Today was a good day, a helluva good day.
Sam was awake.
Wednesday, they’d taken him off the meds that kept him protected in a coma, pulled out the breathing tube and angels be damned, he came around quicker than anyone had expected. Leave it to Sam to stubbornly defy the norm. He’d spent most of Thursday drifting in and out of blessedly ordinary naps, each time staying awake for bits longer. Dean logged the hard-won minutes compulsively, almost to the second. He hoarded them like silver bullets.
Today, Sam opened his eyes and asked for coffee. And if Sam wanted coffee, he was getting a God-damned pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks. He was getting the best fucking coffee Dean could lay hands on. It didn’t matter if the temperature outside was no more than ten degrees and the wind was blowing cars off the road. Sam was awake and deserved better than the swill they featured in the cafeteria of Braham Methodist Hospital. He was getting a God-damned Starbucks even if Dean lost both feet to frostbite in the process.
Coffee acquired and extremities too numb to feel, Dean actually welcomed the antiseptic air of the hospital; at least it was warm. He nodded and grinned to Cathy at the nurses’ station, dropped off a skinny vanilla latte, and slipped into Sam’s small private room, shutting the door behind him. Sam had the bed’s front-end cranked up a foot or so but his eyes were closed, hands in loose curls atop the drab, coarse blanket. His knuckles still bore vaguely discolored but healing scrapes and bruises; Sam had resorted to beating the Chippewa bearwalker bare-fisted when the son of a bitch managed to knock the sawed-off wide. What the hell a bearwalker was doing in Minnesota, who could tell? Monsters hadn’t been acting their old familiar selves since Eve’s merry fuckery. And since Cas…well, since Cas.
Sam stirred as Dean scraped a chair to the bedside and the motion, however slight, made Dean prickle a little, right where his heart sat.
“Breakfast, sunshine.” Dean shook out his coat and carefully set it on the bed, over Sam’s feet at the very end of the mattress. It was 2:00 in the afternoon but nearly first light for Sam. The day was white and diffuse, winter sun leaking through clouds and reflecting off the snow outside the window to creep in through the drapes. It made the four stapled rows worming across Sam’s scalp stand out, stark and angry.
The wounds needed air, Dean supposed. Soft downy fuzz was all that remained of Sammy’s hair. His beard was almost longer. The hospital walls, neither blue, green nor beige but some unpleasant combination of the three, did Sam’s complexion no favors. But he was alive and moving and that was all Dean needed.
Sam smiled wanly. “I feel like shit.”
“And this surprises you…how?” Dean set the coffee on a pivoting tray-table and rolled it to hover over Sam’s lap. “I asked for a large, and the chick at the shop goes ‘Venti?’ And I say ‘No, sweetheart, large’, and she gives me a look like I’m speaking Enochian or something. See what I go through for you?”
Still ghosting a smile, Sam reached for the cardboard cup with his left hand. His right side was weak and as unnerving as that was, Nurse Cathy had assured them the feebleness was common and honestly, it would improve as Sam’s battered brain healed. There was, however, the possibility that the memory loss might be permanent. Sam said he couldn’t recall the bearwalker or anything between it and waking up in the hospital, and Dean wondered what else might’ve dropped off his radar.
“Coffee might be hot,” Dean murmured, but it wasn’t. Minnesota winters sucked the heat out of everything.
Sam’s grip trembled as he struggled with the drink. Dean nearly grabbed the cup but a warning glare from Sam stopped him cold. He ended up leaving slops of foam and coffee on his chin, scraping them away clumsily with the back of his bad hand.
Dean couldn’t tear his eyes off his brother.
