"And there it is--living fucking proof you'll complain about the radio no matter what."
"It's literally static. Of course I'm gonna complain."
Sam's probably giving you some kind of eye, but it's dark and you feel like shit. You're driving like shit, too.
You keep your eyes on the road and you say, very simply, "Driver picks."
Then you hack up a lung.
"That's getting worse," says Sam, and you have to agree. Wordless at first, because your throat's still recovering from the guttural equivalent of having sideswept a Jersey barrier.
Then you say, "Had to happen sometime," and cough again.
"Yeah, but like. Just in the last hour, it's worse," says Sam. "I thought you said you were getting better."
You were. Now you aren't. The planet may be a few cosmic entities lighter than it was last year, but that doesn't make it any less a complicated place.
Right now, your brains feels liquid in a way that won't let it stop imagining what would happen if you veered suddenly left, a sharp 90 off the straightaway.
Not because of some obstacle, like a ghost in the road. Or--rarer--a deer. Not in some sick haze. (You're not that sick.)
You're just thinking. It's just you and your headlights out here, as usual, and this is the way you think. It's innocent enough.
"I should probably make an appointment--drop by a clinic or something," Sam says.
"Fuck," you say. The word hums at the back of your throat, itchy. You try not to cough, but you do.
"I mean, it doesn't hurt--not bad," Sam assures you. "I just--you know. I don't want to fuck it up again. For some reason, I'm kind of attached to my full range of motion."
"Some reason," you agree.
"Focus," Sam replies. His hand shoots out to grab the wheel, but he changes his mind, and touches your elbow gently instead.
You've been listing left. Not the way you'd imagined--where you'd go hard and sudden. But left enough. He's going to start worrying about you soon. He's always worried about you, though.
"Do we have milk?" Sam asks. He rattles off more groceries.
He does this sometimes--lets his To Do list sink into the air between you, comfortably dull at 4am, witching hour. There are worse things to be thinking about at 4am. Knowing this, it's hard to know whether you should be annoyed with him or not.
Part of you wants him to shut up, let the darkness (little d) rise up, do its thing. Get you down the road, let you disappear a little. Let you disappear a lot.
Part of you kind of likes buying toilet paper.
You should clarify. You don't actually want to drive off the road, and definitely not with Sam in the car. Over the years, the whole Thelma and Louise thing has been on and off your bucket list, but you've come too close, too often, and imagery be damned, you keep remembering that feels like shit.
(And what would your mother think? Because that's a thing you suppose you'd need to ask now. But your mother's probably in a stolen roll-top staring down a canyon as you speak--taken in by the thousand million stars and souls in the sky. One of them is your father's.)
You don't want to drive off the road. If you met any of your past selves, you'd probably shoot him, though. Just on principle.
And where do you think you're going? ...Seriously? Why aren't you her baby any more? How dare you.
You roll your eyes at yourself. Fucking maudlin.
Sam reaches for the radio dial. You can't see him, but a soft groan escapes him, pain and stiffness fighting his reach.
You've stopped going for your gun before you've quite realized you were going for it at all, but that's not quick enough.
You hear Sam lurch back into his seat, leave the radio be, but other than that he's disgustingly unperturbed. Like he realizes but doesn't realize that you almost killed him over radio static. (That's how driving feels. Throwing yourself off the road. You'd never really do it, but the idea hangs around like any other casual, hypothetical execution. For a moment you thought it, it was real. It's a future that will never happen, but for that split-second, it was real.)
The adrenaline ticks through you. In that instant, you love him.
You want to throw your arms around him, even though these days you have to raise your heels up, just a little, to keep your chin from slamming into his goddamn trapezi(uses? trapezii? fuck it). You want your fingers to press until they find purchase on Sam's shirt, his back leaping under your palms as he pulls you tight. You just want to feel him, solid, vibrating, breathing through his nose and holding, the way he does--like he needs to make sure you're breathing, too. His shirt, sweat-damp. His arms hot where they wrap you, but mostly at your back. Your brother's giant, sweaty, furnace hands.
You love him.
When you cough, it feels like there's another body weighing on your chest. But that really doesn't feel as good as you'd hoped.
"If we keep going--" you rasp, have to clear your throat. Which you thought was the point of coughing, but what do you know. "--could hit a clinic in Lincoln, maybe, just at opening. Get you checked out."
Sam doesn't say anything at first. The radio static overwhelms whatever reticent sigh you're sure he offered.
"I don't wanna go to Lincoln," he says. "Not tonight."
"Well, Lincoln don't get out of bed and come to you," you say.
Then you hear it.
Nestled somewhere in the static, there's a harmony. A word, then another. You're coming in range. A lyric. A chord. A chord progression. A song. It hops its last canyon and blares out full volume, all-consuming. You've got fifty miles, give or take; it's a station out of Red Cloud. It's the first time in over thirty years you've felt like having a radio pre-set made any kind of sense.
"Dean," Sam says. Just your name. There's no additional clause wrapped up in his inflection, no long treatise. Just your name.
Dean, you think to yourself. You say it the way Sam did.
You feel like you're addressing a stranger. Sam's way better at this.
But you have your radio pre-set. You have your brother. And Dean, you say. Dean Winchester?
You're almost home.
It happens when you reach for the wheel. Dean's not paying enough attention, his head off in some distant, gymnastic battleground that is not this road you're driving. Were he anyone else, he shouldn't have been driving at all. But he's him and you're you, and if you stop him, you'll never get home. If you wait for conditions to improve, you will never get home.
