Characters: Sam, Dean, John, OFC
Category: Gen, Pre-series
Rating: PG13 (language)
Spoilers: none specifically
Word Count: 9482
Disclaimer: Not mine, not at all
Summary: Sam couldn’t count how many of his eleven summers he’d spent cooped up in a hunter’s cabin with Dean, staring at the ceiling while lying on a cot that reeked of cigarettes and old hunter sweat. It was always the same… Dad’s idea of a summer vacation. This time, it was going to be different.
“Will you shut up back there? Damnit Sammy, I’m trying to listen.”
Annoyed, Sam rolled his eyes, but Dean was already lost in his music, eyes closed and fingers drumming on the dash. Sam figured he’d be forty before anyone let ever him ride shotgun and even then, they’d probably be telling him to shut up. But he was used to the back seat. It had been one of the only places he could call his own.
But Sam had been sharing the backseat, and God, that took some getting used to. Even though Sam was the only one who could hear her, it was wearying trying to hold up his end of the conversation without attracting Dad or Dean’s attention. She never stopped talking, and not only that, the tourist act was getting old fast. Sam couldn’t blame her. Ghosts didn’t have a lot to look forward to.
“Oh wow, did you see that one?” she asked, practically gouging his eye out, pointing out the window.
Sam had to duck around her arm to look. It was weird – she was just as real to him as anyone else, but to Dean and Dad, she was empty space. He’d already watched as Dean walked right through her. There was a lot he didn’t know about ghosts, which Sam held against his dad. When it came to his eleven year-old, Dad only doled out details on a “need to know” basis.
Sam whispered back, “Yeah, I saw that one. Just like I saw the last dozen hawks you wanted me to see.”
“C’mon, it hasn’t been a dozen. Don’t act like you’re too cool to care.”
Sam wasn’t the least bit cool, but it made him grin to be called it. Dean would have laughed his head off, pain in the ass that he was. Sam had to admit that the hawk was pretty cool though.
Out the back window, Sam watched the hawk dip and soar until it was lost in the trees. He normally didn’t look out the window much. He usually read through the endless hours in the Impala, but Sam hadn’t gotten all the way through a book since Emily had started haunting him.
She wasn’t a typical ghost, even in Sam’s limited experience. For one thing, she claimed she couldn’t remember how she died. Said she couldn’t even remember her old name but that he could call her Emily. Said she’d always liked that name better than her real one. Sam tried to ask how she could remember that she liked the name “Emily” better than her own, but she didn’t want to talk about it. An unquiet death took something out of you.
Usually, it was pretty easy to figure out what had killed a ghost. Sam’s first ghost had a huge maw of a wound gaping out of his neck, which left Sam unable to sleep alone in his own bed for nearly a month. The second was a child who’d drowned in a tub of bubbles and kept screaming that the water was going to overflow, and the third was a car wreck victim who showed up in the parking lot outside their motel room wailing that she really hadn’t been driving drunk. That last one reeked of malt liquor and was enough of a pain in the ass that Dad hunted her body down, salting and burning her bones the next night.
Ghosts were just a part of life, but Emily didn’t seem to care about anyone but him, and it wasn’t like she was doing any harm. At first, he’d thought there’d be no way he could keep them from finding out, but Sam soon realized that Dad and Dean didn’t pay a lot of attention to what was going on in the backseat. It was easier to keep a secret than he’d thought.
“Hey look, there’s a deer,” she said and elbowed him.
“Ouch!” he hissed. “I see them. You don’t have to keep poking me.”
Dean threw an empty soda can over his shoulder, and it hit Sam on the head. “I’ve had it with the whacked out street-guy act, Sammy. I can’t hear a thing over you jabbering to yourself.”
Dean flipped up the volume, and Sam scowled. He’d hardly even been whispering—there was no way he could be bugging Dean that much. Sam gave the seatback an irritated kick, forgetting for that moment that Dean shared the bench seat with Dad.
“Hey!” Dad said. “I’m going to miss the turnoff if you two don’t quit it. And if you mess up my car, Sam, you’re going to have a lot more to worry about.”
Kicking the front seat of the Impala was never a good move, but it didn’t escape his attention that Dad blamed everything on him like usual. It was just a car, he thought to himself moodily, but they acted like it was their own precious flesh and blood.
Emily smiled, and when he glared at her too, she grinned. Even though she only hung out with Sam, she liked watching all of them. Sam figured she probably missed her own family, but he wished he knew what she was thinking when she looked at his dad and brother like that.
Emily leaned in and whispered in his ear, “Do you know how to fish?” When he shook his head, she said, “I’ll teach you.”
“Like Dad’ll ever let me out long enough to fish,” he whispered back, and the truth of that rubbed him wrong, like a mosquito bite.
Sam hated backcountry jobs. In a city or town, at least he had some freedom. He could go where he wanted as long as he was home by dark and let Dean know where he was going. When they worked rural gigs, Dad ordered him to stick close and stay inside, particularly when he and Dean were gone hunting. Too many bad things roamed in the woods. No point in taking chances.
Because of that, Sam couldn’t count how many of his eleven summers he’d spent cooped up in a hunter’s cabin in the middle of nowhere, staring at the ceiling while lying on a cot that reeked of cigarettes and old hunter sweat. It was always the same… Dad’s idea of a summer vacation.
Dean put in a cassette he knew Sam hated and cranked it up, while Dad muttered, “I knew I was going to miss the turnoff.”
Emily put her hand on her knee. “We’ll find time to go fishing. You need to be a kid too, Sam.”
It was comforting in a weird kind of way, how important it was to her that he have some fun. She’d been saying stuff like that since she’d first showed up at the beginning of summer.
