Title: After Everything
Author: Still Waters
Disclaimer: I do not own Supernatural. Just playing, with love and respect to those who brought these characters to life.
Summary: After everything – the Apocalypse, Hell, Lucifer - Dean figured that Sam's coulrophobia had long since been replaced by worse fears. So he took the circus spirit job. Because seriously, what were a couple of clowns after hallucinating freaking Lucifer? Casefic, S7, hallucinating/panic attack!Sam, awesome brother/stone #1!Dean.
Note: Written for nwspaprtaxis' prompt for the ohsam fic challenge on LJ.
Prompt: Post-SWAN SONG/Vague S7 (but no spoilers whatsoever - I'm only up to 7.04 - I just like S7!Sam much more than S6!Sam. This prompt is less about being canon-compliant and more about being after SWAN SONG and with Sam's personality in late S6/early S7...)
After everything, Hell, Lucifer, the Apocalypse, you'd think Sam'd be over his coulrophobia. Because, seriously, what are a couple of clowns after, y'know, hallucinating Lucifer? But apparently he isn't.
The guys are on a hunt - a simple, straightforward, salt-and-burn, MotW hunt like the good ol' days. Maybe it's a haunted fairground. Or a circus. Or a McDonald's. It doesn't matter... it just involves clowns somehow. And Sam completely loses it when he encounters the clown - as in having a complete panic attack/breakdown over it. Dean physically hauls Sam out of there and gets him back to the Impala where it takes a long time for Sam to calm down. Dean's awesome and is Stone #1 and gets Sam all nice and grounded. But of course he'd be all "Dude... Clowns? Still?" while holding Sam's head down between his knees and rubbing his brother's shoulder (and once he's 110% sure Sam's okay, trying not to/giving up and laughing at and mocking Sam).
Author's Note: This was my very first fic challenge, and I have to thank nwspaprtaxis for the awesome prompt – I never would have written this story without that inspiration, and I really enjoyed watching this tale come to life. As I began thinking about where I wanted to go with this idea, I first rewatched "Everybody Loves A Clown" and found that, for all Dean's teasing about his childhood fear of clowns, Sam actually does fine during that episode. There is one moment, when he has to sit on the clown chair in Cooper's office, that he briefly closes his eyes, like he's pulling himself together, but that's it. I began to see Sam's behavior as a reaction to his worrying about how Dean was handling John's death. I could see Sam deliberately taking that clown job from Ellen, despite his own fears, because, not only would it get Dean focused on a job, but it might also get Dean to act like his brother again. I felt like Sam needed some sort of return to normalcy just as much as Dean did in the emotional storm after John's death, and so I could imagine him figuring that, by taking the clown job, Dean would almost have to tease him about his childhood fears, which would then, in turn, make Sam have to roll his eyes and tease Dean about his own phobia, and things would feel normal again – just two brothers messing with each other. That interpretation became the basis for the rest of my research, threading in with everything that's happened since 5x22; particularly the events of S7, with Sam and Dean's emotional state in the wake of Cas's betrayal and the Lucifer hallucinations. This story heavily references 2x02 (Everybody Loves A Clown), 5x22 (Swan Song), and 7x01 – 7x03. Any dialogue quoted or paraphrased from those episodes does not belong to me. Per the prompter's request, there are no overt references to anything beyond 7x04, however, for those who are caught up on S7, I wrote this piece with the boys in the emotional space immediately following 7x07 (The Mentalists). It was not written to exact canon compliance for that time though, in order to keep the story spoiler-free. The case in this tale is based around a real series of places and events and links to the research can be found at the end of story. As always, I hope I did the characters justice. Thank you for reading and thank you to those reviewers I am unable to respond to personally via private message. I truly appreciate your support.
Dean should have known.
Should have at least considered the possibility.
But honestly, he hadn't even thought about it. He was just looking for a job. A simple, non-apocalyptic monster hunt, a routine salt and burn. Something like their lives had been another lifetime ago, when they hunted Wendigos and strigas and vengeful spirits. Before everything was the end of the world; before Cas betrayed him, unleashed the Leviathans, and broke his brother. Their most recent job had been good for them, in a lot of ways. Dean figured they could use another one of those regular hunts, so he asked Bobby to keep his eyes open.
And a week later, while he was pacing a small motel room outside Lexington, Kentucky, waiting for Sam to return with dinner, Bobby came through.
"Think I've got somethin' for you boys," Bobby greeted him.
"Awesome. Where?" Dean asked, sinking down onto the edge of the bed and shifting the phone to his left ear.
"Hammond, Indiana," Bobby said, voice taking on the slightly distracted tone it always did when he was scrolling down a webpage while talking. "Janitor at a local school was attacked by the 'flaming spirit of an old circus clown.'"
Dean's surprise held the silence for a few seconds. "'The flaming spirit of an old circus clown?'" he eventually repeated, disbelief dripping off the words as he tried to figure out if he heard it right.
"That's what he said," Bobby verified.
Dean went quiet again, thinking, before hesitantly asking, "'Old', as in….."
"Wearing an early 1900s clown costume," Bobby filled in.
Dean cleared his throat nervously. "And 'flaming' as in…."
"On fire, ya idjit," Bobby retorted, the resulting eye roll audible over the phone.
"Right, yeah," Dean covered hurriedly.
Bobby sighed, waiting.
"Wait, a freaking clown?" There it was - the rest of Dean's brain finally catching up, as Bobby had expected. "Bobby, you have got to be kidding me – I mean, since when did me and Sam become some sort of supernatural….bug light for creepy circus spirits?"
Bobby sighed again. "Dean, that rakshasa in…Wisconsin?" he double-checked.
"Yeah," Dean clarified.
"That was how many years ago now? At least five, right?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"And just how many clowns have you two dealt with since then, besides yourselves?"
"Uhhhh, none I guess," Dean replied, adding a protested, "Hey!" as he caught Bobby's dig.
"None. Exactly," Bobby pointed out. "So, you gonna keep bitchin', or you wanna hear about this job?"
Dean shut up, chastised. "Sorry," he grimaced, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "So, what's with this town and pissing off clowns?"
"Wasn't the town itself so much as just outside it," Bobby replied. "Back in 1918, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train made an emergency stop at a crossing 'bout five miles east of Hammond to cool down. Alonzo Sargent, the conductor of a Michigan Central Railroad train goin' the same way, fell asleep at the controls, missed the signals and warnings, and plowed through 'bout four of the circus's sleeping cars."
Dean's voice was strained. "Let me guess. Then it all went on fire?"
"Wooden train cars and kerosene lamps," Bobby confirmed. "Anyone still trapped in the wreckage who didn't die in the initial impact died in the fire."
Dean let out a shuddered breath at that image. "How many we talkin'?"
"Eight-seven dead," Bobby said.
"Great," Dean sighed. He paused, digesting the information. "Okay, so that explains the spirit, but why haunt the school? Why not the old crash site where he died?"
Dean could feel Bobby's look through the phone. "Good question – it's where I'd start, if I weren't offerin' the job to you two chuckleheads."
Dean groaned. "Right," he sighed.
"So?" Bobby prodded.
Dean cocked his head at the approaching sound of the Impala's engine. "So what?" he asked, distracted.
"So are you gonna take the job, Dean?"
"Oh, right, yeah," Dean glanced at the front door before leaning over to the nightstand and grabbing some motel stationary and a pen. "Yeah, we'll take it. You got an address for the school?"
"4925 Sohl Avenue," Bobby spelled out the name. "Tell Sam to check his email – I'm sendin' what I've got."
"Thanks, Bobby," Dean's voice cleared with gratitude as the front door opened and Sam walked in balancing dinner.
"Sure thing," Bobby said. "Keep me posted, and be careful, will ya?"
"Yeah, we will," Dean promised, ending the call and tossing the phone on the bed. He stood up with a nod to Sam.
Sam dropped the food on the rickety table with a rustle of plastic. "Bobby?" he asked, nodding at the phone.
"Yep," Dean confirmed, heading over to the table as Sam shrugged off his coat. "Got a job for us."
"Yeah?" Sam asked, arranging the Chinese food containers and snagging a fortune cookie before Dean could crush them, looking for the best fortune. "Where?"
"Hammond, Indiana," Dean grabbed the second fortune cookie with a glare at Sam's interruption of his routine.
"Nope. 'Flaming clown spirit,'" Dean said, waiting expectantly for Sam's response.
