And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
‘Shadow,’ said he,
‘Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?’
—Edgar Allan Poe, “Eldorado”
The amulet in Sam’s front jeans pocket is intrusive and uncomfortable. It’s only been a couple of hours since he fished it out of the bottom of the motel wastebasket, and already it feels like a guilty secret, heavy and fraught with significance, instead of a stupidly sentimental trinket. He should have shoved it at his brother immediately, shaken it in his face and demanded, “Jesus, Dean, you’re really gonna leave this behind?”
But he didn’t, because Dean would have just said “Yeah” and thrown it away again. Now Sam pokes at his pocket surreptitiously and ventures a look over at the driver’s seat.
“Hey,” he says.
“We should start looking for a place to burn that stuff.” Sam jerks his head to point out their bloodied clothes lying on the back seat. “Somewhere in those woods up ahead, maybe?”
“Yeah,” Dean assents.
After a moment, in spite of himself, Sam says, “Dean?”
Sometimes Sam pretends he’s never seen his brother before and tries to assess him as a stranger might. Dean can look like a prowling player, a hearty good-ol’-boy, an inoffensive suburbanite, a languid runway model, or a haughty government official by turns. Right now he looks like a menacing hitchhiker that nobody would dare pick up.
Sam knows that he’ll toss the necklace out of the car window without a second thought.
I want you to have it.
Sam turns his face back to the countryside passing by. “Never mind.”
Just inside the woods, they set their ruined shirts alight in a shallow depression in the ground.
It’s a tiny pyre, a parody of a hunter’s last rites; it burns with thin smoke, dark and quick-rising between the two of them. They’ve done this several times before—it’s the best way to get rid of bloodstained and bullet-ridden articles—but it’s never felt so solemn and ritualistic. We’re just tired, Sam thinks. Dean’s eyes are sullen and downturned, and Sam stares at the empty spot on his chest where the amulet should hang.
He looks at the fire again when Dean raises his head.
“Don’t you have any good memories of me at all?” Dean asks in a quiet voice. It’s the most he’s said since they left the motel.
“Uh—” Sam stutters out as the flames lick higher and then begin to subside. “Yeah,” he says, annoyed at how defensive he sounds. The fabric, blackening rapidly, shrinks and crumbles. “Of course I do.”
Dean moves to stamp out the fire, batting at the flakes of ash that rise and float around him.
“It’s not fair to blame me for a heaven that—that Zachariah’s in charge of—” Sam says as he kicks dirt over the ashen remains of the shirts, getting a couple of good sprays over Dean’s boots as well.
“No, I’m not blaming you,” says Dean, catching hold of his arm. “I was just wondering, that’s all.” Sam looks him steadily in the eye. “That’s all,” Dean repeats as he releases him.
“Okay,” says Sam. “I mean, I wouldn’t have chosen Thanksgiving in the suburbs over everything else, that’s for sure.” He waves his arm. “Or the other…” He ducks his head as he trails off vaguely.
“No,” Dean says flatly, maybe a little bitterly, and Sam pauses to bite his lip.
“That Fourth of July,” Sam continues, as a diversion, “that was nice. God, I remember how excited I was when you took me to that little fireworks stand and practically bought them out.”
Dean looks somewhat placated. Sam says, “I begged Dad for roman candles, and he wouldn’t budge, but you…” He shakes his head. “You made me feel normal. Like a regular kid.”
Dean shrugs and says, “Given what happened, maybe Dad was right.” He assiduously scrapes more dirt over the ashes of the fire.
“My best memories,” Sam says, “are just you and me doing ordinary stuff.”
Dean turns his head toward Sam with an unexpectedly hungry expression in his eyes. “Like what?” he asks, a little too quickly, and Sam freezes for a second, knowing the weight that his brother will put on his answer.
“Like when you taught me to drive,” Sam says.
The anticipatory look on Dean’s face is replaced by one of disappointment, close to scorn. “I didn’t teach you to drive,” he spits out. “Dad taught you, same way he taught me, as soon as you were old enough to reach the pedals.”
“No, I know, not that,” Sam explains anxiously. “I mean that time you taught me to drive shift, remember?”
“Oh,” Dean says. He relaxes, and his cheek twitches with what might be the beginning of a smile. “Oh. Yeah, I remember. In that little rattle-trap.”
“I think you liked that little rattle-trap,” teases Sam.
“Herbie the Love Bug,” Dean says reminiscently. Sam snorts a little laugh. “Why not? He had personality, man.”
“He didn’t have looks, that’s for sure,” says Sam, and his brother is mollified enough to smile for real.
