The Ghost of Star's Hollow
The first thing Sam notices about the young woman is how blue her wide eyes are. That doesn't take a great deal of observation; he also notices how straight her teeth are, because her mouth is hanging open an inch and a half.
"Dean!" she gasps. "What are you doing here? Where have you been?"
"Dean's getting coffee at that place around the corner," Sam responds. Is she another one of his brother's conquests? Too bad, she looks like a nice girl. "I'm Sam."
"What---? Dean?" She reaches out and rests her hand on his. "You're real," she says with relief, "I'm not imagining things!"
"I'm not Dean," he repeats slowly. "My name is Sam. Dean is my brother."
The blue eyes blink and she shakes her head, brown hair swinging at her jawline. "Since when do you have a brother?"
"Uh, all my life? He's four years older than me."
This is some weird case of mistaken identity, Sam decides. He and Dean just finished a case in Hartford, and they're headed to Albany to drop some contraband off at their dad's locker. They've stopped for coffee in a small town called Star's Hollow, and while Dean went in for the java, Sam window-shopped an antique store to see if anything might be of arcane interest. He was just wondering about the symbols on a primitive-looking weathervane when the young woman---she's about his age---accosted him.
Then something she said does an instant replay. "We just got here a few minutes ago," he says. "Did you say you've been seeing him before this, um, what's your name?"
"I'm Rory," she says, and a hurt expression crosses her pretty face. "You mean, he's never mentioned me?"
Great, another girl who's had her heart broken by his love-'em-and-leave-'em brother. "I'm sorry, Rory, I've got a terrible memory," Sam temporizes. "It's nice to meet you."
"What the hell, Sam?" he hears Dean say just before he walks around the corner. He stops, holding two lidded cups and staring at Sam. "Your shirt is blue."
"You watched me put it on this morning," Sam reminds him.
There's a puzzled scowl on his brother's face. "You were standing right here just a second ago. You were wearing a white tee shirt, not a blue work shirt. You walked this way, and when I got here...who's this?"
Sam winces. "Who's this?" is not exactly a sign of endearment---but Rory is looking at Dean with no sign of recognition. "Rory, this is my brother Dean. Dean, this is Rory."
"You're not Dean!" Those big blue eyes look up at Sam, and her lower lip quivers. "What are you trying to pull?" she asks him. "Look, we both made some mistakes, but that's a long time ago. Can't we be friends without a lot of stupid games? The whole 'I have an evil twin' shtick isn't working."
"Sam, what's going on?"
"I'm trying to figure that one out myself. Rory, who do you think I am?"
"This isn't funny, Dean Forester!" Dean is rolling his eyes. Sam takes the coffee cup he extends, and they both look at Rory until she gives an exasperated sigh. "Okay, fine. Your name is Dean Forester, we were together for almost two years, you loved me and I was stupid, I dumped you for another guy. You graduated from Star's Hollow High, Class of Oh-Three, married Lindsay McCoy, seduced me, divorced her, left town and I haven't heard from you in four years. End of story, except here you are."
Married? Dean's smirking, and Sam gives him a dirty look. "Rory, I'm sorry," he says as gently as he can. "I don't know who Dean Forester is. My name is Sam Winchester, and this is my brother, Dean."
Rory's lips are compressed. "You have three freckles along your right collarbone," she says crisply. He shrugs and starts unbuttoning his shirt. Her hand catches his and pulls the cloth aside. "My god, Dean, you got a tattoo?"
"I'm. Not. Dean." He shows the other side of his chest, and she studies it for a moment.
"You're not Dean," she agrees at last. There's disappointment in her tone and she's pink with embarrassment.
"Sorry," he apologizes, feeling faintly ridiculous.
"Hey," Dean interjects. "Did your Dean have kinda shaggy hair and stubble?"
"And you said he disappeared, nobody's heard from him in a while?"
"That's right. I ran into his mom at Doose's last week and she says the last she heard from him was a postcard from California. He said he was off to make his fortune, but he didn't say how. Maybe he was going to Alaska for a job. Or joining the Foreign Legion, that's what they always do in the movies."
"Sounds like the guy I saw here a minute ago," Dean comments, shooting Sam a significant look. "Hey, lemme ask you, uh, Rory---are there any motels around here? We're looking to kick back and hang out for a few days, and this is such a nice little town."
