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And This, Your Living Kiss

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Summer always made Dean restless. A holdover from the old days, when Dad used to move them around, avoiding deep winter when they could. Sometimes—a lot of times—he got the urge to hop in his Baby and drive away. He didn’t care where, just far. The whole world would shrink down to Dean, his car, and an endless horizon. But he could never quite eke out the effort it would take to actually leave Kansas. He had the little house he rented, he had his steady job at the mechanic’s, and Lawrence was his home. In name, at least. Regardless he had worn himself a groove in this town, an easy track to slide along day in, day out. So it remained an itch he couldn’t scratch.

It was nearing the end of July and pushing 100 degrees, and all the garage doors were open at the auto shop for some kind of air flow. Dean didn’t let it bother him; on his break he simply shucked his coveralls, washed his hands, and went for a walk. He had a few bucks in his wallet and figured that maybe something other than the paltry sandwiches he made himself for lunch would be novel enough to calm the niggling voice telling him to go, go, go. The outdoors didn’t help, though, because the scent of summer in America was the same the country over: car exhaust sitting low in the heat, burnt cigarettes and hot asphalt adding to the fug. The cheap perfume of the girls as they walk by, all dressed in their summer clothes, mingling with their sweat. Every now and then a quick breeze would carry with it a hint of fresh leaves or cut grass, maybe from the median splitting a four-lane road. A brief respite from hot metal and dirty sidewalk cement.

After walking a couple of blocks sweat was dripping from his own neck, darkening his simple gray shirt. He lifted the hem to wipe his face; no way Sammy was dealing with this shit in New England.

Deciding retreat was the better part of valor, he altered course from the deli that had been his original destination and turned a corner to walk toward a strip mall where he knew there was an ice cream shop. When he reached the mall, darting across the heavy midday traffic, he sought refuge against the building, where there was a narrow strip of shade. A family passed him who’d just bought some ice cream themselves; Dean was so distracted by the multicolored cups they were holding, practically overflowing with crushed candy and whipped cream, that he nearly walked into a door that opened. Reflexively he caught it before it smashed his face in. Cool air was blasting from inside—comparatively cool, and at any rate—but it wasn’t full of ice cream. It was full of books.

Moth to the flame, Dean stepped in. He let the door swing shut behind him.

The books were clearly used, but somehow it made the store more cozy and unassuming. The shelves were tall, dark, and practically to the ceiling, and there was no discernible order to them at first glance. The front desk with a tiny outdated register was unmanned, but a dehumidifier was humming loudly behind it. Suddenly losing himself in this dim, quiet place was all the adventure Dean needed. Maybe if he turned the first corner, he’d never come out again.

Heat and hunger forgotten, Dean slipped behind the first stack. It held a bunch of what looked to be mysteries and thrillers, the usual oversold things like Patterson and Cussler, but he ran his fingers along them anyway. When was the last time he read a book? His routine usually involved reality TV or Dr. Sexy reruns as he ate dinner on the couch. A book might be nice. Nothing too involved, just something…that would take him away for a while. To a completely different place.

He wound his way further into the shelves, his boots heavy on the creaky wooden floor. There were nearly new Harlequin romances that lined up neatly, all tiny paperbacks of similar size; cookbooks by the dozen shouting all the new diet fads in loud colors and fonts; an entire aisle of history books, most having to do with WWII; biographies of celebrities that no one would remember in a year; new books straight from Barnes and Noble, and old hardcovers with faded gold lettering—could have been from the 1950s or the 1850s equally. Dean took his time making his way through the maze-like bookcases, filled with…something. An emotion he couldn’t name. But he liked it. He liked feeling something different. He liked that though the store was small, he could pretend that it went on forever, always twisting and winding. “Labyrinthine,” he murmured to himself, slowly, savoring, just so he could taste it on his lips. And then there, past the stack with rows upon rows of tiny slivers of plays, in the furthest corner, half-hidden, was the poetry.

He was caught between delight and terror. He ached.

Dean hadn’t written poetry in years. Hadn’t read it in even longer.

Upon a glance the collections looked to be in some kind of alphabetical order, so he studiously avoided the top shelf. He started at eye level, running his fingers slowly across the spines, half of them with the bright yellow USED stickers KU favored. Must be close enough to campus some students thought they’d get better luck selling their books here. Sammy used to complain about that all the time, back when he was in college.

Dean scanned past Emerson and Erdrich, Ferlinghetti and García Lorca, until he paused on Allen Ginsberg. He tried to summon up a little anger, even some resentment, but he couldn’t. Ginsberg was important to him, no matter what else Dean had gone through. The thick book containing his complete works, bright orange and catching, was as familiar to him as the Carver Edlund books he and Sammy had read a hundred times in their youth. But next to it was a book that just said Howl, and it wasn’t the tiny black and white City Lights paperback. It was much taller and twice as thick. He tapped his fingers against the several USED stickers, one on top of the other, and a little ridiculously, felt bad that the book had been abandoned so many times. But maybe it was a poor edition?

