, and John can't help but laugh.
"In the car, buddy," he says. "Now pick some toys, we're running late."
It's a couple minutes past four when he knocks at a weatherboard house, concrete steps leading up from a threadbare lawn to a dark-stained wooden door masked by a security screen. John can't hear any sound from inside until the wooden door cracks open, and then there's the soft mellifluous tones of young children from somewhere further inside. The features of the woman standing in the doorway are obscured partially by the complex metal weave of a security door.
"Hi," John says when she doesn't say anything. "I'm John, and this is Dean and Sammy. I met your sister at the Bergson Diner this morning, she said she'd call ahead…?"
"Right," the woman says, shifting her balance a little but not moving to open the door. John likes her already. "Hello, Dean," she smiles. "Hello, Sammy."
"Susie said that maybe Stephan would have fun playing with Dean this afternoon," John hazards, and that seems to tip the balance; she reaches forward and twists the catch on the screen door, pushing it open a little to allow John entrance.
"Hello, John," she says once John's manoeuvred his way in with arms full of baby and assorted baby necessities. She helps him unload til he's left holding only Sammy. She holds out her hand, he takes it a little awkwardly with his free left hand. "I'm Anne."
"It's a pleasure," John says. "And I can't tell you how grateful I am for keeping an eye on the boys while I…"
Anne swats at the air dismissively. "Susie seemed pretty taken," she says. "And besides, it's only for a couple of hours, right?"
John smiles, hopefully charmingly. "Well, if there's anything I can do in return…"
"I'll be sure to let you know." She smiles back, then turns away and calls, "Ste-phan!" She turns back. "C'mon in."
The boy that looks up from where he's playing on the floor when John walks in can't be more than six. Dean clings to the untucked hem of John's shirt, half-behind him and leaning back to take the path of most resistance when John places a hand between his shoulder blades to urge him forward.
"Stephan, this is John," Anne says, an edge to her tone like she's half-expecting contestation. She leans over the battered, polished-wood bars of a self-constructible playpen and hauls a baby up off a faded yellow blanket, turning back to face John. "And this is Maggie."
Maggie's younger than Sam, her head less steady as she stares around her with wide eyes and open mouth, even tinier fist gripping messy handfuls of Anne's hair, body resting automatically into Anne's shoulder. Sammy stares curiously, loosens his grip on John and shifting his weight to strain forward, giving his sharp attention-cry and succeeding; Maggie's baby blues watching his wriggling with mild alarm.
"Hi, Stephan," John says. "This is Dean, and his little brother Sammy. Dean brought some of his cars too. Why don't you show Stephan, Dean?"
The look Dean gives John is one of sheer desperation, but he walks forward to drop to the floor a little way from Stephan when John's wordless gaze doesn't relent.
"I keep Maggie in the pen when I can't keep both eyes on her," Anne explains, swaying a couple of steps closer as if the babies are magnetised. Her movement's slow and fluid as she jiggles Maggie gently, seemingly unconsciously. "She doesn't seem to mind all that much. It'll be good to have another to keep her from being bored, though." She looks up at John, rolls her eyes a little. "Stephan lost interest long ago."
John just nods. It's this part of parenting that he's never adjusted to, the part where having a baby in your arms admits you to a private language that he's not been able to pick up. Not that he's spent all that much time around other parents, or babies for that matter, in the last 11 months or so. Just John and Sam and Dean and not staying long enough and just a little bit longer, a little bit further. Then…
"I guess I'm lucky with Dean," John says. "They manage to entertain each other all right."
"So Sammy's talking? How old is he -- two, yet?"
"Almost eighteen months," John says. "And not quite. Or at least, not most of the time. I think…" He pauses, looks down at the top of Sam's head; darkening blond. "After his mom died, Dean stopped talking," John says. "He and Sammy had been… well, since then…" He shrugs, and wonders what Susie said to her sister, had said about them that she doesn't act shocked or even comment on the revelation that he's a widower. "I think for a while there Sammy didn't need to talk to communicate, just like Dean didn't."
"Makes sense," Anne says, glancing down at where Dean's clutching his toy cars to his chest, watching with wide eyes as Stephan drives his in gradually expanding sweeps closer and closer, making engine noises through pursed lips. "Though with that line of reasoning Maggie should be talking a mile a minute, herself."
John gives a faint, bemused smile in response to her wryly raised eyebrow.
"You wanna coffee? Cookie? Juice?"
John shakes his head. "I gotta get going," he says. "Seeing a guy about a job just out of town."
"Sure," she says, unfazed. John follows her lead, setting Sammy carefully down within the pen. Sam immediately crawls to where Maggie's sitting, grabbing a brightly-colored rubber teething ring and shoving it in his mouth, still staring.
John crouches by Dean. "Be good for Anne," he says, and Dean rises from where he's kneeling, leaning in close, faces on an even level.
Dean's expression is one of sincere anxiousness. "Dad," he near-whispers, tone earnest and intent. "I don't like it here."
"You need to stay with Sam," John says, and Dean presses his lips together, glancing over to the playpen then back to John.
Dean leans a little closer, and his tone lowers. "She put him in a cage," he says, clearly appalled, and John's brief urge to laugh sickens at Dean's obvious discomfort. "Why can't we come with you?"
"We're not discussing it," John says shortly. "I'll be back in a couple of hours."
He stands, and Dean doesn't speak again. John stops short when he gets to the door, Sam's sudden wail winding up like a tripwire around his ankles, breaking on the first of a series of sobs. John turns, and Anne's right behind him. "I can handle it," she says. "No use going back now. After all, you gotta leave 'em some time."
"Yeah," John says. "Sure." Sammy's cries are like being hit around the head; John can't concentrate, focus. "I'll see you soon."
"See you soon," Anne echoes, and shuts the door behind him, security latch and solid wood, and the sound cuts off immediately.
He recognises the house despite the missing tarpaulin; color-solid shingles mar the otherwise faded, water-washed grey of the roof. The colors of the scene only get a little more vivid when he opens the car door and looks at it without the filter of glass, but still mostly black and white with the faded grass and bright white fence.
The woman who opens the door is wearing an oversized sweatshirt, bleached jeans and canvas shoes. Her hair is evenly parted, solid in its yellow waves, neater than it was in the photograph. A silver cross glitters on a long chain over the faded fabric of her sweater.
John smiles. "Hi," he says. "I'm John Wilson, I uh…" he holds out his hand and she shakes it briefly, looking a little puzzled, but with no animosity.
"Janey," she says. "Janey Taylor."
"It's nice to finally meet you, Miss Taylor," John says, maintaining the polite, enthused smile. "I saw the article about you in the newspaper."
"Oh," she says. "I see." She withdraws a little, the soft, expectant lines of her face hardening a little. "If you're wanting to look at the meteor, the university took it."
"No," John says. "No, I'm from… I--Well." He laughs a little, scratching fingers briefly at the back of his skull. "I'm not here on business, actually, though I am passing through. I thought you might…" He drops his head, shakes it a little. Shifts his feet, as if turning to go away. "It's silly, really, I probably shouldn't have--"
"Wait," she says, laying a hand briefly on his forearm, as if to still him if not to hold him; she pulls it away again almost immediately. "Do you… are you…?"
"It's my wife, y'see," he says, still not looking up at her but half-turned in her direction again. "She's been gone now for more'n… heck, more'n three years now. When I read about what happened to you, I thought maybe…"
"Come on in," Janey says. "You just come on in now, I'll make you a nice cup of coffee."
The inside of the house is neater than he expected from the look of the outside, or not neater but more solid - everything’s squared away but not coldly so; it's homely and well kept.
"I don’t like to sit people in the living room 'til the ceiling's been mended," she says, half-apologetic and half just matter of fact. She leads him into the kitchen, smallish but not unfriendly, polished linoleum the color of avocado flesh, benches a buttery yellow. She sits him at the table, measures out spoonfuls of instant coffee into a pair of matching mugs. The table’s surface has metallic chips in it, glittering when John moves, holds the mug in both hands.
Janey reaches over, resting a hand lightly on John’s forearm, then rubbing a little back and forth when he drops his chin down to stare at the surface of the table.
"Has it been hard for you?" she asks gently. "Since your wife’s passing?"
John nods wordlessly.
"Nearly killed me when my momma died," she says. "We were so close in age and all… She had me when she was so young, y’see, we were more like best friends than mother’n daughter." She sniffs a little, curling her other hand around her mug. "Then one morning… She was just gone. Died in this very house, in her sleep."
She’s rubbing at John’s arm again, and he watches her face with a sidewards gaze, cast up part-through his lashes.
"They said it was a heart attack, that it just stopped and she died peaceful and dreaming. But I didn’t need them to tell me that. I saw her face that morning. I knew she was sleepin' with the angels." She gives an intent smile. "Straight to heaven, mark my words."
She falls silent and it stretches out almost uncomfortably, but John’s not about to offer any more information himself, staring instead at where his thumbnail’s scratching at the mug’s enamel.
Her hand twitches with a hint of hesitation on his arm, and he says, "I've just… been looking for so long." His voice is rough-edged, like thick sheets of tearing cardboard, and that startles him almost as much as the unintended words. Janey's grip is firm on his forearm. "You saw her," he says, voice clearer this time, meeting her eyes and holding them. "You saw your momma?"
Janey nods. "Right there in my living room," she says in hushed tones. "And I just know it, I do. The Lord sent her back to me, to warn me. It wasn't my time yet."
"Where?" John asks, and Janey stands, taking his hand and drawing him into the next room.
The tones of the living room are warmer than the pastels of the kitchen; solid brown glow of polished wood and well-worn upholstery. Janey lets go of John's hand, moves to where the furniture's been pushed aside, crowding against the walls.
"She was standing right here," Janey says, standing on a cleared patch of floor. "And I was sitting over there, in the recliner by the fire." She gestures to the corner beyond John; he doesn't turn to look. "And she points, she points right up like this, and I hear her say, That's where it came in, right through the roof."
She stands with her arm upraised for a moment longer, and John gets the impression that he isn't the first to witness this re-enactment; Janey's tone is reverent, measured, almost like she's reciting a prayer instead of an anecdote.
"So I go to call the preacher, Reverend Schumann, and next thing I know there's an almighty crash, and I come in here and there's dust everywhere -- from the plaster in the ceiling, y'see -- and the fireplace is all smoke and blackened. And the recliner," she lowers her voice, as if for effect. "Is burning, ruined."
John blinks. "You're sure it was your momma."
She nods fiercely. "Surer than I've ever been of anything, I swear on her very grave. It was her. She looked even better than last time I saw her, young and happy, like she was glowing, pointing up at the spot in the ceiling, turning around to smile at me. She saw me, she knew I was sitting right there. It was her."
