|Rivers and Roads
Author: Sparkiebunny PM
It was just a cough, until it wasn't. It's ok, until it isn't. And after it's over, you're both lost, just in different ways.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Angst - Words: 15,630 - Reviews: 53 - Favs: 63 - Follows: 4 - Published: 05-07-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8096679
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
AN: In my mind, this takes place in the earlier seasons, but it has no spoilers, so it can be put in whatever timeline you see fit. Big thanks to KKBELVIS for her encouragement and advice, and of course thank you to Sparkie for all the help, support, and friendship (as always, but particularly throughout the writing of this fic!) This is the first of its kind that I've written in the SPN fandom; hope I've done it justice, and hope you all enjoy.
Warning: Character Death.
It's bad news.
You know it as soon as the doctor rounds the corner.
Her blonde hair is pulled back, tumbling in waves behind her head. She has an angular face, almost elflike, and her sharp features frame vibrant green eyes (sparkling, but heavy). Her lips are full, but not overwhelmingly so, and you can tell she probably has a beautiful smile.
But she's not smiling. And as beautiful as she is, she doesn't look it (and you know, you just know it's bad news).
"Mr. Winchester," she begins. "Your brother's results have come back. Please, have a seat."
You're standing? Oh, guess so. You let your knees drop your weight into the seat behind you. The doctor sits at her desk, spreading out some pictures and files (but they're gibberish, they don't make any sense, and why the hell isn't she saying anything).
"I think we should do this with your brother present as well."
"No," you say quickly (and your voice is not shaking, it's not, because you're not scared because this is nothing). "He's probably tired from the tests, right?"
The doctor gives you a small, good-natured smile. "He was sleeping last I saw."
You nod, unable to find the words to say anything further (it was just a cough, a damn cough; there weren't supposed to be tests or sit-downs, and you're not supposed to have this gnawing fear in your gut.)
"It typically isn't protocol for me to disclose the results without the patient present," she says. Your eyes connect with hers, a territorial snarl shooting through the hazel. But her green eyes connect and narrow in placating surrender. "But," she emphasizes. "I can see that you won't take that reasonably. And I'd rather not prolong this."
You're starting to like her. But not enough to distract you from whatever it is she's about to say.
"Mr. Winchester…Your brother has what we call small cell extensive lung cancer. It's not common, but more aggressive than most cancers. Especially in your brother's case. Unfortunately, the disease has spread to-"
"Wait," you say. Your heart is beating fast and you're not sure you're hearing everything (it can't be true, it's not, she's wrong). You try to think of what to ask, how to phrase your confusion (and denial, fucking denial), but your lips can't form words. "What?"
You know you sound like an idiot, but she's trying to tell you that it's more than a cough and it's not (it's just a cough…and a little wheezing, some shortness of breath, not anything else, nothing else, not…not that).
The doctor's eyes are soft, but certain. "Your brother has cancer, Mr. Winchester." She pauses to let the statement sink in. "Some patients want me to cover every medical detail, but others want the big picture. What would you prefer now?"
"Big picture," you respond. Your voice is little more than a whisper.
"The cancer formed and spread quickly, which would explain the recent symptoms he's been showing. Unfortunately, it has moved from his lungs, and with the way it's attacking his other cells, it's very important that we begin treatment as soon as possible. There's no guarantee of its effectiveness, particularly in your brother's case, but it has been known to extend survival by as many as six months, so it's certainly worth a try."
"How long?" you say. It's the whisper again and you don't really care.
"With treatment…six to ten months."
The doctor hesitates. "We highly recommend treatment in this case."
Your eyes flash darkly. "You said it might not work. How long if we try it and it doesn't work?"
With a sigh, she looks at you, eyes full of the weight of her words. "Four to six months."
Her face is empathetic, like she understands and feels what you're feeling.
And it hits you.
Your brother is sick. Really sick. Cancer sick.
Your brother could die, is dying.
You stand so fast, it tips the chair. But you're out the door before it hits the ground.
Down the hallway, to the left, sharp right. It's a nice little alcove, not many people. There's a small window that overlooks the courtyard where patients are walking and sitting while Sammy's fucking dying.
You hardly feel the sharp pain when your fist smashes through the glass. You only feel the rivulets of blood running across your wrist, palm, and fingers. It hurts, but not enough to cover the other hurt (and not enough to fill the empty lost feeling swirling in your chest).
You sit for a few minutes, letting the blood drip onto the floor. Then, you get up and walk into the bathroom to rinse it off and clean it up. By the time you're done, it still looks like crap, but it's not bleeding badly. That's enough for you.
Sammy…Sammy doesn't know yet swims around, a mantra in your head that refuses to be shaken. You have to see him. You have to tell him. (Before someone else tries to, because only you can do it the right way.)
Your feet guide you to a nurse's station, then onto the room number that the bustling nurse spouted off.
You wander slowly into Sam's room, feet landing heavily on the floor with each successive step. As you cross the threshold, a shaggy head of hair looks up, eyes tired and kind. He's on the hospital bed, but changed into his regular clothes, which for some reason is a relief to you.
"Hey," Sam says. (He doesn't know doesn't know doesn't know and it's killing you inside).
"Hey," you reply roughly. Your voice is a red flag, and Sam's presence subconsciously stills.
Mossy hazel eyes examine you (and you might as well not say a word because you know they can see everything inside). They look at your face, and then travel to the rest, scrutinizing every detail.
When Sam speaks again, it's heavy (something inside him knows it's not just a cough anymore). "Dean," he says. Your eyes barely meet his. "What happened to your hand?"
You suck in a shaky breath because fuck this is going to be harder than you thought.
. . .
Sam takes it pretty well, and you're not sure why you expected any less. He's ready to fight (he doesn't want to leave you and says that that alone is enough). He's ready to try and so are you because even in the devastation, there's the tiniest sliver of hope in his mossy hazel eyes, and it's reflected in the deep hazel of yours.
So you try. You try so many things.
But in the end (and the beginning and the middle, but no one seems to think about those when the end is staring you in the face), none of it works, and you just feel lost.
It takes about a month and a half for you to give up on medicine. After the absolute lack of improvement (he just keeps getting worse) and the doctor's grim outlook ("At this point, it might be time to shift our focus to quality of life."…No fucking way), Sam is asking you to make it stop.
You're in an old hotel room and Sam's standing there with pleading eyes, asking you to make it stop, as if it's some cut or headache. (You're his big brother and you're supposed to make it ok, supposed to make it stop. But you can't.)
"It's not working, Dean. If anything, it's doing more harm than good."
"You don't know that."
And damn, he makes it really hard to argue, especially when he excuses himself to the bathroom (where you can hear the muffled gags and splashes).
But in the end, it's the simplest thing that breaks your resolve. You're sitting in a chair (looking up more info on small cell whatever-the-fuck-is-killing-Sam) when Sam wakes up and stumbles out of bed into the bathroom. A quick glance at the empty bed and your eye catches on the tiniest tuft of brown left on his pillow.
All you can think of is the multitude of arguments between Sam and Dad. Dad wanted it short, Sam wanted it long, and neither would budge. In the end, Sam got his way on the issue, and whenever you look at his bangs and length, you're happy for him because Sam had finally won against Dad (and he deserved to win every once in awhile).
Now, you feel ill. And suddenly, you can no longer ignore what Sam's been saying.
You make your way over to the bed and with trembling fingers, sweep the strands of hair into your palm, depositing them in the garbage as quickly as possible.
Sam comes out a few minutes later.
"Dean, I'm not doing it anymore," he says, sounding ready for a fight. The smell of vomit and pain wafts through the bathroom door. "I'm part of this, too, and I want to stop the treatment. It isn't helping, and I want it to stop."
You fight to keep your voice simple, nonchalant. "Ok."
Sam looks surprised, but doesn't say anything. Neither do you.
Within a week, Sam has his color back and is smiling and researching, and you almost have to remind yourself that he's sick.
. . .
When the treatments don't work in the first month and a half, you know that medicine isn't the way to save Sammy. There has to be another way.
It takes four more months for you to figure out there isn't.
You try all the books, the deals, the hoodoo, hours of pouring over Dad's journal. You ignore those failures and keep trying (something new, something else, it'll work, I know it, Sammy). Then you get worried, and those desperate pleas (prayers) escape your lips (you may not believe, but Sammy does, so there might be a chance).
It's not until the prayers don't work that you start to feel the tingle in your gut. The tingle that means loss of will, loss of hope, loss of Sammy. The gravity of the situation hits you in the chest and drags you down down down, through the core of the earth, the core of your being, the core of the truth.
