The fire trucks had gotten there soon enough that most of the house was still all right. The flames hadn't spread much beyond the upstairs nursery at all. John and his boys stayed at the neighbors' for a couple nights, while they pitched in to help dry everything in the house out and he replaced the windows himself, but after that there was no reason not to move back in, not without thinking too hard about details of that night that John didn't want to (couldn't) spend too much time thinking about.
Dean was quiet but huddled close to John whenever he could, and stuck like glue to Sammy the rest of the time. At first John tried to put things back as close to normal as he could, Dean in his own room and Sammy with John in his and Mary's room.
That didn't last long. The house creaked differently as he tossed and turned, and he still hadn't fallen asleep by the time Dean came shivering into the doorway to stare with mute, pleading eyes at his father. John knew the feeling: he was missing her too.
"All right, kiddo, what do you say we camp out in the living room, just for tonight?" He rolled over, got up, and tried to lift Sammy without waking him. Sammy murmured crankily but didn't go into a crying fit, so he counted it a win and grabbed blankets and pillows with his other arm.
Downstairs, he installed Dean in the big easy-chair, cracking a rusty smile at the way his four-year-old body fit with room to spare on the recliner. He settled Sammy into the playpen and left his hand on his back until he was sure he was going back to sleep, then took the couch for himself.
He'd have less far to go to make up a bottle for Sammy when he woke up now, anyway.
As he drifted off to sleep, he wondered, dully, how long the hallway light had been flickering for. Probably some of the wires had gotten wet; he'd have to see if he could fix it tomorrow. Everybody said keeping busy was the best thing for grief.
He didn't have to try too hard to keep busy the next day, as it turned out. His partner at the garage called and asked if he was feeling up to coming back to work: he'd been working as much extra as he could to give John a break, but they were a small place and couldn't go indefinitely without him. As part-owner, John knew he was right, so he asked the neighbors if they were ok to babysit, and the hallway light slid to the back of his mind.
That night, the house seemed to creak louder than ever and a cold draft blew in from the upper floor. John didn't even try to drag everyone upstairs when it was bedtime, just settled the boys down in the living room again.
He dreamed of Mary, reaching out her arms to him, trying to tell him something, but he couldn't hear her and when he tried to touch her, she blew away into fog and he woke with tears in his eyes and a sob caught in his throat. The hall light was flickering on and off again, which was definitely odd because he hadn't turned it on. Maybe Dean had wandered in the night? He looked over to the chair: Dean had tossed and turned, but was still sleeping there.
Mary watched her family, frustration burning wildly in her chest. If only John could hear her! But his eyes passed right over her, and when she tried desperately to knock a baby toy off the table, her hand passed right through it. The ghosts she'd hunted with her family never had this much trouble catching people's attention, she thought bitterly.
Over the next days, they all slowly settled into routine. Normal life resumed, no matter how impossible it would have seemed, before, to consider normal life without Mary. The hall light resisted all John's attempts to fix it. Sometimes other lights in the house started to flicker too, and the fire department concluded that the fire must have been caused by faulty wiring and bad luck.
John thought there was something wrong with that, but every time he tried to push for more answers, they started to eye him suspiciously, so he backed off. He didn't really know what had happened, anyway. He just knew Mary was gone (killed) and he was alone with Dean, who still hadn't started talking, and Sammy, who'd always been a happy baby, seemed to have a new angry note in his crying now sometimes.
Well, maybe it was just easier to be happy when Mary had been taking care of him. God knows it had been for him.
It was mostly at night when the house got . . . weird. John had pulled more blankets from upstairs because it often got colder now than the house had ever been before, and he tried leaving the TV or the radio on to cover up some of the odder noises the house kept making, but the reception never seemed as good as it did during the day, and static sometimes obscured the signal.
He dreamed often of Mary. John wasn't completely sure that his eyes were closed for all of those dreams.
He started going through Mary's papers and the belongings in her room whenever he had a few odd minutes. When he didn't find anything, other than a silver knife in the back of the bedside drawer that he'd never known she kept there, he made the kids lunch and then moved on to the boxes in the attic.
The hall light flickered again as he moved past it, the attic door swinging open almost on its own as he touched it. The boxes were mostly things from her parents' house, that she had barely touched in the past nine years she'd been living with John. The first thing he found was an impressive collection of old and dusty books on folklore. The second was a large, sturdy gunsafe. He remembered seeing a key by her knife downstairs and it was the work of a minute to get it and open the safe.
