The moment the phone rang I knew something big was coming. It was just like a flash of light, a series of images running so fast through my mind's eye that I couldn't pick one out from another, as my hand hovered over the receiver to answer. A young father seeking a consultation. John Winchester, by name; mechanic by trade. We made arrangements to meet on a Tuesday morning.
I sit on the couch in the parlour and wait, my hands sweaty and my stomach fluttering with butterflies. Anticipation is so heavy upon me it's like a thick wooly mantle draped around my shoulders, stretching my spine instead of bending it, so that I feel compressed and pulled in my own body. I just want to get this over with.
The loud rumble of an engine sounds from the sidewalk out front and I hold my breath. They're here on time, as I knew they would be. I hear a car door creak loudly and I force myself not to peek out the window to catch a glimpse of him and his boys. I want the impression to be spontaneous and unclouded by my own thoughts and judgments. I want it to hit me with the full impact of the situation, their thoughts and feelings coming at me without any filters of my own. So I don't look. I don't watch the young father prying his two small children from the car. I don't watch them making their way along the cobblestone path to my front door. I don't get up in anticipation of the doorbell ringing. I wait. My knee jumps out a steady rhythm and I resist the urge to bite my nails.
When the doorbell rings I manage to count three seconds before I make any move to stand. No way am I going to scuttle over to the door like some kind of jumped up fangirl. Calm and easy does it. That's what my grandmammy always used to say.
Even so, before I know it my hand is reaching for the door knob and I'm opening the door. I gasp when all my senses are assaulted by the crashing waves of emotion and memory that barge through my open door. Before I've even seen them I see fire and blood and darkness; I see long blonde hair curling in flame and a baby crying; I hear frantic screams of a young man whose world is ending: 'Mary! Mary!' I hear a little boy calling for his daddy, and the authoritative reply, 'Take your brother as fast as you can. Now Dean, go!'
And then I look up into the face of John Winchester.
Every detail of that night is written upon his face, in the fathomless deep darkness of his brown eyes, in the lines of his mouth, in the set of his brow. He looks frightened, and a little angry, as he scrutinizes my face with his stern gaze. I take note of the cherub-faced baby in his arms, smiling in that matronly way all women are wont to do when they see a baby as cute as this one. I wonder off-handedly where the other child is, until I notice a tiny hand gripping the denim at the knee of John Winchester's pant leg.
"Hello," the young father says to me after an awkward pause. "We have an appointment for this morning. I'm –"
"John Winchester," I supply. "And this must be baby Sammy." The name is coming at me from all directions: from the father in whose arms the infant is snuggling soundly, from the baby himself, who seems to have a sense of his own name and his own place in the small, broken family, and especially from the tiny figure cowering behind his father's large form. I coo briefly at the baby and am happy to see that he responds with a happy gurgle and a bright, gummy grin.
"So that leaves…" I drawl, trying to peek around the lumbering man and just catching the slightest flash of blonde hair and wide hazel eyes before they're buried in denim.
"Dean," I say proudly, hearing the name on his father's lips before he's spoken it.
The man is eying me skeptically as I stand at full height and return my gaze to him, his expression clearly conveying that he's not impressed with my having guessed his sons names.
"Well, don't just stand there!" I order, feeling the time for standing in doorways has long since passed. It's rude to lurk in doorways. "Come on in."
I lead them to the parlour and watch intently as John seats himself uncomfortably on the couch, baby Sammy still nestled snugly in the crook of his arm, while Dean clamors onto the couch and buries himself in his father's side, his tiny arms wrapping around his father's middle and his head resting against his father's chest.
They're cute kids. Sammy's got that Gerber baby perfection with those dimpled cheeks and big, wide eyes. Dean would be a beautiful child but for the solemn face and haunted eyes. And the hair – the hair is hilarious, like 15th Century paige boy hair and Lord if that doesn't make him look goofy as all hell.
"So what brings you here, Mr. Winchester?" I ask sweetly, though I already have the answer. This family's been touched by death, and from the confusion rolling off of the father in waves, it's a bit of a mystery. Not your standard fire.