Curiosity finally won out against his reticence. He pulled the book off the shelf and took in its grayscale cover. HOWL, it read. Original draft facsimile, transcript, and various versions, fully annotated by author, with contemporaneous correspondence, account of first public reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts, and bibliography. Facsimile? What did that even mean? He fanned his thumb across the pages to do a quick flip through, and abruptly stopped. Then turned a page. Again. Again. It was Howl but it was…there were different drafts. Several drafts. All drafts? Each part, printed from a typewriter but scribbled all over by Ginsberg himself and of course Dean had always known—well, Dr. Moseley had insisted—that even the greats needed a lot of tries to create their masterpieces. But seeing the evidence of it…

Dean has felt so much shame over the years for writing and publishing poetry. It didn’t matter that it was under a nom de plume. It didn’t matter that only four people in the world knew who Jack Allen really was, beside himself. He could never get the words right, and no matter how many times Charlie or the Doc would insist he just needed to go over things again when he wasn’t happy, well, so what? What was the point of doing it at all if he couldn’t get anything right? The biggest joke was that these fancy journals published him anyway, not realizing he wasn’t like them. He wasn’t some elite sitting in his little Robert Frost cabin in the woods and teaching students literature. He was a dumb Midwestern hick with a GED and a few bucks to his name.

But he stood there, in that little used bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, and he read through the drafts, one right after the other, floored each time at the changes Ginsberg made, the route he took to get there, the way he built and tore down and shook up the words like a kaleidoscope. A small voice piped up in his head, a voice that sounded suspiciously like Sam when he was at his most annoyingly reasonable, that said, Maybe you just didn’t know how to edit. Maybe you never let Dr. Moseley teach you, even though she asked. Maybe you just didn’t listen.

Even if that was true…even if that was true, what did it matter now? He hadn’t picked up a pen in years. Oh god, just put it away. Put it away.

But now that the door had been opened, he couldn’t quite get it to close again. Footsteps sounded across the store, followed by a large sigh as someone sat in a creaking chair. Before he could talk himself out of it, Dean snapped the book shut and brought it to the front desk, where a man was click-clacking away at an old laptop, wearing a bathrobe over sleepwear and looking distinctly hungover.

“Cash only,” the man grunted, scratching his beard. He tapped the backspace button and held it.

“Uh, sure,” said Dean. There was a little sticker on the front cover that said $1, so he fished a few coins out of his pocket and placed them on the desk.

The man glanced at the money, then the book, and nodded. “Have a nice day. Come again.” He went back to typing.

“Yeah. Thanks,” Dean muttered and hurried away. His break was almost over and besides, he had to shove this in his locker before anyone noticed.

That night, instead of taking his quick plate of spaghetti to the couch, he sat down at the small kitchen table and opened the Howl facsimile again, and examined each draft more slowly. Then he read all the extra materials, the articles and letters Ginsberg had written about his process and his influences, discussion of the obscenity trial that nearly stopped it from being printed, and most of all, first person accounts of its premiere. Ginsberg had only had the first part written then. But he’d been brave. He stood up at the front of the room and read his deepest thoughts, no holds barred, and the crowd…went into ecstasy. They felt him. They understood him. They clapped and cheered and shouted, egging him on, begging him to go on, because the words resonated in the room, in their souls.

Dean knew that feeling. He remembered it. It rose up in him now, causing his eyes to water. He thought that childish little part of himself had been scrubbed out, but it was there, a tiny seed suddenly bursting a shoot, deep in his chest---

Am I mad that I should cherish that which bears but bitter fruit?
I will pluck it from my bosom, though my heart be at the root.

He slapped his hand to his chest, felt his heart beating wildly against his ribcage, the bone all too solid. A terrible vise of bone.

Do I dare? the wretched organ asked. Do I dare?

He thought of Sam, living with Eileen almost 1500 miles away, and their three year old Jack who he’d barely seen a handful of times. Thought of the invitation to live in their guest room, watch their kid a couple times a week to help save on daycare. So his nephew could grow up knowing him. So he could be near the only family he had left.

Dean thought about how, for a dozen years now, Dr. Moseley had taught at some fancy little liberal arts college just an hour away from them.

He thought about how Charlie moved around every couple years anyway, no job holding her interest long enough, no one tying her down well enough that her own restlessness didn’t compel her to leave before long.

Who else was he beholden to? How much longer was he going to live in the shitty little house his father had died in? When was the last time he’d even felt something so strongly, that now to even recognize that he had emotion was like a waking limb, pins and needles?

It was so much better to be numb.

Courage, poor stupid heart of stone.

He picked up the phone.