Dial down the sarcasm, Sam thinks as she answers.
"There's the inn. The Dragonfly Inn---that's my mom's place." It's Sam's turn to smirk. He knows Dean's policy about inns: "Anything called an 'inn' is gonna be twice as expensive as something called a motel. And it's even worse when they're trying to be quaint---the cuter it is, the pricier it is."
She proceeds to give directions, enthusiasm wiping away her blush. She isn't drop-dead gorgeous like Jess, but she's pretty in a girl-next-door kind of way. No make-up, just a trace of lip balm, well-worn jeans and a knit top that skims her modest curves. Dean isn't coming on to her, but Sam thinks he could have a shot, although it sounds like she still has issues with his doppelganger, and he has a feeling muddying those waters isn't the greatest idea.
"Nice meeting you, Rory, and thanks for the recommendation for the inn." She smiles at them and Sam watches as she crosses the street and goes into a t-shirt shop.
"That sounds like a case to me," Dean says, watching her go. "I think this guy is a spirit keeping an eye on her. He was standing right there---" He gestures "looking toward where you were standing when I came around the corner. Then he walked this way, and you couldn't have missed him. We need to figure out what happened to him."
"Maybe he's looking after her, maybe she needs protection."
"Protection from what? This is Mayberry, for cryin' out loud!" Dean rolls his eyes as they walk over to the Impala. "And come on, she said she dumped the guy, you don't really think his ghost is gonna do a Sir Galahad, do you? Or maybe you're...what does Dr. Phil call it? Projecting?"
Rory's inspired his protective side, Sam admits to himself as he slides into the front seat. So if her ex- is haunting her, he's going to do whatever he can to take care of it. He studies the town as Dean follows directions to the inn, and Mayberry isn't far off the mark. It's cultivated a Norman Rockwell charm, with a tidy town square and tree-lined streets.
Based on his observations, Sam's got an idea, and when they arrive at the Dragonfly Inn, he says, "You take the bags in and get us a room, I want to check on something."
Dean looks at their destination without favor. "It's going to cost a mint."
"Yeah, but if it's Rory's mom's place, she probably knew Dean, too."
"Okay, okay. It's not like it's our money. Look, are you sure you don't need me to come with you?"
"If I can pass for Dean, I'm better off trying to do this solo."
The warning rings in his ears as he makes his way to Star's Hollow High, but Sam doesn't need to worry. The school secretary greets him as Dean, and when he asks for a copy of his records, she doesn't ask for any identification, just pulls a folder from a file cabinet and runs it through the copier. From her chatter, he gathers that Dean's wife is named Lindsay, and she's married to someone else now, that his younger sister Clara graduated last year with a terrific GPA, and when Sam checks the trophy cases in the school's entryway on his way out, there's a picture of the 2002 ice hockey team---and yeah, the young man grinning out from a group photo looks eerily like him, only this Dean lived a white-bread normal kind of existence that the Winchesters never have.
Lost in thought, he enters the inn and gets a key to room 6 from an immaculately groomed black man at the front desk. He's surprised to find it's a single room, but it has a connecting door that Dean opens at the sound of activity. He's wearing clean clothes and his hair shows recent comb marks.
Sam displays his loot, and his brother nods. "Slick move," he says. "We can track his Social, find out when he was last on the grid."
"That's what I had in mind. Where's the shower?" They're sharing a bath, and after the ghost-hunt in Hartford, Sam is ready for a long session of hot water and soap.
Unfortunately, the hot water doesn't last quite as long as he'd like, and when he returns to his room, Dean looks up from the computer screen, frowning. "Dean Forester is dead," he announces. "He must've gotten fake ID somewhere; he was going by the name John Davis, but he was using his own Social Security number. He got a job with an oil-well development firm called Americore...they were drilling in Mongolia, pulled the plug on the operation and the plane crashed on the way back to civilization. There were some survivors, but our boy Dean wasn't one of them."
"So no body," Sam surmises. "Or was there?"
"Nope, never recovered. I'm thinking there's something here anchoring him here. I'll tell you what, you work on Rory, I'll work on her mother."
Yeah, right. "So her mother's cute?"
"Smokin'. Kinda like Rory all grown up." Dean leers. "Same big blue eyes, but a lot more va-va-voom."
"Knock yourself out."