“Ya can’t have it all,” Dean tells him. “Not like Baby.” He stomps over the disturbed dirt, and Sam scoops up some sticks and bits of gravel to strew over the site.
“That was a weird summer,” says Dean. “Wasn’t it?”
Sam frowns as he pauses to drop the twigs and brush off his hands. “I think that was the most normal summer we ever had,” he says.
“Yeah, that’s what I mean.” Dean adds a stick or two and studies the effect. “It was so normal it was weird—for us.”
It was the summer after Sam’s junior year of high school, and much to Sam’s amazement, he and Dean were looking at an unprecedented stretch of freedom.
John had left them on their own in a little truck-stop town in the middle of Missouri farmland, fifty miles from Kansas City. Sam wasn’t sure what had enticed their father to let them both stay behind while he went off on what would become a long, protracted, and tedious hunt, but he figured it had less to do with Dean’s recent injuries than with John’s own mysterious calculations, and certainly nothing to do with Sam’s desire to take a summer school math class at the high school where he’d just finished the eleventh grade.
The way things were going, though, it wasn’t hard to believe that John was just sick of dealing with Sam, and that was just fine with him. He knew it was not so fine with Dean, but at least with Dad gone, Dean didn’t have to run interference between them, and Sam thought that must be some relief. Dean’s latest wound, the one that made Sam turn on his father with seething fury when John said that they didn’t need a doctor to stitch it up, was healing well, and Dean had used his down time to charm his way into a an honest-to-goodness part-time job at the local auto repair shop.
The town was small, but they had dropped into it seemingly without making a ripple. There must have been something inherently midwestern about them that radiated “one of us” to the locals they encountered. Or maybe everyone was simply too tied up in their own day-to-day living in this decidedly unprosperous place to pry into the past lives of that sweet-talking young guy who was good with cars and his little brother, the one with the hair. Didn’t we see the dad, too, once or twice—but he’s workin’ out of state these days? Truck driver or something like that…yeah, whatever; I wonder if the one with the hair’ll play on the football team next year? Lord knows we could use another big guy.
Dean’s place of employment, Carmody One-Stop Auto Repair, was not far from the motel they were living in and the run-down apartment complexes and small businesses that surrounded the truck stop, but Sam’s high school was a long haul across the highway, and there weren’t any sidewalks until you got downtown. When Dean showed up one day at the end of class with the dingy cream-colored 1968 or ’69 Volkswagen Beetle, Sam was both relieved and amused. It might have been a nice car once, in years past—like thirty years past, Sam thought when he first saw its dented fenders, lack of hubcaps, and patches of rust.
“Okay, what is this?” Sam asked after looking twice to make sure that it was, in fact, his brother behind the wheel.
“New wheels, Sammy,” said Dean briskly through the open window. “Aren’t you tired of walking?”
“You didn’t buy this, did you?” Sam responded, gingerly touching the roof.
Dean snorted. “No, dipshit, Wilcox said we could drive any of the old beaters they have laying around their yard.” Wilcox was the name of the auto shop owner.
“You couldn’t have gotten one with air conditioning at least?” Sam complained. He was joking, of course, but there was a moment before Dean huffed and rolled his eyes when Sam regretted the words—just a pinprick of a reaction, a little tightening around the mouth, another reminder of how Sam was never satisfied, how Dean could never give enough.
But Dean only said, “There weren’t any Lamborghinis, sport. You get Herbie the Love Bug.”
“Isn’t this the one that you said was held together with chewing gum and bumper stickers?”
“Yeah, but it runs fine. Just watch out, there’s a couple of holes in the bottom under the mats.”
“Great,” said Sam, but he couldn’t help smiling, both out of gratitude for the gesture, and for the image of himself and his brother rolling around town crammed into this tin can, trailing gasoline fumes and dropping flakes of rust in their wake. “Girls are gonna love us.”
“Oh, you betcha, sweet cheeks,” said Dean, and Sam wondered, not for the first time, how was it that his brother could sound so corny, like an elderly diner waitress, and yet Sam was the one who got called dorky. “Look, it’s got a tape deck.”
“Everything’s up to date in Kansas City,” Sam said drily, and Dean must have been in a good mood, because he laughed like that was actually funny before he got out of the car and gestured toward the driver’s seat.
“All yours,” he said.
“I can’t drive shift,” Sam replied.
“Yeah, I know, so now you’re gonna learn.”
“Great,” Sam said again.
“Might as well learn something useful along with your algebra this summer.”
“It’s trigonometry,” Sam corrected him as he got into the car. It had surprisingly more headroom than appearances suggested, but it was alarmingly creaky.
