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8 early drafts of Sam Winchester's college application essay and the one he sent to Stanford (the sweet little blonde jam)

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1. How three men over the age of 17 can live out of a 1967 Impala without killing each other. yeah, well, when you figure that one out, apply for a job in international diplomacy.

2. Blessed are the peacemakers. Jesus Christ may have said this in the Sermon on the Mount, but I'm certain my brother would call it a curse. He has long been the family peacemaker between my father and me. If there's a more thankless task in the known world, I'd like to hear about it.

Canton, Ohio

Dean taps at Sam's door, even though it's his door too. (Sam knows it's not Dad -- Dad never knocks when he wants to get in yet another last word.)

Sam shoves his papers under a book. "Go away! I'm doing homework."

As expected, Dean opens the door anyway. "Brought you an icepack for that eye."

"I don't want it."

Dean takes his hand, slaps the icepack into it. "Don't be such a contrary little bitch." As Sam gives in and holds the ice to his eye, Dean sits on Sam's bed. "He didn't mean that."

"So what? Result's the same. He's mad, he's drunk, he wanted to loom over me and make me back down. And I'm the one with an icepack on my eye."

"Sam, he feels shitty about it. But you know how he is."

"I know exactly how he is. Right now he's brooding. In thirty seconds he'll pour another drink. And in two-point-five minutes he'll punch the wall, slam out the door and walk down the street to the bar."

Scowling, Dean removes himself to his own bed, taking up the knife he'd put there to sharpen. "He feels shitty about it," he repeats. Pulling the knife from its sheath, he begins working on it, honing its already razor sharp edge. "But he knows if he comes in here, you'll goad him right back into a fight."

Sam sputters, unable to form even rudimentary words. Before he can recover, a thud against the wall sets off the sound of plaster falling and mice scrabbling inside the walls, followed by the slam of the front door.

"He didn't come in because it's easier to leave," Sam says. "It always has been."


3. I learned how to read maps not long after I learned how to read. i was given the job of keeper of the maps before I even started grade school, and was promoted to navigator once I could read names like Tucumcari and Pontchartrain. When I was a little older, I imagined the red and blue lines as arteries and veins in a body so huge our car was just a red cell, circulating along these vessels, down to the smallest capillaries -- county roads, dirt roads without names. I kept hearing about the heartland, but as much as I studied the atlas, I couldn't find a heart.

It's only now, as I'm making plans to leave this well-traveled life, that I realize the heart has always been on the move, right with me. The heart that keeps us alive and whole through these long travels is my brother, Dean. pretentious shit, try again


Westbound I-70, West of Richmond, Indiana

Not content with slashing a big X through the two paragraphs, Sam makes a dense line of hash marks all across the paper, then crisscrosses them with perpendicular lines. He slips off the paperclip that keeps his notebook page from flapping in the wind from the front, turns the page, replaces the clip.

Dad flicks a glance into the rearview. "What are you doing back there? Can't be homework."

"Trying to keep up my languages so I won't fall behind," Sam lies.

"He's writing a letter," Dean informs Dad. "Aren't you, Sammy?"


"He's writing to this sweet little blonde from his chem class." Dean contorts in the passenger seat to give Sam a lewd wink. "She's been chasing Sam all semester." The sweet little blonde is a complete figment of Dean's filthy imagination. "She invited him to homecoming. It's why he was such a pain in the ass about leaving. Right, Sammy?"

"No," he repeats flatly.

Grinning crookedly, Dean turns to their dad. "Big secret," he stage whispers.

"Shut up," Sam groans.

"See? He's totally hot for her."

Scowling, Sam turns a notebook page so violently it rips a quarter of the way out. He mutters a curse and bends over the fresh page.

4. My brother Dean is the biggest asshole I know, he writes, but that's all he's got.


Gary, Indiana

The next time Dad stops to gas up the car, he sends them into the mini-mart for subs or pizza or whatever they want for lunch. Sam, newly towering over Dean, grabs him by the shirt front and drags him to the back corner of the store, by the beer case.

"What was that stupid shit?" he demands.

