The day is sunny and warm and almost exactly the same as all the days preceding it.
Cas’s 253rd motorist that day pulls up in a long black car. He looks irritated, which isn’t exactly uncommon. He’s holding two dollars out already, hanging between his fingertips from where his arm is slung out the window.
Cas takes the money. “Thank you, have a nice da—” he says, although the man nods and pulls away before he can finish his sentence. That isn’t exactly uncommon, either.
Cas almost always works second shift—four to midnight six times a week. Cas still has five hours and twelve minutes left on his shift when a long black car pulls up. The man inside is twisting the volume of his radio down—some kind of twangy rock—so Cas stands there kind of uselessly, hand outstretched, ready for the money to be exchanged.
“That’ll be two dollars,” Cas says.
“Yeah,” the man says. He sounds distracted, but he turns back and finally hands the money out through the window. He has green eyes, Cas notices, but the man only gives him a cursory glance before looking back to the road, waiting for the gate to lift. Cas turns and dutifully deposits the man’s money, and the car pulls away.
He turns to the next car. “Hello,” he says. “That’ll be two dollars.”
Today someone asks him, “Is this what you’re going to do for the rest of your life?” This someone was paying in all nickels, and Cas was quickly counting them in his palm.
Cas wants to tell him, wants to say, I am well-qualified for this job. You need to be in good physical condition from standing and bending over all day. You need to be able to give directions, to be helpful and precise. You need to be able to count money quickly and efficiently. Maybe, most importantly, you have to have good customer service skills. People get angry they have to pay money, they get angry about slow traffic and stuffy cars and the government. They get angry at Cas, because he is the one standing and bending in the toll booth in his blue vest, taking their money.
“Thank you, have a nice day,” Cas says, and the man and his question are gone.
His next motorist is in a long black car. The man inside has a cell phone crooked to his ear as he leans onto his hip to get his wallet out of his pocket.
The man says, “Of course he had something to say about it. He was all, ‘Dean, you have your own life, you can’t be driving out here every couple of days—’”
The man holds out two folded-over dollar bills, barely looking over at Cas as he does.
Cas is still thinking about the man from before. He wants to say, my job requires me to remember vehicle make and models, license plates, if someone runs my gate without paying. My job requires me to stay in this booth for eight hours at a time, repeating the same monotonous duty no one else wants to do.
“Thank you, have a nice day,” Cas says.
He thinks the man in the long black car might look vaguely familiar.
It is a rainy day and the radio in the booth is playing at a low hum in the background. Cas takes a moment to massage his hand into his lower back, where a dull pain has been lingering all day. A minivan pulls up, and the back seat window rolls down.
Cas smiles as a young girl of about six or seven excitedly thrusts her change at him. Her hand is warm and slightly sticky.
“Thank you,” Cas says, and then, lifting his finger to his lips like they’re sharing a secret, he reaches into the front pocket of his blue vest and pulls out one of the suckers there—a stash he keeps for times like these.
The girl’s eyes grow wide. She giggles and shyly accepts the proffered sucker like it’s a bouquet of flowers. Then she’s gone; the gate is lifted and the minivan, just like the hundreds of cars he sees every day, travels on.
He doesn’t notice that the next car has pulled up until the man in the car says something.
The man says, “Do we all get those perks, or is there a loyalty program no one told me about?”
The man—and he actually recognizes this man— has a slight smile playing around his lips. They’re very nice lips, Cas thinks. But he isn’t sure what the man means.
“Perks?” he repeats. His hand comes forward automatically to collect the money. The pad of the man’s calloused finger scrapes a path from the heel of his hand all the way to his fingertip in a way that seems deliberate. Cas’s hand fists around the money as he pulls away.
The man winks. “Guess not,” he says. Cas must’ve found the wherewithal to patch him through because the long black car is smoothly sliding away.
Cas realizes belatedly the man was talking about the candy in his vest. He feels a small, confused disappointment, before he thinks something that doesn’t occur to him often in this job—he will be back again.
He smiles as the next motorist comes to a stop next to him. He can still feel the line of warmth down his palm.
Walking in the underground tunnel on his way to his booth, Cas passes Pamela, just coming off her shift. Pamela likes Cas—most of his coworkers do, they give him friendly nods on their way to or from their shifts, but Pamela had taken a mothering sort of interest in Cas ever since he was the only person to show up to her Christmas party alone two years ago. Another thing Pamela likes is to say these strange cryptic statements that come true more often than not.
Pamela crosses over to Cas and stops in front of him to straighten out his collar. Cas lifts his neck a little for her. “Hey there, angel,” Pamela says. “You gotta look good out there today, huh?”
“Yes,” Cas says. “Personal hygiene is part of the job description.”
Pamela laughs as she smoothes the fabric over his shoulders flat. “But you want to look extra good,” she says, and Cas doesn’t argue. Pamela steps back and her smile falls a little bit.
“Don’t be too disappointed,” she says, and they go their separate ways.
In his booth, Cas mechanically takes fare after fare after fare, including two dollar bills a teenage boy handed him with a smirk that were suspiciously moist. A teary-eyed mother with a screaming toddler in back pulls up to tell him that she doesn’t have any cash, and Cas dutifully takes down her license and registration while the cars in the lane behind them lay on their horns. He can’t do anything about them, but he hands both the mother and the toddler a sucker each before they pull away.
