Dean was in Texas and, at the moment, quite, quite drunk.
He'd called his Dad yesterday and told him the chupacabra had been put down. Had asked, as casually as he could, if Dad was still in California and if he wanted some backup.
Well. 'Told' was the wrong word. 'Asked' was the wrong word.
Dean had left a voice mail.
He'd ended (or hoped he'd ended) the call before he could sound too needy.
Dean hadn't seen his father in over two months, now. John had stopped offering excuses for the delay in returning Dean's calls weeks ago.
Sam was gone to college, his father so busy with his own hunts it was getting to the point where it was truly beginning to feel like he was avoiding Dean...
Loneliness was settling in Dean like a tumor. Or a sore tooth. Something that he couldn't ignore, anyway.
He was very drunk.
He clicked his glass against... Amy's? Amanda's?... the girl's and downed it.
A back and forth of blah-blah-blah that Dean didn't even need to pay attention to anymore to end the night between the girl's legs.
"I killed a chupacabra today," He told her, and surprised himself by doing it.
She let out a delighted squeal of a giggle, drunk herself and obviously thinking it a charming joke.
"Got it right in the heart. Perfect shot. You'da been proud." He slurred, and didn't know why he was saying these things. This girl didn't care.
"You have beautiful eyes," He told her instead, although, really, she didn't. They were a little too wide-set and he wondered if her mother drank a lot during her pregnancy.
But either way, it steered the night back on track.
In the morning, Dean groaned from his hangover.
His internal clock, drilled into him by years and years of PT, yelled at him that it was time to get out of bed. Get started. Get moving.
Dean rolled onto his side and opened his eyes. He looked at the cheap, tacky room. It was empty aside from his duffle and a newspaper he'd grabbed out of habit.
He decided there wasn't any damn reason to get up yet, and went back to sleep.
When Dean woke up next, it was because his bladder was screaming bloody murder at him.
For this, he did get out of bed.
It was a grudging shuffle to the bathroom, and although it felt wonderful to piss he couldn't help but hate his body a little for getting him up.
Dean finished and moved to the sink. He drank long swallows of water directly from the tap and stood there for long minutes, head bent while the water ran.
He met his eyes in the mirror and snarled with disgust.
In the newspaper, Dean found an article about a memorial going up in the next state over. Dean remembered reading about the spectacle a couple of weeks ago; a pair of brothers who murdered a whole town full of people. A small town, granted, but still. The special level of fucked up had been that they'd covered the corpses in wax and treated them like set pieces in a wax museum.
A whole town.
That wasn't even simply psycho anymore. That was just... fuck-a-doodle-do crazy. Horror-movie-bullshit crazy.
With that many violent deaths in one place, it was pretty much guaranteed to be haunted.
The article with the memorial even called Ambrose a ghost town.
But whatever. The police would be out of the area by now, which meant Dean could safely go in and put the spirits to rest.
He picked up his phone and debated calling his father. Let him know where he was going to be, what he was hunting.
In the end he didn't call.
It wasn't like it mattered.
He'd been pretty deep into Texas for the chupacabra. It was almost evening by the time he rolled into Iberville. It was still about a hour from Ambrose, but Dean was tired and his stomach had finally woken up enough to decide to be hungry.
He pulled into a diner. Ordered fried catfish just for a change of pace and, when it arrived, idly decorated the crispy piece of fish with bits of french fries until one end had eyes, ears and whiskers and the other had a tail.
He named it Catsam and ate every crumb of it.
The motel room was cheap and tacky. Aside from a duffelbag and a newspaper, it was empty.
In the morning he got out of bed with his internal alarm clock. Took a shower. Got dressed. Tied his boots. Grabbed his bag..
A quick stop at the library gave Dean a map to the place. He printed the information for the memorial without even glancing at it. Just threw the entire packet into the passenger seat and drove.
Maybe ten minutes from Ambrose, Dean jolted out of his apathetic haze when the EMF started shrieking from the backseat.
