The black car tore up the freeway. Inside, Sam's eyes slid open. "Whfrat?" he asked, face still pressed to the half-opened windowpane.
"Still on I-95, about thirty miles outside of Jacksonville," Dean replied. He grinned broadly as the wind slid through his hair. "And if you drooled on the door, you're washing it."
Sam glared. Then he frowned, sneezed twice in quick succession and began hunting though the takeout bag on the floor. Finally he found a napkin and blew his nose.
Dean looked over at him. Sam was now rubbing his nose fiercely. "You okay?" Dean asked. Then he chuckled. "I almost forgot. Guess spring starts early in Florida."
Sam left off rubbing his face long enough to favor his brother with a glare, spreading his hands in aggravation.
Still smiling, Dean raised a hand in surrender. "So tell me again about this case," he said, rolling up the window to shut the pollen out.
Sam sniffled again. "Abandoned hotel downtown. Seven deaths over the last ten years, all of young women."
Dean nodded thoughtfully.
"First one, a Jane Doe, was found on March 14 1996. Footnote in the local paper, no cause of death included, only the note that police did not consider it a homicide.
"Second and third found together, July 12 1998. Annabel Lee and Maria Castillo, age 15. Lots of media coverage on this one, the girls were missing for a couple days before police found them, dead of injuries in the basement. The conclusion was that they'd gone inside exploring, then fallen through a weak spot in the floor. Or maybe one girl fell and the other tried to help, anyway, the coroner claimed they probably both died pretty quick. There was talk about tearing down the building, after, but somehow it never happened.
"Fourth, also a Jane Doe. I guess this building attracts a lot of homeless squatters. Christmas 1999, death attributed to heroin overdose."
"Sam, I don't know about this. Sure, a ghost could make it look like somebody overdosed, but the ones that do that don't usually go around throwing people through floors."
"That's why the police never picked up the pattern, they all died in different ways."
"How about the others?"
"For two of them, there was no cause of death listed, the most recent was apparently shot. Police have no suspects."
"Shootings too? Maybe it's just bad luck."
"Well, maybe there's a cursed object in the building. I just think this one is worth checking into. Seven deaths in one building, all similar victims, with none of the deaths 100% explained?"
"All right. It is a little funny. We'll crash outside of town tonight, see what we can dig up in the morning."
By morning, Sam had a vicious sinus headache and red-rimmed eyes. He didn't bother to open them all the way, just blindly pawed through the medical kit for the Sudafed. His whole head seemed to itch, and little welts like mosquito bites dotted his forehead.
Dean looked at him as he stumbled toward the bathroom. "Rough morning?"
"Gotta work," Sam muttered stuffily.
Between the Sudafed and the shower, he could breath through his nose by the time they left the motel room. A sheet of yellow pollen coated the car already. Dean made as if to wipe it off, then looked at his brother and just got in.
The hives on Sam's face hadn't died down any, though, and his forehead continued to itch through the long day of interviews, taking turns with the itching in his ears, eyes and nose. His skin seemed to want to crawl off his body, and it got worse every time he stepped outdoors. Still, it wasn't the first miserable pollen season he'd worked through.
They started with the police, getting proper detailed reports on all deaths. Which really weren't terribly detailed.
The first Jane Doe was chalked up to heatstroke. The coroner wrote that she was approximately 23 years old and had apparently been homeless for some time. There was no autopsy, just an exam and a search of the missing persons files.
"Seems plausible," Dean offered.
Sam looked up from his own folder and dug another tissue out of his pocket. "Yeah, but the the weather wasn't super-hot that week, not by Jacksonville standards. I already checked. I suppose it could have killed her, but why then and there?"
"Okay, and did you find anything on the friends who fell through the floor?"
"Nothing that wasn't released to the media, other than the details of their injuries."
The next three files were similar, with only the shooting investigated in any real depth.
Dean was frowning as they left. "I dunno. It's…"
"None of them are weird enough to be obviously our kind of thing, but when you look at them all together…" Sam went on.
"It's just too many," they finished together.
To Sam's relief, he woke the next morning to the roll of thunder. Thunder meant rain to wash the pollen out of the air, which hopefully meant that soon he'd stop itching so badly.
