A/N: Written for the Supernatural Big Bang over at livejournal, where some amazing art exists to accompany this fic. Thanks, as always, to my awesome betas, On-A-Dare and varadia, and to Gramarye, for research assistance. This story is a semi-sequel to "Things They Would Not Teach Me of in College" and while you don't need to have read it to follow this, this story does give away a couple of its plot points. I do not own Supernatural, its characters, or its world. Alas.
The problem – well, one of the problems – with spending a significant portion of your life in a car is that it gives you way too much time to think.
And yeah, there are other things you can do. You can listen to music (though you only get pick it if you are the one driving, which Sam usually isn't). Not that music keeps you from thinking. You can sleep, and Sam does, even with his brother's music blaring, but eventually you wake up. And sometimes dreaming is worse than thinking, anyway. You can talk, but when you spend twenty-four hours a day with someone, you run out of purposeless conversation. And there isn't always a purposeful discussion to have.
And when there is a purposeful discussion to have, one or both of them often doesn't want to actually have it. So despite the fact that Sam suspects they're both thinking about what happened at that hotel in Connecticut, they're sure as hell not going to talk about destinies or demons, or any promises Dean made to Sam – or Dad – about destinies and demons.
Or much of anything else. Dean keeps the music loud and his eyes on the road.
So Sam thinks. And to keep from thinking about all the stuff he doesn't want to think about, he does things like list all fifty states, in alphabetical order, from Alabama to Wyoming. And then in reverse alphabetical order, from Wyoming to Alabama. In the order they were admitted to the Union, from Delaware to Hawaii. He names all the bones in the human body, from cranium to distal phalanges. All the bones he's personally broken, from metacarpals to radius. All the bones Dean's broken, from clavicle to coccyx. He tries to remember every single item in his duffle bag. In the first aid kit. In the trunk—
"We need a new shovel," Sam says, halfway though his mental list. They had recently left one in a cemetery during a particularly hasty retreat.
It's the first time either of them has spoken in over an hour, since they had been leaving a Hardee's after lunch, and Sam asked if Dean needed him to drive.
Now Dean turns the music down about half a decibel. "What?"
"We need a new shovel," Sam says.
"Yeah, I guess we do."
"There's a Lowe's at the next exit."
Dean gives him a you know this how? look.
"We stopped there when I was sixteen," Sam says.
"Dude, how do you do that?" Dean asks. "Remember where we stopped, what, seven years ago?"
"I don't know," Sam says. "Just do."
"Whatever, Mr. Yellow Pages. Let your fingers do the walking." Dean nods toward Sam's right wrist, eyes still on the road ahead. "Speaking of, how's your wrist?"
Sam turns his hand, half-experimentally. The cast has been off for a day now. He's still moving it a little gingerly, still getting used to not having the weight and restriction of the cast there, but there's nothing wrong with it. "Fine."
"Good," Dean says. "I'm sure you've missed that half of your sex life."
"What?" Sam says and instantly regrets it.
"Well, you've got two functioning wrists now. That's, like, double your pleasure, double your fun, right?"
"Classy," Sam says. "Turn left at the bottom of the exit ramp, take the first right."
Dean laughs and turns the music back up. Sam spends the rest of the drive thinking of advertising slogans. And trying not to think of the creative new uses his brother would find for them.
There are two reasons Sam knows where to find a Lowe's in Middle-of-Nowhere, Virginia. Or in literally dozens of other places around the country. He's not about to tell Dean either of them.
When he was little, he had liked home improvement stores. He had been fascinated by the fact that people actually bought things like faucets and chandeliers and doors. Imagine owning a door, having a space you could decide you wanted to close off and just going and buying a door! Of course, Dad was usually buying shovels and road salt and stuff like that, hunting stuff, but stores like Lowe's were, to an eight-year-old Sam, warehouses of possibilities and glimpses into the way normal people lived.
So that was the first reason. He remembered them without even really trying, and that led to the second reason. Because one day, when he was ten or eleven, Dad said something about needing a handsaw, and Sam said, "There's a Home Depot in Lake Horn. We stopped there last year." And Dad turned around and smiled and said he thought Sammy was right.