"My wife…" John struggles, unconsciously drawing his children closer. "There was a fire…"
Now that he's preparing himself to talk about it my mind is stabbed by the image of a woman on the ceiling, her mouth open in a silent scream, abdomen slashed open, blood spilling onto a crib below. And then fire. Fire everywhere. Fire consuming like a ravenous beast.
I lay a hand on my chest and take a few deep breaths to steady myself. This isn't any ol' kind of reading I'm doing now. John Winchester hasn't come to commune with his dead wife or to find out if she was cheatin' on him while she was alive. Oh no. He wants to know how that pretty woman ended up on the ceiling. He wants to know who – or what – put her there.
Jesus save me, I don't know the answer.
"I see…" I reply slowly.
I don't even know where to begin, and there's a part of me that's afraid to even attempt to take this on. Their tragedy is their burden to carry, not mine: I know this instinctively, and yet I feel myself being drawn into it, into them. Those dark, pleading eyes of the handsome widower before me are like screaming sirens, calling me to his cause, begging for me to give him the answers he seeks. 'I'm barely holding on,' his eyes tell me. 'I'm losing my damned mind!' they say desperately.
But still I hesitate.
'You're fat,' a tiny voice rings out in the recesses of my mind, and I jump slightly and notice that the little Paige Boy is looking at me, hazel-green eyes peering up at me from beneath long lashes. Dean looks somewhat awe-struck, gazing at me with something like wonder and possibly mild disgust.
'You have biiiiiiig boobies,' he says, and I narrow my eyes at him and give him a stern look.
He startles and immediately buries his face in his father's armpit.
'ShecanhearmeShecanhearme!' his little mind whispers in a panic, and I see his tiny hands clutching at his Daddy's shirt. John immediately tenses and wraps an arm protectively around his little boy.
"What is it?" he asks his boy, and then turns angry, accusing eyes on me. "What did you do to him?"
Now I've never been one to be intimidated, but this man could scare the panties off a nun with the force of his glare alone. I don't get the sense that he's a mean man, but there's something fierce about him where his family's concerned: he'd torture, maim, and kill for his boys.
"Calm your foll-ass self down," I warn him, and he has the grace to look contrite after my chastisement. "I didn't do nothin' to your boy. He just got a little too loud with his thoughts is all – which aren't very nice, by the way," I admonish, noticing that those hazel-green eyes are peering up at me in wonder again, blinking owlishly as little Dean chews nervously on his bottom lip.
'Nobody can hear me,' Dean's voice filters through the air, disbelieving and more than a little frightened. 'It's s'posed to be safe in here 'cos the monsters can't hear me!'
"Oh sugar," I assure him, not bothering to explain to his Daddy what I can hear. "Ain't nobody gonna hurt you here with old Missouri and your Daddy watchin' over you."
Dean peers up at his father for confirmation, a question in his eyes, and John nods, giving his boy a reassuring squeeze.
"You're safe, Ace," John says solemnly. "I'm not gonna ever let anything happen to you or your brother. I'm gonna protect you."
Dean looks down and peers hesitantly at his baby brother, then back up at his father. He's so uncertain, so afraid, that I can almost hear him murmuring in his head 'whataboutMommyshediedandtherewasfireanditalmostgotSammy!' His haunted eyes turn back to me, afraid that I've heard his thoughts again, afraid that he's broadcasting his silent signal, his most private thoughts.
"Did you see what happened to your Mommy?" I ask Dean, and am breathless when I see the child's eyes shutter closed, a thick, heavy wall emerging from deep within this little boy's soul to barricade him from the world.
He shakes his head no, but I know that that's a lie. I can't hear what he's thinking – he's blocked me out somehow – but I can see from the pain and terror and guilt in his eyes that he saw a great deal the night of the fire. To confirm my suspicions, Dean's eyes subconsciously flash up toward the ceiling, as if expecting to see his mother's burning image there. He lowers his eyes slowly, staring at his tiny feet, and I watch as a few rogue tears spill silently down his lightly freckled cheeks.
John didn't miss the upward journey of his son's gaze, and he turns to me with a question in his eyes. Oh God no! I hear him screaming inside his own head. Tell me he didn't see her...?
