A/N: Merry Christmas! Some terror for your holiday enjoyment. :) This is Part One and you'll get the second part tomorrow. I was going to post the whole thing as one chapter, but it turned out pretty long. This is preseries – the boys are 13 and 9.
Disclaimer: If these were my boys, I'd feed them better, dress them warmer, and insist on a proper bedtime.
Things Not Seen
The neon sign keeps flashing, with a buzz that sounds like summer moths but is only electric. Snow must be screwing with it. Or maybe it's just wearing out, like everything else this side of the road.
Half the time the sign says "Vacancy" and the other half it only says "ancy" and that's how both the room's occupants feel, is antsy. Never mind it's half past ten. Neither boy can sleep.
These are not your average Christmas Eve jitters.
Something has been tapping at the room's only door for the better part of an hour. The boy on the bed closest the door – the boy holding the gun – would be willing to wager a great deal of money, if he had any, that the thing tapping at the door is not Santa Claus.
He's not going to check, though.
To check, he would have to cross the room, and unhook the chain, and turn the lock, and twist the knob, and open the door, which would disturb the salt, and look at whatever is making the noise.
He cannot do it.
No one could accuse the boy of being a scaredy-cat. Scaredy-cat is such a juvenile term, anyway, and the boy isn't juvenile. At thirteen, he's faced monsters more days than not. Even now, on this night when others celebrate, he is standing guard inside a warped motor lodge with a sign out front that says "S eep E sy," because some of the letters have stopped buzzing and simply gone out.
If he were alone inside the room, the door would already be open, the threat faced.
Two things are stopping him.
One is the nine-year-old wrapped in two bedspreads and a leather jacket, lying on the second bed, pretending he isn't crying.
The other is the fact that it's tough to face something that doesn't have a … well, a face. And the thing at the door? It isn't something you can look at, shoot at, fight like you would a regular monster.
The boy takes a minute to think how screwed up it is that, in his life, there is such a thing as a "regular monster."
Then he scoots himself off the first bed and onto the second, next to the quivering lump of fabric and leather he knows houses his brother.
"I know you're awake."
There is a pause, no doubt while the younger child works out whether he's going to try to play possum. In the end, he comes clean. "I have to wait up for Santa." His voice is stained bitter. The older child feels something inside of him cave in at the sound.
He forces a snort, an eye roll. "Good luck with that, dude." Makes sure he sounds nothing but sarcastic, nothing but perfectly normal. Still. His hand hovers over the shape that anyone else would mistake for a pile of dirty laundry. Then settles in the general vicinity of the younger boy's shoulder. Some of the sniffling fades away.
In the quiet that follows, the tapping seems louder, but not as loud as the buzzing of the neon light outside. It isn't right that something mundane should be so much louder than something supernatural. There is no clarity of sound tonight. Although in the cold of winter, sound carries, it's tough to tell how far away the noises are, and how many of them are just the regular noises of an old motel, clanking pipes, leaky faucets. The walls are sweating and the older boy edges the younger boy's pillow and blankets away from the dampness.
"When is Dad -"
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Buzz. Clank. Drip. Drip.
Dean leaves his brother to his … what, moping? Brooding? He's a little annoyed at Sam for being so dramatic, but more annoyed with himself for adopting his father's way of thinking on the matter. Sam's nine, and on Christmas Eve night, he's huddled next to a crappy space heater, listening to the sounds of evil tapping at the door. And Sam isn't like Dean. Sam has friends at school. Friends who have been talking nonstop all week, no doubt, about their Christmas plans, about the video games they're going to get and the meals they're going to eat and the cookies they're going to leave out for a Santa Sam knows isn't real.
Kid isn't moping, isn't brooding. He's genuinely sad. Sad so deep down that he doesn't know how to say it. Doesn't know how to do anything except wrap himself in his brother's jacket, and the Sleep Easy Motor Lodge's flimsy excuse for blankets, and stare at the wall.
Somewhere deep inside his own self, Dean wishes he remembered how to cry.