You ignore it until you can't anymore, and one night, you and Sam are watching TV, and an entertainment snippet announces the production of a chick flick slated for release a little over a year from now. He grins and sarcastically mutters, "Damn, I'm sorry I'll miss that."
Something in you clenches and snaps. "Shut the fuck up, Sam."
When Sammy looks at you, surprised, and says, "Dean?" all you can do is slam the door behind you, hop in the Impala, and drive as fast as possible to wherever isn't here.
Wherever isn't here turns out to be a dingy bar on the other side of town. You enter with urgency and slump into a stool, just trying not to think. The smoky air stings your eyes and you don't mind.
"What can I get ya?" the bartender asks. She's short, forty-something, and doesn't look like she gives much of a shit about anything.
"Vodka tonic, heavy on the vodka," you reply wearily. "Y'know what, skip the tonic, give it to me straight."
The woman raises her eyebrows, but still doesn't seem very interested. After a second, she hands you a glass and you slam it back, relishing in the cold sting of liquid sliding down your throat.
The voice comes from your left, catching you by surprise. You turn your head, the C-cups and fiery red hair capturing your attention. A smooth elevator glance meets your approval. The woman's dress is black as night, hugging her curves so tight that you feel the seams might rip at any moment (and you wouldn't mind a bit). Her lips are deep red to match her hair, her eyes stormy gray and brewing with flirtation.
"You could say that," you respond without really thinking about it.
"Hmm," she exhales, nudging your leg with her blood red high-heel. "Well there's always hope for tonight, right?"
The corner of her mouth lifts mischievously, her eyes flickering in attraction. As you throw back another vodka (you're tipping this bartender extra for not even having to ask), the redhead scoots closer, and you think that maybe she's just what you need to make you forget for awhile.
Next thing you know (even though you know it's been at least a few hours, it doesn't feel like it), you're in her apartment, on her couch, and the strap of her dress is drooping over her shoulder. The feeling of her tongue sliding suggestively in and out your mouth makes your skin tingle. You can taste the alcohol on her lips and you're pretty sure she's sucking the vodka off of yours. (You wish you could remember her name, but don't care all that much.)
Her hand travels south and you smile sloppily around the kiss. You think she smiles back, but you're drunk enough that it doesn't matter. (Kari? Sarah? Jennifer maybe?)
Her lips attack yours again with unrivaled fierceness. (Did she ever say her name? Did you ever ask?)
Just then, the shrill ring of a phone sounds from the coffee table.
"G'nna answer that?" you ask her, tearing your face away for a breath.
"Nah," she replies. When she grins, her teeth are tinged with red from her lipstick (and you can't for the life of you remember the woman's name, even though she's still groping you through your Calvin Kleins). She moves in again.
Another kiss is interrupted by the irritating ringing.
"Maybe you should check it," you say, pulling away. The aftertaste of the kiss burns your mouth.
"Fine." KariSarahJennifer rolls her eyes and snatches up the phone, squinting at the illuminated name. "Not important; it's just Josh."
You feel uneasiness and anger mix in your stomach. "Josh? You have a boyfriend?"
She captures your mouth even more intensely before moving to your ear. "Of course not, silly," she breathes playfully. "Just a little brother who's a pain in my ass." She nibbles your lobe, hand still gliding back and forth evocatively.
You grab her wrist as gently as possible, pushing it away (what the hell, you still don't even know this woman's name) and pulling back. "Why aren't you answering it?"
"Because," she says indignantly, obviously put off by this turn of events. "He's thirteen and can take care of himself. Christ knows I did at that age. He can call mom or super fucking stepdad Steve if he needs something."
"But he called you." You're so confused by this woman, and it no longer has anything to do with her name.
"So?" she retorts, no longer trying to hide her annoyance.
"So? So he's your brother and he's trying to get ahold of you. Little brothers don't just do that for no reason. He could be in trouble or scared or just friggin' lonely. For God's sake, you should be hopping in the fastest taxi to him, not feeling up some stranger you met at a bar."
(You never were great at choosing your words when vodka's involved.)
KariSarahJennifer jumps up, quickly adjusting her fallen strap and glaring at you with hateful eyes. "What the fuck is your problem!"
Images of a pale, shaking Sammy rush into your mind before you can stop them. The smell of sickness creeps into your nose and the look on Sam's face (just before you slammed the motel door behind you) is throbbing in your memory. Your brother. You should be with him. You should be with Sammy, not Kari or Sarah or whatever the hell this bitch's name is.
You should be with Sammy because you're not sure how much longer you'll have the chance to be.
"I g'tta go," you mumble, stumbling off the couch.
You don't look back as you crash through the door, down the stairs, and out of the building. As soon as the air (and clarity and pain and Oh my God, Sammy) hits you, you can't hold in the violent surges of sick coursing through your abdomen. Staggering to the nearest trash bin, you bend over it, gripping the sides tightly.
Salty tracks are running down your cheeks and you tighten your white-knuckle grip as brightly lit images of Sammy attack your mind, as a dewy-eyed baby, as a persistent little boy, all the way up to where he is now. And suddenly, you're overcome with the insuppressible fear of loss and it hurts.
You never knew your body could feel this way, the convulsive pain of mind and soul, the unbearable weight of knowledge and realization. You can't breathe (can't breathe, can't breathe), and next thing you know, you're doubled over, but the vodka-tinged bile doesn't taste as bad as the fear, so it's ok. Part of you hopes that the pungent discharge will purge you of some of the pain and hopelessness inside.
But it doesn't.
You throw up some more until you realize that you get nothing from it but an aftertaste, and then stand up on shaky legs. The trembling limbs carry you back to the car somehow, and you sit in the driver's seat. You still can't breathe when you think about it.
Without thinking (about it), you turn the key in the ignition and pull into the street. You can still taste the alcohol heavy on your tongue, so the drive back to the motel is slow and attentive. It's better than thinking, and in less than an hour, you're pulling into the parking lot.
You stumble in, knowing it's late (probably 3 or 4 in the morning, when did time begin to pass so fast?) and even though you know you're drunk, you feel more sober than ever. Slipping through the door quietly, you try to navigate in the darkness without waking Sam.
"What the fuck, Dean."
The voice comes from the chair in the corner. It's dripping with anger.
Sam turns the small table light on, illuminating his features (too angular, too pale). Fire blazes in his eyes, but you know it's more concern than anger (you know Sammy, and that's just how he works). He stares at you for a moment, looking you up and down, and you suddenly feel like he has peeled back the flesh, muscle, and bone to reveal the broken nothing inside of you.
Something flashes in his eyes, but he maintains his resolve.
"Do you know how irresponsible that was? You just left; I had no idea where you were, what the hell was going on. You took the car, your friggin' phone went to voicemail. I walked the streets for two and a half hours, Dean, couldn't find you anywhere."
You open your mouth to say something (you're not sure what), but Sam cuts you off before you can start.
"You can't just walk out anymore, Dean. You can't take off and drink your crap away just because you don't want to deal with it; that's not how it works. Not anymore. You think a shot of vodka's gonna tell you what to do? Huh? You think screwing some waitress is gonna solve all your problems? Well newsflash, big bro, it hasn't worked for years and it's not gonna now. Your way of dealing has always sucked, but this has to stop. Now. It's not happening anymore, not while I'm around."
That last bit punches the air from your lungs. It must show on your face because Sammy's eyes go soft. You turn away.
"I know this is hard, man, but fuck. You can't pull this crap. Especially not now. There's plenty of stress already, without me worrying about finding you passed out in some friggin' ditch because of alcohol poisoning. We need to find a way to deal with this, together."
The idea of 'dealing with it' infuriates you because it isn't real, can't be happening (except it is and angry bile bubbles in your throat at the thought).
"What do you want me to do, Sam?" you snap viciously, rounding on your brother with heated eyes. "Prepare?"
The word leaves a bad taste in your mouth (and his, too).
"No," Sam replies after a second. His trusting eyes peer through a few strands of hair. "I just want you to be my brother, like you always have been. Just be Dean. Forget the rest."
You're trying, but it's not enough. After a moment, you raise your eyes to his again.
"I can't do this alone," you say thickly.
"You don't have to."
But Sam doesn't get it (or maybe he does and you're just not giving him enough credit). "That's not what I mean. I mean…after…" Your voice breaks into a whisper. "I can't do this alone."
He smiles at you like he knows this game, and he does, because the two of you have played it before.
