Sam wakes up to find himself curled up in the back seat of the Impala, head resting on Mom's lap. She's got her fingers threaded through his hair, because that's what she always does when he sleeps in her lap, but he can't feel her touch at all. He sighs quietly, pushes himself to a seated position, and rubs the sleep from his eyes.
"Where are we?" he asks, but there's no answer. Dad's still ignoring him, it seems, and Dean is asleep in the front seat, head pressed up against the passenger side window. "Dad, come on. Whatever I did, I'm sorry, okay?"
Maybe Dad isn’t talking to him because he feels guilty about the fact Sam got his head bashed in by a poltergeist on their last hunt. Sometimes he gets pissed off when Sam or Dean get hurt hunting. Typical, that Dad would care more about the poltergeist than about the fact his kid is concussed. Then again, Sam never really knows what'll set his father off these days, but it makes sense. Dad's been acting weird ever since Sam woke up in the hospital with no sense of how much time had gone by, just packed them into the car and drove off, his expression stony. Dean, white-faced and visibly disturbed, had only shaken his head instead of answering Sam's questions. Dad didn't even look at Sam, hasn't so much as spoken a word to him since, and Sam figures he's mad because Sam getting injured meant they never finished the job. He must be mad at Sam, because he's still being decent with Dean, reaching over now and then to clasp a large hand over the back of Dean's neck, giving it a gentle squeeze every so often, and Sam tries very, very hard not to be jealous.
Mom's fingers brush against his cheek, and he shivers as a chill runs through him. It’s been years, and he’s never quite gotten used to how cold it gets whenever she’s around. "Leave your Dad be, sweetie. I saw a sign go by a few miles ago, we're near Iowa."
"It's not my fault that poltergeist knocked me out," Sam says to his father, folding his arms over his chest and slumping down in his seat. "You can't seriously still be mad at me. Isn't the fact that my head still hurts punishment enough?"
He feels groggy, as though he's spent a week sleeping, the world refusing to come entirely into focus. He wonders if maybe it's not some lingering effect of the concussion. He's felt exhausted and spaced out ever since they left the hospital, like nothing around him is truly real anymore. His head doesn't hurt anymore, actually, but he figures a little white lie might buy him just enough sympathy for Dad to stop the silent treatment. It doesn't, though. Dad just tightens his grip on the steering wheel and keeps driving, and Mom fades away, back to wherever she goes when she's not with them. Sam lies back down on the seat, head where his mother's lap should be, and imagines he can feel the gentle scrape of her fingertips against his scalp.
Sam learned a few important things soon after he began talking in complete sentences. The first was to shut up. The second was that his mother wasn’t like the mother of anyone else he and Dean knew. Other kids’ mothers came to school and helped with homework and sometimes baked brownies, but Mom didn’t do any of those things. At first Sam didn’t know there was anything strange about having Mom just there, standing still in a corner of the room, or sitting just off in the shadows, until he realized that neither Dad nor Dean knew she was even there.
Sam has known his mother all his life, it just took him a while to work out that she was dead.
The third thing Sam learned was never to talk to Dad about Mom, no matter what. Sometimes he could talk to Dean about her, ask questions, and Dean usually answered as best he could, but Dean didn't have all of the answers Sam needed. The only one who could do that was Dad, and he was just as liable to give Sam a smack, or order him to shut up, or just leave him and Dean alone and stomp out, slamming the door behind him.
"Don’t worry, Sammy," Mom said the last time it happened. "It can be our secret, okay? Just you and me. Come over here and we’ll play a game, okay?"
So Sam sat on the dingy carpet in Uncle Bobby’s living room and played quietly with a red plastic truck that Dean had outgrown, and tried not to think about it anymore, not even when Uncle Bobby came to sit on the sofa nearby and watched him play, his eyebrows pulling together worriedly.
"Who you talkin’ to, boy?"
