It wasn't the most affluent of neighborhoods anymore. Once upon a time the little boxy houses with their postage stamp sized yards were called home by servicemen returning from the war. The war, the big one, WWII. They were dream homes to those for whom home ownership had once seemed an unattainable goal.
While Kansas City grew up around them, and larger homes for the post war babies blossomed in the suburbs, the tiny two bedroom houses fell on hard times; paint peeled, shutters hung askew, and yards became choked with weeds. Families cracked and crumbled like the trash strewn driveways. Nobody chose to live on Duncan Street anymore, especially people with children. It had become a haven for only those on fixed incomes – the unemployed, the elderly, the disabled. The little houses, once so prim and tidy, sagged beneath the weight of neglect.
"Old Man Manetti," as his neighbors had dubbed him, was known for his efforts to liven things up around the holidays. His decorations were well meaning, but hardly anything that would make drivers down Duncan Street stop to "ooh" and "ahh" at them.
Colored blinking lights on his ragged bushes blinked only when they wanted to, and could be quite startling to those taken unaware when they suddenly burst into life. All along the eaves of the house strings of large white bulbs hung like smiling mouths. If one looked closely it became apparent the grin was missing a few teeth. Bullet holes in the side of Mr. Manetti's house told the tale of someone taking pot shots at the light bulbs. In a neighborhood were the sound of gunfire was not uncommon it did not come as a surprise.
The highlight of Old Man Manetti's Christmas display was his larger than life-sized illuminated Nativity scene. He'd had it for a very long time and it showed. The camel was headless, the shepherd was missing, and due to an unfortunate accident with an overheated light bulb, one of the Wisemen had become somewhat melted. It made the poor fellow lean on one of his companions as if he had been celebrating Our Savior's birth a bit too heartily. Mary was okay though, so was Joseph.
Mr. Manetti stood in front of his lighted display, slightly lopsided himself as he had been doing a little celebrating. He scratched his head and pondered the absence of Baby Jesus. It had been there that morning. Where had it gone?
"Where'd he go?" he asked, of no one in particular. "Where'd Baby Jesus go?"
He wondered if it were some sort of sign, something Biblically significant. If it was, he thought, he had best get his affairs in order.
Baby Jesus was in the bathtub.
Ten-year-old Sam Winchester pulled the shower curtain shut. A moment later he pulled it open again and stared blearily at the giant plastic figure occupying more than half of the tub. No, he hadn't been seeing things.
"DAAAAAAAAAAAAD," he yelled.
He was answered by a sleepy mumble from the room across the hall. "Whatzit?"
"HE'S DOING IT AGAIN!"
"JESUS IS IN OUR BATHROOM!"
In the other room John Winchester rolled over, pulled a pillow over his head, and groaned. "Jesus..."
Sam narrowed his eyes. From the other end of the hall he could hear giggling. He turned around and poked his head out of the bathroom. The door to the room he shared with his brother was opened only a crack, just enough for a single eye and part of a freckled nose to be seen behind it. Attached to the eye was the source of the giggling - Dean.
With a growl, Sam bolted down the hall.
The door slammed shut, just missing Sam's fingers. Sam pounded on it. "I'm gonna be late for school and you're gonna get busted." He tugged at the door knob, twisting it back and forth. Either it was malfunctioning or locked. "DAAAAAAAAAD!"
John sighed. He pulled the pillow off his head and groaned again when he saw what time it was. He'd come in late, right around six-thirty that morning. The clock indicated he'd only been asleep little over an hour. "DEAN!" he bellowed. "Open the damn door!" A moment later he remembered there was another issue. "And get Jesus out of the bathroom!"
Orders dispatched, he rolled over and went back to sleep.
"Tattletale," Dean hissed. He opened the door and Sam, who had been bouncing one shoulder off of it, practically fell into the room. As he walked out into the hall, he gave Sam's head a shove. Sam hit him back and stuck out his tongue.
By the time Sam got back to the bathroom both his brother and Baby Jesus had disappeared, leaving behind only the funky green tub with the cracked tiles and crooked shower curtain. By the time he got himself cleaned and dressed he could smell breakfast coming from the kitchen and hear the rumble of snoring from across the hall. Considerately he shut their father's door before trotting out to the kitchen.
The T.V. was blaring in the living room. Dean was at the kitchen table drizzling syrup on a pile of toaster waffles and part of the table because he wasn't paying as much attention to what he was doing as he should have been. He was distracted by the latest episode of whatever cartoon he'd picked to be his new obsession. By the looks of things it was some wacky Japanese import featuring scantily clad girls and sword wielding robots.
"Dad said no T.V.," Sam declared, running his finger through the syrup on the table before sitting down to his own plate of waffles. "You better turn that off."
His brother glared at him. "You aren't Dad."
"If he wakes up you're gonna be in trouble."
"You gonna wake him up?" Dean challenged.
"Not if you let me have the extra waffle."
"You got the extra waffle last time."
"I didn't tell Dad you snuck out past curfew last Saturday."
Begrudgingly, Dean forked the topmost waffle of his stack and moved it over to Sam's.
Sam grinned. He'd been really tempted to tell on Dean for the curfew violation because Dean had gone off to the movies. The movie was one Sam really wanted to see, but Dean wouldn't take him because he was going with a girl instead. That violated a rule too, not to mention the fact Sam had been left home alone for three hours. Triple play. John would have been really pissed.
"Hurry up! Eat faster. You're gonna make me late!"
Dean raised an eyebrow at him – and started eating slower. The whiny noise this produced from his little brother was well worth the risk of having Sam wake their father up again.
Sam squirmed. Dean pointed a waffle laden fork at him.
"Why are you so anxious to get to school today anyway?"
"It's Pageant Day."
"Oh, brother," Dean rolled his eyes and resumed eating - slowly.
Christmas Pageant Day meant all the elementary and middle school classes would be performing their little Christmas "shows" for their classmates. It was a dress rehearsal for the following night when they would perform for their parents. Dean never worried about Pageant Day – he never got picked to do anything special like be in a skit or a play, nor would his teachers ever let him sing in the choir.
They didn't trust him.
They didn't trust him because the time of year most kids were doing their utmost to be as good as they possibly could, Dean Winchester launched into "Operation Bad List" and wreaked havoc every where he went. This year he'd achieved his ultimate goal of getting suspended just prior to the winter break. He didn't mind except for the fact John had grounded him from watching television. Being suspended gave him an extra long vacation and he was able to avoid all the Christmas hoo-ha.
Christmas hoo-ha such as the annual Christmas program.