He pulled the Impala over and picked it up, frowning at it. There was nothing at all around; just woods and road.
He got out of the car for a better look around. This close to Ambrose, maybe one of those psychopaths had murdered a traveler here and the cops just hadn't found it.
Dean sniffed, smelling something familiar. Wind rolled over the trees and smacked him in the face with the stench of rot and decay.
"Ugh!" Dean groaned, turning his mouth and nose into his sleeve.
That was definitely the ripe stink of a body. Possibly bodies, from the strength of the smell.
He popped the trunk and grabbed salt and lighter fluid, pocketing them.
He took a few steps and noticed that there was a turn-off just ahead, so Dean got back in his car.
The EMF sat in his lap, shrieking away, while Dean turned into what at first he thought was a driveway but after a few meters opened to what looked like a small campground. He stopped and got out again.
"Hello?" He called.
There was nothing other than another waft of that dead stink.
There were two tents and a firepit. Closer, Dean could see that they weren't just empty; they hadn't been touched in weeks at least.
He walked around and the EMF chirped and rose into a steady wail.
There was a stain on the ground. Old blood, not quite turned to earth yet.
Dean covered it in salt and lighter fluid. He picked up a twig and set it on fire, then dropped it into the mess.
After a moment, the EMF fell silent.
Dean eyed the little make-shift machine dubiously.
"Seriously? That was it?" He asked it. "Well damn. That was easy."
Dean looked back towards the line of trees. That horrible smell was still in the air.
He decided to check it out. Might as well. He was here, and it was early in the day.
Dean had only been walking for a few minutes when the source of the stink made itself clear. There was a steep hill that bottomed out into a gruesome medley of decomposing road kill. It looked like the road to Ambrose continued on the other side.
He pointed the EMF at the slurry of meat and antlers, but the machine remained silent.
Dean shrugged and made his way back to his car.
The road ended in front of a rocky creek. Dean stopped the car and sighed.
According to his map, the town should be just ahead. He got out, stuffed his pockets with a flashlight, shotgun shells, a bottle of water and a bag of skittles. His knives were already at his hip and ankle, salt, starter and lighter on his person. He picked up his shotgun and closed the trunk.
He patted the Impala's hood.
"Be back soon, baby."
After the creek and around a curve, the town of Ambrose just suddenly... was. Even knowing that it had been there, Dean's eyebrows rose in surprise at the sight of it.
It was a postage-stamp sized town. Just the one main road lined with buildings, from the look of it.
There was bright, yellow police tape garlanded around most of the doors Dean could see. Everything else showed years of neglect and stagnation.
"Crazy." Dean muttered, and he was thinking about the kind of mentality that would stay in a place like this for a second more than was needed.
The buildings were uniformly a depressing scummy beige color.
The edges of the street were caked in wax. It had poured from the wax museum near the top of the hill and settled over every low place the town had had, from the look of it.
A church jutted up prominently at the end of the street. Dean eyed it. He remembered reading that there'd been over a dozen bodies in that church, posed like they were attending a funeral. It had struck Dean as morbidly funny at the time. All those dead people there for a dead person.
His father wouldn't have laughed. Sam wouldn't have laughed.
Dean glowered at the church.
He kept his EMF meter in-hand, shotgun slung over his shoulder with the other as he stalked down the road.
The meter chriped and squeaked as he walked past the gas station.
Dean's eyes flickered to it, then back to the church.
"Screw it." He kept walking. A body count like those psychos had chalked up, there were probably several hauntings here.
The EMF subsided with what almost sounded like a sulky warble.
Dean tore the police tape from the door and walked inside.
He nearly jumped out of his skin at the unexpected sound of people crying. Someone shuffled their feet. A throat was cleared.
The pews were empty, the room as a whole was empty. Dean's eyes landed on the source of the sound.
"A recording? What the shit?" He hissed, irritated at having been startled.
But seriously, why hadn't the police taken this with them?
He walked down the aisle and switched it off.
