Kalliel (kalliel) wrote,

[Fic] Childhood III - gen, metaphysical weirdness, John POV; 9x23 tag

Childhood I | Childhood II | Childhood III

Title: Childhood III
Genre: gen, metaphysical weirdness, pre-series (1958-1983), 9x23 "Do You Believe in Miracles?" tag
Characters: John (POV), John's mother (the mechanic from a family of mechanics), Mary, Sam and Dean
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: ~3000
Warnings: use of racial slurs/the Vietnam War/Red Scare rhetoric, reference to suicide (non canon character)
Summary: In the moment between Dean's soul failing to ascend to Heaven, and Dean's soul returning to Earth a demon, John catches it. And, inasmuch as one can speak to an amorphous ball of sound and light and memory, they have a chat.

John holds this soul against his chest, its weight the weight of an infant's, its warmth and its brittle pain. Four pounds isn't much (four pounds, six ounces), but, John's found, it's enough to almost end a marriage. It's enough to make your arms go numb and achy, late at night. It's enough to stop your heart, make you know fear in ways not even war can match. It's enough to fall in love with, and it's enough to remember when it's in your arms again.

The sound of it, however, is mostly something John has never heard before. Once the familiar tones are all exhausted, what he hears, static-filled and whispering, is intransmissible. The sound of a life John either cannot know, or that is never to be.

Souls, when they pass through the Gate, make no sound.

John's been out here long enough to know that. Long enough to discern that Heaven is on other side of that Gate, and to know that it will not be opening for him. He's made his peace with that; after all, this is closer than he thought he'd ever get. And growing up his mother's boy, he'd never believed in Heaven anyway. It's no great loss.

Lately, however, the Gate hasn't been opening at all. The souls come, and they bounce, energetic balls in the quiet vacuum of space. They collect against the walls, and then under his feet. They feel steady beneath him, like marbles, but in the end John is only energy too. He has no weight here.


She shushes him when the broadcast goes quiet, as though his movement will eclipse the all-important crackle of static and radio signal. On their television, something emerges round and luminous, crusty on its surface.

That's us, she tells him. That's Earth.

The Thor missile took a film of us from space.

Aren't we beautiful?

She kisses John's hand, five kisses for five pudgy fingers, but she doesn't take her eyes from the TV set.

It's 1959, and she's dreaming of things bigger than "us," than Earth, the way she always has. Her husband, dear Henry, has been missing for exactly one year.


They're not all quiet, souls. Some tinkle as he wades past them; some cry, or laugh. He can hear in them small universals, people's lives all muted out but for the pieces of human experience that all souls carry (or at least, John carries; not all universals are universal). Grand visions and stupid epiphanies alike. Whatever's legible, even to a stranger like him.

He knows, or he hopes, that Mary is in Heaven. But he imagines if he found her here, wading through this peopled sand, she'd be music--and not quiet at all.

But maybe he's wrong.

Sometimes--very rarely, though John has no reason here but to walk and listen, so listen he does--he hears his sons in the souls at his feet. A crass rejoinder, a whispered commitment. The sound of a body doing whatever it took, which until now John hadn't realized had a noise. When he hears his sons in a soul, that's the sound he hears most often.

Sometimes he'll pick a soul up, Atlas amongst the planets, to try and hear more. Glean details. Produce narratives. John learns the sound of a hug, of gratitude, of trust.

But he also hears screams, in all their many timbres and frequencies.

A soul has no beginning, no end, and there is no way to hear the sounds of a life in order. Still, when the screaming starts and he can hear the bodies of his sons on the edge of that sound, he can't help but know that these are endings. These are failures. And John and John's sons are the reason these souls are here tonight.

In one, John hears, very faintly, Dean's voice shouting "Kevin!" But mostly, he hears Kevin's father, Kevin's mother. Kevin's mother used to read him stories. They resound in his soul like cathedral bells. The cathedral is on fire.


Millie Winchester reads every letter her husband ever sends, and then she burns it. Such was her practice before John learned to read, and would have doubtless been her practice afterward, if the letters hadn't stopped.

