Summary: Sam and Dean hunt a mysterious spirit in an abandoned house, and Dean tries to remember what reality feels like.
Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
-- Dylan Thomas
O merciful God,
take pity on those souls
who have no particular friends and intercessors
to recommend them to Thee,
who, either through the negligence of those who are alive,
or through length of time are forgotten
by their friends and by all.
-- Prayer for the forgotten dead
It’s an old house, more naked plaster than wallpaper, narrow wooden staircases packed with tense, muggy heat. Outside, you can see the age in the flaking off-green paint and the deterioration of the balusters in the porch railing, but inside you feel it, coating your skin and your clothes until they itch—a warm, sticky taste in your mouth as you move across trampled carpets ingrained with mildew, wood floors glossy with century-old finish.
They’ve holed up in less inviting places—the barn in North Carolina last year, for instance, with the population of excitable fruit bats that Sam still hasn’t stopped bitching about—but all the same, this isn’t exactly the Hilton. Dean grimaces at the minor dust storm that rises up when he settles himself on the chintzy cushions of the faded yellow-green sofa in the living room. He tries the lamp on the end table, jerking the short steel chain under its grimy glass shade, but there isn’t even a choked spark from the ancient wiring; electricity abandoned this place a long time ago. Still, they go where the ghosts are, not where there’s running water and fresh sheets and air conditioning.
And oh, yeah, there are ghosts here. He can smell them, in the rusty piping and the soft, ferny mildew clinging to the rot-dampened paint. Death’s layered under the ancient flock wallpaper, trapped in the belly of the gas oven, and Dean closes his eyes for a minute to focus on the scent, dry and sour and amplified in the silent, echoing heat.
He can’t remember smelling ghosts before, but maybe things have changed since last year, or maybe he’s just forgotten it. He’s forgotten a lot of things, and he’s only just started to realize what’s missing.
Death roots itself in his nostrils, like soft moss growing over hallowed ground.
“Leave it,” Benny says. His mouth’s tensed and alive with fangs, his drawl pitched harsh with urgency. Dean’s sluggish stomach doesn’t want to cooperate, but he drops the hunk of unnamable gristle and rolls up, bloody boots slipping on the dense needled floor of Purgatory.
“What is it?” he asks, more out of habit than interest, because there’s no name for what they meet in here. Ultimately, all Dean cares about is the tooth count on whatever it is they’re about to slice through.
“If I knew,” Benny points out, “I’d have told you already.”
Dean turns outward to face the blank edges of forest behind them, and braces his stance against Benny’s solid back. He can still see the remains of what they killed out of the corner of his eye, hot curds of fat spilled and smoking in the clotted blood. He tastes ash and stomach acid in his throat; doesn’t know if it’s his or the monster’s.
Grinding his heels deeper into the crumbling, putrefied loam, he wills himself not to throw up. In here, he’d never get the smell off of his clothes.
Sam’s brought supper, because that’s somehow become a thing they do while staking out an angry spirit. He finds the kitchen and starts pulling out plastic grocery sacks full of bread and canned peaches and peanut butter, setting them on the tacky surface of the checked tablecloth. Dean doesn’t remember him picking any of this stuff up, but he’s got a vague memory of a foggy convenience store on the ass-pimple of nowhere where Sam slammed the door too loud and told him to shh, just wait in the car, so he figures that must be where all this is from.
“You’re gonna eat, right?” Sam asks, and Dean likes that they’re not even at the point of ordering anymore, down to listless assumption and reflexes.
“Not hungry,” he says, rubbing his wrists where the nausea’s getting worse. It never takes long, but this evening it’s stronger than usual, a thick rubber band around his throat and eyes.
Sam peels back the tight steel lid of the peaches and stabs one with a white plastic fork; he lifts it out of the syrup, dripping heavy and sweet.
“At least have some bread or something, Dean,” he says, mouth working around soft yellow flesh.
Dean looks out the window set in the back door at the ponderous, dank cottonwoods ringing the backyard, sliced across by a long, distorting crack in the dirt-spattered glass. His toes curl inside his boots, trying to grip at the sticky linoleum.
“I said I’m not hungry,” he repeats, and this time Sam doesn’t argue.
