Rating: R, for language
Summary: Four times the Winchesters had to move … and once they didn’t.
John thought he heard something in the middle of the night: the quiet thud of weight falling against the motel room door, small scratches of something trying to get in. His eyes popped open; his heart began to pound. Untangling himself from the little-boy sprawl of his son’s outflung arms and legs, he slipped out of bed and peered out the peephole to the parking lot beyond. He couldn’t see any more or less than what he’d seen the last time he checked. The lot was still virtually empty; the Impala, still parked in the same slot it had occupied for the last two weeks.
He wasn’t really sure what to do, so he didn’t do much of anything. It made him feel a little safer to double up the salt lines across the threshold and window sills, so he did. Figuring it couldn’t hurt anything, he muttered a few of the incantations he’d found last week in the library, then threw in a verse or two of The Lord’s Prayer just for good measure.
He thought about calling Jim, but decided against it. He had to learn to do this on his own sooner or later. If he used Jim for a crutch much longer, he was running the risk of forgetting how to walk on his own altogether.
Thumps and bumps in the night were part of the gig. Wind rustling through the trees, small animals scratching around doors and windows … every damn sound didn’t mean the end of the world. They weren’t all boogie men creeping in for the kill.
He must have looked out the peephole half a dozen times over the next hour or so, but there wasn’t anything out there. Nothing he could see, at least. He checked on the boys again, found the same thing he’d found the last thirty times he’d checked on them. Sammy was sound asleep and drooling. Dean’s eyes were closed, but they popped open the moment John touched him, the same way they’d popped open the last thirty times John touched him. He needed to stop bothering the kid, but he couldn’t help it, couldn’t make himself stop reaching out just to make sure Dean was still there, make sure Dean was real.
“Hey, bud,” John whispered, smiling as much as he could despite the grapefruit-sized wad of pure panic lodged in his throat between his chin and his Adam’s apple. “How you doin?”
Dean didn’t answer. He just waited, watching John like a hawk, looking to him for some kind of sign that everything was okay, that nothing was wrong, that it was safe for him to close his eyes again because the world wasn’t going to come to an end the moment he stopped looking.
Something scratched at the door again. The sound was so soft it could have been a tree branch brushing against a window pane, but it wasn’t.
Dean’s gaze jumped to the door. He studied it for a long moment, almost like he was waiting for it to do something, spontaneously combust maybe, before he turned his attention back to John, went back to waiting. Watching. Trusting.
“Just the wind, son,” John lied. “Nothing to worry about, okay?”
Dean nodded, believing John even though he didn’t believe him.
John brushed the hair out of his son’s eyes. He smiled again, hoping it looked a little less desperate than it felt, then re-crossed the room to look out the peephole again. He still couldn’t see anything, but he was sure there was something there. He didn’t know what it was, but he could smell it now. He could feel it.
He pulled a chair out and sat in front of the door until morning. He didn’t know whether or not a double barrel load of buckshot tearing a twelve gauge hole at center mass would make a dead thing deader or if it would just piss whatever was out there was off; but if it tried to come through the door after his boys, he was going to find out.
By the time the sun rose high enough over the horizon to stain the sky pink with the coming day, every muscle in his body was knotted to cramps of tension and flat-out fear. He rousted Dean out of bed and packed everything they owned in one duffel and a diaper bag. Popping a binky in Sammy’s mouth to keep him quiet, he picked the baby up out of the drawer Dean had pulled out the night before to make a poor man’s crib and wrapped him in a blanket one of Jim’s parishioners donated to their little lost cause. When the kid looked more like a wooly caterpillar than he did a Winchester, John handed him off to Dean.
Dean took his brother without a word, held Sammy up tight against his chest, but carefully, too, just like Mary’d taught him.
John dropped to one knee, met his four-year-old’s old-man eyes with as much nothing-to-it calm as he could manage. “Okay, bud,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper. “I’m not sure what we’re going to find out there, but we need to be ready for anything, okay?”
“I want you to stay behind me when I open the door,” John went on. “Keep Sammy up close to you, just like you’re doing now, but stay behind me. You’re doing perfect now, so keep doing it just like that, okay? But stay behind me, Dean. Keep my body between you and the outside until I tell you differently, okay? Do you understand?”
Dean nodded again.
“Good boy. When I get the door open, if I see something I don’t like, I’m going to tell you to run. If I tell you that, I want you to run, okay? Run as fast as you can, straight to the Impala.” He pulled the keys out of his pocket and put them in Dean’s hand, closed Dean’s pudgy fingers over them. “Unlock the door and get in, then lock the door behind you. Don’t look around. Don’t look behind you. Just get in the car and lock the door. That’s your whole job on this one, okay, bud? Run to the Impala, unlock the door, get in, lock the door behind you. Got it?”
Dean nodded a third time.
“Good boy,” John said. “You’re a good boy, Dean.” He reached out, put a hand behind Dean’s neck and pulled him close. He could feel his son trembling against him, could feel the warmth of Sammy’s small body pressed between them. “As fast as you can, Dean,” he said, the faint scent of dirty diapers mixing with the sweet clean of Dean’s hair. “Don’t wait for me. I need you to protect Sammy on this one. You’re in charge of Sammy, so you worry about him and let me worry about me, okay?”
He felt Dean nod this time.
“Good boy,” he said again. He kissed the top of Dean’s head, lowered his face enough so his mouth was right by Dean’s ear when he whispered, “You’re a good boy, Dean. A good soldier. I love you, bud.”
