Disclaimer: Alas, I do not own any of those lovely Winchesters, although compared to the damage wrought by Kripke and his cohorts, I'm pretty easy on them.
Just around the corner, between the large house with the red-trimmed windows and the house with the huge cedars, that dwarf the house and plunge its neglected front yard into permanent shade, there's a small alley. The concrete path cracked and forgotten, slopes down to a thin strip of thick, tufted grass and weeds that runs behind the houses. It then rises into a low ridge that winds along the riverbank, until petering out as the river falls into the shadow of the railway bridge.
The river here is wide and lazy, in no hurry to reach its final destination. Clumps of reeds and irises claim its muddy shore, home to the tall grey herons that flap low overhead, sleek with wings moving slowly, almost ponderously against the wide backdrop of the cloud dotted sky. If you stand on the rise almost directly opposite the end of the alley way and look towards the mountains, the landscape seems almost devoid of human touch. Farms are hidden behind walls of green, the highway dips just out of view and only the patterns of fields and crops give away the hand of man, and one house.
Depending on how tall you are, if you look carefully enough, a small yellow house is just visible through the grass and trees, about a mile from the far riverbank. Sometimes, on brighter days, white squares of laundry wave in the breeze, but even standing on tiptoe and craning my neck, I have never seen anything more. As you continue along the ridge to the station the house immediately disappears and its neighboring farms pop into view, roads run side by side to the fields and the thrum of traffic floats across the river.
Tommy and I drop our bikes into the tall grass and scramble for the riverbank. Tommy rides his grandmother's shopper, complete with a tatty plastic basket swinging loosely from the handlebars. Mine is an old mountain bike Dean found in a ditch and fixed up for me. I think it's supposed to be for a woman, but I've learned to take what I can get.
Tommy bounds up the bank and runs down the narrow dirt path, heading for the shade of the bridge.
"Move it, Winchester. The 3:45 will be here soon," he yells over his shoulder.
It's our favorite after school activity. Tommy liberates some of his Gramps pipe tobacco and I relieve Dean of some his zig-zags. I'd try for some of his stash, but, believe me, the fall out would so not be worth it. We sit on the concrete ledge that surrounds the bridge support, smoke fat and fragrant roll-ups and watch the city workers spill from the train. Well, mostly we watch the women as they trip from the carriage doors in their office clothes. Tight skirts, crisp white shirts and stockings. Some of them wear their runners; I suppose they're more comfortable than the heels they must wear at work. Tommy has a thing for runners, especially when they're obviously new, Tommy's a little weird. I like it when they wear high heels and click-clack down the platform, hips and bags swinging.
At the highest part of the bank I stop, pulling myself up onto tiptoes, I'm about 5' 10" now, tallest in my class. I catch a glimpse, through the swaying trees, of the yellow house. It has a red brick chimney stack at the far end of the roof and a white picket fence runs in a neat square around the house, separating the neat lawn from the darker green of the surrounding fields. The drive to the house must be behind it, because I can't see any type of road leading to it.
Across the river the railway tracks starts to sing and the rumble of the approaching train vibrates across the water, I run down the path and join Tommy perched on our graffiti covered spot.
Tommy lives with his grandparents and his 19-year-old sister. His grandfather is a tough old bird who works at the rail yard, his grandmother works at Wal-Mart. I've never asked where his parents are, he has never asked about my mother or why my father never seems to be around.
The bridge shakes above our heads and the train's brakes grind along the rails. Tommy hands me a lumpy cigarette and quickly lights his own, before passing me a light. I grin at him. Life could be worse.
We sit in comfortable silence until well after the train has moved on and the station platform is empty. Tommy stubs out his smoke on the concrete.
"Race you back." He leaps down and sprints back toward our bikes.
"Hey, cheater." I throw down the last of my cigarette and take off after him.
I easily outpace him, pushing past him to reach the top of the bank first. He catches up to me and shoves me down the path.
