Red Beans and
"I want real food," Sammy says, out of nowhere.
Dean looks up from counting the money in his pocket. "So we'll get food. I SAID I was -"
"I mean, you know." Sammy gestures at the kitchen. "Let's make something."
"Okay," Dean says warily. "I guess. What do you want?"
"Red beans and rice."
"Aw, man. Not that again."
"It was good. You liked it."
"Yeah, because someone else made it. Can't we just buy it someplace?"
Sammy gets that stubborn look and shakes his head. "Homemade."
"We have a kitchen!"
Dean sighs. "Yeah, yeah."
"So we can?" Sammy asks, brightening.
"Okay," Dean says wearily. "I'll, ah. See what I can do."
After Sammy races back into his bedroom, Dean sits at the kitchen table and thinks. Bad enough that Dad is gone, and won't be back for freaking days. But Sammy gets that look on his face and Dean KNOWS he's a goner. Kid really doesn't ask for all that much, usually. And it beats sitting around wondering if Dad's okay.
He heads to the door and yells, "Be back in a little. Lock the door!"
"Okay!" Sammy yells, pounding back out into the living room.
He's sweaty and disgusted by the time he finds this town's tiny library. The librarian is kind of cute, though, so Dean pastes his best grin on and goes up to the desk.
"Got any cookbooks?"
The librarian - she's older than she looked, but that's okay, he's got nothing against older babes, experience counts - looks surprised. "How old are you, honey?"
Dean feels his grin slipping. "Old enough to know my way around," he says.
"Can't check out books unless you have a library card, and we don't give those out to children under sixteen."
She has a funny little smile on her face now, kind of knowing, and says, "I don't think so, honey. Fourteen maybe."
He's thirteen. Well, at least he looks a LITTLE older than that. "Can I at least look?" he asks.
"Of course. What kind of cookbook were you wanting?"
"I need to make red beans and rice. That's easy, right?"
She nods slowly. "What's your name?"
"Dean. I could just make a copy or something."
"Do a lot of cooking?"
"Sure," he says, although he's kind of got his fingers crossed out of sight. The most he's ever cooked was heating up cans of beans or making mac and cheese from a box, but she doesn't have to know that.
"Because that's not the easiest thing in the world to make."
"Sammy wants it," he says with a shrug. "Besides, how hard can it be? It's just food."
The librarian keeps on nodding, and leads him over to a shelf near the windows. "We aren't the biggest library in the state, but we do have a pretty decent cookbook selection." She thinks, then pulls one out. "Here. Cajun cookery. Bet you find something in here."
"Thanks." He grins, and she sort of blushes a little.
Point for him.
The recipe is longer than just red beans and rice. Dean carefully photocopies it, then puts the book back where it belongs.
"Good luck," says the librarian when he's leaving.
"Thanks," Dean mutters.
Fortunately nothing in the recipe is real expensive, and it makes a lot. Serves twelve. In fact, if he plays his cards right, they could probably eat off this at least until Dad gets back. He takes his time at the market, tries to make his money go as far as he can. The checkout girl pops gum and eyes him without interest, and he sighs and grabs his plastic bags for the walk home.
By nine he's decided that this cooking gig is harder than it sounds.
"Is it ready yet?" Sammy asks.
"For the ten thousandth time, I'll TELL you when it's ready, okay?" Dean wipes sweat from his forehead and glares down at him. "Now beat it."
Sammy shrugs. "Smells good."
It does smell good. A lot of work, yeah, but it smells real good, and Dean feels a funny little prickle of pride. The kitchen is a total disaster and he kinda got the roux-whatever stuff browner than it was supposed to be, but he thinks it might be okay once it's cooked long enough.
He calls Sammy at ten - jeez, already past bedtime and they're just now having supper, but screw it - and watches carefully while Sammy flings himself into the chair, grabs his fork. Takes a bite.
Dean narrows his eyes. "What?"
Sammy chews, reflectively. Takes another bite.