He stood, turned away from his trembling son to crack the shotgun and check its load again. He could smell blood. The stink of it was strong on the other side of the door. Clicking the twelve gauge back together, he put one hand on the doorknob. He hadn’t heard any scratching for more than an hour, but he knew there was still something there.
He glanced around the motel room one last time, made sure he’d gotten everything that mattered. The weapons. His research. What few toys the boys had. The salt. They were all packed in the duffel, or heavy in the diaper bag that hung off his shoulder like an old lady’s purse.
John drew several deep breaths. He braced himself for whatever was on the other side of the door before looking down at Dean again and smiling. “You ready?”
“Good man,” John told him. “And remember, no waiting for me. If I tell you to run, you take your brother, and you go. Don’t look back, Dean. Just go, okay?”
“I know I can count on you, bud,” John said. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, “Don’t be scared, Dean. Everything’s going to be okay. This is all just a precaution, but its better to be safe than sorry.”
Dean nodded, crowded up a little more against the back of his leg.
John peered out the peephole again. It was light enough outside to put anything that couldn’t tolerate sunlight on the bench. According to Jim, that alone evened out the odds considerably. Whatever was left, he was going to have to face it eventually, so it might as well be now. Here. On his terms instead of theirs.
Taking one last, bracing breath, John threw the deadbolt and opened the door.
There was a body leaning against the door jam. It fell against his legs, heavy and stiff and cold. It scared the crap out of him … scared him enough he almost discharged the twelve gauge on reflex. “Son of a bitch.” He kicked the body off, stepped back and ran into Dean. Instinctively, he put a hand down to steady Dean, but Dean had already re-established his own balance. Rock steady and ready to take off like a bat out of hell at a single word, his eyes were fixed on John’s face, his attention so singularly focused there that he didn’t seem to have noticed the body sprawled in an awkward tangle of limbs and blood on the cement before them.
John stepped more fully between them, blocked Dean’s view before he got a good look at something he didn’t need to see. The guy was cut to shit … near gutted, as far as John could tell. He’d been dead for at least an hour, maybe more. His eyes were open, glassy. They stared past John into forever. There was a slip of paper crumpled in one of his hands. The other hand was outflung beside him, covered in blood, the fingertips raw and tattered.
“Dad?” Dean whispered. That single word was the only word he’d uttered in three months since Mary’s murder, and he’d only said that one a handful of times, and only when absolutely necessary.
“Stay behind me, Dean,” John said a little more harshly than he intended to. He scanned the parking lot, checked the choke of brush near the far dumpster, then studied the access road and the highway beyond.
The scream of panic running up and down his spine eased off a little. Keeping the twelve gauge at the ready, he knelt beside the body and checked the neck for a pulse. He could tell by the stare that the guy was gone, but it seemed like the right thing to do, so he did it. And the guy was: dead. Cold, even. Gone more than an hour then. A couple of hours at least, probably more.
John felt his gorge rise and swallowed it back with an effort. This wasn’t the time to indulge his imagination, wasn’t the time to let himself think about some guy sprawled outside his motel room half the night, marinating in his own blood while he scratched his fingers raw on the wrong fucking door in hopes the son of a bitch sitting on the other side of it would do something more than just sit there and listen to him die.
Jesus Christ. What the fuck had he done?
John tilted the guy’s head enough to get a good look at his face. It wasn’t anybody he recognized, wasn’t anybody he’d ever met. The slip of paper crumpled in one bloody hand caught John’s attention. He slipped it out from under fingers already stiff with rigor, flattened it enough to read the three lines scrawled there.
His name. The motel’s name. Their room number.
Every muscle in John body cramped back to a full-on panic. His heart tried to crawl up his throat and choke him as he looked around the grounds again, frantic to verify he hadn’t missed anything, desperate to verify there wasn’t some kind of boogie man creeping up on him in the blush of a new dawn. The parking lot was still empty. He was still alone except for the terrified boy trembling at his back and the sleepy baby sucking on his binky in rhythmic, satisfied pulls.
He was already half way back to his feet when he realized there was something else under the man’s outstretched hand. Dropping one hand to the top of Dean’s head, he said, “Close your eyes, son,” then nudged the hand carefully aside with his boot.
There was another word scrawled on the cement beneath it. This one was written in the dying man’s own blood. It said, simply, run.
So they ran.
The cop was too damn smart for him. She didn’t know what, exactly, he was doing wrong; but she knew he was doing something wrong. Her instincts had him pegged from the get-go.
She pulled him over for nothing more insidious than a busted out tail light (werewolves will do that on occasion); but despite the fact that he answered every question she asked with more truth than lies, and he did everything she asked him to do without flipping her an ounce of attitude, she still zeroed in on him faster than a heat-seeking missile on a bonfire. He wasn’t quite sure what he said or did that set off her alarms; but whatever it was, she was dead set on getting a look-see inside the Impala’s trunk before she’d finished running his license for outstanding warrants.
“What in the hell do you want to look in there for?” was the way he went with his response, hoping she’d take the balk as a vaguely offended outrage he could escalate to righteous indignation if she kept pushing; but that wasn’t the way she took it. Her eyes narrowed, and she gave him the kind of look that made it clear she could read exactly what his problem with opening his trunk was, and it didn’t have anything to do with the principle of the matter so much as it had something to do with him having a naked dead guy in there along with more weapons than the state militia.
He ended up spending over an hour standing on the side of the road, leaning against her cruiser and smoking cigarette after cigarette as they danced through a series of probable cause threats and kiss my ass responses. She didn’t buy his bullshit for a minute, but she didn’t have a leg to stand on for impounding his car either, so in the end, she let him drive away, but she made him her personal project from that day on.
