Twelve-year-old Sam Winchester cocked his head to the side and listened. He could have sworn he heard something at the door. He jumped up off the bed and re-checked the locks for the eighth time that night. He went back to his bed and plopped down. He heard a sound again and felt butterflies in his stomach.
His father and brother had left two days ago to investigate a series of animal attacks in the mountains to the north of the small Colorado town where they had been staying for the past two weeks. His father suspected a Wendigo. Sam didn't know much about Wendigos except that they were found in the most remote areas and were terribly deadly. His father had allowed him to accompany them on some of the less risky hunts over the past few months, but a Wendigo was way out of his league. He hadn't argued when his father told him he couldn't come, but he had silently panicked when he found out his dad had planned to take Dean. He knew Dean had never hunted anything so dangerous, and he was afraid for his brother. He was also ashamed to admit to himself that he was petrified of being left alone.
Most kids his age would kill to be left alone for a couple of days, but Sam knew way too much about the horrors that were out there. His father rarely left him by himself and never for more than a day. John had tried to get one of his other hunting buddies to accompany him on the hunt, but no one had been available. To Sam's dismay, he had decided to take Dean.
He was actually only alone for one day when he thought about it. He wasn't alone all day at school, and he wasn't alone while he sat in the library after school. Unfortunately, Sam didn't feel much safer in the company of strangers than he felt at home alone. Dean had always accompanied him to school, and he always had the comfort of knowing he was close by.
With Dean gone, he tended to take more notice of the threats that lurked. The bullies in school took more notice of him without the protection of his brother's glare. The nosey teachers and their implied threat of bringing Social Services his way loomed darker in the absence of his brother.
Worst of all was the crazy bum on the street near the motel that called him Charlie every time he passed. It had started almost a week after his family had moved into town. On their way home from school, Dean and Sam passed by a lonely looking man who appeared to have made himself a home in the alleyway behind the gas station across from their motel. As they passed by, Sam heard an astonished gasp from the old man, and glanced his way.
"Charlie?" the man stared at him as if he was a ghost. "Charlie, is that you?"
Sam had wanted to answer, but Dean grabbed his shirt and pulled him along, muttering something about a creepy old freak.
When Dean and Sam passed by the man again on their way home from school the next day, the bizarre occurrence from the previous day played out again. Dean chuckled a little. The man seemed harmless. He was old and seemed like he could barely walk. The man seemed convinced, however, that Sam was someone named Charlie. Dean had enough when the same thing happened on the third day, and they started taking a longer route home from school to avoid walking by the gas station.
After Dean had left on the hunt with his dad, Sam had started going to the library after school. The library seemed more comforting than the dirty motel room, and he found himself spending two or three hours there each night while he did his homework.
Unfortunately, the library was right next to the gas station.
It made no sense for Sam to walk all the way around the block, away from the motel, to avoid walking by the creepy old man, so he chose to take his chances walking by the alley. The first night, the old man recognized him right away.
"Wait, Charlie, please!" he had called as Sam walked by. Sam picked up the pace, almost running to the motel. The same thing happened the following two nights. Thank goodness Dean and his dad would be home by tomorrow. The old man seemed harmless, but he still gave Sam the creeps.
Sam got up for the ninth time to check the locks. He also checked the salt lines. Satisfied that none of the lines had been disturbed, he settled back onto the bed and turned the television up, hoping the sound would drown out the noises from outside. He silently chastised himself for being such a baby.
Suck it up, Winchester.
He would never admit to his father or his brother how scared he was. Winchesters weren't supposed to be afraid. He was supposed to be tough. His father had been getting progressively harder on him over the past several months, and Sam felt the constant strain of his father's disappointment in his weakness. When Dean was his age, he was left home alone with Sam all the time.
Another noise at the door brought Sam out of his thoughts and his stomach dropped. This time, he knew it wasn't his imagination. Something was definitely at the door. Panicked, he reached for the .45 that his father had left for him. He'd used the gun several times in target practice, but he'd never had to use it in a real live situation. He held his breath and stared, horrified, as the doorknob slowly turned. Someone or something was trying to get in.
