Faces from my nightmare filled my waking hours, their visage burned permanently into my retinas. Awake or sleeping, they were always before my face. I lost count of the hours I lay awake, my eyes burning a hole into my skull from exhaustion. Countless times, I woke up screaming. I longed for the sweet oblivion of a dreamless sleep, but it had ceased to be a refuge for me a long time ago.
A knock at the door jolted me from my mindless fear and I walked to the door as if the one who waited beyond was my last hope of salvation. I opened the door and my gaze was met by the hazel eyes of a tall man, only a few years older than I. Those eyes darkened to concern when I clutched his arm like a drowning man clutches a piece of driftwood. "Thank God!" I whispered fervently.
"Woah, are you all right?" He clasped my shoulders and led me to the nearest kitchen chair. I could not force myself to let go of him. I had been suffering alone for several days. I had not heard another voice but my own and the raspy hissing words that came from the lifeless lips of the faces that haunted me.
The man did not ask me any questions but rather sat there in silence as he waited for me to calm down. Slowly, my breathing slowed and my heart stopped pounding quite so quickly. I relaxed the fist that clutched the sleeve of his coat and I straightened up, looking him in the eye.
He seemed to sense the moment that I became calm enough to speak to him. "My name is Sam Winchester," His voice was deep and smooth, like chocolate and I found myself relaxing further as he spoke. "I am a private investigator looking into a string of suspicious deaths in the area and I wanted to ask if you had noticed anything. . .unusual."
"Like strange people hanging around, sounds of gunshots or items of value reported missing? Things like that?"
Sam pursed his lips and thought carefully before formulating his next sentence. "That could be helpful, but I was thinking more like flickering lights, sudden drops in temperature or strong odours, like rotten eggs, sulphur."
"There may be a psycho killer wandering around Billings and you are looking at power outages and weather phenomena? What kind of investigator did you say you were?"
"I am a self-employed investigator working for a privately owned company. They ask us to be thorough ma'am, asking questions the police or FBI wouldn't think to ask." Sam spoke calmly and with one look into his eyes, I felt myself calming down again. It was impossible not to trust those eyes.
"So what did you mean by this area? This state, this city or what?" I asked. I knew the longer I could keep him talking, the more time I would have before I was once more trapped in the hell of my own mind.
"You mean you don't know?" Sam looked at me quizzically.
I shook my head. "I haven't gotten out of the house for a week or two."
I saw awareness jump to life in his eyes. "They were all in this neighbourhood. First it was the Murphy's at the end of the street, then Fredericson's in the blue house followed by Yun Mei who lives on top of the convenience store right across the street from you. Many of the other houses on the block are either empty or ignoring the doorbell. You are the only one to answer the door today. If you know anything at all, that would be really helpful."
"They are dead?" I looked at him in shock. "It can't be. I saw them all at the block party two weeks ago. The Murphy's hosted it. They were celebrating their 25th anniversary."
Again, I saw a spark of alertness flare up in his eyes. "Have you seen any of them since?"
"No, that afternoon was the last time I left my house. I haven't even been into my back yard." Sam looked deep into my eyes and at that moment, I remembered that he wasn't a good friend, not even an acquaintance, just a complete stranger I had let in off the street. My fear returned with a vengeance and my breathing got quicker and sharper, as if I couldn't get enough air. Sam's handsome face transformed into that of a rotting corpse. I could smell decay on its breath, maggots dripping from his tongue and squishing between his teeth and a nest of spiders beginning their rapid flight out of empty eye sockets; horrifying and oh-so-familiar, a frequent visitor of the night.
I grew dizzy from the oxygen I was pouring into my system. Bright colours exploded in front of me and I could no longer tell if I was sitting, standing or lying down.
I woke up on the floor, Sam's arm cradling my shoulders and his concerned face mere inches from mine. He was back to being too gorgeous for his own good. There was no hint of decay on his chiselled features. I relaxed into his arms.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine." I sat up carefully, rubbing my eyes. My face was strangely gritty and when I licked my dry, chapped lips, I discovered why. "Did you throw salt in my face?"
He turned red and looked away from me, chuckling nervously. "Um. . .it was the first thing I found."
"Obviously you don't do well in a panic. Next time, try a glass of water." Fear coiled once more in the pit of my stomach, but it seemed a little easier to push it back this time.
"I know you're going through a bit of a tough time right now," Sam spoke gently. "But I need you to tell me everything you can remember about that block party."
"Right, I am sure your big corporation wants to know every detail of a backyard BBQ. I don't possibly see how this information could help you solve a couple of murders. I haven't seen anything. I haven't left my house and obviously, I am not dead. I think it would be best if you go now."
I stood up from the table, intending to show him the door, but he grasped my hand in his. "Humour me," he said.
