She's full, pleasantly sated, and the moonlight is sharp. There are overflowing dumpsters on either side of them, but all she can smell is the sweet semen of the man lying on the ground. Always a little left on the pavement, on the wall, somewhere close by, and she can't remember now why that's important, why it feels like a necessary rite to let some spill out of her.
She picks loose gravel out of the firm, unbruised skin of her knees and fluffs her hair with careful fingers. She might be full but the night is still young.
Jim is a good man, but becoming a pastor pushed a large chunk of his personality right out of him. Time was, Jim would have argued and maybe thrown a few punches to win a fight, but now he just smiles that goddamn serene smile and spreads his hands like he's at peace.
John knows – he knows – he's picked up the trail of something nasty, most likely a succubus, a word he still has to get used to thinking. But Jim refuses to see it, first talking about the "unfortunate" like the word itself has any meaning, then pretending that all of his concentration's taken up by cooking macaroni and cheese for the boys. John isn't going to argue with him; he's going to go to Millersville and kill that bitch, cross it off the list of shit out there in the world, and then do it all over again the next day.
He leaves the stack of newspapers on the passenger side and buckles Sammy into his car seat. Dean slides silently in and fishes out the cloth-covered book Jim bought for Sammy and holds it up.
"Do you have to go to the bathroom, Dean?" John asks, but Dean shakes his head. At some point John's going to have to toilet-train Sammy, and he can't remember how Mary had managed with Dean.
He'll figure it out. The only fucking thing he's got now is time.
It doesn't take her long to find the next one to offer himself up. All she has to do is not work so hard at dampening down her allure, and the men are all over her, pleading as she walks down the boulevard. Her hips sway with the same rhythm as the clicking of a turn-signal; they can drive all night without getting what she can give them, what they want.
She chooses a big man, as always; she likes them meaty, solid. A man like that believes he can treat a woman – a girl, really, that's what she looks like in the moonlight, milk-white skin and dangerously slender – any way he likes, always has a little extra energy for a fight or for a fuck.
He's pleased when she pulls him into an alley and goes straight to her knees. He's making nasal sounds of approval while she laps at him. She looks up at his eyes squeezed shut, feels his thick fingers in her hair; pulling off, she evades his fumbling hands and climbs him, swift and sure.
His hands grasp her convulsively, trying to keep up. She flips her skirt up and sinks down on him before he can say anything about a condom. His breath is labored against her neck and his arms are shaking from holding her up; while he is so open, she squeezes him, milking him dry, then past that point.
When she backs away and tugs her skirt back down, he's nothing but a desiccated corpse. It's all he was before, really; she's just transferred his energy into more useful channels. It buzzes through her, sustaining her.
She leaves his wallet on the ground, next to the puddle of rainwater dotted with semen. It's an offering of some sort, she remembers that much, but the rest of the reason eludes her.
John drives through the night, meeting Dean's eyes in the rearview mirror every few minutes. It's only when the book slips from Sammy's chubby fingers and no cry goes up, no scramble is made to retrieve it, that he knows the boys are asleep. It's 2:30 in the morning, and he might as well keep going and stop when it's time for breakfast.
He makes Millersville before six and pulls into the parking lot of a modest-looking diner. Sammy's diaper needs changing and Dean's face and hands could use some soap and water. There's no line, and a white-haired waitress sees him coming and nods at an empty booth.
She points to a door at the back, stepping out of his way as he goes, holding Sammy with one arm, his other hand on Dean's tangled hair.
Sammy starts crying the minute he's set on the oilcloth laid between two cracked sinks; he always makes a fuss when his diaper's being changed. His bottom is red, the skin dry and hot. John closes his eyes and counts to five, opening them to find Dean holding the jar of diaper rash ointment out to him. Damn Jim for teaching his kid to be a better dad than his old man.
He steps back and lets Dean finish up, making sure he washes his hands when he's done. John scrubs his own hands before picking up Sammy and the diaper bag.
He sits at the booth and Dean eyes him for a moment before standing on the bench and turning his attention to the window. "Dark," he says carefully, waiting for Sammy to mimic him. "It's dark outside."
He's right; it's dark everywhere, too damn early for little boys to be up, too damn late for a guy who has no clue how to be a dad when he's not even a husband anymore.
"Sit down, Dean," John says, just as a hot cup of coffee is put in front of him. One long gulp and he's drained it, feeling it like a kick in the head. A wrinkled hand pulls the cup to the edge of the table and fills it right back up. He feels like he can see again, and tilts his head up to discover who his benefactor is.
She's got faded hair that was once probably an eye-catching strawberry blonde, and the skin around her pale blue eyes is wrinkled and dry. She looks vaguely familiar, but it's only when her gaze shifts to the boys, softening and growing indulgent, that he recognizes her. She looks just like his Aunt Ruthie, whose lap was his throne and whose pockets held a never-ending supply of butterscotch candies. Ruthie, who died of throat cancer two months after he put a shining ring on Mary's finger, and he needs to stop thinking of his dead when there are mouths to feed.