***

No sooner had Dean turned off the Impala, her rumble cut short, than Sam and Eileen’s door burst open and a little boy came barreling out. “Uncle Dean!” Jack shouted, tottering as fast as he could on his little legs, which was pretty damn fast. Dean couldn’t believe how big the kid had gotten; skype just didn’t prepare him. But he remembered when Sam was not quite so giant, and it was easy as breathing to catch the kid in his hands, to lift and twirl him.

“Hey, buddy,” he said, smiling as Jack squealed in delight. Sam and Eileen both worked with social services, Sam as a lawyer, and Eileen as a social worker. They saw too many kids get chewed up by the system to not want to adopt out of fostercare, and it melted Dean just a little more to see evidence of how happy and loved Jack was. He pulled Jack back down into a hug, felt his little fingers digging into his jacket as it was enthusiastically returned, and sent a tiny prayer of thanks into the universe. Jack would never have to scrape and scrabble like Sam and Dean had, grow up in an orphanage like Eileen, be foisted from family to family like Charlie. He was in their family now.

“Dean!” Sam loped from the front porch with Eileen, who plucked Jack from Dean’s arms so that the moose could smother him with his.

“Hey, Sammy,” he said, and squeezed extra tight.

Sam squeezed even harder. “Glad you’re here.”

He slapped Sam a couple times on the back before pulling away so that Eileen could read his lips. “Are you sure? Eileen might see the light and realize she picked the wrong brother.” His ASL was not great, but he added in a sign here and there as he spoke. He’s never practiced as much as he meant to. He grinned, swallowing down his shame, his inner voice recriminating him, how Eileen deserved a far better brother-in-law. It was going to be baptism by fire now, but he was no stranger to that. And he probably couldn’t find better teachers than Sam and Eileen.

“Fat chance,” said Eileen. “We’re going to have so many date nights now that you’re here to babysit.” She handed Jack off to Sam and opened her arms.

“I see how it is.” Dean accepted the hug.

“Let’s get you inside,” she said, now signing as well as speaking for his benefit. “We’ll help you carry in your things.”

“Don’t got much,” he answered. He popped the trunk while Sam opened the back door of the Impala, showed Jack the little army men stuck in one of the doors. Dean only had a duffle packed, and one box. Duffle had clothes. Box had a few pictures, but was mostly books.

“That’s it?” Eileen asked.

“All I need,” he assured her, watching Jack as he babbled at Sam how cool the car is.

A couple hours later had Jack grinning wide, chocolate all over his face, fingers sticky with caramel.

“That’s a special treat,” Sam reminded his son for the third time. “Uncle Dean will not be giving you chocolate every day.”

Jack signed in response since his mouth was full.

“He likes what?” Dean asked.

Sam sighed. “Nougat.”

“Right on, buddy,” said Dean, holding his hand out for a five, then immediately regretting it when it got smeared with what seemed like half the candy bar. He stared at his hand in consternation.

Without missing a beat, Sam pushed a stack of napkins toward him. Ah yes, Dean remembered those days. With kids you always had to be prepared.

“Jack! Bath time!” Eileen yelled from the other room.

Jack pushed himself down from the chair, leaving a trail of goo on the table, and happily tottered off to find his mom.

“He must like baths too, huh?”

“Beats me,” said Sam, running a hand through his hair. “For three months he threw a tantrum every time, and then a week ago it was like nothing was wrong.”

“Heh, yeah, you went through a phase like that,” chuckled Dean. He finally gave up on the napkins, which were mostly leaving white bits of themselves behind, and went to the sink to wash his hands.

When he didn’t get a response, he turned with the towel and dried his hands looking at his brother. Sam was leaning his temple on his fist, elbow on the table, and giving Dean a look that was far too…far away. Dean raised his eyebrows in prompt.

“You’ll be happy here, won’t you, Dean? We’d really like the help to cut down on daycare costs, but if you don’t want to—?”

“Sam,” he cut him off. “Jack and I will figure it out. You and Eileen do you and Eileen, okay?”

“Okay,” said Sam, like he didn’t quite believe, but he was willing to roll with it. “Feel free to stay in our house long as you like. Seriously. But I was wondering…”

Dean folded the towel, hung it up, straightened it. “Sometime this century, Sam.”

“What changed your mind? We’ve been asking you up here for a year, but suddenly…?”

Dean turned back around and leaned against the counter, staring at the kitchen linoleum. Cream colored squares, again and again and again. “Needed a change of scenery, I guess.” He didn’t add that it hadn’t been difficult to leave Kansas at all. Sam always was his North, a little bit. It felt right heading toward him, to be with him. Didn’t mention how his heart had started beating again.

Sam sat up, eyes wide. “Are you—Is Jack Allen—?”

Jesus, Dean should have known. Sam always could read him way too easily. Poetry had everything to do with it, but…he had nothing new for Jack Allen. Maybe never would. “I’ve always thought it was a little weird you ended up calling your kid Jack.”