He busies himself with the more mundane aspects of his duties this evening. Checks the phone – still out. Could be the storm, or it could be intentional. The thing at the door seems to have such capabilities. It can't cross the salt, so Dean feels relatively safe right now. Still. He doesn't like this limbo. Doesn't like being trapped inside, doesn't like his brother trapped either. He wishes he could call Bobby, who is supposed to get a message to Dad if the thing should show up at the Sleep Easy.
What that tells Dean is that Dad knew it was a possibility. Knew it was a possibility and trusted Dean to handle it, which makes him puff up with pride.
What it seems to tell Sam, on the other hand, is that Dad knew it was a possibility, and still drove away, not caring whether his sons were in danger.
Sometimes the older brother wonders if he's truly related to the younger.
His duties consist, as always, of watching out for Sam, and defending the room, should something get inside. They do not include going on the offensive, so as much as the tapping is wearing on him, he does not rip open the door and face the spirit.
This isn't like the other ghosts he's helped his father and uncle deal with. It isn't tied to a specific location, to human remains or a certain object. And it isn't angry, necessarily, or vengeful. It's more … thoughtful. That's even what Uncle Bobby called it, was a thought form. A spirit being made not out of a person's soul, but rather, out of their mind, their thoughts. Created by the death of a person with such a big mind, such big thoughts and plans, that it was impossible for all that energy to die with them, and a shadow stayed behind.
Problem is, that makes it smart. Turns out, it can even research.
It knows where John Winchester is staying, and that he has sons.
Dean checks his ammo, not that they've found anything that can kill it. He checks the phone again. He checks to see that Sam isn't looking.
Then he eases toward the window.
He wants to see it. Or, rather, to see whether it can be seen. He helped his father with the research and he knows the mechanics of the thing – how it was formed, how it can be defeated by a spell performed on the location of its death, on the anniversary of the same – but he doesn't know the thing, not the way his dad and Bobby know the things they hunt. He's never seen a spirit formed from thoughts. He's never seen this particular monster, and the more monsters he sees, the better hunter he will be. So he eases closer to the window.
The tips of his fingers brush the heavy mauve draperies, rough with dust and age. He isn't breathing, is barely moving. He thinks the curtain to the side, a centimeter at a time, until there is a sliver of space between the curtain and the window, just enough for one eye to peek out.
At first all he can see is the sign, flashing from "Vacancy" to "ancy" and back again.
Then he sees his reflection.
But it's wrong. It's wrong somehow.
The reflection, at first of a slightly-worried thirteen-year-old boy gazing out at the winter night, becomes warped, morphing into something else altogether. Still a face, but not Dean's any longer. A grotesque caricature of a thirteen-year-old boy, as if the thing, lacking its own face, is able to borrow his reflection somehow.
Dean bites his lip.
His reflection smiles.
Dean startles back from the window, so fast he trips, and goes down in a heap next to the motel bed. Sam startles, fights his way free of the tangle of blankets, hollering, "Dean? What's going on? Dean -"
"Shut up!" Dean regains his feet, cheeks pink with shame, and rushes to pull the drapery flush against the wall, eliminating the gap he'd created.
"What are you doing?" Sam demands.
"Shut up!" Dean can't quite slow his breathing back to regular. Behind him, his younger brother shivers, whether from cold or fear he can't say.
There is a long silence, broken only by cheap fluorescent lights and both boys' breaths.
Then Dean says, "It's really out there."
Both boys jump, and Sam scurries back to the second bed. Dean isn't far behind him. This time they both pile under the covers. Dean makes sure he's on the side closest the window. He might be creeped out – a little scared, even – but he still has a job to do.
"What was it?" the younger brother asks.
"Not Santa Claus," the older brother answers.
The vacancy sign goes out completely sometime after midnight.
The tapping at the door has not stopped.
Dean's gaze finds the green light of the digital clock. "Merry Christmas, Sam," he says, desperate to hear something besides the tap-tap-tap of the thing outside. He wonders what it's waiting for. Wonders whether it thinks he's going to look outside again, if it just keeps tapping.
