Here's the first of my two stories for the Back to School Challenge. I wrote it to answer a prompt offered by ladyjaida ("OVERNIGHT FIELD TRIP. John doesn't want the boys to go, but Sam manages to plead his way into somehow making it happen, things go wrong, children go missing, they handle the situation on their own FOR THE FIRST TIME"), but because I have, um, problems, I incorporated two other prompts (clex_monkie89's "Sam's first kiss" and my own "Spin the Bottle").
Some quickie notes: Some of you might remember the Jill who shows up in this story from "Lacuna". Also, the "dot-dash-dash" / "short-long-long" is Morse Code for "W." This story uses alternating POVs, and all the use of "he" and "him" got awfully confusing, so Dean POV is in green text and Sammy POV is in brown. Also, unashamed use of "Sammy" instead of "Sam"; I'm counting on canon ("'Sammy' is a chubby twelve-year-old") to back me up, even though this Sammy is thirteen.
HUGE, HUGE thanks to monkiedude for coming up with the challenge and giving this the once-over and to janissa11 for her splendiferous beta work.
The first time Dean hears anything about it, he's got forty dollars in his pocket and a bottle of spaghetti sauce in his hand. "Malcolm is really looking forward to the trip; I'm sure Howard is too," a woman with a really breathy voice is saying. He knows those names; they're the ones Sammy keeps repeating in all of his stories about the wonders of sixth grade. Dean can't hear those stories without feeling pretty bad for any kid who has to go through life named Malcolm, and feeling even worse for Howard. He peeks around the corner and sees two women standing in the dairy aisle. Malcolm's mom has a spectacular rack. "Not to mention how nice it'll be to have the house to ourselves for a week," she giggles.
He sneaks down the bread aisle and snags a loaf of potato - Sammy's latest favorite - as he goes. His total comes to thirty-seven dollars even and he grins at the cashier.
He puts the groceries away and sorts through the mail. There's a letter from Sammy's school; he reads it quickly and knocks on Dad's door. Dad's still a little pale from the flu he's had for almost three weeks now, but at least he's not looking nauseated anymore. He hands the letter over, watches Dad read it tiredly. He's got all of his arguments lined up, about how the trip is a school requirement, about how he can clip coupons and keep saving money at the grocery store so they can afford the trip, about how much Sammy can learn from a week in the woods. All he says, though, is, "Sammy deserves to go."
Dad just looks at him. Finally he says, "Salaman Lake?" He swipes a hand across his forehead, frowning slightly. Dean's about to remind him that the two of them swept the area with the EMF two months ago, but Dad looks up again. "Yeah. Okay. As long as you go too, keep an eye on him." He smiles when Dean doesn't argue. "You'll have to get my old sleeping bag out for him," Dad says, then grins up at him and socks him in the shoulder, not yet up to full strength. "You'll be okay sleeping in the Impala, right?"
During the assembly, Sammy tries hard to crush the excitement building in him. There's no way Dad's gonna let him go into the woods for a week, even though the whole grade is going and there'll be teachers and grownups everywhere. He has to plan this out perfectly. Nothing comes to him after the assembly bell rings, or on the walk home.
Dean unlocks the door and throws his books on the table, heading for the kitchen. Sammy steps in, still thinking, and looks up in surprise when he hears Dad say, "How was school, boys?" He turns from Dad to Dean, waiting for the daily showdown. Dean's been making his face go hard and ordering Dad back into the bedroom every day for the past couple weeks, and Sammy can't understand why Dad always goes without arguing, because Dean is like the least scary person ever - he can't even keep a straight face most of the time. But Dean doesn't say anything today, just nods at Dad and starts making dinner, and Sammy figures that means Dad's doing better.
He thought he had more time to plan this, maybe ask Dean for some tips, but if Dad's sitting right here, he has to rethink. He sits at the table, listening to Dean shuffle back and forth in the narrow kitchen clanging pots and pans, and pulls out his homework. He can at least show Dad that he's responsible, practically a grownup. He frowns down at his long division. At least it's not word problems. He hates word problems, the way they tell a little story that ends up being all about math anyway. He flips his pencil again to erase another mistake, presses down with the dull tip to write his answer. He's about to move on to the next problem when he feels Dean catch hold of the tip of his tongue. "It's just math, Sammy," Dean grins; "no need to go all Michael Jordan on it." He flushes and sneaks a glance at Dad, who's lectured him hundreds of times about his habit of biting the tip of his tongue when he's concentrating, saying he's going to bite it right off one day when he's training or fighting. But Dad just snorts and laughs and keeps reading the newspaper, so he hasn't messed anything up.
He finishes his math and throws the workbook back in his bag. "Dude," Dean says, putting a stack of plates on the table, "you're all smudgy. Dinner's ready anyway, so go wash up." When he comes back from the bathroom he sees Dean putting Dad's favorite mushroom chicken on the plates next to mounds of spinach. He hates spinach, but he'll eat it tonight with a smile if it'll keep Dad in a good mood.
Dean does his Popeye laugh, making him giggle, and Dad grins at them while they all eat their spinach. It's pretty good, with all the onions and spices Dean threw in, and Dad's eating like he's been starving for weeks. He figures this is the best chance he's going to get. "Dad," he says, "we had an assembly today." Dad looks over, still chewing; he's got a beard now since he didn't shave while he was sick, and there's grey in it. "About the environmental education trip? Everybody in sixth grade gets to go, and we get to sleep in cabins and do science experiments and learn about the forest and the lake." Dad doesn't look impressed, but at least he's listening. "And they gave us permission slips for our parents to sign . . ." he trails off when Dad looks at Dean, then down at his plate.
