Chapter 2. A job like any other
2. A job like any other
Dean sighed and closed his eyes as the hot water poured from the rusty showerhead and over his body. His arms and legs were so numb that he couldn't really tell if the prickling rain of liquid fire was pleasant or not. It simply was. And for now, that was more than he could ask for.
It's just a job. A job like any other.
Barely registering the misty steam that curled around his limbs and would soon thicken the air, he rubbed his arms and shoulders and tilted his head to loosen the stiffness of his neck. The water had to be very, very hot if the square shower floor was turning into a sauna. And yet, his body remained as if anesthetized. "No, it's me," he thought, observing that his skin was indeed turning red.
Just a job…
When those words had started repeating in his mind he didn't know. But now he hung onto them as a mantra. Mumbling them over and over, Dean rested his forehead on the wall. The moist tiles were fresher than his burning skin, and somehow balmy. A job like any other. He wanted so bad to believe that. He needed to, because if he didn't, he wouldn't be able to go back into the room. He'd stay in the suffocating shower forever.
Only if he did that, he'd leave Sam on his own. And he couldn't fail his brother; he wouldn't, not now and not ever. Although Sam wouldn't admit it, that fucking shinning thing was scaring the hell out of him. He hadn't forgiven himself about Jess, no matter how many times Dean told him it wasn't his fault. And now, if those nightmares proved themselves to be visions, the kid would have to relive the ordeal.
No way. Sam shouldn't know he was scared too.
Scared? Me? Why should I be? It's just another job.
Well, maybe Dean didn't believe it firmly, but at the end of the day lying to himself could work just as well. It wouldn't be the first time; it wouldn't be the last. The hunter took a deep, steamy breath and swallowed the mild dizziness that the lack of oxygen was causing him. Then he turned the water temperature to its maximum as he pressed his head harder on the tiles before breathing out. Yeah, he was used to burying his fears and keeping in control at any cost –his sanity wouldn't make a difference. Because he was a hunter and that's what his dad had trained him for. And because Sam was waiting for him in the room, and that alone made it worth it to step out of his safe, tiled limbo and face the job. Just like any other.
When Dean went back to the twin bedded room Sam and he had signed themselves into a while ago, his little brother was absorbed with the laptop. He seemed to be very busy printing some documents and looking through the town registers, late news, and his dad's journal at the same time.
"Wow, college boy in action," Dean forced a smile.
Sam turned to look at his older brother, noticed his pale and tired complexion, and his expression of deep concentration become openly evaluating.
"What? Did I grow green ears or something?" Dean frowned to put an end to the uncomfortable examination.
Sam arched an eyebrow.
"If I say yes, will you run to the mirror screaming like a girl?"
Dean chuckled, relieved that Sam tacitly agreed to let it go.
"That's all you, Baywatch," Dean retorted, roughly tugging his hair.
Sam ignored him but couldn't hold back a light smile. Well done, Dean, the older thought glimpsing his brother's relief. At least, he was still able to press the right buttons so that his kid brother would stop worrying about nonsense –meaning him– and go back to business.
"So, what have you got?" Dean asked.
Sam flipped through a bunch of printed property registry pages.
"The house is under the name of Jennifer S. Lincoln; she bought it last month and moved in three weeks ago with her two children…eh…" Sam found the next details in the blink of an eye, even though the small table of the motel room was an absolute mess of papers. "Sari and Richie, 6 and 4 years old."
"Where did they live before?"
"Why did they move?"
"Her husband died last summer. Sounds like a fresh start to me."
"Oh", Dean said, thoughtfully. "How did he die?"
"A car crash, according to the death certificate. No trace of supernatural stuff involved," Sam answered in an "already considered that" tone while showing Dean a copy of the record taken from the Kansas registry.
Dean put a hand on the back of Sam's chair and sneaked a peak at the document over his shoulder. He had to admit his geek brother knew how to do research. They had got the room less than half an hour ago, and Sam hadn't been alone more than twenty minutes since Dean went into the bathroom. Still enough time for Sammy to dig into official records of the state, the older thought with a shade of pride.
"Any idea about what might be after her?"
"I can't be sure, but apparently whatever is haunting them isn't related to the family…" Sam trailed off. Dean swallowed and refused to look at Sam, who was cocking his head slightly to meet his eyes.
"Right, so then it's related to the house," Dean completed, as unceremoniously as he could, after clearing his throat. "What do you have about it?"
Sam didn't answer right away and Dean could see why his baby brother was hesitant. Sam was being too careful, too sensitive with him, and that was something he would not let happen.