It had been the beginning of June, and Sam had been furious that they were leaving town two weeks before the end of the school year. For once, he’d wanted to stay long enough to clean out his desk and take everything home in a brown paper bag, even though he’d known Dad would throw it out as soon as it started cluttering the kitchenette table.
As usual, there’d been no warning that they were starting a new job. Just a “pack your bag, we’ve got to go,” and Sam was expected to get with the program and not ask questions.
There was no point in arguing with Dad. So Sam had been venting his anger by throwing rocks at a dumpster behind their motel, noting how they dented the corrugated metal with a satisfying clang.
He’d been by himself – Dean was loading the car-- but then she was there, surprising the hell out of him with a touch of her cold, dead hand.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Your life’s not over.”
It had been such a strange thing for a ghost to say that he didn’t scream for Dean to grab the salt. He wasn’t even scared. She looked older than him, but not that much older, and had blond hair and blue eyes and freckles on her nose that reminded him a little bit of Dean. She was really, really pretty, but not in a creepy sort of way like most little girl ghosts.
“What are you?” he asked, backing away. He still had a rock in his hand that he knew full well wouldn’t do a thing to a ghost.
“Thought you might want some company for a while, since you’re just going to drive your dad crazy if you sulk your way across the country.”
Sam had to smile. Score one for the ghost. “I’m not feeling sorry for myself,” he’d said, used to arguing. “I’m sick of leaving all the time and always being by myself”
“I know,” she said. “I’ll come with you if you want.”
Sam had shrugged, but he hadn’t said no. She followed him to the car that day and climbed into the back seat after him, like she’d been doing it all along.
“Our secret, Sammy,” she’d said. “We’ll have fun.”
He should have told Dad. He should have told Dean. Everything about it was wrong. She’d called him Sammy, and it soon became apparent that she wanted him to think that being a kid was fun.
Being a kid was a liability. As far as Sam was concerned, his real life would start once he got out of the back seat of the Impala.
In the front seat, Dean was laughing hard at his own dirty joke, and his dad was swearing that the gravel on the road was going to pit the windshield.
“There’s always a lake in the woods. Sam, we’ll skip stones.”
This wasn’t going to be a nice little trip to the woods. But Sam didn’t say anything. Didn’t want to let her down. She’d find out how it was, soon enough.
Typical. Sam wrinkled his nose as he tried to scrunch some life into the old pillow. But the mattress was lumpy, and Dean was tossing and turning in the upper bunk, making the old springs creak and groan. Sam would’ve preferred sleeping outside on the porch, but there was no way Dad was going to let that happen on a job.
Because there was something in the woods. Something bad. Not that anyone would ever tell him what it was.
Sam hated hunter cabins. There were more than a dozen, built and abandoned over the years, situated way off the beaten track in places that nobody but hunters cared about. Dad said they were like old line shacks, carefully stocked with burlap sacks of salt, boxes of pilfered crosses and amulets, and enough ammunition to put the ATF on their tail if anyone ever called it in.
But nobody accidentally stumbled onto these places. Either you knew where they were or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, you had no business being there anyway. Hunter cabins weren’t put up in pretty Bambi-like forests. If a bunch of hunters were interested in a stretch of woods, most likely nobody else wanted to be there.
Dad was still out scouting and most likely wouldn’t be back until morning. Dad never slept the first couple days on a job, but Sam always hated when he was gone the first night. Even with Dean there, it took time to get used to the sounds and the shadows in a new place. The cabin was still hot and stuffy, and Dad wouldn’t let them leave the window open, lest anything disturb his precious saltline. It felt like the place was fermenting.
Sam sighed. “Dean?”
“Shut up,” Dean growled. The top mattress heaved on its springs as Dean rolled over again.
“I have a question.”
“And I have a .45 under my pillow and I’m not afraid to use it. Sleep, Sam.”
“You’re not supposed to keep it under your pillow. Dad said the safety’s broken.”
“Dad’s not here. I’m keeping watch, so shut your trap. I know my way around my own gun.”
“Got a question.”
“Alright, Sammy, it better be the best question you ever asked in your whole pathetic life.”
“Can ghosts follow people around?”
“What kind of dumbass question is that? That’s like Ghosts 101!”
“No, I don’t mean like stalking. I mean like going from place to place with them.”
“Ghosts don’t go on road trips, freak.”
“But what if they do?”
“They don’t. Ghosts are stuck. You know that.”
“Do they ever get stuck to a person?”
Dean hung upside down over the edge of the bunk, his face backlit by moonlight.
“Something you need to be telling me, Sammy?”
“No. Just curious.”
“Bull. You’re never curious about anything unless you have a reason for it. You messing around with something I should know about?”
“How could I mess around? You’re always with me.” Sam yanked his pillow out from under his head and swatted Dean in the face with it.
“I gotta know everything about you, Sammy.” Dean pulled himself back up, and Sam could hear him scooting back into the sleeping bag. “That’s my job. If you’re in trouble, you gotta let me know. I won’t even tell Dad if you don’t want me to.”
Now, that was interesting. Dean not telling Dad something was A Very Big Deal, and Sam was tempted. He didn’t like keeping things from Dean. But the family business was getting rid of ghosts, and even though Sam knew Emily deserved to be laid to rest, he liked having her around. She wasn’t just a salt and burn job.
“So you gonna tell me what this is about?”
“I can’t sleep. This mattress is lumpy.” Sam knew it was lame, but it was the first thing that came to mind, and he really was uncomfortable.
Dean snorted. “Princess and the pea, Sammy. Time to man up.”
