Louise Brandon yawned so wide that she could feel the joints popping in her jaw. She slumped back against the worktop. It had been a long week. She had known it wouldn't be easy, juggling high school with a job at a diner, but this week in particular, it seemed like she was really going under the surface because of the weight of her workload. Still, she couldn't give any of it up, if she was going to succeed in her lifelong ambition of becoming a doctor. She knew she could manage it, but this week was almost enough to test her motivation.
All she wanted was to get home and sleep, but she knew that there was a chapter on the human respiratory system waiting for her on her desk, and she needed to study for an important test. The owner of the diner wandered into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes sleepily. She was a heavy woman with a friendly, open face, and she was a good employer: flexible to Louise's overloaded timetable.
'You heading home now, honey?' she asked, her voice less sharp than usual: she was as exhausted as Louise after such a busy shift.
'You gonna walk? It's dark out.'
'I'll be ok.'
The woman walked over and looked Louise in the eye. 'Be careful, alright? I know it's not far, and you take that route every night, but just… be careful.'
'I will.' She smiled sleepily, nodding her leaden head. She waved a hand vaguely as she disappeared out the door.
The street was well lit and wide, and Louise knew it so well that her feet could follow the sidewalk without any intervention from her mind. Her eyes followed the hazy patterns on the concrete formed by the yellow pools of light interspersed with shadows. She hugged her jacket tightly around her, feeling a chill penetrate her clothes.
She blinked, and turned slowly to see who had called.
'Hi…?' she said, a hint of a question echoing in the word. Who are you?
'I'm Michael. From your biology class, you don't remember?'
'I, uh… oh, yes, of course, Michael…' she ad-libbed frantically. I'm too tired for this, thought her fatigued mind.
'You don't know who I am,' he said softly.
'Sorry,' she replied. There was no point in denying it. 'I'm shattered… my brain's just… not working,' she apologised, smiling at him. 'I'll see you tomorrow…' she muttered, turning away, but he went on talking, and she felt that it would be rude to walk off while he was standing there chatting away.
'You're so lucky Louise… you're really smart, and your parents are really supportive… you know? And… everyone really likes you, everyone knows you…'
Louise rolled her shoulders uncomfortably, awkward in this bizarre situation, feeling somehow detached from reality. 'Well, uh… I don't know, I guess I'm just like everyone else,' she mumbled, smiling as politely as she could and backing away. She stopped when she found, unexpectedly, that her limbs would not obey her. The impulses of her brain, telling her feet to step forward, seemed to be lost in transmission. She felt her heart flutter, shocked out of its rhythm.
'You're all so damned lucky…' Michael was saying.
'What did you do?' she asked in horror.
He smiled at her, horribly, his mouth curving hideously while the rest of his face remained frozen. The effect was less than human.
Something broke in her, but she didn't feel a thing.
Silence reigned in the little room, hanging like an invisible mantle over the narrow twin beds and their inert occupants. It was a cold night, violent outside with rain lashed against the window with fierce winds. The distant roar of detonating endlessly on the roof was somehow muted by the mundane walls, so that it was no more than a buzzing which seemed almost to enhance the stillness, instead of diminishing it.
Dean Winchester was sprawled on his front, one hand clutching determinedly at some unseen object beneath his head, breathing slowly and regularly. His mind was blissfully blank, indulging in complete idleness after an exhausting few days' hunting. He could be fully awake and alert within a fraction of a second, if it became necessary, but for the moment, he was dead to the world.
Sam Winchester, on the other hand, was not blessed with such an efficient on-off switch as his brother, and his slumber was fitful, uneven, unreliable, and frequently plagued by dreams. Curled on his side, blankets twisted around his feet, Sam was sleeping deeply, but his eyes moved constantly, flickering under his eyelids, immersed in some illusion from which the rest of the world was excluded.
The stillness was broken when Sam began to wriggle in his sleep, but he remained quiet enough that Dean did not wake. The first rays of morning woke him.
Dean sat up, squinting against the early sunlight which streamed in as Sam pulled up the blind. He groaned as the unexpected light stung his eyes, and Sam muttered something about vampires that he didn't catch, but he assumed was it was impolite and therefore responded with a scowl.
'You sleep well?' he asked his brother. It had become a tradition in the mornings, Dean's way of expressing concern over Sam's minimalist approach to sleep.
'Yeah,' Sam responded, without concentrating. It was one of those questions, like 'How are you?' – You don't think about exactly how you are feeling at that moment in time, you just say, 'Fine, thanks.'
'Did you dream?' Dean asked, with a slight guarded quality in his voice. OK, so maybe he had noticed something.
'No,' Sam answered automatically, but then he reflected. 'Yes. Maybe, I don't know.' He had a feeling that he had dreamed, but it wasn't clear in his head. Usually, his nightmares haunted him, their images flashing through his mind like photographs in his memory. But this was a vague picture, fleeing from him even as he tried to recollect it, falling away like water through a sieve.
'That wasn't supposed to be one of the, uh, great unanswerable questions, Sammy,' Dean commented, looking at him sideways with raised eyebrows and amused eyes. 'Just making conversation.'
Sam scowled at him, sitting down heavily onto his bed, rubbing his hands across his eyes. It irritated him that the dream had fallen out of his mind so completely, but after a few minutes, he dismissed the thought. If it was an important dream, he would have remembered it.
