School wasn't interesting. Class, lunch, life driven by bells and hall monitors. Dean and Graciela indeed had one class in common, though not in the same period--English with a stunner named Mrs. Pokhart, who was about three hundred years old and knew dog CPR. Graciela loved her. Graciela wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up. Go figure.
This all came up because the spring quarter was just starting up, and Mrs. Pokhart's three English classes were starting their 'careers and vocations' unit. Ten pages, works cited in MLA format. At least one primary source interview, if possible (the guy who wanted to be an Egyptologist was shit out of luck on that one. He didn't seem too pleased when Dean suggested he be a high school teacher instead). Due May 16th.
Days passed. Dad shifted in and our of their lives, in timely increments that were familiar, and life was as normal. Dean only hoped that once Dad had tracked the thing, he'd bring them along for the hunt. He'd sent Dean and Sam on short research errands--library stuff (no interviews--Dean could fake twenty-one better than most twenty-one year olds, but thirty and over wasn't a go, especially when the venue wasn't in smoky half-light) mostly, some street casing. It was all the interesting stuff--mostly history, crime cases and whatever, not the centuries-old monster magic tomes that Dean hated so much. He didn't like libraries as a general rule, but he'd rather be researching the dead guys than the hypothetical monster that probably didn't kill them. It was so much harder to justify spending time on that; it really was.
Weeks passed. Sometimes Graciela would walk to school instead of being driven past them--after that first gas incident, and their one hundred mile trek up to the white Oceanside bridge--and Sam and Dean would know Veronica was out, too. It was strange to think that she didn't know. That she had no fucking clue what the world was up against. Well, she probably had a clue--if Veronica was as subtle as Dad was, even at his most secretive, it was pretty damn easy to tell when something was up. She wasn't an idiot.
But one look at her and Dean knew she was no hunter. She didn't have that hunger, or that kind of kicked look that sometimes saw in Sam, and felt in himself. That mixture of fear and the knowledge of weakness full frontal.
Because Dad said there was a cosmic lock on the whole hunting evil deal--Graciela must not know. She must not know or Veronica will shoot them all--most of Dean's conversations with her involved vague one-liners.
"Your mom's gone again, huh." He'd say behind her, when she kept walking briskly down the street without turning around or saying hello.
"So's your dad," she would reply. Silence. They'd keep walking. Sam would outstrip the both of them, then turn left to the middle school. They kept straight. The stoplights flashed their trichromatic ditty. "They took her car."
That was pretty much a conversation ender. Nobody really wanted to contemplate the possible benefits of Dad and Veronica's--or John and Mama's, depending on who you were talking to--not-quite-friendship to working relationship to who the hell knew what else.
At the one month mark, Graciela sprung a new topic on their morning routine and asked Dean what his career report was about. You know, that career report. Yeah, the career report he may have sort of forgotten about. "Oh, that one," he said. And Graciela continued: He hadn't really talked about, and she wanted to know if he wanted any tips, since he didn't have any experience with Mrs. Pokhart's grading style. ("Include pictures," Graciela advised solemnly. "Print them on the computer if you can. She thinks visual aids are the Second Coming or something. It's instant favor.")
Dean thought about his career project. It was at the bottom of his backpack somewhere. He'd meant to do it, he really had, he'd gone to the library and channel surfed, or whatever it was you called it for books. But he'd ended up looking through the paper archives and comparing news tidbits about an Arturo Francesco, so he hadn't actually read anything about firefighters. He hadn't read anything about bull fighters, either, which he figured would at least get him some pretty interesting visual aids.
Sam drew two lines from the same point, like the roof of a house. At the top, he put My Family Tree. Then he crossed it out, and wrote The Big Bang instead. He drew a line and named the first ten lifeforms his life science textbook mentioned. Some pre-cellular things. Then the cellular ones. Multi-cellular. He had tons of relatives.
Then he crossed everything out. This was stupid. This was really, really stupid. He crumpled up the piece of paper and tried to launch it into the wastebasket at the other end of the couch.
Failing that, he went in search of Veronica. "What’s up, kid?" she asked. Sam was always ‘kid.’
“You have a computer, right?”
Sam didn't know Mom's original name, before she was married. There were a lot of Mary Winchesters in Kansas, believe it or not. But there was only one Mary Campbell who'd died in a housefire in November 1983.
"That's your mother," said Veronica. "Mary Campbell."
She was survived by a cousin, Dustin Campbell, and his three daughters and two sons. The article didn't even mention that she'd been married, or that she had children. Sam guessed that Dustin must have been the Uncle from Iowa. A picture of a crinkled up obituary on a computer that was about an inch tall probably should not be an end-all for judging character, but it made Sam think that maybe Dad and Dean weren't actually exaggerating the guy. Sam had to admit, he was a little stung at not even being included in her memory. Like they weren't a big enough part of her life to even exist.
"Are you sure that's her?" Sam asked Veronica, though Sam didn't know how Veronica would possibly know. Childhood friend or not, in Sam's experience coincidences were known to happen at the least convenient times. And how was he supposed to trust this Internet thing, anyway? Maybe it wasn't even a real newspaper clipping.