John steps forward, moving carefully around the skewed furniture, and Janey shifts aside so he can stand in her place. When he looks up, it's just a hole in the ceiling, torn edges of white plaster and plastic blue of the makeshift seal closing it off from the roof cavity, insulation bulging behind it.
"I almost don't want to get it closed up," Janey whispers, breath warm against the side of his jaw as she stands beside him, stares up with him. "Y'know?"
It's dark when he pulls up outside Susie and Anne's house, sun setting earlier and earlier as autumn cascades onward. Anne opens the door and her face is softer this time, her expression easier, more relaxed. He follows her into the kitchen. Dean's sitting at the table opposite Stephan, empty plates and the remains of a meal scattered over the table.
"You didn't have to feed them," John says to Anne, who's leaning against the sink.
Dean looks up from his intent, rapid propelling of toy cars across the table at the sound of John's voice. "Daddy," he says, blurting it like it's involuntary, and his body jerks a little as if moving instinctually. John smiles, steps toward him, rests a hand on the back of Dean's neck.
"Any luck?" Anne asks.
John shakes his head. "Turns out the info I got was dud, job already taken," he said. "Had a look around, though, stopped by the realtor's."
"Better luck next time," Anne says, giving a sympathetic smile.
"Where's Sammy?" John asks Dean; the kitchen holds only the four of them, high chair spattered in the remains of trademark toddler table manners.
"He's sleeping," Dean says. "In Maggie's room." He boosts himself off the chair, ignoring Stephan's indignant cry and the clattering of cheap metal as a car drops from the table to the floor. "I'll show you."
The house is only small; Dean leads him through the living room to a door on the far side that's open only a crack. He stops just before he gets to it, turns back to John with eyes wide and intent, lifts a finger to his lips. John gives a brief nod of acknowledgement, and Dean pushes the door open gently.
It's lit softly by a moon-shaped night lamp sitting atop a tall chest of drawers, and Susie's limned by the glow of it through the frizz of her hair. Facing away, her body's canted back a little, moving slowly, rhythmically; she's murmuring softly. She turns her head as the door hinges give a faint squeak, then the rest of her body; smiles when she sees John. Maggie's sleeping in Susie's arms, pillowed against her chest, expression liquid in abandonment, body curled like a loose fist.
"Hey," Susie whispers. "How'd you go?"
"Good," John murmurs automatically, and his voice reverberates through the dense particles of light in the room like the soft sound of baby-breathing doesn't. Then he's distracted; there's a low, hand-made wooden cot in the corner of the small room, Dean already standing by it. Sammy's small body's splayed loosely in sleep, open and vulnerable on his back though he stirs as soon as John rests a hand over his chest, even rhythm of his breath interrupted as his eyes drag open.
"Duh," he says when he sees them, voice a little congested by sleep. "Duh-duh."
"Are we going home?" Dean asks John in a soft, hopeful voice, hand automatically creeping to his brother's so Sammy can wrap his fingers around Dean's thumb.
"Yeah Dean," John says, and it comes out on a sigh, as if there's no space in his throat to give it proper voice. "We will."
Anne sees them to the door. Outside the evening sounds like feedback, the crackle of insects and the buzz of the powerlines.
"Stephan has school on Monday," Anne says. "If you want to bring Dean around early I can take him into preschool when I drop Stephan off." Dean’s grip on John’s hand tightens a little and Anne shrugs, leaning into the doorframe. "I just figured, new town and all…"
"That’d be great," John says, and he’d be lying to himself if he didn’t admit he was a little overwhelmed. "And thanks… thank you, for all your help."
Anne grins, an edge of mischievousness to it. "Well don’t thank me, thank Sue," she says. "She has a habit of picking up strays. Hell, look at me." She raises an eyebrow and John answers with a short grin of his own, as if he’s just been let in on a joke he's not quite sure he gets the punchline to.
"Dad?" Dean says when they’re driving back to the hotel, and the look of intent inquisitiveness on his face in the rear-view makes John’s hands tighten on the wheel, in dread of the kind of question that expression inevitably heralds.
"What’s wrong with Susie’s hair?"
John’s huff of laughter is part-amusement, part-relief. "There’s nothing wrong with it, Dean. It’s called a perm."
"It looks weird."
"Yeah," John can’t help his grin. "I know." He glances from the mirror to the road and back, watching Dean idly pushing his toy car up and down the short lengths of Sammy’s arms, across his head, down his tummy.
"Are we really going to live here?" Dean’s tone is hesitant, like he’s not sure if he even wants to hear John’s answer.
John holds his breath as they pull into the motel parking lot, then heaves out a sigh that’s alarmingly loud in the silence after he’s cut off the engine. He turns, hooks his elbow over the back of the seat. Sammy immediately reaches for him, but Dean’s face is still solemn, expectant.
John wants to lie to him. "For now we are," he says, and reaches his hand out to let Sammy grip his fingers. "You wanna go to school on Monday?"
"Yeah," Dean says shortly.
Not satisfied with only John’s fingers, Sammy slaps erratically at Dean’s thigh. "Car," he says clearly. "Car."
Dean’s face brightens. "You want the car, Sammy? This car?" He lifts to toy in his hand, waggles it.
"Car," Sam says again, grasping for it until Dean gives over.
Sammy makes an odd, closed-mouth noise that seems to involve a lot of spittle, and John realises that they’re engine noises. Sam sweeps the car through the air then lifts it up, reaching; Dean lowers his head obligingly and Sam reciprocates, wheeling the car with surprising gentleness through Dean’s hair, over his face.
"Think Sammy’ll miss you when you go to school?" John says softly, needing to break the tight-clenched silence in his throat, voice a little rough.
"Maybe." Dean seems to be considering it. "You’re pretty good at keeping him company too."
John laughs softly. "Yeah," he says. "I guess so."
Dean's irritable the next morning, and John feels a touch affronted that he's bearing the brunt of Dean's resentment when it was Sammy who'd woken first, couple hours before dawn. Too many naps for Sam, and nights too late for Dean, who glowers out of the window in the back seat while John peers blearily in the early morning light, cruising the town's streets slowly until the number of other cars on the road increases from none to several. One pulls out of a suburban driveway ahead of him, and he slows to give way to it, following a couple of car-lengths behind, turning into a gravelled parking lot adjacent to a white-painted church.
At least Dean's silent in his petulance, though the way his clothes sit speak volumes of his discomfort; jacket tight across his shoulders, too-short hems on shirt and trousers exposing indignant knobs of wrist and ankle respectively. It's beyond time for Goodwill all right, but it's also testament to how long it's been since Dean's been inside a church, for a service at least.
John hefts Sammy to sit in the crook of his arm, resting against John’s chest, Sammy's back straight and head swivelling, more alert than the rest of them. The pull of John's own jacket and the scrape of crisp cotton against his skin as he slams the back door make him grimace in turn. He lays a hand on Dean's shoulder to guide him ahead of them; Dean tenses but doesn't shrug him off and John tightens his grip, the touch less an apology now and more a reiteration that John's not about to relent, they're doing this, now, Dean.
The light in the church makes the Sunday morning light outside look washed-out; simple, solid colors of the stained glass windows not distorting the natural colors inside but saturating them, making the air seem syrupy, oozing down from above into the narrow rows of pews. John sets Sammy down when they're a few steps inside; he immediately takes off at an awkward run down the aisle. Dean keeps pace a half-step behind John, still not talking until John stops by a row of pews mid-way toward the pulpit and Dean says, "Sam," a succinct call that has Sammy turning his head, but not halting his determined progress. It's only a couple of long strides for John to get to him, wrap hands around Sammy's waist and lift him upward again, side-stepping into a row of pews and settling Sammy on his knee before he can start to complain about the sudden loss of freedom.
Dean sits down next to them, producing a toy from his pocket that he waves enticingly in front of Sammy's face. Sammy grabs it with both hands, shoves it in his mouth. It's a plastic robot, cheaply cast; Dean probably got it out of a cereal box but it's not so small that Sammy's in danger of choking on it.
The church fills from the front backward, the crowd petering off before it gets to them, several empty rows between the last of the parishioners and the Winchesters.
To his credit, Dean lasts to the end of the service with minimal fidgeting, though it's the last few minutes that are the worst, with John insisting on them remaining seated until most everyone else has up and left already. Sammy starts to fuss more constantly than the occasional blurt he'd offered during the sermon, whether anxious at or interested in the sudden surge of movement that they're not a part of.
Dean looks up expectantly when John finally stands; John nods once and Dean's up and out the door. John can see him through the propped-open doors of the church, twisting and dodging around the legs of the loitering crowd, careening at full speed across the lawn and back. John sets Sam down again and their progress is somewhat slower, though not for lack of trying; several times before they even make it outside Sammy's enthusiasm to follow his brother outweighs his coordination and the only thing keeping him from hitting the floor face first is John's hand enclosing his own, lifting upward at every stumble.
He’d been sure they were sitting the furthest back, but when John glances up from watching Sammy's progress a figure catches in the corner of his vision. Turning his head, he sees a man sitting in the last row of pews to their left, and John can’t figure why he didn’t see him before; he’s stark in the bright, molasses light, not hidden in shadow or corner. He’s old, thin hair grey and unruly, facial hair unkempt, unshaven. John can see the man’s hands shaking as he lifts them slowly, rubs them over his face, and John realises he’s weeping soundlessly in the acoustic cavern of the church.
John turns away quickly, not looking back during the last few yards to the door, and then they’re stepping out into the white-washed churchyard, light a little warmer than it was earlier, this much closer to noon. John sights Dean, chasing a gaggle of children across the verdant lawn, and picks Sammy up to descend the shallow stone staircase.
The Reverend is waiting at the bottom, farewelling a pair of parishioners and looking up to smile at John and Sammy as they reach the midway point. He parts his clasped hands as they get to the foot of the stairs, offers the right to John.
"You must be new in town," he says as John returns his firm handshake. "It’s good to see fresh faces. I'm Reverend Schumann."
"John Wilson. This is my son, Samuel, and that’s Dean leading the pack there." John gestures to the gradually dwindling group of children to whom Dean seems to be giving orders, all orneriness of the morning apparently done away with.
"It’s a pleasure to meet you, John," says the Reverend. "And Samuel. Welcome to Bergson. Is this the whole family?"
"Yes," John says. "My wife, uh, passed some time ago, when Sam was born."
"I'm so sorry for your loss," the Reverend says. "If there’s anything the church can offer, I urge you to come to us in your time of need. The community here in Bergson is quite remarkable, I'm confident you’ll find the peace you need here."
