Supernatural isn't mine.
OK, this is fic number six in my self-imposed "fic-a-day" challenge, and since one of the prompts for today was a poem, I've reproduced that at the end. No spoilers, warnings for language only. Many thanks to everyone who's been reading and commenting so far! Hope you enjoy :).
Dean's been to South Dakota a hundred times. Bobby's lived here for as long as Dean's known him, and the road that winds through the Badlands is as familiar as an old pair of shoes, endless sky and breathtaking views that mean home as much as anything does. Dean's watched it through the windshield all his life, first from shotgun, then from the driver's seat.
He's never been out in it, though. Never stood on the bare ground on top of one of those freakish multi-coloured ridges and felt the weight of all that sky pressing down on him, blue and hard and unforgiving. He's never even thought about it, never contemplated how it might be different, might look different with nothing between him and nature, red in tooth and claw. He's just always taken it for granted, Dakota is as close to safe as there is in this world.
Before the next day dawns, he's going to wish he hadn't been so cocky.
Yep, she was a ghost. Goddamn flickering thing they did always gave them away.
She looked pretty real, though, Dean thought, screwing up his eyes a little to focus. OK, so, she looked like an extra from Little House on the Prairie, but at least she looked like a real extra. Like there was a heart beating somewhere under that gingham shawl. Dean was almost impressed, except his head hurt like a bitch and he was stuck in the middle of nowhere with a ghost (and for all he knew, she really was the ghost of an extra from Little House on the Prairie), so really he needed all his brainpower to work out what the hell was going on and how to make it all stop.
Her mouth moved, but he couldn't hear what she was trying to say over the buzzing in his ears. Shit. Shit. What was he even doing here, and more importantly, where was Sam?
The ghost watched him as he struggled to his feet, her eyes dark, sunken into her face, but she didn't make a move towards him so he ignored her. Yeah, yeah, ghosts, whatever, but right now he needed to know what the hell was going on. He pretty much couldn't see a thing except her, and he fumbled in his pocket for his flashlight, stumbling over something on the ground and then whacking his leg hard against something else at knee height. The ghost was in front of him again, mouth moving, but he managed to get hold of the flashlight and turned it on, sweeping it over the ground in search of his shotgun (in search of Sam). There was no sign of it, though, which was kinda typical, but at least the Ma Ingalls ghost still didn't seem to be planning on doing much else other than standing there doing the whole mime thing. He played the flashlight in front of him, and saw that what he'd run into was the edge of a wooden cross, about three feet tall. There was something written on it, but Dean didn't bother to see what it was. He swung the beam round, and there were more crosses, stretching away to the indistinct edge of the light.
Right. The graveyard.
Which, OK, was not good, because it had been sunset when they got to the graveyard and now it was full dark (and there was a freakin ghost), and Sam was nowhere to be seen. Dean tried to remember, but all he got for his trouble was an extra-painful throb in his head. "Fuck," he muttered, and then, louder, "Sam? Sammy?"
Silence. Well, not silence, because his ears were still buzzing like there was a swarm of pissed-off bees hiding out somewhere nearby, but no Sam, anyway. The ghost gestured and mouthed in front of him, and he rolled his eyes at it.
"Yeah, you're real helpful there, lady. Whyn't you go and bother some cowboy ghost or whatever."
The ghost shook her head, flickering in and out, and then she was gone. For a moment, Dean thought she'd actually taken his advice, but then she reappeared some distance away and beckoned. Dean snorted. "Yeah, like I'm gonna fall for that," he muttered, running his fingers over the lump on the back of his head. Then her image jumped sideways, and she was beckoning more insistently, but that wasn't what had Dean moving towards her, threading through the grave-markers as fast as he could. No, what spurred him to that was the fact that the faint glow coming off her was illuminating something on the ground.
It was a foot.
"Jesus, it's beautiful," breathes Sam, and Dean pauses for a second to look at the world spread out before them before pushing past and down the slope of the ridge.
