As always, a heartfelt thanks to Starliteyes for looking this over for me.
Day three and a half
John lost his son. Somewhere between his thoughts of 'my boy is growing into a man,' and 'oh my fucking God, no', John had lost him to the dark depths of a malicious ghost's embrace.
His dark eyes were bloodshot with lack of sleep, and his grizzled beard was showing more gray than it had three days prior. He was standing in the room where he lost Dean, wearing the same clothes, coated in more grime. He stared through the broken wall at the massive, moss-draped tree that twisted its way inside. The tree was huge. John could walk out the gaping hole on the second floor and onto the wide limbs if he wanted to. Past the shadows of the crumbling mansion, twisting vines and thick branches the sinking sun was painting the sky in violent hues of orange and red. The colors of fire. The colors of loss.
John's nails were ragged from when he had thrown aside the shovel in favor of using his hands to dig holes in the hard-packed root cellar. The backs of his hands were scratched by the wood paneling he had torn from the walls. Somewhere in the house there had to be a hidden room, a secret passage of some kind. Dean had to be there, locked beneath the mahogany wood floor or behind a brick wall he hadn't found yet. He had to be somewhere close.
A trembling started deep inside John. It started over his heart, spreading through his body, hitting him hardest at the knees. Three days with barely enough food or water to keep his breakneck pace washed over him in a wave of weakness. Of their own volition his knees kicked forward, joints giving way, slamming him into the floor.
He continued to stare sightlessly through the branches, his vision blurring for no reason he wanted to acknowledge. Something hot and wet scalded his cheeks, but he ignored it. He remembered another time when he faced the colors of red and orange, felt heart-wrenching pain in the center of his chest--- held reminders of loss in his arms in the form of two small children.
He rocked forward, planting his scraped knuckles on the hardwood floor. Bile raged in the deep, empty pit of his stomach and he knew he was perilously close to dry heaving. For not the first time he thought his life was too dangerous for children. Deep down a part of him had always known he should have left them behind when he started his crusade. Rambling mansions haunted by murderous ghosts and dark midnight forests stalked by werewolves were no places for his boys to be. But fear loomed larger than embittered knowledge. The fear that by leaving them behind, they would be unprotected. Giving away his children was paramount to serving them upon a silver platter for any monster to come along and devour them. And how could he? How could he leave behind the only thing left in the world that mattered to him? How could he leave behind the only pieces of Mary he had left? At least he was able to train them to fight, teach them to survive, protect them---
John slammed his fists into the floor. Repeatedly striking the hard wood until his knuckles cracked and his skin split apart. Boards shattered under the blows, splintering and caving inward. A raw, desperate roar ripped from his throat, echoing around the room. Birds screeched in the rafters, flying away from their perches in a flurry of wings and molting feathers. The sound of his cry reverberated in his skull, knifing his brain as punishment long after it died away.
John leaned forward, resting his brow against his bloody fists. The sun slipped beneath the horizon, turning the sky from fire into coal. Darkness descended, and the shadows crept up to nestle next to his heart.
The sound died down in John's head, knocked away by a persistent beeping. He clenched his empty hands tighter, rubbing his face up his arm along the coarse canvas of his well-worn jacket before sitting back on his heels. Coldness settled over his impassive features, and the father in him receded, replaced by the soldier. He stood up fast, blinking away the dizziness that swept through him. With quick efficiency he snapped open his phone, his voice dry and sterile.
"Dad! Dad! I think I've figured it out!"
John's paralyzed heart stuttered to life in his chest as he listened to his little boy's shrill voice. Too smart for his own good, at the age of ten Sam was damn near the best researcher in all fifty states. His skills when he applied them about put Bobby to shame. The problem was getting his son to apply them. Old enough now to realize hunting wasn't a game, Sam very rarely wanted anything to do with the family business. For now he did as his father ordered, but John could see problems brewing on the horizon.
"What is it Sam?" John asked sharply, trying to shut out the spike of hope that stabbed his heart. It had been three days since Dean went missing. Hope, at this point, was a very dangerous thing.
"I found something at the library."
Unable to help hunt for Dean, because no matter how much he screamed, wheedled or whined, his father was firm on the matter that he was to go nowhere near the plantation, Sam turned to his one true talent---research. He buried himself in histories and old ledgers from the library. He spent every second from the moment it opened to when it closed down in the archives. He went even so far as pilfering references, stuffing them in his backpack before closing to take back to his house to read.
"I found a letter from the reverend's wife to her sister in the next county. It says hereshe never believed that Mable Cane up and left her husband to run off with her lover. She was Mable's closest friend, and she swears up and down in the letter that she would have known if Mable was going to run off."
