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route 54 roadkill blues

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It's hard. You aren't going to pretend it's not.

 

Sam's been back two weeks and he's a wreck; there's no point sugarcoating it to yourself, not when it's in your face and, in all likelihood, will be in your face for a good long time to come. Sam's a big, shivering, weeping, wild-eyed wreck, and he's your wreck, your huddle of scrap metal in the passenger seat, your big stone ruin. You've got to take care of him. You were prepared for that when you told Death you'd take up his bet, when the light of Sam's soul scorched your eyes. But it's hard.

 

It's all a learning process, you've got to remind yourself of that. Just like he's learning how to be alive again, you're learning how to navigate his world. And it's okay. Really. At least he doesn't cry so much at night anymore. At least he doesn't scream out in his sleep, just about loud enough to make you piss yourself, plenty loud to have the neighbours in Room 8 pounding on your door. That lasted a few days but he's better now. Little victories, right?

 

And he lets you hold him now, when it's all too much. That's something, too. For a while there every time you touched him he'd flinch like something bitten but he knows your hands again, now, knows how you feel. That's good. Little victories.

 

Sun's coming up over New Mexico and he's bundled up into himself in the passenger seat watching the flat bright snow on the flat bright Earth slip by out the window, arms clutched tight around his stomach, like he's nauseous, but he's not; he just feels safer like that, or that's what he tells you. Makes sense. If you had a wall in your brain you'd be afraid of moving too much, too.

 

He's real quiet, this new Sam, this old huddled Sam. Like he's afraid of what'll happen if he speaks. He hasn't told you anything about Hell because—thank God—he doesn't remember, but you can read between the lines. His body still knows what it felt and you, of course, remember your own little bit of that Hole, and you can guess. It's hard—hard to be out on a quiet road like this, pushing seventy, and to know that if you made a joke you'd get maybe a crack of a smile, a breath of a laugh, but no banter, no sarcasm, no pseudo-shock. He isn't like that anymore.

 

“You okay, big guy?” you ask, watching slim planes of light begin to rise up over his face in the rear-view mirror. Windshield's spattered with bugs and water-spots and their shadows drift like smallpox on his skin.

 

Sam unravels a little, lets his shoulders drop just a fraction. “Yeah,” he says, all scared softness. Then he closes back up, like a mimosa leaf.

 

You are well and truly all alone on this road—not another car for miles. You started out early this morning, up at the border, careful not to wake him too roughly from his sleep, careful not to startle him in the dark. It's probably best that he's still a little smudged up and sleepy. When he's tired he's calm and when he's calm you can pretend everything's okay, for the most part.

 

He's not crazy. You must have told Bobby that a million times before the old man would let the two of you leave. He ain't crazy, he's just— But there's no word for what Sam is. You wish you could have said he's just healing, but you're not even sure of that, sometimes, looking at him, seeing the panic way back in his eyes. The wall in his brain didn't dam up everything. It's brittle. You're pretty sure of that now.

 

All around is white, stretching off, like salt flats; tufts of grass, black and feeble, sticking up here and there through the thin blanket of frost, and the road, grey, stretching off south, sun coming up against your face. Not a soul. Not even a stray cow or a turnoff into ranchland. It's a little hypnotising, the sameness, which is part of the reason you picked this route to get downstate—calm, repetitive, easy, for Sam.

 

He's got twitches now, you've noticed. His eyes are always moving. Sometimes you catch him scratching his arm—not deep; not even deep enough to make the skin red—just idle, fingernails scraping gently, quickly, for hours, like he's trying to ground himself. He's probably not even aware of it. He doesn't seem to be aware of much.

 

But he'll get better. It'll be hard but he'll get better. For now, patience.

 

“What's that?” he says, abruptly, startling you, just before the front wheels of the car bump over something and you slam the brakes on instinct. He rocks back in his seat but his face is motionless. As soon as the Impala stops Sam turns, hand digging into the leather, looking back.

 

It's black in the rear-view mirror, stretched out across the side of the road, half-over the white line.

 

“Shit.”

 

“Roadkill,” Sam says. He looks at you, then. “Did you hit it?”

 

“No, man. It was already there. Just ran over it.”

 

Sam sits there a minute in the idling growl of the car, staring straight ahead. Then he says, “Let's go look.”

 

“Come on, Sammy,” you say, gently, thinking of the miles of highway unspooling out there, the places you need to be. “It's just a jackrabbit or something.”