The tree line won’t lie still; every time Dean turns his head, it’s shifted imperceptibly, pressing close until he’s scraping his cheeks on the outstretched ends of snapped branches, then drawing back until he feels tiny, exposed under the vast colorless ceiling of sky, waiting for a boot to grind him into dust.
“Steady,” Benny growls at his back. “It’s comin’.”
He still doesn’t know what it is—out of the thousand noises spewing through the low growth, he can’t pick out individual shrieks or growls; can’t even begin to get a lock on a direction to expect Purgatory’s latest diseased attack dog from.
The same laughable assurance sparks in his stomach as always; he’s not gonna make it out of this one alive. He scans the landscape instinctively, wondering which patch of dry swamp his guts are going to end up on. Maybe he’ll have time to memorize that tree root before his soul leaches through the dirt into oblivion.
Even as he stares at it, the root dissolves into dank shadow. On the other side of the clearing, a distinct new snarling comes through, sharp and abrupt.
“Howdy,” Benny says to something Dean can’t see, and all Purgatory’s supports shift in a single, violent second.
They wander through the upper floor as dusk closes in on the house, warping the rooms from the inside out with deep, swelling shadows. Nobody knows of any violent deaths in this place—not the neighbors who reported repeated episodes of nighttime screaming over the past five months, not the boxes of ancient newspapers Sam rooted through at the county records office or the folder of residence records he’s got laid out on the kitchen table—so they try everywhere, waiting for a sound or a cold spot or a sign that something less than natural’s lingering here along with a century and a half of fine grey dust and enough pre-Civil War furniture to fill half a dozen antique shops.
They move slowly, tentatively, partly because there’s nothing to hurry but partly because it’s been a year for both of them, and the one thing Texas and Purgatory have in common is a shortage of ghosts. Muscle memory’s a great thing, but it only gets you so far, and Dean still feels unsteady, like everything’s been tilted a single degree to one side and he’s constantly having to compensate as he walks down the shadowy hallway, heavy boots silenced in the soft lilac-grey carpet covering the hard wood floors.
He can hear Sam moving around in the master bedroom, gently opening and closing musty drawers and shuffling across the hand-woven rug. It’s surprising how distinct the auditory imprint of his movements is; after all this time, it registers firmly in some sensory input center in Dean’s brain. He remembers a program he saw on TV once when he was little, a rerun of some 60s spy show where the scientists recited a pass code into a machine that scanned their voices like fingerprints and let them into the secret government bunker. He wonders if that machine could recognize Sam the way he does, just by the sound of him rummaging through the closet on the other side of the wall.
At the end of the hallway, he finds a room a little smaller than the rest, painted what looks like a pale blue in the fading light. The room’s practically empty—no bed, no tables, just a huge wicker rocking chair by the single clear window and something in the corner that he can’t make out through the shadows. He steps inside, shivering a little in the evening air, and moves closer, squinting through the darkness at whatever it is. It takes a minute for the vague outline to resolve itself into an old-fashioned crib, a clean sets of blankets folded neatly behind its wooden bars.
“Sam,” he calls cautiously, but before the irrational stirrings of uneasiness can resolve themselves in his mind, the cold surrounds him, sucking at the centers of his bones and drawing the walls tighter around the darkened room.
He nearly rolls into the fire before Benny wakes him, and his first impression in the crazed, lightless moments before he cracks his eyes open is that he’s back in Hell.
Then the acrid flavor of scorched swamp moss tears into the lining of his throat, hurtling into his stomach so that he rolls over in panic, wrestling with the urge to retch.
“Wouldn’t do that if I was you,” Benny remarks over his head in the split second before the unfamiliar tightness in his lower abdomen catches and pain explodes through his body, washing out the nausea and everything else for a brief, electric second.
Things ooze back to him slowly after that, loose twigs tossed up in a brown, sluggish river of pain. Benny’s hands on his shoulders, pressing him gently back into the clammy dirt. A knot of loose muslin near his hip that his fingers can’t stop playing with, even after they’re sticky with blood and stray threads. The awkward, musty weight of Benny’s coat across his body, and Sam’s face in the shadows just beyond the campfire, staring at him with steady gray eyes but never speaking.
Then the river rises again, and he can’t see anything through the murky, suffocating darkness.
Sam finds him digging his fingernails into the soft fibers of the carpet, and has to shout twice before Dean hears him.
