Last night is coming back to Sam in little flickers, clicks, like a camera shutter opening and closing. Catching snapshots.
A celebration over a hunt gone right, a dozen shot glasses lined up topside down on the bar in front of them like soldiers in a neat little row.
One final shot for the road after last call. Sam and Dean toasting each other, glasses clinking together and spilling half the shots over their fingers, and Dean laughing like he hadn’t in a long time. Maybe even since they were kids.
Dean content, skin flushed and eyes shining.
Dean’s hand warm on the back of his neck as they staggered to their hotel, tripping over their own feet and each other’s, and the sudden sting of disappointment when Dean took his hand off of Sam’s shoulder to unlock the door to their room.
The irritating sensation of a sprung spring under the worn cushion of the couch that dug low into Sam’s hunched back as they settled down for one last beer before bed, just for good luck.
That look in Dean’s eyes and the slow slur of his voice when he smiled at Sam and said that today had been a good day, that he wished they could have more like this one, a hand on Sam’s thigh with a quick pat for emphasis. But then he left it there, perhaps too lazy and drunk to think about moving it.
Sam thinking thoughts like finally and thank god as he stared at that hand, the deep down pool of want that’s always there bubbling closer to the surface. He covered Dean’s hand with one of his own, nervous and suddenly jittery despite all the booze. His thumb slid slowly, lightly over Dean’s scratched and scarred knuckles, avoiding the deepest of the splits because the last thing in the universe he wanted to do right then was to break one open and make Dean take his hand back.
Then Sam had shifted closer, mumbling about that painful coil in his back, making excuses, and Dean moved a little as well. Away, but the arm of the sofa would only allow him to go so far, and next he was finally giving in, and he slouched, his body pliable alongside Sam’s.
The way that the flickering blue light from the television hid all of Dean’s flaws, all those half-healed cuts and tiny imperfections. The light reflected in his eyes and turned his skin a perfect ghostly white as Dean stared blankly at the screen and Sam stared at nothing in the whole world except him.
And then he’d taken one small step too far, read a look the wrong way, Sam leaned in and pressed his nose against his brother’s neck, his hand still covering Dean’s since he didn’t know what else to do with it. The smell of liquor and his brother’s sweat flooded into his nose and stuck to the back of his throat.
Next, a mistake. A big one.
Because Dean may have been drunk, but it sure as hell hadn’t slowed him down much. His reflexes were still spot on as he stood in a flash, the heel of his hand shoving roughly at the center of Sam’s chest as shock and confusion and maybe something a little bit darker flashed across his face.
Then Sam was on his feet, inexplicably able to stagger backward, his head reeling from the drunk and breathing hard, so hard that he didn’t have breath enough for an apology. It wasn’t from the hit. Dean hadn’t meant to hurt him. If he had, Sam would have been tasting blood by now. More from the fact that his world was crashing down around him so hard and so fast that he was surprised the roof over their heads didn’t give up and come caving in.
Now it's morning and the roof’s still standing as Sam pries his eyes painfully open. The dim sunlight that sneaks in through the cracks between the heavy motel room curtains shines like it had a vendetta against him, piercing spikes, and he shades himself against them. His mouth tastes like something has crawled up and died in the back of his throat.
Sam’s surprised to see Dean still lying on his side in the bed next to his, swollen red hangover eyes fixed on him seriously. Throwing back the blanket, Dean sits up and swings his bare legs to the floor, uttering a groan as he runs a tired hand across his face.
Sam pushes himself to a sitting position as well, closing his eyes against the wave of nausea that wants to drag him back down. He props his elbows on his knees, scrubs a hand across his face and waits for what he knows is coming. What comes instead surprises him.
"That was a lot of José," Dean says, groggy, his voice rough. His hair is plastered down on one side of his head and standing up in comical swirls on the other. At any other time, Sam might laugh. Not today, though.
"Listen, Dean--" Sam begins, only to be cut off.