I can only nod, confirming his worst fears. Dean watched his mother burning, watched her last terror-filled moments on earth as she was consumed by flame.
I think my heart might be breaking as I watch the widower's face crumble, his nostrils flaring and his lip trembling as he stares at Dean's floppy blonde hair and mourns the loss of his child's innocence. A rough hand reaches out to pet through the long strands and Dean's tiny frame leans into the touch, seeking out comfort and security in a world riddled with monsters that are now all too painfully real.
'God, Mary – I need you!' John's anguished voice cries out to the heavens, and I imagine every psychic within a hundred mile radius is hearing that call. The man's pain is so all-consuming it would take me to my knees if I weren't already sitting.
"I am so sorry for your loss," I offer lamely, knowing it won't help but feeling I should be saying something to salve the hurt.
Dean leans his head back against his father's chest and looks at me intently.
'Not lost,' I hear clear as day. 'The Fire Man took her.'
"My wife isn't lost," the father corrects me, his mind going in the exact same direction as his son's had moments ago. "Someone... or something came into our house and killed her. Pinned her to the fucking ceiling and..." he gulped. "Burned her."
I nod, trying to reach out with my senses, feeling out with snaking tendrils of thought to light on any remnants of whatever touched the Winchesters that night, trying to grasp onto an image, a smell, a touch – anything that will lead me toward the truth. But all directions lead to darkness: all-encompassing, smothering, absolute darkness.
"Evil," I whisper, hand on my chest to still my racing heart.
Dean squeezes in closer to his Dad, laying a tiny hand protectively over his baby brother's heart, as if to shield him from that darkness. He's seen it, I think. I don't know how, but he saw it and it left him unharmed.
'Where are your angels?' I hear the ghost of a memory whisper inside my head. Dean is trembling and shaking his head imperceptibly, banishing that memory, trying to push it out of his mind. Denying its existence.
"We'll need to go to your house," I inform John without preamble, and at this both John and Dean's heads snap up to look at me, both horrified at the very prospect of returning to the scene of blood and fire and death.
"Some time later," I clarify, indicating the children. "They don't need to be there."
John nods grimly and pries his eldest's clingy fingers from his clothing so that he can readjust the baby in his arms as he stands. In an instant Dean is on his feet, standing up on the couch and grasping at his father's arm desperately, pulling at him to come closer, to not leave. He's shaking his head no – no no no no no – his breathing deep through flared nostrils, and the tiniest squeak of protest emerging from his closed throat.
'Don't go Daddy!' his voice shrieks inside my head. 'Don't go back and get burnded by the fire! Don't go don't go don't go!'
"We're not going now," I assure him, though I might as well be speaking only within my own mind for all the attention either Winchester pays me.
"What's the matter, Dean?" John queries, landing one massive paw on top of that ridiculous blonde hair.
Dean peers up with beseeching eyes, his tiny rosebud lips trembling with unshed tears.
'Winchesters don't cry,' I hear the boy chastising himself even as his heart sobs brokenly. 'I won't cry but Daddy please don't leave me and Sammy! Don't go back there where Mommy got killeded!'
"He doesn't want you to go to the house, John," I explain.
"It's okay," John whispers soothingly. "I won't go back there. It was just an idea, okay. I won't go back there if it means that much to you. I promise."
Dean visibly relaxes, a tiny sigh of relief escaping him. But John's body is tight like a live wire, his muscles jumping in anticipation. His dark eyes meet mine and he nods. 'We'll go later,' I hear him saying, and I don't allow myself to shake my head in disappointment.
'Oh John,' I think sadly, knowing that this is the first of many lies to come – all in the name of keeping his boys safe.
"Is he...?" John asks me skeptically, his eyes traveling to Dean, who is now standing on the floor at his Daddy's side, tucked safely against his leg again.
"He'll be fine," I reply, trusting that much to be true. That little boy may be traumatized, but he's definitely still in there. "He's just coping the best way he knows how."
'Daddy I wanna go now,' Dean's mind whines impatiently. 'I don't like this fat lady. She's nosy and stinky and wants you to get burnded up!'
