Dean found Gabe's house easily, parking the Impala in the short drive and slowly shuffling up to the porch. The old man opened the door after a moment and invited Dean in with a smile.
"Don't get much company nowadays," he shrugged with an embarrassed grin as he led the young hunter into a sparse kitchen. He indicated for Dean to have a seat in one of the retro looking vinyl upholstered chairs pushed up to the matching formica table. He leaned into the small, white refrigerator in the corner of the room and pulled out two beers, offering one to Dean who nodded acceptance. The old man handed one of the bottles to Dean, watching in amusement as the young man popped the top off with the silver ring on his bound hand with a practiced ease.
"Not your first rodeo, huh?"
Dean laughed and held up the bottle with his good arm in a salute. "Hardly." He took a long drink, savoring the cool liquid as it slid down his throat.
Gabe took a seat in the other chair and leaned forward on the table, his eyes taking on a serious expression. "I take it this ain't just a social visit."
It was more of a statement than a question and Dean grinned, suddenly realizing why he liked the old man so much. Despite the lack of a trucker's hat and grizzled beard, Gabe reminded him of Bobby. The direct way he spoke and the earnestness in his eyes made Dean feel a little homesick, and he promised himself that he and Sam would take a little time and find out exactly what the older hunter was really doing down in the Dominican and maybe, if necessary, even offer to give him a hand. He'd only been back from Hell for a short time, and, since returning, he'd found that he had an inexplicable desire to keep those whom he considered family close by.
Bobby had been there for them the last few years – and he had tried to be there for Sam when he'd been in the Pit – and Dean was finding that the words he had spoken when trying to convince Bobby that he was really him upon his miraculous return from the dead were more than true. Bobby really was the closest thing he had to a father. In most respects, the mechanic was the polar opposite from John Winchester. He didn't judge, he didn't expect perfection. He simply expected for Dean to do what needed to be done and offered whatever help and encouragement necessary whenever he could.
Dean had loved his dad. Despite everything they'd gone through, despite the militaristic way John had raised his sons, Dean still felt a hole in inside him when he thought of his father being gone forever. But, re-connecting with Bobby had managed to fill a part of that emptiness. Dean knew the older hunter had probably known that both Winchester brothers were leaning on him to fill a John Winchester sized void they were both having a hard time accepting, but he never called them on it. In fact, he had made sure he was always available to them and did his best to give them whatever they needed.
The collection of liquor bottles scattered around Bobby's house had driven that point home.
… these last four months ain't been all that easy…
Dean swallowed another drink, choking a bit on the liquid… or the emotion.
He shook himself from his thoughts, bringing his eyes up to meet the expectant one's before him.
"The ghosts are gone."
Gabe watched him for a moment before nodding sadly and sitting back in the chair.
Dean took a deep breath through his nose and cleared his throat softly. "Spirits sometimes tend to…latch on to objects. Things that meant something to them when they were alive."
Gabe nodded thoughfully. "Like an emotional anchor."
"Exactly," Dean nodded in return. "This… anchor… stops them from moving on to… wherever they were supposed to go. Once you destroy the anchor, the spirits move on." He knew he wasn't being completely honest as they hadn't really destroyed the rock, but it was gone and, he hoped, the spirits along with it. As long as they were no longer a threat, his job was over. Whether they would be trapped in this world or able to move on to whatever was next wasn't his call.
"And you and your brother were able to figure out what was holding them here?"
Dean licked his lips, his fingers playing with the edge of the label on the bottle. "It's usually something they were connected to when they died. Since they all burned in the fire, we figured that the only thing they could all still be latched onto was the piece of the old building in the memorial."
Gabe's eyes widened. "I heard someone broke in and stole it. The cops figure it was just some stupid prank."
Dean shrugged his good shoulder, his eyebrows rising in acceptance. "It had to be done," he offered. "People were getting hurt."
Gabe watched at him for a moment, finally sighing and slumping slightly in the chair. "I guess you're right. It's just… I guess I'll kind of miss them."
"I know," Dean said softly. He felt for the old man. He knew how hard it was to let go. "It really is for the best."
The two men sat in silence for a moment, each contemplating their own memories and regrets. The muffled sound of Deep Purple rang out from Dean's pocket, breaking the uneasy quiet and he quickly pulled his cell phone, frowning at his brother's name on the caller ID.
