“...but, of course, as we’ve discussed, those are all things a buyer must expect whenever a house has been vacant for an extended length of time,” the realtor was saying. Miss Talbot led the way back through the hallway and into the bare front room of the empty house, the click of her kitten heels muffled against the stained and threadbare carpet. Everything about her perfectly tailored presentation fell in sharp contrast to the state of the house around them, though from her smug expression, she might have been walking a red carpet instead. “My clients had the last of the remaining furniture removed from the garage last week, so all is in order. I trust there are no lingering concerns at this point, Dean?”
“I don’t suppose there are,” replied the soon-to-be-homeowner, following along behind. Dean wasn’t paying much attention to the prattling aimed in his direction; he had been too busy allowing his eyes to wander around the dusty rooms with peeling paint, making plans and visualizing a very different house in his future. Unimpressed, Miss Talbot (“Please, call me Bela,” she’d said with a toss of her hair and a coy tilt of her chin; flirting seemed to be one of her primary sales techniques) sniffed at his obvious distraction. She turned toward a document-covered temporary folding table with far less swing to her hips than she’d exhibited during most of the closing walk-through.
“All right, then I have everything here we need to proceed. Jenna?” A young blonde woman, primly silent, nodded in acknowledgment. “Jenna is our in-house notary. As soon as we have your signature in all the relevant places, she’ll make everything official. I trust you brought with you…?” Her words trailed away with a questioning lift as one corner of her mouth quirked upwards in a slight smirk.
Dean closed his eyes to keep from rolling them. “Yeah, I have the check. All certified and everything.”
“Good, good.” Miss Talbot’s cheerful smile flashed brightly and was gone, swiftly replaced with something more sharp. “And, of course, you understand that your contract with my clients establishes that you are aware of the nature and condition of the house? That, in exchange for what is frankly a shamefully low price and an expedited sales process, you are agreeing to assume responsibility for any defects or necessary repairs, whether or not you’ve noted them before signing?”
Already nodding, Dean bent awkwardly over the realtor’s rickety table and scanned the forms spread across the surface. Nothing surprising appeared to lurk among any of the legal stipulations and real estate jargon. He was no fool; he’d spent hours studying the various forms involved, as well as reading terrifying internet tales of homebuyers who’d been duped into paying hundreds of thousands of dollars beyond what they should have paid, considering what they received in exchange. “Sure, sure. Caveat emptor and all that. I know what I’m getting into.”
“Yes, you do seem like a man who knows his way around a toolbox,” Miss Talbot purred. She was laying it on pretty thick, Dean felt, for someone who was about ninety seconds away from a hefty commission. “I’m sure that whatever arises, you’re more than capable of handling it. Er, just right there, next to the highlighted spot?”
The moment Dean had finished scrawling his signature across the bottom of the page, she whipped it away from him and pushed it in front of the notary, who already had her stamp practically hovering in place. The briskness was enough to give Dean a little pause, but he brushed it away, telling himself that any sense of a trap ready to snap closed around him was probably just nerves finally kicking in. Nothing to worry about; just stupid Sam and his stupid worries, messing with my head.
“And there…and now there,” Miss Talbot finished, sounding more and more like the cat who’d gotten the canary with every signature. Another fleeting thought crossed Dean’s mind that perhaps she sounded a bit too pleased, all things considered; maybe the market was slower than he’d thought, if she was getting this excited over a short sale. Then again, she wasn’t going to have to split the fees with anyone else, since he hadn’t brought in an agent of his own, so that probably explained the gleam of anticipation in her eye. His younger brother had lectured him for that choice, too, but whatever. Dean knew his way around fine print. He was a goddamned professor, after all, and Dean Winchester, Ph.D., didn’t need any hand-holding to read a contract.
With one final thunk of the notary stamp, the handing off of a check in exchange for a set of keys, and a handshake that lingered just long enough for Dean to start to feel a bit uncomfortable, it was done. He was officially a homeowner. By the time that weighty realization had settled into his mind fully, the front door was closing with a click behind the agent, and he was by himself in the house. His house.
After all his earlier warnings and dire predictions, now that the ink was dry and the deed was done, Sam was at least trying to show a little more enthusiasm than he had before now. “You really don’t want me to see the place yet?” he said, repeating himself for the third or fourth time, over the phone. His voice was a little muffled on Dean’s end, since Dean was currently attempting to hold the cell between his shoulder and cheek while shoving large cardboard boxes into a corner of what would eventually be the dining room. Some of the fraying carpet tufts kept snagging on the edges of the box, turning what should have been an easy slide into a frustrating, halting struggle. The slide over the last few feet was accompanied by the sound of quiet ripping. Whoops.
