Title: Play It Again
Characters: Sam (POV), Dean
Word count: ~10k
Warnings: Some endings imply main character death.
Summary: This is not an adventure, but you can make choices. Choose Your Own Adventure riff on mid-S1.
(Maybe you don't always end up here. But riddle me this: What's so great about "over there"? Don't you like your brother, Sam?)
Author's Notes: My prompt was, "Sam and Dean get into a huge fight. Dean takes the impala and as he drives off gets into a car crash. The rest of the fall out is up to you!" Written for
2. Also, this game is optimized for a 2560x1600px screen. If your screen resolution is larger, consider making your window smaller--otherwise you might see the man behind the green curtain!
3. Want a do-over? Simply clicking "Back" on your browser will return you to your previous crossroads!
By the time you stop the car, you're angrier with yourself than you are with Dean. You'd planned to bail off I-90 in Chicago, wind up at O'Hare to book your one-way to Sacramento before Dean could even think to protest otherwise. It seemed like the destined kind of thing to do--it can't have been a coincidence that Dad called from one of the few area codes you'd even recognize. That's just fate, right? Besides, apparently you're psychic now. You can dream the future. You figure if you have to have a destiny you're the kind of person who will meet it head on.
Then you don't.
You watch 90 wander into 49, then 30, and then the darkness is complete, broken only by the stupefying brightness of the naked, spindly trees serially caught in your headlights. You don't know what you'd thought, why you'd hesitated. It was your foot on the gas but it still hadn't felt like your call. You're halfway to Bumfuck, Indiana before you change your mind again.
You're gonna meet this head on.
"This selfish bastard is going to California," you retort, defiant.
Dean doesn't believe you. He's angry when you don't back down and turn away, when you start walking. He's also stunned; he didn't think you'd really leave him. For someone who guilt-trips like abandonment is pocket aces, you'd think he'd have primed himself to see this coming.
To Dean's credit, he doesn't play chicken. Once he's in the car he doesn't wait for you to come back running, just takes off. He knows you at least that well.
For April in Indiana, it's bright and clear. Your breath puffs white and your fingers are already tingling. If you walk fast enough, maybe you'll still be able to feel your toes when this is over.
It's been two hours, max, when your phone rings, and you think maybe Dean plays chicken after all. More to the point, Dean loses.
> Pick up.
> Ignore it.
You pick up. You're not even halfway through his name, single syllable that it is, when the line goes dead. The screen reads 00:03. You were connected for three seconds. It probably took the call longer to dial out than it did for Dean to change his mind.
You walk. You walk and you walk, until you realize to your dismay that Dean has both of the credit cards. By nefarious design or simple happenstance (you were together; you were supposed to stay together) you're not sure. Either way, now you can't afford a plane ticket, so you forego Chicago. You end up at a small-town bus terminal which is actually a parking lot, a rustbelt waypoint distinguished not by buildings or amenities but by the fact that there are other people waiting for a bus, and that bus isn't here.
"Fuckin' Megabus," a man with a fade and a bright orange puffy coat mutters. It is April, it is morning, and people have places to be. It might be another two hours or twelve; the Megabus rep isn't sure. The bus that was supposed to come experienced a "catastrophic failure," whatever that's supposed to mean.
You imagine stepping off the bus in Sacramento, in the full heat of California spring, to news of a house fire that had begun twelve hours before. Rumor has it, it started on the ceiling. There was a body up there. Adult male, otherwise unidentified. He had dog tags, military-style, but with the name carved off, some kind of satanic symbol etched on instead. He'd been alive twelve hours ago and now he was gone.
"Come with me," says a girl, breaking your reverie. Blonde, pixie-cut--you'd spoken before. She'd laughed in your face and told you to watch it--you might be some kind of freak and how's she supposed to know if she can trust you or not?
"Jesus, Sam, I didn't mean it. It's a Megabus stop--that's what you're supposed to say when I'm me and you're, well…" She trails off, gestures at your Carhartt, the fact you look like you haven't slept in a day or more.
You have a gun in the waistband of your jeans.
"I have a car," she says and points. It's a brown station wagon, 80s. Tractor-like tires and a bumper held on with ratchet straps. Sunburned paint, rusting rear quarters, and at least one elk-sized dent on the driver's side.
You ask her why she's waiting for the bus, if she's had a car the whole time.
"Little old me, driving cross-country alone? That's not safe." The girl raises her eyebrows to match yours. Then she winks. "I'd get too bored."
Meg. Her name is Meg, you remind yourself.
You end up in that car.
You end up in that car, and so does orange puffer coat guy, because apparently you're a regular three musketeers story. In the parking lot of an Omaha Costco, Meg tells you it's your turn to drive.
"You can drive stick, right?" she asks. "I mean, it's fine, either way. I'll help you."
She licks her lips.
You're not sure what that's about.
Orange puffer is asleep in the backseat, and Meg throws the passenger door open to rummage around at his feet. Oh! she announces, like a Tinker Bell, or a Betty Boop. I should call my father, she says. You know, tell him my change of plans.
As you move to adjust the rearview mirror, the backseat explodes with white down as Meg slashes through puffer guy's coat, cinched snugly at his neck until it's not, until his neck is not. You hear the wet splatter of blood, smell sulfur.
Then your vision goes black.
When you come to, your body is driving down I-80. Your hand shifts into fifth.
> Take me back to the start.
You let your phone ring, tone cycling through, then again. Again. (The jingle is not as long as your vindictive streak.) It cuts off abruptly, chiming like a dinner bell. No voicemail, just a text. Which isn't really Dean's style. He'll pay for minutes on minutes for long-distance calls, but a text message? Talk is cheap; texts are worthless. (Unless they're from Dad.)
1033, it reads.
You don't remember what that means, until you do.
It means you find the nearest Gas N' Sip. It means you now own the nearest car you can find. Some dumbass left the keys in the ignition, stopping in for a coffee or smokes or--you smell sulfur--an egg salad sandwich. It roars to life, louder than you were expecting out of an old station wagon, especially one this Japanese-tiny. But the owner surely heard, and you're gonna need a quicker getaway: You run a red, imperil an intersection, and tear into the dark. You are very far from Stanford.