"That's her," Veronica replied, lips tight. "That's definitely her."
"How do you know?"
"When you've met enough dead people, and you've read enough of these, you just know." Which didn't seem like any answer at all. "You don't know the whole story," Veronica continued. “Ask your dad what happened.”
Sam snorted. "He wouldn't talk about that if he'd been dead a hundred years. He just wouldn't."
"You'd be surprised how much your dad would be willing to tell you," said Veronica. "He's told you a lot."
Dad hadn't told him anything. Dean had. Sam had inferred, Dean had confirmed, and Dad had picked up from there. Dad had mostly assumed, and then ordered, and then expected. It wasn't the same thing.
It was like Veronica could read his thoughts. "At least he didn't lie to you."
That, Sam thought, was the biggest lie of all. The absolute biggest lie of all. At that moment, Sam decided they were done with lying.
"Can I keep looking on this?"
"Wouldn’t have brought you back if you weren’t allowed, kid,” said Veronica. "The stuff’s around. I know it is. You just gotta look and see what you can find.”
Sam found out that his grandma and grandpa were in a rotary club, and their names were Samuel and Deanna Campbell. Which was a precious bit of information, because Sam felt like it explained everything.
It didn't actually, obviously. He could imagine Dean blowing him off, like it was completely uninteresting. "So they're named Samuel and Deanna. So we were obviously named after them. Everyone does that. That's not all that important."
"That's just 'cause you're named after a girl," Sam knew he would respond. And then it would be lost. The information would be useless again, and Sam would be left back at square one. He couldn't do that. Even if there was a chance Dean didn't take it like that--and obviously he would, because when didn't he?--Sam couldn't possibly risk it. No. This was going to be his, and his alone. He scribbled down everything he could about Samuel and Deanna Campbell, mom's brother Dustin, the one in Iowa, and his children, which were only numbers.
At this point, he probably knew more about this entire family than anyone else alive. Because all he really needed to do was beat this mysterious Uncle Dustin and Dad. Dad didn't count, because there was tons of stuff he'd never ever know about Sam, about Dean; and Uncle Dustin doesn't count because as far as he was concerned Sam and Dean and Dad didn't even exist. Writing out history was automatic disqualification. So Sam won, because Sam always wins.
His eyes were beginning to water from staring at Veronica's screen as long as he had, grey-blue-green and white and pulsing. He figured he had enough to go off of. He could nail Samuel and Deanna to within at least a decade of their births, though he couldn't find the exact date. They'd died on the same day. And apparently together, in some kind of unexpected accident the newspaper didn't identify. Sam was hoping car crash, or tornado, or something good and normal like that, though he's pretty sure that this family couldn't possibly be so lucky. Maybe whatever had killed them had come to finish the job that night, the night Mom died. But Sam didn't want to think about that because that meant that whatever had gone after them was coming after them, coming after them the way Dad suspected and the way Sam adamantly didn't want to be true. Not because he didn't think they could take it--though he was pretty sure they couldn't. He was twelve, and Dean wasn’t anything he thought he was, and Dad--Dad was invincible, but he was still Dad. He was still human. And that meant he kind of lost, no matter what. Sam didn’t want it to be true because that meant that everything Dad had done, and everything he'd made them do, was perfectly justified. And Sam didn't think he could deal with that. The idea that all of the crazy and all of the moving and the training and the sacrifices were actually worth it seemed pretty nice in theory, but it also meant that the world was just as fucked up as Dean and Dad thought it was.
That nothing mattered, because how could it, when everything was that fucked up?
And Sam didn't think he could deal with that. Not in a million years.
"You know, I've always wanted to be a veterinarian."
While Dean charmed Graciela out of her library books, Sam idled on the cement step out front, dreamed up Papi's Dog. He could almost see her charging through the weeds in the front yard, dandelion heads snapped like so many necks, heads rolling. She was a desperate, furious thing, all hackles and bad teeth, wild eyes and secret dental fractures--and Papi is a great shadow of a man, to fit the dog. He doesn't use a leash. He can command her without rules, because he's Papi. That's power. And because there are no rules, no one else could ever own her. That's insurance.
And Sam thought that, maybe a little, he knows how that might be. Papi's Dog doesn't care what he has to do, so long as he can keep on being Papi's.
Sam took out his notebook and began to write.
It had only been ten, fifteen minutes, and Dean backed through the screen door, arms laded with a dozen books, lacquer-shiny, crisp, and new. "It's due tomorrow, you know," said Graciela. She followed Dean out the door as though she didn't quite trust him with her books. Her porch to the car. Car to their apartment. Up to the fourth floor. Back down. Sam could see the working in her eyes, tallying up the mishaps that tended to collapse around them, the carelessness of boys, Dean.
"How 'bout I come tomorrow and get the books in the morning? We can walk to the school together. I'll just take them, it's all right. I kinda wanted to look at them again, you know? Before the oral."
"I'm not gonna lose your books overnight." Dean stepped off the cement ledge backwards with a lurch.
