Dean said some vile shit when he woke up and Sam was gone. The minute Dad told him, he'd taken the keys and jumped in the car to go find him. He had called Sam's phone, over and over again, letting it ring, hanging up and letting it ring again.
And you know? It never occurred to Dean that he wouldn't catch up to Sam. It never crossed his mind, that whole ride, that he wouldn't be bringing Sam home.
Instead, he tracked his brother to a Greyhound bus terminal, where he heard Sam's phone ringing back at him from inside a trashcan. He hung up and stood there for a long time, watching the dirty silver buses arrive and depart while destinations were called out in bursts of static over the intercom. Dean sat down heavily in one of the hard plastic chairs, not sure what he hoped to see. It felt like his guts had been ripped out.
He went out that night, bought a 12-pack and just sat on the back end of the car, arms crossed, eyes hard. He didn't care. It was cool. He'd gotten Sammy this far, done his best by him, and off Sammy went. Probably the way it was meant to be. His brother was gonna suck as a hunter no matter how you sliced it. Kid lived too much inside his own head, likely to get them all killed. College was probably the best place for him.
After that, things went south between him and dad.
It was almost like dad was pissed at him, for something he hadn't done to keep Sam in check. Dean wondered about that himself. He put his hands behind his head and watched the motel's flickering sign throw neon bands of color across the ceiling, playing back every fight they'd had before Sam left. He realized now that they'd been fighting more and more. It was like Dean couldn't say anything without making Sam mad.
It all made sense: Sam sitting for hours at his computer, not talking to Dean, not even looking at him. Sam not unpacking most of his bags when they were going to be somewhere for awhile. Sam not making any plans for the next weekend, or even the next day. Sam's phone ringing and Sam looking at Dean, annoyed, before walking outside to talk. Sam sleeping on the bed only a few feet away from where Dean was sacked out on the floor, but feeling like he couldn't be farther away.
For weeks, Dean looked up when dad's phone rang, thinking it was Sam. Sam saying he'd made a mistake. Sam saying it wasn't what he thought it was. Sam saying he missed the hunt, the road. Sam saying he missed Dean. But it never was. Not once.
Dean got better when Sam was gone, he thought. He got ruthless and brave. He was a better shot. His instincts were sharper, and he was itching to hit the road, ride shotgun with dad and kill anything that needed killing.
But then dad went on all the hunts after that alone. Dean didn't need to be told that he was being punished.
Dad said sit tight. And that's what Dean did. But sitting tight meant drinking himself to sleep in motel rooms, watching stupid shit on television or jerking off to porn on the pay-per-view. But that got old. It got to the point where if the phone rang and it was dad, he had to fight to not pick up on the first ring.
It was too much downtime for him, too much silence. He went off looking for something to do.
And proceeded to fuck his way through the lower 48.
Hell, it was the most fun he could have for free. Women just liked Dean and he liked them back. After awhile, he didn't bother to keep track of their names after he didn't need to know them. They were the redhead in Detroit. The brunette in Minneapolis. The blond girl with the purple streaks in St. Louis. He liked getting his end wet. He liked the sounds he could wring out of them, the feel of them, fucking them hard like he could crawl inside and live whatever carefree lives they were living, just for a few hours. Holding them, soft and slowly talking them out of their doubts, letting it stretch on until morning. Until they couldn't talk anymore and passed out. And when they woke up, he would do it again, and again.
But he would shut it down when the questions started. How long are you going to be in town? Where do you stay? What do you do for a living?
Dean would make shit up: sometimes he was just a mechanic, like dad had once been in another life. Sometimes he got imaginative and told the most unbelievable lies. Either he was just that good a liar or they were willing to believe anything to take their chances with him. Probably the first one. Lying just came naturally after all these years. Don't tell anyone anything they don't need to know, dad would say. Make it sound good.
Sometimes, if he was in a secluded-enough area, he'd go out into the woods and practice shooting. For practice, he told himself.
Sometimes he went to the movies just to get out of the motel room. If there was a girl nearby giving him the eye, so much the better.
He'd spring for a good concert here and there, waking up in a little pile of drunk, naked girls at someone's crappy apartment the morning after, leaving before light bounced off the windows.