"Finish your dinner, Sammy," Dad says. "Where and when is this trip?"
"Next week, at Salaman Lake," he says around a mouthful of spinach and mushroom sauce, gulping down his milk to clear his throat.
He can't believe it when Dad looks at Dean again and nods. Dad points his fork at him. "I expect you to come home safe and sound, Sammy. That means you stay alert. You listen to your teachers, but you do what you need to do to make sure you're protected. You take a can of salt with you and make sure you make the circle every night. Got it?"
"Yes, sir," he blurts, beaming at Dad and Dean. He sits back, grinning, until Dean rolls his eyes and gives him the last piece of chicken.
Dad's going through his journal again when the phone rings. "Caleb," Dean says as he passes the receiver to Dad, and starts taking the dishes back to the kitchen, ducking under the phone cord. "Wash or dry, Squirt?" he asks, already pulling up his sleeves and pouring Palmolive on the sponge.
Sammy grabs a towel and waits for Dean to hand over the first plate. When he looks at him, he sees that Dean is tall like Dad, tall and strong, with muscles everywhere. He almost drops the plate when Dean holds it out. "Sorry," he says, and Dean just shrugs and goes back to scrubbing the spinach pot. "Dean," he whispers, and Dean looks up and shuts off the water. "Dean . . . will you come with me?" he asks.
"Where, Sammy?" Dean asks, his forehead wrinkling up.
"On the environmental ed trip," he says before he remembers it's a class trip and there's no way Dean can come even though school's closed for the week. But he's never been anywhere without his brother.
Dean takes the plate from him and puts it in the rack. "Sure," he says, smiling, and turns the water back on.
Dean looks at the list the school sent and frowns. There's no way they're going to be able to afford all this stuff on top of the fee for the trip. The budget won't allow for new clothes, but Sammy can maybe get by with some extra shirts from him and Dad. He can borrow bug spray from one of the other kids. He can wear his thermals for pajamas. For everything else, Sammy should be able to improvise.
He turns the list over and sees the map of Salaman Lake. Six kids to a cabin, the boys' cabins separated from the girls' by the main hall, where the teachers and staff will be staying. Security patrols the entire area from dusk till dawn. In other words, folks, no one's getting any on this trip.
He's just glad Sammy hasn't needed The Talk yet. He's been practicing it for about a year now, but the only girls Sammy really likes are the ones in books. Someday he'll wake up to flesh and blood, but for now he's still just a kid.
He can barely hear Dean's words of encouragement over the sound of his own panting. "One more lap, Sammy, come on," Dean's saying, but he just wants to lie down and die. Dean's flying fast like an arrow ahead of him, sneakers pounding steadily, and he tries to keep up. There's a cramp in his side but he finishes the lap and collapses; Dean's still going, his shirt and hair totally wet.
"You excited for tomorrow?" Dean asks as they walk home.
"Yeah! Are you?"
"Thrill of a lifetime, Sammy," Dean grins, slapping his bottom. "C'mon, let's go; I gotta do laundry so we can pack tonight."
"Poor Cinderella," he sasses and Dean gets him in a headlock, not caring that they both stink.
Dad meets them at the door and they stop giggling. He looks at them and then puts one hand on Dean's shoulder. "I need to speak with you," Dad says, and takes Dean to his room and closes the door.
He just knows he's not going to Salaman Lake. Dad looks too excited, the way he always looks just before they're about to move again. He lies on the floor of his room and closes his eyes. "Sammy, what'd I say about laundry?" Dean asks when he walks in. He sits up so fast he gets a head rush. Dean puts one hand on top of his head to steady him and clears his throat. "Jill called. There's a pack of werewolves upstate she wants Dad's help with. So she's gonna come get him tomorrow."
"Aren't you going too?" he asks, resting his head on Dean's chest, drying but still damp. Dean's been making silver bullets for a year with Dad.
"I know it's shocking, but Jill didn't want me. Just Dad."
He hugs Dean around the middle. "Jill scares me."
Dean's hand tilts his head back. Dean's face is set and serious. "Jill doesn't have anybody, Sammy. No kids, and no friends or family that'll still speak to her. They all think she killed her husband because they don't want to believe the truth. Dad and Caleb are the only people she can talk to."
He thinks about Jill's hollow eyes, how they always look straight at Dad but skip over him and Dean. He wonders if Jill wanted kids. "Sorry."
"Sammy," he says, as they walk to the school at an ungodly hour, each of them holding one strap of the full-to-bursting navy blue duffel, "I'm gonna get up to the lake this afternoon, so you gotta make sure I'll know which bed, which cabin, is yours, okay?"
"Am I gonna be able to see you?" Sammy asks plaintively.
"You'll be having too much fun to worry about seeing me," he scoffs. "But yeah, if you want. We'll work something out. We're Winchesters."
Sammy grins at him and they bump fists like always.
"One more thing. Make sure you take a bottom bunk, alright?"
Sammy's eyes get big and he forgets to keep walking. "Will the salt not work if I'm up in the air?"