"And Jack. Lots of Jack. Jim too, right? The entire fucking holy trinity." He runs his tongue along his bottom lip for a second. "And what was that...was it…was it schnapps?"
Sam holds in a hopeful chuckle. Things might be alright. Dean’s still here, Sam’s still here and things seem almost normal. Almost okay. Maybe Dean doesn’t remember, or maybe he really doesn’t care. For now, anyway.
"Peppermint schnapps," Sam provides.
"Girly shots. I did girly shots. Jesus. I was drunk," Dean says. "And you were fucking drunk." He stands up, crosses the room on legs that are stiff and more than a little bit wobbly. He'd lost a sock at some point, his one bare foot slapping against the tile as he goes to the sink and splashes some water on his face without waiting for it to warm up from the tap. It makes Sam choke off another nervous laugh, but the laugh turned into a hiss when Dean flicks the light switch on, only to utter a quiet 'son of a bitch' and flick it back off just as quickly.
As he makes his way back toward the bed, he throws a wet washcloth in Sam's direction, and mutters another curse when his foot comes in contact with a partially full beer bottle, the one Sam had knocked off of the low coffee table the night before, when...just when. The bottle bounces toward the bed, the dregs of beer still in it leaving a wet trail along the motel carpet. It clanks against the metal foot of the bed frame, the noise intrusive in the quiet of the room, only to roll back slowly, almost back to where it started.
Sam feels the air grow thicker than the muggy morning breeze seeping in between the cracks in the wooden window casing could explain away.
Dean stares at the bottle, his chin tucked in close to his chest and his thumb and first finger picking absently at a loose bit of skin on his lower lip. Then he reaches out his bare foot to roll it back and forth with his toes. He heaves a long, heavy breath, bends at the waist and picks it up, sets it upright on the table behind him. One small bit of order among the mess of takeout bags, used towels and toppled sofa cushions.
Sam watches all of this silently, with an acute amount of fascinated dread, the chilly damp cloth forgotten in his hand.
Dean knows. He hasn’t forgotten, he remembers, and he knows.
Sam's mind spins overtime, frantic to latch onto some believable excuse. He just needs to find some sort of psychology, something about p selection or q selection, proximity and similarity, or some theory to hide behind, some sort of psychological loophole to swim around in. Durkheim, Weber, shit, even Watson, he was the behaviorist after all. So long as it isn’t Freud Sam would be alright, because sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but most of the time it simply isn’t.
What it all boils down to is that sure, Sam could be a sloppy drunk, but he isn’t that sloppy. And Dean knows it. They both do.
Sam’s good at leaving. He knows how to do it. He could take a hundred bucks from their emergency stash, hitch his way to the next decent sized city, maybe hustle some pool, win a few games of darts and then get a bus ticket. It could be freeing. It could be a fresh start. He’s always liked those. It’s the endings he always screws up. Case in point.
But for now an apology. It isn’t enough, but it’s as good a start as any. "About what happened--" Sam begins again.
The look Dean gives him is sharp. "I was drunk," he repeats. "You were really drunk." He’s speaking slowly, as if he’s trying to explain something to a four year old, like why the sky is blue or why water is wet. He’s talking in that self assured way of his, and Sam knows that he’s trying to put a lid on the topic, wrap it up nice and neat and shove it some place where it would never again see the light of day. He’s also seen how things like this have a way of breaking free again, especially when they least expect it.
"This won't just go away on its own, Dean." He knows from experience, and that’s the bitch of the thing.
"Did I stutter, Sam?" When Sam doesn’t answer, Dean continues. "I didn't think so." Dean's voice has a razor edge to it now, not angry or disgusted, rather completely dismissive. "Don't make me say it again.” He looks around at the wreck of the room. “We need to get outta here."
This is Dean giving him a pass, his version of a get out of jail free card, and Sam suddenly knows with perfect clarity that Dean doesn’t want him to go, can’t stand the thought of it, that the breadth and depth of Dean’s forgiveness where he’s concerned is nigh on boundless. Sam’s gonna ride it out for as long as he can, and if that makes him one selfish bastard, so be it.