Sam shrugged. If Mom wanted it to be a secret, then he’d keep it a secret. "No one, Uncle Bobby. I was just playing a game. I’m sorry Daddy got mad, though," he added, because it was true. He didn’t want to get into any more trouble.
"You best watch what sort of games you play when your Daddy’s around, then," Uncle Bobby said seriously.
Sam looked over to where Mom was smiling at him, half her face shrouded in shadow as the afternoon sun receded, and he nodded emphatically.
In retrospect, Sam feels pretty stupid for not figuring it out what was wrong with his mom and their lives sooner. He'd wasted precious flashlight batteries reading Dad's journal under the covers of his bed and when he was done, sat there, sheets over his head, bitterly thinking that he should have known. Even Dean’s claim that Dad is some kind of hero is a cold comfort, the revelation like a bucket of ice water dumped over his head.
Mom wraps him in an ice cold hug and kisses his head, even though all it does is chill him to the bone. "It’s not so bad, Sammy. You’ve got your big brother and your father to look out for you."
"You all lied to me. For years!" Sam is shivering almost too hard to form the words properly. Dean looks like someone kicked him in the stomach.
"It’s going to be all right, Sammy," he says, instead of whatever is obviously going through his mind. "You don’t have to be scared. Me and Dad, we’re going to protect you."
"Just like Dad protected Mom?" Sam asks nastily, and regrets it instantly when Dean blanches. "’m sorry," he mumbles, and scrubs at the tears which keep threatening to spill down his cheeks again.
Dean just pulls the blankets further up over Sam’s shoulders. "Go to sleep. Things’ll be better in the morning," he promises, and Sam tries very hard to believe him, even though he’s heard Dad promise the selfsame thing countless times before.
In the morning it’s Christmas, and Mom looks sad that she doesn’t have any presents for them. Dad’s still gone, but Sam knows how hard Dean tried to make Christmas happen for all of them, even if the presents he stole are all wrong. He wonders if they can take them back somehow, or if he’s just going to have to live with the knowledge that somewhere up the street there’s a little girl crying because Santa Claus didn’t bring her anything, and it’s all Sam’s fault.
He gives Dean the amulet that Uncle Bobby gave him for Dad. He comes up with the idea by himself, but Mom seems to think it’s a really great notion, which only reinforces his determination that Dean should have it. Dad doesn’t deserve nice things, not when he lied and missed Christmas. Dean’s whole face lights up as he slips the amulet over his head, and just that makes it all worth it.
Dad would want to get rid of Mom, if he knew about her, Sam realizes with a start. He’d think Mom was a monster, some kind of vengeful spirit that needed to be destroyed. Mom doesn’t have any remains to salt and burn, but Sam is sure Dad would find a way if he knew she was there. He turns to look at her while Dean is still fussing with the cord to the amulet, and she puts a finger to her lips and smiles at him.
For just the briefest of moments her image flickers, fizzes in and out like a staticky television, leaving behind only the impression of a skull, decaying flesh sloughing off of yellowing bone, and Sam shivers.
Sam wakes up in the front seat of the Impala just in time to see a road sign for Abilene, Kansas, flash by. He sits up, rubs at his eyes, and is surprised to see Dean next to him, one hand draped casually over the wheel.
"Since when does Dad let you drive alone?"
The Impala swerves violently as Dean jerks the wheel with a startled yell. "Jesus, Sammy!" He fights for control, straightens out the car in a squeal of tires and pulls over to the side of the road. He drops his forehead against the top of the wheel, still gripping it so hard that Sam can see the knuckles of both his hands turning white. "Don't do that!"
Sam snorts. "Right. I'll be sure not to talk to you at all, just in case you decide to kill us both in a fiery crash. Where are we, anyway? Where's Dad?" he twists in his seat, only to find the car completely empty.
"Dad's up ahead in his truck," Dean replies, voice still shaky, though the answer doesn't make much sense. "We're in Kansas. Going to see Missouri."
Right, the sign. "Oh. When did Dad get a truck?"
