The smell of late-autumn barbecue (slow roasting pork, warm cumin, the tang of green chili, sweet applewood smoke) wafting through the kitchen window was almost enough to make her march next door with an empty platter and a stern demand.
Linda pushed aside the desire for a big plate of carnitas and a Corona and instead pulled on her coat. She would be eating soon enough. If the desire for pulled pork persisted beyond that, well, that was why God invented take-out.
No answer. She waited a moment, drumming her fingers on her thigh.
Just before she was about to call out a third time, Kevin appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Sorry. I was just... lost in thought, I guess." He sounded a bit sheepish.
Linda frowned. Lost in thought was never a good sign with Kevin, especially these days, but she decided to leave it alone for now. Sheepish was a good ten points lower on the worry scale than gloomy. "I'm heading out. Do you want to tag along?"
The way Kevin's eyes widened had her expecting a 'god, yes!' but then he just shook his head and gave a rueful (and forced) smile. "Nah. I'm good. I'm still going through the O'Brien books you got from the library. To be honest, I can use the free time."
It was hard to resist the temptation to reach out and pat his cheek. Instead, she just tossed out a breezy "your loss, kid," and took off her necklace - and the heavy ring threaded on it. Some other time she might have called him out on the obvious lie, but not today. She carefully put the ring back into the carved box on the kitchen counter and paused for a moment to look at the framed photograph of Kevin hanging above the box.
It was a half-assed attempt at a shrine - just a high-school photo and a box of keepsakes - but it helped. Sort of. Not for the first time, she wished she had had the time and the foresight to ask her grandmother about... things. So many, many things.
She sighed, closing the lid on the box and on that particular line of thought. "I should be home by five."
"I'll be here," he said drily.
Of course he would be. Where else could he possibly go?
He did her the favor of walking into the family room and out of sight before she left. Seeing him appear out of thin air was one thing, but each time he disappeared in the same manner, it tore great, bleeding strips out of her.
He only did that anymore when he was really mad at her about something. Or when he was just mad in general.
Sometimes, Linda wondered if it was happening more often these days. It felt like it. She had bought a cloth-bound journal with every intention of keeping a record of frequency, triggers, duration, etc., but every night since she bought it, she told herself she would start keeping track first thing in the morning.
But honestly, how was she supposed to keep a ledger of How My Dead Son is Inexorably Slipping into Vengeful Insanity without going insane herself?
One of the very first things Linda had figured out when it came to keeping Kevin on an even keel was that looking after her own sanity was a critical part of the equation. If she let herself be consumed by the grief and horror, Kevin would start to echo and mirror what he picked up from her, adding to the awfulness of it all and making her feel worse, which of course made him get worse, and so on and so on and so on in one great big spiral of suck and despair and flung objects.
The key element to keeping her head on straight turned out to be as simple as getting the fuck out of the house once in a while. Kevin had figured that out before she had. It took him three days of gentle (and then not so gentle) pressure to convince her it was okay to leave behind the ring that anchored him to her when she went out. It was safe. Really, it was.
It took another three days before she finally got the picture that Kevin was doing this as much for his own sake as for hers.
A part-time job at the local coffee shop did wonders for getting her out of the house and around other, living people. The money was also a help, and kept her from having to dig into what little savings she had left to pay the rent.
Her first stop was, as usual, at the library to drop off the books Kevin had finished, and pick up the books she had put on reserve for him. Right now, he was burning his way through the Aubrey-Maturin series. Next up, Hornblower. One other thing Linda had discovered was that an obsession with retribution could be redirected to obsession with another topic without too much effort. So far, anyway.
As for her own reading, she gave the reference librarian a quick glance. She got a slight nod in return as he put two fingers to the side of his head as if adjusting his glasses. The slightly more esoteric reading material she had requested and that wasn't listed in any library catalog anywhere would take another two days to get in.
Well, Garth had warned her that it was hard to get out of the hunting life once it sucked you in. And now, even after less than a year back in circulation, she had picked up a bit of a reputation as something of an expert on demons. Oh, and ghosts, too.
She never told anyone just how she had come by this knowledge. Most hunters assumed that something bad had happened and were content to leave it at that rather than be pressed to drag out their own tales of woe in exchange. Anyhow, it was something to do. And at least this way, maybe something good might come of her pain...
The thought stopped her hard on the library steps. She gripped the railing and put her hand to her chest as if that could quell the nauseous tightness that had risen up. Heartbreak. That's why they call it that. Because that's what it feels like. Like something's shattered inside.
Three hard-won and painfully controlled breaths, and she was okay. Okay-ish.
Another four more naturally measured breaths, and she was genuinely calm enough to go on her way. She would get to be normal for the next five hours. Linda Tran, widowed home-maker with a college-aged (forever college-aged - no, stop thinking that way) son at home, and bored enough out of her mind to take a cooking class. Normal. Perfectly normal. Really.