Dean had gotten suspended because he'd scared the living crap out of a couple of younger students by telling them "the true story of A Christmas Carol." He supplied them with all the gory details Dickens had left out of his holiday ghost story, complete with embellishments only a kid with access to super-special secret supernatural knowledge would be able to provide.
Parents were alerted, school officials were called, and Dean was sent home with an extra two weeks of vacation and a note suggesting John should seriously consider sending him to a therapist.
Personally, Sam thought Dean might actually need a therapist. He loved the pageant and all the other hoo-ha of Christmas because it was the only Christmas he got. His his father and brother were less inclined than most people to be in a celebratory mood. John didn't keep Christmas, and hadn't since the first one he'd spent alone with the boys just scant weeks after their mother died. Dean was old enough to remember that awful Christmas and the happier ones preceding it. Sam may have only been a little kid, but he recognized "Operation Bad List" as Dean's way of coping with the pain.
None of that stopped Sam from enjoying himself. Without any emotional baggage to carry around, he was free to make the best of the holiday spirit, and he did. Sam had sung in the pageants since kindergarten. This year he had been picked to play (ironic on all counts )Tiny Tim in his class' version of A Christmas Carol. He got to say lines, and being one of the most important characters in the play it meant this time his father would just have to let him go to Parent's Night. AND, if he were really lucky, John would actually attend Parent's Night himself.
"He's never gonna let you do it," Dean intoned gravely, but losing the effect midway through the sentence when his voice broke.
"He's gotta. I'm Tiny Tim."
Dean snorted. "I hate to break it to ya Sammy, but you ain't tiny."
Sam was sensitive about his weight. He had put on a lot of it lately, going from "cherubic" to "roly poly." Dean called him "fat" without mercy. Sam retaliated once with "runt" and got punched for his trouble. Dean was slightly behind his classmates, hitting puberty a little bit later than the majority of them and thus one of, if not the, shortest kids in his grade. Petite and girlishly cute, he was bully fodder until he finally got fed up and kicked the head bully's ass in a short but brutal fight after school.
Bets had been placed, most of them on the bully. Sam made out like a bandit. The extra cash kept them in candy and comic books for weeks.
"He won't say yes."
"How do you know?"
"Cause I'm older'n you." Dean shrugged and made his last bite of waffle last waaaaaaaay longer than it should have. "You'll just have to get your underscore to do it for you."
Sam frowned. "My what?"
"You know, the person that fills in when the person who is the main person can't be there. The underscore."
"You're a moron." Sam huffed. He pulled his book-bag off the edge of the table, grunting as gravity tried to pull it and the heavy books inside down to the floor. "It's understudy, not underscore."
"Understudy, underwear, who cares. You won't be there."
"Doubt. Come on. You're gonna be late, and if you're late, my ass is in trouble."
"I don't see why you have to walk me to school. I'm not stupid. I'm not gonna get abducted by a pervert."
"What self respecting pervert would want you?" Dean laughed and pulled his hat down on his head. "Where's my other glove?"
"Probably out in Mr. Manetti's front yard," Sam said with a grin. The grin faded abruptly. He made a noise of protest when Dean made him put on a hat, and a scarf. "Maaan. I can't see nuthin'."
"Better blind than frozen to death."
"It isn't that cold out."
"Better safe than sorry," Dean crowed happily, and shoved Sam out the front door into the snow. He made a point of waving to Old Man Manetti who stood on his front porch drinking something from a paper bag. "Hi, Mr. Manetti!"
"The decorations look nice!" Sam added, waving a mitten. "I 'specially like the Baby Jee...ow!"
"Shut up, dork."
"You started it."
Sam tucked his mittens into his pockets and bent to pick up some snow. The weight of the book-bag nearly toppled him over into a drift. When a snowball nailed him in the back of the head, he did fall over. "Hey! No fair!"
The two boys took off down the street, pausing here and there to pelt each other with snowballs. They were, of course, late, and Principal Jones gave Dean a dirty look when he handed Sam over at the front door. Sam was oblivious. He happily clumped into school, shedding snow all the way down the hall. Dean turned around and went home, hoping to get in some more television viewing before John woke up and made him do something not-fun-at-all. In that regard he found himself out of luck.
Not-fun-at-all turned out to be reading. John handed over a massive book entitled "North American Folklore, Fact and Fiction" as well as a list of all the school assignments Dean would be doing so he wouldn't get behind during his exile. There would be a quiz later. Punishment for failing the quiz would be to thoroughly clean the bathroom.
Given the deplorable state of the house's bathroom, Dean shut himself up with his books without much protest. He stayed there until it was time for him to go collect Sam again from school.
John left at noon for his part-time job at Ready Lube and Tire. At the first stop-light heading into town he happened to look in his rear view mirror.
"Oh, for God's sake, Dean..."
There was a giant plastic Baby Jesus in the Chevy's back seat.
John Winchester worked from 12 pm to 9 pm at Ready Lube and Tire five days a week. From 10 pm until 6 am three days a week he drove a forklift at a warehouse across town. On weekends, he was free to do his real job.
In John's view, every Hunt was an educational experience preparing him for the day when he'd finally get the bastard thing that killed his wife. As he became more educated, the more he felt the need to make sure the boys were educated, but he kept a lot to himself. The boys did not need to know everything, just how to protect themselves in case something came at them. Hunting evil was not what he wanted them to do with their lives. After their mother was avenged they could make their own decisions and go their own ways. John would not, under any circumstances, let them stray from the fold before then. It was too dangerous. That thing was still out there. He would not let it take his children from him too.
Their stay in Kansas City was the longest John had ever permitted the family to have. He preferred moving around. A moving target was harder to hit. For the sake of the boys' education, however, he thought it would be best to settle down for a while. There were things he simply could not teach them.
They'd been at Duncan Street since Sam started Kindergarten. In a couple more years Sam would be starting middle school and Dean high school. It would be a good time to transition them. It would be a good time to move again.
Unaware of their father's plan to soon uproot them, the boys carried on with their established routines. Sam's established routine was to sit at the kitchen table doing his homework while Dean made dinner. It being two days before Christmas, Sam didn't have any homework. Instead he sat at the table reading a comic book and trying to figure out how he was going to tell his father about the play. He kicked his feet idly back and forth reading the same line over and over again because his mind was more on his imaginary conversation with John than on the comic.
That his mind was able to focus on anything at all was a miracle. Dean had the radio on full blast (he was not grounded from that) and was singing along with it. It was a good thing John was due back from work soon because he would need to be there to re-kill the dead his son was waking. Dean a) didn't know the words to most of the songs and b) his voice wouldn't stay in one spot for more than a line or two, sometimes less. To Sam his brother's singing closely resembled the noise their neighbor Mrs. Francis' cat had made when Mr. Francis accidentally ran over its tail with the lawn mower.
