They're doing this by the book. Those are Dean’s words.
Because they found some pins.
“No ghost I know of,” Dean says. “Mackie always locked down tight. Salt lines, hex bags--the works,” he says.
Let's do this by the book, he says.
They’ve retreated to the possum room, and Dean’s actually taking notes. On a napkin, sure, but they're still notes.
“Maybe he locked the ghost in with him. Put the salt lines down too late and, ended up in a cage match with a ghost, instead,” Sam points out, and Dean frowns. Draws a new column on his napkin.
“That would be ironic,” Dean mutters, pen between his teeth.
Sam offers another possibility. Then another.
They go on like this for some time, Sam listing and Dean logging--a lonely game of 140 questions, with no player who knows the answer. It feels agonizingly slow, with the time it’s taking Dean to scrawl his stupid notes.
Frankly, it's driving Sam insane.
It’s Dad’s method, this thoroughness. It’s the way Sam was trained. And while it probably has its benefits--at least, if you’re learning; or if you’re tracking something big, like whatever killed Mom--to Sam it feels a lot like showing your work when you’re more than capable of doing the mental math.
That’s not really Sam’s style--much to the eternal chagrin of his calculus TA--and Sam’s never really figured it for Dean’s, either. Dean knows Dad’s journal backward, but as far as Sam knows, he hasn’t added anything of his own. Not about that demon on the airplane; and not about skinwalkers, or skinwalker mindmelds. Definitely nothing about Kansas--poltergeists and Mary. Nor reapers.
But he’s logged a napkin’s worth of Sam’s bullshit suggestions just now--even the ones so off-base Sam’s embarrassed he mentioned them. Hell, Sam brought up bax’aan just for the hell of it and Dean didn’t even field the joke. He just wrote it down with all the rest.
"I saw a glimmer. I think. Maybe," Sam offers.
Dean dutifully writes down "glimmer," and that's the last straw.
“Are you kidding me right now? You’re uh, kind of phoning it in, dude,” Sam says finally. "Especially for someone suddenly so intent on professionalism."
Dean’s chewing on his pen again. But even accounting for this impediment, he still answers half a beat too slow. Something about how Sam’s one to talk, since they’re still waiting on College Boy’s genius epiphany. Which is arch, but it suffers on delivery, flat and listless.
On closer scrutiny, Dean doesn’t really seem… Dean's not right. Sam’s not sure how someone can seem blurry--Sam’s vision’s just fine--but that’s what Dean is right now. Blurry and deflated.
He’s staring at the grid he’s made on his napkin, but he doesn’t seem to be getting much out of it. Not that there’s much to get--but that’s the thing. Dean should see that, and he doesn’t. Sam could have told him that an hour ago, but Dean’s brain doesn’t seem to have hit that rung yet.
“Hey, what’s up with you?” Sam asks.
“I feel like shit. Shut up. I’m thinking.”
Dean keeps staring at his napkin.
Now that Sam's looking for the signs, Dean's eyes stand out pink against the eggshell green of his skin--and it's not just the sheen of the room. His focus is buoyed loosely to the note; it bobs waveringly around the words in place of actually reading them.
“Yeah, we got bupkis,” Dean finishes eventually.
“Oh really?” says Sam, in mock surprise. And then, affectation vanished: “Are you in pain?”
“No. That’s why I feel like shit,” Dean replies. And he clarifies, “I told you already. Those shit painkillers are pieces of shit.”
“I really don’t think the side effects are supposed to be that intense. The stuff's not exactly morphine, you know?"
Dean's brain reaches for something, so slowly Sam can practically watch the brain cells stretch, but Dean must lose patience because all he comes up with is, "Okay."
"You seem really sick."
"Oh, for fuck's sake; we're not playing charades. I already told you what the issue was."
It's Sam's turn to clarify: Dean's sick, and it's fucking scary. Because yeah, maybe this is par for the course for them, but maybe Sam's hit a point in his life where a shot rings out and Sam just assumes it's hit his stomach. Or his brother. You would have died, he wants to shout. He's helpless against the thought. He sees reapers, or imagines them. They look like the dark rush of river slush in Idaho at midnight, like the shadows pooling under Dean's eyes now.
And maybe it's a boon that Dean's so out of it, because it means Sam doesn't feel bothered to tiptoe around the barbs, the jokes, the moats and castles. He just says, "You shouldn't be taking those."
It's this intense conviction, sudden onset. Sam can't put a finger on exactly why, but there's something about Dean, or the sluggish mess they're in, or the bullshit case they're working, or Dean, or Dean, or Dean, that Sam can't stand. Like an itch in his bones. Sam's tired of seeing warning bells and failing to act on them. He can't lose someone like that again.
"Dean, this isn't--"
"I said I feel like shit, not like I'm dying. There's a difference. It's fine."
Sam runs his tongue hard against the front of his teeth, then bites. Wants to draw blood. Then he says, very calmly, "Last I checked, no one went to med school here; we have no way of knowing that."
"Well, I mean. I've got like, at least half a diploma in death and dying, right? Or work experience, volunteer hours, or something--" He shoots Sam a wide, dumb smile.