"Whatever," he says. He hears Bobby catch up with him, but Sam is still standing up there, staring out like a statue, and Dean rolls his eyes. It's not that it isn't beautiful, it's just that Dean has never seen the point in thinking too much about these things. They've got a job to do, that's how it always goes, one job, and the next, and the next. Stopping to smell the roses is something people do when they don't know the roses are planted in grave dirt.
"Sam," he yells, "get your ass in gear!"
Bobby gives him a reproving look. "Wouldn't hurt to let him go his own way now and then," he says.
Dean shrugs. "We let him do that, he'll get himself eaten by coyotes," he mutters. The sky is so heavy, it's making him feel ill, and he shifts his shoulders under the weight of it. "Why the hell do people even come out here?"
Bobby stops, looks around. "To think, I guess," he says. "You know, contemplate the meaning of life, get close to nature, make their peace with God."
Dean rolls his eyes. "What a load of horse-crap. Sam!"
Sam takes a last, longing look at the view, and jogs down the slope towards them. The three of them move off into the wilderness, and above them the sky goes on for ever.
"Sam," said Dean. "Come on, Sammy, wake the hell up." He slapped Sam's cheek lightly and tried to ignore the fact that the Ma Ingalls ghost was gone now, replaced by an old guy in a broad-brimmed hat who stared like Dean was freakin pissing on his lawn or something. Sam groaned and reached up to push the hand away, and Dean grinned. "That's my boy, come on now."
Sam's eyelids slid lazily open, and his lips twitched. "Fuck. Ow. What the hell happened?"
"No idea," Dean said. "I remember noise and light and then..." he shrugged. "You hurt?"
"Uh..." Sam blinked a couple of times, and then his face screwed up. "Uh, yeah, um, Jesus. Fuck, I think it's... my side..." He tried to sit up, but Dean pushed him back down and shone the flashlight's beam onto Sam's side. Sam was wearing a dark shirt, but there was a darker stain across it, and Dean swore under his breath and touched his fingers lightly to the fabric. They came away red.
"Bad?" Sam asked, and Dean looked back up at his face. The moon was rising over the nearest ridge, and it cast long, sharp-angled shadows; Sam's eyes were screwed shut.
"No, not too bad," Dean said, hoping he was right, because it looked pretty bad from where he was sitting, but he didn't dare peel the fabric away from the wound to check, because the only thing that was likely to do was rip it open again. It wasn't like they had any first-aid supplies, or even any goddamn water, and they wouldn't get any unless they could find the bag, which was probably in the same place as the shotgun. "Think you can walk? We oughta try and find Bobby."
"How?" Sam asked, struggling up onto his elbows and hissing. "We were lost even before it got dark."
"You let me worry about that," Dean said, and he could tell even without looking that Sam was rolling his eyes.
"Right, that totally sets my mind at rest, thank you."
"Well, what's your plan then, genius?" Dean asked, clambering to his feet and studiously ignoring the ghost (a preacher, he looked like a preacher from a cowboy movie). He held out his hand, and Sam took it, hauling himself up and then swaying dangerously until Dean slipped an arm around his back, helping to support him without making a big deal out of it.
"I don't know... what time is it?"
Dean looked at his watch. "Just past midnight."
"OK, well, we know we were walking north along the valley, right?" Sam said, and Dean pretended he couldn't hear the edge of pain in his voice. "So we go south until we get back to someplace we recognise. There was that stream... we can follow it back, maybe all the way to the road."
Dean thought about it. Yeah, that pretty much made perfect sense, which was kind of annoying considering Sam had a freakin hole in him. On the other hand, Dean's head still hurt like hell, and he was finding it pretty hard to concentrate with the goddamn preacher staring at him, so maybe he could let himself off. "OK," he said, "let's do it."
They took a few faltering steps, then found a rhythm, Dean shining the flashlight in front of them so they didn't walk into any markers. "How big is this graveyard?" Sam asked, and Dean went to shrug, then remembered that his shoulder was under Sam's arm and shook his head instead.