"Then be ready early. I wanna show you something before school. And Sam, too. What time are you gonna get up?"
Dean said something vague and noncommittal which was probably supposed to be cool, and they were at the car and pulling away from the curb with well-practiced expedience.
Home was no different; the same filmy light flooded the living room in whiskey-amber shafts, unfurnished but for the bags in the corner, gathering dust, and the cardboard castle lurched up against the kitchen counter. Dad hadn't been there.
Sam leaned up against the kitchen sink and thrust himself sideways to try for a drink of water, and ran into Dean, checking the gun. It was still here, with the familiar rusty rods, the skeleton of had probably once been a scrub brush. Sam swallowed, and tried to disappear the water's hard taste. "What d'you think Graciela wants to show us?"
"Her new bra, I hope."
"Don't worry, Sam. You're not gonna have to wear it."
At 7:30, Sam turned the kitchen light on, and Dean, squinting in the then-darkness at True Confessions of a Veterinarian, continued to squint under the pale fluorescence. Dinner passed without mention. Sam finished pre-algebra, then his family tree. He would have been done hours earlier, but the tree could not be rushed. He drew thin, spindly lines for branches, like the tree out of the picture Dad had in his journal. Dustin Campbell, born 1936. His eight children, unnamed but abundant, like fruit. Taller branches: A Samuel and Deanna Campbell, born 1912 and 1919. That's the top of the tree, but even lopsided and stunted as it is, it's the most Sam has ever known, and it's the most Sam has ever kept from his brother at any one time.
He's pretty good on not keeping things from Dean. Part of this was because whatever Sam's ability to lie (it's pretty good; without reservations Sam's sure it's really pretty good) to Dean he's always naked as a pin-up girl (to use Dean's example). Part of this was because he's never really had anything to keep. Dustin and his eight, and Samuel and Deanna, were small secrets, pixelated names on a digital page, but they were his.
The tree was probably the best thing Sam Winchester had ever put together. It was certainly the truest. He slid it between his pre-algebra and Theogony, into the dark flat safeness of his backpack.
"Cereal?" Dean asked, just past midnight. He was snapping up a handful of Fruit Loops, one by one. Sam nodded, caught the box Dean lobbed at him, though the cardboard crumpled in his grip. Sam looked to Dean's set up on his side of the living room. A page of sideways notes, written in deft block print. Items flying off in the margins scrawled in less formal penmanship. True Confessions of a Veterinarian was thoughtfully not dog-eared; instead, napkins feathered between every tenth page or so. He'd moved on to The Barefoot Veterinarian, though the other ten books, sprawled out in a broken rainbow on the grey-green carpet, appeared untouched.
Sam licked Fruit Loops off his fingers one by one, color by color. "How's it going?" he asked, though nothing in recent memory would have granted him any expectation that Dean would actually be all that keen on answering.
Sam clearly hadn’t expected Dead to boomerang the question, which made him feel strangely proud.
Sam looked up, vague expression on his face like he didn't quite believe he'd heard Dean ask what he did. "Not sure yet."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Dean gave him his best no bullshit frown, though according to Sam it wasn't the most convincing expression in the world. Again, whatever.
"We're reading some parts out of this book called Theogony," Sam explained, after he'd sighed, and closed the book. He gave Dean an annoyed pout. "It's a genealogy of the gods--basically a family tree."
"I know what geneaology means."
"Sure you do. But anyway, that's not my point. It's basically a family tree, so we're supposed to like, research our family and stuff and make our own tree."
Dean snorted. "Gonna be a pretty short tree, dude. Maybe a bush."
"I have to go back at least to my grandparents, she said."
'She' was an amorphous young woman of indeterminate description. Any time Dean had gotten more curious than that, Sam had shut right up. Probably meant she was young and hot as hell. Not that Dean really went for teachers. They tended to have this kind of sappy world mission that revolved around the plots of teacher movies, like that one about the Mexican kid, who'd been played by the Filipino kid. Then Dean shifted back to reality. "Well, that's gonna be kinda funny, dude, because I really don't think you're gonna get that information out of dad."
"I don't see why not," Sam challenged him. The defiance in his voice was oddly personal. Like Dean had actually said something wrong. "I mean, it's not like knowing the names of our grandparents, maybe even where they lived, what years they were born or died or whatever, is actually going to do anything to us. It's not like I'm gonna go off and live with them."
"Oh, really? You're not? You coulda fooled me," said Dean, though it was probably unwarranted. Sam had never threatened to actually run off. He'd mope outside, run up to the rooftop or some other emo punk thing like that, but he'd never actually threatened to leave. He wouldn't dare. He wouldn't want to. Whatever Sam didn't have with him and Dad, he knew what he did have, and it's not like he was going to throw that away just like that. No way.
"I just need to know for my stupid report," said Sam. "Do you know?"
"Yeah right," said Dean. "All I know of is that one uncle in whatever state that was, like Iowa or something? The one where Dad avoids the entire property like the damn plague, just because he's in it. Maybe he thinks if he stays away our Uncle Whosit'll be eaten by a vampire or something. Or better yet, he'll be turned and Dad will be able to off him himself."
