When I was a kid, I loved those little toys you’d get out of gumball machines. You know the ones that sit out by the front door of the local grocery or the convenience store where you stop to refill your tank. You’d put your quarter in, turn the crank and then out would pop one of those plastic bubbles with some tiny little toy in it… some stretchy frog that would stick to glass, or a keychain with a big-eyed alien, or maybe one of those super bouncy balls. Yeah, I was pretty easy to please as a kid. Some cheap piece of plastic and I’d be happy for days, or at least as long as I held onto it.
I’d beg for change whenever we saw them. Occasionally Dad would feel generous, but more times than not, he’d look at me and shake his head with a, “Dean, why the hell do you want to waste money on that piece of junk?” But that didn’t stop me. It became my personal mission to find quarters wherever I could. There wasn’t a payphone, a soda machine, or bathroom condom dispenser within sight that I didn’t check the coin return, and I got lucky enough times to keep me in a constant supply of cheap-ass entertainment.
Sammy always liked the things you could ride. Now, granted, the Bat Mobile was some pretty cool shit, but my brother didn’t care what it was… car, motorcycle, horse, helicopter… and it didn’t even have to be running. God, that kid could sit for hours in a fake speedboat making outboard motor noises pretending he was riding over the waves when the only water in sight was a puddle out in the parking lot from the rain the night before. That was always the difference between me and Sam; he always had a great imagination while I always needed something I could walk away with, something tangible that I could hold in my hand. Granted, those piece of shit toys never lasted more than a few days before they broke or got lost and in the end I usually felt like I’d been gypped, but it never stopped me from going back for more.
Maybe that explains why Sam left, went to school, had the steady girlfriend, and applied to law school. He could imagine a better life, a simple life, pretend that all the evil and monsters he’d seen were just a bad dream and he could push it all into his fucked up past and create a make-believe future. Like I said, Sammy always had one hell of an imagination. And maybe that same difference between us can explain why I did what I did when I sold my soul in exchange for Sam’s life. I needed Sammy alive, I needed to see him, hear him, have something real in my life, even if that life only lasted another year. So, I’d made the deal, placed my soul in the gumball machine of fate, and cranked until it disappeared, and one living, breathing brother popped up in its place. And I figured I was good– Sam was alive again and my deal made sure he’d stay that way.
Yeah, right. Evidently I have more of an imagination than I gave myself credit for.
The convenience store was located in Octa, Missouri, a town located in that stubby boot heel of the state that’s wedged itself between Arkansas and Tennessee, like a traveling salesman trying to keep the neighboring states from closing the door on it. We were passing through, no business there other than to stop for gas and a couple of Red Bulls to keep me awake for the rest of the drive into Little Rock.
Convenience stores– it seemed like we spent half our lives in them. I had pissed at pretty much every one of them along I-80, could tell you which had the best frozen burritos along I-29, and had slept with two clerks along I-70. Food, booze, fuel, the occasional date… hell, I’d taken paper towel baths in the sinks of more than one. They were the lifeline of the interstate system that criss-crossed the United States, the desert oasis for the casual road tripper, the Mecca for the hardcore traveler, and a home away from home for me and Sammy. Not that it was really saying much since we hadn’t had a real home since I was in preschool and eating a home cooked meal meant we microwaved the food ourselves instead of ordering it through an intercom system. So when you got right down to it, maybe convenience store wasn’t exactly the right name for the various 7-Elevens, am/pms, and Turtle Stops along the road. Maybe necessary store was more appropriate.
There was nothing special about the Stop and Go market attached to the gas station in Octa… same bored clerk behind the counter, same massive piece of wood attached to the key to the bathroom, same collection of porn behind the counter and Slim Jims sitting by the register and slurpy machines and hot dog ferris wheel and hamburgers wrapped in foiled paper that had been sitting for eight hours under a heat lamp since they were made at four that afternoon. Nope, it was just your typical convenience store, with the usual setup, and the same old paraphernalia, including the stereotypical armed robber wearing a ski mask in sixty-degree weather.
I was paying for the snacks and gas, considering the possibility of picking up a little reading material for later on… no, already have that issue of Jugs… when the assailant walked in with his gun drawn and demanded all the money in the register. The girl behind the counter, less than a year out of high school by the looks of her, kept her cool, I’ll give her that. But the way that the guy with the gun was yelling and waving it around, I wasn’t so sure I could say the same for him.