John blinks, smiles. "Thank you," he says. "I'm finding out that Bergson is pretty miraculous place just in the couple days we’ve been here."
Reverend Schumann's smile quirks a little, brows furrowing in confusion and question.
"It’s just, uh… well. More’n one person’s mentioned these… divine apparitions that've been happening."
The Reverend’s silent for a moment longer, expression shifting briefly through understanding and a flicker of amusement before he speaks again. "Ah. Well, the near misses of Janey Taylor and the Gundersons are nothing short of remarkable. I'll be one of the first to admit that it wasn't time for these people to leave their loved ones, but I’d not hasten to assign the attendance of a divine being to the cause of their survival."
"But Janey Taylor didn't see an angel," John says. "I heard she saw her mother. Do you--"
"Mrs. Taylor has long since left this realm," the Reverend says. "The human mind does strange things in times of stress."
"And the Gundersons--?"
"Bergson is a lovely town, Mr Wilson," the Reverend says, smiling at John and breaking eye contact to chuck Sam under the chin. Sam turns his face into John’s shirt. "But, as with all things, not without reason. The people here… They believe what they have to. Sometimes that’s the only option." He looks back up at John. "Will I see you and the boys next Sunday, John?"
Dean arrives at John’s side, flushed and out of breath. John reaches out without even looking, his hand finding the back of Dean’s neck, stiff collar sweat-dampened and awry. "Yeah," John says. "We’ll see you then."
There’s a phone booth on the corner of the east end of main street, John pulls into the curb and leaves the car idling as he quickly jogs to it. The phone book’s thin, Bergson County, and there are three listings for Gunderson, one within the town and two without. He tears the page out, folds it surreptitiously and slips it in his jacket pocket.
Dean’s still buckled into the front seat, turning away from the window when John opens the door again.
"Sam's hungry, Dad," Dean says, matter-of-fact, and John raises an eyebrow. Sam's strapped into the baby carrier in the back, fiddling with his own toes and making occasional bursts of sound that border on language, a "Ji!" or "Da!" at odd intervals. John ducks his head a little, peers through Dean’s window. Bergson Diner is full, booths crammed with families still in their Sunday best, checkerboard floor complicated by rarely-worn, patent polished shoes.
"Well, does Sam feel like some crackers? Maybe with peanut butter?"
Dean’s mouth twists into a half frown. "I'm sure if he got a cheeseburger he could share it with me," he suggests guilelessly.
John doesn’t look at Dean as he pulls onto the road again, away from the diner. "Not today, buddy," he says. "Maybe for supper tomorrow. There’re crackers in Sammy's bag on the floor there."
"But why can’t--"
"Because we need to buy diapers, okay?" John's hands tighten on the wheel; from the corner of his eye he sees Dean's shoulders round a little, head dip. He grits his teeth, swallowing down the comforts and apologies -- lies -- that want to push up out of his chest.
By the time they get back to the motel Sammy needs changing again, and then feeding -- heating up the last of the milk stashed in the mini-bar on the little camp stove. John slathers peanut butter onto crackers; Dean presses them together til the PB worms out of the holes. The two that John eats leave his mouth feeling gritty, sour with a still-hungry flavour. While Dean eats and Sam drinks John empties suitcases onto one of the beds, sorting through clothes, pulling out and carefully folding those neither boy have any hope of fitting into again. There’s another garbage bag quarter-full of them in the trunk, and no use saving hand-me-downs; by the time Sammy's Dean’s age they’ll be somewhere with plenty of room for clothes, and money enough to buy them new.
John brushes the crumbs off Dean’s shirtfront, and Dean seems to sense his mood well enough that he doesn’t ask if he can change out of his Sunday gear already.
Dean plays with Sam on the sidewalk while John scrubs spots of spilled food and grubby fingerprints on the baby carrier. When it’s clean as he can get it he deposits a squirming Sammy into it, letting Dean scramble in on the other side to fix up the straps, buckle Sam in. Sam’s got the robot toy again, and it clatters arrhythmically as he hits it against the edge on the carrier over and over. Dean just watches.
"Hey," John says when he pulls the car up outside the Goodwill store, watching them in the rear vision mirror for a long moment. When the silence drags out, Dean glances up to meet John's gaze. Sammy thumps the robot ineffectually against Dean's shoulder. "Hey," John says again, and swallows. "You stay in the car with Sammy, okay? I'll be… I'll be back in a minute. You just stay here."
Dean blinks, sombre expression not shifting. "Yes, sir."
The inside of the store smells stale and dusty, the bundle in John's arms is soft-cornered; garbage bag wrapped around neatly folded clothes. The hinges on the glass-panelled door creak as it latches closed behind him, and the woman at the counter looks up over her glasses.
Her hair's stained an unnatural nicotine-orange, fingernails painted in thick flesh tones. The glasses are huge, square, solid and smooth-edged amidst the soft wrinkles of her face.
"Ma'am," John says, and walks to the counter. Setting the bag down, he takes a breath. "I have an… a favour to ask."
Her eyebrows raise slightly, and the edge of her mouth. She sets the paperback she was reading down, laces her hands together idly on the counter.
"My name's John Wilson. I'm… We're new in town, haven't quite settled in yet. Still looking for work. But my boys, they… My baby boys. They grow so fast, and…" He ducks his head, pushes the bundle of clothes a little forward on the counter, not meeting her eye. "I've got a pile of clothes here, all in good condition. Just too small for 'em, now."
He presses his lips between his teeth, and the silence stretches out a little longer as his voice works up in his throat, figuring how to proceed.
"So you're looking to trade some clothes for others?" the woman says. Her voice is cigarette-rough as well, but still sweet. She's already pulling the bag a little closer to her, parting it open to peek inside.
"Or give them over in good faith, until I can… pay for the new ones. With interest, if required."
Her hand stills palm-flat on the stack of exposed, folded clothes. "How old are your boys?" she says, mouth still soft in that half-smile, eyes enlarged when she pushes the glasses up her nose.
"Five," John says. "And seventeen months. They're out in the car now."
Her smile opens out into a soft laugh. "Well, bring 'em on in here," she says. "You at least want to get them clothes that fit, don't you?"
John takes a deep breath that takes him by surprise, like his lungs have just opened up a whole other chamber. "Thank you," he says, and she shrugs, though still smiling; already looking away from him to lift the clothes from the bag.
Dean changes out of his Sunday gear there in the shop, any modesty around strangers overcome by the need to end his discomfort. The shop assistant takes to him right away anyway, holding up shirts and trousers like she's his own personal shopping assistant. John sifts through the baskets of baby clothes, most of them in good condition, barely used, Sammy squirming under one arm. When he returns to the counter Dean's standing there in elastic-waisted jeans and a Grateful Dead tee-shirt, only a little oversized. John winces a little.
"Sorry," he says, looking from the faded print of a skeleton tipping its Uncle Sam hat on Dean's chest to the woman.
She smiles, hands Dean a sandwich. "No need to apologise for taking it off my hands," she says. "It was my grandson's, actually."
John winces a little internally at the eagerness with which Dean takes the sandwich, crams it into his mouth. The plate it'd sat on is on the counter in front of him; behind the woman a curtain partly masks a doorway through to a small, compact kitchen. He raises his eyebrows, expressing interest.
"My son brought it back for him from one of those tours," she continues. "And my first thought was, whose idea was it to make them in kid sizes anyway?"
John joins her brief laughter, otherwise leaving the silence open for her.
"Anyway, my daughter-in-law brought in a whole bunch of stuff after… After my boy came back to live with me." She shakes her head, tucking Dean's tag in idly. Dean turns to look at her with wide eyes, mouth still stuffed-full, like a squirrel hoarding for winter. "She got rid of a lot of things that week."
"I sold a lot, after my wife died," John says, offers a wry smile. "Not as much time to work for a living when you've got an infant on your hands." Dean's wide eyes shift to him and John smiles, the softness of it instinctual. Dean swallows, and the woman immediately presses a mug into his hands.
"What do you do, John?" she asks. "When you're not caring for your babies." She tweaks Sammy's nose and Sam blinks widely, as if unsure what's just happened.
"Mechanic," John said. "Which is good for picking up odd jobs here and there, not so much for affording a 'sitter."
"You need yourself a wife," the woman says, and beams widely.
Sammy squirms a little, making an irritable sound at John's abruptly tightened grip. John smiles politely, smooths an apologetic hand over Sammy's back.
"You know, my son has an old Ford Pinto that won't start up for him any more," she says, her tone musing. "And he doesn't have a technical bone in his body."
"Won't start up?" John queries.
She nods. "Yeah, not since that real cold morning back last month." She narrows her eyes, looks up at him. "You know, when the first frost came down, and everyone was asking what happened to autumn."
John nods wordlessly. She stands up from her stool abruptly, steps back to pull a rickety drawer out from the bench. Withdrawing a pen and scrap of paper, she scribbles for a moment then hands it over to him.
Eric Gunderson, it says. 37 Plinkton St.
"You tell him his momma sent you over," she says, "Abby." And smiles, offering her hand. John lifts it briefly. "He works during the week but should be home all Sunday," she says.
"Thank you, ma'am," John says. "Mrs. Gunderson."
"Oh, please," she laughs. "Call me Abby. Mrs. Gunderson still reminds me too much of my mother-in-law."
"Gunderson," John says thoughtfully. "There's more than one Gunderson in town. Old family?"
"The oldest," she says proudly. "Haven't been any Bergsons in town for a hundred years since."
"Town doesn't seem that old."
"Oh, it is." She looks down at Dean again. He's picking through the cassette tapes in the shoebox on the shelf below the counter. John's not even sure he can read the scribbled titles. "Just that there aren't any old buildings left over. Why, even the council building's not more than thirty years old."
John cocks his head, encouraging. Abby holds out her arms, John obligingly hands over Sammy, who squirms a little, but ultimately approves of his new position on her knee, from the way he grips the edge of the bench and attempts to use it to pull him that much closer to Dean.
"There was a fire, closer to the turn of the century," she says. "Before the war. Destroyed most everything in the town." She meets John's gaze, quirks on eyebrow again. "Course, Gundersons got land just outside of town," she says. "Barely touched them."
John nods, and Abby nods along with him. Sammy mouths at a cassette tape.
"You got a car seat for him?" Abby asks, casting a critical eye over the empty baby carrier John had brought Sam into the store in.
"Well," she says. "We can fix that." She leans in closer to Sammy, pushing her face right up to his. "Can't we, baby?"
The house at 37 Plinkton Street is painted a pale peach color, weatherboards like slatted flesh covering two stories, white-framed windows gazing out blankly, curtainless. Eric Gunderson is shorter than John, rounder, his lank hair and bordering-on-unkempt beard holding the same dull copper gleam in the sunlight when they stand in the drive; John leaning under the open hood of the Pinto.