Dean pulls on a pair of jeans that he’d thrown on the floor the night before and starts to wander around the room, lifting up blankets at random and tossing around cushions on the couch. "In other news, what did you do with my sock?"
Flashing a grin in Sam’s direction, Dean snatches his missing sock from beneath a pillow on the floor, and then frowns a little when he finds his pearl handled Smith and Wesson beneath the nightstand. Tucking it into the back of his belt, he asks, "Breakfast? I'm starving."
The slightest mention of food has Sam's stomach rolling through nauseating backflips and cartwheels, whole goddamn gymnastic routines. His mouth starts watering and not in a good way. "Only if we can find a place that spikes the coffee with Percocet," he says, finally wiping the washcloth across his face with a shiver.
"You remember that fool proof hangover remedy, don't you?"
"Shut up," Sam says, a weak smile threatening to take over his face and the weight in his chest becoming slightly less crushing. What a difference a few minutes can make.
And just like that, things are alright again. At least mostly. Or as alright as they ever are.
They pack up fast, with the efficiency of two men who have spent their whole lives with one foot perpetually out the door. They’re flush right now, two shiny new credit cards in Dean’s wallet and a neat little roll of cash stuffed into Sam’s duffel. Sam leaves a fifty dollar bill underneath the keys for housekeeping, figures that his luck has taken an upswing and that it’s smart to pay it forward.
The diner is two blocks away, but they drive to it anyway, their gear tossed haphazardly in the backseat. Dean spikes their coffees with a slug of whiskey from his flask, crooked grin bright as sunshine as he mutters something about the hair of the dog, orders eggs and pancakes and three different kinds of meat, and when it comes he floods the whole damn plate with maple syrup.
Sam keeps his eyes fixed to one particular spot on the table, a little to the left of the dry toast and bowl of fruit that he’s ordered, thinking about how this morning has a definite day after the night before feeling to it, and how it might have looked a lot different if Dean had kissed him back last night. Unrealistic, fairytale thoughts.
Sam had been ten, huddled next to Dean in a double bed, keeping vigil over the empty one beside them, fingers crossed as he waited for their father to come home, alive and safe. He’d been thirteen, shuddering awake in the middle of the night in a different double bed, hand pressed to his dick, a sticky mess in his shorts from the fitful dreams he’d just had of Dean whispering wonderful, impossible things and running his fingers up the inside of his thighs, hoping against hope that Dean wouldn’t wake up. He’d been sixteen, eighteen, twenty-three, and completely, fatalistically in love with his brother. In love with Dean’s switchblade smile and the way he uses it as a weapon, every bit as dangerous as the arsenal in the trunk. In love with the way he moves through the world, like it’s all just a stage and he’s a one-man show, in love with the sound of his voice when he calls him Sammy. Sam had been twenty-one, with a 3.9 GPA and a girlfriend that he loved more than almost anything, huddling in some bathroom stall in some bar while his friends all banged on the door, with his face plastered against the cool metal and his phone pressed to his ear, listening to Dean’s voice mumbling something about cervesas and happy birthday, playing the message over and over again on an endless, self-destructive loop.
Most of the time, it’s fine, Sam deals with it. It’s like a bruise that’s formed somewhere deep down, invisible and hard to get to, but every once in awhile Dean will hit exactly the right spot, and Sam’s blood will come rushing back to the surface of his skin, leave him black and blue.
Dean is Sam’s north star, his only navigational constant. He is Sam’s old paint under the new. Take a thumbnail to the trim, one small scratch on the exterior, and there he is.
It’s Dean’s turn to leave a hefty tip, forty bucks on the table for a fifteen dollar tab, which somehow makes up for all last week, when they’d been scrounging around on the floorboards of the car to leave quarters.
