When Castiel returns to Jimmy, it's in the form of a goose. A flock of them land just outside the tiny house that Amelia bought for her and Claire nearly two years ago.
It's been only a few weeks since Jimmy managed to crawl his way back to them, years too late to do anything except stand there mutely and hope that they would take him back. Amelia stared at him like he was a stranger that first day, standing on her doorstep, hat in hand, feeling a lot like a stray cat.
"You can come in," she said finally, and it was a relief that felt a little like a death sentence.
The flock of geese arrive in November of the same year, settling in a field outside of town and making it look for all the world like those fields of boulders left behind by melting glaciers. They make the news, because no one here has ever heard of a flock of Canada geese making such an enormous detour off their normal route south. Naturalists interviewed on television to explain the phenomenon talk self-importantly about climate change and the ready availability of food as a result of human waste having a deleterious effect on the birds' lives and behavioural patterns, which makes Jimmy snort and switch off the television.
Claire insists that they should drive out to see the flock up close, adamant in spite of Jimmy's refusal. They don't have to leave the house, because a goose —a huge grey gander with black-tipped wings— sails into their yard at sunset and waddles right up to the front porch. Claire is delighted.
Jimmy can do nothing but look. He heard the flap of wings outside the window, already knows that his precious moments with his family are being snatched away again. He creeps to the front door, watches as the goose calmly accepts bread crusts as Claire throws them, crushing the bread in its powerful beak.
When Amelia ushers Claire in for dinner what feels like hours later, Jimmy comes out onto the porch to find the gander still waiting for him. He stands there, looking down at it, and it stares expectantly up at him, beady eyes glittering. He thinks that it might bite him, given the right provocation.
"I'm not doing this again," he tells it.
It takes off, wings beating loudly against the evening air.
Castiel doesn't understand how to take no for an answer.
A white dog with mismatched eyes begins following Jimmy in the streets as he looks for work. No one wants to hire a mad ad salesman who has a four-year gap in his resume and was presumed dead for three out of those four years. A restaurant manager agrees to give him a shot as a dishwasher --Jimmy isn't sure he could take being a busboy, being under the scrutiny of all those people as he wipes tables and clears glasses away. In the kitchen, surrounded by filth and dish soap, there is no one to see him.
"Your mutt's gotta stay away from the place, though. It's unsanitary and against regulations."
Jimmy glances outside at the dog, sitting placidly on its haunches outside, tongue lolling, blue eye and brown eye fixed on the door where he went in. It's a pathetic-looking dog, its coat matted and filthy, far too skinny for a creature of its size. It looks like it hasn't eaten properly in days or weeks, and one of its ears is torn.
"It's not my dog," he tells the manager.
But for weeks, Claire saves table scraps that she puts out on the back porch for the dog. She sits and watches it eat, chin propped in her hands, smiling to herself, and he doesn't have the heart to make her stop.
"Jimmy, what is it?"
He jerks, startled by his wife's voice, by her touch on his arm, and tears his gaze away from the counter a few inches to his left. The tomato soup he was making is threatening to boil over, so he hastily picks up the pot, heedless of scorched fingers, turns down the heat on the stove.
"Did you want bacon on your grilled cheese?" he asks instead of answering her question.
She nods, clearly too afraid of repeating her question. He calmly pulls six slices of bread out of the breadbox in order to toast them, unwraps the cheese slices from the packet she hands him, and sets the bacon in a pan to fry while the soup keeps heating. Claire is sitting at the kitchen table with her book and her iPod, earbuds jammed so tightly into her ears that he wonders if they'll have to be surgically removed one of these days. The bacon sizzles, and he's reminded of the smell of charring human flesh when a demon has been burned out of its host body.
There's a fly on the counter which hasn't yet moved in spite of this flurry of activity, rubbing its forelegs together. Its eyes can see all around the room all at once, thousands of tiny refracted images making up the whole. It's watching him, waiting, and Jimmy pretends he doesn't see it at all, not even when Claire looks up at them both and smiles.