Dean leaned his head against the window of the Impala as his father drove down the narrow stretch of highway toward town. He was exhausted. He had been elated when his father told him he could accompany him on this hunt, but he'd had no idea just how taxing a hunt like this could be.
The Wendigo had toyed with them, leaving dead animals on the path and scaring the hell out of Dean. The carcasses were mauled beyond recognition. He didn't even know what kind of animals they were. They trekked all day and most of the night. Dean jumped at every noise and every shadow. The thing would tear through their campsite, faster than anything Dean had ever seen. He would try to keep up as his father would take the bait and chase the creature into the woods. Each time, they came up empty.
The exhilaration he had felt, however, when they finally caught up to the creature and torched him was remarkable. He had seen the newspaper reports of the missing hikers over the past year. To know he had a part in making sure there would be no more missing hikers was a feeling he couldn't describe.
"You still with me, Ace?" His dad asked from the driver's seat.
Dean grunted in response, and John laughed.
"That bastard a little much for you, kiddo?" John mocked.
Dean turned a deadly glare to his father in response. He knew his exhaustion was a total 180 from his state of mind only a few hours earlier. Dean had been running high on adrenaline. Now that the high had burned off, he was deflated. He and his father had toyed with the idea of camping out for the night and heading home in the morning, but they were both anxious to get back to the motel.
Dean's thoughts went immediately to Sammy. His little brother had never been home alone for more than a few hours at a time. The fact that he had been home alone for two whole days had him worried. He knew his father was worried as well, but John Winchester didn't admit to being worried or scared.
Dean watched as the lights from town that had been a distant scene only a few hours earlier enveloped them. His father made his way through the streets of the small town to the motel, and Dean felt himself relax a little bit. It felt good to be back in civilization. He hated camping.
Father and son, equally exhausted, climbed the outdoor staircase to the second floor motel room. John dug in his pocket and pulled out the keys. He tested the doorknob first and confirmed that it was locked. Had it been unlocked, Sammy would have gotten an earful. From an early age, John had taught Dean to always lock up and salt the doors and windows, and Dean had passed the same lessons on to Sam. John turned the key in the lock and slowly opened the door.
Dean, in his exhausted state, was completely unprepared for his father's next move.
"Down!" He yelled as he grabbed Dean by the back of the shirt and pulled him toward the ground.
Dean let himself be pulled down, and was immediately on high alert, his exhaustion forgotten. He hadn't gotten the chance to see what had his father alarmed before he face-planted into the rough, dirty motel carpet. He was immediately panicked. Sammy. What was in their motel room, and what had it done to Sammy?
"Sam, what the hell are you doing, son?" John yelled angrily. "Put the gun down!"
Confused, Dean glanced up into the room. Sammy stood behind the bed farthest from the door, his .45 aimed for the doorway. Upon hearing his father's command, he slipped the safely into place and dropped the gun onto the bed.
"I'm so sorry!" Sam panted. "I didn't know it was you!"
Before Dean could fully orientate himself to the situation, he found himself with an armful of Sammy.
"I'm so glad you're home!" Sammy said excitedly. Too excitedly. Dean hadn't seen Sam this excited since he was five years old and hopped up on ice cream and the prospect of getting to ride the merry-go-round at the park.
"Did you get the Wendigo? What was it like? Did you get to camp out? How did you keep the Wendigo away while you slept? Was it scary? Was it a long drive?" The questions raced from Sam's mouth as Dean and John pulled themselves up from the floor. Dean exchanged a glance with John. It was going to be a long night, and neither of them would get the sleep they had been hoping for.
"….and then the teacher made Jake go to the principal's office and lectured the rest of the class about the dangers of pranking. It was so lame."
Sam paused his story while he took a drink from his soda. John tried to keep himself from removing his sock from his foot and shoving it into his son's mouth. He and Dean had been gone for two days on a hunt, leaving Sam by himself. John normally would not have left his youngest alone, but he had needed Dean's help. He'd called the school and told them Dean was ill, and the two of them had headed into the mountains that towered over the small Colorado town. There had been several wild animal attacks reported, but John had confirmed his suspicion that it had in fact been a Wendigo threatening the local population.
