|John Winchester and the Four Universal Truths
Author: La Guera PM
Fatherhood brings with it four universal truths, and over the years, John Winchester has learned them all. Three he will perhaps pass on to his sons, but one will always be his dirty little secret.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama - John W. & Dean W. - Words: 15,503 - Reviews: 8 - Favs: 17 - Published: 09-09-08 - Status: Complete - id: 4528283
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters, places, and events herein are the property of Erik Kripke, Robert Singer, the CW, and Warner Bros., Inc. No infringement is intended, and no profit is being made. For entertainment only.
A/N: Pre-series; written for the LJ SPN Summergen fic exchange. No spoilers.
John Winchester had never planned on having children. As a young man sowing his oats among the staid Kansas wheat fields, he'd thought them a concession of defeat, an admission of age and obsolescence that came with its own decibel system. And after Vietnam, when he'd shouldered an M-16 and the responsibility of taking lives in the middle of the godforsaken jungle, he hadn't wanted the responsibility of creating them. He'd come home from his tour with jungle rot deep between his toes and nightmares in his head like diseased souvenirs and no further thought to his future than a good, long soak in a bottle of gin and a month of dreamless sleep in a bed not infested with lice.
But his life had a funny habit of doing whatever the hell it wanted despite even his flimsiest and most nebulous intentions. He got his gin; while the hippies and the silver-spooned draft-dodgers were only too happy to piss down his back and call him a baby-murdering, bastard traitor to the flag they so cheerfully wiped their dirty asses with, he could still find a seat down at the local VFW, where the last, moldering toy soldiers from the Greatest Generation rusted on their wobble-legged stools and swapped stories about killing krauts while pickling their livers and foggy memories with German beer. He got his bed, too, returned to his childhood home and his old room, which suddenly seemed claustrophobic and more foreign than the jungle that had so recently and unceremoniously chewed him up and spit him out.
After three days of staring at his old ceiling and imagining the faces of dead friends and V.C. troops bubbling from the wooden rafters to steal his breath with sticky, greedy kisses, he packed his few belongings and moved to a boardinghouse run by the widow Gantry, a pious old biddy who abided neither the Devil's drink nor "loose women", and who expected the rent to be paid in full the first Friday of every month without exception. She was skinny and angular and smelled of what his grandmother had called lavender water, but she was fair, and if saying grace to a God in which he no longer believed was the price for keeping the ghosts in the walls, then he was happy to fold his hands and bow his head without a whimper.
Rent meant the need for a job, and so he'd found one, had used his down-home, yes ma'am charm to talk his way into a job as a mechanic at old man Waterman's garage and beer barn. Waterman had known his father once upon a time, and rumor had it that he and his father had had a bar brawl over his mother's hand. His mother denied it, of course, and as a loyal son, John believed her, but if there had been a fight, he reckoned he knew who'd won that particular shooting match. His name was Winchester, after all.
If old man Waterman harbored a grudge, he buried it deep. John's pay came every Friday at six o'clock, pulled from a greasy, buckskin, drawstring bag by chapped, arthritis-swollen hands, and life settled into a lazy rhythm. He worked Monday through Friday from sunrise until six, washed blood and jungle mud from his hands with motor oil and axle grease, and on Friday nights, he took his pay to the bar and washed the aftertaste of exhaust from his throat with shots of Four Roses. The whiskey burned hot and clean in his belly, and as long as he kept himself to three shots or fewer, he could pass the time and turn a tidy profit challenging drunker locals to games of pool and five-card stud. Sometimes, he doubled his pay to the soundtrack of Credence Clearwater Revival and Edwin Starr that thudded and warbled mournfully from the tired jukebox that leaned against the wall next to the bathroom, a barfly too drunk and too old to lurch out the door and stagger home. If he sat with his back to the crapper, he could pretend it was an old Wurlitzer, spinning back the years and resetting his life to the time before his draft number had come out of a spinning hamster cage.
He usually hadn't sat with his back to the crapper. He liked to look the truth square in the face, and he was too old for what-ifs and wistful yesterdays.
He might've gone on that way forever, downing shots and hustling drunks and pretending the Stones' "Paint It Black" didn't make him bite the inside of his cheeks until they bled, might've moldered and rusted and joined the ranks of the tin solders at the VFW until he fell forward on his face at the splintered, blackening bar and went to his eternal rest on the shoulders of six friends he barely remembered.
But he hadn't planned on Mary. She'd come to Waterman's garage in her waddling, asthmatic station wagon, worried about a wooden, sputtering knock from deep inside the car's guts. She'd been twenty-one and gorgeous, with roses on her lips and wheat in her hair, and he, John Winchester, who'd prided himself on his distinct lack of yen, had been going, going, gone. He'd known before she ever said a word that it was going to be all or nothing. If he couldn't have her, then nothing was worth having.
My Mary, Mary, quite contrary, he'd thought stupidly as he'd surveyed her from the cover of an ailing Dodge Dart with its hood upraised and its diseased guts exposed to the wan, blue-tinged, fluorescent lights of the garage. He hadn't said it, though, thank God, else his intended courtship might've died on the vine. He'd been too tongue-tied to say anything, truth be told.
But he'd thought it plenty, then and after, had turned it over in his mind while he scraped the grease from ancient bolts and gears with the tenacious grip of his torque wrench and scraped his knuckles raw on balky carburetors and dying engine blocks. It had been a delicious secret, sweet enough to overpower the sour burn of whiskey. Soon he'd left the seedy ambience of the bar behind in favor of the sunny café where his Mary, Mary, quite contrary served pie and coffee to teetotaling duffers and tourists passing through the Bible belt on their way to Sin City or the modern Babylons of L.A. and San Francisco. He'd sat at the counter when he could and in a booth by the window when he couldn't, and he'd eaten rhubarb pie until he couldn't stand the taste of it just so he could work his charm.
Not that he'd had much charm back then. Most of the social graces his mother had managed to instill in him had died in Vietnam, smothered by stinking mud and the press of too many bodies in a confined space and burned off by the napalm that had fallen from heaven like the Devil's rain. He'd been twenty-one and jaded, with a salty tongue and more cynicism than such young shoulders should have carried. Sometimes during their early, halting conversations, he'd had to remind himself that "fuck" wasn't a proper spice word and certainly not appropriate for wooing college-educated girls whose families were members in good standing at the Mount Ararat Baptist Church.
Even now, with his beloved Mary fourteen years in the ground and every light she ever gave him save for a precious two extinguished in the choking, black smoke of a nursery fire, he wasn't sure why she'd chosen him. He'd been afraid to ask, lest it break the spell. He doubted it was his brains or his untapped potential. Maybe she'd been curious about a man with a rhubarb pie fetish, or maybe she'd felt sorry for the bedraggled, lovesick kid who'd mooned over her with all the finesse and subtlety of a pole-axed calf. Or maybe she'd just been grateful that he'd never grabbed her ass under the pretense of picking up a napkin like Deacon Johnson did at least twice a week.
Maybe his hands had simply been more eloquent than his tongue. He'd been the one to fix her station wagon, had tinkered in its innards and worked miracles born of infatuation and ardent desperation, and a car that should have gone for scrap had rolled out of the garage and into another seven years. Mary had gone into labor with Sam in that squat, matronly gas pig, had broken her eggs and her water in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot one warm spring day in May. He'd fixed that car and his Impala that she loved so much, and maybe she'd hoped he could work other miracles, too.
Well, these past, horrible, fucked-up years had certainly put paid to that idea, please and no thank you. He had no doubt that she'd weep and curse his name if she could see what he'd done to her precious boys in her name, what he'd made of them in the name of vengeance and dark obsession. Well, maybe not curse him-Mary had a tongue of ambrosia and honey, and he could've counted on one hand the number of times she raised her voice-but there'd be disappointment in those lovely hazel eyes, and that quiet hurt would be worse than any words cast at him in anger. Mary'd dreamed bigger for her boys, dreamed better, and for all his big talk and the promises whispered over her gravestone, he hadn't managed either.
Maybe if she'd known what her boys would become, what their father would make of them at his hand, she never would've accepted his awkward dinner invitation, muttered apologetically into the murky dregs of his coffee. Maybe she would've rolled her eyes and turned him down and sashayed out of his orbit forever. Maybe she would've backed out at the last minute and left him idling like a fool in front of the café, half a dozen roses vibrating on the Impala's front seat to the throaty purr of the engine. Maybe she would've spent her life with someone sensible, someone who wouldn't have turned her boys into tin soldiers just like him.
Maybe if she had, she'd still be alive, growing plants and sons in a sunny Kansas suburb where monsters and yellow-eyed demons feared to tread.