Sam hasn't answered. He must be asleep.
Not that Dean isn't used to being alone and awake in motel rooms while his brother sleeps. But he doesn't want to be alone on this night. He nudges Sam a little, clears his throat too loud. Hopes his brother will come awake without realizing he's to blame for it.
Sam doesn't wake.
Dean moves around so the bed shakes, the headboard whacking against the damp wall. He brushes his hand through his hair, letting his elbow thud against Sam. He stretches out his feet, kicking his brother's feet almost entirely off the bed. He tugs on the blanket.
Sam stays still.
Something sinks within Dean. He leans closer to his brother, face to face, except Sam's face is covered by the blanket. Dean's fingertips brush the blanket, which is threadbare, and rough with old cigarette burns. He inches the fabric downward, a centimeter at a time. Then admonishes himself for being silly, and yanks the blanket down all at once.
Sam's eyes are open. He is smiling.
Dean can't help the shout of surprise – definitely a manly shout, not a scream or anything – at the sight of his brother's glassy eyes and wide grin. He grips Sam's shoulders, shakes him hard. "Sam!"
No answer, only that garish grin, horrifying in the low light.
"Sammy! What the hell, man? Sam!" Dean lifts his brother and lets him drop back against the bed. Sam is board-stiff, but too warm to be dead. The thought alone shakes Dean to his toes. He slaps his brother across the face.
Sam lunges toward him with a gasp.
"Ow!" he shouts.
The grin is gone, and the eyes are Sam's. Pissed-off Sam, sure, holding a hand to his stung cheek. But Sam nonetheless.
"What the heck, Dean?"
"Sorry." Dean has to breathe for a minute before he can make any more words come out. "Sorry," he heaves again, one hand on his chest, the other on his brother's shoulder. "Shit, shit, shit," he whispers.
"Stop cussing at me," Sam says.
In spite of his terror and the thundering pace of his heart, Dean can't help but smile a little at that. Sam is nine-going-on-thirty and he disapproves of cuss words.
"Sorry, Princess," Dean pants, breath starting to come back to him.
"Dean, what is going on?"
Dean runs through the scenarios in his head. He can't see himself telling Sam the truth – "I think you were possessed by an evil thought form for a minute there" – and he also can't see himself telling Sam everything's okay and to go back to sleep – sleep, where he could be grabbed again by the thing that can, apparently, enter a person's dreams.
He compromises. Keeps Sam awake with a lie.
"I thought I heard Santa."
Sam deflates with a heavy sigh, apparently deciding he's being mocked. "Shut up."
"Dude. I'm serious. I thought I heard Dad's car. Maybe he's sneaking around getting the presents wrapped or something."
Sam's eyes raise to his, looking so hopeful, Dean regrets telling this particular lie. "You think so?"
Dean shrugs, carefully back-pedals. "Never know. Even if that wasn't him I heard, dude, I'm sure he'll be home soon. He knows it's Christmas." And he and Bobby will be worried they haven't heard from us by now.
"Christmas is tomorrow," Sam corrects him.
"Look at the clock, bro. It is tomorrow."
Sam looks, and his features soften a little. "Oh." He's still holding his cheek. "Merry Christmas, Dean."
The older boy takes long, slow breaths, lets them out in puffs of air between his lips. "Merry Christmas, Sam," he says. "What would you say to some bad Christmas movies? We should stay awake anyway in case Dad needs help hauling in the presents."
Sam finally lets his hand fall from his pink cheek. He yawns, stretches. Then nods. "Okay."
Dean flips on the TV.
It is half past three when the tapping stops.
Despite his best efforts, Dean has fallen asleep next to Sam. But when the tapping stops, he springs awake as if a gun has gone off.
The VACANCY light has started buzzing again, and somebody in another room flushes a toilet, making the pipes groan with protest.
It has grown colder in the room. Dangerously cold. Puffs of white air issue from Sam's lips. He snores softly, as if congested.