The barrel was shoved in my face and I got the clichéd, “Don’t try to be a hero, tough guy.” It’s pretty sad when criminals learn how to rob the local Quickie Mart by watching repeats of Starsky and Hutch, and it was obvious this guy was no pro, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. In fact, it meant just the opposite.
“Hey,” I shrugged with hands and the skin magazine I was perusing raised, “I’m just admiring the literary selections.”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the girl push the silent alarm. Shit. Not that I could blame her, but cops… cops were bad. I was just hoping this yahoo would take the money and run and we could get the hell out of Dodge before they showed up. And that might have happened if Sam hadn’t finished up in the bathroom and walked in the door to return the key.
He was half-asleep, definitely not on his game, and, Jesus, where had I gone wrong with that boy? He didn’t even look up when he opened the door, simply yawned broadly, rolled his neck from where he’d been slumped in the passenger seat snoozing and walked right into the line of fire. The electronic ding-dong sounding when the door swung open had the idiot in the mask turning and firing before he even saw who had entered the store.
My warning came too late. There was a crash as the glass in the door blew out, a mass of bouncy balls and miniature plastic domes rolling on the dingy linoleum, and Sammy staggering two steps backward before he ran into the destroyed gumball machine and sat hard in the middle of the toys.
I hadn’t taken more than a few steps myself before the gun was back in my face. “Down! On the floor!”
My eyes never left those of the robber as I asked calmly. “Sammy, how’re you doing?”
Sam didn’t answer, but the gunman did. “Get your ass down!”
I thought of taking him out, I could probably do it easy enough. Sure there was a chance I’d be killed, but, hey, I only had a few more months left anyway. That had been my opinion on the matter lately. I could take the risks and let Sam stay safe, but now Sammy was hurt. I flicked my eyes to where he sat and could see him pulling his hand up from his side to look at the blood on it, could see the red stain spreading across his t-shirt. He needed help and I was the only one who could give it to him. If the cops showed up with ambulances and paramedics, they could save him. Sure, he’d be in great shape to be hauled off to jail, and there was no way I’d sold my soul so my brother could spend the rest of his life being traded around the workout yard for a pack of cigarettes for his pretty mouth.
“Put your face on the floor!”
So, contrary to my brother’s opinion, I was able to exhibit some self-control and did what the scumbag said. Dropping slowly to my knees, I tried to explain, “Look, just let me go check…”
“I said kiss the fucking floor, asshole!”
“He’s been shot. Something you should know since you were the one who did it… asshole.” Yeah, okay, maybe Sam was right about my lack of restraint. And apparently the gunman didn’t like being mimicked given the way he whacked me upside the head with the butt of his .22.
That had me on the floor, color exploding painfully in my skull, and for some reason, unable to move. Somewhere in the distance I could hear a weakly panted, “Dean… just… just do what he says.”
The press of metal against my temple had me trying all the harder to regain my focus. “I’d listen to your friend if I were you.”
From my vantage point on the floor, the first thing that came into clarity was the guy’s shoe. Shitty no-name sneakers with a hole wearing in the grubby, previously white leather of the toe and the tread peeling away from the bottom. It was a sharp contrast to the super bouncy ball that rolled to a stop next to it. Neon pink with swirls of green and blue… God, I loved those little fuckers. Sammy used to chase after them like a goddamn terrier, wiggling under cars in the motel parking lots to retrieve it when it got away from us. I bet there’s not a single motor lodge in the entire state of Kansas that doesn’t have at least one of those babies stuck on the roof.
“Dean?” The desperation in Sam’s voice had me raising my head slightly to look over to where he was slumped by the door.
I could see him exhale in relief that I’d moved and confirmed I was still alive but it was short lived with the sound of sirens in the distance.
“FUCK!” The robber forgot about me for the time being and moved to point the gun at the clerk. “What did you do? What the fuck did you do?”
The girl was crying now, and I followed Sam’s eyes as they watched the guy point his gun behind the counter where she was obvious huddled. “Don’t make it worse,” I urged in a garbled slur.