"Are you worried?" Amelia asks him one night, lying stiffly in the bed next to him, and he nods. "Those men... Sam and Dean. They showed me how to protect the house. Salt and those painted traps. We have silver, too."
Jimmy shakes his head. "It's not the demons we should be worried about."
"Surely the angels aren't a threat? Not after all this. I thought you said—" He doesn't know how to begin explaining to her about all the new, indestructible kinds of evil that have been unleashed on an unsuspecting world.
Amelia breathes out once, too hard for it to be a sigh. Then she reaches over and switches off her light, doesn't bother to so much as wish him a good night before going to sleep. Jimmy doesn't blame her at all.
There's a raven sitting on the fencepost when he goes to pick up Claire from school after an early shift. He can hear the unspoken demands in the soft chirping of sparrows outside. A squirrel takes to sitting on the roof of the bird house on their back porch, delicately holding a chestnut in tiny paws, tail twitching. Jimmy sits in the kitchen and watches it through the window, clutching his mug of tea to his chest, wisps of steam rising into the chilly December air. Later on, a fox takes to stealing in and out of the yard, leaving tracks in the snow that lead nowhere.
Christmas comes and goes.
Amelia worries about Claire, whose grades have never recovered and who has never made any friends at school. She only tells him about the precarious finances after he pushes hard, makes her tell him, and he thinks afterward that they both regret that he had to do it. He wonders, fleetingly, if he should have come back at all.
He takes Claire to the park. She's too old for this, really, but she goes anyway, humouring him, and sits on the swings and listens to her iPod and watches the birds. He hurls the largest rock he can find at a flock of pigeons when he catches a white and black one staring at him. The air is filled with the sound of beating wings, feathers frantic against the air.
The flock disappears, leaving blood and broken feathers in its wake.
Amelia makes up the bed for him in the tiny guest room down the hall by the bathroom, and they both pretend it's always been like this. Outside his window, he can hear the cooing of pigeons, the faint scraping of tree branches against the side of the house, and he tells himself that he'll have to make sure those get trimmed before the next winter.
Claire clambers onto his bed at three o'clock in the morning, wearing her new pink and white pajamas with a big stylized heart on the chest, but he can't bring himself to chide her for it, or to send her back to her own room. He kisses her forehead, smooths her hair back where it's been tousled from tossing in her bed. She sits pressed up against him, head resting by his shoulder. She's a little small for her age now. Amelia tells him it was difficult to get her to eat for a while, that she stopped growing, lost weight. Didn't sleep.
"Why do you keep sending him away?"
"I'm done with all that. I promised your mother I would be coming home for good, and I plan to keep my promise this time."
She shifts on the bed, wriggling bare toes against the coarse blanket. She smells faintly of strawberries. "He's all alone in the world now."
He can't tell her that Castiel made his own bed and that, as far as Jimmy is concerned, he can damned well lie in it. He can't tell her that he had to pull himself, naked and half-drowned, out of a South Dakota water reservoir and stagger who knows how many miles before someone found him and provided him with clothes. He can't tell her any of this, although sometimes it seems as though she might suspect.
"He wouldn't come if he didn't need help," she says sombrely. He kisses her head again, but she slides quietly to the floor and pads out of the room.
Jimmy is almost asleep when he realizes his mistake. His shout brings Amelia out of her room, but he barely notices in his headlong rush out through the front door. He arrives in time to find his daughter standing on the front lawn, a tiny white ermine at her feet. Her hair is tangled over her shoulders, and she's pulled pink slippers over her feet that are entirely insufficient against the bitter January cold.
"I missed you too," she says. There's a moment's pause, and she nods. "Of course."
Jimmy's fairly certain he's the one who shouted, but he doesn't remember opening his mouth. For a moment it seems as though nothing as happened, but in the blink of an eye the ermine is gone, leaving only Claire standing in the chilly moonlight, her breath misting in the air.
She turns very bright blue eyes on him, and Jimmy finds himself shivering so hard that it hurts every joint in his body, teeth chattering until he worries that he might accidentally sever his own tongue. He has a fleeting mental image of blood spatters on white snow.
"I am not your daughter," Claire tells him.