By the time they leave, the diner is starting to stack up, old men doused in English Leather, wearing suit jackets with polish on their shoes. Women in pastel dresses, white gloves on their hands and silk flowers glued to the brims of their church hats, and that’s how Sam comes to learn that it’s Sunday.
Outside, two men stand beside the Impala, all wispy white hair and gnarled hands curled around the tops of their canes. Brothers, if the color of their eyes and the matching crooked angle of their nostalgic smiles are anything to go by.
“Gentlemen,” Dean says to them when they approach, suspicious, and it’s ridiculous, Dean acting like this set of octogenarians might be able to take them in a clean fight, or fuck it, even a dirty one.
“This your car, son?” one of them asks.
“Yes, sir,” Dean replies, and now there’s pride in the sound of his voice and the slight tilt to his head, in the way he straightens his back and runs an affectionate hand along the front fender of the car.
“‘65?” the man guesses.
“It’s a ‘67,” Dean tells him.
“I had a ‘48. Bought it new, right off the lot. Prettiest car on the road in her day. I still miss that car.” He hikes a thumb at the man beside him. “My brother here bought a Mustang, but then again, he always has been flashy.”
His brother, the taller of the two, hikes one corner of his mouth up, rolls his eyes and shakes his head, long suffering.
“Anyway,” the old man says, nudging his brother toward the door of the diner. “You take good care of her.”
“Of course,” Dean says grandly, arms spread wide, “she’s the love of my life.”
Now it’s Sam’s turn to roll his eyes. It stings a little to hear Dean say that, more than it should.
There’s this dip in the passenger seat of the Impala, a Sam-shaped indent, worn in and perfected over a couple of hundred thousand miles. Sam settles into it, curves his spine into the seat at a very precise and practiced position, sets his legs into their usual angle in the footwell and leans his head against the back of the seat. He still avoids looking at Dean directly, keeps thinking in terms of Greek tragedies and comedies, or maybe it’s epic poetry, strange thoughts about the possibility of turning into stone with one look, of sublimating, or maybe calling down the wrath of the Furies. It’s that kinda morning.
He needs sleep. More than that, he needs Dean to act normal. Stop smiling too big and speaking too loud, stop all of his painfully obvious attempts at being overly cheerful. Sam can see straight to the bottom of all of it and doesn’t like what he finds down there.
“North or south, Sam?” Dean says when he gets into the car, squinting into the noontime sun like he’s got some kinda bone to pick with it.
“Up to you,” Sam replies. “I got nothin’ in either direction.” The sunlight warms his skin, makes him lazy and drowsy. He closes his eyes as Dean gets them rolling, tries to think of nothing but the red flicker of light over his eyelids.
Dean coasts onto the interstate onramp. South, since it’s the first turn and it’s an easy right instead of a left, and anyway there’s this burger shack near the southern border of Virginia that Dean wouldn’t mind hitting up again, and it’s just like Sam’s brother, perfectly willing to drive five hundred miles and waste two entire tanks of gas for a goddamn hamburger.
Sam tells him exactly that, gives in and cuts a sideways glance at Dean to get a read on his reaction.
He’s got his wrist propped on the steering wheel, legs set wide, sprawled out in preparation for the long haul. He licks his lips before he speaks. “It’s all about priorities. If you can’t appreciate the finer things in life, then what’s the point?”
“Priorities?” Sam counters. “You’re thinking about your next meal while you’re still picking the last one out of your teeth.”
Dean shrugs, leans across Sam’s lap but is careful not to touch him. Sam keeps his eyes on the smooth back of his brother’s neck as Dean rifles through the glove compartment until he finds a pair of sunglasses, tosses them into Sam’s lap, then comes up with a cassette and pops it in. It’s Rush, the tape so used and stretched out that it has taken on the warbly sound of old vinyl. Dean turns it down low, smirks at Sam like he’s doing him some kind of favor.
