Dean was out of sight, behind the line of people waiting to get on the Tilt-A-Whirl, supposedly buying us tickets with the five bucks Dad had given him. When you’re six years old, you’re stuck staring at a lot of beer bellies and belt buckles of the adults around you, especially in a crowd. But I could hear Dean calling to me as he zigzagged his way between the people to reach where he had left me to wait.
“Did you get them?” I asked, my eagerness had me literally bouncing on the balls of my feet. The line to the Himalaya had died down, but I could hear Kiss blaring behind us, the siren call of the carnival ride to any red-blooded American kid.
“Yeah, I got them.” He folded the string of paper tickets into a compact mass and stuffed them in the pocket of his denim jacket before taking me by the sleeve of my sweatshirt and moving through the crowd.
I followed along happily, taking in the sights and smells… a teenage boy and girl standing in line for funnel cakes, her hand in his back pocket as he whispered something in her ear and she giggled; a mother handing a candy apple to her daughter as a baby cried in the stroller next to her; a boy Dean’s age trying to win a Pokemon character with the crane machines as his friend ate a hot dog and gave him pointers from his shoulder; Dad weaving his way through the mass of people, his eyes locked straight ahead.
“Hey, there’s Dad,” I pointed out. He was on the hunt for something, something he didn’t want us to be a part of, so he had dumped us to ride a few rides while he took care of business.
Dean stopped and stared and it took me a second to realize he wasn’t looking at Dad, but at the woman Dad was following. With long blond hair falling loose around her bare shoulders, she was wearing a flower-covered sundress and sandals in the cool night. She didn’t look back at him, but it was obvious she was aware that she was being followed. She looked… familiar. But it took Dean to jar the identity loose from my mind.
“Mom?” I looked again, this time, recalling the family photo we had, and, sure enough, it was her. As if he forgot I was even there, Dean let go of my arm and started following her, as well. “Mom!”
Mom. To me, that word was nothing more than an undefined concept, a barely understood idea. Like safety and loyalty and love, it was an instinctive feeling that just was, and she was just a woman in a photo that had been. But to Dean, Mom was something much more powerful; she was a memory.
“Dean? Where’re you going?” When he didn’t respond, I jogged to keep up with him, tripped over a power cable snaking across the ground, and finally caught up when she entered the fun house and Dad trailed her inside. Dean waited a few seconds before following along. “Dean?”
He shushed me with an annoyed finger to his lips, sneaking quietly past the mirrors that made you look short and fat then tall and skinny and over the bridge that bucked and swayed as you crossed. Dean stopped at the doorway of a room that glowed with wide strokes of fluorescent green, blue and orange on the walls, made all the brighter from the black lights in the ceiling. Pushing my luck, I peeked around my brother’s shoulder to see Dad standing and staring at her. His Adam’s apple bobbed once as he swallowed when she smiled and took a slow deliberate step towards him followed by another.
Outside, I could hear the rush of the Bullet ride as it whooshed down then back up, the riders letting out a scream with the descent then another when the cage flew back up in the air. I didn’t like that ride. I didn’t like the way my stomach seemed to drop out of the bottom of me when the ground came rushing toward me then just as quickly swooped away. It was a terrifying, out of control feeling, the trip up almost worse than the trip down because you knew as soon as you reached the false safety of the top, you were bound for another fall. Much like the feeling of finding Mom, only to lose her again when Dad pulled his gun from the small of his back and emptied the clip into her chest.
“NO!” Dean’s scream put the carnival goers to shame, mainly because it lacked any of the humor that was intermingled with those of those riders outside. It was pure, high-grade terror and betrayal, and it was accompanied by our Dad’s shocked expression at seeing the two of standing in the doorway.
“Mom!” My brother dove toward the shrieking vision of our mother and he was grabbed by Dad who pulled him back hard against his chest as Mom vaporized like a puff of smoke. “Mom!”
“It wasn’t her, Dean,” Dad yelled over my brother’s frantic pleas as Dean fought to get free. “It wasn’t really her.”
“But she was there… I saw her… she was right there… I saw her. She was there and you killed her!”