It actually had a certain irony to it, that she got such a burr up her ass about him being the big bad who was out and about, stealing hearts the hard way and leaving the bodies behind in shreds; because that’s who the naked dead guy in his trunk was. He’d spent months tracking the bastard’s collateral damage through half a dozen lunar cycles just to catch him in the act, put a silver bullet in his brainpan so he could drag the carcass out to the boonies and put it to a good salting and a quick match. But he couldn’t really tell her that — or at least, he couldn’t tell her that and expect to land anywhere but the local psych ward — so he went from being an unsung hero doing good deeds for God and country on the sly, under cloak of night and shadows, to being suspect number one in a series of grisly murders that stopped as soon as she started following his ass everywhere he went.
Hell, he had to quit hunting altogether that last month before they moved because every time he turned around, she was sitting in a café across the street, or buying cigarettes behind him in a convenience store, or following the Impala down a back alley in an unmarked car that was more likely her own personal vehicle than a state-financed ride. He tried filing a harassment complaint against her, claiming they’d had an ugly break-up and she was using the job to make his life a living hell; but it didn’t do him much good. In fact, if anything, it escalated things a bit; made her more determined to be his damned shadow than she was before. Just his luck to catch the eye of the one cop in town who was more concerned with putting bad guys behind bars than she was with covering her own ass from official inquiry and censure.
Once it became clear he couldn’t bluff her off or shake her with any degree of consistency when he had places to be and monsters to kill, he didn’t have much choice but to put the hunting on hold or end up cooling his heels in county lockup or worse. If he’d had half an ounce of common sense, he’d have skipped town the night he skinned by with nothing more than a ticket for transporting dead bodies across state lines with a broken tail light, but he didn’t.
He didn’t because he couldn’t.
He couldn’t leave town; not with Dean just starting to find his feet again. The kid had been quiet for so long. He hadn’t talked at all for months after Mary’s murder; and even when he did start talking again, he wouldn’t talk much, and he wouldn’t talk at all to anyone who wasn’t John or Sammy or Jim. The kid had gone AWOL inside his own skin. He was hiding so deep inside the shadows of his own mind that even John couldn’t coax him out for more than short stretches of time, and not even that if there was anyone else around who wasn’t on the short list of people Dean considered family.
So when she started to reach him? When she managed to worm her way inside the broken shell of little boy Dean had become since Mary’s murder and come back out holding the hand of a kid who at least resembled his son in the days before silence became the only voice Dean was willing to use?
He couldn’t take Dean away from that. He couldn’t break the connection the two of them were forging, couldn’t bear to tear Dean away from the only friend he’d made in over two years.
A fucking teacher.
Who the hell makes a friend out of a fucking teacher?
But Dean did. He just decided to eat lunch with her one day, so he did. Seven years old, and the kid has the guts to walk right up to a teacher and sit down like he owns the place.
Where in the hell he got those cajones, John would never know, because teachers intimidated the piss out of him when he was Dean’s age, and pretty much every year after, too. But wherever he got them from, he had them in spades. He not only climbed that hill once, he kept climbing it every damn day for the whole school year. He made it a ritual like Dean made everything a ritual: sitting down beside her in the lunch room, eating his peanut butter and peanut butter sandwiches while he talked about things that no doubt meant nothing to her, but that meant everything to him.
From what John could gather, he told her a lot about Sammy. And he told her a chunk-and-a-half about Jim, too: that the three of them had lived in Blue Earth with him for awhile, that Jim had taken Dean to Lake Michigan all by himself once, not for any particular reason, but just because Jim was the only person on the planet who could get Dean to take more than five paces away from his old man and little brother without imploding. And he told her what they ate for dinner, evidently; and about the Impala, because she made some crack to him about the kind of man who drives a muscle car long before she ever saw what kind of car he drove.
But more than the specifics of what Dean told her, the relevant thing was, he told her something. He talked to her. And he didn’t talk to her because he had to. He talked to her because he wanted to.
He wanted to tell her things. He wanted to impress her with the right answers when she called on him in class. He wanted to bake her chocolate-God-damned-chip cookies even though he almost punked out at the last minute and left them home because he was afraid she’d think he was some kind of suck-up.
It was more progress than he’d made with Dean in over two years, and he wasn’t going to let some nosey-ass cop with the wrong idea about who he was and what he was doing take that away from him. Take it away from either of them.
So they stayed.
They stayed for four months after that first fucking ticket, and he did everything he could to keep from getting his ass thrown in the pokey while his kid finished out the second grade with a teacher who found a way to reach him inside that brittle, empty silence he’d pulled over his head like nothingness was the only answer he could bear to how the world changed around him, and why.
By the time the school year was over, Dean was a different kid. He was talking again. He was interacting with the world, and showing an interest in things that weren’t restricted to Sammy or Sammy or Sammy.
They left town the same week summer vacation started. He hated to go even then, but it was the right time to make a break, and he wasn’t sure that damn cop hadn’t found something in his trash that would buy him twenty-to-life in maximum security lockdown. They dropped by her house to say goodbye, and Dean damn near broke them both by holding onto her neck too long and whispering something in her ear that John never did hear.
And then he just turned and walked away. Never looked back.
The look on that woman’s face as she watched Dean walk away from her was something John was never going to forget. It was the first time since Mary was murdered that he saw someone else looking at his kid and seeing the same kid he saw every night while they said Sammy’s prayers with him, asking God to look after someone Sammy’d never even known, but Dean would never forget knowing, would never forget losing.
The fragile kid. The unbreakable kid. The silent kid. The screaming kid.
His kid. Mary’s kid.