"Just trying to help you out, Sammy."

"Help me out?" A guy perusing the beers shoots a look their way, so Sam lowers his voice. "Exactly what are you helping with?"

Dean flicks a glance through the large windows of the mini-mart. Dad's bent over to screw the gas cap back in place above the back bumper.

"I know what you're doing," Dean says in a confidential tone.

Sam waits for elaboration -- some pointed comment about Sam's arguing style, something like that, but what comes next completely blindsides him.

"The school thing," Dean elaborates. "I know."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Sam says.

"College," Dean says. "That's what all this writing's been about. You have to write some kind of essay, right?"

Sam struggles to keep his breath even. "Look, I don't know where you got this idea, but there's nothing like that going on."

Leering, Dean says, "Going after some of that college pussy, huh?"

"Jesus, Dean."

"You could've told me, Sammy. I won't say anything." He's trying to keep his voice casual, Sam can tell, but there's an undertone of hurt there.

And Sam realizes he's been hiding this secret from Dean just as much as he has from Dad. "I don't want to talk about this now."

"Or ever?" Dean retorts.

"For Christ's sake, Dean. Just drop it."

"Boys." Their father's voice rings out across the aisles of motor oil and snack foods. "What part of 'grab some lunch' don't you two understand? You're wasting time."

"Sorry, sir," Dean says, heading for the island with the hot foods. Sam chews the inside of his cheek, then sighs and follows.


5. The vast size of the United States and the history of its expansion makes the romantic vision of "the road" almost inevitable. As the son of a traveling salesman who brought his family along for most trips, I have a different view of life on what William Least Heat Moon called the blue highways.

•crappy motels
•fleeting social interactions

stupid. might as well call social svcs yrself


Chicago, Illinois to Spokane, Washington

Dean keeps up the whole girlfriend fiction, and Sam lets him. She's developed a name -- Vanessa -- and a bra size. Dean's even made a show of offering to mail a letter for Sam, and once or twice Sam has given him an envelope with a faked address to drop in a mail box. Their dad scowls at the time and energy Sam's "wasting" on phantom Vanessa, but it beats the sort of heat he'd be getting if Dad knew the truth.



6. One of my early favorite memories of my brother Dean is the time he asked a diner waitress how to make spaghetti, which was my favorite food when I was small.

"How do you make this stuff?" he asked.

The waitress just smiled at Dad like Isn't he the most precious thing? and said, "I don't make it, sweetie. The cook does."

Dean heaved an exasperated sigh, the way he did whenever Sam was being the stupidest moron in the world. "Yeah, but how? What does he do?"

It took what seemed like forever for Dean to get a straight answer, but eventually she stopped being so condescending and told him how it was done.

And the next time Dad was away on a hunt, Dean made them both a huge plate of spaghetti.

Sam rubs his eyes, trying to figure out how to arrange the details. After a while he huffs out a breath in annoyance. Too complicated to tell right. And what's the fucking point of the story, anyhow?

What makes it complicated is, it's actually a coda. The beginning of the story was the first time he'd ever had spaghetti. At a diner, that was no surprise. Sam was pissed off about something, and refused to make up his mind what he wanted for dinner. Finally, Dad grew disgusted and ordered the kids' meal of spaghetti.

When it arrived, Sam was highly dubious of the tangled mess, eyeing it suspiciously. "What is it?"

"Spaghetti," his father said. "Eat it."

"Bloody brains," Dean said at the same time. He seemed the more credible source.

Gagging slightly, Sam pushed away the plate.

"It's fine," Dad growled. "You'll eat it and you'll like it."

Dean elaborated on the brains theme, informing him the meatballs were breaded, deep-fried eyeballs. Sam gagged again, then promptly burst into tears.

"Goddammit, Dean," his father scolded in a low, tense voice, aware of the other diners. "I expect you to help, not make things worse."

Looking stricken, Dean put an arm around Sam's shaking shoulders. "I'm sorry, Sammy. I was just goofing around. It's just spaghetti, like Dad said. C'mon, don't cry."

But Sam was going full force by then, and it was going to take a while to wind down.