Dad turned him around, firm hands on Dean’s shoulders as he looked him squarely in the eyes. “No, it wasn’t her. It was a succubus. It could take on the form of what you want most.” Dean sucked in a stuttered breath as a single shudder ran through him and Dad repeated sympathetically, “It wasn’t really her.”
Confused eyes looked back over his shoulder as Dean asked, “So… so she looked like that because I wanted her to?”
“No, she looked that way because I wanted her to,” Dad corrected gently. With a light squeeze to Dean’s shoulders, Dad looked around to see me trying to shrink back behind the door. “Sammy, you okay?”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure, but I answered with a mute nod anyway, my belly twisting at the way Dean continued to stare at the empty space that had moments before contained our mother. Dad gave him a little shake as he put away the gun. “I thought you boys were going to ride your rides.”
“We didn’t get a chance,” I mumbled when Dean didn’t say anything.
With an exhalation of breath, Dad forced a small grin. “Well, how about we go do that now?”
“Really?” I asked in excitement that Dad wanted to join us. “You really want to ride?”
“Sure, why not?” With a tug at Dean’s arm, he started us moving toward the exit. “You up for a ride, Dean?”
Dean didn’t answer, just followed along with hopeful glances back at the vacant room. And he continued to remain silent as we stood in line and finally sat in our train car in the Himalaya. Dad took the outside seat, placing Dean in the middle. “What say we give your brother a break and not squish him this time?”
Dean nodded, taking his seat, and staring straight ahead as the ride started and the music blared.
Back in black
I hit the sack
I've been too long I'm glad to be back
I hit the sack
I've been too long I'm glad to be back
Yes, I'm let loose
From the noose
From the noose
The cars started moving faster and faster around the track, the crowd of people waiting in line blurred and soon all I could see were my brother and my father. I found myself squashed up against Dean, who was squashed up against Dad, his face buried against Dad’s chest as Dad’s arm pulled him even tighter. He stayed that way the entire ride and I found myself leaning against Dad’s bicep and Dean’s shaking shoulder a little more than I had to because of the ride. The three of us, all that was left of the Winchester family, together, as the world spun away from us and AC/DC roared through the speakers. It felt oddly reminiscent. When we finally started slowing with the brakes screeching and the carnival coming back into focus, Dad reached his hand out and ruffled my hair.
“Good ride?” he asked with one side of his mouth curing into the slightest of smiles.
“Yeah!” I told him with a broad grin of my own.
Dean sat up, wiping quickly at his eyes, and Dad leaned in a little closer to tell him, “Consecrated iron shot. That’s how you take down a succubus. Got it?”
“Yes, Sir.” Dean nodded briskly with a barely detectable hitch to his indrawn breath.
“Who would want a name like suckyourbutt, anyway?” I stuck out my tongue in disgust.
Dad laughed and pushed up on the railing that had held us in as the ride finally came to a complete stop. And Dean elbowed me hard in the side to push me further off of him. “It’s succubus, you buttmunch.”
“Enough talk about butts,” Dad ordered as he climbed out of the seat. “Who wants cotton candy?”
“Me!” I volunteered even as I rubbed at the sore spot on my side. One that just wouldn’t seem to go away. “Geez, Dean, that hurt.”
“Sorry, Sammy, but I can’t let you bleed out on me.”
AC/DC was still playing, only now it was ‘Have a Drink on Me’, and Dad… well, Dad wasn’t there. Dean was, though. He was reaching across the seat of the car with one bloodstained hand to press against the towel on my side while the other was clamped in a bloodless grip on the steering wheel in front of him. His eyes moved back and forth between me and the road and the periodic strips of light from the streetlamps we passed under illuminated the inside of the car enough to reveal a face haggard and strained.
I gave a reminiscent sigh, “You know what would be good right now?”
“If you’d stop bleeding on the leather?” He pressed harder and I hissed and instinctively put my hand over his in response to the new flair of pain. His fingers fluttered briefly under mine and I found myself wondering why they were shivering when they felt so warm. Maybe it was because they were coated in my blood. Maybe it was because my own fingers were so cold in contrast.
“Some cotton candy,” I contradicted, although the stopping bleeding would be good, too. Staring out the window, I watched the wipers clear a swath of rain from the glass and decided it would rank a very close second.
