“Here, let me help you with that.” Sam reached around the young woman, arms full of shopping bags, who had been struggling to line her key up with the lock. Sliding his own key in, Sam pushed the door open and gestured her to go ahead.
“Thank you.” The woman’s wide smile was framed with dimples.
“Could you use some help with those?”
The dimples deepened. “Actually, I sure could.” Sam eased a couple of bags out of her arms and followed her to the stairs. “I’m on the second floor…”
“Me too. I’m Sam, just moved in.”
“Alinda. But call me Ali. My boyfriend and I moved in a couple of weeks ago ourselves. It’s nice meeting you.” With only one bag in her arms, Ali unlocked her door without a hitch. Sam followed her in to the small but neat living room. “Where do you want these?”
“Do you mind putting them on the kitchen table?”
“No problem.” The layout was the twin to his and Jessica’s apartment and Ali’s table was in the same spot as theirs.
“Thanks again. See you around.”
Walking down the hall to his door, Sam reflected that even after two years he still got a little thrill of satisfaction knowing that he could take the time to make friends because he wasn’t going to have to leave in a month.
Distractedly heading toward the library between classes, Sam looked up at the sound of his name.
“Oh, hi, Ali.” His neighbor was sitting at one of the concrete tables in the Inner Quad, books open in front of her. He stepped over.
“This is my boyfriend, Ryan.” Ryan had the typical no-neck build of a jock. Sam put his hand out and received, as expected, the little-too-strong handshake which Sam returned with equal firmness. He noticed the textbook next to Ali’s coffee, The Stardust of Empires. “You’re taking Professor Abrams’ course?”
“Yeah, have you had him before?”
“I took his modern history class last year. He’s tough, but really makes you look at things differently.”
“So I’m seeing. Are you a history major?”
“Pre-law. But his class was one of my gen-eds. What about you?”
“I think I’m going into journalism. But I’m only a sophomore, so I still can change my mind. Pre-law, huh?”
“I think it’s a way I can make a difference. And I realize that sounds a little…self-important, but…”
“Hey, that’s cool. Sort of how I feel about journalism, you know? Like it’s one of those jobs that matters.” She flashed those striking dimples again and Sam automatically grinned back. “Ryan, here, he’s going to be a football star.”
Ryan rolled his eyes at Ali’s remark and she gave him an affectionate nudge. “The world needs football, too!”
“That’s true! I gotta get to the library while I have time, but see you both around!” Settling his backpack more securely on his shoulders, Sam resumed his original direction.
“Hi, babe.” Jessica was sitting cross-legged on the couch, chewing on the end of her pen while balancing a thick book and a notebook on her lap. She looked up at Sam’s greeting.
“How did the psych test go?”
“Think I did fine.” Sam kicked off his shoes and Jessica slid over on the couch to make room for him.
“You know that couple down the hall, Ali and her boyfriend…Ryan? What do you think about inviting them over for dinner sometime?”
That was one of the things Sam loved about Jess, she was always looking to make new friends. “Sounds good to me.”
“So how’d you two meet, anyway?” Jess asked as she passed the basket of garlic bread over to Ryan.
He looked at Ali with a shy smile. “I decided to ask the prettiest cheerleader to go out. And she said yes.”
“You’re a cheerleader?” Somehow that didn’t surprise Sam, Ali had the kind of bubbliness that fit the image.
“I was last year. I was on the cheerleading squad all through high school, and well, it seemed like a good way to make friends in a new place.”
“You’re not one this year?” Jess asked.
“Too busy with classes. And anyway, it worked, I did make friends.” She gave Ryan’s arm a quick squeeze, and Sam couldn’t mock her sappiness, he felt the same way about Jess.
“What about you two? How did you meet?”
Jess answered. “We had a mutual friend, Brady, who kept trying to set us up. But really, it was when I watched Sam have a…discussion…with the professor teaching the comparative religions class we were both in. Sam was arguing that the Latin translation in the textbook was wrong. And he brought in documentation the next day to prove he was right. I let Brady give him my number after that.” She flashed Sam a mischievous look.
“Yeah, and I thought Brady was pulling a fast one on me, there was no way this gorgeous girl wanted to meet me.” On impulse Sam leaned over and planted a quick kiss on Jess’s temple.
No, Ali and Ryan weren’t the most smitten couple at the table, Sam admitted to himself.