But God help her, she'd had the rare mercy of ignorance and had climbed into his car that Saturday night with a smile on her pretty face and the fading kiss of the summer sun on her bare shoulders. She'd brought with her the scent of her perfume, a scent that had reminded him inexplicably of chantilly lace, and whenever she wore it in all the too-damn-short years later, he'd be seized with the urge to sing "Chantilly Lace" under his breath. Sometimes, he even did, had hummed it while he puttered around the body shop or while he scrubbed the day's honest grit from beneath his nails. He'd often sung it out loud to her when she was pregnant with Dean, and to this day, his eldest, Zeppelin-loving son snapped his fingers and tapped his feet whenever The Big Bopper's booming basso profundo ode to women's underclothes came on the radio. Sammy was always quick to tease Dean about it, but John never would. He couldn't, because it reminded him of what once was and could never be again with the grueling, abrupt force of a hammerstrike. Sometimes, it was all he could do to keep his hands steady on the wheel and his eyes on the goddamned road. Sometimes, it was all he could do not to pull the Impala onto the shoulder of the highway and cry until his guts ached, eyes squeezed shut so he wouldn't see Mary in the rearview mirror or on the periphery of his vision.
He'd taken her to the movies that night, to the cineplex that would be boarded up and derelict ten years later, victim of the movie megaplex that sprouted from the Weshands Mall like celluloid kudzu to devour its weaker neighbor. He'd long since forgotten the movie, though a vague itch at the back of his mind conjured phantasmagoric images of Clint Eastwood looking constipated and pained in a wool, checked three-piece suit. What he did remember was how beautiful Mary had looked in the wan, milky light of the mostly deserted theater, the fall of her hair, the pale, fragile stem of her throat, the sharp delicacy of her shoulder beneath the thin, yellow strap of her sundress. He'd been tempted to touch her there, to reach out and caress the smooth, tanned skin. His mouth had dried and puckered with longing, and his fingers had throbbed with mingled curiosity and desire.
Like silk, he'd thought while Mary had nibbled popcorn from the small cup of her hand and Clint had grunted and scowled his way through what he supposed had been a tender love scene. She'd feel like sun-warmed silk.
He hadn't dared to put his hypothesis to the test. Uncle Sam might've stripped most of his polish with the midnight fire of napalm, but his mother hadn't raised a boor. Besides, his Mary, Mary quite contrary knew damn well how to defend her garden, and he'd had no desire to spend the next week using Glad bags stuffed with ice to soothe his wounded dignity. He'd kept his hands to himself and simply watched her while she watched Clint, drank in each gesture and subtle expression and hoped he'd be given the chance to see another and another. He'd been the perfect gentleman, and when he'd walked her to her door at the end of the night, he'd been rewarded with a whiff of her perfume and a kiss on the cheek that had curled his toes inside his shoes. Going, going, gone to over the moon with a chaste peck of her lips. He'd whistled "Chantilly Lace" all the way home and dreamed of her bare shoulder in the ersatz, wavering moonlight of an old movie theater.
That had been the beginning of John Winchester's wild ride, only instead of roaring and jouncing through the marshes toward stately Toad Hall in a mud-spattered jalopy, he'd been racing toward a house beyond his dreams in the Lawrence suburbs, with a lawn that needed mowing and two stubby-legged boys to run through it on hot summer days. There'd been plenty of dates after that first one-more trips to the movies and dinners at a small Italian eatery when he could afford it. When things got plenty serious between them that fall, there'd been nocturnal picnics in secluded wheat fields, where they'd share cold cuts and fried chicken and a bottle of wine and write their future in the stars. Mary would pillow her head on his outstretched arm and let her hair fan over the ground to mingle with the stalks of wheat, a family reunion beneath the wide sky. Mary had loved to pretend she was Cassiopeia, seated on her royal divan and sewing finery for her brood. He'd listened to her paint her vibrant tomorrows with her endless optimism, murmuring inarticulate encouragement where appropriate. Mary had often accused him of not listening to her, but he'd been listening as hard as he could, sifting through the vast kaleidoscope of her dreams in search of those he thought he had a stone's chance of giving her.
He'd gotten to touch her shoulder and the rest of her soon enough, had worshipped her contours and mapped them with his hands and mouth in the backseat of the Impala and in the bedroom of her small apartment. He'd been right, too; she had felt like sun-warmed silk, smooth and simmering deliciously beneath his stroking fingers and hungry lips. She'd been exotic, not the sugar and spice of a little girl, but the honey and clove of grown woman, and given the number of nights they'd spent as a tangle of half-shed clothes and sweaty bodies in the backseat of the Impala, it was a wonder that Dean hadn't come along sooner than he did.
He'd proposed that November. His hands had been shaking so badly that he'd fumbled the blue velvet box twice before it emerged from his pocket, and when he'd slid the tiny diamond ring onto her finger, he'd been so exhilarated and giddy with relief that his vision had greyed at the edges. Everything but his Mary, Mary quite contrary, that was. She'd remained beautiful and inviolate, gold and rose in a black-and-white world. That moment and vision of her had never left him, and every now and then, it came in the deep watches of the night to torment him, and those were the nights he spent slumped in an uncomfortable motel chair so that Sam and Dean wouldn't hear him crying in his sleep.
He'd married her the following April in the staid, clapboard, Baptist church her family attended. His family had been Roman Catholic in the dim and distant past, but Mary's father had been a firm believer in the fires of Hell and old Nick's merry, cloven-hoofed jig on sinners' souls, and he'd adamantly refused to lend his blessing to any ceremony performed by idolatrous Papists. His mother had been upset, but he'd lost God years before, put Him aside as a childish thing before he'd left childhood behind, and so to keep the peace, he'd agreed to be married in God's little wooden house by a wizened pastor with Old Spice on his neck and Dixie on his tongue. He would've agreed to marry in a Pentecostal snake dance if got Mary at the end of it. In the end, his concession to the family peace hadn't amounted to much. Until the day that Mary died on the ceiling of Sammy's nursery in a billow of orange flame, Mary's father had held forth the opinion that John Winchester was a no-good son of a bitch who would lead his only daughter to the Devil's sorrow. Mary had always brushed aside her father's assessments as the feverish railings of an overprotective father, but now…now John reckoned that James William Ezekiel Winthrop had had a touch of the prophet in him. Or maybe father had just known best, after all.
They'd lived in a studio apartment for the first six months of marriage, supported by the tips earned by Mary's charm and by the grease he scrubbed from his hands in a clawfoot tub that spat back more water than it swallowed. In October of that year, he'd shaken old man Waterman's callused hand for the last time and hitched his fortunes to Mike Mitchell and their jointly-owned body shop.
It'd been a hard go of it that first year; more than once, he'd come home from work and confided in her his fears that the business was failing, an ambitious but ill-advised albatross that would sink them both. But there'd been a spine of steel and a pair of industrial-grade bootstraps underneath that flawless skin and her lovely sundresses, and whenever he'd tried to throw that particular pity party, she'd told him-in her inimitable Mary Winchester fashion-to stop feeling sorry for himself and make it work. He was John Winchester, and there was nothing he couldn't do if he set his mind to it. He'd had no idea what he'd done to inspire such faith, but he'd been terrified of disappointing it, of disappointing her, and so he'd made the only choice he could. He'd squared his shoulders and picked up the yoke. It had been a lean and ugly road, and he'd eaten more tuna casserole and boxed macaroni than he cared to recall, but thanks to a combination of hard work, long hours, and shrewd business decisions on Mike's part, the body shop had found its footing. By the time Mary had been pregnant with Dean in the spring of '78, they had saved enough for a down payment, and by the time Dean had begun to round her belly and dance to the music of her womb, they'd been painting the room where she would burn to death five years later.
Dean had arrived in the winter of '79, two weeks late and already mule stubborn as he lay on his mother's heaving belly, tiny hands fisted and glistening, gummy mouth open in a thin, shrill cry of newborn rebellion. He'd been six pounds and four ounces of warmth born amid the howling winds of a Kansas blizzard, and with him had come the first in a string of lessons he'd never expected to learn and truths he'd never been told. As he'd stared down at his screaming, bewildered son, pink and fragile and too loud and conspicuous for so fragile a creature, John had understood a fundamental truth: a father's love was hard and fierce, jealous as the grave and just as assured. He would have gladly torn out his heart if it meant that Dean's could go on beating, would have forfeited his own life if it bought Dean one more minute, one more precious breath. A father's love was non-negotiable and one hundred percent fatal.
With that love had come a deep, swooning terror. The world's edges had sharpened, and the darkness had suddenly concealed a bottomless abyss from which any number of monsters might crawl and devour his sleeping child whole, a sweetmeat to complement sulphur wine. If he had known then what he knew now, if he had understood how close his most morbid imaginings were to the truth, he would have surrendered to gibbering insanity, would have barricaded the three of them in the storm cellar and prayed that the fires of Hell burned hot enough to be painless. Back then, crib death was the specter he'd feared, the grinning, ephemeral bogey that taunted him with visions of Dean lying stiff and blue and dead in his crib while Mary stood over the horrible truth with eyes like clouded mirrors and loosed a banshee's wail.