What met his eyes he would never be able to describe later as anything other than "a heaping pile of crazy." There were guns, sure. He'd seen and handled plenty of guns when he was in the war. There were more knives than guns, and at least two swords, a machete, wooden stakes, a half-dozen crucifixes and more tchotckes, charms, and bizarre unidentifiable things than he'd ever expected to see in one place.
He slammed the door shut, and just stood there trying to process for a minute. Her reticence on the subject of her family had never struck John as suspicious; he knew the pain of losing his father and it wasn't a subject he liked to talk about himself. Now he couldn't help wondering if there was more.
What was in there . . . was that . . . witchcraft? Mary couldn't have been a witch. Witches weren't real. (How she'd died was impossible.) He didn't know anymore what was real. (Mary died on the ceiling.) He didn't know anything.
As he stood with his back against the metal door of the safe, one of the books he'd passed over first shuddered and skidded across the floor to his feet. John swallowed hard and picked it up. Then he backed slowly down out of the attic and fled to the relative safety of the living room, where Dean was still humming (tunelessly) to Sammy in the playpen as he worked a puzzle on the floor.
Dean jumped up the second he saw his father, and ran to hug him. John tried not to crush him with the strength of hugging him back as he scooped him up.
"I was only gone ten minutes, Dean-o," he muttered. Somehow it felt like longer. Dean just pressed his face harder into John's chest and didn't say anything. Dean never said anything these days.
Mary watched and wished with everything she had left that she could still hug her husband and son. But she was dead, a ghost, and if she knew anything about demons a lot more people were going to die unless she could get through to John, somehow. In life she'd done everything she could to preserve his innocence, but now they were paying the price. She had to warn him. It had been her last thought as she died. She had failed and she had to warn John.
John could tell Mike was starting to think he was losing it as he read through the old books that talked about shapeshifters and ghosts and a varied menagerie of things that went bump in the night. John couldn't bring himself to argue with that.
He tried talking to a therapist about feeling like he was going crazy, but couldn't say what he needed to. Then he tried talking to a psychic. At least if they were already batshit, they wouldn't be judging him, right? The first palm-reader he tried didn't go so well, either, but then he knocked on Missouri Mosely's door.
The round black woman who opened it took one look at him and tutted. "Oh, sugar, you better come on in. I ain't never seen a body in as powerful a need of answers, and you ain't been gettin' a solitary one. Come on in now, standin' there on the porch won't help you none."
Talking with Missouri was revolutionary. For the first time since Mary's death, John felt certainty that he wasn't crazy, that impossible things did exist in the world and he wasn't the only one who had seen them.
Missouri also agreed to come and look at the house based on his fumbling attempts to explain the strange things that had been plaguing him ever since the terrible night of the fire. Since Mary had been killed, by an unknown something. He could think that to himself now. His wife had been murdered. And John was finally getting answers.
In late November, the cops wanted to talk to him again, because Mary's doctor had gotten into a fatal accident on the way to see him.
John told them that he had barely known the man: he wasn't local, but Mary had insisted on him because he was an old family friend, and he'd been good as far as John knew during both of her pregnancies. He had no idea what the man could have been coming to see John about, except to check up on the boys in the wake of the tragedy.
The cops hrmmed and left, somehow dissatisfied.
That night, Mary seemed doubly urgent when she reached for him, only to go up in a pillar of flame when it seemed she might finally speak. John jerked awake with her scream echoing in his ears, automatically checking on Dean and Sammy. Dean seemed to have been woken as well, staring at his father with wide eyes, but his words still locked inside. Sammy, for a change, still slept peacefully.
The sound of breaking glass whipped John's head around to the mantelpiece. A framed picture lay on the floor. Automatically, John got up and picked it up. It was a picture of Mary and her Uncle Ed, smiling soberly at the camera. John knew it had been taken not long after the deaths of Mary's parents, when Ed had invited Mary to live with him while they took care of the funeral arrangements. John hadn't been invited; it was a private cremation ceremony, she told him, like even that much was closely guarded information.
John set the picture back on the mantelpiece and went to sweep up the glass.
"Call him! John! You have to talk to Uncle Ed, you have to know!" Mary tried to scream in frustration, but once again she was unheard and unnoticed. She was furious with herself, for failing to communicate with John, for failing to protect Sammy in the nursery that night, for making that horrible deal with the demon, and for pretending in the ten years since that her life could ever be fine. Angrily she swatted the picture down again. This time it hit John's head as he knelt, sweeping up glass, and a trickle of blood began to run from his scalp where the corner hit.
Horrified, Mary backed away, her insubstantial form dissolving even as John leaped to his feet in alarm.