He’d been watching machines breathe for Sam for almost two weeks. After surgery, when the doctor had finally allowed Dean a visit, he’d gawked for a solid ten minutes at the bundled head and blackened eyes. It was worse yet when he’d caught sight of them changing the bandage for the first time. They’d shaved Sam’s entire scalp. And man, Sammy had an ugly skull. Lumpy and crisscrossed with old scars and new ones in the making, the skin two shades paler than the rest of him (which was really saying something.) Sam’s lack of color had stunned Dean more than the four fresh gashes because injury was something he knew well. But Sam, colorless and bald? This was an entirely foreign concept. The heavy forehead, sharp chin, and narrow lips, all seemed more severe and unfamiliar when there wasn’t a tumble of hair to soften his features. Not even his stupid sideburns had been spared.
As the bruising and abrasions had begun healing around the sterile breathing tubes and tape and gauze, as Sam’s hair had begun to shadow his scalp and cheeks again, Dean had figured Sam would start looking more like himself.
“Fake it ‘til you make it, Sammy…” Dean had whispered to him, on the third day. He figured if Sam looked more like Sam, he’d do normal Sam things and start moving, scowling, and never stop talking about feelings and salads and the latest Big Mouth sighting which was thankfully not at a hospital, according to recent intel. He was just sleeping, Dean told himself. Repairing, as he did after the Wall dropped. Once he was good and ready to wake up, he would.
But day by day, Sam got gaunter and stranger looking, more fox than man, narrow and hollow-eyed even after the bruises had faded to green and endless bags of medicine and nutrition had dripped through lines into his shallow veins. Fine, spidery creases traced his brow and his hair was growing back so very dark, no traces of the sun’s summer bleaching. If Sam would just move. Just. Fucking. Move. Something more than a flicker behind translucent eyelids or the artificially forced rising and falling of his chest. He would look more like Sammy if he’d just move, Dean was positive.
Ten days after surgery, on a particularly warm Wednesday (‘warm’ because the thermometer had reached double-digits if you didn’t regard windchill), Sam moved…a twitch of his little finger that sent Dean bolting to the nurses’ station because the call button had gotten tangled in other cords and he’d been afraid to pull something loose, unplug Sam just when hope was rearing its fickle head.
“They do that sometimes, Mr. Jones; I’m sorry. It’s just reflex. He won’t come around until we wean him off the phenobarb,” Cathy had said. But then Sam did it again, in apparent response to Dean grumbling at some daytime talk show host who featured paternity testing as entertainment. Dean had insisted upon a closer inspection and he’d been right. Damned if he hadn’t been right. Within minutes, nurses and a doctor were bustling around the bed and Dean had been asked to leave.
When they’d let him back in, nearly an hour later, the ventilator had been shoved aside. There were still tubes in Sam’s chest, down his nose and other areas Dean didn’t need to peek at, but his brother was breathing and moaning faintly, looking for all the world like a concentration camp survivor. Survivor being the operative word.
Yesterday they’d pulled out his feeding tube and today, there was coffee. Let there be coffee. Like ‘Let there be light. And it was good.’ But in the Winchester Bible, it was coffee. Dean was fairly certain high-test java wasn’t on the post-coma meal plan but Sam wasn’t likely to take more than a sip anyway.
So now Dean stared unabashedly at his brother. He’d damned well earned the right. Every movement Sam made, every vague sigh or shudder, was a minor miracle.
“You cold? Want another blanket?” Dean scooched his chair closer, ignoring the continuous blipping and churling of nearby machines and the unintelligible whine of Mr. Hennessy’s wife complaining from Room 3212.
Sam looked exhausted and slightly testy. “You’re hovering.” He fought to form the words, speech coming out gritty and slow.
“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t hover if you didn’t go gettin’ yourself split open.”
“Huh. How…?” Sam lifted an unstable hand towards his head.
Dean caught the fingers before they brushed quarter-inch peach fuzz or the ugly metal staples. It was like clutching a tight glove-full of bones. “Don’t pick your scabs,” Dean said with uncharacteristic quiet, immediately regretting the words as Sam narrowed his eyes. He shrugged it off with a quick flash of teeth and lowered Sam’s hand. Glancing over his shoulder to be certain they were alone, Dean leaned forward, elbows on the edge of the mattress.