"A while back. He said it'd be easier for us if we ever needed to split up on hunts."
Sam fidgets in his seat, something twisting unpleasantly in his chest. He doesn't remember Dad getting a truck, or letting Dean drive the Impala. Dean looks older, too, dressed in Dad's old leather jacket, five o'clock shadow dark on his cheeks and jaw.
"Dean," he asks quietly. "How badly did that poltergeist hit me?"
Dean blows out a breath, carefully pulls back out onto the road. "It was bad," he says softly, and that's enough to tell Sam just how bad it is. Dad and Dean don't like to waste words on stuff like that.
"I think I've been losing time," he confesses. "I don't—I don't remember Dad getting a truck. I don't remember getting in the car with you. I don't even know where we're going or why. Am I brain damaged? Is that why Dad won't look at me anymore?"
"Aw, Sammy," Dean shakes his head, rubs at his mouth with the hand that's not on the steering wheel. "It's going to be all right, okay? I promise. Dad and me, we're gonna take care of it."
He can't ignore the fact that Dean isn't answering his question. It makes sense, though. It would explain the lost time, the confusion, Dad's refusal to so much as acknowledge his existence. He won't even be able to hunt anymore, can't remember the last time he was in school or even talked to someone other than Dean. No wonder Dad's fed up with him, Sam thinks: he's even more useless now than ever.
"Why's Dad keeping me around?"
Sam shrugs, rubs at one side of his nose with his fingers. "I can't hunt like this, obviously. Dad thought I was a dead weight, even when I wasn't brain damaged. Why hasn't he unloaded me somewhere?"
"That's not how it is. Sam, come on…" Dean trails off.
His brother sounds tired, and somehow Sam doesn't want to push it. Instead he lets himself slide over on the seat, curling up until he can rest his head in Dean's lap, and closes his eyes, comforted by the warmth that's radiating from his big brother. Within seconds, he's asleep.
They're still in Kansas when Dean pulls in behind Dad's truck and says "we're here." Sam doesn't get it, he's waiting for the punchline or for Dean to explain how Sam blanked out and missed the whole stop in Missouri when Mom grabs his hand, her expression dark.
"You shouldn't go in there, Sammy," she says. "Stay out here, where it's safe."
Sam sees movement behind the lace curtains of the cozy little house they're parked in front of. Dad's truck is stopped a few feet away, but he's still sitting in it, flipping through his journal. Dean is leaning up against the hood of the Impala, trying to look less nervous than he clearly feels. Sam gives Dean an arch look.
"So… no barbeque in Kansas City, or a trip to the top of the Arch, I guess. Missouri's a person, I take it?"
Dean ignores him, but Mom nods. "I knew Missouri, years ago. Not well, but I knew she was in town. My father used to consult with her, sometimes. She was new, back then, but very talented."
"Grandpa Campbell?" he asks, even as Dad gets out of his truck and motions to Dean to follow him. Sam starts after them, taking the gesture to include him, too. Just because Dad is ignoring him doesn't mean that he won't get mad if Sam doesn't fall into line like a good soldier.
She nods. "You should stay here, Sammy. Stay with me, okay?"
Sam has to go, though. It's not like he can tell Dad why he's not going in. "Why don't you come with us?"
"I can't, Sammy. You go on ahead, though, if you feel you have to," she says, smoothing a hand over his hair. "I'll wait for you."
Dad takes the lead, striding up to the door and ringing the bell peremptorily. Sam ducks behind Dean, anxious for reasons he can't quite explain to himself. The door opens a moment later, revealing a plump black woman in her late thirties or maybe early forties, her hair carefully styled, wearing a yellow cardigan over a blue dress.
"John Winchester, as I live and breathe!" she exclaims, but she doesn't look especially pleased to see any of them. "And you've brought your… well, haven't you grown up!" she adds, smiling at Sam and Dean. "My Lord, Dean, if I hadn't known ahead of time, I'd never have guessed it was you. You were a goofy-looking kid," she adds, and Sam sniggers at the insulted look on Dean's face. He decides he likes her. "But you sure did fill out nicely. What's this, sugar?" she reaches out to brush a finger against Dean's pendant.
