Title: The Tomato Plant Doesn't Grow Mangos
Word count: @ 12,000
Author's Notes: Thanks to the spn_summergen mods for all their hard work, and to my recipient for such a nice generic prompt! I tried to add some surprises to make it more special for you, hon! Thanks, too, to my friend Marizu who's never seen Supernatural but was happy to contribute some Filipino culture and a rockin' MOTW! And finally, my gratitude always to my beta and to those friends who always try to keep me focused on both quality and having fun, even when the contradiction makes me cross-eyed.
Summary: If you lived next door to the Winchester family in 1993, would you call Child Protective Services?
Prompt: a case in an urban setting- Philadelphia or New York would be especially appreciated (modern or past is up to you).
January 3, 1993
Something was coming.
Ligaya jolted awake, straining to make out the sound that had wrenched her from sleep. At first, she couldn't hear anything over the thudding of her heart, beating like a dabakan drum. Then, it came again.
Not from within her apartment, not yet. The sound seemed to come from the stairwell. She was the only tenant on the top floor of a five-story walk-up. No one had any reason to be approaching her floor in the middle of the night.
Another thud. Like coconuts falling on a tin roof back home.
Could it be coming from the roof?
Garlic! Her Lola had cautioned her to hang cloves of garlic by her windows and doors, but she hadn’t listened. Ligaya had a degree from the UP Manila School of Nursing - she was educated, not like the old women in the village with their horror stories about the manananggal - vampires that preyed on pregnant women and sucked out the heart of the unborn child. Ligaya knew the difference between folklore and reality. Besides, this was New York City, not a remote barangay in her native Philippines.
And yet… and yet...
Her baby stirred in her womb. Restless. But so tiny. Too tiny to be sensing her agitation. And Ligaya thought: How could I take a chance, with her?
She threw the covers aside and swung her legs off the mattress. She wasn’t going to cower in her bed. Her mind raced. Hide? Or find something to defend herself? She padded into the kitchen in the dark, debating whether to turn on a light.
It was louder now. Closer. Almost outside her door!
Ligaya forced herself to breathe more slowly - to think! A manananggal had bat-like wings for a reason. It wouldn’t be trudging up five flights of stairs to lurk in the hallway. Don't panic, she told herself. Be calm.
She took a deep breath and unlocked the front door, leaving the chain securely in place. Then, as quietly as she could, she opened the door just a crack.
A strange man was hauling himself up the last steps to the landing.
The overhead light flickered. Nothing unusual in that; it happened all the time. Three of the four light bulbs had long since burned out, and the remaining one cast a pool of weak light directly below it, leaving the rest of the corridor in deep shadow. As the intruder moved to the top of the stairs, Ligaya shrank back. The man was as dark as the shadows from which he emerged – hair, coat, and scowling expression.
She glanced back at the glowing numbers of the clock on the microwave. Just past midnight. Taking one step away from the door, she turned toward the phone on the wall and 9-1-1 and help. A young voice stopped her in her tracks.
She couldn’t help herself. She turned back.
The stranger stood directly under the single light bulb. She could see now that he wasn’t alone. He was leaning heavily on a skinny little kid about eight or nine years old, hand digging into the boy’s shoulder. Behind them, a slightly older boy struggled to carry two heavy duffels that seemed as though they might actually outweigh him. He dropped them by the door to the vacant apartment across from hers to fumble out a set of keys, and Ligaya realized that was the sound she had heard – someone setting the bags down on each landing before summoning the strength to tackle the next flight of stairs.
Something had clanged in at least one of the duffels. Clothing, Ligaya reflected, didn’t sound like that.
The boy dragged the heavier bag across the floor to prop open the door, and then stepped aside as the man and his pint-sized human crutch limped past him into their rooms. Was the man drunk? Hurt? Sick? Ligaya was a nurse, after all; should she…
Before she could finish the thought, she found a pair of bright eyes meeting her gaze. How did the boy know she was there, watching? How could he see her through the sliver of her open door, her apartment dark as pitch behind her?
Somehow, he did. His head dipped in the slightest of nods, and in a voice rough with weariness, he said, “It’s alright, ma’am. We’re your new neighbors. Go back to sleep.”
There was a low rumble from inside their apartment, and she could hear the boy answer, "Yeah, Dad. Gonna move the car right now." Then he closed their door and with a last glance in her direction, he trotted back down the stairs.