His EMF was happily squeaking away, as expected, but the sudden shift in the air did surprise him.
Dean could feel someone watching him.
Dean turned to leave, wanting to be back out in the sunlight to rethink his approach here.
Something crumbled under his foot.
He stopped and tentatively picked it up.
Against his thumb, it felt like the clump of wax that it resembled. Against the pad of his index finger, though, it felt corded, almost damp.
Dean turned it over and dropped it with a bark of disgust.
He wiped his finger against his jeans furiously.
"Freaking psychopaths," Dean spat, trying to shake the feeling of touching rotting muscle out of his head.
Dean moved to the doors and stopped, something suddenly occurring to him.
He walked back and picked the fragment up again, careful to only touch the wax part. He turned it over and looked closely.
Just wax and muscle.
Dean shivered. What a horrible freaking way to go. Covered in something so hot it melted the skin it replaced.
"Psychopaths." Dean repeated quietly. He salted and burned the little piece of flesh anyway, but it didn't dispel whatever spirit that lingered here, nor did it lift the feeling of being watched.
Outside, the feeling disappeared.
Dean had never liked churches. He decided he liked this one significantly less than most.
Off to the side, the road turned and wound its way up a hill. There was a house at the end of the road and, before that, the only other structure on the road was a warped, jutting ruin.
The House of Wax; impossible to mistake for anything else. Gigantic, half-melted slabs of columns and walls folded into each other, squished and twisted and reformed.
Walking up to it, Dean decided that it almost looked like a mouth. There were concrete bits and metal supports peeking through here and there, keeping the basic shape of an underground building, but the insides were smooth, thick yellow streams of wax runnelling down what was at least two stories to end in a solid pool of the stuff. The puffy, curling edges of the hole looked like teeth, the smooth channel of the inside like a throat.
"Huh." Dean said.
The EMF twittered and shrieked to life as Dean walked to stand at the lip of the hole.
"Shocker." Dean grumbled.
This was going to be impossible. Whatever remains there were inside there, Dean didn't have a way of getting to them. Who knew how thick that wax was, and the house hadn't exactly been small. He could spend months digging and not find anything.
He flagged the site mentally. He'd have to treat it like a case with cremated remains and find some other way to put the spirit or spirits down.
He worked his way back to the main road. The movie theater was another spot that had been corpse-riddled but, walking through it, Dean didn't get so much as a blip from his meter.
He 'hmm'ed in surprise, but it wasn't so unusually, really. Mostly, dead people stayed dead; ghosts were an exception.
There were wax sculptures everywhere in this town. No people, thankfully, but it was hard to miss the artwork pretty much everywhere. Every store that Dean poked his head into had a vase with delicate-looking flowers, or plates of food that had baffled Dean with their whole not-rotting thing until he'd dared to touch one of the sandwiches and realized that it, too, was wax.
It was beautiful craftsmanship, but simply impossible to forget that the same hands that made these things also did the same to people.
Dean walked to the house at the top of the hill. Supposedly, this is where the brothers had lived. It sounded to Dean like a pretty ripe place for ghosts.
Except, walking through it, Dean again turned up nothing. A fresh understanding of how twisted and creepy humans could be - some of the artwork in here had Dean dropping his jaw and pausing for long minutes just to stare - but nothing dinged on the EMF.
There was blood on the floor of one of the rooms. The room itself looked like a weird hybrid between a surgical room and a personal study.
The police had obviously been through here. Chalk marks and tape.
Somebody had been cut pretty fiercely, the way that puddle spread. Looked like they'd struggled, too. There was a tell-tale pattern of jerking splashes, showing that the bleeder had been trying to take cover or escape.
There was also a smear of blood leading to the door. The bleeder being dragged away.
The blood didn't look that old, and Dean filed it away as belonging to someone from that last group of travelers. Hell, maybe it even belonged to one of the siblings who survived and got away.
Dean kinda doubted it, though.
