Your hand shakes so hard that the shotgun shells click together. They spill onto the mat of pine needles beneath your feet. "Shit!" you curse, breath frosting the early morning air. Loons call to one another on the lake a half mile through the woods, eerie ooo ooos in counterpoint to the heaving gasps of air tearing in and out of your lungs. Wind moves through the tops of the trees in that waving, vaguely eerie way that always makes you feel like you're out to sea. But if you're at sea now, you're without a life jacket and a hurricane is gathering in the east.

You've grappled with the creature once already, an explosion of roars and snarls and long, sharp claws; the aborted explosion of the shotgun nicked the marke-something in the shoulder. The blast barely scratched it, but scared it enough that it took off. Now it hides in the clump of ferns and ancestor trees and thick brush. It has circled around regrouped. You feel its eyes on you and you imagine what you look like -- just another dumbfuck deer hunter out on his own, nose red from the cold, shivering inside his flannel jacket, blood seeping out of the slash splitting apart the thigh of his jeans. Can't even load the fucking shotgun right. Easy pickings. Just gotta wait til the right moment.

Yeah, like I'm gonna give you that, fuckwit.

You hear a rustle in the brush. It's out there, crouching on enormous cat haunches. Waiting. You can feel it, feel it's eyes on you, and panic slams hard though your midsection. Breathe. You force breath back into your lung. Breathe, damn it. Dad's voice shrills through your mind. Get it together, Dean! Stop all this pussy shit and kill that motherfucker. Now!

You squeeze the shells in your hand, feel their comfortable weight – no salt here, just black powder and paper and steel balls, blessed and sprinkled in holy water. Your eyes snap open. You chamber them easy as you please, rack the gun and whip the muzzle out. You don't wait long – maybe half a second – before the creature explodes out of the brush straight at you, all two hundred pounds of lean muscle. A black-furred, red-eyed mountain lion, with a scream so loud and awful that you're never gonna forget it. Never. You aim between its eyes, trigger finger spasming. The head bursts into a splatter of blood, bone, and brains, nun-in-a-blender red, black and white all over your brand new hiking boots and up your morning-cold stiff blue jeans.

It crumples half a foot in front of you, legs twitching, lungs gurgling. One long gasp wheezes out before all falls still around you. Whoop whoop screech echoes through the trees, some kind of bird you don't know, sharp and loud. You look up at the treetops, slowly waving … peaceful and vast, and find your head nodding in time to the rhythm of the wind. When you look down again the mangled corpse is still there.

You stand there and look at it for a long time. Too long, you know, but there's something so fascinating about the gruesome sight. Something that makes your head spin and your stomach roll and your hands start to shake again. You don't have any way of salting and burning the thing, came out here half assed and unprepared. See, it's just six months since Sammy left and you're still orienting yourself. Yeah, that's the ticket. That's the problem. Dad's off tracking down a chupacabra or some shit in New Mexico and you're up here in North Dakota, the ass end of nowhere, thinking you were after some goddamn grizzly bear when really it's a possessed mountain lion with a French name that you can't pronounce so you call it a marke-something to yourself.

Some realization tugs at you like a little kid (Sam) pulling on your sleeve (gotta go to the bathroom, Dean). Something you gotta do … You're not sure what, though, so you just start walking toward the borrowed Chevelle (Dad's got the Impala), legs moving woodenly over the uneven ground, making you goosestep over badger holes and slip on dew-covered moldering leaves. You hope you're going the right way. Too bad you don't have a compass. Wait. You do have a compass. Right? You pat at the breast pocket of your jacket and halt while you look down at the lazily spinning needle that points you southeast.

Dark spots of blood fall pitter patter to the peat beneath your feet, and that's when you realize that your sock is squishy because the claw mark in your thigh has been leaking blood since the marke-something ambushed you close to – what? – an hour ago?

You tear off your jacket and overshirt and tear the t-shirt off, the sour stench of the sweat that's dampened the underarms and small of the back. As you saw at the t-shirt with your Bowie you curse at yourself. Shit, Dad would tear you a new one if he were here. First hunt on your own and you risk bleeding out from a claw to the thigh. Dumbshit thing to do, Winchester. You rip the shirt into strips and tie off the wound. It doesn't hurt, just feels numb and you're not sure whether that's a good thing or not.

Your jeans are drenched in blood all down the right leg, all dark and sorta thick. It's probably thick because you're dehydrated – haven't had a chance to drink anything yet today – been kinda busy chasing down a marke-thing.

Whoop whoop screech

There's that strange sound again, a little louder and more urgent and you're not so certain it's a bird after all now. Something's off about it, something your mind keeps skittering around like a word on the tip of your tongue. You'd better get to the Chevelle sooner rather than later so you put a move on, feel your breath quicken again, feel the pull on your thigh from the wound and the disjointed way it makes you walk.