As he moved around the room, dressing rapidly for an early meeting with a friend of the shooting victim, he felt a peculiar sensation in his chest. A tingly, tight sensation. The only thing he could compare it to was pulling open a car door in the summertime and breathing the baking hot air inside.
After a quick stop for coffee, they walked into the friend's building.
The air outside hit him like a wall, thick as soup. His nose pricked and his ears itched. He panted desperately as he climbed the stairs to the woman's apartment. Inside, there was no relief, because she had every window open, soaking up the "fresh air". Yellow pollen coated the windowsills and furniture inside the apartment almost as thickly as it did the cars outside.
Sam could hardly focus on the interview through the itching, and three times he had to dig the tissues out of his pocket to mop at his nose. Worst of all, his chest felt like someone was sitting on it. The woman's voice faded to a drone as Sam fought to hold up his head.
Finally, Dean was pushing himself to his feet. "Thank you for your time, ma'am." Sam recognized the conclusion of a fruitless interview and followed him out.
Dean stared at his brother as he walked slowly towards the car. Sam had climbed those stairs like his ribs were broken. Not three days earlier, the kid had all but sprinted half a mile to the car and back when they realized they'd misjudged the hunt and needed a different weapon. Now, all of a sudden, climbing one little flight of stairs wore him out?
"What's up with you?"
"There's something wrong with the air today," Sam answered quietly.
"What are you talking about?"
"Like there isn't enough of it."
Dean stopped and stared at him. "Are you saying you can't breathe?" Sam had been choked enough times in his life that neither brother was prepared to joke about airway issues.
"No, the air's just kind of thick today, you know?"
"Um, no. Air seems fine to me."
Sam shrugged and kept moving. Slowly.
"Your lungs sound fine to me," the doctor told him, almost accusingly. "And your heartbeat is pretty fast. It could just be a panic attack."
After two days of worthless interviews, nonstop itching, tight chest and and dragging exhaustion, Dean had dragged him to a clinic.
Sam mouthed the words, "Panic attack," as if he was tasting them. He didn't feel panicked, or particularly stressed. He'd even slept decently the night before, propped up on pillows. And didn't a panic attack usually happen pretty fast? Since when did they last for two days?
"Or maybe you're anemic," the doctor went on.
"It started yesterday out of the blue, I don't think I'm anemic."
"Side effect of the antihistamines."
"Which I took only after the breathing problem started."
"Well, you should go to the ER," he finished, leaving the exam room. "After all, you might have a pulmonary embolism."
Sam stared after him. "Can we go back to the realm of the probable, rather than, like, the worst things a doctor's imagination can come up with?" He picked up his jacket and walked out into the packed waiting room.
"Doctor says I'm having a panic attack and should go to the hospital," he told Dean, rolling his eyes. After sitting around waiting in the air conditioning, he actually felt a lot better.
Dean stared at his brother. He didn't look panicked or upset, he just looked tired and allergic. And slightly pissed off, but Sam almost always looked like that. "And you think?"
"This was a waste of time. Look, we're going to blow town as soon as the case is done, and my allergies always get better when we move on. Let's just hit the library tomorrow, see what else we can dig up."
After two hours of digging, sniffling more than ever from the musty old books, Sam looked up from his table. "Huh. This wasn't available online, because this paper went out of business and was never digitized. In 1922, when that building was a fancy hotel, there was a scandal. A man found his wife drunk and in bed with someone else, and they had this really loud fight."
"And he killed her?" Dean asked.
"Not as far as the police could tell. He said that he was done with her, and that she would destroy herself, then got on the northbound train alone. The very next night, she got drunk again, tumbled down the staircase, and died. There were about a dozen witnesses, all said it was just a freak accident."
"And you're thinking there was some kind of curse or black magic involved."
"Makes sense. If there was, he found a way to get away with murder. And if the curse was attached to the building, or an object in the building, that would explain what's going on now."
"But most of those girls didn't fall."
"Well, maybe it's not about falling. Maybe it's about plausible deaths. A homeless woman dies of exposure, an addict overdoses."