Dean sighs and slumps a little in his own chair. "Cool," he murmurs.
It is good. Maybe not the best thing on the planet or nothing, but it's tasty. And that's a good thing, because there's a shitload of it.
Sammy eats two big platefuls, washes it down with milk, and beams at him. "That was GOOD," he proclaims.
"Okay. Now go to bed, dude. It's like ten-thirty."
"Kay. Night, Dean."
He eyes the filthy kitchen wearily, and gets up to rinse the plates.
The beans and rice keep them fed for the two days it takes Dad to get back, and that night Dean reheats what's left and watches Dad as carefully as he did Sammy before.
"You made this?" Dad's looking at him, kinda funny.
Dean nods. "Wasn't that hard," he lies.
"Where'd you get a recipe?"
"The library. It's what Sammy wanted."
Dad gets a little smile on his face, still looking kinda startled. "Huh. Pretty decent chow, kiddo." He takes another big bite, and Dean sags a little with relief.
Dad eats like he hasn't had a decent meal in days - which he probably hasn't - and that's it for the beans and rice. And there are burgers the next day, and diner food, and that's kinda that until about a month later, another kitchenette and Dean standing by the counter thinking. Dad's doing some pick-up construction work right now, earning a little cash, which means they're pretty strapped. Eating out is expensive. He supposes he could make something. And besides, it isn't real good for Sammy to just eat crap all the time. He's growing. Much as Dean doesn't give a crap about eating green things himself, he kinda hates the idea of Sammy getting like scurvy or something because his diet is so awful.
The store's down the street about three blocks. He scans a cooking magazine intently - something with healthy in big red letters on the cover - and nods to himself. He can do this.
That night John and Sammy blink at the vegetables on their plates, and Dean shrugs. "It's good for you. Eat it."
"You made broccoli?" Dad says, looking at Dean like he'd just realized he was possessed.
Dean ignores him and takes a bite. It's a little mushy, and he still doesn't really give a rip about vegetables, but Sammy's eating steadily, and that's what counts.
Next time he won't steam the broccoli quite so long.
And it just sorta goes from there. In Petersberg he makes more copies of recipes - things that sound not too hard and kinda good and not unhealthy - and when he asks Dad for grocery money Dad just hands it over. And the next morning, Dad stares into his cup of coffee and mumbles, "Ever find a recipe for lasagna?"
Dean shrugs. "I guess."
"Ma made the best lasagna."
Dad never talks about Grandma. Dean barely remembers her: a tall, slender woman who was always dusting. He doesn't remember ever tasting her cooking, which maybe isn't so surprising; she died when he was really little. But now he's intrigued. "What was it like?" he asks, leaning forward.
"Just - lasagna, I guess. The usual. Sure was good, though."
Dean gnaws the inside of his lip. "I could make it."
There's such a wistful look on Dad's face, it makes Dean feel sort of funny inside. "That would be nice," Dad says, and finishes his cup of coffee. "Gotta run. Keep an eye on Sammy."
He takes Sammy with him to the library, stashes him with some books while Dean prowls the cookbook section. It's easy to find recipes, TOO easy, there are so many, and finally he settles for copying about eight different versions and hoping he'll end up with something that tastes sort of like what Dad remembers. Kinda hard when Dean has no idea what that memory is.
"Not quite the same," Dad says that night, tapping his plate with his fork.
Sammy's eyes dart between the two of them. "It's really good, Dean," he pipes.
Dean watches Dad, and thinks it really doesn't taste quite right. He'll try a different recipe next time.
The quest for the perfect lasagna follows him around. Through various towns, different states, accompanies him on hunts and preoccupies him while he recovers from the broken leg in Arkansas. The cooking thing has really stuck: he gripes about it to Sammy, and sometimes it really is annoying, but deep down it feels pretty good to see his family stuff their faces with whatever he cooked for them. He learns how to keep from cooking chicken until it's dried out and tough, and spaghetti that doesn't disintegrate when you try to twirl it on your fork. Meatloaf's a standard item, and stew's handy because he can put whatever he has on hand into it.