"Never caused me any trouble before now," Eric says. "And I had her for about a year, maybe." His face twists a little. "Got her when my wife kicked me out. Still needed a way to get to work, y'know? As much as she needs one to take the kids to school." He pauses, shakes his head. "What the hell's wrong with the goddamn school bus?"
There's a shrill sound from behind them and John looks up, peering back over his shoulder, waiting for the wails to start; but apparently Sammy makes the same sounds if he's pissed off or excited: a high-pitched shriek that sets John's heart pounding every time.
Eric takes a couple of steps away from John, toward the Chevy. John straightens. He can see the vague outline of Dean through the reflection of the house on the glass; the front windows are the only ones open, letting the sound of the boys' wordless conversation out and into the air. Eric steps closer, taps on the glass. John stiffens, the chattering stops.
Eric looks back over his shoulder. "They yours?" he asks.
What the hell kinda question is that? "Yeah."
"How old is he?"
John frowns, takes a step away from the Pinto. "Dean's five," he says.
Eric looks into the window for another long moment; John can barely tell where Dean is because he's so still, eyes and solemn mouth only vague features amongst the distorted lines of house and sky. Eric turns back to John, walks idly back toward him. "Same age as my boy, when he…" He drops his head, shakes it. "Fuck it. It was an accident, you know? Katie didn't think so, though. Thought it was my fault."
John remains still, silent.
Eric lifts his hands from his sides, gives a brief open-armed shrug. "Didn't matter in the end, though. Hell, look at where I am now. Even gets to feeling like maybe I never left in the first place." He frowns, drops his hands, looks under the hood of the Pinto. "You find out what's wrong with her?"
"Yeah," John says. "Take a few hours to fix. Can be back tomorrow morning, done by lunchtime."
"Shit," Eric says, grinning. "And the garage told me it'd take weeks to get a part in."
John shakes his head. "No new parts," he says. "Just some adjustments, some cleaning out."
"How much you asking?"
"Abby's already settled it with me." New clothes for Dean and Sammy, new car seat, new toys. Full tank of gas.
"Nothing quite like living with your mom," Eric grins. "Supposedly I'm here to care for her, hey?"
John offers a polite smile, wipes his hands on the sides of his thighs, drops the hood shut. "I can use the garage?"
"Yeah," Eric says. "I leave for work at eight, if you're not here before then I'll just leave it open." He rolls his eyes. "Hell, this is Bergson, no security risks here."
John goes back to the Chevy, slides in the driver's side. It smells like the crisp leaf-rot of autumn, like hand-me-down clothes and like Sammy's diaper needs changing.
"Hey," Eric calls as John's hand reaches for the ignition. "You take care of those kids, okay?"
John nods shortly, glancing automatically over his shoulder into the back seat. Dean's staring out the window at the house, Sammy's staring right back at John. "Okay," John says.
Eric's mouth quirks in a vague smile, brow still drawn down, though whether due to the bright sunlight or something else entirely, John can't tell.
It takes a little longer than he expected to fix up the Pinto, but not so much that he's late in picking Dean up from school. He has time enough to extricate Sammy from the new car seat and lean up against the side of the car before the bell even rings; and then Dean's pelting out across the small school's front yard toward the car. The clothes are new, but John would recognise that determined stride anywhere. Sam's legs kick in midair as he sees Dean approach, and when Dean gets to them he grabs Sammy's ankle, waving it extravagantly and cooing.
They have to wait a little longer for Stephan to emerge, and it speaks volumes of Dean's attitude toward the boy that he doesn't make a peep about Stephan riding shotgun while Dean himself sits in the backseat alongside Sammy.
Susie smiles widely, swinging Stephan up into an enthusiastic embrace when they ring on into the Diner shortly afterward.
"Eric Gunderson?" Anne says when they're all sitting loosely around a couple of pushed-together tables, after the after-school rush of high school kids drinking milkshakes has died down. Dean's still doggedly cramming his cheeseburger into his mouth; John picks idly at the generous pile of french fries. "I went to school with him."
"Terrible, what happened to his boy," Susie says, standing for a moment longer to undo the knots of her apron behind her back before drawing up a chair between Maggie's high chair and where Anne lounges comfortably.
Anne nods sombrely. "I feel sorry for his wife," she says.
"She still live out of town?" John asks idly.
Anne nods again. "Out on her own. Or at least, with her other kids. She was pregnant, then. And there was the other boy, Hugo. The twin."
"Used to be just the one big Gunderson homestead," Susie says. "But when Philo was killed… Well. Katie Gunderson moved on out, found her own place for her and her kids, still out of town, though. Old Abigail Gunderson lived in town already--"
"Closer to the church." Anne rolls her eyes a little.
"--And the doctor," Susie completes a little reproachfully. "And the old house is left all empty." She pauses for a moment, thoughtfully. "Of course, they can't knock it down."
"They should," Anne says, giving John a co-conspiratorial glance over the edge of her coffee cup. "Don't know why they leave it standing, after all that's happened there."
"Hush, now," Susie says, not looking at Anne but prodding a spoonful of mush at Maggie's mouth. "It's local history, they can't knock it down. It's older than most everything else round here."
"Doesn't mean it should still be standing," Anne says.
"So no one's living there now?" John asks.
"Not for at least a year," Susie says. "Since the accident." Maggie finally succumbs, opening her mouth and smacking her lips, all gums and dribble, around the pureed apple. "They should just hurry up and sell the place already."
"To who?" Anne says, tone bordering on scoffing. "More Gundersons?"
"There are no more Gundersons," Susie replies.
Susie looks from Maggie to Anne for a moment, mouth quirking. "Guess they in-bred themselves out of existence."
John wakes abruptly, and it's moments too long before he even realises what woke him. The hotel room's dark until he rolls over, and then he can see Dean's eyes and pale face gleaming in the grainy, low light.
"Daddy," Dean says again, voice only a little louder than a whisper, and John lifts a sleep-numbed hand to rub across his eyes, pinch the bridge of his nose.
"What is it, Dean?" John's voice is rough, raw-edged. Dean's left his and Sammy's bed to stand right by John's. The darkness obscures most of him, but John can almost feel the tension radiating from Dean's body.
"Baby's crying," Dean says, and then John hears it. The desperate, almost inhuman cries of a baby not more than a few months old, coming from somewhere in the motel. John frowns, swallows hard; the very sound of it making something rise in his throat, make his own limbs lock in tension. The sound's so clear, no noise from the road to the east of the motel, no insect or power-line buzzing. Just the persistent, desperate wails.
John sits up, reaches out. Dean's shaking. "Hey," John says, "hey." He lifts his other hand to rest on Dean's other shoulder and discovers warm-soft baby hair; Dean's got Sammy clutched in his arms, still fast asleep. John's arms find Dean's shoulders, follow the line of his arms downward. The muscles of his forearms are stiff, wound tight around Sammy's back. John rubs them a little. "Hey, it's okay," he says. "It's just a baby. Baby's just hungry."
The crying gets inexplicably louder, then, and John's skin crawls in response. The baby had sounded distant before; now it sounds like it's in the next room. The raw-edge of the cries gets rawer, squawking-wails scraping like the edge of a blunt blade over the skin on the back of John's neck.
"Daddy," Dean whimpers, and John doesn't think, just leans a little further downward, urging Dean forward. Dean clambers into the bed, still holding fierce onto Sammy with one arm, steadying himself with the other. John grunts a little at sustaining the weight of both his sons until Dean gets his balance, then they're both lying back on the bed. Dean's toes are cold where they dig in above John's knees; Dean's face damp and breath quick against John's neck. John can feel the upraised bumps of Dean's spine when he strokes his hand soothingly over Dean's back. Sam stirs briefly, not even fully waking before settling again between them. The baby's still crying.
"It's okay," John murmurs, and the covers are crawlingly hot over his body; he has to work to keep his hand gentle, to stay prone instead of busting out of the door. The single-action revolver's in his suitcase by the desk; it's been nearly six months since he's slept with it under his pillow but his fingers itch for it, now. The baby's cries get louder, coming from right outside the window John's bed's set under. Dean doesn't resist as John's grip tightens, pulls him closer. Sammy's body is warm and lax between them; impossibly, John can hear the soft sound of him breathing even through the cries.
John pulls the blankets higher. His heart's racing, enough to match the rapid rhythm of Dean's panting breath, threatening to break on sobs each time. It's a warmer darkness under the blankets, but the sound of the baby seems to quieten a little, the edge of its cries a little less sharp. It smells like sleepy Sammy, like sleepy John. "It's okay, Dean," John says again. "It's okay." He pets Dean's hair awkwardly, and Dean's trembling's already subsiding. "Nothing bad is going to happen. Not while I'm here."
The crying sounds like it's coming from across the parking lot, now, and Dean's fallen asleep before it cuts off entirely. John lies awake until sunrise glows tentatively through the layers of blankets, listening to them breathe.
"Abby Gunderson tells me you got some mechanical skills," the desk clerk says the next day, when he goes in to hand back the keys to the laundry room.
"I got a van out back, usually use it to do supply runs from Des Moines. Been playing up a bit lately. Think you could take a look at it?"
"And if it's something I can fix?"
She looks him up and down briefly, taking another drag of her cigarette. "I'll knock a night or two off your bill, depending." She puffs out an opaque cloud of smoke. John swaps Sammy to his other shoulder, closer to the door. "Business hasn't been that great, over the past year or so. Times being as they are, I can't afford a garage charging just to tell me what's wrong with it."
John nods, slowly. Sam's hand's hot and slightly clammy on the back of his neck. "I can take a look at it now," he says.
The van doesn't need more than an hour-or-so of work, and the kit he keeps in the trunk of the Chevy has tools enough to deal with it.
The back yard's only small, enclosed, with the grass in need of mowing but only so much that Sammy's thigh-high in it, disappearing momentarily when he stumbles in his still mostly-uncoordinated running gait, falling face first before popping up again, looking more surprised than pained. Sammy startles a little when John finally drops the hood of the van again, then pushes himself to a standing position again and shrieks in delight as John chases him the limited number of steps it takes for him to lose his footing again.
"Are ya hungry, Sammy?" John says, holding Sam up high so he's looking down to John's face, his tiny fists waving well out of range. "Well are ya? Are ya hungry?"
There's a rough cough from behind them and John drops his arms immediately to hold Sammy against his chest, turns. The desk clerk's standing by the van, looking mildly amused, a cigarette still smoking between the fingers of her upraised hand. John clears his throat, ducking his head briefly. Sam laughs loudly, pounds his fist against John's shoulder, then his chin.