Sam smiled and might have let it go after that, but a scratching at the window got his attention. Emily. Sam was sure she didn’t like being left outside. At some of the motels they’d stayed at, he’d been able to sneak her inside, but here, the first thing his dad had done was lay out the salt. Sam felt bad for her, outside and alone, and he could see her now waving impatiently at him through the window. Carefully, he pulled out of his sleeping bag and tried to quietly get down from his bunk.
“What the hell are you doing now?”
“Need to pee.” Sam jammed his toes in his sneakers without untying them. It drove Dad crazy when he did that. “I’ll be back.”
“Damnit, Sam, you should’ve gone when I told you to go. The outhouse is a mile away. Now I’m going to have to get dressed to take you, you idiot.”
“It’s not a mile away. It’s just down the hill, and I’m old enough to take a leak by myself. Go back to sleep.”
Sam held his breath, but Dean grumbled and rolled over. “Fine. Take the flashlight so you don’t fall in.”
He’d take the flashlight but he didn’t need it. Ghosts could see just fine in the dark.
“Come on,” she urged. “You’re too slow.”
“I’m going as fast as I can.”
It was easy for her to plow through brush and undergrowth since she was disembodied and all. Sam, on the other hand, was made of flesh and blood, and he was pretty sure his lower legs were going to be skinned past redemption, not to mention his poor shredded jeans.
Sam had no idea where they were going and even less of an idea why he’d agreed to it. Dean would have fallen asleep as soon as Sam left, and there was a very good chance he’d be able to sneak back in without waking his brother up, but if his dad got back first, then there’d be hell to pay. Sam didn’t even know what had happened. He’d really never tried anything like this before.
“Emily, I have to go back.”
“It’s just a little further. Come on, Sam. We’re almost to the top. It’ll be worth it once we’re there.”
“A few falling stars aren’t worth getting my ass kicked by Dean.”
“We’re talking about the solar system, Sam,” she said. “The whole universe. This is as good as it gets. Besides, you’ll be back before he wakes up. Haven’t you ever snuck out before?”
“No,” and he shrugged at her incredulous expression.
Sam wasn’t stupid. The things that were out there were dangerous and real. He didn’t mind being out at night, but he knew it was a lot safer with a sawed-off and a dad and big brother who knew how to use it.
“Well, it’s about time you snuck out. You’re a kid. You should have some fun.”
“You sound like a teacher. Only teachers say things like that.”
“You mean, telling you to sneak out?”
“No. Saying I should like being a kid. I hate it. Can’t wait till it’s over.”
Sam waved his hand vaguely at the shadows around them, the millions of things that went bump in the night. “It’s just stupid, what we do. I hate being scared. I just want to have a normal life.”
Emily looked sad. “C’mon, Sammy. We’re almost there.” She took his hand and held it the rest of the way up the hill.
A waxing moon lit the sky, and low-slung fog hung between the trees below. They were way above the trees by the time they reached the top. Sam let out a low whistle. He’d never seen a sky like this, filled with swirls of glittering stars.
Emily grabbed him by the waist and pulled him off balance onto the ground. They lay next to each other, side by side.
Sam couldn’t understand how he’d missed this. It was so much bigger than what he was afraid of. It reminded him of the sacred things that Dad only used as weapons.
“Do you know the stars?” she asked quietly. “I’ll tell you their names.”
He wished he had time to learn them all.
“Sam! Sammy! Sam!”
Sam opened his eyes with a start. There were twigs snapping nearby and the sun was in his eyes. His back was wet, the cold seeping through his clothes. He had no idea where he was.
But then Dean loomed over him, blocking the sun, and it came back to him pretty quick.
“Damnit to hell, Sammy! Hold still, damnit let me look at you. Are you hurt? I woke up and you were gone.”
Dean’s hands were all over him, and Sam knew his brother was one shade away from losing it. Sure enough, when nothing seemed to be broken or oozing blood, Dean shoved Sam hard back onto the ground.
“I’m going to kill you, Sam.” Then he shouted, “Dad! I found him!” In case Sam had any doubts, he put it a little differently. “I’m going to fucking kill you, Sammy.”
“I fell asleep,” Sam scrambled to his feet and tried to explain, but his dad was storming the hill like he was leading a brigade. John Winchester had that look on his face. The one that scared the hell out of demons.
“What happened? Is he all right? What the hell were you were doing, Sam? Did you check him over? Did he hit his head?”
“I wanted to sleep under the stars,” he said, knowing how ridiculous he sounded even as the words were leaving his mouth.
Dean swore and shoved him again, but Dad held up a restraining hand.
“This forest is not a ‘sleeping under the stars’ kind of place, Sam.” The fact Dad wasn’t yelling like Dean meant he was really mad.
Sam knew what Dad would say. Everything bad was real, and everything good was probably made-up. He had just wanted to stay in that make-up kind of world a little longer.
Resolutely, Sam stared down at his bowl of cereal and reconstituted powdered milk. They were the cheap brand of cornflakes, the kind that came in the plain box, and they were stale because Dean always left the bag open. But Sam was going to eat the whole thing.
All his life, he’d been a picky eater, something that ticked off Dean to no end. His big brother ate everything that was in front of him and was grateful for every bite of it. It was part of the Winchester Manifesto – always eat when food’s in front of you – can’t be sure when it’ll come again.
Sam was the stubborn one, always believing that something better might come along if he waited long enough.
But Dean wanted him to eat, and Sam owed Dean big time. He really hadn’t thought about what it would do to his brother to wake up to an empty lower bunk on his watch. Dad didn’t have to say anything. Dean was harder on himself than anyone else.