“We told you a million times that was already his name.” Dean gave him a dry look. Sam shrugged sheepishly. “But his file might have caught my eye because of it?”

Dean scoffed and crossed his arms, wanting to end the conversation, but not quite able to bring himself to walk away.

“It was a little like having a kid named after you.”

He flicked his eyes back toward his brother, saw the sincerity shining from them. “Used to talk about naming a kid after Dad,” Dean muttered.

Sam didn’t take the bait, the mature asshole. He just stood up and started cleaning the table. “Daycare is paid for the next couple weeks,” he said. “In case you wanted to spend time learning your way around town. Seeing the sights. You know. The scenery. Forecast looks nice.”

He had the subtlety of an anvil, but the point was made. Dean would have a while to get up his courage. And good weather to drive about an hour out of town.

***

Both Sam and Eileen’s small city and the tiny town of Maple Hills, home of the eponymous college, were nestled in a valley between two lesser mountain ranges. The roads that snaked between them were quintessential New England: curvy, tree-lined, and with almost no signage for the poor lost souls following them. Of course after all the moving around he did as a kid Dean wasn’t a complete stranger to the area, and no stranger at all to being lost. Roads he could handle. The map in his pocket was for something else.

Sam had been right about the forecast; the sky was clear but for a few clouds, and the wind light. The trees were tall and still green in the late summer, crowding either side of the road and dipping over it in places, a natural canopy. Every now and then houses could be glimpsed between them, small, paint peeling, many of them in deep disrepair. Dean stuck to the county roads and left the highway for people in a hurry, enjoying the curves, the rises and falls with all the riders taking their bikes out for air; they revved their engines and tipped their helmets at the sight of a gorgeous classic like Baby, and Dean waved in acknowledgment, elbow sitting on the frame of his open window. Most of the groups passed him well over the speed limit, hugging the bends, really leaning into it, leather stretching across their backs and legs.

His arrival in Maple Hills almost came as a surprise; one moment there was the endless road, and the next the trees opened up to the old mill town, quaint and New England to the core. The tiny town center had the obligatory little white church with its steeple, a small coffee shop, a diner, a bookstore. It was nice to see the utter lack of major brands, though Dean had passed those on the outskirts. It was probably a decent living when your main clientele was loyal locals and poor college students wanting something close and cheap and good. There weren’t many people out and about despite the nice weather, pleasantly warm but not too hot. Orientation must not be until later in August.

Baby was a loud car, though, and she still turned a few heads as he steered her over the bridge spanning a small waterfall where the river split the town. Across the river it was almost abruptly campus, noticeable by the wide open spaces and grand ivy-covered brick buildings, rolling green grass and venerable trees dotting the gaps between them. He parked at the first opportunity and pulled out the little campus map he’d sneakily printed off Sam’s computer. The English building, Shurley Hall, was smackdab in the middle of campus, it looked like.

Dean sighed and closed his eyes, curling his fingers tight around the steering wheel. You’re already here, he reminded himself. Just man up and fucking do it.

After another minute, he turned off the car, climbed out of it, and slammed the door in one big rush. He made sure the Impala was well and locked, then walked quickly in the right direction. He folded the map and tucked it back inside his pocket and held his head high, instinctively projecting the I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m doing look he’d perfected walking around new places all over the country.

The front was needless; there were a couple people with a badminton net set up on another building’s lawn, far off, but no one walking around. Maybe whatever kids were here for summer classes were sleeping off last night’s party, or something. Despite having visited Sam at Stanford a few times, he still wasn’t entirely sure what college kids did all day.

Shurley Hall was not the biggest building on campus, but it was in the oldest style. He caught sight of it as he crested a hill, upon which sat another chapel, this one old and solid and stone. Original to the founding of the college, Dean guessed. He passed under its shadow and worked his way down into the small valley behind it, where Shurley Hall sat. It was a lot taller than it looked from a distance—the ceiling several feet higher than normal, so despite its three stories the building just went up, and up, and up, a monolith in the middle of the green valley floor. Between the lush, dark green ivy and the white pillars flanking the main entrance, it looked like a postcard.

Dean was hit with a wave of intense…"Unbelonging,” he tried, stopped in his tracks. “Out-of-placeness.” He shoved his hands in his pockets as he looked up, his right hand crinkling the map where he’d also jotted down the summer office hours of one Dr. Missouri Moseley. Tenured and now head of the English department at one of America’s premiere private colleges, and still the woman didn’t take any time off.

He tried to remember her as he’d first known her, in a dingy Sioux Falls summer class for idiots like him who couldn’t pass English, and how not out of place she’d made him feel. He counted all the cards she’d sent him in the mail over the years, like somehow she knew that it was the only nice thing he ever found in his mailbox, amid the bills and advertisements. No, no way she’d become some snooty old professor.