"If you're hungry, I got some leftover casserole in my refrigerator," the desk clerk says wryly. "Wouldn't want that baby boy to run outta steam, there."
"Oh," John says and Sammy continues to complain at the sudden cessation of attention, worming his dirt-gritty fingers onto John's mouth, getting a fierce grip on John's lower teeth. John takes his wrist firmly, pulls it away. Sam shouts into his ear. "Wouldn't be too sure about that," he admits wryly, and is rewarded with her smoky-edged laugh. He gestures toward the van, bouncing Sammy idly. "You wanna give it a try?"
She climbs behind the wheel and the engine turns first time like a charm. "Well now," she says. "If that's not the sweetest sound." She twists the ignition off again, the engine ticking a couple of times, then falling silent. "You want me to heat that casserole up?"
There's a loose faucet in her kitchen that the wrench from the Chevy's toolkit is just the thing for. By mid-afternoon Sammy's learnt just about every square inch of threadbare carpet in the majority of unoccupied rooms.
"How long you staying for?" the desk clerk -- Judy -- asks as she watches him oil the hinges on the bathroom door in the final room. "I got a few more odds and ends need doing in some of the occupied rooms, people leaving at the end of the week."
John stands, rubs the back of his hand briefly against his forehead. "Not quite sure yet," he says. "Though by now I'm pretty much staying here for free, right?"
She smiles, tuts with her tongue. "Maybe almost," she says. "I still gotta earn my crust too."
John takes Sammy's hand, slows his pace as Sammy negotiates the shallow step on the room's threshold. When he looks up, Judy's watching them appraisingly.
"Y'know," she says "I gotta girlfriend, lives just out of town. Babysit for her since way back when. Been meaning to fix her mailbox for some time now, since those local kids knocked it down on the Fourth of July."
John raises his eyebrows. "You got an address?"
It's still light enough to head out after he's picked Dean and Stephan up from school, dropping them with Sammy off into Anne's care with the promise to be back within the hour.
The town stops just beyond the main street, another road ending it at a right angle, crossing it like the top of a T. The road's bordered on one side by over-grown fields empty of livestock, the other side streets and streets of houses like the main street's the spine of a book, the suburban lots the writing on the fallen-open pages. John turns right, then left again when the houses peter out, and then there're empty fields on either side, land rolling gently in the distance, no more than blurred visual blips on the tuned line of the horizon.
Judy's scribbled down a simple map on a scrap of paper, no more than a few intersecting lines, but despite John's usually quite reliable sense of direction it's almost impossible to gauge the distance. Somehow it's getting dark already, sun disappearing behind the town in his rear view. He almost misses the left turn-off, there's no signage, the road only appearing suddenly as a scatter of gravel just off the tarmac, illuminated only briefly in his headlights before he hauls the wheel around.
The light's turned pale now, no longer the saturated gold of sunset but metallic filigree of twilight, huge Cyprus trees bordering the unsealed road to his right. John slows, looking for a white fence that needs repainting and a decapitated mailbox, but there's only blank field on one side and an endless row of trees on the other. When the trees finally break he stops the car, looks through the gap before they start again. It's just light enough that the trees are dark, rough-edged silhouettes against the silvery sky, leading up a long, straight drive to where more jagged shapes rise up out of the dark mass of land. He blinks, squints, then his fingers tighten automatically around the wheel when he recognises the shapes for what they are; the charred remains of a house, vague structure still in tact, but it's dark enough now that he can't see any more of it, only knowing that there's no light surface left on it to reflect the last remnants of sunlight.
The Chevy's wheels spin in the dirt and the dark shapes of the continuing trees flicker too fast in his peripheral vision, and then he's at the end of the road, car swinging round a little wildly as he turns onto it. The surface of the tarmac is smooths out the vibration, makes his body feel numb, and he drives too fast until the dip in the road lifts again and he can see the faint lights of Bergson ahead of him.
Anne and Susie's house smells like cooking onions. Susie opens the door with Maggie on her hip and Sammy gives a sharp cry when he sees John. Dean's crouched in front of him, helping him drag thick, waxy crayons across a pile of blank paper. They're both in the playpen.
Susie rolls her eyes. "I tried to tell him that if he wanted to play I could just bring Sammy out, but he just climbed on in there anyway. You get the mailbox fixed?"
John shakes his head, unhooking the latch and swinging open one wall of the pen. He crouches down, letting Sammy crawl to him. "No," he says. "I couldn't find the place."
"Huh," Susie says. "Maybe you just need better directions."
"Maybe." Dean wraps both arms around John's neck and John groans a little as he rises, Dean's entire weight hanging until John presses an arm around Dean's back, Sammy squirming in the other. "Think I'd been gone for a week," he says to Susie, shooting her a glance that pleads for sympathy, and she laughs obligingly.
When the boys are both sleeping in the motel bed behind him, John sits at the narrow desk, opens his journal. He fumbles for Judy's map in his breast pocket, pulls out not one piece of paper but two. The torn-edged map and another, softer piece; folded neatly down, cheap, fine print smudged. It's the page from the phone book. He unfolds it, smooths it flat on the desk, runs his finger down the list of names until he reaches Gunderson.
Twice. Only two Gundersons.
The nightlight outside the front office is on but the door's locked, and John's finger holds down the button of the doorbell silently until he hears the fumble and clack of the deadlock being disarmed on the other side.
The door cracks open, stopped short by the chain, Judy bleary-eyed and messy-haired. "What is it?" she says.
"Your friend," John says. "Katharine Karlmann. I couldn't find her place."
Judy frowns heavily, still squinting in the soft porch light. "Karlmann," she says. "Katharine Karlmann? She hasn't been Katharine Karlmann for nearly ten years." She squints up into John's eyes. "Do you realise what time it is?"
"I need to--"
"Unless it's an emergency, it can wait 'til morning," she says, pausing another moment as if waiting for John's protest, then shutting the door in his face.
John looks across the parking lot to where the part-open door to their hotel room spills warm light out onto the stained concrete, the dark shape of the car gleaming a little in the dim coolness of the halogen bulbs set on the extended porch outside each of the rooms. He follows the trail back, locks the door behind him.
He leaves in the morning before the porch light outside the front desk's been turned off again, makes it to Susie and Anne's in time to meet Susie jogging down the steps, hair bouncing stiffly, less frizzy than it is in the afternoons. "Hey," she says as she passes him. "Gotta run."
Dean sits bleary-eyed on the sofa and Sammy's completely dead to the world, arms tucked up between his chest and John's, drooling steadily onto John's flannel shirt. The thin walls aren't much for muffling the sound of Stephan's tantrum, and eventually Anne emerges, looking somewhat flustered.
"Hey," she says, hauling a sullen Stephan by the hand. Maggie's resting on Anne's hip, looking barely awake herself, and John stands to take her. "You ready to go, Dean?"
"Such a charmer," Anne grins briefly. "I can see what Susie sees in you. Coffee's still fresh," she says to John. "I'll be back in twenty."
It's quiet in the house, then, and John leans back on the couch, baby in each arm. Maggie blinks blearily before settling, and he can't help but marvel at how tiny she is in comparison to Sammy, how smooth and translucent her features. Sammy's hair's a thick blonde, plump cheeks and mouth expressive whether he's begging for attention or happy to be left to his own devices. Already his limbs are lengthening, gaining strength as he walks more, even crawls more, undermining any anxiety John might have had about the detrimental effects of confining him to car seats for so much of the time.
Anne heaves a sigh when she gets back, and the sound of the door closing wakes Sammy, who blinks and immediately starts mumbling.
"I think he's hungry," John says, low rumbling whisper, and feels Sam's fists open, fingers flexing against John's chest.
Anne leans down. "I'll take care of it." She smiles. "Lawnmower's in the garage. Should have a full tank of gas."
It takes him until mid-morning to finish the front yard, lunchtime by the time he's finished the back. Anne brings out a sandwich and another coffee; they sit on the steps and watch the babies crawl around each other on the freshly-mown grass.
"I can't take care of Sammy tomorrow," Anne says. "And Susie's switching to an evening shift. Got an appointment for Maggie with the paediatrician. Third Friday every second month."
John nods. "Okay," he says. He takes another bite of sandwich, munches thoughtfully before swallowing. "Hey," he says. "Someone said something to me the other day."
"Yeah?" Anne takes another swig of coffee, watching Maggie's slow progress away from them.
"Yeah. Something about, 'a Gunderson brand of luck'."
Anne chuckles briefly. "That's Bergson for you," she says. "All in-jokes. So fucking inbred." She tips the dregs of her coffee into the flowerbed beside them. "It's all ups and downs, for them," she says. "Cursed or blessed, who knows. But the latest is…" She licks her lips, leans down closer to John. "Katie Gunderson's just picked her kid up from school, right? Got this silver Lincoln, hella sweet ride, recognise it anywhere, in this town at least. I was there, that day." She drops it as an aside, John nods. "Anyway, she's not a quarter mile down the street, taking off like all hell's after her, when this kid runs out in front of her."
"Shit," John says.
Anne nods. "Yeah, I saw it myself. She brakes, but the car's going too fast. Only the thing is, kid doesn't get hit."
She pauses, as if for dramatic effect.
"In fact, the car goes straight through the goddamn kid. And the kid just disappears."
John blinks. "Disappears," he says, keeping his tone one of mild disbelief.
"Uh huh. And that's not all. As she's sitting there in the middle of the street, skid marks behind her, this truck just shoots on through the intersection just ahead of her. Beat up old thing, coming down that hill, y'know?"
He nods again.
"Dumbass old farmer, probably hadn't had the brakes checked for decades, shouldn't've been driving it in town at any rate. Anyway, he shoots on through in his truck, straight through the intersection, swerving into someone's fence just after it." She stops to go pick up Maggie, whose crawling has taken her half-way to the back fence. Sammy's picking at something in the stubbled grass, utterly entranced.
"So if she hadn't braked when she did…"
Anne nods firmly. "It'd all be over now for Katie and her kiddies."
Sammy shoves grubby fingers into his mouth and pulls a face. When he draws his hand out again a strand of drool stretches out between lips and dirt-gritted fingers. He looks up, holds his hands out to John. "Duh!"
John kneels by him, wipes off Sammy's hands with the hem of his shirt before lifting him up again. John glances at his watch.
"You wanted help putting some shelves up?"
"God, yes," Anne says, groaning a little as she rises again, Maggie's fingers tightening in her blouse at the sudden surge of movement. "The amount of toys these kids have seems to grow exponentially each day."
John laughs. "Sammy's nursery was on its way to filling up," he says
"Yeah?" Anne glances at him side on, her smile gentle.