“Nah, you’ll have to be patient along with everyone else,” Dean finally managed to reply, dusting his hands on his jeans as he stood up. “She’s not quite ready for primetime, if you catch my drift, but just you wait. By the time I’m finished, she’s gonna be amazing.” He wiped some sweat from his brow and grinned, despite his tiredness.
“And you still plan to do all the work yourself?” Sam said dubiously. “When Eileen and I bought this place, we had her brothers and her old roommates helping us with everything, and that was just painting walls, changing all the locks, and installing the doorbell lights and other stuff. On top of the actual moving in, we were all completely exhausted by the end.”
Dean winced, unable to suppress the twinge of guilt in his gut. “You know I would have helped—”
“Not remotely what I’m getting at,” Sam interrupted, “and I know. Surgery on four impacted wisdom teeth, Dean. You were a little occupied that week.”
“Only for the first day.”
“Yeah, and I really wanted my bedroom painted by someone drugged out of their mind on painkillers,” Sam said dryly. “Forget it. Not the point, anyway. I’m trying to say that, from everything you’ve told me and what I’ve been able to infer, you’re going to have a lot more on your plate than some cosmetic touch-ups. Sheer physicality aside, Dean, you have no experience with any of this. You’re only going to get so far through HGTV reruns and sheer force of will.”
Dean leaned against a wall and scowled at the ceiling. They were back to this again. “Sam, I’m a mechanical engineer.”
“Mechanical engineering professor, Dean! Not a mechanic! I’m not saying one’s better than the other, but they’re not interchangeable! When’s the last time you stood in front of a classroom with a broken furnace and a wrench, or showed your students how to put up drywall? Your dissertation was about robot kinetics!”
“Kinematics,” Dean automatically corrected. “Computational kinematics, bitch. There’s a difference. And that doesn’t matter, because it’s the principle of the thing. But you know what? Screw you. You’re so sure I’m going to crash and burn that you don’t want to hear anything to the contrary. That just hurts, man. Thought counselors were supposed to be about emotional support and understanding and shit, doctor.”
Sure, Dean might have been laying it on a little thick there at the end, but part of him was feeling genuinely hurt and justified about feeling so. He idly picked at some loose and bubbling plaster in the corner while he talked, watching the tiny particles rain down on the toes of his boots.
“No, that’s not…I’m not…” Sam was stammering, flustered. “I’m trying to be supportive, Dean. Support is not the same thing as blind approval, though. I care about you, and I just don’t want you to do that thing where you dig in your heels and refuse to admit when you’ve made a mistake until you’re in way over your head. It’s okay to ask for help. And I really, really think this is a situation that calls for it.”
“I’m not an idiot,” Dean said. An aching twinge in the side of his jaw reminded him to stop clenching it, and he took a deep breath to clear his frustration.
“And I don’t think you are. Believe me, I know how intelligent and capable you are. I just think you need to be realistic. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot because you were too proud to back down, okay? Your goal is a nice house, not just bragging rights.” Sam huffed a short laugh and added, “And I’m a relationship counselor, not a life coach, Dean. Though I suppose that, in this case, I’m counseling you on your relationship with all the people around you who just want to see you happy.”
“Yeah, sure.” In the background of the call, Dean could hear the clanking of pots and pans. “Eileen’s night to cook?” he asked.
Sam hummed an affirmative response. “You know you’re always welcome to join us. I think she’s making chard pansotti tonight.”
“Mmm, sounds great,” Dean said with unconvincing enthusiasm, torn between his solid respect for his sister-in-law and his urge to make one of his usual jabs about the disgusting amount of health food consumed at their home. “I already grabbed a quick dinner on campus, though.”
“Vending machine sandwiches again?” Sam guessed, and his frown was audible in his tone. “You know you deserve better than that. Maybe even to eat with other actual people.” Before Dean could do more than draw breath to reply, Sam added, “Besides Meg, I mean. Eating with your TA doesn’t count. She’s paid to be there.”
“Hey, Kevin was there, too,” Dean tried to argue. “I mean, he was there waiting for his mom to drive him home, but there was legitimate conversation involved.” Sam made an exasperated sound, and Dean rubbed at his temples in resignation. “Okay, point. But that’s sort of what I’m trying to do here, you know? This house, it’s got a genuine dining room. I won’t have to pull a card table into the living room if I want to feed more than four people. With a little polish, I can have this place primed for departmental dinner parties, even.”
