Near Ellicottville, NY. Mid-autumn.
The last thing Sam saw was the sudden sunlight shining across her face and then she was gone, off the bridge, down the gorge, into the swirling river. Sam nearly went over the railing himself, trying desperately to reach her, to catch her hand, to save her life, but the agony twisting around his spine made his reach short. Their fingertips brushed then she was gone.
He could hear Dean's voice, dully, calling his name, arms grabbed him and hauled him back over the railing, onto the sidewalk and safety.
"Sam, Sammy..." Dean said over and over and Sam still tried to reach through the iron girders of the bridge, as though he might catch her yet and save her. He heard no scream, just the bitter wind and Dean's voice as he held him close on the cold pavement. "Stay with me, Sammy. Sammy, stay here. It's too late, you can't reach her."
Sam stilled then, one hand reaching into empty air and from far, far below he thought he heard a meager splash. That – and the pain in his back - made him feel nauseous.
"I hate you."
"I hate you." Sam breathed out for the dozenth time that day. The knife of pain still twisted the muscles in his back and kept him from getting any kind of rest, let alone sleep. The hot shower hadn't helped, the flat motel bed didn't help, the pillows under his knees didn't help, the four ibuprofen all at once didn't help.
The memory of that woman falling to her death didn't help.
"I hate you."
"No better?" Dean asked, coming through the door. He'd been outside, telling charming lies no doubt, to keep the Sheriff away from Sam while he was in agony.
"Sure, that's why I'm dancing."
"Ha ha. This ought to help."
A bottle landed dangerously close to Sam's head on the bed.
"Now I know why they threw you off that Little League team."
"I missed, didn't I?"
"What is it?" Sam reached blindly for the bottle and held it over his eyes to read the label.
"Codeine." Dean told him. "Liquid codeine and Tylenol. Mrs. Piper's little boy had surgery a month or so ago. He had that left over."
"Mrs. Piper?" Staying flat, afraid to move, Sam couldn't see what Dean was doing. He heard a plastic bag rustling and things being set on the table.
"She owns the motel."
"You told her I threw my back out?"
"When she heard you were my little brother, she knew you were a pain." Dean appeared in Sam's line of sight, grinning that stupid grin of his. Sam glared at him and he laughed. "Her husband's tall, taller even than you. He's got a bad back too. She saw you getting out of the car this morning and recognized the posture. She sent a heating pad too."
He bent down to plug it in behind the bedside table.
"Can you turn little? Let me slide this under your back?"
Sam gritted his teeth and held his breath and turned as much as he could. The knife twisted deeper.
"All set." Dean said and Sam laid back. "Okay?"
"Yeah. Y'get me a towel?"
"Why?" Dean asked suspiciously as though the answer might be disgusting.
"To put between me and the heating pad. I don't want to get burned."
"Really?" Dean didn't sound like he believed him.
"I've had back pain my whole life. I know the best way to use a heating pad."
"Technically Sammy, you've only had a bad back since you were a teenager. That's barely half your life."
Dean laughed again as he turned away. "Brightest star at Stanford and you don't even know how long you've had a bad back..."
If Sam had dared moving, he would've thrown the bottle at Dean. But he didn't dare moving and he didn't want to risk breaking the bottle before he'd taken the codeine.
"One towel, coming up."
"Thanks." When Sam turned toward his side again, he opened the bottle and took a healthy swallow.
"Whoa there Sammy, take it easy with that stuff." Dean said as he slid the towel in place. "I don't want to need a Shop Vac to get you into the car later on."
"If a tablespoon dose is good enough..." Sam held the bottle closer to read the label. "...for a six year old, I think a mouthful is okay for me."
"On top of the ibuprofen you've been popping like candy for two days."
Sam set himself gingerly onto his back. "I just want the pain to stop."
"Well I don't want you to stop."
"You can stop with the overprotective big brother routine." Sam said. Dean sat on the edge of the bed with a serious look on his face. "I said you could stop."
"They found her body. Emilia Ryan, that was her name. Mrs. Piper told me. They found her just a little while ago, a few miles down the gorge."
Sam pushed the bottle at Dean and didn't say anything. He didn't want to think about it. Maybe he could take enough codeine to make himself unconscious.