He felt the ruffling prickle at the back of his neck of someone watching him again. He kept his hands moving, putting on a pantomime of observing the room for whoever happened to be looking. Best not to let them know Dean was wise.
But Dean didn't make a sound, all of him focusing on listening carefully, trying to figure this out.
It might be as harmless as some wild animal.
Or it might not be.
It might be a ghost, peeking in at Dean at an unreasonably early haunting hour.
Or, again, it might not be.
His EMF stayed silent, which was starting to freak him out.
Dean kept his steps measured and casual as he left the house.
As before, once he was outside the feeling of being watched faded.
He walked on, putting some distance between himself and the house.
This was stupid. He didn't want to be doing this hunt alone. It would be so much safer and easier with a partner.
Dean parked himself on a curb in the shade of the gas station sign. He had a few hours left until sunset and he could start really narrowing down the list of hundreds of potentials into an actual headcount of ghosts.
He drank from his bottle of water and chewed a few skittles.
Without really thinking about it, he pulled his phone out. Flipping it open, he was sort of surprised to get a clear signal, this far out in the middle of nowhere.
"Dad, I'm in Ambrose, Louisiana. Already put down one restless, got readings that suggest at a few more." He paused. "Call me." Another pause. "Please."
Dean closed and pocketed the phone. He couldn't ask his dad for backup. Not for something that should be a simple salt and burn. He could just imagine the disappointment and irritation in John's voice he'd receive if he admitted to being that weak.
Blip, blip, blip went the meter, quietly reminding Dean that the building behind him was haunted.
"I know." He sighed.
He hauled himself back to his feet.
By the time sunset rolled around, Dean had four places mentally tagged as 'of interest.'
The gas station, the wax museum, the church and a loft near the theater.
He'd walked back to the Impala once he'd finished scoping the place, dropping off the EMF and picking up more salt and shotgun shells. The gas station had been stocked with all kinds of flammable things. Dean figured if he needed more, he'd just break in and grab some. Probably wouldn't be a bad idea to do that anyway on the way out and stock up a bit.
Considering it, Dean also slid his glock into his waistband. If it were something corporeal watching him, better to be prepared.
Dean ate some more skittles as he walked back to the church.
When he opened the door and walked in, he jumped for a second time at the stupid fucking soundtrack of lamentation.
"God damn it." Dean growled, stomping up to turn it off again.
"Don't blaspheme!" A woman's voice snapped at him.
Dean spun around, shotgun at the ready.
She was sitting at the front pew, blonde hair cut in big bangs across her forehead. Her old face was pinched with disapproval from behind the biggest pair of glasses Dean had ever seen.
She scowled at Dean, flickered, and disappeared.
Old woman. Blonde. Glasses. Dean filed it away.
"I apologize, ma'am." He said. Nothing attacked him as he left the church, which was an unexpected bit of luck.
He'd check the woman against the police report and figure out whose bones he had to burn later.
Loft, museum or gas station? Dean flipped a mental coin.
Nothing was manifesting in the loft. It had been a weak signal on the EMF anyway, so Dean didn't worry about it. If there were a ghost lurking about, they weren't strong enough to cause problems.
On to the gas station.
It had taken Dean a while earlier to figure out that there was a basement to this place, and he wasn't looking forward to going in there now. There was no electricity in the town, which meant he'd be hunting by flashlight alone. Dean hated doing that.
When Dean entered, there was a flicker and distortion and then a black woman appeared in the middle of the room, her legs overlapping a chair that existed in the space.
"What are you...? Bo? ... Stop, stop, oh God, no, don't!"
A grasping gurgle and blood shot from a stab wound in her neck. She crumpled against something that wasn't there anymore and disappeared.
Dean sat down on the step and waited. After ten minutes, she reappeared.
"What are you...? Bo?"
Dean jumped up, clapping his hands in front of the woman's nose.
"Lady! You're dead! Hey! Hey! Lady!"
"Stop, stop, oh God, no, don't!"
Another gurgle, another fount of blood and she disappeared again.
Dean sat back down and ate a few skittles.