“Let me have that.” Sam deftly relieved Ali of the potted…tree…that was nearly as tall as she was. “You don’t ever make it easy on yourself, do you? What is this, anyway?”
“It’s a lemon tree. It’s sunny enough by the front window I think it will do okay. It’s kind of a tradition in my family to have one.”
Following her up the stairs, Sam eyed the potted tree dubiously, “Are you really going to get lemons from this?”
“Probably not…my mom got them one year and then I picked them all while they were still tiny to have a doll tea party and Mom was so mad…I was only six…”
“Well, here’s to hoping you have better luck and your dolls can wait this time.”
Ali laughed as she opened her door.
“Should I put it by the window?”
“Yes, sure…Oh, hi, Ryan, I didn’t know you’d be home! I found a lemon tree like I told you about!”
Ryan immediately stood from where he’d been lying on the sofa and hovered near Ali. The couple’s eyes met and Sam couldn’t help but notice the tiny questioning scrunch of Ali’s nose. Glaring, his mouth twisted like he’d already sucked a lemon, Ryan kept his eyes on him as Sam set the pot in a patch of sunlight.
Reacting to Ryan’s glower, Ali said quickly, “It’s perfect there. Thanks, Sam.”
“If you do get any lemons I’d like to see ‘em,” Sam grinned as he walked past the still scowling Ryan.
“Sure thing…I kind of owe you one for carrying it up the stairs for me!”
As the door shut behind him, Sam could hear Ryan’s pissed-off voice even though he couldn’t make out the words.
Sam looked up as Jessica shut the door behind her.
“You’re dripping,” he remarked as he got up to take her wet backpack.
“I forgot the umbrella.” She kicked off her sneakers.
“You always forget the umbrella. Even though it’s been raining for three days straight now. I’ll make you some hot chocolate.”
Surprisingly the offer of Jess’s favorite drink didn’t chase the frown off her face. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s just…oh, Ali and Ryan are having another really loud…unpleasant…argument. I hate to hear people talking like that to each other, you know?” She walked into the bathroom and came back out running a towel over her hair. “When they were here for dinner, I thought they were such a cute couple. I mean, yeah, he barely said two sentences but Ali told me he was super shy. Now…” she waved toward their shared wall. “Well, he’s all I hear.”
“Sucks, I get it.” He knew all about overhearing other people fighting through thin walls. Just like he knew people often hid their true selves from outsiders. Fortunately, there was another apartment between theirs and the arguing couple. Sam gave Jess a peck on the lips. “Let me provide some distraction.”
Ali was sitting at one of the corner tables in the library.
“Hi! How’s the history class with Abrams going?”
Ali jumped. “Oh! Oh…hi, Sam.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you. Haven’t seen you carrying in any big loads lately…”
“Oh, yeah, everything’s just fine…”
“How’s the lemon tree?”
“It’s doing okay…”
“What are you doing, Ali?” Sam stepped back as Ryan came striding from behind a row of bookshelves. “What do you want?” he addressed Sam hostilely.
“Just sayin’ hi.” Giving Ali another look, Sam backed away. He thought for a moment she was going to say something more, but then she looked back at her notebook as Ryan put a hand on her shoulder.
Definitely a weird vibe…but not his business.
One week to Thanksgiving. As Sam unlocked the foyer door he contemplated how strange it felt to realize he would be having a real Thanksgiving dinner for only the second time in his life, Jessica insisting that he join her family. He was both anxious and excited. And he couldn’t help the stray question of what Dean and Dad would be doing that day. Take-out, some semi-edible meal at a random diner…or nothing at all, the day just passing unacknowledged as holidays frequently had in those later years…
“Don’t you lie to me, you fucking bitch!” Sam stopped at the loud crash that followed the yell from apartment 204.
“I’m not lying…Please, don’t…”
The unmistakable sound of flesh hitting flesh, a cry of pain, another crash, and Sam reacted without thinking, dropping his book bag and smashing his foot against the door. As it flew open he saw Ryan had Ali pinned against the wall, his clenched hand inches from her face. In two steps Sam pulled Ryan away and landed his own fist against Ryan’s jaw. Ryan’s return blow knocked Sam’s teeth together. Sam set his feet and landed a fusillade of body blows that Ryan impossibly shook off and then Ryan returned the attack with a barrage of hits that made Sam pull his arms up to protect his head.
