Out of Harm’s Way
Summary: Ramona Blessing meets up with the Winchester boys and becomes someone new in the process.
Author’s Notes: Oh man, this story was so much fun, and just seemed to come all of a peice. I had thought I would be writing stories about the boys as they are in the show, but after seeing Something Wicked about 20 times, I could not resist the whole idea of writing about the Weecheseters.
Ramona Blessing pressed the answering machine button for the ninth time in half again as many days as she looked out the window to her little, bare, snow-dappled patio. The message was the same as it had been the past eight times, with a few variations, for it seemed that at least three different people were leaving the same message. All for the same person, who she did not know, for, as she lived and breathed, she lived alone. Had for years, needed to, to get her articles done. Writing was a solitary business, and that was the way she liked it. Women’s issue, travel tips, dining out, ghost writing, editing, whatever was called for. She was hooked up with a writer’s network in the city, got her assignments by e-mail and sent them back the same. Her tri-level condo was set up for just this purpose, and what she didn’t need was to have to deal with this shit.
The machine beeped and played back the last message: “This is a message for John Winchester, case number 544955-F, from Denver Social Services. We have your sons Dean and Sammy. We picked them up at the Golden Buff Motel in Boulder because the manager complained that they’d been on their own for several days. We’ve had them for a week. If you don’t come pick them up by the end of the business day on the 19th, we will put them each out to foster care, and you will have to go to court to get them back. Our foster care set up is such that they will each go to a different set of foster parents. Please call…”
Ramona turned off the message. She’d heard it eight times already, and the message was always the same. As was the phone number, which she’d called five times, and which had been either busy or rang unanswered. Today was the 19th.
Sighing, she dialed the number again, got the busy signal, again, and hung up with more force than was called for. Social Services were creators of red tape, purveyors of bad and sloppy customer service, and notoriously cold-hearted when it came to families. She looked out the window with her hand on the phone.
It was an old-fashioned phone, with only the simplest of push-button numbers and no call waiting or call anything. The answering machine was the only nod to the needs of her job, for she didn’t have a cell phone either. Couldn’t abide the thought of being hooked up 24/7, and refused to get one. The answering machine, yes, though, at times like these, she wished she didn’t have one. Otherwise, as she filled a glass with water and drank it, she would not now be wondering who the hell John Winchester was and why the hell he would leave his two boys to the mercies of a government agency masquerading as a caring, parental figure. Not that she was anything of a parental figure herself, having no kids and no pets so that she could be free to travel wherever the articles took her. Or stay up late and have pizza for breakfast if she felt like it. Living the life she did not imagine that parents led.
There was only one thing for it. She was going to have to drive down to Denver. Today. And tell them to leave her alone. Leave her the hell alone and go find John Winchester somewhere else. Which would leave the boys, faceless boys of unknown ages, Dean and Sammy, to sink or swim. She pulled her coat and scarf over her jeans and sweatshirt and grabbed for her keys and purse. Some things just had to be dealt with or they would never go away.
Driving to Denver on a cool October afternoon was not as bad as driving downtown in the heat of July or August. Yes, she had air conditioning in her car, but refused to use it, preferring to have her windows down and let the fresh air cool her. Since downtown Denver did not have fresh air in August, she avoided it at all costs. In October, with a fine mist preceding potential snowfall, the heater worked fine, and she left her back windows open for fresh air anyway.
It took her about an hour to get there, traffic going downtown almost non-existent, and found parking by some whim of fate. The air scurried around her sneakered feet and whipped her hair around her face as she got out to look at the tall, grey building and sighed again. She really didn’t have time for this, didn’t want to take time. Wanted the wrong number corrected on somebody’s paperwork, and wanted to get back to her article about zoos. How lions and tigers should be kept on preserves and in wide open spaces. One animal at a time, the magazine had told her, and we’ll get them all set free. The research was interesting and the article long; she wanted to bury herself in it. And not be opening the cold, metal door to a tall building no one should have to enter.
“I’ve come about a case,” she told the first receptionist.
She gave the case number, unbuttoned her coat, and folded back her scarf. And then was told to go up to the fifth floor.
“I’ve come about a case,” she told the second receptionist. Waited while she took off her scarf and tucked it in her purse. Then took off her coat in the overheated building and folded it over her arm. Then she was directed to a third receptionist on the third floor, which was, thankfully, a little cooler, but still warm. Energy crisis? What energy crisis?
When she told the third receptionist why she was there and what she wanted, the third receptionist dialed a number on her phone, and then barked the case number into it, and then hung up with a slam, glaring at Ramona as if it was all her fault. Ramona wanted to tell her to get a different job if she hated this one so much, but the woman turned away and started typing fast and hard on her computer.
“Ma’am —” started Ramona, but the woman stopped her by slamming both hands on the palm rest of her keyboard.
“The boys will be out in a minute, can’t you wait?”
“Ma’am, I can wait, but I don’t want—”
“I have a call coming in.”
The phone rang promptly at that moment, and out of the corner of her eye, Ramona saw two boys carrying backpacks being trundled in behind her.
Ramona made herself wait until the receptionist got off the phone. Then she began to speak slowly and clearly and loudly in the voice she usually reserved for the stupid and the dull, which, thankfully, in her line of work, she didn’t encounter very often.
“Your establishment has been leaving messages for John Winchester on my phone about his sons. You’ve called him nine times, but he doesn’t live with me, and as hard as I tried to call back and give you the case number—”
“We have the case number,” the receptionist assured her.
“I know, but what I’m trying to say is that John Winchester doesn’t live—”
“Dad’s on a hunting trip, don’t you remember, Aunt Sissy?”
This voice came from behind her, and Ramona whirled around to look down at the upturned face of a boy of about ten, maybe eleven years of age. He was ordinary looking, except for two large round eyes, which in the funky lights of the office, looked brown. Freckles and short hair was all she saw as she turned back to the receptionist, wondering who the hell Aunt Sissy was.
“I don’t think Mr. Winchester would like me taking his boys,” said Ramona, her voice rising in a way she did not like.
“They’re yours to take, unless you want them to go into foster care.”
It was on the tip of Ramona’s tongue to ask if the woman was threatening her or the boys, when she felt the small, warm curve of fingers slip into her palm.
“Can’t you take us home now, Aunt Sissy,” said the boy again. “Sammy doesn’t like it here. The beds are hard and the food makes him cry.”
“Sammy?” asked Ramona, looking down at him, thinking that he must think that she was his Aunt Sissy. Then the boy distracted her by pointing to the row of chairs where another boy, younger by some years, sat on one of the hard, curved plastic seats. He had a backpack on his lap and one at his feet. Sneakered feet that were swinging from side to side. He seemed to be humming to himself, bobbing a head full of dark flyaway hair. If that was Sammy, then the boy with his hand in hers must be Dean. Sammy and Dean Winchester, suddenly no longer ageless or faceless. Fatherless, still, though, and she did not know what to think.
The boy, Dean, tugged at her hand, looking up with those wide eyes. “Please?” he asked, his voice cracking a little. “Dad’ll come get us soon, Aunt Sissy. And we won’t be any trouble, I promise. Dad wouldn’t like it if we went into foster care.”
It was a mouthful for such a little guy; most boys that age had almost nothing to say that wasn’t surly or foolish. Or maybe it was that she knew so few boys.
She hesitated, not quite sure she wanted to be this Aunt Sissy. It wasn’t stealing children from the arms of an institutional monster that bothered her. Well, maybe it was a little, but mostly it was the care and feeding of two boys for who knew how long. Girls maybe, that she could have handled. This wasn’t a gentle looking boy either, there was not a bookish expression on his face, only tattered sneakers with one toe poking out, worn jeans, and a t-shirt that sagged.
“Where is your coat?” she asked. It was October after all and boys should have coats.
Again Dean pointed. Sammy was sitting on what looked like two of them, using them as cushions.
“Can we go now?” asked Dean.
His eyes flashed green then, with a glitter as if the sun had struck them, and she watched as he looked at his brother, and it was then that she had a glimpse of something about this pair. The older brother wanted out, but he wasn’t asking for himself. He was asking for Sammy.