"No idea. Big enough."
"It's so weird," Sam said. "Why would so many people be buried out here?"
"Who cares?" Dean asked, and then they reached the edge of the graves, and started down the narrow valley. Dean glanced behind them, once, to see the silent preacher standing staring after them.
They've been walking for hours when Bobby calls a halt, and they sit in the shadow of one of the ridges, sipping water and resting their legs. Sam digs his fingers into the sandy soil, letting it trickle out of his hand and staring at the bizarre shapes and colours of the ridges. "I wish I knew more about this place," he says.
Dean snorts. "You wish you knew more about everything," he says, and closes his eyes, shutting out the emptiness that makes him feel empty and insignificant.
"Well," Sam says, and seems to think about this. "Yeah," he admits finally. "But I mean, look. Don't you wonder why it all looks this way?"
"You think too much, Sam," says Dean, and Bobby makes a grunt which could be agreement or dissent, or maybe just a grunt. Dean doesn't open his eyes; he feels like there's nothing there for him to see.
"What the hell?" Dean said, and Sam lifted his head from where it had been hanging loosely between his shoulders.
"What?" he asked, his voice thicker than Dean would like.
Dean kicked the object in front of him. "It's a freakin grave marker," he said. "How many of these goddamn graveyards are there out here, anyway?"
Sam reached up a hand to brush the hair out of his eyes and peered down. "Huh," he said. "Susanna Gaunt. I remember her."
Dean frowned, because that grave hadn't exactly been dug yesterday, and OK, sometimes Sam acted like he was a hundred years old, but Dean had been there when they'd brought him back from the hospital so he knew better. "You do?"
"Yeah. I mean, I saw her marker before, when we first got here."
"You're kidding." Dean stared at the marker. It was pretty simple: a name, a couple of dates. He didn't bother to do the math, didn't really care how old Susanna Gaunt had been when she died. "You read the marker?"
Sam sort of shrugged. "I was interested."
"Well, crap," Dean muttered. "You're telling me we're in the same graveyard? How the hell did that happen? We've been walking in a goddamn straight line!"
"Dean, can we just..." Sam breathed out heavily, "...can I just sit for a minute? Just a minute, I swear."
Dean was instantly focussed on Sam again, and aware, too, that the night air was getting pretty cold. He checked his watch: quarter after one. "Yeah, OK. Don't mess up Susanna's grave, though, you hear?"
Sam huffed as Dean lowered him to the ground. "You're just wondering if she was hot."
"Dude, no. Dead girls just don't do it for me. Well, at least not ones that've been dead for..." Dean checked the marker, "...a hundred-fifty some odd years. Sorry, Susie, guess you'll have to hang with the preacher."
"Who's the preacher?" Sam asked, leaning up against the marker, and Dean was going to answer when he looked up and saw a man, maybe thirty, in a waistcoat and dress pants, holding a pocket watch and looking at Dean expectantly.
"Great," Dean said. "Doesn't anybody sleep quiet in their graves any more?"
"Dean?" Sam asked, looking up at him, the moonlight glinting off his face in a way that made Dean think he was probably sweating pretty bad.
Dean made an expansive gesture. "This place is crawling with John Wayne wannabes," he said. "Next thing you know, they'll be inviting us to the latest meeting of the Temperance Association."
Sam followed Dean's gaze. Waistcoat Guy raised an eyebrow at him. Sam looked back at Dean.
"Uh," he said, "how hard did you hit your head?"
Dean frowned. "What's that got to do with anything?"
Sam looked back at the ghost and then frowned. "You... see something?"
Dean rolled his eyes. "No, nothing. Apart from the freakin ghost. Come on, Sam, what's this all about?" The way Sam was looking at him was starting to make him feel pretty goddamn nervous, and Dean's question just seemed to make it worse.