He hunches in on himself, still shivering with the cold that refuses to let go of him as Sam stalks around the room, opening doors and chests and slamming everything back into repose with a noise that sounds overloud in Dean’s hazy ears. Everything feels distant, chilly, like he’s woken up at the end of a rainy afternoon feverish and a little disoriented. His hand drops to the phantom pain in his belly, covering the ache with a tense, cautious pressure.
“What was it?” Sam demands again, and Dean blinks up at him, trying to distinguish his face through the distorting shadows. His hand presses harder, kneading urgently at the pain.
The fog tightens, and anger catches in his throat, tangles in his chattering teeth. He can hear the racket of blood in his temples, can feel his pulse in his gut, rapid and hot against his shaking palm.
“What was it?” Sam repeats, a broken hologram sputtering into thin air, and Dean clutches the carpet harder, grasping in vain for some substance. “Dean?”
“You left me,” he says, and wonders two things: when he lost his own voice, and where this one came from.
Gravel skates through his fingers, cold and bitter, scouring the raw, frostbitten skin. Frustrated, he scrapes his hand through the icy water again, but it’s just harsh gray stone and empty liquid. Whatever he’s looking for, it’s not here.
He’s crouched in the sodden grit at the blurred edge of a river that comes from nowhere and goes right back. Fever and rushing water roar at each other from opposite sides of his head, clouding out detail and memory. All that’s left is a haze of pain under his ribs and a fierce, imprecise sense that he’s lost something that he needs so badly it’s as good as feeding himself to the forest if he doesn’t find it now.
Pain shocks through his core, racked across his lungs; he spits, and the frigid water swirls with a sudden curl of rust and bubbly saliva.
“Drink a little more,” Benny says, and Dean starts, shivers explosively, and scrabbles around for purchase in the biting gravel, feeling the cold seep up the aching bones of his arm. He cups the river in a shaking hand, and feels it scatter into glittering drops as the surface of the water splinters and warps.
“Here,” Benny grunts, and suddenly there’s a firm hand on the back of Dean’s neck and another tipping a mouthful of silty ice water down his throat. He chokes and drools and leans heavily against Benny, too exhausted to care about the rules of survival and vigilance in the face of nameless carnivorous enemies.
“I can’t find him,” he slurs into Benny’s shirt, like it’s gonna make any difference to tell his problems to a vampire he doesn’t even know while he’s bleeding out in the middle of someone else’s afterlife, like it’s gonna tamp down the panic sparking in his belly.
Another handful of frozen river meets the dread rising in his throat, and chokes him.
Downstairs, Sam turns on the lantern in the kitchen and finds a blanket, because Dean’s still shivering in spite of the thick, muggy summer evening. It’s a ridiculous hand-knitted monstrosity with orange and navy stripes, and it smells like it’s been living in the wrong kind of basement for too long, but Dean takes it anyway and sits at the table with its itchy weight draped awkwardly around his shoulders.
Sam paces at the other end of the kitchen, his shadow stalking gigantic and misshapen across the cupboards in the eerie lantern light.
“But what was it, Dean?” he’s asking again, and Dean shrugs under the blanket. “Did you get a look at it? Was it tall, short? Man or woman?” He waves his hands in frustration, shoving his hair up off his forehead so that it falls back out of place, and waits, panting slightly with impatience, for Dean’s answer.
“It was angry,” Dean says finally, and coughs.
Sam seems to be resisting some deep fraternal instinct to roll his eyes. “I got that, Dean. It’s a spirit. Angry doesn’t give us a whole lot to go on.”
“It was—” Dean coughs again; the blanket must be dusty, because he can feel his lungs tightening minutely, making him strain a little for each breath, “—it died alone. Somebody left it, and it died alone.” He doesn’t know how he knows that, but remembers how it felt: rage and loneliness and the awful, unfair cold smothering his entire body. His fingers clench in the stiff, powdery fibers of the blanket as his windpipe constricts against the phantom particles of dust.
“It didn’t know anything, Sam. It wasn’t—” He stops again, frustration and allergies trapping his voice. “It was just angry.”
Sam stares at him for a second, then plunges into a chair and flips open the file on the tablecloth, ripping through the pages. Dean watches, fascinated, his ribcage steadily stifling his battling lungs.