As penance, Sam shoveled in another spoonful and mugged for his big brother, milk dribbling from the corners of his mouth. Dean grinned, and Sam felt better. It was so easy to make Dean happy; Sam wondered why he didn’t do it more often.
Dean turned to Dad who was still glowering over his coffee. “Are you sure we need to stay? You didn’t find anything, and Sammy needs to start school...”
Dad set down his cup a little too hard and coffee sloshed over the side. “We’ve got two weeks until you and Sam start school. There’s plenty of time.”
It always seemed strange to Sam how Dean had this thing about the first day of school. He wanted Sam properly registered on the first day, binder filled, pencils sharpened and always insisted that Sam start off the year with a new pair of shoes, even if the old ones still fit. Most often by October, they’d be on the road again, but it always mattered to Dean that they started things out right.
“I was just thinking that –”
“Dean, I swear we’ll be out of here in time to get Sammy set up at a school. I can’t just leave without seeing this through. We’ve driven half way across the country to get here. Whatever this thing is, it’s bad. I’m too close to give up now.”
“The guy said the thing looked like darkness. That was the only way he could describe it. Darkness in a forest at night doesn’t give us much to go on, and besides, that guy hunted birds. Can we trust someone who hunts birds? I mean, what kind of person does that?”
Sam smiled at his brother's conviction that it was so much more honorable hunting ghosts instead. But he stayed quiet. It was unlike Dean to question Dad at all.
“Darkness doesn’t flail people, son. This is more than just some shadow spooking people out. That bird hunter found intestines over a quarter mile spread.”
Sam was glad he was almost done. He wondered how everyone expected him to have an appetite when they insisted on talking about the job at the table.
“Could’ve been a bear. Rabies, maybe. Sam, eat more cereal.”
Sam rolled his eyes but reached dutifully for the box.
“Rabid bears don’t skin people, Dean. Sam, did you take your vitamins? Bobby said you needed more iron last time he ran your blood.”
Sam wished he could go to a pediatrician like everyone else, but he pushed his chair away from the table and trudged to find the bottle of vitamins in his duffel. He hated the pale beige pills. They tasted like pee mixed with blood, but he was chewing the awful things next to the sink so he could rinse the taste away, when she suddenly appeared in the window. He jumped despite himself. Funny how she could scare him like that during the day.
She motioned for him to come outside. He shook his head, but she started tapping on the window, making Dean look up suspiciously. Sam sighed. This was going to go over well…
Sam turned away from the window. “Can I go out for a while?”
Almost comically, Dean and Dad gawked at him.
“Are you serious?” Dad asked. “After your little night hike last night, I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
Yes you will, Sammy thought. As soon as your monster shows up, you’ll forget I’m even here.
But he didn’t say that out loud.
“S’alright, Dad,” Dean said. “I can go out with Sammy.”
Sam resisted the urge to stomp his foot. He knew they’d been worried, but it was daylight, and he was eleven years old. “I don’t need you to come with me. We passed a river driving in. I just want to look at it, that’s all.”
“No way,” Dad said. “This thing that’s out there means business.”
“It comes out at night. I’ll be back by lunch.”
“I’ll check in with Dean every fifteen minutes.”
Dean rolled his eyes…yeah, right... but then he said, “C’mon, Dad. Let Sammy go explore for a while. He’ll be all right.”
Every now and then, Dean said or did something that reminded him why he loved his brother more than anyone else in the world.
“I’ve got to go out and talk to that hunter again. I won’t be around if there’s a problem.”
“He’ll be fine.” Dean got up and knuckled his head. “Behave, Sammy.”
Sam said, “I’ll be good,” ducking away from Dean with a grin.
Dean whispered in Sam’s ear, “You better be.”
“You better be,” Dad warned darkly.
“Otherwise I’ll kick his ass.” Dean smirked at Sam and took both their bowls to the sink.
Sam knew to take off before either of them changed their mind.
He was half way out when Dean called, “Sam, take your friggin jacket. It’s cold out there.”
It was late August and was going to be eighty by noon, but Sam grabbed the jacket. He owed Dean. Sam figured he was always going to owe Dean. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
Sam left the jacket on the porch.
They took their time walking along the river, Emily slightly in the lead. The river was swollen with runoff from the recent rains, and Sam liked the way it sounded, bubbling and gurgling against the rocks. So much of his childhood had been spent in the back seat of the Impala or parked in front of a TV set in some crappy motel room, the light struggling to find its way through a filthy curtain.
This was better. This was how it should have been if he’d been born another kid, not a Winchester. Then Sam thought of Dean cleaning guns in the airtight cabin and was sorry. He wished he’d let Dean come along when he’d offered.
But Emily talked. She told him about her wirehaired terrier that lived to kill rabbits and hummingbirds, the tree house in a huge elm next to her family’s house, and her mom’s chocolate chip banana bread. She didn’t talk about her dad, and Sam didn’t ask. Not everybody had a dad who was easy to talk about.
They were going a lot further than he said he would. It wasn’t like Sam to disobey a direct order—he usually argued about his dad’s rules but did what he was told. They wanted to protect him. Sam knew that, but he was going to have to grow up sometime.
So he kept up with Emily, scrabbling over moss-covered boulders and gnarled roots of trees so big, he’d have given anything to climb them. Emily looked over at him, amused.
“Do you like to climb trees?” she asked, scuffing at the bark with the toe of her shoe.
“Only when something’s gonna kill me if I don’t,” he said.
“I can teach you. I used to be good at it.”
Everything was "used to be" for Emily. It hit him every now and then that her life was already over.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“What for?” Emily found a foothold and was reaching for an upper branch.