Sam's brow furrowed in thought as he processed the information. "'Flaming?'" he tilted his head, squinting.
"On fire," Dean quickly filled in.
Sam shot him a bewildered look that clearly asked what else the word could possibly mean.
Dean couldn't brush it off or look innocent fast enough before Sam's eyes narrowed with a disgusted sigh at his brother's brain before going distant again in thought, processing the rest of Dean's words.
Then it settled. "Dude, seriously? Clowns? Again?" he sputtered.
"I know, right?" Dean grabbed two beers from the cooler and sat down.
"How did Bobby even find this job?" Sam folded himself into one of the unbalanced chairs.
"I didn't ask," Dean realized. "And actually, now that you mention it, I'm not really sure I wanna know."
Sam smiled weakly at that.
"We'll check out what he sent us after dinner," Dean said, digging into his food. "I mean, creepy clown or not, a spirit's a spirit, right? Least that's somethin' we still know how to kill."
Sam stared down at the closed container in front of him for a few seconds before feeling Dean's gaze and looking up into his brother's expectant eyes. "Yeah," he agreed quickly, voice breathy.
Dean waited a moment before motioning to Sam's unopened food. "You know you actually need to open that to get to the food, right, genius?"
"Yeah, thanks," Sam rolled his eyes, opening the lo mein.
Dean should have seen it then, in the weak smile, the spaced-out look that drained Sam's face in the brief moment he stared at the unopened meal. But he didn't. It had been years since he had even thought of Sam and clowns in the same breath. And even back at that circus job in Wisconsin after Dad's death, Sam had been fine. Sure, Dean had teased him at every turn, but for all Dean knew about how badly clowns freaked Sam out, Sam had barely blinked the whole time. He had held it together through real clowns, the clown-disguised rakshasa, and even the clown chair in Cooper's office. Surrounded by panic attack inducing triggers, the most response Sam had was a brief moment of closing his eyes upon sitting in that clown chair – a faint throwback to the deep breathing exercises Dean used to walk him through as a kid – but the moment was fleeting and Sam had been right back on task. So, Dean didn't think twice about this Indiana job now, years later. If Sam's coulrophobia had barely been noticeable several years ago, it had to be a non-issue at this point. With everything that had happened – the Apocalypse, Hell, soullessness, the Great Wall of Sam, Lucifer…Dean figured that Sam's fear of clowns had long since been eliminated and replaced by fears much more recent and tangible. Because seriously, what were a couple of clowns after hallucinating freaking Lucifer?
He really should have known better.
Because Sam was a Winchester.
And Winchesters never did anything normally.
I-80, heading into Hammond, IN
"Okay, so if this is tied into the Hagab….." Dean ran through what they knew as he drove.
"Hagenbeck-Wallace," Sam corrected from the passenger seat, squinting against the sun's glare off the laptop.
"….train crash," Dean continued smoothly, "what's keeping the spirit around?" His eyes widened with a sudden thought. "Please tell me that circus isn't still running."
Sam's lips quirked in remembrance of previous paranormal scavenger hunts. "Thankfully, no. Shut down in 1938."
Dean let out a relieved breath. "So, that leaves human remains," he reasoned. After a moment's pause he added, "But wouldn't most of the victims have pretty much been cremated by the fire?"
"Maybe not all of them," Sam figured. "I mean, if the fire wasn't hot enough, if they were thrown clear of the train…."
"Comforting thoughts," Dean grimaced.
"Yeah," Sam's half-chuckle was weary. "Either way, the whole thing's pretty tied up with the town's history. Both the public library and the local historical society have collections dedicated to the wreck."
"Nice. Choose your own research adventure," Dean grinned.
Sam smiled wistfully, remembering motel nights where Dad was out on a hunt, just him and Dean lying side-by-side on one of the beds, Dean reading each possible storyline out loud from whichever dog-eared 'choose your own adventure' book they had either borrowed from the local library or found in a Goodwill that week. It was the one type of book, beyond books of their trade, that they always agreed on, and, looking back, one inherently Winchester in its set-up. Just like the story of their own lives, where they had told destiny to screw itself and forged their own way, those books didn't have one storyline or one ending – each story had a multitude of branching paths, all based on the individual reader's choice and action.
"So," Dean continued after they both had a moment to reminisce, "you find out anything about the school?"
Sam cleared his throat, refocusing. "Nothing that would explain why someone from the train wreck would be there," he said, nodding at the screen as he began to read. "The A.L. Spohn Elementary/Middle School. Built in 1967, no connection to circuses or circus performers – at least none I could find. Not built on or near the crash site." He shook his head. "I don't know man, it's weird."
"Tell me about it," Dean's brow furrowed as he turned onto the school's street. "So, talk to the janitor first, then check out the school tonight?" he asked.
"Sounds good," Sam nodded.
Dean circled the school briefly, both he and Sam doing a quick check of the layout, before, with a shared nod, they drove on to the janitor's house.
Home of Ken Cowette, school janitor
"Kenneth Cowette?" Dean tried to hide his wince at the bruised face and hunched posture that answered the door.
"I'm Dean, this is Sam. We're working on an article about the old circus train wreck and wondered if we could ask you a few questions."
The janitor cocked his head slightly, leaning against the doorframe. "Not sure what you think I could do for you," he said, confused. "The Historical Society down on State Street is full of stuff about it. I think Mr. Lytle even gives talks about his book over there too."
"Well, we're interested in the more, uh, spiritual side of things," Dean met his eyes carefully.
A warm smile brightened Ken's face. "Well, why didn't you say so?" he pushed open the screen door as he shifted backwards using the heavy front door's knob as a crutch. "Come on in!"
Sam and Dean shared a surprised look before stepping inside.
Ken led them to the living room with a slow shuffle. "Sorry about the mess," he apologized, starting to clear off the longer of the two couches. "I've been camping out down here the last couple of days."
"Please, we're fine over here," Sam assured him, motioning to the empty loveseat on the other side of the coffee table.
Ken nodded. "Can I get you guys something to drink?" he offered.
"No, thank you. Please, just….sit. Relax," Sam practically pleaded.
Ken eased himself down with a long sigh.
"So, Mr. Cowette….." Dean began.
"Ken, please," the janitor insisted. "I feel old enough walking around with this back," he rolled his eyes toward his hunched spine.
Dean's chuckle was the sound of a man who knew exactly what those injuries felt like. "Okay, Ken," he accepted. "How you doing?" he nodded at the damage.
"Ton of bruising, but, miraculously, no fractures," Ken said. "I'll live."
"So, what happened?" Dean got down to business.
"We had a bunch of locker banks that were falling apart, so I stayed late with a couple of the guys to help drag some replacements up from the basement. That's where I was when the spirit showed up. He stood still for a few seconds, then started pacing under the window, tapping on the wall, then on the lockers I had lined up. After about two minutes, he suddenly looked at me with this weird combination of sadness and…..anxiety maybe?" Ken tipped his head, thoughtful. "Didn't quite seem like anger, but close. Anyway, next thing I knew, a locker bank hit my back, threw me face down on the ground, and pinned me there. I could still see him pacing for another minute or two out of the corner of my eye before one of the guys came down to see what the noise was about. He disappeared just as Rick came down the stairs."
Sam and Dean shared a wordless conversation before Dean asked, "Uh, Ken, don't get me wrong here, but you seem strangely…..okay with all of this."
Ken chuckled. "Yeah, I guess some people would be a little more freaked out," he conceded.
"Try most people," Dean corrected.
Ken smiled. "Well, two reasons, I guess. First would be that I'm not exactly a stranger to the idea of spirits. This job is actually a second career for me."
"What were you, a Ghostbuster?" Dean smirked around Sam's 'dude, seriously?' glare.
"A nurse, actually," Ken said.
Dean shifted, his face catching up to that reveal. "Seriously?"
"If you're going to make a male nurse joke, I'll tell you right now, I've heard them all," Ken warned.
"No way, man," Dean promised, holding his hands out. "I'm just trying to understand…."