If nothing else, it drew his attention away from the clerk. “What did you say, hero?”
“Run.” I managed to push myself up to my knees again. “Get the hell out of here while you can.” The sirens were growing louder and I did my best to control my swaying. “The cops get here and it’s all over.”
He took a second to consider, looking around in agitation before finally deciding a murder rap wasn’t worth the wad of money in his hand. Taking my advice, he bolted out the door. Staggering to my feet, I wasn’t far behind him but I stopped when I reached Sam. “Oh, Jesus,” I mumbled when I saw all the blood.
“I’ve had worse.” He tried for a reassuring grin. “But not by much.”
He needed help, a doctor, but with the sirens growing louder, I couldn’t even spare enough time to really look at the wound. All I could do was peel off the button down shirt I wore over my own t-shirt and press it onto the spread of blood. Getting one of his arms around my shoulder, I told him, “Time to go.”
He knew as well as I did what those sirens meant, and he did his best not to cry out when I hauled him to his feet. “Video tape,” he grunted.
“Sammy, now is not the time to be planning a movie night.”
His knees buckled and I pulled up to keep him from falling, which had him gritting his teeth in a groan. “Surveillance cameras… we’re on them.”
Son of a bitch, he was right. We’d managed to avoid the FBI for months now. But our faces on tape in a convenience store robbery would put us right back on their radar. The girl was watching us wide-eyed and shaking. “Where’s the security footage?” She looked at me in confusion and I clarified as I pointed to the camera above the cigarette cabinet, “The tape from the cameras.”
Blinking in confusion, she finally stammered, “Oh, here… under the counter.”
“I need them. We can’t be seen here and I’d really appreciate it if you couldn’t remember anything about us.”
“Look, you’ve had a rough day, I know that. But it could have been a lot rougher if that guy had shot you like he did my brother here or hit you with the gun.” My pointed comment had her nodding and pulling the tapes and handing them over. “Thanks,” I told her, already leading Sam out the door to the Impala.
I could see the flashing lights already coming down the street and pretty much shoved Sam in the passenger side. Ignoring his guttural, “Fuckin’-A, Dean,” at the rough treatment, I darted around to the driver’s side, grabbing the top of the car to steady myself when the world started to spin.
Yeah, okay, maybe that jerk had hit me a little harder than I wanted to admit, but I didn’t have time to worry about pesky things like double vision and dizziness brought on by blunt trauma to the head. I had to drive our asses out of here. Shaking it off as best I could, I climbed behind the wheel and sped out of the parking lot with the lights off, hoping the cops wouldn’t be able to see us, taking the first right off the main road, then the next right and the next until I was back into a residential section of the town. Blinking rapidly to clear my vision, I realized I was meandering back and forth across the street, taking out a trashcan on the opposite curb before veering back into my lane.
“Dean, stop. Stop. Stop!”
“Sammy, just hold on. Okay? We’re going to patch you up. I just need to give the cops the slip and find the highway again and…”
His warning had me turning hard to the left and slamming on the brakes. A dog was barking and a front porch light came on and I realized we had to get out of there before someone saw enough to I.D. us, so I gunned it again.
We hadn’t gone more than a block before Sam was ordering, “Dean, pull over!”
“If you have to puke, then puke, it’s not like I won’t have to detail the car…”
“Dean, you can’t drive like this.”
“I’m fine,” I protested, shaking my head to merge the two stop signs ahead of me into one.
“No, you’re not… and neither am I.” I took the time to look at him then, pale, sweat beaded on his face, breathing rapidly. “I mean, you’re fucking bleeding… and you don’t even know it.” Reaching up, I felt the sticky wetness running from my head where the son of a bitch had hit me. Head wounds bleed… a lot. But it wasn’t running in my face so I hadn’t even noticed it. Grabbing a fast food napkin from the seat, I slapped it on the cut.
“There, nothing to worry about.”
He rolled his eyes as my less than perfect first aid. “We need to hole up… call Bobby… maybe he knows someone nearby… or Ellen… We can’t… I can’t…” Swallowing thickly he leaned his head back on the seat. “I can’t…” Reaching over, I pressed into my shirt to increase the pressure on the wound and he swallowed a scream.
“Sammy, if the cops…”
“I know,” he cut me off before I could finish with what our fate would be if we were caught.