Walking down the sidewalk to where the Impala sat waiting by the curb, his back turned on her to make a clean break of something that might have killed him if he’d tried to do it any other way, Dean left this place a different kid than he’d been when he arrived. His teacher watched him all the way to the street, then she looked at John and smiled a smile that looked so much like Mary’s that it almost killed him, too.
He wanted to say something to her that would at least begin to touch what she’d meant to Dean, but he didn’t have the words. He wanted to thank her, wanted to tell her she was a God-send and that Mary would have loved her as much as Dean did, and would have wanted to thank her as much as he did … but he didn’t have the words for any of those things either, so he didn’t say anything. He just stood there, looking at her with tears in his eyes as his kid walked away like he wasn’t dying a little inside at the leaving. And then he, too, turned and walked away without so much as a backward glance.
The phone buzzed, woke John up out of sound sleep. He batted at the bedside table awkwardly, found the phone with a blind grope and fumbled with it for several more seconds before the muzz in his brain let go of enough wattage to figure out how to open the damn thing up.
“Yeah,” he grunted. “What. Fucking better be good.”
“John.” The tone of Jim Murphy’s voice woke John more effectively than a bucket of ice water in the pants. He sat up, his mind scrambling, his heart racing. “Where are the boys?” Jim asked. No, demanded.
John grabbed the nine mil from under his pillow and shoved it into the back of his pants. “School. Why?” He rolled out of bed and strode to the window, looking out over the empty street, scanning empty lawns. It was noon, maybe a little later. The sunshine outside was bright enough to scar a man’s retinas for life.
“Go get them and leave. Don’t stop for anything. Don’t go anyplace you’ve ever been before, and call me when you get there. I’ll have an exit strategy set up for you by then, but you need to get out of there now. ”
John was already moving, already throwing a scatter of weapons and research into his duffel before heading to the boys room to grab their emergency packs. “What is it? What am I facing?”
“Two men. One’s six four, maybe two seventy, red hair, big nose. The other’s black, wears his hair long, has a scar from his left eyebrow to his chin. Don’t kill them unless you have to.”
“Hunters?” John demanded tersely.
“Yes. I don’t know how close they are; but they’re good, so be careful.”
“What the fuck are they after me for?”
“They aren’t after you. They’re after Sammy.”
Those words hit him like a sledgehammer to the gut. They stopped him cold, made it impossible to breathe for a moment. “Sammy?” he whispered. “They know about Sammy?”
John’s hand started to shake. The room tried to blank out around him, but he blinked it back to a focus with an effort. “How’d they find out?”
“I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter right now. What matters is getting you the hell out of there. Go dark. Get off the grid. They know your aliases, so don’t use your cards. When you find some place to roost, call me and we’ll figure it out from there.”
“Are you tapped?” John asked. Then, “Does anybody else know?”
“I don’t know, John; but I checked my line and it’s clean, so once you shake them, it won’t paint you again to contact me. Now move.”
John was already out the door and half way to the Impala by the time the phone clicked dead in his ear.
He found the red head loitering out back of Sammy’s school; the black man, crouched in a cluster of shadows in the school boiler room. He killed them both, took every weapon they had and left their bodies in a dumpster down the block, but not before the red head managed to sink a K-bar between his ribs, not before his partner got in a couple of bone-breaking body shots that made it hard to breathe without coughing himself to his knees.
By the time he’d disposed of the bodies and made his way back to the school office to pull Sammy out of class, he’d lost enough blood to make walking a straight line a serious challenge. He damned near took a header in the parking lot on the way to the Impala, but Sammy was too busy bitching about missing some fucking test or another to notice.
He knew something was up by the time they hit Dean’s school though. He’d gone quiet as a church mouse in the back seat, watching John’s reflection in the rearview mirror with an expression that was just short of scared shitless.
John handed his nine mil back before he left the car. “Take it,” he ordered. “Kill anyone who comes up to the car. No exceptions.”
“Dad?” Sammy whispered, his voice shaking.
John handed him the phone, too. Dug out all the cash he had in his wallet and handed that over as well. “Stay here,” he said. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, call Jim and do whatever he tells you to do.”
He left Sammy crying in the back seat, made it inside the Junior High before his knees gave out on him entirely. The school secretary looked at him like he was a piece of shit. He gave her his best “fuck you” smile and told her to get his kid for him, pronto. He leaned into the counter to stay on his feet while he waited, played his unsteadiness off as the hangover from hell with a chaser of the hair of the dog. It wasn’t an act that was too hard to sell. He’d been hunting for three days straight and hadn’t showered, shaved or slept in that time but for the two hours he’d gotten in before Jim’s phone call woke him.
Dean saw him through the office window from the end of the hall. He accelerated in a heartbeat from a “what the hell does the principal want with me?” stroll to the kind of walk that gets kids ticketed for running in the halls. John had a hundred pounds on Dean, maybe more; but the kid walked him out of the school and back to the Impala like it was no big deal, like the weight he took on himself to keep John from collapsing to the cement drive was nothing more than an inconvenience, if even that.
Dean wanted to load him into the passenger seat and take the wheel himself; but John pulled rank, ordered him to ride shotgun instead. The kid was only thirteen, and even if the pissy-faced secretary inside hadn’t still been watching them out a window like she was considering a quick call to the cops concerning the drunk fuck who was driving around with his kids in a muscle car, he wasn’t about to pass the keys to the Impala to someone who was barely tall enough to keep his foot on the gas pedal and see out the windshield at the same time.