"What are you...? Bo?"
"Bo killed you! He stabbed you in the neck! You're dead!" Dean threw a skittle through her. It pinged off of something metallic on the other side.
The ghost stared at Dean, eyes meeting his. Her hand drifted up to her neck and she turned to stare at the ground with a puzzled look.
"Bo?" She repeated, but her tone of voice was different.
"He stabbed you. You died." Dean told her.
She met his eyes again just for a moment.
Dean gave it another twenty minutes but wasn't surprised when she didn't reappear.
Death echoes were depressing. Ghosts, at least, had motivation. You could approach them the way you would a wild animal.
Death echoes, though, didn't want anything. Didn't linger for any reason other than disbelief at their own demise.
Sam always hated dealing with them, to the point where John had made Sam exclusively responsible for taking care of them out of some attempt to get him over his misplaced empathy.
Sam had sucked at it, though. It took the kid hours to work himself up from gently trying to convince the echoes that they'd died to the necessary shouting violence needed to shock them out of it.
Although after a while, Dean began to strongly suspect Sam had only taken so long as a way to get back at John for making him do it.
Dean shook his head and climbed the stairs.
When he got outside, he was hit again by that itchy feeling of being watched.
He rolled his shoulders and gripped his shotgun tightly, well on his way to being pissed off.
Someone was standing at the mouth of the wax museum. Tall build. Wide shoulders. Probably a dude.
The moonlight was lighting up his striped shirt very obviously. If he was trying to be sneaky, he clearly sucked at it.
"Hey!" Dean called, wanting to either confront the human or catalogue the ghost and just be done with it.
The man stood there unmoving for a moment, then with awkward, stiff jerks of his limbs turned to face Dean.
Dean damn near dropped his shotgun.
"Sam? Sammy?" He was dumbfounded.
Sam looked at him and Dean took him in in shocked silence.
Sam was a bit taller, Dean thought. That little shit. He was probably taller than Dean, now. His hair was cut differently and he'd grown a frankly adorable little fuzz of a mustache and goatee.
Had John called him? He must have. Dean could imagine literally no other explanation for his brother's presence. Not that John calling him made a damn bit of sense, but...
Dean realized he'd been just staring at his brother for about a minute now.
Sam's skin looked weird, but Dean wrote that off as an effect of the moonlight.
Teasing Sam about his lip-fur is about the only thing he can think to do.
"What the hell'd you do to your face?" He asked, in the cocky tone of brotherly mocking that he hasn't had an occasion to use in years now. He ignored how his voice was shaking.
Sam's expression didn't change at all. He didn't even blink, but his hand came up to touch his cheek with a weird, crumbly noise.
The fingers curled into his skin and pulled it away, revealing a gore of muscle and bone.
"Fuck!" Dean yelped, heart jumping into double-time. He reached out to grab Sam.
Sam vanished. Or, rather, the ghost vanished.
Panic made Dean's mouth taste chalky, metallic.
"Sam!" He yelled. "SAM!"
Dean stood there, heart racing, but Sam didn't reappear.
Dean stumbled over the sidewalk and onto the road.
His knees crumpled under him, and Dean only just managed to catch his forward momentum before he was vomiting violently onto the ground between his spread hands.
Sam's face, his fucking face!
"No," Dean moaned when his heaving subsided, "No, no, no no no."
Sam was supposed to be safe in Stanford, not dead in a mass grave in Louisiana.
This wasn't possible. It wasn't possible for Sam to have been one of the poor schmuck travelers that happened to pass through the wrong fucking town.
But Dean couldn't deny what he'd seen. That had been Sam.
Dean's mind raced, trying to remember the last time he'd called Sam, the last time he'd had concrete proof of his brother's well-being.
It had been over a year.
Was this why John was avoiding him? Did he know?
That must be. He knew Sam was dead and was avoiding Dean so he wouldn't have to tell him.
A new wash of bile forced its way out of Dean's mouth when he realized that the manifestation of Sam's ghost had been covered in wax. That was how he'd died, burnt alive and fucking melted.