“We’re not going to prison. I mean, sure, I’ve got a guaranteed early release date, but you’re another story.” He didn’t even wince at my joke, like I had expected, like I had hoped in order to get a rise out of him.
“There has to be a barn… or a warehouse or…”
His eyes started sliding closed and I called anxiously, “Sam!” When his head snapped up in alarm, my own dropped as I sucked in a relieved breath. “I’ll find us someplace. Just stay with me here.”
“Just stay on the damn road,” he countered, leaning against his door in exhaustion. “And turn on your fucking lights… before you kill us both… or worse, ding the Impala.”
“Hey, she’s not yours yet,” I protested, but did as he suggested. I couldn’t hear sirens, so if they’d followed us, they weren’t in hot pursuit, but that didn’t mean they still weren’t looking for us. Still, if they didn’t get a good description of the car, we’d be a lot less conspicuous if we had our lights on.
“Believe me… I’ll hold off on my inheritance… as long as possible.” He blew out a painful breath as he shifted in the seat. “Aww, fuck.”
He shook his head to dismiss my worry, as if that simple act would do it. “Just don’t want you… keeping me awake… crying… yourself… to sleep.”
I was driving a little slower now, looking for someplace to hide out and call for help when I came to a railroad crossing. Railways meant railcars, storage sheds, lots of potential hiding places, and I turned off the paved road to drive along the dirt access road that ran along the tracks. “Hang on; it could get a little bumpy.”
Sam made a kind of strangled sound in his throat when I hit the first rut and things went a little grey around the edges for me, too. I fought to regain my focus, catching my head bob before I hit it on the steering wheel. A quick glance over at Sam told me he was too caught up in maintaining his own control to notice I’d almost lost mine. Luckily it didn’t take long before I saw a side track with two tankers and a boxcar that, given the Class of 2006 painted on the side of one, I figured had been there for a while and probably weren’t going to go anywhere soon. But by the time I finally parked the Chevy, I was as sweaty and shaky as Sam.
“Sammy? You hanging in there?”
I was answered with a feeble thumbs up as he gulped air. At that point, it was as good as I was going to get, so I figured I better call Bobby before I tried to move him to the train car.
Bobby answered his phone with a yawned, “Dean, you better being bleeding profusely to be calling me at this hour.”
I pulled the blood soaked napkin from my hair. “Well, I wouldn’t describe mine as profuse, but Sam’s another story.”
The sleepiness vanished instantly as he demanded, “What happened? What are you hunting?”
“No hunt,” I corrected. “Wrong place, wrong time. We walked into a robbery at a convenience store in Missouri and Sam was shot.”
“Jesus Christ, how bad is he?”
I looked to were Sam slumped panting against the door. “Bad enough. It hit him in his chest. He needs a doctor and with a gunshot wound…”
“That means a hospital is out since they’d call the cops.” There was a frustrated sigh. “Where in Missouri? I know a hunter in Springfield…”
“Springfield’s awful far,” I told him. “We’re south of there, in a little place called Octa, between Tennessee and Arkansas.”
“Tennessee you say? I know a fella who might be able to help who lives in Dyersburg. That can’t be more than an hour or so from where you are.”
An hour. An hour was one hell of a long time but I couldn’t stop the flood of relief at the thought that someone was so close. “Do you think he’d be willing to help?”
“I should be able to persuade him seeing as he owes me a favor.”
“Bobby, I don’t know how to thank you for this.”
“What about you? Are you good enough to drive that distance?”
With a glance over at Sam I waffled, “I could if I had to.”
“Dean…” From his tone, it was obvious Bobby knew that wasn’t the case.
“I took a hit in the head. Things are a little fuzzy but I’m sure they’ll clear up soon.”
“And when they pull you over for drunk driving how do you plan to explain the guy bleeding next to you?” Before I could argue, he told me, “You stay put, give me your 20 and I’ll call you back when help’s on the way.”
I gave him directions to our location and decided that I’d wait to make sure the guy was coming before I dragged Sammy out of the car. Instead, I opened the door to go get the first aid kit out of the trunk.
The frail voice had me stopping and squeezing his shoulder. “Bobby’s sending help… for me. I’m going to get a band-aid out of the kit to take care of this little scratch you keep whining about. Okay?”