Sam was quiet for a moment. “That would be really good for you,” he finally said. “I’d like to see you have that. When’s the last time you even went out to any kind of party, let alone hosted one?” That was a rhetorical question, not a real one; Dean’s lack of an immediate comeback only confirmed the sad reality of it all.
How the hell had he gotten here? In his undergraduate years, and through most of his twenties, the only issue with Dean’s social life had been the struggle to cram it all in without winding up hungover more than three days out of the week. There had been girls. Oh, had there been girls. There had been guys, too, though his little brother neither knew nor needed to know anything about that, as far as Dean was concerned. There had even been a couple of people with whom the casual sex had evolved into something less casual, with leanings toward serious, but…well.
“You know, they don’t just hand out tenure without demanding sweat equity in return,” Dean replied evasively. That was certainly true. He’d seen more than a few colleagues slide away from the tenure track in the name of “work-life balance.” In fact, his own last attempt at a real relationship had crashed and burned when Lisa had finally gotten fed up with his long hours and frequent work-related distractions. Since then, Dean had limited himself to casual hook-ups only, both out of self-preservation and insurance against hurting anyone else whose hopes might grow to exceed what he was able to give.
It definitely made it easier to focus. A quiet, empty apartment was good for that much. A quiet, empty…lonely apartment.
“All the same,” Sam went on, “a dog would have been a lot cheaper than a house, if you were looking for company. Ow!” There were sudden noises indicating a brief scuffle, to the sound of Sam protesting mildly and with laughter.
“Not everyone needs a dog,” Dean heard Eileen voicing out loud, since her hands were apparently more occupied with swatting at Sam than signing. “To Dog or Not To Dog” was a long-standing debate between the couple, and while neither of them was yielding ground yet, Dean would place money on Sam’s puppy-dog eyes eventually winning out. “Tell Dean if he’s bored, he can come help out at the senior center.”
Unable to keep from grinning, Dean raised his voice to say, “Tell Eileen I’ve still got pinch marks on my ass from the last time I went down there for dance night.”
“Ugh, Dean,” Sam said as he recovered the phone, but his amusement was obvious. “Anyway, I think you’ve bought yourself more than enough work to fill your schedule for a while. What’s first priority, anyway? Make sure the plumbing works, so you can actually shower and use the toilet without having to run across town to campus?”
The sun had truly set while the brothers had been speaking, throwing the living room into darkness outside of the small glow provided by a street lamp outside the front window. Dean swept a palm across the wall, searching for the switch to turn on the overhead light. With a click, the room was lit—and then momentarily darkened again. Then the light was back on again, with a wavering, flickering glow that seemed to pulse irregularly in brightness. A tiny buzzing sound was barely perceptible, but undeniably present in the wall behind the switch. “Huh,” Dean said as he eyed the light. “Think I might start with the electricity.”
“Son of a bitch…”
His mistake, probably, had been trusting the online Yelp reviews for the home inspector he’d hired during the negotiations. The website for Spengler Inspections had boasted glowing praise from happy customers, along with a professional-looking design and clearly stated rates and services. One of Dean’s pet peeves was when businesses refused to provide a price tag until you’d committed to signing on the dotted line, so the last factor alone had been a huge one. When Harry Spengler himself had shown up to do the inspection, Dean had realized he was dealing with a one-man shop—not a deal-breaker, but the first of a cascading series of disconcerting revelations that had peaked with Spengler’s shifty request for a cash payment instead of a check.
Really, Dean should definitely have known something was wrong when the whole inspection was over and done in twenty minutes.
Electricity was something Dean knew well. He could map circuit boards in his sleep. Hell, he’d actually done that and more, often rousing from exhausted stupors as a grad student to find his bed covered in scrap paper and messy pencil scratchings of schematics he had no recollection of having drawn. Tracking down a problem circuit now should have been a matter of minutes, even considering that he was navigating by the flashlight on his camera to avoid starting fires from any other badly wired lights before he handled this one.
Locating the breaker box in the dark basement would have been an extra challenge if he hadn’t already noted, with mild curiosity, how the box was almost hidden completely behind a stubby brick wall segment that inexplicably jutted inward from the foundation wall. It almost looked as though the builder had been going for a shower stall, especially considering the mystery pipes bolted onto the brick and attached to nothing else, but that would make no logical sense. Who builds a shower around an electrical breaker?
It was rusted shut. “Goddamn it, Harry,” Dean muttered. Apparently, the inspector hadn’t even bothered to open the panel door. Who had written those rave reviews, the guy’s mom? Placing his phone on top of the box so he could use both hands, Dean pried and pulled and jiggled and swore until the door finally opened with a shower of rust flakes and a loud creak. His elation was brief, though.
