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Chapter One: Dragon in The Sky

~

Mary and I, we would sit upon a gate

Just gazin' at some dragon in the sky

What tender days, we had no secrets hid away

Well, it seemed about a hundred years ago... 

- 100 Years Ago, The Rolling Stones

 

~

January 1st, 1989.

Little Wind, Ohio. 

'ARE WE there yet?'

Mary Winchester peered over her shoulder at the boys she thought had been sleeping in the backseat of the car. Surprisingly, it was Sam who had asked this time, and not his brother. The first forty-eight hours since they had left Lawrence had been filled with Dean's incessant questions of 'Are we there yet?' or 'Can we stop for food?' and 'I gotta pee.' She didn't blame him for the restlessness that seemed to radiate from him after being stuck in a car for almost two days, with only very short stops for food and bathroom breaks.

Leaving Lawrence had been hard on the boys. It was all they'd known until a few days ago. And John... It would be only so long before she would have to explain to them why John hadn't been with them.

The kids were in the backseat, quiet. Sam, looking at her his big, baby eyes, and Dean watching the passing scenery of ice and snow and small town quiet. She'd been a little distracted recently, had thought them asleep. Every now and then, Sam would start up with those tiny little whines that drew out into full-blown crying when he was having those nightmares. The ones about the night they'd left. And Dean would wake up and whisper to him to quiet his fears so she wouldn't be worried. Like the man of the house, he said, like an adult. But he was just her little boy. He shouldn't have to do those things. 

Grip tightening on the steering wheel, she fought down the lump in her throat. Razor sharp and ragged, the sense of failure slowly tore at her on the inside. If only she'd known... No, she had known. She just hadn't wanted to believe it.

The Rolling Stones played over the car radio, a song from the mixtape John had made for her back when Sam had just been born and things were still good. He'd been making her mixtapes since they were both eighteen and in love and dating in secret so her parents would never find out. 

Mary and I. The two of them against the world. What a joke.

'Mommy?'

Biting her lip, Mary turned her gaze back to the road ahead. Winter nights in Ohio were terrible to drive through, what with most of the ground slippery patches of ice. She had to concentrate.

'No, Sammy. New York is still a ways away from here.' Voice calm and collected, like nothing was wrong. Like she wasn't being eaten up by a million emotions and thoughts from the inside out. Hurt, confusion, shock, and a less than healthy dose of self-loathing. How could she not have known? 

'Oh,' Sam said with a small voice. That was something John had always complained about. Sam was quiet for his age. Everything he said was in an octave barely above a whisper. Since they'd left Lawrence, his words had been fewer and fewer, voice growing smaller and smaller. If he stopped talking completely... 

'Are you hungry, Sammy?' she asked, even though it was midnight and all the diners were closed and everyone was probably at some New Year's party or at home.

What had she been doing last year on New Year's Eve? Eating dinner, her special casserole probably. Dean had stayed up past his bedtime to see what the world looked like at midnight. Sam had been sleeping in her arms. And John had kissed her and promised her a lifetime of love and family and-

Sam muttered something.

'What was that?' Mary asked.

'He said no,' Dean snapped. 'He's not hungry, and besides, nobody's open at midnight on New Year's Eve, so...'

This was probably hitting Dean the hardest out of all of them. When Dean had been younger, he'd used to follow her around. Mommy's boy, John used to call him. At least whenever he was around and not at work, all of the time. A sliver of bitterness cut through her, deep and gutting. Dean grew older, and his interests shifted, and he'd discovered his affinity for fixing things, working with his hands. Just like his father. After that, he'd latched on to his father, never leaving his side. Spending hours and days in the garage with John, fixing up cars. Dean had looked up to John, followed his every instruction, lived by the man's word. Every time John disappeared for a few days, Dean would sit in the living room, at the door, just waiting for him to return. And now... 

 Dean was smart for his age. If he hadn't figured out why John wasn't coming with them yet, he'd get around to it sooner or later.

'Is Daddy gonna meet us there?' Sam suddenly asked. He sounded like he had been crying. 'In New York?' 

She turned back to look at him for a second. As she'd thought, his cheeks were tearstained. She could make out tear tracks in the dim light of streetlights. 

'I- Sam,' she started. 

'For the last time, Sam,' Dean said, tone like the edge of a knife. 'Dad isn't coming. Ever.' 