Dean couldn't imagine the pain.
He stayed there panting, whole body locked up with the weight of this.
There was a scuff of shoes on the asphalt. Dean looked up at his brother's mask of a face.
"I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry." Dean said, tears streaking down his cheeks. He searched Sam's eyes.
Sam, though, was looking into the space over Dean's shoulder.
Stupid with grief, Dean didn't turn until Sam pointed a finger (his joints making sickening crackles as they moved) at the man about to kill him.
As it was, Dean barely managed to avoid a slice that was meant for his neck.
Dean's reflexes kicked in and he spun the man with the force of that stab so that the attacker's forehead cracked hard against the street.
It was the smoothest knockout Dean had ever done in his life.
He turned to Sam.
Sam's finger remained unwavingly pointed at the man. His hazel eyes burned with hatred and blame.
"This is it, isn't it?" Dean mumbled. "Why you stayed?"
The man stank like road kill. Dean turned him over to get a look at his face. He had deep-set eyes and horrible teeth. He looked like a punch-line about inbreeding. Dean recognized him from the newspaper. Damon Sinclair, brother to the deceased psychopaths. Wanted in connection to the murders.
This man had killed Sam.
Without any real thought, Dean picked up the knife and cut the man's throat. Dean watched blood pour from him and felt... nothing at all.
He turned back to Sam.
Sam's eyes met Dean's, and they weren't angry anymore. He lowered his hand to his side and flickered out. He was gone.
Sam was gone.
Dean knelt in the street while the man choked and spluttered around his cut throat. It took him about a minute to die.
When he was finished, Dean wiped his fingerprints off of the knife and dropped it with a clatter.
He walked back to the Impala.
The printouts from the library still sat in the passenger seat and seeing them, Dean was seized with self-loathing and an absolute conviction that Sam was in there. If he'd just taken a fucking second to look through them instead of barreling in like an asshole...
He grabbed them, slapping on the flashlight, and started flipping through them so quickly paper ripped through the web between his thumb and index fingers.
Sam stared at him from page number four of the memorial information.
Wade Murray, read the caption under Sam's picture.
Dean stared at that.
It didn't make any sense.
Sam had registered at Standford under his own name, not an alias. This should say 'Sam Winchester.'
Dean's eyes moved over the information. Wade Murray's age was wrong, his birthday was wrong, his family, interests, every damn word of it was wrong.
How had the newspaper fucked it up this thoroughly? And with this many details?
Dean didn't let himself think about what he was doing.
Quite apart from conscious thought, his finger pushed buttons on his phone.
"Hello?" Chirped a feminine voice.
Dean cleared his throat.
"Sam?" He croaked.
"Sure. Hang on. Sam!" This last was called away from the phone to someone else.
Dean heard his brother's voice calling back, "Yeah?" and felt his heartbeat lurch back into existence.
Dean hung up before Sam could get to the phone.
He bent his head over the steering wheel. His whole body was shaking.
Everyone supposedly had a twin out there somewhere.
Dean had just killed a man for Sam's.
When Dean felt like he could breath again he picked up the papers and shuffled through them until he found old-blonde-glasses lady. Her family was having her body cremated as soon as police released it.
So, there was that taken care of.
He dialed John's number and winced when he went straight to voicemail.
"Finished in Ambrose. There was... it wasn't, it was some other guy, just a freaky look-alike. I just. I'm not. Please. Please call me and let me know where you are. Please."
Dean held onto his phone after he ended the call.
A slow frown worked its way across his face as a new thought occurred to him.
He thumbed through his received calls.
It had been over a week since he'd heard from Dad.
Over a week.
John never stayed out of contact that long. Never. Not even with this recent bout of treating Dean like he had leprosy.
Dean turned on the car. He looked at miles of empty nothing all around him.
Dean idled, trying to imagine any next step from here that wouldn't be unbearable.
And turned his car towards Stanford.