The older boy slides in next to the little one, pulls a box of crayons from his bag, and hands it over. The younger boy gets to work coloring one of the paper placemats she designed, carefully tracing the words "Sage Diner" and going over the design of the Corinthian columns at the edges of the sheet. The tip of his tongue is sticking out between two unevenly gapped rows of baby teeth. The older boy digs in his pocket for a crumpled dollar bill and some coins and sinks into the bench, waiting for someone to come by and take their daily milkshake order. His eyes travel in a fixed sweep between the door and his little brother.
Rhea heads over to the boys' table. Always sitting at this same table, always sitting on the same bench like their father needed the room across from them even when he wasn't there. He was hardly ever there, and she'd said to Orrin more than once that it was a disgrace, the way that man used their diner as a free babysitting service, the way he came and went at all hours, but Orrin protested. "Those boys are good boys, Rhea," he always said. "Quiet, no trouble. And they worship the ground he walks on." She'd snort her disbelief; the older one, poor thing, he clearly idolized his good-for-nothing father, but she had a suspicion that the little one only needed his brother. "Man tries his best," Orrin would say, burying his face in her neck; "I would not be doing any better without you." The thought of having to leave her Orrin, leaving Alexander and Ianthé to the care of random women, always made her fall silent, and she'd kiss her husband with a soft, sweet mouth.
Rhea wears rubber-soled shoes instead of high heels because the last thing she needs is problems with her feet and back, but the older one turns his head as she approaches silently. He nods politely at her and nudges his brother gently. "Nilla, please," the little one says, smiling at her, and she goes back to the kitchen to scoop the ice cream herself. She puts two cherries on top of the whipped cream. She already knows the older boy will only pretend to drink today; he hates whipped cream and only half-likes vanilla. His face should be rounder, fuller, and the little one has a face that should be chubby but hovers unsettlingly near bony. They look like stray cats. She brings the milkshake to their table, accepting the money the older boy immediately holds out to her; she looks at his fine features, set and serious and tired-looking, and wonders if he got his green eyes from his mother. He looks back at her, waiting, so she pretends to count the coins and then nods briskly, and he relaxes and pushes the glass closer to his brother. The little one's already got whipped cream on his nose and eyebrows, and he chokes a little and says, "Deeeeeeeeaaaan," so she hands the older one a stack of napkins and turns away as he wipes his brother's face.
Dean. It's a good name, a strong name. She had always wanted to name her son Dionysius, for merriment and revelry, for the grapes her grandfather grew, but when she did get pregnant, she got so sick that merriment was the last thing on her mind and Orrin had to cancel their flight for America, and then the plane crashed and she named her boy Alexander, "protector," for he had kept his parents safe, and he was merry anyway, with his laughing black eyes and wide, gummy smile.
Ianthé steps around the puddles carefully, tugging the bow from her tangled hair. Alexander should be by soon, and she can get out of her poofy pink dress and patent-leather shoes the second she's home. She hates picture day, the way Mama shops for weeks to find the most hideous outfit, and then insists that she write a message to her grandparents on the back of the photo they send in the mail. But they don't speak English so she ends up writing short little baby sentences that say absolutely nothing. Hello. How are you? I am fine. I am ten years old. I enjoy school. Love, Ianthé. They must think she's stupid. Alexander's the one who knows a little Greek, just enough to get his cheeks pinched, and that's reason enough for her to steer clear and hide behind him like she's shy. She asked Mama once why she'd only met her grandparents three times, when all of her classmates got birthday cards, Christmas cards, Easter baskets full of money from theirs, and Mama went off on one of her long explanations, half the words in Greek, something about plane tickets and the economy and needing a new waitress, all without taking a breath. Mama is exhausting sometimes.