"I've tracked the property records back 'til 1988, when Dad sold it," Sam said finally. "Since that date, there have been around fourteen different owners. None of them stayed longer than a year."
"Any incidents reported?" Dean asked, forcing his voice to sound as professional as Sam's.
"Dozens of complaints over the years, some unresolved accidents." Sam's agile fingers flew over the keyboard until something caught his attention. "And a death."
Dean frowned and his left fist clasped the back of the chair.
"A death? How?"
"Marcia Johnson. 2003. It says here that she died of a heart attack in her bedroom…" Sam's voice went lower, sadness and anger mixing in it. "She was 30 years old, man."
Dean sighed, and this time let his brother lock eyes with him, but for Sam's benefit only.
"Maybe it was a natural death," Dean ventured.
"Yeah, but what if it wasn't? What if now Jennifer…?"
"We'll make sure nothing happens to her, all right?" Dean cut him off with his most perfect Dean-like, reassuring tone. "That's what we're here for."
Still looking into Dean's eyes, Sam pursed his lips and nodded. A second later, the younger clicked his tongue and shrugged Dean away.
"Back off, dude, you're soaking my shirt!" he complained, noticing that Dean's wet hair was dripping onto his shoulder.
Dean chuckled softly and stood up straight, but instead of moving he slapped his brother's neck with the towel that he had taken with him from out of the bathroom.
"Hey," Sam gave him a dirty look. "You're such a jerk!"
"I'm many things, Sammy," Dean grinned. "But I take all of them to a degree of mastery."
Sam smiled to himself while his vain brother made his way to the bed and sat on the edge rubbing his hair dry. To tell the truth, he couldn't deny that was true. Of all the people Sam knew, nobody was ever "more anything" than Dean. Every adjective, good or bad, he could think of being applicable to his brother, was taken to the extreme by him. His brother would never merely be, but be in superlative.
"Can you imagine it, Dean?" Sam rambled full of emotion. "Maybe this is it, the thing that killed Mom, the son a bitch that killed Jess, maybe…"
"But it is possible! This is where it all started. What if…?"
"Maybe it has nothing at all to do with Mom or Jessica," Dean insisted. "Listen, I know how you feel, but we won't know anything for sure until we go to the house. And you have to be prepared to accept that maybe this is just a job, like any other…"
Did he just say that out loud?
Dean watched Sam carefully as he began chewing the inside of his cheek with impatience. The younger man frowned, and if he had to guess, Dean would say that Sam had just determined that his older brother was right. But it was easy to see that Sam was finding it hard to stay cool. Dean understood the feeling, and in a way, was glad that Sam's attention was diverted from him. Besides, comforting Sam was something he could do in his sleep.
"Why don't you take a shower too," Dean suggested. "I'll try to gather more info in the meantime."
"No, I'll do that later," Sam shook his head. "We should probably get going."
Dean seemed about to say something, but then thought twice. If he hesitated now, he wouldn't be able to get Sam off his back later. Even now his brother was barely able to conceal his urgency, but still trying badly not to rush things for Dean. It was kind of sweet…and humiliating.
"Okay, you ready then?"
"Yeah" Sam eyed his brother intently. "Are you?"
"Yup," Dean answered.
Too fast to be credible. But Sam would have to believe him, anyway. It wasn't as if they had many options.
Sam sat in the passenger's seat with a map of the town spread over his legs and drummed nervously on the crispy paper as he pressed his head against the window to spot the street names on corners.
His voice was tense with anticipation, which made it sound pretty much like an order. Dean ground his teeth and said nothing. He didn't need to listen to Sam's directions to drive through Lawrence no matter how many years had passed. Though narrower and somehow less colorful when seen through adult eyes, the streets were still familiar and crowded with memories here and there. Most of the shops had changed, but some of them he still recognized; the same old windows a bit less shining, aged shop assistants he had once known with less wrinkles behind polished counters he had sat on while Mom or Dad paid for an ice cream or a new pair or shoes…
"Right…Dean, right. Turn right!" Sam nudged his brother.
"Damn, don't do that, man!" Dean protested, gripping the wheel to prevent the Impala from skidding. "You want us to get acquainted with a fucking light post?"
Sam ducked his head sheepishly and mumbled an apology. His heart pounding, Dean swallowed hard and forced himself to focus on the road. He had to stay calm. Sam had to stay calm. Eyeing his little brother with an aggravated expression, Dean sensed that Sam was now lost in his own morose thoughts. Knowing that acting angry would accomplish nothing to help the situation, Dean tried to calm things down.
"You have to relax, dude. I know where I'm going, all right?"