“That you didn’t get to grow up. It’s not fair.”
“I never said I didn’t grow up.”
He was about to ask what she meant, but she’d found a branch to support her weight and said, “I see the lake. It’s just over there.”
“Is that where we’re going?”
She shook her head. “Don’t you ever pay attention?”
She sounded so much like his dad that Sam stared, but Emily had already jumped down and was sprinting through the trees toward the lake. He grinned. He’d always loved to run.
“I’ll teach you how to skip stones,” she called back as they ran. “I lived next to a reservoir. Most I ever got was fifteen skips, but I knew a boy who could get thirty.”
“That’s a lot,” Sam said, panting. Unlike her, he had to catch his breath. He couldn’t imagine that kind of life. Tree forts, summers by a lake… it sounded like everything he’d ever wanted.
They ran through a copse of trees, and it opened up onto a span of wide blue water, one of the prettiest things Sam had ever seen. He sat down on a large piece of driftwood, trying to catch his breath and wondering how much of his clothing he could take off in front of a girl ghost. He really wanted to swim.
Emily hunkered down and after some searching, chose a flat, gray pebble. With a flick of her wrist, she sent it skipping upon the glassy face of the water.
Impressed, he said, “That’s pretty good,” but when he tried it, his pebble kerplunked with a graceless splash.
“Pretty pathetic.” Emily crouched down, fingering different stones. She finally held one out to him. “You don’t want one with edges. Now bring your arm back like this.”
She demonstrated, and he tried again, this time keeping the stone level. It skimmed the water, bouncing several times before slipping under the dark surface.
“Just like that. That’s good. Get as many bounces as you can.”
He tried again, and the next time was even better.
Emily grinned. “Not bad.”
For longer than he should have, he sat on a piece of driftwood next to her, skipping stones. When that got old, they lay side by side on the sand, and Sam watched the leaves flutter in the breeze against a blue sky. He felt like life wasn’t going to get better than this. Sam was comfortable, warm and free, and all he had to do was soak it in, his eyes closing in the sun. It had been a charmed afternoon, and maybe things could be different this time, maybe for all of them, maybe being a kid wasn’t so bad during the last days of summer…
“Sam… Sammy! Sam!”
Sam sat up, the spell broken.
It was Dean, and Dean was pissed. Again. Just like that, Emily was gone.
Then Dean was there – Sam shouldn’t have been surprised that Dean tracked him down. It was like Dean had his scent, and he hauled Sam to his feet. Sam couldn’t remember ever seeing Dean so mad. The first punch caught Sam above the ear before his own anger collided with the pain. Sam scrabbled to his feet before flinging himself on his brother, fists flying.
Sam was small but fast, a good fighter. Dean blocked most of the blows that Sammy threw but then caught a good one to the gut and doubled over, swearing at him. But Dean pulled back, and his next punch landed Sam to his knees. Dean grabbed him by his shirt and shoved him hard in the sternum. Sam fell back, all the wind knocked out of him. Dean reached down and was hauling Sam up again, when something stopped him. He took hold of his shoulders and shook Sam hard instead.
“You son of a bitch! Why are you pulling this crap now? What the hell have you been doing?”
“Skipping stones,” Sam said.
“I said I was sorry. Don’t be an asshole, Dean.”
Sam winced as Dean finished dabbing Iodine on the worst of the cuts. None would need stitches. Sam got down from the table to switch places and return the favor.
“There’s a monster out here, Sam. Or maybe it’s a demon, I don’t know. Careful, Sammy, that hurts! But it’s a bad thing that likes to rip out the guts of stupid little morons and paint the trees with their blood.”
“You better believe it’s gross, and it’s even grosser when it’s happening to you. I can’t protect you if you don’t stay the hell with me when you’re supposed to. God, Sam! You’ve never pulled half-assed crap like this. What’s going on with you anyway?”
The cabin now smelled of Iodine and old fish in the heat of the afternoon. Dean refused to open any windows. Didn’t trust the saltline to hold if an afternoon breeze kicked up. Sam wanted nothing more than to be outside again – he wanted to climb the highest tree, look around and see everything—but he knew better than to ask for what he couldn’t have.
“Are you going to ignore me now? I want to know what this is about, Sam.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.”
That was a lie. Sam knew exactly what he wanted, and what he wanted was absolutely unacceptable. Dad always accused him of being selfish, and Sam was starting to think he was right. Sam was old enough to know the world didn’t revolve around him, but he sometimes suspected that it did.
Being stuck in this life scared him more than monsters. And he’d seen some pretty badass monsters, but this was something he didn’t know if he could kill off – the idea that his life could be more than this.
“I’m sick of this, Dean.”
“Sick of what?” Dean looked so genuinely confused that Sam’s anger died down. None of this was Dean’s fault.
“I want to stay in one place for a while. I just want to be a normal boy. I want to play soccer. Make friends.”
“I want a whole lot of things too, but wanting something doesn’t make it happen. You know that, Sammy. Besides, you got me and Dad.”
Sam wondered why that wasn’t enough, especially since it had always been enough for Dean. Then he thought of what had gotten him into this and how messed-up it was to have a dead girl as his only friend.
“I know, Dean. But aren’t you sick of being stuck in this?” Sam gestured angrily at the decrepit room around them.
Dean looked at him like he was crazy. “I don’t know, Sammy, I think we got it pretty good. Most kids are stuck inside some stupid house, watching TV all day. We get to hunt badass things. How many geeks at any of your schools know how to handle a sawed off?”
“I want to be a Boy Scout.” Sam didn’t even know he was going to say it out loud.
“You want to be a Boy Scout,” Dean repeated with utter disbelief.