“You’re kidding me,” he growled. At first glance, it appeared that not a single one of the dozens of breakers were labeled. At second glance, he found that many of them were labeled, but the labels were badly faded and peeling; some had fallen into an unhelpful pile at the bottom of the box. The few that remained in place and were legible conveyed such helpful information as “J’s room” or “Pop’s cooler.” One large breaker was simply emblazoned “NO!” which raised more questions than it answered. There were no signs of anything that looked like “Living room,” “Front room,” or “Big room at the front of the house with the nasty green paint job.”
Trial and error it was, then. Luckily, for varying definitions of the concept, that little buzzing sound was actually louder where he was standing than they had been upstairs. Dean started systematically throwing the breakers one at a time, listening intently for the culprit that would cause the buzzing to stop.
Unfortunately, none of them did. Was the sound getting louder, in fact? Probably just his imagination again. Damn it, so much for simple. With a sigh, he went back to the first breaker, shut it off, then trudged upstairs to see if it had been the one connected to the light.
Three dozen trips later (somebody was evidently unaware that there was an upper limit on the number of circuits you could safely have on one panel), Dean still hadn’t found the right circuit. “The hell?” he said to himself, squinting at the light and scratching his head. The power had to be coming from somewhere. Another breaker box? But where? On the outside of the house? That was possible, but he could hear the sharp clattering of rain blowing hard against the windows, and he didn’t relish searching blindly in the dark and a rainstorm.
Tomorrow. It could wait until then, he decided, and flipped the wall switch back down. “Okay,” he said aloud as he stood in the darkness. “This is…okay. It’s fine. I’ll just…” Running a hand over his face, he took a deep breath. Just a bad start. I am not going to give up and prove Sammy right at the first sign of trouble.
“Can’t end the night on a note like this,” he declared, once again speaking out loud to nobody. Jesus, he’d never talked out loud to himself so much in his life, but something about the echoing emptiness of the house had him feeling a little rattled. “Gotta…gotta have a win, and then I can crash for the night.” Luckily, he still had his old place for another couple of weeks before the lease ended. Something inside him was beginning to whisper that he’d need every last day of that period.
There was a small room just off the front hall, too cramped for a guest room. Dean had immediately seen it transformed into an office, all dark polished wood and brass desk ornaments, the moment he first stepped inside. At the moment, it boasted the most hideous pale purple carpet he’d ever seen, but that wouldn’t be a difficult fix. Even if there wasn’t hardwood floor underneath that nastiness, Dean figured that ripping out the ugly and then sticking down some reasonably nice laminate flooring couldn’t be too challenging.
Deciding not to risk exploring the electrical system of the house any further than he had already, he pulled his jacket over his head and dashed out to the trunk of his car, where he always kept a decent battery-powered work light in case of emergencies. The lamp was more than capable of lighting the modest-sized room, at least for his current purposes. Back inside and dropping to his knees on the purple carpet, Dean was immediately hit with an odor that had him grimacing. The former owners had obviously had pets, and those pets had left their own sort of mark on the home before leaving. All the more motivation to get this carpet out, as soon as possible.
Dean poked his fingers into the corner and was startled to find an inch-long gap between the sections of baseboard. Okay, he wasn’t going to complain about shoddy workmanship this time, not when it would make his task easier. Digging his fingertips into the gap, he yanked, pulling the baseboard off with a solid, satisfying crack.
Dean grinned wickedly. Back on track.
The edge of the sickly purple carpet was completely visible now, so once he’d gotten rid of the rest of the wood from around the edges of the room, he scrabbled for the loosest bit he could find, getting as much of a grip as he could before pulling. The carpet, unlike the baseboards, stubbornly refused to move.
“Oh, don’t you even try to mess with me right now,” Dean growled. “If I have to burn your nasty ass out, I will get my damn lighter and we will dance, motherfu—” His angry monologue was interrupted as a patch of the fiber gripped in his hand abruptly parted ways with the floor beneath, sending him tumbling backward onto his rear. “Hah,” he smirked triumphantly, rolling back onto his knees to examine the results.
It wasn’t hardwood, that was for certain. It wasn’t even unfinished subfloor. “Those assholes , ” Dean sighed. Roughly-poured concrete, and what looked to be a thick layer of glue covering almost the entire surface. It was too much to hope, he supposed, that they might have at least gone easy on the adhesive. Scraping all this off was going to be deep-fried hell.