'Was that graffiti here when we arrived, Sammy? 'Cause it looks a hell of a lot like your handwriting,' Dean asked, frowning.
'What?' Sam looked around to see his brother studying the wall above the bed, where a determined hand had traced thick dark letters with a black pen. It was, undoubtedly, new, and it was definitely Sam's writing.
'You're taking up writing on the walls in your sleep? Jesus, Sammy… first it was walking, then it was talking, then it was singing… if this continues, we're going to have to start getting separate rooms…'
'I sing in my sleep?' Sam asked, temporarily distracted.
'You haven't for a while… you went through a phase of it, when you were about 12… drove me crazy. You really can't carry a tune.'
'I bet I wasn't that bad…. What did I sing?'
Dean made a face. 'A mixture of things… Mariah Carey, mostly. It was horrible.'
Sam looked at him critically. 'I don't believe you…' he muttered.
'Yeah? Prove I'm lying.'
Sam paused for a moment, trying. 'You're a jerk,' he told his brother eventually in exasperation. Dean smirked, and wandered off into the bathroom, leaving Sam alone. His eyes fell on the words inscribed above his bed, like an epitaph.
'What did you do?'
They had been passing through, driving aimlessly while they waited for a new job to manifest itself, when Sam had read that three or four local people had reported 'strange sounds' in the woods around the town, and one had added that they saw a dark shape. Sam reasoned that they had nothing better to do, so they might as well check it out. Dean thought they were probably hallucinating, and that it was a waste of time which would be better spent playing pool, flirting, and sleeping. But, despite that, he wasn't about to let Sam check anything out on his own, after his little escapade in Minnesota.
When they were both ready, they checked out of the motel, hoping that the owner would either not notice or not care about the writing on the wall. The woods were heavily shadowed by thick trees, which might, conceivably, make them seem spooky in the middle of the night. Any number of things could have been the source of the strange noises, and excitable campers with overactive imaginations were perfectly capable of seeing things that weren't there.
In order to take his mind off the elusive dream and unexplained graffiti of the night before, Sam threw himself enthusiastically into the dead-end hunt, ignoring his brother's complaints. Every time Dean protested that it was clearly nothing and they should go back, Sam argued that it could be just a little further into the woods, and kept walking.
'Sam, what is it? I really don't think there's anything going on here.'
'How can you know that? Just a bit further…'
Dean stopped stubbornly, looking critically at his brother. 'You haven't had a vision about this or anything, have you?'
'No… I just… think we should be thorough…'
'Yeah, sure, thorough, but there are limits, Sam! I'm pretty damn sure I've already walked past that tree three or four times…'
'It's the same as all the other trees. Look,' he produced a laminated map of the woods, which seemed to consist largely of vast green spaces divided by faint red lines which marked hikers' trails. 'We've been following this path all the way from the road.'
Dean looked around him in confusion. 'This is a path?' he asked, in genuine surprise. No gap in the undergrowth suggested that there was a marked trail in the vicinity.
'Of course this is… a… path…' Sam answered, sounding less and less certain as he continued the sentence and looked at the area they were standing in.
'Are we lost?' Dean asked, controlled anger lending a strange quality to his voice.
'Possibly,' Sam conceded, folding up the map dejectedly. 'I'm sorry…' he muttered.
Dean slumped, suddenly lacking the energy to throw a temper tantrum. 'It's ok… I guess we'll just go back the way we came…' he said, setting off in a random direction which Sam could not have distinguished from any of the other possibilities.
Despite Dean's confidence, the route he had chosen did not lead them back to the car, and when night fell, they found themselves still standing among bracken and thick tree trunks, in another clearing exactly the same as a thousand others that they had passed or possible the same one that they had passed a thousand times.
There was no cell reception.
Sam looked at his brother, his dark eyes appealing to him for a solution. Dean always struggled to resist that look.
'Don't give me that, Sammy. It's your fault we're lost.'
'If we keep going, in the dark, we're only going to get… lost –er'
'Lost-er? We've been going for hours, in broad daylight, and thanks to your map reading skills, I don't think we could get much loster.'
Eventually, they settled down on the uneven ground to sleep until morning clarified their surroundings, in the vague hope that the path would appear overnight. When they woke, their surroundings looked much the same, except for one thing: carved on a tree with the point of a hunting knife, in awkward, pointy letters:
'I didn't mean to leave you'
'Well,' Sam argued, 'it was dark; we wouldn't necessarily have noticed if it was already there.'
Dean raised a sceptical eyebrow. 'Yeah, right.'
'You think I wrote it?'
Dean said nothing, but rolled his shoulders and spread his hands in a gesture which said I don't know, but it seems most likely.
'I didn't dream,' Sam protested, and then, once again, cast his mind back to verify his statement and found himself uncertain. 'I… don't think so, anyway…' He leaned back against the tree, masking the unexplained writing with his body. 'Why would I write that, anyway? The messages don't seem connected… "What did you do?" and then "I didn't mean to leave you." I suppose the second could be an answer to the first, but it doesn't really… follow on.'
Dean shrugged, trying but not really succeeding to look as if he wasn't concerned. 'Something weird is going on,' he offered lamely.
Yeah, right, thought Sam, we should make that our family motto.
Hmm, not sure where this is going, I'm finding this idea quite hard to commit to paper. Some reviews would be great – even some suggestions! What do you see happening? I don't promise to follow up on all or any of them, but they'd help to inspire me!