"C'mon, Sammy," he crooned again. "It's okay, I was just teasing. C'mon and try some. It's good, it really is."

"No. It's gross."

"It is not," Dean said. "C'mon, if I have some, will you eat it?"

Sam snuffled, unwilling to commit.

"Look, it's really fun to eat. Watch this." Dean stabbed his fork into the plate and wound a bunch of strands into a ball. "It's just noodles. See?" He shoveled them in and chewed enthusiastically, strings of spaghetti dangling from his mouth. "It's good. It's kind of like the stuff we have in the cans, except it's long pieces instead of circles. You'll like it."

It had taken a little more cajoling to get him to try the first bite, but after that, Sam was hooked. It was one of those things he could order in a diner and know that, even if it wasn't good, it wasn't going to be bad, either.

And then Dean had learned to make it instead of the canned kind, and it had been the most awesome food in the world.

There's no way Sam can tell this story in 500 words. Plus, he cries in it. A world of NO.


Las Cruces, New Mexico

For once they're staying in a motel with a pool, so after Dad settles in front of the TV with the first cold one of the night, Dean and Sam head for the water. It's warm and a little rank, and not too chlorinated, so with the first mouthful Dean accidentally ingests, he's done with swimming. After a few more lazy laps, Sam hoists himself onto the cement next to Dean, who's still dangling his feet in the water.

"Well, that was ..."

"Refreshing?" Dean offers. "If you're the creature from the black lagoon, maybe."

Sniffing at his still-wet arm, Sam wrinkles his nose.

"How's it going? With the letters to Vanessa, I mean." Someone else might mistake Dean's tone for idle conversation, but Sam knows better.

"I don't know." He'd want to say something more like "I don't want to talk about it," but given what he knows lies beneath Dean's false casualness, he can't. "They're a bitch to write."

"What are they supposed to say?"

Sam paddles his feet back and forth, listening to the slosh of pool water. "Something meaningful. An important event. A person who's a role model for me. It's supposed to reveal something about me that adds up to why I'm the perfect, uh, guy for Vanessa."

Glancing across the water toward their room, Dean apparently satisfies himself that Dad's not likely to overhear. "So what school are you applying to?"

"There's a handful."

"Really? You're trying for more than one?"

"Yeah, Dean, that's how it's done." A flicker of expression tells Sam this was not the best wording -- or tone -- he could have used. "In case you don't get into your number one choice. Otherwise, if you miss the deadlines, you're screwed until the next semester."

Dean makes a dismissive noise. "Like you won't get into the first school you applied to. They're all gonna have a raging boner for you, Sammy."

"You don't know, man. So many people apply to these places, and the others -- they're gonna have clubs and extracurriculars and being on the newspaper staff and debate team and shit. There are kids who've been loading up their schedules and their extra activities with all sorts of stuff designed to get them a spot in the best schools in the country. They've entered contests and won scholarships, spent school years abroad with a student exchange program, gotten recommendations from people they've known their whole lives. They've got twenty pages of activities and reference letters, while I've got twenty pages of transcripts. I'm nobody's golden candidate."

"Bullshit! You're crazy smart. Anyone can tell that after five minutes of talking to you."

"Yeah, but how do I manage to get five minutes of their time? I'm not that impressive on paper, dude."

"That's just fucked up!"

A spear of light slants across the courtyard -- Dad has stepped out of their room.


"We're all right, Dad," Dean says. "Just shooting the shit."

"Well, get in here anyway. We want to be on the road early tomorrow."

Getting to their feet, they towel off as Dad watches.

Dean mutters, "If that Vanessa doesn't answer your letters, she's a stupid bitch who doesn't deserve you."


7. totally stuck now. FUCK.

Dear Vanessa,

You don't know me from Adam, but I want to get in you. I know there are thousands of other guys -- and girls, let's not forget them! -- who want in you too, but I'm the one you want. Really.

Why? Because my brother says so. FUCK!!!