It hadn't taken long for them to track the creature down and burn it, but John had been anxious to get back to his youngest. He hated the thought of leaving Sam alone for a single day, let alone two. Sam was 12 years old and wise beyond his years, but John still felt a great deal of pain in his gut every time the kid was left alone. When Dean was 12, he was not only taking care of himself, but he had cared for an 8-year-old Sam as well. For some reason, leaving Dean alone with Sam didn't worry John as much. John knew that Dean would never let any harm come to his little brother, and that made him feel safe leaving Sam in his care. Dean could take care of himself, and he could take care of Sam.
He knew he was too hard on Sam at times, and his guilt over the matter kept him up at night. Dean balanced things out. He was Sam's mother hen. John often worried that he hadn't done enough to toughen Sam up. He couldn't understand how his two sons were so different. He never worried about Dean, but he constantly worried about little Sammy getting hurt. He had started taking Sam on some of the less intense hunts, hoping that the exposure would toughen his youngest up a little. Sam had held his own, but the prospect of moving him up to something more challenging had John on edge. Sammy would get hurt. He just knew it.
Rushing back to town hadn't been necessary. John had found Sam safe and sound in their rented motel room, ready to blow their heads off as they opened the door. Sam had apparently been unprepared for their return and suspected an intruder. Sam had clearly missed them way too much. He had started talking the second they walked in the door and hadn't stopped since. His incessant chatter had both the elder Winchesters regretting their hasty return. Sam seemed to find it necessary to fill them in on every detail of everything that had occurred in school, at home, and in town during the time they were gone. John knew the kid had just missed having someone to talk to and was trying his hardest to be patient, but his patience was growing very thin.
John sensed that Sam was about to begin talking again, and he exchanged a pained glance with Dean.
"Sam," John cut Sam off before he could start in with what he'd had for lunch yesterday. "Why don't you finish up your burger so we can get back. It's getting late, and you have school in the morning."
Sam visibly deflated, and John felt a pang of guilt, but he truly did want to leave. They'd been sitting in the diner for over an hour. Dean and John had finished their meals long ago, but Sam had been so busy talking, he'd barely touched his food.
"I'm done," Sam said quickly.
John eyed the burger. There was no way he was going to let his youngest leave without finishing at least half. The kid was way too skinny, and it made John nervous. He sometimes worried that he didn't feed Sam enough. He knew Sam was a growing boy and probably wasn't getting adequate nutrition, but John was often distracted and would realize late at night that he couldn't remember whether or not his boys had eaten. When he did take them someplace to eat, Sam hardly ever touched his food. It drove John crazy.
"Eat," John said sternly. "We're not leaving here until you clean that plate."
He heard Dean groan next to him and pierced his oldest with a hard glare.
"We'll be here all night," Dean complained. "I'm friggin exhausted, Dad."
John could feel Dean's pain. He was exhausted too. They had come straight from the hunt, having been up for over 24 hours. John had wanted to go straight to bed, but he could feel the energy coming in waves off his youngest and knew he wouldn't let them sleep without getting the chance to talk their ears off for awhile. He had been hungry and knew Dean was hungry as well. He wouldn't have been surprised to learn Sam hadn't eaten a thing while they were gone, so he had decided to haul his boys off to the diner down the street from their motel. His stomach now full, he was ready to sleep for a very long time.
"Half then," John negotiated. "You need to start eating, young man," he added, pointing a finger at Sam. "Food is energy. If you don't get enough, you get weak."
"Yes, sir," Sam mumbled. He took a bite of his burger and chewed with a petulant look on his face.
"Man, I am wiped," Dean started. "You should have seen this thing, Sammy. It was fast. And fu-u-u-ugly."
Sam laughed, and John smiled. Leave it to Dean to step in and lighten the mood. Dean smiled and mussed Sam's hair.
