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Tulelake

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You can't be more than seven.

You've just started talking again; your conversation with Miss N is one of your first, since Mom. She says, "Welcome to Tulelake, sweetheart!" and you say, "You too."

Miss N lives in a small house down the street, with a prickly yard and pricklier roses. Got a porch and a welcome mat, though. You're in one of the old multiplex houses, sharing the same rooms with two other families--the Molinas and the Nishimuras--even though Dad doesn't like people getting too close. Even if it smells like kitty litter, Miss N's house is still nicer than yours. She has reliable plumbing and electricity, that sort of thing. Dad takes tea with her, even though you know he doesn't like tea. You visit lots. Dad sleeps over with Miss N lots. It gets so you know how to set the table and switch out her toilet paper rolls when they run out, you know her house so well.

Sammy likes it there. You try not to like anything, because nothing looks good in a rearview mirror.

Dad has business in one of the old wartime internment camps, something ugly and deep-seated, and you know that's the only reason you've been here this long. Still, Dad makes nice with the neighbors for weeks--with Miss N--and when he has a stack of copies and papers and notebooks as big as the hex box in the trunk, he terminates the lease on the multiplex. (You're the one to carry the envelope to the landlord's, slide it under her screen door.) You know he's not taking you with, but you're a little surprised Dad leaves you with Miss N. She's not Pastor Jim or Uncle Bobby or Veronica or even Caleb--and even Dad admits Caleb's a little nutty. She's not any kind of hunter at all.

Still, she'll make sure nothing happens to you. That's what she tells you when you end up on her front porch, Sammy crawling on his hands and knees up the few stairs to her front door, dragging his ratty old knapsack with his teeth. Miss N is happy to have you; Dad isn't ever really happy, but he kisses her goodbye. (And salutes you.) You can see the relief in the way he pulls out slow from her narrow driveway and the Impala slides off beyond Miss N's little residential corner without a screech or the whirlwind of nervous dust billowing out behind--you've seen that enough times to know that this is different.

You will never feel safe, not like the kids at school, or even the kids at the group therapy Pastor Jim forced Dad to pay for (at gun point), but you know the moments when Dad's confident, satiated, almost like Sundays Before, when Dad's edging easy into a chilled brown bottle, and you know then that there ain't nothing can hurt you. The first day at Miss N's feels like that.

You help her make pie--Oreo pudding flavor. There's water from the tap and chocolate powder from a box says "Jell-O" on it, and a pre-made crust looks like it came straight out of a cookie cutter. It's a real homemade pie and you don't even have to wait for the oven to cook it--just make it cool in the refrigerator. Miss N sprinkles something inside it, from a bottle that looks like salt, even though you know it isn't. Salt doesn't taste like pie. Miss N says it's her secret recipe, makes it even better than the picture on the box. She just wants to see how you like it, she says. You say that's okay with you, and she says, "Good."

Sammy doesn't get any, gets two whole scoops of mint chocolate ice cream instead, because that's what he likes better and Miss N has both. He seems astonished by the concept of choice, and it makes you smile because you like it when Sammy learns something nice about the world. He doesn't know much, but if he can find all the nice things in the world first, maybe he'll find them all before everything burns to pieces around him.

It's hard to find good things when you're moving around all the time; you end up leaving the good things behind, or never find them. A lot of the places Dad has to go don't have anything good in them at all. That's when you tell Sammy to close his eyes--jam them shut and bore his fat baby knuckles into his sockets until he sees pinpricks of rainbow color in the blackness.

When Miss N tells Sammy to close his eyes, she leads him into the back bedroom. There's a little tent filled with blankets and pillows, a little miniature lantern. Sammy shrieks and loves it. You're just tired.

You've only been so tired you couldn't move twice, maybe three times, and one of those involved trying all night to roll Dad face down so he wouldn't drown in his own vomit. You don't want Miss N to think that making that pie was the hardest thing you've ever done, but you move to join Sammy, and you fall.

Miss N just smiles and says, "It's okay to rest. Go to sleep, baby."

You've never been called 'baby' before; even Veronica just called you 'kid,' and she actually is someone's mother (or was, or something. You think it might have involved changelings, so you've never pressed the issue). You're not a baby, or you don't think you are, but you are too tired to be upset and too warm to be afraid.

There's a vague space where you think maybe Miss N took Sammy to brush his teeth (at which point Sammy shows off the little one that just came in, the one Dad doesn't know about yet), but you can't remember what you were doing in the meantime. You think maybe you were flying.

