Caribou, Maine. February 5, 1988.
Dad said that sometimes a person's gut or their body would know when something was wrong, even if their brain hadn't figured it out yet. He called this feeling "off."
And something had felt "off" all night.
Dean forced Sammy, who was only wearing his Winnie the Pooh pajamas, into a down jacket and sneakers. He bundled himself in a big black sweatshirt that Dad had left behind. It hung down to his knees. He took one last look around the room for anything useful. He had taken the black rotary phone and put it inside the drawer next to the bed, with the cord hanging out where Dad could see. This meant "we're in the car." Dean hoped Dad remembered. The Gideon's Bible next to the door meant "we're at the church" and this one got used more often. Dean wondered if he should do both, just to let Dad know right away that they weren't in there.
Nah, he'd remember.
Sammy sleepily scratched his head as Dean, one hand on Sammy's shoulder, pushed him toward the door. "I thought we were going to play Hide in the Bathroom."
"Change of plans," Dean said, shoving a pillow under each arm and stripping the blanket off one of the beds. He'd started feeling like this a few minutes ago. He'd already packed the backpack: raisins, candy bars, water, a few toys for Sammy and the knife Dad had strictly forbidden him to carry.
Dad was off on a job, and he would probably be back tomorrow. He and another hunter had left in a truck, leaving the Impala at the farthest corner of the parking lot. So tonight, they were going to play Hide in the Car.
"If someone recognizes the car," Dad told him, "they can't match it up to the room, see? It's too far away. You have to weigh the pros and cons of having the car be far away in case you need to run to it against not being found in the first place. If you park it right outside the room and something gets in, you're probably not gonna be running anywhere."
Dean might not think too hard about it, but there were things he knew: The motel was out of the way, on the county line, not one of the more popular places to stay. "Get the local Chamber of Commerce's guide to places to stay," Dad would joke. "And then find a place that's not on it."
After awhile, he said Dean would be able to look at those places and recognize them for what they were, without even really thinking about it. He called this "good instincts." Look for the places where people just want to be left alone, Dad said.
"People like us?" Dean had asked, looking around.
Dad had smiled as if he'd said something funny. "Not exactly."
Dad had a whole checklist he did before they decided to stay somewhere for the night, before he and Sammy were even allowed out of the car. Dean knew it by heart. Dean would check off to himself what he saw Dad checking off as he walked around.
Are there rooms facing away from the road? Check.
Is there more than one way out? Check.
Office staffed by an employee, instead of the owner? Check. "Owners care about things and pay attention," Dad said. "That's their job. Employees care about getting paid and going home. If something looks like trouble, they're more likely to stay out of it."
Are there more than 25 rooms? Check. "You stay some place with ten rooms, you get people wanting to know you and ask questions."
Now Dean was doing his own checklist: No one standing in the parking lot watching them? Check. No one else hiding out in their car (no headlights, no movement)? Check. The lady working the motel's front office had been out having a smoke earlier. Dean had waited for her to go back inside.
It was 3 AM, it was really, really cold outside and something was wrong. Dean just didn't know what. And the car seemed like the best option. Dad would say that when Dean felt "off", he should head to higher ground. The car wasn't higher ground, not really, but it seemed like what Dad would call a more easily fortified position until Dean figured out what to do next.
It might be nothing but… it might also be something. Or as Dad would say: "Would you rather be wrong and alive, or right and dead?" Sometimes Dad said it the other way, right and alive and wrong and dead, but Dean knew what he was getting at.
Dean moved Sammy around to the side of the car that was out of sight from all the open areas. His squeeze to Sammy's shoulder was an unspoken command to "stay." Not that it always worked, but Sammy wasn't awake enough to put up much of a fight right now.