Swallowing, Mary sighed. So, he had figured it out. As much as she hated John, she couldn't stand the thought of her boys thinking less of him. He was still their father. Whatever he'd done was her burden to bear, not theirs. 

'Don't say that, Dean.' Mary pressed her lips tightly together. 

'It's the truth,' Dean shot back. 'Isn't it?'

For God's sake, the kid was only ten years old. Where was all this cynicism coming from? 'It's not-' 

'Isn't it?' Dean pressed. 

Mary sucked in a breath. 'Look, boys. Your father is not-' Her mind frantically grasped for the right word. 'He's not in a good place right now.' 

'That doesn't even make any sense-' 

'Dean Winchester,' she warned, but he ignored the heat in her words. 

'You're not answering the question,' Dean said. 'He's not coming with us, is he?' 

Jesus. Mary ran her fingers through her hair--it was getting greasy after not washing it for almost two days. She wished she hadn't quit smoking. 'Dean, it's complicated.' 

'Doesn't sound that complicated to me,' Dean said. 'He's not coming.' 

Her son sounded so angry. He was too young to be that angry. 

'But.' Sam's voice rose, a tiny, babyish pitch. 'He said he'd always come back. Daddy said...' 

Trailing off, he clammed up once again, and they were all thrown back into silence. Mind racing, Mary wondered what to say to him that wouldn't be a lie, and wouldn't by the truth. God, she hated John. Everything within her hated him just as much as she loved him once. She was in this situation because of him. Because of him, she was driving ataway from everything she had ever known, with only fifty dollars in her pocket to take care of two little boys who needed their Dad. 

It was all his fault. 

But it also wasn't. She should have known. 

'Don't think about it, Sam, okay?' Dean told his brother. 'It's gonna be fine.' 

And usually, that would work. Sam idolised his elder brother the way Dean did their father. Looked up to him for everything. Followed him around like a lost puppy. Sometimes she worried about what would happen to him if they were separated. But that was why she'd left, wasn't it? To keep their family together, so John wouldn't tear everything she loved apart? 

All her fault. It was all her fault. 

'But, what if somethin' happens? 'Sam ventured, a little louder than before. 'What if the car stops working? Who's gonna fix it? What if those men come back?' 

'Stop it, Sammy,' Dean said, not quite as gently as before. 'Nothing's gonna happen.' 

'But what if Mommy doesn't wake up again?' 

'Sammy, it's okay. It's okay.' Mary risked another look at the backseat. Face pinched under his dark curls, chest heaving like it was a battle for him to breathe, and he was shaking. Anxiety gripped her instantly. 'Sammy, it's okay. Nobody's gonna get us, okay?' 

'But he said they're gonna come back.' Wobbly, Sam's voice grew more and more hysterical. 'What if-' 

'Shut up, Sam!' Dean screamed. 'Just shut up! Stop-' 

'Dean, stop that!' Mary turned to glare at him. 'Don't talk to your brother that way. Don't-' 

There was a sob, strangled and breathless, from Sam. He was crying. He was crying, gasping in loud puffs as if someone was holding his throat-

-and choking him, squeezing her baby's throat. Sammy, gasping for air, crying for his brother, and all Mary can do is scream, scream and watch in helpless agony as they kill her children in front of her. It's the worst pain she's ever felt, like a hot knife cutting into her ribs, ripping every organ from her insides. This is all John's fault. They're all going to die. This is-

All her fault. 

'Sam? Sam?' Alarm grew in her as each second ticked past. 

'But what if- what if-' He was hyperventilating then, and Mary was instantly reduced to racing panic and crippling-

-fear when they hold the knife to Dean's throat. Her boy, kicking and screaming and swearing and biting. 

'Where's your husband?' Yellow-Eyes snarls into her face, breath like rotten eggs, enough to send her-

Stomach reeling, she twisted her neck to look at him. Dean was shaking his brother, panicked. 'Sam, stop crying. Stop it. You're not breathing.' 

'Dean, stop shaking him! Sam? Sammy!' Frantically, she looked back. What did Dean mean he wasn't breathing. This couldn't be happening again. Not again. They were far away from Lawrence. Why was this still following them? 

Sam gasped out half sobs, choking on each of them Tears rolled down his face as his little body convulsed with each sob, each breath he definitely was not taking. 'Mommy, mommy, I can't-' he coughed--'I can't breathe-' 

'Stop crying!' Dean screamed, terrified of what was happening. Still shaking his brother like it would stop him. 