10-33 means finding Dean is the only thing that matters.
Fury, mostly. The kind that erupts when your terror has scabbed over, only to be ripped open again. Because all you think about when you close your eyes is Jess dying in front of you, over and over again.
When Dean isn't dead, the reality doesn't compute. You are furious for what your body has put you through these last few hours, all adrenaline and catastrophe. Maybe you should feel relief, you should feel Dean, but truth be told you don't feel specifics at all. You're being wrenched through some repetitive and unstoppable pain and that's all you really are, in that moment.
You find Dean by following the line of the Impala, dark taillights askance, the bulk of her thrust over the edge of the road, down into the irrigation ditch. Her nose is crushed into the dirt. There beside her sits Dean.
He is alive enough to be pointing a gun at you.
Clutch in, shift to neutral. E-brake. You keep the car running, its headlights the only thing separating you from obliteration in the darkness. You have the span of your hand on the door, the door opening, your body slipping out, to become a person again. You swallow everything.
You're successful enough that Dean lowers the gun.
"Sammy," he says, though from his vantage point surely you're only a shadow. He sounds confused. What are you doing here?
You're really not sure anymore.
> "What the hell did you do?"
You follow the line of the Impala again, over the lip of the road and into vertical darkness. "What the hell did you do?" you breathe, obscuring your own vision as the headlights light up your puff of condensation. You slide into the ditch, dirt eroding easily under your boots and ferrying you forward like a rockslide.
"Where are those powers of deduction?" Dean says.
You notice he doesn't get up, even when you're in tripping distance of him. He really doesn't move at all.
"Are you okay?"
Dean grunts noncommittally. "I don't remember."
It's coming back to you now--the specificity of the situation. The Impala is wrecked on a lonely road in Indiana darkness. Dean had been in that car.
You fumble for your flashlight. The blood in Dean's hair is congealing red-black, which feels encouraging. Most of it's streaking his sleeve. His head's bruising up pretty good. When you turn your light to the front seat, you see the crack where Dean made contact with the windshield, flecked red. The steering column seems not quite right. You flash to the ground, and see the Impala's nearest tire keeled over, like it's been sucker punched. Honestly, it's a miracle none of Dean's limbs look like that; the car's a death trap.
One day it will kill you, you realize. It doesn't even have seatbelts.
You imagine Dean's body, flying through space, in motion even after the car is not.
"How are your ribs?" you ask. Dean's definitely concussed, but if any bones are going to be sliding into vital organs tonight, you'd like some advance warning.
He says something idiotic about boneless wings. You're not sure if that's code for important information, or its antithesis. You're not really in the mood. You need better light; you need to get out of here.
"What, we're just going to leave her here?" Dean protests, when you try to drag him to standing. He hisses as he pulls his arm back from you, so you're guessing the rib situation isn't great.
> "Uh, yeah. The car's wrecked, Dean."
> "What are you gonna do? Put a spare front end on?"
"Uh, yeah. The car's wrecked, Dean," you say, before you remember to be gentle with him. If he's spent the last hour just sitting on the side of the road like this, he's clearly not firing on all cylinders, and you're probably going to have to start connecting the dots for him. Dean's not typically one for slow decision-making; if he knew how to fix this, he would have started by now. Some part of him must know that this is it.
You don't have the money for the car, and never really did. Even if you could afford the parts, you'll never find them all. It's not 1967. Maybe if you had a garage to load it into, to rest and wait as the parts came in and you (Dean) whittled at its restoration on the weekends. But that's not the kind of car the Impala is, and that's not your life.
Dean still doesn't seem to have accepted this. You are hunched in an irrigation ditch in the dark in rural Indiana one car nose-dived and the other burning gas as it idles on the road above, and he hasn't accepted this. He's still staring at her twisted front wheel.
You take a deep breath, and the cold hurts your lungs. Admittedly, you don't really understand the car thing. You do, at least theoretically. You've heard every country song about men and trucks; you attended what felt like 140 different high schools, and every after-school parking lot was always the same. You've heard Dean light up, rambling about carbureted versus fuel-injected power. Maybe even familially, you do: Because if the Impala is not someone's trophy car, it's also not a punk kid's wet dream. It's more, because it's evidence of your whole lives, from the nights you've spent inside to the times you've worried someone might notice the blood leaking from the trunk--enough that you'd have to explain it's a deer, Officer, and then enough that you'd have to open the trunk and explain a carcass that was not in any shape a deer.
Maybe you're just not as attached to that.
Dean's got his whole thing with the car and the cassette tapes and the leather jacket, but maybe some part of you thought it was an affectation. Like that was a character Dean had decided to play, because there was swagger involved and it beat the alternatives. Like Dean had gone through with loving all these things for lack of anything better to do, or because it meant Dean got to be "Dad" and by extension, Dad became what Dean wanted him to be. Who knows.
It sounds insane when you put it like that. You're not sure who you think the "real Dean" would even be, if not the Dean in front of you. But you've spent a lifetime watching your brother throw himself into loving this motel or that one; this cheerleader, or that one; this super-regional sausage, or that one, only to abandon them entirely once they skipped town. He'd never seemed to miss anything. His love was just to pass the time.
Right now he's dressed to the nines with bracelets and rings and crap, but you know he'd abandon it all without a second thought. You kinda figured--well. You don't really want to say it, because it makes you sound like an asshole. But once you'd gotten old enough, Dean hadn't ever really felt that real to you. Because if he'd really believed in anything, or really wanted anything, you don't know how he could've stood it--Dad's crusade and its blindness to all else.
He cares about you, though. He cares about more than you'd remembered. Maybe the car does matter.
(You remember consoling Jess when someone had run a red and T-boned her a few blocks from campus. She'd been fine, just bruised from the airbag and shocked by the suddenness, but she'd wept for that Corolla. You'd held her tight and realized that this was probably the worst thing that's ever happened to her. Of course it would hurt.)