Sammy had come in the spring of '83, pink and wriggling, and curious as all get out. After the initial shock of birth, he'd lain as quietly as you pleased in Mary's arms, noshing thoughtfully on his newly-minted fingers as though to sample them and peering at the faces of his cooing parents with squinting, furrow-browed gravitas. Well, they don't look like much, but we'll see. It had been such a fierce, appraising gaze that John had laughed out loud.
"By God, Mare, I think we've got ourselves a judge. Or a Congressman." Sammy had squirmed and sniffed and fussed indignantly for the breast, and Mary had just smiled and settled back on her pillows to drowse while he nursed.
Sam had brought with him the second great truth of fatherhood. A father's heart was infinite. A heart filled to bursting with love for one son, a heart you swore had room for no one else within its four chambers, suddenly found room for another. More miraculously still, the love for one was not diminished by love for the other. They existed in perfect accord, and no matter how brightly one burned, the other never dimmed or lessened in its unreasoning ferocity. It wasn't a love halved but a love magnified, forever and ever, amen.
He'd had four-and-a-half years of Dean under his belt by that spring, and so it had been thus impossible not to be more confident and sure-footed as a father. He'd learned not to panic over every burp, spit-up, or shrill cry in the night. He'd also learned the fine and ancient art of diaper origami, though it pained to admit the span of time and the embarrassing number of Huggies it had taken to master that particular skill. In short, he'd learned not to leap for the foxhole every time the fluids started to fly.
Not all parental fears had been so easily vanquished, however. The fear of crib death had still plagued him, though by then the bogey had been given a more benign mask by the talking labcoats and re-christened SIDS, as though such a clean, clinical acronym could rob the monster of its power to steal infants from their cribs and carry them away to the unforgiving shores of Never-Neverland. The nightmares that had once starred Dean had now featured Sammy, blue and cold and throttled by a piece of the brightly-colored, musical mobile that so enthralled him once Mary put him down for the night.
The images had been so vivid and potent that he'd often crept into the nursery on socked feet and creaking knees to reassure himself that Sammy was still breathing. Once, he'd tried to convince Mary to get rid of the mobile, but she'd insisted he was being ridiculous, and besides, she'd reasoned, she was the one who'd be up with Sam all night if he started fussing. Touche, Mary Winchester. Sammy had kept his evening concerts, and he'd gone right on having nightmares in which Mary had stood frozen over his crib, a modern-day wife of Lot, turned into a pillar of salt for the crime of an unspecified hubris.
Somebody had stood frozen over a crib all right, but it hadn't been Mary. It had been him, rooted to the spot like a lone tin soldier who'd someone escaped a precocious child's sweeping hand and watching his Mary, Mary quite contrary burn on the ceiling like Helios' wife dethroned, her mouth open in a soundless scream and a tongue of flame behind her blackening teeth. He'd watched her burn while his grasping fingers had bubbled with blisters and softened like wax. Sammy had watched, too, squalling while pieces of the dying sun fell from the ceiling and anointed his head with ash.
Like Ash Wednesday, John had thought absently. I guess 'that damn Papist' sent your good Baptist daughter to Hell, after all, Mr. Winthrop. Sorry about that.
Then Sammy had screamed, tiny body arching in a futile attempt to avoid the hot ash, and John had reconnected with his brains and his military training. He'd scooped Sammy from his crib and passed him to a stunned, sleep-bleary Dean, who hadn't needed to be told twice to run. Even at five, Dean had been a good soldier, and why not? He'd spent most of his early years training to be a G.I. Joe just like his dad. Then he'd charged back into the room, a one-man light brigade bent on saving his light.
It had been too late, of course. Mary had been so much bone and burning hair by then, a grinning skull with boiling eyes. So, he'd turned tail and fled, a grunt twice-defeated, and when he'd stumbled outside, spitting soot and pieces of Mary from his mouth like bits of desecrated Eucharist, Dean had taken refuge in the Impala, eyes wide as pie plates as he watched his home burn. Sammy had been on his lap, sound asleep, a joey tucked snugly against Dean's body. John had had to pry Dean's hands from Sammy and coax him out of the dark refuge of the car with whispers and hoarse, empty promises that it wasn't as bad as looked. It hadn't been the first lie he'd told his trusting son-Dean had still believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the myth of fairness-but it had been the cruelest. It had been as bad as it looked and then some. By dawn, all that had remained of their former lives was the ring on John's finger, the blood ties that bound them together, and a rapidly-receding glimpse of better yesterdays in the Impala's rearview mirror. Dean's childhood had died in the fire along with Mary, but unlike his mother, who was buried with honor and wet-eyed dignity in the cemetery of the church where her prophet father had predicted her fate, it had been left behind, left to rot in the blackened slush of sodden, burnt diapers and clothes that had emerged from the smoldering ruin of the nursery. Maybe it was there still, fallow and waiting, or perhaps it had been discovered and used by another child, a gift unlooked for in the weeds of Mary's garden. It was a possibility that he didn't much like to consider, but sometimes he did anyway, just as he sometimes saw his dead friends' faces looming at him from out of the dark, bubbling and puckering like tar, or heard Mary scream his name across the unbreachable distance of eternity.
His Mary, Mary, quite contrary had taught him the third lesson of parenthood with her death, seared it into his soul with tongues of flame. A father's love for his sons was inviolate and unending, but it was not equal. One could be loved more than the other, cherished deep within the heart of hearts that abided no reason and made no excuses. Abel and Seth, the beloved and the merely loved. He hadn't meant for it to happen, and he doubted any father had, any more than God had intended to love Abel more than Cain, whose only sin until he raised the rock that slew his brother had been to offer meat instead of vegetables. But God help him, his love was not equal and never could be.
By rights, it should have gone to Dean, the lion's share of his love. The firstborn had long held the distinction of being first-loved, heir and conqueror of his father's heart, and maybe he would have been, too, if life had taken a different, fairer path and Mary hadn't anointed Sammy with a final lullaby and a gentle rain of falling ash.
But that ash had been imbued with a terrible weight, a light, inexorable Mark of Mary that had never washed away no matter feverishly he'd washed Sammy in the freezing, November-kissed water of a culvert on the way to anywhere but home. Mary had refused to relinquish Sammy even in death, and sometimes, he still smelled her on Sammy's skin. Not the rancid, pork-fat reek of her as she'd burned, but the scent that had so enticed him in the first place-chantilly lace and sun-warmed silk. Sometimes, it was so strong that the urge to sing that damned song had pushed the Big Bopper out of his throat and onto his tongue before his brain could remember she was dead. Then he'd snap his mouth shut hard enough to rattle his teeth and scrape his fool tongue, and Dean would shoot him a wary, speculative glance from the corner of his eye. Sammy'd just roll his eyes and mutter something that sounded suspiciously like, "Nice moldy oldie, Dad." Of course he would. Sammy had been granted the luxury of ignorance. But not Dean. Never his Dean, and sometimes John wanted to weep for the sheer, ugly unfairness of it.
He'd tried to deny it at first, this most terrible lesson of fatherhood. He'd told himself that he focused so much of his attention and energy on Sammy because Sammy was younger than Dean, and weaker, everything a baby brother should be, and when Sammy was still in short pants, pulling himself up to two wobbling feet with the help of the recliner or the side of the bed and chewing anything that John didn't nail down, he could believe it. It was human nature, after all, to protect the baby of the family.
And that excuse had worked well enough while Sammy was still in short pants, pulling himself up on two wobbling feet with the help of the recliner or the side of the bed and chewing anything John hadn't nailed down, but soon enough, Sammy had outgrown the short pants and his taste for anything dirt. He'd been toddling full-throttle after Dean, fearless and reckless and every bit a Winchester. Two, three, four, and then he'd been the same age as Dean had been when John had been forced to strip him of his childhood and all its cherished illusions. John had braced himself to do the same for Sam, to him, had steeled himself to tell him that while there were no such things as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy, there most certainly were monsters under the bed and bogeymen in the closet, and if he should ever see either of them, he was to scream long and loud and hide until Daddy could blow its goddamned brains out with the rock salt and the holy water. He'd had nearly done it twice, had sat Sammy down at the kitchen table with a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of milk and started to tell him the truth, but he hadn't gotten more than three words out before Sammy's guileless face and big, brown eyes had stopped him cold and he'd told him a story about Super Sammy and his sidekick Dean Danger instead. It had been simple cowardice born of an even simpler love. He might've broken Dean in the name of keeping him safe, but he wouldn't break Sammy, not until he had no choice.