"Mary?" John shook his head, trying to clear it. For a moment he would have sworn. . . but no. He was cracking up, going crazy. He had to hold it together. His sons needed him. "Mary," he repeated, but this time it was just a grieving whisper.
Still, maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to call Ed in the morning. He could use someone to talk to about Mary and about all this craziness that had invaded his life, and Ed had told him at her funeral to call on him if they needed anything.
In the morning, Ed did indeed invite John and the boys over to his house that Saturday afternoon. He said they had a lot of catching up to do, and he'd been hoping to get the chance to talk to John some more.
The next day, the front page of the paper was all about the freak drive-by shooting outside the library leaving one dead, an Edmund Campbell who left no close relations and no explanations.
Obviously it was time for John to stop believing in coincidences.
Only problem was, he still wasn't sure what he was supposed to start believing in instead.
Apparently the police weren't nearly as confused, and John was brought in for questioning, during which the subjects of his emotional stability, the happiness of his marriage, and his early attempts to imply foul play in his wife's death were brought up and circled round with exhausting, humiliating, and infuriating repetitiveness. Eventually Mike, John's partner from the garage, confirmed what John told them about being at the garage, working, when Ed Campbell was shot, and the cops reluctantly let him go home.
"Listen, John," Mike started the next time they were both at the shop. "I feel bad for what you're going through, I really do. But you gotta pull yourself together here. The cops obviously misunderstood some stuff, and I don't mind setting 'em straight, but next time they ask me how bad your crazy is? There's only so much I can lie for you, partner."
John hadn't realized he was being that obvious. "It's ok, Mike," he tried to assure him. "I'm . . . seeing someone to try to work on all this crap."
Too late, he realized that sounded worse than it had in his head.
John couldn't believe Mike had gotten him to tell him about Missouri. Mike obviously didn't believe in any of this stuff that was supposed to be physically impossible, though he'd tried to be polite about it to John's face.
But it was true that John felt like he might explode if he had to deal with this all by himself anymore. He really should go see Missouri again, see if she could help him sort through all of this.
Missouri seemed sharper, harder, when John knocked on her door, and he wondered for a moment if he'd come at a bad time, but then she welcomed him in. He wasn't even sure what he was there for, his thoughts tumbling over themselves chaotically until he opened his mouth and said, "I don't think Mary's death was the only one. I think it's still here, watching. I think it's killed others, it killed her doctor and her uncle." He paused, turning the next thought over, wondering if it was too crazy even now.
"I think it killed her parents ten years ago. There are things I can't remember about that night. . . a burglar broke into their house, snapped her mother's neck and stabbed her father. . . he managed to find me and Mary. . . I got knocked unconscious. . . when I woke up it was all over. . . Mary was so upset." John paused, wringing his hands together.
"But I never saw the burglar. . . and there's something else. Did you see in the newspaper about those cows out in the fields with their throats slit, bled out? That sounded familiar, so I did some digging. Other than in the last two months, the last time we had cattle deaths like that was ten years ago, by the Campbell's house. And other places, too, around then." John stopped, breaths heaving in and out of him, terrified by the words that had come spilling out of him, by their implications.
"Hold up, there, boy, I'm still playing catch-up with you. What makes you think this. . . thing . . . whatever it is, is watching you? Most monsters, they got better things to do."
John took a deep breath. "I think there's something still in the house. Don't laugh at me! It feels . . . strange, and there have been things. . . Missouri, what do I do?"
"Ease up and breathe, first of all. If it'll set your mind at ease, I'll come take a look in your house. If there's anything to be found there, you can be sure I'll find it. Will that help you sleep at night?"
Mary watched in horror as the woman followed John into her house's door. A terrible, ugly, seething wrongness lurked underneath her normal, pleasant-seeming face. Mary had never seen a demon's true face before she was a ghost, but she had no doubt that she was looking at one now. And it was strong, with a menacing power that radiated off it in waves. Mary had only been a ghost for a couple months; she was no match for it. With a shudder she retreated as far as she could into the recesses of her house, making herself as insubstantial and not-there as she could.
"Something evil was here all right, but it's long gone now. John, you can trust me," Missouri cooed. "If there was danger still here, I would sense it and I would tell you. But there ain't, and I can't say it plainer. Now ain't it time you fetched those boys of yours home from the neighbors' and settled down?"
"I guess. . ." John was hesitant to let it go. He'd been so sure there was more going on. But he'd wanted an opinion outside his own scrambled-up head, and he was getting it. Probably best not to argue himself too far into crazy, with the one person who didn't already think he was.