You know this is not the worst thing that's ever happened to Dean. But what do you know, really. Maybe it is.
"Dean, we gotta go. I'm sorry." You grab his arm again, and he lets you pull him up this time. He holds his breath like that'll keep his ribs from wandering.
"We can scout a tow place, come back for the car in the daylight," you lie.
> Take "your" car.
"What are you gonna do? Put a spare front end on?" you say. Dean's getting creative with pronouns again. Calling the Impala a "she" isn't going to help the situation; you need to nip that in the bud.
But Dean says, "She's really not that bad."
He says something about the radiator, and then something about tie rods. It all sounds insane. Bottom line, even if all the Impala had was a flat tire and a busted bumper, it's not like you have a spare. Your tire well is a weapons safe.
"Well, it ain't gonna be pretty," Dean says, when he tells you to get the tools from the trunk and you don't move. But your hotrod's got a rear diff, which means 4WD, which means this might just work. There's iron chains in the trunk.
The next thing you know, your little station wagon is on tow truck duty.
Hook it to her body, not the exhaust, Dean reminds you.
For all his conviction about this rescue mission, you can tell Dean's not doing well. He's moving slowly, gingerly, and when he bends to inspect your chainwork, he ends up sinking to his knees, his hands reaching out to steady himself against the dizziness. There's so many ways you'd rather have told this story. None of them involve acting like your brother is less important than saving this stupid car.
By the time you get him into the station wagon--because you need to not squish your brother a lot more than you need a spotter--Dean is a delicate shade of green.
"Dual-range, too," Dean wheezes with a note of admiration, pointing at the shifter. "Spacer lift, all-terrains, full skid plates… Jesus, where'd you find this thing?"
"Gas N' Sip," you tell him. "I thought it looked like shit. Figured it wouldn't be missed.
Dean laughs, then coughs. "Fuck," he says. "Guess we better be quick. I mean, it didn't get like this hauling soccer balls and groceries. They're gonna want this rig back."
Your stomach lurches.
You glance at the rear of the Impala, lit red by your taillights, and begin to pull. You wait for the chain to snap, for your wagon's graceless little four-cylinder to collapse at the effort of pulling two tons of Milwaukee steel out of a ditch. Disaster never comes.
Dean seems to think that once the Impala is parallel to the road again, the hard part is over, though its right front wheel is still slouching like a broken leg and its radiator is bleeding out. It makes the road smell sweet and cloying.
Everything's gonna be fine, Dean assures you. Then he pukes his guts out.
All you can smell is coolant.
The Impala looks worse outside the ditch, where most of the damage was buried ditchside. The nose is smashed in, bumper hanging snaggle-toothed. Dean tries to lift the hood but it doesn't move, not until you join him and heave with all your might. Dean bends, rests his hands on the engine bay. He looks like he's going to be sick again.
He takes your flashlight and aims it downward, probing the sides of the dented radiator. There's a clear spot where something punched through the fins on its broadside.
"Everything's gonna be fine," he repeats. He needs a flathead, pliers, holy water, and some JB Weld.
But that still leaves you with the wheel. You crack the lugs, jack the car up as Dean works on the radiator, but all that really shows you what you already knew: Something in the suspension is broken. And even if that weren't the case, the bead is broken and the tire is flat.
"Fill it like a scarecrow," Dean suggests. You're not actually sure if he's serious or not.
He hasn't been talkative. Dean has a tendency to get chatty during crisis, but tonight he's instead slid into a grim pinpoint of existence, taking in only as much as he can handle, which is only the task in front of him. If he stops he might fall apart. If the Impala is fixable, it's only because she did Dean's body absolutely no favors. Every so often you hear him take a deep and shuddering breath.
"Everything's gonna be fine," you tell him. You feel stupid the moment the words leave your mouth. You're only allowed to say platitudes if you really believe them, and Dean has to know you don't. You'd just wanted something, anything, to fill the silence.
It feels idiotic, trying to MacGuyver this car in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, but it also feels like the only possible way this evening could have gone. It's not like you were gonna call AAA. That's just not what you do, as surely as you know Dean will not be headed to urgent care. He's awake and alert and it does not matter how hard he crashed, how long he was unconscious. You hammer away at lost causes. You hammer, and you hammer, and you tell yourself and everyone around you that it's gonna be fine. You don't look back.
You return to the wheel well before you. You can tell what's bent, though you're not sure what that gets you. For all the shit in the trunk, somehow you doubt you picked up a spare whatever-hunk-of-metal. You could hammer it straight again, like you hammer at everything, but here's the thing: Once bent, always bent.
"I'm not just going to get over it if we drive around long enough," you say, suddenly. You're tired of acting like you hadn't left. Like there's been no standoff. "I need to know what killed her, Dean. I need to know why."
Dean says nothing.
"I think Dad's close. There's gotta be a reason he called, instead of just sending another text. He's deep into something."
Dean sighs. "Dunno, if you've noticed, but he's kind of been deep," he says. "Call, text. Hell, he could say nothing at all. Apparently none of it means jack shit. Fucker."
You lower your flashlight. You're not sure if you heard that right. Maybe Dean was talking to the radiator, or to his own concussion.
John Winchester, fucker, didn't really seem like part of Dean's worldview.
> Tell Dean fixing the car is a waste of time.
> Fill the tire like a scarecrow. It won't be the worst choice you've made today.
You bite your lip. "Dean, this isn't going to work."
You have better things to do than fuck around with the dark with a car that can't be fixed. "Heroic effort," you allow, because it looks like Dean's just about done with the radiator. "But man, you know this isn't helping anyone."
It's been six months. If Dean wants to wander the earth saving people and hunting things, that's good for him. You won't knock that; you're not heartless, and you know it's important. But you have people in your life who actually mean something to you. You need to do right by them. You need to do right by Jess.
"At least help me finish this before you go," says Dean. He slams the crumpled hood down.
At first you think he means the car, as though Dean's decided you were literally leaving now, with him stranded and hurt on the side of the road. You're not sure what you've done to make Dean think that's who you are. But Dean rounds the car and pulls a rifle out of the trunk, loads a clip before slipping another into a pocket.