"Christmas present," Dean says curtly, though he brings up a hand to wrap around it protectively. "Long time ago."
"And a fine-looking present it is," Missouri takes the hint. "Come in, come in. I've got a pot of tea ready for you."
Sam glances back toward the car, but Mom has disappeared, the sun shining brightly where she stood only a moment before.
There are only three cups set out for tea, much to Sam's relief. He hates the stuff, but apparently Missouri either already knows that, or maybe she thinks kids shouldn't drink tea. Her parlour is glowing with dappled sunlight, dust motes floating in the sunbeams filtering through the lace curtains, but Sam can't seem to get warm, as though the whole place is sitting on top of an iceberg.. Dad takes one of the armchairs and Missouri takes the other, and Sam wedges himself close to Dean on her sofa, pressing as close as he can manage, though Dean doesn't move to accommodate him. Missouri looks over at him and Dean and gives them both a friendly wink.
The conversation goes over Sam's head after that, like the buzzing of hundreds of little flies. He shivers and pulls his hands into the sleeves of his hoodie, and gives up on trying to follow what Dad and Missouri are talking about. Dean isn't saying much either, and Sam can tell he's focused more on him than on what's being said. He smiles and shakes his head at Dean, trying to reassure him. He wonders if this is the brain damage too, the fact that he can't follow conversations anymore, except if they're really simple.
He must doze off, because the next thing he knows, Dad is at the door, along with Dean, thanking Missouri for her time. They're not even waiting for him. Sam scrambles to his feet to run after them as they head out, but to his surprise, Missouri stops him.
"Hold up, Sam."
He jerks to a halt, hand still outstretched to reach for the door. "Uh."
She smiles. "It's all right, honey. I want to talk to you for a minute, Sam, if you don't mind?"
He glances toward the door again. "I should—Dad doesn't like it when I dawdle."
"He won't mind this time, I promise."
"He said it was okay?" It doesn't sound like anything Dad would say, but neither he nor Dean are yelling at Sam to hurry his ass up, so it must be true. "Uh, okay. I'm sorry I fell asleep. I didn't mean to be rude," he says, following her back into the parlour and sitting on the sofa again.
"Don't worry about it, sweetie. I know it's not your fault."
"It's because of the poltergeist. I hit my head," he explains lamely. "It ruined everything." He fiddles with his fingers, hands in his lap. "Are you really psychic?"
She nods. "I am. Why do you want to know?"
He shrugs, keeps his gaze firmly fixed on the carpet. "I can see my mother. I mean, I've always been able to see her, but Dad and Dean say she's not there. That she's not real. That I made her up because I wanted her to be alive. So I thought…"
"You thought if I could see her, then I'd be able to convince your father and brother that you weren't crazy?" Missouri says gently, and he nods, still not daring to meet her eyes. "Oh, Sam, honey, it's not that simple. I can tell you this, though: you have a very special gift. A powerful gift, too. I wouldn't be surprised if you were able to see all sorts of things others can't."
A chill runs down his spine. "You mean like a psychic thing?"
She nods, leaning forward in her seat and clasping her hands between her knees. "I do. I wish we had more time together, I really think I could help you, but that's not up to us now."
"What about my mom?"
Missouri purses her lips. "If you can see her, sugar, then she's still here. I'm surprised," she admits. "But my best guess is she's holding onto you. You're her baby boy, after all, and there's nothing has a stronger hold on people than family. But you know all about that, don't you? You and your big brother? You look up to him a lot, don't you? Gave him that nice pendant and everything."
He nods. "Uncle Bobby gave it to me, said it was special. I was supposed to give it to Dad, but… I don't know, I was mad because he lied to me and Dean got me these presents even though we didn't have money and…"
"And you thought Dean deserved the present more," she finishes for him.