She had noticed the flyer for the Kitchen Conservatory at the library two weeks ago. For some reason, it struck her as something she would very much like to do. No, scratch that - it was something she very much had to do. It wasn't her sort of thing at all, but as soon as she read the flyer, she was digging in her purse for a scrap of paper and a pen to jot down the number. She called as soon as she got home, which was a good thing, because she got the very last slot in the class.
Linda Tran was going to learn how to bake bread, god damn it.
By the end of the class, Linda had learned about more about how to make more kinds of bread than she even knew existed. She learned how you made crusty bread, soft bread, rye bread, baguettes, sourdough, sponges, starters... And she got to learn what it was like to get her hands on some dough and knead it until her wrists and shoulders hurt and she knew in her bones what was meant by elastic. Afterwards, of course, the teacher gave them instructions on how to bake a slow-rising bread that didn't require any tedious, hand-killing kneading at all.
The smell of the baking bread was maddeningly good, almost distracting her from the other portions of the class, and the taste of it at last - still warm, with good French butter and some of the teacher's home-made strawberry jam - was even better. When she took the first bite, she had to close her eyes because any additional sensation would have been just too much.
Best of all, she had a chance to make small talk with other women (and one male college student) she had no intention of ever seeing again. Once or twice, she found herself getting annoyed at the superficiality or started thinking about just how radically her world differed from theirs, but it only took a single deep breath to pull her thoughts away again. She was even able to share a few things about Kevin without the weight of his death pulling her down. For a few hours, in a kitchen full of the smell of freshly baked bread and the chicken curry they'd had for lunch, she was...
Well, she wasn't quite at peace, but she could remember what peace felt like enough to know it was possible she might feel it again one day.
Even though she could barely afford the class fees, she considered it money well-spent. She also spent a bit more on some yeast, a half pound of that excellent butter, and a deposit on the class fees for a preserving class where she could learn to make some of that strawberry jam for herself. She then picked up all the remaining, more pedestrian ingredients for various kinds of bread at the Shop-n-Save on the way home.
It wasn't until she was halfway back from the grocery store that it struck her that all of this cooking would be cooking for one. She pulled over to the side of the road and did her usual breathing exercises until she could trust herself to drive again.
When she got home, one look at the family room told her the state of things. Kevin's books were flung this way and that, splayed out like dead birds on the rug, the couch, and the coffee table.
He reappeared inches for her before the sound finished leaving her mouth.
"Where were you?" he demanded. If he'd been alive, the spittle would have hit her in the face.
"I told you I would be back before five," she said. It took effort to keep her voice from shaking. "It's four forty-five, so back off." She stepped around him (never through) and took her purchases into the kitchen. She dropped the tote with the library books on the floor with what she hoped was an emphatic thump.
"I was worried about you!" He reappeared in the kitchen, deliberately blocking her path. The display on the microwave started to flash wildly. "You know Crowley is still out there! And we don't know what's going on with Metatron! They could have - "
"Well, they didn't!" she said firmly. "I'm here, and I'm all right, and I've taken precautions. You're the one who wanted me to get out more, remember? Now, excuse me because I have things to put in the refrigerator."
She stepped forward, and Kevin scooted out of her way, fear at the Wrath of Mom enough to derail the obsession with her safety and the ones who had hurt them.
For the moment, anyway. It used to be she would only hear one rant about Crowley or Metatron or Gadreel a week. Now, it was creeping up on daily, and the rants had expanded to include all angels, all demons, the Winchesters, and even every hunter who had ever walked the earth.
Dean had warned her. She hadn't listened, of course, because she knew Kevin far better than Dean could every hope to. And because she hadn't listened she was now getting to see that awful, unavoidable truth for herself. Even so, there had to be something she could do. She knew this, just as she knew to make that stupid shrine.
She hadn't given up before. Not when they were on the run. Not when she was locked in that storage unit. She sure as hell wasn't going to give up now. If the worst came, she would deal with it. Just like she always had. Until then, she would do everything in her power to keep that from happening.
Still, she tried not to wonder what happened to the ghosts she 'sent on,' now that they were blocked from Heaven, but it was becoming harder and harder not to think about it. The wondering would creep even when she was doing something as mundane as balancing the books at the coffee shop or folding the laundry.
This time, it only took two shaky breaths and one smooth one before she could go back to putting away groceries, slamming things down a bit harder than necessary to punctuate her mood.
"You bought groceries?" Kevin asked with a bewilderment that was every bit as irritating as his obsessive behavior was frightening. "Like... food parts?"
She grunted, not wanting to point out that unlike him, she needed to eat. There was no way that particular conversation could end well for either of them.
"But, like... nothing's even cut up, or has instructions on it!"
That wasn't fair. The yeast packets had plenty of instructions on them.
"I do know how to cook, you know," she said, even though as a single mother, convenience foods had been, well, convenient. "I made your school lunches, remember?"
"You put meat between bread! That is not cooking! That is assembly! You didn't even cut up the apples!"
"Because they would turn brown!" she said, brandishing a bag of King Arthur bread flour at him. "The one time I sent you to school with brown apple slices you cried!"