"I don't see a ghost, Dean," Sam said quietly, and Dean felt his flesh crawl suddenly. Ghosts could be visible and they could be invisible, and they could be something in between, which was freaky and annoying, but as far as he knew they couldn't be visible only to certain people.
"You don't?" Dean looked at Waistcoat Guy. Waistcoat Guy looked at Dean and smiled smugly. "Dude, he's right there."
"Are you sure you're OK?" Sam asked, and even if Dean hadn't been able to see the way his eyebrows were twisted in the dim light, the tone of voice said it all: Sammy's patented I understand, you can tell me anything tone, the one Dean hated when it was directed at him. "Maybe you should sit down, too."
"I'm fine," Dean said. "You really don't see him?"
"He can't," said Waistcoat Guy, and Dean started, because it was the first time he'd heard one of the freaky bastards speak.
"You stay out of this," he growled, and Sam's head jerked round, and Dean thought shit, I must look like a nutjob, and, a moment later, maybe I am a nutjob.
"Dean..." Sam said, and Dean sighed and dropped to the ground, because if Sam was going to be lying around anyway, he might as well get some rest too, and if he was honest with himself, his head did still feel pretty goddamn shitty.
"OK, OK, I'm sitting," he said. "But the stupid ghost is right there."
"He thinks you're crazy, you know," said the ghost, and Dean pressed his lips together.
"What does it look like?" Sam asked, leaning his head back against the marker.
Dean glanced over, looked Waistcoat Guy up and down. To be honest, he kind of looked like an extra from some western too, except he would have been playing the mayor who had city ways and didn't want drovers messing up his town. "Like a geek," he said.
"Is he doing anything?" Sam asked, and Dean sighed.
"Staring at me like he thinks I'm freakin hilarious," he said, giving the ghost the finger. The ghost grinned widely and made an obscene gesture. "Jesus Christ," muttered Dean. Then a thought struck him. "Wait, you didn't see the preacher ghost, either?"
"Uh, no." Sam sounded almost apologetic. "When did you see him?"
"Earlier, when you woke up. Jeez, he was fucking creepy." Dean shuddered (and thought that maybe fucking creepy really ought to just be obvious from the word ghost, but then, there was creepy and there was creepy, and the preacher ghost had definitely been the latter).
"Yes, Israel scared the children even when he was alive," Waistcoat Guy said conversationally.
"Dude, I look like I'm talking to you?" Dean asked.
"Just making small talk," Waistcoat Guy said, looking totally unruffled by Dean's annoyance.
"Yeah, well, sorry to disappoint you, but I don't talk to dead people, OK?" Dean said, and then realised he was doing just that. "Shit," he said. "You ready to move, Sam? This place is giving me the creeps."
In the Badlands, the sky meets the land like there's nothing between them, like the edge is sharp, the brittle blue-glass and the ancient rocks, yielding only to the endless trickle of time. The wind is louder than thunder out there, and Dean tries to imagine he's in the Impala, Metallica blasting, enclosed in that protective casing where he knows what he is, what he's for, and nothing can touch him. The wind drowns out the music in his head, though, and when he ducks out of it, turns behind a ridge, the sudden silence is louder still, booming against his ears like a bomb blast, leaving him dizzy and disoriented. He reaches out, but there's nothing to touch, nothing but air that blends seamlessly into the blue, and Sam and Bobby are standing just too far away.
He supposes he must have made some kind of noise, because Sam turns suddenly, and Dean feels ashamed of his confusion, it's only wind, it's only sky. Sam comes within arm's reach, but Dean forces himself not to grab on.
"It's pretty humbling, huh?" Sam says, and he's half-smiling, but there's a set to his face that says he's lost in amazement, and it's a look that Dean's seen before, one he's never understood, how Sam can bear to lose himself like that.
"Whatever," Dean says, and shrugs. "We'd better get moving." And he walks past Sam, past Bobby, and forges onwards, steeling himself, because he's Dean Winchester, and he won't be losing himself any time soon.