He snorted at the explanation, licked his lips, and rolled his head toward me without opening his eyes. “Told you… you were… hurt.”
“You always have to be right, don’t you?” He managed a flimsy smile and I squeezed again. “You’re going to pull through this, you hear me? I know my soul isn’t exactly squeaky clean, but it has to be worth more than a few months for you.”
“Maybe get… a refund.”
Yeah, I could see that argument with Hell’s customer service department going over really well. “I won’t need to ask for one. You’re going to be fine,” I reiterated, then climbed out of the car.
I staggered a few steps, trying to get my balance back before using the car itself to keep me on my feet the short distance to the trunk. I didn’t even make it that far before my stomach finally won the fight and decided to evict the remnants of the Quarter Pounder I’d eaten a few hours before. Too bad I’d used the napkin to soak up the blood from my head wound, because that just left the tail of my t-shirt to wipe my mouth. Unfortunately, it was stained red from my brother’s blood. That’s when I said so long to the French fries I’d eaten with the burger and found myself lying on my side in the dirt trying to bring things back into focus. Now was not the time to stay down for the count. Not yet. Sammy needed me and luxuries like passing out from the pain and nausea would just have to wait.
Pushing up on shaking arms, I used the back door handles of the Impala to pull myself to my feet and make it to the trunk. I’d just managed to find the kit when my phone rang and Bobby let me know his friend, Doc Gant, was on his way. With that settled, I decided maybe it would be best to get Sam settled in the boxcar before I set to work on the wound.
Leaving Sammy in the car for the time being, I surveyed the inside of the boxcar. It was empty except for some partially melted candles and a few beer cans, so I figured it was an occasional hangout for high school kids in the area. I tossed a sleeping bag and the medical kit up into the car before climbing up myself, groaning when the pain in my head spiked from the effort. Once I had things situated, I went to get Sam, moving the Impala right beside the entrance so we could use the trunk to climb up because there was no way either one of us could take trying to heft him up the several feet into the train car. Hell, the step up to the trunk was going to be bad enough.
Opening his door, I caught him before he could topple out. His eyes slivered open at the action and he asked hazily, “What’s going on?”
“We’re movin’ on up, Wheezy,” I told him, wrapping an arm around him to hoist him out and looking with dread at the four feet between the base of the train car and the ground. “Or at least I hope so.”
It wasn’t exactly a dee-lux apartment on the East side, but it would have to do for now. And it was anything but an elevator ride up to the penthouse getting him up there. By the time I did, we were both on the verge of passing out and what little bit of dinner that had been left in my stomach was now over in the far corner of the train car. Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I set the flashlight where I could see then set to work on his gunshot. His t-shirt was more dark blue than the originally pale shade, and my shirt that I’d used as a makeshift bandage was soaked with his blood. I tossed it aside and peeled up his shirt.
Fuck. Bullet wounds were just… fuck. “I need to roll you over,” I warned, “to check for an exit wound.” He just nodded in understanding, helping me as best he could. It wasn’t there. Son of a bitch, it wasn’t there. The entrance was there, red and angry and on the edge of his rib cage, but there was nothing to show that it had come out. Bullets did bat-shit-crazy, lone-gunman-theory type things. I knew that. Hell, you read about it in the National Enquirer all the damn time. Woman survives gunshot to the head– lives with bullet lodged in her brain with only side effect of clucking like a chicken when the phone rings. I could stand Sammy crowing now and again; hell, it could save on travel alarms. But a bullet to the lung could turn Foghorn Leghorn into KFC fodder pretty damn fast, and that’s exactly where the one Sam took would be.
Sam’s breathing was still rapid, which could mean he was struggling for breath or struggling against the pain and I placed my ear on his chest to see if I could hear if his lung was collapsing, but my own blood was throbbing in my ears, roaring from my own headache and I couldn’t be sure. I just couldn’t be fucking sure. What I was sure about was that there was a heartbeat, rapid but strong, so I clung to that and hoped like hell that it would stay that way until the doctor arrived.