 

Sam doesn't listen to you; his hand is already on the handle of the door and he's stepping out, putting his boots down gingerly on the cold asphalt, and you sigh, throw the car into park, follow him, because he has whims, now, too, weird little things he wants or does without seeming to understand why, and indulging them seems like the kind thing to do. You're a little afraid of what might happen if you don't.

 

You let out a little whistle of frustration when you get a little closer, see what it is, the roadkill Sam is crouching over now. It's a dog, and if it's a dog Sam's not gonna let it go.

 

You push your hands into your pockets when you stop at the dead dog's head, looking down. It's cold but not too cold. There's no wind and the world is quiet and humming.

 

“You okay?” you ask, because it's a dog, and Sam loves dogs, and he's fragile enough these days that you wouldn't be surprised if something like this seriously fucked him up.

 

Sam nods. He's kneeling now, not crouching, sitting on his calves like a little kid, boots turned out underneath him, looking down.

 

It's a pretty dog, you have to admit. Black silky fur dusted with frost, worn red collar around its—her—throat. Blood, just a little, frozen underneath her head. If it weren't for her utter stillness she could be sleeping. Dreaming of jackrabbits.

 

“Sorry, kiddo,” you say, moving to stand behind him, out of some instinct to block the nonexistent wind.

 

You watch him while he reaches out, bare hand in the freeze, lays it on the swell of her side, fingers splayed over her ribs, like he's feeling for a heartbeat. He keeps it there. Reminds you of priests you've seen, praying over people, holding them.

 

“I want to stay,” Sam says, with a confidence you haven't heard in a long time.

 

“What?”

 

“She's all alone out here,” he says, twisting his head to look up at you. Cold sun in his eyes like chips of silver. “I want to stay.”

 

You fidget, aware of yourself, acutely, a tall thing in this flat place. “She's dead, Sammy,” you say. “Look. There's blood. We can't help her.”

 

“Things shouldn't die all by themselves,” he murmurs, mostly to himself. Pulls his fingers a little bit through her silky black fur. “I want to stay.”

 

You drop down next to him, trying not to sigh. Patience. “Sammy,” you say, “she's been dead. And we gotta go, man. We gotta keep moving.”

 

He doesn't say anything to that. It's almost like he hasn't heard you, and you know he's not being petulant. He gets this way sometimes, now, gets in his own head, probably drifting too far out of orbit, too close to the wall in his brain, and it's dangerous to stir him when he's like this—you know. So you don't.

 

“Okay,” you say, very softly. “We'll stay for a little while.”


 

When the sun begins to climb the blank white sky it gets a little warmer, and that's good. Lets you take your hands out of your pockets. Your ass is freezing, though, from sitting on the cold road the last hour, crosslegged, watching Sam watch the dog.

 

He doesn't seem to mind the temperature. You've got to wonder if maybe those things Lucifer said about burning cold were true, if maybe Sam's been acclimatized. The thought makes you unbearably sad.

 

There's really no use trying to figure out Sam's whims but you still try. Makes you feel like shit, not understanding Sam, having trouble reading him the way you do now, so you try. It's a dog, and Sam loves dogs, always has, and you figure that's most of it—just him and his sadness, beyond all the crap lurking in the back of his head. Maybe it's a good thing, a human thing, a signal that he's inching closer to his old self again; maybe it's reason for hope, but you won't let yourself get that far. Too much hope is dangerous. Sam's proof of that.

 

He's been stroking the fur of the dog's head for a good half hour, laying it smooth between her ears, melting the frost with the warmth of his hand. She's looking more alive by the minute, glossy, her open eye pointed to the sky, which is kind of terrible, you think, but Sam doesn't seem to mind. You can see all her eyelashes picked out in snow.

 

You want to make a joke—lighten up—Sam's zoned out and it's scaring you a little—but there's nothing funny about a dead dog and you're not that crass, anyway. So you sit there, legs crossed, hands dangling just above the road.

 

No cars. Just you and him and the dog.

 

It's kind of nice out here, if you're being honest. Minus the bland worry in your throat.


 

It's apparent, after a while, that Sam's not going anywhere. He's not going to leave the dog until he's good and ready. It reminds you a little bit of how he could get sometimes as a kid, stubborn as solid wood, and you're too happy to see shards of who he used to be poking through to be frustrated.