"Whatever I hit, it's still out there," he says. "Probably even has a limp. We take it down tonight, then no more couples go missing. Case closed."
And if it was actually a deer or something, and not the monster?
"Then we put it out of its misery," Dean says. "And I'll put you on a plane to California myself, bright and early. I'll finish this myself."
He stops talking to you after that, like you're already gone. He marches into the orchard, and you follow. There's a big difference between Dean, quiet, and Dean having erased you. It feels punitive, and your heart's not big enough to imagine that's not intentional, at least in part. Dean knows what he's doing.
You know you've lost your chance here. You had a shot, maybe, at making things at least a little right with each other, and now it's gone. Maybe it was already gone back at that asylum, when you pumped him full of rock salt point blank, then pulled the trigger in his face one, twice. Maybe it was gone when you had a vision of the old house--when you had a vision of anything, period. Maybe it was gone the week you left for Stanford, with Dean giving you the silent treatment right up until he begged you, Don't leave and you left anyway. Dean's not great at playing chicken. You are, though.
You hate that about yourself.
(You'd make an excellent prosecutor, says one of your poli sci professors, when you spin him a yarn about justice and making the world a better place. You'd been adamant about not wanting to be "that kind of lawyer" right up until someone told you you'd be good at it. Then you're all in.)
You're the guy who's willing to go all the way, because you know that when you don't, this is where you end up: Tromping through an apple orchard in bumfuck Indiana in the middle of the night in April, with a Remington in your hands and your brother with his back turned, bracing for when you don't exist.
This--this is where you end up when you do go all the way. Because it doesn't really matter either way. You always end up here.
> "Are we just gonna walk in circles?"
> "Are we just gonna walk in circles?"
"Are we just gonna walk in circles?" you ask, eying the same trees you'd already marched under.
"Is there another option?"
You will always end up here.
> "Are we just gonna walk in circles?"
> "Are we just gonna walk in circles?"
"Are we just gonna walk in circles?" you ask. You've already passed these trees.
"Feels like it."
"Really inspiring confidence here, Dean."
Dean stops. "Let me ask you this, Sam. How much do you actually remember about this family. Like, really remember. Or are you just all picnics on the quad and Mrs. Robinson in there." He makes a circling motion above his head with his free hand.
"I dunno, Dean. I'm standing in the middle of an apple orchard with a fucking rifle because you're pretty sure you didn't hit a deer with our car. What else do I need to remember about this family? Because from where I'm standing, that feels like a pretty accurate summary."
"Okay. Then why the fuck would you wanna go hang out with Dad." It's not a question.
It's not where you thought Dean was going, either. You've jumped tracks.
"I know. Jessica. I know--it's been six months. I know how much it's hurting you, believe me. I'm right here. But I just--"
Dean stops mid-sentence and squints at something in the distance behind you. He pushes past you and picks up the pace.
"Seriously?" you shout, before following after him, exasperated. Way to undermine his own point, if that's what "I'm right here" looks like.
"I don't know why the hell you'd wanna add dealing with Dad to your plate," Dean finishes, without turning back to you. "Fuck, Sam, you barely talk to me."
"You're trying to protect me from Dad?" you scoff. "What happened to being a good son?"
"You and Dad being at each other's throats don't help anyone. And getting fucking grief counseling from Dad really don't help you."
You catch sight of what Dean was hurrying towards. You're back at the road, except now in addition to the Impala, in its state of undress, and your station wagon, there's a third car, too. Its headlights burn the scene into stark shades of white and shadow, reddish haze floating above the scene as its siren light loops around, around.
"Guess I'm trying to be a good brother." He treats it like a throwaway line, before leaping quickly to "Who the hell called this in?"
"Yup, this is the car from that Gas N' Sip call up in Climax," one of the officers confirms. She's peering at Sam's plates. "Registered to a Meg Masters?"
"Can't wait to see what this one's deal is," replies her partner, gesturing at the hobbled Impala. "Honestly, this town and abandoned cars. What a piece of fuckin' work."
"Feels like a Stephen King novel," the officer laughs. "We should Redbox Christine on the way home."
You draw back from the side of the road. With two of them and a whole lot of country, no way they're actually going to try to hunt you down out here. They'll just take the cars and wait for you to resurface.
"Dean, we gotta go."
"That's not even the plot of Christine," Dean protests. "--oh, motherfucker."
The next thing you know, the officers are kissing.
"Dean, we gotta go," you repeat.
Dean shoots you an incredulous glare. "They're a couple," Dean says. Likely the couple of the evening, as their luck would have it.
> Show yourself.
> Let Dean go.
"I'll keep an eye on them," you say. "I'm clean."
"You stole a car," Dean points out, as though that means anything to him, or even to you.
"They don't know that. It's not like I'm planning to give them my real name."
"Oh, I am," Dean replies. "We're not trying to get them to hang around, shoot the shit, and leisurely write you a traffic ticket while you all stand around like adorable little meatsicles out there. We need a 'sir, we're gonna have to sort this out at the station immediately'-level fuckup."
Conveniently, Dean Winchester is wanted for murder. He was also found dead in St. Louis.
> Let go.
You let Dean go. It's quick, then it's done.
You find the scarecrow, and you burn the tree. You lay low, and Dean lays lower. The plan is to circle back to each other, once the heat's off. If only to part ways for real, make it official. That's your plan, anyway. Last you hear, Dean's going after a rawhead in Iowa. 100,000 volts, extra fucking crispy.
You wait for him to report back.
> Take me back to the start.
Dean's rallied, no question, but you wouldn't put the lives of two civilians in his hands right now. The last hour or so hasn't exactly been Dean's strongest display of tracking, and you catch his grimace even as you shoulder gently past him. You dig in harder, just to remind him that he's hurt.
"Kill the monster," you tell Dean. "I got them."
As long as they're on patrol out here, they're targets. You figure the worst possible outcome is they drive away, somewhere you can't keep an eye on them. Your job is to keep them talking. Your job is to be there, so you can save them.