“Okay,” she said, feeling herself fill with a sense of purpose. It would be like an assignment for a new magazine. Some of the rules she knew, some guidelines she would follow up on. Everything would fall into place. Just like her articles did. And she couldn’t leave them in this over-heated building. Not with this rat-faced woman in charge of them. Their future. She would take the children and worry about the legalities of it later. “Get your coats on, it’s still winter outside, even if it’s summer in here.”
Dean gave a yelp and let go of her and practically leaped at his brother to help him off the coats and into one of them. Ramona signed paperwork, scrawling her signature any old how, not liking the feel of the cheap pen on thin paper, and turned to see the two boys, standing waiting. Hand in hand, coats and backpacks on, and side by side, looking like ragamuffins from the old books about orphans in the street. Thin shoes, thin jeans, t-shirts that could do with a wash. Faces a little grey. At least the coats looked new, though, by the looks of their puffy crispness, those had come from a gift box.
“To the car, then,” she said, retying her scarf around her neck and feeling for her keys in her pocket.
They followed her like ducks, Sammy right behind her, Dean behind him. They were silent the entire way out to the car, which was a little unnerving in the elevator. For all three floors the boys had their mouths shut. Then, when the doors finally opened on the first floor, they both let out a gasp, and she realized they’d been holding their breath. As she opened the tall, steel doors that led to the street she had to know.
“What was that all about?”
“We held our breath so we wouldn’t get stuck,” said Dean. His response was matter of fact, as if he breath-holding for a purpose was something that everyone did.
“Yeah,” said Sammy, in a bright, high voice. “It’s like magic. You hold your breath and they won’t see you.”
“No, Sammy,” said Dean. “It’s you hold your breath and they won’t stop you. Get it right.”
Did parents laugh at their own children when they were funny? Ramona didn’t know, so she was somber as she unlocked the doors to her car. Dean helped his brother in the back seat and then after he’d buckled the younger boy in, climbed into the front seat. He left his seatbelt undone, so Ramona pointed at the unused buckle with her keys and waited. Dean buckled himself in, and Ramona started the car.
As the engine warmed, she thought about it. Then she said, “I’m not leaving you at the motel if your dad’s not there, so you can get that right out of your head. We’ll leave a message for your dad and he can come get you. Yes?”
Dean nodded at her, his eyes dark again. As she pulled out into traffic, she could feel feet kicking the back of the seat.
“Knock it off, Sammy,” said Dean, his voice hard. Then she felt him looking at her again. “You don’t mind?” he asked.
“Mind?” she asked back, taking Speer to the highway. There were all sorts of things she minded, especially being downtown, which she did not like. The comfort, however, of an hour’s drive on a crisp afternoon, headed out of town, with the city fading behind her in her rearview mirror, was a good one. “What do you mean?” she asked now. She wanted clarification.
“I lied,” he said. It was an honest answer, if short.
“Yes, you lied. You called me your aunt, which I’m not.”
“Yeah. But I had to get Sammy out of there.”
She heard it in his voice even if he didn’t say it: Doncha see?
Ramona looked in her rearview mirror at the aforementioned Sammy. He was in the seat behind Dean, buckled in, his thin arm holding both backpacks in an embrace as they sat on the seat beside him. Keeper of the backpacks was obviously his job, just as being the keeper of the little brother was Dean’s. Unlike his brother, he had a spray of dark hair that went everywhere, a long, thin, serious face, and the darkest brown eyes. Or maybe they were only dark in the late-afternoon spread of light as the clouds came down. He didn’t look much like his brother, who was more compact, and who had a litter of freckles across his nose. As Sammy saw her looking at him, he smiled. A closed-mouth smile, though, but then, he smiled with his eyes as well as his face. She smiled back. It was rather like investigating the facts for an article. The more you found out, the easier it got to write about.
“Which motel was it, then, that they grabbed you from?”
She directed this at Dean, focused her attention on the onramp to I-25 headed north, and almost didn’t hear him answer.
“The Golden Buff Motel. In Boulder. It’s on a main street.”
She knew Boulder from her college days. The Golden Buff was a landmark motel that used to be on the edge of town along Highway 36 as it headed north into the mountains. Now, it was at the center of a bustling shopping area. Very chi-chi as she recalled. The motel, for all that, was still sided by old-fashioned cedar. Still family run. Still staffed by local college students. When you stayed there, you got breakfast coupons to the local diner. This made her think of something else.
“When did you boys last eat?”
A small silence followed this, and since her car knew the way to Boulder almost as well as she did, she spared Dean a glance, and then Sammy, in the rearview mirror. Both boys were silent. She just hoped they weren’t holding their breaths. As she made the large, wide curve that was the ramp from I-25 to Highway 36, she waited. Waited while the car straightened out and started pulling up the grade as the road headed towards the mountains.
“Sammy?” she asked. “Can you tell me when you boys last ate?”
“Sammy,” said Dean, with a snap that was a warning.
“I was…bad,” said Sammy faltering for a second as he seemed to dodge the sound of his brother’s voice. His explanation had more resignation than remorse, as if he were saying, well, what can one expect of one so young? “I didn’t want to stop playing, and then they wouldn’t let me have lunch. Then Dean argued with the lady and they wouldn’t let him have lunch either, so…”
“I stole some crackers, Aunt Sissy,” said Dean. As if this would reassure her.
“And that old apple, remember, Dean?”
An old apple and some crackers. She couldn’t close her eyes while driving, but she wanted to. She wanted to close her eyes and curse. Maybe scream. Maybe hit something. Maybe hit some lady in an institutional-grey apron refusing food to small and growing boys.
“You boys want to stop for some fast food?”
As she topped the last hill, the brown-treed spread of Boulder hove into sight. Highway 36 turned into 28th street, where the Golden Buff was. A few more lights and they would be there. Maybe John Winchester would be there, too, waiting for his boys. This thought made her wonder what he was hunting, exactly. Turkey? Deer? She didn’t know, not having written for any hunting magazines.
There was another small silence that had her puzzled as she stopped at a red light. Then Dean said, “Fast food is crap.”
“How about some pizza when we get to my place? We can order pizza, any flavor you want.” Boys loved pizza, this she knew.
“No pizza,” announced Sammy, piping up in the back seat, as if sure his opinion carried some weight.
“No pizza?” she asked. “Then what do you want to eat?”
“Macaroni and cheese,” said Sammy. She heard Dean sigh, as if he’d heard this response too many times to count. “Made by scratch.”
“From scratch, you mean?” she asked, thinking of the leftover vat of the stuff that she had. Her mother was of the opinion that Ramona couldn’t or wouldn’t cook, and so, came by every week to drop off the essentials. One of which was homemade macaroni and cheese. She kept her mouth shut and did not smile.
“Yeah, from scratch, you know, homemade. He likes it that way,” said Dean. He sounded as though he were apologizing. “We kinda eat pizza a lot.”
She pulled into the black-topped parking lot of the motel, and let Dean point her to the right spot. Then she got out, released Sammy, who took her hand and held on tight. Dean took out a pair of keys and unlocked the door and they all trundled in to the room. As Dean snapped on the lights, there was enough evidence to tell the story of this particular motel. The walls had peeling paint, and there was an old smell of mold.
“Dad’s gonna be mad cause we’re not here,” said Sammy.
“We’ll leave a note,” said Ramona, giving his hand a tug. “I didn’t realize this place was so run down.”
“It’s okay,” said Dean. His shoulders made a shrug that seemed to make him older, and then he looked up at her, and was once again young. “You sure you don’t mind?”
Dean didn’t want to stay here without his dad, that was obvious. Sammy didn’t seem in any hurry to let go of her hand either, and it struck her at that point, as maybe it had all the way into town, how odd it was that the two boys would go so willingly with someone they did not know. Sure, to get out of that grey-walled hell, but now? They were standing as close as they could, staring at the walls as if they weren’t planning on leaving her side any time soon, and then she saw what their eyes were looking at. The motel room didn’t have peeling paint. The walls were covered with pictures. Bits of colored string led from one picture to the other. Maps covered one wall, charts another. She stepped towards one picture, and backed away quickly, shuddering. It looked like a picture of a ghoul, with huge teeth in an open mouth. She guessed she was lucky the picture wasn’t in color, and wondered what kind of man would plaster a motel room with those kinds of pictures when he had kids with him. Maybe Social Services had been right to take the boys.