So Sammy had kept his innocence a little longer, had gotten to keep his faith in the patron saints of childhood. While Dean had slept with the unwelcome knowledge of demons and ghosts as he bedfellow, Sammy had dreamed of sugarplums and bunnies bearing Cadbury eggs and fairies bearing dollar bills. While Dean had spent far too many nights peering fretfully out of Pastor Jim's or Bobby Singer's living room window and praying for the rumble of the Impala's engine to tell him his father hadn't been eaten by a ghoul, Sammy had watched cartoons and asked Dean when Daddy was going to be finished selling hand creams and vacuum cleaners to bored housewives and lonely shut-ins.
His illusions had shattered when he was eight and John had dragged himself home from a hunt wearing more blood than clothing. Dean had seen him staggering up Bobby Singer's driveway with his shirt in tatters and his jeans soaked in blood-not all of it his own, damn straight-and rushed out to help take the weight just like he always did. Bobby had tried to chivvy Sam into a back bedroom, but it'd been too late. Sam had caught an eyeful, and his eyes had expanded to the size of pie plates inside his small, white face. John's heart had spasmed painfully inside his chest in spite of his semi-conscious state because he'd known then, gazing blearily and apologetically into his youngest son's upturned face while his older son propped him up on shoulders too young for such an enormous burden, that the jig was up. Like it or not, Sammy's childhood was over.
"What happened, Daddy?" Sam had asked in a quavering voice too small for his years. "Did you have a wreck?" In Sam's world, that was the only plausible explanation for so much blood, for so many tears in his father's skin. Sam's voice had been so hopeful that Dean, who knew better, had glanced out the window at the Impala, as though he hoped to see the front fender dangling from the chassis like a loose tooth or the passenger door crumpled by an invisible fist.
For one lunatic moment, he'd been tempted to tell him that he'd been attacked by a rogue vacuum cleaner, that during a demonstration of the Rainbowvac Model 350, the machine had lost control and developed a mind of its own, had in fact, become Doc Ock with a bristle-brush attachment, but even in his semi-coherent fog of pain and blood loss, he'd known that was a bad idea. The last thing he needed was for Sammy to get a case of the screaming memes every time John cranked up the Electrolux. Besides, such tales of fabulous invention had been beyond him, teetering and slaloming as he was on Dean's straining shoulders, and anyway, it would've been a futile gesture. Sam knew an ass-kicking when he saw one, even at eight years old.
So, he'd bowed to the inevitable with the grace of the utterly defeated. "Not now, Sammy," he'd slurred as Singer had assumed the yoke of dragging his sorry ass to the bathroom. "Not now, buddy. 'S'ok. You just mind Dean now, you hear?"
Dean had dutifully herded Sam into the back bedroom to watch television, one arm curled possessively around Sam's hunched shoulders. Sammy had gone, but not without prodding, and he'd kept twisting from Dean's grip for another look at the great and terrible show unfolding in the living room with the secretive mystery of a gruesome carnival. It had taken Singer the better part of two hours and his considerable vocabulary of curses and imprecations to patch him up again, and when he'd wakened later that night to take a piss and the edge off his pain with a liberal splash of Bobby's finest hooch, he'd caught sight of Sammy's wide, watchful eyes staring at him from the bedroom he shared with Dean. Except the room hadn't been the only thing they'd been sharing that night.
It shouldn't have unsettled him, seeing Sam sharing a bed with Dean. After Mary was gone, Sam had refused to sleep without Dean for the first three years of his life, had, in fact, howled down the walls at the very idea of sleeping solo, and for his part, Dean had found his way into Sammy's crib or bed more often then not, folded into an impossible space and an improbable shape that always kept him between Sammy and the dangers in the dark. Sam had finally decided to sleep on his own shortly after his fourth birthday, but even then, he'd refused to settle unless Dean slept in the same room. Dean had been Sam's security blanket.
So, no, it shouldn't have unsettled him, but it had, because he hadn't been able to shake the sudden surety that he was burying sons instead of raising them. Sam had looked far younger than he should, five instead of eight, a small, brown head peeking above the mound of blankets. Dean, too, had been smaller, a shrunken crescent of bare-chested humanity that had loomed over his brother with the ferocity of a hunter's moon. Eight going on five and thirteen going on nine. God help him.
"You okay, Daddy?" Sammy had whispered out of the darkness, and at the sound of his brother's voice, Dean had stirred, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and coming to full wakefulness faster than any teenaged boy ever should. He propped himself on one elbow, and with his tousled, blond hair and eyes that darted from Sam to him and back to Sam, he'd looked so much like a wary meerkat that John would've laughed if he hadn't been so close to crying.
Oh, God, Mare, what in the hell am I doing to these boys? he'd thought desperately. He'd leaned on the doorframe to hold himself up and rubbed his nape with one dry palm.
"I'm fine, buddy," he'd managed at last. "Just hitting the head."
"Oh." Sam had propped himself on both elbows and clutched the sides of his pillow, plucking restlessly at the dog-eared pillowcase. "Dad?"
"Yeah, son?" He'd known what was coming, and he'd braced himself, hand pressed to the doorframe for support.
Sam had chanced a furtive glance at Dean, as though he, too, were working himself up, and then he'd said, "How'd you get hurt? Dean said you got mauled by a vacuum cleaner."
That had surprised a bray of laughter from him, and he'd silently blessed the son after his own heart. "Well, not exactly, son, no," he'd admitted at last. "Look, Sammy, I'm beat. Can we talk about this in the morning?"
Sam hadn't answered right away. He'd just tugged fretfully at the woebegone ears of his pillowcase, worried his lower lip with his front teeth, and studied him with eyes that saw too much. He'd been tempted to turn away, to hide from his son in shame, but he'd held his ground, and in the end, Sammy had nodded.
"Good man," he'd murmured, and weak with relief, he'd tottered to bed before Sam changed his mind and called after him like a relentless inquisitor. Confess your sin, John Winchester. Name it before the prophet Samuel. He'd stared at the creaking ceiling fan that had jutted from the ceiling like exposed bone, and smelled sun-warmed silk and the copper stink of dried blood.
He'd hoped that Sammy would have forgotten his curiosity by morning, would have bartered it to Morpheus in exchange for pleasant dreams, but no such luck. Sammy's mouth had been so full of questions that there had scarcely been room in it for eggs and bacon, and he'd peppered him with fifteen different ones before John had managed to scratch the seat of his boxers and pour himself a cup of coffee.
There had been no choice in the end. Maybe he could have evaded the fullisade of questions that had spit from Sam's mouth like shrapnel, could have quashed it by fatherly fiat or a short, sharp burst of anger, but it would have been a temporary victory. Sam would have broached the topic again down the road, and besides, if the worst happened and he died in the line of duty, he hadn't wanted Sam thinking he'd met his untimely end at the hands of a homicidal Hoover.
So, he'd confessed, seated at the kitchen table like a V.C. general passing sentence on a hapless POW. He'd told Sam about the things that went bump in the night, about demons and skinwalkers and yetis and undead spirits that wandered desolate highways and inhabited houses dying their own quiet deaths. He told Sam that he was a ghostbuster, and that it was his job to help those who couldn't help themselves. Sam had, of course, promptly demanded to see his proton pack, and he could only clutch his rapidly cooling cup of coffee and blink at his son in wordless befuddlement. Dean had hovered uncertainly in the kitchen doorway, scratching idly at the strip of bare belly exposed by his too-small undershirt and tugging compulsively at the short, bristling hairs that covered the cup of his skull. More than once, he'd looked like he was going to join them at the table, and John had nursed a fragile hope that he would. They might not have shared beds anymore, but Sam and Dean still shared most everything else, including a secret language he couldn't speak and seldom understood. He'd wanted Dean to translate, to share in this unenviable burden, but such a feat had been beyond even his unreasonably heroic soul. Enlisting Sammy in the family army had been a man's duty, a rite of passage passed from father to son, and he'd been the only one in the room who'd fit that bill. So, he'd squared his shoulders and broken his son's heart in the heart of Bobby Singer's dingy kitchen.
Not that there'd been much help from Bobby. The man had faced down cannibals and dispatched werewolves to Hell with the Marlboro still hanging jauntily from his mouth, but upending an eight-year-old's world was a dirty business too sordid for him to undertake. So he'd retreated to the sheltering jumble of the salvage yard to eviscerate hapless cars instead. John could hardly blame him. Hell, he'd longed to be there himself, with axle grease on his hands instead of blood. He'd wondered in the years since that morning if Bobby's conscientious objection to Sam's blooding made him a better man.
Probably. It probably made him a better father, too, and wasn't that a bitch?