"Who you callin' stinky, Dean Winchester?" I demand in a high pitched, feigned affronted voice. "You got somethin' to say to me boy, you best say it out loud 'stead of hidin' behind your Daddy."
The boy's eyes widen with shock, big as saucers, as his tiny mouth opens in a perfect 'O' of surprise. But then the devil on his shoulder whispers in his ear and I see his eyes harden as the flint strikes a spark inside him, and I'll be damned if he doesn't narrow his tiny brow and give me the stink eye.
"Your Daddy's perfectly safe," I promise him. "Ain't no monsters gonna burn him up."
He doesn't believe me, that much is plain. Instead he looks up again, wanting his father to confirm what I've just told him.
"Dean, you gotta be brave, okay son?" John says, prying those tiny fingers from his jeans and pulling the little boy out at arm's length so that he can crouch down and look his son in the eye. "Missouri's gonna help me find out the truth about what happened to your Mom. She's gonna help me find out who did it so that I can keep you and Sammy safe. So that I can protect you both."
He adjusts Sam in his arms before laying a hand on his eldest's shoulder and giving it a squeeze.
"Then I'm gonna track it down and I'm gonna kill it," John explains and I could smack the man for saying something like that to such a small child, but Dean doesn't seem in the least perturbed. In fact, he seems heartened by it.
'Can I help?' I hear his little voice ask in my mind, not daring to utter the words aloud. 'I wanna protect Sammy!'
"So I need you to be brave," John goes on. "You gotta help me look after Sammy so we can get this done. Whadya say, soldier? You gonna help me keep this family safe?"
Dean nods solemnly and remains tellingly silent in his own head. This is a deciding moment – a turning point in this tiny child's life. This is the moment when I see him embracing destiny, violence and death sidling up next to him to take him into a cold embrace. The blood rushes from my toes to my brain, flushing hotly through my ears, and I hear with spine-chilling clarity the sound of lips against the unsuspecting child's forehead. The kiss of death.
And little baby Sammy chooses that moment to gurgle loudly, squealing something incomprehensible but undoubtedly very important and kicking his chubby legs wildly in his father's arms. John grins, warm and wide and grateful. It's jarring to me, the sudden yank of the present moment tugging at my apron strings, drawing me back to the now in the face of what I've seen, what I've just learned. The young father is oblivious, too proud of his brave young son for embracing the life about to be thrust upon him to notice that he's just condemned them all. He's too absorbed in the cherub-faced infant in his arms, whose sweet innocence I see being burned away by years of prolonged exposure to hardship, evil, and death.
Death which I now see chases all three remaining Winchesters like a spurned lover.
"Sammy," Dean sighs – aloud – and both John and I stare in amazement at the tiny blonde head turned toward the gurgling infant, a smile of serene contentment gracing that sweet, angelic face. Tiny fingers stroke gently through tufts of golden brown hair, and the baby smiles so openly, so brightly, that I think my heart might break.
"'m gonna look after you, little brother," Dean whispers before leaning in to place a chaste kiss on baby Sammy's forehead. It's a promise. A vow.
John's massive paw pulls the boy to his chest, nearly crushing him against the baby in his arms. Luckily neither of the younger Winchesters seems to mind, and I suddenly feel like an intruder in my own home as I watch the very intimate, private moment of reconciliation between a father lost, a son hidden, and an infant unable to verbalize at all the loss that has so completely devastated the small family. They cling to each other as a drowning man clings to a life preserver. John's strong arms envelope the children in a fierce, possessive, protective embrace, while Dean's tiny arms attempt to tuck both himself and Sammy into the protective shadow of their larger-than-life father. It is Sammy who both seals and ends the moment by emitting a single squeak, his tiny fingers fisting into blonde floppy hair to give an insistent and painful tug.
"OW!" Dean howls in pain, and just like that the Winchesters are pulled back into the world to rejoin the land of the living.
I smile in spite of everything and think, 'Serves him right for calling me fat.'
Later John and I will go to the house to see if I can pick up any vibrations, get any readings on the thing that killed Mary Winchester. But for now, the Winchesters have found their way back to each other and that'll have to be enough.