"Yes you can."
"Yeah, well…" The familiarity of the words stings your tongue. Things were so simple back then. "I don't want to."
Things aren't so simple anymore, and the heavy silence between you and Sam makes you question if anything will ever be simple again.
You're pretty sure you know the answer.
. . .
Time flows on, and it's hard to believe it was seven whole months ago that the doctor told you Sam had six months tops. But he's still with you (not 100%, but he's there and he's trying), and you've learned that timelines don't mean as much as they did in the face of a stubborn little brother.
You've hardly hunted at all in the past months. A job here and there, but nothing big and nothing consistent (because it all stopped mattering as soon as cancer left the doctor's lips). You call it a sabbatical. But now Sam's in that in-between, where he's healthy enough to go on some jobs, but not enough to keep up with the lifestyle. He seems ok, for now, and that's the part that scares you.
After thinking about it awhile, you decide that you want to stop hunting. For good.
It's too much on top of the steaming pile of shit that has become your life (and Sam's). It's demanding work, and you don't want to risk it affecting Sam, taking even more time away from the dwindling months you have left.
It makes sense; it's the right thing to do. Will you miss it? Yeah. But some things are more important (only one thing really).
You've made up your mind, come to terms with the decision.
So, naturally, your pain-in-the-ass little brother disagrees.
"We need to keep hunting, Dean," Sam insists. He's determined, and you know you've already lost the fight. "It's better than sitting around, isn't it? It gives me purpose. It gives you purpose."
You can't respond with "You give me purpose" because that's not the Winchester way (even if it's true). So the two of you scour some newspapers for a new hunt. When you find one, you complete the job and look for another.
After awhile, you fall back into your old routine and it's nice. Apart from the pills and occasional breathing treatments, things are like they used to be. You marvel at the fact that the docs said Sammy wouldn't last longer than 4-6 months, and now he's starting on 7, looking (for the most part) ok. You expected no less from the kid (he knows that).
You know it won't last forever, but it helps to focus on a goal. You just need Sammy to make it a full year. That's only five more months. Sammy can make it five months, you know it.
You don't think about what'll happen after the five months. Not even a little bit. (You force yourself not to.)
Now, you and Sam are sitting on the hood of the Impala. The night sky is clear, dotted with a few stars and an almost-full moon, but otherwise undisturbed.
The comfort and familiarity of it brings a high of nostalgia, and you smile at nothing in particular. Your eyes shift to Sam. His gaze is similar to yours, but there's a soberness in it that holds you back the tiniest bit. It's the gleam he gets when he wants to share, pour his feelings out, and generally be a preteen girl. (You can't decide if that's the last thing you want right now or if it's the best thing for you.)
You don't have to decide if you beat him to the punch.
"Sam." He turns to you and you school your features to be serious. "I thought you should know…" The apprehension is painted clearly on his face. "I slept with your prom date."
Sam's face is blank for a moment before it cracks into a huge grin. His laughter sounds like music. "I know, dumbass."
"You do?" You're honestly surprised.
He just nods, still grinning. After a moment, it goes quiet again.
"Dean?" Oh God, here comes the Beaches moment…
"Yeah?" you reply wearily.
"Your prom date tried to sleep with me." He can't quite hide the grin.
"Shut up," you say dismissively. No friggin' way the kid is telling you the truth.
Sam turns to you, eyes wide and honest. "I'm serious! After you brought her home, you went to get her something to drink. Something more to drink, anyway; God knows she was already smashed. Anyway, when you left, she slipped into my room, mumbling about how cute I was and how she'd always wanted to do something nice for someone."
Sam shook his head, laughing at the memory. Then, he mimicked the drunken girl's voice from so long ago. "'If y'want…'ll be yur first…' I was pretty much petrified. Told her thanks but no thanks. And she just stumbled back into the living room."
You're dumbfounded (but at the same time, it makes you so happy that you don't even care).
"You little whore," you mutter in amusement.
"Hey! I'm not the one who actually banged his brother's date. And at least my date didn't seek you out willingly, eagerly even."
"You sure about that, Sammy?" You wink and he glares and it's perfect.
For a moment, it's as if things are ok. Things are normal. Sam is smiling and huffing out that breathy laugh he always does, and his eyes are bright, brighter than the sheen of sweat collecting at his hairline (that sheen of sweat you're choosing to ignore).
The corner of Sam's mouth lifts. "At least mine was wearing underwear that night."
You laugh because it's true and funny and Sam is saying it, joking, breathing.
It's almost as if things are ok.
It's almost as if Sam isn't supposed to die in five months. Almost as if he's not dying at all.
Just as you think it, a soft cough escapes Sam's lips and his chest expands widely to suck in more air. He turns slightly to the right so you don't notice, but you're his big brother, so of course you do.
The smile is slapped off your face by reality, and as much as you hope Sam doesn't notice, he turns just as your face falls, and his follows suit.
. . .
You're at eight months and Sam is walking a little slower (though you pretend not to notice). The two of you came home last night around 9, and he crashed within five minutes. He then slept for the next twelve hours straight, interrupted only by a few dry hacks. He finally coughed hard enough to wake him up completely. That was just over an hour ago, and apart from a quick shower and change of clothes, Sam hasn't moved from his comfortable position on the bed.
"I want to go to church."
The declaration annoys you, but doesn't surprise you. Sam has always been the one with all the faith, the hope, the maybe there is something out there.
"Why?" The irritation seeps into your words.
Sam shrugs from the bed, leaning against the headboard. "I just do."
"I don't even know where to find a church around here. It's Sunday morning, Sam, you're probably too late anyway."
He swings his legs off the bed and begins to stand. "Eight miles west, we passed it on the way. Service starts at eleven."
You try to hide the surprise on your face that Sam had already done his observational research, but you don't quite succeed.
You check the clock on the nightstand. "It's 10:30. You couldn't have mentioned this earlier? We don't get to discuss it at all?"
Sam seems unconcerned. "You don't have to come in. Just drop me off if you want. Or I can take the car myself."
"Not a chance, Sammy," you scoff. He grins.
"I'm gonna hop in the shower, we can leave when I'm out."
You have no choice but to agree, and as soon as Sam emerges from the bathroom, the two of you hop in the car.
The church looks nice from the outside, small but clean.
"You coming?" Sam asks. He's standing outside the passenger door, leaning down so he can see you.
"Nah…Not really my thing."
Sam's lips curl into a small, understanding smile. "Figured. See you in a bit."
The door shuts and Sam shuffles toward to the ornate front door. You watch him as he disappears through the doorway, and then you settle in, cranking up the radio. You don't mind waiting. When it's Sammy, you'll wait for as long as he needs you to.
A little over an hour later, you're leaning against the Impala, and a river of people explodes from the dam of the church doors. They all pour from the five-by-seven frame, some gathering in small clumps to talk, some making their way to their vehicles. Sam emerges from the crowd, hands shoved in his pockets. His head is down as he slides past the others in their Sunday dresses and clean ties. The contrast of his simple tan jacket makes him instantly visible to you (but you would've noticed him anyway).
You straighten and uncross your arms as he approaches. His gait is slow and thoughtful, his head raised only a touch higher than it was.
"So, did you find what you were looking for?" you ask with a smirk.
Sam's voice is quiet and heavy, and the smirk slips away from your lips. You remain silent for a moment, out of respect to the newfound depth in Sam's hunched shoulders. Then, you clap him on the back, forcing the smirk back onto your face.
"Don't worry. It's not your fault I'm always right." Sam shoots you an annoyed glare. "Don't bitchface me, Jesus freak. Just get in the car."
"Dean," he groans, voice scolding. But he's opening the passenger door.
When the two of you are settled in the car, you speak again. "Well, now that we've done what you wanted to do, it's my turn. One free ticket to the only salvation a guy'll ever get."
"First of all, I did what I wanted; you waited in the car. Second of all, I'm really not in the mood to-"
"Argue? Me either," you interrupt, revving the engine. "Good thing I'm the driver."
You pull out of the parking lot, hoping that the bar you spotted a few miles back opens at noon. Zeppelin bounces off the car's interior (you pretend not to notice Sam's finger tapping to the beat), and within a few minutes, you're pulling into the parking lot of Mulligan's.
"Seriously, Dean," Sam begins (he doesn't know yet that he needs this).
"Don't be selfish, Sammy," you say wryly.
He follows you without further argument, and you wonder if that word selfish is a trigger, that it can make him do anything for you. (You wonder if it should be.)