It'd taken him nearly an hour to lay out the facts of Winchester life, and when he was through, he'd sagged in his chair, spent. Old and used up, that was how he'd felt then, and weaker than he had the previous night, when his blue shirt had turned purple with his blood. He'd let out a ragged sigh and run his palm over his chin, which had been coarse with stubble and raw with the myriad minute scratches of scouring tree branches and lashing reeds, and then with a weary groan and a creaking of joints, he'd sat forward in his chair, steepled his elbows over the egg-smeared remnants of his breakfast, and waited for the inevitable barrage of questions.
Except there hadn't been any questions. Sam had looked at him, and then at Dean, face bloodless and thin and too damn young for eight years old, and then he'd very calmly picked up his fork and stabbed his cold eggs until yolk had run like blood.
"You're a liar," he'd said flatly, and pushed his fork across the plate until the tines screamed. They'd sounded like Mary, rebuking him from the grave, and John had had to slip his hands beneath the table and grip his knees to still their trembling.
Dean had gasped at his little brother's pronouncement, and John couldn't blame him. "Liar" was a four-letter word in the Winchester household, and it most certainly had never been applied to anything that came out of his mouth. "Father knows best" was more than down-home wisdom in Che Winchester; it was Divine writ, and Sammy had told him in his simple, stubborn way, that he was full of shit. Sammy had called his bluff, and Dean had no doubt been waiting for the hammer of God to fall on Sam's impudent head.
But John had never felt less like God in his life. He'd felt thirty-five going on eighty- five, a man hopelessly out of his depth, treading water and trying to keep cold, black water out of his lungs. If he'd ever had a Divine hammer, he'd lost it somewhere on the road out of Lawrence, and even if he hadn't, he'd doubted he had the strength to lift it with his frail, too-human fingers.
He'd sighed and closed his eyes. "Sammy, I know why you'd think that, son, and I can't say I blame you. Frankly, you're not the first person to hold that opinion-,"
But Sammy had been flat finished with the views and opinions of John Winchester. Without warning, he'd picked up his plate and stood from his chair. "Liar, Liar, LIAR!" he'd screamed, and the final syllable had been so raw and wounded that Dean had jumped. John had worried that Sammy might've stabbed himself with his fork, but he needn't have worried. The fork had dangled precariously from Sammy's dangerously listing plate, kissed only by the blood of two eggs sunny-side up.
John had risen, intending to come around the table and offer what comfort he could, but he hadn't taken more than two steps before Sam had bared his teeth at him like a frightened, cornered animal.
"Liar!" he'd screamed. "Liar, liar, pants on damn fire!" He'd been crying by then, tears streaming from his wild eyes and snot running from his nose in a long, glistening string. He'd wiped his nose on the back of his forearm, and in so doing, had upended the plate of eggs. The fork had clattered to the floor with a musical ping of dismay, and the eggs had followed suit with a wet plip that had reminded John of sloughing skin.
"LIAR!" Sam had bellowed, and the veins in his forehead and neck had throbbed with the strain. Then he'd hurled the empty plate at him.
John had been so startled that he'd barely had time to deflect the plate from striking his gut. He'd made an instinctive grab for it at the last instant, but the cheap ceramic had slipped through his fumbling fingers and shattered, sprayed shards of ceramic across the kitchen, white and brittle as egg shell.
"Samuel!" John had barked in fear and surprise.
Sam had stood as rigidly as a tentpole, chest heaving and fists clenched at his side. He'd looked at the scattered remains of the plate as if he couldn't understand how they'd gotten there, but there had been defiance, too, a thin, rapidly-hardening scrim of kiss-my-ass that had thinned his trembling lips and made his small, wobbling chin jut in mute challenge.
Fuck you, John Winchester, and the horse you rode in on, his expression and posture had said, and he'd looked so much like Mary that only paternal pride had stayed John from laughing and crying at the same time.
"Sammy," he'd croaked, hoarse and conciliatory.
Sammy had spared him a last wet-eyed glance and fled, disappeared into the quiet of the house. Dean's leg had twitched with the need to follow him, to be his little brother's keeper, but obedience had held him in check.
"Dad?" he'd said quietly, and made to pick up the scattered shards of ceramic strewn across the floor.
"Go on, son. Go. You'll cut up your hands." And I've already got enough blood on my hands for both of us.
Dean hadn't needed to be told twice. He'd melted into the shadows of the hallway, followed his brother into the belly of the house, and soon the only sounds had been the slithering scrape of ceramic on old wood and the harsh rattle of his own breath in his ears. He'd gathered each fleck and splinter of broken plate, pulled them from the wood like bone fragments, and when he was done, he'd carried them to the garbage can and let them sift through his fingers like ash. It had been a strangely intimate act, a ritual without name, and when he was finished, he'd shouldered open the sagging screen door and lumbered towards the salvage yard, feet heavy inside his army surplus boots.
He'd found Singer buried under the hood of a '71 Charger, sleeves rolled up and brown forearms smeared with axle grease to the elbow like industrial woad. Bobby hadn't stopped working at the crunch of his feet on the loose gravel, had merely turned his head and squinted at him from beneath the canopy of the Charger's hood.
"From your expression, I'd say that went as well as I thought it would," he'd grunted laconically, and removed the limp, black shaft of the fuel line without looking at it.
"I don't want to discuss it."
"Seems to me that not talking's what got you into this little predicament."
"Leave it be, Singer."
"Suit yourself, then." Bobby had shrugged and handed him a torque wrench, and the only talking he'd done for the rest of that afternoon had been with his hands.
Turned out he wasn't the only one tired of talking. Sammy had refused to talk to him for a week, and not even the threat of a spanking could goad him from his policy of radio silence. He'd talked to Bobby and Dean all you pleased, but when he tried to join the conversation, Sammy had simply tuned him out. It was Dean who finally got him talking again, though John had long since forgotten how. Sammy had simply emerged from the bathroom one morning, naked as the day he was born, to inform him that there was a spider the size of a hamster squatting in the shower drain. He'd been so surprised by the sudden rapprochment that he hadn't bothered to question it. He'd simply armed himself with a rolled-up newspaper and a can of Raid so old that it bore rust stains on its canister like leprous lesions and gone marching as to war. One squashed and thoroughly gassed spider later, and Sammy was talking as though there had never been an undeclared war of silence between them.
Maybe he'd just needed to be sure that his old man really did kill monsters for a living.
He might've killed the monster, but he'd never dispelled the darkness. Sammy had never been the same after that awful come to Jesus meeting at Bobby Singer's kitchen table. Like Dean before him, he'd put away childish things and become a little man in secondhand Keds, but unlike Dean, he hadn't accepted the yoke of premature adulthood gracefully, with a stiff upper lip and the zeal of a greater cause burning in his belly. He'd chafed and bridled and questioned, the last most of all, and with each question, he'd stripped another chunk of iron from John's feet to reveal the soft wet clay beneath, the red clay that was so much like blood.
Sam hadn't wanted the life of a hunter, the nomadic, gypsy caravan bustle of moving from town to town in the middle of the night and sleeping fitfully under the blinking neon moon of a motel VACANCY sign. He'd hated the moves and the secrecy and the rootlessness of life in the middle of everywhere, and he never failed to say so. He'd begged to put down roots and make a life for himself, to be allowed the luxury of friends and the stability of having the same teacher for the entire school year. He'd wanted nothing more than what the yellow-eyed demon had denied him. And nothing less.
And though John could hardly blame him, neither could he give it to him. It would've meant conceding defeat and admitting that the demon that had stolen his American dream was the better man and deserved to win. It would've meant letting go of Mary, failing her a second time. He couldn't. He wouldn't. She deserved better, his Mary, Mary, quite contrary, who'd never lived to see her garden grow. She deserved a better tribute than an unremarkable slab of grey slate in a Kansas cemetery he seldom visited, lest he come face to face with her haggard, unforgiving father, Jonathan Edwards in a button-down shirt and an honest church deacon's earth-stained brogans. He couldn't recover her from the ashes, reform her from the soot and dust of Sammy's ruined nursery with his grease-grimed hands and breathe life into her again, but he could damn sure send her killer to the same devouring fire. So, he'd squared his shoulders and hardened his heart and become the drill sergeant he'd had to be instead of the father he'd wanted to be. And Sammy, wrapped in the narcissism of childhood, had hated him for it.
John had spent years trying to atone for the acts of parental sabotage his quest for vengeance had required of him. He'd made sure that Sam's school records were never out of date no matter how many times he had to change schools, and he'd dutifully coughed up money better spent on weapons in the name of school field trips to zoos, libraries, and museums. He'd done his best to limit his hunting forays to the summer, and when he couldn't, he'd enlisted Dean as de facto babysitter, ordered him to forego his scant adolescent freedoms and pursuits so that Sam could wow his teachers with papier mache globes of the world and styrofoam recreations of solar systems and DNA strands. Hell, John had spent more than one Friday night up to his elbows in artist's glue, getting high on Elmer's in the name of science so his boy could rewrite history with a cardboard diorama of the Jurassic period.
