It’s so quiet in the room. There’s a bone-deep silence that magnifies every sound: the foamy dish water that gurgles around Dean’s hands, the table creaking under Dad’s weight, the shuffling of papers, the scrape of metal as he unscrews the bottle. Whiskey splashes into the glass. Dad swallows, then exhales sharply. The interstate buzzes outside.
But there’s a crack in the world through which all these sounds seep out, like water from a cracked glass, and the world they leave behind is quiet and cold.
“I’ll have to go out again, kiddo,” Dad says.
The cup slips from Dean’s wet fingers. It falls back into the sink with a gulp. He fishes it out and puts it down on the stained rack, next to the other cup and the two plates from their last meal. The sink drains with an ugly sound like it’s choking.
Dad’s been speaking so softly lately. Always hunched over his notes, doesn’t raise his voice, never barks an order, and Dean finds himself wishing he would. It wouldn’t be so quiet then. He’d know what to do, wouldn’t feel so useless.
But Dad only looks at him, with those blood-shot eyes, that sorry smile, and Dean has to turn away. He studies the waves in the acid colored linoleum floor.
“I’ll be back by morning.” Dad’s boots drag across the floor and then he’s got a hand on Dean’s head, ruffling his hair, like he hasn’t since Dean was seven and hit every bottle on the beam the first time. He smells sour, of alcohol and unwashed clothes. “You go watch some TV or something, hm?”
Dean nods. He has a thousand questions racing through his head, but his tongue is lead, his mouth won’t open. The last few nights, Dad’s been talking on the phone a lot. Dean heard when he couldn’t fall asleep. All he managed to pick up, though, is that Dad is still hunting it, the thing that did this. This evil thing. Dean needn’t ask whether Dad has a lead, or how he’s going to kill it, or whether in the morning he’ll be bringing Sammy home with him. Dad would say if he wanted him to know.
It’s just a bunch of stupid questions anyway and besides, Dean’s got faith.
Once he’s alone, he lays out the salt lines, just like Dad told him to. Along doors and window sills, he pours unbroken lines, but he can’t help wondering if he missed a spot that night. If maybe the thing stole into the room through a tiny, tiny hole in one of the corners? If he were to leave another hole like that, if it just happened, the wind blowing in through a slit under the glass, would it come back? Maybe it wants Dean too. Maybe it’ll take him to wherever it’s keeping Sam.
He curls up on the couch and finds the loudest film on TV, some Bruce Lee flick, and all the while thinks about the time Dad killed that black dog in Louisiana, big as a bull, with razor sharp teeth. Only took him one clean shot between the eyes to take it down. Or that poltergeist, the one where Dad almost brought down the house. The family he saved looked at him like a true hero when they said their thanks. Dad doesn’t wait for monsters to come to him, like a coward. He hunts them down to and kills them.
Dean falls asleep with his messy face buried in one of Sammy’s shirts.
The TV spills gray noise by the time Dad wakes him. “We’re out in 20,” is all he says.
Frost crept through the cheap windows during the night. Dean fumbles for the remote to turn the TV off, then puts on a warm flannel and starts packing. This has to be good news. Surely this is good news. Getting out on the road means Dad’s got a lead, and that means not long until it’ll all be okay again, the three of driving down south for winter, just like Dad promised.
Only Dad’s standing there in the doorway, hunched up in his jacket with a weird expression on his face, like he’s sorry or something. He twists his mouth like he’s trying to smile, and Dean notices how he’s still in the same shirt as last night, the one with the holes near the seam. Maybe it’s just because he hasn’t slept. He’s tired, is all.
Dean smiles back and keeps packing, and he doesn’t pay too much attention to the way Dad’s shoulders sack when he walks away.
Out the door, a damp chill creeps under the layers of his clothes and Dean regrets not zipping up his jacket. The morning is foggy. He can’t even see the interstate, only hear it. Dad is already at the car, closing the weapon’s cache, and Dean doesn’t want to waste time.
He is about to lift the duffle bags into the trunk when Dad grabs them and does it for him, even though they aren’t heavy. “We’ll stop on the way, get you some breakfast. Those pancakes with syrup, you like those, right?” Says it with an ill-fitting smile.
Eating is the last thing Dean feels like, but he nods anyway. His throat is too tight to answer out loud.
Dad lets it slip. His eyes look glassy. Maybe breakfast would do him good.
When they pull out past the motel’s red vacancy sign, it shines like a halo in the mist. No one else is here.