One hour and five drinks later, you and Sam are sitting on the leather seats of a booth, listening to the off-pitch tones of drunken karaoke.
The drinks were all on Sam's part (someone's gotta drive), but watching his lazy smile is more intoxicating to you than any alcohol. He's a lightweight, which you knew, but seeing it in front of you is different. When you're drunk, everything gets a little lighter, funnier, just generally less fucked-up. But when Sam is drunk, his whole face lights up without a flicker of the dark thoughts you know he holds inside. He's happy, even if it's just for those few hours (even if it's artificial, brought on only by the liquor and the need for release).
You get more out of seeing Sam drunk than you ever could getting drunk yourself.
"We shou'd try our hand at it," Sam slurs, eyeing the stumbling girl on the stage. He's still smiling and you can't help but smile, too.
"Not a chance," you reply.
He stares at the stage for a few more moments, making up his mind.
"'m doin' it," Sam declares. The determined look on his face catapults you back to the vision of a stubborn, mop-headed kid with little dimples and big dreams.
You examine him with an amused grin. "You're really gonna sing karaoke?"
He nods. "Y'r really not g'nna do it with me?"
When you don't respond, Sam persists.
"Aww, c'mon, Deeeeaaaaaan," he slurs with a goofy grin. "Some good ol' fash'ned family fun."
You laugh loudly and he looks a little hurt. "No thanks, little brother. I'd rather keep the little bit of dignity I have left. But you have plenty to spare, go for it."
"Whatev'r," Sam says, sloppily pushing himself to his feet. "Y'r loss."
Your loss. Your smile falters.
It returns when Sam nearly trips on his way up the stage steps. He catches himself just in time and makes his way to the stout man controlling the music. Leaning forward, he whispers something in his ear, to which the man nods in comprehension.
After a few moments, chords of "Billy Jean" die out and Sam is handed a microphone. He steps confidently into the middle of the stage (where his inhibitions go when he drinks, you'll never know) and stares out with a glazed smile.
"This one's for my broth'r, a better man than I could ever know, a better broth'r than I ev'r deserved. Thanks for ev'rything, big bro."
Your throat constricts when he looks at you, and just for a split second, no one else is there.
Familiar notes flow out of the speakers as Sam brings the microphone to his lips.
"The road is long…With many a winding turn…" His voice is a little sloppy, but the melody comes through better than you imagined it would. "…that leads us to who knows where, who knows where…"
You can't do anything but sit quietly as Sam sings and marvel at the fact that Sammy is onstage singing to a roomful of people, but making you feel like he's singing (not even singing, just talking) to only you.
"He ain't heavy…he's my brother."
Words very rarely mean as much as they do right now.
"If I'm laden at all, I'm laden with sadness…That everyone's heart isn't filled with the gladness…of love for one another…"
You're caught halfway between a hearty laugh and a stifled sob because that's your Sammy up there, your moppy-haired kid with the dimples and dreams. You taught him to drive, to get dates, to finish dates. You watched him go from what he was to what he is, and everything you are is defined by everything in between.
"It's a long, long road…" Sam's voice slows and pauses, his motions ceasing as his eyes look down and away, somewhere far beyond your sight, somewhere you don't want to think about. Then, with precise melody, he sings again. His voice is quieter than before. "From which there is no return…"
You look down because you're afraid to look up.
"While we're on the way to there, why not share…And the load…doesn't weigh me down at all."
"He ain't heavy…" Sam's voice gains strength. He catches your eye and gives you a light smile. "He's my brother."
Sam stands for a second as the music fades, letting the microphone drop from his mouth to his side, and the two of you share a moment, and it feels like a perfect secret (a secret like when you were little and you'd look at each other, and Dad would never understand).
Then, he stumbles back and you're both smiling (and you only feel a small pang of guilt that you didn't get up and sing with him).
After a few lingering minutes, you both head to the car and settle in. Sam is relaxed into the seat, looking out the window with a faint smile. You're sitting stiffly, keys in your lap. You each maintain your positions for a bit before demonstrating any attempts to move.
"Sam," you say, sudden but genuine. "Do you, uh…do you wanna…go anywhere? Is there some place you wanna go back to or see or…y'know, go?" Before it happens.
Sam sits quietly for a few moments and you hope to God that, even in his drunken stupor, he understands what you mean (because you don't think you can say the words).
Then he shakes his head lightly. "No."
"Aww, c'mon, Sammy. There must be somewhere. Biggest ball of twine? Largest frying pan?" you goad. Because it's easier to make it a joke. "Pennsyltucky? I hear it's beautiful this time of year." You sneak in a smirk and Sam smiles (which makes it so worth it).
"As tem'ting as that soun's, no thanks," Sam replies with a laugh. "'sides, by now I th'nk I've seen ev'rything." His eyes widen as he says it, as if he really has seen everything. "I've already b'n everywhere."
It's hard to argue with that, having been dragged around from place to place, coast to coast, since childhood. But that doesn't mean Sam doesn't have a place he wants to revisit, if just for a day.
"Yeah, but there's gotta be somewhere you wanna go back to, right? Some chick-flick trip down memory lane, y'know, the works."
Sam shakes his head lazily (and seems to really mean it). "Nope," he replies, popping his 'p'. "'ve seen what I needa see. No sense'n goin' back. I say we jus' follow this hunt, an' wh'rever it takes us is where I wanna go."
You're still not convinced. Sam has always been the little boy with the big dreams, the one with somewhere to go, someplace to be. Maybe you shouldn't be asking him all this when he's drunk, but you don't think it's a conversation you could have when he's sober.
"Come on, man. You don't wanna drive 200 miles to some backcountry town and a crappy motel. There's something more, I know there is. There's gotta be."
Sam pauses thoughtfully, but his eyes are narrowed, lips slightly pinched. Which means he's less figuring what to say and more figuring out how to say it.
"Will th're be food?" he finally says.
"Yeah," you say shortly, confused.
"'re we tak'ng the Impala?"
What is he playing at?
"Will you be th're?"
"No, Sam," you reply sarcastically. "I'm gonna run off and join the friggin' circus."
Sam smiles at you, the corners of his mouth curling a little, his hazy eyes full of softness and meaning and Sammy. Then, he looks away, shrugging casually.
"That's enough f'r me."
Your heart constricts, and you don't know if it's happy or sad (and don't care to figure it out).
"Fine," you say, snatching his seatbelt and buckling it. "Have it your way, bitch."
He rolls his eyes and smiles again, this time flashing teeth. Under his breath, he mutters, "J'rk." And you know it's enough for you, too.
. . .
At nine months, you're awakened in the middle of the night by a gagging cough and the rustling of sheets. Your eyes fly instantly to Sam, who's sitting up, one hand to his chest, the other in a fist over his mouth. The hacking doesn't ease, and you throw off your own covers to get to his side.
Your hand rests instinctually on his back (you can feel the sweat and heat seeping through his t-shirt, and his muscles ripple beneath your fingers), and you rub firmly.
After a minute or so, the coughing stops and his breathing calms. Sam's face is pale and shimmering; his bangs are damp.
Sam draws his hand from his mouth, and your world stops momentarily.
There's blood splotted on Sam's hand like a twisted Rorschach test (and you can't breathe).
"Sam?" you say roughly, eyes locked on his hand.
And the bitch has the audacity to smile. But in spite of yourself, his soft grin calms your racing heart.
"Calm down, Dean. It's fine; I just bit my tongue."
(You finally breathe again) and drag a hand down your face. "Shit, Sam, don't freak me out like that again."
"You freak yourself out just fine, don't need my help."
You flip him the bird, but still don't like the gruff weakness in his voice.
"So you want any water or anything?"
"Nah," he says with a yawn.
"Fine, get some sleep then." You toss a pillow at him for good measure, which he catches with a grin. "And don't wake me up again, bitch."
The lights go out and you're both asleep in minutes.
The next day feels longer than usual. Sam takes awhile waking up, and it seems to require an extra effort for him to get to and from the Impala. His movements are lethargic (you notice every grimace, every step, the darkness under his eyes even though he overslept).
You skip the hunt you'd been planning, and for some reason, the decision brings a certain terrifying finality with it. You don't understand the feeling until that night.
You don't wake up like you did the night before. This time, your eyes open to darkness but for the small stream of light from under the bathroom door. Rubbing your eyes, you listen carefully, and can hear muffled coughs and gags.
You sit quietly at first, and listen to that small (rarely heard) voice in the back of your mind, telling you to let Sam be for a bit—he didn't wake you up for a reason, maybe he wants to deal with it alone, so he can feel a little control.
