Alas, I do not own any Winchesters or anything else connected with Supernatural. Kripke and the CW network own it all.
They were in a diner north of Camden, waiting for their lunch, when Dean's cell phone rang. Sam sipped his root beer, twirled the paper wrapper from the straw around his fingers, and watched with what he hoped was a relaxed and casual expression while Dean took the call.
"Hey Walter, how's it going?" Dean said cheerfully, and Sam didn't know whether to feel relieved or disappointed that the caller wasn't Dad.
Only a week earlier, disappointment would've been the easy winner, but that was before. Before Michigan, before the visions, before Max. Before his sudden, apparently unrepeatable burst of telekinesis, before the discovery that theirs wasn't the only family touched by the demon. If their father called now, Sam would have to decide what, if anything, he wanted to say about that. It was not a decision he felt even remotely ready to make. The aborted reconciliation in Chicago still felt so new, so fragile after all the years of fighting and estrangement. Sam wasn't sure he was ready to test it with "hey, Dad, did I mention I'm a supernatural freak who might go crazy and start killing people one of these days?"
"Yeah... uh-huh... when? What happened?" Dean flipped over his placemat and scribbled on the reverse side with one of the crayons the diner provided for the entertainment of its younger customers. "Right... uh-huh? Was anyone hurt?"
A job, most likely. Sam leaned forward to read what Dean was writing. It didn't look like the neatly organized notes his brother made when he was taking down new intel; it looked more as if he was randomly jotting things down just to keep his hands busy. WK pgeist attck, Sam read upside down. Old Sl Hse Equality. Well, gosh, that made everything crystal clear.
"We'll be there in a couple of days... No problem." Dean snapped the phone shut and gave Sam a pleased grin. "We've got a gig."
"Don't tell me: let me guess." Sam tapped his fingers against Dean's scribbles. "Somebody named Walter K. is being attacked by a poltergeist in an old... slaughter house?"
"Close, but no cigar." Dean flipped the placemat over just in time for their waitress to plonk his turkey club with a side of fries down on top of it. "Old Slave House."
"Oookay..." Sam leaned back and took his arms off the table to make room for his plate of meatloaf. "And how does equality come into it?"
Dean smirked at him around a mouthful of sandwich. "Look it up, geekboy."
"Jerk," Sam muttered, and leaned over to retrieve the laptop from the backpack at his feet.
By the time they were done eating, Sam had pulled up over a dozen on-line articles about a house called Hickory Hill in Equality, Illinois. An Illinois history website helpfully informed him that the place had been built by a man named John Crenshaw, who'd made his fortune leasing slaves from Tennessee and Kentucky to work the salt mines along the Saline River. Some high-school kid's personal site recounted (with a little too much relish for Sam's liking) lurid tales of tortured and murdered slaves. And a seemingly infinite number of paranormal sites and blogs provided the usual vague reports of cold spots, rattling chains and murmuring voices in the slave quarters of the old house.
"Huh," Sam said, "with all these reports, I'm surprised Dad hasn't checked it out before."
"He did." Dean reached across the table and snagged a French fry from Sam's plate, even though his own pile was only half-gone. "Twice. Once by himself, about twenty years ago, then the two of us together three years ago."
"Okay. So what's the story?"
Dean made a disgusted face, the sort he normally reserved for disco music or small, yippy dogs. "The story is, Hickory Hill is being haunted by the wussiest poltergeist in the history of the species. I swear to god, dude, that thing should be making woo-woo noises at the kiddies in Disneyland instead of trying to haunt a real house."
A wussy poltergeist. Sam picked absently at his food as he tried to wrap his mind around the concept. He knew that Dean and Dad had tangled with several poltergeists over the years, but the only one he'd ever encountered himself was the one in Lawrence. The memory of that still made his skin crawl and his stomach churn all these months later, but if he forced himself to think rationally he knew that had been an extreme case. Most poltergeists were more mischievous than malevolent and very few were strong enough to do any real damage. They hung around places where bad things had happened, feeding off the residual negative energy and playing pranks on the occupants. The one in Lawrence had been nastier and more powerful than most because it had been feeding off real demonic evil. The evil at the Hickory Hill, great as it had been, was still human.
"So if it's that lame," Sam finally asked, "why is it still around?"
Dean shrugged. "Wasn't worth the bother. The first time Dad went there, the place was a museum. The owners live somewhere else, but this guy, Walter Kravitz, was the curator, and he lived on the ground floor. Dad offered to do a cleansing ritual for him, but Walter said no. Said the poltergeist drew in the tourists."
"Tourists." Sam blinked. "Oh, that's just brilliant."
"Hey, I'm just telling you what the guy said. Anyhow, it couldn't have brought in i that /i many tourists, 'cause when Dad and I came by the last time, the museum was closed down. Walter was still living there, though, as caretaker. He had a wife and a kid by then, and they all thought having a geist in the attic was the funnest thing ever. We offered to clear it out again, and they looked at us as if we'd offered to shoot the family dog." Dean shook his head, looking disgusted. "Some people have no common sense."
Sam had to agree, despite the irony of his brother pointing fingers at anyone else for lack of common sense. Dean had done a great many insane things in the course of a misspent life, but at least he'd never attempted to keep a semi-sentient incorporeal entity as a household pet.
"So I take it the poltergeist got less wussy recently? Is that why this Walter guy is calling all of a sudden?"
"Uh-huh." Dean nodded. "Stacey -- that's Walter's daughter -- had a slumber party over the weekend while her folks were out of town, and the geist went psycho on them. Broke Stacey's arm, nearly brained one girl with a chair, and chased everyone out of the house in their jammies. Apparently, the family dog's gone rabid."
Sam frowned. "But that doesn't make sense. According to the stories I've found, that poltergeist's been there for over a century. Why would it suddenly escalate now?"
"That," Dean said with cheerful confidence, "is what we're going to find out."
Walter Kravitz and his wife Nora looked pretty much the same as Dean had remembered them: thin and tidy-looking and prone to wearing matching cardigans and tortoiseshell glasses. Walter's hairline had receded a couple of inches over the past three years, and Nora's frizzy brown hair had gotten frizzier and acquired some gray streaks, but those were the only changes. Stacey, on the other hand, looked nothing like gawky twelve-year-old Dean had met on his last visit. She'd lost the braces and the pigtails and grown at least four inches. Her hair, which Dean clearly recalled as brown and curly, was now sleek and honey-blonde. Even with the sling on her right arm and the scabbed-over scrape on the bottom of the chin, she managed to look both pretty and perky.
"Stacey, you remember Dean Winchester?" Walter said. "And this is his brother Sam."
"Hi, Dean." Stacey nodded at him, then looked up at Sam, went bright pink and twirled a strand of hair around one finger. "Hi, Sam."
Dean smirked while Sam cleared his throat and attempted -- with zero success, in Dean's opinion -- to look manly and grown-up and not at all like a ginormous jail-bait magnet.
The Kravitzes had evacuated from Hickory Hill to a motel room in Junction. Two matching navy blue suitcases and a purple duffle with sparkly pink hearts on it were laid out against one wall, clothes spilling haphazardly from half-open zippers. Stacey's schoolbooks were piled on the desk by the window. Walter, Nora and Stacey all sat on one of the chintz-covered double beds, while Sam and Dean sat on the other.
"I just don't understand," Walter said. "Over twenty years I've been living in that house, and this is the first time..." He shuddered and ran one hand nervously through his hair. "It could've killed Stacey or one of the other children."
"Da-ad!" Stacey rolled her eyes. "I'm almost sixteen "
"I know, honey." Walter patted her hand, but didn't look away from Dean. "Why is it doing this? Why now?"
"It's doing this because it can," Dean said. "That's kind of the definition of poltergeist. As for why now..." He turned toward Stacey. "We need you to tell us everything that happened, okay? Everything you did and said and saw before it attacked."
Stacey had been staring at Sam the entire time, but now she hunched her shoulders and stared down at her feet with equal intensity.
"It was me and Tricia and Sue and Gillian," she muttered in a barely audible voice. "We went up to the attic. We weren't supposed to, but it's like Dad said -- nothing's ever happened before. And everyone thought it was so cool that I lived in a haunted house. They just wanted to see for themselves, you know?"
"We know," Sam said softly, while Dean kept his mouth shut and only rolled his eyes a little bit. He wanted to feel sorry for the kid, he really did, but honestly, there was no excuse. Most people who got into trouble in haunted houses at least had the excuse of not really believing they were haunted. Stacey had known better. "Go on. What happened next?"
"It got cold all of a sudden." Stacey hugged herself with her good arm and shivered. "There was this gust of wind, like a draft, except that the windows are both painted shut. And then we heard voices. Screaming."
"Voices?" Dean said quickly. "As in, more than one?"
Stacey nodded. "They sounded really scared. Or in hurt, maybe. And everything started rattling -- the doors, the windows, all those rusty old chains on the walls... so we ran. Out the attic door and back down the stairs. I was maybe half-way down when something pushed me. It felt like this huge hand, right in the middle of my back. It was i cold /i . I mean, I had a sweatshirt on, and it still felt like ice right against my skin. It pushed me, and I fell." She shivered again and sniffled loudly until Nora handed her a handful of tissues from the dispenser on the bedside table. "The others ran down after me, and that's when it threw the chair at Tricia. If she hadn't ducked... oh, God, it could've killed her..."
"It's all right, honey." Nora patted her daughter's shoulder awkwardly. "You all got out safely, that's all that's important now."
"Actually," Dean said, "what's important now is figuring out what set this thing off. Are you sure this was all that happened, Stacey? You guys came upstairs and the poltergeist just attacked?"
"Yeah," Stacey said, but Dean didn't miss the way her gaze darted from side to side for a second before fixing on her toes again.
Dean nudged Sam's ankle with his boot toe, but Sam was already on it, leaning forward toward Stacey, radiating sympathy and sincerity and quiet reassurance.
"Stacey," he said gently, "we know you've had a scare, and you probably don't want to sit here and talk with us about it. But it's really important that we know everything that happened, or we won't be able to help. So if there's anything else, anything else at all, you can tell us. We won't be mad."
This is what he'd be like as a lawyer, Dean thought. He could imagine hostile witnesses collapsing on the stand, spilling out the incriminating truth rather than lie to that face.
"I--" Stacey looked as if she was going to protest, then stopped. She let out a slow, shaky breath, and all the resistance seemed to drain out of her at once. She darted a nervous look at her parents, then at Dean. "Promise you won't yell."
"We won't," Sam promised.
Stacey took another few seconds to work up her nerve, shifting in her seat and fidgeting her hands in her lap.
"It was Tricia's idea," she finally muttered. "She's the one who brought the board."
"The board?" Dean got a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Oh, fuck, tell me they didn't. "What board?"
"The Ouija board." Stacey gave him a small, sheepish smile. "She got it for her Halloween party last year, but we couldn't get it to work at her house. So she said, maybe if we tried it in a real haunted house, we could... you know, maybe talk to the thing in the attic."
Okay, so they totally did. Dean took a deep breath and counted backwards from ten. In Latin. "You tried to hold a seance in a house that you knew had a poltergeist in it?" He thought he was doing a pretty good job of not sounding pissed off, but apparently not. Stacey winced a little and slid closer to her mother, who patted her knee and gave Dean an accusing look, as if this whole mess was something he'd made instead of something he drove in from freaking New Jersey to fix.
"Okay," Sam said, giving Dean a glare that clearly said shut up, moron, "so let's start again, then. Tell us i exactly /i what you did."