He snorted thickly. “Cotton candy?” The hand under mine clenched as he shook his head in disbelief. “I don’t remember seeing a circus on the way over here.”
“You always took the blue,” I accused. And for a second I was back in that carnival with Dad handing us the bag of cotton candy and Dean ripping it open to hand me the pink wad before pulling out the blue for himself.
“Well, I couldn’t be caught eating girly snacks. Now, could I?”
His voice brought the interior of the Impala back into focus and I watched dazedly as the window in front of me spattered with rain again, the individual drops moving slowly up the windshield before the wipers passed and took them away, only to start anew. It was mesmerizing, really. The repetitive nature of it. Spatter, run, wipe, spatter, run, wipe. And somehow it was also depressing as hell. It never seemed to end, the give and take of it.
“Sam?” The tone of Dean’s voice told me I was evidently drifting again.
“We’re never going to win, are we?” Spatter, run, wipe, spatter, run, wipe. “No matter how many of them we kill, there’s always going to be more.” Spatter, run, wipe. I watched one little drop climb up toward the roof, barely escaping the swipe of the blades. Up, up, up, it struggled away from the destruction. I may not have been able to cowboy up, but it sure the hell seemed capable of it.
“That’s why the world needs us. If they didn’t have us, just think what a cluster fuck it would be out there.” Through half open eyes I could see his eyebrow rise slyly.
“As big a one as it is in here?” Spatter, run, wipe, spatter, run, wipe. I could have sat and watched that rhythmic pattern for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, right then, that was a very distinct possibility.
Out of my peripheral vision I caught Dean’s shrug. “We’ve had worse in this car. I was probably worse off before we were T-boned by that semi and look at me now.”
The smile he gave me was less reassuring than he intended because I saw the truth of it in his eyes. “Don’t.” My hand tightened on his. “Don’t even think about it. No trades. Whatever happens, that’s what happens.”
“Hell, you wouldn’t even trade me the blue for the pink cotton candy when we were kids. And Dad’s not here to break up the fight.”
Dean sucked in a harsh breath at my very pointed reminder. “No, Dad’s not here.”
I squeezed his hand a little harder, which wasn’t much given my condition. “Don’t you dare do to me what he did to you.”
Dean didn’t guilt about much, and most of his regrets revolved around situations that involved taking up a barfly that had seen better days on her offer of companionship when he was already ass deep into a pitcher of beer. I’d seen the unspoken ‘shut the fuck up’ on more than one occasion when he walked into the hotel room with sunglasses on his face and the tag of his inside-out t-shirt under his chin from his quick escape. But the way he felt about what Dad had done… it was deep and sharp and there was no escaping it.
That’s just the way it was with some things. Sometimes there was no escape.
“Then don’t do to me what I did to him.”
I didn’t answer his challenge, simply turned my attention back to the windshield again and another droplet that was working its way up the glass.
“You left once, Sammy.” His hand was shaking now, tremors turned to full out quakes. “Don’t do it again.”
Up, up, up, it went. No trails left behind. Just a single droplet making its way on its own, away from the chaos, away from the destruction. Sometimes there was no escape.
But sometimes there was.
“So, you’re really going to do this? You’re really going to leave?”
I crammed the last of my clothes into the duffle bag and glanced over my shoulder to see Dean with arm’s crossed leaning in the doorway.
“Yeah, Dean, I really am.”
Stanford. Could you believe it? I was going to Stanford.
“You’re just going to walk away from what we do so you can go to college?”
I couldn’t keep the smile from my face as I stuffed my running shoes into another bag. “Yeah, I am.”
“You’re really going to leave?” The disbelief in his voice was accentuated by the way he shifted to lean against the opposite side of the doorjamb.
“You seem to be having a little trouble grasping the concept of, yeah, I am.”
“I just can’t believe you’d leave all this to go off to some snooty-ass college to learn a bunch of stuff you don’t really need to know.”
“All this?” I threw my arms wide to encompass the hotel room we’d been living in the past three days. “Dean, in a couple of days when you and Dad find the source of the haunting in this town, you’ll be leaving all this behind, too.”
“I’m not talking about the hotel room and you know it.”