You're Sam Winchester. Your girlfriend died. Then your brother got shot in St. Louis. And now, fifty miles outside Burkittsville, Indiana, you've wrecked your fucking car.
> The Family Business.
It used to be a man, maybe. The head is hanging by sinews, leathery and dark. But the torso is twisted, shedding straw. It crawls toward you on all fours, arm gobbling up the distance between you as the legs drag and shake and push. The hands end in curved scythes, like talons.
The officers behind you draw their guns, but you get the impression that they, like you, wish they'd done themselves better than a 9mm. You'd left the rifle with Dean.
Officer Olsen--or Angell, you're not actually sure which is which--needs to know what that thing is.
Don't we all, you imagine Dean might say.
"Scarecrow," you realize. More accurately, scarecrow that's been hit by a car.
If you can stop its arms, you can stop it, you think. It is not impervious to damage.
There's a gas can in the trunk. All you need to do is slow it down enough to light the fucking thing on fire. Fire always works.
There's a part of you that hangs back, catches on the notion. If you look up, you know you'll see her, because you always do. You see her every time. You look up and she mouths your name, though she is--she has to be, the oxygen already eaten by flames, her throat cooked instantly--already dead.
You blink. That's not Jess's mouth.
You weren't expecting the scarecrow would be able to jump.
> Take me back to the start.
You can't even see Dean from where you're crouched, but there's something in his voice.
John Winchester, fucker.
You don't press him. Instead, you look at the Impala's flabby tire, sagging away from the wheel, and think, I can fill this.
You wander into the orchard, alone, armed with a flashlight and a bum tire. It feels like every horror movie cold open, and it feels ridiculous. You hate how unafraid you are. Oh, you're afraid of what comes next, of missing your shot at avenging Jess and of the idea that you might never face what killed her, never know why she had to die. (Dean has asked you, over and over again, What if there's no why, Sammy. But it's never been a question and you're not ready to take Dean's word as law. You're tied up in something big. Bigger than Dean could possibly know. There has to be a why.) You're afraid of big, and you know that right not Sacramento's the eye of that storm. Every impulse you have is begging you to run straight for it.
But this? All this feels like--you adjust the wheel in your grip--is a cheap roadside distraction.
Finally, you come to a clearing. There's a scraggly tree surrounded by haybales, like it's some kind of gathering place. Beside it, there's an empty stake, and a crumple of leather and cloth lying at its base. The scarecrow must have fallen down.
If you were Dean, you might have words for the guy. Some quip about falling down on the job, but more colorful. But you're not Dean, and you don't talk to scarecrows.
"I'll be taking this," you say, immediately and in spite of yourself. You kick a haybale and kneel. You begin packing the tire with straw.
You hate Halloween. Also, it's fucking April.
> Go to work.
By the time you've packed the tire as full as you can manage, your fingers are bleeding and your arms ache. All you can think about is the fact that this tire is supposed to support 1,000 pounds and it is filled with straw.
But it doesn't have to do it that far, or that fast, Dean assures you, which is the first time it really occurs to you that Dean isn't working toward a permanent fix. In retrospect, this is painfully obvious, but it seems outside of the way you'd imagined your brother, somehow. He always swings for fences.
"That'll hold about as well as this will," Dean says of your tire, as he points to the wheel well. In your absence, he's splinted the Impala's bent tie-rod (because that's what the piece is) with a wrench, clamped it down, and sausaged (his word) the entire thing in duct tape. She won't drive straight, but she'll drive. "Pro tip," adds Dean. "Duct tape solves everything."
"That's not a 'pro' anything," you reply. But it's probably pro hunting. The resolve to pull through, no matter what.
You spin the lugs onto the tire, cranking them in a star pattern and imagining Devil's Traps. Dean, beside you, sounds exhausted. By the hitch of his breath you can tell his ribs are bothering him now, the body's protracted blossoming of pain after sudden impact.
"I know it feels like you're abandoning her," Dean says finally.
You bristle reflexively. Dean knows nothing--not where Jess is concerned. He barely knows her name. But Dean keeps talking, ignorant of his ignorance. You tune him out almost immediately. You focus on lug nuts. You focus on torque. You focus on the scissor jack, your knuckles scraping against asphalt every time you turn the crank. You're not being careful. It feels better than listening.
"Look, I didn't know Jessica," Dean allows (meaningless hedging), "But I know you." (Try me, you think.)
"You'd never love someone who actually wanted vengeance. Why are you trying to give it to her?"
You pull the jack out from under the car. The tire is definitely flat and nothing looks quite right, but it looks like it'll roll. So that's an improvement.
"I'd never love someone who wanted vengeance, huh?" you snort.
You suppose that's one way of connecting the dots. If you were Dean, anyway. If you were Dean, trying to figure out you. Maybe you did leave for Stanford in search of some kind of moral piety, where better people don't dedicate their lives and their children's lives to fruitless and vengeful crusades. You can imagine being eighteen and thinking that.
You can't imagine that'd stop you from loving someone.
As usual, Dean is so wrong, but also so right.
Jess was not a vengeful person. There's a part of you, though, that thinks, She didn't have to be. Her world could be made right in other ways.
That's not your world.
Jess had a little blue Corolla when you met her. In it, she'd taught you stick and you'd shared your first kiss. One day, on her way from class to an internship at the VA Palo Alto, someone ran a red and T-boned her in an intersection. The car was a total loss, though she'd been fine--bruised from the seatbelt and sore from the airbag, adrenaline-shaky, but fine. She'd wept in your arms for that little blue car, as though the worst thing in the world had happened. You'd felt it, too; believed it. The worst thing in her world had happened.
Still, she didn't even ask for the guy's insurance.
Four days later, Jess's parents--both of them--drove up to your dorm room in a shiny Mercedes with a giant bow on the roof. It was used, her parents were quick to clarify. They wanted you, or maybe the world, to know the gesture was not as ostentatious as it looked. They'd always been careful of that with you, though never in ways that were helpful. You'd loved them anyway. But at the end of the day, they were still the kind of people who thought a five-year old car meant "used."