Such strange business, she'd always say, folding the paper in thirds again. The letters, fingerprinted black and greasy (she'd been a repairman in the War; he'd been too young to serve. Then he'd gone to school, and she, a mechanic, waited for him), always went up quick in the fire.

Your father is always on such strange business, she'd say, then say no more.

Henry's strange business delighted her very much, John could tell, even when Henry didn't come home for two weeks and John couldn't help but cry for him. Millie Winchester was, and always had been, a Big Picture sort of woman, and she'd only conceptually understood her child's anguish. Henry had stories in him, and if those stories often failed to feature his wife and son, it hadn't much mattered to her. She'd married him for the stories.

You need to be a big boy, she told him. Your father is more than just your father. He's important beyond you.

And so is Millie in her turn, this being her approach to both sides of the coin of parenthood. When she goes out dancing, she isn't anyone's mother; and when Henry turns up gone, and gone forever, she stays no one's wife.

It's not that she isn't loving. She tells him stories when he asks her to, mostly about airplanes and combustion engines and something called ENIAC, which she speaks of often but doesn't know much about. That story changes every time.

Tell me a story from Dad, John asks, and Millie frowns.

They're not mine to tell, she says. Would you like to hear a riddle instead?

John nods, and she says, The river ends at the source.

John knows better than to ask her what that means. But he's six then, and by the time he's fifty, he's imagined as many answers as years.

What do you think it means? John asks his mother one day.

Her lip wavers, and her eyes brim with tears. It's the only time John will ever see his mother cry.

The full reason is just one more riddle Millie will never explain, but John doesn't bring up his father after that.

The next morning, Millie wakes up cheery and loudly and early, and makes John as much french toast as he wants. She dapples everything with fresh strawberries cut into dainty stars and dusted with powdered sugar. He's fifteen, which means that's quite a lot of toast. It is Sunday, July 20, 1969, John remembers clearly, and his mother is singing nothing in particular and though she's dressed for work, not the dance hall, she twirls round and round, leaving sugar and flour like snow on the floor. Like nothing happened.

I love you, fishstick, she croons, as though the words are new lyrics to an old song. Momma will be home in time to make you supper. Aren't you glad it's just the two of us on this big blue planet?

Later that day, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land together on the moon.


No manner of walking nor listening can tell John if his sons are all right. He has no idea how long it's been, though sometimes he can hear age in their voices and he is proud. Then envious, because he thinks, there are folk out there who know more of his sons than he. Who know his boys in ways he never can.

But that was also true before.

Don't wallow, Winchester, he tells himself. These are graves you dug long before time came to lie in one.


Maybe Millie had been sick already, the day John said he'd marry Lara Campbell.

Lara is a year above him, already planning to be a nurse once she graduated. He asked if she she weren't squeamish, what with the blood and guts and all, but she just laughed. Now John knows why.

But back then, he hadn't been able to fathom his mother's fury. Lara is funny, and beautiful; and above all, sophisticated. And she's going to be a nurse, John repeated, emphatic to the point of comedy, because his mother the mechanic, from a family of mechanics, always loved an honest working girl. She should be joyous.

That family is not for us, his mother says, lips bloodlessly tight.

You stay away from the Campbell girls.

Why? he shouts.

And Millie says, Ask your father. She says it so many times John can't tell if she's kidding or not.

I think my mother's going crazy, John tells Lara.

Your mother's always been crazy, says Lara. Lara believes the moon landing is a hoax, and she's afraid of the Soviet Union.

She used to draw this on my hand, when my dad went away, John says, and hands Lara a napkin. Keeps drawing them everywhere now. She doesn't like you, by the way.

Lara pales.

Do you know what this is? she asks him.

And John says, Obviously. It's a star.


Maybe they're married--Sam, Dean, and their Mrs. Winchesters. Or Sam, at least. John never did meet Jess, but he'd read enough to mourn her. She'd had eighteen separate obituaries written for her, in twenty different papers. Jessica Lee Moore had been dearly missed by many. For Sam to have led the pack, he must have had a passionate love indeed.

