Sleepless in Lawrence, Kansas – chapter one – We are all subject to gravity
Castiel’s favorite thing about the studio was the translucent blanket of gold light that settled over his workspace. He showed up just past eleven with a half-caf cup of joe and a sourdough bagel, flickered on the overhead lamp, and gazed at his empty chair. He sat in it, letting its aged creak warm him with familiarity.
He was alone, like always, and the silence was so gaping that each of his own exhales sounded like a wave crashing against the shore. The lights of the console lit up, a series of blinking controls, and Castiel slipped his headphones on. They settled against his ears perfectly where their shape had been molded into the soft leather over the years. He couldn’t bear to replace them. He had a tendency to hold on to such things.
Castiel ran the edge of his thumb across the silver knob that controlled the ‘On Air’ sign. No one would interrupt him, but the sound of it like two tumblers clicking together was the most satisfying moment of each night. Collecting his breath and sipping at his coffee, Castiel tossed the switch and let its thunk hit his stomach. The black numbers on the clock to his left shuttered to midnight and the vast quiet of the studio filled with his rumbling voice.
“Thank you for tuning in to our nationwide broadcast. We’re live at midnight in Seattle, Washington. This is Midnight Matters.”
“It’s not as though the world is determined to drag us down, but it may often feel that way. When you become convinced that everything is working against you, remind yourself, we are all subject to gravity.”
“Are you listening to that radio show again? You know that guy is full of shit, right?”
The little house in Lawrence, Kansas was the only one on its street with every light left on. Inside, Dean fished through his fridge for the fourth time that night, frowning when its contents had not changed. Beside him, his younger brother, Sam, fiddled with the antennae of their out-of-date radio. The voice that drifted from the other end was distorted by static and only every other sentence or so that he said could be understood.
“Shut up, Dean. You just hate radio shows. If you actually listened to this one, you’d probably like it,” Sam said, cringing as a sharp whistle erupted from the seemingly harmless device.
“It’s a sign. Shut it off.”
“You don’t believe in signs!”
Dean watched his brother make a fool of himself before he ambled over.
“You forgot to close the fridge.”
“I’m trying to help you,” Dean said, sliding into the chair beside him.
“You’re letting out the cold.”
“Sam, are you seriously, like, five?”
Sam furrowed his eyebrows and stuck his lip out. Dean’s expression remained tight. Sam stood up to close the fridge, but instead he stared into its blinking abyss of milk and eggs and unidentifiable leftovers wrapped in tin foil, labeled with initials of which the meaning had long been forgotten.
“Don’t ever feel the need to look at yourself in the mirror and criticize what you see. If everyone spends all their time hating themselves, how is anything ever going to get done?” the voice on the radio said.
Dean raised an eyebrow and although Sam hadn’t faced him, his shoulders still tensed.
“He’s not wrong.”
“He sounds like a fortune cookie.”
After tampering with the contraption’s various dials and the old bent metal of the antennae, Dean finally decided to place it on the very top of the entertainment center, on the East end of the house. Instantaneously, the room flooded with crisp, uninterrupted words.
“As a child, there was no way for you to know where it was that you would end up. People ask you about your dreams and ambitions and although it all seems pointless, there is no greater sadness than when they stop asking. It makes you feel as if those same ambitions are no longer important or realistic. They tell a child who wants to be President to grasp tightly to that dream and revel in its security of a place to belong one day. You get older though, and that’s where the real trouble starts. A college student says they want to be president, their mentor says to quit dreaming, that they should be more concerned about their future and should not waste time mulling over fantasies.”
Sam and Dean sat on their weathered couch, Sam with his legs crossed broadly and Dean in the broken corner that he loved to sink into. The TV was on, but muted, and neither man paid attention to the black and white western. They each drank a beer and Dean shifted as if adjusting beneath the weight of the words that painted their walls. The sinkhole began to seem less inviting and more consuming.
“Aspirations are losing their value, and what do you have left when you have lost the ability to dream? Do you sit at home, on your old hand-me-down couch, and think about all the promises your parents made, the times they swore that you were capable of anything? Does the thought sting?”
“I’m going to bed,” Dean snapped, dragging himself up. Sam looked to follow in his example, but a wave of his brother’s hand kept him in place. Sam would let his brother storm off, it was the only way Dean ever really got his feelings out.
“It’s time to take callers. Who have I got on the line?”