They work out strategy. Dean will dine at the inn and get what information he can from Lorelai, Sam will check out the coffee shop that his brother had visited earlier. According to Dean, the place looks like it's a town hot spot. He's sure to find more out about Dean Forester there.
It's not far back to the town square---this is the kind of place where nothing is very far from anything else---so Sam elects to walk. In the half-mile or so between the inn and the coffee shop, Dean is invited to join a basketball game---that's the friendliest encounter by far, because he's also scolded by a plump woman in a muumuu who stands in the doorway of an old barn while behind her, a group of schoolgirls in butterfly costumes dance to Swan Lake. He's told by a fat, balding guy that his job at the market has been filled, so don't bother asking, called an asshole by some blonde gal who's his age, and when he walks into the diner, all hell breaks loose.
Or at least, as much hell as a small town in Connecticut can muster; compared to the real thing it's pretty tame. The bell on the door jingles behind him, the whole room gets quiet---it's like a moment from one of Bobby's favorite westerns, where the gunslinger walks into the saloon and everything stops---and then the man behind the counter growls at him, "Get out. Now."
There's a sudden buzz of conversation, and a young Asian woman in an apron hurries over. She adjusts her glasses and looks worried. "Dean, you should go, really."
The guy is coming out from behind the counter---late thirties, Sam guesstimates, about Dean's size, big, but probably not a ninja wearing a plaid shirt for disguise---and he looks pissed. "I'm not Dean!" Sam says as the counterman gets closer.
"Yeah, right. Go crawl back under whatever rock you've been hiding under. You're not welcome here." His fists are clenched, and Sam's wary---the guy looks like he's about two seconds away from taking a swing at him. The crowd is murmuring in the background---what's the max occupancy in this place, anyway?---and the last time he was this uncomfortable in a crowd, they were all possessed.
"Oh no!" the young woman moans, and the door jingles behind Sam.
"Move over!" says a familiar female voice, and a finger pokes him in the back.
The counterman addresses her. "Rory, it's okay, he's just leaving."
"Luke, this isn't who you think it is. That's still you, isn't it, Sam?"
"Maybe I should get a shirt," he says, attempting a conciliatory smile at the guy in plaid---Luke. "'I am not Dean Forester.' Thank God, because there seems to be a lot of animosity against him."
"There, you see!" Rory says triumphantly. "He used 'animosity' in a sentence. And he showed me other proof he isn't Dean." She raises her voice to be heard at the back tables. "So let's show Sam some real Star's Hollow hospitality while he's here." She gives him a quick smile. "Come on, let's get a table."
Because his brother isn't there to make snide comments, he adventurously orders something calling itself a Chop Suey Salad. This must be up there with real men eating quiche, because Rory looks surprised, her friend Lane---the Asian girl with the glasses who takes their order---is similarly shocked, and from behind the counter, he hears Luke bellow, "He ordered what?!"
Chop Suey Salad turns out to be an interesting mix of bok choy, broccoli, spinach, snow peas, bean sprouts and water chestnuts, lightly sautéed with chicken. A hint of ginger flavors it, and it's really good. Sam crunches his way through a third of it while Rory stares at him. "You are so not Dean," she says, finally picking up her burger.
"Tell me about him," Sam asks her. "How come everyone is so hostile?"
"Not everyone is hostile," she protests. "And they shouldn't take it out on him, anyway." She takes another bite. "It was my fault," she says after a moment. "We were together, and I dumped him. He was into sports, and I was trying to get into Harvard---except I ended up going to Yale---and he adored me, but I just felt like I couldn't talk with him sometimes."
"Because he couldn't use 'animosity' in a sentence?" Sam suggests, spearing a snow pea.
"That's part of it. And I got involved with someone else, he'd moved here from New York and he had that whole dangerous loner vibe going, you know? Except he was a really well-read loner, not really dangerous, just misunderstood and Dean just seemed so..."
She sighs. "Dull, safe, predictable...by then I realized I'd made a mistake, because he was also kind and thoughtful and reliable, but by then he was married to Lindsay."
"I take that didn't work out?"
"He told me it was over," she says in a small voice. "And we ended up in bed. His wife found out; for a while we were both pariahs, but he left town and little by little, people decided he did me wrong, too. It was my fault," she says again, "but he got blamed for it."
