<<Robert, it’s Caroline. I need to talk to you about John. Please call me back.>>
<<Caroline again. John is not doing well. Please call.>>
<<Caroline here. Same message as before.>>
She’d lost track of the number of rings, was preparing yet another message in her mind, when a gruff “Caroline?” altered the script.
Her mind stumbled but quickly righted itself. “Robert! Thank goodness! We need to talk about John. He’s in bad shape. I had to sedate him.”
She bit her lip, expression pensive. “He’s suicidal.”
“Good.” The bitterness reverberated in the nebulous reality of cell phone connectivity.
“What? How can you say that? You’ve known this man for years, practically treat him like a son!” She paused as realization struck. “How’s Dean?”
“Under the knife.” His voice was ground glass.
“The words ‘hemoabdomen’ or ‘ruptured hepatic hematoma’ mean anything to you, Doctor?” He spat the sarcasm like venom.
She slumped into a ladder-backed chair. “Oh my God.”
“The asshole musta kicked him with his fucking steel-toed boots on. You know that kid’s been pissin’ blood?”
“That father-of-the-year you got over there ruptured his son’s liver, only the doc said it didn’t tear all the way through at first, just bled inside, like a blood blister. Thin little sheet of tissue holdin’ it back. Dean sneezed, tore that little membrane, and damned near bled out in the time it took the ambulance to get there. Now the asshole wants to kill himself? Let ‘im.”
“Bobby, do you have any idea what that would do to Dean? His father committing suicide after this? Dean would never forgive himself.”
Caroline waited through two of the angry hunter’s ragged breaths before she heard him speak again. “Fine. Lemme know what you need from me. But if Dean dies, I’m comin’ over there and shootin’ that bastard myself. Fair warning.”
“I...I guess I need to know...I need to be able to reassure John that you’ll take care of Dean and find Sam, because John will need to stay here for a little while. If he gets any worse, I may have to have him committed.”
“‘Course I got Dean, and I already got Rufus keepin’ an eye on Sam.”
“You found Sam?”
“No, Dean did, he just hadn’t confirmed it. I took a look, then sent Rufus to keep him safe while I sussed things out up here. Damn’ good thing I did, too.”
“Yes, yes it was.” It was Caroline’s turn to softly breathe. “How...Before Dean...before he ended up needing an ambulance, how was he? How was he feeling about John?”
“The usual. ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ ‘he’s my dad,’ ‘he was right, I deserved it.’ Real Patty Hearst-type shit, if you ask me.”
“He needs his father to be infallible.”
“Yeah, well, I got news for ya lady: he ain’t.”
Caroline slumped in the chair, eyes closed. “No. No, he’s not.” And neither am I carried clearly in her tone.
Bobby sighed. “None of us are.”
She came to a decision. “I can’t tell him about Dean. Not yet.”
“And if Dean dies?”
She shrugged, a motion devoid of hope. “Then...we’ll do the best we can.”
“Tell me some good memories you have of Dean.”
They were back in the kitchen, John’s face like melted wax, eyes turned to some inner horror. “Memories of Dean?”
“Of you and Dean, specifically.”
John had his head propped on one fist, elegant fingers of the other idly turning a white coffee cup whose contents had long since cooled to a level that rendered it unpotable. The tortured expression deepened. “I don’t have any. Not me and Dean, at least. Not since before --” his breath hitched, and he scrubbed a hand over his face, "--before Mary died."
“I suspect that he would disagree.”
There was no response from the hollow man seated across from her.
“If I asked Dean that question, asked him to share good memories that he had of the two of you, what do you think he would say?”
John shrugged. “Probably talk about training. Or hunts.”
“Any incidents in particular that he likes to talk about?”
The silence rose between them, first stretching, then pacing, before John finally spoke. “First time I took him shooting. He loves to tell that story.”
“How old was he?”
“He was six… I’d completely forgotten his birthday until Bobby reminded me, and I felt like the biggest piece of shit to ever live. I’d been working him up to shooting: had him handling empty guns; disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling them; dry-firing. He sat through a lot of lectures about gun safety.”
He’d thought that would be enough, but Caroline waited, face expectant.