“Um, Dean, is there some paper I could write on?”
He jumped to get her what she wanted, holding paper out to her, grabbing a pen. She was reminded of the poem by Walt Whitman at that moment, as he fetched pieces of paper to her with full hands, outstretched, his eyes wide, wanting to please. She took the paper and pen from him, handed her purse to Sammy, tried to ignore the weird pictures on the walls, and began to write:
“Dear Mr. Winchester, I picked your sons up from Social Services in Denver to keep them safe and from going into foster care. I live in Longmont where you can come get them. Please call me.”
Then she added her phone number, signed her name, with more of a flourish than she had in the city, and recapped the pen.
“I wanna go,” said Sammy. His hand tucked itself into hers again.
“Sammy,” said Dean. It sounded like a warning.
“But I do.”
“Okay, boys, into the car.”
She took her purse from Sammy, and guided him with her hand to the back seat. Dean locked the motel room behind them, and then buckled his brother in once again. When they were all fastened and locked, and the engine was warming, she turned to Dean in the seat beside her.
“What, exactly, is your father hunting, Dean?”
Oh, the silences those eyes could produce, rather like a serious pause in a full-orchestra concert by Mozart, who surely never put in pauses by accident.
“He can’t tell you and neither can I,” said Sammy, in a sorrowful way that told her that he really, really wished they could. “It’s a secret.”
One she did not want to know. Swallowing a mouthful of wanting to shout, she pulled out onto 28th street, and headed north so she could catch the Diagonal to Longmont. It started to snow then, as it always did when she hit the Diagonal. Snow snakes danced on the concrete, and she turned on her wipers. She let the silence carry them all the way home, as if she didn’t care that their father was a reprobate who not only left them alone for far too many days, but who also, by the looks of the room, engaged in activities that weren’t healthy for children. Not that she actually knew what was healthy for children, for though she’d once been a child, that was in the long ago, and in the now, she had very little experience with them.
The boys were quiet for the whole drive, and by the time she pulled into her narrow garage at the back of the condo, she was hungry. She imagined they were too, especially after having nothing for lunch but cracker and apple. She pressed the button tucked against the sunshade, and as the garage door slowly shut behind them, she turned off the engine and said, “Everybody out, last stop, Aunt Sissy’s.” Her mouth enjoyed the feel of the name, the taste of it somewhat sprightly and new.
The boys got out, banging the car doors against the sides of the garage, but she did that herself every so often, and there was no helping it, the garage was just that narrow. She unlocked the door to the patio and then the door to the house, and ushered the boys in just as the snow began to fall in earnest. That was Colorado for you. The snow teased and fooled around on you and then, come sunset, it came down hard. Right on schedule.
She shut the door behind them all and locked them in against the cold. The boys, coats still on, backpacks hanging on their hands, looked at her. Right. She was in charge.
“Shoes off, backpacks over there, coats on that chair. Who wants to turn on the fire?”
Both boys did as she asked and then were jumping up and down, and she led them to the unobtrusive switch.
“Sammy,” she said. After all, he was the youngest.
“No,” said Sammy, shaking his head. “Dean likes fire best.”
She blinked. “That’s awfully nice, Sammy. Dean, you go ahead.”
Dean flipped the switch, his eyebrows rising as the gas flames leaped to life. There was almost no sound except for the hiss of the gas through the pipes, but as the orange and blue flames leaped around the fake logs, at least it looked real.
“That’s pretty cool,” said Dean, looking at the fire as though he wanted to sink down beside it.
“No, it’s pretty warm, Dean,” said Sammy, sniggering.
Now Dean laughed, smiling for the first time that day, looking up at her as if to say thank you for that as his eyes flickered green.
“Now,” she said, going back to take off her own coat and shoes and heap them on the piles, “who’s hungry?” She wiped her hands on her jeans.
They followed her like ducklings into the long, narrow kitchen, looked out the window at her snow-covered patio that shone white in the outdoor light, and watched as she opened the fridge. Out came the cellophane-wrapped white bowl, and as she laid it on the counter, Dean gasped.
“How did you—?”
She shrugged. “Leftovers.”
It was definitely more fun to cook, or rather, reheat, for three instead of one, especially when Dean was so willing to be helpful. She gave him dishes to set the table, instructed him to wash his hands and to make sure Sammy washed his. The boys were eager and quick to do as she asked, and the smell of the macaroni and cheese heating in the microwave was more delicious than it otherwise might have been.
“Can you pour the milk?” she asked Dean as she exchanged the mac and cheese for some slabs of meatloaf in the microwave.
“Now, salt and pepper, butter and bread.”
Dean did this, handing the salt to Sammy with a snicker, and carrying everything else himself.
It took her three trips to bring in all the food, which covered the little farm table that sat in the corner as it had never been covered. Macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, green beans (frozen and hastily heated on the stove because shouldn’t children have vegetables?), and tall, cool glasses of milk.
She served each boy what she could reach, warned about the hot dishes, and Dean served Sammy and then himself, last, she noted, and then they tucked into the food. This was something she had not known, how boys could eat. Oh, well, sure, she knew they could eat, but it was different seeing it with her own eyes. They had appetites, and it wasn’t from simply being hungry either, she had a feeling. As Sammy shoveled in spoonfuls of his favorite, as Dean slugged back almost an entire glass of milk before pouring himself more, she remembered the tone of Dean’s voice as he told her that his brother likes it that way. He probably liked it himself that way. Liked the homemade kind of food that living in a motel did not afford them. And any boy who was tired of pizza, well, it was a sad state of affairs in her book.
They filled their plates twice to her once, and as they ate, she watched them. They ate fast, like young animals at a feeding spot in the wild. Almost looking over their shoulders, but not. Both boys held silverware curled into their fists, rather than tipped back against their fingers like people might hold a pen. They ate one-handed, leaving the other hand free as if it might be needed to do something. Sometimes Sammy used his free hand to scoop more macaroni and cheese onto his spoon, wiping his fingers on his jeans after, but mostly he ate like his brother did. Huge mouthfuls, mouths open, unaware of anything except the eating. They could not be blamed for this, and she did not let herself do it. Thought instead of the absent father and what did she have in the fridge that was sweet. Something boys would like.
“Uh, I’ve got ice cream,” she said, when they finally looked like they were slowing down, thinking of the unopened vat of chocolate ice cream she had in the freezer. And the chocolate syrup that she sometimes liked to drink straight.
Dean’s eyebrows flew up in a way that told her right away that he was an ice cream lover. He had to chew and swallow, cheeks bulging, before he could actually say anything.
“Sammy likes chocolate,” he said, his voice still somewhat muffled by food.
“And what flavor do you like, Dean?” she asked, leaning on her hand to look at him. What a boy this was, to check to see that she had his brother’s favorite in stock, but did not ask for himself. Where had he learned that from?
“Ice cream,” he said, “is my favorite flavor.” Then he gave her a grin, and she could see in a few years time, and maybe sooner than that, that he’d be knocking down the ladies with that smile. And that those selfsame ladies would be lining up to be knocked down.
“I like ice cream,” said Sammy, swallowing and nodding. “I do, I really do.”
“Well, there’s plenty of it, if you boys could help clear the table. Just bring everything in and place it on the counter.”
The got up, a little slower now with full stomachs instead of empty ones. Dean picked up the bigger bowls while Sammy got the salt and pepper and the butter dish and the now empty bread plate. Ramona concentrated on bringing the plates, scraping them, and putting them in the dishwasher. Dean helped her wrap the leftovers, and put them in the fridge, and by the time they’d finished, she was never so glad to be out of the kitchen. It was a small kitchen and she was used to being in it alone. The boys were good, but they kept bumping into her, and then Sammy tripped over Dean’s feet and bumped hard against the stove. She grabbed him before she could think, checking with one hand that the burners were all off, pulling him behind her with the other.
“Sammy!” said Dean, his voice loud, hands reaching out. “What’s wrong Aunt Sissy?”
“It’s a gas stove, you can’t leave the burners on, and it’s easy to do. They’re off now, though.” She let Sammy go. The little boy looked up at her with huge eyes. It looked like he was about to cry.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He meant it too, she could see that.