“Whatever,” said Dean. “Now—put your foot on the clutch. Not like that.”
It was going to be a long summer.
Sam’s memories of that summer coalesced around the smell of the inside of that car, a mixture of gasoline, decaying vinyl, and sweat, with an inexplicably minty undertone that made Sam think that the chewing gum quip might have some truth in it. He didn’t remember much of the town except the auto repair shop, which was run by a jovial man named Wilcox and his grandson, Grant, who was about the same age as Dean. Grant was a quiet type, but he seemed friendly enough and was impressed by Dean’s ability to hot-wire any car in their yard. Mrs. Wilcox rounded out the family group, frequently stopping by the shop to drop off paperwork or food, and it wasn’t long before she started bringing sandwiches or cookies for Sam and Dean as well.
Dean picked Sam up from summer school every day, waiting for him in Herbie among the pickup trucks and soccer-mom minivans in front of the high school, and he made Sam drive everywhere, like it was still about the stick-shift lessons, even though Sam had proven he was pretty much a master of it now, having driven on every road in town, stalling only twice. The distinctive puttering of the Bug’s engine had become as familiar to Sam as the Impala’s thundery roar. They took the long way back to the garage, stopping at McDonald’s or Dairy Queen, or sometimes running an errand for Mrs. Wilcox. When they got there Sam did his homework in a corner while Dean either worked or—when there was nothing to do—sat around shooting the shit with Wilcox and Grant as a baseball game played on the tv in the background. They often stayed there long after the Wilcoxes left for the day, because the shop was considerably more homey than their ratty cash-only-in-advance motel room.
“Why are you even going to summer school, man?” Dean asked once when they were locking up. “Summer school’s for losers. You get straight As.”
Sam made up a long, convoluted answer that involved a misunderstanding with a cute girl, which seemed to satisfy Dean. Sam was glad he bought it, because he couldn’t tell Dean the real reason.
Days before the end of the school year, Mr. Thompson had sat Sam down with a school schedule and explained that if Sam would take his trigonometry class this summer, then he’d be on track to take AP calculus in the fall. “Which will put you,” he continued, “in a much better position when applying to selective colleges.”
Sam’s pulse quickened a little at the mention of selective colleges—the word carried the air of exclusive (also expensive), but in his case they might as well have been extraterrestrial. He hadn’t the heart to inform the kindly teacher that, in all likelihood, he wouldn’t be in this town to take AP calculus or anything else in the fall. But Mr. Thompson sensed his unspoken ambivalence.
“You are thinking of colleges, aren’t you, Sam?” he asked.
“Oh—yes,” Sam said. Dreaming, more like it. “I am.”
“Well, don’t limit yourself.” Mr. Thompson paused and glanced briefly at Sam’s much-the-worse-for-wear shoes, then said delicately, “I know that application fees add up; it gets expensive—but just so you know, there’s financial aid available—”
“Oh, I know,” Sam interrupted quickly and too loudly, and Mr. Thompson stopped in embarrassment. Poor Mr. Thompson, Sam thought. He’d die if he knew that the obstacles to Sam’s college hopes went far beyond finances. He’d been a bright spot in Sam’s academic life ever since they’d arrived here, not more than a month before this, and of all the well-meaning teachers who had taken an interest in Sam, he was one of the least intrusive and the most concretely helpful.
“Well,” resumed Mr. Thompson, “when the time comes, just let me know, and I can help you out with the forms.”
“Thank you,” Sam said. “I—I’ll take your trig class.”
Mr. Thompson was pleased. “Good! Good.” He walked Sam to the door. “What’s your dream school, then, Sam?”
Sam paused. No one had ever asked him this before, but he had his answer ready. “Stanford,” he replied, and braced himself for a leery response, the grimace and lengthy inhale that meant oh, sorry, no chance there, but what about a good state school, have you thought about that?
“Ha!” cried Mr. Thompson, more delighted than ever. “California dreaming, eh?”
Sam grinned. “Yeah.”
Why not? Dreams were free.
Summer school was in its final days, and Sam knew it was a goddamn miracle that they hadn’t yet been summoned to join their father in some monster-ridden town hundreds of miles away. John called once every two or three days, talking mostly to Dean, and Sam was always waiting for the moment when Dean would turn to him and say, “Well, we’re buggin’ out—gotta go to Arkansas” or wherever. But so far Dean had only said “Dad’s still in Idaho” or “Dad’s going to Wyoming,” and Sam would breathe a little sigh.
Maybe he really would finish this class. Maybe he would even get to take AP Calculus—if not here, then in the next place.