"Yeah. Dean takes care of me," he says. It's not something he thinks about much, it's just the way things have always been, but that doesn't make it any less true.
"Yes," Missouri nods, her gaze moving toward the closed door. "I suppose he does."
Sam might be brain-damaged, but he's not stupid. Enough people have lied to him in his life that he can tell she's holding something back.
"What aren't you telling me?"
She looks sad, he realizes suddenly, and it startles him. Of all the things he was expecting, this was the last. "Oh, Sam," she says softly. "You're awfully perceptive for a boy who hasn't seen the obvious. Haven't you realized by now?"
The whole room feels as though it's encased in ice. Sam shakes his head and can't bring himself to speak.
"Sam, honey. You're dead."
"You can't tell them," Mom says, wrapping her arms around him tightly. He can feel her grip now, ice-cold and stronger than any living being could manage. "They can't know you're here, Sammy."
He squirms in her grasp. "Mom, come on! Dean already knows I'm dead, he talked to me, remember? It's okay."
"No," she whispers, and the word echoes in his mind. "It's not safe, not safe for you if they know. Your father's a hunter, Sammy, just like I was. Do you know what they do to spirits?"
He stops struggling. He's seen what they do to spirits. "Does it hurt?"
"I wouldn't know," she says grimly. "Just stay with me, okay?"
"Okay." It's easier to agree. "What do we do?"
"We protect them," she says simply, and it amazes him that he never thought of it before.
Every so often Dean looks at him as though he can still see him there. It's strange, being dead. Now that he knows, anyway. Time doesn't pass the same way, none of the world looks the same. Sometimes he hears Mom humming to herself when she moves around, watching Dad and Dean as they go about their lives. Most of the time, he doesn't see her at all, not until the day Dad sends Dean into a nest of vampires to recover a gun.
"Vampires. Gets funnier every time I hear it."
Dad's already halfway out the door, even as Dean is struggling to wake up from the deep sleep he was enjoying only a couple of minutes ago, scrubbing at his eyes with the knuckles of both hands. Mom is watching from the corner, pale and flickering, her eyes wide in a face that's become almost translucent. Sam has never looked in a mirror, but he wonders if that's how he seems to her, or if all spirits end up fading over time.
"Dean, get your ass in gear!" Dad barks, and Dean scrambles to obey.
They're in Manning, Colorado, out to find the nest of vampires that killed Daniel Elkins, Dad's old hunting mentor. That's all Sam knows, except that Elkins apparently owned a gun that's able to kill just about anything. Mom grabs Sam by the arm, though, holding him back.
"Let me handle this," she says grimly, and before he can so much as open his mouth in protest, she's gone.
The next thing he knows—and he's sure he's lost some time now, just not how much—the door to the motel room is slamming open again, and Dad is dragging a battered Dean back inside. Dean's leg is soaked in blood, his jeans ruined even if Dad weren't about to slit them open from ankle to knee with a sturdy pair of crimping shears. Sam winces at the sight of the gash on his calf, deep and still oozing blood sluggishly, then flinches when he catches sight of Dean staring straight at him, eyes wide, his face ashen not just from blood loss.
"Sammy?" Dean mouths, and Sam shakes his head, silently pleading with him not to say anything.
Dean shuts his mouth with an audible click, hisses with pain as his father disinfects the wound and proceeds to start stitching it up with brutal, efficient movements. It takes a long time, and by the time he's done both he and Dean are shaking with the effort, and Sam's hands are clenched at his sides. Dad wraps clean gauze around Dean's leg, gives his knee a pat, and gets to his feet.
"I have to go finish off the nest. Vampire gets your scent, it's for life."
"Dad—" Dean starts, but he's already gone.
Sam turns and kicks the other bed in frustration, doesn't miss the way Dean flinches when the whole frame actually rattles.
"You could have gotten killed! What the hell happened?"