He tries his hand at baking a cake for Sammy's twelfth birthday. It sinks a little in the middle, but it tastes great, so he keeps that recipe, stuck inside the binder with the rest. It's big enough now that he keeps it bound with rubber bands, stashed at the bottom of his duffel when they move around.
The summer he's sixteen, Dad is laid up and unable to get some kind of interim work. They're in Virginia, close to the water, and Dean lies about his age and finds a job working in the kitchen of the diner two blocks down the road. At first all he does is basically clean up and do prep work, but by July he's doing some line cooking, the usual fried clams and crab cakes and endless baskets of fries. By August he's often got the place to himself during the afternoons, when it's slower, and he likes the blisters on his hands and arms, the cuts on his fingers. They're war wounds. The money's crap, but he brings home supper most nights, whatever they had the most of that day, and they get by.
Dad's itching to move on by the end of the month, time to start school, only Dean has no idea where they'll be a week from now. He tells Mike, the owner of the diner, he's gotta split, and Mike says, "You ain't a bad cook, Deano. You really eighteen?"
Dean smiles and shrugs. "Near enough."
"Finish school. You come back here and I'll put you in charge."
Sam's a picky eater. "Eat it or wear it" has become Dean's mantra. Nothing's good enough. The waffles are soggy, Sam says, even though they're not. The Stroganoff's boring. The meatloaf's filled with hormones and antibiotics. They'll get Mad Cow Disease.
"You ARE a disease," Dean snaps finally. "You so worried about this shit? Make your own fucking food."
"Fine," Sam says, meeting his glare eye-to-eye. "It'll be better than THIS crap."
Dean shuts himself in their room with a copy of Car and Driver, and thinks bitterly that he's gonna graduate in two months, he doesn't NEED this shit, what good's a diploma gonna do him anyway? Use it as kindling to start a campfire, maybe, but it ain't like he can wave it in a ghoul's face and think he's impressing anybody. That and a dollar, man.
Sam makes salad, and something that Dean thinks is supposed to be scalloped potatoes. It's horrible. The potatoes are still crispy, the cheese is burnt, and either the milk had expired or maybe it just DIED under Sam's hands.
Sam eats with silent determination. He looks sweaty, tired, and pissed off, and Dean thinks about saying, "You are the stupidest, stubbornest asshole on the fucking PLANET," but doesn't. Instead he drinks sweet tea and finally says, "Helps if you boil the potatoes a little first."
Dean eats a bite of crunchy potato, and Sam flings down his fork and says, "This is horrible."
"Ain't as easy as it looks."
"Sometimes I really hate you," Sam mutters.
Likewise, Dean thinks, but grabs their plates instead. There's leftover meatloaf in the fridge, and the salad's something even Sammy couldn't fuck up too bad. He uses up the last of the broccoli, melts a little cheese on top, and Sam cleans his plate.
"Sorry I was a dick," Sam says while they wash up later.
Dean nudges him with his shoulder. "You missed a spot."
There's no time for cooking in North Carolina. There's research, which Dean hates and has learned to do anyway, and then there's the hunt. They eat diner food, fast food, convenience-store food, and it all tastes the same. Staying in a tent once the hunt is on, shivering in the icy wind and Sam grumbling on and on again about how it's gonna be spring soon and he's got SATs coming up and what the fuck are they doing here? Fucking yeti won't show anyway.
Every night there's a fight. Sam's seventeen and Dad's grim all the time, and Dean wishes for a kitchen and a stove. He has a new lasagna recipe from around Thanksgiving, when they were in Peyton, Idaho, clipped from the paper. He thinks just maybe it's the sausage Dad's been missing. No chance to try it yet, though. Maybe once they're done.
