About That Story
Of course, he remembers Sam Winchester. Sam was one of those students, the kind you wonder about years later. Matt Wyatt is famous for his success with the gifted hard-luck cases, and Sam is one that got away. His colleagues tease him for being an idealist, but Wyatt still believes he can make a difference.
He really does need to get back to the stack of papers that are still waiting to be graded, but he can't concentrate, mulling over the strange conversation he's just had with Winchester. Like any teacher, Wyatt always appreciates when a former student comes back to thank him, yet Sam's face had been bruised and swollen and distracting enough that it had been hard not to stare. But Wyatt had tried hard to listen to what Sam was trying to say.
Before he'd made his hasty retreat from the classroom, Sam said his life had kind of been one long horror story. Wyatt had called him on it, asking what he meant, but honestly, he can almost relate. It's been a tragic month at Truman High, what with the murder in the girl's bathroom, yesterday's horrific incident in Home Ec, and the drug bust on the bus last night. The police were back on campus today interviewing witnesses, but Wyatt just wants to go home and throw a ball for his dog. Get back to normal again.
Unfortunately, he's got a dozen essays left to grade, and he's promised himself he'll finish before taking off for the weekend. He sighs and pulls another one from the stack. With his favorite pen in hand, he notes some awkward phrasing in the introduction and praises a smooth transition between paragraphs. The student is one of the better writers in the class and knows how to write an essay, but Wyatt's heart just isn't in it. Sam's old story keeps calling to him, the horror story, the one about the werewolf.
It's been at least twelve years since it was written. Winchester disappeared from Truman High shortly after. Wyatt's glad he made a copy of the story before handing it back to Sam. He often keeps a copy of the best papers -- sometimes, he shares them with the class. It's usually a boost for the writer and lets the rest of the students know what he's looking for. Most importantly, when he's in the middle of a dry spell and needs to be inspired, he goes back to read the "best of the best" again. It's the talented ones who remind him why he went into teaching in the first place.
Wyatt smiles and sets the essay aside. He knows himself too well. Oliver Twist and the Industrial Revolution will have to wait. He's always been good at justifying his own procrastination and he decides that if Sam made the effort to seek him out and thank him for advice he doesn't even remember giving, the least he can do is to reread the story.
It takes some searching, but he finally finds it in the back of his filing cabinet. It's been a while since the last time he pulled it out. He can't help but shake his head when he sees the "A+" at the top of the page. Most of his colleagues would have failed this paper for not following directions. Wyatt had instructed the class to write about their most memorable family experience. Tell the truth – that was all he had asked for, whether that truth was brutal or funny or just plain sad. It was supposed to be nonfiction. Sam had even labeled it "Autobiography" in the top right hand corner, but he'd turned in a story about a werewolf hunt in the woods. The kid had taken one hell of a risk, but it had turned out to be one of the best student papers Wyatt had ever read.
Even after Sam disappeared from Truman High, Wyatt hadn't been able to get his mind off of it. The story was evocative really, infused with unanswered questions and a sense of loss that was surprisingly haunting. He figured that the horror genre probably brought out a certain level of angst in a teenage kid, which was something worth exploring. When it comes to his teaching, Wyatt has always been willing to try something at least once. He's brave that way.
So the following year, he put together a unit on Classic Horror and taught it to his freshman classes. As part of it, they read Stoker and Poe and watched Psycho in class. He spent a couple days comparing Stephen King to Dickens, contrasting the lowbrow versus highbrow influence on popular culture. As far as he could tell, the students were engaged and it was going pretty well. He assigned a horror story as the final culmination of the unit and handed out copies of Sam's story as a guide for what he was looking for. Then he sat back and waited for the masterpieces to come flooding in.
The assignment wasn't a success. It turned out that the horror genre didn't exactly inspire critical thinking in a bunch of teenagers. After being mired for days in slit throats and disemboweled bellies, not to mention outright misogyny from some of the boys, Wyatt decided to call the unit a valiant failure and never teach it again.
For years though, he had students come back and tell him it was their favorite assignment ever. But only little Sam Winchester succeeded at turning a monster into a metaphor.