I shove back and we jostle for a few seconds, laughing, feet slipping in the dirt.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch site of a thin plume of smoke rising from the fields across the river. I straighten up, sidestepping to find the right position. Grey smoke drifts from the chimney of the yellow house. Funny, it's a warm spring day.
"Hey, Winnie," Tommy hip checks me, knocking me from my line of sight. "Whatcha looking at?"
"Nothing. Just that little yellow house over there." I point across the river. Tommy gaze follows my outstretched arm and he peers into the distance.
"What house?" He's standing on the highest point of the path.
"You're such a short ass. Look there." I step up behind him, pointing over his shoulder. "You have to be in the right place otherwise the trees and stuff kinda hide it. See?"
"No. Just a bunch of fields and farms. No yellow house."
I sigh. "Yes, look." I lean over him, jabbing the back of his head with a finger. "The one with the red chimney and the white fence. Got it?"
Tommy tilts his head and leans forward, shifting his shoulders from left to right and back again.
"Nope, still no house."
For a moment, I'm pretty sure he's trying to rile me up, which isn't really Tommy's style, but he's frowning and screwing up his face, squinting in the afternoon sunshine.
The yellow paint of the house is in bright contrast to the lush green of the surrounding landscape, the red chimney rising up from the black roof. Each individual fence stave white and sharp. How could he not see it?
I'm suddenly irritated. "Geez, Bradley, can't see your nose in front of your face, huh?"
Tommy shrugs. "Whatever, Winchester. Who cares if I can't see your stupid house?" He turns and slides down the slope, retrieving his fallen bike. Without looking back, he calls out, "See you tomorrow."
I stay where I am. It's not that far away. If I cut through the station, take Fell Avenue up to the highway, cross at the intersection, the house looks like it's somewhere off Lake Road. I hesitate; Dad doesn't like me going up to the highway. It's ridiculous, I'm almost fourteen. I'll use the cross-walk and then there's a wide gravel shoulder, so I don't even have to ride on the highway. The turn-off to Lake Road is only about a hundred yards from the intersection. I go to get my bike.
About five minutes later, I reach the cross-walk. Behind me is the railway station and Lower Meadows municipality, and across four lanes of traffic, the green fields of the upper valley. The house should be somewhere to my left, but besides the blue peeling paint of the veterinary clinic, there are no houses visible. The lights beep at me and I wobble slowly across the highway, pedaling over the gravel, I head for the Lake Road turn-off, scanning the fields as I go. No sign of the yellow house. I turn onto Lake Road.
I ride for a while, the noise of the highway fading away, the trees lining the road blocking the sun. I pass a large grey house, disturbing some chickens scratching around in the front yard; a large dog raises its head to give a lazy bark. Opposite rows of fruits trees, full of blossom stretch into the distance. The road starts to rise, a bridge crossing a small stream, I stop and turn. Through the trees I can see the highway and beyond. I must have come at least a mile, probably more. I can see a few buildings dotted here and there, but no tell-tale white fence.
I bite at my fingernails, the road leads to the reservoir, I think it's about ten miles. We went once, in the car. It was fun, but Dad's not one for sitting around on the beach. Reluctantly I head back; the air coming down the valley from the mountains is cold on my back.
I cut back through the station again and push my bike up the path. There's a guy heading back up the alley and I wait until he's out of sight before dropping my bike and planting my feet and turning to look. Maybe I can pinpoint a couple of landmarks. My breath catches in my throat.
Smoke, lots of it. No longer just a vertical column, now it curls around the house, thick and dark, streaming from the windows and forcing its way through gaps in the shingles on the roof. For a second, a flare of orange flickers through the billowing smoke. Shocked, I stumble backwards and my feet tangle in the wheel of my bike and the next thing I know, I'm tumbling through the rough grass. Flat on my back, the wind knocked from me, I hear the sound of distant sirens floating across the river. The sound grows louder for an instant and suddenly fades. I pull myself up and scramble back up the slope and stop short.
