When Carol Andersen had been seven years old, she'd found an abandoned litter of kittens and brought them home, raised them herself. "A good heart you've got," her pastor had said on Sunday.
Maybe that was why she couldn't forget the boy.
"Excuse me?" The voice was soft, but insistent. Carol looked up, surprise making her jump. She was in charge of this kitchen, one of the few volunteers who had actually been hired by the hospital. She knew everyone's position at all times, making certain that things were being done properly. No one had ever surprised her here.
The young man smiled at her, a sliver of white teeth peeking through his lips. "I'm sorry," He said. At first, the older woman couldn't help but bristle. He wasn't really sorry, he couldn't be the type that was ever sorry for anything, not with that long hair that curled down onto his forehead and right above his ears, or with that jacket covered in dirt. Those kinds of young people were never sorry for anything. But his smile was so sad, and his eyes, boring into her, were genuinely contrite.
Carol shook her head, confused but polite, waving her hand in a flippant gesture. "Not at all. What can I do for you?"
The boy (with those sad eyes she could only call him a boy) glanced around behind her at various volunteers rushing pots and pans from one side of the kitchen to the other. "I, um…was just wondering what you were serving today." His hands, shoved deep into his pockets, clenched a little. His strong jaw tensed with some shadow that flashed across his face, as though this were only a mask and underneath it was something else.
Carol couldn't resist softening her voice. The poor kid looked like he might crack right down the middle. "We've got lasagna," she said, and his face stayed tight as she rattled off a few more dishes, "or just mashed potatoes and ham." The tension drained and made the boy look even younger.
"The ham would be perfect." Carol nodded and pulled some pans from the nearby counter and armed herself with utensils, slopping a slab of ham and a heap of potatoes onto a plate, and pouring a dollop of gravy right on top. The boy's hands clenched in his jacket again.
"Is something wrong?" She said, surveying her creation. It looked appetizing to her. The boy shifted uncomfortably.
"Not really, I mean it looks fine, but…could you use a little more gravy?"
She stared at him. He was well built, muscular. Not really the type of man who asked for extra gravy.
He took her pause out of context and hastily added, "It's okay if you can't. Sorry."
There was that apology again. Feeling strangely wretched that she'd made him worry, she shook her head. "Oh, no, not that. You just don't look like the extra gravy kind of person." She smiled at him, wanting to clear those lines from that troubled forehead. He relaxed slowly and gave her that sliver-of-white smile again.
"I'm not. It's for my brother." He looked down at his feet. "He loves that kind of thing."
Ah. There it was. She should have recognized that face, that horribly sad face. She'd seen it on people waiting for news from the ICU, people standing in bunches biting their nails and begging with their eyes for news.
"He's a patient?" She slipped in smoothly and instantly regretted it. It was her policy to be friendly but uninvolved. But she couldn't deny wanting to know something about the boy. Something about him made her want to know.
"Yeah." He looked up at her just in time to see her pour a generous slathering of dark gravy across the plate. "He's going to love this. Thanks." She felt a flutter of something in her chest as he looked at her. He reminded her a little of her own sons, grown already, far older than this boy.
"Do you have any pie?" His face quirked into a secretive smile, as though there was a backstory with that particular food.
"We don't. We have pudding or ice cream, if that's alright."
His face darkened, the smile fading, and he said, "No. Just the ham, then." She suddenly would have given anything for a cherry pie to hand him.
"It's $3.52," she said, sliding the plate over the counter next to the register, trying to push the feeling away. He pulled a raggedy bill from his pocket and handed it to her, taking the plate gratefully. She gave him his change and he turned to go. "Wait," She said, "What about you?"
He turned his head a little to one side. "What?"
"Wouldn't you like something to eat?"
An indecisive pause. "No. I'm not hungry."
And he was gone.
She saw him the next day. He was in a chair that seemed much too small for him, his lap littered with pamphlets and crowded by a computer. His hair was disheveled and he wore the same jacket as before. She had no intention of stopping to talk, though she wanted to, but he happened to look up as she passed and put out a hand to stop her.
"Hello." She said, trying not to notice the dark circles under his eyes.