“Sam,” said Mr. Thompson, “you’ve aced all the material; you’re good to go.”
Sam wished that this kind of happiness was something he could share with Dean.
“Will you miss this place?” he asked once in the auto shop one afternoon. They were standing near the door; Dean was preparing to lock up.
Dean looked a little surprised. “I dunno,” he said. “Why?”
“You seem to like it here.”
“Yeah, it’s okay. I mean, it’s a lot better than some places we been stuck in. Only thing is our motel sucks.”
“The Wilcoxes are real nice.”
“And you like this kind of work.”
Dean looked at him for a long moment, frowning slightly. He took a step back. “Hey,” he said sharply, “are you taller than me now?”
Sam didn’t get an answer to his question, but he did find out, at Dean’s insistence, that he was in fact taller than his brother now.
Dean quickly dialed back his expletive-laden diatribe at this discovery when Mrs. Wilcox looked in at the garage door. “Oh, Mrs. W., can you believe it? Sam’s taller than me now!”
“Sam’s always been taller than you, honey,” Mrs. Wilcox laughed. “You two are both such good-looking boys,” she added by way of consolation. “I’m glad I caught you—I thought you might still be here. I made you this—” and she held up a foil-covered tin.
“Is that a pie?” exclaimed Dean. He peeked under the foil. “Cherry,” he informed Sam, and he poured out an effusion of thanks.
“Oh, and this came to the office for you,” said smiling Mrs. Wilcox, handing Dean a large manila envelope.
Sam gawked at it as though it were an invitation to the White House, a rarity marvelous to behold, but Dean took it calmly, as though getting mail was no big deal for a Winchester. They thanked Mrs. Wilcox again as she left.
“Well, I’m hungry,” Dean announced when she was gone. “Let’s go.”
As they headed to the car, he tucked the envelope under his arm and crimped the aluminum foil covering the pie with an elaborately casual air.
“What is that?” Sam burst out when he couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Nothing,” Dean said coyly in his you-know-I’m-lying voice, and Sam yanked the envelope from him. “Jesus, Sam, watch the pie.”
It was indeed addressed to Dean, care of the auto shop, and the return address was that of the State Board of Education.
“What the hell—” said Sam in surprise, and his brother shrugged.
“Go ahead, open it,” he said, and Sam quickly slid his finger under the flap. He pulled out a sheet of heavy, cream-colored paper with an embossed seal and the words “Certificate of High School Equivalency” emblazoned at the top in an impressively florid script.
Dean’s full name was printed neatly in the center.
Sam’s first impulse was to blurt out, “Is this real?”—and he was so very thankful that he didn’t, that he paused instead to look at his brother’s face. Dean was standing there with the pie in his hands, a slight blush on his cheeks and an unmistakable air of pride in the little smile on his lips. The sight made Sam’s throat tighten.
“Dean,” he said joyously, “you got your GED.”
Dean got a little bit redder and actually kicked the ground. “Yeah.”
“But—when? When did you do it?”
“Remember that day I told you I was going to Kansas City?” said Dean. “I didn’t—I went to Liberty and took the test. Grant was doing it, so I figured I may as well give it a try.”
“But—you did this all on your own?”
“Yeah.” Dean looked a little annoyed. “I’m not stupid, Sam.”
“I know! I just…never thought you’d bother.”
“Well, now you know why I was asking you all those math questions.”
“Yeah but—why didn’t you tell me you were taking the test? I—”
“I didn’t want a drill sergeant.” Dean carefully balanced the pie on top of the curved roof of the car and pulled his keys from his pocket. “Grant was taking a class; I looked at the stuff and it wasn’t that hard. Anyway, it’s done. So I got the piece of paper. Just in case…”
Sam was breathless. In case…“What?”
“In case I decide to run off and join the circus, dumbass.”
In a giddy rush Sam threw his arms around Dean. “You can’t join the circus, dude; you know I hate clowns.”
Dean stumbled a little, laughing, then regained his balance and peeled him off, flinging him around and capturing him in a headlock. “I’d be the lion tamer.”
“No,” said Sam, “you’d be the guy they shoot out of a cannon.” The sharp points of Dean’s amulet dug into Sam’s shoulder blade, and he yelped “Ow!”
“Well, you’d be the guy shoveling the elephant shit.” Dean released him and straightened Sam’s shirt with an apologetic tug.
“I’m not gonna run away to join the circus,” Sam said as he put the certificate, now a little bent, back in the manila envelope.
“No,” said Dean. “You’re gon—you’re not.”
A slight pall fell over them. “Dean,” said Sam, “seriously. Why?”