Cas doesn’t let the nasty drivers get to him, who are hot and fed-up even though they’re the ones with working air conditioning. He can see, gradually pulling closer, the long black car in his lane.
Five minutes later, the man with the green eyes pulls up alongside Cas. He is on the phone. He is irate.
“You think I give a shit what he wants?” the man demands. “And now you’re siding with him? Yes you are—dammit, Sammy, yes you are—”
He impatiently stabs two dollar bills out the window in the direction of Cas. Wordlessly, Cas takes the money and lifts the gate. The man revs off without a glance at Cas.
In the reflection of the toll booth window, Cas can see that sweat has plastered the collar of his nice shirt, so it’s now limply resting against his neck. He carefully folds it and smoothes it again. Then he turns to the next waiting motorist.
“Hello,” he says. “That’ll be two dollars.”
He sees the man in the long black car again. He has a Slim Jim sticking out of the corner of his mouth, like a farmer chewing on a blade of hay. This time he gives Cas a vague smile, and two dollars, but nothing more.
Not that Cas should expect anything. His job here is to take, all day long. He takes their money, he takes down their license and registration— as a state government employee, he sometimes must take their rants, how their tax money pays his salary, which must mean they have all the right in the world to lob their annoyed comments or their rage at him. And when it’s all done he goes home and puts his blue vest into the wash and puts the TV on while he makes dinner, so that it sounds like someone else is home with him, in just the other room, just out of sight.
Cas didn’t expect to see the man in the long black car again so soon, but here he is. His back seat is a jumble of some kind of hardware equipment. The man is all business. The man’s finger brushes against Cas’s as he hands his money over, but Cas doesn’t feel much of anything at all.
Cas, on his 147th motorist of the day, is surprised to see the long black car for the third day in a row.
“Hello,” he says when the man with green eyes stops beside him. “That’ll be—” He stutters to a halt. An idea has just occurred to him.
The man hadn’t really seemed to be paying attention, but now he looks up, quirking an eyebrow. “Whoa,” he says. “Did you malfunction or something?” He grins, a small warm thing, and Cas realizes the man is trying to joke with him. But Cas is just trying to do his job.
“Hello,” Cas says again. “I wonder if it’s occurred to you to sign up for the E-Z Pass. It only takes minutes to make an account online, and you’ll get through the toll plaza much faster.”
The man blinks at him. “A what, now?”
“An E-Z Pass,” Cas says. “For people like you—”
“People like me?” the man interrupts.
Cas frowns. “People who come through here regularly,” he says. “It’s more efficient. See how much shorter that line is—” and he gestures to the E-Z Pass lane, which is at the other end of the toll plaza from him.
The man runs his hands over the steering wheel as he looks; his palms make a rasping sound. “Yeah, but I like this line,” he says, turning to grin at Cas, and Cas can only squint in response.
“Well, okay,” Cas says. “That’ll be two dollars, then.”
The man holds his money out for Cas to take, but then withdraws it out of Cas’s grasp as Cas reaches for it. “Hang on,” the man says. “How do you know I’m through here all that much, anyhow?”
Cas can feel a strange heat climb up his throat. “Oh,” Cas says. He realizes he has not been entirely professional. “I, I recognized you.”
“Oh, yeah?” the man says. He looks amused, rather than upset, but Cas isn’t sure he likes the amusement either. “I didn’t realize I was that memorable.”
“I work here almost every day,” Cas says stiffly. “I notice things.”
“Things, huh?” A car behind him lets out an impatient honk, and this time the man lets Cas take the money when he reaches forward for it. The man’s fingertips tap across his wrist, grasping lightly enough that Cas could pull away if he wanted to.
“Yeah, I remember you,” the man says, like he had to touch Cas to do just that. “You’re the one with the perks, right?”
Cas knows the man is talking about that day a week before, when he gave a sucker to a child. But it doesn’t make him feel good, that the man remembers that. Because the man remembers just that, and Cas is suddenly very tired of always receiving the least in every exchange, every day, not just with this man but with every person who comes through here while Cas must stay behind.
“Yeah,” Cas says, and draws his hand away. “That’s me.” The man looks a little confused as Cas ducks back into the booth to patch the man through. “Have a nice—”
“Did I offend you or something?”
“No,” Cas says. He nods towards the lifted gate.
“Okay then,” the man says. “Well, see you next time, then.” He gives Cas a wave that Cas doesn’t return.
Cas is not memorable. He is the hand that collects the money, the finger that presses a button to lift a gate. He thinks back over almost a month’s worth of interactions, and he thinks how lucky he is that the man with the green eyes and the long black car ever noticed him at all. And who is to say it would ever happen again?
Cas does not see the man with the green eyes today. He does see a man with a bad cough who tells him that toll booth collectors have one of the highest rates of suicide.
“Think about it,” the man says. “What other jobs even come close? Dentists—because everyone hates them. Accountants—because it’s so goddamn boring. Add everyone hates you plus goddamn boring and you get—”
“Thank you, have a nice day,” Cas says. It’s not the first time he’s heard that. He doesn’t know if it’s true or not. He no longer works with quite a few of the coworkers he had when he started this job four years ago, but many of them quit because of family or other offers or because the job just got too monotonous for them.