Clinging fervently to this thought, he pulled the large double wooden doors open. The floors were hardwood, shining with damp—a woman with long blonde hair bunched at the back of her neck and large red headphones was mopping, back turned to him. A helpful sign pointed the opposite direction toward the stairs. The floors were tall enough there was a landing before you took the second half of the staircase, and each landing had large windows fanning out from the corner of the building. He took the steps two at a time until he reached the third floor.

The hallway was quiet. He walked down the length of it slowly. A couple doors were open, leading to peeks into classrooms filled with maybe twenty desks apiece, large windows just like the ones on the landings lining the walls. At the other end the doors were closed, labeled with professors’ names but one, the last one, was open.

Dean wiped his hands on his jeans and knocked on the frame.

“Come in,” said Dr. Moseley, finishing whatever she was writing with a flourish. Then she looked up. “Dean Winchester!”

“What’s up, Doc?” he quipped, lifting his arms a little.

She stood and came around her desk. Dean was even taller than her than he remembered, and she no longer wore her hair in braids, but kept her tight curls in a short updo. She was older, too, but she wore it well, and most of all she was still recognizable, her smile as welcoming, her hug full of that tough love she felt so deeply for all her students.

“It’s so good to see you, Dean,” she said.

“You too, Dr. Moseley. But it’s not my fault you left to get yourself this fancy gig.”

“Hmph,” she said. “And you’ve known me half your life, now. I think you can call me Missouri.”

“Yes ma’am,” he grinned.

She gave his shoulder a light smack with the back of her hand and shook her head. “Have a seat.” Instead of going back behind her desk, she sat in one of the two chairs in front of it. He took the other one, conscious of his knees poking out of his ratty jeans. They were so comfortable, and he so rarely had to make an effort, he’d forgotten. Some impression he was making.

“Tell me how you are, Dean. I heard from Charlie your father passed?”

When he looked up he saw no morbid curiosity in her eyes, nor censure, only a soft compassion. “Yeah. A couple years now.”

Missouri put her hand on his where it lay on the armrest. “Oh, honey. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

He shrugged. “It’s fine.” She took the hint and didn’t push. He let his eyes wander over her bookshelves, chockfull and covered in picture frames and tchotchkes and books, books, books. His gaze snagged on one of the picture frames, an expensive-looking portrait of a smiling teenage girl. “That can’t be Patience,” he said.

Missouri brightened and turned to look at her granddaughter, too. “That’s her. She’s starting college this year, can you believe it?”

“No way. Here?”

“Yes. It’s a long way from Georgia, but she’s been here a few times to visit and she’s always wanted to come. Though her father would have preferred her somewhere closer.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

“She was practically a baby the last time I saw her.”

“Well I’m here to tell you children grow up fast, but grandchildren even faster.”

“I kinda get it, you know? Like I thought Sammy grew up fast, but you know he adopted a couple years ago? Jack was so small but now he’s walking and bilingual and has preferences and everything. He loves nougat.”

Missouri laughed. “Be careful or next time you turn around, he’ll be a full grown man.”

“Don’t I know it.”

The small talk petered out. He wasn’t great at it all the time, but he’d seen her shoot the shit with Bobby or Rufus for hours, and easily command classrooms of high schoolers besides. He avoided her gaze, letting the silence linger.

“Dean,” she said gently, at length, “I’m very happy for a social visit. Is that what this is?”

He shook his head, but true to form, she did not let him take the easy way out. Wasn’t her style. Every moment could turn into a teachable moment: she would lead you to the water, but was never one to make you drink.

“I, uh, I live in the area now. So I can be close to Sam and Jack and Eileen.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“And I thought…I thought maybe…” He sighed and ran his hand down his face. Man up. “I came across the facsimile to Howl recently. And I hadn’t read the poem for a long time, you know? Haven’t read any poetry in a long time but, uh, it had me thinking. That—That maybe Jack Allen wasn’t done.” The hard part over, he faced her head on, finally ready to accept what he’d see, maybe an echo of Sam’s excitement, or big hopeful puppy eyes.

Instead she fixed him with a very knowing look. “Finally get it through your head that to every art there’s also a craft?”

Dean laughed, half in disbelief, and half because he didn’t know what else to do. “Yeah, but don’t—I didn’t say I was ready to learn it, or able to learn it—”

“Boy—”

“But I think I’m ready to read more. So I thought maybe you could help me? I know you’re really busy, but you’re always pretty good at pointing me in the direction. That’s all I need.”

Missouri sat back in her chair and folded her hands, and stared into him like she could read something rattling around in his skull. “I do have an idea. It will get you thinking and talking about poetry again, with no pressure to write any.”

“Yeah?”

“Take a class.”

“Um, what? Here?”

She gave him what he’d always secretly thought of as her exasperated mom look. “Where else, Dean?”

“First of all, I would never get into a place like this, if I could even afford it.”