“It’s okay, Sammy, you just tripped. The stove is off. Let’s get some ice cream.”
They both looked at her as if she’d rescued them from an awful fate, which seemed out of proportion to the almost-accident that could have happened in anyone’s kitchen. She hid her twinge of unease about the near-miss and Sammy’s tearful eyes as she concentrated on getting out the ice cream and the syrup. She pointed Dean to the cabinet that had the dishes, told Sammy where to get the spoons, and busied herself dishing out huge bowls of ice cream.
“I’ll just have a little,” she said, pouring extra syrup on hers. She’d long ago decided that ice cream was just a vehicle to get the syrup to her mouth. Each boy took a bowl, their eyes wide at the amount in them.
“Shall we sit in front of the TV?” she asked.
“Where is it?” Dean looked around, seeing on only the breakfast area and the kitchen and beyond the little passageway, her living room.
“The TV is downstairs, where it’s nice and quiet and cool. Follow me.”
She led the way down the stairs, wanting to apologize for the clutter of books and filing cabinets, bookshelves, and boxes. It was her sanctum sanctorum, and though she doubted the boys would understand the meaning of the Latin, perhaps they would feel at home as she did there.
“Don’t spill, Sammy,” Dean said from behind her.
“Two hands for beginners, like Dad said.”
“I won’t, I said.”
It sounded like an old argument, and she laughed to herself as she put her ice cream down, and looked for the little side table she kept around for them to put their ice cream on. They surprised her by sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the couch and dug into their ice cream, leaving her alone on the cushions, looking for the remote.
“Star Trek okay with you boys? I like the old stuff myself.”
They nodded at her feet, mouths full, still shoveling it in. She clicked the TV on, saw that it was The Trouble With Tribbles, and figured that was fun enough for them all to enjoy. Or maybe they were just humoring her, thinking that as this was Aunt Sissy’s house they had to watch what she watched and like it. And where did the Aunt Sissy name come from anyhow?
An hour later, they were giggling into their empty bowls and Ramona thought the evening had gone rather well. This babysitting wasn’t so hard, at least not when you had nice kids to look after. She had taken a risk bringing them home; they could have turned out to be holy terrors. But aside from a few pokes and punches that they aimed at each other fighting over the last spoonfuls of ice cream, they were very well behaved. She picked up the remote and flipped through the channels, all the way up and all the way down.
“Was that Mothra?” asked Dean.
Ramona stopped the clicker. “Yeah, I think so. You wanna watch that?”
“Yeah,” said Dean.
“I don’t like Mothra,” said Sammy, flinging his bowl down. The spoon bounced out of the bowl and landed to stain the carpet. “It’s creepy.”
Dean turned to his younger brother and picked up the spoon to replace it in the bowl. “C’mon, Sammy, I wanna watch it. Just for a minute, okay?” This was said with an undercurrent of great longing. “It’s got those little singing ladies you like, remember?”
The little brother apparently knew this tone in his older brother’s voice, for he gave in after one half-hearted whine and settled in to watch the old movie about a huge sea-swimming moth creature that terrorized Japan. The thing apparently came out of a large blue egg as natives danced around it, but didn’t show up till the movie was half over. She really didn’t get it, but both boys were glued to the set.
“So Dean,” she said, during a lull, where there were just those reporters and weird scientists talking, “what does your father hunt?”
She might as well have dropped a severed head in their midst for their reaction to it, a question she had already asked once without results. They stiffened up in front of her like a pair of fence posts. Sometimes, you could ask a question people really wanted to tell you the answer to, but wouldn’t. Then, later, you asked it again, they were so grateful to spill their guts it was almost embarrassing. Not so the Winchester boys. Silent as a grave, as the saying went, and neither of them turned around.
“We can’t tell you, Aunt Sissy,” said Dean. “It’s a secret, it really is.”
“We already told you that,” added Sammy in a voice that would have put a teacher to shame.
“And when will he be back, then?” She asked this to the back of their heads.
“In a few days,” said Dean. He said the answer as though it at been learned by rote.
“A few days,” added Sammy for good measure.
She made herself sit back against the cushions of the couch. A few days was more than she had counted on to watch two boys to whom she was not related, with whom she shared no past. But she couldn’t take them back to an empty motel or turn them back over to Social Services. When and if John Winchester called her, she would be giving him a piece of her mind.
During Mothra, she noticed that both boys were sagging against the couch, their heads falling back against the cushions near her feet, and as it was coming on to nine o’clock, she wondered if it was too early to suggest that it was bedtime. When did little boys go to bed anyhow? She remembered that as she got older, bedtimes got later and later. As to how long it took two boys to get ready for bed, she did not know. She never remembered being a problem for her parents, but perhaps boys were different.
“Is it bedtime?” she asked, deciding that a question put to the issue would be the easiest way. “Or maybe getting there?”
The movie ended as she said this, and she watched as Dean turned to his brother and socked him, more gently than not, in the arm.
Both boys got up and so she turned off the TV, took up her bowl and led the way upstairs. When they’d put their bowls in the sink and ran some water over them, she turned to look at them both.
“Do you guys have anything to sleep in?”
“No,” said Dean. His shoulders hunched up as he told her this.
“No?” She asked. “But what’s in the backpacks?”
“It’s my fault,” said Dean.
“Well, okay, Dean, it’s not a crime or anything—”
“It is. When they grabbed us, they said pack your things. I got toys and books for Sammy and comics for me. There wasn’t enough room for clothes an’—”
At ten or eleven, the boy was taking an awful lot of responsibility on himself. She opened her mouth to tell him so.
“I like my toys,” said Sammy, taking a deep breath. “I’ve got a Superman doll, and checkers, you know. They’re magnetic so you can play them in the car. We have an Impala, that’s what Daddy drives, and he said—”
“Sammy,” said Dean, giving him a poke with a sharp and sudden elbow. “Shut up, okay?”
Taking a breath, Ramona realized she had to change the subject or the brothers were going to fight. Not over whether Dean had packed right or not, but strangely, instead, over what could and could not be said.
“Look, I’ve got some t-shirts that I’ve never worn, and a guest bedroom you can sleep in.”
“That’s okay,” said Dean, almost too quickly. “I’ll sleep in my clothes.”
“I want a new t-shirt to wear,” said Sammy, ignoring Dean.
“I got a few you can have,” said Ramona, grabbing the backpacks and gesturing to the living room and the stairs that led up to the third floor. “Maybe even one with a dog on it. I think it’s a whippet or something.”
“That’s good,” said Dean, grabbing hold of Sammy to follow her up the stairs. “Sammy likes dogs.”
“This room’s a little girly,” said Ramona, opening the door at the top of the landing to the green and pink color scheme, brass bed, and pink-toned walls. “But, here it is, with your own private bathroom. Who’s for a shower?”
“Me,” said Dean, taking the backpacks from her. “Sammy just has to brush his teeth. I’ll help him do that.”
“Okay, I’ll go get the shirt.”
She left them to it, realizing that she was starting on one of her rare headaches, that she needed aspirin, and remembered, quite fondly, why she liked living alone. The aspirin she got, along with a long drink of water, staring at herself in the mirror, trying to understand why she looked so worried. Then she went to look for the t-shirts, which were buried in the closet, in a box in the back, where all the t-shirts she didn’t like were buried. She found a bright blue one she would not be sad to part with and got up to toss it on the bed, along with a clean nightie. Then, taking the shirt, she walked down the little hallway and knocked on the guestroom door, which was now closed. It was a private pair she had picked up, but that was okay. Better than them running screaming through the condo and upsetting the neighbors and breaking HOA regulations by being too loud.
“Dean?” she asked, knocking. “I’ve got a shirt.”
“Just a sec, Aunt Sissy.”
She could hear the sound of running water, and then some thumping as Dean hurried to the door and opened it. A private person herself, she did not demand to be let in as she imagined someone else might. As someone at Social Services might, damn them.
She held out the t-shirt.
“No dog on this one, I’m afraid, but it should be nicer to sleep in than jeans. You sure you don’t want one?”