Dean badgered him mercilessly about the blood soaking through his jacket, but John refused to let him check the wound for fear of bleeding out right there in the front seat. He couldn’t afford to have someone fucking around with his make-shift bandage, pulling the stiff ducked canvas away from where he’d stuffed it into his gut to the task of soaking up more blood than any one man could afford to lose in a single sitting.
As much as it hurt like hellfire itself, the pressure of that jacket against his side was the only thing keeping him alive, and he knew it.
They got better than a hundred miles under the tires before he started losing the ability to focus, before his weaving got bad enough that the threat of crossing the center line at an inopportune moment forced him to start giving some serious consideration to his sons’ insistent nagging on the subject of switching drivers. They were somewhere well South of anywhere they would have had any possible reason to be when he finally gave in and pulled off the road. Or maybe “pulled off the road” wasn’t as accurate as drove off the road and into the ditch, whining like a little bitch when the steering wheel slammed into his side hard enough to take him out of the game for the duration.
He didn’t remember how Dean got the car out of the ditch, or how he managed to get them to a roadside motel where he paid some hooker working out of one of the rooms a twenty to check them in, then paid one of her Johns another twenty to drag John into the motel room and toss him on the lone bed like a sack of half conscious potatoes. All he really remembered was Sammy talking to him non-stop the whole time, holding his hand and saying God knows what in his ear like he had a theory about a continuous stream of words John couldn’t follow on a bet being the best tether to keep his old man viable: keep him conscious, keep him breathing, keep him alive.
And the kid was not wrong.
John woke up three days later at Jim’s. He faded into consciousness to find Dean sleeping upright in a chair, and Sammy curled up on the bed right beside him. Sammy’s eyes were swollen and puffy like he’d been crying for three days straight, and he was still holding John’s hand in a death grip despite the fact that he was sound asleep and snoring.
John never did tell Sammy why he was crying when the kid woke up.
Sammy had been bitching non-stop for three hours, and he wasn’t showing any signs of letting up in the near future. The basic theme of his thesis was what a crap dad John was; and he was hell-bent on offering an endless laundry list of evidence in support of that thesis, every check point featuring examples of why they shouldn’t move, how unfair having to move again was to him, and how much his dad didn’t give a rat’s ass about anybody but himself because he was always making them move.
There was some school play he wanted to be in. He’d just made the soccer team, and they were going to start him in the first game. He had perfect attendance so far, and if he could keep that for the whole quarter, he’d get some kind of certificate. He had the top grade in his science class, and his science teacher wanted him to make an entry for the science fair. He’d been elected secretary (secretary?) of his chess club, and they were counting on him to take notes every week. They’d already moved twice this year, and John had promised him God-knows-when that they’d never move more than twice in any one school year. He’d just—
And John snapped. He just snapped.
“You selfish little bastard.” Turning away from the box he was packing, John grabbed Sammy by the biceps, shook him hard enough to make his teeth rattle. “Do you think I’m doing this because it’s fun? Do you think I enjoy dragging you boys all over hell’s half acre while I bust my ass in a different town every four or five months so I can get beat to shit trying to kill monsters I don’t understand to save people I don’t even know? Because if you do, you’re wrong, Sammy. It isn’t fun, and I don’t want to do it; but there are already eleven dead kids in Arkadelphia, and there’s going to be a lot more of them if somebody doesn’t do something to stop this thing.”
He was mad. He was so fucking mad he couldn’t see straight.
“Eleven kids, Sammy,” he repeated, shaking his son by the arm again. “Eleven of them. Eleven kids who won’t ever enter a science fair, or be in a play, or bitch about not having the right fucking pair of shoes to wear so they look like everyone else in their God damned class. Eleven sets of parents who are going to spend the rest of their lives wondering what in the fuck they could have possibly done so wrong that they deserve to lose their kid that way, who will spend the rest of their lives wondering what in the fuck they could have possibly done differently to save that kid, or to just die with that kid so they don’t have to keep living with that kind of loss every day for the rest of their fucking lives.”
He was beyond mad. His skin couldn’t decide if it was hot or cold, kept flashing back and forth between the two. His head was pounding like jungle drums out of a Tarzan movie; his blood, screaming through his veins like high pressure water through a fire hose.
“So tell me again what it is you’ve got so bad. Tell me again why it is so God damned unfair for you to miss your fucking soccer practice so I can try to figure out what this fucker is before it tears the heart out of kid number thirteen and sets the unlucky little bastard on fire. Tell me again why that God damned perfect attendance certificate of yours is more important than keeping one more family from living through the unGodly hell of having a cop show up at their front door to tell them their son is never coming home again. That their daughter died screaming. That some fucking monster ate their kid’s heart and then burned what was left to a crisp so they don’t even have anything left but ashes to bury.”
Sammy didn’t say a word. He just looked at him. He just looked at him.
“Come on, Sammy,” John snarled, shaking him by the arm again. “Man up and spit it the fuck out. You’ve got my undivided attention here, so make good use of it. Bitch a little more about what a fucking rip your life is. Remind me again what a piece of shit dad I am for not caring enough about your job as chess club secretary to tell the next set of parents whose kid goes missing that they’re on their own. I’d love to help you out, but I can’t make it this week because my kid has to take notes about whose bishop took whose rook, and it wouldn’t really be fair to ask him to fucking sacrifice something that important just because your kid’s life hangs in the balance. Who the fuck do you think you are to ask that of him? What fucking right do you have to put your kid’s life over my kid’s chess club obligations?”
When John stopped to glare at him this time, Sammy did answer. “That’s not what I said,” he protested quietly.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did I misunderstand you son? Were you not saying let’s just unpack all this shit and stay here? Were you not saying fuck ’em, we don’t even know these people, so they’re on their own because you’ve got a soccer game in two weeks and the coach is counting on you to be there?”