"We can't save everybody." Dean said.
"So I hear."
"Sam -." But whatever Dean was going to say, he stopped. "It's getting close to dinnertime and you hardly had anything all day. What's your pleasure?"
"Nothing. Whatever. Ginger ale maybe, in case the medicine makes me sick."
"Nothing to eat? You need something to eat."
"Whatever. It doesn't matter."
Dean let out a deep breath. "All right. I'll be right back." He stood up, grabbed his keys, and headed for the door. He stopped briefly.
"We can't save everybody."
"I know." Sam said and whispered, "I hate you."
Sam thought he might be in trouble when he his hands started tingling and his brain felt like day old ectoplasm. But the heating pad started to loosen the knife in his spine and after thirty six hours of too much pain and not enough rest, before Dean even got back, he fell asleep.
He woke up to a dark room and a flickering TV. He must've been asleep several hours. The agony had dulled to the ache of deeply bruised muscle and he took the risk of turning his head to look for Dean. He found him in the other bed, resting against a bundled blanket at the headboard, staring at the silent screen.
"Something wrong with the TV?" Sam asked. His mouth was dry and he felt like he had a mild hangover.
"The sound is all static."
"That's the heating pad." Sam felt for the switch and shut it off. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
"How's the back?" Dean asked. He sounded tired or pissed.
"Better." Sam propelled himself to his feet and shuffled to the bathroom.
"There's sandwiches and soda pop in the fridge." Dean sounded pissed or disappointed. He reached for the remote and turned up the sound on the TV. Sam didn't like the look on his face.
"Yeah." But he didn't look at Sam when he said it.
Sam used the bathroom then took his food and ginger ale out of the small motel fridge and sat at the small motel table in the dark room. He sat purposely where he couldn't look at Dean. He couldn't think of anything he might've done while he was asleep to annoy him, and he felt too much like roadkill to try and figure it out.
He finished a sandwich and most of the ginger ale and didn't want to think of anything beyond going back to sleep. He tossed Dean's pillows to the other bed from where they'd been under his knees and moved his own up to the head of his bed.
Before he laid down, he took another swig of codeine. Dean glanced at him but didn't say anything.
"You sure you're okay?" Sam asked.
"Just tired." But Dean still didn't look at him and Sam gave up trying. He laid down, shifting slightly to get the towel straightened out underneath him. With the pillows gone, stretched
out flat on his back, his feet hung over the bed. He grumbled and repositioned himself to lay diagonally on the mattress; it was the only way to have all of him on the mattress at the same time. He switched on the heating pad but the sound on the TV immediately went static and he turned it off again.
"No, no, it's all right. I'm going to sleep anyway." Dean flicked the TV off with the remote and the room was filled with darkness. Sam wondered again what he might've done to annoy his brother. He left the heating pad off.
"I hate you." He breathed out and waited for the codeine and exhaustion to take him again.
The first thing Sam became aware of was the triangle of morning sunlight through the crook of his elbow where he'd put his arm over his eyes. The next thing he became aware of was that the heating pad under his back was hot. He hadn't turned it on again the night before. Dean must have. Dean must've checked it, checked Sam, and turned it back on.
Sam switched it off and eased himself up and out of bed. The agonizing pain hadn't come back, just the same ache of abused muscles. He pressed his hand to the spot and went to use the bathroom. On the table was a bag from McDonald's that held two breakfast burritos and hash browns. A note lay on the table next to the bag, Dean's handwriting.
OJ's in the fridge. Bookstore opens at 9. Be back later.
Paperclipped to the note was thirty dollars which was helpful since Sam wanted to hit the bookstore and he had exactly seven dollars in his wallet.
Apparently whatever Dean was pissed at or disappointed in, it wasn't Sam.
He took some more ibuprofen, ate a burrito, drank all the orange juice and headed out into the chilly daylight.
The bookstore was down the main street to his right. He could see the sandwich board out front announcing a sale. But to his left a quarter of a mile away he saw the bridge Emilia Ryan had fallen to her death from, just yesterday morning.
Sam turned left and walked to the bridge.