Munday, Texas

Dean's reaction confuses him. He expected -- he thinks it's what he expected -- a fight. Dean's always been the one who's talked about how they have to stick together, the one who's always tried to patch up the arguments and screaming matches between Sam and Dad. He's been expecting a rant about loyalty and blood, but Dean hasn't come forth with it. He's offered his interest, his not-particularly informed or helpful suggestions, his fierce belief in Sam's worth.

This unexpected support makes Sam feel worse about breaking away from the family. Because he knows that it's a front, at least in part. Not the faith in Sam, but Dean's okayness about Sam's path. It wears thin at times, and Sam can feel a tinge of desperation that comes to the surface, though Dean keeps it unspoken.

Sam wonders why. Dean's whole life has revolved around watching out for Sam from the time he was in diapers. Feeding him, dressing him, soothing him after nightmares, making sure he did his homework, keeping him and Dad from ripping one another's throats out. Hell, even changing said diapers, back when it all began. Dean should be glad to have his long-deserved reprieve. Life's bound to be more peaceful -- by Winchester standards, that is -- without Sam around, not to mention a lot less work. Dad and Dean are so much more alike. Dean takes pride in his mission, in emulating Dad in every way. So many fights he won't have to wade into, sulks he won't have to endure, whiskey bottles he won't have to toss.

He'll be able to make himself what he wants to be, without being held back. Just as Sam will.


8. Can you call a significant event 'life-changing' if it happened so early that you remember nothing of your life before? The thing that changed everything for me was the death of my mother in a house fire when I was six months old. Everything I remember about my world is the remade version I've always lived with. My father moving from town to town to find work, bringing my brother and me along or leaving us with trusted family members for a while until he could get settled. My brother Dean taking over as big brother and mom. This is all I remember. My mother and our family home are just images in a photograph.

So for me, the life-changing event I think will have the most significance is one that hasn't happened. Coming to college will turn my life upside-down, just as my life has in a way turned the experience of college upside-down. For most students, they think of it as leaving home. I haven't had a home, not in the sense of a stable address. There's been a certain consistency in the places I've lived -- one short-term rental apartment really is a lot like the next last.

doesn't suck entirely. watch for sent. frag. (run-on frags -- NICE.) 200 wds -- do i have 300 more? that i'm able to tell, anyway


Pulaski, Tennessee

The apartment door sticks as Sam shoulders into it, not giving until it suddenly crashes against the inside wall.

"Fucking rain," Dean mutters. The three of them are sodden and cold with it, and Dean's got watery blood running off his hand onto the threadbare carpet, as well as down his face onto his shirt and jacket.

"Sam, I want you to do the suturing," Dad says.

Ever since his first time, when Dean mocked his small, methodically placed stitches, it's been Sam's job to do any suturing on the face or other delicate areas.

"Don' wanna mess up my pretty, pretty face," Dean says, swaying.

"You already look like Helena Bonham Carter in that crappy Frankenstein remake," Sam says. "Crew cut and all."


Dad gives him a gentle shove toward Sam and heads into the kitchen to lay out the first aid kit and get some water boiling.

"I don't want to work in there," Sam says. "I don't think I can do that good a job if you're sitting up." Looking around the shabby room, Sam tries to find a spot to settle Dean that still gives him a decent angle and visibility for good, steady suturing. After a moment's thought, he pushes Dean sideways into the grungy recliner and tilts it back, arranging Dean so that his head is on the footrest and his feet are slanted up. Then he pulls the scarred coffee table closer and perches on it. Dad comes in with the first aid kit and some holey dishtowels and cloths.

Sam wraps one of the towels around Dean's bloody hand. "That's bleeding pretty bad, but I want to get his face first. Think some butterflies will hold that?"

"I'll see what I can do," Dad says. "Go wash up."

By the time Sam settles in at Dean's head with his sterilized needle and thread, Dad's got Dean's hand wrapped in a towel, elevated on a pillow, and the gash on his face has been cleaned out.

"I'm gonna go out and get you boys some dinner."

Sam doesn't bother flicking him a look. "Okay, Dad." He knows how this will play out. Dad will go to some bar with a grill, and have one while he's waiting for the food, and then have a few more. If he and Dean are lucky, Dad will come back with the soggy and/or cold food while they're still awake.