'Dean, stop! Don't--Sam!' Her throat went dry. Pull over, she had to pull over to the side of the road, then she could fix this. Fix it before it got worse. Figure out why her son wasn't breathing. Not again, God, please, not again. 

Mary gripped the steering wheel, stepping on the brakes, and abruptly, the car jolted, right before she lost control. 

Instantly, the car was skidding, spinning in a dizzying frenzy, on what Mary supposed was a patch of ice. Terror gripped icy fingers around her spine as she realised what has happening, and someone was screaming somewhere in the background. The airbag filled her entire vision as the car swivelled again, and again, until it rolled right off the side of the the road. A sharp pain exploded in Mary's arm as the car tumbled down something steep. Her head thunked up and down, hitting the roof hard once the car flipped. Distantly, she could register her children screaming, glass breaking, cutting her face and hands. The sound of twisting metal in her ears. The music still playing on the radio. And the car jerked and rolled and tumbled, slamming her body all over the place. The roof, the door, the wheel. 

A cold, crippling certainty filled her, somewhere far away from terror and white-hot pain in every part of her body. Her children were going to die. 

In that moment, her entire life flashed before her eyes. 

 

~

 

May 22nd, 1961

Lawrence, Kansas

IT WAS one of those days when Mary's parents were fighting again.

Usually, it didn't bother her, when they fought, because they fought all the time. They fought so much, Mary couldn't imagine why they were married in the first place. She knew a couple of kids her age whose parents had gotten divorced. Like Patti, her best friend in the entire universe. Patti cried a lot because her parents weren't married anymore, and she reminded Mary all the time how lucky she was that her parents were together. Mary didn't consider herself lucky at all. Mary wished her parents would get divorced. Then the fighting would stop, and Mommy wouldn't cry all the time anymore.

But Mary was seven years old, and she wasn't stupid enough to think that wishing for anything ever made it happen. In fact, wishing made things worse.

Whenever Mary's parents were fighting, she went into her bedroom and locked herself in the closet and stuck her fingers in her ears and sang Jailhouse Rock because it was her favourite song on Mommy's records, no matter how annoying Dad said it was.

Sometimes, even with her fingers stuck in her ears, she could still hear them screaming. She hated those days.

That day was different than any other day.

Mommy was making apple pie that afternoon, humming along to the record playing through the house. Mary sat on the kitchen table, swinging her legs over the side, singing along to Elvis' voice. Mommy loved to listen to Elvis.

When they said you was high classed

That was just a lie

When they said you was high classed

That was just a lie

You ain't never caught a rabbit

And you ain't no friend of mine...

Daddy came in then, from work. Or at least Mommy had said it was work. Mary didn't understand Daddy's kind of work. All of her friends had Daddies who went to work in the morning, and came back at night. Mary's Daddy went to work whenever someone called him on the phone, or if Mr. A. came around to get him. Some days, he didn't even go to work at all. Some days, he went to work and didn't come back for weeks. 

'Daddy!' She jumped off the table to run into his waiting arms. 'I missed you so much!' 

'Hey, baby.' He placed a kiss on the top of her head and lifted her in the air. 'Someone's getting much too big to be carried.' 

'No, I'm not!' she protested, clinging to him like a monkey in a tree. 'Spin me around.'

Daddy laughed, low and rich and happy. She liked when Daddy laughed; he didn't do it very often. 'Maybe another time, honey.' 

He put her back on the ground and went to Mommy. Wrapping his arms around her from behind, he placed a kiss on her cheek. 'That smells incredibly good.' 

'Mm,' Mommy hummed, turning to kiss him. 'It's for dinner tonight. You gonna be around?' 

'With what you're cooking up? Of course.' He pushed a lock of hair out of her face, his smile fond. There were dark circles under his eyes. 'Elvis again, really?' 

'I love Elvis,' Mary piped in, and started singing as the next song came on. 'I'm going to marry him when I grow up.' 

Daddy laughed at that, as if she were making a joke. Mary shook her head. He could laugh all he wanted. All Mary knew was that she was going to marry Elvis Presley. 

'Hey, Dee,' Daddy looked at Mommy. 'You mind setting the table for one more?' 

Lips pressed tightly together, Mommy rounded on him. 'We're having a guest?' 