And it was the smile that Dean usually got – the good job, son, I'm proud of you smile that was always and only about hunting, never about grades or soccer games. There were smiles for those things, of course, but they were different. There was something about the hunting smile that was like an invitation to a secret club. One that, as a general rule, Sam wasn't invited to join, even though Dean had been in it when he was Sam's age, no matter what age Sam was.
But this was something Sam could do to help with the Important Stuff that mattered to Dad. And, more over, it was something that Dean couldn't do. If Dad had told Dean to go get a sledgehammer, Dean would have found a way to get one, legal or otherwise. But Sam was the one who had been able to tell him where he could buy one along any stretch of road they had traveled before.
He had also been able to tell Dad where to find hospitals, twenty-four hour diners, and public libraries.
By the time Sam was fifteen, he hadn't cared about getting to be in the hunting club, or had convinced himself that he didn't. But family habits die hard, and so he had gone on supplying the information that there was an Ace Hardware on Maple Street, a Lowe's off Route 29, a Home Depot in Norman, but that one had the assistant manager who had asked too many questions and maybe they should go to the one in Moore or one of the ones in Oklahoma City, instead.
And even now, with Dad dead and gone and past expressing approval or disapproval for either of them anywhere but in their own thoughts, Sam can say, "Up ahead, on the left."
And Dean can still get you a sledgehammer, if you need one.
This Lowe's had been new, seven years ago, when they had stopped here on one of their endless summer trips from nowhere to nowhere. It's just starting to show its age now, a little shabby around the edges, though still clean and bright and tidy. It's early afternoon on a Thursday, unseasonably warm for February at 60 degrees, which may account for its being a little busier than Sam expected.
On the way into the store, they run down the checklist of other tools and equipment they may need to buy or replace, and Dean decides he wants a socket wrench. They split up, with Sam going to look at shovels while Dean heads for tools.
There is no easy or graceful way to carry a shovel through a home improvement store, and Sam feels a little ridiculous on his way over to the tools section. Where he finds plenty of wrenches, but no sign of Dean.
This means one of two things has happened. Either Dean has gone over to the shovels, looking for Sam, or Dean has found something more interesting than wrenches to investigate.
Sam's money, always, is on the latter, and that just leaves one question: blonde, brunette, or redhead?
The laugh from the next aisle is very feminine, very flirty, and very much not what one expects to find in a hardware store.
Sam rolls his eyes and follows the sound.
Brunette it is.
A brunette in a form-fitting blue sweater that stops an inch above the waist-band of her equally form-fitting jeans, and high-heeled ankle boots. She's not what one expects to find in a hardware store, either.
Her back is to Sam, but Dean sees him, and he gets the not now, dude look. Sam mouths the words out of your league and starts to go back to reassess his shovel options or whatever to kill however much time Dean's going to spend talking to the brunette in the blue sweater.
But the fact that Dean is focusing on something other than her cleavage has apparently caught this girl's attention, and she turns to see what he's looking at.
Sam has a sudden sympathy for a deer staring into the lights of an oncoming car. This is really, really not what one expects to find in a hardware store.
"Oh my God," the brunette says. "Sam? Sam Winchester, is that you?"
And if Sam thought carrying a shovel through a store was awkward, it's nothing compared to trying to figure out what to do with the shovel you're carrying through a hardware store when you suddenly get hugged by a girl you haven't seen in five years.
"I can't believe it," she says, and over her shoulder, Sam can see a truly epic example of Dean's dude, what the hell? face.
"Me, either," Sam says.
"I'm sorry," she says, finally letting him go, and looking back at Dean. "Sorry, I went to high school with this guy and I haven't seen him in years and—"
Sam clears his throat. "Um, Vanessa, this is my older brother, Dean. Dean, this is Vanessa Foster. I graduated from high school with her."
Five years ago.
In another city.
In another state.
In the time when he had known that he was going to leave for Stanford, he just hadn't told his father or his brother yet. Vanessa had, in fact, been one of the first people he'd told, part of a small group of other seniors who had adopted the new kid and given him a social circle at his ninth and final high school.
"I don't think I remembered that you had a brother," Vanessa says, but rushes on before Sam, or Dean, has much time to wonder whether it was something she had forgotten or never known. "Wow, it is such a small world, isn't it? What are you doing here? Do you live nearby?"
"No," Sam says, shaking his head. "We're just passing through. We're on a road trip."