Even now, as they walk into the diner, Mama is talking, her words a steady stream, and Papa looks like he's heard all of them before. Alexander hurries up the stairs to put away his books and fetch his apron, but Ianthé stands in the kitchen and listens as Mama chops parsley and coriander and says something about "That Man." Ianthé's figured out by now that it's the new boy's father who's got Mama all worked up. "Eyes dark as a Turk's," Mama mutters furiously as the knife flashes. "No responsibility." Papa leaves his tomato sauce, puts his hands on Mama's shoulders, and whispers something. He's so close to her that the black curls in front of her ear flutter with his breath, and Mama stops to listen and then sags against him. Mama looks up, her eyes wet, and Ianthé's sure she'll get in trouble for dawdling when there are ketchup bottles to fill and napkin dispensers to stuff. But Mama breaks into a big, watery grin and pulls her forward with spicy-scented hands, clucking over how pretty she looks in her dress, how this year's picture will be the best ever, how it will sit on the mantelpiece next to Alexander's senior portrait, and Papa grins at her and motions for her to break free and go upstairs to change.
John knows that Mary probably wouldn't recognize her sons in the half-starved urchins who dress in soft cotton clothes from Goodwill, eat free school lunches, and train hard for hours every single day. But she might recognize them like this, their faces flushed and soft in sleep, Dean curled protectively around Sammy. They smell like baby shampoo and Dove soap and they have calluses on their fingers.
He knows the rosy futures he and Mary planned out for their children are illusory now, but he's certain he's done right by them. His sons are not weak, will not be easy prey; they are disciplined and true.
He wonders, sometimes, if she'd recognize him.
Alexander slips through the greedy hands of three defensive backs, twisting like the wrestler his father had hoped he'd become. He eases into the end zone on dancing feet that barely touch the ground, the dreamy haze of triumph cut short by the piercing shriek of the ref's whistle. Suddenly he can hear the delirious screams of the crowd, the cheerleaders whipping them up to a frenzy with their smooth thighs and flirtatious eyes. He watches Wallace line up for the extra point and feels the crowd hush. He can hear the beat of his heart as the ball soars high, higher, through the yellow goalposts. He hoists his helmet in the air, exultation in his face, and Bryan from the school paper snaps a picture as he roars in triumph.
He remembers helping Mom put a picnic basket and blankets in the trunk once, but he can't remember the picnic itself. There must have been food and sunshine and Mom laughing and Dad tickling him. But no Sammy. That part he remembers.
He watches as Dad loads up the trunk with weapons edged in silver. Dad never has to tell him to be careful, to handle the knives with ready hands and a firm grip and no fear, but tonight he's not allowed to touch them. He's got a blister almost as big as Dad's from practicing with the scimitar, and it hurts when he presses it to the ribbed handle of a gun, but Dad says that's what working through the pain is all about. "Ready, Dean?" Dad asks and he nods, climbing into his father's arms. He blushes as he realizes he must look like a baby, the way Dad's cradling him, and Dad grins down at him, one corner of his mouth pulling tight because his arm still isn't fully healed, and says, "Now you can even fake a flush on command? How about a fever?" Dean shakes his head and tries not to fidget and jostle Dad's arm, and Dad calls for Sammy. The three of them go two doors down to Miss Greenaway's room and Dean buries his face in Dad's warm shoulder while Dad asks her to look after Sammy - "he'll be no trouble, ma'am" - while he takes Dean to the hospital. She presses a hand to her heart, then coos and clucks as Sammy shows off his dimples. Sammy's so busy charming his way into her cookie-scented kitchen that he forgets to say goodbye.
He gets sick if he tries to read in the car, but closing his eyes and picturing Dad's careful notes is okay. "Hellhounds," it says at the top of the page, and then there's a drawing of a beast with red eyes and jagged-looking fur and a dripping, nasty mouth full of huge yellow teeth, and then Dad's writing gets too squiggly, but he remembers reading "young flesh" and "decapitation" and "remove the heart." Dad knows what he's doing and leaves him alone, doesn't butt in with questions about nerves or quizzes about the differences between true hellhounds and Black Dogs. The car stops and he opens his eyes to the dark.