"I was five!"
Kevin flung up his hands and stalked out of the room. "Augh! Why do I even bother?"
"Clean up those books while you're in there, and do it right!" she called after him. "I don't want to have to pay damage fees on your books. Again."
The sound of grumbling almost covered the flutter-thump of books being levitated gently back into a neat pile. Almost, but not quite.
"Just for the record," he shouted from the living room. "I'm not helping clean up if you blow up the stove!"
She leaned through the doorway into the living room and shook her brand-new wooden spatula at him. He stared at her, and then he laughed, long and loud and sounding so alive that she couldn't help laughing as well, sliding helplessly down the door jamb until she was sitting on the floor.
Later that night, she once again pressed her face into her pillow so the sound of crying wouldn't reach a living room where no one was actually living any more.
That night, Linda dreamed about her grandmother's house. She dreamed about it often, but they usually weren't very good dreams. She had adored her ba noi, but her mother and grandmother got along like nitroglycerine and earthquakes.
Of course, Linda had loathed her own mother-in-law with a passion - and vice-versa - and could now understand just how locked in misery that particular family dynamic could become. As a child, all she had known was that two adults she loved with all her heart could only speak poisonously to each other. Oh, they tried to keep it hidden from her (because they both loved her with all their hearts, but the hiddenness only made it worse, like a monster hiding under her bed.
She dreamed of those half-hidden fights when she was feeling particularly helpless and alone, so pretty much every night now. This time, though, something was different. This time, she smelled her father's Old Spice and cigarettes and felt the warm, soothing weight of his hand on her shoulder. She had almost forgotten this, how his calm, quiet presence would quell the fear caused by the fight in the kitchen.
"I know, princess. I don't like it either. I'd tell them to stop if I thought they would listen," he said sadly. Then, he told her to go and take one of the sweets her grandmother had put out. It was okay, he assured her. Go on. He didn't mind. He wanted her to have one.
Linda refused, remembering how her normally gentle ba noi had smacked her hand hard that one time. In her dream, the back of her hand was still sore and reddened even though it had all happened long ago.
"It's okay, princess. It really is. You'll figure it out."
Her cell phone blasted her out of the dream and blasted the dream half out of her memory.
It was Garth. Of course. He was sorry to call her so early, but there was a ghost that needed to be 'taken care' of.
When she got home late that afternoon, half the electrical circuits were blown and she was going to owe the library another replacement fee.
"I don't want to hear it," she said to the cold and conspicuously Kevin-less room. Her breath fogged the air. "You're the one who wanted to stay home today."
It had sounded genuine at the time. He was halfway through The Yellow Admiral and not inclined to stop reading.
"Go re-flip the circuit breakers. I know you know how to do it. Then come talk to me, mister."
He popped into being just a few feet from her. He was hugging himself tightly, and there were dark circles under his eyes. That was the one thing about his appearance that could still change - how tired he looked. "I'm sorry, Mom. I'm sorry. I just got to thinking, and... I tried to stop it. I tried..."
She stood firm, arms folded in 'Mom' position so she wouldn't try to hug him and make everything so much worse. If there was one thing she had learned over the past couple of years, worse was always lurking out there. She waited for him to babble himself out.
He shook his head. "I don't know. If it weren't for what..." He swallowed back something, probably a name. "I keep thinking that if it wasn't for what was done to the Veil, I would ask you to - "
This time, she did reach out - almost but not quite touching him as she mimed putting a finger to his lips.
"No. We are not going to talk about that, Kevin. Not now. Not when you're like this. Flip the breakers and clean up the living room. Also, turn up the heat - you've made it freezing in here. I'll be in the kitchen."
Once he left and she heard signs of not-life from the basement, she took five deep, shuddering breaths. It worked enough that she could make it into the kitchen and start pulling out the items from her list.
Milk. Bring to a simmer. Butter. Sugar. Stir in. Set aside. Cool.
By the time the milk mixture was cool, she was approaching something resembling calm again.
She poured water from a bottle and warmed it to just a little above body temperature. One thing she had learned in her class was that the chemicals used to treat the local water didn't play well with the yeast. She smiled to see the yeast foam up the way it had in class, and the tightness in her chest finally began to loosen.
Maybe she wasn't completely hopeless in the kitchen.
That said, the next bit was where it could get messy. The milk, yeast, salt, sugar, eggs and half of the flour went into a big mixing bowl and she started stirring. And stirring. In class, they had used mixers for this part, but Linda wasn't going to commit to one of the big Kitchen Aids until she was sure this bread thing was more than just another failed attempt to find something to distract her.
When she did buy one, she told herself, it would be cherry red.
The mixing wasn't too bad until she had to add more flour. Then, she had to switch arms before her stirring arm fell off.
"Bread?" Kevin said in bemusement.
Linda kept stirring. "All the lights had better be working now. Say, does this look like a smooth ball to you?"
Kevin held up his hands and backed away from the proffered bowl of dough like a demon cringing away from holy water. "Nuh-uh. No way. I am not getting dragged into this."