 

You stand up against the car, watching traffic begin to slide slowly onto the road like warming molasses in the cold, feeling their passing bulk shift and shake the air, make the Impala rock on her wheels. Bursts of sheer wind against your face. You've got to wonder what they're thinking when they see you two out here, those faceless people behind the windshield. For a while you make a game of imagining their thoughts as they ripple by. Maybe they're stranded, thinks the woman in the weather-beaten SUV. Lousy bums, thinks the twenty-something in the red pickup truck. Hey, fuck you, you think in his wake, letting your middle finger rest upright against the Impala's trunk. You sigh.

 

Sam isn't touching the dog anymore; he's just looking at her, fingers hovering around his mouth, like he's trying to puzzle her out. He's starting to worry you, though logic says you shouldn't be worried. He hasn't been this calm in days. Maybe this is good for him or something, somehow.

 

You wander back to him, stand above him, looking down. He doesn't look at you.

 

“We good?” you say.

 

Sam shakes his head.

 

“People are gonna think we're up to something,” you say, “sitting out here.”

 

“We're not up to anything.”

 

“Yeah, I know.” You tilt your head, try to catch his gaze, but he's locked in on the dog's round frozen eye, like he's looking for her killer emblazoned back there, the way Victorians used to. “We really gotta get going, man.”

 

“I don't want to leave her.”

 

“I know.” You drop down in front of him so he can't avoid you anymore—sometimes it's like talking to a child, with him, with this new Sam, but hey, whatever works. “But she's dead, Sammy, and we got places to be.”

 

He doesn't say anything, just looks at you, and you know he's not going to budge, and you know you're going to give in—you're going to sit on this road with him and this dog until he decides it's time to go because you don't really have a choice.

 

Gently Sam reaches out, pushing against the dog's neck until her worn red collar comes around. Dingy silver name-tag, cold as ice. He holds it up flat against the light.

 

You can just read it, backwards, if you squint. You almost laugh, or groan. S A M M Y.

 

“Ominous,” Sam says.

 

“Coincidence,” you say, firmly.

 

He doesn't seem too perturbed, really. Slides his fingers under the collar like he's keeping his balance. Looks down at the name-tag with a blank face.

 

“Did you ever forget about me?” he asks you, then, suddenly. “Even once, while I was gone?”

 

You swallow, startled, straighten your back because you're not sure what else to do. What are you supposed to say? It's not a place you want to go back to, even in your mind, those months without him, but he asked. There's something about all this empty space that makes it hard to lie.

 

“Yeah,” you say, hating yourself. “Once or twice.” When things were good with Lisa, when the sun was out. Made you feel like shit but you did it.

 

“Good,” Sam says. “That's what I wanted.”

 

He pauses, drops the collar from his hand, smoothes her fur back again.

 

“Somebody loved her,” he says, and you're trying to figure out where this all connects back together, Sam and the dog and the empty year, but he's a mystery to you, a locked box you're too scared to pick open and you bite your lip and try not to tear up in frustration and grief. “I wonder if anyone's looking for her.”

 

“I bet they are,” you say, for comfort's sake.

 

When her fur is smooth and black and glossy he reaches up and out and over her body with his open hand, eyes roving over her, and you take his fingers in your own for whatever reason there is. He's cold but he's there.


 

You're not surprised when the cop shows up; you've been out here since dawn and it's edging one o'clock and more than one car has slowed down before passing you by. Your hands are so numb you can't even care about them anymore.

 

Her name-tag says Officer Miranda and her hair glows auburn under the heavy high sun when she steps out of her truck, adjusts the badge on her jacket.

 

You go to her because she's eyeing Sam and the dog with a glint of suspicion and you want to be between them, to explain things, to be the buffer. Sam doesn't seem to have noticed her arrival.

 

“You folks alright out here?” Officer Miranda says, planting her feet on the road, looping her thumbs through the tops of her pockets.

 

“Yes, ma'am,” you say, all cordial, giving her a grin.

 

“Been getting calls,” she says, not looking at you, fixing on Sam and the dog, and you resist the urge to block her line of sight because it's making your hackles rise. “Some folks saying a black car's stranded on Route 54? You stranded?”

 

“No ma'am. Just taking a break,” you say. Don't look at him like that, you want to snap. He's having a hard time.

 

She cocks an eyebrow. “For five hours?”

 

Longer, you think, but you don't say it. You give her your grin again, willing her to go away. “Seems that way.”

 

She frowns at you, frowns at Sam, frowns at the dog with the silver name-tag. “That your dog, sir?”

 

“No, ma'am.”

 

“Did you hit it?”