“We were circling ‘round the fucker. Had it hemmed in. But the snow had kicked up and I lost sight of it. Couldn’t see a foot in front of my own stinkin’ face. I heard your gun go off. You clipped it so I followed the blood in the snow.” So much blood in the snow. Too much. “It found you again before I did. By seconds. But I blew its head off, like a piñata with brains. Pretty spectacular mess, gotta say. And I hope to hell that’s what kills ‘em because…yeah, you know.” Dean scrubbed at his eyes, snorted a humorless laugh. “You were bleeding a river. Head wound and all.”
“So now you’ve got some fancy embroidery on your melon and another tall tale to tell the grandkids.”
“I’m sorry. Dean –”
“Don’t even.” Dean set his palm on Sam’s shin and squeezed. The room smelled like nutmeg, faintly bleachy and a little sour from Sam having had nothing but sponge baths for the past few weeks. But not coppery with the cloying stink of fear and finality, so this was the best smell ever. Sam’s eyelids fluttered and he leaned back. Yeah, it was about naptime, by Dean’s reckoning. “I shouldn’t have let you out of my sight, man. Shoulda been right on its ass.”
Sam burrowed into his pillow carefully, barely mumbling. “You’re such a liar.” He sighed and his stronger hand drifted up. Dean almost grabbed it again but Sam only wanted to scratch at the stubble on his chin. “I screwed up. You were…right there. I r’member.”
Ice coiled at the base of Dean’s skull. He remembered. Great.
After that, Sam dropped into a serious sleep. If not for the almost-inaudible whistle of breath through his teeth, Dean might’ve taken to pinching his brother periodically. He didn’t completely trust the machines, even though they were still logging Sam’s every function, as constant as the wind that howled down the narrow streets outside. There was no logical reason to believe they’d start crapping out now, just because Sam was no longer stuck inside his own messy mind. His heart was beating and his lungs were working, all on their very own.
Dean stretched, stifled a yawn and worked the aches out of his spine. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d honestly felt hungry but his belly let him know, in no uncertain terms, it was ready for food now.
Sam’s lips quirked the slightest bit, dreaming maybe, or perhaps he actually heard Dean’s stomach roar.
“Don’t go running any marathons, Sammy. I’ll be right back.” Dean patted the bed and grabbed his coat.
Minnesota got a lot of things wrong, like the weather and sometimes sports and politics…but not hamburgers. Specifically, the Hickory Bacon Cheeseburger from a joint with the dubious name of “Newt’s.” Weren’t newts those little lizardy things witches freeze-dried and used in black magic casseroles? Yeah, Dean was pretty sure that was the case but damn, Newt made a killer cheeseburger. And after two weeks of hospital cafeteria food, it was close to manna from heaven. He even allowed himself the luxury of dining at the bar, with a nice cold beer and what had to be a pound of hand-cut potatoes, deep fried to a dangerous, heart-clogging crisp. Best damned beer since, well, ever, as far as Dean was concerned.
He’d left Sam sleeping, with lovely Nurse Cathy promising to keep an extra-close eye on him, not that the patient was likely to leap up and make a break for it, armed with nothing more than a bedpan and a paper gown. Sam was still far from ambulatory but his lips were looking less gray and his speech less tipsy than yesterday.
“Hey, you got pie?” Dean wadded up his napkin and tossed it on the empty plate.
The barkeep, a solid, moon-faced guy, younger than Dean but twice the girth, nodded without leaving his busywork of polishing pint glasses. “Mister, you’re in Braham. ‘Course we got pie, yeah? We got apple crunch, bumbleberry, grasshopper, strawberry rhubarb but it ain’t fresh, chess–”
“Whoa, whoa, okay, sport.” Dean held his palms up in surrender. “Bumbleberry sounds interesting. Let’s go with that. Two slices. To go.”
“A la mode?”