Dean took the shirt, and in the light from the bathroom, she could see the opened backpacks on the bed, and that Sammy was standing in front of the mirror brushing his teeth, the way a six year old would. Up, down, slowly, slowly. Both boys seemed to have adapted rather well, rather too well, and it was disconcerting to think that they’d picked her rather than some whacko. How did they know she was safe and would take care of them?
“Okay, then,” she said, managing to stuff all of her questions away in a corner of her brain. “There are clean washcloths and towels in that cupboard to the left of the sink, and shampoo and stuff under the sink, if you need it. And if you need anything, I’ll be just down the hall, okay?” She pointed behind her.
“Thanks, Aunt Sissy,” he said, those eyes more green in the almost darkness of the nearly closed door.
“Why do you call me Aunt Sissy, anyway?” she asked, thinking she could get some information out of him that might help her fix him and his brother in her mind where they made more sense.
He shrugged, flicking his eyes in the direction of his brother, who was still brushing his teeth. Then he looked at her again, his head angled towards his shoulder. And then she got another smile, this one that lit the lights in his eyes and his face and made her wonder how few people got the smile she was seeing now. “I dunno, you kinda look like an Aunt Sissy. And Sammy had a feeling, you know, that you would be okay with us.”
“Well,” she said, “he picked right, this time, but you boys should be more careful about going with strangers. There’s a lot of evil out there, Dean, and you have to be careful. You know?”
There was a long darkness in his eyes as he looked at her now, which made him look years older and far sadder than any eleven year old should be. And behind the expression seemed to be all manner of things that he wanted to say to her, now, in the partially darkened doorway. But habit, or perhaps the influence of a currently-absent father, kept him from uttering a word.
“Okay, Aunt Sissy, we’ll be careful. Honest.”
He started to close the door and she let him, looking at the whiteness of the wood and reminding herself that this was why she was not a parent. There was simply too much you could not do for people, and especially kids. She just hoped the dad called and soon. Whatever was going on with the Winchesters, it was beyond her to help.
She walked back down the hall as she heard the shower start up and thought that she might sit in the soft green easy chair in her room and make some notes about tigers that had been floating in her head for the past few hours. It was far too late, and she was far too tired, to start up the computer at this late hour, and the writing out the notes would settle her nerves. From the shelf, she pulled out a clean, white pad, picked up a pen, and settled herself in the chair. With a flick, she turned on the standing lamp, and, uncapping the pen, began to cover the sheet with her sprawl. As she wrote, out of the corner of her eye, she could see the snow coming down like bits of lace in the streetlight. There was no wind packing the snow up against the condo, but it could turn into a blizzard, even this early in the year. She hoped not, for how would John Winchester come get his boys if the world was packed in snow? Blast that man.
Then she looked up. In the doorway stood Sammy, the blue t-shirt down past his knees, one hand rubbing his eye too fiercely, the tender mouth pulled down in a frown.
“What is it, Sammy?” she asked, getting up, tossing the pen and paper aside. He scared her with how still he was standing there.
“I don’t feel too good, Aunt Sissy, and Dean’s in the shower already. He’s locked the door.”
Oh, lord. A sick child on top of everything else.
“You going to throw up, you think?”
He nodded, hair falling like black ribbons across his eyes. And he looked sad, which just killed her.
“C’mon then,” she said, getting close enough to take his hand. “You can throw up in my bathroom, it’s nice and clean.”
He already had a hand to his mouth by the time they made it halfway to the toilet, and she managed to throw up the lid and the seat and guide his head just as the half-digested macaroni and cheese and ice cream (chocolate) came pouring out of him. This was her fault, she knew it, letting him eat that much and that fast on an empty stomach. As she helped Sammy kneel down and pulled his hair back from his face, she just hoped that Dean’s stomach was not as delicate. Or that he had enough sense and could throw up by himself.
She could feel Sammy shaking under his hands and realized that the little sounds he was making was because he was crying as he threw up. He looked up at her, tears and snot tracking his face, and she reached up to grab the hand towel to wipe his face with when more stuff came out of his mouth. Barely able to help him aim, some of it got on his shirt, and as he plucked at it, he smacked his head on the porcelain.
“Sammy,” she said, “Sammy, it’s okay, it’s okay.” His face was hot where she touched him, and she knew she had to help him cool down so that he would calm down and finish throwing up and get it over with. With another grab, she got a clean washcloth, and as she got up, she tipped the handle to flush the sick away. Running cold water over the cloth as fast as she could, she realized her hands were shaking.
When she knelt back down beside Sammy, she made herself take a deep breath.
“Sammy,” she said, wiping the back of his neck with the cool cloth, “people throw up all the time, it’s okay.”
He was trying to nod and, hoping he was done throwing up, she tipped his head back and wiped his face. Slowly, the way her mother used to do with her when she threw up. Then, turning the cloth around, wiped his face again. Slowly. Then his neck.
“Okay?” she asked. “Better, Sammy?”
Nodding, he swallowed, and when she pulled him to his feet, he did not resist. Then she flushed the toilet again for good measure, and spread the used washcloth on the rack.
“This shirt has barf on it,” said Sammy, looking at her as if it were her fault. Damp hair curled around his ears, making little horns that stuck out.
“Well, I have plenty of others, so just come with me.”
She took his hand and led him out of the bathroom. She let go of him long enough to dig and came up with the purple shirt with the whippet on it.
“This is going to be really big, but it’s got a dog on it, see? And you can keep it, how would you like that?”
Without answering, he peeled off the dirty blue shirt, and let it drop to the floor. She picked it up without remarking that this was not a hotel, and tossing it over her shoulder, helped him on with the purple one.
“I like dogs,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s what Dean told me” she replied, feeling herself smile, even as her racing heart slowed, making her realize how very, very tired she was of babysitting. She tossed the blue shirt in the hamper.
“But here now, we’ll get you something to make your stomach settle down, okay?”
He nodded and followed her into the bathroom, where the medicine cabinet revealed not one but three unopened bottles of the pink stuff, as she liked to call it. She went through times of needing it and then not needing it, and always liked to have plenty on hand. Opening a bottle, she poured out half a capful and handed it to Sammy.
“Drink it up, and if you aren’t asleep in a little while and want more, I’ll give you some, okay?”
Sammy drank it without a single protest.
“Thank you, Aunt Sissy,” he said, handing the now empty cap to her.
She felt herself frowning. Such a polite boy, for one so young. What was he, six? Seven? The seven year olds she knew weren’t that nice.
She took his hand just as the door to the guest bedroom banged open and the sound of pounding footsteps came at them.
“Sammy?!” This bellowed out as if from the lungs of a grown man.
“In here,” she said, pulling Sammy forward. “Dean?”
Dean appeared around the corner, hair still wet from the shower, his dirty t-shirt sticking to him. Out of breath, wide eyed, and white, like all the blood had been bleached out of him.
“I’m not supposed to let him out of my sight,” he said, his hands reaching out.
“He was here, Dean,” she said, letting go of Sammy. “He was sick and threw up.”
“Mac and cheese,” said Sammy, looking as regretful as a hound dog as he went towards his brother. “An’ ice cream.”
“Gross, Sammy” He socked Sammy in the arm. “Letting someone watch you barf like that? Just gross.”
“Dean!” said Ramona, now shocked.
“People throw up all the time, Dean,” said Sammy, and she could hear him add: Aunt Sissy says so.
Mollified now that his brother was safe, some of the color came back into Dean’s face. “Yeah, but Sammy? He can really hurl when he barfs.”
“Okay, okay.” She’d had enough. She needed a shower herself now, and resolved that she would get the boys into bed, and not think about them until the morning.
No, she would not even wonder if she had enough eggs or oatmeal for them.
“Bedtime, then,” she said, making shooing motions with her hands. And, true to form, Dean took Sammy under his wing and hustled the both of them off to the guest room. She listened for the slamming of the door, and the click of the lights going out, and then went into the bathroom to turn on the shower. She planned to stay under the hottest water for at least half an hour, gas bill be damned.
The shower helped, as did the clean nightgown and the bathrobe that she pulled tight around her waist. She combed out her wet hair, and then went downstairs to check the lock on the back door and window. Then she went to the fireplace and flicked the switch to turn it off. Then she realized there was someone standing by the front door.