"What's for dinner?" The question forced Dean to stop singing.
Sam stuck out his tongue and made a face. He liked it better when their father handled the cooking duties. John had a limited repertoire when it came to cooking, but it was sometimes a lot more palatable. He made hamburgers, or hot dogs, or grilled cheese and he knew how just off the top of his head. Dean, on the other hand, needed directions. Hamburgers didn't come with directions, but stuff in cans and boxes did. It also didn't taste as good.
Unfortunately, Sam thought, as a glop of pseudo tuna casserole came down on his plate, their father rarely cooked at all anymore. John had been working and Hunting so much in recent years he had let slide the domestic responsibilities. Dean took up the slack with both the cooking and cleaning. They had to hand it to him though; except for the out-of-control mildew overrunning the bathroom, and Sam's side of their bedroom, the house was relatively tidy. Many years into the future Sam would come to discover that Dean's natural tendency toward being a neat freak had gotten seriously damaged somewhere between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six.
Right now Sam didn't think of his fourteen-year-old brother as a neat freak, he more or less just thought Dean was a freak – period - and that would never change.
"There's no vegetable," he said.
"Yeah there is, there's peas in there."
"There's pea in there," Sam explained, pointing at one solitary pea nestled inside a fold of noodle. "And," he said, inspecting it more closely. "It's not even a whole pea."
"You don't need a vegetable," Dean said, somewhat hurt at the criticism. The picture on the box had more peas, it wasn't his fault they got a particularly pea-less package of Tuna Helper.
"My health teacher says you need to eat vegetables with every meal so you won't stunt your growth."
Here Sam gave his puberty-challenged brother a poignant look.
Dean narrowed his eyes, turned on his heel, and stomped off to the refrigerator. When he came back he dropped a bottle of ketchup on the table beside his brother's plate. "There," he said.
"Ketchup isn't a vegetable."
"Yes it is."
"No it isn't."
"Yes it is."
"No. It isn't. It's made from tomatoes."
"Yeah. So it's a vegetable."
"Tomatoes aren't vegetables," Sam insisted.
"Yes they are."
"No they're not."
"Yes they are! They're plants!"
"That doesn't make 'em vegetables. An apple is a plant, and it's a fruit."
"You're a fruit," Dean grumbled under his breath. He picked up the ketchup and went back to the refrigerator. This time he came back with a jar of bread and butter pickles. There was a little triumphant flourish to the way he put them down on the table. "Pickles are vegetables."
Sam looked at the jar of pickles. He wasn't quite sure what exactly pickles were made of because although they closely resembled cucumbers, they didn't taste like cucumbers. They weren't like ketchup. Ketchup was squished up tomatoes, and it still tasted tomatoey. He opened his mouth to make another protest but stopped as he heard the front door open.
John came in and dumped his coat in a chair by the door, his presence ending the vegetable debate once and for all. He made his way into the kitchen looking tired, hungry and just a tad grouchy. The first thing he did was to turn off the radio. The second thing he did was take his eldest to task regarding an earlier digression.
"Dean. By the time I count to five there had better not be a giant plastic Baby Jesus in the back seat of my car."
Dean abruptly dropped the serving spoon he was holding back into the pot of Tuna Helper and disappeared.
Sam looked up at his father with a very earnest expression. "It sort of takes you by surprise doesn't it?"
"What does, Sammy?" John said, mustering a weak smile as he tousled his son's hair and made for the food.
"The Baby Jesus." Sam put a forkful of noodles into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. " 'specially in the bathtub."
John chuckled. "Yes, it does." He put a heaping mound of Tuna Helper on a plate and sat down to eat. "How was school?"
The subject of school came up sooner than Sam had expected. He wasn't quite ready yet. "Okay," he said cautiously. "They had to call the ambulance when Suzie Krimchis fell off the stage in the gym. She mighta broke something."
"Is she in your class?"
"Yeah." Sam poked at his food. His carefully prepared speech was starting to get all garbled up in his head. "She was practicing singing 'Rudolph' for the Christmas program." That, he thought, would be a start anyway, but from there he was a little unsure as to how he should proceed.
He peered silently out at his father from beneath the fall of hair sorely in need of cutting. Dean, who cut his own hair, had offered to do it. Sam declined on account of the fact Dean was currently affecting a weird, spiky hair-do that made him look like a frightened hedgehog. His large eyes, and narrow face only contributed to the over-all impression. It was a relatively new style for him too. For the preceding two years he'd emulated his favorite rock bands by growing his hair long. John's disapproval and the fact he kept getting mistaken for a girl, made him give up and cut it.
If Sam thought Dean looked like a hedgehog, Dean thought Sam looked like a Muppet Show reject. He was quick to point it out too. But it was Sam's cute, pudgy face and mop of floppy hair that had nailed him his part in the Christmas play despite the fact that he would probably be the most well fed Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol history.
Dean came back in from his errand. He frowned at what little remained of the Tuna Helper and scraped it out onto a plate for himself. At a request from his father he procured a beer from the fridge along with a can of cola.
This did not go unnoticed. Soda of any sort was cherished in the Winchester household. It was an expense John felt was unnecessary when there were cheaper and healthier beverages like water, milk and juice to be had. He rarely bought it. There were always horrible fights over it when they had it, and to the best of Sam's knowledge the latest batch had been gone for over two weeks. Apparently Dean had a hiding place Sam hadn't found yet.
Dean grinned as he popped the can open. "Eat your heart out, buddy."
"Share." John ordered.
He did not look up from what he was doing - eating with one hand and writing something in his journal with the other. Sam craned his head to look across the table at the battered notebook. John never let the boys get a look at it up close, but there was an unspoken rule between Sam and Dean that they must attempt a peek at every opportunity. This time Sam couldn't see much of anything, and Dean was too busy making a protest to get in a shot.
"What? This is mine! He drank all his!"
Sam's heart sank as his brother got up from the table grumbling. John had given Dean "the look" which meant he wasn't in a very good mood at all. The odds he'd let Sam participate in the play took a downward spiral toward really, really bad.
Even the glass of soda he ended up with didn't make him feel better.
Popping the cap off his beer, John took a long swig. He had a job that weekend. It was in St. Louis. A routine haunting, nothing spectacular. It would be a short trip. He'd leave the boys at home this time. The house was properly warded. Both of them knew how to handle a weapon. If they stayed inside they'd be perfectly safe. Still, he'd give Caleb a heads up, maybe get him to check in on them Saturday night sometime.