He held them on his lap while he won hands of poker, while they stared at him, seemingly fascinated, him thinking about them riding him later, and letting him know with his eyes and his mouth that he was thinking it while they blushed. He whispered in their ears while he bent against them and showed them how to shoot pool, knowing they were thinking about being bent against something else later.
There was stuff Dean just knew, faces he knew he could pull, a voice he could use… and they would come play like little fireflies around him. He thought: Well, not everyone can do that, can they? and laughed dryly to himself.
Then Dad would call, and for a whirlwind week or so, he'd feel useful, at the top of his game. He'd stalk through the woods as fearless, as determined, as effective as anything, showing his Dad how useful he was. The other hunters would tell his dad that he was quite the son, quite the hunter, and Dean would look at his father expectantly.
Sometimes he'd find that his dad had been working with the other hunters for a few days and wonder why he hadn't been called up sooner. But he tried to shrug it off. He was still being punished. He was gonna have to roll in this barrel for awhile. He screwed up, he knew that.
If it had been too many days with nothing to do and nowhere to go, Dean would tank up the Impala and make a road trip out of it. He'd drive up to Palo Alto, intending to drop in on Sam and see how his little brother was "holding up." When Dad called during those times, Dean talked up a hunt he'd taken on his own. With a dismissive chuckle, he would say, "No, Dad, I got this one." Because this was important.
He'd been getting calls, at odd times of day. When he answered, the caller would hang up. He didn't recognize the number, but he got it into his head that this was Sam, reaching out. Well, Dean could reach out, too. In fact, he could reach out better.
But all four times when he made the trip, after he saw Sam, he couldn't do it.
The first time, Sam was cramming for a test with some friends. It was serious, too, not hanging out and "studying" over beers, but lost in discussion in a library full of gleaming surfaces and earnest faces. It made Dean feel stupid just looking in there. He wondered if he and the boy at the table pushing the hair out of his face and talking with his hands even had anything to talk about. For a second he felt small, but defensive. He felt like the boy who'd always done well in auto shop. The one who had spent more school days inside movie theaters than anyone else he knew. The one who pretty girls wanted to help cheat. The one who'd fucked the GED proctor as extra insurance to make sure he would pass. He was that guy, and Sam, only a few feet away from him, might as well have been on another planet.
The second time, he saw Sam out with a pretty blond girl. Some kind of Amazon woman with curly blond hair. Sam was laughing so hard at something she said that he couldn't even get his eyes open. It was a good thing, too, because otherwise he would've seen Dean standing there. He looked happy, to say the least. Dean felt pride and pain at the same time. He loved seeing his brother happy and healthy. 'Cause he liked to think he'd helped. At the same time, it would've felt a little satisfying to find Sam forlorn, like something was missing. Like anything was missing.
The third time, Sam was out with some buddies at some trendy bar. He was three sheets to the wind. Some successful milestone was being celebrated and Sam was getting thumped on the back hard enough to knock something loose. Dean slowly tracked him and his car back to his student apartment, just to make sure he got home okay. He parked out there for awhile, going over what he might say in his head. He flipped his phone open and closed a few times. Hey, Sam, it's me. How ya doin'? Yeah, well guess what? I'm right outside your dorm. Yeah, I'm here on a job, thought you might want to grab a beer. Dean went back and forth on it, smiling to himself, then frowning again. Even the slightest chance that Sam would go silent on the phone when he heard Dean's voice was too much. Dean knew that tight, polite smile Sam gave to people he never intended to see again. The thought of being on the receiving end of it made Dean feel like something heavy had dropped into his stomach.
The fourth time, he almost did it. He almost walked right up to him. Sam was alone at a table in the student's open-air chow area, absently glancing at a book, not really reading it. He was hunched there, elbows planted in his lap, eyes about five inches from the page. The breeze was blowing the pages and his hair around. Sam had pulled out his phone, thumbed a button on the side, sighed and put it back down again. He did that a couple of times. Dean thought that if his brother was already depressed, seeing him, of all people, certainly wasn't going to lighten the load.
Suddenly, anger flooded through him. Anger at needing something from Sam that Sam didn't need. Anger at wanting something from Sam that Sam didn't want. Well, fuck you too, Dean thought. Sam could have his smart friends, his books and his girl, and apparently he never had to lay eyes on his brother ever again. Hell, Dean could play that, if that's what they were playing.