It takes you less than a minute to flip that logic around and ignore the voice completely.
You turn the knob and push the bathroom door gingerly open.
"Sam?" you say softly as you cross the threshold.
Your breath is punched from your lungs within seconds.
Sam, pale and shaking, is bent over in front of the mirror. His hands are braced on either side of the sink, eyes pinched shut.
His lips are slack, and from them drips a small stream of blood.
When he turns his head toward you, his knees start to buckle. You step forward just in time to hoist him back upright. His coughing has stopped and you suppose you should be grateful (but you're not).
Wordlessly, you sit him on the toilet, grab a washcloth, and wipe the blood from his lips and chin. You catch a flash of his teeth and inwardly cringe at the separating red lines. You fill a cup up with water and tell him to rinse and spit. He does.
"M'sorry," Sam mumbles. It's almost inaudible, but you hear it (and ignore it).
You rinse the red splatters from the sink without really looking at them.
Sam hasn't made eye contact with you yet, but it's probably a good thing. You wouldn't know what to say, what to do. A scolding glare? (He hid it from you, you, his brother, the only person he has left). A forgiving smile? (He did it to protect you because he's Sammy and he's probably just as scared as you are).
Anger and fear collide within you, and you feel helplessly lost.
A few minutes pass before you help him to his bed. You sit him on the edge then sit on yours, no more than a foot of space between you and him.
"You never bit your tongue, did you," you state simply. It's not a question, but Sam answers anyway.
"No," he responds in a soft voice. His head is down, and all you can see is the fringe of his dark bangs.
You both sit silently for awhile. With no further comment, Sam lies back, falling asleep almost instantly. You watch him sleep; you're not sure for how long. Time fades as his chest hitches up and down, and you feel that feeling again (that terrifying finality).
Because you're in that place now, and you know it. You're in that place where there is no going back. No more hunting. No more karaoke. As you watch Sam sleep, hours slip by like seconds, and you sit there wondering if this is what it feels like when reality finally hits.
The rain falls just outside, tumbling from the sky like grains of sand in an hourglass.
. . .
Sam has made it ten months, but you can feel time burning away all around you, leaving behind ashes of lost time. He hardly stops coughing anymore, and the harsh, grating sound has become too familiar, too typical.
Even Sam doesn't acknowledge it anymore. He just carries around something to wipe his mouth with as subtly as possible. You pick on him for it until he settles on one of your old rags, something you used to use on the Impala. He washes it at least a hundred times before he starts carrying it around. But now that he does, you stop picking on him, because you know that he carries it to remind him of you. You're not sure why he needs that reminder when you're right there, but you decide it's probably better not to ask.
It sickens you, how painfully numb you've both become. Numb to the noise, numb to the sleepless nights, numb to the weakening voice, and even numb to the blood that stains his rag each time he coughs.
Part of you still denies it, but you've just turned a corner and the finish line is in sight. You don't know how long you have exactly, but you know it's not long enough (never long enough).
Neither of you talk about it until Sam says something.
"I don't wanna die in this dingy hotel bed," he says simply. (You rented the room for a month, and pray that you'll need it for longer.)
"Sam…" Your voice is weary. You don't want to talk about this (ever).
"No, Dean." He looks at you from his perch on the side of the bed, eyes shining with every bit of life they have left. "I don't want to be here."
"Well then where, Sam?"
"I'm not sure exactly…I figure…Well I figure we'll just kinda know when it's…time. And when it is, we can just take the car and go there. Somewhere better than here."
You can't (don't want to) think about it, so you focus on the easy part. "Ok, so where is better than here?"
Sam shrugs. "Let's drive around a bit and find out."
So you do.
You drive from road to road, not too far away from the motel, but far enough that things don't look glamorized and cheap anymore. Sam occasionally directs you to turn left or "Slow down, jerk, we're not being chased," but for the most part, the two of you stay silent, watching the road speed past beneath the Impala's wheels. You drive uphill for awhile, until Sam's voice breaks through the calming monotony.
"Dean, here." He's looking ahead to a pull-in overlook, at the top of this hill you've been driving up.
As you leave the road and pull in, there's a large wooden sign, old but sturdy, rustic and enduring. It reads, in letters thick and bold: LAWRENCE HILL
The name strikes you, but you stopped believing in signs like that years ago, so you ignore the feeling and focus on what's in front of you.
It's more of a deserted lot than anything. Other than one other parked car, it's just you and Sam. Surrounded by thick trees on either side, there's nothing but open view ahead. It's literally the peak of the town, overlooking every street, every building, from the busy metro area to the sparsely-spaced houses on the outskirts. It's the classic date spot, out of the way, but pretty enough to convince your girlfriend to go. It's the perfect bang spot, secluded but romantic. You smirk.
"What?" Sam asks, noting your grin.
"Nothing," you respond playfully. "Just…is there something you wanna tell me, Sammy?"
He looks confused. You shake your head.
"Sam. This is where dudes bring their girlfriends to get laid for the first time. This has got to be the biggest—and nerdiest—make-out spot in town."
"Leave it to you to see it like that, asshole." But he's smiling. "Look at the view, Dean."
"Oh, I have a view, all right…"
He looks over at you, but you're busy staring amusedly at the car at the other end of the lot. Sam squints his eyes, and it takes a moment for him to see the….action…happening inside.
"Jesus," he hisses, disgusted.
"Oh, Sammy, don't judge. You'll like it when you try it."
"Park-n-pound, bro. That's what we called it in my day."
You shrug with a satisfied smirk. "So, you were saying about the view?"
And to your surprise, Sam is undeterred. "Let's get out, we can see it better."
With help (he doesn't have to ask, you're already at his side), Sam gets out of the car and you make your way closer to the cliff-like edge. The vastness of town and sky expand seamlessly into each other, flowing in and out to form motion and life. Sam is transfixed, but you're still grinning about the couple in the car.
A few minutes pass before Sam sighs and turns. "We can go back now."
You try to read his emotions, but they're caught so far in-between and inside of him that you can't quite figure them out. Maybe he can't either.
You both get back into the car. Just before you pull out, Sam looks over at you and smiles. It's his soft smile, meaningful and bright, like it was when he was five (like it has always been).
"Thanks, Dean. Just…thanks."
You give him a small smile in return, the kind that's more inward than outward, and pull onto the road. Sam turns on the radio and you savor the beat of the music drumming powerfully through the speakers. There's a strange sensation festering deep inside your chest, but you swallow it down. When you glance over at Sam, the feeling throbs strongly.
It must be the speakers, the loud music. (It's just the speakers, only the music.)
Your fingers find the dial and crank it up another notch.
. . .
At the beginning of the eleventh month, you know. This moment, when Sam wakes up (for the fifth time tonight) gasping and sweating….His breaths are stuttered, his eyes wild. You know that look. It's the look Sam got as a kid, mind full of clowns and fire. It's the look he awoke with after Jess, after death, after pain. It's a nightmare, you know that much.
But there's something in his eyes, something dark and unfamiliar. There's a deep-set fear which shadows the hazel. He's trembling weakly.
When he looks at you and his eyes slowly mist, you know. You know.
Sam isn't going to make it to one year.
You know it (you feel it) in an instant, and as much as it takes your breath away to think it, you have no choice but to accept. It may not be happening tonight, yet the gnawing bite of soon is at your ankles.
Part of you can't ignore the irony of him coming just one month short. It's like the powers of the universe were mapping everything out and decided that your lives really are a fucking joke. The insane part of your mind can picture a bunch of gray, fat giants in a circle, pointing at the speck of Earth and saying, "Yeah, let's yank him away one month short just for the hell of it! That'll destroy them both!"
You almost laugh to yourself before you realize it's not funny. It's not fucking funny at all.
"Sam…" you trail off, swinging your legs to the side of the bed. You don't know what to say, so you just watch him for a moment.
His downcast head raises slowly, but he still doesn't look at you.
"Y'know," he says, but it's more of a gasp than anything. A bitter, ironic laugh shakes his frame weakly, curling his lips, giving his pale face the false sense of a smile.
And then the laugh instantly stops, his face sobering before cracking completely. Tears well in the depths of the mossy hazel. "I don't…I don't really wanna die."
A line of moisture races down his cheek, leaving a clear streak amongst sweat and pain and regret.
"M'scared, Dean." More tears flood and overflow, Sam's face crumpling. "I don' wanna die…"
The breathless, childlike plea rips through your chest, and for a moment, you're frozen as you watch your brother, your Sammy, your life fall apart in front of you, in every way.