Dean rubs a hand over his face, and Sam can hear the skin of his palms scraping against the stubble on his face. He doesn't know how old Dean is, he realizes with something akin to shock, has no idea how much time has passed since that poltergeist cracked his skull.
"Not now, Sammy, okay?"
"Oh, it's not now, Sammy," he mimics nastily. "Then when? When Dad finally gets you killed? He used you as bait! I bet you he didn't even tell you what his plan was tonight, did he? He just sent you into the middle of a nest full of vampires absolutely blind! God damn it!"
This time there's no hiding the fact that Dean flinches when the window rattles in its frame. Dean's breath plumes in front of him, and he pulls away from Sam, inching away on the bed.
"Calm down," he says. Sam can hear his voice shaking, and all the anger drains out of him.
"I don't know what happened, okay?" Dean won't look at him. "One minute everything was fine, the next this girl—they had her strung up like a piece of meat—she starts screaming like she's on fire, and all the vamps woke up. I don't even know how we got out. It was like… I don't know, it was cold, and everything was covered in blood… I thought it might have been you," he says.
Sam shakes his head. "No."
Dean does look up at that, and meets his eyes for the first time. "Sammy… I didn't know you were… why are you still here? Why haven't you moved on?"
Sam shrugs, and watches as Dean's breath fogs in front of him again. There's a layer of ice forming on the windowpane. He doesn't need to look behind him to know that Mom is there—he can feel her presence as surely as he can see his brother in front of him.
"Don't talk to him," she snarls, and the world goes black.
"I don't understand," Sam knows he's whining, and hates himself a little for it, but he can't help it. "How is this helping? You said we were supposed to help them—look out for them. How can we do that if we're hiding here all the time?"
Mom's face is almost gone. She flickers in and out of the light, and Sam can count all of her teeth, where the skin of her cheek has disappeared. He wonders if that'll happen to him too, before long.
"Don't show yourself," she hisses at him. "It's not safe for you out there. I have to keep you away from them."
He doesn't know where they are, only that it's cold and dark, here. Mom takes him to this place whenever she gets it in her mind that he's been taking too many risks, that he might not be safe, but he's beginning to doubt that she really knows what 'safe' means anymore. Didn't Dad used to say that vengeful spirits always went insane, no matter how they started out? He tries to pull away, but she's holding onto him so tightly it hurts.
"It's not safe," she repeats, and everything around her flickers. "Do you know what they'll do to you? Stay here with me, Sammy. Stay here, I'll keep you safe. It's safe here. Safe."
She's been a spirit longer than he has, and she's so much stronger, but he struggles anyway. "You don't know that. Dean saw me, and it was okay. You weren't there!"
"No, no, no," she pulls him close to her chest, the words coming out as a moan. "You can't go to them. You can't. I'm supposed to keep you with me, keep you safe. I swore."
"Mom, you're hurting me!" Sam wrenches away, and hates himself a little for the way her eyes fill with pain.
Already the darkness is starting to recede, and he can make out Dean's face, dimly lit by some light source he can't see. Mom reaches for him, but she's getting fainter now, threatening to disappear again. He can hear Dad, arguing with Dean, hear the heat in their words, and realizes they're arguing about him.
"You're absolutely sure he's still here?"
"I saw him, Dad. He was right here, he talked to me," Dean is pleading, halfway off the bed, his injured leg propped up on a pillow. "You have to believe me!"
Dad doesn't believe him, Sam can see it. He looks back at Mom. "I can't stay here, I have to go back to them. Don't you see what this is doing to Dean?"
Mom looks anguished, but she doesn't move to stop him this time. "Sam, please…"
"No," he shakes his head, and steps back into the room. He can tell when Dad sees him, because all of the colour drains out of his father's face. "Dad?"
Dean twists on the bed to see what his father is staring at, his mouth opening silently. Sam can't tell what he's thinking, so he looks back at Dad, whose whole face is twisting with pain.
"Oh, God, Sammy. Sammy…"
"It's okay, Dad. Mom's been looking out for me."