He laughs; he can't help it. "No, you just roll around a lot when you're sleeping. Don't want you rolling right out of bed, that's all." Kid's got a stunted sense of self-preservation; Dean used to have to sleep wrapped right around him to make sure he didn't fall out of the bed and crack his skull open.
Sammy nods, frowning seriously as he processes this new information. "Okay. I promise."
He squeezes past Ashley and Heather to stand near Malcolm and Howard, who're with their moms. A lot of the parents are giving Dean weird looks as they weave through, but Dean doesn't seem to notice.
Principal Garber clears her throat. "Okay, parents, I'm passing out a revised itinerary; we've made some adjustments based on the weather forecast for this week. Also, on the back, we've listed all contact information again, along with a list of your children's names, grouped by cabin. Please take a moment to review this information and let me know if you have any questions. Students, the bus leaves in ten minutes." She hands out yellow flyers, and Dean snags one.
"Dean, Dean, who'm I in a cabin with?" he asks, and Dean holds the paper low enough for both of them to read it. "Okay, Howard - cool. And Malcolm - cool. Joshua - uh-huh. Kenny - okay. Oh, no, Riley!"
"Which one is Riley?" Dean asks, nodding when he points to the kid with the white-blond hair and the Game Boy.
"He's kind of mean," he whispers. Riley had made Kara cry one day at lunch.
"Prick," Dean mutters. "Well, junior prick. Okay, you ready to go? Need anything?" Sammy shakes his head. "Let's get your bag on the bus, then." They walk around to the other side of the bus and tuck the duffel into the luggage compartment. While they're hidden from view Dean kisses the top of his head quick. "See you tonight, Sammy. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
He cuts through the parking lot, noting the Salaman Lake parking permits on some of the teachers' cars. Shouldn't be too hard to whip up one of those when he gets back. He checks his watch and jogs home; he wants to see Dad off, make sure he's really up for this.
Dad and Jill are hunched over the trunk of the Impala when he gets home. "Dean," Dad says, and Jill tries to ignore him while her back seizes up with tension. "Wanted you to see what I'm taking from the trunk."
He stands next to Dad, takes a look, and lists all of the weapons missing from the trunk; Dad smiles. "Keep an eye on Sammy," he says. "I'll be back by the end of the week."
He says, "Yes, sir," and Dad claps his shoulder hard before getting into Jill's car.
Mr. Bell is explaining again how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, and his attention wanders. The main hall - Pine Lodge, it says on the map - is pretty nice. He thought there'd be dirt everywhere, but it's got a wood floor and painted walls. It doesn't look that old, not like that house where the poltergeists were throwing things around and Dad almost got beaned with a silver coffeepot.
Malcolm nudges him in the ribs and he looks up to see Ms. Whitcomb frowning at him. He stops tapping his pencil against his notebook and shifts nervously on the bench. Kara and Leslie are looking at him too, so he hunches his shoulders in a little. Mr. Bell says something about pH and lake water, and then the lady standing in the corner steps forward and smiles at them. "I'm Nora Kestler," she says. "I'm going to be taking you around the lake and we'll be talking about the plants and animals in this area. If you have any questions about Salaman Lake, you can always ask me. I'll be staying here in Pine Lodge with all of your teachers. Now come on; we're going to get to know each other with some trust exercises."
He's used to getting-to-know-you games; every school he's attended has insisted on them for the new kids. But he's pretty sure that the only people he trusts are Dean and Dad.
It turns out that trust games are played in the woods. Nora lies on the ground and they crowd around her. She counts to three and they lift her in the air and then rock her gently down. He can feel his hands getting sweaty at the thought of being lifted off the ground like this. Nora stands up and brushes the dirt off her shirt and shorts. "Okay, who's next? How about you?" She's looking right at him. He shakes his head in horror. "What's your name?"
"Sammy," he says. "But I don't want to be lifted. It's okay; I trust everybody." He knows he's too heavy and he'll die of embarrassment when they grunt and strain and try to heave him up.
She grins and says, "Nice try. On the ground, Sammy. It feels nice; trust me." She winks, and before he can figure out how, he's on the ground, staring up at everyone's faces. Heather's hands are on his butt. Kara and Leslie each have one of his feet. The light is glinting off Alice's glasses and Kenny's braces and Nora's hair is all lit up. She counts to three and he's lifted smoothly off the ground like he's being held up to the light. And then he's being rocked down, swaying securely like he's being held in a hug. When he gets up, Nora nods at him and he smiles back. This week is going to be fantastic.
There's no one in shouting distance, but he pretends this is a training exercise and sneaks into the cabin noiselessly. He can't see any sign of Sammy. The next cabin over has a dot-dash-dash scratched into the front door and he grins. He pushes open the front door and sees three bunk beds. Sammy's duffel is on the floor in front of the one against the left wall, a few books already spread out on the lower mattress. His brother is such a little geek.
He kneels on the mattress and ducks to avoid cracking his head on the upper bunk. He swings his bag off his shoulder and pulls a dreamcatcher from the front pocket, hanging it discreetly above Sammy's pillow and tucking a pack of Skittles under it. He takes a page out of Sammy's book and scratches "11 p.m." faintly on the headboard in Morse code.