"So, no duct tape," Dean says.
"No duct tape."
This is the only part of Jess you've ever shared with Dean.
> You want him to know--
You open your mouth to continue, but you hang in your breath, unsure of what to say.
Then you shout, "FUCK!!" because there's something slithering toward you--scampering, scurrying, some combination of the three but it's coming out of the darkness and coming fast. You throw yourself aside, land badly, and topple into the irrigation ditch head first. It hurts, everything hurts, you hear Dean shout, then whimper, and for a horrible second you don't hear anything at all. Then two gunshots.
You expect to hear a squeal, some recognition of pain, but there's nothing. Either Dean missed or the thing doesn't care but the only thing that matters is you crawling out of this ditch, boots and fingers slipping in the mud, the walls giving out from under you you're up you don't see the car you're orchardside fuck but when you turn back you don't see Dean, with a monster on top of him. You see the thing, at your shoulder, ready to drag you down.
"You," you gasp, because it's the scarecrow. The one from the gathering place, lying at the base of its stake. The broken one.
Then you hear a crack.
Something wet and sweet splashes your lips and you feel the thing release your back. You hear it drag and slide and thump with uncanny speed. You hear Dean get off three more shots.
So he's okay, then.
A completely different voice is asking you the same.
"He's bleeding," says a woman, and you realize your right shoulder is on fire where the thing had sunk its claws--its knife--its whatever in you.
"What did you--"
"I, uh…" says the other voice, a man. You have no idea where he came from. "D1 baseball, IU."
You pick a chunk of apple from your hair. "You threw a fucking apple at it?" you say, deliriously, incredulously. The man nods, wide-eyed.
"And we called the cops, that thing-- it--" the woman adds, still babbling, but you hear Dean cut her off. "Goddamn it."
He's beside you. He cups your shoulder and you feel pressure.
Dean says, "Let me get this straight. You saw some kind of fucking… human centipede running through an orchard and called the cops. And then you… followed it, so you could bean it with an apple?"
"No, we called the cops because our car got stuck," said the woman. "Our car just--"
"Where the hell is your car?" you ask, hissing as you peel yourself from the ditch, shaking Dean off. You can feel the blood seeping down your back.
The guy shrugs. "We came through the orchard. I was just trying to show her--" he looks regretfully at his girlfriend. "And then that--thing… We ran--"
"Everything's gonna be fine, though," the woman says earnestly. "The cops should be here soon. We called them so long ago--"
"Oh, lady," says Dean.
You hear, in that moment, a barrage of shots. It's hard to tell from where, or from how far, but it's not hard to know what they mean. You don't think a Glock will be enough to save them.
"That'd be the cops," you say. You watch their faces blanch.
"Get in the car," Dean orders, shoving the Impala's keys into the woman's hands. "Lock the doors, and if you see that thing, drive."
Then he hesitates. "But keep it under 15. And if you see any smoke from the-- then--"
You honestly can't fault the look the couple gives him.
"Or you can keep running around throwing apples. Your choice. I don't fucking care," Dean snaps. He keeps talking, though, because he does care. Something about how safe they'll be, because hell, that car already took it out once. There is no place safer. You stop listening.
You need to focus.
Dean's decided that this thing--this scarecrow--that's the thing he hit, the thing that took him off the road. It'd make sense, inasmuch as anything ever does. It had been on the prowl, then had a run-in with the Impala's front end before crawling back to its perch, body mangled. It's all you have to go on.
Almost all you have to go on. Because you are surrounded by apples. Apples, sweet and ready for the harvest. In April in Indiana.
"How are we supposed to kill this thing?" Dean hisses at you, after he's delivered Baseball Couple to the car. "I already fucking drove through it. Light it on fire?"
"It's not the scarecrow that's important," you realize.
"It's not the scarecrow that's important," you say, with more conviction. "It's what the scarecrow is protecting."
It's not the monster that matters.
It's not the monster that matters, but that tree. You're not even sure how deep that was. Not close. You shoot a glance up at your little station wagon. Or, as Dean put it, your lifted, plated, 4WD, dual-range all-terrain little station wagon.
"I gotta do some off-roading," you tell Dean. "Go find those cops."
"Yeah, their bodies, maybe," Dean replies grimly. But he doesn't ask you where you're going, or why, or what info you're even going off of. He just trusts you.
He didn't before, you realize. You thought he had.
But not like this.
Maybe it's because now you trust him, too. Not with the hunting, and the monsters--that's a given. You trust him--at least a little bit--with you.
You want him to say something. You want something to anchor the feeling, make it real. But you and yours are in shambles all down the road, and you have an apple tree to burn to the ground.
There's only silence between you.
Maybe next time.
> Take me back to the start.
Loading everything from the Impala into the station wagon takes longer than you want it to, though considering it's your whole life and Dean's, there's not much. But it's enough to arouse all manner of suspicion if a state trooper popped the trunk, and that's the metric that matters.
"And we don't know what we're dealing with," says Dean, who's convinced this is a case and wants to make sure they've got everything, from blowtorches to bazookas. He believes that this is a case and there's something lurking out there in the proverbial corn that had run him off the road.
"Or you hit a deer," you say.
"Do you see a deer?"
You don't see a deer. You know you're only pushing back because you'd rather be en route to California. You want Dad's math to have been wrong, his paranoia seeing patterns where there weren't any. Not because you believe the world is a safer place than that. You just want Dad to be wrong. You're petty; you'll own that.
Abruptly, Dean sinks to the ground. He doesn't say anything useful, just "fuck." He stares hard at a clod of weeds and dirt. Exhales sharply.
You're not really sure what to do. There's nothing you can do, except remind yourself, again, that Dean's life is not in danger. He is concussed and his ribs are broken, but unless you notice his condition changing, he's just miserable and there's absolutely nothing you can do about that.
You could do something brotherly, maybe. But anything more demonstrative than what you're doing now--loading the last of the guns into the back of your station wagon without his help--seems a shade too far. Technically, you're fighting.