Sammy didn’t answer that, but Dean did. “Come on, Dad,” he said, his voice quiet in the dead silence.
“Take your ‘come on, Dad,’ and shove it up your ass, Dean. You keep the fuck out of this. This isn’t between you and me, this is between Sammy and me. We’re having a conversation here. It’s not an argument, it’s a debate, so if you don’t feel like you can keep your opinions to yourself, then take a fucking break and go have a beer on me.”
John didn’t take his glare off Sammy for even a second. Sammy stared back at him, but he didn’t say anything for so long John prompted, “Well? I’m not hearing any rebuttal here, son. Tell me what it is you want me to do. Make your case and let’s see how it plays. Because honestly? I’m sick to death of your fucking bellyaching. I’m sick to death of hearing how bad you have it, how much better your life would be if we just stayed in one place for awhile. You want to stay in one place for awhile? Fine. You want to stay here and just leave all those kids in Arkadelphia to fend for themselves because fuck em, we don’t even know them? Then go ahead and tell me that, Sammy. Go ahead and say you want me to turn my back on them, and maybe I’ll do it this time, if not so you can get your perfect attendance citation, then just so I can get a fucking break from your God damn selfish bullshit.”
His blood pressure was through the roof. He was shaking he was so mad; could feel every beat of his heart in his temples, under his jaw, in his wrists. He still had hold of Sammy’s arm, but he didn’t shake him by it again because if he did, he might keep shaking the little bastard until his teeth fell out to make room for a fucking sense of empathy strong enough to let him see the world from somebody else’s perspective for a change.
And Sammy was still just looking at him. Just looking at him.
John returned his son’s patented expression of half “what did I do to you?” and half “fuck you!” with a glare of his own that had been known to curl grown soldiers up into fetal balls of “I give up.” He was glaring at the kid so hard his eyeballs ached; but no matter how hard he glared, all he could see was the charred remains of those eleven kids in Arkadelphia, every one of them just about Sammy’s age, all of them wearing Sammy’s face, or Dean’s face, while they haunted him the way the kids he couldn’t save always haunted him by making him feel like they were his kids, by making him feel like losing them was the same thing as losing his kids.
He didn’t realize how hard his hand was clamped around Sammy’s arm until Sammy finally broke his silence and spoke. “You’re hurting me,” was all he said.
“I’m hurting you?” John ground out between clenched teeth. He looked down, saw the bruises already starting to form on Sammy’s biceps. Bleeding out from under his fingers like silent accusations stained into pale skin, the sight of them broke up the thrall of his anger, derailed the detonation he’d tried to keep off the tracks altogether by holding his tongue for three long hours while Sammy bitch slapped him like a pro, trying to let the kid have his say, trying to let him get it out because John knew how unfair this was to him. He knew how upset Sammy was, knew how much more trouble Sammy was having uprooting himself than usual just because he’d sunk those roots in deep the moment they landed, secure in the knowledge that this was the second school in one year, so he could bet his whole wad that it was also going be the last.
Because his dad had promised him that. His dad had promised he’d never have to be the new kid in class who had to prove himself all over again more than twice in any given school year.
John glared at his son for another three seconds before he let go of Sammy’s arm and shoved him off. Sammy stumbled away, took several steps to regain his balance before straightening back to a slow stand. Squaring his shoulders in belligerent defiance, he rubbed at the finger-shaped bruises already darkening the skin between his elbow and the sleeve of his tee-shirt, watching John from the far side of the room with a cold, blank expression that defied interpretation beyond simple outrage.
“Get out of here,” John ordered, his voice brittle enough he thought it might break under the strain of speaking. “Dean and I’ll finish the packing ourselves. You go find somewhere to be that I don’t have to look at you.”
Sammy watched John turn back to the box he was packing, waited until John had finished filling it and taped it shut before he said, “I’m not selfish. And I’m not a bastard.” Then, without another word, Sammy turned and walked out of the room.
And John let him go. He grabbed another box, started stuffing crap into it with no regard to what went in or how. The room was empty before the box was even half full, but John taped it shut anyway, kicked it to the wall to sit with the others until they were ready to drag the lot of them out to the U-haul and stack them inside.
When he looked up, Dean was watching him with an expression twice as unreadable as his brother’s. “What?” John demanded.
Dean hesitated. He looked like he wanted to say something, but he acted like he wasn’t sure he should.
“If you have something to say, then spit it out,” John ordered. “But be quick about it, because I am just about done listening to what a shit dad I am for trying to do the right thing here. I’ve had enough of that from your brother to last me a lifetime, but if you feel a need to pile on in the name of sibling solidarity, then get to it and get it over with before I change my mind and tell you to shove that up your ass, too.”
Dean’s expression tightened with subtle lines of resentment, but when he spoke, his voice was quiet, calm; his tone, informative rather than punitive. “He isn’t just in the play, Dad. He has the lead in the play. And he didn’t try out just to be a drama dork. He has a crush on some girl in his chess club. She was too shy to try out by herself, and he’s too much of a pansy to just come out and say he likes her, so he pretended like he just happened to be trying out, too; so they could do it together if she wanted. And they both got in. He got the lead, and she plays the girl the lead ends up with at the end of the play. They even have some dorky little kiss at the end. On the cheek or something, but still a kiss.”
The muscles along John’s jaw jumped. He didn’t say a word for several moments, just stood there listening to the echoes of the life his kid was living while John, himself, lived an entirely different life altogether. “I don’t really care why he’s throwing a pity party for himself,” John said finally. “Kids are dying in Arkadelphia. Compared to that, whatever reasons Sammy might have for wanting to stay here don’t matter.”