They drive west and the fog never lifts. Dad stops for a bag of doughnuts two towns over. It lands, barely touched, on the back seat, and they’re swept out onto grey roads again. Outside the windows, big black birds are picking the marrow from empty fields. The wind whines and the engine rattles and the radio crackles over quiet songs.
Late at night, Dean cries a little. He hides his face between his knees, and when a sob rises to shake his chest, he holds his breath until it passes.
The sound of Dad’s voice makes him jump. Quickly, he wipes his face clean. Dad’s looking at him in the passing glow of the street lights.
Suck it up, he tells himself. Don’t be a baby.
Then Dad puts his arm around the backrest and says, “Come here.”
There’s comfort in it, of a shameful kind, to scoot over into the half open embrace. Not that it changes much. The car is still too big and empty, with nothing but dark night ahead.
Dean dozes through the morning and doesn’t see the mountains until they’re in them. The road is barely wide enough for the car and soon the woods close in around them, branches scratching the windows like brittle bones. The radio stutters, then dies.
When they reach a cabin, the road narrows to nothing but a dirt track and the car rolls to a stop. They’re not staying, though.
“We walk from here,” Dad says and opens the door into the biting cold air. Dean follows, wrapping his jacket more tightly around himself.
Dad picks salt and rope from the trunk, then reaches for his gun, but hesitates and takes an old hunting knife instead. Not the machete, just a plain knife. Last he checks his zippo before he bags it.
Dean stands beside him and stares up at the cloud-hung peaks that surround them, at the naked rocks rising above the trees. The silence is different out here. Not so much empty as texturous, like a living, breathing thing that resonates with a lasting darkness.
And then Dad heaves a sigh that makes Dean smell fire, makes him see wild amber dancing through the night. A hollow, groaning ache festers inside his chest, something as cold and dead as stone.
Dad hands him the fuel down. His eyes aren’t just glassy, they’re wet, and he squeezes Dean’s shoulder like he’s trying to break it and it hurts. Dean wants him to stop. He wants to say something, but breathing through the nausea takes a little much effort right now and he can’t get the words out, so he just stands there, frozen, with the gas can in his clammy hands.
Eventually the hand drops off Dean’s shoulder, the trunk closes with a bang and then they’re walking.
A dirt track, winding, descends into the silent woods. Dad’s footsteps are heavy on the ground. Twigs break and sometimes there’s a patch of pebbles that crunches, but no birds, nothing that moves in the trees.
The cold crawls under Dean’s skin, into his bones. His nose won’t stop running. His fingers soon turn numb, even though he’s pulled his sleeves down to the knuckles.
The night it happened, chalk stained Dad’s fingers. His jeans too, like he’d wiped his hands or had been kneeling in it. When he grabbed Dean, the motel door ajar, shotgun dropping to the floor, his palm left a blood stain on Dean’s shoulder. He held him hard, and he stank of smoke and something rotten, terrible, worse than burning graves, and he wasn’t angry with Dean.
Dean bites his lip and wipes a sleeve over his face and then forces out a croaked, “Dad?”
Dad stops. “Hey, buddy,” he says, voice thick like he’s cold too. He waits for Dean to catch up, but the trail isn’t wide enough for two people, so Dean falls in behind, at a step’s distance to the bag slung across Dad’s shoulder.
The gas sloshes in the can. Its weight pulls on Dean’s arm, all the way down his back. It’s like a madness that comes over him, that has the words tumbling out.
“Sammy’s going to be okay, right?”
He needs Dad to say it, to say it like he means it, like he knows it, to say it with the weight of the shotgun that he puts into Dean's hand every time he's off for a hunt.
But Dad’s voice seems swallowed up by a void, distant and clogged, when he answers. “I’m making sure of it, son.”
After that, Dean busies himself watching the ground. Roots and stones and bare soil. There’s a hitch to Dad’s shoulders, but Dean only sees the tracks of his boots in the patches of foul leaves.
They stop when the track hits a wall and frazzles. Stone raises straight up against the murky sky, trees cower in its shadow. All around them, silence creeps through the thicket.
Dad drops the duffle bag and starts clearing a boulder from moss and debris. He sprays some symbols on it. They come out crooked, lines unclean. Dean can see that from where he's standing, next to the bag, like Dad dropped him there too.