"Suit yourself." Finally deciding that the ball was reasonably smooth, Linda turned it out onto a floured pastry mat and started kneading.
After the day she'd had, she had decided that no-knead bread would not be nearly cathartic enough. So, she pushed and pulled and turned and folded until the dough was satiny (when it wasn't sticking to her hands, anyway).
During the first rise, she channel surfed and pretended she didn't notice the flickers of static as Kevin fought to hold it together. She knew she was going to have to make a decision about him sooner rather than later, but it didn't have to be now, she told herself, chest tightening again with fear and pain.
When she went back into the kitchen to punch the dough down after an hour's rising, she did it with a bit more force than was absolutely necessary.
The punching did wonders, though. It only took two deep and relatively controlled breaths to pull herself back together.
While the dough went through its second, shorter rising in the loaf pans as the oven heated, she allowed herself to start thinking about the future. Not much, just a little, but still. She sat at the kitchen table, head resting on folded arms, and thought about 'what next' without letting herself become paralyzed by too much detail. She was just sort of sketching out options, as it were.
This would be so much easier if she didn't know so much about all that could possibly happen after. And what about all the other people she had lost? Her husband? Her parents? Her grandmother? Where were they now? How were they now?
The timer went off, and then it was time to check the rising (it looked good, maybe?), brush the loaf tops with melted butter, and pop them in the oven. As she closed the oven door, she was hit by a wave of exhaustion that made even thinking about setting the timer seem like too much work. She did, though, and set it down on the kitchen table right next to her head. She didn't want her first solo attempt at bread to end with the smoke detector going off. Kevin would never let her hear the end of it.
She fell asleep soon enough, and as the bread baked, she dreamed of her grandmother's house again. This time, she didn't hear the usual arguments. Instead, she just felt the comforting warmth on her shoulder and heard her father's low, soft laugh as she snuck a piece of banana cake before ba noi could catch her.
"That's my clever girl!" he whispered so ba noi and Mom wouldn't hear. "I knew you'd figure it out! I knew you'd remember!"
He leaned in close, and the scent of aftershave and cigarettes - pleasant only because of fond association - became something else, something pleasant in and of itself. The warmth of her father's presence flowed from her shoulder to fill her entire being as the smell of freshly baked bread gently pulled her into wakefulness mere seconds before the timer went off.
She sat up, and saw Kevin standing in front of the stove, staring at it as if it were the demon tablet and he had five minutes left to decode what was on it.
"That smells really good." He sounded awestruck. Reverent, even. He was reluctant to move aside when she went to retrieve the loaves.
When Linda opened the oven, the smell brightened the room like sunrise. "Oh, my..."
The loaves weren't evenly browned, and one was noticeably higher at one end than the other, but she knew they would be delicious.
"Wow..." Kevin stayed so close she was sure she was brushing through him by accident as she moved. "You really did it!"
"Oh, ye of little faith." She placed the loaves on a rack to cool. It was tempting to cut into one right away, but she would persevere. Steam burns on the roof of the mouth weren't fun for anyone.
"That smells really good," he said again, and it didn't sound like the kind of obsessive repetition he was becoming prone to. "I mean, REALLY good."
That was flattering, but more than that, confusing. Linda leaned back against the counter and peered up at him curiously. "Hold on a moment. Run that by me again. You can smell it?"
Kevin did a slight double-take, then thought about it. It took him a moment to answer, and when he spoke, she could tell he was still piecing it together in his head. "It's weird. Obviously I can see and hear things. And when I move things, it's sort of like I can feel them. The shape of them, or the weight of them, but paper feels just like cloth or wood or glass. But taste and smell? Those are too..."
He paused for a moment. The bread continued to cool, and she could hear the faint crackling of the crust as it contracted. Kevin got the same kind of look on his face as he had when working on a science project and reached out to put his hand over one of the loaves. He looked puzzled for a moment, then shook his head, dismissing whatever idea was in there.
"Maybe they're too visceral. Too primal. Sight and sound feel like they're mostly in the mind, but everything else?" He smiled humorlessly. "They're more physical."
That brought another twinge of pain, but instead of taking a deep breath, she asked a question. "But you can smell this. You never said anything about any of the food I brought home."
Indian, Mexican, barbecue, pizza, Chinese, chili. All of those had their own strong, distinctive odors. And then there were the next door neighbors with the grill they used almost daily, even in crappy weather. None of those things had ever raised a single comment.
Kevin shrugged, clearly as much at a loss as she was. But the tired look from before had faded, and much faster than she would have expected given recent experience. "Sorry. No clue. But I don't mind. Like, at all."
"Well, it's something," she said. Possibly a good something.
Kevin twiddled his fingers the way he always used to when he was unsure of something, and looked at her shyly. It made him look twelve again.
"Um, maybe we can make this whole bread thing... a thing?" he suggested. There was something she hadn't heard in his voice for a long time - hope.
Definitely a good something.
"We'll see," she said, meaning 'yes.'