Now that he's got the preliminaries taken care of, he can get the lay of the land. The cabin is almost square, each of the three bunk beds against one wall and a large bathroom area taking up the fourth. There are cold, dingy tiles on the floor and walls, the stall shower, toilet, and sink in three small, separate rooms. The shower window opens and closes without any squeaks; it's too high to see through, but he and Sammy should be able to hear each other at least. The woods are closer to this cabin than the other boys' cabin; the trees will hide him when he stands by this window.
He leaves the cabin and takes a deep breath of the clean air. It's quiet up here. He knows Sammy's safe; he hopes Dad is too.
Nora takes them far off the path and stops, pointing at a nest at the top of a tree. "In a few weeks, when more of the leaves have fallen, we'd be able to see it more clearly, but for now just have a look through these," she says, passing around a pair of binoculars. He's waiting for his turn when he sees Kevin turn pale like he's about to puke. Then the binoculars are in his hand and he looks up at the nest. He can see twigs and leaves woven together, and a single feather sticking out of one side. He passes them on to Howard and turns to look at the sun shining on the lake.
They walk around the lake, stopping whenever Nora points out a fish or a plant, taking notes; Mr. Bell said there might be a quiz. The sun is already dipping low in the sky when Ms. Whitcomb appears to take them to Pine Lodge for dinner. Spaghetti and meatballs, green salad, garlic bread, and soda. He conducts a taste test and determines that root beer is better than Coke or Pepsi; he'll have to ask Dean to get some next time there's a sale at the grocery store.
Mr. Bell walks them halfway back to their cabins. "Night, boys," he says, already turning back toward Pine Lodge. "Lights out at ten." They split up into groups by cabin, and he can hear Randy and Dom wrestling each other the rest of the way down the hill.
Pastor Jim's voice is just about putting him to sleep, and it's only ten-thirty. He pulls the headphones off, stopping the walkman in the middle of the third Latin prayer he's been trying to memorize. Even if he takes the long way around, he'll still get to Sammy's cabin in time for their meeting.
He stands near the window, sees it open a hand's width. He hears Sammy whisper, "Easy-peasy?"
"Lemon-squeezy," he answers, getting a giggle in return. "How's everything going, Sammy?"
Sammy sounds all lit up. "I won!" he says, staying quiet but trumpeting his triumph with the tone of his voice.
"Spin the Bottle," Sammy says like it's no big deal and he bites his tongue. "Every time it landed on me, I burped," Sammy continues proudly. "Joshua burped louder, but I burped the longest. So I won."
He's too relieved to do more than huff a laugh, and the first thing that tumbles out of his mouth is, "All those drills we run? Totally improved your lung capacity, dude." Before Sammy can respond, he shushes him. Two small figures are sneaking toward the cabin. If these little punks are looking for a prank war, they're going to be brought down by Sammy's secret weapon: his big brother, the fucking master. "You got company, Sammy," he says softly. "Come back when you've gotten rid of them."
He hears Sammy leave the room, and then he hears nothing except for birds and crickets. He remembers reading that crickets chirp by rubbing their wings together, which seems like a lot of effort for not that much reward. Sammy finally comes back. His voice is solemn. "Dean, Kevin's missing."
He starts listing off the names he can remember from the flyer. There's Malcolm and Howard, of course, and Joshua and Riley the Prick. And the sixth kid, was he Kevin? No, Kenny. He was Kenny. "Who's Kevin?"
"He's in the other cabin. He's supposed to be in the other cabin," Sammy says, sounding upset. "And he looked sick today."
"Maybe he's just in the infirmary, or whatever," he says.
"But Dom and Randy said he just left without saying anything," Sammy protests.
He can hear someone - a heavyset man, judging by the footsteps - approaching. "I gotta go, Sammy. Security patrol."
"Is Kevin with them?"
He's tempted to lie, to answer the hope in Sammy's voice, but he won't. "Nope." He taps the window lightly, a reminder that it needs to be shut. "Sleep tight, Sammy. I'll lay down the salt."
He wakes up with the sleeping bag twisted around him, one leg of his thermals bunched at the knee. He sits up and sees the dreamcatcher, bright feathers and strong webbing. No one else is awake yet, so he goes quietly to the bathroom, sneaking a glance at Kenny's watch.
He steps out of the shower, jumping a little when he hears a soft tapping at the window. He ties his towel around his waist and opens the window a crack. "Dean?"
"Mornin', Sammy," he hears.
"Hi," he says before the sound of Dean's heavy breathing registers. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Just ran a little longer than usual," Dean says, and he relaxes. "I'm sweatin' like a pig."
He gnaws at his thumbnail. "No one else is awake. You want to use the shower?"
He hears a low laugh. "That's why you're the brains of this outfit, Sammy," Dean says, raising the window up and hoisting himself through. "Hurry up and get dressed, dude. I'm gonna need to use that towel."
He walks back toward the Impala with his headphones on. Metallica blasts through his skull and he can feel his heartbeat take on the rhythms of the song. "Sleep with one eye open, gripping your pillow tight," he sings, the cabins far behind him. The bushes in front of him are quivering. His singing isn't that bad; he stops the cassette and pushes the headphones down around his neck. He steps forward and parts them, looking down at a kid Sammy's age, rocking and crying with his hands over his face. "Kevin?" he asks.
"My eyes, my eyes," the kid sobs, not resisting when Dean wraps his hands around fragile wrists and pulls gently, baring the kid's face. The boy's eyes are unnaturally wide, flat and unmoving.