"I'm sorry," you say. As though that could erase four years of scar tissue.
"You didn't do anything wrong," says Dean. You didn't leap across the road. You didn't wreck the car. You didn't kill a lost couple every year in the first week of April in bumfuck, Indiana. But you weren't talking about any of that, and you know Dean knows that. He isn't stupid.
Then he says, "That's just who you are."
Maybe that's supposed to be forgiveness. You are your own person, living your own life and nobody's else's, and Dean can recognize that now. But somehow, it feels worse.
The next thing Dean says is, "Dual-range," with a hint of admiration. Something something Sam's taste in cars. Something something exhaust leak, something busted cat, which explains the mean growl and the sulfur smell. None of it is particularly witty, or Dean's variant thereof. You're just driving and he's just talking for lack of better things to do, as his world spins and thoughts tumble out of his head.
That's how you know he meant it. That this is who you are. You'll probably never understand all of what Dean means by that, but you do know one thing: He doesn't know you.
You know two things: Dean doesn't know you. He might still be right.
When you pull into Burkittsville, everything is closed and dark except the gas station, which is closed and illuminated.
"I think the backseat folds flat," you offer.
"Knock yourself out," says Dean, reclining the passenger seat. In twenty minutes, all the heat you'd been blasting is gone, and the car is cold.
You wrap your coat tighter.
You feel less self-loathing in the morning. You feel less of everything in the morning, your nose running and your fingers white with cold. Dean is already awake, or never slept, scrolling through his phone like there were godsends in there, waiting to be called upon.
"I didn't mean to call you," he says, by way of greeting. But who the hell else would he have called?
He came to. He doesn't remember what came before, and truthfully his account of the afterward isn't gangbusters, either. He recalls now only as much as he had on the drive in. Except he hadn't meant to call you.
"Why not?" you ask. If it's something noble, like "you made your choice, Sam" or "didn't want to pull you back," you probably won't believe him. But if it's an accusation, like "didn't think you'd come," you just might. Even if you both know it's less true. Probably.
"I don't know," Dean replies.
That, you do believe.
"Diner's open," you say, and Dean says nothing.
"It's fucking cold," you clarify.
"Missing couples, right? We gotta start somewhere," you clarify again.
"Great breakfast conversation. Hey, we just rolled into town. It's 6AM. Tell us about your serial murders."
"Right, because that's somehow better over lunch."
You can read the room, though. Dean has every reason in the world to be gung-ho about this "case," or wherever it is Dad's call has taken you. You need to work the locals, scout the area, read up on the lore. You need to get up and go. But Dean's just--not okay.
> Ease in. Circle back to the crash site.
You've been here often enough to know how this goes. Dad's journal has never documented this side of hunting--the part where your brain bounces so hard against your skull you don't know which way is forward, the part where your bones snap, the part where your blood is a new sheen on the floor of a warehouse somewhere--but if it did, this would be a page well worn.
It doesn't make it less unnerving, waiting for your brother to spring back to life after a little nap or a slice of pie, already knowing it won't happen. Doesn't make it less unnerving, to watch him haunt the edges of his mind and body. Dean will work through anything you deal him, but often, a concussion is a cold hard stop. It will never care who you are, or what you're made of. It will take you down.
Put that in your hunting journal. See how many pages you fill. Technically, you weren't even officially hunting. You were driving in a deathtrap of a car, toward some haunted stretch of road, and away from Sacramento.
Dean was driving. You were deserting. (Asserting, you remind yourself.)
What Dean really needs is rest, though you don't think he'll find it if you stash him in a Burkittsville motel room.
"We'll loop back to the crash site," you decide. "See if there's something we missed in the dark before we call in a tow."
Dean does his level best. He puts his phone away and downs a handful of ibuprofen and he closes his eyes. He makes it a good ten or fifteen minutes before the potholes jostle him awake again. By the time you're an hour--fifty miles--out of town he'll pulled himself together enough to tell you to stop the car.
Your stomach sinks, because if Dean really can't handle the drive, you're not sure what you're going to do here. End up in Burkittsville long enough to actually fix the car, maybe. When Dean was nineteen he'd earned a concussion he couldn't shake for months. They're not all that bad, but they're supposed to be cumulative, aren't they?
But as you slow to a stop, you too catch a glimpse of red in the orchard that lines the road. There's a red van pulled in between the trees, rear kicked out like it had already started oversteering in its brief but muddy descent from the road.
"Field trip?" Dean suggests.
There's no one inside, though the owner's manual is splayed across the dash.
"They didn't try to get back out," Dean says, pointing to the tire tracks in the tacky mud. "Woulda dug in."
You turn the key in the ignition. Nothing. "You'd think there'd be footprints," you say, noting the suck of the mud on your own boots, the trample you made coming into the grove.
Dean's head is buried in his arm, which is resting on the side of the van, but he nods.
"Take five, dude," you suggest. Dean says buried.
You duck back into the car, and have a sinking feeling you may have found this year's couple. There's two drinks in the cupholders, bare styrofoam. Still heavy, like they were full of milkshake. There's a receipt lost between the passenger seat and the center console, which is bleary when you retrieve it, dark ink floating into purple semblances of their original words.
Scotty's Diner. Burkittsville, Indiana.
Who knows how long the car's been here, though. "Car's registered to a Kelly Hamish," you note, re-folding the car's title and registration as you stuff it back into the glove compartment. But when you look up, Dean's not there anymore. He's back roadside.
"Well, they're not footprints," he says, as you join him.
That much is true. They're not footprints. There is, however, a muddy, serpentine streak across the road. Unremarkable, maybe, but for the blood, the smear of skin and tissue. It's not footprints, and it's not roadkill, either--not sideswinding across the road like that. Something dragged. The smear stretches from this side of the road clear down into the fog, where you can just make out the rear of the Impala protruding toward the sky.
"Still think I hit a deer?"
"They're dead, aren't they," you say. The couple you'd been sent to save. They're dead.
Dean shrugs. "You don't know that. Maybe they're having a breakfast quiche in Burkittsville."