You wake up to the smell of waffles and the first thing you wonder is what Miss N does for a living, if she's always just playing with you and Sammy and making food that takes an entire half hour just to prepare. Then you remember you do not have to care.

She asks you if you'd like whipped cream and strawberries and you say, "Yes." It's one word, but she seems pleased with herself. That's right; you don't speak. Or you didn't. Sometimes you forget, because you have always spoken to yourself. But it's nice to see her smile.

And this is what life is, for just under a month. You gain weight, in a good way. The way Miss N makes them, collard greens aren't so bad. She makes them with coin-shaped sausage bits, the kind with little chunks of sweet apple in with the meat. You stop looking like a kicked puppy--at least, that's what Miss N says. Sam pretends he is a puppy, and one time she even lets him lap at yogurt from a bowl on the floor, walk around with a ribbon wrapped loosely around his middle, for his leash.

You're not sure what to think, but some part of you doesn't think that making Sammy be like that is right. Your stomach twists up a little, and so must your face, because Miss N assures you they're just having fun.

In September Dad checks in. He must like what he sees, because he doesn't stay long. He asks your opinion on kibei ghosts and their entitlement to government reparations. You don't know what he's talking about, and for once he doesn't expect you to.

This is the day you teach Sammy to wave goodbye and smile at the same time.

It's not that long after Dad leaves that Miss N starts talking about school, and about you going. You've been to school, a little bit, but that was before Mom, and you don't really remember. The morning of your first day back, you spend too long in the tent bed with Sammy, making sure he understands.

You are not leaving him.

He doesn't seem to mind so much, just wants to sleep. He says he doesn't smell waffles yet he doesn't want to wake up stop talking, Dean.

Miss N comes up, is mad at first because you didn't come even though she called you twice, but she hands you your homemade lunch in a paper sack and smiles at a lady who introduces herself as Teacher Cuazerma, so it's not so bad. Not as bad as Sammy, anyway, who didn't even wake up to say goodbye.

You make it through Language Arts and Life Science and Free Time (even though you throw a crayon at a boy named Ricky and it hits him square in the forehead like a dart, which earns you a red behavior card), but after lunch you go home sick. You don't mind. School seems a little juvenile, because half the class makes their mothers stay all through morning circle.

Teacher Cuazerma says it's because you're older, and that the two years you have on your classmates play crucial roles in socio-independent interactions (so says the Note for Parents that accompanies your red behavior card), but you don't think that's the reason.

You puke into the school office's toilet, stall closet-small, but you don't cry. You wait for Miss N.

And then you're really sick.

You see Sammy only once the entire month of October. Miss N says she doesn't want two sick boys on her hands, and you don't want your little brother to catch whatever you have, do you? You don't, of course, but you see Miss N every day, for hours at a time, and she catches nothing.

Sammy sneaks in anyway, just the once, and shows you his tooth--the one that's still coming in, but you think you might be asleep (or maybe dead, and a ghost), because you can't make your mouth say anything. Sammy frowns, but he leaves, and you sleep.

When you wake up, you're face down in the bathroom, water flooding your mouth as the tub fills. It's a pinkish color, though it doesn't taste any different, and that's when you realize you're bleeding. You cough. You keep coughing.

Then Miss N bursts in, apologizes (she only left you for a moment, to get fresh washcloths, she's so sorry). She cleans you up, drips warm suds down your back as she wrings out a bright yellow washcloth at your nape. She rests her hand on your shoulder a little too long and grips your waist a little too tightly, and you suppress a shudder. There's warning bells singing in your legs and your forearms and even the tips of your fingers, something is wrong, but you are far away. You are flying.

You finger the aspirin Miss N gives you, for the throbbing in your skull, under the Band-Aid and the large lump from the tub. There's maybe twelve of them, which seems like a lot for the amount of liquid Miss N put in your bottle, but you've seen Dad take more. You dry-swallow the final seven.

You throw them up, after Miss N has enough Ipecac in you to power a small volcanic eruption. She mis-read the label. She's sorry (again)--she's just so worried that you are sick. Thank God your dad isn't here, she says, because he wouldn't be able to handle this.

You want to say that of course he can; he's your dad, but your back arches and your head pitches forward and your entire chest convulses and a trickle of bile that wasn't worth your effort writhes like a snake until it hits the bottom of the toilet bowl. You can handle this. Your dad definitely can.

You wave Miss N away. She seems hurt, but she gives you your privacy, if only momentarily. When all the lights are out she returns and cradles you in her arms all night. She dusts kisses all across your collarbone, strokes your hips--and you want to cringe away, but some part of you thinks you're making it all up, like there's some safe film or layer between your body and Miss N's hands. (She isn't really touching you. You're sick. It is a dream.)