Under Sam's kindly cross-examination, Stacey finally coughed up the whole story. She and her friends had gone up to the attic, laid the board out on the floor and attempted to ask it questions. The planchette had started moving almost immediately, sliding rapidly all over the board even when no one was touching it. According to Stacey, it had spelled out no actual words, just random combinations of letters. Then the poltergeist -- or something else -- had attacked, and the girls had all run out, leaving the still-active board behind.
"I swear, those things should come with warning labels," Dean grumbled when he and Sam were alone in their own motel room, down the hall from the Kravitzes. "I can't believe they still sell them in goddamn toy stores."
"Right," Sam said, "you can start your letter campaign to the FTC after we finish this job. In the meantime, we need to figure out what's hanging out in that attic. Poltergeists don't speak with human voices. I'm thinking the board must've called up a few ghosts."
"Yeah. Really frightened and pissed-off ghosts, if Stacey's telling it right." Dean dug a canister of salt from his bag and set it on the bed next to the gallon jug of holy water. "Some of the slaves who'd died in the house, maybe?"
"Sounds likely." Sam sat down cross-legged on the other bed, and dropped a thick pile of photocopied manuscript pages onto the bedspread in front of him. The pages were from Walter's unpublished book about the history of Hickory Hill. "But if that's true, then we're kinda screwed. Nobody really knows how many slaves were killed in that house, or who they were, or what happened to the bodies. According to what Walter's written here, Crenshaw was kidnapping free blacks from the northern states and shipping them south to be sold. So even if we could find records for the slaves he'd shipped in legally -- which I doubt -- there were also all the illegal ones who came through. I'm thinking salt-and-burn is not an option here."
"Great," Dean sighed. This job was getting better and better by the minute. "I don't suppose it could be Crenshaw's ghost, could it? I wouldn't mind salting and burning that fucker just on principle."
Sam shook his head. "According to this, Crenshaw died of natural causes and is buried next to his wife in the local cemetery. Not exactly prime haunting material."
"So much for karma, huh?" Dean dug the car keys from his pocket. "All right then, let's go take a look at the place."
It was kind of nice, Sam thought, to not have to sneak or con their way into a haunted house for once in their lives. To just pull up into the driveway and walk up to the front door with keys in hand as if they owned the place, though even in his wildest dreams of lawyerly success, Sam had trouble envisioning himself ever owning a place like that. The house was large and imposing, with two high stories and an attic under a broad gabled roof. Two rows of white columns supported upper and lower verandas across the front and dozens of windows gleamed in the afternoon sun.
"Nice, huh?" Dean slouched against a column while Sam sorted through Walter's keys to find the one that would open the front door. He eyed the broad expanse of the veranda with an expression of vague distaste. "Old man Crenshaw must've made a mint."
"Yeah." Sam finally fit the right key into the lock and cautiously nudged the door open a few inches. When nothing jumped out and tried to eat his head, he pushed it open all the way. "I read once that big windows were a sign of wealth in old houses like this, because large panes of glass were expensive. Crenshaw was showing off."
"Dude, you had way too much time on your hands at Stanford." Dean brushed past Sam and into the foyer. "Come on, the stairs to the attic are this way."
The two main floors were bright and airy, daylight flooding the rooms through the expensive windows. Every surface was spotless, and the air smelled of potpourri and wood polish. In contrast, the attic was oppressively dark and stuffy. The only windows were at opposite ends of the long corridor that ran from the front to the back of the house, and they were too small and grimy to let much light in. Sam turned on his flashlight and held it at eye level, watching dust motes dance in the beam.
"Is this place wired for electricity?" he asked.
"Not up here." Dean dug the EMF meter from his backpack and switched it on. It emitted a couple of sullen beeps and fell silent. "Back when this place was a museum, they used to hang oil lanterns from the beams. For atmosphere."
"Atmosphere. Right." Sam swept the flashlight from side to side, picking out cobwebs, rotting woodwork, the occasional beetle scurrying into the shadows. "That's just what this place needs. You getting anything?"
"Nothing." Dean smacked the meter against his hand a couple of times, but it didn't so much as beep. "The geist has always been nocturnal, though. Maybe the new visitors are too."
"Well, we have an hour of daylight left." Sam brushed a cobweb out of his way and inched forward. That should give us plenty of time to scout around."
There wasn't much to scout. The place clearly hadn't been used for years, not even to store the sort of random junk people normally piled in their attics. The central corridor was bare, lined with heavy wooden doors on either side. Each door had a tiny barred window, and a few still retained the rusty iron brackets with open padlocks dangling from them. Everything was coated with a thick, fluffy layer of dust, and a jumble of footprints marked where Stacey and her friends had passed two days before.
Each door opened onto a windowless cell about the size of a horse stall. Iron shackles hung from rings on the walls. When Sam aimed the flashlight beam toward the floor, he could see the marks in the wood where more rings had once been attached. The air inside the cells was stale, thick with the musty smells of rotting wood and rodent droppings. Just looking in from the relatively open space of the corridor made Sam's throat and chest tighten with claustrophobia.
"You know," Dean grumbled from behind him, "if I died in this shithole and a bunch of teenyboppers with a painted piece of cardboard summoned me back, I'd wanna break somebody's arm too."
Sam couldn't argue with that. "Speaking of painted cardboard, where the hell is it?"
They found the Ouija board on the floor under the back window. It was, as Dean had said, just a painted piece of cardboard, midnight blue, with a border of astrological symbols embossed in silver. The letters were also silver, in a fancy gothic font, and the i was dotted with a star. The planchette was a translucent triangle of pale aquamarine plastic in a pewter frame decorated with more stars on the corners.
"Hippie new-age woo-woo crap," Dean muttered. He kneeled to run the EMF meter over the board. "Nothing special about this thing. I bet any other board would've worked the same in this house."
"Which means destroying it probably won't help," Sam sighed. "Great. Why can't anything ever be simple?"
"Because then it wouldn't be any fun." Dean grinned and stood up, dusting off the knees of his jeans. "So, any bright ideas?"
"Just the usual," Sam told him. "Wait until dark, then use the board ourselves to summon whatever it was that the girls summoned, and send it back." Sam had never seen it done himself, but Dad, Caleb and Bobby all swore by it.
Dean looked as if he was about to agree, but then his face suddenly went hard, and he jutted his chin forward stubbornly.
"Huh? What are you talking about Dean? You know as well as I do this is how it's done. Anything summoned by an Ouija board needs to be sent back by the same board. That's how these things work."
"Yeah, well, that's not how we're gonna do it." The mulish look on Dean's face didn't falter. "We'll think of something else."
Dean stared at the wall behind Sam's shoulder with an expression that said he was prepared to keep staring until the next millennium. Sam resisted the urge to grab and shake him.
"I don't want you messing with the board, okay?" Dean blurted out. "It's not safe."
"Not safe," Sam repeated blankly. "Right. As opposed to... the sweet fluffy-bunny things we normally mess with?"
"Screw you." Dean rolled his eyes. "You know what I mean. Ouija boards are especially dangerous for people who are... sensitive."
"Sensi--" Sam blinked in confusion for a moment, wondering if this was going to be another one of those "oh, you're such a touchy-feely girl" routines Dean found so hilarious. Then comprehension dawned. "You mean psychic." He glared accusingly at his brother, who shrugged a little and scuffed one foot in the dust. "You said it didn't freak you out."
"It doesn't," Dean said quickly. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to pretend it doesn't exist. That big college-boy brain of yours is receiving all sorts of freaky shit from who-knows-where these days, and doing a seance strikes me as a really, really bad idea. So we think of something else."
"Okay." Sam slouched against the wall next to the window and folded his arms across his chest. "Go ahead. Think of something else."
"I will." Dean scratched the back of his neck. "Give me a minute."
Sam let about thirty seconds crawl by before tapping one foot on the floor. "I'm waiting."
"Dude." Dean scowled at him. "I can't think with you staring at me."
"This is bullshit, Dean. You know what we have to do, and you don't want to do it because of me. Is that how it's going to be from now on? Am I a liability now?"
This was exactly what he'd been afraid of when he'd first told Dean about the nightmares, about the visions, about moving the cabinet. Well, no, that wasn't exactly true. There were a million other things he'd feared more. But the idea that Dean was going to adjust for him now, as if he had a handicap that needed accommodating, made him want to yell and kick the walls. He must've looked it, too, because Dean quickly held his hands out in a placating gesture.
"Come on, Sam, you know it's not like that. Any of the usual shit, it wouldn't make a difference. But these things--" He poked the board with the toe of his boot as if it was something long dead and poorly preserved. "Either they don't work at all or they're really bad news, there's never any middle. We don't know em what /em those girls called up -- could be ghosts, could be another, stronger poltergeist, could be a minor demon for all we know. I just don't think we should be opening up a direct hotline into your head without knowing what might take advantage, that's all."
All right, so maybe that wasn't an entirely unreasonable objection. Sam wasn't totally sure he believed it, but it wasn't unreasonable. He took a steadying breath and got a grip on his rising temper with only minimal effort.
"Look, we can take precautions, okay? I won't touch the board -- you can run it, and I'll ask the questions. Anything goes wrong, you can close the board and end it. Totally your call." Ouija boards worked better with two people handling the planchette, but one would do in a pinch. And Sam knew his brother well enough to know that Dean would be more willing to go along if he thought he was in full control of the situation. "We can cast a circle of protection, too. Anything we summon will be stuck outside it."
"That might work..." Dean said dubiously.
Sam hurried to press the advantage. "It's the only thing we em know /em will work, Dean. Come on. We've got just enough time to get our stuff from the car and make the circle."
"Fine," Dean muttered sulkily. "Don't come running to me when you start barfing pea soup and spinning your head around."
They poured the salt in a thick stream on the floor right around the board, using it to trace a pentagram within a circle. Sam read a blessing in Latin while Dean set down two pairs of shotguns where they would be easy to reach without disturbing the salt. It was way more precaution than they usually went through for a simple haunting, but Sam could see that Dean still wasn't entirely satisfied. He didn't say anything, but the wary looks he kept shooting in Sam's direction spoke volumes. Telling him to stop worrying would be pointless, so Sam just pretended not to notice.
As the sun went down, he attic went from gloomy to pitch-black. The air grew steadily colder -- far colder than it had any business being, indoors at this time of year. The beam of Sam's flashlight dimmed and flickered for a minute, then went out altogether, and the two spares Dean dug from his duffel did no better.
"Damn," Dean said cheerfully into the darkness, "can't work the board if I can't see it. Guess we'd better think of something else."
"I have candles in my backpack," Sam said. Dean growled something indistinct under his breath. For a moment Sam thought they were going to argue again, but the growling subsided into a resigned huff of breath, and a few seconds later Dean flicked on his lighter so that Sam could see.
He put a votive candle at each point of the pentagram, and Dean bent down to light them, wrinkling his nose as he did so.
"Dude, are these flower scented?"
"They were on sale," Sam said defensively.
Dean smirked at him as he tucked the lighter back into his pocket. "Admit it, Sammy, you just have a thing for gardenias."
Sam snorted, and Dean's expression instantly turned defensive.
"You could tell that was gardenia scent? I had to check the labels to find out."
"Yeah, well..." Dean looked flustered for a moment, but recovered quickly. "There was this chick in a flower shop in Savannah--"
"Whatever." Sam quickly held up a hand to forestall yet another tale of Dean's sexual exploits. "Can we get on with this, please?"
"Yeah, fine, getting on." Dean sat down Indian-style on the floor, careful not to disturb the salt lines, and pulled the board over to lie in front of him. He rested his fingers lightly on top of the planchette. "Ready?"