The bread had to be cool enough to cut by now, she thought. And if it wasn't, then too damn bad. She opened the cupboard and pulled out a plate. She instinctively reached for a second plate, but stopped.
She thought for a moment. And remembered.
Then she smiled, and her stop turned into no more than a brief pause.
She had figured it out.
Just like her father had promised she would.
From baking bread, it was easy to branch out into other kinds of baking. Cookies, of course. They were small, and could easily be arranged on a saucer. Cakes were a pain in the ass, but there was something incredibly satisfying about pulling off a perfect pie.
You could have knocked her over with a feather when Kevin suggested she maybe send one to the Winchesters.
She raised an eyebrow. "Why? Do you want me to add ground glass to the filling or something?"
"Mom!" His outrage was hilarious, which was her intent. She had understood what he meant by the offer.
"I'll think about it," she said, making a mental note to find out when their birthdays were. Maybe she would have made enough peace with them in her own mind by then to make it a genuine and well-meant gift.
The kitchen cabinets were soon full with cooking equipment she had never imagined owning. She even bought a coffee-maker rather than rely on what she could get for free and for no effort at the coffee shop. As far as she was concerned, its timer function was one of the best inventions in the history of civilization, as it meant that the house was filled with the smell of fresh-brewed coffee around the same time her alarm went off. She had even tracked down a set of dinky little demitasse cups.
The very first thing she bought, however, was a a cherry-red Kitchen Aid mixer. Kevin named it 'Lucille,' much to her consternation. It was her mixer, but the name stuck.
She and Lucille went to work with a vengeance. No - wrong word. 'Vengeance' had fallen out of favor in their household. Maybe it was fairer to say that they went to work with a passion.
It wasn't too hard to find homes for the surplus of baked goods. Raymond, the reference librarian with a sideline in esoteric demonology, was nearly as appreciative of tin of home-made cookies as he was of some choice passages Kevin recalled from the demon tablet.
Even better, the next door neighbors - they of the barbecue fixation - had been more than willing to exchange some pulled pork in exchange for some home-made sandwich buns. It didn't take long after that before Linda started cadging lessons and occasional use of the grill from them while she saved up for a Big Green Egg of her own.
As it turned out, Kevin was crazy-fond of barbecue sliders piled up with home-made coleslaw.
So was someone else.
It was the scrape of a chair on the kitchen floor that woke her.
There was no answer, but this was different from his more typical silences. The entire house felt much too still aside from the faint noises coming from the kitchen. She pulled her shotgun out from under the bed and padded quietly down the hall until she was just outside the kitchen. A man in a dark suit was sitting at her kitchen table, back to the door.
She made her presence known by racking the shotgun.
"That won't do you any good, Linda," the man said in a bored, cultured voice. He didn't even turn around. "I'm only here for a friendly visit. And no, that is not a euphemism for something more sinister. Please, have a seat," he said, as if it was his kitchen, not hers.
Linda edged her way around perimeter of the kitchen, keeping her shotgun trained on the stranger despite what he had said. The man had a gaunt face and a long, beaky nose. She had never seen him before, but he was somehow very familiar.
He was also eating the barbecue sliders she had left for Kevin that evening. She went hot with rage and braced the shotgun against her shoulder. "Those aren't for you," she hissed.
She knew now why her grandmother had smacked her hand back then. She knew that anger.
"No, but they are my due." Unperturbed, he raised another miniature sandwich to his mouth and took an appreciative bite. He dabbed his mouth with a napkin, hand turned so she could see the square, white stone on his ring.
"Oh." She yanked out the chair and sat down before her legs buckled under her.
"I see you know who I am, Linda," Death said. "These are delicious, by the way. My compliments. In a few years, you may want to consider entering a competition."
"Thank you." It was as much as she could manage, and she only did so on autopilot. Her mouth had gone completely dry.
"Relax. I told you, I'm only here for a friendly visit. And for some of this excellent barbecue, of course."
"It's two in the morning. Sorry if I'm a little startled."
He gave an elegant lift of his shoulders that barely qualified as a shrug. "It doesn't bother me. I'm accustomed to people not being altogether pleased to see me."
Linda carefully put the shotgun down on the floor. What the heck were you supposed to say to Death when he stopped by to raid your larder?
"I'm very impressed by how you were able to pull your son back from the brink like that. It's become a lost art in this part of the world. How did you finally figure it out?"
Linda cleared her throat. "When... when I was a little girl - about four or five years old - my mother would drop me at my grandmother's for the day. She worked. Ba noi was first generation, and she kept shrines to the dead in her house."
She didn't remember too many details. The only one that had stuck in her conscious memory was that pictures were somehow involved, but apparently her unconscious memory - the one that clung to sensory impressions and feelings more fiercely than it did facts - had retained much more than that.
"So, in a final, desperate attempt to save your son, you tried to recreate what your grandmother had done?"