In Cas’s experience, the job is quite a lot like many others he’s had in his life. It can be rewarding, sometimes even scary—a man tried to hold him up for the money in his till, once. And it can be long. Lonely, too. Cas thinks that’s what the man with the bad cough was getting at. For seeing so many people in one day, Cas often feels like he goes through every day without being seen at all.
Pamela, taking over someone else’s shift, tells Cas he’ll be visited today by someone he doesn’t want to see. The first person he thinks of is the man with green eyes, and he immediately feels embarrassed. If he did—finally—make an impression on him, it hadn’t been a good one. He thinks back to his childhood days, when he’d stand too close to the other kids and could never think of the right things to say. They called him creepy. That’s probably the impression he left with this man, too.
They’re still in the tunnel. “Switch booths with me today,” Cas says.
“We’ve got assignments, angelface,” Pamela says, although Cas knows she takes the job much less seriously than he does.
“Why not,” Pamela says, relenting. “It’s not going to change anything, though.”
Cas can only hope Pamela’s wrong, after all, she’s working his normal lane now, the one the man with green eyes had taken every time Cas had ever seen him. Last time, he’d even said he liked that lane. There is no reason to change now.
Pamela’s hardly ever wrong, though, and she’s not wrong today, either. An hour and a half in, Cas is distracted by a sudden, angry multitude of beeping, and he looks up to see that a long black car, almost to the toll booth in his old lane, is suddenly trying to cut across to the next. There’s some ugly swearing that kicks up, too, as the car forces its way into the next line of cars, stuck at a slant between the lane it was just in and the lane it’s in now. Unmoving, which sends up another burst of beeps and swearing, because it can’t move up any further until the car in front of it goes through the gate. Which can’t happen until Cas presses the button so the car can do just that.
Pamela, in the next booth over, is laughing. Cas scowls as he punches the waiting car through. Within seconds, the man with green eyes is pulling up beside him, looking completely unaffected by the multitude of threats that had just been volleyed at him from the nearby cars.
He does look a little confused, though.
“Hey!” he says. “What’s with the lane switcharoo? I almost didn’t notice until the last minute.”
“Hello,” Cas says faintly. He thinks he won’t answer the question, for the sake of professionalism.
Before he can decide what to say, the man is speaking again. “Look, I was actually talking to my brother about this, and he was just saying, like, I get so wrapped up in my head or whatever project’s going on that I just zone out. Like, eye on the prize, just going from Point A to Point B. It can be hard to distract me, but he used to get so pissed on long car trips because he’d be like, can we please pull over at the next rest stop, and I’d be like, no problem, but it would just be like autopilot, you know? And I’d blaze right past it and he’d be nearly about to piss his pants and he’d be like, ‘hello, you promised we would stop!’ But the thing is, I wouldn’t even remember saying it—”
A half-filled McDonald’s drink cup suddenly thuds a few feet away from the rear tire, spraying over the trunk of the car. “Get a fucking move on!”
Cas suddenly realizes that the man with green eyes seems nervous. Even more nervous than he himself feels. The man looks frustrated, too, like he doesn’t think Cas understands. But Cas does. He only needs one clarification.
“You were talking to your brother about me?” he says.
The man smiles. He sticks out his hand—not to give him any money yet, because the hand is empty.
“I’m Dean,” the man says. “I’d say, by now, it’s about time we introduced ourselves, huh?”
They can only ever talk in short snippets. Every car should realistically be through the gate within five to ten seconds of pulling up next to Cas.
Cas learns that Dean’s brother’s name is Sam. Sam just moved from their hometown to a city about forty five minutes away. There seem to be issues with their father that factored into this move; Cas is able to inference by the pinch between Dean’s eyebrows that Dean isn’t too happy with their father, either. Dean shakes his head when he says that Sam was desperate for anything, and it being a college town, the apartments were less than stellar. So he’s been taking the drive every day after work to make repairs on it. The fastest way to the city is by the highway, even if he hits Cas’s toll booth every time.
“Whoops, I’d better go,” Dean says. He ducks his head back into the window. “See you next time, Cas!” But he still has time to give Cas a smile before letting his foot off the brake.
Cas keeps a pad of paper and a pencil by his radio now. He writes down questions he wants to ask Dean—if Dean isn’t too hyped up on coffee, Cas is normally allotted enough time for one to two questions, as long as he doesn’t take up time by saying, “Hello, that’ll be two dollars,” or “thank you, have a nice day.”
Today he writes, what is Dean’s job? Followed by How old is he? And then, although this question might be too personal, What radio station does he listen to? Cas has a radio in his booth, too. But then he crosses it out. Listening to a radio station just because Dean listens to it might qualify as creepy, and he doesn’t want to drive this strange thing he has with Dean away.
“Dean’s a contractor; he owns his own business,” Cas tells Pamela. She’d been coming in to work third shift, but when they crossed paths in the tunnel she’d turned to keep him company as he walked to his car. “That’s why he’s so good at making repairs at his brother’s house. He’s 31, but he says the clerks at the gas station near his house still card him and he can’t decide whether he should be offended or not. Then he got kind of nervous and told me he wasn’t trying to give me the impression that he’s an alcoholic.”
