The air was acrid with smoke. Thankfully, the smell of Jessica's flesh and hair burning had dissipated over the San Francisco Bay.
Sam was still wheezing a bit, even after 20 minutes on pure oxygen. The paramedics insisted he should be taken to the hospital, but Sam refused treatment. He opted instead to sit on the curb by the Impala, head on his big brother's shoulder, as the fire was extinguished. Too shocked to care, Sam's tears streamed unchecked.
Dean didn't want to leave Sam alone in his grief, but he was afraid he wouldn't have another chance to retrieve Sam's meager belongings once Jessica's apartment became a taped-off crime scene. Donning a pilfered fireman's coat, Dean easily slipped up the back stairs as emergency personnel came and went.
Like its Lawrence counterpart, the fire over Sam's bed miraculously contained itself to only one room. The red and white Stanford gym bag Sam requested was in the back corner of the living room closet under a blanket with a Navajo pattern.
Hefting the bag, Dean heard the familiar rattle of weaponry. A white envelope jutted from the side pocket. Dean pulled it free to read the words Ocean City 2000 written on the front in Sam's careful printing.
Dean knew he shouldn't linger in the apartment, but he felt compelled to find out what was inside the mysterious envelope. He slipped into the nearby bathroom and shut the door. The envelope was worn and pliant, apparently from much opening. In the dim glow of a streetlight, Dean viewed its contents—a single piece of paper.
The strip of four black and white photos had come from a photo booth on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland.
That summer, Sam was 17 and still coltish. Dean was 22, cocky, with the world at his feet. Dad had brought them to Assateague National Park to investigate a haunting at the campground. They easily and painlessly dispatched the offending spirit.
Dad, in an unprecedented display of generosity and frivolity, handed each of them $20 and sent them eight miles north to the Ocean City boardwalk for the afternoon.
Still dazed by Dad's gesture, it took the boys awhile to remember how to have fun. Among the vacationers, they felt out of place in jeans and T-shirts. Then, the smells hit them: peppers and onions from a hot sausage stand, fresh soft pretzels from a nearby cart, oily French fries with vinegar, and the musky tang of hot caramel corn being stirred.
Despite being surrounded by scantily-clad teenage girls, Dean only had eyes for food. Sam indulged Dean's binge, enjoying his own more modest share of decadent beach treats before convincing Dean to join him for some of the thrill rides on the pier. They rode the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Wild Mouse and the cheesiest haunted house of all time.
The huge Ferris Wheel afforded them a panoramic view of the town, the boardwalk and well out to sea. Across the spacious car, Sam's face wore a look of utter contentment as the salty ocean breeze blew his girlish hair around. They locked eyes. Sam grinned and kicked at Dean's booted foot.
"You're getting sunburned," Sam informed him. "Let's go to the arcade."
The old photo booth was in a forgotten back corner near the Skee-ball machines. "C'mon," Sam jerked his head towards it. "It'll be fun."
"I look like a tomato," Dean groused.
"Won't matter… they're black and white," Sam attempted to smooth down his wind-blown hair. "I have a dollar left, and I want pictures, Dean." And, bam, out came the patented puppy dog eyes of doom.
Shaking his head in surrender, Dean pushed aside the curtain and entered the booth. Sam fed quarters into the coin slot and crowded in after him. "Scootch over!"
The first two pictures ended up being an awkward tableau of elbows as they maneuvered for stool space.
"I had so much fun today, Dean," Sam told him, his voice little more than a whisper, head turned away.
Dean realized Sam was almost in tears. "Hey… hey!" Dean nudged him with his shoulder. "This is for posterity, Princess."
He placed his left hand on Sam's cheek and turned his brother's face towards the camera. Then, for reasons he didn't entirely understand, he guided Sam's mouth towards his own and kissed him, his thumb caressing Sam's cheekbone lovingly as the final picture snapped. Sam tasted like salt and cotton candy.
Dean smiled at the fond memory. That day, Dean hadn't yet known that Sam planned to head to Stanford at the end of August.
While Dean's head understood Sam's decision, his heart never did. Their recent hunt of the Woman in White had awakened feelings Dean had thought he'd repressed. Despite the sad circumstances, he missed Sam, and was very eager to have him a travelling companion again.
He'd only been away from Sam's side for five minutes, but it felt as if he'd relived that entire afternoon in Ocean City during that time. He found his brother, stubbornly standing by the trunk of the Impala, sorting through the arsenal.
Sam turned to face him expectantly, a sawed-off shotgun in one hand.
"Found it," Dean said gruffly, handing him the bag. The envelope had been securely returned to its side pocket. Their eyes locked for a fraction of a second.
"Thanks, Dean," Sam found a corner of the trunk in which to place his belongings, then tossed the shotgun in on top of it. He nodded resolutely, "We've got work to do."