"I don't see how that helps us, son." John's already crisp tone sliced razor wire sharp through the phone. Sam's quick intake of air made him instantly regret it. His youngest son didn't deserve all the self-loathing John felt inside, directed at him. Sam needed to hear confidence; he needed to believe his brother was coming home, even if John already knew the possibility of that happening was almost nil.
The first day Dean went missing, acid burned pits into his stomach, but he had been determined. Despair hadn't wormed its way into his gut, and his voice was resolute over the phone when he called his youngest son to tell him the news. After that everything became about Dean. The world stopped spinning, and everything fell off its axis. The only thing they lived and breathed for was to find Dean. Find Dean before it was too late. Find Dean before all there was left to find was a waxy corpse to salt and burn.
One of the hardest things John had ever done in his life was tell his four year-old boy that he would never see his mother again. It had been next to impossible explaining something like that to a young child. The look of abandonment and confusion etched over such tiny features was enough to break even the most hardened soldier's heart. John knew why Dean clung so tightly to him and his brother. His feelings of abandonment never completely evaporated. A small part of Dean was still waiting for his mother to come home. A toddler just wasn't capable of understanding death, but they could comprehend rejection. Even as a teenager, Dean knew it was illogical, but he still wondered what he had done wrong to make his mother leave him.
The second hardest thing John ever done was explain to his ten year-old son his older brother wouldn't be coming home that night. Unlike Dean, Sam was old enough to understand loss, and more importantly he was able to assign blame for that loss. And as far as his youngest son was concerned, fault lay squarely at his father's feet. John couldn't really say he disagreed with him. How it was possible his child had been stolen away right in front of him was something he was still trying to come to terms with. He felt impotent and useless. That impotency translated into anger and rigid, uncompromising determination to find his son, even if it meant ripping down the ancient homestead and digging up every square inch of land.
"I know, but dad, I found another reference in a farmhand's journal. It says here that around the time of Mable Cane's disappearance, Ezra began visiting his family crypt daily, spending long hours in there." Sam's voice was full of earnest pleading, and John felt the urge to crumple to his knees again.
"Bobby has already checked the family plot."
Bobby had shown up the second day of Dean's disappearance. Spooked by the veiled panic in his friend's voice when John called, he packed up his truck and high-tailed it to Georgia, driving non-stop through the day and most of the night. Since arriving he hadn't stopped either; instead he scoured the grounds, digging holes, looking for hidden caches.
Behind the house, nestled against the woods was an old family cemetery, encircled by a collapsing wrought iron fence threaded with vines. Inside the fence were a couple of crumbling mausoleums and several aboveground tombs. Bobby had checked them over first, but he found no sign of recent spectral activity on his EMF, and time was of the essence.
"Please, dad. I think Dean might be there. Please, daddy, you have to find him."
When's mommy coming home, daddy?
John fisted his hand in his shirt above his heart, falling backwards half a step into the wall. His knees sagged under the enormous weight pressing on his broad shoulders and he could hear the dry peeling sound of old wallpaper as it scraped off on his back. He opened his mouth to speak, but the words shriveled up and died in his throat. He coughed, covering up his shuddering breaths with the harsh sound. Finally he found the will to force words out of his mouth.
"Okay, son. I'll take Bobby over there, right now."
"Thanks, dad. I know you'll find him. I know you will."
Before he could reply, before he could set the expectation that his older brother just might not be coming back, Sam hung up. John had never been more thankful for anything in his life. He didn't know how he was going to tell Sam Dean was gone.
Three days without food and water. Three days, trapped fuck knows where. Three days with a dwindling air supply. The chance Dean was still alive was small at best. John swallowed the hard lump in his throat, squaring his shoulders resolutely before going outside to search for Bobby.
He found him in the backyard, digging another deep hole near the tree line inside a pool of yellow light cast by his camping lantern. John waved him over with a bob of flashlight as he walked dejectedly towards the cemetery. Bobby fell in step beside him, his blue eyes shading gray with remorse. Already his friend had given up, and John was feeling the same heavy despair pressing on his chest. John knew he would eventually unearth his son, but it was drawing to the time when he would find a corpse, not a living, breathing child.
"Sam has a theory," John offered in a way of explanation.
Bobby nodded in acceptance. Although he had already checked the mausoleums, he offered no resistance. There was no reason to say no to his friend. No reason to deny him his feeble attempts.
Bobby set his lamp on a high shelf by the door and withdrew his EMF to scan the crypt as soon as they entered. Brass plaques were bolted to the walls above upright coffins nearly falling apart with age. It was a small hexagon space with only three rotted skeletons, Ezra's parents and sister, his only family besides his wife and daughter.
