Winchesters. Chosen Ones, so some say. Nature Wreckers, as far as I’m concerned. They never met a house of cards that they could resist playing with, just to see how many layers they could touch and poke at before the whole thing came crashing down. You’d have never known their potential, though, if you’d seen them at the beginning of their rampages. I certainly thought they were no more than moderately amusing boys the first time I saw them.
It would be wrong to call it a day off. Reapers don’t take time off. When we are called, we go. But we don’t always get called to the same place--and some places are busier than others. So there are lulls, moments when we can take our leisure among the living if we choose. And at that moment, on that day, I was leaning back on my elbows under a wide oak tree that held court in the center of a town square much younger than it by far. I was gazing up through the leaves, content to allow my senses to wander among the citizens of the town, when the big black car drove by.
Its roar caught my attention, pulled me from my contemplation of an elderly gent who I imagined might be seeing me in the near future, and I turned to look as it sped by. Two young men sat in the front seat. They felt familiar to me, an unusual sensation. It’s not often that I can say such a thing, as typically, I meet souls only once. They accept my guidance, or they linger, and either way, I never see them again. They leave just a faint memory of their touch in my fingertips. So where had I encountered these two? I sat up to keep the car in sight.
It pulled into a gas station on the far edge of the park, and the passenger got out. He was maybe in his early twenties, very tall, with hair hung in his eyes and falling in indifferent waves about his head. Even from here I could see the bruises, the deep red of a line of cuts on his cheek, and the scowl that pulled down his brow. His angry mood was confirmed for me when he slammed the car door shut like he was trying to mold it permanently into the frame.
Through the open car window, I heard the driver shout at him, some question or final word that he pointedly ignored. As he disappeared into the convenience store on the far side of the gas pumps, I stood and shook out my clothes, a habit, I suppose, since I had not a speck of grass or dirt clinging to me.
The driver stood now at the back of the car, twisting the gas cap off, his eyes downcast. He muttered something to himself. I moved closer, slipping back into the shadow world as I walked. The young man at the pumps straightened, having started the gas running into the car’s tank, and stared out at the park.
I was now crossing the concrete path as quickly as a thought. A little girl sensed me as I passed by, my fingers just grazing her hair like a sudden cool breeze, and she shivered and grabbed for her mother’s hand. Her head turned to seek me out, craning over her shoulder, but her mother did not slow, and the girl finally turned back and took several running steps to catch up to the woman’s long strides. The driver across the street gave no sign of noticing the girl. Her mother leaned over and pulled her draped sweater, which had fallen to her elbows, over her daughter’s shoulders without missing a step, and they passed out of the tree’s dappled shadows and into the sunny playground beyond.
I don’t think she actually saw me.
The driver looked a little older than the boy who’d stomped off into the store, but not by much. He, too, was bruised, and I could see that he also had a row of wounds on his face. His were on his forehead, and while it looked as though they were healing, one scab was raw and broken open. I could also see a spot of dark red blood that had blossomed over the upper left of his shirt, even though he held his arm stiffly against his stomach to keep his jacket closed. Under his close-cropped hair, his own brow was furrowed, his lips pursed.
I reached the car’s rear brake light just as the pump stopped. The driver yanked the nozzle out with unnecessary force, holding it upright like a gun at the ready as he twirled the gas cap back into place, spun around to return the nozzle to its pump rest, turning so quickly that he seemed to lose his balance for a moment and had to stop. He leaned up against the side of his car and put his free hand up to this temple, muttering to himself again. I stepped up behind him as he spit out his last word like a curse.
He could use one, I thought, as he pulled himself upright and practically staggered from the pump. He didn’t need me… at least, not today.
The driver used the roof of his car to navigate to the driver’s side door, which he opened to fall onto the seat. Once in, he slid down until he could rest his head on the back of the bench, his knees splayed out to either side of the steering wheel.
I admit, these young men aroused my curiosity. I entered the rear seat of their car, coming to a stop just behind the driver, and though the better part of me whispered that I was intruding, I reached up and placed a finger to the back of his head, behind his right ear. He shivered, but made no move to pull away. His eyes fell closed and I took the opportunity to open his memories for a peek.
Stupid. And slow.
I felt the stairs underneath my back, digging their corners into my shoulder blades and tailbone, and I groaned. Something was drumming on the side of my face, and I waived my hand at whatever the frickin hell it was, like I was trying to shoo away a fly. Some sort of humungous fly.
“C’mon, Dean,” the fly said. I cracked my eyes open, and Sammy stopped patting my cheekbone. His face was about five inches from me. When he saw me looking up at his mug he grinned a little, said, “Hey.”
“Did we get ‘em?” My tongue weighed a ton and wanted to stick itself to the roof of my mouth and never come down.
“Yeah--yeah, we did.” He held out a hand and I took it, trying not to grunt as he hauled me upright. Something wet dripped onto my eyelid and my hand came away red when I swiped at the drops. Damn poltergeist had opened up one of the cuts on my forehead when it decided to bash my nose with a lamp, just as I’d reached the top of the stairs. I blinked, and wobbled a bit as I got to my feet. Then Sam’s hand was under my armpit, steadying me.
“We should get your head checked,” he said. His voice echoed in my ear, but--
I frowned. So much for their bruises, and their argument, I thought, but this didn’t explain where I’d seen these young men, this Dean and the other, Sammy, before. I was not in the business of collecting poltergeists, and neither one of them had seen me waiting for them at the end of this particular fight. I pushed past this memory and went deeper into his mind.
