River of Blood
Author's Note: I am bending my own rules here - I really try not to read or post WIPs till they're finished. But since I've been tinkering with this fic for a year now, I suspect my best chance of finishing it in 2008 is if I commit to making it public like this. I should be able to post at least 1-2K words a week (or better) until it's complete. (Hey, at least it will help pass the time till new episodes!) As always, my beta readers are even more helpful than Bobby Singer - this is for you! (Except for the fact that it's completely self-indulgent, in which I wallow in all my favorite puddles of squee.) Set in season 3 - just after Bad Day at Black Rock.
Part 1 - 2007
The car keys are warm in Dean's fist. The serrated edge feels good against the roughened skin of his palm, like scratching an itch. He slides the key into the ignition without looking; hears the passenger door groan open and feels the cushion sink as his brother drops heavily into the front seat beside him. Sam looks better today, a little color in his cheeks, not moving so stiffly.
It's a challenge they face more often than Dean can count – wanting to get the hell outta Dodge, as far away as possible, but at the same time needing to stop for medical attention and recovery time. Where do you draw the line?
Black Rock? Well, even though they'd destroyed the cursed rabbit's foot, it was too dangerous to stick around. Not with that psycho hunter Kubrick determined to execute Sam; not to mention that trigger-happy bitch Bela. The only good thing about Black Rock had been discovering their father's storage unit, and the things he'd found worth saving. But for the rest? They'd put Black Rock in the rear view mirror as fast as they could and headed west.
Eventually though, long before Dean had tired of the road and the infamous Ohio speed traps, he'd noticed Sam's contributions to the conversation becoming more and more monosyllabic, and Sam's knuckles blanching where they gripped his wounded shoulder. Dean had taken the exit for Painesville without comment and booked a room at the Limberlost Motel. By the time he'd unloaded what they needed from the car, Sam had obligingly passed out on one of the beds. He'd slept through Dean's inventory - scraped and bloodied hands and knees, a concussion, bruises from being tied up and beaten, mild burns on his right arm. And a not-so-mild bullet hole in his left.
Nothing too serious, but the sheer accumulation of trauma meant Sam slept for most of a day. Not counting the bleary-eyed mumbled answers when Dean poked him awake every two hours to make sure his brain wasn't damaged. "How many prime numbers between 25 and 50?" (Because Dean totally could have been a mathlete in school, too, if he'd wanted.)
Dean, on the other hand, didn't get much sleep himself. He mostly sat on the next bed and watched his little brother breathe.
For someone bigger than a lot of NFL football players, it was amazing how Sam could look like he was six years old sometimes. Black Rock was kindergarten all over again. When they were safe in the motel and the drugs wiped away the lines of pain, Sam snuffled into his pillow and Dean felt like he was 10 years old again. Fiercely pretending to be more brave and strong than he really was, so that his little brother would feel safe.
It was never a conscious thought or spoken promise - just something Dean had known all his life. He would stand vigil over Sam, would have Sam's back, as long as Sam needed him.
And now he is going to break that promise in just a few more months. Sam will be alone.
But Dean can't let himself think about that.
Black Rock had put Sam through the ringer, but Dean figures at least it took Sam's mind off getting Dean out of the Crossroads Deal. They need to find a new hunt now, something mentally challenging to keep Sam occupied, so he won't persist in risking his stupid neck to save his brother.
That's always been Dean's modus operandi: unless it's something to hunt, if it's unpleasant or has potentially dire consequences – you ignore it or avoid it. That's worked pretty well for him for close to 30 years now. He isn't going to let himself dwell on when his contract is up, and he's got to distract Sam from that too.
Dean would never admit this, but sometimes he just lets the Impala pick a direction. He trusts her. And suspects she has a nose for good pie.
And this is how they end up crossing the state line on SR 427 instead of I-90, and are now sitting in a booth at Mrs. Wick's Pie Shop in the wee village of Hamilton, Indiana.