“Hello, my name is Aaron and I’m from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.”
“Hello, Aaron. How can I help you today?”
“Well, I guess I just wanted to ask about children who did know what life had in store for them, because their parents planned it all out. What about their ambitions or satisfaction?”
“That’s a marvelous question, Aaron.”
Castiel never tired of his job. At 2AM, he flicked the ‘On Air’ switch off, tossed his empty coffee cup in the bin, and shrugged his tan overcoat on. It was repetitive, yes, but it was a path worn down so well he knew the steps by heart. When Castiel turned off the light, the cold of the barren studio lapped at his ankles. Every night, it was harder to walk away.
The silence followed Castiel home like a stray cat or pesky shadow. His door groaned open and his living room was bland, save a couch and his answering machine’s blinking light.
“Great show tonight, Cassie, but I still think you need to ramp it up a bit. Don’t you think you’ve been riding this ‘self help’ wave for a bit too long? Call me back!”
The voice shut off and the sharp tone of the woman behind the machine alerted Castiel that he had no other messages.
He sunk into his couch, old but still useful, once his brother’s, and let out a heavy sigh.
“Hello, you’re on live with Midnight Matters, to whom am I addressing?” Castiel asked, adjusting the wire of his headphones that he had somehow wrapped around his arm.
“Um, yes, hi. My name is Sam and I’m calling from Lawrence, Kansas.”
A new voice... Castiel loved new voices. They always had new stories to tell.
“Kansas… well, it’s not really midnight down there, is it? What keeps you up?” he asked.
“I’m worried about my brother, Dean.”
Castiel tried to ignore the pull at his chest, the memory of his own brothers, of whom he had mostly grown apart. Family stung that way.
“Is he in some sort of trouble?”
“No, nothing like that. It’s just that I’m about to leave for college and we’ve never really been apart.”
“Sam,” Castiel said, the panic that had begun to swell within him diminished. He could not fight back a smile at such a perfect, ordinary sadness. “Leaving home is one of those inevitable things. Of course your family will miss you, but Dean will be alright. Life goes on, and you’ll come back.”
Or he wouldn’t.
“That’s just it. I’m sort of all he’s got. I’m scared he’s just going to sit around all day and… be alone.”
“Have you spoken to him about this yet?”
“What? God, no. we don’t talk about… feelings. It’s one of his pet peeves.”
Castiel tried to stifle a laugh. He rested his chin on a clenched fist and gazed at the microphone as if this Sam was hiding within it.
“One of the biggest obstacles one might have about sharing their feelings is that they believe they are not worth being heard. Does your brother think he does not deserve to be heard?”
“I didn’t think of it that way.”
“It is easy to excuse reluctance as pride,” Castiel said, “But it is more difficult to assume that the problem runs deeper.” He rubbed his eyes with his forefinger and thumb, trying to press away the tightness of a caffeine-induced headache. “Especially when concerning a loved one.”
“Um, thanks. I’ll try to talk to him about it. I mean, I don’t think he’ll listen…”
“He is your brother, I am certain that he values your feelings whether he’ll admit it or not.”
“Of course. Do call back, Sam.”
Castiel set a Greg Holden song to play and refilled his cup. He forgot to put his usual two sugar packets in, but didn’t seem to notice as he listened to the strum of the guitar and took careful sips.
“Your ratings have dropped recently. Don’t you think it’s time for a picker-upper, Cassie?”
Castiel deleted the message and turned the TV on to an old, black and white western. The sound of gunshots and clattering horse hooves could not keep the man awake. He sank into his couch and buried his nose in the crook where the backboard met the armrest. It smelled like smoke still, after decades of his brother having quit.
Some parts of the past were permanent. They soaked a thousand polyester fibers, which singular, meant nothing, but together, wove something greater.
“He’s not listening to me.”
“How so?” Castiel asked, wrapping a rubber-band around his thumb and watching it turn purple.
“He said, ‘no chick-flick moments’, and then called me Samantha.”
“I’m sorry, Sam.”
“He’s acting like it’s no big deal, but he hasn’t even been sleeping lately.”
“Aren’t you up late as well?”
“Yeah, but I work a night shift. He just, doesn’t sleep.”
“Dean?” Sam called from the living room.
Dean buried his head into his hands. He wasn’t sure how much more of his brother’s hounding he could handle without snapping. It was bad enough that the brat was leaving, but if he left on a bad note? Dean wouldn’t forgive himself.