“So, what? You’re talking about you? Dude, you’re twenty-two years old. Don’t you think it’s time to live your own life?” I gave up on trying to fold my winter coat and just shoved it in the bag instead.
“I am living my own life,” he defended. “Hunting is my life.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not mine.” I shook my head and pushed past him into the bathroom to gather my toiletries and he followed on my heels. “Dean, haven’t you ever thought that maybe there’s something else out there besides salting old bones and setting them on fire? That maybe you could have a conversation about something besides telling a vengeful spirit from a poltergeist? That maybe you could spend your free time hanging out with friends instead of cleaning you weapons?”
“You say that like all those are bad things.”
With a snort I zipped the small bag closed. “They sure the hell aren’t normal things.”
“You don’t want normal, Sam. You’ll be bored senseless sitting through lectures with pasty-faced professors in moldy old suits.” He considered for a second, before admitting, “Although I can see the appeal of the whole sorority girl angle.”
“Newsflash, I’m more interested in the lectures than the women.” Grabbing a couple of towels from the rack… last I’d heard, dorm life doesn’t come with housekeeping; then again, it didn’t come with an eleven a.m. check out time either… I squeezed past him and back to my bags on the bed.
“That’s just because you haven’t experienced the joys of manhood yet, my son.” He slapped me on the shoulder as I rolled my eyes. “Tell you what; Dad has a lead on a demonic Elvis impersonator in Vegas. We hit Nevada and I’ll personally take you to the nearest brothel and let you have your choice from an all you can devour buffet of female flesh, finished off with an ice cream sundae topped with your own made to order cherry popping.”
“You know what? Screw you.” The towels joined the rest of my belongings in the bags, all of it fitting in the two duffels and the backpack. Everything I owned could be tossed in the trunk of the Impala. Christ, I couldn’t wait to get out of here.
“See? Right there’s your problem, Sammy. You’re more interested in old geezers with PhDs and your brother instead of sexy coeds and hookers. Running off to California isn’t going to solve that problem. In fact, it might make it worse.”
I paused in my packing to gaze heavenward. “God, it is going to be so refreshing to be around people that believe there is more to life than wedging a pencil into the pay per view box and getting free Skinamax.”
“Once again, you say that like it’s a bad thing.” When I rolled my eyes again, he sighed. “Okay, fine, so you want to get out of the overwhelming shadow of your amazing big brother. I can understand that. But I’m not the only one you’ll be leaving behind.”
“What? Are you talking about Dad?” The snort I gave was even more bitter than the last. “I can’t leave him; he’d actually have to be here for me to leave him.”
“He’s on a hunt, Sam.”
“He’s always on a hunt, Dean. Besides, I’m not talking about being here physically, I meant emotionally.”
“Emotionally? So what do you want? You want Dad to tear up and beg his baby boy not to go?”
“He said all he needed to say when I told him I was leaving.” And he hadn’t said a word since. In two days, not one word. Then today he’d headed out on his own. And that… that said it all.
I zipped the final bag closed before slinging the backpack on my shoulder and giving the room a final once over. “I guess that’s everything.”
Dean’s jaw flinched once and he stood a little straighter. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
“I don’t suppose you could give me a ride to the bus depot?” I flashed a weak grin, knowing that my chances were slim given the mood he was in. I was right.
“You’re the one that’s wants to be on your own. Who am I to stand in the way of what Sam Winchester wants?” He turned on his heels and headed out into the parking lot.
“Dean…” This wasn’t how I’d wanted this to go down. Especially not with Dean. Sure he was an obnoxious, shallow-minded slob who thought of nothing that didn’t involve women, booze, or killing. But he was also my brother and the one person that had always been there when I was growing up. Always. Even those times that I didn’t want him to be.
He was also pissed. “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out, Sammy,” he called without slowing or looking back. “Wouldn’t want you to get cooties on you before you head off to the good life.”
“Dean, come on, man…” But more than pissed, he was hurt. That was something I realized a little too late; the first of many things I would come to the same conclusion about over the next five and a half years. And then he was gone, and I was left to walk the two miles to the bus station on my own.