Her confidence started to come back as she recalled the warm weight of a hand on her shoulder and paired scents that should have been repellent but instead were comforting. "I would have tried it earlier if I had remembered," she snapped. "And it wouldn't have been desperate. Or an attempt. I knew it would work, and I knew it would keep Kevin himself until - "
Until it was time for him to move on of his own accord, and at peace with what he was leaving behind. Of course there was the issue of the Veil to be dealt with, but that couldn't be solved with a plate of molasses crinkles.
"What finally jogged your memory?" Death seemed genuinely curious, but he also seemed distracted, looking around the kitchen for something else now that he had finished the sliders.
Linda sighed and took pity on him, breaking into the stash of peanut butter cookies she had planned to mail to Garth. He took a bite and hummed appreciatively.
"It was my father. My mom and grandmother always got into horrible fights. I think it was because ba noi thought mom was raising me to be too American, and Mom thought it was more important that I fit in. Whenever the fights got too bad, I remember my father telling me it was okay, that he was looking after me. He told me - " She swallowed hard, fighting back tears. "He told me that I was his little princess, and that everything would be okay."
Death looked at her a long time, considering. "But your father died just after you turned four, if I recall."
Linda nodded, tears now spilling freely. It had been a mugging. Or maybe more than that, given how viciously he had been beaten. One of the men accused had been ex-Army, dishonorably discharged during the Vietnam war. He had gotten off on a technicality, but was arrested for a similar crime just two years later.
Her mother had finally told her the full story when she was fifteen.
"But who the hell tells a four-year-old about something like that?" She slammed her hand on the table. "All I knew was that my father was never around any more, Mom was always crying, and everything had changed! And if I remembered Dad being at my grandmother's house when she was babysitting me, well - you know how kids' memories are."
Everything all jumbled up. Real life and pretend, dreaming and waking, past and present.
"But you figured it out," Death said. "I'm sorry? Did I say something funny?"
Linda brushed away the tears and stifled another harsh laugh. "I did. I figured out that the times my father comforted me were real, not just wishful thinking or my imagination playing tricks. He was always kind, always gentle, and I believed him when he said everything would be okay. And this went on for over a year. Until I started going to school, if I'm remembering right, and I think I am. No - I know I am."
A ghost who by every standard should be crazed with vengeance over a violent death had instead stayed around to make sure his little girl was okay. Then, when she had moved on, so had he. She had moved on to kindergarten, he to... wherever. But it was on his own terms and in his own time.
"I remember his ghost telling me it was okay to take some of the sweets his mother had left as offerings at his shrine." She laughed. "And I remember being scared to death to even try, because the first time I took something from the shrine, my grandmother smacked me a good one."
"I would imagine she did," he drawled.
"Hey, I nearly emptied a shotgun into you. So, aside from my fabulous cooking, what really brings you here?"
Death folded his napkin and placed it by his plate. Clearly, the social portion of his visit was over.
"You are aware of the situation with the Veil?"
"And the problems I am facing with many of my Reapers? Ah, I see not."
He filled her in. She had to admit, it sounded grim - pun intended. And he had no idea when, or how, or if the situation would resolve. Uncertainty must be a real pain in the ass if you were used to being well-nigh omniscient, she thought but deliberately did not say.
What she did say was:
"So basically, you getting a plate full of good food isn't the only benefit you were looking to get out of this visit."
He inclined his head. "That is correct. I gather from the equipment you have been accumulating, that you also have learned that you enjoy cooking."
"I do." She had even started filling in at the coffee shop when the regular baker was out sick or on vacation. "Very much. I'm also getting pretty fucking amazing at it."
Death snorted with laughter in a manner that still managed to be genteel. "I do admire your self assurance. Might I ask you to hear me out on a little proposal?"
"You might. But I can't promise anything."
"All I ask is that you think about it, Linda."
She thought about it, and three days later, when Garth called her about another ghost in the vicinity that needed 'taking care of,' she made her decision.
The haunting was at a new B-and-B in a recently restored Victorian house. When she heard about the circumstances, she rolled her eyes. Any hunter with any kind of experience knew that opening B-and-Bs in any building older than sixty years old was a bad, bad, bad idea.
When she also learned from the owners that they had bought out the estate sales of two other equally old houses to furnish said B-and-B, she wanted to scream in frustration at the stupidity.
"I know," Garth commiserated when she told him later. "But people - you know? What can you do?"
What you could do was maybe not buy some fucking 'memento-mori' dolly with hair from the actual deceased child it was modeled after, take it out of the house where it had been stashed peacefully for over a century, and use it to decorate your mid-life crisis project-slash-tax shelter.
With a little smooth talking and a few promises, Linda was able to quiet the poltergeist. She was also able to convince it to make one last display of resistance that ended up in her getting a sizeable thank-you fee from the B-and-B owners. Linda never charged for her services, of course, but if someone was handing you a wad of cash out of sheer gratitude, it was only polite to say 'yes.'
When she got home, she put the dolly on the counter next to Kevin's box of mementoes. She would have to buy a little chair for it or something.
"What the hell is that? The Bride of Chucky?" Kevin asked. He was sitting at the kitchen table, head propped on his elbows with a huge book splayed open in front of him.