Yeah, that was some top-notch first aid right there… hope and gauze bandages cinched tightly into place. Not exactly what most medical professionals would consider effective treatment of a gunshot wound. I mean, you never heard Dr. Greene from ER calling for fifty cc’s of faith and a ray of hope to close a wound, but that’s all I had to work with. And let’s face it, faith and hope hadn’t exactly been my motto lately. Nope, you could search the entire Impala and not find one cute kitten gripping a tree branch doing his best to hang in there. More than likely it would be a demon-eyed son of a bitch hanging over a pit of flames with Go To Hell written in cheerful letters above his head.
And that poor son of a bitch would be me.
Sure, I’d faced my own personal demons… literally. I’d had a Luke Skywalker moment in a drug induced dream state where I confronted myself and my fears and beat myself up and had what most head shrinkers would call a “breakthrough” framed with big-ass air quotes. And I could finally admit what I’d been denying for a long time now. I wanted to live. I wanted out of my deal. But over the years I’d learned that wanting and getting are two different things. I’d wanted Mom to tuck me into bed every night. I’d wanted Dad home for Christmas and birthdays. I’d wanted to eat the last of the goddamn Lucky Charms from time to time. But what I got was Sammy.
Maybe Mick Jagger was right and you can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need. The funny thing is, the last time I’d wanted anything it was for my brother to be alive again and I’d finally found a way to turn want into get. And it all came down to the fact that, after all I’d been through, after all I’d lost, I needed Sam to be alive. Just like I wanted and needed him to stay alive now. He was the one who had the imagination, the hope and faith. It had been fading a little recently… okay, it had been fading a lot… and I only had myself to blame as I watched it dim. But I’d seen it flicker in his eyes again when I told him I wanted to live and now all I could see in his eyes were pain and fear.
“How bad?” He watched me closely, or at least as closely as he could as he tried to keep me in focus.
I thought of lying, thought of joking it off, but, if anything, that would have made it worse. “How painful is it to breathe?”
“Excruciating… seems… too mild… a description.” He snorted and the action caused his breathing to stutter as a ripple of pain passed through him.
I shivered against my own cold sweats and started digging through the kit. “Morphine. I think we still have some left.” Finding the small tube, I injected it and within a few seconds his breathing evened out a bit, the lines around his mouth softened, and his eyes became a little less focused… and then they started drifting closed. “Sammy!”
“Tired,” he mumbled.
I patted his cheeks, directing his drunken gaze to my own eyes. “I know, but I want you to stay awake until the doc gets here.”
I didn’t want him drifting off quietly. He hadn’t said a word when he died after that son of a bitch stabbed him, not a goddamn word. And while I had been babbling shit enough for both of us at the time, it had been more a denial of his silence than anything else. I just kept thinking, if I could keep talking, if I could hold him together, if I could convince him it wasn’t bad, then I could deny that his life was dripping through my fingers. It hadn’t worked then, and the thought of him not talking now filled me with as much dread as the idea of a bullet in his lung… a lung that could be filling with blood even as he lay there. So, I decided there might be a way to keep both from happening. I didn’t have far to drag him to reach the wall of the boxcar and using the sleeping bag he was laying on made it a hell of a lot easier.
“Where we going?” he slurred.
“You’ve been lying down on the job long enough,” I told him as I sat and leaned back against the metal slats even as I propped him up to lean back against my chest. Wrapping the sleeping bag around him, I rubbed his arms briskly through the thick stuffing in an attempt to hold off shock and keep him awake.
“Taking a sick day,” he mumbled as his head fell back on my shoulder.
“Hey,” I gave him a little shake, “I don’t remember seeing vacation time in your benefits package.”
He lifted his head and let it loll forward. “Don’t remember… benefits package.”
“What? Are you kidding? Free transportation with you own private driver, only the finest musical collection in the Midwest, and you even get to hang with me at no extra charge. Who knows, maybe some of my awesomeness will rub off on you… eventually.” He snorted laughter that turned into a cough and I tightened my hold on him to keep the jarring to a minimum. “Easy, Sammy. Just concentrate on breathing, all right?”
When the coughing stopped, he leaned back against me in exhaustion and this time I just let him. Hell, I was exhausted, too. Given the chance, I would do what I usually did in situations like this– close my eyes and let sleep dull the throbbing in my head, at least for an hour or so until Sam woke me to make sure my brain hadn’t been liquefied by the blow and leaked out my ear. But Sam was the one who needed taking care of this time, so I just had to suck it up. Not that it stopped him from trying to take care of me.