John relayed this information to the boys, and Sam knew then his acting days were probably over. His frown deepened. He poked unhappily at his dinner.
"Do you have to go?" he asked finally, biting the bullet.
His father looked over at him with a long-suffering expression. Sam often protested John leaving them behind, or just leaving, period. "Sam, how many times do we have to do this?"
"I know, but..." Sam squirmed in his chair. "Parent's Night is tomorrow. The Christmas program."
Dean's eyes darted from his brother, to his father and then quickly back toward his food as he pretended not to hear them. If a fight was brewing, he wanted no part of it. In fact, if he knew he could get away with it, he would have slunk off into the bedroom and eaten in private. They weren't allowed to eat in their bedroom – plates, glasses and silverware often disappeared in the boys' room, never to be seen again.
"I'm leaving right after work, Sammy." John's voice softened. "And you know this is important."
"You don't have to come," Sam said hastily. "That's okay. I mean the job is important but..." he glanced over at Dean for support and found none available. "I have to go."
"No. You don't."
"Dean can take me."
Dean's head jerked up. "Oh no, no way! Dad..." He broke off as John raised a finger at him, demanding silence.
"Sam," John put his pen and his fork down. "Don't start. Every year you ask and every year I say no. You boys aren't to leave this house when I'm not here. I thought you understood that."
"No buts." The fork came up again. The pen stayed down. John took another pull from his beer.
Sam set his jaw stubbornly. "I have to go," he said. "I'm in the play this year. I have an important part and I'm going no matter what you say."
"Man..." Dean groaned as the gauntlet hit the table.
Their father's voice was chill. "I said no, Sam, and you will not, under any circumstances, leave this house while I'm gone. Do you understand me?"
"I've got an important part! They're counting on me!"
"They can find someone else."
Sam shook his head and glared right back, meeting John's eye challengingly. "I'm going!"
Abruptly John's fist slammed down on the table, making the plates jump and the soda to slosh out of Sam's glass. Dean had grabbed his just in time, not willing to sacrifice a single drop to his father's wrath.
"The only place you're going is to your room."
"No. I won't."
"SAM! I said go to your room! NOW!"
"Why won't you listen to me?" Sam yelled back. Tears were starting to gather in in his eyes. Despite his defiance, he was hurt to the core that John couldn't or wouldn't understand how important this was to him. "It's just this once! I'm in the play!"
John toned down his voice from a shout to a low growl. "And you know the rules, Sammy. When I'm not home, you do not leave the house. How much clearer do I need to make that? Huh?"
"Then don't go! Why do you have to go? You're always gone. It's Christmas! You should be here!" The tears started flowing in earnest. "Everybody else's Dad's will be there, and not all those guys got parts in the play."
"We're not everybody else," John replied. He sighed, and tried to take a different track. "There is a family in St. Louis who needs help..."
"There's a family here that needs help!" Sam blurted. "If I had a Mom she'd let me go. She'd be proud I was in a play."
"Well you don't have a mother, Sam." John shot back. "And," he said, not bothering to mask the pain the words had caused him. "That's just how it is."
"I hate how it is! I want a real family." Pushing back his chair, Sam got up from the table and headed quickly down the hall toward his room. "Somebody better'n you!"
"Sam...dammit!"John made a grab for him as he went by, but Sam neatly avoided him. "Sam!"
Sam's tears blew up into full fledged sobs as he disappeared into his room. "Leave me alone!" he cried. "I hate you!"
The door slammed. From inside there came the sound of heartbroken sobbing.
Angrily, John picked up his fork and started stabbing at his food. After a minute he simply threw the fork down with a clatter, got up, and started clearing the table. Dishes clanked as he dumped what he and Sam hadn't eaten into a storage bowl. He polished off his beer and got another.
"He didn't mean it," Dean said quietly.
John ignored him. "While I'm gone I want you to check in with Caleb. Same schedule as always. I'll let him know you'll be calling."
"What is it, what you're Hunting?"
"Spirit. I'll be back early Sunday."
"What?" John snapped. "Oh – what?"
Dean toyed with a noodle. "Oh, nothing."
"Dean..." Turning around, John leveled him with a glare that Dean knew better than to defy. His father meant business, serious business. "I'm telling you right now, you better not let Sam leave this house tomorrow night. He is to keep his butt inside and under wraps until I get back, even if you have to lock him in the damn closet! Am I clear on that?" When there was no immediate answer he repeated himself more sternly. "Dean. Am I clear?"
"Crystal," Dean muttered. "Kid stays put." He hesitated, and then added: "But...it's just that, well...can't you wait until after the play to leave? St. Louis isn't that far and it would mean a lot if..." Turning around himself, he gave his father his own look, a pleading look. "Just this once? Can't we just try to be like other people, just this once?"
John returned to the table, picking up his journal and the pen he'd been writing with. Dean couldn't help but notice the gun tucked into the waistband of his jeans, the end of a rosary hanging out of one pocket, and the bulge of a flask of holy water in the other. These reminders answered his question before John did.
"We're not like other people," his father said. "And both of you should be used to that by now."
"It's Christmas, Dad." Dean whispered.
"We don't keep Christmas."
With that, John took himself, his beer, and his journal off into his bedroom and shut the door.
Alone in the kitchen, Dean listened to the crying continue down the hall. He finished off his dinner, took a drink from his soda, and then poured what remained of it into Sam's glass. With the glass of cola in hand, he went down the hall and opened the door. He did not get a warm reception.
"This is my room too, Sammy."
"Don't care. Go 'way." Sam was lying on his bed, curled around a lumpy mass made up of his pillow and a battered teddy bear he only brought out of hiding under dire circumstances. His face was damp and his nose was running. He looked abjectly miserable.
"You're smearing snot everywhere. That's just gross." Dean sat down on the bed. He tugged at the collar of his brother's shirt, urging him to sit up, which Sam did, reluctantly and sniffling. "Here. It's all of it 'cept for a sip. I didn't slobber in it either, swear."
Sam wiped his nose on his sleeve, sniffed once more, and took the proffered glass. "Thanks." His throat hurt from crying. The sweet soda soothed it, and was awfully good. The tuna and the tears and the fight itself had left a nasty taste in his mouth. The soda made it go away. He drank it all gratefully.
After a minute or two of just sitting on Sam's bed not saying anything, Dean finally cocked an eyebrow and presented his plan for cheering his little brother up, at least temporarily.
"Ya wanna help me put Baby Jesus on Mrs. Hooper's roof?"
