on the banks of the Wabash, far away
They were Sam Jones and Dean Jones and John Jones; here, in Huntington, Indiana. Even though when Dad had said "John Jones" to the motel clerk a few hours ago Dean had sniggered loudly and the motel clerk had looked momentarily confused; and Dad had glared at Dean, and then glared at Sam for good measure, even though Sam hadn't made a sound, hadn't even blinked. Dean thought he was so funny, picking 'Jones' in Indiana. He'd been planning that one ever since they drove across the border.
It was Sam's turn to pick their name next state.
Dad had come up with that game a few years ago; back when Sam had been sent home from school with a letter and a visit from a social worker, after he had started crying in class because he couldn't even remember his own name. Sam had been six; and he had been crying – and he was confused, but the school was wrong about the reason why. He wasn't confused about his own name – he knew he was Sam Winchester, and his brother was Dean Winchester, and his Daddy was John Winchester and his mommy was in heaven – but he couldn't tell the teacher any of that, because he knew that they were using a pretend name. He just couldn't remember which one it was this time.
So Dad had decided that it would be easier if Sam or Dean picked their name from now on, and that way they would have no excuse for forgetting it.
Sam used to think it was a fun game, but he soon ran out of ideas, because each name was someone else's really, not his.
Every time it was his turn, Dad would park the Impala in the motel parking lot and turn around and face Sam.
"Who are we today, Sam?"
Every time, Sam wanted to say the Winchesters but he knew that wasn't allowed, so he used the second best thing – the surname of his best friend from whichever town they'd last lived in.
Dad never said anything about Sam's formula. He may not have even realised it was a formula. Because sometimes, it felt like Dad didn't even know what grade Sam was in, let alone what his best friends name was.
Dean knew, though. Dean always knew.
Dean's names were a mix of stupid puns and pop-cultural references, usually a play on the name of the state itself: "Jones" in Indiana, or "Walker" in Texas. (And yeah, subtle was one of the few things Dean had never been accused of.)
Dean didn't take it seriously.
If it was Sam's turn to pick, they would be the Beaumonts because Danny Beaumont had been Sam's best friend for the three months they lived in Ohio; and Mrs Beaumont smelled like apple pie and cinnamon and Danny had two little sisters with pigtails and a dog named Rover and Mr Beaumont took a briefcase to work every morning and came home at six o'clock every night. Every single night. Except one night when Sam was sleeping over and Mr Beaumont was held up at work and he called to let his family know and Mrs Beaumont kept dinner warm for him on a plate until he got home. And he was late, but he was still home in time to kiss Danny goodnight.
So if it was Sam's turn to pick their names, it would have been Sam Beaumont and Dean Beaumont and John Beaumont checking in to room 23-A at the Sleep Easy Motel in Huntington, Indiana.
But it wasn't Sam's turn, so they were the Jones', because Dean had watched Raiders of the Lost Ark on cable a few years ago and never quite got over it.
Dean wasn't sure what Dad was hunting, because Dad hadn't said anything more than, "I'll be home late, boys" and "Don't forget to salt the doors and windows," and "Keep the shotgun close," (except that one he only said to Dean).
Outside, there was a loud party going on down the street. When they had pulled into the motel a few hours ago, they had passed a group of pretty girls about Dean's age, standing on the corner. There was one girl who had brown braids that reached to her waist, and she was wearing a blue jacket the color of the sky.
Dean wondered idly if she would be at the party, wondered if he could sneak out without getting caught. He knew he could. Sam wouldn't tattle-tale, he grew out of that a few years ago, and Dean would be back well before Dad ever was.
But Dean had learnt his lesson in Fort Douglas, Wisconsin five years ago, and tonight he was not going anywhere.
Instead, he said "Brush your teeth, Sammy" and waited to hear the sound of running water before he reached for the remote and settled back to a night of sitcoms and black and white movies.
The music from the party pulsed through the thin walls of their motel room, and no matter how loud he turned the tinny volume of the tv up, he could still hear it, long after Sam was asleep.
John never said "Take care of Sammy". He didn't need to. Because ten years ago, he gave Sam to Dean, hurriedly passing sleepy-baby-warmth into chubby-toddler-arms and throughout the years Dean has never once let go. It started then, he knew, because that night was the night he said: "Take your brother outside as fast as you can, now Dean, go" and from that moment on Dean started running and never looked back, not once.
That November night was the end of everything and the beginning of everything else, and John has spent so long since reliving every second of that night; choking on smoke and loss and memory.
Dean turns fifteen in two weeks. He was constantly in the periphery of John's vision, dancing a steady orbit around Sam and John, a blur of perpetual motion and energy. On the surface he was a carefree teenager, always ready with a wise-crack, taking any opportunity to tease Sam - but even when he seemed relaxed he never fully let his guard down. He was always alert, always ready – always, always watching.