Sam stares across the barely lit bar. It’s more Dean’s kinda place than his, sawdust on the floor and nothing recorded after 1976 in the jukebox, gaudy neon clogging every single window advertising watery domestic beer. The bartender looks like he’s just stepped off of the set of a bad biker movie and there’s not a single thing on the menu that doesn’t come out of a fryer. Sam’s laptop sits open in front of him but he ignores it in favor of watching Dean work the room like he’s some sort of lounge singer.
Dean’s chatting up a waitress, leaning against the bar with a foot propped up on a stool, standing close enough to her to make Sam’s skin itch. It comes as easy to Dean as breathing. Like a reflex, a kick in response to a tap to the knee. A willing, pretty smile, a couple of x chromosomes, and a short enough skirt is all it ever takes.
He thinks maybe Dean should raise his standards, wonders what their story is this time around. Astronauts, soldiers leaving in the morning for foreign shores. Maybe secret service, that one is Sam’s favorite. Or anyway, it’s a part he basically knows how to play.
But Sam really wouldn’t have him any other way, and that’s the truth of it. Alright, so maybe he would, but he thinks that perhaps that’s just a clause, some sort of hidden small print in the Winchester family curse.
Dean catches Sam’s stare, interprets it as a beckon and starts walking toward him. Only walking isn’t quite the right word, it’s more of a saunter, a self-satisfied smile on his face to match.
“She has a roommate,” he says, raising his eyebrows like he’s proud of himself and sliding a cocktail napkin with the girl’s number on it across the scarred up table.
Sam snorts and shakes his head, tries to ignore the feeling that Dean’s trying too hard to get back in the saddle, maintain their screwed up version of the status quo. He snatches a shot from where they’re lined up along the table, downs it and slams the glass upside down on the napkin. He picks up its neighbor and tilts it back, just for good measure.
“Slow it, Sam. Knockin’ ‘em down quicker than I can line ‘em up.” His speech is slurred a little, lazy from a few too many beers.
Sam wants to say something about the pot calling the kettle black, but instead turns back toward his laptop, blinks owlishly as the small print that looks like it’s swimming across the screen. “I think I found us something.”
“Whatcha got?” Dean asks.
“There’s an old plantation house a few states south of here. It just recently changed hands. Heavy spirit manifestation, blinking lights, bumps in the night, doors slamming, the whole nine.”
“An old school poltergeist. Sounds like fun.” Dean reaches across, steals one of Sam’s fries from his plate and pops it in his mouth.
“I’m not too sure I like your version of fun, but yeah, sounds like it might be legit.”
The unforgiving, relentless southern afternoon sun hammers away at the roof of the car. Muggy air seeps in through the open windows, so thick and heavy that Sam thinks that it could quite possibly drown a person. There’s a tickle at the back of his neck, and he reaches a hand there to wipe at the sweat before it can sneak beneath his stiff priest’s collar.
Dean’s uneasy beside him, running a finger along his own black and white collar, pulling at it restlessly. His hair is darker than usual, dampened with the trails of sweat that streak down his temples.
“South Carolina, Sam. In August.” Dean shakes his head, almost cartoonishly disgusted. “Would it have killed you to find us a hunt in Maine? Maybe even Alaska?”
“Hey, you were the one who was all gung-ho about it. Something about biker week in Myrtle Beach. All those biker chicks in leather chaps and all that. I just found you an excuse to indulge in your sick habit.”
“That was then.” Dean shoots Sam a smug smirk that rankles him to no end. “This is now.”
“You have the attention span of a goldfish, you know that?”
“Oh, yeah, college boy. How long is that?”
“Two seconds,” Sam replies. When Dean raises his eyebrows in doubt he continues, “It’s been proven. Scientifically.”
“Who the hell studies that sort of thing?” Dean mutters.
“Scientists,” Sam replies with a shrug.
“Very funny. Don’t they have alligators around here? I hear they taste just like chicken.”
“My point exactly,” Sam says. “Don’t miss your turn.” He points to a small break in the woods to the left.