It's gone. I duck and shift, push up on tiptoe, even jump. There's no house or smoke, no red chimney or picket fence. Only fields and farms, just like Tommy said.
My heart is beating faster. I clamp my eyes shut. No, not here. It's not fair, it's just not freaking fair. I like it here. I like my school. I like Tommy. I open my eyes and nothing has changed.
I haul my bike up. I want to kick something. I don't care about his stupid rules, I'm not telling him. I head home.
Dean's in the kitchen, poking a spoon at something in a blackened saucepan.
"Hey Squirt, you're late," he glances at me and quirks an eyebrow. "Something up?"
I duck my head. "No."
"Hmm. I'm not sure I care, anyway. Sit down. I think I've burnt the mac 'n' cheese." He plunks a plate down in front of me. "Eat up. I promised Dad I wouldn't let you starve."
"When's he back?" I grab the ketchup and give it a good squeeze.
"Tomorrow." Dean takes a mouthful from his own plate and makes a face. "God. Grab me a beer, would ya, Sammy. I need something to mask the taste and ketchup ain't gonna cut it."
I lean back over to the fridge. "Just because Dad's not here." I pass him a can.
"Yeah. What Dad doesn't know, won't hurt him. Will it now?"
My food suddenly tastes even worse and I push my plate away. "Dean?"
Dean lowers the can and eyes me suspiciously. "Do I detect the fine aroma of whine there, Sam? What do you want? I told you, I suck at algebra."
I look up at the kitchen clock. "I need to go out tomorrow. When Dad gets back with the car. Will you take me?"
Dean shrugs. "Sure, though if it's for school or something, you know Dad will drive you."
"No." I reply quickly and too loudly.
Dean sighs. "Okay."
Dad's not back before I leave for school, no surprise there. I follow the side-walk from in front of the apartment, walking slowly around the corner and stop at the end of the alley. The sky is clear, a cool spring blue and although the morning sunshine is warm, I pull my jacket up around my neck. There's a chill in the air that no one else seems to notice. Taking a deep breath, I trot down the path. I reach the top of the rise. Across the river, through the trees, sits a small house, perfectly intact, painted yellow with a red brick chimney. I'm so cold now, I'm shivering.
Tommy's in class and makes no mention of the day before. We goof around, but there's a lead weight pulling my stomach down to my knees. It's not a new sensation. It's there every time Dad packs us up and moves us out, every time he's late back from a hunt and every time they make me sit in that goddamn car and wait.
Dad's home when I get there. He's sitting at the kitchen table, which is stacked high with a pile of musty old books. He looks up and smiles.
"Sammy. Good day?"
"Er, sure. Where's Dean?" I peer into the living room.
Dad shakes his head. "Nice to see you too, son," I hear him mumble as I brush past.
Dean's not in the living room and I hiss under my breath.
"Something wrong?" Dad's flicking through a large book with a cracked leather cover.
"Dean said he'd be here after school, we were," I pause, trying to find a plausible excuse and then there's a sound from the hallway and Dean is poking his head around the kitchen door. He grins at the sight of Dad and the books.
"Dad. Glad you're back. I guess you found Rufus and his mighty tomes." Dean steps across and claps Dad on the shoulder.
"Yep. Fascinating place he has, I'll take you there sometime. Nice to see you both survived without me," Dad glances at me, "although Sammy seems rather concerned about your whereabouts."
Dean looks at me fidgeting in the corner. "Oh, yeah. You wanted a ride somewhere, right? He turns to Dad, "Okay if we take the car?"
"Sure." Dad fishes in his pocket and hands the keys to Dean. "Anything I need to know about, Sammy?" He's turning the pages carefully and the paper crackles.
"Just something I need to get for school. Got a project coming up," I lie, Dean frowns at me.
We leave Dad pouring over his dusty treasures.
Dean starts the car. "Where to, project boy?" He drawls out the words and smirks at me.
