Compass: 1. an instrument that shows directions: a map and a compass
-Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English-
The Squirrel and the Backyards.
When Dean was six years old, he got lost in some backyards. He hadn't meant to. Sammy was a toddler, and daddy was cradling him, asleep on his shoulder, drool slowly wetting down his shirt.
He was talking with the man about the rent they would be paying for that house, which Dean would have hated, except he was so used to moving around now that he didn't think about it and didn't care about the faded yellow paint on it either. He was too young to consciously put a finger on it, but what bothered him about every place they called home after The Fire was the fact that it wasn't really home. Not in the way he remembered when mom had been around.
But memories in a child fade quickly, and Dean was used to it, and loved Dad and Sammy more than anything in the world and wanted for dad to be happy so, so much that he tried his best to do everything dad asked of him, and do it the right way.
So there he was, standing in a neighbourhood with houses that looked the same to his eyes (some houses more faded than others) and the visual uniformity was broken only by the playground just opposite his potential house. It had swings, Dean thought, and something in his chest bounced with happiness.
"You like the playground, Dean?" Dad had asked as they had parked outside, and his voice was so tender and his smile so sweet when Dean said Yes, with shining eyes.
So now that daddy was talking to the man, Dean tugged him softly on the sleeve and his dad immediately looked at him (and how tall he was, Dean thought proudly) and Dean asked him if he could go to the playground and dad looked across, making sure that he had clear visual of the place, and his hand, warm and tender, had rested on Dean's head and he had said "Yes, son. But don't stray away."
So Dean had gone and had been playing on the swings, looking at Dad glancing at his direction over and over again, holding Sam.
And all was fine, and it wasn't too chilly even though it was autumn and Dean felt so…free somehow, free as he was going up and down in the swing, reaching to the sky, back to the ground and then…then he saw the squirrel.
He had never seen a squirrel, not since… he closed his eyes in a quick flash of pain. The day before they lost mom, she had taken him for a walk, pushing baby Sam in the pram ahead, and talking to him and Dean had felt that the world was the most wondrous beautiful place in the whole…well…world… and was telling his mom that yes, he wanted brownies for dessert and mom had laughed and stroked his head and she looked so golden and she was his mom and his chest was bursting with love for her and suddenly that squirrel showed up, right on the pavement in front of them. Mom halted.
"Look, Dean," she softly said hushing him to stillness. She reached slowly in the bag hanging from the pram and took out one of the cookies she had for her boys. Then slowly, carefully, knelt down and Dean was watching her mesmerized because he knew that squirrels were not supposed to stand still looking at his mother, squirrels were supposed to bolt and climb trees.
Not this one. This one was looking at them with big shining eyes and stillness.
Mom carefully reached out her hand with the cookie, and her voice was her soft voice, the one she used on him when he was having nightmares and night was falling thick around them, the one she used with Sam when she was cooing him to sleep, the one he heard her use with dad when dad sometimes gave her a surprise hug from behind and she leaned her back on his chest and closed her eyes. It was a voice that held stars and velvet and peace and the warmth of a blanket in a cold night, and now Mary was using it towards a squirrel, her tenderness making no discriminations towards anything living.
"Come here, little fellow," she had said in her voice, "it's alright, come here…" and she kept saying it softly like a singsong and Dean held his breath and couldn't believe his eyes, couldn't believe it but the squirrel came, slowly, hesitantly…and ate from her hand.
Later, when daddy had gotten home, Dean couldn't wait to tell him about the squirrel, almost hopping up and down in excitement, and daddy had laughed and kissed him and then kissed his wife, saying that yes, Mary could charm birds off a tree if she wanted to, that's how she had gotten him too, and she had cocked her eyes and had that strange twinkle that Dean couldn't quite understand back then, but later that night mommy and daddy slept with their bedroom door shut.
So now, in the swings, he saw the squirrel look at him and thought of his mom that could charm birds off trees, and he knew it couldn't be the same squirrel, couldn't be the same one, but that did not matter.
So he carefully brought the swing to a halt and reached for his pocket. He always carried biscuits for Sammy, because Sammy would fuss in the car and he didn't want daddy to have to worry about anything that Dean could take care of. And knelt and tried to channel that voice, mom's voice, tried to make the squirrel come to him. The squirrel should have come to him, he thought and somehow felt that it was important that it ate the cookie, it was important because that's what mom would have done, but the squirrel looked at him and then hopped quickly away through a hole in the white fence of the house next to the playground.