"Yo," he said into the device, his brows coming together, curious as to what his brother may have found that would cause him to call when he was supposed to be enjoying the company of a pretty girl in a lacey red bra.
"Dean, we have a problem –" Sam's voice cut off abruptly, a choked gasp ringing through the line followed by a loud thud that Dean recognized as the cell phone hitting the ground.
"Sammy? Sammy!" he jumped from the table, pressing the cell tighter to his ear as if he could get closer through the phone. "Sammy!" The only sounds he could hear were faint gasps as if someone – his brother most likely – was being strangled, struggling fro air. Knowing his brother's penchant for having that very act take place at regular intervals, Dean found himself flying out the door to the Impala, Gabe, despite his advanced age, right on his heels.
"Sam!" Kim's voice penetrated his panic and he twisted at the end of the rope, spinning slightly toward her. He'd managed to get one hand partially under the rope, using the other to grip the cord above his head and pull to give enough slack to drag in a gasping breath. As he tried to focus on the girl's voice, he found her standing at the top of the auditorium, standing in the open doorway, one hand holding the heavy door open, the other splayed open in shock near her face.
"Salt!" he croaked, fighting to pull in another breath. "Get salt!"
Kim shook her head in confusion for a second before rushing from the doorway and back into the lobby. Before the heavy door was able to swing all the way closed, she was back through, scrambling down the side aisle with a large silver container. As soon as she was within range, Sam took a ragged breath and released the rope with his hand, grabbing the salt shaker from her hand and quickly flicking it up and behind him toward the rope.
The pressure against his throat suddenly disappeared and he fell to the floor, gasping as the pinch of the cord released from around his neck. He lay there for a few moments, eyes closed, gasping in precious oxygen through a raw and painful throat.
He opened his eyes to see Kim's frightened ones hovering above him."
"I'm.." he coughed harshly, swallowing against what felt like razor blades inside his throat. "I'm fine," he managed to get out around another gasp. He held out a hand, and Kim pulled, helping him to a sitting position. He rubbed a hand across his neck, wincing at the welt he felt, knowing it would turn into one hell of a bruise by morning.
"Sammy!" He looked up toward the front of the theater, sighing as he watched his brother's frantic gaze lock with his. He couldn't stop the grin on his face as Dean raced down the aisle, skidding to a stop right by his side. The older hunter dropped the duffle he'd been carrying and leaned over his brother, assessing him carefully.
"I'm okay, Dean," he scratched out, another wince defying the claim.
"Yeah," Dean responded, his good arm reaching out and lifting Sam's head to get a better look at the mark left by the rope. "You sound just peachy, Vader."
Sam pushed his hand away and glared.
"What the hell happened?"
"Missed one," Sam whispered. "A kid."
"What's going on?"
Both hunters turned to Kim. The girl had been quietly sitting on Sam's other side, pulling back and hugging herself as soon as Dean had reached his brother.
"Uh…" Dean's eyes shifted from the girl to Sam, finally giving his brother a lopsided smirk. "You wanna take this one?"
Sam shook his head and pointed to his throat, contorting his face into an obviously exaggerated grimace of pain.
"Wuss," Dean accused before turning a patented smile on Kim. "We're not exactly who you thought we were, but you probably already figured that out, huh?"
Kim nodded slowly. "Who – or what – was that thing?" she asked, her eyes moving back to the shadows, as if expecting something to jump out at them any second.
"What exactly did you see?" Dean asked. He would rather rely on his brother for information, but, from the way Sam was rubbing his neck and the bruising he could see already appearing on the pale skin, Dean decided he could get the facts from the girl and save his brother a little pain for the time being.
Kim shrugged, pulling her arms tighter around herself. "I… I don't really…" She looked at Sam for a moment before turning wide eyes to Dean. "I saw a kid, a little boy. He was… weird, like he was wearing some old costume or something."
Dean was aware of Gabe's grunt of surprise behind him, but he kept his eyes on the girl. "Have you ever seen the boy before?"
Kim shook her head quickly. "No. Never."
Dean nodded and turned his attention back to Sam. "So it didn't work?"
Sam swallowed and winced and Dean held up a hand before he could speak. "Dude, yes or no. Just shake your head."