“Oh, angelface,” is all that Pamela says.
Dean never has his money in hand when he pulls up anymore. Cas doesn’t say anything, even though he knows Dean’s had plenty of time to get two dollars out of his wallet as he waits in line at the toll plaza. He figures it buys them a few more seconds.
“Heya, Cas,” Dean says as he pulls up alongside him. “What’s the word? Sammy just called me—apparently I’m meeting his new girlfriend tonight. Obviously I didn’t get the memo.”
Dean gestures to his clothes—not that Cas can see much, but he’s used to the paint-stained t-shirts, the flannel rolled up over his tanned arms—and makes a face.
“You always look very nice,” Cas says, which is his truthful opinion.
“Oh, uh, right,” Dean says, and looks away to fiddle with something on his dashboard. Cas wonders if he’s said something unprofessional, something that will make Dean turn back into the man with green eyes who looks right through him most days. He’s surprised by the drop in his stomach as he thinks it.
Dean glances at Cas out of the corner of his eye. “Shit, man, I always plan to ask you some questions but then I just start spouting off about my own life. Just start talking a mile a minute. My bad.”
It’s never even occurred to Cas that Dean would want to know anything about him. Cas isn’t the interesting one, here. He bends over to take Dean’s two dollars.
“If you want to,” he says, hesitantly, “you could ask me a question next time you come through.”
To his surprise, that makes Dean smile. “Cool, yeah,” Dean says. “I’m gonna try to think of a really good one. Get my money’s worth.”
“Okay,” Cas says. He ducks inside his booth. His heart is beating fast and strange. “See you soon, Dean.”
He spends the rest of his shift wondering what Dean could possibly ask him, how he will answer.
If Cas sees Dean on an expected average of four times a week, he knows that they spend about twenty to thirty seconds with each other at a time. If he’s lucky, that’s a full one hundred and twenty seconds of Dean.
If lingering by Dean’s car, asking him questions and tucking away the answers for later, takes an extra ten to twenty seconds more than his normal exchanges do, that means that Cas’s line moves infinitesimally slower. He might see one to two motorists less per shift because of that.
That means that Cas has become less productive at his job since September. He loses one motorist interaction for every day that he sees Dean. Every week, he might see (at least!) four less motorists, four less strangers, replacing those unknown and uncaring faces with twenty to thirty seconds of Dean, Dean, Dean, Dean.
The day is windy and wet, and his back hurts. Just in the normal place, in the small space at the base of his spine where his skin seems to radiate heat. He feels a twinge every time he stands and leans, stands and leans.
He accidentally bangs his hand on the side of the till as he goes to put his 169th customer’s quarters into it. They slide from his palm and go skittering across the floor. Cas doesn’t care, at least not until he’s on the floor, scooping the quarters back into his palm, and tries to stand up again. His back hurts. He stays on his knees for a second more, waiting for it to retreat back into a dull throb again.
“Hey,” says a familiar voice outside. “Yoohoo? Are we doing a reenactment of The Phantom Toll Booth today?”
“I don’t know what that is,” Cas grates out. He puts his free hand onto the counter by the till so he can lever himself up. Then he puts the quarters in and slides the drawer shut. Outside, Dean has his head craned out the window, watching him.
“You okay, man? You look different.”
The idea of that is intriguing enough to make Cas forget about his back, just for a moment. “I do? How?”
“I don’t know. Tired. More squinty than normal.” Dean’s eyes rake over him from the top of his head to his work-appropriate shoes. “Did you hurt something?”
“My back, a little bit,” Cas says. “It happens every once in a while.” His hand goes behind his back, to massage the ache through the blue vest, and he can see Dean’s eyes tracking the movement. “You should have a question for me today, Dean,” he says. He likes saying Dean’s name when he can.
“Yeah,” Dean says. “I guess they question should be, Tylenol or Advil?”
Cas frowns. “Ask me a different one.”
Dean rolls his eyes rather theatrically, but then his expression softens. “We can do that any old day, Cas, promise. But it looks like you’re not feeling too hot. Look, there’s an exit about a mile up, I’ll stop at a gas station, double back—well, then find another place to turn around—and then I’ll get in your line, so the only real question is, Tyle—”
“That’ll be two dollars,” Cas interrupts, and stands there with his hand out until Dean relents. When Dean pushes the bills into Cas’s hand, his finger catches and holds in the crook of Cas’s thumb.
“Don’t do that, Dean,” Cas says firmly. “It’ll take too long, and you’re going to see Sam. I’ll be okay.”
“Sam will be okay.”
“Thank you,” Cas says. “Really. Go see Sam now. But thank you.” He looks at the endless line of cars waiting behind them and then disentangles his fingers from Dean and steps back into his booth. Dean’s casting him a petulant look.
“What are you thanking me for?” he grumbles. “I’m not even doing anything.”
“Yes you are,” Cas says. He presses the button on the touch screen to patch Dean through. His face feels strange. He realizes it’s because he’s smiling so wide—he’s not the only one who notices, because the next motorist gives him a double take. With the memory of Dean’s concern, the ache becomes smaller, manageable—it’s almost like he had a Tylenol or Advil after all.