“It attacked you in the nursery, right?” Sam’s babbling. “And you said it didn’t know anything, it was confused and scared and angry, because somebody left it, it died alone, it—” He finds the paper he’s looking for and flourishes it at Dean. “1923. Baby of Frank and Myrtle Allen, died in its crib while they were asleep, no known cause. I didn’t notice it before because it wasn’t a violent death, but if the spirit latched onto something—it would be angry, it would be confused and it wouldn’t know what to do, Dean, it all makes sense—”
He breaks off, and looks at Dean, exhilaration shattering into concern. “Dean?”
Dean hasn’t been listening for a while. He has his hands braced against the sticky tabletop, as if the stability will somehow loosen his lungs, give them the space to expand. It isn’t working; his body’s fighting hopelessly to harness oxygen, shaking with effort and a sharp, sudden panic as the realization sweeps over him, so obvious that humiliation pricks in his gut even as he wheezes over the tiny trickle of air winding through his respiratory passages.
It isn’t the blanket. He feels something running out of his ear, caustic and hot, trickling down to make a mess of his collar, and Sam’s swearing and throwing the paper down, diving for the salt and the matches in his duffle bag—and then he’s receding, footfalls clamoring into the distance, the intricate fingerprint of his presence dissolving as dark blotches threaten at the edges of Dean’s consciousness.
He has two or three seconds to comprehend the fact that he’s dying alone before it happens.
Reality shifts while he sleeps in the riverbed. The sky splits and spills out darkness, like an enormous pale caterpillar disgorging its entrails over the world, drowning Purgatory in thick, stinking night. Cacophony infests the blackness, a hungry, many-legged chorus of hisses and shrieks and growls.
Dean lies in the death-cold water with stones biting into the lifeless skin of his cheek and his hands and arms. The river flows sluggishly in and out of his open mouth.
He closes his eyes, watching the sick flames blur and smoke through the darkness behind them, and waits for the river to work the skin off his bones, to absorb his human slime into the ebb and flow of Purgatory.
He discovers he isn’t dead when he smells smoke. Hell smelled of blood and living fire and things Dean still hasn’t found names for in the real world, which means that logically, it follows that he’s alive and not wading through another hereafter after all.
The first thing he does with the new information is to roll over onto his stomach and cough until he expects to find his organs splattered on the ground in front of him. When the coughing subsides, though, he’s blinking through hot salt at grimy linoleum, sticky with old crumbs and his own saliva.
He waits a few moments, mentally mapping out the aches and jolts in his body and judging optimistically that nothing’s seriously broken or missing, then pushes up. His chest cracks open with pain so acute he leaves his body for a fraction of a second; then he’s back, gulping ravenous, uneven breaths and trying to balance out the desperate heaving of his lungs against the crushing agony that radiates through his chest with every inhalation.
Even through the harsh rasping of his own lungs, he hears Sam before he sees him, and by the time Sam’s hands are on his shoulders, shaking and patting and rubbing tentative circles on his back, relief is already cascading through his body. It’s so huge and sudden, and his disconnected nerves are still so fucked up, that he almost starts to cry out of stupid, grateful reflex, but the smoke clinging to Sam’s skin and clothes pricks at the vulnerable lining of his nose and throat, and he ends up coughing instead, shuddering violently against Sam as his lungs threaten to kick themselves out of his chest.
Dean doesn’t remember having walked outside, but when his lungs clear again and he can look up, they’re under the cottonwood in the back yard and Sam’s a cool shadow beside him, hovering against the tangle of branches. Palming the streaming tears surreptitiously from his face, Dean squints upward at the house, where the soft blur of flame is working intently at the last window on left in the upper story. Sam doesn’t say anything, just hands Dean a slightly crushed water bottle and a bunch of napkins and waits, patient and a little awkward, and Dean’s reminded again that they haven’t known each other for a year, that there’s about 3% of each of them that’s a stranger to the other.
The water’s lukewarm and tastes faintly of marble; it occurs to him it’s probably holy water, grabbed out of instinct on the way out of the burning house. He doesn’t really mind: it’s soothing on his throat, and he starts to feel better, to breathe easier and lift his head without the world swooping and crumpling.
“Thanks,” he tells the outline of Sam, and it nods.