But the voices John always hears loudest, and most often, are Sam and Dean's together. Sam and Dean, roaring in the background of someone else's memories.

He's glad, at least, that they have each other.

Beyond that, John doesn't know the life he wishes for his sons. He's tried to pick that apart, eviscerate desire and try to understand its pieces, but he just doesn't know. He doesn't know them, doesn't know what they want. Maybe Dean had wanted to die that night, though he'd pleaded, dad, don't kill me. Maybe there's a tipping point where time comes you say yes.

A deal with a demon only tempts bitterer fates, in the end.

John finds a soul that thinks Sam's dying.

John's not sure how old the sound is, how long it's been rattling and echoing around, but he hopes it's old. He's already heard that sound before, the polka-like jitter of Sam's life in peril. He heard it many miles of souls ago (they're accruing fast--they're up to his thighs now, thick like water), and he doesn't want to believe Sam's had to die twice.

He doesn't want Sam to die at all. But you would have killed him if you'd had to, he thinks to himself, though he doesn't linger on the prospect long.

That's one of the perks of dying, after all. There are things he'll never have to know about himself.


John and Lara are not to be. She's a nurse, and then she's a nurse on a plane, in the Air Force; and then she's in Vietnam. At this point, John's still in Algebra class, feeling young and stupid. There, he meets Mary, Lara's cousin. They fuck one night under the bleachers.

But then John's in Vietnam, too. Were he the praying type, which he's not, he'd pray he doesn't see Lara--not after what all him and Mary did. The thought scares him more than any Charlie, dink, or gook.

Lara doesn't actually make it home.

By the time John does, he's already been wired the news: Millie's gone, too. She sailed a Shelby coupe into the Kaw. Official cause of death is drowning, and official cause of the cause is mechanical failure. But John knows Millie's brakes don't fail. That car went exactly where she wanted it to.

You should have helped her, John screams at himself, his plane still halfway across the Pacific. But what could he have done? All John learned growing up was how to pretend hurt out of existence, and to think instead of a world beyond small heartbreaks. Giant luminous planets and trim satellites and long, big stories silent in the vacuum of space. In this, he is very much his mother's son.

In April, John and Mary marry. The ceremony is orphan-small.


A new soul rips across the sky, explosive and violence-sent. All the souls with hard deaths do that, and initially John pays it no mind. But this one clatters when it hits the Gate, like pennies in a Coke machine, or a crowbar thrumming against a wrought-iron fence. It takes the Gate at a spin and ricochets like a wild, feral thing.

John dives for it. He nudges up against all the usual sounds, warbling and wailing, souls like lossless records of human milestones and tragedies and romance. But the moment he has this new one in his hands, John knows it.

It's hot, fresh from a body. Screaming and swearing like the devil's newborn. John can't understand a word of it; for a moment it's just the horrible, fiery alien thing.

Then John hears the rev of a motor. A blade against a whetstone, the sound of that crowbar again, agains the fence--coupled with a child's tinkling laughter. The screech of small bodies hitting cold water. Sugar-fueled jubilation. Arms breaking, teeth chipping, hearts soaring, music blaring; the refusal of tears; the sound of them anyway; the clatter of fear; of longing; arias of desperation, dirges heavy with betrayal, disappointment. Sam's name, again and again and again. Curses John hasn't heard anywhere but Hell. Sam's name. A TV jingle. The theme song to M*A*S*H. Sam's name. Then radio silence--so complete it's like a piece of this soul's been cut clean out of it, leaving only darkness and mute scars. The soul quivers.

John closes his fingers that aren't fingers around it--it burns, it's burning--and brings it to his chest. He's afraid it will puncture, or spill. Someone tells him to support its neck.

There we go, says the voice. Say goodnight to your brother.

The advice is not for John. Souls do not have necks. John cradles pure light and sound in his hands, only light and sound themselves, and tries not to break anything. Not this time.