Ligaya started back to her room, but her inquisitive nature drew her instead to the living room window that overlooked the street. The boy hadn't looked old enough to drive a car. But sure enough, he emerged under the street lamp and got into the driver's side of a big black four-door sedan that reminded her of cars she had seen on 60's TV shows. Then, the car pulled away from the curb and disappeared down the street.
Despite the inauspicious beginning, Ligaya was happy to discover that the new neighbors were actually the new building super, John Winchester and his sons. It was such a relief, Ligaya thought, to have a handyman on the premises. The building was a crumbling old brownstone, and the nagpapalaki ng bayag landlord never set foot in it unless it was to evict someone. But someone had to be there to fix the boiler when it shuddered and died. Someone had to handle plumbing emergencies and collapsing ceilings. Someone had to clear and re-set the rat traps. That someone, in the winter of 1993, was named Winchester.
The new super went door-to-door through the tenement building the next day, introducing himself and his sons. Whatever had been wrong with him the night he moved in, he seemed to have recovered quickly. Or was able to hide it well, Ligaya thought, though she couldn't really imagine why one would want to, and how one would get practiced at that.
There were firm handshakes all around. The man oozed capability. The older boy was Dean, a few weeks shy of his fourteenth birthday, dressed in a battered leather jacket like his father. He had his father’s posture, too: part military bearing and part poised on the balls of his feet like a boxer, ready for anything. Dean had restless eyes, studying each neighbor as if looking for trouble. The younger boy was Sam, and he was nine (“ten in May!”). His eyes shone with curiosity, and he had his father’s dimples.
Ligaya didn't know it then, but that introduction was the first and last time she would see John Winchester’s friendly smile.
January 24, 1993
Ligaya loved Sundays. She loved taking the train into midtown Manhattan in the morning, and attending Mass in the 100-year-old St. Francis of Assisi Church, tucked away in the Garment District. The mosaics in the church were beautiful, but her favorite thing of all was the new statue of Mary, gathering children of many cultures in the shelter of her blue cloak. At the centennial celebration, the statue was dedicated to all the people who'd found a new home in America, and it felt like a sign to Ligaya. A new country - a new baby on the way - it was a sign that everything was as it was meant to be. She looked forward to having their baby baptized at St. Francis, when Lorenzo's tour in Iraq was over and he was finally home.
She was smiling at the thought as she bundled up her coat to head outside, her pregnant belly starting to strain the buttons.
Making her way downstairs, more slowly now that she'd entered her seventh month, she heard the thundering of boots above her. She reached the third floor landing and pressed herself against the wall just in time. Dean came charging down first, brushing past with one hand on the newel post, but he took the turn wide. Sammy was right on his heels and tried to pass him on the inside, but Dean held on to the banister and clothes-lined his little brother.
Sam bounced backward, just barely colliding with Ligaya, and Dean took off with a triumphant laugh.
"Oh my gosh!" Sam's eyes were comically wide as he realized he'd bumped into a pregnant lady. "I'm sorry! Are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm fine," she reassured him. They reminded her of her rambunctious little brother back home. Not so little any more, she thought. "Are you boys -” she didn't think it was likely, but she couldn't help asking. "Are you on your way to church?"
Sam walked carefully by her elbow as they descended the rest of the way, ready to help if she needed it. "No. We're going to Staten Island!" He beamed. "We're gonna take the ferry and see the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty and everything!"
As they rounded the landing to the second floor, Ligaya could see Dean waiting impatiently at the bottom of the stairs. Sam lowered his voice conspiratorially. "It's Dean's birthday today! And I'm gonna treat him to an egg cream!"
"An egg cream, eh? Dean likes egg creams?"
"I don't know. We never had one. They kinda sound disgusting, don't they!" Sam's face scrunched up. "But my teacher, Ms. Strootman, she says everyone should find a soda shop and try an egg cream when they come to New York. And she says there's chocolate in them, so..." he trailed off, looking doubtful.
"You know, Sam, they don't really have raw eggs in them. Or cream either."
"Really? Oh, thank you!" Sam's shoulders sagged in relief, and his delighted smile was contagious.