"How that makes me okay with spirits?" Ken finished. At Dean's nod, he continued. "I spent a few years working ICU and step-down with a real old-school nurse. She had this thing about opening the window after a patient died, so their spirit wouldn't be trapped in the hospital. I know it might sound kind of ridiculous, but I swear you could feel that spirit, essence, soul…whatever….linger around any loved ones for a minute, then move calmly right out the window, like someone was calling it to whatever comes next. There was this great big sigh, a sort of grateful relief, that would just fill the unit afterwards. One day, one of our patients coded and died unexpectedly. We were busy with a bunch of really critical cases that day and so we forgot to open the window. About twenty minutes after he passed, while he was being cleaned up, alarms started ringing all over the unit. Every intubated patient we had started fighting the ventilator, all at once. We started suctioning, increasing sedation, reassuring, but nothing was working. Then that nurse suddenly stopped, walked over to the window, and opened it up a crack…..and a minute later, it was like this tension we hadn't even realized was there, was suddenly gone. The alarms all stopped and everything went back to normal. The only way I can explain it is that the other patients felt the deceased's spirit and took matters into their own hands, to get us to remember and let him go."
Sam's eyes were wide as he absorbed the information. "What made you leave?" he asked quietly.
Ken shrugged, eyes distant. "Hospital politics, regulatory agencies making it impossible to actually do my job, unrealistic and dangerous patient assignments, complete and utter exhaustion….take your pick," he chuckled softly. "I love being a nurse, just not working as one. So now, I help my neighbors with their medical questions on my own time, and get paid to clean, to keep things in order. There's something satisfying about janitorial work - like bringing order from chaos, you know? I do a job, I get paid, and I go home. And my work doesn't follow me. I get to have a life."
"Can't argue that," Dean said.
Ken nodded, shaking himself back to focus. "Anyway, that's part of the reason. The second, is that I've seen this spirit before."
Dean's eyes widened as he met Sam's surprised look. "You've seen it before?" he echoed.
"Most of us have," Ken admitted. "Bob, the head custodian, has worked at the school since it was built in '67. Every year, on June 22nd, he'd see the spirit of an old-time circus clown with his costume on fire. The spirit would show up in the basement at midnight, the start of the 22nd, and stay there the full twenty-four hours until midnight rolled around again. We've all seen him. He always seemed sad, lost – it almost felt like he was looking for someone or waiting for something. He'd just stand there, on fire, without a word, and then disappear. Always the same thing, and always on the same date."
"Except we're not in June," Dean pointed out.
"Exactly," Ken agreed. "About two weeks ago, he showed up just like he would on his usual date. He stayed for the twenty-four hours, acting like he always does, but then he came back every day after that and started acting differently. Sometimes he'd pop in and out during the day, and then he started pacing, wringing his hands, tapping on things…..just looking real agitated."
"He ever hurt anyone before you?" Dean asked.
"No, that was the first time," Ken said, "and I'm afraid that whatever's changed, whatever's made him upset…..what if he goes upstairs? What if he hurts one of the kids?"
"Well, we'll just have to make sure he doesn't get that far," Dean said.
To Ken's credit, he didn't ask; just nodded, as if subconsciously understanding that these two guys knew things about spirits that he had never even imagined.
"Ken, you said the spirit started tapping," Sam spoke up, expression thoughtful. "Do you remember what it sounded like? Was it regular, like a pattern? Or did it seem more random?"
Ken flushed, embarrassed.
"What?" Sam and Dean asked simultaneously.
"Well, I….." Ken sighed, shaking his head. "I swear, it makes me feel like such a teenager….but I, uh….got it on video."
"You got the spirit on video?" Dean asked in disbelieving, hopeful clarification.
"Before it got upset, yeah," Ken said. "On my phone. C'mere, I'll show you."
Sam and Dean flanked Ken on the larger couch and watched the quiet footage, simple and respectful, only the light sound of Ken's breathing in the background. It was just as he said – the old clown costume, the flames, the pacing, tapping, agitation. Sam closed his eyes almost immediately, head tilted slightly, fingers moving against his jeans to copy the tapping pattern, brow furrowed in thought.
"Hey Sam, take a look at this. Does it look like he's missing a finger?" Dean pointed to the spirit's right hand.
Sam dragged his eyes open, slowly started looking back toward the screen…..and stopped.
"Sam?" Dean prodded, pointing again to the video as the spirit turned in his pacing.
But Sam's eyes didn't track Dean's finger. Or the spirit. Or anything. They were wide, clouded, unfocused.
"Sammy?" Dean pushed to his feet, crossed in front of Ken to Sam's side, and knelt down in front of him, lightly brushing his knee to Sam's leg. Dammit, Sam had said he was managing it, and amazingly enough he was, but Dean still recognized Satan-vision in his brother's blank eyes when he saw it. Even if neither of them acknowledged it afterwards, with Dean acquiescing to Sam's "I'm fine" and Sam moving on like it didn't happen; at this point, more of a mutual acknowledgement and resignation to a sad new norm, rather than an outright lie on either of their parts. "Sam, snap out of it!" Dean's low voice was firm, a non-tactile shake, not wanting to touch Sam any further in case he came up fighting. Poor Ken was bruised enough as it was.
Sam's hands started moving first, the right pressing into the scarred left before the subtle jump to full consciousness. "What?" he asked, clearing his throat roughly. He slowly noticed Dean's change in location, trying to figure out why he had moved. "I'm right here."
Dean watched him continue to rub the injured hand as he gave him a silent 'yeah, well you weren't a minute ago' look. "You notice anything about that finger?" he transitioned back to the video in deference to their audience, despite both of them knowing that Sam hadn't seen a thing.
Sam shook his head. "I couldn't really tell," he replied, blinking sluggishly as he dropped the palm to his jeans, pressing it tightly against his thigh.
"Absence seizures?" Ken asked Dean quietly.
Dean started. "Uh, yeah," he agreed, glad for an easily explained out.
Ken nodded. "When's the last time he had his meds checked?"
"It's sort of a constant balancing act," Dean said.
Ken sighed knowingly. "Yeah, I know how that is."
Dean gave Sam a 'you good?' look, and, with Sam's short nod, pushed himself to his feet.
"Hey Ken, you mind emailing me a copy of that video?" Sam asked, voice back to full strength again, as if nothing had happened.
"Sure," Ken brought up his email account as Sam gave his address.
Sam swiped at a loose strand of hair with his left hand as he stood up with Dean's 'okay, let's go' look.
"That's quite a scar you've got there," Ken motioned at the shiny skin on Sam's palm. "Can I ask what happened?"
Sam's face twitched imperceptibly as he replied, "Fell on some glass," a response he had needed to learn several times from Dean, because he still couldn't remember it actually happening.
"Ouch," Ken grimaced in sympathy. "Stitches suck, don't they?"
Sam's tight smile was a sea of emotion. "They're not so bad," he glanced over at Dean.
Ken smiled back. "Well, you're a braver man than the many I've known who've complained nonstop from the moment they went in until the moment they came out," he chuckled as he slowly rose to his feet to walk them out.
"Thanks, Ken, we really appreciate your help," Dean held out a hand as they reached the door.
Ken shook it firmly. "Any time." His eyes softened. "I have to admit, I'll kind of miss the old spirit, but it's way past time for him to move on. I hope you find his window," he met Dean's eyes squarely.
Sam and Dean shared a pained smile as they said their final goodbyes.
Ken watched them until the car turned the corner. Then, with a soft smile, he shut the door, shuffled back to the couch, and quietly contemplated the skylight.
Hammond Historical Society
"So," Sam asked, as a representative named Mark gave him the general story while Dean paged through a collection of photos and articles, "what else can you tell me about the train wreck?"
"What would you like to know?" Mark asked.
"Well, we were wondering what happened to the bodies," Sam said.
From his place at Sam's back, Dean felt a fleeting twist in his gut at Sam's matter-of-fact delivery. There was a time Sam would have pretended to be embarrassed for asking such a macabre question, playing up his role as a naive journalist. Hell, Dean would've done the same thing. But that time was gone, a time before apocalyptic fires and unnamable tortures; before they approached every case as some form of law enforcement asking straightforward questions.
"I mean, they must have been burned pretty badly, right?" Sam continued.
"Oh yes, many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, but they were still removed and buried," Mark replied.
Dean glanced up, eyebrows raised.
"Really?" Sam asked, leaning forward with interest. "Is there a record of where they were buried?"
"Of course," Mark seemed surprised that someone wouldn't know. "Most of the remains were interred at Showmen's Rest."
"Showmen's Rest?" Sam repeated.
"Yes, it's a section of Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois. The Showmen's League of America bought the plot in 1916, to be a resting place for the show people of the country. The Hagenbeck-Wallace tragedy was its first major interment. They still do burials there to this day."