Sam cut the last day of school in order to avoid having to tell his teacher he couldn't be in the play. After Dean dropped him off he snuck back outside and down the street to the bus stop. If John knew what Sam was planning on doing he would have blown his stack completely, but it wasn't something Sam hadn't done before. He had played hooky before, a couple of times that year in fact. The school was so understaffed, and Sam was such a good student, his absences slipped by under the radar. Nobody ever bothered to call home to see where he was.
The day after one of his "sick" days he would dutifully bring in a written excuse from his father. Of course John hadn't written the excuse. It had been pilfered from Dean. Dean cut school all the time and was adept at forging John's handwriting. He kept a stack of excuse notes for every occasion hidden in a box in the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink. Sam had been impressed by Dean's hiding place. The bathroom cabinet was a dark, damp, disgusting cavern populated by leaky bottles and moldering boxes of unused cleaning supplies, and – they suspected – a rat the size of Toledo.
At the bus stop Sam caught a ride to the mall where he shoplifted some comics from a bookstore crowded with last minute Christmas shoppers. A handful of change dug out of the couch and a couple of crumpled dollar bills found in the Impala's glove box bought him a soda and a soft pretzel. Thus armed with food and reading material he found a relatively quiet spot on a bench near where the mall Santa was greeting a throng of little kids.
He'd planned on staying all day, until school was out and it was safe to go home, but his heart wasn't into reading Batman and he found himself distracted by the holiday cheer all around him. A group of carolers wandered around the mall dressed in Dickensian costumes, singing to shoppers. It made Sam think of the play in which he would not be performing. The bright twinkling lights of the Christmas display surrounding Santa, and the laughter of the children enthralled by his presence, just underscored his misery.
Sam wondered what would happen if he did run away, but the prospect of wandering around the city alone in the dead of winter made him think of the story of the Little Match Girl. He figured he'd last longer than she had, given his father had taught both his boys some survival techniques. It would be a while before Sam froze to death. Besides, he knew if he did get into trouble his family wouldn't waste any time looking for him; John and Dean both knew how to track like pros.
The Match Girl hadn't had any family of any sort.
Maybe things weren't so bad after all.
He went home at noon, making sure his father had left for work before making his appearance. He caught Dean red handed, kicked back on the sofa eating popcorn and watching soap operas with the sound down. Dean liked to watch soap operas with the sound down because he could make up silly things for the actors to say. When Sam walked in he was talking in a high pitched squeaky voice as he provided new lines for one of the actresses.
When he saw Sam he immediately stopped. The two of them stared at each other.
"You're weird," Sam said.
"Shut up. What are you doing home?"
Sam dropped his book-bag on the floor, shed his coat, and flopped down on a chair opposite his brother. "Sick. Got food poisoned from a sugar cookie."
"Liar. You smell like mustard." Dean narrowed his eyes. "You better not have gone to the mall by yourself."
"If you tell you'll be sorry."
"What? You do it all the time."
"So! I'm bigger than you!"
"Not by much."
"Smart ass. I oughta smack you one. You know you're not supposed to go anywhere by yourself!"
"I don't care."
Sam crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at the floor. "I almost ran away," he said quietly.
The silence was deafening.
"You better not," Dean said finally, his tone somber. "They'll catch you and put you in a foster home, and Dad'll go to jail."
"You want Dad to go to jail?"
Sam pouted. "No."
"Then don't run away."
"I don't want Dad to go to jail, but maybe a foster home wouldn't be so bad."
There was another long, stunned silence.
"Sammy, you don't mean that."
"Yes I do."
"No you don't, you're just mad 'cause of the play thing." Dean hesitated, and a peculiar note entered his voice. "Don't run away, Sam. Promise me you won't. Promise you won't even think about it anymore."
After a second, Sam looked up at him. When the memory of this moment came to him some thirteen years later, in a run-down Chicago hotel room, he would finally understand the real reason Dean looked so scared. He comprehended Dean's deep-rooted separation anxiety far better at twenty-three than he had at ten. At ten he suspected his brother was just scared John would be mad at him if Sam ran away. After all, looking after Sam whenever John couldn't had been Dean's responsibility since the age of four.
In any case, Sam wasn't mad at Dean, and didn't want to get him in trouble.
"I promise," he said easily.
He could not have realized that in just eight years he would spit in the face of this promise and leave home for good on a Greyhound bus bound for California.
Dean would never forgive him for it.
But that was the future.
"I got the new Batman," Sam added.
"Cool!" Dean ditched the remote and headed for Sam's backpack. "Where'd you get it?"
Chuckling, Dean unzipped the backpack and dove in after the comic books. "That's bad, Sammy."
"Whatever. There's X-Men in there too."
The boys lounged around reading for the rest of the day, but roused themselves late in the afternoon to investigate some frightened cries from the next door neighbor's house. Mrs. Hopper stood outside on her front lawn, dancing around in the snow yelling something incomprehensible about near death experiences and "Pookie Muffin."
Apparently the sun had melted the snow just enough to create avalanche conditions. The deep pile of wet snow on her roof had slid down into the front yard. It brought with it a giant plastic sculpture of Baby Jesus in his manger. The plastic sculpture had just missed squashing her Yorkie who she now had tucked up under one arm while she shook her fist at Old Man Manetti's house.
Dean was delighted. "Let's go offer to move it for her."
"You just want it back." Sam hurried to pull his coat on as Dean was already halfway out the door.
"Damn right I want it back! Hurry up!"
Sam often wondered if Dean did things randomly, or if there wasn't always a method to his madness. In this case he suspected the latter because after they graciously removed Baby Jesus from her yard and made sufficient noises of sympathy at Pookie Muffin, Mrs. Hooper gave them a plate of Christmas cookies. The cookies were good too, and disappeared very quickly.
Inspired by this turn of events, they appealed to their neighbors on the other side, offering to shovel their walkway. The elderly Mr. and Mrs. Francis didn't have much money, but Mrs. Francis had half of a leftover meatloaf. The boys didn't turn it down because any thing at all would have been profit; they had "borrowed" the shovel from Mrs. Hooper.
Dinner became meatloaf sandwiches instead of the box of macaroni and cheese Dean had planned on preparing. Sam was particularly pleased with this as Dean sometimes felt the need to get creative with mac & cheese by adding random things in to "jazz it up." Being a macaroni and cheese purist, Sam found this unacceptable, especially when Dean added a can of kidney beans and pronounced it "Chilimac!"
John came home just in time for dinner and to reiterate the rules for the time he would be gone. He raised a brow at the meatloaf but didn't ask where it had come from, and Dean didn't bother to inform him either. Sam was conspicuously absent during the brief time his father was home. He stayed in his room and didn't even come to say good-bye like he might have otherwise
At six thirty, John left the house. "I'll be back early Sunday. You remember what I said about Sam."