"And you stopped to buy a shovel?" Vanessa asks.
What is he supposed to say? Yes, well, you never know when you're going to have to dig up a grave?
"Ah, for snow," Sam says. And then, quickly, before she can ask why anyone needs a shovel for snow on an unseasonably warm day, he asks, "What about you? What are you doing here?"
"Well, the long answer is a really long story, and the short answer is that I'm sort of house sitting."
"Vanessa was just telling me that she's having trouble with her kitchen sink," Dean adds, finally deigning to take part in the conversation.
"Yeah?" Sam asks. "What's wrong with it?"
"I don't really know," Vanessa says. "It just keeps clogging up. I've poured like five bottles of Drano down it and it works for a day or two, and then it's backed up again. The house is ancient, so it may just be that it's got really bad plumbing. I've called Professor Hudson about calling a plumber; it's his house, but he's not exactly nearby. He's in Greenville, back in Carolina." Vanessa pauses, and then adds, as an afterthought and mostly to Dean, "South, not North, of course."
"Well, of course," Dean says, and gets rewarded with a dazzling smile.
"Anyway," Vanessa continues, "he keeps promising he'll call someone and get him out to look at things, but he hasn't yet. So I came to buy a plunger. Though your brother was just telling me he thinks I might need a snake instead, but I have no idea what to do with one of those."
Five years, Sam thinks, have done nothing to diminish Vanessa's ability to talk. He can remember any number of days she didn't finish eating because she'd been too busy talking through their lunch period.
He says it without really meaning to. "Would you like us to take a look at it for you?"
He's not sure, but he thinks what Dean just muttered under his breath was Christo.
"Um, not that I'm really in a position to look a gift horse in the mouth, but do you actually know how to fix a sink? With a snake or whatever?"
"Yeah, of course," Sam says.
Vanessa looks from him to Dean to the shovel, like something isn't quite adding up. "So, you're, like, itinerant plumbers?"
"It's more that we've dealt with our share of hard-to-reach landlords," Sam says. "You learn to fix all kinds of things on your own."
"It's way out in the county, and not really on the road to much of anywhere, so it's probably out of your way," Vanessa says.
"It's really no problem," Sam says. "We're happy to."
He's not sure why he's pushing it. He's not even sure why he offered in the first place.
Vanessa looks at them again, eyes going from Sam to Dean and back again, like she's looking for signs that they're either insane or depraved. Or wondering if the shovel is to bury a body. And then she smiles, "I was thinking it wasn't a great idea to ask strange men back to the house, no offense, but hey, I know you better than I would know the plumber, right? So, sure, I'd appreciate it. And, hey, I'll fix you dinner or something."
Sam's ready for it when Dean smacks the back of his head as they follow Vanessa to the registers. And he decides not to give Dean the satisfaction of a reaction.
So Dean, of course, hits him again.
Vanessa, to Sam's surprise, drives a blue Ford F-150 made sometime before they had started high school. He was expecting something a little more, well, girly.
Dean waves off her offer to write out directions for them. "We'll just follow you."
"But what if I lose you?" she asks.
"Oh, sweetheart, you're not going to lose me," Dean says. "There is no way."
Vanessa hesitates, but lets it go with a "Suit yourself. I'll see you at the house, then."
Dean waits until they are out of the parking lot, if barely, before he says, "So, are we doing this because you hit that in high school, or because you didn't?"
"It wasn't like that. She was just a friend," Sam says.
"Seriously? You didn't even try to hit that?"
"She had a boyfriend, Dean." And Sam had had something awfully close to a girlfriend.
"So this isn't the chick you took to the prom?" Dean asks.
"No, that was someone else." Sam wonders what Dean remembers more – that Sam had gone to the prom, or that he and Dad had had a massive argument about his wanting to go and Dean had had to smooth it over.
"So this is about making up for lost opportunities?"
"You know, people all over the world do things every day just to be nice and helpful. Without trying to get into some girl's pants."
"Not when the girl looks like that one," Dean says, pointing at the truck in front of them.
"She's an old friend from school, and we're doing her a favor."
"Right. Just remember that the last time we did a favor for one of your 'old friends from school,' a shapeshifter tried to kill her and framed me for it."
"Yeah, well, your last old friend almost got us run down by a killer truck."