But when I woke up to a white ceiling and the matching walls, sheets, and curtains that were in sharp contrast to the black leather and denim that came to mind upon hearing ‘Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ playing on Dean’s cell phone, I knew I wasn’t alone now. And the one person that had always been there for me still was.
I let my eyes stray from the fluorescent hospital room lighting to see Dean jolt awake in the straight-back chair near my bed at the sound of the ring tone. He blinked to clear the remnants of sleep, checking the incoming number before flipping the phone open.
“Yeah, Bobby, thanks for calling me back, man.” He cleared his throat and rubbed at reddened eyes as he let out a yawn while one of Dad’s oldest friends talked on the other end of the line. “It was pretty rough there for a while… touch and go… he lost a shitload of blood. But the docs are saying he should be okay.”
Well, that was good to know. I hadn’t died and evidently wasn’t going to die in the immediate future and if I hadn’t felt like someone had filled by extremities with wet cement I would have offered high fives all around. As it was, I just lay there and watched my brother talk on the phone.
Dean leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees, the thumb of his free hand rubbed methodically into the crease between his eyes. “Yeah, you’re right, that’s, uhm… that’s really good news.” His abbreviated laugh was part relief, part past worry, and part lingering disbelief. “No, no, we’re good. But listen, Sammy’s going to be out of action for a while and it looks like I’m going to be stuck here in the hospital for the time being but meanwhile there’s a Black Dog on the loose treating hikers like snausages….”
Leave it to Dean to always be thinking business. He had a work ethic that most Fortune 500 companies would kill to have. Problem was, the dress code for any of those positions would probably kill him.
“In Houston? And he’s good? Cause this mutt is one nasty mo-fo. Yeah, yeah, I can meet him and bring him up to speed.”
“You might as well show him yourself,” I croaked out, my throat raw from disuse and what I could only assume was the result of being anesthetized for surgery. “You know how you hate unfinished business.”
Dean looked up at the sound of my voice, the surprise on his face morphing into a slow smile that I did my best to return. “Bobby, I gotta go, bud. Sammy’s awake.” The grin spread as Bobby must have been giving him a message to pass on. “I’ll let him know. Yes, I’ll call you later and you can tell him yourself. Okay. Oh, and give that guy my number and have him call me when he gets to Dallas.”
Finally able to extricate himself from the conversation, he closed the phone. “Bobby says you’re a slow-ass pansy that deserves to be eaten alive if you can’t get away from something as wussy as a Black Dog.”
I rolled my eyes as I tried to sit up a little and Dean quickly stepped in to adjust the bed for me. “He does, huh? And you just let him get away with talking about your little brother like that?” I swallowed the threatening groan at the way the room seemed to slide sideways and decided my I.V. probably had more in it than just saline.
“Well, I would have stood up to him to defend the Winchester name, but I can’t say as I can argue with his assessment too much.”
“I guess family honor only goes so far,” I grunted as I shifted and felt the all too familiar pull of sutures.
The smart-ass tone vanished as he asked, “You okay? Want some more la-la drugs? They said when you woke up there might be some pain and I should call…”
I waved a hand to stop the rambling as I settled back heavily against the pillows and closed my eyes against the spinning that wouldn’t seem to stop. “I’m feeling loopy enough as it is. Any more drugs and I’ll be giving Anna Nicole Smith a run for her money.”
“Except that you’re alive.” His voice dropped to a volume that spoke to how uncomfortable he felt considering the alternative and I peeled my eyes open when he tapped his fist a few times on the railing of my bed.
“Yeah,” I agreed, noticing the dark smears under his eyes for the first time and wondering how long I had been out. “I’m still alive.”
I knew what it was like to sit in a hospital room and wonder if the person lying in the bed was ever going to wake up. More than that, I knew what it was like when that person was my brother. Sucked doesn’t come close to describing the feeling. Helpless doesn’t even scratch the surface of the emotions. Insomnia doesn’t hold a candle to the experience. And all of those linger for days after the vice of fear that grips your gut finally lets up when he opens his eyes. Yeah, I knew what Dean was going through and I hated that I had put him through it.
Shaking off the potential that hadn’t come to fruition, Dean forced a grin with a waggle of eyebrows. “Although, Anna Nicole…she’s one spirit I wouldn’t mind exorcising, if you know what I mean.”