 

“No, ma'am. Roadkill.”

 

She gives you a look akin to the one most people give you when they find out what you do for a living. It grates your bones. “Your friend alright over there?”

 

“He's my brother,” you say, gritting your teeth, “and he's fine, ma'am.”

 

“Sir,” she says, cold as the air around you, “it's very dangerous to be parked on the edge of the road like this.”

 

“Well aware, ma'am.”

 

She glowers but you're finding it hard to care. She thinks your brother's crazy, sitting with that dog. He's not crazy, how many times do you have to tell people? He's broken, he's hurt, he's figuring it out. Stop staring at him. Leave him be.

 

“I suggest you folks move on here soon,” she says, terse, and turns to leave, casting you suspicious glances over her shoulder until she's back in the cab of her truck, muttering something into the radio on her jacket, and you give her your worst most unenthused smile until she's pulled back onto the highway and is gone.

 

You go back to Sam, sit down opposite him again.

 

“She making us leave?” Sam murmurs, stroking the dog's jaw with the back of his finger.

 

“Nah,” you say, feeling cold and angry and protective in your gut. “We can stay a little longer.”


 

Sun goes down quick in the winter, even down here. It occurrs to you that you probably should be hungry at this point, but you're not. Sitting with Sam in his trance is making your body quiet down. He seems content, too.

 

You want to talk to him. The silence is deep in your throat and you're not used to that, not with him, not after so long on the same day together. You want to ask him what it is about the dog, why he's doing this, what he wants, what you can do to help him, please, let me help you. You want to tell him that this is all okay but you just want to understand.

 

He's rubbing dirt off the pads of her paws with his finger, like he's making her casket-ready, like he wants to bury her, and you're not sure what you're going to say if he asks to do just that. Sure, you've got shovels, but it's not smart, you know it's not, not even to indulge Sam.

 

With the sunset comes the cold again but Sam still doesn't seem to notice even when your teeth start chattering a little.

 

“We ran her over,” he says.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Sam lifts his head, looks backward, toward the ditch in the side of the road, below the asphalt. It's filled with clean white snow, still brilliant though the light is fading. The soft wind pushes Sam's hair back and the cut of his face against the road makes you want to cry. When the hell did everything get so sad?

 

“We should move her,” Sam says, calmly. “Just off the road, so no one runs her over again.”

 

It's probably the most logical he's been all day. “Okay,” you say, standing up, dusting off your hands on your jeans. “Alright.”

 

She's heavy, but the two of you can lift her. Sam cradles her back against his chest, her head against his arm, your hands below her body. You try not to look at the place where her skull's been busted.

 

Sam lays her down in the snow, stark black on its surface, like a photograph, a paper cut-out. Flattens the frost around her with his hand, crosses her feet over themselves, all gentleness, like she's his, like he's loved her.

 

You watch him, without a hope of understanding, arms crossed against the wind. You watch him while he bends down to lightly kiss the top of her head and then to unbuckle the collar from her neck and stand, steadier than you've seen him in a long time, the silver name-tag dangling between his fingers.

 

He walks back to you, pale and tired but awake, and looks at you.

 

You swallow. “Everything okay?” you say. “We going?”

 

“Yeah,” he says, letting out a long breath. “We can go.”

 

He doesn't need it, but you steady his back with your hand while you climb up the ditch anyway. Stars are out, now. Whole world's flat and empty and barren. But for the headlights passing every now and then you almost can't see him in the dark. You almost wish he'd turn around and cling to you, if only for a second, some misplaced need. You don't know. You feel strange. It's all strange.

 

Getting back into the car is a relief. When he shuts his door he clears his throat and says, “Thanks, Dean.”

 

“Yeah.” You can't even see him in the rear-view in this desert darkness. For half a second you feel as if he could slip into the shadows and vanish any second if you don't look at him soon, so you do, find his silhouette against the window. “Yeah, don't mention it.”

 

He slips something into your open hand, resting at your side—the collar, S A M M Y picked out in pressed letters, catching the rushing comets of the cars going by, now dark, now light. Coincidence. Roadkill.

 

“You okay?” Sam asks you, and it confuses you, for a second—if anything, you should be asking him. But it's hard to lie out here.

 

“I think so,” you say.

 

He smiles—you see it, silhouette of his face pulling back, bigger than he's ever smiled since he came home to you. Makes your heart pound. You missed him so much, God, you missed him so much.

 

He doesn't say a word. He doesn't have to.