“If I had the choice,” Cas says. “I’ve heard you can see for miles, see everything, while you’re freefalling. It must be beautiful.”
“No way, man,” Dean says, grinning and shaking his head. “Not ever. I don’t care if it’s pretty—you’re falling from the sky.”
“Yes,” Cas agrees. “That’s the whole point.”
“You’ve never seen Star Wars? You rookie! Everyone’s seen Star Wars! I mean—‘Luke, I am your father.’ No? ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for—?’ Dude.”
“Maybe I’ll watch it sometime,” Cas says. He’s trying to ignore the strange, roiling ache that had opened in his stomach as soon as he had asked Dean—they’re taking turns now—what his favorite memory is. Dean had launched into an animated story of him and Sammy as gangly preteens, snowed in at a crappy motel with nothing but a few dusty VHS tapes and a box of Lucky Charms. He can’t account for this feeling, only that he’s struck by something—this longing—that he could be there, years ago, even if it was just standing in the corner, or even looking in through the window. What would it be like, he thinks, to be special to someone like Dean?
“You should,” Dean says. He nods emphatically, and they both look at each other. “You should, uh, watch it soon. We could talk about it.”
“I could,” Cas agrees.
“Maybe you and—” Dean says, and then he turns red and fidgets with his wallet. “Uh, you should just watch it soon.”
Cas goes to the dusty video store after he gets off work at midnight and spends five minutes or so looking through the aisles. Finally the girl wearing cat ears and a felt tail who works there comes over and asks if he needs help.
“Star Wars? Which one?”
“There’s multiple?” Cas asks. The girl gives him a pitying look. Cas tries to play back Dean’s story in his mind—a memory of Dean’s favorite memory—but comes up empty for clues.
He ends up going home empty-handed; some things just can’t be recreated. The plastic pumpkin bucket by his front door is knocked over, askew, empty except for the PLEASE TAKE ONE sign he’d carefully written out in marker before leaving for work.
The people in the next apartment over are having a Halloween party; he hears music and chatter coming through the walls. He thought, since he didn’t see Dean today, he might spend tonight watching Dean’s movie, but he takes a shower instead, washing the smell of exhaust from his skin.
The day is wet and cold, and his back hurts, and every motorist comes and goes within five to ten seconds of pulling up next to Cas, except for Dean, who never shows.
Pamela intercepts him before he can start his shift and presses the back of her hand to his forehead.
“You need to go home,” she says. “You feel bad now; you’re gonna feel like a truck hit you by the time the week is over. Do yourself a favor and go ahead and schedule yourself a doctor’s visit.”
“I feel fine,” Cas says, but Pamela’s hand remains on his forehead.
“I know you want to see Green Eyes but he’s not coming by for another day or so,” Pamela says briskly. “Don’t torture yourself, Cas. About time you took some of your sick days.”
She walks him back to his car and promises to visit him soon. She says it’ll feel worse before it’ll feel better. Cas tells her that’s true about a lot of things, which makes her kiss the top of his head, very tenderly, which must be what mothers tend to do.
It’s a mild flu. He has spent a lot of his time reading in bed, tossing crumpled Kleenexes onto the floor, and making himself cans of soup.
Pamela breezes in before her shift and cleans up around the apartment for him. He droops in a kitchen chair, half awake, while she clatters around the kitchen, making him something for dinner.
“—And, of course, Ash was saying Green Eyes has been through your line three times since you got sick. Gets this hangdog expression every time you’re not there.” She ruffles his hair. “Must be nice to make that kind of impression.”
Pamela, leaving some reheatable Tupperware meals in his fridge, shouts down the hallway that there’s something for him on the table.
Later, curious, he cinches on his bath robe and goes to investigate. There’s a plastic bag with a bottle of Tylenol, and another of Advil, and a stack of DVDs. There’s a Post-It stuck to the one on top. It says, Since you have the time now. And then, like it was scribbled on hastily: Hope you feel better soon, Cas.
Cas touches each item in the bag, gently, in turn, like they’re small, sleeping, precious things that can wake at any moment.
When he feels better he takes Pamela out to dinner. She seems to enjoy it. She laughs when she sees him wearing a suit—he is taking her to a nice restaurant downtown—and straightens his tie for him. She has a nice laugh, and it attracts attention from some of the diners around them as they’re eating.
Pamela is telling him about a customer complaint the other day. In addition to taking toll fees and patching drivers through, she sometimes takes the opportunity to warn them about upcoming life events.
“—You know, it’s really his fault. I told him that his proposal was gonna blow up in his face if he tried to make it into a public scene. And then he tries to get me canned for it!” She smiles at him broadly as she shakes her head.
Cas’s eyes are suddenly smarting, the candlelights wavering before him until he blinks. He reaches forward for Pamela’s hand, and she easily slides their fingers together.
“What’s up, angel?” she says.
“Pamela,” he says. “Thank you for being my friend.”
“Always, honey,” she says. “Any time. I hope you know that.”
Cas hasn’t always known that. He thinks that sometimes he has been too near-sighted, thinking he always gets the smallest out of any exchange, even when that isn’t true. Even when Pamela was always just one toll booth away, or waiting in the tunnel for him with a smile. But he knows, now.