After that, they drove quietly for a while, Sam repressing his nerves, Dean fighting the emotions that built inside him on every corner they turned around. After a moment, though, something caught the older's attention, and his lips curved with a smile.
"Hey, check that out," he said.
"What?" Sam asked at once, leaning forward in his seat.
Dean nodded to point at Sam's right and the younger scanned the area but found nothing special among the shop windows.
"What is it?"
"That candy shop next to the bank. I can believe it's still there," Dean answered. "You used to love it. Once you went in, it was impossible to drag you out."
Blinking in disbelief, Sam stared at Dean and then turned to see the shop his brother was referring to.
"Really?" Sam asked with a hint of curiosity that made him sound younger than he was.
Dean could almost see him as he had been, a five-year old, honey-brown haired child tugging his sleeve and playing his best puppy dog look to get some sweets.
"You bet. You want to know what is supernatural? How you made it to five years old with all your teeth!" Dean grinned.
Sam chuckled softly.
"And that comes from a man who boasts of a million dollar smile and is addicted to kettle corn."
"C'mon, I'm not…"
"You so are, Dean. Face it."
Dean's smile widened, and he shrugged as if to accept the charges while Sam, visibly more relaxed, leaned his head back on the headrest.
Minutes later, Dean stopped the Impala in front of the house and turned off the engine. He was reluctant to look at the two-story façade across the road, but on the contrary, Sam immediately bent over the driver's seat until he was practically lying in Dean's lap to stare frantically at the house. Startled by his kid brother's sudden move, Dean pressed himself against the seat.
"Is it that one?"
Without taking his eyes from Sam's shoulder, Dean grunted some sort of affirmative answer. This was so stupid, Dean thought. Sooner or later he would have to lift his eyes and take a look at the building.
Get a hold of yourself, man…
"I don't remember it," Sam's voice brought Dean back to reality.
"What?" Dean blinked.
Sam had backed off a little but wasn't looking directly at his brother.
"I, uh…I recognize it. It's the house in all of the pictures, the house of my vision, but I don't…I don't remember it," he tried to explain.
Taking in the sad, almost apologetic tone of Sam's voice, Dean frowned and glanced at the façade almost without realizing he was doing it. Automatically, a rush of mixed emotions struck him as a hammer blow, and his heart went wild. Clenching his fists, Dean forced those emotions deep down inside him —where they damn well belonged!— and focused on Sam. Yeah, sometimes, especially when Sam was around he was awfully grateful that putting his worries to the back of his mind came so naturally to him. On the other hand, it was also one of the many reasons not having his brother by his side could be scary as hell.
"I'd be surprised if you did," Dean offered Sam a reassuring half-smile. "We left town when you were young, and to be fair, you never really got to live in it before that."
Still not convinced, Sam looked down.
"Sammy, listen to me," Dean insisted. "After Mom died, we crashed for a couple of weeks at a friend's place until Dad found an apartment in town. That's where we stayed until we took off. You were just a baby when the fire took place, and afterwards you never came any closer to the house. How would you remember it?"
"But you do, right?"
"I…" Dean cleared his throat and answered evasively. "Yeah, sort of. But I was older."
"It must be weird for you," Sam muttered.
Dean locked eyes with Sam and breathed out quietly. His brother wasn't asking a question but making a statement. Actually, a big understatement, but Sam was probably aware of that too. It was basically his way of telling Dean he understood that this situation wasn't easy for him to deal with without scaring his proud brother away. It was a chance for Dean to admit that seeing the house was weird, without giving in to anything else. The damn kid is good. Dean couldn't deny that the weight on his chest lightened a little by the simple act of shrugging yes.
"Anyway," he added firmly, "That would be my problem." You don't have to feel guilty about it.
Sam shook his head imperceptibly and was about to answer back when his eyes suddenly grew wide, and his body tensed. In a heartbeat, Dean followed his brother's gaze to spot a blond woman in her thirties walking down the street with a little girl hopping around her. Both were headed to the house.
"Is that her?" Dean asked cautiously.
Sam's voice came out as a whisper so low that Dean seriously doubted he would have heard it at all had Sam not been so close. This is it, Dean thought while taking a deep breath. There was no turning back. Sam's vision had been right, and there was no possibility his subconscious could have made this up even by mixing memories, remorse, and fears. His little brother had dreamt of a woman he had never seen before. And the woman existed.
"Geez, Dean," Sam gasped.