John shrugged one shoulder. “Told him I had a surprise for him, that I hadn’t been able to get it ready for his birthday, so I was sorry it was a little late. Walked him out to the woods--I’d already set some bottles up for us. Told Dean I didn’t shoot a pistol ‘til I joined the Marines, and six was pretty young to become a man, but if anyone could, it was him.”
He paused, chewing his lip, fighting back tears. “I held out the pistol, flat on my palm. Just a little .22, easy to handle, not much kick. I’ll never forget the look on his face: so solemn. Kid was always so damned serious.”
He smiled, shaking his head. “I watched him line up his first shot, could almost see him doing all the things I’d told him about, tickin’ ‘em off of some list in his head one by one. He took that first shot and went right down the line without a pause. Hit every fuckin’ bottle.” He nodded to himself, still smiling. “Kid was a natural.”
“What did you say to him?”
“I don’t know. Probably not much. I mean, I didn’t have to, you know? We stayed out there for an hour, me makin’ it harder, more realistic, him trying and concentrating and getting better and better. Used up all the ammo I’d brought. Gettin’ ready to go, he took the magazine out and opened the chamber just like I’d shown him, then handed the gun to me. I knelt down, eye-to-eye, and put it back in his hand. ‘It’s yours,’ I told him. ‘You’re not a boy anymore. Not when you shoot better than most men I know.’”
Caroline smiled. “That’s beautiful, John. It’s no wonder he loves to tell that story.”
John watched his fingers toy with the coffee mug.
“Does he tell any other stories?”
“Yeah...don’t know if they count as good memories, though.”
“What does he say?”
“Stuff about hunts, mostly. Close calls, weird shit. Times we really shouldn’t have come out alive, but we did.”
“So things he’s proud of.”
“Are they times that you’ve been proud of him?”
John turned that one over in his mind a few times. “Huh. Guess they are, yeah.”
“What about Sam? What kinds of stories does Dean tell about himself and Sam?”
John laughed. “Times he’s pissed Sam off, mostly. Dean loves to pull pranks on his little brother. Guess that’s one normal sibling thing that they do.”
“And Bobby? What memories does Dean share about himself and Bobby?”
“Food. Fixin’ cars. Bobby’s taken him shootin’, too.” John laughed, a rich, chest-deep sound. “He tells a story about a time Bobby made him do some research, and he opened the wrong book. Ended up learning all about Kinbaku .”
“ Kinbaku ?”
“Japanese bondage. Apparently Bobby’s got a thing for it. The man can even speak Japanese. Did you know that?”
“It may have come up in conversation once or twice.” She smiled, and John quirked an eyebrow. “How old was Dean?”
“I dunno….thirteen, fourteen. Old enough to understand what it was about.”
Caroline shook her head, bemused.
John chuckled. “I learned about it when I came home to find Sam trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, gagged and pissed as hell. Dean had convinced Sam that it was a good idea for his brother to learn how to escape if some monster caught him and tied him up.” He chuckled. “I think Sam’s still pissed about that one.”
They were both quiet, each reflecting on what had been said while allowing the other a chance to speak.
Caroline broke first. “From what you’ve told me, Dean has good memories of all of you, but the only times he’s felt proud of himself have involved you.”
John dropped his eyes, long lashes shielding his soul from her scrutiny.
“Is he still a good shot?”
John grunted. “Best I’ve ever seen. Better than me, even.”
“Does he know that?”
“What? That he’s a good shot? Or that I think he’s a better marksman than his old man?”
His fingers were back to caressing the smooth ceramic of the mug. “Yeah, he knows. He’s confident, never hesitates, no matter how tough the shot is. And he’s heard me tell other hunters how good he is. Hell, I’ll even move out of his way when we’ve only got one crack at it. He knows.”
“Who taught him to shoot?”
John looked at her, brows furrowed. “I did. I already told you that.”
“Yes, you did. You taught him. You helped him develop that skill, you gave him confidence, you gave him a reason to feel proud.”
John ground his teeth. “That was pretty underhanded there, Doc.”
“But you can’t deny it, can you?”
He closed his eyes, breathing deeply. No more fucking crying.
“I’m going to give you a break now, but I want you to know that this is where we are heading: you are not destroying either of your sons, and they need you in their lives. You aren’t leaving here until I’m convinced that you believe that.”
And the tears fell like rain.