"Yes sir," Dean said obediently, giving his father an angelic grin that should have set off a cacophony of warning bells. It didn't, however, and John went on his way convinced his orders would be followed.
As soon as the door was closed and the Chevy was rumbling down the street, Dean put "Operation Tiny Tim" into play by barreling down the basement steps to the laundry room as fast as he could go.
He did remember, quite clearly, John's orders to him regarding Sam. He was to keep his little brother from running off to school to be in that play. It was a pretty straight-forward order. However, as he went rummaging through a basket of clean clothes searching for Sam's better pair of jeans, Dean came up with a rationalization for what he was planning to do. Sam wouldn't be running away, or sneaking out, as John had said not to let him do either of those things. John had told Dean that Sam was not to leave the house.
So it wouldn't be Sam leaving the house, it would be Dean leaving the house. He was just going to take Sam with him.
He barged into their room with the jeans and confronted his brother. "SAM!"
The wild eyed look on his face coupled with the fact he was out of breath made Sam sit up in alarm. He seriously thought Dean was in "ohmigodthereissomethingbadtryingtogetus" mode and he hurried to find the key to their father's gun cabinet. In his rush he tripped over a stray sneaker. Funny bone met edge of dresser. Ow, ow, ow.
"What is it?" Sam bounced around clutching his elbow. "Where is it? Did you get the gun? Did you call Caleb?"
Dean cocked his head and stared at him. "What are you talking about?"
It occurred to Sam that maybe he'd misinterpreted Dean's purpose. He stopped bouncing and frowned. "What are you talking about? What'd you bust in here like that for?" Sam shook his arm to get the feeling back into it. "Those are my pants."
"No duh. I don't wear 'huskies'."
Sam ignored the implied insult. "What are you doing with my pants?"
"Bringing them to you, bonehead. Put them on." Dean threw the jeans, smacking Sam in the face with them. "Hurry up."
"But I've already got pants on."
"Did you take a stupid pill or somethin'?" Giving Sam's shirt a dubious look, Dean went over to the dresser and pulled open the drawer, rummaging around for another shirt. "Take off the shirt too, you can't be in a play looking like that." He looked back over his shoulder. "Sam, move it. We're going to be late."
"Late for..." Sam's mouth hung open. "But Dad said..."
"Is Dad here? No. I'm in charge and I say you're going to school, but if you don't hurry the hell up, we're going to be late."
Sam thought his face was going to explode. He grinned from ear to ear and had every intention of giving his brother a hug. Dean saw it coming and poked a finger at him.
"If you hug me I'll deck you, Sammy, and I mean it."
"Dad'll kill you." Sam said, hurrying to change clothes and illustrate his appreciation for Dean's sacrifice (without hugging) all at the same time. "Not that shirt, the green one."
"That's blue, Dean."
"No it isn't."
"Yes it is, give me the green...yeah that one."
Dean threw the shirt across the room. "So who's going to tell him?"
"What if Caleb calls, or Dad doubles back or something?" Sam frowned. "He'll be really, really mad, Dean."
"Caleb isn't supposed to call until ten. We'll be back way before that, and since when has Dad ever doubled back?"
"Never!" Dean looked at his watch. "Come on!" He clapped his hands together. "Chop, chop, Cratchit."
Sam changed as fast as he could and met Dean at the front door bundled up in his coat, hat, scarf and mittens. Dean doubled checked everything, deemed him acceptably geared up for winter weather, and let Sam out the door. He locked the door securely behind them and stuffed the key in his pocket. To be on the safe side he also carried with him a vial of holy water and a hunting knife big enough to qualify as a short sword. After checking to make sure his weapons were carefully hidden but still accessible, he started off down the sidewalk with Sam in tow.
The temperature had dipped low after the sun went down. As they crunched through the snow their breath produced swirling plumes of vapor that danced around their heads like the proverbial sugar plums. Progressing through the run-down neighborhood around Duncan St. into the more affluent areas they inadvertently slowed down to check-out the elaborate Christmas displays. Lights, thousands of lights, decorated the houses. Music played while animated plastic snowmen wriggled and danced. Santa and his reindeer pranced across rooftops, and the Nativity scenes had all their figures intact. It all made Old Man Manetti's display seem even shabbier in comparison.
Sam was humming "Silent Night" under his breath and trying not to grin like a loon. "Hey, Dean?"
Dean just grunted. "Don't get used to it. I'm not doing it again." He shuddered. "It's frikken cold out here!"
"They'll have hot chocolate and cookies there," Sam said helpfully. He couldn't help himself, he was grinning like a loon. "Are you going to stay and watch?"
"You think I want to sit through all that singing and happy Christmas crap?" Dean rolled his eyes and made a face as if Sam had just asked him to wade naked through a giant bucket of leeches and/or flesh eating bacteria. "No way."
Sam frowned, but he didn't say anything. He felt lucky enough already.
They continued to trudge along in silence save for the sound of their boots on the crusty snow. As they came within sight of the school, where paper bag luminaries guided people toward the front doors, they started walking faster. In the parking lot throngs of adults were leaving their cars, strolling through the path of lights while the sound of music wafted out the doors every time they were opened.
A teacher the boys didn't know greeted them as they marched up the steps.
Dean gave Sam a little shove toward her. "He's in the play," he said gruffly, and then added. "I'm just watchin'."
It was Elvis that finally got to him.
Christmas Eve was Saturday, John thought as he fiddled with the Impala's radio, so why were there nothing but Christmas carols playing on all airwaves tonight? Someone, somewhere in the state of Missouri had to have regular music on their playlist, didn't they?
If there were, he couldn't find them.
Adding insult to injury was the fact that he was a captive audience. If he didn't know better (and he did, of course, know better) John would have said his Chevy was possessed. Sometimes the old gal got a mind of her own, like now, when the radio refused to turn off no matter what he did to it. He could turn the volume down, but he couldn't turn it off, and as he drove some mysterious short in the car's electrical system would gradually drive the volume back up again. His only recourse was to either pull over, cram himself under the dashboard and yank a few wires, or simply listen to the music.
He chose to listen to the music, but not without growling a few expletives directed toward General Motors and the eccentricities of very old cars.
The music was tormenting him like the dripping water of a Chinese water torture. Why in the hell did he have to go through this every year? Wasn't it bad enough the holidays made him miss Mary so bad he could barely stand it? Wasn't it enough to have to deal with Dean mutating into a juvenile delinquent every Christmas? The kid had finally gotten himself suspended after years of trying. What was next? Jail?