But then the feeling settles, and you're overcome with a sense of strength (that you didn't know you had left). Because in this moment, nothing you think or feel matters. Nothing you say or believe makes a difference.
You have one job in this moment, one responsibility, and you're ready to do it. You've always been ready (because it's the one thing in life you've been good at).
A soft sob slips from Sam's lips, his eyes pinched shut.
Without a breath of hesitation, you crawl into the bed next to him, like you used to when you were kids, when Sam had a nightmare or a fight with Dad or just a rough day. And even though he's longer than you now, you wrap your arms around him just as easily as you did when he was six.
His head is nestled on your shoulder, leaning into your chest, while your arm reaches gently around, holding him in place. You can feel him breathing against you in soft shudders. With tender fingers, you run your hand through his hair and don't say a word.
The most surprising thing is that you're not breaking. No tears, no pain ripping its way through your heart anymore. You're calm. You're at peace. You're not breaking and not crying because that's not your job right now.
You're holding him and being his brother, and it's the most useful and at home you've felt in months (about a year, come to think of it).
You're just holding him and being his brother, and part of you thinks that maybe that's all he ever wanted, too.
. . .
It's a Thursday morning in the midst of the eleventh month. Sam is sleeping and you're at the table and it's a goddamn Thursday. Nothing happens on Thursdays. They come and go and no one notices them because they don't ever matter.
This Thursday is different. This Thursday is it.
When the moment is coming, you know it. You feel it in the staccato rhythm of your heart, the tingle of I'm not ready but I have to be beneath your skin. Sammy sits up from bed and roughly says, "Dean."
You slip your jacket over your shoulders, help him put his coat on, and make your way to the Impala. As you settle him into the passenger seat, he won't look at you, but you're grateful because you think maybe that's the only thing holding you together right now.
"Where to, Sammy?" As if you don't know.
He is quiet for a moment before responding. "Lawrence Hill."
Your chest clenches. "Finally looking to lose your purity?" The words are forced, but Sam grins weakly in response.
The rest of the drive is silent but for the slow, grating breaths that Sam tries to muffle and you try to ignore.
You're there so much more quickly than you expect (everything's moving so fucking fast). On the way, you silently prayed that there wouldn't be anyone else, and for once, it seems God listened. Just you and Sammy. You put the car in park and sit for a moment.
"You didn't have to come," Sam says weakly. "You can go back if you want, Dean. It's ok."
I can't. I can't go back and neither can you.
"Trying to get rid of me, Sammy?" you reply. But it lacks all of the usual Dean Winchester qualities. And part of you is angry, angry to think that Sam would experience…this….alone. That he would think—even for a moment—that it'd be ok for it to happen without you right there. It shouldn't be happening at all, but no matter what, you need to be there. How could he ever think of you not being there?
"After…" Sam says, gathering breath slowly. "You need to…promise me…that afterwards…"
You want to snap What, Sam but you don't.
"You won't do…anything stupid."
No guarantees, little brother.
He senses the words as if you said them aloud.
"Dean." Sam's eyes grab yours without negotiation. "Don't be…selfish." He grins weakly like he's the cleverest fucking fool on the planet.
And your head won't stop spinning. This whole time, you've thought that Sam would do anything for you, anything, with the smallest whisper of selfish. Because he's the one who ran away and left; he's the one who put his dreams above his family time after time.
He's the one that's leaving again, right now, except this time, he's not coming back.
But now, you see it. You see it more simply than ever before and the clarity stings your eyes (and mind and heart).
Sam may have been selfish in the past. But right now, it's you. You're being selfish. You've been selfish this whole time, trying to ignore the truth and keep your Sammy with you for…forever (like you always thought it would be). You've kept him here, are keeping him here, because you're scared of the emptiness you'll feel when he's really gone.
"Ok, Sammy." I promise, for you. "Ok."
Sam sighs, and you can't tell if it's from contentment or inability to pull in the right amount of oxygen.
"I think…I'm ready to sit down for awhile, get some air," he breathes, eyes locked on the view before him.
"Sure, Sammy." You're at his door before you know you've left your seat. Wrapping your arm firmly around his back, you settle yourself under his shoulder and pull him out gently. You can feel every labored breath he draws and he's so light (like a child, like a little boy again).
It takes him a few seconds to reenergize enough to move forward. His steps are small and timid, and you carry more of his weight than he does. It takes you back to the times when he was too little and too tired to walk, when you'd carry him wherever he wanted to go. You once carried him right through a patch of poison ivy, but never said a word because you were big and strong, and it was Sammy so it didn't matter anyway.
It only takes a few steps to get to the front of the Impala. You pulled her real close to the edge and from here you can see everything. You settle yourself and him on the ground, so your backs are resting against the Impala's grill. Warmth comes from the metal, and the heat on your back feels like home.
"It's perfect," Sam says. "Just like…I pictured."
"You are such a girl," you mutter.
"Dean," Sam says expressly. His voice isn't exasperated—it's as if he didn't hear you at all. Instead, it's sobered with something like awe and respect. He doesn't turn his head toward you, but your eyes find his face. "Look."
You sigh and follow his gaze. But this time…it really is beautiful. Everything is moving fast, but from here it looks so slow, like a lazy river of people and agendas, swirling and flowing with the most perfect synchronization.
All these people, flowing from place to place, oblivious to the eyes watching them. All these people…and you saved them. You and Sammy. Hunt by hunt, monster by monster, another person safe, free. This bustling town, it's like it represents the whole damn world, full of rivers of people that wouldn't be around if not for you and your family.
Maybe that's why Sam chose this place. As a reminder. For him and you.
It's more than a park-n-pound spot for local teens. It's more than anything you thought of it prior to this moment. Suddenly, you think you understand why people come here. And if they do come to lose a piece of their innocence, you understand why, because it's so calming and beautiful, and maybe if it happens here, it really is making love. You're not sure if you've ever made love before, but looking at the distant city, feeling so small yet so important…you're pretty sure you haven't.
"Dean…stop fantasizing," Sam mutters, smirking.
And you can't help but recognize that loss of innocence as a death of sorts, after which everything changes. Your heart pounds hard; you're thinking about love and loss, but in such a different way than before.
The rivers of people flow on. It's a brilliant choreography of life, and you can't look away. You can feel Sam watching all of the people, too, seeing the lazy sway of their current.
It feels like a lifetime of perfect silence, like when the two of you watched the stars that night, or when Sam finished singing and you shared a look (those moments when the whole world goes away).
But after a few minutes, you feel something change in Sam, something you can't understand or describe. Something you just know, like you knew when Sam woke up only a few nights ago. Like you knew when you saw the blood on his lips. Like you knew when the tiny tuft of hair was laying so innocently on his pillowcase.
You know it like you did all those months ago, sitting in the pretty doctor's office, waiting for an answer that you never wanted to get.
And though you know it, you're still not sure if you're ready for it. It.
It's not the way you thought it would be.
You thought it'd be fast and bright, slicing your eyes and leaving you breathless, questioning. But instead, it's slow and quiet, and right then it hits you that no one else knows what's happening, the significance of what's happening, except you and Sam.
Sammy takes a tiny breath (like a newborn baby, breathing for the first time, except he's not a baby and it's not his first, it's his last and fuck this can't be happening), and then he looks at you. His eyes are bright again, like they were a month ago, when he was laughing and joking and breathing.
You're surprised when his lips part and words come out.
You can't say for sure if you were planning on making a deal or not, but in that moment, you know you won't. For Sammy. For his happiness and peace, even if it can't be with you.
"No deals, Sammy." Uncertainty clouds his gaze and you want him to know that you mean it (and that you're so sorry for all of it, everything, even the stuff that wasn't your fault). "I promise, bitch."
The corner of his mouth lifts just enough to break your heart.
You snake your arm around him, needing to touch him, feel him. His gaze is off you now, distant and wide. The tremors in his body slow to a stop.
"Dean," he breathes. "I think…it's…" His brow furrows and he turns his gaze back to you. "Don't want…you to be…"
Sad broken falling apart lost in grief lost in pain shattered alone.
"It's ok, Sammy." It physically pains you to lie because it's not ok, nothing is (nothing will be again), but you have to do it. You give him a light squeeze and his head relaxes against your shoulder. "It's ok."
You close your eyes for just a split second, and suddenly you're nine and Sammy's five, just a tiny body curled next to yours because you're his big brother and nothing in the world matters more than that.