“I’d be good at it. I want to join a pack.”
“Is that why you’ve been acting so weird? You trying to earn some merit badge or something?”
Sam kicked at the massive burlap bag of salt that was leaning against the table. “No, I’m not registered in a pack. You have to live in one place to join, Dean.”
“Why the hell would you want to be in a pack with some 11 year old freaks learning how to build campfires when you can have Dad, who’s like the best hunter in the friggin world, teaching you everything you need to know?”
Sam wasn’t backing down. “Eagle Scouts get scholarships.”
“Aw crap, so now you gotta be an Eagle Scout too? You’re eleven friggin’ years old. Damnit Sammy, why can’t you just enjoy summer like any other normal kid and not make everything so damn complicated?”
“First you say we have it better than normal, and then you say you want me to be a normal kid. That’s not fair, Dean. You can’t have it both ways.”
“We save people. How many normal kids get to save people on their summer vacation? I know some of it sucks, Sammy, but life just flat-out sucks sometimes. And you need to stop scaring the crap out of me. I’m getting really sick of that!”
Sam knew that he’d been scaring Dean, and he was sorry. But there was more to the woods than a nameless monster, and he wanted Dean to know that too.
“Do you want to go back to the lake?” Sam asked. “I know the way now, and it’d be quicker. We could explore.”
“No, I don’t want to go and explore a damn lake. And neither should you. We’ve got more important things to do, like help Dad hunt down a monster that’s been friggin eating people.”
“I thought it was skinning people. Dad didn’t say it was eating them too.”
“Okay, I exaggerated. But that doesn’t change anything. We’re gonna stay here until Dad gets back and tells us what to do.”
“Please, Dean. It’d be fun.”
Dean let out a laugh. “You don’t give up, do you? Maybe after we kill this thing, Sammy. Right now, we gotta take care of the guns before Dad gets back. That’s what he told me to do, and I’m not going to be able to cover for you if it’s not done. It’s gonna be hard enough explaining how we both got all messed up.”
“Once Dad kills it, then we’ll just have to leave for somewhere else. C’mon, Dean, come with me. We could go on a hike—“
“Do you have any idea what’s out there?”
“No, I don’t,” Sam said, “cause you and Dad won’t tell me anything. This thing could stop and ask me for directions, and I wouldn’t know to head the other way.”
“There are things you don’t need to know about, Sammy.”
“You can’t keep dragging me into a hunt and not let me know what’s going on!”
“Okay, okay. Calm down.” Dean was quiet for a while. “Maybe I can talk to Dad about Boy Scouts. It’s a kid thing-- you’re a kid. Maybe we could work something out. Could I take you to those meetings, you know, if Dad was out of town?”
It was never going to happen, but that didn’t mean it didn’t matter. Sam loved his brother. No matter how mad he got or how much he wanted out of this life, he’d never love anyone more.
“Then, I’ll look into it as soon as we get you in school. I mean it, Sammy. Everything’s gonna be all right. Dad said so.”
Of course, they left him behind.
Dad came back from his hunt, sweaty and bleeding and excited as hell. He’d gotten a good lead. Now that he knew what the thing was and where it was headed, he only needed another man to help kill it. Sam wanted to point out that Dean wasn’t a man. He was fifteen years old, and couldn’t Dad go hunt his stupid monsters by himself?
Sam could have wheedled Dean into staying. All he had to do was come up with some lame excuse like he was afraid of the dark, and Dean wouldn’t have left him. But Dean was so excited. They’d been waiting for this, and Sam wasn’t any better at saying “no” to Dean than Dean was at saying “no” to Sam.
So he ended up alone in the godawful cabin, listening to the forest howl and moan and screech outside. The Navy .45 was still under Dean’s pillow, Sam had his own hunting knife in his pocket, and Dad had left a sawed off loaded with rock salt propped by the door. It wasn’t like they’d left him unprotected.
But he was lonely, and Emily was stuck outside. He could feel her presence out there, and all he had to do was break the salt line, and she could come in and keep him company.
Yet, he’d already decided he needed to give her up. It had to be wrong to be friends with a ghost. It just wasn’t normal, even in any freakish Winchester definition of normal, and he just couldn’t keep more secrets from Dean. But he wouldn’t tell them. The idea of her being gone forever just seemed too terribly sad.
He needed something to pass the time, but his books were all out in the car. Dad had taken the keys, sarcastically saying he didn’t trust Sam not to take off in the car, seeing as how he was raising a juvenile delinquent and all. Dean hadn’t managed to come up with a great cover story for all the cuts and bruises, and Dad had figured out that Sam screwed up again. Picking the lock to the Impala so he could read Treasure Island would not go over well.
So Sam climbed up onto Dean’s bunk and stretched out, feeling the gun’s bulk under the pillow. He wondered how Dean could sleep with it there. It was probably something you got used to, but it made Sam’s neck hurt.
Sam tried closing his eyes, reciting the states and their capitals and then moved on to chanting the periodic elements. He tried to remember all the names of the stars that Emily had taught him. Sam wondered if there was a merit badge for being a geek. Dean would never let it go if he knew what Sam resorted to at night to get to sleep. He didn’t care. It gave him something to do while he waited for his father and brother to come back to him alive.
That’s when he heard it. A scratching at the door. It was Emily. Sam knew it, but for the first time, he didn’t want to answer. He had to say no. Just couldn’t do this any more. He was going to be as normal as he could, and normal kids didn’t have ghosts for friends.
But she was persistent. Scratching turned into pounding and pounding turned into a window-rattling violent enough to impress a poltergeist. If Emily broke a window, Dad would definitely blame it on him. Swearing he was going to end this, Sam climbed down from the bunk, opened the door, and toed a break in the salt line at the threshold. He stepped back and let her in.