Why did Sam always have to complicate everything? It seemed the older he got, the more vicious his attacks became. This latest argument had cut John to the quick. He didn't know what to do about it, didn't know how to stop it from happening again. Had he spoiled Sam too much, or not enough?
If only Mary...
Don't think about it. Don't.
Sam sometimes seemed so mature with his book smarts and thoughtful observations regarding the world around him. It was hard to remember he was still just a little kid, at least until he blew a gasket over something silly like a Christmas program. It was just a Christmas program. No big deal. It was far safer for the boys to stay at home than to wander outside after dark just to attend a silly school function, and it was far, far more important for John to take care of business. Dickens hadn't been far off the mark. Ghosts did roam in higher numbers around Christmas. They were attracted by the powerful emotions the holidays could invoke, emotions like sadness, loneliness and grief as well as joy and happiness.
On the radio Karen Carpenter insisted there was no place like home for the holidays.
John sighed, turned the volume down, and kept driving. The radio continued to play games with him, and only five miles down the road the music was blaring out of the speakers once again. This time it was "I'll be Home for Christmas" and John felt his resolution begin to crack. In his mind's eye he could hear his children's voices.
"It's Christmas! You should be here!"
"Can't we try to be like other people, just this once? It's Christmas, Dad."
Elvis came next. He was having a Blue Christmas.
John groaned in guilty frustration.
Slamming on the brakes and jerking the wheel, he sent the Impala spinning around in the middle of the road. Had the pavement not been cleared of ice and snow earlier that day he might have put himself in a ditch. Instead he wound up facing the opposite direction. His foot came down heavily on the gas and the car launched itself down the road back toward Kansas City.
"Since when has Dad ever doubled back?"
Sam peeked out through the stage curtain along with several of his fellow "actors." They were all juggling around trying to I.D. their parents out of the sea of cam-corder wielding adults in the audience. All the visitors were sitting on rows of metal folding chairs set up on the gym floor. There was a stage opposite the entry doors on the other side of the gym. The skits and the play would take place on the stage. The choirs were set up on either side of the stage, fidgeting as they stood on their risers waiting to begin.
Of course Sam wasn't looking for his parents, he was looking for Dean, who had suddenly realized that being suspended meant he wasn't allowed on school property under any circumstances. This reminder came in the form of Principal Jones who had made a beeline for him the minute he walked in the door. Principal Jones made it his goal to catch Dean and escort him out of the building. Dean made it his goal to stop that from happening by pretending to be a part of another family.
He squeezed in among a group of parents and grandparents filing their way toward their seats. The people on his left thought he was with the people on his right, the people on his right thought he was with the people on his left, and thus he ended up quite comfortably out of Principal Jones' reach in the middle of the audience. Unless the man wanted to cause a scene in front of a room full of parents, he wasn't going to evict Dean until the program was over.
Dean smiled, waved, and pulled a Walkman out of his pocket while the principal sputtered in silent rage along the sidelines.
As the choir director came out to do his little speech, Sam finally located his brother. Dean wasn't paying attention to the stage at all. He had his headphones on and was bobbing his head along to the music only he could hear; an incongruous sight among the proud parents completely enthralled by the spectacle before them. Sam didn't care. Just that someone was there for him at all was more than enough.
Finally things got underway. The choirs sang and the skits went on while the children participating in the play went over their lines and got last minute instructions from their teacher. Sam had his lines memorized. He'd had them memorized for weeks, ever since he got picked to be in the play. He'd also read the story many times. The whole thing was familiar to him both backward and forward. He was as ready as he'd ever been.
When he stepped out on stage for his first scene the first thing he noted was the absence of his brother's headphones. Dean now sat watching attentively from between a man with a video recorder and a woman with a camera. He looked slightly disgruntled until he saw Sam.
The parents all applauded when they saw their child appear on stage.
Sam got a very loud, very piercing, wolf whistle.
Dean loved making Principal Jones squirm. His whistle earned him a hiss - "Dean!"- and a glare. He smiled to himself as he settled in to watch the play. The kids were pretty good about their lines, especially Sam, who had somehow gotten it into his head that he had to bellow them. His delivery was as loud and as flamboyant as a Shakespearean actor performing Hamlet in New York or London. The term "gusto" came to mind. His overacting earned him a few quiet chuckles from the audience. Tiny Tim was surprisingly hale and hearty for someone supposedly sickly and possibly dying. Quite a set of lungs on that boy.
It was during his second scene, when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the Cratchit family at dinner, that Sam hit a snag. Just before he was supposed to deliver his lines he got struck by what Dean thought was a bad case of stage fright. While the other characters conversed, Sam had let his attention wander out toward the audience. As he looked, his body stiffened, his eyes grew as big around as the dinner plates the Cratchits were eating from, and his mouth dropped open.
"Oh, crap. Don't freeze up now, Sammy!" Dean whispered fiercely.
Sam was still frozen, still staring – not out at the audience as Dean had first thought – but at the back of the room toward the doors. Time ticked by with each line spoken by the other kids. It would soon be Sam's turn, and he wasn't moving.
Quickly, Dean turned his head and half rose from his seat in order to see what had caught his brother's attention. Just as quickly he sat back down again and tried to make himself very small.
The play screeched to a halt when Sam missed his cue. More than a few people, following Dean's lead, turned around to see what Sam was staring at, and most of them were somewhat startled.
Dressed in battered, bloodstained jeans, wearing a leather jacket and carrying (although no one realized it) at least one gun, John Winchester strode down the center aisle looking like he'd just stepped out of a Mad Max movie. He hadn't shaved, and he hadn't showered since early that day prior to going to work. Surrounded by parents of children who lived in the higher class neighborhoods around the school, parents with white collar jobs and pension plans, John was completely out of his element.
Sam wasn't suffering from stage fright, he was suffering from shock.
With a polite nod to the parents who had to rise to make way for him, John found an empty seat and sat down just as Sam's teacher hissed a prompt from off stage. It got Sam moving again. He blinked, sucked in a deep breath, and delivered his line, which happened to be Tiny Tim's catch phrase: "God bless us, everyone." Poignant was that line, because Sam figured he and Dean were going to need some divine intervention when John got hold of them later.
We are so busted.
Sam had the last line of the play, the catch phrase again, and as soon as the curtain closed he ducked through the wings and out into the audience. His intention was to present himself for punishment, but as soon as he saw his father standing among the other parents waiting for their children, all that changed. His happiness overrode his fear of reprisal, and he caught John around the waist in an embrace that nearly bowled them both over.
"You came," Sam breathed. His voice was muffled by John's coat, but the emotion behind the words was as clear as day. "You came."