“You can audit a class. It will cost money but not nearly as much as if you were actually a student enrolled and paying full tuition. Townies do it all the time.”

“Even if that’s true—”

“It’s true.”

“Look at me!” He gestured up and down, from his scuffed boots and bare knees to his worn shirt, and very adult face. “I can’t sit in a class with a bunch of rich eighteen-year-olds, that’d be creepy. And weird. And they’d murder me for not wearing Birkenstocks or tying a white cable knit sweater over my shoulders.”

She scoffed. “Dean Winchester, when I graduated with my doctorate I already had a grandchild. Was it creepy and weird to finally get the degree I’d always wanted, even if it meant I had to wait until my own child was grown and supporting himself?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then I don’t see the difference.”

“The difference is you’re smart and you belong in this world, okay? This was Sam’s world, too, and Eileen’s, but it was never mine.”

“Dean, we can have a discussion about cost prohibitive education another time. But if we’re purely speaking on merit, there is no one stopping you from being here but yourself. There’s no separate world where you do or don’t belong—I’m sure if you asked your brother about it, he’d agree with me. I didn’t have a single problem teaching you before, especially when it was a topic that inspired you. I’d say poetry’s a pretty safe bet.” She gave him a significant look.

Dean crossed his arms. “Maybe you’re just a good teacher. Couldn’t you just you know, coach me? I could come to your office hours once a month, or something.”

“Or,” she said, “you can come up twice a week, for two hours, sit in a classroom full of other people, and be guided along by a new teacher.”

Dean thought a moment.

“No,” he said.

“Don’t take that tone with me.” Her voice brooked no argument. “Twice a week in a real classroom. Is that a commitment you are able to make?”

He shrugged petulantly.

“Good. The class I have in mind is a 300 level, so you’re going to have upperclassmen. Yes, most if not all will be a decade younger than you, but a sight more mature than 18-year-olds, you can trust me on that.”

Dean grunted.

“The course is on English Language Poetry of the 20th Century. That way you get some poets and styles you’re familiar with to start you out, but a much wider range than you’re used to reading, which will help you play and explore.”

“But you’re not teaching it,” he said.

“No. But Dr. Novak is a good professor and he knows his stuff. Dean.” She leaned forward, forcing him to swallow and meet her gaze. “You need multiple perspectives. You need to see poetry from a beginner’s lens and an expert’s lens. Learn from your classmates as well as your teacher. The discussion will help just as much as the reading list. I think you know that.”

He took a deep breath and tipped his head back. Was it worth it? And not just the money, but the effort? Was this just another road he was chasing, endless, leading to nowhere? What if reading Howl had been a fluke, a last living twitch, or an echo from the past when feeling deeply was all he could do? Could reading more poetry, new poetry, talking and writing about it…could that wake him up?

Did Dean want to be woken up?

Do I dare?

“Exactly how much money are we talking?”

Missouri smiled, clearly content to have gotten her way. She stood, and Dean stood too. “I’ll find out.” She walked around her desk, and reached down to write herself a sticky note. “But you also have to meet with Dr. Novak first, discuss what he expects from an auditing student, and make sure you’re both on the same page. No signing contracts yet. So stop looking like I’m sending you to the gallows.”

“And you won’t tell him who I am?”

Framed by a large set of three windows, she leaned on her hands and stared down a moment. Dean knew she’d never seen the reason for his reclusiveness, or at least not agreed with his reasons. But finally she looked up. “I’ve kept your secret all these years. I won’t break your trust now. I promise.”

They nodded at each other, and Dean drove home.

***

He got an email from Missouri the next day, and with it an estimate of a few hundred dollars. He’d never spent that much on anything except for his car, and rent. He was by no means rolling in it, but the auto shop had paid okay, and he’d had no one but himself to spend money on for the last couple of years. And now Sam and Eileen’s generosity—a small bedroom next to Jack’s—meant that rent was taken care of. Dean could afford it, even if he didn’t go back to work until January when the semester was done. He hemmed and hawed all day in the quiet house, with his brother and sister at work, and Jack at daycare.

Dean felt himself on the edge of a precipice, or a cracked door. There was still time to close it. And maybe he should.

When Sam rolled in with Jack in tow, he let himself be distracted. His brother went to change out of his monkey suit while Jack told him about his whole day, then demanded that Dean read from the Star Wars Little Golden Books he’d bought him for last Christmas. When Sam came downstairs in old jeans and worn flannel (and a soft smile at the sight of his older brother reading to his son, which Dean pretended not to see), he started on dinner. Still, Dean said nothing.

Then Eileen came bustling in looking worn down over a tough case, and suddenly Dean found himself with Jack sitting on his shoulders as he took over for Sam in the kitchen.

“Again!” said Jack.