"Jesus Christ," Dean groaned, but this time Sam didn't even lift his head.
"We... followed the valley," he said, like he knew what was coming.
"Yeah, well it didn't do us any good," Dean growled, shining the flashlight down on the grave of Ellen Lee. "I swear, there's something freaky going on here, this place is following us around or something."
"Took you long enough to work it out,"said a new voice, and Dean started, dropping into a fighting stance, which made Sam moan softly.
It was another ghost, of course, this one in worn chaps and a shirt that was probably blue when it wasn't transparent, sitting on a chair (a freakin chair, since when do ghosts bring their own chairs?) with his feet up on the nearest marker. Shit, there really was a cowboy ghost. Well, it was about time.
"What the hell do you want with us?" Dean growled, because this wasn't funny any more, Sam was burning up, and there was no water out here, there was nothing but graves and goddamn ghosts everywhere.
The cowboy ghost grinned and spat, then started picking his teeth. "Don't want nothing with him," he said, nodding at Sam. "Just you, boy. Got some talking needs doing."
"We got nothing to talk about," Dean growled. "My brother's sick. He can't walk by himself."
Sam's head swung round slightly then. "Dean," he muttered, "who're you talking to?"
"Stupid goddamn cowboy ghost," Dean said. "Got a chair, can you believe it?"
Sam laughed weakly, but Dean could feel the heat radiating from his skin.
"Ain't no sense standing when you could be sitting," the ghost observed. "Speaking of which, you oughta let that boy lie down. He don't look too good."
"Yeah, well, you can take your advice and shove it where the sun don't shine," said Dean. "We gotta get out of here."
"Good luck with that," the cowboy grinned. "See you in an hour or so, then, I guess. That is, if'n he don't drop down dead first."
Dean paused, feeling his heart-rate speed up. Sam hung heavily from his shoulder, and his shirt under Dean's arm was soaked through with sweat.
"OK," Dean said slowly, because Jesus, he really did not want to be negotiating with a ghost (freakin cowboy ghost, for fuck's sake), but on the other hand things were looking pretty goddamn fucked up right about now, "how do we get out of here."
"How bout you pull up a pew," the ghost said, nodding at the hard ground, "and we'll talk."
Slowly, Dean lowered Sam to the ground, and then sat down himself. Sam was barely conscious, murmuring something Dean couldn't make out, and Dean made sure he was as comfortable as possible, rolling him onto his uninjured side, before looking up at the ghost. "So talk."
"Think you're pretty special, don't you, Dean Winchester," the ghost said. "Know all about the things that go bump in the night. Nothing can touch you."
Dean raised an eyebrow. "What's your point?"
"How many spirits you sent on their way?" the cowboy asked, tipping the brim of his hat to hide his eyes like the sun was shining in them or something (and Jesus, right now Dean would give pretty much anything for the sun to come up, anything at all). "Hundreds? Thousands?"
"Enough," Dean replied, wondering where the hell this was going.
"You remember their names?" the cowboy asked, and Dean stared.
"I..." he started, and stopped. Sam shifted beside him, his hair sticking to his forehead with sweat, and the cowboy grinned, and above them the stars glittered cold and hard in a sky that went on forever.
The sun's low in the sky as they make their final preparations. They each know what they're supposed to do; they'll split up, circle round to outflank the creature, then close in. They've done it a million times before, Dean and Sam and Dad, and Bobby's there with them now instead of Dad, but that's OK, Dean trusts Bobby, Dean knows Bobby will do his part.
Dean feels a prickling on the back of his neck, has done almost since they lost sight of the car. It's like this wild country is watching him, the empty land full of eyes. He shivers slightly, wishes he was back in civilisation, in a motel with four walls and a roof and a hot shower and mindless reality TV shows to stop all these thoughts coming into his mind.
"You OK?" Sam asks, and Dean slots the mask firmly back into place.
"Something about this place," he says.