"Y'know," you whisper roughly, arm still holding Sam close. You don't normally say it, but this time is different. This time has to be different. "I know I don't say it much, but-"
"You…don'…have to," Sam mumbles into your shoulder. You can feel his gratitude, his smile, his life reflected in the beat of your heart. "I know."
And you can tell that he really does.
The world goes quiet for a moment and you want to be nine again. You want Sammy to be five and adoring, with his whole life ahead of him. You know that if you close your eyes again, you'll see a little Sammy grinning back, but you can't close your eyes again, not when his are drifting so far away from you, to a place that you can't follow.
"Dean." Sammy's hand grips your knee and his voice is full of wonder.
It was his first word. You remember it like it was yesterday, him opening his little mouth and beaming up at you, eyes shining through the mop of brown hair. "Dean."
Still resting on your knee, Sammy's hand squeezes and releases, his tiny, newborn breath escaping parted lips in one quick release. His mossy hazel eyes follow the rivers of people, then drift upwards and settle on something so much further.
Then it's over.
And the most shocking thing to you is that the world doesn't stop, doesn't even pause, and you feel your heart pounding in your chest (but his isn't, so what right does yours have to keep going?).
You drag your eyes to his face, and he doesn't look peaceful; he only looks blank. And even though it's him, it's not really. The curled brown bangs, the angular face, the lanky, tall form that used to be small enough for you to hoist onto your shoulders…it's empty. You're empty, too, and so is the world, everything is.
You told yourself that were ready (you had to be) and now you realize you aren't (you never were). All the emptiness is shattering, the glass pieces of what used to be tumbling onto your head and shoulders, cutting a path through your soul (or where it used to be).
It isn't the way you thought it would be.
. . .
You debate at first whether or not you should bury Sam, whether or not there's a way to fix things, if somehow you can save him. But then you remember your promise and the trust in his eyes.
You have the materials prepared (Sam made sure of it), and you try not to think as the scene unfolds in front of you. The match in your hand trembles, flame dancing as if eager to ignite, to destroy.
You toss the match and swallow hard. The reflection of the fire flickers in your eyes.
As you watch, you try not to feel. You try to hold your head high with respect and dignity. You have to be strong (but for who?)…You stand tall, watching the flame lick, envelop, devour. And the only image running through your mind is Sam, up on a stage, singing to you and only you. You should have been up there with him, but you weren't. You weren't. And now it's too late. Too. Late.
Your breath catches in your throat before you regain control of your seizing lungs.
Sam's body is burning, disintegrating right in front of your eyes, and all you can think of is how much you wish you'd gotten up and sang karaoke with him.
There are so many things you should've done, and now you have to force yourself to live with too late. You have to keep going, as if there's anything worth going for anymore.
The flame burns on, skipping wildly in your full eyes. And in those minutes, it's like reliving the past eleven months of your life, watching Sam disappear bit by bit until there was nothing. You never planned ahead in those months; you never knew what you would do when the last bit was gone. You didn't know. You didn't want to.
As the smoke lingers in wisps, inching toward the sky, you realize you still don't.
. . .
You get by for awhile, learn to fake living. You know you're not doing it right, but you have to keep doing it, so you get by. You're on autopilot, gliding through this thing called life without any real sense of it. If people notice, they don't say anything (and you're too out-of-it to care much anyway).
It works for awhile, and with your emotions turned off, you think that this might be what 'ok' feels like (even though you know better, and the rest will catch up with you soon enough). But for now it's enough.
Until it isn't.
It's a Saturday afternoon when it happens first, and honest to God, you think you might be having an aneurism. Or a heart attack. Or both, you're not sure; you just know that it's pain and it's inside you and it hurts.
You're driving along on some highway (you don't know where you're going, you don't care anyway) and out of instinct, you glance over at the passenger's seat, like you've done a million times before. But for some reason, this time the emptiness hits you hard, and pain shoots from somewhere deep in your chest, somewhere you can't place or define. You pull over quickly as the pain blinds you and the emptiness steals your breath.
"Sa…" the word dies in your throat and you huff out a strangled breath. You can't even say his name because he's not there and can't answer and fucking Christ, why can't you just die now. (You want to, more than anything, and it doesn't scare you at all.)
Your mind tingles and tortures as you look over and can see Sammy grinning, sleeping, bobbing his head to music. Even when you shut your eyes, you can see him jolting awake with a spoon in his mouth, glaring at you (but in a way that makes you feel so loved that you don't even notice). The images keep coming, drilling through your mind and chest and it hurts, but you can't make it stop.
After awhile, you put yourself together enough to drive away.
But it happens again at the motel; you can see Sammy sleeping on the bed beside you, the memory so real that your shaking fingers reach out and catch nothing but air.
And then a few days later, you're looking up another case (not really caring, just hoping that one of these days, it'll be the one that finally does you in), and you can hear Sam commenting on the newspaper article in that smart way he always used to, making you feel stupid but so proud that it didn't matter.
It happens over and over. You can see Sam, hear him, even feel him there, but he's not and the emptiness feels so much more real than what you see.
Each memory cuts you and cuts you and cuts you, slicing and burning every fiber inside, in places that you thought you'd never feel again. But you do, and all you feel is pain.
A memory comes to destroy you, and when you can finally breathe again, the memory passes and it's over.
But then, all you can think of is when you were both kids and he held your hand in the goddamn gentlest way and just looked at you.
And you feel yourself burned alive and torn apart all over again.
It strikes you that of all the things to hurt like this, it's not the memories of Sam's death, but of his life that kill you.
They didn't used to. Remembering used to be something good, something great. Something for you and Sam to sit on the Impala's hood and talk about and smile (for hours, your own private hours of remembering).
Memories are great. Except when you're here and Sammy's not, and remembering is just sad enough that you kind of want to forget. Because memories don't mean much when you're alone.
Which you are.
You're sad, broken, falling apart, lost in grief, lost in pain, shattered, and alone, all the things Sammy wanted you not to be.
So you do the most logical thing you can think of.
You go to a bar.
It's a nicer one than usual, with a beautifully lit onyx counter and an equally gorgeous bartender. She's young, with dainty hands and soft eyes.
But all you can think of is how her blonde hair reminds you of that doctor from so long (but not that long) ago, and all you can hear is your brother, cancer, months. Months. Months.
And she was right, it was months. But the months came and went so damn fast, and now you're sitting here alone, feeling fucking sick for the very fact that you are alone.
The emptiness seeps in like an old friend, and a piece of you welcomes the familiarity. A disconnected voice asks for the good stuff (it sounds like your voice). Glass after glass is lifted to a stranger's mouth (you feel the liquid slide past your lips and down your throat).
You're pretty damn drunk now, but it doesn't make you numb like it used to. You're already numb inside.
"You ok, sir?" the blonde bartender asks. Her voice sounds like brother and cancer and months.
You snort humorlessly.
"What's on your mind?"
Your eyes get stuck on nothing in particular and you start talking without even realizing it.
"Y'know…that feeling…af'er something' happ'ns…when you r'lly wish you could rewind time? You know it m'kes no sense, but you can' help wishin'…"
You're blabbering like a pussy, but you can't find it in you to give a shit.
"'N you jus' wanna be sitt'ng in the car with him next t'you, not caring 'bout where you're going 'r what you're doing…not caring 'bout anything in the world but that moment 'n the fact that y're together?"
It takes you a few seconds of silence to notice that the waitress has silent tears welling in her eyes, a breath away from falling. When you notice it, you just stare at her dumbly.
"Yeah," she whispers. "I know that feeling." And for all her youth, there's a world of experience slipping off her cheeks and onto the smooth hardwood floor.
You breathe and then speak; your voice is small and vulnerable. "Does it ev'r-"
"No." She wipes her hands across her cheeks and straightens. "But you learn pretty quickly that you've got no choice but to live with it."
You're not altogether certain anymore if what you're doing fits that description. What you do know is that you could care fucking less.
Sam shakes his head exasperatedly in your mind, and you feel it in your heart. You toss back another glass.
All these people talk about how, when something tragic or major happens—like death or a tsunami—their lives become split into two parts: Before and After. He used to be so vibrant, but that was Before. She was just never the same After.
Sam…Sammy died. He's gone. That is your event. That is your tsunami. But you don't split yourself into Before and After because, really, there is no After, only the Before. You were vibrant, funny, charismatic, charming, halfway-happy Before.
After…you're nothing. After is a shadow. You are a shadow. Just a washed-out shell, the aftermath of your own natural disaster.