Dean put another lime half in the lemon press and squeezed the juice into the bowl while Jack giggled at the sound. It was almost hard to hear him so happy, and remembering the drawn look on Eileen’s face, and knowing there was a kid right now out there suffering despite all she was doing to help. It made Dean’s own problems, his own hang-ups stupid and small in comparison.

“Again!”

“Down you come, buddy,” Dean said and, fake roaring as a show of strength, he lifted Jack up and over his head, then plopped him down on the counter. “Not again.”

“Again,” Jack pouted. “Use the juicer.”

“Nope. No more juice. But you want to see something funny?”

“Yeah!” he shouted, excited again.

“Cool. Check this out.” He opened the press and peeled out the crushed lime.

“Cooool,” Jack repeated.

Dean snorted. “Not yet, bud. Lick it.” He lifted the fruit to Jack’s mouth.

He grabbed it from Dean and licked without hesitation, bless him. Immediately Jack screwed his face up at the tartness.

Dean laughed, remembering afternoons making lemonade at the Singers’ house and feeding Sam lemon wedges to bite on while Karen and Dean laughed, and Bobby rolled his eyes and hid a smile behind his hand.

In the nature of children, because Dean laughed Jack laughed, too. Then Dean licked the other half of the lime and exaggerated his own reaction. “Uggghhh,” he groaned.

Jack laughed harder and licked his again. “Uggghhh!” he echoed.

They went on like this, winding each other up and laughing, until Dean had to be quick and stop him from rubbing his eyes, as Jack unknowingly reached his hands toward his face. “All right, time to clean up.”

“No.”

“Yup.”

“No,” he said again, but was perfectly amiable as Dean helped him wash his hands.

Dean tossed the lime halves into the compost bin at the back of the kitchen—his brother’s time in California had turned him into a total hippy, but his house, his rules—and poured the juice into some sour cream, making a little crema for the tacos.

Jack pulled the whisk out of the big utensil jar by the sink and started playing with it. Dean had just been using a fork but, “Wanna help?” he asked. He scooched the bowl over and Jack needed no further prompting, splashing the whisk right in. “Whoa, buddy.” Gently he guided Jack’s hand in at least some approximation of a whisking motion.

“Love you,” said Jack, out of nowhere. Dean’s breath caught. “Love tacos,” he added.

Dean released his breath on a huff of laughter. “Yeah, tacos are great,” he agreed, hating himself more than a little for struggling to say the rest. But Jack was just a kid and damned if he was going to pass on his issues to his nephew. “Love you too.”

“And I love momma and daddy.”

“Me too.” He let Jack keep whisking, even though it wasn’t really necessary. “Should I go to school, Jack?” he asked, not expecting much of an answer.

Jack didn’t miss a beat. “Yes. School is good,” he said sagely. “You can play with trucks.”

“I do like trucks.”

“Dinosaurs drive them.”

“They sure do. Thanks, Jack,” he said, and grabbed a paper towel to wipe the sour cream off the kid’s face.

***

After dinner Eileen took her turn with Jack while Sam got some work done at the kitchen table. Dean washed the dishes, replaying the conversation he’d had with Missouri in his head. I’m sure if you asked your brother about it, he’d agree with me.

“Beer?” Dean offered, when he was done.

Sam looked up from his papers, blinking out of a haze. “Yeah. Sure.”

Dean opened the fridge and grabbed a couple bottles, popping their caps off with one of his old rings. He set Sam’s down within easy reach, then circled the table to sling himself down sideways across from him, stretching his legs out. He took a long drink of his own beer, and watched as Sam read through more of his work. Dean didn’t really understand why someone would knowingly walk into a job that practically required you to live and breathe it at the expense of most other things. But then, Sammy had always been one to study hard, do all his homework, and ask for more, if the teacher was willing to give it. That’s what Dean had meant, when he told Missouri that Sam was made for a different world than him. Sam loved the work, understood it, thrived on it. Why would she tell him to ask Sam about it, when it was so damn obvious?

“Do anything interesting today?” asked Sam. “You were pretty quiet at dinner.” He set one stack of papers aside and took a long slug from his beer bottle.

“Went down to Maple Hills.”

Sam’s attention sharpened at that. “Doesn’t Dr. Moseley teach there?”

“Yep,” he answered, popping the end of the word. He shifted in his chair to face his brother, drawing his legs in under the table. “She thought I might want to, I don’t know. Take a class.”

Sam brightened, sitting up straight, whatever lawyerly problem his brain had been working on lifted from his shoulders. “You want to go back to school? That’s great!”

“No, hell no. Just one class. Auditing.”

“Oh. That’s good too. For…?” Sam’s face did some gymnastics.

Dean rolled his eyes. “Poetry. You can say it.”

“Like a workshop?”

“No,” Dean mumbled. “Just some literature class with some professor she recommended.”

“Don’t sound so excited.”

