He can't remember too much about Christmas. Just Sammy playing with his new Hot Wheels racer, making him lie on his stomach and stretch his fingertips out to touch Sammy's, become a bridge, so that the car could go exploring all along his back; the car had tickled a little as Sammy steered it carefully along, finding mountains and rivers and roads in the wrinkles of his bunched-up sweatshirt.
There must have been nice long days of just Dad and Sammy and him, no school to worry about, no lunches to pack, no homework to take up hours of time. Just training and learning, teaching Sammy how to arm-wrestle. But the next thing he remembered was being in the car, Dad singing along to the radio and Sammy tucked up against him, both of them buried under piles of sheets and towels and blankets, and whispering, endlessly repeating, "A new town for a new year, Dean; that's what Daddy says." And even though he was supposed to be navigating, he must have fallen asleep.
A couple weeks after that, Dad had gotten a phone call from someone named Caleb and started gathering stuff together. So he'd started packing too, but Dad had stopped him with a hand on his shoulder and a stern shake of his head. He knew Dad still didn't trust him after what had happened in Wisconsin, but he'd hoped Dad could see that he could count on him all the way now.
Dad hung up the phone, looking more excited than he had in weeks, and looked at Sammy, vroom-vrooming quietly with his new blue car, his homework already done. Then Dad spoke right to him, saying, "Dean," but for some reason he couldn't concentrate well enough to hear Dad, like he was running half a step behind and Dad's voice was getting lost on the wind. He knew that everything Dad was saying boiled down to one thing anyway - stay sharp and keep Sammy safe.
The first day that Dad's gone, Dean's cold, enough to wear Dad's leather jacket around the apartment, even though Sammy's watching Saturday cartoons in his thin thermals with a big bowl of cereal balanced precariously on his lap. Sammy gives him a big milky grin, more holes than teeth, and turns back to the TV, and Dean curls up next to his little brother and falls asleep to the sound of talking animals.
He wakes up to find Sammy sitting on the floor in front of him, bundled up in his heavy coat and snow boots, reading the book on his lap and checking to see if he's awake at the end of every page. "Dean!" he exclaims, getting hastily to his feet and setting the little pompom on the top of his winter cap bouncing, "can we go outside to play, pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease?"
"Sure, Sammy," he says. Or at least that's what he tries to say, but all that comes out is a croak and his throat is suddenly on fire.
Sammy's eyes get round and he peels off his gloves to slap one sweaty palm down on Dean's forehead. "You don't look so good, Dean," he says, sounding like he's about to cry.
"'m fine," he says, and Sammy's face sets in a skeptical frown. Sammy gets up real close to him and Dean panics and pushes him away, not knowing if he's contagious. "Get away, Sammy!"
Sammy looks openly triumphant now that he's admitted he's sick, but it fades pretty quickly. "You wanna sleep some more?" he asks.
It's tempting, but Sammy's been waiting to play. "Naw," he says, shaking his head. He grabs his scarf and gloves and zips up Dad's jacket, and makes sure to lock the door behind them.
Dad doesn't call that night, and Dean can't remember if they packed any medicine besides holy water and peroxide, so he tries to remember what Dad used to do whenever they got tired and achy like this. He thinks hot baths were part of the recovery process, but this place only has a shower, so he goes into the bathroom, teeth chattering, and gets into the shower, turned all the way up.
He gets out to find Sammy sitting on the toilet, his legs swinging. "Look what I found, Dean!" he says, proud of his achievement. He's holding a bottle of Vicks VapoRub and Dean nods shakily as he gets into his sweatpants and sweatshirt. He climbs into Dad's bed and lifts up his shirts to smear some on, but he keeps coughing, doubling up, and he can't rub it in nice and deep the way Dad can. Sammy grabs the jar and pushes him back and gets three times the amount of goop he needs, rubbing it in with his warm little hands, sitting up on his knees to get his weight behind his work.
"Thanks, Sammy," Dean says, tired again, feeling hollow from the rub. "Good night." He's not expecting Sammy to turn out the lights and crawl in next to him. "No," he says, pushing at him, too weak to even get his little brother away from his germy self, "no, don't want you getting sick too."
"Lonely without you," Sammy says, pressing his face into Dean's neck, and they fall asleep together.
He can't talk at all the next day when Dad calls to check in, but all he needs to do is say "Mm-hmm" to Dad's orders anyway. Sammy frowns at him the whole time, and grabs the phone.
"Daddy? I miss you. Can you come home?"
Dean shakes his head at Sammy, who should know better than to ask that, but Sammy just stamps his foot at him, so he turns away and pulls out a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli to split for dinner.
He doesn't let himself wear Dad's jacket to school. It's way too cool for this place, anyway, and he's not sure if he'd get jumped for it; he knows he's in no shape right now to win a fight. Plus, he figures he should give it a few days, see if the smell of Vicks comes out.
He doesn't really want to go, but Sammy does, has a whole group of kids to play Duck Duck Goose and Butts Up with and read Hardy Boys books with, and he remembers the trouble they had with CPS when he stayed home from school with a banshee bite. It's the same as always, all the boys talking about the toy guns they got for Christmas, all the girls planning tea parties and slumber parties and all kinds of parties, and all the teachers thinking he's stupid and making him stay late to talk about motivation and concentration and making him clap erasers the whole time.