Daddy swallowed and let go of her. Eyes flitting anywhere but her face, he licked his lips. 'Dee.' 

'Is it Azazel?' she demanded, hands on her hips. 

Mary felt her stomach sinking into her new red shoes. Not again. Things had been going so well. Daddy should never have mentioned Mr. A. Didn't he know how mad it made Mommy? Didn't he care? 

'I- yes.' Something sparked in his eyes. 'Mr. A will be joining us.'

'Sam-' Mommy started, but Daddy cut her off. 

'No, don't say anything. Don't you dare say anything.' Fists clenched, he seemed to grow taller when he stared Mommy down. 'Do you know how much it costs to afford this place? This nice, suburban house you wanted? The new shoes you bought Mary? The Elvis records?' 

'I'd be able to afford them,' Mommy said, carefully. 'If you let me work.' 

'No!' Daddy barked, and Mary flinched. Even Mommy took a step back from him. 'It will not be said that Sam Campbell cannot provide for his family.' 

'And that, that pride,' Mommy said, 'is why we can't afford new curtains, or pay the electric bill, or-' 

'That's why we need Mr. A. He's helping us. The least we can do is feed him.' 

'No, Mr. A. is the reason why Mary can't go to the park like other children, why I can't get a job-' 

'You know outside work would kill you. You know that!' Daddy was screaming now. Face red, veins in his arms and forehead popping. 'I'm trying to help you, help us. This is the only way.'

'That man is dangerous. What he does--what you do is dangerous. You know that.'

Confused, Mary tried to disappear into the corner of the room. Her head swam with dazing questions.

'Don't you want a better life for Mary?'

'Of course I want a better life for Mary!' Mommy clenched her fists. 'That's why letting someone who is practically the devil anywhere near her-' 

For a second, Mary thought Daddy wasn't going to say anything more. That he'd finally stop, so this wouldn't turn into both of them screaming and shouting and forgetting she was there. That she could hear them. 

Shoulders slumped, he collapsed in a chair. 'I can't - This is the only way. The family business.'

Mommy said nothing to that. Turning back to the sink, she grabbed a dishcloth to dry her hands on, then faced him. Emotionless, calm. 'I'm taking Mary and leaving.'

Quiet filled the kitchen for a whole ten seconds, unbearably loud.

Daddy's eyes turned to steel as he slowly drew himself to stand. 'You are not taking my daughter anywhere.'

'I'm taking her, and I'm leaving, if Azazel so much as steps foot in this house again.' Her mother was a picture of serenity. 'Mary will not grow up in this family business.'

Daddy snarled. 'Like hell, you're taking my daughter from me!' He choked out a laugh, that chilled Mary from the tips of her fingers to her toes. 'You can go ahead and leave, let the cancer kill you. Die, for all I care! In fact, why don't you go right now? Spare me the burden of taking care of your sorry ass! But you leave my daughter alone!'

Mommy's lip trembled, tears spilling over her cheeks. 'Samuel, how can you say that? This is what he's turning you to. You're just too much of a damn fool to realise it. And if anything happens to Mary, it will be all your fault.'

Daddy brought his hands down on the table hard. A loud crack filled the air, that drew out a scream from Mary's throat. Daddy's eyes were dark, almost like he was completely something else. Even though he and Mommy fought constantly, he'd never looked like this. The flower vase on the table rolled to the floor and shattered with a crash.

Mary froze in her spot in the corner, heart pounding against her ribs. Arms trembling, she looked from the broken glass on the floor to her father, and met his eyes.

They were both staring at her, Mommy and Daddy, like they'd just remembered she was in the room. Pale, Daddy took a step towards her. 'Mary.'

But she stepped back, away from him. The smell of smoke reached her nostrils. Burning pie.

Daddy reached for her. 'Mary, come here.'

And Mary ran. Ran out the kitchen door, through the backyard garden, over the fence surrounding their yard, into the street. She ran, and she didn't stop until she didn't know where she was anymore.

 

~

THE RADIO was still playing when Dean woke up.

Immediately his senses were overwhelmed with pain: sharp and nauseating, from his arm, from his head. There was also the coppery, metallic scent of something. Something he'd seen many times in his ten short years. Blood. Head throbbing, he could barely open his eyes. Everything hurt like a bitch. And he was sure if he moved, the world would come swimming up to him and lurching down all at the same time.