Sam sat down on the other side of the board facing Dean. "Ready." A gust of icy wind rattled the window pane behind him as he spoke. It ruffled Sam's hair and made the shadows dance in the flickering candle flames, but didn't shift a single grain of salt out of place. "Looks like something else's ready, too." He took a notepad and pencil from his backpack and set the pad in his lap.
"Here we go, then." Dean slid the planchette toward the top left corner of the board, where the silver letters spelled out "Hello." He let it rest there as he closed his eyes and relaxed his hands.
Another gust swept down the hallway with a banshee-like howl. The cell doors flapped madly on their hinges, flying open and slamming shut over and over with wood-splintering force. Sam could hear the chains rattling against the walls, the roof beams groaning overhead. He shivered, pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head, and tightened his grip on the notepad.
"Hello," he called out, "is anyone there?" Stupid question, really, but it was the traditional way to start off, and as good a way as any of finding out if it -- whatever em it /em might be -- was in a mood to respond with something besides door-slamming theatrics.
Dean's hands wobbled in place for a moment before guiding the planchette down toward the "Yes" in the lower left corner. The plastic triangle framed the word exactly, though Dean's eyes remained tightly closed. Sam poised his pencil over the notepad and leaned forward a little to get a better view of the board.
"Who are you?"
The wind that had still been stirring up the dust outside their circle died down abruptly. For a few seconds, everything went still. Then the howling started again, and the planchette began to zigzag over the board in random patterns, sliding from one letter to another so rapidly that it threatened to fly right out from under Dean's fingers. Sam tried to follow the sequence, to see what it was spelling out, but it was moving too fast for him to even read the letters, let alone write anything down.
Then the board itself started moving, inching across the floor with a wobbly, side-to-side motion as if trying to get a way from Dean. One corner of it came perilously close to a salt line, and Sam reached down with one hand to pin it in place.
As soon as his fingers touched the board, the world changed. It was like falling through a funhouse mirror into a distorted reflection. The attic was still there, but everything else was different. Pale sunlight gleamed through the window. The salt and the candles were gone. The Ouija board was gone. More to the point, Dean was gone, and that realization sent Sam scrambling to his feet, shouting his brother's name.
There was no answer. He could hear voices all around, but none of them sounded like Dean's. Some of the voices were sobbing. Others seemed to be moaning in fear or pain. In the distance, way down at the other end of the corridor, someone was singing, though the sound was too faint for Sam to pick out anything more than the faintest hint of a mournful melody.
Sam glanced around, searching for the source of the sounds, and realized for the first time that all the cell doors were not only shut but barred. They looked different, too -- newer, the wood less weathered, the iron fittings unmarked by rust. At the same time, everything looked kind of fuzzy, blurred around the edges, as if he was viewing a slightly out-of-focus projection of his surroundings instead of the real thing. Sam might've thought he was dreaming, except for the faint scent of gardenia candles still tickling his nose every time he breathed in.
"Dean!" he shouted again. No answer. He hadn't really expected one. Sam was starting to suspect that Dean wasn't the one who'd gone away.
He took a tentative step forward. His booted feet made no sound against the floor. In fact, he wasn't sure he was touching the floor at all. There was no pressure on the soles of his feet, no sensation of bearing his own weight. Walking suddenly became an awkward, unfamiliar activity. His center of gravity was gone -- not just shifted, but gone. Sam felt as if he had to hold every muscle in his body tense and rigid just to remain upright. He took two more steps, short and jerky, and laid one hand against the nearest door. Or rather, tried to lay a hand against it; his fingers passed through the wood as through a thick fog.
On the other side of the door, somebody yelped. Sam started to call out, then stopped himself. He eyed the door warily for a few seconds, took a deep breath to steady himself, and walked right through the wood into the cell on the other side.
There was a girl there, crouched on a frayed blanket in the corner furthest from the door. The light from the corridor was too dim to illuminate the cell, and for a moment all Sam could make out was her silhouette, huddled and shaking against the wall. Then his eyes adjusted, and he couldn't suppress a startled hiss.
There was blood everywhere: soaking the front of the girl's once-white shift from waist to hem, staining her hands and face, turning most of the blanket the color of ancient rust. Sam was suddenly deeply grateful that he couldn't smell his surroundings. Just seeing the gore was enough to turn his stomach. He swallowed hard, wincing at the sour burn of bile in his throat, and took a cautious step forward.
Not cautious enough apparently -- the girl immediately tried to scurry away from him, even though there was no place for her to go. Her bare feet scrabbled on the floor as she pressed her back harder and harder against the wall, and her breath came in harsh wheezing gasps. The skirt of her shift rode up a little from her movements, and Sam saw that her left ankle was shackled, attached to the floor by a couple of feet of thick iron chain.
Sam stepped back, feeling sick, and held his empty hands out in front of him.
"It's all right," he said, pitching his voice soft and low, and tried to look as harmless and unthreatening as a man his size possibly could. "I won't hurt you."
She stilled, but did not relax. Sam could see her eyes now, opened so wide that a ring of white was visible around each iris. She was small and bony, with dark skin and a tangle of wiry, sweat-dampened black hair. The fear that distorted her face made it hard to judge her age, but Sam thought she was young, probably closer to Stacey's age than to his own. He gave her his best reassuring smile as he slowly lowered himself to the floor, keeping his hands in sight the whole time. Even sitting with his back bowed and his shoulders hunched he was still gigantic compared to her, but at least he wasn't looming quite so much.
"I won't hurt you," he repeated. "Please don't be afraid." It was, he suspected, a very stupid thing to say, but Sam was damned if he could think of any non-stupid things to say under the circumstances. Then again, past experience had taught him that when a person got this scared, what you said to them didn't matter. It was tone and body language that got the message across. So he kept slouching, kept saying "it's all right" and "don't be afraid" over and over again until she stopped trying to push herself through the wall and looked at him with eyes that were wary but not terrified.
"You the devil?" she demanded abruptly.
"Uhm... no." Sam couldn't quite hold back an awkward laugh, though it was clear enough that she wasn't joking. "My name is Sam. I... I'd like to help you, if I can."
She gave a short, bitter laugh and pushed her hair back from her face with a shaking hand.
"You can't help me," she said in a harsh voice, "I'm dead."
"Right... you noticed. That's... good." Sam shifted awkwardly in his seat and heroically resisted the impulse to pull at his hair. This was one of the more bizarre conversations he'd ever had and given his life, that was really saying something. "Look, the thing is, you're not supposed to be here, okay? And I can help you go to-- to wherever you're supposed to be. I think."
She stared at him in silence for a long time before turning away to examine the cell around them. "Is this hell, then?" she asked. "I had wondered. I didn't think I'd been so very wicked."
"This isn't hell." Sam shook his head. "Listen, uhm... do you have a name?"
"Okay. Olivia. Do you... do you recognize this place? This cell, this house?"
"Yes." She shivered and gave a quick, jerky nod.
"Do you remember what happened to you? How you died?"
"I had a baby..." Olivia ran one hand down the front of her stained shift and looked down at the smear of blood on her palm. Her eyes suddenly went wide and unfocused. Sam wondered if it was possible for a ghost to faint. "Where did--" She glanced around wildly. "Did it die with me? Is it here?" Her breath hitched, and the air in the cell seemed to vibrate. Sam felt a crackle of energy sparking along his skin, raising goosebumps on his arms and the back of his neck. Olivia pushed away from the wall and lurched toward him, landing awkwardly on her knees as the chain on her ankle pulled taut. "Please, sir, it can't be here! Surely the Lord wouldn't send a tiny baby to hell just for being mine, would He? Please--"
She reached out to grip Sam's shoulder, but her fingers passed right through with no resistance. Sam had expected the not-touch to feel cold, the way ghosts normally did, but all he felt was a faint tingling, as if his arm was falling asleep. Olivia jerked her hand back with a gasp, and Sam realized that he was the intangible spirit here, not her.
The vibration in the air grew more intense. Sam felt as if he was trapped inside a giant bell that someone was striking over and over again. He couldn't hear the ringing, but he could feel each strike right down to his bones. Then the howling came again, similar to what he'd heard when Dean first touched the Ouija board, but louder, and now Sam could tell that it wasn't one voice but many. One of them sounded like a baby crying. Beside him, Olivia curled in on herself and flung her arms over her head. Sam knew he couldn't touch her, couldn't help or comfort, but he found himself reaching out anyway. His arm felt strangely heavy -- he hadn't even noticed how weightless he'd been in this place until the weightlessness disappeared -- and he froze when he saw his own hand flickering in front of his face, like an old film skipping frames.
The world around him blurred into fog. The howling cut off into silence. The heaviness in Sam's arm spread to the rest of his body, and he felt himself being pulled down, as if sinking into icy water. A band of pressure squeezed his chest, stopping his breath for a moment, then abruptly released. Sam jerked, sucked in a lungful of air, and found himself staring up into Dean's wide-eyed face.
"Sam! Sammy! You still with me, man?"
"No," Sam said thickly, and blacked out.
There were times when Dean really wished he was the kind of guy who got satisfaction out of saying "I told you so." Because he had totally told Sam so, he'd i said /i messing with that Ouija board was a bad idea, but did anyone listen to him? No.
He'd known the exact moment when everything went pear-shaped. Sammy had touched the board and gone instantly, preternaturally still. So still that for a few horrific seconds, Dean had thought he wasn't breathing. When Dean shook him by the shoulder, it had been like shaking a rag doll, Sam's head lolling back and forth on his neck and his arms flopping like wet noodles. It would've been kind of funny if not for the thin trickle of blood seeping from Sam's left ear.
"Sammy!" Dean could barely hear his own voice over the ruckus the geist was making outside their circle. He gave Sam's shoulder another shake, then shifted his hand to press his fingers against Sam's throat. There was a pulse, thank God. Now that Dean looked more closely, he could see the faint rise and fall of Sam's chest as he breathed. He wouldn't respond, though, not even when Dean pinched a fold of skin at the base of his neck hard enough to bruise. When Dean let go, Sam slumped forward bonelessly, his forehead nearly touching his folded legs.
Dean looked down at the board. He'd taken both his hands and his attention from it when he'd reached for Sam. The planchette was still moving, spelling out random nonsense as it zigged and zagged all over the alphabet. Dean slapped one hand down on top of it and held it in place, felt it vibrate furiously against his palm as it tried to force its way free.
Close the board, idiot. Dean pushed the planchette toward "Goodbye." It fought him all the way, wriggling under his hand like some freaky triangular bug, gouging his palm with its barbed corners, scratching deep grooves in the cardboard as Dean forced it to keep moving. Outside the circle, the floorboards bucked and creaked. One of the cell doors flew right off its hinges to crash into the wall behind it. The window burst with a sound like a gunshot. Dean automatically flung up one arm to shield his face from the spray of broken glass, but all the fragments landed neatly outside the salt circle. Dean dragged the planchette a few more inches and suddenly everything went still.
He held it down a little longer, just to make sure the thing wasn't faking, before lifting his hand up to see "oodby" neatly framed within the clear plastic. The planchette stayed put, so Dean shoved the board out of the way and reached over to grasp Sam's shoulder's again.
Sam shuddered and jerked his head up, sucking in air with a painful-sounding wheeze. His eyes fluttered open, and Dean quickly attempted to school his face into some semblance of calm.
"You still with me, dude?"
"No," Sam muttered in a slurred voice, and slumped forward again, an awkward dead weight in Dean's grip. His breathing stayed strong and steady, though, and the bleeding seemed to have stopped. Dean lowered him gently onto the floor, loosened his collar, and stuck one of the duffel bags under his feet to elevate his legs.