John felt Sam hugging with all his strength, and it made him realize, finally, how much importance his son had placed on the event. He gave the boy a squeeze and stroked his hair. "Yeah. I did," he said roughly. "Nice job, kiddo."
Sam looked up at him, beaming, before resuming the hug with even more force than before. "I don't hate you, Daddy. I'm sorry."
John closed his eyes with small, weary smile. "I know, Sammy. I know."
Sam couldn't sleep. The highs and lows of the past couple of days had left him strung out and wired. He couldn't get his mind to stop reliving everything over and over again. He had been in a play, and his father had come to see him in it! It was, from Sam's point of view, a Christmas miracle.
John didn't say a word about their disobedience. They rode home in the back of the Impala trying to be very quiet lest they accidentally prod their father into remembering he'd given them an order and they'd broken it. Sam stared out the window. Dean was busy writing something on the back of a grocery receipt with a tiny stub of pencil. Leaning across the seat, Sam peered over his brother's arm in an attempt to see what it was.
"What's that?" he whispered.
"My Will," Dean whispered back. "'Cause you know when we get home he's gonna kill me." He gave Sam an earnest look. "You can have my Walkman."
"Can I have your watch too?"
"Cause I'm giving that to Dad."
"Why are you gonna give something to the person who is gonna kill you in the first place?"
"Cause I don't know anyone else."
Sam snorted. "Dork – ow!" He rubbed his arm when Dean slugged him.
Dean's Last Will and Testament turned out to be unnecessary. John had simply dropped them off at home and reminded them to stay inside until he returned. Dean, not wanting to push his luck any further, swore with a religious fervor that he would make sure that happened. He made Sam swear too. Sam had been on such a high he would have happily sworn to eat a dead bug every day for the rest of his life. Swearing he'd stay in the house this time was easy.
There was a strong sense of fulfillment brewing in Sam's heart. He felt like he'd done something that mattered for the first time in his life. Dean was always doing important things like rescuing baby brothers from fires and hitting the bullseye all the time at target practice. Even when he was bad Dean made his mark. He had definitely garnered a little jealous admiration from Sam for the way he had managed to get himself suspended. Sam didn't do anything like that. He got good grades in school, but that was his only claim to fame.
But tonight he had been an actor, and had an important part to play. Oh, but the best thing of all was that John had thought it was important enough to come see it in person.
And he'd been proud of Sam's accomplishment. He hadn't said it, but Sam could tell.
As he lay in bed, thinking about his day and listening to the quiet sounds of the old house settling around him, Sam began to feel like there was something he was forgetting.
He glanced over toward the other bed where Dean lay blissfully unconscious in a sprawl of gangly limbs and tangled sheets. Had he been awake Sam might have asked him if he felt the same way, but Dean was not awake, and from the sounds of his snoring he wasn't going to be any time soon.
Sam could see everything in the room quite clearly. The light of a full moon shone in through the window, falling on the worn carpet, battered furniture and the few precious personal items they owned. Dean had his Walkman, his watch, and a shoe-box full of cassettes. Sam's meager possessions included a basketball, his bear and a wobbly shelf stacked with a few books and comics. It wasn't much, but they were thankful for it.
Quietly Sam got out of bed and tiptoed past Dean so he could look outside. Sometime that evening a fresh layer of snow had fallen, erasing all the footprints and covering up patchy places where the tips of limp, gray grass had begun to peek through. The newly fallen snow sparkled in the moonlight.
A lumpy shape half buried in the snow caught his eye. What was that? Oh, yeah.
Sam cocked his head toward the dresser where Dean's watch sat in the pale, green glow of its LCD face. It read 12:07. Midnight had passed. It was officially Christmas Eve.
Suddenly he knew what he had to do.
While Dean slept on, oblivious to Sam's absence, Sam made his way out into the living room, carefully avoiding all the creaky boards in the hallway. He found his hat, coat, mittens and boots and put them on over his pajamas. As silent as a mouse he crept out through the door into the backyard where the sudden cold took him a little bit by surprise. That was okay, though. Hard work would soon warm him up again.
It was hard work too, to dig the plastic Baby Jesus out of its blanket of snow and drag it into the front yard. The sculpture of the Holy Child in his manger wasn't particularly heavy, but it was bulky and awkward and quite large in scale. Sam found it difficult to get a good grip on it. After failed attempts to drag or carry it, he finally thought to push it across the snow. This worked quite well. The plastic slid silently and swiftly across the slippery stuff. A bridge of ice helped him push it across the street without making much noise.
It wasn't so much the neighbors Sam was worried about waking, but Dean. If Dean woke up to find Sam missing, he'd have a stroke, but not until after making an emergency phone call to every contact number John had left them. John and his colleagues would then descend upon the house en masse, guns drawn. Things would not be pretty when Sam showed up again and revealed that Dean had triggered a false alarm.
Fortunately for Sam, his mission proceeded without complications. He pushed the plastic Baby Jesus back up into Mr. Manetti's yard. There a bare light bulb lay between Mary and Joseph looking very forlorn. Said light bulb went into a hole in the Baby Jesus' manger so that he could join his illuminated fellows on display. Sam maneuvered the plastic statue into its proper place and stuck the bulb into the hole.
Brilliant white light filled the figure, creating a heavenly glow all around it. Its face, painted to appear very wise for a baby, brightened from within so that Sam could see the delicate blush of its cheeks and the bright blue of its eyes. He hadn't really noticed its face before. It seemed to be looking at him.
Sam bowed his head, and shuffled his feet in the snow. "I'm sorry you fell off Mrs. Hooper's roof," he said quietly. "That wasn't very nice."
He waited a beat before he looked the baby in the eye and said very softly, very earnestly:
"This has been the best Christmas I've ever had. Thank you very much." Another pause, and Sam added: "I hope you have a happy birthday."
From his living room window, the elderly fellow his neighbors called "Old Man Manetti" watched the small figure in the worn coat and miss-matched mittens quickly make its way back across the street. He had witnessed the return of his giant plastic Baby Jesus from start to finish, curious to see how things would play out in the end. He couldn't hear what was said of course, but judging by the bowed head and solemn expression, he could make a guess.
When his little visitor flashed a broad, dimpled smile before turning for home, it touched the old man's heart quite deeply. Although he had been retired for many, many years, there was still no greater pleasure to him than a happy child at Christmas.
"It's always nice," he said, to no one in particular. "To help spread Christmas cheer around."
Turning away from the window, he settled back into his recliner in front of the television. He patted his round belly, scratched his chin beneath his big white beard, and chuckled softly to himself as he reached for the remote.
"Ho, ho, ho."