Come on, son. He could hear his Dad's voice in his head. Get up. Get up. Now. You need to be strong.

With every iota of willpower in his body he forced his eyes open.

Just as he'd expected, the world wobbled on its axis, ground and sky swirling into darkness. But his eyes were open. It was dark, wherever he was. Dark and cold, and his fingers were numb from... was that snow? Alarm knifed through him, pushing every shade of grogginess from his head. He tried to make sense of his surroundings. Apparently, he was in the car, the Impala he and his Dad had spent countless hours working on. Only everything was wrong. Shouldn't the roof be above him? And why was there broken glass everywhere. 

There was snow in the car. Why was there--

Then he remembered. Sammy crying and choking on his own tears, unable to breathe. Mom, looking back at them, the look on her face terrifying him, screaming, pain and then the car was skidding off of the road, tumbling over and over and over again until all there was was darkness.

There had been an accident, he remembered. And now, the car was on its side. Fear tightened his gut, and panic. Sammy. Where was Sammy? It took effort to turn his head, but he managed to. At the other end of the upended car, Sammy was still strapped to the backseat by his seat belt, unconscious, head lolling to the side.

He's not dead, Dean told himself, pushing down the rising panic in his throat. Not dead. Not dead.

'Sammy?' he croaked. His throat was raw, aching. Tentatively, he reached out the arm closest to Sammy, the one not trapped by the door, to check his brother's pulse and make sure he was breathing. It was one of those secret things that Dad had taught him whenever him and Dean went on their weekly fishing trips. How to tell whether a man was alive or not. How to shoot to injure. How to shoot to kill.

Starbusts of pain burned bright behind his eyelids, but he fought hard through it. He had to know whether Sammy was alive or not. Finally, he touched two fingers to his brother's pulse point. A strong heartbeat fluttered under his fingers. Still alive. Breathless relief almost knocked Dean dizzy.

But Mom... There was no way he could reach her, especially with the agonising pain tearing through his arm. He had no idea if she was alive. Couldn't even see her.

'Mom?' he tried. 'Mom! Mom!'

No answer. He tried not to think about what that might mean. And he was so scared. He couldn't move, couldn't shout to rouse his mother or Sammy. His arm was probably broken, and he had no idea where they were. And Mom might be- Mom might be-

Unbidden, a sob caught in his throat. Then another, and another. This was just like that night back in Lawrence, with the yellow-eyed man and all those guns and the fire. Even with everything his Dad had taught him, with everything he knew that Sammy and his mother didn't he hadn't been able to stop it. He'd been helpless then; he was helpless now.

The tears on his face were freezing. He wondered what Dad would say if he could see Dean now. Imagined the grim look of disappointment on his Dad's face at Dean crying like a little girl.

Get up. Get up now. You have to protect your Mom and Sammy. You can't afford to cry. Get up!

Tensing his jaw, Dean forced himself to stop crying. Crying was for little kids. He couldn't afford to be a kid. Not again. Not this time.

He had to help Sammy and Mom- if she was even alive. Had to get out of here.

Dean used his good hand to unbuckle the seat belt holding him in place, near the door of the car, the one not blocked by the ground. It was a little difficult, and painful, given his hands were slick with blood from the broken glass, but he managed it. Now, to get out of the car. The window was broken, with a hole large enough for him to maybe climb out through.

He used his good arm to get a grip on the outside of the car. The other arm was a bit more of a problem. It frigging hurt. It hurt so much, tears sprung to the corners of his eyes. Choking on a sharp breath, he soldiered on through the almost overwhelming agony. Second arm out, he pulled himself out the window, some shards of the broken glass scraping at his sides. He whimpered sharply, just managing to get his legs out of the window before his arm completely gave out.

He fell into the snow and passed out. Came to almost a minute later. The agony in his arm was nearly intolerable at that point. For a few breaths, he just lay there in the snow, gasping and trying not to cry. But he had to get up. Had to get help for Sammy or Mom. Had to protect them, just like Dad had said.

Dragging himself to his feet, he held the offending limb with his good arm and breathed. The snow began to fall softly, and God, it was so cold, even through his Dad's leather jacket. He noted that the car lay on its side, had fallen into a ditch, landed near the biggest tree he'd ever seen. The thought of having to climb out of it with only one hand made his head spin, but Sammy needed him.