“I swear, Sam, if you wanna talk about my feelings again, I’m jumping out the window.” His bedroom door opened, he could feel his brother staring at his back and it burned where his eyes must have been. “What is it?”
“The phone. It’s for you.”
Dean turned to see Sam, his eyes the same innocent brown buttons as when he had been five and Dean had read him to sleep. He held out the cordless phone and wore an expression that Dean knew meant he was fighting guilt.
“Who is it?”
“Just… Just take it.”
“I’m going to kill him.”
“Calm down, Dean,” Castiel said, perking up. He’d never played mediator before, but surely the concept was the same. Pin-point the problem, guide them to a solution. He’d been doing that for years already. “Your brother is just concerned for you. Humor us both and participate at least for fifteen minutes.”
“I don’t want to complain on the phone about my problems to a stranger… to a bunch of strangers.”
“You are alive, I do not see what you have to complain about,” Castiel said.
“I don’t have any complaints, but Sammy here seems to think I’m just one big bag of problems.”
“Is he there with you?”
“No, he’s in the other room. Eavesdropping, no doubt.”
Castiel has spoken to countless people in his years of hosting. It wasn’t until recently that he abandoned his morning slot for a midnight one, for which his coworker, Balthazar, had made him out to be crazy. He had to make the change. Castiel had already spoken to so many people that they all began to sound like the same angry, conceited person. By switching to a midnight slot, Castiel was assaulted with a variety of callers so unlike one another, that he began to remember their names, their vocal mannerisms, even the tone of their voices.
Dean’s voice was low, baritone. At some point, Castiel had begun to believe that Dean was the younger brother, but his voice severed that thought in seconds. He wondered if his faithful listeners had grown curious about the stranger, if they were startled by his obvious rough edges.
“Sam seems to think you need a friend,” Castiel said.
“I’ve got friends, down at the roadhouse.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s a restaurant and a bar that Ellen owns. If you’re listening, Ellen, free advertisement!”
Castiel let out a laugh, covering his eyes with one large palm. His cheeks felt heated with glee.
“Oh. She kind of raised me.”
“Nah, I raised Sam.”
Castiel could almost hear the uncoiling of Dean’s nerves. He talked about his ‘baby’ brother, and how he had received a full ride scholarship to Stanford, at which the sound of aforementioned brother echoed through the line a shout of ‘don’t tell them that!’ They bickered a moment, their words broken over the line, but then Dean was back, saying ‘sorry’ and ‘if he’s gonna embarrass me, you can bet I’mma embarrass him.’
Even the blistering coffee in Castiel’s hand was not as warm as the sounds that seeped through his headphones.
Half an hour passed easily, but Dean didn’t seem to notice. Perhaps what he had needed was a mediator after all.
“Dean, are you currently committed?” Castiel asked after their conversation simmered down.
“Are you asking if I’m single?”
“Yeah I guess. I don’t really do the whole commitment thing.” Dean’s words carried a shrug with them.
“I’m just not used to things being long term.”
“I am going to assume that extends beyond just relationships?”
“Assume all you want.”
Castiel frowned when Dean’s sharp, original tone returned. Their pleasant discussion had been forgotten.
“Sam is worried that you are lonely.”
“Oh he is, is he?”
“Do you listen to my show, Dean?” he asked, not sure how he’d feel about any answer.
“Not really. Sammy loves it. He’s always leaving it on in the kitchen. I hear your voice a lot, so it’s sort of like I’m listening to it.”
Castiel thought about the horse hooves that trampled him into sleep, the ring of gunshots that kissed the back of his neck so that the small hairs there stood. He thought about how, with that cacophony behind him, he could pretend that his apartment was not empty.
“Then, if you are lonely, let my voice keep you company.”
“I’m not lonely. I’m fine, just having trouble sleeping is all.”
“Then let me play you a song instead. Do you have any requests?”
The very first notes rang out and Castiel heard a sharp intake of breath over the line.
“Is that okay?” he asked, aware that his and Dean’s voices were no longer on the air.
“Yeah. It’s fine.”
He let the song play through, Hey Jude, and when it quivered to a close, Castiel realized that the calling hour had already ended. He mentioned a few last things, including “Remember, Lawrence, Kansas, I’m always going to be here,” and flipped off the ‘On Air’ sign.