Dad's eyes are dark too, looking at him like he wishes things were different. But Dean knows Dad won't let anything happen to him, and if he's the bait for Dad's trap, that's okay. He walks in Dad's shadow as they lock down the area; Dad said this is the area in the park furthest from running water, and where the hellhound is most likely to prowl. Dad won't let him help scatter the weapons in strategic spots because he can't touch the silver. He waits for Dad to hide the last one - the scimitar - near the car's left rear wheel and his slow nod as he disappears to the other side of the car, then starts doing jumping jacks, trying to get his blood pumping so it calls out to the hellhound.
He hears a slick rustle, like when the sleeves of his and Sammy's windbreakers rub against each other, and he stops jumping, feels his heartbeat strong and fast, and turns to see it slinking toward him with blood and saliva dripping from its mouth. That means they've already lost tonight. It stops moving when he looks right at it and he can hear Dad moving quietly closer. But it can hear Dad too, and it moves to the side, its red eyes shining like pools of blood, and comes at him from an angle, keeping him between itself and Dad. Now they're circling around him, slowly, slowly, like they're playing monkey-in-the-middle, and he breathes out, his breath curling like smoke in the dark, cold night. He keeps his body loose, ready to drop if Dad thinks he can kill it with his throwing knives, ready to run if it charges.
But it's in no rush, and it keeps moving like it's too lazy to bother with a real threat, licking some of the blood off its snout with a long black tongue. He hears Dad inching closer, and it growls, so loud he can't hear his heartbeat, and Dad stops, still several feet behind him. It puts one paw slowly forward like it's testing the ground, and he knows he's out of time. He drops and rolls until he can see the car almost above him, can feel his hands curling around the scimitar's handle, and he jumps to his feet just as it leaps for him. Its snout hits his chest with a thump. His wrists bend back painfully, but the blade keeps going, slicing through its thick neck, pushed forward by its own momentum. He can hear the thunder of Dad's roar and the heavy pounding of his feet as he races over, dropping to his knee to cut out the hellhound's heart with five deep slashes.
Dean drops the scimitar, and its blade shines in the dark grass where the hellhound's body used to be. There are bloodstains on his shirt. "Dad," he says, "Dad. Did it get me?" Dad looks up and his face is white and scared. Dad's shaky, bloody hand reaches out to cover his chest and then Dad grabs him and rocks him, almost like he did with Sammy, that time in Wisconsin.
"Dean, Dean," Dad keeps saying and he tries to answer, but his voice won't work right, so he just holds on tight to Dad.
He's helping Dad retrieve the blades scattered in a rough circle when he sees a large dark lump on the ground. Dad comes up behind him so he just points and they move over together. He watches Dad put his fingers on it and shake his head and suddenly he recognizes the face on the lump. It's that man who works at the diner, who usually makes his milkshake. His name is Alexander. He's Ianthé's brother, he picks her up from school and takes her to the diner every day. His blood is still warm; it's the last thing Dean feels before Dad picks him up and buckles him into the front seat of the car.
Everyone in town knows not to talk about the game in front of him until after he's gotten the full story from Alexander, but Orrin can always tell if the Titans have won or lost. Not so much by the mood or the tone of their voices, the things people can disguise, but from their orders. Full plates for losses, things to hunch over and consume mostly in silence, and appetizers for victories, smaller plates that can be passed from friend to friend with laughter. Onion rings and fries are beating turkey platters and salads handily, so he's prepared for good news. He whistles as he scrubs down the counters, clears the empty tables, wipes the grease from the salt and pepper shakers.
"Ianthé," he calls up the stairs; the crowd is bigger than the usual Friday-nighters, and two more hands to fetch and carry would make things easier. "Ianthé," he calls again and she appears at the top of the stairs. "Come, sweetheart," he says and she runs down the stairs toward him. With Ianthé keeping an eye on everyone, he's free to do some of the cooking, make things easier for Rhea.