It was a man, and he was just closing the door behind him. In one second, she saw that he had boots on, had tramped in snow, had dark hair, and was holding a machete. Her breath left her as she flew down the hall, bare feet not making any traction, reaching for the phone. Thinking that she needed to dial 9-1-1, thinking that she needed to, but that her fingers, suddenly without any feeling at all, couldn’t tell the pound sign from the nine. His boots thudded behind her, and she was grabbed and flung away from the phone. And then backhanded into the wall.
The shock of it stilled her, as her wet hair stuck to her face, as her cheekbone began to sing with the blow, and her mouth filled with an odd coppery taste. Before she could put all of this together, he had shoved her against the wall, and slammed the sheathed machete against her throat.
And there they stood, her head pounding, chin forced up, looking into brown eyes so dark and serious and filled with hate and anger that she couldn’t catch any air in her lungs. She could feel his breath on her neck, the slow drawing of hot solid air and he opened his mouth.
“You tell me where my boys are, or I unsheathe this right through your spine.”
She did not doubt him. Could not, not while he stood so close to her that she could feel his heart pounding against hers. The terrycloth robe was no boundary to the cold night still clinging to his jacket, or the heat of his skin pushing through it. Or of the fury that pulsated all up and down his length.
Maybe it was her stillness. Or maybe it was his awareness that with the sheathe of the machete pressed so hard against her neck, that she could not speak, even if she wanted to. He released the pressure on it, his wrist flexing back, his eyes narrowing for a fraction of a second as he watched her.
“My boys,” he said, his voice sounding like rocks grating on rocks, with a slow push of energy behind it.
A swallow and a gasp, and she made herself look at him.
“They are upstairs,” she said, somehow feeling that if she said the slightest thing wrong, he would be covering the wall behind her with blood and feel no remorse for it. “In bed, asleep.”
In his eyes, then, she saw something that told her that she wasn’t going to die. It wasn’t that he relaxed, or pulled away, or dropped the machete. No, it was in his eyes, still brown and dark and angry, but the hate was gone, rather like a layer of dirt and grit had been washed away. A muscle moved in his jaw, and then he blinked.
“Talk to me.”
She had to swallow again, and wished he would take the machete away.
“Social Services kept calling this number,” she said. “I tried calling them back, but they were always busy. So I went down there, and they somehow seemed to feel I should take the boys, or else—”
“Foster care,” he said. It was almost a grunt. “That’s the usual drill.”
Not allowing herself to agree wholeheartedly with him, nor launch into a lecture about the way to keep Social Services out of your business, she nodded.
“And then Dean—”
Something in his eyes flickered, and it stopped her. In that second, when she mentioned the boy’s name, the anger went away, replaced by something, some light, so incredibly soft, she wanted to reach into his eyes and touch it, as though it were made of brown velvet.
“Dean, well, he called me his Aunt Sissy, and, well, they thought your boys belonged to me. I had to take them,” she added, “or they would have been separated.”
“Aunt Sissy?” asked the man, who she belatedly realized was John Winchester, and somehow, it explained a whole lot about the pictures in the motel room to have him come in like this. Like one of those survivalists she read about, armed to the teeth and on fire with purpose. He was almost smiling.
“Yeah, he said—” Then she stopped. “Who is Aunt Sissy?”
“Aunt Sissy is you,” he said, dropping the machete and turning to put it on the kitchen counter. Then he turned back to her, and she saw, as his protective wall dropped away, how tired he was. “Aunt Sissy is the woman on the street who will give you directions when you ask her. She’s the nice lady in the nice coat who is safe to go to when you need help. When you’re seven or ten and your dad is…busy. I taught them that.” There was an appeal in those eyes now, and a flicker of a shrug that reminded her of Dean. Then he ran his hand through his dark hair, stirring it up like witchweed, and it curled around his ears exactly like Sammy’s did.
“Mr. Winchester,” she said, ducking her head so she could look up into his face. “Your boys are safe, as safe as I could make them.”
It was almost the wrong thing to say. His hands balled into fists and she thought he was going to hit her again. The way his mouth turned down in a frown and the darkness came back into his eyes made her sure of it. Then he looked at her and stilled, suddenly, and she realized that she’d made a sound and clutched the bathrobe closer to herself. There was the ice of fear in her chest and she knew, knew that he could whip the machete out of its case faster than she could track it and cut her open with one hand. He could, if he wanted to. And he still might. Still might.
But it was not at her this anger was drawn. No, he turned away, away from her, from the machete on the kitchen counter. Tramping melting snow across her living room carpet, those jacketed shoulders broad, fists at his sides. Looking at the ceiling as if looking for an answer there. Then he turned back to her, scrubbing both eyes with the heels of his palms, and she caught it in that second, what had upset him. A good father did not leave his children in the care of strangers. It would almost have been easier for John Winchester, she guessed, if she’d been mean to his kids. Or careless with them and lost them along the way. Then he’d have something to get mad about, someone to take it out on. As it was, she was Aunt Sissy, the nice lady in the nice coat and she had played her role well. His anger had no where to go but in. She watched as he shoved it down.
Then he looked up at her, those dark eyes soft, through dark lashes, and he did his best to smile. There were crinkles next to his eyes as he did this, and a flash of good, strong teeth.
“Thank you, Aunt Sissy. I’ll get them, and we’ll go, if you’ll show me where they are.” His voice was whisky-soft.
She opened her mouth a little way, not really sure why she was going to say no, when he stopped her. Hand up, palm flat.
“We’ve been enough trouble. We’ve got beds aplenty back at the motel, so—”
“Mr. Winchester,” she said now, her voice sounding crisp against the softness of his. “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s late. And it’s snowing. And this is Colorado, and you don’t mess around with weather like this. You can sleep on the couch. And your boys can sleep until morning.”
This took him aback, she could tell, his brow furrowing as he considered this.
“Evidently,” she continued, taking advantage of her upper hand, “they didn’t have lunch today, because Sammy said he was bad, and Dean had a fight with the lunch lady about it, so, well, Sammy threw up everything I fed him, and Dean insisted on sleeping in all his clothes. I think they could use some uninterrupted sleep right about now, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Sammy threw up?” This burst out of him. “Is he okay?”
She nodded. “Just too much food, too fast. Homemade macaroni and cheese, and several helpings too many.”
“Ah,” said John Winchester, in a way that told her he was quite familiar with his son’s preferences. “By scratch, that’s what he likes.” He was smiling to himself now as he said it, and she could see that, without the machete in his hand or the dangerous fire in his eyes, he was a very good-looking man with a dark, Heathcliff air about him. Still unsettling to have in her living room, but something in her gut told her that since she’d taken care of his boys, he would not hurt her. Why she would consider allowing him to stay after he’d struck and then threatened her was another mystery.
As if reading her mind, he came close, closing the distance between them in two strides. She backed up, holding up her hand, wanting him to stay away. Allowing for his love of his sons was not the same thing as wanting him near her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean—” He looked down at his hands, flexing his fingers against his palms. Considered them for a moment. She heard him breathe in and out slowly. “I was scared for my boys. I shouldn’t have hit you, that was wrong.”
She waited for him to continue, to tell her that threatening her with a deadly weapon was wrong too, until she realized, in the ensuing silence that, in John Winchester’s world, he’d used the force that needed to be used. And would do so again, were the circumstances to warrant it.
“Thank you, Mr. Winchester—”
“Thank you, John, for saying that, but now, since you are sleeping on my couch, you will need to take off your boots before you track any more snow into my house.”
Ramona watched as this worked its way behind his eyes. She folded her arms across her chest, and tried to look stern. “And put them on the foyer, if you will. This is not a hotel, you know.”
Now he was laughing under his breath as he sat on the couch and did as he was asked. It occurred to her for a second that his pants were awfully dirty and that her living room couch was awfully pale, even after all these years. In the grand schemes, it didn’t matter, and she knew it, so she kept her mouth shut.
“Jacket,” she said when he was done.
He stood up to take it off and when he looked for somewhere to put it, she led the way into the kitchen. To the chairs around the farm table where the boys shoes and coats were draped. As he looked at them, he frowned again and she figured he was being washed with yet more guilt.
“Can I see them?”
Of course he would want to check on the boys, as any parent would. She nodded and gestured to the stairs. Waited for him to proceed her, and followed him up.
“Through that door,” she said.