You wonder how long it will take before the waters drag After away again, before you're taken by the absence (of will, of hope, of Sammy). You wonder how long it'll be before you forget the Before and give in to the After. You wonder when there will be nothing left of you at all.
. . .
It's a Thursday again (you hate Thursdays), and you're driving down a long stretch of highway. You're thinking about it again (you never really stopped). Sam probably wouldn't want you to, but you can't help it, which tears you up inside because even when he's gone, you still can't help but think of what's best for Sam, what Sam would want.
And you're suddenly overwhelmed with the absolute need to know for sure that wherever he is (you think you know; you pray you're right), he's ok. You've been thinking about it for awhile, but you're sick of thinking, you need to know. You deserve to know.
There's a small, unoccupied shoulder on the road. You turn sharply onto it and turn off the car. It's starting to get dusky, but you don't bother turning your lights on.
You think it might be strange to ask God—or even Sam himself—to send you a sign that he's ok, that he's at peace, that he's happy (because that's all you ever wanted for him).
You think it might be strange, but you ask anyway.
"I need to know," you say huskily. The words reverberate off the windows and door before the empty space swallows them. You don't know who you're talking to, but somehow it doesn't matter. You just need some kind of sign, something. "I…I need to know."
You sit for a few minutes in the silence, but no response comes. You didn't let yourself expect one, but it still stings. Shaking fingers place the keys in the ignition and you continue on the highway.
You're two miles in when you see the sign. Literally, a bright, flashing sign on the side of the road.
KARAOKE NOON 2 MIDNITE
Today's date is pieced together haphazardly in the bottom corner of the sign.
"You're really gonna sing karaoke?"
Sam nods. "Y're really not g'nna do it with me?"
You didn't, and you haven't forgotten that you didn't. Without a second thought, you pull into the parking lot, coming to a stop a few car lengths down from the sign.
You walk through the front door inconspicuously, seating yourself at the bar counter. There are twenty or so people scattered at tables, another five sitting around the counter. There's a stage, front and center, flanked by speakers on either side, complete with a small DJ table.
The drunken young woman on stage is finishing up her song, almost indecipherable through the slurring. But everyone is smiling and laughing. The feeling throws you into the past, the memory, the regret.
"We shou'd try our hand at it," Sam slurs, eyeing the stumbling girl on the stage. He's still smiling and you can't help but smile, too.
"Not a chance."
You never knew how much you'd revisit that moment, those few seconds of a smiling little brother. But ever since, it has played through your mind, a symphony of regret and longing. You should have sung with him. You shouldn't have cared about embarrassment or relaxing or whatever the hell you were thinking at the time. It was your moment, yours and Sam's. It was yours. And you passed over it like it was nothing.
It wasn't nothing. It isn't.
"Any other brave souls out there?" The charismatic DJ shouts into his microphone. Other than the bar's faint murmur, there's no one speaking up.
And nothing can change that now; nothing ever will. You missed your moment before.
You won't miss it now.
"Here," you say, just loud enough for the man with the mike to hear. "I'm here."
For the first time in months, you feel like you really might be.
Your feet carry you across the floor, towards the steps, and you can almost hear Sam's voice in your head, singing a haunting melody of time lost. You slowly ascend the stage steps, one by one, until you reach the top. The scene is different, different bar, different people. But it feels so much the same. Your gait is reserved, drastically different from Sam's all those months ago. Your lips curl slightly at the image, but it probably looks more like a grimace than anything.
A few more steps and you're there.
You whisper in the man's ear (just like Sam did) and he cues the music.
It takes you a moment to find your voice. "This one's for my brother," you say. A few people sitting at the tables smile encouragingly. You wonder if they noticed that you walked in alone. Your throat closes before you can say any more.
The notes from a lifetime ago weave gently out of the speakers, and without realizing it, your voice follows. "The road is long…With many a winding turn…That leads us to who knows where…"
Your voice is off-key, but you don't notice, you can't hear yourself. You can only hear Sammy like he's right there next to you, jumping from lyric to lyric in perfectly imperfect harmony.
"But I'm strong, strong enough to carry him." You close your eyes and feel a baby Sammy in your arms. "He ain't heavy…he's my brother."
Your eyes stay closed and you know. You can feel him. He's beside you, a few inches higher, singing with a goofy smile, casting the occasional glance at you as if you wouldn't notice. He's there, and you can't help but smile, a big smile, a real smile. Because once again, in a roomful of people, it's just you and him. Just you and Sammy, like always, like destiny.
"So on we go-" Together, always. "-his welfare is of my concern…No burden is he to bear, we'll get there."
Never a burden, Sammy, never because Dad said so. Never like you used to think.
Sam smiles, radiant, blinding, perfect. Your eyes are still closed. Without words, you can tell he knows and forgives and it's like the weight of the world has suddenly shifted. You feel lighter, freer.
Sam is still smiling at you.
"It's a long, long road…from which there is no return…" Your voice becomes quiet, and the next few chords go by without your voice. Sam is still there, but you feel him fading, like you felt him slip away on Lawrence Hill. He's only looking at you now, grinning softly. He's not singing.
"He ain't heavy…" You don't know how the words force their way out of your tightened throat, but you let them flow. "He's my brother…he's my-" Your voice cracks "-brother…"
Your voice is hardly above a whisper as Sam's eyes fade slowly out of your mind. "He ain't heavy…" The last thing you see is his smile, soft and perfect and Sammy. "…he's my brother."
The music fades out, drifting away with the heaviness of the shifted world, away from you, away from Sammy, no longer tainting memory or hope. Distantly, you hear the microphone man's voice asking for another brave soul.
A soft smile falls upon your lips, easier than before. Because no one will ever be as brave as Sammy.
You exhale a light, airy breath and revel in the release. Then, you open your eyes. No one is looking at you as a new volunteer crosses the stage. But it doesn't matter. It was always you and Sammy anyway.
And even though he's not there anymore, he was, and you think that might be just enough to push you forward. Off the stage, out the door, into the Impala, and down the road, no matter how far it goes or little worth it has without Sammy there with you.
You do just that, and before you have time to think, the Impala's engine is roaring, leaving the flashing sign nothing but a dot of color in your rearview mirror. The sky is darkening, but sunset casts an eerily warm glow on the world.
You'll drive until the sun is out of sight, and after grabbing fuel for your baby and yourself, you'll drive until it comes up again.
And day will flow ceaselessly into night, pain dulled by monotony, overshadowed by memory until you either find a way to be happy (not whole, but somehow happy) or just let the current overtake you.
As tempting as the latter is, you can't help but think of Sammy, and what you would want if your roles were reversed (you still wish that's how it could be, but you're learning to accept the fact that it isn't).
You glance over at the empty seat beside you, the untouched leather of love and loss. If you think about it, you can see Sammy there again, and it's not quite as painful as before. You can see his smile, his laugh; you can feel his memory, his presence, as if it was riding shotgun. And though it tugs at that deep place in your chest, you can't help but smile.
You're suddenly overwhelmed by the assurance that you'll see Sammy again. He's your brother; it has always been you and him against the world. Always. And it'll be that again. Maybe not now, but it will be, in time. You'll have that moment, that pure infinite moment when everything washes away but you and him.
It's starting to rain, droplets rushing down the glass like tears, cleansing tears.
The highway drags on and on, stretching longer as you drive. The road is rough, throwing wet dirt and pebbles into the air as you speed past; clouds of dust and debris are left in your wake. But if you really focus your eyes, the glow of sunset frames the path ahead, woven over hills, wrapped around curves, where it smoothes, leaving less dirt and more fresh air. Where the clouds will thin out enough for you to see, and you can roll down your windows.
Your eyes are still jaded as they gaze at the pavement in front of you. Cranking up the radio, you allow the dusty clouds to billow. Even with the windows up, moisture pricks the corners of your eyes.
You drive on. The smooth highway won't come for awhile; darkness will fall long before you reach it. You're ready (as you'll ever be). After you transition to that road, it won't end for miles and miles. But when it does, you know what's on the other side, and it's something worth waiting for.
The ghost of a smile graces your face as whispers of memory push you from one breath to the next. Each inhale is a binding promise, each exhale another step toward something like happiness (something like Sammy).
You breathe in and he fills you. His scent, his smile, the fringe of his bangs and the depth of his mossy green eyes. When you inhale, it all comes together to force your lungs open, and the cadence of living makes you feel alive for the first time in awhile.
Relaxing into your seat, you take a deep breath (of Sammy) and watch the road expand before your eyes.