"But it was fun, Sam. You step up your training, and Mr. Drill Sergeant over here might let you in on the next one," Dean pointed his thumb in John's direction. John sighed audibly but silently thanked Dean for his backup.
Sam smiled and took another big bite of his burger, and John smiled in astonishment. Sam seemed to resent John's criticism and militaristic rules, but when Dean asked him to up the ante, Sam complied like a puppy intent on making his owner happy.
Simon Granger was a man of few words. Life had taken many things away from him, but he was content to sit in his alley and not ask anything more from the world around him. If he stayed just quiet enough, the world left him alone.
But when he saw his Charlie, he knew God was finally giving him the break he'd prayed for all these years. His beautiful, sweet boy had been taken from him at such a young age, but God was giving him back to Simon. Simon just couldn't understand why Charlie wouldn't come to him.
For three days, he had watched Charlie walk by with the older boy, and for three days, he had called out to Charlie but received no reply. It was maddening. Why would God bring back his son only to keep him cruelly just out of reach?
He watched for Charlie every day. For nearly two weeks, he didn't see him. He thought maybe it had only been a dream until one day, he saw his Charlie walk by again. This time, the older boy wasn't with him. Again, he called out to his boy, and again, his boy ignored his pleas.
It happened again the two following days. Each day, he called out to his Charlie, and every single time, his Charlie ignored him. Simon wept into his dirty hands. Why would God play such a cruel joke on him?
Simon felt a chill run down his spine. The cool fall air was starting to smell like winter. He hated the winter. It was so much harder to stay quiet and out of the way in the winter. It got too cold and he had to find warmer places to stay.
At first, Simon thought he was imagining things. He could have sworn he saw a black cloud of smoke flying along the ground. He looked again, and the black cloud was still there. The cloud flew at him, and darkness descended on him.
Sleep came easy for all three Winchesters that night. Sam knew his father and his brother were exhausted and needed sleep. He didn't want to let on how badly he had needed sleep too. He had barely slept a wink since his father and his brother left. Now that they were both home, he felt safe again. Sleep came easy for him.
When Sam's alarm went off in the morning, he immediately turned it off, not wanting to wake his family. He quickly showered and dressed and raced off to school, knowing that Dean would be skipping school again that day. He needed sleep.
Sam went through his day in a daze. He didn't take note of homework assignments and talked very little with the few kids with whom he had formed anything resembling a friendship. His father and brother had killed the Wendigo. He knew that meant they would be moving on. He supposed he wouldn't be surprised to find them packed and ready to go by the time he got home.
Sam didn't even realize he had taken the library route home instead of the long way around until he approached the block where the gas station was. He had gotten so used to taking the same route the previous three days that he hadn't thought about where he was going as he walked home from school. Deciding to suck it up, he took a deep breath and kept his head low to the ground as he passed the dreaded alleyway behind the gas station. As predicted, he heard the old man call to him.
"Charlie, stop, please!" Sam was alarmed by the force behind the old man's voice. The man had always had a quivering, soft voice before, but this time, there was something behind his plea that made Sam stop.
Sam watched warily as the old man stood up and began walking toward him. The wobbly gait of the old crazy man was gone, replaced by deliberate movements of a stronger, more determined individual.
"I-I'm not C-Charlie," Sam stuttered. He cautiously backed away from the man, dropping his backpack slowly to the ground in preparation for making a run for it.
"Don't be ridiculous, Charlie!" the man chastised. "Come here!"
"I'm s-sorry, s-sir," Sam said. He berated himself for his stammer. Why couldn't he be more confident? "I don't know who you are. I have to get home…"
Sam started to back up further as the man suddenly charged forward and grabbed his shirt.
"You listen to me when I'm talking to you, Samuel Winchester," Sam gasped in shock as the strange old man's eyes turned black. He opened his mouth to scream, but the man's hand came over his mouth, blocking his effort. He felt himself being thrown into the alley and panic raced through his body. Oh God oh God oh God.
An invisible force pushed him from behind, and he watched the brick wall of the gas station rush toward his head. An incredible pain penetrated his forehead as everything went black.