There's tea in the mug on the bed tray that you're still working up the resolve to drink. You hate tea. But Dad's due in for another check soon--give or take a week--and you need to be on your feet by then, because it might be time to leave. You refuse to be left behind. But more than that, you refuse to haul whatever it is you have and all its complications into the car and across the country.

On top of everything else, there just isn't room for that.

You drink it all down in one prolonged gulp, suppress your gag reflex. Something that tastes that bad is probably good for you.

You're dropping weight anyway. You're not sure how much, but it's enough that you can tell--and it's not something you pay attention to, ever. Miss N hasn't taken you to a doctor. Dad wouldn't have, either, you reason, but Miss N isn't Dad.

Miss N gives you tea with medicinal powder stirred in, and Miss N gives you kisses. She gives you hugs tight enough to leave bruises. You're starting to panic, maybe.

A little.

The feeling's nothing new; you wear anxiety like an old hat. But this is a home, not a graveyard. This is a cup of tea, not a gallon of lighter fluid. This is--Miss N. It's Miss N. You run you fingers along her knuckles while she sleeps, arms wrapped tight around your ribcage.

This is a home. This is a friend.

You screw your eyes shut. Maybe you will fly again, tonight.

Miss N tells Dad you're sick. You don't want Dad to believe her. You want him to march in, bark Snap to, Dean, and you want to find that you can snap to, after all. Last time you checked, you could barely stand. You remember the strain, the shaking in your knee caps and the pressure on your ankles. The way your hips twisted out from under your torso as you fell.

That probably scared you more than anything. You looked in the mirror, and you thought, that's not you. That can't be you. You're Dean Winchester.

Miss N looked at you like you were an exotic bird, then. She looks at you now like you are still an exotic bird, like she's planning some kind of special feast, and you are her main course.

Sammy's voice snaps the thought in two, it feels like you haven't heard him in so long. His pitch is so shrill it cuts through the walls and fades into the backroom easily: "Dean's been sick a long time."

Just a few days, Miss N clarifies. Baby Sammy misses his brother.

Then Dad is gone again. December 7th is a big day for the Tule Lake ghosts--at least that's what Dad said--and the calendar spirals down towards winter faster than you can imagine. You don't even know November's come before it's nearly gone.

What have you been doing all this time?

(Flying.)

Miss N is gone a lot, after that. She says she has to go to her job, now. She puts on a uniform in the mornings and comes home smelling like ducks and feathers. You have no idea who's watching after Sammy when she's gone, and you're...

You try to call for him, but all you hear is a hoarse scratching. You realize belatedly that the scratching is you. You stopped talking again, didn't you.

Sammy comes anyway, toddles into the room tentatively, like he's lost. He would tiptoe if he could, but he doesn't quite have the coordination or the balance. Still, it's like a magician pulled him out of a top hat, so you don't care; you're so thrilled to see him you could cry. You don't, because if you haven't scared him yet, tears would definitely set him off, but you could. You don't really know why you're so happy; Sammy can't do anything to help you. He's only three.

You just need to know he's all right. (He is. Sammy's perfect. He's happy. But he misses you.)

At least he's not pretending to be a dog anymore. Sammy leans in close, 'til you can smell the milk and the Cheerios on his breath. In the last few months, he's acquired a beanbag frog; he wants to play with it outside; can he go play with it now? It seems like a reasonable request. You let him go. And then you cry.

A little.

You wake up with a bran muffin resting on your upturned palm, and a beanbag frog sitting on your face. You're not hungry--you never are--but you relish the texture as you mash the muffin up against the roof of your mouth, chew slowly. Swallow. You're determined not to throw it up.

You stop drinking Miss N's stupid tea. The funniest thing about this is, you think maybe you should be more worried than you are. But then, worse things have happened. It's not that bad.

It's not that bad.

It's not that bad, you tell your reflection in the mirror, every time you forget how to breathe, and your throat freezes up, and there's a whirlwind in your stomach that you can't get rid of, no matter what you do.

Then you're gasping for breath and wiping your face with damp palms, and you have no idea what happened. You try to think of black dogs and banshees and vengeful ghosts, but come up empty. All those things, and not a one comes close to jarring your calm the way Miss N's hands at your hips and her lips at your mouth do.

That's when you know you have to change something.

Sammy helps. He's only three, doesn't understand--hardly remembers what happens from day to day--but he is happy to help his big brother. He learns another good thing about the world: At three, you are old enough to be a brother, instead of just a baby.