She couldn't help but think of her brother Benny, saving up his pesos in an empty mango jar to buy her that giant wooden fork and spoon as a wedding present. She loved them; they were hanging now on her kitchen wall. "I'm sure Dean'll really appreciate you spending your allowance on him like this," she said.
"Allowance? We don't get an allowance." Sam's hand snaked into his pocket and he jingled the change there, a reassuring sound that his funds were safe. Then he glanced around, making sure no one else was in hearing range. "I won the money," he murmured. "Playing chess in the park."
Ligaya stifled a laugh. The chess tables in the city parks were a common sight; even in winter, they drew a crowd. She was pretty sure the matches weren't supposed to be for money, though. But she found she had no trouble imagining Sammy hustling some older, more experienced player who thought he might teach an overconfident nine-year-old a lesson.
"Dude. Come on!" Dean's hand flexed on the handle to the entrance door as they reached the lobby.
"I hear it's your birthday, Dean," Ligaya said warmly. "Congratulations!"
"Yeah, well." Dean tossed her a quick, suspicious glance and then he looked down at his shoes, restlessly pawing the linoleum. It made Ligaya a little sad that he had already learned the New Yorker creed of not making eye contact with strangers. And sad, too, that it seemed he had no interest in being friends with her.
"What about your dad?" she asked. "Isn't he spending your birthday with you?"
Dean seemed inclined to pretend she wasn't speaking to him and just take off, but Sam was happy to explain. "Dad had to go this cemetery... I mean, to a funeral," Sam told her. "He said he'd have to wait till spring to give Dean his present, because he's going to take us to a baseball game! Me, too! ‘Cause by then it'll be my birthday, too, so it will be a present for both of us! I don't know if we're gonna see the Mets or the Yankees..."
"She doesn't care about all that, Sam." Dean elbowed his over-sharing little brother through the door, and Sam reluctantly let it go. By the time Ligaya followed them outside, they were already half a block away.
She understood. It wasn't cool to be seen walking with a neighbor lady.
In the end, they wound up in the same subway station anyway. Ligaya couldn't help cringing a little at the dank and bitter smells. Early on a Sunday morning, the homeless people who took refuge there were still tucked against the walls, mostly asleep. One woman sat in the shadows, surrounded by ripped and swollen garbage bags. Her head was wrapped in a dirty scarf, and she was rocking back and forth, crooning to a naked plastic doll with coarse hair that she cradled to her breast.
Ligaya looked away as she passed, but she felt the woman raise her head and sniff. Maybe mocking her? Be kind, she told herself. She didn't like feeling disturbed by people who were less fortunate than she was. The woman probably just had a cold.
Sammy stared at the homeless people with undisguised interest, and Dean tugged his arm to draw him away.
Before the risk of unwanted conversation grew too awkward, they were saved by the blast of wind that sent loose trash and newspapers whipping past. The train roared into view and rumbled to a stop; doors slid open; bodies poured out. Always in a hurry, no matter where they were headed, no matter the time of day. Ligaya squeezed her way inside, hoping for an empty seat. When the doors closed, she realized that the Winchester boys had deliberately chosen a different car.
January rolled into February and her shift changed at Bellevue. It was always hard to adjust to different hours, but Ligaya welcomed the added income the shift differential would bring in. She lived in a crappy apartment for the same reason. Every cent she could spare was going home to put Benito through college.
It was still dark out when she left the hospital, at least dark by New York standards. The sky over New York was never truly black and filled with stars, not like it was back home.
By the time she left the dingy subway station and started her walk home, though, the sun was creeping over the tall buildings. Sanitation trucks rumbled down the streets. When she turned the corner to her building, she saw Dean and Sam unlocking the gate where the apartments' trash bins were chained, and hauling the cans out to the curb.
It was nice, seeing kids acting responsibly like that. Maybe John paid them for helping out now and then, since he didn't believe in allowances. She hadn't decided if her own little one would get an allowance one day or not. Plenty of time to talk it over with Lorenzo and decide that later. Idly, she wondered what the boys might be saving up for this time.
She never saw Dean or Sam in new clothes. No Air Jordan sneakers for them. What they wore looked like they shopped at Goodwill, and were bought a little big so they could grow into them. In this neighborhood? They fit right in.
Over the next few weeks, she came to know their routine. They left for school just after she got home from work, and they came home when she was just getting up. Actually, she wouldn’t have minded getting to sleep a little longer, but they weren’t exactly quiet, and the walls were thin.