Gritting his teeth, Dean started up the slope, careful not to slip on any patches of ice. All the air did was get colder. The muscles in his arm burned as he pulled himself up by protruding roots when he stumbled. Patches of black filled his vision from the strain of his aching arm. His vision blurred, either from the snow that clung to his eyelashes, or maybe he was having a concussion.

Back on the road, he stood unsteadily, staring at the expanse of black night and road ahead of him. Which way had they come from? Had they passed any hospitals on the way here? Any telephone booths?

Looking left and right, he held back a sob. His arm hurt so much, so much he wanted to-

-cry. They're going to kill Sammy. Yellow-Eyes has his hands wrapped around Dean's brother's throat. Mom is crying and screaming and thrashing in the big man's grip. And Dean has failed. He's failed. He couldn't protect them. And Dad is- Dad isn't here. Dad left them.

Dean can't. He has no idea-

-which way to go from here. Where to get help, and his arm hurt so badly.

Holding his breath, Dean forced himself to be as still as possible and listen. Crickets chirped in the distance, but otherwise it was eerily quiet. Except for... Was that music in the distance? Singing? Whatever it was, there were bound to be people there. Help, and at least, he could get out of all this snow. 

With a deep, brittle sigh, Dean began in the direction of the singing voices to get help. 

~

PASTOR JIM Murphy was glad it was all over. 

Over the last few weeks, he'd been excited to finally give his first ever sermon to the local Church since coming to Little Wind He'd spent days preparing, weeks poring over the material, memorizing it backwards and forwards until he could recite it in his sleep. He'd prepared for every aspect: not getting distracted by the background music as the choir, what to do if congregation members began to drift off in the middle of his sermon. He'd been prepared for every scenario.

What he hadn't prepared for were the nerves. 

His first ever sermon had been an epic fail. It was supposed to cement himself as the new deputy pastor since Pastor Hank was nearing retirement, and they'd need a new one to preach next year. Once he'd gotten up on that pulpit, however, his mind had just drawn up unbelievable blanks, and he'd stumbled over reading the material. He heard the snickers of the teenagers in the back at the hall, tugging at his collar every five minutes because it was suddenly too hot. 

The congregation staring at him in what he felt was silent judgement. 

Or maybe he'd been imagining it. Either way, that had been the worst sermon ever. 

To cap it all off, it had been one of those services the entire town attended. He'd screwed up massively in front of the entire town. 

Jim watched the snow drifting to the ground sluggishly and sighed. All that time at seminary school, and he couldn't even preach a simple New Year's sermon. He leaned against the wall of the Church behind him, suddenly exhausted and a little depressed about everything. From inside the Church, he could hear the music playing, people singing Auld Lang Syne, the din of laughter and chatter and harmless gossip. Kids playing around. The aroma of hot meals and hot chocolate filling the night. 

When he'd lived here, before the war and the gangs and seminary school, they'd held the town's New Year's party in the Church. Everyone who lived in town came. Things hadn't changed that much since. 

The door creaked open, and the sound of music intensified for a moment then dimmed down again. 

'Hey.' Ellen was beside him, wrapping her fleece jacket tighter around herself. 'Kind of cold out, isn't it?' 

'Uh huh,' Jim said. Even five years after quitting the habit, he still longed for a smoke right then. 'Everyone having fun?' 

'This town?' Ellen laughed. 'Everyone's always having fun at these kind of things.'

'Jo having fun?' 

Ellen shrugged, pushed a strand of dark hair out of her face. 'She got in a fight with some kindergarteners over how many marshmallows they put in their hot chocolate. I put her in a time out. No cookies. Knowing Bill though, he's probably smuggled something to her.' 

Jim let silence sit between them for a long breath. This felt both familiar and unfamiliar: being here with Ellen again. The last time he'd seen her was the summer after high school, the last time he'd been in this town. Back then, they had been inseparable. They'd spent hours talking and dreaming about getting out of this small town. He left; she stayed, met William, got married, had Jo. And he'd just... drifted. 

Now, he had no idea how to talk to her. Before, it used to be as easy as breathing. He couldn't think of a single thing to say at the moment. 

Finally, Ellen exhaled. 'Why are you out here, Jim?'

'I just.' He shuffled his feet. 'I guess I needed to think.' 

'People are looking for you,' she said. 

Scoffing at that, he looked at her. 'Anyone want to compliment me on my terrible sermon?' 