Sam was terribly pale, and his anxiety had forced him to sit tensely upright. Behind his wide-open hazel eyes, Dean could glimpse his brother's racing thoughts spinning feverishly: "The vision was real…I'm a freak…the vision was real…I could have saved Jess…"
"Sam!" Dean called to him with a steady tone. And Sam responded to his voice instinctively and focused back on him after blinking a couple of times. "Listen, this is good news."
"Good news?" Sam repeated in confusion.
"Of course, little bro," Dean asserted. "It means we got here on time after all your bitching about rushing."
Sam's lips trembled before turning into a tiny, forced smile. Enough to show that little dimple of his. Enough to make Dean smile back.
"I guess you're right."
"You guess? That hurts, man," Dean complained, faking a hurt expression. Then, he patted Sam's shoulder and grabbed the handle to open his door. "All right, let's go?"
Back to his senses after the short moment of panic, Sam nodded, and both brothers got out of the car at the same time.
The moment Dean felt the soil under his feet, though, he realized he wasn't breathing. A part of his brain knew he was holding his breath on purpose to keep himself as shut off and safe as possible. And then there was another part, the one registering the white spots that blurred the next step, the one that gasped desperately for air. Ignoring both and moving on pure willpower alone, Dean hurried to catch up with Sam and stumbled over a toy train that was lying unnoticed in the grass.
"Shit!" he swore, after a sharp intake of breath.
The familiar smell and texture of the air made him sick, and dizziness came to the surface in the form of cold sweat. Control yourself. Easier said than done, as he sensed the house's shadow hovering over him. He wasn't ready. Sam... His brother hadn't even noticed that he was frozen behind him and kept walking farther and farther away. Sammy!, Dean tried to yell all the while hating the feeling of losing it. He couldn't do this right now; it was like having his guts crushed, like feeling his every thought in chaos. It was simple and plain terror that escaped his control. A terror he hated. A terror he had run away from and swore he would never face again.
His father's authoritarian voice made his way through the turmoil Dean's consciousness had become, along with a rush of suppressed memories of those five years his father had been stalking the property in search of answers, taking Dean with him. In all these years Dean had never been able to trespass the garden. No matter how hard he tried, as soon as he arrived to the spot where he had stood with Sammy in his arms —the exact spot he was now— an irrational fear paralyzed him nearly to death. And then John would yell at him. And John would shake him. And then he would glare at him full of contempt and finally he would abandon him alone in the dark, because his legs refused to follow.
Dad, I'll be a good boy, I'll be brave…But please not the house…don't take me to the house…
Dean flinched when Sam placed a hand on his shoulder and was close to falling backwards, but his brother was quick and grabbed him with both hands.
"What's wrong?" Sam asked full of concern.
Angry with himself, Dean shoved Sam off and took a couple of steps back. Trying to avoid his brother's eyes, he was instead forced to look at the house. No fire, no darkness. No demon coming out the wooden jambs. It was just a house, and he was no longer a scared kid.
"Nothing, I just stumbled."
Sam fixed a scrutinizing look on his big brother. Then, he eyed the toy train and frowned.
"You stumbled? Where were you, man?"
Dean cracked a laugh and ran a hand over his forehead and hair.
"Settling a couple of things with Proust, I think."
Sam fixed him with a condescending glare.
"What? I read!"
"Are you hurt?"
Taken aback by the question, Dean forgot to feel offended and stammered.
"No… I just…uh…"
"Yeah, well, that's the tricky thing with madeleines."
The older Winchester stared at Sam dumbfounded for a long moment, because the latter had spoken those words with a completely serious face. Finally, though, Dean let out one of those weak but genuine smiles he shared only with his baby bother.
"Bitches," he grumbled, with a playful shine in his eyes.
"They should be illegal."
Sam smiled too.
"Let's go?" Sam half-asked.
Dean nodded, but let the younger lead the way before daring to test his legs. After all, in 22 years that porch had been the only place in the world onto which he was unable to follow John.
Somehow, it was much easier to follow Sam.
"I'll get that, dear!" Sam and Dean heard a woman's voice inside the moment they rang the bell.
Sooner than expected the door was opened, and they found themselves staring at a middle-aged, black woman with sparkling dark eyes.
"Eh…Hello, Madam," Dean said, recovering first. "My name is Dean, this is Sam. We've been informed that a complaint was made about some weird noises coming from your house. And since there have been some bug problems in the area, the neighborhood council is carrying out some inspections. Are you…uh… Jennifer Sarah Lincoln?"
The black woman waited patiently for Dean to finish his trained speech and then smiled kindly at both of them.
"No, sweetie, I'm afraid I'm not Jennifer," she gently said. "But please, come in. Jenny is inside…We were waiting for you."