They take the usual seats. Right up against the huge front windows, in full view of the road and the occasional swathes of headlights passing by. Beyond the black smudge of the highway, a drop into blank white desert, stretching on forever, flat, dusty, unknowable, almost glowing. The sign for US 491 wobbles in the wind and the neon light.
Inside, ceiling fans soldier on but don't do much to dispel the lingering day-heat—just serve to cut up the fluorescent lights into migraine shadows; the seats are faux leather and sticky, the tables stained, the Muzak steely and overwrought.
It's Wednesday night. The waitress doesn't bother to come take their orders down. She spots them from behind the diner counter and holds one finger up and nods to them as they sit down.
The Rattlesnake 24-Hour Dine-In isn't in Rattlesnake or Shiprock or anywhere, really. It just sits on the highway, sinking on its far end, an oven in the daytime and a steel box at night, rarely-traveled and barely-loved. The food is just short of nothing special and the service about as slow as it comes. But Dean liked it the first time they drove through, so they keep coming back.
“What are you working?” Dean asks, resting his arms on the table, sucking ice water through a straw in long draws. “Same stuff? Black Dogs?”
Sam nods, drawing a ring in the condensation on his own cup with one fingertip. “Same stuff,” he sighs. Looks out the big flat window toward the desert. “I think they're moving south along the road. But they double back sometimes. Can't get a handle on 'em.”
“It's been a couple months.”
“Six wrecks so far.”
“Ain't your fault.”
Sam breathes hard out his nose.
Dean's tapping his toes and his boots are hitting Sam's boots under the table and the waitress comes over a few minutes later with their food. It's piping hot and most of it is probably microwaved but Dean knows that Wednesday is the one night of the week Sam ever puts real food in his stomach, and he's ravenous.
Dean watches him tear into his burger, all teeth, as if from a distance. Kind of wary.
“You're not taking care of yourself,” he observes.
Sam looks at him for a minute and then goes back to eating, silently, efficiently, only barely hiding how hungry he is.
Dean swallows, turns his plate around without reason. “When was the last time you slept?”
“In the car.”
Usually Dean would crack some quip about Sam talking with his mouth full, but.
“So that doesn't count,” Dean says. He breaks a French fry apart and lets it steam into his face. Wrinkles his nose, puts it down. “You can't sleep unless you can stretch out and you can't stretch out in there—”
“I sleep enough.”
Dean sets his jaw.
Sam pauses long enough to swallow and incline his head toward Dean's plate.
“You eat,” he says. He picks up a handful of fries and drops them onto Sam's plate. “I'm good for now.”
A shade of concern passes over Sam's face. Or maybe it's the ceiling fans, the shadows.
“You feeling okay?” It's a heavy question, somehow.
“Right as rain,” Dean says, clearing his throat, leaning back. He turns his face to the window.
Outside they sit on the curb of the diner walkway, breathing what diesel smoke and sunlight is left from before the sun went down, the empty restaurant open and bright at their backs. Dean lights a cigarette. Where Dean keeps getting cigarettes, Sam doesn't know. But they don't seem to smoke, and they don't smell, and he figures there's not much harm to be done anymore.
“Where was it again?” Dean says. “I keep forgetting.” He turns his head a little toward his brother. “Think that's bad?”
Sam swallows. “Hour up the road. Past Towaoc. And I don't think so.”
“Don't think so?”
“Did you ever put anything up out there? You said you wanted to. A cross or something.”
Sam shakes his head.
“Cops ran me out last time I stopped there,” he says softly. “Haven't gone back.”
“Two, three weeks.”
Dean hands him the cigarette. Sam holds it between two fingers for a moment and then gives it back.
“They think I'm a bum.”
Dean looks at him. All the shadows in his face. His hair is a little bit longer, his stubble unshaven, corners of his eyes bloodshot.
“How's that for the case?”
“I don't care about the case,” Sam says, very quietly.
That catches Dean's attention—it sounds defeated. Sam's spine is curved, bending toward the Earth.
“Sure you do,” he says.
Sam doesn't respond.
Dean stretches his legs out against the parking lot, gravel shifting and building under his boots.