'It wasn't that bad,' Ellen offered. 

'It was terrible,' Jim argued. 'I mispronounced Jesus three times. Jesus.' 

Ellen snorted a laugh, bumped her shoulder to his. 'Remember your valedictory speech?' 

'Oh man.' Jim closed his eyes as the memory replayed in his head. 'Oh God, that was terrible. On behalf of the graduating sophomore class-' 

'-our founder, John Lennon-' 

'-our diminished principal, Dr. Eggfart.' Jim shook his head, remembering how he'd blundered through ten minutes of speech in front of a scandalised audience of parents and teachers. His classmates had thought the whole thing a hilarious prank. 'Worst ten minutes of my life. Well, except for now-' 

'You gave a memorable speech. Kids around here still talk about it.' Ellen wiped a tear from her eye, ending her laughing fit. 'Just as memorable as tonight was.' 

'And everyone's going to think I'm some sort of clown,' he said. 

'No, everyone's gonna think you're human,' Ellen countered. 'Everyone makes mistakes, Jim. One bad sermon shouldn't make you up and leave. 

'I'm not thinking about leaving again,' Jim said. Too quickly, maybe, judging from Ellen's narrowed eyes. 

'You're good with people, Jim.' Ellen's voice was softer than her usual wry tone. 'They'll love you. Now, comes on back into the party. Eleanor Goldfeder made her famous casserole.' 

The thought was tempting--Goldfeder casserole hay won many a county fair. For now, the thought of going home and putting on some Simon and Garfunkel record, lying in bed, and thinking about whether coming back to Milan ranked higher than joining a sordid, drug-pushing gang in his younger days on his list of Jim Murphy's worst ideas ever. 

'Maybe another time,' he said carefully. 

With dark, assessing eyes, Ellen looked at him, really looked at him in that way that said, I can guess what's going on in your head, why won't you just talk to me? It was much better than the Why did you leave, you broke my heart in half, Jim look, but not by much. Before, she'd have asked him straight out what was going on in his head. Now, perhaps because she had much more tact than she had at seventeen, or the gap that had clawed its way between them over the past twenty years, she let it go. 

'It's- I guess I - I've got a headache,' he said. It wasn't completely a lie. If he stayed here and any longer, he was going to develop a migraine from thinking too much. 

Ellen nodded, like she believed him. 'Sure, I'll wrap up some of the casserole, drop it off tomorrow.'

Grateful, he offered her a small smile. 'Thanks, El.' 

She opened the door to go in, then paused. 'Careful driving on them roads, Jimmy. Ice is really a bitch this time of year.' 

'I'll remember that.' He watched the door close behind her and fiddled with the cay keys in his pocket for a minute before heading for his Mercedes. The air was cold enough that he wished he'd brought a warmer coat, and it wasn't snowing so badly he wouldn't be able to see anything. 

Once on the lonely road back to the house he'd inherited from his parents, he let out a breath he hadn't even known he'd been holding in the first place. Suddenly a grim realisation hit him. He was going back to that big, empty house that didn't feel like home to spend a lonely night with only recorded voices to keep him company. A house without Carrie there to hold him and tell him he was thinking too much.

It had been five years since he'd lost her. Around the same time he'd quit smoking. It had taken a while, but he'd gotten over it ml. Whenever he thought of her, all he felt was a dull ache in the place where his heart should be. Sometimes, he still felt some kind of phantom pain, sharp and deep, like he was losing her all over again. Unless he allowed himself to fall into melancholy. Unless he allowed himself to-

Out of nowhere, a figure just popped up on the road ahead, illuminated by his headlights. 

Adrenaline gripping him instantly, he swerved to the right, narrowly avoiding whatever it was. He pressed his foot hard against the brakes, so hard he was almost thrown forward by the force of stopping. Then he unbuckled his seatbelt and jumped out of the car. Heart hammering against his ribs, he stopped when he saw the crumpled figure on the snowed upon road. He ran to the figure, knelt down beside it, rolled it over. 

It was a kid, a boy. Dark brown hair, wrapped in a too-big leather jacket. His eyes were closed, skin white and pale. Thankfully, his chest rose and fell in ragged breather, and he had an arm clutched around the other. Slick blood bled from cuts on his face and his arms. 