"This is why I'm gonna have grey hair before I'm thirty," he grumbled, patting Sam's face roughly with one hand. "Come on, Sammy, quit fucking around and talk to me."
"Olivia..." Sam blinked back into wakefulness with a muffled groan. "Ugh... what happened?"
"You passed out." Dean sat back on his heels and rubbed one unsteady hand across his face. "Twice. And dude, did you just call me Olivia?"
"Wasn't talking to you." Sam swung his feet off the duffel and attempted to sit up, but managed only to prop himself up on wobbly elbows. "Did you see her, Dean? Is she gone?"
"I didn't see anybody. Just you looking..." dead "even freakier than usual. What the hell happened, Sam?"
"I spoke to her."
"Yeah. I think she was a slave here once." Sam shook his head, then stopped and winced as if the motion hurt him. He still looked dazed and much too pale for Dean's liking, but his eyes seemed to be tracking. "It was so weird, Dean. She was solid and I was the ghost. And she was so scared..."
"Whoa. Okay, hold on a sec." Dean patted Sam's chest with one hand, partly to shut him up and partly to reassure himself that Sam was, in fact, still solid and not a ghost. "Let me get this straight. You went on... what? Some sort of astral travel jaunt? Out of body experience? Because your body was right here the whole time, and I'm pretty sure you weren't in it." He could hear his own voice rising on that last sentence, and mentally snapped at himself to tone it down, but Sam didn't seem to notice. He was too busy trying to sit up again. Dean held his arm out and Sam grabbed onto his sleeve with both hands and finally pulled himself up into a sitting position.
"Thanks," he grunted. "Shit. My head hurts."
"That'll teach you to stay put in your body," Dean told him. "Now stop whining and tell me what happened."
Slowly, with a lot of stumbling and wincing along the way, Sam described his encounter with Olivia-the-ghost. Apparently, time had passed slower for him than it had for Dean -- Sammy could babble a mile a minute when he put his mind to it, but there was no way he could've done all that talking in the few seconds before Dean had ended the seance. It sounded like Olivia hadn't tried to hurt him, and Sam was clearly ready to declare himself her new best friend, but Dean wasn't sure how much he trusted that. Death wasn't too conducive to sanity, and ghosts weren't rational things you could make friends with. No telling what might make one turn on you.
"--And then you closed the board and I got pulled back," Sam finished. He sounded vaguely disappointed by that, and Dean scowled at him.
"Well, sorry if I interrupted your fascinating conversation with the dead chick, but it did the job, didn't it?" He waved one arm at the quiet darkness outside their circle. "Haven't heard a peep since you got back."
"You think it worked, then?" Sam rose unsteadily to his feet, using Dean's shoulder for support. He walked over to the edge of the circle, picked up one of the candles, and leaned forward to peer down the corridor. "You think the board sent them all back?"
"I don't think Olivia was the only spirit there." Sam's face was grim and tired. In the dim candle light, the streak of blood beneath his ear looked almost black. "She was the only one I saw and talked to, but I heard other voices. And Stacey and her friends said they heard more than one."
"Yeah, well, we're not hearing anything now, are we?" Dean stood up and took the EMF meter from his pocket again. "Only one way to tell for sure, though. Do a sweep outside the circle, see if we pick up anything."
"What about the poltergeist? It hadn't been summoned by the board in the first place, so it wouldn't be sent away by it either."
Dean shrugged. "The poltergeist is a wuss, remember? It's the ghosts that made the trouble."
"I'm not so sure about that." Sam frowned. "Olivia didn't seem hostile or violent at all, and--"
"Do the math, Sammy. Before the seance -- nothing but scary noises and creaky walls. After the seance -- teenage girls get thrown down the stairs. Maybe your new girlfriend wasn't violent, but something sure was." Dean bent down to retrieve one of the salt-loaded shotguns from his duffel and hand it to Sam. "Here. Think you're well enough to aim straight?"
"I'll manage." Sam's voice sounded weak, but his hands were steady on the gun and his face was slowly regaining its normal color. Dean allowed himself to relax a little.
"Good. Stay in the circle while I check the place out. If anything tries to jump me, shoot it."
"Right." Sam bent down to plant the candle on the floor by his feet again, then stood up straight and pumped the shotgun. "Be careful, Dean. I have a bad feeling about all this."
"Join the club," Dean muttered and stepped outside the circle.
Nothing happened. The EMF meter didn't so much as blink; the silence in the corridor remained undisturbed. Dean took a couple of slow, silent steps down the corridor and poked his head into the nearest cell on the left.
"Nothing he--" He never got to finish the sentence. The meter shrieked in his hand, then clattered to the floor as something slammed into Dean's side with sledgehammer force, hurling him into the cell and against the back wall.
"Dean!" Sam's voice was barely audible over the wind that was once again howling down the corridor. Dean swore and pushed away from the wall, wincing as all the freshly-bruised muscles along his back complained.
"Stay in the circle, Sam!" It would keep Sam from getting a clear shot until Dean got out of the cell, but it would also keep Sam safe. "Can you see anything?"
Before Sam could reply, the geist struck again. It felt like a giant fist clenching around Dean's body, picking him up like a toy and giving a few good shakes before tossing him out of the cell and clear across the corridor. The door on the other side was shut. Dean hit it sideways and felt something in his shoulder wrench and pop from the impact.
It hurt like a bitch, but at least he was out in the open now, in Sam's line of sight. He could even see Sam, less than five feet away, standing with the shotgun braced against his shoulder. Dean tried to move toward him, but the same invisible hand that had thrown him earlier now held him pinned against the door, and Dean's attempts to move only served to strain his injured shoulder, sending white-hot jolts of pain down his arm and along his side.
"Shoot the fucker!" Dean yelled. Sam planted his feet and swept the gun barrel from side to side.
"I can't see it!"
"Just shoot, dammit!"
There was a dull, metallic clang somewhere nearby, and something Dean couldn't quite make out came hurtling at him out of the darkness. He couldn't duck, couldn't move aside. Just barely managed to turn his head enough to not take the blow square in his face. Somebody cried out -- maybe himself, maybe Sam, he wasn't sure -- and everything went black and still.
Sam nearly bolted right out of the circle when Dean went down. Only the knowledge that he couldn't help his brother if he, too, was unconscious on the floor kept his feet on the right side of the salt line.
"Dean!" he called out, but Dean didn't move, so Sam aimed the shotgun straight down the middle of the corridor and fired. He had no idea if anything was actually there, but if there was, Sam hoped that the thing would catch enough of the salt spray to be out of commission for a few seconds.
Everything went quiet after the blast, but Sam didn't trust the silence. After all, everything had been quiet before until Dean put himself in harm's way. Sam moved as quickly as reasonable caution allowed, dropping to his knees at the very edge of the circle and reaching across the salt toward Dean. His brother might like to tease him about his freakishly long arms, but they certainly came in handy now as he stretched and stretched and finally clenched his hands in the folds of Dean's jacket.
An icy touch -- not quite solid, claws of air and dust -- plucked at his hair and clothes, but it felt weak, too insubstantial to get a good grip. It seemed that the salt had hurt the thing after all. Sam tightened his own grip and pulled, grunting with the effort of dragging Dean's limp weight across the floor. There was no way to get him into the circle without breaking it, so Sam hauled him in with one desperate heave and dove for the canister, pouring fresh salt to close the gap. An outraged howl and a renewed rattling of doors and windows let him know that he'd succeeded just in time.
He turned toward Dean to find him blinking and listlessly turning his head from side to side. Sam crouched on the floor next to him, not bothering to hide his grin of relief.
"Hey," he said, "how're you feeling?"
"Ow," Dean slurred. He started to sit up, but only made it about two inches off the floor before making a harsh, strangled sound and falling back again. "Make that i ow, fuck! i "
"Stay down," Sam told him, "I think you busted your shoulder."
"No shit, Sherlock." Dean lifted his left hand, poked gingerly at his right clavicle, and spit out a string of curses that might've made even their father blush. "Not dislocated; feels different. Help me up, will ya?"
"I don't think you should--" Sam began, but Dean was already bracing his good hand on the floor and pushing himself upward. There was clearly no point in arguing. Sam grabbed a handful of Dean's shirt and pulled him up to a sitting position, rolling his eyes when Dean started swearing again.
"I told you to stay down."
"Not going to do much good lying around on the floor," Dean grumbled.
"Not going to do much good sitting up, either," Sam said. "Looks like our poltergeist is still around, and as strong as ever."
"Nah, you think?" Dean was clearly striving for his usual sarcastic tone, but his voice was strained and his face was haggard. The warm glow of the candlelight did little to disguise the pallor of his skin. "Got any bright ideas, oh wise one?"
"Yes," Sam said, "but you're not going to like it."
Dean's eyes narrowed, and his face scrunched into a suspicious scowl. "What are you up to, Sammy?"
Sam took a deep breath and braced himself for the explosion about to come. "Not going to like it" was a major understatement; Dean was going to flat-out em hate /em what Sam was about to say.
"I think we need to use the board again."
"Say wha--" Dean actually lurched half-way to his feet, then yelped and sat down hard, clutching his right arm against his side with his left hand. "Fuck. You're kidding me, right?"
"No, listen." Sam leaned forward and composed his face into his most earnest and reasonable expression. "There's something really weird going on here. That girl I spoke to, Olivia -- she's a ghost, but I don't think she's actually haunting the house."
"Of course she's haunting the house, Sam! Ghosts haunt. That's kind of the definition."
"Then why didn't you see her? Why did we need an Ouija board to contact her? I'm telling you, Dean, when I talked to her, I was somewhere else. It looked like the house, but it wasn't. "
"Oookay." Dean's face smoothed out a little, but the suspicious glint in his eyes remained. "So you did some sort of astral projection thing to... where?"
"I'm not sure," Sam admitted. "It looked new, as if the house had just been built. I don't think I was time traveling, though, it felt... weird."
"No kidding it's weird. First you're getting freaky-ass visions, then you're moving furniture with your mind, now you're leaving your body to go talk to strange women in imaginary houses. Pick a power and stick with it, dude."
Right. Leave it to Mr. "It doesn't freak me out" to fixate on that, of all things.
"I don't think this is a new ability, Dean. This is just... the sort of freaky shit that happens on jobs, that's all. I don't think it's anything to do with me in particular."
"Yeah," Dean sighed, "that's what you always think."
Sam frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing," Dean said quickly. Sam considered calling him on it, but he had a suspicion that Dean was hoping for just that, an argument to deflect attention from the real issue.
"Whatever. Look Dean, my point is, I don't think this is an ordinary haunting, or an ordinary poltergeist infestation, either. There's something more going on here. I think if I talk to Olivia, I'll be able to figure out what it is."
"Yeah, provided you don't keel over dead first. Don't know if you noticed, but you've got blood coming out your ear, dude. That doesn't happen unless there's blood vessels popping somewhere. If the wrong one pops, I'm gonna end up having to drag your oversized carcass down the stairs with one arm, and I really don't need this shit, okay?"
Sam hadn't noticed, actually. Now he raised his hands to his face and felt the stickiness of drying blood on his left cheek -- not a lot of it, but more than enough to explain Dean's alarm.
"It's not so bad," he said. "You've got more blood than that on your own face."
It was true. The heavy chain the poltergeist had flung at Dean earlier had left a gash above Dean's temple, shallow but ugly and jagged, with mottled bruising swelling up around it. And he'd been unconscious; only for a couple of seconds, true, but the possibility of a concussion was still there. Between that and the unknown damage to Dean's shoulder, Sam really thought his brother needed to be lying down in the nearest hospital rather than sitting up in a salt circle in a haunted attic.