Since Dad had left the car, but not the keys, Dean used one of his lock picks to get the trunk open. It took him a minute (it would've been faster, except that he kept looking around), but he got in. Inside the trunk was the long metal thing that Dad used to get into cars. There was an area on the back window of the Impala, where the window didn't quite match up with the door frame where Dean had had to do this before. Taking another look around, Dean slid the thin metal thing into the space and after moving it around carefully, he'd popped the door lock. As soon as the door opened, with a cold-amplified squeak of protest, Dean picked up a handful of Sammy's coat and pushed him inside. He closed the door as hard as he could without drawing attention to them, and knocked on the window. Sammy crawled over to unlock the other door and Dean slid into the backseat next to him.
He locked his door, and reached over Sammy to lock his. They were in now and he could take a breath.
Dean put a pillow under Sammy's head and tucked the blanket around him. He bunched his own pillow between his head and the door frame, looking out the window.
"Dean?" Sammy asked after a few seconds.
"Sleep," Dean answered.
"I don't think I'm sleepy anymore."
Dean buried his sigh in the pillow. "We've been out here for a whole minute. You haven't even tried. Close your eyes, get warm again and it'll happen."
"Are you going to sleep?"
"Yep," Dean lied. "Right now."
"Aren't you cold?"
"Nah, I'm good." And he didn't want to be tangled up in a blanket if something happened. "Go to sleep."
Sammy was quiet for another whole minute. "But I'm not sleepy though."
"Well, I am," Dean said, pushing into the pillow.
There was maybe thirty seconds of silence until: "I'm thirsty."
Dean closed his eyes wearily, holding his temper in check. He pulled the backpack out of the floorboard. He had rinsed out a flask of Dad's as well as he could and filled it with tap water. He pulled it out and handed it over to Sammy.
Sammy wrinkled his nose and looked pointedly across the parking lot at the lit-up soda machine outside the motel's front office. "I'd rather have a grape soda."
"And I'd rather you just went to sleep, but we don't always get what we want," Dean grumbled. "Get a drink – not all of it, Sammy, save some for morning – and go to sleep. It's just for a few hours until Dad gets back."
"Why'd we come out here?"
"Because it's more comfortable."
Sammy didn't buy this at all. "More comfortable than bed?"
"Yep, more comfortable than bed. Now shut up."
"You shut up," Sammy mumbled under his breath and squirmed around a bit on the seat, rearranging his pillow and the blanket two or three times. Dean could tell by the way he was breathing that he wasn't even trying.
Finally he unleashed a long, angry sigh. "Dean, I can't sleep because you're not sleeping."
"I can't sleep because you won't shut up."
"Stop telling me to shut up!"
Dean flopped in annoyance to face him. "If you shut up, I wouldn't have to tell you to shut up."
"That doesn't even make sense!"
"It does, too."
"It does not!" Sammy shot back. "You're stupid!"
Dean rolled his eyes hard and went back to his pillow, deciding to just leave it there.
He might as well have just counted down from sixty.
"Dean, I'm bored."
"I put your Etch-a-Sketch in the bag."
"I don't wanna play with that in the dark!" Sammy whined. "Can I turn on a light?"
Dean twitched, thinking of the flashlight in the glove compartment, but still watching the parking lot for signs of trouble. "Sorry, no lights."
"Will you read to me?"
"I didn't pack any books, Sammy. Please, just… sleep, okay?"
Another minute. "Where is Dad anyway?"
Dean groaned. "He's working."
"What's he working on?"
"A job, Sammy."
Sammy didn't say anything for awhile. For a second, Dean thought maybe he had finally dozed off.
"No one ever answers my questions." Sammy pouted.
"I just did!"
"What kind of job?"
Dean surveyed his own dim reflection in the window, turning the words over in his mind before he said them. "He's a salesman."
"Then why does he carry a gun?"
He frowned, closing one eye, searching for a good explanation. "He's a gun salesman."
Dean raised his eyebrows and breathed out. Hey, it worked.
"Who's John Oz -" Sammy stammered over the letters he remembered. "Osbro?"