He opened it slowly and from the light in the hallway, they could see both boys were asleep, Sammy curled under the covers on the outside of the bed, and Dean on top of the covers on the inside, flat on his back. Without a sound, John moved forward towards them, touching each of them on the forehead, pushing Sammy’s hair back. Moving his thumb along Dean’s jaw. As gently as any mother with her child. Then he turned to her.
“You are right to let them sleep.” He came out of the room and closed the door behind him.
“John, are you hungry?” she said in reply, swallowing the lump in her throat.
The question was ordinary, even if the circumstances were not. She could count the years since she’d last had a man in her place overnight, not so long ago, but long enough. And surely not a man such as this. Whose solid neck pushed past the collar of his flannel shirt. Whose five o’clock shadow only added to the firm line of his jaw. And that smile. Lord. Now she knew where Dean got it from.
“Got any more mac and cheese?”
“By scratch, sure. A whole bowlful.”
She led him downstairs and made him sit at the table and heated the meal up for him, part of her wondering what she was going to tell her mother about this, if anything. Then she served him everything his boys had had, including the glass of milk, and sat down to keep him company, leaning her head on her hand. In the single light of the kitchen, with the snow falling outside, a little wind whisking it up to the glass, her stomach began to settle down. Finally. She might need some pink stuff for herself later, but for now, it was good. There was a man at her table, enjoying his meal, his hand curled in a fist around his fork, the other hand balanced against his thigh. Ready for whatever. Just like his boys.
Thinking to catch him while he ate, she asked the question again.
“So just what is it you hunt, John Winchester?”
“Evil,” he said, and then she saw the tightening of his face at the slip.
“Forget I said that.”
“Too late,” she said. “And just sos you know, your boys didn’t reveal as much as you just now did.”
His mouth laughed at that, even if his eyes didn’t. “You don’t want to know.”
“I do.” She reached up to push her almost-dry hair back from her face. Patted the sore spot on her cheek. “I really do. Besides, I think you owe me.”
“I picked up your boys, and took them out of that hell hole. I held Sammy’s head while he threw up. I didn’t shove Dean away when he slipped his hand into mine and called me his Aunt Sissy.”
“He’s a flirt, that one.”
“Don’t change the subject. Just give me the basics. What is with you Winchesters?”
He answered her with silence, but continued to eat, and she got the feeling he was trying to formulate what to say. She watched the line of his jaw as he chewed. Finally, he laid down his fork, took a last swallow of milk, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. He saw her watching him, and then dipped his head in apology.
“Sorry. Sometimes I forget about napkins.”
Ramona nodded in response. Sometimes she forgot about them, too.
“So.” He pushed away his plate with his hands, and then folded them together on the table. “Here it is. I hunt evil. I hunt evil that hides under the bed, and in the closet, and on the roads. I hunt evil that takes the form of nightmares and dark legends. I hunt what scares us.”
It was like a story, one that he knew well, and that she didn’t. Because of that, he was leaving information out, crucial bits that would pull his story together.
John Winchester took a deep breath as though he were uncomfortable with her question. Or, perhaps, because he was searching for a perfect way to tell her.
“Okay. You know that fear you had as a kid that there was someone in your room, coming to get you while you were in bed at night?”
She thought back. Yes, she had had a fear like that, about a creepy old guy dressed in black who was just waiting for her to drop her guard. It was odd, though, to be thinking about it as an adult, even though the hour was late. What was odder still was the fact that the man sitting next to her was waiting with a serious expression on his face for her answer.
“Yeah, I remember. It was an old guy, dressed in black. He used to stand there at the end of my bed.”
“Him, right. Well, he’s real, and he hunts kids. Sucks the life right out of them. That’s what I was hunting. I couldn’t catch him.”
“You’re talking about it like it’s real.”
“It is real. Just ask Dean. He tried to shoot at the thing and couldn’t. I dragged the boys here, to get them out of the way, tried to go back and get it, but, well, I couldn’t find it. It went into hiding.”
The words came out of his mouth in a rush, as though he’d been holding them back for some time, and couldn’t stand the taste of them anymore.
“That can’t be possible.” She was sure of this, as she got up to clear away the plates and bowls. Her kitchen was a disaster area, but as she stood in it and looked across the counter at the back of John’s head, she knew he believed in what he was saying, even if she couldn’t. And if he did, his boys did.
“So what about your kids. Do you drag them hither and yon hunting this thing?”
“No.” His voice was tight. “Not anymore. I’m keeping them well away from that one.”
“What don’t you keep them away from?”
He got up and picked up his glass and the bowl of leftover green beans. There was an almost apologetic look on his face as he took in the spread of dishes on her countertop.
“I’ll help you with this,” he said.
She waved her hand over it as if she could make it all disappear with a magic spell. “Never mind that. Are you telling me that there’s more than one evil thing out there, stalking us all?” As she asked this, she realized she had just discounted the warning she’d given Dean earlier that night, because if he was hunting with his father, then he couldn’t be careful. Couldn’t avoid evil.
“Yeah. Too many to count.”
The moment between them was still. So still, she could hear the snow falling against the window and the beat of her own heart. And in John’s eyes she could almost see a reflection of herself as he looked at her and asked her, without words, to believe him. But she couldn’t. Still, in true writer fashion, she could keep asking.
“Everything else being what?” she asked.” Her breath left her in a rush.
“Well, like everything,” he said, stepping away to lift the lace panels alongside the back door to look out at the patio. It was something to do, she realized. He needed something to do with his hands.
There was another long pause. Instead of answering, he finished clearing off the table, and she thought about making some tea, and then decided against it.
“Why don’t we sit in the living room,” she said. She led the way towards the couch, flicking the fireplace on as she passed it. Then she sat on the couch, tucking her legs up under her, and motioned for him to sit at the other end.
“Should I turn off the lights so we can see the flames better?” he asked.
“If you like.”
He turned off all the lights but the one over the stove in the kitchen. The fireplace now glowed bright. On socked feet, he padded back over to sit on the couch, and in the flicker of the gas flames, she could see the gleam in his eye.
“You’ve been waiting to tell someone this, haven’t you.”
She heard his low laugh. “Yeah. I’ve told a few people. They seem to believe me. Some have even joined in the hunt.”
“Hunt for what?”
Another pause followed that question, and she turned to lean her head on her hand and stare at the fire as if she had all the time in the world. After interviewing so many people she’d learned that sometimes, you just had to let the story come out the way it would. You couldn’t force it.
“You know that house that every town has?”
“The house that’s just plain bad. It looks bad, it feels bad. You don’t even want to walk past it. Every town has that house. Well, I go into that house and get whatever’s bad out of it.”
“Whatever’s bad being….”
“Oh, a ghost maybe, or some unclaimed spirit. Sometimes it’s an entity, or ghoul of some sort. I go in and get it. I kill it.”
“You kill it? How on earth do you kill a ghost?”
“I find the body. I salt and burn the bones. I put it to rest.”
In the silence he said, “I see you shaking your head.”
“Well. It is rather hard to take this all in.”
“Okay, then, here’s another one. You know the story of the troll under the bridge that can take people and keep them. Well, trolls are real, and you can get rid of them.”
“Trolls? Aren’t they Norwegian or something?”
“Oh, no. They’ve got ‘em here too. They come out at night and steal your breath away. Like, in California, they call them colupes.”
“This is weird. Look, you could give me examples all night, and I’m still not going to believe you.”He shifted at his end of the couch. She could see his outline as he leaned forward to put his elbows on his knees and make waving motions with his hands.“Remember when your parents told you to grow up, and forget all that scary stuff?”“Yes.”“Remember how you didn’t want to?”
“Well you don’t have to. It’s all real.”
“C’mon, John Winchester. It can’t be.”“Look. What do you do for a living?”“Uh.” The question caught her out of left field. “I’m a writer. I write articles, different kinds.”
“That figures. Well, then, as a writer, you should know that all things are possible.”
She thought about this a moment, and realized it had the possibility of being true. The stories had been around for years, at any rate, and where there was smoke, well, she knew something had been on fire. Once.
“Okay, so if it is all true, that there are ghouls and werewolves and things under the bed, why are you hunting them?”