"I'm fine," Dean said. "It's just a scratch."
It was so ridiculous that Sam just had to laugh, at himself as well as Dean.
"Fine. Right. Sure. We're both doing great. We're also both trapped in this circle until daylight -- which, in case you've lost track, is not for another nine hours or so -- unless we figure out what we're up against and how to beat it. And right now, that board is the only option we've got."
"I can wait nine hours," Dean said quickly. "It's no big deal."
No big deal. Right. Dean was putting up a good front, but Sam had seen him in pain enough times to read the signs in his posture, the tilt of his head, the hard set of his jaw.
"Bullshit," Sam snapped. Dean glared at him, and he glared back. For a few seconds nobody said anything. Then Dean bit his lip and transferred his glare to the board, looking as if he would've liked to set it on fire.
"Three minutes," he said. "That's how long you've got before I'm pulling your ghost-whispering ass back to the real world."
"Fair enough," Sam said.
The transition was the same as the first time, the world shifting and wavering around him before reshaping itself, but the end result was subtly different. The colors seemed more muted than they'd looked before, the light was hazy. Sam could still hear the voices muttering up and down the corridor, but the crying baby had fallen silent. He thought that if he squinted hard enough, he could see the dilapidated, dusty attic of his and Dean's reality peeking through the illusion. Trying it just made him dizzy, however, so he gave up the effort and walked through the closed door into Olivia's cell instead.
Olivia herself looked unchanged, but the expression on her face as Sam approached was one of weariness rather than fear.
"Oh," she said in a dull voice. "It's you."
"That's right." Sam crouched down the way he had before, close enough that he could talk without raising his voice, but far enough away (he hoped) not to be intimidating. "Who else would it be?"
"Him. Crenshaw." Olivia stared at a point somewhere behind Sam's left shoulder, her eyes as flat and lifeless as her voice. "Or the devil. Same difference. He always comes for me after the dark."
"The dark," Sam repeated blankly. "You mean, like... night?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he mentally kicked himself for being an idiot. If she meant night, she would've said night, moron.
The look Olivia gave him suggested that she held the same opinion.
"Not night," she said, "there's no night here. Only the dark. Everything goes black and quiet and cold." She hugged herself and shivered, tucking her chin down against chest. "Then the light comes back and he comes back. Sometimes for me. Sometimes for the others. I can hear them scream." She stopped shivering then, and snapped her head up to look at him with wide desperate eyes. "The baby -- I heard it scream earlier! Did he take it? Did he hurt it?" The chain around her ankle rattled as she climbed to her knees and lurched forward to clutch at Sam's arm. Her fingers went right through, of course, and Sam scrambled back instinctively as she collapsed at his feet.
"You have to find it," she pleaded. "You said you came to help... find it, don't let him hurt it, please..."
"I won't." Sam rose to his feet, feeling sick and wobbly and wishing like hell he could grab a wall to steady himself. "I mean, I will. I'll find it. I promise." He had no idea what he could do, exactly, but he was ready to promise anything to get her to stop crying like that. "I'll go look right now, okay?"
Olivia nodded shakily and pulled back from him. She struggled to stand, but she was obviously weak and hurting. It took her several tries while Sam watched, his hands twitching toward her with an impotent impulse to help. She pulled herself together with visible effort, swallowed down pain and fear, and stood up straight.
"Thank you," she said.
Sam nodded. "I'll come back," he told her, and backed out through the door into the hallway.
Since he had no clue where to start looking, Sam decided he might as well go in order. The cell next door to Olivia's was also barred, and he thought he could hear someone murmuring inside. His hesitant calls of "hello?" and "anyone in there?" received no reply, so Sam gave a mental shrug and walked in.
Only to find himself face to face with Olivia again.
They stared at each other for a long moment, Olivia looking as surprised as Sam felt.
"Uh, sorry," he said finally, and backed out again.
Okay, that was weird. Was the place messing with his sense of direction somehow? Sam walked down the corridor slowly, counting doors as he went. Five cells away from Olivia's, he stopped and turned around to face a door on the opposite side. He stared at it for a while, fixing his own location firmly in his mind, then walked through.
Same cell as before, Olivia standing against the back wall and blinking at him in confusion.
"Ooookay..." Sam rubbed one hand across his face, half hoping, with no rational basis whatsoever, that something would be different when he looked again. It didn't work that way, of course, and he gave Olivia an apologetic smile. "Apparently you're the only one I can communicate with while I'm here. Sorry."
"I don't understand," she said. Sam shrugged, feeling stupid and useless.
"Neither do I, honestly. Maybe we--"
The cell door slammed open, hitting the wall with a deafening crash that didn't quite drown out Olivia's cry. Sam whirled around and found himself face to face -- or rather, face to chest, it was that tall -- with a figure straight out of nightmare, a fairy-tale ogre, massive and looming, it's shoulders filling the doorway. The face, when Sam craned his neck back to see it, looked vaguely like the photographs of Crenshaw he'd seen in his research, but none of the records ever mentioned Crenshaw being seven feet tall and having glowing red eyes.
Sam's punch, thrown more from reflex than any real hope of having an effect, connected with nothing. The Crenshaw-thing didn't even acknowledge his existence as it walked through him to reach for Olivia.
"No!" Sam moved to throw himself between them, determined to do something, anything, to create a distraction somehow... but his limbs were growing heavy again, the weight of his own body pulling him down, down--
The return to his physical body felt smoother this time, faster. He didn't pass out, just hyperventilated for a few seconds until the pressure on his chest relaxed and his blurred vision cleared.
"Dammit, Dean," he coughed out as soon as he had his breath back, "I wasn't ready."
"Don't start with me," Dean said in a hard voice. "Three minutes. We agreed. And you're bleeding again."
There was warm wetness on Sam's upper lip and a metallic taste in his mouth. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and came away with a red smear on his knuckles.
"It's just a nosebleed, Dean. I'm okay."
"Glad to hear it," Dean said. "But the last time you got a nosebleed in a haunted house, I ended up with a chest full of rock salt, so excuse me if I'm not reassured. Please tell me you at least got something useful out of this whole exercise."
"Yeah." Sam dabbed at his nose with his sleeve and forced himself to concentrate. Every instinct he had screamed at him to go back, to fight, to protect Olivia who was trapped back there alone with that thing, but he knew it would do no good. The knowledge of his own uselessness left a bitter taste in his mouth, but he forced himself to ignore it and focus on what he actually could do. "Look, I think we can leave the circle now, but we have to move fast."
"You think." Dean sounded as if he was entertaining serious doubts about Sam's ability to do such a thing. "Mind telling me why?"
"No time." Sam braced one hand on Dean's good shoulder and pushed himself up to his feet. "It's weak now, but I don't know how long it'll last. We have to go, quickly." He snatched up both their bags, one in each hand, and stepped out of the circle.
It was a calculated risk, but it paid off. Nothing assaulted them as they jogged down the stairs and out of the house. Dean muttered and swore under his breath the whole time, but kept pace with Sam all the way to the car, where he collapsed into the passenger seat with a strangled groan.
"Hospital?" Sam asked as he slid in behind the wheel.
Dean gritted his teeth. "Hospital."
Dean had a cover story all worked out by the time they got to the hospital in Harrisburg. It was a brilliant and heroic tale in which he single-handedly fought off five guys -- muggers -- Hell's Angels -- who had dared to attack his baby brother. He was just working out the last few corroborating details in his head when Sam shoved him into a chair and said, "he crashed his dirt bike" to the cute redhead at the admissions desk.
"'Crashed his dirt bike?'" Dean hissed under his breath when Sam sat down next to him with a clipboard and a handful of forms. "What kind of stupid cover story is that?"
"The kind people actually believe," Sam said calmly. He dug through his wallet, picked out one of their newer credit cards, copied down the name and number on the top form. "As opposed to the epic bullshit you were going to tell her."
"You don't even know what I was going to tell her!" Dean protested. Sam didn't look up from his scribbling, but one corner of his mouth curled upward just enough to make the dimple in his cheek show up.
"You know that nobody actually buys your stories of taking out whole biker gangs single-handed, right? All those girls who smile and nod -- they're just humoring you."
"They do a lot more than smile and nod," Dean smirked. Sam ignored him and kept on scribbling on the forms.
Three hours later, Dean was sprawled on his bed back in the motel room in Junction with a pile of pillows propping him up and a towel-wrapped ice pack tucked inside his t-shirt. His shoulder still hurt like a bitch, but the cold was helping and the three Advils he'd gulped down five minutes earlier were starting to kick in. Another ten minutes or so, and the thought of smashing his head through the wall in the hope of knocking himself unconscious for a couple of hours might actually stop being attractive.
"'Acromioclavicular joint separation." Sam shook his head as he shuffled the thick stack of pamphlets he'd brought back from the hospital. "I'm impressed, Dean. All these years of hunting, and you still manage to come up with fresh new ways to injure yourself."
"I'll come up with some fresh new ways to injure you if you don't shut up about it," Dean grumbled. "Can we please get back to the job here? Tell me you learned something useful from all these out-of-body experiences you've been having."
"Actually, yeah, I think I have." Sam tossed aside a glossy booklet filled with cutaway diagrams of the human shoulder, and leaned back in his chair. "I think I maybe sorta-kinda understand what's going on."
"Maybe sorta-kinda?" Dean raised one eyebrow. "This oughta be good."
Sam fetched a can of soda from the mini-fridge and sipped it sporadically while he described his two encounters with Olivia.
"I don't think she's actually in the house," he said when he was finished. "She's... in between somewhere, not in our world, but not wherever she'd been after she died. I think the Ouija board summoned her, but the poltergeist caught her before she could get all the way back. The attic, the cell she's in -- it's how she remembers the house, not how it is now. I think it's an illusion the poltergeist created to keep her trapped. Her, and maybe some other slave ghosts, too."
"Why would it do that?" Dean asked, then answered his own question before Sam had time to speak. "Because geists feed on negative energy. Evil and fear and hate. Trap a bunch of slave spirits in the place where they suffered and died..."
"And you've got yourself a poltergeist banquet," Sam finished grimly. "That's why it's been getting stronger. Fuck." He jumped to his feet and paced the narrow strip of floor between the beds and the TV stand, looking pale and twitchy and ready to attack something at a moment's notice. "It's torturing these people, Dean. It's got them trapped in their worst nightmare and it's eating their pain. The second time it was there, it came for Olivia, and I couldn't stop it, couldn't help..." He trailed off and stood staring at the wall in front of him, fists clenched at his sides.
"Come on, Sam, don't go there." Dean sat up, holding the icepack in place with his left hand, and scooted forward on the bed. "You said yourself you couldn't touch anything while you were there. There was nothing you could've done, even if I hadn't pulled you out. There's no way that any of this shit is your fault."
"I know," Sam said, but the flat look in his eyes indicated that the knowledge wasn't making him feel any better. "That's not the point. The point is, we have to do something about this. To stop it."
"We will. We always do." Dean patted the bed next to him and stared pointedly at Sam until Sam came over and sat down. "I don't care how nasty this thing is, it's got rules and limits, just like any other supernatural thing. We just need to figure out what they are. So... how did you know it was safe for us to leave the circle when you came back the second time?"
"I didn't know." Sam clasped his hands in his lap and stared fixedly at them while he spoke. "Not for sure. But the way I figure it, the geist can either be in our world, or it can be back with Olivia and the others. It can't be in both places at once. The times Olivia described as 'the dark' -- that's when it's manifesting in the house. The illusion fades when the poltergeist isn't there to support it. So when I saw it coming for Olivia--"
"--You knew it wasn't in the house anymore." Dean nodded. "Makes sense."