Sam nodded once, then shook his head.
"Yes, you understand or no it didn't work?"
Sam repeated both actions.
Dean dipped his head in frustration. "I can't even get a straight answer out of you when there are only two options," he sighed. "Okay, Sammy. Speak."
"The EMF was clear," Sam informed him in a rough but stable voice. "There was no activity until the boy's spirit showed up."
Dean sat back on his haunches and rubbed his good hand across the back of his neck. "So, what, we managed to get rid of all the ghosts but one?"
Sam shrugged, obviously not having an answer.
"Ghosts?" All three men turned toward Kim again.
Dean and Sam exchanged a surprised look before returning their attention to Kim. "Ghosts. The people on that plaque out there. You didn't know the place was haunted?"
Her laugh was tinged with a bit of panic. "Everybody's heard those rumors. But they're just rumors, right?"
She looked from one hunter to the other, her eyes widening as she read the seriousness on their faces. "You have got to be shitting me."
Dean grinned at her choice of words. "Afraid not, sweetheart."
Kim stared at him, her mouth open in shock before slowly tracking her eyes to Sam. "Sam?"
The younger man simply shrugged.
Kim shook her head. "This is not happening."
Gabe stepped forward and placed an arm on Kim's shoulder. "These boys know what they're talking about, honey. I've seen 'em. I think you have, too. Anybody who's been here as long as you have has had to have seen a few things that were a little strange."
Kim looked up at him, her eyes still impossibly wide. "Well, yeah, but… I thought it was just all in my head. You know, being here late and all the stories and stuff. I figured I was just letting my imagination get the better of me."
Gabe gave her a comforting smile. "Look at the bright side. At least you know you ain't crazy."
"Ghosts." Kim said more to herself that anyone else. "Go figure."
Dean snorted a laugh as the girl began to process the information and turned his attention to Gabe. "So, I'm assuming our slow learner is your buddy, Edward?"
Before Gabe could answer, Kim piped up again. "Edward? There was no Edward killed in that fire. The six names on the memorial plaque were the only ones who were found. There was no little boy and no one named Edward."
The hunters exchanged another look of confusion. "She's right," Sam croaked out. "There's no Edward mentioned."
"That's because nobody knew he was here." Gabe took a deep breath and dropped his hand from Kim's shoulder. "I was the only one who even knew he was living inside the theater," the old man explained. "They never even found his body, but, of course, they didn't know to look for it. I always figured it burned like the rest of them."
"So," Dean said slowly, his mind racing to put what they knew together with this new information. "They completely tore down and destroyed what was left of the building, so if there was a body left it would've been discovered. Since the kid wasn't included in the memorial, we have to assume it wasn't."
Sam nodded. "So maybe Edward wasn't connected to the memorial rock like the others."
"If Edward wasn't connected to the memorial rock, what the hell is he still doing here?"
"Dean," Sam interrupted. "We don't even know if it was Edward."
Dean looked to Gabe, who nodded. "Was the boy dressed in old brown knickers and have dark hair parted on the side?"
Sam's eyes flicked to Kim who gave him a slight nod before turning back to Gabe. "Yeah, that sounds like who we saw."
Gabe gave Dean a grim smile. "That's Edward, I'm sure of it."
"So," Dean sighed. "We're right back to square one. We can't salt and burn his bones and we have no idea what's keeping him here."
"Maybe I do."
All eyes turned to Gabe as he reached into his pocket and pulled out his tarnished silver lighter. "You said spirits can latch onto anything that meant something to them in life?"
Dean nodded slowly, his eyes traveling from Gabe's sad expression to the old lighter.
"I always suspected Edward was responsible for that fire," he said, holding up the lighter in front of his face. "I never said anything 'cause he was my friend and I figured him dying in the blaze was his punishment for what he did. I figured he couldn't do no more harm." He reached out, dropping the lighter into Dean's outstretched hand. "I guess I was wrong." He nodded toward Dean's hand. "That was his. One of the few things he had. I found it in the rubble after the fire. Kept it to remind me of him."
"Uh, guys…" Kim took a step back, her eyes locked on a flickering shape in the shadows beyond the far curtain.