"Hey. I just wanted to tell you that my brother," --He broke a little on the word-- "Hasn't been eating well, but, um…he ate a little of your ham yesterday." He looked like he might say more, but stopped. "I just wanted to say thanks."
She looked at him. He seemed hopeful today. Was there good news about his brother? The question was out before she could stop herself.
"Sort of." He looked over his shoulder at a closed door on his left.
"Is that his room?" Another slip of her tongue. Carol frowned at herself.
"Yeah. He's resting finally." The faint pop of a television turning on came from behind the door. The boy made an annoyed face. "Or supposed to be." He looked as though the conversation might be over, and Carol turned to go. And stopped herself.
"You know," she said, "I was thinking of making some cherry pie this morning. Would your brother feel up to eating it? With his heart?"
He jumped. "How'd you know?"
She pointed wordlessly to the numerous pamphlets that boldly declared 'The Miracle of the Human Heart," and similar titles. "I…I know that some patients with heart trouble have a hard time keeping anything down." Her face flushed as the boy broke into the first genuine smile she'd seen. Those white teeth she'd only glimpsed shone at her from a brilliant smile, complete with a set of twin dimples on his cheeks.
"Do you mind waiting while I ask him?" She shook her head and he flung the door open to give her a brief look at a young man reclining against the pillows before he shut it a little, leaving only a small crack open, enough to let voices drift into the hallway. She heard the television click back off and his voice say, "Dean, guess what?"
A growly, tired voice answered back. "I was watching that, Sam!" A half-hearted anger.
"Too bad. You were supposed to be resting anyway. Question for you." The answer delivered in good spirits. "You remember the lady I told you about?"
"The gravy one?"
"Yeah, her. She's making pie this morning. Wanted to know if you felt up to eating some."
An annoyed pause. "Does the whole world know I'm sick?"
"Just everyone in Dad's journal and the lunch lady." Carol felt another prick of curiosity. Dad's journal? The conversation was continuing though, and she guiltily paid close attention. "It's pie."
"Yeah." A long pause. "Want me to tell her to save you a piece?"
A longer pause. "Nah. That's okay."
"Dean, please. Just eat something."
"Dean. You're freaking me out, man. You always eat pie." It was half-joking, but the half that wasn't was terribly serious.
"I have a plan. Check me out of here, and we'll go get some pie somewhere else."
"I'm not. Just try the pie."
The conversation dropped to a lower pitch, and Carol lost it until the boy reappeared, that boisterous happiness deflated a little. "Pie sounds good."
"I'll bring it to you." She offered.
"No, that's okay."
"Really. It's no trouble. You look busy." She gestured toward his laptop and assorted paperwork. "Eleven sound good?"
"Perfect." This time when they parted ways, she had his smile in her mind's eye.
She didn't get out of the kitchen quite at eleven, but close enough that if she ran she wouldn't be too late. She ignored the stairs and took the elevator, her knees too old for three flights of exercise, trying to remember which door was theirs. It didn't take long to find them once she'd gotten the floor right. She could hear his voice, quiet, but loud enough in the hospital silence. She paused outside their door, not wanting to interrupt.
"Why not?" The boy. Sam, she knew now. Sam. A good name for him.
"Because I said so." The brother, Dean. The obstinate brother, from the sounds of it.
"Dad would want to know."
"He doesn't need to know."
"Why? You think he's gonna be pissed at you for trying to save a couple kids?"
"No, he's gonna be pissed I screwed up!" An angry flare-up.
"You didn't screw up, Dean! You were doing the right thing, and if Dad doesn't understand what that means than that's his problem!" An angry response.
"He didn't answer when I called him from Lawrence."
"He can't ignore a call about you dying, Dean. Even he's not that bad."
Pause. "I never thought I'd hear you say that."
"I never thought I'd have to call about this. Please. Maybe he'll know something."
There was silence for such a long time that Carol worked up the courage to knock. The door came open a minute later, and Sam stood there, looking almost relieved at her timely entrance. "Hey! Come on in."