"Is there a list of the names of the train wreck victims buried there?" Sam asked.
"Not really, no," Mark said. "You see, even discounting the fact that many bodies were burned so badly that formal identification was impossible, this was the circus. Most circus performers were only known by nicknames, and most of the dead were roustabouts who had only been hired hours or days prior to the crash. There are three stones with nicknames inscribed on them, but the rest only read 'unknown male or female' and a number."
Sam's shoulders dropped as Dean let out a hastily stifled groan behind him, followed by a muttered, "awesome."
"What were the three nicknames?" Sam asked.
"'Smiley,' 'Baldy,' and 'Four Horse Driver,'" Mark replied. "Are you looking for someone in particular? A long-lost relative perhaps?"
"No, just curious," Sam assured him. He paused for a moment, thoughtful. "What was the circus's next stop supposed to be?"
"Right here in Hammond," Mark said.
Sam rubbed at his left hand as he sat up straighter. "Do you know where in town?" he fought the urge to shake his head, blinking carefully.
"Sure – the old Show Grounds at 150th and Calumet. You know, right where the school is today."
Sam and Dean stiffened in unison. Without even looking at each other, they stood up as one unit.
"Thank you for your time," Sam shook Mark's hand, and led the way out the door.
"Now it makes sense," Dean burst out as soon as they were outside the building. "The whole thing with the school's been bugging the crap out of me since Bobby called."
Sam nodded as they walked to the Impala, putting everything together. "Exactly. The clown dies in either the initial crash or the resulting fire. The last thing he remembers is the upcoming performance in Hammond that day at the Show Grounds."
"So every year on June 22nd, the day of the crash, he goes there and waits for the rest of his buddies to show up and start the show," Dean picked up. He shook his head as he walked around to the driver's side, leaning on the roof to look over at Sam. "You know, I'll bet he's been there every year since the crash. That whatever was there before the school was haunted too."
"Probably," Sam agreed, ducking down and into the passenger seat. He looked over at Dean as he followed suit and settled in behind the wheel. "But what I don't get is what's changed. I mean, you heard Ken – the spirit's followed the same pattern since 1967, and probably way before that," he acknowledged Dean's previous insight. "Why change now?"
Dean shrugged. "I dunno, maybe he's just tired of waiting," he half-chuckled. "I mean, after ninety-three years, I'd probably start gettin' pissed too."
Sam's eyes widened. "That's it!" he exclaimed.
Dean frowned, confused. "That's what?" he asked.
"Think about it, Dean," Sam insisted, sitting up straighter, hands moving with his excitement. "Vengeful spirits don't start out that way, right? It's a process. Something - either their remains, an attached object, some unfinished business - keeps them here. The cycle continues for years, until….."
"….They snap," Dean realized, his own excitement building. "The clown's been waiting every year for over ninety years, with no one ever showing up, and he's done. So he goes from sad and lonely to pissed and throwing lockers at janitors, breaking all his old patterns because they never got him anywhere in the first place." He shifted in his seat to look at Sam. "Are we actually…..?" he asked, incredulous.
"Witnessing the birth of a vengeful spirit? Yeah, I think so," Sam breathed.
"Holy crap, dude," Dean still couldn't believe it. Never, in all the years they had been hunting, had they ever seen a spirit actively making that transition.
"Yeah," Sam's voice was shaky. "Which means we've gotta move fast, Dean. Before he hurts anyone else."
Dean nodded. "Well, thanks to Ken's video, we don't really need to check out the school – we know the clown's there, and for all it's worth, what he looks like. How far is it to the cemetery?"
Sam was already grabbing the map. "Forest Park is only about….. thirty-seven miles northwest of here," he said. "Just outside Chicago."
Dean started the car. "Dude, how the hell are we gonna find one pissed off clown that we know nothing about in a field of stones with no useful information on them? Even if the clown gave us his name, we'd probably still be screwed. I mean, nice try asking about the nicknames back there, but how much you wanna bet we're not dealing with 'Smiley', 'Baldy', or 'Four Horse whatshisname'?"
"Yeah," Sam agreed, knowing they wouldn't be that lucky. "I don't know, man," he sighed, "but we're gonna have to come up with something."
"Awesome," Dean groaned as he started to drive.
Sam laid his head against the window, disguised a shudder as a position change, and curled his left hand into his sleeve.
Woodlawn Cemetery, Forest Park, IL
The next morning, Dean parked the Impala down the path from the Showmen's Rest section so they could get a better sense of the cemetery layout for that night. As Sam directed them with the cemetery map, Dean studied the accompanying local area map as they walked. "Dude, look at the name of this friggin' park," he shoved the paper in Sam's direction.
Sam looked down. "Which one? This whole area is nothing but parks, hospitals, and cemeteries," he pointed out.
"This one," Dean jabbed a finger at the paper.
Sam pulled at the map so Dean's finger would move. "Candycane Park?" he asked, bemused.
"Candycane Park," Dean repeated with a disbelieving huff. "Could they have picked a gayer name? I mean, what're we in freaking Candy Land here?"
Sam shook his head with an indulgent half-smile.
"Well, Candy Land except for the circus cemeteries and flaming clown spirits," Dean corrected himself, eyes brightening at Sam's attempt to hide his grin.
"Yeah, I don't remember that part either," Sam agreed, recalling the time they found a battered copy of the board game in a motel a few years back and spent the night vaguely wondering if they were committing some horrible childhood crime by turning it into a drunken race, complete with bottle cap game piece replacements. He glanced up as the path turned. "There it is," he pointed ahead.
They walked up to the plot, marked by several statues of elephants with their trunks lowered in a symbolic mourning posture. They went silent as they split up and began walking through the simple stone slabs. The flag fluttered heavily with a gust of wind, the dull roar of nearby traffic fading behind the powerful quiet that always settled around particularly tragic graveyards.
"Well, I found 'Baldy' and '4 Horse Driver'," Dean called out after awhile, nodding down to two stones at his feet. "But dude, there are like fifty 'unknowns' here. And we can't exactly torch 'em all just in case."
Sam nodded absent-mindedly, walking along the 'unknown' markers slowly, head down, twisting his hands restlessly. The flag line tapped against its pole with a metallic ping as the wind blew again, stopping Sam in his tracks. He curled his left hand into a fist as the right began tapping against his thigh.
Dean frowned as Sam stopped moving, head bowed, eyes closed, fingers drumming against his jeans. "Sam?" he worried as he quickly moved to his brother's side. Sam continued the tapping, face scrunched in concentration. "Hey! Rain Man!" Dean grabbed Sam's hand with rough nervousness, needing to stop the movement and get Sam to look at him.
Sam startled back to awareness.
"Sam? Hey, look at me," Dean ordered, desperately trying to keep the shakiness from his voice.
Sam blinked rapidly as he met Dean's eyes.
Dean searched the familiar hazel for signs of Lucifer even as he asked, "You okay?"
Sam frowned for a moment, as if he had forgotten what he was doing, before he suddenly straightened, pulled his hand from Dean, and strode purposefully down the line of stones.
Dean rushed after him. "Sam!" he shouted, his mind going a mile a minute as he tried not to freak out.
"It's a number, Dean!" Sam said, breathless, as he stopped in front of a stone.
"What's a number?" Dean came to an abrupt stop in front of him, his brain following suit as it jarred against his skull, trying to figure out what was going on.
"In Ken's video, the spirit's tapping – it was a regular, repeating pattern," Sam reminded him.
Dean suddenly realized what Sam had been doing, and felt a brief wave of relief flood through him at the fact that it was just geeky, researching Sam working something out; what once, a million years ago, would have been his first and only thought. "Right," he recalled. "You're thinking…."
"Morse Code," Sam nodded. He grabbed Dean's hand and tapped four short taps followed by a press of his finger, followed by a swift repetition of the same.
"Numbers….." Dean murmured, concentrating as Sam did it again. "Four….four? Forty-four?" he looked up.
Sam's hair blew across his face as he nodded vigorously and motioned down at the stone at their feet.
'Unknown Male No. 44. June 22, 1918.'
Dean's eyes widened. "You think the spirit wants someone to gank him?" he asked incredulously.
"I don't know, Dean," Sam admitted. "Maybe he felt things changing; realized he was getting dangerous and didn't want to hurt anyone. Or maybe he doesn't even know he's doing it, let alone that it's associated with his grave marker. Either way, it doesn't really matter. It's the best lead we've got."