He's afraid it's not what he thinks it is. He's afraid that it is.


Amniocentesis, John repeats. I want you to have one.

When it's John's turn to be pregnant, says Mary, he can do whatever he wants. That's what Mary plans to do. What do want with that test, anyway?

John's not sure, exactly, what he wants with that test. He wants to know what's out there, maybe. He doesn't want his head in the sand.

Mary softens then. So John says, he just wants to know if anything runs in the family. If there's something--some secret thing--they should be worried about.

It's the wrong thing to say.

There's nothing in the family, Mary replies instantly, that fleeting softness no longer anywhere apparent. The family is fine.

Maybe yours, says John.

If you want to know if our child's going to drive his car into a lake, Mary snaps, I don't think there's a gene for that. I'm not doing the test.

Mary can be very cruel when she's upset.

John doesn't correct her, but to himself, he thinks, it was a river, not a lake. Rivers can mean many things.

A few months later, Dean is born early--not too much, not really, but enough to put the fear of God in Mary and the fear of his mother in John. In the NICU, they hold each other, John's arms tight around Mary and her hands clasped in prayer.

Angels, she promises. Angels are watching.

John looks at his son, swollen and purple, a small and perilous life, and is glad Mary wouldn't do the test.

Of course, when it is time for Sam, Dean is strong and healthy and Mary has forgotten to be afraid. So has John.

On September 26, 1983, two Russians manning the T-10-1 narrowly avoid incineration. Millie hadn't been anywhere near as interested in the Soviets as in the Americans, of course, but John feels like she would have wanted to know. He means to visit her, leave flowers, but Mary doesn't like it when he drags their children to graveyards, and they're fighting too much as it is. Maybe they shouldn't have had kids. They were never meant to be parents.

Then it's morning on November third.


John holds this soul against his chest, its weight the weight of an infant's, its warmth and its brittle pain. Four pounds isn't much (four pounds, six ounces), but, John's found, it's enough to almost end a marriage. It's enough to make your arms go numb and achy, late at night. It's enough to stop your heart, make you know fear in ways not even war can match. It's enough to fall in love with, and it's enough to remember when it's in your arms again.

The sound of it, this small and perilous soul, is mostly something John has never heard before. The familiar tones are all exhausted, and what he hears now, static-filled and whispering, is intransmissible. The sound of a life John either cannot know, or that is never to be. He cradles it gently.

But the soul is spoiling, going dull and then purple, black at the edges. Going still and quiet. Just going.

John can feel the panic of that break inside him in cold shards. For one insane moment, he has this notion that he'll lob it over the Gate like a baseball, or a grenade. He'll send it to Heaven and Mary will be there to catch it.

But he doesn't move, and slowly the soul loses the shape of itself, all its light and sound, and it begins to dribble through John's fingers, down his legs. There is only one thing that he can do now, and it is to be here--just be, the way he's been all this time, the only thing there is to do on this side of the Gate, this side of the world. Just be, in a way he never quite mastered on Earth.

John does his best to be here for his son.

He watches as the soul tapers downward, thin and black, like a river without stars.

He holds it until it goes, is gone.

He could break, just then.

He watches Dean go. Slip through his fingers again, yet again. Maybe he's meant to, like a child growing up; maybe he's not, a life sputtering out. It's hard to know when to catch, when to release. But he knows what he saw, that black quiet soul, and it was dark and lonely.

What happened?

What happened to you? What did you do?

How did this happen?

John is so transfixed by the silence of Dean's going that he almost misses the clangor of the Gate, opening for the first time in what feels like eternity. Heaven is opening. The rest of the souls, like dust against an air vent, push ever-dutifully inward.

John looks down at his hands. There's not much left--just a smear of memory, familiar and greasy. But if he brings his hands to his ears, maybe he'll hear it. Like a river in a seashell.

The sound of a body doing whatever it takes.

Childhood I | Childhood II | Childhood III
Tags: fic: spn

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