"It takes energy for it to manifest," Sam continued without looking up. "If it stays too long or does too much--"
"--Or gets shot with rock salt--"
"It has to go back to feed." Sam closed his eyes and shuddered. "To hurt them." His face was pale and haggard. Dean wanted to grab him by the shirtfront and shake him and yell "Stop doing this to yourself!" until it sank it, except that it would never sink in. Sam would just look at him with those tired eyes and say, "I'm not doing anything," and then Dean would have to go out and find something to punch that wasn't his brother. Which, considering his current physical condition, probably wouldn't be a good idea.
"Why do you keep saying 'them'?" he asked, both because he genuinely wanted to know and because the question would help Sam focus on something other than brooding. "You said you only saw Olivia, right?"
"I heard their voices," Sam said, "both with Olivia and back at the house. You heard them too, didn't you? When we first started the seance."
"I guess." That seance felt like it had happened days ago instead of hours. All Dean could really recall was a general ungodly racket. But if Sam said it was voices, then it was probably voices. And now that he thought about it-- "Stacey said she heard them too, didn't she? Voices screaming in pain, that's what she said."
"Yeah." Sam slumped down a little further in his seat and gnawed at a thumbnail with a look of intense concentration. "I don't know why I couldn't find them, though. Every time I tried to go into one of the other cells, I ended up right back with Olivia."
"Okay, so what is it about her, then?" Dean leaned back against the pillows again and tried, with limited success, to find a position that was comfortable enough to think in. "Does she have the hots for you or something?"
"Hey, I'm just saying. You know you're a total ghost-chick magnet. Remember Constance Welch? Totally macking on you in the car. So if this chick--"
"Not funny Dean."
"Okay, fine, whatever." Dean held up one hand in a placating gesture and refrained from rolling his eyes. This, he thought irritably, was precisely why it was always a bad idea to talk to the spooks. Every damn one of them had a sob story to tell. And sure, some of them had been assholes in life, but a lot of them weren't. This Olivia girl -- Dean could see how she'd gotten a raw deal, if she'd been a slave, especially one of Crenshaw's. But he was fucking well not going to get worked up over it, because you couldn't save a dead person, all you could do was give them an extra push in whatever direction they'd been heading in before they got stuck. If you wet around getting invested in them, you might as well book a reservation in a nice, padded room.
Sam was getting invested, Dean could see it in his face. Which meant they needed to finish this job and move on as soon as humanly possible.
"You said she kept asking about a baby, right?"
Sam nodded. "I think she died in childbirth, and she never found out if it lived or not."
"That must be it, then. Unfinished business. Some part of her wanted to get back here, to find out what happened to her kid. So when the board pulled her back, she latched on to the one person around who was capable of talking to her. Namely, you."
"I think you're right." Sam stopped chewing his nails and got up to pace again. He still looked twitchy, but there was a purpose to it now, a sharper focus to his movements. "And you know what else? I heard a baby crying when I was talking to Olivia, but I couldn't hear it back at the house. I don't think it's real, not like the other voices. It's part of the illusion. The poltergeist is using it to hurt her." He marched over to the table, where the pages of Walter's manuscript were spread out haphazardly around the laptop. Sam stared at the papers for a moment, then pulled up a chair and reached for the phone.
"I'm going to call the Kravitzes," he said.
"Walter wrote the book on Crenshaw. Literally. If there's a record of Olivia's child anywhere, he'll know."
"I'm sure he will," Dean said, "but that doesn't answer my question. What are you doing this for, Sam? How does this help us get rid of the poltergeist?"
For a moment, Sam looked as if he was going to yell at him. Then he sighed and bowed his head, avoiding Dean's gaze. "You don't get it."
"No, Sam, I do get it. You feel sorry for this girl, you want to help her. Well, you know what'll help her? Getting rid of the son of a bitch that's holding her prisoner. Personally, I'm thinking we could use that hoodoo charm Missouri used in Lawrence. I know it didn't work so hot there, but this geist isn't nearly as powerful. It should work here."
"No," Sam said quickly. "No. That charm will only banish the poltergeist, not destroy it. It'll still have the spirits trapped."
"Maybe it'll lose its grip on them once it's out of the house."
"And maybe it won't. We can't risk it."
"Well, that's just great. You got any other brilliant ideas?"
"We'll think of something." Sam reached for the phone again. "Right now, though, I'm calling Walter."
Dean let his head fall back against the pillows and aimed a furious glare at the ceiling, which made for a less frustrating target than Sam.
"I hate this fucking hunt," he said.
Dean leafed through his father's journal, looking for notes on poltergeists while Sam and Walter got their geek on over the phone. He found several entries, with Latin chants and expulsion runes carefully copied down and annotated (one of the earlier entries had phonetic pronunciation guide for the Latin written in the margin), but none of them promised to be any more effective than Missouri's gris-gris bags. More to the point, none of them made any mention of what could be done if a poltergeist just happened to be holding an unknown number of ghosts hostage.
Which sucked big-time, because it meant they'd have to improvise, and Dean had a pretty good idea of where improvisation would take them. At least, he knew exactly what he'd want to try if he'd been in Sam's place, and it was a pretty safe bet that Sam would come up with the same plan. As much as he hated the idea, Dean couldn't come up with any convincing arguments against it, either.
"Thanks, Walter, I appreciate it." Sam hung up the phone and came over to sit on the edge of Dean's bed. "Walter says he can try to find out about the baby, but he needs to know when it would've been born. I can ask Olivia when I talk to her again."
"Right," Dean said. "Planning your next date already?"
Sam gave him a pissy glare, but didn't rise to the bait. "Dean, I've been thinking."
"That's never a good sign."
"I figure what I've been doing is some form of astral travel. The board is acting like a conduit of some sort, helping me get from here to there."
"Wherever 'there' is."
"Right. But the problem is, I have no physical presence there. I can't touch anything, can't i do /i anything."
"Really?" Dean said, "and here I thought the problem was you keep keeling over unconscious and bleeding all over the place."
Predictably, Sam ignored the interruption, barreling on as if cerebral hemorrhages were something that only happened to other people.
"The thing is, I think we could change that. It should be possible for me to touch things on the astral plane. I just need to... to get a stronger connection somehow, a deeper trance."
"Dude, you've spent way too much time in California," Dean told him. "First those girly flower-scented candles, and now -- astral plane? Deep trance? What's next, incense and Celtic music?"
"I swear, you start hanging crystals in the Impala, I'll lock your ass in the trunk."
"Dean." Sam leaned forward, wide-eyed and earnest and completely undiverted by any of Dean's brilliant diversion tactics. "Can you please stop goofing off for a second? I'm trying to make a plan here."
"I know," Dean said. "That's exactly what's worrying me." Sam didn't say anything in response. He just sat there and em looked /em at him, until Dean gave in and resigned himself to the inevitable. "All right, genius, what's your plan?"
Sam reached half way across the room with one freakishly long arm, and snagged the laptop from the table.
"There are herbal preparations to facilitate astral travel," he said. "Those 'flying ointments' witches used in the middle ages weren't i really /i for flying. I thought we could--"
"Whoa," Dean said. "You are not smearing anything involving wolfbane or deadly nightshade on any part of your body. That's non-negotiable."
"I know." Sam gave him a crooked smile. "The fat of unbaptized infants is right out, too, in case you were wondering."
"That's good to know."
"There are modern variations on the formula. I'm sure if we poke around, we can come up with something that doesn't involve toxic substances or dead babies."
"That's great, Sam." Dean's arm was starting to go numb from all the icing. He removed the ice pack from his shoulder, dropped it on the bedside table, flexed his fist open and closed a few times to get the circulation going again. When he finally looked up from contemplating his own fingertips, Sam was still sitting there looking at him. Dean sighed and rolled his eyes. "Look, if I listed all the reasons why I think you shouldn't do it, would it make any difference?"
"Didn't think so."
Researching possible ingredients for a flying ointment took only a couple of hours. Shopping for them took most of the day, and by the end of it, Dean still had no idea what Dittany of Crete was.
"So what have we got?" he asked, reaching over to snag a strawberry from the overflowing basket in the middle of the table. Their shopping expedition had taken them to an organic farmers' market near Evansville, and Sam's starry-eyed reaction to the piles of produce only served to reinforce Dean's conviction that his brother had lived too long in California. Now the mini-fridge was filled top to bottom with strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, apples, a jug of homemade lemonade, and four different kinds of cheese, none of which came from cows. Dean had taken full advantage of the mocking opportunities on the drive back, but he had to admit the strawberries were pretty damn good.
"We've got mugwort, thyme, mace, parsley and lavender." Sam laid out the little bags of dried herbs on the table in front of him. "Also, sandalwood oil, clove oil, and... uhm... lard." He frowned at brown paper-wrapped package and poked it dubiously with one finger. "Does it really have to be lard? Can't we try, like, canola oil or something?"
"Don't be a wuss," Dean told him. "It's only a little pig fat."
"Would you rather go look for some unbaptized babies?"
"Fuck you." Sam tapped his pencil against the motel notepad on which he'd been keeping his notes. "Let's just get this done. Do you have the hot plate?"
"I still think we should've gone with canola oil," Sam grumbled, removing the lid from the old mayonnaise jar they'd put the ointment in. "This stuff reeks." All the herbs and essential oils they'd added were doing little to disguise the greasy stink of lard that had been melted and left to congeal again.
"Yeah, well, I just hope the motel room airs out while we're gone, that's all," Dean said. "Otherwise it'll be like sleeping in the deep fryer at McDonald's."
"Gee, thanks," Sam sighed, "that's just the image I needed."
They were back in the attic at Hickory Hill, with maybe twenty minutes of daylight left to finish their preparations. There was a fresh salt circle laid out beneath the window. New candles -- plain and unscented, because Dean just wouldn't stop bitching -- waited to be lit. As Dean laid out eight carefully tied pouches filled with crossroads dirt and angelica root, Sam strapped a sheathed Bowie knife to his leg and tucked a set of lock picks into the chest pocket of his flannel shirt. He then picked up four of the gris-gris bags and stuffed them into his jacket pockets, before taking off his boots and socks.
"Okay, I'm ready."
"I'm still not sure about this," Dean said. "What if all this stuff doesn't come across with you?"
"It will," Sam assured him, trying his best to sound more confident than he actually felt. It made logical sense. His clothes and shoes -- or at least some psychic equivalent of his clothes and shoes -- had all been in place the last two times he'd traveled. He hadn't thought to check the random crap in his pockets, but he was pretty sure that nothing had gone missing. In theory, that meant he could take anything he wanted with him as long as he was holding or wearing it when he touched the board. Unfortunately, in their line of work, practice and theory often had only a nodding acquaintance. Sam firmly pushed that thought aside and patted his pockets one more time to make sure everything was in its place. "Hand me the shotgun, will you?"
Dean pulled one of the salt-loaded shotguns from his duffel, but hesitated before handing it over.
"Look, Sam, maybe we should put this off another day. Do a little more research, make sure we know what the hell we're doing."
"You want to do more research?" Sam blinked at his brother, then grinned. "Christo."
"Ha-ha. I'm serious, Sam, I don't like that we're doing this half-assed. We've got an ointment that may or may not work, a gun that may or may not travel with you and may or may not work when you get there, a bunch of gris-gris bags that we know didn't work the last time we tried them... you're about to go off into some freaky paranormal hostage situation, and I can't even be there to watch your back. Tell me again how we decided this was a good idea?"