“How’re you doing?” He swallowed down another cough to ask the question.
With a shrug, I dismissed, “Eh, you know me, hard headed. Just a little headache and kind of hard to focus on things.”
“Sounds like… last Saturday night.”
“How are you supposed to pass up kamikaze night at the Gateway Saloon?” I grinned at the memory of spending half the night doing shooters with a hot little redhead and tried not to think about the aftermath of spending the other half of the night praying at the porcelain altar in the motel bathroom. “But when you get right down to it, yeah, it feels pretty much the same.”
“Maybe you are… worse than me, then.”
“Told you you were being a big baby about all this.” I flicked my eyes to my watch to see how much longer until the doctor got here but I couldn’t see in the dim light. It felt like hours had passed, but I knew it couldn’t have been more than fifteen or twenty minutes.
He settled back against me a little more and closed his eyes, the morphine making him drowse even as he kept talking. That was fine by me. He could talk in his fucking sleep for all I cared as long as he kept yapping. “Bet you regret it.”
“What? The booze?” Seriously, two-dollar kamikazes. What sort of idiot would pass up something like that? Other than the one whose breathing was evening out as a result of the painkillers, of course?
“No.” With a slight shake of his head, he clarified, “Smarting off… to the guy with the gun.”
“Him?” I scoffed. “Please, the only thing I regret is that I didn’t think to grab one of those super bouncy balls rolling around.” That and not punching that fucker’s face in before taking his gun and capping his ass. “There was a neon pink one. Kind of girly but you wouldn’t have had any trouble finding it in the sewer.”
I could just make out his grin in the faint light. “Glad those days are over.”
“We were just in a sewer last month,” I reminded him. “And I didn’t even have to threaten you with a wedgie.”
“That’s my point.”
“Huh, so if I’d just told you there was a shape shifter in the sewer when we were kids, I could have saved washing skid marks out of your underoos?”
“No… could have lost your damn balls… few days earlier… than usual.” His words were softer, garbled and I shifted as a way to keep him alert.
“Hey, you had plenty of fun playing with my balls, too.” Christ, that just didn’t sound right when I said it out loud.
Evidently Sam thought so, too, since he opened his eyes again in alarm. “Yeaah. You know, maybe… maybe I should lie down again… over there.”
Ignoring the hitch of his chin toward the opposite side of the car, I flicked his ear instead. “Don’t be a smartass, Smartass. You know what I meant.”
“Ow!” he complained with a wince. “I’ve been shot… you jerk.”
“And I’ve been insulted, bitch.” I countered before settling back against the wall again, keeping the ear flick in mind in case I needed to rouse him again. “Now then, are you going to sit here and deny that you liked playing with the super bouncy balls as much as I did?”
He sighed and rolled his eyes, even as he admitted, “They were fun.”
“Ha! See, I knew I was right. I knew you loved climbing under cars and chasing after them in traffic.”
“Now that wasn’t fun.” His forehead crinkled in more than just pain. “And why did I… have to do that?”
“Because I was the one who put in all the upfront work… begging Dad for the money, finding loose change anywhere I could… I was the venture capitalist.” I smiled at my word choice.
“What was I?”
My grin just grew. “You were the kid brother who worshipped me.”
“You wish,” he challenged.
“Oh, no, you can’t deny it. You admitted it once before.”
“Must’ve been drunk.” His eyes were drifting closed again from the morphine.
“No, not drunk; you were just having one of your typical bouts of pansy-assed, sentimentality. I know it’s hard to keep straight what bleeding heart sorts of things you say, seeing as half the shit that comes out of your mouth sounds like a greeting card commercial. But that one I do remember.”
“Now who’s… the sentimentalist?”
“It’s just proof that you’d crawl to the ends of the Earth for me… not mention behind an ice machine.”
He went silent, and I was just about to call his name again when he finally admitted, “I would… you know.”