Sam's not picky about pie, but he's always been a compulsive reader, reading cereal boxes and bulletin boards when nothing better is at hand. While Dean salivates over the menu with childlike delight, Sam stretches his long arm over the back of the booth and picks up the abandoned copy of the weekly Hamilton News that was left on the cracked vinyl seat behind them.
Hamilton has a population of just 684, so front-page news turns out to be pretty tame stuff. The big exposé is an investigative report on a summer's worth of vandalism. But one of the incidents reported occurred in the local cemetery. That sort of thing always tickles a Winchester's curiosity.
Unless, of course, there is pie.
"Hey, Dean. Take a look." Sam passes the paper across the table, folded over to show the photo of a broken limestone slab lying on the ground.
Dean gives it a glance, then returns his attention to his forkful of Mrs. Wick's famous Sugar Crème Pie, hovering inches from his mouth. A case is exactly what he wants Sam to get interested in. But he knows his brother. The best way to get Sam really invested in the job is to appear disinterested, make his pre-law brother build a case to support the merits of the hunt.
Besides. Dean has his priorities. There's pie.
"Just because a tombstone is toppled is no reason to think it's something supernatural," he says, around a mouthful of heaven-sent pastry. "It could be erosion." He swallows, closes his eyes in bliss for a moment. Then he digs in for another forkful. "Or maybe the paper is right and it's a prank," he adds. "Some kids found out cow tipping is just a hoax, so they're venting their energy in the cemetery instead."
Sam ignores his own slice of dutch apple pie – Dean had ordered it for him when he'd protested he wasn't very hungry - and reaches for the coffee instead. "Maybe. But we both know how much work it is to dig up a grave. Would kids have taken the trouble to do that, and then steal the body?"
"There's no body?" Dean's eyes light up, crinkling into little crows' feet at the corners. This has suddenly progressed from being a probable-waste-of-time-but it'll-keep-Sammy-busy case into something that could be genuine fun. "You think maybe we got some zombie action going on here?"
Dean's glee is contagious. Sam's dimples flash as his smile spreads to mirror his brother's. It's been awhile, so those face muscles ache at the stretch, but it's a good ache. "How about we find out?"
The whole village is just a few square blocks. The cemetery sits at one end of Church Street. At the other end is a small whitewashed church, windows and doors thrown wide open to encourage any breeze to relieve the late summer heat. Faint strains of a hymn float toward them.
They decide to leave the car parked where it is in front of Mrs. Wick's and just walk. As they step out of the restaurant, Dean stops on the sidewalk and tilts his head back. The cloudless sky is a rich shade of vivid blue they usually only see in the Southwest. The sun is high and bright and Dean closes his eyes for a moment to savor the warmth on his face. It reminds him of the one summer he got to play Little League. He can almost smell the freshly mown grass on the diamond, the leather of the baseball glove Dad had magically produced.
Looking back, he remembers the Winchester family that the djinn had shown him - and discovering a John Winchester that loved playing softball. Dean believes that memory now. Understands that John wasn't just indulging Dean that summer, he was sharing something with him.
Sam stops on the curb and waits for his brother but doesn't say a word. Dean looks happy, he thinks. After a moment Dean opens his eyes and moves on.
Dean likes playing with numbers, always has. When they get to the cemetery he promptly guesses that the dead outnumber the living in Hamilton. Still, there are less than 1000 graves, he reckons. It won't take as long to look for a broken headstone they've seen a photo of, in the daylight, as it would to try read 1000 stone markers by flashlight at night, looking for a name.
Sam sees it first. Dean swats the back of his head, says with a grin that Sam's height gave him an unfair advantage.
The tombstone, they discover when they're crouching beside it, reveals a name for the deceased - Leamon Griffith - but no dates. It's next to another grave marker, three feet tall, that says 'John Griffith' along one side and 'his wife Jemima' on the other. John died in 1860; age 47. Jemima was apparently born the same year as John, but lived to the ripe old age of 71. Nearby there are several other Griffith graves, men and women and some children, born in the 1830's and 1840's.