Sam regrets it the second he says it, but it's said, and there's no unsaying it.
"Yeah, I guess so," Dean says, easily, and then turns the radio up too loud for conversation.
And sings along.
They follow Vanessa out of town, onto a state highway that drops from four lanes to three and then down to two before she turns off of it. They follow her down some winding back county roads, turning left and right and then right again, and finally down a driveway that must be half a mile long.
They reach the top of a hill, and the house comes into view for the first time.
Dean stops the car. And kills the radio.
They both stare at the sprawling mess of a house. Sam can see where the center started out as a fairly typical farm house that was then added on to as needed, catch as catch can. The room built as an extension on the left doesn't look that out of place. He has no idea what to make of the three-story tower on the right, though. There's a sagging porch and an even saggier balcony and the whole place looks a bit . . . dilapidated. In fact, Sam thinks the word dilapidated might have been added to the English language solely for the purpose of describing this house.
And if all of that weren't weird enough, there have to be more than a dozen garden gnomes between them and the front door.
Twenty seconds tick by, and then thirty.
"Why did the car stop?"
"Yeah, and the communism was just a red herring. Let's go."
Vanessa is waiting for them, leaned up against her truck, holding her new plunger and drain snake.
She has correctly interpreted their pause, and greets them with a bright smile. "Pretty wild, huh? Wait till you see the inside," she says, pulling out her keys and leading the way up the front steps.
The inside is one part natural history museum, one part flea market, one part horror movie set, and all parts freaky as hell.
Dean stands in the foyer, just inside the door, an expression of skeptical disgust on his face.
"It's not that bad," Vanessa says.
"Um, yeah, this is 'that bad,'" Dean says.
"Okay, so it's a little weird," Vanessa concedes.
"Sweetheart, this is the house the Addams Family passed on because the ambiance was just too damn creepy," Dean says. "And what the hell is that?" he adds, pointing at a taxidermy animal in the corner.
"A badger," Sam and Vanessa say together.
"Right," Dean says, moving two steps to the right to get a better look at it. "I can see that. But why is it wearing a fucking wedding dress?"
"It's Miss Badgersham," Vanessa says, almost fondly. "That's what I call her, anyway."
"You named the damn thing?" Dean says.
"Well, what else would you call moldering badger in a wedding dress, hanging out in a house like this? She's Miss Badgersham. Obviously."
"Oh, obviously," Dean says, like there's nothing obvious about it. Sam is not sure his brother is getting the slightly oblique Dickens reference. He is sure his brother is starting to wonder if Vanessa is nuts.
"Vanessa?" Sam asks, quickly, to get them off the topic of Miss Badgersham. "How did you wind up here, again?"
"Like I said, it's kind of a long story."
"The Cliff's Notes version is fine," Dean tells her, at the same time Sam says, "We've got time."
"Well, the house belonged to my college advisor's aunt and uncle," she says. "They travelled a lot, and they collected whatever looked interesting from everywhere they went. I kind of think of it as one of those old cabinets of curiosities. It's like a museum of the interesting and bizarre and random. There's no theme or rhyme or reason, it's just whatever caught their eye. At least as far as I can tell."
Sam is certainly not going to argue with the assessment that it's bizarre. He looks back up at Miss Badgersham. (And he's a little surprised to find himself thinking of the badger by "name," but Vanessa's right. It's a pretty obvious name once you know it. He almost wants to check and see if it's only wearing one shoe.)
"So that's how all this crap got here," Dean says. He doesn't look at Vanessa. Sam thinks he might be trying to stare down Miss Badgersham. "How'd you get here, sweetheart?"
"My advisor, Professor Hudson, got a call from his aunt and uncle's lawyer last year, who said they had died and left him the house and all the contents. I think he came up for a weekend, or something, and discovered that it was kind of more than he could deal with while having a full time job somewhere else. So he hired me to come live here and sort through everything, get rid of the obvious junk, try to figure out what kinds of repairs it needs, and just generally keep an eye on things."
"And you didn't call him back and say, 'Torch the place'?" Dean says. He's finally pulled his attention away from the badger, and is examining a bright blue clawfoot tub full of what appear to be those little beanbag animals people were obsessed with collecting a few years back.
"Do you want the tour?" Vanessa asks, with a grin and a gesture to the door on their right.