"Dean, I'm serious."
Dean looks away. He wads his napkin, but there’s nowhere to throw it--and in any case, it doesn’t have the heft to fly. He lets it wander down to the ground--to feed the possum, maybe.
“Well, put that in Joe Cool’s chart next time, then,” he says eventually. "But right now it's the only game in town. This isn't exactly my idea of a good time, either."
“Josiah Burkovitz,” Sam corrects. "It needs to go on Josiah Burkovitz's chart."
“Yours! Two weeks ago. Electrocution, heart attack. Ringing any bells?”
“And you remember the name?”
“It was--” Sam starts. “It was you; and you were gonna die; and as far as the morgue was concerned, that was gonna be your name on your toe tag. So yeah, I remember. But the point is, this just isn’t--”
This isn’t going to work. Not if they plan on seeing the next decade. If this is seriously what they’re going to do--save people, hunt things, avenge dead guys with lives that can fit inside a single backpack--this isn’t going to work.
Meds and hospitals can’t feel just as much like cheating death as the bullshit that brought them there. They can’t go into this, no quarter. They can’t just guess their way into a degree in orthopedic medicine; they can’t just play with painkillers, like wizards in potions class. They can’t just wander in and out of the imaginary strongholds of HMOs and Joe Cool’s patient history. You only get so many Hail Marys, and Sam's pretty sure they left theirs back in that river, soggy and overtaxed.
But Dean looks at Sam and Sam looks at Dean and he thinks, what else are they gonna do?
"You get why this is important to me, right? Like--"
"Sorry," Dean says. "We gotta work this case. And I can't-- I don't think I can handle--"
"Is that what you call this? Working?" Sam cuts in. He gestures to Dean's balled up notes. If Dean needs a cheat sheet to keep their dumb ideas in his head long enough to rule them out, this isn't going to go well.
That hits a nerve, Sam knows, but it's almost reassuring. At least that feels familiar.
Dean closes his eyes. Sam's not sure if that's Dean's way of finishing the argument or what, until Dean finally says, "What if there is something out there, huh? More people could die. Or even if there isn't, we'd freeze to death before fucking pain relief could off me; and if we fuck this up, I at least wanna be able to gimp the fuck out of Dodge. Okay?"
Sam whips his gaze to the window. It's snowing again.
"Okay?" Dean repeats, as though saying something louder was the same as saying something better.
“Forget I said anything," Sam punches out, each syllable its own stiff typewriter key. "I’m gonna dig into the local history, see what’s what. I need to clear my head.”
He pulls the pill bottle out of Dean’s jacket, the crumpled mess he’d been sitting on, and doesn’t make a recommendation one way or the other. He salts the door and window. And when Dean’s pockets do not immediately reveal the Impala’s keys, Sam takes the whole jacket. Dean shouldn't be going anywhere anyway.
“I’m gonna dig into the local history,” Sam says again, hand on the doorknob. "I want this done. Like, now."
Dean scoffs. He doesn't say anything about the hopefulness of Sam's timeline. Just, “Local history, huh? Where exactly do you think we are?”
Once Sam’s actually on the road, he sees what Dean meant.
This is no town, and there are no locals.
Last night, Sam had envisioned some settlement cloaked in darkness, just over the next hill, or the next. There’s nothing out here, though, but for a horizon of slate and the gray gnarl of road-splattered snow on the embankments. Everything is still and silent, and even the potholes seem seem more entrenched, filled with standing water that’s dark and matte in the absence of sun, the clouds thick overhead. The kind of place you could choke on.
Even “strip mall” is glorifying, Sam thinks as he loops back around to the motel. It's certainly not a mall and there's not really much strip. There’s a restaurant, singular. A grocery. A bar. The most impressive thing is the gas station, which frankly doesn’t raise Sam’s hopes. If it were one of those dinky above-ground sorts of operations--the kind that belong to small towns and are designed purely to tide over wayward gas tanks--then he’d feel better. But this gas station is outfitted to service any truck that passed through. There isn't some larger mecca of civilization nearby--this is it.
This is what qualifies.
So much for local history, then, Sam supposes. God knows how far they are from the county seat--or what county this even is. After the bax'aan, they'd basically just a direction and gone.
Sam spent eighteen years on the road and he's still not sure how the United States can possibly have this much empty. Half the country feels like pockets of desolate mirage, while the other half's off building superprocessors in 200-story silicon castles.
It shouldn't be this easy to drop off the map.
Absently, Sam cruises past the mall one more time and retraces Dean’s steps. The restaurant is Chinese (and doubles as a laundry, Sam notes with a tinge of historical shame). Doughnuts, also Chinese. Sandwiches and pies, courtesy of the gas station--there’s an advertisement in the window. The rest, Sam assumes, is bar food, though he can’t place the dolmas. He’s not sure if that’s a good enough reason to start researching Greek monsters.
There’s no library to hole up in, no families in trouble. No mysterious patterns, concerned citizens. No civilians. Sam’s not even sure how many rooms their motel even has--there can’t be more than three or four, and one of those might be storage.
All they’ve got is a dead hunter and a carpet full of pins.