“What’s there to be excited about?” Dean lifted his beer, elbows on the table, and stared into it. “A thirty-two-year-old undergrad. Pathetic.”

“Come on, Dean,” said Sam, like he was being overdramatic.

“Don’t pretend it’s not weird,” Dean snapped. “It’s not just the age thing. I’ve never belonged in college class, not now, and not ever. I’m not cut out for it. College is your world. Eileen’s. Not mine.”

“Yeah, okay,” said Sam, in his bitchy little brother voice. “Let’s set aside the fact that you have published collections of poetry which makes you more than qualified to talk about literature from a higher level. We come from the same background. What makes me belong there and not you?”

“It’s not where we came from. It’s who we are. You’re a genius and I’m not.”

“That’s the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard Bobby and Rufus talk about their glory days. You think people get into college based on IQs?”

“Isn’t that what the SAT is, or whatever?”

Sam snorted and swigged his beer, shoving all his papers and folders aside. He slumped back in his chair, shaking his head. “The SAT tests how good you are at taking tests, and not much else, honestly. Dean, I got into a good school because that was my priority for years. I made a conscious decision to aim for one, figured out what I needed to get there, and then I continued making the decisions I needed to make. I may have been a mathlete and it was a good challenge but I wasn’t in it for fun.”

“Yeah, because being a genius is a conscious decision.”

“I’m not a genius.”

“Yeah you are.”

Sam gave him a sharp smile. “I almost flunked out of grade school.”

That stopped Dean cold. He wracked his brains, trying to remember this happening, but couldn’t. Sammy always used to come home to Dean, waving his good grades proudly as he walked in the door, smacking Dean’s hand away as he ruffled his hair and told him good job. But he’d smile, puff out his chest, be happy. “You did not.”

“Heh,” breathed Sam. He ran a hand through his hair and looked over at the arch that led into the family room. A children’s show could faintly be heard playing on the TV. “Let’s see. Our education was already spotty because of the way Dad moved us around, I could never make any friends, and just when Sioux Falls was looking like somewhere we could stay, my brother was dropping out and splitting his time between Sioux Falls and Lawrence to take care of our sick father who didn’t deserve it, and you really think school would have been my priority unless I made it my priority?”

Dean felt his stomach dropping out from under him with every word, his world rewriting itself, his old instinct to protect Sam at any cost rearing its head. He squeezed the beer bottle in his hand. “Why didn’t—why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve helped you, I would’ve—”

“What? Would have what, Dean? Dad was already your burden. I sure as hell wasn’t going to be another.” He swallowed some beer, half-defiant, half-resigned.

“You’re not a burden,” Dean said sharply.

Sam shook his head. “I didn’t see the point anyway. School was just something I had to get through like every other kid. I just had to hang on long enough to drop out and go with you.”

“Jesus.” What a shitty big brother Dean had been. How had he not noticed? “And the Singers?”

“Hid it from them, too.” Sam shrugged. “But then…a teacher saw me. Mr. Wyatt, eighth grade English.” He smiled briefly. “We had to write about our lives, but what was there to write about? Instead I wrote how we were monster hunters who went around the country, like we used to pretend when reading the Carver Edlund books, remember?”

“Yeah,” Dean croaked. He cleared his throat. “I remember.”

“Right, so. He pulled me aside. Thought I was going to get told off, but he said he liked it. Asked what I wanted.” Sam sat forward, curling himself above the table. “I didn’t say it in so many words, but I think he figured out I just wanted to escape my lot in life.” He laughed a little. “Must have been obvious, thinking back on it now. Anyway, he made a pretty compelling case for higher education as an avenue out.” Sam looked around at his and Eileen’s modest, but nice, safe home. “He wasn’t wrong.”

“So you…don’t…like studying?”

“I like it if it’s something that interests me. That’s the same for anybody, though. These days, no matter what the subject, I’m really, really good at it. From practice. And I work hard at my job and Eileen works hard at her job because that’s how we keep what we’ve earned. The point is…if you have the opportunity, education is a powerful tool. But to get out of it what you need, you have to know what you want.” He eyed Dean earnestly, as if he could read his desires on his face.

Between the revelation he’d just had, seeing Missouri again, and uprooting himself from Lawrence, Dean could barely tell up from down anymore. “I don’t know what I want.”

“Well,” said Sam, with that note of caution that Dean hated. He didn’t need the fucking kid gloves. “You moved up here for a reason, didn’t you? Maybe it’s to figure out what you want. And if Dr. Moseley thinks taking this class will help you, isn’t that a chance worth taking?”

Dean said nothing. Just stared at his beer.

“At least take some time to think about it. Please?” Sam’s eyes grew three damn sizes. Damn puppy look. Little bastard had that figured out from a very young age.

It was as effective as ever. Dean sighed. “Okay, Sammy.”

His brother grinned in victory. “It’s Sam.” He kicked Dean under the table. “Jerk.”