"You know, if you want to give those poor folks a break, I'd be happy to babysit some for Dean and sweet little Sammy. Being a single parent ain't ever been easy on us working folk."
John nodded, distracted. "That's very kind of you. I'll let you know. Thanks again for coming out here to settle my mind."
"Oh, anytime, sugar. You just give me a call and you tell me all that's going on, you hear?"
Missouri let herself out and John walked back through the living room to grab his house keys. He felt silly sometimes locking up even for the shortest excursions outside, but more often he felt too uneasy, these days, to skip basic precautions. His hand was reaching out for his keyring when it went flying across the room. It was followed a second later by the lamp from the endtable crashing against the far wall.
"What?" he gasped, scrambling backwards, and then he realized he could hear shrieking.
"How dare she! How dare she just walk into my house!" The shrieking was resolving into words, like a radio tuning in from static. And it was sounding familiar. "Don't trust her, John! Don't you trust her one inch, not with our babies. She's dangerous! John, John," and now Mary's face shimmered into view, wreathed in flames like the fire that had killed her. As he watched, the flames died down, and her body became more defined. "You can't trust anybody, John. I'm so sorry, it's all my fault, I screwed everything up."
"No. No, Mary!" John couldn't help reaching out to her. He still loved her so much, and to see her in so much pain was more than he could bear.
"It's true, John. I failed. I failed you all, and now you have to fix it."
"I have to . . ." John couldn't catch his breath. "But what can I do? I've been trying to make sense of all this, I can't . . ."
Mary held up her hand, hovering by his face urgently. "Listen. You have to destroy the demon that killed me. You have to save Sammy."
The amount of planning that yellow-eyed demon had put into this, into getting to Sammy . . . Mary had been a hunter. A demon deal that sounded too good to be true always led to some greater evil in the end.
She had been so stupid, so gullible to believe she was somehow an exception.
John was nodding, slowly and then almost frantically. "Kill the demon, save Sammy. Mary . . . "
"John, you have to go . . . leave here . . . John."
Mary hesitated: her ghostly form flickered. There was more pain and grief in her eyes than John had ever seen. Her next words were torn reluctantly from her, dropping one by one into the space between them.
"If you can't save Sammy, John, you might have to kill him."
The dark road stretched out endlessly before John when he pulled into St George's Motel. Dean had been sleeping in the backseat for the past hundred miles, while Sammy fussed, disconsolate, in the baby carrier. Dean woke as the car stopped and wordlessly clung to John's hand as he started toward the lobby, bouncing Sammy gently in his other arm.
"Welcome to St George's," the desk clerk finished, holding out their room key. "Guaranteed safe from dragons," he added with a wink and a nod to Dean, who stared up at him. John could tell Dean was wondering what a dragon was, and how afraid of one he should be.
"Tell you what, kiddo, let's get everything up to the room and then I'll tell you the story of St George and the dragon when you're all tucked in," John suggested, ruffling Dean's hair. Dean looked up and nodded, a cautious smile hovering on his mouth.
"So the dragon kept snatching up maidens and carrying them off to his lair, along with all the villagers' cows and pigs and sheep, but they didn't have a hero to fight it until St George came one day and said, 'Where is this dragon? I will fight him.'"
Dean looked up at John, his question clear in his eyes.
"Why? Why wasn't he scared?" John interpreted the look expertly. In hindsight, John thought wryly, maybe he should have picked a more innocuous kids' story.
"Well, he was a hero," John started, but that wasn't quite it. More slowly he said, "I guess, sometimes when you're scared, the only thing to do is to face down the thing you're scared of. Sometimes there are bad things in the world and sometimes they hurt people. But if you let them, they can make you stay scared forever. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to fight them until they can't hurt anyone else ever again."
Dean was staring, wide-eyed, at John. "That's what St George did with the dragon: he took his sword and he got on his horse and he rode straight at that mean nasty old dragon, and he killed him dead. And all the maidens came out and danced for joy, and the villagers made a parade, and that was the end of the dragon forever and ever."
Dean's face was scrunched up hard in thought. John leaned over and brushed a kiss across Dean's forehead, and got up to turn out the light.
The soft whisper halted him instantly in his tracks. "Yes, Dean?" He had to work to keep his voice calm: this was the first word he'd heard from Dean since the night of the fire.
"I wanna be brave, too, like St George." Dean was obviously making himself keep talking, but with each word it seemed to get easier.
"Brave like you, Daddy."
"Oh, Dean," John breathed, rumpling up the covers to clasp Dean in a fierce hug.
"Kiddo, you already are."