Sam doesn't think anything is going to top the foyer.
There are over a dozen rooms, plus the tower, and they're all full of . . . Sam doesn't even know the words. He thinks Vanessa's term, cabinet of curiosities, is about as apt a description as he's going to find. Looking around, he can see a foot and a half tall amethyst geode, a collection of Mounties memorabilia, the door of a New York City taxi cab, a shrunken head, and a cauldron that Sam could have comfortably sat in.
And that's just in the first room.
There's a bedroom upstairs that is filled with shelf after shelf of canned goods, and another, across the hall, that is full of dolls. ("Oh, Christ, not again," Dean mutters.) At the very top of the tower, they find—
"Is that a guillotine?" Sam asks.
"A replica. I don't think it actually works," Vanessa says. She pauses, and then adds, "Though I haven't tested it."
Dean looks around the room, like he's trying to decide where to even start salting and burning things, and then says, "Let's take a look at this sink of yours."
Vanessa leads them back down to the foyer, and then through the door to the left. The kitchen must be the room he could see built onto the far end of the original house. Sam is expecting bundles of herbs and creepy jars of unknown vegetable matter and possibly a hearth with an open cooking fire and something roasting on a spit.
Instead they step into a kitchen that is surprising modern, by comparison, even though it's done in 1970's olive green and gold and orange. But it's not cluttered, and everything is clean and tidy except for the dirty dishes piled next to the clogged sink.
"Did we just walk into another house?" Dean asks.
"The first thing I did, when I got here a month ago, was to get the kitchen in order and clean out that bedroom." Vanessa points at a room off the side of the kitchen. "There's a full bathroom through there, too, so I kind of live at this end of the house and work in the rest of it."
"Good plan," Dean says.
They spend a half an hour looking, but can't find anything wrong with the sink or the pipes below it. The problem may be further down the pipes, or it may just be beyond their amateur plumber abilities. They manage to get the water to drain, through liberal use of drain clearer and a lot of work with the new plunger and snake.
Sam suspects that their approach is not that different from what Vanessa would have done without them, but she's gracious about being grateful, anyway.
"Just give me a minute or two to change," Vanessa says, "and I'll get started on dinner. Y'all are staying for dinner, right? I mean, that was the deal – you fix my sink, I fix you dinner."
Sam's response of "We wouldn't want to put you to any trouble," is cut short and drowned out by Dean's, "That'd be great, thanks."
"Wonderful," Vanessa says. "It's going to be really nice to have company. And we can catch up, or talk about old times, or whatever."
That's kind of what Sam is afraid of.
Because the "old times" when he knew Vanessa are times he's not sure he wants to drag open for inspection with Dean. He'd been keeping a lot of secrets in those days, from both of them. And while he doesn't think Dean is likely to tell Vanessa about the hunting, Vanessa knows a few things Sam has never told Dean. And she doesn't know that they're secrets.
"You know of any motels or whatever around here?" Dean asks her.
"Well, there's the It'll Do Motel," Vanessa says. "It's back toward town, but it looks pretty rundown. And then in town there's a Holiday Inn and, um, I think one or two of the other chains, too, but I don't remember which ones. Or, um, I guess y'all could stay here, if you wanted. I mean, I've got six bedrooms."
Sam opens his mouth to politely decline, but is once again cut off by his brother.
"If you don't mind," Dean says.
"No, it's fine. And, like I said, it's nice to have company. So, please, stay."
"Thanks," Dean says.
And it's Sam's turn to mutter Christo under his breath.
"Okay. So, I'll just be a minute or two," she says, heading into her bedroom. "If you're hungry, just help yourselves to anything."
Dean goes promptly to the fridge. "Yogurt, grapes, little carrots, weird cheese, more little carrots – chick food," he tells Sam. "Wait, I think I found something." He reaches to the back of the fridge and pulls out a Sam Adams beer. "You want one?"
"We should go," Sam says, quietly, with a look at the now closed door to Vanessa's room.
Dean stops in the middle of opening his beer. "I thought you wanted to spend time with this girl."
"Well, I have. And we shouldn't put her to any trouble, and—"
"Yeah, but she probably didn't expect us to say yes."
Dean scrubs his hand across his face. "Sometimes, I really don't get you, Sammy. But, hey, if you really want to go, we can fake that we got a phone call or something."