"There's a money card in the cigar box under the seat," Sammy explained. "It says John and a last name that starts with O but our last name is Winchester."
Dean flopped over again. "Why were you looking in there?"
"I was just playing," Sammy said defensively.
"Well, don't. It's just a card Dad found."
"He should return it," Sammy said seriously. "It's not his."
"Right," said Dean, leaning back into the seat, pulling the pillow into his lap.
"Do you think Dad will get another wife?"
Dean stared at him, mouth open. "Your brain is like a pinball machine."
"I'm bored," Sammy complained again. "It's too quiet out here."
Still staring at him, Dean shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe."
"She could be our new mom," Sammy said eagerly. "Jimmy at my school… well, at the Wisconsin school from before, he said his dad found him another mom. Dad could do that too if he was nice to someone and they wanted to be our mom."
Dean felt sick. "You had a mom, Sammy. You don't just… go out and get another mom. People only get the one."
"Not like… a mom, like a had-babies mom," Sammy said, getting frustrated with words. "I mean, not like the lady who had us, but someone nice who knew how to do mom stuff that we could call mom."
When Sam got to where he could talk and ask questions and figure stuff out, it occurred to Dean that, to Sammy, what happened to Mom wasn't a sad thing, but just a thing. He would ask about her, and ask, and ask, and Dean had to answer someday, he knew, because otherwise Sammy might ask Dad, and he didn't want that. Even Dean didn't ask Dad about Mom, ever, not after the first time. So Dean tried not to get mad, but talking about Mom, like she wasn't a real thing, like she was something that happened a long time ago in a made-up story, made him angry. But he just breathed slow and held his tongue. "That wouldn't be your mom, Sammy, that would just be a lady who lived with us. And who's going to live with us in a bunch of motels anyway? That's stupid."
"She could share a bed with Dad, and she could sit in the front when we drive."
Dean felt his fists tightening up, his fingernails digging into his palms, his eyes narrowing, in spite of trying to stay calm. "That is not how it works."
"Why are you getting mad?" Sammy asked, looking at Dean with his big, stupid, hurt eyes.
"'Cause you had a mom, Sammy. You already had one, you just don't have one now. You don't just… go out and get new family like… like they're part of a car that went bad."
"But Jimmy got a new mom because his dad found him one."
"Well, good for Jimmy!" Dean yelled, punching the seat hard in front of him, voice rising. He leaned into Sammy's face as Sammy pulled back. "Hey, I know, who needs the dad we have now, huh? He yells, right? So maybe you and me can go find a better dad, huh? And then if you don't like me, you and your new dad and your new mom can go find you a better big brother and a damn sister for all I care. How would that be?"
Sammy just looked at him, his dark hazel eyes getting bigger and bigger, his lower lip shaking. "I don't want a new brother."
"Then quit talking about Mom like she happened in a fairy tale or something and someone can just scare you up a new one! She was real! You had one and she's gone now and you don't get another one!"
"I know she was really real," Sammy said, and Dean could tell by how his voice sounded that he was about to cry. "But I don't know her and I don't know why you're yelling at me!"
Dean felt his jaw shake and rolled over so that he was facing the window again. "Just go to sleep."
Within a couple of minutes, Sammy was crying into his blanket, and if there was a sound in all the world that sent Dean into panic and fits, it was this one. He turned over again, slowly.
"Sammy…" he said helplessly.
Sammy didn't look up. He just sobbed.
Dean opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. None of the words he was coming up with sounded good. "Sammy, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell at you. I just… when I remember Mom I get –" And there wasn't a word for that. Not a word that Dean knew anyway. "Sad" didn't sound big enough.
Sammy kept crying.
"I could tell you about her, if you want," Dean said softly.
Sammy raised his face a little to see if Dean was serious. His dark bangs were all wet and matted to his forehead. Dean reached over and pushed them back from his face.