Dean looks at the space heater, sees that it is still running, still set on high. Condensation still drips down the walls as if the air inside is warm.
The curtains are wide open.
Dean startles to his feet, one hand reaching out to smack Sam awake. His brother wakes on first contact this time, comes to his feet at once. He stands still for several seconds, breathing hard and clutching his tangle of blankets.
"It's snowing again," Sam says, his voice thick with sleep.
"Don't look at the window," Dean whispers.
But of course Sam keeps looking, so they both see the moment when the snow changes directions, wisps of white curling up instead of down. Slow and easy, not like they're caught in any wind. Just like someone has flipped the snow globe upside down.
Sam catches a long breath in. Dean reaches for him, takes him by the hand.
The phone rings.
Sam screams. Dean makes a noise that is definitely not a scream. Then curses and starts for the phone.
"Don't answer it," Sam says severely, in a voice laced with panic. The noise has come so suddenly in the dark and quiet room that it's scared Sam half to death, but there's no way Dean's not going to answer. It might be Bobby. Might even be Dad.
"Dean? I ain't heard from y'all in a while, son. Everything all right?"
Dean catches a breath in, then out. Shakier than he'd like to admit. "Bobby. Thank God –"
"Dean!" Sam whispers urgently, catching his brother's attention.
"Dean?" Bobby questions at the pause.
"Uncle Bobby, it's here." He gulps. "The phone's been out. It's been here for hours. It's outside, but … but something's wrong."
Bobby's answer is swift, and punctuated by the sounds of boots being pulled on, keys jangling. "You boys all right?"
"Dean ..." Sam is still frozen in place, still staring at the window. Dean looks. Sam's reflection is outside, spinning in slow circles, tongue out to catch the impossible snowflakes. Dean looks back to the real Sam, standing still, eyes huge.
"Oh, shit," Dean whispers.
"Dean." Bobby's voice is warm. Solid. "Check the salt. Arm yourself if you ain't already. I'll be there in an hour."
The line goes dead, but Dean has to work for a long time to make himself let go of the phone. He feels the loss of Bobby's voice, of his connection to the outside world. Fear grips his stomach in a cold fist. He shakes his head sharply – get it together, soldier – and rejoins his brother on the other side of the room.
Sam has not stopped staring at the window. Tears run slowly down his frozen cheeks. He presses his lips together. Outside, Dean can hear an echo of laughter that sounds for all the world like his brother. He scoots closer to Sam, grips his hand again. The fingers are cold. He can feel harsh tremors gripping the child.
"Sam." Dean shakes himself out of his own stupor, ducks in front of his brother, hands on the boy's shoulders, blocking the kid's view of the window. "Hey. Sammy. It's okay. It's okay."
Sam blinks, spilling more tears down his cold cheeks. He doesn't wipe them away, so Dean does.
"Bobby's coming," Dean says. "And that thing outside, it's just trying to scare us. It's just trying to scare us. It can't get in."
Sam opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. So he points. Points behind Dean, one shaking finger drawing a line toward the door.
In the narrow gap under the ill-fitting door, drifting snow has begun to blow inside. It melts on the moldy carpet.
It washes away the salt.
Dean gulps, then lunges. He grabs the canister of salt and dumps a healthy amount along the crack under the door. A gust of wind comes in quick, blowing the salt back into his face.
Into his eyes.
He can't see. But at least my eyes are safe from evil, he thinks darkly as tears stream down his cheeks. He scrubs at his eyes with the heels of his hands, calling Sam's name as he does. The wind picks up, loud. There is buzzing, as if the VACANCY sign has strolled right into their room.
Sam doesn't answer.
"Sammy!" he shouts. "Answer me, dammit!" Scrubbing and scrubbing at his streaming eyes. He hears wind. He hears scuffs against the carpet, the sound of a door slamming.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Dean feels an overwhelming sense of hopelessness wash over him. He forces his eyes open, stinging against the cold air that is already starting to warm. There is no wind in the room, and the curtains are closed.
Sam isn't here.
He is alone.
To be continued …