Dean looks tired.
And if Dean is letting himself look tired, chances are he feels exhausted.
And it's not like they're headed anywhere in particular. Maybe it's okay to take one day and not drive till sunset or later, hit a diner or a bar, collapse into motel beds, and then get up and do it all again.
Sam hesitates for a second longer, and then shakes his head. "No. It would be pretty rude to bail now." He takes a beer from the fridge. "But you get the room with the dolls, man."
Vanessa comes back into the kitchen, wearing Keds and yoga pants and a Furman University sweatshirt, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. She's still pretty – it's Vanessa, after all – but the look is relaxed and comfortable, less put-together. She laughs at Dean's far-from-subtle fallen face.
"You didn't think I hung around at home dressed like that, did you?" she asks.
"Kind of hoping," Dean admits.
"I've discovered that a tight sweater increases the chances that some guy will stop to help me at some place like a hardware store, or better yet, when I'm hauling junk to the dump. By about a hundred and twenty percent." She shrugs. "What can I say? Y'all are shallow."
"Well, yeah, but with good cause," Dean says, with a low level leer.
"You'll have to forgive Dean," Sam says, giving him the cut it out, dude look.
Vanessa shakes her head and opens the pantry. "Oh, Sam, I have been hit on by much smoother operators than your brother. Most of them crashed and burned, too."
"Hey, I am just getting warmed up here," Dean objects.
"If that's the wind up, there better be one hell of a pitch at the end," Vanessa tells him. "Pasta going to work for y'all?"
She turns down offers of help with dinner. Dean settles in at the kitchen table with another beer. The conversation seems to be mostly Dean's hitting on Vanessa in increasingly obvious and absurd ways. Vanessa's reaction is to shake her head, or roll her eyes, and then to cheerfully tell Dean that the way to a woman's heart – or wherever it is he's trying to get – just might be through washing her dirty dishes.
Sam feels the way he often does when the other people around are Dean and a pretty girl – in the way. It's more annoying, he decides, when the girl in question is his old friend and not Dean's. Even if he doesn't have any real right to feel that way. And even if he's not actually making any effort to join the conversation. In some ways, he thinks Dean might be keeping this up to cover the awkwardness that is Sam's being utterly unable to think of anything to say.
And when Dean gets up to wash the dishes, Sam no longer any doubts on the subject, because the look he shoots Sam is pure could you be any lamer?
Sam asks for the bathroom and gets waved to the one through Vanessa's room. It's a stalling tactic, at best, but maybe a couple of minutes will be enough to figure out what he's doing here, and why he's doing it.
He doesn't realize that the soap next to Vanessa's sink strongly smells like some kind of flower until he's washing his hands. Which, unfortunately, also now strongly smell like some kind of flower.
He can still hear them in the kitchen when he's done, and he stalls for a couple of minutes in Vanessa's room, hoping the floral smell will fade a little.
Here, as in the kitchen and the bathroom, everything is neat and orderly and normal. There are blue curtains at the windows, and a blue and white quilt on the bed, pulled up neatly and watched over by a stuffed grey cat (plush, not taxidermy). There's a laptop on the desk next to a small pile of DVDs, Mean Girls and Legally Blonde and Elizabethtown. She's covered the dresser with framed pictures and a neat line of bottles of perfumes and lotions. And there's a small bookcase, full of more DVDs and paperback mysteries and romance novels with bright covers. And, across the bottom shelf, a row of yearbooks and scrapbooks.
Sam glances back through the open door to the kitchen, where Dean is now telling a somewhat fictionalized account of a bar fight (fictionalized in that he's leaving out the part about the bartender's being a ghost). That should take a while.
Sam pulls the scrapbook labeled BHS SR YR off the shelf and sets it on the desk.
Vanessa has saved everything: ticket stubs, newspaper clippings, programs from concerts and talent shows, photographs, flyers. There's even a pressed flat paper cone from popcorn at a football game.
Sam flips through the fall, things that happened before he arrived at Bicentennial High just after Christmas, passing Homecoming and a production of Once Upon a Mattress that starred their friend Peter. Winter brings basketball games and a semiformal dance that Sam remembers happening about a week after they moved to town, and that he had not attended. And then comes spring, with baseball, and choir and band concerts, the awards assembly at the end of the year, and then the prom.
