It’s a hunt outside Wynne, Arkansas. Or thereabouts. A flat state — one of those that just goes on and on and bleeds right into the next one until suddenly you’re either in the ocean or dropping right into the Grand Canyon. Sam ought to have more appreciation for the broad array of individuality beyond each supposed border, given their nomadic upbringing. Yet, it has induced the exact opposite. The more times he’s criss crossed this forsaken country, the more everywhere looks the same. Takes a lot of effort, he reckons, to appreciate all that dirt and sky and concrete. All that boundless emptiness in between, connecting scope and depth into a cone of earth-hued bright — a pathway through the clutter designed to lay brick for other people.
Anyway...takes too much effort. More than he’s ever really had to give, even back when he truly, truly tried (and he tried an awful lot). None if it mattered. None of it has ever mattered.
Sam learned hard and early that two things mattered: monsters; and killing them. Everything else, set dressing.
Arkansas. Somewhere, or thereabouts. Flat state. An exceptionally flat state. Broken up by churches and more churches. And so goddamn hot.
“S’maybe the..the heat.” Sam mumbles, squinting into the dim light of an unfamiliar kitchen. A fridge door is plastered with magnets and a kitschy collage of postcards, letters, pictures. A report card. Kids. There are kids around. At least one kid.
“What?” Dean, on his right, barking and indignant and frustrated and concerned. A million things, all at once, and Sam can’t sort any of it out. It’s far away. It’s heavy. His head is...heavy.
“Heat. It’s the heat…,” Sam attempts once more. Cotton in his mouth. Stickiness, plastered on the side of his temple...dripping, slithering, snakes. Pain, yes, that was pain. He goes to touch it, scratch it, rip it off his flesh no matter how ugly it’d make him — but his wrists snag. Tied up, right fast. Quite the predicament.
“Where we headin’ again, Sammy?”
“Nice try. I’m not playing 'who’s on first' with you again.”
“Aw, come on. That’s a classic!”
“D’n?” Sam yanks harder on his bindings, rough rope digging into the soft underbelly of his forearms. His ears ring, the pounding of his heart competing against the scrip-scrap of a cleaved internal dialogue. He can hear himself hearing himself.
“Hey, just take it easy, alright, kiddo? You took a pretty nasty pistol whip. Like a champ. But I need you to stay still, ok? I’m going to get us out of here. Just sit tight.” And of course he is. Dean’s got it. Dean’s always got it. Sam breathes; in, out, in, out. Wheezes, more apt. The fridge, across from him. Racking in and out of focus.
He grasps...there was a monster in Wynne, Arkansas, so they came to Wynne, Arkansas to kill it. And now they’re strapped like amateurs to tiny chairs in a tiny kitchen (presumably in Wynne, Arkansas). And there’s kids..or a kid. Because the fridge — and how it resembles no fridge in any of the transient Winchester households, adorned with artifacts of humanity, and normalcy, and mundane triumphs. There’s a gold star on the report card. Sam sees it now. He’s seen it before, on his own report cards, undisplayed.
It’s day three, and Sam has almost given up. But maybe Dad just hasn’t spotted it yet. Maybe he hasn’t looked down at the counter yet, even if Sam carefully placed it right next to the coffee machine, in plain view. Today, he gets up a tad earlier, and scoots it closer to the cabinet with the mugs. He glances down at the line of straight As, the smudged shooting star sticker. He’d picked at it nervously, on the first day — foolishly believing he might present it to John outright. The mood had never tilted in his favor, however, so he’d re-strategized. Placing it where their dad could discover it on his own terms seemed the safest bet. Either John was being purposely obtuse, or he had actually noticed it already and deemed it completely unimportant. Sam’s stomach twists, and he quickly backs away.
When John finally stumbles out of bed — dull circles, high shoulders, black energy — Sam surveys from a neutral distance, over the brim of his latest book. Surveys...and there’s no mistaking the moment his dad inspects the single sheet of paper, and without batting an eyelash slides it aside to make room for his mug. Sam’s tense all over, roiling within. Waiting...waiting. Yet, nothing. John comes, then goes...a ship. Not a single word, nor the weight of his long-armed scrutiny.