She entered, handing him a plate with a thick slice of pie on it. She'd brought two. Dean needed to eat, but from the looks of it, Sam did too. She came forward with the other slice. The brother was trying to get himself up into a sitting position, hastily, as though if she saw him lying down she'd think less of him. Oh. So he was that type. The type that was afraid of looking weak. She'd seen more than one patient come staggering down to the kitchen, their family hovering worriedly behind, firmly believing that they needed no help. And indeed, when Sam abandoned his own dessert and tried to put a supporting hand on his brother's shoulder, it was swatted away with a growly, "I got it." Sam looked worried, but backed off.
"This is for you, Dean. Just came out of the oven a little while ago." She sat the plate with a clink on his rolling food tray.
"Thanks." He said, but his face went a little pale as he finally got himself upright.
She looked to Sam. He bit his lip and looked at his brother. "Yeah, thanks. It looks delicious…" He paused, and she realized she had never introduced herself. She supplied her name and he nodded. "Thank you, Carol."
Sam took a bite of his pie and nodded his appreciation at her. Dean was still looking at his as though it might be venemous. His face was still chalk white, and whatever pleasure Sam had been gleaning from his own dessert vanished from his eyes. Carol intervened.
"You know, I could bring that back later if you'd rather."
Dean looked up, as though remembering she was there. He looked as though he might agree to that, but Sam shook his head. "No, that's okay. Leave it. Thanks again." He shepherded her toward the door. It was clear she was dismissed. It was only when she was already halfway down the hall that she remembered the knife in her pocket for Dean. She'd given Sam his with his fork. How she had forgotten to give the brother his, she didn't know. She hurried back, determined to get there before they would close the door and lock her out.
They hadn't, but she couldn't bring herself to enter when she got there. Sam was sitting on the side of his brother's bed, staring down at his hands in his lap, neither of them looking at each other. "Dean, come on."
"I'm just not hungry."
"It's really good."
"Then you eat yours."
"Can't. Not until you eat some of yours."
"You have got to be kidding me. You're really pulling the not-eating-until-you-do thing?"
"Look, Sam. I get it, okay? You're worried about me. I get it. But I ate some of that ham yesterday, it's not like I'm starving or anything."
"That would have been true if you hadn't thrown it all back up."
Dean looked up, those big green eyes framed by dark bruises. "You were supposed to be asleep."
"Pretty hard to sleep through your brother narking his guts out." A shrug, and Sam lifted his eyes to look into his brother's. "Just a few bites, Dean. Please." It made Carol's heart want to burst as Dean sighed and lifted a bite to his pale, pale lips. His skin turned an awful, sickly color as he chewed, but he forced it down. Three more bites and he was finished. Carol knew she should turn away, but couldn't bring herself to. Had her sons ever been like this? So caring about each other, so eager to please? She didn't know how she'd missed it if they had. It was a marvelous thing.
Dean pushed the plate away and fell back against the pillow. "I feel like I am going to puke."
"Go to sleep." Sam pulled the food tray away, looking satisfied with his brother's effort. "You'll feel better."
"Whatever." Dean grumbled, but he turned a little to the side and closed his eyes. The look on Sam's face as he watched was hidden as he stood with his back to the door, but Carol thought she could guess what it might look like.
She slipped away, knife forgotten.
She had breakfast plans for Sam and Dean. Something easy to settle Dean's stomach, and something filling to give Sam some color back. Her gut lurched as she entered the room to see fresh sheets on the bed and no sign of either brother. She grabbed a nurse by the arm as she passed and said, "The boys in here. What happened to them?"
"Oh, you mean that guy with the heart thing?" Carol nodded. "Brother left to get a hotel room last night. The guy checked himself out AMA this morning."
"Yep. Doctors begged him not to, but he staggered out of here and called a cab." The nurse shook her head. "If you ask me, it was pretty stupid of him. He only had a couple weeks to begin with. He probably has days now." She smiled politely at the older woman and stepped out of her grasp.
Carol stood frozen, staring at the room where those boys had been only yesterday. She looked at the bed where she'd seen them last, then turned and went quietly back to her station in the kitchen to pretend nothing had ever happened.
The only evidence that Carol Andersen had ever known Sam and Dean was the one cherry pie in the freezer, waiting to be cooked…just in case a boy with his hands in his pockets ever came through the line again.