He orders pancakes for all three of them, milk for the boys, and lets Dean go wild with the butter and syrup. He feeds Sammy dry little bites and Dean keeps one eye out to make sure Sam's not going thirsty. He should thank Dean, show some appreciation for his unstinting efforts, but when the Ruthie-waitress comes back and Dean shrinks suspiciously away from her and Sammy starts wailing, he snaps instead.
There is so much that has been lost to her since her family was scattered and hunted down. The forms of the rituals linger, but the meanings, the essence, have vanished, sliding through her fingers like jellyfish tentacles, stinging and slippery.
She does not even know what form she would take if she were totally free.
She is the last, unknown and unknowing. She is alone with the memories of nights and the brittle bones of her tribe's dead babies; they insist that she feed for them too, enough to fill them all.
She draws this pale, tender skin around her and sets out for prey.
He can't do this, he just can't. The hell was he thinking, dragging Mary's babies behind him like tin cans tied to a bumper while he ran off to play Superman? Not a day goes by that John doesn't want to just shoot himself, give the boys to someone who'd treat them right.
He's here, though, fighting for her, and it's time.
"Dean," he says sharply. "Wake up." He moves around the motel room, gathering the things he'll need.
"Dean, I mean it; get up now."
Dean blinks awake and looks up at him uncertainly after one agonized glance at Sammy.
"I need you to stay awake, watch out for your brother. You're going to lock the door behind me and let me in when I do the secret knock. Off the bed now, I don't want you falling back asleep."
He grabs his jacket while Dean shuffles over to the table and climbs into a chair. "You can watch TV if you want," John says, remembering the way Dean used to plead for one more cartoon, one more story. But Dean just sits there and watches his little brother sleep, so John puts a hand on the boy's hair, tumbles it as paternally as he can.
"Put the chain on when you lock the door," he says as he steps out into the chilly air, hearing Dean's light footsteps behind him.
He swings the backpack onto his shoulder and sets out for the site of the last kill. He reaches it in five minutes flat; the motel's not exactly in the best part of town. The chalk outline is still bright and the air is rank with the smell of garbage. There's nothing about this alley that suggests a supernatural hunting ground, but the descriptions of the corpses – shriveled, powder-dry bones with not much flesh left on them – say that the killer can't be human, not if it can do this in a matter of minutes. The cops must be willfully blind.
The other sites are close by, just around a few corners, and he stands in each dark and narrow alley, looking for something, anything, that will tip him off, tell him how to find her. When that doesn't happen, he starts walking again, up and down each street in the area, wondering if he can possibly catch it in the act. Dumb luck is the only luck he's got left.
She's drunk one man deep already, thinks maybe a second might be a good idea, and as she's searching she sees the fire. A few men are huddled around the trash can, all dressed in haphazard layers, painted in glowing colors by the dancing light. They are the untouchables, both to the world around them and to her; there's not enough of what she needs in them, caught up in the struggle just to survive with no time for pleasure.
When she approaches, they shuffle quietly to make room for her, no questions asked. She stands there in her thin clothes and thin skin and remembers the savage, satisfying heat of a fire built on bones, ages ago, when there were enough of them to stand in a circle around it. The firelight had danced for them too.
The moment it had been her turn to stand in the fire is mostly gone from her memory, though a feeling of triumph sizzles in her mind as she thinks. She puts her hand in the flame, and the men mutter and shift uneasily as they watch her through narrowed eyes. It fills her up with warmth, enough to satisfy, and she turns away, not needing to feed again after all.
The sound of a siren gets him running, instinct overriding everything else, until he stops and considers the situation. He doubles back, crouching low, and stumbles into the scene of the latest attack. He can smell spunk, sharp in the air, and the bundle of bones in front of him still has ropey-looking skin stretched taut across it.
She's had her fun and moved on. Dawn's coming soon, so she'll have gone into hiding to wait for the next reign of darkness. She's not hitting the same spot twice, and it looks like she's running out of dark alleys in this part of town. He might be able to find her after all, catch her before she notches another kill.
John walks back to the motel, bracing himself for his sons' utter neediness, the way he feels drained after just a few minutes with them, looking to him for every answer.
He raps out the beat of "Do You Know the Muffin Man?" against the door and hears the chain sliding out of the way and a chair being dragged away from the door. Dean peeks around the open door, a mistrustful look on his small face.
"It's me, kiddo," John says, but Dean doesn't smile, just backs up dutifully and locks the door again. In the narrow space between the beds, Sammy's sitting on the floor with his stuffed octopus next to him, working intently to color the pages of the Bible.
"Dean! You don't . . ." John wants to admonish him for desecrating something holy, but Dean startles at the sharpness in his voice and Sammy looks up, eyes wide and ready to fill with tears. "Sorry, sport," he says instead. "You boys need coloring books?"
Dean shakes his head, maintaining eye contact like he's been taught. "Sammy likes this one," he says, voice just barely more than a whisper.
Dean's stomach growls before he can respond, and John checks his watch. "Give your old man a couple hours to sleep and then we'll go get some food, okay?"
He kicks off his boots and lies down, hearing Dean murmur something to Sammy as he closes his eyes.
She always feels exposed during the day, as if the sun can strip her bare. She's slower, sluggish, reduced to warming her hands by wrapping them around mugs of coffee, wishing it would warm up her insides too if she were to take a swallow.