After Dad leaves in a gust of rain and wind, Sam says, "We'll be leaving tomorrow, once the hangover eases."

"Course we will," Dean mumbles. "Job's done now."

"That's not what I was going by. I figure the damage we've done to the place equals the deposit we put down. Time to haul ass."


"Hold onto that. I'm gonna start."

His breath hisses right along with Dean's as he tugs the thread through the skin on either side of the cut on Dean's cheek. "Doesn't look too bad now that it's cleaned up some."

"It's weirding me out to watch your face upside down like this." Dean might as well be drunk when he's lost blood; he goes woozy and talky.

"Then close your eyes."

Dean does so, staying still until Sam has made three more careful stitches. As Sam snips off the thread on that stitch and prepares to start another, Dean opens his eyes. "Why're you leaving, Sammy?" He grabs for Sam's hand and gets his palm poked with a needle. "Ow," he adds accusingly.

"Dude, this has nothing to do with you."

Dean's lips twist into a sneer. "'It's not you, it's me.'"

You're the one who's acting like it's a breakup, Sam thinks sourly. What he says, in the mildest tone he can manage, is, "Shut up and hold still." He places another stitch, clips it, then says, "This. This is why I want to leave. I've been stitching you and Dad up since I was twelve. I've been wondering if you would come back from a hunt since before that. I don't want to live this way. I wish you and Dad didn't live this way, but I can't do anything about you two. I can decide for myself."

Dean doesn't say anything for a long time. Sam has covered the gash on his face with gauze and unwrapped his hand to begin his work there when Dean asks, "What are you gonna study?"

What do you want?, Sam thinks he means. "I'm not sure yet. Probably not medicine." He offers a grim smile. "I like doing research, and I'm good at it, so maybe something that uses that. Which could be a lot of things."

Dean goes quiet again, though for a much shorter time. "Man, I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I love this life."

Though he knows he's not meant to, Sam feels a little sad at the declaration. Not that Dean loves what he does, but that he can't imagine anything else. Dean wouldn't agree, but Sam is sure that it limits his life.

"That's just it," Sam says. "I don't. I have to find the one that makes me happy."

Giving it a moment's thought, Dean finally says, "Yeah. Okay."


If I were to tell people that my role model is my brother Dean, they might be surprised. Perhaps they'd believe it's just a knee-jerk little-brother response to the sibling who's four years older and four years cooler. But the Dean the world sees and the one I know are polar opposites.

Dean -- and he would die if I said this to anyone in his hearing -- has a protective, almost maternal streak a mile wide. It's something he had to develop. When I was six months old, our mother died and my father and Dean were my only caregivers. When our dad was at work, Dean was the one who made sandwiches, checked homework, bandaged scraped knees, and made sure my teeth were brushed and my clothes matched. Since our father is a deep sleeper, Dean has always been the first one who was there when I had nightmares, or woke up sick in the middle of the night. (But he made sure I learned the skills he considered male essentials, too. He taught me to spit, wrestled me to the ground and teased me mercilessly when he felt the situation required it.) The face he presents to the rest of the world is tougher, harder, a cocky kid with a smart mouth.

If that's the only context other people think of when they associate the word smart with Dean, they couldn't be more wrong. That's not exactly surprising to me -- he's good at disguising his intelligence. My brother would rather have people underestimate him than overestimate him -- and maybe they would anyway, because the kinds of knowledge he has aren't always valued by more educated people. Dean understands things. He takes after our father, who's a mechanic, and there's not a machine he can't get to know thoroughly -- on the rare occasions he can't fix one, he at least can tell what's wrong. He also gets people on a very deep level. As a volunteer on the emergency squad in a rural area, he deals with people who are hurt and often terrified. Having been on the scene at an accident involving some of my fellow students, I have seen how his matter-of-fact, reassuring manner rapidly calmed both the injured kids and their arriving parents. I've also seen him charm a waitress out of an extra helping of food -- for me. He's smart in other ways, quick to memorize information and retain it, quick to orient himself in unfamiliar territory. I know that I'm good with books, but I hope someday to be as smart as Dean in all the many different ways he is.