He can remember buying a cream-colored ticket like the one Vanessa has pasted in here, next to the photograph of her and her boyfriend, Jake, posing in her front yard. There's a series of pictures of the transformation of the gym, documenting the additions of streamers and balloons and glitter; Vanessa must have helped with the decorations.
And there's a photograph Sam has never seen before, one he didn't even know had been taken. He has his arm around Clare, the girl he took to the prom and never quite had the courage to refer to as his girlfriend. Clare is looking at whoever took the picture.
Sam is looking at Clare.
"We all were so young, weren't we?" Vanessa asks. Sam just barely manages not to jump at the sound of her voice. She's standing just behind him and he didn't even hear her come into the room.
Ridiculously young, Sam thinks, looking at the picture of his barely eighteen-year old self, who had thought it was possible to run away from this insane life his father had committed them to. Ridiculously young, and even more ridiculously naïve.
"I'm snooping, aren't I?" Sam says. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be going through your books."
"It's fine. It's not like you're reading my diary. There's really no point in having things like scrapbooks if no one ever looks at them."
"Do you and Clare keep in touch?" Sam asks her. He hasn't thought about Clare Ellison in years, but he suddenly wants to know that she's out there and doing well and happy. And Vanessa seems like the sort who keeps up with everyone and who will be organizing reunions and things like that.
"That's funny, I was about to ask you the same thing," Vanessa says. "No, she and her parents moved after graduation, maybe a week or two after you did. I never heard from either of you after you left. I've looked for her on Facebook and stuff, but I've never found her."
"We lost touch," Sam says.
It would be more honest, though, to say that they hadn't even tried to stay in touch. Sam was well-versed in departures by then, and Clare had been headed to Wellesley. Or maybe it was Smith. One of the women's colleges in Massachusetts, at any rate, and thousands of miles from Stanford. What would have been the point?
"What are we looking at?" Dean asks, joining them.
"High school," Sam says, and closes the book on the couples at the prom.
A timer dings in the kitchen, and Vanessa excuses herself.
Dean looks down at the cover of the scrapbook Sam has just closed. Sam waits for him to say something about it, or try to open it.
But all Dean says is, "Dude, you smell like a chick," and then goes into the bathroom.
Vanessa serves pasta and Italian sausage, garlic bread and salad. Sam notices that she puts about twice as much on the plates she fixes for them as she does on the plate she fixes for herself, and it all has a kind of surreal feeling of normality to it, like they do this all the time.
Sam isn't sure what to make of Vanessa. He doesn't remember a girl who was enough of a flirt to keep up with Dean, though to be fair, he was mostly around her when she was around her boyfriend. But he also doesn't remember a girl who would be coping well with being out in the middle of no where, alone, in a house apparently decorated by Vincent Price. He remembers a social butterfly, and one who was sensitive and maybe a little prone to hysteria. It makes finding her here, calmly bantering with Dean and living in a curiosity cabinet of a house all very odd.
And he's not being fair to her, and he knows it. She's not the girl he knew five years ago any more than he's the guy she knew then, but all that doesn't quite stop him from saying, "You've really changed."
"Oh, I know," Vanessa says, over his horrified attempts to apologize. "Trust me, I know." She turns to Dean. "I was such a drama queen in high school. I don't know how anyone ever took me even remotely seriously. My mother used to dismiss half of what I said and did with the explanation, 'That's just Vanessa being Vanessa.' And I usually knew I was being ridiculous, but by high school, people just kind of expected it, and I felt like I was supposed to act a little silly. And then I got to Furman, and I wasn't surrounded by people who'd known me all my life, and I guess I felt like I could stop being what other people expected me to be all the time."
"Oh," Sam says. Going to college to reinvent yourself and get away from family expectations? Well, there are more awkward topics they could get into with Dean there, but not many.
"Drama queen, huh?" Dean asks.
"Oh, God, yes. I mean, I'm the one who thought she saw a ghost at the prom."
And there it is. One of few topics that's going to trump college reinvention on the awkwardness meter.
"There was a ghost at your prom?" Dean's tone stays light, but he has set his fork down, and his focus has sharpened.