Sam blanched. "Dean, shut up. That's not the reason. Dad wouldn't do that."
Dean shrugged. "Hell, to that guy? I would. You remember him that one time."
"He just wanted to know if Dad wanted an adjoining plot. He didn't say anything bad."
"He was asking Dad about his grave, dude. That's kinda bad no matter how you swing it. Do you know what passive-aggressive means? I'll give you a hint--you act it all the time. Bitch."
"Jerk," Sam started. "It's not like he was telling Dad to get inside the plot. It was a nice gesture. He was going to make sure Mom and Dad could be buried together."
"I don't think Dad's bones are going to give much of a damn whether they're next to Mom's in a hundred years, or not. They probably won't even have graves by then. We'll be living in pods, like in that one movie we saw that one time, in Arizona."
"Dean, you're doing it again."
"What am I doing?"
"You're being ridiculous."
"Seriously, Dean! You're being stupid. You're being really, really stupid."
And maybe it was true. But it was keeping him from being really, really stupid-er, because he kind of wanted to hit Sam right now. He wasn't sure exactly why, even a little bit, because it's not like Sam had really done anything yet--and Sam was perfectly capable of doing things, that was for sure--but the whole conversation just kind of hit frayed nerves or something, because Dean really was going to hit him. He really, really--
"So make it up. If it's just a stupid project, make it up. That's what you do every other time. Like that one essay about the chupacabra. You got on A on that for "creative application of outside research" or something, didn't you? With that one ostrich teacher?"
"I don't know which teacher you're talking about. I only know their names."
"There's no way you remember all their names."
"Why not? You do. You just never use them."
"That's not the point. What I'm talking about Sam is, just make it up. Hell, I'm gonna make mine up. It'll be easy. It'll be fun. Play God for a while and just make up a family tree for us, okay? And make it awesome. We have twin cousins three hundred times removed, just sayin'. As an example."
Sam refused to speak to him for the rest of the evening.
Made for a long fucking evening. Dean sighed, for the millionth time, and tried to concentrate on the page in front of him. It had been the same page for the past three hours
The college course requirements for pre-vets were all kind of drooling out of the book and swishing down the drain with Sam's toothpaste in the back room. It wasn't like he really cared, because it's not like he was going to go off and be a veterinarian--it's something he can honestly say he's never had any thought about before, ever in his entire damn life--and he didn't see why it had to be such a big deal. He should just screw the project and get on with life, because it doesn't really apply.
Sam tapped the handle of his toothbrush against the sink three times, as usual, and Dean tried to pull himself back to animal communications and bacteriology. He wasn't actually sure what bacteriology meant, outside of fun times with cheek swabs and microscopes, or long lists of 'invisible things that can kill you' and he wasn't sure what he was supposed to do with all of this, since listing it the way it was in the book was probably plagiarism. And between the fake IDs and the pathological lies, you can't have that.
Veterinarians have to take a lot of classes in college, he wrote. They're mostly things about biology and for some reason, psychology. The he crossed it all out. He kept 'veterinarians.'
Maybe it would be better to start from the beginning. There was a prompt somewhere, hidden in the bundle of papers he'd managed to keep hold of up to this point.
What do you want to be when you become and adult?
Who will you be?
How will you get there?
Dean wrote that he wanted to be a veterinarian when he grew up because he'd always been really interested in stuff like the make-up of animals. What they ate, where they lived, whether they lived in packs or not... That kind of thing. His father, who was not a veterinarian, but an ex-Marine, had always made sure he and his brother kept track of that sort of thing. They moved around a lot so they saw all kinds of animals.
This, he crumpled into a ball and threw across the room. The ball was an eerie off-white glow in the dark corner by the window, a watching eye. Not that any of that was true. It just seemed kind of stupid. Candyass, or something.
What do you want?
To be done with this shit, for one. It was 1am. Sam had gone off somewhere, into the bedroom, to Yemen, Dean didn't know and knowing Sam it could very well have been either.
Every hour, the pages bled. Margins widened. The center of the page opened up into expansive white nothingness. Type your report, if you can. Write in cursive. Dean's wasn't typed, and it wasn't in cursive. This was mostly because it just didn't exist at all. At 4am it was really difficult to bullshit a reason Dean wanted to be a veterinarian--one that would fly with Sweet Valley or whatever the hell this school was called, in any case. He could think of plenty of reasons he'd want to be a veterinarian, provided he was a veterinarian in the sense that Sam was actually the Sam Winchester everyone--including Sam--seemed to think he was, and provided he was a veterinarian in the sense that Dad was actually a contractor, or a cable repair guy (what a riot--especially after the toaster incident), or a New Yorker journalist (who'd wandered into Nowhere, Tennessee for, what, the hell of it? on the offchance that there were some kind of dark evil thing that went creek in the dark?)
Yeah, Dean could be a veterinarian. In the same sense that this report could have actual words in it.