Oh boy, if there was ever potential for a vengeful spirit, this was it. Sam keeps Rory talking, learning that she's midway through the month she's taking off between assignments---she's a journalist---and since she returned to her hometown, she's seen Dean a half-dozen times. Lane was with her once and thought she saw him too, but no one else has until today....
As they finish their meals, Sam ponders the situation. He can't very well tell her that Dean's dead and that she's been haunted. For a bunch of reasons: She'd want to know how he knows, for starters, and that involves identity theft and computer hacking. If he negotiated that minefield, she's liable to think he's a nutjob for believing in ghosts, and if she believes him, she's liable to freak out. Way too much liability in that course of action. He'll need to figure out what's anchoring the spirit here without tipping Rory off. That could take days---weeks! and Dean---his brother, Dean---isn't going to be too thrilled about that.
Even though Star's Hollow seems like a perfect, safe small town, Sam walks Rory home. He talks about Stanford---still has his student ID card in his wallet, for crying out loud!---and the edited version of how he left after his almost-fiancée's death. She's sympathetic; they walk hand-in-hand for a few minutes, but Sam feels strange about it. He's not Dean Forester.
There's nothing guileful about Rory; she invites him in for ice cream, and he accepts, although the salad was excellent. The house has lived-in charm and the cozy kitchen sets off an attack of longing. It sounds like he and Dean Forester should've been switched at birth. Dean-the-jock who romped off to Mongolia looking for adventure would've made a kick-ass hunter, and if Sam had come to Star's Hollow...well, his vocabulary would've been up to it.
"You know," he says to Rory with studied casualness, "sometimes being back in a particular place brings back memories of the people we've lost. Sometimes it's things. My dad died a couple years ago, but sometimes I still think I see his truck driving down the road. We're getting ready to go to his storage unit pretty soon, and that's going to be a real blast from the past. He kept so many things from our childhoods, but he always seemed like the least sentimental man on Earth."
Rory gets up from the table without a word, and goes into an adjoining room. She returns a moment later, and deposits on the table a short length of metal chain with a flat disk dangling from it. Etched on it, Sam sees "DF & RG FOREVER".
"Dean made that for me when we first started going out, back when things were good." Her voice is wistful. "I found it when I was putting my stuff away, and it reminded me of how sweet he used to be---" She sounds like she might cry, and Sam holds his breath.
The phone rings. "I'll be right back," Rory says, and bolts from the room, although there's a phone on the wall in here. Her exit gives him a chance to grab his EMF meter and scan the bracelet, which, unsurprisingly, pegs in the red. It's never this easy. He could grab the damn thing and run, but that would be a stupid thing to get arrested for. At least he knows what the object is; worst case scenario, he can do a spot of trespassing when Rory and her mom are away.
When Rory returns, he's almost finished the strawberry ice cream she dished out. Her bowl is the consistency of vanilla soup, and she picks it up and sips at it. She's calm again, although Sam sees her look from the bracelet to him and back. "Sam, I know you hardly know me, and it's a huge favor, but would you do something for me?"
"That kind of depends on what you had in mind."
"I never really got to say good-bye to Dean. I mean, I know he'll probably come back here some day, his family is here, but it's not for him, it's for me." For a moment, he's sure she means a séance---but he reminds himself that Rory doesn't know, that she just got through saying Dean will be back eventually. "I just want to pretend for a minute that you're him. You don't have to do anything, and it's good that you're not really him, because you don't have all the baggage and you'll listen and since I know you're you and not him, I won't be tempted to do anything stupid."
"Go for it," he says, and leans back in the chair. She stands nearby, having the advantage of height that way.
"Dean, I'm so sorry," she says. "I was selfish and conflicted and I messed things up for both of us. It was worse for you than it was for me, and it's not fair, and I'm sorry." Behind her, in the doorway of the room where the bracelet was, a familiar-looking figure stands, looking over her shoulder at Sam. "You were the first boy I ever loved, and the first lover I ever had, and if I could go back and do it all again, I'd do it all differently because I didn't know how good I had it."
Sam understands why everyone has been jumping on his case, because Dean Forester is a rough haircut away from being his twin. If it was noticeable in the hockey team portrait, it's even more uncanny up close. He's looking at Rory with longing, regret...he's trying to say something, but there's no sound.