He feels funny now. Elated, like a fever’s burned through him. The world can’t get to him anymore; he doesn't let it. Keeps his head occupied instead by thinking of Sammy and the things Dad does and it's okay, it'll all be okay. For every bad thing, there's a ritual to counter, for every monster the right kind of bullet. Dad knows these things. Everything’s how it's supposed to be. It's okay.
“Come here, Dean.”
Dad is crouching on the ground and gestures at Dean to come closer. His eyes are swollen and his cheeks wet, fat tears rolling into his beard. Dean follows the order, brings the bag too but leaves the canister when Dad shakes his head.
He’s not sure where to look. “Will Sammy be okay?” he hears himself say, talking to the ground somewhere near Dad’s boots.
It makes Dad laugh. It's not that hard sound like sometimes when he's drunk and Dean says something stupid. This one's a heavy sigh, like too much of Dad is escaping in it, some raw part turning inside out.
He brushes his thumb over Dean's cheekbone. Like he’s wiping away a tear even though it's not Dean who's crying. Dean’s just cold, and maybe a little nauseous, but not feeling much at all. If he’s shivering, it's only because Dad touches him like he's some fragile thing. This is how he pats Sammy before he sends him to bed, but Sam is a kid, little and scared, while Dean’s already shooting with the double barrel.
Dean knows how to fight. He’s good at it. And now that they’re here and the ritual's set and with Sammy gone for so long, he wants to prove that he deserves this honor. He's been trained by a hero. He's willing to act on the pledge of allegiance Dad made him swear, to this family, to Sam.
So he locks his knees, pushes his chest out. Makes himself straighten under Dad's hand.
Dad's grip tightens until it hurts, fingertips digging into Dean’s neck, before he grabs him and sets him down on the boulder.
“You got to be brave now, son.”
Dean makes a sound at the back of his throat, something that was supposed to be yessir. It comes out small and wretched. Hearing it makes his stomach twist, but Dad doesn’t tell him off. No reminder to speak up, loud and clear.
Dad just stands there and holds Dean's hands like he's forgotten what to do with them. His thumbs are rubbing up and down along the wrists, up and down, shoving back the sleeves. The cold hushes in.
When he lets go, it’s abrupt. The way he bends over, Dean thinks, in a brief flash of panic, that he’s going to be sick, but he’s only reaching for the duffel.
“Close your eyes, Dean.”
Dean does. Slams them shut and never peeks, never makes a sound. Not when coarse rope loops around his wrists, not when the knots pull too tight. It stings, but he keeps still, brave as he's supposed to be.
Dad’s heavy hand on the back of his head pushes him forward. He ends up leaning against Dad’s chest, mouth open, can’t get air in through his nose. His fingers scramble for the seam of Dad’s jacket.
The void of this place sinks into his skin, into his head, makes it light like a balloon that’s trapped in Dad’s grip. All the world dwindles. Dad above him says a prayer the sound of Mom’s name.
A cold edge pricks his throat.
And Dean thinks, she'll come now. The whisper from the deep of the woods, the wind that swells and shakes the trees, that must be Mom. She comes to take him home.
But the roar that breaks into the clearing carries the stench of death. It rattles the branches, it licks against Dean’s skin, and into the sudden utter darkness, Dad screams.
Dean tries to reach for his own throat, to feel the blood that must be there, thick and hot.
Instead Dad yanks his head back. He slams him down against the stone.
Dean’s eyes pop wide open.
There’s a grin that splits Dad’s face.
“Johnny, Johnny, look at what a pretty boy you got.”
Eyes black as hell stare down at Dean. That’s not Dad’s voice coming out of his mouth.
“Sorry ‘bout that, kiddo. Play time’s over. Someone downstairs has taken a liking to you - which is more than I can say about your daddy here, isn’t it?”
The knife glints in the gray light, a wisp of red along its blade.
“I hardly even had to convince him, would you believe it? So eager to throw you to the wolves.”
The thing that is not Dad drops the blade. It hits the ground with a dull sound. Then the thing picks up Dean from the stone and sets him in one arm.
“When he called me, your daddy, I was in the middle of orchestrating a train wreck. About to get to the good parts too, real nice screamers in the crowd, but you know your daddy, don’t you? A patient man, he’s not.”
Dean should be fighting. Should be able to stop this. But his whole body seems frozen, dead weight. He can’t pull his eyes away from the tar-like pits in Dad’s face.
The thing walks him away from the boulder, along the stone wall back into the woods.
“Well, I gotta be honest, it doesn’t happen often anymore. Times have changed and people must have lost my number. Sad, don’t you think, Dean-o? But your daddy, ah, he wanted to talk. Real nice company. Wanted to know everything. Asked me all those questions about-”
It stops, grins.