It's clear that something had dug (or clawed?) the earth loose in the family plot, even though the dirt has since been shoveled back. It's not covered by healthy green grass like the rest of the grounds, but at least Leamon's grave no longer gapes like an open wound.
Hamilton isn't big enough to have a library or even a motel, so the boys head for Auburn, the county capital, in search of both. It's the sort of Midwestern city with an old-fashioned town square, dead quiet on a late Sunday afternoon, and Sam tells Dean to pull over when he sees the 70 foot tall monument gracing the center.
"You sure?" Dean wants Sam to get back to hunting, sure, but he doesn't want him to push it. Sam was too weak to get out of bed without help just a day ago. Who knows what complications might have set in from Sam's injuries while under the curse of that damned rabbit's foot? Maybe they should take it easy on their first day out, get Sam tucked into bed (without realizing he's being manipulated of course), and then pick up the research tomorrow.
But Sam seems almost back to his old eager crime-solving self, and just nods emphatically, pointing out a convenient place to park. So Dean concedes and guides the Impala to a smooth stop. He follows on Sam's heels as his brother jogs across the street to the monument, and Dean quickly realizes it's a Civil War memorial. He remembers noticing regimental and military company data carved on one or two of the headstones in the Griffith plot, too.
A large bronze plaque is mounted on each of the four sides at the base of the monument. Dean's fingers brush the engraved lettering on the first one slowly, like a man learning to read Braille.
Sam doesn't think Dean even realizes he is doing it - savoring the taste and smell and touch of the most mundane activities. He'd expected his brother to be in a constant hurry, rushing to fill each hour of his last year with as much action as he could. But Dean isn't. It's Sam who wants to get the business of hunting done quickly, so he'll have more time to spend looking for a way out of Dean's deal.
Dean … is lingering. As if letting go of each moment hurts.
That thought hits Sam like a punch to the heart, stealing his breath for a moment.
What they are looking for isn't found on the south side of the monument. Dean circles to the east. "Found a Griffith," he announces. "Initials B.F. In the 152nd Indiana Infantry."
"Leamon doesn't start with a B, Dean," Sam reminds him.
"Leamon – rhymes with demon, huh? That's what convinced you it's our kinda gig?" Dean pops his head out from behind the monument, teeth flashing in a grin.
Sam just shakes his head. He knows Dean is just trying to provoke him; it's what they do. A few months ago, Sam would have come up with an equally annoying retort. There was an unspoken familiarity and comfort in the bickering.
But not anymore. It's not like it used to be. And in a few months, there won't be any annoying banter at all.
Sam's eyes suddenly feel hot and stinging and he has to look away. His gaze scans the quaint town square, the historic courthouse, and then travels up the length of the memorial, to the statue of Lady Columbia at the top, brandishing a flag in one hand and a wreath of peace in the other.
Peace. The 1278 names on four bronze plaques listing Steuben County's Civil War Roll of Honor – they're at peace now, he supposes. But maybe one isn't, after all.
When he looks down again, Dean is out of sight, hidden by one of the four statues of Union soldiers standing sentry at the base of the monument.
"Got a Lewis Griffith here," Dean calls out from the north side. "44th Regiment, Indiana Volunteer Infantry."
Sam doesn't answer, just squints down at his notes. The words seem a little blurry.
"Bingo." Dean stops at the fourth and final plaque. "Griffith, Leamon. 74th Indiana Infantry. Weird-ass name like that – gotta be the same dude. Think all these Griffiths were related?"
"Griffith's a pretty common name," Sam says, shrugging one shoulder. "If they were brothers wouldn't they sign up in the same company?" Because brothers – they belong together, right? They're supposed to fight the enemy side by side.
"I dunno. The war lasted four years. Maybe each brother signed up at different times, when they each turned 18 or something, and that's why they wound up in different regiments."