"Kevin?" he tries again. "What's the matter with your eyes?" He sits the kid up and waves his hand in front of his face, but the boy's eyes don't register the movement. Fuck. He keeps his hands soft, his tone soothing; he hums tunelessly as he gathers the kid in his arms. The kid quiets a little, but his hands steal back up to cover his eyes when Dean heads back toward the cabins. A bird caws overhead and the kid screams, twisting frantically. He gets the kid to stand on the front porch of his own cabin, then knocks on the door sharply and heads over to Sammy's cabin. A quick look through the back window shows him Sammy sitting on his bed, reading, while the rest of the boys scramble to get dressed and ready. Short-long-long he taps out against the window, and even through his dreamy academic fog Sammy hears it and looks up.
"I'm going for a walk," Sammy calls out, closing the door behind him. "Dean? What's going on?"
"Does Kevin have straight brown hair and blue eyes?" he asks, and Sammy nods confusedly. "I found him. He's in bad shape, Sammy."
"What happened to him?"
"I don't know," he says, scrubbing a hand over his face. The thought of that kid - could have been Sammy - out all night, alone and apparently blind, makes his throat ache. "I left him at his own cabin. Go check on him. But make sure you don't go anywhere alone." He grabs Sammy, pulling him close with fingers hooked into his jeans pockets. "You've got the salt pack in your pocket?" he whispers harshly.
"Yeah, Dean," Sammy says, his voice shaky and his eyes watery. "I promised you."
"That's right," he says. "You promised."
He gets Malcolm and Howard to go with him to the other cabin. Kevin's lying on his bed, all curled up. Everyone else is just standing around, watching him, without getting too close. He remembers how Dean looked, his locked-down face radiating misery and his tight shoulders betraying his fear; he has to do something. He steps forward and puts his hand on Kevin's shoulder, leans in close and hears Kevin mumbling something over and over. "My eyes, my eyes," he wails softly, and Sammy can feel a shiver work slowly up his spine at the sound.
"We have to take him to Pine Lodge," he says; "he's hurt."
Dom steps forward, looking pale. "We can't carry him up the hill. I can go get Mr. Bell."
He bites his lip and nods. "Yeah, but take someone with you. Don't go alone." He pats at Kevin's shoulder again uselessly, wondering what could have happened.
He strips next to the Impala, pulling out fresh clothes from the duffel in the backseat. He dresses quickly, then opens the trunk, slipping his cold iron knife and a flask of holy water into one pocket and the EMF meter in another. He really needs to figure out how to make rock salt shells that will stand up to the heat and pressure of a shotgun. Right now, though, he can't afford the noise of a gun.
He walks back along the path, slipping into a low crouch only when he nears the tree where he found Kevin. The EMF meter is crackling, but not insistently, and that's not helping, so he shoves it back into his jacket pocket. His knife is a heavy, cool weight in his hand as he moves carefully, searching for tracks in the dirt, sniffing for sulfur in the air, anything. Maybe there's a larger pattern he's missing, something he'd spot from a better vantage point. He climbs the tree, trying not to knock a bird's nest out of the upper branches, and settles on a thick bough. The lake gleams in the sunlight, small ripples flowing as the fish chase each other around. There's nothing wrong with this picture, and after a few minutes of waiting he climbs back down. Maybe the kid just got sick, he thinks unhappily.
"He's really sick, Dean," he whispers through the bathroom window. "He kept saying something about his eyes." His thermals are itchy, and he wishes he could see his brother.
"Yeah." He can hear Dean lean against the wall of the cabin. "Did he . . . did he scream too?"
"No, but the nurse gave him something to make him sleep."
"Sammy," Dean says, sounding completely serious, "do you think this is our kind of thing?"
He knows that Dean loves him, but he never knew that Dean trusted him too. "Yeah," he admits, not letting his voice shake.
"Okay. Tell me everything. From the beginning."
According to the schedule the principal had passed out, all the teachers and kids should be out near the lake, leaving Kevin alone with the nurse. And she's going to need a coffee or bathroom break at some point, so all he has to do is sit tight and stay out of sight. When she finally shrugs into her jacket and leaves, he picks the lock and stands next to Kevin's bed. "Kevin," he says, trying to sound firm but unthreatening. "Wake up, kid."
Kevin thrashes awake, looking so goddamn grateful to be hauled out of sleep that he knows Sammy's right: this must be their kind of problem. He squats down so that he's not looming over him, but from the way the kid's eyes refuse to fasten on him, it's clear that the blindness hasn't gone away. Kevin's hands come up and scrub at his face. "So much blood," he whispers, over and over.
There's no blood anywhere, but if this is what'll get him to talk, he'll play along. He pulls a paper towel from the roll and douses it in holy water. "Shhh," he soothes, swiping at Kevin's cheeks with the wet square. "I'll take care of it. What happened to you?"
"The birds," Kevin says, his voice high as a six-year-old's, and starts to sob again. "They found me and . . . and . . . they pecked my eyes out. But I didn't do anything wrong!" He crumples up into a fetal position, and Dean remembers that stroking Sammy's hair was the way to get him to unfold and relax.
"No, you didn't do anything wrong," he agrees, one hand petting Kevin's head, the other still clutching the paper towel. "And they didn't do anything to you. Close your eyes and listen to me. You still have your eyes, Kevin. There's no blood on your face. When you open your eyes, you'll be able to see." Kevin's still got his eyes squeezed shut. "Come on," he encourages.