He doesn't realize how late it is until the regulars start leaving in anticipation of closing time. It's not like Alexander not to come home after the game, even if it's only to drop off his stuff before he heads back out. But maybe he got carried away with the excitement of this victory, maybe there were college scouts in the crowd, maybe right now he is saying "yes, sir," to someone who can offer him an education past what his parents have. He has to buy a proper American suit for Alexander's graduation; Rhea keeps reminding him but where is the time for that?
The bell over the door jingles, and he comes out from the kitchen to find two police officers with their hats in their hands.
Daddy says Dean doesn't have to go to school, but Dean just shrugs and Daddy pulls his old sweatshirt from the top shelf of the closet and hands it to him. Dean always makes him walk in front when they go to school, but when Sammy lags behind to fix the Velcro on his sneaker, he can see that from the back Dean looks like he's wearing a dress cause Daddy's sweatshirt is so big on him. But when he catches up with him Dean still looks sad, so Sammy doesn't say anything about it.
He tells Miss Lucy he doesn't want to make any more construction-paper pumpkins because he has a better idea. But she won't give him red and blue construction paper or magic markers unless he tells her his idea, and he knows he's never ever supposed to talk about Hunting, even if that's why Dean looks like he needs a Happy Fun Day card. So he makes three more pumpkins and practices his writing with Miss Catherine and waits for school to be over.
Dean doesn't look any better after school, so when he's putting on his jacket and Dean's doing up the snaps, he says, "You can pick the milkshake today, Dean." Dean just shakes his head and they go home instead of to the diner. Daddy's left a note and some money on the kitchen counter and Dean tightens his lips like he does when Daddy's stitching him up. "Dean?" he asks when Dean dumps his backpack and heads to the front door again, and Dean turns toward him and opens the door.
There's a sign that says "CLOSED" on the door of the diner, and Dean looks at it for a long time, long enough for Sammy to think about all the words he could make from those letters. Then Dean steps back and looks up, so he looks up too and he sees that the sky is close to getting dark and pink and there are clouds that look like gauze bandages floating around up there. Dean says they're full of water, so water in the sky must not be heavy and blue. It's light and white and soft. But that doesn't explain rain. Dean is kicking at the small rocks near the curb now, so he misses it when the girl comes to the door and looks out. But Dean must sense her like a good hunter, because he looks up and she looks back at him, and then she's opening the door, slowly like she's not sure.
Dean makes him go in first, so he ends up standing between them. No one else is around and he's never been inside the diner when it's dark before. The red benches look like blood when the lights are off and he tugs at Dean's sweatshirt to tell him but Dean clears his throat like he has Something Important to say. The girl's not looking at them anymore, just kind of rocking on her feet and holding her arms tightly around herself. When she finally looks back at Dean, Dean says, "I'm sorry about your brother."
She makes this sound that startles him so bad he flinches, and Dean looks at him and holds out his arm. He stands behind Dean, peeking out at her, one fist wrapped tight in Dean's sweatshirt. Maybe if he's very still she'll forget all about him.
She's shaking now, and he can see tears and snot running down her face but she doesn't seem to care. She's looking at Dean instead of wiping it away. Dean's back is stiff when Sammy presses his face against it. "I saw him," Dean says, "looking out for you."
"Mama and Papa said he had to," she whispers, and Dean nods, staring back at her just as hard. Sammy can see her take a deep breath and the shaking stops. She fishes a tissue out of her pocket and cleans her face. "He pulls my hair all the time," she says. "And this one time he showed me how to do a rain dance." She looks around and gets a napkin and blows her nose. "He says he can get the ketchup to pour faster than anyone else."
"He can make the roundest scoops of ice cream," Dean says.
"He always lets me put the cherries on top," she says, and she sounds normal again, so he edges out from behind Dean and stands at his side.
Dean looks surprised to see him. "We have to go," Dean says after a minute, but she's looking at him instead of Dean and he feels squirmy inside again.
"Go," she says to him. "Big brothers are always right. You have to go." Her voice has gone all stretchy and high again. He turns to the door and sees the sign says "OPEN" on this side. He wants to be on the CLOSED side again and he leads Dean out the door, running for home.