Another well-hidden facet of my brother's personality is how much things matter to him. Helping people -- sometimes even saving them -- is deeply important to him, but the topics he's most serious about are glossed over by jokes.

I feel privileged to know who he is at his core, and I hope I grow into as fine a man.


Ft. Myers, Florida

Dad's off somewhere in a suit, asking official-sounding questions related to a new hunt. Dean's taking advantage of the privacy fence surrounding their postage-stamp sized patio -- this place is far less shitty than the last several -- to clean his gun at the picnic table.

Grabbing a beer and a soda, Sam heads outside to join him. He sets the beer in front of Dean. "Hey."

Dean flicks a look up at him, then back to his work. "Hey, Sammy."

Sam fails to sit down, shifting his feet, which prompts Dean to look up again, squinting in the harsh Florida sunlight.

"What's up?"

"I finished my letter to Vanessa."

It warms Sam to see the grin that breaks out on his brother's face.

"Yeah? Way to go, Sammy. Here -- you deserve this." He offers the beer to Sam, who trades him the can of Dr. Pepper.

Sam settles on the redwood bench and tips the bottle of beer up to drink. He watches Dean's hands as he deftly reassembles the pistol and sets it on the table, then reaches for the soda and drains it. Dean lets out a long, raucous belch that makes Sam think of The Simpsons, and how Barney's lips would ripple violently when he burped.

"Can I see it?"


Dean rolls his eyes. "What do you think, dumbass? Your letter to Vanessa."

This is the last thing he expected. "Uh, sure. Yeah. Sure." After a moment's hesitation he rises and goes to get the clean copy he'd printed out. He emerges from their bedroom to find Dean in the bathroom, scrubbing his hands and forearms with Lava.

"Don't want to get anything on it," Dean says.

"Don't worry. I'm emailing this to Pastor Jim. He's putting the packets together. That way I don't have to fumble around getting money orders without Dad knowing, and I have a mailing address."

"Money orders? What for?"

"Application fees. He's making that my birthday and early graduation presents."

"Shit, Sammy. You should've asked me. How much do you need?"

"Nothing. It's taken care of. Jim and I already had that argument."

"You know I don't like taking --"

"You aren't. I'm not taking it, he's giving it. Are you gonna shut up and read this fucking thing, or not?"

One hand on his hip, Dean snatches the paper from him. He stands in the hallway, reading the first sentence. "Move it, huh?" he says, pushing past Sam to head for the living room. To Sam's surprise, he keeps going, right on through the front door. Trailing behind, Sam stays inside, watching him stride across the paved-over front "yard," across the street and to the small playground that faces their house. Dean sits on an unoccupied swing, his back to the street.

Sam watches for what seems like an eternity. He knows Dean isn't a particularly slow reader, so he suspects Dean reads it more than once. After a while Dean raises his head, gazing out across the playground, heels scuffing in the dirt below his swing.

Sam goes back out to the patio, perching on the tabletop and working on his beer, trying not to project every possible reaction onto Dean. The beer is almost gone by the time Sam hears the soft slap of the screen door.

Realizing he's holding his breath, Sam hopes Dean doesn't notice.

"I found a mistake," Dean says, all seriousness.

"Oh shit, what?"

"Where you say -- uh, hold on: 'a cocky kid with a smart mouth.' I think what you meant was 'a mouthy kid with an enormous cock.'"

Sam releases the breath in a huff of a laugh. "Dumb shit."

Reaching out, Dean assaults him with a move that's half hair-ruffle, half-shove. "How'd you pull that stuff out of your ass, anyhow?"

So this is how it goes. "Had to come up with something. Deadline's getting close."

Dean nods, lapsing into silence. Even after Dad gets back, he gets quiet and faraway from time to time during the night.

Before he goes to sleep, Sam adds three sentences to the document file and emails it to Pastor Jim. I showed this essay to Dean. He made a joke, but he didn't say if it made him proud. I hope it did.