It was an old steel girder bridge, painted fading turquoise. There were two lanes of traffic, and two wide sidewalks, and if not for the flowers and balloons already tied to one of the uprights, Sam wouldn't have known the exact spot where Emilia had fallen. He looked over the edge. She'd had no chance once she lost the bridge. There was hardly any water and the riverbed was full of boulders and driftwood. He'd been three inches away from her and she hadn't had a chance.
He sat on the sidewalk of the bridge, with his hands stuffed into his jacket pockets and his legs stretched out as much as they could be without being in the way of any traffic that might come along.
"I hate you."
Not too long of sitting there, Sam heard the Impala pull to a stop off the end of the bridge. The door opened and closed and soon Dean was sitting on the sidewalk next to him. They didn't talk, they didn't move, until finally Dean said,
"So - you hate me."
"I don't hate you." Sam answered with some surprise.
"C'mon Sammy. I heard you, at least a couple times yesterday."
"I didn't say I hate you." Sam realized his whispered remarks hadn't been as silent as he thought.
"I heard you."
"I wasn't talking to you." Sam admitted.
"Who else was there?"
"Nobody. Nobody - I was talking to myself."
Dean's surprise lasted thirty seconds. He turned to stare at Sam and didn't say anything for a full thirty seconds.
"You hate yourself?"
"Well that's just stupid."
"Stupid?" Sam asked, surprised and a little annoyed.
"Yes stupid. You don't hate yourself." It sound more like an observation than an admonition. "Okay, you know what? New rule - you don't get to hate yourself."
"'New rule'? Geez Dean, this isn't some kid game I'm playing." Sam shook his head and shifted where he sat, pressing his hand against his back. Sitting here on the side of the road wasn't doing his back any favors; he could feel the muscles wanting to bunch up again.
"Sam look - I know you feel bad about Emilia going over the bridge, but you tried. From what people have told me, well, nobody is surprised she did it. If we'd been two minutes later, we wouldn't even have known it happened. You did your best."
"If it hadn't been for my back, I would've been able to reach her."
"You don't know that."
"I know that I was three inches away from her and if my back hadn't felt like it was ripping in two, I could've reached her. I could've saved her."
"You can't hate yourself for that."
"It's not just that." Sam said, and when he didn't say anything else Dean gave him that look. The one eyebrow lifted, 'don't make me force it out of you because you know I can' look. Sam looked away before answering.
"I'm tired of motel beds that aren't long enough, showers that aren't high enough. I'm tired of throwing my back out just opening my laptop. Forget all the horrific stuff we've been through in our lives, there are days I'd give anything for a back that doesn't feel like I've got somebody's fist wedged next to my spine."
"So you're tired, and you're in pain. I can understand that. But it's a big step from there to hating yourself."
Off in the distance, toward the south, Sam could see the hills of Ellicottville, another twenty miles away. The ski resorts had already started making snow and though they were too far away, he could imagine people out on the slopes, enjoying themselves, not worrying about anything more important than what wax to put on their skis. That seemed so far removed from everything in his life.
"I'm the reason you're going to hell."
"So? We've been over that. It was my choice and I'm not sorry. You think you're not worth that to me?"
"I know I shouldn't be worth it." Sam said. He was surprised when Dean grabbed his shoulder and made him turn back to him.
"For the last freaking time Sammy, you're worth hell to me. You're worth heaven and hell and time and eternity to me. If you say you hate yourself, you might as well say you hate me."
If he didn't feel so miserable, Sam might've been amused by the sudden, vehement outpouring of feeling.
"All right. I hate you."
Dean clearly wasn't expecting that.
"What? Just like that?"
"You been hitting me over the head with it for the last five minutes. I'd say anything to make you shut up."
Before Dean could answer, a Sheriff's car pulled up near them and the tallest man Sam had ever seen got out. He had blond hair, broad shoulders, and Sam wondered if in a previous life he'd been a ski pro out of Ellicottville.
"Let me guess, Mrs. Piper's husband?" He whispered to Dean.
Sam felt Dean put his hand on his back and give him a pat; a signal that that was the name he'd given the authorities.
"Feelin' up to a word?"
The Sheriff turned to Dean. "The coffee's fresh at the café," he said, sounding friendly but firm. Dean didn't move though and Sam knew - one word or look or touch from him and Dean would be glued there.
"Okay." Sam glanced at Dean. "It's OK."