"And some dumb kids creeping around an abandoned building fall through the floor. Okay. So we're looking for a curse meant to kill people AND make the deaths look normal." Dean pushed himself to his feet. "Let's check the place out, Sammy."
"Don't touch anything," Sam hissed as they crept through the ground-floor window just after dark.
"I'm not an idiot," Dean hissed back, drawing his EMF detector.
The EMF detector didn't shriek as the two patrolled the ground floor and headed up, at least, not loudly enough to be heard over Sam's coughing. They carefully detoured around the area where the girls had fallen, testing each step before they put their full weight on it. On the next floor again, they found only traces of EMF, probably from neighboring buildings or power lines.
But on the third floor, Sam stopped. The roof leaked in many places, staining the floor. In one patch of dampness there was a peculiar-colored moss growing. "Look."
"Sign of a cursed building," Sam pointed out impatiently.
"Actually cursed, not just haunted."
"Actually cursed." Sam leaned closer, then sneezed and clapped a hand to his face.
"Or it could just be toxic mold messing with your sinuses. Let's get out of here and talk about it."
They climbed back down the stairs as quickly as they dared to and dashed for the car. Sam was panting heavily as they reached it, one hand pressed to his chest. He leaned against the door, bent over, coughing violently. Dean shoved him inside a put a water bottle in his hand.
"Dude, cough less, breathe more."
"Can't," Sam gasped. "Breathe." A peculiar whistle came from his mouth as he struggled to exhale
Dean stared at him for one moment. "Fuck," he said, and put the car in gear.
They reached the hospital in about three minutes, and Sam's poor attempt at breathing got him taken back right away. By the time Dean was called back to join him, Sam was sitting on a bed in the hallway. He had a weird little device stuck in his mouth, a wide tube attached to a narrow tube, and steam came out the end of it. It looked a bit like a man smoking a plastic cigar. Sam gave him a weary, relieved grin just as a doctor stepped up to talk to them.
"Your brother had a bronchospasm. You say this never happened before?"
"No. Nothing remotely like it."
"They can be caused by infection, but his chest x-ray was clear. Given his history of allergies, I'm referring him to a local doctor to be tested for asthma."
"It can start at any age. For now, I've written a few prescriptions, an inhaler, an antihistamine and Prednisone, and he should take it easy for the next few days. Stay indoors, away from pollen and anything else you're allergic to."
Sam nodded and held out a hand for the scripts.
"You can go as soon as the breathing treatment is finished."
And the doctor was off to the next patient.
With a trip to the all-night pharmacy, it was almost daylight by the time they got back to the motel. They both managed to sleep well into the afternoon, but the alarm woke them in time to go shopping.
"No, I'm shopping," Dean insisted. "You got out of the ER this morning. You're resting in the nice pollen-free motel room."
"Just don't forget the,"
"Sammy, we've been over the list twice already. I can get all of it downtown. I pick you up, we plant the bags, no more curse."
They got just past the entrance to the building when that lovely little plan fell all to pieces. They climbed through the same window and Dean crept toward the staircase.
Sam wasn't following him, though. Instead, he was bent over, hands on knees, sucking air. Dean spun around rapidly. "Your lungs?" He asked unnecessarily.
Sam nodded. The whistling sound on his breath was louder and higher pitched than the night before, and his face was set with fear. "I can't-"
"Yes, you can," Dean snapped. "Slow it down, one breath at a time, deep as you can. Get that inhaler thing."
Obediently Sam pulled out his rescue inhaler, twisted it around right side up, and took a hit. Immediately, he started to cough with a deep painful sound.
"Helping, right?" Dean asked. Sam frantically shook his head, and Dean prepared to drag him into the car and back to the ER.
As he reached Sam's elbow, though, he realized his brother's fingernails were already starting to turn blue, and they didn't have time for Sam to walk all the way out. It was bizarre, though, the way this attack had come out of nowhere after all the medicine Sam had taken.
Maybe it's about plausible deaths Sam had said. What could be a more plausible death for a man who'd just gotten out of the hospital?
Curse or natural? Choose, Dean. And either way, if you're wrong… Sam's breathing faded to a soft rasp. He dropped to the ground, both hands on his chest, all his enormous strength fixed on breathing. If you guess natural and it's the curse, he dies for sure. A natural attack might go away on its own. Finish the damned ritual, Dean!