Dean looked back over his shoulder out the bar’s window, noting the omnipresent snow hanging in the air like milkweed.
“Uh, nah. But thanks.”
With two Styrofoam containers and his good mood gathered up, Dean gingerly traveled the block back to the hospital on foot. Their latest car, a beat-up Suburban with more rust than paint, was stuck under two feet of snow because it was too big to fit in the hospital garage. They had needed it, though, to get down deep into the woods where the bearwalker squatted. And yes, a bearwalker did squat in the woods, in more ways than one.
Daylight was escaping and his ears stung with cold by the time he got back to the nurses’ station, intending to leave a wedge of pie, but no one was there. The post had been abandoned. And Dean was instantly sick with dread.
Sometimes he just knew things, after all these years. He felt it in the part of his brain that warned of aggression and threat and survival. Sam had called it ‘the reptilian complex’. Of course he did.
Dean dropped the pie and thundered down the hall, nearly skidding flat on his wet boots. There were two orderlies, Cathy, and another nurse all knotted into Sam’s room and Dean saw long, exposed arms and legs flailing in the middle of it all. Machines were trilling alarms. The tray table had been tipped to the floor, along with what appeared to be a plate of glass, shattered. No, it was silvery. A shattered mirror.
“Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones! Come on now, Sam,” Cathy was yelling, stern but urgent. “You need to calm down before you hurt yourself! You’ll split your staples.”
Now Dean saw Sam, his bare head above the fray, eyes wild and too big for his face. Dean strode forward and barked “SAMMY.”
Cathy looked over her shoulder; her lip was split, puffy and bleeding, sandy hair pulled loose from its ponytail. She stepped away from the fracas and her no-nonsense expression softened slightly. “I know it looks scary but he’ll be fine. Sometimes patients with brain injuries can become very emotional – ”
“What did you say to him?” Dean moved to shove past her. “What did you say?”
She shoved back, leaning into Dean. Cathy wasn’t a big woman but it put the brakes on, at least for the moment. “I didn’t say anything, Mr. Jones, I promise you. He wanted to look at the wounds on his head. He’s been very lucid today so I didn’t see the harm.”
Dean was pissed and scared all in one raw bundle, his whole world crammed into this hospital room and teetering on the edge of crazy. "Lucid?" he growled at her. “Does this look lucid to you?”
The orderlies had Sam wrangled, but just barely. His every tendon was stark and pulled so tight Dean was afraid he would snap something vital. He was saying the same words over and over, lips forming the same shapes but Dean couldn’t comprehend him for all the scuffling and machines beeping and Sam wasn’t making a lick of sense anyways.
Dean sidestepped Cathy and walked into the tussle. He almost pushed the other nurse aside but stopped when he saw her plunge a syringe into the rubber tube that snaked from the neck of Sam’s hospital robe. “Sammy, I’m here. Hey man, I’m here, you’re okay. You’ve got to let them help you or you’re gonna hurt yourself; just settle the fuck down, okay?”
Sam’s glassy stare swayed around the room until it landed on Dean and promptly melted. Tears puddled and spilled, rolling over the sharp of his cheekbones to settle in his beard. “Deeeeean,” he keened, knees buckling but braced upright by the orderlies. “It wasn’t me it wasn’t me wasn’t me…”
“Who wasn’t you? I don’t understand,” Dean said and reached over to rest a palm on Sam’s cheek, swiping a thumb over the wet there.
“It wasn’t me in the mirror, Dean, wasn’t me…” The drugs were working fast; Sam blinked and his head started to sag, pale and waxy-looking beneath his whiskers and shorn hair. “…wasn’t me…it was him.”
“Oh, Sammy.” Dean felt his eyes burn and fill with water. His throat tightened and bitterness bloomed on the back of his tongue. “We’ll fix this, man. We’ll fix you.”