"I'll never forget you, but---" Rory's blue eyes are bright with tears. "Right now, it hurts so much to remember you. I feel guilty and ashamed and I'm sorry I was such a fool. Forgive me, Dean," she whispers. Tears stream down her cheeks. Dean takes a step forward, looking distressed.
"You have to forgive yourself, Rory," Sam says, covering her hand with his. "The past is past and tomorrow never comes."
The figure in the doorway nods, moves closer, closer...then it seems to try to hug Rory, who shudders, and it's gone. Her knees sag, and somehow she winds up on his lap, face buried against his shoulder, weeping. There's a knot in Sam's throat. He pats her back, feeling awkward, wishing it was appropriate to offer a more intimate comfort.
Sudden cold rolls over him, recedes and rolls back like a tide. Sam knows instantly what's happening: Dean is trying to possess him.
The tattoo protects him, but Sam almost wishes it didn't. Maybe there's some message Dean has for Rory that he can't communicate any other way. He's bombarded by the spirit's chill presence, until it stops, and then the bracelet skitters across the table.
Rory looks up, her eyes and nose pink from crying. She draws in a short breath. "Dean...?"
The spirit looms over them. It gives Rory a faint smile. "I'm sorry," she says to him, and he shakes his head, looking rueful. He reaches out, big hand stroking Rory's cheek.
Sam lets his hands rest at his sides; he feels very odd-man-out in the middle of this Ghost moment. It's weird enough that Rory's perched on his left leg and one sweater-clad arm is looped over his shoulder.
She picks up the bracelet, draping it over her wrist and fumbling with the clasp. Dean shakes his head, tugs at it. It lands on the table, and Rory stares at it for a moment, then looks back up at Dean. "You're not coming back, are you?" she asks softly.
Again, he shakes his head.
"You know I'm sorry?"
A nod from Dean.
"You know I always loved you?"
Dean smiles, and he shapes the words with his lips: I love you, Rory.
Then he's gone.
It's past midnight when Sam gets back to the inn and lets himself into his room. He sticks his head through the connecting doorway; Dean's not there, and he wonders what his brother has found to keep himself out this late in Mayberry. He knows it isn't the ghost. Dean Forester is finally at peace.
Rummaging around in his duffle bag, he finds a small iron box and a canister of salt. He fills the box and sets it on the dresser. Then he eases the bracelet from his pocket. He hadn't had to steal it; Rory had pressed it into his hand and wrapped his fingers around it, saying it seemed right: If she didn't know where Dean was, but that he was never coming back, then knowing that the bracelet was out there somewhere and never coming back..."You aren't coming back, are you, Sam?"
Saying 'no' was the truth, and it was one of those moments when the truth hurt. The charming town of Star's Hollow doesn't need a resident hunter, let alone two of them, and he and Dean still have work to do.
Burying the bracelet in the salt, Sam says a quiet prayer for Dean Forester. He'll leave the box at the storage unit in Albany, and the ghost of Rory's first love will be neutralized.
He closes the lid and goes to bed.
It's almost four in the morning when Dean comes stumbling in to the room next door. Sam wakes up enough to register how disheveled his brother looks. Mud, grass stains, ripped jeans. "What happened to you?"
"Lorelei. I swear, that's the most fun I've ever had with a woman I didn't sleep with. How'd you make out with Rory?"
"It's all taken care of. I've got the anchor, we can leave any time."
"Thank God," Dean says, peeling off his clothes and heading for the shower. "Any more fun is gonna kill me."
It's noon by the time they check out, and Dean is still tired enough not to bitch about being charged for another day. By mutual consent, they head to Luke's for breakfast on the way out of town, and Sam's heart skips a beat when Rory joins them. He hopes she's not going to ask for the bracelet back.
"My mom says you really know how to show a lady a good time," she tells Dean, who's on his second cup of coffee and continues to look shell-shocked.
"Yeah," he mumbles around a mouthful of waffles, "but I could've done without falling out of that tree. She didn't even offer to kiss it better."
Sam listens to them banter, and resigns himself to another exit from another life that will never be his. When they've finished eating, Rory follows them out to the Impala and hands Sam a bag from Kirk's Tee Shirt World.
"Just in case you do come back someday," she says with a grin.
Sam reaches into the bag and draws out a shirt, size 4X, in the Star's Hollow High team colors of red and white, and smiles as he reads:
I am NOT Dean Forester
(Just ask Rory)