“They matter to Sammy,” Dean said quietly.
John threw the tape dispenser so hard it put a hole in the drywall. Dean didn’t even flinch. John walked away without speaking again. He grabbed a cold one from the refrigerator and sucked it dry in three long pulls. When he was finished, he crumpled the can in one hand and two-pointed it into the open trash bag across the kitchen, then went looking for Sammy.
John found him sitting on the back steps, crying. He watched from the doorway for a full five count before rolling his neck along his shoulders and stepping outside to join him.
When he sat down at Sammy’s side, he half expected the kid to tell him to fuck off and die, but Sammy didn’t. He didn’t say anything. Didn’t look at him, didn’t acknowledge his presence in any way.
John stared out across the backyard, listened to his kid sniffle for several minutes before he dropped an arm around Sammy’s shoulders and pulled him in close. Sammy didn’t slough off the gesture, or struggle against it. Instead, he accepted it the way it was offered: not an apology so much as a peace offering. Leaning into John side with one shoulder, he let his head tilt far enough to one side to lean it against John’s side, too.
Together, they both stared across the backyard like a couple of mute monkeys. Speak No Evil; Hear No Evil. Who was playing which role was more a matter of perspective and timing than one of temperament.
“I’m not selfish,” Sammy said finally. He didn’t look at John when he spoke, just kept staring across the yard like the chainlink fence twenty yards out held the secrets to the universe, and then some.
John sighed. “I know it’s not fair, Sammy. And I know why you resent it. But I don’t have any choice, here. I have to do this. I can’t just turn my back and let this thing keep killing kids when there’s a chance I can figure out how to stop it. And I can’t do that from here. If I could, I would, but I can’t.”
“I know,” Sammy said.
“I’m sorry though,” John added. “If that helps at all, I really am sorry.”
Sammy looked up, squinted at him like he wasn’t quite sure he’d heard that correctly. “It’s okay,” he said after a long beat. “I’m used to you yelling at me when we fight.”
John smiled a little, shook his head as he clarified, “I’m sorry about your play. I know it’s important to you, and I’m sorry you have to miss it.”
“Oh.” Sammy looked down again. He looked at his hands, picked at his fingers.
“Dean says you have the lead,” John offered when Sammy hadn’t spoken for some time.
“Have all your lines memorized already?”
“Most of them.”
“Bet you would have been good.”
Sammy shrugged. “Maybe. I guess.”
“I would have liked to see it,” John said.
Sammy looked at him again, squinted again like he wasn’t quite sure he believed that. “You’d go to a play if I was in it?”
“Absolutely,” John deadpanned. “I’m a big fan of the theatre. Me and Dean, both.”
Sammy snorted. “Yeah. Right. Dean calls me a drama dork.”
“I’m sure he calls you that with love.”
Sammy fell silent. He went back to picking at his fingers. “How come it always has to be us?” he asked finally.
“Because there isn’t anybody else. I wish there was, but there isn’t.”
Sammy nodded, still looking at his hands. “Okay,” he said.
John’s arm was still around Sammy’s shoulders; Sammy was still leaning into him, his head resting against the side of John’s chest like he was too tired of fighting with his old man to hold it up for himself any more. John leaned over, kissed the top of his son’s head, left his lips there, resting against Sammy’s skull as he said, “I’m sorry, Sammy. I really am so fucking sorry.”
Sammy sniffled. “I know,” he agreed.
They sat that way for another five minutes — Sammy leaning into his dad’s side, picking at his fingers; John with one arm slung around Sammy’s shoulders, his own head bowed, his lips pressed to the top of Sammy’s skull — before Sammy spoke again. “There’s a girl in my chess club,” he offered out of the blue. “We were supposed to be in the play together.”
“Sounds like that would have been fun,” John said quietly.
“At the end of the play, her character kisses my character right before the curtain comes down. It’s only on the cheek and all, but she’s really shy, and if I’m not in the play, then she’ll have to kiss a total stranger in front of the whole audience, even if it is only on the cheek. That’s the reason I didn’t want to leave, Dad. Not because I’m selfish.”
“I know, son.”
“I just didn’t want her to have to kiss a total stranger in front of all those people.”
“I can see where that would be difficult.”
“And I wanted to have a girlfriend,” Sammy added. “Even if it was just in a play. Even if it was just our characters who ended up boyfriend and girlfriend at the end instead of really me and her, although that might have happened, too, especially if she liked kissing me in the play.”
“I’m sure she would have.”
“Liked kissing me?” Sammy asked.
“If she was smart,” John agreed.
“She is,” Sammy assured him. “Really smart. And nice, too. But mostly, really, really smart; which is what I like best about her.”
John swallowed hard, closed his eyes. “Pretty?” he asked.
“Yeah. Really pretty.”
“What’s her name?”
“Nice name,” John said. “Sounds like she would have made a great girlfriend.”
“She likes me,” Sammy said. “And she thinks I’m smart, too.”
“You are smart.”
“Yeah, but she likes that about me. And she thinks I’m cute, too. She told her best friend Claire that, and Claire told me, even though I don’t think she was supposed to. But she did. She said Jessica thinks I’m really cute, in addition to being really smart.”
John smiled a little. “I think you’re cute, too.”
Sammy elbowed him in the ribs. “Not cute like that. She doesn’t think I’m a pansy, Dad.”
John held onto Sammy a little tighter. “I don’t think you’re a pansy either, Sam.”