The hospital was peaceful at night. No food carts squeaking up and down the halls, no chatty visitors or the yammer of television. Just the omnipresent drone of ventilators, the eternal lullaby of Braham Methodist’s trauma ward.
Cathy liked the night shift, really didn’t mind pulling twelve-hour stints. She brought her Kindle fully loaded with racy romance novels, caught up on the never-ending paperwork, and sometimes wrote to her brother, an oncologist in Rochester.
But tonight, Cathy was tired. It’d been an impressively long day. She dabbed a finger to her fat lip, testing the soreness. You betcha, still hurt like the dickens. Never a dull moment.
Those two—the Jones boys—Cathy felt for them, perhaps more than most. It was harder for her to see young people saddled with the weight of a brain injury. Her eldest daughter was almost Sam’s age. Just hit a little too close to home. And these boys, well, clearly they’d already seen a lot. Cathy didn’t ask about Sam’s alarming number of scars, old bullet holes, or chronically swollen knuckles. She didn’t question their supposed bear story, though an attack was highly unlikely given the time of year. And she couldn’t help but notice Dean’s tight, wary posture and the defensiveness riding right along with his swagger. The way he hovered over the younger brother, and the lack of a parent’s name on any emergency form, spoke volumes about the pair yet somehow answered not a single question.
Cathy glanced at her watch. Nearly midnight. She hadn’t seen Dean leave this evening but frankly, some nights she would let him sleep in the room even though it was against regulations. Time to take a spin around the ward anyway, stretch her legs, shake off the fuzzies. Might as well start with the Joneses.
She grabbed her clipboard, adjusted the stethoscope about her neck, and strolled to Room 3207.
The room was dimly lit, as were all the rooms this time of night, and she heard soft voices slipping past the slightly open door. She couldn’t tell what they were saying, the words too subtle to parse, and it might not even have been both of them talking. Sometimes family members would read to the patients, given the theory that coma victims could hear their goings-on around them. She was accustomed to hearing lots of one-sided conversations.
Putting a hand to the edge of the doorframe, she looked in.
Sam was still caught in soft restraints and thank goodness, not fighting them. They’d adjusted the bed to an upright position and though his head was canted back and it appeared his eyes were closed, Cathy could see the faintest glimmer behind his lashes, indicating that perhaps they weren’t closed all the way. Dean was sitting on the bed’s edge, a plastic emesis basin on his lap, and something—Cathy couldn’t discern what—in his hand, flicking about the bowl. He was murmuring quietly to his brother, brows jumping mid-story, and Sam smiled briefly. Well, look at that! Dimples.
Cathy peeked in farther and got a better glimpse of what Dean was holding: a safety razor, the cheap disposable variety that came packaged by the dozen in gaudy colors. She also noticed Sam’s beard had been trimmed raggedly and as short as possible without losing skin. Dean set the razor on Sam’s thigh and picked up a striped can, shook it, squirted a dollop of white into his palm. He kept a rambling commentary going the entire while, tilting forward to smooth shaving cream over his brother’s face. The gesture was so patient, so ridiculously gentle, so incongruous given their respective heights and muscle, Cathy found herself getting a little misty-eyed about it all.
After wiping his palms clean on a hospital-issue towel, Dean leaned close and set one hand on Sam’s jaw, curling fingers towards the back of his neck. He retrieved the razor, flicking off the cap with his thumb, and nodding, drew the blade slowly down one hollow cheek. She saw Sam swallow, hard, but he didn’t flinch away. And after a few more tentative strokes, seemed to relax into the process.
Dean sat back, grinning, swished the razor in the bowl that evidently had been filled with water, and said in a voice raised and resolute with promise: “Atta boy, Sammy. Gettin’ rid of this stupid stuff, and you won’t look a damned thing like him. Not a damned thing.”
Cathy backed away on her spongy rubber soles. She had a feeling this was going to be one of those success stories. She also got the feeling these boys really deserved it. Smiling and humming to herself, she padded quietly down the hall and left them in peace.