And this was not how it was supposed to go, and Dean felt frustrated and a bit disappointed, because it was a squirrel, so he ran after it, climbing over the picturesque fence easily and found himself in a back yard. And the squirrel was there again looking at him and Dean tried again, but it moved to the next yard, and the next, till Dean no longer understood where he was, because there were roses and bushes and old tools, and he could hear people in the house, so he bolted outside the backyard and found himself on a road which looked so much like the road they had parked in but there was no Impala there and no playground and daddy wasn't there and Sammy wasn't there, and he was afraid, afraid because dad would be worried about him and where should he go now, where should he go…and then he heard his father's voice calling loudly out to him and he opened his mouth and called out Daddy! And dad told him to stay still and keep talking, so Dean did till he saw Dad holding a fussing wide awake Sam, and Dean ran to him and hugged him, hiding his face on his father and dad hugged him and then was angry and asked him why he had left when he had told him not to, and Dean wanted to explain about the squirrel, wanted to explain so much, but sobs strangled any coherent noise down.
Later that night he woke up crying because he had dreamt he had gotten lost and didn't know where he was.
Dad drew Sammy's blanket higher to cover up his boy's body, and then sat by Dean's side. His hand, warm and strong, wiped away his son's tears.
"Nightmare?" he asked. Dean nodded. "What was it about, Deano?"
So Dean told him about his nightmare, and there was tenderness in his father's tired face.
"Do you know what a compass is, Dean?" his dad had asked. Dean had shaken his head. So daddy explained about the compass, how it shows you direction, how it shows you where you are. Dad then had gotten up, reached for his bag, rummaged through it and returned with a small round object.
"That's a compass, Dean," he explained and showed him about the needle and north and south and west and east. "It won't let you get lost. I won't let you get lost."
Dean fell asleep holding the compass tight to him.
The Promise and the Woods.
When Dean was sixteen, he got lost in the woods. He hadn't meant to.
They were supposed to find the old grave, and they would have, but the hunting trip had gone terribly, terribly wrong, and Dad had yelled for him to run, and he had said no, but Dad had yelled it was an order, and so he had.
He had lost his gun, but had his knife tightly on him and he had run like hell, twigs and branches and bushes claiming scratches and bruises and blood, and he was praying that dad was alright and in his agony he made a wrong turn and got deeper into the woods. Then he looked around him and nothing seemed familiar, all trees the same, and when he took out his compass he realized it was smashed. He must have smashed it when he hit that fallen tree branch. He cussed his luck, and then noticed how the light started to fade and knew that night would fall deep and heavy, and he didn't even have enough salt to make a circle around him, and he thought about making a fire, and cursed himself for having run away, even if it had been Dad's orders.
There were two options, staying put for dad to find him, or walking around and finding his own way back. Night fell. He couldn't use the stars for direction, because the forest was thick and the sky full of clouds but he hoped he'd find a trail, anything that'd get him back to some familiar territory, and with each minute that passed he felt more uneasy. He didn't have salt. Had only a knife. And on top of it, it started to rain as well.
He leaned against a hollowed trunk as best as he could, cursing his luck, trying to stifle the memory of the little freckled boy and the big back yards and the squirrel, because he was older now, and tougher and Dad would want him to be able and take care of himself. When the rain eased, and it was pitch black, and he was tired, he climbed on a tree and tried to make himself comfortable on a thick branch, not trusting himself to sleep on the ground. He would have rather gone against an army of ghosts than local fauna.
He dozed a light shivering sleep and at some point thought he heard his father's voice and woke up, and saw the flashlight in the distance.
Dad had found him and Dean hugged him, only this time he was just as tall as his own father, and dad was alright, save for that nasty gash over his face.
"You alright, Dad?" Dean had asked.
"I took care of everything," John replied wearily. "Jesus, Dean, how'd you manage to get that much off track? When I said run I meant towards the right direction. Back to the car! That was a stupid thing to do. You scared the hell out of me."
"Sorry, sir," Dean replied and then John had led them back to the car and they had returned to the motel, Sam waiting up for them and had patched each other up.