"Mary…" It's an exhalation more than a word, a breath filled at once with hope and despair. "God, Sammy, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, I didn't know you were still here. I thought Missouri was wrong…" Dad steps forward as though to pull him into one of his rare bear-hugs, but of course he can't touch Sam now, and so he stops, his fingers hovering just short of Sam's shoulder. "We'll fix this," he promises fiercely, "we'll fix it. Dean, get up. Use the cane if you need it."
His father's face is grim, his mouth pressed into a thin line. "We're going to put this right."
Dean is limping badly, but it doesn't stop him from hurrying after their father, who strides out the door of their motel and slides into the driver's seat of the Impala. Dean hobbles to the other side as quickly as he can, the door slamming shut behind him. It's telling, Sam thinks, that Dad doesn't say a word about going easy on the doors this time. Sam blinks, and as easy as that he's in his usual spot in the rear seat, sitting with his head poking up over the bench seat to look at his father and brother.
"Where are we going?" he asks quietly, and for the first time in as long as he can remember, his father answers.
"There's a clearing not far. Less than two miles. We're going there."
They drive the rest of the way in silence. Sam doesn't know what to say, doesn't know if there's anything left to say. Dean's hands are clasped in his lap, Dad's gripping the steering wheel of the Impala so tightly Sam can hear the squeak of leather against skin, can see first his knuckles and then his fingers begin to turn white. The car rumbles to a halt by the side of the road, and Dad is out and walking before Dean so much as has time to open his door. Sam follows them, acutely aware now of how the tall grass passes right through him without so much as shivering in the breeze.
"Stay here," Dad tells them both, once they're in the center of the clearing, where the grass is at its shortest, still a little dry from the hot afternoon sun. Sam doesn't know what month it is, let alone what day, but he thinks it might be spring. "Not enough wood for a proper fire."
He leaves Dean sitting on a mouldering log, injured leg stretched out to the side, propped up on his cane, and Sam drifts over to sit beside him. Or, at least, pretend to sit beside him. He's not sure he can even really sit anymore.
"It's… why didn't you say anything before?" Dean asks quietly, plucking at the grass beneath him, tearing it up one blade at a time and flicking each one aside before starting again. "I thought, after Missouri, that you'd moved on."
"Mom didn't want me to."
Dean looks up at that, clearly startled. "What? She's still here too?"
"I told you she was real, that I wasn't making her up. She didn't want me to tell you any of it, said I should stay with here. She said she'd keep me safe."
Dean looks around, hardly paying attention to him. "Mom?"
"She's not here right now. She doesn't stay around much. She's scared Dad will burn us up."
"Sammy…" Dean blows out a breath. "You know that's what we're doing, right? Tonight? It's not good for you to still be here. God, it's been years, Sammy. Years. You were twelve when…" he trails off, and something like dread creeps up Sam's spine.
"Dean? How old are you?"
To his surprise, Dean grins, looking sidelong at him from under his lashes. It's a wry, almost teasing look. "You really have been out of it. I'm twenty-six, dude."
Ten years. It's been ten years, and he never noticed. Never put two and two together until Missouri Moseley laid it out for him on a silver platter. If he were still alive, Sam might be tempted to cry.
The dry grass crunches under Dad's feet as he returns, arms filled with kindling. It's not nearly enough for a pyre, but then Sam is pretty sure that's not the kind of fire Dad's planning to build. He watches as Dad kneels and begins stacking the kindling, stares in fascination as the first tiny flames curl upward, catching in the newspaper that Dad has shoved under the kindling to use as a starter, licking their way up and along the wood. A few seconds later and the fire has truly caught, crackling in the cooling evening air.
Dad looks over at Dean. "Give me your pendant."
For a moment Sam is tempted to try to snatch the amulet right out of Dean's hands, but he forces himself to stay right where he is. A moment later, just as Dad is holding the tiny bit of bronze over the flames, preparing to drop it, a shriek rends the night air, startling them all.