Dean transferred the lighter into his left hand held in the sling, reaching his right into the duffle he had abandoned near his brother's feet. He carefully pulled out a shotgun, then slowly stood, moving around Sam to stand in front of the small group. Hoisting the sawed off up with one arm, pointing the barrel at Edward's specter, he turned slightly and spoke in a low voice. "Sam, get them out of here."
The spirit watched them quietly, a menacing smile on it's flickering face.
"Dean," Sam's voice was still gravelly as he started to argue, but his brother's level tone cut him off.
"Sam, now. Get them out."
Sam hesitated a moment, knowing that having one arm immobilized made Dean more vulnerable, but finally realizing he was right. They needed to protect the civilians. That meant getting them to safety first, then he could help his brother. He nodded once and scrambled to his feet, ignoring the ache radiating from the muscles of his neck. He wrapped an arm around Kim's waist and pushed her behind him, indicating for her to move slowly backward and toward the other side of the theater. Once he felt her move, he grabbed for Gabe's arm, but the old man stepped forward before he could make contact.
"Edward?" Gabe watched the ghost with wide eyes. He took another halting step, holding out a hand as if to placate the spirit. "Edward, it's okay. These boys are here to help you."
Edward shifted his eyes from Dean to Gabe and back again, keeping his attention on the immediate threat. Suddenly, he flickered out of view, only to coalesce right in front of Dean. He swiped an arm, catching the older hunter off guard and tossing him backward into the rows of seats bordering the auditorium.
"Dean!" Sam watched as his brother hit the row of connected seats, bouncing off and down onto the floor. Quickly he dove forward, snatching up the shotgun from where it landed in the aisle. Without hesitation, he turned and squeezed off a shot, watching as the spirit dissipated as the salted round found it's mark.
As soon as the ghost disappeared, he rushed the few yards to where his brother hit, leaning into the space between the rows and laid a hand on Dean's chest. "Hey! You okay?"
"No, I'm not okay." Dean moaned. Sam could tell he was clutching his injured shoulder, fighting against the pain. "Think I fucked it up again."
"Maybe you should learn to land on the other one once in a while," Sam coughed, smiling in relief as he pulled his brother up and out of the rows of seats, depositing him on the floor of the aisle.
"I'll work on that," Dean threw him a glare. He turned back, reaching under a seat and pulling a small silver object from the sticky floor. "Think you can destroy this before Eddie Munster comes back?" He tossed the lighter to Sam who caught it in one hand, dropped it near his feet and brought the stock of the shotgun down on it in one smooth arc.
Sam looked down at him, a smirk on his face. "Anything else?"
Dean leaned back against the side of the seat and closed his eyes. "Yeah. Stop talking, Sammy. You sound like shit."
"Those people who were hurt, it was my fault."
Sam exchanged a glance with his brother as they sat in Gabe's living room, watching what was left of the lighter burn down inside the old man's fireplace. They would still have to go back and sweep the theater with the EMF to make sure, but they'd felt the coldness lift from the auditorium as soon as they'd smashed the lighter and from experience, were pretty sure the whole ordeal was now over.
"No, Gabe," Dean said softly. "You didn't know." Dean's focus traveled back to the fire, the reflection of the flames dancing against his eyes in a way that made Sam cringe. He'd seen the flames of hell in his brother's eyes hundreds of times in his dreams while Dean was gone. He wrapped an arm around himself and fought against the shudder that threatened to rip through his body at the memory.
Gabe sighed, a sound so heartbreaking that Sam couldn't help but feel for the old man. He'd spent his life protecting a memory, only to have the memory become something he'd never expected. Edward's spirit had probably spent years just like the others, not really knowing he was dead, just floating through an existence without actual awareness of the passing of time. But, for some reason, Edward had turned angry. Maybe because he wasn't a part of the past like the others, or maybe, as Gabe had implied, because the fire itself had been his fault and he was acting out of an anger that was present long before his death.
Whatever the case, Gabe had taken the taken the whole situation hard, and Sam couldn't blame him.
"Where do they go?" Gabe asked after a few moments of silence. The old man sat in a overstuffed chair in front of the fire, leaving Sam to occupy a surprisingly comfortable rocking chair and Dean on the threadbare couch, a cold pack balanced against his injured shoulder. "I mean, I'm pretty close to taking that trip myself," he pointed out with a soft chuckle. "Be nice to know I'm gonna end up someplace better than this."