“Anyway,” he says, “they didn't seem interested in Towaoc much anymore.”
“No.” Sam sighs, runs his hands through his hair. “They're sticking to Native land more these days.”
“Six, last time I saw them.”
“I didn't think Black Dogs ran in packs.”
“They don't,” Sam says. His face is cut out in profile against the highway running north and south before their faces, a long black lightless thing. “But since when did 491 play by the rules, you know.”
“What time is it?”
Sam tilts his watch-face up to catch the diner light so that Dean can see. Underneath the neon, one AM.
Dean stubs out his cigarette and flicks it away, and it melts out of existence halfway through its arc in the air. “Wanna take a drive?”
Usually they keep south, but tonight Sam turns the Impala north, towards Towaoc. Dean's surprised. But he keeps that to himself, resting his fond hands flat on the car's seats.
“I always miss her more than I think I will,” he mutters, mostly to himself.
Sam doesn't laugh, exactly, but approximates it, twisting a smile at his brother in the rear-view mirror. “But not me, huh.”
“Nope. Don't miss you one bit.”
Lately the radio's been going haywire on Wednesdays, so they keep it off, and Dean hums something vague instead, resting easy in the passenger seat. But after twenty miles or so he stops, when the more familiar bluffs come into view, huge towers black against the blacker sky, when the smell of the scrub brush begins to permeate the car, when it gets a bit harder to see the stars out the window.
Sam knows he doesn't like it up here. Part of why he himself doesn't come back too often. Most of why they drive south most weeks. He cruises just above the speed limit, saying nothing.
“Where we going?” Dean says, casually, trying to hide his discomfort in his voice. It doesn't work.
“We don't have to.” Dean twists, looking back the way they came, though there's nothing to see at night. “I didn't really mean it, about the cross and everything. You know I don't care about that.”
“We should go,” Sam says. He doesn't know when he made the decision, but he figures it was a few miles ago. “We should. Maybe it'll be good for you.”
Dean rests his elbow on the window and his head on his hand, looking forward.
There's no way to find the exact location in the dark. Not that either of them remembers what it is. There were no signs in sight in either direction when it happened. Just one of a dozen dirt roads up into the buttes, all the same, indistinguishable from one another. And the evidence, tire treads, broken glass, fragments of bone, it's all gone, swept away or picked clean.
Dean's completely quiet when Sam pulls off 491, off onto one of those nameless roads, drives a little way into the wastes before he parks, turns the headlights off.
They sit in the dark together.
“Coming up on a year, huh,” Dean says, into the muffled black between them.
They don't look at each other.
After a long time, Dean says, “I wish you'd leave.”
Sam is quiet.
“You know, I feel like shit, knowing you're out here.” Sam hears Dean shifting in the seat next to him, getting comfortable, if he can. “I don't care what you say. You're not taking care of yourself—”
“Bullshit. You're not. You stink, for one. Anyone tell you that? And now the cops, or whoever, keep running you out of Towaoc, that's the only truckstop for miles, isn't it—”
“And you're sleeping in the car—which I hate, by the way.” Sam can practically feel him tensing up, like a spring too tightly wound. “It's not good for you. And you can't convince me there's a case worth working here—”
Sam shoots a sharp look in his direction.
“Hey, okay.” Dean's shadow moves, two hands up in self-defense. “Whatever. But I wish you'd leave. I do, okay? I wish you'd—even for a little bit, a month, maybe. I don't care.”
“I don't want to leave.”
There again, that weariness, the defeat. Dean doesn't know what to make of it.
They sit in silence for a while. Ten, fifteen minutes.
The wind rocks the car every now and then. The moon hangs like a peeled eye.
“Where would I go?” Sam says finally.
“Anywhere. The beach.”
“Okay,” says Dean.
Sam looks south and west, toward what little light there is to pin Towaoc to the map behind them.
“I wish we could just—”
He pauses, swallows, settles on the seat. He can feel Dean watching him.
“Go. You know. Just drive north until the junction. And get off. And go.”
Dean doesn't have to agree; that's unspoken.
“But we can't,” Sam says, “and I'm not gonna do that alone.”