Kevin's eyes snap open and lock on his face without a trace of recognition. "What's going on?" he asks, his voice stronger and deeper but confused.
"No idea, dude. Just passing through," he says, backing away and running the paper towel across the counter like he was in the infirmary just to clean it. He turns to leave.
"Hey," he hears. "You got anything to eat? I'm starving."
He's standing next to Kara at the edge of the lake, thinking about what could have happened to Kevin. "Sammy?" Kara asks uncertainly. He looks at her. "Are you ready?"
"Yeah. Sorry," he says. He looks at her clothes, the pretty light blue jeans and lacy socks and bright white Keds she's wearing. "If you want, I'll go in the lake, so you don't have to get wet," he offers and she smiles. He nods, trying to figure out how he ended up with her as his partner. "Let's go around; Mr. Bell said everyone should try to get a sample from a different part of the lake," he says, leading the way to a place where the reeds are a little thicker. It's quieter over here, less sun and more shadow, and everyone else seems really far away. He squats on the muddy bank, filling both of the test tubes she hands him. He hands them back, then turns and rises. "Do you have the litmus -" he starts to ask.
"Ooh, a frog!" she interrupts excitedly, leaning close to point, and something falls out of her hair. He catches it automatically and hands it back and she looks at him. "Thanks. This is my favorite scrunchie," she says. He's smiling at her when she leans forward again, and all of a sudden her lips are on his and she's still clutching the scrunchie and his whole body is heating up, starting with his face. She pulls back. Her voice is all whispery. "Sammy, you're so -" A scream cuts through the stillness.
They run back to where everyone else is gathered. He's expecting to see a snake or something, but he instead it's Leslie lying on the ground, her body twitching like she's been poisoned, trying to take huge deep breaths while tears stream out of her eyes. Nora's trying to get her to sit up, but Leslie's still flailing around. Kara's still standing next to him, crying. He looks at her helplessly while Mr. Bell scoops Leslie up.
He's only a few feet from the infirmary when he hears a herd of people coming. He curses and ducks, eyes widening when he sees one of Sammy's teachers holding a thrashing girl in his arms the same way he held Kevin yesterday. There's a crowd of kids following him, Sammy looking miserable among them. He grabs him quick with one hand over his mouth, the other on his arm. He wants to just take Sammy and run, but he settles for running his hands up and down Sammy's arms, checking for injuries, calming himself down. "What happened?"
Sammy's eyes are dark. "I don't know, Dean," he says softly. "She screamed once and then she was on the ground, flailing around like that." He shrugs unhappily. "She was acting like she couldn't breathe."
The best way to make Sammy happy is to get him to use his brain. "You guys were down at the lake, right?" Sammy nods, a spark lighting in his eye. "What were you doing?"
"We were getting samples to test the pH of the lake water," Sammy says, blushing a little. There's nothing embarrassing about that, so he nudges him and waits with big-brother patience for Sammy to spill. "Kara kissed me," Sammy finally mumbles, looking pretty pleased. He smiles down at his little brother and bumps him again with his shoulder. "Anyway, right after that is when Leslie screamed. I wasn't paying attention."
"Hey," he says before Sammy can convince himself everything is his fault. "You're not responsible for Leslie. You're just responsible for you." He waits until Sammy nods. "Okay. Let's think. Down by the lake, she's thrashing around. You said she was having problems breathing?" It hits him all of a sudden. "She thinks she's drowning, Sammy. Kevin thought birds had pecked out his eyes, Leslie thinks she's drowning."
There's a long silence and then Sammy breathes, "Fear demon."
Shit. "Dad's never faced one. And there's not a whole lot left in the trunk." He tries to assess the situation. "I don't know if it was the talking or the holy water that helped Kevin, but you gotta try both with Leslie." He sprinkles a little holy water on Sammy's head before handing him the flask. "I'll try to get hold of Caleb, see if he knows how to handle one of these bastards." He looks at Sammy, who's taking orders calmly, his little shoulders stiffened and his back straight. "You're doing great, Sammy. I'll check in with you tonight. Just stick close to everyone else." A thought occurs to him. "What're you guys supposed to be doing tomorrow?"
"Planting trees," Sammy answers, because of course he's got the schedule memorized.
"That should be okay, right? Who could be scared of baby trees?" He turns Sammy around, points him in the direction of the infirmary. "Go take care of Leslie," he says. "And maybe kiss your girl again when you're done," he advises, and Sammy's ears turn red.
Kara's sitting next to Leslie, but she's looking at him. His insides are getting all squirmy and he doesn't feel much like eating. He has no idea how Dean hasn't wasted away to practically nothing if this is how it feels whenever a girl looks at you.
She finds him as they leave Pine Lodge, heading for a small, grassy grove. "Leslie says you fixed her," she says breathlessly, looking at him like he's a hero.
"No," he replies, startled. "I just . . . um . . . I thought she was having a nightmare, you know? She looked a little sweaty, so I was just wiping her face, and she woke up." He hadn't realized how quickly the holy water would work, and he'd been in the middle of his millionth repetition of "you're not drowning, it's okay" when her eyes snapped open and met his.
Kara's blue eyes are big and dreamy. "You fixed her," she says again, and kisses his cheek, then runs ahead to catch up with Leslie.