When the bell above the door rings, she looks over to see that man with the two children, pure and so small. He's scanning the place, maybe looking for her, so she steps forward and beckons him to a table in her section.
"Thanks . . . Estelle," he says, reading her nametag.
She remembers that she doesn't have to leave room in the cup for milk, so she fills the mug to the brim with coffee, envying the way his eyes flutter shut in pleasure. The babies are right there, watching their father quietly, so much energy and emotion radiating from them that her skin is an inadequate shield; she feels her features start to slip into a younger visage, her hair to take on a lighter, brighter tint. Their need is familiar, painful; they don't know how to mask it yet, though their wariness belongs to much older children. The man's gaze recaptures her attention and she snaps herself back into the skin she's chosen, the one he likes and expects.
It's eggs for the three of them this morning, juice for the boys, meat on the side as if to show control over their bloodlust.
When she comes back with the food, the man has papers spread out over the table, and the older boy is keeping the little one occupied by pointing to his features and waiting for the proper word to be spoken. She watches the younger boy's struggle to remember "ears" and waits for the father to see her and make some space for the plates. He's got bold handwriting, dark and easily legible, like he's trying not to write but to burn the words into his brain. They make their way into hers as well.
He's noted the places where the men gave themselves to her. He is aware of the power of gold to trap and strip her down to bone; he knows her weakness. This man is hunting her. She's going to have to kill him.
Even pawnshop gold is beyond his price range, but he can't go up against her completely unarmed. The library in a nothing town like this won't be any help; all he can do is trust in the incantation he looked up in Jim's church basement and hope that it's enough, that she hasn't mutated into something that requires more faith or energy or heart than he's got right now.
Sammy's napping, worn out from spinning in circles, his round cheek pressed against the stuffed octopus. But Dean won't close his eyes, instead looking unhappily at his father. John can't look at Dean and not see Mary, so he turns his back and focuses on the paper with the incantation. He mumbles the words to himself, falling asleep to their rhythm.
Dean's sitting by the window when he wakes up, a small sentinel limned gold against the dark sky. John washes his face, brushes his teeth, and turns just enough to see Dean keeping watch, still as a statue.
When he gets to the alley, the succubus is already there, looking small and dark and painfully young. She steps forward.
She gets closer to him, knowing exactly what he wants, where his weakness lies. Her eyes stay open as her limbs lengthen, her hair turns to blonde, and her body takes on more weight. This new figure tingles under his disbelieving gaze, like the love in his eyes can be made tactile.
His hands are empty, no golden blade anywhere, nothing in his eyes except her as she keeps stepping forward. There's something in him that's pulling her closer, saying that he wants to be drained, relieved of life, as much as she craves taking it. She's got her arms around him and he's leaning into her rather than away.
He's not even struggling, saving all of his energy for her. "Mary," he whispers before he catches her mouth with his.
She can feel how well he knows this mouth - the length of the lips, the quickness of the tongue. His eyes are closed. She wants to take her time with this one, this hunter reduced to a man, and she closes her eyes, fitting this body against his like a homecoming.
Blinding pain slices through her and she chokes on a scream. He's whispering the names of the angels into her mouth, his arms unyielding around her. The words, the holy names, are a fire being set on her bones, eating her from within, and in a flash of brilliant white light there is nothing more.
He stumbles away from the wall to vomit helplessly on the spot where she stood, then presses his back against the rough brick again. He has to get back to the boys, but the way to the motel is lined with liquor stores, and he needs that fire, something to wipe out the image of that thing becoming Mary for him.
The first swig of whiskey washes his mouth clean, and after that it's all just a golden warmth. He hammers on the door of the room, sinking finally into the chair as Dean locks it back up. He should call Jim, but first he just needs to get through the bottle.
When he stumbles into the bathroom, he sees that the scratches along his neck and back look vaguely green under the fluorescent light. His eyes are rimmed with red, pouchy and miserable.
"What, Dean?" he bites out when he hears soft taps at the door. The noise stops immediately. John sighs, closes his eyes, and braces his hands on the edges of the sink. "I'm fine, buddy, okay? Just feeling a little slow this morning. You want go back to that diner, get some more pancakes?"
There's no answer, and he showers until he feels human again. When he comes out of the bathroom, Dean's got Sammy dressed and both of them packed. Sammy squirms until John picks him up.
In the car, he can hear Dean playing "This Little Piggy" with the stuffed octopus's legs, keeping his brother occupied with the quiet chant. The drive to the diner is mercifully short.
"Can you seat us in Estelle's section?" John asks the girl at the cash register.
"She ain't in today," she tells him hurriedly, trying to figure out the change on the bill she's been handed, and points at an empty booth.
The table's still damp with cleanser, and Sammy slams his hands down excitedly, leaving smudgy prints behind. Dean pushes the octopus underneath his brother's hands, stopping the noise, and John looks up to see a young waitress come by with a mug and a pot of coffee.
He would've liked to see Estelle's eyes once more before he put this town in his rearview mirror. Instead he drinks his coffee and watches his sons and tries to figure out where to go next.