You check your watch, then tap the crystal watch face, realize that it's working just fine. Your stomach drops. It's almost 4 pm and how did that happen? You thought it was maybe 10 am, 11 at the latest, but time seems to be jumping around like a fish on the line and that scares you a bit, and not just because of your skewed perceptions. You checked in with Dad like you always do before you left the hotel room this morning and you'd better get your ass back there by 6 pm tonight to do it again or Dad'll be royally pissed off and spoiling for a fight. Truth is you've both been fighting a lot since Sammy's been gone. Dad's been drinking more and you've been letting him, been hitting the bars more yourself than usual. When you start feeling bad about Sammy you just chase down another barfly or rack the pool cues, maybe slip a quarter or two in the jukebox and you're fine. You don't miss the little shit, nah, don't miss him at all. You just wish he was back here for Dad's sake, cause you know Dad's feeling guilty for the way things ended, that last bitter fight when Sam took Dad at his word and stayed gone—

Whoop whoop screech

You stop in your tracks, head swiveling, trying to triangulate in on the sound, but it's everywhere, closer than before. You're starting to worry. Maybe the marke-thing wasn't the only evil sonuvabitch out in these woods. Maybe you're in some real trouble. You put a hand to the back of your head and damn when did you start sweating so much? It's cold out here, too. You shouldn't be soaked in sweat and blood, should probably figure out what that means, because it means something, you're sure of it.

You try to swallow but your throat's that much drier than it was a while back and fuck, a little voice inside your skull is ordering you to get a move on, son. Been doing so for a while now, you think, so you start loping again, swinging your injured leg to the side and forward in a hopping sort of rhythm. These woods are looking more ominous than before and you're starting to wonder some things, like why you don't remember the drive out here this morning. You remember getting up and talking to Dad. You remember Dad's gruff voice in your ear, but you don't remember driving out here and suddenly that seems pretty important. Seems pretty damn significant.

Whoop whoop screech whoop whoop screech

No! Not again. You want to grab your head and cry out, release some of the fear and panic zinging through your veins, but you just keep going, breath tearing in and out of your lungs and heart thundering, legs working and hand gripped tight on the stock of the gun, making sure to keep it pointed up and away from you because wouldn't that just beat all if you accidentally shot yourself instead of whatever in the hell is after you now.

You hear it right behind you, breathing fast, feet sliding a little on the damp earth. You risk a glance over one shoulder and all you see is a roaring cloud of black smoke bigger than a grizzly bear. But how can that be? How can you hear it – much less kill it if it has no real form? You don't know. All you know is that you can't keep on running flat out like this. Your weak leg can't take much more. Already it has buckled more than once. You know that you have to turn and fight. The damned noise is shrieking again, deeper than before, more … angry? Desperate? Closer, dammit, closing in on you.

You put the brakes on, stop yourself by grabbing onto the rough bark of a full grown pine and whirl around, trying to keep the shotgun up, remembering too late that you didn't reloaded it. You haul the gun up like a shield but the creature is a huge, unstoppable, screaming force.

Dizziness rears up like a maddened, frothing stallion, hooves kicking, and a split second before the darkness swamps you entirely you recognize that voice.

Dad.

You don't so much wake up as jolt upright out of warm water into arctic winds. Your stomach twists and your eyes skitter over the scene twice before your brain catches up to them.

You're in the front seat of the Impala. The actual, honest-to-God Impala. You've been propped you up against the door with your neck crooked and your forehead resting on the cool glass of the window. The motor hums smooth and deep but your body bounces from the spinning of the wheels on the uneven dirt road. Pebbles ping off the undercarriage with varying degrees of sound. Better slow down, Dad, you think. Gonna bust something.

Of course Dad's at the wheel. Dad, dressed all in black, his head and beard a black fuzzy mask and his voice low but steady saying something all along. "—you listening to me, Dean? You with me again?"

"Yeah, Dad," you say in a voice as gritty as sandpaper. You swallow and try again. "Where? How'd you get here? You … New Mexico."

Dad makes a harsh exhalation that might have been a laugh at another time. "Shit, boy. You're gonna be the death of me one of these days, I just know it. New Mexico was my last hunt. Remember? We're on this hunt together, son. You think I'd let you go off on your own at twenty-two? I may be crazy but I'm not an idiot."

You blink and try to sit up straighter. The blanket Dad had covered you with slides down and you see that the leg is cut off your jeans, just sawed right off. Dad must have used his favorite knife on them – you've seen him do that often enough. A fresh white bandage covers the meat of your thigh and there's no pain, never really is when you've got a deep wound.

"But I thought … I wasn't after the marke-cat alone?"

"Hell, no, you weren't hunting it alone. You don't remember us coming out here this morning, splitting up to cover more ground?"

You shake your head; immediately regret that motion because it's like your brains are filled with water that's swishing side to side in sloppy waves. "No, sir," you slur.

"The claws must have had some sort of poison on them. I heard you yell when it got you and I chased you down for a good three hours afterward."

Dad glances at you and you try real hard to focus on his face, to keep a hold of his gaze, because if you're looking at him you're going to be okay, gonna be alive and kicking and not lost in that place where you were all day long … that place where you were alone. You make yourself relax, because you're safe and warm and okay. Pretty soon your head lolls and your eyes try to close. You stretch your eyes wide so that they'll stay the hell open, but it doesn't seem to be working.

Dad's hand snakes out to curl around the knob of your shoulder, then slides down your arm to squeeze at your elbow. Dad's hand, short thick fingers with a fuzz of black hair on them, strong hands. The strongest. "You don't need to stay awake, Dean, you hear me? It's okay, kiddo. You can sleep if you want. We'll be at Pastor Jim's in a few hours. He'll fix you right up."

"Thought you were gone, Dad," you hear yourself saying. "Thought you and Sammy were both gone."

The line of Dad's jaw tightens. "I'm here, Dean. I'm not going anywhere."

"Okay, Dad," you say. "Okay." It's not, though, not really. Sammy's still gone, but Dad's here and that'll have to be good enough.

You let yourself drift off then, because you know your Dad's not lying to you. He's not gonna leave you like Sammy did. No, he's never going to do that.