"You'll see. Also, don't touch it if you know what's good for you."
He rolled his eyes and went back to reading Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Although it wasn't quite an obsession, he did enjoy hunting down recipes he thought she she should try.
Linda went into the kitchen and started making up a batch of shortbread. While it was cooling, she brewed some good, strong tea. Two of the cookies went onto a plate, and she put the tea, some milk, and a generous helping of sugar into a doll-sized teacup. She also fixed up a plate for Kevin, but he got coffee instead of tea, as per his preference.
When she put the plates and cups down, Linda didn't see anything, but Kevin's double-take at what she couldn't see for herself had her bent over in laughter.
It took three days and a few incidents of tipped chairs and torn paper before little Hannah deigned to flicker into Linda's view.
"Thank you very much for the lovely tea, ma'am" she said in an accent that sounded not too far from English. Then, the practiced politeness gave way to something far more vulnerable. "Can I truly stay with you?"
"For as long as you need to, sweetie." Before she could stop herself, she reached out to ruffle the little girl's red curls. Her hand passed right through, of couse, but the nothingness she felt was not nearly as cold as she might have expected.
Hannah smiled for the first time in over a century, and Kevin gave Linda a look that said she had better not say a word about how she had always wanted a daughter.
She eventually told Garth, because she knew he would get it, what with everything he'd gone through recently. He listened, and said he would spread the word - carefully, and only to other people who would also get it.
She did not tell the Winchesters, but she did send them a big box of cookies (easier to pack and ship than pie) and a note saying that she was doing okay and she sincerely hoped they were doing okay. Oh, and don't call her, she'd call them. Maybe.
From time to time, she would get another call from Garth, and another ghost would come home with her. Some she encountered were far past reason, and she had to suck it up and do the salt-and-burn before anyone (else) got hurt. Others, though, were grateful for the peace she could offer until they could move on. Of these, nearly all were children.
There were a couple of adults, though. The first of these was Tara, a recently deceased hunter who knew enough about how things worked to keep her shit together until Linda was able to step in.
"It's good to have another grownup around the place," Linda confided in her. She poured them each a cup of coffee, and gave Tara a dollop of chicken chile verde.
"I'm right here, Mom!" Kevin hollered.
Linda leaned back so she could yell into the living room. "You're not a grownup! You're my darling sweetie little honey-bear!"
Hannah and Karel's giggling and Tara's howls of laughter drowned out the sounds of Kevin's mortified outrage.
Linda didn't quite get how the dead fed off their offerings, other than it having something to do with smell. Once the 'essence' or what-the-hell-ever was gone from the food, it went outside for the birds, the compost heap, or the neighborhood cats and raccoons. Raymond-the-librarian had helped her with that one, when she had asked. It hadn't felt right, just throwing it away.
He had been surprisingly okay with what she was doing, when she admitted why she was asking.
"It's reassuring, to be perfectly honest. I'm past my three-score-and-ten, and I've already had three stents put in." He shrugged. "There are worse things than the prospect of an afterlife full of your cooking, my dear."
He took to stopping by her house once a week for dinner and to gather information from Kevin and Tara about what they knew. He promised to be discreet about provenance when passing the knowledge along to other hunters.
The household electronics settled down well enough, even in a household full of ghosts, although the arrival of a new one always caused complaints about the TV reception. She eventually had to upgrade the cable package to get all of the child-friendly channels and help keep the peace.
The bad news was, this meant taking more hours at the coffee shop to pay for the cable. The good news was, this meant taking more hours at the coffee shop so she didn't have to listen to all of the child-friendly channels.
Oftentimes, she would wear Kevin's ring and Tara's charm bracelet to work with her so they could - in their words - get a fucking break. Fortunately, a second adult had arrived on the scene by then. Even more fortunately, old Miss Lolly thought that by being stuck in a house full of children who were eager for her stories (just so long as she wasn't interrupting Phineas and Ferb), she had in fact finally made it to the promised land. Glory be.
Miss Lolly also had a head chock-full of old Southern recipes that hadn't made it into any cookbook. Linda started copying them down and testing them out, and from the look in Kevin's eye, she knew to brace herself for a barrage of 'ghost writing' puns.
Occasionally, and more than occasionally if she'd been using the grill, she would come home from work to find all of the offerings had vanished from their little plates and cups, and she would know that she was being checked up on. She wasn't sure if she should be touched or pissed off. She decided that 'touched' was probably the safer option, considering who was doing the checking up.
One evening, not long after the household ghost count had reached double-digits, she sat quietly in the kitchen while the bread baked. She had declined the offer to join Kevin, Tara, and Lolly, who were playing Monopoly in the living room while one of the Land Before Time movies played for the kids. It had been a long and interesting day at the coffee shop, and she had a lot to think about.
After a while, she heard Kevin come into the kitchen. He wasn't solid, by any means, but he was very much present in a way he hadn't been since his death.
"Hey, Mom. Hiding out from the crazy?"
