Sam really, really has to pee. Like the most he’s ever had to pee, ever. “Daaaaaaaaad,” he says, because it’s been two minutes since the last time he’s said it, and he doesn’t want Dad to forget he’s here in the back seat, needing to pee.
“Sammy, we’re twenty miles from LaFayette,” Dad says. “Can you try to hold it until we get to the motel?”
“Daaaaad, c’mooooooon,” Sam says.
“Dad, we all know you’re gonna pull over,” Dean says from the front seat, peering over it to make a face at Sam. “Why don’t you do it now, and that way Sammy gets to go, and he’s happy, and we get to make him promise not to say another word until we get to the motel, and we’re happy.”
Not another word? Sam wants to fight that one, but he also wants to get out of this car in the next five minutes -- and this one hundred percent has to happen, no question -- so best let it be. “I promise not to say anything,” he says over Dad’s next breath. “I’ll be so quiet, Dad, you won’t even believe it.”
“Hell, I don’t believe it now, son,” Dad grumbles, but the car’s already slowing down, and Sam’s got his hand on the door handle, ready.
It’s eleven o’clock at night on a twisting mountain highway, so there’s no traffic or houses in sight, only the tall shadows of the high pines on either side of the road. He gets out on the passenger side away from the traffic; there’s no point in arguing that he’s more than old enough to go without a brother tagging along, so he doesn’t. He’s done this a million times on a million roads exactly like this one, and he knows Dean will stop at the edge of the trees, while he goes a defiant few extra steps, one step further each time. One day he’ll be outside Dad’s reach, and maybe even outside Dean’s, and maybe that day he’ll keep going. Not tonight, though -- the woods are too dark and quiet. Nothing’s moving but their footsteps and crickets and one sad-sounding owl, way off in the distance. It’s not a place to go off alone. Sam may be a baby sometimes, like Dean says, but even he can see that.
He does his business, the painful pressure in his belly eases up, a sigh of relief and a shake and he’s done, but after he tucks back in, he just stands there, staring into the solid summery black.
“Sammy, you gonna zip up or what?” says Dean, but he must be in a good mood, because he doesn’t sound especially late-night crabby or bossy, the way he sometimes does after a long trip. He sounds sleepy.
Sam wonders if Dean feels the dark the way Sam does, separating them from the rest of the world, even from Dad in the car a few feet away.
Sam zips up, but he can’t turn away from the trees. “Hey, Dean,” he says, “does it ever scare you?”
Dean steps forward until he’s right up next to Sam. “What, the woods?” He’s a solid weight against Sam’s side.
“No,” he says, “not that, but -- doesn’t it scare you that there’s all these people in the world, and not one of them knows where we are right now?”
“We know,” says Dean. “There’s you and me here, and Dad in the car, and no one else matters.” His face is blurry in the darkness, and Sam feels a flash of real fear at its essential lack of Deanness, a sick, swooping feeling like falling, before Dean bumps his arm against Sam’s shoulder, and Sam wishes he weren’t too big to grab for Dean’s hand. “I’m not scared, I’m right here, I promise I’m not going anywhere,” he says. Sam wants to be comforted but isn’t. He walks back to the car in step with Dean, heart pounding.
True to his word, he doesn’t say a word for the rest of the way in to LaFayette. He might have tried to push, on an ordinary night, but tonight he feels the dark seeping in through the windows and the air vents, and he doesn’t think he could talk even if he wanted to.
It’s not until the next morning that he’s feeling a little better. After a night’s sleep and a breakfast the size of which makes Dad blink a little bit, they go separate ways, Dad to work, Dean to a local baseball park to watch or maybe play a game or two. Sam nags Dad until he agrees to drop Sam off at the library down the road from the park.
Dad shakes his head as he pulls up outside the shabby old white brick building. “Don’t you want to go to the park with Dean?” he asks, but Sam shakes his head hard. “All right, Stubborn. Dean’ll come get you for lunch,” Dad says. “If you want to leave, walk to the park and nowhere else.” Sam doesn’t bother to answer as he slams the car door shut.
Sam loves libraries. They can be old or new, tiny or big, use card catalogs or computers, but underneath all that surface stuff they work the same way no matter where they are. He knows their smells and sounds, knows if you want to check for a book you love, you can check in the same place every time, under the same number. (He keeps a list of titles and numbers tucked into his duffel.) How could you not love that?
Sam’s just now started to graduate from kids’ books to the grownup ones. He still likes the kids’ section, but it was an exciting day when he realized he could read and understand some of the grownup books. He felt like his life grew then, got so big it filled up all the empty spaces of the world, all the dangerous, unknown places, and that’s what he needs, this morning. He’s not tiny and alone in the dark, and he needs to remember that. He’s getting bigger. Every day he understands the world better, and one day he’ll know everything.
And he’ll keep going today with with the 001.9s, if the library has the book he’s been reading in Nebraska, Missouri, and now, he hopes, in Georgia. Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, it’s called, and it’s the best thing Sam’s ever read. It’s got everything from cool science to scary (and totally true) ghost stories, and he can put it down in one town and pick it up in another one a thousand miles away and not lose his place.
He wanders, reading the signs on the ends of the shelves, until he finds 001.9. Bermuda Triangle. Alien Abduction. Strange Stories... Georgia has it. Sam resists the urge to jump up and down, pulls it carefully from the shelf, and carries his treasure to a corner table.
He’s well into a shivery story about these scary, moving faces that appeared suddenly on a floor in Spain, when a hand waves in front of his face, and he comes so close to screaming that he draws in a breath in readiness before he remembers where he is.
The hand withdraws as quickly as it appeared, and Sam traces it back to the pretty lady it belongs to. She’s got soft dark hair and eyes that match, and she’s smiling at him, a tiny smile but a good one, Sam thinks.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” she whispers. “Just wanted to check on you -- you’ve been reading for a couple hours now, and I’m not used to boys sitting still for so long.”