Later, there’s running, and target practice, and sparring. Sam falls down twice, is a full two minutes behind his fastest mile, and he’s shaking so bad he misses seven of the ten bottles their dad had lined up on the fence posts. Dean has an exceptional day — pins Sam twice, aces a new combat move on the first try, and beats his one-mile record by fifteen and a quarter seconds — faster than their dad has ever been able to run it, even in the Marines.
Later, Sam watches John clap Dean on the back, watches him bestow a rare smile, watches Dean grinning, beaming, glowing beneath the magic, elusive praise.
Later, John scribbles Dean’s new record onto the calendar he keeps magnetized to the fridge, a sort of ambient aura of pride rippling off him in vibratory echoes.
Later, Sam quietly removes his report card from the kitchen counter. He holds it a very long time — crumpled and pathetic between his palms, stained by a ringed imprint of coffee — and strives to feel what he felt before. But it’s sour, and ash, and sick. He unceremoniously plops it in the trash next to his uneaten Spaghettios.
Later, Sam lays in bed, jamming his knuckles into a secret bruise on his side, and thinks about spending the rest of the month staring at the refrigerator door, at the calendar, and the memorialization of today’s utter failure. He thinks about John smiling at his brother, about what it would feel like...to be smiled at like that, to have done something to earn that, be worthy of that, be worth it. It’s difficult to imagine, even more difficult to wish for.
Later, it’s much easier to imagine what would hurt less. He thinks he’ll probably stop bringing his report cards home.
Dean spits a few curses as he struggles. Darkness creeps at the edges of Sam’s vision; he’s tired. “Stay awake. Sam! HEY! Don’t do that, eyes up, little brother!” Sam snaps to attention immediately, raising his chin, overshooting, and then rebalancing. The world tilts — Dean, blurry and demanding. “That’s it. Good, stay with me. Stay awake a little longer. What were you sayin’? The heat?”
Sam tries to swallow. His gums are coated in metal. His chest screams. It’s electrifying — it’s inside. He identifies it, understands it. Not just his skull. He’s bleeding, or broken somewhere.
A monster in Wynne, Arkansas.
A kid’s report card.
Blood, or bleeding.
So...a monster in Wynne, Arkansas, and they came to kill it, but instead it was going to kill them.
“Sam! Come on...talk to me.”
It’s a miracle. The words are butchered. He hopes it makes sense...that it’s English. Recently, if the pain is too bad or the pain medication too good, everything starts coming out Enochian. Sam doesn’t mean for it to happen, of course...but the depth of grief in Dean’s eyes when it does makes it appear as if he has deliberately struck out at his brother. “The heat...maybe it’s the heat.”
“ What’s the heat?” He’s relieved. Means he’s worried. Means he’s furious. Dean, a steward of functional fixedness, yet eager to gnash his teeth on anything.
“All the ‘Jonathan Edwards’ type sermons. Maybe it’s...from the heat. Everyone thinkin’...bout’ hellfire. Can’t stop thinkin’...about hellfire.” Dean flashes him a confused glance, worry intensifying. English, then, but plainly falling short of a coherency threshold.
“Hey Sammy...you ever set yourself on fire?” It was a couple of drawn-out weeks before Sam learned that some questions were rhetorical, some questions were prelude, and some questions were simple invitation. And Lucifer loved them each indiscriminately.
“Who the fuck is Jonathan Edwards?”
“Priest. Angry puritan priest.” A shiver tears down his spine. Liquid crawls up his throat.
“You serious? Only you would bring up a 200 year old dead colonist with a grade 3 concussion.” There’s a snap, and instantly Dean is pulling one arm from out behind his back. Freedom, so close. Soon to upend their untoward prison into the lap of sweet asylum. Where he’ll sleep. Sam aches to sleep...sleep and not be forced to contend with their constant disclaimer: not guaranteed to be perfect, optimal, or rational. A mere handful of hours, he’d bargain for them.