April 14, 1996
Dean curled his toes into the carpet, and felt the grains of dry adhesive between them. He wasn’t sure where his socks went--at some point they became too moist, or too hot, or too stretched. They were off-white ghosts somewhere in the deeper corners of the barren living room, along with the now-multiplied balls of ruled paper littering the ground beneath the far wall.
When he becomes a veterinarian--the family business; not his father, but his grandfather, and his father before that--he's going to set up shop somewhere far away from here. Some place that actually has animals that aren't wannabe Black Dogs.
Dean let his pencil deepen the tornado he'd started scribbling around one of the binder holes. It grew and grew until the storm covered the entire margin, started dipping down into the lowest third of the page. Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore. He tried to imagine what it would be like to go into the same white stucco every morning, check the mail, be expected. He'd wear one of those white lab coats that make all doctors seem just totally friendly and familiar, Doc Martens, some kind of ridiculous tie--the shole shebang. Whole shebang. He rakes the top of his tongue with his teeth. Wow. Just--wow.
Whole shebang. And Sam would be his biggest customer, bringing in his girlfriend's labradoodle or something like that. Figures Sam would get a labradoodle. Dean screwed his eyes shut.
He's starting to lose it.
It wasn’t even that late; he'd pulled a million all-nighters and then some. This was nothing. All he'd done was sit here the entire afternoon, he's got nothing to complain about. Besides, what did he have to show for it? An impressive collection of paper snowballs. A dull pencil.
He dug his knife out of his pocket, delving into his stiff jeans with a grimace. It seemed like a lot of work to stand up, just to get the knife out. Finally, he pinned the handle between his fingers, extracted the knife, and flipped open the blade. He bent over to get at one of the other books he'd borrowed from Graciela while he whittled at his pencil tip. Splintery brown shavings fell into the carpet and looked pretty much at home. The room creaked as the building settled, and Dean pulled himself back from his rumination on the carpet, tried to throw his focus back on the veterinarian book. Or at least the pencil. He whittled at it absently, strained to follow the black serpentine text across the pages of the book. He wasn't as successful as maybe he could have been.
It wasn’t that late.
Didn't stop the head rush that nearly sat him back on his ass when he stood. The world dipped back sideways, fell into the tornado scribbled in the margin of his empty page, and didn't stop until it had come full circle. Dean blinked, shook his head. Okay, so the sink seemed like a pretty good destination. Even better than it had seemed minutes before.
He wasn't really sure how Sam managed to drink out of that, though. He could see the mineral buildup even when he was washing his hands. Whitewater in their own damn kitchen. But whatever. Dad hadn't really left them with much. Dean knew what to do with the money, but buying water seemed really stupid. Not that he had any idea what he was supposed to be buying with it, since Dad always seemed vaguely concerned by his choices whenever he returned, saw the receipts, or the refuse. At least, back when he'd actually asked for the receipts. Lately, he'd either started trusting Dean more, or he'd become preoccupied by more important things. Dean would be putting his money on the latter any day.
He shuffled back to his nest on the living room carpet and picked up a stack of his binder paper, and the prompt. Made a paper cone. He turned the faucet on, just barely, and let it fill the entire cone. Whitewater, like he'd said. "It's just air bubbles," Sam insisted, though anyone could tell the difference with one taste.
Uh huh, Sammy. And you remember those weirdass fountains in Colorado, right? That's called mineral water. This is. I don't even know--this is mercury-in-the-well water.
Sam said it came from an aqueduct in Los Angeles. They'd learned about it in California History last Thursday.
Dean closed his eyes--a welcome reprieve, since they honestly felt like they were made out of carpet gunk--and drank deeply. It absolutely wasn't worth it. Maybe a shower instead. Yeah, a shower. He could think about this thesis statement or something. Pokhart was always going on about thesis statements. If he could just figure that one out, he could probably bullshit his way through the rest of the report; historically it had worked pretty well.
He looked down at his paper cone. The innards were made out of his paper prompt, interrogatory, probing statements staring at him through a film of water. They were blurry at the edges, burning blue like a neck stuck in a noose.
What do you want to be?
Where will you go?
The remaining water at the bottom of the cone was started to stain purple from the ink dripping down. He threw the entire thing into the trashcan. It was disturbingly empty; generally he and Sam weren't all that good about taking it out, but it was gone now. The paper cone glowed white like a ghost, like all the ghosts. Dean tried not to look too hard at the living room as he stepped over his backpack and his books and his remaining stack of paper (and hey, it'd be pretty good progress if he'd actually written on the paper missing from the stack. It's far diminished from its too-damn-expensive-per-sheet status) and made his way to the bathroom.
He didn't bother turning on the lights. He wasn't actually sure if there was a bulb in the hall light, actually. He'd never seen it on. Sam was the only one who ever turned on the lights. He probably thought it was normal or something. But all Dean could think about was beacons. Beacons like they kind they'd seen on their way down here, driving all down the coast. It just seemed like a stupid idea. The white fluorescence wasn't too bad; it was basic, made everything a truck-stop kind of ghoulish clear. But Dean wasn't really feeling the honey glow of end table lamps, or reading lights, or the kind that sat in the fishbowl lamps that split the hall ceiling into thirds.