The next day Dean ran high with a fever and his sleep was troubled and full of nightmares that held dark woods and monsters and Dean right in the middle of it, without compass, without Dad, without Sam. He woke up teary eyed, only to notice his father at his bedside, stirring a cup of hot milk.
"Drink this," his father said, "and then let's check your temperature again."
"So," John said, waiting for the thermometer to take count. "Nightmares?"
Dean nodded. He wouldn't even dream of lying to his dad, but even if he would, knew that John would see right through it. So.
"What was it about, Dean?" he asked, and so Dean told him in as few words and sentiment as possible, feeling embarrassed because he was not a child dammit. Shouldn't be a child. He propped his pillow better against his back and looked at his father. His headache was still killing him, his eyes were watering, but Sam in the next bed seemed genuinely asleep, so at least one in the family was getting sleep alright.
"Son," his father then said looking straight in his eyes and John wanted to say lots of things. Wanted to say I'll always come back for you I'll always protect you I'll always show you the way if you can't find your way back home I'll always come through for you and your brother I'll love you more than life, Dean, you and your brother I'll always come through for you.
Butwords…words were tricky little bastards and John had a hard time disciplining them. So he said:
"Don't ever get lost on me again, okay?"
Dean nodded, and there was a bit of mortification in his eyes, and John wanted to smack himself.
He stretched his hand. "Thermo."
Dean gave it to him. Fever had dropped. He had drunk the warm milk. John touched his son's forehead with a cool tender palm. Watched his son watching him in the way only Dean could.
"I won't let you get lost again, son, okay?" he said again, and suddenly Dean reached out and hugged him. There was something fierce in the embrace, fierce and desperate and it broke John's heart because Dean was only sixteen and that age should have been sweet. So he hugged his son back till he no longer shook and then Dean pulled back and wrapped himself in the blankets ready to sleep again.
John got up, taking the empty cup with him, ready to turn off the bedside lamp, when Dean spoke again.
"Dad…?" His son's eyes were wide open and for an instance John remembered the freckled child Dean had been. "Promise?"
"On my life, Dean," he said, meaning every word. "Now get back to sleep."
That year on his birthday John got him a new compass.
When he was twenty, Dean lost the compass in another hunting trip. John had shaken his head at it, but when Dean turned twenty-one, Sammy had a bright inspiration and they got him a watch. John handed it to him. Dean had opened it and looked at the black watch, and looked at the small compass attached to the wrist band and he had grinned a grin that went past his ears and looked at his father, and said smiling softly, almost shyly:
"Dad? I don't really need a compass. I got you."
And there had been a small smile hidden there, tugged at the corners of John's mouth, a small twitch there and John found it hard to keep the sheen in his eyes just a sheen when he spoke as serious as possible.
"Not buying you another one, Dean, so you'd better not lose it."
The Compass and the Fire.
When Dean is twenty-six, he gets lost between life and death. He doesn't mean to, but it somehow happens and he can't control it. And when he finds the way home, what remains is heartache and pain. And dad gone.
Dean thinks of a lot of things as he watches the fire and most of them have to do with his life. He remembers mom, and the walk they had, and how she could charm birds off trees. Thinks of the day in the woods and a million other hunting trips and dad being there for them. Thinks of the last year, when dad wasn't there, but Sam was, coming through and dad was so hard to find. Thinks of dad and going after the demon. Thinks of the truck ramming into them and the hospital. Thinks of Tessa and how lost he felt in that in between world. How lost and alone and not sure of which way to go.
But above all he thinks of his father, as he watches the fire caressing and cradling and consuming John Winchester's body, pain smothering him in a fierce embrace. Thinks of his father's promise to him one night when he has fever. And he wishes, wishes he could take everything that had happened back…including that promise. And loves John Winchester more than anything else. And is mad at John Winchester more than anything else.
These are the real woods, Dean's thinking looking at the fire, his grief black and bitter, and there are no stars and no way back home. And no compass in the world to change that.
Because his father kept his promise.
Because his father broke his promise.
And Dean is lost once more.
DISCLAIMER: They don't belong to me (breaks down and cries). Don't sue or I'll cry even harder.
Note: I have gone through similar getting-lost experiences as a child, and I tried to draw from those emotions when writing about Dean getting lost. Maybe you'll think that fear of getting lost when you're older is not very plausible, but I can assure you, that even to this day, not knowing where I am is something that instinctively fills me with panic when I think about it. So.