Even with the cool weather retarding decay, no way viscera stays this fresh-looking if it didn't happen last night. It's rainy season; this would have smeared and bloated and washed away, no question.
They probably died last night.
Had you driven past their car last night? You're not sure. Headlights beget tunnel vision and you'd been distracted. Maybe they'd been dead before you ever arrived. Maybe they'd been dying as they watched your headlights pass them.
> This is on you.
You start back towards the Impala, but you know it's over. If there's a cursed object wreaking havoc someplace, or a hungry ghoul, or any number of other creatures, the case generally isn't over even after the first body drops. The house is still haunted, the monster's still hungry.
This kind of thing, though--if you don't beat the body count, then you don't beat anything at all. You have your window, or you fail. You try again next year.
You spend five days in Burkittsville, and turn up nothing.
Kelly Hamish's van ends up in a junkyard outside town--the very same that avails you of a new radiator, tie rod, and wheel for the Impala. Her front end doesn't end up pretty, but she runs. There's a silver Mustang up on blocks and it's where you end up dumping your station wagon, after you lose the plates. Not that it would matter--you watch the Sheriff never once call in the abandoned van.
Dean is… all right. He's fine until he isn't, which you suppose has always been true but feels sharper now. You haven't really talked much. You can tell he's still struggling, though. In the time you spent in Burkittsville, he spends more time nursing dizzy spells than he does actually wrenching on the car.
You read the Sacramento police reports obsessively, but nothing ever happens there, either. No fires, no strange deaths. Of course, on paper nothing happened in Burkittsville, either. The entire time you've been here, no one's ever mentioned the strange abandoned van, the strange abandoned station wagon, the strange abandoned people now living at the motel, using the parking lot as their personal workshop and Scotty's Cafe as their home office. It's easy to keep secrets out here.
You killed them. That couple. You're not sure how but you know you did.
A week later you're hunting a rawhead in northern Iowa, the trail mostly cold. Two kids missing. You're sloshing through a flooded basement when you find a femur, tiny and lonesome.
Dean prys open a cupboard and finds the rest.
> Take me back to the start.
You slap Dean's shoulder. "Maybe they'll have pie."
Dean grimaces, but you dig into the backseat and throw a jacket at him. His is still bloody--as is his head, but for once you have a completely civilian explanation for that. You're going to need to tow the Impala sooner or later. In the meantime, you try to do a slightly better job of hiding the arsenal you'd thrown into the back; the wagon's fishbowl windows leave little to the imagination.
The woman waiting tables at Scotty's Diner jumps when you enter, in a way you're pretty sure your appearance absolutely warrants.
Dean knocks against you, off-balance, and you grab his back to steady him. Maybe he's worse-off than you thought. You're concerned for about a half-second, before Dean slides his hand into your back pocket. When you recoil, Dean grabs your ass and pinches.
"T-two?" asks the waitress, and you nod grimly.
Once you're seated, Dean closes his hand over yours, pinning it to the table. "You're so smart, honey," he says, overloud. "This place looks way better than anything in the guidebook."
"Can't trust those," says the waitress, gliding back to your table with two cups of coffee (complimentary "with meal over $15," a sign by the cash register notes). "I always go with local recommendations myself."
"Funny you should mention that," you say. Dean still hasn't released your hand.
The waitress blushes. "Easy, boys," she says, unable to tear her eyes from your hands on the table. "You know, we're open-minded. I know, podunk Indiana folk and all, but we're not as bad as the blue states think. But I don't really-- I don't know if--"
"You get a lot of couples through here?" Dean asks, in what by your estimation is the least subtle fucking play for information this century.
"Only the desperate ones," she laughs, and you absolutely can't believe any of this is working. But the information keeps coming. "Because of the apples, you know. Growing in April, when there's practically still snow on the ground. Not that-- I mean, mostly it's a man and a, a woman--"
You look down at the menu, which advertises an array of springtime specials--Goddess Apple Pie, Goddess Apple Salad, Goddess Apple Pancakes.
"It's bioengineering," she explains hastily. "Someone from Rose-Hulman, you know the school, Terre Haute. And a patent--you know, for apples that can grow out of season. But we, you know--"
"You play up the goddess angle, for couples who want babies. Like...fertility tourism?" Dean asks. "That seriously draws people here?"
The waitress blushes again. "It's just a story. There's nothing, you know… in the apples. No hormones or anything that'll make you--" She gestures vaguely under the table before drawing her hand across her chest. "It's really just--"
"Do you have any of that Goddess Apple Pie on deck?" Dean asks, at the same time you ask, "Is there any truth to the goddess story? Like, historically?"
"I'll have to check," the waitress continues to stammer, whether in answer to your question or Dean's, you're not sure.
"Didn't want to run that by me beforehand, Dean?" you hiss, once she's out of earshot.
"I didn't think of it until the last minute," Dean says breezily. "I'm concussed. Besides, if you can't put 'em at ease, the next best thing is shock. People tell you all kinds of stuff when you throw them off-script."
"Bioengineered apples," you deadpan.
Dean chuffs. "Yeah, right."
"Now you're anti-science?"
"You're the one asking about goddess stories."
You scowl as you flip through the menu, though it offers no further clues. "Annual cycle, dead couple."
"And we know it's not just romance," Dean adds. "Sweetheart."
"Fine. Annual cycle, dead couple, some kind of generic fertility lore," you allow. "So we're thinking pagan god. Good thing there's only millions of those. Which could manifest as anything."
"I guess we could start with these Rose-Hulman apples."
You're ready to pay for the coffee and forego the $15 meal when the door swings open, sucking the warmth from the diner. It's the sheriff.
He ends up at your table, because of course he does. When you shoot a glance at the waitress, she still has the phone in her hands.
"Sons, this ain't profiling of any kind," he prefaces. "But you made Rosalie uneasy and you piqued my curiosity so now I gotta ask: Is that your car out front?"
You stay silent. Dean isn't quick enough on the draw, either.
"Because my info's telling me that car belongs to a Meg Masters," the sheriff continues. "And that don't sound like either of you."
> Take me back to the start.