You, at seven, learn that you are not yet old enough to save yourself.

Sammy brings you more gifts.

You do end up throwing up a lot of them, but Sammy's impression of time is somewhat skewed, and his version of Apple-a-Day is more like Muffin-Every-Ten-Minutes. You want to say "Never change, Sammy," but your mouth is full of bran and raisins.

December rolls around in earnest before you can stand again. But stand you can, and this feels like more of an accomplishment than you'd care to admit. Your collarbone isn't so pronounced, though every time you look at it you think of Miss N's wreath of kisses all across it and you're sick all over again.

You try to play with Sammy--to keep him from worrying too much, you say; to keep yourself from lying in bed, thinking about Miss N touching maybe-not-touching you, you secretly know--but there aren't so many games you can play. Days pass, filled with a lot of I Spy with Sammy's beanbag frog.

That's how you find the check. Sammy hides the frog on the mail rack by the front door. When he tries to retrieve it, all the letters come crashing down. You put them back, because you can't risk Sammy getting his drooly baby fingerprints all over Miss N's things, but not before you see the one--stipend check enclosed--from Robertson Asylum's Outpatient Services.

That probably explains more than it should. She is not as okay as they thought she was, you think. (But then, no one really is.)

Part of you actually feels sorry for Miss N. Part of you is furious. But a larger part of you just feels broken; the part that had, even though you know it was all lies, felt the tiniest bit safe in the little house with the prickly lawn and the pricklier roses--with the woman who made pillows for a living and Oreo-pudding pies for fun, and gave Sammy the first strawberries he'd ever, ever had. This was a home. This was a friend.

Now they are neither.

You're not sure if that's what you expected, or not. You hope you didn't, because that doesn't speak well for the future, but you think maybe you did. You try not to like anything, because however bad something looks in the rearview, it's even worse in a broken mirror.

You stare and stare and stare that that innocent little check, unmoving, until Sammy starts to cry because he's not sure what else to do. You don't stop him; you're not sure he's wrong.

And you realize it's stupid, and you realize that the knowing is what's going to get you out, what's going to save your life, but you wish you didn't. You wish you could've died not knowing--that everyone could have. You wish a tent-bed was a tent-bed, waffles were just waffles, and Miss N was just the nice lady with the one cat (where is that cat?) who lived down the block, in the house with the prickly yard and the pricklier roses.

You wish you could still fly.

Late on December 7th, you're lying in Miss N's arms, dreaming about flying, thinking about the hundreds of hundreds of kisses you let her heap across your collarbone, and you're hoping that Dad will come tonight. You hear a creak. You know it's Sammy on the move.

The Ipecac, the aspirin, the tea leaves. Most importantly, Miss N's 'secret ingredient'--the one in the salt shaker--and the stipend check to pull it all together. Sammy's always been good at finding things. All Dad needs to do is find you.

He does, like you knew he would. It's not pretty, like you knew it wouldn't be. Sammy shuts his eyes, like you taught him, but he never stops screaming.

However bad it is for Miss N, or you, or even Sammy (who falls apart and has hysterics the moment Dad ambles up the walk, bleeding still and limping slightly), it's a thousand times worse for Dad. Because he left you.

He left you with her.

You watch your children better, John Winchester, 'cause there ain't angels in the world gonna do it for you, Miss N screams.

You don't think it's his fault.

Some part of you does, sure, but you know that part of you is wrong. Because it's Dad, and he didn't mean to. He didn't know.

He blames himself anyway. You know it in the sound of the Impala's screeching tires as you jump from the curb and you know it in the roaring funnel of dust that blocks out the entire rear window as you speed away, into the black.

It's probably a couple days later, you're not sure. You slept most of the drive, and when you weren't, Sammy was shoving what seems like an eternal supply of his stupid bran muffins in your face. And maybe it's related, maybe it's not, but just before the gas needle tips to empty, Dad stops the car, and he takes you to a shooting range.

"For protection," he tells you. There are a million things in the world that won't flinch, you point a shotgun at them--you know this as well as you know Dad knows. But you think you understand.

You can't hold the gun straight and steady, even with two hands, and Dad keeps saying watch the recoil, watch the recoil even though you have no idea what that means.

There's a moment of confused disarray.

Then Dad takes your hands in his, calluses rubbing against your knuckles, and you both breathe in. He guides your aim, steadies your shot. You can feel him at your back, breath on your cheeks like a perfume of spearmint and alcohol, and you feel safe.

There are seven cans on the far end of the shooting range. You bullseye every one.