Emily didn’t waste any time coming in, but something was different. She didn’t even look like herself. She looked older than him…hell, she looked older than Dean. Emily didn’t look much like a pretty little girl any more.
“You’ve got to come with me. John and Dean are in trouble. They’re about to find what they’re looking for, and we need to get there first.”
She’d never used his dad’s first name before.
Sam shook his head, trying to clear his vision. She looked so different, but it was her. He’d know her anywhere.
“No. I’m dangerous to them if I leave the cabin. I’m a distraction.”
She grabbed for his hand. “You’re not a distraction, Sam. You’re the main event. This thing wants you, not them.”
He dug in his heels, but she was awfully strong. He could feel power ebbing and flowing from her. There were reasons Dad said not to fool around with things you don’t understand.
“That doesn’t make sense. I don’t even know what it is. How can it want me?”
“John knows it wants you. That’s why he won’t bring you along on hunts. Think, Sam. How old was Dean when he started hunting?”
Sam couldn’t remember a time when Dean hadn’t been a hunter. The only reason Dad left Dean behind was to stay with him. Emily was standing too close to him, her features blurry like a picture out of focus.
“Listen to me. I was wrong. I wanted to keep you safe. I wanted you to know what it was like to be a normal boy. But if anything happens to them, you won’t ever get over it.”
“I’m going to be normal,” Sam said. “I am. I can be.”
Emily closed her eyes. “I’m sorry, Sam.”
“You’re just like him. Dad won’t tell me anything.”
She shook her head and looked so different. “John always was big on denial.”
“Who are you?” he shouted.
The way she’d said his father’s name… there was a history behind it, and Sam didn’t know what it was. But it was beginning to be very clear that Emily was anything but an ordinary little dead girl.
Emily was fingering the charms on her bracelet. For the first time, Sam took a good look at it. He didn’t know why he hadn’t before, but jewelry just wasn’t something he was into. The bracelet was heavy with crosses, amulets, and a talisman… not a typical charm bracelet that grieving parents would have buried with their daughter. It was a stupid civilian mistake not to have noticed it before
Sam pulled his hand away from hers and crossed his arms. “Were you a hunter?”
Emily looked irritated with him for the first time. “It doesn’t matter what I was. This isn’t why I came, and we’re running out of time. They’re going to catch up with it soon. I’m so sorry.”
“Who are you?” He took a step back.
“I don’t matter. But you do. It’s always been about you, Sam. You’re the one who can save them.”
Sam felt unwelcome tears well up in his eyes. “How can I save them? Why should I trust you? I don’t even know what this thing is.”
“It doesn’t matter. Please, Sam. It’s…I don’t know its name, but it’s evil. They’re going to die, and it’ll be for no reason. There’s only one thing – your blood--that can save them.”
“My blood?” Sam swiped his sleeve across his face. He was a Winchester, and Dad had raised him better than this. “Am I going to die?”
“You are not dying tonight. I will be right behind you. I won’t let anything happen to you. But you have to trust me.”
Sam felt like the worst kind of fool for believing that anything could be as simple as a ghost wanting a friend. If Dad or Dean died, none of it would matter any way. Sam might as well be another doomed ghost clanging his chains in the woods at night.
He made his decision when he reached for his jacket. Dean wouldn’t want him to go outside without it.
There was evil in the woods at night. Howling and groaning and hissing, bright eyes in the trees. Sam could smell the ground, like it was spongy and already decomposing under his feet.
“Where are we going?” he shouted, as he tried to keep up behind her.
“We’re almost there,” she called back. “We’re not too late yet.”
They kept running. Sam started to think they were lost. The shadows were deepening, while the stars mocked him through the gaps in the trees. It felt like a thousand years had passed since he’d believed he could ever learn their names. It was futile, all of it. Sam would never find his father and brother in time. It was never enough. He was always too late.
Without warning, Emily came to a stop and grabbed him by the shoulders, pushing him roughly against the trunk of an old oak. Sam couldn’t get over it. He couldn’t remember why he’d ever thought she was a little girl.
“When I died,” she said, “nobody could save me, and you’re the one who’s going to pay. Your brother has to live so he can save you. Do you understand?”
Sam was a world away from understanding, but he nodded.
She continued, “This thing is empty, but it needs to feed that emptiness. It doesn’t need them. You are what it needs; you’re the only way to make it stop.”
“What do I do?”
“It needs your blood. Sam, I need you to listen to me. I’m going to be right after you. Once it’s open, I’ll be able to take care of it. I don’t have time to tell you more. You’ll just have to trust me. You can’t call out, no matter what you see.”
Swallowing his fear, he followed her into the shadows. They stepped onto a flat light stone, and from it he could see a clearing, eerily glowing in the moonlight. He’d been trained not to disobey a direct order, but none of his training could prepare him for this.
This was evil, it was darkness, and it was everything his family stood against. Dad was there, on the ground, but too far away. He looked trapped, like he was straining against the heavy air. Worse than anything Sam had ever seen before, Dean was there. He was hurt. He was writhing on the ground. The darkness was over him.
Emily whispered, “It needs your blood. Sam, your hand.”
Something inside told him what he needed to do. There was something inside that this thing had awakened that was calling him. It terrified him to the marrow of his bones, but Sam pulled the hunter’s knife out of his pocket. His hands were shaking, as he flipped it open and sliced the blade across his palm.
There was pain, but not much. In the moonlight, Sam could see the elegant arc of blood, flowing from his wrist down to his arm.