I don't look at him. I swallow against my dry throat. "Highway, past the station. There's a house I... I need to pick something up." I stumble over the words.
We're moving. I stare out of the window.
"Sammy?" Dean asks quietly, "You know if you're if trouble, you can tell me, right? It's hardly a first for a Winchester. I mean, you know me and school."
"School's fine, Dean. Just leave it okay?" I snap at him. We're at the highway intersection, we drive past the station, I keep my gaze fixed on the countryside rushing by. We pass the Lake Road turn-off, and I shift in my seat, leaning closer. Nothing. Dean finds his favorite radio station.
"Turn here." I tap at the window.
The road runs parallel to Lake Road; we pass houses and winding drives leading to jumbled farm buildings. After more than a few minutes and several miles, the road starts to curve east and we're at the Lake Road crossroads.
I slouch back in my seat; we're not far from the reservoir, I know we've come too far.
"Do you have an address for this place, or is there some sinister reason you're luring me out here?" Dean's drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, bobbing his head in time to the music.
I shake my head and turn to tell him to head back and then I see it. On the other side of the crossroads is a ploughed field, and about a hundred feet from the road is a small, circular patch of scrub and spindly trees, an island of green in the rutted dirt. At one end, standing by itself, tangled in the trees and covered with the runners of a dead creeper, is the crumbling remains of a red brick chimney stack.
My feet hit the pavement and I'm running. I guess there was no other traffic because I made it to other side in one piece. There's a shallow ditch between the road and the field. I throw myself across and land in the soft earth. My feet sink into the dirt, it's hard to run and my heart's hammering in my chest, but I'm at the edge of the wild grass and trees before I realize exactly what it is I'm doing.
The bricks are faded and weathered and the undergrowth surrounding the chimney is thick and covers any other trace of the house that might have survived. I look up at the top of the chimney; the bricks are blackened and cracked. The trees rising from the ground are twisted and stunted, their branches swollen and misshapen.
"Sam, Sammy." I start at the sound of Dean's voice. I swing around; he's halfway across the field.
"What the hell are you doing? Why the frickin' hell are you charging about like some lunatic. You know how close that truck came to you? Idiot." He's yelling, arms and hands spread wide. "Just what the fuck do you think you're playing at?"
I hesitate, moving toward him and then stepping back. I wipe my clammy palms across my jeans. I'm not stupid, I've seen enough in this life to know that this is real. I don't understand why it's happening to me, and I don't want to. There's no way in hell I'm letting this get back to Dad. I turn back and walk away. Dean stands, hands on hips, waiting for me.
"So?" He's not angry, but his lips are tightly pressed together.
"It's a stupid joke. Somebody's idea of a joke. You're right, school's the pits, okay. And guess what? I'm the biggest dork around. So let's drop it, please." I spit out the words and march past him. He follows me and his hand falls on my shoulder.
"You know, Sammy, I'd be more than happy to, uh, repay the favor. With interest." The offer sounds casual, but I know Dean. I give him a weak smile.
"Thanks, man. But you fighting my battles is not going to help any."
"I know Squirt." Dean slings an arm around my shoulders. "Although I'd rather take on a shit load of ghosts, than a class full of evil eighth graders, any day"
Dean drives us home.
I go to bed early and spend the night staring at the ceiling, convincing myself that I'm just an accidental witness to some off-chance paranormal blip.
The next day I make it through morning classes, but by lunchtime my attention span has completely evaporated and I slip quietly from the building. I decide to head for the 7-Eleven, about three blocks from school, but I find myself steering my bike in the opposite direction, toward the station and the riverbank.
It's trying to rain as I pedal down the alley. The sky is grey and overcast and the mountains are smothered in low cloud. I leave my bike leaning against the alley fence and walk slowly to the ridge. I'm have no idea what to expect or even what I want to see. Why does seeing something that isn't there feel better than seeing nothing?