I wrinkled my nose in disgust. “Dude, you are sick.”
His grin turned to one of partial embarrassment for himself. “Yeah, well, maybe you’re right. Although, I am talking pre-reality show Anna, you know… when she was doing those jean ads. Does that make a difference?”
“No,” I laughed at his attempt to make it better and instantly regretted it. “Ow… ow. Fuck that hurts.” And the fact that it only made me want to laugh more didn’t help matters much.
“You sure you don’t want me to call the nurse and get you some more pain killers?”
“Man, I’m never going to get out of here today if I’m in a morphine coma.”
Hospital stays, although frequent in the realm of Hunting, were also short by necessity. Fake insurance and credit cards only lasted so long before someone found out you weren’t who your I.D. said you were. So you usually ended up releasing yourself before your doctors did. Which made me furrow my brow in confusion when Dean shook his head.
“Nope, not today. You aren’t going anywhere yet.”
“You’re kidding, right? How long have I already been in here?”
“Long enough for me to know you aren’t getting out of that bed any time soon.”
“Long enough for them to deny my insurance coverage?”
“Hey, we’ll deal with that when it becomes a problem. Besides, the admissions nurse thinks I’m cute. She bought me a donut in the cafeteria.”
“So you’re going to sleep with her to waive our deductible?”
Now it was Dean’s turn to be disgusted. “Dude, she’s closing in on seventy. She says I remind her of her grandson. And she’s bringing me some pot roast for dinner tonight.”
I snorted at the gloat in his voice, knowing full well I’d be eating clear broth if I was lucky. “That’s it? I stay here in bed while you eat a home cooked meal courtesy of a lonely grandma?”
He nodded in satisfaction. “Yep, pretty much.” Seeing my suspicious frown he mirrored the expression. “What?”
“Nothing, I’m just surprised is all. I was expecting another, ‘cowboy up, Sammy’.” My mimic just earned a scoff for my efforts.
“Cowboy up? You? Now? I doubt you could even cowgirl up right now. Besides, would you rather lie in a hotel bed while I cooked you spaghetti-os?”
I let out a small sentimental chortle at the memories that recalled. “No. That’s… no. I’ll take the drugs and the nurses and a bite of your pot roast.”
“Ha! You wish, jell-o boy.”
“But thanks… for the offer… and all those times you did it when we were kids.” I peeked up at him from under my bangs and he feigned worry.
“Maybe you’re right, maybe they should ease off on the pain meds.”
With an exasperated shake of my head, I told him, “It’s just… we’ve come along way. You know? From when we were kids. And a hell of a lot has changed.”
When I’d walked out of that hotel room bound for Stanford, I expected never to see Dean or Dad again. I was walking away from eighteen years of having to do what Dean said while Dad was away on a hunt, eighteen years of waiting for Dean to buy the tickets while I stood in the crowd, eighteen years of Dean being the son that idolized Dad while I did everything to justify blaming Dad for the life he had dragged us into. And I had justified the crap out of it.
It had taken losing Jess to understand why Dad had done it. And it had taken losing him to realize everything he had done, he had done for me and Dean. Dad wasn’t perfect. Hell, nowhere near it. But he had done the best he could in some pretty impossible situations. And it had taken twenty-three years of impossible situations for me and Dean to grow up, grow apart, and eventually grow into the team Dad always knew we could be.
And if that wasn’t cowboying up, then I didn’t know what was.
“You’re right, Sammy, a lot has changed.” His head tilted with his shrug. “But a lot has stayed the same, too.”
Yeah, like Dean being there to cook me spaghetti-os, to tell me everything was going to be okay when I had a bad dream, to whack me upside the head when I was being a pain in the ass, to drag me through the woods when I’d been mauled by a Black Dog… and that just covered the past month.
I nodded silently, trying to find the right words to say exactly what that meant to me. Dean, however, spoke first and all need to express myself vanished when he pinched my cheek. “Like you being the best little sister a guy could ever have.”
I slapped at the hand, rubbing at what I was sure was a growing red patch on my face.
Ah, brotherly love. Couldn’t you just feel the warmth?
I sure the hell could.