“Pamela,” he says. She looks at him expectantly, warmly. “What is your favorite childhood memory?”
On his first day back to work, in the third hour of his shift, a familiar long black car pulls up alongside him. Dean’s smile is huge. Before Cas knows what’s happening, Dean’s arm is out of the car, cupping him around the elbow and hauling him forward until his hips are against the door.
“Jesus, Cas!” Dean says. “It’s been weeks. How are you, man, how you feeling?” Dean’s eyes are bright and staring directly at him. His hand is still a warm collar around his elbow. Cas suddenly thinks he knows how it would feel to stand, dazed, in the blinding light of an oncoming train.
“I,” Cas says. Dean has freckles up close. “I’m feeling much better now, Dean. I feel…great.”
“Yeah?” Dean says. “I’m glad you finally have a clean bill of health. None of the stiffs around here would tell me what was going on, and then some lady with—oh, her, right there!” He points past Cas, over to Pamela, in the next toll booth, who lowers her sunglasses to give him an exaggerated wink as she blows him a kiss.
Cas sends her a thumbs-up. “That’s Pamela,” he says, turning back to Dean. “She’s my friend.”
“Oh, oh is she?” Dean’s voice changes slightly, cracking like he’s going through puberty. His gaze skirts to Cas’s ear. “That’s … great.”
“She made me food when I got sick,” Cas says. “She brought me your get-well gift. The medicine and all the Star Wars.”
“Yeah, well,” Dean says, and lets go of Cas’s elbow abruptly so he can run his fingers along the edge of the window. “Glad you got it.”
Cas isn’t sure what to make of Dean’s mood. He knows their seconds are ticking away, but he has to make this clear. “I’m very lucky to have Pamela,” he says slowly, even though Dean seems restless, not really listening. “I also realized how lucky I am to have you. It’s nice to know you’re thinking about me even when I’m not around. I mean that.”
Dean finally meets his gaze again. “Of course I do,” Dean says, like that was never even in question. He lets out a soft huff of breath, smiling at Cas, and suddenly he’s happy again. “See you around, Cas.” He slips some money into Cas’s hand, studying Cas’s face closely all the while.
Cas holds that gaze in return, because he hasn’t been able to see Dean in longer then he’d like. He wants to memorize the pattern of Dean’s freckles. Finally he lifts a hand in a wave and straightens up.
Cas knows that sometimes it takes him longer to catch onto things than other people.
He has a working theory. It occurred to him a few days ago; the fourth time he’s seen Dean since he got back from his sick leave. He thinks that Dean might be going to his brother’s house more than he strictly needs to. That maybe Dean comes through just to see him, which is an almost improbable thought. That Dean might even consider him a friend. Or maybe even…but he can’t let himself think past that, theory or no.
It’s snowing today, lightly, flecks of white catching on the shoulders of his blue vest like dandruff. When Dean comes through his line, he comes bearing a still-steaming coffee that he hands through the window to Cas. Cas immediately folds his fingers around it.
“Oh, Dean,” he says. “How did you—”
“Ask not what your state government employee can do for you, ask what you can do to your state government employee,” Dean quips. Then a blush suddenly blooms across his cheeks. “Shit. I meant do for your state government employee. Not do to. Uh, I have no plans of doing—” He abruptly cuts off, pulling on his collar as he clears his throat.
“Okay,” Cas says.
It’s things like this that make Cas wonder.
Thanksgiving is one of Cas’s favorite days to work the toll booth. Mostly because the days are so hectic right before, with people traveling to and from for the holidays. And then, the day of, the roads all but clear out for most of his shift. Cas can actually listen to his radio for once, sitting close with his ear besides it, bothered only by the occasional car.
“Cas!” The voice is loud, laughing, like the speaker had to repeat it a few times. Cas’s head jerks up and he sees Dean with his car door half-open, a foot out on the pavement.
“Thought you might have fallen asleep,” Dean says. He pauses a moment, like he’s about to settle back into the car, but then they both look up and see that, for once, there’s no line behind Dean. No one at all.
“Like a ghost town out here,” Dean commented. He comes to lean in the doorway of the booth. “Thought I might not even see you today—that maybe you’d have the day off.”
Standing, Dean’s a few inches taller than Cas. His hair almost brushes the top of the doorway. Cas appreciates that Dean, at least, can act like this moment isn’t running roughshod over their carefully constructed routines. Cas wants to reach out and touch him.
“No, not today,” Cas says. He straightens up from his slouch by the radio, working out the crick in his back.
“They make you work every holiday?”
“You can call off,” Cas says. ”But I had no reason to.”
Some funny expression crosses Dean’s features. He kicks one boot over the other, crossing his legs. “I’m on my way to Sammy’s,” he says. “Something different this year—haven’t had Mom around in years, of course, but this is the first year we’re not doing anything with my dad. So it’s just us and Sam’s girlfriend. I’m real fucking late as it is, actually. Shoulda bought the turkey in advance, but we’ve never done it before. I didn’t know.”
Cas didn’t know, either—he’s never prepared a turkey. But he nods his head in understanding.
“I don’t want to keep you,” he says, although every atom in his body seems to be straining towards Dean, close enough to touch in the doorway—an interesting phenomenon.