They reminded him of the holes in his binder paper, white and empty and tornado-making.
The bathroom rug was still wet from Sam's excursion, though there wasn't any standing water this time. Which was an improvement. He and Sam had tackled the tub over the weekend, plugging up the gritty, failing caulking with whatever they could find at the bottom of the pack. Looked like it had worked.
Except for the part where that had been the weekend and now it was, what, Friday? Jesus. Where the hell had he been all this time. He was pretty sure time just passed differently down here. Closer to the equator or something. It's not because Dad was gone, because when the hell wasn't he? And Sam was the same. And he was the same.
He was absolutely fucking tired, in the beat-all sense. He stared at the shower head grainy-eyed, teeth feeling like they were free-floating, their enamel some kind of gooey myth beneath his tongue. Undressing seemed like a lot of work. He unstrapped his watch. 4:47am. Maybe he'd just put his head under the sink faucet. Maybe he'd just put it under the sink faucet and never lift it out.
There was someone at the door. A woman. Maybe the woman, Veronica. He hadn't seen her in a long time, even when he stayed at Graciela's on Thursdays. It was raining.
Then he woke up. He woke up to the sound of the doorbell ringing, and water running. He scanned the other side of the room. Dean's sleeping bag was packed into the corner, piled up like a fat mound of flesh rather than a neat caterpillar roll. It hadn't moved all night. But the doorbell was still ringing.
It took Sam a few seconds to rise out of sleep and realize that if the water was running, and the doorbell was ringing, then Dean wasn't answering the door, their guest wasn't going away, and that meant he actually had to get out of bed.
Sam inched toward the door without disentangling himself from the inside layer of his sleeping back. Then he reached up to the doorknob and tried to pull himself out of the nylon and polyester mess. The living room was dark, even with the kitchen light on. He wasn't sure what time it was. It looked like Dean had been hard at work for a good while, though Sam didn't see anything that looked like triumph.
It was Graciela at the door. It was still dark outside. "What are you doing here? It's the middle of the night," Sam asked blearily. He wasn't sure if he'd actually woken up, or just returned to the dream. He was pretty sure they'd done this part before.
"It's 5:30," said Graciela matter of factly. "And I have something I want to show you. But we have to get an early start, because it's not gonna be too close."
She looked beyond Sam. "Where's Dean?"
Sam shrugged. "I don't know."
Graciela looked at him. "What is that even supposed to mean?"
Sam honestly hadn't thought about that. It was one of those reflex answers, was his best guess. Since clearly he knew exactly where Dean was. It wasn’t like there were all that many choices, after all. But there you go. "Would you like to come in?" Sam asked.
Graciela came in.
She scrutinized their apartment appraisingly, though it wasn't as thought they had all that much to appraise. They only things they really had were in the fridge, the two sleeping bags in the back room, their school stuff, and a closet full of odds n’ ends. Piano wire, iron rounds, cat's eye shells. Those kinds of things. And that was in the closet. The back closet.
Graciela looked at her books strewn across the living room, pencil shavings making a mound on the carpet. Dean had left the knife. Impulse made Sam want to run and close the blade, hide it somewhere before Graciela could see, but Graciela had seen. The impulse didn't make that much sense, anyway; Graciela knew. Because Veronica knew.
"I haven't seen your mom around lately," said Sam, as casually as he could muster. He was about as casual as the Neighborhood Watch.
"Haven't seen your dad around lately," she countered. "Look, if he's not gonna come out or whatever..."
"Who's not going to come out?" Dean emerged from the angled hallway, combing his fingers through damp hair. It splayed out in limp spikes in every direction. He looked tired for a split second. Then he looked like Dean.
"It's about time. Look, I wanna show you guys something. How did your report go?" Graciela folded her arms around her, hugging her jacket tight. An ice breeze wafted in from the dark beyond the front door.
"My--" Dean started. "Oh. Right. That. Yeah, that was fine. You have some really...interesting research material. I can definitely see why you want to be a vet."
Graciela sneered, though her eyes held no vitriol. "You're an ass. Did you read any of those at all?"
"Of course I did. Bacteriology. Animal communications. Irish setters are beautiful and amazing."
"So what'd you write?"
"I said that I was going to be a vet for my kid brother's labradoodle."
Sam rolled his eyes. Figured.
"So what's this thing you want to show us at five in the damn morning? Some of us don't get up 'til six. If it's the sunrise, I swear to God--"
"We're going north, not east."
"East, as in..the sunset. You know?"
"Yeah, I know. You know, jokes are a lot less amusing when the person feels like they need to explain them."
"It wasn't a joke."
Which is about when Sam tuned out. But they ended up in the Impala, with Dean gunning the engine loud enough to wake the entire block. They hit the 5 at six, just in time for the beginning of the commuter's traffic. Which meant there were about twelve other cars on the road, but apparently that was some kind of egregious sin in Dean's book.
"I don't see why California can't just have normal highways. You know, the good old American kind where you drive off into the sunset or whatever."