Dean couldn't argue there. "All right. We'll come back tonight and see what's behind door number forty-four," he agreed.
Sam shot him a look.
"What?" Dean feigned ignorance until a little smile broke free from Sam as he turned back toward the path, shaking his head.
A smile Dean held onto as they walked back to the Impala and a few hours' rest.
Showmen's Rest, midnight
"I swear those friggin' elephants are watching me," Dean grumbled as he shoveled through the last few inches of dirt.
Sam sighed, shifting on his feet at the edge of the grave as he directed the flashlight down on Dean.
Dean looked up as the light moved. "C'mon man, don't tell me you aren't expecting one of those trunks to start movin'," he insisted.
Sam switched the flashlight over to his left hand and gripped it tightly. "You almost done?" his voice was strained.
Dean's head turned at the pinched voice. "Just about….." he hit the wooden coffin with a thump. "Got it," he announced, breaking the lid open. "You okay up there?"
"Yeah, just….." Sam didn't say 'fine.' That was the first thing that caught Dean's attention.
The second was that Sam had abruptly stopped talking.
"Sammy?" Dean's voice rose as he dragged himself out of the grave. He pulled himself up behind Sam to find their clown spirit several feet ahead next to one of the statues, his flames casting an eerie orange glow in the elephant's eyes, fingers tapping repeatedly against the stone as he stood stiff, as if forcibly holding himself back from pacing.
"Whoa, nice detective work there, Magnum," Dean praised Sam, slapping his shoulder. "Now c'mon," he urged as he turned around, grabbing the lighter fluid from the duffel and blindly handing the salt can back to Sam.
Who didn't take it.
"Sam! Let's go!" Dean barked, pushing to his feet again and moving in front of Sam to command his attention, putting himself right in his brother's line of vision.
But Sam didn't see him.
Wide, unfocused, panicked eyes stared straight through Dean as Sam stood rooted in place, a sheen of sweat on his pale face as he trembled in the cool night air, breathing rough on the edge of hyperventilation.
"Sammy?" Dean's voice pitched up on the second syllable, trying to reach him.
"Dammit," Dean swore as he tore himself away from Sam and began dousing the corpse in salt. He watched Sam nervously from the edge of the grave, as the tremor wracked body hunched against increasingly difficult breaths. Of course Lucifer would show his ugly mug now. Speaking of which, what the hell was with the Lucifer reruns the last two days? Sam had been going weeks without so much as a flinch. Unless of course, Dean just hadn't noticed…..a thought he decidedly did not have time for at the moment.
Dean tossed the salt can back on the ground as he swapped it out for the lighter fluid and drenched the bones. The clown began moving, flickering in and out as it phased toward Sam.
"Oh no you don't," Dean growled as he reached for his lighter – no way some damn clown spirit was going after Sam while Lucifer was already messing with him. Dean may not have been able to do much about Lucifer right now, but he could do something about the clown.
The clown moved again, reaching the very edge of Sam's personal space. Sam's entire body stiffened as he hunched against the increasingly violent tremors, his breathing ragged…..and then Dean heard it. A choked sound – half-despairing pleading, half- completely freaked out - a sound that came from deep within Sam's chest and lodged in the back of his throat, only betrayed to air as shaking spasms forced it through flaring nostrils and a clenched throat. A sound so uniquely Sam – before demons, deals, and walls.
A sound that was Dean's little brother in panicked distress.
Panicked, clown-induced distress.
This wasn't Sam seeing through the cracks of Hell's shattered wall; it was the kid who had been terrified of clowns since he was a toddler.
This was Sam in the beginning of a full-blown panic attack.
"Sammy, hold on!" Dean shouted, hoping his voice could get through long enough to stabilize Sam before he could get back to his side. He dropped the lighter into the grave and watched the spirit's flames suddenly flash blue before, with a silent scream and almost grateful eyes, he disappeared.
"Sam? Sammy?" Dean rushed forward and grabbed fistfuls of Sam's jacket, struggling to keep him upright. "Sammy, look at me," Dean half-pleaded, half-ordered.
But Sam was too far gone. Dean could feel his brother's racing heart, the rapid breathing, the cold sweat on Sam's neck even as every muscle trembled under his hands. Sam was beyond sight, pupils blown, eyes unseeing as he stared through Dean to where the spirit had been; beyond hearing as Dean's words went unacknowledged. But not beyond feeling. Because seconds after Dean grabbed him, the tears broke free, silent but for the sound of Sam's teeth rattling with the tremors; the occasional pained noise that caught in his throat. And that's when Dean knew they had to move, that they only had moments before the attack escalated. Because even five year old Sam had only really let the panic take over when he knew he wasn't alone anymore.
When he knew Dean was there.
"Okay, Sam," Dean reassured them both as he tightened his grip on Sam's jacket and hauled him further upright. "It's okay, I gotcha. It's gonna be okay." He pulled Sam's right arm over his shoulders, testing the support briefly before leaning over to grab the duffel and shovel. Awkwardly stuffing them under his right arm, Dean shifted his grip back to Sam's arm and waist. "We're gonna get you back to the car, you're gonna be fine, just hang on," Dean assured, keeping up a steady litany as he manhandled Sam back to the Impala.
They were just reaching the car, Sam half-propped against the back passenger side window, held up by Dean's shoulder and hip pinning him in place, when the 'fight or flight' need to bolt kicked in. Dean knew that panic attacks were a massive sympathetic nervous system response, but it had been a long time since he had seen Sam in the throes of panic's 'you need to get the hell out of here NOW' fear, and there had been a lot less of Sam back then. So when 6'4" of flailing limbs and solid muscle suddenly launched into a desperate, primal need to run from the cemetery, from the car, from Dean…it nearly unbalanced Dean's careful juggling of brother and car door.
"Sam!" Dean's shout was a half-groan as he was knocked into the sharp edge of the door. He ducked the wild arm that had been around his shoulder seconds ago and grabbed for Sam's jacket, terrified that if he lost any sort of grip on Sam, that he'd run and be gone forever. "Sam, I know you need to get out of here, believe me man, I do. And that's exactly what we're doin' – just need to get you in the car and we're gone, okay? Sam?"
Dean maneuvered his grip from Sam's jacket to his left arm and winced at the jolt as Sam tried to bolt from the support of the car, only to be snapped back by Dean's hold. Sam's breathing grew harsher, desperation augmenting the panicked tremors wracking his body. Dean held firm as Sam struggled again, the panic, in some sad stroke of luck, clouding his mind far enough that he didn't dig into his training. "Sam, c'mon, I gotcha. Let's just sit down, get the hell out of here, and get you breathin' again, okay? You're gonna be all right, I promise," Dean swore.
Sam's body shook, hard, and Dean felt the icy chill tear through both of them. Sam threw out his free right arm, and Dean blocked it swiftly, grabbing the fisted hand tightly. He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Sam's midsection, pinning his arms to his sides, desperately hoping Sam wouldn't melt down further at the restraint. "Sam!" he barked, holding Sam tight as the kid practically vibrated out of his arms. "Sammy, I know you can hear me somewhere in there. You're havin' a panic attack, man. You're not hallucinating, you're not goin' crazy and you are not alone, you hear me? I'm right here and I'm not gonna leave you. Now I need you to stop fightin' me and let me get you in the car so we can get outta here, okay? Can you do that for me, Sammy? Just let me get you sittin' down," Dean pleaded, the words coming back through years of disuse.
Sam's shaking intensified as a raw, choked sound that could have been a sob, could have been acquiescence, was torn from his rough throat.
Dean watched the long hair fall forward as Sam's chin dropped to his chest. "I'm takin' that as a yes," he decided out loud, and Sam didn't fight him as Dean maneuvered the trembling frame into the passenger seat. He held a hand on Sam's shoulder for as long as he could as he locked the door before shutting it, tossed the shovel and duffel into the trunk, and sprinted around to the driver's seat. "Okay, Sammy, here we go," he said, working to keep his voice calm and steady, letting Sam know exactly what was going on. He began driving through the stone-lined paths, forcing himself to keep a slow, steady pace even as he just wanted to floor it out of there. They were two minutes in, when Sam began flailing again, arms and legs tangling in the small space of the car, knees smacking into the glove box, fingers cracking against the window, head rolling against the headrest to fall against the door with a heavy thud. Shaking, uncoordinated hands clumsily searched for the door handle as Sam's breathing ratcheted up to painful, gasping gulps.