“I have a lot of practice,” he says. “My dad travels a lot.” He wants to get back to reading, but politeness is important to grownups, so when she keeps standing there, he continues, politely, “are you a librarian here?”
“Sure am,” she says. “Is your mother around?”
Sam thinks about lying, but he feels like if he had a mother here, she probably would have checked on him by now, so he answers honestly. “No, I’m here by myself while my dad’s at work. Is that okay?”
She bites her lip for a second. “Normally, it’s not okay,” she says, and Sam waits. Sometimes kids aren’t allowed without grownups, and this is the point where he either gets kicked out or is allowed to stay on. “We don’t usually let kids stay by themselves, but since you’re being so quiet, I think we’ll make an exception this time.”
Sam breathes a loud sigh of relief, and her tiny smile grows to a wide, happy one. Sam likes her.
“So what are you reading? It’s almost as big as you are.”
Sam shows her the cover, and her smile shifts into an outright laugh. “Man, my brothers love that one.” She leans forward like she has a secret to tell. “Come to think of it, so do I. Their favorite’s the Devil in Devon story. What’s yours?”
“Well, I haven’t finished it yet,” he says, “but I like the Money Pit story so far.”
“You like mysteries, huh?” She sounds the way that people are when they like the same things you do. “You’ll have to tell me what you think as you go, okay? My name’s Karen, and if you need anything, I’m right over there.” She points to the counter in the middle of the room.
“Thank you,” he says, and after a moment adds, “my name’s Sam.”
“It’s good to meet you, Sam. I’ll let you get back to your book, once you tell me what part you’re on right now.”
He shows her the picture of the faces in the floor, and she gives a long shudder of delighted fear. “Oh, wow, that story gave me nightmares when I read about it -- do you think you can handle it?”
He has nightmares sometimes, it’s true, and that swooping feeling he had last night settles over him again. He shrugs, though, swallows the feeling down, and says, “My dad says nothing can hurt me while he’s around.”
“You have a good dad, then, Sam.” She looks at him closely, with a serious expression on her face. “Do you worry about the times he’s not with you?”
Sam realizes he’s been talking to a stranger, which is obviously something you’re not supposed to do, but there’s something about her face that makes him think she really understands, even if he himself doesn’t quite. He shrugs again. “It’s him and me and my brother. I guess sometimes that doesn’t feel like enough, to me.”
“Well...” she pauses for a long time, then slowly pulls out a chair across the table from him, smoothing her skirt over her legs before she sits. “For most people, I’m not gonna lie. It might not be enough. It’s kind of a big world, right? Lots of stuff can go wrong.” He nods, and she leans far enough forward on her elbows that their eyes are on the same level, hers steady on his. “But, Sam, some people are important. The work they do, or maybe will do one day, is important. And there are people who watch out for them and make sure they’re always okay. I think you’re one of those important people, and I bet that wherever you go in your life, there’ll be someone to make sure you’re okay. There’s your Dad, right, and your brother, is that what you said?” Sam doesn’t say anything. His eyes don’t want to look away from her face. “Well, now there’s me, too, and there’ll be more, for as long as you need us. We’ll watch out for you, Sam, I promise you that.” She sits back against her chair. “Do you believe me when I say that?”
Sam shouldn’t. He’s old enough to know that grownups say that kind of thing all the time. They say whatever it takes to calm kids down or make them mind or get them to stop asking questions. But Karen doesn’t sound the way people sound when they say those things to kids. She sounds like she’s talking to a grownup, right now.
He thinks about all this for a minute. “Yes,” he says, finally, “I believe you.”
“Sammy?” It’s Dean, walking toward them, still red-faced and sweaty from his game. “Time for lunch -- Dad’ll be at the park soon to pick us up.” He smiles at Karen, but it’s not a real smile, it’s Dean’s best behave-for-the-grownups smile. “Excuse us, ma’am.”
“No problem. You’re Sam’s brother, I bet.” Karen’s smile is different now, too, and so is her voice. She’s talking to a kid when she talks to Dean, and Sam sits up straighter, not completely sure he trusts her any more. “Sam, I’m sorry I interrupted you. Maybe you can come back and read some more after lunch.”
Sam looks at Dean’s blank face, and then back at Karen. “Yeah, maybe,” he says, although he doubts Dean will want him to come back.
She rises to her feet. “Why don’t we leave the book here, then? For when you come back.”
Sam scrambles out from behind the table, too. “Thanks, Karen. It was nice of you to come check on me.”
“Absolutely no problem. Remember what I said, okay?” She smiles that wide, happy smile at Sam again, and then makes her way back to her counter. Sam and Dean both watch her go.
“Dude, she was weird. Why’d she come sit with you like that? You guys looked pretty serious when I came in.” Sometimes Dean forgets to use his library voice, but right now, it’s so library-ish, Sam can barely make out the whisper.
Sam almost tells him, then. Almost tells him about the book, what she said to him, the way she seemed to change, a little bit, when Dean came in. Instead, he says, “I don’t know. I think she was the kind of librarian who wants to make sure kids know the rules.”
“She didn’t try to make you leave, did she?” Dean looks ready to get mad for Sam’s sake. It’s kind of nice, but Sam shuts it down anyway.
“Nah, she let me read for a long time. She didn’t want me putting the book back on the shelf before I left, is all. She probably thinks I don’t know a library works.”
“Well, we know better, don’t we, dorkface?” Dean shoves him, and Sam throws all his weight behind his shove back, and they don’t talk about Karen again. Ever again, in fact. Sam doesn’t forget what she said, though. It travels with him, just him, for a long time.
It feels good, knowing there’s people to look after him.