"You never talk about her," he said, his voice still quivering, like the tears could kick in again at any minute. "Never, ever, ever. I asked you over and over and you always get mad and tell me I don't wanna know, but I do!"
"I know. But I'll tell you now. If you want me to."
Sammy wiped at his eyes with his fists and nodded. His eyes were so big and so sad when he looked at Dean that Dean felt his chest go tight like he couldn't breathe. He just wanted a do-over, to go back before yelling and everything, and go across the parking lot to buy him a grape soda and hold the flashlight low while he played with his Etch-a-Sketch and not tell him to shut up. Anything Sammy wanted. All of it.
Dean settled in to the seat, crossing his arms over his chest. "I forget her a little bit, you know. A little more, all the time. And I have to try harder, like, my brain's forgetting her. But I remember some stuff, no matter what. I remember her face. She was… she looked like someone on TV, you know? She was pretty."
"Do I look like her?"
"Nah, you look like Dad."
"Do you look like her?"
Dean snorted. "No, I don't look like a – shut up. Let me finish."
Sammy sniffled, pooching his bottom lip out. It was his "paying attention" face when he was trying to be good.
"She was… great." Dean scratched at his hair, just now starting to grown-back again from a buzz-cut. "She was nice. Some moms have uh, work they go do? But she didn't, she stayed with us all day long."
"Did she love us?"
Dean cut his eyes at him sideways, surprised. "Of course she loved us, Dad too, more than anything else. She was our mom, that's like, her main job, to love you no matter what. Or, you know... it's supposed to be."
"What else did she do?"
Dean swallowed hard, trying to keep his voice steady. "She sang to us. She had a nice voice." He smiled a little. He could still hear it in his head sometimes, just a little line from a song, something about not being afraid. "She played with us outside. Or, she held you outside, and I would ride around on this plastic bike thing, but she would follow me around, holding you. She talked to us, all the time. All the time, Sammy, like she just… really liked talking to us." Dean felt his lip shake and bit it, taking a deep breath. "She smelled like the kitchen and I'd help her stir stuff while you sat in a high-chair and she'd make stuff, like pies and cookies, and she'd sing to us while she was cooking. She called us her two little angels."
And there was other stuff too, stuff Dean didn't know how to put into words. The way she would tickle his neck or ruffle his hair when she walked by. How she would make up voices for the characters in books when she read to him, and now Dean did it too, because she did it. How whenever she walked into a room, it was like there was nothing else in the world. Just the three of them, Sammy on her knee, Dean on the floor playing, never remembering anything else, but his mom and this smile when she looked at him, when she looked at Sammy, and that feeling… that feeling of being the one in the room that mattered when she walked in, and then he and Sammy, when Sammy came along, being everything she cared about.
Dean had a distinct memory of sitting in a wedge of bright sunlight that was falling on the table through the kitchen window, and he was mad because he couldn't find the purple crayon, but Mom had shown him how to use the red one and the blue one to make a purple color.
"She was smart," Dean added suddenly, remembering. "She always knew the answer, to everything, no matter what you asked her. And she never yelled, ever. She was the best. There's not anyone better. Dad could… Dad could go find someone, I guess, but… she wouldn't be that. She couldn't be."
Sammy was staring at him, watching his face, eyes still big, eyes still sad. "I don't want a new mom anymore."
Dean felt something about to give way in his face, inside his head, and clenched his jaw hard. "Good."
A tear slipped out of the corner of Sammy's eye and Dean could barely make out the words he was saying through the fresh batch of tears that was coming. "I want our mom to come back."
"It doesn't work that way either, Sammy," Dean said sadly. "When you die, that's it. That's" – how did Dad say it? – "That's the whole show. But… if it hadn't happened, she'd still be here. I know that. She'd be here right now, in the front seat, living in motel rooms, eating burgers… everything, because she loved us." He swallowed hard again, holding his eyes open too wide, shaking his head. "She didn't wanna go."