The Impala’s fuel gauge is fluttering around empty, thready and sickly uncertain, so Sam rolls up to a gas pump and reaches over to grab Dean’s wallet from his jacket.
He tries the credit card first, but when Dean said “maxed” the other day he meant it; the machine spits it out like the cheap plastic it is. The other cards are all expired.
Sam swallows. That doesn't settle well in his stomach.
He flips quickly through the rest of the wallet's contents.
Dean’s carrying at least five different punch cards for various businesses--one of which is a coffee kiosk in Dillon, Montana, which strikes Sam as a bit ridiculous.
Otherwise, there are some old receipts, and the note Dean had written about Burkitsville, the last time they’d heard from John. No real money, though. A few world-weary ones. Four dimes and three pennies.
Sam digs back into Dean’s pocket. There’d been a place where the lining had frayed, creating a second pocket of sorts; this is where Sam had ultimately located the car keys.
There he also finds a bill, wound tightly around a disfigured paper clip. It looks like an old hundred.
Someone clearly had some time on his hands, Sam thinks. He doesn’t unwind it.
There’s probably some cash stashed in the car somewhere, Sam assures himself. Probably. Still, he's getting the uncomfortable impression that plus or minus some loose change, their collective life savings is spooled around a paper clip.
Sam rubs the pennies.
This is your safety net, he thinks. And it's strangling you.
Sam frowns, and his hands float to his own pockets. They’re empty, for the most part. (Back in Palo Alto, Sam had spent a bewildering amount of time negotiating with his landlord about their lack of renter’s insurance, which seemed like a stupid way to complement his mourning. The first thing he'd done after he'd slammed the door to the rental manager's office was tell Dean it was his job to fund the revenge bus. All Dean had said then was, "Dude, she's not a bus.")
Sam’s still got Mackie’s fifty.
Fifty-seven, Sam corrects, as he feathers out the bills.
So he fills the Impala halfway, pockets the change, and ends up weirdly proud of the way he coasts her back into the motel parking lot without turning the ignition.
Back in the parking lot, Mackie’s Taurus wagon is obvious, now that the police and the ambulance are gone.
(And where had they even come from? Who’d paid for that? Sam wonders.)
"Thanks for the cash, man," Sam says to the tires as he passes, and feels stupid, but he figures they owe the guy at least that much.
Then again, now they're stuck with his hunt, and Dean's hurt, and Dean's an idiot, so maybe Sam doesn't owe him shit.
Sam scrapes his sleeve across the driver’s side window, snow sloughing off in chunks.
“What the hell were you hunting?” Sam murmurs as he slips inside.
The car doesn't answer, but it smells like an ashtray. Which is odd, because Mackie's room hadn’t. Or at least, no more than your average fleabag motel.
Sam hadn’t found any cigarettes with Mackie’s effects, so maybe he’d been trying to quit. Or he just hadn't had time to light up.
Clue or no clue? Sam asks himself. But in the end, he adds the anomaly to the crap pile, just like everything else. It's all smoke and mirrors. What he'd like is a big folder with "GLIMMER: FULL DETAILS INSIDE" printed on the front.
Sam drums his knuckles on the dashboard, biting his lip. Part of him screams, and part of him rallies: FUCK THIS. NO, KEEP GOING. And a third part whispers, You missed this, didn't you. Doing this kind of work. You've always--
Sam stops drumming.
There’s another Polaroid, clipped to the sun visor. Same woman as the last, though in this one both she and Mackie look significantly drunker. It's reassuring to Sam that this is not the version Mackie chose to take to bed.
There’s a disassembled gun riding--well, shotgun. Sam chuffs. Sprinkled atop it are several empty packets, which once held sewing pins. That's half-useful, at least--the pins are definitely Mackie's. He was using them for something. And apparently, he's not a great planner. Why take them out of the packaging before going inside? That's stupid.
But Sam breathes in the smell of smoke, and maybe Mackie's just the kind of man who was used to doing secret things outside, before coming back home.
Sam half expects to find a shoebox of mullet rock somewhere--and all the other trappings of home--but there’s nothing. A few ratty blankets and tarps. Some ammo boxes, crushed and empty. Sam thanks God for hatchbacks and climbs into the backseat, but the trunk is no more revealing. Even after Sam pulls up the floor of the trunk and quests around the spare, there’s nothing remarkable. Not even a weapons cache. Just some battery-powered flares and a reflective vest.
Not a career hunter, then. So, what? Part-time hunter, part-time ground control? Nothing adds up; it’s like the guy zeroed out and just wound up here.
Sam blows warmth over his hands, knuckles scraped dry and white against Mackie's dash.
He takes a deep breath. It puffs out white.
Before he confesses defeat, Sam plucks the Polaroid out of the visor and stuffs it in his pocket with the remnants of Mackie’s cash; it’s all he’s got to go on.
Mackie Sutherland. End of the line. No apparent job in progress. Pins on the floor.
He's just another dead guy.
When the day comes, Sam knows that's how he and Dean are gonna end up, too. Because deep down, Sam knows: It's exactly this easy to drop off the map. If no one comes looking for you, then that's it.