Wyatt smiles at that and settles back in his chair to read Sam's story. Once he gets started though, it's easy to let go of everything he should be doing. He'd forgotten how engrossing the story was. No wonder he'd given it an A…
There's so much sensory detail in the story. It's exactly what Wyatt is always trying to teach his students. From the first sentence, he can practically hear the cicadas through the back seat window even though Sam's older brother is blasting his music up front. There's a full moon in the sky, and that's how Sam's narrator lets it be known that this is the night they've been waiting for. Even at night, the air is hot and humid and the vinyl seats of the Impala are sticky against the back of his neck and arms. He can't sit still, and his stomach is growling.
Sam Winchester, the thirteen year-old protagonist, is bored.
It's actually a stroke of genius that the stakeout is boring. They're hunting werewolves, for God's sake, it shouldn't be boring. But it makes sense once Wyatt thinks about it. Teenagers hate to wait around for anything. But there's no context for the stakeout, no background information to let the reader know why this little family of three is hunting werewolves in the first place. It's simply what they do. It's almost like Sam assumes that the reader will understand.
Even the characterization is unusual, especially for a student writer. As a narrator, Sam is somewhat of an enigma. Most teenagers would give themselves the starring role or at the very least, the best lines, but in his own story, Sam is almost a bystander. The father and the brother are the superheroes. This is something that Wyatt has never understood. Sam could have written his alter ego any way he wanted. What boy would deny himself the chance to save the day? At the same time, it's obvious that he's pretty ticked off that he's spending his summer hunting for werewolves. The sense of anger throughout the story is almost palpable.
But really, it's the imperfections that make the story. They give it a feeling of realism that makes it hard to shake later, when the real punch comes. Too much time is spent in the car, describing the teasing between the brothers, the tense arguing between Sam and his father. It's clear that the two don't get along. But they're stuck together. They've got a job to do, and they have no choice but to do it. They play cards. They eat dinner before midnight and throw fast food wrappers in the back. Sam complains when they land on his stuff, and everything starts to smell like French fries and American cheese. Sometimes Sam falls asleep while his father and brother sit in front and talk about where they'll go next.
And then there are the books. The back seat of the car is piled high with books checked out from libraries across the country. While waiting for the werewolf, the boy has finished A Catcher in the Rye, is getting started with To Kill a Mockingbird , and plans to read Of Mice and Men on the drive back. It's touching really – the way this adolescent werewolf slayer is trying to get ahead with his recommended summer reading. Wyatt understands this; he spent his own childhood lost in a book. The boy in the story wants this part of his life to be over, and reading is the one way he can be someone else.
When the werewolf finally shows up, it's almost anti-climatic, but it still hits Wyatt as hard as it did the first time he read it. The attack is disturbingly realistic. The werewolf is the heart of the story after all, and Sam doesn't skimp on the guts and gore. The older brother is mauled but not bitten. This is a good thing, according to the narrator, because it means that he won't turn into a werewolf. The reader has no choice but to trust the narrator's say-so on that one.
But there's plenty of shouting and howling, and it's all falling apart too quickly. The werewolf has got to be a symbol for something, but it feels pretty damn literal when Sam's father shoots the thing in the heart. Wyatt has always felt that there's an awful lot of blood for an allegory. But that's not the worst part.
So here's the thing. The werewolf doesn't know it's evil. It doesn't even know that it's a monster, not at the end. With a silver bullet in its heart, the werewolf turns back into a man. He is bleeding out and dying. He asks why they're killing him. He doesn't even understand what he's done to die.
"We don't have a choice," Sam's father says, kneeling beside him. "Neither did you. This isn't your fault."
They stay with the werewolf as he dies. The older brother tells him they're sorry, and Sam holds the werewolf's hand. Afterward, Sam's father salts and burns the body, while his sons stand guard. They get back in the car, they drive away, and that's where it ends. It is quite possibly the strangest story that Wyatt has ever read.
Matt Wyatt is an English teacher. He's not a father and he doesn't know a damn thing about things that go bump in the dark. But he's not convinced he did the right thing when he handed back Sam's paper twelve years ago and let him walk out his classroom door. He supposes he could have called Child Protective Services and had them check things out. It had been obvious that something wasn't right, and Winchester's reappearance in his classroom has only confirmed that. Wyatt can't remember what advice he gave Sam, but he's glad it helped. It really was the very least he could do, and he's sure it wasn't enough. Maybe it would have been different if the boy had been his student a little bit longer, if he'd had a little more time.
Yet it haunts him still. The monster died, confused and doomed and damned, and by God, Wyatt hopes Sam can be happy. It will be a long time before he forgets the look on Sam Winchester's face before he left the room. You never forget the ones you can't save.