He walks and then drives around for what seems like forever, trying to find a pay phone that actually works, before deciding that his best bet is probably breaking into the infirmary again and using the phone there. The nurse leaves for the night and the place is empty, so Sammy must have done quick work and gotten Leslie to wake up. The kid's awfully good.
He dials Caleb's number, letting the phone keep ringing dully against his shoulder. He doesn't let himself get impatient; this is too important, Sammy could be in danger too. He keeps the receiver in his hand, kicks off his boots, and stretches his muscles. The phone is still ringing. He wishes he had knives and a whetstone, or their guns and some oil. The line disconnects, so he dials again. In a drawer he finds a blank notebook and a pen. He writes down everything that's happened, trying to keep things in order. It makes things a little clearer in his brain, and by the time Caleb finally picks up, he's able to give him the whole story, straight, no revisions, and ask the right questions. Caleb being Caleb, of course he has to answer in a long, roundabout way, starting with the time he took one of these things on when he was not much older than Dean, and how he'd learned something very important from that encounter, and "there are things you need to know, Dean, before you go after it, and I'm not just talking about the demon and its powers, but things you need to know about yourself before you've got a shot at bringing it down. You need to know if you're afraid of the right kind of thing." His voice gets quiet before he finishes, "No shame in not being the one to defeat it." But he's not about to let some fucker in a lake - it's got to be living in the lake - get the better of him and keep hurting whoever it damn well pleases, so he just says his thanks and gets off the phone.
It's late, past midnight by the time he leaves the infirmary, and it's no work at all to sneak into Sammy's cabin, pick him up from where he's sleeping on the shower floor, and carry him back to bed. Sammy's cheek is waffled from being pressed against his thermal sleeve, and he runs gentle fingers over its round softness. He zips up the sleeping bag before heading tiredly to the Impala.
The grove is bright and sunny. He looks around at everybody and relaxes; the light is playing on the lake and there's a breeze ruffling the leaves on the saplings. The whole class is sitting on the warm ground in a semi-circle, listening to Nora talk about the ecosystem. Mr. Bell interrupts her to remind them all about photosynthesis, and he sniffs the rich air contentedly. He's feeling nice and lazy, and when Nora ends her talk and holds out shovels, he groans as he gets up. "You want to dig a hole that's deep enough for the sapling to be able to support itself, but not so deep that the roots can't get rainwater," Nora says, walking around and inspecting everyone's work with a friendly smile. "Here, let me help you," she says to Ashley, and Ashley hands over the shovel without a word. "Like this," Nora demonstrates, one foot on the shovel, pushing it into the earth. He looks up to see how she's doing it and watches, horrified, as she slumps suddenly and pitches forward, slamming into the ground like she's been shot.
He drops his shovel and runs over to her in a low crouch, eyes scanning the landscape for a shooter he knows he won't find. There's no blood in her hair, but he turns her over to find blood leaking from her nose, ugly and swelling. Mr. Bell casts a long shadow over them, and squats to help pull Nora to her feet. "She's awfully young to have a heart attack," Mr. Bell says, like he's trying to convince himself, and Sammy doesn't bother trying to explain. "Everyone, stay here," Mr. Bell says, looking around sternly. "No one moves. I mean it. I'm going to take Nora to the infirmary and Ms. Whitcomb and I will come back to escort you to your cabins."
He touches the salt in his pocket and wishes for Dean.
The leaves are falling around him as he paces behind Sammy's cabin, waiting to hear his little brother's voice. There's bound to be another attack today, and as long as Sammy's still with him, they can figure out how to kill this thing. "C'mon, Sammy, come on," he says, until he can hear dried leaves crackling under the stomp of many feet. He hears an adult walk away and then Sammy's standing in front of him, safe and whole.
"It got Nora," Sammy says, "the lady who's teaching us about the lake and the woods." The story Sammy tells doesn't make any sense; he can't make any connection between shoveling and the fear of getting shot.
"Sammy," he says, "we can't fix Nora."
"I know we can figure it out, Dean!" Sammy says, his round chin setting with determination.
"No, I mean we can't. Even if we could figure it out, if we heal her, the demon's just going to take another victim. It only takes one at a time. When I helped Kevin, that made it attack Leslie. And when I told you how to help her, it went after Nora."
"It's not your fault, Dean," Sammy says in his little voice, looking at him with old, old eyes. "It's not." He shrugs, but Sammy keeps looking at him, his face turned up trustingly. "What happens to them?"
"Caleb said people usually just look like they're sick, delirious, and they get trapped in their fear and can't really sleep or eat or anything, and their bodies just wear out. And that makes the demon stronger."
"So the longer we let Nora stay in the infirmary, the stronger the demon gets?"
"Yeah." His guts clench, but he forges ahead with the thought that's haunted him since he thought about Caleb's warning. "And I can't kill it."
"It can't be killed?" Sammy asks, his eyes going wide with panic.
"No, I can't kill it." He's already failed his brother. He doesn't know what he wishes for more - for Sammy's fear to be something so ludicrous that he'd be able to take on the demon, or for it to be so dangerous that it would sideline him. He takes a deep breath. "But you might be able to."
Sammy's face is a mask of disbelief. "Me? How?"
"What's your worst fear, Sammy?"
Sammy bites his lip. "Will you tell me yours?"
He'll agree to anything that Sammy asks of him. "Yes."