"Does it say if Leamon was killed in the service?"
Dean looks again. "Nope. An awful lot of them were, though. But I guess it doesn't matter." He straightens reluctantly.
"What do you mean?"
"Dude, even if he died an old man, that was probably 100 years ago."
"So. Not juicy enough any more to be a zombie." Dean shakes his head sadly.
"Oh. Hey, sorry, man." Sam is all sympathy, carefully schooling his features to suppress the fact that new ideas have just started spinning like the faces of a Rubik's Cube in his agile mind.
At first, the news article was just an idle suggestion for something to do. Force of habit, almost. Suddenly, he is beginning to see the potential for something much more vital.
The body is missing.
There's no evidence that anyone took it – or any pieces of it – according to the police report quoted in the newspaper. And it isn't lurching around the village like an extra from Shaun of the Dead.
The bones are missing, the dates on the tombstone are missing, because …
Possibly because Leamon Griffith was MIA and never made it home from the Civil War at all. Whoever set that headstone probably didn't know how or when Leamon died. But someone cared enough to want 'closure' that he or she put up a marker, out of grief or out of guilt. It doesn't matter which.
And now Leamon Griffith is a restless spirit. Why? Sam wonders.
He might have deserted. Abandoned his mates and slipped off to a life of shame that haunted him after his death.
He might have been captured - become one of the thousands of soldiers who died in one of the infamous hellholes of a prison camp, starved and beaten and eventually lost in the paperwork.
He might have been one of the wounded who was trapped in the burning thickets. Unable to drag themselves to safety, some soldiers in the Civil War had been burned alive, beyond recognition.
Or - he may just have been obliterated … demolished by artillery fire, or fallen in terrain so choked with thickets that his remains were never found, gnawed to shreds by the scavengers of the forest.
A man who had gone through any of those might well become a restless spirit after death.
And Sam – he has plans for a restless spirit. Especially for a spirit without bones in the vicinity.
Without thinking about it, he slides one hand under his jacket, reaching into his breast pocket. His hand shakes a little; he's probably still a little weak. His fingers close on the suede cover of an old journal he had noticed in their father's storage room in Black Rock, a slim volume that he'd thumbed through quickly and then slipped into his pocket to be studied later. A book of secrets; a book he is not ready to share with his brother. Not yet.
He sighs and lets his hands fall to his sides as he follows Dean back to the car.
Dean is right – Sam is pretty wiped out by the time they get back to their room, and crashes hard while it's still light out. Dean figures, no zombie - no case. They'll probably head out on the road again in the morning. Maybe give Bobby a call later to see if he has any whiffs of a hunt. Meanwhile, Dean can enjoy a beer, find out if there are any hot chicks around, and maybe hustle some pool. They could use some hard cash to restock their first aid kit – patching up Sammy this week really put a dent in their medical supplies.
It's just past midnight when Sam shifts in his sleep and a sharp pain in his shoulder yanks him awake. There's enough light getting past the curtains from the street lamps in the parking lot that he can see Dean's bed is empty. For a moment, he's disoriented, still caught in tendrils of a dream that a year has passed and Dean is gone and he's alone. Grief slams into him and he starts to tremble, staring at the empty bed; fights not to fall apart completely. As his eyes adjust to the near darkness, he notices a bottle of Advil on the nightstand, and a note propped against a glass of water.
Sam releases a shuddering breath. He gathers himself together, and buries the shaky emotions deep like he's done most of his life, hidden under a deliberate academic resolve. He downs a couple capsules, clicks on the lamp, and reaches under the bed for the stolen journal. Without any witnesses to object, he fans the pages and finds his place to continue studying the spells inside.
In the morning, with a fatter wallet straining the back pocket of his jeans and almost no hangover, Dean drives them back to Mrs. Wick's Pies for breakfast. Sam chats up their waitress while Dean's at the cash register paying the bill. That's not unusual when they're working a case, Dean thinks, but he's not so sure they have one now. It's not like Sam to be cruising for a hook-up though.
