Dean loses his taste for most everything while his dad is dying. Pretty soon after he brings his dad home from the hospital to bite the big one in peace, inbetween cleaning up piss and vomit, he sits down in front of a soggy Big Mac and he just—isn’t hungry. Doesn’t want it. He picks it apart, sniffs at the lettuce and peels off the cheese and rips the buns into chunks, like dissecting it will tell him why it’s suddenly become so unappetizing. But then it’s just a pile of congealing grease in the box it came in, and Dean still doesn’t want to eat it. It’s the first time this has ever really happened to him, because usually he hoovers whatever he can get—a remnant of his kind of fucked up childhood, he figures.
He keeps expecting his appetite to come back—day after day, week after week—but it never does. Instead, he gets cravings for the weirdest shit. Rabbit food. Clean things, like—iceberg lettuce. Or carrots. Celery sticks—and not even the ones loaded down with spray cheese or peanut butter. Things that he can munch on that still leave him with a comfortable hollow in his stomach.
It’s a process. The first week of not really eating, he still drinks beer. Uncle Bobby convinces him to come out for drinks so he can get him away from his dad who’s dying of liver failure for a hot second—which seems counterintuitive, but Dean’s family has never been all that smart about those kinds of things. Except for Sammy, who’s at law school in California eating hippie food like quinoa and eggplant or some shit. When last Sammy had deigned to answer his phone, Dean had told him that they were bumping his dad off the transplant list and Sam had responded with an airy, Jess and I are thinking of going completely vegetarian, like he hadn’t just given their dad a death sentence.
Sometimes, when Dean is sopping up sweat from his dad’s forehead and he’s still asking for a drink, Dean finds himself wondering if Sammy ever did. Go off meat, that is. If Sammy had the balls to do something like that. Because he probably talks a big talk for his California buddies, but Dean can remember pretty vividly the little brother that clamored for hot dogs cut like octopi in his Kraft-fucking-dinner.
Anyway, he still drinks beers for a little while, but they make him feel weirdly off-kilter. And not in the, “I just drank four beers on a stomach that’s been empty for as many days,” kind of way. Mostly in the way he can feel them bubbling at the base of his throat like bile, in the way they make him feel really full even though beer’s just liquid. He’s got fat on him, he knows that—he pretty much lives off McDonald’s because he saves all Aunt Ellen’s healthy foods and pity casseroles for his dad in neatly labeled freezer Tupperware he bought off some door-to-door housewife—but he notices it more with the beers in him. He lays in bed after he drinks them listening to his dad’s oxygen compressor chugging through the wall and puts a hand on top of his pudgy belly like it’ll help stop the world spinning wobbly on its axis.
He goes on runs. The first time, the day after he drinks four beers, he wakes up too early in the morning, before his dad will have a chance to realize he’s gone, and he takes off in the sweatpants he slept in just in case his dad needed something in the night. He hasn’t really gone running in a good couple of years, not since Dad was still cognizant enough to criticize his health habits, but it feels good. Better than he remembers. They live outside of their little town, where there are just scattered farmhouses and fields as far as the eye can see. It’s the kind of place where the neat, parallel rows in the crops play some sort of weird perspective magic on your eye when you run by them.
He’s out of practice and he really feels it. He knows he’s moving slow, but someone manages to really drive it home when they run up behind him and overtake him on the open road, moving a helluva a lot faster than Dean’s sloppy, four-beer ass could hope to. It makes Dean feel gross and bloaty and weird to watch someone surpass him, but it’s nice to watch him go, at least. Dude’s got a great butt. Which probably has something to do with the fact that he’s beating the crap out of Dean in whatever race Dean just invented in his brain.