The question is for Sam, but it's Vanessa who answers. "Well, of course not. It was just a story our friend Peter told at lunch one day. But I was convinced I'd seen her in the mirror in the bathroom, and let me tell you, I could scream in those days. Do you remember, Sam?"
"Yes," Sam says, shortly. He remembers. He's just never mentioned it to Dean.
Dean's eyes dart over to Vanessa and then back to Sam. It couldn't have been clearer if he'd actually said it. We are not going into this in front of a civilian, but we are sure as hell going into this, Sammy.
"So," Sam says, before Vanessa can reopen the book on their high school days. "What's the non-Cliff's Notes version of how you wound up here?"
Vanessa's briefly puzzled expression leads Sam to believe she found that subject change to be rather abrupt, but at least that doesn't keep her from answering.
"Well, like I said, Professor Hudson needed someone to look after it and clean it out. And I . . . okay, I had this boyfriend in college. Walker. And right before graduation, he asked me to marry him, and I said yes, because we'd been together for two years and getting married was the next step, right? So we were planning this big wedding for November and everyone was so happy for us and everything."
Vanessa sighs, looking a little dreamy. "And then I woke up one morning, and the sunlight was coming through the curtains in our bedroom, and it was just a gorgeous September late summer day. And I looked down at him, still sleeping next to me, and I thought, This is the man I'm going to marry. And he's an arrogant, self-absorbed jerk and I am way too good for him," Vanessa says, dreaminess abruptly done. "So I packed my bag, woke him up, gave him back his ring, and left."
"His name was Walker?" Dean asks.
"Edmund Walker Rutledge McQueeney. The third."
"And it took you two years to figure out he was a jerk?"
"I know, right? Plus he called me 'Nessie' and thought it was endearing. That alone should have been a sign. Anyway, after I left him, I moved back in with my parents for a while, but that was awkward. There was kind of a feeling of, you know, it was just 'Vanessa being Vanessa.' And breaking off your engagement ten weeks before the wedding is pretty drama-queenish behavior, I guess. So after a couple of months, I called Professor Hudson to ask if he had any suggestions or leads for me, for something to do with a BA in art history and a willingness to live anywhere but within a hundred mile radius of my parents or Walker, and here I am."
"In the creepiest house in Virginia."
"It's really not that cre—" Vanessa breaks off, turning toward the sound of an odd noise coming from the front hall.
Sam looks at Dean, whose focus has again sharpened.
"What was that?" Vanessa asks, and goes to investigate before they can stop her.
Miss Badgersham is lying on its side, in the middle of the floor. Sam looks up at where it had been perched before. It could have just fallen, maybe, but it's just a little too far away.
Vanessa rolls her eyes and puts the badger back where it had been. "This house," she mutters.
"Stuff like that happen often?" Dean asks.
"Stuff like what?" Vanessa asks.
"You know, weird shit like things falling when they shouldn't?" Dean asks.
"Odd noises, sudden cold spots, things you can't explain," Sam adds.
Vanessa looks at them like she thinks they've gone insane. "It's a perfectly normal house," she says, and it's about equal parts dismissive and determined.
"No, lady, it's not," Dean says.
"Okay, maybe not normal, but it's an old house," Vanessa says, as the lights start to flicker a little. "It has problems and quirks, like bad plumbing and glitches in the wiring and drafts and –"
There's a faint buzz, which quickly escalates to a loud chittering sound in the walls. Dean reaches one hand toward the gun concealed under the back of his shirt. Sam moves toward a coat rack that looks like it might be wrought iron.
Vanessa's tone begins to lose its certainty, in a way Sam recognizes. The rational part of her brain is torn between this isn't happening and but it is, and it sure as hell isn't a glitch.
"—and mice in the walls and –"
The chair by the front door slides across the room, and Vanessa scrambles backwards, out of its way.
"— and uneven floorboards and what the hell is wrong with this house?" she concludes, half-throwing herself into Sam's arms and burying her face in his shirt.
Over the top of her head, Sam can see the word HARLOT writing itself across the opposite wall in foot-high, bright red letters.
"Get her out of here," Dean snaps, and Sam steers Vanessa out the front door, turning so that she won't see the word.
Dean follows them a second later.
The lights flicker wildly in every room in the house.
They stand watching for almost a minute, and then Vanessa says again, "What the hell is wrong with this house?"
"Pretty sure it's haunted, sweetheart."