The rain is starting to fall harder now, blowing into my eyes and I blink quickly and try to focus. This time, there's no yellow house or white fence, but there is a red chimneystack and it's not standing surrounded by an empty field. Charred timbers lie in a haphazard pile around it; the once green lawn is scorched to a pale brown. I feel sick and my knees sag under me.
I stagger away, stumbling down the path to the shelter of the bridge. I pull myself up onto the ledge and huddle up against the cold wall behind me. It's raining even harder now, raindrops smack into the river, circular ripples ride the surface of the water and the sound drowns out everything else. I chew at the skin on my thumb, it's not that I'm scared, this is minor league stuff. Dean would probably shrug it off and Dad, he'd get that look he does sometimes, like he's pissed because the world isn't following his orders or something. I've been on the business end of that one, more than once. It's just there this empty, achy feeling creeping through my chest and I don't how to get it to stop.
I sit and watch the rain drip through the timbers and tracks above my head and listen to the river drift past. A couple of trains rattle overhead and three or four people hurry past, eager to be home and out of the rain.
Someone stops at the bottom of the path. I don't really take any notice until a deep voice echoes under the bridge.
I look up, startled. It's Tommy's grandfather, his dog at his side. He comes to join me, leaning against the ledge.
"Oh, hi Mr. Bradley." I shift on my hard seat.
"Tommy said you like to hang out here," Mr. Bradley brushes the rain from his hair and looks at me. "Your Daddy's looking for you. He called the school when you didn't come home, then called us asking if you were there with Tommy. He seemed to think you had some trouble at school, although Tommy hadn't heard anything. "
I drop my head. Man, was nothing ever simple? Dean and his big mouth.
"I'm okay, Mr. Bradley, really. I just lost track of the time. I'm sorry Dad had to call you, I should have let him know."
"That's alright son, me and Louie often take a walk along the river." The dog at his feet wags his tail at his name and raises his nose to me.
"Come on, I'll walk you home." Mr. Bradley reaches out and lays a firm hand on my arm. "Believe me Samuel, I know how difficult being a family can be sometimes, but don't go apologizing because they care."
I jump down to join Mr. Bradley and we head out into the rain. We climb the path and as we reach the top, I take a deep breath. There's nothing to see, the other side of the river has disappeared into the wet haze of the rain.
"Mr. Bradley," I try to keep my voice steady, "you've lived here a long time, right?"
He looks up from watching Louie rooting through the long grass.
"Since I was a baby, my Daddy came here with the railroad."
"I was wondering, there's a house, well, not so much a house," I'm starting to ramble and try again. "Up on Lake Road, in a field, there's an old chimney. I wondered if you knew anything about it?"
"You mean the old Larson place, up by the crossroads?" He frowns and scratches his head. "The place burnt down if I recall," he stops and a thoughtful look crosses his face and he nods to himself. "That's right, the year Angela was born," he sighs and glances at me. "Tommy's mother. Thirty-six years ago now. I remember because I felt so bad, us having our beautiful baby girl, and poor Aaron Larson losing his wife and his son." His words fade away and he seems lost in some distant memory.
"What happened?" I whisper, I'm clenching my fists so tightly that my fingernails are cutting into my palms.
"No one ever knew for sure. They never did find out what started it. Larson tried to save them, but I guess it was too late. There was a bit of a ruckus at the time. Larson claimed it was murder, said he saw someone in the house, when the fire started. But like most of us, I think he was looking for someone else to blame. Drank himself into the ground eventually." Mr. Bradley shakes his head and turns to go.
The cold rain trickles down my back and my hair is soaked, but I can't feel anything because that hollow, empty feeling inside has swallowed me whole and right now, there's nothing much left.
Dad and Dean, they've never told me everything, just bits and pieces, here and there. Dad tells us he's looking for answers, trying to follow a trail among the chaos of the hunt. Maybe that's true or maybe he's just looking for someone to blame.
And maybe, they're closer than he thinks.