"A bit. Mostly thinking. Hey, pour me a glass of wine, will you, honey?"
Kevin was rather proud of his ability to uncork a bottle without benefit of a corkscrew, but pouring without spilling was still a challenge. He did well enough, and because it was just family, Linda was not at all shy about licking a trickle of Pinot Grigio off the side of the glass.
Kevin stood behind her for a moment, just being there, and she felt the warmth of his hand on her shoulder. There was no weight there other than what memory had supplied, but she still felt it. Her eyes closed and she relaxed into his presence.
"Things are a lot better, aren't they?" he said.
"Yes. They are," she said.
Things would be even better still if he was alive, she did not say. No good came of thinking that way. Just look at the Winchester boys...
She took a deep breath, not to calm herself, but to drink in the scent of good bread and good wine. It grounded her. It gave her peace. The food she cooked sustained not just the ghosts, but her friends and herself. No wonder bread was called the staff of life.
Kevin was dead, but when he left, it would be on his own time and on his own terms. Until then, she would enjoy what they had. She would enjoy Tara and Lolly, and all of the children - some of whom only now had the chance to actually be children. She had no doubt her household would continue to grow in the months or even years to come.
"Mark is thinking of retiring," she said, knowing Kevin would know who she was talking about.
"What? So does that mean for your job at the coffee shop? You're not being let go, are you?" It was refreshing to hear him worried about something so normal. "Or is that why you're sitting out here by yourself?"
"I'm not by myself. You're here." She took a big sip of wine. "But yes, that's why I'm out here. And no, I'm not being let go. Mark wants me to think about taking over after he's gone. Maybe start as partners so I can afford to buy in, then gradually pick up more and more as he moves on. I'm working there more than he is these days, anyway, and when I'm not there, people complain."
"That's some premium grade smugness, Mom."
"Darn tootin'. Anyhow, I'm seriously considering it."
For more reasons than one, actually. The coffee shop kitchen let her try things she didn't have the equipment for at home. Also, thanks to that blabbermouth Garth, word was getting around that the lady who worked at the Deer Creek coffee shop had a bit of a reputation as something of an expert on demons. Oh, and ghosts, too. In fact, if you knew of a haunting, she might even just up and take care of it for you. There was also an old librarian who hung out there who could hook you up with just about any piece of lore you needed - but God help you if you took 'his' armchair.
Word also got around pretty quickly, thanks to Linda and a few hunters who would neverforget the experience, that any hunters who visited the Deer Creek coffee shop had better be on their best behavior. Or else.
(One hunter had told her, "Well, it ain't no Harvelle's, but I'm damn glad you're here, Miz Tran. We need a place like this, even when we're not hunting, and it's been too long since we've had one."
"Thank you, Joshua. That's very sweet of you. Now get your feet off the coffee table before I kneecap you.")
Kevin thought for a while. "I hope you do it. I think... I think it would be a good thing, you know? For later?"
Linda reached up to her shoulder, and even though she couldn't feel Kevin's hand, she could feel his warmth. "I know. That's why I'm thinking about it."
Somehow, sometime, the situation with the Veil would be resolved, and she would be shocked if the Winchesters weren't at the center of whatever happened. After that, Tara, Hannah, Lolly, Karel, Josiah, Patience, Bertha, Donnie, and Lourdes would have no need to stay any longer than they wanted to. They could finally move on.
So could Kevin. But only if he knew that she could, too.
"I love you, Mom."
"I love you, too, sweetie."
One day, there would be no more ghosts for her to cook for. Oh, there might be one or two who would need a safe place to recover for a while after death before they could move on in peace, but there would never again be a house full of them like she had now. She would miss them, and she would miss helping them.
But there would always be hunters, and she knew that most of them carried a pain and an obsession that rivaled that of any ghost. Too many of them, like poor Tara, would become ghosts themselves. She had also seen that a hot, home cooked meal and a safe place to rest for a little while was a mercy that many of them rarely had. Yes, she and Raymond may be able to tell them how to make a demon bomb or draw a Devil's Trap, but she knew that wasn't the only thing that was drawing hunters to her coffee shop.
Ha. Her coffee shop.
The truth was, she had been thinking of it that way for a while, now. Still, she'd let Mark wait a few days before giving him an answer. She didn't want to sound desperate.
She finished the last of her wine just as the timer went off.
"Bread's done!" Kevin called out, even though she knew damn well what the timer meant.
But it wasn't for her benefit, as by the time she cracked open the oven, filling the house with a smell brighter than sunshine, she had ten ghosts crowding around her to drink it all in.
"Take it easy, everyone! It's got to cool first. Lolly, can you get down the cups and plates? Hannah, the jam's in the fridge, and can you also set the butter out to soften? Tara, I didn't have a chance to start the coff - thank you." Patience didn't have to be asked to set the water to boil for tea, and Lourdes was delighted to be entrusted with the important and very difficult job of turning off the TV.
At last, it was time to cut into the bread, and even though she was surrounded by the dead, her little kitchen had never felt so full of life.