Dean hit the brakes and nudged the car into the shadow of a moon-lit mausoleum. "Sam!" he grabbed for the closest arm, grasping Sam's left wrist and grimacing at the pounding pulse too rapid to count. He wanted to reach around to protect Sam's head but, afraid that putting an arm across Sam's body and near his throat would freak him out further, instead laid his other hand lightly on Sam's chest; an old, childhood comfort. Dean watched his hand rise and fall rapidly with the ragged, dangerous breathing. "Sammy, you're in the car, you're safe. The spirit's gone, it's just you and me. I've gotcha, you're okay, you're gonna be fine," Dean soothed, his voice cracking as he pleaded, "Just focus on me, Sam, c'mon, you gotta focus on me."
Sam slowly stopped flailing, the wrist held in Dean's grasp twitching restlessly through the tremors as the heavy head rolled where it lay on the window, trying to find Dean with a low, shaky moan.
"That's it, Sammy, I'm right here," Dean encouraged.
Sam fought through the tremors and lifted his head just as a violent spasm slumped him back against the window and sent him retching.
"Shit," Dean swore as he leaned across the seat, pulling Sam into an upright position before leaning him forward as his stomach heaved. For a brief moment, he thought of going around to the passenger side and shifting Sam's legs so he'd be leaning outside the car, to give him a little more space and some fresh air. But that would have required leaving Sam's side and not being able to touch him for a few seconds; seconds that could easily send Sam right back into a flailing mess. And part of Dean felt like they kind of needed to keep the doors closed, to shut out the world, so that it would really be what Dean said it was, what it had always come down to – just him and Sam.
Sam gulped a hastily cut off, shuddering breath; a miserable moan as he tried to breathe between spasms, one arm curled around his abdomen as the other was held firmly in Dean's grasp. Dean reached back for a convenience store plastic bag and laid it hastily on the floor by Sam's feet, not really caring whether it caught everything or not. Sam hadn't eaten much that day and was only really bringing up bile, trying to spit as his throat fought the spasms still shaking his body. Dean laid his right hand on the back of Sam's neck, grimacing at the shaking, the cold sweat, the rapid pulse. He smoothed the damp hair aside so his hand was laying directly on Sam's skin; a warm, reassuring presence. "It's okay, Sam, it'll pass, don't fight it, I gotcha," he soothed, cupping Sam's neck, squeezing his wrist gently.
But it wasn't passing. The shaking, retching, chilled sweating, and rapid breathing and pulse just kept on going. When Dean glanced at his watch to find that it had been almost twenty minutes since the attack had started, he began to freak out himself - Sam's panic attacks had never lasted this long before. They'd peak around ten minutes and then either be settling out or finished by fifteen. This one was showing no signs of letting up. The retching spasms continued to pull desperate, half-sobbed groans from Sam's lips as he had nothing left to bring up, his gasping breathing left with no time to regulate between the tremors and dry heaves, until it finally exploded into choking struggles for air. Sam bolted upright, eyes wide and terrified as he gasped uselessly, skin gray, nostrils flaring, mouth open, his neck and chest flaring as every accessory muscle struggled to pull in much-needed oxygen. Dean's own pulse hammered in his throat as the Impala was flooded with ominous, ragged wheezing.
"Sammy?" Part of Dean cursed himself as the panic finally burst through his own voice, but dammit, look at the kid. "Sam, you gotta breathe, man. You gotta slow it down. Sammy, c'mon, look at me," Dean grabbed the sides of Sam's face and forced the trembling head toward him.
Wide, panicked hazel struggled to focus on Dean; the eyes of the four year old kid Dean had first guided through this horror. Wordlessly screaming for his brother; screaming that he couldn't breathe.
"Yes you can!" Dean responded firmly to the unspoken terror, holding Sam's face tightly. "Yes you can, Sam," his voice shook as he brushed his thumbs over the tears leaking from the panicked eyes. "C'mon, you know what to do – watch me Sam, breathe with me, c'mon," Dean started to slow his own breathing to the pattern he needed Sam to follow; the deep breathing exercise he hadn't walked Sam through since his teens.
Sam's wide eyes blinked once, the barest flicker of movement as the panic suddenly dimmed in the face of oncoming darkness, his eyes starting to roll back in his head.
"No way. You are not passin' out on me," Dean growled, panic flaring as he pushed Sam's head down between his knees again. Ever since that Leviathan had bashed Sam's head into another freaking seizure back at Bobby's, Dean was less and less okay with Sam being unconscious; terrified, with everything that had happened to the kid's head over the last year or two, that if he lost consciousness, he wouldn't ever wake up again. "C'mon, Sam, breathe!" Dean ordered, rubbing Sam's back briskly as the tremors continued to assault the long frame.
Sam's wheezing caught on a hitch, and Dean's heart nearly stopped at the sudden realization that the hitch was Sam not breathing. "Sammy?" he shouted, dropping Sam's wrist, pulling the lax body backwards, and cursing the blue-tinged lips as he dug his knuckles into Sam's sternum. "Dammit, Sam, don't you do this," Dean growled, tears blurring his vision as he tried to kick start his brother's breathing. No way some clown-induced panic attack was gonna take Sam from him. Not now. Not after everything they'd been through. "Breathe, dammit! C'mon Sam, you gotta breathe, please," Dean pleaded, digging in for another sternal rub.
Sam's whole body jerked as he gasped in a raw, choking breath.
Dean wasn't sure who he thanked in that moment, because he sure as hell didn't believe in God anymore.
Muddy hazel sought Dean's face as the panic resumed, the ragged breathing escalating as the tremors reignited the cycle.
"Uh-uh, we're not startin' that up again," Dean insisted, pushing Sam's head back down. He shoved Sam's jacket open and placed one palm flat on the heaving flannel over Sam's chest, then grabbed Sam's left hand and held it tightly against his own chest. He squeezed Sam's hand and started breathing in a slow, measured rhythm; even counts of three in and out. "You feel that, Sam?" he asked.
Sam gulped back a wheeze with one of those horrific, pained sounds before shifting his fingers lightly under Dean's hand.
"Good," Dean praised. "Focus on that, Sammy. I know it's been awhile, but you know the drill. Just breathe with me, in and out," Dean soothed, counting his breaths as he slowly inhaled and exhaled under Sam's hand.
Sam shuddered with a violent chill, gripping Dean's shirt desperately. Dean held the fisted fingers tightly. "In and out. With me, Sammy," he coached. "Screw everything else. All you gotta do is breathe right now."
Sam's breath stuttered in his chest as he struggled to follow Dean's voice, to match the regular, even breaths. Abused muscles protested the shift and he sagged with sudden exhaustion.
Dean's other hand moved from the back of Sam's neck to squeeze his shoulder reassuringly. "Hang in there, kiddo, you're doin' great," he said softly, as he went back to counting.
Sam rallied his flagging energy. For Dean. He turned all his muddied attention to Dean's voice; to the feel of Dean's chest moving evenly under his hand, the warmth of Dean's hands on his ice cold skin.
And then, thirty minutes after it all began, it was over; the Impala silent but for the sound of two brothers breathing evenly, quietly, together.
Dean let the silence settle around them, rubbing his brother's shoulder gently, monitoring the even breathing, the body finally relaxing as the tremors ceased, waiting for Sam to make the next move.
Sam let out a soft, shuddered breath, sniffling wetly as he brought up his free right hand to scrub shakily at raw, bloodshot eyes.
"Sammy?" Dean asked quietly.
Sam tightened his grip on Dean's shirt in response as he rested his right elbow on his knee and began attempting to sit up.
Dean gently put Sam's hand down and helped ease him back to a sitting position. Sam fell back into the seat cushion with an exhausted moan, scrunching his eyes shut.
Dean put a hand on Sam's shoulder again - a strong, present grip, ready to let Sam sleep if he needed to.
But Sam stiffened, a flinch chasing across his worn features as he pulled back from the seat cushion and began rubbing at his left hand.
Dean's eyes narrowed as he followed the signs. What the hell…..
"Sam?" he asked, confused and suddenly even more worried. What was he missing? "Sam, are you seeing him right now? Lucifer?" he clarified.
Sam took a few seconds, but finally responded with a slow shake of the head as his fingers worked the scar.