Dean swings the car onto the narrow path, barely more than a couple of graveled wheel ruts almost invisible in the thick copse of trees and underbrush lining both sides.
“No wonder they call this the low country,” Dean says, his voice a little quieter now, maybe subdued by the shadows they’re driving through. He leans forward and stares out of the windshield at the dense canopy of live oaks, their branches heavily laden with curtains of dark grey Spanish moss that reach nearly to the ground in places.
The air seems to grow impossibly denser, and Sam leans closer to the window, swipes his sweat-stringy hair out of his eyes. The smell of the air is different here, a sickly-sweet mixture of flowers and decay, of dampness and heat. Beneath the growl of the car’s engine he can hear the constant raspy buzz of cicadas.
A few miles further down the path and the road opens up, revealing an expanse of fields, neat rows of springtime crops now dried and withered by the late summer heat. The fields rise up at a shallow angle and point toward a plantation house at the crest of the low hill.
Sam squints against the sudden change from shadow to bright sunlight and studies the place. From a distance it looks regal, perhaps even a little stately. Built in the Georgian style, it’s a large, white looming thing with warped glass windows lined up like watchful eyes, finial topped columns and large, double-decker porches facing the front gates.
As they draw closer to the roundabout driveway in front, Sam realizes that his first impression was wrong. The porches sag in the center, the white paint is peeling off of the siding in spots, the two twin flower beds in front are a tangled mess of weeds and overgrowth. A million little things speak of decades of simply letting the place slide.
It stands on this small rise of land like a mournful reminder of a bygone era. But it must have been beautiful, once.
It makes Sam’s hands twitch, makes him want to do something about it, replace the missing slate shingles on the roof and set the tilted shutters to rights again, pull the sticker bushes out of the kitchen garden he knows will be at the back corner of the house, and make something grow there.
“It’s show time, Sammy,” Dean says beside him, snapping his fingers in front of Sam’s face. “You with me?”
The wooden stairs give a little beneath their feet as they make their way to the front entrance. Before they reach to top riser, the door opens to reveal a darkened interior.
A woman stands framed in the doorway, an older lady, her smooth, weathered skin the color of coffee and cream. She’s peering at them with slightly milky eyes, but the way they shift from one brother to the other tells Sam that she still can somewhat see. Slight wisps of grey hair peek out from beneath a scarf tied snugly about her head.
“You’re here to see the lady of the house,” she says by way of greeting, her voice reed thin, and opens the door a little wider, ushering them inside.
The inside hallway is dark, illuminated by a single dim bulb fitted into a reworked old gas light fixture at one end. Wiring runs along the baseboards of the hardwood flooring, an obvious indication that electricity was an afterthought in this house. The smell of old damp plaster clogs up Sam’s nose.
The woman turns her back, slowly leads them further into the house, and points to an entryway to a parlor that faces out onto the long green. “You can wait in here.”
It’s stifling in the room, not a hint of air moving through the large open windows, but even still Sam feels a shiver run down his spine.
“Because air conditioning was too much to ask for, I guess,” Dean says as he sits on a formal high backed chair, a small cloud of dust rising up from the upholstery. He coughs, waving a hand in front of his face.
Sam ignores him, and instead walks the perimeter of the room. Yellowed lace curtains hang at the windows, so ancient and fragile-looking that it seems like one small touch would send them crumbling. There’s a large oil painting adorning the back wall. An ornate gilded frame surrounds a picture of this house, perhaps painted when the place was first built, when it was new. Tin type photographs line up neatly on the opposite wall, a series of serious faces staring back at him in high necked collars and formal, straight poses, now washed out and colorless. Another shiver moves through him.
“Fathers, thank you for coming. I’m Cynthia.”
Sam startles some and turns around, donning his best sympathetic smile and walking over to the woman who’s greeting them.
