John didn't notice the crows that day, perched on telephone lines up and down the street outside his home in Lawrence, Kansas. If he had, he probably would have thought their stillness strange and shrugged it off as some sort of idiosyncratic avian behavior brought on by the unseasonably warm October weather.
That was before the fire, before he saw with eyes cleansed by smoke and holy water. But on this particular afternoon, John Winchester put the Impala in park, let his four year old son spill out of the backseat, and chased him up the porch into his mother's arms. A baby started to cry inside the house as John closed the door for what would be the last time.
The crows remained until nothing was left but blood and ash, dispersing all at once as if lifted by invisible strings. Dean saw them as he turned away from the smoke, and instinctively burrowed deeper into his father's side. All John saw was Mary's limp hand, reaching. It was all he ever remembered.
They bunked down in Key West the summer after Sam finished kindergarten. Dean talked incessantly about gators and swamp monsters made of quicksand that would grab your legs and suck you down to the center of the Earth. Sam refused to even set foot off the sidewalk until Dean got tired of carrying him across the soft earth to the playground and grudgingly admitted Dad was hunting a poltergeist.
"'Sides, I could take down a swamp monster any old day. You gotta keep throwin' water on him til he turns into a puddle. Splat! Just like that."
Sam nodded solemnly, taking Dean's hand in his chubby one just in case. His other hand clutched an over-sized butterfly net, for the infamous gators.
They started their search under the slide, for the cool, dark underside seemed an ideal nesting place for a family of toothy reptiles.
"Nothin, here Dean," Sam grumbled, brushing off the sand clinging to his shins.
"We should find higher ground then," the elder boy said sensibly. "We'll be able to see further."
The monkey bars huddled anemically next to a busted water fountain seemed the natural choice. Dean jumped up to grab a bar along the top row, swinging his legs back and forth until he created enough momentum to haul the rest of his body over the top. He looked down at his younger brother with an impish grin.
"You comin' or not?"
Sam's eyes widened. Dean was so cool- he didn't even have to use the ladder. Sam grudgingly pulled himself up hand over hand; one step at a time, refusing Dean's helping hand with as much dignity as he could muster.
The top of the jungle gym looked out over flat, brown earth. The motel squatted off to the right, its neon "vacancy" sign winking erratically, even in the light of the afternoon. A road stretched into the distance, shimmering faintly in the heat. Sam counted four plastic bottles, two large cockroaches and the lazy gray cat that belonged to the motel owner, but no gators.
"I'm thirsty," he whined, pulling at his thin cotton t-shirt which was beginning to stick to his back. The muggy air made everything heavy and uncomfortable.
Dean sighed, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. His eyebrows drew together and his tongue poked from between his lips, an expression that Sam knew meant he was weighing the change in his pocket against the cost of a nice, cool drink from the convenience store down the road.
"Alright, fine. But let's be quick, okay? Dad didn't want us to leave the motel."
Sam nodded vigorously. "I wanna grape soda." He could almost feel the fizzy carbonation tickling the back of his throat.
Dean pushed up on his arms, vaulting neatly over the side of the monkey bars, and landed gracefully on the ground.
Sam's features creased into a determined frown. It didn't look that hard. Besides, the only reason he had to use the ladder coming up was because he was too short to reach the top bars. He placed his feet on the long, parallel beams that made up the frame and stood up shakily. The ground suddenly looked much farther away.
"Sammy, what are you doing?! Don't-"
He pivoted carefully, placing his weight onto one leg and shifting his other foot, with the intention of resting both feet on the same side. For a moment he froze in a graceful pirouette, before the earth rotated on its axis. His ankle wobbled treacherously and he spun, the ground swooping towards him in a dizzy arc. He groped blindly for support, his fingers briefly closing around the rusted metal before the weight of his body yanked him down in an untidy heap.
Dean instantly materialized at his side, throwing an arm around his shaking shoulders.
"Hey, let me see."
He gently tried to pull apart Sam's clenched fist, which was already dripping blood in a thin stream. The boy only howled louder, his face turning red and squashed like a tomato. Dean paled as he noticed the offending wrist begin to swell. Judging from the red smear in the dirt, Sam had landed on it.
"I'm gonna go find dad," he choked out, shuddering to think of the fury this little episode would invoke.
Sam curled into a ball and sobbed harder."I'll be right back."
Dean's footsteps receded and Sam gradually lifted his head. His palm was sharp and hot, radiating slim fingers of pain down his arm. He uncurled his hand experimentally, but shut it quickly again when he caught a glimpse of torn skin hanging limply like a flag on a still day.
He glimpsed a small black shape moving furtively along the edges of his vision. Sam looked about for a rock or something to throw, stories of disgruntled gnomes and changelings running through his head. Coming up empty, he turned to face the creature.
It was a sleek, black crow. Sam huffed out a laugh of relief.
The crow cocked its head and took a hop forward. Sam held his breath as the crow moved cautiously closer. He felt like a guy on the nature shows that he liked to watch when Dean let him have the remote. The one who could get snakes to eat out of his hand and slept next to tigers. Slowly, he extended his uninjured hand, keeping his eyes averted like the nature guy had said.
Tiny, prickly feet latched on to his finger. Sam fought to keep from hollering at Dean to come back. He's gonna be so jealous!
The bird glanced at up, unruffled by the boy's excitement. It leaned over and pecked experimentally at Sam's bad wrist. He yelped, jerking his arm away instinctively. The crow merely bobbed its head up and down, as if he were examining the limb. It paused when it reached the bloody fist, casting a beady eye over the area.