"Sammy?" Dean pressed, unable to keep the 'please don't lie to me' plea from his voice.
Sam shook his head again, firmly.
Dean sighed. "Did you see him back at the grave?" he asked. He knew they had just dealt with a panic attack, but was he assuming it had been about the clown? Was Sam getting Lucifer panic attacks now too?
Sam blinked sluggishly, starting back to awareness, still messing with his hand. "No," his voice was rough, but Dean felt a flood of relief at the fact he was actually talking again. "Just the clown," Sam continued, the tone changing to a half-manic laugh, the sound of a man on the edge, one who would break down sobbing if he didn't try to at least pretend that humor still existed.
Dean frowned, tightening his reassuring grip on Sam's shoulder. "Then….." he tried to understand.
Sam bit his lip as he worked his hand. "He's laughing," he finally said quietly.
Dean's eyebrows drew low. The impulse to call Sam out on lying a few seconds ago quickly faded as he remembered just who it was that he was dealing with. Sam worked semantics as well as he did any other weapon – he hadn't been "hiding" hallucinations after his lab meltdown during the failed Purgatory return, he just "wasn't talking" about them. And now, Dean had asked him if he was seeing Lucifer….not if he was just hearing him. He took a breath. "Lucifer? Right now?" he asked, clarifying Sam's vague affirmation of an auditory hallucination.
Sam nodded slowly, repressing a shudder. "Right now….on and off since we took this job….." he reluctantly revealed. Then that half-sobbed laugh again, but with a hint of Winchester anger. "He thinks the whole thing is hilarious," Sam's shadowed eyes flashed with weary rage.
Dean drew in a breath, his own anger spiking. "Lucifer's laughing about your clown thing?" he demanded. They had never called it a fear. Sam had a thing with clowns. Dean had a thing with flying. "How did he even know…."
Sam swallowed roughly, face twitching slightly in that way that meant he was about to talk about something he really didn't want to talk about. But they had learned a lot about lying to each other over the years, and especially over the last few weeks, and whether they wanted to protect each other or not, they were at least a little better about knowing when to compromise now. He gripped his hand tightly as he spoke, voice low, hair falling to cover eyes suddenly unable meet Dean's. "In…." he winced, hunching down further, choking on words he couldn't say, but knew that Dean understood. "…Sometimes he got bored. Even of using you," Sam twitched again and Dean tightened his grip on the shaking shoulder. "So he'd dig deeper, back to when I was a kid."
Dean held onto Sam for the both of them as Sam's soft voice struggled through the admission and Dean got a glimpse of how Lucifer preyed on Sam's childhood fear in Hell; of over a hundred years of increasingly creative exposures, of panic attacks in the depth of the Cage with his tormenter shifting from clown-costumed torturer to brother-wearing supporter, trying to sidle into the role of comforter.
It was all Dean could do not to vomit himself. Or to go hunting that sonuvabitch, Devil or no freaking Devil.
"So he's been more of a dick than usual since we took this job," Dean began to understand, thinking back to Sam's quiet lapse over Chinese the night Bobby called, to when he checked out at Ken's, to little moments of messing with that hand…..all while his stomach churned as he wondered why he hadn't noticed all of this earlier.
Sam nodded, still looking down.
"Did he show up when the spirit did tonight?" Dean asked, trying to understand what had pushed Sam over the edge.
"No, that's the thing," Sam blew out a breath, still worrying at his hand. "It was just the clown. He didn't start laughing again until just now. I don't get it, Dean. I mean, I was fine back at that job with the rakshasa," he tilted his head slightly, not realizing he was continuing to talk out loud, "although maybe that was just 'cause I was worried about you," he admitted.
Dean's eyes widened at that, but he kept quiet, filing it away for later thought.
"But I honestly thought I was over it," Sam continued, not recognizing his slip. "Why…." His voice caught roughly, face falling as his eyes burned.
And Dean read it all. Isn't dealing with Hell memories and Lucifer hallucinations enough? Do I really have to deal with stupid childhood phobias too?
Dean swallowed, steadying his voice as an idea began to form, the words coming even as the clouds hadn't quite cleared enough yet for him to fully understand what it was that he was actually realizing. "Sam, since….." Dean couldn't bring himself to talk about Cas's betrayal at that moment, not while Sam was falling apart next to him – again - because of the angel. "….since the wall's been down, has Lucifer ever completely gone away?"
Sam was still looking down at his hand, the shiny scar tissue catching the moonlight. "No," he admitted softly. "But I've been…." He immediately rushed to assure, to explain.
"Managing it," Dean finished. "I know," he soothed, remembering Sam's assurance back in Montana. "But he's still there, which means you're having to 'manage it' pretty much all the time," he pointed out.
Sam's face scrunched – half desperate toddlerhood defiance, half protective, shielding…..brother. Older brother. Saying everything was fine when it was far from it, just to hold his family together. Dean's stomach sank. When the hell had that reversal happened?
"I'm fine," Sam promised the both of them. A silent 'I don't want you to worry', 'I can do this', 'You have enough on your plate.'
They didn't talk about how different their versions of 'okay' had become over the years. Dean knew that he hadn't been 'okay' in a long time; knew he had been walking a dark edge ever since Cas…but had he really been so wrapped up in his own darkness that he hadn't seen this? Hadn't seen Sam stepping up to protect Dean from more evil and heartbreak at the expense of silently managing his own shattered mind? Hadn't stopped looking at Sam like he was a walking time bomb of crazy long enough to consider what just being vertical, let alone coherent, must cost him? Had he even really acknowledged Sam's condition since the warehouse, let alone helped? And had it really taken one of the worst panic attacks of Sam's life for Dean to even start thinking about any of this?
Oh yeah, he was doing a great job taking care of Sam.
And just like that, the lingering clouds dispersed, leaving only the clarity of the moment. Taking a breath around the rush of insight and fresh realization, Dean's words continued, unbidden, to put things back in order. To make things right.
"Most of the time, yeah," Dean agreed, holding up a hand before Sam could protest. "But think about it, Sam. When do we get sick, or start havin' nightmares we haven't had in years, huh? When we're so exhausted and run down that we've got nothin' left to fight with." He looked earnestly at Sam, who was still looking down. "And believe me, man, Hell'll do that to you. Just tryin' to keep it halfway locked down….it shoots every other defense to crap," Dean's voice broke as his own experience began to bleed through. But it had gotten to Sam back in that warehouse, and he wasn't about to hold back again now. "There are days I'm still barely hangin' on, man, and I swear, it takes everything just to keep puttin' one foot in front of the other. And that's without freaking Lucifer riding shotgun. So, yeah, you may have been over the clown thing, but now you're spending every waking moment kicking the Devil's ass. You're exhausted, Sam. So something like this comes back in and takes advantage 'cause you're…."
Sam looked up slowly, meeting Dean's eyes for the first time since the conversation began - weary, blurred hazel, red and raw behind a curtain of unshed tears. Dean didn't finish his sentence; wouldn't finish it, because it was all right there in Sam's eyes. And it was painful enough just seeing it. Actually saying it threatened to shatter both of them beyond repair.
"….just 'cause," Dean finished softly.
Sam held his gaze, swallowing roughly as his lips quirked around half a dozen different emotions warring for dominance. After several seconds, he drew in a shaky breath. "That was pretty deep, Sigmund," he murmured.
Dean let out a surprised huff of air. "Bite me, college boy," he chuckled, before quickly turning serious again. "Sam, I'm sorry…." He sighed, a blanket apology for his own perceived failures as well as what Sam had just revealed about Lucifer.
Sam went rigid, wincing on a flinch.
"Sam?" Dean straightened, voice thick with worry.
Sam stiffened further, grasping his left hand with renewed force. "Don't apologize," his voice was strained; the words clipped, but not angry. "Just talk."
Dean immediately understood; saw the plea, the need, in the quick dart of Sam's eyes, the way they latched onto him. Lucifer was back, and Sam needed the teasing, the distraction, the normalcy, to help get rid of him.
That Dean could do.
He chuckled to himself, shaking his head.
Sam's eyes narrowed, as he picked up the game. "What?" he asked.
"It's just…..I mean, dude, clowns? Still?" he laughed, even as he cast a sidelong glance at Sam to make sure he wasn't crossing the line.
Sam tilted his head with a half-hearted glare. "Says the guy who's still afraid of flying."
"Hey, planes still crash," Dean shot back.