“Don’t worry about that,” Dean says immediately, shaking his head. He looks around the small toll booth, at Cas and the radio at his elbow. “You, uh, like turkey, Cas? You’re not one of those vegetarian types?”
“I like turkey,” Cas says.
“Good, good,” Dean says. “What about meat—white or dark?”
Cas isn’t really sure that the answer is important, but he tries to think it through thoroughly for Dean’s benefit. “I like them both,” he says.
“Stuffing, too? Or you like it all covered in gravy?”
“I’ve never,” Cas says hesitantly. He shakes his head and amends, “I’m not sure.”
Dean looks at him for a long moment. “That’s okay, Cas,” he says gently. “One other question—what’re your feelings about pie?”
“I have a good feeling about pie,” Cas answers, which makes Dean laugh. He laughs and comes over and puts his hand on Cas’s shoulder.
“Don’t ever change,” Dean says. Then, their positions reversed—Dean looking down at Cas—Dean runs his calloused palm back and forth for a second, over his shoulder, so that his pinky grazes along the exposed skin of Cas’s neck. Cas’s breath catches in his throat.
“I gotta go,” Dean says. He lays some bills down by the till. “Happy Thanksgiving, Cas, you’ll be seeing me again before you realize it.”
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Cas parrots, watching as Dean climbs back into his car. All the warm air seems to have been sucked out of the booth, Cas thinks as he patches Dean through. Another Dean-related phenomena that might be left unexplained.
Cas’s Thanksgiving shift picks up speed as the night progresses. Sated, sleepy motorists start to siphon through the toll plaza, returning to homes and hotels for a well-earned night of rest.
“Thank you, have a good night,” Cas says, and turns to the next motorist—a familiar long black car. He cocks his head, staring.
“Dean!” he says. “I thought you went to your brother’s.”
“I did,” Dean says. He’s radiating energy, grinding to a stop next to Cas and immediately reaching into the passenger seat. “Well, I still am. The turkey’s almost ready. We just finished appetizers.”
Dean thrusts a plate covered in cling-wrap through the window. “A little bit of everything,” Dean says. “Bacon-wrapped asparagus, two deviled eggs, and some salad. We’re not complete heathens.”
He’s knocking the edge of the plate insistently into Cas’s hip, smiling broadly up at him, and Cas finally reaches down and hooks his fingers around the plate, still warm.
“Bon appétit,” Dean says, winking. “I’ll be back soon.”
Dean, to Cas’s understanding, drove to his brother Sam’s, plated up the appetizers, even thought to include a fork, then had to drive through the toll plaza in the other direction, turned around somewhere down the highway, and then came back. Just so he could give Cas the plate that now sits empty by the till.
Almost one hour later, the long black car slides smoothly up next to him again. Dean has another plate already sitting in his lap, covered in cling-wrap, two dollars taped to the top.
“Did you eat it?” he demands immediately.
“Dean,” Cas says. He’s feeling some strange, overwhelming sensation.
“Yeah, you did,” Dean says. “You still have some deviled egg on your chin.” While Cas wipes off his chin, Dean says, “Give me your dirty plate, yeah? Gotta make room for more.”
Cas numbly reaches back into the toll booth and grabs the used plate. They exchange through Dean’s window—Cas receiving a plate, warm, heavy in his hands. He stares down at it, his fingers flexing around the circumference of it, and then back up at Dean. Behind them, a car lays on the horn.
“Okay, all right,” Dean says. He shoots a surprisingly good-natured middle finger over the roof of the car. “I’ll be back later with seconds, okay?”
“Seconds?” Cas repeats faintly.
Cas decides he likes the turkey with gravy best, pushing it through the mashed potatoes, too, and following that up with a bite from the soft, buttery roll. Stuffing has an intriguing texture. He allows himself one bite between every motorist, mouth still full so hasn’t even chewed enough to say “Hello, that’ll be two dollars.” Thankfully everyone seems to have, as Dean would say, the memo.
The lines start to die down. Enough so that Cas can watch from the toll booth and see the exact moment the long black car comes cruising towards the toll plaza, coming from Sammy’s house, stopping to pay and then driving on, out of sight. Not even five minutes later, the car reappears, confidently headed straight for Cas’s booth.
“Knew you’d be all stomach,” Dean crows. Cas already is waiting with the empty plate in hand. “How was the turkey? I thought it turned out pretty good.”
“It was delicious,” Cas says. “Dean, it was—”
“Good enough for seconds, right?” He holds a new, cling-wrapped plate through the window. His face is next to radiant.
“Yes,” Cas says. He’s feeling that burning-eye sensation again, the one that makes Dean’s smiling, radiant face swim and multiply before him.
“Just you wait, Cas,” Dean says. “You haven’t even had dessert yet.”
His shift will be over soon. He works the only open booth heading north, and there’s only one other lighted booth, on the other end of the plaza, where Ash mans the gate heading south. On the quiet road, it’s easy to hear the distinctive sound of Dean’s long black car, gunning down the highway towards him.
Here is Dean, pulling up to his deserted booth. His eyes are tired and happy, his hair all stuck up in spikes. He looks like he’s been on the road all day.
“Prepare your mouthhole,” Dean declares. And carefully, with exaggerated concentration, he lifts through the window a plate with a slice of crumbly, golden pie, its cherry insides oozing out, piled high with whipped cream.