Susie finishes early on Wednesdays, trooping into the house as afternoon peaks and tips over toward evening, Dean and Stephan in tow. John glances at his watch again, automatic habit of the afternoon, as he hears the door swing closed inside the house. The sound of rapid-fire stomping footsteps gets louder, more focussed, then the back door slams open even as John's wiping the grease from his hands.
"Dad!" Dean says, pausing at the open door briefly before starting to run toward the back steps. "I made something at school today, I have to show you--"
"Later, okay Dean?" John says, not waiting for a response but meeting Dean mid-way down the steps, not breaking his stride as he sweeps Dean up under one arm. Dean gives a shout of surprise, cautious delight.
"Hey," John says when he sees Susie in the kitchen. She looks up and grins. "I'm gonna treat the kids to some wholesome, well-balanced junk food tonight," he says, "so we'll get out of your hair early."
"No problem," Susie says.
John sets Dean down. "Go pack Sammy's bag, okay?"
Susie saws the crusts off the sandwich she's making, pops a morsel of bread into her mouth. "Oh, Anne told you about Maggie's appointment tomorrow?"
"Yeah," John says. "Might see you at the diner this weekend."
"Sure." She offers a last smile as John leaves the kitchen.
Dean's packed and standing by the playpen. Sammy's chubby fists are closed around the bars, staring out with mild interest.
"Leaving already?" Anne says, picking up a discarded satchel from by the door.
"'Fraid so," John says, reaching in to lift Sammy up and heading for the door, Dean on his heels. "Gotta run. Good luck tomorrow."
Dean doesn't ask where they're going, just sits still and quiet in the middle of the back seat, arm resting along the edge of Sammy's new car seat. Sam's unusually quiet as well, as if informed by his brother's silence. John glances back at them in the rear vision every few beats; Dean staring out the far window, Sammy looking all around as his fingers fiddle idly with Dean's sleeve.
The light flickering over their faces changes as they get out of town, evens out without the intermittent shadow, just warm afternoon sun across the fields. He turns earlier this time, left and then right.
The house isn't as small as Susie and Anne's, and newer, too; the plot of land it's on is groomed and gardened, a straight-edged block of neatness amidst the overgrown fields. The number on the front fence matches the address John has written in his journal, matches the torn page from the phone book. He pulls into the driveway, stops just inside the gate.
The front door swings open shortly after the door to the Chevy's creak-slammed closed, and he keeps walking across the yard, slowly, as a woman steps out. She doesn't come any closer, just stands there, holding the door propped open with one arm. Her hair gleams dull copper in the shadows, pale tee-shirt the color of an old bruise.
"Can I help you?" she says, polite but not friendly, and John stops a few paces from the bottom of the porch steps.
"Are you Katie Gunderson?"
Her eyes narrow. "Might I ask who's enquiring?" Tone a little less warm this time, still warily polite.
"My name's John Wilson, I wanted to ask you some questions about… Well, about your son."
"What about my son?" Stiff, now. "Is Hugo in some kind of trouble?"
"No, not… Not Hugo. I wanted to talk to you about… About Philo."
He sees the muscle of her forearm tense against the dark wood panelling of the door. "I don't know who you are," she bites out. "But I suggest you get off my property right now."
"Mrs Gunderson," John says, surge of desperation rising in his throat, spurring him to take a couple more steps forward. "What happened at the school, with the truck--"
"I said get out." Her body's tense, almost vibrating in the frame of the doorway.
John stops immediately before the bottom step. He swallows. "Katie please, if Philo--"
"How dare you," she says, her voice low and seething. "How dare you… You come here and… Fuck you!" she's shaking outright now, and John doesn't dare move closer, but not giving any ground and retreating, either. "Who the fuck do you think you are? You think that I don't know my own fucking children? That I can't tell one from the other? You fucker. You fucker. Get the fuck away from here!" Her voice raises to a shriek, John steps back involuntarily.
Her gaze flickers beyond him then, and she grips the edge of the door almost convulsively.
"How dare you," she says again. "How dare you bring your children here." Her voice has dropped again, low but still loud, almost a growl. "Get the fuck out of here, get away while you still can. Take your fucking children and--Fuck!"
The door creaks a little further open as she lets it go, impervious to the sudden violent noise that tears out of her, hands covering her face. John takes a few more steady steps backwards.
"You think… You think I don't know, that I can't recognise him?" she moans. "Eli," she says, "Eli."
John speeds up his pace, turns mid-step and Dean's standing there in the yard, stock-still and staring up at the woman on the porch. The noises she's making come at John's back like fists full of broken glass.
"Car," John spits, "now." And Dean barely makes it back into the backseat before John's slammed his own door, shoving the gearstick into reverse and pushing the accelerator to the floor.
"What did I tell you, Dean?" His voice starts low, dangerous. "What did I tell you about staying in the car?"
"Don't--" Dean stutters, "Don't leave Sammy alone in the car."
"Never, Dean," he barks, and the muscles behind his eyes are tight, tense as he stares forward into the increasingly darkening light. He sees Dean's body jerk in the rear vision, sudden start. "Never leave Sammy alone in the car."
"Yes what?" and he's shouting now, throat raw with it even as his ears are ringing, but he can't stop it inasmuch as he can't stop his fierce-tight grip on the steering wheel for fear it'll send them careening off into the overgrown depths of the foliage-dark fields, away from the rushing boundaries of the road.
"Sir," Dean says, voice not quiet, even if unsteady. "Yes, sir."
John grits his teeth, swallows hard, two times. Sammy's crying, steady wails of alarm and confusion.
John pounds the steering wheel with his fist. "Just stay in the goddamn car, Dean."
When Sammy's finally sleeping John hits the shower, standing motionless in the narrow tub under the needling spray, letting the water scald the back of his neck. When he steps out of the bathroom Dean's sitting on his bed, cuffs of his new too-long pyjamas rucked up around his ankles. He looks determined, if still a little wounded.
"Hey," John says, sits by him. Dean's holding something in his hands, between his knees and his chest. "What you got there?"
Dean sighs out through his nose, fiddling his hands a little. "I made it, at school," he says, and holds it out. "You can have it."
John blinks. Dean's hand's gentle around the twisted loop of colored paper, so he takes it carefully. "Thank you," he says, "thank you, Dean. It's a… A bracelet?"
Dean heaves another sigh, this one a little more relieved, and he chews at his lip. "It's like a magic trick, see?" he crawls forward and John holds the loop in his open hands. Dean's hands are tiny in comparison, nails bitten to the quick, pink-clean from his bath. He closes John's left hand to hold the loop between thumb and forefinger, then guides the index finger of John's right hand along the flat-ribbon surface of it. Inside of the loop first; then the paper twists and John's finger's tracing the outside surface, without having lifted it. "One side, see?" Dean says reverently, and with his other hand squeezes John's thumb and forefinger where they hold part of the ribbon-loop. "And two sides. At the same time."
"You made this?"
"Yeah," Dean says, not looking up but tracing the single surface of the loop again with his own finger, bumping over John's when he encounters them. "The teacher taught us how. I made it for Mommy, but… You can give it to her, if you want. When she comes back."
The fist that clenches itself at the base of John's throat is sudden and unexpected. "Dean," he says, when he's sure he can talk without messing it up again. "Mommy's not coming back."
Dean still doesn't look up, but John can see his jaw set. "Hugo's brother's coming back," he says. "He told me. He told me he'd seen him."
"Doesn't Hugo already have a brother, though?"
Dean's face twists briefly, almost in exasperation. "Not Eli. Eli's just a baby, Dad, Hugo saw Philo. Philo's coming back."
"Dean," John says quietly. "Philo--"
"No," Dean says, then clamps his jaw down tight, presses his lips together. Dean gets quiet when he's mad. Not when he's frustrated or bored or annoyed but when he's mad, it's soft and fierce-edged, more determined than anything else. "It wasn't just a memory, Dad. It was really him."
John loosens his grip on the paper loop, then slides his hand through it, settling it on his wrist. "Do you like it here, Dean?" he asks softly.
Dean's silent for a long moment, then when he speaks his voice is wavering. "I want Mommy back," he says.
"I know," John murmurs, and Dean's face presses into his shoulder. "Me too."
He drives slower on the bare dirt road this time, and the guideline of towering Cyprus seems to last longer; either that or it's not so long before it feels like they've been repeating forever, and he's lost all sense of how long he's been driving on it. The sense of momentum this time is increased, incongruously moreso than it was at night with the disorienting night pressing hard in against the car; there's a gravity pull on the body of the car like they're rolling in a corkscrew-curl, making John grip the wheel straight and still on the unbending road.
The gap in the trees comes just as abruptly, and John turns slowly into the drive, careful to avoid the rain-rutted potholes in mind of not waking Sammy up, his face mashed into the edge of the new car seat, chin gleaming with drool.
John's foot stutters on the brake pedal, though, when the Chevy swings around and the Cyprus form an avenue channelling the car forward to what lies at the end of the drive. No dark, charred edges this time. A homestead, not that dilapidated but white paint flaking off to reveal the tired grey timber beneath, windows smoky. The constant periphery of dark, oily foliage makes it feel like the house is getting larger rather than the car getting closer, but then there's a surprisingly large gap between the edge of the trees and the house. No fence around it, just wide, deer-shortened lawn with grass-stubbled tire ruts.
The house takes on three dimensions then back to two again as he follows what must have once been the driveway, curving round the house like a tightening spiral until it reaches the back porch. He stops a few car-lengths from the steps, and when the engine cuts out the silence is heavy, cringing in his ears.
Sammy's chest rises and drops steadily, soft baby-nose congestion in the faint, faint sound of his breathing. John holds his own breath to listen to it for a moment before snaking his arm round and pressing down the locks on the rear doors.
He holds the handle carefully after he's climbed out of the driver's seat, leaning his slightly-splayed body against the door and easing his grip off the handle slowly, feeling more than hearing it catch and close.
The silence outside the car is heavier, almost thicker; the air feels oddly lukewarm in John's mouth but he can't hear it rushing past his teeth. There's a low hum-that-isn't; something felt more than heard, the pressure of it on the edge of unpleasant, like he's teetering on the brink of something suddenly-tilted, toe-tips to the edge and force at his back. It's disorienting, compelling; exponentially stronger outside the car than in. Sammy's face is as still as the angles of the house reflected in the car window. John peers in one last time before turning away from the car, turning toward the house.
He feels more than hears the crunch of the dry, stubbled grass beneath the soles of his boots, strides a little wide to land steps on the barer patches of earth and then he's at the stairs quicker than he expected, broad and rough-hewn, worn with use.