"Because if California drove into the sunset, they'd hit the Pacific first," Graciela answered absently. "Just keep on the 5. We've got like a hundred miles to go."
Sam jolted. A hundred?
"A hundred?" Dean said. "Where the hell are we going? Disneyland?"
Which was followed by some rumination on why the hell anyone would name a city Oceanside, when there were a hundred oceanside cities all up and down the--get this--the coast that were just as oceanside as Oceanside, if not more so. Sam rested his cheek against the curve of the door.
When he woke, they were turned out on a dirt shoulder, engine ticking. "Up and at 'em, dude," said Dean, jabbing him in the side.
"Next time I get shotgun," Graciela announced, she she climbed out of the back passenger door. "I want more leg room."
"Yeah, I don't think so," Dean answered, though he seemed more concerned by the scenery--or lack thereof, since it didn't seem like there was really anything all that remarkable about this particular stretch of highway--than the chatter that had mucked up the entire drive there. He still hadn't gotten around to fixing the radio.
"Doesn't work that way. There's certain things you gotta be able to do if you wanna ride shotgun."
"Oh, really," said Graciela. Sam appreciated the gesture, but he wasn't sure what in the world Dean was talking about, either.
Dean shrugged. "That's just how it works. Shotgun's something you gotta earn. You wanna earn it?"
Hell yeah she did. Of course she did. Sam was beginning to think this was some kind of awful plot to get him to embarrass himself. Since that seemed like Dean's new thing and all. Or some thing.
"Rock paper scissors. Best two out of three." He winked at Sam.
Graciela frowned. "Oh, you're making that up. Here, we need to cross the freeway. It's on the other side."
Cross the freeway. Because it wasn't, you know, being painted shiny by steely hunks of metal doing 80 or anything. "That's why we had to get here early. My papi lived in Oceanside, so he always came from the other direction..."
But cross they did. They waited for the cars to thin, and ran straight out behind the puff of exhaust and the clatter of small pebbles and rocks and snapped up behind the cars. Sam kept his eyes shut, blindly slamming pavement the entire time. If he was going to get smacked by a car, he didn't want to see it coming. His imagination was working on overdrive as it was.
At the other side of the road, Graciela must not have stopped running, because Dean grabbed Sam by the shirt when they dipped down and jerked him sideways. Sam stumbled, feet working like crab legs in an attempt to sprint sideways, before he swung the rest of his boy around, eyes open, and, panting, tried to regain the ground that had spread out between him and Dean and Graciela.
"So what are we looking for?" Dean shouted above the highway wind. They'd slowed to a jog, trekking up the hills and down into the water-filled gullies beside the road.
"Just a place," said Graciela. "A bridge he used to visit all the time."
True to form, the bridge slid up beside the highway, out of the 6 o'clock glare, like a white skeleton.
"My papi used to come play here."
It wasn't that impressive. It was an old wooden thing, rickety and sun-bleached white. Deep cracks cut through the wood like old scars, split and wrinkled. It looked like one of those old mining structures you could find further inland. Sam didn't have any idea what it would have been used for when it was first made.
He looked to Dean.
"Hey, don't look at me."
Graciela turned to face them both. Great. Sam glared, mouthed 'thank you' at Dean, who was pointedly examining the bridge in a more tactile fashion.
"What'd he play?"
"I don't know. He never said. We'd just drive by sometimes, and he'd always point it out."
"You think if I looked hard enough, I'd see, like, some crazy carving with your mom and dad's name surrounded by one of those hearts with the arrow in it?"
Sam vanished behind a tall clump of grass, thick and sticky with morning wet and seedlings. It was quiet here. You could still hear the highway; it wasn't that kind of quiet. But there wasn't much else--just the wind and the cars and more wind.
It was nice. In that haunted kind of way.
Sam stumbled back through the grass just in time to hear Dean break the silence. He'd been kicking absently at the base of one of the bridge's supports when the whole thing lurched, swung slightly, just enough for the top to block out the rising run, cast shadows. A splintering groan, and one of the support beams fell. They all jumped back, but the bridge was silent again.
"Hey, nothing broke. Nothing important anyway." Dean looked pretty happy. “Lookit that.”
Dean pointed at the rotted beam. Geraldo will always want Veronica’s, it read. Veronica’s what, if there was a what, was lost to splinters and black mold.
Graciela’s nose wrinkled.
After a bit, when Sam would not deign to comment, Dean said, “That’s pretty kinky, right?”
Sam looked at him. Tried to implore him into silence.
“Yeah, that’s pretty kinky. I mean, now we know what kind of ‘playing’ he did here, right?”
“Dean, shut up.”
Dean punched a fist in the air and ran around to the other side of the bridge. “Dude, I love this thing. That was so much better than a cupid heart. So much better!”
Graciela, skin blush red under brown skin, like Arizona clay, turned back to the highway. “I think we should go back to school now,” she said. “Let’s go. Let’s go back to school.”
Dean crowed the entire way.
He must have been asleep, because the next thing Dean knows is someone prodding him in the small of his back with a freshly sharpened pencil. He edged awake, grabbed the edge of consciousness like a high ledge and pulled himself up out of the dark with a shaky heave. Fuck.