Dean took a deep breath and released it slowly, not shifting his gaze from the fireplace. "I don't know, man. I wish…" he cleared his throat and dipped his head, his eyes losing focus as he continued softly. "I wish I could give you something to set your mind at ease but…."
Sam watched his brother, wondering what exactly he was willing to reveal. He knew Dean would never let anyone outside of Sam and Bobby in on what he'd gone through, but he could tell his brother truly wanted to help the old man and was at a loss as to how to proceed.
"It's okay, kid." Gabe waved a hand in dismissal. "I know the man upstairs is watching out for me."
Gabe's voice held a kind of certainty that brought Dean's attention back to the present. "Yeah?"
The old man nodded, his eyes going from Dean to Sam, a slight frown appearing on his face when the younger hunter wouldn't meet his gaze.
Sam, for his part, kept his eyes on his brother. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Dean was still tormented by what he'd been through. The torture alone had been enough to break anyone, but to be forced to do what he'd done… to have to live with that kind of guilt and pain, was more than anyone could possibly bear. And now, he had to deal with whatever the powers of Heaven expected of him without the grace of actually knowing what that was… how was anyone supposed to be able to function under such extreme circumstances?
Yet Dean did.
He not only carried on like the soldier he was trained to be, he'd managed to become even more… human. More in tune with the despair the people around him were feeling. He'd always taken other people's burdens on himself, making them his responsibility and therefore, his duty to resolve. And now, that responsibility had become an obligation, Dean's moral code demanding that he somehow make up for the pain he caused.
Sam didn't agree with his brother's assessment, but he couldn't dispute his need for atonement. Dean had been saved by a force he'd never truly believed in, forced into a mission he'd already considered his duty. If the angels had only known that Dean would've been their champion, even before he'd been thrown into the pit, maybe it would've saved a lot of pain for everyone.
"It's good you have something to believe in," Dean finally responded. His voice was still soft, but Sam could detect an edge of anger. They'd had to acknowledge that God and his angel army did exist, but Sam knew his brother still wasn't convinced their side of this war was entirely worth fighting for. "Not everyone has that kind of faith."
Sam snorted a soft laugh through his nose. Faith was something they were a little short on these days. He remembered something Dean said when they'd been faced with the possibility of angels before; that he believed in what he could see. Even now, when they'd actually come face to face with honest to goodness angels, Dean still didn't fully believe. He acknowledged the existence of Castiel and Uriel, even Anna… but whether they were truly what he perceived an angel of God to be was still up for discussion. They certainly weren't what Sam had been expecting. He doubted they even came close to what could command Dean's belief.
"I think God is watching," Gabe said. "He'll take care of us." He nodded as he spoke, his voice strong with conviction. "Despite what happened to those poor people, I still believe that if we put ourselves in His hands, He'll save us."
"From your mouth…" Sam barely heard the mumbled words from his brother. He truly was glad the old man was able to fall back on his faith like he himself used to be able to. Having peace of mind was something he envied. It was something he wished he could give to his brother.
But Sam knew that after everything Dean had been through, he was no closer to knowing the truth than Gabe was. Maybe it was because of what he'd seen that simple faith was out of his reach. Despite the fact that he had been saved, his salvation had come with a price and Sam suspected that price had something to do with him. He wasn't sure Dean would be able to pay it when it all came down. He wasn't sure either of them could.
They knew a lot more about what was coming than normal people, but did that make them any better equipped to handle it? Maybe Gabe and his blind faith in redemption was the one who was better off.
Sam just hoped like hell he was right.
Author's Note: As always, this story is based on an actual legend. The Lincoln Theater does exist in Decatur, Illinois. The story is true, it burned down and was rebuilt on the site and is supposedly haunted. The Crenshaw house is also an actual place that is rumored to be haunted because of the shady dealings of the owner during the war. If you're ever in the area, check 'em out!
I hope I was able to respond to everyone who was kind enough to review, and for all those of you who read the story, I appreciate your interest and truly hope you enjoyed! I know we're all looking forward to the boy's return Thursday, so here's hoping for a ratings bonanza!!! See ya'll soon! Sue