Sammy didn’t respond to that for several seconds. Finally, his voice so quiet John could hardly hear it, he asked, “Do you really think I’m selfish?”
“No,” John said firmly. “I don’t.”
“I don’t mean to be selfish,” Sammy said, his voice still so soft it was barely audible.
“You’re not selfish, Sammy. I shouldn’t have said it that way.”
“I just wanted to have a girlfriend,” Sammy whispered.
John closed his eyes again, but opened them before he spoke. “I know you do. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with wanting things for yourself. Good things. Normal things.”
“I just wanted to stay in one place for awhile,” Sammy said. “It’s really hard to make friends — especially girlfriends — when you move every time you get to know anybody well enough for them to start liking you that way.” He looked up at John, blinked tears out of his eyes. “I’m not complaining or calling you a crap dad. I just really wanted to stay in one place for awhile. Can’t I just tell you that without it being me being selfish or not caring if kids die?”
“Yes, Sammy. You can tell me that.”
“Every time I do, you think I’m calling you a crap dad. But I’m not. I’m just trying to tell you what I want because sometimes I don’t think you and Dean even know what a normal life is. I don’t think you and Dean even realize that nobody else moves around all the time, that nobody else can pack up everything they own and shove most of it in the car without it getting too crowded to drive. I know that’s the way we do it, but that’s not the way everybody else does it, Dad. Most people stay in one place their whole lives. Or if not for their whole lives, then at least for more than a couple of months. That isn’t normal, Dad. Most people don’t move around that much because its almost impossible to make any friends if you’re always moving to someplace new, even if you do have a good reason for doing it.”
“I wish it could be different, Sammy,” John told him. “I wish we could settle down in one place and have the normal life you want, but that isn’t the way it’s ever going to be.”
Sammy sighed. “Because there isn’t anybody else to save those kids but you?” he asked, his tone resigned now rather than resentful.
“Because there isn’t anybody else to save them but us,” John corrected. “Us, Sammy. You and me and Dean. The three of us are a package deal. We’re a team, and we have to stay together if we’re going to accomplish anything worthwhile and stay safe while we’re doing it.”
“Because that’s what we have to do,” Sammy added quietly. “We have to save people who don’t have anybody else to save them. That’s our family business.”
“I wish it could be different,” John said again.
“I know,” Sammy said. “But it isn’t, because they don’t have anybody else to count on but us.” He shifted against John’s side, twisted his neck so he could look up, meet his dad’s eyes. “Like me and Dean with you,” he said.
John frowned at that. “What?” he asked.
“Like me and Dean with you,” Sammy repeated. “Like us only having you to count on, even though sometimes you wish it was different.”
John felt like he’d been gut shot. He felt like someone was trying to rip him in half. “Kind of like that,” he agreed with an effort. “Except I don’t wish you and Dean counting on me was different.”
“Sometimes you do,” Sammy said. “But it isn’t. You’re the only person we have, so you have to be there for us even when you don’t want to be.”
“I always want to be there for you, Sammy. I’m your father.”
“But sometimes you want to be selfish, too, and you can’t be. Because we don’t have anybody else but you, so you always have to do what’s right, even when you don’t want to. Like letting me stay here because you know I want to instead of going to help someone else we don’t even know. That’s why you said you’re sorry. That’s why you wish it was different. Because you want to do that, but you can’t.” Sammy studied John’s face, trying to see something there, trying to understand it. “Right?” he asked finally.
John didn’t answer him. He looked away, looked across the yard again to stare at the chain link fence that not only didn’t hold the secrets to the universe, it didn’t even have a simple answer for his ten-going-on-twenty-seven-year-old kid.
Or if it did, it wasn’t giving it up.
“Why don’t you come back inside and help us finish packing,” John said finally.
Sammy nodded. “Okay,” he said, reaching up to wipe his eyes with the back of one hand as he stood. There were several finger-shaped bruises already turning to an ugly purple-black on Sammy’s upper arm. They didn’t seem to bother him much, but they bothered John to the bone.
He’d marked his son in anger. The failure of that tasted like ash on his tongue. You selfish bastard. The words festered in his memory, condemning him in ways Sammy never could, in ways Dean never would. You’re hurting me. John closed his eyes, rubbed at his face to hide tears he couldn’t afford to let fall. It doesn’t matter. It matters to Sammy. He felt a hollow spot inside him twist, felt it echo with the absence of a woman who would have never let him hurt his own sons to teach them, who would have never let him damage his children to save them.
“Dad?” Sammy ventured after more than a minute of silence.
John scrubbed at the five o’clock shadow seeded along his jaw, then dropped the hand away from his face and stood. He glanced down, met the serious upturned gaze of a child who’d drawn Mary’s forgiving soul as a counterbalance to the inheritance of his father’s damnedable nature. “Sorry about the arm, bud.”
Sammy shrugged. “It’s okay,” he said, his forgiveness easy and unconditional. “It doesn’t hurt, and I kind of deserved it.”
The words cut deep, but John smiled through them. “You didn’t deserve it,” he said. “You might have deserved a kick in the pants, but you didn’t deserve that, and I’m sorry.”
“Okay,” Sammy said again. Then, “Let’s go finish packing. Then, after we’re done, can we go eat pizza?”
Pizza. That was Sammy’s idea of salve for the soul. There wasn’t much in the world that couldn’t be solved, or at least made significantly better, by pizza.
“Sure,” John agreed. “Pizza sounds like a winner.” He dropped one hand to Sammy’s head as they walked back into the house, doing the best he could to vanquish the image of eleven children charred to a scorch in his mind, every one of them nothing more than a theoretical abstract but for the fact that they could have been one of his sons.