While chatting up a cute freshman girl he'd met on campus, Dean saw that she had a college reading list: all of the books she was expected to have read before setting foot in Stanford. Some were circled, some were highlighted and others were crossed out, but he could read all the titles. While she was on her cell phone, he stole it from her portfolio and put it in his pocket.
When he drove home that time, he left a little more lighthearted than before. How would Sammy feel if he came back home and his big brother could match him, wit for wit? Dean chuckled to himself at the thought, unfolding the list during a long stretch of road, reading the names he vaguely recognized under the streetlights: Fitzgerald, Melville, Plath, Salinger, Vonnegut. Imagine the look on Sammy's face when he didn't miss some reference Sam made to something Dean wasn't supposed to "get." Who's the smart one now?
Then Dad called and they were on the road again, just for a couple of weeks. Dad would disappear for awhile, and rather than hitting one of the local bars to see who looked entertaining, Dean found himself with the (now very crumpled) list in his hand, digging through piles for titles at dusty, second-hand bookstores. He usually came out with a dog-eared paperback or two and it wouldn't set him back more than a couple of bucks. He'd chewed through every pen he came into contact with, his eyes scanning the pages. Sometimes he needed to read a page two or three times to get what was going on. He slumped over slices of pie at diners through Hemingway. He read most of Thoreau while they were pent up in a cabin in Bitterroot National Forest, waiting for a vamp's nest to show itself, feeling like he was living inside the book.
Dad was cleaning blood and muck off the rifles while Dean was sprawled out on the bed, struggling through Solzhenitsyn. He could feel his father hinting at him to get up and clean his own rifles, just in the way he was snapping things and setting them down harder than necessary. "Dean, what are you even doing over there?"
"I'm reading," Dean answered sullenly, his back to his father. "I read."
"No you don't," John said, laughing, but there was some concern peeking out. "You barely read menus. Some girl call you stupid or something?"
"You don't need to run off to college to pick stuff up," he said defensively. But Dean was getting increasingly pissed off in this case, because it felt like no matter how hard he tried to read these damn things, he just wasn't getting it. He had tried talking to a librarian about certain books that were giving him fits, and she pityingly pointed out some kind of cheat thing. Well, fuck that, Dean was going to get through it on his own steam. But he felt like he was turning the pages over and over, desperately looking for something. He didn't even know what.
John picked up the next book on Dean's list from the bedside table. It was Kafka. The thing looked like it had been left in the rain a few times, and then run over. John turned it over in his hand to look at the back. "Is this the book where the guy turns into a giant bug or something? Dean, what are you even learning that's any good? You should read those field manuals I got you. At least that'd be useful."
Dean had read those field manuals, cover to cover, memorizing them. But so far, all Dean had learned from Solzhenitsyn was that a guy in a Siberian prison camp was currently happier than he was. But he plowed on, for Sam.
And then he even started on the plays. Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams made Dean feel like he'd just chewed on broken bottles, those cheerful fuckers, but at least he didn't feel like there was special symbolism he was missing. Unless people being unhappy and drunk because life sucked had some kind of hidden meaning.
When Sam didn't call for Christmas, or New Year's, or Dean's birthday (not that they were much on birthdays, but still), Dean took off for parts unknown. Dad had been gone for a couple of days without saying where he was going. Well, Dean could do that, too. Unless he wanted to pay for another night or scare up some plastic, he had to leave before checkout anyway. The Impala's pink slip had Dean's name on it now and had been his baby, free and clear, for going on two years. So he hit the road. He was 25 years old and he was so sick of reading, he could puke.
Dad had said that if Dean read enough, he would go crazy. And he was feeling it, like a bunch of words were knocking around in there that he didn't know how to sort out. Like he now had better words and examples to describe how fucked-up everything was, but no answers and no way to fix anything. He would've never said so, but he felt lost.
And he never said the word out loud, but he said a bunch of words around it: Alone, solitary, private. But never lonely. Never that.
On long stretches of back road, he sang out loud with the windows down, but something about the car made it feel like it was a football field in length, like he was a silver bullet rattling around in it.