Sometimes they apparently just decided to run up and down all five flights of stairs as fast as they could. For no reason. That was literally the answer she got when she stuck her head out the door one day.
“What are you boys doing?” she called as Dean tore down the stairs like something was after him.
“Training!” Sam jogged up the final stairs, dashed to his front door, slapped his hand against it, and turned around to chase his brother back down.
“Training? For what? Track team?”
“No! No reason! Just training!” And then he was gone.
Maybe that was their idea of fun. But they never had any friends over, she noticed. She never saw them playing in the park with other kids.
They seemed to make up their own games. Pretty odd ones, at that.
One evening she found find Sam on his knees in front of his apartment door, frowning at the lock with the tip of his tongue between his teeth. His fingers worked what looked like a straightened paperclip into the key hole.
"Sam? Did you lock yourself out?"
"Not exactly." He didn't look up.
"Pretty embarrassing," she teased, "if the janitor's kid lost his keys. Do you want to come over until your dad gets home?"
"It's just for practice," he said. "Dean's inside, timing me."
Ligaya huffed a laugh. "Just don't practice on my door," she said, jangling her keys at him.
"I got it!" Sam bounced to his feet and opened the door, then raised his skinny arms overhead in triumph. "How'd I do, Dean?"
Dean had a stopwatch in his right hand, but he glared at Ligaya instead of answering his brother. "Our dad's not a janitor," he said, and he pulled Sam inside and closed the door.
It was a week later that she had a chance to talk to them again, when she took her laundry down to the basement and found the boys had beaten her to the two washers.
Dean was shifting a load of whites (or used-to-be-whites-but-now-mostly-grays) from the dryer to a faded pillowcase. He glanced up to see who the intruder was, scowled, and went back to his task. He seemed to be favoring his left shoulder.
Sammy was sitting on one of the washers, drumming his heels against the metal front panel, nose deep in a book. Ligaya recognized the cover: From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsberg. She smiled. She'd read it herself when she was a schoolgirl. It was what first gave her the idea of one day living in New York.
"Homework?" she asked, dropping her laundry basket on the folding chair sitting under the fuse box.
"Uh huh." The machine shuddered through the spin cycle's last death throes and fell silent, and Sam hopped off. "You're just in time," he said. "This one's free now!"
Dean crammed the last of the sweat socks into his makeshift laundry bag, and as he was closing the lid to the dryer, the pager on his belt loop went off. He checked it and frowned. "I gotta get this," he told his brother. "Come straight up when you're done here."
"Duh, Dean. Where else would I go?"
Dean gave Sam a long, pointed look and Sam's chin dropped in the tiniest of nods. Then Dean hefted his bag over his shoulder like a sailor on leave, winced, and marched out of the room, without a second glance at his neighbor.
Ligaya gestured toward her own collarbone. "How did Dean hurt his shoulder?”
“Dodge ball.” Sam shrugged.
“He doesn’t seem to like me much," Ligaya couldn't help admitting out loud.
"It's not you," Sammy said. He set his book down, using a cracked playing card for a bookmark, and started transferring heavy wet denim and flannel from the washer to the dryer. "Dean doesn't trust strangers."
"I'm not a stranger - I'm your neighbor!" Ligaya reminded him, smiling gently.
"Dean says everyone is a stranger."
The smile faded.
Sam didn't seem to notice. He was examining a navy shirtsleeve that had an even darker splotch on it. "Hey, Miz Reyes?" He looked up. "You're a nurse, right?"
She waved a hand at the maroon scrubs she was wearing. "What gave it away?"
Sam grinned, and shoveled the rest of the clothes in the dryer. "I was thinking maybe you had some tips on how to get out blood stains?"
And as easy as that, she and Sam became friends. Even if she never saw John, and Dean acted like he never wanted to see her.
That evening Ligaya was settling in with her latest baby care book from the library when someone knocked on her door.
"I'm Mrs. Lee; this is Mrs. Cosby. We're with Child Protective Services."
Ligaya's thoughts immediately flew to the patients she'd treated at the hospital, trying to remember if she'd seen anything that would concern her. At the same time, her mind was countering with: Why would they interview me at home instead of at work?
Mrs. Lee continued. "We'd like to ask you a few questions about your neighbor. John Winchester. Have you met him?"