He thinks it might be easier to admit if he doesn't have to look at Dean's face. He surges forward and buries his face in his brother's chest, and Dean's arms wrap around him automatically. "What is it, Sammy? You can tell me anything." He can feel Dean's voice as vibration, long fingers stroking his head.
He's safe and warm like this, but that's the point, isn't it? That he could lose it all someday. He's got to face this like a man. He pushes back and looks Dean in the eye. "I'm afraid you're going to leave," he says. "That you'll get tired of looking after me, that you'll want to hunt full-time like Dad and not worry about cooking or cleaning or helping me with my homework. Yeah. That you'll leave."
Dean looks honestly shocked, and his mouth hangs open for a second. "Never going to happen, Sammy," he says. "I promise, I swear. You always come first." Dean never lies - not to him, not to Dad - even when he could get in trouble for telling the truth, and he can feel himself start to believe him, the way his shoulders soften under Dean's hands, the way his knees unlock and bend. "Do you believe me?" Dean asks, and he nods. "Good. Then this thing won't have any power over you." He can feel himself getting stronger as Dean speaks, and he nods again. "You can kill it, Sammy, and I'm going to be right there with you."
He still has to know. "What's yours, Dean? What could it make you believe?"
Dean hesitates for a moment. "It's something you can't take away, Sammy. Don't worry about it."
"Dean," he says, trying to catch his brother's eye. There's a long silence between them, but he knows enough to wait.
He shuts his eyes, blocking the sight of Sammy's concerned face. "It's always the same. Always. We're on a hunt and I'm too tired to think straight, too tired to run." He feels like he's already trapped in his nightmare, weary and undeserving of rest. "Just fucking exhausted, and I just want to rest, and as soon as I think that, something attacks and . . . you're dead, Sammy. You and Dad are just lying on the ground, and I got you killed."
Sammy reaches for his hand, but he's got it clenched in a fist. "That's not going to happen," Sammy soothes, but he jerks away.
"You don't know that, Sammy. It's not like it's a choice. I can tell you I won't leave you, and I mean it, and I won't, but that's my choice. It's not like I can choose to never be tired again, never not know enough." He brings his fists to his temples and bows his head as a shudder runs through him. His hands drop and his back straightens. "That's what it could show me if I touched it. That's why it's gotta be you, Sammy. I'm sorry."
"But Mr. Bell said we had to stay in our cabins until he came and got us!" Malcolm says, and they all nod. Even Riley. He gets Dean's holy water flask out of his bag and wraps it in his towel.
"I'll be back soon," he says. He's not saying his goodbyes; Dean made him promise he wouldn't. "My brother's waiting for me."
Dean always says that a warrior should know the weapons he's trusting his life to, so he hands Dean the towel but keeps hold of the flask. They walk to the Impala and Dean hands him his cold iron knife before rummaging in the backseat and emerging with his walkman.
No one is around; everyone's locked up tight in their cabins. They walk with steady steps toward the lake, and he listens as Dean outlines the plan, makes him repeat it back, over and over until there's no way he can forget any of it.
They stop at the edge of the lake and he needs to see Dean smile before he does this. "Good thing I have that great lung capacity, right?" he jokes, and Dean grins. He strips down to his underwear and grips the knife.
He turns to Dean and nods. "Sammy," Dean says, unscrewing the cap of the flask, "I'm right here." He dives in.
He looks up and sees Dean, blue as bone through the water. He realizes that this must feel like Dean's nightmare, so he surfaces and says, "I'm ready," before letting the lake close over him again. When Dean pours the holy water into the lake, he can hear the demon scream.
He swims toward it, fast like a fish, like the fish Dean says his eyes resemble, and finds it, small and ugly, somehow dry and cracked, and spears it with the knife. It wriggles madly on the tip of the knife for a moment, but the cold iron binds it, makes it sluggish and keeps it from escaping, and he swims for the surface. He emerges and sticks the knife in the ground, keeping the screaming demon trapped. Dean is there, with wet eyes and a dry towel, and he lets Dean run the towel over his head quickly and drape it over his shoulders. He takes the walkman Dean holds out, puts on the headphones, and clicks play. Pastor Jim's voice is slow and steady, and he repeats each line of the vanquishing prayer carefully, not letting his tongue fumble. When he's finished, he pulls the knife out of the ground. He lays his hand on the demon and says "Amen," and the thing cracks and breaks into smaller and smaller pieces until it's not even dust.
Dean grabs him by the armpits and hauls him up and he lets his eyes close.
He follows the bus into the school parking lot and idles until Sammy opens the passenger door. A little blonde is waving shyly at Sammy, so he nudges until Sammy looks up and sees her. "That's Kara?" he asks.
"Yeah." He waits until she gets into a maroon sedan before pulling away and heading home.
He puts water on the stove to boil before he goes down the hall to help Sammy unpack. Sammy's sprawled on the bed, asleep, so he shuts off the burner in the kitchen and starts the washing machine instead. He gathers all of Sammy's dirty clothes and his own and pulls off his shirt and socks and jeans. There's something crinkling in the pile, and he finds the notes he made while he was on the phone with Caleb, the paper folded in soft creases. He sorts the clothes and starts the load of darks, then rereads his notes. He wants to call Caleb and brag about what Sammy did. But it's Sammy's story to tell, and Dad should be getting home soon, so he heads back to the kitchen. He makes Sammy's favorite spaghetti with meatballs and peppers and sets the table for three.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.