"Okay." Dean stood up and walked only as far as the car. The café with the fresh coffee was just a block past that, but he sat on the hood of the car, facing away but within shouting distance.
"My Rosie said you threw your back out trying to save Emilia." The Sheriff said when they were alone.
"No, it's been since the day before. It's the reason I didn't reach her in time."
The Sheriff leaned back against the fender of his car and didn't answer Sam's self-accusation.
"Looked like you and your brother were having quite the discussion as I was driving up."
"Yeah, we were discussing all the reasons being this tall is a bitch. Constant back pain being top of the list."
"I hear you. Next on my list is shirts. When I get sleeves that are long enough, the shoulders are too wide. When the shoulders fit, the sleeves are so short I look like Frankenstein's monster."
Sam nodded his agreement and smiled at the description.
"Gulliver and the Lilliputians."
"Exactly...so - wanna tell me what happened?"
"Yeah, uh, yeah." Sam scrubbed his bangs off his forehead and looked over to where he could see Dean.
"We were driving through yesterday morning, we weren't even planning to stop, we're heading to Pennsylvania. Bradford. We passed Emilia here on the bridge and it looked like she was crying and talking to herself. Really, it looked like she was arguing with somebody I couldn't see. I got out to see if I could help and Dean was going to turn the car around. I don't think she even saw me until she was over the railing. I tried. I couldn't reach her but I tried."
"Then you tried more than almost anyone else in her life has in the last thirty years. Something's been chasing Emilia since high school."
"Chasing?" Sam asked.
"I don't mean spooks or banshees or anything like that. I mean - she seemed to be always one step behind happiness ever since she was twelve. Nothing helped. Medication, hospitalization, therapy, nothing helped. This wasn't her first try."
"I could've reached her. I was just inches away. Inches."
"No." The Sheriff shook his head. "I've got a wingspan like a pterodactyl and it still wasn't enough to catch my son before he propelled himself off our porch and broke his arm so bad he needed surgery to set the bone. Life isn't a matter of inches. It's a matter of what's meant to be, life's a matter of what is."
Sam didn't answer.
"Look at your brother. I've got – what? Six inches on him? But when I wanted to talk to you yesterday, I had the feeling if I pushed it I was in for a fight, and for the first time in a long time I wasn't sure it was a fight I'd win. Life isn't a matter of inches."
"Each other is all we have left." Sam told him. He wasn't sure what Dean running interference for him had to do with not being able to save Emilia. "And yesterday I spent the whole
day flat in bed, carpet-bombed with painkillers. I wouldn't have been much help."
"Well, I appreciate you talking with me today. And I appreciate that you tried to help Emilia, especially when you didn't even know her. Like I said, most people gave up trying a long time ago."
The Sheriff walked around his car and opened the door.
"You take care of that back of yours now." He said before he got in and drove away.
Sam got to his feet and walked down to the Impala. He sat on the hood near Dean but didn't look at him.
"I hear the coffee is fresh down at the café." He said..
"I hear the bookstore's having a sale." Dean answered.
"When my back hurts, everything hurts." Sam offered, getting back to their unfinished conversation. "I get tired of it."
"I know you do. And it pisses me off that anybody could hate -" Dean broke off, starting to sound angry. Then his voice dropped. " – somebody I love so much. I don't think you know how close you came to going over that bridge too Sammy. Those three inches that might've saved her would've lost me you. You're still here and you don't get to hate yourself for that."
"You can still hate me if you want though." Dean said, flashing Sam a grin. He slid off the hood and pulled the keys out of his pocket.
"Hey, people way cooler than you hate me already."
They got in the car and Dean started it up. "Bookstore?"
"Think we could just pack up and head to Bradford?" Sam could see people looking at the car, like they knew who he was, that he'd been the last person with Emilia. "I think the sooner we're out of here, the sooner Emilia's memory can rest in peace."
Half an hour later they were on their way out of town again. Mrs. Piper sent them on with
the rest of the codeine and a box of self-heating patches for Sam's back. They drove across the bridge, slowing down in front of the impromptu roadside shrine.
"Guess there's worse things than a bad back." Sam said.
"Guess there is."
"I wish I could've saved her."
They drove on and Sam turned to watch the red balloons and silk flowers until they were out of sight.