One night the fight gets bad. He's tired of listening to Dad and Sam scream at each other - never listen to him, and if DEAN was a yeti he'd hear that racket and stay the hell away - so he goes outside, shoves his hands in his pockets after stowing a pistol in the back of his jeans, and just walks a while. Not even a supper table would fix this shit, he thinks. Used to be, food was kind of an excuse for them all to sit down, hang out some, talk about various shit. Be a family. Now, though, dinners are silent, uncomfortable, when they're not actually just continuations of arguments already begun.
At times like this, he wonders if even Dad's fabled lasagna would fix things. Sam would bitch about it, Dad would tell him to shut up, and it would deteriorate from there. Dean in the middle, refereeing, trying to keep them from going at each other with steak knives. He thinks sometimes that it may actually come to that one of these days. It makes him feel tired, and old, and worse than useless.
Tacos. It would be a good night for tacos. Everyone likes tacos. It's something all three of them can agree on, and there are precious few things they can -
There's no sound. Just something huge, crashing into him, sending him sprawling. His head thuds against something, a resounding "bong" like he's been cracked over the skull with a cast-iron skillet, there's a ripping pain across his belly, and the lights go out.
He wakes up to see Dad's and Sammy's faces, murky in the flickering light of the campfire.
"Welcome back," Dad says, and doesn't smile.
"Lie still," Sam says.
"Sausage," Dean tells Dad. "It's the sausage."
Dad's face tightens, and he presses harder against Dean's belly. It hurts. "Don't worry about that, kiddo. You just hang tight. Everything'll be all right."
"Oh, Jesus," Sam moans. His face is too pale, and there's blood smeared on his right cheek. "We gotta hurry, Dad. He's -"
"Can that," Dad snaps. "Okay, Deano. Gonna put you in the car, get you to a medic. All right? You just hang tight."
"It's the spicy kind. Not the sweet kind. That's - what it takes." His mouth is filled with blood. His ears are ringing.
Dad's lips tighten, and when he lifts Dean it's all he can do not to scream. And then the inky darkness surges forward, and he falls with pure relief.
Sam does his spring semester in Asheville, because that's where the big hospital is. Dad's rented a house, but Dean doesn't get to see it until nearly March. The yeti came real close to disemboweling him, and he has three surgeries and a two-month vacation in a revolving series of hospital rooms before they finally let him go.
Sam aces his SATs. Dad bags the yeti long before Dean gets out. And in April, a foggy evening when Sam's silent and has that thoughtful look on his face again, the one that makes Dean nervous and itchy, he makes the right lasagna.
"I'll be damned." Dad's holding the fork in midair, eyebrows lifted. "That tastes just like it. JUST like it."
It feels as if he's just been told he can drop a seventy-five-pound pack after years of toting it around constantly. Dean leans back in his chair, finds a shaky smile on his face. "Yeah?"
"Hell, it's even better than I remember."
Funny thing is, Dean doesn't have much appetite at all. The lasagna tastes just about like it always does, to him. The sausage wasn't key, really. It's just the same lasagna he always makes, with a little extra oregano and some marjoram added to the tomato sauce.
Between them Dad and Sam polish off more than half what he made. And Dean wonders just how long they'll all be like this, sitting around a crummy little kitchen table, belching and passing the salt and pepper. Maybe it'll always be like this.
He thinks about the distant gleam in Sam's eyes, and wonders if maybe this is the last time, right here.
He's mobile by June, but not as strong as he'd like to be. He works out a lot, sit-ups and pushups and five-mile runs most mornings, but those torn muscles complain. Sam's graduated now, and even quieter, spending too much time in his room, door locked. Dean makes jokes about jerking off in private and Sam doesn't do more than smile a little. No anger, and no laughter.
He makes a roast one Sunday, thinking they can make sandwiches out of it that week. Potatoes, carrots, onions alongside. A pretty damn good gravy. His gravy has no lumps. They wouldn't dare. He is the King of Gravies.