Dean was quiet and uncharacteristically thoughtful. “I don’t know. Grant kept talking about it; he thinks it’s his ticket outta this place.”
“It’s not that bad here,” Sam murmured.
“He wants to join the army or something. Anyway, I thought it would be a good idea, ’cause you never know what’s gonna happen.” He squinted into the distance. “What if…”
Sam closed his eyes. What if Dad dies? It was something they never, ever talked about, even if it was always at the back of their thoughts, lurking like an unformed monster that could be brought to life by invoking its name. You never know, Sam thought, and it was a horrible, hopeful, shamefully unfilial wish that he immediately cut down without examining.
He opened his eyes just as Dean turned to him and said wistfully, “And y’know, I was this close to graduating,” and Sam was so surprised at this display of feeling that he couldn’t speak. His chest filled with the words he wanted to get out: Dean, you’re not gonna join the army, are you?
But Dean was already shaking off any introspective musing, and he hurried to unlock Herbie’s door. It squawked as he opened it. “Here, hold this, will ya?” he said, handing the pie to Sam.
Sam, in return, held the manila envelope out to Dean. I’m really proud of you, Sam wanted to say, and Dean, with his unerring sense for an impending chick-flick moment, took the thing and tossed it into the back seat of the car with forceful insouciance. “You never know,” he intoned in a goofy parody of a 1950s tv announcer, “how far you can go with a GED and a give-’em-hell attitude.”
He had forgotten to make Sam drive, and Sam settled back in the passenger seat with the pie on his knees. Dean poked a cassette into the deck. Aerosmith. It was the middle of “Dream On.” He turned up the volume.
“We should celebrate,” Sam said, “since you’re officially employable now.”
His brother broke into a wide grin, like a ten-year-old who’d been told he was good enough to play in the major leagues. “Hey, I know,” he shouted over the music and the comforting chugging sound of the engine, “let’s get some ice cream to go with the pie.”
Dream until your dreams come true.
The call came five days after the end of summer school. “Get your stuff together,” said Dean. “We gotta get on a bus to New Jersey.”
At least they had time enough to say goodbye to the Wilcoxes, who extended them a kind invitation to come back anytime.
Over the course of their travels, they passed by the town at least a half-dozen times.
They never went back. They didn’t know why. Maybe it was a fear, lurking like a monster in the shadow of their thoughts, that they would find Carmody One-Stop Auto Repair shuttered and abandoned, or gone altogether, covered over by the parking lot of Target or Home Depot, no trace left of the summer that was so normal it was weird.
Out in the woods, the smell of smoke is fading, and Sam gives the site of the fire a last once-over.
“I wonder what happened to Herbie,” says Dean as they make their way back to the Impala.
Sam shrugs. “Scrapped, probably.”
“Aw, no, man. I’d like to think somebody fixed him up, drove him to California, and now he’s tootling around, living the life with someone who really appreciates him.”
Sam eyes Dean narrowly, but his brother appears to mean this at face value only. Sam’s the one who’s reading a lifetime of fraternal push and pull, gravitation and repulsion, into a simple memory of a car.
“Just like in the movie,” Dean adds. “He wins the big race and lives happily ever after.”
He wins by a fluke, Sam thinks. An ironic fluke, that your great flaw will enable you to save the day, if only you can split your damaged self in two and leave one half behind.
“How many times did we watch that thing? It was on tv all the time,” Dean says. “And what was that race called? It sounded like some kind of motel name, the uh, Ponderosa?—no—”
“The El Dorado,” Sam interrupts. Over the mountains of the moon, down the valley of the shadow.
“That’s it,” Dean agrees. “Redundant,” he says through a yawn, and it takes Sam a moment both to decipher the word and to realize he’s still talking about the name of the race. “Wanna drive?” Dean asks, and tosses Sam the keys before he can answer.
Ride, boldly ride, the shade replied, if you seek for Eldorado.
Sam drives, and thinks of the day he’ll give the amulet back to Dean. Not now. Someday when the air is clear, when the sting of the word “worthless” is eased, when they can maybe even laugh about it. He looks over at his brother, who sleeps against the window with his mouth slightly open, looking more like the boy who shot bottle rockets into the sky on the Fourth of July than the man who clawed his way out from the depths of the earth.
Not now, with all the pressing matters that weigh them down, with the end of the world at hand.
Sam drives, squinting into the sun as it effortlessly sinks lower and lower and eventually disappears.
Not now. When the time is right.
Sam drives, and the horizon stretches flat as the boundless sea, with gilt-edged clouds just out of reach, dimming faster with each passing minute.