She’s young, looks out of place, clothing too modern and metropolitan for her surroundings. Sam had been expecting some southern version of Miss Havisham, someone older, maybe a little decrepit. Her accent seems clipped, shortened, like she’s trying to hide some of the south in her voice.
Catching Dean’s appreciative stare, he tugs lightly at his brother’s shoulder as he crosses to room to greet her, his hand extended.
It’s an easy story, an angle they’ve used many times in the past. They’re specialists brought in by the local parish, after hearing word of the happenings in her home. They’re here to do a cleansing of the house in hopes of putting the spirits to rest.
“Thank you Stella,” Cynthia says when the woman who had greeted them places a tray with iced tea on the low table in front of them.
“It’s very Christian of you,” Dean pipes up, earning a doubtful glance from Stella and an exasperated one from his brother.
“How long has this been going on?” Sam asks.
“I wish I could tell you,” she shrugs, nervous fingers toying with the cuff of her sleeve. “I only recently inherited this land from my aunt. You hear the stories, you know. She used to talk about it sometimes, but I always thought…” She trails off for a moment before starting again. “I mean, we all have those relatives that we think are out of their mind, right? And everyone just sort of nods and plays along at family dinners and then laughs about it later.”
“We wouldn’t know,” Dean mutters, mostly to himself but Sam can hear him. It cuts, not a lot but some. Enough.
“How about the other woman,” Sam says. “Stella? Has she been here long? Do you think she knows anything?”
She smiles. “Stella was born here. She’s worked for my family her whole life, her parents before her. This place is as much hers as it is mine. Probably more.” She stands and crosses the room, takes a photo from a shelf and hands it to Sam as she sits back down. “That’s me.”
It’s a picture of a younger Stella, sitting in the same rocking chair where Cynthia now sits, an infant in a white baptism gown propped up in her lap. She looks much the same, the dark grey dress, the bright white apron, her scarf and her serious expression. The only exception is the set clear green eyes that look directly into the camera.
“Not too big on the chit-chat, is she?” Dean says.
“You could say that,” she laughs lightly and then continues, ”Anyway, the first few days I was here, I noticed things, like I’d put my keys down and go back later and they’d be somewhere else, or a door was closed and locked and I knew I didn’t do it, and neither did Stella. Only it’s gotten worse. I’ll walk into a room and it will be twenty degrees colder than the rest of the house, or I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, and just know, for certain, that someone just walked out of my room and closed the door behind them. Then there are the voices.”
“Voices?” Dean asks, leaning forward some.
“Yes, children laughing, mostly. But there haven’t been any kids here for a very long time. And then there are the power surges, and sometimes the gas stove flares up.”
“What do you know about the history of this place, Cynthia?” Sam says. “Any deaths in the house or on the land? Anything violent?”
“Honey,” she replies, her southern accent spiking up some, “this place has been here for a long, long time. You name it, we got it.”
“Sounds like a classic case,” Dean says. “Our specialty. Nothing for you to worry about, just clear everybody out of here for a few days and we’ve got it covered.”
“Thank you,” Cynthia says.
“Before you leave,” Sam cuts in as they all rise from their seats, “I’ll need any archives you have on the house, maybe a map of the land, or surveys of the property. Any family records you have would be helpful, even if it’s only a family bible.”
“I can do better than that, Father. I’ll show you our library. We’re an old family, an old southern family. We never throw anything away.”
She leads them through the murky house, down another long hallway and past a heavy wooden door into a room with soft, comfortable looking chairs in the center and lined with built-in bookshelves, all filled to capacity. The overpowering smell of old books is heavy in the air, and it makes Sam a little nostalgic, thinking about the hours he spent in the libraries at school, researching court cases and precedents and constitutional theory mixed in with a healthy dose of postmodern literature. How simple things had been back then.
His heart sinks as he spins slowly in the center of the room, eyes sweeping over the shelves. He could spend a week in here and hardly even make a dent.
Dean claps him hard on the back, and Sam realizes that it’s the first time Dean has touched him since...just since, and Sam isn’t sure if it’s the thought that jars him or the impact of Dean’s hand.