"I know." Sam breathes deeply, a look on his face like he's seeing God. "It's like you could touch the sky. I feel exalted."
Dean wants to tell him that he's mistaken, that that's not what Dean meant, but that's the problem, right there, that it is like you could touch the sky, and Dean doesn't feel exalted, he feels terrified.
"Boys," calls Bobby, and they turn their attention back to the plan, and Dean tries to pretend the prickling isn't there.
"So, what, this is some kind of freaky spirit vendetta thing because I don't have like a card catalogue of everything we've ever wasted?"
The woman let out an exasperated sigh. Dean wasn't sure exactly when the cowboy had disappeared (taking his chair with him, the freak) and the woman had showed up, but it was too long ago, too long, and Sam was shivering now, curled up on the cold ground, and Dean was pretty much out of patience.
"We're not things," the woman said. "We're people."
"The hell you are," Dean said, curling his lip. "People can't go moving a graveyard around. You can't see through people. People," he added, "would let us freakin go so my brother can get medical help."
"I see," the woman said. She was tall and thin, with a prissy face, a schoolmarm type, Dean thought. "And what is it that makes us different from people?"
"You're dead," Dean answered. Jesus, but ghosts were dumb sometimes.
"We weren't always," Schoolmarm said. "We were like you, once."
"Oh, you're breaking my heart," Dean said. "That was a hundred freakin years ago! It's time to move on, lady."
"And if he dies?" Schoolmarm said, gesturing at Sam, and Dean felt cold water trickling down his spine. "How will you feel in a hundred years' time?"
"He's not dying," Dean said.
"Everyone dies eventually," Schoolmarm said, and she didn't sound smug, just sort of sad, but Dean didn't really give a shit about her feelings.
"Don't give me that crap," he growled. "He's twenty-three years old." Sam shifted and groaned, like he knew they were talking about him, muttered Dean's name, and Dean laid a hand on his forehead, trying not to notice how hot it was, and that seemed to settle him.
"Josie Bale was fourteen when she died," Schoolmarm said.
"Who the fuck's Josie Bale?" Dean asked.
"You're sitting on her grave," Schoolmarm said, and Dean cursed and peered at the marker he'd been sitting next to for the past two hours. Josie Bale. 1845-1859. Beloved daughter.
Dean closed his eyes and counted to ten. "Look," he said, trying to sound as reasonable as possible (which, in the circumstances, really wasn't very freakin reasonable at all), "I get that you're pissed about being dead, OK? But there's really nothing I can do about it, so unless you really do want my brother here to be hanging out with you for all eternity, which, let me tell you, you don't, because he's a whiny little bitch, then I suggest you let us go."
Schoolmarm heaved a heavy sigh. "We're not angry about being dead, Dean," she said, like she was talking to a child (a pretty fucking stupid child). "This isn't about us at all. This is about you."
OK, that was it, Dean had had pretty much as much as he could take of this crap. Sam was slipping away from him, they were miles from anywhere, Dean's head was throbbing like there was a goddamn brass band up in there, and these fucking spirits were playing fucking games. "What about me?" he snarled. "I'm just minding my own business! I didn't even want to come here! I hate freakin graveyards! So if you got something to say to me, just fucking say it."
"You don't let yourself see," Schoolmarm said, still calm as freakin ice water. "You're afraid to see."
"See what?" Dean practically yelled, and he wanted to add that he wasn't afraid, but the truth was he was really freakin terrified, because Sam's skin felt like fire under his hand, and it had been too long, too long.
Schoolmarm tipped her head infuriatingly. "Josie. Susanna. The truth of what you are, of what you do."
Fuck. OK, well he could deal with some of that, at least. "Look, OK, look, here, Josie Bale, 1845 to 1859, beloved goddamn daughter. Satisfied?"
"You're looking," Schoolmarm said, "but you're not seeing."
"Christ," said Dean. "What the hell do you want from me?"