“D’n,” Sam garbles. The walls are melting. Or he’s melting. Or both. “I think...somethin’s wrong. Don’t feel so good.”
Fingers on his cheeks, lifting his chin — a disembodied plea chanting his name over and over again, propelling him into the swampiest abyss.
“Next time...just tell me sooner, yeah?” Sam holds himself steady and counts to ten. Dean is saying all the right things. Dean is doing all the right things. It’s just making it harder — because Sam doesn’t do or say any of the right things, has never done or said any of the right things, and how long can this last with that large of an imbalance? How long can Dean put up with this? Looms large — the tiny lies making him hollow.
John was ‘no guts no dinner’.
Dean will always give him dinner, though.
That’s not fair.
Yet, Dean is certain it is fair, more than fair, so maybe Sam is wrong. Maybe Sam has it backward. He may not be sure, may never be sure, but he is sure that Dean can change his mind.
He owes it to his brother to afford him that opportunity — to extend this postlude, and dilute all of this mess into just another obscure sorrow.
“Yeah, ok. Next time...I’ll tell you sooner. I just didn’t want to…”, he trails off, waving his hand, at a loss at how to encapsulate the whole of Hell stuffed inside him and bursting out of him like a flame from a spark.
Dean gets it, needless, he does. There’s an unwavering, supportive grip at the junction of his neck, and something two degrees shy from a genuine smile — marred by a different flavor of weariness, a different flavor of trauma. Sam doesn’t feel better. Or less alone.
Dean is touching him as if their secrets are the same.
Only Sam knows that they’re not.
His are much worse.
Sam wakes up in the hospital three days later. The entire ordeal — blank. He has Wynne, he has Arkansas, he has pieces of the aftermath — floating strung up and strung out during Dean’s desperate and inelegant bid for escape. The rest...absolute nothing.
He gets that sleep. He hates it. Drug-induced sleep is predatory. Eats Sam up, smashes over his body like a train careening on its tracks.
It’s Lucifer...a lot of Lucifer.
It’s fire, the big ones.
It’s the man with a proposition in a diner in Ohio, cornering him in the bathroom and raging about the accretion of gum underneath the tables — how all those people were going straight to damnation for putting something in their mouth they didn’t intend to swallow.
Mostly though, it’s Dean...or the absence of Dean.
It’s those endless four months, and Sam can’t find something, so he turns to Dean to ask to borrow his, and it’s only when he sees that his brother’s not there that Sam remembers...his brother’s not there.
It’s the terrible things he did in Michigan.
It’s the terrible things he did in Idaho.
It’s the terrible things he did in New Jersey.
It’s the terrible things.
And at the bottom of it, there’s Sam — a quasi demon orphan in the belly of a misery well.
It’s the hole inside of him. He’s trying to crawl out.
Dean manages to scale back the heavy dosage, and bit by bit, some clarity and smaller-fanged dreams return.
Day five, and the topic is broached. “Did we get it?” Sam croaks, chewing methodically on the ice chips the entire hospital staff seems determined to keep him plied and preoccupied with.
Dean — scruffy, in dire need of a shower no doubt, red rimmed — “The discharge papers? Yeah, man...the nurse was just in here like two seconds ago?” An uncommon upward tilt in tone, eyebrows raised — obviously reconsidering their plan of professional medical-care exit.
“No...I mean, did we get it? Whatever we were hunting?” Sam sets the cup aside, scratching absentmindedly at where his IV is taped to the inside of his wrist. Dean tracks the movement, expression unreadable. The silence lasts far too long to be normal.
“You really don’t remember at all?” Chosen diplomatically. Dread pools — Sam had suspected Dean was off, was tip-toeing around some sharp point of interest. This was proving it.