And it's not like Sam to hit on young moms with toddlers in the disposable diaper aisle of the village pharmacy (while Dean is juggling an armload of drugs and bandages etc. two aisles over). And Sam definitely wouldn't have been trying to score with an old pipe-chewing codger named Harlow (while Dean fills the gas tank and checks the oil).
No. Sam is clearly 'interviewing'. Fact-finding. For some reason, the lack of zombies hasn't discouraged Sam at all. He's still intrigued.
Dean is glad to have Sam focusing on something other than The Crossroads Deal – but he does have to admit to some reservations. First of all, there are no hot chicks in town. Maybe he hasn't been looking in the right places, but seriously? It shouldn't be this hard. Second of all, he still hasn't seen anything more solid than a broken tombstone and a disturbed grave. Isn't there supposed to be someone who needs saving? (From something other than boredom?) And finally, he keeps looking over his shoulder, worried about that damn Jesus Freak hunter. Kubrick had shown an uncanny ability to track them down and Dean would feel better if they kept on the move.
"I think there's something goin' on here, Dean," is what Sam says.
They are sitting at a picnic table where the country road hugs Hamilton Lake, a little oasis of sunlight, surrounded by trees. Dean enjoys the sun on the back of his ears as he drops his head to open the bags of fast food. "Okay, shoot," he says, passing Sam his order.
"Remember that little clapboard church we saw yesterday morning?" Sam unwraps his burger; feels his stomach rumble and realizes he's hungry for the first time in days. "They started having flickering power surges. Quit running their fan 'cause they're afraid it's a safety hazard, but they haven't found anything wrong yet."
"Mmmmm hmmm." Dean has both hands wrapped around a giant burger overflowing with extras and sinks his teeth in.
"There's an abandoned one-room schoolhouse on the edge of town," Sam adds. "Hasn't been used in a century. But right after the vandalism in the cemetery, folks started hearing noises coming from it. Seeing shadows at the windows."
Dean uncaps a long-necked beer bottle with his ring, passes it to his brother, opens another for himself. "Okay. It does sound creepy - like our kinda gig. But nobody's actually getting hurt or anything, right?"
Sam scratches the healing burn on his arm. "Not yet – unless you count old Harlow Carpenter. He says there's something haunting State Road 1. You can't see it if you look straight at it, but sometimes, out of the corner of your eye, you can catch a glimpse of something coming toward you. Last month he drove his car off the road when that happened; ended up in the ER in Angola."
"Maybe the old geezer is just too old to still be driving," Dean says.
Sam huffs. "I didn't think you'd ever admit that it was possible for anyone to be too old to drive."
"Well, of course, I'll never be too old," Dean starts to say. Then he cuts off as he sees Sam's smile dissolve; watches him turn away, tight-lipped.
"It's just," Dean starts again, pauses. "It's pretty thin, Sammy."
"It's the timing, Dean. The dates when it started." Sam shoves his food away, looks out over the lake where all is still and quiet and tries to let that sense of calm flow into him. "All these signs started appearing in early May." He turned back to Dean. "Just after we opened the Devil's Gate."
"You're saying… What? That Leamon Griffith is - a demon?"
Sam isn't aware that he is scrunching up a paper napkin. "I don't know. I mean… look. Not everything that got out was a demon. We saw… we saw Dad too…" He looks down, sees the wadded ball of paper in his clenched fingers and shakes them gently out before he takes a deep breath. "I just wanna check it out."
"Okay, okay." Dean tilts his head agreeably and steals several of Sam's fries. So maybe other things got out of hell, he thinks. Like what? If a ghost is a spirit trapped between life and afterlife, what is it when it's not 'between'; if it's already in hell? And now that it's out again – now that it's 'between' (which apparently Sam thinks might be their fault, for opening the gate) - how can they send it back, when there are no bones to salt and burn?