Case in point: When you reach for the wheel, you have what they call an out-of-body experience. This doesn't bother you much. A week from now, you probably won't even remember it. Because you're you.
But in this moment, you reach for the wheel and you're driving. Dean's riding shotgun, mouth full of flashlight, map spanning accordion-like between his knees. The way his hand is angled, pushing the folds down in the middle, his ratty bracelets cast dark arcs across the Plains. Then you hesitate, pull back from the wheel and nick his elbow instead. A knot tumbles down your spine at the touch. Your swollen shoulder twinges again.
Or maybe you twinge it.
Knees and flashlights tumble out of play when the pain kicks in, and you welcome it. Then you feel guilty about it, and you feel guilty about it, and you're not even sure why. You really will need that clinic, though--it's starting to feel a whole lot like your elbow last year, but higher up in your chain of motion. (And if your distractions are true, are they really distractions?)
"Do we have milk?" You ask suddenly. You know there's still cereal left. "I think we need toilet paper, too. Maybe batteries?"
"We need booze."
Of course you do. You always do. You're surprised he's volunteered anything, though. He hates it when you do this; he'd rather just leave you a list.
Dean coughs, weak and skidding, like he's spent the last few minutes trying not to. Because he's had you listening to static on the radio for ten straight minutes, you'd assumed that meant he'd wanted to talk. But maybe he doesn't.
Suddenly, you miss him forcefully.
In stupid ways, like the way his tongue would play at the cord that sprouted from the butt of that flashlight, endlessly coiling and uncoiling it behind his teeth--probably the only reason you even owned that flashlight--no longer than the palm of your hand, but thick as a sausage--was because Dean could fit it in his goddamn mouth--or the way Dean's knee kept jogging, and he kept it jogging, even though it made the map twitch and jump, joined the frenetic motion of the flashlight upon it as you hit gaping potholes--
In stupid ways.
It's just-- You miss the urgency of his presence. Maybe. If that's a thing. It's just that sometimes it feels like Dean's only around because he hasn't bothered to make other plans. That sometimes is now, it was last week. Last year. You're not sure that you'd really want him to make plans--actually, you're pretty sure you don't; can you trust him? good plans are harder than bad ones--but when you start missing flashlights and analog maps, when you miss your brother even though he's close enough to touch (you touched him), you know to keep your mouth shut. You're not doing any better than he is.
Maybe you could get your phone out, pull up Waze. Turn the screen brightness down, like a palm-sized flashlight. But it's not the same thing. And you already know you're on 36. You're still listening to Kansas static.
And anyway, you're probably the least nostalgic person you know. Maybe you've been told too many times your past isn't yours to keep.
You've always been the kind of guy to go after things that you can't have--and in most ways, you still are--but you and your past? That's different. You're not sure you want it. And if you don't want the thing you can't have, the whole premise of nostalgia breaks down. Even though flashlights. Even though maps. Even though Dean.
Maybe because of Dean. You know he doesn't need another person missing someone that he used to be. You don't think you do, really. You just want him to be happy. That's what you want.
More specifically, you want him to want to be happy, and that specificity is critical. It'd be stupid to say that Dean is never happy--there was that thing with the spaghetti. The hats those guys were wearing--the ones in the El Camino, in Sebastopol. You could name a hundred things. And morose self-destruction isn't exactly just the latest hit on Dean's Top 40. He isn't some dramatic paradigm shift. He talks more than he used to, but means less of it. He jabbers less, though--but all that meant nothing then and still means nothing now.
He knows you better. He maybe wants you less.
When you try to be reasonable about this, you know this is probably a good thing; want begets insanity. But when you're realistic about this, though, you know it doesn't matter. Dean will do crazy things for you whether he actively wants to or not. It's like actions are tripwires, and those are good and set. And those aren't the things you miss, nor the thing you want. When you don't try to be anything in particular about this, you just want your brother.
You reach for the radio dial, because you can't stand the static, its metaphor dancing too nakedly in your head; it's annoying. Then you have your second out-of-body experience in twenty minutes.
This time you're on the road, headlights hurtling toward you.
Dean doesn't slam on the brakes, but he yanks his foot from the gas, and at the speed you're going, that's basically the same thing. Every unexpected motion of the wheel and variation in acceleration rips the wheels from the pavement and threatens disaster. He doesn't even have both hands on the wheel.
Then you're in the car again, Dean reaching away from his gun and back to the wheel. You wonder if he saw you out there. He went for his gun.
So sure, you want Dean to want things. But you also want to get home in one piece. You may need to re-prioritize for now.
He says something about Lincoln, Nebraska, so you say something about fuck Lincoln, Nebraska; and of course he makes some insinuation about you fucking Lincoln, Nebraska, which makes no sense at all but almost doesn't need to. And then, at the height of all this, another voice chimes in--someone not you, or Dean, or any variation thereof. You beyond your body, for instance, or Dean out of time. It's the radio, singing something folksy and wretched and pretty standard Kansas. You're surprised by how grainy it sounds, even when the static whisks away and you have full-blown, unadulterated Great Plains reception for miles and miles and miles. (Lossless AIFFs have spoiled you.) It's music, even if it's shitty music--static turned music because, you realize, Dean hit a pre-set and in the fifty miles you've rambled, now you're home, or almost. You are almost home. It feels horrible and wonderful, but more than anything it feels like right now. Right here--which isn't anywhere, but almost is.
"Dean," you start. But you're not sure there's more to add.
Right now, it's all you need.