Figuring he might as well get started and do as much as he could, Dean took out his pocket knife and started cutting. At least with concrete, he didn’t have to worry about accidentally carving into anything nicer underneath the layer of skanky muppet pelt. Smaller segments of carpet would hopefully be easier to pull up than one big one. With every slash of his knife, he grumbled a stream of increasingly foul words describing his rising level of irritation. Irrationally, his brain had decided that the whole mess was at least partly Sam’s fault; if he hadn’t insisted so loudly that renovating this place was going to be too difficult for Dean to handle alone, the universe wouldn’t be trying to get in on the betting action. “I should put some of this under the floor mats of his car,” Dean groused. “See how long it takes him to figure out where the smell’s coming from.” It was a pleasant fantasy, and it carried him through the next few square feet of cutting and ripping.
Near the center of the room, the pet stink grew steadily stronger. Breathing through his mouth and working as quickly as he could, Dean was caught off guard when the carpet suddenly decided to cooperate with the mission, a large section pulling free easily as the pocket knife scored a seam. “The hell?” Dean said, frowning. Better not to look a gift horse in the mouth, he decided. All the better to get the worst of the odor out of the house and start to clear the air, and, hey, he was due for something to go right.
His first thought, when he ripped away the section, was one of “Oops, oh, shit." Beneath his knife mark was another line, and he had a second to panic, thinking he’d carved too deeply and dug into the floor beneath. Then his brain caught up with his gut, and he made a face at his own ridiculousness. He ran a finger over the crack in the concrete, noting the depth, as he kept pulling at the carpet. The crack continued, further and further across the floor, and by the time he’d pulled up four feet of the carpet with no sign of the crack’s end, he was back to panicking again.
“This is not okay,” he mumbled faintly, falling backward onto his ass once more and letting the knife fall limply from his hand. “That can not be a good thing. Shit.” Dean only had internet stories to back him up on this sort of thing, but it didn’t take a construction expert to know that “cracked foundation” sounded…bad. Very, very bad. And expensive. And decidedly, completely, not something Dean was ever going to be able to handle without the help of professionals.
Sam was going to laugh his ass off at how badly Dean had screwed himself. No, he wouldn’t; he’d be all sorry and sympathetic, and that would be worse. Would there even be a big “I told you so” moment, with something this massively bad? Or would the words just lurk there, unspoken but obvious, while Sam patted him on the fucking back and told Dean he could move into his fucking basement—
He couldn’t tell him. Not yet; not until he was absolutely sure that there was no way out of this mess. He could still be wrong, right? It wasn’t as if masonry was part of Dean’s educational background. Sure, he could state categorically that the electricity appeared to be fucked, even if he didn’t have the specifics yet on just how or how badly, but he wasn’t ready to admit that the scope of the problem was on the level of a reality show nightmare. You agree to assume responsibility for any defects or necessary repairs. The realtor’s words, playing on repeat in Dean’s brain, carried a tone of malicious amusement at his expense.
When Dean pulled out his phone, it was to open an internet search page. A home inspector (God, not Spengler; Dean had half a mind to look into negligence claims or something) would be able to tell him for certain whether or not he was completely screwed, but that’s all they’d do. A contractor would be able to not only give him the facts, but also to help him out if the truth turned out to be catastrophic. Of course, they would probably be biased toward telling him he needed a ton of work even if he didn’t. Dean eyed the crack again, then sighed. What he really needed was a miracle—someone who would come in discreetly, fix what needed fixing, and make all of this go away.
“Got anything like that?” he asked his phone sarcastically. For shits and giggles, he typed “Home repair miracles” into the search bar, then clicked.
The search results flashed across the screen, and Dean nearly choked on his surprised laugh. The first result on the page was some business called “Deus Ex Mechanicals.” The timing of the pun was too perfect, and he immediately tapped the link to check them out.
“Is your home in need of some divine intervention? Our licensed and certified professionals can work miracles for you! From roofing and exteriors to plumbing and electrical work, our mission is to offer homeowners customized service in any area, big or small. Got a complicated or constrained schedule? Just ask! Night or day, we want to be the answer to your prayers.”
Above the text was a photo of a large brick modern house, surrounded by an artfully glowing nimbus, obviously meant to evoke thoughts of halos. Besides that, the company’s logo itself incorporated a tiny set of wings sprouting from the sides of the name. All things taken as a package, it was apparent that subtlety had been weighed against humor and come up short.
It didn’t matter. Dean had been hooked from the moment he’d read the words “night or day.” Maybe he could pull this off after all, and nobody else would ever need to know. Dialing, he waited impatiently for the person on the other end to pick up. “Hello? My name is Dean Winchester, and I was hoping I could talk to someone about my new house.”