This is making his head hurt.
But Sam seems committed to this, so Dean will give in. He just wants Sam to be happy. And pre-occupied.
Sam exhales his breath slowly. He isn't sure why Dean is giving in, but he'll take it. If he'd had to, he would have played the Lisa Braden card. He'd acquiesced that time, let Dean pick a case in Cicero, Indiana that was based on even more skimpy evidence, just so Dean could hook up again with a bendy yoga instructor. Of course, it was Ruby who'd told Sam there really was a case in Cicero… and Sam doesn't want to mention her.
Ruby is the whole reason Sam wants this hunt. But he can't let Dean know that.
It's a warm evening, but not warm enough to warrant the sweat trickling down Sam's face, especially since he's left his jacket behind. He's wearing a gray Henley that had been white once, but he's not wearing the two or three layers he usually piles on. Dean notices then that Sam is carrying his satchel on his right shoulder, when normally he would throw it over his left, to keep his right arm free. Dean gnaws the corner of his lip, giving a slight headshake. He'll have to check the wound later. Sam had still been under the rabbit's foot curse when Bela shot him – it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine complications like infection.
For now, he shrugs off his own jacket and bends to the task of wrestling the broken monument slab until it lies level on the ground. Then Sam draws the two chalk circles across the limestone surface, one inside the other. The five points of the pentagram touch the inner circle, and a votive candle is placed at each point.
The plan, Sam had explained, is to summon Leamon's spirit. Sometimes a spirit is simply lost or confused, like Molly had been. Like Father Gregory. Sam says he thinks maybe he can talk to Leamon, convince him to 'let go', to 'move on' before anything more serious does happen to anyone.
Dean isn't quite so confident that this Griffith will be a 'friendly spirit'. Maybe he's a whack job who went to hell because he was a traitor or a deserter, and that's why his gravestone didn't have his military info etched onto it like so many other veterans' gravestones did. If that is why, he probably won't be too interested in baring his soul for atonement. So Dean stands watch, with sawed-off shotgun and rock salt, ready. It's habit by now. Someone needs to perform the ritual, but someone else needs to stand guard against the things that didn't want to play nice.
He tries not to worry about who will watch Sam's back after he's gone.
There is a snap and a flare and a hissing sound as Sam lights the first candle. The air is pungent with some herbs that Dean doesn't recognize, growing stronger as each candle sparks to life. He looks at his brother; sees Sam regarding him with a familiar wordless question. You ready?
Dean glances quickly at the area surrounding them. Under the full moon, there are no shadows moving. The cemetery is perfectly still. He nods.
Sam reaches back into the satchel, opens a slim leather-bound book. Not Dad's journal, Dean notices with surprise. An old skeleton key, strung on a thin rawhide strip knotted at the ends, serves as a bookmark. Iron adds protection to spells, Dean knows. Sam kneels beside the grave and dangles the key over the pentagram. It begins to move in slow deliberate circles, counter clockwise, as he reads from the weathered page.
A wind picks up, whipping Sam's hair in his eyes, but he keeps reading. A sudden gust is strong enough to rock Dean on his heels, and dead leaves and graveyard dirt became airborne, swirling around them, making their eyes water. Still Sam reads on. The pages in the book flutter; Sam presses the book down with one hand to keep it open where he needs. The key spins faster, twisting furiously on its tether, as if it's struggling to get free from its bonds.
The sound of the wind rises, like the shriek of a banshee. And then –
In the space between one breath and the next, Dean is completely blind. And deaf. And the next breath simply won't come.
He is smothering in black wool.
No, steel wool.
Scouring the skin from his bones. But he can't scream; his ribs strain helplessly to draw air into his lungs.
His blood is sluggish, frozen in his veins, but it's a cold so sharp it burns, like acid.
His second last conscious thought is that this is hell, and it's too early.
His last conscious thought is that if it is hell, then he should be alone. Sammy isn't going to hell; he can't be in this agony too.