When Sam had gotten old enough for Dean to instruct him in the art of pool hustling and they'd roared off to the local honky tonk in the Impala, tires spinning and radio blaring The Blue Oyster Cult, John had let them go with a warning to use a rubber, dammit, and yes, Dean, that went for quickies, too, and a prayer that Dean wouldn't wrap them around a telephone pole while "Don't Fear the Reaper" bled from the mangled speakers and rescue workers wondered what a twelve-year-old was doing with his pockets stuffed with cash and pool hall rubbers. Dean had always brought them home in one piece, full of swagger and smelling of smoke and cheap perfume(but never of perfume that smelled of sun-warmed silk and chantilly lace, never that, thank God for tender mercies), and though Sam had scowled in righteous, lofty disapproval at the means by which Dean's pocket money was acquired, that never stopped him from using it to buy school supplies or books with which to pass the time on long road trips. In fact, he'd considered it his due more often than not, reasonable if paltry compensation for the unjust indignity of having a tight-assed maniac for a father, and Dean, ever faithful in his execution of a duty beyond his years and rightful job description, had shrugged and done without so that Sam could have just that much more.
Sam had never seen it that way, of course; "that much more" had never been enough, but rather more proof of just how badly he had it. Never mind that Dean had put paid to his high school career at sixteen so that Sam could dazzle the junior high maidens and blue-haired spinsters with his near-perfect attendance(though to be fair, he doubted Dean had ever shed a tear over that particular brotherly sacrifice; he'd probably done a farewell jig from the registrar's office like a dancer from West Side Story). Never mind that he, John, had often paid more rent than he could afford and overstayed his welcome in suspicious, tight-knit towns so that Sam could finish the school year, or at least make it to the Christmas break before they had to move on. Sam fixated only on the opportunities of which he'd been cruelly deprived and turned a disdainful, blind eye to the ones he'd been given. John had lost count of the times the boy had pissed and moaned and lapsed into a flat-out sulk over all the world had denied him and sworn up and down that when he was old enough, he was going, going, gone and never coming back. Dean always dismissed Sam's avowals as a temporary and amusing case of teenaged chapped ass, but John knew better. He remembered that same stubbornness set on another face long ago and far away, reduced to cherished memory, and he knew Sam was serious. If he got the chance, Sam would turn in his holy water and his Latin exorcism rites and his rock salt and never look back.
He also knew this: he'd never tell Dean that truth. Love, even love incommensurate with what was right and fair, ran deep, and Dean, his good and faithful son, Abel with a brush cut and a James Dean swagger, deserved that smallest of mercies.
Then again, maybe he would, because Sammy, with his willful blindness and adolescent rage, was currently offering a crash course in the fourth universal law of fatherhood: a father's best intentions often upended in the blink of an eye and sent his most jealously guarded secrets slithering into the light. Dean was about to come to a hard, painful truth on the unforgiving birch lash of absolute necessity, and there wasn't a goddamned thing John could do about it.
He'd never intended to tell Dean the secret, you see, never intended to divulge to a boy barely into manhood the third universal law of fatherhood and admit that he was the firstborn but not the first loved. It wasn't his fault that he hadn't been the last of his Mary, Mary, quite contrary's treasures. It had been the simple luck of the genetic draw and the fickle whim of fate. Five years earlier, and there would've been no Sam to save, only Dean, dressed in a yellow onesie and squalling himself blue in the face while his mother roasted in Hell above his crib. Five years earlier, and Dean would have been his only son, more precious than the Hope Diamond. Five years earlier, and there would have been no terrible secret to keep. Just Dean, and maybe God help him, they wouldn't be in this clusterfuck now.
He'd meant to keep his dirty secret, infect no heart but his own. There hadn't been a need to spread the dreadful sin like syphilis and ravage the boy's heart and soul. Dean had been everything a father could ask for and then some, brave and decent and obedient to his detriment. He'd swallowed his own grief for his precious mother Mary so that John could concentrate on keeping them afloat and one step ahead of the next bump in the night. He'd gone from five years old to twenty overnight, standing on a rickety stepstool to warm formula and change diapers. He'd learned to manipulate the straps on Sammy's carseat with fingers that should've been grappling with the pudgy, colorful shafts of Crayolas. And he'd carried Sam's dreams for him when he'd cast them aside in a fit of impotent rage, tucked them carefully against his heart in case Sam rediscovered hope.
The Easter after Sam had taken his most unwelcome trip down the road to Damascus, Dean, who'd been far too old for such childhood magic, had spent a bleary-eyed, pre-dawn morning hiding jellybeans and Cadbury crème eggs in the various nooks and niches of a hotel room in Des Moines. He'd shuffled around in his boxers, hiding beans and eggs behind the television set and beside the cracked face of the clock radio while Sam had snored and shifted in his nest of covers, ass pointed heavenward, a compass needle pointed true north.
"I don't think Sammy sets much store by the Easter Bunny these days, Dean," he cautioned as he'd watched the careful ritual over the flimsy rim of his styrofoam cup.
Dean had shrugged as he'd placed an egg behind the cardboard placard advertising the fare on the hotel's pay-for-porno channels. "Probably not," he'd said. "But just in case, you know?" Nonchalant, as though he didn't care whether Sam believed in Peter Cottontail or not, but he'd looked at Sam as he finished placing the treat, and John had known that it damn well did matter. Dean had been just as determined to give Sam a childhood as John had been desperate to grow him up.
Sammy hadn't much cared about what the Easter Bunny had left him when he woke up. He'd just yawned and rolled his eyes and told Dean that the Easter Bunny wasn't real, a scientist upending the world of a backward, Bible-clutching zealot who thought the sun revolved around the earth. John had winced at the flicker of defeat on Dean's face, the momentary sense of loss, as though an invisible fist had fetched a blow to his solar plexus. But Dean was nothing if not quick on his feet, and after an instant of flummoxed, wounded silence, Dean had laughed and grabbed Sam in a headlock and said of course there was no such thing as the Easter Bunny, he was just making sure that Sam didn't need to ride the short bus with the slow kids, that was all. The laughter had soured the coffee in John's mouth, and he'd gone outside under the pretense of making sure no one had picked the Impala's locks in the middle of the night.
He'd tried to offer small, fumbling consolation to Dean when he'd come out with duffels in hand, but Dean had been all swagger and glassy bravado. "It's okay, Dad. Like you said, Sammy's too old for that baby stuff." Dean had gone back into the hotel room before he could say anything else, and really, what could he have said? So, he'd let it go and concentrated on getting the boys up and out.
He'd thought that was the end of it until an hour down the road, when he'd heard furtive clicking noises coming from the pocket of Dean's army jacket, which lay across his knees.
"Dean, did you leave shells in your pocket? I thought I told you to keep ammunition out of the passenger cabin and off of your person in case we got pulled over by some hayseed cop with a power hard-on. Besides, one of those damn things falls out, it could roll under the brake pedal and keep me from stopping this car in a hurry."
Dean had blinked at him in surprise, and then a guilty flush had crept into his cheeks. He'd shifted in his seat, and the Impala's upholstery had purred agreeably beneath his sliding flanks. "Yes, sir, you did. But it's not ammo in my pocket, I swear."
"Well, what is it, then?"
Dean's flush had deepened. "Nothin'," he'd muttered softly to his crotch.
Visions of pilfered M-80s and Black Cats had danced in his head. "Dean, you either show me what you've got in there, or I'm going to pull the car over and find out for myself, and if I have to do that, I guarantee you won't like it."
"Yes, sir." Dean had lifted the flap of the pocket and reached inside, and his hand had emerged in a loose fist. Wordlessly, he'd turned his hand and uncurled his fingers, a magician revealing the heart of his magic, and in the cup of his palm had been jellybeans.
"Just in case Sammy changed his mind."
"Oh." Oh, son. "Well, that's all right, then."
He'd expected Dean to return the candy to the shelter of the pocket, but instead, he'd let it rest in the cup of his palm while he looked out the window and watched the cornfields pass. Eventually, Dean had fallen asleep, head lolling against the headrest, and John had been tempted to scoop the candies from his lax hand and toss them out the window, Jack's harridan mother wresting the innocuous gift of prosperity and innocent hope from the hand of her gullible boy, but he couldn't. It had smacked of heartless cruelty, and so he'd left them where they lay and watched them bleed their colors into his son's hand in a Willy Wonka stigmata. Either Sam would eat them, or Dean would let them go when he was ready, simply turn the cradling cup of his palm earthward and let them fall to the soil to wither or flourish as they might.