"For you to be honest with yourself," Schoolmarm said, and Dean was really beginning to lose the thread of this conversation, when had it gone from Waistcoat Guy making small talk to the truth of who you are? And he was about to ask what the hell that meant, when Schoolmarm was gone, just like that, and he waited for the next one to show up, but nobody (nothing) came. He thought about hauling Sam up and getting the hell out of there, but Cowboy Ghost's words rang in his head, if'n he don't drop down dead first, and he knew that moving Sam when he had no idea where he was going would be worse than letting him stay where he was. But they needed help, Jesus, they needed help so bad, and he leaned forward and read Josie Bale's grave marker over and over, desperately trying to work out what he was supposed to do, but nothing came, nothing made sense, it was just four words and two dates, for Christ's sake, what was it he was supposed to see?
Eventually, he gave up and checked on Sam. To his surprise, Sam opened his eyes when Dean brushed a hand across his face, and Dean couldn't read them in the dark, but then, he wasn't sure he wanted to.
"Dean," Sam whispered. "Hurts."
"I know, Sammy, I know," Dean said. "It's gonna be OK, though, I promise."
Sam blinked, and then his lips curved in a smile. "Beautiful," he said. "It's so beautiful."
Dean looked up to follow Sam's gaze, and all he saw was the sky and the dark shapes of the ridges, and he thought maybe Sam was hallucinating, but then Sam said, "See, Dean? See how beautiful it is?" and Dean realised that that was what Sam was talking about, he wasn't talking about a person or a thing, he was talking about the world, he was looking at the world and he thought it was beautiful.
"Yeah, I see," Dean said, and stared hard, but he didn't, not really. He saw a place that was trying to kill his brother. He saw ground that was too cold, sky that offered no protection. He saw a world that didn't give a damn about him or Sam or any creature that had ever lived, a world that went on forever, where they were nothing but a second's whispered memory, and it made him feel alone and frightened.
He glanced back at the marker. Josie Bale. More than a hundred years ago, and that was nothing in terms of how long these ridges had stood for, how long they would continue to stand. And she had been fourteen years old when she died, and Dean wondered, suddenly, what she had died of, not because he wanted to know how to lay her ghost – hell, he hadn't even seen her ghost, though if past performance was anything to go by he could probably expect a visit at some point – but because he suddenly remembered what Sam had looked like when he was fourteen, all awkward angles and raging hormones, just starting to pick at everything Dad said, and he tried to imagine what it would have been like losing him then (what it would be like losing him now) and felt his breath freeze in his lungs. He wondered if Josie had had a brother, and whether he had been scared when she died. He wondered if they had lived out here, in the middle of all this nothing, and whether it had made them feel insignificant.
He lay on his back, and the moonlight cast sharp shadows across the ridges, their strange colours and patterns blended now into silver and black, and the edges of the shadows were like the edges of the world, like where there was no moonlight there was nothing at all. The cold from the ground seeped through his clothes, and the grave markers stretched off into the distance, each one a Josie or a Susanna (or a Sam or a Dean), and up above the stars burned like they always had and always would.
"Where the hell are we?" Dean asks, and Sam turns, shrugs.
"I think we got a little turned around," he says.
"Great. Remind me not to let you read the map in future," Dean mutters.
"That's real constructive, Dean, thanks," says Sam, and then points towards the setting sun. "Well, that way must be north-west, so I figure we should hike up this valley and then we should be able to see where we're meant to be."
The sunset is unbelievable, the sky rich with pinks and oranges, like it's on fire. It colours Sam's skin, makes him look like he's burning, and Dean looks away.
"This place is so amazing," Sam breathes, and Dean frowns, because he's had enough of all Sam's awe.
"What the hell is that," he asks, pointing at a collection of objects on the valley floor. The light's coming in at such a shallow angle that their shadows stretch all the way out, making it impossible to work out what they are, and Sam and Dean approach slowly, even though they don't look like they're alive.