I tried to resist, but those hazel eyes were practically burning a hole in my brain. I looked down at his hands and the first thing I noticed was the sheer size. My entire hand could fit into his palm. His fingers were long and straight and his palms were roughened from use. They were the hands of a working man, strong enough to tear down a building, definitely able to give as good as he got from anyone. His knuckles were skinned and one of his fingernails was blackened and falling off. The strength in his hands overwhelmed me, and the tenderness made me melt. He held my hand as if it was a newborn kitten, gentle yet firm, and he rubbed his thumb over my knuckles almost with reverence, worshipping the softness of my skin. I wouldn't have trusted him for the eyes or the face, not even for the strength and grace in the way he moved, those are an easy mask to fall for, but truth lies in the hands and I knew I could trust this man with my life.
"It was a real scorcher that day. It was hot from the moment the sun came up. For the morning and much of the afternoon, I had sat on my couch with all the curtains drawn, crunching ice and reading. I almost didn't go, but the Murphys are. . .were such an important part of our neighbourhood that I knew I should at least make an appearance." I paused. "Are you sure this is what you need to here?"
"You're doing fine," Sam smiled. "Keep going."
"I left my house around 4:15. I was already late so I had to hurry. By the time I got there, I was drenched in sweat. We all were, so it didn't matter. Mr. Murphy especially looked sick. I think he had lost weight and there were dark circles under his eyes. He seemed really jumpy, but his wife and son seemed fine. I wasn't there for more than five minutes before the storm started. It blew up really fast. The clouds were an awful purplish green and there was a lot of lightning. We all just headed for home."
"And what about since then? Why haven't you left your house?"
Fear threatened to bubble up within me again, but I pushed my forearms down onto my gritty kitchen table until I could feel individual grains of salt pressing into my skin. It seemed to ground me in reality in some way. "I was scared. The storm. . .it didn't seem natural. Every time I close my eyes, I can see it, but that isn't the worst part. In my dreams, faces come out of the storm, dead faces, decomposed and being eaten by all manner of pestilence. I haven't slept. . .really slept, in days. And I can't leave. What if the storm comes again and I am trapped outside with no blanket or curtain or bathroom door to hide behind." My hands trembled in Sam's, but I was not struck by the excessive terror that had been plaguing me.
"I am sorry. I don't know how any of that can help you catch a killer. It's just the phobia of a crazy woman, not anything resembling real evidence."
"You were more helpful than you think. I may have some ideas to go on now. Thank you." He stood from the table and prepared to leave. "I will leave you my phone number. Don't hesitate to call if you remember anything else, no matter how trivial it may seem to you. I will check in with you no later than 9:00, just to make sure you are doing ok. Oh, and keep your saltshaker close." He winked at me, turned and strode out the door. I wrapped my fingers around the comforting glass of my kitchen saltshaker. He was right, it did make me feel better.
Twilight was turning to darkness by the time Sam returned to the cheap motel room. He had been through the whole neighbourhood more than once, hoping perhaps that there had been someone who had popped out to do the grocery shopping, someone who was working late, but there had been no sign of life except the one woman who had been frightened out of her wits. He had been so shaken by the lifelessness of the place he had forgotten to get her name.
He locked the Impala and sighed as he noticed the mud coating her normally shiny, black paint. She could do with a good wash and a tuneup. The engine had started knocking a little on their last long drive.
Sam walked into the hotel room. "Dean, you here?" he called. The lights were off but Sam could hear deep breathing. He flicked up the light switch and saw his brother sitting on the couch. "Just where I left you," he sighed.
Dean sat there, staring blankly ahead, dark circles staining his eyes. His face had about a weeks worth of stubble roughening his jaw line and his hair hadn't been washed in the same amount of time. Bloodstained jacket, jeans and boots told Sam that his brother still hadn't changed since that day, the day that their nightmare became reality.
"Dean, I found us a job." Sam knelt before his brother, trying to catch his eye, but Dean stared right through him. "Please Dean, Can I tell you about it?"
"No," Dean's voice, husky from disuse, cracked as he spoke. "I can't. Not yet Sammy. Don't try to make me."
"Dean please, what can I do? What can make this better? I can't watch you do this to yourself." Sam's tears fell unashamedly. "We don't need to find Lucifer right away. We will let Death have a hiatus. Let's just get back to fighting some good old-fashioned paranormal. You love it Dean. You need it. It keeps you sane. You can't just sit here and let the world go to hell.
Dean looked down at himself, detached and emotionless. "Do you see what this is, what is covering me right now? This is blood, Sam, and it isn't mine. This is Jo's blood. She is dead because of us, because of mistakes we have made. If we had thought things through; realized that the colt wouldn't work, we wouldn't have gone in there like we did, and Jo would still be alive. You ask me if there is anything you can do. Leave me be." His green eyes were dry and cold as he stared back up at the wall. He refused to say another word as Sam went back out for supper. He didn't eat the double bacon cheeseburger, and didn't respond when Sam gushed about the beautiful blond waitress.
The only sign of life was when Sam tried to remove his jacket and shove him into the shower. He fought hard then, punching Sam in the face and body repeatedly until he saw the blood flowing from his nose and staining his own knuckles. Then he retreated back into himself and sat once again on the threadbare motel couch, still dirty, still grieving.
He was still sitting there when Sam woke up in the morning.