In that moment, looking at his thirteen-year-old son hold ninety-nine cent jellybeans in his palm just in case his sleeping and oblivious eight-year-old brother wanted them later, John had known that he would never tell Dean the truth. In that moment, his love for Dean had been as it should have been, a white-hot flame that consumed everything in its path, a merciless napalm that had threatened to consume him from the inside. His trembling fingers had spasmed around the steering wheel, and his vision had blurred dangerously. The wave of emotion had been so intense that his chest had hurt, and he'd pulled to the shoulder to regain his composure.
The subtle jolt of the car coasting to a stop had roused Dean, and he'd sat up and blinked the sleep from his eyes, fingers closing instinctively around their precious burden.
"What's the matter, Dad?" he'd asked anxiously. "Did Sammy get carsick?" He'd twisted in his seat to peer fretfully at Sam, searching the crevices of the upholstery for telltale rivulets of vomit.
"Nope. Sam's fine, son." It's me that needs a minute or thirty. Dean was the spitting image of Mary in profile, right down to dusting of freckles on his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. If he squinted, he could pretend it was Mary beside him, and that they were rambling the Kansas back roads to calm a colicky Dean, who was howling to be heard over the optimistic din of Steeler's Wheel. If he kept squinting, he could even believe that Mary would reach into the backseat and pull out not a sleeping Sam, but an indignantly howling Dean. She'd cuddle him on her lap and sing along, bounce the gas out of him while she sang about how glad she was to be stuck in the middle with him. She'd sing, and Dean would burp and laugh, and John would watch them and hum a different, secret song inside his head, one made famous by The Big Bopper. If he squinted, he could make the car a time machine.
"Oh," Dean had said, and his cracking, adolescent voice had jolted John rudely back to the present. "Is there something wrong with the car?" He'd leaned in to inspect the dashboard gauges, and when he'd found nothing amiss, he'd craned his neck out the passenger window in a search for flat tires or an ominous puddle of fluid on the blacktop or the dirt beneath the car.
"No, son. Car's fine." It's me that's having a goddamn breakdown.
"Oh." The handy family buzzword. "What're we doing here then?"
"I just need a minute, Dean."
"Oh. Okay." Dean had lapsed into obedient silence, but his fingers had drummed a nervous tattoo on the outside of the Impala's door panel, fingers dancing on the warm metal.
He'd sat staring at the cornfield until Sam had begun to stir in the backseat, roused by the lack of noise and the persistent heat of the sun on his cheeks, and then he'd thrown the car into gear and driven on. He'd had to resist the compulsion to watch the cornfield recede in his rearview mirror, convinced that if he looked back, he'd see Mary emerging from the cornrows with stalks woven in her pretty golden hair like a garland. She'd beckon him with an enticing smile, and he wouldn't be able to resist. He'd never been able to resist her, to deny her anything, not even sons, and nothing, not even death and the patently impossible would change that. If she'd emerged from the gently whispering stalks and bid him follow, he would not have hesitated. He would've left the car in the middle of that Iowa highway and chased her into the field. If he'd had the courage, he would've left Sam and Dean in the car and to the hopeful charity of passing tourists, but like as not, he would've taken them with him, would've ordered them to fall in and follow him into the field of dreams.
But he'd resisted the seduction of the mirror, and after a quarter-mile, the cornfield had been so much shimmering fool's gold in his wake. Sammy had declared himself hungry and eventually eaten the jellybeans Dean had so carefully hoarded, though by the time he had, they'd looked less like magical beans and more like awful medicine disguised as a sweet by an enterprising yet inept parent, mottled and bled of their colors by Dean's sweaty hand. Sam had eaten them with no discernible relish, and John had doubted that they had returned to him his lost innocence, but Dean had been satisfied, even furtively pleased. They might not have resurrected Sam's childhood, but they preserved Dean's for just a little longer, and he had supposed that was magic enough from a bag of jellybeans plucked carelessly from a dollar-store shelf.
Well, they sure as shit couldn't save it now. No one could, and it was his fault.
He should've left Sam at home. At fourteen, he was old enough to be left alone, and he could be trusted to use the money John left for him in the pickle jar for food. He should've loaded up the refrigerator with frozen dinners and ground beef and left a paper with Bobby's and Pastor Jim's phone numbers by the telephone and left him with the promise to return in a week. Sammy would sooner die than miss a minute of school, so the truant officer wouldn't have been a problem. Widow Weller, the nosy biddy who lived across the street, and who presided over her dusty, fishbowl world through the warped lens of her old brass telescope might've kicked up didoes about the Winchester boy being left alone, but she kicked up so many didoes that the local cops usually ignored her. If the ocular predations of an old woman who took her fashion and etiquette tips from The Civil War Almanac and Ladies' Home Companion truly bothered him so much, he should've shipped Sam off to Singer or bitten the bullet and left Dean behind with a sullen Sam.
What he should not have done was let Sam come on this hunt. He'd known it was a bad idea the minute Sam had broached the subject over dinner last week, eager and preemptively sullen beneath his too-long bangs. He'd known it and said no, and for a week, he'd weathered the storm of righteous indignation and shrill accusations of brutal rule by fiat. He'd even withstood the hours of brooding silence and the interminable drives with Sam slouched in the backseat of the Impala in a ball of hard-done-by pique and Dean turning the radio to intolerable, ear-splitting volume to drown out the uncomfortable silence of adult might versus adolescent right. He'd pressed on, secure in the knowledge that his gut had seldom steered him wrong. He'd had no intention of bringing Sam along, and as late as yesterday afternoon, he'd planned to leave him behind, where he was safe.
But damned if Sam didn't have a politician's tongue and a badger's dogged persistence. Once he figured out that silence and sulking wasn't going to win the shooting match, he changed tack. He'd switched his focus from the grievous wrongs of exclusion to the potential benefits of playing tagalong. He'd pointed out that with him along to do the grunt work of bag-hauling, Dean would be free to help with the more dangerous aspects of hunting and tracking. Besides, he'd added with the hectic, bright-eyed fervor of a Jehovah's Witness with a boner and a dream, he was fourteen now, plenty old enough to hold his own. Hadn't John been teaching him to shoot since he was ten? The monsters wouldn't care how old he was, wouldn't spare him for the mercy of youth, and didn't he have to learn sometime? What was he supposed to do if, God forbid, he and Dean became so much demon bait? Cower in the hotel room until starvation or an angry hotel manager forced him out?
Very fine points all, and still John had balked. The perpetually harried and terrified father-voice inside his head hadn't given a damn about logic or Sam's budding skills in Oratory and Debate 101. Too young, too young, it had hissed with rabbity insistence, and he couldn't disagree. Dean had been sixteen on his first hunt, grown into his body and armored with the confidence of absolute conviction. Further, Dean wasn't hampered by the weakness of curiosity or moral ambiguity. Dean's only interest in the things he hunted was how best to kill them, and he certainly never stopped to ponder whether their demise was deserved.
Sam, on the other hand, was possessed of an insatiable need to know and understand beyond any doubt. Sam liked to quantify and qualify and catalogue, to dissect and inspect until there was neither knowledge nor doubt to be had. He was a budding scientist with a philosopher's heart, and John was afraid that Sam would hesitate when push came to shove, paralyzed by ill-advised wonder or the stirrings of a useless moral quandary. He would hesitate, and the monster wouldn't, and Sam would leave the world a bloody, tattered ragdoll, distant, dead eyes fixed on questions he'd never have the chance to ask. With him would go the ill-defended treasure of his mother and most of his father's mind. The possibility was more than he could stand, and so he'd done his best to cut it off at the pass and told Sam that his choices were to stay home alone or be shipped to Bobby's to play gopher and rag-holding apprentice. Sam had done his best imitation of a disenfranchised grunt with a terminal case of hemorrhoids, and John had slept like a rock, sure he'd made the right decision.
And then this morning, standing over a sink full of dirty dishes and sipping black coffee from a steaming mug while he watched Widow Weller watch him like the world's oldest Nancy Drew, he'd changed his mind, quashed his better judgment with the same ruthless fist that had strangled so many of his sons' dreams and barked at a bewildered Sam to be ready to leave in five minutes. His father-voice had howled at him in abject panic, demanded to know what madness had seized him. It had called him a fool and a lunatic and a squanderer of children, and he could refute none of these accusations, but neither could they change the fact that Sam had clambered into the backseat of the Impala and begun to chew his nails in nervous anticipation.