He shakes his head. Finally, Dean sighs, rubbing the stress from the bridge of his nose. “Yeah we got it all right. Angry spirit, open and shut haunting. Child’s play. Salted and burned the body same day we rolled in. That wasn’t the problem.”
“Ok, so what, we run into something else on our way out?”
Dean’s gaze suddenly pierces him, goes straight through him, strips him bare. Sam isn’t so sure he wants to be enlightened. “The spirit...she had a widow, and a teenage son. We interviewed them, before we figured out it was her. And you...you were convinced that the kid was being abused. That the dad was taking his wife’s death out on him.”
Sam’s skin crawls, goes hot and freezing cold simultaneously. Dean hasn’t even blinked, hasn’t given any indication that he’s tipping Sam over and watching him spill out all over the linoleum. “I didn’t see it. Didn’t believe you, I guess. But you were sure . So after we burned the bones, we staked the place out.”
Dean isn’t expecting Sam to chime in. What must he be uprooting, inferring, from Sam’s face? From Sam’s schooled features — his seasoned immaculate facade of ‘nothing’s wrong, don’t mind me, I’m fine.’
“You were right.” Three words cracking as anvils from Dean’s lips. “We went in too fast. Dude was ex-military and knew how to fight. You managed to get the kid out, though. Told him to run. Apparently he ran for help. Brave little shit. Cops and an ambulance showed up right after I busted outta the ropes. You were…,” He uncharacteristically falters, shutters, “Let’s just say it was good timing.”
“With his grandparents.”
An extensive wind of air escapes Sam’s lungs and he allows himself to deflate. Not one crystallized recollection of any of the events, but implicitly, they remained in and of him — seared into the sector of his brain where even the forgotten episodic will have spiritual eternity. “That’s...good.” Sam nods, a couple of times, a type of making it so.
“I didn’t believe you. You said you just knew. You asked the kid about the report card on the fridge, talked to him for five minutes tops, and you said you just knew .” The sheer tidal wave of panic, of feeling trapped, has ebbed into a resigned fate. Dean is an expert on how to corner prey. Sam, laid out and wounded, slim pickings.
“So...how’d you know?” Steel — biting, uncompromising steel.
The beginnings of a fiction spring forth, eager, “You remember Max?” It tees itself up — a worthy analogue to render his behavior benign.
“This wasn’t like Max. Don’t bullshit me. Try again.” Even Sam is surprised at how formidable his brother is proving to be this morning, at how unwilling he is to accept an easy answer.
The fear is quite special.
“You know what will happen if you tell your brother about this?” A different breed of monster is hatching in his veins — slowly reaching blast crisis, eclipsing natural light. And it makes startling sense.
Because two things. He's been taught two things: monsters, and killing them.
Sam’s a monster. He must need killing.
“If I tell you, you won’t understand.” It’s idiotic, suicidal, ungrateful — taking shots like this. Taking shots at a brother who has been bending over backward to keep Sam’s atomized soul glued together, keep Sam’s wild blowing mind from capsizing his entire existence into a stormy sea of cage-trauma, life-trauma, birth-trauma.
A split second — Sam, staring into Dean. And it’s no wonder no one has any trouble loving him. Dean is as bright and good as they come. And he’s always looked at Sam as if Sam was exactly the same, as if he too...was something that was easy to love.
Dean has wasted a lifetime trying to convince everyone of that.
Starting with their dad.
The least Sam can do is disabuse him of that notion.
Dean leans closer, and Sam becomes acutely aware of their surroundings. Of the flurry of activity just outside the door. Here, in Wynne, Arkansas. A flat state of heat and churches and more churches and today...this — an exchange that can’t be undone, crashing down on them as inevitable poetry.
“Won’t understand what, Sammy?”
Sam thinks about how some questions are rhetorical, some questions are prelude, and some questions are simple invitation.
“Hey Sammy...you ever play Russian Roulette with a full chamber?”
All things are manifest when they’re loaded on your tongue.
“You won’t understand that I deserved it.”