Put like that, it was perfectly obvious what the problem was. Sam laid the shotgun on the floor next to him and leaned forward. He chose his words with care, working for the right balance between reassuring and casual, because Dean would dig in his heels and not budge an inch till doomsday if he thought he was being reassured.
"You had my back the last two times, dude. I don't expect you to suddenly drop the ball now."
"Yeah, well." Dean suddenly appeared to be intensely preoccupied with adjusting the strap that held his right arm in its sling. "Sitting on my ass trying to make a blind guess about when to bring you back from the great beyond isn't exactly my idea of effective backup."
"What, not enough action for you?" Sam grinned. "I know you'd rather be out there kicking poltergeist ass, but I'm afraid you're gonna have to let me have all the fun this time."
"Glory hog," Dean said, but his smirk didn't quite reach his eyes. "Look, I'm not saying we shouldn't do this at all, I just think another couple of days--"
"No!" Sam blurted out, a little more vehemently than he'd meant to. Dean stopped fiddling with his sling and gave him a wary, measuring look. Sam could only shrug in response. He knew there was no point in explaining. Dean hadn't been there. He hadn't seen Olivia with her blood-soaked shift, her shackled ankle, her old eyes in a face barely older than Stacy Kravitz's. Sam knew enough history to have a pretty good idea of what usually happened to female slaves. He was almost certain that the child Olivia was so terrified for had been Crenshaw's. The image of her backed against the wall while a monster with Crenshaw's face bore down on her would haunt Sam's nightmares for weeks, he was sure of it. Postponement was simply not an option.
Dean didn't see any of that. Dean saw himself sitting helpless on the sidelines while Sam went someplace Dean couldn't go to fight an enemy Dean couldn't see or touch. If Sam were in his place he'd probably be stalling, too.
"Dean." Sam shook his head helplessly, formulating and discarding a hundred different arguments that he knew wouldn't help. "We're losing daylight. Let's just do this, okay?"
There was a long, uncomfortable silence while Sam stared at Dean and Dean stared at anything other than Sam.
"Fine," Dean muttered eventually. "Let's get it over with so I can get some sleep."
The remaining preparations didn't take long. Dean gathered up three of the remaining gris-gris bags and placed them inside the walls while Sam smeared the flying ointment on his hands, feet, wrists and forehead. It felt just as gross as he'd expected, but at least the herbal scent was stronger on his skin than it had been in the jar. Smelling like cheap potpourri wasn't exactly his idea of a good time, but at least it was better than smelling like a Chicken McNugget.
He lit the candles and stretched out on the floor inside the circle, with the Ouija board within easy reach and the shotgun lying across his legs. After a minute or so, Dean came back and sat down on the other side of the board.
"Ready?" he asked.
Sam closed his eyes and breathed slowly and deeply, focusing on the weight of the shotgun against his thighs and the smell of the ointment tickling his nose.
"I'm ready," he said.
He could tell Dean had activated the board when the howling and door-slamming started up again. Sam ignored it, ignored the shiver of cold air against his skin, concentrated on his breathing. When the individual noises blended into meaningless background static, he reached out blindly with his left hand until his fingers brushed the edge of the Ouija board.
He could feel right away that the transition was different. There was a tangible feeling of displacement this time, a queasy feeling of disorientation and dizziness. When Sam opened his eyes, he was standing, and the wooden floor felt warm and solid against his bare feet.
The shotgun was in his hands, the Bowie knife was still strapped to his leg. A quick check of his pockets established that everything else was in place, too. Sam allowed himself a quick sigh of relief as he reached the door to Olivia's cell and slid the iron bar out of the way.
Olivia scrambled into a corner when Sam pushed the door open, then slumped against the wall when she recognized him. When he came closer, she reached tentatively with one hand to brush her fingertips against the hem of his jacket.
"Are you dead now, too?" she asked.
"I hope not." Sam knelt down next to her, put the gun down, and fished the lock picks from his pocket. "Can you sit down and hold still for a couple of minutes? I'm going to get this chain off you."
She tensed but didn't pull away when he gently lifted her foot into his lap to get a good look at the padlock that held the shackle closed around her ankle. Up close, she smelled of blood and sweat and dirt. Her foot was tiny, smaller than his hand, with thick calluses on the ball and heel. The two smallest toes were misshapen, as if they'd been broken at some point and had healed crooked. She held perfectly still as she watched Sam work on the lock.
"You're different," she said quietly. "What did you do?"
"Long story," Sam said. "The important thing is, I can get you out of here now. You and all the others."
"I don't think your baby's here. But I'm working on making sure. Listen, can you tell me when you... when you had it? Because that would help a lot."
Olivia frowned, as if the question confused her. "It was the Sunday after the first apple harvest," she said after a while. "The year that we had the snow on Easter day."
"Uhm, okay. We can work with that." A date would've been useful, but probably too much to ask. Walter would figure it out. "Just give me another moment here... almost got it... there." The padlock clicked open in his hand. Sam quickly undid the shackle and tossed it aside. Beneath it, Olivia's ankle looked raw and bruised. "Do you think you can walk on it?"
"I'll run a hundred miles if I have to." She braced one hand on Sam's shoulder and pushed herself up to her feet. "I-- thank you."
"Don't thank me yet. I'm going to need your help now. Here, take these." Sam took the four gris-gris bags from his pockets and dropped them into her hands. "Now, here's what I need you to do. Any minute now, the polter-- the thing that trapped you here is going to come back. And I'm going to fight it."
He hoped that was true, anyhow. Dean had agreed to wait three minutes before placing the last of his own bags, but they still had no clear idea of how their time frames compared. Nor did they have any guarantee that the poltergeist would return to its feeding place once it was banished from the house. Dean was right; they were doing this half-assed.
No point in worrying about it now, though. Sam pulled the Bowie knife from its sheath and handed it over. "While I've got it distracted, I need you to put one of these bags in each wall. Use the knife to make holes if you need to do. Can you do that?"
Olivia gripped the knife with a steady hand. "Will this hurt the devil?"
"Yes. It'll drive it out." With no place to haunt and no place to feed, the poltergeist would wither and die. In theory.
Olivia's eyes narrowed with determination. "Then I'll do it."
"Good." Sam picked up the shotgun and cocked it. "Now we wait."
It was hard to judge the passage of time, but Sam thought five minutes or so had passed when the door at the end of the corridor smashed open. The poltergeist ducked through doorway, a fairy tale ogre with Crenshaw's scowling face, and Sam planted himself in its path and fired both shotgun barrels straight at its chest. It fell back with a roar, arms flailing.
"Now!" Sam shouted, and Olivia turned around to hack at the wall behind her with the knife.
The poltergeist was getting up already. Sam rushed it, wielding the shotgun like a club. He got a couple of good blows in before it rose up and swiped at him with one massive arm. Sam dodged, but the corridor wasn't wide enough to allow him to evade the attack entirely. He took a glancing strike across his ribs, and even that was enough to knock him breathless for a moment. Sam dropped to the floor, rolled to avoid a kick, and clambered to his feet again just in time to see the geist rushing at him.
He swung the shotgun at it again, but it caught the barrel, wrenched it from Sam's grip and tossed it aside. It aimed a blow at Sam's head. Sam ducked under its swing and jumped backwards, keeping out of its reach. He had no desire to actually engage the thing in hand-to-hand combat, just to keep it distracted for a while. He risked a quick glance to his left, and saw Olivia running across the corridor to unbar the cell across from hers. He had no idea how far along she was in her task, and there was no time to find out. The geist was attacking again.
Sam ducked three more punches, leading the geist farther away from Olivia with each carefully placed step. He thought he had a rhythm going now, thought he could keep it swinging at air for a while. Then its eyes flashed red, and suddenly there was a bullwhip in its hand, a flash of metal gleaming at its tip.
Oh, fuck. Sam threw himself backwards, but there was no way he could move fast enough to compensate for an opponent whose reach had just increased by over ten feet. The whip sliced across his thighs, and he went down screaming. Blood ran down his legs and soaked his jeans.
The geist advanced, raising the whip again. Sam crawled away from it, legs dragging uselessly behind him. His arms trembled with the strain of pulling himself along, but he knew he couldn't move fast enough. The lashes fell with lightning speed, each one accompanied by a crack like a thunderclap. A searing line of pain between his shoulder blades. Two more across his thighs. Three in a row across the small of his back, until he thought his spine would be ripped out. Sam thought he was screaming, felt the strain in his throat and lungs, but heard nothing except the whip cracks and the roaring of blood in his ears.
It took him a long time to notice when the lashes stopped. A longer time to will himself to move. He thought that rising to his knees might've been the hardest thing he'd ever done in his life, but that was before he had to will himself to turn around not knowing if the next stroke of the whip would come straight at his face.
No attack came. The poltergeist lay face down on the floor, motionless. A black stain was spreading across its tailored nineteenth-century frock coat, centered around the hilt of the Bowie knife protruding from its back.
Sam stared at the knife and tried to wrap his mind around what had just happened. It was hard to concentrate. He'd never before appreciated just how many back muscles were involved in the simple act of breathing. Now he could feel them shifting every time he inhaled, pulling at the stripes left by the whip. His clothes clung to his back, all wet and sticky and warm. He didn't really want to think about that, so he made himself lift his head and look up at Olivia, who was standing over the geist's body with her hands clenched at her sides.
"Is he dead?" she asked in a dull voice.
"We should be so lucky," Sam said, "but I doubt it. Have you placed all the bags?"
She unclenched one fist to show him the little bag cupped in her palm. "One more left."
"Go do it, then."
"I need the knife," she said in a small voice.
"Oh. Right." It was lodged pretty deep in there. Sam didn't know how she'd managed it, with her tiny hands and her skinny arms, but he could see she'd reached her limit. So he clenched his jaw against the pain, and leaned forward to wrap his hand around the hilt.
It took him several minutes of agonizing effort to work the knife free. He was shaking by the end of it, his vision blurring and his hair damp with sweat. The stuff that oozed from the wound and dripped from the blade was black and viscous, nothing like human blood. It smelled like rotten eggs. Sam wiped it off on the geist's coat and handed the knife Olivia hilt first.
"Better hurry," he said. "I don't know how long it'll stay down."
Sam wanted to stay right where he was. He wanted to lie down on the floor and never move again. Instead he got up, braced his hand against the wall, and staggered over to retrieve his shotgun from the floor. There were spare salt cartridges in his jacket pocket. His hands were shaking so badly, it took him three tries to reload. He managed it just in time to see the geist rising from the floor, red eyes glowing like coals.
Sam fired at its face. It staggered back, howling. He took aim again, and the world around him flickered.
"No!" For a moment he thought it was Dean, pulling him back too early. But it wasn't he who flickered out of existence, it was the space around him. The walls burst apart into a kaleidoscope of swirling colors, then reformed themselves into new shapes and patterns. Sam looked around, dazed, and saw that he was kneeling on top of the bed in his old bedroom in Palo Alto.
Sam's breath caught in his throat. Not real, it's an illusion, not real. A drop of blood splattered on the bedspread. An illusion, not real, don't look up. Another drop landed on his knee, disappearing into the blood that was already staining his jeans. He knew that if he raised his head now, he would find himself looking straight into Jessica's accusing eyes. Dontlookupdontlookupdontlookup...
He looked up. Had maybe a second's glimpse of Jessica's agonized face before the room burst into flames.