“Looks like you’ve just died and gone to geek heaven,” Dean says.
“I hate you,” Sam mutters.
“I know you do.”
They sit on a side porch in low-slung wooden chairs. A stack of books rested between them on the table.
Dean takes a sip of sweet tea, the glass shiny and slippery from condensation. He pulls a face. “Would it have killed them to have a beer in the house? Fuck.”
“Take it easy, Father," Sam says absently, pouring over a detailed account of a land boundary dispute that happened around the turn of the nineteenth century.
“The priesthood requires celibacy, not temperance,” Dean points out.
“Yeah, ‘cause you sure got the market cornered on that.”
The screen door bangs open with a wiry sound, and Stella emerges, a heavy suitcase pulling one shoulder down. She’s swapped her grey dress for a flowered one of similar cut, her scarf for a wide-brimmed white straw hat. Her iron colored hair snakes down her back in a surprisingly long, thin braid.
“Here,” Sam says as he jumps up, “let me take that for you.”
“I’m fine,” she insists. “You’ve got enough on your hands.”
“The Lord’s work knows no end,” Dean intones.
Stella graces them with a small, knowing smile. “Dean, stop. I’m not buying it. Thank you, Sam,” Stella says, waving him off.
Sam trips backward a step, a short “Christo,” rolling quietly from his tongue.
Stella stops, drops her suitcase and plants her hands on her hips as she eyes him carefully. “Stop that too. I’m no demon.” She cackles softly as she shakes her head.
“Then how do you know who we are?” Sam asks, incredulous.
“I just know,” she explains, and the tone of her voice tells Sam that they aren’t going to get anywhere with that particular line of questioning.
“Not much of a talker, are you?” Dean says, slowly taking his hand away from the inside pocket of his dark jacket. Sam would bet his last twenty dollar bill that he’s carrying a stash of holy water. He hopes Dean hadn’t been about to empty a clip into the woman.
“Maybe you talk too much. People who talk too much don’t know how to listen.”
“But you do,” Sam urges, shooting out a cautionary hand toward his brother. “You listen.”
She only nods.
“But how do you know who we are?” Dean’s voice is low, aggressive, and Sam can see that every muscle in his brother’s body is wound up tight, hair-triggered, ready to spring.
“Like Sam said. I listen. They said that you were coming.”
“Who are they?” Dean demands.
“You already know who they are,” Stella replies.
“What else did they say?” Sam asks, a weird, almost academic curiosity blooming in him.
“That they’ve been waiting for you two.” She focuses her milky eyes on Dean. “They say you have secrets, boy. You too, Sam.”
Sam turns quickly toward his brother, a rock in his stomach dragging it down low and fast. His hands start to shake and his breath starts coming in all wrong, a huge, hollow ache building in his chest.
He watches as Dean’s expression goes momentarily shocked and then closes down fast. Carefully blank. Sam has seen it a million times, at poker tables, during bad arguments back in the day with their father, when he’s balls to the wall with some sort of nasty breathing down his neck. It’s his game face.
Sam knows he has to diffuse the situation, or his brother may decide to bury a clip into her after all. “Can you tell me who—or what—they are?”
“People,” Stella says simply. “Or they used to be. Maybe they still are. Who knows. I don’t ask questions.”
“Can you tell me why they’re still here?” Anything. Sam’s grasping at straws. “Did they tell you anything else? About us?”
“I think you shouldn’t ask so many questions either,” she replies, bending to pick up her suitcase once more and walking toward the stairs. A late-model sedan has pulled into the gravel driveway beside the house, the driver a middle aged man. He has Stella’s nose, and a similar shape around the mouth. She holds up one white gloved finger and smiles at him, and it melts years away from her face. “Maybe they’re here because they love this place,” Stella rubs a hand almost affectionately along the splintered railing and takes another step down. “Maybe they still have work to do.”