“Now the other one,” Emily said. She was crying. Sam hadn’t known a ghost could cry.
This was worse than the first, but Sam awkwardly gripped the knife with his slippery, bleeding hand and slashed his other palm. This time, the pain was immediate and shocking. Sam cried out and dropped the knife, but she stopped him when he bent down to pick it up.
“It’s finished,” she said. “You don’t need it now.”
Sam didn’t understand what was happening. His blood was soaking through his jacket, dripping onto the ground, consecrating the stone underneath his feet. The darkness was recoiling from Dean. The thing roared like something possessed and turned toward him. It wanted him, it wanted his blood. Sam could feel that now.
“Sam!” his father yelled, seeing him. “Go back! Run!”
But Sam took a step forward instead. Emily was behind him, and suddenly he knew. He turned around and it was like a veil dropped before his eyes. He knew who she was.
“I won’t let it hurt you. I’m sorry, Sammy. I never wanted this for you.”
“Are you going to leave me?”
The darkness was coming for him. They were out of time.
She was still crying. He didn’t want to see her cry.
“We cheated, Sammy. I shouldn’t be here at all. You go first. I’ll follow. I won’t let it hurt you.”
He had so many questions, but she whispered in his ear, “I loved you before you were born.”
Sam lifted up his bleeding hands. He was eleven years old and had no idea why anything would want him so badly. He could hear his dad yelling and Dean screaming for him, and Sam closed his eyes. The din made him ache inside, but it wasn’t up to him any more. He felt her behind him. This was how he knew what love was.
Sam stepped into the darkness.
And it accepted his sacrifice.
When Sam opened his eyes, it was morning. There was light streaming through a window and birds were whooping it up outside, and he was so glad to be alive that he started to cry.
“Hey, hey,” Dad said. “It’s all right, Sammy. You’re all right now.”
Sam realized with a start that he was practically bandaged everywhere, and Dad was holding one of his swaddled hands.
“Careful – you’ve got stitches. Don’t cry, Sammy. You’ll wake up Dean.”
Sam carefully turned his head – everything hurt—and he saw his brother. He and Dean were lying on Dad’s bed, shoulder to shoulder, and Dean’s eyes were closed, but his chest was rising and falling.
“Is he okay?” Sam whispered.
“He’s all worn out.” John Winchester ran his free hand over his face, looking rougher than Sam had ever seen him. “Maybe a concussion, a couple cracked ribs. There’s no sign of internal bleeding. He’ll be all right. He just needs to sleep for a while.”
“You killed it. Don’t ask me how, but somehow you did it. It’s gone, nothing left behind. But, Sam, there was something with you. It followed you in, and then there was so much light, I couldn’t see what happened next.”
Sam nodded. He felt loopy, his thinking all confused and open-ended. But Dad let go of his hand and took hold of his chin so that Sam couldn’t look away.
“You slashed your hands with a knife. You opened yourself up to it. Why, Sam? Why would you do a thing like that?”
Sam didn’t want to think about it ever again, but the grip on his chin was bruising and convincing.
“Tell me, Sam. That’s an order.”
“It was going to kill Dean. My blood was the only thing that would stop it.”
“How did you know that?”
His head felt so fuzzy. Dad must have given him something for the pain. Sam was having trouble coming up with the right answer.
“She told me.”
“Who told you?”
“She wanted me to be a boy.”
“Sammy, I don’t understand. Who was she?”
“She taught me things.”
“What kind of things? Who was she? What the hell did you get yourself into? Damnit Sammy, you need to tell me.”
“Naming stars. We skipped stones on the lake.”
“You’re not making sense, son. I need you to focus.”
“Skipping stones, altar stones,” Sam chanted, like it was a nursery rhyme. He started to laugh, even as tears were running down his face. He couldn’t remember why he was sad. “It’s all the same.”
Dad looked scared. Sam couldn’t remember seeing Dad scared before.
“Sammy, I think you need to get some sleep. We can talk about this when you’re better.”
Sam nodded and rolled toward Dean, closing his eyes.
But Dad wasn’t done. “You can’t keep secrets from us, Sammy. It’s not safe. This family won’t survive if we don’t stick together. None of us can afford to be selfish.”
Sam wished he could shove down the anger that was coming up again. He’d always been good at disappointing his dad.
It wasn’t fair. He wasn’t going to think about Emily. Whoever, whatever she was, she wasn’t coming back. It shouldn’t have been like this. His life should have been different. There were things nobody had thought to teach him, things he hadn’t known to miss – how to ride a skateboard, pitch a fastball, how to whistle through a blade of glass.
Then Sam heard his father sigh and there were footsteps, and Sam knew Dad was walking away.
That was fine by Sam. Dad never stayed. Sam opened his eyes to look at his brother. Dean’s face was black and blue and swollen, but Sam had seen it worse. Sam tucked his bandaged hand under Dean’s side, careful of any cracked ribs. Dean mumbled in his sleep turning toward him, his features relaxed and still dreaming.
The thing was dead, and they would be moving on as soon as Dean was better. It would be a while before they went back to the woods. Dad only worked forest gigs in the summer. But there would always be another hunter’s cabin… another pissed-off monster in the woods. Sam couldn’t do anything to change that, but he wasn’t going to live this life any longer than he had to. Dad raised them for this and maybe he was born for it, but she wanted more for them – for him and Dean. Dad couldn’t control his life forever.
As Sam’s eyes started to close, he wondered if Dean had ever learned how to skip stones. The secret was in the wrist, in keeping the stone level with the water, and then releasing it gracefully. It was all in letting go. Dean would think he was nuts, but Sam would teach him…
If they were still alive next year.