“Just because I'm stuck here doesn't mean you have to be.”
“You think I don't know that?”
“I know you know that. You think you're being—noble, or something. Sam, the Black Dogs, these cases you keep finding, they don't matter.” Dean touches his wrist and Sam turns back toward him, startled by the cold on his skin. “Fuck the Black Dogs. Fuck whatever's happening in Shiprock, okay? You're not happy.”
“I am happy,” Sam says, but his voice cracks. “It's Wednesday, I am happy.”
“You're miserable. We can't keep doing this.”
“I have to—”
“I have to.”
The dark in the car almost gets deeper, somehow. Slowly, by degrees.
“Years ago,” Sam says, very softly, “when you were dead, and those times when I was dead, and we had to keep going on our own. They were horrible. They were the worst times.” The cold shock of Dean's hand is still lingering on his wrist. He holds it in his left hand, looking down. “I can't deal with any of that again. I'm getting older. It's harder now. It's never been this hard. You know that. You know I'll kill myself the minute I'm off this highway.”
They could be floating in the void, in the dark like this. No light except at their backs, and the whole black ocean of the desert under and around and over them.
“I don't know how to fix this,” Dean says.
Dean always liked US 491. Talked about it all the time as a kid, before they changed the numbers over. Devil's Highway. He ate up the stories like a starving man. Sam never saw the appeal. But when Dean wanted to go, he went.
It was nobody's fault. Long-haul trucker, distance misjudged. Coming up on a year ago, now. A Wednesday. Just past Towaoc. By the time Sam got to the edge of the road that night there wasn't much left of Dean but a smear of gore on the asphalt and the trucker shaking and screaming into his cell phone, the huge headlights spasming out into the empty, and Sam with a leg wound bleeding into his boots. And Dean all but obliterated. Just a mistake. Driver didn't stop in time. Dean didn't see. Over in an instant. He asked once if it hurt, and Dean said he couldn't remember.
They'd been hunting a pack of Black Dogs. Black Dogs, death omens, they don't move in packs, but 491 doesn't follow the rules. At night, in the desert, you get turned around.
Just after five, Sam starts the car again. Drives through and past Towaoc, heading south.
As soon as the sun comes up Dean will vanish from the passenger seat, and for a week Sam will drive up and down the two hundred miles of road, stealing to eat, sleeping in the car, waiting for Wednesday to roll around again, when he'll find his brother's ghost hitchhiking somewhere near the border, where he always seems to manifest—waiting for the familiar rumble of his car, thumb outstretched, grin on his face, a pale spectre in the dark.
Just the thought of it makes his stomach knot, his heart squeeze.
It's the most haunted highway in the west, but Sam couldn't care less about the ghosts, the skinwalkers, the death omens. People will die along this road until they tear it down or cover it up or the Earth swallows it whole. It's the way things are. This place is too far gone to save.
He thinks, privately, that maybe he is, too.
His throat locks up when the sun begins to peek over the bluffs far to the east, just the barest sliver of life, bleeding across the flat ground. He doesn't say anything.
Dean is sitting quietly beside him—trying, he imagines, to brace for the melt into the air, consigning himself to the Big Empty until Sam comes back for him, rumbling down the road.
Until it's time to do this all again.
Up ahead, emerging from the valley between two mesas, huge headlights. Eighteen wheels at least, rolling north.
“Think about it, okay?” Dean says. Sam finds his face in the rear-view mirror. “At least think about leaving.”
A distant black speck on the side of the road, too. In the corner of his left eye. Organic, animal, low to the ground—like a dog.
“I'm not gonna leave,” Sam says.
Sam can feel Dean's eyes turning on him, examining him, trying to read him. The way they always used to. That, despite everything else, at least, hasn't changed very much.
“I know,” Dean says gently.
The truck's not far now.
Gently, Sam nudges the car's front wheels across the yellow highway line.
“I'm real tired.”
Dean's eyes leave him, for just a minute. Look straight into the oncoming grill of the truck, the nodding driver, high up above the road.
“Yeah,” he says. “I know you are, kiddo.”
Sam's hands come softly off the wheel.