His head dropped low between his shoulders, and the firelight glinted off of his dark hair. She almost thought he wasn’t going to tell her, and was on the verge of reminding him that she had sheltered his children, when he straightened up. She could only see half of his face, but what was in the light was still.“I’m hunting for the thing that killed my wife, and along the way, I’m going to take out every evil fucking thing I come across.” He turned to her with a little smile, showing those teeth and giving a shrug. “Which is why we are all here in your house instead of in our own home where we used to live. When my wife was alive. Which was about…six years ago.”
Her mouth came open at this, and she could say nothing. “So you see, Aunt Sissy,” he said, looking at her now, “that’s why I raised my boys this way, why we travel from town to town, why I have to sometimes leave them alone. I’m trying to save people from going through what I did. What we did.”The evil that she knew seemed so mundane and simple in comparison to he was telling her he’d gone through. What his his boys had gone through. Evil for her was being cut off in traffic or lemon juice after a paper cut. Supreme evil was the woman at Social Services who had refused the boys food. Evil was the snags in everyday life, which was not what he was describing to her. But even if she did not believe what he was telling her, she believed his boys. They had been well trained, had not given up their dad’s secret, and in fact, had, when in need, approached a woman they did not know simply because their father had told them she existed. She, the good woman, the nice lady, had come into their reality because of their belief in her. Could she not then allow for the evil that they were hunting, simply because of their belief in it? She could. She really could.
“Am I—” she began, her voice coming out smaller than she was prepared for. “Am I the Aunt Sissy or are there others?”
“You’re the first,” he said. “I told my boys to look for you when they needed you. They believed in you and so did I. And here you are.”This said as if it were proof that belief could engender reality.
“Can I—” she went on, her voice even smaller than before. “Can I be the only Aunt Sissy? Can you call the next one…something else?” This last came out as a whisper, and she couldn’t believe how badly she wanted to cry. The thought of it. The mere thought of this little family on the road for God knew how long. Living out of hotels, hunting stuff so bad that it hooked itself into your brain so hard that you could never get rid of it. Sammy, surely too young to understand it, yet in the car, on the road, playing endless games of checkers on a magnetic board. And little Dean, trying to shoot at something she knew out of her own nightmares, his face tense with worry because he’d missed. And then going up to a strange woman for help because she looked like she was nice. Oh.
She had to stand up. She did. She got up and walked away. Away from the little gas fire, and the couch and the man, sitting at one end of it, promisng her that she’d be the only Aunt Sissy the boys knew. Her nose felt like it had been singed as she fought the tears back. And lost. Lost as she put her hands over her eyes, even as she tried to press back the damp, and the hot string of thoughts that ripped the sound out of her.
“Ramona? You okay?”This from right behind her, as if he’d followed her.
“How did you find me?” she demanded, whirling on him, her throat thick with tears. “I only gave you my fucking phone number.”
His hands hung at his sides as he stood there, and through her tears she could see that he was sorry. Sorry for bringing this on her. For making her see it.“I did a backwards search. Came up with your address. Knew I had to get here as quick as I could.”
Now she was crying, as hard as anything, the tears coming fast, dripping into her mouth salty and hot and in a second, his hands were on her shoulders, pulling her close. It was a rock solid shoulder she was pressed against, her hair stroked by a warm hand, his other hand on her waist. The heat of his body comforted her, and the tears stilled and she let herself be held. He smelled like heat and leather and salt. Like a safe, strong haven in a storm. Like firelight at dusk, and the stone beneath.“I’m sorry,” she said, pushing away a little. “It just got to me.”
“Yeah,” he said, not letting her go. “It gets to me too, sometimes.”
With a swallow she wiped her eyes, and wondered somewhere in the back of her brain why she was letting him hold her like this, when she’d only just met him.“I don’t know why—” she stopped to swallow again. “I don’t know why it affected me like that. I’m fine now.” She patted his shoulder to make him let her go.
Which he did, smoothing the line of her bathrobe with one hand. Soothing the tension out of her neck with the other. “I don’t know why either, but it does. It gets inside of you and you—well, you’re never the same.” His voice cracked as he finished talking, and then his hands dropped. “Never.”
His eyes were dark and on impulse she reached up to kiss him on the mouth. “Bedtime, John Winchester. Morning comes early in these parts.”
Her award was a smile and a flush on his cheeks that she could see in the light from over the stove. “Thank you, Aunt Sissy,” he said.
“I’m going to get you sheets and blankets and a pillow, and—”
“No, I’m good.” He gestured to the couch. “You’ve got cushions, and the fire, I’ll be fine.”
With one last gentle pat, she left him in her living room. A strange man, whose first concern was the boys now sleeping under her roof. Whose second concern were the monsters under the bed. And her now, a part of that concern, the nice lady in Colorado. Their Aunt Sissy. She smiled as she went up the stairs, almost tiptoing so as not to wake Sammy and Dean. In her own room, she downed some pink stuff, brushed her teeth, turned out the lights, and crawled into bed. The clock told her it was just gone midnight, which seemed very appropriate under the circumstances. Her head on the pillow, covers pulled up under her chin, she closed her eyes, feeling safe in the darkness. In the morning, she awoke to silence, and the glare of a sunrise coming up over snow. The light in her room told her that the door to her guest room was open. Which meant that the boys were up and perhaps…perhaps already gone. She slipped on her robe and looked into the guest room. The bed was made, the purple shirt with the whippet on it. She grabbed up the shirt.From the kitchen she heard a bang, and as she hurried down the stairs, her heart was thumping. But they were there, the three of them, which, from the looks of things, had spent their morning quietly cleaning up. The kitchen was spotless. Backpacks were lined up in front of the door.
“Two hands for beginners, Dean,” John was saying, helping him on with his coat.“Are you leaving?” she asked, moving forward.
“Aunt Sissy,” said Sammy, his face beaming. He raced to her to hug her, his face pressed against her side.
“You forgot your shirt,” she said, holding it, patting his head. He looked at John. “I can’t keep it.” Then he moved away from her.
“Yes, you can.” She went over to the backpacks, picked one, and knelt down to unzip it and stuff the shirt in. “I can’t wear it now anyway. It’s got boy germs on it.”
Standing, she saw that Sammy wasn’t sure whether to belive her or not but that Dean was snickering.
“Thank you, Aunt Sissy,” said John. “He really wanted to keep it, but—”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake it’s just a t-shirt.” Her throat was filling up again. She made herself swallow it back. “I’ve got tons of them. All the wrong color and size.”
John was helping Sammy on with his coat as she told him this, and she knew they had to hit the road in a minute, maybe less. She wanted to grab them all and hug them. Or fill a cooler with food, macarioni and cheese, the makings for peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches. Oranges. Whatever. But her hands hung at her sides.
She saw John nudge Dean.
“Thank you, Aunt Sissy,” said Dean, looking at her with those eyes of his. “That fireplace was cool.”
She smiled. Felt the smile come out of her even as she felt like crying. Ah, well, people came and went, and they would be back. Wouldn’t they?
“You’ve got my phone number, right?” They nodded. “And I live in the middle of the country, so if you’re going back and forth a lot, here I am. Here I’ll be.”
John Winchester unlocked and opened her back door, letting the sunlight in and the cold air as it raced across the white snow. She reached down and placed her hands on Sammy’s head. Pushed back his flyaway dark hair and kissed the top of him. Then she reached for Dean and he came to her, like he’d known her all his life. Looked up at her and ducked his head so she could stroke his forehead, and plant a kiss there.
“Goodbye, you guys,” she said. “Be safe.”
“We will, Aunt Sissy,” said Dean, and oh, that smile. And then they walked out the door, and John closed it behind them, giving her a flash of those teeth through dark beardgrowth as he smiled at her. She peeked through the curtain over the window alongside the back door, and saw them get into a solid-looking black car. An older model that started right up when John got behind the wheel. The boys were in the back seat, and the saw her and waved. Then John pulled back, turned the wheel and drove away down the snowy alley. Then they were gone.
Her house was empty now. Clean and quiet and empty. Just as it always had been. Just like she liked it. Or used to like it. She smiled as she went to the electronic teapot to heat the water. Tea first, then breakfast. Then she would finish her article. And after that? Who knew. The world was open. And there were people in it.
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