'Dear God,' Jim breathed. Concern wound like a vine around his heart. Where had this kid come from? How long had he been here, in the freezing, sub-zero temperatures, and why was he bleeding? He reached to touch the kid, try to rouse him if he could, when a small, cold fist wrapped around his wrist. 

The boy's eyes were open when Jim looked down, wide and full of fear and barely restrained panic. 

'Hey, hey, it's okay,' Jim said softly. The kid's grip was unusually strong. 'I'm- I just want to help you.' 

The boy looked a little less wary, but still on his guard. 

Jim lowered his voice to a reassuring tone. 'It's okay. My name is Jim, Jim Murphy. I want to help you.' 

The boy's eyes narrowed at him, then fell on his collar. 'Are you a priest?' 

'A pastor, but yeah, same vein.' He tried again to help thy kid sit up. To his surprise, the boy let him. 'You want to get out of the cold? Get your cuts cleaned up?' 

Suddenly the boy's eyes rounded. 'Mom. My-my mom. And- and Sammy. They were in- there was an accident.' 

A note of alarm struck in Jim's head at the boy's panicked tone. 'What-' 

'They're going to die. They're going to die if they don't get help. I- I-' 

'Hey, it's okay. It's okay. What's your name, kid?' 

'D-d-dean.' The boy swallowed, obviously battling tears. 'Please, you've got to help me!' 

'I will. Dean, Dean, calm down.' Jim placed a hand on his shoulder. 'Where did the accident happen?' 

'I don't know. I don't know. I just-' 

'Dean, you have to be brave. I can't help your mother and... Sammy if you don't tell me where they are. Describe where the crash happened.' 

'Okay.' Dean's breathing slowed instantly, a steel quality to his gaze. 'Okay. Okay. We were driving down the road into town from, I think, Pavia? There was some kind of ditch, near a broken fence. The car fell in.' 

'Was there a giant tree?' 

Some relief eased Dean's frown. 'Yeah. You know the place?' 

'Yeah.' 

Instantly, a location fell into Jim's head. And then shock. The kid had walked almost seven miles in the snow, in this cold. He swallowed. 'Okay, let's get you out of this snow.' 

Dean nodded obediently and climbed to his feet, shrugging off any help from Jim, and walked to Jim's car, got in. Jim followed him and poked his head into the driver's seat window. 'I'm gonna call for help. There's a phone booth ten feet away.' There should be. He'd seen one, driving to Church that night, he was sure. 'Just stay here, okay.' 

Dean nodded another time. 

Jim ran to the phone. He wondered whether the boy's family was still alive. Falling into that ditch near Bailey farm... He wouldn't wish that upon anybody. By the time he reached the phone, he was half out of breath, and his face was numb. Dialling 911, he waited with baited breath. Please, God, let there be an operator at this hour. 

The line picked up. A tired voice asked, '911, what's your emergency?' 

'There's been an accident on Bailey Road. Ditch near Bailey farm. A woman and two boys in the car.' 

The voice was more alert now. 'Emergency services will be there in a minute.' 

He certainly hoped so. 

The run back to his car seemed quicker now that he knew Dean's family would get help. When he got there, Dean was curled into a fetal ball in the backseat. His teeth were chattering. Not even thinking about it, he took off hiy coat and handed it off to the kid. 'Here.' 

Dean took it and slipped his arms into his sleeves, then wrapped them tighter around themselves. 

'I need to take you to the hospital,' Jim said slowly. 

'No,' Dean said, determined. 'Not without Mom and Sammy. I won't go anywhere until they're okay.' 

And the kid looked so stubborn, Jim knew the only way he'd get the boy to the hospital was kicking and screaming. Besides, except for the cuts, the cold, and maybe a possible concussion, the kid was fine. No signs of internal bleeding or broken bones. Jim got into the Mercedes and started the car. 

The ambulance and firetruck arrived at the scene the same time Jim did, crimson red and sapphire blue lighting the night up. Below them in the ditch, a black Chevy Impala was flipped on its side, broken, jagged windows, a stomach-churning view of twisted metals. Firefighters wery shouting, paramedics swarming the ditch. He hoped Dean's mother was alive, and Sammy. 

He almost fell apart with instant relief when one of the paramedics shouted, 'They're alive!' 

Beside him, Dean drained of worry. 'They're gonna be okay.' 

It was less of a question, and more of a statement. Still, Jim said, 'Yeah.' 

'Good.' 

Then the boy immediately crumpled to the ground.