Sometimes Dean saw too much, and John knows that's another thing that's his fault – but he can't bring himself to feel too badly about it, not when he knows it is those instincts that one day could be the only thing keeping Dean alive, keeping Sammy alive. The one thing that could have kept Mary alive – and perhaps it's true that John is a damned fool (and forty-nine other expletives, courtesy of the Gospel According to Bobby Singer), but no-one could ever accuse him of making the same mistake twice.
Problem is, he made a fresh one every time, and his supply was seemingly endless.
The heater in their motel room was broken, and it was freezing. Sam had made a makeshift cocoon out of the blankets from his and Dean's beds; and he lay between the covers trying to concentrate on the book he was reading. A Wrinkle In Time.
In classroom 4B, at Oakland Middle School, Ohio, his book report was due today; and he knew that somewhere, three hundred miles away, all his friends would be sitting in class. He would be there too, if Dad hadn't packed them up in such a hurry two days ago and sped out of town, chasing a new lead all the way to Indiana.
Sam's only ten, but he's been to more new schools than nearly any kid he knows. Any kid except Dean, that is.
He's never stayed at a school for more than a few months.
It's hard, keeping up with the work, because every school runs on a different schedule – sometimes he will arrive and have to sit through three weeks studying fractions, which he already learnt last month at his old school. Other times he will have missed out on learning stuff everyone else in the class already learnt, and have to spend a week catching up.
It's hard, moving around as much as they do – but Sam's a smart kid, all his teachers say so, and he takes school seriously. He's good at it – understands it – and he enjoys the satisfaction of learning, of getting the right answer, of figuring things out for himself.
He used to worry about transferring schools under an assumed name, but Dad said he'd take care of it, and it's never been a problem so far – Sam's transcript from his old school always arrives a few days after they arrive in town, with the details changed to match whatever name they're using this time around.
He never knew how Dad did it – although one time he overheard an argument his dad was having on the phone with someone – a man, it must have been, because Dad would never talk like that to a lady – and Dad said "I don't care how hard it is, you get it done damnnit," and he'd reeled off the name of Sam and Dean's new school, and their new surname and slammed the phone down without even waiting for the guy on the other end to reply. And then Dad had sat there, staring at the phone and swiping his hand roughly across his eyes. "Jesus," he had said, to himself. And that probably shouldn't be one of Sam's favourite memories of his dad, but it was.
Sam thought sometimes that it would be easier to love his Dad if Dad would just stand still long enough for Sam to grip on and never let go.
John walked through the house, listening to the real estate agent prattle on about resale value – in five years alone, this place will be worth – and John tuned out, because he won't be here five years, won't be here five months.
But because it's expected, and because he wants this house, he nods along as the man – Ted Shelton, according to his business card – keeps talking about markets and economies and housing booms.
It's a nice house – a little run-down, but they've had worse; not far from the local school; big enough that Sam and Dean won't have to share a bedroom – and he knows Dean especially will appreciate that.
"You got kids?" Shelton asked.
"Yeah," John replied, "Two boys. Ten and fourteen."
Shelton smiled. "Boys are good. I always wanted a boy, but the missus just kept on having girls. Can't complain though – I've got three gorgeous daughters. But still, would be nice to have a son - a daughter is a treasure, but a son is a legacy, y'know?"
And John knows, he knows exactly.
He decided that maybe Shelton - with his cheap suit and his comb-over – wasn't so bad after all.
Dean's used to living out of motels – hell, it's practically how he spends every summer holidays; and plenty of weeks in between – but that doesn't mean he likes it.
So he's relieved when Dad announces that he's found a house they can rent.
Firstly, because that means they're staying put for awhile – which should make Sam happy at least.
And secondly, it's a nice feeling not living out of a duffle bag, not having to share a bed with Sam, not having to constantly be on the lookout, because the kind of motels they stay at aren't exactly the Hilton, and there were some sick fucks out there, so he could never let Sam out of his sight. Because Sam was only ten – still a little kid with floppy hair – but some perverts got off on that, and motels like these were exactly where they like to hang out.
So yeah, it was a relief when Dad announced that he'd found them a house.
It was Sam's job to get Dean up for school in the morning – which usually involved poking at the Dean-shaped mound of blankets until Dean's head emerged, and he grumbled 'gerraway' – and Sam did – heading to the shower.
It was winter and freezing, so he turned the shower on as soon as he stepped into the bathroom. It always took a few minutes for the hot water to kick in, so he didn't rush as he brushed his teeth and stared assessingly at his hair in the mirror. It probably needed a wash, but it was so cold this morning he decided he'd just wash it this afternoon after training. He stripped off his flannel pyjamas and finally stepped under the spray, which was by now at least lukewarm.
By the time he got out of the shower, Dean was up and puttering around the kitchen.
"You better not have used up all the hot water, bitch," Dean grumbled as he made Sam's lunch, cutting his sandwich in triangles straight down the middle – just the way Sam liked it.
Sam poked his tongue out as he stole some of Dean's toast.
"Where's Dad?" he asked.