Sudden darkness blankets the stars, and the fire sparks and stutters in a sudden wave of cold. Dad staggers back a step, the pendant falling from fingers gone numb as Mom materializes out of thin air and hurls herself at him, shrieking and clawing at him like a cornered animal.
"You won't take him from me!" Mom screams, reaching for Dad's throat with both hands. "I won't let you! I won't let you do this to us!"
Dean's scrambling toward them, but even Sam can see he won't be in time. He throws himself at his mother, tries to shove himself bodily between her and his father, without success. Dad screams as she drives both her hands into his chest, and Sam's panic doubles as he sees blood appear at the corners of Dad's mouth. He grabs one of her arms and hauls on it as hard as he can, but she's impossibly strong.
"Mom, you're killing him! Stop it, you're killing him!"
As fast as she appeared, she lets go, flickers out and back, reappears a few yards away on the other side of the fire. Dad coughs and spits out a mouthful of blood, pushes himself to his feet. Incredibly, he's managed to get a grip on the cord around the pendant, pulls it along with him.
"Sam," he croaks, then appears to think better of whatever he was going to say, so Sam nods, turns back toward Mom.
"It's okay, Dad. Don't worry, Mom," he says, and is proud of the way his voice doesn't shake. "I'm going to a better place, right? That's the whole point, isn't it?"
His mother looks stricken, but more human than she has in years. To Sam's surprise, she's looking over at Dean, hands clasped in front of her. "My poor boys," she whispers, "I'm so sorry."
And then she's gone.
Dean limps over to where Sam is standing, clears his throat, and nods at their father. "You better do it now, Dad. Sammy…" he says, and Sam can hear the break in his voice. "Catch you on the flip side?"
He smiles. "You bet. Don't get yourself killed early, okay?"
Dean snorts. "Not likely. And don't be a smart-assed little bitch when you walk into the light, got it?"
"Got it, jerk."
He knows the exact moment the amulet begins to melt. The whole world turns white, so bright it feels as though he could lose himself in it forever. He lets out a long exhalation that's at once rejoicing and relief, and when he opens his eyes he's standing in a meadow, looking up at his mother's smiling face. The sky is so blue it hurts his eyes, the grass vibrant and cool under his feet, the air fragrant with honeysuckle.
For one, glorious moment he feels entirely at peace. Then his mother's face crumples, tears spilling down her cheeks. Shaken, he moves toward her, reaches up to try to brush the tears away.
"It's okay, Mom. We're in Heaven now, right? With the angels," he says, beaming up at her. He can hear the sound of singing in the distance, unearthly and haunting.
"Oh, Sam," she strokes his hair. "It's the angels I was trying to protect you from."
There's a flash, then, a bolt of indescribable pain, and Sam cries out. The meadow melts away into the darkness, taking his mother with it, and he's falling, spiraling away into the void.
He lands with a lurch that knocks the air out of suddenly functioning lungs, and he sits upright with a gasp, trying to remember how to breathe after going so long without. His body feels impossibly large and heavy, much larger than he remembers it, and when he looks down at himself he doesn't recognize the jeans and suede jacket he's wearing, though both are crusted with mud and what might be blood. He's half-lying on the remains of a wooden crate or a section of boardwalk, surrounded by the empty storefronts and rotting buildings of a ghost town right out of the Westerns he and Dean used to watch on TV. In the distance a bell rings once, a hollow sound that sends a chill down his spine.
"Well, howdy, Sam. I was wondering when you'd get around to showing up. Took you long enough."
The voice breaks into his thoughts, and he starts, whipping his head around to find himself staring at a man not much older than his father, blond hair just beginning to go grey. He's crouching just a few feet away, the grin that splits his face not quite reaching his eyes. Instinctively Sam tries to scramble back.
"Who are you?"
The man blinks once, slowly, and when he opens his eyes again they've turned a brilliant, deep yellow. "You'll find out soon enough. Oh, have I got plans for you, Sammy my boy.
"Have I got plans for you."