It was Dean who'd changed his mind. Not through word or deed; in those, Dean had steadfastly backed his decision to bar Sam from the family business, and when John had abruptly reversed himself this morning, it was Dean who'd launched a desperate campaign to keep Sam home. Much like the father-voice inside his head, Dean had thought him out of his mind, an idiot seized in the grip of madness. He hadn't put it that way, of course. Dean was careful to be polite even in the most mulish throes of high piss-off, but his anger had been perfectly clear behind the façade of "sirs" and carefully couched expressions of doubt and in the stiff set of his shoulders as he'd gone to load the Impala's trunk. The clack of his boots had snapped, "You're an asshole," all the way out the door, and by the time John had slid into the driver's seat, he'd had two sullen sons slouched moodily in the car.
But Sam had been right for the wrong reasons. Odds were good that sooner or later, the hunter would become the hunted. He wasn't Achilles, Greek god and deathless warrior, invulnerable save for the heel covered by his mother's well-intended hand. He was a middle-aged mechanic and former grunt armed with nothing but a burning need for vengeance, a little knowledge, and an endless wellspring of grief. Age and the monsters would eventually catch up with him, most likely in some godforsaken backwater or in the attic of some rundown voodoo attic in a Louisiana bayou where the end would come with the snap a hungry gator's jaws and what was left of him would float through the swamps forever as reconstituted gator turd. If and when that happened, Dean would be left alone, the last soldier in a foxhole turned tomb. He deserved better for his years of loyalty, for being the good son with no thought to his place in the family pecking order or to the possibility that his rightful inheritance would be denied him. So, John had invited Sam on the hunt in the hope, however feeble, that Sam would succumb to the family mania, catch the killing fever in his blood and decide that the hunt was his calling after all. If Sam caught the family madness, then Dean wouldn't be alone, wouldn't die alone, and John would have one less wound to scar and fester on his conscience.
So, snared with the best of intentions, John now faced an impossible choice. He stared at the scene before him, heart pounding and mind racing in an endless loop of possibilities, each more terrible and hopeless than the one before. His eyes darted between Sam, who cowered beneath the shadow of the wendigo in mute terror, gun drooping uselessly between his legs, and Dean, who dangled helplessly from the priapic stub of a rotten tree, hands curled around the soft, splintering wood in a desperate embrace. His feet scrabbled uselessly, seeking purchase from the open air below the jagged cliff face, but he was five hundred feet above solid ground, and there were no angels to bear him up. Both his boys walked in the valley of the shadow of death, and the longer he looked at them, the more apparent the ugly truth became.
He could save Sam, or he could save Dean, but he couldn't save them both. If he raised the Winchester in his hand, he could blow the wendigo's brains out with its load of silver. Sam would be spared the shadow and wind up with nothing but a few scratches and a splatter of wendigo guts in his hair, but Dean would lose his battle with gravity and plummet to the arroyo below. If, on the other hand, he dropped the rifle and dove for Dean with hands outstretched, Dean would crawl to safety on his strength, victim of nothing more than the splinters embedded in his raw hands. Sam would be torn to ribbons by the monster's diseased maw, and Dean would wind up putting what was left of him in a garbage bag. It was the impossible choice of King Solomon, and there was no tender-hearted mother to lift the burden from him.
You bastard! You can't make me choose between my sons. You've already stolen my wife. Haven't I lost enough? Not fair! Not fair! his mind yammered.
Winter or spring. Only one may you carry from this place, intoned an implacable voice. Make your choice and do it quickly, else I do it for you and take them both in my impatience.
Dean, who dangled on the lip of the world and never once cried out for help, but who struggled in silence. Dean, who came to the world on winter's fury and plowed his way through its challenges with bull-necked indifference, never asking for more than his share and never complaining when it shorted him. Dean, for whom Mary had tried to knit booties and had ended up knitting a lopsided, ectoplasmic blanket instead. Dean, who would die for Sam without hesitation, and who, if he knew John was having this internal struggle, would kick him in the ass and tell him to save Sam before it was too late.
Sam, who was born into the world on the beneficent tide of spring's warmth. Sam, who demanded of the world nothing less than everything it had to offer, and who had the intelligence and the drive to take it. Sam, who would never forgive either of them if Dean didn't come home. Sam, for whom his Mary, Mary, quite contrary had died. Sam, who beneath the humid, exotic musk of teenage boy, still smelled of chantilly lace and sun-warmed silk when the weather was right.
Such was his choice. And yet, terrible as it was, there was no choice, not really. God help him, there never could be. He raised his rifle and took aim at the wendigo, which loomed over Sam with a guttural howl of triumph, saliva hanging from its blue-black lips in thick runners.
"Mine," it crooned. "All mine."
Not on your life, you son of a bitch. He's mine. He took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger, and the rifle bucked in his hand.
The wendigo howled in agony, and black blood gouted from the hole in its neck. John cursed and cocked the rifle for another shot. He'd meant to take the fucker's head off its shoulders, but it'd moved at the last instant. The wound might still be fatal-the creature's head lolled on its neck at a grotesque angle, and blood pumped from the wound in steady, urgent spurts-but not before the damn thing took a Winchester with it if it could.
"Sam, you move now!" John roared. "Go on. Get where it's safe!"
Sam, who'd been watching the advance of the wendigo and its subsequent wounding, jerked as though touch by a live wire, and then he was scrabbling backward, crab-crawling away from the wendigo as fast as he could.
The wendigo rounded on John, fangs bared. It shrieked in agony and frustration, and blood sluiced from its wound and pattered to the ground in thick, gelid droplets. Its moon-white eyes were wide and greedy even as their moonbone light flickered and wavered with promised extinction. It wobbled and weaved on its feet, but it did not retreat. In fact, it smiled at him.
"Aw, papa bear comes to save his cubs," it croaked. "How heroic."
"You're going to hell, you son of a bitch."
The creature laughed, a gargling, glottal wheeze, and its loose neck wobbled. "Maybe," it conceded. "Maybe. But then, you'll be right there with me, won't you?"
It feinted right with astonishing speed, and John whirled to keep it in his sights. For an instant, it was an emaciated, white blur on the mesa, and then it faltered. It staggered and lurched on weakening legs, and its head drooped.
"Looks like you're going to die," John observed as his finger grazed the trigger. "One way or another."
"Mmm," the creature grunted. "But looks like I'm not the only one." It laughed, clogged drains in high summer, and from behind John came the sound of splintering wood followed by the sad clitter of falling pebbles.
The father-voice inside his head began to wail, a mindless, animal sound of loss, and then he was screaming, too, a howl of rage and loss and love discovered too late. The wendigo laughed, and John rewarded its impertinence by reducing its head to so much rotten pulp courtesy of a silver bullet. The shot sheared off the top of its skull, and the wendigo collapsed, became as inconsequential as a bundle of discarded clothing. John stared at it in numb incomprehension, wracked by dry sobs, and then he turned and staggered blindly towards the cliff, fingers clawed stupidly around the barrel of the gun.
Deandeandean, his heart thundered, and soon his mouth followed suit. "Dean! Dean! Dean!"
"Dad!" Not Dean, but Sam, small and breathless.
He stopped and looked around. "Sammy! Where are you?"
John turned toward the voice and scanned the area. At first there was nothing, and then he caught a glimpse of booted feet sticking out from behind the treacherous rotten log that had sent Dean to his death. He hurried over, expecting to see Sam peering mournfully at his brother's broken body on the jagged rocks of the arroyo, but what he found was Sam clinging ferociously to a very grimy, bloody hand and a hank of jacket.
"I can't lift him," Sam said plaintively. "He's too heavy."
No, but John could. John could have moved mountains without breaking so much as wind. He cast his rifle aside and dropped to the ground with an inarticulate cry, hands scrabbling and outstretched. My boy. Give me my boy.
"I got you, Dean. I got you." He dimly remembered that he'd said the same thing nineteen years ago, when a beaming doctor had placed a screaming, wriggling Dean in his arms.
He and Sam wrestled Dean onto the solid ground of the mesa, where the three of them lay in a panting, bloody, sweaty heap. Sam had begun to cry in awkward, hitching gulps, whether from shame, exhaustion, or delayed terror, John didn't know, and for the moment, he didn't care. He was focused on Dean, who lay on his stomach, face turned from the dirt. They stared at one another in silence, and for an instant, John saw Mary in those hazel eyes and that blond hair. And why not? He'd inherited them both from her.
He wanted to say something, to offer apologies for unnamed sins or express his endless love for the son he'd nearly lost, but his throat was coated with dust and raw from screaming, and so he simply reached out and cupped the back of his son's head.
"You're not going all chick flick on me, are you, Dad?" Dean asked weakly, and John laughed.
"No, son. I'm just glad you're all right, and that Sam got there when he did."
And, he added silently, that the third universal law of fatherhood is still my dirty little secret.
He withdrew his hand and rolled onto his back to stare at the sun and let memories of chantilly lace and sun-warmed silk wash over him.