"Don't talk with your mouth full, Sam," Dean said, waggling his eyebrows at him. Sam had just taken a gulp of orange juice, and he snorted so hard that he started choking – because Dean was hardly the one to comment on table manners – Dean who had once crammed twelve marshmallows in his mouth, and then tried to sing 'Whiskey in the Jar' just because Sam had dared him to – and Dean must have been thinking the same thing, because he was laughing too, as he threw a dish towel at Sam's head. The dish towel missed, falling to the floor with a wet plop.
It wasn't until Dean had gone into the bathroom that Sam realised Dean had never answered his question.
He supposed it didn't matter, really. Not like knowing where Dad was would change the fact that he wasn't here, wasn't home.
It was weird – they moved so much, you'd think everything would be different, but even though they were in a new town, nothing had really changed.
The sounds of Dean singing in the shower drifted out from the bathroom. Dean actually had quite a good voice but most mornings he sang off-key on purpose, just to annoy Sam. Sam listened as Dean belted out some inane pop song, and he grinned in spite of himself.
Some things never changed, he knew that.
But some things do change. Sam was counting on that. Because, surely, at some point they had to settle down, right? So why not here? Why not Huntington, Indiana?
Dean had seen enough new schools to last him a lifetime; and it was seven-thirty on a Monday morning and Dean really did not want to go to school.
It wasn't because he was nervous, or dumb, or anything like that. It was because he just didn't get how school was relevant.
He didn't care about college. College was something other people did, not him. And it wasn't a self-esteem thing, like Miss Jacobs, the guidance counsellor at his last school, had seemed to think – always ambushing him with brightly-colored brochures and cheery pep-talks. He'd been glad to leave their school in Ohio behind, watching as it vanished into a cloud of dust behind the Impala's tires; even if leaving meant Sam sniffling and moping for a few days, because as much as Dean hated seeing Sam hurting and not being able to fix it, it was such a relief to get away from Miss Jacobs and her blinding optimism. Not that Dean wanted what she was selling – he didn't; but one day she had said something about "wouldn't his mom have wanted him to go to college?" and Dean had never punched a teacher before, never punched a girl before, but he'd been tempted, and that scared him.
It wasn't fair, bringing mom into it. That was hitting below the belt. And Miss Jacobs had apologised straight away, because she said she could see how "upset" he was, and he wasn't upset, he was angry, but he couldn't explain why and he didn't want to even if he could. He was done talking.
So leaving had been a relief, even if it meant he had to put up with Sam's moping for the next week or so. But really, what did Sam expect? It's not like they were the type of family to just settle down somewhere, with a dog and a white picket fence and a pocketful of dreams. As soon as they got to a town, Dean always knew that they would leave it – it was just a matter of when. That was something Sam never really seemed to comprehend, though, because he kept getting attached – couldn't help himself – and it was just getting worse as he got older.
Leaving was always harder on Sam than Dean, because Dean had learnt long ago not to care too much about the people in the towns they moved to – because they were transitory, bound to be left behind.
Dean sometimes wondered what it was like, being left behind.
It was his birthday next week – and thinking about his birthday always made him miss his mother. The memories he had of her had blurred and faded over time but he clung to them nonetheless. At least he had memories of her, however vague. Sam didn't have that, had just been a baby when Mom died, and so it was Dean's job to share his memories with Sam – filling in the gaping hole in Sam's life with every detail he could remember about Mom, and inventing the ones he couldn't.
Dean thought about the second-last memory he had of her – soft hair that tickled his cheek, the warmth in her eyes as she leaned in to kiss him goodnight, the laughter as she joked with Dad.
It was nicer than the last memory he had of her – just a glimpse – a white nightgown on the ceiling, a body burning. Dad said it had been four months before Dean would even talk, after. Dean didn't really remember much of those months immediately after the fire, but he took Dad's word for it.
Thinking about it now, he realised that, actually, he did know how it felt to be left behind, and he also knew that he never wanted to feel that way again. It scared him, the thought of caring that much for someone. That's why he only cared that way about Dad and Sam – because Dad could take care of himself, and Dean could take care of Sam – and so they wouldn't leave him.
So that was settled, at least.
John had never had the patience for paperwork. Even now, he would only do the bare minimum of credit card scams – just enough to confirm whichever surname Sam or Dean had chosen for them this time around.
Because John was a mechanic and a soldier and his father's son, and it felt wrong to just free-ride around America.
That wasn't what bothered him though. What bothered him was that he could feel himself getting used to it, rationalising it even. After all, he may not be John Jones of Indiana, but for every John Doe's identity he borrowed; he was saving Tom, Dick and Harry – so he figured in the cosmic sense, it all worked out. Maybe.
Besides, not too many garages take a man with only a couple of references, even if he does drive a sleek black beast of a car. They don't see the car – they see the two boys in the backseat, the circles under his eyes – and they know he's running. They're right – and they're wrong as well, because they think John is running away from something.
John Winchester has never run away from anything in his life.
He is running towards something, in pursuit of whatever that thing was that took Mary, robbed him of his life, robbed Sam and Dean of their mother, their childhood, their birthright of normal.