"And apparently, clowns still…..well, almost kill," Sam countered, amending the memory of their conversation all those years ago in Wisconsin.
Dean tipped his head to concede that point. He sighed with a half-laugh. "Look at us, man. All the crap that's happened, everything we've been through…..I still can't get on a freaking plane, and you can't look at a damn clown."
Sam's smile was strained, but wistful. "I don't know," he mused, "Maybe it's a good thing that stuff's still there."
Dean's eyes widened. What could possibly be good about the fact that Sam's already Lucifer-damaged brain had just thrown him into a clown-triggered, respiratory arrest-inducing panic attack? "Yeah?" he tempered his response, honestly curious despite the surprise.
"Keeps us human," Sam murmured, looking over to meet Dean's eyes before ducking them again, embarrassed.
"Huh," Dean mused. Kid had a point. Maybe it wasn't all bad. Especially if he could do this: "But seriously, Sam. Clowns? I mean, those things are practically engineered to appeal to kids," Dean teased.
Sam shot him a look. "Dean, there're plenty of studies on how clowns are almost universally feared by children," he pointed out.
"Yeah? Bring 'em on, research boy," Dean challenged.
Sam let out a half-huffed chuckle.
"How you doin'?" Dean asked quietly. Sam was still holding the scarred hand, but the stiffness had eased enough that he was leaning back a little bit into the seat again.
Sam turned to face him. "Dude," he sighed, "next time we're looking for a job, if Bobby hands us a haunted plane piloted by a friggin'….. Shriner or something, we're letting someone else handle it."
Dean shuddered at the thought. "No arguments here." He gave Sam a once-over. "You good?"
Sam's skin was finally a shade approaching normal color. He was down to holding the left hand loosely, no longer rubbing it restlessly, and had finally settled his head back on the headrest. "Yeah," he breathed with a tired nod.
"Good," Dean said, starting up the car again. They drove in silence, Dean stealing frequent glances at Sam, and Sam staring exhaustedly out the window, until they were back on the interstate. "Hey Sam…."
"Mmmm?" Sam mumbled into the window.
"I was thinking…..we should head back this way, sometime. Like the first weekend of August – you know, summer flowers, fresh lake air….." he cast a scheming, sidelong glance at Sam, "…..the Annual International Clown Week Celebration at Showmen's Rest….."
Sam pushed himself upright and glared at Dean. "No way," he said, disbelief written across his face.
"Way, dude," Dean countered. "I saw the flyer along with the pictures at the Historical Society. First Sunday of every August. Did you know Nixon himself signed a Proclamation for a National Clown Week back in '71?" he shook his head, amazed.
Sam just stared at him, still digesting the information.
"So anyway," Dean continued, "I figured, you know, assuming we're not all Leviathan chow by then, we should go. They've got clowns on stilts, man, which means one of 'em'll actually be able to reach that mug of yours to put on your free clown nose," he was barely holding back his laughter.
Dean felt the world right itself as Sam honest to God laughed at that, swatting Dean with the scarred hand before dropping it back in his lap, unneeded. "That was so not cool," he sputtered, eyes sparkling over the exhaustion.
Dean grinned – nothing would ever compare to getting his little brother to laugh like that. "Dude, that was awesome," he said. "I'm like the friggin' Batman of messed-up comedy and you know it."
"Yeah, okay," Sam scoffed, barely hiding an eye roll.
"No, I totally am," Dean insisted. He paused. "I'd let you be Robin, but I don't think they make his tights in Sasquatch size."
Sam shot him a look of disgust before his eyes narrowed with the challenge. "Right, and who made Bobby keep the leggings, underwear, and muscle chest all those years?" he retorted pointedly.
"Hey, I stand by that costume," Dean wagged a finger at him. "I was the best Batman in town that year – got us a crap ton of candy, too. I'd still wear that thing."
"Why don't you?" Sam challenged, the two of them pretending, for the moment, that the fact it burned down with Bobby's house had nothing to do with it.
"Dude, I was nine that Halloween," Dean reminded him.
"So then it'll still fit," Sam went in for the kill with a smug smile.
Dean couldn't hold back a sudden, freeing burst of laughter, which in turn sent Sam snickering in victory. They both shared a look, a sense of relief at the normalcy of a long familiar routine; of a battered, but stubbornly undamaged, give and take of teasing and bitchy humor.
"Laugh it up, Sammy," Dean shook his head, drumming the steering wheel lightly. "Payback'll come when you least expect it," he warned with a knowing grin.
Sam rolled his eyes, leaned back against the seat again and closed his eyes. "Whatever, Bruce. Just drive."
"Of course, Master Asshat," Dean adopted Alfred's British accent.
Sam snorted back a laugh, face smoothing with a fond smile as he turned his head on the headrest to face Dean, his breathing evening out into sleep.
Dean reluctantly tore his gaze from his brother's face and focused back on the road, mind wandering with the late night lullaby of blurred reflective street paint and brightly lit exit signs. There weren't words to describe his rage at what Lucifer had done to Sam…..but it was more than Lucifer torturing his little brother with a very real childhood fear and forcing it to resurface in the wake of surviving the Cage. It was because Lucifer had overstepped his bounds; had crossed the brother line despite the fact that he, of all people, should have known better. As much as he hated to even sort of relate to that dickbag in any way, Dean had recognized the angry, protective growl as Lucifer stole Sam's voice to respond to Cas's use of holy fire against Michael back in the Stull cemetery; the deep warning that "no one dicks with Michael, but me." Dean got that – and Lucifer had to know that Dean had the same voice. So now it was Lucifer's turn to listen. Because no one dicked with Sam about clowns but Dean. And Sam might be more susceptible to these panic attacks again now because of Lucifer, but that didn't give Lucifer the right to laugh at the seemingly absurd fear. That right was earned, by the person, the brother, who helped Sam get through it; to survive the panic and come out the other side.
So, if sometime down the road, Sam's seat in the Impala was filled by a huge, inflatable clown doll….well, that would be Dean's brotherly prerogative. Because it would only be when he knew Sam could handle it. There was a way to mock Sam's clown thing without being cruel. It was called 'being a big brother' and it was written into sibling DNA.
A tiny island of normalcy in an ocean gone mad.
Because, even after everything…..
…..plotting the best way to mess with your brother?
It was just how a Winchester showed he cared.
Final Notes and References
**Please note: As this website does not like outside links and makes it near impossible (at least to me) to insert them, I have left my original notes/references as is, but without "this" site or "found here" actually linking to anything. If you are interested in the linked research, please see this section of the story as presented in my LJ, which is much kinder in its outside formatting - stillwaters01(dot)livejournal(dot)com(slash)16237(dot)html. Thank you!**
- While the spirit, haunting, and additional characters are my own creation, the surrounding story is all based on true places and events. The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus did suffer the death of eight-seven of its members in what's known as the Hammond Train Wreck on June 22, 1918. The Hammond Historical Society has its own summary of the events. When Ken Cowette tells Dean that "Mr. Lytle gives talks about his book" at the Historical Society, he is referring to Richard Lytle, a local history librarian and Hammond Historical Society officer, who wrote a book about the circus tragedy, titled "The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918: Tragedy Along the Indiana Lakeshore."
- The story and location of Showmen's Rest is all true. This site has a nice overview and two good pictures. There is also a short video clip here from someone who visited the cemetery. And yes, the Annual International Clown Week Celebration DOES exist!
- According to Google Maps, there is indeed a "Candycane Park" approximately three miles away from Woodlawn Cemetery, in Brookfield, IL. There's no way Dean would have passed up the opportunity to comment on that.
- Information on the "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series can be found here.
- The "Shriners"are a service organization best known for their affiliation with pediatric medical care at their twenty-two Shriner's Hospitals for Children. Many members have their own individual clown personas that they use to visit the hospitals and cheer up sick children, an example of which can be found here.
- Panic attack information was cross-referenced between here and here. The DSM-IV-TR requires the presence of at least four of the thirteen listed symptoms for a diagnosis. Sam, overachiever that he is, showed about eight of those symptoms in this story.
- References to the movies "Ghostbusters" and "Rain Man", the TV show "Magnum, P.I.", and the Batman mythos (Batman/Bruce Wayne, Robin, Alfred the butler) are just that: references. Just as I do not own Supernatural, I do not own any of those works. The only thing I do own is this story, and I make no money in writing it. I am more than content with the creative challenge and joy of seeing it through :)