Dean uses the napkins to wipe ectoplasm off his ear and neck, and leans back against the sharp crags of the cottonwood’s trunk, staring up through the dizzying sway of the branches at the warm blue night. The uneasy cold’s left him; he’s sweating already under his T-shirt, clammy heat crawling along his skin again.
“What about the house?” he asks, wincing on each hoarse syllable. “You’re gonna want to call out Smokey the Bear, right?”
Sam shakes his head. “The wiring’s old. They’ll figure it’s an electrical fire—there probably would’ve been one anyway if we hadn’t—” He breaks off there, leaves the burning nursery unspoken, and for a few seconds they’re both flicking through the same automatic catalogue of memory.
“You should’ve told me,” Sam says abruptly. Dean wonders, told you what, because he can think of a million and a half things he should’ve told Sam over the last month alone, but then Sam stoops, lowering himself onto the cool moss beside Dean, and goes on: “If you’re just gonna sit there and spontaneously suffocate, at least have the courtesy to mention it next time, okay?”
“Okay,” Dean agrees finally, even though he’s pretty sure from Sam’s voice that he wanted to say something else and at least part of that something else is you total fucking idiot. He coughs again, as if the mention of suffocation’s reminded his lungs that they’re still operating on a more-or-less provisional basis, and doesn’t even have it in him to mind when Sam turns automatically to watch him, nervous care and concern busy in every contour of his silhouette.
“Let’s get out of here,” Dean says when he’s up for talking again. He’s suddenly creeped out by the whole place, the silent, burning house and the clustered trees and the lingering memory of the thing in the nursery, burrowed and screaming in his head. For a minute, he thinks Sam’s going to object because Dean nearly died and because it’s the middle of the night and the closest motel’s fifty miles to the east, but he just says, “Yeah,” like he’s been thinking the same thing.
Sam goes back into the house to grab the rest of their things out of the kitchen, and Dean curls up in the passenger seat of the Impala to wait. He stares hard at the rearview, trying to hold on under the onslaught of sudden, tearing exhaustion, but the world wavers out of his reach even as he tries stubbornly to grab on. He’s asleep before Sam comes back.
In the newly broken light, he’s more mud than human.
“Surprised you’re still breathing,” Benny says frankly over the pathetic stench of a rotten campfire. “Thought you were gonna cook the river, you were so hot when I rolled you in.” He shakes his head, laughter trailing irrationally along his face. “Only seen a fella burn up like that once before, and he never woke up. Six feet under by supper time.”
Dean nods on a neck made of precarious dried river muck, expects to feel it crumble under the weight of his throbbing head. It holds; he blinks upward into the weak, soupy light, unsure what’s real and what’s just the river running through his head, splattering watery pictures against the inside of his washed-out skull.
“Don’t worry, brother,” Benny’s voice assures him, rich with amusement. “This particular afterlife ain’t through with you yet, not by a long shot.”
Dean believes him; there’s too much dirt in this world for it to be his imagination. That, and something else.
Somewhere deep under the layers of clay, he can feel his heart beating, a dogged lump of dirt and root that refuses to stop clawing towards life.
Somewhere halfway between Layton and Morris, Sam pulls off the road onto a tiny spit of gravel that winds into nothing down the middle of an empty field. Dean wakes into the strange, hollow silence left behind by the incessant rumble of the engine, and sees darkness.
“Too hot for a bed anyway,” Sam’s voice comes from the heap of shadows in the driver’s seat.
Dean, the chill of Purgatory already thawing from his bones in the close, urgent heat of the summer night, agrees.
They dig old shirts and jackets out of the trunk and spread them out on the invisible, prickling grass, kicking away loose stones and branches. Dean lies down, letting his muscles unknot tentatively, the old ache of tension running through him in a hundred different directions.
He closes his eyes, and for a minute he’s still there, lying in the sludge on the floor of eternity with a monster that calls itself his brother and a roadmap with all the exits missing.
Then Sam shifts, rearranging his colossal bulk in the weeds so that the ground actually shivers with his movements, a miniature rustling earthquake two feet to Dean’s left. He flops back, snorting a long, irritated sigh, and the darkness evens out again, silence dropping thick over the deserted field.
It’s the assurance Dean needs—the fingerprint of reality, smoothing out the creases left behind in his brain. Breathing into the blackness, he stares upward and tries to relearn the pattern of the stars.
Pain flickers beneath his ribs as he reaches the edge of consciousness.