He mouthed something likely incoherent and probably not school-appropriate. Desks seats hurt like hell. He didn't understand how it was possible to make a chair that uncomfortable.
"Mr. Winchester. Your report."
"That's not funny. Where's your career report?"
Dean bent down and unzipped his backpack. He could feel thirty-two pairs of eyes all on him, not the least of which were Mrs. Pokhart's, behind her red-rimmed glasses and her fifty million pounds of facial cleaner stuff. There was a notebook folded at the bottom of the pack, which was pretty impressive, Dean thought. There was even a pen, a pencil. Some binder paper with actual writing on it. He vaguely remembered something about, what was it, rectal examinations? No, bacteriology. Irish setters. Labradoodles. All of the above. Jesus christ. He looked up with his signature crooked grin and shrugged.
"I didn't want to be a veterinarian, anyway."
Mrs. Pokhart's lips pursed together so tightly Dean could see the cracks in her lipstick where the foundations were splintering away under the pressure. "Well, then what, pray tell, would you like to be, Mr. Winchester?"
The class tittered. Somehow Dean didn't think it would help take the heat off of him if he gave everyone in the damn room some universal fuck off. Dean rubbed his eyes.
"I hope that long night was spent composing something of utter beauty that you will now share with the class in lieu of your report, Mr. Winchester."
Dean laughed. God, this woman was a riot. She was giving him way too much credit. "Are you sure about that, Mrs. Pokhart?" He looked up at her innocently. "Because it was pretty utterly beautiful, if you know what I mean."
The class tittered again, like some entire universal body of adolescent... well. He had to hand it to them. They were pretty much like they should be. "Utterly beautiful and. Supple. Nubile. Fleshy?"
Mrs. Pokhart reddened. Dean sat back in his desk and tried his best to look like he was about do dominate the hell out of Mrs. Pokhart's lily-white Puritanical ass. Way too much credit. "That will suffice, Mr. Winchester."
"Do I get an A?"
"Mr. Winchester. What, pray tell," she says again, as though she wasn't parroting herself, hadn't just said almost the exact same thing only moments ago. "Are you going to do with your life?"
Dean eyed her defiantly. But suddenly, he's not sure. He's really not. He's going to save people, hunt things. Be a goddamn hero. Be a goddamn hero like his Dad. Dad, who--for all the hell he knew--was off banging some chick, some chick who was Graciela's mother, and hunting evil from underneath semen-soaked sheets, bad room service, and way too many suspicious stains. But what did he know.
"I--" Dean started. The words catch in his throat. Suddenly this hands ache, muscle memory doubling back on the feeling of his pencil jammed between his fingers, before he'd whittled it down to nothing.
Mrs. Pokhart's mouth twitched, and she put her hands to her stomach, like she was trying to keep something from escaping from it. "Continue, Mr. Winchester."
"I don't want to be anything." Dean grabbed his bag, snapping the zipper closed, and slung it over his shoulder. When he moved to rise, however, Mrs. Pokhart stopped him.
"I don't think so, Mr. Winchester. Class isn't over for another 41 minutes by my count."
Again, the class tittered. They really were a bunch of hive-minded aliens. Fuck.
Dean's face felt hot, and a wet, uncomfortable itch worked its way across this shoulders like a ghost's touch. He hunched over his desk and folded his arms across its surface.
Mrs. Pokhart returned to the front of the classroom, but Dean didn't hear a word she said. He was betting not too many of the other dipshits in the room did, either, since they were too busy staring at him. One of the girls in the back row, Cindy Salk, said, "But that's worth half of our entire grade! She wouldn't let him turn it in late, would she? She wouldn't would she?" If Dean thought he could get away with it, he would have turned around and told Cindy Salk that, You know honey, you seem pretty overly concerned, babe. And maybe you should mind your own damn business.
But that seemed like a lot of work that would take a lot of maneuvering to get out of without Mrs. Pokhart giving his father a call home. Woman had a twitchier trigger finger than Jose, strung out and itching for a hunt. And Dean's all too familiar with what happens when a call home goes unanswered for too long, or a notice is sent home and a parent fails to materialize at the school for the meeting. For some reason, that seemed like a shit thing to be getting into over Cindy Salk and not wanting to be a veterinarian when he grew up.
Ernie Something-Polish threw an eraser at Dean's head. Dean ducked nonchalantly, and it hit Mario. Ernie, he really did flip off. But hell, Ernie deserved it. He really did.
Dean jerked his backpack open again, and it made a snapping noise as the stitches tensed. The zipper snagged on itself and only opened halfway, but Dean was able to feed his folded, vaguely water (or is that lighter fluid? Oh, it's definitely lighter fluid-damaged notebook out of the truncated opening, and even the pen, too. It was the one that skipped every fourth letter or whatever, but it's better than nothing. He opened the notebook to the cleanest page he could find and wrote in neat, block print:
HELLO, MY NAME IS DEAN WINCHESTER.
When I grow up, I'm going to be a serial killer.