"Huh," Sam says when they get there. "Why would there be a graveyard out here?" he wonders, squatting on his haunches to read a marker. "We're miles from anywhere."
"Maybe they liked the view," Dean says, and he's still feeling antsy, doesn't like the idea of being out here after dark even though he knows that's what's got to be done.
"Yeah, maybe," Sam says thoughtfully. "Or maybe there used to be a town here. I wonder what they lived on?"
"Dude, who cares," says Dean. "Let's just get the hell out of here."
And that's when all hell breaks loose.
When Dean woke up, Bobby was staring down at him, and a relieved grin broke over his face.
"Jesus, I thought you were dead for a second," he said, offering his hand, and Dean took it and then remembered.
"Shit," he said, "Sam."
He turned over sharply, and there was Sam, face drenched in sweat but breathing, breathing thank God thank God.
"We've got to get him out of here," Dean said, struggling to his feet. "Jesus, Bobby, I don't think he can make it to the car."
"I'll call an ambulance," said Bobby, and Dean frowned, because they hadn't had cell reception since about an hour after they'd left the car. "Don't worry, Dean, you did good," Bobby said, clapping him on the shoulder. "You got him almost all the way there. Car's just over that ridge."
Dean stared, but Bobby didn't seem to notice, handing Dean a bottle of water and racing off to the road to show the paramedics where to come. Dean turned back to Sam, and there were no grave markers, nothing but empty ground and the sun coming up behind the hills.
"Jesus," said Dean. "Jesus."
He squatted on his haunches and lifted Sam's head a little, dribbling water into his mouth. His own head was still aching, but it was a dull ache now, not the persistent throb of before. Dean looked around, looked for any sign of the graves, but there was nothing, just emptiness in every direction, the ground coloured red by the rising sun.
Sam groaned and opened his eyes, blinking and coughing a little as the water hit his throat. "Dean," he said hoarsely. "You...OK?"
Dean closed his eyes. "I'm fine. I'm fine. Everything's fine."
Sam blinked again, then tried to move a hand up to his face and stopped halfway, hissing in pain. "God," he said, and then, "Did we make it?"
"Yeah, Sammy, we made it," Dean said. "We're gonna be just fine."
"Nice... camping trip," Sam said, closing his eyes and smiling slightly. "At least there's a good view."
Dean looked. He looked at the bare rock that looked blood-stained in the dawn light, at the strange silhouettes of the buttes between him and the sun, at the sky that glowed with endless streamers of gold and red and purple. He looked, and he thought, he thought he saw. It was beautiful, and it was terrifying, and he wasn't ready for it, not yet. But he laid a hand on Sam's shoulder and thought that maybe one day, he would be.
In the old burying ground
passengers, as you pass by
this road they voted funds to grade
and scrape for yesterday's parade -
this nowhere road, this ingrown track
to cellar holes and loggers' shacks -
as you are now, so once was I.
After the fireworks last
climbed up and cracked the sky,
the deer came in to nip the blooms
from these geraniums
where plastic flags with
mark such as Nehemiah White,
Captain of the Valley Volunteers.
He and his cannon muzzled at the wall
must lie here till Christ will call
alongside Jane, Aetat.
who went down like a shock of corn
fully ripe. She stands up in Heaven
adjoining three unnamed newborns
buried on their mother's arms,
all lost in childbed fever.
Legions of angels keep them warm
for their dear Saviour
Mrs. Susanna Gaunt
who died in the springhouse churning butter.
Blest be the dead, their labor spent,
she departed this life in the hopes of a better
across from Pastor
a Harvard College graduate
who lived respected and died lamented
God rest his soul.
God rest his soul, and rest as well
Jimmy Evans, Rhoda Fell,
John Timmens (drowned) and Ellen Lee
who once took rubbings from these stones
- as I am now, so you will be -
to frame and hang, and now are gone.
Stop, passengers, as you
as you are now, so once was I
who chiseled out the prophecy:
prepare for death and follow me.