Icy sweat began pooling in the crook of Sam's back. The intensity of the bird's gaze was so sentient, so wrong, that his stomach felt loose and quivery. It cawed once; a single, grating note, before dipping its beak into the stickiness that was oozing from between Sam's fingers.
Let it stop let it stop please Dean comebacknow. Sam's breath hitched in his chest. His muscles screamed in protest, but he was too terrified to move. The crow withdrew from his fist, feathers smeared red. It winked- no, crows don't do that. It blinked lazily at him before spreading its wings and taking off.
The gash in Sam's hand required seven stitches, and he nursed his sprained wrist with an ice pack and an ace wrap. He put the bird out of his mind and forgot all about the strange incident, as young children often do.
The dreams started the night of Sam's eleventh birthday. They weren't nightmares, per se. At least not the usual kind that John or Dean would have after a bad hunt. The kind where you woke up sweaty and startled, the image of a wendigo's bloody claws still pressed into your retinas. Sam used to have those all the time, especially in November. After all, nightmares were as much a part of the Winchester legacy as denial and high-functioning alcoholism.
The first time, John found him crouched in the corner, elbows bent at odd angles, a low growling sound issuing from his throat. A splash of holy water served to both wake him up and verify his humanity.
"You're damned lucky I didn't shoot you, hiding in the dark like that. The hell were you playing at?"
Sam had shrugged and climbed back into bed. He didn't recall the incident the next morning.
The second time he awoke to Dean's breath screaming in his ear. Sam quickly released his jaw and spat out a mouthful of hot, coppery blood. Dean wore the bite mark on his shoulder for a week before it faded to a pearly scar.
After they'd found Sam staring blankly into space outside a gas station three blocks from the motel at three in the morning, John had taken him to a psychic. Sam was given a clean bill of health, but that night he woke with the taste of musty feathers in his throat.
At age eighteen, Sam found himself breathing in ragged lungfuls of Bodega Bay's cool night air. His throat was still raw from shouting and his hands shook with residual rage and adrenaline.
If you walk out that door, don't you ever come back.
Sam wondered if the door was still attached to its hinges after the force he'd used to close it. The plates and cups had certainly suffered a few casualties that night.
Waves tickled Sam's bare feet as he meandered down the shoreline. His shoes hung tied together around his neck. Two hours to the south, his future lay waiting for him- a mecca of normalcy, where he could slowly bleed himself of the anger and frustration he felt every time John turned hungrily to the newspaper. He was tired of subsisting on gruesome deaths and filthy, smoke-filled nights.
Sam touched a finger to the creamy white envelope in his pocket, ensuring it was safe from the rain that was bound to make an appearance any moment. He really should be on a highway with his thumb in the air, but right now he needed to feel the heat drain from his cheeks.
A seagull cried and Sam startled, a dream surfacing half-remembered. Dark wings fluttering against his cheeks, tiny talons gripping his shoulders, bearing him off into the unknown.
The moment passed and Sam hiked his duffle higher on his shoulder, wincing as his sore palms made contact with the strap.
Must've been clenching my fists harder than I thought.
He uncurled his fingers to examine the small-crescent shaped nail marks. The tiny pools of blood looked black in the moonlight.
The seagull squawked again, this time directly overhead and he felt a chill run down his spine that had nothing to do with the weather.
Stupid, creepy birds.
"I don't have anything for you to eat!" he muttered crossly, thinking back to their first day in town. He'd nearly lost a finger over a turkey sandwich.
Dean almost pissed himself laughing…
That thought brought Sam pause. The old man was an asshole, whether Dean could see it or not. Leaving him behind, well maybe that'd help him see the light about hunting, about how this family was stifling and sick. Still, his stomach squirmed uncomfortably at the idea that Dean was merely collateral damage in the whole situation.
I need to get out of here, live my own life. I wasn't meant to be a hunter like him and Dad, he'll understand. He has to.
Regardless, the letter was beginning to weigh him down like a stone.
I could turn back, apologize. Maybe he could give me a ride to the bus station. Hell maybe he'd come with me. We could rent an apartment…
But some deep-rooted intuition told him that there would be no middle ground. He'd lived all his life in black and white- humans or monsters, obedience or defiance, strong or weak. Why would this decision be any different?
Free or trapped.
Sam stood still, his feet sinking into the soft sand. The breeze picked up, as if sensing his indecision.
My future or my family.
He felt something brush stealthily against his back before a sharp pain exploded at the back of his neck. Harsh cawing followed him all the way to Stanford.
The next day John and Dean noted the death of Annie Hayworth, the high school guidance counselor, in the local paper. She'd been found in her home, eyes pecked clean out of her head. The article went on to propose territorial nesting gulls as the cause. Naturally, the two Winchesters investigated; Sam's absence a jagged hole between them. They found traces of sulfur, but the demon was long gone.
Sam jerks awake in the darkness. Sleep comes uneasily to him; his hunter's instincts still attuned to every bump in the night. Vestiges of yet another nightmare hang on to his consciousness like cobwebs.
Just some stupid crow tapping on my window.
Jess mumbles something incoherent and rolls over, but Sam catches the sound of a soft footfall.
He slides stealthily out of bed, grabs the baseball bat under his pillow, and of COURSE it's Dean- skulking around with a stupid grin on his face, ready to drag Sam back into a world he hasn't fully managed to leave behind.
Just this one weekend.
Sam doesn't notice that the crow never leaves the window. It stays hunched over, as if shaking from silent mirth, the moonlight reflecting off its yellow eyes.