Dean finishes his run that day with about a million stitches in his side. Tells himself he can do better. Goes again the next. He has to watch beautiful-mystery-butt pass him for a whole week before he decides he needs to drop the beers and the pretzel sticks and peanuts that come with them. Bobby doesn’t much like that he stops coming along with him to the bar. He thinks that Dean doesn’t see enough people that aren’t his dying dad, and that’s probably true. Dean dropped his job at the garage so that he could take care of him, and now he doesn’t even leave the house for work. Nowadays he struggles through hen-pecking data entry on his ancient computer from home because he couldn’t find anything more accommodating on short notice. The only reason he got this job was because of Charlie and her mysterious tech connections with some big industries, and he was grateful to get this much. So Dean curses his way through boring-ass documents in the hours when his dad isn’t awake, all alone in his living room.
So yeah, Bobby’s probably right. Dean probably needs to get out more. Hell, he talked to the Tupperware lady for a full two hours just because she bothered to come to his door. It’s not like his dad is very good company. When he’s not raving, he sleeps most of the time. The pamphlets say that’s normal, that he’s gonna sleep more the closer he gets to the end. Dean figures he must be getting pretty damn close on the day he has to shake him for about five minutes before he wakes, disoriented, to Dean waving some of Ellen’s tuna surprise in his face. He eats it gamely, but he vomits it later, all down his front. Dean cleans him up and changes his sheets and then sits on the toilet lid in the bathroom with his thumb over the button on his phone to call Sammy, because Sam should know how close their dad probably is to biting it. He should know. Even if he chooses not to give a fuck, he should know.
Maybe it didn’t really sink in when Dean told him that they took Dad off the transplant list. Maybe he didn’t know what that meant. Maybe he thought that meant he was doing better and they’d taken him off because he was going to be okay. Dean seems to recall sounding pretty goddamn dire though, because he’d just loaded an oxygen compressor and an IV pole into the back of the Impala, and he was staring at a Caring for Your Dying Loved One pamphlet the whole time he was listening to Sam rant about sustainable farming practices.
Dean figures that somewhere along the line, he started to like the feel of an empty stomach so much because it always meant Sammy was going to be okay. He can remember lying in bed with a teenage-boy belly so empty and achy it was absolutely gnawing at him because he gave the last can of SpaghettiOs to his little brother, and he’d been eating smaller and smaller portions for days beforehand. An empty stomach meant that Sam was taken care of and that Dean was the one who took care of him. He thinks he wants the same to be true for his dad. He thinks that maybe some misfiring neuron in his brain thought things are better for everyone else when you’re hungry, and the rest of his neurons were so fucked up that they agreed and took away his appetite. That one misfiring neuron isn’t completely wrong. Dad is still fucked up, but Dean, at least, feels more in control of the situation. So even though the neurons that are still firing right watch him crunching lettuce and sucking ice cubes and say that’s not very healthy, dude, Dean ignores their little voices in favor of feeling less like shit.
So Dean eats veggies a few times a day and doesn’t call Sammy and cleans up barf and develops a very intimate relationship with jogging guy’s butt. It’s probably not a great routine, but it keeps him going. Most days, jogging guy is the only person he sees that’s not his dad. And that’s okay, that’s what he signed up for when he told them he didn’t want to send his dad to hospice. When he told them it was his responsibility to watch his dad die because his dad is family. Plus, Dad has been unemployed for the better part of the last decade, so it isn’t like he has a healthy insurance plan to keep him rolling in hot nurses to give him sponge baths. And Dean’s already in the hole from keeping his dad in the hospital long enough for a stuffy board of self-important asswipes to figure out that his dad had been the one to pickle his own damn self, and he didn’t deserve a fresh liver to pickle when there were people out there who’d had their livers pickled involuntarily.
He’s never seen jogging guy’s face, but he likes to believe he’s really handsome, because hey, sue him, it isn’t like he has much other interesting jerk-off fodder. Some days he imagines he’s like a Harrison Ford-type handsome. Some days, he thinks maybe he’s Dr. Sexy handsome. Or like, a young Robert Plant. Every day, he tries to keep up more and more, pants his brains out trying to reach even a fraction of the guy’s speed, if only just to get more than a belated passing glance at the back of his goddamn head. And maybe he gets a little bit faster after a couple pounds come off, but Dean’s still a goddamn fatass compared to this guy’s well-muscled runner’s body, and he never stood a chance. He makes himself light-headed trying. It’s a good thing that the runner never turns back to look at him, never gives a shit about the slow asshole he’s been sharing the morning road with, because a few times, Dean has to bend over his own knees panting after he’s passed, try to stave off the lightheadedness that washes over him. It’s probably better not knowing what he looks like, anyway. It’s stupid, but he almost doesn’t want another disappointment, and if he figures it out, what would he have to look forward to every morning then?