Cas is the more full than he ever remembers feeling. But his hands move unerringly to take the plate. He will always take whatever Dean gives him.
“Dean,” Cas says. He’s a loss. Dean just grins and pushes the plate closer to Cas, so it’s jamming into his now-slightly-protruding stomach. It’s just this side of uncomfortable.
“Winchester tradition, Cas,” Dean says. “You gotta eat at least two slices of pie. And, bud, you’d better be done by the time I get back.”
Cas’s cheeks are feeling strange now, too, pulled tight by his smile. He doesn’t question it. He scoops up his first forkful and patches Dean through. Dean then pulls a very illegal U-ie on the empty, dark highway, heading straight to Ash’s booth—he must have paid in advance, Cas thinks wildly—because the gate swings up without Dean letting off the gas, and then, tires squealing, he’s back in Cas’s lane, and he’s got another plate of pie he’s holding through the window.
“Dean,” Cas says. He’s laughing. “I haven’t even—” He fumbles the new plate of pie into his free hand.
“Come on, Cas,” Dean says. “I can’t wait on you all night.”
He’s laughing. Cas can’t remember the last time he did. Everything seems so big, and so full, the night ballooning around him—brighter, realer—and he’s leaning on the wall of the toll booth, laughing, delighted, watching as Dean spins another U-ie, rolling back through the toll plaza, returning to him, exuberant, Dean, all around him.
Pamela comes up to him in the tunnel and takes his face between her hands.
“You had a good Thanksgiving, didn’t you, angelface?”
“I did,” Cas agrees.
“That’s my boy,” Pamela says, and she pats his cheek and draws away. “I’m happy for you.”
“Pamela,” Cas says slowly. He’s been afraid to ask this question. “Is anything ever going to change with Dean and me?”
“You mean you’re finally getting tired of the turtle’s pace?” she says, and rolls her eyes. “Depends, Cas. Depends on what you want to happen.”
Cas nods uncertainly. Going up the stairs to his booth, he finds himself thinking over the past few months.
Cas always thinks he gets the least out of his exchanges. Maybe that isn’t fair, not with Dean bringing him coffee on cold days, and movies when he’s sick, and food on Thanksgiving, and coming through his line four to five times a week. If Cas still feels like he’s receiving less, somehow, it’s up to him to change it. To make it clear. Maybe it doesn’t take a psychic to figure that out.
When Dean pulls up beside him two hours in, Cas is ready. He looks at Dean, really looks at him, sees the affectionate, hopeful way Dean looks back, the two dollars sticking out of Dean’s wallet on the passenger seat, not yet in Dean’s hand—Dean’s way of buying himself even a few more seconds. Maybe, also, Dean’s been working on a theory about Cas, too.
“Heya, Cas,” Dean says. “What’s the word?”
“I don’t like being the one who has to wait,” Cas says. “I don’t like being the one who always has to stay, every time.”
“Whoa,” Dean says.
“I like you, Dean,” Cas says. He grips the windowsill of the car tightly with his hands. “I like how you smile and how you tell jokes and how you help your brother. I like that you think about me when I’m not around. But that’s not enough anymore, Dean. It’s not. I always have to be the one who stays behind, and you’re always the one who leaves. I don’t want every other day. I don’t want twenty to thirty seconds. I don’t want to be the one who always has to stay still. Do you understand me?”
He’s looking at Dean fiercely through the window. Dean is still and serious. He nods. He clears his throat.
“Yeah, Cas,” he says. “I got you.”
After his shift, Cas takes off his vest and folds it over his arm and he walks back through the tunnel. He climbs the steps that lead him up to the parking lot, where his Continental, in its usual spot, is waiting underneath one of the lightpoles.
Tonight, something is different. Tonight there’s a long black car parked next to his.
Dean steps out of his car as Cas approaches. His boots scuff against the asphalt. He seems a little unsure, so Cas walks right up to him.
“Hello, Dean,” Cas says.
“H-hey,” Dean says. He snorts. “God, I haven’t been this nervous since high school.” He reaches out, tentatively, and grabs Cas’s hand. “Look, I didn’t know—I wasn’t sure. But I didn’t like it, either. Leaving you in the rearview every day. Maybe…it would be nice if I didn’t always have to come to you.”
Cas steps closer. His hip brushes against Dean’s. “I would like that,” he says.
Dean’s head dips a little closer. His lips are ghosting over Cas’s cheek. “I just want to be wherever you are,” he says, and then he is kissing Cas, softly, under the lightpole, the tip of his cold nose pressing alongside Cas’s. His tongue traces a slow path along Cas’s lower lip.
Cas doesn’t want to stay here forever. He wants Dean to press his warm, calloused hand beneath his shirt, to the place on the small of his back, that twinge, which he thinks Dean could help soothe away. He wants to watch movies with Dean. He wants to press close to him in the night. He thinks he might want to know everything about him.
But for now it’s enough to know that when Dean goes, Cas will, too. It’s a good knowledge, one that fills him with a special kind of warmth. For now they can stay here, two bodies close and snow-blurred in the golden shine of the street light, smiling into each other’s skin.
For now Cas stays, and Dean does, too.