He needed to move. There would be no Dean bursting through the door this time, he knew that. He had to move, to rescue himself, to find the poltergeist and keep fighting somehow. But the smoke was chocking his lungs, and everything hurt, and he was so damn tired... Sam tried anyway. Hauled himself off the bed and took a staggering step toward the door before his legs gave out. Damn he thought, Dean is going to be so pissed at me.
There was a blinding flash of white light, and then nothing.
Dean was beginning to hate this job more than any other they'd ever done, and that was saying a lot. The separated shoulder, he could deal with. The ache in his head was a minor annoyance. But sitting around in useless and utterly helpless vigil over Sam's unmoving body now topped the list of things he never, ever wanted to do again, thank you very much.
The poltergeist's head-banging had stopped abruptly once Dean had placed the last gris-gris bag in the wall beneath the window. Since then, the attic had been silent and still. Dean stayed in the circle anyway; to be safe, he told himself, but it was really because he was unwilling to be out of arm's reach of Sam. It made him feel better, for a very loose definition of "better," if he could just lean forward to check Sam's pulse every minute or so.
"Next time," he grumbled, "I get to go fuck around in Cloud Coo-coo Land and you can sit with you thumb up your ass and wonder if I'll wake up dead."
Sam made no response, the bastard.
Five minutes passed. Seven. Ten. Dean stood up, but the circle was too small to pace in, so he sat down again. God, he hated this. What if Sam had finished his fight and was sitting around somewhere waiting for Dean to bring him back? Or, fuck, what if he'd died out there, or got lost or something, and this pale, motionless shell with a smear of blood on the upper lip was all Dean was going to get left with?
"Fuck it," Dean said, "I'm bringing you back right now, Sammy, and you can bitch at me later." He reached for the board.
A pale shimmer at the edge of the circle halted him mid-motion. He turned, and found himself face to face with a trembling girl in a blood-soaked white dress.
Dean kept his eye on her as he picked up his shotgun with his left hand.
"Let me guess," he said. "Olivia."
She stared at him with a dazed, blank look on her face, then glanced down at Sam.
"Is he dead?" she asked.
"Hell, no." Dean stood and took a step toward her, holding the shotgun lowered near his hip. She didn't look threatening and couldn't enter the circle anyhow, but one never could tell with ghosts. And anyway, it made him feel better just to have the solid weight of a weapon in his hand. "Listen, did he --"
"He promised he'd find my baby," she said in a shaky voice. "Do you have it? Do you know where it is? Please, sir, I just want to hold it for a little while..."
"I'm sorry," Dean said, "I don't have it." He could feel the temperature dropping as Olivia's distress grew. His breath steamed in front of his face. "But listen, if Sam told you he'd find it then he will, okay? You just have to help him come back here. Now, did he give you a bunch of little bags, about this big, kind of smelly?"
He wasn't sure she understood him at first, but then her expression cleared and she nodded. The cold receded a little.
"He told me to put them in the walls," she said.
"Right. So did you?"
"All of them?"
"Do you have it?" And now there was actual frost creeping up the windowpane, painting snowflake patterns on the glass. "Do you know where it is? Is it alive, is it safe, is it--"
"Olivia!" Dean said sharply, but it was no use. She may have talked with Sam like a normal person out on the astral plane or wherever the fuck it was, but here she was like any other ghost, trapped in the loop of her dying obsession. Still, the fact that she was there at all meant that the poltergeist had lost its grip on her. That was a good sign, wasn't it? Good enough for him, anyway. Dean took a step toward the board and used the toe of his boot to move the planchette toward "goodbye."
Sam snapped back to life screaming and flailing, and knocked over two of the candles before Dean got him pinned down. Fortunately, both candles went out without igniting anything, since Dean really didn't think he was up to dragging Sam from yet another burning house with only one good arm. All he could do was straddle Sam's chest, pin one of his hands down, and dodge wild blows from the other hand until Sam stopped swinging, caught his breath, and muttered, "dude, get off me" while poking Dean in the ribs.
"Ow, quit it," Dean said, and climbed off. "So what happened, man? Are you all right? Did you get it?"
Sam stayed where he was, lying on his back and scrubbing at his face with one shaking hand. His nose was bleeding again, and he looked pale and twitchy and utterly wasted.
"I'm not sure," he said after a while.
"You're kidding." Dean fought down a sudden, overwhelming impulse to bang his head against the wall. Or somebody's head, anyway. He wasn't choosy. "After all this trouble, you're still not sure? What were you doing over there, playing pinochle?"
"Fuck you." Sam rubbed his face some more, which only served to smear the blood around. "I kind of passed out before you pulled me back, so I didn't see what happened at the very end, okay?" Sam's voice was a little higher than normal, Dean noticed, and his limbs were still twitching, though he was clearly making an effort to keep still.
"Hey, are you hurt? Do you need a hospital or something?"
"It won't help," Sam said, which wasn't at all what Dean wanted to hear. "Just give me a couple of minutes. It..." He stopped, closed his eyes, looked suddenly even more sick and exhausted than it had before. "It showed me Jessica. And the fire, back in Palo Alto."
Fuck. Of course it did. Sometimes Dean wondered if there was an instruction manual somewhere out there that every evil thing got a copy of before being released into the world. How to Fuck up Sam Winchester in One Easy Step.
"I know. It wasn't real. I hurt it -- the poltergeist -- and it fought back the best way it knew how. By changing the illusion to something that would hurt me." Sam sighed and opened his eyes. "I think maybe that was a mistake on its part. I think the trapped spirits all got free when the illusion changed around them."
"Yeah," Dean said, "I think they did. At least, your friend Olivia did, because she's here. Or was here." He glanced around, but Olivia was nowhere in sight. The window was still covered in frost, though, and Dean suspected she was still around, doing whatever it was that ghosts did when they weren't actively manifesting. "If she got out, the others probably did, too."
"Good." Sam coughed a couple of times and finally sat up. "Can we get out of here now? Because I'm covered in freakin' lard, and I really want a shower."
They destroyed the Ouija board before they left, breaking it into seven pieces and sprinkling them with holy water before burying the pieces in the back yard. Sam had to do all the digging, and by the time he was finished, he looked ready to fall asleep on his feet. He shuffled back to the car, flat-footed and glassy-eyed like an old-school Romero zombie, and was snoring in the passenger seat by the time Dean turned on the ignition. He didn't even seem to fully wake up when Dean walked him across the parking lot and into their motel room.
"I thought you wanted a shower," Dean said.
"Urgh," Sam said, and collapsed face-forward onto the nearest bed.
"Olivia?" Sam stood in the center of the attic corridor, sweeping the beam of his flashlight in a semicircle in front of him. "Olivia, are you still here?"
"She's probably gone," Dean said from behind him. "I mean, if you were in her place, wouldn't you get the hell away from here?"
"I would if I could," Sam said. "I don't think she can, not yet. Why don't you check the EMF--"
The flashlight went out. Sam gave it a shake, more from reflex than any real hope that it would help, and it surprised him by lighting again. He pointed the beam in front of him, and Olivia was there. She actually looked like a ghost now, faintly luminous and not-quite-distinct. The bloodstains on her shift flickered in and out of sight, changing from pristine white cloth to dripping red gore in between eyeblinks.
"Do you have it?" she demanded urgently. "Do you know where it is?"
"I think so." Sam stepped forward, trying not to shiver in the intensifying chill. "Listen, Olivia, do you remember--"
"Olivia!" Sam raised one hand toward her but stopped with his fingers less than an inch from brushing her cheek. Dean had warned him that she was different here, but Sam had still gone in hoping she'd be the same young woman he'd spoken to before, frightened but strong and sane. "Olivia, it's Sam, remember me? I need you to focus and listen to me for a minute, okay?"
"Please, sir," she whispered, and Sam's heart sank, but then the blurred edges of her outline seemed to sharpen a little and her eyes sparked with recognition. "Sam?"
"Yeah, it's me." He resisted the impulse to try and touch her. "Olivia, do you remember a woman named Marie Bernard? She lived in Equality during your time."
Olivia blinked a couple of times, dreamy and distant.
"That's right, that's what people called her. A free mulatto woman from New Orleans. Came up here as nursemaid with a French furniture merchant and his family. She was the midwife for most of the black children born around Equality in the 1830s and 40s."
"Uhm, I don't think the girl wants a history lesson, Sam," Dean muttered. Sam threw him a quick, annoyed glance.
"I just want to make sure she remembers. Do you remember, Olivia?"
She nodded, slowly but steadily. "Yes."
"She delivered your son. We know it was you, because she mentioned you by name. She was an educated woman, you see, kept an account book and personal diary." Walter had come through with flying colors, digging up the documents in question at the University of Illinois. "After you died, she gave the baby to one of the women who worked in the kitchen. The woman named him Theodore. So, you see, he lived. Safe."
He felt a twinge of guilt at that last, empty assurance. Walter's research had produced nothing beyond a name a date, and Sam had no way of knowing how long Theodore had lived, or if his condition had qualified as safe in any way. Most likely, he would've been sent away to be sold in Tennessee or Kentucky as soon as he was old enough, another casualty of Crenshaw's reverse version of the Underground Railroad. If he'd been lucky, he might've lived through the Civil War and the Reconstruction. But Dean was right, Olivia didn't want a history lesson. She just wanted to hear that her child had lived.
"Theodore," she said quietly. "That's a good name."
"It means 'God's gift,'" Sam said. Next to him, Dean made a noise behind his hand that sounded suspiciously like coughgeekcough. Sam resolutely ignored him. "See, it's all right," he told Olivia. "You can go now."
"I can go now," she repeated. And just like that, between one breath and another, she was gone. Sam stayed still for a moment, gazing at the place where she had been, then turned to Dean.
"Is she really gone?"
"Looks like it." Dean walked up and down the corridor, the EMF meter silent in his hand. "The whole attic's clean as far as I can tell."
"Good." Sam let his shoulders slump in relief. "I'm glad."
Dean gave him a suspicious sideways glance. "You don't sound glad."
"No, I am. Really. I just..." Sam shrugged. "I wish we could've done more for her."
"She's been dead for over 160 years, Sam. There was nothing more you could possibly do."
"I know. It's just--"
"It's just nothing. Stop whining and let's get out of this fucking house." Dean switched off the EMF meter and tucked it back inside his jacket pocket. "I swear, I'd burn the whole dump to the ground if it was up to me. Historical landmark, my ass."
He looked so disgruntled that Sam just had to smile, which promptly earned him an annoyed scowl and a slap to the back of the head.
"What are you grinning at, asshole?"
"Nothing." Sam kept smiling. "I'm sorry, Dean. I know this was a tough hunt for you, and you didn't even get to kill anything or set anything on fire."
"This?" Dean gave a loud, contemptuous sniff. "This wasn't a tough hunt. A banged-up shoulder, a few bruises... I used to get worse just sparring with Dad."
"Yeah, but you had to sit and worry about me. I know you hate that."
"Who said I was worried about you?"
"Right." Sam patted Dean on his good shoulder and headed for the stairs. "My mistake. Come on."
"I wasn't worried." Dean stomped down the stairs behind him, steel-toed boots thumping heavily on the wooden steps. It was, Sam thought, a remarkably reassuring sound. "You just have an inflated opinion of your own importance, that's all."
"Admit it, Dean."
"No. You think I got nothing better to do than sit around worrying about your ass?"
"Admit it, or I'll hug you."
"Liar. You wouldn't hug a man with a busted shoulder."
"No? Come here, you big lug..."
"Argh!" Dean backpedaled out of arm's reach with startling speed. "All right, all right, I admit it! Get away from me, you perv."
"See, that wasn't so difficult."
"Oh, shut up."