Dean ran. Behind him, Sam gasped like a fish out of water, staring straight ahead as if he no longer knew where he was. Turning some hideous color, and Dean couldn't even see it.
Up to the top floor. Gentle with the pickaxe, can't bring the whole place down. Back down to the ground floor, where Sam was still making a little noise. His back arched and he gripped the floor with both hands, straining desperately.
If you're wrong...
All four lower corners. A flash of light split the building, and Dean was running back to his brother before he could even see. Instead of arching, he lay flat on the ground, sucking air with a great gulping sound. He still wheezed a little, but when Dean shone the flashlight at his face the tinge of blue around his lips was already fading. For once, Dean had made the right call.
"Sam? Are you feeling OK?"
"Then why are your hands shaking?"
"It's cold," Sam informed him through gritted teeth. His chest was still hurting, but he could breathe, and he'd pretty thoroughly overdosed on the albuterol already. And Dean would just yell at him if he knew.
Dean glared at him. Just once, could you tell me the truth...
Sam's answering glare held a resounding No.
"I, for one, am sleeping like the dead in the first room the other side of the state line." Dean announced.
Fifty-seven minutes later, Dean was out.
Sam lay down just as quickly, but found it difficult to sleep. His hands still shook and there was a hint of black at the edges of his vision, symptoms he recognized from long nights of using buckets of coffee in place of sleep. His airways stayed open, but he felt a burning pain in the center of his chest every time it rose and fell. Half an hour later, he gave up on sleep and hauled a chair into the bathroom. Sitting up seemed to ease the pain a little, and he dug out his laptop. He needed to record some notes on the latest case, anyway.
The buzz in his brain made it hard to hold a thought long enough to write it down, though, and his body ached for sleep. The way his chest burned, he seemed to have to force each breath in and out, lest his body forget. Finally, he closed the laptop and simply sat there, eyes closed, waiting for morning.
And then the door opened.
"Are you breathing all right?"
"Yeah," Sam mumbled.
"Which means no. Do we need to go back to the ER?"
Sam shook his head.
"Dammit, Sammy, I need the truth."
Sam slumped down further in the chair. "I can breathe, it just hurts."
"And you're shaking because you're overdosed."
Sam sighed. His hair fell down to cover his eyes. "Yes."
"Why don't you try bed? Sleep usually comes easier that way."
"Was trying not to wake you," Sam mumbled, shuffling back to his bed. Dean shoved three pillows under his spine, so he could sleep sitting up.
"It'll be light soon," Sam protested.
"And we've got nice black curtains. So, sit back, take it slow. In, hold it, blow it out like this." Dean pursed his lips to demonstrate.
Once Sam fell asleep, he was out for almost twelve hours. When he woke, his breath was finally coming a bit more easily, and the hives on his face had died down. He hit the shower, enjoying the warm water until it started to run cold. When he got out, Dean shoved a yogurt into his hands.
"Eat it, bitch," Dean ordered.
"When did you turn into somebody's grandmother?" Sam snapped back.
"It's time for your meds, and you're supposed to eat before you take them."
Sam shrugged and ate the yogurt, then chased it down with Benadryl, steroids, and, at Dean's glare, a puff off the inhaler. But when Sam moved toward the door, Dean swung his head around.
"What's your hurry? Room's paid up until tomorrow."
"Um, the cops?"
"Cops ain't after us, Sammy."
"You don't know that, what if," Sam started to cough.
"Yeah, that's why you're staying put in the air conditioning tonight."
"I'd rather get the hell out of Pollen City."
"Yeah, that's why we're booking it tomorrow."
Sam looked around the room and huffed, then sat back down on his bed and turned on his computer. To Dean's total non-surprise, his brother lasted about two hours before falling back into a comforting Benadryl-induced sleep.
The next morning, even Benadryl couldn't induce him to sleep longer, so Dean began packing up the car.
"I thought we'd stop by Bobby's for a while. Pollen season isn't coming to South Dakota for a while yet. When it does, maybe we'll check out Arizona.