And now that he reeks of Vicks and can't stop blowing his nose except to cough or sneeze? It doesn't take a genius to figure out why he has no friends. His nose is as pink as a freakin' bunny's. It even feels pink, all raw and sore, even though he's been using Dad's old handkerchiefs, because Dad said once they were nicer to noses than tissues and toilet paper.
His head is heavy, feels gross and full all the time now, and he's tired for no good reason. And it's cold, really cold, the kind that pushes into your skin and plucks at your bones, but it doesn't even have the decency to snow, get them a couple days off from school.
1990 is shaping up to be a really rotten year.
Dad calls again the next night and asks how his research is coming along. "Research?" Dean rasps into the phone, but the line must be crappy because Dad doesn't even call him on the state of his voice. That must be what Dad had said before he left.
Sammy grabs the phone again - he's getting really grabby these days - and says, "I can do research too, Dad! I can read!"
Dean can hear Dad's big laugh, and he relaxes a little, because the hunt must be going well if Dad can sound like that. "Binding rituals, protective markings, shielding tattoos - you up for reading about that stuff, Sammy?" Dad asks, still laughing a little.
"Yes, sir!" Sammy pipes up. "Me an' Dean, we can do it together!"
Dean can't believe how obvious Sammy's being, but Dad doesn't seem to notice, and Sammy's smile when they hang up is positively smug.
He's too worn out after his nightly hot shower to do any research; it's a struggle just to finish his stupid reading homework and study for his geography quiz. But Sammy heaves the book up on the bed and climbs in, drawing it up on his lap. His lips move as he reads the chapter Dad picked out, and Dean closes his eyes and listens to the faint murmur.
Sammy is eyeing Dad's leather jacket, hanging on the closet doorknob, as he crunches his toast and gets jam all over his face. It still hurts to talk, but Sammy seems to know what he's saying if he just wiggles his eyebrows a little. What? You want to wear it?
"No! Just lookin', that's all."
You can't wear it to school, but you could wear it inside, if you want.
He gives up. The kid is kind of weird. But then he sees the cover of the Hardy Boys mystery Sammy's got checked out from the school library, and sees that both of the boys are wearing jackets that look a lot like Dad's, and he ruffles Sammy's hair a little and Sammy scrunches his nose at him, chewing with his mouth open.
He's determined to get the research done for Dad tonight, and he gets through his homework as quickly as possible and opens the heavy book. Sammy's off in the corner, doing something with his back to Dean, probably playing with his Hot Wheels again, and Dean tries his best to read what's in front of him. But the paper is thin and the words are small, and soon everything is dancing in front of his eyes.
He can't let Dad down again. In the bathroom he splashes cold water on his face to keep himself awake. He gets through the chapter by pinching himself whenever his eyelids start to droop, and he barely has the energy to get Sammy to stop whatever he's doing and get ready for bed. He dreams of tattoos, one on him and one on Sammy, that will keep them safe when everything else - weapons, incantations, rituals, and luck - is gone.
He's pledging allegiance when he sees the date Mrs. Perry's written on the board. It's his birthday. He doesn't feel older; all he feels is tired and congested and achy. But maybe once he's better he'll feel like he's eleven instead of ten.
Every hour seems longer than the last. Even math is no fun because Miss Clark asks him to demonstrate how to solve a problem on the board and he gets dizzy from sneezing so much.
He can't wait to go home. Dad will call, unless tonight is the big night of the hunt, and maybe he'll say, "Good job, son," when he hears that they both read the chapter. And there's one can of Chunky soup left, and that plus some peanut butter crackers for dessert sounds really good.
He lets Sammy spread the peanut butter while he opens the can of soup and dumps it in a pot. Sammy takes his time, knowing how long the soup takes to heat up, and spreads the peanut butter so carefully that it's impossible to see the chunks when he's done.
They eat slowly, trying to make the food last as long as possible, and Dean looks over at Sammy and wonders how he got peanut butter on his eyelashes.
The phone doesn't ring.
After they wash the dishes he says, "C'mon, Sammy, time for bed," swallowing hard. His throat does feel a little better, maybe because of the hot soup. Sammy's changing into his thermals, and Dean heads into the bathroom for his nightly shower.
He comes out in a cloud of steam to find Sammy already under the covers but still sitting up, looking excited. What? What is it?
"Got something for you, Dean." Sammy holds out both of his fists.
He taps the one on the left, and Sammy grins, telling him he guessed right, and opens his closed hand to reveal something thin and dark. It's a strip of leather, almost like a cord. What is this? Art project from school?
"No! Remember in that chapter Daddy wanted us to read, they were talking about protection charms? They said it can be anything, as long as you wear it all the time and you get it from someone you trust."
He doesn't remember it saying that, exactly, but it's pretty close. Where did you get this?
"From Daddy's jacket. It's the thingy that loops through the zipper thingy, you know? And I remembered Pastor Jim giving Daddy the blessing last time we were there, and Daddy was wearing this jacket. See? So it'll keep you safe. Gimme your hand."
Hang on. He finds one of Dad's knives and slices the strip in half, rubbing Sammy's arm when he looks upset. He settles back on the bed and stretches his arm out to Sammy, who carefully ties the leather around his wrist, making three tiny knots as he goes. Let me do you now. Sammy's grin is blinding.
He can feel the knots he made in the leather when Sammy's arms wind around his neck as they get under the covers. "I love you, Dean. Happy birthday."