“Well, not to spoil all the fun, let’s say about little Sammy and your darling mum. But you know who he didn’t ask about at all? Not one word?”
It touches Dean’s face. Dad’s hands don’t feel different at all, but it’s not him. It’s not him. Dean makes himself small, sink away under his skin.
“You. Never mentioned you. I didn’t even know you were there. Then I go to take a closer look at Sammy, and lo and behold, Johnny’s got another kid. Such a nice surprise. And all I wanted to do was check up on the boy wonder, see for myself if it’s true.”
It leans in, its grimace so close to Dean, and lowers its voice.
“I believe it is, by the way. Great things await him. All of us.”
It continues down the woods, carries Dean past knotted branches and broken trunks. Dean can’t see the clearing anymore. From somewhere ahead, he hears a small, small sound, like a whimper. He bites down hard on the inside of his cheeks. He won’t cry.
“Well, what can I say? None of this is about you, Dean-o, but some opportunities are simply too sweet to pass. John is so stubborn, so righteous. Makes you want to sink your claws into him. Made me curious, whether I might be able to nag him a little.”
The whimpering gets louder with every step. They’re walking right to it, Dean realizes. Whatever makes the sound must be right here somewhere, in the bushes, in the naked boughs.
The thing holds Dad’s steps.
“It’s a shame, truly. I had him just right, and now order is for your pretty head to stay on its shoulders. You understand orders, don't you? So, happy family reunion with mommy is postponed, but don’t you be sad. I bet your daddy’s gonna get you there in no time.”
And then Dad’s arm just opens and drops him and Dad screams again, chokes out a thick darkness.
Dean hides his face against the ground. He screws his eyes shut in terror. Slamming against the insides of his ribcage, his heart is hammering so hard that it hurts. He can hardly hear over its panicked beat.
There are footsteps. Someone cries, the whimper louder now. Then a hand grabs him by the collar and picks him out of the dirt.
He thrashes, but it's only Dad, eyes clear. And there, in his arm, clinging to his neck, there's Sam, with twigs in his hair and pyjamas that are torn, sniffing into Dad's jacket.
“Get going, Dean. Come on. Move!”
He stumbles into a run. It takes three steps for every one of Dad’s to keep up. Sam's not crying, but he's making these little sounds, glaring back over Dad's shoulder with too much white in his eyes, that send cold shivers down Dean's spine.
Dean presses closer to Dad. When he slows, out of breath, Dad grabs the rope and hauls him. He pulls him up a ditch like that, back on the trail they walked to come down. Now it stretches on and on. There are only trees and more trees and no ending and Sam keeps crying.
Finally there’s the clearing, the cabin, the car. Dean sobs with relief. He crawls into the backseat as soon as Dad unlocks the door, lets Sam slide under his arms and hold on. Dad starts up the engine and the car skitters over the dirt track until they hit road again.
A flock of birds sways over the fields. Dean sits on the edge of the backbench, feet dangling out of the open door, and holds his wrists up for Dad to cut the rope. His hands have turned red and swollen, but they don’t hurt. He can’t feel them at all, in fact, until Dad starts rubbing them. Then they sting.
“That’s the blood shooting back in,” Dad says, and Dean nods.
He drinks water from the silver flask Dad holds for him, his own hands too numb, and then obediently tilts his head back when Dad runs a thumb along his throat. Still, Dean can see the unhappy line of Dad’s mouth.
“It’s just a scratch, Dad,” he says. “It’s nothing.”
Dad pats him. “That’s my boy.”
Dad takes care of Sammy after that. Makes him put on fresh clothes and asks some questions, but Sammy mumbles and Dean can’t hear what he says.
The birds fall and splay across the field, then rise again.
The road signs say Denver and Cheyenne. Dad takes a left turn and they disappear past Dean's shoulder.
Dad’s looking back at Dean through the rear view mirror, dark shadows under his eyes. “There's something I gotta take care of, Dean. You understand that, right?”
“Yes, Sir,” Dean says, loud and clear.
Sammy sleeps curled up against Dean's side. Only his unruly hair pokes out over the blanket. With every bump of the road, his head drops from Dean's shoulder. Getting comfortable again, he makes those tiny noises, smacking his lips, and Dean leans his ear down and listens. He closes his eyes for a moment to take it in, this beautiful, solid weight of Sam's that fills the world.