Solid under his feet, they don't make a sound as he ascends them, and the varnish on the timber boards of the porch is long gone, leaving the colorless, streak-textured wood bare. There's no screen on the door, just paint-flecked wood and hazy, insect-spotted glass, and the brass of the handle's age-pitted against John's palm, though it opens smoothly and without audible complaint.
The inside of the house is just as bare as the outside; surfaces less weather-worn but otherwise as empty. No carpets or rugs, no furniture or discolouring of the paper-less dry wall to suggest there'd ever been any there. At first the space seems open but then he turns and there's a hall right there, when he follows it another room unfolds out from it unexpectedly. Smaller, but empty still; windows smeary and dark, indeterminate tree-shapes filling their frames. Another hall when he turns, then, it's shorter and there're stairs leading up on his right, a closed door on his left.
The stairs are ruined, rotted and fallen in on themselves like practically nothing else in the house; when he tries the door handle it's stiff but turnable, revealing another set of steps. Downward.
He blinks to adjust his vision, the faint light from the windowless hall revealing the simple, broad slabs of the steps as structurally sound. He pauses for a moment, holding his breath, listening. There's no sound from outside the house; though whether that's because it's silent or the house itself is insulating any noise he can't tell. The walls are the same color as the floor, and it all smooths together, and there's a brief moment of disorientation where he can only tell which way's up by staring down at where his feet intersect with the floor, cast soft-edged, blurred shadows.
John steps down.
The door's still open behind him, but by the time he gets to the bottom of the stairs little of the meager light from the hall above reaches him. There must be some ground-level windows somewhere in the basement, though; there's light coming from somewhere, faint and pale, not as warm as it is in the flesh-toned body of the house.
Then the cold starts. Just a suggestion of it at first; a realisation of the sudden tension of the muscles banding his ribcage, lower back; those keeping his limbs steady and poised, and then when he draws breath it's like swallowing icy water, huffing out again as a cloud of steam.
The acoustics are suddenly loud, like the reverb's been turned up, surfaces in each dark corner of the basement polished for maximum fold-back of noise; the crunch of fine grains of dirt under John's boots, the faint buzz of the blue light, the crackle of his heated breath in the cold air.
He steps in further and his fingers start to numb; eyes straining forward through the cloud of his own breath, looking for the source of the light, from outside the house surely; standing below the windows would be the best vantage point for visibility in the dark space. He glances over his shoulder at the stairs and the closed door at the top, no light limning its borders.
When he turns back he's not alone. The boy's pale but it's a faded tone, gritty; like the light's barely hitting him. Not him, them, making John's eyes strain and water and struggle… Two of them, Dean's age, surely no older, and they flicker and merge and blur like his eyes can't comprehend the depth of field, can't figure out where to focus.
Two, and the same.
Then the light stops.
There's a bone-deep sonic thrum and he's left reeling, maybe physically, impossible to tell in the sudden solid black surrounding him, eyes watering. His outstretched fingers graze something rough, splintered wood, and he represses the urge to draw back from the sharp pain of it, instead flattening his hand against it, easing his whole body closer until he knows which way is up again, can feel the extent of what he's pressing against. Bevelled edges, metal hinges. A rusted handle that doesn't budge when he twists it and he's vaguely glad of that; it was stupid, fucking stupid to come down here without light of his own, though it was so goddamn bright in the sunlight outside.
He'll have to come back. Later, when he has a torch and an axe or crowbar to lever that door open, when the throbbing silence isn't making the muscles of his neck clench and seize, pressure of it making his eardrums hot and thrum precariously close to pain. No sign of the children, the once- children or maybe-children, boys, same; maybe the door. On the other side of the door, when he's not leaning back from the edge of something he can't see, acute angle shoving him forward.
His palm drags against the wall, feet pacing carefully, measured, until he reaches the familiar, smoother wood of the railing bordering the stairs, and he kicks and toes his foot up onto the first step, not even realising he's closed his eyes until his blindly groping hands discover the doorframe and smooth plaster on the wall outside of it, warm skin-filtered light making his eyes smart.
Blinking rapidly to adjust to the light, faint as it is; the pressure eases even as the house seems to continue to hum, making the skin between his shoulder blades itch. Something about the basement, something in the basement, boys, but nothing he can do about it now, not without proper tools or equipment. Judging by the lack of windows, the hall is at the centre of the house; if he keeps going in the direction he was headed before he went down into the basement, he should be able to complete the quick sweep of it and head back to the car, back to Sammy.
Sammy, who's hopefully still asleep, and not awake and wondering at John's absence. John closes the door behind him quickly, heartbeat speeding rather than slowing, and heads out of the hall.
The room it opens up to is as bare as the ones that came before it, door on the far side leading to another short length of hall and then to a larger room and another door with glass panels, age-hazy, and when he opens it the worn-panelled back porch splays out in front of him, Chevy gleaming black on the lawn mid-way between the house and the trees.
The darkness of the basement must have disoriented him, twisted around his sense of direction somehow and he'd turned left when he should have turned right, the emptiness of the house and unfolding halls indeterminate enough from each other that he hadn't noticed.
He saw when he drove up that the porch wrapped right around the house; he could walk around now to scope the front façade of it, see if the door there was unlocked and check out the front rooms; but he's coming back anyway and Sammy's in the car, Sammy's waiting and he's jogged halfway across the lawn before he even realises he's made up his mind.
The reflection of the house in the windows of the car hide it from him at first, allow him to press down the sudden twist and flutter in his belly, but then he's close enough that there's no explanation, no excuse.
Sammy's not in the car.
John's vision seems to twist, reel a little even as his body's suddenly taut and still with tension. "Sammy!" he shouts, and presses to the back door of the car, cupping his hands to peer through the window. The back seat is empty, not even the baby seat.
John's heart's swelling with each stuttering beat, not leaving enough room for his lungs to take in sufficient air. "Sammy!"
The trees are still, muffling any echo of his voice even across the stretch of lawn surrounding the car. Bare. Empty.
The surface of the car is hot, grabbing at his sweat-slick hands as he stumbles to the other side of it, peers into the driver's side window even as he fumbles in his pockets for the keys.
The car's just as empty when he wrenches the door open, clambers onto the front seat on weak knees. His breath is loud and fast in the close, sun-heated space; he looks over the seat back, down into the wheel wells, then the floor of the front seat.
In the middle of the front bench seat, right in front of his face, is his journal. Where he left it, but open, and his breath catches again, weird pressure feeling like it's pushing from the inside of his head outward this time.
Judy's cryptically scribbled map is there where he taped it, but it's no longer just her straight, black lines; a spiral's inscribed over it in blue ballpoint, spinning outward. The page above it had been blank when he flipped it closed after turning into the driveway, but here it's filled with writing, same blue ink, in his own foreshortened, blunt hand.
The title at the top of the page is etched into the paper heavily: DOPPELGÄNGER.
It's too hot in the car. He's sweating, back of his neck soaked in it, and the muscles in his arms tremble as they support his weight while he backs off the seat, slamming the door with shaking hands, shoving keys back into his jeans pocket.
Fuck. Sammy. "Sammy!"
He can't. He can't. He can't see Sammy and he can't look quickly enough, thoroughly enough; panic rising as seconds pass and there's no sign of Sam's small body wherever he casts his gaze -- not under the car, not at the tree line, not by the house. Sammy's walking on his own now, he could have woken, unbuckled himself… not unlocked the door, though, let alone have the strength to push it open. And the seat's gone as well, Sammy's new car seat…
A sound escapes from John's throat, something resembling a sob but somewhat more painful as it squeezes out, and his shout is raw. "Sam!"
Another noise breaks the poised hum of silence; voices, voices coming from the house, and John wheels around, fists clenching, something lurching up from his belly to his throat. Two figures emerge from the door, leaving it open behind them, quickly descending the steps in sync. Both tall, though not the same height; young and quick-footed away from the house even as they continue to speak, out of range for John's comprehension, just the up-and-down pitched patterns of easy speech.
"Hey," John says, starts to jog toward them. There was no other car; the place was definitely empty when he drove up, went into the house; no other signs of life. Maybe they'd been in the front of the house. "Hey!"
And no sign of Sammy. Sammy, Jesus, Sammy was gone, someone had taken him, and if they took him…
"Hey! Who the hell--!"
They don't look up at him but the taller one stops, turns; looks back to the house for a moment. John's close enough now that he can make out the words when he speaks, "You hear something?"
And then John freezes because the second one's stopped too, has reached under his jacket and is loosely holding a pistol, muzzle pointed down but both hands wrapped around it, shoulders tense. Fuck. Fuck. They're packing.
"I didn't hear anything," the guy holding the gun says, "what, it sound like ghosty something, or burning something? Or," he eases up a little as the taller one turns to face him again. "Voices-in-my-head-told-me-to-do-it something?"
The grip on the gun's loosened, and it's slid back out of sight and John's stumbling forward again, Sammy, reaching out as they pass, and--
He's not quite sure what's happened. Nothing's happened, he hasn't touched them; they've walked right on past without even a glance, heading toward the car. There's another sound from the house and they both turn to look and they're facing him and suddenly John can't breathe, can't turn away, can't follow their lead.
"Man, I love burning stuff."
"You think it'll be over now?"
"If old man Gunderson was right, then sure. Ain't no lord saving his soul," the guy with the gun under his jacket pats his breast pocket. "I gots the solution right here."
"You threw your lighter in the basement."
"Yeah well. It's the thought that counts. Anyway, if it doesn't work it's not like we don't know where to find him."
"Yeah. Hell, he was there every time we were in there. Reverend Schumann said he been practically living there for the past fifteen years." A head-shake. "Man, those kids…"
"Even if it was an accident--"
"Accident, dude. The first time. No way all the ones after it were, after all… What the hell are we doing here?"
"Okay, point taken. Still, there's evidence that it started before that."
"What started? I still think none of that weird-ass apparition shit had anything to do with Philo Gunderson. You've read the damn journal."
"Apparition. Ghost. Tomayto, tomahto. It's done now. Hey, and don't--! Don't even start with me."
"Whatever. Let's just get the hell out of Dodge."
"Won't be the first time."
"Yeah," the taller guy frowns a little, then his gaze shifts, and he's staring right at John. John's body's aching like it's turning inside out, heart pushing through ribs and skin, throat stripping against teeth and tongue. "I know."
There's a louder crackle from the house; and the sense-memory it trips has John gasping for breath, adrenaline surge loosening his locked joints and turning toward it and there's smoke, smoke coming out of the open door; opaque windows starting to glow dully with the orange lick of flame.
No. No. "Sam!"