No one eats the roast. It sits drying out in the warm oven while Dad and Sam snipe at each other, go from cutting remarks and spat-out orders to in-your-face yelling, and Dean rubs his sore belly and thinks about ambushes in the dark woods, and says, "Cool it, you guys. Just fucking knock it off. Sammy, Dad's right. Leave it."
Dad gives a fast nod and slams out the door, and when Sam looks at Dean there is plenty of feeling now. Fury, and frustration, and something Dean thinks looks a lot like hatred. "You're just gonna TAKE it?" he barks. "God, no wonder you don't mind cooking. What are you, his son or his WIFE?"
It hurts his belly to send a punch. Sam reels back, catches himself on the back of the couch -good reflexes, always was damned quick for a kid pushing six-five - and Dean swallows and says, "Eat your dinner. It's getting cold."
The left side of Sam's jaw bears a reddening imprint of Dean's fist. "Fuck you," Sam whispers. The rest of his face is terribly pale. "Fuck you both."
It's the second time the door has slammed in just a few minutes. After a while Dean climbs to his feet. His hand throbs, fingers bruised. Not as bad as that first time spattering himself with grease from the fry vat back at the diner. He takes the roast from the oven and slices it methodically, wrapping it in plastic and storing it in the fridge. Still will make decent sandwiches. No point in wasting it.
Sam says nothing to him when he comes back a couple of hours later. Shuts himself in his room, sulking or plotting or whatever it is he does that puts that furtive secretive light in his eyes these days. Dean drinks a jelly glass of cheap whiskey and falls asleep on the couch before Dad comes home.
He's burned himself lots of times. Not just the diner, but in various apartments, houses, wherever. On stovetops, oven heating elements. Boiling water, or broth. Hot potatoes. He figures that's why his hands are pretty numb. He can't feel the onion he's holding, wonders if maybe he should be worried about that fact, and so he keeps his eyes on his work, slicing more slowly than usual, carefully. Onion, garlic. File powder from the stash in his bag.
The sheet of paper is torn across the left side, repaired with tape. Folded, spindled, and definitely mutilated. Tomato sauce stains across the faded print.
"Don't bother," Dad says behind him. Voice hoarse with tiredness and anger. "I'm going out."
Dean doesn't look. "Okay."
"Come on. Let's get a burger."
It's beer Dad wants, lots more than food, and Dean thinks they both know it. Hell, he'd like a beer, too. A lot of beers. Beer until he forgets everything else.
"Already started this," he says instead. "You go ahead."
"Gonna waste it."
Dean shrugs, and a moment later the screen door bangs, a rifle shot that makes him flinch.
He cooks the roux slowly, watching the color deepen from blond to beige to rich chestnut. It takes a fine hand with a roux. A good roux can make or break a recipe. No doubt about that. Adds peppers and the onions, slowly moves them around the skillet. Sweating the onions, releasing their captured fragrance, blending with butter and spices, perfuming the air.
He watches traffic go by while the food simmers. It's hot, and cicadas buzz endlessly, birds talking to each other across the spaghetti of telephone and electrical lines in front of the house. Cooking makes the house hotter. He pushes sweat from his upper lip and goes to stir the pot.
They're headed north tomorrow. New Hampshire, maybe, or Vermont, Dad isn't quite sure yet. Dean will find out soon enough.
He sets the table, plates and forks and knives and spoons. Mismatched, from the kitchenette drawer. Dad will want to eat whenever he gets back. No telling when that will be. Beer leaves him hungry. Always has.
Dean tastes the red beans and rice, and hears Sammy's voice - It's GOOD - and puts his fork down slowly. Looks at Dad's empty plate, Dad's empty chair, and then Sam's. Sam, whose secrets came out two days ago, Sam who will not be slamming that screen door again, not here. Sam is - where is he right now? Still on the bus, probably. It's only been eight or nine hours.
It's habit to set three places. Now he only needs two. Dad mentioned maybe splitting up, spreading out so they can cover more ground.
One of these days, he'll only need to set one place.