Darkness covered my eyes as the thing threw me across the room and slashed its shadow claws down over my face. I could hear my dad yelling and I slammed my fist into the daeva’s body. Might as well have been punching smoke. I tried to scramble away, out from under it, but the thing was everywhere, and I was screwed.
I heard Sammy shout, “Cover your eyes!” and a blast of white-hot light flooded the room and blinded both me and the thing. The deava left me, flinging itself into the ceiling to escape its brightness. I heard the hissing crackle of a road flare as I pulled my arm up over my eyes and let my head thump onto the shitty motel room floor.
I pulled my hand away from the driver’s neck. They’d been in a fight with a daeva, and won. Or at least, gotten the shadow demon to leave before it had a chance to do worse than cut up their faces. The fear that accompanied the memory felt raw and new. Dean stirred again, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head as if he were trying to sluff off the memory, or defy the fear. He still did not open his eyes.
I was tempted to look into his mind one more time, but the truth was, I’d seen enough to remember where I’d encountered these boys before. In my defense, they had been looking down from a shattered fourth story window onto a darkened street, and my main focus at that point had been the body of the young girl sprawled at my feet.
I stood for several minutes over her, waiting. Eventually, I heard the screech of metal behind us, and the two young men opened a door at the far corner of the building. Their collars were up, and they walked away from my new charge, not hurrying and not looking back.
After they turned the corner, a truck that had been parked a few dozen feet away from the girl, in between the street lights, pulled out from its spot. I caught a glimpse of a bearded driver as it passed. He did not turn at the same corner as the young men, but paused there. His head swiveled to look after them. The truck was stopped at that intersection far too long for him to be merely checking traffic. Finally, the driver moved his rig forward, and turned up at the next block. Curious, I thought, but still not my concern. I turned my attention back to the girl, and realized that, while she had not yet left her bones behind, she knew I was there.
Megan Elizabeth Masters gazed up at me from the pavement where her soul lay entangled in the greasy corruption of the demon who possessed her. At first I saw just her eyes, but then her true face, the one she held inside, pulled free of the black smoke that rolled sluggishly through her body. Her mouth opened, closed, as if she was out of practice with controlling it. Finally, she licked her lips and found some breath. “Please,” she whispered. “Please.”
I was bending the rules, I knew, as she still clung to her life, but I answered her nonetheless. “I can’t save you. That’s not why I’m here.” I extended my hand to her. “But I can help you, if you choose to come with me.”
She reached for me, her intent forming into the shape of her ghostly hand breaking free of the demon’s form and her own body. I smiled at her and she seemed to take encouragement from that and stretched further up towards my hand. But before our fingertips could touch, the demon began to move. Its smoke, no longer an aimless cloud, began to roil into a chaotic mass and it covered the girl’s body before filling it again. Megan’s mouth opened in a wordless cry, and then her face was gone.
I withdrew my hand.
The demon contorted Megan’s earnest gaze into a furious scowl. It flipped her body over, began to rise up onto her hands and feet, the proper angles of bones and muscle still jagged and wrong, her head lolling on her broken neck.
“Get away from me,” it hissed. And it was gone, taking Megan’s soul and her un-mendable bones with it, and I could do no more for her.
The passenger door clunked shut, shaking the car and pulling both Dean and me out of our reveries. The younger man--Sammy--handed the driver a drink in a cup with a straw. His companion grunted his thanks and reached for the ignition key.
Sammy took a deep breath. “Dean--”
The other cut him off with a sharp jerk of his head. “No, Sam. I’m okay. 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. George Bush. W., not H.W.” He looked over at Sam with a grin that I supposed he thought reassuring. “See? Not concussed.” He wiggled the fingers on the arm I’d seen him favoring. “No broken bones. Do you want me to touch my nose?”
Sam shook his head, once, and muttered under his breath, “Idiot.”
“Yeah, maybe. But this idiot is just fine to haul your ass another hundred miles south down this road today.” He turned back to the wheel and started the car. The radio came on, loud.
He’d caught the song that flowed out from the speakers right at the beginning of an echoey guitar line. It was a day of deja vu, as I thought I’d heard it before, somewhere. Perhaps I’d picked it up as it jangled through the mind of a charge or two, before they’d decided to take my offer. I frowned, but stayed in my place on the rear bench seat. Dean popped his car into gear and drove smoothly toward the gas station exit ramp.
I placed the song when the lyrics came, delivered in an equally echoing tenor. Seasons don’t fear the reaper--
I groaned and Sam shocked me by turning to stare into the back seat. As if he’d heard me. Somehow. I felt my eyes widen in surprise, and got ready to flee, but his gaze swept over me and back to the passenger window.
“What?” Dean asked.
Dean’s fingers tapped on the wheel and he turned his attention back to the road. We could be like they are-- he sang softly. He reached for the radio knob, turned up that tiresome song, and glanced over at Sam. A private little smile quirked his lips.
“Hey, Sammy--you know, I think I gotta fever.”
That got Sam’s attention. “You do?”
“Yeah. And the only prescription--”
I allowed myself to drift out of the cab as he nosed the car into traffic, but I stayed long enough to hear Sam’s exasperated sigh as his brother landed his joke.
“--Is more cowbell.”