Bobby rubbed a hand over his sweaty brow as he walked a half circle in the dusty interior. He had been digging holes nearly non-stop since yesterday, and his arms were ready to fall off at the shoulders. His entire body was fatigued with wear and hunger. Blisters burned his hands and tremors wracked his arms. Even the effort to lift his feet to walk was exhausting. He tripped over a crack, watching as the EMF fell from his numb fingertips. It clattered onto to the floor where it squealed like a stuck pig.
Both John and Bobby nearly jumped out of their skins as they stared down at the small black box on the ground, the red bulbs at the top of the meter flaring up.
"Under the floor," John breathed in bewilderment. Frantically he dropped to his knees pounding on the cobblestone slabs with his bare fists.
Bobby regained his senses sooner, and darted from the crypt, racing to his truck. John chased after him, jumping into the bed of his pickup to dig out a sledgehammer and pick axe. Back at the crypt they hammered the floor, shattering the flat stones.
They broke through the floor soon enough, and John dropped down to one knee, peeling back slabs of stone. A plague of rats exploded from the small opening, screeching and squealing, flipping around on the floor as they stampeded over each other. Their rank musky scent choked the hot, humid air, gagging John and Bobby. The rodents cascaded over their feet, driving both men towards the entrance as they washed out the door in a brown, furry wave.
John and Bobby scattered them further, stomping some into the floor and swinging at others with their heavy tools. They fought their way back to the hole, yanking away more stone as quickly as possible. John grabbed his flashlight, ducking his head inside to peer into the pit. All he could see in the dark depths were piles and piles of yellowed, gnawed upon bones. There were hundreds heaped up, going who knew how deep. John expelled a tiny grunt of despair, which had Bobby looking at him sharply.
Bobby repositioned himself, throwing his weight behind the hammer as he pounded a new section of flooring. John scrambled to help, prying away more stone with the flat edge of the axe. They quickly unearthed a second small chamber mercifully free of rats. John swept a small section of the pit with his flashlight, seeing a small collection of bones and a dozen rat corpses.
"Dean!" he shouted, knowing, hoping his son was there.
They knelt, using their hands to pry up stones so their blows wouldn't rain heavy slabs down on Dean's head. After widening the hole John ducked his head inside, using his flashlight to scan the tiny space beneath the floor.
His breath caught in his throat as he glimpsed his son, slumped against the far wall. His dark lashes formed crescent smudges on his cheeks, his freckles standing out starkly against his pale skin. Something hot and strangled rose up in John's chest, threatening to steal his air away. He clawed at the floor, flinging the thick stone slabs aside like a man possessed. Bobby helped him break away more rock until the opening was large enough for John to slip inside the tomb where his son lay.
John squatted inside the pit, reaching awkwardly under the floor to grip a handful of filthy, stiff denim. He tightened his fist in Dean's pant leg, dragging him closer. Dean slid down the wall, his head thumping painfully on the floor. The hot, hard knot in John's chest grew until it was pressing painfully against the underside of his sternum when Dean didn't so much as flutter in protest.
"Dean, open your eyes, son."
John dragged Dean across the grimy floor, winding one arm under his waist when he was near enough. He levered Dean into a sitting position, grimacing at his boneless body and slack mouth. John hauled Dean out of the pit, Bobby helping to lift him. John scrambled out and gently they laid him down on the floor.
There were smears of blood all over Dean's hands and face, especially around his mouth. Slivers of wood were jammed beneath his nails from his struggle with the poltergeist in the hall. Some of his nails were peeled away from the beds, and John swallowed hard at what that meant, knowing it wasn't from the initial fight. Along with those wounds he could see jagged bites along Dean's hands and arms. More ragged injuries were on his lips and cheeks.
John set his teeth, his jaw flexing with strain as he reached his fingers beneath his son's chin. He withdrew quickly when he felt the sticky wetness of blood. He tilted Dean's head back on his neck, noticing more bite marks and tiny, clean nicks in his flesh. John's eyes flickered down to where Dean's favorite knife was tightly clenched in a white-knuckled grip.
The hot thing inside John expanded until it felt like breathing would soon become impossible. Acidic bile rushed up his throat, burning his molars at the roots. John searched desperately for a pulse, needing to know that his son was alive. When he felt a faint flutter against his fingertips the breath he had been unconsciously holding gushed out his lungs, and the hard white panic in John's chest loosened its clawed grip.
John heard the raw pitch in his tone, but for once he forgave himself for the weakness. This was his son, and he was alive. Dean had been buried alive for three days, fought off hordes of hungry rats, and who knew what else. His son was alive, and John meant to keep him that way.