I did know it. It was one of the few things in this world that I was absolutely sure of, and given our fucked up lives, that was really saying something. It was also why I hadn’t been willing to let Sammy help me find a way out of my deal. Because he would do anything to help me and just end up dead as a result of all his hard work. That had been part of the deal, too. And that was something else I knew for sure– I wasn’t going to let that happen again. Ever. But I didn’t want to talk about the possibility of Sam being dead again, so instead I tried to keep the conversation light.
“What? Crawl behind an ice machine for me?” I asked. “I’ll keep that in mind the next time I lose something behind one.”
“Yeah, that’s… exactly… what I meant.” Even as groggy as he was I could hear the sarcasm and that could only be a good thing.
“Good, then it’s settled. Next time we go to the store, I’m buying a new bouncy ball.”
“You’ll just lose it,” he informed me.
“Maybe,” I shrugged, “but it’ll be fun while it lasts.”
“I…” He paused, licked his lips, and then continued. “I wish it… could last… longer.”
I froze, realizing instantly that he wasn’t talking about gumball machines and fluorescent rubber balls. “It will,” I assured him, doing my best to sound optimistic. “We’ll find a way, okay? You’ll find a way. Hell, if it wasn’t for you, most of those balls would have been lost before we ever got home with them.”
“And if I can’t?”
I really wasn’t sure if he was talking about not being able to find a way to save me or not being around to do it. It really didn’t matter since neither of them was an option I wanted to consider. “You’ll find a way,” I repeated adamantly. “Hell, you didn’t waste all that money on a Stanford education for nothing did you?”
“You wasted… all that money… on junk toys,” Sam challenged.
“It wasn’t a waste,” I insisted with a shake of my head. “Don’t you ever think it was a waste because I sure the hell don’t.”
“Even if… you lost it… sooner than... you thought you would?”
“I’m not losing anything, Sammy. You got that?” My arms tightened instinctively around him and I had trouble loosening my hold even when he cried out in pain from the pressure. When he didn’t answer, I demanded again, “Sam?”
“Do you…” He seemed to be fighting for more than just consciousness but he finally gained some control. “Do you remember… when the demon… was in Dad?”
“That’s kind of hard to forget.”
“He told me… to shoot him.”
“I know, and you did the right thing when you refused to do it.”
“What do you mean, am I sure? Of course I’m sure. That was Dad. He couldn’t expect you to shoot him like that.”
“If I had… none of this… would have happened.”
Hindsight, she is a bitch. Everything in our lives had been a series of dominoes tumbling along, falling and crashing into the next, a series of disasters that I really didn’t think we completely understood the origins of. Sure, if Sam had shot Dad when the demon was in him, Dad never would have sold his soul for my life, he never would have traded the Colt for it, the Yellow-eyed Demon never would have been around to take Sammy, Sam never would have been killed, I never would have made my trade, the gates of Hell never would have been opened, yada yada yada. Yeah, a lot of crap could have been avoided, but I sure as shit wasn’t kidding myself into thinking our world would have been sunshine and rainbows from that point on. Sam could guilt like there was no tomorrow and maybe he would have been the one to lose his soul a little bit at a time after killing our father. Because I knew how I felt knowing Dad had gone to Hell because of me and I hadn’t even pulled the trigger. I didn’t want Sam feeling the same way about me when my time came.
So, I went with the trick that had served me well over the years; I played dumb. “I don’t think you shooting Dad would have stopped that shithead in the mini-mart from shooting you.”
“Not what I meant.”
“Yeah, well, maybe that’s the case, but it’s all you need to be worrying about right now. Help’ll be here soon so you just hang in there a little longer.”
He exhaled and slumped down against me further. “I’m tired, Dean.”
“You wouldn’t let me use that as an excuse for giving up and I’m not going to let you. Fairs fair, right? If you keep fighting, I will. Deal?” He didn’t answer immediately and I demanded, “We got a deal or not, Sam?”
If Sam wasn’t here, then I wasn’t going to hang around here waiting for my year to be up, watching the days pass on the calendar like a kid watching the sweep of the second hand on a clock at the end of the school day. They’d get an early check-in in the Devil’s private suite if Sammy checked out before I did.
And Sammy knew it, too.
“Deal,” he breathed in exhaustion and I held him to it. Even though he could barely put a sentence together by the time I saw headlights through the slats of the train, he was still hanging in there. That’s my brother, one tough SOB when he puts his mind to it.