"Of course I have." This must be some mistake. "He's the building super. We've all met him. And his sons. They're good kids."
Mrs. Lee made a point of noticing the chipped and peeling paint in the hallway. She flipped open a notebook. "Does it seem as though he's neglecting his job?"
Ligaya frowned. "What does that have to do with anything?" You can't expect a man to fix what the landlord won't pay for, she thought in his defense.
"A man who neglects his job might be a man who neglects his children," Mrs. Cosby explained.
"We’re talking to people, just trying to put together a picture," Mrs. Lee added. "A lack of friends and relatives, avoiding social contacts, underemployment, suspected alcohol abuse. These are all indicators for potential maltreatment or child abuse, ma'am. Have you seen anything like that?"
Ligaya shook her head. "I haven't seen any problems," she assured them. In fact, she couldn't even remember exactly when she'd last seen John Winchester. Still - the apartment complex was better maintained this winter than it had ever been before. Clearly, no neglect there.
Her friend Zoriana, who lived on the ground floor, liked to say that Winchester was like Santa Claus. Or the Easter Bunny. Always showing up when he couldn’t be seen and leaving behind traces that he’d been there and done his job.
"Have you been inside his apartment?” Mrs. Lee asked. “Is it clean? Is there enough food?"
"Why don't you look for yourself?"
"It is our policy to inspect the premises," Mrs. Lee admitted. "No one's home."
That surprised Ligaya a little. As far as she knew, the boys always came straight home from school.
"Normally, of course, when no one is there we could ask the building super to let us in to assess the child's environment," Mrs. Cosby said with a thin-lipped smile at the irony. "But you can understand why that isn't an option here."
"We did call the landlord when no one answered the door," Mrs. Lee continued. "He agreed to come over and let us in." She turned her wrist to look at her watch and frowned. "But clearly that man has no intention of keeping his word. We can't wait here forever." She looked up at Ligaya. "We've already interviewed some of the other neighbors. If you could just answer a few more questions, we can be on our way."
"I’ve never seen any signs that John Winchester abuses his kids." The dodge ball injury didn’t even raise a doubt. If John was in the habit of hitting his boys, Sammy would have looked a lot more distressed about it.
She wondered who could have filed a report? She knew they wouldn't tell her if she asked. Someone at the school? Teachers were mandated by law to report any suspicion, she knew. Just like nurses were. They could go to jail if they failed to report their concerns.
"What about neglect?"
"I’m an RN - I've had the training, too," Ligaya told them. "I’m just as familiar with Section 1012(f) of the Family Court Act as you are. But have you met those two boys? There's simply no way their physical, mental or emotional condition is impaired."
"If you’re sure." Mrs. Cosby closed her own notebook with a snap. “We’ll be keeping the case open for now. And we'll be back if we hear of any more allegations. I trust we can count on you to call our office if you see anything suspicious."
She extended a well-manicured hand with her business card and after a moment's hesitation, Ligaya took it. After the investigators left, she ran her finger over the edge of the card and was on the verge of flicking it into the trash can when she caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. It took her a moment to realize something was swaying outside the window. The telltale creak of rusty metal drew her to the ugly accordion-style metal gate leading to the fire escape. Sliding the gate back, she opened the window. The chill February air bit at her cheeks and nose, but she leaned out anyway.
She was just able to glimpse the boys' sneakers as they crawled back into their apartment window from where they'd been hiding on the fire escape.
Not playing. Not in this weather.
Ligaya truly hadn't seen anything that made her think there could be a problem. But the fact that the boys knew about CPS, could hear them in the hall, and had snuck outside in the cold rather than risk being there if the landlord had let the women in...
That was something to think about.
Sucking her lower lip pensively, Ligaya tucked the caseworker's business card under a magnet on her refrigerator.
Her mother and her grandmother used to say, "Ano man ang gagawin, makapitong iisipin." Before you do anything, think about it seven times first.
That night, she lay awake for a long time before she finally drifted off to a disjointed sleep that led to bizarre dreams. When she woke, she remembered only dissolving tendrils of the last one:
On her window pane, almost completely covered with ice crystals, a faint image of a handprint was forming. As if a small, delicate hand, with long, long nails, was pressed against the glass long enough to start to melt the frost underneath the skin... and then was silently withdrawn.