Sammy sort of fell over onto Dean, howling, blanket and all, crying into the sweatshirt until Dean could feel the damp seep through to the shirt he wore under it. Dean didn't say anything else, he just put his arm around him and kept him there until he could tell Sammy had cried himself out and fallen asleep.
He didn't like to talk about Mom. Even when someone mentioned her, asked about the existence of her, or asked Dad about her, Dean felt like someone had put a roll of quarters in their fist and punched him in the belly as hard as they could. But this felt right, like it needed to happen, like it needed to be said.
But he hoped it didn't need to be said again, not anytime soon.
He fell into a light, half-awake sort of sleep, something he'd taught himself how to do.
It felt like just a few minutes later when he was opening his eyes to the sunlight. There was a bang-bang-bang on the window next to him. Dean startled awake, hand up to his face. It took him a few seconds to remember why they were in the car, and why Dad was slapping the glass with his hand. "C'mon, Dean, rise and shine!"
It looked like Sammy, wedged into the space between Dean's arm and side, had been up for a little while, drawing little trailer trucks on the Etch-a-Sketch the way Dean had shown him. It was half-erased from where he'd thrown it down, probably the instant he saw Dad.
The minute Dean had clumsily unlocked the door and opened it, Sammy had scrambled over him, all knobby knees and sharp elbows, to launch himself at Dad. "How many guns did you sell?"
Dad looked at Dean, who answered with a quick head-shake. "Uh, enough?"
"Can I have a soda?"
Digging through his leather jacket, Dad came up with some quarters, dimes and nickels and dropped them into Sammy's hands. Sammy took off for the machine.
"Get something for your brother!" Dad called out. He shook his head, laughing and pulled his car coat tighter around him. "It's 40 degrees out here, and your brother wants a cold drink."
Dean was freezing himself. It felt like his bones were shivering.
"You're a gun salesman," Dean said. "If he asks you about it later."
"I'm a –" Dad frowned, thinking it over, and then laughed when he tracked Dean's eyes over to Sammy. "Is that what that was all about? That's not bad, actually."
Dean shrugged, but he felt proud. "It did in a pinch."
Dad reached back to roughly ruffle his hair, what there was of it so far, still chuckling. Dean tried not to smile.
"Thanks for the phone thing," Dad said, turning around to look down at Dean. His voice was shaky. "Almost forgot about that one. Scared the shit out of me for a minute before I noticed it."
He nodded, huddling deeper into the big sweatshirt against the cold, he and Dad both watching Sammy skip off to the soda machine with his handful of change.
"I smelled sulfur at our door," John said after a few seconds, as if he wasn't sure if he should say anything at all. "Wasn't at the other doors, just around ours. That's why you left?"
Dad had grabbed a handful of Dean's shirt, five months ago, right before they hauled ass out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Smell that, Dean. Smell it! That's sulfur. If you ever smell that again, and I mean ever, or anything that you think might be that smell, you take your brother, and you run like hell."
To this day, Dean didn't know why the smell meant something terrible, just that it was the only time he'd ever seen his dad scared.
Dean felt his heart hammering in his chest, felt all his blood seem to drain away, remembering the look in Dad's eye. "No, I didn't smell anything, anywhere. I got a bad feeling, about the room, about everything. So we came out here."
"Good call." Dad put his hand to his mouth for a minute, shaking his head, before turning back to Dean. "Do you see now? That's why I tell you to look for higher ground, Dean, when you get that feeling. This right here." He pointed at the motel room door and back to the car twice. The distance had seemed far at three in the morning, but it didn't now. "Do you see how close that was? Do you understand now?"
He nodded stiffly as Dad rubbed his hand down his face and started pacing around the car. As Sammy came running back with the two sodas, Dad swooped down and snatched him up, hugging him tight enough that it looked like it hurt.
Dean wondered if he'd ever be able to sleep again.