He makes it up the stairs in three stretched-out strides, then his arm's up instinctively over mouth and nose for the sleeve of his flannel to filter the smoke. Three more steps into the house and the heat and sting of the smoke is enough to make his eyes run, squinted into slits, and his body heaves as he chokes on the heated air. "Sammy!"
The second hall's all rolling, glowing smoke, thick and dark and as soon as he steps into it he becomes completely disoriented. He hears the house creak above him; thinks of the tinder-debris of the staircase leading upward and feels the heat radiate up from below. He's choking, sobbing, adrenaline in overdrive turning his limbs to quicksilver, potent and liquid-useless, and he forces his knees to tense, move, body stooped nearly in half as he stumbles back out of the smoke cloud.
The walls of the bare rooms nearly glowing now, sweating wetly with whatever moisture they'd held as the entire house heats up from the expanding furnace of the basement at its core. The cooler air is just as harsh against his eyes when he finally bursts out of the door, barely catches himself from falling down the porch steps again, does fall when he hits the lawn; hands and knees, gravel-scraped and grass-spiked, hauling himself up and stumbling away.
The car's still there but there are no sign of the two men; John uses the momentum of his flight to keep running until he reaches it, body slamming against it as if he can't stop of his own accord, face streaming wet and scorched.
He pants, feeling the burn of it through his throat, into his lungs, and through the reflection of dark billowing smoke on the rear window there's movement.
Hands numb still, then, skin tight and knuckles swollen as he fumbles for the keys with shaking hands and Sammy, Sammy, blinking sleepy eyes and face twisting in the beginnings of alarm and confusion, still strapped into the car seat.
He doesn't start crying until he's pressed to John's chest, increasingly distressed hitches as John holds tight enough to stop the shaking of his arms, Sammy's cries muffled against the smoke-soaked shoulder of John's shirt. "Da," Sam wails, fists gripping onto the loose flap of John's breast pocket, twisting and pounding it. "Da! Da!"
John closes his eyes against the burgeoning roil of smoke rising from the empty house, darkening the sky, and turns his back to it, fronts of his thighs braced against the car as he protects Sammy from the waves of heat with his body.
Bergson seems darker after the glare of flames, the fierce-hot decomposition of the house still shocky against the back of John's eyelids. The church rises white on his left and he turns right, slow drag away from it toward the motel on the outskirts of the other side of town. The motel seems deserted; reception door closed but just about every other door along the strip open, signalling their lack of guests and readiness to be cleaned. John remembers seeing bulky shapes of other cars in the lot, finds it difficult to recall their color and make.
Their room is at the end of the strip, farthest from the road. Sammy's awake and alert now, and John pulls up parallel to the concrete-paved porch, leaves the car and hotel doors open. The clippings pinned above the desk have dried a stale yellow color, their curled corners lift and drop idly with the push of air from outside.
It takes less than half an hour to cram their worldly possessions back into suitcases and duffels, papers and books shoved hastily into the old briefcase. The last armful he piles into the front seat with him, after nudging Sammy's door closed with his hip and leaving the hotel door open. A hard-cover corner digs into his belly as he leans around to sooth an unhappy murmur from Sammy; there's still no sign of Judy when he glances back around so he pulls the book from the briefcase.
It falls open easily and the printed text is scored over with exuberant lines of crayon, same color as he'd scrubbed out from under Sammy's nails before putting the boys to bed not two nights ago. Close to the spine is a flattened loop of brightly colored paper; Dean's bracelet. Mary's bracelet. John's bracelet.
Doppelgänger the text reads under the crayon marks. See also: Apparition, Bilocation. Doppelgängers are ghostly doubles of living people and look very similar to the ghosts of the deceased. In some cases a person will come upon his own doppelganger who is typically engaged in some future activity.
Sammy murmurs unhappily in the back seat, too long strapped into the car seat. John's still breathless from jogging back and forth between room and car, muscles in his arms trembling a little from lifting too much at once. The doppelgängers of folklore cast no shadow, and have no reflection in a mirror or in water.
He closes the book, reaches for the soft, leather-bound journal. The torn-paper scrap of Judy's directions, taped-down and folded-up, marks a place and he thumbs it open. The pages are blank.
The car jerks to a stop outside the diner, afternoon sun hitting the glass front in the last few moments before it drops down behind the stores opposite, making it hard to see inside beyond the reflected glare. Sammy quietens when John eases him out of the seat again, quickly finding an easy balance pressed against John's side, arm resting across John's shoulder with a small, damp hand curled in the collar, plump knuckles against John's neck.
There's a girl standing on the sidewalk, on the home stretch of her teenage years; black-and-white chequered waitress's dress and white apron over it, hair the color of wet straw, tied back loosely. She pulls at a cigarette between red-painted lips and squints into the heavy sunlight. She's oddly familiar so he smiles instinctually but she doesn't turn to face him, doesn't return the gesture. As he steps past her to the door he hears the sound of her heel extinguishing the cigarette on the pavement. He takes another step forward then stops; sweat springing up abruptly on his palms, skin crawling on the back of his neck, hot-cold rush over his skin.
The diner front's mirror-bright, reflecting the deep gleaming shadow of the Chevy behind them, the squat red hydrant, his own form disfigured by the shape of Sammy held in his arms. Sammy's face tipped down, his forehead pressed to John's neck. John's face blank, jaw tight. The gritty sound stops, and when he turns back the sidewalk's empty.
Dean doesn't look up at them as John walks in, doesn't even seem to notice them until John says his name then he turns from where he's staring over the counter into the kitchen, eyes wide.
"Dad!" he says, urgent relief but not too loudly, and John steps forward before Dean can clamber off the stool. Dean's fingers curl around Sammy's forearm.
John frowns. The diner seems deserted, though a soft noise makes him peer over the counter; Stephan's sitting there, legs splayed and back bowed, pushing matchbox cars across the worn linoleum. Another sound makes John look up and he sees, then, what Dean was staring at. Susie in her white above-the-knee dress and chequered apron; mouth pale without any lipstick. Anne wrapped around her, arms round her back and hands tucked under her arms; Anne's face pressed into Susie's hair.
Susie's crying, softly. "I saw her, Annie," she says. "I saw her, in here and she was… she was… she wasn't…" her voice breaks, becomes more muffled as she presses her face to Anne's chest; Anne makes a soft shushing sound, grip tightening. "She looked like you, Annie," Susie says. "She can't be…"
"Maggie's sick," Dean says softly, and when John looks down into his face Dean's staring right back up at him, expression unreadable. Or unfamiliar, at least, on Dean's face, otherwise recognisable enough to tighten the net of strings woven into John's chest. "She wasn't a memory, Dad."
"I know, Dean."
"I asked her. Susie. I asked Susie, she said she wasn't. She said it was her."
Dean's hair is soft between his fingers, Dean's eyes half-closing instinctually at the touch. "C'mon," John says, offering the support of his free arm briefly to help Dean vault down off the stool again. John spares a last glance in the direction of the kitchen but Dean pauses at the end of the counter, peering around it.
"'Bye, Stephan," he says.
The other boy blinks, looks up at Dean; at John and Sammy. "'Bye."
John's hand between Dean's shoulders urges them out quicker, but when they get to the car Dean baulks. "I want to sit in the back," Dean says, tone determined. "With Sammy."
The sidewalk's still empty, besides them and the red sentinel hydrant. John hesitates only a moment, then he's unlocking the passenger door, popping the lock on the back seat before striding around the car. "Toss those bags over into the front, then," he says, and Dean scrambles in to do as he's told even as John's setting Sammy back down into the car seat.
They're about a mile out of the town's limits when he sees the faint strain of smoke breaking the symmetry of the tapering road ahead.
He doesn't slow at first but as he gets closer a figure manifests out of the shimmer of heat, reddish hair gleaming bloodily in the deepening sunlight, white dress marred with darker patches. She seems more solid the closer they get, and then close enough that John can see immediately past her to the square back-end of a silver Lincoln jutting out of the ditch, rear tires clear off the ground and still spinning, just a little. The front end is half-wreathed in smoke; pale enough to be steam, even, and John only hears the pained groan of metal when he steps out of the Chevy, leaving her engine running.
"Katie," John says. "Katharine. Are you alright?"
Katie raises her arms, reaching toward him as he approaches. "Help us," she says.
Jesus. Jesus, half her face is missing, top half of her dress spattered with the remains of it. John swallows hard, casts a brief glance over his shoulder; he can see the silhouette of Dean's head through the windshield of the Chevy, barely reaching above the top of the back seat. "Katie," he says, urgency sharpening the edges of his tone. "What happened?"
"There was an accident," she doesn't break his gaze, face twisting in desperation. "Please," she says, "help my baby."
Baby, John thinks, more feels like a punch to his solar plexus, heels digging into the soft turf of the slope and arm up, again, choking against the acrid smoke and heat and sound-whirr of the struggling, dying engine. The car's like a thrashing, dying beast; sharp-edged and volatile and he hauls his weight on the back door handle before realising it's locked, then bracing and kicking hard against the window of the crushed driver's door, once, twice.
The glass crumbles against the still figure of the driver, blood-dark and wet hair, crushed skull and open eyes and John reaches past Katie's body to fumble with the rear lock. Eli's conscious, a smear of blood on his chin but pale until the first flush of his scream is startled out of him. John's hands feel thick, too-large as he fumbles with the finicky plastic clasps on the straps; he swears and they click audibly open and then the baby's light in his arms, squirming and screaming.
He manages to clamber out of the ditch before there's a thud-shatter of the car breaking further apart, and he doesn't look back, just jogs back toward the Chevy, singular black mass on the blurred, blank horizon.
Dean's standing by the car, eyes wide and fingers lightly brushing the edge of the open door, like just touching it is close enough. John's adrenaline surge changes gear, kicks down a notch so that his heartbeat stutters in his ears, legs suddenly weak and close to shaking. Eli's crying, raw-edged and desperate; and John wants to touch Dean, feel Dean's hair against his fingers, but his arms are full.
"I can drive, Dad," Dean offers solemnly, eyes still wide but his expression not at all panicked. "If you need to hold the baby."
John huffs out a short burst of laughter, automatic. "Not just yet, okay?" he says, and Dean steps back as John steps forward, climbing back into the car as John nudges the door wider open with his hip. Sammy looks mildly interested at the activity, but not more interested than he is in the toy car shoved in his mouth. Dean buckles in, holds out his arms; John places the baby in them. "Okay," John says, mostly to himself. "Just hold on."
The engine revs and the car swings around, tires squealing and the centrifugal force of the movement pulling them all outward for a moment. The road's ahead of him then, town at the end of it, straight taper that seems to twist and reel when he accelerates. He doesn't look back.