And he can be excused for a few ridiculous fantasies, can’t he? Because watching his dad die is hard. It’s really hard. He’s never told Ellen or Bobby because they have their own problems and they don’t need to be worrying about him, but it’s harder than the pamphlets had ever prepared him for. He read those stupid sons of bitches cover to fucking cover, but there was only one of them that had even a measly page-long section about Dealing with Liver Failure, and it wasn’t even especially specific. It offered vague advice like don’t be surprised if the patient has blood in their bowel movements or don’t be discouraged if the patient stops recognizing you, and things like that don’t exactly make Dean surprised or discouraged so much as they make him absolutely fucking terrified. He knows he’s doing a shitty job caring for his dad, he knows he is. He isn’t sure why he ever thought that he could do better.
The only acknowledgement Sam had really made of the whole situation was when he had texted to say, I don’t know why you’re doing this, it’s not like dad would do the same for you, shortly after that last phone call. Dean spends a lot of time staring at that stupid message. Because Sam is right—his dad would have left him in hospice if he were in the same situation, absolutely no doubt about it. But that’s only because he doesn’t know how to take care of people so well, not because he doesn’t care.
If Dean’s liver was failing, Dad would probably come by every couple of days to shoot the shit about hot nurses and hospital food until Dean kicked it, and that would be fine by Dean. Dad’s never been able to handle anything that he couldn’t slap a band-aid on to fix. That’s just Dad. Dean’s supposed to be the one who can keep it together and take care of shit. Dean’s the one that always has.
Some days, though, Dean looks at the it’s not like dad would do the same for you and thinks that maybe Sammy meant that he wouldn’t do the same for Dean specifically, that maybe he would do the job for Sam if suddenly liver failure was catching. He thinks there’s some truth in that, too. Dean’s a fuckup. Dean can’t even take care of his dying dad right. Sam’s smart. Sam could do it if he were here. Sam would feed him the right things so he wouldn’t vomit half so much. Sam would know when he was thirsty, so he wouldn’t get up and fall down halfway to the bathroom. Sam would know what to do.
Sam isn’t here. Dean eats vegetables and not much else.
Dean leaves the house less and less. Things get scarier, and Dean becomes more of a recluse, which is as new for Dean as the whole not-eating schtick. He’s not exactly a sharer, but he likes people. He talks to his best friend Charlie on the phone sometimes, never does let on exactly what’s going on in his life. She moved out of town, got away for work a few years ago, thank Christ, and Dean’s happy for her always. Really. But after he talks to her, Dean always ends up staring at the Star Wars poster on his wall and pushing down sick heartache until he can man the fuck up and go help his dad into the shower or something.
Lettuce and carrots and celery go south pretty quick, and Dean watches them wilt to nothing and slime in the fridge. But things are coming to a head here so quickly, things are running so terrifyingly out of his control, that he often shakes thinking of getting in the Impala and driving all the way into town. So he only does half the time. Maybe.
It’s not as if food should be a problem—there comes a day where he looks at his massive stock of food in the freezer and he thinks, numb and distant, I have more food than he’ll ever need. And it’s true, Dean’s got masking-tape labels on perfectly segmented portions out through the next three months at least, neater than he’d ever thought himself capable of. They’d only given his dad a few months to live when they’d left the hospital about two months ago, but at this point, it would feel bad and weird and wrong to start eating his food. It’s got his dad’s name on it. And Dean doesn’t deserve it anyway.
So no more vegetables. Dean chews ice.