John pried the knife away from Dean's iron-fisted grip, handing it to Bobby before hauling him up in his arms, hugging his boy to his chest. He could feel his son's faint, shivering breaths against his neck, and reflexively John clenched his grip, bringing Dean even closer to his heart. Heat burned behind his eyes, and briefly he squeezed them closed before struggling to his feet. Absently, he wondered when his little boy had grown into a hundred and twenty pound limp bag of rice, but he endured the weight happily. John hustled back to his truck, allowing Bobby to help him situate Dean in the front seat before the man split off to get into his own truck. John crawled behind the wheel, lifting his son's head so it was cradled in his lap.
John started the engine, backing out of the drive almost recklessly. He made a three point turn, cursing loudly when the back wheels spun in the mud before catching on bedrock. He sped down the overgrown dirt track, the truck bouncing dangerously in and out of the deep ruts.
John jerked his eyes off the road, glancing down at the most beautiful sight ever: his son's green eyes looking up at him. Dean's face was pale beneath the blood around his lips, and John could count the freckles sprinkled across his nose. For just a moment, Dean was four again, looking up at him with sad, confused eyes, asking him when Mommy would be coming home.
John reached into the door pocket, pulling out a camouflaged canteen filled with water. He unscrewed the cap with his teeth, keeping one hand on the wheel, and half an eye on the road.
"Son, you're going to be alright now. I'm taking you to the hospital. You're dehydrated and a little malnourished, but you're okay."
John helped Dean take small sips from the can, making sure that he didn't swallow too much. He didn't mention the bite wounds, but the way Dean touched his raw fingers to his ravaged lips, he figured that he didn't have to.
"You found me."
It was a statement, but it sounded so much like a question that it nearly broke John's heart.
"Of course, I did, Dean. I'll always find you," John swore, and he wondered if there was special Hell for liars or if parents were exempt. John wanted desperately to keep the promises he swore to his sons, but like all adults he knew sometimes such assurances just weren't possible. Sam was still young enough to believe his father's promises, and up until three days ago, Dean had been as well. But as John stared down into his son's clouded bloodshot eyes, he knew that time had passed.
Dean nodded, looking away in the distance. The hot thing in John's chest returned with a vengeance. It threatened to spill out his eyes in hot wet bursts, and he had to swallow it back down into the pit of his stomach.
"I found you, Dean. I did. That bastard can't get you anymore. I'm going to go back there and burn the whole damn place to the ground."
Dean closed his eyes and John watched as his son swallowed hard.
"Dad, promise me that when you go back, you'll salt and burn the remains in the crypt."
John tightened his knuckles around the wheel, staring straight ahead.
"Dean, did—did something happen? Something besides Ezra?"
John's eyes flickered down to his son, and he watched as Dean shifted his knees against his chest, curling in on himself.
"Just promise me, Dad. They didn't deserve that. No one deserves that."
"Okay, son. I promise."
His words seemed to relax Dean a fraction, and he almost jumped when his son wrapped a weak hand around his calf, clutching at him the only way he could. Dean stared at his other hand, flexing his fingers so he could see the crusts of blood crack in the crevices of his knuckles. John scrambled for something else to say, knowing that his son needed to hear the reassuring sound of his voice.
"Sam's sure is going to be happy to see you. He's the one who cracked the case, you know."
"Of course he did." John heard a hint of a smile in Dean's voice and he felt himself loosen just a bit.
"I think the little do-gooder stole books from the library so he could study them at home. You'd think he actually likes his big brother, despite how much he says to the contrary."
"Yah, the little shit is going to freak when he sees me."
"Language, son." John reprimanded softly, the rest of his panic slipping away. Once Dean was in the hospital, got some intravenous fluids in him, and the bite wounds tended to, he would be alright. His little boy would be just fine.
"Yeah?" John glanced down to see Dean looking intently at his hands again.
"Let's not tell Sammy about the rats."
Dean paused and John waited a heartbeat, his stomach doing little flips of indecision.
"I mean. He's already freaked out enough about clowns as it is."
John pressed his lips together, taking one hand off the wheel to run his fingers through his son's short hair. He heard Dean's sigh of contentment, and the hand that gripped his calf loosened slightly.
John knew that some fears were innate. Men fear the dark because instinctively they know there are things out there that hunt them where they can't see. Some fears are born through tragedy and trauma, like the paralyzing terror of loss. No man is fearless, nor should he be. Fear is what hones the senses and sharpens instinct. Fear is what drives man, and fear is what must be conquered.
"We all have something, son."
John brushed his hand through his son's hair one last time, before wrapping his fingers around the wheel, driving hell-bent away from both their fears.