“Ali! Call 911!” Sam charged in again, but Ryan shook off the hit to his face that should have knocked him out and landed another brutal punch on Sam’s ribs.
“Sam! What’s happening?”
Jess’s voice from the doorway distracted Sam long enough for Ryan to get his hands around Sam’s neck and start to squeeze, but Sam butted his head into Ryan’s nose and broke the grip. “Call the cops!” he yelled as he evaded another swing and then surged forward to try and get inside Ryan’s reach and pin his arms. Jess was making the call, but Ryan twisted and shoved Sam into the bookcase. Sam ducked as multiple books fell on his head.
“This is all your fault!” Ryan snarled and lunged at Ali. Stunned from the bruising cascade of books, blood now dripping in one eye, Sam knew he had to stop Ryan from reaching Ali, so he threw himself at the enraged man and knocked him to the floor. They rolled up against the couch and Sam found himself underneath as Ryan’s fists pummeled his face.
A shadow loomed behind Ryan’s head and Sam closed his eyes as Jess smashed a vase on the back of Ryan’s head—but even that didn’t knock him out, he reached behind him and shoved Jess away. As he raised his hand to hit Sam again police sirens sounded outside and Ryan growled.
Sam figured it was because of the repeated hits to his head he thought Ryan’s eyes looked completely black as Ryan jumped to his feet and ran for the door.
“Sam! Oh my god, you’re bleeding!”
“Did he hurt you? Ali?” It was a bitch, but Sam struggled to get up.
“Don’t move! Ali, Ali, can you get me a towel?”
Vaguely aware of a commotion in the hall, Sam took several shallow breaths. He found himself instinctively doing the self-assessment his dad had drilled into him to determine if he needed a hospital. He didn’t think he was concussed, he wasn’t sure about his ribs. Then Jess was back with a wet cloth, wiping carefully at his face.
Cops were in the apartment and Sam answered their questions straightforwardly. He’d heard Ali screaming, tried to stop Ryan. Jess said she’d been coming down the hall and saw the fight through the smashed door. He saw another officer talking to Ali, but by then a paramedic was checking him over and Jess insisted Sam let them take him to the ER. He walked to the ambulance on his own, though, and from the sidewalk he saw Ryan on a stretcher being put in another ambulance.
“What happened to him?”
“Dunno. He was unconscious on the floor in the hallway when we got there,” the EMT assisting Sam said.
“Huh. It was crazy, like he had superstrength or was on PCP or something,” Sam murmured. For a crazy moment he wondered if he should call Dean and ask if there was a monster whose eyes turned black…but he knew the lore as well as Dean did, and unless this was something new…no, it had to have been his imagination.
Sam did have a cracked rib, and he’d taken a kidney punch that left him pissing blood for the next few days, but the worst was his horrifically bruised face that had everyone who saw him asking what had happened
Ali had a black eye and bruises but wasn’t seriously hurt.
“It makes no sense,” Jess said a day later as she made him take the painkiller he’d been prescribed and solicitously refreshed his ice pack. “Ali says that in the hospital, when he came to, Ryan didn’t remember anything about the fight or even that he’d been accusing her of cheating for weeks. He’s undergoing a court-ordered psych eval and is suspended from school. And she’s moved back into the dorm.”
“Jess, did you notice anything…odd…about Ryan during the fight? About his eyes?”
“No, all I was thinking was that he was crazy, and I was afraid he was going to kill you!”
“Well, I’m glad you were there. You distracted him with that vase even if it didn’t knock him out. That was quick thinking.” Sam winced as he put the fresh ice pack on his jaw. “My brother would be all over me for letting him kick my ass so bad.”
“Considering Ryan probably has fifty pounds on you and is a football player, you did okay!” Jess sat down beside him and with a serious expression brushed the hair from his forehead. “You know, a lot of people would have just walked past that door thinking it wasn’t any of their business. I’m really proud of you, Sam. What you did probably saved Ali’s life.”
“I couldn’t just ignore someone in trouble…”
Jess smiled. “That’s what I love about you.” Then quizzically, “But how did you learn to kick a door down like that?”
Nothing Sam was ever going to explain to her. “Just a hidden talent, I guess.” It hurt to smile, but he did it anyway.
I can still save people, Dean, he thought as he leaned back, there are too many human monsters out there too.